Thursday, May 23, 2019

The Stalker – Part 1

October 29, 2014 Beings and Entities
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Estimated reading time — 11 minutes

Transferring to a new school in the middle of the semester really sucks. First off, it’s a logistical nightmare jumping into the thick of seven new classes and getting caught up with all the material that may or may not have been covered in your old school. More importantly for a slacker like me, it makes developing a successful social life virtually impossible, at least for most of the remaining year. Everyone already knows each other and has formed up their little separate cliques… the school clubs and activities are running full steam and not really gunning for new members… and then, of course, there’s the omnipresent fact that you’re the freaking “New Kid” and everybody knows it. Yeah, mid-semester transfers can be pretty crappy.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have a whole lot of choice in the matter. When you’ve gotta move, you’ve gotta move, and I definitely had to move. So here I was, walking in to my first day at Black Creek High School in middle-of-nowhere West Virginia… in the middle of freaking February. I stepped off of the bus into a blast of freezing air that made me miss Atlanta more than ever, and made a beeline for the front door. Despite the cold, a fair amount of people seemed to be socializing on the sidewalk in front of the school instead of taking it indoors, and even in the roughly twenty-second span of time it took me to cover the distance from the school bus to the building, I felt several pairs of eyes turn to look me over.

Fantastic. This was a decent-sized school, so I’d hoped the presence of a new face wouldn’t attract much notice, but apparently I was wrong. Then again, I suppose I shouldn’t have been all that surprised… it was like this every time I transferred. Somehow, no matter how much I tried to keep my head down and blend in, people always noticed me. I let out a small sigh and tugged my scarf up higher around my face as I reached the front entrance and slid gratefully into the warm hallway. I could already tell that my first few weeks here were going to be a veritable purgatory of social awkwardness, but hopefully after a month or two I’d be able to settle into a relatively normal teenage life. Hopefully…

I did my best to avoid everyone’s eyes and ignore their whispers as I picked up my new locker number and combination from the office and headed there to put away my coat and backpack. It took me several tries to figure out how to work the combination lock correctly, and I may have slightly damaged my first impression with my new classmates by pounding on the door and yelling a few obscenities after the sixth try. Still, they could have lent me a hand instead of just standing there staring until I finally managed to open the thing on attempt number eleven. Given the delay, I barely managed to make it to my first class on time, sliding into a seat in the far back corner of the room just as the bell rang. To my dismay, instead of taking the obvious hint that I’d rather be left alone, my new homeroom teacher decided to greet our session with: “Class, today we’ll be welcoming a new transfer student to our homeroom. Mister –” he glanced quickly at his class roster – “Thompson, would you like to come up to the front of the class and introduce yourself?”

…Seriously? Of course didn’t want to introduce myself! What teenage kid actually WANTS to stand up and talk about himself in front of a room full of other teenagers he doesn’t know? But when a teacher asks you if you’d like to do something, they’re never actually giving you a choice in the matter, so instead of saying “no” I got up and shuffled perfunctorily to the front of the classroom, trying not to glare at Mr. Socially Oblivious as I did so. I stood in front of the whiteboard, faced forward, and gulped quietly. The entire class was staring straight at me like a bunch of owls. Judgmental, hormonal, cliquish owls. Cliché as it was, I tried to imagine them all in their underwear, but I was never really an imaginative sort of guy, so that didn’t help very much.

“Uh… hello,” I finally managed to force out, “I’m Zach Thompson. I, uh, just moved here from Atlanta, Georgia, and, um… yeah, nice to… meet you,” I finished lamely.

I then proceeded to stand there in complete silence for a full ten seconds as everyone continued to stare at me like they expected me to say something else, though I had no idea what else to say. Then the teacher finally cleared his throat and said, “Well, it’s very good to meet you too, Mr. Thompson. Welcome to our school. If you need anything, feel free to come talk to me any time.”

Yeah, I’d definitely be doing that later – not! I nodded stiffly a couple of times and scuttled embarrassedly back to my desk without being excused. For the remaining twenty minutes of class, I kept my head down and pretended to read my syllabus, ignoring both the occasional curious glances my classmates threw back at me and whatever relentlessly boring school crap the teacher was droning on about. I was out the door almost as soon as the bell rang; I didn’t try to talk to anybody and nobody tried to talk to me.

To my horror, I was put through the same awkward, humiliating introduction ritual in each of my next three classes – though luckily, aside from that, all of my teachers seemed relatively nice (if a bit distant), and I understood most of their lectures about as well as I ever did. When the lunch bell rang, I was half-relieved that I wasn’t being shuttled off to another meaningless intro-session, but mostly nervous about being thrown into the social jungle that was the high school cafeteria. Lunch this afternoon was the exact opposite of appetizing for me – the little round cafeteria pizzas looked like white rubber melted on cardboard and probably tasted about the same, while the salad bar was nothing but wilted lettuce and little packets of half-calorie salad dressing. Still, I stood in the lunch line with everybody else… it was at least something to do besides hover around awkwardly waiting for someone to talk to me, and besides, it would look weird if I didn’t get any food.

After about fifteen minutes of silent waiting, I was passed a tray and a little bottle of water and carried them over to the end of the most deserted lunch table I could find. As I sat there, sipping water and pushing piles of lettuce around my plate with my fork, plenty of people glanced over at me, pointed, or whispered, but no one came over to talk to me or even sit anywhere near me. This, too, I was used to… you know how some people have that kind of weird magnetism that draws others around them in a crowd, making them the center of attention without really even needing to say anything? Well, I had the opposite of that. Sometimes I felt like I was walking around with “Socially Awkward” stamped on my forehead – although, I suppose everybody feels that way now and again, especially when thrown into a new place. This was why I hated moving. I sighed heavily and started clumsily trying to fold my napkin into an origami crane to pass the time. I was just about finished folding out the wings when a perky, female voice suddenly addressed me.

“Hey! You must be the new boy! Zach, right?”

I looked up, surprised and pleased that someone was actually talking to me – let alone a girl – but my heart sank just a bit when I saw her. This girl was obviously the school weirdo, or at least one of them. Her hair was the sort of really dark black you could tell instantly was fake, with several shocking pink streaks in it, and it was held into shoulder-length pigtails by a pair of grinning cartoon skull barrettes with pink bows. Her skin-tight black t-shirt bore an image of a freaky-looking patchwork teddy bear with a grinning sewn-together mouth and x’s for eyes, head tilted to the side, holding what looked like a bloody scissor blade. She wore a pink and black plaid schoolgirl skirt hemmed so short that I was surprised the dress code allowed it, with knee-high black and white striped socks and big black platform boots. She carried her backpack with her, a black messenger bag absolutely covered with various patches, pins, and keychains displaying the sort of cartoony, pop-artsy kinds of characters that are somehow nauseatingly cute and genuinely creepy at the same time. She also wore a fair amount of jewelry with the same theme, and her eyes were surrounded by heavy black eyeliner and sparkly pink eyeshadow. She was really quite cute, don’t get me wrong, but she came on way too strong with the… would that be goth-lolita?… sort of look, which made her weirdly intimidating.

“Um, yeah… hi,” I finally managed to stutter out, after staring at her for a few moments too long to be polite.

“Mind if I sit down?”

“Uh, sure, I guess,” I responded, though she’d already slid into the seat next to me before I even finished my sentence. Pushing her tray away a bit, she propped her elbow up on the table, rested her chin in her hand, and just stared at me in awkward silence, a bright grin plastered across her face. Thoroughly weirded out, I sat blinking at my uneaten lunch for almost a full minute before I even thought to ask, “So, uh… what’s your name?”

“Emily Jackson. You can call me Emi, though!” She paused for a second, then said, “And YOU’RE a mysterious transfer student.”

“I… what??” I responded, thoroughly confused.

“You’re a mysterious transfer student! You know, in books and anime and stuff, whenever anybody transfers to a new school at a weird time, they’ve always got some kind of secret or special powers or something. Nobody knows you, you showed up out of nowhere in the middle of the semester, so it’s mysterious! You could totally be anybody!”

I get it, she must be some kind of hardcore geek, or something, I thought. “Sorry to burst your bubble, but I’m just a normal kid,” I responded, trying to laugh off a little bit of the awkwardness of the conversation.

“Why’d you transfer here, then?” she asked with a playful grin.

“My dad had to move here for his job,” I answered promptly. That wasn’t really the truth of the matter, but the truth of the matter was none of her business, and it was easier to lie than to withhold information – especially from nosy, gossipy teenagers.

“What’s he do?”

“He works at the chemical plant in Charleston,” I responded. I had done my research.

“Oh,” she responded, “So not a spy or an assassin or anything?”

“Definitely not,” I agreed.

“Well, that’s disappointing. I still like you, though! I bet you’re interesting,” she said with a smile.

I just shrugged and poked at some lettuce with my fork again. I didn’t feel interesting, and I honestly didn’t really want to be interesting. I just wanted to be a normal, relatively happy high schooler.

“Why aren’t you eating anything?” she asked.

“Not hungry,” I replied, “Big breakfast. Cafeteria food sucks, anyhow.”

“Want something sweet instead?” she asked brightly, pulling a large candy box out of her backpack. She opened it up and I peeked at the contents – a half-eaten array of obnoxiously bright multicolored candies shaped like happy skulls, broken hearts, and kitty faces.

“Sorry, I don’t have much of a sweet tooth,” I responded politely, though I honestly thought the candies looked like something that might have been barfed up by a unicorn. I felt a little sick just looking at them.

“Suit yourself,” she answered, popping a candy skull in her mouth and chewing. She grinned a little as she swallowed, and whispered under her breath, “Mysterious…”, then dropped me a quick wink. I pretended not to notice. “Sooooo, where are you from?” she asked next. I seized onto the relatively normal question and started telling her all about Atlanta. We spent the rest of the lunch period having a pleasant and only slightly odd conversation, by the end of which I felt I was actually starting to like her despite the less-than-ideal first impression. I was even a bit disappointed when the bell rang to return to class, a feeling which Emi seemed to mirror.

“Oh, drat!” she exclaimed. “Well, it was really great getting to talk to you, Mr. Mysterious Transfer Student! Let’s totally do it again soon. I hope we’ll get to be really good friends.”

“Oh, uh, me too,” I replied as she got up and headed for her locker. After she got a few feet away, to my surprise, she turned back, blew me a kiss, and called loudly across the room, “Bye, Zachy!”

I grimaced a bit. Zachy? That was going to need to stop. I hoped not too many other people had heard it. With a sigh, I picked up my tray and headed to the trash can to throw away my uneaten lunch. I couldn’t believe the day was only half over; I already felt completely drained. I passed through the rest of my classes in a bit of a daze, each one having basically the same good and bad points as my morning classes. I was really relieved when the final bell rang to end the school day. Following the crowd of my seemingly equally relieved new classmates toward the front doors, I decided I’d just walk home today instead of taking the bus. It had gotten much warmer now that it was the afternoon (though not nearly as nice as Atlanta), and I felt a walk would give me more opportunity to relax and think than being crammed on a bus full of loud strangers. My place was already a ten-minute walk from the nearest bus stop, anyway. I was just setting off along the sidewalk when I heard a voice call out from behind me.


I turned to see Emi bustling towards me at a half-run, her impractical T-shirt and miniskirt now buried in a long black trenchcoat. “You live out this way, too?” she queried boisterously as I stopped to let her catch up. Then, before I even had the chance to answer, “Want to walk back together?”

“Um, sure, I guess,” I responded blandly, not quite sure whether I wanted to or not, but unwilling to just flat out refuse. “How far are you going?”

“Oh, my house is right out behind Valley Park!” she replied, “What about you?”

“A bit further down the road,” I said, glad that I’d get some alone time for at least the last leg of my walk.

“Cool! So how was your first day? I think we’re in the same science class in the morning, but I came in late today so I don’t think you saw me… Mr. Michaelson, right? What do you think of him? I think he’s a jerk; he’s got this horrible monotone and he flips out whenever anything interrupts his jabbering…”

We walked for about 30 minutes passing similar conversation, her doing most of the talking, me listening and occasionally getting in a comment or two when she stopped for breath. Honestly, after a while her voice just sort of turned into white noise and I just smiled and nodded, hoping she couldn’t tell that I was spacing out. Eventually we turned a corner onto a residential street, and she exclaimed, “Welp, this is my stop!” She gestured at a large, well-kept red brick house with a nice front yard and an attached two-car garage. I couldn’t help being a little jealous when I thought of my lodgings. Without warning, she playfully threw her arms around me in what was probably about the most awkward hug of my life so far, though I kind of doubted it was the most awkward of hers. After around five seconds, she drew back, beaming at me, and said, “Hey, I know! Let’s exchange cell phone numbers! Want to?”

I actually had to think about that for a second. I mean, Emi was nice and all, pretty too, and most guys would probably jump at the chance, but she was already seeming a little bit… clingy… for my taste, and I got the distinct feeling that getting too involved with her would be social suicide – or at least a great way to pigeonhole myself as a weirdo for the next two and a half years of my life. A second after this thought crossed my mind I felt disgusted at my own shallowness. She was the only person at that school who had been willing to give me the time of day, and here I was worrying about what everyone else would think if I was friends with her. She was probably just a little bit overexcited because she didn’t have many friends of her own, either. “Sure,” I responded firmly, digging my phone out of my bag.

So, we quickly exchanged contacts, and she trotted back to her house with another blown kiss and exclamation of “Bye, Zachy!” Crap, I’d forgotten to tell her to cut that out. Oh well, there was always tomorrow. I waved back with a smile and then headed back up the opposite side of the road towards my place, which was still a little bit of a trek away. I’d barely gotten five steps before my phone buzzed in my pocket.

EMI: heya, zach!! this thing working? 

“Yep,” I texted back succinctly, tugging up my scarf against a brisk breeze carrying the calm, mineral-heavy scent of wet soil. I had a pleasant, relaxing walk the rest of the way home despite the cold, and despite the fact that I received no fewer than fifteen additional buzzes from Emi on the way, most of which I ignored. I tried to get some catch-up homework done when I got home, but really couldn’t work up much motivation, so I wound up spending most of the evening playing games on my old GBA until it ran out of batteries. After that I decided to hit the hay early, texting Emi goodnight so that she’d know why I was about to stop responding to her steady stream of text messages. Damn, that girl could talk… I put my ringer on silent, set my alarm, then rolled over and slept like a log for the next nine hours.

When I woke up the next morning, hair in disarray and still wearing the clothes I’d fallen asleep in, I checked my phone to find no fewer than 75 new text messages from Emi, along with three missed calls. Blinking and rubbing my eyes in drowsy disbelief, I quickly scrolled through the messages to see if she’d been trying to communicate anything important:

EMI: hi zach! what color you think i should paint my nails 2nite? purple or green?

EMI: hey zachy! i’m marathoning season 2 of kuroshitsuji. bassy is soooooo hawt <3 do u liek anime?

EMI: what’s ur favorite color? mine’s a tie bt/w red and purple lol

EMI: science hw’s a total bitch, mr. m is such a tool!! what’d you put for #6?

And so on and so forth. She hadn’t stopped texting me until 3 o’clock in the morning. I rubbed my face in exhausted bewilderment, unable to quite muster the desire or the energy to respond. I stumbled through my scant morning routine on autopilot, waking up little by little as I went, and barely got out to the bus stop in time to catch my ride. It seemed Emi must ride a different bus, or get dropped off by her parents, because the bus never picked her up. I honestly felt a little relieved about that. I passed the bus ride in silence, drowsing against the hard brown vinyl seat until we were dropped off into the cold at the front entrance.

Emi accosted me almost as soon as I stepped into the building. She was dressed even more ludicrously than yesterday, in a bright orange ruffled blouse bearing a grinning jack-o-lantern face, with a tight black corset laced over the bottom half. Her legs were covered by a voluminous ankle-length layered skirt, mostly bright orange like the top but striped with black ruffles; a pair of high-heeled boots peeked out from under the skirt. All of her accessories seemed to be jack-o-lantern based, up to the orange beret perched on her head like a pumpkin cap, complete with brown stem and green leaves. Even the streaks in her hair were now Day-Glo orange.

“Good moooorning, Zachy!” she greeted, rushing up to me and favoring me with some kind of awkward running hug-tackle that practically caused me to lose my balance and fall over. My face burned as I felt – not just saw, but felt – several pairs of eyes stop what they were doing and turn to stare at us openly.

“M-morning,” I choked out, trying to pry her off of me as gently as I could.

“You get my messages last night?” she asked brightly, finally pulling back and beaming at me intently. The avid intensity of her stare was… a little bit disconcerting, to say the least. Like that picture on the “Overly Attached Girlfriend” memes. Had she looked at me that way yesterday? I couldn’t quite remember clearly. All I knew was that now I couldn’t quite meet her eyes as I shuffled my feet and muttered: “Well, yeah… I mean, I saw them this morning, but… I was kinda, um, asleep when I got them…”

“Oh, that’s okay!” she shot back perkily. “Hey, want some of my breakfast burrito? School breakfast sucks, so I got some fast food before I came in!” She proffered me the half-eaten roll of junk food. Grease dripped from the (now undoubtedly cold) mixture of rubbery-looking scrambled eggs and unidentifiable pinkish lunch meats crammed into the cheap flour tortilla. That plus the fact that someone had already taken a few bites out if it was enough to make the thought of doing so myself mildly nauseating.

“No thanks,” I responded with a gulp and a quick shake of my head. “You can keep it.”

Emi shrugged and took another bite. “Hey, what did you think of that science homework last night? You manage to get through all of it?”

“Oh, shit, that was due today? I’ve barely even started…” Way to get off on the right foot at my new school.

“That’s okay, Zachy, I’ll let you copy mine! I’m getting a B in science!” she announced proudly, digging around in her messenger bag for the homework papers.

“Thanks,” I responded, actually feeling pretty relieved by the help. I felt a little bad about how quickly I’d been judging her a few moments ago. I even let the whole “Zachy” thing slip again for the moment as she drew the worksheets triumphantly from her bag and I sat down at the nearest table and began copying furiously (though some weird, paranoid little part of my mind seemed to whisper to me with dismay that we owed her now…). I noted vaguely that her handwriting was very loopy and she dotted all of her i’s with little hearts.

Somehow, even with her gossiping into my ear the entire time, I managed to get most of the work copied before the bell rang for homeroom. Emi and I went our separate ways (though not without a half dozen perky exclamations of “bye bye!” and “see you later!” on her part), and I actually managed to get my locker open in only five tries this time. Morning classes were relatively uneventful, except that now I knew I was in the same science class as Emi. She took her seat right behind me, utilizing the position to pass me several notes during the class period – one of which featured a very unflattering depiction of Mr. Michaelson, which I promptly crumpled up and shoved into my backpack to avoid the possibility of having it confiscated.

I didn’t really feel like facing the lunch line or the staring, whispering crowd of my peers in the cafeteria that day, so when the bell rang for lunch break, I headed for the library instead. It was quieter and much more sparsely populated there, and most of the occupants seemed to be sort of nerdy, introverted kids like me. Besides, I actually did like to read, even if it was usually comic books or fantasy/horror novels aimed a little below my age group.

I sighed with relief, feeling myself relax a bit for the first time that day, as I lazily browsed the shelves of the fiction section. I actually found a fairly nice, if small, assembly of R.L. Stine books on the bottom shelf of one of the racks. I picked out a couple of Goosebumps stories and rose from my crouching position – at just the right moment to knock into someone behind me carrying a huge stack of books. The person was only knocked a little bit off-balance, but the books went flying, dropping to the tile floor with a series of loud thuds. I immediately started apologizing profusely, dropping to the floor to gather the books before even getting a look at the person who had been holding them. After a couple of seconds I became aware of another small, dark pair of hands gathering the books as well, and another voice speaking in a quick, embarrassed manner:

“No, no, it’s fine… totally my fault… wasn’t watching where I was going…”

I stopped apologizing and looked up at the person crouching next to me. By coincidence, she looked up at about the same time, and I found myself staring into a pair of large, soft brown eyes. I dropped my gaze again quickly and blushed, returning to what I had been doing. “Yeah, I wasn’t really being careful either, though, so…” I muttered, trailing off without really finishing my sentence. After what seemed like forever but was probably only ten or fifteen seconds, we finally managed to gather all of the books off of the floor and I sheepishly handed my stack back over to her. There were about nine or ten titles in all. I noted authors like Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and Madeline L’Engle among them, which made me feel a little bit embarrassed about my own choice of reading material… hold on, where were my books? Oh crap, had I dropped them, too…?

“Um, here, I think these were yours,” the girl said, confirming my fears by handing back the pair of battered Goosebumps to me.

“Uh, yeah, thanks,” I said glumly, blushing again. I got a better look at her as I took back the stack of books. She was a short, petite young woman with a cute round face, a crooked smile, and just the lightest dusting of freckles across her nose and dusky cheeks. Her frizzy black hair was tied back into a thick braid that fell to her shoulder blades, and she wore a fuzzy grey sweater and faded jeans. All in all, I thought she was really pretty, not to mention nice and obviously smart, and I felt like a complete dunce for both bumping into her and getting caught reading kiddie horror while she was delving into Asimov.

To make matters worse, she had obviously noticed: “So, Goosebumps, huh? Gosh, I used to be obsessed with those when I was a kid. I didn’t know the library had any.” I was glad to hear that she’d liked them too, but the addition of “when I was a kid” made my heart sink into my shoes. Then she lifted my spirits back up a bit by adding, “I’d kinda like to re-read a few when I get the chance!”

“Yeah, they’re… pretty, uh, nostalgic,” I said with a forced grin and chuckle, trying and probably failing to sound cool and unconcerned.

“Oh, my name’s Aliyah, by the way. What’s yours?” she asked.

“Ah, Zach,” I responded. “Thompson.”

“Oh, you’re the new guy, right?” she queried. I grimaced involuntarily, and she quickly added, “Sorry, you must be pretty tired of hearing that, huh?”

I just shrugged and muttered, “Yeah, well… it is what it is, you know? No problem. I really am the new guy, after all.”

She smiled and responded, “Good! Well, it’s really nice to meet you Zach. I hope it isn’t too weird adjusting to Black Creek. There are a few jerks around here, like at any school, but mostly I think everybody’s really nice. I’ve gotta go meet with some people about a class project right now, but I’ll definitely see you around, okay?”

“O-okay,” I stuttered back shyly. “See you.”

She turned around and headed to the checkout desk with her books, and I collapsed backwards against the bookshelf, weak-kneed and grinning stupidly. Maybe my first few weeks here weren’t going to be so bad after all. At least I’d met someone nice, and she actually seemed to kind of like me…

“Do you like that girl?”

The voice, only a few inches away from my ear, took me completely by surprise. I jumped involuntarily, barely holding back a startled yelp, and whipped around to face the speaker. It was Emi. Damn, how could somebody wearing that much Day-Glo orange be such a freaking ninja? She had somehow gotten right behind me, within a couple of inches of the back of my head, without me even noticing her.
“Well, do you like her?” she asked again.

Her tone was pleasant and conversational, and she was wearing her usual sunny smile, but her stare was more disconcertingly intent than ever. “I, um, well, she seems… nice,” I stuttered nervously, feeling oddly like a cat that had been caught in the canary cage, or a kid with his hand in the cookie jar. Cut it out, I thought to myself, There’s no reason to get all defensive. It’s not like you’re going out with her or anything. Shit, you just met her yesterday afternoon, and now you feel like you’re – what? – not allowed to talk to other girls? That’s ridiculous, right? …Right?

“Yeah, but do you, you know, liiiiike her?” Emi queried, leaning closer and dropping her voice to a conspiratorial whisper.

“I, ah, wasn’t really… I mean, we just met, so… I wasn’t exactly, uh, thinking quite that far ahead?” I finished, my inflection turning the intended statement into a question. “I just think she’s a nice person, is all,” I added a bit more firmly.

Emi gave me a sly smile, like you might give someone when discussing a shared secret or an inside joke. “Oh, I’m sure she is. She lives alone with her grandparents, you know. Nice little house a bit out of the way up in the hills, ‘cause they like being close to nature. She has to walk five or ten minutes from her bus stop just to get home. Usually takes the late bus, too, on account of after school band practice, so this time of year it’s getting dark by the time she’s walking up through the woods to her house.” Emi paused for a moment, and just as I was starting to wonder exactly why the hell she was telling me all of this, she dropped the bomb into the conversation:

“I bet it would be pretty easy for her to just disappear on that walk one night.”

“Whoa, wait – WHAT?” I replied, confused and now just a little bit freaked out. “Where did that come from?”

Emi just smiled again and said, “It’s true, though! I don’t know why her senile old granny keeps letting her walk that way in the dark. Trees all around to hide in, no place close enough to hear her scream… it would be so simple for somebody to just grab her and make off with her in the night – if somebody were so inclined,” she finished, batting her eyelids innocently.

My mind was reeling trying to catch up to her train of thought. I had no idea how I was supposed to respond to this. “Who would – wait – why would… Why are you telling me this?” I finally managed to choke out.

Emi shrugged nonchalantly. “Just thought you might find it interesting, is all,” she replied in a sing-songy voice. “I’m going to go get some lunch. Coming, Zachy?”

Was she kidding? Eating lunch with her was about the last thing I felt like doing right now. I clenched my teeth and shook my head mutely – the best response I could muster at the moment – and thankfully instead of forcing the issue, she just said, “Okie dokie lokie! See you later, Zachy,” then turned and sauntered away towards the cafeteria, her voluminous skirts swirling around her ankles.

This time I didn’t collapse against a bookshelf, I collapsed right into a chair. My skin felt cold and clammy and my thoughts were whirling around in my head confusedly, generating nothing productive. Was she THREATENING Aliyah? That’s what it had sounded like. Why? Because I had been talking to her? That was crazy! But hell, maybe she was crazy. Was Aliyah in danger? Did I need to do something to protect her? Whoa, whoa, slow down. Let’s not jump off the deep end right away. Emi had already demonstrated that she was weird enough, maybe she was just remarking on it, like she’d gone off on that weird “mysterious transfer student” rant when we first met. Just speculating about the kind of shit that might go on if this was one of her comic books or horror novels. Hell, maybe she was even concerned about Aliyah… no, going that far was just wishful thinking. I knew that much.

But really, even if Emi was making some kind of implied threat, what could she ever actually do about it? I mean, she was a scrawny, sixteen-year-old girl, for God’s sake! This wasn’t a comic book. You couldn’t just go out and kill somebody whenever you wanted to – it took planning, resources, some way to make sure you didn’t get caught. Sure, okay, I guess some people our age do actually snap and find a way to go out and kill people, but that’s only a tiny, infinitesimal fraction of those who have threatened to do it. And I still wasn’t sure it was even a threat.

No… no, I didn’t think Emi would do a thing like that. No need to get all worked up over nothing. Besides, what could I even do about it, anyway? I could just see myself going up to Aliyah and saying “Hey, guess what? You need to start getting a better ride home because now that I’ve talked to you, my crazy sort-of-friend Emi is probably going to try to kidnap you and drown you in a lake somewhere. My bad.” Yeah, that would just do wonders for our budding friendship. Not only would she not believe me, she’d probably peg me as the crazy one and avoid me like the plague until graduation. Nope, better to just never speak of this again and hope it went away…

By the time I managed to come to this conclusion, lunch was over and the bell was ringing to signal our return to class. I sighed and put my Goosebumps books back on the bottom shelf unread, then trudged to my first afternoon class – U.S. History, whoop-de-fucking-doo. At this point I had developed a massive headache and was completely unable to pay attention to a single word my teachers said for the rest of the day.

When classes finally ended, I fully intended to just hop straight onto my bus and ride home with everyone else, but that’s not what wound up happening. I had just joined the scattered line of students waiting to board the bus when a sickeningly familiar call of – “Hey, Zachy! Let’s walk home together again today!” – echoed in my ears. This time Emi didn’t yell to me from across the parking lot; this time she waited until she was close enough to grab my arm and drag me bodily from the bus line, ignoring my stuttering, half-hearted attempts to object.

“Actually, I… I t-think I’d rather just ride the bus today… I-I mean, its g-getting pretty chilly outside, and, um…”

“It’s okay, I’ll let you borrow my scarf!” she responded cheerfully, still maintaining her death-grip on my upper arm and pulling us towards the sidewalk. With her other hand, she removed her black-and-orange striped scarf and threw it haphazardly around my neck like a wooly python. “There! We had so much fun walking home yesterday that it’d suck not to get to today just because of the cold, right?”

I mumbled something indeterminate and readjusted the additional scarf to make it more comfortable. Emi seemed to take this as a “yes,” because she grinned at me and launched straight into her daily tirade of gossip and complaints about classes. I glanced wistfully back at the buses, which were just now pulling out of the parking lot. I felt like a bit of a coward, but I preferred to avoid confrontation if possible, and as long as Emi stuck to talking about normal things, I really didn’t mind walking with her. I did have to wonder dismally where this relationship was going, though… I mean, I couldn’t just let her drag me around forever, could I? Eventually I was going to need to draw a few lines, tell her to back off a bit; otherwise I would probably go nuts. I sighed heavily, dreading that moment already.

The walk was pretty uneventful, but I still had a feeling of intense relief when we finally reached Emi’s place. “Well, I guess I’ll see you tomorrow,” I remarked, trying not to look too eager to be on my way.

“Wait, Zachy! Do you wanna come in for a little bit?” she asked brightly.

The question hit me from out of the blue, and in my surprise I actually managed a definite answer for once: “No,” I replied bluntly, reflexively. Then I quickly softened the response with, “I mean, I have a lot of homework to catch up on, and I really wouldn’t want to impose…”

“Oh, don’t worry about that!” she replied, “My parents don’t get home until late at night, so I’m always really lonely after school! Besides, homework can wait until later, right? I mean, if worst comes to worst you can always copy mine again! C’mon, let’s go!”

“Okay, but really, only for a minute or two!” I responded, maintaining a very thin illusion of control as she grabbed my wrist and dragged me towards the front door.

“Yay!! I really appreciate it, Zachy, I hardly ever have anyone over,” she gushed. Gee, I wonder why. She unlocked the front door and pushed it open with a thud, leading us into a clean, well-kept entrance hall. She flipped on the light and shut the door behind us in one fluid motion, then ushered me directly up a carpeted flight of stairs to the second floor. What little I saw of the first floor seemed posh, well-furnished and tastefully decorated… yet oddly sterile, like a picture of a house in some catalogue that was just too perfect. It just didn’t feel lived-in. I didn’t see any family pictures either, but that was probably because I only had about ten seconds to look before being bundled up the stairs, down the hall, and into the third door on the left…

“Aaaaand this is my room!” Emi announced with a smile. “What do you think?”

The room laid out before me actually struck me speechless for a moment. This one definitely looked lived-in, just not by the same kind of people who had designed the rest of the house. The walls were painted a brilliant blood-red, except for the one directly to the left of the door, which was completely wallpapered with vintage horror movie posters, album cover art from various alt-rock and heavy-metal bands, and anime-style character decals. Another wall was mostly covered by a bookshelf stocked with an eclectic mix of comics, novels, leather-bound academic-looking books with occult titles, and several books with no titles on the spines at all. A couple of black beanbag chairs sat on a spiderweb-shaped rug in the middle of the floor, along with a small, boxy, rabbit-eared television set. Emi’s bed was in the back corner of the room, a huge four-poster covered by a velvety black canopy and dressed with a garnet-red bedspread patterned with thin black spiderwebs. An antiquey-looking black wooden writing desk sat next to it in the other corner.

This all might be relatively normal, if a little excessive, for a teenager given leave to decorate her own room; but the other decorations were frankly a little disturbing. First, there were the dolls. Lying on the bed, lined up on the bookshelf, sitting perched atop the desk: basically anywhere you looked, a pair of glassy little dead eyes stared back. A few of the dolls were more like action figures, I’d guess probably collectibles, but most of them were these creepy, voodoo-style button-eyed rag dolls. Some even had pins sticking out of them, or rough tears in their stitching through which cotton blossomed like some strange fungus. All were grinning eerily with their stitched-together mouths. Then, there were the plants. Not live ones, but dried plants, herbs and flowers, hanging in strings and bundles from the walls all over the room. The overall effect was like a cross between a teenage goth girl’s sanctuary and the storefront of a Louisiana witch-doctor.

I examined the plant nearest me suspiciously: a big bunch of dried purplish flowers tied together by their stems and hung from a nail on the wall by rough twine. I leaned closer and sniffed warily at the bundle – then drew back with a muffled exclamation, hand clamped over my mouth and nose. The putrid stench of the dried flowers didn’t carry very far, but one good whiff up close was enough to make me gag so hard it felt as though my throat had closed up. I coughed dryly, fanning the air in front of my face to drive away any lingering traces of the smell, then gulped down the relatively clean air gratefully.

“What do I think? It’s, um, certainly something,” I responded to Emi’s question ambiguously.

Emi tittered and said, “Not a big fan of the dried herbs, huh?”

“Guess not,” I responded half-heartedly. “Why do you have all of these, anyway? Are you, like, Wiccan or something?” I paused for a second, realizing how insensitive that probably sounded, then added, “No offense.”

Emi grinned and shook her head. “Nope!” she exclaimed cheerfully, pointing towards the head of her bed. I followed her gaze and… Jesus tap-dancing Christ, how the hell had I missed that when I came in?! Above her bed hung an enormous wooden crucifix, complete with a roughly carved, half-naked image of Jesus hanging from it. I wasn’t a particularly religious guy, so stuff like that always freaked me out just a little bit in the first place, but this thing was… special. First of all, it was probably the most graphically violent crucifix I’d ever seen: the carved Jesus’ hands and feet were shown nailed crudely to the cross with thick nails, creating rough-edged, bleeding wounds. Its emaciated body was covered with deep lacerations and the crown of thorns atop its head bled profusely. I mean, I knew that the point of the thing was supposed to be that Jesus suffered and died for man’s sins, but such a graphic depiction of torture just seemed… somehow cruel and sadistic to me. Needless. Secondly, and perhaps even more disturbingly, there was the thing’s face. On most crucifixes, at least those I’d seen, the face of Jesus looked peaceful and somber, forgiving, sad, or some combination of the above. The roughly carved face on this monstrosity looked… almost like it was glaring at the viewer, eyes shadowed by a heavy brow set in anger, mouth twisted into a frown. Overall, it looked more like something out of Children of the Corn than an actual legitimate religious symbol. I twitched backwards with an involuntary grimace, resolving to keep as much distance between myself and that end of the room as possible.

“So, uh… Catholic, then?” I corrected with a gulp.

Emi shrugged. “Pretty much!”

I decided against asking her how one could be “pretty much” Catholic, and instead remarked, “Yeah, I mean, this place is actually pretty nice! Definitely captures your personality.” I stepped in deeper, looking around more closely at some of the furnishings. “I’m digging the movie posters. Bela Lugosi was a kickass Dracula. And you’ve definitely got a cool set of… hold on a sec – is that a Jeff the Killer body pillow?” I inquired incredulously, coming across the ridiculous artifact leaning against one side of the bookshelf.

“Yep! He’s my Jeffy!” declared Emi, grabbing the pillow away from me and giving it an enthusiastic squeeze. I swear, I will never understand women. I did my best to hold back a look of disgust as she gave the grotesque cloth image a small peck on the cheek, then threw the pillow haphazardly to the floor and stated, “I’ve got to go use the – ahem – washroom. Be back in just a minute. You stay here and make yourself at home! Just don’t mess up any of my stuff. Oh… and nooooo peeking!” she finished with a smile and a wink, sweeping out the door before I could respond. I snorted. “Peeking?” As if!

Left alone in the silent room, I meandered over to the bookshelf, examining some of the titles on display. Rosario+Vampire, a few Stephen King books, something in Latin… I stopped when I reached a series of a few untitled books, curiously choosing one from the shelf and letting it fall open to a random page. I was met with a pair of handwritten pages in what was obviously Emi’s writing, complete with little hearts on the i’s.

I felt a blush creep into my cheeks. Was this Emi’s diary? My immediate impulse was to put it right back on the shelf – respect her privacy, and all – but in the end curiosity won out, and I decided to go ahead and read a little bit. I started at the top of the page, and found myself in the middle of what quickly became apparent as a Slenderman fan-fiction. So, not her diary, then, I thought with a mixture of relief and disappointment. Still, I read onward curiously: the main protagonist was just about to be confronted by the Slenderman; he was coming through the window into the house, and… oh. Ohhhh, wow. That was definitely not the way these things normally went.

Apparently I had stumbled into not just any Slenderman fan-fiction, but a very particular sort of – ahem – explicit Slenderman fan-fiction. For decency’s sake I won’t go in to any detail, suffice to say that it involved a lot of tentacles in very inappropriate places. Equally fascinated and repelled, I flipped through the rest of the book, scanning the other stories Emi had written. Believe it or not, they only got worse from there – really sadistic stuff, involving chains and gags and… knives… holy CRAP. I only skimmed over the material, but I’ll admit that even what little I gleaned from my cursory examination had me crossing my legs protectively.

Suddenly I heard a toilet flush on the other end of the hallway, and the click of heels on the wood floor coming towards the door. I hurriedly shoved the book back onto the shelf and sidled away to the other end of the room. I took up a position near the desk, trying to look nonchalant as I pretended to examine one of the creepy-ass patchwork voodoo dolls perched on the woodwork.

“I’m baaaaack, Zachy!” Emi exclaimed as she entered, pausing and almost striking a pose in the doorway. I blinked at her, nonplussed. While in the restroom, she had removed her long ruffled skirt, leaving her wearing nothing on her lower half but a ridiculously tight pair of purple athletic shorts with a barely one-inch inseam. Well, that and her knee-high black leather boots. Her blouse hung loosely off of her shoulders and she had let her hair down out of its trademark pigtails.

“I, um, yeah, h-hey,” I responded stupidly, at a complete loss for how to respond to this latest development. I tried not to stare at her inappropriately as she sauntered across the room and flopped down onto her bed, throwing her arms up behind her and leaning back into a half-seated position against a pile of pillows. I must have failed to completely disguise my gaze, though, because Emi tittered at me and commented: “What, this? I just like to dress more comfortably in my own room, is all. Those skirts are heavy, you know,” she finished with a wink.

Those boots honestly looked less comfortable than the skirts to me, but I just kept my mouth shut and gulped nervously instead of commenting on it. My throat suddenly seemed very dry.

“Well, come on, I told you to make yourself at home! Why don’t you come sit down?” Emi cajoled, patting the space on the bed next to her enthusiastically.

I blinked confusedly again, my palms beginning to sweat. “Um, maybe I’ll just, uh, grab a chair…” I said, moving towards one of the black beanbags on the floor.

Emi snorted and shook her head indulgently, smiling at me like one might smile at a child having trouble grasping a simple concept. She rose to a more upright position, swinging her legs over the edge of the bed, and said “My parents aren’t going to be home for a really long time, Zachy. And I get sooooo lonely. Maybe come over and sit with me for a weensy bit?” Then, to my surprise (though why I was still surprised at this point, I don’t know) she untied the front of her blouse, leaning forward to flash me the curve of her cleavage and the edge of her black, lacy bra.

For a few moments I just stood there gaping at her like a codfish. I couldn’t think clearly enough to formulate a coherent response. This place, this situation, the abruptness with which it had all come crashing down on me and my complete lack of experience with anything remotely similar… I was on sensory overload. It felt like my brain was short-circuiting; I couldn’t tell whether I was elated or terrified. The temperature in the room seemed to have skyrocketed twenty degrees in the past ten seconds. I looked at Emi, then my eyes darted around the room, then I looked back at Emi. What I had just read in her “diary” swirled persistently in the back of my mind as I took in first her intent stare, then the myriad glassy stares of the rag dolls and the unsettling glare of the crucifix, then her stare again.

I think that was what finally decided me: the inanimate gazes of all those dolls boring into the back of my head like hot needles, and the judging glare of Jesus Himself hanging at the head of the bed. I stammered some vaguely incoherent lie about parents waiting for me at home, then turned and bolted from the room with my tail between my legs like the yellow-bellied coward I was. I exited the bedroom at a fast walk, but by the time I reached the end of the hallway, I was flat-out running. I took the steps two at a time going down. Emi shouted something behind me as I ran, which I completely ignored, half-skidding out the front door and slamming it rudely behind me. I then proceeded to sprint shamelessly down the next three blocks, turning back when I reached the main road to find that Emi had thankfully not followed me out.

It was starting to get dark by now, and cold, and I silently thanked the powers that be that I hadn’t taken off my coat at Emi’s place. I turned and started off at a more reasonable pace towards my own home, my breath fogging in the air in front of me. After a few moments I realized that my phone was vibrating almost constantly in my pocket, buzzing like an angry hornet. There was no question as to who was texting me. I drew my phone out of my pocket but didn’t look at any of her messages, instead beginning to compose one of my own:

Hey, emi. sorry i freaked out at your place earlier. this all happened just a little too fast 4 me. i think we should slow it down & just work on being friends 4 now. hope ur not mad. see you at school tomorrow.

It took me forever to finish, as I kept getting interrupted by incoming messages and calls from Emi, but I finally got through with it, gave it a quick once-over, and hit send. I then turned the phone’s vibrate mode off, put it on silent, and replaced it in my pocket. I wasn’t sure ignoring her was the best thing to do, but I just couldn’t deal with her flood of insanity right now. The sun had just disappeared over the edge of the horizon when I got home, and even though it was early I threw my bookbag down and fell asleep almost as soon as I walked in. As I drifted off I couldn’t help but think of tomorrow with a sort of helpless dread… I had no idea how things were going to be with Emi, but I got the feeling they weren’t going to go smoothly…

Part Two can be read here.

Credit To – InfernalNightmare333

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