Estimated reading time — 7 minutes
Ghost stories? Nah, we don’t have anything like that around here. We DO have the story of Jacob, but that’s about as close as you’ll get.
…You really want to know?… Well, I’m not supposed to tell you, but all right, just no interrupting. I don’t have the patience for it.
How to describe Jacob Emory… well, I guess you could say he was the kind of guy you could never take notice of. This isn’t to say he was a bad kid, in any sense- many people in this town thought he was the most reliable person for an odd job in the state- but he never really excelled in anything. He was the living proof behind the statement, “jack of all trades, ace of none.” Most of this was due to his own lack of will. He dabbled in damn near everything this town could offer him, automobiles, radio operation, store management, what have you, but he never stuck with anything. His friends and workers went after him about it a number of times, but everybody got the same unsatisfying response: “It just wasn’t enough.” Needless to say, any friends he kept were either very patient or never spoke of the matter altogether.
It was probably inevitable, then, that Jacob would leave to go abroad. I don’t remember where he went, but I think Gertrude down the street knew before she passed on- you’ll have to scout someone else if you ever get curious. In any case, no one even tried to stop him. Everybody thought that a little travel would stamp the ambition out of him, or else feed it until it was no longer an issue. Hell, we even gave him a sending-off party, which I thought was pretty nice of everybody.
So anyway, he was gone for… six, seven years? Can’t remember. You’ll have to check with someone else about that, too. Anyways, he came back, eventually, and he had changed, obviously enough. He was amiable, energetic, all smiles all the time, and we all quickly learned why. He showed us a souvenir he’d brought back- a solid black stick, the length of a pencil but the texture of chalk. We all wondered why on earth such a simple thing would prompt such a spring in his step, until he gave his demonstration. He took a piece of paper, and with this stick- God, there’s got to be a better word for it- with this stick, he… he drew a crude circle.
It dropped, and rested on the border of the paper, like a stone. It didn’t leave the paper, but it acted out on it, sort of like an old movie projector on a screen.
Son, I know how crazy that sounds, and if you feel like playing skeptic, then you can leave an old man to his craziness, but I know what I saw, even if everyone’s been hushing it up, and that stone he drew dropped. Jake even passed around the paper, and as it was being passed, it rolled around as the paper got tilted. None of us had any words for it- Hell, what was there to say?- but he continued drawing demonstration after demonstration for us, stick figures in various pageants and plays doing everything from fighting each other to making perfect “human” pyramids, and we all thought it was incredible. That was all the go-ahead he needed- he announced that he planned to put on shows to pay for rent and food, where he would draw anything the crowd members wanted. THAT we talked to some length about, and he eventually convinced us that it would be safe, his drawings ethical, the practice lucrative and unique, and the attention would not go anywhere outside of the town’s borders.
Poor Jacob. If I’d not been so swept up in the moment, I might’ve read the signs right then and there, and saved the sorry son of a bitch by snapping the terrible thing in half. But I was younger, we all were, and we saw no problem with encouraging him with what we all saw as an incredible experience to be shared with everyone else. Now, he didn’t have any big radio or television connections, mind you, and the internet wouldn’t come around for another decade, so he did what all people on a shoestring budget do- he advertised his show with fliers. Fliers might not mean anything to you city-folk, but in a small town, they gain a fair glance-over from time to time, and what’s more, Jacob’s managed to stick out by having little figures jump up and down and whatnot to get people’s attention. His first show must’ve gotten nearly sixty or so people, probably a lot more than that.
And his shows were fantastic. Someone would shout out a scene from a play or a comedy sketch, and Jake’s hand would fly over a white wall like a bird. He’d been holding back when he made that stone, that’s for damn sure. His illustrations were all spot-on, and he could make an incredible human figure in minutes. Come to think of it, I don’t remember any of his scenes lasting more than ten minutes to make. They were all really well-done scenes, too- not only could you see a knight charge a castle, Jake would draw the castle’s interior as well, like a wedding cake split down the middle, so you could see the knight scale the walls, fight his way through levels to the dungeon, fight back out with the princess, and make a leaping jump off castle parapets onto his getaway horse all in complete silence. Not realistic, no, but that was part of the appeal- none of us went in there expecting something real. When a scene or a sketch was finished, either the characters would leave off a wall or he’d cover the wall with white paint. This was good, in a way- it gave these shows a time limit, so that when he’d finished with all of the four walls in the room, everyone knew the show was over until the paint dried.
Jake, meanwhile, was changing in a bad way. I’d mentioned that upon his return, he’d been extremely energetic. Well, that energy, that vitality or fervor or whatever you want to call it, it never left him. Not for an instant. Far from it, it seemed to grow in him, and he enjoyed it all too much. His eyes grew wider, he slept gradually less over time, his statements and opinions more radical and frenzied, and though he never was a pushover, he was starting to make people nervous in his company.
A month or two passed, and Jake’s audience grew like a wildfire. Nearly everyone in the town paid to see Jake’s art in action, and he had to rent out larger and larger places for them to sit. He now didn’t stop after one scene was done- he moved directly on to the next, put on the next blank space on the wall, sometimes to the intriguing effect of causing scenes to mingle, which the crowd loved. The subject matter got more wild and immoral, the monsters got more bizarre and creative, the fighters using more impossible weaponry, all for the sake of the crowd’s interests. Jake got steadily more indulgent, which we figured was from the money, and he became a drinker and a womanizer (neither of which got rid of that vitality, by the way.) Some of those women claimed that they’d woken up in the middle of the night to see him scribbling with that stick on a drawing pad, a gigantic grin on his face, and while most of them said that they’d assumed he was drawing them in the nude, there’s rumors that one or two of them got glances at that notepad. Those anonymous few supposedly said that those drawings absolutely weren’t nude pictures, but neither of them, whoever they are, will say what he was drawing. Don’t bother looking for the notepads or fliers, though, they’re all gone now. I’m getting off-track; point is, he was hitting the bottle, and that’s important, because it was that drinking that would eventually ruin everything.
On the night of one of his performances, as he walked in front of his cheering crowd, it was immediately apparent to everybody that he was completely drunk. I was in the front row, and I could smell the bourbon on him from ten feet away. The show started, he went through a bunch of sketches and scenarios the crowd recommended, when at the end someone asked that he draw himself. Everyone cheered the idea, I guessed they’d been wondering what his creations thought of him, and he eventually obliged.
No sooner had Jake finished connecting the final two lines on his coat, than every single character, across the vast, expansive wall, all stopped and looked directly at that illustration. Lovers stopped kissing, clowns stopped laughing, robots stopped fighting pirates, everything stopped and looked at the Jacob-illustration. The crowd died almost instantly- I remember Jake’s face at that moment, pale white, full of terrible comprehension at his mistake, and looking desperately for the cans of white paint he’d forgotten to put out before the show. Everyone else? They were looking at the fake Jacob.
That Jacob reached into his jacket pocket, pulled out a black stick of his own, and as we all watched, drew a door. He pushed on his side and the door swung open, allowing him to walk through onto the floor of the auditorium.
The rest was an absolute hellish pandemonium. People screamed and ran for the exits as Jacob’s characters, both those currently on the wall and those which had previously left before being covered up, ran out of their own exit, throwing pies, shooting lasers, blowing fire and poison and the impossible. I was near enough the exit to escape, and gave only one backwards glance. The scene will haunt me forever.
Jacob Emory was being dragged by his creations, kicking and screaming, through the door his copy had made.
The auditorium burned down, obviously enough, but I have no idea how many characters escaped, what happened to the fake Emory, or how many people died. The fire brought the fire department from the nearest cities up to over a hundred miles away- they in turn brought the police force, which brought the government, which hushed up everything. They took the fliers and any art Jake had made, and swore everyone to secrecy or else life detainment. The fire was blamed on a cigarette in the garbage during a basketball game, and we all eventually went on with our lives. Jacob was made to never have existed.
In retrospect, I realize everything. Jacob hadn’t been creating illustrations. Illustrations don’t move, much less act or attack-they’re just images people see, shadows made to look like real things. Jacob had been making life- actual thinking things in some alternate dimension, using a power that was never meant to fall to mortal hands. He got drunk on his power. His punishment was probably well-deserved.
Incidentally, the government screwed up on two different accounts. They did a damn good job silencing everyone, but proof remains. The ruins are still there, you know. The auditorium’s ruins. I hear they’re going to start reconstruction soon, which will wipe out any remaining evidence someone can definitely see, but I went back there once, several years after the fire- just once. Amidst the rubble, covered in ash, I saw something squirming. I looked closer. It was Jacob Emory’s hand on the wall. Exactly like it had been three years ago, (sweaty but calloused, I remember,) but it was constantly flailing, as if the body it was supposed to be attached to was still writhing in flames.
That was mistake number one. Number two was those creations.
Like I said, I don’t know how many escaped, nor how many the government agents found and caught, but I will say only this- Those tall grass meadows on the outskirts of town? Don’t go into them. Ever. You were asking about those white figures you’ve seen at night, right?
This town doesn’t have ghost stories.
Credit: Peter Divine (Douglas Greenwood)