It was after Suzy served up cocktails with my suitcase that I wondered about the truth of what she’d told me. We sipped on our brandies and she said I’d have to go. She’d kept me around in the hopes I could protect her, but if this was what happened with me here, there wasn’t a need for me to stay. All of it seemed a bit too easy.
I swore the figure in the portrait of her grandmother cast a shadow like she was standing in a window, the light glowing from behind her within the frame. I could make out the shape of her broad shoulders and sculpted hair on the coffee table in front of us, but I looked around at the flickering candlelight for another answer.
“Where will you go?” Suzy asked me, like I could have an answer to that already. She asked if I wanted her to make me a couple sandwiches to sustain me, and I nodded like it was the least she could do. In truth, I wanted nothing from her. If this was the end, I wanted to get as far away as possible, even if tonight that was just the living room sofa of a colleague.
I listened to her rustle about in the kitchen, and looked at the clutter left behind by the previous evening. The sideboard looked blank without the heavy, sculpted candlesticks. The contents of the cabinets below still spilled among the legs of the dining room table. I righted the arm chair and wondered at what a thief, in his hurry, would want with toppling a big piece of furniture like that, thought of what kind of struggle must have occurred.
Suzy returned with a cube of wax paper – two sandwiches stacked and wrapped for traveling. She held them out and when I didn’t take them from her, she set them on the table in front of me. I studied her face, the heavy, ashy swelling around her left eye, the scabbed welt of her bottom lip, the thin bruising around her neck. Even in all my anger, I was overcome with the prayer that she would come through all of this without the scar of fear, without the sharp swoop of a broken bone unset interrupting the smooth landscape of her perfect features.
“Suzy, you’re in shock. People are never supposed to make drastic decisions when something traumatic has happened. Let’s give this a couple weeks. If you still feel this way, I’ll leave, but I think you’re trying to gain control of the situation by forcing me out, and I don’t think it’s what you really want.” I took her hand and pulled her down to the sofa. Her face was frozen, unbroken by my plea. In truth, her demeanor had not changed since the attack. She was a solid woman, sure of her decisions, drastic in their execution. I’d feared this day since the moment I’d lit her cigarette at the train station. She was the sort who would throw herself from a sea cliff, and mean it. We’d all nod in understanding when we heard, knowing regret wasn’t in her emotional repertoire.
“I’ll never know how I’d feel differently if you’d been here with me, but you weren’t. You’re gone most of the time I spend in this apartment. I’ll need to learn to believe in myself for protection from now on.” Her eyes snarled, but in them I didn’t see hurt; I saw contempt, an eagerness for me to get gone. A hard slice of spring wind broke under the door, heralding someone in the entry. We looked in the direction of the hall and listened as the tight steps of the dancer ascended the stairs, paused halfway up, continued, accompanied by a sweet, slow whistle of “Solitude.”
When we heard the door close above us, she returned to me. She stood and retrieved my jacket from the coat rack. “Go.”
“I’ll sleep on the couch. At least let me get this sorted. What’s one more night?” I felt alert, like all of my wires had been pulled taut. I suddenly couldn’t imagine how I’d paint this for Paul. I couldn’t fathom the sloppy humility I’d need to muster to explain why I was there.
She grumbled with frustration. “One night will turn into a week. You leave now and we’re done with it. I’m not a lunatic, Henry. What happened was just the last straw in a situation that’s been mounting a long time. I won’t beg. I know you’ll do what I ask.” She turned from me and went to the sideboard. She knelt and started to stack the table linens and return them to the drawer. She examined a slender piece of china for chips and set it carefully back on the shelf.
I felt the sunken fullness of relenting. My feet weighed a ton on the floor, giving me the leverage to stand and, once up, dragging me to the door. “I’ll be at Paul’s if you need anything.”
“I know and I won’t,” she said without turning her head. I waited for a last look, for a glimpse I could hold in my mind and analyze on the walk across town, but she kept this from me.
It wasn’t 24 hours before Paul passed me the afternoon paper. “Look at this.” On the front page was another story of the slasher who’d attacked Suzy. It took only a moment to realize why the building looked so familiar and recognize it was an exterior of Suzy’s apartment again. Confused I read as quickly as I could, my eyes tripping down the page, until I got to the line “27-year-old dancer, Karolina Benecky.”
I looked at Paul, confused. “He visited the same apartment building two nights in a row?” Paul shrugged and gave me a skeptical look. I summarized the article aloud for him as I read. “It says she found the thief in her closet upon returning home, but we heard her come in. We didn’t hear anything above us during that time. No scream, no struggle. And we would have heard someone leave. Could he have been hiding all that time?”
“Did they catch him?” Paul was browsing the other sections of the newspaper.
“No, it says he had a knife this time and tried to slash at the girl’s throat, but she raised her hands, and he put a gash in her palm and fled the scene.”
“That’s it? Lucky Karolina. Could have been much worse, eh?”
“She’s a dancer though. This says the cut was deep enough it’s uncertain whether she’ll have use of her hand again. That’s unfortunate.”
“Sure, but how long would that career have lasted anyway? If she wasn’t considering what would come next, this is a reminder to her to reroute her planning. It’s a service what that man did.” Paul was a logical man to a fault. He had a stony lack of regard for the weak and the creatively inclined.
“I’m sure Suzy would never admit it, but this has got to have her startled.”
Paul looked up at me, and shook his head. “She’s not your ward anymore. The sooner you move on, the better.”
I brushed this off. My feelings could not change immediately. I was allowed a week of hope that the situation might reverse itself.
It was after this that the assaults started adding up.
The attacker’s rage surprised some girl by slicing her undressed arms. The police who arrived to the scene were barely able to decipher the words through her fragile breath.
Another woman, found unconscious and bruised, said the slasher accosted her like a cloud of stones, punching her head and knocking her about, brandishing a knife, but never using it.
The fifth victim, shuffling down an alley, humming to herself, found another voice accompanying her own. She tried to flee, but ran the wrong way toward a bricked dead end. She was cut and bandied about. A neighbor noticed the quiet traffic of her retreat as she emerged from the alley, rushing the window open to ask if she was all right, taking her in to call the authorities.
A heroic drunk was damaged by a force he said he couldn’t rightly recognize. From looking at the photo in the newspaper, it was the years of neglect that had done him the greatest harm, but the reporter faded his story into the list of the others like a notable anomaly, like one more thread in the building case.
The town was up in arms. Women at the market whispered about how it was beginning to feel like a different place. People became lazy about pulling their curtains open in the morning. People out for a stroll glanced behind them, looking for a knowing security, but feeling their heart rates rise even at the sight of an old friend, wondering, “Could old Tom be the one?”
A woman turned up with the lining of her dress torn down. Her calves sustained deep wounds; she said the man had emerged from under a wooden platform set up in the middle of town. She’d stopped on her way home to eat an apple and look at the stars. She chastised herself for lingering, blamed herself for collapsing on the antiquated illusion of the safety of the town.
The eighth victim was held down under a man’s soft grunts. She seemed otherwise uninjured, claiming she surrendered for fear of her life. Her fear blurred in a flutter around her, her seemingly unmarred skin a backward sort of proof of the trauma she’d suffered.
A mob attacked a man they thought to be the slasher. On the crowded boardwalk, a woman believed that she was being followed. She turned abruptly and screamed as loudly as possible that she would not fall as his next victim and began boxing the man about the ears with her purse and umbrella. The man, startled, any memory of what she could be referring to knocked out of him, tried to push her away, and soon the onlookers involved themselves. One man held the supposed slasher down while another pummeled his face and gut. The slasher called out that he was simply trying to get home from work, that he didn’t know what they were talking about, and when police finally appeared to break up the fight, it became apparent that the man was no slasher at all. The woman who’d made the accusation refused to surrender her resolve. “I will not be a victim, and all men should be giving women their distance at the moment.”
On the sixth day, two people showed up at the police station separately, though simultaneously. They took them in one by one. The first was the third victim who’d had her bare arms sliced by the assailant. She’d returned to share more information. She fumbled about with her hands for a good long moment, a species of guilt creeping across her face, and then she named it plain. “I made up my attack,” she said. “There wasn’t a bit of truth to it. I did it for the attention. I’m having trouble at work, and I thought my boss might cut me a bit of slack.”
The two officers in the room looked at each other and leaned in. “That’s a rotten thing to do, but set aside your shame for a moment and tell us more.”
She explained that she used her manicure scissors to make the slashes on her arm, and then screamed for someone to help her. It was simple enough. “And why are you coming forward?” they asked her.
The ugly inspiration loosed itself from her, and a look of innocence washed into her affect. “I believe others could be doing the same.”
The police replaced this young woman with the next in the office to take her story. She sobbed so hard her teeth shook inside her mouth. When the officers pressed her on every detail, she pushed back. “Why are you being so cruel? It’s not as if I wanted this to happen.” But the police looked at the story and it’s perfectly smooth details and felt the urge to crack it wide open. They waited for her to heave out the truth, all the while wondering if they were wrong, until finally, after begging for a glass of water, she broke out her bitter truth. “Fine,” she said. “I made it up. I cut myself and wanted that panicked attention my family would pay me.”
It was after this story came out in the papers that the attacks stopped. “Halifax Slasher Victims 3 & 9 a Hoax!” The young women consented to having their photographs on the front page and took interviews.
I thought of Suzy and how she must feel that someone had imitated her misfortune. No doubt, she’d feel an ounce of pride. Her shoulders would roll back knowing she had felt the truth of such fear. She’d scoff at a person who’d once had commitment disappearing through the trapped door of her own story. “Weak,” she’d think.
The police checked in with the other victims after these admissions of guilt, and one by one, they confessed that they didn’t have the details to support their stories either. It was like a chain letter of lies. One victim would pass the idea onto a dozen more to try to legitimize herself. “Mass Hysteria,” the next headline said. “A town out of its mind with fear…or opportunity?”
When only Suzy and Karolina were left unconfessed, the police called them in. They interrogated them for hours, asking for details from them separately. They asked the women to identify the assailant in a line-up, asked them to pick out the slasher from a stack of photos they flashed one by one. There were discrepancies in how the two women described the man, but not enough that it was impossible it might have been the same suspect. Both women claimed their homes had been dark. Both women claimed not to have gotten a good look at him. Both women mentioned the gold buckles on the man’s shoes flashing in the corner of their eyes.
On this afternoon, a third person showed up at the station: a man claiming to be the slasher. The police eyed him skeptically, but took his confession.
They put him in a line-up, and still the women closed their eyes and shook their heads, disappointed. The officers questioned the man who’d confessed and found enough errors that it couldn’t be him. “Why are you lying?” the cops asked, but the man wouldn’t give up.
The police informed the women that they had someone who’d confessed to the crimes, and the women both paused in a certain way. They looked at the officers with disbelief, and nodded without saying a word.
Then: “Can I see him?” Suzy asked.
Then: “What does he look like?” Karolina asked, a room away.
“You’ve already seen him,” each officer said. “He was in the line-up.”
It was then that Karolina began to cry. It was then that Suzy said, “Like I said, it was dark.”
The police listened as Karolina told them that it was all made up. It was Suzy’s idea to stage her assault the first night, kick out her boyfriend, and then Karolina would perform her own injuries, ransacking her apartment, releasing rage in a fit that felt satisfying and real.
The police glared at Suzy, daring her to stick to her story.
The police fixed on the false confessor, full of black-eyed boldness and certainty it was his wrong-doing to own up to. The police listed out for him all the details he got wrong, watched the man’s fury grow. The police warned him that falsely confessing was a punishable offense. They asked him, “Why?” The man appeared confused, claimed to believe the attacks were his fault. The man stepped beside himself, distraught that the officers could be right that it hadn’t been him who committed these crimes. One officer looked at the other, and then said to the man, “You’ll need to get your head on straight. We’ll book you a room somewhere where doctors can help you do that.” The man looked back at them, with a climax of grief in his face. He nodded, not thinking through where it was he would lay his head that night.
The police called Karolina’s boss, the closest thing she had to family, to ask for bail.
The police stared at Suzy, waiting for the moment they could tell her she was lying.
Suzy thought of all that fear she’d created. She thought about the state of upheaval she’d set upon the town. She touched the scab of her lip, and felt nothing but truth.
Jac Jemc's first story collection, A Different Bed Every Time, is newly out from Dzanc Books. Her novel, My Only Wife, was a finalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction and winner of the Paula Anderson Book Award. She is the poetry editor for decomP and nonfiction editor for Hobart.