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One-Mississippi, two-Mississippi, Three-Mississippi, four… Your child may be gone, but there is no need to mourn.
I live in an isolated place. A big, old neighborhood where the homes are further apart and ravines cut our yards deep. My house is isolated even more from the others, separated by a screen of oppressive pine trees, swaths of dead grass, and acres upon acres of ragged trails.
My parents never let me explore those paths. They said people often lost their way, even in our neighborhood. Why just last month a little girl had disappeared during a massive storm surge. My parents had been incredibly distraught about it, moaning about how important it was to heed those warnings. Word was she was never found. I was smart enough to listen, though. I stayed inside, under my covers and watched as lightning tore jagged, white-hot paths across the sky.
A few moments later, the jaw-tingling boom of thunder would sound. My parents were asleep in the room above mine. They’d taught me how to gauge the distance of a storm. Wait for a flash of light to fill night sky, count by Mississippi’s, and divide by five. For every five seconds, the storm was a mile away. I had a tough time with numbers other than five. We were only just learning how to divide in school.
I counted to ten-Mississippi this time before the thunder rolled over me, filling my ears with a cacophony of brass roars. The sound didn’t scare me. In an odd way it was rather comforting—affording me the false security of the brick and glass that separated me from the elements. Neither the blinding light nor the deafening tremors could reach me.
I looked up at my ceiling, watching the shadows of the trees shutter across the rough, white paint. An eerily beautiful sight. My ragged, fleece blanket was knotted in my arms and my head cradled in an overly-plush pillow. I lay prone, waiting for the next crash of thunder. It filled my ears at eight-Mississippi this time.
I rubbed the blanket with my cheek, struggling to do the math. About a mile and a bit away. As the thunder died away, a different sound permeated my perfect silence: a creak followed by a dry scuff. Then silence again.
My neck hairs prickled and I curled in harder against myself. Another flash spread throughout the room. I felt thankful, feeling the familiar fear of nature’s staggering power wash away any unease. I counted again, clutching my blanket close. Five-Mississippi.
The storm was closing in, the thunder a harbinger of the damage that would follow. Another flash illuminated my room through the big window opposite my bed. I made out the purple-outlines of the sparse trees beyond, shuddering briefly as I imagined being out there among them. At least I had my home, my room, my bed. Another peal of thunder washed over me four-Mississippi’s later. When it died, I heard yet another creak of the floorboards.
I remained frozen, convincing myself there was no threat if I could not see it. A fresh flash of light blazed through my bedroom, and for a fraction of a second I made out a flicker of movement just to the right of my window. I stared at that spot in my bedroom, trying to detach some imagined entity from the well of shadows formed by the corner of my room. Just as my eyes settled on the darkness of that spot, a new flash bloomed within the darkness and I was blinded once more.
Groaning, I squeezed my eyes shut. I was not scared of thunderstorms. Dogs were, other kids were, even my parents jolted from the occasional crack of thunder. I did not. I observed them, measured their distance, took comfort from them.
It took me a few moments to discover what was wrong with that last flash. No thunder echoed after it. I tried to recall my count, but realized I hadn’t done it. I waited for the next spire of lightning to blaze across the trees beyond, and actually sighed in relief when it did.
But in that moment something else caught my attention. As the lightning filled my room, a secondary burst of light seemed to pop up just beyond the fringes of my window. I peered hard into the trees as their black-purple outlines were electrified across my vision, but nothing else appeared.
With another groan, I buried my head against my pillow and peaked out from under one guarded eyelid. The thunder rolled across my room at a three-Mississippi count this time, but again, an eerie creak seemed to dog at its heels.
I scanned my window, searching for any flicker of movement, but none appeared. There was nothing there. Only Mother Nature in all her awe-inspiring power, waging a war of electrified plasma and sonic concussions against the earth.
I began to doze. My guarded gaze dipped in and out of consciousness, blurring and re-focusing on the window. In my mind, I kept up the tally, wondering when the storm would hit us.
Those flashes bombarded my eyelids, casting spectral outlines of the trees against the weird, red void I got when I tried to squeeze my eyes shut. I found I was reaching out more with my ears for any discrepancies. Cataloging the thunder’s ripples just as a flash flickered across my reddened-vision.
Exhaustion must have dulled my senses, because at some point I began to realize the thunder didn’t always match up with lightning flashes. Sometimes it would just be the flash, followed by a creak. I’d struggled to erase the creaking from my mind, burying one fear under another, but it was getting harder to ignore. Fear paralyzed me, keeping me from reaching out into the darkness of my room to confront my suspicions. I kept gazing out the window, praying for the next flash of lightning.
Instead the next flash popped up to the left-side of my bed. I saw in the window an outline of some sort, vaguely humanoid and thin. I yearned for it to be a tree, but a growing sense of dread took hold of the logical part of my mind. It was something far worse.
Remaining still as a mannequin, I peaked from the cubby hole of my covers and under my eyelid, and applied the lightning-distance principle to this new phenomenon.
A flash…ten-Mississippi another creak.
Another flash. Seven-Mississippi another creak. Each pulse of light bringing to fruition the things gangly-black limbs in my window. It was getting closer to my house.
There was another flash, this one coupled with a lick of lightning. Five-Mississippi. I couldn’t hear the creak this time due to the thunder, but when the booming roar died away, I almost screamed.
There was a breathing sound. Raspy, dry…almost hungry. It was coming from my left again. I clenched my blanket to my chest, trying not to sob from the revelation. The figure was in my room. I had been observing its reflection in the light of the flashes.
Another blaze of light charged the room for a moment, followed by an additional creak. Ice coiled around my spine as I felt my covers gently crinkle and my mattress dip ever so lightly.
Another flash accompanied by that disgusting breathing and a very faint whine of a polaroid camera. I didn’t move. Couldn’t move. You don’t roll over to face a terror. It went against every animalistic instinct we had. Instead I lay there, feeling long, slender fingers coil around my sheets and the things weight shift even closer.
I squeezed my eyes shut, abandoning my peephole. Lightning bloomed once again against my window, and the outline of something grotesque hunched over my bed took shape against my eyelids. He breathed noisily, the camera dangling around his neck and his shirt unbuttoned.
I shuddered as I felt his mouth touch the base of my neck, and then his tongue slip up along the back of it. In the window, I could see him practically smothering me, his greasy clothes ragged with dirt and mud. He had a scratchy beard and his breath smelled of rotting meat as he placed one gnarled hand on my thigh and began brushing upwards.
His lips hovered just above my ear, pulling back my dark hair and touching the skin. “I wondered where ye disappeared to,” he said in a crusty whisper. “Thought them woods claimed ye.”
He rolled me over fully, a malicious grin splitting his pockmarked face. “Glad ye survived.” He held up his camera. “We’s gonna have some more fun now, right?”
I stared back at him, wordless. He rose the camera to his face and took another picture. Then he screamed.
I guess he must’ve finally seen my face. The flesh sloughed off my skull, the tendons wrapped tight around my right cheek and jawline. The black socket of my left eye gazed back at him, condemning and joyful. He stumbled back off the bed, blubbering like a baby. I slowly followed.
He’d come for me the month before, during another storm. He’d taken pictures of me for god knew how long, worming slowly into my bedroom and stealing me into the night. He knew the paths that twisted every which way beyond my home, sure no one would ever find us. But I’d escaped. I fled into the woods during that storm, but soon I too, became lost.
I’d fallen asleep, counting, counting for eternity, and then I’d awoken once more. It was during another storm. I knew where to go.
My parents’ grief could never be mended, but I could still make things right.
I knew he’d come searching, crawling back to my room like a cockroach. And here he was, sobbing pitifully at the foot of a little girl’s bed.
I stepped off the bed slowly, watching him scramble back towards the window. There was nowhere he could go. A flash of lightning glinted off my alabaster skull, echoing through my mind as I knelt down beside the creep.
“Mercy does not await you,” I intoned in a dry voice. “Your remains shall never be recovered. Never relinquished, never put to rest.” He looked back with wild yellow eyes. I rested a skeletal hand on his shoulder, “Now come, let us have some fun in the woods.”
He cried out as my grip tightened, then screamed blindly as my fingers pierced into his tendons, hooked his collar-bone, and dragged him behind. He kicked and flailed, writhed and sprayed garbled prayers into the night, but the thunder drowned him out. He couldn’t stop me.
Deep into the woods we traveled, further than any sane human might travel. At some point, he passed out from pain. The camera still dangled around his neck, filled to the brim with memories of his past atrocities. I came to a stop in a small clearing, where a tree split by lightning sat.
There, I slung the bumbling creep at the base of the tree and slapped him to make sure he awoke. He looked around blindly, crusty features thick with fear. I lifted him into the splintered trunk of the oak and pierced his arms and legs with shattered wood. There he screamed and foamed, but unable to move as I stepped forward and took the camera from his neck.
“One picture. A flash in the night,” I murmured, raising the camera to my socket and taking a candid. “That is all anyone will remember you by.” I stepped up and wrapped my fingers around his greasy neck, before slamming the camera into his mouth, shattering his teeth, and lodging it in his jaws. Pictures continued to roll off, illuminating his chest and throat as he wept and struggled weakly.
I backed up, smiling, remembering the pictures he’d taken of me. I counted the time between each flash, slipping further and further into the woods. One-Mississippi, two-Mississippi, three-Mississippi. Lightning flared and thunder roared, and I disappeared into the night.
The police would never know what happened to the little girl who disappeared. There would be an area-wide search, missing posters, the nine-yards. But no one would ever find anything.
The only thing the parents found that was remotely interesting was a bit of dirt in their child’s bed. In a room that had been locked for weeks. And a single solitary photograph buried under her blanket. A picture of a shattered oak-tree and one simple phrase written on the back.
One-Mississippi, two-Mississippi, Three-Mississippi, four… Your child may be gone, but there is no need to mourn.
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