I had never tried online dating, I’d never had a reason to. Usually my luck with guys was pretty decent and, even when it wasn’t, I was just fine doing my own thing. After my last relationship fizzled out, I decided to avoid playing the dating game for a while; I had other things I wanted to devote my energy to, like a promotion at work that was being dangled promisingly in front of me. “A while” turned into a few years of chronic singledom, which was apparently becoming an issue to everyone but me, and before I knew it, I was pushing spinsterhood at the ripe old age of 29.
My family and friends had the good grace not to bring up their concerns directly, but when Mom started mentioning Nice Young Men she’d met at church, I knew things were getting critical. Besides, it had been kind of a long time, hadn’t it? Before Mom could start handing out my number like Halloween candy, I took the initiative to log on to one of those free dating sites and set up a profile. I wasn’t expecting much, we didn’t exactly live in a big city and I felt I’d exhausted the pool of eligible bachelors who might interest me, but I could at least point to it as a sign of my effort to rekindle a love life.
I set up a few rules regarding who I might respond to: no one or two worded messages, his profile had to be completely filled out, there had to be at least a couple common interests, and he had to have more than one picture. I even included these rules on my page. Simple, right? I still got a variety of messages ranging from “Hey baby” to “u look hot wuts ur #” and my faith in internet dating dwindled even more. I did go out with a couple guys, but it felt forced and awkward and I always left early with some half hearted excuse. The guys must have got the message because they never tried to call again.
On the car ride home from another failed attempt that ended with a mid-date dash, I called my best friend to fill her in.
“So what was wrong with this one?” Eva asked as soon as she answered.
“He was fine,” I said, “just really…awkward? He’s never even kissed a girl. He said he’s waiting for a fairytale moment.”
“You sure know how to pick ’em, Jules.”
“He was good looking and funny through text!”
“That’s how they get ya!” She laughed.
We chatted until I got home and I told her I had to go make dinner.
“You wouldn’t have if you’d stuck it out.”
“Uh huh, I’ll keep that in mind. Tell Pete I said hi and I’m still waiting for him to wise up and leave you so we can run away together.”
Making dinner actually meant eating the left over Chinese that was still in my fridge from my last date night. A quick change into my comfiest oversized pajamas and I was ready for an evening of Netflix binging. On a whim, I logged onto the dating site first and saw that I had some new messages.
ReliableGuy81 said that I looked like I was the kind of girl who enjoyed having fun, winky face. Delete.
TheDanMan just asked if I wanted to chat. Delete.
Ready to make it three for three, I clicked on the message from ImNotGoodAtThisDatingThing and was surprised to see that he actually had something to say.
“Hi, MotherOfPuppies, my name’s Scott and as the username implies, I’m really not good at this whole dating thing. I saw your name, though, and thought it seemed kind of like a reference to my favorite show, so I checked your profile. Another Game of Thrones fan! Not that that’s really rare, but it’s always nice to see. Is the Mother of Dragons your favorite character?”
Ok, so we had a common interest, he was trying to initiate a real conversation with a question, and he could write properly. Good start, NotGood. Interested, I went to his profile and read through his bio. He lived in the next town over and was a PhD student working on a degree in English Literature, his focus being medieval lit. If that wasn’t dorky enough, he loved attending Renaissance festivals (in costume), going to conventions, and reading whatever fantasy novels he could get his hands on. His pictures showed him to be a tall man with a mop of reddish brown hair, glasses, and a cheerful smile. A little on the nerdy side, but definitely cute. I shot a response and returned to my previously scheduled plans with Jessica Jones.
It was late by the time I was ready for bed, but I was curious as to whether he had replied. Sure enough, when I checked, the envelope had turned red and a message from ImNotGoodAtThisDatingThing was waiting for me.
“Thanks for the answer, Julianna! I’m going to have to disagree and say that Tyrion is the best and should be the one ruling the seven kingdoms. You watch Jessica Jones? Cool, haven’t seen it yet but heard good things. Might have to check it out. Any other recommendations?”
Our TV talk eventually branched into other subjects; other hobbies, jobs, pets, families. Scott was an only child, he dreamed of one day traveling the world, but ideally he’d always return to his town to be near his parents as they were close. He was charming and respectful and seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say. We gradually moved from the dating site to a chat app and then, when I felt comfortable enough a month or so later, traded numbers. Every time my phone chirped with a new text or it rang and his name flashed across my screen, a giddy thrill would shoot through me. I felt like a high school girl with a crush.
When I received a text at work saying he’d been in a bad car accident, I immediately tried to call. He didn’t answer and it was almost 45 minutes before I next heard from him. He sent another text saying that he was on his way to the hospital, but he’d call me when he got the chance. I was wracked with concern and horribly distracted while I waited. I don’t think I actually got anything done, but luckily my supervisor didn’t seem to notice. I went home and sat at my computer desk with the idea that watching something might distract me, but I spent the whole time staring at and checking my phone.
Finally, at almost eleven, he sent me a picture of himself in a hospital bed with a few band aids on his face and a sling on his arm. He was still smiling, though, and he said he’d be on his way home shortly. I was so relieved that he was ok, but I still told him he was an ass for worrying me like that.
My phone buzzed. “Let me make it up to you.”
“Let me take you to dinner. You said you wanted to try that Italian restaurant by me that I told you about, right?”
I hesitated. Sure, I’d had a lot of fun talking to him and I thought I really liked him, but what if that changed in person? He must have interpreted my extended silence as discomfort, because he followed it up with, “Only if you want. It’s ok if you don’t.” Well, that cinched it for me.
“Let’s do it.”
The only problem I had with the arrangement was that I’d have to pick him up. His car had been totaled in the accident and he had no other way of getting to the restaurant. I told him that it made me a little uncomfortable since it was our first time meeting, so we agreed that I could stay in my car and call him when I arrived.
“That way,” he said, “you can always drive off if something doesn’t feel right…or you just don’t like how I look.”
Because I was going to his house, I told Eva everything about the date and made sure she had copies of a few of his pictures, his full name, his address, and the restaurant address before I left. We scheduled a check up text for ten minutes past the hour. I’d have five minutes to respond with our code word for “It’s all good” or she’d call the police and tell them something was wrong. I felt like I’d taken decent precautions, so I dolled myself up and headed out to make the half hour drive to Scott’s.
His house was exactly as he’d described it. I recognized the tall oak with the tire swing he’d told me to look out for and pulled over. Butterflies swarmed in my stomach and I took a few steadying breaths before I called him. The phone rang once and immediately went to voicemail. I frowned at my cell like it was at fault and tried again. Same result. I leaned over to the passenger side and peered at the house. Lights were on, so someone was home. A third call, still no answer. I texted Eva to let her know that I was there, but something was fishy. She told me to get out of there, but I was getting mad. I’d come all this way, I deserved an answer.
I got out of my car and marched up to the front door, green just like he said, and rang the bell. I heard some voices within and then footsteps. A woman in her fifties opened the door just enough to poke her head out.
“Yes?” She didn’t look like she was expecting visitors.
“Hi,” I said awkwardly, “I’m here for Scott?”
“I think you’ve got the wrong house, hun.”
“Um, he told me 35 Maplewood?”
“Then he must have told you wrong. There’s no Scott here.”
As she moved to close the door, I held out a hand, “Wait! Do you know this guy?” She eyeballed me suspiciously as I reached into my purse for my phone. I pulled up a picture of Scott, one in which he was sitting on a kitchen counter with a cat in his lap, and held it out to her.
She went very still. The color in her cheeks dulled to a grayish hue and she looked from the phone to me and then back again, “Where did you get that?”
“Scott sent it to me saying it was him.”
“Well, I’m sorry,” her voice was choked, “but that’s not Scott. His name was David and he passed away six months ago.”
“Are you sure? I mean, maybe it just looks like him?”
She scowled at me and shook her head, “David was my son. I took that picture only weeks before he was mur-” She stopped herself, cleared her throat, and stepped back, “Before he was taken from us. Please excuse me.” The door was slammed shut in my face.
I climbed back into my car, bewildered, hurt, and very confused. I tried to call Scott again and, when that predictably failed, I sent Eva a text that I was on my way home and I’d fill her in later. I even included the code word so she’d know it was really me. The drive was long and silent and unsettling. Where was Scott? Who was Scott? Why had he made me drive all the way out there to upset some poor woman still grieving for her son? The more I thought about it, the angrier I became. He’d made a fool out of me for who knows what reason and now he was avoiding me.
My usual spot outside my building was occupied, so I was forced to park across the street and stomp the extra distance up to my apartment. As I was unlocking my door, my phone chirped. I dug roughly about for it, yanking it out. A message from Scott. Practically snarling over his behavior, I unlocked the phone to read his text.
“Thanks for coming and showing me the way home. I’ll see you soon.”
It was followed by a picture of me from only moments before, walking into the front door of my apartment building.
I held the phone in both hands and stared down at the picture for a long moment. The truth of the situation, and the terrible implications, didn’t sink in right away. It had to be my imagination or something, things like this didn’t happen in real life. At least, not MY real life. I studied the picture again. That was definitely me in the same green dress I was still standing in and that was definitely my apartment building. And it was definitely from “Scott”. My stomach lurched violently, like I’d just been pitched over the edge of a tall cliff, and I clawed through my bag to find my keys.
I thought getting into my apartment and putting a dead bolt between me and the outside world would bring some relief, but instead, I just felt alone in a place that had somehow become too big with too many dark shadows. I turned on every light, my TV, my computer, whatever I had that could make illuminate and make noise, and I sat in the middle of my living room, praying that my parents would pick up their phone.
“Hey, Julsie!” I almost started sobbing at the sound of my dad’s voice, “What’s up, kid?”
“Can you and Mom come over?”
There was a short pause, “Are you ok, Julianna?”
“Yeah, I think so, but could you come?”
I heard him tell Mom to get the car keys and the scratchy sound of the phone being shuffled from one ear to the other, “We’re on our way. What’s wrong?”
I couldn’t keep from crying anymore. I felt weak and childish, but I was terrified and, at almost thirty years old, all I wanted was my parents, “I think someone followed me home and is sitting outside the building.”
“Is your door locked?” I made a sound indicating it was, “Ok, honey, you’re ok, right?” Another affirmative sniffle, “Good. Call the cops. Now. We’ll be there in five. Do not open the door to anyone except me, understand? Ok, honey, you’re ok. We’re on our way.”
I didn’t want him to hang up, but I knew he was right. Before the call ended, I heard him say that he was driving. I dialed 911 and repeated my story, tears and all, to a sympathetic dispatcher who assured me she had a car en route. She asked me if I needed her to stay on the line, but I declined. I wasn’t in immediate danger and I wanted to talk to my parents more than a stranger.
“You still ok?” My mom answered this time.
“Yeah, the cops are coming.”
“So are the boys. We’re turning onto your street now, so we’ll be there in just a minute or two.”
It was the longest minute or two I’d ever experienced. I paced from the living room to the kitchen, checked the bathroom (including behind the shower curtain), and made sure both my linen closet and bedroom closet doors were open. A heavy knock filled the apartment and I ran to check the peephole. My parents were standing on the other side, their faces drawn with worry, and I rushed to get them inside. Just having them there made me feel instantly better and I was able to walk them through a Reader’s Digest version of my “relationship” with the man who called himself Scott.
My brothers showed up halfway through, Chris with a metal baseball bat and Kyle his hunting rifle. Dad acted less than thrilled with their choice to bring weapons and made them put them away before the police showed up, but I could tell it was only because he wished he’d thought to bring something too. With my family surrounding me, my fear ebbed away more and more with each passing moment, giving way to embarrassment and the gnawing doubt that I’d overreacted. It didn’t help that when the cops arrived and I showed them the text and explained everything, they told me they couldn’t do anything. While creepy, using someone else’s picture wasn’t exactly a crime, neither was taking my picture while I was out in public, and our texts all seemed friendly in nature.
“He hasn’t threatened you in any way or made any attempt to come into direct contact with you.” The older of the two said gently, “I’m sorry, Miss. Stone, but our hands are tied.”
They advised me to keep a log of any further incidents, left me both of their cards, and promised they’d circle the block a couple more times that night for any suspicious activity. A less than stellar ending, but if they didn’t think it was a big deal, then it probably wasn’t. Scott or whatever his name was was just getting his kicks by scaring a stranger. Feeling more stupid than afraid, I was ready to send everyone home with an apology, but Mom and Dad wouldn’t hear of it.
“You’re coming to stay with us for a few nights.”
“You think I really need to?”
“Some crazy guy is taking pictures of you outside your home and you’re seriously asking if you should stay somewhere else?” Chris asked in that older brother tone that really meant “What are you, stupid?”
Kyle echoed the sentiment more bluntly, “Don’t be an idiot, Jules.”
While I packed a few days worth of clothes in my duffle bag, my brothers and dad went down to the street and looked into cars to make sure there wasn’t anyone just sitting and watching. When they called up with the all clear, Mom and I locked my apartment and left.
My brothers followed us in their cars back to my parents’ house. They made sure we got inside safely before going their separate ways. I apologized to my parents again for causing such a fuss over what was probably just a dumb prank.
“Pranks are supposed to be funny.” Mom said, “That guy is lucky we didn’t find him.”
We bid each other goodnight and I flopped, emotionally exhausted, onto the guest bed. Sleep crowded in my eyes, tugging my lids shut, and I was on the brink of slipping off into peaceful slumber when my phone chirped. I was wide awake again, any trace of weariness chased off by the innocuous sound of an incoming text.
I swallowed hard and turned to the nightstand where my phone was resting. Its screen lit up the otherwise dark room, beckoning me to pick it up, and across the top, I could read Scott’s name. I debated letting the message go unread, but curiosity and renewed ire won over. I snatched it up and unlocked the phone.
“Sorry, I thought it was just too soon to meet the family. Looking forward to seeing you again. Maybe alone next time.”
I felt sick all over again. He’d been there, he’d watched us, but for how long? I trembled, my insides a roiling mess of fear, and nausea, but also, in the eye of it all, a growing seed of fury. He’d violated my trust, invaded my home, my safe place, and now he was mocking me.
“Never contact me again you sick asshole”
His number was blocked, all texts deleted (not like they’d served any purpose), I removed the chat apps we’d used, and I logged on to the dating site to delete my profile. That was the last time I’d ever try going online to find a guy. With all means of communication cut off, I threw my phone to the carpet and buried myself beneath the comforter.
The next week passed uneventfully. I didn’t hear from Scott at all, so that was that handled, I thought triumphantly. Eva was mad I hadn’t called her the night of, but forgave me over a couple drinks and all the details. When she asked if I’d tried looking anything up about the guy in the pictures, David, I very adamantly told her no. Everything that had happened was disconcerting enough without adding a layer of murder to it. She offered to let me stay at her place for a while, but she already had her hands full with two kids and Pete, so I opted to stay with my folks.
Dad drove me to work, where security would escort me into the building (at my parents’ insistence) and then we’d repeat the process at the end of the day. If I had to run an errand, I needed to make sure at least someone knew where I was at all times. My family and Eva went so far as to start a group chat so I could send them all my location with a single text. It quickly became kind of annoying, even if everyone meant well. If I hadn’t been being stalked before, I certainly felt like I was experiencing it now. That probably sounds ungrateful, but as much as I adored them all and was thankful that I had such a great group of people who cared about me, I was ready for things to go back to normal.
Finally, when I felt like I was suffocating beneath the weight of their constant supervision, I had to sit my parents down and tell them I was going back to my apartment.
“I love you and I appreciate how much you’ve done for me, but I can’t live like this forever. I need to go home.”
They tried to change my mind, but when it became clear that I couldn’t be convinced, Mom gave me a canister of mace and a whistle for my key chain.
“Even if we want you to stay, we understand. Make sure you use these if you have to. Remember, Jules, if it comes down to you or them, always pick you.”
They lingered for about an hour after we got back to my apartment. Dad installed a chain lock on the front door, Mom checked all the windows even though we were on the third floor, and then we sat and mapped out the fastest routes to the police station. Tight hugs were exchanged when it was time to go and they told me repeatedly to call at any time for any reason.
Alone for the first time since that night, I have to admit I was a little nervous. Wanting to retake control of my home, I put on my pjs, booted up my computer, and ordered a pizza. I surfed the net while I waited for dinner to arrive, relaxing myself with puppy and kitten videos before eventually making the rounds to Facebook.
I was met with over fifty friend requests, all with the same message:
Looking forward to seeing you real soon!
Every single profile picture was of me, none of which I’d ever seen before and all recent.
David Schlotsky was 31 years old when he died. He was a PhD student at a state university, loved by many, a tennis enthusiast and heavily involved with a local theater group, so it was a shock when his girlfriend shot him three times point blank in the chest. She wasn’t charged with murder, though, or anything, for that matter. It was self defense. Apparently the beloved only son of Nancy and Grayson Schlotsky was an abusive drunk behind closed doors and his girlfriend bore the brunt of it; she’d had all the cuts and bruises to prove it. The night he was killed, Tina said he was coming after her with a knife, she was afraid for her life, she knew where he kept his handgun and grabbed it. She never meant to use it. But he kept coming. She had to make a choice; herself or him. So she fired. The knife was still in his hand when the cops arrived.
Kyle dug up as much about David as he could after he and Chris arrived at my apartment. I hadn’t called them, just texted them both a screenshot of the Facebook requests, and they’d showed up barely ten minutes later. I thought about calling my parents over too, but they were worried enough and I didn’t want to end up locked in their guest room until they found Scott. The poor pizza girl just about passed out when she found herself blocked into my doorway by two strange men openly carrying firearms. They paid her and took the pizza, watched her go into the elevator until the doors had shut and it started to descend, and then they knocked. They were still concerned, but it was far outweighed by their fury.
“Did you call the cops?” Chris demanded once he was inside. When I said no, that based on what I’d been told before, nothing could be done about it, he snorted, “You’re probably right.” “It’s not like I can get a restraining order against Scott From The Internet, If That Is Your Real Name. I don’t even know what this guy looks like.”
So we (and by we, I mean my brothers) decided it was past time to take matters into our own hands. It didn’t take long to find David’s story even with how little we knew about him, but beyond the headlines following his death, there wasn’t much to see. Kyle pulled up his Facebook page and we read through six months of hate and hurt that had been left in his wake. The few who were willing to voice their doubts about the circumstances surrounding his final minutes were drowned out by a chorus of “Stop defending an abuser!” and “Tina’s a hero!” Kyle tried looking up the girlfriend, Tina Ostaro, next, but she had zero internet footprints.
“So he was a creep too.” Knowing that didn’t make me feel any better.
“Looks like it. Doesn’t help us though.”
Well, that went to a dead end faster than I expected. I absently bit into a slice of now cold pizza and stared at David’s profile picture. It felt strange seeing a face I had come to know very well on a man I knew almost nothing about. I asked Kyle to close the page, I didn’t want to see that smile anymore.
“We could go to his parents.” Chris ventured slowly.
“And say what? ‘Hi, we read about your horrible son online, do you know if he had any equally terrible friends?’ I’m sure that’d go over super well.” Kyle said.
“This guy is using David’s picture for a reason. He sent Jules to his parents’ house for a reason. There’s some kind of connection there and if the cops aren’t going to look into it, we need to.”
I hated that Chris was right.
The Schlotskys’ number wasn’t listed anywhere that our amateur efforts could find. I had at least wanted to call them first and let them know that we were coming and why, but after our search turned up nothing, my brothers said they’d just have to deal with an unexpected drop in. They called their wives, said they were going to stay with me for a while, and spent the night on my living room floor, their handguns in easy reach. Unable to sleep and knowing how much of a night owl she was, I texted Eva with tomorrow’s plan.
“U guys be careful!!!! U don’t know those people”
“I know, we will. I’m so tired of this shit.”
“Hopefully they can help u”
“Yeah. We’ll see.”
“Want 2 borrow Pete lol”
“Any time, baby, any time ;)”
It was easy to act confident and dismissive in my texts, but I felt like a wreck. I doubted our visit the next day would prove useful and we’d be dredging up a very painful part of their recent past. It didn’t seem fair to make them relive their son’s death again when it probably wouldn’t even help. I tried telling that to my brothers the next morning, but I was given an option: I could go with them or stay behind while they went. An hour later I was in the backseat of Chris’ Explorer, heading up the highway.
“You’re sure it’s this one?”
“Yeah. Will you guys wait here while I talk to her?”
“At least let me knock alone and explain.” This was a delicate situation and my brothers were anything but.
They agreed to let me go to the door by myself, but they’d be standing outside the car so that it was clear I wasn’t alone. Me going inside without them was out of the question. I stood on the front porch for a while, nervous, uncomfortable, and trying to figure out what I was going to say to these poor people, when Mrs. Schlotsky opened the door.
“What do you want?” She snapped. Oh good, she remembered me.
“I…” My voice wavered and I cleared my throat, “I was hoping to talk to you about David.”
She eyed me with open disdain, “Why? You didn’t even know who he was last time you were here. Did you find out and are hoping for some more details to fill your sick little head?”
“What? No!” I said in a rush, “I think I’m being stalked by someone I met online. He was using your son’s pictures.” I took it as a good sign when she didn’t immediately slam the door in my face (again), “I just wanted to know if you might…have known any of David’s friends who might do that?”
She stepped out of the house and closed the door firmly behind her. From the car, my brothers were watching her with the stillness of predators ready to pounce, but Mrs. Schlotsky didn’t seem to notice them.
“What kind of person do you think David was?”
I shrugged helplessly, “I don’t know, I’m sorry. I’m just trying to find a connection.”
She must have seen something in the defeated slump of my shoulders, because she softened slightly, “I don’t care what the reports said. My boy wasn’t a drunk and he certainly wasn’t running around beating women.”
“I’m sorry.” I repeated lamely.
“I never thought that Tina was any good for him. Sometimes you just know, especially as a mom. I tried to talk to him about it, but David was in love. He was usually so skeptical about people, but never Tina.” All traces of softness were gone, “I wasn’t surprised when I caught her sneaking around behind David’s back. Ran into her at the movie with some guy and she had the nerve to act angry when I told her I was going to tell David.”
“Of course. That’s why the police were so willing to believe her. Everyone was. They said it was a typical lovers’ quarrel gone too far after he’d been drinking.”
I didn’t know how to make my next question any less harsh, so I just asked her flatly, “How do you know it wasn’t?”
“Because I know my son. David didn’t drink, he didn’t like the taste.”
“But everything said he had, uh, problems.”
“Tina said, and everyone ate it up. People have a funny way of believing things if they’re printed in a paper.”
So the dead guy’s mom was sure he wasn’t a monster. No surprise there. Nothing she had told me helped at all. She caught her son’s girlfriend cheating with some guy she didn’t know, son goes ballistic, girlfriend ends up killing him in self defense.
“He didn’t own a gun.” Mrs. Schlotsky interrupted my thoughts.
“Tina told everyone that she used David’s gun to…do it. But David didn’t own a gun. Swords, knives, whatever kind of medieval things he could get his hands on, but never a gun. They scared him. The one she had was unregistered. Probably picked it up from some other scumbag she was cheating with.”
“Mrs. Schlotsky, I’m sorry to ask, but do you have Tina’s phone number? I’d like to speak to her.”
She hesitated, but finally nodded and disappeared back into the house. When she returned, she was carrying a leather bound address book.
“This was David’s,” her fingers stroked the cover lovingly, “he was old fashioned, liked to keep his things written down.”
I thanked her after she handed the book to me and flipped to the Os. Tina’s name and number were written in big, loopy handwriting that didn’t match the rest. I guessed she wrote it in herself.
“Take the page.” Mrs. Schlotsky said, “I don’t want anything of her’s here anymore.”
“I really am sorry for your loss.” I said as I prepared to leave. She nodded, misty eyed, and held the book to her chest.
My brothers demanded I tell them everything before we’d even gotten into the car. I told them to shut up and just go, the poor woman didn’t need to see us dissecting her story on her front lawn. As we pulled away, I looked at Tina’s number again. Something about it struck me as familiar. My heart beat quickened as cold realization slithered up my spine.
Numbly, I reached for my phone, ignoring my brothers’ questions, and went to the blocked numbers section.
Tina’s number was already in my phone.
The screen flashed with a new text notification from an unknown number. I had just enough time to read the message before the preview window disappeared:
“I wish you hadn’t done that.”
“Guys,” I said, “go, drive!”
Chris looked at me in the rear view mirror, his brows raised in question. Kyle half turned in his seat.
“I got another text, he’s here. He’s watching us! Go!”
The Explorer’s engine roared with life as Chris accelerated towards the highway. We were lucky, in a way, that there were so few other cars on the road. We were able to clear the town’s limits in half the usual time. I kept checking my phone, but there were no other messages.
A truck, a big Ford type that looked like it was on steroids, pulled onto the highway behind us. It rode close to our bumper, its engine revving. I was so occupied with my phone that I didn’t notice until Chris said, “Kyle, get the lockbox and take the guns out.” He said it so calmly and matter of factly that I almost asked him to repeat himself. Our brother was quicker on the uptake and dove down, scrambling to reach the lockbox under his seat.
I was jerked forward, stopped only by my seatbelt pulling taut against my chest, and I clung to the back of Chris’ seat to steady myself. The truck drove into our rear again, harder, and this time Chris swerved slightly. Kyle, still bent over, was thrown headfirst into the dashboard. Chris tried to right the car, but the truck was alongside us now, nudging our back bumper further and further off course until the Explorer was thrown into a spin. I screamed, grabbing at Chris like that would help get us back on the the asphalt, while we skid through the shoulder and slammed into a guardrail.
Powder from the airbags filled the car. I had cracked my head solidly against my window and my vision swam. Through the haze, I could make out Kyle, slumped in his seat. Chris, a splash of red on his neck from where his seatbelt bit into him, was leaning over Kyle, trying to unwedge the lockbox from beneath the seat. His ragged breathing and the blood rushing in my ears thrummed painfully through my skull.
A sound like a too close firecracker and the left back tire sank suddenly. I screamed again, my brother swore at me and told me to get down. Something metallic tapped against the back windshield. Tap. Tap. Tap. All along the side of the car until a man was standing outside my window, grinning and tapping the butt of his sawed off shot gun against the glass. I met his cold gaze and couldn’t even breathe to call for my brother. Chris twisted sharply, the lockbox in one hand but still unopen, and went rigid. A woman, fair haired and wild eyed, had pressed her face and the muzzle of a pistol against the driver side window. She was wagging a finger at him warningly. The man leaned so close to my window that his breath fogged it.
“I told you I’d be seeing you real soon, Jules.”
He and the woman took a step back, then another, and then took aim. My shoulders shook with silent, desperate sobs. I stared into the black barrel of Scott’s gun and I knew that I was going to die. That my brothers were going to die. And it was my fault.
“I’m sorry.” I whispered hoarsely to Chris. I was glad Kyle wasn’t conscious to experience this.
I closed my eyes and let the tears fall freely.
There was a brief blast of a car horn and the sound of squealing tires. I jumped and my eyes snapped open in time to see both the man and woman sliding off of the front of a speeding maroon car. It skid to a halt a little ways down the shoulder and, as it was thrown into reverse, I noticed a bumper sticker in support of a local theater group.
Mrs. Schlotsky braked beside us and rolled down her window. Her face was red, tear stained, and torn with grief. Her fingers were wrapped around her steering wheel in a vice like grip. Every inch of her was trembling. We stared at each other for a long, tense moment.
“You kids ok?”
It took a few months, but from computer and phone logs, police were able to piece together the sordid affair that had been Tina and “Scott’s” relationship. Tina had been seeing Robby (Scott’s real name, by the way) behind David’s back for a few weeks when Mrs. Schlotsky came across them. No one would ever know for sure what happened the night David was murdered, but the little that was recovered from that time made it seem like David had confronted Tina, things got heated, and Robby shot him. The cuts and bruises that Tina had paraded about as proof of physical abuse were probably courtesy of Robby after the fact.
They were a sick pair who got their thrills by causing harm. They’d made dozens of dating profiles with the sole purpose of gaining personal information in order to harass and horrify. They’d flippantly used David’s pictures and history because Tina had easy access to it all and, since they’d gotten away with so much already, they weren’t worried about getting caught. All their victims had been completely at random with no real structure or thought behind it. I’d been their favorite, at first because of how cautious I was and then because of my refusal to stop living my life. They viewed it as a challenge and wanted to break me, make me too terrified to leave home. When that didn’t work, they decided they wanted to relive “the thrill of what happened to David”.
We got so lucky that Mrs. Schlotsky, for reasons even she couldn’t explain, felt compelled to look back out her window that afternoon. She recognized Tina driving the truck and knew something wasn’t right. Because of her quick, decisive action, we each got away with only minor cuts, scrapes, and in Kyles’ case a concussion, but we were alive. My family and I will never stop being grateful.
I’ve decided to keep a mostly low profile online and off of dating sites altogether. I’ll stick to more traditional routes from here on out. I don’t want to scare people with my story, but I do want to raise awareness about how dangerous it can be on here, so I hope I’ve managed to do that for at least some people.
Please, be careful, stay safe, but if it ever comes down to you or them…always choose you.