My name is Marcus, and I’m an alcoholic. I know what you’re thinking: this is just another sob story about some loser whose life went off the rails after he found the bottle, right? Well, it’s not exactly that simple. Bill, my sponsor at Alcoholics Anonymous suggested that should I ever hope to get clean, I’d have to face my demons, once and for all. While he has no reason to suspect that my demons are far more literal than the average addict, I think he’s right, nonetheless.
This is my fourth or fifth time trying to kick the habit. Can’t say for sure as so much of my personal history is somewhat cluttered, or otherwise hidden beneath the dregs at the bottom of one bottle or another. At one point, I even branched out into other methods of tucking away reality behind the veil, but the overdose that almost punched my ticket was enough to convince me to stick to more of an ingested form of inebriation.
Yes, booze isn’t exactly risk-free and all, but it takes a bit more work to drink too much of that, while it only took one needle to lead me right to the threshold of death’s door. Excuses, right? Yeah, we addicts are full of those; always something to defend our actions, whether reasonable or not. This isn’t about defending my years of intoxication, but the things I wished to drown away in the first place; a confession of my sins, so to speak.
I was fourteen when it happened, as me and my fellow Boy Scouts spent the weekend out in the wilderness some miles from my home. It was Liam who talked us into joining up that summer, and while I was a little apprehensive at first, as I’d never been much of an outdoorsy type, John, Malcolm, and Ian were on board as soon as it was suggested.
They were basically my only friends, so I wasn’t about to be the odd man out, but I’d much rather be at home with my Playstation 2 and Xbox than tossing and turning in a sleeping bag for a few days. Not only that, but I felt like we were getting a little too old for such things. Once we were out there, though, I ended up having a lot more fun than I had anticipated.
Gilroy, the scout leader, was in his early twenties, so he wasn’t too uptight or anything; just sort of laid back. He was the uncle of some kid named Bennie, who had been part of the troupe longer than any of us. He was an alright kid; a bit of a know-it-all and a stickler for ‘the code’, as he called it, but even he managed to relax and chill out some once we got out to the lake.
We spent a good bit of that first afternoon fishing and cutting up. I almost impaled John’s ear with my hook at one point, but he turned just in time to allow it to do no more than tap the back of his head. I was about as coordinated as a drunken break-dancer back then; still am for that matter, though the drink is likely a factor in that.
John looked shocked at first as we both just stared at one another when my line finally dropped limp to the grass, but we were cracking up within seconds. Though I would’ve felt awful if I had jabbed the damn thing into his lobe, I often wonder if a trip to the emergency room would’ve saved us from those events that still haunt me.
When the sun went down on that Saturday the 28th of September 2002, we set a bonfire, around which we would take turns telling scary stories. Whether this was simply something of a tradition; to gather around the controlled blaze and let our imaginations fly, or we just wanted to inspire each other to have a little extra trouble sleeping that night, with urban legends and folklore keeping our eyes wide and alert, I couldn’t say.
Whatever the case, I was a little excited about this, as I had always been ‘the creative child’, while my older brother had a more intellectual and logical mind. When we were just kids, I assumed that was my father’s way of avoiding saying I was the stupid one, as he was quite the intelligent man himself, but I loved my ability to daydream about far-off and wonderous places. These days, my creativity only tortures me even more with the things I’ve been through.
After the sun went down, a gentle wind began to caress the lakeside by which we were spending the night. As the temperature dropped, the heat of the fire was a most welcome sensation to my gooseflesh. With the warmth easing our collectively shivering frames, we all sat in a circle around the fire, passing the flashlight that would serve as our microphone from one to the next.
While I hadn’t necessarily been prepared for this, as it wasn’t discussed until the sun fell to rest for the night, I never had a hard time throwing together an impromptu tale. I barely paid attention to most of the stories that would come before mine, as I was mentally preparing for the task at hand; one that I was most certainly taking more seriously than anyone else. That’s what I thought at the time anyway.
The first handful of tall tales couldn’t so much as break through the wall formed around my inwardly mapping out my tale. The fifth kid to speak up; Reggie, I think was his name, almost grabbed my attention, but when the climax ramped up to something bordering on intense, the boy in the story woke up, revealing it was all just a dream in the end.
I know these were just silly campfire stories told by children anywhere from ten to fourteen, but I always saw that sort of ending as a cop-out, even if it was just made up on the fly by a sixth grader. I just rolled my eyes before blocking out the next story; the second one to involve a monster under the bed.
Even John and Malcolm couldn’t produce anything of high enough quality to distract me from my world-building and character development. There were fourteen of us in all, not counting Gilroy, who came off far too enthusiastic about every tale that was spun, but I had made sure to sit next to Bennie, who volunteered to speak first that night, as I wanted mine to be the last.
Not only did I want the extra time to craft my tale before the clockwise rotation would lead all eyes to me, but I was certain mine would be an absolute banger; assuring that everyone would have trouble sleeping that night. My mouth was practically watering with anticipation until the flashlight was handed to Liam. From the second he began to speak; I couldn’t hope to distract myself from his story; one that sticks to my mind like gorilla glue to this day.
With the light shining under his chin, as was the tradition for such tales spun around a fire, his voice sounded both somber and sinister as he spoke. While other kids had joked and laughed during every story that came before, nobody spoke during this one, nor did even one eye drift from the boy highlighted by the illumination of the torchlight and flickering flames.
Whether it was the words he spoke or the way he spoke them, I can still recall every syllable, even after all these years. He called this tale:
The Betrayal of the King
Barnaby King was not a child that any parent hoped for. Not only was he hideously deformed; something that inspired the nurse to scream out when he was brought into this world, but he would prove to be more than a handful to his mother and father.
He did not cry when he was born, nor did he scream out from the shocking and jarring transition into this world; only gazed up at his mother with those tiny, black, and empty eyes. While Katherine and Harold King were in equal stages of horror as they stared down at their newborn abomination, they attempted not to reflect this feeling to one another; only to bravely face the cards they had been dealt.
As the years passed by, the Kings would turn away visitors to their home, even their parents who had hoped to be a part of their grandson’s life. While they never explained the reasoning behind why they would refuse them entry to their home, it would never stop their loved ones from trying.
It was Harold, more so than Katherine, who would not allow young Barnaby to be seen by any prying eyes. Whether it was shame that inspired this or simply those fears he would never speak aloud, his wife was uncertain. Of course, she shared his feelings, regardless of how hard she fought to convince herself that she loved her child. Yes, his nature seemed as grotesque as his face, but she hoped she could find a way to change both aspects for the better someday.
By the time Barnaby reached his tenth year in this world, his parents had him confined to the basement. This was something that they were certain was necessary after he began his late-night outings some months prior to the decision to essentially imprison him. It wasn’t until Harold noticed the blood trail leading from the woods behind the house to a mutilated corpse of a squirrel, halfway buried next to the patio, that he understood something was amiss.
That night after Katherine had allowed her sleeping pills to kick in, he stayed awake to keep an eye on things. He snuck out to his tool shed at the rear of the backyard, right next to the tree line, making sure to remain as silent as possible so as not to alert any wildlife to his presence. Though he had a sneaking suspicion of who indeed was responsible for the strewn-apart remains of the forest creature, he desperately hoped he was mistaken.
When he saw young Barnaby stealthily creeping from the back door through the split wood of the shed’s wall, he felt his back tense with the knowledge that his first impression had been the right one. The boy darted those black eyes from one side to the other as he snuck softly across the yard, hunched over with slick drool seeping from that enlarged and low-hanging underbite.
Finding himself reluctant to follow his son into the woods as he watched him pass his view from the shed, Harold realized he had not fully thought this through. Yes, the boy was small for his age, but his father still wore some scars left in the wake of the jagged teeth from those early years. He couldn’t help but feel that should Barnaby not locate something to satiate his hunger, he would turn those ankle biters on his father once more.
He still argued with himself that his own flesh and blood could not truly be capable of such a grievous act, regardless of this late-night jaunt into the woods. It was as he waged this inner debate, uncertain of how much time had passed, that he noticed his son coming back into view. The rabbit he held between the elongated fingers of his left hand was wriggling and squealing, but the child paid its moans no mind.
Harold had to cover his mouth to prevent a similarly pitched shriek from escaping when the boy raised the panicked animal to his lips. The horrified sounds of the poor creature combined with the tearing of its fur-lined flesh caused the man hidden away in the shed to close his eyes, lest his dinner retching to the floor expose him. Even covering his ears, he could not fully block away the moist, ripping, and snapping of bones as Barnaby finished his snack.
Once those gruesome noises dissipated, a reluctant Harold glanced back through the split wood to see the boy still holding what was left of the blood-soaked rabbit in the hand that hung below his knees. Again he glanced from one side to the next as he approached the house, kneeling and pulling away a loose board beneath the patio, stashing the beast away.
After the work was done, he crept back into his home, taking one more glance behind him. Harold could swear that blackened eye gazed directly into the wide and trembling one that peered through the gap in the wall, but when his son gently closed the door behind him, he finally allowed a shaky breath to escape his lips.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t difficult to convince Barnaby to relocate to the basement, though at the time, he was not yet aware he would remain locked away behind a heavy and padlocked door. Harold had performed the renovations himself, being quite adept in working with his hands, as any seasoned contractor should be. He was just as glad of the soundproofing as the sturdy walls and doors by the time the boy understood his new circumstances.
The Kings would make sure their son was fed through a slot in the door. He had a full bathroom, fitted with a shower in his apartment below ground level, as well as cable, gaming systems, and plenty of books to entertain him. These measures were taken to ease their conscience, more than their sons’ needs, of course, but it was enough to help them sleep at night, as well as resuming activities they had not indulged in since Barnaby came along.
When Lilian was born; something that filled the couple with terror, as they feared another demon spawn had taken root in Katherine’s womb, they were thrilled to see that they finally had the child they had always hoped for. She was the light of their lives, and just as beautiful as her mother was at such a young age. Naturally, they planned to never introduce their children to one another; something that would require a lot more work as she grew older.
Seasons came and went; each one bringing new and wonderful experiences with the King’s and their little girl. She was a well-behaved child for the most part, aside from the time she got in a scuffle with a boy at school. Harold boiled over with rage when she informed him that the older kid was teasing her, before pushing her around.
Having been something of a hothead in his youth; one prone to lashing out at others should he find a reason to, Lily’s father had to compose himself after hearing this. While he was tempted to go to the boy’s house and confront him for what he did, he swore he would never return to his old and impulsive ways. When his daughter assured him all was well; how the kid left her alone after she sank her teeth into his arm, Harold let go of his rage.
He was; however, quite concerned about the possibility of Lily having ingested any of the blood, had she even bit down enough to break the skin. While she understood his concerns, especially with all of the potential illnesses out there that she may or may not have exposed herself to, her father was relieved to hear she had not caused any more than some bruising with her bite.
While the Kings’ would attend every event they could at their daughters’ school; talent shows and plays, track meets, and all, they felt no guilt about neglecting Barnaby. Lily was an outgoing girl with a great many friends, and her parents did everything they could to please her, while only granting minimal efforts to assure themselves that their son maintained his sorrowful existence.
It was on the eve of young Lily’s eleventh birthday that their happy life took a far more brutal turn; one that would rip their world apart in a matter of minutes at most. Unbeknownst to Katherine and Harold, their daughter had been aware of her sibling for some years by this point. Though they had never been able to meet face to face, they had found a way to communicate.
When she was much smaller and far lighter on her feet, she had followed behind her father as he carried the nightly meal to her brother. While they always made sure she was otherwise occupied or distracted when one of them would make those excursions to the basement, twice a day, the Kings had not noticed that she had grown steadily more aware of their more erratic behavior at those times of the day.
Being a curious child, as many would be under such circumstances, she planned out her investigation for a solid week before taking the plunge. Her heart was positively racing as she crept behind her father, making sure to duck down or hide behind whatever furniture she may be closest to should he look to be about to turn. Though tracking her target through the quite large house ended when he reached the door to the basement, as he locked it behind him, she knew now what her next steps would be.
Harold kept the keys to the entrance to the stairway that led to the apartment below hanging with those others from the loop of his belt. She would have to work more stealthily than ever to retrieve this while her parents slept, but she was certain she could pull it off. When her loving guardians tucked her in that night, she would not allow sleep to take her.
While it wasn’t easy to keep herself awake, especially given the fact she had to resist the urge to play or otherwise occupy her mind in the darkness of her bedroom, she managed to battle away slumber. It was around two in the morning that she made her move, creaking open the door to her room before approaching the one occupied by her folks.
Though she was fully prepared with an excuse; one involving nightmares that sprung her eyes back open, leading her to seek refuge in her parents’ bed, she was still increasingly nervous as she entered their room. She moved swiftly and silently as she clutched her hand around the keys, sitting on the nightstand, squeezing them tightly to not allow a potential jingle to alert her father to her subterfuge.
She was panting for breath as she made her way back into the hallway, but she had achieved the first part of her goal. It didn’t take her tiny legs long to reach the locked door and her fingers were tingling with anticipation, quickly turning to frustration as she tried one key after the other. With another heavy and trembling sigh, she finally located the correct key, splaying open the door before her.
Barnaby was scared at first when she spoke softly through the flap in the heavy entrance to his apartment. His fear momentarily gave way to anger when she revealed who she was; something that made the little girl afraid, leading her to begin to back away. His rage dissipated quickly when the only friendly voice he had ever heard began to fade, inspiring him to practically beg her to stay.
For hours they spoke that night, eventually allowing the boy to grow comfortable with his sister enough to lean his face down to the thin flap through which his meals were delivered. She gasped at first, even seeing only the portion of him that she could make out, but when she reached her tiny fingers through the slender opening to touch the rough texture of her brother’s cheek, he felt a warmth he had never known.
Before Lily returned to her bedroom, Barnaby confessed to his sister his efforts to escape. While he had achieved no more than the slightest of splits at the top of the wall between him and the outside world, over years of scraping away at it with the plastic cutlery provided with his meals, it was enough for something. Each day from then, sometimes multiple times if the coast was clear enough, they two would pass notes back and forth.
Though Lily would occasionally make late-night stealth missions to converse with her brother, she could not risk overdoing it, as her father could be quite perceptive at times. Still, while she had all in life for which a girl could ask, she finally had that one thing that money could not buy: an older brother.
After three years of such meager forms of communication, Lily swore to her brother that she would set him free. Being that she had only heard his version of the things that left him hidden away from the world, she saw him as the victim in this, while her beloved parents were somewhat nefarious in so many ways that she never could have predicted.
While the keychain she would sneak away with in the wee hours of the morning did not include those that would unlatch the numerous locks Barnaby was imprisoned behind, it would take weeks for her to uncover where the ones she needed were hidden. It was on a school day in midweek when she would ultimately track them down, having convinced her loving guardians she was in no fit state to leave the house.
Given that she had never shown the slightest signs of irresponsibility to her mother and father, they did not question her motivations, though neither of them could stay home with her that day, as they had their own responsibilities to attend to. She assured them she would not need a babysitter; something that took some effort to persuade them on, but she could be quite the talented actress when she wanted something badly enough.
Having shadowed her father for those weeks leading up to the planned jailbreak, she saw that he would always return to his study after dropping off the daily meals to his son. Though he would close the door behind him, she still managed to take a peek through the keyhole. It was then that she was able to see him inspecting the contents of a drawer on the left side of his desk. He only took a glance before closing and locking it, but she assumed it was a ritual of sorts; to ensure the keys to his son’s prison remained untouched.
Though Harold had his keychain looped to his belt as he reluctantly headed to work that morning, Lily saw no reason to leave things as she found them this time. It would be very clear what had transpired when he would return that evening; that his prisoner had been freed. The crowbar she found amongst the other tools in the garage made quick work of the drawer, even with the desk being seemingly made of quality materials.
When she looked upon the only contents; the ring of keys she had hoped to find there, Lily wasted no time in sprinting to the basement, using the crowbar once more to spring open the door at the top of the stairs. Though it took some time to decipher which key went to which lock, that only made her smile that much more genuine when she truly looked upon her brother, face to face, for the first time.
Yes, those small, blackened eyes and low-hanging jaw, lined with needle-thin teeth unsettled her somewhat, even with the teasing glances through the slot in the bottom of the door. The small, upturned nose and pointed ears, with scraggly long ginger hair hanging beside them were equally as jarring, but his expression, if that’s what she could call it, only held love behind it.
They embraced one another, each leaking tears upon their siblings’ shoulders. Barnaby had never known this sensation; to truly feel wanted and adored. All he was familiar with was contempt and hatred for having the nerve to be brought into this world, but Lily only saw her brother in those glossy eyes, not the monster their father knew him to be.
It was while they were packing up his belongings; what little he had, that a sound inspired both of their faces to grow cold from blood loss. The front door of the house being unlocked and opened, followed by frenzied curses spitting from their mother’s lips when she seemingly saw the basement door ajar, left the two with limited options.
Lily asked her brother to stay behind as she walked up the steps to find Katherine already standing in the doorway, looking as pale and shocked as the young girl felt. Barnaby heard his sister as she attempted to convince their mother to grant the boy freedom; something she seemed unwilling to hear.
He tried to cover his ears to block out the argument between mother and daughter as it grew more frenzied, but it was of little use. Finally, hopeful that he could somehow aid in this debate, he slowly paced up the steps for the first time in years. He walked through the doorway to see his mother on the phone, seemingly demanding that her husband returns to his home immediately.
She screamed so loudly when she turned to see her son, that Barnaby thought her hair may just turn white from the shock. As it was his father who would bring him his meals, he had not so much as heard Katherine’s voice in so long, let alone seen her face, but he could easily recognize that expression of hatred and disgust she gave him. Be it from the trembling of his extremities, or just the shame of those old familiar looks the sight of him would bring, he was only vaguely aware of what happened next; at first, anyway.
As he and the woman who birthed him stared at one another; each in their own initial stages of anguish, their shared expressions turned to horror when little Lilian leaped on her mother, sinking her teeth into the meaty tissue of her throat. As the blood practically gushed against the walls, Barnaby fell to his knees, barely able to wrap his mind around what he was witnessing.
When his sister pulled her head back, tearing away the grizzled and sticky fibers, her mother just glared at her in shock as she fell to the floor.
“What did you do!?” Barnaby asked, shaking his head from side to side.
“It was the only way, my love,” she replied, wiping her mouth with the back of her arm, smearing her mother’s lifeblood across her cheek in the process.
She still looked upon her brother with loving affection, even as her face began to contort as her body grew.
“I’ll show you how to do it if you want,” she said as her appearance finalized its transition, leaving her a carbon copy of the woman who lay dead on the floor, “You don’t have to live like that. Not if you don’t want to.”
She lay her hand on the mutated face of her brother, allowing him to convince himself for a moment that his mother had finally accepted him.
Though she had already dragged the body down to the basement when their father arrived back home, she had not a chance to clean away the shimmering crimson puddle left in its wake, nor the drag marks that led to the door. Harold demanded to know what had happened, terrified that Barnaby had gotten loose and devoured his darling baby girl.
Lily disposed of him just as quickly as she had his wife; this time luring him into an embrace with her stolen tongue, digging her teeth into his throat when his guard was down. Her brother had not witnessed this one, as he lingered in the basement with the remains of his mother; something he had not the slightest desire to be trapped beside, regardless of his sister’s insistence he hide away while she dealt with daddy.
When she walked back down the stairs; this time wearing Harold’s face, she dropped his body beside his wife, before she knelt beside the only family she cared about.
“They lied to us,” she said, again caressing his face with her sticky and stained hand, “they would’ve never let you loose. It had to be done.”
Barnaby did not speak, only gazed with his tiny, black eyes as wide as they were capable of growing.
After Lily dipped her hand into the pool of blood surrounding her mother, she held it to her brother’s face.
“It’s easy,” she said, pulling his recoiling head back to face her, “I learned it long ago; what we can do. I know you can do it too.”
As she pressed her other hand on the low-hanging jaw, she poured the blood cupped in her palm. When Barnaby attempted to turn away and spit out the foul-tasting fluid, she slapped his mouth back shut, holding it in place until he swallowed.
It took some hours, as well as a lot of convincing from his sister; some debating, retching, and even arguing, but by the time night fell, the boy stood his mother’s image, while Lily maintained her father’s form.
“Anyone you drink, you can become them,” she said, mimicking Harold’s voice, “that’s what I’ve found anyway. Never tried an animal, but it might work too.”
Barnaby nodded, only replying to her when expected.
Though she had lied to her father about breaking the skin of the older boy who bullied her when she was younger, she was well aware of what his concerns truly were at the time. When she gazed into the bathroom mirror, after fleeing from the child as he attempted to stop the flow of blood, she saw not herself, but the boy she left leaking fluids upon the grass.
She never understood why Harold King had turned his back on what she believed him to be; the exact thing she and her brother were, but it was his neglect of their god-given gifts that fueled the hatred she grew towards him. Had he allowed his children to learn what they were capable of at an earlier age, her brother need never have been locked away from the world, as he could have taken any face he chose, rather than being led to believe he was a monster this whole time.
Though Barnaby had despised his parents for as long as he could remember, he never wanted this. He was ashamed of these baser instincts that led him to feed on the wildlife behind their home when he was far too young to understand why. Admittedly, he could have never predicted this, but he would not continue to be a part of it; that much he swore to himself.
Some hours after the two had laid down to rest; Lily back in her bedroom, having returned to her smaller proportions, and Barnaby still wearing his mother’s face, he crept out into the night, not unlike how he had in his younger years. He would not seek out anything to fulfill those once-forgotten urges, nor would he return to the house in which he had been imprisoned. While he did love his sister, he could not stay with her; not after witnessing what she was capable of.
The young girl was heartbroken when she awoke the following morning to find no trace of her beloved brother. Her temper raged, inspiring her to beat holes in the walls and tip and break the furniture her parents had worked hard to accumulate. As time went on, she grew bitter and resentful of the one she had set free; the one she had killed for. She swore she would track him down someday and make him pay for leaving her alone; something she was now so close to, she could practically smell his fear.
Every eye around the campfire was glued to Liam as he finished his tale, as he cut his gaze from one of us to the next. With the madness and fury behind his reddening stare, I finally understood that this was not simply some story he made up for the sake of scaring his fellow scouts, but that Lilian King herself sat before us, hidden away behind the boy I called a friend.
I couldn’t help but wonder, as he continued to drift his widened eyes from one of us to the next, if this was the same kid I had known for a few years now, or if Lilian had only recently claimed his image for herself. That inner debate was the least of my concerns at the time; however, as the rage behind his glare seemed to be shining through so much more intensely as he blinked between us.
Even Gilroy; the one who was supposed to be the responsible adult, taking care of us kids, was just staring on with his lower lip quivering. I wanted to call out to him and demand that he take control of this situation, but as I attempted to form words, I could barely manage to do so much as squeak.
“I know you’re here, Barnaby,” Liam said, effectively snapping my attention away from the dumbfounded scout leader, “I can smell you! Just show yourself and nobody else needs to get hurt.”
“What the hell, Liam?” Ian said, getting to his feet, “you freaked us all out, okay!? You don’t gotta keep up the act.”
“Yeah,” John added, “it was a cool story and all, but…”
“SHUT UP!” Liam barked, staring knives at those I thought to be his friends, “I know that neither of you is him, but I swear I will gut you both if he doesn’t man up and face what’s coming to him!”
With that, while my eyes darted from the boy I thought I knew, to the two whose expressions quickly transitioned from agitated to stunned, the scuffling of feet broke me from attempting to wrap my mind around everything. Whether it was the fury behind Liam’s words that sent everyone running in varying directions or that hateful malice behind his gaze, I couldn’t say, but when he screamed out in anguish after the others scattered, I felt inspired to flee as well.
As I broke through the tree line, paying little attention to which direction anyone else was headed, I heard the furious yell coming from behind; back where we left that bonfire crackling. I still wouldn’t look back, even when the scampering footfalls around me grew more muffled, signaling that I was likely alone on my chosen path of retreat.
When a blood-curdling squeal reached my ears, I had to assume that my friend had caught up to at least one of the fleeing children. As much as I hated the idea of any of us ending up bloody upon the dried, autumn leaves, I couldn’t help but hope that the one he found was the one he sought. I felt guilty for even wishing for something like that, but one body left in the wake of all of this was a far better outcome than all of us; that’s what I told myself anyway.
Regardless of how that squeal from somewhere to my left practically drained the strength from my legs, I still pushed on through the pain in my side and the burning in my lungs. I almost considered stopping for a moment to catch my breath, but two more agonized wails in quick succession convinced me I could not risk it. While those swiftly silenced howls seemed further off than the one before, I had to find a place to hide if I hoped to survive this; something that was no simple task with how dark my surroundings were.
Finally, having no hope of resisting my weakening extremities giving out, I slid to the ground, tearing my arm across a broken tree branch in the process. I wanted to curse aloud when the jagged wood split my flesh, but I slapped my hand to my mouth before my skidding across the leaves came to a halt.
As I lay there, gripping one hand around my leaking wound and the other over my mouth, biting down to keep from screaming out from the pain and fear, I could make out another sound over that of my quickly-paced heartbeat. The feet crunching across the dried leaves belonged to more than one person, but I couldn’t tell if they ran side by side or if one was chasing the other.
With them drawing closer by the second, I could only hope they would not make out the sounds of my burying myself beneath the leaves over their own likely erratic pulse and steps. They were close enough to touch moments later, each of the four feet stopping only a yard or so from where I lay, attempting to keep my shivering from exposing me.
Even with the darkness around me, the moon shining from above, illuminated my surroundings enough to make out the shoes as I peered through my poorly constructed cocoon, but I could only hope it wasn’t bright enough for them to see me. While the two heaved, seemingly attempting to collect their breath, I was far too scared to risk revealing myself, even if they were likely just as innocent as I was in all of this.
“I think…he got…Reggie,” one of them said, still gasping between words.
“John too,” the other replied, sounding equally as winded.
I clenched my jaw, feeling a spike run through my chest when they mentioned John, but I hoped that they may simply be mistaken given the circumstances. With how exhausted the two sounded, I couldn’t pinpoint the voices, though they were both familiar. Either way, that wasn’t enough for me to know if I could trust them.
I had spoken to all of the guys at one point or another, but my friends were the only ones I had any interest in spending time with. I was never exactly a social butterfly, even before all of this, but I couldn’t reveal myself until I knew for sure if these two were friends or just some of the other guys who may be quick to toss me to the wolves to make a break for it, if it came down to that.
“I told you Liam had been acting funny,” the more familiar-sounding voice spoke, now that the wheezing had calmed.
“So what!?” Malcolm said in that annoyed tone he would get when feeling argumentative, “You tryin’ to claim you knew this shit was comin’?”
“Dude, I’m just sayin’ I knew somethin’ was off with him. Ain’t no way anyone coulda called this!”
I let out a shaky and relieved breath when I realized the other voice belonged to Ian. Suddenly feeling almost desperate to share the company of friends, I grew more aware of how ridiculous I had been acting. I almost wished I could just slink away unnoticed, to show up on foot, claiming that I couldn’t believe I found them. That would likely have been far less embarrassing than the way things went.
“Um, don’t freak out, guys,” I said, pushing a hand through my blanket of leaves like a newly reincarnated member of the undead, breaking free of its coffin.
“What the..!?” both voices said, combined with a few more colorful words.
“It’s ok,” I said, finally sitting up straight before pushing up from the ground, “it’s me,” I chuckled, feeling my face flush.
“Holy..! You scared the shit outta me,” Ian said, holding a hand out to help me up.
Keeping my voice low, I explained to them somewhat of my motivations behind smuggling myself away beneath the leaves; something that made us all laugh a bit, though mine were not quite genuine, being still a bit awkward and ashamed.
When we calmed back down to something more somber, Malcolm told us what he’d witnessed. John, it would seem, was indeed dead, or at least in pretty rough shape. From what he saw as he ducked behind a thick tree when Liam came leaping out of nowhere, our friend didn’t have a chance to avoid the teeth chomping into his neck.
“I just knew I was screwed when he was done with him,” Malcolm said, staring down at his feet, “I stayed tucked behind that tree, feelin’ like I was gonna puke. I just knew he was comin’ for me when I heard him stompin’ closer, but when someone yelled from a ways off, he took off after them. I didn’t move again until I was sure he’d gone, then I didn’t stop runnin’ until I come across Ian.”
“Damn near gave me a heart attack too!” Ian said, gripping his chest.
Ian had seen Liam tackling Reggie from a distance, but he didn’t stick around to see what happened next. We all got silent for a few minutes; each of us reflecting on our shame for leaving our friends behind. It was that very thing that left us so distracted when someone else came plundering toward us.
“Run!” he called out as he pushed through the trees, “he’s coming! Ruuuun!”
Before I had the chance to fully take in the sight of the only adult who had shared our company tearing through the branches, I felt him slam into me. Having paid little attention to my surroundings; what I could make out of them anyway, I was not only shocked by the impact of the shaggy-haired, lanky man, but of the steep hill we found ourselves rolling down second later.
“Marcus…” Ian called after me, only moments before his ear-piercing shriek interrupted whatever he had hoped to say next.
In all honesty, I can’t say whether it was he or Malcolm who released that agonized wail, but that would be an unnecessary debate when the other joined in. When the twin chorus of horrified howls turned to gargled coughs and splutters, I was barely aware of the snapping of my ribs against the rocks and twigs I rolled across.
When our tumble came to a halt, I felt my consciousness struggling to hold on, before everything faded before my eyes. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I was screaming out to my body, begging it to reawaken before my old friend caught up with me. When my eyes blinked back open, I was immediately aware of the significant amount of pain my body was in, as well as the guy my limbs were entwined with.
From where we now lay, sprawled out at the base of the hill, there was far less light, making my new surroundings all the more hidden behind the darkness, but the pain I was in was as clear as day.
“You okay?” I said, wincing from the agony screaming from my ribs as I nudged Gilroy.
“Huh? I…I think so,” he replied, slipping his legs from mine.
I felt around the ground, hoping to find it level enough to attempt to push my broken body from its grip, but when I finally got to my feet, I was sure my eyes were playing tricks on me, or that the darkness was messing with my head. When I turned my gaze to that of the scout leader; the one I and my fellow scouts had put our faith in, I did not see the shaggy-haired, skinny man, but my spitting image staring back at me.
“What the hell!?” he said, backing away from me, holding his hands out before him.
“No way…” I replied, unable to think of anything else to say, other than questioning why he was backing away from me when he was the one who stole my face.
As we just stared at one another; both of us wearing the same slack-jawed expression, something in the back of my mind was yelling at me to start running again. While just about every inch of my body was in pain, I knew I had to convince my legs to get moving. Not only was I fully aware that I was face to face with Barnaby King, but I was certain that his vengeful sister would not simply have taken for granted that her work here was done.
It was as my mind was conjuring these facts, wrestling through the clutter of everything else this night had presented me with, that I felt the breath on the back of my neck.
“You’re the only two left now,” a voice spoke from behind me; not that of my friend, but a more feminine tone, “you could’ve made this so much easier; you know that, right? It’s your fault they’re all dead.”
The voice was emotionless, yet graveled in a way; youthful and aged at the same time. Though I was frozen in place, as was the other kid wearing my skin, I felt my body seemingly move of its own accord; turning in place to look upon what would surely be the last thing I ever saw.
While my subconscious fought to sprint away from my inevitable demise, my eyes’ desperation to see what had become of Liam took the wheel. When they met the empty stare of what stood there, the horror of what I looked upon threatened to stop my heart before Lilian King would have the opportunity to.
I couldn’t tell if the thing was smiling, or if it was just the effect of that exaggerated underbite, hanging low, with those needle-like teeth stained with the blood of my fellow scouts. It looked like the face of an angler fish, but with slightly pointed ears in place of the fins on each side. Those small, spherical, black eyes glared into me, with nothing remotely human behind them.
I felt my feet shuffling against the dried leaves that still wore my blood, steadily backing away from this creature as its body heaved with breath, contorting the stretched and torn uniform that was wrapped around its slender and hunched frame. I couldn’t take my eyes off it, even when it began to move in closer, closing the small gap I had made between us in two long strides.
“L-Lilian?” I said, almost hoping I could reason with it.
It nodded in response, not so much as blinking those hauntingly dark eyes.
Had she altered the story she told us to switch her and her brother’s places? Was she the deformed and forgotten one, while he was the favored child of her parents? Could this be the true form of whatever her father truly was; what he was ashamed to have passed on to his son? At the end of the day, when all of this was said and done, I suppose none of these questions would matter.
As soon as I felt those lengthy teeth dug into my already shredded shoulder, I knew my curiosities would die with me. She wasn’t aggressive with her bite. In all honesty, there was something of a tenderness to the way she drooped one hand over the side she wasn’t chewing on, with her other pressed to my lower back. When she pulled back, tearing away a strip of my flesh with her, allowing the blood to gush from the open wound, I closed my eyes as I fell to my knees.
“RUN!” my clone called out as he attacked my would-be murderer, pushing me back as he tackled her; saving me from her following attack.
Though my shirt was heavily dampened by the constant flow of my bodily fluids, I needed no second demand to encourage me to get moving. It wasn’t easy to push one leg in front of the other; not at first anyway. It was more the shock of everything that had only just occurred than the pain at the time. Likely the blood loss was a factor as well, but even as my ruined shoulder collided with the thick trunk of a tree, I continued forcing myself forwards, not so much as looking back.
I could hear the sounds of the ongoing battle for my freedom as clearly as if I still knelt on the ground beside it, but I wouldn’t allow it to distract me from reaching my goal. I was so unfamiliar with this area that it was impossible to know if I would succeed in my escape, but I had to try.
Some minutes later; a timeframe that I was fully uncertain of between my fear and quickly dwindling energy, I noticed that only silence surrounded me. No longer did I hear the beastly siblings tearing into one another, nor could I make out even the smallest of forest critters nearby. Being unable to know if Liam, or Lilian; whoever the hell that was, could still be intent on hunting me down if she survived the battle, I still would not stop.
When I finally became aware of a new sound; that of engines humming and wheels rolling across the tarmac, the sight of headlights ahead allowed me to think I may just see the other side of this after all. I almost sprinted right into the road when I cleared the tree line, skidding to a halt before I met the front end of a speeding sedan.
I screamed out with every ounce of energy I had left, praying to the gods to allow my pleas to be heard by someone; anyone! I was barely holding onto consciousness when I noticed still headlights casting my elongated shadow before me. It wouldn’t be until sometime later, after reawakening on a surprisingly comfortable hospital bed, that I would officially meet the middle-aged truck driver who spotted me before I fell into the black.
Over the following days, I would recall the devastating events of that ill-fated camping trip to a variety of official-looking individuals; two police officers being the first, as soon as my doctor cleared me to answer their questions. Though I could only assist them with what I had personally witnessed, some of which was quite foggy through the trauma of it all, I quickly grew exhausted from repeating the same words over and over again.
While I would not be privy to many aspects of their investigation, I was informed that I was the lone survivor of the wrath of Lilian King; someone who was nowhere to be found when the dust settled. Whether she wore another’s face by the time the battle reached its bloody conclusion, or that she fled before the blue lights flickered across the trees, I can’t say. The police were quite puzzled about the mangled corpse of my doppelganger, as was I, truth be told.
A police car remained parked outside my childhood home for some weeks after I was cleared to come home. When the body of the true Liam Holbrook was discovered some days after that night, it would be taken for granted that Lilian King was still out there somewhere. Given my recollection of the story she told, the authorities felt content in the knowledge that she would have no reason to seek me out, but wanted to keep an eye on things nonetheless.
I would have a significant amount of physical therapy to endure when I was able, in addition to the psychological counseling I maintain to this day. Those first few months after the brutal murder of my only friends in this world were the worst, but my anguish eased in time. Unfortunately, the more I grew aware of what truly occurred that night, the less stable my mental health became.
Perhaps it’s simply the fact that I was far more resistant to use my gifts than my sister that caused this particular transition to be so jarring. I had been Jacob Gilroy for so many years, that I had almost allowed myself to believe it was my true identity. I had lived on the streets for some time after fleeing my home, still dressed as my mother, so to speak.
Having been cooped up in that basement for so long, I had not the slightest understanding of how to make it in this world, so I ended up amongst my fellow lost souls. The real Gilroy was a friend I made during those times; one who inadvertently poisoned himself to death with a needle in his arm. Fortunately, I only needed a sampling of his blood to become him, so the toxins he fed into his veins only caused me a fleeting euphoria.
Being the first time I willingly became another, I had not been aware of how fully we embrace our new skin, as well as the memories of those costumes we don. The troubled life my friend lived was all I knew for those months following his death, even up to the second the contents of that needle put his life to a premature end. These recollections pushed my own personal history back for a time, hiding them behind the curtain of the life I adopted. I even felt scared when I saw the face I wore upon the dead man before me when I reopened my eyes.
Seeing this as a sign, I managed to get my life together; Gilroy’s life, that is, but Gilroy I was, for all intents and purposes. Once my fractured brain rebuilt the memories of my true lineage, I maintained those I had adopted as well. It can be distracting, mind you; carrying multiple lifetimes in my head, understanding which memories are my own, and which ones I stole, but I can only imagine how many poor souls my sister has locked away in hers by this point.
Why I never stole the full experience of my mother’s existence, I cannot say. Perhaps it was simply the fact that she was my blood. Maybe it was due to my resisting that first change. I suppose there are some aspects of my life I may never fully understand, nor the facts of what I even am, for that matter. In this case though; with the blood transfer being accidental as we tumbled down that hill together, I was fully immersed in the reality of this new face by the time my eyes blinked back to awareness.
I would say that I can only imagine what was going through Marcus’s head when he saw me looking back at him, but I would have to believe we were on the same page at the time. Likely we both saw the other as the one Lily sought out, but I can’t even begin to understand why he was so willing to sacrifice himself to grant me freedom.
When I awakened in that hospital, my heart ached for the friends I lost; those that Marcus lost anyway. When the pain gave way to anger, I wanted nothing more than to inflict as much of that agony upon the one who took them from me. It could be that it was that very thing that inspired the true Marcus to attack my sister; the desire for revenge, rather than an effort to save me.
I suppose there’s no way to know that for sure, in the end. Perhaps, even after all these years, I do not fully understand the boy whose life I claimed for my own, once he had no more use for it. If nothing else, I can take some solace in the fact that his parents need not have mourned his passing, though they did bear witness to my self-destruction. I can’t help but wonder if my turning to the bottle were some lingering effects of being Gilroy for so long.
All things considered, I suppose none of this really matters, as I am doomed to face the destiny I fled from back then. Should I ever hope to truly battle my inner demons, I must track down the very literal one I allowed so many lives to be lost to. Whichever way it goes; should I survive this encounter or not, it will never bring back those I let fall to my sister’s lust for vengeance.
Maybe it would be best if neither of us survives our next meeting. Just wipe away the stain our parents smeared upon this world altogether. If that’s the way it goes, I think I’m alright with it. Perhaps it is well overdue that my stolen parents be finally given a chance to mourn the death of their youngest son. That’s probably the least I can do for them.
I think; when all is said and done, we all must face our demons in the end. No matter how far we run, or how hard we try to hide from them, these things cannot be avoided. I wish I had understood that much back then. Between my cowardice and my sister’s fury, we both allowed innocent blood to be spilled. It’s my fault as much as hers, what happened to the scouts I both watched over and considered friends.
Sometimes I wonder if those whose lives I stole still live on within me, as well as the great many I’m certain my sister has inside her head. After all, we are all just memories in the end. Nothing more than tales to be told around the campfire.
Credit: William Rayne
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