Yadira was a fat girl, which is where her problems started. Losing weight was what ultimately killed her. She was not actually “fat,” nor was she a “girl.” She was a mildly overweight woman in her late twenties, but “fat girl” was how she had come to think of herself. Weight had crept on after college, little by little, and now she found herself in a doctor’s office, wishing to die.
“About how much are you eating, would you say?” her doctor asked, disinterested.
Yadira generally avoided the doctor as she hated answering questions doctors are prone to ask, such as this one. Only now she had a cough that wouldn’t go away. It had come on in late spring, stayed through the brief Cleveland summer, and wanted to stay through fall. Her boyfriend Lewis was worried it was turning into pneumonia and, more importantly, she woke him up in the middle of the night with her hacking. Horrified by the small pile of phlegmy tissues on the floor near her side of the bed, Lewis had talked her into going to the doctor. Now Yadira was hating herself and hating Lewis slightly more.
“How much am I eating… when?” Yadira asked. “I really just came to talk about the cough.”
The doctor waved his hand dismissively. He was a middle aged, heavy-set white man and he sat on a rolling stool with a laptop balanced on his knees. He had a substantial mid-section and the buttons on his plaid shirt strained slightly as he leaned forward. Yadira shifted her weight on the exam table and the paper crinkled loudly.
“First I wanted to talk about your weight,” the doctor said, squinting at his laptop screen. “I’m looking at your chart, and your weight has jumped up 25 pounds since your last visit.”
Yadira shifted uncomfortably, and the paper continued to rustle.
“That was, like, four years ago,” she said.
“Yes,” the doctor said flatly. “Perhaps that’s part of the problem.”
He looked up at Yadira and awaited some kind of contrite response. She only stared at him blankly.
“Hispanic women are predisposed to things like diabetes and hypertension. One of the main problems is diet. For instance, did you know tortillas have as many carbs as-”
“Wait.” Yadira said, sitting up straight. “Excuse me?”
Her eyes had narrowed, and her face was flushed with anger. The doctor held out a hand, gesturing for Yadira to be quiet.
“All I’m saying is you need to keep an eye on your weight. Increased weight is increased health risk. Your BMI is not great and-”
“I… I’m going to leave,” she blurted, and started to reach for her purse.
The doctor hesitated for a moment. He had replaced his glasses and was looking at Yadira with a confused expression.
“I would rather die, bleeding profusely from my asshole, than come in here again and listen to you be condescending.”
The laptop started to slide off the doctor’s lap and he grabbed at it clumsily. Yadira slipped off the table and took a step toward the doctor. She was not usually confrontational, but some type of dam had burst.
“I am trying to educate you about your health. Why come to a doctor if you don’t want to hear about your health?”
“Listen: I just need antibiotics or steroids or whatever. I should have just gone down to the CVS clinic. They don’t judge me because they are practicing medicine out of a closet.”
The doctor sat back. His brow was furrowed and his expression was genuinely confused.
“I don’t understand-”
“Antibiotics, man,” Yadira said tersely, pointing her finger at the closed laptop. “Or steroids. You pick. No more BMI talk, though. Not one more word about BMI.”
The doctor had slowly tapped out a prescription on his laptop and transmitted it to Yadira’s pharmacy in silence. It was the last time Yadira would ever visit a doctor.
That same day, Yadira went to the sporting goods store and spent about half a paycheck on running shorts, running pants, running shoes, running jackets, and several “high impact” sports bras that would probably stop bullets. All the items were black and grey, the most inconspicuous colors. As the clerk swiped her card, Yadira felt a great swell of hope.
Hope was less abundant the next day at 6 a.m. and Yadira had a brutal battle with the snooze button. The new workout clothes felt clingy and tight and Yadira felt nervous. She hoped no one would be out and about to see her running in body-hugging new workout clothes that fit her like a sausage casing. She put in her contact lenses and pulled her hair back in a ponytail. After putting in her headphones, she started blasting terrible, guilty pleasure metalcore songs.
Once she was out the front door, Yadira took a shallow breath and a few tentative steps. The morning was cold and she was relieved to see that no one else was on the street. Yadira started coughing almost immediately but kept running. The houses in her neighborhood were built in the 1900s and they appeared especially timeworn when seen up close. New paint was unable to cover for the sagging porches and crumbling sidewalks.
Yadira had made it up her own street and halfway down the next street over when a fit of coughing finally brought her to a painful stop, doubled over and wheezing. Her breathing had grown even more heavy and her lungs burned, and she stood hunched over with her hands on her knees for over a minute. When her breathing returned to normal, she straightened up, and she saw a house she had never noticed before.
It was rare for Yadira to come up Bellfield Avenue, and rare for her to notice an abandoned house. There were so many abandoned houses in Cleveland they hardly even registered. She took out her headphones and stared up at it. The house sat on a larger lot than most of the houses on the street. The yard sloped upward with the house sitting on the top of a small hill in the center. Large oak trees grew all around the house. The yard was silent, no birds chirped, and the sound of traffic was muffled and distant. A broken and crumbling sidewalk led up to the large, covered front porch.
Yadira looked furtively up the street and then down. She walked slowly up the sidewalk, motivated largely by curiosity and the desire to put off running for a few minutes. The closer Yadira got to the house, the less morning light filtered through the trees. The yard was overgrown, with thick grass surrounding the ruined sidewalk and tangled shoulder-high shrubbery forming a makeshift perimeter around the house. Following the sidewalk, Yadira came to a gap in the shrubbery. After years of neglect it had almost grown closed, but Yadira squeezed through, careful not to snag her new running attire. As she moved closer to the house, it seemed even larger than it had from the street. Three stories tall and built from gray stone, it was unlike the other houses in the neighborhood that were made of brick or wood. The stone was mostly stained black from pollution during city’s industrial heyday. The house had several large windows, all dark and shuttered. The gnarled black trees grew taller than the house and their branches drooped down and touched the broken black shingles of the gabled roof.
Yadira climbed the porch steps and soon was standing on the large porch. The front door made of carved wood was open a crack. Itching to explore inside, Yadira gave the door a slight push. It swung quietly open, and she fired up her cell phone light. She stood in a large foyer. The room was intact, and where the walls should have had graffiti and ragged holes where wiring had been torn out, there was only smooth plaster, blue gray in the light of the phone. Spider webs hung from the carved molding on the vaulted ceiling. Yadira pointed the light up and saw the corroded remains of a chandelier hanging down. There was no furniture, only dark wood floors, bare except for a fuzzy coating of dust. Her footsteps echoed loudly in the cavernous room. In the center of the foyer, a steep wooden staircase with ornately carved wooden handrails led up to the second floor, and on the right side an open doorway led into a dark room. Yadira swung the light over to the left side of the foyer and saw a long, dark hallway that led further into the home. She wanted to see the second floor and started to head for the stairs when a clattering noise came from somewhere down the hallway. Yadira froze. She felt the urge to run for the door and leave, but a burning curiosity was growing inside her that quickly eclipsed her fear.
With increasingly confident steps, she started down the hallway, her phone spilling out bluish light that illuminated a few feet in front of her. Something was almost pulling her, an urge to see the rest of the house. There were several doors throughout the hallway, but Yadira passed them all, picking up speed. She arrived in an empty kitchen, and her light played over a rusted iron wood stove and empty countertops. Several empty cabinets stood hanging open. Like the foyer, the kitchen was in surprisingly good repair. The walls were covered in peeling wallpaper that had a hypnotic pattern of intertwining vines.
Yadira stopped at an old wooden door at the far end of the kitchen, and when she opened it, stairs led down into a pitch-dark basement. Almost without her willing them to, her feet started to move. The moment she started to descend the stairs she felt as though she was stepping into icy water, her entire body rapidly being submerged. She gasped and held onto the wooden railing but could not stop her momentum. In the darkness of the basement a faint shimmer of light appeared, like faint sunlight shining through water. The pale light wavered and rippled around her as Yadira felt frigid water cover her mouth and nose. She felt herself floating in the freezing water, totally submerged. She kicked and tried to hold her breath but eventually her burning lungs filled with the icy water. In the end, Yadira fell still and started to sink.
Yadira started. The voice belonged to her coworker, Nellie, and Yadira felt disoriented. Harsh fluorescent lights blazed overhead, and Yadira’s eyes watered as she looked up at Nellie and tried to focus. Yadira realized she was she was in her cubicle at work, but before she had time to say anything, Nellie started talking again.
“Listen to what I’m trying to tell you,” Nellie was saying. “The address on this release of information is incorrect.”
Yadira absently took the paper and gazeded around.
“You know if we send – where are you lookin’? If we send these records to the wrong address, it’s a HIPAA violation and then it’s your ass, and it’s my ass- what are you lookin’ for?”
“Sorry, I…,” Yadira trailed off. She glanced slowly from the paper back to Nellie, who recoiled slightly.
“Don’t look at me like you have some sort of urinary tract infection because I’ll get you some cranberry juice. Some strong-ass cranberry juice.”
Nellie stalked away, leaving Yadira to glance around the office in wonder. The white noise of tapping keyboards and printers printing enveloped her. She shook her head briskly and looked at her station. 9:42 a.m. She normally came in at 8:00. According to her outbox, she had already processed 30 requests. She couldn’t remember anything but walking into that house, which would mean she had somehow lost three hours.
“You look nice,” Lewis said when she arrived home in the evening. “All that running is paying off.”
“It’s only been a day.” She absently put her keys and phone on a shelf.
“Well, whatever you’re doing, it’s working,” he grinned. He made a move to grab her, but she dodged away and rolled her eyes.
“Do you know that house up on Bellfield? The next street over,” she said, grabbing her tablet from the coffee table and sitting on the couch. “The empty one.”
“There are, like, 20 abandoned houses,” Lewis chuckled, sitting down beside Yadira.
“The one that’s near the top of the hill, with all the trees?”
Lewis frowned. “I don’t think so. Why?”
Yadira handed him the tablet.
“See, there it is on street view. Only you can’t hardly see it from the shadows from the trees.”
Lewis stared at the tablet intently and then quizzically at Yadira.
“What about it?” he asked.
Yadira shrugged and looked across the living room toward the window that faced the street.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I was running this morning and it caught my eye.”
“What do you mean it ‘caught your eye?’”
Yadira shuddered as she thought back to the morning.
“There was something really strange about it.”
Lewis shifted the tablet on his lap and started typing.
“Let’s look up diedinhouse.com and see if anyone died there,” he said, tapping for a few minutes. He handed the tablet over.
“Nobody died there?” Yadira said, dropping the tablet down on the coffee table and standing up.
“That’s good!” said Lewis. “Right? No murder houses in our neighborhood.”
“Something is up with that house,” Yadira said, shrugging her shoulders.
Yadira was wide awake the next morning at 5:45 a.m. She felt refreshed and not groggy like she usually did upon waking. Lewis mumbled something in his sleep as she slid off the bed and started changing into her workout clothes.
Her muscles were a little stiff from the previous day’s run, but she felt stronger and her strides were longer. The antibiotics seemed to be getting rid of her infection and she only coughed a few times. As she ran up Bellfield street, Yadira counted a total of two abandoned houses and two empty lots where condemned houses had been torn down by the city.
When she reached the shadowed house on the hill, it was the third and final abandoned house on the street. She stood trying to remember this same time yesterday, what had happened after she had gone inside, how she had gotten to work. After standing there for several minutes with her memory was blank, she started running again.
Yadira had been running every morning for over three weeks with no further incidents of lost time. When she would run by the shadowy house she always felt cold and a little sick at the sight of it. Once she ran past it, the feeling would leave. She thought about changing up her route, but Bellfield was the easiest way to get to other running trails and other runner-friendly streets. Her first few runs had been just over a mile. These days, Yadira was running three miles or more and adding distance every day.
“You look amazing,” Lewis said one evening. “You should start one of those body-transformation Instagrams that’s, like, just pictures of you in workout clothes and videos of you doing squats.”
Yadira snorted and looked away. “You’re stupid,” she said, half laughing.
It was true. She was getting rapid results from her new exercise routine. Much faster than she would have imagined was possible. She could see in the mirror that she was getting leaner. Her clothes fit loosely and she needed to buy smaller clothes.
Yadira’s appetite had also changed. She had stopped eating breakfast, started working through lunch, and only picked at dinner when she and Lewis ate together. Multiple cups of coffee were no longer part of her morning routine. She told Lewis she just wanted to “eat clean,” but really, her appetite had tapered off steadily since that first day she’d gone running.
Many times before, Yadira had tried to start exercising but always petered out in the first few days. Now she never snoozed her alarm and never missed a day. Every morning she awoke feeling fresh and ready to go, reasoning that better sleep was a benefit of regular exercise.
One morning, Yadira awoke and found dried dark blood under her fingernails. She was standing in the bathroom about to wash her hands when she noticed it. She stared down at herself, then at the backs of her hands and arms, not seeing any blood or scratches anywhere. She walked down the hall, crept into bed and examined Lewis. She pulled the sheets gently down from his head and shoulders. She didn’t see any scratches or cuts anywhere. The idea of waking Lewis and talking to him about it occurred to her, but she decided against it, not knowing how to bring it up. She got dressed and went for her run, hoping to clear her mind.
Native Clevelanders always talked about the “lake effect,” cold air coming off Lake Erie causing cold weather and early snow, and Yadira now dressed in several layers. She finished her run and took a shower. When she walked into their room, Lewis was slowly buttoning his shirt.
“Could you not sleep last night?” he said, putting on his shirt.
Yadira stood in her towel and stared at him intently.
“What do you mean?”
Lewis shrugged and started to thread his belt through his belt loops.
“I just looked over last night and you weren’t there. I figured you couldn’t sleep so you were up reading or something. That’s what you usually do when you can’t sleep.”
Yadira stood still for a minute.
“I don’t… I don’t think so,” she admitted. “I actually have been sleeping great these past few weeks.”
Lewis sat on the edge of their bed, tying his shoes.
“Hmmm,” he said, giving a short laugh. “Maybe I dreamed it.”
Several nights later, Yadira dreamed about strangling a young woman. She was in the city, somewhere near downtown, in an alleyway. Light from a streetlight trickled into the alley. The young woman was only a few years younger than Yadira, and in her dream Yadira sat atop her with her hands around the young woman’s throat. Yadira held her down in the dirty snow of the alleyway while they grappled. The woman’s dark hair was disheveled and covered parts of her face. She begged and tried to scream for help, but Yadira felt bolstered by some alien strength and held tight until her hands and forearms burned. The woman stopped struggling and went limp.
Yadira awoke gasping and grabbed for Lewis, who started violently.
“What?” he bellowed with his eyes still closed. “What… is happening?”
Yadira tried to slow her breathing as she sat up. Lewis stumbled out of bed and switched on the lights. Yadira shrank back with her eyes closed in the sudden glare. She instantly felt silly.
“I had a nightmare,” she said quietly.
“Right… yes.” Lewis said, rubbing his eyes. “You did. You sure did.”
While Lewis flopped angrily back into bed, Yadira lay in the darkness and shivered. Her arms and hands felt sore and tired. That much was not a dream, and for that reason Yadira never fell back asleep.
“You look good, girl!”
The voice made Yadira look up from her computer screen.
It was Nellie, Yadira’s coworker and occasional enemy. Nellie, who never said anything nice or complimented her in any way before this moment. Yadira swiveled her chair to face her.
“You look good,” Nellie said. “Good job on losing all that weight. How did you do it? Was it Zumba?”
Yadira turned away uncomfortably.
“Mostly running,” she said. “I just go for a run every morning the past few months. I try not to miss a day.”
Nellie’s expression turned into annoyance and she leaned against Yadira’s cubicle wall.
“Nothing else? You’re not doing nothing else?”
Yadira blushed and looked back to Nellie and shrugged.
“Diet? I guess. I don’t do fast food anymore,” Yadira lied.
Nellie still seemed unsatisfied and her expression was skeptical.
“I just know you went from chunky to model skinny in like four months. Did you get a trainer or something?”
Yadira put her head in her hands and sighed.
“I wasn’t ‘chunky,’ I was just-”
Nellie laughed and threw up her hands. “I’m just saying you are hot enough to stop doing medical data entry in this basement and get you a rich man who can take you away from all this. You need to start going to these clubs with me where all the doctors hang out.”
Yadira turned her face toward Nellie again, her expression confused.
“I don’t know if you’re trying to be nice or horrible or what, but you’re weirding me out.”
“Let me know if you wanna go sometime.”
“I have a boyfriend.”
“So do I,” Nellie said with a wide smile. “You let me know if you want to go.”
In the ensuing month, Yadira dreamed about murder six more nights. Each dream with a different woman and as vivid as the last. In some of the dreams she picked up the corpse and slung her over her shoulder and carried her away. Each dream seemed to take place in the city and she recognized local landmarks. Once she was behind the House of Blues downtown, another time she chased a woman down outside Mahall’s bowling alley in Lakewood. Each time she awoke tired and sore. She had had blood under her nails and sometimes dirt in her hair. Each time she dreamed she became increasingly worried. She tried to talk to Lewis one night while they sat on the couch.
“I keep having these dreams where I kill someone,” she blurted out.
Lewis started visibly and looked up from his tablet.
“I keep having all these dreams where a young woman is getting strangled to death and I turn out to be the killer.”
“You seem like you’ve been having problems sleeping; you’re not in the bed some nights when I wake up. Maybe you have a sleep disorder. Those dreams are probably normal, right? Stress dreams.”
Yadira stood up and started pacing.
“Yes, but I’ve had that dream eight or nine times in the last two months. And I wake up sore.”
“Sore? Like sore how?” Lewis knitted his brow and started to look uneasy.
“I dream that I strangle someone with my bare hands and when I’m walking around in the daytime my arms and hands and sometimes my shoulders hurt. Sometimes I have blood under my nails.”
Lewis’ face turned from uneasy to skeptical.
“No,” he said with a wry smile creeping onto his face. “Now that’s your imagination.”
Yadira’s eyes narrowed, and her face fell.
“I was worried this would happen,” she said, looking down at the floor. “That you wouldn’t believe me.”
Lewis held up his hands in a conciliatory gesture.
“I’m not saying that, I’m saying maybe there’s an explanation. Like the blood on your nails is part of your dream.”
“No, I wash it off in the sink. I see it go down the drain.”
“Right. I think you should make an appointment with the sleep clinic,” Lewis said in a voice that was making a valiant attempt at not being condescending.
Lewis was having a very good day at work. The gluten-free bakery and coffee shop he worked at was busy enough that he was making a lot of tips, but not so busy that customers were getting mad at the wait. It was either feast or famine in the macaroon and latte game, and Lewis was grateful for the unusually steady pace of the day. He was cleaning the panini press when a voice interrupted his thoughts.
He saw two uniformed police officers and flinched visibly.
“Mr. Murray,” said the shorter of the two officers. “We’re trying to contact Yadira Herrera. We were told you live together?”
Lewis looked at the officers dumbly for a minute, still holding a soapy rag in his hand. The panini press was still open, frozen in mid-clean.
“Uh, yeah. We do,” Lewis murmured, closing the press.
“When was the last time you saw her?”
Lewis peered over at his manager, who was restocking sea salted caramel cookies in the bakery case.
The officers glanced at each other and then back at Lewis.
“Do you know where she is now?”
Lewis seemed confused. He leaned over and dropped his rag into a small container of suds and wiped his hands on his apron.
“She should be at work,” he said. “She’s not at work?”
“We’ve tried her at work and at your home, we can’t find her. It’s important that we talk to her today.”
“Weird. You tried the Clinic? Medical records. In the basement.”
“Yes, her supervisor Sonia said she hadn’t shown up to work today and hadn’t called in.”
Lewis gaped at the officers for a minute and slowly moved over to the crepe griddle.
“That’s weird,” Lewis said, shaking his head. “That’s so weird. She was getting ready — we left around the same time.”
Lewis reached into his pocket for his phone.
“Let me try calling her,” he mumbled.
“We’ve already tried,” the short officer said impatiently. “We got the number from her supervisor.”
He looked up to see his supervisor regarding him quizzically. He faced the officers again, feeling anxious.
“I need to get back to work, and more customers will be coming in here in a minute,” Lewis said.
The short cop’s expression went sour.
“We understand,” he said in a voice that conveyed no understanding. “But we need to impress upon you how serious it is that she gets in touch with us.”
“OK,” said Lewis, feeling his face flush. “Give me a card or something.”
“Ms. Herrera has been linked to the disappearances of several women.”
“What?” Lewis asked, freezing in place.
“Seven women, to be exact. Maybe more,” said the short officer, smiling now that he had Lewis’ attention.
“Has her behavior changed lately?” asked the tall officer. “What does she do in the evenings?”
“No,” Lewis said unsteadily. “She works until 6 and then we usually stay in most evenings.”
“She doesn’t stay out late?”
The short cop snickered to himself.
“Our investigation has turned up CC TV footage of your girlfriend with the victim in four of the seven disappearance cases. In case you are unclear, this is a homicide investigation.”
The supervisor had finished re-stocking the pastries and was slowly making her way down the counter toward Lewis and the officers, trying to act casual.
“So, they’ve found… bodies?” Lewis asked, his voice cracking on the last word. “You think Yadira is serial killer?”
The short cop deflated a bit.
“No, we don’t have any bodies.”
Lewis relaxed a little.
“Doesn’t mean there aren’t any, though,” said the tall cop. “They’re out there, though. And we’ll find ‘em.”
Yadira had left for work like normal but instead of arriving at work found herself at the top of the dark wooden staircase. Standing cold and enveloped in darkness, she knew she was inside the house again, descending into the basement where it had taken hold of her months ago. There was a gentle tug at the back of her mind. Images from her dreams flashed into her mind and she saw the faces of several different women, felt her hands closing around their throats. She remembered the places she had found them and taken them by surprise: passing a construction site near Playhouse Square, walking home to the dorms at Cleveland State, stumbling out of the Grog Shop in the early morning hours. She felt herself holding them under their arms and dragging them to the trunk of her car. The faces sharpened in detail.
Of course they were memories, not dreams. She knew that now, and tears rolled down her cheeks. The thing that filled this house and had inhabited Yadira for the months was waiting in the basement. She remembered it, taking hold that first day, and now it was calling her home.
At the bottom of the stairs, she stepped down onto the basement floor. She took a few steps and her foot kicked something that clattered and echoed. A bone. Yadira knew it was a human bone, knew she was surrounded by bones. The basement floor was littered with them. She shone her phone around and confirmed what she already knew.
“Thank you for your offering. I look with favor upon it.”
The voice was a hiss, a harsh, loud whisper. It reverberated through the basement and Yadira’s head.
“Tell me what the hell is happening.” Yadira said in loud angry voice.
“I came from the lake. I have always lived in the lake and they brought me here for my power. They placed me in the cornerstone. I was poured into the foundation. The entire house is built upon me.”
“That doesn’t mean anything to me,” Yadira said, shining her phone light around. More and more bones. The bones of the women she had brought here for the thing to… digest? Absorb?
“I have accepted your offering and I look upon it with favor,” the voice said again. “The city will be protected for a season.”
“Leave me alone, then,” Yadira yelled to the empty basement, her words echoing back to her. “I don’t want to run by this house anymore or think of it or dream about it or…”
Yadira stood there in the dark basement and hung her head and wept.
“You have devoted yourself to me,” the voice said, “and now you must make of yourself the final offering.”
Yadira dropped her phone. It landed on the hard floor, and the light shone up and illuminated her frightened expression from underneath. She could no longer move. Here at the end she expected to fade out gradually but all at once Yadira could feel nothing at all.
Out on Bellfield Avenue, the day was sunny and bright. The house was quiet, and the trees shrouded it in shadow.
Jesse Barben is a writer and comedian from Albuquerque, New Mexico. His work has appeared in lit.cat. He is an accounting student and has three small children.