Claire woke up to Stan's glowing blue eyes scowling down at her. She smiled up at him through the fog of sleep. “Stan...” she sighed contentedly. Then she winced.
Her head exploded in pain, sharp and aching daggers of it all shooting out from a point on the back of her head. She explored the back of her skull and found the origin-- a swollen lump that hurt to touch, and hurt more pressed against the hard concrete ground.
“Where… where am I?” she asked blearily.
“Why, you're in my basement.” he said, as if she was stupid not to recognize it. But she didn't recognize it. The basement was where cremation chamber was. She had only ever been upstairs, where he had a little chapel for family to mourn and pray for their loved ones. Ironic, she had thought, for Stan to bother with such an attraction. He had no softness in him for idle sentimentality like religion. It was as if Satan were offering communion. She had always appreciated that quality in him. She never had to pretend to be more sorry or emotional than she felt with him.
All of her friends, and her family were surrounding her, supporting her, telling her what a heavy loss she must have felt for her mother. She played along. That was what they needed to see; a loving daughter broken-hearted over the loss of a mother. The truth was, her mother had been borderline abusive through her entire childhood. Now that she lived on her own, she barely spoke to the witch, and now she was meant to be sad? She'd be leaping for joy if it weren't for everybody else watching her, gauging her reaction. Waiting in the wings to hold her hand as she cried. Relatives she hadn't seen in years kept calling to say how sorry they were, and what a wonderful woman her mother had been. Then she took the malicious woman to be cremated, to the cheapest place in town, and she had met Stan. He barely looked up when she walked in, and he didn't give two fucks that her mother was dead. It was all just business to him. She hadn't even realized how much she was suffocating under unwanted sympathy until Stan, like a breath of fresh air, offered none.
Upstairs was all a very lovely front, with carved wooden pews, and stained glass, and brochures detailing services and pricing. This room was small, dark, and musty. The walls were cinder blocks, painted with old spiderwebs. Stan was backlit against a bare incandescent bulb, giving his lined face a demonic glow. He seemed far too tall. He was a rather slight man, but today he seemed tall. She was laying on the floor.
“What's happening?” she asked, waking enough to look around the room, and wonder why she was here, and how she had gotten there.
“You shouldn't talk about people behind their back. It's rude.” he growled.
Oh no. she thought. He must have overheard that.
She had been chatting with her friend Helen… They hadn't hung out in over a year, but somehow when a parent dies you become instantly popular, with people just waiting to jump on the sympathy bandwagon. Helen was another such well-meaning drama vulture, come to pick her clean.
“Where is your mother being buried?” Helen had asked.
Claire explained there would be no burial, she was being burned at Stanley's Crematorium. Helen wrinkled her nose. “Isn't that the creepy guy, with sores all over his face?” she asked. If Claire had a backbone, she would have slapped Helen right then, and told her that Stan was a gentleman, with a fragile spirit and a brilliant mind. She would have told her how she was comforted by way he sat in silence, completing crossword puzzles, instead of buzzing about her like mosquito engorged with condolences. How dare Helen insult him. But Claire did not have that type of courage, and instead she laughed, and added, “Yeah, he's got missing teeth too.”
Helen gave a noise of disgust, and suggested she take her mother's body elsewhere. Finally, careful not to seem too defensive, Claire insisted that Stan wasn't “that bad.” But it was too late. The damage was done. She'd mocked him just to fit in with a friend she barely cared about, but whose acceptance she valued more highly than a sensitive man's feelings. She was the most pathetic scum on Earth.
Quickly, she began to blubber apologies, and tried to explain… but no more than a feeble “sorry” escaped her before she regained consciousness enough to begin piecing the story together.
“Wait… you hit me on the back of the head. You knocked me out, and dragged me here because I said some mean things about you? Are you kidding?”
He twirled a wooden baseball bat in his hands to show that he was not at all kidding. Her eyes widened.
“What are you going to do with that? Are you going to kill me?” she began to tremble, but with anger as much as fear. “You're going to kill me over gossip? You're insane. No way. I felt bad, but you just lost the moral high ground. I'm… I'm not even sorry anymore.”
“Oh, I think you'll be very sorry...” Stan menaced, looming over her prone body, raising the bat high.
“Fuck you!” she cried, twisting onto her side and kicking out his legs. He toppled backwards like a felled tree, landing hard on the ground. At his age, she wondered if he could have broken a hip. As he moaned on the concrete, she shot up, easily grappling the bat away. Snarling, she raised it above her own head, determined to dash his brains out and make certain he wouldn't be getting back up to attack her again. But when she looked at him helpless on the floor like an injured animal, eyes widened in fear, she couldn't do it. “Shit.” she spat at herself, and fled. The door to the small basement room had a lock, which she clicked satisfyingly into place behind her, leaving the beast alive, but caged.
She found herself in a cavernous room filled with old files, and shelf upon shelf of urns. Urns. Cremation. The perfect way to dispose of a body, she realized. There had been several disappearances in the papers lately. The police never found the killer… but now, Claire suspected, she had. Clutching her baseball bat in hand, she waded through aisles of dusty urns… but two were not dusty at all. They were recent, and the initials engraved on them, she was fairly certain, would match those names in the paper.
“Fuck.” She searched for an exit-- a staircase leading up, for she knew she was in a basement-- all the while muttering, “Of course he's a serial killer. Of course. Of all the people I'd get a crush on it's the town lunatic. Why do I have such awful taste in men? Why did he have to be a murderer? Everyone I like is—Eek!” she stopped short as Stan rounded the end of a shelf, cutting her off. The devil burned in his eyes.
She should've known better than to lock a psychopath up in his own lair. He wasn't limping; she gave a small smile that he wasn't hurt, which immediately vanished. You want him to be hurt, she reminded herself. He's a killer. He's going to kill you, because he's an overly sensitive asshole, and you're a gossiping bitch. She cringed, and gripped the bat with sweaty palms, waiting for him to charge her. But he didn't come at her. Instead, his face shifted from outright rage, to a curiosity that still harbored no forgiveness.
“What are you babbling about? Taste in men?”
A hot blush seared her cheeks, though this was no time to be embarrassed. All cards were on the table now, with Stan showing his true colors. Why not admit to it, then? “Don't you think it was odd how often I came around? I only needed to come in once to make arrangements, and once for the stupid cremation. Didn't you notice that I came in almost every day?”
“You were praying.” he answered lamely.
“I'm an atheist!” she shouted, like it was something he should have known, had he paid any attention at all. “I came in to see you, because I like you. I liked to sit and listen to you scratching at your crossword. I kept hoping… you'd notice me… you'd show me another side of you.” she gave a bark of laughter, still holding the bat defensively in front of her. “The only reason I said those things was because I was trying to fit in with my friend… I'm just a lame follower. I didn't want her to think I was weirder than I already am.”
“Did humiliating me make you better friends?” he mocked, sneering.
“No. I don't know. It wasn't supposed to be humiliating… you weren't even there. People talk shit behind each other's backs. I'm sure Helen calls me a freak when I'm not around. That's why you don't eavesdrop. You don't… kill people over that. And, what, all I said was… you have missing teeth right? It's true, you do have missing teeth!” she was full-on laughing now, in a nervous panic. How could a man of his age not get simple things like this? He was going to kill her for pointing out the truth, and the stupidest thing is-- “I don't even care about the teeth! You can't even tell unless you open your mouth wide. And who cares? It doesn't bother me. I still think you're the most handsome man I've ever met. Your eyes are so blue… they're bluer than the sky. You've got such refined features, even if the skin over them is a little scabby, it doesn't diminish your looks at all… besides, what I really like is your personality. Or I thought I did, until I woke up with a bashed-in head. But the way you fill out a suit is delicious, Stan. Fuck you for turning out to be a monster.”
His face had softened entirely by the end of her tirade. Gone was the mocking, sneering rage, replaced with confusion. His brow knit over widened eyes. “Do you really… think I'm handsome?” he asked, for the first time genuinely seeking an answer. She got the impression that no one had ever complimented his looks before.
“Doesn't really matter now, does it?” she said, wistful smile fleeing from her lips. “I know you'll never let me make it up those stairs. You have to kill me. If I get out, I have to go to the police. You kill people. I can't pretend this didn't happen.”
“Prove it.” he said, words offered like a lifeline. “Prove that you like me, and I'll let you go.”
Her grip tightened on the hilt of the baseball bat, the tip shaking along with her trembling hands. “It's a trick. If I let go of this, you'll kill me.”
“I knew it wasn't true. You'd say anything to save yourself.” he hissed, face re-forming into a mask of anger. He began to lumber toward her, seeming much larger than his slight build, and she knew the bat would do no good. She let it fall and clatter to the floor, then she took a few careful steps forward to meet him. She lifted her hands to catch his scabby cheek. He gasped at the gentle touch; she inhaled with him, at his reaction. His eye lids drooped, and he melted into her fingertips, laying the palm of his hand over hers as she caressed his aging skin. She leaned forward, and found his lips with hers. His ice blue eyes shot open, then sank closed again. Electricity buzzed down her spine as he reacted with increasing fervor, hands fumbling over her body. They stumbled back together against a wall, hungry mouths never parting. They seemed locked in a passionate, frenzied dance, hands exploring, staggering aimlessly, leaving old urns shattered in their wake. They had both wanted this for so long, and now pressurized by fear, the release of their passions was explosive.
The spontaneity seemed calculated, however, when suddenly his strong hands closed around her wrists. He shoved her back through the door, onto the cold concrete floor, and slammed it shut after her. She stared in disbelief through the door's tiny window. He stared back with eyes that were cold and triumphant, then disappeared.
She was his prisoner. She had wasted her one chance to escape. Next time, he would be more careful.