Prompt: vulgar; a million is a statistic
In the cramped and yellowed kitchen, Shawna’s father passed her one last plate gripping soap suds. “Gary seems nice.”
Shawna swabbed the dish with a cloth. “He is. He’s also just a coworker, so I don’t want to hear that tone in your voice.”
He held up his soapy hands in surrender. “Whatever you say, sweetheart.” He waited a beat then added, “I never brought any coworkers home to meet my parents, mind you.”
Shawna rolled her eyes as she set the plate back in the cupboard. “We’re working on a special report together.”
“I remember.” He put a hand on her shoulder, stopping her before she could leave the room. “Just tell me it’s nothing dangerous. I don’t like the idea of you poking around the neighborhood. I thought being a reporter would get you away from here.”
“Daddy, I thought you were happy to have me visit.”
“I know, I know. I promise I know what I’m doing. You don’t need to worry.”
“Mm-hm.” He did not sound convinced. “You’re going for a late walk when we’re in the middle of a murder spree. What could I worry about?”
Shawna hugged him. “Exactly. And it’s time we got going.”
In the living room, Gary sat in front of the TV with the Dodgers game on. A skinny, geeky white boy, Gary looked as out of place as a person could in Shawna’s old neighborhood. He was also the only person willing to even listen to her idea about the rash of murders and disappearances plaguing the community that would always be her home. When she walked in and he looked up at her with that eager expression, Shawna had to wonder if her father was onto something about the two of them. “You ready or do I have to wait for the final score?” Shawna asked.
Gary hopped up from the couch. “Sure thing. Mr. Mitchell, it was nice to meet you. Thanks for dinner.” He shook hands with her father. Then he pulled on his jacket and stood by the door, bouncing on the balls of his feet like a puppy.
“Love you, Daddy. We’ll let you know when we get back.” The door closed behind them and they were left with only the dim porch light as a barrier against the night. “Let’s get the camera,” Shawna said as a shiver twitched through her shoulders.
Gary really was the only one willing to listen to Shawna when she said something weird, something sinister was going on in her community. No one wanted to believe it was anything more than a little more gang violence. They were willing to just write off the whole thing is a hopeless case. Shawna believed there was a story, a crisis, but without an official assignment, she had no choice but to pursue her own leads on her own time. So there she was, walking the streets and, for once, hoping for trouble, while Gary followed with a handheld camera in his pocket.
“It’s kind of exciting,” Gary said as they walked by the light of streetlamps. Some of them had been shot out, leaving long stretches of darkness. This was a neighborhood with bars on the windows, where the lock on the door couldn’t stop the stray bullets that punched through walls like wet paper. “Kicking it old-school style.”
Shawna gave him a disbelieving look. “Are you for real?”
“Too much? Is my lingo out of date?” He grinned at her.
“Your brain is out of date, nerd.” They stopped at a corner. A memorial sprouted up there with flowers and candles and a posterboard sign with glitter letters spelling out the name of another dead kid. The photograph attached had the blue-gray background of a school portrait. A teenage girl with curly hair and braces beamed up at them, so alive it hurt to look at her. “I hate this. Five kids die and the community is outraged, there’s news coverage and a police statement. Twenty kids die and there are community watch meetings, but no one else is talking. We hit one hundred unexplained murders and no one says a word anymore. This is the new normal. I can’t get the station’s producers to touch it with a ten-foot pole.”
“We’ll get evidence. We’ll see something. They’ll start paying attention. Then, when they uncover corruption and apathy and evil crap, we’ll throw a big ‘told you so’ party.”
It got late. Shawna worried that the only thing they would see would be a search party sent out by her father when they did not come home soon enough. Then they rounded the corner of the half-derelict community center, its basketball court dusted with broken glass, and heard a stifled scream. Gary practically ripped the pocket off his jacket in his hurry to start the camera recording. They followed the sounds of a struggle to a blocked-off alleyway between houses. At one end, a plywood barricade cut it off from the other end of the street, making it useless as a shortcut.
Shawna did not know what the camera would get in the dark, but she could see clearly enough. A couple of people had a third trapped between them. For second, Shawna thought it was some kind of tryst because it looked like one person had bent to kiss the other. There was a squeal, muffled by a hand clamped over the middle person’s mouth. Then Shawna realized they were–biting someone? She hoped to god Gary was getting this. Forget gangs; this looked more like a cult.
Someone’s hand suddenly clamped on Shawna’s neck from behind and lifted her off her feet. Shawna flailed her legs and felt her heel connect with something unyielding as steel. “What might this lovely surprise be?”
Shawna clawed at the hand holding her. It was like trying to pry off a vise with a plastic knife. Where was Gary? Did they have him too? “You won’t get away with this.”
“That’s the wonderful boon to preying on the vulgar masses.” The voice ghosted across her cheek and brought a rancid, metallic smell with it. “What they lack in taste,” the voice said with a bubbling chuckle like a drowning victim’s last sigh, “they make up for in anonymity. No one ever misses them.”