April 4, 2008
By Ryan Burak, Austin, TX

The engine comes to a stop, silencing the radio and ceasing the stale warmth flowing from moldy air vents. A faded sedan, seemingly taking its last breath, is still in the driveway while the driver sits inside, pocketing his keys and rolling up a foggy window before getting out and stiffly making his way to his communal mailbox of the Orwellian building. Fumbling around with numb fingers for the unusually small keys associated with postal security, he finally swings his letterbox open to find that it’s stuffed with thick envelopes. The envelopes sag in his hands as he realizes the letters are damp with some warm, thick liquid. He raises a sarcastic eyebrow at the stack in his hand as if it were some clue to a scavenger hunt he may have done during one of his childhood birthday parties.

Holding them outwards from himself, he comes back to his car and sets them on his front hood. They are all written out for him but he can’t identify the sender, a p----- ROSENTHAL. The illegible first name is penned in fast and narrow but the surname, written in bold capitals, triggers something in the back of his mind. The different writing used for the name reminded Shawn of ransom notes seen on run-of-the-mill crime investigation series he would sometimes watch on his cracked television set.

Unable to recall the importance of the sender, Shawn gets a plastic bag from the back of his car and slides in the clumped envelopes. He double checks the locks on his car and heads for the gray apartment complex hued similarly to the lifeless sky. Knowing he can easily force it open, he thumbs through his car key-ring anyway. He selects the one for the front door and gives it a hard twist. Jiggling the brass knob just enough to ease the door open, Shawn gets a whiff of the moist air of the place he is forced to call home. With no clean windows he feels along the wall for the exposed light switch. His shoes clap up the worn stairs complemented by cheap plaster walls and illegible spray-tags. What was the point of leaving your mark when you are the only one able to interpret it? He enters his apartment kitchen by the same key, drops the envelopes into the sink beside grimy bowls crusted with quick noodle broth and washes up.

Taking the letters from the sink and sliding them down the counter, Shawn tears open one of the letters. Inside are two Polaroid photographs: one of a young woman walking out of a grocery store, bags in hand, and the next...

Shawn drops the pictures and rests is face in his hands, staring down at a picture of the same woman, dead. Her pale face and cold eyes stared lifeless into the lens of the camera. Looking at her neck he sees a single slash mark, a tributary of blood pooled onto the ground behind her. The date on the bottom corner of the photograph was November 19th. The date of the one in the parking lot was the same day. Shawn sets the two pictures aside and rips open the next envelope. Inside he finds another pair of photos, this time of a man dropping two children off at a school and the next a gruesome scene in comparison to the first: the middle-aged man sprawled over a floor, throat slit in the same manner as the woman, dark blood over a dark wooden floor. The dates on the two photographs are also dated similarly: November 14th.

Shawn, with a rising sense of fear, goes through the other letters with a morbid fascination. All of them taken in the same manner as the first two pairs. The first picture would be of an unsuspecting person: a voyeuristic shot. This would be followed by a gruesome image of their severed jugular. Shuffling through the rest of the pictures, confirming their grisly pattern, Shawn freezes at one of the last sets of pictures in the group. The balding and overweight man being stalked and killed was a man that Shawn knew. A man who, in fact, lived in the same apartment complex. This man’s name was Patrick Rosenthal, followed and murdered on the 20th of November. The same name given as the sender of the letters.

Shawn opens the last envelope, carefully this time, and shakes out the two pictures onto the counter. Turning the first one over there is a picture of a man sitting in his car, rolling up the driver-side window. Squinting and bringing the picture closer to his face, Shawn stares in disbelief as he realizes the subject to be someone he knows well. Himself. He flicks over the second picture of the two and finds a large ? scrawled on the blank Polaroid.

His breathing stops as he hears his apartment door open quietly...

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