A luminous alarm clock ticked softly on the bedside table next to Julia’s diary. Dusk crept in at seven-ten. Ralph Hampton was sitting on the edge of Julia’s pink-flowered bed, looking very much out of place and feeling awkward. With an irritated groan, he leaned over to pick up the tiny, brass key that had fallen at his feet. His fingers trembled slightly, perhaps in guilty anticipation, for he was now faced with a moral dilemma. Small as this dilemma was, it irked him that his scruples rose up now to interfere with his natural curiosity. Why couldn’t he simply open Julia’s diary and start reading?
The girl, his only niece, had disappeared more than three months ago. Her diary might be the only clue to her whereabouts. Still, as he picked up the worn volume and turned it over in his hands, he felt a familiar anxiety imploding in his gut. His throat tightened and his palms felt clammy.
“Damn!” He muttered in genuine frustration as he forced his fumbling fingers to insert the key into the lock. “What’s the matter with me?” This invasion of Julia’s privacy triggered his familiar, compulsive fears. He looked behind him twice to make sure nobody was watching.
Quickly, Ralph turned the key and unfastened the latch. Opening to the first page, he squinted to focus. A fleeting frown crossed his brow as he read the inscription on the inside cover. It baffled him.
Julia’s writing was usually delicate and easy to read, but here the angles were sharp and the pen strokes heavy, as though she had been writing in anger. The entry was dated July sixteenth. Ralph felt a shiver run up his spine. That was the day before she disappeared.
“I dedicate this diary to Tom,” it said, “because he was such a compassionate executioner. We now weave another web. I wonder what karma awaits him?”
“What the – ?” Ralph scratched his head. Did Julia have a premonition, even back then, about Tom’s recent tragedy? It would not be surprising, Ralph mused, since she had a history of premonitions. But why had she added this dedication to the beginning of her diary after she had been writing in it for months? Eight-and-a-half months, to be exact. Tom had given her the diary at her birthday party, Halloween night almost a year ago. The first entry was dated the following day. All Saints Day, Ralph noted to himself with a sarcastic smirk.
Details of the party flashed back clearly as Ralph pondered what he had just read. He could still see Julia darting across the living room in her witch costume with the black, flowing cape, and a big, pointed hat perched atop her wavy, auburn hair. Her tresses were like wildfire streaming down her back and over her shoulders, sometimes lashing across her face. Her eyes matched, glowing embers in a face full of freckles.
It had been her eighteenth birthday party. Her coming-of-age. A celebration of her emancipation. But Julia had always seemed very independent to Ralph. She took care of herself quite well, even as a child. Yet this birthday had been a milestone for him. Up until that point he had been her legal guardian. Now she was free to do whatever she pleased, and God only knew what that was. Ralph just hoped that she was alive somewhere, and safe.
From the time Julia was thirteen, Ralph had done his best to raise her, but only because he could not stomach the idea of letting his mother ruin another child. Naturally, Carol Hampton had tried to get custody of Julia, but Ralph fought her tooth and nail. In Ralph’s opinion both he and his sister, Missy, had fared badly at the hands of their mother. Not that she was an evil person. Certainly not. She was the epitome of virtue.
Her home always shone with cleanliness and normalcy, as did her personal appearance. Indeed, she was the very image of social grace and culture. Everything she did fit perfectly within the expectations of her staunch, middle-class, Roman Catholic peers. A better model mother could not be found. Yet somehow her two children had grown up to be terrible misfits.
As for himself, Ralph worked hard to preserve an image of respectability in his local community. He dressed conservatively and kept what was left of his orangutan-colored hair cropped short. Though he knew people considered him strange, he often gloated over the fact that they had no idea how strange he really was. He smiled to himself now. Nothing too extreme, really. Just a few drinks late at night, every night, which accounted for his bulbous, red nose and the prominent spider veins on his cheeks. He told himself it helped him get to sleep. It was true.
Shrugging, he rubbed his fingers across the graying stubble on his chin. The diary in his lap lay forgotten as his thoughts drifted far away, wrapping themselves around distant memories. In that moment he clearly felt his aloneness. It choked him with fear. He knew not why.
Ralph’s deepest secret was this loneliness. He tried to hide it even from himself, burying it beneath a voyeuristic fascination with women. Unable to form a romantic relationship with a real woman, he spent untold hours, day in and day out, scrolling through Internet porn sites. That was the closest he ever got to intimacy anymore, though he flirted to no avail with most every woman he met.
Actually, he mused, running his fingers mindlessly over the binding of the diary, the Internet consumed an inappropriate amount of his time. He had to admit that to himself when he prepared for his weekly confession, but he wasn’t particularly ashamed of it. Weren’t all men drawn to the mysteries women hid beneath their clothing? Still, he made a point of keeping such activities well hidden from others.
Another dark secret was his constant fear of being ridiculed, a fear that had plagued him since childhood. As a shy, gangly kid with buckteeth and bright, orange hair, he had been a favorite target of bullies. Even though he had done his best to blend in and be popular, his attempts at normalcy had only earned him constant teasing, and even physical abuse. Ralph’s childhood memories were filled with recollections of hiding in school bathrooms, and looking over his shoulder for would-be attackers as he walked home each day.
His sister, Missy, had been quite different, though. She made no pretense of being normal. Didn’t even seem to know the meaning of the word. All during her youth she had been guided by voices. Often they gave her very useful information, like telling her who was calling when the phone rang, or what people were really thinking when they said nice things to her. Ralph suspected that Missy saw and heard many things that she never spoke about for fear of punishment. In their mother’s house children could only speak of things that fit within a narrow definition of acceptability. Otherwise they would be accused of lying and be sent to their rooms with no dinner.
As she neared adolescence, the frequent nights alone in her room seemed to cure Ralph’s sister of her delusions. After years of such treatment, Missy stopped sharing her psychic revelations and never spoke of the voices again. But at fourteen she suffered a nervous breakdown. She was hospitalized for three months. Then she returned home with a new and wild urge for freedom and self-expression. It wasn’t long before she discovered a wide and wonderful world beyond her mother’s restrictions. At nineteen, she ran off and got married. Seven months later Julia was born.
The husband had always been a thorn in Ralph’s side. A psychiatrist! The guy was a lot older than Missy, but he had plenty of money. He had once suggested that Ralph was anal retentive, which peeved Ralph no end. And of course he diagnosed Missy as schizophrenic, but even Ralph had to agree with that.
He was good to Missy, though. In her short life she had traveled the world, rubbed shoulders with the rich and famous, and had a free shrink whenever things got her down. Unfortunately, it all ended when Julia was thirteen. Missy and her husband had been killed in a plane crash.
It still baffled Ralph, the way Julia sensed it before it happened. She had warned her parents not to go, even begged them. Everyone thought she was being melodramatic, a typical teenager thinking only of herself. It had been a very awkward situation for Ralph as her baby-sitter. A thirteen-year-old can be quite a handful, even if it is only melodrama. But it turned out that Julia was right! She had spent the whole day crying, and by the time everybody else got the news, her tears were dry. With a weary shrug, she went on with her life. A melancholy smile was her only sign of grief. That had disturbed her uncle.
That air of complacency stayed with Julia, as if something inside of her had died. A place where feelings were too strong to bear had been walled off. Still, she was active and seemed comfortable with her classmates. She laughed loud and often. Too loud sometimes. Ralph could still picture her moving among the guests at her birthday party, entertaining them with a wry sense of humor.
It was obvious then, that Tom had doted on her. He blushed whenever she looked at him, and especially when he handed her his birthday gift, the diary Ralph now held in his hands. He looked down at the little book, remembering the intimate glance that had passed between Julia and Tom when she first leafed through its pages. Such a curious smile had played about her lips. In retrospect it seemed like a significant moment.
“I hope I get to read it someday,” Tom had joked, a quick grin flashing across his handsome face. It was Julia’s turn to blush as she cast a mischievous glance at her uncle.
Drawing a deep breath, Ralph returned his attention to the little book in his hands. He had found it tucked under Julia’s pillow as he was making up her bed for a visiting cousin. The way its key had dropped to the floor at his feet made it seem as if Julia planned it that way. But why? Perhaps further reading would answer his question. He snorted at the irony. So far it had only brought up more questions.
Easing himself into a cushioned chair at the bedside, he continued reading, quickly skimming over Julia’s descriptions of the party. After flipping through several pages, something new caught his eye. The whole tone had changed. He started to read in earnest, a puzzled frown furrowing his brow.
I’m beginning to remember things that frighten me. Things I can’t explain, but they’re so real I can’t deny them either. This morning I saw myself engulfed in flames. Tom was watching. There were tears in his eyes, but he never moved to rescue me. He couldn’t. His job was to set the fire. His personal feelings had to be set aside.
I could feel the heat searing my flesh, as tongues of flame rose about my feet. I struggled, screamed, and then gave up, surrendering to the pain. Then suddenly it was all turned inside out. The pain became pleasure. The pleasure overflowed into ecstasy. And as I watched Tom standing there beside the fire, I knew he could never understand.
I was outside my body, watching the gold and scarlet flames lick at my charred skin, black smoke billowing out, rising up on waves of heat. My eyes were glazed over in anguish. Black eyes. So different from the color they are now.
Tom went stiff, his face pale. I know he wanted to save me. He couldn’t know that I was by his side watching. I felt no more pain. I guess I was already dead, but he had no way of knowing that. My body was still screaming.
Then the vision was over. I couldn’t see anything more, but I knew it was real. It wasn’t just a dream. I was wide-awake. It was so amazing to watch my body being consumed in the flames. No wonder I have always been fascinated by fire. And by the thought of death. What is death if I could be there watching?
And now, as I look back, it all seems connected, all my years of nightmares, my visions of fire, hearing screams in the night, and Tom. He is so attentive to me. He worries about me. I don’t think he remembers, but now he chooses me over all the girls who want him, even though I’m not as pretty or popular.
Of course he looked much different in that lifetime. His eyes were dark like mine were, and he was short and stocky. I couldn’t see much of his face with the black hood over his head, but I had a sense that he was Spanish or Moorish. Maybe I was, too. I had the same dark coloring.
Just now I went to look in the mirror to see if there was any similarity in my looks. All I could see was fire, flickering in my eyes and hair – as though my dark coloring has been burned away and only the flames remain. No wonder Tom was drawn to me. Something in him must know. He just doesn’t realize what it is – yet.
Ralph closed the diary quickly, beads of perspiration gathering at his temples. Could it have been a dream she was remembering, or was she raving mad? Madness seemed to run in the family, after all. Or – the thought crept into his bones with a chill, had she truly been executed in some former life by this boy she now seemed to adore? And if so, what was her crime?
He finished making the bed and took the diary with him to his own room. It was almost a year ago that Julia had written about the burning. She wrote that she had been having nightmares for years, but she had never mentioned any of it to Ralph. He wished that she could have trusted him more than that.