Jami Raye stepped out into the inky darkness from the morgue, feeling as dead as the people on the inside. The emptiness of Serenity at this time of night matched the hollow feeling in her chest. How many more of her clients would she lose before she finally broke?
The voice in her head taunted her. As it often did. Three months ago weird things had begun to happen. She’d quit her first job out of college, turned twenty-five, and up and moved to Serenity from small town Texas on a whim.
Then it really got crazy.
Inexplicable nightmares every time she slept and a voice taunting her at every turn while awake. Add in a touch of paranoia and she'd become a barrel of fun.
She’d made the choice to move and a meaningless birthday at her age should not have thrown her into a deep depression that she couldn't seem to claw out of. But here she was on the empty streets in the middle of the night after identifying someone's body after a drug overdose, guilt weighing her down.
She'd gone to school to become a counselor to help people, not lose them. So far her track record for helping others didn't look good. She stepped out onto the sidewalk and turned north towards her apartment. Although it probably wouldn't be home for long.
With her mental decline worsening it was getting harder and harder for her to work. Her coworkers had begun to notice something wasn't right. Every so often one of them caught her arguing with the voice in her head and there were only so many times she could chalk it up to a stressful day.
She feared if things continued to get worse, it wouldn't be long before she got fired. And she was already barely making it paycheck to paycheck. Even the loss of one could be enough for her to lose her apartment.
Jami sighed. Could this night get any worse?
The black of night shrouded her, only punctuated by light when she passed underneath a street lamp. It felt a fitting metaphor for the turmoil inside her. Most of the time she couldn't fight whatever weirdness came on inside her head, like the fearsome creatures that looked mostly human, but more often than not were found digging into carcasses like wild animals.
Then there were the beacons of light. The drug addicts who turned to her for help getting clean. They were the sole reason she continued to fight.
Simply put, she was a hot damned mess.
With every step forward, Jami tried to put the image of Sondra, laid out on cold steel in an equally cold room out of her mind. Drug overdoses were common in her line of work and she wasn't supposed to take each of them so personally.
A feat much easier said than done.
Suddenly, the hair on the back of Jami’s neck prickled. She paused, looking from side to side for the cause. With the town long rolled up for the night there wasn’t much to look at. Parked cars lined the sides of the road and the storefronts around her were dark and closed up. There seemed to be nothing out of the ordinary.
Yet, the sensation of being watched skittered up her spine. She continued toward home at a faster clip. Since moving here from the vastness of Texas, Serenity had proven to be an okay place to live. The people were nice, albeit a little standoffish some of the time, and for the most part quiet. That didn’t mean tempting fate in the middle of the night was a great idea.
She fished her keys out of her pocket as she moved and wrapped her fist around them with one jagged end of a single key pointed skinny side out from between her fingers. It wasn’t the perfect weapon, but if push came to shove she could use it to help defend herself.
She’d learned from a mandatory self-defense class in college that there were certain vulnerable spots on the body that didn’t take much force to damage and if you couldn’t evade an attacker, it would be better than nothing.
Her stomach flip flopped at the idea of being attacked. Why hadn’t she driven her car to the morgue when they’d called? Only a few blocks away had seemed close until now.
Her heart rate picked up speed and her throat thickened as she moved. Goose bumps rose across her arms and her impending sense of doom heightened. When she rounded the final corner to her apartment building, she began to run. Whoever or whatever had her in their sights was gaining on her.
Fear seized her as she stopped only long enough to enter the door security code. With her hands shaking, it took several tries to get it right.
Almost there. Hurry.
When the security light turned green and the door popped open, she rushed through it and pulled it closed behind her. Unable to catch her breath, she bent at the waist and sucked in air.
She slowly turned back to the door, expecting to find someone standing in front of the thick glass. Her heart squeezed when she found the space empty and no sign of anyone in or out. How was that possible? She’d sworn someone had been close. Close enough for her to feel their breath on the back of her neck. She rubbed her hand across the spot.
Someone had to be out there. The fear still coursing through her had been very real.
She shook her head. “Stop!” she hissed into the empty hallway. “I know what I felt.”
She also knew something was very wrong with this whole situation. Things were happening to her at warp speed. Dreams, forgotten chunks of time and now her clients were dying left and right. Three in the last two weeks.
Was someone stalking her?
The thought popped into her head with little effort. It wasn’t unheard of in her line of work. Clients often became too attached to the counselors assigned to them. Sometimes becoming fixated in an unhealthy way.
That theory made sense, even if it didn’t explain everything happening in her life. Like the bitchy voice in her head.
With one last look out the window into the empty courtyard, she turned towards the stairwell and headed up the stairs to her one room studio apartment. With these bad feelings plaguing her, she opted to forgo the elevator that already sounded on its last leg. No need to tempt fate any more than necessary at this point.
Fate. What a joke. Her sister believed in fate and numerous other ridiculous things. She did not.
With no haste, she entered her apartment, ignoring the cramped space someone had decided to call a kitchen and tossed her keys into the nearby basket. She threw the deadbolts closed and sank back against the rough, but solid wood of her door.
She refused to believe that little episode had only been her imagination. Not that she liked the idea of a stalker much more. What if all of this was somehow connected?
She laughed out loud. Yeah, and maybe she was paranoid. Jami shook her head. She needed a distraction and fast. Maybe a shower would help. She almost laughed at that thought. The hot water had quit working days ago and she doubted her landlord had bothered to fix it yet.
She stared at the back wall of her apartment, fixating on the sections of peeling wallpaper. Many nights she’d considered peeling it off, but she couldn’t afford to repair any damage that might cause. Even the cost of a gallon of paint was out of her realm at the moment. Her rent was due in a few days and she wasn't sure her bank account could cover it.
On a deep sigh, she moved toward her bedroom area, peeling off her clothes as she went. In the morning, she could face both the cold shower and the mess of her life. For now, she needed to try and sleep. Fatigue had set in and she felt it clear to her bones. Everything ached.
She dropped onto her bed and closed her eyes. If there was a God in heaven, maybe she could get in a few hours before the dreams started. Her eyelids drooped as the image of Sondra lying in the morgue flitted through her brain.
Her stomach roiled at the memory. Bloated and ashen, it had still been easy to identify her. Jami recalled the last time she’d seen her. Two nights before at the rec center her organization used for their group sessions.
She hadn’t looked like a woman on the verge of a drug overdose. Quite the opposite. Her striking blue eyes had been vivid and alert, her clothes clean and her hair styled into a waterfall of curls around her perfectly proportioned face that reminded everyone just how beautiful she was when she stayed clean.
She’d been clean.
The image from the morgue superimposed on her memory, forcing Jami to squeeze her eyes tight to try and forget. Except she wouldn’t. The face of every client she’d lost to drug overdose had burned into her psyche, taking a piece of her each time she doubted she’d ever get back.
She rolled over and punched her fist into the mattress. Dammit, she hated the night. There was something about the black void of darkness that made all of her fears come to life. Fortunately, she only had an hour or so before the sun rose and chased away the shadows.
Maybe then she would sleep. Until then, she had no choice but to remember.