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Paranoia, a dark past and a face on a dating app add new twists to a tale inspired by a real-life crime

Moved by the 2014 "Slenderman" crime in Wisconsin, author Carter Wilson introduces a stabbing victim haunted by her past and struggling to move on

Carter Wilson is the USA Today and #1 Denver Post bestselling author of six critically acclaimed, standalone psychological thrillers, as well as numerous short stories.

He is an ITW Thriller Award finalist, a three-time winner of the Colorado Book Award, and his novels have received multiple starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Library Journal.

Carter lives in Erie in a Victorian house that is spooky but isn’t haunted … yet.

The following is an excerpt from “Mister Tender’s Girl.”

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit


2019 Colorado Book Awards winner for Thriller

Alice

One
Thursday, October 15
Manchester, New Hampshire

Deep, deep in the morning, sirens.

I peer out the window of my coffee shop, waiting to see the flashing lights, the blur of brilliant, pulsing red, the rush of an ambulance blistering toward the horrors of others. I see nothing, and the sound fades, as all eventually do. Perhaps it was never there at all.

“Miss?”

I snap my attention back to the man at the counter. Older man, salt-and-pepper beard, deep-green eyes, the color of jade. Charcoal suit, no tie.

“I’m sorry. What would you like?”

“Cappuccino. Small. To drink here, please.”

His voice is deep. Enchanting.

“Of course.”

When he hands me the crisp five-dollar bill, I catch his stare, and his gaze is locked on me. There’s an endless longing to it, as if I’m the ghost of someone he once loved. This has happened before.

“Can I get a name?” I ask, holding eye contact for only a moment.

He thinks on this for a moment, as if I’ve asked a deeply personal question.

“John.”

I write this on a sticker and place it on the lip of a ceramic cup.

When I give him his change, he looks only at my hands. John takes his money and leaves my space as quickly as he entered it.

Author Carter Wilson.

Sometimes I meet a person and my paranoia insists they already know me. Know everything. Where I live. How many scars I have. My real last name. It’s a game my mind likes to play when it thinks I’m getting complacent, or cured. Happy, even. I meet people every day at the Stone Rose, the coffee shop I own. Customers rarely give me this feeling.

But John does. I dismiss it, knowing my past has chiseled and shaped my mind into something that favors fear over sense. Paranoia over logic. I take a deep breath, hold it to the count of four, then release. Repeat.

Sometimes this helps.

Two

Paranoia is also the reason I keep no knives in my house, which makes for practical concerns. My diet at home consists of things I can eat with a fork and spoon, and even when I want a slice of butter on my bread, I reach for an individually wrapped packet, the kind you find in restaurants. Spread it with a fork.

It sounds mad, I know. If someone wanted to hurt me, they wouldn’t need to use a knife. On my dining room table alone are things that could maim or kill. Fork in the eye. Ceramic plate smashed over the skull. Wineglass, broken to a fractured stem, sliced across the carotid artery. Cloth napkin shoved down the throat, fingers used to pinch the nose shut. You might even argue that if someone wanted to stab me, why would they bother relying on my knife? Surely they would bring their own.

I’d tell you those are all reasonable points. But I don’t have to rationalize my horrors to you.

I pour another glass of merlot. The chicken on my plate is tender, and the tines of my fork slide easily into the spongy flesh. I’ve developed a friendship with the Hannaford Market butcher, and he always cuts my meat and poultry at the counter for me. His name is Jesus, and he’s never asked me why I make this request. I plan on giving Jesus a nice tip at Christmastime.

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I drop the fork, my appetite not reaching critical mass. The wall clock reads just past eight, and my stomach tightens at the thought of the coming night. Music from the little Bose player fills the room, but I hear the silence behind it, the vacuum that grows like a cancer as it draws closer to bedtime. In bed, the weight of the night will sit on my chest until it threatens to crush me altogether.

Sometimes I wish it would. Sometimes I fall asleep with that thought in my head, a wish for death, and there’s a kind of dark peace to it all, like a shipwreck victim floating gently to the bottom of the ocean floor.

“Mister Tender’s Girl” by Carter Wilson.

Dinner over, dishes done. My one-hundred-and-twelve-year-old compact colonial house is now as clean as it was one hour ago, things back where they should be, not a fiber or dust mote in sight. I straighten a picture on my wall that probably isn’t even crooked. A photo I took of London a decade and a half ago. Street scene, at night, a couple on the sidewalk holding hands and looking into a dimly lit storefront. I was with my father that evening, just after he’d given me that camera for my birthday. It was the first photo I’d taken with it. I was thirteen.

I miss England sometimes—the smell of London, the aroma of time, moisture, and car exhaust swirled together in a blend only big cities can produce. But mostly I try not to think of the place I grew up. I almost died there when I was fourteen.

Beams from car lights sweep along my windows, temporarily highlighting my living room wall like prison searchlights. Richard must not be working the overnight shift at the hospital tonight. He rents the room on the third floor, above my bedroom. I call it the Perch. It has its own small kitchen, bath, and separate entrance, for which Richard pays me five hundred dollars a month. I rarely see him, and I won’t deny he’s somewhat odd, but he causes me no trouble and his rent pays nearly a third of my mortgage. 

There’s a comforting energy to Richard, one I don’t feel with many people, where having him living here makes me feel safe. Well, perhaps not safe, but in some way less panicked. Knowing he’s up there makes me feel less alone, I suppose. 

The car door opens and closes, footsteps on the exterior stairs, upstairs door hinge squeaking, then silence. He’s quiet as a cat. Never even a dribble of music, a foot stomp, or a squeaking bed. Sometimes I imagine that, as Richard passes the threshold into the Perch, he turns into vapor until sunrise.

In my room. Teeth brushed, flossed, gleaming to perfection. Pajamas of the flannel variety, which hang loosely around my thin frame. I haven’t eaten enough, I know, and the hunger may wake me if I’m lucky enough to fall asleep. My hour at the gym this morning was intense, as it always is, and I haven’t taken in enough calories to account for those I’ve burned. I’ll eat more tomorrow.

I look down at my left arm, which is lean and toned, both bicep and tricep visible if I flex just right. I like what I’ve become on the outside. But as strong as I am and with all my training, the things with neither form nor mass scare me the most. Like silence. And memories. Nighttime.

If I had been stabbed during the day, would I dread the sunrise every morning, like a vampire? Maybe. But I wasn’t stabbed during the day. I was stabbed late on a half-moon night, a few days before Halloween. So I suppose all this wondering doesn’t really matter for anything.

In bed. Grab my phone, which someone who has trouble sleeping shouldn’t do. But my sleep issues go beyond my brain’s reaction to a little glowing screen.

Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram.

Two-second glances at unrestrained propaganda. The triumphant struggles of supermoms. The political rants. The photos of the perfect kids, the great vacations, the most exhaustive meals. It all makes me so sad, mostly because I don’t believe any of it. But I also realize a lot of this is me, my cynicism. I rarely post, but often lurk.

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An email from my brother, Thomas. It’s good to see his name in my inbox, the last name I used to have. I changed my last name from Hill to Gray when I turned eighteen, but just seeing his last name makes me think of the best parts of my childhood. Thomas is bitching about Mom. This doesn’t surprise me.

I almost put the phone down and turn off the lights, but I decide to check my BlindDate account. I signed up for the dating site a year ago on the advice of a friend who worried I would die from loneliness. She doesn’t know about my past. She doesn’t know the name Alice Hill, only Alice Gray. But I did sign up, checked it for about a week, then lost most of my interest. I’ve never been on a date through it, but still stray back to check the activity every now and then. I don’t know what I’m hoping for.

Now I scroll through a month’s worth of matches, swiping them away like mosquitoes. But the last one freezes my fingertip in mid-rejection. I stare at the screen name, the man some algorithm has determined me to be compatible with. This match, this man, doesn’t know my real name, just the random screen name I created a year ago. Perhaps he would recognize me from my profile photo, though I don’t know how. I’ve changed so much since I was fourteen.

Still, his screen name glows at me, seeming to pulse like a heartbeat on the screen. I whisper it aloud just to convince myself it’s real.

“Mister Tender.”

Buy “Mister Tender’s Girl” at BookBar

Interview with “Mister Tender’s Girl” author Carter Wilson