Ashton is in a good mood today. He had no dreams last night. In fact, he hasn't slept this well since he was a child.
He walks into the Celestial Diner, ready to begin his shift, thinking that perhaps things were starting to turn around.
When he enters, Shanice looks up from the cash register and regards him gravely.
What was wrong? Was she let go? Was he going to be fired? He enjoys Shanice's company and even this job, but honestly could not care less if he was fired.
Though for the life of him he can't think of a reason. He's never missed or called out a single day.
"Ashton, check this out!" Shanice walks around the counter to meet him before he can even clock in.
"What is it?" he asks.
She pulls her phone from her pocket, unlocks it, and holds it out to Ashton. "Local Man Found Dead in Home," the headline reads.
"Jacob Thompson, 70, of Celestine, was found dead in his home this morning. Celestine Police report that they received an anonymous call requesting a welfare check on Mr. Thompson.
Police followed up on the request several hours and discovered the body of Mr. Thompson.
Celestine Police have confirmed that a homicide investigation is underway and that the remains are in the custody of the Madison County Medical Examiner."
Ashton hands the phone back to Shanice. He opens his mouth as if to say something but no words escape.
"I know, right?" Shanice says. "Mr. Thompson was just in here... what? Three days ago?"
"Three days ago," Ashton confirms. "You think someone is going to be here forever, and then..."
"Gone," Shanice finishes. She puts her phone back in her pocket and sighs.
Ashton clocks in and begins the comfortable and familiar routine of cooking the same dozen or so menu items customers routinely order.
Every time the door opens, Ashton turns around, expecting a police detail. "Mr. Frost , you are under the arrest for the murder of Jacob Thompson. You have the right to remain silent.
Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law..." but no police arrive. It's just an average day. One customer after another files in, then leaves. They're all the same.
All except for one.
She's a pretty blonde, slightly taller than average. She's wearing a paisley hat and t-shirt with "Problematic" embroidered on the front.
She carries herself with that simple and easy grace that must mean she hasn't yet experienced any real pain or hardship.
She reminds Ashton of the girl he had a crush on in the tenth grade but never worked up the courage to ask out. He later learned that she liked him too and would have said yes if only he had.
The girl takes off her hat, sits down at the counter, and fishes her phone out of her purse.
Oh no, Ashton thinks. That's the girl I saw at the park. She's going to see me and think--
That guy is going to think I'm stalking him! Emma thinks.
She recognizes him when she walks through the door. But she thinks it will make things even worse if she stops right there and leaves. That would be totally weird.
Besides, will he even notice her? Of course. But will he remember her? Maybe.
Either way, Emma is starving, and a week's worth of dieting and exercise has earned her this greasy meal.
She sees a few seats open at the counter so she sits down, takes off her hat, and digs out her phone from her purse.
You could just say something. Anything.
Shanice walks over to the girl, asks her what she'd like to drink--an unsweetened tea--and if she's ready to order.
She is. A fiesta omelet and pecan waffle coming right up. When Ashton turns around to hand the order off to Shanice, the girl says, "I've seen you before, haven't I?"
"I..." Ashton begins. He scratches his head, smiles, and says, "Maybe?"
Emma laughs. The recognition is clear on her face. "So just to let you know, I'm not a total weirdo who talks and sings to herself all the time. I just beat my personal best time for a 10K.
So, you know?"
"No, I get it," he answers. "I ran cross country and track in high school and college. Nothing's better than setting a new PB."
"Well, not much, anyway," Emma says.
Ashton chuckles at the innuendo and concedes her point. The two continue their amicable chat throughout
Emma's meal. Ashton learns that Emma is from Atlanta, studying biology, and has no idea whether she wants to go to dental or pharmacy school.
Ashton, having perfected his lie by now, is from San Diego, and will enroll in the university's doctoral program in the spring.
He's just been working at the Celestial Diner to save a little money.
By the end of the conversation Ashton thinks, if I were a few years younger, and Emma thinks, if I were a few years older I'd...
Then the two casually part ways, saying that maybe they'll see each other around campus or the park some time.
Ashton decides to visit Emma's apartment. Sandalwood Heights, Unit 37C.
He patiently sits in his car until her roommate, a tattooed brunette named Ashley, leaves. She's going to spend the night at her boyfriend's house, so Ashton will have plenty of time.
He removes the hammer from his glove compartment and gets out of the car.
Ashton walks up the stairs and inserts the bump key he bought online into the lock. He's never done this before, and he'll have to be quick, but Ashton likes his chances.
Once he feels good about the position of the key, he gives it a good whack with the hammer. Much to his delight, he can now turn the key and unlock the door. He looks to the left and right.
There doesn't seem to be any commotion from the surrounding apartments. He puts his ear against the door. He doesn't hear anything from inside either. He slowly pushes it open and walks in.
It's a warm, nicely furnished apartment. There's a chalkboard on the wall where Emma and Ashley have written various quotes and self-affirmations.
One includes, "A woman is like a tea bag--you can't tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water. " It's by Eleanor Roosevelt.
A smiling face has been drawn next to it; it's winking an eye and sticking its tongue out. There are pictures of the girls and their friends at a football game, a music festival, Times Square.
Ashton would like to examine them further, but he has work to do. Maybe he'll take one after.
And get caught like Dad? Idiot.
He takes off his shoes and sets them down by the door. Then he walks softly, deliberately toward the hallway. On the left, the door to the bedroom there is shut.
The one on the opposite side is open though, soft light pouring though. He tightens his grip on the hammer. The door is only a few paces away now.
Ashton hesitates. What if Emma did hear him bump the lock? Has she called 9-1-1? Maybe she's lying in wait, ready and eager to put an end to his sick life.
Don't be stupid. Keep going.
He raises the hammer to his ear and walks into the doorway. She doesn't even see him at first.
She's leaning over her desk, eyes buried in a textbook, earbuds in and foot tapping along to some unheard song. Adrenaline shoots through Ashton's veins. His heart pounds like a bass drum.
He breathes hard, deep, and fast. Beads of sweat pop up on his forehead. Then, after what seems like an eternity, Emma notices something, and jerks her head in his direction.
There's no fear. At least not at first. Her eyes widen and she looks more confused than afraid. She removes her earbuds, then speaks. "Ashton?"
"It's me," he answers.
Then, as if she hadn't seen it before, Emma's eyes track to the hammer. She spins in her chair and launches herself out of it so fast her legs tangle and she falls flat onto the floor.
She quickly recovers and turns to face him.
"A-Ashton, what are you doing? Ashton, please," she croaks.
He walks toward her. He relishes the animal terror now evident in her eyes. It's so beautiful.
She's never contemplated her own mortality and for the first time in her young life, she understands that it may end in the next few seconds. There's also denial there.
And that is also beautiful. That this cannot be happening, not to me, pitiful, pathetic denial.
Ashton nods his head. "It is happening."
Emma wails. But it's nothing like the shrieks of silver screen scream queens. Just a primal, atavistic howl. Ashton reminds himself that it's time to end this.
Don't be like Dad. He closes the distance between them, lifts the hammer high above his head, and brings it down upon Emma's skull.
There will be no more personal bests. No more deciding between dental or pharmacy school. No more worrying about student loan debt. Just like that, Emma Roberts is no more.