“Alone on New Years” by Robert P. Ottone

Julian’s girlfriend left early in the evening on New Year’s Eve. She was working the second of a double shift at the hospital and came home in between to shower and change her scrubs after a particularly bloody situation in the emergency room. Their apartment was a ten-minute walk from the hospital, so it was easy enough to make the quick change happen. Julian made her a quick dinner (grilled cheese, chips, iced coffee for the road) which she loved him for making, and kissed her goodbye before she left.

            “Are you sure there’s no way I could sneak into the hospital for a kiss at midnight?” he asked, half-kidding.

            “I wish, baby, let’s just have a good kiss now, one I’ll be thinking about at midnight,” she said, grabbing him by the lapels and pulling him in for a long kiss. The sweet taste of the coffee was still on her breath, and he wanted more. “Later, sweetie,” she said, ducking out the door and down the long staircase from their apartment to the street below. Julian watched her turn right and start walking toward the hospital. “Watch the steps, babe, they’re icy!”

            Julian was off for Christmas break, his company allowing plenty of time off until the New Year, and he was happy to have it. It would suck spending New Year’s Eve alone, but he didn’t intend to watch the ball drop anyway. More than likely, he’d be deep in a game of Overwatch or playing Alien: Isolation all night before falling asleep with the controller in his hands, as he was wont to do.

            He sat down on the couch, and turned on YouTube, finding a playlist of songs to relax to, and took out his phone. Carol Marie – New iMessage. He slid the notification across the screen and smiled when he saw the message.

            “Happy New Year!” it read, in cartoony font, with a gif of a sleeping dog, laying amid empty champagne bottles. He texted back the same and leaned back on the couch, watching as the three balloon-looking dots indicating that Carol Marie was writing back to him appeared. She was his ex. A relationship started in college that moved out of the dorms of academia and into the real world for only a brief moment in time, until Carol Marie accepted a job on the other side of the country, and the two broke things off. Julian’s girlfriend didn’t know that the two had maintained a texting relationship almost the entirety of their time together, nor did Julian’s girlfriend know that if she were to check the media section of the messaging history, she would find a variety of photos of Julian’s erect penis, Carol Marie’s nude body, and other elicit things.

            Julian had tried breaking off this “sexting” relationship with Carol Marie numerous times, but always found himself wanting more from her. He figured he was possibly a sex addict, or had at the very least some form of addiction, as the thrill of every nude photo of Carol Marie was heady and disorienting, as was every masturbation video they exchanged, and every dick pic he sent her. All of it gave him a spike of excitement he hadn’t felt since the first few times he had sex with his current girlfriend. That pure, animalistic pleasure-reward system of his brain, gaining immediate positive feedback.

            What started as a drunken indiscretion on his part, a dick pic sent during a moment of intense physical desire, blossomed into a near-daily routine where Carol Marie and Julian would talk about their relationship, their lives on opposite coasts, and, inevitably, what they’d be doing to each other if they were in the same room. Their relationship was predictable. Carol Marie was as much of a sexually-forward creature as Julian, and more often than not it was she who would spark their conversations. Like today. Only instead of a video of her hand working frantically between her legs, it was a gif of a sleeping dog. And a message about the new year.

            “Did the gf leave for work?” Carol Marie asked/messaged. Julian had told her that he would be alone on New Year’s because his girlfriend had work, and Carol Marie promised him a variety of new content for him to enjoy that night to keep himself occupied.

            “She did,” he typed, then “What’re you up to?”

            “Deciding what to wear to meet some friends at the bar around the corner,” she typed. “Low-key New Year’s, but I’ve got a few hours to relax a bit before I go.”

            “That’s cool,” he said, taking the Xbox controller out of the drawer next to him and turning the system on.

            His phone buzzed. The first of what Julian hoped would be many photos came through. Carol Marie, holding two dresses up to the mirror, a look of confusion on her pretty face. Carol Marie was pale for a girl who lived on the west coast, with red hair, Julian knew that she wouldn’t tan easily, but still, all these years later, and the girl hadn’t cracked the code on how to get a tan as a displaced northeasterner. She was still as attractive as the day they met, though, and Julian hadn’t forgotten her in in the five years they had been apart. He had dated multiple girls between Carol Marie and his current girlfriend, but in all that time, his attraction to the redhead on the west coast remained.

            “I like the green dress, the red hair, pale skin, you’ll look dynamite,” he typed.

            She responded with another picture of herself, her arms across her chest, looking up at the camera and pouting. He could tell all she had on was a pair of underwear. She typed “If you were here, I wouldn’t need a dumb dress.”

            “Like, ever, or for tonight?” he jokingly wrote back.

            She typed “LOL” then “you know what I mean, dummy.” Here we go, he thought, and started unzipping his jeans.

            “You definitely wouldn’t need to wear anything, in fact, I think most of our clothes would be on the floor of the bedroom if we were together again on New Year’s, just like back in colle–” a sudden notification popped up on his phone and he paused, mid-type.

            He slid open the notification, which came from Snapchat, an app he rarely ever used, and looked at the contents. It was a picture of himself, his hand slipping into his pants, from what looked like moments ago. From the image, it looked as though whoever took the photo was standing in the kitchen of the apartment.

            He put the phone down, tucked himself back in his pants, zipped up, and walked over to the kitchen. He looked at the Snapchat photo, replaying it after it’s three-second “life” expired. From the angle, it almost seemed as though the picture came from under the kitchen table.

            Kneeling down, he checked. Empty. The chairs remained pushed in, and his work bag sat in its usual spot on the chair closest the living room.

The apartment was a nice size, located in the heart of town, but it wasn’t big enough for anyone to sneak in unnoticed. Plus, Julian had doorbell cameras, the kind that sends an alert to your phone if there’s any movement or if someone rings the bell. He looked around the apartment quickly but found nothing.

            The buzz of his phone brought him back to the couch. “Where’d you go?” Carol Marie sent him. He erased what he had been typing and wrote back “Just got the weirdest snap from someone named ‘Rham.’”

            “Can you show me?”

            He checked his Snapchat, but the image was gone. That was the beauty of that dumb app, the photos would vaporize after a few seconds, the contents scattered to the far reaches of whatever server or cloud-based system Snapchat utilized, and the sender, just an account called Rham, a picture of a cartoon angel as their avatar with impossibly pale white flesh and wings, stared back at him.

            He pulled his message with Carol Marie back up and wrote “Nope.” He looked around the apartment again and thought about the picture. He then checked Snapchat and sent a message to Rham.

            Who are you?

            “Be careful, it could be a hacker or some shit,” Carol Marie said, when Julian told her he messaged the mysterious account.

            “A hacker? Really? Who’d hack me? Am I hackable?” he joked, sitting back down on the couch.

            “Hackable, no. Other things-able, possibly,” Carol Marie wrote back, with a winky-face emoji. “Any response?”

            “Not yet,” he wrote back.

            His phone started to vibrate, and it was Carol Marie looking to Facetime with him. He answered it and the two exchanged pleasantries. Julian always felt weird talking into the camera on his phone, as though he was being watched by more than just the person on the other end of the call. Carol Marie was topless, walking around her apartment, and telling Julian about her day, which was remarkably unremarkable. Even in the minimal view of her from the phone, she still looked fantastic.

            Facetiming with Carol Marie always came with greater levels of regret and shame instead of the usual sexting. It was as though by sharing their visual/virtual selves in real time, not separated by the act of recording video or taking pictures, that the cheating was somehow just as real as if they were in the same room. Of course, in reality, it was the same no matter what, but Julian didn’t see it that way, he saw exchanging photos and videos as a lesser, somehow more forgivable crime in the eyes of relationship law. Facetime removed the wall between the two of them, and even though Julian loved watching Carol Marie orgasm in real time, and she enjoyed the same with him, afterward, there was always a crushing level of guilt for Julian that lasted for hours, sometimes days. But he never refused her Facetime requests.

Unless he was with his girlfriend.

            He often wondered why he wasn’t satisfied with his current situation. His girlfriend was attractive, dark hair, Greek, the polar opposite of Carol Marie. She was beautiful, her looks striking and different than Carol Marie in every way, but the two were both lovely, just in the way a Lichtenstein is beautiful yet so is a Warhol.

            Julian usually just rationalized that he was a shitty person, and that the allure of the flesh was too much for him to ignore. He never physically cheated on his girlfriend, but in the moments she wasn’t around, he found pleasure in Carol Marie’s body, her curves, her pale flesh. Julian often found himself fantasizing about Carol Marie while at work, and forgetting the fact that he had his girlfriend waiting for him at home each day.

            Another alert from Snapchat. “Hang on, Carol Marie, I just got another message,” he said, minimizing Facetime. He could still hear her, and she could hear him, like a normal phone call.

            “I hope it’s not another picture, that’d be fucked up. Maybe it was one of those annoying year-end review things Snapchat does. Did you ever send me a snap?”

            “I don’t think so,” he said, opening Snapchat.

He opened the message and there was text. No one you know.

            How did you get that picture of me? he typed back. He waited.

            “They said ‘no one I know,’ not cryptic or anything.”

            “Holy shit, that’s fucked. Do you think it’s your girlfriend? Do you think she knows?” Carol Marie asked, her voice a little unnerved. “I don’t want this to like, fuck up your situation or whatever.”

            “I don’t know, I don’t think she knows. She’s usually pretty upfront about things, I’m sure she’d have confronted me about it by now if she knew,” Julian said. Still nothing from Rham.

            “What kind of name is ‘Rham’ anyway?” Carol Marie asked. She was laying on her bed, the location of so many photos, videos and Facetime calls.

            “No idea,” he said, watching Carol Marie on his screen.

            “Sounds Indian or something. Do Indian people hack phones? Isn’t that a Russian thing? Who makes hackers again?”

            “I think China and Russia, but I don’t know,” he said, smiling.

            “This is like that dumb show on Netflix, the one that begs the question ‘what if technology was bad,’” she said, cracking up. Julian loved her laugh. He loved just about everything about Carol Marie. Their time together was pretty spotless, with only one fight between the two of them having occurred. Over the Yankees, no less. Something totally insignificant to the two of them in the scope of their relationship, and yet, there you go.

            “So, what should we do while we wait for my Snapchat stalker to message me back?” Julian asked, playfully.

            Carol Marie smiled.

            About a half hour later, Julian laid on the couch, nude and exhausted. Carol Marie reclined on her bed, also nude, and sweaty. Two toys, a vibrator and lifelike dildo rested next to her on the bed. Julian knew a shower was in order, for both of them. He imagined that if they were in the same space, they’d be showering together, too.

            “I wish you were here so we could hop in the shower together right now,” she said, seemingly reading his mind. “Fuck, that felt good. I needed that.”

            “Same,” he said. He checked his notifications. Nothing in the time they had been having fun.

            “Nothing from the stalker?”

            He shook his head. “Nope. Guess they missed out on the show.”

            She smiled and winked. “I wish I could take the phone into the shower so you could watch, but I’m going to hang up now. I’ll text you later?”

            “I’d be disappointed if you didn’t,” he said. She blew him a kiss, a wink, then hung up. He put his phone on the charger and headed toward the bathroom.

            Julian ran the shower, and slipped in. He heard his phone go off while he lathered his body and hair, washing the smell of self-love off. His mind drifted to his girlfriend and the familiar guilt associated with Facetiming washed over him. He would text her once out of the shower, see how her night was going. He’d put off texting Carol Marie for a few days, as was his usual move. But always, he knew, he’d be back, desperate for more glimpses of her.

            Once out of the shower, he checked his phone, which was still plugged into the wall. He had strung the cable underneath the television, so he could put the phone on the TV stand in the living room, and, wrapped in a towel, was shocked when he opened the new message from Rham.

            On the screen, he watched himself Facetime with Carol Marie, his own moans mixed with the tinny sounds of her enjoying herself on the other side of the country. The video was short, only about eight seconds, but in those eight seconds, seemingly recorded from the same spot as before, which he turned around and looked toward, a panic hit him unlike anything he ever felt. Another video sent. Then another. Eight second intervals of his Facetime session with Carol Marie, his hand working himself furiously while she orgasmed repeatedly, the two of them engaged in a variety of vulgar sexual talk that if his girlfriend heard, he knew that alone would be the end of them. When he heard himself start talking about licking Carol Marie’s asshole, he minimized the video and let it run out, messaging Rham with what do you want?

            A moment went by. What do you think I want?

            To ruin my relationship? To blackmail me? Scare me?

            All of the above, and more, Julian.

            “Fuck you,” he shouted at the phone, placing it down hard on the television stand.

            Another message from Rham. He checked it: No, fuck you, Julian. Followed by another photo, this time of himself, standing, back to the person taking the photo, looking at his phone. The picture was taken seconds ago, as Julian was still in his towel and fresh out of the shower.

            “Holy shit,” he said aloud. He started checking the apartment. How could Rham have heard him? Was the place bugged? What does a bug even look like? A tiny microphone? Wasn’t that what they looked like in the movies? Had his girlfriend bugged the apartment and been messing with him this entire time? Was she even really at work? Was this all an elaborate trick to catch him cheating?

            He texted his girlfriend after turning every lamp, fixture and more upside down in the apartment and coming up empty. He asked her how work was, and she wrote back that it was slow, but they were expecting action soon, since there was a boating accident nearby on Serling Lake and a bunch of kids had been injured. She asked if he saw that on the news and he told her he hadn’t, and she teased him for not paying attention to the world around him.

            He texted I love you, I’ll see you later, gonna’ play some videogames and put the phone down. It buzzed, and he expected to have a sweet text from his girlfriend, but instead, another message from Rham.

            Opening Snapchat, he checked it. Do you love her?

            “Yes,” Julian said. He didn’t bother typing it. Rham could hear him somehow.

            That’s good, the words appeared on-screen. But you also love Carol Marie. How is that possible?

            “A person can love more than one person in their life, right? Don’t you guys have that over there in India, or whatever?”

            What makes you think I’m in India? What makes you think I’m anywhere other than in your apartment with you right now?

            “Because I’m sitting here alone, and I don’t see anything. I’ve looked everywhere. There’s no one here,” Julian said, his frustration rising.

            Does it make you sad knowing that Carol Marie loves you possibly even more than you love her? That she’s had numerous dates out in California and none of them work out because of you?

            Julian sat back on the couch and read that message repeatedly. “Okay,” he started. “I got it.”

            He closed Snapchat and called Carol Marie via Facetime. No answer. He messaged her and at first five, then ten minutes went by. Nothing. He called her. Same response. A Snapchat message from Rham appeared.

            Relax, stalker, maybe she’s busy?

            “Fuck you,” Julian said. “How can you hear me?”

            I hear everything.

            His phone buzzed, and he saw that it was Carol Marie trying to Facetime him. He answered and couldn’t make anything out at all. The screen was black. “Carol Marie? Babe?”

            He heard what sounded like gurgling, and slowly, the screen shifted. In the blackness, he could make out some kind of shape. At first, he couldn’t tell what it was, and it then rationalized that it was a pile of clothes on the floor of Carol Marie’s bedroom. But when he saw it move, he knew that’s not what it was.

Slowly, the image moved closer, as though someone was carrying the phone along the floor toward whatever it was. The phone’s light flicked on and Carol Marie lay on the floor, her once-beautiful, pale face slashed open by something large. She gurgled on her own blood, her body spasming in the darkness. The red of her blood was stark and bright against her flesh, and the deep wound stretched from the upper righthand corner of her forehead down to the left side of her chin. Ribbons of flesh stuck out of the wound, and Julian thought he could see the bone of her skull.

            Recoiling from the image, Julian vomited and braced himself against the kitchen counter. “Jesus Christ,” he shouted to no one in particular. He glanced at his phone. Carol Marie had stopped moving, but blood still oozed from her face wound. He hit the red button on the screen to disconnect the call and placed his phone on the counter and started crying.

            Did you not like seeing the raw flesh inside her?

            Julian looked at the message on the phone. Another appeared: You always talked about how you loved going raw with her. Isn’t this what you meant?

            Julian screamed and shook with horror at what he had just seen. He cleaned up the counter quickly, got dressed and decided to leave the apartment, intent on heading to the hospital to confront his girlfriend. She had a temper, and even though he couldn’t imagine her being guilty for the evening’s events, he still felt he needed to get in front of it and hope for the best.

            You blame your girlfriend for your indiscretions? Interesting.

            “Fuck you,” Julian said, slipping on a pair of sweats and a hoodie.

            You say that a lot. You said it to Carol Marie, but in a different way. Do you mean it the same way with me or do you mean it the other, more vulgar way?

            “Why are you doing this?”

            Another photo. This one from Julian and Carol Marie’s past, when they were still together. In college. They’re snuggling on the old couch in Carol Marie’s dorm, where they had sex so many times, where they studied and laughed together and watched movies and fell in love.

            You gave your heart to her. You gave up on that love. The love she desperately needed and you tried to bury. Do you think that is right?

            “Please, I don’t know what you want, what can I do to make you go away and leave me alone?”

            I can’t go away until my job is finished. You have kept Carol Marie at arm’s length. Sabotaging her relationships with other men. Planting seeds of doubt to make her question sources of love and attention that don’t come from you.

            “I never did any of that!” he shouted.

            Didn’t you?

            He looked out the window, at the rooftops of buildings nearby. Someone who could see him, maybe? Someone watching, distant, able to see inside the apartment. Impossible. Anxiety washed over him in warm waves, his chest tightening, warm and striking.

            “Then finish the fucking job, tell my girlfriend, please, just let this be over with,” Julian said, frustrated, heading out the door.

            Let it be.

            Opening the door, Julian stared at his phone and began texting his girlfriend while his left foot connected with the top step leading from their apartment down to the street below.

As he brought his right foot down, he was halfway through writing a text reading Babe, I’m on my way, I gotta’ talk — when he felt a sudden shift in his weight, and, reaching for the railing, couldn’t find it.

He tumbled, head-first, down to the street below. People nearby gathered to check his body, his head had twisted in a way that no human head should ever twist from the repeated impact of his skull on the steps, and eventually, the cold winter concrete.

Robert P. Ottone is an author, teacher, and cigar enthusiast from East Islip, NY. He delights in the creepy. He can be found online at SpookyHousePress.com, or on Instagram (@RobertOttone). His collections Her Infernal Name & Other Nightmares and People: A Horror Anthology about Love, Loss, Life & Things That Go Bump in the Night are available now wherever books are sold.

Robert P. Ottone, author.