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Hello, my name is Tina.  It’s actually Christina, but everyone has always called me Tina.  I’m a physician of internal medicine, specializing in geriatrics, and I have attained the respect of my peers, the hospital that employs me, and my community.  I’m not stating these things to boast, but to lend credence to what I am about to tell you.  I’m not one who takes things lightly or acts foolishly or impulsively.  I do everything with deliberate and compassionate forethought.

My story begins with a friend (let’s call her Ginny) who needed my help.  Ginny had just suffered a terrible tragedy (death in the family) and she reached out to me because she was having trouble coping.  Unfortunately, I have a lot of experience in dealing with family members and their bereavement since most of my patients are of an advanced age and sometimes all I can do is make the ailing patient more comfortable before they pass.

My friend had a request.  She wanted me to meet a woman named Charlotte Bustos, a forty-three-year-old woman who whose husband and nine-year-old-son died several years ago.  Ginny said that Charlotte was a friend of her family, but she lived alone and was a bit reclusive.  It was likely that Charlotte didn’t know about the death in Ginny’s family.  Ginny thought a phone call would be too crass (especially in light of Charlotte’s own relatively recent tragedy) and wasn’t sure the number she had for her was still valid.  Ginny thought it’d be best to tell her person.  Actually, Ginny wanted me to tell her.

The request itself wasn’t strange.  It’s not that I’ve become adept at delivering bad news, but I have a way of staying calm and showing concern that seems to resonate with people.  Ginny was still a bit of an emotional mess, lapsing into occasional bouts of hysterical grief and anger, and she understood that she wouldn’t be the best person for this task.

But the urgency of her request was bizarre.  Ginny knew that my work schedule was intense (forty hours a week in an office, forty-plus hours at the hospital), and she liked to advise me to stick to my priorities (she even dissuaded me from rekindling a past romance since it was taking up too much of my time).  Yet she still pressed me to meet Charlotte as soon as possible.  She even told me to call in sick.  I’ve never called in sick before, but reluctantly complied since Ginny was starting to become visibly distressed.

I took two days off of work: last Thursday and Friday.  Two days because I needed the first day to track down Charlotte Bustos.  Ginny wasn’t sure of her address and I needed to confirm it.  Being a recluse, it wasn’t easy, but I did manage to find Charlotte’s last physician.  I paid him a visit and convinced him to give me Charlotte’s address.  I know that may sound unethical, but I always try to act on behalf of the greater good.  Ginny was becoming more upset by the minute, and we needed to get this over with.  Charlotte lived about fifty miles away and I drove Ginny down there as fast as I could on Friday.  It took longer than expected.  I had to stop several times along the way because people where pestering me with phone calls and texts wondering where I was.  I couldn’t believe I had to justify my absence.  People always expect the worst out of others.

Charlotte lived in a quaint neighborhood in northwest Burbank, quiet and serene despite signs of gang activity, but her house was a wreck.  It reminded me of one the abandoned homes I had seen in a documentary about the decline of Detroit.  I almost thought it was abandoned, but a woman was standing at doorway, behind a closed screen door.

I walked up a driveway carpeted with weeds.  Ginny followed me closely, quiet and a bit jumpy.  The woman in the doorway didn’t move, she just kept starting at us as if our visit wasn’t unexpected, but possibly unwanted.  As I reached the steps leading to the entrance, the woman opened the screen door and stepped outside.

It looked like we had made a mistake.  This woman was not forty-three years old.  She appeared closer to seventy.  Deep, leathery wrinkles were etched into her face and arms.  She was wearing dingy flip-flops and a faded Hawaiian dress, a muumuu, that did little to conceal her obesity.  In fact, her ankles were severely swollen and her neck was covered with dark blotches of velvety skin – clear signs of uncontrolled diabetes.  Worse, she was glaring at us like a frightened pit bull terrier.

I tried to alleviate the situation.  “I’m very sorry to intrude.  But we’re looking for Mrs. Charlotte Bustos.  This was the address we were given as hers.”

The woman spit out her reply.  “Who’s we?”

“I’m Tina and this is my friend, Ginny.  We’re looking for Charlotte because she’s a friend of Ginny’s family.”

The old woman cracked a smile.  “Little Ginny?  Is that really you?  Seems like it’s been ages!  Come in, come in.”

I looked at Ginny.  She shrugged her shoulders.  We decided to follow the woman inside the house.

Unbelievably, the house looked worse inside.  Newspapers, trash and empty boxes were scattered all over the floor.  A broken table was propped up against a smoke-stained wall.  A feral-looking cat bounded past me and hid in a darkened corner.  I was glad I had a full bottle of Purell in my car that I could lather on as soon as I left this place.  The woman asked us to take a seat with her on a couch that looked like it had been exhumed from the local dump.  Ginny and I chose to stand.

I got right to the point.  “We need to speak to Charlotte.  There’s been some unpleasant news.”

The woman flopped down on the couch.  Her dress rode up her leg and I could see the garbled tracks of her varicose veins against her pasty, flabby flesh.  She grabbed a pack of cigarettes off a dilapidated coffee table and lit one up for herself.  After a deep drag on her cigarette, the woman finally responded.  “Sweetie, I am Charlotte.  I know I don’t look my age, but life’s been a hard bitch.  And I’m damn sure there’s no news you can tell me that I’d find unpleasant.”

I looked at Ginny.  She was staring at Charlotte as if in shock or about to go into another fit of despair.  Probably both.  I tried to keep the conversation as emotionally neutral as possible.

“I’m terribly sorry.  I heard about the loss of your husband and son.  You have my sincere condolences.”

“My husband was the fucking devil!  Don’t you know that?”

This was starting to get out of hand.  I put my hand on Ginny’s shoulder.  She was starting to tremble.  I spoke as compassionately as I could to Charlotte.  “I didn’t mean to reopen any bad memories.  We mean no disrespect.  Ginny and I came here to tell you that there’s been a death in Ginny’s family and–”

Charlotte started laughing.  It sounded more like she was coughing up a golf ball-sized chunk of phlegm.  “Why are you friends with her?”

I couldn’t tell if she was talking to me or Ginny.  I let my hand fall away from Ginny’s shoulder.

“What the hell do you have in common?  You’re not even the same age!”

Ginny spun around and ran out of the house.  This was a disaster.  I couldn’t imagine how this disgusting, irascible woman could be friends with Ginny’s family.

“It’s clear that this was a mistake.  I’m very sorry for disturbing you.”

As I turned to follow Ginny out the door, Charlotte shouted out to me.  “Do you want to be an actress too?  Like Ginny?”

It was Ginny’s ambition to be an actress.  Or a singer.  Or a dancer.  She had some talent, but she changed her mind constantly.  I didn’t have the heart to tell her that she wasn’t ever going to be as successful as she believed.  But some dreams die slowly.

“No.  I’m a doctor.”

Charlotte hacked out another laugh.  “So you don’t hear the voice when you wake up?”

I shook my head.  Not in response to her pointless question, but over the fact that I had allowed myself to continue this conversation.

“Come closer, sweetie.”

I balked.  “I really can’t treat anyone off the clock.”  That was a lie, but there was no way I was going to conduct any kind of free examination on this barely breathing malady.

“No.  I only want to tell you something.  It’s all right.  Come closer.”

I decided to humor her.  No sense in upsetting a seriously ill looking woman.  Cautiously, I crept closer to her.  “What do you want to tell me?”

Charlotte snuffed out her cigarette on the coffee table.  “My boy wanted to be famous.  Joey was so handsome and such an amazing singer.  Sounded just like that little Canadian twat.”

“I’m sorry.  That’s really heartbreaking.  But I think I need to find Ginny.”

“Joey was an angel.  Until Ernie got a hold of him.”

Before I could ask who Ernie was, Charlotte continued.  “My husband.  Ernie.  He was a real catch.  There wasn’t a drug in this world that he didn’t cram into his body.  But that wasn’t why I hated him.  He did everything he could to make Joey a star.  Everything.”  Charlotte lumbered up from the couch.  Reflexively, I took a step back.

“He prayed to things that no one should pray to.  Unspeakable things.”

Charlotte took a few steps towards me.  I took several steps back.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Really?  You’re friends with Ginny aren’t ya?  Ginny’s dad and uncle were friends with Ernie!  They were all fucking devils!”

Clearly, the woman was very psychologically disturbed.  As I continued to backpedal to the exit, Charlotte said something that caused me to freeze in terror.

“That’s why I had to kill Ernie, don’t you see?  He was turning Joey into a devil too.”

“You need help.  Or be in jail.”

“No, sweetie.  Look at me!  I got what I deserved.  I got off easy.  And it all made sense to the police when they found Joey’s bones in the backyard.  They believed me when I said that Ernie had killed him.”

It was time for me to get the hell out of the house.  As I turned to the door, I saw Ginny standing in the doorway.  She was crying.  How much of this insane woman’s ranting had she heard?

Charlotte had somehow snuck closer to me.  She latched onto my arm as words oozed out of her throat.  “The police saw the teeth marks on Joey’s bones.  They thought Ernie had eaten him.  I made them believe that too, but of course, it wasn’t true.  I had to eat my boy, don’t you see?”

As I struggled to wrestle myself free from the grip of an apparent psycho killer, Ginny burst into the house, her face scrunched up into a knot as if she were ready to explode.

Charlotte looked at Ginny.  “You know what I’m talking about, don’t you Ginny?  You might only be seven fucking years old, but you know exactly what I’m talking about!”

Ginny, the little child that I had become friends with, stepped closer to Charlotte.  Ginny’s eyes were boiling red and flared open.  Her chest heaved quickly and her arms stiffened as if Ginny was a cornered, wild animal about to strike.  Blood started dripping from Ginny’s forehead and down the sides of her face.

Charlotte finally let go of my arm and began to back away from Ginny.  She shouted at the little girl.  “She didn’t eat you, did she?  Your mother should’ve fucking eaten you!”

Ginny flew at Charlotte, jumping onto the woman’s immense stomach and knocking her down to the ground.  Ginny clawed at Charlotte’s face, tearing away thick pieces of bloody flesh.  Charlotte’s screams were stifled by Ginny’s hands, small hands that wielded unbelievable strength, as her fingers wrapped around the old woman’s thick neck and tightened until I could hear the sounds of Charlotte’s cervical vertebrae being crushed.

As calmly as I could, I exited the house and went back inside my car.  As I generously applied Purell to my hands and arms, Ginny joined me.  She was smiling and looked like the playful, innocent little girl that I had hoped would return.  I smiled back at her.  Ginny was no longer the least bit distressed.

Ginny whispered to me.  “Thank you.  I heard everything I needed to.”

As I drove away, I asked Ginny only one question.

“Did your mommy kill you too?”

Ginny just giggled at me.  I giggled back.  At the hospital, I have heard many stories of lost souls who still wander the earth, but none of them were quite like my friend Ginny.

NEXT: I Am the Harbinger of Death