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Estimated reading time — 12 minutes
I found this note, nailed onto a tree on my front lawn. I really don’t know how to describe it. I’ll just let you read it yourself.
I saw you today. It was your birthday. You didn’t see me. You hardly ever do these days.
Your skin looked so nice and healthy, and your eyes, they were the most beautiful I’d ever seen them.
You’ve grown so much. I remember how different you used to look when you were younger.
I remember the day I first met you.
It was four years ago. I was sitting at my desk, head down, listening to the teacher rattling off names for attendance. The teacher called out a name I didn’t recognize, and a stranger’s voice answered behind me. Was there a new student?
The teacher didn’t pause for a second, just continued calling out name after name. I turned my head to where the voice had come from.
I saw you, a pale thing, so thin, your eyes so red, at a seat that should have been empty.
I saw the fireflies flying around you, flickering. Dozens of them, never straying far from you.
I saw them going through you, and coming out through your skin, like you were a mist to them. Can you believe I thought you were a ghost?
No one else seemed to acknowledge the new stranger sitting at the back of the class. Class after class, hour after hour passed as I waited for something to happen. For someone to notice you, for you to leave, for you to let out a ghoulish scream and claw at me like in the horror story I was certain I was in. But nothing happened.
Teachers came and went. My classmates laughed and slept, and you just sat there.
The bell rang for recess. The other kids ran to their mundanities for the day, leaving me and you together in the empty classroom. You stood up and pulled a chair from the desk next to you, making it face your desk. You turned your head to me and spoke.
“Well, you’re slow today. Come on. Ask me your questions.”
I don’t know why I didn’t run away screaming at that moment. Probably would have turned out better for me in the long run, but let’s not speculate.
I guess, at that point in my life , I was pretty bloody lonely. I figured there was only a 50-50 chance you’d eat me and the other 50 was that someone wanted to talk with me. Kid priorities don’t make sense to me either these days.
So I went along with the flow. I walked over to your desk, sat down on the chair you pulled for me, and asked my question. What were you?
You told me you didn’t know.
You said that once you were a child, just like me, with parents and friends. You used to go to the same schools as me.
Then, one day, one ordinary day, when you were ten, you just woke up and you were like this, covered in fireflies and no one could remember you the moment they concentrated on anything else. No one, not even your parents.
You told me of how I’d notice you, every day. How I’d think of you until recess every day.
How I’d come to you every day. How we would talk, every day. How we would meet for the first time, every day, for the last three years.
About how I’d forget the instant I walked out of the room.
How everyone would forget you. How the fireflies would make them. How for the last three years, you’d been alone.
Your story was very hard to believe. So I didn’t. I asked what reality prank show I was on. You looked, well, unimpressed, and asked me to continue telling my story.
I was caught off guard by the non sequitur. You said last time I was here, I was telling you a story, a horror story about a haunted house.
As you detailed the story, goosebumps prickled my skin. It was a story I’d been making up in my head. A story I hadn’t told anyone yet.
At that moment, a million reactions were open to me, all simultaneously adequate and inadequate. But the only thing that seemed proper was to finish the story for you. So I did.
Halfway through, you interrupted me to ask if my mother had recovered from her sickness yet. I had to shake my head, a bit ashamed at the fact that I shared this private matter to a stranger. The story ended a few minutes before recess.
My next class was in another room.
You told me to go. Your steadiness took me back. You seemed so… accepting of your fate. Like you’d already gotten used to the idea of being forgotten forever.
I was a kid back then. I wasn’t a particularly smart kid, and I was probably on the onset of a crush. So you can excuse what I did next as an example of my childhood stupidity.
I grabbed my scissors, pressed it against my arm’s skin, and dug in. As it drew blood, I pushed it forwards, till the cut formed the shape I wanted.
Letter by letter, I carved your name onto my arm.
Just so you know, I don’t regret that. Don’t get me wrong, kid power might have made me do it, but it sure as hell didn’t make the pain go away. It was one of the most painful experiences of my life.
But even then as a kid, I thought what was happening to you was unfair.
I remember how your eyes looked when you saw that. The confusion. How strange it was for you that anyone would want to remember. I remember that look so clearly.
When I woke up the next day and saw your name on my arm, I remembered you. I didn’t forget.
That day, for the first time, we had a conversation that wasn’t so one-sided.
You said no one had ever done anything like that before and suggested I might have a mental illness. I won’t deny it, that drew a little blood. As we talked, a creeping thought came into my head: Did you prefer it when I didn’t remember?
That night, I was sitting up on my bed, staring at your name on my arm, wondering if I should cover it up so I couldn’t see it and give you back your privacy, when I heard a crash.
I looked up to see my bedroom window shattered and a dirty rock on my floor. I looked out of the cracked window, to see a dark figure on my lawn.
You were outside yelling, about how we should hang out.
It took me a while to get used to how bad you were at talking to people. Years without practice, made you quite a bit rusty.
That was all right. We had a lot of time.
For the next two years, we spent most of our free time together. Most of the time, we talked. You’d tell me an aspect of your life and how you lived.
You still stayed in your old house. Your parents never noticed the food that had gone missing, never noticed the extra room, or that you’d stolen the extra keys.
One night, I confided in you that I was beginning to think you were a part of my imagination, Fight Club style. After all, what could you do to me that I couldn’t do to myself?
You spent the next month or so trying to leave bite marks on my ear or neck, to prove a point. I still have a few scars on my ear, so I guess you did.
Looking back, I could see the warning signs even then. Your skin seemed to get worse and worse, paler and paler, and you’d rubbed your eyes raw.
It was in winter we had our wakeup call.
The morning began like any other. I woke up, brushed my teeth, and started searching for clothes to wear. It was a winter morning, and my room was dark, so I didn’t see your name on my arm.
The cold sent shivers through my body, and pulled out a long sleeve jacket. A small bell rang in my head. Don’t you usually roll your sleeves up? Yeah, and why did I? That was annoying.
I finished tidying up and headed to school. On the school bus, I felt oddly content, like something I’d been worrying about had just… disappeared.
I walked up the school stairs, down the hall, through my classroom door, and sat down at my desk. The same feeling of a burden forgotten hounded my mind. What was I forgetting?
When recess came, I just sat at my desk, while my classmates ran out. It felt like a ritual, but I didn’t know what for. I was contemplating just walking out to join them, when I heard it.
It was something small in the wind, like a whisper, but it came over and over, incessant. It sounded like my name. I knew this was strange, that this was worth my attention, but I felt oddly calm. Everything would be alright, everything would be fine. Just ignore it.
I sat there at my desk, my mind a war zone between two conflicting, contradictory voices, when I felt a force tugging on my sleeve. The moment I noticed this, my jacket sleeve tore open. I saw your name on my arm, and then your hand that had ripped my jacket open.
You’d been yelling at me for over 20 minutes.
I think that was the moment we realized how on edge our friendship really was. One accident away from complete erasure.
We spent most of the next year in the town library together, trying to find out what the fireflies were.
It wasn’t really a problem for me. Because of my mother’s treatment, my family couldn’t afford to go on any trips, and our house didn’t have heating anymore, so I was happy to spend my time with you.
Trying to find information was a puzzle in and of itself. After all, how would I read about people I couldn’t remember and how would you find out who was special when no one could even remember enough about them to record them?
We found our old family trees and records. Individually, we’d write down the name of everyone in the book on two lists, and then we would compare. The names I hadn’t remembered to write down, but you had, would become the focus. They were the names who were under the curse of the fireflies.
We compiled a list of “suspicious” books. Books we thought could help us, because they were written by, or were about, the people we were searching for.
I read the books, with the list of names side-by-side, reading it again for every page of the book. You scoured the internet on the library computers, on the lookout for articles about the people.
Our search would lead us to the first glimpse we got of what was really happening to you.
It was late at night when you found the picture. I was a bit drowsy at that time, and almost about to nod off when I heard a sharp intake of breath. I turned to see you standing up, pointing at the screen.
I didn’t see anything. Well, anything noteworthy. On the screen was a picture of a clearing somewhere in the woods.
You held up your piece of paper where you’d marked out two names.
Susie Applebee-Reagan, 13.
Terry Applebee-Reagan, 12.
For a moment, I saw the paper and the screen side-by-side.
And then I saw them.
Two figures, emerging from the woods, towards the camera. They were almost humanoid, with the exception of their limbs, which stretched to nightmarish proportions. Their blank, white skin was that of a pure albino, and looked more like tree bark than anything you expected to find on a mammal. A cloud of fireflies surrounded the duo.
The shorter one looked emaciated. I could see their rib cages, around which their… their eyes! God, their eyes! So small, so red.
The taller one, with its white hair, didn’t look alive anymore. They were little more than skin wrapped around a skeleton. Fireflies swarmed out of the pair’s empty eye sockets. Both reached for the cameraman.
I looked at the article surrounding the picture. It was a blog posted by a hiker, twenty years after the last mention of the two kids. The picture was a mystery to the cameraman as well. He’d been wanting to go to the woods pictured for a while now, but he never actually remembered going there. The picture had just appeared on his camera one day, out the blue.
For a moment, I looked at your face. Your thin, pale face, with those red-veined eyes. Would that be you when my scar faded? Just a walking horror I’d glimpse, then forget?
We worked through our reading list at a much faster pace starting from that moment.
Maybe we should’ve gone slower. At least every book, every website we’d left untouched, promised hope. The books that we finished and tossed aside promised nothing but the clearing in the woods as one’s future.
And we tossed aside a lot of books.
I believe I tore through three-fourths of my reading list before I stumbled across the journal. Oh, God, that horrible, horrible journal.
The journal used to belong to a mental patient, named Joey, who claimed to be a serial killer. He was locked up in an asylum when the police discovered his supposed victims never existed. He was ‘diagnosed’ with a need for attention, and shoved away.
They should have electrocuted him. They should have fried him until his flesh melted and his hair burned.
In the journal, he talked about how he carried out his killings. He knew things, bizarre and disturbing things no one else knew. He knew of strange creatures that lived in the woods. Of them, his favorites were the fireflies.
I’m not going to tell you how he summoned these things. I trust you. I trust you more than anyone, but a thing like this belongs to the ground more than it ever will to the human mind. In the end, it’s sufficient to know that these things were not fireflies.
Joey would start his ritual by taking a kid. Any kid, anyone he pleased. He could take them at any time, in the dead of night from their own homes, or in broad daylight from their front yards.
It didn’t matter if he was seen. He’d take them to his house and drag them inside. Usually, an Amber Alert came up at that point. He didn’t care. Like I said, it wouldn’t matter soon.
He’d drag them to a special room in his house. Here the fireflies would come and latch onto them. Now, nobody was searching for the kids. Not the police, not the parents. Nobody.
From then on, he could do whatever he wanted to the kid. He’d get bored of them after a day or two, after the child had broken. At that point, he disposed of them. Hacksaw, kitchen knife, anything would work.
He detailed a large pit of bodies he kept in the woods, swarming with bugs.
One day, I guess he got bored of that too, so he went right to the police station and turned himself in. Not on account of guilt, no, no, no. He just wanted someone to know about the stuff he was doing. Sick bastard.
Oh, don’t get the wrong idea. He never stopped killing kids. The asylum doors didn’t stop him from doing what he liked. It just made him improvise.
He made a new way. He modified the flies, so they could survive without a host, just in a dormant state. When a child (he specified the age) would approach the swarm, it would latch on and begin its effect. Over the years, the child would warp horribly into the things we saw in the woods.
I wish I could hate him in peace. I wish I could say the world owed him nothing. But that wouldn’t be true. He detailed a way out. On the final page, there was an exact explanation on how to get rid of the fireflies.
You must have seen something in my face because, at that moment, you asked if had I found anything.
I said no and closed the book.
A few minutes later, you shut down the computer. You picked up the last book and went through it yourself. When you reached the end cover, you tossed it aside.
I asked what we should do now.
You said it was alright. I could go home. We’d talk about it in the morning.
I stood up and walked past the shelves of books. I headed for the library entrance, but stopped right outside the door and waited. I waited until I heard the sniffling sounds.
I sneaked back to our table, where you were quietly sobbing.
You had your head in your hands. I sat back down, as you raised your eyes to me.
You said you wished you’d never met me. How happy you were when you had nothing to lose. How I ruined your life.
You’d never really gotten better at talking to people. That was the worst love confession I’d ever heard.
I remember how we kissed that night. I remember your hands gripping my hair. I remember that kiss.
I wish it could’ve been just a kiss.
I’m sorry I ruined that moment. When my arms were around you, I was close enough to steal a firefly without you noticing.
I remember holding the firefly in my hand. I remember how it struggled, until it didn’t. Until it was a part of me.
The fireflies shifted. They came over to me, and left you.
I remember the familiar look in your eyes. The confusion. I never wanted to see that confusion in your eyes again. You deserved to be loved and you deserved to know that.
I wasn’t really living anyway.
You reached for me. I pulled away, as the last lights of recognition faded from your eyes. And then you were just staring at a stranger, walking away into a crowd of strangers.
That was a year ago.
You’ve gotten so much better since then. You have so many friends now. So many people at your birthday party. You also look so much healthier. I haven’t been as fortunate.
My skin’s gotten a lot paler, and my eyes hurt all the time now. I couldn’t go to school like you did all those years. I haven’t wasted my time though. I found Joey’s pit.
The bodies, there were so many bodies. There’s a grave for those children now.
Without me, my mom could afford her surgery. She looked so happy. Just yesterday, I saw her playing with my baby brother.
I saw you crying yesterday. You were with your friends, laughing. For a brief moment, your eyes met mine, and then, they were so wet.
I think I’m going away. For good, I think. You’re not going to be happy if I stick around.
I’m so happy I met you, even if you don’t remember me.
Sometimes I go through depressive episodes. I feel so lonely, even with my friends. I don’t know what’s going through my head during these times, and sometimes I’d end up in a bath tub, a knife in my hands and my wrists bleeding.
Until now, I thought I was cutting my wrists. I wasn’t. The cuts… they’re letters.
I’ve been carving a name onto my arm.