Updated: Dec 4, 2020
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"On Loop" by Trisha McKee
Sophie kept her stare straight ahead as she raced down the steps and charged toward the front door. The knocking continued, until she finally threw open the door and slid outside before even knowing who was awaiting her. Ruby. That damn, nosy neighbor that continued to stop by unannounced. “Hi, Ruby. You caught me at a bad time. I’m about to head out to work.” The older woman clucked her tongue and tilted her head. “You poor dear. To have to give up that scholarship and come home…have you gotten any updates? Do they have any leads?” It was a struggle not to sigh, or roll her eyes. This was the same tiresome conversation that they had every other day. Ruby would waddle over, trampling over the flowers that Sophie’s mother had taken such care to grow, and then she would ask the same questions. They were more for gossip than to be sympathetic. “Nothing yet, Ruby. I’ll come over to tell you as soon as I hear anything,” she managed to answer with a somber tone, her tear-filled eyes blinking rapidly. Another cluck of the tongue. “I just can’t imagine. It’s been four months, and you're living in this house. Aren’t you scared?” Sophie could have recited the conversation word for word. “Yes, it is a bit unsettling, but they have police driving past constantly. I really can’t afford to stay anywhere else.” “I’d sell the house and get the Hell out of Dodge.” “I have to go, Ru...” “Wait!” The shorter woman held up thick hands, her dyed, red hair frizzing around her sweaty face. “I wanted to see if you had my casserole dish. I need it to make poor Timothy down the street some lasagna. His wife isn’t well,” she whispered the last sentence as if there were spies everywhere. But then again, that was not entirely wrong. “Um, sure. Give me a moment. I’ll go get it.” She tried to close the door behind her, but Ruby pushed it open. Spinning around, Sophie worked to keep her expression neutral. “I’ll be right back. Just wait here.” When she saw the confusion contorting Ruby’s features, she explained, “The house is just a mess.” “Oh hun, I don’t care. I’ll just follow you in...” “Ruby!” she softened her tone with a smile. “I’m just really protective of the house right now. Please.” The older woman blinked, her pasty face blushing. “Oh. Of course.” Sophie closed and locked the door, because she didn't trust Ruby to not come bursting in despite her protests. Then she took a deep breath, and with her head down she sped through the family room and into the kitchen. The casserole was on the counter, and Sophie scolded herself for not returning it sooner just to avoid scenes like this. On the way back through the family room she brushed against Roger as he rounded the couch, his steps heavy and deceptively quick despite his large size. She let out a scream and then took a breath, continuing to the door. Ruby tilted her round body to the side to peek around Sophie, but Sophie shut the door too quick to allow a look. “Are you okay? I thought I heard you yell.” “Stubbed my toe.” She thrust the dish into Ruby’s ample chest. “I really have to go.” “I heard the gospel music playing, your mama’s favorite. I think it’s nice you play it.” Sophie paused, her head snapping up to meet Ruby’s gaze. “You heard that?” “Yes. Oh, I remember when they installed that sound system so they could play gospel throughout the house. Such a happy time. I love that you still use it. Your mama is looking down and smiling.” Afterwards Sophie went back into the house and ran into the family room, skirting around her mother folding laundry, trying not to look directly at her, hoping to get out of there before the last part of this sick reenactment. She stepped over Roger’s legs as he leaned back on the couch, his belly hanging out over his sweatpants. On the side of the wall she checked the switch to the sound system. “Off,” she muttered. “It’s off.” “Geraldine, what the Hell is that music still doing on? Huh? The game’s coming on. Shut it off!” “Nice,” Sophie mumbled. “Great talk for a pastor.” She was able to forget everything at work, as the lunch rush was crazy. She could barely keep up with her tables, and managed to spill a drink onto one irate businessman. When he complained about the stain on his suit Sophie was tempted to ask why he would eat lunch at some greasy diner dressed like that, but she saw her manager watching. She bit her tongue and comped his meal, moving on to the next table. It wasn't until the end of Sophie’s shift, when she had to face returning home, that she let her mind wander to the house. Ruby had heard the music, so it wasn't just part of Sophie’s guilty conscience. And, if she had heard the music, odds were she would eventually see the entire freak show playing out in her living room. Todd, her manager, came up beside her as she finished wrapping her silverware. “Rough day?” “Eh.” She lifted a shoulder, keeping her focus on her task. “Don’t worry about it. You’re doing a great job.” Sophie merely nodded. She knew he had a crush on her, and before this nightmare she would have smiled and tossed back her blonde hair. Todd was tall, with dark hair and brooding eyes, but as tempting as he was she had too much to deal with. She felt anything but flirty right now. Too much had happened, and her life was in limbo. She needed to have answers, but there was no clear solution. She felt older, weary, and defeated, but she had to return to that house. She had already spent too much money at hotels in the last few months, and she was sure she had worn out her welcome at her friends’ places. So…home it was. When Sophie had first returned home, four months ago now, it was meant to be a temporary plan. She had every intention of selling the house and returning to school, but then they had reappeared. That scene, that last night, had started playing over and over constantly, so she had adjusted the plans. After awhile Sophie started to convince herself that she was the only one that could see them. That perhaps she could move on and leave this place, and her secrets would not be revealed through the continuous loop playing in that family room. Hope had started to spark throughout her body as she considered moving on from this nightmare, but then that morning Ruby had heard the music. She had been able to hear what was part of that endless loop, and that wasn't good. Sophie entered the house, taking a deep breath and pretending that she wasn't terrified to once again witness it all. From the entryway she saw the shadows of her mother and stepfather sliding along the dulled floor. She heard the muttered exclamations, the whining, that damn gospel music echoing through the house, all the sounds from her childhood. The evening, their last evening, was replaying itself, and she wanted to get upstairs before the end. Before it all happened. She had avoided that since the first time she had been too shocked to move, and had been forced to see it play out. The abrupt knocking on the door startled her, and it took a few moments to catch her breath. She took one last look at the shadows before moving slowly toward the door. Who could it be? The cops had stopped coming around once her alibi was verified, once her constant sobs and wails made them too uncomfortable to even make eye contact. And Ruby…she was not a problem anymore. Todd, her manager, was standing on the other side of the door, shifting from one foot to another. She sighed. He must have looked up her address. She worked at a restaurant out of town, and while her family’s brutal murders had been splashed all over the news she had no reason to believe he knew it was her family. After all, she had a different last name because she had refused to let her stepfather adopt her. They had gone as far as to take the matter to court, but when she, a ten year old girl, had cried and shaken her head when the judge asked if she wanted to be adopted he had refused to put the order through. Sophie sure as Hell didn't bring up the unsolved case at her place of work, since the last thing she wanted was attention on her or the case. She wanted the talk to quiet down, and she wanted the damn scene to stop replaying in the family room. “Todd?” She stepped outside, shutting the door behind her. “What're you doing here?” He shook the dark hair out of his golden brown eyes, his lips lifting up slightly then dropping. “I - I wanted to check on you. Today seemed to take the energy out of you.” “I’m fine. You drove out here for nothing.” Todd sighed, his hand scratching the back of his head. “I actually wanted to see if you’d…Want to go out for some dinner? Just relax and…get a bit to eat?” It was on the tip of her tongue to refuse. Sophie had enough on her mind without adding in this kind of trouble, but then she realized the last thing she wanted to do was stick around this Hellhole listening to the sounds she already couldn't clear from her mind. Soon the screaming would begin, then the pleading, then the slow wail of death. She couldn't bear it again, so a night out might do her good. With a bright smile she batted her round, blue eyes, flipping her hair over her shoulder. “Sure.” Maybe she would have a place to stay that night, if she played it right. “I have to go grab my purse. Can you wait out in the car for me? I’ll be out in a second.” She raced through the house, cringing as she realized the most terrifying part of the night was starting to play out. She could only hope Todd couldn't hear the screaming that seemed to be even creepier when set alongside the gospel music, which was still spilling out from the overhead speakers. She hoped he didn't hear her mother and stepfather screaming out her name, begging her to stop. Sophie grabbed her purse and ran back to the front door, stopping suddenly when she noticed it was wide open. Why was it open? Where was Todd? Something happened. She blacked out, time seeming to skip over some parts. The next thing she remembered was flashing lights outside her house, and she wondered if the scene was now replaying outside, when the police came to investigate the murders. Was it now repeating itself in other parts? She heard her name amplified, she heard the door crashing and wood splintering. She felt pain, a hot, searing explosion in her chest. And then she was standing in the foyer, hearing the familiar sounds from the family room. She was disoriented, only able to remember flashes from the past several hours. .All Sophie wanted to do was to go to bed, but first she had to pass through the room to get to the stairs. Sophie rounded the corner, trying to stare straight ahead as she scurried past the family room. Her gaze still managed to wander over to the scene, and from the other viewing times she recognized the part of the evening where her stepfather circled around the back of the couch and slapped her mother alongside the back of her head. She paused, unable to look away, bile rising up in her throat as she thought of all the times Roger had bullied them, terrorized them, and abused them. She remembered cowering in the corner of her room as a child, his kicks never stopping even as she passed out. She remembered the time he ripped out a handful of her hair, or the time he punched her mother and then insisted they all kneel on the floor to pray for their tainted souls. He would beat them, and then use religion as his excuse, calling it the reason they should forgive him. He used it as his anthem. He waved the word of his God high in the air, all the while spitting on his stepdaughter and wife as he demeaned and shamed them. Sophie had been terrified of him, and then she had grown angry. Even after she escaped to college she couldn't calm the waves of rage that crashed into her body and flooded her mind, the ones that blurred her reasoning. Even now she couldn't bear to look at him without her fingers curling into tight fists, her chest tightening as her breathing accelerated. The scene was once again unfolding in front of her. She knew the words by heart, knew the part where her mother would hold her head and her stepfather would return to the couch, cursing his wife and her inadequacies. But this time Sophie watched, unable to look away. Roger paused, slowly turning his head until he was facing her. He glared at her with such malice that Sophie gasped. He saw her, actually saw her. He was no longer merely part of a memory replaying over and over, he had broken from the script to acknowledge her presence. Just when she was about to step away he opened his mouth, and a stream of dark blood poured out. Blood dripped from his eyes, and he reached his hand out to her. A deep, guttural grunt accompanied the blood. Sophie turned and ran up the stairs, escaping to her room. Trying to control her breathing she heard her brother’s door open, and the fast patter of his feet pass her closed door and continue down the steps. The memory was once again replaying correctly. She was trembling, exhaustion winning over the fear as she fell into a slumber. She awoke, darkness blanketing her room. A small block of light fell from her open door, silhouetting a shadow at the foot of her bed. Sophie sat up and scrambled toward the head of her bed, away from whatever was watching her. As her eyes adjusted she realized it was her brother, Robby. Somehow she managed to control her trembling enough to turn on the bedside lamp. She gasped. All the times she had witnessed the reenactment she had always made sure to leave, to run out before the part when Robby walked into her room. She couldn't stand to see that, to remember what came next. Now here he was, in her room. His skin was pale, and dark shadows ringed his huge, vacant eyes. Eyes that sought her out. “Robby,” she sobbed, crawling to the foot of her bed, closer to him. “Robby, you know why I did it, right? You saw everything. I couldn’t…I couldn’t have you telling the police what you saw.” He continued staring at her, a green, thick liquid running from the corner of his gaping mouth. She shook with sobs, not understanding why these ghosts were now acknowledging her, why they were more real. She could handle the accusations in her mother’s eyes, and she didn't give a shit what her stepfather felt about her actions. She felt vindicated in what she had committed toward them, but not Robby. That cut her up inside, leaving her hollow and drained. That had not been part of her plan. Sophie's plan had been foolproof. At her school, nearly twenty minutes away, she had attended a film marathon with her friend Shana. She had convinced Shana to sit at a specific spot, which allowed Sophie to ensure she sat on the end right beside the emergency exit. It was an exit that she knew never set off an alarm, despite the signs stating otherwise. She had tested it days before, and was certain it wouldn't sound off. Then she slipped a sleeping pill into Shana’s soda, and Shana never knew that Sophie had left soon after the lights faded as the movie started. Sophie had been back well before the end of the marathon. She had her ticket, and a friend that could verify her alibi. Hell, she had an entire auditorium full of people that could verify she was there. It was foolproof. But, as she stabbed her parents, her little brother had stumbled into the room, his eyes wide with silent screams. His loyalty was to his parents, to a father that never laid a hand on his only son. Robby was too young to understand the torment his father put Sophie through, and Sophie’s mother always told her to be better, behave better, and maybe he would not have to beat her. She deserved what she got. But Robby…that was something that haunted her. So when the ghosts had started replaying that night, when she watched them scream her name, run from her, give away the secret to the unsolved murders, she understood she had to stay in that home. If she sold it, if the new owners saw the ghosts, they’d know. They’d tell the police that she was the killer. Before Sophie could explain any more to the ghost she woke up in her bed, convinced that seeing Robby must have been a dream. She was functioning off of very little sleep, and riding the wave of trauma, being forced to relive it through those ghosts, was taking a toll. Of course she was going to have a breakdown, at least in her dreams. As she tried to break through the fogginess in her head, the quicksand she seemed to be fighting through, and a knock at the door interrupted her. “Dammit, what now?” She opened the door and stepped out, seeing Ruby. Ruby gave her a sympathetic look. “I’d sell the house and get the Hell out of Dodge.” “What?” “I said I wanted to see if you had my casserole dish. I need it to make poor Timothy down the street some lasagna. His wife isn’t well.” Sophie shook her head, and then answered, “Ruby, I gave it back to you yesterday.” Ruby moved slowly, as if she too were moving through quicksand. “Dear, no, you didn’t. But oh my, it’s okay. I know you have a lot on your mind. If you could just...” “I gave it to you yesterday! Fine. Wait here. I’ll go check, but…” She stepped back inside the house, locking the door after her. She tried to rush past the family room, but her mother set down the shirt she was folding and stepped in front Sophie. She said nothing, but her eyes became empty sockets and her mouth dropped open, maggots crawling out. Sophie screamed and ran past her into the kitchen, right to where the casserole dish sat on the counter. She went to grab it, but then she was again at the front door, facing Todd. “Want to go out for some dinner? Just relax and…get a bit to eat?” She blinked, trying to find the words, the questions as to why this was happening. But then she was in the family room and so was Todd, his eyes huge as he watched the scene playing out in front of him. She noticed the corpse in the chair. It was Ruby, her skin blue and the front of her shirt stiff with dried blood. Then she saw herself charging at Todd, and it all started to come back to her. Murdering Ruby when she had started to piece things together, attacking and killing Todd when he had followed her into the house and witnessed it all. The police were outside her home, demanding that she come out. Then they were shooting rounds of bullets through as she charged toward them, no longer willing to witness that night on loop. Over and over and over. Now Sophie was a ghost, stuck in that house and watching that night play on loop. Over and over and over. She shut her eyes as her stepfather stomped toward her, as her little brother sobbed, and her mother wailed. She shut her eyes as the gospel music played.
Trisha McKee resides in a small town in Pennsylvania where her front door opens to the town cemetery. She adores her patient hubby and hippie daughter and spends any spare time fishing, exploring abandoned structures, and cuddling with her bulldogs. Since April 2019, her work has been accepted by over 35 publications, including ParABnormal Magazine, Night to Dawn Magazine, J.J. Outre Review, Kzine, The Oddville Press, Crab Fat Magazine, several anthologies, and more. Her short story Where We Meet was nominated for the Best of the Net 2019 anthology.