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Crippling Debt

November 7, 2015 at 12:00 AM
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The first phone call came as we sat down to dinner.

I had been expecting calls from potential employers or recruitment offices, so I was excited when I heard the ring tone. I was nine months into the job search and our savings were running dry. Though it was six in the evening where we lived, it was only three on the west coast and I had sent my resume everywhere. My stomach gave a small lurch as I looked at my phone and read the word UNKNOWN across the screen. The only phone calls I had gotten from unknown numbers over the past months had been bill collectors or people trying to sell me solutions to debt or upgrades to my internet service.

“Should I take this? It’s an unknown number, but maybe it’s important,” I asked my wife, Caroline.

“Two minutes, Tom. I’m serious,” she said.

I touched the accept button.

“Hello?” I said.

For a moment, the line was almost quiet. There was some distant sound, like a record player or a crackling fire, but I blamed poor reception.

I looked at my phone to make sure it was connected, which it was, and almost tapped the End Call button at my wife’s insistence, until a voice came through the speaker, high in pitch and business like.

“Hello, Mr. Hanshaw,” said the voice.

“This is he. Not much time to talk. Who is this?” I said into the receiver, admittedly coming off as impatient.

“Oh, this isn’t that kind of phone call, my good sir. There was no question mark at the end of that sentence,” the voice replied.

“Well, there was one at the end of mine. Dinner is getting cold, the wife’s stare is colder, you understand. I’ll ask again. Who is this?” I tried to sound firm, but I was tired and I sounded it.

“It may be best to have your wife eat without you. We have a few things to discuss. Cold supper should be the least of your worries,” said the voice.

“If I owe you money, I’m doing my best. If this is a prank, you need to do better than that. Have a great night,” I said.

I touched the End Call button on my phone sat down to eat so my wife would stop rattling her finger nails on the table.

“Obviously that wasn’t a job offer,” she asked.

“Unless the job is sniffing out bullshit, no. I’m afraid not,” I replied, deadpan. I couldn’t even be disappointed anymore. It had become the status quo.

“Tom, we are going to be alright, aren’t we?” Caroline said.

“Of course we are. This is just poor timing. I just got my master’s degree. I’m stuck between overqualified and under experienced and I just need to meet with the right people,” I repeated for what had to be the hundredth time that month alone. Her eyes rolled the same way they had every time I said it.

“I hope you find them before the bank sends a moving van and locks us out of our own house,” she said.

She spooned peas into her mouth, her face contorting to one of hatred (though hatred of me or another leftover meal, I didn’t know). It amazed me how quickly love didn’t matter when everything else went to hell. Happily ever after wasn’t a real thing, but in my case, tolerable for a while was pushing it. The problem wasn’t that we hated each other. It was that we didn’t want to, and neither of us knew how to prevent it from constantly poisoning every fucking discussion we had.

The phone rang again. I had set it next to me on the table. My wife gave me a look that said she would be happy to throw the fork across the table and eat with her hands if I delivered any more bad news. The screen said UNKNOWN again, so I didn’t answer.

The ensuing silence lasted long enough for each of us to take a bite of the leftover chicken ziti her sister had given us the night before. It had become a habit to accept any offer of a free meal, served with a side of sarcasm and dirty glances from her sister for not taking care of her sister.

Before my wife could swallow her first bite, my phone rang again. The volume grew with each ring until the sound was deafening in the small dining room. Caroline’s hands flew to her ears as she screamed something I barely heard. I tried tapping the decline button enough times to make my finger numb, but it wouldn’t stop ringing. My wife ran across the room. I was able to make out her words as she passed.

“I’m not even hungry anymore. The last thing you need is a broken fucking phone when we can’t even make a car payment, Tom, so fix it or shove it up your ass so I can’t hear it!,” my wife screamed, approaching the stairs.

I stuffed the in my pocket to dull the noise. I had kept my voice mail empty, paranoid I would miss a message about a job lead or offer, so I knew that it should have clicked over at some point. The ringtone kept getting louder.

Grumbling to myself, I separated the back plate from the face of the phone and removed the battery. At last, the ringing stopped, though there was a ringing in my ear that wouldn’t go away. I put everything in my pocket to leave the table technology free, the way Caroline had insisted it should always be before the credit collectors had started ruining every second of our lives with phone calls and endless e-mails. Just in case she came back into the room. No need for another fight over something stupid.

I kept eating the now-cold dinner, lulled into a mechanical dance of scooping cold ziti into my mouth as I reveled in the silence, until the phone ring again, not bothering to slowly build to full volume this time. The sound was deafening in the small dining room. I inhaled and nearly choked, but was able to cough up the pasta. It took a moment to realize that the phone in my pocket, sans battery, wasn’t the one ringing. I crossed the room to my wife’s small purse, which was dancing across the kitchen counter with the power of the vibrations, and pulled out her phone.

The screen said UNKNOWN.

I clicked accept, ready to yell at whoever was on the other line, my last straw reached.

The voice didn’t wait for me.

“Hello, Mr. Hanshaw. It was very rude of you to hang up on me without hearing what I have to say. I abhor rude people, so I will say this just the once. If you hang up or otherwise find a way to interrupt this call again, I will take something from you,” said the voice.

“What do you want? I don’t have the time or the patience to deal with prank calls. Have some empathy. Please, save it until I have a job again before I end up sleeping on the couch,” I said

“Mr. Hanshaw, what on earth makes you think this is a prank?” the voice said, half laughing.

I started to take Caroline’s phone apart to remove the battery, same as I had done with mine. Like my wife, I no longer wanted food. Just five minutes of peace. I planned to call the phone company to figure out how to block unknown numbers the next morning.

“If you do that, I will have to take something from you, Mr. Hanshaw. I would highly advise against…” the voice cut off as I removed the battery and tossed it and the dead phone on the kitchen table. Frustrated and ready for the day to end, I tasted none of the food as I shoveled it into my mouth.

Whoever was trying to contact me was out of phone numbers. There were plenty of people who knew how to reaching us both it wasn’t hard to hide a phone number from caller ID, but whoever was doing this was in for some advice on their people skills and an evaluation of our friendship. Every person who mattered in our lives knew what we had been dealing with. I didn’t recognize the voice. The harassment was unnecessary. When our shit was in order, I would find out who was responsible, and one day, they would regret it. One day, I would…

The phone began vibrating on the table. I froze, colder than the remnants of the food stuck to my fork. There was no ringing, but the way the table shook made the phone seem…I don’t know…angry.

All the anger that had been building up drained away. When the phone started vibrating without a battery, I became scared. When the phone answered the call without my assistance and put itself on speaker, I could barely breathe.

“I warned you,” said the voice, much deeper than it had been the previous two times.

I wanted to speak. I truly did. The food in my mouth, half chewed, might as well have been cement. I couldn’t open my mouth at all. My eyes, however, were wide open.

“I don’t know why it is you people find it so hard to answer a simple instruction. You are all entirely too rude. And now, I have to take something from you, Mr. Hanshaw. I really don’t want to. I sincerely mean that. But you must take me seriously or this is all for naught. So, which bitch will it be? Zelda or Caroline?” the voice asked.

That broke the spell. I kicked the chair backward and stood, sweeping my head around and looking for an intruder, a face in the window, something…anything…to lead me to whoever was taking this sick joke one step too far.

“If you wait too long to make a decision, I will be happy to make it for you, Mr. Hanshaw,” the voice warned. “Just think about who you love the most. Everybody else in a person’s life is usually expendable. How about thirty seconds? Thirty. Twenty-Nine.”

“You think I’m a naive asshole?” I screamed, regaining both my anger and the use of my mouth. “Oh, big man, you know the name of my wife and dog. As soon as I found out who this is, you won’t have a job, either. Then we’ll see who is laughing!” I screamed.

“Twenty. Nineteen. Eighteen.” The voice continued to count down.

Scary stories weren’t like real life. Even at that moment, as I ran to the front door and threw it open with a shout, hoping to find some past co-worker or a close friend trying to take my mind off of the terrible situation I was in and the crippling debt that was destroying my family from within, I had no notions that this was something beyond an elaborate, albeit convincing and offensive, prank.

Until the voice reached zero and the lights went out.

Until, in the darkness, I heard a crash from upstairs and a light laugh from the phone on the kitchen table.

I ran towards where I knew the stairs to be, knocking the knick-knacks and paintings we had wasted so much of our depleted earnings on to the floor as I rushed my way through the blackness, all the while screaming for my wife and my dog. I heard Zelda bark and it calmed me down enough to stop screaming. I heard some other sound too, something muffled and frantic. Probably Caroline wanting the dog to shut up while she drank away her sorrows.

I tripped in my scramble to climb the stairs. Instant pain shot up my shin and stopped my ascent for a moment.

The lights returned shortly after that. They didn’t flicker or buzz as lights tend to do after a power outage. One second it was black, the next I was nearly blinded as I limped my way up the rest of the stairs.

Zelda met me at the divider gate we kept at the top of the stairs, jumping up and down and licking my hand as I reached down to pet her. As soon as I opened the latch and stepped through, she sped off towards the bedroom. I took a couple of breaths before I walked into the room, knowing how angry Caroline must have been to ignore my screaming during a blackout.

Those deep breaths are the only reason I didn’t pass out when I entered my bedroom.

Caroline lay face down on the floor. That isn’t entirely accurate. A pile of clothes at the foot of the bed must have tripped her during the black out, and her back was to the ceiling, her face wasn’t exactly on the floor. Half of the bottle had disappeared down her throat. Her mouth had been stretched so wide by the bottle that the corner of the lip I could see had torn. The blood seeping down the bottle and onto the carpet had mixed with wine and something that looked thick and snotty. Tears trickled from her bloodshot eyes. The top part of her body rested at an unnatural angle as her head balanced on the wine bottle, which rested perfectly upright on the floor save for the person choking on the upper half of it. Zelda lapped at the frothing mixture like a doggie cocktail. There was a disgusting bulge under the skin on the back of her neck.

As disturbing as all of that was, the single blink of Caroline’s visible eye was what caused me to drop to my knees and vomit. Zelda was quick to run over and begin her second barking course of the night as tears and snot streamed down my own face.

“Now, I’m sure this is something of a shock to you, Mr. Hanshaw, but I gave you a warning and told you my terms in plain English, the same as your creditors before me,” the voice said from my pocket.

The phone hadn’t bothered to ring this time.

I pulled my phone out, my voice catching on the sobs and whimpers in my throat. The screen no longer said UNKNOWN, but had instead opened up one of those video chat apps. My vision was blurred from the tears, but what silhouette I could make out made me think that was for the best.

Caroline made a coughing noise and her body jerked. I cringed.

“Don’t be such a baby. Those kind of spasms are completely normal. It’s not like you’d hear a death rattle, right? If you think that’s bad, wait for the bowels to let loose!” the voice chided.

I grabbed Zelda and ran from the room. The last memory of my wife was going to haunt me long enough. I didn’t want to be in the room while my dead wife shit herself.

I locked Zelda and myself in the bathroom. She whined some, but only because I hadn’t let her finish snacking. That thought would have made me throw up again had anything remained in my stomach.

“I’m going to give you exactly two minutes to compose yourself, Mr. Hanshaw. After that, we will resume the intended conversation. So that you know, this is an attempt to collect on a debt. I hope you realize that any further attempts to delay or avoid this conversation will result in…similar consequences. Get your shit together,” the voice said.

The next two minutes might as well have been an eternity, though looking back I wish I had just washed my face and waited for the call.

As soon as the screen went black, I reached into my pocket and grabbed the battery. I pushed it into the phone and held down the power button, waiting for it to turn on and cussing at it under my breath for wasting time. Zelda sniffed under the door and scratched to be left out, sick and tired of being cooped up.

I opened the door and let her out, not wanting to deal with the distraction. Beyond everything that happened, I regret that the most. It was the only time that night I feel I had any real control, and in my panic I reacted how I would have on any other normal day.

By the time the phone loaded, nearly a minute must have been wasted. I called 911, fulling expecting something crazy to prevent the call from going through, but they picked up after a ring.

“911, what is your emergency?” the operator asked.

“My wife is dead. Someone is attacking us,” I answered.

“Are you in any immediate danger?” the operator asked.

“Yes,” I replied.

She started to ask me to describe my assailant, but I cut her off, knowing time was short.

“He will be back in less than a minute. He killed my wife. I don’t know who he is or what he wants. He says he is a debt collector. Please send help. My address is 932…” I was cut off.

“Salvador Street, Mr. Hanshaw? Obviously, I know where you live. Technically you did nothing to prevent our conversation, so I suppose I can’t fault you for keeping your wits after such a traumatic experience. To be honest, I’m impressed you were able to think at all! Are you ready to talk?”

I was done. I had reached my limit. I had wasted whatever wits left on a failed 911 call and had nothing left to maintain my composure. I proved it by tossing the phone in the toilet and holding down the flushing handle. I thought it would just sit at the bottom of the bowl as the water flowed over it, but it was small enough to disappear from sight.

I cried then. I leaned against the wall, ignoring the painful jab of the towel rack and Zelda scratching to be let back in to comfort me, and cried in loud, heaving sobs.

I wasn’t a bad person. I hadn’t done anything illegal. I lost my job at an inopportune time and had shitty luck, but I was trying as hard as I could. I loved my wife despite her criticism and resentment. She had a hard time understanding that trying hard didn’t always equate to results. Her anger was understandable. I had insisted on going for my Master’s degree, sure that it would take us to that next level of financial stability, and every failed interview and missed opportunity I blamed on that degree was me hating myself a little more for how much of a failure I had become.

Through all the anger and resentment, Caroline had stuck by me and put up with my self-righteous bullshit. She was my best friend, and now she was dead. If the voice on the phone was to be believed, it was just as much my fault as the debt that had caused him to call in the first place. Zelda’s scratching and whimpering grew louder, so quieted my sobbing until she let a bark of boredom and moved on.

That’s when I decided to end my life. My reason for living was dead in our bedroom. Whether all of this was a bad prank mixed with worse coincidence or the act of some crazy individual out for blood, better to die by my own hand than by that of whoever that voice belonged to.

I opened the bathroom door to call for Zelda, planning on leaving her in the neighbor’s fenced in yard with my suicide note tied to her collar. She didn’t come. All it took was a downward glance to realize that she hadn’t been scratching at the door to try and comfort me.

Zelda, both halves of her, lay dead at the foot of the bathroom door. Blood had soaked so deeply into her white fur and the carper that it was hard to tell the two apart, save for the collar around the lump on my left. Much like my wife’s final blink, some part of Zelda let out a final wheeze that sounded like a weak bark.

Zelda was like our child, and though I had no illusions that we would outlive her, I cannot explain to you what seeing something so brutal done to something you love so much does to you. What happened to my wife could have been a fucked up accident. Somebody had torn Zelda in half.

I felt nothing as I walked to my bedroom, stepped over Caroline, and stepped into the closet. I unlocked the combination safe and grabbed the gun from top shelf, not bothering to close it afterwards. I stuffed the gun into the back of my pants and grabbed the blankets folded at the end of our bed. I used one to cover Caroline as best as I was able without looking, and the other to cover Zelda, hoping they would appreciate the gesture if they had been able.

I walked down the stairs, slow and deliberate, almost too carefully for a man on his way to swallow a bottle of cheap vodka and a bullet. At the foot of the stairs, the doorbell rang. I wasn’t surprised as I looked towards the door. I knew exactly what I would see through the cloudy, decorative glass of our front door.

The same silhouette that had been on my phone screen.

The voice spoke to me through the door. I pulled the gun out of my pants and walked towards it, hearing every word, defeated.

“Now that we can avoid further interruption, Mr. Hanshaw, let’s discuss business. It’s very simple. You owed money and services to some very impatient people. I am more dedicated than most when it comes to collecting on those debts, and so people of such influence tend to come to me when all else fails. Why, you ask? Because instead of waiting for a peasant like you to pay installments, I pay your debts in full. Call it pre-consolidation. Now the only person you owe is me,” the voice informed me.

“I don’t have the money. I don’t have anything left!” I cried, leaning my head against the door and placing the gun against my temple.

“I don’t need your money, Mr. Hanshaw. Money is paper. Paper can be recycled. I only require one thing to clear your debt. Something invaluable. Just one little thing, and we can both move on from this. Open the door and give it to me. Trust me when I say that the gun in your hand won’t save you. There are plenty of things left I can take from you. You just don’t have the imagination in you to know what they are,” the voice said through the door.

“Just take it! Take what you want and leave me alone! What the hell do I have left to give?” I screamed, slamming my head and fists against the door, letting every emotion hit me at once.

“Your soul,” replied the voice.

Then, a sharp pain struck me in the chest and I was on my back, with bright light blinding me and demons screaming and scratching at my arms, turning me on my stomach and whipping me, pulling on my, beating me.

Through it all, I was content, because the voice was gone.

It was over.

My debt had been repaid.


The image of Tom Hanshaw’s calm, smiling face froze on the screen.

The man who had paused the video read from a sheet of paper, his voice unnaturally deep and clear.

“When this was filmed, Mr. Hanshaw was free from any drug or alcoholic influence. It was filmed three days after Officer Stevens and Officer Norman entered the home, by force, in response to Mr. Hanshaw violently banging on the door from inside. Due to the nature of the emergency call, they thought Mr. Hanshaw was being attacked. Instead, they found him holding a gun and dazed from being knocked to the ground when they entered. Nobody can be sure rather or not the 911 call was meant to lure in further victims or bring someone in to clean up the mess he left behind. Thankfully, he was restrained and taken into custody without a single bullet being fired. He had rested and eaten before filming his confession, assuring anybody who would listen that he wasn’t worried as his debt had been repaid. He requested this confession and signed forms claiming he was within his right mind while delivering his confession. He assumed he would be free to leave afterwards. That was a year and a half ago,” he said.

The recent testimony they had all been privy too was entirely different. Tom had been frantic and weeping. Though his state appointed lawyer had adamantly warned against it, Tom Hanshaw wanted to tell his side. Anti-psychotics and trauma prevented him from saying anything helpful. The gaunt man was barely able to string a legible sentence together as he cried out that his debt had been repaid and that he should be free.

Due to the lack of witnesses and scant testimony, all they had to go on was evidence from the crime scene, expert testimony theorizing what led to the break, and Tom’s own poor excuse to defend himself. Some of them were unwilling to condemn a man so broken and driven to insanity by debts of the system when he was barely able to tell his side of the story, so they requested a review of his confession tape, filmed three days after his arrest at his own request.

The man set the paper on the table and spoke to the men and women before him.

“The man on that tape is not the man we have seen in the court room over the past few weeks. His sanity has been cleared by multiple professionals, meaning Mr. Hanshaw believes what he is saying is the truth and may be a functioning sociopath. Comparisons to Ted Bundy, while not relevant, seem accurate at this point. Now that we’ve seen the tape, I think it’s safe to say we can reach a fair, unanimous decision. We may never know whether it was an insurance ploy or an argument over finances gone wrong. What we do know is that Tom Hanshaw blamed murdering his wife and dog on calls received from two cellular phones that evidence shows had been disconnected weeks prior to the event. Difficult as it may be, we have a decision to make.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the options are as follows. Option one, the real Tom Hanshaw is the cold man we saw on that tape, and we condemn him to a guilty verdict and the death penalty. Option two, the real Tom Hanshaw is the man we saw in the court room, though still guilty, and we condemn him to a live out his life in a high security psychiatric facility. Option three, the real Tom Hanshaw is both men at different stages of grieving, is telling the truth, is not guilty, and should go free. The verdict must be unanimous. Are we ready?”

He let the question hang in the air for a moment, giving everybody a chance to digest the weight of the question with murmurs and head nods.

“Very well. Now then, all those who think Tom Hanshaw is guilty, please raise your hand.”

Moments later, the man walked to the door and informed the guard that a unanimous verdict had been reached. The jury was ready to inform Tom Hanshaw whether or not his debt had been paid after all.

Credit: Rob E. Nichols

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Day of the Worm

November 6, 2015 at 12:00 PM
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What are dreams?
What are they really? Are they bits and pieces of memories thrown together without design or purpose? Do they whisper secrets of future days to come or hide secrets from days long passed? Perhaps our soul is expelled from our bodies each night, thrust out into the void, traveling to wondrous lands and beyond the limits of our physical form? Consider this; is it possible that our dreams are more than mere nonsense, but premonitions of adventures, not yet had? Honestly, I don’t have any answers for you. However, if I may, I would like to share with you what I do know.

Tell me; have you ever had a dream you felt was so real, your waking life felt distant and dull? Have you ever dreamt a dream that reveals glimpses of your full potential? Do you know of any dream that fills you with such sorrow upon awakening, each morning, to desire with all your might that your eyes will open to a brand new life, yet never does it come? With every rising sun, that is the burden I bare. However, such sadness does not consume me, for I know my dreams are so much more than simple desires and wishful thinking. They are much more than you could possibly imagine. For you see, my dreams are preparing me for great things to come, I know that to be the truth!

No, rolling your eyes does not offend me; you are not the first I’ve tried to tell. You are not first to have mocked my words. Most simply laugh out of amusement and others feign looks of pity towards me. Truly, in their view, only a disadvantaged child would entertain such nonsense in their heads. They are the ones to pity, for they are only capable of seeing a land of make believe, a fairy tale fabricated from the mind of a child! So sure of themselves, that a child orphaned as an infant, who never knew the embrace of a mother’s love or guidance of a father could hold his head high. Nor would they consider such a waif would earn his success with only the determination of his heart and by the strength in his hands. Yet, I hold no malice, for their conclusions are not without logic, albeit sadly shortsighted. That is all about to change for tomorrow is the day when all will be revealed! For tomorrow is my birthday and when I am gone, they will have no other choice but to admit they were wrong!

Tomorrow is the day my dreams foretold:
“Before the sun sets on your five and tenth year of life, you shall return with hope and salvation on your back and light in your hands. By your blade, you will rid the land of the Worm.”

That is what I see every night when I surrender to sleep. Close your eyes and take my hand and let me tell you about my dreams.

In my dreams, there’s a realm so close to our own that only the width of a hair separates the two. Existing side by side, together, and unaware of one another. Yet they are so far apart that traveling the distance would take a thousand years. It is a medieval realm where science and magic live next to each other as beloved friends. Machines and technology, sorcery and magic, they co-exist side by side as as one. No difference comes to mind in matters of wizarding and engineering, sorcerers and teachers, or even the healer and a doctor. This realm is ruled by six great nations, each under a king and queen of virtuous heart and noble blood. Castles and villages, farms and towns pepper the land. All live simplistic lives with a hint of technologies both natural and mystical.

In my dreams, I see a beautiful domed temple made from ivory white stone. The temple is the home to six sacred weapons made of enchanted steel, one given to each nation by a goddess. She offered these weapons in preparation for the day foretold, the day of the Worm. The weapons are wielded by a warrior from each nation; each personally chosen by the goddess herself. But in the center of the temple, in the most revered spot, sits the seventh altar. Upon this altar rests the armor and weapons of the seventh son of a seventh son. Under the darkness of an eclipse of three moons, a child’s bloodline emerged from the joining of a mortal and a god. This child’s spirit will unite the realms in their darkest hour.

The weapons are enchanted steel of silver and blue and my armor is impossibly light. My gauntlet is for my right hand and serves as my shield. It houses a disk that three blades emerge from with a snap. When flung, it obeys my will and lays waste to all of my foes. It then faithfully returns to my hand without fail every time. My sword was forged from the last remnants from Creation and cooled with the very essence of life. It is the mortal enemy of rot and decay. It can never be broken, nothing can shatter its blade, and it is impervious to impact; never will its edge be dulled. The jewel in the hilt is my symbol and banner. It is the eye that shines a light that can ignite the passion of an oppressed people when hope had seemed to be lost.

In my dreams, I see a day in which black rain falls from the sky. Viscous, ropy strands of greenish-black tar pour from the clouds. Anything it touches immediately begins to decay and corrode. The arrival of the Worm is heralded by a clap of thunder as his fortress bursts through the clouds. It pierces the land like a dagger stabbed into flesh upon impact with the land. The castle of the Worm is a jagged and pointed crystalline citadel with bulbous blister-like domes upon it. This is the throne from where the Worm will conquer and reign. The decay spreads from the dark fortress in the form of black mold and writhing masses of tentacles and tendrils, rotting everything it touches; except for one thing: the dead. Every warlord needs its pawns.

The dead are absorbed and used as vessels for the Worm’s decay to take form. They are the eyes, the foot, and the iron fist of the Worm. The Worm fills its ranks with the deceased and slain flesh of the surrounding villages with a gluttonous appetite. The blisters from the walls of its fortress are then released and its army of decayed and mindless drones carry the smelly, rotting mass into the heart of all six nations. It will plant itself into the ground and become extensions of the mind and will of the Worm. From here it will wage war against every man, woman, and child. It will fight with the decomposing faces of their neighbors, friends, brothers, and sisters

In my dreams, I see the goddess blessing the six kings from each of the nations before spiriting away the seventh set of armor and weapons from the walls of the vulnerable temple. She hides the items in a place far from the Worm’s reach where they will wait until claimed by the child foretold to come. In a final act of sacrifice, I see the goddess exhausting the last of her immortality in order to open a door of light. She places a tiny infant within the entrance and before closing the door she says with tears in her eyes, “Goodbye, my beloved. Goodbye, my son.”

It is twenty minutes to midnight, the day of my fifteenth birthday. I sit on the wooden floor and I am trembling next to a heated stove. I tremble not from the cold but from a heart-gripping fear. However, make no mistake, do not think for a moment I’m trembling out of fear of the unknown or of things to come! I am not afraid of marching against a grotesque army of a thousand rotting corpses. I don’t fear the violence I will encounter or the many battles I will fight. I am not afraid! No, none of that scares me! I want the life so much! Do you want to know what really scares me, what has me filled with such terror and dread? What scares me the most is this:

“I am so afraid that when tomorrow finally arrives, it will come and go like any other ordinary day.”

Credit: Killahawke1

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White Owl

November 1, 2015 at 12:00 AM
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Rating: 8.7/10 (256 votes cast)

Okay, so the first thing I’m going to tell you, in the interest of full disclosure and because it’s fairly pivotal to everything that comes next is that I am a drug user.

User, not addict. And I realise that this may well lead you to discredit everything I’m about to say as either lies or the fantasies of some junkie but that’s a risk I’ll have to take I suppose. Everything I’m about to relate to you is true, whether you want to believe it or not is entirely your business. If you want to just walk away at the end of this and forget all about the crazy druggie and their nonsense then that will be no skin off my nose.

So, I’m a drug user. Me and most of the guys were. I know it’s painfully cliché…a bunch of Wall Street big shots who do cocaine but there you have it.

Sometimes clichés are clichés because they’re true and in our case it definitely fit. It wasn’t anything we were into in a big way; however you would define that, which is why I reject the label ‘Addict’. It was never something I HAD to do, just something we did.

And it really did take the edge off, though I realise that’s probably a cliché excuse as well. But after a week of looking at numbers, staring at paperwork, filling out reports, moving sums from column A to column B, it became something to make unwinding that little bit easier.

There were four of us usually, myself, Peter Creed, then there was Raymond, Jake and Blakely. We’d go out, hit up a club that we knew had a reasonably hygienic bathroom and we’d do coke.
Blakely was usually the one carrying and usually the one to get it for us too.

And he was always the one to suggest trying something new, which we always went for, because after a while cocaine had lost its thrill. The first time I’d done it I’d been terrified of getting caught. The second time I’d been exhilarated at getting away with it. But after the fifth, the sixtieth, the hundredth? Honestly all I was worried about was whether I’d have a clean tissue if my nose started bleeding.

I suppose it’s like anything, if you do it often enough it becomes monotonous.

It stops becoming a thing you do because you want to do it but rather something that you do because it’s just something that you do. It becomes part of the routine, dull and predictable.

It stops being fun and becomes just
another aspect of your daily life.

You work nine to five and then Friday night you go do cocaine. So when Blakely had something new for
us we paid attention.

Blakely was the youngest of the group and easily the wildest. He hadn’t yet lost touch with old buddies from his college the way most of us had as work got in the way, hadn’t yet lost that energy we’d had when we felt ready to take on the world. He wasn’t the sort of person you could ever be FRIENDS with but he had this certain something that still made you want to be around him, spend time with him. He had energy, an enthusiasm, and a confidence that made you want to see what he’d do next.

It was a magnetism of sorts, a charisma that drew you to him even if your better judgement told you to keep away.

He had a spark…I suppose it would be fair to say that of all of us he was the one who seemed the most alive.

This is ironic given what happened later I suppose but I’m getting ahead of myself. Excuse me.

So anyway, Blakely. It was Friday night and we were all at some horrid little club the size of a shoebox where the music was too loud, the drinks were watered down and overpriced and the crowd was made up of equal parts thugs and morons. And Blakely, over the sound of the music and the people tunelessly singing along, asked me ‘Have you ever tried White Owl?’

I had no idea what he was talking
about. He was clearly trying to be discreet though not doing a good job of it as it was impossible to have a quiet conversation, and leant closer toward me.

“White Owl! It’s some next level shit!”

“Have you got any on you?” I hollered into his ear and he shook his head, grinning that wide grin of his. That was another thing about Blakely; he would always have this big, stupid smile on his face. Most of us figured it was the coke or whatever pills he was popping at work, giving him that little boost that stopped it breaking his spirit the way it had ours.

“No man, that’s not how it goes!”

“So what is it?” I asked, a little curious as to what exactly he was talking about. He shook his head again.

“No, no this shit, it’s not something you DESCRIBE to someone. Listen…” and at that he jerked his head toward the exit, beckoning me to follow him.

Pushing through the throng of bodies we found ourselves out in the open air, our only company one or two smokers desperate enough for nicotine fix to brave the cold night air.

And he began to tell me about White Owl.

Apparently it wasn’t something that could be carried around with your even purchased from a dealer. It was something far more exclusive than that, available only by invitation at a certain time and a certain place, to a select few who were picked out to get to try it. He’d been invited in by a friend who’d been invited by a friend and so on and so on. Once you were in you were able to select others to join the select group who got to partake of it.

It all sounded like a pyramid scheme or worse, some kind of cult to me, but Blakely was so lively as he talked about it, so eager and excitable that I was a bit curious. And more than anything I was desperate for something, ANYTHING to break the cycle, the soul crushing routine that felt like it had been going on for an eternity.

I was twenty six years old for Christ’s sake and my life was going NOWHERE. I wanted something to add some kind of excitement, some sort of thrill.

Blakely pressed his sweaty palm against mine, giving me a card with a time, a date and a place. Apart from that the only other thing on the card was a large white oval on a black background, with two large dark circles like eyes on it.

“Try it out man. It’s exactly what you’re looking for”

I was honestly still debating whether I would go or not when the anointed day came. Curiosity warred with cautiousness in my mind as the part that was eager to see what exactly was so special about what Blakely was talking about argued with the part that feared that all of this was some kind of trick, that at best it would be a prank and at worst this would be some kind of operation designed to snare unwary drug users, catch us in the act.

And my parents certainly hadn’t sent me to the finest schools in the country so that I could end up with my picture in the paper having been caught in some low rent crack den.

But in the end I wound up taking a cab down to where this ‘White Owl’ stuff was supposedly available, the desire to see what was so special about it winning out over fear and paranoia. The address was for one of those ghastly little places that’s meant to look ‘run down’ or ‘Urban’ but in fact cost a ridiculous amount of money to put together and was usually occupied mainly by hipsters and ‘artists’
desperate to feel like they were seeing the city’s ‘real’ face.

Spending a lot of money to make something look cheap is probably the best way to describe the aesthetic of these places. The one I was driven out to however didn’t seem to be occupied, unless everyone had their lights off at ten of clock on a Saturday night. I got out, paid the driver and made my way to the apartment specified on the card.

A few quick knocks on the door later and I was being greeted by a sight I really hadn’t expected. The person who had yanked it open in a manner which suggested they resented being bothered by anyone was about three feet tall, and dressed like he would be at home as a performer in some kind of carnival or circus.

His face was…deformed. That’s the only way I can think of to say it politely and from the looks of it, the deformity was not one he had been born with but rather something that had been inflicted.

He nodded at me, grunted and then motioned for me to follow him down the hallway.

As I passed a few closed doors I was aware of odd noises coming from behind them but I obviously wasn’t about to go snooping around this place, especially with my ‘host’ right in front of me.

Instead I followed silently to a lounge area where various people sat staring straight ahead. And all of them were staring at laptop screens.

The laptops themselves were set up on desks and had an incredibly strange design. It was as if random bits and pieces had been bolted, welded or wired up to them, none of the additions seeming to serve any purpose or function other than to make the laptops look odd. All the laptops were displaying a blank blue screen except for those that had people sat in front of them, those screens displaying nothing but static instead.

The people had a slack jawed expression on their face, headphones on their ears preventing them from hearing anything around them. It was a very strange sight to be greeted with and I was about to ask the dwarf what exactly was going on when a voice called out to me.

“You came! I knew you would!”

I turned to see Blakely just as he came up to me, giving me a slap on the back, his grin wider than ever, his face sweaty, eyes wide. He looked like shit, in all honesty but he certainly seemed happy to see me.

“Yeah, what IS this exactly?” I asked gesturing around at the people sat at the desks, “What, do they give us a free peepshow while we take this stuff?”

“This IS the stuff. Come on”

He led me to a chair and a desk, sitting me down and handing me a pair of headphones. I looked at him with an expression of confusion and discomfort but put them on all the same at his silent urging, wondering where this was going.

“Okay, now just watch” he said.

I looked at the screen. After a few moments it began displaying static and white noise could be heard through the headphones. I was wondering just what I was meant to do here and if this whole thing was some massive waste of time, if Blakely had been pulling my leg about this ‘White Owl’ thing. But then something happened.

Through the white noise I began to be aware of what sounded like snatches of conversation. The odd word here or there, muffled and hard to make out.

And as I stared at the screen I began to think that I could see something. It was vague and indistinct, like the blurry world a guy with bad eyesight sees without his glasses, or when you try and view something or someone through frosted glass.

But it was there. And I began to think that if I just tried to focus on nothing but what I was hearing through the headphones and seeing in the static, maybe I would be able to make it out. I began to become dimly aware of a shape forming, the white dots merging together to create one huge white mass as the black dots became huge circles in it, like eyes gazing out at me.

A hand on my arm jolted me out of the trance like state I’d slipped into and Blakely was looking at me with a smile as he yanked the headphones from my head.

“C’mon, time to go”

“Time to go? I’ve only been here for…”

I began but I trailed off as I looked down at my watch. I’d been there for five hours, staring at the screen, listening to the white noise. How had I been there for five hours? How could I possibly have not noticed that length of time passing me by? I’d heard of zoning out, losing track of time, but this was ridiculous.

I hadn’t taken anything. Nothing had been snorted, injected or otherwise entered my body. Just the screen and the headphones and the sensation of being on the verge of seeing something, hearing something, to the point where everything else slipped away.

“I don’t get it…all these people just come here and do this all night?” I asked, gesturing at the few who were still there, all still staring at the screens that doped up look on their faces. Blakely nodded.

“The first time’s just a taste man.

When you’re doing it regularly, that’s the real shit”

I really didn’t know if I wanted to be doing this ever again, whatever this was. I was creeped out, frightened by how I’d seemingly lost five hours of my life to static. We walked towards the exit, the little man with the scars holding it open as Blakely explained that the first time was free but after that you had to pay for any future visits.

I asked how much it was, more out of curiosity than any real desire to come back. How much would people be willing to pay to look at a screen? The little man grunted something in what could have been Russian and I looked at him quizzically. In a low growl he said,
‘One thousand’ in English.

“One thousand dollars? What, a day? A week? A Month?”


“On thousand an hour for THIS?”

Blakely was starting to look nervous now. That smile on his face was a little too forced; his skin looking like it was stretched taut over his face. Christ he really did look awful.

“It’s worth it man. Listen, I’ll pay for the next one. Long as you need. And if you don’t like it the second time, that’s it”

He was gripping my arm tighter now, to the point where it was becoming painful. There was urgency, a need in his eyes and more than that, a fear. He looked afraid of something, though whether it was the little man or something else I didn’t know. I just mumbled something like ‘Fine man, it’s your money’ and agreed though I had doubts about whether I’d stick to it.

Blakely looked relieved and the little man gave us cards with the date, time and place of the next meeting and then slammed the door behind us. I suppose the price explained why the guy running this show was such an asshole. If they were charging their customers a thousand and hour for this shit they probably weren’t too worried about attracting new people to these little get togethers anymore.

It was while Blakely and I were walking back together that I asked the obvious question.

“Why is it called White Owl?”

Blakely looked at me confused, tilting his head like a dog looking up at its master.

“You didn’t see it man? Everybody sees it, even the first time”

It took me longer than I would have liked to work out what he was talking about. That shape in the static, a white-ish mass with two large black ovals where you’d expect to see eyes.

Like a white owl. Was that what Blakely was talking about? But that made even less sense than when I had no idea why they named it this.

“What do you mean everybody sees it?

You can’t share a hallucination”

“Everybody sees it man. I don’t know what else to tell you”

We said out goodbyes and I made my way home, thinking about what Blakely had said. It must have been something other than a hallucination that I saw I told myself, some trick they did on the screens. Or maybe even some marginally less low-tech version of those ‘Magic eye’ images you would stare at when you were a kid. It was a trick.

Though that didn’t explain the odd sensations I’d felt while it happened. It hadn’t been exactly like being high, but it was comparable to that. And the time I’d lost, how could that be?

I didn’t sleep well that night. I jerked away with a word on my lips that
I’d never spoken before and didn’t know what it meant. The covers were drenched in sweat, despite the cold of the room and I found myself feeling strangely exhilarated, like I’d been running. My heart was beating fast and my eyes darted around the room. I couldn’t get back to sleep.

I figured they had to have slipped me something or else used some kind of subliminal messaging, some fancy mind-fuck that messed you up. Why anyone would pay to feel like that was beyond me. And yet despite myself, despite every rational impulse in my body telling me to leave this alone, I wanted to go to that second meeting.

I wanted to find out what was so special about the second time that it made people want to come back again and again, pay such huge amounts of money for the privilege of being part of this little group. And I told myself that since it was going to be Blakely paying for it I didn’t really have anything to lose, except maybe a few hours of my time that I’d only spend sleeping or at some shitty bar or club anyway.

Why not try it out, a little voice in my head whispered. Why not see what makes it so special?

The night came and this time Blakely was waiting for me outside, looking anxious until he spotted me at which point he smiled happily and rushed over to meet me, like an eager little puppy.

“I was getting worried you weren’t gonna show” he said and I shrugged, brushing off his concern. Why the hell would he be worried? All me not showing up would mean is that he got to keep his money.

“Whatever. This is probably going to be the last time I do this” was all I said back, the words coming out a little more bluntly than I mean them to. But

Blakely didn’t seem to care, instead hurrying along towards the building, looking back now and then to make sure I was following him inside.

It was the same set up as last time, though a few more people were there now. The headphones went on, I sat before the screen and the static and white noise began to play.

Except this time it was different.

This time somehow the images seemed sharper, the voices more distinct. This time I began to feel more like I understood what I was seeing, what I was hearing. I began to feel immersed in it, as if the static was pouring out of the screen, flooding the room around me, surrounding me in a sea of black and white, all other noise lost in the roar of the sound from the headphones, the sound of voices, many voices.

A thousand, a million, maybe more. All speaking, in hushed whispers or perhaps loudly but infinitely far away, my skin tingling as I watched, as I felt myself being taken somewhere else.

And above it all was the shape, wings stretched wide, covering a thousand miles or more, its eyes looking into me, those black, empty eyes. The White Owl.

As before the session felt like it was over before it began. But this time I didn’t feel confused and irritable, this time I felt…different. I felt charged, energised. I felt like I was overflowing with life, like there was too much energy in me to be contained.

I felt like I could do a million things all at once and still not feel remotely tired, that I could do anything, anything at all.

I felt potent and primal, felt like a lion about to pounce upon limping prey.

That sensation of barely repressed power, ready to be unleashed upon the world. Like I could burst.

Blakely could clearly tell that this time was different. As soon as we were out the door I began to speak, hurriedly and eagerly, a grin on my face that would probably rival Blakely’s own.

“That felt INCREDIBLE!” was the first thing that came out and he nodded, evidently not surprised at this reaction.

“What’d I tell you? After the second time it’s all different”

“I feel fantastic! I feel…I feel BETTER than I’ve felt in…in ever! Like I could do anything, beat anyone, achieve any goal! I want to…I want to run! I want to run and swim and jump and…and HUNT”

The word slipped out without me even consciously meaning to say it. I had no idea why I said it. And yet it felt right, felt good. It was true, wasn’t it? I did, I wanted to hunt. I wanted to see something run before me and to give chase, to run it down, chase it until it was exhausted, until it couldn’t run anymore and then to pounce upon it, to devour it whole. To rip. To tear. To eat.

I was hungry. I was so hungry.

After that experience I started going more and more frequently. In fact pretty soon I was never missing a meeting, showing up for every single one of these little get-togethers the people selling ‘White Owl’ did. I was spending a small fortune on this every month and yet it really didn’t matter.

Because the more I went there, the more a funny thing started to happen.

Things just started falling into place for me. My job, that I’d found so taxing, so draining, became so simple.

It was if each burst of that static, each dose of that white noise had the effect of sharpening my mind, like a knife on a whetstone. As if I was being sculpted, perfected, the dull witted thing I once was being moulded into someone who could overcome any obstacle, beat any challenge.

Raises, promotions and hearty slaps on the back from those above me became a commonplace occurrence at work as I proved myself to them. As I became smarter, more focused. The imbeciles around me, unable to see the solutions
I saw, unable to work to the standard I worked, gazed at me with envy.

“What’s his secret?” I imagined them muttering to themselves.

I won’t deny that there were…side effects. The odd dream I’d had after the first dose became the norm. My dreams became increasingly bizarre. Not frightening I would say, just strange.

I would imagine myself somewhere else. Someone else. Something old and powerful and strong, in a place far from here. Wet grass beneath my bare feet, and the sound of the ocean, the smell of fresh air that had never been tainted by the pollution of man.

I would imagine myself surrounded by things, things that slithered and skittered and crawled, that chattered in a billion strange and ancient voices, in a language not meant to be heard by those unworthy of this blessing. I imagined myself stood with others like me on an island far from ‘civilisation’, in a place long forgotten by the foolish and fickle.

We would sing and dance and run and hunt. We would call up to the sky and hear an answer from somewhere far away and yet close.

I imagined a vast structure, huge and imposing, stretching up to the sky like a tower of Babel, its design utterly alien, utterly unlike anything one would dream up for people to live or work in, covered in strange writing and odd sculptures.

And I knew that there were things living inside it, vast things. I imagine shapes, things I could recall with no great clarity when I woke up, huge fleshy bulks that glistened and shimmered and moved so fast that they made everything else appear to be slow motion. And above it all, her wings stretched out to blot out the sky, her eyes looking down upon us, was the White Owl, the beautiful and terrible White Owl.

Each time I would wake up I would remember a little bit more. Never the whole thing, never the whole shape of what I was seeing but my memories would become clearer. Like they weren’t memories of a dream but memories of something that really happened, long ago. Sometimes I would imagine, just for a brief moment that I wasn’t alone in my room when I woke up. That all around me were things in the dark, chittering and hissing their eyes locked on me.

I imagined they were proud.

I was hungry all the time. I was eating more and more and yet never gaining weight, my clothes getting baggy and loose on me no matter how much food I gobbled down. It was as if the White Owl wouldn’t allow me to put on weight, as if it sculpted my body as perfectly as it sculpted my mind, not letting me get out of shape. It was the same with Blakely and some of the other guys too I noticed.

The first stray dog I killed was probably about nine months into this thing. I didn’t plan to do it or anything, I just…I saw it there. Old and limping and weak. I picked up a can from the sidewalk and threw it, made it run.

It had to run, had to flee. Had to have a chance, I suppose. And then I was bounding after it, pouncing on it, teeth and nails digging, biting, and ripping into it.

I was disgusted with myself after I was done. But for the first time in months

I felt full. I felt satisfied.

After that it became something of a nightly thing for me. Stray dogs and…other things. Standing there with blood under my nails and on my teeth, licking it from my lips. I felt like I was tapping into something ancient and powerful, buried underneath all the layers of politeness and ‘society’. I felt like roaring up to the sky, howling my triumph to the stars. Sometimes I imagined that there were eyes looking back down at me, proud of my accomplishment.

Proud of the hunt.

Then came the night that changed things.

We knew that there was something different as soon as we arrived, Blakely and I. When we showed up at the time and place we’d been told to gather there were no screens set up, no headphones waiting to be comfortably fitted over our ears. Everyone was sat in a circle, a bunch of the regulars and a few of the ‘casuals’…those who either didn’t have the money or the dedication to make it to every meeting, who didn’t do White Owl every time it was available.

How we despised them. How we sneered. They would never understand the full experience, never truly be embraced by this majestic and beautiful thing we had allowed into our heads. For them this was just another buzz, another high. For us it was something transformative. Something holy.

Blakely and I sat down, no one saying a word. We all eyed each other up; all wondering what this could be about. And then the door opened and a newcomer stepped into the circle.

She was tall and dressed in a dark black suit with red gloves. One side of her mouth sported a jagged scar, giving her the appearance of a jagged grin, her short red hair a mass of curls. She held a chain in one hand, attached to a collar around the neck of a man dressed in a wifebeater that was stained a bright red, his arms and face caked in the same. He would take a few lumbering and clumsy steps with each tug on the chain, his eyes bloodshot, his pupils like pinholes.

“This is Jonas.

Jonas is my dog” the woman said, by way of introduction. She didn’t give her name. Her voice was strange and difficult to listen to. At first I was unsure of what it was but something about it sounded hollow, artificial.
Like it wasn’t a real voice at all but one that was being generated by a computer or something like that. And more than that, the voice hurt. She spoke normally and yet it felt like it was too loud, like all the noise in the room was absorbed by it so it was the only thing you were allowed to hear.

“One of you has let me down. One of you has broken my heart with your betrayal.

And Jonas is here to find the betrayer.

One of you has been talking to the police. Naively thinking there is anyone you can talk to who doesn’t belong to me. Naively thinking that they are smarter than me”

Her voice hurt so much to listen to. I could tell it wasn’t just me, the others flinched with every word, looking nervously at each other, all of them thinking the same thing. Which of you was it? And what will she do to us because of it? Every single one of us was afraid in that moment, afraid that all would be punished because of what one had done.

Myself, I was most worried that she would no longer give us the White Owl. The thought of having it taken from me, not getting my regular fix of the White Owl was the worst thing I could imagine.

The woman came to look at each of us in turn, her eyes focused on us with a frightening intensity. Her eyes looked wrong. Her face looked wrong. Not the scar, the scar was hardly the worst thing I’d seen but just something about her was off. It made my skin crawl to be near her. I saw others flinch away as she brought the tips of her fingers near to their faces.

Finally she came to a stop at a sickly looking man. He was a casual user of White Owl, not someone who showed up often but I’d noticed him there a few times. It didn’t surprise me to see that it was one of the casuals who had sold us out. In that instant I hated him, despised him, wanted to tear him apart. How DARE he try and ruin this wonderful thing for us?

He began to whimper and stammer out claims that this wasn’t true, that he would never do this thing but the woman looked like she was looking right through him, like he wasn’t even there. Like nothing he said was being heard.


You have upset me”

The man’s face drained of all colour as if he knew that those words would be some of the last ones he would hear in what little remained of his life.

“Hold him”

Two of us stepped forward to grab his arms. He begged and cried and pleaded for us to stop this, his voice becoming higher and shriller as she beckoned for us to bring him, tugging on Jonas’s chain. The blood soaked thing on the chain turned and followed her, the rest of us accompanying them, dragging the kicking and shrieking man with us, knowing that this location was surely carefully chosen so as to make sure that no one would hear him who could help.

We stepped out into the cool night air to see a crowd had gathered. Others dressed in smart suits like us but with the crucial difference that each of them wore upon their faces a white mask, featureless but for two large dark ovals. I didn’t feel surprised to see them. I can’t speak for the others but none of them, even the casuals, looked that shocked that they were there.

Like the woman they were new to us, unfamiliar and yet at the same time it felt like we knew them. Like we had seen them before. And we all instantly knew that they were here to be a part of whatever was to follow.

Darren, the crying and screaming wreck of a man who had earlier been so composed, was hurled to the ground at the woman’s feet. She looked down at him the way one would look at a mass of maggots they had found in their dinner, a look of unrestrained and complete disgust. He got on his knees, sweaty hands clasped together as if in prayer, begging for his life, begging for her not to hurt him, insisting he had done nothing wrong.

She clearly did not care.


He looked at her, confused.


You’ll be given a five minute head start

Then we hunt. We hunt YOU”

He looked at each of us in turn. Did he expect any of us to plead his case? Ask her not to do this? HELP him? What a stupid little man. As if any of us would cross her. As if any of us would do anything that might get us cut off from the supply of White Owl. But then that’s a casual for you. He took off running after a few moments and I looked over at the woman.

And for an instant she wasn’t the same. She wore no mask and yet for just a second, for a split second, her face was not her face at all. Her hair was gone. Her head was bald and devoid of facial features, save for two massive black circles where one would expect to see eyes. Two pitch black sockets that seemed not to merely contain darkness but an absence, an absence of anything at all.

And then it was gone and she was once more as she had been before. Her eyes lingered on me as if she knew what I had seen, and I thought for an instant

I saw a smile there.

We waited for a few minutes and then Blakely stepped forward, eager to begin.

“So do we do it now?

Do we hunt?”

There was a pause. She looked at him, her expression unreadable. Unknowable.

“The five minutes weren’t for him”

The gunshot was louder than I thought it would be. I mean I’d only heard a gun go off on TV before now. In real life it’s really much noisier.

Blakely’s expression slowly turned from that confident, cocky grin to a look of confusion and pain, as a dark red stain began to spread, seeping through his shirt. Dumbly he pressed his hands to the wound, as if not quite believing it was real, red coating his hands as he dropped to his knees, much as Darren had before him.

“I knew it was you Blakely.

I just wondered if you would confess”

I was so disappointed in him. But then Blakely had always been greedy. But to try and sell us out, to sample the delights and wonders of White Owl and then try and earn himself a quick buck by selling us out, it disgusted me. It was strange how little our former friendship meant as I looked down at him, I suppose. But suddenly he wasn’t a friend or even a man at all.

He was traitor.

“The hunt is sacred, Blakely. Do you think I would desecrate it like this?

Traitors don’t get hunted.

Traitors just get butchered”, the woman said.

And then, as one mass, we fell upon him. With nails and teeth we fell upon him, clawing, biting, scratching, gouging, ripping tearing. The sound of tearing clothes followed by the sounds of tearing flesh, as Blakely vanished into a dozen hungry, eager mouths. And he wasn’t even a traitor to me anymore. Now he was meat.

I didn’t feel hungry for weeks afterwards.

You should have seen Darren’s face when we caught up to him…forgive me for chuckling but he really thought we were going to hunt and eat HIM! Oh lord was his face a picture…we all had a good laugh about it afterwards though, once he’d calmed down and gotten himself another dose of the good stuff to calm his nerves. The woman, who I learned after was named Fenris, even gave him that nights dose for free, to compensate him for his troubles. He was a good sport about it after that.

Blakely officially took off on an ‘extended vacation’ after that, during which, as far as the boys at the office and his family members are concerned, he met a beautiful young woman who he eloped with on the spur of the moment.

I’m sure he’ll still send his family postcards though. We all share a little smile every time we ‘receive’ them at the office too.

We pin them up on the notice boards and everything, letting anyone who walks past read about what a good time Blakely’s having.

And wouldn’t you know it with him gone, guess who wound up getting picked for that cushy top job he was going to be getting? A big promotion, a big pay rise…and a MUCH nicer office. I guess I have to thank Blakely really. He introduced me to White Owl and now, with him ‘away’ I guess he’s helped me out in another way too.

Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re waiting for the downside, right? You’re waiting to hear how it all went wrong, so I can warn you to stay away from White Owl and the people who peddle it, waiting for the part where something horrible happens and I learn the error of my ways too late.

This isn’t that kind of story. And that sure as hell isn’t why I’m telling you it.

I’m telling you it because one day, maybe one day soon, you might just get an invitation to try White Owl.

Someone, a friend or a relative might slip a card into your pocket with a time.

A date.

And a place.

And I would strongly encourage you to go there.

Because here’s the thing. I know I made it clear at the start of this story I hate clichés but I’m going to have to end on one I feel is particularly relevant.

It really IS a jungle out there. And take it from me, it’s eat…or be EATEN

Credit: Alice Thompson

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The Tollman

October 25, 2015 at 12:00 AM
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Act I: Today I Buried a Man

I am the Tollman. I sit in this lonely lonely desert tollbooth and collect the tolls from people who pass by. When it is quiet in the night, I hear the voices of people arguing, but no one is near.

I can see for two miles to the West over the hot white sand, and to the East is a dune. I sit in my lonely booth and collect the tolls.

Today someone approached my booth. I could see them in the distance and as they drew nearer, I could make out some details about them. He carried a large backpack, and came from the direction of E-City. Or, The City. The E stands for Earring, but you don’t want to know why. The City is a violent place. Years of moral decay have led men to devolve into a species of violent barbarians, ripping each other apart and wearing their bodies as adornments. I left the violent, violent city a long time ago.

This man approached my booth today and I could see he had walked a long way. He had a scarf around his face to keep the sand out, and shades over his eyes. He looked weary but strong. His gait was sound and each footstep seemed to happen on purpose. As this man drew nearer to my booth, he pulled down his scarf to speak to me.

Then he fell down dead.

I exited my booth through its only door in the rear and circled around to the man. He lay there on his face, dead as the sand that surrounded him.

I studied the scene for several minutes, attempting to decipher what had happened to this man. With no sound answers, I dragged the man behind the dune to the East. It’s only several hundred yards to the rear of the dune and I tugged him back there and put him near the others.

This is not the first time this has happened.

In fact, for the past several years, this has been happening. I will see someone—or a group of people, even whole families—approaching from the West, coming to pay their tolls, and they bridge the distance between the horizon and my booth and then fall down dead. I then take them behind the dune to Hinnom—that’s what I nicknamed the place. The Valley of Hinnom. But it’s not really a valley. I cannot figure out what causes it. I have searched the area around my booth, and have found nothing queer to speak of.

The problem is, I cannot leave my booth for too long—it’s just a weird thing of mine. When I finished putting the man back behind the dune, I scurried back to my booth. I never look at the bodies.

And I never leave my booth for too long.

Act II: The Day My Father Showed Me His Booth

It was the morning of my seventeenth birthday when my father came into my room early in the morning and stirred me from my sleep. He smiled as I resisted his invitation to emerge from my dreams.

“You’re 17 today, my son,” he said with his gentle whisper. “You’re a man.”

I moaned into my pillows, unwilling to rise.

“Today you will come to work with me.” This caught my attention, I remember, for I had always wanted to see my father’s booth. He was a city tollman. It was an entirely different career to work a booth in the city. The city was violent and barbaric, and men had abandoned their roles as humans and taken up animalistic identities. Men wore other men’s intestines as necklaces and used their shriveled, shriveled organs as coin purses. I had never been to my father’s booth before, for it was in the center of the city. He was one of a few men brave enough to face The City and continue to do his job, despite the enormous risk.

We lived on the outskirts of E-City, where people are relatively safe, but still within the dangers of the metropolis. My father and I sat on the train that took us into the city. He was a large man whose figure commanded respect, though he was a warm and generous soul. As I sat in the seat by him, he asked me about my schoolwork and my interests. He asked what I had been reading, and the friends I had been spending time with.

The train ride went by quickly and soon we were walking through the streets to my father’s booth. He walked near me as we strode through the ghetto. On the train, he had told me not to look around once we exited the train car. Not to make eye contact. “Everyone you see today has murdered people,” he stated with dire gravity. “That’s why they’re still alive.”

We entered a heavy metal door that seemed to have been misplaced in a grimy alley. It opened to a rusty, rusty staircase that echoed up and down the metallic corridor. Paint peeled off of everything. I followed my father down about a dozen flights of stairs to another drab looking door. He pressed it open into the bowels of the city. We were several stories underground, where the most animalistic of men dwelt. They were those fearful of the sunlight, addicted to tranq’s and hogs, and unwilling to make use of language. They would shriek or mutter nonsense to themselves in place of words. Many had never heard language spoken. They were animals given over to maddening darkness.

And this is why I admired my father. Few men were willing to collect the tolls from beings such as these.

My father looked back at me and gave a small smile. “Almost there,” he assured me. I could see his booth now; it was on the side of one of the roads that ran through the underground. As I walked, I saw motion in my periphery, darting behind a pillar, or diving under a dumpster, though I did not catch a direct look at the underground men.

We stopped before the door of the booth and my father sorted through his keys, whistling as he found the one that fit the handle. He flicked on the light switch as we entered the booth and the buzzing fluorescent bulb sputtered out light before catching its consistent homeostatic buzz. Still whistling, my father slid open the window of his narrow booth and pulled a seat next to his for me. I sat near him.

It was glorious.

I was 17 and sitting in a tollbooth with my father in the city.

Act III: Today I Buried a Woman

It was three days ago when the scarfed man fell down before my booth. Today, I found a cut on my arm. Don’t know how that got there.

I saw a woman approaching in the distance. I knew it was a woman because her long brown hair was free on the wind, blowing out like a raven trying to escape from her hood. I sat up in my old, old chair and paid close attention to what happened, anticipating a similar fate for this poor girl. I watched to see what happened as she drew nearer.

She closed in on the booth, coming to pay her toll. I could make out her face: slender and pretty. She reminded me of the woman I used to love. One hundred feet. Fifty feet. Twenty. Ten. Then she fell down dead.

I must have blinked.

I knelt by her body as her empty eyes stared into the pale, pale sky. Her hands were marred, as if she came from a fight of some sort. Her fingernails were broken and worn down. I would have wept for this girl, but I have not been able to weep since the night I had The Dream.

I tugged the girl around to Hinnom as the purple, purple twilight gave way to night. Then I hustled back to the booth. It’s getting chilly.

Act IV: The Day I Saw My Father Sawed

My father was a gracious collector of tariffs. Unlike other tollmen who grunt in exchange for the toll, my father would welcome the payer with a grand ‘Hello,’ and engage in conversation with all who were willing.

“Boy, it’s so nice to have someone to talk to,” I remember him saying to me that day. “Usually, I try to talk to the payers, but they’re not big on dialogue down here. It can get pretty lonely being a tollman sometimes. In fact, if it weren’t for your brothers and your mom and you, I’d probably go mad down here!”

I could not picture my father being mad. He had never really gotten angry with my brothers or I, but instead used everything as a teaching moment. My brothers and I knew we had done something crooked when he started out with: “I think there’s a lesson somewhere in this looney episode…” and then his grand voice would expound on this point or that.

It was early in the afternoon (I knew only by the analog clock above the door the time, not the motion of the sun. There was no sunlight there.) when we were in the middle of a game of cards. I was winning. He had just given up a pair of Queens when a finger tapped on the window next to him.

“Give me one second, you dirty rotten cheater,” he said with a smirk. He turned and slid the little window open. “Good af—“ his big voice was reduced to a slur. I looked up to see an iron rod protruding from his stomach. It had been sharpened into a weapon by one of the underground men. The one who was shoving it into his belly, to be specific.

I froze in fear, clutching the playing cards like a shield before me. I watched as my father stumbled backward, trying to find the arms of his stupid, stupid chair that swiveled as he fell, casting him onto his stomach on the floor of the booth. The rod came all the way out the back of his midsection, tearing through the stitching of his uniform shirt thread by thread, like a straw poking through a beverage lid.

I continued to watch in frozen shock as ten skinny, dirty fingers grabbed the frame of the window and pulled their owner up. I got a look at the man—or the boy. He was about my age, with white, white skin like I had never seen before. He had no hair on his body that I could see, and his clothes were rags held together by whatever he found to keep them on his body.

He hoisted himself up into the window, pulling his legs up and then stepping through. He looked straight at me for a second and I saw his eyes: big white orbs with no colored iris, just a burning black dot in the center of each. I tried to speak, still sitting and holding the cards, but no sound came out as my jaw moved up and down.

The boy seemed not to care about me as he snapped his gaze back to my father, who was moaning on the ground. The boy spoke to himself in his own invented language as he calmly knelt down beside my father’s body and pulled a saw out of one of the many folds of his rags. It was a rusty and rancid old thing, with cracked and crooked teeth beneath a thin sheet of metal. He began sawing at one of the ankles. Blood filled the dirty floor of the booth, splattering onto the boy’s rags.

He cut through the foot and placed it by the body. He moved onto the other one and set it by the first. I had slid to the floor and crawled back against the wall, never taking my eyes off what had been my father. He continued moaning and gurgling until the boy had completely severed both his legs and moved up to his shoulders. I had heard stories from the boys at school about people in The City doing things like this, but I had never accredited them into the account of plausibility in my head.

I remember sliding my way along the wall once both my father’s arms were removed from his torso, and the boy was pulling a dagger out of his cloak.

Blood was everywhere. Everything was blood. There was no distinction between this object and the other because it was all blood. Fleshly tissue lay about the floor, soaked in blood, and the boy leaned once more over my father’s torso. He put the blade into the stomach, and I turned and floundered for the door. I realized that even as I fumbled with the knob, I smeared my father’s blood about the handle. I don’t know how or when it had gotten on me, but I later realized I too was covered in it.

I made it out the door, tripped down the step, and stumbled back toward the stairs we had come down.

Then my memory goes blank.

I never went home again.

I wanted to be as far from that city as possible. I know I became a tollman in the desert, but I honestly have no recollection of the process.

Act V: Today I Ran From My Booth

Today began the same way as many before it. I was in my booth waiting for someone to pass by, so I may collect their toll, or maybe figure out why people walk up to my booth and fall down dead. Gall, it’s the creepiest thing.

Nothing was out of the ordinary, except that I was dusting out the booth and airing out some clothes and saw some scratches on my shoulder. I don’t remember getting them. They didn’t hurt, just some short red streaks down my arm.

When I had finished cleaning up a bit, I sat. (This is what I spend most of my time doing…sitting). I sat and thought. I was enjoying the breeze from my faithful fan, wondering how something visible can propel invisible air forward, onto my face, when I saw a person approaching in the distance. They always seem to march on the horizon and slowly grow in size until they are about a hundred yards from me. I watched this play out once more, but when the person reached that point of descent from the horizon, something was pointedly different.

I stood up and ran out my booth.

Act VI: The Days I was in Love

Five years ago, a woman came to my booth. I saw her approaching from the horizon and thought nothing of it. I slid my window open and held out my hand. Rather than put her tariff in it, she shook it.

“Boy, it’s a hot one today,” were her first words to me. Small talk. We were in the desert. Of course it was a hot one.

I remember that she wore baggy travelers pants, a tough canvas jacket, and a scarf around her head. She had long brown hair with a gentle wave in it that made her head seem like a waterfall of bustling liquid chocolate. She was beautiful.

She proceeded to ask me what it’s like sitting in the desert booth all day. I listed off a few niceties, but I seemed to be boring her.

“No, what’s it really like sitting in here all day every day?” she cut in. “What do you think about?” Her eyes were not solid objects, they were liquid pools of laundry detergent, because that always seemed to be the richest shade of blue. She looked at me without blinking as we talked. Her head seemed to tilt forward whenever she listened, and the corners of her mouth dug back into her cheeks in a sly grin. She leaned against the booth, and I remember thinking about how strange it was since I sat two feet higher than her. I guess her need for human contact was greater than her sense of awkward conversation. In time I realized that she was lonely. And a while after that, I realized I had been lonely too.

We were two lonesome souls who found each other at a desert tollbooth.

That first day, she leaned on my booth talking to me until the sun sank below the sand. I invited her into the booth for the night, and she stayed. She also stayed for the one after that, and the one after that, and the 716 after that.

She loved to talk, telling me the sad stories of her childhood on the outskirts of the city. We realized we had probably seen each other at least twice when we were kids. She shared her thoughts about the world, about the desert, about the road. She showed me her grandmother’s old silver ring which she kept on her right ring finger and never removed. Her heart poured forth her weaknesses and exposed her desire for a home built in the heart of those that she loves, if not in a geographic location.

I told her I can be her home.

Almost more than she loved to share, she loved to listen. I told her about my father, and what a great man he was, and that he didn’t deserve to die. Out of everyone in The City, he did not deserve to die. I never told her how it happened though. Or that I had seen the whole thing. I would tell her about my lovely mother and my brothers, and how I missed them all awfully. And she would sit and listen with that same head tilt, showing that she was eagerly anticipating the next words to dribble from my lips.

I loved her. And she loved me.

We would take walks around the booth beneath the effervescent ceiling of stars. She initially made fun of me for not wanting to stray too far from the booth. “Come on, take a risk, you chicken!” she elbowed me in the side. But after a few months, she too came to realize the importance of staying near the booth.

And a few months after that, she didn’t want to wander too far from it either.

Act VII: Today My Mother Got Her Wings

Although she was a bit more hunched over than I remember from years ago, my mother had the same unmistakable gait as the day I left home. She was quiet and gentle, the perfect companion to my father’s eccentric warmth. She walked in a manner that was sure of what she did, though the age in her legs was now showing.

For years, I have been watching people approach my booth and fall down dead outside of it. And for years, I have not felt compelled enough to try and find the cause or actively try to put an end to it. There is something cursed about the land around my booth, and I was not going to let my mother go near it.

I ran out to her. I was running faster than I had since grade school on the playground. I waved my hands at her, desperately trying to stop her from coming any closer to the booth. I closed the gap between us. Seventy yards, sixty yards.

She stopped walking.

I ran close enough to see her well-wrinkled cheeks peeking out from behind her sunglasses. She seemed to be in good enough health thus far. I kept my eyes fixed on her, terrified that at any moment she could become the next victim to the jinxed place. I even began muttering under my breath: “don’t fall down, don’t fall down, don’t you die on me, don’t…”

I ran to her as her sweet voice met my ears. “Honey, what’s the matter?”

I panted for breath.

“What were you runni—“ her voice turned into a gurgle and she was dead on the ground.

I fell to my knees next to her, still heaving for oxygen. My chest burned like an angry squirrel was running around inside of it, clawing at my organs.

This was the first time I had seen my mother since I was 17 and now her body lay dead before me. When my body began to receive air once more, my gasps turned into sobs and I collapsed on my mother’s thin frame. We were a painting. Her blood spread into the sand where she lay, and I on top of her, mourning the enigmatic death of my second parent.

Many people had fallen dead before me in the past several years, but now my mother lies still beneath me, and I’m far away from the booth.

Act VIII: The Dream

The night before my lover left me, I lay down for the night and was instantly taken up in a dream I have still not forgotten. It began in the booth and my hearing was amplified. I started to wander away from the booth, and every crunch of sand beneath my boot sounded like a thousand needles racing down a metal door. The dune rose before me, thrice as tall as when I am conscious, and there was a purple haze all around it that contributed to an aura of eeriness. But I was not afraid.

I approached the dune and found a door at its base. I drunkenly stumbled through the door and suddenly the location changed. I was no longer in the desert near my booth, but was somewhere on the outskirts of the city. Not the nicer outskirts where my family had lived, but the run-down ghetto where crime was nearly as rampant as the downtown. I was walking down an empty street, and now I was holding a gun. Then from the other direction down the street walked countless men in business suits. They looked like films I had seen from before The City had decayed. The men wore expressionless faces and black suits and ties and looked straight ahead. They walked in a rhythm without distraction or hesitation. I bumped into one and then another. Then I was in the midst of them, still trying to walk the opposite direction like a slippery, slippery salmon swimming up a waterfall.

There is this tangible feeling of angst and worry, that I am supposed to be getting somewhere but the business men are pushing me back. I begin to fill with this violent longing to get past the parade of men.

Then I remember the gun in my hand. I shoot one of the men in the head and suddenly they all stop walking. They stare at me, and now they are no longer men in suits, but the hairless animal who murdered my father. Their handsome eyes are replaced by his all-white eyeballs with a pitch black pupil in the center, each staring directly at me.

I shoot one, then another, but they do not die. They do not even flinch. They circle around me and close in on me. I run out of ammunition, and I am defenseless. The angst turns to fear and helplessness.

Suddenly the monsters freeze. Their unblinking white eyes stare at me for a second more, then turn their attention down the road where they came from. The road fades into blackness, and out of this thick, thick blackness comes an aqueous platform. It is a stage made out of water, but it is staying in a rectangular shape. As it fades from the darkness and its origin becomes clearer, I see that it is less like a stage and more of an altar. Rather than ornate golden intricacies, the waves of the water seem to have splashed up and frozen in complex designs around the altar.

The white-eyed creatures part before it, and I sense an invitation to ascend the blue steps and look at the object upon the altar. It is glowing.

I am now full of curiosity as I ascend the steps and behold before me the ritual of the underground men.

My father’s bloody, bloody body lays on the table, cut into ten pieces, identical to the last time I had seen it. I am stricken with the same feelings of fear, horror, and shock from the day of my seventeenth birthday, but also with a feeling of rage and anger. The angst fades away and becomes fury. I turn and am about to begin slaughtering the boys below me on the road, but I wake up before any sort of vengeance is had.

I still remember the details from this dream as vividly as the morning I rose to find that my love of nearly two years had vanished.

I don’t know where she went, or why she left, but she disappeared. As if she was never here at all.

Act IX: Today I Examined Hinnom

My mother’s body is not like the others. It is not one I can merely drag behind the dune and think nothing of. She is my mother. And here is her corpse lying in the sand!

Familiar feelings of petrified shock blend with a growing sense of urgency to return to the booth. I pick up my mother’s body as gently as I can. Her face has purple bruises on it now and her glasses hang loosely off her cheeks, smashed to pieces.

I felt tears stream down my cheeks as I walked back to the booth with my mother dripping from my arms. Her nose and mouth were bleeding, and it ran down onto my sleeve.

It was not until I was nearly back to the booth that I began wondering why, after all these years, she had come to see me now. Perhaps this was how long it took for her to find me.

I made it back to the booth and tried to open the door with my mother’s thin body still in my arms. When that failed, I set her down on the sand and ran inside.

I was at a loss. I had no idea what to do. I wasn’t sure why I felt such urgency to act, but I knew I had to find the source of this death. Standing in the booth, I looked down at my right hand. It had been bruised across the knuckles as well. I wasn’t sure how that happened, but I returned my mind to my mother.

The desert was cursed, and I had to find the source. I resolved to return to the Valley of Hinnom and look for clues. In the years since these bodies first began appearing, I had not looked at the older corpses. I would avert my eyes and rush back to the booth. But now, in honor of my mother, I had to go once more behind the dunes and scour the dead.

I exited the booth and bent once again to lift my mother’s frame. She hung limp as a wet napkin across my arms, and I walked toward the dune. Each step carried closer the echoes of dread I had felt in my dream all those years ago. I felt as if I would discover something dark by looking at these bodies which I myself had placed there over the years.

I rounded the dune and before me lay the rows and rows of bodies.

For the last time, I set my mother down as gently as I could, and fixed her clothes to cover her properly. A bona fide ceremony.

I made a wide arc around to the far corner of Hinnom, where the first bodies lay. I looked at them from a small distance, expecting the decrepit limbs to suddenly start moving again.

Minutes passed and I deemed it safe to move toward the bones. I bent down next to the first body, it was clearly the oldest of the lot, and I brushed some sand away. I looked closely at the cartilage of the limbs. There was nothing unusual that I could see. I moved up to the head. It had patches of brown hair running like a chocolate river down into the ground. I scooped more sand away from under the head. My fingers scraped a thin cloth. I pulled it up and stared down in confusion. It was a silk scarf. I knew the pattern well.

Without thinking, I reached across the body and violently jerked the right hand out of the sand.

There was a silver ring on the third finger. Then I knew. This was a hand I had held for many days and nights. And this was a scarf with whose scent I had become well accustomed.

These were the remains of my lover.

Act X: Today The Mystery Was Solved

I sat back in confusion. The amalgamation of emotions nearly paralyzed me. I looked around as if someone in the desert were playing a black, black joke on me. Then something stung. As I rocked back onto my fists, a small, small streak of pain ran up my hand and I remembered the mystery bruises on my knuckles. And then the scratches on my shoulder and arm. Some pieces in my head began clicking together and I walked back around to my mother’s still body.

I knelt down beside her and looked at the bruises on her face. Her tender left cheek was bruised and her nose was broken. Bits of her smashed sunglasses were splintered into her temples and forehead. I looked once more at my now trembling hand.

Could I have beaten my mother? My hands quivered more and more violently as the reality set in. Then the still, dead hand of the woman lying next to her caught my attention. Her nails were scraped down to their beds, and she also had bruises on her face and body.

Is that where the peculiar scratches on my arm came from? I pulled back my sleeve and realized it was so. The woman had tried to defend herself with her bare hands against a crazed tollman in a flash of violent rage.

I looked beyond and saw the same was true of the man next to her, and the one beyond him.

My whole body began seizing as I looked out over the entire plot of bodies, hundreds laid neatly in rows, and I realized that I had killed them all.

I dismiss the entire idea as madness. I would remember committing murder. Wouldn’t I?

Then the dream comes to mind. I remember the emotion of waking up with a need for vengeance unfulfilled. I recall the bitter madness that set in as I choked my lover to death while she dreamed. It all flooded back into my head.

She never left. I killed her.

And ever since that morning, my brain flashes hot white for a moment while I kill these people coming to pay their tolls. The ground was not cursed, except by an insane tollman disturbed by his past and too much time alone in the vast screaming hot desert. I am the curse.

But now I’m feeling itchy. I need to get back to the booth. People may soon be coming to pay their tolls.

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Lucid Paradise

October 23, 2015 at 12:00 AM
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There is an ancient story which tells of how a spider creature named Iktomi created a web which filtered good dreams from the bad dreams. He shared the secrets of this web with a brave leader, who in turn told the world of the web to ensure his people were not haunted by nightmares. This lead to the creation of the special object known as a dream catcher; a circular wooden hoop containing a beautifully handcrafted web design with many different coloured feathers tied to thread, suspended from the hoop. The feathers would store the good dreams, whilst the web of thread would trap the bad dreams.

In the small city of Chester, located in England, this tale was being recounted one spring afternoon, inside one of the city’s libraries. The audience it was addressed to though, a group of children aged between seven and ten, were a little preoccupied in order to be paying full attention. They were all sitting around a large table, scattered with scraps of wool, feathers, beads; some children were arguing over scissors and glue, with the library assistants having to remind them to share properly. They were all making their own dream catchers.

The storyteller reciting the story of Iktomi called himself Dr. Lucid. A hired entertainer, some parents concluded, as his appearance represented someone such as the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland. He wore a dark purple frock coat with lighter purple patterns of leaves and vines printed upon it. He had a matching waistcoat and pants to go with it, along with black shiny shoes and a black high collared shirt with a wine-red bowtie fastened around his neck. Upon his head he donned a large purple top hat with a single black ribbon tied around it. In his hand he held a red swirly walking stick, although it was clear that this man was not crippled in any way. He was not even of great age, he only looked to be in his mid-40’s, with dirty blonde hair showing under his hat and a short stubbly beard on the lower half of his face. His manner of speaking was very formal, but he possessed a cheerful demeanour which kept the children in a happy and comfortable mood, even if they weren’t paying attention to the actual story. Dr. Lucid was aware he didn’t have full attention, but none-the-less, he continued to recite the tale whilst circling the table, observing the children and the many different results of their dream catchers. This initially made him unaware of the person sat in the corner of the room, who was staring intently at him. This person looked to be an average teenage girl, with long chocolate-brown hair scraped back in a ponytail and a sprinkle of freckles across her nose and rosy cheeks. Her light blue eyes were looking towards the doctor and it was evident that she was taking in every word she said, as opposed to a few minutes ago where her ears were blocked up by earphones connected to her iPod.

This was Ruby Bentley-Smith; a 16 year old girl who had only turned up to this craft fair as her mother had insisted that Ruby should take Eddie, her 7 year old brother, up there, as both of their parents were working that day. She had reluctantly agreed, not wanting to cause a fuss with her mother. So here she was, sitting in the corner whilst Eddie was struggling to thread beads onto the wool. Initially uninterested by the children’s activities, the words of Dr. Lucid had suddenly attracted her attention. As a psychology student, the subject of dreams was one that interested her. She’d grown past the age of making little trinkets like this, but the idea of dreams flying through the air and the possibility of a special web capturing these dreams; now that was interesting.

Dr. Lucid soon took notice of this girl when he eventually lifted his head and caught her gaze. Ruby was quick to look back down to her iPod, but the doctor wasn’t stupid, far from it actually, he’d noticed her stare and knew that she’d been listening the whole time.

“You there!” he called to her in his posh London accent. Ruby looked up to find him pointing his walking stick straight at her.
“Yes you, child! Come here at once!” He beckoned her over. Ruby pocketed her iPod, stood up, and followed him to a table he was walking to.
“Now then,” he said. “I notice you seemed to take interest in the tale of Iktomi and his web. Tell me, do dreams fascinate you?”
She wasn’t sure how to reply. She eventually muttered, “I…umm…I suppose so.”
The doctor’s face took on a satisfied smile.
“Splendid…I think I have the perfect thing for you, child.”
His hand reached under his coat. After a few seconds he pulled out something. A dream catcher, but a very unique one Ruby noticed.

“Now, this dream catcher,” Dr. Lucid continued. “Is one that I crafted with my own hands. Its difference to the average dream catcher should be apparent to your eyes.”
He was correct, for Ruby was quick to notice this difference. The dream catcher looked normal to begin with; the circle being made out of normal wood and the web being made out of purple thread. But there were no feathers. Hanging down from seven different threads were seven miniature dolls, each one smaller than the size of an average thumb. Ruby looked closely at them. They all differed to one another: three were boy dolls, four were girl dolls, several had different coloured hair and the small eyes stitched onto the dolls were of different colours as well, one of the girl dolls even had spectacles stitched onto her small face. They were all sewn into black and purple outfits.

“The children suspended from this dream catcher are not just your typical dolls you must understand. Nor do they capture the pure dreams of the night sky, like the typical feathers.”
“Then what are they supposed to do?” asked Ruby.
“Ah,” the doctor tapped the side of his nose with his finger. “All will become clear when you begin your slumber tonight.”
“Oh, well you see,” Ruby shook her head slightly. “It’s awfully nice of you to offer it, but I don’t have any money on me.”
Dr. Lucid let out a hearty laugh.
“Who said anything about money? My dear, this is a gift!”
“A…a gift? Are you sure that’s okay?”
“I am absolutely certain,” the doctor responded, not letting his smile drop for a second. “As long as you promise to keep it safe. Do you have any siblings?”
“Yeah, I have my brother here,” she said, signalling to the little brown-haired boy sat at the edge of the table.
“I see,” said the doctor. “Well please refrain from ‘sharing’ it with him. This is solely for you. Do you understand?”
Ruby looked at Dr. Lucid, then back to the dream catcher. After some thought, she lifted her hand to take the dream catcher, and he passed it to her.
“I understand. Thank you, sir,” she said, smiling politely.
“Splendid!” he exclaimed. “Now, hang it on the wall beside your bed tonight. No doubt you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what you experience.”
Ruby was tempted to ask more, but Dr. Lucid was quick to turn back to the table to see how all the children were getting along. Shrugging her shoulders, she returned to her spot in the corner, handling the dream catcher with care.

When the two siblings got home, Ruby rushed up to her room, setting about to hanging the dream catcher up. After she attached it to her bedroom wall with Blu-Tack, the day continued as normal. Ruby did her homework, went on the Internet for a while, had dinner when her parents returned home, took some Metformin pills for her diabetes soon after, red Eddie a bedtime story, and soon went to bed herself. Lying down, she looked up to the dream catcher beside her on the wall. Hoping that it would give her a good dream, she fell fast asleep.

Morning, and Ruby found herself teetering on the rim of consciousness. She pushed herself up, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. When the sleep was clear, she opened them…and gasped. She was no longer in her room. She was still in her bed and still wearing her Sesame Street pyjamas, but her entire room was just…gone. What surrounded her in its place was a void of black and purple swirls of fog. The colours appeared to be moving, as if they were mixing together. It clearly wasn’t morning now…but then Ruby realised she couldn’t be sure, as there were no windows to show if it was dark or light outside, and there was no clock to tell the time.

“Aah, I see you’re asleep!”
The sudden voice made her jump out of her skin. Her head quickly darted to her right in the direction of the voice. There stood a very familiar man, clad in a purple frock coat, wearing a top hat, carrying a swirly walking stick…
“Y-you!” she stammered. “You’re the guy! The guy from earlier, aren’t you?”
“Yes, dear Ruby, it is I, Dr. Lucid at your service!”
Dr. Lucid, having not changed at all since their encounter earlier that day bowed to her gracefully. Ruby just stared, open-mouthed. But the doctor spoke before she could.
“I predict you had many questions,” the doctor chuckled. “Allow me to answer them for you. You are in the land of Paradise!”
He threw his arms out to his sides as he exclaimed this proudly.
You could say a dream FAR beyond your wildest imagination,” he continued. “I am here because I am the creator of this land. And as for me knowing your name, well I don’t mean to boast, but I am well practised in magic and it wasn’t too hard to achieve it. After all, what effort is needed to find out a simple name compared to creating my beautiful Paradise?” His laugh echoed throughout the void of a room.
“Wait,” said Ruby, interrupting his laugh. “Since when has magic ever existed? That’s just a load of story legend, right?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, girl!” Dr. Lucid declared. “Magic has most definitely been around since the dawn of time! Such a shame you lesser mortals are too ignorant to believe fully in it.”
“But how did I get here?” Ruby finally asked the obvious question.
“Simple, because I brought you here!” he replied. Ruby’s eyes widened. “Oh Ruby, don’t look so alarmed! It wasn’t as if I climbed into your room and stole you in the dead of night. On the contrary, I think you’ll find that I was already in your room.”
“What?! But how?!” Ruby demanded to know, feeling slightly violated.
“Well voodoo magic has its perks, dear Ruby. I may walk abroad among you mortals, as you observed before, but long ago I split my soul and deposited it in the very dream catcher I gave to you today. In short, Paradise is located inside the dream catcher.
“Now that all of that explaining is over, I think it’s time for you to meet my friends.”
“Your friends?” Ruby asked. “Who are they?”
In response, the doctor reached into his coat pocket and brought out a handful of miniature dolls. Ruby recognised them as the dolls that hung from the dream catcher. Holding the dolls in his right hand, he clenched his fist tightly and recited these words:

“Dolls and figures, up you tot,
And show some smiles you miserable lot,
It’s time for some fun, so off you pop,
So dust off those shoes and give ‘em a flop!”

With that said, he casted the dolls behind him and as they hit the floor, smoke suddenly erupted out of nowhere. The smoke soon cleared, and Ruby was met with a surprising sight. There, in a straight line, stood the seven dolls, but they were life-sized! In fact, they looked like normal humans. Four of them, two girl and two boys, looked to be no more than ten years old. The other two girls looked younger than Ruby, maybe about twelve or thirteen. A boy of about Ruby’s age, with ebony hair, stood in the centre of the line, towering over the others in height. All seven of them wore black unitards; the girls had an additional dark purple tutu around their waist whilst the boys had a purple ribbon instead. And they all shared the exact same qualities as their dolls, from the colour of their hair to the colour of their eyes, even the doll with the spectacles stood there with the others. They stood straight with their arms in a preparatory position, both arms down and rounded with both hands just in front of the hips, as if they were a troupe of ballerinas; ballerinas with smiles, but with no emotion in their eyes whatsoever. They just stared blankly ahead.

“Well don’t just stand there!” the doctor snapped. “You must greet our new guest. This is Ruby Bentley-Smith.”
He slammed his walking stick down on the void floor, its sound echoing loudly just as his laugh had done before. In an instant, all seven dolls had lifted their arms up and spread them out wide, all in perfect unison.
“Welcome to Paradise!” they all said, smiles fixed rigidly on their face.
“Do they have names?” Ruby asked the doctor.
He shook his head. “No, my dear, these are merely dolls. They are not people like you and me, so I saw no reason to name them. Now watch closely, because with a slam of my stick, these dolls will do my bidding. Allow me to demonstrate!”
Dr. Lucid slammed his stick down again, and the dolls were quick to reassemble themselves into a triangle formation: the four younger children in a line at the front, then the two girls, then the boy right at the back. Another slam, and their arms lifted in front of them in first position. Every time the stick’s sound echoed, the dolls moved accordingly.

Right arm out, right arm in, left arm out, left arm in, right arm up, left arm up, turn one-hundred-and-eighty degrees to the right, right arm down, left arm down.

“That’s…that’s…” Ruby was trying to find the correct word. “…that’s incredible!”
“Isn’t it just?!” said the doctor happily.
“Is it…is it possible for me to come back here when I wake up?” she asked.
“Yes of course! As long as the dream catcher hangs on your wall, you shall return here every night from now on.”
“Oh that would be wonderful!” she said, then suddenly yawned. “Geez, I feel tired all of a sudden.”
“Aah, you’re waking up, my dear,” said Dr. Lucid. “You need to return to your bed.”
“But I just got here,” she said sleepily.
“I know, but time works differently in Paradise. These few minutes you have stayed here have counted for hours in the real world. Do not be down-hearted. I guarantee you’ll return here tomorrow night.”
He slammed his stick and the dolls waved their right hands at her and said, “We’ll see you then!”
Ruby waved back, returned to her bed and closed her eyes.
“Good day, dear Ruby,” she heard Dr. Lucid say before she drifted asleep again.

When Ruby awoke the next morning, she spent a long time wondering if her dream had been real or not. It had all felt real, but surely all the talk about magic and the doctor controlling the dolls couldn’t have been true, could it? Eventually she just shrugged and resolved to waiting until she went to sleep again to see if she’d return to Paradise once more.
Her day was normal, with nothing unusual or supernatural happening. It was Monday, so she had to go to school, but she couldn’t fully concentrate. She found that her mind kept wandering to her memories of Paradise. Whenever she snapped back to reality, she found it irritating how she was still stuck in her lessons. The next six hours dragged so much, that Ruby felt very relieved when the bell rang and they were allowed to go home. She still had to go through dinner and diabetic pills and Eddie’s bedtime story, but finally she collapsed into bed and fell fast asleep.

“Aah, I see you’re asleep!” she heard Dr. Lucid say.
Ruby opened her eyes and smiled at the sight of him, as she realised she was back in Paradise.
“Good evening,” she said, but then looked around. “Umm…where are the dolls?”
“Aah, they are with me, my dear,” he said, pulling the miniature forms of the dolls out of his pocket again. “Tonight we shall have some playtime. Let me take you back to the wonders and fun of your childhood, Ruby.”
Ruby looked confused, but let him get along with summoning the dolls.
“Dolls! Let us play some classic games with our guest!” he commanded. Slamming his stick down, the dolls all joined hands in a circle. Another slam, and twinkling music began to play from nowhere, sort of like the sound you would hear from a jack-in-the-box. The dolls suddenly started leaping around in a clockwise movement, all still holding hands. They all chanted:

“Ring a round the roses,
a pocket full of poses,
atichoo, atichoo,
we all fall down!”

On the last line, they all collapsed to the floor, seemingly lifeless.
“Wow,” said Ruby. “I haven’t heard that chant in years.”
“What about any of these?” said the doctor.
In minutes, he had the dolls performing all sorts of little nursery rhymes and childish chants: The Farmer’s in his Den, Oranges and Lemons, Down by the Banks of the Hanky Panky…by the time they got to Miss Lucy had a Baby, Ruby had come forward to join in, without any objections by Dr. Lucid. The dolls didn’t seem to object either, so they all made their way through circle songs and clapping games, making Ruby happy with nostalgic memories of her early childhood. When Ruby eventually felt sleepy, the doctor asked her if she had enjoyed herself. She happily said she had.

And every night after that, Ruby found herself in Paradise, enjoying herself in many different ways with the dolls. They sung songs together, they danced together, they played games together despite the dolls lack of natural joy, but what Ruby enjoyed most was re-enactments. Some nights Ruby would choose a story, and Dr. Lucid would make the dolls take upon the actions of each of the characters, with Ruby happily joining in. She played Little Red Riding Hood, where the ebony haired boy saved her from the little kids who all made up the wolf. She played Cinderella, dancing with the boy, losing her glass slipper and being saved from the two twelve year old girls who played her ugly step-sisters. She played Alice, falling into Wonderland while the dolls muddled her mind with all of the different characters. With her long hair, she even found joy in playing Rapunzel. Obviously her hair wasn’t long enough for her “prince” to climb up, but she enjoyed the story none-the-less.

Then one night in the summer holidays, after they finished the Six Swans, where Ruby saved her “siblings” from being turned into swans by staying mute, she started murmuring sleepily, “No…no, I don’t want to wake up.”
“Why not?” asked the doctor. “You’re going to return here tomorrow night, aren’t you?”
“I-I know,” she replied. “But I just don’t want to go back to the real world. I like this world…a lot…I wish I could stay here forever.”
Without warning the doctor slammed his stick down with such force, that Ruby snapped out of her sleepy trance. All of the dolls and Dr. Lucid has their eyes fixed on her.
“Repeat what you just said,” the doctor commanded.
“I…I wish I could stay here forever,” she said, worried that she had done wrong by saying it.
Dr. Lucid glared at her for a while, before saying, “Do you truly wish that?”
Ruby thought for a bit, and then nodded.
A smile started to creep onto the doctor’s lips.
“If that is what you truly wish, then I would be more than happy to allow you to stay. What do you say to this, everyone?”
With a slam of his stick, the dolls opened their arms out, smiled firmly and said, “We would love for you to stay.”

But as Ruby’s eyes lit up in happiness, the doctor suddenly said, “But you will have to perform a difficult task in order for you to remain here permanently.”
“Oh I’ll do anything!” said Ruby. “What must I do?”
“Well, I have estimated,” the doctor said. “That every night you sleep for roughly ten hours. To stay here, I need proof that you can possess the ability to stay here for much longer. So I need you to slumber for twenty-four hours straight. If you can do that, then I will allow you to stay.”
“Twenty-four hours?!” Ruby exclaimed. “But that’s a whole day! Is that even possible?!”
“Anything, I believe, is possible. It was possible for me to create this world; it’s possible for me to manipulate these dolls to do my bidding; sleeping for twenty-four hours is child’s play compared to those things. So you should be able to do it. And after all, you did just say you would do anything, did you not?”
“Well yes…alright, I’ll do it!”
Dr. Lucid held out his hand, and Ruby shook it.

“Then the deal is made!” he declared. “You will continue to return to this world every night, and each night I will time you to see how many hours you have managed to slumber for. If you hear the sounds of large bells ringing, then you will know that twenty-four hours have passed and your wish will be granted.”
Ruby nodded, and then began to feel sleepy again.
“Good day, Ruby, and good luck,” was what she heard the doctor say as she returned to her bed.

And so began the weeks of Ruby trying to complete her task. On the first few nights, she simply tried to stay awake longer to tire herself out more. But she only managed to add a couple of hours to her sleep pattern. She quickly realised that this method wouldn’t work so she tried a new technique. She started to exercise a lot, going way over the recommended time of one hour a day. Her parents paid no heed to it at first, but soon became a little concerned. They were used to her staying in her room a lot whilst she was on the internet, but it seemed really out of place for her to be jogging around for five hours a day.

Overtime, Ruby’s methods became more disturbing. She started to skip meals, only regularly having small snacks and drinks to keep her blood sugar level stable. Her weight dropped, her skin turned pale, but the longest time she managed to sleep for was sixteen hours. Even in Paradise, whenever she felt sleepy she refused to return to her bed, trying to stay awake and play with the dolls, only to collapse where she stood and wake up in her bed in the real world. At one point she sneaked into her parents’ room and stole a bottle of her father’s sleeping pills. When the recommended doses didn’t acquire the results she had been hoping for, she started taking more than was required, but this only gave her headaches and made her groggy during the day.
Oh how she cursed the real world. She became angry with it, she became sick of the sight of it, preferring the sight of the misty and dark Paradise. She became sick of seeing her friends, ignoring their texts and emails, completely shutting them out of her life. And most heartbreaking of them all, she eventually became sick of her own family. She wouldn’t say a word to her parents anymore and she refused to read Eddie a bedtime story at night. The only communication they would usually share was Ruby screaming at them to leave her alone. All she wanted to do was go to sleep and see Dr. Lucid and the dolls. They were all she loved now.

But finally, she found the solution. A horrible solution. As she was about to take her diabetic pills one night, she was reminded of words that her doctor had told her when she was little, soon after she found out she had diabetes. He had told her, “Never ever take more than two pills after meals. If you take more than two, then you’ll fall into a really deep sleep, and you might never wake up. And that will make your parents and baby brother very sad.”

A deep sleep…she might never wake up…

Without another thought, she rushed to the bathroom, tipped the whole bottle of her Metformin pills into her hand and set to work on consuming them all. All that she could think of were the words “deep sleep”. These pills could give her the twenty-four hours she needed. She didn’t even stop for a second to consider the fact that there would be no turning back. The desperation of wanting to stay in Paradise had taken over her completely. When all the pills had gone, she rushed back to her room, snatched up the small number of sleeping pills remaining and swallowed them as well, just to make sure she’d definitely fall asleep. Almost instantly, she began to feel dizzy and unstable. She stumbled back onto her bed. Her mind was starting to haze over, but she managed to make herself lie down. As her vision faded, the last thing she saw was the dream catcher hanging on her wall…

“I see you’re asleep.”
Dr. Lucid’s voice didn’t sound happy and cheerful today. It sounded plain and firm. When Ruby opened her eyes and looked to him, she saw that his face was also plain and firm. She guessed that he’d witnessed her actions in the real world. But it was okay, she thought. If nothing in the real world interrupted, she’d finally be allowed to stay in Paradise forever.
“I would like to re-enact a story of my own creation today,” he said. “It is called ‘The Lonely Prince’. Would you like to witness this story?”
Ruby smiled and nodded.
The doctor made haste in summoning the dolls and making them run off to hide until they were called for.

“Once upon a time,” the doctor started to tell the story as a happy melody began to sound throughout Paradise. “There was a land ruled over by a king and queen. The land was a happy, where children and adults would smile and laugh every day.”
He slammed his stick down and the four younger dolls appeared, running around the doctor in a circle, making giggling noises. The doctor made them perform a fun little ballet act. Such skills in ones that had no life. Ruby admired the doctor’s magic; it was incredible.
“Even the servants of the king and queen’s palace shared the joys of the land, performing their chores with glee and happiness.”
The two girls were summoned. They performed a ballet act too, making motions with their hands as if they were sweeping floors or polishing windows. It was all done in such grace that After a while, the younger dolls joined in and they all danced together. It went on for so long that Ruby soon found herself sitting on the floor whilst she watched it, but not once did she get bored, for the dance was so skilled, so happy and so enthralling, that the possibility of getting bored was absolutely zero.

“But alas,” the doctor continued after what seemed like an hour. “There was one individual who did not bask in the joys of the land.”
Another slam of the stick, and a white staircase materialised behind the dolls. The dolls parted to each side of the staircase and all turned their heads up to the top of it, where a large platform was connected to it. The music suddenly turned quiet and solemn.
“Observe the summit of that staircase and tell me what you see!” the doctor exclaimed.
“That’s the eldest doll!” Ruby said, recognising him instantly.
“Correct, but in this story he is much more than the simple ebony-haired doll. What you see here is what the people of the land call: the Lonely Prince.”
“The Lonely Prince!” the other dolls declared in unison as they looked to the sad doll.
“This poor soul has been eternally locked in the palace,” said the doctor. “His parents have forbade him to make friends or have fun, lest they distract him from his duties as a prince. But this deprivation of the joy of the land has made the prince sink into a deep depression.”
The boy went on to do a solo dance. The dance was beautiful but no joy emanated from it. He had his eyes closed the entire time, but towards the end of the dance, they suddenly snapped open wide. His arms started to reach out, his head turned this way and that, as if he was searching for something.

“Observe!” Dr. Lucid suddenly shouted from behind Ruby. “He seeks companionship!”
The “prince” looked towards all of the other dolls, but Dr. Lucid’s stick was quick to make them turn away from him.
“His isolation has caused the people to believe that he wants to be alone. But that is falsehood. He needs a friend. Who will be his friend?!”
And then the prince’s eyes rested on Ruby. He stretched his arms out to her. And Ruby suddenly found herself standing up and rushing up the staircase. Her heart reached out to him, as she could no longer stand to see this poor doll alone in despair.
“I’ll be his friend!” she shouted, and threw her arms around him as soon as she reached him. He returned the embrace, although it felt stiff and unnatural.
“Finally!” the doctor called from below. “A person has come forth to free the prince from his solitude!”
The two of them pulled away to look at each other and, to the now once again happy music, they begun to dance. Ruby wasn’t much of a dancer in the real world, but somehow she knew how to perform this dance. She pointed, she twirled, she moved her arms lightly as the prince lifted her into the air. And as the dance came to an end, the two embraced once again.
“I’ll never leave you, my prince,” she whispered into his ear as she smiled to herself.
But then she heard something. Something close to her ear. It sounded like…a breath. But a shaky breath. Coming from…the boy? She quickly pulled away to look at him…

And saw a tear fall down his cheek.

Before she could say anything, a loud sound interrupted her thoughts. The sound of bells; large bells you would find in a clock tower. She looked down to see the doctor looking up at her and applauding her with a happy grin on his face.
“You’ve done it!” he called out. “Twenty-four hours have passed!”
Ruby slowly walked down the staircase with the boy. As they walked down, the steps behind them vanished until they reached the bottom, and the staircase was no more.
“Well done, my dear! You’ve completed the required task. Now I shall grant your wish!”
Ruby did not return the doctor’s smile.
“What is wrong? This is a happy moment, your wish has come true!”
Ruby looked at him for a few more seconds. Then she pointed to the boy without looking at him and said: “He’s not a doll, is he?”
Dr. Lucid barely reacted. He merely stared at her too. After about a minute, he finally spoke.
“You mortals are far too slow to see the obvious,” he said coldly.
“So…is he…?” Ruby tried to speak.
“Yes. This boy is not a doll. He is a human. In fact, look around you.”
Ruby turned back to look at the other dolls. The realisation finally hit her.

They were all humans.

“But…but…how did this happen?” Ruby asked.
The doctor started to chuckle then: a deep chilling chuckle.
“These children were all like you, Ruby. They were captivated by Paradise, they also wanted to stay here forever. All seven of them managed to find a way to sleep for twenty-four hours. And I granted their wish.”
“But why are you controlling them like this?!” she shouted.
Dr. Lucid looked to the boy. The boy stared back at him with a tear stain on his cheek.
“This boy was the first to come to Paradise,” he explained. “He ended up throwing himself under a bus in order to sleep for long enough. But after a while, he grew bored of Paradise. He wanted to leave. But as he ran away, I stopped him.” The doctor held the stick up. “I used this to manipulate him. Now he cannot leave. None of these children can. I wouldn’t want their wishes wasted now, would I?”
“I…I-I change my mind,” Ruby suddenly said. “I don’t want to be here anymore. Please, let me go home!”
“Oh it’s too late for that now,” he said with an edge of evil in his voice. “You overdosed. You’re dead in the real world now. And besides, didn’t you just tell your “prince” here that you would never leave him, hmm?”
Ruby ignored him. Pushing past him, she rushed towards her bed. But in horror, she realised it was nowhere to be seen.
“I told you,” the doctor said. “You can’t return to the real world now that you’re dead.”
But she continued to run, desperately looking around for an exit. Right until she heard the doctor slam his stick down.

And then she froze.

Her body was as stiff as stone. She couldn’t move, even her eyes remained motionless. Another slam, and she found herself standing up straight, her arms in a preparatory position.
“Oh deary me, Ruby,” she heard Dr. Lucid say. “I thought you’d be more cooperative and stay free in Paradise. But it looks like I’ll have to force you to stay. Never mind though.”
Another slam and Ruby was made to turn around and walk towards the doctor. She had no control over her body; it was as if she was a puppet attached to strings. Dr. Lucid made her stand by the boy again along with the rest of the dolls.
“Oh give me a smile, you miserable lot!” he demanded. He slammed his stick down and all eight of them, including Ruby, soon found themselves with smiles fixed on their faces, despite their emotions being far from happy.
“Much better!” Dr. Lucid declared. “Paradise must always be a happy place. People would just KILL to stay!”
He laughed loudly, the haunting sound of it echoing throughout the dark void of land.


Ruby Bentley-Smith was declared dead at 7:43pm on the 30th August 2014, after overdosing on Metformin pills and Imovane sleeping pills and falling into a coma for approximately twenty-four hours. Her death was ruled as a suicide. To this day, her family have never managed to figure out what caused her change in behaviour and why she decided to end her life.

On the night after her funeral, her younger brother, Eddie, couldn’t sleep. He missed his sister a lot. The past few weeks of arguments and screaming between Ruby and their parents had scared him, but at least she was alive then. Now she was gone forever.
Eddie slowly got out of his bed and tip-toed down the landing to Ruby’s bedroom. Maybe, just maybe, all of this was a bad dream, and he would find Ruby asleep in bed, very much alive, as opposed to when they found her unconscious only a week or so previously. He opened the door slowly and peeked his head around it. Everything was untouched. The red walls were the same, her desk was in the corner by the window with her books stacked neatly upon it, her wardrobe was closed and her bed was pushed up against the wall. Ruby wasn’t there, of course, but something else was missing too. Eddie noticed it and gasped.

Ruby’s special dream catcher was gone…


On a beautiful autumn afternoon, the storyteller known as Dr. Lucid was walking down a gravel path, heading towards a town where he was due to host another craft fair. As he walked, he reached into his frock coat and pulled out a dream catcher, entwined with dark purple wool and had miniature dolls in the place of the regular feathers.
“Let us see if we can find a lover of dreams today,” he chuckled to himself.
No longer did seven dolls hang from the dream catcher. Now there were eight. The eighth one had long chocolate-brown hair fashioned in a ponytail, and small blue eyes stitched on its face…

Credit To – QueenCreeps

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From Me to You

October 22, 2015 at 12:00 AM
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I sat on a bench under an autumn-dried tree, where I usually spent my time after school. The cemetery was empty; no surprise. An occasional mourner dropped flowers–always some old person coming in to see a lost loved one–or a jogger taking a new route for change. Nobody goes to a cemetery because they want to, at least, nobody but me. It’s not like a daughter or son would stop by to see a parent who’s passed away.

It’s those little things you notice after a while: who cares and how they show it.

I was reading a book to set the mood — Poe’s ever atmospheric “The Pit and the Pendulum” to be specific. It always made sunny days turn to cold nights, with the aid of my parasol to cast a much needed shadow over me. The last thing I needed was a tan; the grey clouds too few in numbers to fend off the sun above. At least it was quiet, no noise from any cars since the only thing nearby was a small neighborhood straight out of Leave it to Beaver. Even though the cemetery was out of the way from my house, I’d rather be around a bunch of dead dudes than be bored to death in my room.

There’s nobody to relate to in this backwater town, especially for a girl that wears all black and would prefer a flannel skirt with chains over tight jeggings. I always look at the other girls at school and knew for a fact that I didn’t want to be like them. Loud, flirty, giggling at every little thing, trying to get a guy’s attention; it’s just not for me. But, what are friends for anyway? All they do is tell you what to do, what to wear, how to do your hair, talk behind your back, take up your time, and make you miserable.

Who needs them…

I was starting to sink into the story when someone walked by, the scuffling of their shoes on the cement path making me look up. It was a boy, cute as can be. I remembered seeing him at school before, maybe an 11th grader at the most; probably a track guy with the strong legs and slim size he had. He was looking at me right when my eyes got up to his and I tensed up, unwantedly, pretending like I was still reading. When the feeling of someone coming too close popped my bubble, I looked up again slowly, as if I didn’t know who was there.

“Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?” He asked.

I tried to find my place while talking. “I don’t know. I haven’t see you here before.”

He pointed at the nearby gates at the end of the path, where the timeless suburb was. “I live right there, super close by. I never really cut through here since cemeteries give me the creeps.” There was a short pause, but he didn’t leave. “… What are you doing here, just reading?”

“I’m trying to.”

“For what? School?”


“For… fun?”

Cross legged, I wiggled my foot — like when a cat wags their tail angrily. “Do you mind? I kind of go to a place with no people for a reason.”

He held his hands up defensively, a thumb hanging onto the strap of his backpack. “Sorry, I was just being friendly. You like stories? I got a story for you. It’s about this cemetery — you’ll love it.”

I gave in, flooded by his pestering. He was lucky he was cute, or else I would have ignored him in the first place. I didn’t realize that was why I let him talk, not until later. I felt shallow, but it’s not really anything new. I wasn’t alone in that way of thinking. I’m sure any human being would rather sit down with someone they wanted to kiss than sit down with someone they wanted to kill.

He seemed pretty human to me.

I slammed the book shut, frowning at him, hoping it would intimidate him. “Go ahead. Impress me…”

He sat next to me without an invitation, chuckling as if he was impressed by his own story before he even told it. “It’s an old legend that my dad told me, after we moved here a few years back. He told me to be careful when you put your hand on a grave, because if you do, it will stir up the soul of the person buried there.”

I yawned, patting my black lips with a gloved hand. “That’s baby stuff. Let me guess: then the soul haunts you forever.” He seemed to enjoy it when I over-dramatically gnarled my hands at him and my crappy attempt at a Romanian accent put a smile on his face.

“Close, but let me finish,” he insisted. “I’m not done yet, you little know it all.”

I squished my face at him; perhaps a bit too flirty now that I look back. It was one of those habits I didn’t even know I had.

“You see, the legend has it where you put your hand on a gravestone, then you say the words ‘from me to you’. If you do that, the soul enters your body and the spirit will come to you to ask for something. If you do what it asks you to, you get a reward, like something you really want. But, if you don’t, then the spirit takes over your body and your soul gets lost forever.”

I snorted, laughing under my hand. There was no way to look cute doing that, but that didn’t stop me from trying to be dainty about it. “So how long does it take for the ooky spooky spirit to steal your soul? Let me guess, thirteen days? 666 hours? Something cheesy like that?”

“Not even. It’s different from person to person, like an addiction. Some can fight it, others can’t. It’s all a matter of will. I mean, I’ve never done it before. In fact, I don’t believe in it really. It was just some stupid story my dad would always say to scare me. I guess he just didn’t want me to get lost in here by accident or something.”

“Sounds like he cares a lot. I’d never be able to know the feeling.”

He didn’t catch it. Either that or he didn’t have the time to bother with my daddy issues. Instead, all he did was awkwardly give me a wave and slap the side of his jeans. “Well, I’m Gerard. It’s been nice talking to you, but I’ve gotta run.”

Right when he turned his back to me, I replied. “I’m Helena.”

He turned around, surprised that I even bothered to tell him my name. Maybe the eyeliner made him think my stare was cold when it was really warmer than wanted, but that was me trying to get in his head. What he did do was give a grin like someone handed him a gift. “Helena. Cool. It fits. A unique name for a unique girl.”

I actually smiled at the remark. It wasn’t every day someone called me unique in a nice way. It’s not like anything was needed to be said; he waved goodbye and left the gates. I watched him walk all the way across the cemetery before I even remembered I had a book on my lap. I tried getting back into the story… but the stupid story he told me took up my brain like a damn study session.

I couldn’t focus on the written words in the pages. Once the book’s spell was broken, it’s like fixing a broken mirror: more trouble than it’s worth. I decided to head on home, taking the opposite gate that Gerard took. Picking up my parasol, I nearly skipped my way out of there. There was joy in my step I wasn’t used to — a joy I never really felt before.

Passing a line of graves, my eye caught a name that got my attention. The gravestone of Lenore Wu, 1987 – 2012. Died at the age of twenty five — barely ten years older than me. If only it said what she died of, but that would be asking too much to put on someone’s gravestone for all to see. I quickly assumed in my head that it was the usual drunk driver victim they have every month, even in such a small town like mine.

But that name, Lenore… I couldn’t pass it up.

What would taking a second to prove the story wrong do? I mean, a small part of me thought the story could be possible, that part of the body that says ghost are real and aliens exist; while the other 99% of me told my feet to keep walking. Almost throwing myself against the porous slab of granite, I put a hand to the stone, right over her name. It was a lot colder than expected, especially for something that’s been out in the sun all day. Despite going to the cemetery for so long and so many times, it was the first time I’ve ever laid hands on one.

Closing my eyes, I whispered under my breath, “From me to you.”

For a second, I waited, expecting hands to come out of the ground and drag me under, or for some kind of ghostly cloud to seep into my mouth. But, no, nothing happened. The wind kicked up a bit, blowing some dead leaves over my fishnet stockings — that was it.

Slipping my hand down into the grass, I pouted mentally. “Knew it. It’s just a stupid bedtime story.” Getting up, I huffed loudly; brushing the bits of crumpled leaves off my knees. “Oh, well. Now I know…”

I walked home right after that, disappointed the whole way and thinking back. Thinking about Gerard. I don’t know why, it’s not like he’s Tom Hardy with a sawed-off shotgun and a chained on mask. He just seemed so… real. Nothing fake; not trying to impress people around him, not trying to get me to go out with him, and not trying to get me to like him.

It was a natural friendliness I wasn’t used to — abrupt as it was. He could probably smell the loneliness radiating off of me from a mile away, like a bloodhound searching for an escaped convict in the woods. Usually, I try to send people off as fast as they start talking… but with him I didn’t mind. I kind of liked his voice and the lips he used to talk with. The conflicting feelings circled around in my head the entire way home.

I even started thinking about keeping an eye out for him at school tomorrow.

The house was empty–mom at work–so nobody to bother saying hello to. The time I got out of school was the time she left; only actually getting to see her once or twice, before I started spending time at the cemetery. It seemed like the pictures of us scattered around the walls was the only reason I remembered how she looked. I’ve always hated the pictures she had of me when I was younger, all smiling and stuff; it looked disgusting. But, they made mom happy, so it was bearable.

That didn’t mean I never tried to throw them away before, and boy, did I learn the punch my mom was packing on that day.

There was no reason for me to go into the kitchen, the leftovers in the fridge were going to be untouched once again. Even though I looked like Jack Skellington with spiky black hair and snakebites, I didn’t have much of an appetite. I think I was too skinny, but I always got compliments about it. Not even a million “you look good”s would make me feel better about the way I looked. I tried to avoid the mirror built into the closet in my room at all cost; the more I looked, the more I felt that I shouldn’t be who I was.

Night arrived faster than I could even realize, the dark curtains I covered my window with concealing the outside world. One by one, I blew out the black candles that I had lighting the room and keeping it warm. With only one left burning on my nightstand, I lay in bed and stared at the heavily shadowed In this Moment and Nightwish posters I had scattered along my walls. I felt tired, and I had nearly passed out during class earlier, but I couldn’t get relaxed. No matter how much I tossed and turned, I couldn’t get any sleep.

The candle’s flame wisped like coiled snake ready to strike — a distortion in the air. I noticed a slow increase of pressure in the air, half hidden by the stuffiness and scent of the dead candles. I buried my head into the pillow, hoping that putting my hands into the cool underside would get me relaxed enough to doze off. It didn’t work, my eyes as wide open as ever. With my nose pressed deep into my pillowcase, my heart started pounding when the slightest amount of weight fell by my feet.

I froze, pretending that I was asleep, that I was part of the bed itself and my body was just a folding in the thick sheets. Someone was on the bed with me, and there was nobody else that was supposed to be home. I hadn’t had a cat since I was ten and whoever was here with me had the chilling presence of a winter’s draft. The bed creaked softly, my visitor leaning forward. The sound of a girl crying softly was amplified in the quiet of my enclosed room, the sound coming from the end of the bed.

“I couldn’t do it…” She sounded distant for being so close, like she was speaking from behind the walls. “I couldn’t go on…”

I didn’t know why my brain presumed the most unlikely solution to what was happening, but then again, maybe having someone suddenly appear out of thin air fueled the idea that what I did in the cemetery had actually worked. “Lenore Wu? Is that you?”

She didn’t answer, too occupied with crying her eyes out. Sitting up, I could see the back of her head, long black hair draped over a shoulder. The white nightgown she wore glowed in the dim light; her skin hinted with a lifeless blue. Empathy tugged at my heart — I’ve been at that point where crying was the last resort, the last thing your body would allow. No matter how much I tried to stay calm, I was shaking like crazy, frightened of what was on the other side of that flowing curtain of hair.

I cleared my throat, talking to her like she was a helpless child. “What is it? Why are you crying?”

What could I do to help? Bring her back to life like we’re in some crappy teen movie about Greek demigods? She came back–and she came back through me–so something could be done. A wrong done right. I had no idea what she had in store for me, but even before she opened her mouth, I was willing to do anything. Mostly to get her the hell away from me, and also kind of because I wanted to prove to myself that I could do something good for once. But still, I wasn’t willing to run away from such a thing.

“I couldn’t do it,” she said in the tiniest voice, as if she was on the other side of a wall instead of a few inches away. “I couldn’t go on with it…”

I thought about putting a hand on her shoulder, but I didn’t dare to touch her. I had no idea what she was planning; if she was going to attack me or turn around and show me some kind of gaping hole for a face. My mind was almost more focused on the things she could do to me than what she was actually doing: sitting there like a girl who was dumped on prom night. I held my knees in, hugging myself to get a grip on the current matter. If I wasn’t so tired and used to the idea of talking to people who weren’t there, I probably would have waited until morning to go to the nearest nuthouse.

“Go on with what?” I asked, resting my cheek on my knee. My body was to the point of being unresponsive, but I myself was wide awake and at full attention.

“Nobody wants to listen to me,” she said pitifully. “Nobody cared…”

“I care.”

“No you don’t.”

“Try me.”

She started to turn around, making me flinch back from the thoughts in my head running wild. And when I saw her face… I was relieved to see the face of a pretty Asian girl, her hair covering one eye. Her lips were a dark blue and her eye was pure red, but strangely, I wasn’t afraid anymore. Crawling over to sit beside her at the foot of the bed, I slowly tried to touch her bare shoulder. It was a block of ice, but I kept my hand on her skin, having it warm up with my body heat.

She seemed to steady her breathing when I got closer, finally able to talk normal. “You really want to listen to me?”

“Of course. I’m sure there’s a lot to say about how you… you know.”

Lenore looked down at her hands and guided them up to her eyes, holding them shut. “My parents wanted me to be something, to be someone. They came from China, thinking it would be better here. Right after high school, they wanted me to go to college. I need money to go to college, so I had to get a job. I was in a good college, I had the job… everything seemed so good.”

“Sounds good,” I agreed. “So what happened then?”

“I couldn’t sleep. I had to pay for my tuition, even after the financial aid. Working and studying and classes… I barely had any time to sleep. Sometimes I would lie in bed and keep myself awake because I was afraid that I was going to miss class. Half way through, I lost my job. Then I started failing classes. All I had in my mind was the debt I had, the credit cards I had to use and couldn’t pay. I had to leave college with less than what I started with.”

“That sounds awful,” I said after a few seconds of staring at my dresser.

It was all I could think of saying, for as little as it mattered. I knew exactly where the story was going from there, but I allowed her to continue. She raised her head up, shaking again. Her hair slowly started getting wet and her skin started to dampen, nearly having my hand slip right off. I held her closer, not caring about getting my clothes wet from the water gradually pouring out of her like she was melting. I knew the setup, I knew the state of mind it puts a girl in, and I knew all she wanted was a hug at the least.

With a quivering hand, she grabbed my arm, trying her best to hug back. “I borrowed money from a friend,” she continued hesitantly. “I told her I would pay her back when I could. I bought a bottle of sleeping pills and walked all the way to the beach outside of town. One by one, I sat there at the pier, swallowing one pill after another, thinking of all the things I wasn’t going to be able to do. The last thing I remember was falling head first into the water and falling asleep at the same time. And I never woke up after.”

I held her by the shoulders, looking her in the eye. “Lenore, you didn’t have to do that. You didn’t have to go all the way like that. Why didn’t you just tell that friend you borrowed money from? She was a friend of yours, she would have listened to you, she would have gotten help.”

“How could she? I had nothing. I had less than nothing. I wasted entire years for nothing. I had more debt than I could ever pay back. I don’t even know if I could have called anyone a friend. I barely talked to anyone. I never sat down and talked to anyone about anything. Just study, work, study, work. I just want someone to say I wasn’t a total failure. I just want someone to say it wasn’t all for nothing.”

“Lenore, you’re not a failure. I may be, but you are not. You got to go to a good college, you even got a job. Half of the world couldn’t say the same. The only thing you did wrong was give up. But nobody could ever say you didn’t succeed. You almost had what you wanted, you almost made your parents proud, but you blew it. Not by failing the classes, but by ending your life the way you did. If you had a second chance, I’m pretty sure you would have just gone back home and try to give it another go.”

The face she made was like she had inherited a fortune. A face so grateful, it nearly glowed in a heavenly light. “Thank you,” she whispered. “Thank you so much. Now I can go on, knowing that there was a chance that I didn’t take. This whole time, I thought there was no other way. Now, I can rest in peace, thanks to you.”

“No problem,” I said, a bit too casual thinking back to it. “Anytime. I mean, I’m sure this is the last time I’ll see you. I kind of wish we were friends in real life. I’m pretty sure we could have gotten along.”

She smiled, looking more like an adorable child than a twenty year old specter. “Me too. Although, you kind of seem like a weirdo.”

I hacked out a laugh. “Don’t push it.”

“I shall reward you for your sympathy and kindness. A gift, from me to you.”

I was shocked. Everything was exactly how Gerard said it would be. My body flashed with an electric jolt of joy; I would have jumped and squealed if my legs weren’t like two wet noodles. “Thank you. I-I don’t really know what I want, though. Nothing I would want to waste a gift like this on, at least.”

She pulled me down and tucked me under the covers, keeping her contagious smile. “You know what you want… and you’ll get it. Goodbye, Helena. See you on the other side.” Lenore walked out of the room and closed the door behind her.

Instantly, I woke up, not even remembering when I had fallen asleep. My room was covered in the gentle glow of the morning sun. It was earlier than when I usually woke up; most of the time I would look at my alarm clock and jump out of bed for being late. This time, I saw I still had plenty of time to get ready and actually get a chance to eat breakfast — something I usually had to skip. There was an unusual peacefulness in the air, like every worry in the world was erased from existence.

But, school would fix that. High school had the supernatural ability to ruin anything good.

I couldn’t understand what had happened, and all of my class time was used up by endless wonder about the previous night. Did it actually happen? Did I really talk to a dead girl, even laugh with her? Why the hell did she tuck me into bed? That was freaking weird.

Lunch time came in and I still hadn’t done anything in class. That would have alarmed me if I actually did classwork before. What had me worrying was that there were two things that could have happened: Gerard’s urban legend was true and I talked to a girl who had committed suicide, or I had one of the strangest dreams and needed to cut down on the spicy food. Either way, no matter what I determined, the scene kept playing back in my head over and over again. Through the hallway, I wasn’t paying attention to anything in front of me; just walking mindlessly like a zombie.

Gerard passed right by me and I didn’t notice until he called out to me. “Hey, Helena. You in a hurry somewhere?”

His voice snapped me awake from whatever trance I was in. The last thing I had in my head was Lenore saying, “… you’ll get it.”

I shook my head, seeing him walking up to me. I tried to act natural, but failed when my voice cracked right away. “Oh, oh no. I’m not going anywhere in particular. Just heading nowhere fast, you know.” I pointed at the guitar in his hand, trying to hid the smile coming from the thought that he played and played well. “I didn’t know you played guitar. Are you any good?”

He looked away, a little embarrassed. “I try. I mean, I’m still learning, but I can put a song together. Just nothing that I want to — all of the music I listen to has some of the craziest instruments going on. Especially prog metal. Dude, that stuff is intense.”

I turned my face at him. “Did you just call me dude?”

His eyes bugged out. “No, I didn’t mean that!”

I laughed at his reaction. “I’m just messing with you. But that look on your face sure was priceless.”

He looked at his watch, seeing it was still early in lunch. “I’m not holding you up, am I? You don’t have anybody waiting for you, do you? Is that why you were in a hurry?”

“Oh, no. Nobody’s waiting for me. I mean, I didn’t plan to eat lunch with anyone today… in particular.” I coughed, uncomfortably.

“Well, you can sit with me, if you want. All of my friends decided to play hooky today.”

“I guess. Just nowhere too far, I don’t want to run up the stairs on my way to 5th period.” Walking beside him, we went to a place to sit down at. “So what, they didn’t tell you they were going to ditch or are you too much of a goody two shoes to skip school?”

“Well, if you ask me, it didn’t matter much.”

I didn’t know what he meant by that. On that day, he saw I wasn’t eating and tried to share his lunch with me, no matter how many times I said I wasn’t hungry. After that, I started bringing my own lunch, waking up early enough to make one on my own — my mom snoring away in the other room in the morning. It wouldn’t be so bad if my black lipstick didn’t smear onto my sandwich bread. But, when I applied more lipstick after eating, I would catch guitar boy staring at me… and I liked it.

It was good to have someone look at me in a good light for once, not because they thought I was a freak. He told me he liked my piercings and he liked the way I dressed. I bet he would have said more if he wasn’t so shy about things. But, I like that about him. He didn’t try to butter me up or raise my self esteem because he thought it was low like how most girls were. He treated me nice because he wanted to.

I know I sound like a know-it-all a lot of the time, saying how “I knew what he was thinking”. But that’s how it goes when you observe rather than act, when you see how other people talk and react from afar. I spent a lot of time watching other people live and talk, having nothing to act upon. Until I met Gerard, that’s when things changed. He hung out with me every lunch for a week, and that’s when I easily assumed his friends didn’t really play hooky.

He asked me out that Friday. It was cute; he was all nervous and trying to make it sound like it was not a date. But, dinner and a movie… that’s date. It was my first. I never had anyone ask me out before, at least, I never had anyone talk to me long enough to have it as a “yes or no”. Anything before was just from a guy who was either desperate as hell or thought I was, having it be the first thing they say to me, as well as the last.

Gerard played some music for me at the cemetery, taking me there after the movie. Night sky, soft acoustic guitar, gravestones, the crickets chirping like they were on fire. It was a perfect end to a perfect date, made even more perfect when he kissed me by the iron gates. I never thought my heart could race so fast in such a short amount of time. When he was leaning towards me, I had to hold my breath to stop myself from freaking out.

Time froze. It was just me and him in the world, in the cemetery, under a dead tree. He held me close and I held him back. I didn’t think it could get any better and I wanted to stay there holding him until the sun came up. When he said goodbye and heading off to his 1950s suburb, I fought the urge to call out to him and chase him home.

I didn’t want him to leave me. I knew he wasn’t that kind of person, I knew he liked me a lot. But I didn’t want the chance of him leaving me. I was pretty sure this was Lenore’s gift to me. I mean, what else could have caused a guy like him to fall for a girl like me? So if they had the power to make him like me, I was sure the spirits right under my feet had the power to make him stay, to eliminate any doubt in my mind.

On my way to the other side of the place, I strolled by a line of graves, opposite to the side I went by last time. In the moonlight, a gravestone caught my eye again; the name underlined by one of the bare branches of a tree. Roderick Usher, 1784 – 1833. I didn’t even know the town was old enough to have someone from the 1800s in it, but I guess even the smallest towns had to start some time. Like clockwork, I got down to the grave, put a hand on it, and said, “From me to you.”

I didn’t know what I did differently, or if it was just my imagination anticipating what was bound to happen, but a cold pulse of something went through my arm. Right away, I felt like sweating, like a fever was swelling up. I figured I had dropped to my knees too fast or I was unconsciously excited about the next ghost I was going to talk to. Maybe, the older the soul, the harder they hit, or something like that. After getting up and having the soothing wind relax me a bit, I headed on home.

Right on arrival to my ever-empty house, I nearly flopped over the welcome mat in exhaustion. The movie drained me, the kiss made my brain kick into overdrive, and the gravestone made me ready to call it a night. Getting out of my corset and into my typical skull-covered pajamas, I slipped right into bed, not even bothering to turn on any lights while getting undressed. Of course, having my head on the pillow made me wide awake. Drowsiness was avoiding me like the plague, but thankfully I had a full moon to look at — lighting up the room through the slits of the blinds.

It got me thinking. I started to worry if Gerard was going to stay. I knew he liked me, but to know me, to know how I was… that was what I worried about. The thin self-inflicted slits on my exposed arm were shadowed in the moonlight, almost amplified. I tucked my hand under my head to avoid those recent memories.

I needed him to stay. I needed another “from me to you” to make sure he was not going to dump me like some trash in the gutter. I’ve never been dumped before, but it must be awful if the sheer thought of it has the power to make me want to fall to the ground and never get back up. It was the thought of “If not him, then who?” and knowing there was nobody else. The pain from pondering stabbed at my insides, making me feel tired again.

I would have probably passed out right then and there, but I couldn’t shake off the feeling that someone was watching me. Rolling over, I gasped at the sight of a man sitting at my desk, facing away from me. His entire body was covered in an old hooded cloak, burns and holes covering the back of it, nothing visible under the openings. It was common for coachmen to wear that kind of thing; I figured he was riding a stagecoach for someone when a bandit came in and slit his throat, something of that nature.

That was my first impression… and it was far from the truth.

He didn’t turn around or move in the slightest. In a gentle and almost comforting voice, he said two words. “Kill yourself…”

I froze, holding my breath like I was trying to hide from him. He already knew where I was and even with him facing the other way, there was no way I could escape his sight. Sitting up and leaning forward, I carefully moved as if I was nose-to-nose with a cobra. Not daring to blink, I kept my eyes on that faint shadow in the corner of the room as best as I could, ready for it to fly at me. I’m sure a ghost could do whatever they wanted, not chained down by a physical mass anymore.

I had no idea what I was dealing with, and regret was already coursing with my blood.

“…Excuse me? What did you say?”

Turning his head to the side, he spoke more firm, yet still calm enough to make it sound like he was asking if I wanted more tea. “You heard me. Kill yourself.”

Breathing harder than ever, I could see my breath clouding in front of my mouth, the air growing colder. I tried to keep myself under control, but the best I could do was prevent tears of fear from coming out and my shivering from being too noticeable. “Is… I’m assuming that is that your request?”

“Yes, it is — and I believe it is the only one worth requesting. Don’t you agree?”

I shook my head, resisting the urge to open my big mouth and possibly anger him. I knew for a fact that the last thing I needed was for him to be angry. “Umm… no? Not really. I don’t like that request one bit. Is… there anything else I can do for you, perhaps?”

“I only have one request in mind and that is for you to kill yourself. You may choose the way you die, but it must be by your own hand.”

“But why? Why do you want me to do something like that?”

He stood up. I flinched back, almost falling out of the bed. “You have my request,” he said, absent of emotion. “I suggest you fulfill it… or suffer the consequences.”

He suddenly blended with the darkness around him, disappearing before my eyes. The air grew warmer, returning the sense of life inside the room. As for the feeling of being watched, that lingered as I lay awake for the rest of the night. It was one of the longest nights of my life; looking at the ceiling and hoping it wasn’t going to be my last sight of Earth. Thinking back to what had happened to Lenore and how she willingly did what I was now being requested to do.

Right after, Gerard came to mind, and that was when I knew I couldn’t do it, no matter what. I had someone to look forward to, I had something to cherish and fulfill. It wasn’t much, but it was all I wanted and all I needed. I’ve already gone through the “low point” of puberty and I already have the scars reminding me of how foolish I was. Never again would I give in to the temptation of an easy ending.

To quote the raven, “Nevermore.” Nevermore shall I succumb to the false joy I had presumed to await me on the other side. Seeing the spirits showed me that there is not much to do after death. Despite two life-changing visits, I still wasn’t sure if the spirits were even real. Could it have simply been me going crazy?

I will admit, I am not a very stable person and when I was younger, I used to have imaginary friends — not many, but I still had them. But, everyone had imaginary friends; I’m sure I was not the only one. Could it be the loneliness getting to me, making me crack? Anyone would have had some effect after being absent of human interaction for so long, no matter how much they preferred to be by themselves.

I had no clue. All I knew for sure was that I did not want to see that… that thing again. The Coachman and his revolting request. Just thinking about him froze my skin and made my stomach feel like I was trying to digest a ball of heroin needles. I tried my best to focus on something better as I lay there stiff and deprived of drowsiness.

Last time, I felt like hopping out of bed and saying hello to the world. This time, I wanted to tell the world to shove it and shove it deep. I could have skipped school and just stayed in bed all day–I’ve done that a few times before–but I knew seeing Gerard would rid me of my stupid worries. Four hours of pointless class time was well worth the hello kiss and the half hour lunch we had together. It was a lot better than being in my room and waiting for the Coachman to reappear, that’s for sure.

He could tell I was mentally preoccupied, I wasn’t very good at hiding it. I silently sat there against the wall beside him, staring at my knee-high boots and fiddling with my iron cross necklace. He acted like nothing was wrong, but he most likely lost his own appetite from my draining presence; I didn’t hear him touch his food in the slightest. Putting a hand over my shoulder, his warmth seemed to snap me out of the trance I was in. I tried to give him an assuring smile, mustering the weakest one in existence.

“Everything okay?” he asked, trying to not sound too serious. “You’ve been awful quiet. And that means something with you being you.”

I nodded, patting his arm pleasantly. “Yeah, I’m fine. Don’t worry about me. Just… haven’t been sleeping well is all.”

“Up all night doing homework?”

I widened my eyes. “Oh yeah, a lot of homework. Gallons and gallons of homework.”

“I get ya. I don’t like doing homework either, but my dad monitors me like a watchdog. If he doesn’t see me doing it, he takes away my friend privileges. That means no mall with bros and no movies with you.”

“Can’t have that happen, can we?”

“No way! Movies with you is what makes the week worth it.”

I could swear I was blushing since I felt a warmth on my face for the first time all day. Pressing my lips together, I tried to not say something stupid. Sadly, I didn’t try hard enough. “I really don’t want to sound nosy, but I just noticed you never mention your mother.”

“You never mention your father,” he replied, more timid than aggressive.

Looking down at my boots, I tried my best to keep my mind on the mud stains than think of the past. Still, it was right there, ready to take the reins of my brain and ride it to nowhere. “I assume we don’t mention them for the same reason…”

“Yeah… Well, not same reason, but same result. Gone.” He looked down at the floor between his legs too. “It’s… it’s not easy. I’m still trying to get used to my dad’s lineup of girlfriends.” He scratched his cheek, changing the focus over to me. “So it’s just you and your mom?”

“Yup. No brothers, no sisters. No mom either, really. She always working and I only get to see her on weekends. And when I see her, I only see her getting ready to go off to the clubs or bar or whatever. We don’t really bond much; not like her and ‘the girls’. She’s 35 and still acts like a teenager on her first chance to go drinking. It’s like she’s trying to ignore the mistake she made when she had me.”

“Must get lonely in the house.”

“You have no idea.”

“If you want, i can come over sometime. I mean, so you got someone to make some noise and keep you company.”

I chuckled at how excitedly he said it — like a kid buying candy. “Yeah. Actually, yeah, i’d like that. It would be a good way for us to be alone.”

“Whoa, really? I mean, good, good. That’s really good.”

I lightly patted his knee with the back of my hand. “Down boy. I’m inviting you to my house, not a trip to Paris.”

The bell rang, making lunch end and us to get up with empty stomachs and fluttering hearts. Gerard hoisted me onto my feet, holding both hands like we were about to spin around in joy. We would, but I was barely able to stand up, let alone do anything enduring.

Instead, we hugged. His grip almost tightened more than the corset I was wearing. “Don’t say you’re a mistake. You’re not a mistake. Not at all.”

I looked up at him, my voice caught in the back of my throat. I had no idea what to say. All I could do was make sure I didn’t make a fool of myself by starting to tear up or something stupid like that.

“Time for torture,” he said, kissing me before he went off to class with a wave goodbye.

I nearly forgot to head to my own class, too busy watching him fade off into the crowd. Luckily, once my teacher started lecturing about pointless gobbledygook, I got a text from him.

“How about I come over tonight?”

“That desperate, huh?” I texted back.

“No, bored. I got nothing planned.” A second text came right after. “Or do you have plans?”

I didn’t want to sound like I was ready for action so soon. I just needed someone there to keep my mind away from that damn request. And–keeping my fingers crossed–maybe the Coachman would stay at bay while another person was in the room. To prevent Gerard from getting the wrong idea, I decided to reply near the end of class, keeping him waiting with the patience of a whistling tea kettle.

“Now I do ;) Today, we head in my direction.”

His response right after was, “Can’t wait.”

Class seemed to take forever now that I had something to look up to. But, at the same time, this was the first time I dreaded the thought of nighttime. The entire day, the Coachman never appeared once, and yet, I could never shake off the feeling of being watched. It was like eyes were upon me from all directions, from every angle. I pretended to be asleep for the rest of the class, while I was really just hiding my face in my arms and letting the tears come out casually.

I didn’t know why I was crying. The tears just came out on their own, soaking into my sleeves. I was lucky I didn’t cheap out on eyeliner and have it all runny when I had to go meet up with Gerard. Still, I checked myself in the restroom, just in case. Wiping off the little bit that got smeared on the sides, I got out as quickly as I could, getting the usual stares and facial expressions from the people not used to seeing me.

Even the hipster girls smoking pot in the spot near the stalls were giving me the look. Years of practice allowed me to shrug off the stares without scoffing anymore, something that started numerous fights before. Who knew potheads were so punchy. Sometimes I wonder if Gerard would prefer for me to be like them, like someone more acceptable. Then I realize, who the hell wants to be like them?

Gerard waited for me by the school gates, like always. Seeing his face glow as I approached was a million times better than the ugly faces I got in the restroom. Once we kissed hello again, everything about school was left at the gates, just the way it should be. Walking home was different since it was the first time in years I had gone straight home from school. It was actually the first time I didn’t go near the cemetery in years.

This day was the day everything seemed to change completely. It was good to have a change. Really good.

The entire time we walked and talked, my mind was mostly running through what we would do in my place. Being alone in the house is the perfect time to get really close, but I was afraid to. Hell, I couldn’t even kiss him without my skin feeling like it was on fire. How could I go all the way without turning into a pathetic puddle? It wasn’t the actual act, it was the binds it came with that really made me nervous.

I knew it was going to be worth it for me, but I also knew I couldn’t make it worth it for him. The poor sap. Why does he even like me?

Walking up the dirty steps to the chipped-up front door, I unlocked it and showed him in. “Well, this is it. Pretty crappy, huh?”

As I closed the door to re-lock it, he looked around with a enjoyed look on his face. “I actually kind of like it. It’s like a haunted house, you know.”

He smacked the top of the couch nearby to lean on it, causing a cloud of dust to shoot up into his face. I pulled him away from the living room and into the hall, Gerard’s coughing subsiding quickly. “Man, this place is awesome!”

I rolled my eyes at his obvious lie. “Okay, Pinocchio.” We stopped in my room, having just barely enough light coming through the blinds for me to find my lighter.

“I’m serious,” he said with actual enthusiasm. “I bet you can eat in your room and everything. My dad would never let me have that kind of luxury.”

“Yeah, I guess. My mom rarely cleans and I only clean the stuff I use.”

He saw me lighting up the black candles, playfully sounding smug about it. “Candles huh? Classy. No bottle of wine?”

I scoffed at his silly remark. “Shut up, guitar boy. I’ll let you handle the cheesy stuff. I just like candles more than turning on the lights.” I glanced over at him, trying to stare him down in my flirty way. “You got a problem with them?”

He sat down on my bed, hold his hands up. “Not at all.” The room was quiet for a while until he spoke again. “… You know, I can’t tell if candlelight is better than moonlight. Would you be mad if I said you look beautiful in both?”

Lighting the last candle right when he said that, I nearly dropped the lighter and burned the entire house down. Closing it with a nervous hand, I sat down beside him, pulling my lips in. Staring into his deep and tender eyes, I felt like I was going to melt as if my skin was snow.

“No… I won’t be mad.”

This time, I kissed him for once. He put his arm around me; the two of us sitting there and staring at at the flickering flames. I couldn’t resist holding him closer and putting my head against his chest. His heart pounded like crazy, but somehow it relaxed me. It let me know that he was just as nervous as I was.

“Helena,” he whispered. “I-I want to make this night special.”

My eyes nearly popped out of their sockets. With a jolt, I nearly jumped out of the bed from what he said. Again, he did it. He put me in a spot where I had no idea what to say. I didn’t want to say yes like it was what I wanted ever since I met him. But… I didn’t want to say no, because it was what I wanted ever since I met him.

If not tonight then it would be never. If he didn’t stay, I would have to deal with the Coachman again. My mom could barely see her way to the room with all the booze she fills herself with, she wouldn’t even notice if we slept in the freaking hallway. I wasn’t ready at all for what we wanted to do, but I knew in my heart that this was the only way to make sure he would stay. With the second attempt at a “from me to you” a major failure, I had to do things on my own.

Slowly, my eyes returned to normal, making him relax again. “… I do too.”

Hesitantly, he grabbed my shoulders to kiss me hard, like he was trying to shove his lips through me. I pushed back, doing the very same to the point where it almost hurt. Behind me, his fingers tugged the lace holding up my corset, the knot coming undone. Without thinking, I held the front of it against my chest, my back completely bare. All I had going through my head was how he would see nothing but skin and bone.

He held his hands up like he just stabbed me by accident. “What’s the matter? Is something wrong?”

“I don’t think you want to see more of me. There’s nothing there to see.”

Holding my face with his hands, he looked deep into my eyes. “Helena, I’m with you for a reason. You’re the only girl I want to see.”

Gently lowering my arms down, he made my corset fall down to the floor. I had my eyes closed, waiting for him to be disgusted and start gagging. Instead, he put a hand on my left rib, moving his way up, having his fingers bump along the protruding bones. It tickled and then it tingled. It was an entirely new thing when another’s hand felt you.

With my eyes still closed and my mouth in a silly grin, he sent me back against the pillow, planting a kiss that didn’t want to let go. There, with him surrounding me, becoming all I knew around me, I was able to feel happy. He only stopped to take off his shirt. Opening my eyes, I wasn’t afraid anymore. I beckoned him to come back to me with awaiting arms.

His face passed by the shadow of the curtains as he leaned back forward. That was when my heart nearly jumped out of my throat. The Coachman was on top of me, taking Gerard’s place, his pure white mouth sticking out of the shadow of his coat’s high collar. I tried to push him away, but he pinned my arms down to the mattress. All I could do was struggle to the point where my arms felt like they were going to snap out of place.

“You’re mine now.”

I saw his mouth stretch open past his neck and I screamed as if my end was near. Regurgitating loudly, the Coachman’s mouth poured a shower of maggots into mine. I could feel the little things wiggling and being squished by my lips as I tried to spit them out. Feeling like I was going to choke to death on them, as well as my own vomit from the taste, I coughed and sputtered frantically. Flying off the bed, I held onto the windowsill, gasping for whatever air I could.

Gerard patted my back. “Whoa, whoa, what happened? Did some saliva go down the wrong pipe?”

Finally able to breath normally, I checked my mouth with my fingers. The maggots were gone; nothing but loose strands of hair clinging to the sides of my lips. With a quick sigh, I instantly felt my face get red in anger and embarrassment. Right away, I covered my eyes and tried to hid my tears. My sniffling let Gerard knew anyway, and it just made me cry more.

“Helena, what’s the matter?”

I tried to stop the tears from coming, but it was already too late. “I don’t know…”

“Are you having, you know, girl stuff? Because it’s cool if you are.”

I got the waterworks to stand-by since he wasn’t mad at me like I feared. He even made a better excuse than what I could have at the moment. I took it as a lucky break and rolled with it. “Yeah. It’s… just that time of the month. It completely slipped my mind.”

“Say no more.” He grabbed his shirt and put it back on, something I mentally frowned at for happening. “We can resume this thing another time when you’re emotions settle down.”

I grabbed the t-shirt I slept in that morning, taking it from the floor where I usually left it. Putting it on to cover myself up, I held myself up on the bed, looking down shamefully. “… I’m sorry.”

He held me by the shoulder right away, too afraid of my supposed emotions going haywire to give me a full hug. “Don’t sweat it. But man, you made me think I was killing you right there. I think I was more afraid than you.”

I tried to keep my stomach from turning at the thought of having the cold touch of the Coachman on top of me. “I hope not.”

“You don’t have to walk me home,” he said reassuringly. “Just staying with me until I reach the door would be more than enough.”

I cleared my throat, my head still as unclear as a foggy blizzard. “Yeah, sure. I would really want to go all the way but — yeah.”

We held hands all the way to the front door, even while he was putting back on his shoes. I didn’t want to let go, but he couldn’t stay the night, not with the freak show I just performed. I was surprised he didn’t just run out and never look back with the way I just stopped the one thing we were waiting for all night. I figured guys don’t care much as long as it’s eventually — or maybe he just cared enough to stay with me while any other guy would do the exact opposite. Even though my mind was a mess and my insides felt like they were put through a grinder, I still managed to smile with him before getting the last kiss for the night.

After he left, returning to my room was like walking up to an electric chair. I expected the Coachman to be waiting right there for me, sitting at the foot of the bed, staring at me under the shadow of his hood. Thankfully, all I got was a messy bed and a lone candle waiting to be snuffed out. With a weak huff, I turned off the last light and crawled into bed, forced to imagine what I would have done with Gerard instead of live it. I could still feel his warmth pressed against me, his fingers grabbing at my skin, and his lips on top of mine.

And I could still taste the sour flavor of the maggots every time I gulped.

The sun came before sleep ever could, another day waiting for a dream that would never occur. It was as if days have stopped changing and it was just a long wait until the next part of the same one. My eyes were tired despite having them closed all night. I didn’t dare to open them in case the Coachmen was right there. I even lay on my side so he couldn’t pin me down as easily, just in case.

But once the sun rose, a voice did as well from the dark corner of the room. “I’m waiting…”

Shooting my eyes open, I scanned around, seeing nobody around, not even the outline of a cloak. Trying to calm my heavy and weary breathing, I went to the bathroom to try and get the drowsiness out with some cold water. Splashing my face with a few handful, I turned off the faucet and hung onto the sink’s rim — barely able to stand on my own. Looking up at the mirror, I saw my eyes still dark like they were covered in more eyeliner than usual. Rubbing some water on them until they skin was getting sore, I realized that the uncomforting blackness was my actual skin.

The rest of my face wasn’t any better. Bluish veins pulsed around under my almost ghostly skin, like I was wearing a realistic sugar skull mask. The only makeup I put on was to hide the disgusting veins all over my face and even down my neck. The last thing I need is for Gerard to be even more disgusted in me. I figured it was just from not sleeping, but somehow, I wasn’t even tired in a mental sense, only physically.

When I was done in the bathroom, I checked my phone and remembered it was Saturday. No school, no problem. But no Gerard, that could be quite the biggy. How could I tell him I couldn’t do anything after how I acted last night? How could he still like me after that amount of rejection in a row?

It was still early and I had plenty of time to at least rest up and eat before he could wake up. I wasn’t hungry at all, but I figured some food could boost my energy to a point where I could walk around without passing out. Pouring myself a bowl of cereal, I added some milk and ate next to the fridge — the table too crammed with random junk to sit at comfortably. The first spoonful felt like I bite into a chunk of burnt toast and the second one was even worse. Spitting it up in the sink, I checked the expiration date on the box.

It was nearly a year away from going bad. There was nothing wrong with it, but that didn’t stop me from throwing what I had left in the bowl away into the trash. Making my way back to bed, I crawled under the covers and tried to sleep the rest of the morning away, feeling like my skin was turning to sand the entire time — as if my body was was on the top half of an hourglass and dwindling away with every second. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get myself to sleep and I couldn’t get the Coachman out of my head. I knew he was watching me as a struggled to sleep the entire night and past sunrise, but I stopped worrying.

Not worrying is what scared me. Accepting that he was going to be there, watching and enticing me to commit to his request. Having him in my mind was no different than having him scream in my ear of what he wanted out of me. Having the idea constantly come up only made it stay in my head longer and longer. Having it stay in my head made it seem like the only way…

The vibration of a text from Gerard snapped me out of my crazy train of thought. He wanted to meet up later while I wanted to just lay down and never get up. I had to do it. I had to get up and go out if I expected him to stay with me. Fighting to keep my fingers moving, I texted back, “See you soon.”

If I didn’t get out of bed, it would surely become my unintentional coffin. Getting dressed was harder than ever, my legs buckling under the slightest shift in weight. I could barely get my boots on without having to stop and take a break, my arms collapsing by my sides like they were broken branches. Once I got walking and headed out the door, things didn’t seem as hard — my shoulder brushing the wall a few times as I stumbled out of the house. Outside seemed no better than how it was inside.

The grey sky was nearly black with how dull and dark everything looked. It didn’t look like rain, but nothing looked colorful in the slightest. The way to Gerard’s area was like walking along a blank canvas, nothing to see but an empty and useless slate. Not even the cemetery brought me any joy, a place I once felt almost ecstatic to be within. Gerard waited for me there, sitting on the bench where we first met.

No matter how drained I was, I still mustered a smile, as faint as it was. “Hey.”

“Hey.” He patted the empty half to get me to sit there.

I couldn’t even smell him anymore, the crisp aroma he always had that made my heart flutter when it filled my lungs. Kissing him took effort that was well worth it and he enjoyed me resting against him. He didn’t say a thing, most likely knowing that there wasn’t much to say. He couldn’t compliment me on how I looked unless he compared me to a ghoul. I wanted to tell him what was going on with me, but I knew for a fact he wouldn’t believe me.

Tell him would only make things worse, so I kept my mouth shut like it was sewn shut.

His phone ringed, so he lifted me off for a bit so he could see who it was. “Hello? Sure what is it? Aw, come on dad, I got plans. Yes, I am right here in the cemetery but… Really?” He huffed, turning away from me so I couldn’t see his displeased face. “Yeah, okay. Okay, okay, I’m going. I’ll be there soon. Yeah, I’m coming, all right? Okay, bye.”

“Trouble in the Brady Bunch household?” I asked softly.

He held his forehead. “My dad needs me to handle some stuff in the house. It shouldn’t take long. Is that fine with you? I’m sure you don’t mind staying here a bit until I get back, right? I mean, you did everyday before today.” He chuckled while I tried and failed. “I’ll be right back. Just text me if I take too long.”

I waved weakly as he made his way back home. “Take your time. There’s no rush.”

Once he passed the gates, I felt like I was going to pass out. Holding myself up on the metal armrest of the bench, I glanced around to find my only chance of getting better. The grave of the Coachmen, it was the only answer to get me back to normal. I couldn’t go on like this. Maybe another day, but not an entire lifetime.

Retracing my steps from last time, I walked up to the gravestone of Roderick Usher and regretted every step I made previously. He wasn’t a person, he was a monster; one that was rightfully buried underground for good until I came along like an idiot. The short walk was too much for me to make without stumbling and falling into the grass. I crawled towards the grave, with only one idea in mind. There was a small chance it could work and it didn’t hurt to try.

Smacking my hand against the gravestone, I took in a deep breath. “From me to you.” Nothing happened. “From you to me.” Nothing happened. “Return.” Nothing. “Go back to hell from whence you came!” It didn’t make me feel any better, all it did was make me more angry. “Get away from me! Get out of my life!”

Making a fist, I pounded it against the stone. All of the frustration and hatred inside of me–for him and for myself–coming out with one punch after another. It hurt, but I didn’t care; blood streaking across the face of the hard stone. I had to stop, my knuckles bleeding and my hand shaking uncontrollably. From above, a shadow loomed over me, watching over me as always.

“There’s nothing you can do to get rid of me,” the Coachman said in his sickeningly calm voice. “All you can do is fulfill the request.” Sitting upon his own gravestone, he leaned down to have his head right above my own. “You belong to me now. You do as I tell you. You… are… mine. You’re soul is not yours to own anymore.”

“You bastard!” I lunged upwards to take a swing at him, but he disappeared before I could even get my hand balled up. “I want my life back, now!”

A dark cloud gathered from the direction of the gates, and within came the Coachman. “You already gave up your life once you came to me for a request, one that you so stubbornly continue to delay. You can barely stand, and yet you still want to keep going. Either give up now, or continue to suffer. That is all life will offer: suffering and waiting for more suffering. That is all and that is all it’ll ever be.”

“I won’t do your stupid request! I won’t do it!”

The Coachman was quiet for a second, his hood tilted up slightly. “… Or shall I include Gerard to get you to give in?”

My body could barely move, but I still ran at him at full speed. Grabbing onto him, I punched and scratched with all I had. He grabbed my arms, but I struggled out of his grip and continued my endless fit of rage. Somehow, he got a hold on my wrist that kept, quickly knocking me over to the nearby tree. Struggling to break free, I screamed and grunted like a wild animal.

And when I opened my eyes… I felt like falling to the floor.

Gerard was holding my arms down, his face covered in scuffs and scratches, one next to his lips bleeding badly. He looked more afraid than I was, his own eyes on the brink of tears. I couldn’t speak. My mouth hung open and no words dared to come out. What could I ever say after I just attacked the only person I loved?

How could I expect him to stay with me after what I’ve just done?

“Helena, what is going on with you?” His question was more worried than angry, but anger was still there. “What the hell just happened?”

I shoved myself out of his reach and ran. He called out to me in the distance, but I continued to run and not look back. The tears dropped far behind me and kept doing so until I was about to faint. He could have chased me down with ease, but he didn’t. He didn’t even try to run after me. I knew for a fact that we were done for.

The town grew darker the further I walked, heading to who-knows-where. I didn’t care anymore. I just kept going where my feet took me, my head hung lower than ever. People, cars, buildings, nothing mattered around me. All that mattered now was finding a way out.

Eventually, I started walking near the water’s edge, the street overlooking the river from high above. The street took me to the one bridge out of town, with me being the only one on it. Walking right to the center of the bridge, I stood at the ledge, only one step away from falling right into the dark depths below. There was nothing left for me anymore. With Gerard gone… there was nothing left.

The roar of the water was calling me. Finally giving in, and without any second thoughts, I took my last step and my last breath. The fall happened faster than I imagined, no time to even realize I left the bridge up above. Underwater, I thought about the mother that never cared, the father that was never there, the friends I never had, the life I never liked, and the love I would never feel again.

Sinking down to the dark bottom of the river, I opened my eyes. I just stayed there, no pain and no turmoil. The only thought in my head was… I’m finally free. Free from the pain. Free from worry.

Free from the shackles of life.

I didn’t feel like I was drowning — not anymore.Touching down to the rocky dirt floor, someone was waiting for me patiently. Someone I was no longer angry at. The Coachman sat at the front of a horse-drawn carriage, the horses’ flesh remaining in little dangling strips that clung to the bone. Their eyes glowed brightly, leading the way through the darkness as if they were the last remaining lights in the world.

He extended a skinny white hand, guiding me to the carriage door. “I’m waiting.”

Stepping inside, I left the world I once knew, and all the trouble it offered. Down into the depths we went, far into my watery grave. Everything I did and everything I knew was gone from my heart for good. But one thing stayed with me. Gerard.

If I couldn’t be with him, at least I had the memories. And for those, I would die for all over again.

. . .

It’s been a month. It’s been the hardest month I’ve ever had to deal with. I was half glad there wasn’t a funeral; I knew I wouldn’t be able to contain the tears if there was one. At least she’s closer, and at least now she’s in her favorite place. I know that’s not much to look in the positive light, but that’s all I have.

What else can I say? I’m glad the last thing she did before she jumped was nearly claw my face off?

She probably thought I was going to leave her. It would take more than one incident for me to even think of leaving. I should have told her. If only I told her I was going to stay. Sometimes I stayed up at night, thinking if I did, maybe she’d still be alive.

I feel like it was me who pushed her off the bridge, and no matter how many times I try to think rationally, the guilt is always there. Today, I felt the most guilty. Passing the cemetery bench, the place wasn’t the same without seeing her sitting there, reading her book like she always did. I saw her there so many times before I gathered up the courage to talk to her.

Were those few days of happiness really worth her early end?

No matter how many hours I pondered, I could never understand why she did it. On the way to her grave, all I could think about was that very night it happened and how I was in the same place it happened in. Even though the snow layered over her spot was freezing cold, I kneeled down. For some weird reason, I imagined being down to her gravestone was the closest thing I could get to being face to face. Seeing Helena’s name etched permanently on that stone… it made it hard to contain myself.

“I miss you,” I said aloud; as if she could hear me through the coffin, dirt, and snow. “It’s hard being without you.”

Clearing my throat, I set the flowers in my hand down to lean against the base of the gravestone; snow overhead falling to gently bury them. I’ve never bothered to visit a grave until now. It wasn’t until know that I had a good reason to.

“They’re black roses,” I told her, pretending she was right in front of me. Wishing was more like it. “I remembered they were your favorite. It-it’s the least I could do. Consider it a late gift.” I set my hand on the cold face of the gravestone, feeling it heat up from my touch. “From me to you.”

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