And Mira

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📅 Published on March 30, 2015

"And Mira"

Written by Nathaniel Mirras

Estimated reading time — 149 minutes

Part 1: The Chalky Child

I am telling you this story not by my memory, but in my memory. I must ask you to try to hear my thoughts, take whatever cues, and fill in the blanks. Like a dream you wake up and remember only part-way, and my whole life is like that. Because I cannot talk, at least not in the way you would understand. I do have language, but my spoken language doesn’t make sense yet to most people. While I don’t speak many words, I hear them and understand what many of them mean. I have a good sense of what has happened, but simply cannot tell you my story with the spoken word.

Because, you see, I am 18 months old.

The world turns and its happenings occur around me over and over. I process what the adults say. I interpret what the other children do. Yet I am unable to speak about what has happened to a child I knew not long ago. I can only remember, and hope that you too can find sense in my thoughts and my memories.

My very first memory is of a crying child. Not the child in my story. Another. The sobbing baby might even be me, but I’m not sure. I’m certainly quite unpleasant, if it is in fact me. This child is pale, chalky white, marred and miserable. I’ve never heard such a cry. Not from myself, or from any of my friends.

Well, I don’t suppose I have friends, but the other children in the nursery school. The truth is I do not like them very much, since they spend their days and mine stealing my favorite toys, and finding new ways to brutalize each other. They can’t talk either, and their thoughts, whimpers and memories are all focused on food, their mothers, and pulling hair. Often mine.

But I never have heard a cry from any of those little beasts that is the same as the child in that brief early memory. It is the cry of a trapped animal, sweet yet sad. It is angered, frightened, and frightening. It evokes pity, yet implies flight. An anguished, horrifying cry. While you desire to extinguish the poor child’s pain, there is also a foreboding to it. Attempting any sort of comfort to this little one would certainly lead to death. It is a fleeting memory of a chalky child in the process of having soiled pants removed and changed by an adult, who clearly hates and fears it.

Nothing in the chalky child’s features is any clue. In fact, there are no prominent facial features at all. But, memories are like that, and the fog is thick. The grey-white skin is barely visible through the thick fog of my memory. The skin underneath the diaper is the only to have any color, red and bleeding from the apparent digestive incompetence of this pitiful child. Miserable…and that cry! Part of me perceives that it isn’t the pain of the bleeding skin or rash that causes this child’s pain. It is the pain of having been born at all. An abomination born into a life of pity, and hatred by all in view. This child, will never have comfort, and never know love. Not even from its own mother.

That is all from my first memory.

I no longer see that child when my eyes close, and rarely believe it to be myself. Left to my quietest thoughts, sometimes, alone in a crib, I hear the cry still, while even awake. Or sometimes, I hear it faintly in alone times with Mother, when she sings to me. Mother seemingly never hears, never responds. Wait, did I see her eyebrow twitch in that moment? No. No. Perhaps not.

My father is, or was, a hero. I’m not sure what that means. I believe his job was to kill, but that he died while doing his job. I’m not sure he is actually dead, but I don’t remember seeing him or ever meeting him. My mother says he wept uncontrollably the day I was born. And she says he adored me above all things. And then he was gone. I remember feeling that love, even though I have no actual memory or picture of him in my life.

There is a photo among our few personals in the library. It sits on the highest shelf, bookended by Christie and Mitchell, and a beautiful album adorned with two large “M’s”, the first beginning to wear on the right side. The photo is of mother, wearing a beautiful white dress next to a hopelessly handsome man in a suit. I imagine that beautiful man in the photo, adoring my mother, must be my father.

That’s most of what I know and remember about my family. There is so much more to my story.

As much as I’ve absorbed over my little time on the planet, there is little I’ve been able to organize into what makes sense. Most of my memories are from the nursery school. Disorganized, those memories are rich and plenty. They make more sense to a child my age. The children at the nursery do bizarre, unusual things, but they are the bizarre, unusual things that children do so well. And the behaviors of the adults caring for us are all the things a caring adult will do. Intuitive to me. When adults talk to each other, it’s about guns and cinema and nasties and nations. But when adults at nursery talk to children, they say “Ellie, would you like your meal”, or “Bing, do not bite the other children” or “Andrew, give the toy back to Mira”, or “Good morning Mira”…

Oh. I suppose I’ve neglected to “Introduce” myself. My name is Mira.

It seems. Most people call me Mira, though I’m not sure what it means or whether it is my first or my last name. Some other people refer to Mother by that name, calling her “Ms. Mira” or “Mother Mira”, or some such. Hard to say. Harder to remember. The adults at nursery just say “Mira” while looking at me and attempting to give me direction. So my name must be Mira. The other children, well, they do not call me anything.

Ellie is always hungry. She only eats. She is a sweet, pretty girl, who rarely causes a fuss. But she stays in place much of the time, and waits for the world to interact with her. This of course rarely happens unless one of the other children runs by and pulls her hair. That, sadly, happens a lot. The adults seem to forget about her much of the time. I stop by her at least once in a while, to give her a quick smile or a hug. I would never want to be forgotten by all of humanity for hours each day.

Andrew is a funny little boy that only wants to do whatever I’m doing. He is the closest to a friend I think I have here. More factually, I suppose, is that Andrew likes to take whatever I am playing with. He doesn’t hurt me, and he isn’t mean. He just takes things from me. He often smiles at me, and will even give me a small hug, all while he’s absconding with my playthings. I do think he likes me because he tries to say my name. Or, it’s possible that he’s lazy and is just saying “mama”. He is the youngest in his family, with three older siblings, all girls. Maybe that’s why he likes me. He says something which sounds like Mira and smiles and hugs me. That’s why I like Andrew.

There is also a set of twins. I don’t know their names. They confuse me.

Then there’s Bing.

Bing, I do not like. The adults call him “Beautiful Baby Bing” or “Baby Boy Bing” but they should call him “Biting Bing”. That is all Bing does, is bite all of the children in nursery school, every day. The adults get angry with him when he bites one of us, but not for very long. Bing is in fact a beautiful blond boy with a cute name, and no adult can stay mad at him. So he simply never stops biting the rest of us children. He waddles around with a little hop, with his little grin, and never says a word. He just waddles, hops into their arms, and grins. And he bites. Us.

There is another reason Bing the Bastard won’t stop biting, I think. (I heard Mother call him that once. It made all the adults laugh. I don’t know what that word means, actually). I think another reason Bastard Bing won’t stop biting is that his mother is the mean, angry type. Mother uses another word for her that also starts with “B”. It might be her name.

This woman hates life, hates us children, hates our parents, hates the adults in nursery, and in all likelihood hates Bing too. When the adults in nursery ask her for help with his behavior, she only yells at them, embarrasses and criticizes them in very personal ways. She hates us all. I’m pretty certain it makes her happy when he bites one of us. She certainly thought I deserved it when he bit my face a few weeks ago. She said so out loud. She said something about Mother, and me, and then laughed a laugh that wasn’t at all a human laugh but sick. Her laugh was miserable like the chalky child’s cry.

She laughed that day. I went home that night and cried. I don’t usually cry after something happens. I’m just not that type of toddler. Bing and his horrid mother hurt parts of me that I cannot see with their words and that laugh. Bing had bitten my cheek, and it bled, leaving a thin line of open skin close to my eye. Mother was angry. With me! She said that I should never allow this to happen to me. She was certain I would never be able to perform some function in front of a camera, whatever that meant. I was bad, and I would never be beautiful. Bing caused Mother to be angry with me and that hurt in a way that made me cry, all night, in my little bed.

Bing made me bad, so I thought. I was a disappointment already in my young life. Bing and his B-mother must be evil. I wanted them to die, which I also didn’t truly understand. When I’m older I will understand that that isn’t a nice thing to wish on people. I didn’t wish them to die out of hate or fate, but out of fairness. My father, the man in the photo, died. And he was good. Why should he die, but they get to live, biting and spreading filth in the nursery and in the world. I would never have really wished my father’s fate on another if I truly understood. I just knew he was good, death was bad, and Bing and his mother were bad. Fairness. Not fate.

I finally found sleep with those thoughts, deeply and firmly planted in my memory, along with the cry of that horrible child. You may be surprised to learn that here my story truly begins. It’s about Bing, and what happened to him. Because that was the last day Bing bit anyone. Ever. And I’m not sure if fate or fairness was the cause. What happened to Bing, the very next day, and each day forward for nearly a month was…

He became…good!

He never bit or tried to harm any of the children in nursery again. He never again victimized poor stationary Ellie. He stopped attempting to consume the confusing twins. He smiled at Andrew and me and didn’t try to hurt us. He still wobbled and hopped and grinned. Now even the children could love sweet Beautiful Bing. And it wasn’t just what he stopped doing, but what he began from that day forward. He actually started being nice to the other children.

He would bring Ellie bits of food when she was hungry, even sharing his own when there wasn’t enough. He learned how to open the pantry to get biscuits and an occasional snack cake for her! Ellie was happy every day and smiled more than ever I saw her. And not only at meals, but all the time. She would get up and chase him all through the day, laughing, catching him and hugging him.

He wouldn’t let Andrew take my toys away either. He wouldn’t hurt Andrew, but just took the toys back. He would smile, and give me hugs and kisses. It always made me nervous when he’d try to kiss my cheek, because I was afraid he would bite. But he never would. And Bing learned to say “Mira”. I secretly knew he loved Ellie though.

I am thinking of a B-word for lazy old Andrew…

Bing never bit the twins again. He didn’t really play with them either. None of us did very much I’m afraid. I think they confused him too. They’re a little creepy.

Bing, Sweet Bing was suddenly a good boy! And everyone, including the adults in nursery, and all of our parents, just loved Bing that much more! They would all tell his mother about what a good boy he was, how nice he was to the children, and how wonderful we all thought he was. Sadly, Bing’s mother did not change. As always, she would just laugh and defile our ancestors yet again. She didn’t see any difference and she didn’t care to.

Nearly a month.

Then, after those few wonderful weeks, Bing’s miserable mother seemed to care. One morning she came into nursery in tears. She came without threats. She came without insults, and without her miserable laugh. She howled, a much less bestial version of her miserable laugh. I’m sorry to say I liked it better. It was easier not to hate her, or want her dead, acting so human. I had no idea.

What confused us is when the adults at nursery started to cry. What a sight! The children in nursery calm and quiet, while every adult carried on like someone took their favorite toy! They said strange things, like “but he was never weak” or “he had no cough” and “he couldn’t have had a fever I would have noticed”. They were all confused, all sobbing, all looking to each other, and sometimes to us, for comfort and an answer to an unsolvable puzzle.

Without any warning, any symptoms, something called pneumonia had taken sweet Bing in his crib. Fate. Fairness. Perhaps both. Ellie, seeing Bing’s mother, looked around for him to play. Somehow, she understood, seeing the adults cry and Bing missing, that she would not see him again. So she sat down where she was, staring ahead, eventually shedding tears she could not explain. I don’t remember when she finally moved again.

I didn’t cry in my crib that night. True, I would miss Bing, and the wonderful boy he had become. I would miss hearing him say my name. But I remembered my father, who also died unfairly. He too was wonderful and he too adored me. That’s fair, and that’s how it goes.

Bing had been nice, a friend to all, suddenly becoming a giving person to everyone in his world. Then he was lost. But Bing, sweet Bing received his just reward for his behavior up to that point. Fate, or fairness. Hard to say. Bing’s mom changed however. She finally became human. She properly began hating herself more than the world and everyone who had seen fit to love her child through his short life, both bad and good. Fate had replaced her hate for us. What a thing to have to happen, in order for one so foul to become human.

At that, actually, I cried a little, saddened at the thought that some adults needed such a motivation to become decent members of humanity. I hoped I would never become that way. And as I quietly sobbed, I heard the pitiful cry of the chalky child, for a moment, then drifted away to sleep.

Part 2: Smoke

“Mira?”

“Hello Smoke,” I giggle.

“Don’t call me that. That isn’t my name…”

“Well then, what is your real name? I very well must call you something!” I assert.

“Oh…well…sorry…I..I just can’t…”

“Mm-hmmm…”

“But I don’t understand why you need to call me Smoke! It makes no sense, and it cannot be anything like my real name.”

He says this without being irritated, because I’m right. He is unable to share his real name with me at this time. My nickname for him makes little sense, but is a mantle of mystery he has to admit he enjoys.

It had been seven years since I heard the cry of the chalky child. I still remember the image of the pale child in pain, but no longer hear the terrible suffering in the back of my memory. Or in my dreams. He had remained silent for many years after the passing of baby Bing. It almost felt as if both children had suffered and died simultaneously. The chalky child no longer found a voice after the unexpected passing of my childhood friend from pneumonia. The cry was palpable that night, almost as if mourning with me, then went away with as little warning as it came. For seven years the piteous child and the agonizing cry was absent. Until recently.

Earlier this month, in the twilight between awareness and sleep, he began speaking to me. At first I was frightened, of course. But it did not take long to realize that this voice must be the miserable baby now grown, and able to speak. He, too has replaced his cry with words I can hear, and respond to. I am certain that this is the chalky child of my infancy. We are known and unknown, strangers and friends, yet unseen to each other. He seems unaware of who he is, and does not know who I am, other than the one soul that can hear him, and speak to him.

As a baby, I thought the chalky child was even a part of my own mind, perhaps an even earlier memory of myself. But, Smoke has the voice of a boy so I dimiss that fully. I’ve thought, too, on occasion, that he may be the spirit of sweet baby Bing back to haunt me, or bite me, or just lost in the next life. I’m not so quick to dismiss that, even though it is unlikely. The chalky child has been in my thoughts long before death had taken Bing.

So, impossibly, it seemed that I have friended a phantom in my quietest moments, most likely the auditory incarnation of a tormented baby from my memory! A lonely lost soul I call “Smoke”.

“You see, Smoke, you can’t tell me your name. Or you won’t! But I must call you something when I address you, when we speak. And, you see, I remember you from when you were just a baby. We never met, of course, but I knew you, and saw you, and…”

I pause, not wanting to bring up the constant cries of agony I remember. He doesn’t seem to know much about himself, and I don’t want to upset him. If I make Smoke angry, he may leave me for another seven years or more! Though I have many friends, I enjoy having this secret friend, and I do not want him to go away. Particularly if by some chance it is indeed Bing. What fun!

“I don’t remember much of course, as I too was just a baby. But every time I saw you, it was as if through the fog of my deepest memory. In some ways I felt as though I was seeing you then, while at the same time as a distant thought. Which is silly, because of course babies don’t have deep memories and distant thoughts. But the constant was the dim fog separating us from existing at the same time, in the same room, or together in the same dream. So I call you Smoke! If you prefer I could call you Fog? Cloud, perhaps? Gas Boy?”

“No, gosh no, don’t call me that. No. Fine. Smoke it is. I…well actually I like it. Well, what shall we talk about today?”

“Oh, Smoke, you’re silly, I have to go to school now. I wish you could go with but that never works. I’d love to talk more, but, I’m quite sure it’s time to wake up now.”

And, it is. As every morning, I awake, alone, in daze and haze. Unlike a dream, though, it isn’t just a vivid memory I have of speaking with Smoke. It is as though it just occurred, while I was awake. As though it were real. I’m sure Smoke is some kind of spirit, perhaps of a child that died during war, or of pneumonia like Bing, or simply another child spared of another day as the child of somebody like Bing’s mother. Thankfully this ghost or whatever doesn’t seem to mean any harm to me. So, like most mornings I awake, very refreshed despite having spent much of my night in otherworldly conversation, and prepare for school.

I love school. I love to read, and learn about things of the world. At the beginning of class each day we pledge allegiance to our flag. “One Nation. Indivisible.” Teacher calls attendance in order, finally getting to my name. “Mira Mirras!” I say “present”.

That’s me. I’m Mira.

So you see my confusion when I was young. Mira. Mira Mirras. That’s my name. Mira was both my first and last name. What a stupid thing for my parents to do. And I had to go to school to figure that out. My first year out of nursery school I thought all of the adults had a drunken stutter! It explains the big book in our library adorned with two “M’s”, though. The first M has worn ever more each year at its farthest right leg, but it’s mine. It’s my book of photos and snapshots from my life.

In school, we study mathematics philosophies for a little while each day, along with reading, and handwriting. In Social Studies, we are learning about World War II and the split of Germany. This is probably my favorite class! I remember Mother telling me we had some distant relatives in Germany. At one point, there were a number of people that needed food and such airlifted to them. What an adventure! I’m sure it was very difficult for them though. The German people are not always seen in a very favorable light, often considered gruff and harsh, and people do not speak well of them these days. Many people do not like Germany. I think I’m too young to understand.

I’m still friends with both Andrew and Ellie. Andrew (I will never call him ‘Andy’ though he prefers it), is still my closest friend. He was before, even when Bing was being so nice. But let’s face it, Bing was nice, Andrew stole my toys, and I liked the attention from both of them. Andrew didn’t seem to like Bing very much at the time, but now we both remember him. Fondly. Sadly.

You may remember the twins from my days in nursery school. They confused me horribly! They grew up, and became a little less confusing. There is a boy and a girl, named Frank and Kelly. They are still funny, as they seem to know what the other is thinking and feeling all the time. Strange. I understand that it’s normal for twins to be very sensitive to each other’s feelings and experiences. They have a lot of jokes and the like that only they laugh at. It’s a little annoying, but I see why they enjoy having that understanding with each other. I might enjoy that, having a sister that knew everything I was feeling! It would be nice if Andrew would occasionally guess what I’m thinking too.

Sorry, that’s another topic.

Kelly and Frank are good friends to us, but they aren’t always good people.

Kelly is very energetic, perhaps a little hyper. She is pretty in the way that you could make a boy pretty, since she still looks like Frank. He is also pretty, though I would never say that to him. Kelly is very social and will be the one to invite others into a conversation. She works hard to get everyone to like her, but is easily wounded. She likes a lot of attention, but only when it’s positive attention. Her grand personality sometimes makes others feel small, and they let her know it. When that happens, she won’t talk to you for weeks. And when Kelly doesn’t talk to you, Frank does not talk to you either.

When not acting as though wounded, Kelly is very sweet, however. It is hard for her to be away from Frank, her twin. She tries very hard to act with us as though she is just a girl, one of us. But it’s a struggle, I can tell, and it makes me want to try to like her more. She sits with Ellie and me beneath large, majestic trees, and shares secrets, and plays silly games. She wants so desperately to be a girlfriend, and with us is very kind. She seems to only be able to share that side of herself with Ellie and me, though. The rest of the world simply keeps her from her friends, or more importantly from Frank. For that, she often seems to hate the world. Mostly she seems lonely and scared. That makes me sad, because I like Kelly.

Frank is a bully. I’m not saying that it’s entirely unprovoked, but he is. Outside of Kelly’s influence, he is quiet, helpful, and very kind. He is in many ways Kelly’s opposite. Yet they’re twins. And because of that sensitivity, Frank disappears whenever she is upset, and “Angry Boy version of Kelly” appears. Suddenly the kind, quiet Frank becomes as the direct mouthpiece to Kelly’s emotions, and he will lash out on her behalf. He cannot help but to be her protector, whether warranted or not. One of the younger boys in school pulled his sister’s hair earlier in the year. I think the young guy actually liked Kelly, and just didn’t know how to talk to her. So he pulled her hair, then ran away. Boys do that. Except Andrew. I’d kill him. He knows it.

I’m sorry. I did it again. I seem to be dwelling on Andrew.

About a week later, Frank starts beating the younger boy up, every day before school. He punches him in the head, sometimes his ears, mouth and nose, and twist his hands. The adults seemed not to notice. He shakes the little boy and threatens him. Some days he doesn’t even hurt him, but will gaze at him with such menace that the little boy wets his pants. One day he bloodied the poor kid’s nose and I thought for sure Frank would get in trouble. But the smaller kid told a story protecting Frank. Because he was scared, and because he liked Kelly and wanted her to like him too. Only he is afraid of Frank the bully.

That part makes me angry, because otherwise Frank is a mild, friendly guy. I don’t like that Kelly puts him up to that sort of behavior. Frank is very kind to Ellie and me. He likes Andrew a lot. I think he would also be good friends with Bing, if Bing were still alive. I think we all would. Frank is kind and helpful to our entire group, and we are immune to any bullying, even when we are angry with Kelly. He is often kind to children outside of our group as well, unless they make Kelly upset. That is Frank’s main fault. He forgets himself and his humanity when it comes to Kelly. I’m concerned that she will get him into real trouble someday.

You may remember Ellie. I saved her for last. She is absolutely my best girlfriend, every day since nursery. She has grown to be very smart, and pretty. She still has a large appetite, and she no longer chases boys. They chase her! I love Ellie, and frankly so does everyone else. She took Bing’s kindness to her, and shares it regularly with everyone else in her world. But Ellie, every day since Bing was taken from her, is sad. She doesn’t look sad, but I can see the missing piece of her soul, that only a friend can see. She shares the very best of herself with others. She saves her tears for me. In many ways I’m grateful to be that person for her. Almost like a twin.

Each day, Andrew walks me home. He doesn’t carry my books or anything. We just walk together because he lives so close. We are very good friends, though, and we talk about everything. He talks about a lot of things I could care less about, but I listen. It’s the least I can do, since he seems to sincerely care about everything I have to say.

Sometimes we talk about Frank, and whether we should make him stop beating up the smaller boy. We both agree that it’s probably Kelly putting him up to it. We both like the twins, especially Frank, when he isn’t wasting time being a bully. It’s very difficult to keep associating with him when he is harming a smaller boy though. Sometimes I’m even embarrassed to admit that I know him. Every day Andrew and I agree that the very next day we will make him stop. And every next day comes and we are too cowardly to do actually do anything or say anything, to Frank. That fact shames me.

On most days after school, I make soup, wait for Mother to get home from work, and watch TV. It’s a little set showing the programs of the day in black and white. Not impressive. I think we will be able to get one in color someday though! Mom and I enjoy the quiz shows. The one where the host tugs his ear and the contestants play charades is our favorite! Mom and I act out the charades and try to guess along with the show. We both stink at it and laugh at each other a lot. These moments let me know that I have a very good life, for which I’m grateful.

Mother and I are very close. I’m all she has. I’m told my father is dead. I used to look at the photo on the bookshelf next to my photo album, the photo with Mother and the handsome man, and dream. It turns out though, that man in that photo is not my father. Mother doesn’t have a photo of Father. She feels bad about that.

The man in the photo is the man she married after she found out my father had died. Mother says that she loved him almost as much as Father, and that he was very good to her and me for a while. She says he loved me almost as much as Father did. Yet, despite that, he left. He’s gone. What’s funny is that I never met either Father, or my step-father, and have only a photo of the latter. Mother assures me that they both loved me very much. Something must have gone terribly wrong for him to leave the wonderful woman that is Mother. I have a hard time loving either of them back.

On a particular day, Andrew and I finally resolve to end Frank’s bullying of the little boy by the next morning. For good. His terrorizing of the poor kid is just too much to bear. The child sits for hours, under a tree, just shaking and shaking, afraid to enter the school that day. Today, his teacher finally went out and collected him before lunch. He said he fell asleep under that tree, to protect Frank. His fresh wound behind his ear barely noticeable. As nervous as I am to confront Frank, I think it’s just too much to witness day after day. And for once, Andrew was angry enough to fight Frank himself if needed. We’ll talk to Frank first, of course, but if that doesn’t work…

It turns out we never had to. The very next morning, out of nowhere, Frank went up to the little boy, and apologized to him. Profusely, and with emotion. Strange. He was truly ashamed of his actions. Not only that, but he promised to protect him from anyone else that would ever try to hurt him the rest of the school year. And, he apologized on behalf of Kelly. The three all became very good friends. In fact, the younger boy has struck an especially close friendship with Kelly, who he likes. She, in turn, started being very nice to him, walking home with him from school every day. Just like Andrew and me, though I think she, um, likes the kid. And he carries her books for her every day now. Not like Andrew and me…lucky girl!

I’m sorry. I really need to stay on track…

I have always found Kelly to be a little unforgiving, so this was a surprise. She wasn’t a bully like Frank, but without her influence, Frank was more likely to be a close friend to someone than she. She is less likely to forgive a past slight, thought that doesn’t seem to be the case now. Frank, quietly, continues to be the young boy’s protector, as well as a good friend to everyone else. She is the same ebullient girl she always was, but without the easy wounding and vengeful tactics. They are a strange pair, each with two different sides, not quite complementary. Now, they are both showing their very best sides, great students and even better people. This has gone on for nearly a month. This feels familiar somehow…

Andrew and I have decided to ask Frank what is responsible for the big change. Something has definitely happened, but what? We asked him to walk with us after school. Since his sister spends so much time with the other boy, he is happy for the company, and agrees. We walk a few blocks, keeping the conversation very casual. Then, at the right time, I ask Frank directly what has made him decide to stop bullying the little boy, and to befriend him. What is responsible for this wonderful change that makes us all love him, and Kelly? Frank stops, and looks at his feet, as if deciding between two different answers. He finally does decide, and his mouth begins to form what appears to be the word “Kelly”.

But before he can utter that or any other word, he suddenly sinks to his knees. Tears began to well, slowly at first. Then, with a sudden frightening twist to his features, the tears fall freely, and he weeps. He has gone completely mad, crying and whimpering out of control, his face a mixture of torment and fear. We try to comfort him, but he can’t stop and he shudders and pushes us away. Any approach brings ever louder screams. The his eyes glaze and he appears to forget we are even there with him at all.

After nearly ten minutes of persistent unexplained despair, Frank slowly lifts his head and howls. It is a miserable cry, as though an animal were caught in a trap, breathing its last. We are afraid that Frank will certainly die before our very eyes. But, Frank does not die. Immediately following the horrible scream, he is finally able to mouth the word, “Kelly” as he intended before, but this time with strength and certainty. Then, he stands, and runs, as if from a fire.

We follow him. Frank is not a sure runner, but he seems to have conjured the speed of a puma, knowing precisely where he is going. He turns quick corners, making it diffifult to keep up with him, and runs back toward school. Just before reaching the storehouse of education we all share, he rapidly bends his path, choosing a quiet block, with only a few houses to boast. It was the block that the little boy lived on, the poor kid that he used to brutalize on a daily basis. And there, in the middle of the street is that boy, beneath a badly damaged old tree, huddled down over a body, himself a mess of tears.

It is Kelly’s body. She is dead.

Frank freezes, viewing Kelly’s broken body. After empty moments pass, the boy is able to ramble a few words. Kelly has apparently been crushed by an automobile, caught between it and the old tree. She never had a chance, dead even before falling to the ground. She must have thrown up her hands in protection, as they are badly damaged. The vehicle caused damage to her head as she flew forward, separating a part of her ear at the lobe. The missing piece is never found among the splinters of the old dead tree. No small boy could cause this kind of damage to another human, or a tree for that matter. Only a machine could have broken her in this way.

Neighbors finally notice the commotion and start to pour out to help and bring order to the situation. No one, including the boy had seen any car speeding down that road. In fact, very few cars ever travel this road. It isn’t unheard of, but it is rare. One must have travelled this street on this day at great speed. And at the very moment of the accident, and each second leading up to it, Frank had felt Kelly, his twin’s, fear, her pain and her death. And despite the confusion and bedlam, the many voices and the many questions, I hear the subtle cry of the chalky child. And it is not in my head.

The little boy went into shock. He didn’t speak the rest of the school year, until eventually his parents just keep him home. He will be absent from school entirely until many years later. That night, in my bed, I didn’t cry. I couldn’t cry for Kelly. I could feel sad for Frank, and for the little boy, I suppose. It was true, Kelly had turned around, becoming a good friend, and a good person. But, as you know, fate and fairness and all. Kelly, I’m sure, received her ultimate reward for her behavior the many months prior.

Yet, even as I say that, and truly believe it, it rings a little more hollow than with Bing. I decide to talk with Smoke about it when next we speak.

“Smoke, why do bad things happen to good people?”

A pause. A loud one.

“Like Kelly?” he asks.

“Yes.”

Another pause. Even louder…

“They don’t. Kelly was not a good person. She was not good for Frank. She made him hurt people.”

I didn’t know how he could possibly know that. That’s uncomfortable.

“Smoke, how do you know that?” I ask.

“Bing,” responds the ghost, “wasn’t a good person either. He hurt people. He hurt you.”

Oh…

I now know for sure that Smoke is not Bing, but was suddenly afraid to know any more. I want to wake up. Wake up!

“Mira, I want to know my name. My real name. You must help me. Then people will call me by my name.”

People?

“Smoke?” I plead.

This silence actually makes no noise. It is very uncomfortable.

“Yes?” he says without any emotion.

“Do you know how Kelly died?”

And I think he is gone. It is time to wake again. I suddenly shiver before deciding to open my eyes to the new day. But I cannot. My eyes are not closed. I am already awake, and morning has not yet come. My eyes had never closed, and I had never slept. I have the whole night yet before me. And in the darkness, I hear his voice, quiet, calm, yet determined.

“I want to know my name.”

Part 3: Andrew Lost

I decide today to look through my photo album. It’s been a while. Every time I open the book, the “M” on the cover, the first one, wears down more of its dangling right leg. There are two large “M’s” on the cover, signifying my name, Mira Mirras.

Yes, that’s my name. Yes, it’s redundant.

I don’t want to damage the cover any further, so I rarely pull it from the bookshelf where it sits next to a photo of Mother and my former step-father. When I do take down the album, I’m quite careful. For twelve years I’ve managed to fill this book with brief glimpses of my life’s endeavors, keeping careful to protect my nameplate. Today, I am as cautious as ever, but intent on viewing each photo in detail for clues to the ghost that haunts me.

My ghost is “Smoke”, or so I call him as he doesn’t know (or won’t tell me) his real name. He started as a foggy memory from my infancy, so initially when he began speaking to me at age nine, I simply called him Smoke. It sounded better than “Smog”. I didn’t realize at the time that he was a ghost, as truthfully I could very well have been mad, hearing voices, attributing them to lost friends long gone. But, I am quite certain that the unhappy chalky child from my early memories is now grown, and speaking to me as a grown boy. He no longer demonstrates the agony of his difficult young childhood, and at one time presented as a secret friend.

Now, I’m not so sure. True, there haven’t been any further deaths, and Smoke has been nothing but kind, even funny on occasion. But I cannot forget the night that Kelly died, and how much he seemed to know about her, inferring that her death was justified. He seems to know more about how she died than he lets on, but is unwilling to share those details with me. That gives me chills!

Two children I have known have died in the time that I’ve known Smoke, or at least known of him. There is little to prove that Smoke was responsible, really. The one child, Bing, died of pneumonia – quite common in our day. And Kelly was an unfortunate victim of an automobile accident. Both deaths were very sad and untimely, but not at all unusual or unheard of.

But here’s the thing. Bing showed no symptoms of pneumonia of any kind. He simply died in his crib after a life of total health, so it seemed. And Kelly’s accident was even more bizarre, since there was only evidence of an automobile accident, but no evidence of an automobile. No automobile! The one witness to the accident, Kelly’s young boyfriend, went into shock and is now completely mute, at home, removed from society. Both were completely normal deaths as deaths go in this day, yet under entirely abnormal circumstances.

Adding to the mystery of it, both Bing and Kelly had had a complete personality change, for the better, for nearly a month up until their deaths. And Smoke…he seemed to know all about it. Enough at least to make me very nervous. He told me they were not good people, which he should not know. And why would he even say that?

“I want to know my name, Mira,” he says now. This has become a bit of an obsession for Smoke. I understand, of course. If I didn’t know my own name, at this age, I would be more than curious as well. It dominates our conversations however, and along with everything else about him, I’m beginning to feel a little afraid of what the answer to his name may hold for me. So I’m looking through my own history, my photo album, to see if I can find a clue about myself, about Smoke, and why he would choose me to talk to, or haunt, or whatever it is that he’s doing.

My baby pictures are wonderful. Of course I have the bearskin cheesecake shot. Thanks, Mother. That of course will never be shown outside of this house to anyone not related by blood! There are photos of me eating, I think cake, on my first birthday. I giggle, because it’s all over my face, and because the sad fact is that I still eat cake this way. I see a more recent photo of myself with one of the young children in the neighborhood. He and I are playing with a potato-like toy, and I’m making him laugh with the funny faces I create. I like caring for children very much, like the adults from my nursery school cared for me. Like Mother.

There is a beautiful photo of me sleeping, covered in a homemade blanket, dark with lighter cross-stitches on it. I am sleeping on my stomach with my bottom up in the air and my cheek scrunched up against the bed. It’s funny because I see children sleeping that way now and it makes me smile. It must be how children sleep. But what makes the photo beautiful is the peaceful look on my face above all the scrunching. Whenever I am feeling depressed or down-trodden, I think about how calm and happy I am in this photo, and I feel immediately better.

There are a number of other photos of me at various ages and stages, playing with toys, swimming, running, chasing a ball or a dog, or a dog chasing a ball, and generally enjoying a wonderful life. My careful inspection of each photo brings warmth to my cheeks as I smile and remember happy times. None, however, offers a single clue to my ghost. In many ways, that’s a relief. At this point, Mother enters the room and turns on the television in order to watch “Today”.

Mother and I watch television together a lot. We laugh at the characters, play the game shows with the contestants, eating supper or occasionally fast food while watching. Mother hates that she allows me to do that, but we both enjoy this wonderful time together. We are very close. Since I’ve begun digging up my past, I decide to push a little further.

“Mother, what can you tell me about Father?”

“What would you like to know?” she asks.

“Well, everything, of course. What did he look like? Was he handsome? What was your favorite thing about him? How long were you married?”

“Mira, my goodness, slow down! Of course your father was very handsome. He wasn’t terribly tall, but had light hair, dark eyes, and a hopelessly infectious laugh. He and I laughed together a lot, like you and I do. We weren’t married for very long…he died shortly after you were born. Spending time with you reminds me of the fun he and I had, which is such a joy. It also is very sad. What I miss most about him is how much he loved you…”

It sounds as though she has more to say, so I press.

“How did he die? I’ve heard people say he was a hero. But what does that mean?”

“Well. Your father was a soldier in the war. He killed a lot of enemy soldiers, and died protecting some of his own men. I don’t know all of the details, but yes he was very brave. His death allowed others to live, which is why you will hear our family often call him a hero.”

OK. One more.

“What was his name?”

A pause.

“Nathaniel. It was Nathaniel. I’m surprised I’ve never told you that…”

“Nathaniel the Brave!” I dream out loud.

“Yes”, said Mother, “Nathaniel the Brave, who loved me, and loved you, and his fellow soldiers and countrymen and…loved his family.”

Mother gets a very sad, quiet expression at this, as though she were losing Father yet again. Hearing those things about the father I never met gave me the warm, flushed, happy feeling that I felt looking at my sleeping photo with the dark cross-stitched blanket. I turn to it again to complete the feeling, but what I find leaves me cold. When I turn to it, the photo shows instead, in full color, a cherry-red box with a gold cross.

No!

A coffin! I quickly skim through all of the other photos to find that in each I am no longer visible. It is as if my whole life has in fact happened without me! My absence is repeated through each photo on every page, all the way until the very first photo. There, on the bearskin rug, where previously I had had my very first picture, is instead a pasty white baby looking forward. If you could call it a human baby. This child is an abomination! At the realization that my baby picture had been mystically replaced by the true visage, the disgusting features and mangled body of the chalky child, I scream and lose consciousness. That is all I remember.

I wake up later that evening, the album still lying next to me, open, and apparently back to normal. Mother is quite concerned, but I can’t let her know what I saw. I can’t let her know that my photographs are being haunted by a creature from my earliest memory, or that this creature even exists. Even I would think I was mad if I heard my own story! Thinking quickly, I tell her I must simply have been famished, and passed out from near-starvation. I ask if she would be willing to get me the Colonel’s chicken for dinner? Yes, yes I feel fine. Of course I will be just fine to go to school tomorrow!

I am now twelve years of age, and in Junior High. I don’t love school quite as much as I did when I was younger. I don’t mind my classes, and I love learning, of course. But I’m afraid. You see, I make friends easily, which isn’t as good as it sounds. Because I have a ghost. And ever since I’ve had a ghost, my friends seem to have unexplainable, deadly illnesses and accidents. So while I enjoy school, math, reading Anne Frank’s Diary, and pledging “one nation, indivisible” each day, it is always in the back of my mind that one of my friends may simply die!

It is always in my mind that it will be, somehow, my fault.

I am most concerned for Andrew. I will say that the best part of Junior High is the boys! They are many, and they enjoy talking fo me. But my favorite boy, my favorite friend, is Andrew. He continues to walk me home every day, and while he’s never kissed me, he’s begun carrying my books for me. I can certainly carry my books myself, but I sure do enjoy when he does it for me! We talk every day about important things, like television, schoolwork, our friends, the President, Queen Elizabeth, the bomb, and the world such as it is. I enjoy our conversations, but I have to admit that it is Andrew’s presence, his words and his eyes, that make them the highlight of my day.

And then there is Frank. Frank is handsome in his own right. He also has never kissed me, but I doubt he will ever kiss anyone. Frank lost his sister, Kelly, the girl that I referenced earlier. They were twins, and I have to believe that type of loss is different than losing a sibling in any other way. Frank is very cordial at school, and even smiles at me sometimes. But Frank, unlike Andrew, doesn’t give me the time of day when classes are out.

That isn’t fair, perhaps, as he doesn’t give anyone the time of day. He spends all of his afternoon hours, after school, standing outside of the little boy’s house that he used to bully. The one that was there when his sister was…when she died. Cooper.

Just before Kelly’s accident, Frank had befriended Cooper. He protected him at school, which was ironic considering that Frank was the one that had been bullying Cooper. Cooper and Kelly became very close friends largely due to Frank’s change of heart on the matter. Or, so it seemed. Our group of friends always felt that it was Kelly’s influence that made her brother bully the smaller boy. Then, suddenly, Frank apologized for having terrorized him, and pledged his friendship. After that Cooper began to spend a lot of time with Kelly, and they became close. Until she died.

Now, Frank spends every moment after school, until suppertime, standing outside of Cooper’s home, just staring. Two young men on opposite sides of a glass, feeling the same inconsolable loss, unable to create any positive momentum toward healing.

Both rushing toward death by standing still.

I follow him on occasion, with Andrew, mostly out of concern. Most often, we observe Frank staring at the home of the now mute child, with a very strange look on his face. I still don’t know if it was anger, or something else. Part of me believed that Frank needed to continue to protect Cooper, even more so now that his sister was gone. The more rational part of me knew that he was waiting for the chance to exact revenge on Cooper. For what? Surviving, I think, while his sister did not.

Andrew and I speak of this often. He feels we should leave it be. It isn’t our concern. I feel that we need to reach out and help Frank, at the very least, and possibly even Cooper. Andrew became increasingly irritated with me, which frankly I did not like. He was acting almost jealous of Frank! I wasn’t terribly impressed that he would leave our friend to such misery, and it wasn’t like Frank was carrying my books home every day.

Andrew, you idiot. Just kiss me!

But he does not. And our arguments continue to the point that he is becoming impossible to deal with, and I am not willing to let poor Frank go on like this. Eventually Andrew throws up his hands and tells me to just go my own way. This makes me sad, because Andrew is my friend, no, my partner, and I am disappointed that he isn’t willing to help another friend with me. He stops walking me home. He stops carrying my books. He just stops. And he…well, never mind that.

Lucky for me, there is Eleanor. Ellie. She continues to be my best friend to this day, and she loves, more than anything else, to talk about boys! True, she still loves to eat, and is maybe a little bigger than she should be, but she is the most loving, wonderful human being that walks the planet. She is very beautiful in her own way, and often captivates the boys herself with her wit and her sweetness. Actually, she has already been kissed! She knows that I love Andrew, and is disappointed every time he disappoints me. But she’ll never tell him. Because, Ellie is loyal first to me, then to the boys, then to the world. My Ellie.

We talk about how cute they are , how they make us laugh, and the many ways they infuiate us! Andrew and Frank are so very different. Andrew is not a stout fellow at all, very slim, but with beautiful eyes and very light hair. He’s also had my heart since nursery school. Frank, on the other hand, is a very impactful fellow, big and dark, with even darker eyes. I wouldn’t call them beautiful, like Andrew’s eyes, but they are certainly mysterious and exciting! His stare is both terrifying, and captivating.

Ellie agrees that Andrew is being a fool, and that it is right for us to help our old friend Frank, despite his history. I think Ellie may have liked him at some point. Perhaps she likes Frank even now. The loss of Bing hit her so hard so many years ago. Bing had been her true friend in nursery school, attending to her when no one else would. She lost a lot of joy when Bing died. How wonderful it would be to bring Frank back from his malaise, as the solution to Ellie’s broken heart. Now, we will work together to bring him back!

The strategy is simple. For one week we will follow him from school, and simply stand with him. The next week, we would talk with him. This all worked great, except that Frank never acknowledges that he has been spoken to by Ellie. Only me. It is as though Ellie isn’t even there, and she does not like that. It hurts her that he will only listen, and speak, to me. I am sure now my Ellie loves Frank, enough to let me get through to him if I can. Even without her.

So, by the third week, it is just Frank and me, standing outside quiet Cooper’s silent home. Standing and staring. Over time, his stare becomes softer, and he would gaze around, or down at his feet. I would ask him his thoughts about things, like school and the world, and slowly he would answer. I ask him many times about Ellie, but he refuses to talk about her. I never share that with Ellie, since I know it would hurt her. Sometimes I lie, and say he asks about her, which makes her blush.

By the fourth week, Frank is a different kid. He talks and laughs as though nothing else matters, and more importantly he seems to forget about Cooper, and standing outside of the house, gazing his death-gaze at the unseen boy. Andrew is still upset with me, and I at him, so Frank begins walking me home, carrying my books. We laugh and talk every day, until reaching my home each day after school. Then, believe it or not, Frank hands me my books, says a cordial goodbye, and goes home. He never even goes back by Cooper’s neighborhood. It is as though he has forgotten his mania altogether.

At the end of the fourth week, Frank is holding my hand as we walk home. Damn. Damn. This is no good. I do care deeply about Frank, but I love Andrew, and Ellie will kill me, and this is very very bad!

At the beginning of the fifth week, Monday, Frank notices Mother isn’t home, and wants to extend his visit. She works quite a bit, so it isn’t unusual for the house to be empty. Fool that I am, I let him in. We enter my home, into the living area which is beginning to get dim from the darkness outside. My intent is to light the room immediately, but Frank stops me, wanting instead to play a new game. I’d not heard of it before, but like everything else about Frank, it is dark and exciting! While standing by my photo album, and the photo of Mother and my step-father, he explains the rules.

“Mira, take a candle, and walk upstairs backward. I will be waiting for you at the top, by the giant mirror.” Frank has a look on his face that is both innocent and sly. ”When you get to the top of the stairs, turn, and quickly look in the mirror. You will then catch a glimpse of your future husband standing next to you in the mirror. But here’s the thing, if you see a skeleton or a phantom, well, that means that you will die before you marry!”

I should have my head examined for even considering this exercise. I know. Given my history of the past few years it was certain that I would see the ghost, chalky white in the mirror, and die on the spot. Perhaps the ghost would come through the mirror and take my life in front of Frank’s unbelieving eyes! But, here I am, with dark and exciting Frank, in a dark room, excited, with a wonderful new game and a role to play. So, as only a fool would do, I light a candle, wait for Frank to take his place upstairs, and begin my ascent. Only a fool…

There is nothing to this game, the candle, or climbing the stairs. I stumble briefly on the way up, nervous and not able to see where I am going, but quickly catch myself, and go on as though nothing happened. Boys seem to like when girls are embarrassed, so I allow him that privilege. Frank, no exception, giggles slightly, but keeps encouraging me all the way up the stairs. I slowly approach the large mirror where he is waiting. I take the last few steps, backward, into the hall, where he stands, and wait for my doom to occur. At the precise moment that I look into the mirror, I am certain that I catch a brief glimpse of Andrew, looking down and sad, as my candle blows out, leaving Frank and me in total darkness.

And at the moment the candle blows out, I feel something grab at me. I am certain that this is the moment of my demise, and the chalky child has come, ready to take me to my well-deserved fate. I think of all of the children I have known. Bing, sweet Bing the biter, with the wicked mother. I relished her pain! And Kelly, of course. I wasn’t pleased at her death, but she was wicked as well. And her death is what brought Frank and me together! Certainly, it was my turn to receive my reward for all of the horrid thoughts I had had for those poor souls!

Hate, fate and fairness. I deserve this. I lean back and wait for my final breath. And justice immediately stops my lungs, and my airways, covering my mouth fully. And death feels like warm, wet lips on mine. What a curious way to die!

I finally do realize that Frank, in the darkness, has decided in this moment to procure his first kiss and mine, in lieu of the visit of a spector and the reaper’s scythe. It is a short moment that lasts forever, and I almost laugh at myself for thinking Andrew would have been the one.

But, I had seen Andrew’s face in the mirror, hadn’t I?

I swore that Andrew should have been my first and only, evidenced by his appearance, on cue, in the mirror, and by the guilt now tugging at my heart. Guilt for Andrew. And guilt for Ellie. The kiss ends, naturally, on its own. Frank has performed the perfect first kiss and made me dizzy. There are no good choices to be made at this point. I pull back to look upon Frank, who has me in his arms and in his control, his dark eyes evident more in the blackness. I relight the candle, coveting the darkness, but anxious to look into the dark eyes of this boy that has stirred first romantic feelings in me. My heart beating, I steal a second glance in the mirror, to see if the reflection of my true love has evolved.

It has.

As if in a nightmare, the boy holding me close, holding me tight, is not Frank. Frank somehow has disappeared, replaced by a pale monstrosity, recognizable only from my early memories, now grown! Looking in the mirror, I see my infatuation to be not Frank, and not Andrew, but a chalky, unclothed beast, hunched over, eyes closed, breathing short, heavy, foul breaths.

The creature is bald, gaunt, with one ear barely protruding from the side of his head, and the other missing. He has no hair, no nose, no teeth, and his leathery face seems to continue into his pain-writhing mouth, as though sewn from a sack cloth. His fingers appear attached to each other, stumpy and thick, almost webbed, but strong. The body, skeletal at best, gives no evidence as to its true gender, but I know. This is the chalky child from my earliest memories. This is Smoke! And he is an absolute nightmare!

Smoke has somehow replaced Frank as the object of my first romantic encounter. As much as I need to, I can’t scream. Instead, I lurch. I close my eyes and fall forward, heaving, filling all before me with bile. I cry. I shake. I throw off the last of my sickness and bear up to face Smoke, to scold him, and to accept the fate I have expected all along. Fate. Fairness.

But Smoke, the chalk-monster, as well as Frank, is now gone. I turn toward the large mirror for a clue.

Peering in the mirror, I see Andrew again, but not as a reflection. I have been transported, now standing in a field, with Andrew facing me, sad and with his head down. I put my hands up, to try to touch him, to bring him to me, but they are held as though by the glass of the large mirror. I had no idea until this moment how badly I need Andrew. He briefly looks up, shakes his head, then turns away. I take a deep breath, desperate to scream for Andrew to come to me, to save me from this horror. And then I see the approaching light. I look down. Railroad tracks!

I want to scream for Andrew to jump out of the way, but no sound escapes my lips. Harder and harder I cry, with no result. Andrew keeps looking down, sad, shaking his head. I am sure that the ugly chalky child, my Smoke, is going to kill the true love of my life, and I can do nothing to change that, as the lights behind me get brighter and brighter.

Wait.

Behind me?

I look down. The tracks, illuminated ever more by the increasing beam make it certain that there will be death tonight, where only moments before had been sweet romance. And as the tracks shine brighter in the glowing beam, I realize that it is not Andrew facing the power of the oncoming locomotive. It is me! I am stuck to the tracks, the glass of the mirror trapping me on all sides, while Andrew simply looks on, sad and shaking. I quickly whirl around to face my fate, staring deep into the spot of the oncoming locomotive. Faintly, I hear again the cry of the chalky child as I brace for death and scream.

The light overtakes me. Then my eyes open to a new light, that of the morning. I awake, in tears and in the sweat of having stared down the certain death of myself and the other most important to me. And then, I know. I know that I am not dead, nor had I witnessed the death of Andrew.

It was Frank. Frank is dead. Somehow Frank had been tranported into the path of a large steam engine, and I had been forced to be his eyes and emotions as he died. Smoke, my ghost, had somehow placed Frank in the very center of harm’s way, miles from my home. I had just witnessed, and experienced, Frank’s death, with all the fear and hopelessness that Frank must have felt in his final moments.

I know. He is gone.

The next day’s newspapers and the gossiping community would prove that to be true. Parts of his body would be found for weeks. Both of his hands, separated from his body by the charging wheels of the locomotive, are never recovered. No one ever speaks of the condition the rest of him is found in. It is a horrible loss to the community, to our school, and to our group of friends. To me. To Ellie. Oh dear Ellie! She will be crushed.

“How…how could you?” I demand, when I realize what has been done.

“Mira. I want to thank you,” coos the calm voice of my ghost.

“Don’t you dare thank me you chalky bastard. How. Could. You. Kill. Frank? Tell me why!”

“Mira you have shown me my true name. I now know who I am. You searched and you questioned, and you found the answers to all of our questions, and you found my name.”

Silence. He is too calm. This is not good. I’m suddenly frightened of my secret friend, more than ever. What did he mean ‘our questions’?

“Yes. I am the so-called ‘chalky child’ of your memory. I am also Smoke your secret friend of the past few years. But I have a name, a true name. I was once called…Nathaniel. That is my name.”

No.

That was my father’s name. He was a hero, wasn’t he? He saved lives. This chalky bastard, this monster, could not be the ghost of my father. He just cannot be! My father killed only in war, and was first a protector. How can this ghoul be Nathaniel Mirras? How? I need to calm down quickly. It will not do to anger this ghost, so much more connected to me than I first realized. I walk downstairs. I am clearly awake, and able to speak with him while conscious. How did he kill Frank? Did he possess him? Teleport him? Did he kill Kelly too? Bing?

I need answers. The rest of my life may depend on them.

“Smoke. Nathaniel…tell me why you killed Frank. Tell me why. Why?” But even as I demand, through tears, his account of himself, I already know the answer, and the consequence to me, to Frank, and to anyone I might ever love. I understand. I know.

“Mira. Be patient. There is plenty of time for all of your friends. Plenty, and I’ll help them all. They are so much nicer when I am in them. You don’t even realize how close you came to taking a different path altogether. You were supposed to play the game with Andrew, after all. You were supposed to kiss Andrew.” Though no longer visible, I can sense an evil smile spread over his toothless eyeless face. I sense him hunched over and fetal as though still the infant he once was, but now grown, triumphant, and in control.

I understand that all of my friends are in danger. Everyone I love is in danger. I understand that I can never be with my partner, my best friend, and my true love since childhood. I can never be with Andrew. Ever. And as I look over to my album I see now that the damaged right leg of the first “M” is completely gone, now forming, in fact, the letter “N”. Nathaniel, not Mira. I understand that my life and the lives of those around me are now in the hands of Nathaniel Mirras.

And he is a killer.

Part 4: Sisters

You know me by now. I am Mira. It’s been three years since Frank was
killed, and I’m now 15. It’s a damned good thing, too. Being a teenager,
no one questions my moods. They think it’s a part of my age and my stage.
The people who love me, accept. Everyone else stays away, which is how I want it. That’s how I need it. I don’t know for sure that anyone I hold close will die. I’m hopeful that they won’t, as long as they stay far away from me. Because of my ghost, the chalky child. Because of Smoke.

Because of Nathaniel Mirras.

I imagine that Mother is safe. Being the very first person in my life,
surely he’d have killed her by now if that wasn’t so. It seems that my
ghost is the incarnation of my dead father, so it stands to reason that he loves her, at least enough not to kill her. Then again, she did remarry,
so…there is that.

But if that’s what he’s angry about, why would he kill my friends? Why children? Maybe he’s angry about me. Maybe he never wanted
me. Maybe. But why not kill me, then, or Mother. It just doesn’t make sense. Maybe he can’t see or harm adults. Come to think of it, he never
even talks about Mother. I wish I knew how to control him. I wish I knew how to make him stop if I needed to.

Nathaniel (I’m sorry, I can’t call him “Father”), seems to enjoy my company. For about a year after Frank was murd…after Frank died…I tried not to talk to Nathaniel. He spoke to me though, nearly every evening, and often during the day. When I was younger, a baby, I thought he only visited my dreams. He was a vision of a chalky baby, underdeveloped and marred, as though a stillborn, drowned in its own fluids, or poisoned by air. I would wake to his cry, not understanding the gravity of what I was seeing. I didn’t know at the time, but that vision would be responsible for the death of a nursery school friend. Many years later he spoke to me with words, and I spoke back. I thought I had a fantastic secret in this ghost that spoke to me in my dreams. Only after the death of another friend did I realize that it wasn’t a dream, but in fact I was completely conscious as we spoke. I also began to realize a danger.

That danger became real when he killed Frank, my Junior High boyfriend. My first kiss. Frank was neither my first nor my true love. That would be Andrew. Andrew and I were at odds at the time, however, and I foolishly fell for Frank. Briefly. Foolish, and costly for Frank. Nathaniel killed Frank in the cruelest way, shortly after our kiss. And he made me watch. And he made it appear as though Andrew were there. He did this to remind me the true power he had over me, which was that he could kill anyone close to me. Maybe he could even kill me. He could kill Andrew. He will kill Andrew, if I allow it.

He can kill Andrew. So. I stay away from Andrew. It breaks my heart,
but Andrew, like seemingly anyone else in my life, was in danger if I so
much as speak to him. So I don’t. Andrew, however, also does not speak to me, and as grateful as I am for his wisdom in this decision, and his ultimate safety, it breaks my heart. In the most selfish part of my mind, I wish, even though it would be death to him, that he would just speak to me. That he would want to. But he does not.

When he sees me in school, he looks down, sadly, and walks the other direction. The sad look is the same look that I saw the night Frank was killed, when I could see him through Frank’s eyes. But Andrew wasn’t there. He was at home, I am certain, safe and nowhere near the carnage. I just saw him as one of Nathaniel Smoke’s cruel jokes. And he doesn’t know about Frank and me. He doesn’t know that I kissed Frank. He couldn’t. Nobody knew about that except Frank, and me.

And Nathaniel.

So I try to avoid speaking with Nathaniel for nearly a year. He speaks to me, though, constantly, and eventually wears me down with his greetings and questions and hauntings, and I finally decide I need to talk with Nathaniel Mirras, really talk with him. Learn about him. As much as possible. Maybe I can convince him to stop killing. If not, perhaps I can find a weakness that will allow me to exorcise him from everyone I love once and for all. It must be worth trying.

And, right now, I have no one else to talk to.

Our conversations are fascinating. He is a glutton for news of the real world. He wants to know about presidents and wars and countries and boundaries. His memories of all that has happened throughout my life is astounding! He literally remembers everything about the world that I remember, and wants to know more.

Nathaniel asks about Walt Disney, and Mickey, and whether the Dodgers have beaten the Yankees. He is fascinated by Play-Doh, and wishes he could feel it, construct with it, then tear down his constructs between his palms. Every conversation is like an episode of the $64,000 Question Quiz Show. He asks a question. I answer. But in many ways, I win, because our conversations are creating trust. In me. This allows Nathaniel Mirras to move toward telling me who he is, now at least. I am hopeful it will offer clues to the killer he really is.

And I call him Smoke. Because it makes him angry. He wants me to call him by his real name. Nathaniel. Calling him ‘Smoke’ allows me a small, daily victory.

I’ve learned a few things from him, at least to the degree I can believe him. He claims not to know why people die when he possesses them. His instinct, supposedly, has been to help those in my life struggling with unpleasant behaviors and violence, to re-make them as kinder human beings. Supposedly. He stays in them for weeks, helping create habits of kindness toward others where previously they failed. He wants hurtful people to stop hurting others, mostly me and other people I cared about. Even Frank had been a bully at one time. Nathaniel reasons that he may have even threatened Andrew
one day. He promises that he didn’t know Frank would develop feelings for me, and that he absolutely did not expect Frank to kiss me. His plan was to release the kinder Frank to Ellie. He knows that she loved him.

He says he didn’t realize that anyone would die when he left their bodies.

I accept this in the moment. What choice do I have? That does not explain the train, or the fact that Andrew appeared to be there watching. It does not explain why I was there, watching, feeling the fear and agony of Frank’s last breath through his eyes. It does not explain why Frank kissed me while supposedly possessed. That disgusts me. I fully believe that Nathaniel Mirras is evil. And he is a killer.

Nathaniel tells me he is in constant pain when not occupying a host. He
can see only through my eyes, or those of his host. He says he knows that he has only one ear intact, and he seems to feel it leaking some kind of fluid much of the time. The pain is excruciating, making him wish that like his eyes, both ears were also absent. He is grateful for the ear that is missing.

He constantly struggles for breath, without a nose or true nostrils and no real formation of a mouth. I didn’t know that ghosts could struggle for breath. Odd. That’s why, in addition to the constant cries of pain, his every breath is in powerful heaves, when he appears in corporeal form. He has no teeth. He would never be able to enjoy a meal if he were able to actually have food. He couldn’t chew. He couldn’t taste. He cannot form words.

I question this, of course, pointing out that he is talking to me, and I
hear him perfectly. He agrees that it is a mystery that he can communicate with me. Then I am reminded of how I understood the world in my youngest days, using dreams, memories and impressions to organize and share my otherwise incoherent words and thoughts. He was “speaking” to me in precisely this way, not using spoken words at all, but perceptions. Understandings. I simply understood him. In that way, I have been his only hope in an otherwise lonely, frightening, agonizing existence.

He has no idea how or why I can see him when he appears to me.

He has no memory of ever holding anyone or anything of value, with his
unseparated, webbed fingers. And he doesn’t remember ever being held. He has no memories of his life, other than the few details I have learned over the years from Mother. Even those are not memories to him. He often says he’s quite sure he was born a ghost.

I’m happy to leave him that way. My pity doesn’t extend that far, and I’m careful not to ever discuss him with Mother again. I avoid conversations with her regarding Nathaniel Mirras, to keep my advantage wherever possible.

Not long ago he made a shocking statement to me. He is not alone where he is.

There are others. Many others. But, they are mostly voices. His contact with the other voices is very much like his contact with me. He can talk with others where he is, through thoughts. Like me, he only catches an occasional glimpse of them, and it is more of a perception. Ghosts even to a ghost!

But he still feels alone and isolated, because the voices are cruel. He tells me that he often feels as though they pity him. More often, he feels as though they hate him, and they threaten him, and he is afraid. He feels compelled to quiet them with good deeds here. The voices grow ever louder, accusing him, but more quiet when he inhabits a host.

I’m pretty certain he must be in Hell. I feel sad. If he is the ghost of my father, then in life he was supposed to be a hero, a good man. What happened?

Occasionally, Nathaniel attempts to talk about my friends, but I always
deflect his questions. He certainly thinks I should try to talk with Andrew again. He says he can sense my loneliness. I simply remind him that Andrew is no longer a part of my life. We don’t talk and kindly would he move on to another topic?

He knows. He knows how I really feel about Andrew. But, I need to keep Andrew, Ellie, Cooper, and anyone possible away from Nathaniel Mirras. And the only way to do that is to keep them away from me, and from any conversation I have with Nathaniel.

That is what I’ve learned about Smoke, the grown chalky child. It’s more than I knew before, and I hope that gives me some control. Some power.

I am now in High School. I am with my friends, despite the fact that I cannot engage with them in any real way.

My only real contact with Andrew is through one of his three sisters,
Laverne. She is in school with us, and she is constantly trying to talk me
into connecting with Andrew. She knows. She knows about Andrew and me, as much as I’ve known since we were children. She knows, like everyone knows.

I talk to her, because for many reasons, she isn’t at much risk. Laverne is already sick. Cancer. She is likely to die very soon. And, whenever she is feeling well, she is simply never cross or cruel to anyone. Nathaniel clearly preys on those with questionable morals. There are none more upstanding than Laverne and surely Nathaniel the ghost would have no use of her life.

She is so sweet, that I am tempted, frequently, to set her up with Cooper James. Cooper returned to school after being out for nearly five years. He was with Kelly, Frank’s sister when she died. Nathaniel killed her when I was nine. Cooper was infatuated with Kelly. They were good friends. Smoke, Nathaniel, killed her in front of the young man.

Cooper was the only person on the planet that knew, really knew, how Kelly died. He knew that it wasn’t an automobile accident. He was
the only one that watched her flung into a tree by an unseen force. He saw her beaten body finally shudder and die, the only one to observe her final breath. And everyone thought he was crazy of course, in shock.

So he withdrew. For five years. He is now finishing Junior High and preparing to join us next year. If he can stay alive that long. Since he is in a different school I don’t have to see him, so for now he is safe. Except for the fact that he is Ellie’s new project.

Ellie, born Eleanor, continues to be my best friend…from a distance. She also knows nothing about what happened between Frank and me. Of course there is no way I would consciously tell her. She absolutely loved and adored Frank. She went into a near depression when he died. It would have been worse, but he had spurned her, and Ellie, my Ellie, is socially and emotionally strong.

Still, along with Andrew, it is important that I protect Ellie most of all. I love her as though we are sisters, and it would be easy for Nathaniel to devastate my world by harming Ellie. So, I hold her at arm’s length. Sometimes she notices, and sometimes not. She is very busy, as I said. But all of her attention now being focused on Cooper makes it almost
easy to limit conversation, and keep her safe. I’m sure it won’t last. Ellie doesn’t ever settle down, so to speak.

It’s fun to hear her talk about him, though, even in very short spurts. Ellie is energy and love in every sense of the world, and a terrible target for Nathaniel, except for what it would do to me.

I miss her terribly. And I miss Andrew. I miss all of my many friends,
most of whom simply had to let me go as I withdrew day by day. Only
Laverne was an outlet for my need to connect with someone
that wasn’t already dead, and even that was only a year or two away. I wish she would stop talking to me about Andrew. Matchmaker. Busybody. You’re going to get him and yourself killed, so knock it off!

But she never does. And on this day, her gossiping has gotten us in trouble with the Hall Monitor, Ms. Day. Ms. Laurenne Day is short, petite, old and mean. And Ms. Laurenne Day loves to yell at students. Any excuse will do, and seeing us talking so close to the period bell has her hurrying our way to give us our comeuppance. As she arrives at the ideal spot to publicly humiliate us, our Math and Business professor, Mr. Robinson, easily 20 years her junior, steps in, calmly asks her a question, and quietly excuses us to class, without fireworks.

Needless to say, Jack Robinson was everyone’s favorite teacher. And I am relieved not to have to explain another detention to Mother.

Mother and I are very close. I adore her. She has had the worst in life,
losing two husbands, and having to raise her daughter by herself. She works hard, and she loves me, and even though she disapproves of my interest in boys, she makes sure she knows that she approves of me. She works many jobs, many shifts, and even takes in boarders as necessary. There is always food, and despite her long hours, always time for me. She also does not know about what happened with Frank. It happened in our house, but ended with Frank miles away, so she never suspected.

Frank wouldn’t have been the only one dead that night if she had known.

“So, Mira. How is Ellie these days?” Mother casually queries.

“Well. She’s wonderful. She’s spending a lot of time with Cooper James,” I reply.

A silence. Mother has very loud silences. Very loud.

“That boy…”

“Mother, please don’t start. Poor Ellie!”

“That boy is certain death for anyone he touches. Poor Ellie, hell. She
needs to stay away from boys. Then she’ll be smart, happy Ellie!”

Blaming Cooper. Unbelievable. If only she knew.

My turn for silence. It is just quiet. And awkward. I need to work on my silences to make them louder.

“Ellie is both happy and smart,” I retort. “You know that. So tell me about the new boarder. He is quite handsome for a man your age, isn’t he?”

Mother flushes slightly, and stares a very short moment.

Too short.

“His name is Herr Doppelmacher. Mr. Doppelmacher – German. He’s very nice, but extremely quiet and private. Please try not to disturb him much with your music and the way you talk to yourself at night”.

Oh, I didn’t know she could hear that. What she must think…

“Um. We are German right?”

“Mira, please. Stop asking questions about Doppelmacher. Please just leave him be.”

Well this time her silence is actually silent. Something is obviously
wrong, but I won’t be able to squeeze it out of her this way. As I often do to get around her defenses, I bring up the most uncomfortable topic I can, which forces her back to the subject I really want to hear about. Even though I’ve committed not to talk about my father to her (to avoid the ghost getting too much new information), it’s a worthwhile gamble, and likely to be information he already has.

“Mom, you said dad was a hero. Some people think that Nathaniel Mirras was not a hero, though. Some people think he’s bad. Is this true?”

It was another of those silences. The loudest ever. And the longest. I
couldn’t hear myself think.

“Where…? How do you…? Mira where did you hear…”

Another loud damned silence.

“Oh. Oh I see the problem. The name! How funny! Your father’s name isn’t Mirras. That was your stepfather’s name. Oh, now I’m laughing! No, no, they simply do not know your father. That must be someone else.”

I was sure this was more interesting than Doppelmacher, but it occurs
to me that I may have crossed a line and given Nathaniel more than I
intended. That makes me panic.

Of course it hadn’t occurred to me that Mirras was an adopted name. Mother’s name, because she married into it. And of course I really only called Nathaniel “Nathaniel” so an easy mistake to make, and no harm done. Something still feels wrong though. I desperately wanted to ask mother what my father’s last name really was, but at that moment I realize just how much risk I have invited by being too smart. It would have to wait. I need to find a way to end the conversation immediately.

As if on cue, the phone rings. It is Laverne. She wants me to come over.
There is something wrong with Andrew.

Oh hell. That is absolutely the last thing I should be doing right now. There is a difference between ignoring Andrew, and abandoning him if he is in trouble. Maybe Nathaniel is harming him in some way. I need to help. I tell Mother that I need to go. She doesn’t want me out at night of course, but as only a Mother can, she senses urgency when it comes to Andrew. And, like the rest of the whole damn world, she knows. She would conspire to match Andrew and me, despite her
protests about boys, and even if it meant both of our deaths, if it meant my happiness. I love Mother.

But she still doesn’t want me out alone at night, so summons Herr Doppelmacher, who is ‘always to be left alone’, to the front room. She asks him if he would kindly escort me to Andrew’s home. He is not terribly old, perhaps in his late thirties, or early forties. He is a handsome man.

I can see why Mother brought him in.

He doesn’t seem a hermit at all, and easily agrees to make sure I arrive safely to Andrew and Laverne’s household. After a quick goodbye, we leave Mother in her recliner, watching Fred and Ethel. Poor tired Mother will soon be snoozing. She deserves the peace and quiet. She deserves rest.

It is a quiet walk. Doppelmacher seems unsure whether he should talk to me, outside of asking directions. I’m not surprised of course. It must be very uncomfortable for a man his age to be seen with a teenage girl late at night. There is some small talk about school, how I like it, my grades, and who Andrew is. He doesn’t ask about Laverne though. He is a little protective that way. Funny!

He also asks how Mother and I get along, and if we are happy. Before I can answer, we arrive, and the door swings open, for Laverne to usher us both in. Of course she insists that Doppelmacher stays and visits with her parents while she brings me to the kitchen. Andrew is sitting at the kitchen table. He seems distracted. I sit next to him. Laverne takes a seat across from us.

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

“Hello Mira…” states Andrew, not at all addressing my question.

Again. “What is it?”

“I don’t know what you are talking about. There’s nothing wrong, Mira. What are you doing here?”

“Laverne said you were in trouble. She called me.”

“I see,” he says plainly. “No. Everything is fine.”

Now I’m angry. If his crazy sister concocted all of this just to get me
with Andrew, we are all in trouble. Her carelessness could cost her brother his life. And her own. And mine! Damn it!

“Listen here Laverne, what is this all about? Do you have any idea how much trouble you may have caused? I came down here because you said there was something wrong with Andrew. But there is nothing wrong. If he wants to see me, he can damn well call me himself. We don’t need your meddling. You have absolutely no business manipulating us both this way!”

Laverne does not answer. Her eyes are far away.

I have gone too far. Now Andrew is angry, and comes to the aid of his ill
sister. “Say what do you mean talking to her that way. She’s just trying
to help! What do you expect? You won’t ever look at me at school or anywhere. You never come by anymore. Someone had to do something! Especially after you got involved with Frank like you did, and then you stopped talking to anyone. What happened to Frank isn’t her fault! She still thought of you, and of me, even after she had been so sick!”

This is bad. Something is off. I have the same feeling I had when I saw
Andrew’s face while playing Bloody Mary and kissing Frank. It’s the same feeling when I saw him watching.

“Andrew…I’m so very sorry. I just…I’m so sorry. You know I am.”

Silence. I don’t understand how the hell everyone else manages such loud silence.

“How did you know about Frank and me?” I ask in surrender. He knows.

Andrew nods toward Laverne. That makes sense, because she’s a gossip. Still, who could have told her?

Wait. He said ‘had been.’

“What do you mean Laverne had been sick Andrew? What does that mean?”

“It means she had been sick and now she’s not,” she responds. “She’s clean. No cancer. The doctor said it all left her body nearly a month ago. It’s a miracle.”

No.

Oh no.

I look at Laverne. Her eyes are no longer lost but focusing directly on me. She is smiling Nathaniel’s evil smile. I quickly look at Andrew because I know what’s coming, and in desperation look back in
Laverne’s eyes, now colorless. And I beg. “Please Smoke. No. Let her go please you have to let her go! Don’t do this to Andrew!”

Laverne’s eyes regain their shade, for a moment. She looks deeply into my eyes, and says with a sneer, “what a shame for
Ellie, when she finds out about you and Frank!”

Then her eyes roll back into her head, and she lurches forward. Her head and her torso seize, and pound repeatedly on the kitchen table, until she finally tenses back, a white foam exiting her mouth and nose, followed by the deepest blood. The unmistakable smell of her failing, cancer-ridden kidneys, punctuates her grisly death.

Her body, suddenly, lay still. Then, slowly, tilting just slightly to the
left, falls to the floor. The entire horrible display lasts only a few moments. But I know this visage will haunt Andrew forever.

We both make a clumsy attempt to capture her body as it falls, but succeed only in tripping over each other, allowing a graceless end to Andrew’s sister. Upon seeing her lifeless body on the floor, and seeing her lifeless eyes, where only a minute previous dwelled the love and magic of his beloved sister, cured with a new lease on life, he stands fast for the briefest of moments. Then collapses. He sobs and shakes, cradling and caressing the lifeless form of Laverne. This will wreck him. This will permanently wreck him, and seeing him this way is almost worse than seeing him die himself. Almost.

I try to comfort him. Clumsily, but it is all I can do.

“Get away from her Mira! Get out. This is your fault. Go away! Leave!” he screams. The hatred in his eyes rips my soul.

Of course he is right. He doesn’t actually know how he is right, but it is
my fault. I allowed that bastard Nathaniel Mirras into his home and family by being stupid. And I am the cause of her death. And that has broken the heart of the only human being, outside of Mother, that holds mine.

Ashamed.

I’m so ashamed and hopeless. On the table I see are place settings for a small meal for us to have shared. All of the settings, plates, forks, spoons, coffee cups, and knives.

Knives. A sharp knife…

Now. This can all be over now…

I grab the knife closest to me, and feel its sharp edge. This will do.
This will do. I can hide myself away and end all of this with two quick slices up and down my wrists. It will barely hurt. Hell, I’ve felt worse. More importantly, it will safeguard everyone I hold dear forever.

Then I see Andrew sobbing over his sister’s suddenly empty shell, and I know what I must do. Both. Now. He will never know, and it will be
a kindness after all. He won’t feel a thing, I’ll be quick. His pain over lost Laverne will end too. I can simply reach around his throat and take him quickly, or pierce his exposed back into his lungs, and stop the annoying beating of his heart. There are so many options, and they all set us free. I raise the knife, well suited to the task, and prepare to plunge it into Andrew over and over, then to end this nightmare for myself.

Wait.

Wait.

No.

I do not want to die. I don’t want to kill Andrew. Yet somehow I do. My mind is telling me yes, I do. But I know I do not.

It’s Smoke. He is possessing me. He wants me to kill Andrew. Then myself. That bastard lied. He knew. He knew! He knew all along that he was killing his hosts. He knew, and he relished each death, and will relish Andrew’s and mine right now. He’s testing his own power. He’s testing me.

Except I won’t kill Andrew. My brain knows better. I won’t. Nathaniel you are a fool! You set me against the one human being on the entire planet I could never, ever harm. And you will lose. I won’t kill him. And I won’t kill myself. And, yes, I can feel you. I can feel your possession, and I can expel you from my body, my mind. You can’t stay in me. I have just enough power.

Just enough… enough.

I drop the knife.

At that moment, time and reality return. Doppelmacher emerges, sees the scene, and summons Andrew’s family, his parents, his other two sisters, to the carnage in the family kitchen. He holds the mother, and shakes the father into coherency, so that he can take charge of his family, his wife, and his two surviving daughters. And his son. Doppelmacher then, at the precise moment, catches me as my will is gone and my strength fails. I abandon consciousness with vigor.

I wake later. I try not to. But I wake. The neighbors, the police, the ambulance, and the doctors have all come and gone. Andrew’s family is medicated and asleep. Herr Doppelmacher only remains awake and alert. He speaks to me, but I will never remember what he says. He offers coffee, which I accept gratefully, sipping and slugging, and then a second cup. I ask if Laverne is really gone. She is. Doppelmacher encourages me to go home. He doesn’t want me going alone, but at this moment he is all the family has, because I’m no use.

So I go home.

I trudge along. All the way I know I’m safe. Why wouldn’t I be? It’s a
safe town. For me. Safe except for everyone but me. That son of a bitch Nathaniel Mirras won’t kill me, no. He will torture me by hurting everyone I love. But I’m safe.

Except he tried to kill me too. He was inside of my mind, trying to control me. But he couldn’t. He can’t use me and that’s a small small victory I have to hold onto, because I may need that someday to save Andrew. Or Ellie. Or Mother. He cannot control me. And it seems he cannot kill me. I’m still alive. Everyone else he has possessed has died.

But I am still alive.

Tonight, Laverne lost, but I won.

I won.

I reach my door, desperate to collapse into my bed. It will probably take
years to resolve what has happened tonight with Andrew, but that’s probably for the best. He will hate me for a while. And all that while he will be safe. I reach for the handle of the front door of my home, coveting my bed and sleep. As I turn the handle, nothing moves, and I open my eyes fully to see the unseparated fingers of Nathaniel Mirras, the bastard chalky ghost, the nightmare, between my fingers, and I recoil. I look into his eyeless sockets, and know he sees me.

“Smoke…” I whisper, shaking.

“Do. Not. Call. Me. That.”

Now I’m angry! “Or what? Will you kill me too? Please! Please just take me now. Spare everyone and just take me. Just take me.”

He is too calm, as usual.

“I don’t know what you are talking about Mira. Laverne was so very sick. She was dying. She was dying for certain and in so much pain, and I cured her. I gave her health and happiness, until you told me to leave her. Then she died, as she would have anyway. You have absolutely no cause to be upset with me!”

“Nathaniel. You hurt Andrew. You caused her to die like that, right in
front of him. Why didn’t you just let her live out her life until the
sickness took her, instead of making him watch her go that way?”

Almost absently, he breathes, “Mira, I only enjoy the suffering of those that deserve it.”

“Liar! Never mind. It doesn’t matter. You don’t see it. You are just trying to avoid your own pain, and don’t care about the pain you cause others. Andrew’s pain. Ellie’s pain. My pain! You don’t care for anyone’s pain but your own. All you want is death. All you want is to kill. I don’t know why you are haunting me, and harming those I love. I don’t know why. But if you can’t stop, then please just take me. Spare everyone, but take me. I’ll go. I’ll die. I will do anything to protect Andrew. Please, just stop!”

Another loud silence. Even Nathaniel could muster an impressive moment of unease. But I see the evil smile creep across his face.

“No.”

With that he disappears, and I no longer hear his voice. I want to beg more for Andrew’s life, but I can’t. I want to offer my life up for Ellie, but I stagger. All I can do is turn the handle in order to take the last twenty steps to rest, to my bed. And I could hear the cry of the chalky child emanating from within. The Inhuman cry, desperately searching for its…

Oh no.

My body is spent, but I quickly stumble into the main room where
Mother is still in her recliner watching the TV. But not watching. And
not moving. And not breathing. And I gasp, choking back my disbelief.

She has no head.

Oh no. Oh no, Mother. For the sake of all that is holy. No…

I stop, unable to believe what I am seeing, but it is true. Mother is only a body. No head. No hands. Her blood has long stopped flowing,
coagulating at her neck and her wrists.

She is still beautiful. My Mother. But she is gone.

I stare at her lifeless incomplete body. Finally every breath, every nerve and every instinct finally give out and again I go to the one place Nathaniel is not. Darkness.

I am out and asleep for over two days. No surprise. I finally, stubbornly wake and hope that the last vision I’d seen was just that. A vision. If not, it means that Nathaniel has begun to operate outside of his normal pattern, and that is frightening. I know it isn’t a vision, or a dream.

I know Mother is dead.

Mother, who loved me above all things, enough to work two or more jobs, to clothe and feed me, to send me out to Andrew, my Andrew in the dead of night, was gone. She was gone. Forever. What horror could this have been for her?

Days later, assuming some sick murderer among the living, police find her head and her hands, in a field, miles away, by a set of train tracks. Of course. The same tracks that took Frank’s life.

Her hair had been ripped from her scalp. Her eyebrows were gone, torn. Her mouth had been stitched and closed, apparently using her own hair. The fingers on each hand had been stitched together as though webbed, again, using her own hair. Both eyes were removed. One ear was missing. Her nose was absent leaving only the hollow space of a skull. She was the disembodied embodiment of all of Nathaniel’s physical flaws. A monstrosity, brutalized by the killer, Nathaniel Mirras. Nathaniel the ghost. Smoke…

Yet my Mother is still beautiful.

Next to her is found a crumpled piece of paper. Doppelmacher retrieves it from her side before the authorities arrive, and gives it to me. He does not read it. A curious man.

Those adults now in charge of “things” decide to keep me in my home, given the trauma of recent events. I am to remain under the
watchful eyes of Doppelmacher, and also Andrew’s family. Andrew’s two living sisters will take turns checking in and staying over, to maintain the perception of decency. Decency…ha. So, I now have a home mostly to myself, and constant access to Andrew should I want it.

And I have need for neither.

Mother is gone. The ‘killer’ is never found, of course. Doppelmacher and I, being the most likely suspects, have the alibi of being present at Laverne’s death. The town is silent for days. Mother is gone. And all that is left is her hastily scribbled note. Her last effort of love for me.

“Find your Father!”

Part 5: Find Your Father

It has taken three years to get here. When Mother was killed, she had only time to leave me one final message:

“Find your father”.

Of course, my father, Nathaniel Mirras, is dead. Well, Nathaniel is dead. Mirras is not his last name. Mirras is my adopted name, so I don’t actually know Nathaniel’s last name. Or mine, for that matter. But I know him as Nathaniel Mirras. He has haunted me since I was 18 months old. He has also been killing that long, maybe longer. Since my earliest memories, he has been killing my friends, their friends, and their families.

He killed Mother.

The vaporous bastard possessed her, destroyed her, and left her mutilated shell for me to find. Until then he had only possessed the morally weak. He “improved” those he possessed, but left them for dead. But that wasn’t enough this time. Mother had no faults, no flaws. The game we play took an unforgivable turn when he mutilated her to look like him in his miserable corporeal form. He removed her head, and her hands. When they found them her mouth and fingers had been stitched together using her own hair, ripped from her scalp. Her own hair! One ear was removed, and her nose. Her teeth were shattered. They found her head and hands in a field close to where he, Nathaniel, also killed the boy that gave me my first kiss. Nathaniel was sending a message to me, that no one was safe.

Nathaniel claims to live in a spirit world of sorts, tormented somehow by other beings that know him and hate him. His only escape is to inhabit a body here in the real world. And, for a time, those he possesses experience a better life. They become better people. They become good friends, fall in love, or even are healed of terminal illnesses. But the cost is great. When Nathaniel leaves them, they die. For years, I thought it was unintentional, his killing of those he possesses. But the deaths have evolved now where there is no doubt that Nathaniel Mirras intends harm to all he appears to help. Even worse, it is only those that are close to me that are in jeopardy. I am the harbinger of death to all I love. And I don’t know why.

But, after many years of searching, I now have a clue. A name. A place. Mother would not want me to find my biological father, since he died so many years ago. There is also a very real possiblility that Smoke himself is the ghost of my real father. So, clearly, her intention was for me to find my stepfather, my adoptive father. The man named Mirras. It’s taken me three years since her death to get to this point, on my birthday, standing mere yards from my goal. I take a deep breath and reflect on the events leading me to my only living relative, and possibly my only hope of survival, and saving those I love.

Year One:

The months after Mother died were…cold. Nathaniel tried to possess me, to force me to kill Andrew, and possibly myself. He failed. I don’t think he could control me now. My spirit is certainly gone, dead with Mother. My only comfort, my driving force these past years has been to follow her instructions, and find the man that loved her, and presumably me. Mirras. I don’t know what answers he holds, but I do know that Mother thought it important for me to connect with him. Perhaps he is the only person that can protect me from Nathaniel.

To this point Ellie, and the boy I’ve loved since nursery school, Andrew, are still alive. Mother is dead, and died a horrible death, which means that anyone close to me may be at the mercy of Nathaniel Mirras. I would give my life for Ellie. I would give all of my lives for Andrew. Even though both relationships are strained, I need them alive. I need to know that people who love me are still in my world, and that I can protect them, and they can bring me joy. Otherwise, what’s the point?

I am committed to keeping everyone else alive that still lives. Most of my other childhood friends are already gone. Bing. Kelly. Frank. Even Andrew’s sister Laverne, not a close friend, but someone close. Gone. Knowing that Smoke can take any of them at any moment drives me.

Ellie and I are best friends. The first year after Mother died she stayed close to me. She held onto me and loved on me for all that she could. That eventually faded, as I needed to distance myself from everyone I cared about yet again. I briefly reconnected with Andrew, and it only ended up getting his sister killed. I long for those moments still, but I can’t keep them safe that way, loving me. Over the next few years Ellie simply stopped coming by, stopped seeing me in the hallways, stopped telling me about her latest crushes. She just stopped. But there was more. She had been in love with Frank, the boy who first kissed me, and died for the privelege.

Well. She was in love with him to the extent that anyone can be at twelve. I don’t know if she knows about Frank and me. Nathaniel threatened to tell her about it. I’ve often imagined just telling her and getting it off of my chest. But. No. In many ways, we have drifted apart naturally, what with her being the constant socialite. I am definitely not that. Yet I can’t help but feel as though she knows. She knows I betrayed her with Frank. She really shouldn’t. But I’m afraid that she does. She probably knows that I’m not safe to love at any rate. So she stays away. And I let her.

And this is how I keep Ellie safe.

Cooper James is the little boy that survived Nathaniel’s second murder. He was there when Frank’s twin sister Kelly was possessed and met her untimely end. He went into shock for years, and truly has never fully recovered. But he has been able to start high school on time, and begin a fairly normal life. Unfortunately, you can hardly call any life that includes me normal. Ellie speaks to him. She trusts him. She occasionally lets him know she is still thinking of me, and misses me. She lets him know that she still cares about me.

In this way, Cooper, not really ever a close friend, is able to relate to me. He knows, and has often said, that he and I share a kinship, because our true loves both perished in unimaginable ways. I wish I could say that Frank was my true love, and that his death had a mystical romantic meaning. But it isn’t true. It was a foolish fling that cost Frank his life, and I doubt I was in any way worth it. Andrew was and is the only true owner of my heart. Andrew asks about me too, even though he knows that Cooper will spill. In many ways, I stay close to Cooper, because Cooper allows Andrew and me to be truly together without the risk of Andrew losing his life over me. I tell myself that Cooper is safe, because he has already survived Nathaniel’s murderous mania.
Andrew. The first year after Mother died was difficult with Andrew. He clearly, and rightfully, blames me for the death of his sister. He couldn’t possibly know that Nathaniel existed, nor that he was responsible for her death by possessing her. He couldn’t know that Nathaniel’s possession was the reason for his sister’s temporary cancer remission. The only reason. Andrew couldn’t know that when Smoke left Laverne, her body was devoid of spirit and subject to the total ragings of the cancer in its final stages. That rage came through so violently, it would undoubtedly be the subject of Andrew’s nightmares for years to come.
Andrew changed after that. He became quiet. Sad. Broken. We didn’t speak much for a few years before his sister died. There had been a rift created when I started spending time with Frank. I allowed the rift, however. His was a relationship I intentionally withdrew from in order to protect him. Few are as important to me as Andrew. He doesn’t hate me, I know that. But he can barely make eye contact even in casual contact, as thought he were…ashamed. Maybe afraid. Andrew has been closest to my heart since childhood, and it hurts for us to be in this broken place. But I let us remain there.

This is how I keep Andrew safe.

I speak to Nathaniel. I answer him when he speaks to me. I’m not nice when I speak to him, but I know better than to anger him further. I don’t know if he is simply seeks my attention, my favor, or my approval. Or simply my fear. I try very hard not to give any of those things. But he killed my Mother, and I don’t want it going any further.
“Mira.”

There is no kindness nor frivolity in his voice when he speaks with me. Nor is there in mine. We are no longer secret friends. He is my mother’s killer. And I hate and fear him.

“Smoke…”

“That isn’t my name. You mustn’t call me that. You know it makes me very angry. My name is Nathaniel.”

“No,” I say blandly, “Nathaniel was a hero. You are just a murderous bastard. You are not Nathaniel.”

I stay calm with him. I allow myself to make little insults because it makes me feel better. But I will not allow him to see my true emotions. Nathaniel enjoys the game however, and will never allow me to see how he feels either. His emotions come through when he kills. So I must choose my intentions very carefully. In this moment, I can tell I’m amusing him.

“Ah,” challenges the ghost, “You are upset about your mother?”

“Yes,” I say plainly. It is all I can do to control the hatred and grief. If only I knew how to kill a ghost!

“You assume she didn’t deserve what happened. You assume she was good, and nothing I could do for her in possession would improve her morality?”

Again. “Yes.”

He actually sounds sad. “That is not true, I’m afraid. She was very good to you, but her lapse in morality goes far back. We had a very healing discussion before she went. She was fully aware of her crime, and welcomed the payment, when the time came.”

“I don’t believe you. I know of no such crime, and neither does anyone else. She had no fault deserving the hideous way you mutilated her” I feel myself getting angry, and I must get control. Quickly.

“Perhaps,” he whispers. Then nothing.

With that I sense that he is gone. If there is truth to his claim I will find it. I will find the answer to Nathaniel Mirras. Soon.

Year Two:

Determining the identity of my stepfather is of utmost importance. I interview the immediate neighbors first. They are no help. My stepfather was only with us a short time, so many of them simply never met him. I am amazed at how many people never knew that Mother had been married at all, let alone to two men! So I broaden my search to neighborhoods outside of mine. I have time. I am being looked after by our former boarder, now caretaker, Herr Doppelmacher, and by Andrew’s two living sisters. I have no financial needs, and very little accountability through my teenage years. I don’t engage in any school activities, and can simply walk the town.after school, run into whomever I might run into, and ask. Who was Mirras?

More importantly, who IS Mirras.

Nearly every day, I am met with blank stares. Pity. Everyone knew what had happened to Mother, and are uncomfortable talking to me of course. Often they look at me as though I’m mad, after all I must be under the circumstances, but so very few know anything about my stepfather. So they become afraid, that somehow speaking with me will guarantee them a similar fate. Sadly, that could be true. Children, outside playing with hula hoops and skateboards, are quickly rushed inside by suddenly frightened parents to avoid the lunatic girl looking for her father.

Most days it is embarassing, but lives are at stake, so I keep walking and I keep asking. Mother was private, and her life’s woes are not known to many. The events that I need to uncover are very very old, some possibly older than I am. Very few remember who he was and even fewer know or admit to where he is. And, because I am still a child, very few are willing to share with me the information I desperately need. They can’t possibly understand that my finding my father might be critical to saving many lives. Maybe even theirs.

Meanwhile, those I love move farther and farther away from me, yet not out of danger. Ellie becomes busy. Andrew simply ignores, and pretends I don’t exist. And every night, and every day, Nathaniel tortures me with the constant threat of their lives, and by disparaging Mother’s memory. I am losing hope…

Year Three:

Now that I am nearly an adult, I find that once hidden witnesses are willing to share. Many months of humiliation are now bearing fruit.

I wish I could tell you that I haven’t lost anyone else since Mother. I cannot. Nathaniel is a killer. I’ve lost still more people close to me, even if only by association. I am afraid that if I don’t find my stepfather soon that I will have no one else in life. My only hope is to locate him before I lose too many more to my non-corporeal killer. Every year brings still more loss and tears to another family, another brother, another mother another friend, for the simple sin that they knew me. Often they are so far on the periphery that the connection to me is unfathomable.

That is what drives me after nearly three frutiless years. Can I stop that next death, and all deaths beyond? Can I? I must.

The first day of my senior year of high school, Andrew talks to me. It isn’t a complete surprise. It is impossible to go anywhere in town and not run into everyone at some point. I had seen Andrew often over the summer, just walking, running errands. We didn’t speak then, but, on occasion he would look at me. I didn’t see pity. I didn’t see anger. I didn’t see fear. He would give me an inquisitive look, as though he hadn’t met me before. Then just before school started, he smiled. I had worked so hard to keep him at a distance, but honestly this smallest connection makes me happy.

It also makes me weak. It occurred to me that he was possessed. Of course. The sudden change of heart? It could only be that Nathaniel finally decided it was Andrew’s turn, and it was too late for me to find any more answers. I went to school that first day in dread. I can only wait for the horrible death that I know Nathaniel will make of him. Ellie and he approach me, all in smiles. I want to cry. I want to vomit. I consider how my own life will end knowing that Nathaniel will finally take the last connection between my heart and my spirit. I’m ready to give up.

It’s all small talk. Naturally. Ellie seems elated to tell me all about her summer. The many boys…the many boys…Damn Ellie! Her grades have been good enough to get accepted into college! She tells me how much she is looking forward to finishing up high school, and going to college to find a real man.

Well, she certainly isn’t possessed. Same Ellie. Damn Ellie!

But that isn’t the biggest news. Ellie practically sings, “Andrew, tell her!”

Andrew speaks. It’s still tentative. Nervous. He is acting normal. He grins somewhat, but he seems normal. He opens his eyes, and they are his soft eyes. The eyes I have loved since he was a baby. Maybe I’m wrong. I can’t believe that, but I begin to hope.

He says, quietly, but firmly, so that I can hear, “We’re going to the same school next year.”
“Well, sort of,” says Ellie excitedly, “we will be going to partner colleges close to each other. I hope you will be able to come to visit us, all the way in Rhode Island, Mira! I know it’s so far. But you must! I will miss you so much next year. Or, maybe you can come with. Come with us Mira! Keep it in mind when you decide on your school.”

And with that, a subtle grin and a shake of the head from Andrew, Ellie and her entourage sweep down the hallway, and out of sight. Just in time, as Ms. Laurenne Day was scampering down the hallway looking to punish the many miscreants of our school. It was the last I would see her for a very long time. It occurs to me that Andrew and Ellie may be dating. I can’t decide whether to cry or to introduce them both to Nathaniel at the next opportunity.

I duck into a side hallway and into the garage where the bad boys work on their cars. The garage is surprisingly quiet, except for the shop radio playing “Witch Doctor”, and empty, for this time of day. Yet there is Cooper, standing up against the wall, as though waiting for me. I say that tongue in cheek, because Cooper, and I’m sure most of the rest of those boys, aren’t bad. Cooper took to cars, wanting to know how they work, how they operated, how they could be controlled, I’m sure as a result of his experience with Kelly. It is a strong thing to do, and I find I admire him for finding this outlet for his grief. I’m also sure he works to find secrets to make the cars go very fast, in case he needed to ever get away. Fast.

Cooper is no longer the small boy, traumatized by his close experience with death. He is confident, and actually has grown to be a nice looking young man. If not for his demons, he would be a good companion for any girl. Not this girl, though, I’m afraid. I know his particular demon all too well.

He approaches me, smiles, gives me a quick little hug, saying “Hi, Mira.”

“Where is everyone,” I ask. “The garage is empty!”

The teacher is sick today, and no one scheduled a substitute, so everyone else is cutting. I’m on my way out myself. It’s only the first day, so I’m sure I won’t get in trouble.”

“I see.”

“So how did I do?” he asked.

“You mean with your car? I’m sure it’s very fast. Really, how should I know?”

“No, Mira. With Ellie. With Andrew.”

I’m not quite sure what he means.

Cooper’s voice is very even. “You see they’ve been talking about you for so long, especially Andrew…well, mostly Ellie of course. I’ve been telling them they should talk to you, act like it’s old times. I told them you missed them. That you are very sad. You are very sad Mira. I know.”

He comes closer. This is starting to not feel right. He gets up very close. Too close. He is looking right in my eyes.

“You see, Mira, you can like me now. Andrew, well, he’s moved on. He’ll probably end up with Ellie, which means he will never love you. So, Mira, I’ve made your friends like you again, and you can be only mine”

Why does every boy except Andrew do this to me? This isn’t like Cooper at all.

Damn it. Of course it isn’t. I can see it in his eyes. Cooper is lost.

“Cooper,” I whisper, hoping that part of him can hear me. “No.”

He pulls out a switchblade. Those are not allowed at school, but it is not unusual for some boys to carry them. Especially in the garage. He brings it close to my face.

“Cooper! Nathaniel, please.” I use his real name. I know it is him. I don’t know if he can use another body to harm me. Cooper is already dead. I’m sorry for that, because I know that he would not in his wildest dreams ever harm me.

But, this is Smoke, the chalky child now grown. This is Nathaniel Mirras. And he is a killer.

He brings the knife up to my hair, and quickly cuts a piece off at the root. I stifle a scream. I can’t let him know how scared I am. He then takes the blade over to my ear, the same as the one he is missing, and slowly slices the smallest part of the lobe off. I feel my blood begin to run down my neck. Now I scream as he backs away, and cuts an identical piece from his own ear, and holds both pieces carefully in his palm. He considers them both a moment. And smiles. Cooper smiles Nathaniel’s smile just before he leaves a body for dead. Will that happen now?

A commercial plays on the radio, for a credit card, stating in very serious tones, “Don’t leave home without it.”

His smile fades as he puts both pieces of ear, his and mine, in the front pocket of his pants. I want to vomit, from the pain and the disgusting fact that Nathaniel has put a piece of my body, my earlobe, into his pocket. He approaches me again, gets very close, and I can feel his otherworldly breath mixed with the oil from the shop. He grabs my shirt, raises the knife, and jams it, along with the top of my shirt, into the wall. Still smiling, he backs away, this time to one of the cars in the garage, closest to the open door, and gets in.

At this moment, Mr. Robinson, one of the teachers runs into the garage. He had heard me scream, and was just in time to see Cooper drive away from the scene. Then he sees the scene. Me. On the ground, wounded and bleeding. He puts pressure on my bleeding and calls for medical help.

Another commercial plays, “Look ma, no cavities!”

The police are called, and a fantastic chase ensues. Of course, that is what Nathaniel wanted. Cooper knew how to make cars go fast. No squad car would have caught up with him if he hadn’t wanted. But, of course, he did. He wanted Cooper’s end to be spectacular, to impress me. To remind me of his power. To warn the world of his strength. The end was in fact spectacular, as I heard from my hospital bed. The investigating officers informed me that he had driven them on a wild ride through town, ending, on Cooper’s own block. He ran the car at full speed into the oldest, most solid tree on the block. At full speed.

Cooper’s skull is smashed against the wheel, barely recognizable. His hands have nearly been separated from the wrists from awkwardly holding the steering wheel at the time of the collision. Nathaniel seems intent now to maim his victims as he is maimed. I can only imagine the terror Cooper experienced when Nathaniel released him, only to see his death in front of him. Then again, maybe he was already dead. It’s hard to know.

Some of the officers on the scene thought they could hear the voice of a young girl crying in pain. No one could see her of course. It was Kelly. Cooper and Kelly were finally reunited in the past, as was Nathaniel’s intention all along. This sick reality gave me new courage, to heal, and to renew my search for Mirras. What if he decides to reunite Frank and Ellie in this way?

My ear will never heal. They were not able to recover either of the pieces from Cooper’s body. They are gone. I will always have a physical reminder of this episode with Nathaniel, in addition to the emotional scars of having myself been so close to death at his hands. The kills were becoming even closer, and even more personal. I was sure he couldn’t possess me for long against my will, and I wouldn’t die if he did. I still wasn’t sure if he could provoke a host to kill me. But I now knew that they could hurt me. And I know that Nathaniel will hurt me. I know that he wants to.

I am told I don’t need to finish school this year, after my ordeal. I can still graduate, if I want to, with my class. I laugh. I won’t be going to college. My ordeal? If only they knew. Being away from school does allow me to keep those I love safe. More importantly, it allows me the time I need to find Mirras!

A week before my birthday:

I am on an unfamiliar block. I come across an older gentleman, who mows his lawn every day rain or shine. Every day. I don’t approach him at first. He looks like Mr. Clean, bald and strong, but has a constant scowl, and in truth I am intimidated. I spend two days watching him cut his grass before I develop enough courage to speak to him. Once I approach him, however, his entire demeanor changes. A huge smile, much like that of the real Mr. Clean, spreads across his face. He acts as though he has known me for years, has been expecting me, and is disappointed I haven’t come by for a visit much much earlier!

His name is Taylor. Garner Taylor. He is the oldest remaining homeowner in our town, and he claims to know everyone that lives here, and anyone that ever lived here. And he still mows his own lawn! He knows me. He knows Andrew. He knows Ellie. He even knew Cooper. And he knew Mother, and remembers her and her struggles from years past. He remembers how difficult it was for her when my father never returned. He remembers me as a baby, and still more. He remembers the man that came into Mother’s life, that loved her, and me, and helped us through the difficult times, and then left us. He remembers Mirras!

And Mr. Taylor knows why he left us. He is hesitant to tell me, until I explain the grisly end of Mother’s life, and her wish for me to find and know that man that GarnerTaylor knew to have loved her and me at one time. After two more days of afternoon conversation and positioning, a slow, intentional dance intended to transfer the lead from him to me, he finally breaks. He can’t imagine I would ever find peace with this information, with the facts too horrible. He refuses to share all of the details with me. But, finally, I wear him down to the point where he acknowledges my right to learn directly from the man himself the reason he left Mother and me. And he gives me a name.
Giuseppe Mirras. Joseph. My stepfather is Joe Mirras.

Today: October 4. My birthday.

And so it is after many years, I find myself outside the walls of State Prison, where resides the man Mirras, my stepfather, serving time for a crime no one is willing to speak out loud. It made sense suddenly that it took this long to find him. Being a child before today, I would have been denied access to see him. But now, October 4, my eighteenth birthday, the powers that be are compelled to allow me entry. I’m mature, and dressed in classy attire, with a fine dress, hat and scarf. I simply look old enough to visit a prison. And so they are compelled to allow me to see my stepfather, incarcerated for a deed I’ve yet to learn. It has been over sixteen years, so certainly he must be a murderer.

There seems to be something about the men in my family. They are all killers.

No one can believe that Joseph Mirras has a visitor. He hasn’t had one. Ever. Not even a lawyer. They are surprised to hear that I am his daughter. Very surprised. I am ushered into a small room, with a small table and two stools. Behind the table are two very strong chains. Their purpose becomes evident as they bring in a tall man, seat him at a small stool at the other side of the table, and immediately chain both of his hands securely to the wall behind him. It is meant for my protection. They ask if I would like them to stay while we talk, and of course I tell them no. We’d both be locked up here if they were to hear what I had to say. So they leave us. Alone.

I gaze at this man. His head is lowered, so all I see is long, wild, light but graying hair covering his face. We sit in silence for a moment. It seems that Joe Mirras is able to create a loud silence that discomforts me so, so I speak first.

“Mr. Mirras. Joe?”

He lifts his head up, not expecting a girl’s voice, I imagine.

Very clumsily, I say, “I’m…Um…I’m your…”

And very suddenly his eyes brighten and moisten. A feeble but joy-filled smile spreads across his face as he breathes, “Mira!”

I didn’t see it coming. It’s been so long since I’ve had someone smile at me that way. So long since I’ve had family. I’ve spent years searching for this man. Years of failure and death and loss, and uncertainty. And he knows me. Just by looking at me, he knows me. I didn’t see it coming.

And I crumble. In tears. He can’t get to me. Can’t comfort me from his chains.

“Dad…oh dad.”

“Mira,” he says, through tears of his own, “What on earth are you doing here?”

“Dad, I came to see you. I had to see you. Mom wanted me to find you, to meet you. I need to know what happened. What happened to us? What happened to you? Why are you here?”

“Hmmm…Mira that doesn’t sound like your mother. She wanted you to find me? To meet me? I can’t imagine that’s true. Has something happened?”

“Mother is…well, she died.” His face falls. “Finding you, meeting you was her last wish for me.”

“I see.” Joseph Mirras nods slightly.

“Why did you leave? I need to know what happened. I’m in some trouble, and I need to know.”

He sighs, then very calmly, and adoringly, says “Mira, you are just as beautiful as you were as a baby. Just as beautiful as your mother was when I met her.”

This time I allow the silence to bear the weight of my request. I want to know him, my father, but I need answers. And I need them quickly. Now, or sooner. So, I look him in the eyes and let the question hang, a deafening silence of my own.

“Mira, I’m so sorry for your troubles. What you need to know is that I didn’t love your mother when your father was alive. I knew her, and you to a degree, but we weren’t acquaintances. Then your father died, and you were all alone. She was beautiful, and you were a beautiful baby, and I fell in love very quickly. It wasn’t safe for your mother to keep her name at that point, so I married her, and gave her mine.”

This is an interesting piece of information, I think. I can’t imagine why mother would need to change our names. I’m tempted to interrupt, and learn more about this fact, but I don’t want to discourage him from speaking more.

“Mira, I loved you, and I loved your mother. I did not want to end up here. I wanted to stay, with you both. I wanted to be with you today when you celebrated your birthday, and every birthday up to this point. I had so little time…”

He’s stalling.

“Then what happened?” I implore, not crossly. “Dad…what happened?”

“Mira…things were not well at the house. I’m sure your mother never told you. But things were…not well. And I had to do something..and…”

At this point, tears are streaming down his face, as he looks directly on the many years he’s missed with me. With Mother. He means it!

“Mira…I did something horrible. I had to, but it was unforgivable. That’s why I’m here!”

With this, he breaks. He cannot lean forward for fear of breaking his arms, but his body slumps and shudders from the many years of guilt he has accumulated from that one act. For years, I’d assumed that Nathaniel took revenge on Mother for remarrying this man. But it seems it is much more than that. As much as I want to cry, and forgive, and just love my father in this very moment, I am sure that this one act must be the key to why Nathaniel is haunting me and killing anyone that knows me. This one unforgivable crime. And I must know.

“Dad.”

I wait. Just a moment.

“Dad. I really need you to tell me what it is. It’s important. My life…well…my life may depend on it. Dad. Please…”

And, with this, his bowed head nods, slightly, and still shaking lifts up to find my eyes. I see, briefly, in that moment, how much he always loved me.

“Mira…I…I need you to give me your scarf now.”
And with that, his eyes are gone. Nathaniel has him. Just like that, I’ve led Nathaniel and all my hopes to the only person that could help me against him. Nathaniel, the one who likely hates him most. The man I didn’t even know I’d missed my entire life, will be gone soon. I had only a moment to understand his intense love for Mother and me, and now I’ve killed him. And it will be horrible. In so many ways.

But why did he ask for my scarf? Oh. Yes, of course, how unoriginal. And I simply won’t give it to him.

Wait. Damn it!

Nathaniel is possessing me too. This is new. I didn’t know he could control more than one person at a time. The reality of that fills me with horror, almost as much horror as watching my hands undo my scarf, the one I picked out just to meet my father. I remove it, and watch my hands tie precisely the knot he needs. How do I even know how to do this? It leaves my hands, and floats to Joseph Mirras, resting, briefly, around his neck, as it had mine only seconds before. It then tightens around his neck, and he immediately struggles for air.

He doesn’t know what’s happening, but I do. I have only one chance. I must call to my father.

Firmly, I say, “Dad! Dad I can’t stop this. I can’t help you, but you can still help me. I need you to tell me what you did! You have to tell me now!”

I see him struggle, the other end of the scarf, suddenly long enough to reach the ceiling, and I want to cry. I want so much to jump over the table but I’m held fast. In this moment, and for the first time, I do not hear the cry of the chalky child as it claims its next victim.

Instead, he is laughing!

I’m screaming desperately. Surely someone will hear. The door! It’s locked. Somehow from the inside, and no one can get in. No one can help. I stay firm.

“Dad! Please. Tell me now!”

And as my Father’s body is lifted up, I see a glint. I see a moment of recognition as he looks at me deeply, and with the last remaining strength, he finally tells me his crime, which put him here, and which has led to his death in this moment.

“Mira…I…killed a baby….Mira I lo…”

With that, his body rises to the top of the ceiling, and the end of the scarf wraps itself around a low beam. As he rises, the chains rip Joseph’s hands off at the wrists, and he continues to rise until he reaches a certain point. Then, his body stops rising, drops suddenly, and hangs. Like any prison suicide. Like any murder. Except the body hung itself, and blood is pouring out onto the floor from his wrists. And there is only me, left with his final words. And his final words left unspoken, but understood.

“I love you too, Dad,” I quietly sob.

The door suddenly opens and I’m ushered out by a throng of guards, and into custody. Nobody knows how, but I somehow killed Joe Mirras the babykiller. Hung him up. A girl of my size, and a man of his. I can tell they are frightened and unsure, and they should be. Because I did kill him. Because I’m a fool.

I am imprisoned for only a few days. Then, I am released. The only thing I can tell is that despite the fact that nobody else could have killed him but I, that evidence simply just doesn’t make sense. So I’m told firmly not to leave the state, to stay at my home. To stay out of trouble. I laugh. If only they knew.

I am then sternly brought to the main office to process out, and immediately see the reason for my sudden release. Doppelmacher. He has come to my aid, made bail, somehow convinced the authorities to let a murderer into his care. But I’m grateful, and exhausted.

The entire car ride home I sleep.

Then the car stops, back at the home I grew up in, lost two fathers in, met my ghost in, and saw my mother murdered in. Now, my father, the one that I knew, is gone too. I look at Doppelmacher, at the wheel, and he slowly turns, and returns my gaze. But it isn’t disapproval on his face. There’s no anger, or disappointment. He, too, is adoring me. Like Joseph did. For only the second time in my life, and the second time this week, I am overcome by the love of an adult. For the second time, I weep unconftrollably.

Doppelmacher also weeps, and grabs my face and says, “No, oh no Mira. Stop. Please stop. My poor baby girl.”

And I allow myself the paternal comfort for a moment, as I regain my calm and my strength. I will need it for what’s next.

“Doppelmacher,” I say. “Thank you. Thank you…”

He smiles, and grunts a short laugh. “Mira, no. You don’t have to thank me. And you don’t need to call me that any more. My name is Rauch. Not Doppelmacher. Rauch. I’ve known your mother much longer than she let on, and I have known you for your whole life.”

A pause. A quiet one, much like the only quiet silences I am capable of. Then the silence, and all reality, break with his next words.

“I think it’s time we talk about your brother.”

There is something in his smile and his gaze that feels familiar, from a memory long forgotten, long before the appearance of the chalky child.

And then, suddenly, everything makes sense.

Part 6: Nathaniel

Tick…Tick…Tick…

There is my father. He staring at me, and I staring at him. Absent throughout my entire childhood, and yet, as an adult, he has become my most important, my only, source of support, at my most critical time. I feel surges of fear, and unbridled adoration, all at once. I want to cry. I also want to scream at him, because he is my father and dammit I should be entitled after eighteen years.

But the many emotions conflict amongst themselves, with passivity the final victor.

So we stare. Each digesting a lifetime of love with each glance, but for hours we only stare. What would we talk about? The Blackhawks won, but so did the damned Packers. I don’t terribly care about that, but those seem fitting topics to discuss with a father.

In this moment, Smoke decides to make his presence known. He says to me, with even tone, “Mira, who is this man? Is this our Father? Have you brought me all this way to meet our Father? It was no small satisfaction to take the life of Joseph, the man who took mine! And Mother! She allowed him to kill me. But, to be able to also punish the man that left us, with Mother, and that animal Joe? Oh Mira, Mira…I simply cannot wait to kill him!”

I wait a few moments. I have been here before, connecting with another human being solely for Nathaniel’s giddy pleasure at killing them.

I’ve given up on being able to save anyone. It is likely my other father, my birth father, will die tonight. Perhaps I can reason with Nathaniel, though. He has killed so many now in such a short time. Perhaps he tires of it. I know he is curious about himself, so maybe…

I speak to Nathaniel with my thoughts, as in a dream. “Nathaniel wait. Don’t kill him. Don’t kill our Father. He has had nothing to do with your pain, and besides, there is so much to be learned from him!” I hope it’s enough. My brain functions separately from my heart now. I’ve seen so much death. I don’t even consider the consequences any more, but only seek to find a strategy to keep my loved ones safe. It hasn’t worked so well up to this point, and it never even occurred to me to protect Doppelmacher. No, not Doppelmacher…

“Nathaniel. You are Nathaniel. That’s your name. Is that right?”

He shifts in the loveseat in our living room. Uncomfortably, the photo of Mother and Joseph Mirras, my stepfather, is in view. Even more disturbing is that the photo album, previously mine, with two “M’s”, on its cover signifying my name, Mira Mirras, is also in view. What makes it disturbing however, is that the upper “M” has lost its right leg, making it in fact an “N”. My life belongs to the killer Nathaniel Mirras, my ghost, who up to this point I had been certain was this man sitting across from me. I now know that is not true.

He considers me, my question, tilts his head and smiles, concealing none of his adoration for me, and answers. “Yes, Mira, I am Nathaniel. Nathaniel Rauch. Senior.”

The weight of his words is as light as the words that would soon be used by a President to encourage the nation to ask what they could do for their country rather than themselves. Father’s last word, “Senior” carries as much weight as a President’s inspiration to millions. But only to one. To me.

I have a brother.

Nathaniel Mirras is my dead, twin brother. And he is a killer. And now the events of my life begin to make some semblance of sense, as an angry sibling would surely torment his twin, even in death. And yet, Nathaniel Mirras has now killed way too many of my friends, and the family of my friends. And my family.

My stepfather, Joseph Mirras. Killed right in front of me. And Mother, mutilated beyond recognition. These were not simple sibling rivalry pranks. Nathaniel Junior is pissed off. I need to know why.

But.

Patience. Learn. Must first learn.

I query, “Nathaniel…sorry…Father…I was told you were dead. You died in war. How are you here? Where have you been?”

The unspoken question hangs. “Why did you leave us, to endure the murderous intentions of your son!”

He seems to understand, rubbing his chin over and over. He knows. He knows what I need to know. He just doesn’t know how to say it.

“Mira, schatze, the day you were born, was the happiest, and saddest day of my entire life. Your mother had a horribly difficult pregnancy. Many times we went to hospital to ease her pain, and determine if you were both okay. It was the two of you in your mother’s womb. Nathaniel, and you. Nathaniel was born after you, but would have been the elder child. Except, Mira, in utero, you…dominated him. By that I mean, we were told, that you took up most of the space in the womb, and much of the nourishment in the process, without intent of course except for survival. But you harmed Nathaniel. Nathaniel was born…underdeveloped…damaged.”

So there it was. The Chalky Child was Nathaniel, Nathaniel the second. My brother. Injured before his poor little life even began.

By me. This is all my fault.

Father continues, “Mira, when your brother and you were born I wept uncontrollably. You were the most beautiful child to ever have been born. Nathaniel however became a creature that no other human, outside of your Mother and me, could possibly love. He was born with substantial deficiencies. His cry was profound. He would destroy the souls of any with his enduring screams of misery and torment.

“But, of course, you know that already, don’t you?”

I nod.

I remain attentive, because I do not have the luxury of guilt right now. But now I know.

This is all my fault.

“Soon after you both were born, I was taken for war,” he continues. “I didn’t want to go of course, with my two new babies and Nathaniel’s incredible need. But, war is war, and I had to go. I was called. I wasn’t worried about you. You were healthy and happy. You were a complete joy to your mother, that could sustain her through Nathaniel’s need, and my absence. But Nathaniel…it just would not be so. Nathaniel, as I understand it, continued with his misery, and his tortured cries. He never slept and wouldn’t nurse. Imagine, a baby that never slept and never ate! But poor Nathaniel was in constant agony. Your mother, bless her very soul, could not manage you both on her own.”

I understand, but, “So, dad, Joseph Mirras. He came while you were gone?”

“Oh no Mira, no. Your mother was so strong, loving you and nurturing Nathaniel the best she could with his constant pain and need. But, Mira, I was a warrior. The day came when my unit was attacked, and, reportedly, all killed. In truth all my men were killed in that attack. I couldn’t save them, but I survived. Your mother remained strong, waiting for me. She would have been told I was dead, though, and certainly lost all hope. For me, for you, and for herself.

“Joe Mirras was my good friend. You were named after him! At the news I had died, he came in and loved you, and your mother, in my absence. Only after they were both certain I had died did they fall in love. And his love for your mother and you reflected his love for me. I am eternally indebted to Joe for his care that brought you to me today!”

There is clearly something missing. I attempt a loud silence.

It works!

Nathaniel Rauch knows what is missing from the story. Love for his son. For Nathaniel. For Smoke!

“Mira, this will be hard to hear. Nathaniel wasn’t only physically scarred from his birth. His scars were psychological. Emotional. Nathaniel from birth needed to control your mother, and you, with how miserable he was. He promised a life that would pay you for your sins in the womb, for dominating him, and damaging him. Nathaniel was your twin and in so many ways connected to you. But at the same time Mother was sure he hated you and he hated her. He was only a baby, but it was clear how much he hated Mother.”

This sinks in. Joseph. Mother. His only two adult victims so far.

“When your mother thought I was dead, Joseph came and cared for the three of you. I learned this from your mother when I returned from my self-imposed exile not that long ago. She told me that Nathaniel’s cry would echo in her head while she slept. It haunted her every moment of the day, whether she was with Nathaniel or without. His cry was inside of her. In her head when she slept, when she woke, when she fed him, when she worked, and while she made love. Nathaniel hated and haunted her, and after only a few months in the home, Joseph realized that Nathaniel’s influence was more than just of a child to its mother.

“Nathaniel intended to harm your mother, to kill her. That is why Joseph did what he did. He knew he would lose his entire life, but he also knew that Nathaniel would kill your mother, and likely you, in time. Certain of this, Joseph did what needed to be done to protect you, and your mother. He smothered him gently with a pillow. Nathaniel did not suffer, and was almost ruled as a victim of pneumonia. But, Joseph was caught, sent to prison, and paid the ultimate price it seems.”

Joe. Joseph Mirras, the baby killer. It all makes sense. He killed Nathaniel, as a baby, to protect Mother. To protect me. Joseph Mirras actually gave up his own, entire life out of love for Mother, and out of love for me, and out of love for Nathaniel Rauch, his friend and my father. As much as I feel love for my Father in this moment, my heart breaks for the man I met not long ago, my stepfather, Joseph Mirras, the man who gave his life for me. And my heart breaks that much more knowing that his sacrifice would come to nothing as the evil he would protect us from in life would continue to torment us in death. Smoke. The Chalky Child.

Nathaniel Mirras. The ghost. The killer.

But. There is more. I am sure. And there is now a faint smell in the room. Familiar. I have no time. Desperately I implore, “Father, why does he kill my friends? I understand Joseph, I suppose, but why did he kill Mother? Why my friends? Children? How could he hate me so much in death that he would kill children and innocents in the name of revenge? I don’t understand!”

Nathaniel Rauch, not Mirras, is silent for a moment. He begins stroking his chin again, clearly nervous, and clearly concerned. There is something still about Nathaniel the first, named Rauch, that I do not know. So much of my story involves only his absence, but I sense there is more I do not know. The key to the puzzle of Nathaniel Mirras.

Nathaniel grows deep worry lines on his forehead as he considers what next must be shared. He waits a few moments, and then considers that there is no way I would be able to intuit the truth.

My Father speaks. “Mira. I know why your brother torments us…you…even in death. He suffers for crimes I committed in war.”

The countenance of my brave warrior Father changes entirely. He has been strong and sure up to this point. But the reality of what he is to say next breaks him. His shoulders slump, along with his features. The smile carried by his love for me is now replaced with anguish and the pain of his guilt.

“Mira. I…I was a warrior. A soldier. In the Great War.

“But, I didn’t fight for this country.

“I was the enemy. I was a hero to our people, but in this war, our people were the enemy. I was a champion, and I delivered many…thousands to their deaths. And Mira, many of the people I brought to die were women. Many more were…children. They were families. The shame of that fact is why I disappeared when my unit was destroyed. I escaped, but I couldn’t escape my guilt. So I hid. Like a coward. When Joe married Mother, she had no choice but to change her name and yours…and Nathaniel’s, because Rauch was the name of a child killer and a coward. You would have been ostracized from society had you kept my name.”

Oh.

I knew of this. I’d studied the war in school, and it was very clear who the enemy was, and the horrors inflicted on not only the other side, but on its own people, including children. There were many camps famous for these atrocities. He, my Father, had brought numerous men, women and children to their deaths at the hands of monsters. The men in my family are monsters…

My Father was a monster!

This was unexpected, and suddenly I am ashamed of the man sitting across from me that I’d waited my entire life to meet. I cannot speak. What could I say? Yet, there is more.

“Mira. Has your brother ever mentioned seeing others, or hearing voices?”

Crap…

I nod. Yes. Yes, he is not alone where he is.

“Schatz…this is all my fault. I believe that where Nathaniel is, are also the voices and spirits of the children I brought to their deaths. Wherever poor Nathaniel ended up after he died, I think it is likely he is tormented by the cries of those I killed. The children. The ones that were…that died in the war. I imagine Nathaniel is haunted by the voices of those that lost their lives due to my actions. I believe he cannot silence their voices and is compelled to kill here in this reality. By harming you, he harms me, and I believe that may quiet the voices for a time. They seek your destruction because they seek mine. And…I deserve that. But you do not. You have spent your entire life paying for my crimes, and I’m so very sorry!”

At this, Nathaniel Rauch, Nathaniel Senior, collapses into a babbling mess. Of course he never intended for this to happen to me, but he is fully aware of his foolishness in buying into the politics of hate so many years ago. As hate often does, it devolved into even deeper, deadly, mindless hate. And now, my life and his, and the lives of Ellie and Andrew, are in the hands of a killer that can only quiet the voices of the dead by killing and exacting revenge on the living for decades old sin by punishing me. My father is to blame. He was a killer too. He is a fool.

“Father,” I finally say, as his words seep into the reality I’ve known my entire life, “What do I do now?” He already knows the answer. I do as well. I can do nothing.

But he can.

“Mira, my baby,” he finally states between uncontrolled sobs, “There is nothing for you to do. These are my crimes. I must pay for them myself, and free Nathaniel from his torture.”

I admire his courage despite his cowardice during the war. I know what is coming next, and so does my Father. And he embraces it. Though he fears his impending death, his conscience welcomes it. Even now I can smell a faint smell, escaped possibly from the smallest hole in the smallest pipe. At that moment, Nathaniel appears before me, seated next to our father, his grotesque excuse for an arm casually draped around our Father’s neck. Nathaniel Senior does not perceive his dead son, but he does perceive the sudden stifling fog.

Our home is a deathtrap. I need to leave. I need to leave my father.

As if reading my mind, but actually speaking from his heart, he states, “Mira, you must leave right away, and never come back. Do not ever look back. Do you have somewhere, anywhere you can go?

I nod. Yes.

Rhode Island. Ellie. I can go there. But will she be safe if I go to her? Will I also be too close to Andrew and put him in danger?

“Good,” says Nathaniel, “Mira you must go. You cannot stay here. And you cannot keep your name Mirras anymore. Like your mother many years ago, you must take on another name yet again. You cannot align yourself with the name Mirras any longer”. At this, Smoke leans in very close to Father, as if to listen though he has no ears to hear. He gets close to Father’s face and appears to smell our Father’s fear, and taste it, though missing nose and teeth. His toothless mouth curls up into a cruel grin.

Father does not see him. He perceives danger is near, but cannot see his son’s chalky form as I can, and so continues to encourage me. “Go to the ones you love. Be happy! You must go, Mira. I have something that I must do, now, to protect you.”

I know what that something is. I want to stop it, but also I consider that this sacrifice, decades after the war, will silence Smoke’s oppressors, and in turn also silence Smoke’s relentless madness. I do not want to lose my father so soon after realizing his existence. I don’t But, his loss may save the lives of everyone important to me that is still alive, and, truthfully, I would trade the life of this coward for theirs. For Ellie. For Andrew. That sounds cold, and it is. It is also a lie I tell my heart…

My Father’s features change suddenly. The adoring eyes of my true father go dim. Smoke’s pathetic webbed hands begin to caress our Father’s face at the ears, sickening, as though sizing them up to remove. I know that Nathaniel has him, has possessed him, my father, and will now kill him due to his crimes, and in the way that so many died at his hands. This, well, could be Nathaniel the second’s final revenge for the many that died, to silence the voices of the many children he brought to their deaths, so that they, and Nathaniel, could find peace.

The smell is stronger. Gas. It is loose in our home, permeating every corner, and I will lose both my Father and my house shortly.

Father, now one with Nathaniel Mirras, looks at me with Smoke’s eyes, clouded and dim, and says “Mira, it is not your time. You may leave. The business here is mine, and not yours. Go to Ellie. Go to Andrew.

“I will follow…”

With this, the body of Nathaniel Rauch, my father, convulses slightly. He indicates the door, and as he does, Smoke again touches Father’s face with his warped hands. With a quick matchstick motion, the entirety of Father’s skull is engulfed in flames. His hands reflexively move to protect his face, but as they do, Smoke also grabs them and they combust into nothing.

Father’s eyeballs melt and become flaming sockets before me, yet stare me toward the door of my home, encouraging me out while offering no opportunity for a final goodbye. Nathaniel Rauch is now to be punished for crimes long past, and it will be profoundly brutal. I am sure Father is allowed to feel the sting of each flame even though his body and mind are no longer his own.

My father screams as he is given his consciousness, his head and hands set ablaze, forced to be burned alive completely lucid. His is a mixture of begging for relief, and an understanding that the only life to be saved is mine by getting me out of my home, that is sure to burn quickly. Like an oven.

At the door, Father looks at me one last time, gasps, and states, in Smoke’s voice, “Mira, go!”

So, quickly I exit my home. I look back briefly to see the body of my father, on his knees, with flaming hands raised above his head ablaze, only to clutch briefly at his eyes and collapse. I run probably 500 feet without again looking back until I am well into the neighbors’ yard. From there I see my home, not yet engulfed in flames, but with smoke pouring from every exit. I no longer see Father, but know his body, now under the control of the killer, his son, Nathaniel Mirras, is melting inside. A proper death for his particular sins, yet still grisly nonetheless, and my heart breaks at the thought of his last action being to protect me.

A large plume of black smoke pours and rises from the center of my home, and I know that Nathaniel Rauch has now died. I can only hope it is both Nathaniels that have perished, finally paying back the atrocities performed so many years prior.

And then, as expected, Nathaniel Rauch’s torment and terror end, along with, hopefully, the terror of the killer Nathaniel Mirras, as my childhood home expands and erupts in an orgasm of heat and flame, only to calm seconds later. The spot where my home used to sit is a heavy panting of smoke and nothing more. All is gone. My memories. Mother. My photo album. My last photo of my hero, Joseph. My Father. All gone. I hear the echo of the chalky child’s laughter. Not his cry. His laughter. He has won.

I watch for a few eternal moments. Then I walk.

Away.

I must be away from this massacre and quickly before any connection is made between me, the home, and old Dopplemacher, my Father Nathaniel. I walk. I soon realize that I must have somewhere to go, and a means of getting there. I walk the major road out of town, with my thumb stuck out to entice, hopefully, a passing Samaritan that has not yet seen the smoke of my family’s final devastation. I must go. Go to Ellie. Go to Andrew. They are now my only hope.

The next few years are unremarkable. I am surprised to find that travel comes easy when one puts out their thumb. Particularly a girl, it seems. I am fortunate, as this mode of travel could easily end in tragedy, but, hell, who are you kidding? My brother is a killer ghost that destroys all in his path. I now, when asked, go by Mira Frank. I go by nothing when I am not asked.

As fortunate as I am to not be picked up by anyone with impure intentions, I am just as grateful that Nathaniel doesn’t possess and kill any of the kind strangers that help me. And I’m worried every time. Each driver that offers to take me some distance is unbelievably kind to me, exactly the kind that Nathaniel would relish killing. But, thankfully, it isn’t so, to my knowledge, and I begin to allow myself the small hope that perhaps the Chalky Child has found his peace in revenge and is gone forever.

It is, however, only a small hope.

I never realized how beautiful our country is. Driving through Indiana, stopping in the cafes of the small towns, the endless fields, the urban curiosities of Ohio, and the beauty of the East Coast charms, I feel for the first time in many years that I am safe. It takes nearly three years to traverse the distance to the microscopic Rhode Island. All that time, however, I am forced to live off of the kindness of strangers. But for each mile of the journey, a kind stranger is there. With food. With transportation. With a place to safely lay my head and sleep, though I hardly sleep, and never feel safe. And without danger and perpetually imminent death. I feel almost disappointed when at the end I finally reach Ellie’s college. She can’t possibly be expecting me, but I can hope that she will be happy to see me nonetheless.

She must. I have no other choice. But I truly hope Nathaniel Mirras is gone. Because I do not want to lose Ellie, and this puts her in a direct path to death. If I lose Ellie, I lose my truest friend in life. Then I have no other choice but to go to Andrew, my heart and true love. And that will probably cost him his life as well.

And then, if that happens, well, I will finally have no more to live for. There will be no one else to protect…

But neither Ellie nor Andrew deserve that. My small hope rears up again, that Nathaniel is gone amongst the ethereal vapors. I desperately need it to be true.

With little difficulty, I am ushered to Ellie’s room. Not surprisingly, Ellie is well known and loved on campus. The very first person I asked knew precisely where to take me, and it is at this moment I prepare to knock, and enter into the room of my best girlfriend that barely knows me. I take a very deep breath.

As I ready to knock, hoping beyond hope that my childhood friend will accept me now, after years of disconnect, and having stolen or essentially murdered all the loves of her life, the door swings open. I hear a very strange voice bellowing “Yessss! May I help you???” from presumably a television within. Through the door to Ellie’s room exits a small man, who stops to consider me thoughtfully, then turns to the occupant within and states, “Hey sweetheart, let me know if you want me to hook up your friend!” With that, he ambles down the hall, and a voice within moans, “Okay Timothy, whatever the hell you are talking about…”

My Ellie. No tolerance for the male foolishness, yet surrounded by males.

Then she sees me. She breathes, “Mira!”

But she does not get up from her comfortable spot on the loveseat in her dormitory abode. She remains still, save for her facial features, mostly her eyes that twitch and sparkle at my appearance. She begs me to come in and sit with her. She still loves me. She seems so tired though. So weak. My Ellie. My poor Ellie. I can only pray that this visit will rejuvenate us both, and not end in death for her at the hands of Nathaniel Mirras.

I find an open spot on her bed, otherwise covered in books and paraphernalia, and I sit. I consider Ellie for a moment, but she considers me for many more.

Finally, she speaks. “Mira, what are you doing here? I thought you were set at home. Maybe going to school. You had so many people taking care of you.”

It occurs to me that Ellie, my closest girlfriend in the world, actually has no idea of my struggles. She has no idea that I’ve met either of my fathers, let alone both. She would have no idea that either were found…or that they died, nor how.

So. I lie.

“Ellie, it’s just so great to see you. I’ve missed you more than you know. You invited me to visit you, and I’m so excited to be able to do that now!”

She smiles at this, but it is a dead smile. For a moment I am concerned that Nathaniel already has her. I don’t see him though, or sense him. Her eyes are strange, but not the dead eyes of Nathaniel’s prey, so for the moment I assume the best. I am wrong, of course, but not for the reasons I think. Ellie speaks. Her words are slurred and slow. Her head bobs awkwardly with each syllable.

“Mira, you know I love you. I have wanted the best for you since we were children. I still remember how you played with me in nursery school, after Bing died, when no one else would. I remember, and I love you for it. But Mira, you have stolen from me every hope of love my entire life. Bing was not your fault, of course, but Frank. You stole Frank from me. I understand it isn’t your fault that he did not want me, but dammit Mira why would you go with him? Why would you kiss him?

“I loved you more than myself, and yet when it came to boys you seemed only to care about the ones I wanted. Even over Andrew, which just didn’t make sense. And Cooper! Not only did you steal the boys I wanted, but they all died. Why Mira? Why?”

I check her eyes for signs of Nathaniel. There are none, and yet Ellie acts possessed. Curious, and frightening. Also she doesn’t move to try to harm herself or me. Maybe, just maybe…

“Mira. What happened to your ear?”

Oh. I’d forgotten about that. My ear had been mutilated in the incident with Cooper. It occurs to me now to just tell her. Dammit I’ve only had my father for all of ten minutes to talk about Smoke, and here is my best friend!

“Ellie…”

A silence. But not loud. This silence waits for me, is patient. Ellie seems stuck between wanting to know and her current stupor. I must tell her.

“I’m haunted.”

Just that. Ellie, from her perch, breathes in and out an effortless sigh.

“Oh. Yes. The ghost. The chalky one, yes I know.”

Wait…

What?

“Andrew told me all about it. I was pretty sure he was mad, but are you telling me it’s true?”

How in the living hell could Andrew know? How? Why tell Ellie? What?

I nod.

“Mira, honey, you are both totally crazy. There’s no ghost! Please! It’s just that you two fought over Frank, and it was a convenient excuse to stay apart, and…Mira…Oh no Mira I just…I…”

I check her eyes. I still can’t tell if Nathaniel has her. But then I spot the syringe lying on the opposite side of her adamant form. She is using. I don’t know if it’s Nathaniel or the many ways I’ve destroyed poor Ellie’s spirit, but she has spent her recent life trying to end it with chemicals. Her breaths are shallow and slow. This is new to me and I don’t know what to do. And I do not see Nathaniel near her. With Nathaniel I had no power, but I knew what was happening. This is a reaction to something she took, from Timothy most likely, and I suddenly feel more out of control than ever before.

Ellie coughs slightly and I go to her. Her pupils are small as the points of a pin. She slowly speaks of how her chemistry final was ruined by the ghost, and by Andrew. And by me. She tells me to be careful of my chalky ghost. That he will kill me. Oh, please, Ellie, she’s completely delusional! Then, she coughs again, a dry dry cough and I see the discoloration of her tongue and lips as her narrow eyes begin to twitch. As though in a sickening dance, her entire body twitches. Then convulses. I cannot hold her!

Then she goes still. And there she is. My Ellie. Not alive, but not dead. I don’t know what to do. So I scream. I scream for help and I cry Ellie’s name over and over. I have gone from building forgiveness from my dearest, sweetest friend, to losing her in an instant.

She isn’t moving, and has only shallow breaths, which finally after moments of laboring, end completely. A thin trickle of blood exits her nose, traveling to its endpoint at her open, discolored mouth. My Ellie is gone and I scream and I cry until finally help arrives.

It is too late. And I am not sure if it was Nathaniel that took her, or if she was unprepared for the concoction given her by Timothy and in effect took herself. It appears an unfortunate accident, and yet how could it have happened at the exact moment of my arrival! And of course, now I have no other course but to seek out Andrew, the very last person in my life I want to bring danger to.

Of course. I have no choice.

There are questions. Did the drugs come from me? Who is this Timothy? Did I know she was using? How did I happen to be here at this moment and was I using? Did I need medical attention and what was my name?

Damn what is my name? “Andrews. Mira Andrews” I stammer. It is enough. Unfortunately, drug deaths are not that uncommon, and I am clearly not using myself but appear to be an unfortunate bystander. I’m released back into the world to seek out my only last hope, the end of all of my trials, and possibly the end of all hope of happiness.

Andrew. Please forgive me. I have nowhere else to go.

Properly, from the room of one of Ellie’s dorm-mates, I hear the song “Hit the road Jack” play on the radio.

And don’t you come back no more. I steal a last look at Ellie. She had the hardest life. From her early childhood all but me were stolen from her. And I was the cause. I weep over her body, wetting her hair and her brows, and the blood collected at her lips, with the endlessness of my tears. And I still have no idea if Nathaniel took her from me, or if she took herself from me. But still my fault. Then, they cover Ellie, take her from me, and I am never to see her again. My Ellie. And I am alone.

I may no longer have even my ghost.

It isn’t far. The men’s college is close. After only a few directions asked I walk. After seeing Ellie eaten alive by either heroin or host, I decide to remain solo – no hitchhiking. I’m not even sure I want to approach Andrew. It is possible that Nathaniel no longer exists, but it is also possible that he is clever, hiding his involvement in my poor Ellie’s death to lure me to bring him to Andrew. Bastard…

I become very spiritual in my walk toward the men’s college. I think of my lessons from childhood in Sunday School. I recite the various verses forced upon me to learn and memorize for use later in life. I could use that help now.

I pray. Not for myself.

Suddenly, I am filled with hope. The lessons give me some small hope, as though of the verses themselves I have the solution to a decades old puzzle. I smile with a sudden confidence.

I arrive at the school needing Andrew now more than ever, but with hesitancy in my heart. I shouldn’t go. I should turn around and find the tallest bridge or building and jump. Certainly my death would save Andrew for good. But, Nathaniel is insatiable, and it may not make a difference.

Plus. I need him. I need Andrew now. So I go to him. It isn’t nearly as easy to find Andrew as he isn’t the talk of campus, but some small perseverance gets me to his door. As with Ellie I prepare to knock. But, this time, I actually must knock, and the process of deciding takes longer than it should.

But I knock. Andrew answers, opens his door. He considers me for a moment. It is clear that he recognizes me, but as one out of place in his current reality. His entire countenance changes when he sees me.

He is happy!

He notes, however, my worn appearance, from years of travel, and the day’s tragedies. He speaks my name softly, then gathers me up, and brings me in. He doesn’t lounge in a chair alone, but sits with me in his lap, holding my head, and waiting for the inevitable. He knows my visit brings bad news, but has only concern, and, yes, only love for me in this moment. He waits, then sighs. He is still smiling slightly and sweetly! The television rings with the sound of “Yabba Dabba Doo!”

I say it. “Ellie is dead…”

Andrew ceases stroking my hair for a moment. He considers. He then says, “I know. The college called here. I was on her list”

He seems to know damn well everything!

Now, Andrew gets serious. “Was it your ghost…that…chalky thing?”

Oh.

He really does know. But how?

I’m at my most vulnerable. This is the moment I’ve longed for since I was a toddler, and yet so close to being the most traumatic moment of my oft-traumatized life. Since he already knows all, I can only give him all the truth that I own in this moment, and hope. I can only hope that it remains like this.

“I don’t know. She was using heroin I guess. I don’t know if Smoke killed her or if she killed herself accidentally. I just don’t know, but Ellie is gone. My Ellie is dead!”

He says, “I know. I’m sorry Mira. I’m so sorry.”

Comfortable as I am, I must know. “How do you know about Smoke?”

Andrew tilts his head slightly and ponders, “Smoke? Who is that?”

Ah. “Smoke is my brother, my twin, died as a baby. His name is Nathaniel Mirras. He was…he died as a baby. He is a killer, a horrific, disfigured chalky monstrosity. He killed Mother, my Father and Stepfather, and the twins. Cooper. Bing…”

Andrew nods, and again holds me close.

Please, Smoke, please don’t take him. Please be gone!

“Mira, do you remember when Frank died?”

Yes. Of course. I nod.

“I was there. Or at least I felt I was. I saw Frank and you, I saw you kiss…”

When he says it, it hurts. That he saw it is so uncomfortable, and I’m again ashamed.

But he doesn’t dwell on it. “Somehow, I saw you, in a dream, I thought, in the path of a train. I thought you were going to die, and I couldn’t do anything to stop it. I was stuck in place. I was also so wounded that you chose him over me.”

I start to speak, to try to correct him, but he continues.

“I saw the train approach behind you, the speed and the lights becoming ever closer. I thought you would die, and I wanted to take your place. I couldn’t bear the thought of you dying. I tried to look away, thinking it was a dream! I tried to look away but was compelled, compelled to watch, and I braced for the train to hit you and tear you apart and my heart nearly died. But, as you know, you didn’t die. At just the moment before impact, this horrible creature comes out of your body. He is hideous, chalky, missing most of his face! He exits your body, smiles at me, and disappears!”

Suddenly I understand why Andrew avoided me for so long. And I’m grateful.

“Mira, as soon as he exited the body I thought was you, you turned into Frank, and the train…”

And that’s it. Andrew knew. The entire time.

“Mira, I thought it was my fault. It seemed to be a dream at the time, but it was so real, and when Frank was really dead I thought that I caused it! I couldn’t go to you. I didn’t know if the ghost was mine, and if it would kill you. I had to stay away. I’m so sorry Mira!”

And at this I’m reduced. I’m lost. I collapse in tears, both in joy and in sadness over the many years we lost, afraid for each other’s life. It seems unfair and yet in this moment it is all right. Andrew knew. He protected me the same way I protected him. By staying away. And now, many years later and hopefully absent the interference of the meddling, klller Nathaniel, I am finally reunited with my heart in this world. With Andrew. It will all be okay. I look deeply into his eyes. It will be okay.

But no. Suddenly, it is not.

Andrew, while even holding me, like Frank, and like Cooper, becomes the victim of Nathaniel’s possession. I see him. I feel him. Nathaniel is not dead, but as promised, has followed me to Andrew, so that he can complete the mission of destroying my life by killing him. Nathaniel will force me to witness the way he decides to mutilate Andrew’s features, his eyes and his ears. His mouth. How will he damage his hands? After my entire life, of dreaming for Andrew, and protecting him, and hoping, that damned bastard Nathaniel will take him from me! Then his revenge will be complete. He will have nothing left to torture me with.

Andrew, now become the visage of the eyeless noseless monster Smoke, looks at me, and with the evil in his socketless eyes says “Mira. It is time. You must be the one to end this, as you should have so many times and so many years ago. Kill him. End this, so that I may have peace!”

Bastard. I don’t care about your peace!

It’s okay. I wrap my hands around Andrew’s neck. It’s simple as he appears now the visage of the killer Smoke. Andrew’s eyes are far away and he’ll never know. I will then find some way to take myself. Nathaniel will have nothing more when I’m gone, and that is only some small comfort. The beautiful moment is gone. I was given so few.

Nathaniel Mirras’ hatred for me has no bounds. And he will destroy me by causing me to destroy Andrew. Nathaniel will certainly have me mutilate him as he did Mother. Only his intense hatred for me would induce him to have me do it myself. I won’t die right away, but will be responsible for the death of my heart. The laugh of the chalky child permeates the room as I prepare to separate Andrew from the habit of oxygen. It is over.

Except it is not. Nathaniel you fool! You cannot control me, and you cannot cause me to harm Andrew. You never could! I have the answer, and had it even before knocking on Andrew’s door! I know how to keep Andrew safe. I was not sure I could hide my intentions from Nathaniel long enough, but it seems that I have played this gambit perfectly. I leave my despondency and give a little smile of satisfaction, as Nathaniel realizes what I’m about to do.

In the background, a commercial intuitively speaks “Sorry Charlie.”

I have some power over Nathaniel in this world, and as I grasp Andrew’s neck, I draw Smoke into me. Out of Andrew. I have always had this power over Nathaniel, and I draw him into me. I began to realize it when he possessed me to kill my Stepfather Joseph Mirras. I see the twisted façade of my deranged dead brother leave Andrew and enter me, powerless.

Andrew returns, quickly shaking off the stupor of possession, and gazes at me. I can’t hold Smoke like this forever, so must act quickly. Andrew’s eyes are again mine, so I look into them and say, “Andrew, you idiot just kiss me!”

Genesis 2:24. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother, and they will join together. And they will become one flesh.

Andrew’s father and mother are definitely not here.

And, with Nathaniel safely stashed inside of me, powerless, I give myself to Andrew, and take him as mine. We become one flesh. And, in doing so, Andrew is now safe forever. He is of my flesh. Of me. One person. Like a twin, and in the same way Nathaniel cannot mortally harm me, he will no longer, ever, be able to mortally harm Andrew.

This is how, finally, I keep Andrew safe. Andrew, and all of my hopes and dreams for us, becomes mine. Becomes me. Our love of an entire lifetime becomes real, and will endure. Nathaniel is finally beaten.

I wish I had thought of this sooner…

As we love, I hear the voice of the Chalky Child. But it is not his laugh as he claims another victim, but rather an elongated, bestial cry of pained defeat, as he loses one forever. He is then silenced.

My name is Mira. My life, and the life of he that matters most to me in this world, is no longer in the hands of Nathaniel Mirras…

Part 7: War

Hoa Lo, 1970

I can barely see through the steam. The jungle is thick with fog and filth, and ultimately enemy soldiers looking to capture, torture, and kill us. We can barely see the target, and I must be sure we can complete our objective through the haze and daze.

“Travel should take you places!” Seems I heard that one time in an advertisement for some hotel. I look over at Pinball, my good friend, my brother in war, and his gaze of assertion gives me the courage to signal. “Go!” Pinball is our surveillance expert. He can bounce in and out of a target village, unseen and unnoticed, and have it sized up in under ten minutes.

We move slowly but stealthily, efficiently through the deep grass and mud. Quiet, ever so aware of the cost of a single mistake. Pinball, along with our capable information man Downlow, have scoped out our goal perfectly. Oh, certainly the village is protected. We know this small, unassuming village is well connected to our enemy, and effective speed is the key. The guards are small, but well armed.

Our solution is well armed as well. But he is not small. He is our enforcer, Goliath, large and strong. And fearless. Downlow, his good friend, would do whatever it takes to bring the best information to keep him safe, and give him the best chance of achieving his goal. Downlow has identified the strongest fortifications at the weakest point. He is the best at making casual conversation with the locals, and extracting critical information from those conversations.

While Pinball and I create a distraction, Goliath will do his work. His work is to kill many people. Quickly.

Quietly, he does his work.

Quickly and quietly we dispose of the guards at the gate. After that, it is all Goliath. Like a man possessed, he mows through no less than 9 enemy soldiers on his own. No weapons and no death. He simply overcomes them with his size and strength. NA, Dei Jaih, Downlow, Pinball and I take the rear, and quickly overcome the forces that protect this village, the keystone to the current battle plan..

We are quickly in control. The villagers that are not soldiers immediately attend to our needs, shuffling us to homes to shower, rest, and eat. The women, eerily calm, there, in the huts, ensure that every empty stomach is full. They allow us to rest after many months of uncertainly in battle. It is good.

Until suddenly, it is not. NA is the first to notice something is wrong. NA does not mean non-applicable, as you will see in much of the vernacular.

No. NA stands for Nasty Ass, which this guy is. He does not shower, does not present himself in any kind of a culturally acceptable way, even so far as the depressed culture of the lower Eastern lands. NA Is a fighter through and through. He hates the enemy, whoever the enemy may be. He is dirty, and he fights dirty.

Dei Jaih on the other hand is mild. It is nearly pronounced “DJ” so I will refer to him that way moving forward. He, at one time, was considered the enemy, and defected as our unit was being put together. DJ is our communications expert. He is able to connect with help no matter the circumstances, and is a master of military radios. He also understands the enemy language,

But it is NA who first notices something is not right. He is naturally hateful and paranoid, and refuses to accept that all is well when it seems to be. It’s easy to notice with NA. Despite the friendly gestures of the villagers, he scowls at them all, while sniffing the air like some grotesque smelly bloodhound. He is absolutely insane. Unfortunately, his senses are very good. And, in this case, his senses prove to be completely correct.

The enemy has succeeded in splitting us up. Pinball and I in one home, Goliath and Downlow in another. DJ and NA are in separate homes as well. While our surveillance of the village and immediate area has been perfect, this village is a key military target. Knowing that, the town had very effective plans in place, well practiced and automatic for the day they certainly would be invaded by American forces. The backup soldiers are quickly notified, and in reach to spoil our apparent success in merely hours. It took no time whatsoever for them to relieve us of our control, one or two at a time.

Then suddenly, we are no longer victors. We are prisoners in a very dangerous place, and any laws or rules governing the treatment of prisoners are not recognized here.

The next month is fraught with filth and torture. Rao Chu is the commanding officer in this village, a key location in this war for one reason only. It is where soldiers go to die. Rao Chu is well reputed for his glee in creative death, and lack of restraint. He likes to personally kill his prisoners and watch them die. We all knew of Rao Chu before even being drafted.

It is likely we will die here, unless help comes for us.

We are immediately beaten by the soldiers. Our hands, feet and faces are broken and opened under vicious pummeling. Even the guards whose lives Goliath spared took part in breaking our bodies, one at a time, as the others watched. Then for the first week we were each placed, two at a time, in Tiger Cages, and left to drown as they were placed in water with only inches at the top to breathe.

We manage, each of us, to survive these cages of death by holding each other up for periods while the other slept. An entire week is spent taking turns with short naps. And the best result that can be expected from this will be the dysentery we certainly contract from the disease-infested waters in which we now live, seeping into our open wounds. It is also the only water we have to drink, to wash down the occasional insect that is our only food.

But we survive the first week. All of us. After that, Goliath and Downlow are taken from their cages and marched away to some unknown location. We are never given any update on their conditions, or whether they are still alive. With such uncertainty, the human mind can only assume they have been tortured and killed in the cruelest manner. The human mind can only wait in certainly that one of us will be next, and eventually that one will be me. My mind spends many uncomfortable hours in that dire certainty.

Of course, the Nasty Ass has to speak his mind any time the enemy is around. He is paranoid, but also fearless. He is also careless and stupid. He harasses the guards when they come to see which of us may have died overnight. He insults their appearance, their military, their country and their mothers. The last part seems senseless, as these bastards could not possibly have mothers.

It is no surprise when, a week later, NA is taken. I can’t imagine we will ever see him again. They couldn’t possibly tolerate his mouth for long. Certainly they will mute him with a quick death even before being brought to torture. With him, DJ is also taken away. At this I am sad, because he is a defector. They will not let him live.

But for nearly a month, Pinball and I are left to wait, to hold each other up, to wonder of our comrades, and wait to be taken. We wait to die. I am grateful that at the end of my life, it is my good friend that I spend my last days with. I do miss my wife though. And my daughter.

Nearly a month.

And then. It is time. They come for us.

We are taken from our watery prison, emaciated and gaunt, and led to a hut in the center of the village. It is larger than all of the other huts, clearly the cornerstone building of the town. It is where American soldiers are taken to die. I expect to find all manner of torture there, and finally death. I expect an empty room with a firing squad or a single executioner standing over a chopping block. And I find all of those things, but yet more.

Our unit, our friends, are all there, alive. Not well. But alive.

DJ is most prominent. He has been positioned at a table in the center of the room. He is face down, and shackled by the wrists to each corner. He has clearly been tortured, and at first I am not sure if he is alive at all, but soon note the quick jerking of his shoulders from his heavy breaths. I mourn immediately for DJ. He is surely close to death.

Less prominent, but starkly apparent, is Goliath. His large body has been chained to the ceiling over a pit in the far corner. As Goliath is the strongest of us all, it is clear they intend to make an example of him. He is hung upside down, in nothing but his drawers. His sigh, heaving downward rather than up, a bizarre picture in contrast to his enormous strength. And, in the pit below, are fire ants, crawling up and down his body, biting and poisoning him by every inch. He attempts to raise his hands, to avoid giving a bridge to the ants, but it has been weeks, and his body tires, too weak to hold. It has become less painful to allow the ants access to his organs and nerves, than to hold himself up even another second. His body, red with welts, demonstrates his resignation.

NA is pinioned to the floor, spread eagled, also down to his drawers. He has a large rock positioned in his mouth. While Rao has not yet decided to kill him, our captors clearly became weary of his mouth. As we view the brutal scene, NA is doused with water. Clearly the time in the Tiger Cages did not wash off enough of the filth, and they see fit to rinse his profane body with both disdain and vigor. Even with the rock in his mouth, and the pain from the damage being done to his remaining teeth, you can see in the eyes of the Nasty Ass the hatred he has for his captors. No amount of torture or water will quell him.

Downlow is chained to the wall farthest from the entrance. He has not been stripped to his birthday suit, but is still adorned in the fatigues of his country’s military. To his right are two more sets of chains. It is to these, also within our uniforms, that Pinball and I are attached, myself in the middle and Pinball to my right. We are to watch the horrors to come, to beg for mercy or a quick death, for the small privilege of any information we may have of our Army’s strategy.

Then, enters Rao Chu, a killer of the magnitude of Nathaniel Mirras, but alive and real. He slowly strides into the hut, considering briefly the hung form of Goliath, then moving toward DJ at the table in the center of the room. From his central location, he views the three of us directly, myself, Downlow and Pinball. We are in the front row, and Rao is center stage. He looks over at NA and sneers, while placing his left hand atop the dark hair of DJ chained to the table. He briefly lifts DJ’s head, no longer able to communicate with either our forces or the enemy. He will share no more secrets, because when he lifts DJ up from his lounging position, we can see, the three of us, that his face has been brutalized, and his tongue removed. DJ is already dead, except only that he still barely breathes.

Rao, looking at us with an evil, smileless gaze, slowly lowers DJ’s head. We have seen the horror presented to him, which was Rao’s first goal. His second is to kill, to make an example of the defector. The traitor. To that end, he lifts up a machete positioned conveniently beside the table. He makes eye contact with each of us three, to ensure we are watching what comes next. Thankfully, the end is quick for DJ, as Rao Chu separates his head from his shoulders with a quick downward motion. Blood pours from the table to the floor, and when Rao is satisfied with the grisly display exiting his neck, he proceeds to chop his left hand at the cuff. Then his right, and DJ’s body falls from the table to the floor, at an angle, with each blow.

Dogtag: DJ. Dei Jaih. No Rank. No Religion. Blood Type AB

Goliath, facing the corner, hears the sound of DJ’s body hit the floor. He gurgles a sound, a request to see if any of us are near. If any of us are still alive. His body shudders, covered in blood and rash, then lays still. From across the room, Downlow sees his struggle, and from his chained position calls to him, to comfort him. To let him know he is safe. Goliath tenses at the sound of his friend’s voice, lifts his arms up barely inches and holds them in place for what seems like an hour but is barely half a minute. His sounds are guttural, but he is fighting.

Not to be disrespected, Rao Chu goes to Downlow and stands before him. He stares for a time, sizing him up to determine if the crime warrants death. Upon consideration, he strikes him with the handle of the machete, breaking his jaw. Downlow’s brief scream is heard by Goliath, who then relaxes his tense muscles in defeat, and allows his body to be consumed by hundreds of red ants, and to die. As Goliath screams a slight guttural scream, his body jerks and goes limp, Downlow sobs through a slack jaw and missing teeth.

Dogtag: Goliath. Leonard, “Len” Caster. Lance Corporal. Catholic. Blood Type O Positive

NA begins to struggle at his bonds, writhing along the floor like piranha in a school in a pool. He has, over time, managed to unwedge the rock in his mouth, though it had been tightly lodged, at the expense of the integrity of his jaw and many teeth. NA is angry, and no longer cares of his eventual future. NA is a bastard, but a loyal one, and the death of two of his unit, his friends, is more than he’ll allow to pass before he himself passes along.

His slurs to Rao are made uglier only by the fact that his mouth no longer works properly. If you taught a 12 month old to drop F Bombs all day, you would have a more coherent tirade than the filth pouring from NA’s bubbling maw. And yet, I love him for it. We all do, because even though the certainty of death looms near for NA, he has the fortitude to say precisely what we all think of Rao Chu, and his minions, and their mothers, many of whom were apparently farm animals, and the droppings of same.

I will miss him.

And Rao remains calm throughout. He seems to understand at times, and others not. His brow furrows when NA suggests that Rao is not better than “the left nut of your bitch sister’s honey badger lover.” Yet, his response is not anger, but still calm. And he approaches NA, tied to the floor, giving all his life is worth to demean his captors, and slowly, gently, replaces the rock into his mouth. NA struggles, but no longer has strength to continue. All in the room sense the end must be near for NA.

But instead, Rao speaks. In English. “You. You invade our home. Our village. You speak of honor and friendship and camaraderie. But you are here only to kill us, those of us not your comrades. And that I will not allow. You seek to disrespect with your tongue, but your disrespect will only cause death. Yours of course. In time.

And with that, he takes his Type 56 assault rifle, and raises it slightly to just above NA’s eyebrows. He gives a slight twitch to his left lip, almost a grin. Mostly a sneer. While no one on the planet would twist their features this way to indicate joy, it is clear that Rao gains pure enjoyment from playing with his prey before the kill. He then turns his rifle toward Downlow, and shoots him in the stomach, not killing him instantly. Downlow grimaces for minutes, keeping still. He is brave, and daring Rao to further disrespect the memory of his dead friend still hung in the corner, his body covered in ants. But Downlow’s features soften. His body slumps, as blood from the wide maw of his gut continues to pour.

Then, slowly, eventually, he is gone.

Dogtag: Downlow. Finn Alberts. Lance Corporal. Protestant. Blood Type O Negative

I expect Rao to address NA again, to let him know his folly in challenging him in front of his troops, and before us. But that was not his intention at all. He intended to deliver a message, not to NA, but to me. They spent the entire month learning about us, our ranks and personalities, what our strengths and who our friends are. Who would we die for? This message was meant to let me know that they knew I was in charge, and would not hesitate to mutilate Pinball if I should step the smallest bit outside of the circle of their control.

And to prove the point, Rao himself, walked over to where Downlow’s body now lifeless hung, and chose a large stone from the area where Downlow was chained, lifted it with both hands, and dropped it suddenly downward onto NA, splitting his skull where the rock had been lodged in his mouth. Despite his struggles and curses, he dies instantly. And yet, it has been said that a beheaded head can still process and see, as the body involuntarily convulses. I’m quite sure that despite his lifelessness, that I continued to hear NA bravely curse Rao and his troops for long minutes after his actual death.

Dogtag: NA. The Nasty Ass. Gabor. Private First Class. Jewish. Blood Type B Positive

And now, it is just Pinball. And me. And we are in the hands of Rao Chu.

And he is a killer.

Rao approaches us. Pinball and I are still upright and chained, with the hanging corpse of Downlow beside us. Rao unholsters his Walther P38, rarely found here, and slowly brings it up to Pinball’s temple, all the while staring deeply into my eyes. There is no pity, certainly no remorse in the dim eyes of Rao Chu. Only hatred, and a deep love of killing. I try to stay strong. There is no future in struggle and I will not risk Pinball’s life for the sake of a meaningless insult. His only hope is my resolve, I believe.

Yet I flinch…

Rao Chu becomes suddenly amused. He laughs heartily. It isn’t an unpleasant laugh at all, but one you might hear from an uncle telling you your first dirty joke. It’s as though we are in on the gag! Then, he calms, collects, and looks quickly at the remaining five soldiers in the hut with us. At his quick glance they all unholster their Type 59 pistols and train them on Pinball and myself…

Rao Chu then removes my limbs from their chains. What happens next takes only seconds.

Though unshackled, I stand still, hands at my side. Pinball and I do our best not to notice that Downlow has lost the contents of his bowels as blood and vomit pours from his mouth and nose. We stare straight ahead, fully anticipating our immediate execution while I am expected to stand and take it, unbound. And we are soldiers. That is how we will face our fate. And on cue, Rao steps to the side, leaving us to our personal space to die. Yet the shots do not come.

Instead, Rao walks over to the machete, upright, standing guard over the beheaded form of DJ. He picks it up, and returns to stand just before Pinball. While keeping his eye on me, he slowly raises the blade to the side of Pinball’s face, and with a quick, expert cut, slices off the ear closest to me. Pinball staggers, briefly, as blood pours down his side, then rights himself, and looks ahead. He stands with honor as I watch in horror. I cannot stand by and allow any more, as Rao places the blade below his chin. I will risk both our deaths to avoid any more humiliation and torture for my good friend and brother in war.

Yet I cannot move. Though unchained, an unseen force prevents me from raising a hand, a leg, or even to move my head. And this reality, familiar to me, and the events of the past month, begin to become clear. I am suddenly more afraid. We are not just prisoners of this war, meant to succumb to the torture of a living enemy madman. This is much much more. And I should have seen it coming.

Rao senses my recognition, but, keeping his eyes on me, does not smile. He presses the hilt of the machete into my hand, without a single fear that I will use it on him. I am able to move my head, as I’m meant to watch this, and glance, panicked and ashamed, at my friend. I cannot speak, so my sunken look will have to convey my silent apology.

I am no longer in control, as Rao places the blade again, perfectly, under Pinball’s chin. And as the soldiers, weapons drawn, look on in both wonder and sick merriment, giggling at the scene, the unseen force that held me still now forces me to move.

I shove the blade up into the skull of my good friend, ending his life. My hands then fall, leaving the blade sticking out the top of his head, and my senses retreat.

Nothing else that will happen from now on will make sense. I have killed Pinball. Rather, Nathaniel has.

Dogtag: Pinball. Nick Olson. Corporal. Protestant. Type O Negative.

Friend.

Damn you Nathaniel…

Finally, Rao’s features take on their true visage. That of the ghost, the killer, Nathaniel Mirras. He is no longer a war monger, but a pale, chalky being without hair, eyes or nose, only one ear, and a sunken leathery mouth without teeth. It’s true, Nathaniel could not kill me. But, like Mira, my wife, he now has control over all that I know and love. And he has control over me. He was able to possess me still, and compel me to kill my very best friend in this world.

And it occurs to me that he may be able to compel others to kill me. I wish I knew all that Mira knows, and had her experience with this monster.

And Rao smiles with glee at my recognition and my fear. He tilts his head backward and laughs the bestial laugh of the chalky child. As much a cry of pain as a laugh, my stomach releases its contents at the sight and sound of the pale killer. I mentally prepare for what must come next. I’ve lost my very good friend and brother, and my whole unit. It’s my fault they are gone.

And while I welcome my due for my stupidity, I still have Mira, and our daughter, that I desperately wish to see again, and hold. Yet Nathaniel is stronger than I am. I am too weak. He may compel me to kill our child, as he did Pinball. Perhaps this is better. They will both be safer if Nathaniel ends this now.

It seems that I will get my wish. The soldiers stand to attention as the chalky Chu ends his maniacal laughter. They each take their revolvers and point them at me. It appears that Nathaniel can coerce others to kill me. Not that they need coercion. But no noise emits from the multitude of arms. They do not fire. Then, Nathaniel-as-Rao does something unexpected.

He hands me his pistol, which my hand readily receives. He then stands back with a look of both humor and wonder on his face. The soldiers all have their arms trained on me, yet my arm is free to rise, taking aim at the possessed body of Rao Chu. Yet my finger is unable to place pressure on the trigger. The world stands still for a long moment with multiple guns trained on me yet without a shot being fired.

Suddenly, though my weapon remains trained on Rao, the soldiers each shift their aim, from me, to Rao, and to each other. As though a bizarre game of “Musical Munitions”, the weapons of all Rao’s men, stiffly switch targets, then shift again. They suddenly stop, together, each trained on a different target. I wonder which of the soldier’s bullets is trained on me.

There is little time to wonder as the guns all go off simultaneously. I feel my body being flung back onto the wall. The bodies of Rao and each soldier drop in unison, as if some bloody synchronized swim team, each with a gaping hole between the eyes. And I have no time to consider my fate as I am able to utter only one word before darkness overtakes me.

“Smoke…”

Dogtag: Geist. Andrew Rose. Sergeant. Killer. Agnostic. Type O negative…

East Coast America, 1970 (just prior to the events detailed above):

After decades of uncertainty, the years have finally been kind. Andrew and I, safe from the murderous intentions of Nathaniel, are married. We have a child, Maddisyn.

I was absolutely terrified of having twins.

But we have a single, beautiful baby girl. Andrew is completely smitten, and she completely owns him! In so many ways I am jealous of the love he has for our daughter, and yet I know it is but an extension of the love he has for me. It is as it should be. My life, marred from the beginning, became perfect.

Until the war…

It seems that all the men in my family are killers. Like my father, Nathaniel Rauch, Andrew is to become a hero in war. In Andrew’s defense, however, he was drafted. Like many of Andrew’s friends, Uncle Sam came knocking on the door for him.

Of all people, I should have known better than to open the door for a relative.

If only I could replace my beloved Andrew with my ghost, Nathaniel, I could not only keep him safe, but also ensure certain victory for our side. But the odds of Nathaniel finding his way so far east are slim.

I wish I could say that Andrew was disappointed in being drafted. But, he is a boy of our times, loves GI Joe, wants to go be a protector of freedom, and anti-communism everywhere. He also deeply cares for the lives of innocents, having lost so many friends and even his own sister because of me. Because of Smoke. Nathaniel Mirras is…was…a killer.

So, Andrew went to war. And I am afraid.

But Nathaniel no longer has the ability to kill Andrew, because Andrew and I are now one. And Nathaniel, Smoke, cannot kill me. So while I am afraid for Andrew, I know the worst in our lives has already come and gone, and Andrew’s fate is no different than any other soldier at risk. And our army is strong. I have faith.

I soon fall into slumber with these thoughts. My dreams each night are of course fraught with fear over Andrew’s possible demise in war. But each week I get a letter and know all is well. He is going deep this week, I know. But he is a good soldier. And Nathaniel cannot harm Andrew.

Something in my dreams tonight, however, feels off. Andrew is tortured and killed as in all of my dreams, but tonight the killer has Nathaniel’s face. I wake in the same sweat as always, and prepare for my day caring for Maddisyn. I can’t shake how different this feels though.

Something…

I begin to wonder why Nathaniel has not been in our lives these many years, torturing me. He can’t kill me, of course, or Andrew. But he couldn’t kill me before, and yet made my years unbearable. Perhaps he has this control over Andrew now! My dream, where Smoke has total control over Andrew’s environment, mirrors most of my life. Then suddenly I feel it. I sense Nathaniel.

I begin to see a small room, with a distorted Vietnamese soldier standing before me. Andrew. I’m seeing through Andrew’s eyes. The face of the soIdier slowly shifts from one of distortion to crystal clear reality. Damn it. Damn it, it’s Nathaniel! I see the mutilated and broken bodies of American soldiers scattered around the room, and a room full of enemies with their guns trained on me. On Andrew.

No.

No!

There is a sudden flurry, and everything goes black. Including my senses. Andrew is gone.

Part 8: Rivalry

I need work.

Now that I’m alone, I need to be able to provide for myself and my daughter, I need a job. I have some military compensation from the war and my…loss, but it will only go so far. I want to be able to provide the best for Maddisyn. She’s had a difficult young life already, and I hope for her to grow up with joy and accomplishment. Without fear.

It’s hard to grow up without a father

So I approach a tall, beautiful office building, the RSL Headquarters, and walk in. At reception I assure the sweet girl at the phones that I indeed have an appointment, and let her know where I’m expected. She directs me to a line of elevators, and wishes me luck. What a nice girl!

On the way up to the top floor, I practice my lines. I rehearse how I will sell my strengths and skills, sure to become a valuable asset to the company. And, just in case, I rehearse how I will beg for anything in the event things don’t go well. But, it turns out I have little to worry about. As the elevator doors open, there, waiting for me all the way at the top, is Jack Robinson, the President of Robinson Savings and Loan, and my former Math and Business Teacher from High School.

He is happy to see me, and wastes no time in giving me a huge, comforting hug, before leading me down to his office., the office of the President of one of the most successful S and L firms in New York. And he’s happy to see me not just because he is in desperate need of a new Administrative Assistant, but because he is a genuinely good man. He was a good teacher who cared for his students, and, being aware of my situation, and what happened with Andrew in Vietnam, was thrilled to be able to help me get back on my feet.

He invites me to relax into the plush seats of his vast office. And we talk. He doesn’t ask me a single question about the job. He simply takes stock of how I’ve been since school, and it is assumed that I will work as his Administrative Assistant. And he knows about Andrew, and the heart he had for a student years ago transfers into an extremely human act today.

What is interesting is that none of his purposes appear to be out of pity or…well…out of trying to take advantage of me. He simply sees my condition, and wants to be a part of allowing my daughter a safe and healthy childhood. After a few hours he ends the meeting and simply requests that I come in at 8am on Monday. He will allow me time to get after school care for Maddisyn resolved of course, and to let him know if I need any help. I spend the entire time holding back tears, because other than Andrew, Nathaniel my father, and Joe, my stepfather, I have not known such kindness.

Choosing after school care proves to be the most difficult hurdle. There aren’t very many in the area, to be frank, but choosing a caregiver for your most precious is heavy work for any parent, and especially a mother who is alone. But I didn’t want to let Jack down, so I got down to the heavy work.

The first school was very quiet and cute, with happy children studying, playing and engaged all around. Unfortunately, the teacher for the older children was named Nathan. There was just no way I could do it. The second school was a little more raucous. It quite seemed as though the inmates were running the asylum! But it was in a very convenient location proximate to our home, so I gave it my due diligence.

There was a set of twins in the classroom Maddisyn would be in. A girl and a boy. Nope.

In the third school, I noticed that the owner smoked. I know it’s a stretch. But no.

Finally, I settled on a school that was closer to where I would be working. It was very plain. Not special. Quiet. Boring, actually. It promised nothing in terms of field trips, tutoring, exceptional curriculum, or even highly educated staff. But it had no Nathaniels, no twins, and no ghosts! It was close to work, so I could get her easily if she were ever ill, and most importantly it was affordable. Done!

So, the following Monday I put Maddi on the school bus and set off for work. Mr. Robinson was very forgiving my first day. I had to learn to do everything the job required including answering a complicated phone system, taking messages and forwarding them properly, keeping a calendar and a schedule, trying to become a model employee and all the while knowing that my proficiency didn’t matter. It was fun. Even more, it became a career!

One of the problems I faced living where I did, were the gangs and the boys looking to cause trouble. There was a very trendy gang where I lived, and often the members would harass me when I would return from work at night. I’m a strong woman, that has lost friends and family to a killer ghost, and can handle the stress of violence quite well. But often they would approach me with their crass demands while I was with Maddi, and that upset me.

One night, not long after I started my job, two of the bangers, Staar and Skreem, approached me as I was coming home after a hard day. Staar was apparently the leader, such as it is, and Skreem earned his name just from having a big, filthy mouth. They made all of the typical disrespectful remarks about my body and what they’d like to do to it. I sent Maddisyn inside quickly so that I could face them. My mouth was harder than my heart, and I let them know precisely the brand of scum I took them for. Then Skreem showed me a knife and I retreated inside. This particular dance repeated for many months, but thankfully despite the threats and the discomfort, they never actually harmed my daughter or me.

Jack wasn’t interested in keeping me as an assistant forever, but wanted me to grow as a financial professional. Over the years he sponsored my education, and slowly gave me accounts to manage. He knew I was more competent than a secretary, and worked to allow me the freedom to grow into a much bigger role. Within five years, I was an expert financial planner in my own right. And it was fun!

That is when Smoke decided to appear.

”Hello Mira,” he seethed.

“What?”

“What a nice little life you’ve made for yourself. A great job and a great boss, and you have a wonderful little family!”

“Smoke, you’ve all but destroyed my family. All I have is my little girl and my job. I’ve worked, and I’ve worked hard to clean up the mess my life became after I lost Andrew. Because of you! I know. I know what happened to Andrew was your doing you heartless chalky little prick! Dammit! Damn it I’m sorry that our birth was so bad for you, and that you were born the way that you were. You’ve gotten even in spades, so just leave now. Leave me be!”

“Oh Mira,” is the unemotional reply from Nathaniel Mirras. “Mira you are responsible for everything that went wrong in my life. And you will continue to pay, with misery and loss, for the rest of yours. I’m so happy for your job and your child, and it’s true, there’s not much I can do with your job, unless you let me…”

“But there’s always your daughter, you little bitch. And you have the choice right now to decide which part of your life I will control, and ruin.”

With that, Nathaniel is gone. But his words echo mightily in the weeks to come, and I realize there is a choice I must make. I can put Jack and all of the other workers in the office at risk. After all he’s done, I would have to be an absolute ghoul to make that choice. My life is finally bearable, back on track, and in many ways happy, because of Jack Robinson. And Nathaniel is demanding I offer up Jack’s company, his friends, and his life, simply to satiate his murderous hunger.

But the other choice is the life of my child. It really is no choice.

So, I give in to Nathaniel. I allow him to possess me whenever he chooses. This has made for some very interesting events over time. At first, he didn’t use me as a contact for his victims, but rather as his window to a world he never was able to join. He enjoys the cutthroat nature of finance, and for a while, he removes enough of my professional inhibitions to allow me to become very very successful. In a strange, sick way, Nathaniel Mirras actually does much to provide for the future of his niece. All while dead!

There’s more to it of course. He compels me to agree to dates with men. Thankfully I don’t remember much, but what I don’t know fills me with guilt and regret for Andrew. He is still my only love, and while I’m sure he’d forgive my actions on behalf of our daughter, I’m not so sure I will ever forgive myself.

I’ve also gained a bit of a dangerous reputation at the office. Not violent, but aggressive. I become somebody very confident and secure, and one to be avoided at all costs. Success is very lonely. Jack even had to call me into his office to discuss my change in behavior. That hurt. It was also stressful because between his affirmations and admonishments, every moment of that meeting had me fearing for his life. But Jack Robinson’s death was not yet on Nathaniel’s agenda.

Then, today, when I went home, there was Staar and Skreem waiting for me. We would have our usual banter, but now they would wait until Maddi went inside, and it became more of a game. Skreem was still inappropriate, but Staar had begun to keep more control of him, and the remarks became almost…complimentary. Almost.

Tonight, Staar was in the frisky mood. He looks me up and down, and I can sense a change in his breathing. I would expect that from a normal teenage boy his age, but we knew each other, and it had never gone past words. But this time, Staar came very close to my face, with a look of salacious glee and said, “Hey beauty, I got something for that booty! How about you put that little girl to bed early and we can spend some quality time together.”

It sounds less like a question and more of a statement. I’m stunned at first, but decide to respond with one of my best comebacks.

“Staar,” I say, “You couldn’t satisfy me if you had a Snickers bar in your pants…”

And I thought that would be it. I was pretty proud of myself for coming up with that, but then immediately sorry I had said anything. Staar grabbed me and shoved me up against a wall, again getting very close. His voice seethed, “We’ll see who is satisfied tonight!”

And then it hit me. Staar had been getting more friendly for just nearly a month. At this point I realize that Smoke has him, and I am no longer afraid for my own safety, but his. I realize that Staar is going to die right now in front of me, and I kick myself for not seeing this sooner. He’s just a child himself! But, Nathaniel has not chosen to kill anyone that I work with yet, and though a child, Staar is a criminal, so in some ways I am grateful. I feel terrible for feeling that way. But at this point, Staar is Nathaniel, I can see it in his eyes, so all I can do is watch and wait for what will certainly come.

Poor Staar. He probably never knew love, and will never know it in this life.

Unexpectedly, Skreem comes to my aid. He begins hurling all manner of filth toward Staar, demanding that he let me go, and what the flying Hell is the matter with him? I suddenly find myself liking Skreem, the hopeless pig, just a little more. But I realize too that this act of genuine courage will likely also cost him his life. All I can do is watch. I have given control of my life to Nathaniel Mirras for the sake of my daughter. And he is a killer.

Staar does not immediately address Skreem. He continues to look into my eyes to be absolutely sure that I see that it is Nathaniel in charge here. Without letting me go, Staar looks over to Skreem and says, “Give me your knife!”

Skreem does not want to oblige, but Staar incites the name of someone called ‘Prime’ and Skreem hands him the large, dangerous blade. Staar, with the same crazed look stares at me for just a moment, then quickly turns around and plunges the blade deep into Skreem’s throat. Skreem was clearly not expecting this move, and his face shows confusion, betrayal and wonder, all at once, as the life passes from his body which then slumps to the ground. Then there are only the two of us left. And I know that Staar’s death will be brutal. The battle is not between Staar and me, but Nathaniel and Staar, and the young gang banger is assured to be the loser.

So Nathaniel turns to face me, the bloody dagger in hand, and stares at me, making sure I recognize him in the eyes of Staar, already devoid of life. The eyes of by brother, already long-dead, and I wonder how he will choose to now destroy Staar. Will he have me do it? Will he have me mutilate the boy to resemble the chalky child?

But Nathaniel says to me, “Well, Mira, it has been such a long time since I’ve had this much fun! Vietnam, I believe. This feels sooo good! And I promise you, I’m just getting started. Don’t get too close to anyone in your life. No one will escape me. You thought you had won with Andrew, by sleeping with him, you little whore! But all you did was give me the same power over Andrew that I have over you. And I was able to destroy him by destroying everyone around him that he cared about, right before his very eyes.

“Were you proud of yourself, Mira? Did you think you had beaten me? I carry all the hatred for you that I have held since the uterus! And I will destroy everything that I have created for you these past years. You will know the loss I have felt for the rest of your miserable life. So don’t get too close to those about to die. If you do, it will cost you the life of that sweet little girl of yours…”

He is right, of course. I saved Andrew by being with him, but in doing so all I did was open him up to the same curse I have endured my entire life. What a fool I am. And Nathaniel was right. I had been proud. That alone makes my misery that much more complete. But, I am doing the only thing I can do to keep Maddisyn safe. She is my first priority, so I have to sacrifice everyone else. My grief knows no limits, starting even with Skreem and Staar. But I have no choice.

Nathaniel speaks, and as he does, he takes the blade and turns it on himself. In the grisly fashion I have sadly become accustomed to, he plunges it first into his left eye socket, digging around and finally removing the eyeball itself! I literally lose my lunch at the sight of it. I can only hope that Staar is unable to feel the pain and trauma of this action.

As if reading my thoughts, Smoke continues, “No, Mira. Staar is under my control, but he feels all of the pain and fear that I create for him. He will die a truly agonizing death fitting for a piece of crap gang member of his like. He would have killed himself one day. Don’t waste your tears on this garbage!”

And as Nathaniel Mirras continues his tirade, he plunges the knife into the right eye, then removing it from the socket. I want to cry, to kill Nathaniel for the pain he is causing this poor boy. But I can do nothing. It is out of my control. Nathaniel Mirras is a killer, and he is plying his craft at this moment.

He then looks at me one final time. I say he looks at me, but having removed Staar’s eyes, it is really just a figure of speech. He glances my direction with a smile that mirrors both Nathaniel’s murderous glee, while reflecting at the same time, the pain the body of Staar is enduring. He smiles that smile of pure insanity, then inserts the blade into his mouth, under the tongue. I am sure he will force me to watch him cut out Staar’s tongue, to reflect Nathaniel’s deformed mouth. But he does much more. He pushes me to the side, ramming his head, the head of Staar, into the wall, at an angle that plunges the blade through the top of his skull. For only a moment, I see the pain and confusion of Staar, as his body finally gives in to the torture and simply falls before me, to the ground.

I am still standing over the bodies, in horror, as the police and medics arrive. As has always been the case, the cops overlook my involvement. They believe that Skreem attacked and mutilated Staar, and in defense of my life, I killed Skreem with a quick plunge into his throat. It was meant to look that way. After all, these were two menaces that threatened the well being of the community on a daily basis. The cops, and most of our neighbors, actually feel that I have done a great service. If only they knew.

So this is my life again. I am no longer in control, and can be assured that a large body count will be a part of my life once again. I was warned not to get to close to anyone in my life, but I begin to mourn them. All of them. Jack especially. He deserves so much better.

And the very next day, at work, I am surprised to see Ms. Laurenne Day, the Hall Monitor from high school, busily typing at my old desk. I was surprised to see her working at my job, but just as surprised to see her even alive after all these years! I’m guessing that will not last long.

You would think that she would be happy to see me as well, but such is not the case. As though I were running late to class, she flashes me a disapproving look and states, “Mr. Robinson is waiting to see you. You must go in right away.”

Good old Ms. Day. Nope. She won’t last long.

I enter Jack’s office, and he is beaming. He invites me to sit, and says, “I see you saw Ms. Day! How wonderful! She agreed to come out of retirement to help me out. You are now too busy to help with the administrative work, and she’s perfect. That old fussbudget will outlast us all!”

I doubt that. Seriously…

“But Mira, there is a reason I’ve called you in here.” His demeanor drops slightly. “I’ve called a meeting for tomorrow at 11am. We’ll have lunch delivered and work through the afternoon. There are things happening with the company that we need to strategize on. Absolutely unbelievable things! And even though you aren’t a senior member here you are definitely an integral part of our business, and I’d like you to attend.”

“Of course Jack,” I reply.

I can’t imagine what could be so important that Jack would call a meeting of all the division heads. The company doesn’t seem to be in any trouble, in fact we’ve been investing heavily for the past few years. But, whatever it is, it feels good to be included, and demonstrates Jack’s faith in my abilities. Maybe I am going to be given a promotion during the meeting!

These thoughts keep me up all night. I’m used to not sleeping, but oftentimes it is due to Smoke. I’m not used to being kept up over a happy excitement! In fact, this worries me to the point that I can’t sleep over the anxiety.

OK. That’s more like it.

The morning takes forever to come, but as soon as my eyes close it appears. I quickly get Maddisyn situated, and work on presenting myself for this meeting. Assuming there is news regarding our company’s growth, I want to be sure to put on as professional a face as possible. And, if this happy feeling is just an omen of my impending death, well…I want to look nice for whoever finds my body.

I make my way into work with what I think is plenty of time before the start of lunch. I enter the tall building housing RSL, and enter the first empty elevator. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stay empty for long, as it seems every floor has a stop and a single individual waiting to board. I recognize some of the people and wonder if they are heading for the same meeting. After the 15th stop I realize they are all heading to the meeting. I recognize Mr. Maximillian and Mr. Vincent, from finance. The elevator ride takes nearly ten minutes and we will all just make it.

The doors open, and the other men and women brush past me and quickly enter the boardroom. Nobody bothered to hold the door or wait for me. In fact, no one spoke the entire ride up. Now, suddenly, I am alone as I step out of the elevator, and into the sight of Ms. Laurenne Day. She is standing next to her desk, the unofficial welcome committee of the big meeting. She taps a worn-down, nubby #2 pencil on her desk, and looks at me with a strange grin. I would worry about Smoke upon seeing this grin, but it occurs to me that of all of the people in my life, Ms. Day always had Nathaniel’s look about her.

“You’re late, honey,” she practically sings. “You’d better get inside, or I’ll have to give you detention!” At this, she can no longer contain a series of inappropriate giggles. There is something already very ominous about this day, and this meeting, and I wonder if I should just turn back and go down the elevator. But, no, that won’t do. If Nathaniel Mirras is up to something today, it’s best I go along regardless of consequence. For my daughter.

I enter the boardroom.

It is surprisingly calm. And…normal. All of the division heads are seated around a large set of four rectangular tables, set up into another rectangle, with Jack seated at the head. “Mira, I’m so happy you could join us. We are just beginning lunch. Have a seat!” There is no irony in his voice, in fact it seems completely normal. I begin to think that maybe I was overreacting to my own fears, and that today would be a perfectly normal day of business. Business we were about to begin.

And yet, something seems off. The people seated around the table, including the head of investments, the head of finance, labor, AV, and Jack’s Vice President, along with all the other invitees all look back at me in unison, and as I take my seat toward the back, all turn again toward Jack. No one makes a sound or speaks a word. As though they had rushed past me in the elevator just to get into position to wait for me to arrive. It felt as though no one had said anything until Jack spoke to me.

And seated next to Jack is a young man, mid-twenties at most. He is not dressed in business attire, and in fact looks to be dressed similarly to Staar and Skreem. He doesn’t seem to belong here, yet holds a place of honor at the table. Very odd.

Lunch has arrived, and it is a simple lunch of soup and finger sandwiches. Everyone has soup and three small sandwiches set before them on little plates. Everyone has a small glass of ice water in identical crystal glasses as well. As I look around the room, I notice that no one is eating, or drinking. And even more, each of the three sandwiches before each of the members is arranged in precisely the same pattern. The soup and water are filled at what seems to be identical amounts in each glass and each bowl, and set with the sandwich plates at exactly the same distance from each other, and from the person sitting in front of them.

Except mine. And the young man seated next to Jack. My plate has only two sandwiches and my soup bowl is empty. My water glass is only half-filled. Conversely, the young man’s plate is filled high with sandwiches, and his bowl and cup are up to the top as well. He seems to notice this too, looking around, but he isn’t saying a word.

And still, no one is eating. I decide to test my suspicions by picking up my water glass, as if to take a drink.

“Hold on Mira,” says Jack, almost jubilantly. Everyone in the room appears in a trance, but Jack is in the same happy mood as yesterday, and ready to charm the audience it seems. “Let’s hold off on the meal for just a moment while I make some announcements.

“Folks, I’ve called you, my A Team, here today to celebrate the last day of Robinson Savings and Loan!”

Suddenly, the entire room erupts with laughter. Jack is making a joke?

“I can assure you all that after today this company will no longer be in operation,” he says again with absolutely no change in his tone. The room erupts with laughter again. What the hell?

“Okay, folks,” Jack asserts, though not forcefully, while waving his hands downward to indicate quiet. “Let’s keep it down to a dull roar!” Again, laughter.

This is bad. I’m beginning to wonder if the entire room is possessed by Nathaniel, other than the kid dressed as a gang-banger, and me.

Jack stands up, and as he does, the entire room stops laughing, but Jack maintains his confident smile and happy demeanor.

“You see folks,” he begins, “our long term loans we had issued have fixed interest rates. But those rates are lower than rates at which we can borrow. We have also been liable for all deposits at our higher, fixed rates. We have not been able to generate new capital for years now. Due to an oversight, however, we were able to invest in some speculative, well, we’ll say questionable, opportunities over that time. Those also failed, and we are insolvent. We are completely out of business!”

Again, the entire room roars with laughter. The board members and division heads are completely out of control, coughing with laughter, patting each others’ backs as tears of humor pour from their eyes. It is absolute bedlam! I wonder how much of this is Smoke’s fault. Not just the condition of the room, but the condition of the company. How much of Nathaniel’s meddling in the business through recent years has brought on this mess. The absolute destruction of Jack Robinson.

How much of this is my fault?

All of it, I suppose. It’s more than I can reasonably handle, and I need some air in order to see what comes next. But I am fixed to my seat. I realize that I’m being held by Nathaniel Mirras’ power right now, and I suspect that the young man seated next to Jack is under the same power. He doesn’t seem to be under the same spell as the rest, laughing and carrying on, yet he doesn’t move.

As though my thoughts could be heard out loud, Jack turns to the kid next to him, and as he does, Ms. Day enters, and takes a place on the opposite side of Jack Robinson. She has that crazed smile she had when I first stepped off the elevator, and I know she is also possessed.

I knew she wouldn’t last long. The old biddy.

Jack addresses the room, but looks straight at me, with a look of amusement. “Well, team, I’d like to present you with two gifts to celebrate our last day together. Beneath your plate, you will each find a crisp, new, $100 bill. It’s all yours. And allow me to introduce you to my friend here. His name is Prime Minister, a street name you’d call it, and he is the leader of one of the more prominent gangs here in our city. He has kindly provided us with our other gift, which you’ll find next to it!”

I lift my plate to find a white powder in one even line, next to a brand new bill. Before I can react, Ms. Day is next to me, grabbing the $100 note, rolling it up into a small straw. “You won’t be needing this honey!” she screams with glee and sucks the entire line of the powder through the expensive homemade straw, and into her nose. She ceases movement, then exhales, and takes her place again next to Jack.

At this, she begins to laugh much like the group had done many times during this meeting. And Jack says, “The hundred dollar bill is yours to do with as you please!” At this, all of the other members do the same as Laurenne Day, again with large bouts of shouting and laughter. The entire scene is chaotic, like something out of some future Gatsby, and I am still fixed to my chair.

“Mira,” says Jack, his face a mess of white powdery snot and tears, “it seems that you know some friends of Prime here. He tells me that you killed two of his men. Now…what shall we do about that?”

And again the crowd goes crazy, bloodthirsty, hoping that Jack will release the Prime Minister to have his way with the defenseless girl.

“Mr. Prime Minister. Would you like to address your grievance at this time?”

The boy called Prime Minister nods, and is suddenly able to move. He stands up, and sizes me up. He doesn’t really look like he wants revenge, but in fact has realized that he is in deeper waters than he has ever known. He tries to maintain a tough look, but his eyes show the truth of his fear. A quick glance toward the door betrays his true intentions, but it is too late. With Nathaniel Mirras, it is always too late. And Jack has produced a small revolver, from where I do not know, and quickly, gleefully, opens up the right side of the young man’s skull with a single shot.

Again, a cacophony of laughter. I’ve never seen Smoke cause such widespread, controlled chaos. This must be what Andrew experienced in Vietnam, in that hut, watching all of his friends tortured and killed. Like me, I doubt he feared what would happen to him, but rather thought about how much he would miss Maddisyn and me. That’s how I feel right now. Missing Andrew, and aching to hold my little girl again.

Jack, still standing, lifts his glass and announces, “A toast!”

The group of 12 around the table stand as one and lift their glasses with simple water in expensive crystal, and cheer, “A toast!” They all pause as one, in eager anticipation of what Jack would honor with a celebratory toast.

Jack smiles, his glass high in the air, matched by the group’s glasses as if all in one.

“To Nathaniel,” he states with majesty.

“To Nathaniel!” they all reply, Ms. Day cackling in the background, too far gone to participate in the toast. And, as one, the entire board, all the division heads, the vice-president, all drink the full drink as one, and scream in a furor, “To Natha…!”

But their voices are silenced within the last refrain. Their drinks have all been laced with cyanide, and their bodies writhe with impending death, though not now as one, and their mouths foam as the tainted liquid kills them all. Some begin to bleed from their mouths and noses, and many lose control of their bowels. Some slump on the table, and some fall to the floor. The body of the VP, Mr. Cygnus, gets caught halfway and hangs half off of his chair, his head scraping the ground. And all the while Laurenne Day laughs.

This is a bloodbath. I could never even imagine. And how the hell is Ms. Day still alive?

Suddenly, she stops laughing, and takes a composed stance next to Jack. Well, next to I assume Nathaniel at this point. Then she sits down next to him and somehow has a scissor in her hand. She begins to take pieces of her hair, and cut them off, small and large clumps at a time. Her eyes are dim, lifeless, as she quietly hums a tune I recognize from back in my childhood.

Jack looks at me, and I can see his features begin to melt into the horrendous features of Smoke. His eyes sink in and his nose and teeth simply vanish. He no longer has hair, and as he gestures I see his fingers have become connected, and webbed. His face becomes a smoky, chalky white. He hisses, “And now, Mira, it’s time to end today’s fun. I will end the life of Jack Robinson. I will kill him simply because he was kind to you.

“And can you guess the best part? I will leave this doddering old woman to take the fall! She will be deemed completely crazy, and charged with poisoning the drinks of the entire board. But she will be found to have done so under the influence of Jack himself, depressed and suicidal due to the fall of his company. He will be considered a mass murderer along with this old idiot, and his reputation will be tarnished even beyond the failure of his company. His family will then suffer too!

“And, Mira, and best of all, you will be set free. You will be found completely innocent, and free to build yet another life, with more success and more friends that I will completely destroy. And because you love your daughter, you will allow me to do this for the rest of your miserable life!”

Cue the chalky-child crying laughter. It is equal parts evil and pitiful. I have never felt so beaten, and can’t help but wonder if Nathaniel has considered that I really never asked to be his twin either. Logically even a killer would not hold his sister accountable for something that happened even before birth. But Smoke is a ghost, and a tortured one at that, so I suppose logic is too much to ask.

But he’s right. I have no choice but to allow him to continue to destroy my life and relationships all to protect my daughter. But the truth is, he can’t be trusted. Where is the scenario that ends with him leaving my daughter alone? What else can happen except that I eventually die, and Maddisyn, born of my flesh, simply becomes his next victim for another generation.

Nathaniel takes his pistol, and holds it up to Jack Robinson’s temple, on the same side that Nathaniel himself is missing an ear. I am unable to save yet another man who does not deserve this fate.

My left eye betrays a tear for Mr. Robinson, and all of the friends I have not yet made. But my right eye spots my water glass still on the table, and something Nathaniel said gives me an idea. I hope I am strong.

I take care not to look again at the glass. It is important that it stays where it is, full of water. I look directly at Nathaniel, and then quickly run toward him. Nathaniel causes Jack’s arm to aim the gun at me. But he forgets, he can’t kill me, and the moment he takes the gun off of Jack I am able to act.

I speak his name, and draw Nathaniel out of Jack Robinson and into me. I have to be strong! I’ve known for a while that I could compel Nathaniel to possess only me, for a time. I would have to control him for a longer time now, but Jack’s life depends on my being strong enough. My sudden movement causes Laurenne to drop her scissor and run through the door and out of the boardroom. I’m wrestling with Jack, who is stronger than I am, but not as a pawn of Nathaniel, and I make sure that Nathaniel is fully within me. Then I run out the door.

I expect to see an empty hallway, but instead I see feet. In just that brief moment, I find Laurenne Day hanging from above her desk. Her body swings back and forth rapidly, as though she were a near-expired piñata. She is still maniacally cackling, but the sounds of her laughter are frequently punctuated but the fact that she cannot get air past her rapidly tightening throat. I wish I could help her, but I’m afraid that deviating from my path in any way could endanger Jack. I will forever feel guilty for leaving her, but the greater good requires the sacrifice of Laurenne this day.

I race past the elevators. They will not take me where I need to go. I feel Smoke struggle to be released. It takes all of my concentration and will to keep him where he is, where I need him to be for what I hope to be my final move. I make it to the stairwell, and simply take it up one floor to the roof of the vast building. I go to the very edge, and look down, knowing that the tiny people below will soon seem much bigger.

Nathaniel screams in my head, “No! Stop, Mira! Don’t do this. We will both perish if you die with me this way!”

As I lift my hands sideways, look down, and then up, I say, “I know.” Then I bend my knees slightly and lean forward.

“Mira,” says Smoke in a panic. I’ve never heard him this way. I hear the cry of the chalky child deep in my mind. He is very scared and vulnerable. It is working. “Mira, what about your daughter?”

“Smoke,” I say, “it seems to me this is the most efficient way to protect my daughter.”

“Wait, Mira. Listen, if you do this, maybe I lose my connection in this world, but maybe I don’t. Can you take that chance? Can you be sure I won’t come back? Can you be sure that I won’t simply haunt Maddisyn?”

I smile, perilously close to the edge.

“Yes. I’m sure. You wouldn’t be so scared if it weren’t true.”

Silence.

Then, the killer Nathaniel Mirras bargains for his ethereal life. He says, “Okay Mira. You win. I don’t want to haunt or kill my niece. My grudge is with you. What do you want?”

Yes. I know. I win. “Okay Smoke, this is how it’s gonna be. You don’t ever, ever get anywhere near Andrew’s and my daughter. As far as you are concerned, she doesn’t exist. If I get even the sense that you are interfering in her life, it will be the end of you, I promise!”

“Also, however the rest of my life goes, you are no longer in control. I will make friends, and you will leave them be. In fact, you will mostly leave me be. I understand that your connection with me will be the only life you are able to enjoy, but killing my friends is off the table. Do you understand?”

After a short pause, Nathaniel Mirras, still under my control, begs, “But Mira, you know I have to kill. I have to silence the voices of the children our father killed. You can’t leave me to them. You may as well destroy us both!”

All right. I need to negotiate now. I’d like to take the moral priority, but the truth is, he has a point. He has no reason to leave Maddisyn and me be if the consequence is that he will suffer eternal torture. I have to throw him a bone. He is my brother, after all, and if my plan goes as it should, there should be ample, appropriate victims for him to spare.

“Smoke…”

“Mira, please don’t call me that…”

“Screw you, Smoke. You have never earned our father’s name. But, I suspect that if what I think will happen next does happen, there will be occasional opportunity for you to kill, if needed to quiet the voices that torture you. I do not want you tortured. I am your sister, and even though you do not deserve it, I would like to help you find peace. But, make no mistake, Nathaniel. If I even suspect that you are possessing me when I do not allow it, or threatening a single soul in my life that I consider a friend, or especially if you go anywhere near my daughter, I promise you I will take you and end you. I promise you!”

Silence.

Then, after a time, he speaks. “Agreed.”

And I do not simply have to believe him. He is my twin, and just as he knows that I will make good my threat to end both of our lives, I also know that he will keep his end of the deal for the foreseeable future. And, to protect my daughter, that is all I need.

The remaining events occur precisely as I had hoped. I am very fortunate that in all of the struggles my water glass remained unturned. As my fingerprints were on it, it was apparent to the authorities that I was the only one that did not drink from a poisoned glass. Laurenne Day, sadly, was no longer able to take the fall for all that had transpired. Jack Robinson, the kindest man I had known since Andrew and both of my fathers, survived! While his business was still in ruin, his reputation was intact, and in fact bolstered by these events.

What happened, as I had hoped, was that investigators would come to the conclusion that I was actually responsible for all of the killings. The prints on the mostly-filled glass showed that I intentionally did not drink the poison. The fact that I was found on the roof preparing to jump, proved that I was insane. Like with my stepfather, Joe Mirras, they were never able to discern how a girl like me could kill so many people. But in light of all of the evidence, there was simply no other explanation, and I was taken into custody.

Because, you know, no one believes in ghosts.

And I told my story. Why wouldn’t I? I told them about the chalky child, about my imaginary friend Smoke, and about the killer Nathaniel Mirras who was my twin marred at birth that spent his entire afterlife finding ways to torture and kill everyone I love. It was brilliant! And the wise powers that be, rather than prison, decide to send me to a state run institution, for the remainder of my days.


Credit: Nathaniel Mirras

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