Estimated reading time — 40 minutes
Greek: παράνοια (paranoia), “madness”, παρά (para), “beside”, νόος (noos), “mind”
For the sake of protecting my identity, as if it matters at this stage, I’ll tell you my name is Freddie. I’m 20 years old and at the time of these events I studied at a University in Southern England.
It started in December 2014. Being the typical lazy student that I was, more nights were spent socialising in the local pubs, clubs and nearby friend’s houses than actually studying for my course. On a particularly uneventful Wednesday afternoon nearing the holiday season, I spent a few hours browsing the internet for anything remotely stimulating to the mind. Anything to prevent me from having to do my necessary reading anyway. I decided to pull out my phone and check my account on Grindr. For those of you who aren’t in the know, Grindr is an internet based app where men can essentially send pictures of their genitals to unwitting strangers. Sounds sleazy I know but there were a few nuggets of gold buried under this app made up of genuine people, some of whom I had at that point considered friends. It is weird thinking about; chatting to an individual for months on end and learning intimate details about their lives without having ever met them in person. It’s even weirder considering I only lived within a few miles from them but I rationalise that’s how many people use these new age applications.
For the first 18 or so years of my life, I’d have called myself an introvert for lack of a better term. I didn’t really socialise and spent most of my childhood playing video games. When I think about it, I probably spent more time talking to random players over a headset than I did my own friends in real life. Since coming to university and discovering the beauty of the elixir commonly referred to as alcohol, I suppose I came out of my shell more. I could now talk to people I’d never met. I no longer stuttered and shook uncontrollably with a sudden cold sweat whenever caught unprepared in a conversation with a fellow drunk guy at a bar. Plus my general social anxiety became suddenly suppressed under this new found confidence. At this stage I think I’m straying from the story, so I’ll get back to the point.
I looked through the usual messages on this so-called “dating app” which mainly consisted of guys way too old for me asking me the same general questions over and over such as “Hi?”, “How are you?” and “What are you up to?”. As I had many times before, I rolled my eyes at their pathetic attempts to disguise their intentions of having sex with a younger guy and subsequently ignored their messages. Every so often, if I was bored, I would actually answer them. Usually with clear sarcasm or perhaps weird answers designed to disturb the guy in question and get an amusing response. I won’t deny this maybe sounds like a pretty dick thing for me to do but I justified it in my own mind as a natural response to what I saw as creepy intentions. I mean what does a 49 year old man expect from asking a 19 year old for sex? Perhaps I’m just ageist but for the sake of avoiding a flame war over such an issue, I’ll continue.
On this particular Wednesday I was having a few of the generic conversations with my so-called friends. Nothing eventful, just the occasional “lol” and bitching about work when I was messaged by a user I’d never seen before. Seeing that this app is based on location, it seemed a little strange I hadn’t noticed him before. Although at the time I figured he was just new to the area or even the app itself. The message was simply gibberish as if someone had pressed every available button on their phone and just sent it. Before responding, I clicked back and checked his profile. It was blank. Not exactly unusual since a lot of the men on there are in the closet and don’t want to share personal information on a public domain. However he had a username. It was “HaloFiend95”. As an avid Halo player myself and born in the year 95, I figured this guy was a fellow gamer around my age in the local area. The message was a little strange but I figured it must’ve either been a mistake or just an eccentric attempt at a joke. I decided to respond and will attempt to recreate the conversation below to the best of my memory. Bear in mind the time is also an estimation since I no longer have the original messages.
18:55 : (distorted gibberish)
19:05 : “Hi haha, what’s your name? I’m Freddie :)”
21:30 : “Hi Freddie, my name is Fred too”
At this stage I should point out the time gap is not really surprising. I just figured he had gone offline before I had a chance to respond.
21:45 : “Small world eh. How are you?”
21:47 : “I’m ok, hbu?”
21:48 : “Not bad cheers, so you up to much?”
21:50 : “No”
With this abrupt answer and a lack of response asking if I was up to anything, I decided to ask the question most people do on this application. I asked for a face picture. I received no answer for a while and just assumed that “Fred” had gone offline or had perhaps even lost interest in further conversation. Although it’s not a great boost to my own ego to say, I waited online for an answer. It’s not every day you meet someone your own age with an apparently similar interest in video games or at least it wasn’t for me. After about 15 minutes of engaging in mindless and disinterested conversation with my online associates, I received a message accompanied by a yellow star indicating that a favourite of mine had sent it. I opened my message folder and saw that it was indeed sent by HaloFiend95. Once I opened the appropriate chat however I received a strange photo. Expecting a general picture of a bored 19/20 year old guy, I instead received a single image of something I couldn’t quite make out. Pressing on the small picture icon to open it to full screen, my phone was suddenly filled with what I can only say was one of the startling things I could’ve expected. A severely disfigured face. I threw my phone onto my bed and let out a sound I’m thankful no-one was around to hear.
Luckily for me I owned a flip case for my phone made of fake leather which would make a snapping sound whenever I closed it. When I threw the phone the case closed and the screen was blocked from my view. I laid back in bed as my heart raced from the sudden shock. I reached over to grab a cigarette from my bedside. After several attempts to light it with sweating hands, I breathed and tried to calm my chest down. A few minutes passed as I looked down at my closed phone as if expecting it to jump out at me at any second when eventually I decided to take another look. Reaching over I slowly lifted the case at a distance so as not to be visually assaulted with the horrific picture I had previously seen. However I noticed the screen was now black. Annoyed, I realised that during the time I had been having my smoke my phone had gone into automatic lock down and I’d have to manually type in my passcode, meaning as soon as I did the picture would surely jump back up as soon as it loaded.
In hindsight I realise now I would have been better off simply resetting the phone which would put it back to the home page. However I was startled and didn’t think of this at the time. I slowly unlocked the phone underneath the case with trembling hands and as I saw the flash of colour from the picture I instinctively closed it again, allowing myself to view it in my own time. As I slowly lifted the case and more of the screen was brought into vision I realised my fears had not been a simple trick of the eye. A woman. Possibly in her mid-twenties. It was hard to tell from the rate of severe decomposition which had obviously taken place. Her mouth was disproportionately forced wide and her eyes were open in terror. Well “open” is one way of putting it, since the eyelids had been peeled away evidenced by clear cuts above. Her nose was broken and several of her front teeth were missing. What disturbed me most however was the blood, or rather the lack of it. Despite the obvious sagging of her rotting flesh, she seemed spotless as though someone had tended to the skin delicately and cleaned away any blood or fluids.
I won’t exaggerate at this stage and say I leaned over my bed to vomit. Truth be told I’d seen some rather sick shit on the internet before that but after a minute of staring at the gruesome sight I realised I was no longer seeing it. My eyes were open and I was looking straight at it but my mind seemed to fill my vision with blurs and visual thoughts. I suppose that must be some kind of defence mechanism the brain enacts when confronted with a disturbing sight but really I don’t know. Either way, when this delirium had passed, I immediately attempted to exit the photo. This took a couple of attempts due to the moisture attained on my fingertips from my previous sweat attack. Irritated and disturbed I became angry, frantically slamming my thumb onto the quit photo icon in the top corner. Seconds away from throwing my phone out of anger, the screen finally gave in and the photo closed to a thumbnail. During this time I noticed that HaloFiend95 had sent a follow up message simply stating, “Like it? ;)”.
Enraged, I closed the phone but kept the chat open. I reached out for my cigarette once more and took a drag, trying to gather my senses and come up with an appropriate response. My first thought was to call him every horrible word that came into my head but after another drag I realised this was probably what he wanted. Right, that’s exactly it, he’s probably just a troll trying to get a reaction by sending graphic photos he’s found. With this in mind, I simply decided to block him. I figured if I responded I’d just be serving right into his hands. The sick bastard. Soon enough his chats, along with that disgusting photo, were gone. I did my best to put it out of my mind as I laid back in bed.
As I finished the last drag of my cigarette I placed it in the ashtray and watched the embers burn for some minutes before they finally extinguished. I couldn’t get that picture out of my head and realised it was probably best to do something normal and get the whole unpleasant experience out of mind. I got out of bed, surprised at the weight of my feet on the ground and the sweat patch I had left behind on the sheets. My heart beat spiked a little but then receded back, still a slighter faster rate than normal but then again I wasn’t exactly feeling all that calm. I walked out of my room and headed over to my roommate Catherine’s door.
I had two roommates; George and Catherine. George was a pretty laid back guy. A little slow on the uptake as my mother would put it but a nice enough fellow. We usually spent most of our free time together honing our skills on the Xbox or hitting the local clubs where I’d help him hit on girls and he’d help me awkwardly attempt to do the same with guys. Catherine however was another story. George and I had known each other since first year in halls and when the time came to look for a place to live me, he and a friend of his looked for a place together. However his friend Terry dropped out last minute and we ended up with Catherine, who at that stage was a total stranger conveniently looking for anyone with a spare room. We needed a third person quick and she was available so we figured what’s the worst that can happen. What happened was we ended up with an undesirable roommate. Now maybe I’m being harsh. She’d do the dishes, generally tidy up after herself, pay her share of the bills etc. but she wasn’t exactly friendly. First time I met her after moving in I asked if I could call her Cathy. I received a stern “No” followed by her room door slammed in my face. After that George and I never really saw her unless it was the occasional passing by in the hallway or on the rare exception that she’d join us in the living room on gaming night. During these events she’d remain generally quiet except for the odd sigh and simple “no” if either of us asked if she wanted to join in.
George was out of town visiting family for the Christmas period and Catherine had clearly opted to stay in our student house rather than do the same. I figured she didn’t get on with her family any more than she did with us but wisely never pressed her on the subject. I knocked on her door lightly and received the general, “What do you want Freddie?” I asked to come in and heard her usual sigh followed by, “go on then”. I entered her room and saw her sitting in bed watching something on television. It was a documentary on the holocaust or something morbid like that to the best of my memory. She turned away from the screen to give me a stern look, “you smell like an ashtray” she grunted, looking disgusted. Well, hello to you too, I thought. “Was just wondering if you had any paper?” I said, thinking on the spot of something to say. It had never actually occurred to me till this point that I’d have to make a conversation and that was the only thing that came to mind. Catherine’s face seemed to soften slightly, a move no-one but myself or George would’ve noticed, and she nodded to her desk draw below the television. As I opened the draw I made a comment feigning interest in what she was watching and asked if I could join her. She made the slightest nod of her head and I proceeded to sit down awkwardly at the edge of her bed and watch whatever was on. My mind was still racing from earlier but I felt calmer with the company of another person, even as cold as that company was. A half hour passed and knowing I had exhausted my welcome I then left mumbling a quick “thanks” before closing her door on my way out.
I proceeded back to my room and laid in bed, physically and mentally drained. As an insomniac and generally nocturnal person, I didn’t sleep well at the best of times and that night was no exception. Tossing and turning, I eventually managed to doze off and by the time I woke up I had mostly forgotten about the events of the previous night.
The next week or so passed by slowly as university coursework came to bite me in the backside and I was kept rather busy in the campus library completing various tasks. As the work came to an end Christmas was only a few days away and the strained daily phone calls with my mother finally convinced me to visit home, around 100 miles north of my university’s location. The first few days at home were mainly filled with visiting various elderly relatives I hadn’t seen since the Christmas before. I’d sit and rehear the same bitching about hospitals and ancient stories I’d heard at least a dozen times since I was a kid. Christmas day was its usual dreaded event. My only brother was still the same spoiled brat, bawling over the cost of his presents. My dad’s general explosive temper over the tiniest thing hadn’t subsided in the slightest within the 12 months and my mother’s general overly fake attitude that everything was just dandy was still positively soul-crushing. It didn’t help she spent the whole of my visit constantly worrying that I was underweight and didn’t visit enough. You know, the usual Christmas cheer.
On the evening of Boxing Day I laid in bed in my old room and stared at the walls frustrated and bored. I’d even gotten to the stage that I actually started to miss the exasperated sigh that echoed from Catherine’s room every other hour like clockwork. I pulled out my phone and flicked through my stuff. I was just trying to find something I could use to alleviate my boredom until a time I felt I could go back to uni without upsetting my mum. As I went through my apps I came across Grindr. The memory of that encounter with HaloFiend95 still creeped me out when I thought about it but it’d been a couple weeks and I’d used the app since then without incident. I pressed it open and scrolled through the usual scene of depressed looking guys either desperately or hopelessly looking for love or those creepy thrill seekers with the kind of usernames I don’t think I can post on here. After exhausting all the nearby contacts I sighed before noticing a new one had emerged just recently. Again this isn’t unusual as sometimes a new contact is just located and thrown up into the app. Only this one had a username that made me feel suddenly nauseous. Yeah you guessed it, HaloFiend95.
What the fuck? I thought. I blocked this arsehole. A thought then occurred to me which suddenly made my blood run cold. This app is based on location…so how the fuck is he near me now when I’m 100 miles from where we last spoke? I tried my hardest to think of a rational explanation. I figured this was just some ridiculous prank or perhaps even a new internet trend of some sort. I was never exactly one of those ‘in the know’ people. Internet trends change every week. I mean apparently there was this one a couple of years ago where people just laid on their face and called it “planking”. Seriously, who knows what stupid shit people pull these days? Maybe donning this username and sending disturbing photos was just the new fad. Or maybe I was just being a cynical twat because that was easier than admitting that I was shitting myself that this was the same guy and that he had been following me.
As this raced through my head the number 1 then 2 flickered over his profile icon, indicating that he had sent me a couple of messages. Hesitating slightly but curious I clicked open the chat. This time I had taken a moment to mentally prepare myself for what to come. I saw the thumbnail for a picture followed by a piece of text simply reading “Hello Freddie”. With my chest pumping I decided to look at the picture, only this time by examining the small thumbnail rather than opening it to full screen. At first I thought it was the same horrific photograph but with a sinking feeling I realised it wasn’t. Same angle but a different face. A man possibly in his 40’s but to be honest I didn’t want to get a close enough look. However I do remember the gaping mouth and lack of eyelids just like the last one.
Even at the age of 19 it was easier to come out of the closet than to come out as a smoker to my parents. I was nicotine deprived and more than a little flustered as my fear quickly developed into anger. I sent a barrage of threatening messages to this individual, calling him every name under the sun. After a few minutes I set my phone down and quickly regretted my loss of temper. I saw a simple message pop up out of the corner of my eye and as I grabbed the phone I simply read “I know where you live…” as the message abruptly closed on me. This is what happens when the person you’re talking to blocks you. The full message he’d sent me was longer but I hadn’t had a chance to read it and now that the conversation was lost I guessed I never would. The words I read echoed through my head though. I know where you live… I got up and looked outside my window. I’d read enough horror stories online to know the evil maniac is typically standing there clutching a bloody knife. Then when you blink he vanishes from sight. However there was no maniac. There was nothing out of the ordinary for that matter to indicate any kind of impending danger. I shut the curtains and deleted Grindr from my phone. I then spent the rest of the night messaging George to see how his holidays were going. I even sent a text asking Catherine about hers and though the response was a typical “Going shit” it was nice just to be in contact.
The next morning I promptly made my awkward farewells. I almost entirely missed my brother and dad and when I went to give my mother an awkward kiss on the cheek she pulled me in for a clingy hug that lasted a little too long. I left the house thankful that I hadn’t brought anything bulky to carry for my stay. I readjusted my backpack and turned on some music through my headphones as I walked through town to the station. It wasn’t until I made it halfway there that I realised I hadn’t really seen anyone in town and besides that I kept noticing funny things out of the corner of my eye. I was walking down one road when I swear I saw the shape of a man standing there but when I turned it was just a tree with some inconveniently shaped branches. I rubbed my eyes and tried to blame it on fatigue but noticed that I was walking faster than my usual rate for the rest of the way. My heart nearly missed a beat out of joy when I finally came across the miserable looking ticket salesman who seemed visible irritated at my enthusiasm for small talk when making my purchase.
Once on the train it seemed empty but then again my home town wasn’t exactly busy and I figured that once we passed back through London on the way home people would slowly begin to fill the carriages. The train itself wasn’t one of these creepy old run down things that should have been in disuse. Quite the contrary. It looked rather new or at had least been refurbished in the recent months. I don’t know why but the lack of people in the carriage was exacerbated slightly by its attractive design. Shrugging it off I readjusted my earphones and dulled back into a daydream. Over the next few stops a couple of people had entered my carriage. The first was an elderly lady with a kind face who sat in the row next to me. She was busy routing through her handbag for one of those magazines with all the “real life” stories. I only know because my mother had been starting to read that same crap recently. The other was a young man no more than a few years older than myself. He was carrying some luggage and as he went to place it in the holding area he caught a glance of me checking him out. Embarrassed I looked away and awkwardly avoided eye contact with his part of the train, a difficult feat since he was in front of me. Eventually he sat down and as more stops passed by others came and went on the train.
I don’t know what it is about trains but they always make me tired. I believe it’s the gentle rocking motion and the white noise of gears turning and sure enough I soon found myself drifting off into a light sleep. My dreams were plagued with a low laughter and disturbing faces etched into the base of my subconscious. I must’ve been leaning on my phone because a loud boom of music burst through my ear drums. I awoke startled and when I did the train lights were on and it was darker outside. Too dark. I had gotten on this train around 11am and it was only meant to last a few hours, nowhere near enough time to reach what I guessed now the late evening. Looking out of the window confused I noticed a reflection in the glass window. It was the old lady staring directly at me. Taking a deep breathe I turned my head to find she was indeed looking towards me. I was too terrified to scream and let out a muffled gag as her saw her features. Her skin was sagging and her eyes were buried deep into her skull. Lacerations littered her skin which I could only see now as being nothing less than surgical. Precise cuts made with a very sharp blade, perhaps a scalpel. I thought for the longest time that she was dead before she began making a retching guttural noise from the back of her gaping mouth. “Are you ok dear?” I eventually made out she was saying. She reached a lifeless hand out for me and I finally found my voice again. I shrieked.
“Are you ok dear?” I opened my eyes to find the old lady staring at me once more. Only now she looked normal. “You were talking in your sleep sweetheart” she said in a kind tone although I could tell she seemed concerned. I looked down to see my earphones had fallen out and were blasting with music. I only now felt the ringing in my ears from the loud boom earlier. Disorientated and feeling a little sick and embarrassed I got up at the next stop which was thankfully only a minute away. I left the train doors ignoring the hard look the man in front was giving me and made my way onto the platform. Attempting to compose myself I entered a different carriage a few ones back from my previous seat and found this new one was relatively packed. Confused but with no desire to sit down again in case I fell asleep once more, I stood for the rest of the journey. Every now and then I caught sight of myself in the reflection of the glass doors. I looked ill and I could feel my shirt drenched in sweat. Damn I must’ve stunk and promptly spent the rest of the journey avoiding eye contact with the other passengers and ignoring their scrunched up faces in response to what I can only assume was my obvious body odour.
After a long and arduous journey back home I opened the door to see George and Catherine in the living room. “Freddie! How were your holidays mate?” George exclaimed as he brought me into a hug, which I only half-heartedly returned. “You look like shit” was all Catherine could find the interest to say. “I’m fine mate” I said, only just hearing the shakes in my voice and fully aware of how I must’ve looked. George frowned, “You know, I think you have a point there Cathy, you don’t look good there bud”. I rubbed I eyes and conceded, telling them I was going to get some sleep. As I left the room I heard the buzz of the TV start again and word “headshot!” echo through the house. All the while Catherine was grumbling under her breath loud enough for anyone to hear about how she hated being called Cathy.
After climbing the stairs and going into the bathroom I pulled my clothes off me, getting angry when they stuck to my skin and wouldn’t initially budge. I punched the wall in anger and immediately regretted doing so as I sat down on the toilet lid and held my now throbbing hand. “It’s just holiday stress” I whispered to myself. “And now talking to myself” I seemed to reply. I stood up and ran my hand under a cold tap then proceeded to splash some water on my face. Shuddering a little from the sudden temperature I grabbed a nearby hand towel and dried myself off in the mirror. Ever have that experience where you see something standing behind you in a mirror that isn’t actually there? Well that didn’t happen, but the thought of it sure as shit shot through my mind as I scanned the room. “I’m cracking up” I once again whispered to myself as I observed my reflection. Catherine wasn’t pulling any punches earlier. I did look like shit. My skin was pale apart from dark bags under my eyes, my hair was overgrown and messy and my skin was tight as though it had been stretched back behind my ears. I felt my stomach give a lurch and realised I hadn’t eaten anything that day but I was too exhausted to go back downstairs and engage in further conversation. I hobbled to my room and collapsed in bed, watching the clock go by hour after hour before eventually falling asleep.
The next few days passed as my health became worse. In fact the only times I ever left my room were either bathroom breaks or to collect food I’d ordered to sustain myself in my own little isolation. On the afternoon of New Year’s Eve I received a knock on my bedroom door. It was George wanting to know if I was coming out to a party that night. I said I wasn’t feeling well and he invited himself in. “Jesus, smells like old takeout and…Have you been smoking in here again?” I shrugged my shoulders and avoided the question. “C’mon mate, you’ve been in here for days” he moaned as he sat at the end of my bed. A little irritated at the sudden intrusion I snapped “Well Catherine spends most of her time in her room”. “Yeah well that’s Princess Cathy” he said, making sure to lower his voice for the last two words as he always did whenever calling her that. “And I’m bored. I don’t even really fancy going out but it’s better than doing fuck all-”. “Look, I’m not in the mood” I snapped again, cutting him off midway through his bitching. Looking surprised and a little offended, he got up and left the room mumbling “get better soon” as he closed the door.
I felt a little bad but pushed it out of my mind and tried to get back to sleep. As usual whenever I was faced with any kind of confrontation, I spent the next few hours replaying that conversation in my head and thinking of clever remarks or excuses I could’ve used which would’ve ended it on a friendlier note. I mean I could’ve just told him what had been happening but I figured he’d think I was going crazy. I mean it’s not every day you imagine disfigured people on the train, not for me anyway. With that final thought the image crept back into my head and it was like seeing it for the first time again. My heart gave a jolt and I stared paranoid around the room for any movement. My eyes found their way to the wardrobe. I hate wardrobes. They’re so eerie and obvious in all the horror stories I’d read. Always the hiding place of the serial axe murderer who skins children alive in their beds at night. I shuddered at the thought, fucking hated those things. Lost in that thought for a moment the door knocked once more and I swear I thought my heart was going to jump out of my chest. “Yes?” I called out feebly. The door opened and I gave a sigh of relief when Catherine came in. I mean who did I expect, Genghis Khan? She looked around the room and gave her usual disgusted look. “You need to air this place out…hang on, have you been smoking in here again?” I rolled my eyes and with my fear passing I was starting to feel a little annoyed once more. “Was there something you wanted?” She took a moment to answer, looking at me expressionlessly, “Yeah, George decided to just order pizza and play video games, you in?” “Well actually I was planning to-” “Cool, see you downstairs” as she closed the door behind her abruptly.
I lifted myself out of bed and groaned as my feet hit the ground. A sensation of pins and needles swept through my legs as usual whenever spending days at a time in bed. I threw on some pyjamas and a robe for warmth and headed downstairs. George was lounging back on one sofa with a controller in hand, playing some online video games while Catherine was curled up on the other, watching the screen intently. She reminded me of a cat sometimes, silent but always staring in a manner which suggested she was analysing everything in her field of vision. The stoic and general anti-social behaviour didn’t help much to refute this comparison either. As you may have already guessed, I’m not a cat person. In fact I’d say they’re on the same list as wardrobes for me.
I sat next to George and apologised for my earlier outburst. He told me not to worry about it and offered me a second controller. Over the next 40 minutes we opened some beers and proceeded to have a laugh playing some online matches. Even Catherine joined in, but promptly quit after her poor playing abilities produced childish sniggers from me and George. She didn’t seem to mind though and on more than one occasion I swear I thought I saw the outline of a smile on her face as me and George messed around. Eventually a knock on the door signalled that our food had arrived. “Mmmmmmm…Pizza…” George jumped from the sofa and imitated a monkey as he left the room. As I said, a funny guy but not exactly Isaac Newton. I sat there laughing for a moment as Catherine merely rolled her eyes at me when I heard a loud beep coming from the console followed by a notification reading “HaloFiend95 has sent you a message”. My heart stopped and my face froze mid laugh as I physically felt the colour drain from my face. I was broken from this phase as I heard George wish the pizza delivery man a happy new year followed by his footsteps back into the room. I looked over and saw Catherine staring me down with a suspicious gaze.
George walked back into the room and offered me some pizza. I shook my head but heard Catherine ask him to bring her a slice. I felt her eyes burning into the side of my head and when I looked over I saw that she had adjusted her position to look at me more clearly. Even as she ate her slice her eyes never once ventured from my face. It was the kind of look you’d expect a scientist to give to an ongoing experiment, studying every detail for the slightest change. George himself took a few moments to take in the tense situation he’d walked in on. “Erm…what’s going on?” When I didn’t answer he asked again. Half way through his third time asking in a now worried tone Catherine raised her free hand to silence him. She took her time to wipe her mouth and place her pizza slice on a napkin, never once looking away from me during. She gave a final swallow and cleared her throat before finally asking, “Who was that Freddie?” in a monotone voice which gave no clear indication of worry. Just cold clinical interest. “Who was what?” George interjected, now visibly confused and a little startled. Catherine once more raised her hand and George fell silent. When I didn’t answer she told him to open the messages and look at HaloFiend95’s. It read:
“Saw you on the train the other day. You didn’t say hello :(
That was rude wasn’t it?
Happy New Year xx”
George and Catherine spent several seconds staring at the screen. I looked over at George, whose confused face suddenly erupted into a sly smirk. “Oh…I get it. This your boyfriend or something?”. “George, shut up” interjected Catherine which quickly wiped the look from his face. “Freddie look at me”. We made eye contact and what surprised me most was the look she gave me. It was empathy. I don’t think I need to explain that was wasn’t an expression I was exactly used to seeing her make. I attempted to say what had been going on in the last few weeks but I kept stumbling over my words. “George get him a cigarette from his room”. While he was gone Catherine and I were left alone for an awkward minute or two. It was strange seeing her like this, for a moment I felt I actually preferred her cold side. Thankfully George came down soon enough and I started smoking. He sat down on an armchair and shot a look at Catherine to carry on. I told them everything that had happened, only now realising how crazy it all sounded once I said it out loud. George attempted to interrupt once but was quickly hushed by Catherine, who remained quietly in thought as I said my story.
As soon as I was finished talking George looked to the TV still displaying the message and then back to me. He stood up and pulled his phone from his back pocket and sat back down. “What are you doing?” It was the first thing Catherine had said since I started talking. George looked amazed, “I’m calling the police! What the fuck do you think I’m doing? Jesus, Freddie says this guy’s been stalking him for weeks and now he messages him here!” He looked at me and then Catherine. Catherine sighed and rubbed her forehead, “I’m sure Freddie has already called them about this. Right?” But one look from me was all she needed. George groaned and muttered something under his breath. Half an hour passed after George called 999 and the pizza remained pretty much untouched when a couple of police officers arrived at the house. They took some details from me about the texts and the images but claimed since I didn’t possess any of the latter and the only message was the one I had just received, I would probably be better off blocking this person on any social media. They said they’d use the information I had given them and told me to immediately report any further incidents.
Catherine showed them out after they had everything they needed and returned to the living room. George was furious, “They barely took any details!” he began pacing the room, “If you ask me they’re more interested in getting pissed for New Year’s than actually solving cri-”. “George!” Catherine shouted, “The reason they didn’t take many details is because they are barely any details Freddie can give!” George sat back down, looking scolded. She turned on me and I flinched expecting the same treatment. Her face softened but her tone was firm, “they’re right though, you have to report any further contact with this guy”. I nodded and we all returned to our original seats. I don’t know if 10 minutes passed or an hour before George finally asked if anyone wanted him to reheat the pizza. I half expected Catherine to storm out but with a sigh she actually agreed. I spent that night being convinced to pick at my food by Catherine while George shook off his earlier spike of anxiety and continued to play his games. I had long since lost interest in any such activities but joined in simply to maintain appearances in front of the two. Hours passed and the New Year had begun, not that we were celebrating. By 2am George had crashed on the sofa after having drank most of the beer we had. He’d never been one to handle his drink well and Catherine and I figured it’d be better to let him sleep it off downstairs. Covering him with a blanket and heading upstairs, we made our silent farewells and retreated to our rooms.
I laid in bed for hours, slowly allowing my eyes to adjust to the pitch black scenery as time rolled by. My eyes flickered every time a gust of wind blew through my window and disturbed the curtains, allowing traces of light from the outside lamp posts to dance across the room. Eventually I got out of bed and slammed the window shut but the low thud of it closing was drowned out by a sudden noise echoing through the house. A noise which made my blood run cold. An animalistic shriek, like a fox being torn to shreds. Without thinking I grabbed the nearest blunt object to me which happened to be a small steel weight bar. Sounds convenient I know that it was just lying around but maybe I’m just a paranoid fuck at the best of times. Regardless I wasn’t exactly cursing my luck as I flung my door open and found Catherine standing on the landing, eyes alert. I guess she hadn’t gotten any sleep either. I dashed down the stairs with the bar outstretched. Truth be told I was never exactly a fighter so how I planned to use this weapon if confronted with something remained to be seen. I turned the corner at the bottom of the stairs to see George huddled up on the sofa sobbing and nursing his face with his hands. The back door leading through to the garden was wide open and there seemed to be signs of a struggle littered all over the place. Glasses smashed, cupboard doors torn from the hinges and an overturned table. I placed the bar on the counter and ran over to check on George but found he didn’t have a scratch on him. No marks, bruises or lacerations. Nothing to suggest he’d been physical attacked at any rate. We tried to get something intelligible out of him but he only sobbed and ignored our pressing. At one point he lunged at me and it was only Catherine and my bar that she’d picked up that caused him to stop and retreat back to the foetal position and begin sobbing once more.
Catherine called the police to the house for the second time that night plus an ambulance for George. “Catatonic” was the word the paramedic used once they’d finally gotten him to enter the vehicle with them. The police remained for a short while after and only once the questions began being asked did we realise just how confusing the situation was. “So you heard this noise and woke up?” the officer in charge asked us. “No” Catherine replied, “We were both awake and when we heard the noise we came down to investigate”. “So when did you hear the glass shattering, was it before or after?” We looked at each other and I realised Catherine was thinking the same thing as me. This room looked like a bomb had gone off in it and we had both been wide awake just upstairs. How had we not heard any commotion? “We-erm…we don’t know” I replied weakly. The officer looked visibly perplexed and slightly irritated, “Have you been drinking tonight sir?” he asked me in a firm manner. “Well, yes…” his eyebrow raised, “but that was hours ago I swear”. “So how long after hearing Mr. Milligan in distress did it take you to come down?” At this stage Catherine thankfully interrupted before I could answer. “It was immediately, and I told you when you first came in that George didn’t make that noise. It sounded like an animal or something.” The officer wrote something down in his pad as his colleague stood up from examining the door and turned to us. “Sergeant, there’s no sign of forced entry. It seems to me that either the back door was unlocked or Mr. Milligan let the intruder in.”
The police sergeant and his constable left soon after followed by a few investigators who took some samples of the scene and scoped the furniture for any kind of prints. By the time Catherine and I were alone in the house together, the sun was already coming up and even the traumatic events of the last 24 hours couldn’t distract me from the fact I had barely slept a wink during this time. After doing a thorough sweep of the house and ensuring every door and window was securely closed and locked, I told Catherine I needed to get some shut eye. She told me she wasn’t tired and asked me if she could stay in my room for a while and do some work. Although playing it casual, I knew it didn’t take a genius to work out she was frightened and didn’t want to be alone. I won’t deny, I wasn’t too keen on the concept either and with relief agreed she could. She set up her laptop on my desk as I got into bed and closed my eyes, exhaustion quickly doing its part to send me to sleep. Only the low constant clicks of Catherine’s typing to fill my mind.
I dreamed I was walking downstairs to get a late night snack when I saw George on the sofa. He was huddled and shaking, making occasional whimpering noises and covering his face. As I approached him and asked what wrong he turned to me and let out the loud shriek from earlier. His eyelids appeared to be surgically removed and his mouth was gaping open as if his jaw had been forcibly dislocated, giving him a permanently terrified look. I awoke with a start and found Catherine prodding me. Apparently I’d been groaning and turning in my sleep and she wanted to see if I was ok. “Bad dream?” she asked in her usual monotone voice. “Yeah, something like that”. I rubbed my eyes and tried my best to ignore my sweaty hands and forehead. “What’s the time?” I yawned. “Just gone noon. Listen Freddie, you should know something happened earlier and I didn’t want to wake you at the time. You looked like you needed the sleep.” I sat up in bed as she continued. “I heard your phone beeping earlier and as I checked to turn off the noise I saw what it was. It was an email.” She had a pained expression on her face with that last sentence which said more than words ever could. “Was it him?” I asked. She nodded and sighed, “That sergeant from last night gave me his office number and I called to tell him. He told me the account has been deleted.” I swore under my breath. “What did the email say?” Catherine’s eyes seemed to fill with tears and for a second I felt time stop. I had never seen her this scared before. I tried to make the most comforting expression I could without revealing just how scared shitless I really was. I looked her in the eyes which for once weren’t staring directly at mine, but darting around anxiously. “Catherine. What did the email say?” I asked softly. “It said-” she took a few breaths and managed to compose herself a little, “It said George is going to die”.
I felt sick. Catherine and I spent several minutes in silence before I shot up out of my bed. “We have to see if he’s ok”. I pulled off my sweat soaked pyjamas as Catherine shielded her eyes. “I’ve already called the hospital and they said he can’t have visitors yet. I tried getting some information but all they said was that he was in some kind of shock.” I pulled on a shirt and went to grab my keys and wallet from the desk when Catherine grasped my hand firmly, “I know you’re worried for him Freddie. I am too. But the police are involved and they can handle it”. I snatched my hand away from hers with a little more force than I intended, though being Catherine she barely seemed to register it. “Well what should we do?” I asked in a defeated tone. She sighed and after a long pause looked at me, “I guess we wait”. 10 minutes passed before Catherine packed up her things and left the room. I didn’t blame her, she looked like she do with a nap at any rate. I supposed now some time had passed and the initial shock had worn off she felt safer on her own.
I went downstairs and found the living room still in the same state as the night before. I stood up the knocked over furniture and examined some of the cupboard doors. Most of them seemed fine besides minor paint work damage but a few had nearly been completely torn from the wall. It must’ve taken something strong to do this kind of damage. The kitchen had only been refurbished a few months before and a lot of the scenery was brand new, not exactly old and decaying. The landlord’s going to be pissed off that’s for sure. I got to my knees and scoured the floor, sweeping up all the broken glass scattered around. I worked my way towards the sofa where we’d found George and noticed there was glass underneath. Groaning I pulled the furniture out and away from the wall to get a better look. However amongst all the old mothballs, bottle caps and other bits and pieces that had found their way under here in the previous months there was a scrap of paper. I picked it up and saw it was an old receipt from the local newsagents for a load of frozen pizzas. George, I thought amused, he’d never learned to bloody cook and always ate this processed crap. For a moment I’d almost forgotten reality and allowed myself to smile a little before I realised there was writing on the other side.
“It lives in the walls. Preys on those alone. Don’t think about it and don’t look at it.”
Now I won’t deny that creeped the fuck out of me. I mean it was definitely George’s handwriting, albeit heavy and rushed like he’d scrawled it in a hurry. But what did he mean? It lives in the walls. I scanned the room slowly. Did he mean it was inside the house? Preys on those alone. My eyes shot open as I stuffed the paper into my pocket and sprinted towards the stairs, taking two at a time until I reached the top of the landing and burst through Catherine’s door. Expecting a scene similar to last night I was instead greeted by a panicked scream and a blunt strike to the head. “Freddie! What the fuck!?” I heard Catherine shout. Panting from the quick sprint from downstairs and now nursing a headache all I could manage was, “Downstairs…thought you were…in danger. Ow did you throw a fucking book at my face?”. “Psychology for second year” she replied in a disinterested tone, though I could tell she was trying to mask a layer of amusement in her voice. She stood over me as I sat on the edge of her bed and she lifted my chin to get a better look. “Hardback edition” she added with the hint of a smirk. “You’re bleeding a little but you don’t seem concussed”. She walked over to her desk and brought out a first aid kit. “Now what was so important you had to storm in here?” As she tended to the cut on my forehead I read her the note that George had written but to my surprise she didn’t seem taken aback. “I don’t know Freddie” she frowned. “George wasn’t exactly in the right frame of mind when he wrote that.” I argued that we had to find out what he meant by it. “Well you can ask him yourself” she said with a small smile. “Got a call from the hospital a little while ago. They’ve said we can visit him tomorrow.”
The visiting times for the local wards was 9am so Catherine and I woke up a couple of hours earlier to get there as soon as possible. It was a tense breakfast. Neither of us had any particular appetite and although the mess had been cleaned up and the cupboards were temporarily back in place, there was an unsettling feeling in the house. Somebody had broken into our home and even now life was meant to be carrying on, all I could feel was violation and humiliation lurking in the walls downstairs. I could tell Catherine felt it too, which was why she waited for me to get ready and accompany her before taking a single step down the stairs that morning. Eventually we gave up picking at our food and after checking and then double checking that every window and door was closed we decided to waste no time setting out.
A cold gust of winter breeze kissed my face and I realised that I hadn’t actually left the house once since getting back just after Boxing Day. Several days of being trapped indoors with nothing but artificial light had taken their toll on my vision and it took several minutes for my eyes to adjust to the sunlight. Ignoring the initial sense of nausea, we quickly made our way through town without incident. Eventually we arrived at the hospital to find we were still early. A nurse directed us to sit down in a waiting room as minutes of watching that loud morbid clock that every hospital room seems to possess ticked slowly by. At 5 minutes to 9 the nurse led another person into the room to join us. “Freddie!” was all I heard before being pulled into a tight hug. When released and finally able to breathe I recognised the figure of George’s mother. Although a kind woman, Mrs. Milligan was often the subject of horror stories by George who would talk for hours about how his mother’s over protective attitude and general hypochondria had often kept him out of school and generally disturbed the happier days of his childhood. However it was difficult not to feel bad for her. The death of George’s father many years ago had clearly taken a toll on her mental wellbeing and her over-protectiveness of her son seemed to be result of him being the only family she had left. I’d given up trying to trying to explain this to George though, since he’d just start rambling about the time she pulled him from school for a month because she was worried about E.coli breaking out in Southern England.
After several minutes of hearing her rapidly speak in a worried tone to the attending nurse, who was doing her best to explain that George was ok, we were eventually told it’d be alright to go and see him. Initially Catherine and I remained seated in the waiting room since we didn’t want to impose on George’s family visitation. However when I tried to explain this to Mrs. Milligan she simply brushed me off and dragged me along with her as the nurse lead us to George’s ward. Catherine simply followed behind silently, enjoying the view of me being essentially manhandled by a 5 and a half foot tall, 52 year old women. As we arrived at George’s bedside the curtains had been drawn and he was upright in bed, a big goofy grin on his face. The pair of us exchanged nervous glances at what appeared to be a pretty rapid recovery. After George battled off his mother’s barrage of hugs and kisses, he greeted the rest of us cheerfully. Catherine opened her bag and pulled out a gaming magazine. “Here” she said softly, “It’s the January edition. Figured you hadn’t gotten it yet and thought you might get bored so” her voice trailed off sounding a little embarrassed, though her face was just as stoic as ever. I couldn’t help but roll my eyes as George blushed a little and thanked her. Fuck me I thought, do they put something in the water in student accommodations? After a few awkward seconds, George piped up. “Mum, would you mind giving me a few minutes with Freddie and Catherine?” “Why?” she replied sternly. “Because I’m a fucking adult” he snapped back. Looking annoyed and a little disheartened, she shot a dirty glance at Catherine before leaving the ward.
We told George about the email I’d been sent the previous day. “I know” he said, surprisingly unfazed by the news. “Coppers don’t reckon it’s anything to be too worried about. Apparently they’ve got someone here keeping an eye out just in case Freddy Kruger pops by.” I pulled the paper out of my pocket and unfolded it. “What’s that?” he asked. I ignored the look Catherine was giving me and handed it over. “I found it yesterday. It looks like your hand writing mate”. George studied it for a moment, his eyes darting back and forth over each word. I swear I saw a flicker of fear for just a moment before looked up giving me a blank expression. He shrugged, “Sorry man, I don’t remember writing this”. He scratched his head and handed me back the paper. As the more the three of us spoke the more we discovered how little George remembered of events of that night. According to him, the last thing he remembered was passing out in our living room and then waking up in hospital the next night. We figured the nurses had been keeping him sedated on account of his obvious shock, making a lapse of memory an easy side effect to consider. We spoke for a few more minutes before Mrs. Milligan arrived back to see her son. Catherine and I made our leave promising to visit again the next day, when we figured we’d be able to stay longer without interruption. George looked gloomy at the prospect of being left alone with his mother but seemed happy enough when he heard we’d visit again.
The next day we kept our word and arrived early once more, this time spending almost the entire visiting section of the day in George’s ward. We joked around, played cards and discussed what games we were going to buy when our University loans came in. We did this again for the next few days and before we knew it things seemed back to normal. Although he seemed fine, the doctor had wanted George to get a few days rest while some tests were made to determine the cause of his “seizure” as they were now referring to it. Although sceptical myself, it was hard to doubt when seeing George back to his old self. He didn’t seem to mind having to stay in the hospital. In fact I’d say he was rather keen on the idea. I don’t know about you but I haven’t met many people who like hospitals, let alone staying in them when they have their own house nearby. It occurred to me that perhaps George felt safer in the hospital than at home. It made sense for him to show some anxiety when having to return to the place of an apparently traumatic event. Even though he claimed not to remember his particular incident.
We had first visited George on a Friday, then every day after. However on Tuesday evening as we were getting ready to make our farewells, the nurse who usually came by to kick us out was replaced by George’s physician. Smiling, he informed the three of us that all tests came back negative for epilepsy or any kind of neurological anomaly. As a result George could discharge himself the next morning and come home. Catherine and I both gave sighs of relief and couldn’t keep the grins off our faces. However when I looked over to George he seemed lost in thought, like he was trying to work out a complex maths equation and his student loan repayments at the same time. I caught his eye and after a second he smiled back at me but I couldn’t help feeling it looked forced. “We’ll come by tomorrow morning and help you bring back your stuff” smiled Catherine. He nodded, looking pained as he tried smiling once more. “See you guys tomorrow”.
Those were the last words I’d ever hear my friend say. The next morning we were woken by loud thumps at the door followed by, “Police. Is anyone home?” After quickly throwing on jeans and a hoodie I opened the door and it was the police sergeant from the week before. I invited him and his constable into the living room and put the kettle on. Catherine soon made her way down too, looking like she was half way through putting her morning face on. She wasn’t exactly one to care about appearances though but on any other occasion I would’ve sniggered at the sight of only one half of her face with any make up on. As I brought through the constable’s tea and sat down in the armchair sipping my own the sergeant began speaking. “I’m afraid I have some bad news.” My heart sank and I began to hear static in my brain as my vision blurred and my mind prepared itself for what I’d hear next. The Sergeant’s mouth was moving but I could barely hear the words “…body found in the woods…” I didn’t need a brain to work out there were talking about George. Tears swelled in my eyes and I felt my insides churning as I hung my head and shifted it, the only thing I could do to stop myself being sick. I saw the officers’ stand up as the Sergeant thanked us for our time. Once they’d shown themselves out I looked over at Catherine. Her expression looked passive but I could see the muscles in her face were tense and she was grinding her teeth. She didn’t look sad, she looked angry.
Neither of us said a word to each other for two days. We were still technically in our holidays so there was really no reason either of us had to leave our own bedrooms. A few days after George’s death I was lying in bed and staring at the ceiling when I turned my phone on. An instant buzzer displayed another anonymous text dated the night of George’s death. By this point I was angry. Boy, was I angry. I looked at the text icon and clicked it, “I told you it would happen didn’t I?” I clenched my fist around my phone in rage and threw it against the nearest wall. I screamed. I screamed until I thought my lungs were going to shrivel in my chest and pop. I felt my vocal chords stretch to the point of tearing and when I was done I laid back, too tired to even cry any more. It’s hard to believe Catherine didn’t hear me, though if she had she didn’t give any indication. I left my room and went downstairs and sat down. I picked up the TV remote and turned on the television. I nearly threw the fucking thing too when it took what I felt was too long to start up. I flipped through the channels to find the regional news. They were still covering George’s death like clockwork, interviewing random arseholes who never knew him but just wanted to be on television. They’d have these shit eating grins on their faces as they talked about how much they missed him and what a good friend he was. I felt my blood boil again but as they began to talk about the ongoing case, I sat up and listened intently. From what I understood at this stage, it was a simple suicide. George had left the hospital after lights out and hanged himself in the woods. In the morning some poor bastard walking his dog discovered him. A note had been found but the details of it hadn’t been revealed to the public and that was the end of that.
“Despite initial police claims that the victim, 20 year old George Milligan, had committed suicide” the news reader stated, “newer reports speculate that foul-play may be suspected”. The anger died in me as quickly as it rose and my blood froze in my veins. I watched the report for 2 hours, by which point they had begun to repeat themselves for the fifth time and I didn’t want to hear any more. Based on what I could make out from what they said was that before the police were able to cordon off the scene someone had sneaked in and taken a picture of George’s body. They had subsequently posted it online to several of these shifty gore sights. Fucking people with their fucking cameras. Cunts. If you’ve read this far into my story I’m sure you can predict what was in the picture because at that stage I knew before the words even came tumbling out of the news reader’s mouth. My mind was once again a blur only occasionally penetrated by terms such as eyelids removed, dislocated jaw, broken nose and teeth missing. I suppose now you may be wondering whether George was murdered or if he had indeed killed himself. Did he mutilate his own face and leave a note before hanging himself? Truth be told is I don’t know and if the police knew then why the fuck would they tell me.
The next couple of weeks were the hardest of my entire life. Catherine and I said very little to each other the entire time, even when sharing a car to George’s funeral. There was plenty of media attention at the event and I had to physically hold back Catherine when one reporter made a comment about the two’s relationship. The hostilities didn’t end there. One day in late January our landlord had stopped by to talk to us. He wanted our help finding a new occupant for what used to be George’s room and the answer was a right hook to the face courtesy of Catherine. She left the next day, wishing me well in life and giving me a hug. I returned the short and awkward farewell and watched her leave in her parent’s car. They looked like nice people. Now alone in the house of ghosts I wandered the halls and rooms, seeing strange shadows flutter in the corners every now and then. A trick of the eye most likely although it didn’t bother me. Indeed, I almost felt like I’d become one of them. Just another of the ghosts in this house.
I left University a month ago in the first week of February and moved back into my parent’s house. My mother was thrilled of course, she had her little “pickles” back. Without coursework to keep me occupied I started working in my dad’s construction company managing finances. I was always good with numbers and it kept the old man off my back about not contributing to the household. I read in the news the other day about Mrs. Milligan’s funeral. Apparently they’d found her in bed a few weeks after her son was laid to rest, clutching his photograph next to a bottle of gin and an empty packet of sleeping pills. There was no note but I guess she didn’t have anyone to leave one for. I can sympathise with that. I often wonder how Catherine is doing. You know I never even knew what part of the country her parents lived in and with her lack of social media combined with my destroyed phone, I supposed there was no real way to contact her. It wasn’t as though I had anything I could say to her anyway. I still occasionally suffer from nightmares, waking in a cold sweat and hearing the beeps of messages that aren’t there. Sometimes I wake still thinking I’m in my old house and it takes me a few moments to realise Catherine and George are not there. It’s weird that even here in the walls I grew up in I struggle to think of a time I’ve ever felt more alone.
Writing this story has brought me some solace at least and I hope those of you who have suffered through to the end can appreciate that. It’s funny really, in all the horror stories you read the main protagonist always solves the case of the mysterious figure. Or he’s just another victim of a murderous psychopath. “Anti-climactic” is the phrase often used but sometimes life is anti-climactic. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to make sense of those events. It’s now been about two months since I was last contacted by whoever that person was. In that period I’ve gone over the events time and time again to the point of madness. Sometimes I even wonder the validity of their supposed malevolence. They never actually threatened me, nor George for that matter. Perhaps they were trying to warn me, and the graphic photos and creepy messages were just their fucked up way of doing so. I don’t know if this was an isolated case to me or if it’s happened to anyone else. Truth be told I’ve reached the stage where I don’t want to know. The only one for sure who knew was George, and whether though suicide or murder that truth died with him.