My Best Friend was a Girl Crammed in my Locker

By Chef cryof0zen

//Source.

//Original Title “My best friend was a girl crammed in my ninth grade locker.”

My best friend in the ninth grade was a girl I met in my locker.

I met her in the middle of the term. Never knew how she got into my locker. Strangely enough, the night before I found her, I couldn’t manage to get to sleep. You see, my area was notorious for being loud at night. Disco parties, car alarms going off, that sort of thing. Dad never managed to find much work, and so we were stuck where we were. That night was especially loud. First was the shouting. That didn’t really scare me, but what did get me was the sound of glass shattering. Screaming followed. Then silence. I was too scared to go to sleep, all I could do was huddle under my blanket. I passed out sometime around midnight.

The first thing I did when I woke up that morning was run full pelt down the staircase. Mum and Dad were in the kitchen. Dad was hanging up decorations to get ready for the Christmas season, and Mum was laying on the couch, fast asleep and snoring.

“Don’t wake her up,” my Dad told me. “She’s down with the flu. No lunch today, mate. You know I can’t cook.”

I got to school just in time for the late bell and rushed to my locker. It was tiny, about the size of a torso. Fumbling with the key, I struggled to unlock it. The lock was old, rusty and the complete opposite of pliable. Finally, I got it open and swung it wide open.

She was crammed into the locker. Her necked look broken, her back pushed against the bottom of the locker and her neck twisting up at the corner. Her thighs were on the opposite side to her head, going up the side, and lead to knees that were impossibly broken, bent in a right angle to run along the top of the locker, then broken again in the middle of the tibia in another right angle.

She looked like an irregular shape out of a demented geometry textbook. It made me sick to my stomach to look at her deformed, crippled shape. She didn’t seem in pain. It surprised me more that she was alive. Stiffly, she turned her head to face me, and blinked.

“Hello,” she said.

I looked behind me. Dozens of students passed behind me. None of them seemed to care. I looked back at the locker. Her eyes were still on me, expectant. Her skin was bleached, her hair a solid dead black, like her eyes.

“Do you need help?” I was still in shock.

“No, I’m not the one who does.”

The minutes ticked by as we stared at each other, in a deadlock.

“My name’s Peter,” I whispered.

She just stared.

“Uh, I’m Peter,” I struggled to think of something to say about me. I struggled to latch onto any memory. My mind had become a haze, I couldn’t focus. Usually, I was good at coping under stress. I said the only thing I could think of, “I have a geography test next lesson that I didn’t study for.”

Still staring.

“You… You look nice.” She did. Despite being broken and battered, crammed into my locker, her face was beautiful. Asian, somewhat.

A smile slowly crept on her face.

“Is it okay if I…” I started, gesturing to the locker door.

“No matter,” she replied, the smile disappearing from her face.

I closed the door just as the first bell for lessons rang.

I did my geography test blindly. Didn’t know a single answer. I didn’t go to my locker the rest of the day either, didn’t see her. I couldn’t keep any books there anyway, and my mind was too hazy to remember anything but the present moment.

The next day, Dad was still preparing the Christmas decorations, Mum was still sick. Dad said if her cold kept up we might have to take her to a doctor.

Before the first bell, I went to my locker once again. I slowly tried to insert the key into the lock. It was like trying to fit a thread through a needle. Gingerly, I swung open the door. She was still there.

“Hello,” she said once more.

I tried to ask her questions. Each time I did, she looked at me like I was speaking a different language. She looked confused, like her mind was as hazy as mine. But she was smiling. Not so much that it was noticeable, but a slight joy seemed to play on her lips. In the end, I said goodbye, closed the door and went on my way.

I aced the test.

First break rolled around and I went back to my locker. No one was around. That was alright, though. Some people had started giving me funny looks as I spoke to her, before lessons.

“Did you do that?” I asked.

Her smile grew wider. She nodded vigorously, to the full extent that her broken, twisted neck would allow.

That was the beginning. I’d ask her for small favours, tests and whatnot. No matter what I wrote down on the paper, even outright silly gibberish, it came back replaced with a perfect answer. She liked talking about me. It made her happy, I guess, to know someone outside her tiny space. Besides, she didn’t know anything about herself. As the days went by, her smile grew wider and wider.

The day before Christmas, I asked her for something special. There was another girl, Sarah was her name. She was really pretty, and I think she liked me too. I didn’t have the courage to ask her to be my girlfriend.

When I told my new friend, her smile, which had become so wide, completely disappeared. My gut wrenched at the sight. I wanted to apologise, but she nodded. I hesitantly closed the door and left.

I couldn’t go home just yet. I had to stay on after school… for something. I couldn’t quite remember what. Maybe it was homework? Did I have detention? No, it couldn’t be that, I was an obedient student. My memory had started to struggle as well. That afternoon was just an indecipherable mess in my head.

Christmas morning. I woke up and rushed down the stairs, burst into the living room.

Dad was hanging by a rope slung across the ceiling fan, his skin a pale white, criss-crossed with dark purple veins, his eyes popping out of their sockets. Mum had been thrown on the couch, splayed out, caked in blood and glass fragments, starting to rot as well. The stench of decay invaded my nostrils, overloading my head. Neurons that were never meant to fire did.

I stood still. Then blinked.

Dad was midway through hanging the Christmas decorations. He stopped to stare at me.

“You all right, chap? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

My eyes darted to Mum. Asleep, snoring. My repressed breath slid through my gaping lips.

“I’m sorry, sport. Ol’ Nick didn’t stop by yet. I have to finish up the decorations, see? He’ll have stopped by once you come home.”

I went to school, dismissing what I saw. My head was still acting up, after all. Minor hallucination, see?

I know, school on Christmas? It was a programme that my parents had enrolled me in. Education throughout holidays. We didn’t have television or anything fun at home, and I really did like school. It was just, these days, my head was felt… strange.

I couldn’t stay scared for long, I had to go see my new friend. I couldn’t get the key in the lock fast enough. I threw the door open, and it banged against another locker.

I fell back on the ground and started screaming. Heads turned, more screams erupted from the flow of people behind me. Books were dropped, people stood stock still.

Her neck crooked around the corner, tibia broken, back against the bottom of the locker. A pool of blood which had stagnated within flowed freely to the floor.

Sarah.

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A Story to Scare my Son

By Chef OvenFriend

“Son, we need to have a chat about Internet Safety.” I slowly crumpled down onto the floor next to him. His laptop was open and he was playing Minecraft on a public server. His eyes were locked into the action. Comments scrolled down the side of the screen in a chat box. “Son, can you stop your game for a minute?”

He exited the world, closed the laptop, and looked up at me. “Dad, is this going to be another cheesy scary story?” Continue reading “A Story to Scare my Son”

The Mysterious Girlfriend

By Chef Snowstill

I thought to share this here. When I was young, my family and I moved into this neighborhood mostly resided by rich families. It was quite a difference seeing rich kids interact with each other compared to my old school that have very humble kids from humble working class homes. I tried to stay in the background. I did not like attention. I just like to be left alone.

My only friend was this girl, an outcast among the beautiful and the popular. She was a sickly girl, spoke with a stutter, but amidst her imperfections she was very nice and innocent. We ate together during lunch, sat together at the library during study time, and walked home together. Since we had different classes those were the only times we get to see each other.

Anyways, this was not about her or me, but about Paul. He sat behind me in English class. We never spoke to each other except for the occasional nod or smile. I tried to be nice and I tried not to be close to him. He had his own friends, and I was satisfied with one. There was no seating arrangement, but once you sat on one chair, you’re stuck there for the rest of the semester. I sat down first ten minutes before the bell and Paul claimed the one behind me as he just barely made it in class.

In the middle of the semester, as our teacher read lines after lines from Romeo and Juliet, I heard a conversation behind me. I could not help but listen. It was a girl and Paul. She spoke to him so sweetly while Paul was so gentle as if I had Romeo and Juliet behind me. It was adorable and much more interesting.

When the class ended, so did the conversation behind me. Closing my books and stuffing them in my backpack, I was curious to who Paul was talking to. I needed to see who was his Juliet. Given the opportunity, I turned around to put on my backpack and found out that the people who sat around him were all his friends and they were all male.

Dumbfounded by this revelation, I could not understand how was he able to talk to this girl. We were not allowed to move around in class while the teacher was doing his one man play so where or who was this girl?

For days, I found Paul only with his group of male friends. There were a few girls that would linger around them but they were spoken for by his friends. Paul was not interested in any of them. He never once approached a girl or placed an arm around a pretty blonde’s shoulder. He merely regarded the girls equally as if they were his own male friends.

“So you like him?” my only friend asked me after noticing that I kept staring at Paul.

“No,” I replied. Of course I didn’t, he was not my type. I never told her what I heard during English class since she might think I’m a weirdo. She would never understand. She never had. I once spoke to her about this horror movie I watch and she merely looked at me like I was from another planet. Afterall she was a very logical person while she called me the dreamer.

English class once more. He smiled at me and I acknowledge it with a nod. We all sat down and settled because the teacher started handing out our test papers. I was prepared of course since I wanted to keep my straight A’s.

“I know you like me,” said the girl behind me.

“Of course, I’m talking to you, aren’t I?” he told her.

“Then why did you smile at that girl in front of you. She’s ugly. She’s a witch. You would not date a witch, would you?” she said somewhat sinisterly.

“You don’t know her. You know you’re the only girl for me,” he told her.

“Prove it, honey. Prove that you like me a lot. You got that sharp pencil there. Poke yourself with it,” she said.

I could not believe my ears. Why was this girl making him hurt himself? This relationship wasn’t turning out to be a good one. It wasn’t healthy. Paul would not do this just to prove to a girl. He was a good athlete and a very good-natured boy. He never bullied anybody. Everyone liked him because he was a friendly boy.

“Paul!” the teacher called out. “What are you doing?”

All of us were startled by the teacher’s loud voice and immediately got up and ran to where Paul sat behind me. I turned around and was shocked to have found him continuously stabbing his left arm with the pencil. The teacher caught his arm before he could do more harm. Paul’s face was blank, he did not feel pain, but was staring intently at his arm.

“Paul!” the teacher said once more and this snapped him from this trance. He looked around at all of us that stared at him. He then looked at his arm and let out a loud expletive, in pain.

I did not know what came over me and I volunteered to take him to the school nurse. The teacher sighed in relief since he could not leave the class in the middle of a test. He also trusted me, I was one of his A students so he let me escort Paul out.

The two of us were quiet, except for his occasional groan trying to endure the pain. Upon nearing the nurse’s office, I had to ask. I had to know who she was.

“That girl you talk to in class, who is she?” I asked him. He looked at me puzzled at first and when I asked once more his face turned that into fear. “I could hear her. I could hear everything.” I told him.

“No, don’t,” he said trying to shut me up. “You don’t understand.”

“She called me a witch.”

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“Don’t be, I’ve been called many names. I’m used to it,” I told him honestly.

The two of us stood in front of the nurse’s office and when my hand went on the handle to open it, he put his hand on mine to stop it.

“No one can stop her. If I love her enough, she will leave everyone alone. I’m going to end it all.” With that statement, he opened the door and went in the nurse’s office to get his wounds treated.

That was the last I saw Paul. He never showed up in school the days following that. A few days after, we got news that Paul died. He committed suicide, stealing his father’s gun, walking in the middle of a field behind his house and shooting his head with it. No one knew why he did it. He was a popular kid in school, his parents doted on him, and he never had any enemies. No one knew why he killed himself.
Why was I the only one who knew? Why did he try to ‘end it all’ by killing himself? I could have helped him.

A new year rolled along and everything was as it was before. There was a memorial erected in Paul’s memory and everyone hoped no one would do the same thing. As I sat here alone in math class, I had almost forgotten about that mysterious girl. I had chosen to sit at the very back. I never liked anyone sitting behind me anymore. I need to see everything.

The bell rang and the teacher started her lecture. Opening my textbook, I concentrated and followed the teacher’s instructions.

“Do you like me? Because I like you,” said a girl’s sweet voice somewhere in class. I could hear it and no one else. I scanned the room and found no one leaning towards the seat next to them.

“Of course, baby,” said the boy. Then I found him, Jason. His gaze transfixed on the first page of his textbook. There was nothing interesting on it just the title and the editor’s name. His hand gripped tightly on his pencil shaking like a drug addict going through withdrawal.

Oh no! Not again. Why did she have to come back? What do I do? Jason and I did not interact. He was one of the ‘snooty’ kids. You ask why did I not try to help him? How could I when the poor sap refused to talk to a middle class kid.

My family and I moved once more in the middle of the school year. I never knew what happened to Jason or who that girl truly was. I only had my single friend to ask but I lost contact with her after she moved herself. She sent me a letter before she moved, sending her thanks for being a good friend to her, for watching over her whenever she got sick at school or for keeping the bullies away. She mentioned that ever since I became her friend, no one wanted to be near her. If it meant her safety, she did not mind having a ‘witch’ for a friend.

But I have never been a witch. Oh well, that’s high school and their stereotypes.

I Don’t Regret Helping My Friend

By Chef ChristinaMD

Hello, my name is Tina. It’s actually Christina, but everyone has always called me Tina. I’m a physician of internal medicine, specializing in geriatrics, and I have attained the respect of my peers, the hospital that employs me, and my community. I’m not stating these things to boast, but to lend credence to what I am about to tell you. I’m not one who takes things lightly or acts foolishly or impulsively. I do everything with deliberate and compassionate forethought.

My story begins with a friend (let’s call her Ginny) who needed my help. Ginny had just suffered a terrible tragedy (death in the family) and she reached out to me because she was having trouble coping. Unfortunately, I have a lot of experience in dealing with family members and their bereavement since most of my patients are of an advanced age and sometimes all I can do is make the ailing patient more comfortable before they pass.

My friend had a request. She wanted me to meet a woman named Charlotte Bustos, a forty-three-year-old woman who whose husband and nine-year-old-son died several years ago. Ginny said that Charlotte was a friend of her family, but she lived alone and was a bit reclusive. It was likely that Charlotte didn’t know about the death in Ginny’s family. Ginny thought a phone call would be too crass (especially in light of Charlotte’s own relatively recent tragedy) and wasn’t sure the number she had for her was still valid. Ginny thought it’d be best to tell her person. Actually, Ginny wanted me to tell her.

The request itself wasn’t strange. It’s not that I’ve become adept at delivering bad news, but I have a way of staying calm and showing concern that seems to resonate with people. Ginny was still a bit of an emotional mess, lapsing into occasional bouts of hysterical grief and anger, and she understood that she wouldn’t be the best person for this task.

But the urgency of her request was bizarre. Ginny knew that my work schedule was intense (forty hours a week in an office, forty-plus hours at the hospital), and she liked to advise me to stick to my priorities (she even dissuaded me from rekindling a past romance since it was taking up too much of my time). Yet she still pressed me to meet Charlotte as soon as possible. She even told me to call in sick. I’ve never called in sick before, but reluctantly complied since Ginny was starting to become visibly distressed.

I took two days off of work: last Thursday and Friday. Two days because I needed the first day to track down Charlotte Bustos. Ginny wasn’t sure of her address and I needed to confirm it. Being a recluse, it wasn’t easy, but I did manage to find Charlotte’s last physician. I paid him a visit and convinced him to give me Charlotte’s address. I know that may sound unethical, but I always try to act on behalf of the greater good. Ginny was becoming more upset by the minute, and we needed to get this over with. Charlotte lived about fifty miles away and I drove Ginny down there as fast as I could on Friday. It took longer than expected. I had to stop several times along the way because people were pestering me with phone calls and texts wondering where I was. I couldn’t believe I had to justify my absence. People always expect the worst out of others.

Charlotte lived in a quaint neighborhood in northwest Burbank, quiet and serene despite signs of gang activity, but her house was a wreck. It reminded me of one the abandoned homes I had seen in a documentary about the decline of Detroit. I almost thought it was abandoned, but a woman was standing at doorway, behind a closed screen door.

I walked up a driveway carpeted with weeds. Ginny followed me closely, quiet and a bit jumpy. The woman in the doorway didn’t move, she just kept starting at us as if our visit wasn’t unexpected, but possibly unwanted. As I reached the steps leading to the entrance, the woman opened the screen door and stepped outside.

It looked like we had made a mistake. This woman was not forty-three years old. She appeared closer to seventy. Deep, leathery wrinkles were etched into her face and arms. She was wearing dingy flip-flops and a faded Hawaiian dress, a muumuu, that did little to conceal her obesity. In fact, her ankles were severely swollen and her neck was covered with dark blotches of velvety skin – clear signs of uncontrolled diabetes. Worse, she was glaring at us like a frightened pit bull terrier.

I tried to alleviate the situation. “I’m very sorry to intrude. But we’re looking for Mrs. Charlotte Bustos. This was the address we were given as hers.”

The woman spit out her reply. “Who’s we?”

“I’m Tina and this is my friend, Ginny. We’re looking for Charlotte because she’s a friend of Ginny’s family.”

The old woman cracked a smile. “Little Ginny? Is that really you? Seems like it’s been ages! Come in, come in.”

I looked at Ginny. She shrugged her shoulders. We decided to follow the woman inside the house.

Unbelievably, the house looked worse inside. Newspapers, trash and empty boxes were scattered all over the floor. A broken table was propped up against a smoke-stained wall. A feral-looking cat bounded past me and hid in a darkened corner. I was glad I had a full bottle of Purell in my car that I could lather on as soon as I left this place. The woman asked us to take a seat with her on a couch that looked like it had been exhumed from the local dump. Ginny and I chose to stand.

I got right to the point. “We need to speak to Charlotte. There’s been some unpleasant news.”

The woman flopped down on the couch. Her dress rode up her leg and I could see the garbled tracks of her varicose veins against her pasty, flabby flesh. She grabbed a pack of cigarettes off a dilapidated coffee table and lit one up for herself. After a deep drag on her cigarette, the woman finally responded. “Sweetie, I am Charlotte. I know I don’t look my age, but life’s been a hard bitch. And I’m damn sure there’s no news you can tell me that I’d find unpleasant.”

I looked at Ginny. She was staring at Charlotte as if in shock or about to go into another fit of despair. Probably both. I tried to keep the conversation as emotionally neutral as possible.

“I’m terribly sorry. I heard about the loss of your husband and son. You have my sincere condolences.”

“My husband was the fucking devil! Don’t you know that?”

This was starting to get out of hand. I put my hand on Ginny’s shoulder. She was starting to tremble. I spoke as compassionately as I could to Charlotte. “I didn’t mean to reopen any bad memories. We mean no disrespect. Ginny and I came here to tell you that there’s been a death in Ginny’s family and–”

Charlotte started laughing. It sounded more like she was coughing up a golf ball-sized chunk of phlegm. “Why are you friends with her?”

I couldn’t tell if she was talking to me or Ginny. I let my hand fall away from Ginny’s shoulder.

“What the hell do you have in common? You’re not even the same age!”

Ginny spun around and ran out of the house. This was a disaster. I couldn’t imagine how this disgusting, irascible woman could be friends with Ginny’s family.

“It’s clear that this was a mistake. I’m very sorry for disturbing you.”

As I turned to follow Ginny out the door, Charlotte shouted out to me. “Do you want to be an actress too? Like Ginny?”

It was Ginny’s ambition to be an actress. Or a singer. Or a dancer. She had some talent, but she changed her mind constantly. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that she wasn’t ever going to be as successful as she believed. But some dreams die slowly.

“No. I’m a doctor.”

Charlotte hacked out another laugh. “So you don’t hear the voice when you wake up?”

I shook my head. Not in response to her pointless question, but over the fact that I had allowed myself to continue this conversation.

“Come closer, sweetie.”

I balked. “I really can’t treat anyone off the clock.” That was a lie, but there was no way I was going to conduct any kind of free examination on this barely breathing malady.

“No. I only want to tell you something. It’s all right. Come closer.”

I decided to humor her. No sense in upsetting a seriously ill looking woman. Cautiously, I crept closer to her. “What do you want to tell me?”

Charlotte snuffed out her cigarette on the coffee table. “My boy wanted to be famous. Joey was so handsome and such an amazing singer. Sounded just like that little Canadian twat.”

“I’m sorry. That’s really heartbreaking. But I think I need to find Ginny.”

“Joey was an angel. Until Ernie got a hold of him.”

Before I could ask who Ernie was, Charlotte continued. “My husband. Ernie. He was a real catch. There wasn’t a drug in this world that he didn’t cram into his body. But that wasn’t why I hated him. He did everything he could to make Joey a star. Everything.” Charlotte lumbered up from the couch. Reflexively, I took a step back.

“He prayed to things that no one should pray to. Unspeakable things.”

Charlotte took a few steps towards me. I took several steps back. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Really? You’re friends with Ginny aren’t ya? Ginny’s dad and uncle were friends with Ernie! They were all fucking devils!”

Clearly, the woman was very psychologically disturbed. As I continued to backpedal to the exit, Charlotte said something that caused me to freeze in terror.

“That’s why I had to kill Ernie, don’t you see? He was turning Joey into a devil too.”

“You need help. Or be in jail.”

“No, sweetie. Look at me! I got what I deserved. I got off easy. And it all made sense to the police when they found Joey’s bones in the backyard. They believed me when I said that Ernie had killed him.”

It was time for me to get the hell out of the house. As I turned to the door, I saw Ginny standing in the doorway. She was crying. How much of this insane woman’s ranting had she heard?

Charlotte had somehow snuck closer to me. She latched onto my arm as words oozed out of her throat. “The police saw the teeth marks on Joey’s bones. They thought Ernie had eaten him. I made them believe that too, but of course, it wasn’t true. I had to eat my boy, don’t you see?”

As I struggled to wrestle myself free from the grip of an apparent psycho killer, Ginny burst into the house, her face scrunched up into a knot as if she were ready to explode.

Charlotte looked at Ginny. “You know what I’m talking about, don’t you Ginny? You might only be seven fucking years old, but you know exactly what I’m talking about!”

Ginny, the little child that I had become friends with, stepped closer to Charlotte. Ginny’s eyes were boiling red and flared open. Her chest heaved quickly and her arms stiffened as if Ginny was a cornered, wild animal about to strike. Blood started dripping from Ginny’s forehead and down the sides of her face.

Charlotte finally let go of my arm and began to back away from Ginny. She shouted at the little girl. “She didn’t eat you, did she? Your mother should’ve fucking eaten you!”

Ginny flew at Charlotte, jumping onto the woman’s immense stomach and knocking her down to the ground. Ginny clawed at Charlotte’s face, tearing away thick pieces of bloody flesh. Charlotte’s screams were stifled by Ginny’s hands, small hands that wielded unbelievable strength, as her fingers wrapped around the old woman’s thick neck and tightened until I could hear the sounds of Charlotte’s cervical vertebrae being crushed.

As calmly as I could, I exited the house and went back inside my car. As I generously applied Purell to my hands and arms, Ginny joined me. She was smiling and looked like the playful, innocent little girl that I had hoped would return. I smiled back at her. Ginny was no longer the least bit distressed.

Ginny whispered to me. “Thank you. I heard everything I needed to.”

As I drove away, I asked Ginny only one question.

“Did your mommy kill you too?”

Ginny just giggled at me. I giggled back. At the hospital, I have heard many stories of lost souls who still wander the earth, but none of them were quite like my friend Ginny.

My Friend’s Warning About Strange Places

By Chef StrayDog1980

Owen was my pal. Maybe the best one, if I had to rank them. One of the good guys. He didn’t have many friends. We met in high school, drawn together by a mutual love in turn based strategy games. Master of Orion, Heroes of Might and Magic. Owen was an absolute beast at those games. He had a queer talent for memorizing patterns, statistics and maps. He’d devour games like a man possessed, teasing out exploits and secrets while the rest of us were cursing and swearing at the cheating, conniving tactics of our computerized opponent.

Even five years out of college, Owen remained thin as a rake, his eyes looking perpetually surprised through thick spectacles. Life happened to the rest of our little circle of friends. We went corporate. Chased the dream, ran the rat race. We never kept in touch like we should have, other than meeting up every few months for a meal. I gathered that he worked in a bank somewhere, cruising along and meeting his targets without excelling.

The last time I saw Owen was a little over 4 months ago. He had arranged to meet me at one of our favourite bars in a quiet part of town. At least, it used to be until jobs and the pressures of grown up life just expanded and expanded, filling up my life like so much bubble wrap. I got to the bar first. Or so I thought. I searched the crowd fruitlessly until my eyes focused on a lone figure in a scruffy coat sitting at the bar. I had to swallow a gasp as the man turned around. I hadn’t seen Owen in the better part of a year but he looked like he’d aged a dozen. He was thin before but he was nothing more than skin and bones. His cheeks were sunken in, unshaven, with a wispy beard framing his mouth. He smelled of sweat and grime and worse. One thing hadn’t changed, his eyes still blazed with a fierce intelligence. He gestured at the seat next to him.

When he spoke, the words came out in a rush. He’d found something, he said. He’d found a warning scribbled in an old map he’d seen in a library. It pointed to a street somewhere in the city that he hadn’t been able to find on modern maps or on Google maps. He’d hunted the street down, he said, and found a back alley, a nameless lane between two buildings that shouldn’t have been there. Intrigued, he’d gone back and found another two maps in the library with other warnings, in different handwriting from the first. The maps were published years apart, yet seemed to be warning readers away from similar nameless streets.

Owen grew more animated as he spoke, gesturing wildly, a small crust of white spittle forming at the corner of his mouth. He’d found more of the lanes the maps warned about. Cracks between buildings that shouldn’t have been there. Hidden alleys. I saw the familiar glint of obsession in his eyes, he’d found something special, a hidden system, and he wouldn’t rest until he had laid bare its secrets. He stopped short, his eyes widening at something through the window, across the busy street. I turned around to see what had spooked him but the throng of people at the bar and on the street blocked me. Hands shaking, he teased out a tattered map from his pocket. It was covered in his crabby writing, too small to make out by the light of the bar counter. He marked a spot and hurriedly folded up the map, which quickly disappeared into his pocket.

“It’s big. Something big. Something hidden. I’ve almost got all the places. I’m almost there. I can’t move fast enough. I’ll need something faster…”

So that’s what he wanted. Just to borrow my car for the weekend. I gave him a look that was half pity and half derision. Pity for the friend I knew, and derision for the madman twitching before me. It wasn’t the first time I’d let him drive my car. Much less now, since we’d drifted apart. I had no idea what had gotten into Owen and I wasn’t even sure that I I’d get it back in one piece. In the end, his plaintive wheedling got the better of me, and I agreed to let him have my car for the weekend. I wish to God I hadn’t.

I didn’t hear anything from Owen that Saturday. Or the day after. He didn’t pick up his mobile the entire night. I had to get a cab to work on Monday morning and planned to take my mounting frustration out on Owen after work, friendship be damned. His antics seemed more like college hijinks than something an adult should be playing at. I checked my phone as I left my apartment. A text from Owen.

“Car at my place. I was wrong. Burn map. Leave nothing behind. Don’t come after me.”

I was sufficiently unnerved by the message to leave work early. I hadn’t been to Owen’s apartment in years, but I still remembered the way. I saw my car parked out front, a cup of coffee in the cupholder, a huge map of the city, densely annotated, unfolded in the passenger seat. I made my way up the stairs. The door to the apartment was open. Owen wasn’t inside. His mother was. Her face crumpled with a grief that no parent should know.

Owen’s house was a wreck, his mental decline clearly reflected in his apartment. Maps, photographs and sheets of paper covered with a mixture of scrawled handwriting covered every possible surface. Between gulping sobs, she explained how she’d just come back from the morgue to identify his body. He’d been in a pretty nasty hit and run accident the morning before. The cops said he must have been dragged for a distance. Facial identification was impossible. She only managed to identify him through his personal effects and a tattoo on his upper arm. Or at least, a tattoo that used to be on his upper arm. The accident had sheared a chunk of flesh right off him, and she had to identify pieces of her son’s body laid out on the cold metal of a gurney.

Owen’s father and brother came by with the funeral director then. I excused myself, leaving the family to their grief. As his friend, I should have offered my help but I needed to leave the house. Owen had been found on Sunday morning. I whipped out my phone to verify what I already knew. He’d texted me at 3am on Monday morning.

My head was still spinning when I got into my car. The shock of Owen’s sudden passing and the chill left by the text message this morning danced nauseatingly in my head. Was the fight in the bar all I had to remember him by? I unfolded the map. Owen’s spidery writing covered almost every available space on the map. He’d been writing with a force and speed which turned his usually neat script into an illegible scrawl, so forceful in places that the cheap ballpoint pen had punched through the paper. He’d marked out dozens of locations on the map, with crude stars, accompanied by annotated times and dates. The rest of the text made no sense, there were scribbled symbols that didn’t even match any language that I knew of. The snatches of English that I could decipher made no more sense than the symbols, products of Owen’s obviously addled mind.

They watch from the cracks. Nameless streets.

Secret kings and queens of the city.

They sing to the dead. They eat the lost.

The meaningless text still sent a chill down my spine. The depths of my friend’s madness shocked me. I couldn’t fathom why he would ask me to destroy the map.

Lost in my troubled thoughts, I started my car. A polite chime snapped me from my reverie. It came from a shiny black slab on my dashboard. A GPS unit. Not mine. Owen’s. A strange thing for him to own, since he didn’t have a car to start with.

I looked at the tiny LCD screen. I was at a location that Owen had marked out on his little GPS unit. His home? No, it was slightly off, across the street. It looked to be in the middle of a building, a shop maybe? The streets were empty of both pedestrians as well as cars. It was a quiet street, but something felt out of place. No, the street wasn’t totally empty. There was a small lane, practically just a crack between two buildings right next to my car. A waifishly thin teenage girl was standing there, dressed in tatty jeans and a plain threadbare t-shirt. Far too thin for the icy winter weather. No shoes either.

She was wearing a look of intense focus on her face, her dark piercing eyes staring upwards towards Owen’s apartment. Her face was perfectly formed, pale, but covered in streaks of dirt. Her blonde hair, matted into crude dreadlocks. She seemed perfectly at ease in the cold. As though she could feel my eyes on her, her head snapped downwards and she affixed me with her mesmerizing gaze. I felt transfixed, like a butterfly pinned to a corkboard. Her bright pink tongue snaked out from between her dirty lips, the pointy tip ran across her lips in anticipation.

I looked back at the GPS unit. There shouldn’t have been an alley where she was standing. It should have been a continuous block of buildings. When I looked up, she was gone again. Unnerved by the nameless lane and the vanishing girl, I drove off a little faster than I should have. I must have driven at least 5 blocks when I heard the little chime from my dashboard again. Another star on the map. Same thing, a star where there shouldn’t have been a break between buildings. I nearly slammed on the brakes in shock when I saw the girl again. There was no way she could have made the distance between my last stop and this one on foot. I wracked my brains for a logical explanation as my car cruised by. A sister? Or did she have a car in a parallel street. I found her giving me that same intense look. It had to be the same girl. It was the look, that hungry look. She craned her neck to follow my car as I drove by, like a snake staring a mouse down.

I watched her shrinking into the rear view mirror for as long as I could. Then I floored the accelerator, trying to get as far from her as possible. Rubber squealed on the black asphalt. I’d put about 7 blocks between the girl and I when the polite chime from my dashboard sounded again. Adrenaline pumped through my system. My gaze swept across the empty streets. There she was again. It had to be the same girl. It HAD to be. She caught my gaze with her own piercing look. And she smiled at me. No, it wasn’t a smile. She pulled her lips up and back and bared her straight white teeth but there was neither humour nor warmth in the expression. It put me in mind of a baboon or a wolf, facing down something small and helpless. Baring her fangs, I thought. She abruptly turned and scuttled down that almost hidden alley. I stopped the car. Owen had found something. I hadn’t done right by him in his last days but I had to know how he died. I owed him that much. I rounded the corner mere seconds after the girl. The alley was empty. Rough cement walls stretched to the sky, blocking out the tired light of the evening sun. She had vanished in the scant seconds it took me to get to the mouth of the tiny, nameless alley.

My pulse quickened as I made my way down the tight corridor. My walk turned into a trot, and the trot into a sprint. By the time I had reached the end of the end of the street, my chest was heaving, constricted by bands of hot iron. My breath steamed in the cold evening air. She wasn’t there. There weren’t any alcoves or windows or turn offs anywhere down the alley. I hit the end of the alley and peered down the adjacent street. No trace of the girl. No alleyways she could have turned down. No doors or windows she could have climbed through. Nothing except the empty street with… a familiar car parked by the side of the road. My car.

I had walked a hundred yards, through a straight alley, and wound up back where I started.

I felt the world spin around me. I put my hand on the wall to steady myself. What had Owen found? What was he searching for before he died? How was it possible for a straight alley to start and end at the same place? Large gouts of mist shot from my mouth as my chest heaved. There was something unnatural about this place. Something wrong in the air. I felt strange grooves under my hand as I pushed on the wall to straighten up. Someone or something had carved a series of strange symbols on the wall. Now I know where Owen had gotten those scribbled hieroglyphics from. He’d seen them too. He must have been trying to decypher it like some code. Typical, for him.

I cast a final look down straight down the strange, empty alley. The girl was still nowhere to be seen. I left the strangeness of the alley behind me as I made my way back to my car. My breath misted on the cold window as I cast one final look towards that crack between buildings, that nameles space. The nameless space with the same girl staring out at me. The temperature was close to freezing outside, but I finally realised what had unnerved me about that silent tableau. All that time, all that time I was staring at her. I hadn’t seen her breath mist up on the crisp evening air.

What I saw that day filled up my waking moments like a creeping itch. I would find my eyes magnetically drawn to the hard plastic shell of my glove compartment on the slow commute to work. Owen’s mysterious map and GPS navigator skittered around within their prison like caged rats when I took turns just a little too hard, reminding me of their presence. Owen had stumbled onto something. Something strange. He’d found something and it had consumed him.

I’d gone to the funeral with the expressed intention of handing over the map and the navigator to Owen’s family. The empty rows in the church showed just how far he’d taken his search. No colleagues, barely any friends. The odd family member. He’d lost his job months ago. Cut off almost all contact with the outside world. Owen’s mom had aged a decade since I saw her last. The raw shock of hearing about her son’s death replaced with a bone-deep sorrow, painfully obvious in the crinkles in the corners of her eyes, in her sunken cheeks, in her haunted, leaking eyes. I’d whispered my commiserations, saying how sorry I was, all while the truth of the map and Owen’s last warning poised at the back of my throat like a wave of bile. I choked the secrets back, where they sat in my gut, swollen and sour.

I had to find out more.

I spent hours trying to decipher Owen’s writing, looking for a pattern in the crazed scribblings. I lacked Owen’s skill with codes and systems. There was no pattern I could discern from the constellation of marked locations. No hidden message leapt out from his ravings. There was only one other thing to try.

The day was cold, I remember. Even for mid-winter. Not a skin cold. The cold that cut through your clothes, seeped in with every breath into your lungs. A deep, bone cold. I returned to the first three alleys where I’d seen the girl. I found nothing. The alleys were totally empty, in stark contrast to the busy streets just a few yards away. The fourth one was empty too. It was getting dark by the time I got to the fifth point marked on the map. The crowd on the sidewalks had thinned out as the chill got deeper. Owen’s handwriting was impossible to read in the weakening light. I rounded the corner and I saw another one. He could have been a brother or a twin to the girl I’d seen. Same blonde hair. A simple fitted t-shirt. Jeans. Barefoot on the biting cold concrete.

He gave me a sardonic stare. He looked to be gnawing at something, a chicken wing or something similar, with great gusto. I saw as he stretched his mouth open to suck the last ounce of flavour off the little morsel before drawing out the bleached bone from his mouth and flinging it into the distance. He made a little moue, as though he’d bitten into something sour. His eyes still locked with mine, he opened his mouth and rooted around with a questing finger. Finding what he’d been looking for, he hooked out a huge looking greyish chunk out of his mouth and delicately set it on the floor. Abruptly, he turned, took 3 deliberate steps to his right and vanished around a turn.

I rushed forward to see what he had out on the floor. I wished I hadn’t. It was a ring. Class of 06, still slicked wet with saliva on the outside, but sticky red with blood and shreds tissue on the inside. I instinctively clutched at the identical ring I wore on my index finger. The boy hadn’t been chewing on any buffalo wing. He’d been chewing on Owen’s finger.

The smell of blood hit my nose, sharp and rich through the evening chill. My last meal rushed out of me in a flood, and sat hot and steaming on the cold floor. I turned to face the small nook the boy had walked into. Nothing. Like the girl, he’d vanished. All that lay before me was a featureless dead end. Not featureless. Something that nobody else could have seen. Nobody but Owen and me. There, in the delicate spiderweb of cracks on the concrete, drawn out in a thin black filigree on the wall, was another of the symbols from Owen’s map.

When does a search become an obsession? Or when does obsession burst into mania? Owen’s degeneration was clear as day to me, but my own descent was far more subtle.

The terrible damage of the accident had visited one final indignity on Owen and his kin: they had to say goodbye to the polished wooden veneer of a closed coffin. Had it really been my dear friend in that box? There must have been a few hundred of those rings pressed out. It could have belonged to anyone in my graduating year. Yet… I knew deep inside of me that it had to be Owen’s ring I had picked up off the cold cement, wet with spit and blood.

My search began in earnest then. To seek out what he had found, hoping beyond reason that I would find my old friend somewhere along that path.

It started innocently enough. I’d spend a free evening after work wandering the streets, following Owen’s map, each location like another morsel on a trail of breadcrumbs. The trail of clues was maddening. Again I got the sense of a deeper pattern behind the randomness, and cursed myself for being unable to see it. Each site I visited seemed to hold a piece of the puzzle. I grew adept in finding the hidden symbols that Owen had found in the cracks in the city. I’d already found the first symbols scrawled into the wall in chalk when I’d seen the girl. Another hidden in a network of cracks in wall, after I found Owen’s ring on the floor. Those weren’t the last.

I found another set of 3 symbols, hidden within spray painted tags on a wall. One more in the carefully arranged guts of a dead rat, its bowels burst and scattered over the floor. Another woven into the silken threads of a spiderweb, stretched between grey concrete and a rusty dumpster.

Those hidden lanes and alleys were always deserted. It could have been lunch hour or rush hour, with the streets thronging with people and they would still be empty. I’d walk those down plain blank concrete canyons, for hour after hour, always feeling watched, never feeling alone. I never saw another living soul in those lanes and alleys during my search, but the hairs on the back of my neck would rise once I stepped into one. There was a sense of something deeply wrong, wholly unnaturally about those empty spaces. The sudden silence would envelope me like a cocoon, the rush of voices and vehicles coming from a world away, faint like the tinny broadcast of a distant radio station. The isolation was palpable. With the isolation came a crawling fear, a watery feeling in my guts and my legs, that something or somebody was observing me, leading me on in my search.

I never saw another living soul in those lonesome places. Until I started seeing them again. The glances were always fleeting. Titillating. A glimpse of a person turning into one of those cracks in the city, seconds before I rounded the corner, only to find myself alone in an empty alley. Or a set of footprints leading from a puddle, imprints of bare feet, like those of the boy and the girl, vanishing into the distance as the cold dry air drank the moisture off the trail. A recently toppled trashcan still rolling on the floor, without any breeze to push it. I’m sure I saw the girl again once. The blonde one. Anonther girl with her dirty brown hair cut short. The boy I saw several times, always in a distance, always fleeing from me. I’m sure there were more.

My search intensified. I took time off work to visit the cracks repeatedly. The symbols practically leapt out at me from the walls and floors, screaming to be read, deciphered. My experience with the first crack never repeated itself, but it was hardly the last oddity I experienced in the cracks. Once, near midnight, I found a crack that stretched for a full city block on the map, yet I could only count 76 paces from entrance to exit. Against all rationality, it measured 76 yards within the crack, but 100 yards on all parallel routes. On yet another day, I went into one of the cracks, scanning the walls for more of those symbols when I emerged, blinking at the sudden brightness, 3 blocks down from where I’d entered. How could a straight path have deposited me anywhere but directly opposite where I’d gone in?

By this point, my search started taking its toll. I’d gone beyond the point of worrying my friends. My phone, once a source of tweets, Facebook updates and text messages, slowly went silent. My boss had called me in and told me that he was letting me go. My job would still be waiting for me if I applied again. He put his hand on my shoulder and looked me in the eye. “I like you,” he said. “You’ve been a great worker, smart and fast. I don’t know what kind of shit you’ve been going through for the past couple of weeks but you’re not contributing any more and I can’t afford to keep you on at the state you’re in now.” I mumbled something vague about things being bad at home. I was too wrapped up in my obsession to care by that point. I’d gone beyond visiting and revisiting the same sites marked on Owen’s map. The week before, I’d found a crack that wasn’t on the map. Something new. Owen hadn’t found them all. I could almost sense the shape of things, some pattern in the layout of the cracks, some waiting breakthrough in the symbols.

That’s when I found him.

I had a lot more time without a job. My search expanded. I found two more cracks, greedily documenting their locations and taking pictures of all the symbols I could find. And then I found my fourth one. The sun was high overhead, but the light provided no warmth. Like a morgue, I remember thinking, all bright and cold.

I rounded a corner on a busy street, downtown. My breath caught in my throat. I felt the familiar tingle. I’d found another one. My heart leapt. But there was something else here. A few yards in, hunched over, was a man. A denizen of the streets, from the looks of it. His tattered jacket wrapped tightly around his slight frame to keep out the biting cold. A dirty hand poked out from his jacket, holding the zipperless front together. I just saw two fingers clutching the dirty material. Some terrible damage had been wrought on his hand, a bandage, gummy with dried blood and pus, covered the rest of it.

I rushed forward to speak to him, the first other real person I’d seen in my search. He perked up at the sound of my footsteps. His rheumy eyes widened when he saw me.

The man raised a sheet of cardboard, crudely torn from some carton or box. I’d expected to see something routine. A plea for spare change. Something about being willing to work. Maybe even something witty. Instead, scrawled in large blocky letters, 4 words. Run. They hunt you. The rough strokes of the letters were too broad to have come from a sharpie or a marker pen. The ink was a rusty smear of brown, too spread out to have come from a normal writing instrument. Blood. The man had written the warning in blood.

“Who…?” I formed the question with my lips even as the answer rang in my mind, clear as a bell. Owen’s voice. The kings and queens of the city.

In that moment, my eyes locked with the clear blue eyes of the wreck of a man in front of me and the dawning realisation hit me like a freight train. Owen. Sweet god in heaven, I was looking at Owen. He’d known it was me all along of course. But he hadn’t expected the look of recognition on my face. He opened his mouth and moaned, a wordless sound of pure anguish, his mouth wide enough for me to see the black stump flapping around inside like a dying fish.

The shock of recognition was too much for me. My knees buckled as I back pedal led away from the ruinous vision in front of me. I went over backwards. The impact drove the air from my lungs. The world flashed white as my head met the floor with a crack. I got to my knees, wincing in pain. Owen wasn’t there in front of me. I raised my head, the pain felt like a tent spike between my ears.Owen was standing a few feet from me. But he wasn’t alone. The blonde girl was standing next to him, dwarfed by Owen’s gangly frame. She held his hand delicately, like a nurse leading someone old and infirm. Owen’s entire demeanour had changed. Moments before he had worn an expression of shock and anguish. All that had melted away, and there was nothing but naked fear in his eyes. He shook gently as the girl raised his ruined hand to her lips, planting a kiss on the rotten bandage over his missing fingers. Not a kiss, I saw her lips work up and down as she sucked hungrily.

When she looked up, there was a smear of brown over the perfect pink bow of her lips.

“We’re coming for you next. There is so very little of this one left, and there are so many of us.”

Her voice was clear and sharp, with just a trace of girlishness. She reached up and stroked Owen’s cheek softly, smiling at me. Owen shuddered. The crotch of his jeans darkened as he lost control of his bladder. I tried to get to my feet, but the pain was blinding. The rush of blood to my head whited out my vision again. I blinked furiously, trying to clear my sight. When the world swam back into focus, Owen and the girl were gone.

I rushed forward to the spot where I’d seen him last. Nothing lingered but the faint smell of piss and fear. Like the first time I stepped into one of these cracks, a long straight concrete canyon stretched out before me. No traces of Owen or the girl. Then the screaming started. The same sound that Owen had made earlier, a sound of pure pain and anguish, torn straight from his soul. It seemed like it was coming from everywhere and nowhere. I spun around like a madman, hoping to catch one last glimpse of my friend. He wasn’t there. I put my hand against the wall to steady myself. I snapped my hand back. The wall was… vibrating. Humming. The screams were coming from the walls.

I ran.

The streets had emptied out for the evening. I’d lost track of where I was, how far I’d run.

I felt like a man coming up for air, surfacing from the depths of a waking dream. A stranger looked back at me from the glass facades of the shops I walked past. An eternity ago I was young, full of life and successful. Owen was the vagabond, the kook, the madman. Now we were the same, he and I. Dishevelled, unshaven. With one difference. I was afraid now. Afraid of what I’d become, of how far I’d fallen. Afraid of what I’d been chasing, not knowing that I was being hunted with a greater hunger than I was capable of imagining.

I swallowed a little scream as I saw a pale face watching me in the reflection. I peeked over my shoulder. A young man stared out at me from an alley. One of them. The alley was dark, the scant street lighting made it seem like he was floating in shadow. He beamed widely at me. His teeth, white and perfect, and stepped backwards. The darkness swallowed him.

My pace quickened. Another alley, another crack. Two of them this time, staring out from across the street, their eyes bright with mirth and longing. Is that what Owen saw that night in the bar? Was he being hunted too? I broke into a slow jog and then into a flat out sprint as the fear took root and grew.

Owen was dead now, I was sure of it. I had squandered his first warning and I feared that his second warning had come too late. I had to get home. Destroy the maps like Owen said. Stay away from the cracks. Maybe leave town. There was nothing left here for me anyway.

Only one more thing to do. And I’ve just done it. Like the map Owen found. Or the last text he sent me. Or his last message to me written in his own blood. I’ve burnt the map, deleted all my photos, thrown out the GPS unit, anything that hints at where the cracks are.

All that I need to do is leave my story, my warning. And my hope that nobody else follows me, or sees what I’ve seen. I am done. There are cracks in our cities. There are dark things that live in the cracks. Hidden things, lurking in the web of cracks like spiders, waiting for the unwitting, the unprepared and the lost. And they are hungry.