Estimated reading time — 26minutesEver since I was young, my father would warn me to never open my mouth about my problems. “Nobody will understand you,” he would hiss, putting the fear of whatever he feared in me. “Nobody will care because they haven’t gone through it.”
So, I shut my mouth. I never opened it after seeing my parents fight. I never opened it after nearly being ran over by an asshole that got his license on a technicality. Not even when I witnessed the local pedophile being arrested.
But the Haunted Hallway pushed me too far.
For some of you that do not know what a Haunted Hallway is: it’s where a hallway is decorated like a haunted house, with actors and tour guides and the entire gimmick for Halloween. It is supposed to be a small little fundraiser for our school, which usually does this kind of stuff because we are virtually unnoticed by the state because of how small we are.
I was a participant last year, and I was in so much awe of how good the performance was, that I decided to go again next year.
Except, as an actor.
What could go wrong, right? The previous years went smoothly enough and were crazy successful.
What I didn’t count on was the teacher that supervised quitting.
The new teacher started planning the Haunted Hallway last minute, so it was obvious to everyone that there was going to be some flaws.
I guess obvious to everyone except me. I was too excited on the fact that I’ll be acting in the Haunted Hallway so I didn’t notice much.
Besides, the rehearsals were great. I never had so much fun. They say that when actors spend a lot of time together, you tend to make friends with them.
That is, except, with Jennifer.
When I arrived to the room of my choice: the Asylum room (it was kind of ironic now that I look back on it), everyone seemed to have a preset hatred for Jennifer. I never knew her. She was a tall girl on the heavy side, but her personality was a bit rough, so I guessed that was the reason why she was so disliked. I personally didn’t care, I just blocked every other drama out in order to focus on my acting.
I blocked out something about Jennifer making someone’s sister cry.
Blocked out the rumor that Jennifer spent some time in a teen asylum-like building because of some mental illness.
Blocked out all the other rumors that circled her: from something as real as the time one of her nudes leaked to absurdity such as the possibility that she killed a man.
Looking back, these were all warning signs.
It was the day of the event. We were to stay right after school until when the event ended at midnight.
So, I guess you can say we were mentally preparing ourselves.
Because of the new supervisor’s fear of students tearing down the decorations or stealing props, the actors and the tour guides doubled as the help on the day of.
3:10 PM (Hour 1)
Most of the actors for the Asylum room were present, but they were either changing or preparing their makeup; all in different rooms. I sat in front of a room’s mirror and began to paint my face. I was playing one of the main roles in the room: the cannibal. The skit had been changed multiple times, but this last one had been accepted by the supervisor so we were going with it.
The act was going to be: people enter and a person in a straight jacket is shouting for them to let her out. Then, another actor that is on top of a desk kicks a chair in front of her, signalling for everyone else to fall into place. There will be a girl on the floor hugging her knees and rocking back and forth, along with a girl in a wheelchair (who will be wheeling behind the crowd besides the girl who kicked the chair). The center act (the act before the customers walk out) is me eating Jennifer’s guts while she lies on a gourney. She’ll be dressed as a nurse and me a patient, which would sortof set a message to the audience of “the patients running the asylum” or something else unnerving.
Last minute, however, we had another actor join. So, she was placed as the nurse who would be wheeling the girl in the wheelchair around.
The actor who sits on top of the desk’s name is Kailyn. The person with the straight jacket’s name is Vanessa. The girl on the floor’s name is Alyssia. The girl in the wheelchair’s name is Eliana. The girl who is pushing her is called Ashley.
My name? You’ll hear it on the news later.
So, after 20 minutes of makeup, began to pack up my stuff and move to our assigned room.
“Hey!” Jennifer called, wearing her black “queen” hoodie and holding her coffee in one hand and multiple bags in another. I turned to her, and stopped to allow her to catch up from across the hallway. “We aren’t here!”
“I know. I just came here to do my makeup.” I explained, pointing to my face. She huffed, realizing, and then asked.
“What do you honestly think about the new skit? I don’t like it. I feel like we changed it too many times.” She pursed her lips, and I sighed.
“We are definitely more organized this way. The other way was too messy.” I responded, yet Jennifer wasn’t satisfied with the response, so she turned and entered another room that wasn’t the Asylum room.
Part of the drama stuff I tried to avoid was that she had an idea for the first draft of the skit. Basically, everyone but me, Jennifer, and Alyssia, go crazy. Alyssia and I, however, chase Jennifer around the room and stab her, take her down, and continue stabbing her. We all attempted to act it out, but when the supervisor came to see the drafts, she hated it. She threatened to take our room out of the equation because it was so messy.
Jennifer made a sortof vague threat in another rehearsal, saying that she probably wouldn’t be here on the day of if we didn’t follow her script. We ignored her, and then she took her stuff and left the room. She made a point by going to help other rooms instead of our own.
We all became coordinated in the case she wants to switch rooms last minute, so Ashley would be her replacement.
Around 45 minutes after school, everyone began to arrive in the Asylum room. We had to take out the desks and clear the rooms out before putting black paper over the furniture and walls. Alyssia had a boyfriend, Andy, that helped out with the paper. Kailyn brought black tablecloths, which helped prevent us from going to other rooms and begging pathetically for more black paper.
4:00 PM (Hour 2)
I wish I could say we stayed together as a team while putting up decorations.
I really wish I could’ve.
We tried to preserve the tablecloths for things like covering up our belongings that were backed up in the corner, as well as the “souvenirs” that the teacher left in the room and would hate for them to disappear the next day.
And by souvenirs I mean trash.
We had to cover the walls as highest we could, which meant standing up on desks. The desks we had were conjoined to the chairs, and one of us nearly fell down because they stood on the desk-side too long and gravity nearly took over.
This started a spark of vertigo we all had inside of us.
Whenever we stood on a desk too long, we felt a little uneasy. A solution would be someone holding down the chair-side, but when it was not even 2 hours to the event, not everyone was free to do so.
Also, we weren’t exactly allowed to leave the room until it was really an emergency.
So, Kailyn volunteered to fetch more black paper while everyone ran back and forth gathering tape to hold up the pieces we already had. She returned after almost 10 minutes, hyperventilating.
“Who’s room is more important? Yours or someone else’s?!” She fumed, telling the entire story before she explained. “Jennifer just denied us the black paper. I goddamn hate her.”
“Psht. Who the hell is she to tell us what to take or not?” Alyssia rolled her eyes while holding up a ripped piece of paper that Andy was taping.
“We have more than 2 hours until the event. We’ll be prepared by then.” I stretched the truth a bit. Kailyn sighed very audibly.
“The thing is, the Nursery room she’s in… they don’t need black paper. They are just fooling around over there!” She huffed before making her way across the room to take a breath. Ashley got off her desk and left me with the black paper duties while she took care of Kailyn.
5:00 PM (Hour 3)
Hour 3 was when the stress level seemed to rise.
The supervisor did a last minute check on the black paper, and then told us to tear a great deal down because it was “too sloppy”.
After the supervisor left the room, a great many of us screamed internally. Some cursed out loud, Vanessa immediately tore the affected areas down, and Kailyn had to leave to the bathroom to take a break. We all knew what she was going to do as soon as we knew she had gone.
“She does deserve a cry break.” I mentioned to Ashley while we were redoing the paper. She agreed. We all knew Kailyn to be the softest person out of all of us regarding emotions, and she was really affected by the Jennifer-thing.
We thought she was going to come back feeling moderately-better, and then help with what she can, but then we heard shouting in the hallway. It was then followed by Kailyn storming into the room again, tears forcibly caged in her glossy eyes.
“I-I tried to get the music link from h-her…” She attempted to compose herself. Ashley was busy this time so she didn’t have a chance to comfort her from the ground.
“Oh Kailyn, don’t get bothered by her attitude-”
“I-I asked her nicely. The link was in her laptop and she’s too busy f-fucking around with the Nursery kids… but she got all in my face! S-She started shouting the link! I said FINE… a-and I left. F-Fucking bitch…” Kailyn made her way over to her school laptop to type in the link when more shouts were heard in the halls.
We all recognized Jennifer’s voice.
“I’m trying to give her the link to the music for the Asylum room and she keeps giving me attitude!” We heard her scream to the supervisor as clear as day. “I just wanna leave! You all want that?! For me to leave?!”
“Fine! Leave! Nobody wants you here-” Kailyn started when Ashley and Vanessa dropped down from their desks and began to hold her back from running into the hallway.
“Don’t! You’ll just be letting her win. Be more mature than her.” These phrases seemed to calm her down until Jennifer started again.
“See what I mean, Miss?! She’s constantly attacking me!”
Something seemed to switch on in Kailyn, and she turned almost mechanically to go outside, now being gently persuaded to stop by Vanessa and Ashley. I knew we weren’t going to get any work done if three actors are not helping, so I stepped in front of the door and closed it behind me.
“Everybody stays and helps. If she doesn’t want to help that’s her problem. We planned for when she leaves, remember?” I rushed, and Kailyn’s senses returned to her once-blank eyes. She didn’t reply, instead, she slowly turned and paced to the far end of the room, clenching her fists.
From there, we tried to work as fast and efficiently as we possibly could.
6:00 PM (Hour 4)
It was just an accident, I swear.
Something about being stuck in a single room for hours on end doing repetitive work with high-strung people surrounding just gets to you.
One minute, we heard a tour guide announce to all the rooms that we were starting early, in almost 15 minutes, and the next minute there was a body on the floor.
As I said before, we were all stressed. Everyone was shouting, running, and everything was a blurr. Me and Ashley were putting up more black paper when it ripped down the middle.
I saw red at that moment. In a movement I couldn’t describe, I threw the scissors down behind me.
I thought I was aiming for the floor, but when I didn’t hear it hit the ground, I turned around.
The sharp end of the scissors pierced Eliana’s chest.
I don’t remember how strong I threw it, but half the blade somehow ended up inside her chest.
Eliana fell back and smacked her head on both the desk behind her and the hard floor.
We all gathered around the body, panicking.
“We need to get the nurse!” Kailyn suggested, nearly in tears. Me and Alyssia examined Eliana, but I checked for signs of life.
“The nurse left! It’s too late… she’s dead.” I hoarsely forced out. Everyone stood still for a whole second, and then a wave of anxiety filled the air.
“What do we do?!”
“Are we going to jail?!”
“Who’s going to tell Vanessa?” Ashley wondered, quivering. I sighed. Vanessa left to get more black paper, and she happened to be Eliana’s cousin.
I don’t know how, or what logic we used to get to the conclusion: hide the body.
I dragged Eliana to the far end of the room, where there was a locked closet. I borrowed one of Ashley’s bobby pins, and picked the lock. Once Eliana was inside, we immediately began working on cleaning the blood. After the realization that this was harder than what Dateline would show, Alyssia just grabbed a bottle of fake blood and poured it around the scrubbed-circles.
When Vanessa came back, she immediately noticed Eliana’s absence and asked us.
“She… s-she…” Kailyn trembled and immediately looked shifty. This, adding on the fake blood, gave Vanessa an obviously bad feeling. I stepped in right away.
“She went to the corner deli. You know how she loves those mozzarella sticks they make.” I lied, astonished at how well I came up with it under pressure. Vanessa was quickly relieved, and then she helped put up the last black paper after Alyssia’s nervous fake blood explanation.
6:20 PM (Hour 4)
First rehearsal went well enough.
Vanessa was worried when Eliana didn’t show up in time, so she texted her.
We all held our breaths, praying that we don’t hear a chime in the dark room. When it didn’t, we seemed collectively relieved.
“Maybe her parents had to pick her up… you know, with New York and all that…” I added, obviously showing that I didn’t pay attention to a lick of their business. Vanessa shook her head.
“She wouldn’t… she would tell me…” Vanessa sighed, then she shook her head. “Yeah, you guys are probably right. Anyways, we have Freddy to back her up, right?”
“Freddy” was a disassembled plastic skeleton that we were given to work with our act, but we ended up placing the pile of bones on the wheelchair. Ashley would wheel Freddy around like a long-dead patient.
Oh geez I didn’t mean for it to come out like that.
We made a couple jokes about Freddy and danced silly in the dark, distracting Vanessa to the point where she didn’t even remember Eliana was gone.
The actual Haunted Hallway started 6:30, and we all went into our positions.
7:30 PM (Hour 5 ½)
Andy lost it around here.
He had nowhere to go while he waited for his girlfriend, so he hid somewhere in the room underneath black paper and came out between the gaps in performances.
It was the 5th or so performance, and the minute the customers left, Andy nearly jumped out at us.
“I can’t do this anymore.”
“We just started.” Vanessa responded, naive to what Andy was talking about.
“I-I’m so sorry Vanessa.” Andy stuttered, yet unable to elaborate because of the pain in his conscience.
“You can’t leave, the supervisor doesn’t know you were here.” Vanessa tried to calm him down the most logical way she could, yet Andy couldn’t let himself be calmed.
“No no… we are doing you wrong. God… it was just an accident… right?” Andy looked me right in the eye at that point.
I froze, standing up pin straight now. I felt his accusatory stare, and even though I didn’t take my eyes off of him, I felt everyone else get the message. It was as if the room was closing down on me, and I felt the heat rise in my body like if everyone was going to pounce.
“What is he talking about?” Jennifer asked, tugging on the hem of my bloodied sweatshirt.
I couldn’t let them get me, no.
“What’s going on?!”
I had to get them.
“I’m so sorry Vanessa.” Andy started.
I had to get them before they get me.
“What are you all staring at me like that, for?” Vanessa asked, now showing her uneasiness through her fidgeting.
“We… We need to tell you something-” Andy turned from me and took a step towards Vanessa. The gurney had a paper blocking the front, so nobody could see the other side where I was, which was where we kept the spare items. I didn’t hesitate to snatch the same scissors from underneath and lunge at Andy.
The sound of the blades piercing through Andy’s heart was sickening.
And the fact that I did it on purpose is even worse.
“NO!” Alyssia broke her silence and headed right for me. She was shorter and much thinner than me, so when she wailed on me, I didn’t even bother to fight back. I gripped the scissors for the 30 seconds she took to slow her rage into a cry of agony. In that timespan, she turned away from me and collapsed besides Andy’s corpse. She sobbed grossly and ran her trembling fingers over his bloodied chest, and then his brown hair pulled into a ponytail.
We all stared at the image of the two. Then, Alyssia whipped her head to me.
“You could have let him talk to me! I wouldn’t let him slip about Eliana! He wouldn’t-”
“What h-happened to Eliana?” Vanessa asked, shaken from the sight. I sighed. It was coming out either way. Except now, we had another body on our hands.
“It was an accident, Vanessa.” I looked her in the eyes and told her. “But none of this should leave the room. We were all responsible, remember that-”
“Andy was your fault!” Kailyn piped up, then she buried her chin down to her collarbone. I flipped.
“And if you tell them what would you say?! I killed Andy because he was going to slip about how we all hid Eliana’s body?! Come on! If he told the supervisor we would all have our asses handed to us-”
“He wasn’t going to tell the supervisor! Just Vanessa! He thought she had a right to know!” Alyssia hissed, getting her hands dirty from holding Andy. I looked down at her hands, and then I said something despicable.
“Who would believe that I killed him?”
“What do you mean?! You have his blood on your hands-” Alyssia immediately spat at me, but then she cut herself short when she noticed how bloody her hands were compared to my relatively-clean ones. I didn’t even have to add anything else for her to flip out.
“W-W-Witnesses! Everyone around you!” Alyssia turned around, her anxiety leaked through her voice. Everyone in the room stayed quiet.
“Andy would lead to Eliana, and Eliana is on all of us…” I mentioned, seeing the guilt in everyone’s faces.
“… Not on me.” Everyone turned to Vanessa, who was still in her straight jacket but now she was on the floor. Her face was frozen with her eyes wide open and her mouth agape. She slowly looked up at me with the most determined look. However, it was only then when we noticed that Jennifer was off the gurney and close to the door, her face containing the worst fear and disgust in the world.
I felt the scissors being ripped from my hands from a pair smaller than mine. I frantically turned to the perpetrator, who was Kailyn.
Though she happened to reach Jennifer in half the time, I knew that she was going to get seriously hurt. Everyone can tell; Jennifer was double the weight and height of Kailyn, as well as a year her senior. Me and Ashley followed her, but for different reasons: Ashley wanted to stop any more bloodshed, but I wanted to help.
Kailyn shrieked as she gathered her strength to give Jennifer a long-overdue strike, but Jennifer was half a second quicker. In the panic, she grabbed ahold of Vanessa and pushed her in front of her. Kailyn put all her force into the first strike, and then immediately regretted it when she faced Vanessa’s wide doe-eyes instead of Jennifer’s.
“NO! No no no!” Kailyn held Vanessa as she dropped, who was coughing up blood. Ashley staggered behind, now looking like she was going to vomit. I saw Jennifer head for the door, so I yanked the scissors from Vanessa’s stomach haphazardly and struck her in her left lung.
I heard that if someone was stabbed in their left lung, they wouldn’t make a sound, but in the case it didn’t work, I covered her mouth. Jennifer sunk gradually in my arms, and from there I quickly tried to drag her on top of the gurney. For some reason, I succeeded in time, because we heard the next batch of customers passing a room two doors down.
“Get in your positions, everyone!” I commanded, prying Andy away from Alyssia to put him under the black paper. Kailyn kept holding Vanessa even though she was clearly long gone, and Ashley swallowed hard before she gripped the wheelchair. Alyssia continued crying and holding her knees, which now made her part more convincing. I turned Jennifer’s face towards me so the crowd and the tour guides wouldn’t see that she was really dead.
The next batch came and went. Nobody suspected a thing.
8:00 PM (Hour 6)
“I don’t want to be here anymore.” Kailyn muttered, sitting on top of the desk again. We decided to keep Vanessa on the floor with her head down. We splashed her with fake blood and added a fake handprint on the black paper beside her. It was visible somewhat in the dim lighting, making it more eerie to those who notice.
“None of us want to.” Ashley added, now giving up on comforting everyone. Alyssia stayed curled up, burying her face to show she doesn’t want to be bothered. However, I could swear she glared up at me from time to time.
“We have to make a plan.” I piped up.
“W-What for?” Kailyn asked before remembering what the both of us had done.
“To get out of here. When the Haunted Hallway ends at 10… they would want us to clean up. What are we going to do?” I tried to plan with them, but Ashley and Kailyn were in too much shock to think clearly. Kailyn whimpered.
“I-I-I don’t want to go to j-jail…” She began shaking, stealing a glimpse at Vanessa’s body in the corner before letting out a high-pitched yip from the fresh memory.
“The only one that has to go to jail is you…” Alyssia spoke up, and us three fixated on her immediately. The sound of her voice made our hearts skip a beat, because we thought she just disappeared into thin air. Alyssia glared right at me, and I could see her black mascara running down her cheeks.
“All of us are in this-” I tried to shift the blame again, but somehow it had less power than before, when the body count was lower.
“No. Just you… all of us are innocent… you started it and you have to drag us all down with you!” Alyssia’s spine went straight, though she stayed on the floor.
“All. Of. Us. Are. In. This. Alyssia, look at your hands! If the police come here, they’ll test it first and throw you in jail you idiot!” I began to rant. I felt my body heat rise again, but even though it was only three people surrounding me now, I felt the intensity was unbearable.
Looking back, it must’ve been my conscience.
“Kailyn… what you did was by accident but you intended to kill Jennifer. Someone’s dead either way, and that’s on you.” I spoke with a deep seriousness that shook Kailyn’s core, leaving her to curl up and cry while I turned to Ashley.
“Ashley, you helped-” That was all I was able to get out before Ashley attempted to tackle me. I twisted a bit at most, but then I grabbed Ashley and pushed her away from me. “What the hell?!”
“I don’t want to go to jail! I have a life! I am graduating this year! I was going to be free!” Ashley broke down, clear tears drowning her cheeks.
“What the hell were you trying to accomplish? Killing me?! You’ll all have another body on your hands!”
“I KNOW! I-I’m sorry! I… I-I-I j-just…” Ashley fell to the floor and continued sobbing. I leaned against the wall behind me, the black paper crinkling with my weight.
The silence that followed gave everyone the same message: the room was killing us.
8:45 PM (Hour 6 ¾)
“ALL ACTORS LEAVE YOUR ROOMS! THIS IS AN EMERGENCY!”
The four of us perked our heads up at the announcement coming from the supervisor. We all made a mad dash for the one door, like animals begging to escape from captivity.
Until, that is, the door didn’t open.
“What?! No! No no no!” Alyssia was the first one there, which was odd because she was the farthest from it.
“It’s locked from the outside.” I deduced, earning a passive hiss from Alyssia.
“No shit Sherlock!” She stormed to the other end of the room, pulling at her short hair.
“What’s the emergency?” Ashley asked, anything to keep our minds off of the bad karma in this room.
“Everyone else is exiting, I can hear them leave.” Kailyn laid on the ground and put her ear to the gap on the bottom of the door before sniffing it. “There’s no smoke, so I guess we’re not burning.”
“That’s a bonus.” I sarcastically added, earning a nervous chuckle from Ashley.
“Not to me. I wanted you to burn.” Alyssia addressed me passive-aggressively, and I sharply inhaled, ignoring it.
“So what do you think it could be?” I asked before being shushed by Kailyn. Though offended, I tried not to get too mad. A couple minutes later, Kailyn responded.
“The supervisor walked only half the hallway. She stopped before she reached the outside of our room.” We were the very last room the customers would visit, and we found that slightly off at most.
“Maybe she got tired?” Ashley suggested.
“Maybe. I don’t know. But it was locked on the outside so…”
“You think it was one of the tour guides being douches?” I suggested seriously. Kailyn shook her head.
“No… can’t be. If it was a tour guide acting alone, she would have heard us try to open the door. It has to be her… “
“What? The supervisor wouldn’t do this to us… would she?” Ashley became much more nervous, and it spread to the three of us.
Then, we heard police sirens.
It was like a switch got flicked in all three of our head’s.
We weren’t in danger.
We were the danger.
9:00 PM (Hour 7)
“How did somebody find out?!” Kailyn began to panick. Ashley peeked outside, watching the police cars pile up outside.
“M-Maybe it was all just a mistake. Maybe it’s another room…”
“Oh yeah, I forgot. Another room must’ve committed genocide at the same time we did, right?! Get your head out of your ass, Ashley!” Alyssia hissed, returning to her curled position.
“Now’s the time to plan, guys!” I ordered, panic-stricken.
“What the hell do we do now? It’s too late!” Kailyn sounded agitated, she was biting her fingernails to cope with the situation.
“The police are going to come in through the door, right? Let’s go out the window.” The three of us looked at the windows, all realizing that we’re on the second floor. It’s not enough to kill us, but enough to injure us.
“What about the bags?” Ashley pointed to the end of the room.
“You’re right! We could throw the bags on the ground to soften the landing!” I snapped and pointed at Ashley. “You’re a genius!”
“What then?” Kailyn asked, not helping to lower the anxiety in the room.
“Um… We could gather all our money. The train station is always open. They switched the trains to automated, right?” I asked around, attempting to piece together something.
“Y-Yeah… so there’s no driver, it’s all electric now.” Ashley added.
“Y-Yes! See? Even if we don’t have enough to pay for tickets, we can sneak through! Yeah, and we could keep riding different trains. All until we get far enough.”
“And then?” Kailyn uttered. I felt my patience running thinner.
“And then… we keep going! We might reach another state, and then…”
“And then?” At that, I felt myself implode.
“And then I don’t know, Kailyn! We’ll keep going! Leave something to the imagination, goddamn it! We don’t even know if we’ll make the drop!” I kicked the bookshelf beside the window, ripping the black paper that wrapped it.
I began to pace back and forth. The adrenaline from everything in the past few hours caused me to be on edge. I could hear the wind, and feel every stare. I could smell the fear radiating from Ashley, and taste the tension that blocked my airway.
It didn’t help that the room was dark.
There was a sense of distrust in the air. Not for the four of us, but for the people on the outside of the room. We’ve only been here for a little over 7 hours, but it seemed like we’ve known each other for years. Even though we’ve seen each other at our worst, we still felt the need to stay united against the outside. It was a mutual paranoia among us.
Everyone, except for Alyssia.
Me, Kailyn, and Ashley exchanged glances. We knew that the moment the police come in, she’ll snitch. However, what we weren’t sure about was planning her murder.
Enough blood had been spilled.
I didn’t like being so unsure for so long.
Then, there was a knocking at the door.
Alyssia began to scream, and the three of us charged at her.
Everything was a blur at that point.
I think she might have gotten the scissors at one point, when we were planning or talking amongst ourselves.
All I remember was Ashley gasping for air after the blades were stuck in her stomach and then forcibly separated with all of Alyssia’s strength.
All I remember was her falling to the floor with a gaping hole in her abdomen.
All I remember was Kailyn attempting to disarm Alyssia, who stabbed her at least two times in non-fatal areas.
Then a gash on my forearm appeared before I forced Alyssia to the ground.
“Stop! You’re going crazy!” I kept holding her down. Alyssia kept fighting. She slashed at my arm but narrowly missed because I yanked the scissors from her.
I was pissed, but I didn’t want to kill her.
I didn’t want to kill anymore.
I don’t even want to hear the word “death” after today’s events.
I just wailed on her like a psycho.
At least until she stopped attacking.
Then I went to grab the belts we were going to use on Eliana to tie Alyssia up.
“STOP.” I sternly hissed, tightening a leather belt around her mouth as a gag.
I stopped for a breath, and after a split second, I rapidly turned around to see the damage.
Ashley stopped breathing.
Kailyn was breathing heavily.
I crawled to her, now with the threat of Alyssia off my back.
“You’re going to be okay. She didn’t get you anywhere to kill you.”
“I-I can’t go to the train this w-way… I can’t…” She whimpered, softly placing her palm over one of the injuries around her stomach.
“Sure you can! We just need to stop the bleeding-” I grabbed one of her legs to pick it up in order to wrap it with a scarf I found nearby, until I was forced to drop it by her ear-piercing shriek.
“AH! I-I… I fucked up my knee… I don’t think I can walk…” Kailyn’s heavy breathing filled the room.
“Yes you can. I’m fucking carrying you, we can’t leave anybody behind. They’ll throw you in juvie! At least this way you can have some kind of future… maybe a hospital can help! Maybe we can get protection!” I ranted on and on, fearful of conviction more than anything. I kept saying “we” as if I had an army behind me to make me feel more secure. Kailyn shook her head more and more violently.
“No! I can’t! I can’t! Can’t you see?! God, I’m in so much pain… i-it hurts…” She shuddered at the sight of the red liquid oozing from her own body. After a couple seconds, which seemed like an eternity of silence, Kailyn looked me dead in the eyes and muttered a sentence nobody our age should say.
“You have to kill me.”
“W-What?” I stuttered, feeling weak for the first time. By this point, I can’t say I haven’t killed before, but not on purpose.
Okay, on purpose, but not on purpose purpose.
“Kill me. Make it quick. Then get out.”
“I can’t walk! I’ll bleed out! And if the police get me… I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in jail. My future’s gone.”
“F-fuck…” I sat down in a way that felt like a stumble backwards, and clutched my hair. She was right, but I wasn’t sure if I could do that. “F-Fine… how do you want to die?”
I grabbed the scissors and took a deep breath. I opened the dual blades slowly, feeling my heart in my throat. I went through the many ways this scissor had been used: in the chest, lung, stomach, and limbs.
I chose the lung. It seemed Jennifer went quickly.
But I wasn’t sure if that was because of her shock or any other bodily factor.
I crouched behind Kailyn and covered her mouth.
“Hm?” She muffled, now feeling more anxious because it didn’t happen right away.
“I’ll meet you guys again in hell.” I said as I drove the blade in her left lung, and after a distressing couple of seconds, Kailyn went limp. I immediately took out the blade and threw it to the other end of the room.
No more killing.
I shouldn’t have in the first place.
I didn’t have time for mourning. I heard police radios at the end of the hallway followed by boots.
They brought in the goddamn SWAT team? I can’t be sure.
I raced to the end of the room to get my keys and my coat and my money. I was sure it was enough for one ticket. Then I threw all the bags outside the window, but it still wasn’t enough cushion.
So I resorted to throwing all of the bodies out the window.
I left Andy in there, mostly so Alyssia doesn’t get even more pissed at me, and because he was pretty lanky do it wouldn’t do much cushion.
I had one foot on top of the bookshelf before I turned back one last time.
“Alyssia?” She turned to me very hesitantly. “You’re in trouble, too. Remember that. At least wait some time before you talk to them about what happened here. Not for my sake, for yours.”
Alyssia growled and wriggled at me, so I didn’t try to bargain any further.
I jumped off, feeling the couple seconds of cool wind prickling my skin before I landed on the fleshy cushions of reality. Their blood stopped flowing at this point, so I didn’t get any more dirty.
From there, I had to take off without looking back at the damage I caused.
I’m on a train right now. It’s past midnight so it is pretty empty, with only one other person on the train. I’m using this time to type on my phone all of the events that occurred.
I plan on suiciding.
That is, if the police isn’t waiting for me on the next stop.
Either way, I am not getting out of this alive.
Right now, I want to voice the greatest regrets of my life.
I regret not telling Vanessa the truth.
I regret getting mad and throwing the scissors.
I regret not telling the supervisor.
I regret not telling my best friend that I loved him.
I regret not talking to my parents more.
I regret the stories I could have told, but instead my life had to be cut short at this one.
And it was the one story I wished I could have taken to the grave.
I regret taking my father’s advice.
I want the people to read this to try to understand my madness.
It was the damned room.
Something about it tore good friends apart.
Something about the 8 hours spent there broke us.
Something about it broke us enough to break others.
I’m so sorry Alyssia. I’m sorry that we had to leave off with you seeing my worst.
I guess this is good riddance.
The first time I saw Bret, I was nineteen. I’d found a job working security at Dave’s Storage Unit. My duties included keeping vagrants and thieves from disturbing the 40 rental units that were laid out in five neat rows in the middle of downtown Atlanta and helping customers with lost combinations for their locks. It wasn’t the safest part of town to be working night shift, but it seemed to be easy work and the hours meshed nicely with my class schedule at the community college. I trained two shifts on days, and then showed up that Thursday at 10 p.m. for my first shift alone. Or so I thought.
I arrived ten minutes early. A guy in a Fall Out Boy t-shirt sat at one desk playing Solitaire and a girl with long blond hair had her feet propped on the other, with a ball cap pulled down covering her face.
“Hi,” I said, when he looked up. “I’m Jason. New guy.”
“I’m Tom, ” he said, and started shoving stuff into a backpack. “Quiet day so far. Good luck. The crazies come out at night.”
The girl lowered her hat and stared at me. She was the kind of beautiful that just stops a guy in his tracks. Big green eyes, full lips, flawless skin … I realized I was staring and mumbled a ‘Hi,’ in her direction. Her eyes widened and she tipped her head in greeting.
Tom looked up at me, eyebrows raised. “Yeah…so, all the keys are in the top drawer of that filing cabinet, along with a master list of the combination locks. Don’t give anyone access unless they show two forms of I.D. and you make a copy of it. They’ll fire your ass if you’re not a stickler about that. And it has to be the person with their name on the contract, not a girlfriend, not a wifey. Some guy almost got canned because he let a wife in and she left with his whole stamp collection in the middle of a divorce.”
“It was him,” the girl said, and pointed at Tom. He ignored her, already heading toward the door.
“See ya, wouldn’t wanna be ya,” he said. “Night shift sucks.”
The girl flipped him a bird and I laughed. Tom shot me a look I couldn’t decipher, but then he gave a half-hearted wave and shut the door behind him.
I looked at the row of monitors and then back at the girl. She hadn’t taken her eyes off me and I felt awkward and flushed under her gaze.
“I’m Jason,” I said again, and immediately felt like an idiot.
“Bret,” she said, and leaned back in the chair. “Nice to have someone to talk to in this joint.”
“What about Tom?” I asked, sitting in the seat he’d vacated. She shook her head. “He’s a tool.”
“So… are you second shift or third? I thought I was working alone.”
She shrugged. “Wherever they need me.”
I guessed they called her in to keep an eye on the new guy, and she didn’t want to say she was supposed to babysit me. It was funny, because she seemed standoffish at first, but she was a talker and I loved to listen to her. By four a.m. it felt like I had known her forever, just one of those instant clicks and maybe even more so by the types of conversation people tend to have at those hours. We talked everything from childhood to politics. I think I was already falling a little in love with her.
She saw me stretch and said, “You want to go outside? We can do a walk around.”
A cool breeze blew, but she didn’t seem to notice. I couldn’t stop sneaking glances at her as we walked. Faded jeans, scuffed boots, black t-shirt and a camo jacket. I probably had close to the same outfit in my closet, but on her, even the ordinary seemed beautiful.
We walked the length of the first row and started down the second when she stopped and touched a bright yellow dandelion sprouting up through a crack in the sidewalk with the toe of her boot. “Those are my favorite flowers.”
I laughed. “Those are weeds.”
She smiled. “Those aren’t weeds. They’re wishes. Haven’t you ever blown on one and made a wish? And even when they’re yellow–that’s my favorite color. They’re such happy, hopeful little things.”
That made me smile, too. I’d never thought of them in that way. So many girls I knew seemed hung up on materialistic things, and Bret could find beauty in even this small flower. I was captivated.
When we made it to the fourth row, she stopped. Her face pinched into a grim expression as she said, “I don’t walk down this row.”
“Why?” I asked, taken aback by the look in her eyes.
“Number 27. It gives me the creeps.”
It was the third bay door, and it looked exactly like the first two. I didn’t understand, but I wanted her to smile again. “Then we skip this row.”
We finished walking the last row. A drink machine stood at the end of it and I asked her if she wanted one. She shook her head as I fed quarters into the slot.
A payphone I hadn’t noticed rang shrilly, making me jump. I laughed at myself and glanced at her. Bret’s expression wiped away my smile. She looked terrified.
“Don’t answer it!” she shouted. “Don’t ever answer it!”
I gaped at her, not understanding. “I don’t–I won’t–what’s wrong?”
She didn’t answer. She started walking briskly back toward the office. I chased after her, my change and soft drink forgotten.
“That phone rings every morning at 4:17,” she said, as I opened the door for her. “When you answer it sounds like dead air, or there’s some sort of hissing noise. It gives me the creeps.”
“Probably some automated thing. Wrong number or something, but it’s set on an auto-program.”
She looked at me and said, “Do you believe in ghosts, Jason?”
“You think a ghost is calling?”
“Don’t make fun of me!’” she snapped.
“I’m sorry.” I held up my hands in a gesture of surrender. “Do I believe in ghosts? Well, I haven’t ever seen one–”
She made a scoffing noise, and I said, “–but I won’t rule them out. My grandmother believed in ghosts. She said she had ‘the sight’ and swore that some people in our family could see them. Some had the gift of precognition, too. She was a very smart, reasonable lady.”
Mollified, Bret sat at the desk. “So, do you think everyone becomes a ghost when they die? Or do some move on to someplace else? Why would people be stuck here?”
I shrugged. “Unfinished business? Violent death? I don’t know. What do you think?”
She took a moment before responding. “Maybe the unfinished business. Maybe…maybe there just is nothing else.”
The easy vibe of our earlier conversation disappeared. She seemed anxious. Stressed. No matter what I tried to talk about, she seemed distracted. When Abe, the old guy on first shift appeared to relieve us, she walked out the door without saying goodbye. I bid a hasty good morning to him and ran to catch up.
I almost lost her, but I spied her head as she got on the train. It’d been a long time since I had a MARTA pass, so I had to dig for the $2.50 fare. She frowned when I sat next to her in the back, and I realized I probably looked like creepy stalker guy. Too late now, but I didn’t want her to be upset with me. I really liked this girl.
“What are you doing?” she asked, and I wanted to run, but the train lurched forward.
“I feel like I upset you and I’m sorry.”
She looked at an elderly lady in the next row, who was staring at us. Bret shook her head, like it was okay, but the lady got up and moved toward the front.
“It’s not you,” Bret said. “But I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Let’s talk about dandelions then,” I said. “They’re my new favorite flower. Like you, pretty and magical.”
As corny as that was, she laughed, and our conversation slipped back into the same easiness it had before that payphone rang last night. At least, until the next stop.
A lumbering bald man with beady dark eyes got on and took a seat a couple of rows in front of us. I saw Bret stiffen, though he didn’t pay much attention to us at all. His gaze fixed on a pretty Latina who sat in the middle, playing on her smartphone.
The rest of the ride, Bret never took her eyes off the man. He wasn’t pleasant to look at, but I didn’t understand her terror.
“This is my stop,” she said, and stood. The dark-haired girl also stood.
“Bret,” I said. “Uh, where are we? I need to get back to my motorcycle.”
She laughed then, the tension evaporating from her face. “You crazy boy. It will circle back around in about 6 more stops. I’ll see you tonight.”
She waved and walked forward, giving the man a wide berth. For a moment, he looked like he was about to get behind them, and I was prepared to do so as well, so she’d feel safe, but he just sat there.
Bret was already there when I arrived that night. She laughed when she saw the small bouquet of dandelions in my hand. Tom’s eyebrows shot up. He opened his mouth, then closed it again. He left in record time.
“I don’t think that guy likes me,” I said.
She waved her hand dismissively as I put the dandelions in water. “He doesn’t like anyone. And thank you for the flowers. They’re lovely.”
So are you, I thought, but I didn’t have the courage to say it yet.
I wasn’t about to bring up the guy on the train. I hated that tense, scared look she’d worn this morning. But to my surprise, she did.
“That man is evil,” she said. “Please don’t ask me to explain how I know. I’m afraid he means to hurt that girl and I don’t know how to stop him.”
My stomach dropped. “Bret…did he hurt you? We need to call the cops.”
She hesitated long enough to make me think he had, but she said, “No. I don’t know. I can’t remember things, and I’m scared to remember things. The phone makes me think of something but I push it back. Anyway, it’s not about me now. It’s about that girl.” She took a deep breath. “Let’s talk about it later. I don’t want to think about it right now.”
“I looked up dandelions between classes today,” I said. “People in the 1800s used to blow on them after they went to seed. If all the seeds blew away, the object of your affection shared your feelings.” I shook my head and gave her a pointed look. “You may not know it yet, but I think you’re in love with me.”
She laughed, long and hard and I grinned, pleased to see her happy again. Then her face got sad. “I wish I’d met you before, Jason.”
“What’s wrong with now?” I asked, with uncharacteristic bravery. “You’re not married, are you?”
She shook her head. “No, but I’m not what you think I am. There are a lot of bad things, Jason. I don’t want to explain, because I really like you.”
“You’re a beautiful girl with a weird taste in flowers. Think of all the money I’d save on Valentine’s Day if you were my girlfriend.”
She laughed again. “Just keep talking to me. I hardly talk to anyone anymore, and you’re so funny. Tell me about the motorcycle. I’m glad you made it back to it.”
“I actually didn’t come back to it this morning,” I admitted with a laugh. “I got off the train and took an Uber to my place, then hitched a ride to school. Took the train back to work tonight. I was kinda hoping I’d see you.” I had seen the creepy guy, but I didn’t tell her that. “Come outside and I’ll show it to you.”
She walked around it, trailing her fingers on the gleaming blue paint. “It’s pretty,” she said, “but I don’t like these things. They’ll get you killed.”
“I was hoping I could take you on a ride on it some time.”
She gave me a glance that looked like a definite ‘no’, but said, “We’ll see.”
Everything was fine until the phone began to ring at 4:17 a.m. I watched her face get that same terrified look and wondered what in the world had happened to her, and if it connected somehow to the creepy guy.
Around time for the day shift guy to come on, she mentioned the guy on the train again. “I don’t know why, but I have the feeling he’s going to do something to her, soon. I hate to ask, because I know you need sleep and go to class, but … would you ride the train with me again?”
“Of course,” I said.
Abe appeared at six on the dot. “Good morning, Sunshine!” he said, dropping his backpack onto a chair.
“Good morning, Abe,” Bret said. To me, she said, “I love that old guy.”
I chatted with him for a moment. Bret moved to the door and I said goodbye to Abe, intent on following her, when he called out, “Hey!”
His old face was pale when I glanced back. He pointed a shaky finger at the Styrofoam cup filled with dandelions. “Where did these come from?”
The look on his face spooked me. I wasn’t sure what was happening.
“I–I picked them for Bret.”
The old man face went slack with shock. “You know Bret? You’ve seen her?”
“Wha–” I whirled to look at her. She held out her hands in supplication. Tears streamed down her face. For the first time, I noticed she had on the same outfit as she had yesterday.
“I’m sorry, Jason. I didn’t–I didn’t know what to say.” “Jason?” Abe asked, louder. “I said, have you seen Bret?”
I couldn’t tear my gaze from her.
“Apparently, your grandma wasn’t the only one who had the gift,” she said, and walked through the door. When I say, walked through the door, I mean right through it. A freaking solid metal, closed door. I couldn’t move, couldn’t speak.
Finally, I half-fell onto one of the chairs. I heard Abe talking, but it was like he was speaking through a tunnel. It seemed like forever before I could focus on him.
There was nothing I could say that wouldn’t sound insane, so I didn’t bother to sugarcoat. I said, “You didn’t see her, just now, when you came in here?”
He shook his head, his rheumy eyes huge.
I told him about working with her, about some of the things she’d said. Even about the weird ringing phone. When I finished, he just stared at me.
“To be honest, I don’t know whether to believe you right now, or to call the cops,” he said.
I nodded. It was a fair statement. I don’t know what I’d think, in his shoes. “She said you used to be a cop, before your wife got sick.” I looked up at him. “She said you’re the reason she loves dandelions. You told her about how your wife loved them, and how you decorated her hospital room with them before she died. Bret said it was the most romantic thing she’d ever heard.”
Abe sat heavily in the chair. “I did tell her that. Can I ask you to describe her for me?”
I did, down to her scuffed boots, and he nodded. Then he reached into a desk drawer and pulled out a picture of her. It was Bret, alright, but on a MISSING poster. The clothing described as the last outfit she was seen wearing was what I’d seen her in.
“She went missing from her shift here, six months ago. I showed up and this place was wide open. There was a great deal of blood out by that payphone. The police never had any leads.”
I gestured at the row of monitors. One showed the drink machine and phone. “What about the cameras?”
“Installed after the fact. Because of her. Too little, too damn late.” He leaned forward, giving me a hard stare. “I loved that little girl. She was like a daughter to me. I’ve brought her dandelions myself. I have never believed in ghosts, but I saw your face this morning. I believe that you saw her, or you’re some kind of nut and think you saw her. But I don’t know how you know some of the things you know if that were the case. Bret and I worked together some, before we lost personnel and she got bumped to nights. I think she would’ve mentioned you, and I only told her the dandelion story right before she went missing. You could be the nut who took her, but I don’t think so. I can’t imagine why she’d share something like that with a person who would hurt her. If you see her again, ask her how much a mail order bride costs.”
“What?” I felt like I’d fallen back down the rabbit hole again. Nothing made sense. I wondered if I was dreaming.
“Just do it,” Abe said. “Now go home. You look like shit.”
Only when I stumbled to the parking lot did I remember my promise to ride the train with her. I thought about Bret and the Latina girl. In fact, I skipped class and lay in my bed and thought about them all day.
When I got to work that night, Tom was the only one there. Even though I still felt punch drunk and scared, I had hoped Bret would be sitting there. Abe apparently hadn’t told Tom about any of it, because he treated me with the same dismissiveness as always. It was weird to look back and realize he and Bret had never really spoken or interacted at all. I hadn’t had a clue.
By 4 a.m. I was getting a little stir crazy, so I jumped up to walk around the storage buildings. I turned the corner of the last one and walked straight through Bret.
I screamed like a little girl. She giggled a little, and clamped her hand over her mouth. “I’m sorry. Jason–”
“Are you real?” I demanded. “Am I crazy?”
“I think I’m real,” she said. “At least, I was. I know it sounds like I’m lying, but I don’t remember much.” She nodded at the payphone. “I remember this phone and it ringing. I think he used that to catch me off-guard. I answered it and he hit me with something. I think–” She pinched the bridge of her nose. “I think he’s about to kill that girl on the train. Maybe I’m supposed to help her.”
Abruptly, she swung her fist at my arm and it passed right through. I yelped.
“Stop doing that!”
Despite everything, she laughed. “I was just checking. I don’t know how I’m supposed to stop him when he can’t see me and I can’t touch him.” She winked. “On the bright side, I bet you look crazy as hell on the security cameras right now.”
I scowled at her, then something occurred to me. I glanced at my phone. 4:20 a.m. “Hey, the phone didn’t ring.”
She shot it a scared look. “What does that mean? Are we on the right track, or are we running out of time?”
I had no answer.
The next morning when Abe came in, he gave me a wary look and said, “Is she here now?”
I nodded and pointed at the chair she was sitting on. “Bret, how much does a mail order bride cost?”
She laughed. “Tell him I said, ‘Ask Ernie.’”
I told him and his dark eyes teared up.
“Bret, what happened to you?” he asked.
“She doesn’t remember but we are trying to figure it out,” I said.
“Tell him Maggie still visits him. I’ve seen her around him. She’s got a little girl she calls Bumblebee with her.”
I told him and he burst into tears. When he could finally speak, his voice was a gasp. “There’s not a soul alive who knows that. Bumblebee was our daughter. She died back in 1974. I’ve never talked about her since.”
“Jason, the train,” she said, and I told Abe we had to go.
“Godspeed, son,” he said.
When we got on the train, the girl was already there. The bald man got on the same stop he had previously. His attention was once again fixed on her, but hers was once again fixed on her phone.
I had no weapon and this guy was twice my size, but when I thought about him hurting Bret, or this stranger, I think I could’ve taken him down with pure adrenaline. We were about to find out, anyway, because this time when she stood, he stood too.
It was still early, not a lot of folks out yet. We followed him, following her, trying to stay ducked out of sight.
She paused outside a storefront and fumbled in her purse for her keys. That was the distraction he was waiting on. He charged her like a bull.
It was terrifying, how quickly he seized her and dragged her into an alleyway. I ran blindly into the alley behind them. He had her pinned against the wall, his meaty hand around her throat.
“Hey!” I screamed. “Hey! Let her go!”
She still had her keys in her hand. While he gaped at me, she swung at his head with a vicious arc. She missed his eye, but the key dug into his cheek. The girl gave it a savage yank, opening up his face.
With a bellow of pure rage, he dropped her and grabbed his ruined cheek. Blood spurted between his fingers and he ran straight at me. I made a desperate lunge for his legs, but he barreled past me–straight into the pathway of a Meko’s Milk truck.
I’d hear the sound of that impact in my head for the rest of my life. A thudding, cracking, squelching sound. But I was glad. He’d never hurt another girl again.
Bret was gone. I missed her terribly and hoped every day she’d reappear. I realized that was selfish and then I just hoped she was at peace. There was no grave to visit, so sometimes I’d gather little bouquets of dandelions and place them at the office, or at my apartment. Such happy, hopeful little things …
Four months after the incident with Edward Culpepper (that was his name–I’d followed the story avidly in the papers), I was getting a little overtime, helping Abe go through the stack of delinquent customers.
“Looks like we’ll be cleaning out units #27 and #38,” he said. “Non-payment of rental fees.” He tossed the copies of their agreements on the desk in front of me and I froze. Edward Culpepper’s face stared up at me from the photocopy of his driver’s license. Renter of unit #27.
Abe noticed my face and said, “Jason? Are you okay?”
“That’s him,” I said. “That’s the guy who killed Bret.”
I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before then. Her strange fear of that unit. Now it made sense. I told Abe and that old man moved faster than I did as we grabbed the combination for that lock.
It took us awhile, because the until was completely filled with old furniture and boxes of junk, but towards the back, we found a metal barrel. On the ground beside it lay Bret’s army jacket.
Abe grabbed my arm. “We are not opening that. We are calling the cops right now, do you understand me?”
I let him pull me outside, because I didn’t want to see her like that, either.
Bret’s body was finally laid to rest. With her mother’s permission (and notice to the caretaker so he wouldn’t try to kill them), Abe and I did some gardening work on her grave that next spring. Yellow dandelions covered it, looking as beautiful and sunny as the girl they memorialized. I think she would be pleased.
Five or six years passed. I graduated college, got a real job, fell in and out of love a couple of times, but I never really stopped thinking of her. Every time I saw a white dandelion, I picked it and made a wish. When I was in the area, I visited her grave and made sure she still had her cheery little offerings.
One day, I was riding my motorcycle up near Nashville, enjoying a sunny summer day. I guess the driver of the Camaro didn’t see me when he swerved around a semi to change lanes.
I flew through the air and fell back down, hitting the ground with a bone-jarring thud. I lay there, conscious of sounds and light, but I couldn’t move at all. I couldn’t feel anything either, except for the heat of the sun on my face.
I was disoriented, but I guessed I was in the median. Lying on grass, for sure, because there was a round, white dandelion inches from my nose. Blackness seeped at the edges of my peripheral vision. I couldn’t blow on it, but I made a wish anyway, then passed out.
When I came to, I still couldn’t move, but I felt a little more. Specifically, I felt someone nudging my side. I looked up to see Bret prodding me with the toe of her boot.
“You gonna lie there all day?” she asked, and extended her hand.
Surprisingly, my hand rose to grab hers and didn’t pass through. She felt solid. Real. I wondered if I was in the hospital and this was some anesthesia-induced delirium. But the sun felt real enough. I even smelled burned rubber. I let her help me up, and I stood there for a moment, swaying. I saw my bike some yards away, crushed.
“Ugh,” I said. “Maybe I shouldn’t move too much before the paramedics get here.”
She winced. “Yeah, about that…” She pointed to the ground beside me.
It was surreal to see my broken body lying there, staring sightlessly up at the sky.
“Oh,” I said. “Ouch.”
She shook her head. “I told you those things would kill you.”
“So … now what?” I asked. “Is there a bright light we walk towards or what?”
“You’re so calm. I like that about you.” She shrugged. “If there’s something we’re supposed to be walking toward, I haven’t found it yet. Maybe it’s just me and you.”
“Maybe it’s my wish,” I said, and she raised an eyebrow.
“I made a wish right before I passed out—died, whatever.”
She scrunched up her nose. “Oh, yeah? Is that why I’m here? What was the wish?”
“Just one I’ve wished a thousand times now. You’re really bad about responding to your ghost messages.”
I took her hands and made her face me. “Sorry. Still getting the hang of this business.” She waved her hand dismissively. “Such a rookie. But tell me, what was your wish?”
“What I always wish–that I could see you again someday, and do this,” I said, and kissed her.
I’m not sure how long we stood like that, kissing and holding each other while sirens screamed and traffic whizzed by on the other side of the median.
Eventually, we started walking. I didn’t know where we were going. Didn’t care. All I knew was that I was with her.
“So,” I said. “Who’s Ernie and what’s this about a mail order bride?”
Before she could tell me, a terrible cramp seized my body and I felt myself being tugged backwards. Brett frowned, her green eyes suddenly sad.
“It’s not your time,” she said. “Stop fighting it.”
I didn’t want to let go. I wanted to stay with her.
But the tugging became a vacuum until I had no choice I went hurtling backwards.
I blinked and saw an ambulance worker standing over me.
“There you are,” he said as he popped up the stretcher I was somehow on.
They loaded me onto the helicopter. I saw Brett standing over his shoulder. She held a dandelion in her hand.
“It’s okay, Jason,” she said. “Some things are worth waiting for.”
Newton, Georgia is a small town near the Alabama border. Less than an hour away from Stanwyck, my husband Robert’s hometown. Newton’s your typical one Wal-Mart, one high school town. People are friendly. And every November, the weather starts getting a little cooler.
But there’s also quite a bit of history in Newton as well. Some of it ugly, some interesting. But recently, we’ve started getting some new history in this small town. A dark notoriety. You see, Newton was a quiet All-American town. Well before it became home to The Day Stalker.
The police and press don’t know anything about the killer. For all we know, the Stalker could’ve been male, female, whatever. It didn’t matter. There were no clues. Just a bizarre M.O.: a victim that always went missing in the daytime.
All of the victims were suspected to have been taken during the day… morning, afternoon, evening. It didn’t matter to the Stalker. And then like clockwork, the bodies were found a little less than twenty-four hours later. Always in a remote location. Always in the daytime. It turns out the Stalker was a pure sunrise-sundown serial killer.
The murders had been piling up for about a year now. A year of panic and turmoil. And yes, the media went fucking nuts. We had national and local affiliates patrolling the town like a swarm of buzzards. All of them rude as fuck.
I dealt with the chaos for awhile. After all, I was one of the local beat writers for The Rockdale Citizen, our bi-weekly paper. Well, I should say I was a writer for them. The intrusive invasion of all these other pretentious “reporters” killed my action. All anyone ever wrote about was The Day Stalker… and these national writers all had a Hell of a lot more resources than I did. More ways to bullshit the lack of information at least. And since I didn’t cover sports or local history, I was among the first of the Rockdale casualties.
So I was laid off a few weeks ago. I guess Rockdale figured they’d let the big boys cover The Day Stalker. I was expendable. Well, whatever. Fuck them. I didn’t need that shit paper. I had a degree, Robert made good money on the police force. Me and him would still live in the heart of Newton suburbia. Only now I’d have more time to write. Yeah, that’s right. Local Newton reporter Michelle Lenz was now gonna become a world famous novelist. Or at least, I was gonna make my umpteenth attempt at it. Most importantly though, I now had more time with my son Billy.
Billy was eight and scared shitless by the Stalker coverage. I couldn’t blame him considering the fear that swept over the community like a thick fog. And like in a thick fog, we couldn’t see who the killer was. We didn’t know who’d be next. And even in the daytime, we had no idea when the Stalker would strike again. Regardless of all the press, us Newtonites felt totally isolated. Nothing more than helpless pawns for this exploitative news story.
During the long layoff, I spent more time with Billy. I think having me around comforted him. Gone were those long work nights spent at the office or covering local elections. Shit, I could even pick Billy up from school on time without having him wait around over an hour like an embarrassed orphan. Now Billy and I were closer than ever.
While Robert was stressed and overworked with the other officers, I became like both a mother and father for Billy. Both the nurturing mama and devoted daddy. We’d even play catch together in those cool autumn evenings.
From what I saw, my constant unemployment gave Billy constant reassurance. Constant safety from the plague of unease brought upon us by both the Stalker and the stifling media.
Everything in Newton was so tumultuous nowadays. A feeding frenzy of news cameras and asshole anchors. They made it tough to do anything in our little town. Traffic got congested, crowds conquered the city. And of course, putting Billy to sleep was harder than ever.
With Robert gone most nights, I was always there at Billy’s bedside. A lot of nights I even fell asleep lying right next to him. A Scooby-Doo book usually on my chest.
And tonight was no different. There we were lying on his bed. In Billy’s bomb shelter of a bedroom. There were the shelves of action figures. The Scooby-Doo dolls. And the countless comic books. Billy was interested in the scary stuff… just not old enough to handle the real disturbing stuff.
In his room, Billy cowered beneath his Superman blankets like a terrified soldier hiding in the trenches. I could sense his unease. His trembling timidity. Billy’s nerves yet another victim of the Day Stalker.
But I was there by his side. I held Billy close, my arm draped around him like a shield. All while reading him the latest adventures of Scooby-Doo. The illustrated monsters provided us a safe spookiness from the all-too-real horror conquering our small town.
As I finished the last page, I looked over and saw Billy’s eyes glued to the window. Perpetual worry on his young face.
I squeezed his shoulder. “Hey,” I said in a soft tone.
Startled, Billy looked at me with quivering eyes.
“It’s okay, Billy,” I comforted him.
“But what if he’s out there?” Billy asked in a low voice. His nervous gaze drifted back to the window. To our back yard.
The lighting outside illuminated the small yard. A perfect lawn I’d kept pristine due to all my free time. Even the shed out back looked nice… the opposite of the dilapidated eyesores that most of our neighbors had allowed theirs to turn into.
I closed the book and laid it on the nightstand. I could see it was gonna take more than Scooby-Doo to ease my baby’s fears.
“He’s not, Billy,” I told him. Ever the caring mother, I leaned in closer. “I promise.”
Billy faced me. He could see the confidence radiate off my warm smile.
“He won’t get you at night,” I said to him. I rubbed Billy’s shoulder. “The Day Stalker only comes out in the daytime, remember.”
“Yeah…” Billy said, his voice still full of trepidation.
I kissed his forehead. Like a Lifetime mom’s kiss. Only mine was sincere. “You’re safe at night, sweetie. I promise you, you are.”
Silent, Billy just looked at me with his big bright eyes.
“Ain’t no one gonna get you,” I continued. I pinched Billy’s cheek. “Not as long as I’m here.”
“But what about the daytime?” Billy asked in a tremble.
“What about it?”
Like a paranoid scout, Billy stole another glance out the window. “What if he gets me in the daytime?”
Grinning, I pulled him in closer. “Sweetie, you’ll be in school!” I followed his gaze out the window. Out at our lovely lawn. “And when you’re not, I’m with you. Okay. Mommy’s gonna be here a lot now. I’m gonna take you to school and take you back home.”
My playful hands threatened to tickle Billy.
He couldn’t help but laugh as he leaned in toward me. The chuckling alleviated Billy’s scared state. Music to my desperate ears.
“Mommy’s never leaving you, baby,” I reassured him. “I’m always with you, remember that.”
“I know…” His lingering smile relieved me. Even a weak smile was better than seeing your eight-year-old son so dominated by unease.
“And daddy’ll protect us too. You know he’s tough!”
With the confidence of Wonder Woman, I strengthened my hold on Billy, showing off my physical and emotional strength. “You got that right!”
Right before I could give him another kiss, Billy’s small hand blocked me. “But mom.”
“What about Jodie?” he said, his voice a mere whimper. Like he was asking a question he wasn’t sure he wanted the answer to. Like he didn’t want the answer.
“Jodie?” I asked, keeping my smile. “That girl from school?”
“Yeah…” He peeked out the window. “I’m worried about her…” He faced me. “Is she gonna be safe too?”
Supportive, I cradled Billy in my arms. “Yes!” And this time, I did tickle him. “I promise you Jodie’ll be fine!”
Billy giggled like a grade school maniac. So much so he almost fell of the bed.
Grinning, I held him steady in my arms. “Jodie’s safe, okay. Both of y’all are!”
Still laughing, Billy wrapped an arm around my neck. “Okay!”
Like a victorious mama, I planted a kiss on Billy’s soft cheek. Full of joy, we looked on at each other’s smiling faces. My job here was done in this arena of toys and superheroes.
But deep down, I knew I’d lied. One of the few lies I’d ever tell my son…
Less than thirty minutes later, Billy was sound asleep. He slept heavy too. I could go berserk in that room, but he’d never wake up. The cartoons I’d left on his flatscreen were more effective than a sleeping pill.
Billy didn’t even budge when I stepped off the bed. I’d left him some juice and cookies on the nightstand… a little something extra in the grape juice just in case Billy were to wake up in those next few hours.
I turned off the lights in the backyard. Like I always did for these late-night rituals. Dressed in my hoodie and jeans, I walked alone toward the shed. The November coldness did nothing against the warm excitement I felt within.
You see, I hadn’t told Billy a complete lie. He was safe. And he would always be safe. Unfortunately, I just had to lie about Jodie. When she skipped school today, the opportunity was too perfect to pass up. Like when the naive fly just happens to land on that vicious trap.
The little girl should’ve known better. After all, Newton isn’t the town for skipping class. Not when The Day Stalker lurks about in those mornings and afternoons.
I stepped inside my shed. Trembling with never-ending excitement, my hand managed to lock the door behind me.
The hanging small light bulb broadcast little Jodie Marks lying on a table in the back. She was out cold. Naked. Bound-and-gagged in duct tape with tight precision. Like a patient awaiting surgery. Only there was gonna be no drugs to ease the pain. I’d awaken her soon enough. I always woke them up before I got started.
Behind her awaited all my tools. Items on the pegboard and shelves. Knives, spades, hammers. All sorts of vicious weapons. All at my disposal.
My exhilaration warming me from the shed’s coldness, I walked up to the arsenal of weapons. My eager eyes scanned each and every one of them. My touch caressed them. There were so many choices…
Throughout my pre-game ritual, I realized no one in the media would ever know that forcing me out of Rockdale had only increased my reign of terror. Back when I was working, I had a tough time with the schedule. Balancing being a mother, wife, reporter, and killer was tough! But now… well, I had all the free time in the world. While Billy was in school, I had all day to do what I wanted to do. To indulge in my sick pleasures.
And tomorrow after dropping Billy off, the police would discover what was left of Jodie’s body. Like a musician releasing a surprise album, I’d dump her corpse somewhere to continue this circus. My world tour of slaughter. And everyone would still fear me. They’d still be terrified of The Day Stalker.
And through it all, Billy would always be safe. That much was true. Our relationship would never suffer. I may hurt others, but I’d never dare hurt him. I love Billy. While he may forever live in fear of the Stalker, he’ll forever love me.
Finally, I settled on my sharpest garden spade. In the blade’s reflection all I saw was my wide smile. My Day Stalker face. Like a demented child at Christmas. Only I was gonna have much more fun…
Holding the weapon, I looked over at Jodie. In just a few moments, I’d wake her. Then her helpless eyes would watch me make that first vicious wound. Her screams suppressed. Her body trapped.
Sure, I was The Day Stalker. I collected my victims during those long afternoons. And I’d dispose of their bodies early in the morning. But the real work… the real fun part always happened at night.
The day that I married Marjorie, I felt like the luckiest guy in the world. She was smart and beautiful, and ever since I had met her six months earlier, not a day had gone by that I didn’t wonder what she was doing with a guy like me. It wasn’t that I’m a loser—I think I’m a good guy and look well-enough, and the only real ding in my eligibility as a good boyfriend or husband was that I lost my job recently due to layoffs. But even that was turning around, as I’m supposed to be starting the process of getting a U.S. Customs job at the Savannah docks at the end of the month. If it all worked out, it would mean better pay and benefits, plus great retirement.
It was just that Marjorie seemed close to perfect. She didn’t have any family aside from an older brother she was close with, and she was the type to have tons of casual friends but few close ones. Everyone loved her, and I could tell when we went out all the guys (and a few of the girls) were jealous that I was the one with her. When she proposed to me three weeks ago, I was taken by surprise, but I’m not overly traditional. It never occurred to me to say no or put off us getting married.
Some of my friends asked me about it of course, wanting to make sure I wasn’t moving too fast. That I knew her well enough to know that she was the right one and this was the right time. But I just laughed at that, joking more than once that not only was I sure, but I needed to hurry up and marry her before she realized what she was getting herself into.
Initially, we hadn’t planned on taking a honeymoon for awhile so I could start this new job and we could both save up money, but the day of the wedding, Marjorie’s brother Pete surprised us with an invitation to take an impromptu trip west with him for a few days. He was a very successful long-haul trucker and had just bought a brand-new semi that he claimed could comfortably hold six people, much less three, and he was heading out to California in a few days.
I had misgivings at first. It sounded like a long and potentially uncomfortable trip, particularly for a honeymoon. But Pete explained that he had a “hot site” lined up out there and he would love for us to go.
“Hot site” was the lingo he used for places that were supposed to be legitimate locations of documented paranormal activity. Ghost hunter type stuff, though it wasn’t limited to ghosts. He had told us tons of stories the few times we had hung out, ranging from looking for bigfoot up in Canada to exploring a deserted high school for a ghost in the Midwest. He was passionate about the stuff, and while I didn’t believe in ghosts and goblins myself, I could tell that Marjorie did. And Pete was a fun guy in my limited experience, full of interesting tales and funny jokes. I had always felt comfortable around him. Accepted. And that meant a lot.
Still…the idea was to drive to California over four days, spend a week out there having fun, and then four days back. That was a long time to be traveling with a new bride and a brother-in-law I didn’t know that well. Plus, there was the financial side of it. We didn’t magically have a lot of money just because he was offering a trip.
But Pete had answers for that too. His company, which he was partners in, would cover the room and the travel expenses, including a rental car for the week when we got to California. Same went for food. When I started to object to him paying for everything, he shook his head and patted my shoulder. He said it was his wedding gift to us, and it was not a big deal. He’d write off the expenses on his taxes and appreciate the company.
And naturally, he said with a wry grin, he knew that we would want our privacy. We’d have our own room on the road every night and he knew a great hotel for us to stay at once we arrived in California. The owner was a friend of his and had already said he’d comp us two rooms for the week we were there.
It all sounded great. If I’m honest, it all sounded too good to be true. I suddenly had images from half a dozen movies I’d seen where people end up being arrested as drug mules or dissected in warehouses run by sadists or organ thieves. I was probably being overly dramatic and letting my pride get in the way of a great opportunity, but I just felt uneasy about the whole thing.
But then I saw Marjorie out of the corner of my eye. I could feel her gaze on me, and as I turned to look at her more fully, I saw the hope and worry in her face. She wanted to go–wanted a honeymoon with me and time with a brother she didn’t see as often as she’d like. I knew she’d accept it if I said I didn’t want to do it, but how could I deny her something so simple and harmless? A few days with the people she loved most, having fun and relaxing. I knew, if I was lucky, I would be stretched thin by the new job for the next few months. This might be the last chance we had to get away and do something cool for some time.
So, I said yes. She had let out a squeal and hugged my neck, and I let my misgivings and pride slip away as I held onto her tightly. We left the following Tuesday with two suitcases, a laptop, and enough folding money to cover souvenirs and emergencies.
The first day was uneventful but fun. Pete’s truck cab was truly amazing. Between its flip down seats and bed, mini fridge and television, it felt more like a small hotel room than the interior of a transfer truck. Looking out through its massive front windows as Pete drove down the interstate headed west, it was surreal seeing everything from so much higher than I was used to when driving. It was neat, but I couldn’t help but think that driving the truck must be terrifying given how easy it would be to hit something and not even realize it until it was too late.
But it didn’t seem to bother Pete. He chatted with us some and let Marjorie control the radio, and by late afternoon we were pulling into a small but nice chain hotel off the interstate for the night. Pete checked us in and gave us our key cards, telling us he was going to go get some sleep, but he’d see us in the morning for breakfast. We were excited to finally have some time to ourselves, so we didn’t leave our own room except to pay the pizza delivery guy later in the evening.
The next morning we went to meet my new brother-in-law at the restaurant across the road, and once inside we saw he was already set up at a booth near the back, two accordion folders sharing his side of the table. Marjorie rolled her eyes and groaned when she saw the stacks of papers Pete was going through, burying her face in my shoulder.
“Oh no. It’s started. My ghost hunting nerd of a brother is on the case.”
Pete looked up and gave us a smile. “Yeah, yeah. Make fun. This is good intel, and I thought I could bring you both up to speed before we start making miles today.”
Marjorie gave a light snort as she raised her eyebrow. “Good intel, huh? I didn’t realize this was a military op. Are we going to have code names when we visit the ‘hot site’?” She did air quotes on the last bit, and it was clear from her tone and expression that she was making fun of him.
This was all very odd. Marjorie idolized her brother, and short of him taking a shit on the table, I doubted she’d find fault in pretty much anything he did. And they would joke around from time to time, but not like this. She seemed mad about something, or at the very least mean-spirited in her joking. Pete just gave her a smirk and went back to looking at the papers he had, but I decided to go ahead and try to head off any further comments.
“I think it’s a pretty cool hobby, Marjorie, and if we’re going all this way, it’s good he’s done his research.” Pete grinned at me and nodded. Emboldened, I went on. “And Pete has always told us good stories about this kind of stuff before, so let’s see what he has to say.”
Marjorie shot me a dark look and flopped down in the booth. “I guess. Let’s get some food ordered first though, I’m starving.”
Ten minutes later, our order was placed and Pete had gotten his presentation organized, which really just amounted to him pulling out a few pictures to show us during his account of Wizard’s Folly. Carefully stowing away the rest of the papers and securing the covers on the accordion files, Pete began his tale.
* * * * * *
Wizard’s Folly was an amusement park that opened up in 1947. Initially it was a haunted house more than anything, as the original attraction consisted solely of the large, abandoned mansion at the center of forty acres nestled in the outskirts of the small north California town of Firenze. The town itself had been established back in 1894 by Frank Pazzi who had immigrated to New York from Florence, Italy a decade earlier before making his way west. Pazzi was extremely wealthy, and though no one knew how he had gained his fortune, he found little complaint when he poured nearly three million dollars into the town itself and another half a million into building his own nearby estate.
Firenze was small and somewhat cloistered in the expanse of wilderness Pazzi had purchased, and for a time it seemed to be the perfect community. Everyone had work, a nice house, and plenty to eat, and if Pazzi was a bit eccentric, who really cared? It was expected that such a man, with foreign ways and rarified tastes, would seem somewhat strange to the working folk who had come to the area. Once his house was finished, he only allowed a handful of people into his home as servants, and they largely lived on his grounds in one of three guest houses he’d had constructed. The only person who still lived in town was his head housekeeper, who went by the name Susanna Templeton. People said that after just a few weeks of going into that house, Templeton had changed dramatically, becoming withdrawn and quick to anger. For a time, vague gossip such as this was all the acknowledgement you would find from the townsfolk that something might be wrong. It wasn’t until around 1912 that the town started talking about the missing people.
Fifty miles from Firenze there was a small clinic called Greenheart Home that catered to all kinds of cases that were too sensitive for normal hospitals and institutions. More to the point, it was a place where wealthy families would stick family members that they had decided were too much a burden or embarrassment to keep at home or send elsewhere.
The insane, the addicted, the pregnant woman out of wedlock or the deviant man, these were just a few of the menagerie that could be found housed inside its walls. From the outside, the clinic maintained a facade of genteel civility and gentle care. But the staff cared little about the comfort of their patients, and they knew the checks would keep coming so long as their charges remained quiet. Over the years it became a black pit of cruelty and abuse where people were thrown to be forgotten. Small wonder then, that it took some time before anyone noticed that every year a number of its “clients” went missing.
During the early years, when someone in Firenze saw the white truck from Greenheart Home trundling through town toward the Pazzi estate, they would just shrug and raise a questioning eyebrow. Over time this evolved into a knowing look and a furtive whisper if you were bold. But those that spread gossip and rumors about what Pazzi was doing up there were careful to do so discreetly. It was too good a town, too good a life, to risk angering the head of their little forest kingdom.
In late 1911, there was a massive fire at Greenheart Home. Thirty-seven people died, and those that survived were sent back home or to other institutions in other parts of the country. For a time afterward, everything was quiet and nothing changed in the town of Firenze. But then people from the town started disappearing.
In the 1910 U.S. Census, Firenze was reported to have 958 citizens. By the 1920 Census, that number was down to less than 500. Now most of that wasn’t missing people of course. Those with better sense or more resources left the town before it got really bad, and that accounted for several hundred people over the course of several years. But in the ten years after Greenheart Home caught fire, there were an estimated 65 or more people that just disappeared.
Now listen closely to this next part, because it’s important. The records are spotty from back then, particularly in an isolated town like Firenze, but for the most part the journals and newspaper articles agree with the handful of eyewitness accounts that were collected by ambitious authors and reporters scavenging the area after it was all over.
When I say these people disappeared, I mean just that. Not that they were abducted from their homes by Pazzi’s henchmen in the middle of the night. Not that they were snatched off the street by mysterious figures. These were wives in the middle of a conversation with their husband and he’s suddenly not there. Children playing in a swing one moment, and gone without a trace the next. There were over a dozen accounts of different people literally disappearing in front of people’s eyes, to say nothing of the scores of other people that went missing when no one was around.
After a few months of this, the leaders of the town had gone to Pazzi, hats in hand, trying to probe him for information, help, or some clear sign that he was involved. Pazzi listened to their concern with all the attention of a disinterested king before clucking his tongue with concern and patting them on the head. He promised to offer rewards for any and all of the missing, and the next week there were several flybills up around town proclaiming $1000 for the return of any of those that had gotten lost.
Because that’s how the townsfolk that stayed in Firenze started to refer to them. “Oh, Bill Gunderson? Yeah, he got lost last spring. His wife Polly is still running the store though, and isn’t she doing a good job?” There was an unspoken consensus in the town that while concern and action would be given lip service, no one was really going to rock the boat. The flybills would be torn down until the next season of disappearances, when they would go up again for a few days. In between, people were growing tenser and more frightened, but they largely kept it to themselves.
Then Annabelle Perkins got lost. Her husband, Rudolph Perkins, had moved them to Firenze two years earlier, and while by all accounts they were well-liked and respected, it was known that Rudolph and Annabelle were both more vocal in their concerns about the periodic rash of disappearances that seemed to plague their town. Their friends and neighbors tried to mollify them, of course, and for a time that seemed to help. But when Annabelle went missing while in the middle of taking a bath one night in December of 1921, Rudolph was beyond persuasion.
He gave voice to what so many in the town knew. Frank Pazzi was the one behind the disappearances somehow. And whatever he was doing to those people, they were never seen again. It took only a couple of hours to talking to his friends to gather up a large crowd that had grown tired of living in fear and dread. Like a scene out of an old monster movie, they stormed the estate and began searching for Pazzi to demand answers.
Unfortunately, he was nowhere to be found. What they did find…well, there’s not a lot that’s clear from that night. I know that fifteen people went to the house, and several of them died inside, but it’s unclear how or why that happened. They tried to question his house staff, but they were all gone as well, and when they went to the head housekeeper’s home, Susanna Templeton was dead, having hung herself from a clothesline in the back yard.
One of the survivors of that night wrote a brief account of what they found in the house. Much of it was garbled and hard to make sense of, but one thing was clear. At some point they went into the lower levels of that house and found hidden chambers no one knew even existed. Pazzi had recruited some of his builders from somewhere else, and it must have been those men that had dug out the subterranean rooms and installed all of the cages and apparatus.
To call it a torture chamber or a dungeon is inaccurate. More accurately, it was a black shrine to some form of occult worship. There were strange symbols etched into every surface, and one of the spaces included a large pit filled with the refuse from nearly two decades of human sacrifice. It was here that the account gets especially hard to follow, as it seems to be talking about the mound of bones and flesh moving or rising up against them while also talking about Rudolph finding his beloved Annabelle even as he joined the other men in a terrible scream…it’s very weird, raw stuff. The guy who wrote it died only a few weeks later, so there was never a chance for anyone to find out what he really meant. In any case, that was the deathblow for Firenze, and by 1923 it was a ghost town.
It might have just faded away forever, slowly getting consumed by the forest at its edge, if it hadn’t all been bought by a man named Wilson Tattersall. The owner of a large security firm in the east that was slowly taking business away from the Pinkerton Agency, Tattersall knew the value of grabbing up land in the West with his newfound fortune. By 1932, Pazzi had gone from having been declared missing to being declared dead. With no will or heirs, the estate and the city itself reverted to the state of California, who was more than happy to sell it cheaply to the man from Virginia who was already buying up large swaths of land around the state.
It lay fallow for several more years before Tattersall began to develop it. In 1945, he announced plans to turn it into an amusement park of sorts. Keep in mind that this was ten years before Disneyland opened, so the idea of an amusement park in the mid-forties was typically confined to state fairs or a few bigger places like Coney Island or White City. The parks had rides, even rollercoasters, but between the Depression and World War Two, a lot of them had shut down. The idea of building a brand new one, particularly in the middle of nowhere, and especially at the scene of so much horror, seemed insane to me when I first read about it.
But then I realized that no one really knew what had happened in Firenze. Aside from a few articles at the time and the journals that were found by authors and researchers in the years since, it was just never widely known or talked about. And Tattersall, for all his money and ambition, started small when he rebuilt the town. He renovated the house and estate to play up the preexisting gothic architecture, remodeling here and there to suit its new purpose as a haunted house by adding secret hallways and staff areas as well as many nasty surprises for guests. The lower levels were supposed to be off-limits, however. Whether that meant that he sealed them off or had preserved them in their original state, no one knew.
When the park opened in 1947, it was called Wizard’s Folly. This played into the new legends that Tattersall had been strategically inserting into the rumor mills of towns in the surrounding counties. Instead of dozens of dead and missing, there were only a couple of girls and a little boy that were victims of the cruel Francesco Pazzi, a vile man who considered himself a wizard and alchemist of sorts. He had allegedly taken the victims’ blood as part of some insane ritual to make a Philosopher’s Stone, which he hoped to use to convert various substances into precious metals. Instead, the ritual went awry and he wound up burning to death in the bowels of his strange home. It is said that he and his “guests” still haunt those very halls…
Or so the ads said. A bunch of bullshit, but it spread like wildfire. Most people were tight on money back then, but they were also hungry for some time away from the realities of daily life. At a penny per person, carloads of people were making the trek and standing in line to get in from the first week it was open. By the time word had spread about how terrifying the house was, how you really did need to try it for yourself, the wait to get in was over four hours.
In the following six months, the park not only grew in popularity but in size as well. This was, for all intents and purposes, an adult theme park, but the estate could only hold so many visitors at a time if it was going to be an effective haunted house. So they added a go-kart track and a tilt-a-whirl, followed by a hot dog stand that served beer. Next was a handful of booths where guys could try to win cheap toys for their dates along with a “curiosities” show that was essentially a freak show on the front end and a peep show on the back. By October of ’47, they had started building a real, honest-to-God wooden rollercoaster too.
It was toward the end of that month, just a few days before Halloween, when it all fell apart. They called it a “toxic infection caused by mold”, and it was traced back to dozens of people that had visited Wizard’s Folly. But based on some things I’ve found, that was just a cover story. Over three hundred people scattered across six states reported seeing and hearing things, vomiting, and feeling an oppressive sense of being watched. This was covered up because of the two things that they all had in common. The first was that they had all visited Wizard’s Folly at some point in the six months it had been open. The second was that all of them started experiencing symptoms at exactly the same time: 9:23 p.m. pacific time on October 27, 1947.
Whatever happened that night in October at Wizard’s Folly, it was covered up. And the park was closed permanently the next day. Since that time, it’s been abandoned and forgotten–the Tattersall company, now called Tattersall Global–still owns the place, but it’s just a relic. They have a couple of guards patrolling it, and it’s become a bit of a holy grail in some corners of the internet paranormal community because no one has ever managed to get in more than a few yards before they are caught and turned away.
Then two months ago a guy started posting on a forum I frequent. Claimed that he and a buddy of his worked as guards for Tattersall at the old Wizard’s Folly park. People immediately called bullshit, but the next day he posted several pictures online of him at the park, and it looked legit. He said that for $5,000.00, him and his buddy would “take off” a couple of hours at an appointed time, leaving the gate open for the buyer and whoever he wanted to bring. The only rules were that they didn’t break or take anything and they were out again before the two hours was up.
I wound up in a brief bidding war with a lady from Seattle, but I managed to get it for $8,000.00. Marge, don’t look like that. I’ve got the money to spend, and this is a once in a lifetime chance. But anyway…that wraps up my presentation for now. There’s more to show you, but we’ll get to that later.
* * * * * *
A look passed between Pete and Marjorie, but I couldn’t read its significance. I was kind of blown away by everything I had just heard and that it had all come from Pete. When I told him so, he smirked at me as he forked in a mouthful of cold eggs.
“Oh, because I drive a truck you think I can’t be smart? Can’t read?”
I felt my face flushing crimson. “No, no. That’s not what I meant at all. It’s just…all that information. It’s impressive is all. It must have taken you a long time to pull all that together.”
He laughed and Marjorie joined in now, her earlier anger seemingly forgotten. “I’m just fucking with you, Phil. But yeah, it took a long time, even with the internet. This shit is obscure, and some of the people you run across in these circles don’t like to turn aloose of the little nuggets they’ve found along the way. It was fun though, and I think it’ll be worth it. This one is really something. I can feel it.
I gave them both a relieved smile and nodded. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings and I didn’t want to be stuck on an awkward trip for two weeks either, so seeing them both joking and in good spirits again eased my worries. I realized I had never looked at the pictures he had pulled out at the start of his story, so I picked them up now. Two of them were old and faded black and white photos of Wizard’s Folly back in its heyday, steady streams of people headed this way and that through what looked like a cross between a carnival and a strange garden party. The last one was obviously far more recent, and it showed a chubby, balding man in a security uniform smiling uncomfortably in front of the looming face of a gothic mansion, its dark stone a stormy gray in the overexposed picture. I felt an unexpected shudder looking at that last picture, and I set them all down quickly.
Pete looked at me silently for several moments and then glanced out the window. “It’s getting late. We need to get a move on. Miles to go before we sleep.”
We were off the interstate for the most part now, Pete taking us back routes that he said would be both quicker and more scenic. And he was right. We wound our way further west across the Mississippi and into Missouri, and by eight o’clock we were pulling into our stayover for the night, an older but nice motel on the outskirts of Kansas City.
I was inexplicably tired that night, and after we grabbed a quick burger at the restaurant attached to the motel, I quickly fell asleep watching t.v. with Marjorie in our room. When I awoke, I had a moment of disorientation in the darkness of the unfamiliar room, and after fumbling my phone onto the floor, I finally woke up enough to grab it and see it was just past midnight. I reached back to Marjorie’s side of the bed, but it was empty.
My first thought was that she was in the bathroom, but when I looked, nothing. I tried texting her, but a moment later I heard a buzz from where her phone had been left on the far nightstand. The beginnings of real worry and fear woke me up the rest of the way and I pulled back on my pants, absently grabbing a key card off the table on my way out the door.
The air was cold so late at night, and I hadn’t taken time to grab my jacket, but I didn’t care. Looking around in the gravel parking lot, I saw no signs of other people, which was understandable given the hour. We were in room 103 and I knew Pete was in 108, so I headed that way to see if he knew where she was.
Something made me hesitate as I reached the door. It was only for a couple of seconds, but long enough that I heard a woman’s giggle from inside Pete’s room. My first thought was that Pete had hooked up with some local after we had went to our room, and I debated whether I should disturb them before I looked around a bit more. Then I heard the giggle again, and I recognized it this time. It was Marjorie.
I knocked hard on the door, an unpleasant mix of fear, uncertainty, and anger surging into my chest. I waited, counting to ten internally before knocking loudly a second time. There had been no further sounds from the room, and another ten count was nearly done before the door cracked open and I saw Marjorie’s face poking out of the dimly lit murk within.
“Hey, what’s up, honey? Something wrong?” Her expression was one of surprise and mild concern, but I wasn’t sure if I trusted it. It was hard to tell in the blue-tinged light of the parking lot security lamps, but she looked…flushed. Flushed in a way I was familiar with, but that shouldn’t be happening with another man.
But no. Pete was her brother, for fuck’s sake. And not that people didn’t ever lie or do fucked up things, but I had known him for months and I didn’t think they were lying about being brother and sister. And I didn’t think they were…I didn’t think they were doing anything unnatural. I pushed the thought away and forced out a hollow laugh.
“I was just looking for you. I woke up and you were gone, and when I saw you left your phone behind, I got worried.”
She smiled. “Nah, I’m fine. I just wasn’t ready to go to bed yet and I didn’t want to wake you up, so I came down to hang out with Pete for awhile. I’ll be back down in just a few minutes. Love you, hun.” I was weighing whether I should push the issue and make my way into the room, but she had already shut the door back before I could respond. Hating myself, I pressed my ear against the door and listened for further sounds or voices. I did hear something that might have been muffled whispers followed by a stifled snort of laughter, but it might have been my imagination as well. It might all have been my imagination, after all.
I went back down to 103 and sat on the bed thinking for several minutes before undressing and getting back into bed. As I was dozing off, I heard the door open. Marjorie slipped quietly into bed and gave me a hug before quickly falling asleep.
* * * * * *
The morning light made the night before seem like some kind of strange dream. I went through a mental inventory of all the interactions I had ever seen between Marjorie and her brother, looking for any sign of anything inappropriate, but there was nothing. They would joke around and hug each other occasionally, but it was just normal brother-sister stuff not much different than I had done with my own brother before he died. And as for her being in his room…Well, she wanted some quality time with a brother she didn’t get to see very often. Nothing wrong with her laughing and having a good time, and anything weird was just me projecting my own insecurities or making something out of nothing.
Satisfied, I tried to act normal through breakfast and the morning drive, and by the afternoon it wasn’t an act. Part of this was because they weren’t acting weird themselves. My fear was that they would suddenly be awkward with each other or me, or Marjorie would suddenly make a point of only paying me attention, all of which would only reignite my twisted fears. But there was none of that. Just normal talk and hanging out as the roads unspooled before us.
By late that afternoon we had made it to a small town called Brimley. It was the last planned stop before we pushed on into the heart of Utah. As we pulled into the large truck stop there, I saw it had a store that looked like a massive log cabin. After the last few days of dirty chain gas stations, something a little better cared for and homey was a welcome surprise. Pete was fueling the truck and Marjorie had ran off immediately for the bathroom, so I decided to go explore the store for a bit and stretch my legs.
The air was definitely turning cooler with each day as fall set in. We were traveling at a fast enough rate that it was actually hard to judge how much of the difference was due to the change of seasons versus the change of locale, but the feel of the crisp air as I walked to the store reminded me of autumns growing up in Virginia. The thought made me smile and glance around at the town surrounding the truck stop.
It was odd. Though it was almost five in the afternoon on a Thursday, there was next to no one else around. A couple of other customers getting gas at the pumps looked back at me disinterestedly, but the only other real sign of life was an old man frantically mowing his grass with a lawn mower several houses down a side street. A small black and white dog stood yapping happily at the man from the street, though whether it was cheering him on or heckling him, it was hard to say.
The signs of normal life, of the energetic dog, of the world outside of the truck and Marjorie and Pete—these things should have cheered me more than they did. Yet I still felt a thin thread of unease running up my spine as I entered what a sign next to the door proclaimed was “Hattie’s One-Stop Emporium”.
* * * * * *
The store seemed to be an odd mix of items you would expect to find in a truck stop, those you’d find in a grocery store, and those you’d find in some kind of souvenir gift shop. At first, I gravitated towards the souvenirs, thinking it might be funny to get a random Midwest t-shirt or shot glass, or a hat that proclaimed the greatness of Brimley. Then I realized that the souvenirs were all wrong.
They weren’t from around the area for the most part, yet they were oddly specific. Have you ever been in a store that has I love N.Y. stickers or California shirts, even though the store is thousands of miles from either? That I would have understood. But this was stuff like “I visited Tallulah Gorge. The first step was a doozy!” Or “Providence, Rhode Island. Home of Marco’s Original Pepperoni Grinder!” Weirdly specific stuff that dealt with obscure places that would have no significance to most people passing through this little town.
The next thing was that there wasn’t more than one or two of any given item. I’m not saying the store had only a few souvenirs for sale. I mean that out of literally thousands of clothes, hats, knick-knacks, cups, signs, and other miscellaneous bric-a-brac, there were a few twins or triplets, but that was it. Which made the next thing a bit easier to notice.
I think all the souvenirs were used.
I don’t mean they were dirty. Aside from a thin layer of dust here and there, they were perfectly clean. But a lot of them looked worn, especially the clothes. It was almost like they had everyone that came through donate a souvenir and then the store turned around and sold it like it was new. The thought struck me as funny until I thought about the horror movie I had seen where waylaid victims’ belongings were stockpiled by the killers. As I decided I needed to move to the snack area and out of this weirdness, I ran headfirst into Marjorie.
“Ow! Man, you’re in a hurry,” she laughed, poking a finger in my chest. “You still looking around or you ready to go?”
“Sorry, baby.” I saw an extremely tall figure moving around on the far side of the food section. I couldn’t see their face or body, but the top of his head was a platinum blonde, and the way the head moved, it looked as though they were moving down the aisle with a discordant and ungainly gait. Shivering slightly, I looked down at Marjorie and shook my head. “No, no. I’m good to go. Let’s get out of here.”
* * * * * *
I had asked Pete about Brimley when we were back on the road, and he had told me this was his first time stopping there. He said he’d had to alter his route after the truck stop he used a few towns over had burned down, but the prices were actually better at Hattie’s, so maybe that was a good thing. He asked why I wanted to know about Brimley and I shrugged, saying it just seemed like a weird little town.
He laughed and nodded. “No doubt. A lot of these isolated little places are. Worlds unto themselves, I guess you could say.” He slapped me on the arm. “But no worries, brother. We’ll be in California soon enough, and after I drop off this load, it’s on to the Folly.”
The rest of that day and the next were uneventful, with no more quirky stores in weird towns or strange ideas from me about my wife and brother-in-law. I started having fun again, and by the time we had settled in at the Alpine Estates hotel an hour south from Firenze, I was actually looking forward to our trip the following day to Wizard’s Folly.
I was expecting Wizard’s Folly to be a dilapidated ruin. Tall grass and encroaching woods peppered with vine-covered skeletons that had once been buildings and stands. I half expected that we wouldn’t be able to get in at all, or if we did, we would poke around for half an hour before leaving dejected because the reality of the park fell so far into the shadow of what Pete’s story had built up in our minds.
But nothing could have been further from the truth. As incredible as his story had been, the appearance and condition of the amusement park was even more awe inspiring. We entered easily through the front gate at precisely ten in the morning, all three of us looking around for signs of security in case the plan had somehow gone awry on the guards’ end. Within moments any thought of being caught had fled however, as we were all gasping at what we were seeing.
Everything was in nearly perfect condition. The grass was cut, the buildings looked recently painted, and there was none of the expected signs of disuse or ill-repair. We had taken a rural road up to the edge of Firenze, but our route turned us left towards Wizard’s Folly instead of right towards the ghost town. Because of that, I had only a slight idea of how the town compared to this place, but the glimpse I’d had of an old gas station at the edge of town had made sense. It looked long-abandoned, with rusty, old-fashioned pumps out front and morning sunlight glowing dimly through the caved-in roof of what looked like a small attached garage.
By contrast, if I had been told this park was open just an hour earlier, I would have believed it. We walked further up the main road, passing by a hot dog stand and a small building that appeared to contain public bathrooms. Up ahead, there were more buildings and the looming shadow of a massive wooden rollercoaster off to the right.
“What the fuck…” Pete’s expression matched my own feelings. “What is this? Are they reopening this place?”
Marjorie looked over at her brother. “Are you sure it’s okay for us to be here? This place does not look abandoned. And there’s a lot more here than what you described.”
She was right. We had already passed a gift shop, a small sit-down restaurant, and five different stands housing what looked like carnival games. All of them pristine and with lights blazing. Pete stopped and turned back to us.
“I mean…we’re trespassing either way, right? But so long as we don’t hurt anything, it shouldn’t be too much hassle even if we were caught, which we shouldn’t be. But…none of this makes sense. Why would the lights be on in these places? Why would everything be so…well, not new exactly, but intact?”
I knew what he meant. None of it had the feel of things that had been recently built, but rather just maintained very well. I pointed to one of the carnival game stands where you tried to pop balloons with darts. “Look at that shit! The balloons!” My description wasn’t overly articulate, but it didn’t have to be. Once you looked at the stand, it was obvious what was wrong. There were probably fifty balloons on a large corkboard at the back of the stand, and all of them were fully inflated.
Pete shook his head. “What…those balloons had to have been put there yesterday at the latest.” He looked around, his expression growing paranoid. “I don’t know what this is, but I think they’re either reopening it or something is way different than what I was told. Either way, if ya’ll want to go, I’m fine with it.” He was looking at Marjorie, but I was the one that spoke up.
“No, let’s keep going.”
* * * * * *
We rounded a curve and saw that the park opened up before us, with multiple paths leading off toward rides and shrouded thoroughfares that wound deeper into the property. This was also our first good look at the mansion, albeit from a distance. It was strange and imposing even far away, with dark stone and black shingles swooping this way and that like the contours of a giant gargoyle just waiting for us to get closer. A large hedge maze acted as a barrier between us and the house, and when I went to enter it, Marjorie tugged on my arm.
“No, Phillip. Let’s not and say we did. I do not want to get stuck in that thing, okay?” When I nodded, she went on, gesturing towards a path off to our right. “Let’s try this way. We can see more of the park and find a way around to the house if we’re lucky.”
Pete chimed in. “Yeah, Phil. I think she’s right. We’re on a clock here, so we’re better off taking in as much as we can rather than taking time for the maze.”
“Sure, yeah. Makes sense.” I started walking with them down a brick path that led closer to the massive rollercoaster, a familiar sense of strangeness coming back to me. Why were they deferring to me so much now? Acting as though they need to persuade me or as though I was in charge? I had just been going along with whatever, which was fine, but why now did they ask my opinion? Was this some of the weirdness I was worried about? I was snapped out of my reverie by the fear and wonder in Marjorie’s voice.
“My God. I smell popcorn. I smell popcorn and cotton candy.”
I realized I smelled it too. Fear crawled up my back as I looked around, but I saw nowhere it could be coming from. My eyes met Pete’s and he shrugged. “I don’t know, Phil. I smell it too, but no clue how or why.”
My roving gaze fell on the rollercoaster again. We were probably fifty yards from the entry for the ride, which a large and brightly lit sign proclaimed as “The Hunter’s Blind”. It seemed a strange name for any ride, much less a rollercoaster, but the thought left me as I realized something.
“Pete, didn’t you say they only partially built the rollercoaster?”
He nodded. “Yeah. And you saw it in the picture too, remember? The park shut down when they were only about halfway done.”
I pointed ahead of us. “Do you see any part that’s unfinished on that thing? I’ve been looking at it, looking for a break in the track or some sign that something isn’t in place yet, but I can’t find it. It looks like the rest of the place—ready for business.”
Pete swallowed. “You’re right.” He rubbed his cheek and glanced at his watch. “Okay, we’ve got a little over an hour left. Shit, I didn’t realize that much time had passed. Anyway, what do you guys want to do? This place is weird and creepy as fuck, but obviously they have to be renovating it, right? There’s no other reasonable explanation, and this is from the guy that believes in all kinds of fucked up shit.”
Marjorie laughed nervously. “Yeah, I bet that’s it. Has to be.” She turned to me. “Phil baby, are you good with us going now? They may have more security if they’re getting ready to do something with this place, and I really don’t want to go to jail on our honeymoon.”
I grinned at her, but it was forced. I really wanted to keep going, felt driven to explore further into the park and reach the house. But I also didn’t want to disappoint her or Pete, and I could tell they were both anxious to leave.
Her brother chimed in, “It’s your call, Phil. We’ll do what you decide. But if you’re ready to head out, we are too.” Again that strange deference, that odd tension and expectation that I had never noticed before. Something about it made me want to stay in the park even more, but when I glanced back at Marjorie I pushed it down.
“Nah, it’s cool. We’ve seen plenty, and we probably shouldn’t risk it.”
The relief from both of them was palpable, but I tried to ignore it. I was teetering on just telling them to go wait in the car for me, but then Marjorie took my hand and I let myself be led back to the front gate and beyond it. Within a few minutes we were back on the road in the rental car Pete had procured earlier in the morning. I found myself looking back at the park with an odd wistfulness until its dark silhouette had slipped from view.
That night I had terrible dreams that I didn’t remember upon waking except for an acid taste on my tongue and the uncomfortable sensation of something gripping my thudding heart. Marjorie stirred restlessly beside me, but when I lay back down in the cool dampness of the sweaty sheets, she slipped back into a deeper sleep. I stayed awake, my mind adrift in a shadow sea of unfamiliar thoughts and feelings as I stared up at the ceiling I couldn’t really see. As gray dawn began crawling through our balcony window, I gave up on getting back to sleep. The rooms really were very nice, and the hotel itself was massive and far more expensive than anywhere I had ever stayed before, but I felt trapped in there. Trying to be quiet, I got dressed and slipped out of the room.
I headed downstairs with the idea that I would just walk around a bit. The area we were in was lushly forested, and between the hotel’s golf course and the series of walking paths through the woods on the resort grounds, I had plenty of options for an early morning constitutional. I’ve never been much for exercise, but I needed to clear my head, to be away from the two of them for awhile. So for the next couple of hours, I walked.
As I went, the thing I kept coming back to was that I felt we’d made a mistake not going on to the house. Or at least I had made a mistake. It seemed like one of those ephemeral moments in life where picking right or left will have major ramifications somehow. You can’t say why it’s so important, but you can feel the weight of…what, fate?…bearing down on the decision you’re making. If you make the right one, you feel a sense of harmony and well-being. If you make the wrong one, you feel utterly discordant and lost.
I felt lost. I couldn’t explain it, but I somehow knew I had chosen wrong, and the further I walked, the more I mulled it over, the more certain I became that I had to go back there. Then suddenly Marjorie was running up to me, telling me that we had to get back to the room and pack. That there had been some kind of major accident back at Pete’s trucking company and he needed to start heading back now.
She was tugging on my arm, but I resisted with a frown. “Why do we have to go back now? Can’t he just leave us and go back?”
Marjorie scowled at me. “No, idiot. We have no way of getting back then, and no money to spend on a flight or even a bus.” She put her fingertips to the bridge of her nose and took a deep breath. “Fuck, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that. Pete’s just freaked out and so am I. Apparently there was some kind of chemical spill and three of his people are at the hospital. ICU bad. He’s worried about them, worried about getting sued and losing his insurance…he’s worried.” She reached out and touched my arm. “But that was still shitty of me to say it like that. But can we just go? He’s in no shape to drive the next several days back by himself, and he doesn’t want to risk leaving the semi here.”
I nodded, ignoring the voice inside screaming for me to stop. “Sure, honey. I get it. Let’s go get our stuff.”
* * * * * *
When we met Pete in the lobby twenty minutes later, he looked haggard and red-eyed. He apologized for cutting the trip so short and helped us quickly load our things before we were on the road and headed back the way we had came. I felt a growing sense of restless unease as we traveled east, but I kept quiet. Whatever weirdness I was going through, Pete had enough on his plate as it was. I felt bad for him—I knew he had worked hard building that business up, and it was easy to see how stressed out he was from fear he might lose it all.
The thing was…as we traveled throughout the morning and early afternoon, his worries seemed to slip away. Not that I expected him to stay in a state of high agitation and fear for hours on end, but I’d have expected some noticeable level of distress to hang around for at least the rest of the day, if not until he was at his company and had a better handle on what was happening. Instead, him and Marjorie were back to joking around, singing along with the radio, and generally acting like they were still on vacation. For the hundredth time, I found myself questioning my perceptions of things, wondering if I was just being an asshole.
When we had settled in at the same motor lodge we’d stayed at just two nights earlier, I suggested we all get dinner together, my treat. I could tell they were both resistant, but I pushed on with cheery determination until they gave in. I wanted to watch them out of the truck and see how they acted. See if Pete acted carefree or concerned. See if any quick, secret glances passed between them.
The meal was uneventful until the end. They were both acting abnormally normal, but that is such a subjective thing that I quickly began doubting myself again. It was only as I was leaving the waitress a tip that I glanced up at Pete’s face. Marjorie must have seen it a moment before I did, because she was already up and moving, pulling Pete from the booth the same moment my eyes met his and my tongue went numb.
His face was sliding off. Or at least drooping. It looked as though he was wearing a latex mask that had gotten too hot and started to melt, the eyes and nostrils and mouth drooping low and revealing something red and wet underneath. I let out a startled grunt and put my palms against the edge of the table. I shoved the table towards him, but he was already out of the seat with Marjorie’s help, so the far edge just bumped against the back of the booth he was sitting in. I went to stop Marjorie, to make her understand that something was terribly wrong, that he was a monster or dying or something, but she was already leading him away. She turned back briefly to give me distressed look.
“He’s sick, Phil. I’ve seen this before. Go back to our room and I’ll be there soon.”
Before I could protest, she had turned the corner with him, heading towards the back of the restaurant and presumably the bathroom. I considered following them, but when I saw the few other customers in the place staring at me over the commotion, I reconsidered. I wasn’t going back to the room, but I would wait right here instead.
I know what I saw. His fucking face was falling off. And now I want some goddamn answers.
“What? You’re saying what I saw was Bell’s Palsy?” I knew what it was—I’d had a dentist who had it once. But it made one side of his face droop, not look like it was falling off.
Marjorie nodded. “Yeah. Stress can trigger it, and his version of it is pretty severe and scary, but it happened once when we were teenagers. Last time it cleared up overnight, so we’ll see. He’s resting in his room now.”
I gripped my hands together so tightly that the knuckles were white. “Look, there’s been a lot of weirdness the entire trip, and I…”
Marjorie came and sat next to me, reaching over to put her hands on top of mine. “I know it. I’ve been focused on him too much, and I’m sorry. I just know we have the rest of our lives together and I don’t get to spend much time with him. And now…he’s just so upset about all this right now.”
I pulled my hands away and leaned back. “You could have fooled me.”
She frowned at me, her eyes growing harder. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means that he’s been acting jolly as can be all afternoon, and then all of a sudden it’s like I’m sitting across from a horror movie that you’re telling me is Bell’s Palsy and is caused by his extreme stress? I’m not trying to be a dick, but none of that makes sense.”
She stood up, tears welling up in her eyes. “Well, it’s the truth. I need you on my side on this. Do you think this is how I wanted our honeymoon to be? Stuck in a semi and going to some crappy old park? Not having any time to ourselves? But I was trying to make him and you both happy. I saw it as a way to spend time with him and to give you a trip we otherwise couldn’t afford. I’m sorry that it…”
I stood up and hugged her. “It’s okay. We’re all just stressed and tired. If you say it’s Bell’s Palsy, that’s what it is. Let’s get some rest and see how he’s doing in the morning.”
* * * * * *
The next morning, Pete looked normal aside from the sunglasses he was wearing. He said that his eyes were still weird looking but seemed to be improving. I thought about asking more questions, but decided to just leave it alone. All I wanted was to be done with this trip as soon as possible, and if I still felt a yearning to return to Wizard’s Folly, there was nothing to be done about it now.
That evening we stopped again at Hattie’s One-Stop Emporium in Brimley, and again I felt the same sense of disquiet being in the small town. I went in with the intention to just use the bathroom and then head right back to the truck, but when I made it into the stall, I stopped cold at what I found there. There was a notepad and two pictures sitting on the back of the toilet. I would have just left them alone, but I recognized them. They were from Pete’s file on Wizard’s Folly.
But how could that be? As far as I knew, Pete had never even gone inside the store last time we were here, and I knew he hadn’t beat me in here this time. And why would he leave parts of his prized file in a gas station bathroom anyway?
Forgetting my need to pee, I grabbed up the pad and pictures before leaving the stall. I almost went out to ask Pete about it, but something made me reconsider. I was tired of getting all my information through them. Not that I didn’t trust them, but it wouldn’t hurt to talk to the store owners and see if they knew anything about how that stuff came to be in their bathroom or how long it had been there.
The cashier’s desk was a heavily carved oak monstrosity that curved into a long “L” with two cash registers on opposite ends. Behind the counter were two elderly women that might have been twins, their long white hair tied back in matching bushy ponytails. Putting on a smile, I approached and held up the notepad and pictures.
“Hey ya’ll. Me and family are just passing through, and I just found something in your bathroom that I think belongs to my brother-in-law.” I pointed out in the direction of the truck fuel pumps. “He’s the guy out there fueling up. Anyway, I was just in the bathroom stall and I found some papers and pictures that belong to him, but I don’t know how or when he could have left them. So I know it sounds weird, but I was just wondering if you had seen someone carry them in or if you knew how long they might have been in there without being noticed?”
The two women glanced at each other with small smiles, and the one on the left was about to answer when their eyes lifted above me and the words died in their throat. I turned around to stare into the drooping breasts of the tallest person I’ve ever seen. The woman was of normal proportions, and her face, though a bit narrow, was actually that of an attractive woman in her early fifties. But she had to be over seven feet tall, and when she looked down at me and smiled with her long, shining grin, I couldn’t help but take a step back, bumping into the counter.
“You said you had a wife, did you?” Her voice was deep but still feminine, and it possessed a tonal quality that sounded like it came from the bottom of an old stone well. The woman made a pouty expression for a moment. “That’s always such a shame to hear. Always a shame when such a handsome young man is already taken.” The women behind me murmured their agreement, but I was unable and unwilling to look away from this giant in front of me. I was transfixed—on the one hand, I was fearful of her for some reason beyond her surprising size, and on the other, I found her voice and words calming like a soothing balm. Not sure of what to do, I mirrored the smile that had returned to her face and nodded.
“Yes, I’m taken I’m afraid.” By this point, any questions about what I had found in the bathroom had gone by the wayside. I just wanted to get out of there. But then suddenly I was swept up in a tight hug, my face being buried in her cleavage as I breathed in some combination of flowery perfume and baby powder and…something else. There was something else beneath those smells. Something earthy and raw and caustic that felt like a corkscrew going up into my nostrils. I pulled back with a gasp and found my face being gently held by her large hands as she looked at me closely with dark, wide eyes.
“You are the one, aren’t you? You are, I can see it. I can feel it.”
I tugged my head backward but it didn’t budge in her grip. “Ma’am, I have no fucking idea what you’re talking about. But please let me go. I don’t like any of this.”
Her face grew sad and she gave a slow nod. “Of course you don’t. How could you? Lost and incomplete for so long, our Vesper, our Venus, our evening—” I unhinged my knees and let my body weight rip my head free from her grasp, scooting around her and sprinting towards the door. She screamed behind me, but it was not an angry yell. It was more of a mournful wail.
“Make them take you back, Vesper! Make them do their duty! For us all!”
If she said more, I didn’t hear it. I ran off the front porch of the store and headed to where the truck had been parked, but it was gone. New panic spread across my chest as I looked around the parking lot and adjoining streets. No sign of the truck or either of them. Throwing the notepad and photos to the ground, I dug into my pocket for my cellphone. Neither of them answered after two tries each.
It was all too much. I finally went and sat down at a concrete picnic table sitting in the small triangle of grass as the edge of the gas station’s parking lot. I needed a few minutes of quiet, a few minutes of peace to gather my thoughts and then…
I looked around to see a pair of boys, one about eleven, the other maybe thirteen, staring at me. I wasn’t in the mood to talk, but I was grateful for their relative normalcy so I tried to be friendly. “Hey guys. How’re ya’ll doing?”
The younger boy giggled. “You talk funny, Mister.”
I nodded and smiled. “I’m from the South, so I probably have a weird accent to you, huh?” They both nodded back and sat down across the picnic table from me. Inwardly groaning, I turned to glance at the road again. “Hey, did y’all happen to see a big black semi around here? Just in the last few minutes?”
The younger boy went to speak but the older one poked him in the ribs before talking himself. “I did, Mister. It drove off just a little bit ago.” When I asked which direction, the boys both shrugged. “I’m not sure, Mister. But they were going pretty fast.”
I pulled out my phone again and sent Marjorie a text: WHERE ARE YOU? Though I hated it, I was already starting to make plans in the back of my mind for how I’d get back home on my own. But surely it wouldn’t come to that, right?
I looked past the boys and down the street where, just a few days ago, I had seen the small dog harassing the man in his yard. There was no sign of life down that way now. As evening continued to set in, the shadows were pooling out their stations at the bottom of trees and cars, trashcans and garages, and the air was growing thicker with the blue haze of deepening twilight. It was a lonely road, and sitting at this decaying picnic table with these odd little boys, I had never felt more alone.
Then, at the far end of the street, I saw Pete’s truck go by.
It may have been that they were heading back in my direction, but I didn’t wait to find out. I leapt up and started down the road at a full run without a farewell or backwards glance. I knew logically I couldn’t just chase down the truck, but my hope was that they were somehow looking for me, or that at the least, the big truck would have to slow down in the more narrow straits of a neighborhood. Yet when I reached the far end of the road, breath puffing out and hands on my knees, there was no sign of them. I stood back up slowly, my brain buzzing and off-balance. They had abandoned me. I saw no other answer.
I turned around with the idea of going back to the store on the off-chance they returned—fat chance I thought to myself—and to sit at the table while I called a taxi to carry me to the nearest bus stop. But I came up short when I saw that the two boys were standing right behind me. They weren’t out of breath, and honestly I had neither seen nor heard any sign of them following me. But there they were. I felt a small thrill of fear and tried to just give them a nod and move past quickly. Instead of going on their way, they fell in beside me, their footfalls loud on either side of me as we made our way back toward the lights of the Emporium.
“Hey Mister. You sure can run fast.” It was the younger one from my left, and I just smiled and gave him a nod, quickening my pace.
“It’s probably because of his nice shoes. Where’d you get such nice shoes, Mister?” This was the older on my right, and I had no idea what they were talking about. I was wearing a pair of cheap sneakers I’d had for three years, not something fancy or expensive. I decided to just ignore them and keep walking toward the lit parking lot.
“Mister doesn’t want us to know, I guess. That doesn’t seem right.” Younger one again, his voice coming closer to my elbow now.
“Well, maybe he just wants us to have these shoes so we don’t have to go looking for some. What about it, Mister? Want to give us those nice shoes?” This was the older one again, and the thread of menace underlying his words was unmistakable. I found myself afraid and angry and ashamed of both emotions. I was being bullied by a pair of children. Children that were in their own way, trying to rob me apparently. What was going on with this place? With me?
I stopped and stepped backwards, simultaneously shoving both of them forward and further away from me. “All right, you little shits. I’m tired of this. All of this. Especially you. So get the fuck out of here before I stomp your fucking ass.” I didn’t recognize the words coming out of my mouth, but they felt good. A look of uncertain fear passed between the two boys, and I felt myself preparing to attack the older boy when I saw Pete’s truck pulling into the parking lot again. Feeling a surge of relief, I pushed past the boys and ran to it.
Marjorie opened the door and gave me a shaky smile. “Hey, Phil, come on in.”
I climbed in and slammed the door behind me. As Pete began to pull away, he dropped a greasy paper sack into my lap. Looking down, I saw it was from a chain fast food restaurant. I shoved it off my lap onto the floor. “What the fuck is that supposed to be?”
Marjorie’s smile thinned as her face went red. “We went and got us all some food to save time. I sent you a text. Did it not go through?”
Glaring at her, I gave a short and bitter laugh. “No, it didn’t go through. And that’s bullshit. I’ve been calling and texting. And ya’ll were gone for nearly thirty minutes. I’m tired of all this weird fucking shit. This town, the park, ya’ll…” I pointed towards Pete, who was driving silently with his jaw clenched. “This motherfucker is still wearing sunglasses when it’s practically nighttime. Is it so I don’t see his face falling off, because I know it’s not goddamn Bell’s Pa…”
“Fuck!” Pete was coming to a fast stop, the air brakes on the truck letting out a squealing hiss as he did so. At first I thought he was going to fight back, and I relished the thought. But he wasn’t looking at me. Neither of them were. They were looking outside. Pete let out a tired sigh. “The fuckers have blocked this way too. Even with him in here.”
I didn’t understand everything he was talking about, but the “fuckers” blocking was self-evident. Spread across the road was a line of twenty or so people, young and old, small and big, all looking at the truck and waiting. Most of them had weapons of the homemade variety, though there was the occasional gun as well. And all of them bore the same look of grim determination that stated very clearly that we would not pass that way.
Marjorie slammed her fist into the back of Pete’s seat. “Just run them over then. Fuck all of this. They can’t stop this thing.”
As if in response to a challenge, there was a loud crack followed by a louder bang and a plume of smoke from under the hood. Pete cursed again as the truck’s engine warbled unevenly to silence. “Someone just shot the engine out. We’re fucked.”
I was looking back and forth between the two of them. “What’s going on? Who are these people?”
Marjorie sneered at me, an angry contempt filling her gaze. “They’re your fan club, idiot. They’re here to get your autograph.”
“And our asses,” Pete added in glumly as he opened the door to step out.
What they were saying made no sense, but I decided to follow suit and leave the truck too. As I stepped out, I saw the twin women from the store. In the shadows of a nearby sycamore tree, I saw the looming form of the woman that had hugged me and called me…
“Vesper!” The crowd cried. “Evening Star!” The mob didn’t sound angry at all, but were instead rapturously happy. “He who will save us! He who will return us to our rightful home!” It was clear that they were talking to me, and I suppressed the urge to run as they surged forward to surround me, stroking my arms and hugging my neck. Once I was in their midst, I was oddly calm, and it was only with mild and detached interest that I heard Pete and Marjorie yelling as they were pulled away from the truck and out of view.
The twin women from Hattie’s stepped forward. “What name do you go by?”, they asked in unison.
“Phillip. Phil. I go by Phil.”
The women beamed identical smiles at me. “Well, Phil, you are very important. You have a very important destiny. Those people,” they cast a glance in the general direction that Pete and Marjorie had been taken, “were meant to help you find your path, but instead they tried to keep you from it.” The women’s faces grew hard at this, but relaxed as they looked back to me. “But you are stronger than that. You may even be ready this time.”
“Ready for what?” I blurted out. “I keep having weird shit happen and no one will tell me what’s going on. And this is all starting to really freak me out.” I gestured around at the crowd, the damaged truck, the town…fuck, my entire life of late, and as I did so, I found that the tall woman had stepped forward as well. The crowd parted for her and she reached down to take my hand.
“I understand, Phil. We can come on too strong. It’s only because we are so proud of you. We love you so much and are excited to see you.”
Frowning, I shook my head. “But why? I don’t know any of you people. I don’t even know if I really know the people that brought me here.”
The tall woman glowered as she gave a nod. “They have done you a great disservice. They knew you were the one and yet I bet they tried to dissuade you from entering the house, didn’t they?
My heart started thudding faster in my chest. “What house?” When I saw the knowing smile on her face, I stopped and nodded. “Yes. They didn’t force me not to, but they worked to dissuade me without telling me no.”
The woman nodded again, and I noticed several more nods and murmurs in the crowd around us. “Yes, they couldn’t refuse you directly, not in that place, but they could trick you into leaving. If you had just gone inside, all of this would be over. You would understand and know who you truly are.” She looked sad momentarily before brightening. “But there is still time. Do you still want to go inside the house at Wizard’s Folly?”
I surprised myself by nodding again. “If it can make things better, or at least where I can understand what’s going on, yes I do.”
The woman gave me another awkward hug, though it was quicker this time and I didn’t have to free myself from her grasp when it was over. “That’s wonderful! We will start heading for it right away. By tomorrow evening we should be there.”
We travelled in a large shuttle bus of the kind I had always associated with class reunions and senior citizen field trips to see musicals. The seats were comfortable and there was food and a bathroom, but it was still hard to ride for so long after having been on the road so many days. We stopped every few hours to stretch our legs, and I saw that Pete and Marjorie were in a second identical bus traveling behind us. They looked okay physically, but neither of them would speak to me or meet my eyes when I tried to call out to them. Whether it was out of fear or resignation, they both bore the air of condemned prisoners, and after they ignored me the first couple of times, I gave up trying.
I was mildly surprised that I wasn’t scared or worried about myself or them, but as time went on and the road unspooled before us, I felt the last remnants of my old self-doubt and fear falling away. It reminded me of watching a butterfly or moth shaking off the detritus of the cocoon before taking flight. I didn’t know if a moth remembered life before the cocoon, but if it did, I imagined it grew dimmer with each passing night.
The people on the bus with me were friendly enough, but they left me alone other than to occasionally ask if I needed anything. I only drank and ate a little, and when I slept, it was only for a half hour or so at a time. Still, I didn’t feel sleepy or especially tired. Just tired of riding and waiting, waiting and riding. I was ready to reach Wizard’s Folly and the gargoyle that lay at its heart.
By dusk the following night we were there. I had held off asking any more questions during the trip, and I found myself regretting it now. I had no real idea what I was walking into. For all I knew, these people were part of some dangerous cult and were going to torture and kill all of us. It seemed I wasn’t past all fear or all doubts after all.
But they paled next to my drive to see for myself. My desire to enter the house and get rid of this terrible longing that had taken over my heart in the last few days. So I left the bus with the rest of them. We had been driven right up to the front door of the house by some route we hadn’t seen during our prior visit, and when the expectant crowd parted the way for me, I stepped forward and opened the door.
Inside was dark and cool, but not pitch black. There were electric lamps and candles at various spots, perforating the shadows enough to give a rough geography of the hall I was entering and its adjoining rooms. I felt no need to explore or wander once I was inside. The house was clean and well-furnished, as well as impressively decorated in a strange gothic style, but none of that was why I had come.
I came to meet my father.
The thought had occurred to me as I traveled past the sweeping staircase going up into the upper floors and around the corner to a smaller hallway that led to a small black door at its terminus. I opened the door and began my journey down the winding stone steps into the basement and sub-basement beyond. All of this was done without hesitation, because as with so many things now, I just knew the truth of them as they came to me.
I reached the primary ritual room, the centerpiece of which was the large pit that had once contained so much death and decay. It was empty now, but I could still feel the energy radiating from it. This pit had been my womb, and I felt some connection to it. I looked around the room, my eyes adjusting to the darkness. Sitting in the corner was a small, hunched man, or something that resembled a man. I wasn’t afraid, but I still approached cautiously, as I could feel great power coming from him as well.
“Father?” I didn’t know why I said the word except that it was right and true.
The figure stirred from some kind of slumber, grey rheumy eyes studying me for a moment before gleaming with recognition. “Vesper? Is that you?”
I nodded slowly, almost gingerly, as I sat down near him. “I think so. My name is Phil, but I think it’s also Vesper.”
The man smiled, the crisscross of age lines making the expression seem more like a wound across old leather. “Phil is just your name this time. The name of your outward self. Before you were Dora. You were Stephen. And perhaps more I never knew.” His eyes narrowed. “I thought I dreamed of you coming here before. Did you come here before?”
“Yes…me and my wife, Marjorie. Her brother, Pete. They brought me, but we didn’t come inside the house. I never came down here. I didn’t remember enough.” I felt a slight shame at admitting the last, but the old man patted my shoulder.
“No shame in that. They are old and crafty. I suspect they knew just what to say to confuse you, get you back away from here without me waking up.”
I jerked back at that. “Old and crafty? Marjorie? I don’t understand.”
The man sighed. “I know, and I hate it had to be this way for so long. Let me explain.”
* * * * * *
Hell is a real place. As real as this one…or more real I suppose. It is one of the chief Realms that encircle this world and an infinite number like them. There was a time that Hell was ruled by Lucifer and his fallen. It was a terrible place, but it was orderly and it served many purposes. A key cog in the machinery of Creation, if you will.
But then Lucifer was destroyed and Hell began to change. The fallen angels and other infernal demons that were left no longer controlled things, and they found themselves hunted to the edge of extinction, for the new ruler of Hell, the Hunter, was all but immune to their infernal magics and diabolical snares. With no way of fighting back, they ran.
The weaker ones hid in the shadows of the new Hell, eking out a meager existence while waiting for their turn to come as the Hunter’s prey. The stronger ones fled to other realms and worlds like this one. Over the years, some formed communities like the one you visited in Brimley. And while many appreciated the respite, and some even came to enjoy their lives on Earth, most were ill-suited for it. They felt a yearning to return to Hell not that different than what pulled you to the very place you sit right now.
So they began to work and scheme. They enlisted the aid of numerous human agents and practitioners of the black arts, and over several centuries they devised a plan. The start of that plan was put into motion when a man named Francesco Pazzi came to America and founded the town Firenze. He was skilled in black magic and had been entrusted with this plan, this last hope of Hell’s orphans.
And he succeeded. Year after year, ritual after ritual, sacrifice after sacrifice, he layered the blood and the pain and the power needed to craft a very special spell. It required not only human sacrifice, but demonic sacrifice as well, and over two dozen fallen angels were rendered in the process, as well as a tiny relic from the Hunter itself. A single strand of hair that had fallen from its head during its brief battle with Lucifer.
In many ways, this was the most important part. If something was going to be able to face the strange magic of the Hunter, it needed to possess a bit of that magic itself, as well as the magic of infernals and humans both. These three magics were never meant to be together, never meant to co-exist, so it was only through great skill and will and power that this was done. Only by all of this effort and sacrifice were you born.
The night you were born, men from the town stormed this house. Most were killed and others were taken. They have served various uses in the years since then, but one pair, one special couple, has lasted longer than the rest. Rudolph and Annabelle Perkins. Star-crossed lovers, you might say. Or rather, as you might say, your wife Marjorie and her “brother” Pete.
I know even now that comes as a shock to you. You still retain your life as Phil, and some of those old feelings are still there. But I have been sending them out to find you for decades, and I know them better than they know themselves.
When I came to America as Frank Pazzi, I had hoped my rituals would be complete by 1920. That I would gain vast power in this world and, when I eventually was forced into Hell, I would be lauded as a hero and given a place of privilege in the new infernal court. Then that fucking whore Annabelle and her stuck-up husband came to town. I had hoped that taking her would send him packing, but instead he riled the townsfolk up when you were fresh to life–and I was weak from your creation.
In the chaos of that night, you somehow slipped away. I had taken them as prizes, but I had to disappear for a time while I searched for you. By the time I found you a few years later, you were living as a young girl named Dora Wilcher outside of Omaha, Nebraska. From what I could learn, you had just shown up in town as a young woman and started living life like everything was normal. No memory of what you really were or that you hadn’t existed five years earlier.
My first instinct had been to try to force you to remember, try to make you come with me. Then I realized how foolish and arrogant I was being. I was dealing with something new, something I didn’t understand. That no one understood. So I decided to trust you and let you find your own way, develop the human side of your nature and grow in strength until you were ready.
For years I watched you while cultivating more money and power as Wilson Tattersall. I rebought my own house, my own property, and I waited. I had a feeling we would need this place of power again, and I was right. When Dora was in her forties, she started getting sick. I kept close tabs on you at all times back then, and I knew that the doctors you had seen had no idea what was wrong. Desperate, I sent two of my servants out to push you in this direction, hoping I could help you without disturbing your development.
Those servants were Marjorie and Pete. Except they didn’t call themselves that, or Annabelle and Rudolph. Back then they were Tess and Johnny, a married couple that buttered up to you and your husband for months before springing a surprise trip on you. A surprise trip to an exclusive new amusement park that had just opened up in California.
I had waited for months for your arrival, making use of the guests we had in my own small ways, but all with the end goal of seeing you walk through those gates. Because without you, all of it was for naught. I had started to lose hope—I felt that my bindings on “Tess and Johnny” were strong enough that they couldn’t betray me, but I also felt sure by that point that you needed to come of your own free will for any of this to truly work.
Then, on the evening of October 27, 1947, I saw you standing in line for the house. I have never been a romantic or even a sexual man, but you were a vision that night. I had only seen you in pictures and from a distance a handful of times over the years, but nothing could have prepared me for the excitement I felt seeing you so close to fulfilling your destiny. When you entered the house, you did remember more of yourself and your nature, but something was still wrong. You lashed out, killing several people and making others sick or insane. All of which I was happy with at the time, as you seemed to grow stronger as others fell around you. I even felt pride for my hand in it, for I had tainted many visitors in the preceding months, letting this place and you feed off them indirectly during your rampage. I thought you were finally being made whole. But then, just as quickly you were gone, vanishing into thin air.
I didn’t despair as long this time, but set others to the task of finding you again. The problem is that to most people you would just look like a normal person. People I have claimed—my touch gives them unnatural life, but it also gives them a certain sensitivity. They can find you where others cannot. Over the years, without regular influxes of power, my ability to create new servants of that sort has waned.
Annabelle and Rudolph found you as Stephen Keller in the 1970s and eventually led you back here. That time, you only wanted to talk to me, largely about my life and whether my goals were noble or worthy, and then you disappeared again. I didn’t find you again until now.
That damned couple—they have to do my bidding, but they enjoy their life outside far too much and have devised ways over the years to avoid finding you, to thwart the spirit of my commands if not the letter of them. When they ran across you, they had no choice but to come or the magic that preserves them would start to fail. But if they brought you and manipulated you into leaving before you could remember, their hope was they could claim ignorance and buy themselves another few decades of “searching”. Alas, the magic is smarter than they are, as are my demonic companions.
I set up Brimley as a waystation years ago. A place they would have to travel through if they were bringing you to me. An independent check, if you will, to help keep them honest or stop them if they decided they didn’t want the ride to end. It served its purpose in the end, and they’ll be dealt with for their treachery, if you can call their disloyalty to me treason in the first place. I did abduct and magically subjugate them, but they had a lot of good years as a result, so I can’t help but feel somewhat unappreciated.
But I digress. My age is catching up with me I’m afraid. Wait until you’re 170 years old and see how you do.
The real question is are you ready? Do you feel whole yet? I’m not trying to pressure you, and I trust you to know when this cycle of…whatever it is…is complete, but I’m running out of time. And Hell, while vast, grows closer to being wholly under the Hunter’s control every day. I’ve even heard stories of the Hunter appearing in this world, albeit very briefly, a few months ago and slaughtering quite a few notable occultists. No one on my level, of course, but still…it gives one pause.
I named you Vesper after the old meaning of the word. Evening star. The morning star has died and his Hell has been lost, but I believe you can champion a new era. With you to lead us, I think Hell can be retaken and made whole again. So what do…
* * * * * *
He gurgled slightly as I punched into his ribcage with both hands, separating his torso like a rotten head of lettuce and letting the wet halves splatter-drip onto the old stone floor. This rotting monster, this decrepit sadist, thought that I would help him? That I would help any of them?
I remembered everything now. I recalled the bloody and horrible origins of my birth. I could see my husband when I was Dora. My parents when I was Stephen. Marjorie the day I married her. And yes, I had been lied to and tricked. Manipulated and moved around like a pawn. Or I suppose more like a nuclear warhead being ferried from place to place.
But I didn’t feel anger or sadness. I felt joy and love for all the lives I had lived and the world I had lived them in. Unlike when Dora lost control and hurt people out of confusion and fear, I was past that now. The only negative emotion I was really feeling at this point was disgust. Disgust at this little mummy that wanted me to be a good dog. Disgust at the horde of foul things masquerading as humans outside.
I walked back upstairs, and even before I reached the doors, I could feel their anticipation, their corruption, flowing through the cracks like waves of heat. I think my father was right. It was time that I helped these demons find a way home.
I opened the doors wide and smiled at the expectant crowd. They weren’t stupid, and it only took moments of seeing me now for their expressions to change, for their flesh and bones to start shifting in unnatural ways in anticipation of what was coming. That was all right. It wouldn’t matter in the end.
Closing the doors behind me, I walked out into the crowd, watching with slight amusement as they shuffled back at my approach. The fear and hate in the air were palpable, and I breathed it in deeply. Scanning the crowd, I looked for any sign of Marjorie and Pete but saw none. No matter. I’d find them later. For now, it was time to show these things just what all their murder and horror had brought them. I leaned forward slightly, my voice barely above a whisper, but still resonant in the silence of the cool evening air.
The moment I had signed the sales contract for the old farmhouse I’d been happier than I was in years.
You see, in life, I did everything right. I headed the advice of my teachers and parents. After I’d finished school, I went on to university and got my degree in business. I graduated with honors and started working at a fancy company. After a decade and a half, I’d climbed high enough on the corporate ladder to be head of the sale department. It meant quite the salary, but also more responsibility and more hours on the job.
During these years I moved into a newer, fancier place every couple of years, bought more luxuries, but spent less and less time home enjoying it all.
With each passing year, I grew to hate my life a bit more. I hated my job, my apartment and even the overcrowded city I lived in. I was yearning for a break and for some quiet and solitude.
When my uncle Dennis died, I was surprised to be named the sole benefactor. Apparently, he had no other relatives but me. Selling most of his property I left me with a substantial sum. With the savings I already had, I decided it was time for a change.
I had long dabbled with the idea of moving to a rural area. Growing my own vegetables, get a few chickens and live a self-sustaining lifestyle far away from the big city sounded nice.
It had always been something I was interested in, a sort of fantasy. Reality was different. There were always deadlines to make, projects to finish and contracts to discuss and sing. Time moved along, and year after year I did nothing.
Now though, enough was enough. I didn’t want to end up like the people who’d finally made it to retirement only to realize that they were now too old and feeble to follow their dreams.
When I quit my job, my boss was surprised and flabbergasted. Of course, I still had my termination period of four weeks, but most of that time was spent to make adjustments.
While my boss was busy finding a replacement for me, I started to look around for a promising property. After a week of searching, I found it. It was an old farmhouse with quite a few plots around. It was located in a small village near a mountainous area. Until two years ago it had been owned by a woman, but after she’d died her son had put it up for sale.
When I visited the place, I saw that it was old and not just a bit run down, but I was sure all this could be fixed.
My last day of work arrived quickly.
It was a few weeks later that I finally signed the sales contract and started to move what few belongings I wanted to keep to the old farmhouse. Once I’d put together some sort of temporary living quarters, I decided it was time to move in.
I tried my hands at remodeling the old house myself, but I was soon reminded that I never had any talent using my hands. In the end, I gave up in frustration and contracted a company for it.
It took another couple of weeks, but once they were done the place looked nice, cozy and modern.
After the repairs on the chicken crop were finished, I bought half a dozen chickens and a roaster.
Being woken up by him in the morning reminded me of those childhood days I spent at my grandparent’s farm. The nostalgia flooded over me in pleasant waves as I drank my morning coffee.
By now I decided it was time to visit what few neighbors I had. To the north of me, quite a bit away lived an older lady and next to her a middle-aged couple whose kids went to middle school. After my initial introductions, I didn’t have much to do with them.
To the south lived an older couple, the Richters. They lived in a huge old farmhouse. They used to be farmers themselves when they were younger but had since retired. They were nice and assured me they’d help me out if I ever had any problems.
After that, there was only one person left, the old man living to the farm east of me. It was an old farmer who I guessed was in his late fifties or early sixties. He owned the fields adjacent mine. Only a small dirt road divided our properties. I’d seen him from afar a few times, but whenever I’d greeted him, he’d ignore me. His face was hard as if carved from stone, his lips were always pressed together, and he had a perpetually angry expression.
The moment I walked over towards his farm, he tried his best to ignore me yet again. When he saw that I walked towards him, he turned to me. His face showed that he’d rather do anything else, but talk to me.
“Hello, I’m Daniel Langscheidt, I bought the-“
“Know damn well who you are. You’re the guy who bought Lisbeth’s old house and made it all fancy and what not.”
“Eh, yeah, nice to meet you.”
With that, I held out my hand for a greeting. He didn’t budge or even look at the hand I was awkwardly holding out in the empty air between us.
“Why’d you move here?”
“Oh, I was going to try my luck at farming. I always wanted to grow my own,” I broke up as the old man burst into laughter.
“You? Farming? Your hands are as soft as a girl’s! This land is tough! I tell you right away that you won’t grow a damned thing here. We don’t need to city folks like out here! Pah!”
With that, he spat on the ground in front of me and without another word made his way towards his shack.
For a while I stood there, looking after the old guy. I was nothing short of surprised and dumbfounded. Why’d he thrown so much hate at me? What the hell was his problem?
More than a bit mad I want back home. What had I done to get this type of reaction? In the end, I told myself that he was most likely a miserable old fool, who hated himself and people in general. Not my problem.
From that point onward I tried my best to get the farm going. My knowledge was limited though, minimal. The internet with its endless information is fantastic, but it was all second-hand knowledge. I soon realized that if I ever wanted to learn how to do anything, I’d to get my own hands dirty.
I started with the old ladies small garden and planted a variety of different vegetables. The month after that I got the old greenhouse running again.
I soon had to learn that real life was no Harvest Moon. Running a farm and growing vegetable was tough. Needless to say, things didn’t grow well at all.
It was at a later meeting with Hans Richter and his wife that I learned that the ground here wasn’t the best anymore. They didn’t know what it was, but almost everyone had trouble getting things to grow here. You’d need a lot of care and fertilizer if you wanted to succeed.
A decade ago a few small time farmers were still living here. As things got harder, most of them abandoned the trade. Some turned to raise livestock, others changed to different professions.
There was only one, single person whose fields were still flourishing, Old Werner’s.
It turned out that Old Werner was no other than my next door neighbor. When I told the Richters how my introduction with him went, they both started to laugh. Werner was a bitter old man. He didn’t like people and had lived alone most of his life. He was a very solitary man. When I asked if something happened to him, they both said no. It was just how he was. I’d be best for me to ignore him. That’s what everyone else did anyway.
As I’d said, I took things slow, worked the garden, studied different types of seeds, how to take care of crops and many other topics. It was early summer by then, so much too late to actually sow anything on the fields. So I let them lay fallow for the year.
As summer moved along though I was surprised to see how the old man’s fields were bursting with rip grain and vegetables. Sure, they told me the old man was doing alright, but what I saw was more than that. No, he seemed to be doing pretty damn well. I could barely get a couple of tomato plants to bear fruit in the greenhouse, yet he had fields of them!
Harvest came and went. I was frustrated at my own inability to grown anything but also impressed at how well he was doing. I didn’t like it one bit.
As summer turned to autumn, there was one thing I found a bit strange. I often caught the old guy driving out in the middle of the night and returning back home a few hours later.
I’d noticed it by accident when I was out one night. I’d decided to take a walk in the mild autumn air and to gaze at the stars. I was on my way to the local viewing platform when a car approached me from behind. Its headlights were off, and it sped past me, yet I was sure I’d seen old Werner.
I didn’t think anything of it, yet I wondered why he drove around without his headlights on. My first thought was that he forgot them or hell, he might just be an asshole who liked to scare people.
In time I learned that the old man was making these ominous trips frequently. Always in the middle of the night and still without his headlights on. There was no other explanation, he was trying not to get noticed.
Well, to be honest, it was none of my business, and I told myself to ignore him and his weird antics. Yet, I couldn’t help but find it unnerving. I started to wonder what reason he had for this strange nightly trips. I didn’t help that he kept it up all autumn and continued well into early winter. It was a sheer mystery to me.
Once the new year began and spring came around I started to do the same as all other farmers: I started working my fields. I got quite a few stares and scoffs from old Werner. Many snide remarks were directed at me, or I’d see him laugh his ass off when things didn’t work out for me. To tell you the truth, I tried my very best to stay above this petite behavior. Every once in a while though I couldn’t help but yell back something similar.
I’d had a few very long talks with Hans Richter, and he’d been paying me the occasional visit. He helped me to get things going, advised me on when to sew what, what fertilizer to use and so many other important things. I have no clue what I’d have done without him. He was a godsend.
Still, it didn’t matter all too much. Things just didn’t grow. Each day I walked the fields looking at rows upon rows of barren earth. Only here and there a few lonely plants were growing. Old Werner’s fields, on the other hand, were thriving, and of course, the old man wasn’t shy rubbing it in.
“You city folks just don’t have it in you, that’s what it is,” he’d shout over at me and start laughing.
At other times he was a condescending asshole, pitying me. “That’s as far as you’ll get. If I were you, I’d give up while I still could. No reason to keep trying.”
I hated that damned old man.
One day, after I’d watered the few lonely plants that were growing, he came over to pull another one of his nasty jokes.
“Shouldn’t water them too much, don’t want these few plants you accidentally got to grow to go to waste, do you?”
“How the hell do you do it?” I asked instead of reacting to his remark.
He just stared at me.
“How come your crops are growing so well when no one else can do it? And don’t give me this city folk bullshit, everyone else tells me they’ve got trouble as well.”
The old man’s face started to distort into a knowing grin, yet he said nothing.
At that moment I remembered how often I’d seen him walk the fields with these unnamed bags of fertilizer.
“Is it that fertilizer of yours?”
“Heh, not as dumb as you look,” he answered.
“So what sort of fertilizer is it? Do you make it yourself? What do you put into it?”
The old man burst out laughing.
“You think I’m going to tell you a damn thing about it? Oh, I don’t think so!” he said spitting on the ground. “This is my very own, special formula. You’ve no idea what I’m going through to make it, to perfect it! Before I’d tell anyone, especially you, I’d rather have the devil take me away!”
Without another word, he turned around and stormed back to his farm.
As the weeks went on, most of my fields should stay barren. The old man’s were covered in lush green like they’d been the year before. What the hell was in that fertilizer of his, I wondered.
It was sometime later when I visited the Richters that I saw the local newspaper on the kitchen table. I halfheartedly opened it, and an article caught my eye.
“Middle-aged woman still missing since last autumn.”
The article was about a woman, a mother of two, who’d gone missing on a hiking trip in the nearby area, last year. When I started reading, Susan, Hans’ wife came over.
“Such a sad story… I wonder why it keeps happening.”
“Hold on, what do you mean?”
“Oh, it’s those hiking paths near the mountains. Each year people vanish there. The authorities say its slippery slopes and people aren’t careful enough. Why they don’t close it off?!”
“It really is something,” her husband said,” they always warn hikers and climbers, but people won’t listen. A mother of two, what was she even thinking?”
I listened to them and learned that more than a dozen people had gone missing near the mountain range. Last year it hadn’t only been the woman, but an older man as well. They said it was almost inevitable that people went missing there. Of course, people talked to the local council, but they didn’t listen. The normal hiking paths and climbing locations were safe and secure, and there were enough warnings about straying from them.
As I listened to them, there was something in the back of my mind. Something I couldn’t quite grasp.
Only when I returned home and saw Old Werner, stalking around his fields, did I remember what it was. The woman had gone missing in autumn. Wasn’t that the time when he went on all those trips?
I realized what my brain was trying to put together. The more I thought about it, the more everything did fit together. He drove out in the middle of the night, headlights off, to an unknown location. And there was this special fertilizer of his.
For a moment I couldn’t help but imagine Old Werner out on the hiking paths at night searching for lonely wanderers to turn them into fertilizer.
What was I thinking? I almost burst out laughing at my own ridiculous idea. This was not a movie, this was real life!
Somehow though I couldn’t completely get rid of the idea. I don’t know why I did it, but I started to spy on the old man. It might have been my frustration. It might have been boredom. It might have been the resentment I felt towards him. I’ not sure.
It was not that I believed in my idea. It was way too far-fetched. I told myself that all I wanted was to figure out how he grew his crops and what sort of fertilizer he used. I knew I was only lying to myself though. Now, I thought there was more about this old fool, his strange behavior and that fertilizer of his.
The more I thought about it, the more I was able to convince myself.
Whenever I saw him out in the fields, applying his fertilizer, my thoughts went back to the same topic. I told myself to stop and leave it alone, but I couldn’t. It wasn’t long before my curiosity turned into an obsession and I started to take tabs on him. I took notes on how often he went out, when he got up in the morning, how long he stayed up in the evening and many other things. It wasn’t like I had much else to do anyway. Most of my fields resembled a barren wasteland anyways.
After a couple of weeks, I had his whole routine written down. I knew pretty much everything that went on at his farm.
So I was more than a bit surprised when I saw him drive out with his car in the middle of the night on Saturday. He hadn’t done that in the past five weeks. It was by sheer coincidence that I’d even noticed it. It was already early morning when he returned.
I saw him get out of his car, but instead of going back inside, he went to the back of the car and opened the trunk. I the dark of the night, hunched behind my window, I pressed my binoculars against my head so hard, it hurt. My whole body tensed up, and I didn’t dare move or breath. In horror, I watched how Old Werner dragged something out of the trunk. It was long, big, and covered in a thick blanket. I watched as he heaved it over his shoulder.
As he took a first step towards his hack, I saw something long and thin dangle from the pack.
Oh, Jesus Christ, I thought. Don’t tell me… Was that what I thought it was? Had I really seen it? No, I must be wrong. I was seeing things. Maybe I’d imagined it. But what I’d seen dangling… It couldn’t be. I thought back to the woman in the newspaper article. Was this another one? Another victim? Another ingredient for his fertilizer?
I had to go there and find out more. I should take a look at the shack. The moment I saw how Old Werner returned from his shack, all thoughts about going there left my mind.
It was dark, but in the moonlight, I could clearly see that his hands and lower arms were covered in something. I saw his dark, angry expression as he made his way back to his house. My whole body was filled with fear. For the first time in my entire life I was honestly and utterly terrified.
I couldn’t help the urge to hide as soon as he’d walked back to his house. I knew there was no reason for it. The old guy couldn’t possibly see me. I had the lights off, and I was way too far away from him to notice anything at the windows.
Once he’d vanished inside, I started to calm down, at least a bit. My mind was still a crazed whirlwind of contradicting ideas. One part of it said I was stupid and nothing was going on. The other part told me that Old Werner was a crazed serial killer. Even in bed I couldn’t calm down and took me a long time till I actually fell asleep.
When the rooster awoke me in the morning, I was thankful that the few hours of sleep I’d had were undisturbed and free from dreams about bloodied old men.
While I was drinking my morning coffee, I watched his house as I’d done every morning for the past weeks. As if nothing had happened last night, the old man went out to take care of his fields.
Had this guy really murdered someone last night and dragged the body into his shack? As I sat there, I was almost shaking with curiosity. I had to find out, I had to.
I knew that every week, on Sunday evening, he spent an hour or two at his shack. During that time he most likely mixed up his fertilizer. Once he was done, he went back to his house and most likely straight to bed. This might be the best chance to see what he’s up to in there.
The whole day I was antsy and couldn’t sit still. I made plans what I’d do, how I’d approach and how I’d find a bloodied body lying on the floor of the shack.
When the day finally turned to night, I turned off the lights in my house to give him the impression I went to bed early. He’d believe it, I was sure. Us city folks don’t work as hard as he did, was what he most likely thought in his arrogance. All the while I sat at my window watching him with my binoculars.
My cue was when the lights of the shack turned off, and the old man went back into his house.
I dressed in all but black, and after waiting for another half an hour, I made my way outside.
With low and quiet steps I made my way over to his place. For the first time, I wasn’t mad at how well his corn had grown. It allowed me to get near his house without having to hide much.
Once I was closer, I checked out his farm from between the corn. The lights were off. There were no sounds, and nothing was moving. It was clear that the old man must have gone to bed. To be on the save side, I still waited for another ten minutes.
When they’d passed, I rushed to his shack. My heart was beating heavily when I’d made it, and everything stayed quiet.
I wasn’t too surprised to find the door locked by a padlock. Even I knew that there was no way that I’d be able to open it. I hadn’t imagined that I’d be lucky enough to find the door unlocked anyways.
No, I went for the window of the shack that I was able to see from my house. I knew it would be locked too, but it was one of these old wooden windows. It consisted of two shutters and was only held shut by a metal bolt in the center. I might be able to pry it open wide enough to loosen the bolt and open it.
I pried away the two shutters from one another until I could fit my finger in-between. At that point, I knew where the shutter was. I’d to be careful. If I broke the window, the old man would hear me without a doubt. After a nerve-wracking minute of toying around with a couple of tools, I finally loosened the bolt, and the window opened.
I scanned the window frame and the area below. Once I saw that there was nothing I could topple over, I climbed inside.
The shack was larger than I imagined. For now, all I saw were shelves filled with tools and various other things. Step by step I made my way through the place, scanning it. In the end, I took out a small flashlight I’d brought, to give things a closer look.
There was a sort of mixing station at the end of the shack. To be honest, it was nothing but an old workbench, but on it was an assortment of things. There were containers of various chemicals and fertilizers, a sack of bone meal and a few bags of his complete fertilizer mixture.
As I looked on, I noticed something next to the workbench. It was a sort of metal composter as well as a freezer united cramped into the corner next to it. The composter was quite modern. It was most likely one of those that helped to quickly compost organic material. I’d read about them.
My skin started to crawl as I stared at it. I took a deep breath, and after toying with it for a bit, I figured how to open it. The instant it opened I almost vomited. The smell alone was enough to make me retch.
When I looked inside, I saw bloody guts and a few pieces of half-rotten meat.
“Fucking hell,” I cursed and stumbled back in shock and disgust. I crashed straight into the assortment of containers on the workbench. A number of them clattered to the ground in an ear-shattering noise.
My eyes grew wide. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. You goddamn idiot, what the hell did you just do!? I turned off the flashlight and waited. Oh god please, I hoped. Please make him stay asleep.
I waited for almost half a minute, praying that Old Werner would stay asleep. My prayers weren’t answered. My heart almost stopped when I heard the front door of his house open.
“Goddammit, what’s going on out there? If it’s you damned kids again…”
He said nothing else. Oh shit, did he see the window? I tried to think, tried to remember if I’d closed it after me, but I couldn’t. For all I knew, the two window shutters might still be wide open.
“Is someone there?” I heard his voice. Then his footsteps came closer.
“I dare you, whoever the devil you are, show yourself!”
I didn’t move. I hoped against all certainty that he’d go back to his house, but only a moment later I heard him from the side of the shack.
“You’ve got to be kidding me!”
He must’ve seen the open window. I could already hear him rummage with the padlock!
Now or never I thought. There was no way I could explain this to him. I was back at the window, tried to get up, but before I could do any more than to put my foot on the window frame the door opened. In one swift motion, he hit the light switch and saw me standing there, dressed in all black, trying to flee the scene.
“WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING IN MY SHACK!?”
Then the smell hit him and his anger turned to pure rage.
“YOU. YOU. YOU GODDAMN…” but in his rage he couldn’t even finish his sentence anymore. In his blind rage he picked the first tool he could, a rake, and came swinging after me. There was no way I’d make it out in time. I barely ducked away and fled to the back of the shack.
“No, don’t! I swear I saw nothing! I only,” but I didn’t get the chance to finish as I had to dodge another hit of the rake.
Finally, he saw the open composter and the disturbance on the workbench.
“You just had to know, did you? You couldn’t let it be. Do you have any idea what I went through to finish this? One decade, one whole decade… and now you’re trying to steal it?!”
What the hell? Had he just admitted to what I thought he had?”
“That’s it! You’re the last person to ever barge in here, I swear it!”
And with that, he threw the rack to the ground and came at me himself. He almost jumped me and only now did I realize that Old Werner might have been an old man, but damn was he strong. A life of farming had made his body stout and hardened his muscles. All I was able to do was to struggle against him and keep him from overpowering me. I clung to sheer desperation, as I was pushed back against the workbench.
His eyes were wide open, and a moment later he raised one of his hands and hit me square in the face, once, twice. When I stumbled, he closed his hands around my neck.
I couldn’t breathe. Only at this moment did I realize that he was really going to kill me. I was going to die. Stars appeared in front of my eyes, but there was nothing I could do. I twitched in his iron-hard grip, grasped blindly around for something, anything. My hands closed around something hard and cold. With all the power I could muster I swung it into the direction of Old Werner. There was a nasty sound, and the old man screamed up.
Only when I swung it a second time did I see what I was already holding. It was an old mallet. For a moment I saw the surprise in his eyes, and his grip loosened, only to close once more even harder. In his fury, he wasn’t just trying to strangle me anymore, no he was going to break my neck by sheer force. Again and again, I hit him with the mallet. After three more hits, his grip finally loosened and he slumped down and fell to the ground.
As I looked down at his head, I saw a nasty inward bump at the top where I’d hit him. What I was most surprised though was all the blood that still kept gushing forward.
Time stood still. As if in a trance I watched the blood flow from his unmoving body. It must have been only seconds before I realized what I’d done, but to me, it felt like an eternity.
The bloody mallet clattered to the floor, and I pushed old Werner’s body away from me.
I started shaking, almost screamed up. I’d killed him. I’d murdered someone.
I had done the right thing though, hadn’t I? He’d have killed me. He killed others! The guts, the meat, the freezer! There was no doubt! And I’d done it in self-defense!
When I opened the freezer, my world crumbled apart. What I found inside wasn’t a corpse. Neither was it body parts. It was a dead animal. In the freezer were the remains of a deer. Part of its lower half was missing, and his innards were carved out. The blood and the guts I’d seen!
What about the arm I’d seen last night though? It must have been… but then I saw the legs of the deer. What I’d seen had been a long, thin, body part. Only the dark of the night and my imagination had transferred it into the arm of a person.
Dear god, what had I done? Had this old guy really done nothing more than to create some sort of complicated organic fertilizer?
Right at this moment, my instincts activated and I turned to run. I’d already made it to the door of the shack when my mind started to work again. What the hell was I doing!?
Should I call the police? What would I tell them? That I broke into his place because I thought he was a serial killer? That he attacked me after that and I killed him in self-defense? Would they even believe me? In that outfit?
No, it was much more likely that they thought I’d broke into his shack, he found me stealing his stuff, and I killed him. Or hell, that I came in here and killed him. I’d made it no secret that I hated him.
Shit. Shit. Shit. What the fuck should I do?
First I turned off the light in the shack. Was there anyone nearby? There’d been so much noise! As I watched and listened, I remembered that no one else lived near enough to have heard anything. The only person who’d heard anything would’ve been no other than me.
I went back inside, closed the door of the shack and then the window. I checked the wood splintering on the window and tried my best to get rid of it and make it sound as natural as possible.
After that, I put everything back that the old guy had pushed off the shelves in his onslaught.
Finally, there was the old guy himself. Was he really dead? I awkwardly touched his neck to see if there was any pulse. Then I looked at his head again and wondered what the hell I was even doing.
For a while, I wondered what to do, but then I saw his huge fertilizer bags. Old Werner might have been strong, but he was still a scrawny old man. The irony was not missed on me when the old man’s body was almost a perfect fit for it.
I pushed the body bag to the front of the shack and then started to meticulously clean up the blood. First I wiped up the floor and the workbench. Then I checked every notch and cranny and used one of his many chemicals to get rid of any blood spatters. I checked the whole place multiple times over. I had to make sure there were no blood splatters left anywhere. Only then did I open the door again.
Once again I checked the area. Sure, it was dark and not even thirty meters to the cornfield. Yet, I knew if anyone should see me carrying a bag of fertilizer through his yard the night before he went missing… I couldn’t risk it.
When I was sure that I was completely alone, I sprint to the edge of the cornfield with the heavy bag over my shoulder. Once I’d made it, I stumbled forward for a few more meters, but luckily avoided to crash to the ground.
For a moment my head was spinning, and I almost passed out from the sheer exhaustion.
I rested the bag between the cornstalks and ran back to the shack. The whole place smelled of the chemicals I’d used. Once more I went through it, using water to clear away the residue of the chemicals.
I also closed off the composter and the freezing box. Before I did that though, I got part of the animal meat, cut it to pieces and ground it up with the mallet.
I added the ground up meat to the composter. I made sure to leave the bloodied and dirtied tool on the workbench. I had to make it look as if it was the last thing the old guy had done.
At this moment I noticed something else. A notebook was stashed away in a small shelve above the workbench. When I opened it, I found that it contained the old guy’s notes on how to create his special type of fertilizer. It was pages upon pages of ingredients with detailed instructions.
I skimmed one of the pages, and it specified how certain ingredients had to be gathered. On the next one, he clarified that deer meat was best during their mating season, in autumn or early winter.
That must’ve been the reason for his secret trips. He was getting deer meat for his fertilizer. All he’d been doing was trying to keep his formula a secret.
Once I was outside again, I closed the padlock, careful not to leave any fingerprints on it.
Carrying Old Werner’s body over to my house took quite a while. Every ten meters or so I had to take a break. Once I’d made it, I hid the body down in my basement.
After that I went back to the cornfield, to make sure there were no tracks or blood splatters anywhere.
It was an hour or so before dawn when I was finally done with everything. I was utterly exhausted and pretty much fell into my bed.
The next day was a blurry mess for me. I spent most of it in bed, curled up under my blanket. Murder is not something from which you move on with your life. You just can’t.
It was only in the evening that I remembered his little notebook. Reading through his notes was the only thing helped me to turn my thoughts away from what I’d done. It’s not an understatement that the topic of fertilizer saved my sanity that day.
I carefully went over every page. I knew damned well that I’d not be able to turn my harvest around. I might try my luck in the greenhouse though, and if that would be a success, I could prepare for next year.
During the next days, I procured quite a few things: a composter different fertilizers, chemicals, bone meal and a variety of other ingredients.
One thing I was missing though and that I wasn’t sure how to get was deer meat, but I knew I had a substitute for it in my basement. It was still quite fresh, and most importantly, I had to get rid of it.
It was a nasty piece of work as you can imagine. I almost vomited every couple of minutes. Due to the heat, Old Werner’s body had been rapidly decomposing. I almost vomited the moment I saw his bloated, squishy corpse.
Eventually, though I got used to it. I grew numb, or I was already. There is one thing though, I told myself over and over again. This was not a person. This was a hunk of meat, nothing more. Once I cut it up though, it became pieces. The blood, the flesh, the bones, it all became things. And that way it got easier. I didn’t mind anymore. Grinding Old Werner up had become nothing but work in the end. Gruesome work, sure, but still only work.
It took me the better part of two days, but after that, I’d ground up the old guy’s remains. Finally, I added them to the other ingredients in the composter.
It was about a week or so later that the police arrived at my doorstep. I’d never seen an officer like that. Old, tired, and most of all, utterly disinterested in what was going on. He asked me a few questions. The typical ‘when have you last seen him’ and other similar ones. I answered them truthfully, and the guy said he’d be back if he needed more information.
He checked the old guy’s property, the shack, the house. The only thing he noticed was that Old Werner must have gone out in the middle of the night.
It was clear that this officer didn’t give a shit. He didn’t care what happened here in this small village. He concluded that Old Werner must’ve walked off and vanished in the middle of the night. They put together a search party, but it was only a few people, and they never found out a thing. Old Werner became just another name added to the list.
After this, his house was put up for sale, but no one seemed to show any interest.
It’s now late in the year, and the fertilizer I’ve created has developed nicely.
Six weeks ago, I upgraded the greenhouse for winter farming. Since then things have grown well, really well. The tomatoes are big, ripe and almost bursting with flavor. The old man had indeed created a splendid recipe.
What’s more interesting though, is that I can’t help but notice how fast and strong the plants have grown. They look even healthier than Old Werner’s. It might be the unique conditions in the greenhouse. To be honest, though, it might be due to my own little addition to the fertilizer.
As I’m typing this out, I can’t help but laugh at the grim irony of the situation. The one way the old man was able to improve his fertilizer even further was by becoming part of it himself.
Reading Time: 6minutes“911. What’s your emergency?” I said as I answered the phone.
“There’s a bat in my house.” A loud scream came over the speaker. “Send someone to come and get it. “
“Alright ma’am, I will send animal control over as soon as possible.” The caller thanked me and said she will be outside waiting. I pressed the button to dispatch the nearest unit.
I sat in my cubicle, doodling with my ballpoint pen on a piece of blank white paper. Being a dispatcher isn’t always easy. Especially in the middle of nowhere Montana with a population of 500. We get random calls about bobcats, bison, and bears coming in the front yards, teenagers prank calling because they are bored, and of course, the regular hunting emergencies. But all of this is few and far between, sometimes we can go hours without getting a call. Which makes it hard when you work the night shift alone.
“Kara?” I heard my straight-laced boss say as he came down the hallway.
“I’m here!” I yelled back, still doodling on the white paper. I could hear his staggered footsteps coming my direction.
“Oh, hey,” he said, popping his head around the corner. “I’m leaving. Do you need anything before I go?”
“I think I’m good.” I held up my now cold coffee.
“I’ll turn off the rest of the lights then. Have a great night.”
I heard the sound of the lights turning off down the hallway. It’s those florescent lights that make a buzzing sound whenever you’re under them. I hate when they get turned off, everything gets so silent. Being in this building at night all by yourself, the imagination can get the best of you.
I sat at my desk looking at the seven computer screens. On one screen, I could see exactly where the emergency responders are located at any given moment. I started memorizing the street names that in our designated area. At this time nothing was going on. It had been a very quiet night.
Taking a sip of my cold coffee, I started jotting down my grocery list for the next day. At this point the coffee was only doing so much to keep me awake at 1am. “What do I need,” I asked out loud. I wrote down that I needed chicken, vegetables, toilet paper, wine… multiple bottles of wine. I finished making my list, folding it into my jeans’ pocket.
A beeping sound started coming through my headphones meaning someone was calling in. I looked up as a name and number flashed on the screen in front of me.
“911, what’s your emergency?” I said clearly to the person on the other line.
“I need help,” a child’s voice said.
“What’s your name? What can I help you with?” I said back to the frightened young girl.
“I need help,” she said again.
I replied, “I can’t help you unless you tell me what’s wrong,” and then the phone line went dead.
Immediately dialing the number back, I waited for it to ring. But there was no dial tone and it wouldn’t reconnect. I decided to call one of the responding officers to check it out.
“Jenkins, I need you to respond to 5689 Hickory Valley Road. There could be a possible VIC. I tried calling her back but I got no answer,” I said into my headphones.
“Thanks, Kara. Hope you are having a good night all by your lonesome.” He started laughing. “What are you going to do all by yourself in that little cubicle of yours?”
“You’re an asshole. As a matter of fact, I am having a great night by myself. Keep me updated,” I said back.
I sat back in my chair looking at the right hand screen. A red dot started moving slowly towards the area where the young girl called from. Watching as it got closer and closer, I wondered if she was okay. Then the dot just stopped. This usually means the responding officer got to the location or close to it. Our map shows streets, but it doesn’t pin point the exact spot.
Waiting for Jenkins to call me back, I took another sip of coffee. I watched the clock as it slowly passed- second by second, minute by minute. I was about to ring him back when the computers lit up.
“911 dispatch, what’s the exact location of your emergency?” I looked up as the name and phone number flashed on the screen. This time I said the name out loud: Olivia Taylor.
“I tried calling you back but we couldn’t get an answer. A responding officer should be there shortly,” I said hurriedly, but in a stern manner.
“Why won’t you help me?” she whimpered. I heard her crying on the other line.
“We are trying to help you, Olivia. Someone should be there any second, I promise you. Can you stay on the line with me?” I asked while trying to get my shit together.
“Closet,” she replied. “You can find us in the closet.” I could hear another distant whimpering that wasn’t coming from the VIC on the line.
“Olivia, is there someone else there with you?” My heart felt like it was going to fall out of my chest.
“I have to go! He’ll hear me!” she cried out.
“Who will hear you, Olivia?” I managed to ask, a moment before the phone went dead again.
I looked on the map and noticed Jenkins’ spot had not moved. Growing concerned, I called him back. The phone rang and rang. Finally he answered.
“Jenkins,” he said with authority.
“Oh, thank God!” I took a second to catch my breath. My heart was pounding a mile per minute.
“What, Kara, you can’t handle being in that place by yourself? You have to call me all the time?” He tried to make a joke, but soon realized I wasn’t playing around. “What’s going on? Are you okay?”
“I got another call from the VIC. What is your ETA?” I closed my eyes and tried to stay calm. This is part of the job requirement.
“Waiting for backup. This place is out in the middle of nowhere. The only entrance is a path through the woods too narrow for the cruiser to fit through. We have to go on foot. Should only be another couple of minutes.”
I took a look at my screen. I could see two dots moving closer to Jenkins. “Call me once you get to the property. She is hiding in the closet. I believe there is someone else with her,” I informed him.
“Thanks for the update. I’ll call you once I reach the site.” And he hung up.
I had to take a moment to decompress. I walked down the long hallway to the bathroom. As I turned on the light, it flickered to the sound of my heart beat. The familiar buzzing sound calmed me as I splashed cold water on my face. Looking in the mirror, I could tell that my color changed. The normal tan hue was now pale white and my pupils were dilated. It’s going to be okay. It’s going to be okay, I reassured my reflection.
As I walked out of the restroom, I could hear a beeping sound coming from my headphones again. I ran to my cubicle thinking it was Jenkins giving me an update. But as I saw the name on the screen, my stomach immediately dropped.
“Olivia, I know this is you. Are you okay?” I looked at the screen with the map. “The officers are on their way. They should be there in less than a minute.” There was no response. “Are you there? Can you hear me, Olivia?”
A whimper came over the other line. “It’s too late,” she finally said. “He’s in the room. He heard me.”
“Who is in the room with you?” I asked. “Please tell me so I can let the officers know.” I took a deep breath, determined to stay calm.
“He has a gun.” I heard a door open as a loud scream came over the line. I could hear two loud rounds of popping. Then silence.
“Shit, shit, shit!” I screamed out loud, tears started rolling down my face. I knew what this meant. Just then the screen started lighting up again. This time, the name said Carlos Jenkins. I took a deep breath as I answered it.
“The VIC just called again,” I yelled into the phone. “Could have a DOA, Jenkins. You took too much fucking time.”
“How has anyone been calling you, Kara?” he asked, confused.
“Don’t play this game with me right now. Have you reached the destination or not?” I Looked at the screen in front of me.
“We reached the cabin. About a mile off the main road. I hate to tell you this, but everyone is gone.” There was silence on his end.
“Shit,” I responded, rubbing my face. The skin began to get hot from anger.
“But I don’t understand how anybody could have called you tonight,” Jenkins said. I looked up from my desk confused.”
“What do you mean?”
“We found three sets of skeletal remains. One was a male adult, presumed to be the father, and two young girls. The remains have to be at least twelve months old.” My chest grew tight and the room started spinning. I was about to pass out.
“The weird thing is,” Jenkins continued, “we found the two female skeletons in the closet. But one had a cordless phone in their hand. Trying to get help, I guess.”
Reading Time: 13minutes
My cousin Patrick was murdered a few months ago. Yeah, Patrick was weird and self-absorbed, but at the end of the day, he was only twenty-four.
I didn’t know much about what happened other than what his friend Jamal told me. Jamal had even posted on Reddit about it.
The whole ordeal sounded truly terrifying. Patrick had been murdered by a weird girl he matched with on Tinder. She’d worn a female mannequin mask, a design made even creepier by its permanent crooked smile. Like a mask made from human flesh rather than plastic or latex. Her name was “Shannon.” Or at least, that’s what she called herself.
Jamal had even showed me her profile. Sure, Shannon was pretty. An exotic black girl with striking eyes. But I could tell she was just being herself. No extravagant make-up or delusional vanity. Not like the lens-crazed models I’d see on all the other apps. She was genuine. And all too real… like a sexy horror movie villain brought to life. All mystique and mystery… but still fucking terrifying.
Like a haunting memento, Shannon’s profile was still right there on Tinder for all to see. Her mannequin mask concealed everything but those hypnotic eyes.
The police never found her. And at this point, I doubt they ever will.
When I was younger, me and Patrick were close. But we grew apart over the years… I guess that was normal considering how far we lived apart. I was in Rincon, Georgia, he was in Stanwyck. But I still felt terrible when I found out what happened. His issues didn’t make him evil. He wasn’t *that* weird. Then again, I guess I was more empathetic because I suffered from the same low self-esteem. Even with my attractive face, I was very much unconventionally handsome. Not hot enough to be a pretty boy. 5’9 and slender. Not athletic. Long brown hair, bright eyes. Pale as fuck. Shitty fashion. Yeah, all I could ever attract were guys. Not that I was mad since I was bi… but I preferred women. But for whatever reason, they didn’t seem attracted to me. And in a conservative, one-Wal-Mart town like Rincon… I mean being openly bi wasn’t exactly encouraged. And unlike with bi women, people always acted disgusted rather than aroused when they found out I liked men too. Maybe most women were hesitant to say they were turned on by it… I don’t know. Goddamn double standard.
I was also *horrific* at talking to girls. Here I was, twenty-one-year-old James Fulton and I could use one hand to count the number of times I’d actually had sex. With men and women. I guess my anxiety carried over into these real-life conversations. That and I wasn’t hot enough. Or confident enough for that matter. Not to mention I was taking all my illustration courses on-line at SCAD… Rincon was about forty minutes from Savannah, so yeah. Kind of a hectic drive just to go flirt with SCAD’s finest. Not that my social skills would let me score anyway.
So like a compulsion, I’d resort to Patrick’s hobbies. Yeah, I’d show off my body to people on-line. About the only way I could alleviate my loneliness. And on the internet, well, my social awkwardness didn’t carry over. I could see why Patrick did this, even when it almost got him killed and even when it ultimately did get him killed. There was excitement to sexting. To being an exhibitionist. I felt wanted. I felt so… sexy.
But I did get bored from time to time. Even on-line, I couldn’t make myself look better. Yeah, I was attractive but still kinda weird. I got called ugly pretty often… at least, I had my body to fall back on. Still oftentimes, there was only so far I could go by being well-hung. I mostly only attracted dudes.
I think the breaking point finally came on Bumble. This fucking app was literally tailor-made for women to go on sexting sprees with guys of their choosing. They were the ones who matched and then had the option to message the guy. And yeah… even when I used my best photos, I got three matches from over 500+ swipes. So, 497 out of 500 women found me unattractive enough to not even bother with a fucking swipe.
Then inspiration hit me. I was gonna make a fake profile. Rather than me, I’d use a super-hot guy for the pics.
I figured why not? It was Christmas break, and my parents were at my sister’s house for another week. I was home alone on a Friday night. No date as usual. Literally frozen in by the horrific frigid rain that may as well have been snow. Just trapped in our suburban fortress.
Sitting on a couch in the living room, my eyes stayed glued to my phone. A couple of empty beers on the coffee table.
I found my “actor” for the night. Logan McCarron. Some Instagram model and workout freak. Handsome in the country star Blake Shelton/Luke Bryan way. Like Bieber or the Kardashians, his Instagram was full of obnoxious vanity. A scrapbook of pics showcased his sexy face, warm smile, muscles, a trimmed beard, bubble butt, etc. He was a consensus All-American hottie. The perfect choice for the night.
Like a mad scientist, I set the profile up. For added realism, I even included links to Logan’s Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Everything was set. And within seconds, the matches piled up. Like a nude Matt Bomer had stumbled into a divorced housewives meeting (okay, a theoretically straight Bomer). Holy fuck, I hadn’t even begun swiping, and I had fifty matches… talking about easy living when you were traditionally attractive.
My swipe-a-thon began. And through the process, my phone buzzed with the ferocity of a dying bumblebee. The women messaged me first, and before I knew it, my inbox was fucking swamped. This wasn’t Farmers Only, and “Logan” was still a fucking beefcake dream. A tantalizing beacon for the app’s single horny women.
The messages ranged from innocent flirtation to awful pick-up lines stereotypically attached to loser men. Not to mention some outright lewd come-ons:
Damn, you’re fine
Dat ass doe 😉
Show me that butt, sexy
Fuck, come here now!1!
Excitement surged through my veins. I felt exploited and coveted. Fetishized. Like how I always wanted to feel but was never considered “hot” enough. If this was gender equality in on-line dating then sign me the fuck up. Just to sit back and bask in the glow of female admiration was fucking amazing.
Logan McCarron’s hotness was like a cheat code to a complex game. Flirting with women had never been easier. Once the conversations got rolling, I’d even tell girls my “friend” thought they were hot. Of course, that friend would be me. And the crazy fucking thing was that these ladies would be like “oh, he’s so cute.” Then sure enough, I’d be talking to them on Snap and sexting them. Logan was like the greatest wingman I never had!
Soon, I got a message from a short-haired brunette hottie named Taylor. She was 22 and a Georgia Southern student. Cute smile, a total coed. Hey sexy, she said.
Grinning, I sent a reply: What’s up, hot stuff?
From there, the conversation flowed like a smooth river. Constant compliments were traded. We made small talk about college. She’d even been to Rincon before! She had family here… I mean I actually had a shot at meeting Taylor if I played my cards right.
Then Taylor sent a message that caught me off-guard. Not from shock or terror. Just amusement. I have a secret to tell you.
Curious, I replied. Whats up?
Within seconds, I got a quick reply. As if Taylor already had the message ready: These photos aren’t me
I couldn’t help but crack a smirk. Oh, the irony!
Taylor continued: I’m not as pretty as that girl. I just know guys would ignore me if I used my real face :p
Chuckling, I responded: I doubt that. But I understand tho
With her typical ferocious speed, Taylor replied: It’s just guys always go for the superhot girls. And I want those sexy guys… I like getting their pics :p
Before I could reply, Taylor’s picture message dominated my screen. Like an Amber Alert, it conquered my iPhone.
The image made me jump back in fright.
There was a female college student sitting in a dark room. Dressed in a black hoodie and leggings. Even a vampire cape. Like a Halloween reveler who celebrated year-round. The mannequin mask concealed her face. The mask’s eternal smile taunted me.
I recognized the outfit all too well… the same mask Jamal had shown me. Shannon. Patrick’s killer. Only now, months later, she had returned. Only on a different app.
A roaring buzz from my phone made me jump again.
Uneasy, my trembling finger closed the photo.
Shannon’s latest message awaited me: That’s me 🙂
Too scared, my breathing grew heavier. I heard the rain’s incessant rhythm outside, but not much else. In this terrified state, I could only feel my gut twisting as if Shannon was crushing my soul. The doll mask forever emblazoned in my mind like a vision of Hell… I realized Shannon could elicit such fear merely through a keyboard. She had me too scared to even send a fucking message.
Another message hit me: What do you think sexy? :p
I struggled to type a reply: Where’s Taylor?
In a split second, Shannon responded: Don’t worry, she’s right here with me 😉
Then another picture swallowed my screen.
Just judging from the pretty short brown hair, I knew it was Taylor.
The twenty-two-year-old coed’s body was sprawled out on a bed. In the same dark room Shannon was in. Everything on Taylor a slaughtered mess. Aside from the brunette hair, all I could see was a smorgasbord of redness. Taylor’s blood gave the bed sheets and covers a new color. Her face sliced into smithereens like grotesque plastic surgery had been performed. Taylor’s body a mangled corpse save for the untouched brown hair… as if Shannon had kept her hair unscathed for a color contrast to all the crimson. Like a disturbed art project. And judging by the amount of time it would’ve taken Shannon to “operate,” I figured Taylor had been dead for several hours. Well before she matched and messaged me.
Horrified, I turned away. I felt my gut sink to even further depths. Straight to Hell. The montage of the mannequin smile, Taylor’s slaughtered corpse, and all the blood blared through my mind like a torturous montage.
My phone buzzed to life and the pic slid off my screen. I was back in my inbox.
A new message from a hot meathead guy was up top. J.R. I had sexted him earlier.
Hesitant, I clicked on it: Hey, gorgeous
I got ready to reply when another picture message popped up.
The photo was in a bright living room. There was J.R. laid out on a sofa. His throat slit in a thin line. Another surgical cut. Dry blood was strewn all around his throat like a gory necklace. His eyes wide open and staring at the camera.
Like an evil Angel, Shannon stood right above him. Her cape fluttering, a long knife in her gloved hand. Blood decorated the blade and Shannon’s mask. Like J.R., her eyes too stared at the camera. Only rather than a lifeless gaze, those cold eyes were focused. From my perspective, they seemed to be marking my soul.
“Fuck,” I said, my voice trembling.
I exited the pic and went back to my inbox. Too scared to even look at the array of pretty faces overpopulating it. For all I knew, Shannon had killed each and every one of them…
My phone vibrated once more, sending shockwaves through my fingertips. I saw a new message up top. From Shannon herself.
The profile pic was a close-up of her photo with J.R. Blood covered Shannon’s mask like make-up. Her eyes latched onto me and never letting go.
Looking back, I should’ve called the police right then and there. I should’ve told them about Patrick. About Shannon. And that she was back on the on-line dating scene. But I was drunk… and terrified. And I was alone. Besides, I knew what happened when Jamal called. Nothing. Like a ghost, Shannon always managed to disappear into the night.
Curiosity joining my horror, I clicked on the message.
Hey, cutie, Shannon had said in one of her typical teases.
I couldn’t make myself type a thing. All I could do was stare at that creepy fucking mask.
Shannon’s next message sent a chill down my spine. A scare that sliced through my dread like a powerful crescendo.
I’m coming for you now, baby 😉
Seconds later came another one: I’m ready for you. I just hope ur ready for me :p
Trembling, my eyes darted over toward the kitchen. The front door. Various thoughts plagued me… was the door locked? How far away was this crazy bitch?
Georgia Southern was just on up the road. And she’d killed fucking Taylor several hours ago… she could be in Rincon this very second.
I remembered what Shannon did to Patrick. They found his body hacked like a jack-o’-lantern. A knife had been jabbed through his eyeball… while he was still alive.
My phone vibrated once more. Startled, I checked it.
Shannon’s next Bumble text: I’m on the way now, baby
Regardless of the cold Winter, I felt sweat build up in my palms. My heart pounded at the speed of a helicopter rotor. The incessant raindrops echoed through my mind like bell chimes in a cemetery.
So you better get ready, Shannon went on.
Then she sent another message: Logan 🙂
Relief hit me hard. Of course! She didn’t know who the fuck I was. My name. My location. To her, I was Logan McCarron. The traditionally handsome country boy.
Shannon kept sending me more texts. And each one only gave me more hope. They hit me like blanks.
She sent me Logan’s Facebook link. His Instagram. A screenshot of the hometown he had listed on Facebook (Brunswick, Georgia).
Then she said this: 1306 Flowers Road
Like a dutiful detective, she even included a screenshot of this address she’d found on Google. Logan’s home address.
By now, a weak smile crossed my face. That wasn’t Rincon, Georgia or 1610 Wayne Road. Much less my fucking name. Catfishing had saved my fucking life.
Like a passive-aggressive avalanche, Shannon’s threats piled up in our chat.
I’m on the way, sweetie
I can’t wait, Logan
I’m gonna have a fucking blast cutting you open for everyone to see
Answer me, bitch!!
Like a deranged survivor, I cackled at them. And I didn’t respond to a single fucking one.
“Fuck you, bitch!” I yelled at my phone in triumph.
With authority, I tossed my phone on to the coffee table. My grin lingered longer than Shannon’s mask’s smile. Relaxed, I leaned back on the couch.
Ghost Adventures was still on. And rather than being distracted by the weight of dread, I could now watch this shit in all its cheesy glory.
Hearing my iPhone vibrate with steadier precision than the rain, I looked back at it. Shannon was relentless. And pissed.
Then some fear reappeared. I now realized she was about to track down Logan McCarron. I didn’t wanna think about his fate. Or the fact that if Shannon were to slaughter him, it’d be my fault. But I couldn’t lie to myself… for all my selfish vanity, I had a conscience. I had empathy.
Like I was confronting a traumatic photo, my cautious grasp snatched the still-buzzing phone. Then I did the right thing: I called the police.
If I thought my anxiety was bad with women, it was overpowering when talking to the dispatcher. The fact she was a female with a pretty voice didn’t help. But I did it anyway. I had to. And I managed to explain my crazy story. I mentioned Patrick, I told her about all the death pics I got. But at the end of the day, all I could really do was request a welfare check. The dispatcher was kind and patient, and that’s all I could ask for. A squad car would be heading on over to 1306 Flowers Road soon enough. And hopefully, before it was too late.
Anxious, I hung up and went back to Bumble. And like the ghost she always was, Shannon’s profile was gone. As were Taylor and J.R.’s. All the disturbing photos gone with them.
I was disappointed… yet I couldn’t help but feel some relief. Shannon was out of my life now. Out of my fearful mind. And off my Bumble. With sickened amusement, I couldn’t help but wonder which app this killer Cupid would end up on next? The bitch was a literal heartbreaker.
Over the next few days, I stayed off the apps as much as I could. But my loneliness only increased over the break… especially since my parents wouldn’t be home for a few more days. Like a drug addict, I needed those compliments. They cured my awful self-esteem. Even if it was just a temporary fix. They made me able to handle the isolation I felt. How weird I was. How ugly I felt. How much women weren’t interested in me.
About the only distraction I had was checking on Logan. Jesus, I felt like I was checking on a missing best friend at this point. And I didn’t even know a damn thing about the guy other than his attractive face and body. But there I was stalking his Instagram like a fanboy. I was scared for him…
But there were no updates. Every day and night I’d check, but there was nothing. And for an attention whore like I figured Logan was, I knew the silence wasn’t a good sign. This guy did multiple uploads a day. Gym pics like they were his religion. Him not posting wasn’t normal.
I felt like shit. And deservedly so. Even if I had survived… I caused the murder of an innocent guy. All because I wanted to show off to prettier women. Like a Catfish nutjob… only I was so bad at catfishing, I got my Goddamn cover murdered.
Deep down, I prayed Logan was okay. I hoped he was. Maybe the welfare check scared Shannon off.
Then in a sick cycle, I wound up back on Bumble. This time back to my own profile. The loneliness had finally gotten to me. The stress. And yes, the guilt. I had to jump back into my hobby. My exhibitionism ecstasy.
So here I am tonight, back to scoring with my usual unattractive women. Regardless of how conceited they are, I’ll still show them what I’m working with, at least. I’ll still get that thrill.
All was going well too. My usual session of frisky fun until I got a new message moments ago. The ghost had returned.
My phone buzzed like a taser hitting my hands as several more messages from Shannon poured in.
Feeling a chill, I stared at her profile pic in dread. Right at the eerie blood-stained mask. And at those piercing eyes.
My insides contorting, I clicked on the message.
Many different photos greeted me. All of them of Logan. The same sexy ones I’d used.
Like a scrapbook, I scrolled through the many pics. They led down to screenshots. One of them showed the fake profile I made. Then I saw where Shannon had sent me several other fake profiles that had used the same pics. All with different names and locations. Poor Logan had been an unknowing Bumble whore all along…
My heart fell like a collapsing roller coaster when I saw Shannon’s next message: You can’t fool me, asshole! This ain’t you!
Conflicted, I didn’t know what to do. Again, she’d avoided the cops. Shannon was still here. Still with me.
A new picture message hit me in the face. One of my smiling sext messages. Like the proud exhibitionist I was…
Whatever confidence I felt evaporated right there. Fear took over. I couldn’t control my trembling fingers. My pounding heart. My scared tears.
The picture went away. Then another message from Shannon greeted me: That’s you! 😉
“Fuck,” I said through the sobs. The iPhone shook in my grasp. I felt a mental breakdown erupting through my panic.
Here’s your friend, Shannon replied.
Another picture popped up. Even in my current state, I felt more tears pour down my face at a rapid rate.
“Aw, God…” I muttered in terror.
The photo showed Shannon holding up a pretty severed head. The coiffed beard made it obvious who he was even without the rest of his body. Logan.
Like red dye, blood smeared over Logan’s beard. His mouth was open to scream. His eyes wide open in fright. Logan’s neck was hacked in one cool slice. Surgical efficiency. One of Shannon’s trademarks.
And there was Shannon holding the severed head with pride. Her eyes stared on at the camera, and I could see how excited they were. How much sadistic fun she was having. I could even picture her own beaming smile behind that fucking mannequin one.
The photo went away and Shannon’s next message appeared.
Through the tears, I had to read it. I felt helpless and hopeless. There was no getting away from Shannon now. She had me trapped on Bumble. In my own exhibitionist comfort zone.
I knew you looked familiar, she said.
Shannon sent a video message. The footage of Patrick’s death. All the stab wounds he had to endure. His screams so tormented. The final jab in his eye a brute flourish of a finish.
I cried out in anguish.
Like an aggressive cop, Shannon continued hounding me. Taunting me. Torturing me.
Her next message arrived: I can tell y’all are related 🙂
Weeping, I tried to wipe away my tears. But they kept falling. Gallons of them splattered across the iPhone screen. Over Shannon’s confident profile pic.
I’m gonna find you now, Shannon went on.
“Oh fuck!” I yelled. “No!”
At the mercy of my phone, all I could do was stare at the screen. My emotions paralyzed me to the living room couch. All the terrifying murders I’d seen replayed through my mind. And the dread of what would happen next consumed my soul.
Like she was teasing a final stab, Shannon deliberated on her next message. Then, it arrived with a cold vibration:
Reading Time: 10minutes
“No, I’m going to stay in. It’s been a long day and the most I intend to do tonight is hand out candy.”
“Lame. Look, just for once, ignore your spinster instincts and come to Jackson’s. We’ll get sloppy drunk and play strip Twister.”
“Sounds like a blast.”
“I already have our costumes picked out.”
“Oh, this I have to hear. What’s the costume?”
“Josh will be there.”
“See, only in your mind would it sound appealing to make an ass of myself in front of a guy I like.”
“The trick is to get so wasted you don’t remember the embarrassing parts.”
“Uh huh. Also, it’s Wednesday.”
“Nina! I swear, you’re the youngest granny I know.”
“I appreciate the invite, genuinely. But I’m just not up for that kind of action tonight. I have a date with Michael Myers and 80 or 90 Twix bars.”
“Sexy. Alright, well, if you change your mind, text me.”
“You’ll be the first to know, promise. And send me some pictures of naked Twister.”
“You got it, Granny.”
I hung up the phone relieved. All things considered, I got off pretty easy. Ally could be… tenacious. Normally, I loved going out for Halloween, no matter what day of the week it was. But what I said was the truth – it had already been a rough week and I was looking forward to a relaxing night of too much candy, Jaime Lee Curtis, and maybe one spiked apple cider.
Halfway through washing some spinach for dinner, the doorbell rang for the first time. A chorus of “trick or treat!” erupted when I opened the front door.
Two little boys and their dad dressed in a group costume. Buzz, Woody, and Andy. Really cute. I let them take three each.
Quite a few came by after that. A princess, a Pikachu, lots of Spidermen, a mini Beetlejuice, a witch. As it got later and darker, the trick-or-treaters got older. The costumes changed. There were a lot of masks – creepy ones.
Thankfully, these were usually paired with a sexy version of something. Sinister burlap mask with black eye-holes was accompanied by a sexy skeleton. Ghostface walked up hand in hand with a sexy pirate.
By eleven o’clock, I was on Halloween 4, had gone through a disconcerting amount of candy, and hadn’t moved for almost an hour. The trick-or-treaters had tapered off around ten or so and I was contemplating my pajamas.
When the doorbell rang.
My first thought was, drunk teenagers. And I was ready to negotiate the non-egging of my house in exchange for Kit Kats. But when I opened the door, there was only one man standing there, waiting for me. Dressed as a clown.
I hate clowns to begin with, and this guy was massive. But, I have to say, it was the friendly kind of costume, not the creepy kind. The white face had smiling blue lips surrounded by red, blue around the eyes. It looked vintage.
Staring up at the happy-face mask, though, I couldn’t help to be a little creeped out. Then he leaned forward and whispered, “Trick or treat.”
Mentally, I slapped myself. Generally speaking, serial killers don’t walk up to the front door, ring the bell, and wait for candy. It was Halloween. He was probably a dad going around for his kid.
Mad at myself, I smiled and reached for the bowl next to the door. “Little late, isn’t it?” I said, trying to neighborly.
Without responding, he glanced down at the bowl.
“Oh, take what you like. I doubt I’ll get anyone else after you.”
He looked back at me, still not taking anything, and said again, “Trick or treat.”
I frowned. Did I not have what he wanted? What was the problem? “I’m sorry, I don’t–”
He took a step toward me, now crowding the doorway, and I felt myself wanting to shrink away from him. “Trick? Or treat?”
“For me? Uh, well, I’d choose treat. Definitely. I wouldn’t want a trick.” I laughed a little bit, like I still thought this was no big deal, like we were just chatting. Like I wasn’t fighting off real fear and wondering whether or not I could outrun him.
Nodding, he reached into his pocket. Before I had time to panic, he pulled out a dirty piece of paper and dropped it into the bowl of candy. Then, without another word, he turned and went back down the walkway and out to the street.
I slammed the door and locked it, not really knowing what I should do first. Call the police? And say what? That a giant clown was aggressively trick or treating? He hadn’t actually done anything. Just creeped me out. I doubted they’d call in the SWAT team for that and I really did not want to go down that useless road.
Unless, he’d written something on the note. Anything even vaguely threatening and I could take it to the police. Flinging the bowl of candy on the kitchen table, I uncrumpled the small scrap of paper. It took forever – he must’ve folded it ten times.
And when I did, I wished I hadn’t. Wished I’d never opened the door in the first place.
It said, “On the back steps.”
This is the part when everyone starts yelling to run – I know, I would’ve said the same thing myself. But run where?
Yes, he could’ve written that note hoping I’d go and check out the back. Or, he could’ve written it hoping I’d get scared and run out the front. Or, he wasn’t anywhere and had written the note thinking this would be hilarious.
I settled on the back. If I turned on the light, I’d be able to see out there without opening the door. If he was there and came after me, he’d have to break through the door – I’d at least have some time to run for it.
Well aware that it has almost never helped anyone in a horror movie, I took a knife from the drawer and edged toward the back. Waiting, I counted to ten, wanting to see if I’d hear the tell-tale rattle of someone trying to open the door. Nothing.
Back flat against the wall, I flicked on the porch light and looked out through the small window. At first, I didn’t notice the small package on the steps. I was looking for him – the hulking shape of a man either hiding or running at me. As far as I could see, he wasn’t out there.
I had no intention of turning that light off, but thought that maybe I should check the rest of the house, and started to turn away. That’s when my eyes landed on the box. Just a black cube silhouetted against the light. But I knew he’d left it for me.
I knew not to go out there. It could be a trap, a trick. Probably was. But I wanted help, damn it. I wanted the cavalry. And I was just so scared they wouldn’t come if they thought it was a practical joke or if they didn’t take me seriously. It could be evidence out there.
That was why I went out to get it.
I took another long look and unlocked the door, then opened it. If he was out there watching me, he’d have to cover a lot of ground to get to me and I thought I’d have enough time to get back inside.
Deep breath. One, two, three…
I sprinted the handful of steps to the package and grabbed it, careful not to overshoot and go tumbling down the stairs. Before I took another breath I was back in the house, door locked behind me, gasping for air like I’d just run a marathon. Checking the window again I saw, still nothing. Nothing but yellow leaves rustling in an unsteady wind.
Setting the box on the kitchen table, I took a pair of latex gloves from under the sink. It hadn’t just been the light, the box – my treat – was wrapped in shiny black paper. It crinkled unpleasantly when I lifted the lid.
I had no idea what to expect and drew back just in case something sprang out. But there was nothing like that – nothing alive, or dangerous in the traditional sense. Reaching in, ignoring the crackle of the paper, I pulled out two white shoes covered in blood. Little ballet flats about the size of my hand.
My fingers trembled and my eyes started to tear up. I wanted to believe, more than anything, that it was fake blood. That all of this was someone’s sick idea of a Halloween prank. But there’s no mistaking the smell of real blood. A lot of it had dried but there were still spots of dark, sticky red.
I stood there too long, looking at them, unable to break out of that horrified paralysis.
The police. No question now.
Where the hell did I leave my phone? It had to be back in the living room. On the other side of the house. Of course.
Ripping off the gloves, I made myself move. If I didn’t, I’d be cowering in my brightly lit kitchen until noon tomorrow. All I had to do was get there, grab my phone, and call 911. I took the knife just in case. Everything was going to be fine.
I screamed when the doorbell rang.
Gripping the handle of the knife, I looked out through the peephole. I couldn’t see anyone. Standing there, holding my breath, I waited for the doorknob to turn, for a fist to start pounding against the panels.
Instead, a small voice said, “Hello? Is anyone there?”
“What the hell?” I listened, not sure what was going on, not sure if I was quite possibly losing my mind.
“Can you help me, please?” The little voice sounded choked up, like it was trying very hard not to cry. “I’m lost and I can’t find my way home.”
If a little kid was out there, they had to get in the house. Right now. I opened the door to find a little girl, eight or nine years old, dressed in a bloody ghost costume. White face paint, dramatic black shadow around the eyes. White gloves and a cut up sheet that hung to the ground. She blinked up at me and said, “Please help me.”
I wanted to ask her a million questions: how long had she been out there? Where were her parents? But I was scared. My eyes jumped from shadow to shadow trying to see if any were moving in a way they shouldn’t be.
“I’ll help you get home, don’t worry. But you have to come inside right now. We’ll call your parents.”
She looked past me into the house and shook her head. Panic and frustration crowded in on me – all I wanted to do was grab her and drag her into the house. But that wasn’t fair, and probably wouldn’t speed things up. Maybe if we could just get to my car.
“Okay, I understand. Let me just get my phone and we can both–”
“No!” She looked past me again into the house. “He’s waiting for you. Listening for you to go into that room. You have to come with me right now.”
Before I could respond, I heard fast, heavy footsteps behind me, coming up the basement stairs.
The girl’s eyes widened. “Run!”
I ran. Leaving the front door open behind me, I sprinted after the girl. The knife in my hand felt like a toy and I almost threw it away. Just once, I turned and looked behind me and saw the clown crashing through the doorway.
The girl was already ahead of me, I could barely see flashes of white in the darkness, and sped up not wanting to lose her. Not daring to stop or even slow down, I screamed up to the houses we ran by to call the police, call for help.
We cut through yard after yard until we were racing down a street I didn’t recognize. Even though I ran faster than I ever had before in my life, the clown was still right behind us. And he was catching up.
Ducking under a low-hanging branch, I realized I’d lost the girl. Ready to take off in whichever direction looked most promising, I stopped when I heard her voice.
“In here!” I turned and saw her peeking out of the front door to a house. I ran to her and tried to lock the door behind me, but the deadbolt wouldn’t turn.
I gave up and rushed to the back door. It was blocked. Twisting the knob with both hands, I threw myself against the panels. “Come on!” It wouldn’t budge.
I had no idea where the girl had gone but I knew I was almost out of time. I could feel it, the same way you can feel a headache coming on. That sense of pressure building. Back to the front of the house, I started up the stairs. I’d only made it to the fourth one by the time the door flew open.
Without turning around, I tore up the rest of the stairs and threw myself behind the first door I came to and slammed it shut behind me. A bathroom.
There was a window by the shower and I raced over, ready to break the glass if I had to – and saw it was a sheer drop to the driveway. “Damn it!”
Maybe if I tried using the shower curtain as a rope –
The door was kicked open with such force that the wood splintered. The clown stepped in and waved his fingers at me. In the other hand, he held a cleaver.
I had no chance at all.
He crossed the bathroom in two steps, that stupid clown mask grinning down at me. I didn’t even scream.
Then I heard a small voice yell from the hallway. “Hey! Don’t you touch her!”
The clown turned and froze, staring at the girl. Without thinking, I lifted the knife I’d taken from my kitchen – the one that felt like a toy, that never helps anyone in the end – and slashed it across his throat.
He stumbled back, one hand pressed against the cut. A hot, red spray spurted through his fingers and hit the walls, spattered against my face. He went down swinging the cleaver, slicing through my arm just below the shoulder but I didn’t even feel it. Face-down on the floor, the clown’s body shuddered. Heavy boots thudded against the tile, fingers twitched. I waited until he was still before I moved.
For good measure, I knelt and brought the knife down, stabbing it into the back of his neck and left it there.
Stepping over him, I went to the girl and grabbed her, hugging her. Probably too tightly. “That was such a brave, stupid thing to do! Are you hurt?”
She shook her head but started to cry a little bit.
She said, “You just have to come with me now, OK?”
The only place we were going was to a phone to call for help, but I nodded and let her lead me downstairs.
“I’m sorry, but I need you to make sure that someone takes care of my mommy and daddy.”
We came around the corner into the living room and my stomach clenched into a tight, sick ball. “Oh God, oh my God.”
Two bodies were sprawled in front of me, covered in blood, parts of them missing. The room started to tilt and go out of focus. We had to leave. I wasn’t about to leave that poor girl alone while I fainted.
“We’re getting out of here. Come with me, right now,” I said reaching out for the girl’s hand.
But she stepped away from me and shook her head no. “I have to go now. I don’t want to get left behind.”
That made me so sad for her. “I would never leave you here. We’re going to get help, together.”
She smiled. “I know. Just don’t forget about my mom and dad. And how much you helped us. Try to remember that and not be too sad when it’s all over.”
I looked at her, not understanding.
She pointed across the room. “My mom’s phone is on the table next to the sofa.”
Wanting to grab the phone and get the hell out of the house, I walked over, avoiding the blood as much as I could. As I reached down, I noticed something on the other side of the sofa. A flash of white in the darkness. And started to cry.
A cut up sheet covered in blood. White gloves. But her feet were bare. The shoes were gone.
Reading Time: 17minutesSerial killers have always fascinated me. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve found myself both scared and intrigued by psychos like Ted Bundy or Clementine Barnabet. And as I grew older, my interest only increased.
I was from Atlanta. Growing up in lower-class Latino neighborhoods, I’d seen crime all the time. I saw gangs, drugs, violence. Basically a first-hand glimpse into real-world terror. Life wasn’t always perfect. Not when I had no siblings and only my skinny mother to protect me. By thirteen, I was bitter. Angry. I didn’t want sappy bullshit to cheer me up. I wanted something darker. More realistic. So in time, serial killers became my hobby.
All the while, my mom fought hard as a single mother against the plights of life. And she won. Now I just had to make sure her victory wasn’t for naught.
So here I was. I, Michael Sanchez was on the verge of being the first college graduate in my family. Just one more semester and I’d be done here at Georgia State. My bachelor’s degree in English complete. I really wanted to be a writer. And you guessed it, a true crime writer. My capstone project was to even be a basis for my first book: an exploration into the homes of Georgia’s most infamous serial killers. Yeah, I kinda got the idea from the 1993 movie Kalifornia.
By the time Christmas break rolled around, my girlfriend Amy and I had already visited close to ten of these “homes.” All around Georgia. From Atlanta to Cordele. But now we were going further South than ever before. Almost to the Florida line: Stanwyck, Georgia.
For a relatively small town, Stanwyck had its fair share of violence. Maybe the highest murder rate per capita in the entire state. We were there to check out two particular locations: Jack Bates’s old house and a derelict apartment building called Sunnyside.
Sunnyside was a shambling two-story eyesore. Hell, I think it only had four “apartments” for rent. But the place was home to more than just roaches: it was also home to Clay Fowler. A bigot, a rapist. And murderer. The Stanwyck Slayer as he was called by the press.
Fowler was thirty-five by the time Apartment B was raided during the early-70s. Inside, police found the remains of all of his victims. Dozens of them found not as corpses or bodies, but just as pieces of flesh and organs.
All the pieces had been incorporated into his apartment’s interior. They were sewn or nailed into all the furniture and walls. There was even a flesh-covered coffee table.
Like a deranged home decorator, Clay had used his victims for Apartment B’s make-over. With the aid of his trusted fillet knife, he’d flawlessly blended the skin and bone into his home with meticulous precision. The cleanest apartment Sunnyside had ever seen. Everything was said to be so smooth and soft except for the occasional fleshy lump.
Clay had mostly been preying on children attending a nearby middle school. Most of his victims black. Considering his disgusting racism, Clay’s location deep in the heart of Stanwyck’s slums must’ve been a happy convenience for him. And like a monster of the mornings, he’d usually abduct the kids around dawn. Additionally, he’d also kill whichever adults got too close to Apartment B. Even a couple of his own neighbors from Apartment A.
From what I’d read, police were criticized for not investigating as thoroughly as they should’ve. An all-too-common reality whenever minorities and lower-class citizens went missing… something I was used to growing up in my poor neighborhoods.
Ultimately, Fowler got sentenced to life without parole. And to this day, The Stanwyck Slayer is still rotting behind bars.
I imagine most of y’all are probably wondering what the Hell I got out of exploring the homes of assholes like Fowler. Honestly, these journeys weren’t all about my project. They satisfied my passion. My obsession. Just being in these morbid locations grounded the tragedies for me. They painted historical markers for the murderers and their victims. And ultimately, I viewed them as symbolic gravestones for such horrible crimes.
So on December twentieth, Amy and I left my mom’s place. I promised to be back by Christmas Eve at the latest. After all, I’d never miss the holidays with mama. Plus, I was gonna bring her back a Stanwyck souvenir like I always did on these trips.
The pretty drive was a four hour journey through the rural American South. Amy and I had a blast like always. She considered it an early Christmas present for me, and I couldn’t ask for anything better.
We were a quirky but cute couple. Both of us black-haired and brown-eyed Latinos. Both of us with hipster haircuts and eccentric clothes. Both of us from tough poor neighborhoods. But Amy was much tougher than me. Not to mention more muscular compared to me and my developing beer belly…
We’d bonded in American Lit over Edgar Allan Poe. Two outsiders in a college where everyone else considered us weird as fuck. But we didn’t need them or the party scene. We had each other. Horror movies. And our shared interest in serial killers.
By four o’clock, we reached Stanwyck. I wouldn’t say the town was tiny nor big. Just an average All-American city. A Wal-Mart and a great high school football team. A high school team that’d just won a state championship too.
Plus, the city’s Christmas lights were glorious. Like a holiday Vegas. Such a warm greeting for a town notorious to all us true crime enthusiasts like Amy and I. There were the clean city streets. The cute country homes. The countless fast food chains… overall, Stanwyck just looked comfortable.
However, the closer we got to Sunnyside, we noticed the gradual shift from pleasant Stanwyck to downtrodden slummy Stanwyck. West Stanwyck, to be exact. The area was more industrial rather than scenic. And with it, came a conglomeration of lower-class neighborhoods and public housing. Sunnyside Apartments amongst them.
The roads got bumpier. The houses became more unappealing. The Christmas lights now resembled shabby hand-me-downs. West Stanwyck felt like a safer incarnation of the mean streets Amy and I had grown up on.
Soon, we passed the middle school. And what a brick mess it was.
A faded sign out front read: West Stanwyck Middle School. Home Of The Owls.
The sign’s owl caricature would’ve been more at home in a 1960s cartoon. So would the school for that matter. Much like the west side’s Christmas lights, Stanwyck Middle resembled yet another indifferent hand-me-down from the city.
And the neighborhoods around the school weren’t much better. Almost all public housing. All full of poverty and urban decay. Small town America’s rendition of my inner-city ATL Hell.
In a few blocks, we finally reached our destination and pulled up into Sunnyside’s ruptured parking lot. My Toyota was the only car here. No nearby neighbors save for a shack or two. A Stanwyck Middle School bus stop was right across the street… yet another unfortunate convenience for Fowler.
Woods of tall trees and spiraling ivy were on all sides of the two-story building. The property long overgrown. Almost as if Sunnyside had become a dark forest in the middle of town.
The apartment’s white stone structure was about as appealing as a funeral home. Once I saw the rickety metal stairway, I was glad Apartment B was on the ground floor.
Even in the early evening, I found it strange there weren’t any cars or people around. As if the abandoned Sunnyside had been quarantined from the rest of town. Even a black eye for this lower-class neighborhood.
Holding hands, Amy and I walked toward B. Both of us struggled to stay warm in our hoodies. The harsh breeze about as vicious as Fowler’s fillet knife.
We were ready for our “inspection.” She had the camera. I had my iPhone out, ready to type down my thoughts. Well, Amy and I’s thoughts. In many ways, this was our project.
I pulled my hoodie in closer. A weak attempt to stave off the bitter cold.
As we passed Apartment A, I stole a look through its large windows. I could see stray furniture inside. Even trash and cigarette butts on the wool carpeting. Regardless of the tacky color, the room’s blue walls looked fresh rather than ancient.
“Exciting,” Amy murmured.
“I know,” I said. I squeezed her hand like an excited kid clinging to their parent before entering their first haunted house. “I bet they probably couldn’t clean all of it.”
Chuckling, Amy gave me a light punch. “That’s terrible, Michael!”
“I mean it’d be pretty damn tough. The bitch had people everywhere.”
“Even sewn into the couch, right?”
Like a confident professor, I looked right at her. “Correct.”
We stopped at the black door. A crooked letter B hung on it. Scratches and chipped paint accompanied the rusty doorknob. Cracked glass was on all the nearby windows. Somehow this place was never rumored to be haunted, I realized.
Amy took a pic of the door. She flashed me a smile. “You ready?”
“Yeah,” I replied. Cautious, I reached toward the door. Then hesitated. Even in the daylight, trespassing always got me nervous. I stole a look around us… even though I knew not a soul was around. And deep down, I knew no one would care anyway. Not even small town cops.
“I got it,” Amy quipped.
Turning, I saw her go ahead and snag the doorknob.
To our surprise, the knob moved with effortless precision. One smooth turn and Amy let it creak open.
“Well, that was easy,” I commented.
Grinning, Amy snapped a photo of me.
I couldn’t help but smirk.
Using the camera, Amy waved me inside. “After you, sexy.”
From there, we entered Apartment B. The front door slammed shut right behind us in a ferocious flourish. Of course, I jumped. And of course, Amy laughed her ass off.
“You already scared?” she teased.
I threw up my arms. “We’re only in the home of one of Georgia’s most prolific serial killers.”
“Not our first time, Michael.”
Amused, I hugged her close and gave her a kiss.
“Come on,” I said. Then we got to work.
Even with all the lights out, sunshine beamed in through all the windows to light the place up like a stage. Not that there was much to light up.
Most of the apartment was a big living room. There was an old torn couch. A few blankets strewn about. Even a bulky T.V. No flesh was on any of this, of course.
Plenty of stains and trash covered the scruffy carpet. Not to mention the carpet was more ruptured than the parking lot.
A small kitchen was connected to the living room. Just an oven and a tall fridge. Not even room for a damn table.
Expecting a cold cave, I was surprised by the room’s cozy warmth. As if all the squatters had set up a fireplace for the holidays.
But I could still feel the isolation in here. Even in the city limits. Apartment B was a lonely place. All ugly blandness inside. And all ugly poverty outside. I couldn’t help but be reminded of my old neighborhoods. The places mama and I used to live…
I bet Fowler spent plenty of long nights in this room. Both from killing and out of boredom. There was seclusion in Apartment B’s walls. Maybe being trapped in here was the final push toward The Stanwyck Slayer’s killing spree? Then I realized an even creepier thought… what if Fowler was planning the murders all along? Specifically against the black race he hated. This wouldn’t be a lonely place then, but a coveted spot for his evil.
As she took photos with the artistry of a SnapChatter-turned-crime-photographer, Amy pointed toward the walls. They were blood red rather than blue.
“I guess they painted it that in case they missed anything,” she joked.
Smiling, I nodded. “Wouldn’t surprise me.”
Stopping near the T.V., I saw that all the walls were red. I knew it was paint but still felt like Amy and I had stumbled upon a recreation of the scene shocked officers had found in here over forty years ago. Red walls made of Clay’s victims’ flesh and blood. Not to mention the human smorgasbord that was his furniture. This was Ed Gein in overdrive.
Like an intense reporter, Amy took countless photos. And I did my best to type up notes on my phone.
Turning, I noticed a tight hallway led from the living room to a few closed doors. I figured a bedroom and bathroom. The hallway resembled a claustrophobic tunnel… claustrophobic just like the rest of this shithole apartment.
Stopping near me, an excited Amy pointed toward a shelf standing by the couch. One of the ripped-up sofa arms had obscured the sight. “Hey, check that out!” she said.
Intrigued, I followed her over to the shelf.
On top of it stood two modest picture frames. Through the cracked glass, each frame showed a lesbian couple in their mid-30s. Attractive but clearly lower-class. Grungy clothes and hairstyles. Countless piercings. The taller one was a white girl with green eyes and long blonde hair, the other an African-American with a sexy fohawk.
“Who are they?” Amy asked.
“Probably the last renters,” I said.
Amy took closer shots of both pics.
Smirking, I looked back at all the red walls. Now that I was this close, the paint did look quite fresh. “Probably back when rent was one-hundred a month.”
Laughing, Amy confronted me. “Even that’s too much.”
Through the windows, I saw the sunlight fading into night. The apartment was getting darker. And creepier. Just how Amy and I liked it. Like a morbid museum that retained a curious mystique by day but became fucking terrifying once the lights went out.
“Come on,” I said. With that, I led the way toward the hallway. Toward those doors.
Amy stayed close. Like a constant soundtrack, I kept hearing her camera go off.
“You think we’ll find anything?” she asked.
I flashed her a grin. “I sure hope not.”
The hallway was even darker than the living room. No windows for comfort. Like we were going further within the cave that was Apartment B.
Both doors were black and looked older than slabs of stone. The knobs long conquered by rust.
I snagged the first one, but it was locked. Stunned, I kept turning the knob to no avail. “What the fuck…” I muttered.
“Why’s it locked?” Amy asked, incredulous.
The entire apartment got darker and darker. As if Sunnyside Apartments was getting near closing time. Yet Apartment B was still warm. Sure, the shitty building was shelter from the cold… but this was constant heat. There was no cool breeze seeping in or a dominant draft for that matter.
“I wonder what the last tenants were hiding,” Amy quipped in a Crypt Keeper tone.
Grinning, I looked at her warm smile.
“Hey, we can dream, right,” she commented.
“Why not.” Ready to explore, I grabbed the other doorknob. But it wouldn’t budge. Both doors were locked tight.
Annoyed, I pounded on the hard door. The hits hurt me more than anything. Like I was banging on concrete.
“Fuck!” I yelled as I drew my hand back.
Chuckling, Amy pulled me back. “Nice try, doofus.”
I confronted the door, frustrated I couldn’t see what secrets lied behind it.
“I think there’s a window out back,” Amy said.
With the sudden fright of a blaring police siren, the front door swung open.
“Oh fuck!” I exclaimed.
Scared shitless, Amy and I turned to see a couple enter from the dark night. Two laughing females. Their drunken laughter reminiscent of hyenas.
I felt Amy’s nervous hand grab my shoulder. Full of dread, I wrapped my arm around her and pulled her in close. There we stood in the dark like uneasy soldiers.
One quick flick and the living room lights cut on. Loud, humming bulbs illuminated the apartment like a clinical lab.
The two girls were the lesbian couple from the photos. The strange couple. In addition to the piercings, they wore punk clothing. Ripped jeans and tee-shirts. Tight black leather jackets.
The fohawk girl carried two large brown grocery bags. Overfilled bags. Like an All-American family’s shopping spree gone mad.
Still chuckling, the blonde woman stumbled over toward the kitchen. Neither woman had seen us yet.
My mind was at a panicked blank. What the fuck were we gonna do?
Apparently, Amy had an idea. Stepping away from me, Amy approached the two women.
“I’m sorry,” Amy said, her voice apologetic yet strong.
I followed after her. Yeah, I felt weird, but I wasn’t gonna let my gf go alone.
Surprised, the fohawk girl flashed us an amused smile. “Oh, hi there.” She placed the grocery bags on the couch.
I heard the fridge opening in the kitchen. The sound of drinks and food being pushed around.
Together, Amy and I stopped in the living room. Awkward as always. Like we’d crashed an upscale party rather than just broken into a shitty apartment.
“Shit, we’re so sorry!” Amy went on, doing her best to suppress her unease. “We didn’t know anyone lived here.”
Holding a can of PBR, the tall blonde stopped next to her girlfriend. A wicked smile dominated the blonde’s haggard face. “Well, look what the cat drug in.”
“I know,” her girlfriend said. “We’ve got visitors.”
“Pretty ones too.” The blonde took a long sip, savoring the cheap booze. The couple’s smiles were confident but warm. Like proud hostesses.
Keeping her cool, Amy took a calm step toward them. “I’m sorry. We came here because we heard this was where The Stanwyck Slayer lived.”
The blonde’s bright eyes lit up. “Oh. Clay Fowler, right?”
Gathering my nerves, I stopped next to Amy. “Yeah, this was his apartment, right?” I asked. “Apartment B?”
“Oh yeah,” the blonde went on. She took another compulsive sip like it was a dose of prescribed medicine. “Mrs. Barrymore warned us about it when we moved in.”
“Our landlord,” fohawk chimed in.
Amy and I released nervous chuckles.
“Warned y’all?” I joked like an anxious comedian. I stole a glance around the room. “He’s not still here, is he?”
The blonde laughed. “No, not at all, man. That bitch has been gone.”
Grinning, her girlfriend motioned toward Amy’s camera. “What’s that for?”
“Y’all trying to do an interview?” the blonde teased.
“Like a documentary,” fohawk added.
Hiding her nerves better than I ever could, Amy held up the camera. “We were just taking pictures. Honestly, we really thought Sunnyside was abandoned.”
“Yeah,” I added. “We’re trying to explore the houses of different famous serial killers.”
“No shit!” the blonde exclaimed.
Excited, her girlfriend hit her shoulder. “That’s so cool!”
“I’m honestly surprised no one’s been around here before,” I said. “I mean this is like history.”
“Mmm-hmm,” Amy said.
Like a smug celebrity on a photo shoot, the blonde draped her arm over her girl. One hand on her girlfriend, the other on a PBR. All that was missing was a cigarette. “Well, we don’t worry about it too much,” the blonde stated. She exchanged smiles with fohawk. “Rent’s cheap and we’re together.” Her beaming eyes confronted Amy and I. “That’s all that matters.”
“I understand,” Amy said. “Again, I’m sorry we barged in like this.”
Like a pathetic apologetic suburban dad, I forced a chuckle. Clark Griswold himself would’ve cringed. “Yeah, I thought it was a little too warm in here to be abandoned.”
Laughing, fohawk faced her partner. “Oh my God, did you leave the heat on again!”
The blonde waved her can toward the front door. “Shit, you’re the one who left the damn door open!”
“Well, we should probably leave,” Amy said. “I’m sorry about all this.”
Eager, I joined Amy. “Yeah.”
Using her PBR like a baton, the blonde kept us at bay. “Whoa, y’all ain’t taking nothing now, are you?”
Her girlfriend grabbed her arm. “Babe-”
“No, I’m serious, Chris!” the blonde interrupted. She focused her stoic stare on us. “They were just messing around in our apartment.”
“I promise we didn’t,” Amy said.
Chris wrapped her arm around the blonde. “You locked the bedroom remember?”
“True,” the blonde admitted.
Trying to leave the awkward situation, Amy exchanged nervous looks with me. “Well, we really should get going.”
But the couple didn’t budge. Like a human blockade, they stayed in front of the doorway.
Chris’s curious eyes stayed focused on us. “Fowler was the one who killed all the black kids, right? With a fillet knife or some shit?”
“Yeah, he’s fucking terrible,” I said.
Like a mob boss, the blonde took another cool sip. “So why are y’all so interested in him then?”
I felt the couple’s stares pierce into us like daggers.
“Well,” I stammered. Turning, I saw Amy’s annoyed glare strike me with ferocity.
“It’s for his project,” Amy added.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m doing a book on serial killers. About their homes and houses and shit.” I waved toward Amy. “She’s taking the pictures and helping me.”
Smiles cracked through the couple’s stoic facades.
“Aww, how cute!” the blonde teased.
“Y’all know about Jack Bates too, right?” Chris asked us.
Amy grinned. “Of course.”
“Yeah, we’re gonna stop at his place next,” I said.
Like a rebellious teenager that was too cool for school, the blonde let out a smug chuckle. “Aw, man. Plenty of weirdos in this town.”
“Not even counting us,” Chris joked.
“Yeah, that’s what I’ve heard,” I said.
With forceful energy, Amy pulled me toward the door. “Well, it was nice meeting y’all,” Amy said to the couple.
“Oh yeah, you too,” Chris replied. Unlike the blonde, Chris stepped out of the way. Just enough space for us to clear out of Apartment B.
Turning, I faced the couple. “I’m sorry about everything.”
“No, you’re fine,” Chris said in a warm tone. “Bye.”
Like a confident cop, the blonde’s eyes and smirk stayed on me. “Take care,” she said with sardonic sharpness.
Amy and I stepped out into the furious cold. The temperature had dropped even further since we went into the apartment.
As if she were shutting us into a chest freezer, Chris closed the door behind us. The powerful effects of Apartment B’s heater were now gone without a trace.
Desperate to stay warm, I hugged Amy close. “Well, that was fun.”
“A little too exciting,” Amy said with a laugh.
Together, we started walking back to my Toyota. The howling breeze kept hitting us in waves. Amy jammed her hands in her hoodie pockets. Camera included.
“I guess I’ll have to do more research next time,” I said. My eyes drifted over toward one of Apartment B’s many windows.
“Naw, that’s my bad,” Amy said.
Not saying a word, I came to a horrified stop. The combination of the cold and my own extreme fear cemented me in place.
Startled, Amy looked at me. “Michael.”
But I couldn’t answer. My eyes were captivated by the sight inside Apartment B.
Through the windows, I could see the lesbian couple empty the grocery bags onto the couch like open Christmas presents.
Right on the sofa fell a grisly collection. Blood-red “gifts”: severed human limbs and pulpy organs.
The two women looked excited and thrilled. Like bank robbers evaluating their stolen loot. Only this was stolen, slaughtered lives.
I felt Amy’s terrified hand snatch my arm. Her grip colder than the December air.
Then when Chris and the blonde both looked up at us, their eyes looked colder than Death.
My soul became twisted in knots. Especially once the couple gave Amy and I those wicked smiles.
The two of them looked so happy. Even with the scattered gore all over their bodies and drenched across the ugly sofa. They had the enthusiastic spirit of Clay Fowler. And the enthusiastic evil of Apartment B.
“Come on!” the frightened Amy yelled through the cold.
I felt her yank my arm out of its socket. But it was the wake-up call I needed.
Snapping out of my frozen fear, I followed Amy toward the Toyota. All the way through the slicing cool air.
The door to Apartment B burst open like gunfire through the quiet night.
Scared, I turned and saw the couple run after us. Each of them held a long fillet knife. Just like Clay Fowler’s weapon of choice. The couple’s smiles looked more vicious than those long blades too.
“Shit!” I yelled.
“Keep going!” Amy demanded.
Amy’s grip tightened on my arm, cutting off whatever blood flow the cold hadn’t zapped from me yet.
As we passed Apartment A, I stole a look at the windows.
Through the cold air erupting from my lips, I saw a similarly horrific scene like the one I saw in Apartment B.
A middle-aged white couple spread out on the living room floor. Presumably the landlords: the Barrymores. Naked and laughing, they splashed around on the carpet. A carpet drenched in buckets of blood… as if the couple were making grisly snow Angels.
Like a persistent cab driver, Amy wouldn’t let me stop for too long. Not that I wanted to. Not when I could hear the lesbian couple get closer and closer. Or when Mr. Barrymore’s wild gaze made direct eye contact with my frightened eyes.
Finally, we reached the Toyota. Amy shoved me toward the passenger’s seat. I felt the cold window hit my hands. Honestly, I was shocked my hands didn’t explode like busted ice upon impact.
Amy hopped in behind the wheel. “Get in!” she yelled.
Terrified, I turned. All of Sunnyside was descending upon us.
I saw crazed couples running down the metal stairway. Their loud clanging footsteps sounded like a robotic army. Their frenetic movement made the staircase tremble in the wind. All of them were armed with the fillet knives. All of them glowered right at us.
And now the lesbian couple and the Barrymores were less than fifteen feet away. The Barrymores still nude and bathed in blood. Their fillet knives craving our flesh.
I heard the Toyota start like a motorcycle ready to race. And I was ready to get the fuck out of here. The smartest thing I’d done all day, or in my entire life, was give Amy those car keys before heading into Apartment B. Thank fucking God, I did.
Without further ado, I jumped into the passenger’s seat. All I could do was stare out the window as Amy put the car in reverse.
The Sunnyside tenants got closer and closer. As did their glares. Their bloodlust. Their sharp blades.
Breathing heavy, Amy drove off with a furious mash on the pedal. And she never looked back.
I suppose I shouldn’t have either… but I couldn’t help myself. Like a trembling child, my wide eyes looked back at Sunnyside. At all the bizarre residents.
They gave chase down the street. And then finally, they dropped out of sight… we were finally out of their collective crosshairs. Amy and I were safe.
By this point, we had no interest in going to Jack Bates’s house. Amy didn’t even have to talk me into it. Shit, she’d even offered to still go there just for me. Just for my Christmas “present.” But I’d had enough of the book for the holidays. Maybe in January, I’d feel up to exploring more… just damn sure not now.
We made one stop at a local gas station. There, Amy called the Stanwyck police and told them about Sunnyside. She begged them to go out there as soon as possible. On the phone, they tried to calm her down, but Amy was understandably not having any of that. They even tried to tell us Sunnyside had been abandoned since the early 90s… just like my research had led me to believe. But nonetheless, the dispatcher told us they’d send a few officers over there to check it out. Only Amy and I weren’t sticking around to hear more. No fucking way.
Before leaving Stanwyck, I ran inside the convenience store and got mama her souvenir. A cute Bearcat coffee mug. Yeah, I know. A pretty cheesy mascot for such a dominant high school football team. I gotta say it was unique though… plus, mama did love her animals.
Amy and I made it a straight shot back to Atlanta. With Christmas music rather than true-crime podcasts playing all the way… like we were a family looking at lights on December 24. Smiling, we sang along to all the cheesy lyrics. I guess narrowly surviving an attack from a band of murderers could make you a little sentimental. But through it all, Amy and I survived. And we’d be home for Christmas.
Reading Time: 12minutes“In the morning, she goes to wake her friend, so she won’t be late for class. She doesn’t realize right away why her friend isn’t answering, why she’s not getting up. Then she pulls back the blanket. Her friend’s throat has been cut open so deeply that her head almost falls off when she puts a hand on her shoulder. Her dead eyes staring up in horror. That’s when the girl notices… above the bed, scrawled in her friend’s own blood, are the words, “Aren’t you glad you didn’t turn on the light?”
Chloe laughed and clapped her hands. “Jesus, Sarah, the look on your face! It’s a story. Relax.”
“It’s not just a story- you hear about things like that happening all the time. My cousin’s ex-boyfriend knew someone that actually happened to.”
“No he didn’t. That’s what everyone says and it is never what actually happened. Because it’s a story – it’s not real.”
“I like stories better when there’s some kind of a happy ending.”
“Happy ending? What are you, twelve? Besides, those aren’t the kinds of stories you tell when you’re camping.”
Sarah rolled her eyes. She had never been camping before and was starting to regret being talked into it. But she’d known Chloe since the third grade – this wasn’t the first little adventure she’d been talked into. “I don’t even know why I agreed to come out with you.”
“Me neither, actually. I was a little surprised.” She grabbed a few small sticks from the pile next to her and threw them into the fire. “Especially because of what happened here.”
“Don’t start, you already scared the crap out of me. You hit your quota for the night.”
“It’s not a story – it’s history,” Chloe said, leaning forward. “You can Google it.”
“No reception out here, remember?”
“Fine. Fact-check it later.”
“Is there a chance in the world of convincing you to do anything else? Dancing naked by moonlight, for example.”
Chloe shook her head.
“Well, then, by all means. Go ahead.”
“It was a long time ago – maybe back in the 40’s or 50’s – when a troop of Girl Scouts came out to the woods here for a camping trip.”
“Chloe. Are you serious? Everyone and their mother has heard this story. Girl Scout troop goes missing. No clues, no suspects. Blah, blah, blah. It’s like you just said, it’s a story. No one even knows if they disappeared from these woods. Or at all, as a matter of fact.”
“Everyone says that. No one looks it up. I told you – you can find it online. The whole story’s there. The real story. And I’m telling you – they didn’t disappear.”
Sarah hesitated. She really hadn’t wanted to hear that story again. Not in the middle of the woods, in the middle of the night, with shadows pressing in on them from all sides. But she was curious now.
“So, what happened then?”
Chloe grinned and moved closer to the fire.
“The plan was to work on basic survival skills, you know, how to start a fire, how to build a shelter, how to find fresh water. That kind of thing. I guess it went well at first. Maybe they went fishing, maybe they set up their tents – who knows. What they do know for sure is that they definitely got a fire going. The trip was only supposed to be overnight, everyone was supposed to be back home the next morning in plenty of time for lunch.
“No one came back.
“And when all the parents of those girls realized that not one of them had made it home by 2 o’clock, they called the police. You can’t imagine the panic. Seven little girls and their troop leader missing. No cell phones back then, no GPS, no way to know where in the woods they might’ve set up camp or even if that’s where they still were. Most of the cops in the county, all the parents, plus friends, neighbors, teachers – practically the whole town came out to help. By the time the sun started going down, everyone started to get nervous. They hadn’t found anything and it was starting to get dark.
“Shadows stretched out on the ground and reached down from the trees. The further they trudged into the trees, the harder it got to see. Just before real dark, someone found them. They almost tripped over the first body.
“Six of them sprawled on their stomachs, a look of complete terror on their faces. It looked like they had been trying to run from something, but didn’t get far. Whatever it was, it took down all of them. Fast. They were only feet away from each other. Each of them had been slashed from the shoulder blades to the backs of their knees. Down to the bone in some places.
“The parents had to be taken away – pretty much everyone who had helped to search was in hysterics. Throwing up, fainting, some of the mothers started screaming and had to be taken to a hospital and sedated.
“They identified five of the girls and the troop leader but one of them was missing. Melissa Vare, Missy everyone called her. Her body wasn’t with the others. They wanted to find her if they could. So the cops, who were the only ones left searching, went further into the woods looking for Missy’s body.
“It was true dark when they found the remains of their campfire. And Missy. She was sitting on a rock, close to where the fire had been, nothing but a sweater wrapped around her shoulders.
“When they got close to her, tried to get a blanket on her, she started crying, rocking back and forth. When they tried to lead her away, out of the woods, she panicked and started to scream. All she kept saying was, ‘Don’t run, don’t run, don’t run.’
“They got her out eventually – I don’t know how. Maybe they carried her. They said that she wouldn’t move a muscle on her own until she was back on the road and out of the woods.
“The murders got pinned on her. Nobody liked it and I’m pretty sure no one believed it – a tiny nine year old girl mutilating six other kids and a grown woman? Then going back to sit in the dark by the burnt-out fire for more than a day? No, I don’t think anyone believed it. But they had no other answer. And Missy never spoke about it. The only two words anyone heard her say again after that night were, ‘don’t run.’
“They locked her up in an institution somewhere. As far as I know, she’s still there. But think about this, if Missy didn’t go crazy and murder her Girl Scout troop that night – then something else did. And it could still be here. Waiting.”
“You know you’re full of it, right?”
“Are you serious? First of all, that’s a true story.”
“Sure it is. Just like that mass murderer who escaped last week. I hear he has a hook for a hand and has been hanging around make-out point.”
“I don’t even know why I bother with you.” Chloe stood up and grabbed her flashlight. “Fine. I’m going to pee. When I get back maybe you can tell me a story. Like the one about the girl who let Mark Kramer get into her pants last Friday night.”
Sarah dropped the stick she’d been poking the fire with. “What are you talking about?”
“Oh you didn’t hear that one? I guess it is fairly recent. Most people don’t know about it. Yet.”
Face burning, Sarah scooted back from the fire, even though it wasn’t why she felt hot. She considered denying it, laughing it off, telling Chloe she was crazy – but what would be the point? She didn’t know how, but Chloe knew. And she didn’t want to trap herself in a lie. Besides, she had nothing to be embarrassed about. She and Mark were consenting almost-adults, it wasn’t like either of them were seeing anyone. And they’d made out for a half an hour. Maybe a little more. That’s PG-13 at best.
“I don’t know how you found out, but I don’t know what your problem is about it.
It’s not like we were doing anything wrong.”
“I don’t have a problem with you two hooking up. I have a problem with you not telling me about it. We were supposed to be friends I thought.”
A surge of guilt hit Sarah in the stomach. Chloe would manage to find a way to make this about her. But it wasn’t like that. “I was going to tell you. It never crossed my mind to not tell you. I just, I don’t know, wanted to keep it to myself for a little while. Before I shared it with anyone else.”
An emotion Sarah couldn’t quite read flared then faded on Chloe’s face. “It’s fine.
Don’t worry about it. Just – you should’ve gone after someone else. I’ve heard a lot of stories about Mark getting what he wants from as many girls as he can juggle. You just should’ve gone with someone else.”
With that, Chloe turned on her heel and headed into the trees, the beam of her flashlight cutting a narrow, white light through the darkness.
Alone, Sarah sat and waited. The sounds in the forest at night were unnerving – she had thought it would be quiet, but the trees seemed to come alive after the sun went down. And everything living in the trees. Some things she could identify, like the crickets and peeper-frogs. But there were so many sounds that seemed strange to her.
She grabbed a handful of kindling and started snapping the sticks into tiny pieces, throwing them into the fire. Chloe always pulled something like this – always managed to find a way to make Sarah feel awful about herself. And over what? Mark Kramer?
Maybe she would ask to pack it up and go home. Chloe would never let her live it down, but at this point, she thought that might be worth it. Besides, it was getting colder and the novelty of roughing it had definitely worn off. Maybe Chloe would feel the same way – enough, at least, to give in and take them back to her house.
She leaned in toward the fire, stretching out her hands and trying to warm up her fingertips. How far had Chloe gone just to pee? It had been more than enough time for her to go and come back. She should –
Sarah heard her name screamed through trees. She started moving in the direction of the voice before realizing she’d even moved. Twenty steps away from the fire, she remembered the flashlight and sprinted back for it.
Turning around, she heard Chloe scream again. “Sarah! Help me!”
She ran toward where she thought Chloe would be, trying to keep control of the black panic that wanted to overwhelm her. Nightmare images flew through her head as the words of Chloe’s story came back to haunt her. She thought she saw things in the woods, shadows and shapes moving behind the trees – and tried to ignore them knowing it was just her fear. Fear trying to crowd in on her, trying to get into her head.
Running full-tilt, Sarah tripped over Chloe’s body. She hit the ground so hard, it knocked the air out of her, stunning her for a minute. Grabbing the flashlight that had gone flying, Sarah turned around on her knees and told herself that she was not seeing what she was seeing.
Chloe was on her stomach, one arm flung out in front of her, the other trapped under her body.
“No,” Sarah said, crawling over. “No, no, no.”
She knew, absolutely knew Chloe was dead. Her skin was stone white under the flashlight, eyes open wide, staring past Sarah.
What was she supposed to do? Run for help? Try to carry her out?
“Pulse, check her pulse,” she said out loud. “That’s what you’re supposed to do.”
The light shook as she reached out toward Chloe’s neck.
Inches away from her face, Sarah saw Chloe’s eyes blink, saw her lips smile, felt something grab her hand and hold her in place.
It happened so quickly – Chloe was up on her knees and lunging at her. Sarah managed to pull free and scramble back a few feet. Her chest stung, and when she looked down, she saw a scrawl of blood from her chest running up to her shoulder. Her jacket had provided some protection, but the cut was bleeding just the same.
Chloe stood, smiling. Not hurt, not dead. Sarah’s mind tried to convince her, just for one second, that this was a joke. A terrible joke, but not real.
“What, what,” Chloe said mocking her. “You really are pathetic. And you don’t even know it. That’s the part that kills me. You have no idea.”
Blinking up at Chloe as she took a step closer, Sarah couldn’t manage to say anything. Her thoughts still trying to catch up to her situation.
“You really have that innocent act down. Sarah doesn’t drink at parties, Sarah’s always home before curfew. You don’t mind half the guys at school following you around, though, like dogs waiting for a hand out. Didn’t mind giving it up to Mark Kramer.”
Some of what Chloe said got through the storm of confusion, even though it didn’t make any kind of sense.
“Mark Kramer?” Sarah asked, her voice coming out shaky. “Who the hell cares about Mark Kramer?”
“I do. And he cares about me. At least he did until you came along with your good girl routine. I have to admit, it’s good. They all want what they think they can’t have.”
“Wait, wait – you and Mark? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because I never thought I’d have to worry about you.” Chloe took another step closer, raising the hand that held the knife.
Too afraid to get to her feet, Sarah shifted her position around so that at least she was kneeling instead of sitting. “This is all because of Mark?”
“No, this is because of what you did to me. And my guarantee that it won’t happen again.”
As Chloe came at her, Sarah grabbed a handful of dirt and flung it at Chloe’s eyes. It was a lame deflection, but it was all she had, and she prayed it would be enough to give her a few seconds head start.
Sarah ran. She didn’t bother dodging or ducking the interlacing branches, just ran straight through them. The only thought in her head was to get back to their campsite, back to the fire. From there, she thought she could get back to the road, at least knew the general direction. Otherwise, she might not be able to find her way out. She might get lost in here. With Chloe.
Breaking through the last line of trees and into the small clearing, Sarah didn’t stop running at the sight of the campfire and their sleeping bags. She slowed only to grab her pack, which had an extra flashlight, her cell phone – and the car keys.
She almost made it. She had a bigger head start on Chloe than she had hoped for – but Chloe had a better arm. An apple-sized rock connected with the back of Sarah’s head, and she went down, hands pressed to her scalp.
In seconds, Chloe was on top of her, using her knees to pin Sarah’s arms. She couldn’t move but struggled anyway.
Chloe raised the knife, holding it above Sarah’s neck – she could see it glinting against the black of the night sky and closed her eyes, knowing it was the end, waiting to feel the sharp metal cut through her skin.
Instead, the forest started to go dark around her. They noticed the fire at the same time, the flames burning out, getting lower and lower as the light went out. All around them, the sounds in the woods died, until there was silence. Neither of them moved –
Sarah didn’t fight to get away, Chloe didn’t bring the knife down.
Through the quiet and the dark, came the wind.
Sarah heard something in the wind, sounding like it came from far away – but was getting closer. A voice whispering to them.
Sarah felt herself shoved back hard against the ground as Chloe jumped up, releasing her. She called, “Wait!” after Chloe’s running footsteps.
Terrified, Sarah got to her feet feeling very alone. The wind picked up and pushed against her back, the voice whispering again.
It sounded like it was right behind the stand of trees closest to the clearing. And she could hear something else, too. Maybe whatever it was the voice belonged to.
Something that sounded like it was made of sticks, and leaves, and darkness. And it was coming.
For the second time, she grabbed her pack off the ground without stopping and sprinted toward what she hoped was the car. Something groaned behind her and picked up speed, dead leaves crackling, sticks snapping.
It felt like she ran without breathing, without feeling the ground under her feet. She ran with only one thought in her head: get to the car, get to the car.
Sooner than she would’ve believed possible, the tiny dirt parking lot came into view. Her blue VW was alone there.
As Sarah darted toward the driver’s side door, Chloe tore from the woods on her left. Skidding to a stop, Sarah froze, not knowing what she should do.
“The keys!” Chloe waved her over in a frantic gesture, trying to get her to hurry.
Certain it was an awful idea, Sara ran over, unzipping the side pocket of her pack to get at the keys. She made it to the car and unlocked the doors thinking, I can’t believe we made it, when she heard Chloe scream behind her.
Something hidden just behind the treeline grabbed Chloe by the ankle, and started to drag her back into the woods. More on instinct than anything else, Sarah dove and grabbed Chloe’s hand, trying to pull her back.
“Don’t let me go!”
But Sarah already knew that she was fighting a battle she had no chance of winning. Whatever had Chloe was strong, and soon both girls were being pulled into the trees. They had already been hauled off the dirt lot and were being taken across the grass. There wasn’t a choice, not really. Sarah looked into Chloe’s wide, terrified eyes and said, “I’m sorry.” And had to let go.
Flailing and shrieking, Chloe was taken into the woods. Sarah didn’t waste any time, she raced back to the car, flung open the door and was clear across the parking lot before she took the time to close it.
For awhile, the only thing she could hear were Chloe’s screams clanging in her head. Then she noticed another sound, a thin miserable whimpering – and realized it was coming from her. She didn’t remember the drive – the next thing she was conscious of was pulling into the driveway.
When she got home, she switched on every light, locked every door, calling for her parents. Empty. She stood in the kitchen and cried, at a loss for what to do or even what she should feel.
Her whole body shaking, she decided to call the police. She could report Chloe missing, say they’d gotten lost and separated in the woods.
Her phone was still in her pack – in the car. There was no way in the world she was going back outside. But she had a landline still in her bedroom for emergencies.
She dragged herself upstairs and into her room. Exhausted, thinking only of making the call, Sarah didn’t notice the open window next to her bed.
Not until she felt the cold wind behind her. As the lights in her room started to dim, Sarah heard a voice whisper to her. The same voice she heard in the woods.