Sipping on a warm cup of coffee and reading a 'historical' e-book on my shabby mobile, I was conveniently hiding in one of my college's cold classrooms, dreading when the bell for the next class would ring. It was one of my usual follow-up routines in college; hiding from my daunting bullies, skimming through some intriguing books, and waiting for the day's monotonous lectures to end
Being an extreme form of an introvert, suffering from depression and social anxiety, dealing with my peers had always been a challenge for me. I belonged to no cliques…no groups that actually accepted quiet outcasts. I was simply that weird kid who purposely sat in the back-row to avoid socialising. A bit like Jughead. I had the grades just dangling above the accepted level, stuttered when randomly called out, and stayed next to the trash bin during break times. I was no way an attention hoarder…and treating me invisible was quite easy for all those who didn't enjoy exploring their power by punching the weak.
Punches, random kicks, belittling snickers and random throwing of chewing gums. I had suffered through it all. Remained strong through it all. One of my supporting shoulders had been my, now, ex-fiancé 'Jamie'. We had been engaged through an arranged process; our parents being close friends, and we hadn't even talked due to our traditions. Yet, there was a sense of support felt on my part. I felt wanted by the sheer feeling of having a golden boy accept me. But, that fantasy ended with that boy, soon, rejecting me for one of the girls who used to belong to the popular clique in my high school.
I felt belittled. The number of comparisons and self-pitying questions the rejection brought along. It felt crushing. Often, I would find myself sullenly rub my eyes and sneakily stop my tears from pouring. There was no point in crying over the disgusting norms of society, the ways some systems worked. Rich and powerful always chose the rich and powerful, I had been a fool to think otherwise. My often-empty wallet was a reminder that I had to focus on other things in life rather than looking for a classic fairytale ending. Only princesses, spoiled by luxury, got to enjoy the perks of acting like damsels and being rescued by prince charming. I was simply in the way of someone else's fairytale beginning.
Living with my sister and her wife, a few cities away from our parents, I had the aim of scoring a master's degree in psychology, getting a highly-paid job, and becoming a popular writer one day. It was my parent's dreams. My father was adamant that I got educated from a highly-recognised college. He had sent me away to live with my sister, so that I could fulfil his dreams, and was even willing to fully fund my education by applying for extra shifts at his pharmacy-management job. I had refused to accept that offer.
Believing that it was about time that I did something for my lovely and extremely hard working-folks, I had taken it on myself to fund my own college fees. I wanted my parents to enjoy whichever luxury was restricted by money, I wanted our middle-class status to stop teasing us with empty wallets and wistful dream.
Working two shifts a day at a day centre, running errands for an elderly woman and baby-sitting for my neighbour's children, I had finally managed to somehow earn my tuition fees, stand on my own two feet. Yet there were still so many expenses that came with studying; buying new books, photocopying notes, printing research articles, paying the emotional cost of dealing with bullies. Often, I would find myself suppressed under the weight of dealing with these expenses. But I had to do this for my family. Prove to the world that the shy introvert, always ignored and snubbed, had a voice of her own; she could be something if she wanted, it was my salvation.
Tolerating the depression that came with being the class's outcast and facing an intense form of bullying, I had managed to best friends out of books and was now partially used to the feeling of being suppressed. Oppressed.
Wincing as the shrilling college-bell echoed down the ancient corridors and toyed with my heart, I quickly drank the last sip of my coffee and put my mobile in my pink bag. It was time to deal with people, again.
The dark clouds were colliding with fury, and the subtle cold wind had a hint of excitement twirling in their sway. It felt like the weather was extra exciting today, extra mysterious. Using my rough register to shield me from the little drizzle. I had just stepped outside my college boundaries and was about to walk back home when I noticed a rather mysterious woman standing near the entrance of my college. She had her head and face covered by a black scarf and was using sunglasses to hide her eyes. I felt curious…
"Miss Grace," the woman immediately called out as I slowly walked past her. My soul trembled.
"Y-yes." I turned around. I couldn't help but keep the quiver out of my voice. Who was this woman? And what did she want with me?
"I am detective Maggie." The woman brought one hand forward to shake, taking off her goggles and showing me her badge. "I am here to take you to the police station."
"Police station?" I blanched. "What? Why"
I had no reason to be taken to a police station. I was a good girl, always had been a good civilian. Breaking rules actually gave me too much anxiety and fear. There had to be some kind of misunderstanding. Was everything okay? Did something happen while I was in college?
Noticing my panicked expressions, the woman grabbed my shoulder and squeezed it in a comforting manner.
"Relax, you have done nothing wrong," she assured.
"It's just that we think there might be someone following you, and we want you to see if you can identify that person."
"Me?" I was still in shock. Who could be following plain, ole, invisible me? Was I in danger?
"Yes. Now come on. We don't have much time…"
Quickly leading me to a nearby parked police car, the woman opened the backseat door for me and then went to sit in the driver's seat. I was feeling panicked, extremely confused, scared and vulnerable, as we zoomed down vacant streets of our town and finally made it to the country police station…
This was turning out to be one heck of a day.
"Ma'am, please sit here while we get our detective team to come and meet you. There are certain questions they wish to ask." An elderly woman sweetly smiled.
After leading me into the police station, the detective lady had pushed me inside an investigation room and assured that she would return back with the rest of her team. Her baffling behaviour, along with the added suspense, was really doing wonders for my anxiety, yet I had to stay strong. My emotions were running high, but I had to be patient enough to explore the reasons being brought to this place.
Looking around at the pale white walls surrounding me, bright white ceiling-light irritating my soul. And piles of files pled up on the couches, I didn't know whether I was supposed to start bawling out loud in stress or scream to have anyone tell me what exactly was going on. The tension was just too much.
Soon, fidgeting with my fingers and controlling tears from leaking down my eyes, my heart trembled as the door was pushed wide open and in stepped two women holding some brown boxes in their hands. Detective Maggie was following behind them.
"Apologies for stressing you out like this," she apologised, eyeing my distorted expression.
"We just needed to gather some content before filling you on everything."
"Of course." I gave her a shaky nod.
"Helen." She turned towards the elderly woman. "Why don't you take a break? We will take it from here."
Helen gave her a grateful nod, "Of course, thank you Ma'am." She rejoiced, quickly getting up and leaving with a skip in her step.
I frowned at her exit.
So, this was it.
Turning to face my prosecutors again, I tried hiding my panic by keeping my palms squeezed together and let out a shaky plea. "Can you now tell me why I'm being kept h-here?!" My voice cracked a little.
"First of all, Grace," She then leaned forward and folded her hands on the desk. "I want you to feel relaxed and calm. There is nothing truly to worry about. Really. This is just an added precaution – something minor to help us solve one of our cases. In fact, would you like a glass of water before we-"
"Please, can you just tell me what's wrong?!" I quickly interjected, wanting the suspense to end already. I needed to know if I was in danger or not.
"Okay." She squeezed the bridge of her nose and took a deep breath.
"Look," her expressions turned serious and stern. "We have been hunting for a criminal named 'Sid' for several years, decades to be exact. He is on the FBI's most wanted list. We aren't actually sure about his identity, but he has left behind different clues, hints, voice tapes to assure us that he is a man, probably in his late twenties or early thirties. And just recently, he has left behind some papers at one of the crime scenes with loads of information about…you"
"Me?" I turned paler. "What does he want with me? Are you sure that the information is about me? I am just a college student. I haven't-"
"Grace," she raised one hand up while shaking her head. "We aren't entirely sure about what he wants, but we have the information given to us by him. Why don't you check it out and see if it makes sense to you." And with that, she gestured one of her partners to take out a file from her box and placed it before me.
"Open it," she encouraged.
Shakily opening the file, I noticed a picture. A beautiful picture of my sister's house pasted against its front page. I noticed there were more pictures of my sister's house, the houses of our neighbourhood, my college. Some other colleges and houses. And, at the end of the file, there was a small note attached which had my full name, age, favourite colour, favourite hobby, and the name of the high school I attended as well as previous bullies printed on it. I felt extremely creeped out.
"Who is this guy?" I quivered, looking up while holding the file tightly in my hands. I felt so vulnerable and scared. What did this guy want with me? What was he going to do? Was I his next target?
"We don't know." Maggie pitifully shook her head. "We have been trying to track him down for decades, but he just seems to get away. He has left some taunting voice-clips, but that just isn't enough for us. So, we were thinking if you could perhaps, listen to those voice-tapes and help us identify him, decipher the exact message hidden in the tapes. I mean this guy has been following you, so, perhaps, he knows you, and you do too…"
"ummm, I-I c-could try." My voice turned extra timid and shaky. There wasn't a possibility that I could know of such a creepy man. Even the thought of knowing someone like him gave me the shivers. I couldn't. but what if I did? Could listening to those tapes stab me with both disbelief and a high sense of betrayal? I had no idea.
"This tape we got recently, alongside the information given about you." She sombrely informed. I shakily nodded.
"I am bored,"
"If you want my attention, just get her to say no,"
"I will listen,"
"I am willing to be ruined'"
"So, just spare yourself the torture and get her,"
The tape stopped rolling after that. Yet, I didn't have the strength to move. The person, whose voice had been recorded, sounded so deranged, psychotic and mysterious, having a decent voice hiding a vicious beast in it, but that was how psychopaths were; they had a command on their communication skills.
"So, do you think you can recognise the voice?" Maggie spoke, interrupting the echo of roaring thoughts in my mind. I shook my head, apologetically.
"N-No…he seems so insane. I-I don't know him."
"Are you sure?" She prompted, grabbing the edge of her desk. "I mean he wants you to say no. so if you have clues or ideas, now would be a good time to share them."
My head immediately hung low. "I-I am sorry, but I truly have no clues." I felt guilty for being no help. She hmmmed in return.
Grabbing her chin in deep thought, she then leaned back against her chair and met my gaze "Well then, that's all for today." She mused. "We will have someone escort you home. If any updates, we will- "
"Pardon?" a sudden sense of fury caught up with me, "Are you seriously waving me off after telling me that an 'FBI's Most Wanted' criminal is after me? What? Am I supposed to simply act all normal after what you have just revealed to me? Because if so- "
"Grace," she quickly raised one hand, interrupting me. "No-one is saying anything of the sort. We just called you here because we are bored with this monotonous chase. Not because you are in any danger. That man, he won't be able to hurt you. We actually have everything under control. We are a tight unit here. The male department has our husbands working tirelessly on this case. In fact, you and your family are under surveillance, so that man wouldn't dare to come near you. You are safe. If you like, we can even call your family and- "
"No!" I immediately rebuked the idea. "Keep my family out of it. I don't want them to worry. Just have your police force protect them from far. They don't need to know about all of this." I stressed, chewing on my thumbnails.
She nodded in understanding. "Of course. Anything else?"
"Ummmm…" I spoke after some pondering. "Just quickly figure out why this guy is following me. Also, my family and I might be going out of the city for a couple of days, so it would be reassuring to have a team of police officers secretly guarding us."
"Already on it, Grace." She gave me a warm smile, causing me to nod and awkwardly head towards the exit.
About to turn the doorknob, I halted as she called out to me, again.
"And, Grace, don't worry. We will catch that man. I promise that we will keep you and your family safe."
"I will be counting on that," I spoke, leaving the room.
Having a new sensation of terrifying fear now crawl up my heart, I knew that this was just the beginning. That Sid guy; his voice promised more insanity than he let on. I had no idea how he knew me, yet knew that encountering him to be a nightmare.