There are People Outside my Windows: Complete Edition

By Chef Nickbotic

//Source.

//This series contains several references to “you guys” and your “comments,” from its original run on nosleep. Much of this theme has been removed to better fit papaslenders. The Complete Edition also trims a bit off the endings to flow better as one read.

This started with my child. She was the first to see them. I feel bad for her; she was the first one to experience the terror my wife and I would soon feel for ourselves. It began about a week ago, and I don’t know what to do.

Me, my wife Kimmy, and our 6-year-old daughter Anna live in a modest 4 bedroom house, in a place where we are victim to semi-regular blackouts. Only lasting for a minute or two most of the time, they are more of a minor inconvenience than a true problem. We’ve been dealing with them for close to three years now, and have learned to live with them. On the plus side, being subject to somewhat frequent power outages has afforded us a relatively cheap mortgage. But that’s neither here nor there. As I said, this began about a week ago. Anna came into our bedroom at about 1:30 in the morning and nudged me awake. I had to look at my phone to see the time, because the clock on my nightstand read a steadily blinking 12:00. We must have had a blackout.

“What’s wrong sweetie?” I asked, my comforting tone thankfully overpowering the irritation in my voice due to being woken up.

“There’s a man outside and he won’t stop looking in my window.”

My heart sank into my stomach, and I jumped out of bed, telling my daughter to stay with mommy. I grabbed a baseball bat and ran to her room, looking out both her windows, and I could see no one. I did a circle around my house in both directions, looking into the distance every which way, and saw nothing out of the ordinary. Just other houses on our block, our backyard as quiet as it could be, and the woods past our fence as peaceful as they ever were.

Convinced my daughter had just had a bad dream, I told her I checked and no one was there, and that she could stay in bed with us that night. The following morning, she asked about this “man outside her window” again. I told her that she had just had a bad dream and to not worry about it. That night, I was up late, getting some writing done (my profession), when the power once again went out. My laptop switched to battery mode, so I kept working. It was about a minute and a half later when the power came back on and I heard footsteps coming down our hardwood hallway floor. As I turned around, I saw my daughter stumble into my office, with a look of sheer horror in her eyes. She said that the same man and two other people had come up to her window, and said that “they were gonna get you and mommy and save me for last.” Through her hysteric tears, she was hardly intelligible. I once again ran around the house, searching for anything that could confirm my daughters reason for being so horrified. I found nothing, and again let her sleep in our bed, while I eventually dozed off in my office. I was awoken in the morning by my wife, who had been unaware of the events the night prior. I told her I had checked it out, and we had nothing to fear. She wasn’t satisfied enough, and resolved to sleep in Anna’s room with her that night.

I was once again working on my project late when the power once again went out. Now, when I say we get semi-regular blackouts, I mean maybe 3 or 4 times a week, maybe, and like I said, only for a minute or two at a time each. Rarely did we get two in a row, and I don’t think we ever had one three nights in a row. This one lasted much shorter than the rest. It lasted about 15 seconds, and about three seconds before the power returned, I heard my wife let out a shrill scream. I sprinted out of my office and into Anna’s room as her nightlight and alarm clock came back on, and found my wife and daughter huddled in the corner of the room. I asked what was wrong, and my wife confirmed Anna’s stories. This time, five people had come up to the window, and had been just smiling and waving, but not in a nice way. She said their smiles were crooked and wide, as if they were straining to smile as big as they could, with their eyes wide open. My only response to being told this was “what the fuck?”. She said when the lights came back on, she looked away for a moment, and when she looked back, the people were gone. We called the police and made a statement, and they agreed to put a patrol car down the street from our house and have an officer keep an eye on us. This gave us a sense of peace, if only for that night.

We rested easy for most of the night, Anna sleeping in the bed with my wife in our room, and I was in the living room watching TV. Until the power went out. I looked out the window and to my surprise, the rest of the houses on the block were still with power. Porch lights were still on, and the glow of televisions in other houses still illuminated through their windows. It was then that I saw a group of people slowly walking down the street towards our house. They were in the middle of the street, under the still shining street lights, just casually strolling, and the cop was doing nothing. As they got closer, I noticed they were walking very loosely, their bodies being held up with the least amount of effort possible, their backs arched backwards a tiny bit, with their arms flailing back and forth as their nimble legs carried them towards my home. And it was when they got even closer that I saw their smiles. My wife hadn’t exaggerated; even from a distance, the street lights showed me that their neck veins were popping out from straining to smile as wide as they could. I stared out my window at them, trying to figure out what they were doing, when from out of nowhere, one of them popped up in front of me, sending me falling back onto the floor. It was a man, looked to be about 30, just standing there, waving at me with that gross smile stretching his face. I stood up and looked out the window I could see the cop through. Not only was he sitting there doing nothing, but there was another group of three of these…whatever they are…flailing past his car. Unless he was sleeping, there is no way he could have missed them. They all converged on the sidewalk adjacent to my front yard, and lined up horizontally. Then, as if in a choreographed fashion, from the left to the right, each one began doing their creepy walk towards my house.

I was frozen in fear for a moment, but then snapped out of it. I had to make sure my family was okay, so I rushed down the hall to my bedroom. To my horror, my wife and daughter were not in the bed where I’d left them earlier. There was however, two of these freaks outside each of our bedroom windows. I screamed at the top of my lungs “What the fuck did you do with my family?!” and just then, the lights turned back on, and my wife and daughter came out of our walk-in closet. They both hugged me and cried, while I stood there in shock. I looked out the window and saw no one. I broke away from the hug and rushed back to the living room. There was no one in any direction for as far as the eye could see. I couldn’t make sense of this. I armed myself with my baseball bat and walked over to the police car. There he was, wide awake, sitting and listening to music. I asked what the hell he was doing there if he wasn’t gonna do anything to help us. I explained that people had walked directly towards him and past him, and he just sat there doing nothing. He claimed he hadn’t seen anyone, and had been awake the whole time. He then told me to get back in my house while he went and did a search of the neighborhood. I saw him drive off down the street, shining his spotlight through each and every yard and side yard on the block. My family and I stayed up together in the living room for the rest of the night.

Nothing happened for the next two nights, so we thought that whatever was going on had passed. Even so, I went to my father’s house the day after the last incident and retrieved the gun I had there, a .45 caliber Glock 37. Normally, my wife didn’t allow guns in the house, but with the events of the previous few nights, she made an exception to the rule for as long as we had to deal with this. It was last night that things happened again.

The three of us had taken to sleeping in the living room together so as to stay together and to be the most prepared if something happened again. We were all asleep when I was awoken by a tapping on the window. The first thing I noticed was all the power was out, and I took a quick glance across the street to see the neighbor’s porch light still on. It was once again only us that had been affected by this power outage. I then redirected my attention to the direction of the tapping. Once I looked, the person in the window stopped tapping, and all the while with that disgusting grin, waved to me, as if it was pleased I’d noticed it. I grabbed the gun and showed it to the prowler, but it didn’t phase her at all. She just kept right on waving and smiling. I then noticed that there was a large group, between 10 and 15 of these things, lackadaisically flailing down the street. I looked out the other window; an equally large group was coming from the other direction. I knew one thing, and that was I didn’t have enough bullets for all these people. They again converged by lining up in front of my house, but this time, they all started waving. Every single one of them. It stayed this way for about 10 seconds, before one in the middle stopped waving and began moving forward. It was doing it’s loose walk, though this time much more slowly, up the walkway to my door. I ran to the door and told my family, now awake, to stay down and cover their eyes and ears. They heeded the order as I cocked the gun and waited. My plan was to wait until the guy got to the door, knowing I’d hear him come up the creaky wooden steps to my porch, and then swing my door open and find, at gunpoint, what he wanted with me and my family.

Sure enough, I heard the creaking of the steps as he surely bounced up each one of the three leading up to my porch. His scraping footsteps got closer and my heart beat raised. I had never done anything like this before and I truly felt like I wasn’t prepared to put a gun in someone’s face. The will to protect my family won out though, and as our doorknob rattled from whoever it was outside apparently attempting to get into my house, I swung the door open. As if it was planned, the very moment the door opened, the lights went back on. There was no one there. No one in the street, no one at our living room window, no one lined up in the front yard. It was as if they’d vanished into thin air. I told my family we were okay, if only for that night.

It’s the afternoon now, and my wife and daughter have gone to a hotel about 5 minutes away from our house. I made sure they got a room on a higher floor than the first, and politely asked hotel security to keep an extra keen eye on the grounds that night, especially in the case of any blackouts. I’ve decided to stay at home tonight, so I can do whatever I can to figure out what it is I’m dealing with and what they want.


I went to the hotel to stay with my wife and daughter. I will admit that I let bravado and machismo fog my view of what is truly important. My question now, though, is what if these things are following one of us in particular?

I snapped out of my nerve-induced show of resilience and decided to go back to the hotel. As I drove, each street light I passed went out. One by one. The darkness behind me seemed to envelope everything else, even in the moonlight. I sped up, but the darkness caught up to me. I began seeing people walking from the sidewalk towards the middle of the street, in that horrible, albeit ridiculous flail. This just told me that whatever was going on was not limited to my house. These things walked in the street and waved as I drove by, dodging me as I swerved towards them. I reached the hotel, but realized I still needed to pick up high powered flashlights. Luckily for me, there was a Wal-Mart about 3 minutes away from the hotel. I made it there without trouble, and got in and out in about 5 minutes flat, with no interruptions from the stalkers of my worst dreams.

I finally made it to the hotel and went up to the fourth floor to reunite with my family. My wife answered the door after I knocked, and I saw my daughter passed out on the couch. I told my wife I had seen the things, which we’re going to call “smilers” from this point on, on the street on my way to the hotel. My wife reported back to me that nothing of concern had happened at the hotel. This gave me a well-needed sense of peace, as I was starting to feel suffocated by fear and paranoia.

My wife and I had both fallen asleep on the couch, our daughter in the large lounge chair to our left. I was awoken by a tapping sound coming from the proper bedroom around 3am. Upon opening my eyes I knew there had been a blackout. I quickly darted up and grabbed a flashlight and headed into the room. I shined the flashlight in the room, and when it was clear, I walked towards the drawn blinds. The only thing I could think of was how someone was knocking on a fourth floor window where there was no balcony. I quickly opened the blinds to an empty window. I breathed a sigh of relief, but perked back up when I heard my wife loudly whisper my name. I rushed back to the living room and saw movement in the crack between the curtains on the door to the balcony. I told my daughter to cover her eyes and approached the window.

I kept the flashlight pointed forward as I inched towards the covered sliding glass door. When I reached it, I flung the curtains open and shined the light forward, directly on the three grinning individuals that stood before me. The didn’t seem to affect them at all. It was at this time, though, that I finally got a good look at them. They were dirty. As in, their hair was ratty and knotted up, they had junk in the corners of their mouths, their clothes were tattered and torn, with dirt stains all over the place. Their teeth were unkempt, for the ones that even had all their teeth, The men who sported facial hair did so without any touch of style; beards were bushy and spotty. The main thing I noticed was their eyes, though. Through all of this filth, each and every one of their eyes shone bright in the reflection of the flashlight. I don’t know how I hadn’t noticed it before, surely their eyes glistened in the dark. They were mesmerizing. I found myself just standing there looking into one of their eyes when my wife spoke my name in the same tone. I snapped out of it.

I asked, loudly, what the fuck they wanted with me and my family. I was actually met with a reply. The woman on the left spoke very matter of fatly when she said:

“We just want you and your wife. Then we’ll come for that pretty little lady.”

I hadn’t expected a response, so I was stunned. I didn’t know what to say. I sputtered out a pathetic “why?”.

“Because it’s time. You’ve lived here long enough. And now it’s time for you to really come home.”

Come home? I had no idea what she was talking about. Just as I was about to reply, each of their heads turned to their left, and they looked past me at something in our room. I looked behind me, and saw a pair of glowing eyes in the bedroom. It had tapped on the window from the inside. I had no idea where it could have went after tapping without me seeing it. My wife screamed and I ran to shut the door on this smiling intruder, just as it began to take a step towards us. Just then, the power came back on. I was alerted of this by the microwave beeping. And just like that, the smilers on the balcony were gone. I kept the bedroom door closed anyways.

I told my wife we needed to get out of the area. It seemed as though they would only show up during the blackouts. I didn’t know if they could control the blackouts themselves, but it didn’t seem so, otherwise why wouldn’t they just finish what they came to do in all one attempt? We agreed that we weren’t safe at the hotel anymore and packed our things. On our way out, the clerk who had checked us in asked what was going on? I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it was something about the blackout. His response to me was “what blackout?”. I didn’t stop to explain.

Before getting the hell out of dodge, I thought it would be a good idea to go past our house to see if anything had happened there in our absence. As we drove past, we saw the front door and every window on the first floor wide open. All the lights were off inside but I could just barely the glow of the display on the electronic components in the living room from the road, so it wasn’t due to a blackout. I had left a few lights on before I left, I know I had. Instead of stopping to investigate, we just kept on driving, heading for the freeway.

We’ve been on the road for many hours now, heading east. We haven’t seen anything yet, but it’s also not night time. If I’m able to figure anything out, I will post in an update tomorrow. Please wish me and my family luck. I have a feeling we’re going to need it.


About 3 hours after I posted last night, we made it to my in-laws cabin. It is located within the woods, and although that may sound foolish, I thought it to be a good place to go because there are four generators there. We stopped again at a Walmart and stocked up on food, flashlights (although I now know they don’t affect the smilers), water, other random supplies, and I bought two large hunting knives; knives don’t run out of bullets. We didn’t pass anywhere that sold ammunition otherwise I would’ve stopped and gotten as much as I could carry.

We got to the cabin around 9ish last night, so already we were preparing for something to happen. We put our daughter to sleep in the family room of the cabin and stayed in there with her. I brought two of the generators into the room with us so they would be handy in the event of a smiler-caused blackout. We had all the blinds closed except one, and that was simply so I could maybe see one of these things flailing about towards us before it saw us.

The woods were pitch black beyond the solitary beam of light that shone through the uncovered window. The silence around us proved to be too unnerving to handle so I put a DVD I had bought in the player to have some background noise while my wife and I anxiously awaited whatever may or may not be coming for us tonight.

It was around 12:30 that I jolted awake. I must have dozed off while sitting there with my wife, who was now asleep as well. The power was still on, but the lights flickered. I quietly stood up and looked out the window. I saw nothing at first, then, in the distance, I saw two very small orbs of light just appear into existence. They were stationary for a moment, then began to bounce up and down. Then about a foot away from those, two more appeared, and two more, and two more. There must have been 40 of these lights, all starting as still as can be, and then proceeding to lightly bounce up and down. Then I realized they were getting bigger as they bounced. And then again I noticed they weren’t just getting bigger, they were getting closer.

I couldn’t see their bodies in the darkness of the night but their eyes shined like sparklers on the Fourth of July as they got closer. Finally I saw the first ones silhouette; it was big, bigger than any I’d seen before. And shortly after that, the rest came into my view. I woke my wife and told her to protect our daughter. It was then that the lights went out. I immediately revved up the generator and plugged the lights into it. I looked out the window and the smilers had stopped advancing. They then let out an ear-shattering howl of laughter, as if someone had just told them the funniest joke they’d ever heard. In the middle of this, the generator shut off. I scrambled to start the other one, but all it did was rev; it never turned over.

I felt like this was it. I felt like they had us trapped, and that this was the end of the line. I took my phone out to hopefully take pictures for proof, and maybe to leave something to let anyone know what happened to us. I began taking picture with the flash on my phone. I pretty much just mashed the screen over and over, taking as many as possible. The scariest thing was, with each flash, I could see them perfectly, and every time a took a picture, they were in a different pose, each one different from the next. It was absolutely horrifying. They then let out another screeching laugh, this one startling me so bad I dropped the phone on the couch I was taking the pictures from. I picked it up, and when I directed my eyes back towards the window, a female smiler was standing there, excitedly waving at me.

It was then that we heard all the glass around us shatter. All at the exact same moment. I spun around and, due to the darkness, I could barely make out figures crawling through the drawn curtains. Their bodies moved, for lack of a better word, lackadaisically; they kind of threw themselves over the partition through where the glass no longer was, then flailed their limbs over. Luckily, it took quite some time for them to get through. I looked back at the window I was initially in front of, and for the first time, I saw a different expression on a smilers face. She had a look of pure surprise, raised eyebrows with a hand over her mouth. It looked sarcastic though.

I grabbed the gun, and fired it directly into the surprised looking ones face. I fired close enough to the window that it completely shattered, and when the figurative dust settled, there was no smiler there anymore. A wave of confidence rushed over me. Although, I was in shock. I’d never killed anything in my life before. I snapped back to reality when I heard my wife softly say my name. I turned around and there was the woman smiler, directly in front of me, only she wasn’t smiling. She looked furious. There was pain in her eyes. She struck me with an open backhand, which had way too much power for the size of woman she was. And it sent me tumbling back.

I grabbed the knife out off of the table I landed next to and unsheathed it. The woman let out a lone laugh while the rest of the smilers advanced from the other parts of the house from which they crawled into towards my family and I. I got up, my entire being comprised of nearly all fear, and I decided to go for broke. I lunged at the woman and swung my arm in a stabbing motion. As soon as the knife would have connected, she vanished, along with the rest of the smilers, at the same moment the lights turned on, and, inexplicably, all the generators began running, including the ones outside. I stumbled forward, nearly falling on my face, dropping the knife to the floor.

I immediately got my grounding and rushed to my family’s aid. Though stricken to their core with terror, they were unharmed. My wife insisted we immediately leave and get to somewhere more populated. We got in the car and began driving. I asked my wife to look in my phone at the pictures I took. As frustrating as this is going to sound, each and every picture I took last night, was black. Not pure black like the camera wasn’t working, but black like I was shining it into nothing, and wasn’t using the flash. There is no other way I can think to explain it. I let a loud “FUCK”, much to the grimace of my wife. I knew that when they laughed after I took the pictures, it was because they KNEW they weren’t going to turn out. My daughter was in tears still, and I don’t blame her.

I don’t know what to think about this night’s events. Had I stopped them from hurting us by swinging the knife? No answers had really been given. I talked to my wife and we decided it might be a good idea to split up. We bought a car decent enough to get my wife and daughter to her parents house today, while I will be staying at a hotel nearby in case something does in fact happen to them. I have also contacted a paranormal researcher who will be meeting me at my hotel, and has agreed to stay with me for the night to hopefully witness what has been going on. In addition to this, because I stressed the urgency of everything going on, he said he would make my case priority one, and do some quick research into my family as well as my house before meeting with me.


Last night, a paranormal researcher came to stay with me at the hotel I was at, and much to my surprise, he brought a priest with him. I chose to get a first floor room, since I knew that being on a different floor didn’t hinder the smilers from getting to me. I kept in constant contact with my wife, who, as you’ll soon find out, didn’t stay at her parents house for the night.

The researcher, whose name is Paul, gave me an overview of what I was dealing with. Since it was still daylight, he felt as if we would be okay discussing the situation at the hotel since we were already there, and then, we moved back to our house.

One commenter said that the house was a threshold, and that commenter was right. The priest and Paul agreed that if we were going to get to the bottom of this, we should start at the only place these things haven’t evidently been able to enter. The information he relayed to me was to the best of his knowledge of the paranormal.

What were were dealing with was a sort of skinwalker-ghost hybrid. They inhabit recently buried bodies, which explains their overall dirty look. As far as what they want with my family and I, is still up in the air. The priest, Father John, asked if anyone in either of our families had recently passed, and the answer was no. I had my wife on speakerphone while we spoke about this. The only conclusion we could come up with was that the smilers had us mistaken with another family. Kind of a cop out if you ask me, but at least it was something.

We made the hour long trip back to our house. When we got there, the doors were shut and all the blinds were drawn, a difference since I had last seen my home. It was on the brink of dusk, so we hurried into the house and made sure the power was on before we ventured past the foyer. The first thing Father John and Paul did was walk around and unplug everything that could be used as a source of light. This pretty much included any and everything that was plugged in. Next, Father John salted all the entryways.

While Father John salted, Paul, myself and my wife put about 150 candles throughout the house. My daughter sat on the couch watching a DVD on a portable DVD player. She knew it would have to be shut off when it got dark in case the smilers feed off electricity. We got as prepared as we could, given the circumstances. Father John armed each of us with holy relics, and kept a small container of holy water on each platform that surrounded us in the living room in which we put ourselves.

We considered going places with large populations, and while this is a good idea, it wouldn’t have solved anything. If I wouldn’t have gotten in contact with Paul, I have no doubt that finding a heavily populated and lit area is what we would’ve done last night, but it wouldn’t be a permanent solution. I wanted to stop this, not just delay it.

The sun set. Night had blanketed over our neighborhood, and I don’t know if it was just me and my nerves, but it seemed darker than ever. My daughter had put away the portable DVD player, and we turned off all our phones except for Father John’s, as we figured having one line of communication would probably be a good idea. We basically all huddled in the middle of the living room while my daughter slept on the couch, our house illuminated dimly by the throes of candles we had lit.

It was about 1am when it started. Paul happened to be looking out the window when the street lights on either side about three houses down suddenly went out. He got my attention, and the rest of us rushed over. The next set of lights went out. It was between this set going out and the next one that we finally saw them. Limbering along in the Bernie-esque fashion they do, eyes glistening in the moonlight. I immediately saw the fear in Paul’s eyes. He voiced his concern.

“I know I said what they were, but I’ve never seen one before.”

I thought, “fucking great, lot of help you’ll be now.” perhaps selfishly, but it kind of irritated me that he was about as skilled with these things as I was. However, at least he could see them. I sent my wife over to protect our daughter. Through all of this, their safety was my only concern, whether it seems like it or not. As they approached, I found myself once again frozen while my eyes locked onto a set of theirs. I was shaken by Father John and we went to the middle of the room, and anxiously awaited them to reach the house.

While they slowly flailed their way towards us, I confirmed that both Paul and Father John had seen them, then asked why the cop couldn’t. Father John and Paul concluded that it must be the house itself that makes people capable of seeing them. Another semi-answer. I asked Paul if he had gotten any information on the house, and he said he had only had time to do a quick Google search on the property, and was unable to delve further into it’s history and past occupants. I felt like that was where the answer lied.

They eventually made it to the yard, and that’s when they stopped walking and began waving, smiling all the while. All but one. It was the female that had let out the laughter the night before. She just stood there, back arched backwards, arms hanging behind her. She was expressionless. She hobbled her way up to the front door, and knocked. Plain as day, as if she was a UPS driver, just knocked on the door. None of us moved. Then she pounded on the door. And kept pounding. And didn’t stop until my wife screamed “WHAT?!”. We were met with silence, until the woman smiler broke it.

“It’s time for you to go.”

Father John responded. “This is not your home! This family owes you nothing! Be gone!”

The smiler let out the same shrill laughter I’d heard the night before. It was horrifying, and a sound I will never be able to forget. The other smilers crept up to the windows, all but one of which was covered by curtains. They started banging on the windows, but not breaking them. Now that I think about it, even their walk was less exaggerated than it normally (…”normally”…) was. I believe they do in fact feed off of electricity. They weakly banged on the windows, while their female leader gave us a warning.

“You can not keep him out of where he belongs forever.”

Father John asked who. And then it was over. The smilers were gone, and the street lights came back on. We all breathed a deep sigh of relief. But yet again, I was met with more questions than answers. Why was it time for us to go? Who was I keeping out of where he belonged? I felt the answers lied in the history of the house.

Now, I love my wife dearly. She and my daughter are my everything. But even with the warnings I had stressed to her, she made a foolish, no, a stupid ass decision. For whatever reason, while we were all collecting ourselves, she walked over and opened the front door, presumably to check the porch and verify the female smiler was gone. Don’t ask me why. I will never know what compelled her to do something so fucking ridiculous.

As soon as she turned the knob, Father John yelled “NO!”. but it was too late. The door flew open and pinned itself against the wall behind it at the same time the street lights went out again. There stood the female smiler, only she wasn’t smiling. She looked rabid. She was breathing heavily, her eyes were popping out of her head, and her fists were clenched as she, for the first time I’d ever seen a smiler do, leaned forward. She looked down at the archway of salt.

“Move. The salt. And we will show you mercy.”

“Mercy for what?! What have they done?!” pleaded Father John as he held up a rosary. He moved closer, and his presence did seem to have an effect on the smiler, who returned to her normal position, back arched backwards, arms hanging.

“We have been nice enough, you have been the one to take issue.” She said, as she flung her arm up and pointed her crusty finger at me. All I could think was “no shit I took issue, dirty ghost zombie demon limp walker assholes have been trying to take my family to do God knows what with.”

Father John retorted. “You will not haunt this family into submission!”

She stood there in silence for a moment, before opening her large mouth to reply. But as she began to speak her first words, every candle in the house blew out, and she disappeared. Right before our eyes, like someone had flipped a switch. The street lights once again came back on, and the light poured in through the door and the one uncovered window. None of us could move. We all stayed where we were for what felt like an eternity. The sound of my daughter crying broke the silence and my wife went over to comfort her. We reconvened in the middle of the living room, and it was obvious. We needed to know about this house in order to figure out what to do about this problem.


Well, my family and I spent the day at home, and it was ultimately an extremely boring day. Father John and Paul were out doing their research while we essentially sat in silence all day. We had been advised to use as little electronics as possible, so that took out any kind of entertainment we had, save for board games, which to be honest, we’ve become too accustomed to technology to have that entertain us for any real length of time.

Father John and Paul got back to our house at around 3 in the afternoon, and they came with information. Our house was built in 1955, and no, the land was not once a cemetery or ancient Indian burial ground. The problem lies in a past resident. When we got the house, we knew it hadn’t been lived in in quite some time. Nearly a decade. This was attributed by the realtor to the constant blackouts in the area. Apparently, houses in that neighborhood stayed vacant for quite some time before someone who decided they could live with the blackouts came across them. The last occupant of the house was a man named Lee Ruechell (pronounced Rickel) and his family, which consisted of his wife and daughter. Lee and his wife Georgia were elderly, and their daughter, Carrie Anne, stayed with them to take care of them in their old age.

With this information, Father John and Paul were able to dig into the occupants. Lee suffered from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, but was an active member in the church community. When there was an issue with his social security, other members of the church banded together and took over his mortgage for him for nearly a year. Lee was a very well-liked man apparently, but from what they read to me, it seemed as if he had a bit of a dark side. His wife and daughter were admitted to the hospital several times throughout their lives for what looked to be domestic abuse related injuries. On the outside, though, all seemed well, and his wife was a loyal one, and his daughter a caring one. It seemed as though even though they had their problems, they were still a tight knit family. Lee died from his disease, in the house, in 1992. It wasn’t revealed in which room, but at least that was something.

Georgia and Carrie Anne spent the next year together in the house, and apparently they got heavily involved in the practices of séances and speaking with the dead, in an attempt to locate Lee. This information was found due to a small fire that had happened in the kitchen, which was the result of candles being used during one of the séances. The realtor had informed us of the fire, but didn’t reveal to us the cause. We thought nothing of it; it had been fixed, so we didn’t give it a second thought.

In late 1993, Georgia passed away from natural causes in the city hospital. The house was inhabited solely by Carrie Anne for the next 6 months, and continued to be the site of many communications with the dead. For unknown reasons, Carrie Anne moved away, and the house sat vacant until we bought it in late 2013. Carrie Anne committed suicide last week, and was buried in the cemetery in a plot next to her parents.

Father John and Paul then gave their opinions on what they felt the issue was. They are under the impression that with the death of Carrie Anne, the Ruechell family is now back together, and they want their house back. We thought back to when I was spoken to for the first time with the phrase “you’ve been here long enough, it’s time to come home.”, and came to the conclusion that those were two separate statements, as in “[you and your family have] been here long enough. It’s time [for us] to come home.”. I know this is a long shot, but it would fit the scenario if this was in fact the case.

As far as them suddenly getting violent, it’s thought that it was due to my apprehension to let them in. They had smiled and waved, in a gesture of friendliness, and I had taken it the wrong way. When we left the house, they knew we would eventually come back, so they showed up at the hotel, and then the cabin to continue to persuade us to leave the house for good. When I shot the smiler through the window, it apparently angered them. So they broke all the windows and came in, and were prepared to attack. Our guess is that due to the limited energy being used at the cabin, they couldn’t defend against the knife attack, so they disappeared when I attempted to stab the woman smiler. As for what was said last night, the whole “you can’t keep him out of where he belongs forever.” is the angry side of Lee Ruechell coming out, demanding he get his home back. Our guess is that the large number of people are spirits that Lee has befriended in the afterlife to help in the effort to get his home back,

Mind you, this is all conjecture. All evidence of what we’re assuming this to be is circumstantial at best. For all we know, we could be totally off. I think that might be the scariest part. What we do know for sure though, is that the salt worked. It fended them off last night. Also, the smiler seemed to respond to Father John’s rosary, so that was a good line of defense too. The problem is we can’t control the power outside the house, which, if they are in fact energized by the electricity, which then causes the blackouts, we can’t defend ourselves in that way.

Also, we have no idea why the smilers approached my wife and daughter first. Our only thoughts on that, are that some of the smilers aren’t necessarily on the same mission as the rest, Some of them may have ulterior, more sinister motives. I have to say, it’s extremely frustrating not knowing what exactly it is we’re dealing with, and working only off of semi-educated hypotheses. But alas, it was all we had.

We reinforced the salt barriers and relit all the candles throughout the house, in preparation for whatever the night brought. We then just waited, each taking turns sleeping while others kept an eye out. Nothing happened until about 3:30am. Father John woke me up, and told me he had heard something upstairs. We looked out the window, and from what we could see, all the power was on on the street. Myself, Paul, and Father John made our way upstairs, each armed with a holy relic. We searched the upstairs but found nothing. As we were heading back downstairs, the door the attic, the kind that swings down and drops a ladder, did just that, sending the ladder down with a loud crash. We nearly jumped out of our skin as we turned around. An angry smiler bobbed his way down the attic stairs. Father John started saying a prayer, while Paul and I held up our rosaries.

This smiler did not seem to be wholly phased by the relics. It was as if he knew they would hurt him, so he wasn’t so quick to advance on us. Instead, he almost tiptoed towards us, backing us down the stairs. I finally spit out “what do you want?”, and it just started whispering incoherently. Just then, two more smilers came tumbling down the attic steps. They got to their feet and moved ahead quickly behind their angry friend. Suddenly, the smiler behind the one that was slowly approaching us, pushed the one closest to us directly into us. It hit Father John’s cross and let out a shriek, and before it disappeared into thin air, it knocked us backwards down the stairs, and we all tumbled on top of one another as we fell, step after step. The two remaining smilers threw themselves down the stairs, tumbling just like we had, but voluntarily. They landed at our feet and got back up as if nothing had happened. They ignored us as we were at the bottom of the stairs writhing in pain, too shaken up to even notice what was happening. Once in the line of sight of my wife, she screamed. One smiler made a beeline for the front door, and the other went for a side window in the room opposite the living room. They both stopped before the salt, inhaled deeply, and blew the salt away, effectively opening the barriers between us and the rest of them.

It was then that I noticed every light in the neighborhood was out. Every street light was out, and every other house for as far as we could see were completely pitch black. What seemed to be an entire night sky of stars worth of bouncing, glowing eyes was making its way towards our house from every direction. Father John quickly got up and ran to the smiler at the front door, pressing the relic against it, causing it to dissipate. I followed suit and lunged at the one by the window, doing the same thing, successfully. Father John put his back to the door, but was sent flying forward when the door was broken off of its hinges. The woman smiler I had come to know and hate so much stood there before me, actually smiling. I don’t know what I hated more, the smile or the angry face.

Paul asked what the smiler wanted. She simply replied “uninterrupted access to our home.”

“Are you Carrie Anne Ruechell?” Father John inquired.

“No, I am Georgia Ruechell.” The smiler retorted.

“This is no longer your home, be gone!” Demanded my brave priest.

Georgia let out that shrieking laughter that could have shattered all the windows. Suddenly, Paul lunged forward from behind me in an attempt to hit Georgia with his rosary. She simply side stepped which resulted in Paul falling forward onto his face, into the outside. In an instant, he was swarmed by smilers, whose flailing limbs and falling bodies quickly made it unable to see Paul; all we could hear was his screams.

“We came in peace” said Georgia. “But you’ve left us no choice. The only way you get to reside here any longer, is as one of us. And that is only if my husband allows you to. He is simply tired of your selfishness in this matter and demands you be dealt with in the most mortal of ways. If you had just given us our home back in the first place, you could’ve gone on about your life.”

I didn’t know what to say. I could only live here still if I was dead and had my soul moved into somebody else’s body? And regardless I was gonna die? This was so far beyond any realm of knowledge I possessed.

“We will be back tomorrow evening, and it will be your last chance to accept your fate peacefully. Otherwise, you will be responsible for whatever pain my husband decides to impose on you and your family.”

And with that, she was gone. The candles in our house blew out, and the lights in the neighborhood went back on. Had she basically told me that tomorrow night, we were going to die, one way other the other? Father John was honest with me, and told me that an exorcism probably wouldn’t do anything, because they weren’t necessarily haunting anything, they just had a specific goal in mind. They would be doing this to whoever was in this house, and would be doing it to whatever house they wanted. Father John did say that he assumed they had done this sort of thing before, but probably hadn’t been met with such resistance. Paul was gone. He had vanished with the rest of the smilers. That is something that’s going to weigh heavily on my conscience for some time.

Then, I had an idea. Since I’m essentially out of options, and am more than likely going to die tomorrow night anyways, I decided to finally be more than a little proactive for once. Father John insisted against it, my wife hates the idea, and my daughter is terrified, but, I’m just thinking fuck them, I’ll do what I have to to keep my family safe. I’m on my way back home with 5 gallons of gasoline. I will let you know what happens tomorrow. Wish me luck.


Father John blessed our house numerous times throughout the day, and prayed with my family and I as we mourned the loss of Paul, who gave his life trying to protect us. I will never, ever forget the sight of the swarm enveloping Paul. I’m still not sure what exactly they did to him, whether they ate him, or tore him apart, or what, but whatever it was, it was painful. For as much as I’ll never be able to forget the visual aspect of the attack, it’s the auditory terror of his pained screams that will truly haunt me until the end of my days.

We disconnected the main power source to the house. And then, we salted all the windows and doors again, this time not forgetting the window in the attic, or any in the basement. We had a plan for what we were going to do, and it required some finesse.

Father John got a collection of holy relics and set them up around the house in various places, and set jars of salt up on predetermined posts. We then armed ourselves with multiple toilet paper roll-sized tubes of salt which we holstered in our pockets. My wife remained practically silent through everything. I could tell this was taking a severe emotional toll on her. All I wanted was to do was protect her and my daughter.

The gas tanks were sitting idly by in our kitchen, I still wasn’t sure what the plan was with those. I mean, I had an idea, but like I said, it was going to take some grace to pull off what we wanted to do. We waited in the dark, lighting only a few solitary candles in the living room in which we twiddled our thumbs, quite possibly waiting to meet our demise.

The smilers wasted no time this round. The entire street went black, including all street lights and houses. It seemed darker than usual though. Even though the moon was out, it was as though the darkness was overtaking the light. One by one, sets of glowing eyes appeared down the street in either direction. As usual, we kept all the curtains closed except one set, which was for sight purposes. We had to see when they were coming.

The glowing eyes grew brighter as the smilers flailed towards us, until their silhouettes appeared in a visage I wish I had never laid eyes on. There must have been 50-60 smilers in the street, only not a single one of them was smiling. Each one sported a foul grimace, one that said they were now beyond the apparent pleasantries they had initially approached us with. How they thought their initial appearance was in any way welcoming is beyond me.

From the left, I saw one smiler in particular being, followed, in a way, by the others. In my infinite wisdom on the beings I was dealing with, I took this to mean that this smiler in particular was the Lady Ruechell. Then all of the sudden, behind the group that was paraded around her, was, as far as I could tell from a distance, a male smiler, bigger than I’d ever seen before, who, while still somewhat lazily flailing about as he moved, seemed to have a much smoother and more connected way of movement about him. While the smilers I had seen up to this point had such an exaggerated way of getting to where they needed to go, as if they were being controlled by a marionette, this bigger fellow moved about as though he were a stumbling drunk. I know those don’t sound too different, but trust me, there is a large one.

I immediately made the connection, and alerted Father John that I was relatively sure that Lee Ruechell himself was joining the show. We got ourselves armed with holy relics and approached the spot where my front door was propped up against the doorframe, having been broken off it’s hinges the night before. It felt like an eternity as they made their way down the street. Once they were finally nearing our property, Georgia let out a screeching, howling laughter. As they continued approaching, they spoke.

“I must say, I’m quite surprised to see you here! Though, we would have found you anywhere!”

Before I could even process what was being said, Father John spoke up.

“We wish to come to an agreement!” He hollered at the top of his lungs.

Georgia retorted by mimicking her first laugh, and was joined by a new, much deeper laugh.

“My husband wants to meet the man who denied his extended hand.” Georgia announced.

“I didn’t mean to disrespect anyone! I didn’t know what you wanted! All I was trying to do was protect my family! We will happily leave!” I yelled, hoping to come to some kind of understanding.

I was met with no reply. I stood there, breathing heavily, anxiously awaiting a response. After about 30 seconds of silence, I took a peek through a crack between the propped up door and the frame. I jumped back when I was met with a stare from both Georgia and Lee Ruechell. There was something about the smilers eyes that always absolutely captivated me the moment I first looked into them. I broke my gaze and stepped back, moving the door away from the frame, confronting the enemy once and for all.

“We will leave. Please.” I pleaded.

“I find your resilience inspiring. I can’t simply end your existence. I would require you to become a member of my group. Move the salt.”

“This family has done nothing to you.” Father John explained. “They were simply frightened by your abrupt appearance and–”

He was cut off by a low pitched yet very loud growl by Lee Ruechell. I’m assuming this was because he didn’t particularly care for a holy man to be speaking to him.

“I have made my decision. Now remove this salt. There is nowhere for you to go that I will not send my subordinates to find you.”

There was a tense silence for what seemed like an eternity. I looked over at my cowering wife and daughter in the living room as tears filled my eyes. This was it.

“May I have a private moment with my wife and child?” I politely asked.

“Remove the salt and put down the crosses you’ve armed yourselves with. Then you may do as you wish.”

I reluctantly slid my foot over the salt, brushing it away in every direction. Each of the four of us slid our holy relics across the floor, away from the Ruechells.

Lee, Georgia, and a third smiler that hadn’t yet spoken and I hadn’t yet seen hobbled in. I presumed this to be Carrie Anne.

“Home sweet home.” said Lee, in a repulsively smug tone. “You will take your moment here, in front of us. Then we will commence the evening.” The Ruechells took a look around at their new old house, while being sure to not get too far away from us.

“Father, pray with us.” I all but demanded. The four of us huddled mere feet away from our soon to be…killers…I guess I could say, I didn’t know what they were going to do to us, but I knew it wasn’t going to go or end well. I only hoped it would be fast. I couldn’t bear thinking my sweet daughter could potentially be moments away from suffering the same ambiguous fate as Paul.

I whispered to everyone. “I just saw Brian go past the back door. As soon as he makes it to the front, we go.”

Father John whispered a prayer as I kept my eyes focused on the side window of the house, waiting to see a shadow rush past. It seemed like it took forever, but it happened. I waited about another two seconds, before I whispered “GO.”

We began what felt like a slow motion dash through the hallway and into the kitchen. Behind us, I heard a roar from who I assumed was Lee. None of us hesitated. We reached the kitchen, which contained the back door. I had left the caps loose on the gas containers, and as quick as I could, tipped all five over, flooding the kitchen and the hallway with the pungent substance.

Father John flung the back door open and we tumbled outside. The Ruechells were quickly behind us, but stopped at the doorline and stumbling back into the kitchen.

“What have you done?” Lee demanded to know.

I didn’t even think to answer him before I lit a book of matches on fire and tossed it into the kitchen, setting home ablaze. We ran around to the front yard, avoiding smilers that seemed to just be standing there, mesmerized by something we couldn’t see. We reached the front yard to meet Brian, Paul’s brother. As the fire raged through the house, a small explosion lit up the sky towards the back of the house. While I was talking to the Ruechells, my wife had gone back and started the stove. It wasn’t enough to cause an instant detonation like we’d hoped, but it had certainly help spread the fire quicker than it would have naturally.

Brian’s part in our plan was integral. While I talked to the Ruechells in the house and took a “moment” with my family and Father John, Brian ran around the house, pouring out two gallons worth of blessed saltwater Father John had provided him with earlier in the day. That’s what trapped the Ruechells in the house.

As I heard roars and ear shattering screams from within the house, the rest of the smilers just stood there. And before we could even blink, all but maybe three or four of them were gone. The remaining smilers then simply turned around and flailed in directions, all away from us. We are not sure who these lucky “survivors” were or why they didn’t disappear with the rest, but my guess is that they were ones that were not directly connected to the Ruechells and their mission. Again, strictly conjecture, I don’t know if I’ll ever know for sure. Without waiting to see the rest of the house go down in flames, but not before the roars and screams from within subsided, we all got in our cars and drove away.

I am now in a town about 80 miles from our house. We received a call alerting us that our house was on fire. I explained that we were currently on vacation, and that this was a surprise to us. I had only hoped that none of my neighbors saw us drive away, but I’m sure I’m not that lucky. I have an idea of what I’m going to tell the police regarding why there was an obviously gasoline fueled fire that occurred at my home.

To all of you, continue to help those in need. You will never be forgotten.

From the bottom of my heart,

Thank you.

And for good measure, wish me luck!

Penpal: Chrono Edition

By Chef 1000Vultures/Dathan Auerbach

//This story has been made into a novel, which you can buy here. The chapters were originally posted as separate stories, what follows is the order they occured in. If you would prefer to read them in the order they were posted see the Complete Edition. The chapters will also be uploaded individually in the future, should you wish to wait for that.

Chapter One: Balloons

When I was five years old I went to an elementary school that, from what I’ve come to understand, was really adamant about the importance of learning through activity. It was part of a new program designed to allow children to rise at their own pace, and to facilitate this the school encouraged teachers to come up with really inventive lesson plans. Each teacher was given the latitude to create his or her own themes which would run for the duration of the grade, and all the lessons in math, reading, etc., would be designed in the spirit of the theme. These themes were called “Groups”. There was a “Space” group, a “Sea” group, an “Earth” group, and the group I was in, “Community”.

In Kindergarten in this country, you don’t learn much except how to tie your shoes and how to share, so most of it isn’t very memorable. I only remember two things very clearly: I was the best at writing my name the right way, and the Balloon Project, which was really the hallmark of the Community group, since it was a pretty clever way to show how a community functioned at a really basic level.

You’ve probably heard of this activity. On one Friday (I remember it being Friday because I was excited about the project and it being the end of the week) toward the beginning of the year, we walked into the classroom in the morning and saw that there was a fully-inflated balloon tied off with string taped to each of our desks. Sitting on each of our desks was a marker, a pen, a piece of paper, and an envelope. The project was to write a note on the paper, put it in the envelope, and attach it to the balloon which we could draw a picture on if we wanted. Most of the kids started fighting over the balloons because they wanted different colors, but I started on my note which I had thought a lot about.

All the notes had to follow a loose structure, but we were allowed to be creative within those boundaries. My note was something like this: “Hi! You found my balloon! My name is [Name] and I attend ______________ Elementary school. You can keep the balloon, but I hope you write me back! I like Mighty Max, exploring, building forts, swimming, and friends. What do you like? Write me back soon. Here’s a dollar for the mail!” On the dollar I wrote “FOR STAMPS” right across the front, which my mom said was unnecessary, but I thought it was genius, so I did it.

The teacher took a Polaroid of each of us with our balloons and had us put them in the envelope along with our letter. They also included another letter that I assume explained the nature of the project and sincere appreciation for anyone’s participation in writing back and sending photos of their city or neighborhood. That was the whole idea — to build a sense of community without having to leave the school, and to establish safe contact with other people; it seemed like such a fun idea…

Over the next couple weeks the letters started to roll in. Most came with pictures of different landmarks, and each time a letter would come in, the teacher would pin the picture on a big wall-map we had put up showing where the letter had come from and how far the balloon had traveled. It was a really smart idea, because we actually looked forward to coming to school to see if we had gotten our letter. For the duration of the year we had one day a week where we could write back to our pen-pal or another students’ pen-pal in case our letter hadn’t come in yet. Mine was one of the last to arrive. When I came into the classroom I looked at my desk and once again didn’t see any letter waiting for me, but as I sat down the teacher approached me and handed me an envelope. I must have looked so excited because as I was about to open it she put her hand on mine to stop me and said “Please don’t be upset.” I didn’t understand what she meant — why would I be upset now that my letter had come? Initially I was mystified that she would even know what was in the envelope, but now I realize that of course the teachers had screened the contents to make sure there was nothing obscene, but all the same — how could I be disappointed? When I opened the envelope I understood.

There was no letter.

The only thing in the envelope was a Polaroid, but I couldn’t really make out what it was. It looked like a patch of desert, but it was too blurry to decipher; it appeared as if the camera had been moved while the picture was being taken. There was no return address, so I couldn’t even write back if I wanted to. I was crushed.

The school year pressed on, and the letters had stopped coming for nearly all of the other students. After all, you can only continue a written correspondence with a Kindergartener for so long. Everyone, including myself, had lost interest in the letters almost completely. Then I got another envelope.

My excitement was rejuvenated, and I reveled in the fact that I was still getting a letter when most of the other pen-pals had abandoned their involvement. It made sense that I received another delivery — there had been nothing but a blurry picture in the first one, so this was probably to make up for that. But again there was no letter at all… just another picture.

This one was more distinguishable, but I still didn’t understand it. The photograph was angled way up, catching the top corner of a building, and the rest of the image was distorted by a lense-flare from the sun.

Because the balloons didn’t travel very far, and because they were all launched on the same day, the board became a bit cluttered, and so the policy for the students still exchanging letters became that they could take the photographs home. My best friend Josh had the second highest number of pictures taken home by the end of the year — his pen-pal was really cooperative and sent him pictures from all around the neighboring city; Josh took home, I think, four pictures.

I took home nearly fifty.

The envelopes were all opened by the teacher, but after a while I stopped even looking at the pictures However, I saved them in one of my drawers that housed my collections of rocks, baseball cards, comic book cards (Marvel Metal cards, for those who might remember), and little miniature baseball batting helmets that I’d get out of a vending machine at Winn-Dixie after T-Ball games. With the school year over, my attention turned to other things.

My mom had gotten me a small snow cone machine for Christmas that year, and Josh had really coveted it — so much so that his parents bought him a slightly nicer one for his birthday which was toward the end of the school year. That summer we had the idea that we would set up a snow cone stand to make money; we thought we’d make a fortune selling snow cones at one dollar. Josh lived in a different neighborhood, but we eventually decided that my neighborhood would be better because there were a lot of people who cared for their lawns; the yards in my neighborhood were slightly bigger. We did this for five weekends in a row until my mom told us that we had to stop, and I’ve only recently come to understand why she did that.

On the fifth weekend, Josh and I were counting our money. Because we both had a machine, we each had a separate stack of money that we put together into one stack and we then split it evenly. We had made a total of sixteen dollars that day, and as Josh paid out my fifth dollar, a feeling of profound surprise consumed me.

The dollar said “FOR STAMPS”.

Josh noticed my shock and asked if he had miscounted. I told him about the dollar and he said, “That’s so cool, man!” As I thought about it, I came to agree. The idea that the dollar had made it right back to me after changing so many hands floored me.

I rushed inside to tell my mom, but my excitement coupled with her being distracted by a phone call made my story incomprehensible and she responded simply by saying “Oh wow! That’s neat!”

Frustrated, I ran back outside and told Josh I had something to show him. Back in my room, I opened the drawer and took out the stack of envelopes and showed him some of the pictures. I started with the first picture, and we went through about ten before Josh lost interest and asked if I wanted to go play in the ditch (a dirt ditch down the street from my house) before his mom came to pick him up, so that’s what we did.

We had a “dirt war” for a while, but it was interrupted several times by rustling in the woods around us. There were raccoons and stray cats that lived in there, but this was making a little too much noise and we traded guesses at what it was in an attempt to scare each other. My last guess was that it was a mummy, but in the end Josh kept insisting that it was a robot because of the sounds that we heard. Before we left, he got a little serious and looked me right in the eyes and said, “You heard it didn’t you? It sounded like a robot. You heard it too right?” I had heard it, and since it sounded mechanical I agreed that it was probably a robot. It’s only now that I understand what we heard.

When we got back Josh’s mom was waiting for him at the kitchen table with my mom. Josh told his mom about the robot; our moms laughed and Josh went home. My mom and I ate dinner, and then I went to bed.

I didn’t stay in bed for long before I crept out and decided that, due to the day’s events, I would revisit the envelopes since now the whole affair seemed much more interesting. I took the first envelope and set it on the floor and set the blurry desert Polaroid on top. I laid the second envelope right next to it and placed the oddly angled Polaroid of a building’s top corner on top and did this with each picture until they formed a grid that was about five by ten; I was always taught to be careful with things that I was collecting, even if I wasn’t sure they were valuable.

I noticed that the pictures gradually became more decipherable. There was a tree with a bird on it, a speed limit sign, power line, a group of people walking into some building. And then I saw something that vexed me so powerfully that I can now, as I write this, distinctly remember feeling dizzy and capable of only a single, repeating thought:

“Why am I in this picture?”

In this photograph of the group of people entering the building I saw myself holding hands with my mother in the very back of the crowd of people. We were at the very edge of the photo, but it was undeniably us. And as my eyes swam over the sea of Polaroids I became increasing anxious. It was a really odd feeling — it wasn’t fear, it was the feeling you get when you are in trouble. I’m not sure why I was flooded with that feeling, but there I sat floundering in the distinct sense that I had done something wrong. And this feeling only intensified as I looked on at the rest of the photos after that the one that had so powerfully struck me.

I was in every photo.

None of them were close shots. None of them were only of me. But I was in every single one of them — off to the side, in the back, bottom of the frame. Some of them only had the tiniest part of my face captured at the very edge of the photo, but nevertheless, I was there. I was always there.

I didn’t know what to do. Your mind works in funny ways as a kid, but there was a large part of me that was afraid of getting in trouble simply for still being up. Since I already had the looming feeling of having done something wrong, I decided that I would wait until tomorrow.

The next day, my mom was off work and spent most of the morning cleaning up around the house. I watched cartoons, I imagine, and waited until I thought it was a good time to show her the Polaroids. When she went out to get the mail I grabbed a couple of the pictures and put them on the table in front of me as I sat waiting for her to come back in. When returned she was already opening the mail and threw some junk mail into the trashcan and I said,

“Mom, can you come here for a second? I have these pictures—”

“Just give me a minute, honey. I need to mark these on the calendar.”

After a minute or two, she came and stood behind me and asked me what I needed. I could hear her shuffling with the mail behind me but I just looked at the Polaroids and told her about them. As I explained more and pointed to the pictures her frequent “uh huh”s and “ok”s decreased, and she was suddenly completely quiet and only making a little noise with the mail. The next noise I heard from her sounded as if she was trying to catch her breath in a room that had no air left in it. At last her struggling gasps were conquered and she simply dropped the remaining mail on the table and ran to the kitchen to get the phone.

“Mom! I’m sorry, I didn’t know about these! Don’t be mad at me!”

With the phone pressed to her ear she was walking/running back and forth and shouting into it. I nervously fiddled with the mail sitting next to my Polaroids. The top envelope had something sticking out of it that I thoughtlessly and anxiously pulled on until it came out.

It was another Polaroid.

Confused, I thought that somehow one of my Polaroids had slipped into the stack when she threw the mail down, but when I turned it over and looked at it I realized that I had not seen this one before. To my dismay, it was me, but this one was a much closer shot. I was surrounded by trees and was smiling. But it wasn’t just me, I noticed. Josh was there too. This was us from yesterday.

I started yelling for my mom who was still screaming into the phone. I repeatedly yelled for her until she finally responded with, “What?!” and I could only think to ask, “Who are you calling?”

“I’m talking with the police, honey.”

“But why? I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do anything…”

She answered me with a response that I never understood until I was forced to revisit these events from the earliest years of my life. She grabbed the envelope off the table and the picture of Josh and I spun and slid, landing next to the other Polaroids in front of me. She held the envelope up to my eyes but I could only look at her and watch as all the color began draining out of her face. With tears welling up in her eyes she said that she had to call the police because there was no postmark.

Chapter Two: Maps

There was a comment in the last post that made me remember an event from my childhood that I always took as odd but never considered it to be related to any of these stories. I know now that it is. It’s funny how memories work. The details might all be present in your mind, though scattered and disarrayed, and then a single thought can stitch them back together almost instantly. I never thought of these events much because I was focused on the wrong details. I went back to my mom’s house and went through my old childhood school work looking for something that I think is important. I couldn’t find it, but I’ll keep looking. Again, sorry for the length.

Most old cities and the neighborhoods in them weren’t planned with the thought that the population would begin to grow exponentially and it would have to be accommodated. The layout of the roads is generally originally in response to geographical restrictions and the necessity of connecting points of economic importance. Once the connecting roads are established, new businesses and roads are positioned strategically along the existing skeleton, and eventually the paths carved into the earth are immortalized in asphalt, leaving room only for minor modifications, additions, and alterations, but never a dramatic change.

My childhood neighborhood must have been old, then. If straight lines move “as the crow flies”, then my neighborhood must have been built based on the travels of a snake. The first houses built must have been placed around the lake and gradually the inhabitable area increased as new extensions were built off the original path, but these new extensions all ended abruptly at one point or another — there was only one entrance/exit for the entire neighborhood. Many of these extensions were limited by a tributary which both fed and drank from the lake and passed right by what I came to call (and have called in these stories) “the ditch”. Many of the original homes had enormous yards, but some of those original plots had been divided, leaving properties with smaller and smaller boundaries. An aerial view of my neighborhood would give one the impression that an enormous squid had once died in the woods and some adventuring entrepreneur found the corpse and paved roads over its tentacles, only to withdraw his involvement and leave time, greed, and desperation to divide up the land among prospective home-owners like an embarrassing attempt at the Golden Ratio.

From my porch you could see the old houses that surrounded the lake, but the house of Mrs. Maggie was my favorite. She was, as best as I can remember, around eighty years old, but despite that she was one of the friendliest people I had ever met. She had a head of loose-set, white curls and always wore light dresses with floral patterns. She would talk to me and Josh from her back porch when we were swimming in the lake, and she would always invite us in for snacks. She said that she was lonely because her husband Tom was always away on business, but Josh and I would always decline her invitation because, as nice as Mrs. Maggie was, there was still something a bit odd about her.

Every now and then when we would swim away she would say, “Chris and John, you’re welcome here anytime!” And we could hear her still yelling that when we were walking back into my house.

Mrs. Maggie, like many of the older home-owners, had a sprinkler system that was on a timer, though at some point over the years her timer must have broken because the sprinklers would come on at various points during the day and often even at night all year. While it never got cold enough to snow very much, several times each winter I would go outside in the morning to see Mrs. Maggie’s yard transformed into a surreal arctic paradise by the frozen water. Every other yard stood sterilized and dry by the biting frost of the winter’s cold, but right there in the middle of the bleak reminder of the savagery of the season was an oasis of beautiful ice hanging like stalactites from every branch of every tree and every leaf of every bush. As the sun rose, it reflected off and each piece of ice splintered the sun into a rainbow that would only be viewed briefly before it blinded you. Even as a child I was struck by how beautiful it was, and often Josh and I would go over there to walk on the iced grass and have sword fights with the icicles.

I once asked my mom why she left it on like that. My mom seemed to search for the explanation before she said,
“Well, Sweetie, Mrs. Maggie is sick a lot, and sometimes when she gets really sick, she gets confused. That’s why she messes up yours and Josh’s names sometimes. She doesn’t mean to, but sometimes she just can’t remember. She lives in that big house all by herself so it’s ok if you talk to her when you swim in the lake, but when she invites you in you should keep saying ‘no’. Be polite; her feelings won’t get hurt.”

“But she’ll be less lonely when her husband comes home though, right? How long will he be away on business? It seems like he’s always away.”

My mom seemed to struggle and I could see that she had become very upset. Finally she answered,
“Honey… Tom’s not going to come home. Tom’s in heaven. He died years and years ago, but Mrs. Maggie doesn’t remember. She gets confused and forgets, but Tom’s not ever coming home. If someone moved back in with her she might even think it was Tom, but he’s gone, Sweetie.”

I would have only been around five or six when she told me that, and while I didn’t understand it completely, I was still profoundly sad for Mrs. Maggie.

I know now that Mrs. Maggie had Alzheimer’s. She and her husband Tom had had two sons: Chris and John. The two had worked out payment plans with the utility companies and paid for Mrs. Maggie’s water and electricity, but they would never visit her. I don’t know if something happened between them, or if it was the illness, or if they just lived too far away, but they never came around. I have no idea what they looked like, but there were times when Mrs. Maggie must have thought Josh and I looked like they did when they were children. Or maybe she saw what some part of her mind so desperately wanted her to see; ignoring the images transmitted down her optic nerve and just for a little while showing her what used to be. I realize only now how lonely she must have been.

During the summer after Kindergarten, before the events of “Balloons”, Josh and I had taken to exploring the woods near my house, as well as the tributary of the lake. We knew that the woods between our houses were connected, and we thought it would be neat if the lake near my house was somehow connected to the creek around his, so we resolved ourselves to find out.

We were going to make maps.

The plan was to make two separate maps and then combine them. We would make one map exploring the area around the creek near his house, and make another following the outflow from my lake. Originally, we were going to make one map, but we realized that wasn’t possible since I had started drawing the map of my area so huge that the route from his house wouldn’t have been to scale. We kept the map from the lake at my house and the map from the creek at his house, and we would add to each when we stayed the night with each other.

For the first couple weeks it went really well. We would walk through the woods along the water and pause every couple minutes to add to the map and it seemed like the two maps would come together any day. We had no equipment needed for the job—not even a compass—but we tried to make due. We had the idea to impale the earth with a stick when we had reached the end of a venture so that if we came upon the stick from the other direction the next weekend, we would know we had joined the maps. We might have been the world’s worst cartographers. Eventually, however, the woods became too thick near the water coming from the lake and we were unable to proceed further. We lost interest in the whole project for a bit, and reduced our explorations significantly—though not completely—when we started selling snow cones.

After I showed my mom all the pictures I had taken home from school and she took away my snow cone machine, our interest in the maps revitalized. We had to come up with another plan. Although I didn’t understand why, my mom had placed what I considered to be extremely severe restrictions on what I could do and where I could go, and I had to check in frequently if I went outside to play with Josh. This meant that we couldn’t stay in the woods for hours and continue to look for a new path. We thought that we could just swim when we got to the cutoff in the woods, but that clearly wouldn’t work since the map would get wet. We tried going faster when we were coming from Josh’s house, but we eventually ran into the same problem. Then we had a brilliant idea.

We’d build a raft.

Due to the construction in the neighborhood, there was a large amount of scrap building material that the company would set in the ditch to keep it out of the road and offsite since they no longer needed it for building. We originally conceived of a formidable ship complete with a mast and an anchor, but this quickly diminished into something more manageable. We set aside the wood and took several large pieces of Styrofoam that were backed with foam board and tied them together with rope and kite string.

We launched our vessel a little down water from Mrs. Maggie and waved a farewell to her as she motioned us to come back her way. But there was no stopping us.

The raft worked very well, and while we both behaved and spoke as if the functionality of the raft was a given, I know at least I was a little surprised. We each had a fairly long tree branch to use as a paddle, but we found it was easier to simply push against the land under the water than actually use them as intended. When the water became too deep we’d simply lie on our stomachs and use our hands to paddle the water, which still worked — albeit less well. The first time we had to resort to that method of propulsion, I remember thinking that from far above it must have looked like a colossally fat man with tiny arms was out for a swim.

It actually took us several trips to get the raft to the impassable patch of woods that marked the farthest we had made it. After we had come up with the idea of marking the ground with the stick, we had taken to running through the woods until we got to the stick and then, as carefully and precisely as we knew how, charting our course. This meant that the impasse was actually quite a bit away, so to sail from around my house all the way to the blockade in the woods was taking longer than expected. We’d sail for a bit and then dock the raft, and then next time we’d run through the woods to the raft and go a little farther.

We continued this well into first grade. Josh and I were assigned to different groups that year so, since we didn’t really see one another during the school day, our parents were more willing to let us hang out all weekend each week. What’s more, Josh’s dad had taken on a lengthy construction job that required him to work over the weekends, and his mother was on-call, so this meant that Josh would stay at my house most every weekend for weeks on end.

We should have been making excellent progress, but when we finally made it to the impasse and had the opportunity to explore past it we couldn’t find a place to dock the raft. The woods were simply too thick, and the water had eroded the land to the point that there was nearly a two-foot rise of earth over the tributary which exposed the twisting and damp roots of the trees above. We’d have to turn back every time and leave the raft at the same thick of trees that prompted us to build it in the first place. Even worse, winter had arrived, so we couldn’t justify leaving the house in our swimsuits; we were getting nowhere — we always had to come home before we could gain much ground.

On a Saturday, around 7pm, Josh and I were playing when one of my mom’s coworkers knocked on our door. Her name was Samantha, and I remember her well now because I would propose to her a couple of years later when I was visiting my mom at work. My mom said that she had to go to work to fix a problem that had arisen and that she’d back in about two hours. Her car was being repaired, so she’d have to ride with Samantha, but I gathered that the problem was the Samantha’s fault and discussing it in the car was why it would only take two hours. She said that under no circumstances were we to leave the house or open the door for anyone, and she was in the middle of explaining that she would call every hour when she got there to check in, but she ended that statement prematurely when she remembered that our phone had been turned off for delinquent payments – this was why Samantha had just come by unannounced. She looked me dead in the eye as she was closing the door and said “Stay put.”

This was our chance.

We watched her drive down the serpentine road toward the exit, and as soon as the car rounded the last visible bend we ran back to my room. I dumped my backpack out while Josh grabbed the map.

“Hey, do you have a flashlight?” Josh chimed.

“No, but we’ll be back way before dark.”

“I was thinking just in case, we should have one.”

“My mom has one, but I don’t know where she keeps it… Wait!”

I ran into my closet and pulled a box down from the top shelf.

“You have a flashlight in there?” Josh asked.

“Not exactly…”

I opened the box and revealed three Roman candles that I had taken from the pile that my mother had amassed for the fourth of July that past summer; along with a lighter that I had managed to take from her some months before, this would ensure that we at least had some light if we needed it. This was a little bit before I had been given an opportunity to be afraid of the woods at night, so it wasn’t fear that motivated our search for a light source — only practicality. We threw it all in the backpack and bolted out the backdoor, making sure to close it so Boxes wouldn’t get out. We had one hour and fifty minutes.

We ran through the woods as fast as we could and made it to the raft in about fifteen minutes. We had our bathing suits on under our clothes, so we stripped off our shirts and shorts and left them in two separate piles about four feet from the edge of the water. We untied the raft from the tree, grabbed our branch-paddles, and cast off.

We tried to move rapidly to reach a point beyond the contents of our ever-expanding map, as we didn’t have time to waste seeing old sights. We knew that we were slower in the raft than on land, and that we would be in the raft for quite a while after the cutoff since the woods were too thick to walk through and there wasn’t a place to dock; this meant that we’d have to ride the raft back to the original docking site even if we found a new place to dock it further ahead.

After we passed the last charted part of our map, the water began to get really deep and eventually we could no longer touch the bottom with our tree branches, so we lay on our stomachs and paddled with our hands. It was getting darker and, as a result, it was becoming harder to distinguish the trees from one another, and we were both becoming slightly unnerved. In the interest of making good time we were paddling fast with our arms, but this caused a lot of noise as our hands repeatedly confronted and then broke through the water’s surface tension. During these periods we could both hear the crunching of dead leaves and the snapping of fallen sticks in the woods to our right. As we would slow our pace and quiet our actions, the rustling in the woods would cease, and we began to wonder if it was really ever there at all. We didn’t know what kinds of animals resided this far into the woods, but we did know that we didn’t wish to find out.

As Josh amended the map that I was illuminating with the lighter we were suddenly confronted with the fact that the sounds were not imagined. Rapidly and rhythmically we heard:

crunch
snap
crunch

It seemed to be moving slightly away from us, pushing through the woods just beyond our map. It had become too dark to see. We had misjudged how long the sun would linger.

Nervously, I called out.

“Hello?”

There was a brief moment of breathless tension as we lay static in the water. This silence was suddenly broken by laughter.

Hello?” Josh cackled.

“So what?”

“Hello, Mr. Monster-in-the-woods. I know you’re sneaking around but maybe you’ll answer to my ‘hello’? Hellooooooo!”

I realized how stupid it was. Whatever animal it was, it wouldn’t respond. I hadn’t even realized I’d said it until afterwards, but if anything was actually there I obviously wouldn’t get a reply.

Josh continued, “Helloooooo,” in a high falsetto.

“Helloooo,” I countered with as deep a baritone as I could manage.

“‘ello there mate!”

“Hel-lo. Beep Boop”

“hhheeeEEELLLLOOOoooo”

We continued mocking each other, and were in the process of turning the raft around to head back when we heard,

“Hello.”

It was whispered and forced as if it were powered by the last breath in a pair of deflating lungs, but it didn’t sound sickly. It had come from the spot just off the map, which now sat behind us since we had turned the raft around. I slowly shifted on the raft and faced the direction of the sound as I fumbled with the Roman candle. I wanted to see.

“What’re you doing?!” Josh hissed.

But I had already lit it. As the sparking fuse sunk into the wrapper I held it toward the sky. I had never actually shot one of these myself and thought to just use it like a flair in the movies. A glowing, green orb rocketed out toward the stars and then quickly extinguished. I lowered my arm more toward the horizon; I could remember that there were several colors, but I couldn’t remember how many times one of these fired before being depleted. A second ball of red light burst out and fizzled above the trees, but I still saw nothing.

“Let’s just go, man!” Josh pressed, as he turned to face the direction back home and began paddling desperately.

“Just one more…”

Lowering my arm directly at the woods in front of me, another red ball of fire was launched from the tube. It traveled straight ahead until it collided with a tree, briefly exploding the light in a much greater diameter.

Still nothing.

I dropped the firework in the water and watched as one more struggling fireball burst free only to quickly die, suffocated by the water. As we began paddling in the direction toward my house we heard a loud and unconcealed rustling in the woods. The breaking of branches and the trampling of fallen leaves overpowered the sound of our splashing.

It was running.

In our panic we jostled the raft too violently and I felt one of the ropes under my chest loosen.

“Josh, be careful!”

But it was too late. Our raft was breaking. Before too long it had completely fallen apart. We each held on to a separate piece of Styrofoam, but the pieces weren’t big enough to keep us completely afloat, and our legs dangled beneath us in the winter water.

“Josh! Quick!” I yelled as I pointed at the water right next to him.

He scrambled, but it was too cold to move quickly and we both watched as the map floated away.

“I’m c-c-cold, m-man,” Josh shuddered, dejectedly. “Let’sss get out of the w-water.”

We approached the shore, but each time we attempted to pull ourselves up we’d hear the frantic rustling thundering toward us from the woods just above. Eventually we were too cold and weak to even try anymore.

Steadily we kicked our legs and found ourselves nearing the dock site. We toppled off the debris and tried to pull it on land, but Josh’s piece slipped away and floated in the direction of the lake. We took off our swim suits and were desperate to get into dry clothes to shield us from the biting chill of the air. I slid my shorts, but there was something wrong. I turned to Josh.

“Where’s my shirt, man?”

He shrugged and suggested, “Maybe it got knocked into the water and floated into the lake?”

I told Josh to go back to my house, and to say that we were playing hide and seek if my mom was home. I had to try to find my shirt.

I ran behind the houses and peered out over the water and scouted along the shoreline. It occurred to me that with any luck, maybe I could find the map too. I was moving pretty fast because I needed to get home, and was about to give up when my concentration was interrupted by a sound coming from just behind me.

“Hello.”

I whipped around. It was Mrs. Maggie. I had never seen her at night before, and in this poor light, she looked exceedingly frail. The usual warmth that wrapped her manner seemed to have been snuffed out by the chill. I couldn’t remember ever seeing her without a smile, and so her face looked strange.

“Hello, Mrs. Maggie.”

“Oh, hi Chris!” the warmth and smile had returned to her, even if her memories had not. “I couldn’t see it was you in the dark there.”

Jokingly, I asked her if she was going to invite me in for a snack, but she said maybe another time; I was too busy looking for my map and the shirt to really engage her, but she sounded happy so I didn’t feel bad. She said a couple other things, but I was too distracted to pay attention. I said goodnight and ran down her driveway toward my house. Behind me I could hear her walking across the frozen yard, but I didn’t turn around to wave; I had to get home.

I made it home a couple minutes before my mom did, and by the time she came in Josh and I had already changed clothes and warmed up. We’d gotten away with it, even though we’d lost the map.

“Couldn’t find it?”

“Nah, but I saw Mrs. Maggie. She called me Chris again. I’m telling you dude, just be glad you’ve never seen her at night.”

We both laughed and he asked me if she invited me in for a snack, joking that the snacks must be terrible since she couldn’t even give them away. I told him that she didn’t and he was surprised, and now that I had time to think about it so was I. Literally, every time we had seen her she had invited us in for snacks, and here I had, albeit sarcastically, invited myself, and she said no.

As Josh talked more about Mrs. Maggie I suddenly realized that the lighter might still be in my pocket and that it would be disastrous for my mom to find. I grabbed the shorts off the floor and padded my pockets; I felt something, but it wasn’t the lighter. From my back pocket I slid out a folded piece of paper and my heart leapt. “The map?” I thought. “But I watched it float away.” As I unfolded the paper, my stomach turned as I tried to understand what I was seeing. Drawn on the paper inside of a large oval were two stick figures holding hands. One was much bigger than the other, but neither had faces. The paper was torn so a part of it was missing, and there was a number written near the top right corner. It was either “15” or “16”. I nervously handed Josh the paper and asked him if he had put it in my pocket at some point, but he scoffed at the idea and asked why I was so upset. I pointed toward the smaller stick figure and what was written next to it.

It was my initials.

I shook it off and told Josh the rest of the conversation between Mrs. Maggie and I. I had always attributed the odd exchange to her being sick until revisiting the events in my mind all these years later. As I think about it now, the feeling of profound sadness for Mrs. Maggie returns, but it is augmented by a looming feeling of despair when I think about why she said “maybe another time.” I knew what she had said, but I didn’t understand what it meant that night. I didn’t understand what her words had meant weeks later when I watched men in strange, orange bio-hazard suits carry what I thought were black bags full of garbage out of her house, or why the whole neighborhood smelled like death that day. I still didn’t understand when they condemned the house and boarded it up a little while before we moved. But I understand now. I understand why her last words to me were so important, even if neither she nor I realized it at the time.

Mrs. Maggie had told me that night that Tom had come home, but I know now who had really moved in; just as I know now why I never saw her body brought out on a stretcher.

The bags weren’t filled with garbage.

Chapter Three Footsteps

In a quiet room, if you press your ear against a pillow, you can hear your heartbeat. As a kid, the muffled, rhythmic beats sounded like soft footsteps on a carpeted floor, so as a kid, almost every night — just as I was about to drift off to sleep — I would hear these footsteps and I would be ripped back to consciousness, terrified.

For my entire childhood I lived with my mother in a fairly nice neighborhood that was in a transitional phase — people of lower economic means were gradually moving in, and my mother and I were two of these people. We lived in the kind of house you see being transported in two pieces on the interstate, but my mom took good care of it. There were a lot of woods surrounding the neighborhood that I would play in and explore during the day, but at night—as things often do to a kid—they took on a more sinister feeling. This, coupled with the fact that, due to the nature of our house, there was a fairly large crawl space underneath, filled my mind with imaginary monsters and inescapable scenarios which would consume my thoughts when I was awoken by the footsteps.

I told my mom about the footsteps and she said that I was just imagining things; I persisted enough that she blasted my ears with water from a turkey baster once just to placate me, since I thought that would help. Of course it didn’t. Despite all the creepiness and footsteps, the only weird thing that ever happened was that, every now and then, I would wake up on the bottom bunk despite having gone to sleep on the top, but this wasn’t really weird since I’d sometimes get up to piss or get something to drink and could remember just going back to sleep on the bottom bunk (I’m an only child so it didn’t matter). This would happen once or twice a week, but waking up on the bottom bunk wasn’t too terrifying. But one night I didn’t wake up on the bottom bunk.

I had heard the footsteps, but was too far gone to be woken up by them, and when I was awoken it wasn’t from the sound of footsteps or a nightmare, but because I was cold. Really cold. When I opened my eyes I saw stars. I was in the woods. I sat up immediately and tried to figure out what was going on. I thought I was dreaming, but that didn’t seem right, though neither did me being in the woods. There was a deflated pool float right in front of me — one of those ones shaped like a shark. This only added to the surreal feeling, but after a while it seemed like I just wasn’t going to wake up because I wasn’t asleep.

I stood up to orient myself, but I didn’t recognize these woods. I played in the woods by my house all the time, so I knew them really well, but if these weren’t the same woods then how could I get out? I took a step and felt a shooting pain in my foot, which knocked me back to where I had just been laying. I had stepped on a thorn. By the light of the moon I could see that they were everywhere. I looked at my other foot, but it was fine, and as a matter of fact, so was the rest of me. I didn’t have another scratch on me and I wasn’t even that dirty. I cried for a little bit and then stood back up.

I didn’t know which way to go, so I just picked a direction. I resisted the urge to call out since I wasn’t sure I wanted to be found by who or what might be out there.

I walked for what seemed like hours.

I tried to walk in a straight line, and tried to course-correct when I had to take detours, but I was a kid and I was afraid. There weren’t any howls or screams, and only once did I hear any noise that scared me. It sounded like a crying baby. I think now that it was just a cat, but I panicked. I ran veering in different directions to avoid big thicks of bushes and collapsed trees. And I was paying close attention to where I stepped because by that point my feet were in pretty bad shape. I paid too much attention to where I was stepping and not enough to where those steps were leading because not long after hearing the cry I saw something that filled me with a kind of despair I haven’t experienced since. It was the pool float.

I was only ten feet from where I had woken up.

This wasn’t magic or some supernatural space-bending. I was lost. Up until that moment I thought more about getting out of the woods than how I got in, but being back at the beginning caused my mind to swim. I wasn’t even sure that these were my woods; I had only been hoping that they were. Had I run in a huge circle around that spot, or did I just get turned around and start making my way back? How was I going to get out? At the time I thought the north star was just the brightest star, and so I looked and found the brightest one and followed it.

Eventually things started to look more familiar and when I saw “the ditch” (a dirt ditch my friends and I would have dirt-clod wars in) I knew I had made it out. By that point I was walking really slowly because my feet hurt so much, but I was so happy to be so close to home that I broke into a light jog. When I actually saw the roof of my house over a neighboring, lower-set house I let out a light sob and ran faster. I just wanted to be home. I had already decided that I wouldn’t say anything because I had no idea what I could possibly say. I would get back in the house somehow, clean up, and get in bed. My heart sunk as I rounded the corner and my house came fully into view.

Every light in the house was on.

I knew my mom was up, and I knew I would have to explain (or try to explain) where I had been, and I couldn’t even figure out where to start. My run became a jog which became a walk. I saw her silhouette through the blinds, and although I was worried about how to explain things to her that didn’t matter to me at that point. I walked up the couple of steps to the porch and put my hand on the doorknob and turned. Right before I pushed it open two arms wrapped around me and pulled me back. I screamed as loud as I could: “MOM! HELP ME! PLEASE! MOM!” The feeling of being so close to being safe and then being physically pulled away from it filled me with a kind of dread that is, even after all these years, indescribable.

The door I had been torn away from opened, and a flash of hope shot through my heart. But it wasn’t my mom.

It was a man, and he was enormous. I thrashed around and kicked at the shins of the person holding me while also trying to get away from the person who had just come out of my house. I was scared, but I was furious.

“LET ME GO! WHERE IS SHE? WHERE’S MY MOM? WHAT’D YOU DO TO HER!?”

As my throat stung from screaming and I was drawing in another breath I became aware of a sound that had been present for longer than I had perceived it. “Honey, please calm down. I’ve got you.” It sounded like my mom.

The arms loosened and set me down, and as man approaching me blocked out the porch light with his head I noticed his clothes. He was a cop. I turned to face the voice behind me and saw that it really was my mom. Everything was ok. I began to cry, and the three of us went inside.

“I’m so glad you’re home, Sweetie. I was worried I’d never see you again.” By that point she was crying too.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know what happened. I just wanted to come home. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay, just don’t ever do that again. I’m not sure me or my shins could take it…”

A little laughter broke through my sobs and I smiled a bit. “Well I’m sorry for kicking you, but why’d you have to grab me like that?!”

“I was just afraid that you’d run away again.”

I was confused. “What do you mean?”

“We found your note on your pillow,” she said, and pointed at the piece of paper that the police officer was sliding across the table.

I picked up the note and read it. It was a “running away” letter. It said that I was unhappy and never wanted to see her or any of my friends again. The police officer exchanged a few words with my mom on the porch while I stared at the letter. I didn’t remember writing a letter. I didn’t remember anything about any of this. But even if I sometimes went to the bathroom at night and didn’t remember, or even if I could have gone into the woods on my own, even if all that could have been true, the only thing I knew at that point was,

“This isn’t how you spell my name… I didn’t write this letter.”

Chapter Four: Boxes

I spent the summer before my first year of elementary school learning how to climb trees. There was one particular pine tree right outside my house that seemed almost designed for me. It had branches that were so low I could easily grab them without a boost, and for the first couple days after I first learned how to pull myself up I would just sit on the lowest branch, dangling my feet. The tree was outside our back fence and was easily visible from the kitchen window which was just above the sink. Before too long my mother and I developed a routine where I would go play on the tree when she washed the dishes because she could easily see me while she did other things.

As the summer passed, my abilities grew and before too long I was climbing fairly high. As the tree got taller, its branches not only got thinner but more widely-spaced. I eventually reached a point where I couldn’t actually climb any higher, and so the game had to change; I began to concentrate on speed, and in the end I could reach my highest branch in twenty-five seconds.

I got too confident and one afternoon I tried to step from a branch before I had firmly grasped the next one. I fell about twenty feet and broke my arm really badly in two places. My mom was running toward me yelling and I remember her sounding like she was underwater — I don’t remember what she said but I do remember being surprised by just how white my bone was.

I was going to start Kindergarten with a cast and wouldn’t even have any friends to sign it. My mom must have felt terrible because the day before I started school she brought home a kitten. He was just a baby and was striped with tan and white. As soon as she put him down he crawled into an empty case of soda that was sitting on the floor. I named him Boxes.

Boxes was only an outside cat when he escaped. My mom had him declawed so he wouldn’t destroy the furniture, so as a result we did our best to keep him inside. He’d get out every now and then, and we’d find him somewhere in the backyard chasing some kind of bug or lizard, though he could hardly ever catch one because he had no front claws. He was pretty evasive, but we’d always catch him and carry him back inside. He’d scramble to look back over my shoulder — I told my mom that it was because he was planning his strategy for next time. Once inside we’d give him some tuna fish, and he came to learn what the sound of the can-opener might signal; he’d come running whenever he heard it.

This conditioning came in handy later because toward the end of our time in that house Boxes would get out much more often and would run under the house into the crawlspace where neither of us wanted to follow because it was cramped and probably crawling with bugs and rodents. Ingeniously, my mom thought to hook the can-opener to an extension cord out back and run it right outside the hole that Boxes had gone through. Eventually he would emerge with his loud meows, looking excited by the sound and then horrified at how we could run such a cruel ruse on him — a can-opener with no tuna made no sense to Boxes.

The last time he escaped to under the house was actually our last day in it. My mom had put the house on the market and we had begun packing our things. We didn’t have much, and we stretched the packing out a while, though I had already packed up all my clothes at my mom’s request — my mom could tell I was really sad about moving and wanted the transition to be smooth for me, and I guess she thought that having my clothes in the box would reinforce the idea that we were moving but things wouldn’t change that much. When Boxes got out as we were loading some things into the moving van my mom cursed because she had already packed the can opener and wasn’t sure where it was. I pretended to go look for it so I wouldn’t have to go under the house, and my mom (probably completely aware of my little scam) moved one of the panels and crawled in. She came out with Boxes pretty quickly and seemed pretty unnerved, which made me feel even better about getting out of it. My mom made some phone calls while I packed a little more, and then she came into my room and told me that she had spoken to the realtor and we were going to start moving into the other house that day. She said it like it was excellent news, but I had thought we had more time in the house — she originally said that we weren’t moving until the end of the next week and it was only Tuesday. What’s more, we weren’t completely finished packing, but my mom said sometimes it was just easier to replace things than pack them and haul them all over the city. I didn’t even get to grab the rest of my boxed clothes. I asked if I could call Josh to say bye, but she said that we could just call him from our new house. We left in the moving van.

I managed to stay in touch with Josh for years, which is surprising since we no longer went to the same school. Our parents weren’t close friends, but they knew that we were and so they would accommodate our desire to see one another by driving us back and forth for sleep-overs — sometimes every weekend. For Christmas one year our parents even pooled their money and got us some really nice walkie-talkies that were advertised to work across a range that extended past the distance between our houses; they also had batteries that could last for days if the walkie-talkie was on but not used. They would only occasionally work well enough that we could talk across the city, but when we stayed-over we’d use them around the house, talking in mock-radio speak that we had taken from movies, and they worked great for that. Thanks to our parents we were still friends when we were ten.

One weekend I was staying over at Josh’s and my mom called me to say goodnight; she was still pretty watchful even when she couldn’t actually watch me, but I had gotten so used to it that I didn’t even notice it, even if Josh did. She sounded upset.

Boxes was missing.

This must have been a Saturday night, because I had spent the night at Josh’s the previous night and was going to go home the next day because we had school on Monday. Boxes had been missing since Friday afternoon; I gathered that she had not seen him since returning home after dropping me off. She must have decided to tell me he was missing because if he didn’t come home before I did then I would be devastated at, not only his absence, but how she could have kept it from me. She told me not to worry. “He’ll come back. He always does!”

But Boxes didn’t come back.

Three weekends later I stayed at Josh’s again. I was still upset about Boxes, but my mom told me that there had been many times when pets had disappeared from home for weeks or even months, only to return on their own; she said they always knew where home was and would always try to get back. I was explaining this to Josh when a thought hit me so hard that I interrupted my own sentence to say it aloud. “What if Boxes thought of the wrong home?”

Josh was confused. “What? He lives with you. He knows where his home is.”

“But, he grew up somewhere else, Josh. He was raised in my old house a couple neighborhoods away. Maybe he still thinks of that place as home, like I do.”

“Ohhh I get it. Well that’d be great! We’ll tell my dad tomorrow and he’ll take us over there so we can look!”

“No he won’t, man. My mom said that we couldn’t ever go back to that place because the new owners wouldn’t wanna be bothered. She said that she told your mom and dad the same thing.”

Josh persisted, “Ok then we’ll just go out exploring tomorrow and make our way to your old house—”

“No! If we get spotted your dad will find out and then so will my mom! We have to go there ourselves… We have to go there tonight…”

It didn’t take that much convincing to get Josh on board since he was usually the one to come up with ideas like this. But we had never snuck out of his house before. It actually turned out to be incredibly easy. The window in his room opened to the back yard and he had a latched wooden fence that wasn’t locked. After those two minor hurtles we slipped off into the night, flashlight and walkie-talkies in hand.

There were two ways to get from Josh’s house to my old house. We could walk on the street and make all the turns or go through the woods, which would take about half the time. It would have taken about two hours to walk there taking the street, but I suggested that we go that way anyway; I told him it was because I didn’t want to get lost. Josh refused and said that if we were seen they might recognize him and tell his dad. He threatened to go home if we didn’t just take the shortcut, and I accepted it because I didn’t want to go by myself.

Josh didn’t know about the last time I walked through these woods at night.

The woods were much less creepy with a friend and a flashlight, and we were making pretty good time. I wasn’t entirely sure where we were, but Josh seemed confident enough and that bolstered my morale. We passed through a particularly thick patch of tangled trees when the strap on my walkie-talkie got caught on a branch. Josh had the flashlight and so I was struggling to get the walkie free when I heard Josh say,

“Hey man, wanna go for a swim?”

I looked over to where he was shining the flashlight, though I closed my eyes as I did, because I now knew where we were. He was pointing at the pool float. This was where I had woken up in these woods all those years ago. I felt a lump in my throat and the sting of fresh tears in my eyes as I continued to struggle with the walkie. Frustrated, I yanked on it hard enough to break it free and I turned and walked to Josh who had partially laid down on the pool float in a mock-sunbathing pose. As I walked toward him I stumbled and nearly fell into a fairly large hole that was sitting in the middle of this small clearing, but I regained my balance and stopped right at its edge. It was deep. I was surprised by the size of the hole, but more surprised by the fact that I didn’t remember it. I realized it must not have been there that night because it was in the same spot where I had awoken. I put it out of my mind and turned to Josh.

“Quit messing around man! You saw I was stuck over there, and you were just laying here joking around on this float!” I punctuated the sentence with a kick to an exposed part of the float. A screeching rose from it.

Josh’s smile inverted. He suddenly looked terrified and was struggling to get off the float, but he couldn’t in a quick manner due to the awkward way he had been laying on it. Each time he would fall back on the float the screeching would intensify. I wanted to help Josh but I couldn’t move myself any closer — my legs wouldn’t cooperate; I hated these woods. I picked up the flashlight that he had thrown in his thrashing and shined in on the float not knowing what to expect. Finally, Josh got off the float and rushed next to me, looking at where I was shining the light. Suddenly there it was. It was a rat. I started laughing nervously and we both watched the rat run into the woods, taking the screeches with it. Josh lightly punched me in the arm, the smile slowly returning to his face, and we continued walking.

We quickened our pace and made it out of the woods faster than we thought we would, and we found ourselves back in my old neighborhood. The last time I had rounded the bend ahead I had seen my house fully illuminated, and all the memories of what transpired came flooding back. I felt a skipping in my heart as we were finally turning the corner and about to face the full view of my house, remembering last time how incandescent it was. But this time all the lights were off. From a distance I could see my old climbing tree and as my mind traced the steps of causality backward I realized that I wouldn’t back here this night if that tree hadn’t grown, and I was briefly in awe of how all events were like that. As we got closer I could see that the lawn looked terrible; I couldn’t even guess when it had last been mowed. One of the shutters had partially broken loose and was rocking back and forth in the breeze, and over all the house just looked dirty. I was sad to see my old home in such a state of disrepair. Why would my mom care if we bothered the new owners if they cared so little about where they lived? And then I realized.

There were no new owners.

The house was abandoned, though it looked simply forsaken. Why would my mom lie to me about our house having new people in it? But, I thought that this was actually a good thing. It would be easier to look around for Boxes if we didn’t have to worry about being spotted by the new family. This would make it much quicker. Josh interrupted my thoughts as we walked through the gate and up to the house itself.

“Your old house sucks, dude!” Josh yelled as quietly as he could.

“Shut up, Josh! Even like this it’s still nicer than your house.”

“Hey man—”

“OK, OK. I think Boxes is probably under the house. One of us has to go under and look, but the other should stay next to the opening in case he comes running out.”

“Are you serious? There’s no way I’m going under there. It’s your cat, man. You do it.”

“Look, I’ll game you for it, unless you’re too scared…” I said holding my fist over my up-turned palm.

“Fine, but we go on ‘shoot’, not on three. It’s ‘rock, paper, scissors, SHOOT’, not ‘one, two, THREE’.”

“I know how to play the game, Josh. You’re the one who always messes up. And it’s two out of three.”

I lost.

I wiggled loose the panel that my mom would always move when we she had to crawl under here for Boxes. She only had to do it a couple of times since the can-opener trick usually worked, but when she had to do it she hated it, especially that last time, and as I looked into the darkness of the crawlspace I had a greater appreciation for why. Before we moved she said that it was actually better that Boxes ran under here, despite how hard it could be to get him out. It was less dangerous than him jumping over the fence and running around the neighborhood. All that was true, but I was still dreading doing this. I grabbed the flashlight and the walkie and began to crawl in; a powerful smell overtook me.

It smelled like death.

I turned on my walkie.

Josh, are you there?

This is Macho Man, come back.

Josh, cut it out. There’s something wrong down here.

What do you mean?

It stinks. It smells like something died.

Is it Boxes?

I really hope not.

I set down the walkie and moved the flashlight around as I crawled forward. Looking through the hole from the outside you could see all the way back with the right lighting, but you had to be inside to see around the support blocks that held the house up. I’d say that there was about forty percent of the area that you couldn’t see unless you were actually in the crawlspace, but even inside I discovered that I could only see directly where the flashlight was pointing; I realized that this would make scouting around the place much more difficult. As I moved forward, the smell intensified. The fear was growing in me that Boxes had come here and something had happened to him. I shined the flashlight around but couldn’t see much of anything. I wrapped my fingers around a support block to pull myself forward and as I did that, I felt something that made my hand recoil.

Fur.

My heart sank and I prepared myself emotionally for what I was about to see. I crawled slowly so I could prolong what I knew was coming and I inched my eyes and the flashlight past the block to see what was on the other side.

I staggered back in horror. “JESUS CHRIST!” escaped my trembling mouth. It was a hideous and twisted creature, badly decomposed. Its skin had rotted away on its face so the teeth appeared to be enormous. And the smell was unbearable.

What is it? Are you ok? Is it Boxes?

I reached for the walkie.

No, no it’s not Boxes.

Well what the hell is it then?

I don’t know

I shined the light on it again and looked at it with less fear in my vision. I chuckled.

It’s a raccoon!

Well keep looking. I’m gonna go into the house to see if he might’ve made it in there somehow.

What? No. Josh, don’t go in there. What if Boxes is down here and runs out?

He can’t. I put the board back.

I looked and saw that he was telling the truth.

Why’d you do that?

Don’t worry man, you can move it easy. This makes more sense. If Boxes ran out and I missed him then he’d be gone. If he’s down there then grab him tight and I’ll come move the board, and if he’s not then you can move it yourself while I look in the house!

Some of his points were good, and I doubted he’d be able to get in anyway.

OK. But be careful and don’t touch anything. There’s a bunch of my old clothes still in boxes in my room, you can look in there to see if he crawled in one. And make sure to bring your walkie.

Roger that, good buddy.

I realized that it would be pitch-black in there; the power would have been turned off since no one was paying the bill. With any luck he’d be able to see from the streetlights that might cast some light inside — otherwise I’m not sure what he’d do.

Before too long I heard footsteps right over my head and felt old dirt raining down on me.

Josh is that you?

chhkkkk Breaker, Breaker. This is Macho Man coming back for the big Tango Foxtrot. The Eagle has landed. What’s your 20, Princess Jasmine? Over.

“Asshole.”

Macho Man, my 20 is in your bathroom lookin’ at your stash of magazines. Looks like you’ve got a thing for dudes’ butts. What’s the report on that? Over.

I could hear him laughing without the walkie and I started laughing too. I head the footsteps fade away a little — he was on his way to my room.

Man, it’s dark in here. Hey, are you sure you had boxes of clothes in here? I don’t see any.

Yeah, there should be a couple boxes in front of the closet.

There aren’t any boxes in here, lemme check to see if you maybe put the boxes in the closet before you left.

I started thinking that maybe my mom had come back and gotten the clothes and just given them away because I had outgrown a lot of them, but I remembered leaving the boxes there — I didn’t even have time to close the last one up before we left.

While I was waiting for Josh to tell me what he found, I kicked out my leg which had started falling asleep because of the position I was in and it hit something. I looked back and saw something really strange. It was a blanket and all around it there were bowls. I crawled a little closer to it. The blanket smelled moldy and most of the bowls were empty but one had something that I recognized still in it.

Cat food.

It was a different kind than we gave to Boxes, but I suddenly understood. My mom had set up a little place for Boxes to encourage him to come here instead of running around the neighborhood. That made a lot of sense, and it seemed even more likely that Boxes would have come back to this place. “That’s so cool, mom,” I thought.

I found your clothes.

Oh cool. Where were the boxes?

Like I said, there are no boxes. Your clothes are in your closet… They’re hanging up.

I felt a chill. This was impossible. I had packed all my clothes. Even though we weren’t supposed to move for another two weeks when we left, I remember packing them and thinking that it was stupid for me to have to get clothes out of the box and put them back in. I had packed them, but someone had hung them back up. Why though?

Josh needed to get out of there.

That can’t be right, Josh. They’re supposed to be in boxes. Stop messing around, and just come back outside.

No joke man. I’m looking at them. Maybe you just thought that you left them. Haha! Wow! You sure like to look at yourself, don’t you?

What? What do you mean?

Your walls, man. Haha. Your walls are covered in Polaroids of yourself! There are hundreds of them! What’d you hire someone to—

Silence.

I checked my walkie to see if I had switched it off somehow. It was fine. I could hear footsteps but couldn’t tell exactly where Josh was going. I waited for Josh to finish his sentence, thinking that his finger had just slipped off the button, but he didn’t continue. He seemed to be stomping around the house now. I was just about to radio him when he came back.

There’s someone in the house.

His voice was hushed and broken — I could hear he was on the verge of tears. I wanted to respond, but how loud was his walkie turned up? What if the other person heard it? I said nothing and just waited and listened. What I heard were footsteps. Heavy, dragging footsteps. And then a loud thud.

“Oh God… Josh.”

He had been found; I was sure of it. This person had found him and was hurting him. I broke out in tears. He was my only friend, next to Boxes. And then I realized: What if Josh told him I was under here? What could I possibly do? As I struggled to compose myself, I thankfully heard Josh’s voice through the walkie.

He’s got something, man. It’s a big bag. He just threw it on the floor. And… oh God, man… the bag… I think it just moved.

I was paralyzed. I wanted to run home. I wanted to save Josh. I wanted to go for help. I wanted so many things but I just lay there, frozen. As I lay unable to move my eyes focused on the corner of the house that was right under my room; I moved my flashlight. My breath hitched at what I saw.

Animals. Dozens of them. All of them dead. They lay in piles all around the perimeter of the crawlspace. Could Boxes be among these corpses? Was this what the cat food was for?

Seeing this broke my shock as I knew I had to get out of there and I scrambled to the board. I pushed on it, but it wouldn’t budge. I couldn’t move it because it was wedged in there and I couldn’t get my fingers around it since the edges were outside. I was trapped. “Goddamn you, Josh!” I whispered to myself. I could feel thunderous footsteps above me. The house was shaking. I heard Josh scream, and it was matched by another scream that wasn’t full of fear.

As I continued pushing I felt the board move, but I knew it wasn’t me who was moving it. I could hear footsteps above me and in front of me and shouting and screaming filling the brief silences between the footsteps. I moved back and held my walkie ready to try to defend myself, and the board was thrown to the side and an arm shot in and grabbed for me.

“Let’s go, man! Now!”

It was Josh. Thank God.

I scrambled out of the opening holding the flashlight and the walkie. When we got to the fence we both jumped it, but Josh’s walkie fell; he reached for it and I told him to forget it. We had to move. Behind us I could hear yelling, though they weren’t words, only sounds. And we, perhaps foolishly, ran for the woods to get back to Josh’s quicker and be somewhat harder to follow. The whole way through the woods Josh kept yelling,

“My picture! He took my picture!”

But I knew the man already had Josh’s picture — from all those years ago at the ditch. I supposed Josh still thought those mechanical sounds were from a robot.

We made it back to Josh’s house and back into his room before his parents woke up. I asked him about the big bag and if it really moved and he said he couldn’t be sure. He kept apologizing about dropping the walkie at the house, but obviously that wasn’t a big deal. We didn’t go to sleep and sat peering out the window waiting for him. I went home later that day as it was about 3am already.

I told my mom the basics of this story a couple days ago. She broke down and was furious about the danger I put myself in. I asked her why she made all those things up about bothering the new owners to stop me from going — why did she think the house was so dangerous? She became irate and hysterical, but she answered my question. She grabbed my hand and squeezed it harder than I thought her capable of and locked her eyes to my, whispering as if she was afraid of being overheard:

“Because I never put any fucking blankets or bowls under the house for Boxes. You weren’t the only one to find them…”

I felt dizzy. I understood so much now. I understood why she had looked so uneasy after she brought Boxes out from under the house on our last day there; she found more than spiders or a rat’s nest that day. I understood why we left almost two weeks early. I understood why she tried to stop me from going back.

She knew. She knew he made his home under ours, and she kept it from me. I left without saying another word and didn’t finish the story for her, but I want to finish it here, for you.

I got home from Josh’s that day I threw my stuff on the floor and it scattered everywhere; I didn’t care, I just wanted to sleep. I woke up around 9pm to the sound of Boxes’ meowing. My heart leapt. He had finally come home. I was a little sick about the fact that if I had just waited a day none of the previous night’s events would have happened and I’d have Boxes anyway, but that didn’t matter; he was back. I got off my bed and called for him looking around to catch a glint of light off his eyes. The crying continued and I followed it. It was coming from under the bed. I laughed a little thinking I had just crawled under a house looking for him and how this was so much better. His meows were being muffled by a shirt, so I flung it aside and smiled, yelling “welcome home, Boxes!”

His cries were coming from my walkie-talkie.

Boxes never came home.

Chapter Five: Screens

I’ve intentionally withheld some details from a lot of my stories. I’ve let my hopes concerning the way things might be influence my evaluation of the way they actually are. I don’t think there’s any point to that anymore.

At the end of the summer between Kindergarten and first grade I caught the stomach flu. This has all of the components of the regular flu; however, with the stomach flu, you throw up in a bucket and not the toilet because you are sitting on it — the sickness gets purged from both ends. This lasted for about ten days, but just before it had passed the sickness was granted an extension in the form of pink eye. My eyelids were so fused together by the dried mucus generated during the night that the first day I awoke with the infection I thought I had gone blind. When I started first grade, I had a kink in my neck from ten days of bed-rest and two swollen, bloodshot eyes. Josh was in another Group and didn’t have my lunch, so in a cafeteria bursting with two-hundred kids, I still had a table to myself.

I started keeping spare food in my backpack that I would take into the bathroom to eat after lunch since my school meals were usually confiscated by older kids who knew I wouldn’t stand up to them since no one would stand with me. This dynamic persisted even after my condition cleared up since no one wants to be friends with the kid who gets bullied, lest they have some of that aggression directed toward themselves. The only reason this stopped was due to the actions of a kid named Alex.

Alex was in the third grade and was bigger than most of the other kids in any grade. Around the third week of school, he started sitting with me at lunch, and this put an immediate end to the shortage of my food supply. He was nice enough, but he seemed kind of slow; we never really talked at length except for when I finally decided to ask why he had been sitting with me.

He had a crush on Josh’s sister, Veronica.

Veronica was in fourth grade and was probably the prettiest girl in the school. Even as a six-year-old who fully endorsed the notion that girls were disgusting, I still knew how pretty Veronica was. When she was in third grade, Josh told me, two boys had actually gotten into a physical fight which erupted out of an argument concerning the significance of the messages she had written in their yearbooks. One of the boys eventually hit the other in the forehead with the corner of the yearbook and the wound required stitches to close. While not one of those two boys, Alex wanted her to like him and confessed that he knew Josh and I were best friends; I gathered that he had hoped that I would convey his ostensibly philanthropic deed to Veronica and that she would presumably be so moved by his selflessness that she’d take an interest in him. If I told her he would continue to sit with me for as long as I needed him to.

Because this was during the time when Josh mostly stayed at my house building the raft and navigating tributary with me, I didn’t have the chance to bring it up to Veronica because I simply didn’t see her. I told Josh about it and he made fun of Alex, but said that he would tell his sister since I wanted him to. I doubted that he would. Josh was annoyed that people seemed to be so taken with his sister. I remember him calling her an ugly crow. I never said anything to Josh, but I remember wanting to say, even then, that she was pretty and would one day be beautiful.

I was right.

When I was fifteen, I was seeing a movie at a place my friends and I had come to call the Dirt Theatre. It was probably nice at some point, but time and neglect had weathered the place severely. This theatre had movable tables and chairs on a level floor, so when the theatre was full, there were very few places you could sit and see the whole screen. The theatre was still open, I imagine, for three reasons: 1) it was cheap to see a movie there; 2) they showed a different cult movie twice a month at midnight; and 3) they sold beer to underage kids during the midnight showings. I went for the first two, and that night they were showing Scanners by David Cronenberg for $1.00.

My friends and I were sitting in the very back. I wanted to sit closer to the front for a better view, but Ryan had driven us so I relented. A couple minutes before the movie started, a group of girls walked in. They were all pretty attractive, but whatever beauty they might have had was eclipsed by the girl with the dirty blonde hair, even though I had only caught a glimpse of her profile. As she turned to move her seat, I caught a full view of her face which gave me the feeling of butterflies in my stomach — it was Veronica.

I hadn’t seen her in a long time. Josh and I saw progressively less of one another after we snuck out to my old house that night when we were ten, and usually when I’d visit him she’d be out with friends. While everyone stared at the screen, I stared at Veronica — only looking away when the feeling that I was being a creep overcame me, but that feeling would quickly subside and my eyes would return to her. She really was beautiful, just like I had thought she’d be when I was a kid. When the credits started to roll my friends got up and left; there was only one exit and they didn’t want to be trapped waiting for the crowd to clear. I lingered in hopes of catching Veronica’s attention. As she and her friends walked by I took a chance.

“Hey, Veronica.”

She turned toward me looking a little startled.

“Yeah?”

I got out of my seat and stepped a little into the light coming in through the open door.

“It’s me. Josh’s old friend from way back… How… How’ve you been?”

“Oh my god! HEY! It’s been so long!” she motioned to her friends that she’d be out in a second.

“Yeah, a few years at least! Not since the last time I stayed over with Josh. How is he anyway?”

“Oh, that’s right. I remember all you guys’ games. Do you still play Ninja Turtles with your friends?”

She laughed a little and I blushed.

“No. I’m not a kid anymore… Me and my friends play X-men now.” I was really hoping she’d laugh.

She did. “Haha! You’re cute. Do you come to these movies every time?”

I was still reeling from what she said.

Does she really think I’m cute? Did she just mean I was funny? Does she think I’m attractive?

I suddenly realized that she had asked me a question, and my mind grasped for what it was.

“YEAH!” I said much too loudly. “Yeah, I try to anyway… what about you?”

“I come every now and then. My boyfriend didn’t like these movies but we just broke up so I plan on coming from now on.”

I was trying to be casual, but failed. “Oh, well that’s cool… not that you guys broke up! I just meant that you’d be able to come more often.”

She laughed again.

I tried to recover, “So are you coming the week after next? They’re supposed to show Day of the Dead. It’s really cool.”

“Yeah, I’ll be here.”

She smiled, and I was about to suggest that maybe we could sit together when she quickly closed the space between us and hugged me.

“It was really good to see you,” she said with her arms around me.

I was trying to think of what to say when I realized the biggest problem was that I had forgotten how to talk. Luckily Ryan, who I could hear approaching from the hallway, came in and spoke for me.

“Dude. You know the movie’s over right? Let’s get the fuck outtu— OHHH YEAAHHH.”

Veronica let go and said that she’d see me next time. She was played out of the room by the porn music Ryan was making with his mouth. I was furious, but it dissipated as soon as I heard Veronica laughing in the lobby.

Day of the Dead couldn’t come soon enough. Ryan’s family was going out of town so he wouldn’t be able to drive us, and the other friends I was with that night didn’t have cars. A couple of days before the movie I asked my mom if she could take me. She responded almost immediately by denying my request, but I persisted and she picked up on the desperation in my voice. She asked why I wanted to go so badly since I had seen the movie before and I hesitated before saying that I was hoping to see a girl there. She smiled and asked playfully if she knew the girl and I reluctantly told her it was Veronica. The smile disappeared from her face and she coldly said “No.”

I decided that I would call Veronica to see if she could pick me up. I had no idea if she still lived at home, but it was worth a try. But then I realized that Josh might answer. I hadn’t talked to him in almost three years, and if he answered I obviously couldn’t ask to talk to his sister. I felt guilty for calling to speak with Veronica and not Josh, but I dismissed that feeling quickly; Josh hadn’t called me in years either. I picked up the phone and dialed the number that was still embedded in my muscle memory from having dialed it so often all those years ago.

It rang several times before someone picked up. It wasn’t Josh. I felt a mixture of both relief and disappointment — I realized in that second that I really missed Josh. I would call after this weekend and talk to him, but this was my only chance to see if Veronica could or would take me so I asked for her.

The person told me I had dialed the wrong number.

I repeated the number back to her, and she confirmed. She said they must have changed their number and I agreed. I apologized for the disturbance and hung up. I was suddenly intensely sad because now I couldn’t contact Josh even if I wanted to; I felt terrible for having been afraid that he might answer the phone. He had been my very best friend. I realized that the only way I could be put back in touch with him would be through Veronica, so now, not that I needed one, I had another reason to see her.

I told my mom the day before the movie that I was no longer concerned with going, but was hoping she could drop me off at my friend Chris’ house. She relented and dropped me off that Saturday a couple of hours before the movie. My plan was to walk from his house to the theatre since he only lived about a half-mile away. They went to church early on Sundays so his parents would go to sleep early Saturday night, and Chris was fine with not coming with me since he had planned on chatting with this girl he met online. He said that the walk back to his house would be even lonelier after she laughed in my face when I tried to kiss her, and I told him not to electrocute himself when he tried to have sex with his computer.

I left his house at 11:15.

I tried to pace myself so I’d get there just a little before the movie. I was going by myself and so I didn’t want to just hang around there waiting. On the way to the theatre I figured that if Veronica showed up at all it would be too lucky for us to arrive at the same time, so I debated whether I should wait outside or just go in. Both had their pros and cons. As I was grappling with these concerns I noticed that the steady stream of streaking car lights that had been overtaking me had been replaced by a single, constant spotlight that refused to pass. The road wasn’t illuminated by streetlights, so I was walking in the grass with the road about two feet to my left; I stepped a little more to my right and craned my neck over my left shoulder to see what was behind me.

A car had stopped about ten feet behind me.

All I could see were the violently bright headlights that were cutting through the otherwise stygian surroundings. I thought that it might be one of Chris’ parents; maybe they had come to check in on us and seen that I was gone. It wouldn’t have taken much pressing for Chris to confess. I took one step toward the car, and it broke its pause and started driving toward me at a slow pace. It passed me and I saw that it wasn’t Chris’ parents’ car, or any car that I recognized for that matter. I tried to see the driver, but it was too dark, and my pupils had shrunk when faced with the blinding lights from the car just moments before. They adjusted enough so that I could see a tremendous crack in the back window of the car as it drove away.

I didn’t think much of the whole affair; some people find it fun to scare other people — I’d often hide around corners and jump out at my mom, after all.

I timed it right and got there about ten minutes before the movie. I had decided to wait outside until around 11:57, since that would give me time to find her inside if she was already seated. As I was considering the possibility that she might not show, I saw her.

She was alone, and she was beautiful.

I waved to her and walked to close the distance. She smiled and asked if my friends were already inside. I said that they weren’t and realized that this must seem like I was trying to make this a date. She didn’t seem bothered by that, nor was she bothered when I handed her the ticket I had already bought. She looked at me quizzically, and I said, “Don’t worry, I’m rich.” She laughed and we went inside.

I bought us one popcorn and two drinks and spent most of the movie debating whether or not I should time reaching my hand into the popcorn bag when she reached in so they would touch. She seemed to enjoy the movie and before I knew it, it was over. We didn’t linger in the theatre, and because this was a midnight show we couldn’t loiter in the lobby, so we walked outside.

The parking lot of the theatre was big because it connected with a mall that had gone out of business. Not wanting the night to be over just yet, I continued the conversation while casually walking toward the old mall. As we were about to round the corner and leave the theatre out of sight, I looked back and saw that her car wasn’t the only one left in the parking lot.

The other one had a large crack in the back window.

My immediate uneasiness turned to understanding.

That makes a lot of sense. The driver of that car works here and must have figured I was on my way to the movie.

Injecting real horror into the life of a horror fan seemed like an obvious move.

We walked around the mall and talked about the movie. I told her that I thought Day of the Dead was better thanDawn of the Dead, but she refused to agree. I told her of when I called her old number and about my dilemma about who would answer the phone. She didn’t find it as funny as I now did, but she took my phone and put her number in it. She commented that it might be the worst cell phone she’d ever seen. Her evaluation wasn’t rescinded when I told her I couldn’t even receive pictures on it. I called her so she’d have my number and she programmed it in.

She told me that she was graduating, but she hadn’t done well in school so far that year so she wasn’t sure if she’d even get into college. I told her to attach a picture of herself to the application and they’d pay her to go there just so they could look at her. She didn’t laugh at that one and I thought she might be offended — she might have thought I was implying that she couldn’t get in based on her intelligence. I nervously glanced at her and she was just smiling and even in this poor light I could see that she was blushing. I wanted to hold her hand but I didn’t.

As we walked down the final side of the mall back toward the theatre, I asked her about Josh. She told me she didn’t want to talk about it. I asked her if he was at least doing alright and she just said “I don’t know.” I figured Josh must have taken a wrong turn somewhere and started getting into trouble. I felt bad. I felt guilty.

As we approached the parking lot I noticed that the car with the cracked back window was gone and that her car was now the only one in the parking lot. She asked me if I needed a ride, and even though I really didn’t, I said that I’d appreciate it. I had drunk my whole soda during the movie and all the walking was putting pressure on my bladder. I knew that I could wait until I was back at Chris’, but I had decided that I was going to try to kiss her when she dropped me off, and I didn’t want this biological nagging to rush me out of the car. This would be my first kiss.

I could think of no ruse to conceal what I needed to do. The theatre had long closed so I only had one option. I told her that I was going to go behind the theatre to piss but that I’d be back in “two shakes”. It was obvious that I thought it was hilarious and she seemed to laugh more at how funny I found it than at how funny it clearly was.

On the way toward the theatre I stopped and turned toward her. I asked her if Josh had ever told her that kid named Alex had done something nice for me. She paused to think for a moment and said that he had; she enquired as to why I had asked, but I said it was nothing. Josh really was a good friend.

When I went to go behind the theatre I realized that there was a chain-link fence extending off and running parallel to the walls of the building. Where I stood she could still see me, and the fence seemed to stretch on endlessly, so I thought I’d just hop it, duck out of sight, and return as quickly as I could. It may have been too much of an effort, but I thought it polite. I climbed the fence and walked just a little ways until I was out of sight and urinated.

For a moment the only sounds were the crickets in the grass behind me and the collision of liquid and cement. These sounds were overpowered by a noise that I can still hear when it is quiet and there are no other noises to distract my ears.

In the distance I heard a faint screeching which quickly subsided only to be replaced with a cascade of thundering vibrations. I realized quickly enough what it was.

It was a car.

The growling of the engine got louder. And then I thought.

No. Not louder. Closer.

As soon as I realized this I started back toward the fence, but before I could get very far at all I hear a brief, truncated scream, and the roar of the engine terminated in a deafening thud. I started running, but after only two or three steps I was tripped by a loose piece of stone and fell hard and fast onto the concrete — my head striking the corner of a chair as I fell. I was dazed for maybe thirty seconds, but the renewed rumbling of the engine drew my senses back and my equilibrium was restored by adrenaline. I redoubled my efforts. I was worried that whoever had crashed the car might harass Veronica. As I was climbing over the fence I saw that there was still only one car in the parking lot. I didn’t see any evidence of a crash. I thought that I might have misjudged its direction or proximity. As I ran toward Veronica’s car and as my orientation changed, I saw what the car had hit. My legs stopped working almost completely.

It was Veronica.

Her car was sitting between us and as I closed the distance and walked around it she came fully into view.

Her body was twisted and crumpled like a discarded figure meant to represent a catalog of things the human body cannot do. I could see the bone of her right shin cutting through her jeans, and her left arm was wrapped so hard around the back of her neck that her hand fell on her right breast. Her head was craned back and her mouth hung widely open toward the sky. There was so much blood. As I looked at her I actually found it hard to discern whether she was laying on her back or her stomach, and this optical illusion made me feel sick. When you are confronted with something in the world that simply doesn’t belong, your mind tries to convince itself that it is dreaming, and to that end it provides you with that distinct sense of all things moving slowly as if through sap. In that moment I honestly felt that I would wake up any minute.

But I didn’t wake up.

I fumbled with my phone to call for help but I had no signal. I could see Veronica’s phone sticking out of what I thought was her front right pocket. I had no choice. Trembling, I reached for her phone and as I slid it out she moved and gasped for air so violently that it seemed as if she were trying to breathe in the whole world.

This startled me so much that I staggered back and fell onto the asphalt with her phone my hand. She was trying to adjust her body to get it into its natural position, but with every spasm and jerk I could hear the cracking and grinding of her bones. Without thinking, I scrambled over to her and put my face over hers and just said,

“Veronica, don’t move. Don’t move, OK? Just stay still. Don’t move. Veronica, please just don’t move.”

I kept saying it but the words started to fall apart as tears came streaming down my face. I opened her phone. It still worked. It was still on the screen where she had saved my number and when I saw that, I felt my heart break a little. I called 911 and waited with her, telling her that she would be ok, and feeling guilty for lying to her every time I said it.

When the sound of sirens tore through the air she seemed to become more alert. She had remained conscious since I found her, but now more of the light was coming back into her eyes. Her brain was still protecting her from pain, though it looked as if it was finally allowing her to become aware that something was terribly wrong with her. Her eyes rolled over to mine and her lips moved. She was struggling, but I heard her.

“Hhh…he…P…pi…picture. M…my picture…he took it.”

I didn’t understand what she meant, so I said the only thing I could. “I’m so sorry, Veronica.”

I rode with her in the ambulance where she finally lost consciousness. I waited in the room that they had reserved for her. I still had her phone so I put it with her purse and I called my mom from the hospital phone. It was about 4am. I told her that I was fine, but that Veronica was not. She cursed at me and said she’d be right there, but I told her I wasn’t leaving until Veronica was out of surgery. She said she’d come anyway.

My mom and I didn’t speak that much. I told her I was sorry for lying, and she said that we’d talk about that later. I think that had we talked more in that room—if I had just told her about Boxes or the night with the raft; if she had just told me more of what she knew—I think that things would have changed. But we sat there in silence. She told me that she loved me and that I could call her whenever I wanted her to come get me.

As my mom was leaving Veronica’s parents rushed in. Her dad and my mom exchanged a few words that appeared to be quite serious while Veronica’s mother talked to the person at the desk. Her mother was a nurse, but didn’t work at this hospital. I’m sure that she had tried to get Veronica transferred, but her condition was prohibitive. While we waited the police came in and talked to each of us — I told them what happened, they made some notes, and then they left. She came out of surgery and ninety percent of her body was covered in a thick, white cast. Her right arm was free, but the rest of her was bound like a cocoon. She was still under, but I remembered how I felt when I had my cast before Kindergarten. I asked a nurse for a marker, but I couldn’t think of anything to write. I slept in a chair in the corner, and went home the next day.

I came back every afternoon for several days. At some point they had moved another patient into her room and set up a screen around Veronica’s bed to act as a partition. She didn’t seem to be feeling better, but she made more moments of lucidity. But even during these periods we wouldn’t really talk. Her jaw had been broken by the car, so the doctors had wired it shut. I sat with her for a while, but there was nothing much I could say. I got up and walked over to her. I kissed her on the forehead and she whispered through her clenched teeth,

“Josh…”

This surprised me a little, but I looked at her and said, “Has he not come to see you?”

“No…”

I found myself really irritated. “Even if Josh had been getting into trouble, he should still come see his sister,” I thought.

I was about to express this when she said, “No… Josh… he ran away… I should’ve told you.”

I felt my blood turn to ice.

“When? When did this happen?”

“When he was thirteen.”

“Did… did he leave a note or something?”

“On his pillow…”

She started crying and I followed her, but I think now we were crying for different reasons even if I didn’t realize it. At this point there were a lot of things I still didn’t remember about my childhood, and there were a lot of connections I hadn’t yet made. I told her I had to go but that she could text me any time.

I got a text from her the next day telling me not to come back. I asked why and she said she didn’t want me to see her like that again. I agreed begrudgingly. We texted each other every day, though I kept this from my mom because I knew that she didn’t like me talking to Veronica. Usually her texts were fairly short, and mostly only in response to more lengthy texts that I would send her. I tried calling her only once, I was sure she was screening her calls, but hoped I could hear her voice; she picked up but didn’t say anything — I could hear how labored her breathing was. About a week after she told me not to come see her anymore she sent me a text that simply read,

“I love you.”

I was filled with so many different emotions, but I responded by expressing the most prevalent one. I replied,

“I love you, too.”

She said that she wanted to be with me, and that she couldn’t wait until she could see me again. She told me that she had been released and was convalescing at her house. These exchanges carried on for several weeks, but every time I asked to come see her, she would say “soon”. I kept insisting and the following week she said that she thought she might be able to make it to the next midnight movie. I couldn’t believe it, but she insisted that she would try. I got a text from her the afternoon of the movie saying,

“See you tonight.”

I got Ryan to drive me since Chris’ parents had found out what had happened and said I wasn’t welcome at their house anymore. I explained to Ryan that she might be in bad shape, but that I really cared about her so to give us some space. He accepted that and we headed down there.

Veronica didn’t show.

I had saved a seat for her right next to me near the exit so she could get in and out easily, but ten minutes into the movie a man slid into the chair. I whispered, “Excuse me, this seat is taken,” but he didn’t respond at all; he just stared ahead at the screen. I remember wanting to move because there was something wrong with the way he was breathing. I forfeited because I realized that she wasn’t coming.

I texted her the next day asking if she was alright and I enquired as to why she didn’t show the previous night. She responded with what would turn out to be the last message I’d receive from her. She simply said,

“See you again. Soon.”

She was delirious, and I was worried about her. I sent her several replies reminding her about the movie and saying it was no big deal but she just stopped replying. I grew increasingly upset over the next several days. I couldn’t reach her at her home because I didn’t know that number, and I wasn’t even sure where they lived. My mood became increasingly depressed, and my mother, who had been really nice as of late, asked me if I was OK. I told her that I hadn’t heard from Veronica in days, and I felt all the warmth leave her disposition.

“What do you mean?”

“She was supposed to meet me at the movies yesterday. I know it’s only been like three weeks since she got hit, but she said she would try to come, and after that she just stopped talking to me altogether. She must hate me.”

She looked confused, and I could read on her face that she was trying to tell if my mind had simply broken. When she saw that it hadn’t, her eyes began to water and she pulled me toward her, embracing me. She was beginning to sob, but it seemed too intense a reaction to my problem, and I had no reason to think that she particularly cared for Veronica. She drew in a shuttering breath and then said something that still makes nauseous, even now. She said,

“Veronica’s dead, sweetheart. Oh God, I thought you knew. She died on the last day you visited her. Oh baby, she died weeks ago.”

She had completely broken down, but I knew it wasn’t because of Veronica. I broke the embrace and staggered backwards. My mind was swimming. This wasn’t possible. I had just exchanged messages with her yesterday. I could only think to ask one question, and it was probably the most trivial I could ask.

“Then why was her phone still on?”

She continued sobbing. She didn’t answer.

I exploded, “WHY DID IT TAKE THEM SO LONG TO SHUT OFF HER GODDAMNED PHONE?!”

Her crying broke enough to mutter, “The pictures…”

I would come to find out that her parents thought that her phone had been lost in the accident, despite the fact that I had put it in her purse the night she was brought to the hospital. When they retrieved her belongings the phone was not among them. They intended to contact the phone company at the end of the billing cycle to deactivate the line, but they received a call informing them of a massive impending charge for hundreds of pictures that had been sent from her phone. Pictures. Pictures that were all sent to my phone. Pictures that I never got because my phone couldn’t receive them. They learned that they were all sent after the night she died. They deactivated the phone immediately.

I tried not to think about the contents of those pictures. But I remember wondering for some reason whether I would have been in any of them.

My mouth went dry and I felt the painful sting of despair as I thought of the last message I received from her phone…

See you again. Soon.

Chapter Six: Friends

On the first day of Kindergarten my mother had elected to drive me to school; we were both nervous and she wanted to be there with me all the way up to the moment I walked into class. It took me a bit longer to get ready in the morning due to my still-mending arm. The cast came up a couple inches past my elbow which meant that I had to cover the entire arm with a specially-designed latex bag when I showered. The bag was built to pull tight around the opening in order to seal out any water that might otherwise destroy the cast. I had gotten really adept at cinching the bag myself; that morning, however, perhaps due to my excitement or nervousness, I hadn’t pulled the strap tight enough and halfway through the shower I could feel water pooling inside the bag around my fingers. I jumped out and tore the latex shield away, but could feel that the previously rigid plaster had become soft after absorbing the water.

Because there is no way to effectively clean the area between your body and a cast, the dead skin that would normally have fallen away merely sits there. When stirred by moisture like sweat it emits an odor, and apparently this odor is proportionate to the amount of moisture introduced, because soon after I began attempting to dry it I was struck by the powerful stench of rot. As I continued to frantically rub it with the towel it began to disintegrate. I was growing increasingly distressed — I had put as much effort as a child could into his very first day of school. I had sat with my mom picking out my clothes the night before; I had spent a great deal of time picking out my backpack; and I had become exceedingly excited to show everyone my lunchbox that had the Ninja Turtles on it. I had fallen into my mom’s habit of calling these children I hadn’t yet met my “friends” already, but as the condition of my cast worsened, I became deeply upset at the thought that surely I wouldn’t be able to apply that label to anyone by the time this day was over.

Defeated, I showed my mom.

It took thirty minutes to get most of the moisture out while working to preserve the rest of the cast. To address the problem of the smell my mom cut slivers off a bar of soap and slid them down into the cast, and then rubbed the remainder of the soap on the outside in an attempt to cocoon the rancid smell inside of a more pleasant one. By the time we arrived at the school my classmates were already engaged in their second activity and I was shoehorned into one of the groups. I wasn’t made very clear on what the guidelines of the activity were and within about five minutes, I had violated the rules so badly that each member of the group complained to the teacher and asked why I had to be in their group. I had brought a marker to school in hopes that I could collect some signatures or drawings on my cast next to my mother’s, and I suddenly felt very foolish for having even put the marker in my pocket that morning.

Kindergarteners had the lunchroom to themselves at my elementary school, but some of the tables were off limits, so I didn’t have to sit alone. I was self-consciously picking at the fraying ends of my cast when a kid sat across from me.

“I like your lunchbox,” he said.

I could tell he was making fun of me, and I grew really angry; in my mind that lunchbox was the last good thing about my day. I didn’t look up from my arm, and I felt a burning in my eyes from the tears that I was holding back. I looked up to tell the kid to leave me alone, but before I could get the words out I saw something that made me pause.

He had the exact same lunchbox.

I laughed. “I like your lunchbox too!”

“I think Michelangelo’s the coolest,” he said while miming Nunchuck moves.

I was in the middle of rebutting by saying that Raphael was my favorite when he knocked his open carton of milk off the table and onto his lap.

I tried very hard to stifle my laughter since I didn’t know him at all, but the struggling look on my face must have struck him as funny because he started laughing first. Suddenly, I didn’t feel so bad about my cast, and thought that this person would hardly notice now anyway. Just then, I thought to try my luck.

“Hey! Do you wanna sign my cast?”

As I pulled out the marker he asked me how I broke it. I told him that I fell out of the tallest tree in my neighborhood; he seemed impressed. I watched him laboriously draw his name, and when he was done I asked him what it said.

He told me it said “Josh”.

Josh and I had lunch together every day, and whenever we could we partnered up for projects. I helped him with his handwriting, and he took the blame when I wrote “Fart!” on the wall in permanent marker. I would come to know other kids, but I think I knew even then that Josh was my only real friend.

Moving a friendship outside of school when you are five years old is actually more difficult than most remember. The day we launched our balloons we had such a good time that I asked Josh if he wanted to come to my house the next day to play. He said he did and that he’d bring some of his toys; I said that we could also go exploring and maybe swim in the lake. When I got home, I asked my mom and she said it would be fine. My enthusiasm was boundless until I realized that I had no way of contacting Josh to tell him. I spent the whole weekend worrying that our friendship would be dissolved by Monday.

When I saw him after the weekend I was relieved to find that he had run into the same obstacle and thought it was funny. Later that week we both remembered to write down our phone numbers at home and then exchange them at school. My mom spoke with Josh’s dad, and it was decided that my mom would pick up Josh and myself from school that Friday. We alternated this basic structure nearly every weekend; the fact that we lived so close made things much easier on our parents, who seemed to work constantly.

When my mom and I moved across the city at the end of first grade, I was sure that our friendship had seen its last day; as we drove away from the house I had lived in my whole life I felt a sadness that I knew wasn’t just about a house — I was saying goodbye to my friend forever. But, Josh and I—to my surprise and delight—stayed close.

Despite the fact that we spent the majority of our time apart and only saw one another on weekends, we remained remarkably similar as we grew. Our personalities coalesced, our senses of humor complimented each other’s, and we would often find that we had started liking new things independently. We even sounded enough alike that when I stayed with Josh he would sometimes call my mom pretending to be me; his success rate was impressive. My mom would sometimes joke that the only way she could tell us apart sometimes was by our hair — he had straight, dirty-blonde hair like his sister, while I had curly, dark brown hair like my mother.

One would think that the thing most likely to drive two young friends apart would be what’s out of their control; however, I think the catalyst of our gradual disengagement was my insistence that we sneak out to my old house to look for Boxes. The next weekend I invited Josh over to my house, in keeping with our tradition of alternating houses, but he said that he wasn’t really feeling up to it. We started seeing progressively less of one another over the next year or so; it had gone from once a week, to once a month, to once every couple months.

For my twelfth birthday, my mom threw a party for me. I hadn’t made that many friends since we’d moved, so it wasn’t a surprise party since my mom had no idea who to invite. I told the handful of kids I’d become acquainted with and called Josh to see if he wanted to come. Originally, he said that he didn’t think he could make it, but the day before the party he called me to say that he’d be there. I was really excited because I hadn’t seen him in several months.

The party went pretty well. My biggest concern was that Josh and the other kids wouldn’t get along, but they seemed to like each other well enough. Josh was surprisingly quiet. He hadn’t brought me a gift and apologized for that, but I told him it wasn’t a big deal — I was just glad that he was able to make it. I tried to start several conversations with him, but they seemed to keep reaching dead ends. I asked him what was wrong; I told him that I didn’t get why things had become so awkward between us — they were never like that before. We used to hang out almost every weekend and talk on the phone every couple days. I asked him what happened to us. He looked up from staring at his shoes and just said,

“You left.”

Just after he said that my mom yelled in from the other room that it was time to open presents. I forced a smile and walked into the dining room as they sang “Happy Birthday”. There were a couple of wrapped boxes and a lot of cards since most of my extended family lived out of state. Most of the gifts were silly and forgettable, but I remember that Brian gave me a Mighty Max toy shaped like a snake that I kept for years afterwards. My mom was insistent that I open all the cards that had been brought and thank each person who had given one, because several years before on Christmas, I had torn through the wrapping paper and envelopes with such fervor that I had destroyed any possibility of discerning who had sent which gift or what amount of money. We separated the ones that had been sent by mail and the ones that had been brought that day so my friends wouldn’t have to sit through me opening cards from people they had never met. Most of the cards from my friends had a couple dollars in them, and the ones from my family members contained larger bills.

One envelope didn’t have my name written on it, but it was in the pile so I opened it. The card had a generic floral pattern on its face and seemed to be a card that had been received by someone else who was now recycling it for my birthday because it was actually a little dingy. I actually appreciated the idea that it was a reused card since I’d always thought that cards were silly. I angled it so that the money wouldn’t fall to the floor when I opened it, but the only thing inside was the message that had come printed in the card.

“I Love You.”

Whoever had given me this card hadn’t written anything in it, but they had circled the message in pencil a couple times.

I chuckled a little and said, “Gee, thanks for the awesome card, mom.”

She looked at me quizzically and then turned her attention to the card. She told me it wasn’t from her and seemed amused as she showed my friends, looking at their faces trying to discern who had played the joke. None of the kids stepped forward, so my mom said,

“Don’t worry sweetheart, at least you know now that two people love you.”

She followed that with an extremely prolonged and excruciating kiss on my forehead that transformed the group’s bewilderment into hysteria. They were all laughing so it could have been any of them, but Mike seemed to be laughing the hardest. To become a participant rather than the subject of the gag, I said to him that just because he had given me that card he shouldn’t think that I’d kiss him later. We all laughed, and as I looked at Josh I saw he was finally smiling.

“Well, I think that gift might be the winner, but you have a couple more to open.”

My mom slid another present in front of me. I was still feeling the tremors of suppressed chuckles in my abdomen as I tore the colorful paper away. When I saw the gift I had no need to suppress the laughter anymore. My smile dropped as I looked at what I’d been given.

It was a pair of walkie-talkies.

“Well go on! Show everyone!”

I held them up, and everyone seemed to approve, but as I drew my attention to Josh I could see that he had turned a sickly shade of white. We locked eyes for a moment and then he turned and walked into the kitchen. As I watched him dial a number on the corded phone attached to the wall my mom whispered in my ear that she knew that Josh and I didn’t talk as much since one of the walkie-talkies had broken, so she thought I’d like it. I was filled with an intense appreciation for my mom’s thoughtfulness, but this feeling was easily overpowered by the emotions resurrected by the returning memories I’d tried so hard to bury.

When everyone was eating cake, I asked Josh who he had called. He told me he wasn’t feeling well so he called his dad to come get him. I understood that he wanted to leave, but I told him that I wished we could hang out more. I extended one of the walkie-talkies to him, but he put his hand up in refusal.

Dejected, I said, “Well, thanks for coming, I guess. I hope I’ll see you before my next birthday.”

“I’m sorry … I’ll try to call you back more often. I really will,” he said.

The conversation stagnated as we waited by my door for his dad. I looked at his face. Josh seemed genuinely remorseful that he hadn’t made more of an effort. His mood seemed suddenly bolstered by an idea that had struck him. He told me that he knew what he’d get me for my birthday — it would take a while, but he thought that I would really like it. I told him it wasn’t a big deal, but he insisted. He seemed in better spirits and apologized for being such a drag at my party. He said that he was tired — that he hadn’t been sleeping well. I asked him why that was as he opened the door in response to his dad’s honking in the driveway. He turned back toward me and waved goodbye as he answered my question,

“I think I’ve been sleepwalking.”

That was the last time I saw my friend, and a couple months later he was gone.

Over the past several weeks the relationship between my mother and I has grown increasing strained due to my attempts to learn the details of my childhood. It’s often the case that one cannot know the breaking point of a thing until that thing fractures, and after the last conversation with my mother I imagine that we will spend the rest of our lives attempting to repair what had taken a lifetime to build. She had put so much energy into keeping me safe, both physically and psychologically, but I think that the walls meant to insulate me from harm were also protecting her emotional stability. As the truth came pouring out the last time we spoke, I could hear a trembling in her voice that I think was a reverberation of the collapse of her world. I don’t imagine my mother and I will talk very much anymore, and while there are still some things I don’t understand, I think I know enough.

After Josh disappeared, his parents had done all that they could to find him. From the very first day, the police had suggested that they contact all of Josh’s friends’ parents to see if he was with them. They did this, of course, but no one had seen him or had any idea of where he might be. The police had been unable to turn over any new information about Josh’s whereabouts, despite the fact that they had received several anonymous phone calls from a woman urging them to compare this case with the stalking case that had been opened about six years before.

If Josh’s mother’s grip on the world loosened when her son vanished, it broke when Veronica died. She had seen many people die at the hospital, but there is no amount of desensitization that can fortify a person against the death of her own child. She would visit Veronica twice a day since she was recuperating at a different hospital; once before her shift, and once afterward. On the day Veronica died, her mother was late leaving work, and by the time she arrived at her daughter’s hospital Veronica had already passed. This was too much for her and over the next couple weeks she became increasingly more unstable; she would often wander outside yelling for both Josh and Veronica to come home, and there were several times her husband found her wandering around my old neighborhood in the middle of the night – half-clothed and frantically searching for her son and daughter.

Due to his wife’s mental deterioration, Josh’s dad could no longer travel for work and began taking construction jobs that were less well-paying, so he could be closer to home. When they began expanding my old neighborhood more, about three months after Veronica died, Josh’s dad applied for every position and was hired. He was qualified to lead the build sites, but he took a job as a laborer helping to build frames and clean up the sites and whatever else was needed. He even took odd jobs that would occasionally come up; mowing lawns, repairing fences — anything that to keep from traveling. They began clearing the woods in the area next to the tributary to transform the land into inhabitable property. Josh’s dad was tasked with the responsibility of leveling the recently deforested lot, and this job guaranteed him at least several weeks of work.

On the third day, he arrived at a spot that he could not level. Each time he’d drive over it, it would remain lower than all the surrounding land. Frustrated, he got off the machine to survey the area. He was tempted to simply pack more dirt into the depression, but he knew that would only be an aesthetic and temporary solution. He had worked construction for years and knew that root systems from large trees that had been recently cut down would often decompose, leaving weaknesses in the soil that would manifest as weaknesses in the foundations above. He weighed his options and elected to dig a little with a shovel in case the problem was shallow enough to fix without needing a machine that would have to be brought over from another site. And as my mother described where this was, I knew I had been at that spot both before the soil was broken and before it had been filled in.

I felt a tightening in my chest.

He dug a small hole about three feet down until his shovel collided with something hard. He smashed his shovel against it repeatedly in an attempt to gauge the thickness of the root and the density of the network when suddenly his shovel plunged through the resistance.

Confused, he dug the hole wider. After about a half-hour of excavating, he found himself standing on a brown blanket-covered box about seven feet long and four feet wide. Our minds work to avoid dissonance — if we hold a belief strongly enough, our minds will forcefully reject conflicting evidence so that we can maintain the integrity of our understanding of the world.

Up until the very next moment, despite what all sense would have indicated—despite the fact that some small but suffocated part of him understood what was supporting his weight—this man believed, he knew, his son was still alive.

My mom received a call at 6pm. She knew who it was, but she couldn’t understand what he was saying. But what she did comprehend made her leave immediately.

“DOWN HERE … NOW … SON … PLEASE GOD.”

When she arrived she found Josh’s dad sitting perfectly still with his back to the hole. He was holding the shovel so tightly it seemed that it might snap, and he was staring straight ahead with eyes that looked as lifeless as a shark’s. He wouldn’t respond to any of her words, and only reacted when she tried to gently take the shovel from him.

He dragged his eyes slowly to hers and just said, “I don’t understand.” He repeated this as if he had forgotten all other words, and my mother could hear him still muttering it as she walked past him to look in the hole.

She told me she wished she had gouged her eyes out before she faced downward into that crater, and I told her that I knew what she was about to say and that she need not continue. I looked at her face and it was expressing a look of such intense despair that it caused my stomach to turn. I realized that she had known of this for almost ten years and was hoping that she’d never have to tell me. As a result, she never came up with the proper arrangement of words to describe what she saw, and as I sit here I’m met with the same difficulty of articulation.

Josh was dead. His face was sunken in and contorted in such a way that it was as if the misery and hopelessness of all the world had been transferred to it. The assaulting smell of decay rose from the crypt, and my mother had to cover her nose and mouth to keep from vomiting. His skin was cracked, almost crocodilian, and a stream of blood that had followed these lines had dried on his face after pooling and staining the wood around his head. His eyes lay half-lidded facing straight up. She said by the look of him, he had not been long-dead, and thus time had not brought the mercy of degradation to erase the pain and terror that was now etched into his face. She said it was as if he had fixed his gaze right on her, his open mouth offering an all-too-late plea for help. The rest of his body, however, wasn’t visible.

Someone else was covering it.

He was large and lay face-down on top of Josh, and as my mother’s mind stretched itself to take in what her eyes were attempting to tell her, she became aware of the significance of the way in which he laid.

He was holding Josh.

Their legs lay frozen by death, but entangled like vines in some lush, tropical forest. One arm rested under Josh’s neck only to wrap around his body so that they might lay closer still.

As the sun passed through the trees, its light became reflected by something pinned to Josh’s shirt. My mother stooped to one knee and raised the collar of her shirt over her nose so that she might block out the smell. When she saw what had caught the sun her legs abandoned her and she nearly fell into the tomb.

It was a picture…

It was a picture of me as a child.

She staggered backwards gasping and trembling and collided with Josh’s father who still sat facing away from the hole. She understood why he had called her, but she could not bring herself to tell him what she had kept from everyone for all these years. Josh’s family never knew about the night I had woken up in the woods. She knew now that she should have told them, but to tell him now would help nothing. As she sat there resting her back against Josh’s dad’s. He spoke.

“I can’t tell my wife. I can’t tell her that our little boy—” His speech staggered in fits as he pressed his wet face into his dirt-caked hands. “She couldn’t bear it…”

After a moment, he stood up still shuttering and lumbered toward the grave. With a final sob, he stepped down into the coffin. Josh’s dad was a big man, but not as big as the man in the box. He grabbed the back of the man’s collar and pulled hard — it was as if he intended to throw the man out of the grave in a singular motion. But the collar ripped and the body fell back down on top of his son.

“YOU MOTHER FUCKER!”

He grabbed the man by the shoulders and heaved him back until he was off of Josh and sat awkwardly but upright against the wall of the grave. He looked at the man and staggered back a step.

“Oh God … Oh God, no. No, no, no please God, PLEASE GOD NO.”

In a struggling but powerful movement, he lifted and pushed the corpse completely out of the ground and they both heard the sound of glass rolling against wood. It was a bottle. He handed it to my mother.

It was ether.

“Oh Josh,” he sobbed. “My boy … my baby boy. Why is there so much blood?! WHAT DID HE DO TO YOU?!”

As my mother looked at the man who now lay facing upwards, she realized she was facing the person who had haunted our lives for over a decade. She had imagined him so many times, always evil and always terrifying, and the cries of Josh’s father seemed to confirm her worst fears. But as she stared at his face, she thought that this didn’t look like who she imagined — this was just a man.

As she looked at his frozen expression, it actually looked serene. The corners of his lips were turned up only slightly; she saw that he was smiling. Not the expected smile of a maniac from a film or horror story; not the smile of a demon, or the smile of a fiend. This was the smile of contentment or satisfaction. It was a smile of bliss.

It was a smile of love.

As she looked down from his face she saw a tremendous wound on his neck from where the skin had been ripped out. She was at first relieved when she realized that the blood had not been Josh’s. Perhaps he had suffered less. But this comfort was short-lived as she realized just how wrong she was. She brought a hand up to her mouth and whispered, almost as if she was afraid to remind the world what had happened,

“They were alive.”

Josh must have bitten the man’s neck in an attempt to get free, and although the man had died, Josh couldn’t move him. I began crying when I thought of how long he might have laid there.

She looked through the man’s pockets for some kind of identification, but she only found a piece of paper. On it was a drawing of a man holding hands with a small boy and next to the boy were initials.

My initials.

I’d like to think that she was remembering that part of the story inaccurately, but I’ll never know for sure.

As Josh’s father carried his son out of the grave, my mom slid the piece of paper into her pocket. He kept muttering that his son’s hair had been dyed. She saw that it had — it was now dark brown, and she noticed that he was dressed oddly; his clothes were all far too small. After Josh’s dad delicately laid his boy on the soft dirt, he began gently pressing his hands against his son’s pants to feel his pockets; he heard a crinkle. Carefully, he retrieved a folded piece of paper from Josh’s pocket. He looked at it but was vexed. Absently, he handed it to my mother, but she didn’t recognize it either. I asked her what it was.

She told me it was a map, and I felt my heart shatter. He was finishing the map — that must have been his idea for my birthday present. I found myself strangely hoping that he hadn’t been taken while expanding it – as if that would somehow matter now.

She heard Josh’s father grunt and looked to see him pushing the man’s body back into the ground. As he walked back toward the machine that had found this spot for him, he put his hand on a canister of gasoline and paused with his back toward my mother.

“You should go.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“It’s not your fault. I did this.”

“You can’t think like that. There was nothi—”

He interjected flatly, almost with no emotion at all. “About a month ago. a guy approached me as I was cleaning up the site on the new development a block over. He asked me if I wanted to make some extra money, and because my wife’s not working right now, I accepted. He told me that some kids had dug a bunch of holes on his property and he offered me a hundred dollars to fill them in. He said that he wanted to take some pictures for the insurance company first, but if I came back after 5:00pm the next day, that would be fine. I thought this guy was a sucker since I knew clearing that lot was coming up so someone would’ve had to do it anyway, but I needed the money so I agreed. I didn’t think he even had a hundred dollars, but he put the bill in my hand, and I did the job the next day. I’ve been so exhausted that I didn’t even think about it after it was done. I didn’t think about it until today when I pulled that same guy off of my son.”

He pointed at the grave and his emotions started to push through as he broke into a sob.

“He paid me a hundred dollars so that I would bury him with my boy…”

It was as if saying it aloud forced him to accept what had happened, and he collapsed onto the ground in tears. My mother could think of nothing to say and stood there in silence for what felt like a lifetime. She finally asked what he would do about Josh.

“His final resting place won’t be here with this monster.”

As she looked back when she reached her car, she could see black smoke billowing and diffusing against the amber sky and she hoped against all hope that Josh’s parents would be ok.

I left my mom’s house without saying much else. I told her that I loved her and that I would talk to her soon, but I don’t know what “soon” means for us. I got into my car and left.

I understood now why the events of my childhood had stopped years ago. As an adult, I now saw the connections that were lost on a child who tends to see the world in snapshots rather than a sequence. I thought about Josh. I loved him then, and I love him even still. I miss him more now that I know I’ll never see him again, and I find myself wishing that I had hugged him the last time I saw him. I thought about Josh’s parents — how much they had lost and how quickly that loss had come. They don’t know about my connection to any of this, but I could never look them in the eyes now. I thought about Veronica. I had only really come to know her later in my life, but for those brief few weeks I think I had really loved her. I thought about my mother. She had tried so hard to protect me and was stronger than I would ever be. I tried not to think about the man and what he had done with Josh for more than two years.

Mostly I just thought about Josh. Sometimes I wish that he never sat across from me that day in Kindergarten; that I’d never known what it was like to have a real friend. Sometimes I like to dream that he’s in a better place, but that’s only a dream, and I know that. The world is a cruel place made crueler still by man. There would be no justice for my friend, no final confrontation, no vengeance; it had been over for almost a decade for everyone but me now.

I miss you, Josh. I’m sorry you chose me, but I’ll always cherish my memories of you.

We were explorers.

We were adventurers.

We were friends.

Fat Camp: Complete Edition

By Chef Pippinacious

//To read the parts separately, or go to the source, click here.

I was an addict. I denied it for a long time, came up with excuses as to why what I was doing was ok, convinced myself that I wasn’t hurting anyone, so it didn’t really matter, all the typical justification that are shouted up from the depths of a downward spiral. When Mom noticed, she attributed it to Middle Child Syndrome and said it was a ploy for attention. Dad shrugged it off, figuring there were worse things. My sisters were too busy being perfect to comment.

Dad was right, in a way; it wasn’t like I was selling myself on street corners for meth or anything. There were definitely worse things than eating myself sick constantly. What had started as comfort eating to deal with a combination of poor self esteem and bullying slowly morphed into a need, a craving, an itch I couldn’t quite scratch.

I couldn’t look at food without feeling the urge to shove it in my mouth in a vain attempt to fill the emptiness that churned in my gut. And when I did give in, there was such a rush and the desire was quieted, even if only temporarily. I felt so guilty, knew I was doing wrong, and that just made me want to do it more. I was caught in a vicious circle of self-hatred perpetuated by the only thing that could make me feel any better: eating.

It got embarrassing fast. I tried to be discrete, eating normal portions in front of others, but then gorging myself behind closed doors until I felt like I would vomit. I couldn’t look in a mirror without wanting to cry. My face was becoming rounder, my clothes became harder to pull on, tighter, and my sisters started asking if I was “retaining water”. That was their idea of tact. Mom was even more blunt.

“You’re getting fat.” She said over breakfast one morning.

Kelly and Jasmine feigned interest in their cereal, but I could see their amused smirks. I swallowed back tears and shrugged. I’d never been thin, something Mom prioritized, and it was a sore point between us. It didn’t matter what she tried, what she made me do, I could just never get down to the same ideal size that she and my sisters were.

“It’s disgusting, it’s lazy, it’s sloppy! Is that what you want people thinking of you? Of your family? You’re almost seventeen for God’s sake!”

“No.” I mumbled.

“Then what are you going to do about it?”

“I’ve been trying, Mom…”

“Trying to embarrass me? Because you’ve been doing a good job of that. Cathy Mulrooney saw you at the club pool last week and do you know what she said? She said it looked like you were really enjoying taking the summer off and relaxing. She was so snide! I just wanted to crawl under a rock and die, Natalie!”

“Sorry.”

“If you’re so sorry, then put down the spoon and go for a run.”

I did run, all the way up to my room, where I locked myself in and dug out the stash of snacks I kept hidden in the back of my closet. I sat on my floor and tried to drown out Mom’s cold, angry words with the loud crunch of chips and candy, but it only made them louder. I caught sight of myself in the mirror hanging on the back of my door and I paused, my hand still in the bag of mini Snickers. Mom was right, I was a pig; gross, unlovable, ugly.

How lucky was I, then, when she told me a few days later that she had a solution?

“If you won’t fix it, I will.” She had come into my room while was I cleaning and tossed a few pamphlets on my bed.

I picked one up and skimmed the front page, “Fat camp?” I asked, a sickening feeling bubbling up in the back of my throat.

“It’s one of the top rated programs in the country for…girls like you.”

“I’ll go to the gym! I’ll work out every day!”

“Yes, you will. At fat camp.”

When I tried to recruit Dad to my side later that night, he sat me down and let me cry against his shoulder. He knew about how strained my relationship was with my mom and he sympathized, but he was a pushover. He couldn’t stand up to her any more than I could.

“Maybe it will be good for you, sweetie.” He said gently, “You’ll get out of the house, meet new people, try new activities. It could be fun.”

“She hates me.” I said flatly. I had known it for a long time, but never said it out loud before.

“No she doesn’t! Your mom loves you, that’s why she cares so much about your weight. She wants you to be healthy.”

“She wants me to be skinny.”

“Natalie…”

“I’m going to bed, Dad. Goodnight.”

The morning I left for camp, Mom let me eat whatever I wanted for breakfast. She considered it a last meal of sorts. Despite the queasy knots in my stomach, I managed to scarf down French toast, bacon, sausage, eggs, and a bowl full of strawberries. Mom forced a smile, although I could tell she was repulsed. She gave me a pat on the shoulder as I headed out to the car with Dad.

“Your sisters wanted to say bye, but they went for a jog and aren’t back yet. We’ll see you in six weeks; good luck.”

The drive upstate was long and quiet. Dad made a few attempts at conversation, but I didn’t want to talk. I just wanted to get it over with.

The camp was beautiful, I admitted grudgingly to myself as we pulled up. A lake sparkled invitingly from behind a row of log cabins, neat paths wound off into the trees, and colorful flags and banners had been erected all around, welcoming the newest campers to their home for the next month and a half. As soon as we’d parked, a bright, overly bubbly woman practically pulled me from the car into a hug.

“Hello, I’m Stacey, a counselor! What’s your name?”

“Natalie Hunter.”

She scanned her clipboard and tapped it twice enthusiastically when she found my name, “Ah! Here you are! You’re in cabin three with Ashley. If you want to grab your stuff, I’ll take you on over.”

Dad gave me a tight hug and whispered, “If it’s horrible, call me. I’ll come get you.”

“Thanks.” I said, but I knew he wouldn’t.

I was assigned a bunk and given just enough time to unpack before they ushered us into a large dining hall. I was surrounded by other girls, all of whom looked as excited as I was about being there, and I felt the familiar twinge of nerves that set in whenever I was faced with a new situation. I wanted nothing more than to go home, curl up in my favorite pajamas, and eat. My stomach rumbled in agreement.

The counselors introduced themselves and did their best to be upbeat in the face of such a reluctant crowd, which didn’t have much effect. Apparently fat camp wasn’t anyone’s idea of a fun summer get away. After an awkward skit about making new friends, they served lunch; turkey burgers on whole wheat buns, a garden salad, steamed broccoli, and a popsicle for dessert. I was still ravenous when the meal was over, but they shuffled us out to go through a series of ice breaker activities.

By the time dinner rolled around, I’d become friendly with a couple of girls from my cabin and was starting to think that, maybe, camp wouldn’t be so horrible after all. We were given a disappointingly small portion of fish and rice to eat and, halfway through, I noticed that I was unusually sleepy. It had been a long, stressful day, so I didn’t think much of it and was happy when they gave us permission to return to our cabins. The other girls seemed to be similarly warn out and, sluggishly, we all went back to our bunks and collapsed into bed. I fell asleep the moment my head hit the pillow.

Clink.

“Huh?” I pried open one eye and had to blink the room into focus.

My head felt like it had been stuffed with cotton, making it hard to piece thoughts together. My arms were stretched uncomfortably towards the headboard, but when I tried to move them, cold metal bit into my wrists.

Clink.

I shifted, craning my neck to look up, and it took a long minute of staring to figure out what exactly I was seeing. A pair of handcuffs. Someone had cuffed me to the bed. I blinked dumbly, trying to process what this could mean in a mind still muddied with sleep. Around me, I heard similarly confused murmurs and the curious tugging of handcuffs.

“What’s going on?” Gloria, I managed to remember her name from the day before, asked from the bed beside me.

The murmurs became more frantic as reality set in. All six of us were chained by our wrists to our bed, unable to move beyond a pathetic squirm. One of us started to scream and then we all were. The door to our cabin burst open and Ashley, our counselor, rushed in.

“What’s the matter?” She asked, looking between us with wide eyes.

“Help us!”

“Someone cuffed us!”

Instead of becoming more concerned at learning our plight, she relaxed, smiling.

“Oh, girls! It’s ok! No need to panic. I did that!”

There was a collective demand to know why.

“To start you on your journey to a healthier, happier you! You’ll see, girls, it’s all part of the plan!”

Somehow, that didn’t help. We shouted at her to unlock us, but she just shook her head, her hands on her hips, smiling all the while.

“Aw, listen to all of you! It’s only day one and you’re complaining already? Tsk tsk!”

It didn’t take long for my arms to ache. I tried to sit up to help take some of the pressure off of them, but no position was comfortable. I wondered if the other cabins were experiencing similar treatment. I hadn’t seen anyone walk by our window or heard any voices outside, so I assumed that was the case. Ashley walked up and down between the beds, humming, cheerful, while she watched us struggle in our restraints.

“I have to go to the bathroom.” Morgan said pleadingly.

Ashley paused beside her and crouched, “Ok, hon! Just go!”

“W-what?”

“Go!”

“Ashley, please, it’s an emergency!”

“No one’s stopping you!”

I couldn’t see Morgan from where I was, but I could hear the desperation in her voice as she begged to be released. It went on for another few minutes before she couldn’t hold it any longer. She started to cry, humiliated, and Ashley shushed her good naturedly.

“It’s ok, hon!” She said, “You shouldn’t be embarrassed! You already live such a sickening lifestyle, why is this any different?” Her tone remained friendly, even sympathetic, “Pigs live in their own filth, Miss. Morgan!”

“What’s wrong with you?” Gloria asked angrily, “You can’t talk to her like that! You can’t do this!”

Ashley approached slowly and stood between our beds, smiling down at Gloria, “Oh, hon, I know that being reminded how yucky you are is hard, but we’re in this together! Think of me as your shepherd and you, my little flock of fat piggies! I’m just doing what you’re too weak to; making sure you stop shoveling food into your mouth long enough to lose some of those rolls!”

“This is kidnapping!”

“No need to be so dramatic, Miss. Gloria, your parents signed waivers! Now, I’m going to go grab some breakfast, but I’ll be back soon! You girls have fun, ok?”

She left us in a stunned silence. Our parents had signed us up for this, knowing what it would entail? I wanted to cry, to be surprised that my mother would do something like that, but all I felt was numb. Some of the girls tried screaming again, but no one came, and so they cried instead. Tears were replaced by anger and we all swore and made empty threats at the closed door. We tried to comfort one another as best we could, discussed possibilities for escape, but it was only half hearted and eventually we all went quiet, lost in bitter thought.

Hunger settled hollowly in my stomach, grumbling and groaning for relief. My mouth watered at the thought of everything I wanted and I shook my handcuffs irritably. In the back of my mind, I could hear my mother’s voice berating me for being so concerned with food at a time like this and I was immediately flush with guilt and shame. I shut my eyes, praying for any kind of relief.

Ashley didn’t come back for many hours, and by then all of us were lying in our own waste. I was so embarrassed that I could barely bring myself to look at the other girls, much less Ashley and her steady, sunny grin.

“Whew, it smells like a ‘sty in here! Who wants a shower?”

I perked up slightly and saw that Gloria had done the same. We’d talked briefly about overpowering Ashley and making a run for it the moment she freed us; maybe this would be our chance! That hope was washed away with the first spray from Ashley’s hose, which I hadn’t seen tucked discreetly behind her back. I gasped and sputtered under the wave of icy water that was spread liberally around the cabin, soaking all of us equally.

“There, don’t we feel better?” Ashley chirped when she was through, “Now, since we’re all nice and clean, let’s have something to eat!”

My stomach roared in response and she laughed, turning to me, “Well well, Miss. Natalie! Your mom warned us about that appetite and now I can see what she meant!” She clapped her hands together, “Ok, piggies, lunch time! Tara, bring it in!”

Another counselor came in wheeling a large garbage bin.

She beamed at us and, as she and Ashley each pulled on a pair of rubber gloves, said, “Hi, gals, I’m Tara! I’m part of the kitchen staff here! I just know you guys must be starved, I mean, have any of you had to go this long without eating before?”

Ashley shook her head and laughed like it was one if the greatest jokes she’d ever heard, “Have you seen these fat asses?”

Together, they moved the bin beside Gloria’s bed and Ashley reached into it, pulling out a handful of what looked like a combination of yesterday’s meals; half eaten burgers, bits of fish that I could already smell turning, wilted salad bits. Gloria shook her head when Ashley held it up to her lips, her mouth clamped shut.

“Oh, this little piggie isn’t hungry!” Tara pouted, “What do you think, Ash? Are any of them?”

“Let’s find out!”

One by one, we were offered the food from the garbage and one by one we refused. I was confident they wouldn’t let us starve, they couldn’t, and I would not eat garbage! They didn’t try to force us, just moved on when it was clear we wouldn’t take any. They followed it up with fresh water, which they ladled from a bucket. I slurped greedily until Tara took it away, tsking at me with amused reproach.

“Wow! What a great first day!” Ashley said once they’d finished, “You guys are already learning to listen to your bodies, eating only when you’re truly hungry! I’m so proud! Ok, I want you all to really think about how much you accomplished today! Me and Tara are going to take your food back to the kitchen, but don’t worry! We’ll bring it back tomorrow! Waste not, want not, right?”

They laughed and covered the bin back up before heading towards the cabin door. As she left, Ashley half turned one more time, “Congratulations, ladies, you’re all on your way to a healthier, happier you!”

The door shut loudly behind them, leaving us wet, hungry, and, for the first time, more than a little afraid.


After the first couple of days, keeping track of time became hard. We were left cuffed to our beds, sprayed down once a day, and offered the increasingly revolting garbage as our only food along with a ladle full of water. I managed to hold out for a little while, but I was weak and I was hungry and, finally, I took a bit of what only barely still passed as a turkey burger.

The smell of rotting meat made my already light head spin and the taste made me gag, lingering on the back of my tongue as further punishment. I choked it down with tears in my eyes and drank the water that followed desperately, like it might help wash the flavor and memory away.

“Aw, so good, hon!” Ashley said, “Isn’t it such a great feeling, eating only when you have to? Having that kind of self control is so important! Proud of you, Miss. Natalie!”

Gloria hadn’t fared so well. When she tried to swallow the fish, which smelled like a hot dumpster, she retched and then vomited frothy bile over the side of her bed onto the floor between us.

“Oh my goodness, look at what a messy little piggie you are, Miss. Gloria! Well, I guess you aren’t very hungry after all!”

Gloria groaned and turned her face away from Ashley. She had been so full of fight in the beginning, but the longer we were held there, the more it fizzled out. We no longer discussed escape plans or what we wanted to do to the camp staff once we were free. Talking required energy and we were sorely lacking. Just trying to keep my thoughts coherent was becoming harder.

My arms always ached, alternating between a cold numbness and a burning that made me wince whenever I shifted. I was sticky with old sweat and bodily waste and the damp mattress beneath me stank of both. Insects, attracted by the stench, buzzed all around and every part of me itched beneath the layer of filth. I wanted to shed my skin, crawl out of it and burn it, certain it would never be truly clean again.

We must have passed the first week or so like this; immobile and miserable. I began to think that maybe this would be the entirety of camp and almost resigned myself to a full month and a half of doing nothing but wasting away in my own excrement. You would be so proud, Mom, I thought during the night when I couldn’t sleep, I haven’t eaten in a while. I wanted to be angry, but feeling anything beyond the constant, gnawing hunger and hopelessness required too much effort.

“Rise and shine, my little piggies!” Ashley came sweeping into the cabin one morning, clapping her hands and shouting in a sing-song voice, “Who wants to go for a swim?”

When Ashley unlocked the cuffs and they fell away from my wrists, I thought I might have been dreaming. The blood rushing painfully back into my pale hands quickly dispelled that notion. I pushed myself to sit up, stiff and sore, and looked around at the other girls as they also rose. There was an air of hesitancy hanging over the room, as if we were waiting for the punchline to some joke only Ashley would think was funny.

But she just stood in the doorway in her favorite pose with her hands on her hips, smiling. Always smiling.

“You guys sure have a funny way of showing your excitement! Come on, my little piggies, let’s go!” When no one moved from their bunks, she sighed and rolled her eyes theatrically, “You guys don’t wanna go? I know having to get off your huge asses is a scary thing! I know exerting yourself more than unwrapping a candy bar is hard! But that’s why you’re here; to learn that being so lazy is unacceptable! Last chance, piggies, let’s go!”

Underwhelmed by our continued reluctance, she reached down outside the door and picked something up; a long steel rod with a rubber grip handle. On the opposite end, which she displayed clearly for us to see, were two protruding metal pins.

“Know what this is, girls?” She meandered between the beds, swinging the rod around casually, “No? None of you? Silly piggies, I guess it’s better to show than tell!”

She stopped at the foot of Inez’s bed and the girl cowered against her headboard. Inez was the largest of us, soft spoken and gentle. I hadn’t heard her speak much since the first day we’d arrived, only cry, but now she was babbling about how she’d go, she’d love to swim, she was sorry.

Ashley relaxed, nodded with a soothing smile, and then pressed the rod against the center of Inez’s chest. There was a sharp snap of electricity and Inez yelped and fell back, her hands clutching at her chest.

“Oh, don’t be so dramatic, Miss. Inez! It’s just a low amp, low voltage cattle, well, piggie, prod! Don’t you feel more motivated?”

Inez sniffled and nodded once.

“Good! Then let’s get that huge tub of lard body of yours out the door and down to the lake! Come on, girls!”

Inez was the first to get unsteadily to her feet and then the rest of us followed suit. I gripped my headboard and pulled myself up, but found my legs shaky, bordering on unreliable. Dizziness threatened to knock me back down, but I was too afraid of Ashley and her “piggie” prod to let that happen. With a great deal of concentration, I forced myself to put one foot in front of the other and fell in line with the others.

We were ushered, stumbling and blinking against the harsh sunlight, down towards the lake. Could I run for it? I wondered, looking over to the trees. They seemed so impossibly far and I felt so lethargic. Just walking was proving somewhat of a challenge; I couldn’t even imagine how I’d manage to do anything more. Ashley practically skipped along beside us, singing some camp song about having fun and making friends.

At the lake’s edge, we were met by two other counselors, Shauna and Megan, who waved enthusiastically and motioned for us to follow them down a long dock and line up in front of them. Ashley poked us along threateningly with her prod if she thought we were going too slow, but mercilessly left it off.

“Hi, ladies!” Shauna beamed at us, “I am just so excited for you guys to be here! Oh my God, we’ve got such a fun activity planned for you!”

“Yes we do!” Megan jumped in, “It’s called Whale Watching! You wanna hear how to play?”

When we didn’t answer, Ashley shoved the prod under Morgan’s arm and pressed the trigger.

Zap!

Morgan collapsed against me with a cry and we both almost fell backwards into the water. Shauna waited until we had regained our balance before continuing.

“Ok, so here’s how it works! You guys, the whales, are going to get in the water and tread, tread, tread! We’re the watchers! We’re going to sit up here on the dock and, you guessed it, watch!”

“But here’s the fun part!” Megan said, “The first person that gets tired and needs to be pulled out gets five pokes from Ashley’s piggie prod! Every person after will get one less until there’s only one of you left in the water! That person won’t get the prod; they’ll get a nice bowl of fresh salad instead! Doesn’t that sound fun?”

The three counselors cheered enthusiastically and directed us to turn and face the water. I remembered thinking how pretty it had been when we first pulled up and how I had been looking forward to going swimming. Now, I was half convinced I was going to drown in it. We were shoved in with shouts of encouragement trailing behind us.

The water was cold and deep and sent a shock through my system. Ashley and the others sat on the edge of the dock, their legs dangling over the side. Occasionally they’d kick up water at us, laughing all the while.

“Don’t slow down, Diana! You won’t get rid of your blubber by just floating there!”

“You’re a whale, not a log, keep kicking!”

“Aw, look at my little piggies! Paddle, paddle, paddle! I’m so proud of you!”

It didn’t take long for my lungs to start burning from exertion. My arms and legs felt heavy even submerged and it took every ounce of strength to keep them moving. The fatigue I’d felt before was becoming thicker, a blanket of weariness that threatened to drag me under. Beside me, Gloria’s treading started to turn more into flailing and I saw her head bob dangerously low. She went under once, pulled herself back up, but then was down again.

She was gasping for breath, coughing, and her splashing was becoming panicked. I heard her shout for help before going under again. I wanted to go to her, but the warning that a drowning person will pull you under with them echoed loudly in my ears.

“Help her!” Diana shrieked, which had a ripple effect and we all started screaming for them to do something.

After a minute of listening to us call for help, Shauna stood up and lazily sauntered to the pole where the rescue ring was hanging and unhooked it.

“You sure you want this, Gloria? If you give up now, that’s five pokes!”

“Someone’s gotta be first!” Ashley said, pointing the prod down at Gloria, “Throw her the ring!”

“Alright, then!”

The ring landed with a flat splash beside Gloria. She grabbed at it and pulled it close, clinging to it with desperate fear. The whole time the counselors hauled her in by the ring’s rope, she stared back at us, pale and shivering.

After she’d been pulled to shore, Ashley toweled her off and led her down the dock again so that she was standing in front of us.

“Wasn’t that pathetic, piggies? Barely thirty minutes and already Gloria’s let herself give up! I bet if the prize had been a double cheeseburger she would have lasted longer!”

While the counselors laughed, Gloria’s lip trembled. I recognized the shame, born so nakedly on her face, and I could feel her hurt. While we continued to tread water before them, they berated her and called her names, each one punctuated by the prod. When they were finished, Gloria sank to her knees and buried her face in her hands.

“We aren’t doing this because we want to hurt you!” Ashley said, patting Gloria on the back, “We’re giving you tough love so that you can be your happiest, healthiest self! Underneath all the rolls and stretch marks, there are beautiful girls just waiting to be set free!”

“We were all like you once!” Megan added sympathetically, “We understand that changing isn’t easy! Especially when you’ve allowed yourself to become such an ugly, unhealthy cow! But we’re going to help you, just like we were helped!”

They let Gloria move to the end of the dock, where she could sit alone and cry, while they resumed “whale watching”.

Inez was pulled out next, and then Diana, and Morgan. Each time, they were giving the same treatment as Gloria and each time, the counselors seemed to delight in it more. The prods were less in number, but longer in duration, and when Morgan’s punishment was complete, I was sure I could smell singed flesh.

With only two of us left, Ashley crouched and clapped, “I’m so proud of you, Miss. Natalie! You too, Miss. Gracie! You sure are showing these other ham beasts how it’s done!”

Grace and I exchanged worried glances. The only thing that had kept me going was the threat of that prod, but even that was starting to not be enough. The water felt thick, harder to push through, and my arms especially screamed at me to stop. I could feel the lake trying to suck me down and I knew it wouldn’t be long before I couldn’t stop it.

The first time my head went under, I managed to resurface quickly, but when I went down again, it was more difficult to find my way back up. I clawed at the water, grabbing at it like I would find something to take hold of. Grace had put some distance between us when she noticed I was starting to struggle, but I could hear her calling to me, telling me to keep going. But I couldn’t.

Just as I felt the very last ounce of strength slipping away, the ring landed in front of me. I didn’t want to grab it, I didn’t want to go back to shore, to Ashley and her piggie prod, but what choice did I have? I slung an exhausted arm around the ring and let them drag me in.

They were chatty while they dried me off, telling me they were amazed that someone so fat could last so long out on the water.

“Must be hippo instead of pig!” Shauna said and they all laughed.

Just as the others had been, I was brought down the dock and made to stand in front of Grace, who was still managing to stay afloat although I could tell it was almost killing her to do so.

“Miss. Natalie, you did so good! One hour and twenty four minutes, I can’t believe it! Of course, to a normal person, that’s not so long, but for someone like you, wow!” Ashley gushed from over my shoulder, “But, unfortunately, you were only in second place! You know what that means!”

I didn’t even have time to shudder. She just stuck the prod against my back and pressed down on the trigger. Every muscle in my body tightened at once and I couldn’t move. I was trapped in my own body, locked into place by Ashley and her prod, unable to speak or even really think. She held me there until it started to burn, when she yanked it away and let me sag to the dock.

Grace was helped ashore and dried off and they made a big show of presenting her with a bowl of fresh salad, which had been brought down by Tara. The sight of the round, red cherry tomatoes and crisp lettuce was enough to have my mouth watering. I had never wanted anything so much as I wanted that salad. The others crowded closer, our eyes transfixed and longing. Grace hugged the bowl against her stomach and raised the fork to her mouth.

She got one bite before Ashley knocked it from her hands and kicked it into the lake.

“I want you to savor that bite, Grace! Remember how nice and cool it was! Vegetables should be your favorite food! When you’re hungry tonight, think about that salad, how good it was, how much you wanted to finish it! Let yourself crave it! Soon, you won’t ever find yourself wanting greasy chips or fatty sweets anymore; you’ll want that salad! Great job, ladies, now let’s get you back to your bunks for some rest!”

Ashley, Shauna, and Megan herded us back to the cabin, pushing us to go quickly despite how tired we were. If I had thought it hard to run away earlier, it had now become impossible. Every nerve still tingled uncomfortably from the prod, my arms drooped uselessly, my legs barely wanted to carry me. My head buzzed with hunger and thirst and the need for good, solid sleep. None of us argued as we were returned to our beds, the mattresses of which had been flipped over, and handcuffed back into place. We were too exhausted.

Ashley smiled from the door, her hand on the light switch.

“Get your rest, my little piggies! Tomorrow, we learn to let go of dead weight!”


After such ominous parting words, I was sure I wouldn’t be able to sleep. Let go of dead weight? I pictured dull, rusty knives and Ashley’s sugary sweet voice telling us we only had minutes to cut off as much fat as we could before she sicced a pack of hungry dogs on us to get the rest. Even with images of blood and screaming filling my head, however, the threat of whatever tomorrow might bring wasn’t enough to overcome the sheer exhaustion that enveloped me.

I drifted in and out for hours, sometimes waking from the pitiful whine of my stomach, sometimes from the depths of a watery nightmare, sometimes from the pain. Everything hurt; I felt strained, stretched thin, sore. My head throbbed, leaving me clouded and dizzy, and I wondered over and over again how much more I could take.

In a half-dream state, my thoughts wandered to my mother. Had she really known what they were going to do to us? Had she willingly signed away my safety and well being in the hopes I’d lose weight? Surely no mother would prefer her daughter starving, possibly dying, instead of being fat. Then again, this was the same woman who would only admit I was her child if asked directly; otherwise I was just Natalie the afterthought, only introduced out of necessity. I almost wanted to laugh, or maybe I wanted to cry, I wasn’t sure.

Were the other girls from similar homes? We hadn’t really had a chance to talk much about our lives outside of camp, much less our relationships with our families, but no sane parent would have sent their daughter here. While I had known there had to be other mothers like mine out there, I’d thought they were few and far between. The number of girls I’d seen at camp that first night, it must have been 50 or 60, made me rethink that.

I watched the room go from black to gray and then light up with cracks of sunlight that snuck around the drawn curtains and under the door. Grace started to cry when she woke to and saw morning had come already. We knew what it meant and it terrified us.

As if drawn by the tears, the cabin door was flung open and Ashley strode in, all pep and good cheer.

“Goooood morning, little piggies!” She sang, stretching her arms over her head and inhaling deeply, “You gals sure know how to stink up a place, don’t you? But that’s ok! That is okay! We will deal with that later! For now, though, we have other things planned!”

She rubbed her hands together and looked around, excitement shining in her eyes. There was a collective nervous shifting of bed springs and cuffs as she walked down the row of beds, inspecting us, visually dissecting us.

“You little piggies hungry?” She asked once she’d looked each of us over.

We lay in tense silence, unwilling to answer. After the garbage and the trick with the salad, we didn’t expect anything from her. At least, not anything good.

“I asked you a question, ladies!” She chirped, her hands on her hips, “I expect an answer! One more time, who’s hungry?”

The noncommittal groaning and mumbling she received seemed to have been good enough, because she waved out the cabin door and Tara came in carrying a covered tray.

“Miss Tara whipped up something extra special this morning to help get you prepped and ready for your activity today! Who wants first dibs?” When no one answered, she turned to Inez, “You’re the fattest little piggie in here, I bet you’re just dying to dive in, huh? Ok, ok, come on, Tara, let’s get her some breakfast! But be careful, don’t want her gnawing off your hand!”

They tittered together and set the tray on the bed beside Inez. I don’t think any of us breathed while we waited to see what fresh torture they’d concocted for us. The lid was removed and Inez’s eyes went wide.

Sitting in the very center of the tray, still steaming, was a half full bowl of plain oatmeal.

Ashley plucked up the spoon that Tara had brought and filled it full of the oatmeal.

“What do you think, Miss Inez, want some yummy food?” Ashley asked, the spoon held tantalizingly close to Inez’s lips.

Inez nodded once, her chin quivering. Ravenous hunger burned feverishly bright in her eyes, which never left the spoon. Ashley laughed, delighted, and fed Inez the bite of oatmeal. Tears streamed openly down Inez’s round cheeks and she held it in her mouth, savoring the first real food she’d had in over a week. The rest of us had all unconsciously leaned forward, licking and chewing our lips, trying to at least get a whiff of the oatmeal over the rank cabin air.

“Ok, little piggie, before you get too carried away, you need to make a choice!”

There it was. The catch. I had known it was too good to be true, but it still raked like ice down my spine. We all tensed, waiting for Ashley’s terms.

“Now, you can have this whole bowl all to yourself! Every. Last. Bite. Or! You can take one more spoonful and pass it down to the next girl!”

The room went silent. Inez’s mouth had fallen open and she looked to us. There was a war going on inside of her and we all silently begged that she let the right side win and pass the bowl along. Our empty stomachs rumbled, voicing our hunger for us when we dared not.

“Pass.” She said quietly and hung her head.

“Oh my goodness, how generous is she, girls? I mean, wow! That is some impressive self control there! I am just, wow, so proud!” Ashley said and Tara nodded enthusiastically along in agreement.

They fed Inez one more bite and moved to Diana, who had thin lines of drool dribbling down her chin at the sight of the oatmeal. She opened wide and was given her first bite and then the same choice: keep it all or pass.

Diana didn’t hesitate.

“More!” She pleaded, “Give me more!”

“Are you sure?” Ashley asked, “You don’t want to share with the other little piggies?”

I wasn’t certain Diana had even heard her. She struggled against her restraints, trying to get her hands on that spoon. We shouted at her, no words, just unintelligible, starved anger. She shook her head like it would help block us out and kept shouting, louder and louder, for more.

With every spoonful she got, my resentment deepened. It was only plain oatmeal, something I’d never even liked, but watching that bowl become emptier and emptier was like watching a lifeline fade away. I hated Diana in that moment, but there was also some small part of me, a tiny whisper I barely acknowledged, that was grateful. Because of her, I’d never have to find out if I would have been strong enough to share.

“Well, Miss Diana,” Ashley said after the oatmeal was finished, “I can’t say that I’m not disappointed. Inez, so fat she’s barely human shaped anymore, was able to share, but you were a greedy little piggie, weren’t you?”

Diana turned away, her eyes downcast.

“It’s ok, though, this was very helpful! Now that all the other little piggies have seen how selfish and disgusting you are, they know what they also look like every time they gorge themselves! It’s gross, huh, girls?”

Ashley motioned for Tara to clear away the tray and, once it was gone, she stood in the center of the room.

“Well, now that that’s done, on to today’s activity!”

As she’d done the day before, she retrieved her piggie prod and uncuffed us so that we could line up and leave the cabin. Diana made sure to stay at the back of the line by Ashley to avoid our reproachful glares, but more than once I looked over my shoulder so that she was forced to see my anger. Ashley told me that no one liked a stink face.

Again, I considered running, but even if I tried, how far would I get? Hungry, tired, in pain from over-exertion, unable to think straight for more than short bursts, and, as Ashley kept pointing out, extremely out of shape. There was no escape. The others must have realized the same thing because we trudged, silent and single file, towards the treeline, where I could see Shauna and another counselor waiting.

“Ladies,” Ashley said after we’d stopped in front of them, “I’d like you to meet one of our activity coordinators, Carolyn! She helps think up a lot of the fun things we get to do! Say hi!”

There was a soft murmur of grudging hellos and Carolyn waved with both hands, grinning.

“So, Caro, you want to tell my little piggies what we’ll be doing today?”

“I would love to! But first, how’d breakfast go?”

“Well, not so great, actually. Miss Inez, bless her heart, was so quick to share! But theeeen, Miss Diana gobbled all the rest up and left nothing for anyone else!”

“That’s not so great at all!” Carolyn agreed, “But that’s ok! Mistakes are made and that’s how we learn! But, only if there are consequences.”

We all looked over at Diana.

“I-I didn’t do anything wrong!” She said desperately, “You’re starving us! I couldn’t help myself, I was so hungry!”

She broke down into heaving sobs that shook her whole body.

“Aw, hon, shh, shh!” Ashley put an arm around Diana’s shoulders and gave a squeeze, “It’s ok, you’re weak, we know! We’re working on fixing that!”

“We certainly are!” Carolyn said, “And today’s activity was planned with that very goal in mind! Today, our focus is going to be on learning to let go of dead weight! Doesn’t that sound fun? Diana, why don’t you come here and we will get you kitted out so the others can see what we’re going to be doing!”

Diana shook her head and tried to back up, but a poke from the piggie prod had her jumping forward. Carolyn and Shauna grabbed her arms and hauled her front and center.

“Now, girls, today we are going to take a rope,” Carolyn held up a length of course rope and tied it around Diana’s waist, “and tie it around each of you, like so! We are then going to knot the free end to the next girl in line! So, um, you, what’s your name?”

“This is Natalie!” Ashley answered for me.

“Ok, Natalie, come here, that’s it!”

She wrapped the rope around me like a belt and tightened it uncomfortably before tying me to Diana. Down the line she went, until we were all strung together.

“Ok, now that we’re in our little ‘chain gang’, we’re going to accessorize! Shauna?”

Shauna knelt and picked up a box that I hadn’t noticed sitting behind her. She opened the top and held it out so we could see its contents; little black boxes with straps.

“Ankle bracelets!” She said, giving the box a little shake.

Tracking ankle bracelets!” Carolyn corrected her, grabbing one to affix it to Diana’s ankle, “You’re each going to wear one so we can keep an eye on you! They’re waterproof and if you try and remove them, they’ll tattle on you and we’ll know!”

“Don’t need any sneaky piggies in my flock!” Ashley said as Carolyn strapped a bracelet to each of us.

“And now, one more thing just for Diana!” Carolyn rooted around in the box and came up with a pair of wrist weights, “These are each ten pounds; they represent the weight you’re no doubt going to gain if you keep eating like the little pig you are! Aren’t those heavy? Ugh, fat is such a drag, huh?”

Diana let her weighted arms fall to her sides with a whimper.

“So, who wants to find out what all of this is for?”

“I do, I do!” Ashley cheered.

“Great! It’s very simple! All you guys have to do…” She paused for dramatic effect, “is run! Not so easy when you’re all tied together, huh? Someone’s bound to get tired, slow everyone else down, right? Not to worry, just let that dead weight go! You can untie the knot and you’ll be free to keep moving! If you don’t want to leave the dead weight, we’re more than happy to give you a little encouragement!”

“And the girl who’s left behind will be picked up by a counselor! There’s a few spread out in the woods, so don’t worry! She won’t be alone for long.” Shauna said.

“The last one still running will get a nice bath after and another bowl of oatmeal! Doesn’t that sound great?” Carolyn folded her arms over her chest, clearly pleased, “Just make sure you stick to the trails; piggies who wander will be punished! Ok, girls, ready? Set? Run!”

None of us could run. Even if we had the energy, being tied together made it awkward and uncomfortable, so we were forced to shuffle off in a waddling power walk into the woods.

It wasn’t long before the huffing and puffing started. Even if we’d wanted to try and plan an escape, we wouldn’t have been able to speak through our wheezing. The muscles in my legs cramped and seized, forcing me to slow, but I couldn’t stop. I had to ignore the sound of blood rushing in my ears, ignore the weight of fatigue that plagued my every step, ignore the pounding of my head. I could feel the sluggishness of the girls around me pulling at my rope, but I had to keep moving.

When Diana started to lag, I knew it was the beginning of the end.

“Don’t leave me.” She kept whispering breathlessly, but the rope was taut and she could barely lift her feet anymore. The additional weight had taken its toll.

Morgan made the final decision to untie her, but none of us tried to stop her. I thought I’d feel some kind of vengeful glee at leaving Diana behind, but seeing her crumpled in the middle of the path, calling weakly after us, I only felt pity. We kept marching forward, even after her shrieks started and we were sure the counselors had found her.

Grace fell next, facedown and sobbing, and when we tried to get her back on her feet, a counselor appeared on the edge of the path, a familiar rod in hand. She waved it warningly at us and we were forced to leave Grace behind.

I wanted to be strong. I wanted to prove Ashley wrong, I wanted to walk until my feet fell off just to show her that I could withstand whatever she threw at me. But what I wanted and what I was actually capable of were two very different things. I stumbled and grabbed at Inez, trying to keep myself upright, but she shook me off, unable to bear my weight along with her own.

“Please, help.” I begged pathetically.

Instead, Inez undid my knot, freeing the remaining three from me. She looked at me, her expression haunted, and said, “I’m sorry.”

I watched their backs as they continued on without me.

“I’m not stopping,” I wheezed, “I’m not stopping.”

I made it a few, small steps before I was prodded in the back and sent staggering to the ground.

“No, no, little piggy!” It was Carolyn, “You were deemed dead weight and dead weight doesn’t get to keep going! Ashley, Shauna, we got another one down!”

Together, they stripped me down to my underwear, leaving the ankle bracelet attached, and dragged me to a thick tree. I was tied tightly to the trunk so that its bark bit painfully into my bare flesh every time I tried to move. Once I was secure, they each took a turn using the piggie prod on me.

“Since dead weight gets left behind, you get to sleep in the woods tonight!” Ashley crouched in front of me, “I want you to really think about that lazy life of luxury you’ve been living while you’re out here! All that comfort, how easy you’ve had it, it’s made you into the little piggie you are today! You need to learn to toughen up and this exercise will help you do just that!”

She gave me what I might have thought of as an affectionate tweak under my chin if it had come from someone else and stood up.

“Ok, ladies, let’s go see if we’ve got any more dead weight to deal with!”

They linked arms and walked away, leaving me alone, mostly nude and tied to a tree in the middle of the woods.


I struggled feebly, uselessly, against the ropes, but all it did was make the tree’s bark dig deeper into my naked back. Every time I shifted, I was certain that I could feel my skin thinning, threatening to split. It didn’t take long for the insects to find me and feast on my exposed flesh, leaving a trail of angry red welts in their wake. Sometimes, it felt like they were burrowing into my skin, crawling beneath it, eating me from the inside out. Thirst burned in my throat, hunger echoed in my empty stomach, and I itched and I ached and I could find no relief.

Somewhere nearby, up the trail and out of sight, I could hear one of the girls, maybe Gloria, screaming. She was begging for help, for someone to find her, and I almost shouted for her to shut up. No one was coming, I’d already realized that, why hadn’t she? I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to block out the noise, and leaned my head back against the tree.

The hours passed slowly. The only way I could be sure time was even moving at all was by the lengthening of the shadows and the eventual darkness that crept into the woods. Usually, I would have been terrified at the idea of being alone outside after nightfall and my imagination would have run wild, turning every bush into some kind of monster just waiting to pounce. But now there was no room for any more fear, no energy to conjure up make-believe beasts. I couldn’t even bring myself to cry.

There was no sleep to be had, only a foggy daze, and after Gloria, or whoever it had been, went quiet and silence had blanketed the woods, voices started to ring in my ears; soft at first, but growing louder, angrier. My mother, Ashley, Tara, Carolyn.

“Little piggie!”

“Disgusting!”

“Fat, lazy, weak!”

The chorus went on and on, bouncing through my mind until it was all I heard. I couldn’t fight them off, couldn’t make them stop. ‘Round and ’round they went until I was sick and dizzy with grief, guilt, and self-loathing. I was all of those things; I was, I was, I was! If I had been stronger, better, this wouldn’t have happened!

I didn’t realize I’d started hitting the back of my head against the tree until the voices shattered, broken by the heavy crack of my skull against wood. I forced myself to stop, wrenching my head from side to side and breathing hard.

“I’m losing it.” I whispered, and I laughed softly, bitterly, through the few tears that still managed to slip out.

I had thought earlier that I could get through it, that I could prove them all wrong and overcome anything. I knew now how wrong I had been. How many days had it been since I’d eaten real food? How long since I’d really slept or showered or done anything even remotely human? It couldn’t have been much longer than a week, a week and a half, but it weighed on me like an eternity.

To keep the voices at bay, I tried to think of a song, any song, but I couldn’t make sense of any of the jumbled lyrics that tried to surface. I started to hum tunelessly instead, just a steady stream of noise to fill up the spaces in my head.

“Natalie?”

I looked around sharply, only half sure I’d actually heard my name.

“Natalie!”

There it was again, coming from somewhere just opposite me. I leaned as far forward as the rope allowed, which wasn’t much, and narrowed my eyes, trying to see through the darkness. A shadow separated from the tree, short and round, and skittered over to me.

“It’s me!” Morgan hissed as she dropped to her knees beside me, “I got away from Ashley on our way back to camp and came back for you. I’ll untie you and then we can get out of here!”

I stared at her dumbly.

“Just-just stay quiet. I know they’re looking for me.” She was working hard on the knot, I could feel her tugging it, and then the rope started to loosen.

She came back around, one loose end in her hands, “Come on,” she said anxiously, “we have to go!”

I started to push myself up on legs that had long since fallen asleep, but there was something in the way that she kept looking over her shoulder that made me pause. Somewhere in my prey brain, alarm bells were going off. I froze, a mouse who had caught wind of a cat.

“Come on!” Morgan urged again.

I wanted to believe her, but something in me, some primal, unthinking part that worked only off of instinct, kept me in place. My mind was a mudslide, a mess of half formed ideas and questions that I couldn’t begin to put into words. I wanted to believe her, but I didn’t.

“Natalie!” She was almost crying, desperate, and still looking over her shoulder.

“No.” Was all I managed to say.

She tried pulling on my arms, but I went limp and let myself sink back against the tree. She cursed at me and pulled again, but it was no use. I wasn’t going to budge.

“Why? Just come on!”

I shook my head.

“Please, Natalie!”

When it became clear to her that I wasn’t moving, she screamed at me, telling me that this was my only chance and I was stupid to just sit there. Insults, cursing, and through it all, I remained motionless, my half lidded gaze on the tree line just behind her. The tirade was allowed to go on for another minute or so before I heard a telling zap and Morgan was forced to take a knee.

“What a good, obedient little piggie!” Ashley crooned, her piggie poker slung easily over one shoulder, “I thought for sure you’d be off running, or, you know, waddling, but here you are! I am just so gosh darn proud! You’ve learned some serious self-control!”

Morgan’s shoulders shook with sobs and Ashley pat her on the head, “Miss Morgan here was the winner of today’s activity! But the little piggie still hasn’t had her oatmeal! We had a surprise part two that she had to complete first and, well, surprise! Wasn’t she great?”

It took me a long minute to make sense of her words. A part two? Tricking us into trying to leave? I gaped blankly at them, still trying to fit all the pieces together.

Ashley noticed my struggle and said kindly, “Don’t you worry your fat little head about it, Miss Natalie! We’ll explain everything back at camp. Now come on, get up, we’ve got a bit of a walk back.”

I stumbled down the path alongside Morgan, the threat of Ashley’s prod looming constantly from behind. I didn’t feel any sense of betrayal, no anger, no upset with Morgan. I was too numb to anything other than exhaustion. We were guided back to the cabin, where all the other girls were already gathered, and re-cuffed to our beds. I had never thought I’d actually feel any measure of joy at being returned to that stinking, stained bunk, but after so many hours spent against that tree, I welcomed it.

Ashley brought me a ladle full of water, which I sucked down greedily, and gave my cheek a little pinch, “Most of you were just such well behaved little piggies!” She said, waving the now empty ladle across to room, “Only one of you,” Her eyes flicked to Grace, who shrank further against her pillow, “was very, very naughty.”

She tossed the ladle to the floor and crossed over to Grace.

“I’m sorry!” Grace kept repeating, but Ashley acted like she didn’t hear.

“Do you know what will hold you back? Make it impossible for you to be a healthier, happier you?” Ashley asked, “Running away from your problems! You will never learn how to cope without resorting to food if you just keep trying to run away! It’s the easy thing to do, and we all know that you fat asses are all about taking the easy way out! But not here, my little piggies, I won’t let you!”

“Today’s activity was about learning to let go of your dead weight and then taking responsibility for your weakness! Miss Morgan did so good, she ran and ran while the rest of you let your fat drag you down! After you had some time to think about aaaall the bad decisions you’ve made that brought you here, we asked Miss Morgan to go back out there and offer you an easy out, the kind that you’ve always taken!”

Morgan couldn’t meet any of the glances that were shot her way. Shame clouded her expression, made it almost impossible to face us.

“While most of you tried to keep the lessons you’ve learned close to your overworked little hearts, Miss Gracie here was naughty! Can you believe she tried to run away, after all the help we’ve given her? Given all of you? I must say, it really disappointed me. But I can forgive you, my little piggie! I can and I will, because we all make mistakes!”

Grace dared to look hopeful. She even tried to smile in return when Ashley gave her shoulder a squeeze.

“But remember,” Ashley said sweetly, “in order to earn that forgiveness, you must face the consequences.”

Grace’s smile faded into confusion and then into a terrified, pleading frown. She tugged at her restraints, begging Ashley to give her a second chance, to let her prove that she was good, just like the rest of us.

Ashley crouched beside her and smoothed Grace’s hair away from her face, shushing her gently, “Your whole life has been spent with people going easy on you; that’s why you look like you’re made of dough! It’s time for some tough love, sweetie! Tara! Come on in!”

The cabin door swung open and Tara sauntered in, one of the large metal serving trays in hand. It’s cover was in place, hiding its contents. She brought it over to Ashley and, with a dramatic flourish removed the lid.

“Great! Morgan’s bowl of oatmeal is here! Leave the tray with me and bring that on over to our little winner!”

Tara scooped the bowl of oatmeal up and left the tray in Ashley’s hands to go and spoon feed Morgan, who at least tried to act hesitant about accepting. She ate it while we all watched, envious with stomachs growling. With that taken care of, Ashley’s attention turned fully to Grace, and when Grace started to scream “No, no!”, we tore our eyes from Morgan and followed suit.

Ashley held the tray aloft, panning it slowly around the room so that we could all see the hammer lying upon it. My stomach turned sour and I felt the blood drain from my face.

“Do you know what happens to naughty piggies who try to escape?” Ashley asked conversationally, “They have to be hobbled.”

The hammer was in her hand. Grace was shrieking, begging her not to. The rest of us raised our voices as well, all of us screaming and shouting and crying. But it wasn’t enough to cover the meaty thwak of metal meeting flesh. Or the crunch of bone that followed. When Grace tried to kick Ashley with her free foot, Tara dropped the bowl of oatmeal, spilling it across Morgan, and rushed to hold her down.

Four times Ashley swung the hammer, and each time, Grace became more shrill. Pain contorted her features, bulged her eyes, twisted her hands in their cuffs. I wanted to vomit, but there was nothing in my stomach to purge.

“You see, my little piggies?” Ashley asked, her face flush, “This is what happens when you’re naughty! You must be punished! It is the only way you’ll learn! You’ve been coddled your whole lives, allowed to become huge and unhealthy and ugly! The first chance you get, you run right back to what’s easy, which just starts the cycle all over! You’re never going to improve if this is how you keep living your life!”

Grace was rolling her head back and forth in pain, moaning gutturally. Fat beads of sweat popped up on her forehead and dripped down her face, mingling with her tears. Ashley tweaked her cheek and stood up.

“Ok, girls, I feel like we’ve made some real progress, but now it’s time to rest! So lights out, eyes shut, and try to dream of something other than food!”

On their way to the door, I overheard Tara say, “That always reminds me of the Stephen King book, the one with the author and the crazy lady!”

Ashley giggled, “Where do you think Carolyn got the idea?”

There was no comforting Grace that night, although we tried what little we could. We talked to her in soothing tones, tried to distract her with stories, disjointed and poorly thought out as they were, told her what we’d like to do to Ashley on her behalf. But Grace just kept groaning through it all, absorbed so completely in her pain that I don’t think she knew we were even talking.

We gave up after awhile, one by one going quiet, until the cabin was filled only by the sound of Grace’s misery. Her low, animalistic wails lasted through the night and into morning, when Ashley returned to hose us down. She frowned down at Grace from the foot of her bed and gave her an extra spray in the face.

“No need to be such a drama queen, Miss Gracie!” She chastised her lightly, “You deserved this!”

After she’d finished dousing us with the icy water, she coiled up the hose and stood in the door with a sparkling smile, “You girls are going to be so thrilled for our next activity! We have to wait for it to rain, but that should happen any day now! As soon as it does, we are back outside and learning how to really appreciate the hard work that goes into putting food on the table! Until then, enjoy a few days with your feet up! I know that’s what my little piggies like best!”

She giggled, wiggled her fingers at us, and let the door slam shut behind her.


They took Grace away a few days later. A woman introduced as Nurse Bianca swept in, made a show of examining Grace’s swollen, purple ankle, and then had Ashley and Carolyn help her move Grace into the wheelchair they’d brought with them. Grace mewled in pain and was limp in their arms, her eyes rolling and glassy.

“She’s going to be just fine.” Nurse Bianca assured us on their way out, “A few days in the infirmary and she’ll be right back here with all of you!”

But she didn’t come back and, the longer she was gone, the mores restless the rest of us became. We whispered our theories in the dead of night, that Grace had been left somewhere for someone else to find, that she’d been chained up and left to suffer alone, where we couldn’t see, that she’d been killed.

“Any of us could be next.” Gloria said one night.

After witnessing the depths the counselors were willing to go, something in Gloria had snapped. She was moody, withdrawn, angry, and obsessed with the idea it was only a matter of time before we all shared Grace’s fate. Or worse. I didn’t disagree.

“But I follow the rules!” Diana squeaked.

“So? They’ll change the rules. Don’t be stupid, they don’t want us to succeed. They want us to break.”

Inez started to sob quietly in the dark. She didn’t do much else lately. I understood her fear, I shared it, and I wanted to cry too, but it didn’t help, so I just stayed quiet, sagging against my handcuffs.

“How long have we been here?” Gloria asked.

“Two weeks? A little over?” Morgan said uncertainly. Time was hard to keep track of, harder still when lack of food and sleep made our thoughts slippery and hard to hold on to.

“Not even half way…”

Gloria trailed off and the room settled into an uneasy silence. A month left. A month of “activities” and insults and starvation. A month with a group of psychopaths hellbent on torturing the fat out of us. I couldn’t do it, I knew I couldn’t; I was already so weak, in so much pain. The thought of being made to endure more made me tremble.

The day the rain came, all eyes were fixed on the door. The air was tense, stifling, and I felt like a heavy weight was sitting on my chest, making it hard to breathe. Every snap of a twig outside the cabin had my heart racing, every gust of wind that shook the door made me shrink against my stained pillow, certain Ashley had come for us. The longer we had to wait, the more anxious I became.

But it wasn’t until the rain had died down and the clouds parted that Ashley and Carolyn appeared, all smiles in their bright yellow slickers and boots.

“Who’s ready for our next activity?” Carolyn asked, hands clasped together in anticipation.

Ashley held up a large metal pail, bent and rusted from years of use, in one hand, “Any guesses on what it could be? Anyone?”

I pressed my cracked lips into a thin line to keep my chin from quivering. Whatever they had prepared for us was no doubt degrading, exhausting, and I didn’t know where I was going to muster the strength to complete it. My limbs felt like lead, just picking them up was becoming a challenge, and any movement sent ripples of sharp pain through my head, blurring my vision and leaving me reeling. If I couldn’t do it, if I was too slow or too feeble, what would they do to me?

My gaze slid to their piggie prods, always in hand, and I swallowed hard.

“No one wants to guess?” Carolyn pouted theatrically, “Well, fine, lazy piggies! We’re going hunting! For you to really appreciate your dinner, you’re going to have to catch it! But don’t worry, we know it would be too hard for you to actually catch anything that’s capable of walking away, so we’re keeping it simple! Worms! Little piggies just love rolling around in the mud, so this should be extra fun, huh?”

“I know my little piggies are looking forward to a big dinner, so I’m sure they’ll catch lots! Come on, up, up, up!”

The handcuffs fell away and Ashley used the end of her prod to poke me out of bed. I kept waiting for the snap of electricity to vibrate through my body, but it never came, and I fell in line behind Morgan, relieved.

“What’s wrong, little piggie?” Carolyn was standing beside Gloria’s bed, looking down at the girl.

Gloria had sat up, but she was hunched over, her face buried in her hands. Miserable sobs wracked her shoulders and she was gasping for air, almost hyperventilating. Carolyn traded an eyeroll with Ashley and crouched, resting her free hand on Gloria’s knee.

“Ok, ok shhhh, it’s ok.” She said tenderly, “You can cry all you want, but you know what? That won’t make you any less fat. So get your ass up and get in line, ok?”

The bestial roar that followed had us falling back, away from the pair. As soon as the sound had left her lips, Gloria had thrown herself bodily against Carolyn, her hands tearing at the coordinator’s face. Her nails, blackened by dirt and grime, raked down pale skin, and they both fell back against the wall. The piggie prod was dropped in her shock and rolled under the bed. There was a brief scuffle and then they were on the floor, Gloria using her weight to keep Carolyn pinned beneath her.

Carolyn flailed, her hands shoving at Gloria, and she shrieked for Ashley to help her. Ashley shook off her surprise and charged forward, piggie prod raised pointed at Gloria. I was rooted to the spot, my mouth dry, trembling. They were going to be mad! We were going to be punished! What was Gloria thinking? My mind was a web of terror, catching and encasing all else. I clutched the foot board behind me, shaking my head as if to deny I had any part of this.

Inez lurched forward, her eyes wide, mouth open, bellowing, and she grabbed at Ashley from behind. Ashley brought her elbow back sharply once, twice, and then tried to bring the prod around, but Inez threw her hard against the end of a bed, doubling her over, and yanked her head back by her hair. She pulled hard until Ashley was screeching and her grip on the prod had loosened. She yanked the prod from Ashley’s hand and threw it out of her reach.

When Ashley craned her neck around, looking over her shoulder for help, I saw, for the first time, fear glittering in her eyes.

Carolyn had managed to wiggle half way out from under Gloria and headbutt her sharply across the nose. Gloria yelped, stunned, and Carolyn, clearly also dazed, flopped on her stomach and started to scramble across the floor, towards the bed her prod was under. She had her hand outstretched, reaching desperately, when Morgan’s foot came slamming down on it. Again and again she stomped until Carolyn withdrew it and flung herself backwards, her hand cradled against her chest.

Gloria was on her again, one arm wrapped around her throat, her free hand punching wildly at Carolyn’s head. Carolyn tried to ward off the blows, but Gloria shook her viciously, compressing her neck. Ashley was crushed beneath the footboard and Inez’s girth, her face shoved down into the mattress and its filth. Every time she tried to push herself up, Inez delivered a harsh blow to her side.

Carolyn saw Ashley’s prod was close to her and, with a strangled yell, managed to sink her teeth into Gloria’s arm. Reflexively, Gloria pulled back just slightly, enough for Carolyn to drive her shoulder into her chest, and then Carolyn was diving forward.

Crack!

Carolyn reared back, her expression belligerent, disbelieving, and pained. Blood had started to fall in a small trickle down the side of her face from the gash left by the piggie prod. Morgan stood over her, her eyes bright and feverish with fury, and swung Ashley’s prod again. Carolyn crumpled to the floor.

Diana and I had huddled together, watching with horror, our mouths hanging open. It didn’t seem real, it couldn’t be real. Gloria hauled herself to her feet, her breathing ragged, and she swayed unsteadily.

“What did you do?” Diana whispered, her gaze fixed on Carolyn’s unmoving body.

“I’m getting out.” Gloria said, “Come on, help me get her onto the bed.”

“Is she dead?” I dared to ask.

“No, unfortunately. I can still see her breathing.” Gloria waved impatiently at us, “Morgan, Natalie! Come on!”

I tore myself away from Diana’s side and, mechanically, barely aware of what I was doing, I grabbed one of Carolyn’s arms and we dragged her over to Gloria’s bed.

The handcuffs clicking into place around her wrists was one of the most satisfying sounds I’d ever heard.

“What do we do with Ashley?” Inez asked anxiously. Now that the excitement had died down and the initial rush had worn off, she was starting to struggle with keeping Ashley held down.

Ashley’s cheeks were wet with tears when we wrenched her up. She was a babbling, blubbering mess, trying to justify her actions, telling us everything she’d done was for our own good. Gloria put a stop to that by yanking off Ashley’s sock and shoving it in her mouth. Diana kept apologizing to her while the rest of us cuffed her wrists around the headboard.

“I followed the rules! I was good! I’m so sorry! They made me!”

“Shut the hell up already, ok?” Gloria snapped.

“They’re going to find us, the rest of them! They’re going to find us and punish us!”

Gloria reared back an delivered a resounding slap to Diana’s face, “Shut up or we’re leaving you here.”

“Do it! Then they’ll know, I was good! It wasn’t my idea!” Diana, unfazed, leapt eagerly back into bed and looked at the rest of us expectantly, her arms held towards the handcuffs.

“What now?” Morgan asked after we’d locked Diana back in, her face drawn and pale. She looked out the window, across camp grounds that seemed impossibly large, and then back to Gloria.

“We go.” She said, but it was clear she hadn’t yet thought this far ahead. She sagged against the doorframe, rubbing her temples and wrinkling her brow, trying to collect her thoughts.

“We need a phone.” I offered, trying to make up for how little help I’d been, “We need to call the cops.”

“The office would have a phone.” Inez said.

“Everyone has a phone!” Gloria said suddenly, the slow realization that we’d all come to camp with cells working its way through the weariness.

“Yeah, but they’re all locked in the closet with the rest of our stuff.”

“What about them?” I nodded to Ashley, who shook her head, trying to mumble her denial around the sock.

Gloria was on her immediately, digging in her pockets.

She came up with a purple rhinestone covered cell, half charged with a single bar. We all stared at it, almost unable to believe it was real, and more than one of us broke down, weeping, hugging each other like we’d just discovered some long lost treasure.

And then Gloria dialed 911.

Forty-four girls were found in the camp after the police had finished going through the cabins. Carolyn had to be wheeled out of ours on a stretcher and the small part of me that hadn’t gone numb thrilled at the sight of the handcuff linking her to its railing.

The next few hours passed in a blur of red and blue lights, a sea of concerned faces, and a million questions that sailed in one ear and straight out the other. We were allowed to return, one by one, into our bunks to collect our things after they got the closets opened. I grabbed my bag, paused only long enough to stuff one additional souvenir from beneath Gloria’s bed under my clothes, and went back out to wait for my parents.

“I thought you’d be…thinner.” Mom said as she and Dad, who wasted no time in enveloping me in a crushing hug, walked up later that evening.

I gaped at her, wondering if she was seeing the same scene I was: cops, traumatized children, staff being driven away in the backseats of cruisers. I was filthy, haggard, barely able to stand on my own, and her only concern was my weight. Dad wrapped an arm protectively around my shoulders and scowled at her, but predictably, didn’t reproach her. I let him guide me back to the car, Mom’s disappointment burning my ears, and I watched the camp fade into the distance as we drove home.

“Huh, did you know they operated out of different locations every few year? Said it was so they could bring the program to different regions and make it more accessible.” Dad said over breakfast, the morning paper spread out in front of him, “Cops say rotating kept the complaints against them spread out and made it harder to get evidence. By the time anyone investigated, they’d already cleaned up and cleared out! Doesn’t matter though, everyone who worked there is being charged now thanks to what they found.”

In the two months since I’d been home, he’d been following the case against the camp very closely and keeping me updated. The only thing I’d cared about was finding that Grace had been taken to a hospital by Nurse Bianca and that’s where the cops had found her, underfed, dehydrated, a little delirious, but alive. Beyond that, I didn’t want the story, I didn’t want to know, I just wanted to put it behind me. I’d tried telling him that, but he insisted on sharing.

“Ok, Dad, I’m going for a walk.”

He waved me off, engrossed in the latest article, and I headed upstairs to change.

I’d started working out more since I’d recovered, channeling my attention into slowly improving my health instead of focusing on all the pain I was still working through. Mom continued to berate me, but after dealing with Ashley, I found her extremely easy to block out. The therapist I had begun going to said that was a Big Deal.

Behind the closed door to my bedroom, I dug around in my closet, past my clothes and the stash of untouched junk food, and pulled out the towel wrapped souvenir I’d kept hidden since my return.

Carolyn’s piggie prod weighed heavily in my hands. I pressed the trigger, listening to the hum of electricity flowing through it and remembering its bite. I hadn’t known why I’d taken it, it had just been an impulse, but now I knew. It served as a reminder; whenever I felt like I couldn’t take that extra step, couldn’t resist that last bite, I’d think of the prod, and I knew I could overcome anything.

I still had nightmares, still fought with myself daily over what I could eat, how ugly I was, how much of a little piggie I was, but Dr. Sharp said that was all normal after what I’d been through and, given time, it would fade asking as I kept looking ahead. I rewrapped the prod and put it back in its place and I pulled out my running shoes.

I was on my way to my healthier, happier self. One tiny, manageable step at a time.

Penpal: Complete Edition

By Chef 1000Vultures/Dathan Auerbach

//This story has been made into a novel, which you can buy here. The chapters were originally posted as separate stories, what follows is the order they were posted in. If you would prefer to read them in the order the events happened, read them in the following order: Balloons (2), Maps(4), Footsteps(1), Boxes(3), Screens(5), Friends(6). A chronological edition will be uploaded in the future, as well as the individual parts, should you wish to wait for that.

Chapter One: Footsteps

In a quiet room, if you press your ear against a pillow, you can hear your heartbeat. As a kid, the muffled, rhythmic beats sounded like soft footsteps on a carpeted floor, so as a kid, almost every night — just as I was about to drift off to sleep — I would hear these footsteps and I would be ripped back to consciousness, terrified.

For my entire childhood I lived with my mother in a fairly nice neighborhood that was in a transitional phase — people of lower economic means were gradually moving in, and my mother and I were two of these people. We lived in the kind of house you see being transported in two pieces on the interstate, but my mom took good care of it. There were a lot of woods surrounding the neighborhood that I would play in and explore during the day, but at night—as things often do to a kid—they took on a more sinister feeling. This, coupled with the fact that, due to the nature of our house, there was a fairly large crawl space underneath, filled my mind with imaginary monsters and inescapable scenarios which would consume my thoughts when I was awoken by the footsteps.

I told my mom about the footsteps and she said that I was just imagining things; I persisted enough that she blasted my ears with water from a turkey baster once just to placate me, since I thought that would help. Of course it didn’t. Despite all the creepiness and footsteps, the only weird thing that ever happened was that, every now and then, I would wake up on the bottom bunk despite having gone to sleep on the top, but this wasn’t really weird since I’d sometimes get up to piss or get something to drink and could remember just going back to sleep on the bottom bunk (I’m an only child so it didn’t matter). This would happen once or twice a week, but waking up on the bottom bunk wasn’t too terrifying. But one night I didn’t wake up on the bottom bunk.

I had heard the footsteps, but was too far gone to be woken up by them, and when I was awoken it wasn’t from the sound of footsteps or a nightmare, but because I was cold. Really cold. When I opened my eyes I saw stars. I was in the woods. I sat up immediately and tried to figure out what was going on. I thought I was dreaming, but that didn’t seem right, though neither did me being in the woods. There was a deflated pool float right in front of me — one of those ones shaped like a shark. This only added to the surreal feeling, but after a while it seemed like I just wasn’t going to wake up because I wasn’t asleep.

I stood up to orient myself, but I didn’t recognize these woods. I played in the woods by my house all the time, so I knew them really well, but if these weren’t the same woods then how could I get out? I took a step and felt a shooting pain in my foot, which knocked me back to where I had just been laying. I had stepped on a thorn. By the light of the moon I could see that they were everywhere. I looked at my other foot, but it was fine, and as a matter of fact, so was the rest of me. I didn’t have another scratch on me and I wasn’t even that dirty. I cried for a little bit and then stood back up.

I didn’t know which way to go, so I just picked a direction. I resisted the urge to call out since I wasn’t sure I wanted to be found by who or what might be out there.

I walked for what seemed like hours.

I tried to walk in a straight line, and tried to course-correct when I had to take detours, but I was a kid and I was afraid. There weren’t any howls or screams, and only once did I hear any noise that scared me. It sounded like a crying baby. I think now that it was just a cat, but I panicked. I ran veering in different directions to avoid big thicks of bushes and collapsed trees. And I was paying close attention to where I stepped because by that point my feet were in pretty bad shape. I paid too much attention to where I was stepping and not enough to where those steps were leading because not long after hearing the cry I saw something that filled me with a kind of despair I haven’t experienced since. It was the pool float.

I was only ten feet from where I had woken up.

This wasn’t magic or some supernatural space-bending. I was lost. Up until that moment I thought more about getting out of the woods than how I got in, but being back at the beginning caused my mind to swim. I wasn’t even sure that these were my woods; I had only been hoping that they were. Had I run in a huge circle around that spot, or did I just get turned around and start making my way back? How was I going to get out? At the time I thought the north star was just the brightest star, and so I looked and found the brightest one and followed it.

Eventually things started to look more familiar and when I saw “the ditch” (a dirt ditch my friends and I would have dirt-clod wars in) I knew I had made it out. By that point I was walking really slowly because my feet hurt so much, but I was so happy to be so close to home that I broke into a light jog. When I actually saw the roof of my house over a neighboring, lower-set house I let out a light sob and ran faster. I just wanted to be home. I had already decided that I wouldn’t say anything because I had no idea what I could possibly say. I would get back in the house somehow, clean up, and get in bed. My heart sunk as I rounded the corner and my house came fully into view.

Every light in the house was on.

I knew my mom was up, and I knew I would have to explain (or try to explain) where I had been, and I couldn’t even figure out where to start. My run became a jog which became a walk. I saw her silhouette through the blinds, and although I was worried about how to explain things to her that didn’t matter to me at that point. I walked up the couple of steps to the porch and put my hand on the doorknob and turned. Right before I pushed it open two arms wrapped around me and pulled me back. I screamed as loud as I could: “MOM! HELP ME! PLEASE! MOM!” The feeling of being so close to being safe and then being physically pulled away from it filled me with a kind of dread that is, even after all these years, indescribable.

The door I had been torn away from opened, and a flash of hope shot through my heart. But it wasn’t my mom.

It was a man, and he was enormous. I thrashed around and kicked at the shins of the person holding me while also trying to get away from the person who had just come out of my house. I was scared, but I was furious.

“LET ME GO! WHERE IS SHE? WHERE’S MY MOM? WHAT’D YOU DO TO HER!?”

As my throat stung from screaming and I was drawing in another breath I became aware of a sound that had been present for longer than I had perceived it. “Honey, please calm down. I’ve got you.” It sounded like my mom.

The arms loosened and set me down, and as man approaching me blocked out the porch light with his head I noticed his clothes. He was a cop. I turned to face the voice behind me and saw that it really was my mom. Everything was ok. I began to cry, and the three of us went inside.

“I’m so glad you’re home, Sweetie. I was worried I’d never see you again.” By that point she was crying too.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know what happened. I just wanted to come home. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay, just don’t ever do that again. I’m not sure me or my shins could take it…”

A little laughter broke through my sobs and I smiled a bit. “Well I’m sorry for kicking you, but why’d you have to grab me like that?!”

“I was just afraid that you’d run away again.”

I was confused. “What do you mean?”

“We found your note on your pillow,” she said, and pointed at the piece of paper that the police officer was sliding across the table.

I picked up the note and read it. It was a “running away” letter. It said that I was unhappy and never wanted to see her or any of my friends again. The police officer exchanged a few words with my mom on the porch while I stared at the letter. I didn’t remember writing a letter. I didn’t remember anything about any of this. But even if I sometimes went to the bathroom at night and didn’t remember, or even if I could have gone into the woods on my own, even if all that could have been true, the only thing I knew at that point was,

“This isn’t how you spell my name… I didn’t write this letter.”

Chapter Two: Balloons

When I was five years old I went to an elementary school that, from what I’ve come to understand, was really adamant about the importance of learning through activity. It was part of a new program designed to allow children to rise at their own pace, and to facilitate this the school encouraged teachers to come up with really inventive lesson plans. Each teacher was given the latitude to create his or her own themes which would run for the duration of the grade, and all the lessons in math, reading, etc., would be designed in the spirit of the theme. These themes were called “Groups”. There was a “Space” group, a “Sea” group, an “Earth” group, and the group I was in, “Community”.

In Kindergarten in this country, you don’t learn much except how to tie your shoes and how to share, so most of it isn’t very memorable. I only remember two things very clearly: I was the best at writing my name the right way, and the Balloon Project, which was really the hallmark of the Community group, since it was a pretty clever way to show how a community functioned at a really basic level.

You’ve probably heard of this activity. On one Friday (I remember it being Friday because I was excited about the project and it being the end of the week) toward the beginning of the year, we walked into the classroom in the morning and saw that there was a fully-inflated balloon tied off with string taped to each of our desks. Sitting on each of our desks was a marker, a pen, a piece of paper, and an envelope. The project was to write a note on the paper, put it in the envelope, and attach it to the balloon which we could draw a picture on if we wanted. Most of the kids started fighting over the balloons because they wanted different colors, but I started on my note which I had thought a lot about.

All the notes had to follow a loose structure, but we were allowed to be creative within those boundaries. My note was something like this: “Hi! You found my balloon! My name is [Name] and I attend ______________ Elementary school. You can keep the balloon, but I hope you write me back! I like Mighty Max, exploring, building forts, swimming, and friends. What do you like? Write me back soon. Here’s a dollar for the mail!” On the dollar I wrote “FOR STAMPS” right across the front, which my mom said was unnecessary, but I thought it was genius, so I did it.

The teacher took a Polaroid of each of us with our balloons and had us put them in the envelope along with our letter. They also included another letter that I assume explained the nature of the project and sincere appreciation for anyone’s participation in writing back and sending photos of their city or neighborhood. That was the whole idea — to build a sense of community without having to leave the school, and to establish safe contact with other people; it seemed like such a fun idea…

Over the next couple weeks the letters started to roll in. Most came with pictures of different landmarks, and each time a letter would come in, the teacher would pin the picture on a big wall-map we had put up showing where the letter had come from and how far the balloon had traveled. It was a really smart idea, because we actually looked forward to coming to school to see if we had gotten our letter. For the duration of the year we had one day a week where we could write back to our pen-pal or another students’ pen-pal in case our letter hadn’t come in yet. Mine was one of the last to arrive. When I came into the classroom I looked at my desk and once again didn’t see any letter waiting for me, but as I sat down the teacher approached me and handed me an envelope. I must have looked so excited because as I was about to open it she put her hand on mine to stop me and said “Please don’t be upset.” I didn’t understand what she meant — why would I be upset now that my letter had come? Initially I was mystified that she would even know what was in the envelope, but now I realize that of course the teachers had screened the contents to make sure there was nothing obscene, but all the same — how could I be disappointed? When I opened the envelope I understood.

There was no letter.

The only thing in the envelope was a Polaroid, but I couldn’t really make out what it was. It looked like a patch of desert, but it was too blurry to decipher; it appeared as if the camera had been moved while the picture was being taken. There was no return address, so I couldn’t even write back if I wanted to. I was crushed.

The school year pressed on, and the letters had stopped coming for nearly all of the other students. After all, you can only continue a written correspondence with a Kindergartener for so long. Everyone, including myself, had lost interest in the letters almost completely. Then I got another envelope.

My excitement was rejuvenated, and I reveled in the fact that I was still getting a letter when most of the other pen-pals had abandoned their involvement. It made sense that I received another delivery — there had been nothing but a blurry picture in the first one, so this was probably to make up for that. But again there was no letter at all… just another picture.

This one was more distinguishable, but I still didn’t understand it. The photograph was angled way up, catching the top corner of a building, and the rest of the image was distorted by a lense-flare from the sun.

Because the balloons didn’t travel very far, and because they were all launched on the same day, the board became a bit cluttered, and so the policy for the students still exchanging letters became that they could take the photographs home. My best friend Josh had the second highest number of pictures taken home by the end of the year — his pen-pal was really cooperative and sent him pictures from all around the neighboring city; Josh took home, I think, four pictures.

I took home nearly fifty.

The envelopes were all opened by the teacher, but after a while I stopped even looking at the pictures However, I saved them in one of my drawers that housed my collections of rocks, baseball cards, comic book cards (Marvel Metal cards, for those who might remember), and little miniature baseball batting helmets that I’d get out of a vending machine at Winn-Dixie after T-Ball games. With the school year over, my attention turned to other things.

My mom had gotten me a small snow cone machine for Christmas that year, and Josh had really coveted it — so much so that his parents bought him a slightly nicer one for his birthday which was toward the end of the school year. That summer we had the idea that we would set up a snow cone stand to make money; we thought we’d make a fortune selling snow cones at one dollar. Josh lived in a different neighborhood, but we eventually decided that my neighborhood would be better because there were a lot of people who cared for their lawns; the yards in my neighborhood were slightly bigger. We did this for five weekends in a row until my mom told us that we had to stop, and I’ve only recently come to understand why she did that.

On the fifth weekend, Josh and I were counting our money. Because we both had a machine, we each had a separate stack of money that we put together into one stack and we then split it evenly. We had made a total of sixteen dollars that day, and as Josh paid out my fifth dollar, a feeling of profound surprise consumed me.

The dollar said “FOR STAMPS”.

Josh noticed my shock and asked if he had miscounted. I told him about the dollar and he said, “That’s so cool, man!” As I thought about it, I came to agree. The idea that the dollar had made it right back to me after changing so many hands floored me.

I rushed inside to tell my mom, but my excitement coupled with her being distracted by a phone call made my story incomprehensible and she responded simply by saying “Oh wow! That’s neat!”

Frustrated, I ran back outside and told Josh I had something to show him. Back in my room, I opened the drawer and took out the stack of envelopes and showed him some of the pictures. I started with the first picture, and we went through about ten before Josh lost interest and asked if I wanted to go play in the ditch (a dirt ditch down the street from my house) before his mom came to pick him up, so that’s what we did.

We had a “dirt war” for a while, but it was interrupted several times by rustling in the woods around us. There were raccoons and stray cats that lived in there, but this was making a little too much noise and we traded guesses at what it was in an attempt to scare each other. My last guess was that it was a mummy, but in the end Josh kept insisting that it was a robot because of the sounds that we heard. Before we left, he got a little serious and looked me right in the eyes and said, “You heard it didn’t you? It sounded like a robot. You heard it too right?” I had heard it, and since it sounded mechanical I agreed that it was probably a robot. It’s only now that I understand what we heard.

When we got back Josh’s mom was waiting for him at the kitchen table with my mom. Josh told his mom about the robot; our moms laughed and Josh went home. My mom and I ate dinner, and then I went to bed.

I didn’t stay in bed for long before I crept out and decided that, due to the day’s events, I would revisit the envelopes since now the whole affair seemed much more interesting. I took the first envelope and set it on the floor and set the blurry desert Polaroid on top. I laid the second envelope right next to it and placed the oddly angled Polaroid of a building’s top corner on top and did this with each picture until they formed a grid that was about five by ten; I was always taught to be careful with things that I was collecting, even if I wasn’t sure they were valuable.

I noticed that the pictures gradually became more decipherable. There was a tree with a bird on it, a speed limit sign, power line, a group of people walking into some building. And then I saw something that vexed me so powerfully that I can now, as I write this, distinctly remember feeling dizzy and capable of only a single, repeating thought:

“Why am I in this picture?”

In this photograph of the group of people entering the building I saw myself holding hands with my mother in the very back of the crowd of people. We were at the very edge of the photo, but it was undeniably us. And as my eyes swam over the sea of Polaroids I became increasing anxious. It was a really odd feeling — it wasn’t fear, it was the feeling you get when you are in trouble. I’m not sure why I was flooded with that feeling, but there I sat floundering in the distinct sense that I had done something wrong. And this feeling only intensified as I looked on at the rest of the photos after that the one that had so powerfully struck me.

I was in every photo.

None of them were close shots. None of them were only of me. But I was in every single one of them — off to the side, in the back, bottom of the frame. Some of them only had the tiniest part of my face captured at the very edge of the photo, but nevertheless, I was there. I was always there.

I didn’t know what to do. Your mind works in funny ways as a kid, but there was a large part of me that was afraid of getting in trouble simply for still being up. Since I already had the looming feeling of having done something wrong, I decided that I would wait until tomorrow.

The next day, my mom was off work and spent most of the morning cleaning up around the house. I watched cartoons, I imagine, and waited until I thought it was a good time to show her the Polaroids. When she went out to get the mail I grabbed a couple of the pictures and put them on the table in front of me as I sat waiting for her to come back in. When returned she was already opening the mail and threw some junk mail into the trashcan and I said,

“Mom, can you come here for a second? I have these pictures—”

“Just give me a minute, honey. I need to mark these on the calendar.”

After a minute or two, she came and stood behind me and asked me what I needed. I could hear her shuffling with the mail behind me but I just looked at the Polaroids and told her about them. As I explained more and pointed to the pictures her frequent “uh huh”s and “ok”s decreased, and she was suddenly completely quiet and only making a little noise with the mail. The next noise I heard from her sounded as if she was trying to catch her breath in a room that had no air left in it. At last her struggling gasps were conquered and she simply dropped the remaining mail on the table and ran to the kitchen to get the phone.

“Mom! I’m sorry, I didn’t know about these! Don’t be mad at me!”

With the phone pressed to her ear she was walking/running back and forth and shouting into it. I nervously fiddled with the mail sitting next to my Polaroids. The top envelope had something sticking out of it that I thoughtlessly and anxiously pulled on until it came out.

It was another Polaroid.

Confused, I thought that somehow one of my Polaroids had slipped into the stack when she threw the mail down, but when I turned it over and looked at it I realized that I had not seen this one before. To my dismay, it was me, but this one was a much closer shot. I was surrounded by trees and was smiling. But it wasn’t just me, I noticed. Josh was there too. This was us from yesterday.

I started yelling for my mom who was still screaming into the phone. I repeatedly yelled for her until she finally responded with, “What?!” and I could only think to ask, “Who are you calling?”

“I’m talking with the police, honey.”

“But why? I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do anything…”

She answered me with a response that I never understood until I was forced to revisit these events from the earliest years of my life. She grabbed the envelope off the table and the picture of Josh and I spun and slid, landing next to the other Polaroids in front of me. She held the envelope up to my eyes but I could only look at her and watch as all the color began draining out of her face. With tears welling up in her eyes she said that she had to call the police because there was no postmark.

Chapter Three: Boxes

I spent the summer before my first year of elementary school learning how to climb trees. There was one particular pine tree right outside my house that seemed almost designed for me. It had branches that were so low I could easily grab them without a boost, and for the first couple days after I first learned how to pull myself up I would just sit on the lowest branch, dangling my feet. The tree was outside our back fence and was easily visible from the kitchen window which was just above the sink. Before too long my mother and I developed a routine where I would go play on the tree when she washed the dishes because she could easily see me while she did other things.

As the summer passed, my abilities grew and before too long I was climbing fairly high. As the tree got taller, its branches not only got thinner but more widely-spaced. I eventually reached a point where I couldn’t actually climb any higher, and so the game had to change; I began to concentrate on speed, and in the end I could reach my highest branch in twenty-five seconds.

I got too confident and one afternoon I tried to step from a branch before I had firmly grasped the next one. I fell about twenty feet and broke my arm really badly in two places. My mom was running toward me yelling and I remember her sounding like she was underwater — I don’t remember what she said but I do remember being surprised by just how white my bone was.

I was going to start Kindergarten with a cast and wouldn’t even have any friends to sign it. My mom must have felt terrible because the day before I started school she brought home a kitten. He was just a baby and was striped with tan and white. As soon as she put him down he crawled into an empty case of soda that was sitting on the floor. I named him Boxes.

Boxes was only an outside cat when he escaped. My mom had him declawed so he wouldn’t destroy the furniture, so as a result we did our best to keep him inside. He’d get out every now and then, and we’d find him somewhere in the backyard chasing some kind of bug or lizard, though he could hardly ever catch one because he had no front claws. He was pretty evasive, but we’d always catch him and carry him back inside. He’d scramble to look back over my shoulder — I told my mom that it was because he was planning his strategy for next time. Once inside we’d give him some tuna fish, and he came to learn what the sound of the can-opener might signal; he’d come running whenever he heard it.

This conditioning came in handy later because toward the end of our time in that house Boxes would get out much more often and would run under the house into the crawlspace where neither of us wanted to follow because it was cramped and probably crawling with bugs and rodents. Ingeniously, my mom thought to hook the can-opener to an extension cord out back and run it right outside the hole that Boxes had gone through. Eventually he would emerge with his loud meows, looking excited by the sound and then horrified at how we could run such a cruel ruse on him — a can-opener with no tuna made no sense to Boxes.

The last time he escaped to under the house was actually our last day in it. My mom had put the house on the market and we had begun packing our things. We didn’t have much, and we stretched the packing out a while, though I had already packed up all my clothes at my mom’s request — my mom could tell I was really sad about moving and wanted the transition to be smooth for me, and I guess she thought that having my clothes in the box would reinforce the idea that we were moving but things wouldn’t change that much. When Boxes got out as we were loading some things into the moving van my mom cursed because she had already packed the can opener and wasn’t sure where it was. I pretended to go look for it so I wouldn’t have to go under the house, and my mom (probably completely aware of my little scam) moved one of the panels and crawled in. She came out with Boxes pretty quickly and seemed pretty unnerved, which made me feel even better about getting out of it. My mom made some phone calls while I packed a little more, and then she came into my room and told me that she had spoken to the realtor and we were going to start moving into the other house that day. She said it like it was excellent news, but I had thought we had more time in the house — she originally said that we weren’t moving until the end of the next week and it was only Tuesday. What’s more, we weren’t completely finished packing, but my mom said sometimes it was just easier to replace things than pack them and haul them all over the city. I didn’t even get to grab the rest of my boxed clothes. I asked if I could call Josh to say bye, but she said that we could just call him from our new house. We left in the moving van.

I managed to stay in touch with Josh for years, which is surprising since we no longer went to the same school. Our parents weren’t close friends, but they knew that we were and so they would accommodate our desire to see one another by driving us back and forth for sleep-overs — sometimes every weekend. For Christmas one year our parents even pooled their money and got us some really nice walkie-talkies that were advertised to work across a range that extended past the distance between our houses; they also had batteries that could last for days if the walkie-talkie was on but not used. They would only occasionally work well enough that we could talk across the city, but when we stayed-over we’d use them around the house, talking in mock-radio speak that we had taken from movies, and they worked great for that. Thanks to our parents we were still friends when we were ten.

One weekend I was staying over at Josh’s and my mom called me to say goodnight; she was still pretty watchful even when she couldn’t actually watch me, but I had gotten so used to it that I didn’t even notice it, even if Josh did. She sounded upset.

Boxes was missing.

This must have been a Saturday night, because I had spent the night at Josh’s the previous night and was going to go home the next day because we had school on Monday. Boxes had been missing since Friday afternoon; I gathered that she had not seen him since returning home after dropping me off. She must have decided to tell me he was missing because if he didn’t come home before I did then I would be devastated at, not only his absence, but how she could have kept it from me. She told me not to worry. “He’ll come back. He always does!”

But Boxes didn’t come back.

Three weekends later I stayed at Josh’s again. I was still upset about Boxes, but my mom told me that there had been many times when pets had disappeared from home for weeks or even months, only to return on their own; she said they always knew where home was and would always try to get back. I was explaining this to Josh when a thought hit me so hard that I interrupted my own sentence to say it aloud. “What if Boxes thought of the wrong home?”

Josh was confused. “What? He lives with you. He knows where his home is.”

“But, he grew up somewhere else, Josh. He was raised in my old house a couple neighborhoods away. Maybe he still thinks of that place as home, like I do.”

“Ohhh I get it. Well that’d be great! We’ll tell my dad tomorrow and he’ll take us over there so we can look!”

“No he won’t, man. My mom said that we couldn’t ever go back to that place because the new owners wouldn’t wanna be bothered. She said that she told your mom and dad the same thing.”

Josh persisted, “Ok then we’ll just go out exploring tomorrow and make our way to your old house—”

“No! If we get spotted your dad will find out and then so will my mom! We have to go there ourselves… We have to go there tonight…”

It didn’t take that much convincing to get Josh on board since he was usually the one to come up with ideas like this. But we had never snuck out of his house before. It actually turned out to be incredibly easy. The window in his room opened to the back yard and he had a latched wooden fence that wasn’t locked. After those two minor hurtles we slipped off into the night, flashlight and walkie-talkies in hand.

There were two ways to get from Josh’s house to my old house. We could walk on the street and make all the turns or go through the woods, which would take about half the time. It would have taken about two hours to walk there taking the street, but I suggested that we go that way anyway; I told him it was because I didn’t want to get lost. Josh refused and said that if we were seen they might recognize him and tell his dad. He threatened to go home if we didn’t just take the shortcut, and I accepted it because I didn’t want to go by myself.

Josh didn’t know about the last time I walked through these woods at night.

The woods were much less creepy with a friend and a flashlight, and we were making pretty good time. I wasn’t entirely sure where we were, but Josh seemed confident enough and that bolstered my morale. We passed through a particularly thick patch of tangled trees when the strap on my walkie-talkie got caught on a branch. Josh had the flashlight and so I was struggling to get the walkie free when I heard Josh say,

“Hey man, wanna go for a swim?”

I looked over to where he was shining the flashlight, though I closed my eyes as I did, because I now knew where we were. He was pointing at the pool float. This was where I had woken up in these woods all those years ago. I felt a lump in my throat and the sting of fresh tears in my eyes as I continued to struggle with the walkie. Frustrated, I yanked on it hard enough to break it free and I turned and walked to Josh who had partially laid down on the pool float in a mock-sunbathing pose. As I walked toward him I stumbled and nearly fell into a fairly large hole that was sitting in the middle of this small clearing, but I regained my balance and stopped right at its edge. It was deep. I was surprised by the size of the hole, but more surprised by the fact that I didn’t remember it. I realized it must not have been there that night because it was in the same spot where I had awoken. I put it out of my mind and turned to Josh.

“Quit messing around man! You saw I was stuck over there, and you were just laying here joking around on this float!” I punctuated the sentence with a kick to an exposed part of the float. A screeching rose from it.

Josh’s smile inverted. He suddenly looked terrified and was struggling to get off the float, but he couldn’t in a quick manner due to the awkward way he had been laying on it. Each time he would fall back on the float the screeching would intensify. I wanted to help Josh but I couldn’t move myself any closer — my legs wouldn’t cooperate; I hated these woods. I picked up the flashlight that he had thrown in his thrashing and shined in on the float not knowing what to expect. Finally, Josh got off the float and rushed next to me, looking at where I was shining the light. Suddenly there it was. It was a rat. I started laughing nervously and we both watched the rat run into the woods, taking the screeches with it. Josh lightly punched me in the arm, the smile slowly returning to his face, and we continued walking.

We quickened our pace and made it out of the woods faster than we thought we would, and we found ourselves back in my old neighborhood. The last time I had rounded the bend ahead I had seen my house fully illuminated, and all the memories of what transpired came flooding back. I felt a skipping in my heart as we were finally turning the corner and about to face the full view of my house, remembering last time how incandescent it was. But this time all the lights were off. From a distance I could see my old climbing tree and as my mind traced the steps of causality backward I realized that I wouldn’t back here this night if that tree hadn’t grown, and I was briefly in awe of how all events were like that. As we got closer I could see that the lawn looked terrible; I couldn’t even guess when it had last been mowed. One of the shutters had partially broken loose and was rocking back and forth in the breeze, and over all the house just looked dirty. I was sad to see my old home in such a state of disrepair. Why would my mom care if we bothered the new owners if they cared so little about where they lived? And then I realized.

There were no new owners.

The house was abandoned, though it looked simply forsaken. Why would my mom lie to me about our house having new people in it? But, I thought that this was actually a good thing. It would be easier to look around for Boxes if we didn’t have to worry about being spotted by the new family. This would make it much quicker. Josh interrupted my thoughts as we walked through the gate and up to the house itself.

“Your old house sucks, dude!” Josh yelled as quietly as he could.

“Shut up, Josh! Even like this it’s still nicer than your house.”

“Hey man—”

“OK, OK. I think Boxes is probably under the house. One of us has to go under and look, but the other should stay next to the opening in case he comes running out.”

“Are you serious? There’s no way I’m going under there. It’s your cat, man. You do it.”

“Look, I’ll game you for it, unless you’re too scared…” I said holding my fist over my up-turned palm.

“Fine, but we go on ‘shoot’, not on three. It’s ‘rock, paper, scissors, SHOOT’, not ‘one, two, THREE’.”

“I know how to play the game, Josh. You’re the one who always messes up. And it’s two out of three.”

I lost.

I wiggled loose the panel that my mom would always move when we she had to crawl under here for Boxes. She only had to do it a couple of times since the can-opener trick usually worked, but when she had to do it she hated it, especially that last time, and as I looked into the darkness of the crawlspace I had a greater appreciation for why. Before we moved she said that it was actually better that Boxes ran under here, despite how hard it could be to get him out. It was less dangerous than him jumping over the fence and running around the neighborhood. All that was true, but I was still dreading doing this. I grabbed the flashlight and the walkie and began to crawl in; a powerful smell overtook me.

It smelled like death.

I turned on my walkie.

Josh, are you there?

This is Macho Man, come back.

Josh, cut it out. There’s something wrong down here.

What do you mean?

It stinks. It smells like something died.

Is it Boxes?

I really hope not.

I set down the walkie and moved the flashlight around as I crawled forward. Looking through the hole from the outside you could see all the way back with the right lighting, but you had to be inside to see around the support blocks that held the house up. I’d say that there was about forty percent of the area that you couldn’t see unless you were actually in the crawlspace, but even inside I discovered that I could only see directly where the flashlight was pointing; I realized that this would make scouting around the place much more difficult. As I moved forward, the smell intensified. The fear was growing in me that Boxes had come here and something had happened to him. I shined the flashlight around but couldn’t see much of anything. I wrapped my fingers around a support block to pull myself forward and as I did that, I felt something that made my hand recoil.

Fur.

My heart sank and I prepared myself emotionally for what I was about to see. I crawled slowly so I could prolong what I knew was coming and I inched my eyes and the flashlight past the block to see what was on the other side.

I staggered back in horror. “JESUS CHRIST!” escaped my trembling mouth. It was a hideous and twisted creature, badly decomposed. Its skin had rotted away on its face so the teeth appeared to be enormous. And the smell was unbearable.

What is it? Are you ok? Is it Boxes?

I reached for the walkie.

No, no it’s not Boxes.

Well what the hell is it then?

I don’t know

I shined the light on it again and looked at it with less fear in my vision. I chuckled.

It’s a raccoon!

Well keep looking. I’m gonna go into the house to see if he might’ve made it in there somehow.

What? No. Josh, don’t go in there. What if Boxes is down here and runs out?

He can’t. I put the board back.

I looked and saw that he was telling the truth.

Why’d you do that?

Don’t worry man, you can move it easy. This makes more sense. If Boxes ran out and I missed him then he’d be gone. If he’s down there then grab him tight and I’ll come move the board, and if he’s not then you can move it yourself while I look in the house!

Some of his points were good, and I doubted he’d be able to get in anyway.

OK. But be careful and don’t touch anything. There’s a bunch of my old clothes still in boxes in my room, you can look in there to see if he crawled in one. And make sure to bring your walkie.

Roger that, good buddy.

I realized that it would be pitch-black in there; the power would have been turned off since no one was paying the bill. With any luck he’d be able to see from the streetlights that might cast some light inside — otherwise I’m not sure what he’d do.

Before too long I heard footsteps right over my head and felt old dirt raining down on me.

Josh is that you?

chhkkkk Breaker, Breaker. This is Macho Man coming back for the big Tango Foxtrot. The Eagle has landed. What’s your 20, Princess Jasmine? Over.

“Asshole.”

Macho Man, my 20 is in your bathroom lookin’ at your stash of magazines. Looks like you’ve got a thing for dudes’ butts. What’s the report on that? Over.

I could hear him laughing without the walkie and I started laughing too. I head the footsteps fade away a little — he was on his way to my room.

Man, it’s dark in here. Hey, are you sure you had boxes of clothes in here? I don’t see any.

Yeah, there should be a couple boxes in front of the closet.

There aren’t any boxes in here, lemme check to see if you maybe put the boxes in the closet before you left.

I started thinking that maybe my mom had come back and gotten the clothes and just given them away because I had outgrown a lot of them, but I remembered leaving the boxes there — I didn’t even have time to close the last one up before we left.

While I was waiting for Josh to tell me what he found, I kicked out my leg which had started falling asleep because of the position I was in and it hit something. I looked back and saw something really strange. It was a blanket and all around it there were bowls. I crawled a little closer to it. The blanket smelled moldy and most of the bowls were empty but one had something that I recognized still in it.

Cat food.

It was a different kind than we gave to Boxes, but I suddenly understood. My mom had set up a little place for Boxes to encourage him to come here instead of running around the neighborhood. That made a lot of sense, and it seemed even more likely that Boxes would have come back to this place. “That’s so cool, mom,” I thought.

I found your clothes.

Oh cool. Where were the boxes?

Like I said, there are no boxes. Your clothes are in your closet… They’re hanging up.

I felt a chill. This was impossible. I had packed all my clothes. Even though we weren’t supposed to move for another two weeks when we left, I remember packing them and thinking that it was stupid for me to have to get clothes out of the box and put them back in. I had packed them, but someone had hung them back up. Why though?

Josh needed to get out of there.

That can’t be right, Josh. They’re supposed to be in boxes. Stop messing around, and just come back outside.

No joke man. I’m looking at them. Maybe you just thought that you left them. Haha! Wow! You sure like to look at yourself, don’t you?

What? What do you mean?

Your walls, man. Haha. Your walls are covered in Polaroids of yourself! There are hundreds of them! What’d you hire someone to—

Silence.

I checked my walkie to see if I had switched it off somehow. It was fine. I could hear footsteps but couldn’t tell exactly where Josh was going. I waited for Josh to finish his sentence, thinking that his finger had just slipped off the button, but he didn’t continue. He seemed to be stomping around the house now. I was just about to radio him when he came back.

There’s someone in the house.

His voice was hushed and broken — I could hear he was on the verge of tears. I wanted to respond, but how loud was his walkie turned up? What if the other person heard it? I said nothing and just waited and listened. What I heard were footsteps. Heavy, dragging footsteps. And then a loud thud.

“Oh God… Josh.”

He had been found; I was sure of it. This person had found him and was hurting him. I broke out in tears. He was my only friend, next to Boxes. And then I realized: What if Josh told him I was under here? What could I possibly do? As I struggled to compose myself, I thankfully heard Josh’s voice through the walkie.

He’s got something, man. It’s a big bag. He just threw it on the floor. And… oh God, man… the bag… I think it just moved.

I was paralyzed. I wanted to run home. I wanted to save Josh. I wanted to go for help. I wanted so many things but I just lay there, frozen. As I lay unable to move my eyes focused on the corner of the house that was right under my room; I moved my flashlight. My breath hitched at what I saw.

Animals. Dozens of them. All of them dead. They lay in piles all around the perimeter of the crawlspace. Could Boxes be among these corpses? Was this what the cat food was for?

Seeing this broke my shock as I knew I had to get out of there and I scrambled to the board. I pushed on it, but it wouldn’t budge. I couldn’t move it because it was wedged in there and I couldn’t get my fingers around it since the edges were outside. I was trapped. “Goddamn you, Josh!” I whispered to myself. I could feel thunderous footsteps above me. The house was shaking. I heard Josh scream, and it was matched by another scream that wasn’t full of fear.

As I continued pushing I felt the board move, but I knew it wasn’t me who was moving it. I could hear footsteps above me and in front of me and shouting and screaming filling the brief silences between the footsteps. I moved back and held my walkie ready to try to defend myself, and the board was thrown to the side and an arm shot in and grabbed for me.

“Let’s go, man! Now!”

It was Josh. Thank God.

I scrambled out of the opening holding the flashlight and the walkie. When we got to the fence we both jumped it, but Josh’s walkie fell; he reached for it and I told him to forget it. We had to move. Behind us I could hear yelling, though they weren’t words, only sounds. And we, perhaps foolishly, ran for the woods to get back to Josh’s quicker and be somewhat harder to follow. The whole way through the woods Josh kept yelling,

“My picture! He took my picture!”

But I knew the man already had Josh’s picture — from all those years ago at the ditch. I supposed Josh still thought those mechanical sounds were from a robot.

We made it back to Josh’s house and back into his room before his parents woke up. I asked him about the big bag and if it really moved and he said he couldn’t be sure. He kept apologizing about dropping the walkie at the house, but obviously that wasn’t a big deal. We didn’t go to sleep and sat peering out the window waiting for him. I went home later that day as it was about 3am already.

I told my mom the basics of this story a couple days ago. She broke down and was furious about the danger I put myself in. I asked her why she made all those things up about bothering the new owners to stop me from going — why did she think the house was so dangerous? She became irate and hysterical, but she answered my question. She grabbed my hand and squeezed it harder than I thought her capable of and locked her eyes to my, whispering as if she was afraid of being overheard:

“Because I never put any fucking blankets or bowls under the house for Boxes. You weren’t the only one to find them…”

I felt dizzy. I understood so much now. I understood why she had looked so uneasy after she brought Boxes out from under the house on our last day there; she found more than spiders or a rat’s nest that day. I understood why we left almost two weeks early. I understood why she tried to stop me from going back.

She knew. She knew he made his home under ours, and she kept it from me. I left without saying another word and didn’t finish the story for her, but I want to finish it here, for you.

I got home from Josh’s that day I threw my stuff on the floor and it scattered everywhere; I didn’t care, I just wanted to sleep. I woke up around 9pm to the sound of Boxes’ meowing. My heart leapt. He had finally come home. I was a little sick about the fact that if I had just waited a day none of the previous night’s events would have happened and I’d have Boxes anyway, but that didn’t matter; he was back. I got off my bed and called for him looking around to catch a glint of light off his eyes. The crying continued and I followed it. It was coming from under the bed. I laughed a little thinking I had just crawled under a house looking for him and how this was so much better. His meows were being muffled by a shirt, so I flung it aside and smiled, yelling “welcome home, Boxes!”

His cries were coming from my walkie-talkie.

Boxes never came home.

Chapter Four: Maps

There was a comment in the last post that made me remember an event from my childhood that I always took as odd but never considered it to be related to any of these stories. I know now that it is. It’s funny how memories work. The details might all be present in your mind, though scattered and disarrayed, and then a single thought can stitch them back together almost instantly. I never thought of these events much because I was focused on the wrong details. I went back to my mom’s house and went through my old childhood school work looking for something that I think is important. I couldn’t find it, but I’ll keep looking. Again, sorry for the length.

Most old cities and the neighborhoods in them weren’t planned with the thought that the population would begin to grow exponentially and it would have to be accommodated. The layout of the roads is generally originally in response to geographical restrictions and the necessity of connecting points of economic importance. Once the connecting roads are established, new businesses and roads are positioned strategically along the existing skeleton, and eventually the paths carved into the earth are immortalized in asphalt, leaving room only for minor modifications, additions, and alterations, but never a dramatic change.

My childhood neighborhood must have been old, then. If straight lines move “as the crow flies”, then my neighborhood must have been built based on the travels of a snake. The first houses built must have been placed around the lake and gradually the inhabitable area increased as new extensions were built off the original path, but these new extensions all ended abruptly at one point or another — there was only one entrance/exit for the entire neighborhood. Many of these extensions were limited by a tributary which both fed and drank from the lake and passed right by what I came to call (and have called in these stories) “the ditch”. Many of the original homes had enormous yards, but some of those original plots had been divided, leaving properties with smaller and smaller boundaries. An aerial view of my neighborhood would give one the impression that an enormous squid had once died in the woods and some adventuring entrepreneur found the corpse and paved roads over its tentacles, only to withdraw his involvement and leave time, greed, and desperation to divide up the land among prospective home-owners like an embarrassing attempt at the Golden Ratio.

From my porch you could see the old houses that surrounded the lake, but the house of Mrs. Maggie was my favorite. She was, as best as I can remember, around eighty years old, but despite that she was one of the friendliest people I had ever met. She had a head of loose-set, white curls and always wore light dresses with floral patterns. She would talk to me and Josh from her back porch when we were swimming in the lake, and she would always invite us in for snacks. She said that she was lonely because her husband Tom was always away on business, but Josh and I would always decline her invitation because, as nice as Mrs. Maggie was, there was still something a bit odd about her.

Every now and then when we would swim away she would say, “Chris and John, you’re welcome here anytime!” And we could hear her still yelling that when we were walking back into my house.

Mrs. Maggie, like many of the older home-owners, had a sprinkler system that was on a timer, though at some point over the years her timer must have broken because the sprinklers would come on at various points during the day and often even at night all year. While it never got cold enough to snow very much, several times each winter I would go outside in the morning to see Mrs. Maggie’s yard transformed into a surreal arctic paradise by the frozen water. Every other yard stood sterilized and dry by the biting frost of the winter’s cold, but right there in the middle of the bleak reminder of the savagery of the season was an oasis of beautiful ice hanging like stalactites from every branch of every tree and every leaf of every bush. As the sun rose, it reflected off and each piece of ice splintered the sun into a rainbow that would only be viewed briefly before it blinded you. Even as a child I was struck by how beautiful it was, and often Josh and I would go over there to walk on the iced grass and have sword fights with the icicles.

I once asked my mom why she left it on like that. My mom seemed to search for the explanation before she said,
“Well, Sweetie, Mrs. Maggie is sick a lot, and sometimes when she gets really sick, she gets confused. That’s why she messes up yours and Josh’s names sometimes. She doesn’t mean to, but sometimes she just can’t remember. She lives in that big house all by herself so it’s ok if you talk to her when you swim in the lake, but when she invites you in you should keep saying ‘no’. Be polite; her feelings won’t get hurt.”

“But she’ll be less lonely when her husband comes home though, right? How long will he be away on business? It seems like he’s always away.”

My mom seemed to struggle and I could see that she had become very upset. Finally she answered,
“Honey… Tom’s not going to come home. Tom’s in heaven. He died years and years ago, but Mrs. Maggie doesn’t remember. She gets confused and forgets, but Tom’s not ever coming home. If someone moved back in with her she might even think it was Tom, but he’s gone, Sweetie.”

I would have only been around five or six when she told me that, and while I didn’t understand it completely, I was still profoundly sad for Mrs. Maggie.

I know now that Mrs. Maggie had Alzheimer’s. She and her husband Tom had had two sons: Chris and John. The two had worked out payment plans with the utility companies and paid for Mrs. Maggie’s water and electricity, but they would never visit her. I don’t know if something happened between them, or if it was the illness, or if they just lived too far away, but they never came around. I have no idea what they looked like, but there were times when Mrs. Maggie must have thought Josh and I looked like they did when they were children. Or maybe she saw what some part of her mind so desperately wanted her to see; ignoring the images transmitted down her optic nerve and just for a little while showing her what used to be. I realize only now how lonely she must have been.

During the summer after Kindergarten, before the events of “Balloons”, Josh and I had taken to exploring the woods near my house, as well as the tributary of the lake. We knew that the woods between our houses were connected, and we thought it would be neat if the lake near my house was somehow connected to the creek around his, so we resolved ourselves to find out.

We were going to make maps.

The plan was to make two separate maps and then combine them. We would make one map exploring the area around the creek near his house, and make another following the outflow from my lake. Originally, we were going to make one map, but we realized that wasn’t possible since I had started drawing the map of my area so huge that the route from his house wouldn’t have been to scale. We kept the map from the lake at my house and the map from the creek at his house, and we would add to each when we stayed the night with each other.

For the first couple weeks it went really well. We would walk through the woods along the water and pause every couple minutes to add to the map and it seemed like the two maps would come together any day. We had no equipment needed for the job—not even a compass—but we tried to make due. We had the idea to impale the earth with a stick when we had reached the end of a venture so that if we came upon the stick from the other direction the next weekend, we would know we had joined the maps. We might have been the world’s worst cartographers. Eventually, however, the woods became too thick near the water coming from the lake and we were unable to proceed further. We lost interest in the whole project for a bit, and reduced our explorations significantly—though not completely—when we started selling snow cones.

After I showed my mom all the pictures I had taken home from school and she took away my snow cone machine, our interest in the maps revitalized. We had to come up with another plan. Although I didn’t understand why, my mom had placed what I considered to be extremely severe restrictions on what I could do and where I could go, and I had to check in frequently if I went outside to play with Josh. This meant that we couldn’t stay in the woods for hours and continue to look for a new path. We thought that we could just swim when we got to the cutoff in the woods, but that clearly wouldn’t work since the map would get wet. We tried going faster when we were coming from Josh’s house, but we eventually ran into the same problem. Then we had a brilliant idea.

We’d build a raft.

Due to the construction in the neighborhood, there was a large amount of scrap building material that the company would set in the ditch to keep it out of the road and offsite since they no longer needed it for building. We originally conceived of a formidable ship complete with a mast and an anchor, but this quickly diminished into something more manageable. We set aside the wood and took several large pieces of Styrofoam that were backed with foam board and tied them together with rope and kite string.

We launched our vessel a little down water from Mrs. Maggie and waved a farewell to her as she motioned us to come back her way. But there was no stopping us.

The raft worked very well, and while we both behaved and spoke as if the functionality of the raft was a given, I know at least I was a little surprised. We each had a fairly long tree branch to use as a paddle, but we found it was easier to simply push against the land under the water than actually use them as intended. When the water became too deep we’d simply lie on our stomachs and use our hands to paddle the water, which still worked — albeit less well. The first time we had to resort to that method of propulsion, I remember thinking that from far above it must have looked like a colossally fat man with tiny arms was out for a swim.

It actually took us several trips to get the raft to the impassable patch of woods that marked the farthest we had made it. After we had come up with the idea of marking the ground with the stick, we had taken to running through the woods until we got to the stick and then, as carefully and precisely as we knew how, charting our course. This meant that the impasse was actually quite a bit away, so to sail from around my house all the way to the blockade in the woods was taking longer than expected. We’d sail for a bit and then dock the raft, and then next time we’d run through the woods to the raft and go a little farther.

We continued this well into first grade. Josh and I were assigned to different groups that year so, since we didn’t really see one another during the school day, our parents were more willing to let us hang out all weekend each week. What’s more, Josh’s dad had taken on a lengthy construction job that required him to work over the weekends, and his mother was on-call, so this meant that Josh would stay at my house most every weekend for weeks on end.

We should have been making excellent progress, but when we finally made it to the impasse and had the opportunity to explore past it we couldn’t find a place to dock the raft. The woods were simply too thick, and the water had eroded the land to the point that there was nearly a two-foot rise of earth over the tributary which exposed the twisting and damp roots of the trees above. We’d have to turn back every time and leave the raft at the same thick of trees that prompted us to build it in the first place. Even worse, winter had arrived, so we couldn’t justify leaving the house in our swimsuits; we were getting nowhere — we always had to come home before we could gain much ground.

On a Saturday, around 7pm, Josh and I were playing when one of my mom’s coworkers knocked on our door. Her name was Samantha, and I remember her well now because I would propose to her a couple of years later when I was visiting my mom at work. My mom said that she had to go to work to fix a problem that had arisen and that she’d back in about two hours. Her car was being repaired, so she’d have to ride with Samantha, but I gathered that the problem was the Samantha’s fault and discussing it in the car was why it would only take two hours. She said that under no circumstances were we to leave the house or open the door for anyone, and she was in the middle of explaining that she would call every hour when she got there to check in, but she ended that statement prematurely when she remembered that our phone had been turned off for delinquent payments – this was why Samantha had just come by unannounced. She looked me dead in the eye as she was closing the door and said “Stay put.”

This was our chance.

We watched her drive down the serpentine road toward the exit, and as soon as the car rounded the last visible bend we ran back to my room. I dumped my backpack out while Josh grabbed the map.

“Hey, do you have a flashlight?” Josh chimed.

“No, but we’ll be back way before dark.”

“I was thinking just in case, we should have one.”

“My mom has one, but I don’t know where she keeps it… Wait!”

I ran into my closet and pulled a box down from the top shelf.

“You have a flashlight in there?” Josh asked.

“Not exactly…”

I opened the box and revealed three Roman candles that I had taken from the pile that my mother had amassed for the fourth of July that past summer; along with a lighter that I had managed to take from her some months before, this would ensure that we at least had some light if we needed it. This was a little bit before I had been given an opportunity to be afraid of the woods at night, so it wasn’t fear that motivated our search for a light source — only practicality. We threw it all in the backpack and bolted out the backdoor, making sure to close it so Boxes wouldn’t get out. We had one hour and fifty minutes.

We ran through the woods as fast as we could and made it to the raft in about fifteen minutes. We had our bathing suits on under our clothes, so we stripped off our shirts and shorts and left them in two separate piles about four feet from the edge of the water. We untied the raft from the tree, grabbed our branch-paddles, and cast off.

We tried to move rapidly to reach a point beyond the contents of our ever-expanding map, as we didn’t have time to waste seeing old sights. We knew that we were slower in the raft than on land, and that we would be in the raft for quite a while after the cutoff since the woods were too thick to walk through and there wasn’t a place to dock; this meant that we’d have to ride the raft back to the original docking site even if we found a new place to dock it further ahead.

After we passed the last charted part of our map, the water began to get really deep and eventually we could no longer touch the bottom with our tree branches, so we lay on our stomachs and paddled with our hands. It was getting darker and, as a result, it was becoming harder to distinguish the trees from one another, and we were both becoming slightly unnerved. In the interest of making good time we were paddling fast with our arms, but this caused a lot of noise as our hands repeatedly confronted and then broke through the water’s surface tension. During these periods we could both hear the crunching of dead leaves and the snapping of fallen sticks in the woods to our right. As we would slow our pace and quiet our actions, the rustling in the woods would cease, and we began to wonder if it was really ever there at all. We didn’t know what kinds of animals resided this far into the woods, but we did know that we didn’t wish to find out.

As Josh amended the map that I was illuminating with the lighter we were suddenly confronted with the fact that the sounds were not imagined. Rapidly and rhythmically we heard:

crunch
snap
crunch

It seemed to be moving slightly away from us, pushing through the woods just beyond our map. It had become too dark to see. We had misjudged how long the sun would linger.

Nervously, I called out.

“Hello?”

There was a brief moment of breathless tension as we lay static in the water. This silence was suddenly broken by laughter.

Hello?” Josh cackled.

“So what?”

“Hello, Mr. Monster-in-the-woods. I know you’re sneaking around but maybe you’ll answer to my ‘hello’? Hellooooooo!”

I realized how stupid it was. Whatever animal it was, it wouldn’t respond. I hadn’t even realized I’d said it until afterwards, but if anything was actually there I obviously wouldn’t get a reply.

Josh continued, “Helloooooo,” in a high falsetto.

“Helloooo,” I countered with as deep a baritone as I could manage.

“‘ello there mate!”

“Hel-lo. Beep Boop”

“hhheeeEEELLLLOOOoooo”

We continued mocking each other, and were in the process of turning the raft around to head back when we heard,

“Hello.”

It was whispered and forced as if it were powered by the last breath in a pair of deflating lungs, but it didn’t sound sickly. It had come from the spot just off the map, which now sat behind us since we had turned the raft around. I slowly shifted on the raft and faced the direction of the sound as I fumbled with the Roman candle. I wanted to see.

“What’re you doing?!” Josh hissed.

But I had already lit it. As the sparking fuse sunk into the wrapper I held it toward the sky. I had never actually shot one of these myself and thought to just use it like a flair in the movies. A glowing, green orb rocketed out toward the stars and then quickly extinguished. I lowered my arm more toward the horizon; I could remember that there were several colors, but I couldn’t remember how many times one of these fired before being depleted. A second ball of red light burst out and fizzled above the trees, but I still saw nothing.

“Let’s just go, man!” Josh pressed, as he turned to face the direction back home and began paddling desperately.

“Just one more…”

Lowering my arm directly at the woods in front of me, another red ball of fire was launched from the tube. It traveled straight ahead until it collided with a tree, briefly exploding the light in a much greater diameter.

Still nothing.

I dropped the firework in the water and watched as one more struggling fireball burst free only to quickly die, suffocated by the water. As we began paddling in the direction toward my house we heard a loud and unconcealed rustling in the woods. The breaking of branches and the trampling of fallen leaves overpowered the sound of our splashing.

It was running.

In our panic we jostled the raft too violently and I felt one of the ropes under my chest loosen.

“Josh, be careful!”

But it was too late. Our raft was breaking. Before too long it had completely fallen apart. We each held on to a separate piece of Styrofoam, but the pieces weren’t big enough to keep us completely afloat, and our legs dangled beneath us in the winter water.

“Josh! Quick!” I yelled as I pointed at the water right next to him.

He scrambled, but it was too cold to move quickly and we both watched as the map floated away.

“I’m c-c-cold, m-man,” Josh shuddered, dejectedly. “Let’sss get out of the w-water.”

We approached the shore, but each time we attempted to pull ourselves up we’d hear the frantic rustling thundering toward us from the woods just above. Eventually we were too cold and weak to even try anymore.

Steadily we kicked our legs and found ourselves nearing the dock site. We toppled off the debris and tried to pull it on land, but Josh’s piece slipped away and floated in the direction of the lake. We took off our swim suits and were desperate to get into dry clothes to shield us from the biting chill of the air. I slid my shorts, but there was something wrong. I turned to Josh.

“Where’s my shirt, man?”

He shrugged and suggested, “Maybe it got knocked into the water and floated into the lake?”

I told Josh to go back to my house, and to say that we were playing hide and seek if my mom was home. I had to try to find my shirt.

I ran behind the houses and peered out over the water and scouted along the shoreline. It occurred to me that with any luck, maybe I could find the map too. I was moving pretty fast because I needed to get home, and was about to give up when my concentration was interrupted by a sound coming from just behind me.

“Hello.”

I whipped around. It was Mrs. Maggie. I had never seen her at night before, and in this poor light, she looked exceedingly frail. The usual warmth that wrapped her manner seemed to have been snuffed out by the chill. I couldn’t remember ever seeing her without a smile, and so her face looked strange.

“Hello, Mrs. Maggie.”

“Oh, hi Chris!” the warmth and smile had returned to her, even if her memories had not. “I couldn’t see it was you in the dark there.”

Jokingly, I asked her if she was going to invite me in for a snack, but she said maybe another time; I was too busy looking for my map and the shirt to really engage her, but she sounded happy so I didn’t feel bad. She said a couple other things, but I was too distracted to pay attention. I said goodnight and ran down her driveway toward my house. Behind me I could hear her walking across the frozen yard, but I didn’t turn around to wave; I had to get home.

I made it home a couple minutes before my mom did, and by the time she came in Josh and I had already changed clothes and warmed up. We’d gotten away with it, even though we’d lost the map.

“Couldn’t find it?”

“Nah, but I saw Mrs. Maggie. She called me Chris again. I’m telling you dude, just be glad you’ve never seen her at night.”

We both laughed and he asked me if she invited me in for a snack, joking that the snacks must be terrible since she couldn’t even give them away. I told him that she didn’t and he was surprised, and now that I had time to think about it so was I. Literally, every time we had seen her she had invited us in for snacks, and here I had, albeit sarcastically, invited myself, and she said no.

As Josh talked more about Mrs. Maggie I suddenly realized that the lighter might still be in my pocket and that it would be disastrous for my mom to find. I grabbed the shorts off the floor and padded my pockets; I felt something, but it wasn’t the lighter. From my back pocket I slid out a folded piece of paper and my heart leapt. “The map?” I thought. “But I watched it float away.” As I unfolded the paper, my stomach turned as I tried to understand what I was seeing. Drawn on the paper inside of a large oval were two stick figures holding hands. One was much bigger than the other, but neither had faces. The paper was torn so a part of it was missing, and there was a number written near the top right corner. It was either “15” or “16”. I nervously handed Josh the paper and asked him if he had put it in my pocket at some point, but he scoffed at the idea and asked why I was so upset. I pointed toward the smaller stick figure and what was written next to it.

It was my initials.

I shook it off and told Josh the rest of the conversation between Mrs. Maggie and I. I had always attributed the odd exchange to her being sick until revisiting the events in my mind all these years later. As I think about it now, the feeling of profound sadness for Mrs. Maggie returns, but it is augmented by a looming feeling of despair when I think about why she said “maybe another time.” I knew what she had said, but I didn’t understand what it meant that night. I didn’t understand what her words had meant weeks later when I watched men in strange, orange bio-hazard suits carry what I thought were black bags full of garbage out of her house, or why the whole neighborhood smelled like death that day. I still didn’t understand when they condemned the house and boarded it up a little while before we moved. But I understand now. I understand why her last words to me were so important, even if neither she nor I realized it at the time.

Mrs. Maggie had told me that night that Tom had come home, but I know now who had really moved in; just as I know now why I never saw her body brought out on a stretcher.

The bags weren’t filled with garbage.

Chapter Five: Screens

I’ve intentionally withheld some details from a lot of my stories. I’ve let my hopes concerning the way things might be influence my evaluation of the way they actually are. I don’t think there’s any point to that anymore.

At the end of the summer between Kindergarten and first grade I caught the stomach flu. This has all of the components of the regular flu; however, with the stomach flu, you throw up in a bucket and not the toilet because you are sitting on it — the sickness gets purged from both ends. This lasted for about ten days, but just before it had passed the sickness was granted an extension in the form of pink eye. My eyelids were so fused together by the dried mucus generated during the night that the first day I awoke with the infection I thought I had gone blind. When I started first grade, I had a kink in my neck from ten days of bed-rest and two swollen, bloodshot eyes. Josh was in another Group and didn’t have my lunch, so in a cafeteria bursting with two-hundred kids, I still had a table to myself.

I started keeping spare food in my backpack that I would take into the bathroom to eat after lunch since my school meals were usually confiscated by older kids who knew I wouldn’t stand up to them since no one would stand with me. This dynamic persisted even after my condition cleared up since no one wants to be friends with the kid who gets bullied, lest they have some of that aggression directed toward themselves. The only reason this stopped was due to the actions of a kid named Alex.

Alex was in the third grade and was bigger than most of the other kids in any grade. Around the third week of school, he started sitting with me at lunch, and this put an immediate end to the shortage of my food supply. He was nice enough, but he seemed kind of slow; we never really talked at length except for when I finally decided to ask why he had been sitting with me.

He had a crush on Josh’s sister, Veronica.

Veronica was in fourth grade and was probably the prettiest girl in the school. Even as a six-year-old who fully endorsed the notion that girls were disgusting, I still knew how pretty Veronica was. When she was in third grade, Josh told me, two boys had actually gotten into a physical fight which erupted out of an argument concerning the significance of the messages she had written in their yearbooks. One of the boys eventually hit the other in the forehead with the corner of the yearbook and the wound required stitches to close. While not one of those two boys, Alex wanted her to like him and confessed that he knew Josh and I were best friends; I gathered that he had hoped that I would convey his ostensibly philanthropic deed to Veronica and that she would presumably be so moved by his selflessness that she’d take an interest in him. If I told her he would continue to sit with me for as long as I needed him to.

Because this was during the time when Josh mostly stayed at my house building the raft and navigating tributary with me, I didn’t have the chance to bring it up to Veronica because I simply didn’t see her. I told Josh about it and he made fun of Alex, but said that he would tell his sister since I wanted him to. I doubted that he would. Josh was annoyed that people seemed to be so taken with his sister. I remember him calling her an ugly crow. I never said anything to Josh, but I remember wanting to say, even then, that she was pretty and would one day be beautiful.

I was right.

When I was fifteen, I was seeing a movie at a place my friends and I had come to call the Dirt Theatre. It was probably nice at some point, but time and neglect had weathered the place severely. This theatre had movable tables and chairs on a level floor, so when the theatre was full, there were very few places you could sit and see the whole screen. The theatre was still open, I imagine, for three reasons: 1) it was cheap to see a movie there; 2) they showed a different cult movie twice a month at midnight; and 3) they sold beer to underage kids during the midnight showings. I went for the first two, and that night they were showing Scanners by David Cronenberg for $1.00.

My friends and I were sitting in the very back. I wanted to sit closer to the front for a better view, but Ryan had driven us so I relented. A couple minutes before the movie started, a group of girls walked in. They were all pretty attractive, but whatever beauty they might have had was eclipsed by the girl with the dirty blonde hair, even though I had only caught a glimpse of her profile. As she turned to move her seat, I caught a full view of her face which gave me the feeling of butterflies in my stomach — it was Veronica.

I hadn’t seen her in a long time. Josh and I saw progressively less of one another after we snuck out to my old house that night when we were ten, and usually when I’d visit him she’d be out with friends. While everyone stared at the screen, I stared at Veronica — only looking away when the feeling that I was being a creep overcame me, but that feeling would quickly subside and my eyes would return to her. She really was beautiful, just like I had thought she’d be when I was a kid. When the credits started to roll my friends got up and left; there was only one exit and they didn’t want to be trapped waiting for the crowd to clear. I lingered in hopes of catching Veronica’s attention. As she and her friends walked by I took a chance.

“Hey, Veronica.”

She turned toward me looking a little startled.

“Yeah?”

I got out of my seat and stepped a little into the light coming in through the open door.

“It’s me. Josh’s old friend from way back… How… How’ve you been?”

“Oh my god! HEY! It’s been so long!” she motioned to her friends that she’d be out in a second.

“Yeah, a few years at least! Not since the last time I stayed over with Josh. How is he anyway?”

“Oh, that’s right. I remember all you guys’ games. Do you still play Ninja Turtles with your friends?”

She laughed a little and I blushed.

“No. I’m not a kid anymore… Me and my friends play X-men now.” I was really hoping she’d laugh.

She did. “Haha! You’re cute. Do you come to these movies every time?”

I was still reeling from what she said.

Does she really think I’m cute? Did she just mean I was funny? Does she think I’m attractive?

I suddenly realized that she had asked me a question, and my mind grasped for what it was.

“YEAH!” I said much too loudly. “Yeah, I try to anyway… what about you?”

“I come every now and then. My boyfriend didn’t like these movies but we just broke up so I plan on coming from now on.”

I was trying to be casual, but failed. “Oh, well that’s cool… not that you guys broke up! I just meant that you’d be able to come more often.”

She laughed again.

I tried to recover, “So are you coming the week after next? They’re supposed to show Day of the Dead. It’s really cool.”

“Yeah, I’ll be here.”

She smiled, and I was about to suggest that maybe we could sit together when she quickly closed the space between us and hugged me.

“It was really good to see you,” she said with her arms around me.

I was trying to think of what to say when I realized the biggest problem was that I had forgotten how to talk. Luckily Ryan, who I could hear approaching from the hallway, came in and spoke for me.

“Dude. You know the movie’s over right? Let’s get the fuck outtu— OHHH YEAAHHH.”

Veronica let go and said that she’d see me next time. She was played out of the room by the porn music Ryan was making with his mouth. I was furious, but it dissipated as soon as I heard Veronica laughing in the lobby.

Day of the Dead couldn’t come soon enough. Ryan’s family was going out of town so he wouldn’t be able to drive us, and the other friends I was with that night didn’t have cars. A couple of days before the movie I asked my mom if she could take me. She responded almost immediately by denying my request, but I persisted and she picked up on the desperation in my voice. She asked why I wanted to go so badly since I had seen the movie before and I hesitated before saying that I was hoping to see a girl there. She smiled and asked playfully if she knew the girl and I reluctantly told her it was Veronica. The smile disappeared from her face and she coldly said “No.”

I decided that I would call Veronica to see if she could pick me up. I had no idea if she still lived at home, but it was worth a try. But then I realized that Josh might answer. I hadn’t talked to him in almost three years, and if he answered I obviously couldn’t ask to talk to his sister. I felt guilty for calling to speak with Veronica and not Josh, but I dismissed that feeling quickly; Josh hadn’t called me in years either. I picked up the phone and dialed the number that was still embedded in my muscle memory from having dialed it so often all those years ago.

It rang several times before someone picked up. It wasn’t Josh. I felt a mixture of both relief and disappointment — I realized in that second that I really missed Josh. I would call after this weekend and talk to him, but this was my only chance to see if Veronica could or would take me so I asked for her.

The person told me I had dialed the wrong number.

I repeated the number back to her, and she confirmed. She said they must have changed their number and I agreed. I apologized for the disturbance and hung up. I was suddenly intensely sad because now I couldn’t contact Josh even if I wanted to; I felt terrible for having been afraid that he might answer the phone. He had been my very best friend. I realized that the only way I could be put back in touch with him would be through Veronica, so now, not that I needed one, I had another reason to see her.

I told my mom the day before the movie that I was no longer concerned with going, but was hoping she could drop me off at my friend Chris’ house. She relented and dropped me off that Saturday a couple of hours before the movie. My plan was to walk from his house to the theatre since he only lived about a half-mile away. They went to church early on Sundays so his parents would go to sleep early Saturday night, and Chris was fine with not coming with me since he had planned on chatting with this girl he met online. He said that the walk back to his house would be even lonelier after she laughed in my face when I tried to kiss her, and I told him not to electrocute himself when he tried to have sex with his computer.

I left his house at 11:15.

I tried to pace myself so I’d get there just a little before the movie. I was going by myself and so I didn’t want to just hang around there waiting. On the way to the theatre I figured that if Veronica showed up at all it would be too lucky for us to arrive at the same time, so I debated whether I should wait outside or just go in. Both had their pros and cons. As I was grappling with these concerns I noticed that the steady stream of streaking car lights that had been overtaking me had been replaced by a single, constant spotlight that refused to pass. The road wasn’t illuminated by streetlights, so I was walking in the grass with the road about two feet to my left; I stepped a little more to my right and craned my neck over my left shoulder to see what was behind me.

A car had stopped about ten feet behind me.

All I could see were the violently bright headlights that were cutting through the otherwise stygian surroundings. I thought that it might be one of Chris’ parents; maybe they had come to check in on us and seen that I was gone. It wouldn’t have taken much pressing for Chris to confess. I took one step toward the car, and it broke its pause and started driving toward me at a slow pace. It passed me and I saw that it wasn’t Chris’ parents’ car, or any car that I recognized for that matter. I tried to see the driver, but it was too dark, and my pupils had shrunk when faced with the blinding lights from the car just moments before. They adjusted enough so that I could see a tremendous crack in the back window of the car as it drove away.

I didn’t think much of the whole affair; some people find it fun to scare other people — I’d often hide around corners and jump out at my mom, after all.

I timed it right and got there about ten minutes before the movie. I had decided to wait outside until around 11:57, since that would give me time to find her inside if she was already seated. As I was considering the possibility that she might not show, I saw her.

She was alone, and she was beautiful.

I waved to her and walked to close the distance. She smiled and asked if my friends were already inside. I said that they weren’t and realized that this must seem like I was trying to make this a date. She didn’t seem bothered by that, nor was she bothered when I handed her the ticket I had already bought. She looked at me quizzically, and I said, “Don’t worry, I’m rich.” She laughed and we went inside.

I bought us one popcorn and two drinks and spent most of the movie debating whether or not I should time reaching my hand into the popcorn bag when she reached in so they would touch. She seemed to enjoy the movie and before I knew it, it was over. We didn’t linger in the theatre, and because this was a midnight show we couldn’t loiter in the lobby, so we walked outside.

The parking lot of the theatre was big because it connected with a mall that had gone out of business. Not wanting the night to be over just yet, I continued the conversation while casually walking toward the old mall. As we were about to round the corner and leave the theatre out of sight, I looked back and saw that her car wasn’t the only one left in the parking lot.

The other one had a large crack in the back window.

My immediate uneasiness turned to understanding.

That makes a lot of sense. The driver of that car works here and must have figured I was on my way to the movie.

Injecting real horror into the life of a horror fan seemed like an obvious move.

We walked around the mall and talked about the movie. I told her that I thought Day of the Dead was better thanDawn of the Dead, but she refused to agree. I told her of when I called her old number and about my dilemma about who would answer the phone. She didn’t find it as funny as I now did, but she took my phone and put her number in it. She commented that it might be the worst cell phone she’d ever seen. Her evaluation wasn’t rescinded when I told her I couldn’t even receive pictures on it. I called her so she’d have my number and she programmed it in.

She told me that she was graduating, but she hadn’t done well in school so far that year so she wasn’t sure if she’d even get into college. I told her to attach a picture of herself to the application and they’d pay her to go there just so they could look at her. She didn’t laugh at that one and I thought she might be offended — she might have thought I was implying that she couldn’t get in based on her intelligence. I nervously glanced at her and she was just smiling and even in this poor light I could see that she was blushing. I wanted to hold her hand but I didn’t.

As we walked down the final side of the mall back toward the theatre, I asked her about Josh. She told me she didn’t want to talk about it. I asked her if he was at least doing alright and she just said “I don’t know.” I figured Josh must have taken a wrong turn somewhere and started getting into trouble. I felt bad. I felt guilty.

As we approached the parking lot I noticed that the car with the cracked back window was gone and that her car was now the only one in the parking lot. She asked me if I needed a ride, and even though I really didn’t, I said that I’d appreciate it. I had drunk my whole soda during the movie and all the walking was putting pressure on my bladder. I knew that I could wait until I was back at Chris’, but I had decided that I was going to try to kiss her when she dropped me off, and I didn’t want this biological nagging to rush me out of the car. This would be my first kiss.

I could think of no ruse to conceal what I needed to do. The theatre had long closed so I only had one option. I told her that I was going to go behind the theatre to piss but that I’d be back in “two shakes”. It was obvious that I thought it was hilarious and she seemed to laugh more at how funny I found it than at how funny it clearly was.

On the way toward the theatre I stopped and turned toward her. I asked her if Josh had ever told her that kid named Alex had done something nice for me. She paused to think for a moment and said that he had; she enquired as to why I had asked, but I said it was nothing. Josh really was a good friend.

When I went to go behind the theatre I realized that there was a chain-link fence extending off and running parallel to the walls of the building. Where I stood she could still see me, and the fence seemed to stretch on endlessly, so I thought I’d just hop it, duck out of sight, and return as quickly as I could. It may have been too much of an effort, but I thought it polite. I climbed the fence and walked just a little ways until I was out of sight and urinated.

For a moment the only sounds were the crickets in the grass behind me and the collision of liquid and cement. These sounds were overpowered by a noise that I can still hear when it is quiet and there are no other noises to distract my ears.

In the distance I heard a faint screeching which quickly subsided only to be replaced with a cascade of thundering vibrations. I realized quickly enough what it was.

It was a car.

The growling of the engine got louder. And then I thought.

No. Not louder. Closer.

As soon as I realized this I started back toward the fence, but before I could get very far at all I hear a brief, truncated scream, and the roar of the engine terminated in a deafening thud. I started running, but after only two or three steps I was tripped by a loose piece of stone and fell hard and fast onto the concrete — my head striking the corner of a chair as I fell. I was dazed for maybe thirty seconds, but the renewed rumbling of the engine drew my senses back and my equilibrium was restored by adrenaline. I redoubled my efforts. I was worried that whoever had crashed the car might harass Veronica. As I was climbing over the fence I saw that there was still only one car in the parking lot. I didn’t see any evidence of a crash. I thought that I might have misjudged its direction or proximity. As I ran toward Veronica’s car and as my orientation changed, I saw what the car had hit. My legs stopped working almost completely.

It was Veronica.

Her car was sitting between us and as I closed the distance and walked around it she came fully into view.

Her body was twisted and crumpled like a discarded figure meant to represent a catalog of things the human body cannot do. I could see the bone of her right shin cutting through her jeans, and her left arm was wrapped so hard around the back of her neck that her hand fell on her right breast. Her head was craned back and her mouth hung widely open toward the sky. There was so much blood. As I looked at her I actually found it hard to discern whether she was laying on her back or her stomach, and this optical illusion made me feel sick. When you are confronted with something in the world that simply doesn’t belong, your mind tries to convince itself that it is dreaming, and to that end it provides you with that distinct sense of all things moving slowly as if through sap. In that moment I honestly felt that I would wake up any minute.

But I didn’t wake up.

I fumbled with my phone to call for help but I had no signal. I could see Veronica’s phone sticking out of what I thought was her front right pocket. I had no choice. Trembling, I reached for her phone and as I slid it out she moved and gasped for air so violently that it seemed as if she were trying to breathe in the whole world.

This startled me so much that I staggered back and fell onto the asphalt with her phone my hand. She was trying to adjust her body to get it into its natural position, but with every spasm and jerk I could hear the cracking and grinding of her bones. Without thinking, I scrambled over to her and put my face over hers and just said,

“Veronica, don’t move. Don’t move, OK? Just stay still. Don’t move. Veronica, please just don’t move.”

I kept saying it but the words started to fall apart as tears came streaming down my face. I opened her phone. It still worked. It was still on the screen where she had saved my number and when I saw that, I felt my heart break a little. I called 911 and waited with her, telling her that she would be ok, and feeling guilty for lying to her every time I said it.

When the sound of sirens tore through the air she seemed to become more alert. She had remained conscious since I found her, but now more of the light was coming back into her eyes. Her brain was still protecting her from pain, though it looked as if it was finally allowing her to become aware that something was terribly wrong with her. Her eyes rolled over to mine and her lips moved. She was struggling, but I heard her.

“Hhh…he…P…pi…picture. M…my picture…he took it.”

I didn’t understand what she meant, so I said the only thing I could. “I’m so sorry, Veronica.”

I rode with her in the ambulance where she finally lost consciousness. I waited in the room that they had reserved for her. I still had her phone so I put it with her purse and I called my mom from the hospital phone. It was about 4am. I told her that I was fine, but that Veronica was not. She cursed at me and said she’d be right there, but I told her I wasn’t leaving until Veronica was out of surgery. She said she’d come anyway.

My mom and I didn’t speak that much. I told her I was sorry for lying, and she said that we’d talk about that later. I think that had we talked more in that room—if I had just told her about Boxes or the night with the raft; if she had just told me more of what she knew—I think that things would have changed. But we sat there in silence. She told me that she loved me and that I could call her whenever I wanted her to come get me.

As my mom was leaving Veronica’s parents rushed in. Her dad and my mom exchanged a few words that appeared to be quite serious while Veronica’s mother talked to the person at the desk. Her mother was a nurse, but didn’t work at this hospital. I’m sure that she had tried to get Veronica transferred, but her condition was prohibitive. While we waited the police came in and talked to each of us — I told them what happened, they made some notes, and then they left. She came out of surgery and ninety percent of her body was covered in a thick, white cast. Her right arm was free, but the rest of her was bound like a cocoon. She was still under, but I remembered how I felt when I had my cast before Kindergarten. I asked a nurse for a marker, but I couldn’t think of anything to write. I slept in a chair in the corner, and went home the next day.

I came back every afternoon for several days. At some point they had moved another patient into her room and set up a screen around Veronica’s bed to act as a partition. She didn’t seem to be feeling better, but she made more moments of lucidity. But even during these periods we wouldn’t really talk. Her jaw had been broken by the car, so the doctors had wired it shut. I sat with her for a while, but there was nothing much I could say. I got up and walked over to her. I kissed her on the forehead and she whispered through her clenched teeth,

“Josh…”

This surprised me a little, but I looked at her and said, “Has he not come to see you?”

“No…”

I found myself really irritated. “Even if Josh had been getting into trouble, he should still come see his sister,” I thought.

I was about to express this when she said, “No… Josh… he ran away… I should’ve told you.”

I felt my blood turn to ice.

“When? When did this happen?”

“When he was thirteen.”

“Did… did he leave a note or something?”

“On his pillow…”

She started crying and I followed her, but I think now we were crying for different reasons even if I didn’t realize it. At this point there were a lot of things I still didn’t remember about my childhood, and there were a lot of connections I hadn’t yet made. I told her I had to go but that she could text me any time.

I got a text from her the next day telling me not to come back. I asked why and she said she didn’t want me to see her like that again. I agreed begrudgingly. We texted each other every day, though I kept this from my mom because I knew that she didn’t like me talking to Veronica. Usually her texts were fairly short, and mostly only in response to more lengthy texts that I would send her. I tried calling her only once, I was sure she was screening her calls, but hoped I could hear her voice; she picked up but didn’t say anything — I could hear how labored her breathing was. About a week after she told me not to come see her anymore she sent me a text that simply read,

“I love you.”

I was filled with so many different emotions, but I responded by expressing the most prevalent one. I replied,

“I love you, too.”

She said that she wanted to be with me, and that she couldn’t wait until she could see me again. She told me that she had been released and was convalescing at her house. These exchanges carried on for several weeks, but every time I asked to come see her, she would say “soon”. I kept insisting and the following week she said that she thought she might be able to make it to the next midnight movie. I couldn’t believe it, but she insisted that she would try. I got a text from her the afternoon of the movie saying,

“See you tonight.”

I got Ryan to drive me since Chris’ parents had found out what had happened and said I wasn’t welcome at their house anymore. I explained to Ryan that she might be in bad shape, but that I really cared about her so to give us some space. He accepted that and we headed down there.

Veronica didn’t show.

I had saved a seat for her right next to me near the exit so she could get in and out easily, but ten minutes into the movie a man slid into the chair. I whispered, “Excuse me, this seat is taken,” but he didn’t respond at all; he just stared ahead at the screen. I remember wanting to move because there was something wrong with the way he was breathing. I forfeited because I realized that she wasn’t coming.

I texted her the next day asking if she was alright and I enquired as to why she didn’t show the previous night. She responded with what would turn out to be the last message I’d receive from her. She simply said,

“See you again. Soon.”

She was delirious, and I was worried about her. I sent her several replies reminding her about the movie and saying it was no big deal but she just stopped replying. I grew increasingly upset over the next several days. I couldn’t reach her at her home because I didn’t know that number, and I wasn’t even sure where they lived. My mood became increasingly depressed, and my mother, who had been really nice as of late, asked me if I was OK. I told her that I hadn’t heard from Veronica in days, and I felt all the warmth leave her disposition.

“What do you mean?”

“She was supposed to meet me at the movies yesterday. I know it’s only been like three weeks since she got hit, but she said she would try to come, and after that she just stopped talking to me altogether. She must hate me.”

She looked confused, and I could read on her face that she was trying to tell if my mind had simply broken. When she saw that it hadn’t, her eyes began to water and she pulled me toward her, embracing me. She was beginning to sob, but it seemed too intense a reaction to my problem, and I had no reason to think that she particularly cared for Veronica. She drew in a shuttering breath and then said something that still makes nauseous, even now. She said,

“Veronica’s dead, sweetheart. Oh God, I thought you knew. She died on the last day you visited her. Oh baby, she died weeks ago.”

She had completely broken down, but I knew it wasn’t because of Veronica. I broke the embrace and staggered backwards. My mind was swimming. This wasn’t possible. I had just exchanged messages with her yesterday. I could only think to ask one question, and it was probably the most trivial I could ask.

“Then why was her phone still on?”

She continued sobbing. She didn’t answer.

I exploded, “WHY DID IT TAKE THEM SO LONG TO SHUT OFF HER GODDAMNED PHONE?!”

Her crying broke enough to mutter, “The pictures…”

I would come to find out that her parents thought that her phone had been lost in the accident, despite the fact that I had put it in her purse the night she was brought to the hospital. When they retrieved her belongings the phone was not among them. They intended to contact the phone company at the end of the billing cycle to deactivate the line, but they received a call informing them of a massive impending charge for hundreds of pictures that had been sent from her phone. Pictures. Pictures that were all sent to my phone. Pictures that I never got because my phone couldn’t receive them. They learned that they were all sent after the night she died. They deactivated the phone immediately.

I tried not to think about the contents of those pictures. But I remember wondering for some reason whether I would have been in any of them.

My mouth went dry and I felt the painful sting of despair as I thought of the last message I received from her phone…

See you again. Soon.

Chapter Six: Friends

On the first day of Kindergarten my mother had elected to drive me to school; we were both nervous and she wanted to be there with me all the way up to the moment I walked into class. It took me a bit longer to get ready in the morning due to my still-mending arm. The cast came up a couple inches past my elbow which meant that I had to cover the entire arm with a specially-designed latex bag when I showered. The bag was built to pull tight around the opening in order to seal out any water that might otherwise destroy the cast. I had gotten really adept at cinching the bag myself; that morning, however, perhaps due to my excitement or nervousness, I hadn’t pulled the strap tight enough and halfway through the shower I could feel water pooling inside the bag around my fingers. I jumped out and tore the latex shield away, but could feel that the previously rigid plaster had become soft after absorbing the water.

Because there is no way to effectively clean the area between your body and a cast, the dead skin that would normally have fallen away merely sits there. When stirred by moisture like sweat it emits an odor, and apparently this odor is proportionate to the amount of moisture introduced, because soon after I began attempting to dry it I was struck by the powerful stench of rot. As I continued to frantically rub it with the towel it began to disintegrate. I was growing increasingly distressed — I had put as much effort as a child could into his very first day of school. I had sat with my mom picking out my clothes the night before; I had spent a great deal of time picking out my backpack; and I had become exceedingly excited to show everyone my lunchbox that had the Ninja Turtles on it. I had fallen into my mom’s habit of calling these children I hadn’t yet met my “friends” already, but as the condition of my cast worsened, I became deeply upset at the thought that surely I wouldn’t be able to apply that label to anyone by the time this day was over.

Defeated, I showed my mom.

It took thirty minutes to get most of the moisture out while working to preserve the rest of the cast. To address the problem of the smell my mom cut slivers off a bar of soap and slid them down into the cast, and then rubbed the remainder of the soap on the outside in an attempt to cocoon the rancid smell inside of a more pleasant one. By the time we arrived at the school my classmates were already engaged in their second activity and I was shoehorned into one of the groups. I wasn’t made very clear on what the guidelines of the activity were and within about five minutes, I had violated the rules so badly that each member of the group complained to the teacher and asked why I had to be in their group. I had brought a marker to school in hopes that I could collect some signatures or drawings on my cast next to my mother’s, and I suddenly felt very foolish for having even put the marker in my pocket that morning.

Kindergarteners had the lunchroom to themselves at my elementary school, but some of the tables were off limits, so I didn’t have to sit alone. I was self-consciously picking at the fraying ends of my cast when a kid sat across from me.

“I like your lunchbox,” he said.

I could tell he was making fun of me, and I grew really angry; in my mind that lunchbox was the last good thing about my day. I didn’t look up from my arm, and I felt a burning in my eyes from the tears that I was holding back. I looked up to tell the kid to leave me alone, but before I could get the words out I saw something that made me pause.

He had the exact same lunchbox.

I laughed. “I like your lunchbox too!”

“I think Michelangelo’s the coolest,” he said while miming Nunchuck moves.

I was in the middle of rebutting by saying that Raphael was my favorite when he knocked his open carton of milk off the table and onto his lap.

I tried very hard to stifle my laughter since I didn’t know him at all, but the struggling look on my face must have struck him as funny because he started laughing first. Suddenly, I didn’t feel so bad about my cast, and thought that this person would hardly notice now anyway. Just then, I thought to try my luck.

“Hey! Do you wanna sign my cast?”

As I pulled out the marker he asked me how I broke it. I told him that I fell out of the tallest tree in my neighborhood; he seemed impressed. I watched him laboriously draw his name, and when he was done I asked him what it said.

He told me it said “Josh”.

Josh and I had lunch together every day, and whenever we could we partnered up for projects. I helped him with his handwriting, and he took the blame when I wrote “Fart!” on the wall in permanent marker. I would come to know other kids, but I think I knew even then that Josh was my only real friend.

Moving a friendship outside of school when you are five years old is actually more difficult than most remember. The day we launched our balloons we had such a good time that I asked Josh if he wanted to come to my house the next day to play. He said he did and that he’d bring some of his toys; I said that we could also go exploring and maybe swim in the lake. When I got home, I asked my mom and she said it would be fine. My enthusiasm was boundless until I realized that I had no way of contacting Josh to tell him. I spent the whole weekend worrying that our friendship would be dissolved by Monday.

When I saw him after the weekend I was relieved to find that he had run into the same obstacle and thought it was funny. Later that week we both remembered to write down our phone numbers at home and then exchange them at school. My mom spoke with Josh’s dad, and it was decided that my mom would pick up Josh and myself from school that Friday. We alternated this basic structure nearly every weekend; the fact that we lived so close made things much easier on our parents, who seemed to work constantly.

When my mom and I moved across the city at the end of first grade, I was sure that our friendship had seen its last day; as we drove away from the house I had lived in my whole life I felt a sadness that I knew wasn’t just about a house — I was saying goodbye to my friend forever. But, Josh and I—to my surprise and delight—stayed close.

Despite the fact that we spent the majority of our time apart and only saw one another on weekends, we remained remarkably similar as we grew. Our personalities coalesced, our senses of humor complimented each other’s, and we would often find that we had started liking new things independently. We even sounded enough alike that when I stayed with Josh he would sometimes call my mom pretending to be me; his success rate was impressive. My mom would sometimes joke that the only way she could tell us apart sometimes was by our hair — he had straight, dirty-blonde hair like his sister, while I had curly, dark brown hair like my mother.

One would think that the thing most likely to drive two young friends apart would be what’s out of their control; however, I think the catalyst of our gradual disengagement was my insistence that we sneak out to my old house to look for Boxes. The next weekend I invited Josh over to my house, in keeping with our tradition of alternating houses, but he said that he wasn’t really feeling up to it. We started seeing progressively less of one another over the next year or so; it had gone from once a week, to once a month, to once every couple months.

For my twelfth birthday, my mom threw a party for me. I hadn’t made that many friends since we’d moved, so it wasn’t a surprise party since my mom had no idea who to invite. I told the handful of kids I’d become acquainted with and called Josh to see if he wanted to come. Originally, he said that he didn’t think he could make it, but the day before the party he called me to say that he’d be there. I was really excited because I hadn’t seen him in several months.

The party went pretty well. My biggest concern was that Josh and the other kids wouldn’t get along, but they seemed to like each other well enough. Josh was surprisingly quiet. He hadn’t brought me a gift and apologized for that, but I told him it wasn’t a big deal — I was just glad that he was able to make it. I tried to start several conversations with him, but they seemed to keep reaching dead ends. I asked him what was wrong; I told him that I didn’t get why things had become so awkward between us — they were never like that before. We used to hang out almost every weekend and talk on the phone every couple days. I asked him what happened to us. He looked up from staring at his shoes and just said,

“You left.”

Just after he said that my mom yelled in from the other room that it was time to open presents. I forced a smile and walked into the dining room as they sang “Happy Birthday”. There were a couple of wrapped boxes and a lot of cards since most of my extended family lived out of state. Most of the gifts were silly and forgettable, but I remember that Brian gave me a Mighty Max toy shaped like a snake that I kept for years afterwards. My mom was insistent that I open all the cards that had been brought and thank each person who had given one, because several years before on Christmas, I had torn through the wrapping paper and envelopes with such fervor that I had destroyed any possibility of discerning who had sent which gift or what amount of money. We separated the ones that had been sent by mail and the ones that had been brought that day so my friends wouldn’t have to sit through me opening cards from people they had never met. Most of the cards from my friends had a couple dollars in them, and the ones from my family members contained larger bills.

One envelope didn’t have my name written on it, but it was in the pile so I opened it. The card had a generic floral pattern on its face and seemed to be a card that had been received by someone else who was now recycling it for my birthday because it was actually a little dingy. I actually appreciated the idea that it was a reused card since I’d always thought that cards were silly. I angled it so that the money wouldn’t fall to the floor when I opened it, but the only thing inside was the message that had come printed in the card.

“I Love You.”

Whoever had given me this card hadn’t written anything in it, but they had circled the message in pencil a couple times.

I chuckled a little and said, “Gee, thanks for the awesome card, mom.”

She looked at me quizzically and then turned her attention to the card. She told me it wasn’t from her and seemed amused as she showed my friends, looking at their faces trying to discern who had played the joke. None of the kids stepped forward, so my mom said,

“Don’t worry sweetheart, at least you know now that two people love you.”

She followed that with an extremely prolonged and excruciating kiss on my forehead that transformed the group’s bewilderment into hysteria. They were all laughing so it could have been any of them, but Mike seemed to be laughing the hardest. To become a participant rather than the subject of the gag, I said to him that just because he had given me that card he shouldn’t think that I’d kiss him later. We all laughed, and as I looked at Josh I saw he was finally smiling.

“Well, I think that gift might be the winner, but you have a couple more to open.”

My mom slid another present in front of me. I was still feeling the tremors of suppressed chuckles in my abdomen as I tore the colorful paper away. When I saw the gift I had no need to suppress the laughter anymore. My smile dropped as I looked at what I’d been given.

It was a pair of walkie-talkies.

“Well go on! Show everyone!”

I held them up, and everyone seemed to approve, but as I drew my attention to Josh I could see that he had turned a sickly shade of white. We locked eyes for a moment and then he turned and walked into the kitchen. As I watched him dial a number on the corded phone attached to the wall my mom whispered in my ear that she knew that Josh and I didn’t talk as much since one of the walkie-talkies had broken, so she thought I’d like it. I was filled with an intense appreciation for my mom’s thoughtfulness, but this feeling was easily overpowered by the emotions resurrected by the returning memories I’d tried so hard to bury.

When everyone was eating cake, I asked Josh who he had called. He told me he wasn’t feeling well so he called his dad to come get him. I understood that he wanted to leave, but I told him that I wished we could hang out more. I extended one of the walkie-talkies to him, but he put his hand up in refusal.

Dejected, I said, “Well, thanks for coming, I guess. I hope I’ll see you before my next birthday.”

“I’m sorry … I’ll try to call you back more often. I really will,” he said.

The conversation stagnated as we waited by my door for his dad. I looked at his face. Josh seemed genuinely remorseful that he hadn’t made more of an effort. His mood seemed suddenly bolstered by an idea that had struck him. He told me that he knew what he’d get me for my birthday — it would take a while, but he thought that I would really like it. I told him it wasn’t a big deal, but he insisted. He seemed in better spirits and apologized for being such a drag at my party. He said that he was tired — that he hadn’t been sleeping well. I asked him why that was as he opened the door in response to his dad’s honking in the driveway. He turned back toward me and waved goodbye as he answered my question,

“I think I’ve been sleepwalking.”

That was the last time I saw my friend, and a couple months later he was gone.

Over the past several weeks the relationship between my mother and I has grown increasing strained due to my attempts to learn the details of my childhood. It’s often the case that one cannot know the breaking point of a thing until that thing fractures, and after the last conversation with my mother I imagine that we will spend the rest of our lives attempting to repair what had taken a lifetime to build. She had put so much energy into keeping me safe, both physically and psychologically, but I think that the walls meant to insulate me from harm were also protecting her emotional stability. As the truth came pouring out the last time we spoke, I could hear a trembling in her voice that I think was a reverberation of the collapse of her world. I don’t imagine my mother and I will talk very much anymore, and while there are still some things I don’t understand, I think I know enough.

After Josh disappeared, his parents had done all that they could to find him. From the very first day, the police had suggested that they contact all of Josh’s friends’ parents to see if he was with them. They did this, of course, but no one had seen him or had any idea of where he might be. The police had been unable to turn over any new information about Josh’s whereabouts, despite the fact that they had received several anonymous phone calls from a woman urging them to compare this case with the stalking case that had been opened about six years before.

If Josh’s mother’s grip on the world loosened when her son vanished, it broke when Veronica died. She had seen many people die at the hospital, but there is no amount of desensitization that can fortify a person against the death of her own child. She would visit Veronica twice a day since she was recuperating at a different hospital; once before her shift, and once afterward. On the day Veronica died, her mother was late leaving work, and by the time she arrived at her daughter’s hospital Veronica had already passed. This was too much for her and over the next couple weeks she became increasingly more unstable; she would often wander outside yelling for both Josh and Veronica to come home, and there were several times her husband found her wandering around my old neighborhood in the middle of the night – half-clothed and frantically searching for her son and daughter.

Due to his wife’s mental deterioration, Josh’s dad could no longer travel for work and began taking construction jobs that were less well-paying, so he could be closer to home. When they began expanding my old neighborhood more, about three months after Veronica died, Josh’s dad applied for every position and was hired. He was qualified to lead the build sites, but he took a job as a laborer helping to build frames and clean up the sites and whatever else was needed. He even took odd jobs that would occasionally come up; mowing lawns, repairing fences — anything that to keep from traveling. They began clearing the woods in the area next to the tributary to transform the land into inhabitable property. Josh’s dad was tasked with the responsibility of leveling the recently deforested lot, and this job guaranteed him at least several weeks of work.

On the third day, he arrived at a spot that he could not level. Each time he’d drive over it, it would remain lower than all the surrounding land. Frustrated, he got off the machine to survey the area. He was tempted to simply pack more dirt into the depression, but he knew that would only be an aesthetic and temporary solution. He had worked construction for years and knew that root systems from large trees that had been recently cut down would often decompose, leaving weaknesses in the soil that would manifest as weaknesses in the foundations above. He weighed his options and elected to dig a little with a shovel in case the problem was shallow enough to fix without needing a machine that would have to be brought over from another site. And as my mother described where this was, I knew I had been at that spot both before the soil was broken and before it had been filled in.

I felt a tightening in my chest.

He dug a small hole about three feet down until his shovel collided with something hard. He smashed his shovel against it repeatedly in an attempt to gauge the thickness of the root and the density of the network when suddenly his shovel plunged through the resistance.

Confused, he dug the hole wider. After about a half-hour of excavating, he found himself standing on a brown blanket-covered box about seven feet long and four feet wide. Our minds work to avoid dissonance — if we hold a belief strongly enough, our minds will forcefully reject conflicting evidence so that we can maintain the integrity of our understanding of the world.

Up until the very next moment, despite what all sense would have indicated—despite the fact that some small but suffocated part of him understood what was supporting his weight—this man believed, he knew, his son was still alive.

My mom received a call at 6pm. She knew who it was, but she couldn’t understand what he was saying. But what she did comprehend made her leave immediately.

“DOWN HERE … NOW … SON … PLEASE GOD.”

When she arrived she found Josh’s dad sitting perfectly still with his back to the hole. He was holding the shovel so tightly it seemed that it might snap, and he was staring straight ahead with eyes that looked as lifeless as a shark’s. He wouldn’t respond to any of her words, and only reacted when she tried to gently take the shovel from him.

He dragged his eyes slowly to hers and just said, “I don’t understand.” He repeated this as if he had forgotten all other words, and my mother could hear him still muttering it as she walked past him to look in the hole.

She told me she wished she had gouged her eyes out before she faced downward into that crater, and I told her that I knew what she was about to say and that she need not continue. I looked at her face and it was expressing a look of such intense despair that it caused my stomach to turn. I realized that she had known of this for almost ten years and was hoping that she’d never have to tell me. As a result, she never came up with the proper arrangement of words to describe what she saw, and as I sit here I’m met with the same difficulty of articulation.

Josh was dead. His face was sunken in and contorted in such a way that it was as if the misery and hopelessness of all the world had been transferred to it. The assaulting smell of decay rose from the crypt, and my mother had to cover her nose and mouth to keep from vomiting. His skin was cracked, almost crocodilian, and a stream of blood that had followed these lines had dried on his face after pooling and staining the wood around his head. His eyes lay half-lidded facing straight up. She said by the look of him, he had not been long-dead, and thus time had not brought the mercy of degradation to erase the pain and terror that was now etched into his face. She said it was as if he had fixed his gaze right on her, his open mouth offering an all-too-late plea for help. The rest of his body, however, wasn’t visible.

Someone else was covering it.

He was large and lay face-down on top of Josh, and as my mother’s mind stretched itself to take in what her eyes were attempting to tell her, she became aware of the significance of the way in which he laid.

He was holding Josh.

Their legs lay frozen by death, but entangled like vines in some lush, tropical forest. One arm rested under Josh’s neck only to wrap around his body so that they might lay closer still.

As the sun passed through the trees, its light became reflected by something pinned to Josh’s shirt. My mother stooped to one knee and raised the collar of her shirt over her nose so that she might block out the smell. When she saw what had caught the sun her legs abandoned her and she nearly fell into the tomb.

It was a picture…

It was a picture of me as a child.

She staggered backwards gasping and trembling and collided with Josh’s father who still sat facing away from the hole. She understood why he had called her, but she could not bring herself to tell him what she had kept from everyone for all these years. Josh’s family never knew about the night I had woken up in the woods. She knew now that she should have told them, but to tell him now would help nothing. As she sat there resting her back against Josh’s dad’s. He spoke.

“I can’t tell my wife. I can’t tell her that our little boy—” His speech staggered in fits as he pressed his wet face into his dirt-caked hands. “She couldn’t bear it…”

After a moment, he stood up still shuttering and lumbered toward the grave. With a final sob, he stepped down into the coffin. Josh’s dad was a big man, but not as big as the man in the box. He grabbed the back of the man’s collar and pulled hard — it was as if he intended to throw the man out of the grave in a singular motion. But the collar ripped and the body fell back down on top of his son.

“YOU MOTHER FUCKER!”

He grabbed the man by the shoulders and heaved him back until he was off of Josh and sat awkwardly but upright against the wall of the grave. He looked at the man and staggered back a step.

“Oh God … Oh God, no. No, no, no please God, PLEASE GOD NO.”

In a struggling but powerful movement, he lifted and pushed the corpse completely out of the ground and they both heard the sound of glass rolling against wood. It was a bottle. He handed it to my mother.

It was ether.

“Oh Josh,” he sobbed. “My boy … my baby boy. Why is there so much blood?! WHAT DID HE DO TO YOU?!”

As my mother looked at the man who now lay facing upwards, she realized she was facing the person who had haunted our lives for over a decade. She had imagined him so many times, always evil and always terrifying, and the cries of Josh’s father seemed to confirm her worst fears. But as she stared at his face, she thought that this didn’t look like who she imagined — this was just a man.

As she looked at his frozen expression, it actually looked serene. The corners of his lips were turned up only slightly; she saw that he was smiling. Not the expected smile of a maniac from a film or horror story; not the smile of a demon, or the smile of a fiend. This was the smile of contentment or satisfaction. It was a smile of bliss.

It was a smile of love.

As she looked down from his face she saw a tremendous wound on his neck from where the skin had been ripped out. She was at first relieved when she realized that the blood had not been Josh’s. Perhaps he had suffered less. But this comfort was short-lived as she realized just how wrong she was. She brought a hand up to her mouth and whispered, almost as if she was afraid to remind the world what had happened,

“They were alive.”

Josh must have bitten the man’s neck in an attempt to get free, and although the man had died, Josh couldn’t move him. I began crying when I thought of how long he might have laid there.

She looked through the man’s pockets for some kind of identification, but she only found a piece of paper. On it was a drawing of a man holding hands with a small boy and next to the boy were initials.

My initials.

I’d like to think that she was remembering that part of the story inaccurately, but I’ll never know for sure.

As Josh’s father carried his son out of the grave, my mom slid the piece of paper into her pocket. He kept muttering that his son’s hair had been dyed. She saw that it had — it was now dark brown, and she noticed that he was dressed oddly; his clothes were all far too small. After Josh’s dad delicately laid his boy on the soft dirt, he began gently pressing his hands against his son’s pants to feel his pockets; he heard a crinkle. Carefully, he retrieved a folded piece of paper from Josh’s pocket. He looked at it but was vexed. Absently, he handed it to my mother, but she didn’t recognize it either. I asked her what it was.

She told me it was a map, and I felt my heart shatter. He was finishing the map — that must have been his idea for my birthday present. I found myself strangely hoping that he hadn’t been taken while expanding it – as if that would somehow matter now.

She heard Josh’s father grunt and looked to see him pushing the man’s body back into the ground. As he walked back toward the machine that had found this spot for him, he put his hand on a canister of gasoline and paused with his back toward my mother.

“You should go.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“It’s not your fault. I did this.”

“You can’t think like that. There was nothi—”

He interjected flatly, almost with no emotion at all. “About a month ago. a guy approached me as I was cleaning up the site on the new development a block over. He asked me if I wanted to make some extra money, and because my wife’s not working right now, I accepted. He told me that some kids had dug a bunch of holes on his property and he offered me a hundred dollars to fill them in. He said that he wanted to take some pictures for the insurance company first, but if I came back after 5:00pm the next day, that would be fine. I thought this guy was a sucker since I knew clearing that lot was coming up so someone would’ve had to do it anyway, but I needed the money so I agreed. I didn’t think he even had a hundred dollars, but he put the bill in my hand, and I did the job the next day. I’ve been so exhausted that I didn’t even think about it after it was done. I didn’t think about it until today when I pulled that same guy off of my son.”

He pointed at the grave and his emotions started to push through as he broke into a sob.

“He paid me a hundred dollars so that I would bury him with my boy…”

It was as if saying it aloud forced him to accept what had happened, and he collapsed onto the ground in tears. My mother could think of nothing to say and stood there in silence for what felt like a lifetime. She finally asked what he would do about Josh.

“His final resting place won’t be here with this monster.”

As she looked back when she reached her car, she could see black smoke billowing and diffusing against the amber sky and she hoped against all hope that Josh’s parents would be ok.

I left my mom’s house without saying much else. I told her that I loved her and that I would talk to her soon, but I don’t know what “soon” means for us. I got into my car and left.

I understood now why the events of my childhood had stopped years ago. As an adult, I now saw the connections that were lost on a child who tends to see the world in snapshots rather than a sequence. I thought about Josh. I loved him then, and I love him even still. I miss him more now that I know I’ll never see him again, and I find myself wishing that I had hugged him the last time I saw him. I thought about Josh’s parents — how much they had lost and how quickly that loss had come. They don’t know about my connection to any of this, but I could never look them in the eyes now. I thought about Veronica. I had only really come to know her later in my life, but for those brief few weeks I think I had really loved her. I thought about my mother. She had tried so hard to protect me and was stronger than I would ever be. I tried not to think about the man and what he had done with Josh for more than two years.

Mostly I just thought about Josh. Sometimes I wish that he never sat across from me that day in Kindergarten; that I’d never known what it was like to have a real friend. Sometimes I like to dream that he’s in a better place, but that’s only a dream, and I know that. The world is a cruel place made crueler still by man. There would be no justice for my friend, no final confrontation, no vengeance; it had been over for almost a decade for everyone but me now.

I miss you, Josh. I’m sorry you chose me, but I’ll always cherish my memories of you.

We were explorers.

We were adventurers.

We were friends.

Twins

By Chef Cheeseanonioncrisps

//Source.

We were never supposed to be two. There was only ever supposed to be one of us.

“I hate twins.” My mother once said to me when I was four, after seeing two identical little boys on the street. We were standing in an alleyway as she said it, I was crying because I fallen over when she bolted, still clutching my hand, and scraped my knee. She was still standing, but sort of hunched up, like it was only the fact that there wasn’t anywhere to sit that prevented her from curling up into the foetal position. Beside her, dribbling into the drain, was a puddle of the stuff she’d retched up once we were ‘safe’ in the alley.

My mother really hated twins. I don’t want to know why. When I was younger, I used to ask her, now I never want to find out. Whatever happened to her, whatever inspired her hatred, it was potent enough that it affected her whole life- and ours. I’m scared it might infect me as well- I’m terrified that it was me. That something about me and my sister was so horrific that it scarred our mother for life.

We were the result of a one night stand- when we were teenagers my mother told me that she’d been really drunk that night and hadn’t even got his number. She emphasised that it wasn’t rape though.

She didn’t want to contact him anyway, she was looking forward to doing it all herself. She never spoke about her childhood and we never saw our grandparents, but I don’t think it was a good one. I think she was really excited at this chance to be a good mummy. When the scan showed a little girl, she immediatley decorated the spare room with bright pink wallpaper, patterned with flowers and fairies, and bought countless pink and purple baby grows. It was her first baby, she didn’t know how big she was supposed to get. We were small, she was already seven months pregnant when her doctor decided that she needed another scan- too late to abort us.

I’m not sure how she kept herself going all those weeks, or why she decided to keep us. I can only assume that, after we were born, she couldn’t bear to give us up for adoption. Maybe she still wanted just one child and knew that they’d never let her give one of us away and keep the other.

I don’t know- I don’t remember. I only know that, shortly after we were born (or maybe even before, maybe this had been her plan ever since she found out what we were) she decided to raise us as one.

So there’s only one birth certificate, with the name Annabelle Bailey written on it. I was Annabelle some days and my sister was Annabelle on the others.

It worked surprisingly well. Each night before bed we’d meet up in the cupboard under the stairs where the ‘unused’ twin spent her time and swap out- making sure that whoever was going out knew enough about what had happened the day before that nobody would notice too much.

We got quite good at describing our days, even now I have some memories that my sister says aren’t mine, but they seem as clear and detailed as if they had happened yesterday. We had to be good, when we started school teachers had little patience for a girl who seemed to learn things quickly, but then forgot them by the next day. Some thought we were messing about, others thought we were slow- either way, we learned to teach each other what we’d missed.

I don’t remember our mother explaining that we should live like this, though I know at some point she must have. The cupboard under the stairs had a lock on the outside, but that couldn’t have stopped us from letting each other out. I’m not sure why we never tried it.

The only thing we did that was even close to that, happened when we were eight and Mum promised us a trip to a pizza restaurant because we got top marks in a maths test.

I had done that maths test, but my sister was the one who was going to be rewarded. For days I brooded over how unjust this was until, the day before we were going to the restaurant, I decided not to swap out. I just walked straight past the cupboard and went up to bed, leaving my sister to sit by the door, wondering what had happened to me.

I didn’t enjoy that day, not just because of how guilty it made me feel to leave my sister locked in the cupboard. The pizza stuck like cardboard in my mouth when I remembered that, though there was a bucket for her to pee in (that I would later have to empty out) and we always kept a litre bottle of coke or lemonade and some snacks in there, she probably would have used up all her supplies by now. I didn’t even want to picture the bucket.

What upset me most though, was the fact that I got away with it. None of my teachers noticed anything different, none of my friends noticed anything different, not even my own mother noticed anything different. Now I look back on it, I wonder if going out two days in a row wasn’t just about the pizza. Whether it was actually me trying to find my own identity by seeing if anybody saw me differently to my sister.

That evening I swapped out with my sister and neither of us tried anything like that again.

I should mention that, while I’m pretty certain I was the one who went to the pizza restaurant, it could just as easily have been her. Sure, I have vivid memories of sitting there, chewing cardboard pizza, feeling guilty- but I have equally vivid memories of sitting in that cupboard, alone, feeling worried that my sister had forgotten me.

Sometimes it’s hard being a twin.

When we left home, we considered acting like normal people, but it was too late. This was the only life we’d known, we couldn’t change, so we kept things the way they were. When we first moved into our flat, we timed it so that one twin moved in and then the other came by two hours later, as if we’d just popped out for something. There were no cupboards big enough, so we used the wardrobe, but, when our Mum was hit by a bus and we found out that she’d left the house to ‘her daughter Annabelle’ we moved back in and started using the cupboard under the stairs again.

You might wonder why I’m writing this now.

Well, a few days ago, I decided to look through the attic. We’ve been here a few months now but never checked it out- even when we were kids, our mother was the only one who went up there, saying the floor wasn’t safe.

When I went up there I was cautious, crawling along the floorboards, terrified that I might accidentally fall to my death, while at the same time wondering if I should get an exterminator in because it smelled like a raccoon died in the walls- when I saw the door in the wall.

I opened it up, barely registering that it was bolted from the outside and screamed when I saw that there was a body behind it. I could tell it was a woman because it was wearing a dress, but it had clearly been here a while (I almost vomited when I realised that this was what the smell was) and I only recognised her as my mother when I saw that she still had her hair- strawberry blonde curls, like mine.

It took me a moment to realise that it couldn’t have been my mother- that my mother’s body was in the local graveyard, that I’d seen her coffin go under, that I’d been in the funeral parlour- until I noticed the empty plastic bottle by her feet. And the empty packets of food. And the (I really did throw up at this point, spending a full five minutes emptying my stomach and then another minute retching up bile) full to overflowing bucket.

There were scratched on this side of the door. And places where it looked like she’d hit it repeatedly (I’m guessing with her bare hands, since her knuckles were bloody) though she must have realised that nobody would have been able to hear her from this high up.

It looks like I wasn’t the only one with a secret twin.

The Puppet

By Chef KI Simpson

puppetIt was a marionette, I think. It had a big head, the face was made of wrinkly, flesh colored rubber. The eyes were gigantic, bulging white orbs with red pupils. The hair was black, made of some hard substance that didn’t mesh with the rubbery head. The teeth were gigantic, pure white and capable of moving up and down. The body and limbs were wooden, painted to resemble clothes, but the paint was faded, you could see the wood’s natural brown in some places. Each arm and leg was a different length, but the hands and feet were pretty detailed. It made a loud clattering sound whenever it moved.

That puppet… followed me. I don’t mean it got up and chased me. I mean it kept showing up in my life. My earliest memory of it is from my first birthday. I obviously don’t remember the full details of that day, but I remember my parents singing happy birthday and that puppet. I don’t know what it was there for; I just remember it scared me to death and I couldn’t stop crying. When I was able to talk, I asked my parents about it, and they said nothing like that had happened on my first birthday. They must not have thought lying about it would make things easier for me.

The next time I saw it, I was around three. I was exploring a room filled with old stuff my parents had stored away and I found a calendar, but I don’t remember the year. There was a photo for each month, but the only one I remember was October; that puppet was the image for it. I got scared and ran out of the room. I told my mom and tried to show her the calendar so that she’d know the puppet was real, but I couldn’t find it. The room had been very messy, and I had ran out of it so quickly I knocked over piles of stuff, I guess the calendar got buried.

I was six when it happened again. It was the middle of the night, I woke up from a nightmare I can’t remember the details of. I was too scared to go back to sleep, so I went into the living room and turned on the TV. An old black and white show on Nick at Nite was ending and when the commercials started, that puppet came on. It was dancing while loud music played. I screamed and started crying uncontrollably, but by the time my parents got downstairs, the puppet was gone.

I didn’t see the puppet again for a while after that, but I kept having nightmares about it. When I was 15, I decided to try to track it down, using the internet to try to find information about the calendar, the short, anything. No one had ever heard of it, but one day I got an instant message from someone I had never talked to before. Their screen name was a random mash-up of numbers and letters, but their avatar was a picture of the puppet. They IMed me, “Glad that you still remember me,” then immediately signed off. They never contacted me or came online again.

When I was 20, I was walking by a store that sold old toys and dolls, and in the front window, I saw the puppet. I went inside, and asked the clerk if he knew anything about that puppet’s history, when it was made, where it was from, anything. He didn’t, said the puppet had just been sold to the store a few days ago, I could have it for $6. I wasn’t sure what to do, it still scared me, but having proof that it really existed seemed like a good idea. I bought the puppet, and took it home.

For a while, I felt better. I viewed the puppet as a childhood fear I had overcome as an adult and even started to believe the explanations my parents had given me for the past appearances of it (I saw it somewhere else as a baby, imagined the calendar, dreamed the TV short, and someone online who had played a trick on me).

I kept the puppet, but as I moved on in my life, I pretty much forgot about it. I finished college, got married, and my wife should be giving birth in a few weeks. I was cleaning up a room for when the baby comes, and found the puppet, dusty and abandoned. I didn’t want my kid seeing it when he was little, so I picked it up, and decided I might as well wipe the dust off before moving it to another place. When I dusted it, I noticed a faded inscription on the back: “This is what he’ll look like.” Before I could figure out what this meant, I heard my wife starting to cry. I rushed to her, she looked more upset than I had ever seen her. Sobbing, she told me that the doctor had just called. There was a problem with the baby…

My Parents Adopted a Dead Baby

By Chef robinchwannn

//Source.

I created an account just so I could share this story. My English is not perfect, so please pardon me if there are any mistakes. (Edit: English is Singapore’s first language so I am fluent in it, but I was just worried about the way the story flowed. Never really written one before.)

I live in a small country in Southeast Asia called Singapore. A few years back, I had converted to Christianity but I was raised in a Buddhist household like the majority of Singaporean Chinese families. Though my parents were not strict in their beliefs, they still kept an altar in the corridor of our home and offered incense to it religiously.

My father owned a small business and it had been going smoothly for the past few years. We lived comfortably and were able to afford the lifestyle we wanted. Singapore is a country with very high standard of living, so everything is extremely overpriced. To be able to live a comfortable lifestyle is truly a blessing. However since a few months back, his business had been dropping. It was not a drastic drop, but it still got him worried that the decline was going to continue. My father’s friend had told him about this thing called the Kumanthong which was known to bring good luck and fortune to the owner.

Kumanthong (literally translated as Golden sacrificed young boy) is popular in Thai religion and although it is not part of Buddhist practices, many people still consider it as such. Authentic Kumanthongs originated from a practice of necromancy. According to Wikipedia (because I had no idea what they were in the first place), they were obtained from the desiccated fetuses of children who had died whilst still in their mothers’ womb. Witch doctors were said to be able to invoke these stillborn babies, adopt them as their children, and use them to help them in their endeavors.

To make a Kumanthong, the unborn fetus will first be surgically removed from the womb of its mother. Then the body would be taken to a cemetery for the conduction of the proper ceremonial ritual to invoke a Kumanthong. The body will then be roasted until dry while the witch doctor chants incantations. Once the rite was completed, the dry-roasted fetus will be painted in Ya Lak (a kind of lacquer used to cover amulets) and covered in gold leaf. Thus the name “Golden Little Boy”.

Some Kumanthongs are soaked in Nam Man Phrai, a kind of oil extracted by burning a candle close to the chin of a dead child or a person who died in violent circumstances or an unnatural death. The collection of oil is less common now, because the practice is considered illegal if they were using fat from human babies for the oil. Occasionally, there are still some amulets that are obtained through authentic methods. How “authentic” it is, I have no idea.

Nowadays, Kumanthongs are made by monks and evil priests from the bones, hairs or cremated powder of the baby. Some are obtained through the black market from recent abortions.

Anyway, my father’s friend mentioned to him about Kumanthongs and how helpful they were in helping him get his promotion in the place he worked. He talked about his Kumanthong with high respect and believed that the spirit of the little boy was the one that brought him all his fortune. My father was fascinated and he wanted an easy way out of his troubles, thus he went to a Thai temple and obtained his Kumanthong from a monk.

When he first showed us the Kumanthong, I was indifferent. My mother accepted it quite quickly because she had heard many good things about it too. At that point of time, I was not educated about it and I thought it was just like the other Buddhist deity statues we had at our altar. My father told me that it was different and that we have to treat it as if it was alive and part of our family. He then mentioned to me that the purpose of owning a Kumanthong was so that we can help its spirit move on and reincarnate through our good deeds. I didn’t understand what it meant, but it had something to do with karma and passing on your merits to the Kumanthong.

The Kumanthong was a statue was a toddler, depicted to be about 3 years old. The statue was a dark matte grey, but his pants and accessories (like arm bracelets, hair tie, necklace) were painted in gold. Gold Thai writing was painted all over its arms and back. He sat crossed legged and had his hands pressed together in front of his chest. Upon his arrival, my parents created a mini-altar beside the one we already had. Because he had to be treated like he was alive, my parents placed things on the altar that toddlers usually like. He was still a little boy after all. They had bought pacifiers, sweets, soft drinks and toys for him and had even given him a nickname. ‘Di di’ was what they called, which meant ‘little brother’ in Chinese. Every meal, my mother would set aside an extra bowl of food for the Kumanthong and called it to meal. Sometimes my dad would ask me to “play” with him by rolling the toy car at his altar. They really treated him like a son.

Honestly, I never really thought much of it. I had grown up in a house where we had many Buddhist statues and I was pretty much used to them. Even though I had converted to Christianity, I was not going to force my religion unto my family or said what they were doing to be wrong. It had been my decision to convert and my parents respected that. In turn, I respect their religion and I help out whenever I can. They were adults and they should know what they were doing.

Nothing notable happened last week. My father mentioned that his business was picking up again. He attributed it to the Kumanthong and said it was because of it that his business was going well again. My mother believed that too. I didn’t want to burst their bubble and tell them that it was all just a placebo effect, so I kept my mouth quiet and let them believe what they wanted to.

Even though I helped my parents with “taking care” of him, I never really believed in it like my parents did. However, something weird happened to me yesterday and I’m not sure what to think of it. It’s currently my semester break from university and I have taken up a part time job to get some extra cash to spend. Usually, I had to be awake at 6.45AM to prepare myself before I head out of the house. I had to travel an hour to the place I work, so I had specifically set that I was to leave the house by 7.30AM. But, I was so tired that I ‘accidentally’ turned off the alarm on my phone. By accidentally, I meant on purpose. You know when you’re so familiar with your phone that you know how to unconsciously press the button to turn off the alarm? Yeah, that’s what I did. I went back to sleep, unknowing that it was already 7AM and continued my slumber. In my sleep, I felt someone pulling my leg and I reflexively pulled it back, thinking nothing of it. Again, it was pulled. It was not a harsh pull like those you see in horror films where the person was pulled off the bed. It was just a small tug. “Stop it,” I mumbled in my sleep before turning to face the other side.

“Jie jie (‘Big Sister’ in Chinese), it’s time to wake up.” I heard a soft voice beside my ear. Upon hearing that, my eyes instantly shot opened and I looked around my room. I was an only child and had no siblings, thus it scared the shit out of me when I heard a little boy’s voice beside my ear. I’m not sure if it was just in my mind or if I really heard someone else in my room.

Before I left the house, I passed by the altars in the corridor and my eyes flickered to the side to glance at the Kumanthong. I swear its usually expressionless face was replaced with a slight smile.

I reached work on time.

I had the day off work today so I thought I would write this down and share it with you guys. I’m still not sure what to make out of this incident. Everything in me tells me that something that was created through such extreme means could not be a kind spirit. So far, it had brought only good luck to my family but it has only been a week since my dad brought it home. What do you guys? Is anyone experienced with Kumanthongs and can tell me more?

I will keep you guys updated if anything else happens.

Let’s Go to the Park

By Chef JohnAshton07

I can still remember the day I first heard his voice. There was an airiness to it. The tone was always deep and warm, and caused butterflies to hit my stomach at full speed.

“Hey, let’s go to the park.” He would say.

“Not right now, I have to work.” I would respond. He was always so insistent, though, I would always cave in sooner or later.

I still remember the first time he yelled at me. The deep booming voice overpowered everything and I fell to the ground holding my hands over my face. How could he say such hurtful things to me?

“You are nothing without me! You are pathetic! Why don’t you just leave, no one wants you around! I can’t believe you, sometimes I wish you would just die already!”

I still remember every word of that fight. He got mad out of nowhere; I still don’t know what set him off. It might have been that I was ignoring him. He talks all the time and I have to get work done sometime, but I learned not to ignore him for too long. He really does love me, I know he does. He just gets angry when I ignore him.

“Let’s go to the park.”

For a grown man with such a deep voice he really enjoys going to the park. I think he likes seeing other people, especially the kids playing. He always wants to stop and watch them. He likes to see the women too, especially the pretty brunettes. If I was a jealous type I would think he was lusting after them, but I know he loves me more.

“Look at the rack on that one! I wonder if she looks that good without make-up. Why couldn’t you be more like her?”

“That is kind of mean, why would you say that?”

“Look at her! And look at you! If it weren’t for me you would be all alone with a face like that. Let’s keep walking I don’t want them to have to look at you. We should go home.”

He says some mean things, but I don’t know, he loves me. I know he does or he would have left a long time ago.

“I have changed my mind, let’s go back to the park.” He announced about half way back to the apartment. “I want to find that lady again.”

“Are you… are you serious?”

“Fuck yes I am serious. Get moving! You go where I tell you to! How dare you talk back to me! Who else is going to take care of you when I fucking leave!?”

“I am sorry, you are right.”

Upon re-entering the park we searched around for the woman, but she was nowhere to be seen. He did see another one he liked, though. He took me up to her and introduced me.

“Yes?” The woman said.

“Hi, this is random I know, but would you come with me to the swings?”

“Umm, no.” the woman announced before turning to walk away.

“Grab her! Grab her now!” He said to me.

“What?”

“Don’t fucking talk back to me! Grab her now!” He said, his voice booming loud enough that I instantly got a headache. I did not dare disobey him again, so I grabbed her arm.

“What the fuck!? Get off of me you freak!” The woman said trying to pull away.

“Stab her! End her! She just called you a freak. FREAK! FREAK!” He said yelling into my ear.

“What the hell? No please… don’t do this! Help!” The woman yelled, but it was too late. I plunged a knife from my pocket into her chest, and repeated it over, and over, and over. As her blood flowed from her chest I could hear my love laughing.

“You did it now, you are going to jail! You are going to jail! No one will love you in there. No one loves you out here.”

The police woman must have heard the scream from the street, it was too soon for anyone to have called 9-1-1. She grabbed the knife from my hand and threw me to the ground. As she put the cuffs on me I kept yelling for him to stop screaming.

“You are going to jail, you are a freak, FREAK! No one loves you anymore. No one ever did.”

“You are under arrest, you have the right to an attorney, if you cannot afford one they will be appointed to you. Do you understand this, you insane motherfucker?”

“I am not insane! Stop yelling at me!” I said struggling to pull my hands free.

“You are going to jail! FREAK! You are a FREAK! No one loves you, you should probably die.”

I still remember the first time I heard his voice. It was airy, and deep. He told me that only he loved me. He was so kind. If only someone else could hear his voice, I know they would understand.

Corn Smut

By demons_dance_alone

//Source.

My dad was a farmer. I’m not.

He wasn’t even a very good farmer. All he could grow was corn. As far back as I can remember, we had green stretching away from the house as far as the eye could see. Dad was real protective of his only crop. He would whack our behinds for taking an unripe ear. I think it broke him when the corn started coming up with smut.

You ever see corn smut? It’s a fungus. Gets into the kernels, makes them all puffy and grey. Dad would drive himself crazy out there, hacking at the corn, coming in with his arms all sooty. We couldn’t tell him it was a lost cause. He went a little mad day by day, contemplating an ear puffed with grey nodes as big and dark as the mole on mom’s forearm.

The day he broke completely was the day he came over with a deadly calm. At the dinner table that night, you could’ve cut the tension with a knife.

Dad casually remarked that a third of the field had come over with smut. He was cooking. He never cooked.

Dad said that a good farmer has to be flexible. Has to change with the times. Hell, even old Dan’l Patton two farms away had started in on soybeans. It was all about changing the way you saw things.

We were silent as scarecrows around that dinner table. Dad brought up a steaming pan and said we would have to listen to the land, move with it, as he ladled out a plateful of steaming grey nuggets.

My mother knew better than to flinch away. She just sat still, looking at her plate. My brother was next. His mouth thinned into a line and his nostrils flared, I could tell he was nauseous. It was my turn. Dad gave me nearly twice as much, I was the oldest after all, he said with a wink, and then slopped the rest on his own plate.

Go ahead, dad said. None of us wanted to be the first. Go ahead, dad repeated, and it wasn’t an invitation this time.

Mom stirred her plate with the spoon, like it would transform into something appetizing. I stabbed one of mine with a fork. It burst like a grey zit.

We all gagged as the smell washed over us. We collectively ran to the bathroom, leaving dad at the table. He didn’t stomp or shout. The next day, there was nothing but those grey nuggets in the fridge. He had thrown out all the food.

Times were rough. Dad made us break our backs in the field every day, which was hard because we still weren’t eating. I once spat out a mouthful of ripe corn because it tasted off. None of the corn, ripe or green, tasted right anymore. Mom ate all the tomatoes off her plants, frying up the green ones and passing them to us in secret. We couldn’t afford to steal more than one egg a day, dad checked the pens personally.

The chickens started to die off. We found a bunch of grey nuggets in the feed bin.

Dad had hid the keys to the truck. It was fifteen miles to town in the hot August sun. So we stayed and waited for something to happen.

Something happened.

I heard a yell when I was back by the woodshed, secretly plucking a crow I downed with my old slingshot. Dad ran from the corn, blood on his shirt.

He had hit my brother with the sickle on accident. I said we had to get him to a hospital. Dad said he would take care of it. He grabbed some tools and went back into the corn. I was too chicken to follow.

Me and mom waited until dark. Dad bustled in, filthy and sweaty, smelling like cut-up mushrooms.

Mom asked him where her son was.

Dad said he’d taken care of it.

Mom asked him where her goddamn son was.

Dad said we had to give to the land if we wanted it to give back.

Mom pushed her chair back and screamed at him to tell her where her baby was.

Dad said he was where he belonged.

We’d been looking at this the wrong way, he said as he came around the dining room table toward us. We were making it more of a problem than it had to be. Dad said all we had to do was keep cutting the bad away as he turned that sickle around and hit her mole dead-center.

Mom screamed.

I screamed.

I punched dad in the face. He let go of the sickle. Mom yanked the blade from her arm and grabbed me with her good hand. We ran out the back door.

Fifteen miles to town. We didn’t have a prayer. We ran into the corn to lose him.

After we ran for a while, we stopped because we didn’t hear him behind us. I put on my little penlight. Mom’s forearm was streaming blood. I gave her my shirt to wrap around it. We started walking again.

There is no direction in corn. It’s not like an orchard. No matter how neatly you plant the rows, it grows however it wants.

In the dark, I bumped into a tree. It moaned.

I turned the light to it and came face-to-face with my brother. To this day I can’t tell if it was something trained to grow into his injured body, or just a plant imitation of the real thing. Either way, I couldn’t let it go on like that. There was a shovel nearby. I gave it what mercy I had left.

Mom had lost a lot of blood. She was dizzy. I held her. It was all I could do.

Dad called for us. We moved deeper into the corn. We heard him rustle through the stalks, heard the clink of that damned scythe. We had a lot to apologize for, he said. He wouldn’t be so forgiving for long.

We held our breaths until we heard him leave. We must have slept there, in the corn, in the cold.

I woke up at dawn. My mom didn’t.

I left her where she was, promising I would take her out of that place when I could and give her a real burial someplace nice, someplace you couldn’t even see the corn.

The corn felt like it was trying grab me back. I had cuts all over my arms and face from the sawtooth edges of the leaves. I didn’t care. I couldn’t feel much of anything anymore.

Dad was in the dining room when I found him, tucking into a grey feast. He made a loud smacking noise as he ate. Grey gravy ran down his chin. I kicked the chair out from beneath him.

Dad came up with the sickle. I hit his shoulder so he dropped it. I kicked his knee so he fell again. Dad used his good leg to scoot away from me.

He was my dad, he said.

The only family I had left.

I wouldn’t kill him, would I? Would I?

My father was a farmer. I’m not.

Nothing I planted ever came up again.

The Mime – A Story from my Childhood

By Chef JDentLight

I’m not sure if anyone other than Doctor Patel is ever going to read this; hell, I don’t know if I’ll even ever read this after I finish getting it all out of my head and on paper. It’s been twenty-something years now and I was nine at the time, so I figure there’s about a one in ten shot the way I remember things is even how they happened. Even so, Doc says It’ll do a lot of good for me to confront all this, so I guess I’ll get on with it.

When I was a boy, I lived in Brooklyn with my mother. My loving father had been out of the picture since before I remembered so it was just the two of us in a small, one bedroom apartment. She worked in another part of the city, couldn’t tell you where to save my life, and my school was about half a mile from her job so everyday we’d take the subway to the stop right by her office and she’d walk me over to school before going to clock in.

Walking around New York, you see a lot of different things and people, most of which I probably didn’t fully appreciate at that age. Homeless people, businessmen, and every other kind of person you could imagine all sharing the same streets. Hell, that’s a kind of diversity you really just don’t see anywhere except one of those health class posters at the high school where I teach. Of all of the different types of people in New York though, some of the most interesting are the street performers.

Everyone’s seen the usual ones: the guy with a beat-up saxophone playing his heart out for a few quarters to get thrown into the case, the ones who make drums out of trash can lids and whatever else they can find, and even the asshole hippie playing an out of tune acoustic guitar. When my mother and I made our morning walks, though, we got to see one who really stood out.

Every morning, at the same street corner, there’d be a mime. Not like some guy just doing some bullshit interpretive dance either, like a real bona fide mime, down to the face paint and striped black-and-white shirt. He was always out there, no matter what the weather was like, and we always walked past him. My mother and I were in the same school & work routine for about two years, and for most of that time he just stood out in my mind as one of the few street performers who was any different from the rest.

He knew all the moves and seemed to be able to earn spare change from just about anyone who walked past. He would walk a very convincing invisible dog or put himself inside the box and really, truly make it seem like he was trapped inside an invisible container. Maybe a lot of it was just my young mind being easy to fool, but he always seemed to get more tips than the rest of the people who made a living on the sidewalk.

I enjoyed watching him as I was pulled past by my mother’s hand, but I don’t think I’d still remember him after all this time if he hadn’t changed his act a bit toward the end of our time in New York. It started very subtly; we’d be walking by, my eyes expectantly searching for the familiar black and white figure and then his stare would meet mine. He’d stop whatever invisible thing he was doing and start a new one just for me. At first, my naïve mind thought he just recognized me and was giving me a special show because he knew I liked him. Things started becoming more confusing as time went on, though. I remember pretty clearly one Tuesday morning, seeing him look at me without his normal smile, point right behind me, and continue to point with a somber expression even after I’d looked over my shoulder in confusion.

Things just got stranger from there. Every day he’d seem more intent on me, always dropping his ear-to-ear smile, staring at me, and acting out things that weren’t quite in the normal range of things you’d expect to see from a mime. He’d start out using both hands to make the standard invisible box, but then he’d pull his hands apart like he was opening a window and stare through it at me. He had several variations of this, sometimes breaking the window and reaching through to turn an imaginary doorknob or even climbing through, as if he was coming toward me on the other side. Even as an oblivious little kid, I knew something was wrong with these new changes to his routine. I told my mom that I was scared of the mime that we walked past and begged her to walk me a different way from now on. She wrote it off at first, and I can’t really blame her, looking back. A kid thinks a mime is going to kill him? Fat chance, but she was patient and I made a big enough deal out of the whole thing for her to give in and go an extra block out of the way so I could have some peace of mind.

Things were fine after that, the mime probably stayed in the same spot he always had, and I didn’t see him again. My mother was happy that I’d calmed down and forgotten about the crazy killer mime and I was young enough to carry on my day-to-day business without a care in the world.

About a month later, I woke up to my mother crying and the sounds of police radios in our apartment. The living room window was broken and there was yellow tape around it and all over the fire escape just outside of it. I asked what had happened, but the officer pulled me away and made me stand with him in the hallway outside. From what the officers told her, they got a call from a neighbor about a couple people breaking in and had arrested one of them after he attacked the other. All of the officers acted really strange about the whole thing, not quite sure what to think of what had happened. Apparently the man they’d arrested was dressed as a mime and had come in behind the first burglar. The one dressed like a mime had cut the tongue out of the other one’s mouth so that he couldn’t talk and had thrown him off of the fire escape. While he was trying to make his escape, without stealing anything mind you, he’d run into the police as they came to investigate and let them take him away without a fight.

I was young, scared shitless, and didn’t have a clue about what to think of all this. The police left, my mother hugged me and kissed me like she’d been worried sick, and she put me to bed. The next morning is probably my clearest memory of this whole story. I woke up later than usual, guessing my mom hadn’t gone to work and I didn’t have to go to school because of what had happened last night. As I was getting out of bed, I noticed a note sitting on my bedside table.

“I tried to warn you every day about this, but you stopped coming to see me. You should have listened when I talked to you.”