The pimple-faced kid behind the counter ogled me as I came up trying to keep my balance on the boots’ high heels. You’d think he’d never seen a psychedelically dressed black woman before. The thought made me giggle, which only served to scare me. I was losing it.
“What’s the street address here?”
“Uh, 9836 Beechnut.”
Then the hard part. “And the city?”
That got me a raised brow. “Houston, of course.”
The wave of relief at hearing I was still in my home city made me weak at the knees. “Do you have a pay phone?”
Instead of answering he pointed back toward the bathrooms. He was no longer ogling but stared at me to determine if I was about to cause trouble.
“Thanks.” I put as much heartfelt gratitude as I could to try to ease his suspicions, already having had more than my fill of weirdness for one night. “I’ll have a medium Coke, please.”
The ten I put on the counter seemed to alleviate his worries more than my smile had. As long as he gave me some change for the phone, I didn’t care.
I took the empty cup and my money and made the call. The cab showed up less than twenty minutes later.
The Yellow Cab added to my sense of ease, the bright cars a familiar part of the Houston landscape. The driver didn’t bat an eye at my ‘loud’ appearance, for which I was grateful. I gave him my address, and we got underway.
My eyes stung as we came within sight of my apartment complex. I’d never been so happy to see anything in my life. I paid the driver and then just stood at the security gate staring at the white clubhouse with its dark red Spanish tiled roof. I managed to make it to the clunky keypad without falling on my face and slipped inside the complex.
My steps echoed eerily into the dark as I followed the sidewalk amidst the manicured trees and lawn toward building 4C. My eager steps slowed as I got close. Growing dread bubbled up past my previous elation.
I came to a stop five steps from my apartment door.
My last memories, before finding myself on that dark street alone, were of the apartment. So whatever had happened to me had started here. There was nothing to say it couldn’t happen again.
My arms and legs broke out in goosebumps.
The red door with its silver 102 below the peephole, the tiled entryway covered by the dark wood underside of the stairs leading to the apartment above—it had always been a welcomed sight. Yet for reasons I couldn’t name, it now seemed alien and menacing. I shifted from one foot to the other, rubbing my arms with my hands while staring at it, feeling cold though the night was warm.
I’d never been one to back down, though—not with the pushers trying to hook us on drugs in middle school, not with the racists that harassed me in high school, or even the few prejudiced college students or teachers at Rice. I hadn’t run from any of that then, and I wouldn’t start doing it now. Nothing was going to stop me from going into my own apartment. There might be answers there.
Yet those last few steps ended up being harder to manage than anything I’d done before. Dread and fear mingled inside me, throwing warnings at me, yelling at me not to do this, that I’d be sorry, and I didn’t understand why. My throat clogged up tight.
Concentrating on keeping my breathing steady, I took the last step to the door. The spot between my shoulder blades twinged. I glanced behind me, but there was no one there. I reached for the key in the small handbag and felt my fear double as I saw the skull keychain again. It wasn’t me, it wasn’t mine. My hand shook as I inserted the key into the lock and turned it.
The euphoria because it worked lasted less than a moment, for an open door meant I could go inside. It was the last thing I really wanted to do.
I pushed the door open but didn’t go in. The twinge between my shoulders grew painful. The interior of the apartment was dark. Taking a deep breath and holding it, I reached past the threshold and flicked on the interior hall light.
I exhaled with one long breath of relief as the light showed me nothing but the familiar. The space before me was still the same white, gray, and red tile of the foyer, the plush gray carpet filling the hall. I could even see the edge of my comfy couch just where it should be. Chiding myself for my bizarre apprehension, I took a tentative step inside.
Nothing changed. Everything looked exactly as it should.
I closed the door behind me and locked it.
Never taking my gaze off the hallway before me, I unzipped the uncomfortable boots and took them off. I held onto one of them, twisted around with the spiked heel in front in case I needed an impromptu weapon. Though I knew this was home and everything seemed fine, that heavy sense of dread was still clamped tight to my chest. I inched forward, listening for anything untoward.
My hand went around the corner and switched on the kitchen lights. Brightness flooded the room and bled out into the living room over the open counter.
I spotted a red flowing lava lamp on the coffee table. A shiver ran down my back. I didn’t own a lava lamp. Had someone broken in here while I’d been gone? Steering away from the thought, I quickly moved around the room and switched on every light then surveyed the place again. The twinge grew into a yank between my shoulders as I noticed other little changes.
Food stains on my gray couch. Water rings on my polished coffee table. Dust on the picture frames and floor corners.
I’d only been gone for a few hours…why would there be dust? I shied away from the question, sure I wouldn’t like the answer and instead moved from room to room turning on more and more lights.
At my bedroom, I swayed at the doorway, my chest so tight I couldn’t breathe. The room was nothing like I’d left it. Gone were the off-white, comforting, textured walls. Instead, it was currently painted in blood red with a black crackle overlay. A metallic black four-poster bed with red satin sheets and comforter had replaced my maple sleigh style bed. A huge flat screen TV took up a chunk of one wall where I’d had several oil landscapes. Video recording equipment sat beneath it, as well as standing lights. New shelving on the walls held more lava lamps of different colors and an assortment of accouterments that only belonged in X-rated or gothic films.
I stepped back, shaking my head in denial. This couldn’t be my apartment. That wasn’t my room.
Turning around, I gazed at my home office. Before I could think about what I was doing, I stepped inside, the familiarity of the room making it that much easier to ignore the other.
The computer was on, a screen saver of running half naked nuns flashing on the screen. I leaped forward and hit the mouse to make it go away. Popups for AIM messages were all over the screen. The login was for someone called ChocolateLover. I scanned a few of them thinking they might hold a clue. I quickly regretted it.
Requests for sex talks. Queries as to when ChocolateLover would be on tonight. Demands she give in to their fantasies. Some even offered money or goods if she’d only meet with them in person.
Grabbing the mouse, I frantically closed all the rest of the boxes, having had enough. Then I moved the cursor down to the corner for the system date. My eyes grew wider and wider until I thought they’d pop out of my head. The computer said it was Friday, July 23rd.
I let go of the mouse as if it’d bit me. No, it was April, April 15th! It couldn’t possibly be July. This was all a joke. A sick twisted joke.
I grabbed the mouse again and double-clicked the icon to pull up my browser. I clicked the Favorites folder and then the link to the US Time website. The screen pulled up showing the time, day, and date—July 23rd.
My knees quivered. Then I fell down to the carpet, my hands shaking, my brain numb.
This couldn’t be happening. This couldn’t be right!
Someone had to know what was going on. Someone had to be able to help me. Debbie! The thought of my best friend gave me a jolt and I could think straight again. Debbie would have some idea, some clue.
Despite the tiny voice in the back of my head saying that was unlikely, it was still something to cling to. I rose shakily to my feet and stumbled back out to the kitchen. I hadn’t seen a trace of my iPhone, but I’d kept the landline after setting up DSL so I could use that instead.
The phone had changed from a non-descript cordless to a giant set of red lips. Trying not to think about it, I picked up the top.
I punched in Debbie’s number, heart racing, ideas popping up one after the other as to what might have happened and being dismissed just as quickly. Lost Time. I’d heard the term but couldn’t remember if it related to aliens or mental conditions or what. Aliens, that was an even more remote possibility. This wasn’t the X-Files. Aliens made great TV but didn’t hold up to reality. Split personalities though, schizophrenia, those were real things, documented, studied. But I wasn’t mental. I would have noticed something before this, wouldn’t I?
The phone started ringing on the other end and I forced my thoughts to still. I held my breath as the other end picked up. Tears prickled the corner of my eyes as I heard the familiar voice.
“Hello?” She sounded hesitant, and that’s when I realized I’d never called her from the landline before. My name didn’t show on her cell phone, only the number.
“Debbie, thank God. I’m so glad to hear your voice!”
There was only silence from the other end. It’d been three months, (oh god, three months!) maybe she didn’t recognize my voice? “Debbie?”
“Who is this?” The question was hard, cold. I didn’t understand it.
“It’s Tamara. Listen, something weird is going—”
The phone went dead. She’d hung up on me… I pulled the phone from my ear and stared at it, dread chomping at me from the inside.
I redialed. The phone rang three times then went to voicemail. I didn’t leave a message, just disconnected and tried again. Why wouldn’t she pick up? My sense of dread jumped up a couple of more notches. By the third time, I was desperate. “Debbie, please! I don’t understand. I need your help! Something weird is going on. My apartment, my clothes, the time. Look, I, I don’t get any of this, but if I, if I somehow did something to offend you… I can come over if you don’t want to talk on the phone. You’re my best friend, and I really need your help.”
I hung up and stared at the phone, willing her to call me back. But as the minutes ticked away, the certainty that she wouldn’t grew inside me. Yet why would I think that?
The lip phone shrilled out, making me jump though I’d hoped for a call.
Caller ID on the answering machine flashed Debbie’s number. I felt a shot of hope. It didn’t last long.
“If? You say if you did something to offend me?” Her breathing was fast and heavy. “Don’t you dare get within a hundred feet of my house! If I see you, I’ll shoot you dead!”
She was mad, more than mad, furious. I’d known Debbie since we hooked up as lab partners in college. As all friends do, we’d had some fights on occasion but never had she sounded so full of rage. “Debbie, I…I don’t understand. What happened?”
There was a harsh laugh on the other end of the line. It was full of bitterness, and thorns, and wasn’t anything I’d ever heard from her before. “Okay, I’ll play.” Another bark of a laugh. “Richie. You remember Richie, my fiancé, don’t you, bitch?”
It wasn’t anger. It was hate, pure unadulterated hate and it was aimed at me. I almost dropped the phone at the realization. How long had this been building inside her? How long had she been waiting for an opportunity to vent her rage? “Y-yes?”
“And June first, June first rings a bell, doesn’t it?”
Oh no, I’d missed the wedding. Debbie had talked of nothing for months except being a June bride. I was supposed to be her maid of honor. Was that where all of this was coming from? Deep from inside me a whisper said ‘no.’ I was cold all over. “Yes.”
“And I bet you remember the night you went to see him, too. The one where you got him drunk. And gave him pills. Where you had sex with him?” Again the bitter laugh rang in my ears. Numbness crawled up my arm and spread all over me. I’d done what?
“How you then brought him to my house at three in the morning and left him on my doorstep naked and bombed out of his mind for me to find? Is any of that ringing any bells for you?”
No, it wasn’t. But what was worse was the fact I didn’t doubt her in the least. As if I already knew it was true. Which made no sense at all. I would have never done something like this to her, never. Yet seemingly I had.
Disgust and horror swelled up my throat. “Debbie, I…”
“Just die, bitch, and never, ever call me again!”
The line went dead, but I barely noticed. I slid to the floor, the phone falling from my hand.