Estimated reading time — 6 minutes
The summer that I was eighteen, I was trying to find something bigger than myself. I was a dumb kid, but dumb in the sense that I didn’t understand when I was in too deep. Ask me anything about literary devices in storytelling, and I could write you a thesis paper. I whacked at the course selection pinata until it broke, and I swept away as many college credits as I could.
I lived in a town full of potheads and low income housing. My parents made 20k a year combined, and we were the richest people in the village. I spent most of my time in the theater program and playing Dungeons and Dragons in the cafeteria until the janitors kicked us out.
But the summer that I was eighteen, I was a month away from being a counselor at a camp, two months away from attending college seven states away from all I’d ever known.
And so, the summer I was eighteen, we were kicking stones behind a building that had seen three restaurants in my brief lifespan, none of which were very successful. The last one, we had been fifteen and it tried to market itself as an organic farm-to-table kitchen. But considering the average lunch of most people in my town was PBJ on bread from the Food Pantry, it didn’t last much more than six months.
Someone broke a window about a week after it closed. Maggie tried to crawl through said window to take a photo for her “abandoned chic” Instagram one time. She sliced her leg open and we had to call an ambulance. The photo was a pretty nice aesthetic though, half-erased curling chalk font advertising blueberry pancakes. Even the paramedic agreed, though she advised us not to trespass again.
No, we weren’t bad kids. But nevertheless, we found ourselves behind this building time and time again, glancing in to see the dried blood smear inside that still testified of Maggie’s art.
I think Grayson was smoking, something that I hated. But of course, it was perfectly legal now, and at least he put his cigarette out before he sat with us on that park bench.
But it was Grayson that brought up Rachel. We hadn’t seen her much, since we walked out of that high school auditorium with papers in our hands. We’d spent that night together, still being Good Kids but celebrating our graduation with orange crush and a bonfire. Grayson and Dean had some weed, I think, but the rest of us just threw sticks into the fire and talked.
Rachel was quiet that night, just sitting on the canvas chair and scrolling through her phone. She kept waving us away when we asked if she was ok.
When the sun really went down though, it got way too cold for the girls who wore skirts (and Dean, who wore shorts to graduation like some sort of scumbag) so I ducked into the house to grab some extra sweatpants to distribute. I was determined to make Dean wear my fluffy pyjama bottoms with the sheep.
Rachel came with me, and I remember she just broke down. I didn’t know what to do, I mean, I was just a dumb kid with an armful of fuzzy pyjama bottoms and when she started crying I just dropped them. I put an arm around her shoulder and she sat on my bed and just… we stayed there for too long. She sobbed into my favorite Star Wars hoodie and I rubbed her back. She didn’t speak, just cried for the longest time.
And when she finally spoke, it was apologetic. “I’m sorry. Next month I leave this all behind, I’ll be better.”
“What happens next month? College?”
“No.” she shook her head, the curls from graduation already starting to fall out from their pinned prisons. “I’m not doing college anymore. I’m getting help.”
And I just didn’t know what to say. I had been the last one to “get help,” I’d been stuck in such a rut the last half of Junior year, and finally I let loose to a school counselor. I’d been writing in a journal and generally had my depression pretty much under control since then, except for every few months.
We stayed there for longer, quiet except for the muffled sound of music we didn’t really listen to coming from Ronnie’s speaker.
She left the party after that.
“I don’t know where Rachel is.” Grayson had said.
The fact that Grayson had brought up Rachel meant he had something new, or at least that’s what I hoped. She changed her number sometime during the summer, my messages had stopped being delivered.
The way he phrased it, it should have clued me in, but my brain was still clogged with memories of muffled bass and bitter tears.
“Isn’t she in the hospital?”
“She’s not, though.”
“Well, did you call her parents?” Amber asked then, her hand curled in Muhammed’s.
“Her parents are dead, Amber.”
We all half-laughed then, because that couldn’t be possible, we all knew her parents, and Grayson was probably high or something, but then he pulled out his phone.
“No one’s at their house, no one’s answering the phone, and look. I took a walk through the cemetery down on Main Street.”
Margaret and Peter Stephenson. Death dates three months ago.
“That’s not funny, Grayson.” Maggie said then, “Did you find some tombstone generator online?”
“I wouldn’t make this up. Look, it’ll take us fifteen minutes to get there if you don’t believe me.”
And he was right, because of course he was. It was almost dark out, but by the light of Ronnie’s cell phone light we could make out the words. Black marble and carved crosses, just like the photo.
And in the light, we spotted her.
“Thanks for bringing them, Grayson.”
And we all looked to him, and Ronnie swung his phone light around and he looked like he wanted to run, like he was fighting back an urge to vomit.
And when he turned the light back to Rachel, there were others. Hooded figures in burgundy, there must have been thirty or fourty of them, and they didn’t make a sound – they just stood there, waiting.
“Who the hell are you?” Amber shouted. “What the hell do you want?”
“My friends,” Rachel said then, in a voice that wasn’t her own. And then I caught it, the posture, the way she moved. It was like she was broken. Like a puppet that was being held together by strings.
Maggie swore behind me as she approached, lifting a hand to Grayson. Silently, we shuffled away from him.
“I’m sorry I had to do this to you.” Grayson apologized, and it took me a minute to realize he was even talking to us, because he kept his face pointed towards Rachel and the strange burgundy robes.
“What did you do?” Dean demanded.
“We keep things right in this town. We keep the evil from entering it. We keep the souls from leaving it, the souls we want to save.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The Saved, they make us forget.” Grayson’s voice had picked up to a frenzied half-scream. “But the Saved protect us too, from what is out there. We need to become them, so we can know. And to become them, they must feed.”
We didn’t have much time to consider that, or whether Grayson had meant to say more. Rachel, this thing that was not Rachel, that was broken and put together at the wrong angles, it unhinged it’s jaw like a snake, the joints popping and straining. And then it bit down on Grayson’s neck.
Hoods were lowered and then there were many. Many Rachels, many others who we recognized from graduating years past, who had never come back to the town, but we figured that they had settled out west or stayed at school and we never thought of them and
I booked it, that night. I ran like hell, I pushed past Maggie, I grabbed that awful lanyard she wore around her neck with her car keys and her cards, the one that so proudly proclaimed she would attend Cornell in the fall. I thought she would follow, I guess, but she fell and in that moment, my survival was more important.
I stole her keys. I stole her car. I drove it to the bus stop, I used her credit card because her PIN was the same as her lockscreen. And I got out of there.
My parents are still looking for me, I guess. But I know the police are looking for me too. Because they’re pretty convinced I killed my friends.
The summer that I was seventeen, my friend Kris bought two hedgehogs. And I know what you’re thinking, that this couldn’t possibly be the point of this story, but just – hear me out. Kris couldn’t keep the hedgehogs until he moved into his apartment, but he bought the hedgehogs a month before that, so I watched them for that month.
Anyway, the female hedgehog, it turns out was pregnant. Apparently the past owner had kept her with a male hedgehog. She gave birth to three little squeaky babies that looked like raw chicken with grains of rice for spikes. I covered her cage and refilled her water and researched how best to care for these little nuggets.
That evening, she was hissing and spitting as she ate them whole.
CREDIT : MontyBeth