The Sin Eater
by Katherine Tomlinson

Laurie was just eight years old the first time a stranger blurted out a secret to her. She was with her mother at the grocery store, buying stuff for a picnic. It was summer and her mom was happy. She was chatting with the check-out girl, not really paying attention to Laurie, or to the woman who was next in line behind her daughter.

She was an attractive woman, thin to the point of looking starved, and she smelled of cigarettes. She looked down at Laurie and smiled. “You’re a very pretty little girl,” she said.

“Thank you,” Laurie replied politely because you are supposed to thank people when they give you compliments, even if you’re not supposed to talk to strangers.

“My little girl isn’t pretty,” the woman said. “She’s a big, fat, ugly pig.” The woman was spitting the words out with an intensity that alarmed Laurie because she could almost feel the words hitting her skin like the woman’s spittle, which was settling over her face and making her feel icky.

“Sometimes I wish I could just sew her mouth up,” the woman hissed. “Sometimes I hit her when I see her eating.” She paused for a gulp of breath. “Sometimes I can’t stop hitting her.” The woman dropped her head close to Laurie’s. “Sometimes I wish she were dead.”

Not knowing what else to do, Laurie reached up and patted the woman’s arm with her soft little hand. “It’s all right,” she said. The woman’s expression broke at that and by the time Laurie’s mother turned around to take her daughter’s hand, the woman was weeping silently, her bony shoulders shaking with grief. Alarmed by this public display of raw emotion, Laurie’s mother quickly hustled her away.

The woman went home and hugged her daughter, who was indeed obese and unlovely, but who desperately loved and wanted to please her mother, even as the bruises on her arms were decaying into yellow and black blotches. The woman and her daughter came to an understanding that afternoon, and there was no more hitting.

Laurie was 12 when a girl she didn’t know came up to her in a movie theater bathroom and told her she’d had sex with her own brother. And that she wanted to do it again. Laurie had touched the girl’s hand and she had gone on her way without further comment.

Laurie’s best friend Katy had heard the whole thing and thought the encounter was bizarre. “I just can’t believe you touched that skank,” Katy said, avoiding the whole issue of what had possessed the girl to share her secret with a total stranger.

“I have to touch them,” Laurie said, but she couldn’t tell Katy why. She didn’t really know herself, but she just knew. It was crazy. She knew that too.

“You’re weird,” Katy said.

Laurie just shrugged. Katy had no idea.

She was 17 the night she drove past the scene of a traffic accident and stopped to see if she could help. The dying teenager who’d caused the three-car wreck bled all over her brand new jeans and told her he’d killed his pregnant girlfriend. He died in her arms. A cop showed up moments later and she’d told him what the boy had said. The cop made a call and got news that confirmed the boy’s confession. The cop didn’t have much sympathy for the dead kid.

“Saved the state the trouble,” was what he said. Laurie understood. “Waste of DNA,” he added. “Just like my kid.” And Laurie understood even better. She reached out to pat his shoulder but he recoiled. He played it off, but she knew. Something about her creeped him out. It wasn’t the first time she’d encountered this reaction. It wouldn’t be the last.

That hurt her feelings.

She was only trying to help.

By the time she was 35, Laurie had pretty much stopped going outside. She worked as a medical transcriber, a job that limited human contact. She had direct deposit at her bank, had her groceries delivered and movies mailed to her, did everything else over the Internet. It was better that way. When she went out, people were drawn to her, compelled to unburden themselves.

Their secrets felt like assaults. The strangers would go away feeling better and she’d be depressed for days.

She had to watch out for the depression. Celexa helped for a while, but there were days when the depression hunkered down in her soul like a living thing, and settled in. And stayed for awhile.

Her world shrank. But she felt safe.

Until the first email arrived.

She didn’t recognize the sender, but despite all the cautions of the guy who helped keep her computer up and running — the worst thing he’d ever told her is that he cheated on his wife — she opened it.

I stole money from my boss and he had a heart attack when he found out.”

Laurie looked at the words on her monitor, aghast. And quickly deleted the message.

She got another email three days later.

I made my son kill a litter of puppies.”

Freaked, she deleted that one too. Half a dozen more emails from unknown senders arrived. She deleted them all without reading. When more came, she simply turned off the computer.

And didn’t turn it on again.

For a while, she was safe. Then the text messages began.

I raped my neighbor’s daughter.”

I murdered my mother.”

I put rat poison in the punch at my prom.”

She deleted the text messages without reading them, but now she didn’t feel safe using her phone, not even to check her messages. When her mailbox got full, her friends stopped calling. She’d always been eccentric, they thought. But now she was just plain rude.

But Laurie was safe.

Until the whispers started. At first, they weren’t even complete sentences:

I buried it in...”

I took a tire iron...”

“...lying in her own blood.”

At first the whispers only came in the daytime, and she could still sleep at night. But little by little, the secrets began to consume her sleep.

She hadn’t slept in four days when the driver of the truck stepped on her porch with his dolly. It was his custom to unload on the porch and then drive off without ever actually seeing Laurie. He imagined she looked a lot like his grandmother. He suspected her house smelled of cat pee. He never expected to meet her coming out of her screen door with a butcher knife in her hand.

It’s actually hard to stab someone to death, especially if the person wielding the knife is smaller than the target. But Laurie was first time lucky. The blade went in just below a rib and she angled it up. The driver, whose name was Chris, died moments later, his chest a fountain of blood that soaked the porch and the door and most of Laurie.

She was still wearing her blood-drenched clothes when the cops arrived at her house around ten hours later, backtracking Chris’ delivery route after his boss had reported him missing.

It was a freaky arrest, the cops agreed. The bloody woman had kept yelling, “Don’t say anything to me.” They’d had to Mirandize her, of course, but other than that, they’d been more than happy to comply with her request and keep silent.

The crime scene investigators confiscated her computer and phone and took them back to their lab to search for clues as to motive. Laurie didn’t know this. She’d been taken to the jail’s psycho ward where she was under suicide watch and mostly rocked back and forth on a bed, her hands over her ears, her eyes clenched shut.

Nothing is ever really removed from a computer hard drive and the investigators found the confessional emails Laurie had deleted. They found the text messages she’d deleted as well.

And they discovered something very interesting. All the emails and texts had originated on Laurie’s own computer and phone. She was emailing and texting herself.

“Weird chick,” one techie commented. His co-worker shrugged.

“It’s a weird world.”

Laurie was never brought to trial. A deal was struck. She was sent to a mental hospital and drugged to the teeth. She felt safe.

Until the night she passed an orderly picking up the dinner trays and he turned to her urgently.

“I hate my job,” he said. “I want to kill all of you.” He bared his teeth. “I want to open fire during dinner and watch all of you just... die.” Lauren reached out to touch him, a nearly forgotten impulse.

Maybe she wanted to comfort him and let him know dark thoughts hold power only when they’re turned into action. Maybe she wanted to take away his intention.

Maybe she just wanted to assure herself he was real and that she was not imagining his horrible confession.

Whatever her own intention... her instinct failed her.

Some people really don’t like to be touched.

There are safeguards in place to prevent violence happening to patients, but they failed Laurie too. While doing a bed check a few hours later, a nurse found Laurie’s crumpled body. She’d been beaten to death, but despite it being obvious Laurie was dead; the nurse followed protocol and picked up Laurie’s cold hand to make sure there wasn’t a pulse. She felt something tingle, like the shock you sometimes get walking across a carpet, but that was all.

There was a strange smile on Laurie’s dead face that the nurse found unsettling. And if she was honest with herself, the nurse admitted that Laurie might have brought her fate down on herself. She liked to pretend that she knew what people were thinking and claimed to know everyone’s secrets. The nurse quickly squashed her ungenerous thoughts because if you started getting judgmental about the patients, it would never end.

That night, the patients complained that someone’s whispering kept them up all night. The complaints tapered off after the nurse stuck an extra little pill in the paper medicine cups passed around every night. “Like after-dinner mints,” the nurse thought, knowing that none of the doctors would notice the missing meds.

On her way home, the nurse (whose name was Julie) stopped by a 24-hour deli. It really had been a long day and she wanted to reward herself with a little something sweet. A black and white cookie, maybe, or one of those with rainbow sprinkles. Maybe a coconut custard Danish for breakfast.

The cashier smiled as he handed over her white bag of goodies. “Have a good night,” he said. “I jack off in the tapioca every chance I get.”

Julie was so tired she decided she’d misheard him. Smiling politely, she wished him a good evening too. Three days later, after an unsettling encounter with a mechanic who confided he liked to run over cats on purpose, Julie began wondering if it was something she was doing that was suddenly attracting crazies. They always seemed to feel better after they’d talked to her.

But she felt bad for days.

Katherine Tomlinson has been a working writer since the age of 16. A former magazine editor and reporter, she now works as a freelance editorial consultant. Her fiction has appeared in Astonishing Adventures Magazine and ThugLit. She is a contributor to the California Literary Review, My Daily Find and Bitten By Books. She lives in Los Angeles. Her webiste is:

© Katherine Tomlinson 2010

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