It had been 128 since he'd stopped counting days. He'd taken down the calendar and shoved it in a drawer. Why think about her? It wouldn't help any of them.
Freddie Benson was twenty-five, and if you knew where to look, you could see in his eyes that he was not the boy he'd been. He was made of tougher stuff, now, stronger, almost wise. An old soul already. If you looked harder, you could probably see the hurt and emptiness fighting for his heart, too. But nobody looked that hard.
He'd finished college in three years and moved on with his life. This TV station job had been offered to him immediately, so he took it. There was no real passion in his shots now, just cool technicality. Cynicism pervaded his work. Pretty much right away, he'd become a traveling videographer, covering all of the tough, dangerous stories. It was the only thing he really loved, although he never let it show. He hurt too much to open himself to all of that again.
Technically, Freddie still lived in Seattle, but it wasn't home. Home was in the field, camera in hand, shooting dispassionately scenes of violence and horror. Seattle was just a place to store his stuff. So when he'd gotten the call that morning to pack up and head for the Big Apple, he wasn't put off at all. He was getting cabin fever; it'd been three whole days.
They usually sent him overseas, but apparently there was a big hullabaloo in NYC. Some serial killer or something, and everybody else was covering the war in China. "It's a pretty nasty story," his supervisor had said. "You okay with it?"
Like he hadn't seen worse. Sure, he'd only been there a couple of years, but he'd become known in the business for the brutal scenes he captured. He was even thinking about moving into the movie business and doing a documentary. "Yeah. That's fine."
"You're the best, Benson. Oh, and you'll be working with Sheila."
He hated Sheila. "Great," Freddie had replied, not bothering to sound enthusiastic.
He kept a suitcase ready, filled with clothes of every type. Jeans were still his favorite. Reliable. He didn't have to think about them. Most things he didn't like to think about. Like dating. His mother, controlling as ever, demanded during every weekly phone call why he hadn't met a nice girl yet. It was almost funny how, back in high school, she hadn't wanted him dating at all. And now she was practically losing her mind over his celibate state.
Fact was, he just didn't want to get involved with anybody. He wasn't really into the whole touchy-feely thing anymore. It had been nice while it lasted, but now he recognized care for what it was, just another way to get hurt. He knew lots of ways to get hurt; he'd made a career of it.
Freddie would take nails through his feet over love any day.
He'd had friends closer than family. Spencer, Sam, Gibby...Carly. Each of them had moved on with their lives after...well, after Carly.
See, at first, it was fine. She had decided to go to school on the east coast; they all stayed in the west. There were video calls and long visits and care packages. All good stuff. Then, in the middle of sophomore year, it all stopped.
It was a gradual thing. First, she stopped calling. When Freddie would call her, she would explain, in a distracted sort of way, that she was just so busy, and she was sorry but it would be fine after midterms. After finals. After summer. She was going to Italy, you know, to study abroad. (He'd hacked into the university website, but he never told her that he knew she was lying).
At first, he thought it was just him. They'd had a little romance going on, nothing too serious, so maybe she'd met someone new. That hurt. Then he found out she was treating everybody like this, even Spencer, and that was worse. By the end of sophomore year, she had deleted all of her accounts. The letters he sent to her apartment were all returned to sender. Carly was gone.
They all dealt in different ways. Spencer pretended that it was only temporary, even though they knew that was a lie. Gibby moved to Canada, something he'd apparently always wanted to do. Sam went to LA, to pursue her budding acting career. And good old Freddie Benson, the dogged nice guy, couldn't stay in one place and covered things that were often too bloody to show on network TV.
Life was funny that way.
Staying in Seattle, he did see Spencer on occasion. Spencer Shay was married now, to some dazzling woman named Anise. They seemed very happy, but they still lived at Bushwell Plaza. The upstairs bedroom remained exactly as she'd left it. Spencer was like that. Couldn't deal with the fact that she was gone, really gone, had cut them all out of her life like anesthetic surgery.
So maybe he was a little bitter. Screw it. Why shouldn't he be? They'd all broken apart, all lost themselves because of her selfishness. Freddie knew he wasn't what he should be anymore, but he couldn't bring himself to care.
After all, she didn't.
He always had to have a window seat when he flew. Helped him to pretend that he was someone else. He sat next to some middle-aged woman who smelled like smoke. Great. He was going to get lung cancer before he even reached New York. Freddie sighed and looked back at his novel. He'd taken reading back up; detective stories, mostly. This copy was weathered and missing its dustjacket, but he had bought it secondhand, after all. Unable to concentrate on the words, he ran his fingers along the pages until he got a paper cut.
"Brilliant, Benson," he muttered to himself, and stuck his finger in his mouth. The woman looked at him and huffed.
Sheila met him in the lobby. Freddie was staying on the eighth floor of the hotel. He glared at the number on his way up in the elevator. "So, did you have a good flight?" Sheila asked. Her dark eyes were shining.
He knew that she was just trying to be nice, but he wasn't really into that anymore. He shrugged. "You?" he replied, because his mother had pounded courtesy into him. Sheila smiled and nodded.
Freddie hated to look at her, because although her skin was dark and she was taller than him with heels on, when her chocolate eyes caught the light, he saw Carly.
He looked at the floor.
"I'll get that for you," he said gruffly, taking her suitcase along with his. He didn't wait to see her expression. He didn't want to see her smile.
The hotel room was okay. The bed seemed comfortable enough, so he settled onto it and tried to watch TV. Of course he couldn't concentrate. Of course. Sighing, he turned his face to the pillow. And woke up an hour later. "Jet lag. You'd think I'd be used to it by now." He stumbled to the bathroom and splashed water on his face. His hair was always messy now—absently, he thought of how upset his mother would be if she saw it. His eyes were red. Vaguely, he wondered if he'd cried in his sleep.
Freddie went down to the diner in the hotel. The girl at the counter laughed at him. If he'd been filming her, he would have used cool tones. She was hollow. Or maybe he was just projecting. "You look really sleepy."
"I am." His voice was deeper than he remembered it. He ate the seventh thing on the menu and went to bed.
At about three, Freddie looked out the window. It was a dark, starless night, but lights were on, just enough for him to see a slight figure (a woman?) shrinking against the brick wall yards below. A larger figure seemed to menace her. She screamed, and the chill raced down his body. Hands shaking, he forced the window open. "Get away from her!" he shouted. "Get..."
Instinctively, he raised a hand to his throat. No voice. He blinked and looked back out the window. The woman and the monster were both gone. He laughed. It wasn't funny, he knew that. The...the whatever-it-was had probably killed her and dragged her body away. He couldn't stop laughing, though. A strange laugh. High-pitched, like a child's. His lungs burned.
He snapped up and glanced at the clock. 5:02. He looked out the window. The city, of course. No brick walls, no women screaming. Freddie tried to steady his breathing. A nightmare? It had to have been years since he'd had a nightmare.
After half an hour, he gave up on the idea of going back to sleep and looked at the little laminated sheet. Breakfast wouldn't be served until six. Turning on the TV, he was greeted with the theme from Psycho. Averting his eyes, he switched the channel quickly. The last thing he needed was a horror movie. Somehow, everything scared him more in black and white.
Had there been colors in his nightmare?
He watched a rerun of Friends before going downstairs. Freddie gulped down his coffee with great gusto.
Before he twisted around, he knew it was Sheila. "Hey," he said, trying to give her a winning grin. By the look on her face, he could guess he just looked pained.
"You okay?" Her hair was down today. It hung down her back in a single, dark sheet. Blinking rapidly, he forced his eyes to hers.
"Yeah. Didn't sleep well."
"Nightmare?" she asked sympathetically, dropping into the seat across from him.
Freddie nodded. She took his cup carefully, keeping her fingers from brushing his. "I'll get you some more crappy hotel coffee."
His eyes watered. He realized that he'd been staring out the window, and quickly blinked. Sheila deposited the cup on the table, and he drank it eagerly. Even with the hot coffee running down his throat, he felt terribly cold.
"You ready to go?" she said presently, obviously itching to leave.
Freddie looked out the window. It was a pretty day. "Let me grab a jacket."
They shot the story quickly. The bodies were gruesome, he had to admit. Maybe he hadn't seen worse. The first of the three bodies had welts all over his chest, and chunks of flesh were missing, mostly along his arms. His expression was contorted—it had not been a peaceful death. The second was similar, missing an ear and covered in marks.
"There was blood all over," a voice behind him said quietly. Freddie jumped. It was the coroner; Sheila interviewed him for part of the story. "Never seen anything quite like it."
He nodded in reply. "Can I see her?" The final body was still covered by a sheet. Only the head peeked out, revealing a young woman. The coroner hesitated, then nodded.
"I wouldn't film it, if I were you."
"We have enough footage." For once, he didn't thrill at the thought of editing the story together. Freddie followed the man over to the woman's body. Slowly, the coroner pulled back the sheet.
Her neck was completely mangled. Nearly all the flesh was gone, leaving exposed the ripped veins in what used to be her throat. Only the bones were still intact. Her face was pale with death, but she seemed to be at peace. The coroner replaced the cover.
"Is it cold in here?" Freddie asked, pulling at his sleeves.
The other man laughed.
Sheila strode over to him. "Hey, are we good?"
"Yeah. We're good." The image of the dead woman floated in the air. He shuddered.
"I'm starving. You want anything?" she asked, tilting her head to the side.
Freddie shook his head. "No. I'm going to go for a walk."
She laughed. "In this neighborhood?"
He looked at her. "I'll be fine."
It was clouding over, now. He still felt cold. He hugged his arms to himself as he walked. Maybe it'd rain. At least that would justify his gloomy mood. On a whim, he turned at a shady alley. They were going to be covering this for a few days, anyway—it was a pretty big story. People are morbid, he thought. There was a cluster of people on the sidewalk. He moved to avoid them, and ended up crashing into a woman who had been running the other way.
"Sorry," he mumbled.
"I'm sorry," she said at the same time. Freddie's heart jolted. Something about her voice was so familiar. The high pitch, the sweet quality...it was a little bit more rough, but...
He grabbed her shoulders as she walked past. As if she was ashamed, she looked down. Her hair fell in her face. It didn't matter. He could recognize her anywhere.
End Notes: I have no idea how long this will be. It's sort of writing itself. Please don't overanalyze locations, etc. in this story. They're pretty much intentionally vague. I want this story to resemble a movie; thus the rapid cuts, occasionally sparse description, changes of focus, and so on. Please let me know if I am at least marginally successful.