Estimated reading time — 17 minutes
Note: This is the second story in a two-part series. Please read The Stalker – Part 1 if you haven’t already!
My bus arrived late the next morning – a blessing to me since I probably would have missed it otherwise. I barely managed to stumble out to the bus stop after sleeping through my alarm, hair a mess and still wearing the same clothes I had fallen asleep in the night before. I checked my phone as the bus rumbled towards the school: I had no fewer than 200 new text messages, all presumably from Emi, along with 20 missed calls from the same. I sighed heavily and rested my head in my hands, massaging my temples glumly. My dread at the prospect of seeing Emi again had not abated since last night. I honestly had no idea how I felt about her – I had liked her enough in the beginning, and that hadn’t entirely gone away, but she was really beginning to freak me out. Overall, I suppose I just felt as though I was in way over my head. I needed to find some sort of diplomatic way of telling her to back off, but neither assertiveness nor diplomacy were exactly my strong suit, and I just kept drawing blanks every time I tried to think of something.
I was the last one off the bus when we arrived at school; I just couldn’t muster the willpower to get up and move my legs… at least until the bus driver snapped at me to get the hell out. I shuffled into the building glancing fearfully around me like a paranoid person, hoping to be able to avoid Emi until class started. Unfortunately, she yet again managed to see me before I saw her, and my stomach dropped as I heard a loud call of “Over here, Zachy!” approaching from my left.
I was too tired to take in the specifics of her latest fuzzy, neon-green monstrosity of an outfit as she approached (aside from noting vaguely that she looked like she was late for a 3am rave). She cut her way through the crowd of students to my side with startling efficiency. Taking the initiative for once, I headed off whatever comments she had been planning to make by starting with: “Look, I’m really sorry about last night; you really surprised me and I think we probably ought to –”
“Oh, it’s okay!” she interrupted chipperly, ignoring any notion of slowing down by enveloping me in another painfully awkward hug, this time adding a quick peck on the cheek as she withdrew. I flinched backwards involuntarily. “I totally get it. You’re shy! That’s really cute.” She grinned playfully and winked at me.
I shook my head exasperatedly, starting to feel more annoyed than fearful. “No, I really don’t think you get what I’m –”
“I brought you something to eat!” she interjected again, pulling a white cardboard box out from under her arm and flipping it open to reveal a half dozen pink-iced donuts with rainbow sprinkles. “To make up for scaring you off last night. Dig in!” she said with a bright grin.
What was her obsession with feeding me? Given what I had seen and read in her room last night, I was seriously beginning to suspect that this woman was trying to slip me roofies. “No thanks,” I responded, “I really don’t like –”
“Donuts?” she interrupted for a third time. “Don’t give me that, Zachy! EVERYBODY likes donuts!”
“Frosting,” I finished curtly. “I don’t like frosting.”
“Oh, that’s no problem! You don’t have to eat the frosting. Here… I can even lick it off for you!” she said with a playful grin. Damn, didn’t this girl have any boundaries at all? There was no way I was eating anything that she had licked. I was just about to tell her so when, thankfully, the bell for first period rang, which I latched onto as an excuse to get the hell out of there.
“Sorry, gotta get to class. Always takes me forever to open my locker and I don’t wanna be late. See you later,” I finished rapidly, starting to turn and walk away even before the last sentence was out of my mouth.
“Wait, Zachy!” she exclaimed, following after me through the burgeoning crowd, “Did you get any of my messages last night?” I felt one of her hands grasp my upper arm tightly, while the other suddenly slid into my jacket pocket and… withdrew my cell phone! She released my arm and I spun quickly to face her, now seriously miffed.
“Hey, that’s mine. Give it back!” I exclaimed, my voice rising in anger against her for the first time. She ignored me and continued reading through my messages as if I hadn’t spoken.
“Oh, Zachy, you didn’t even read a single one? I poured my heart out to you and you don’t even care at all,” she chastised me, face drawn into an exaggerated pout. Her voice was a grating whine that sounded more like a sardonic parody of dismay than the real thing. “You’re a real meanie, you know that?”
“Give. It. Back.” I growled, glaring with as much authority as I could muster.
“Oh, fine!” she huffed, tossing the phone back at me carelessly. Caught off guard, I fumbled with the phone and barely managed to catch it before it hit the tile floor. “You’re lucky I still like you even though you’re mean. See you after class, dummy,” she finished, turning and flouncing away with a supercilious flip of her pigtails.
Yeah. Lucky freakin’ me.
I stumbled into homeroom with a sigh of abject relief, slumping into my desk chair and letting the relentless drone of the teacher lull me into a relaxed stupor. When it came time to go to the science class I shared with Emi, I deliberately waited until the last minute to get there, then chose a seat as far away from her as possible. A little cold, I know, but she had crossed a line. I was hoping for, and fully expecting, this science class to be thoroughly uneventful – but I guess we all know how that goes. About halfway through the lecture, the monotone voice of Mr. Michaelson was suddenly interrupted by a loud noise… emanating from my pocket. The classic Final Fantasy victory fanfare – my text ringtone – echoed starkly through the otherwise silent classroom. I jumped violently in surprise, and Mr. Michaelson turned to glare at me angrily.
The ringtone went off again, and I fumbled my phone out of my pocket quickly, trying frantically to silence it as the rest of the class stared and giggled. In my panic, it took me ten or fifteen seconds to figure out how to turn the ringer off properly. Finally managing to silence the thing, I glanced across the room to see Emi blinking at me innocently, her own phone open and glowing in her lap. “Sorry,” she mouthed with a shrug, though I didn’t think she looked sorry. My face flushed with anger and I was about to mouth something very rude back at her, but was interrupted by a loud admonition from Mr. Michaelson.
“Mr. Thompson! Care to come to the front of the room for a moment, or is my lecture interrupting your socializing?” I bit back my anger and shuffled sullenly to the front of the room. Long story short, he took my phone for the remainder of the day and assigned me after-school detention, right in front of everyone. I kept my gaze planted firmly on my own feet as I trudged, scowling, back to my desk. I could have fucking sworn I’d turned off my ringer last night and never turned it back on. Did Emi accidently turn it on when she took my phone? Did Emi intentionally turn it on when she took my phone? Was this some kind of weird revenge thing for not answering her messages? It made me mad just thinking about it… mad, and a little bit irrationally scared. Just what the fuck had I gotten myself into…?
I darted out of the classroom as soon as the bell rang, intent on avoiding any sort of interaction with Emi for the rest of the day. My last class before lunch was English, and at the end of that period, I asked the teacher if I could stay in our classroom during lunch and do some make-up work where it was quiet. The teacher, a pleasant enough older woman, agreed, saying that I could stay and study for as long as I wanted but wasn’t allowed to eat in here. I sat at my desk pretending to study until she finished collecting her things and left. Then, as soon as she had disappeared down the hallway, I quickly snapped off all of the lights and sat down cross-legged behind a file cabinet, hidden from anyone looking in the windows. Once again, I felt like a Class-A coward, but I had the distinct feeling Emi was going to come looking for me, and I did not want to be found.
I withdrew my old Gameboy Advance from my bag and flipped it on, settling in to play Pokemon in my hidey-hole for the next hour. Several times I heard what sounded like high heels clicking down the hallway outside the classroom, and saw dark silhouettes cross past the windows. Every time this happened, my heart jumped a little bit in my chest, though logically speaking there was no reason to think that any of the footfalls or shadows belonged to Emi. At least, not until the classroom door creaked ajar, letting a sharp shaft of light into the room, and a voice called from the breach: “Zachy! You in here?”
I froze, quickly clicking off my game so that the light from the screen wouldn’t give me away. I tried to be completely silent, sitting stock-still and holding my breath anxiously. Emi just stood in the doorway, not saying anything, for several seconds. The light from the hallway cast her spindly, elongated shadow halfway across the floor. Then, I heard the “click…click…click” of her high-heels on the tile as she took three curious steps deeper into the room. My heartbeat sped up as an irrational wave of fear broke over me, and I silently pressed myself closer against the wall, praying that she’d just go away. After another few endless moments, my prayers were answered as I heard her footsteps click back towards the doorway. She shut the door with a dull thunk behind her, plunging the room back into relative darkness, and I listened with utter relief as her footfalls receded back down the hallway.
The remaining fifteen minutes of the lunch period passed without incident, though I was afraid to turn my game back on. When the bell rang to signal the return to class, I turned the lights back on, gathered my things, and darted to my next class as quickly as possible. Luckily it was only a few doors down and I managed to avoid being ambushed on the way. Afternoon classes passed as they usually did, in a haze of useless information with unrelated worries constantly intruding on my ability to concentrate. When school finally ended, as much as I would have liked to just go home and collapse, I was almost glad that I had detention, because it meant that Emi would have to walk home without me. I reported to the principal’s office with my detention slip, and he gave me back my phone and assigned me to an hour and a half’s worth of cleanup duty – punishment and free labor, two birds with one stone, I thought bitterly, slipping the phone into my backpack.
I was given a broom and dustpan and instructed to cover several rooms on the south end of the school building, including the band room. I remembered Emi mentioning that Aliyah was in the marching band, and I wondered optimistically if I might run into her on her way to or from practice… maybe we’d even wind up riding the same late bus home! However, when I went in to sweep up the band room, I found it completely empty, and deduced unhappily that practice must have been cancelled today. Man, I could not catch a break!
I sighed heavily and started in on the cleaning. The place looked as though it hadn’t been swept in months; some of the dust-bunnies were evolving into dust-elephants. I hummed to myself a little bit to pass the time as I chipped away at the menial labor; then, realizing I was completely alone, started singing out loud. I don’t know how long it was before I noticed it over the sound of my own voice… the faint tapping issuing from behind a door labeled “Low Brass Closet.” I fell silent and stopped what I was doing, staring at the door.
Tap, tap, tap… no, it definitely wasn’t my imagination. A chill drifted down my spine. What could that possibly be? I leaned my broom against the wall and took a couple of tentative steps towards the door. The tapping grew louder, more insistent. I hesitated. Tap, tap, TAP, TAP, THUD, THUD… the sound escalated from tapping to banging, heavy and frantic. Part of me wanted to bolt, but part of me was strangely mesmerized. Hands clammy, heart accelerating, I turned around and retrieved the broom; then, holding it out in front of me like a baseball bat, I started towards the door.
THUD, THUD, THUD… I crept slowly closer, heart in my throat, a little voice in the back of my head telling me that this was stupid, but something else, some inexplicable instinct, driving me on. As I drew within a few feet of the closet, I started to hear something else under the banging. It sounded like… a muffled cry, choked and barely audible, yet still obviously panicked and fearful. The moment I realized this, my initial fear was dispelled like a misty veil, and a very different kind of fear suddenly filled me. I dropped the broom and practically ran the remaining steps to the closet, recklessly yanking open the door.
There, suddenly illuminated in the spill of fluorescent light from the band room was… Aliyah! I gasped sharply, my hand flying to my mouth involuntarily.
Aliyah lay prone on the floor of the cramped closet, arms and legs bound tightly with thick, rough-looking ropes. Flat gray duct tape covered her mouth, wrapping at least twice around her head, and her eyes were covered by a dark blindfold. Her cries increased in volume and intensity as she heard the door open, and she began to squirm and flail backwards ineffectively, obviously in a complete panic. I just stood there, dumbstruck and staring, for longer than I’d like to admit, but eventually my paralysis lifted.
“Aliyah!” I shouted concernedly, rushing forward with the intention of untying her. She jerked backwards with another muffled shriek, kicking her legs violently in my direction. Her right foot caught me in the shin, almost causing me to topple forward on top of her. “No, hey! It’s me, Zach! I’m here to help!” I protested, moving towards her more cautiously now. My shin was throbbing, but I ignored it. “I’m going to untie you, okay?”
Aliyah continued to moan and shake with fear, but she didn’t try to kick me again as I reached over warily to remove her blindfold. Her head flinched backwards as my fingers brushed the side of her face. Gently, I pulled the smooth black fabric up off of her head; her eyes blinked rapidly in the sudden light, then turned to stare at me with abject terror. “Just hold on, I’m going to get these things off of you,” I reassured, “Let me untie your arms, okay?” She looked at me for another moment, still trembling all over, then nodded jerkily. I reached down and started fumbling with the knots securing her arms behind her back, pulling at them uselessly for several minutes before finally loosing them and pulling the coiled rope off of her wrists.
Her hands flew immediately to her mouth, scrabbling frantically at the duct tape wrapped around her head. I tried to help her find the end of the tape but she slapped my hand away, still jumpy and obviously preferring to do this by herself. After several minutes of watching her struggle with the tape, breathing heavily through her nose, she finally found purchase and started haphazardly unwrapping the gag. She let out a small, sharp yelp of pain as she ripped the last of the tape off of her mouth, then took in a deep, shuddering breath.
I waited a moment for her to catch her breath before asking in a soft, tentative voice, “What happened to you?”
“I-I don’t… know,” she stammered out, still panting heavily. “I was here alone… picking up my stuff… when all of a sudden…someone grabbed me. Their hands were… over my mouth… and there was this weird smell… and then… then I was alone in the dark. Groggy… couldn’t breathe… couldn’t move… tried to… bang on the door, but… took a while to… get my strength back. God, Zach, when you opened that door… I thought – I thought you were…” she cut off mid-sentence, shuddering violently and casting her eyes down into her lap.
“It’s okay,” I soothed, “Everything’s going to be okay. We’re going to finish untying you, then we’re going to go to the principal’s office and get everything sorted out, get you home. Okay?”
“Y-yeah,” she stuttered back in a small, quiet voice, reaching down to undo the bonds around her legs. She let me help this time and we had them undone in just a couple of minutes. She got up slowly, leaning on me for support and testing her weight on both of her legs before letting go. Her knees trembled for a moment but she kept her footing. She closed her eyes and took a deep, steadying breath, then grabbed my hand and walked with me out the door towards the principal’s office. I was torn between intense worry and a flush of small, guilty pleasure at the fact that she was actually holding my hand. We reached the front office at the end of the hallway far too quickly for my liking.
She stopped in front of the principal’s door and I followed her lead, glancing over at her quizzically. “Thank you,” she whispered softly, not looking me in the eye, then rapped quickly three times on the principal’s door before I could respond.
The rest of the evening was spent in a blur of questions and explanations as Aliyah and I tried to describe what we knew of the situation first to the principal, then to the three police officers he summoned to the school upon grasping the seriousness of what had transpired. The police questioned us both separately and then together, hammering us hard for any details we could remember. What time was Aliyah attacked? Who all was still at the school? What time did I find her? Did we know anyone who might have the means or the motive to do this? I had my own suspicions about that last one, but in the end I decided to keep my mouth shut. Maybe that was irresponsible, but it wasn’t as if I was certain of anything, and I really didn’t feel the need to stir up any more trouble by pointing fingers. The officers remained calm and neutral throughout the questioning, but I could sense the suspicion in their gazes when they looked at me, and it made me deeply uncomfortable. They probably wouldn’t believe a word I said anyway.
By the time we were finished with the police, it was practically 9 o’clock at night, full dark and freezing. Aliyah and I were each escorted home by one of the officers. I spent the car ride in terse silence, staring out the window to avoid looking at the policewoman sitting next to me in the driver’s seat. I spoke only to point out the entry to the housing development I lived in, and ask her to drop me off there. Before I left the vehicle, she handed me a business card and said: “If you have any information that might help us with this case – anything at all – please call and let us know at any time.”
I nodded seriously, taking the business card and sliding it into my pocket. Then, wordlessly, I slipped out the door into the cold night air, heading off down the street towards my home without looking back. I shuddered, half with cold and half with relief, as I heard the cruiser pull away from the curb and rumble back down the road. I was cold as balls, but I was finally alone again under the glow of the streetlights, able to take a breather and try to regain some sense of normalcy amidst this shitstorm in which I’d found myself. I walked at a leisurely pace, calming my mind and gathering my thoughts.
It MUST have been Emi that attacked Aliyah, I thought. In spite of what I had tried to convince myself while sitting in that room with the police – that this was just a paranoid theory, that Emi didn’t have the means to do something like that – I was ninety-nine percent sure that the crazy, pink-haired bitch was somehow behind this. It was just too much of a coincidence, Aliyah being attacked and tied up in a closet the day after Emi had threatened her. Not to mention that Emi had been acting erratically today too… hell, she had been acting erratically since day one, I just hadn’t noticed or paid enough attention to it. What was her endgame, I wondered? What would she have done to Aliyah if I hadn’t found her and let her go? Had Emi only meant to lock her in the closet overnight – not an attempt on Aliyah’s life but just a really mean prank? Or was she planning on coming back to do something… else?
I shook my head, exhausted and scared, as I neared my destination. At least I knew that Aliyah was safe for the night, having been escorted home by the police. Suddenly, I became aware of a low, almost imperceptible buzzing sound, audible only because of the perfect silence surrounding me. It might have been going on for quite a while without me even noticing it. For a moment, I couldn’t place the noise, and stood puzzled trying to pinpoint its location. Then I realized that the sound was coming from my backpack, and it hit me – my phone, on vibrate, buried deeply under my books and gym clothes, was ringing. A feeling of dread formed in the pit of my stomach, and against my better judgment I stopped and withdrew the phone from my pack. BUZZZZ…BUZZZZ… BUZZZZ… The phone vibrated constantly, almost violently in my hand, no longer muffled now but loud and insistent. I stood and stared at it hypnotically for what must have been several minutes as message after message scrolled across the screen:
Calling – Emi
Missed Call – Emi
Calling – Emi
Missed Call – Emi
New Text Message – Emi
New Text Message – Emi
New Text Message – Emi…
Eventually I broke my trance for long enough to navigate to the main menu… there were OVER ONE THOUSAND new messages in my inbox, with more coming in every minute. BUZZZZ… BUZZZZ… BUZZZZ… My heart dropped and my stomach heaved with a sudden sense of vertigo, terror, and disgust. Some small part of my mind snapped in that moment, and I chucked the phone as hard as I could away into the underbrush, letting out a small, strangled yelp of helpless frustration and fear. I covered the rest of the distance home as fast as I could without flat-out running, not even bothering to note where the damned phone had likely fallen.
I tried to hit the hay almost as soon as I got home, but even though I felt strung-out and exhausted beyond belief, I just couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned for hours, my mind racing with uncomfortable, worrisome, and downright scary thoughts, yet somehow managing to generate nothing at all productive. I was in way over my head. I felt stuck. I had no idea what I should do.
Eventually, when the sun first started peeking over the horizon, I decided to just get up and drag my ass to school. A big part of me wanted to skip school entirely, but between the transfer and my lackluster class participation lately, I knew that I really couldn’t afford to. Besides, there was a paranoid little part of my mind that wanted to see Aliyah again with my own eyes and make sure she was safe. The thought of seeing Emi, though, was almost enough to give me a panic attack. I figured I could probably spend lunch locked in my English room again if necessary, but what should I do about this morning…? Maybe I could get there before her and just hide out until class started. It was pretty early; my bus wouldn’t be here for another hour, and the buses wouldn’t start arriving at the school for at least another hour and a half. If I left now I should be able to beat them.
With that in mind I got up, quickly changed into a new set of clothes, and headed for the school. The temperature was brisk but thankfully warmer than it had been over the past several days. I traversed the distance between my place and the school in record time, arriving to find the parking lot mostly empty and the building dark. No sign of Emi, thank God. I was a little worried that the front door might not be unlocked yet, but it was.
Upon entering, I deliberated briefly on where I could find a good place to hide for the morning, then decided to head for the men’s room. No chance of being found in there. I took a seat in one of the small, graffiti-covered stalls, locking the door behind me, and withdrew my old GBA from my backpack. Ah, video games, how many uncomfortable situations have you helped me suffer through in my life? I spent the next hour and a half or so immersed in a world in which small elemental monsters obeyed my every command, I was powerful enough to destroy a large criminal organization, and the closest thing I had to a deranged girlfriend was my cheery rival. When the bell finally rang to send everyone to class, I felt a certain sense of sadness and resentment at being dragged back into the real world.
Not worrying about being late, I waited until the halls had cleared and class had begun before darting out of the men’s room and making a beeline for my locker. As I approached, I noticed a strange smell hanging in the air, becoming stronger the closer I got to the locker. It smelled like some kind of perfume or air freshener or something, a cloyingly sweet aroma of artificial strawberries. Just the sort of thing Emi would wear, I thought with a grimace. Had she been hanging out around my locker all morning? Was that what this was? God, if this was the scent she left behind, the girl herself must smell like a perfume shop exploded. Now glancing around me warily, I spun the tumbler of my combination lock right, then left, then right again, resulting in a gratifying click as the lock snapped open. I grinned a little – this was the first time I had gotten it open in less than five tries, and I felt pretty pleased with myself – but my smile wilted the second I opened up the door.
Even before the locker door swung fully open, the fake strawberry smell was instantly overpowered by another scent – the peculiar, half-savory, half-sweet smell of rotting meat. There was also a sharp metallic edge to the scent, undeniably signaling blood. I drew back in surprise, but was unable to react quickly enough to prevent myself from pulling the locker door all the way open. There was a soft sliding sound and a sickening *plop* as several large, slippery reddish masses fell out of the locker onto the tile floor. The three-foot-tall space was stacked almost half full with similar objects, lumpy and shining with blood. For several moments I stared into the locker in abject confusion and shock, heart pounding. My palms grew sweaty, and I felt myself begin to salivate. The smell was so strong now, so strong that it almost made me dizzy. How had that strawberry perfume ever covered it up?
Against my better judgment, I leaned in closer, examining the slabs of raw meat (for I was now certain that this was what they were) stacked up inside my locker more carefully. In the cramped and shadowy space, I could make out what looked like several livers, constituting the bulk of the ghoulish pile. Among them were interspersed a few small, bean-shaped kidneys and… holy shit… hearts, real hearts, dark red and dripping with blood. A small, rational part of my mind noted with some measure of relief that they were too small to be human hearts – at least, I thought so – but that didn’t do a great deal to calm me down. I looked down at the pieces that had fallen to the floor: same thing, hearts, kidneys and livers, lying in a pool of blood and other unidentified juices.
An icy spike of fear drilled down my spine. I withdrew slowly from the bloody, viscera-filled locker, backing into the opposite wall before I’d even realized how far I’d gone. Hearts, livers, kidneys… oh, no… I looked back into the locker, raising my eyes above the pile of raw giblets for the first time to notice a message scrawled in blood on the back wall:
FOR YOU <3
Those two words, their sickeningly familiar loopy script dripping inside a large, crudely-drawn heart shape, told me all that I needed to know about the culprit. I bit my lip, trying vainly to puzzle out what this meant and what I needed to do next, when suddenly a hysterical shriek echoed down the hallway to my left. I snapped my head around to face the noise and saw a blond girl (no doubt another latecomer to class) standing petrified at the end of the hall, her books scattered about her feet, staring at the bloody locker in terror.
Things happened pretty quickly after that. Concerned teachers emerged from classrooms all along the hall. Curious students jostled for position at the windows and in the doorways. There was a lot of awkward, hurried stuttering as I tried to explain to three teachers at once what was going on, being consistently interrupted by one or the other. Eventually I was carted off to the principal’s office for the second time in 24 hours, where I endured repeated questioning from both him and the school guidance counselor. I tried to pay attention to their questions and advice, but my mind kept wandering back to that viscera-filled locker. Hearts, livers, kidneys… hearts, livers, kidneys… No. No way. It had to be a coincidence. If (as I was nearly certain) Emi had indeed put those organs into my locker as some kind of twisted prank or gift, she probably just chose hearts because she thought it was romantic. Livers because they were easy to buy at the grocery. Kidneys because… oh, hell, some reason. Nothing to freak out about beyond the fact that some crazy chick had shoved organ meat in my locker, and honestly, wasn’t that bad enough?
I didn’t accuse her, though. Even when the administrators asked me if I knew who did it. I’m not entirely sure why I refrained – I certainly had no idea how to deal with this on my own – but somehow it felt like getting them involved would create more problems than it would solve. I guess I’ve always had issues with trusting authority. After my long chat with the principal and counselor, the police were summoned to deal with the viscera (and, I suppose, to make sure there were no human remains mixed in), and I was sent back to class.
About halfway down the hall from the office, I realized with a sudden jolt of horror that it was currently third period. Science class. With Emi. I briefly considered going back to the office and telling the counselor I needed the rest of the day off, claiming mental trauma from the locker incident. She’d probably buy it. However, my reasons for wanting to be here hadn’t changed since this morning: I was on thin ice in most of my classes already, and I hadn’t seen Aliyah yet today either. My stomach lurched as I was struck with the unpleasant, paranoid idea that her remains might have been mixed in with the meat in my locker. I shook my head sharply, trying to dispel the thoughts as if they were a fog in my mind. Nope, I was definitely staying. I was going to have to confront Emi at some point anyway; might as well be in a safe, structured environment.
Steeling myself, I approached the science classroom and slid in as quietly as I could through the back door, hoping not to draw any ire from Mr. Michaelson. Of course, the only open seat left was next to Emi. I walked stiffly over to the desk and sat down, pointedly avoiding looking at her. I stared straight ahead, pretending to pay strict attention to the lecture. Emi poked me in the shoulder, obviously trying to get my attention, but I acted as if she wasn’t there. She poked me again, and again, harder. She poked me with her pencil so hard that it hurt. “Psst, Zachy!” she whispered, leaning in as closely as she could to my ear without attracting attention from our classmates. I continued to ignore her, even when she slid a folded-up note in front of me, then another.
We sat there like that for several minutes, the awkward tension between us almost painful in the air. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw her raise her hand.
“Yes, Miss Jackson?” Mr. Michaelson called on her, sounding a bit exasperated.
“I need to go to the restroom!” Emi chirped with her usual inappropriately perky attitude.
“Go ahead,” he acceded, waving her off wearily. I allowed myself a quick, surreptitious glance over at her as she stood and flounced out the door, voluminous skirts trailing behind her. As I turned my gaze back to the front of the room, however, my eyes fell across her science notebook, lying open on her desk. I couldn’t exactly read it from where I sat, but I saw something that looked like my name scrawled in the top corner of one page, along with several tiny heart-shapes. Struck by a sudden, morbid curiosity, I glanced around warily, verifying that no one in the classroom was looking in my direction, then quickly swiped the notebook off of her desktop. I placed it in my lap, hiding it carefully in the shadow of my desk, and re-opened it to a random page.
I had to stifle an exclamation of unnerved surprise as I stared down at the pages. There were a few science notes there, surely enough, but most of the thin, college-ruled paper was covered with repeated scrawlings of “Mrs. Zachary Thompson” in various sizes and styles. That, and a lot of little hearts. I flipped through several more pages incredulously, finding only more of the same, interspersed with a few disturbing, full-page drawings of what I could only assume was supposed to be me, often in highly compromising positions. “MINE FOREVER” was scrawled in large, uncharacteristically spiky letters across several of the drawings and pages of text.
My heart pounded wildly in my chest as I attempted to quiet my increasingly fast and heavy breathing. I felt like I was about to have a panic attack. I closed my eyes and counted to ten, focusing on my breathing. Quietly, I closed the notebook, and was about to slide it back into its place on Emi’s desk when I caught sight of the illustration on the back cover… and felt my blood turn to ice.
Sketched in exquisite detail on the yellowish paperboard, looking like something out of a horror magazine, was a drawing of a monster. The creature stood amidst a cluster of bare, spindly trees, staring out at the viewer. It was vaguely humanoid in form, but severely hunchbacked, its vertebrae protruding like small spikes from its spine. Its body was almost entirely hairless, skin grayish and rough. Wicked-looking claws protruded from its disproportionately long fingers, its lanky arms hanging down so that the tips of the claws brushed the ground. Its legs, arched like a wolf’s, were wiry and well-muscled, but the creature looked desperately emaciated, its ribcage protruding exaggeratedly over a scrawny abdomen. Its mouth was enormous, lower jaw hanging loosely down past the middle of its chest, and the gaping maw was filled with long, sharp, jagged teeth. It had no nose to speak of, just a pair of rough holes in the middle of its face, and its eyes were sunken black pits that stared soullessly, hungrily ahead out of the paper.
For a moment, I couldn’t think. I couldn’t breathe. I just froze, a feeling of unreality surrounding me like a numbing cocoon. My hands began to tremble, hard enough to cause the drawing I held to shake wildly. This seemed to snap me out of my hypnosis, and I drew in a sharp, ragged gasp, heart now racing as if I had just run a marathon. I looked up to find several students now staring at me quizzically, but I was beyond caring. I raised my hand shakily, mentally pleading to be noticed quickly.
“…Mr. Thompson?” the teacher called on me, concern crossing his face as he noticed my obvious distress.
“May I, ah, go use the restroom?” I managed to stammer out, my mouth dry as cotton.
Mr. Michaelson looked at me seriously for a moment, as though he was considering saying something, then just nodded and said curtly, “Go ahead.”
I was up and heading for the door before the words were even out of his mouth. I managed to hold myself to a walk until I exited the classroom, but as soon as I got out that door, I flat-out bolted, feet slapping the tile heavily. I ran down the hallway, through the cafeteria, and straight out the front door, continuing across the crowded parking lot and down the sidewalk towards home, all without slowing. The whole time, one single thought was running on an endless loop in my head:
SHE KNEW. Somehow, that fucking bitch KNEW.
Eventually I grew tired and slowed to a walk, chest heaving, thoughts still swirling uselessly in my head. It was at this point that I noticed the fucking notebook was still in my hands, and I chucked it disgustedly into the ditch by the sidewalk as if it were some sort of venomous animal. I walked the rest of the way home in tense silence, trying futilely to find answers to the half-formed questions burning in my mind. How? How did she know? How could she possibly have found out? Did others know? What was she planning to do? What was I planning to do? What could I do?
I reached my place in a little under half an hour, but almost automatically I kept walking, deeper into the woods, leaves crunching and twigs snapping under my feet. I don’t know if it was just nervous energy or what that compelled me to keep moving, but I just couldn’t bring myself to stop. I walked for nearly an hour, forging straight ahead through the cold and the mud, before finally pulling myself to a halt in a small clearing amidst a stand of pine trees.
This was stupid. What was I doing? I just kept walking and walking, thinking and thinking, and not getting anywhere on either front. I was burnt out. I needed a release. More than that, I suppose, I needed to EAT something. It had been far too long since the last time, I knew that. I hadn’t hunted since I left Atlanta. Fuck, Atlanta. Ever since that incident I had been afraid to even try it. Damn, what a shitstorm that had been. It’s not like it was even my fault, those hikers had been trespassing on government property. It was a fucking nature preserve for God’s sake, nobody was supposed to be there! I shook my head as if to ward off the memory, running my hands through my hair anxiously. Well, I was going to have to get back out there eventually, and I really needed it now.
I turned my head left and right, surveying my surroundings and scenting the air carefully. Nothing but the smell of the forest extending away in every direction. I had walked for an hour to get here, after all, I should be far enough away from civilization for this to be okay. Summoning my resolve, I took a deep breath, stared up into the tree-ringed circle of clouds above me and… let go.
Slowly, I felt my back arch and elongate, curving into a hunched conformation. My arms and fingers also stretched and grew, knuckles popping satisfyingly as they reached closer to the ground. Claws sprouted from each fingertip with a sharp *snick* sound. My legs arched into a wolfish posture, balancing my weight on what would have moments ago been my toes. I moaned softly with satisfaction as my jaw popped and sank, opening my mouth wider than any human’s could go. I felt amazing. Stress and tension I didn’t even know I’d been carrying seemed to bleed out of my body as I transformed, stretching muscles that hadn’t been stretched in ages. I felt like that genie from Aladdin, emerging from his lamp for the first time in eons. “Ten thousaaaand years can give you such a crick in the neck!” or whatever it was. I realized that I now felt fully relaxed for the first time in weeks.
Just as relaxing as the bodily changes were the mental ones. When I transformed, my mind regressed to a more instinctive, animal state. I lived purely in the moment, untroubled by guilt about the past or worry about the future. This was a great feeling, but it was also highly problematic since I couldn’t exactly exercise good judgment in this state – especially when it came to deciding what to hunt. What to kill. Hence, the incident in Atlanta. Oftentimes I’d considered just staying like this, running off into the woods and living wild like an animal for the rest of my life. But I really did like being a human, for the most part, and I didn’t want to give that up. So, I kept on convincing myself that someday I really would be able to settle down somewhere, get into a safe, functional routine and live without having to worry about any… unfortunate malfunctions… occurring. Though sometimes I couldn’t help but feel like I was just deluding myself.
None of that mattered now, however. Now there was just the wind and the woods, the feel of the dirt and leaves between my toes, the scents of soil and plants and fresh prey in my nostrils. I ran with a loping gait through the barren trees, free and focused, body buzzing with the feeling of being alive. After a while, I came across a deer and chased it for what felt like nearly a mile, finally running it down and raking my claws across its throat. As it lay twitching and bleeding out on the forest floor, I gutted it expertly and devoured first its liver, then its kidneys, and finally its heart. The soft meat and fresh blood slid rapturously across my tongue, filling my empty, rumbling stomach with a warm, satisfied feeling… but not nearly enough. As always, I left the rest of the carcass for the scavengers and set off in search of more prey.
I ate from two more deer, a raccoon, and finally what I believe was an enormous black dog before my hunger was quelled and I resumed my human shape. I walked home at a leisurely pace, guided by my nose and by the stars, for night had fallen while I was hunting. Luckily, my exploits had brought me back closer to my place than I had been when I transformed, so it was a short walk.
The large drainage pipe in which I had made my home was located right behind a nice new housing development, just a few yards into the woods off of some couple’s backyard. (Luckily they didn’t have any little kids to come nosing around “exploring”). It wasn’t the nicest place I’d ever found to stay in, but the pipe seemed to have run dry some time ago, and it was at least four and a half feet in diameter, offering shelter from the elements and prying eyes. I had room for a nice, soft sleeping bag, my trunk full of clothes, my bookbag, and (thank goodness) a battery-powered space heater. All obtained through less-than-ethical means, but hey, it’s not as though Wal-Mart was going to be driven out of business by one needy shoplifter.
I collapsed into the sleeping bag, exhausted but happy, thinking more clearly now than I had been in days. If Emi knew what I really was – and that now seemed certain – there was only one thing to do. I felt a guilty little flutter of anticipation deep in my stomach and tried for a moment to suppress it, then sighed and decided to just let it be, licking my lips contemplatively.
This wasn’t going to turn into Atlanta all over again, I told myself. That was the important thing. This time there was going to be planning. This time I wouldn’t be caught red-handed. I was NOT going to have to move again. I would take care of this carefully and quietly, and after a while everything would go back to normal. I hoped.
I fell asleep composing my plan for the next day, reaching a level of forethought which I felt was sufficient before finally drifting off. I woke up late the next morning, but that was alright, I only felt the need to be on time for one class – third period science. I walked to school slowly, going over the details of my (admittedly rather simplistic) plan repeatedly in my mind. I arrived at the school building just a few minutes before third period and picked up my late slip from the office, waving off the staff’s concerned inquiries regarding my health and mental status after my panicked exit yesterday. I told them that I’d just been a bit overwhelmed and needed some time off, apologizing for not going through the proper channels, and luckily they didn’t pursue the matter any further.
I went straight to the science room after that, not even bothering to check and see whether my locker was clean yet. About half the class, including Emi, was already there, and I took the seat directly in front of her. Quickly, I scrawled a short note in large, legible letters on the back page of my science notebook:
Dear Emi: These past few days have been a bit rough, but I think I’ve finally realized my true feelings for you. I love you, and I want to be with you forever. If you feel the same way, please meet me tonight at 10pm on the back woods trail in Valley Park. There is something I need to show you. Come alone, and don’t tell anyone where you’re going – they won’t understand our love. It must be a secret between just us two. Forever yours, Zach.
The blatant dishonesty of it was nearly enough to make me gag. It was completely childish and asinine, disgustingly lovey-dovey, and obviously suspicious – but I had no doubt that Emi was crazy and infatuated enough to believe every sketchy word. Taking a deep breath, I turned and tapped Emi on the hand to get her attention (as if that were necessary – she was already staring at me eerily), then surreptitiously showed her the notebook page, taking care that nobody else in the classroom would be able to see it. I watched her eyes light up as she read, lips moving to mouth the words, then stretching into an elated grin as she looked back up at me. She nodded her agreement to the terms of the note enthusiastically. Her expression was one of pure joy, and for a moment I felt a pang of guilt resonate in my heart. Then I reminded myself that she was a psychotic stalker with a monster fetish who had stuffed my locker with raw meat and left Aliyah tied up in a closet…
Aliyah. I hadn’t thought about her since discovering Emi’s drawing yesterday. How could I have forgotten? I had been really worried about her. I hoped that I would get to see her today, make sure she was okay. Now that I thought about it: Emi had left Aliyah bound and helpless in the band room on the exact same day that she had intentionally gotten me sent to after-school detention… had she meant for me to find Aliyah? If Emi knew what I was… she had left those organs in my locker as a gift… then Aliyah was… oh God, had Emi meant for me to…?
I shook my head, cutting off that thought before I even completed it. With a forced grin in Emi’s direction, I withdrew the notebook, closed it, and slid it into my backpack. I planned to burn the page with my note on it later. The rest of the science class was relatively uneventful. Mr. Michaelson gave some kind of lecture about the atom, which I absorbed exactly none of. Emi passed me several notes during the lecture, mostly flowery declarations of love which I read with a fake smile plastered on my face in order to keep up the illusion that I liked her. When class ended, I was out the door as quickly as possible, ignoring Emi’s attempts to communicate. Lying in a note was one thing, doing it to her face was a whole other matter, one that I wasn’t quite certain I could handle. I was honestly a horrible actor. Hopefully my hurried exit came off as mysterious and hard-to-get, rather than cold and uncaring.
The rest of the day was a blur of ordinary school B.S., all completely overshadowed by my worry and anticipation over tonight. I hid out in the English room during lunch again, desperate to avoid having to face Emi before… well, before 10pm. This time she didn’t come looking for me, for which I was deeply grateful.
I did see Aliyah in the hallway between two of my afternoon classes, to my great relief. I started to approach her, but stopped when I noticed that she was crying into the shoulder of one of her friends. From across the hall, I eavesdropped a little bit on their conversation: apparently, Aliyah’s beloved family dog, a six-year-old Newfoundland, had been found dead last night in the woods behind their house, eviscerated by some sort of wild animal. My heart sank as I made the connection. Great. Just great. As if I didn’t feel like enough of a douchebag already. Oh well, I suppose she’d never have to know it was me…
Finally, finally, the school day ended, and I left the building quickly through the back door, once again managing to avoid Emi. I headed straight to the park, taking the long way around. Valley Park had a two-mile hiking trail stretching out into the woods behind the park proper, and at this time of the year, it was practically deserted. By the time the sun had set (around 7 pm), it would be completely vacant. I took up position at the back end of the trail, as far into the forest and away from the park as the trail got, and began pacing nervously. Even with hours to go until our appointed meeting, I was too anxious and excited to do anything else.
Yes, excited, I admit it. I had never actually intended to do something like this before, though I knew of others who did. It was different… invigorating. I certainly didn’t plan to make a habit out of it, but under these extenuating circumstances… I had to protect my secret, after all. No reason I shouldn’t let myself enjoy it. At least, that’s what I kept telling myself during those hours I spent pacing through the trees.
In the crisp, clean forest air, I scented Emi’s arrival before I saw her. She smelled of sweat and strawberry perfume. Feeling my mouth begin to water, I froze and waited in the dark, standing amongst the trees a few feet off of the trail. Soon, I saw the beam of a flashlight waving back and forth across the dirt trail, and Emi crested the hill walking towards me. She was dressed in the same outfit as she had been when we first met, with the addition of her long, black trenchcoat. I waited for her to reach the spot on the trail directly in front of me, then called out to her quietly: “Emi! Over here!”
She turned in my direction, scanning the treeline with her flashlight, then beamed happily as light fell on me. “Zachy! Hey there! You’ve been avoiding me, you silly guy! What did you need us to meet all the way out here for? Are we running away together?” she asked with a coy smile.
“You know, don’t you?” I responded, bluntly and without preface.
“Know what?” she asked innocently, resting her index finger on her lower lip. I could tell from her tone, though, that she knew exactly what I was talking about.
“About me. About what I am.”
“I had a huuuuunch!” she responded in a singsong voice, “Guess I was right, huh? You’ve been holding out on me, you dummy; you really are an interesting guy! A real monster. I love guys like you, I just love them! I guess you could probably tell that, haha. It’s really cool to have one of you love me back, though! You do love me, don’t you, Zachy?”
I sighed heavily and took a step closer towards her. Now that I had confirmed my suspicions, there was only one thing left to do. “Yeah, about that… look, I’m sorry about this, Emi, I really am, but you haven’t exactly left me much choice…”
Saying this, I let my inhibitions go and began to transform: back stretching, jaw widening, claws clicking out along my fingers. I began to salivate more heavily as my sense of smell sharpened and I took in her exotic, savory scent. Strangely, she looked largely unfazed by my transformation, still grinning appreciatively at me. As I began to advance, my rational mind being replaced by animal bloodlust, she reached into her trenchcoat and pulled out something small and round… then threw it to the ground in front of me.
The object instantly exploded into a cloud of white smoke. As the smell of the smoke reached my nose, my animalistic mind recognized it distantly as the same stink of the purple-flowered herb in Emi’s room. Then I was on the ground, the stench consuming all of my senses, my throat closing up involuntarily. I writhed, choking, unable to get even a wisp of the tainted air down my windpipe. My vision slowly began to darken. The last thing I saw before losing consciousness completely was Emi’s dark form moving towards me through the mist, holding what looked like a short, silvery blade…
Emi Jackson whistled happily as she skipped home from the butcher’s shop with her purchase. Fresh beef livers and kidneys, just what she needed for her new guest. She had also bought herself a few microwave meals at the grocery: usually she liked to cook, but she was always really busy when she got a new housemate, and throwing something in the microwave for dinner was quick and easy. It was at times like these that she missed having her parents around to make meals for her… but if they were still around, she supposed, there wouldn’t really BE any times like these.
Her parents didn’t approve of her houseguests, you see. They thought of monsters simply as enemies to be destroyed. Hateful abominations to be killed without hesitation, just as their ancestors had been doing for hundreds of years. They had even formed an organization dedicated to the craft. Emi, however, thought differently. She alone saw the beauty inherent in the terrible, the frightening. She alone knew how to love that which everyone else despised, that which was called disgusting and evil – and she loved with great passion. How was it that no one else saw how wonderful these creatures were, how fascinating, how amazing? How could they kill them so wastefully, aiming even to drive them into extinction? Philistines! Neither her parents nor their close-minded friends could ever understand her feelings, so she supposed that their schism had been inevitable.
It really shouldn’t have been that way, though. Disowning her, excommunicating her from the guild… there was no need for all that! She was still doing her job, after all: preventing innocent people from being killed by monsters. She just didn’t feel the need to destroy the monsters in the process. As long as she could sequester them where they wouldn’t hurt anybody, what on Earth was the harm in keeping them? Those old fuddy-duddies just couldn’t handle any sort of change at all, she thought. Even if it was difficult sometimes, striking out on her own had been for the best.
Caught up in her musings on the past, Emi arrived at her house almost before she realized it. She grinned brightly as she trotted up the front steps and stepped into the house, her thoughts now turning to the present and her dear Zachy. She had seen the signs almost as soon as she set eyes on him – changelings weren’t too difficult to spot if you knew what to look for – but sometimes there were false positives, so she’d needed to make sure. Okay, so maybe trying to do it by feeding that Aliyah girl to him wasn’t exactly in line with her parents’ organizations’ values, but the poor guy had deserved a last meal if he’d wanted it! And besides, that dumb bimbo had tried to steal her man; nobody would have really missed her much, anyway.
She was sort of surprised Zachy had turned down that golden opportunity, but she supposed that was just the way he was. Honestly, the guy was a bit too much of a “sparkly emo monster” for her liking: Going out hunting animals instead of people, putting on that whole “I just want to be a normal teenager” shtick… how boring was that? I mean, who the hell actually WANTED to be a normal teenager? Lame-o! Nobody was perfect, though, and she totally loved him anyway. He might even be her new favorite.
Emi thought these things happily as she went about preparing her new favorite’s evening meal, not that much preparation was required, since he took his meat raw. Humming cheerily to herself, she grabbed the platter of liver and kidney meat and headed for the basement door. The door swung open with a gratifying *creeeaaak,* and Emi snapped on the lightbulb above the cement staircase. Her high-heeled boots clicked loudly on the stairs as she descended, alerting all those held below of her arrival.
She sighed blissfully as she turned the corner into the basement room: her guest room, her menagerie, her little slice of perfection. “Hello, my darlings!” she announced loudly as she entered. The dark stone room was lit only by a single, swinging light bulb, casting deep shadows into the corners. Thick iron chains hung from several places on the walls, and there were a dozen cages of varying sizes scattered across the room. Many of these were empty, but there were several current occupants of the basement room’s restraining devices, and they all reacted strongly to Emi’s entrance.
A creature that looked like a furry soccer ball with a mouth full of sharp fangs, chained to the back wall, let out a pitiful squeal and pressed frantically against the wall, trying to make itself as small as possible. A catlike animal about the size of a Labrador retriever, with webbed feet and small, bony horns, started clawing desperately at the lock to its cage, mewling like a kitten. A shadowy figure, visible only in the antique mirror hanging on the west wall, silently pressed itself so closely against the frame that it became only a dark black line along the left side of the reflected image. A ten inch tall imp-like creature hanging from the ceiling in a small, square cage shook its fists and began shouting rapid obscenities at Emi in a squeaky, high-pitched voice. Emi grinned. He was feisty today. She liked that.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there was Zachy. He sat, naked, along the east wall of the basement, both arms shacked and chained to the wall behind him, both legs shackled to the floor. He seemed to be in a half-transformed state: parts of his skin bore a pinkish, human hue, others were rough and gray; one eye was sunken in much more deeply than the other; his nose was flattened and misshapen; his fingers were elongated, but bore no claws; his back was hunched, but his legs were mostly human-shaped. He sat with his eyes half-closed, staring catatonically, head lolling down so that his chin rested on his chest. A steady stream of drool flowed, unnoticed, from the corner of his mouth. He offered no reaction to Emi’s cheerful cry of, “Hey there, Zachy, how are you today!” as she approached with the meat platter.
Emi sighed. She always had trouble getting the drug doses just right when working with a new species. Apparently she had overdone it. Had to be careful not to over-correct and give too little, though, or he might get loose. Oh well, she’d get it ironed out given a few weeks. She tried for a little bit to feed Zachy his liver, but to no avail: she could barely get him to open his mouth, and chewing seemed completely beyond him. Emi set the platter aside in frustration, muttering faux-exhaustedly, “Oh, Zachy dear, what am I going to do with you?” Of course, there was no response.
Even in this state, he was still soooo cute, though! Emi wiped the drool from his mouth with the back of her hand, then ran her fingers along his cheek, down his neck, and onto his chest. He didn’t even seem to notice. She leaned closer, pecking him on the cheek and whispering in his ear, “Dear Zachy, we are going to have SO MUCH fun together once I get you sober.” As she said this, she slowly withdrew a small, silver knife from her pocket and held its edge against his chest. She pressed lightly against the taut skin, then drew the blade sideways, leaving a shallow red line slowly oozing blood. Smiling, Emi turned to look at the large, elaborate tool rack fastened to the basement wall behind her: knives of all shapes and sizes, some smooth-edged, some serrated, hung glimmering darkly from the rack, along with several thumbscrews, pliers, nails, a saw, and a fireplace poker. Her smile widened. “SO MUCH fun…”
Her murmuring was interrupted by an unusually loud burst of profanity from the imp in the cage. Emi frowned. She liked that the little guy still had spirit, but that was no way to behave in front of a new guest! Seemed like some discipline was in order… Pocketing the knife, Emi rose and slowly approached the tool rack, eyes suddenly sparkling, upper lip twitching manically as her wide grin started to return. The brazen imp’s rant trailed off fearfully and he drew back against the back of his cage. Emi ran her fingers lovingly along the collection of weapons hanging from her wall.
Yesssss, today was definitely a good day.
Credit To – InfernalNightmare333