Her little girl laughed and giggled. Jessamine smiled into the rack of clothes she was sorting through. “What’s so funny, Suzie?”
Suzie just laughed again, an almost shriek.
Jessamine turned and the grin slipped off her face. Every drop of blood in her body dripped down into her toes. Goosebumps sprouted on her neck and arms. Her lips opened and closed, soundless, like a fish.
The man’s smirk stretched wider as he continued to tickle her daughter.
“Mommy!” Suzie gasped for air. “It’s the.” Laugh. “Tickle.” Laugh. “Monster.”
“Suzie, come here right this second.” Her voice was much too high-pitched, octaves above Suzie’s giggles.
The man leaned down and whispered in Suzie’s ear. She nodded and said, “I will.” Then she ran back to her mother who snatched her up instantly.
In those brief seconds, the “tickle monster” disappeared.
“I want down,” Suzie said, wiggling in her arms.
“Not in here, okay?” Jessamine hiked Suzie higher on her hip and glanced warily around the mall’s security office.
The ceiling fan rustled the papers on the empty front desk. A pair of stiff, plastic chairs stood in the corner behind her. She couldn’t stand to sit. Nothing else adorned the room but a large clock hanging on the wall to her right. And a door behind the desk. Closed.
Reaching forward, she hit the bell on the counter again. Ding. Two whole minutes passed, Jessamine watching each second tick by, before finally, finally a man dressed in a uniform emerged from the back. His nametag announced him as Officer Madison.
“Can I help you, ma’am?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said. “My name is Jessamine Thomas. I’d like to report an incident.” Jessamine glanced at Suzie whose head rested on her shoulder. “A rather strange incident.”
The security officer slid behind his desk and began to rustle through his drawers. “What kind of an incident?”
Jessamine shifted from one foot to the other. Ten more seconds passed. She licked her lips. “A man. In the clothing store by the south entrance. He. He…um… Well, he tickled my daughter.”
The man froze, his newly found pen clicked open, form lying on the desk. His eyes flickered to Suzie. “Tickled did you say?”
Jessamine nodded, placing her hand on Suzie’s head. The girl sucked on her thumb, her eyelids hanging low.
“This is the eighth report we’ve received in two weeks,” Madison said. “Always the same. Same store. Same time. Same story. A man sneaks up, tickles the kid, then walks off. Never a word. To the parents at least. Kids won’t talk, but it’s not ‘cause they’re scared. No. Usually, they’re smiling from ear to ear.” He pointed his chin, the corner of his mouth twitching. “Though this one here seems to prefer sleeping.”
Suzie’s thumb had snuck into her mouth.
“Don’t you have cameras? Tapes? Can’t you check those?” Jessamine asked.
“I could, but I won’t find anything. The tape always skips right over the attack.”
“Could you check anyway?”
He shrugged. “Sure, I suppose. If it’ll make you feel better. Right this way.”
Rising, he turned and opened the back door, holding it for her. She stepped into a computer-lined cocoon and stopped. Mostly because she couldn’t go any further. It was hard to tell if the room was small, or if there was just that much equipment packed inside it.
Madison squeezed past and plopped down in a swivel chair. He turned and rolled two inches to sit in front of one of the computers, running over Jessamine’s toe in the process. She winced but didn’t move. She needed to see this.
The screen flashed various scenes of people shopping. Madison tapped a command on the keyboard, squinting into the computer’s backlight. The image changed once more. Madison pressed another button and it started to rewind, all the people moving backward rapidly as if they’d been hooked by invisible fishing lines and were being reeled in. Jessamine lifted Suzie higher on her hip, glancing at the other monitors.
“Here we are,” Madison said.
She watched herself on screen, flipping shirts back and forth, the hangers clicking against each other. Click. Click. Suzie played behind her. Some game where she jumped, crouched, looked around, jumped, crouched, looked around.
Then, without any movement, everyone stood in a different spot, a different position. The time stamp jumped from 11:41 to 11:48. Jessamine held Suzie closer as the miniature, virtual her did the same. The real life Suzie mumbled something in her sleep and smacked her lips, her eyelids fluttering.
Madison set the computer back to its normal rotation and pushed back from the desk, stubbing her toe. She took a step back as he stood.
The silence was somehow more disturbing with the images of the moving people all around them.
Then Madison puffed up his cheeks. The air almost hissed as it left his mouth in one long stream. “There you have it.”
Jessamine stood, unmoving. Her eyes fastened onto the nearest timestamp. She watched it click from 1:23 to 1:24. Her pulse hummed in her ear. “Yes. Thank you for your time.”
“Sorry I couldn’t be of more help,” Madison said as she turned.
She looked back at him over her shoulder.
“We really are working on it.” He reached into his pocket and extracted a business card. Holding it out with two fingers he said, “Here. If you think of anything else, give a call.”
Jessamine took the card and left, Suzie’s slow breathes blowing against her neck.
The moonlight sliced through the firmly shut window, through the closed as unusual curtains to brush over Suzie’s little body, curled tight under her blanket. Her mouth hung open. Her cheek squished flat against the pillow.
Jessamine pushed the hair back from Suzie’s face for the sixth time in an hour. And for the sixth time in an hour, it fell back over her forehead. Jessamine sighed and sat back.
The rocking chair creaked, but it was soft and homely, as soothing as rain. Her hands curled over the end of the armrests, her fingers running over the indented lines where the wood curled back on itself. Creak. Creak. Sleep pulled on her eyelids.
She continued to watch Suzie. Creak. Creak. She couldn’t sleep. Creak. Creak. Not today. Maybe not ever. Creak. Creak. A cloud must have passed over the moon because suddenly it turned very dark. But she couldn’t sleep.
Jessamine jerked awake, the pounding of her heart and the huffing of her breath mixing to form a screamo song in the silence. Her eyes felt too big for her face as she scanned the room. The moon hung low in the sky; she could just see its soft hue through the curtains. Suzie hadn’t moved.
The timestamp rose out of the darkness like it had in her dream. 11:41 to 11:48. And then she remembered Madison’s words. “Always the same. Same store. Same time.”
She shot straight up, sending the chair rocking madly back and forth. Creak. Creak. Creeeeak.
Checking all of her pockets, she found nothing and rushed from the room. Her purse sat on the coffee table in the living room. She almost fell over the couch to get to it. Snatching it up, she riffled through it for her billfold. Inside was the business card Madison had given her. She threw everything else on the couch and ran back to Suzie’s room where she’d plugged in her cell phone.
Squinting at the card, she carefully punched in each number then hit the call button. It rang. And rang. And rang. Jessamine squeezed her eyes shut and prayed he would wake up.
“’Ello?” His voice was deeper than usual, gruffer, almost like he’d hit a second puberty. “Who is this?”
“Officer Madison.” There was too much air in her throat. It made it hard for the words to get out. “What time do you take your lunch break?”
“Ms. Thomas, is that you?” The tiredness was leaving his voice.
“Yes, yes. Now tell me, what time is your lunch break?”
“Ms. Thomas, it’s not even light out. Can’t this wait until—”
“No,” she cut him off. “It cannot.”
He sighed. “Guess the sooner I answer your question, the sooner I get to go back to bed. My lunch break is from noon to one.”
“And who takes your place then?”
“Youngish fellow. He’s only part time. Name’s something like Bradyn or Bradford.”
“What does he look like?” The words were coming out a little too easily now. Her mouth had turned into a desert.
“Real short hair. Looks to be brown. Kind of a chucky fellow. Got a round face. Friendly.”
The memory of the man tickling her daughter rose to the top of her mind. She stared at Suzie, trying to push the image away. The silence stretched.
Madison broke it. “Look, Ms. Thomas, I don’t know why this is important. But I’ll say it again, Bradyn or Bradford or whatever his name is only comes in during my lunch break to watch the cameras.” He stopped. Jessamine heard his lips smack together. Heard them pull apart with a squelch. “The cameras…”
“Yeah,” Jessamine whispered, “the cameras.”
“Well, you can be assured, Ms. Thomas, that I’ll go in to the office right now, right now, to get his address. And then, and then.” He didn’t finish his sentence. The sound of jingling car keys came through the line.
“No, no,” Jessamine nearly shouted. She glanced at Suzie and lowered her voice. “You can’t do that. We have no proof.”
Static buzzed in her ear for a few seconds then, “He has to confess.”
“That and identified by a witness.” And she explained her plan.
“Sounds simple enough. I’ll see you at noon, Ms. Thomas. In the meantime, try to get some sleep.”
“You too,” she said before hanging up.
She sat back down in the rocking chair. The glowing numbers on her phone’s clock informed her it was 5:13. She leaned forward and brushed the hair off Suzie’s face.
Jessamine watched the security office from a bench as the hour hand on her watch moved closer to twelve. At thirty-seven seconds past 11:54, a man strolled up to the door, opened it, and went inside. Earlier, Madison had called and told her his name was Bryan Scott.
While she waited for Madison to come out, Jessamine reached over and squeezed Suzie’s hand. Suzie looked up and grinned; ice cream smeared across her lips and teeth. Jessamine grinned back. “Are you almost done?”
Suzie glanced at the cone she held in her hand, small waterfalls of chocolate streaming down the sides, then she held it out. Jessamine gently grasped it with two fingers and threw it into the trash can sitting next to her. She wiped her hand on her pants just as Madison left the office, closing the door behind him.
“That’s the policeman from yesterday,” Suzie said.
“Yes, it is. Why don’t we go talk to him?” Jessamine stood and held out her hand.
Suzie wrapped her sticky fingers around it and jumped beside her, her feet landing in the lines of a tile each time with a slap. Slap. Slap. Slap.
Madison smiled at her as they approached him. “How are you today, Miss Suzie?”
“Fine,” she said, swinging her conjoined hand. She looked away and then looked back. “You’re a policeman.”
“Yes, I am.” He squatted down to her level and whispered, “Do you want to help me catch a bad guy?”
Suzie’s eyes expanded. “Really?”
Madison nodded. “Oh, yes. And all you have to do is come into my office and tell me if you see the tickle monster. Can you do that?”
“Great.” Madison stood and placed his hand on the office doorknob. “Then let’s do it.”
“Let’s do it!” Suzie repeated. She continued to hop as she followed Jessamine through the door. Slap. Slap.
The front office was empty. Madison met Jessamine’s eyes and pointed to the back door. She nodded and swooped Suzie up into her arms, setting her in one of the plastic chairs. “I need you to stay here while Officer Madison and I go into the other room. Then you can help him catch the bad guy.”
“Okay, Mommy,” Suzie said and started drumming on the other chair. Bang. Thud. Bang. Thud.
“Are you ready?” Madison whispered.
Jessamine glanced over her shoulder once before saying, “Yes.”
Madison opened the door.
Bryan turned at the noise, completely exposing his face. He stared at her, blinked three times, then glanced at Madison. “Something I can help you with, Chief?”
“Is it him?” Madison asked her.
“Yes.” Jessamine took a deep breath. “Yes, it’s him.”
“What’s she talking about?” But Bryan’s cheeks had lost their color.
“I’m going to ask you one question, Bryan, before I put you into custody while we wait for the police to arrive.” Madison sighed and mumbled something under his breath that sounded suspiciously like, “And I’m going to sound ridiculous doing it,” before he said, “Are you the tickle monster?”
Bryan’s face was as pale as a bone, but his voice remained even. “The tickle monster? You mean that guy you’ve been looking for for the past few weeks? No, of course not. How could I be?” He held up his hands.
They were a gruesome sight, covered in scabs and scars. Jessamine wondered if they could still be classified as hands. The only fingers that remained were the right thumb and index finger. The rest of them had been cut off at slightly varying lengths below the first knuckle like some sick miniature skyline.
“Trust me, I would love to have the ability to tickle. But I don’t. If you could give me my fingers back, I would gladly take blame for whatever you wanted.”
Jessamine was at a loss for words. It appeared that Madison was too. The silence stretched. Minutes passed on the timestamps.
At first, the noise didn’t register in her mind.
Slap. Slap. Slap. Slap.
And then it did, but it was already too late. Suzie had slipped around her and stood in front of Bryan, butchered fingers and all. She smiled as she reached into the little pocket of her overalls and pulled out a small purple box.
Jessamine felt frozen in time, the front clock ticking way too loud, as she watched Suzie open the box. Inside, stuffed into a little pouch as if it had been tucked into bed, was a human finger.
“I kept it until you wanted it, just like I promised,” Suzie said sweetly.