Fiction, Spirit Black

Spirit Black (Part I, First Draft Excerpt)

Part I: An Awakening

The Damaged

I was known then as Jason Brandon Noone. In my young, formative years, I lived in a small Colorado town in the heart of the majestic Rocky Mountains. Millers Gap was nestled in a wide valley accessible by a single, ill-maintained two-lane blacktop road known as Resurrection Highway (that is another story for another day) that snaked north from Interstate 70 for about fifty miles north of Eagle. Eagle, and by extension, Millers Gap, was located west of the recently completed Eisenhower Tunnel, construction of which had been concluded in 1979. This story has its beginnings in the middle of the Decade of Decadence – a decadence that did not reach to nor was enjoyed by the residents of Millers Gap. It was 1985. It was also the year that marked the beginning and end of my life.

It was not until I had lived, presumably, half of my life, at the least, that I came to understand that I was not alone. Everyone is damaged. Flaws touch everybody; some are outright bludgeoned by such flaws while others are blissfully ignorant to the fact they have them at all. And we all search for some way to repair the damage, whether we are conscious of it or not – we may look to science, reflect on the words of philosophers, place faith in some higher power, or channel energies into any number of self-destructive vices.

The folly of it all is that many of us believe such patchworked-with-duct-tape DIY endeavors actually return us to some measure of mint (or at least very good) condition. Many more still remain oblivious they are damaged at all.

How did I come to discover my damage? Well, that’s what we are here to discuss. Bear with me, it may be a slow reveal, but I can disclose, looking back, that the autumn Amanda King’s dead body was discovered might have been the source of the very first crack in a very delicate shell.

I only knew Amanda in passing. She was a pretty girl and seemed to be well-liked by most. My best friend, Erica Wilde, had been close with Amanda. In fact, she may have been the last one to speak with Amanda before the latter’s body was found in one of the stalls of a girls’ restroom at school. They had an English project to complete – something to do with Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales – and the night before the gruesome discovery, they arranged by phone a time the next day to meet up at the town library – the school’s library was woefully lacking in resources, as they often are – to do some work together.

Upon hearing of Amanda’s death, Erica was devastated – truly off-the-rails grief-stricken. She was inconsolable and, unfairly, blamed herself, as if she should have heard something foretold in Amanda’s voice the night before when they had discussed their study plans. I was truly at a loss as to how to comfort her, being marginally (okay, painfully) socially awkward. I put my arm around her as we sat on one of the concrete quad benches and let her cry on my shoulder, all the while wondering how could something like this have happened.

Sometime after first period that day, Amanda’s body had been discovered by a trio of gossipy cheerleaders who had no idea what they were in store for. As the story circulated, they noticed one of the stalls was occupied. They could see that the occupant was kneeling before the toilet as if in supplication (my word, not theirs) and believed it was a student who had partied too hard the night before. When they tried to see if she was okay, received no reply, and found the door to be locked, one of them peered from underneath the next stall to see Amanda bent over the toilet. Her throat had been slit, her arms hanging limply beside her, and in one bloodied hand was still clutched a blood-stained razor blade.

Early on, the original details of the scene had trickled out to the student body like a game of Telephone, so there was really no confirming, at the time, how much of the story disseminated was hard truth or outlandish fiction. Later, as it turned out, much of the story was confirmed with only minor, but significant, details being altered (or omitted entirely) in the many retellings. For one, it finally came to light that Amanda had been naked (how that detail had escaped the initial story still baffles me somewhat – but it did eventually become part of the narrative and prompted a whole host of reasonable to implausible theories to add to the explanations for her death). Also, though originally described as a bloodbath, the scene was actually quite immaculate – not a drop of blood on the floor, none in or on the toilet, and even more disturbing was the fact that the entire bathroom facility had been meticulously cleaned, like sterile-environment clean. There were other details which the not-so-witless cheerleaders simply overlooked or discounted in their immediate recollections. Given what they observed, investigators held loosely to the theory of suicide and held back many of these details to dismiss the number of false confessions they expected to receive in the days to come. For now, they were content in the strategy of letting the public believe the current narrative (though they revealed their suspicions to Amanda’s parents in a hopeless attempt to ease some of their suffering; Ned and Victoria King were entreated to keep this new line of inquiry to themselves, for the time being). But being the oldest child of the town’s sheriff, I overheard things I was no doubt not meant to overhear as I would stand outside my father’s study while he discussed the case by phone with his deputies. The case consumed my father. Ultimately destroyed him, really. He had been close with Amanda’s father, which was another fact that lead me to wonder why Amanda and me didn’t share more than a tenuous bond. One particular detail I overheard was that in Amanda’s stomach was discovered a small scrap of notebook paper with something written, ostensibly, by Amanda. A message or clue, maybe? Though not entirely dissolved by stomach acid, the inked writing had been all but obliterated. The medical examiner nevertheless had sent the scrap of paper to the FBI lab in Denver where bigger budgets and better equipment were had. The FBI forensics lab was miraculously able to reconstruct the writing on the paper since it appeared that it had been ingested only shortly before death, giving the stomach only a minimal timeframe in which to digest. One had to wonder if Amanda had foreseen her death and was making an attempt to leave a clue. As it turned out, what had been written on the paper was, at first, just as mysterious and meaningless as the murder itself. If she had known she was about to die, why hadn’t Amanda left the equivalent of a neon sign naming her killer? Why had she presumably gone willingly to her death? One evening, while my father was away from his study, I snuck in and caught a glimpse of the photo. What had been photographed written on the paper in loopy, girlish writing was:

The Gravity of Things

I was always one who another’s gaze would typically slide off like an oiled body across satin sheets. I always felt invisible in many ways and that my existence really served no purpose nor effected any meaningful impact on anyone. Amanda’s life was the complete antithesis to my own. Her death shocked and grieved many and sent waves of terror across the community when it was made public finally that said death was suspicious and may have even been a brutal act of homicide.

The obligatory curfew was put in place for all of us under eighteen years of age. My parents expected me home long before that curfew, of course, but that didn’t complicate my life in any way, really. After school, I usually came home or went to Erica’s to study. I was the poster child for social exile. Like Amanda, everything about Erica seemed to be in direct contrast to what made me who I was. She was, at least, on the fringe of the social elite, where I was held back in a very exaggerated and elongated orbit. Halley’s Comet had a better chance of returning early than me being invited into the in-crowd. This bothered me little except that I feared Erica slumming it with the likes of me would hurt the standing she held. We all know that in high school, as in the real world beyond, success is often achieved more often through who you know and not what you know. I was afraid I was an anchor, an albatross, a ball and chain. A black hole of need. But selfishly, I did need her, and I could not imagine a life without her. I did not want to imagine it. So, I held on as long as I could; I struggled to hold her in my orbit against gas giants whose pulls were so much stronger than my own.

Though sounding all doomy and gloomy, I hadn’t lost Erica yet, and we spent a late afternoon at her house working through the geometry proofs Mr. Goodwin assigned for homework. I liked geometry. I hated proofs. I’m not sure my mind worked that way – logical, sequential. I would probably make a horrible detective. But Erica could do the proofs in her sleep, so yes, as far as geometry went, she carried me, at least through this portion of it.

The sheriff and medical examiner’s offices waited about a week and a half before publicly announcing that Amanda King’s death had been ruled a homicide. No suspects had yet been named. No persons of interest had been able to be identified. In the burgeoning age of technology and rise of senseless violence, the school had been outfitted with relatively low-end surveillance cameras in an effort to keep the grounds secure. It may not have been the wisest move, but the sheriff, my father, publicly admitted they had footage of Amanda entering the girls’ restroom prior to the final bell before first period. No one entered after her. No one came out before the later arrival of the cheerleaders. The restroom itself had no window or way of egress other than its single door. Of course, no cameras were installed inside the restroom. What my father hoped to convey was that this was a very bizarre crime and he desperately needed the public’s help. Currently, there were no plausible theories that aligned with the available facts.

Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes would have likened this to a locked-room mystery.

Erica and I discussed Amanda’s death on occasion in the days, weeks, following her death. I let her bring it up because I was afraid of triggering in her some demonstration of grief I was undoubtedly ill-prepared to handle. How could I be there for her when I could hardly hold myself intact? But I hurt so much knowing and watching her hurt.

Needless to say, Erica’s and Amanda’s Chaucer assignment did not get completed, but Erica received from Mrs. Baumgartner a deserved extension. While proofing, she asked me if I wanted to keep her company in the school’s library after final period the next day while she did a little more research and finalized her paper (there were no other students to team up with her as everyone else had already been paired; Erica assured Mrs. Baumgartner she could handle the assignment herself – she and Amanda had already accomplished a great deal). I capitulated under subjugation to extreme duress – and if you believed that…

Seriously, I didn’t want to spend more time at home than I had to, since it was difficult to watch this case eat up my father. To say he became increasingly obsessed would be an understatement. So, I welcomed the distraction.

Proofs completed, it was time for me to head home. The dark settled early over the town (though curfew wasn’t until 9 p.m.) and mom and dad appreciated it when I could be in before darkfall. I had no issue with acquiescing to their request.

Erica’s house was about four blocks – or streets – east of my own. An easy fifteen-minute walk, at most. As I headed toward the descending disc of the sun, which appeared to be sinking into the western, mountainous expanse, shadows lengthened and deepened, filling jagged spaces and pushing away the warmth and comfort of the light. A brisk wind blew, scattering newly-fallen leaves across yards and the quiet street. They crunched under my feet as I walked, making it the only sound, besides the whistle and howl of the wind, that I heard. No birds. No cars. No televisions. No drunk husbands yelling at cowering wives on the verge of taking back their lives. I stopped then, pulled my jacket closer around me, and turned to survey my surroundings.

Across the street about thirty feet behind me, I watched a shadow move. It had quickly become full-dark, and I watched a vaguely, humanoid figure amble between two houses, its “head” nearly level with the eaves, walking like a man out for a stroll. But a man it was not, and when it had disappeared, the familiar noises of the neighborhood returned.

Crossing the Ecliptic

To say the experience unnerved me would have been an obvious understatement. Afterward, when my heart had slowed, my breathing evened out, my mind cleared, and my sphincter unclenched, I began to recall vividly what I had seen. The dark figure was like no man I had ever encountered. All of his/its features were exaggerated in some way. I’m pretty sure it stood a good ten feet tall, with unnaturally elongated limbs – like Marfan syndrome, a disorder that afflicted President Lincoln; or The Slender Man, who would gain urban legend infamy in a few decades from now (his mythic existence would prompt a brutal attack against a young girl by her friends in an effort to gain Slender Man’s acceptance). This figure that followed me had blended perfectly with the surrounding shadows, and the only way I had noticed it was that its dark camouflage was betrayed by its movement – somehow shadow moving against shadow was enough to disrupt the illusion and reveal its presence, like the cloaked Predator in the Schwarzenegger film (at that time, the film’s release was still two years in the future).

But what was most striking were the thick, horned shapes atop its head that curled like a ram’s. Stretched out straight, I’m sure they would have easily been at least six feet in length, if not longer.

There was no doubt in my mind that the thing had been following me, but any reason for such surveillance eluded me. How could I know when I didn’t even know what it was or what motivated it? Or if I was experiencing some sort of adolescent mental breakdown?

I arrived home without further incident, past curfew and subjected to my father’s full, fear-tempered wrath. I wanted to tell him what I saw. I desperately did, believing in my gut that it was connected somehow to Amanda’s murder. But I had no proof, and moreover, the details of my story sounded preposterous even to me. What stopped me, sadly, was a remote fear of rejection. I believed the story I would have told would have veered too far toward the supernatural, and such beliefs were strongly discouraged in this predominantly conservative community. It might be okay to believe in unidentified flying saucers, but ghosts or demons or the walking dead went against the collective beliefs of the community (to this day, I have never really understood this apparent inconsistency in belief, but when old Mr. Nolan swore he saw a saucer-like craft hover above his corn field and the accompanying crop circles were discovered the next morning, there was no shying away from the fact that the greens – or grays – were, indeed real – or so it was believed). Heaven forbid anyone admitting to seeing a ghost of a deceased love one. That was just crazy talk.

After my father’s gentle tongue-lashing, I retreated to my bedroom. For a long while, I merely sat on the edge of my bed staring out the window at the deepening darkness. I felt a sense of emptiness and a feeling of being lost and alone. I would not have been able to explain why, other than that I felt events taking place were occurring beyond me, outside my subjective reality. Thus, I questioned the events of the previous weeks and could almost easily dismiss the near confrontation from earlier that evening. I felt like none of this was my reality, specifically because I felt I had no control. I began to feel like one of the ghosts no one in town would ever admit to seeing.

I thought about calling Erica to tell her about the shadow-presence but then thought better of it. I was already beginning to believe I was crazy; there was no reason to give her ammunition to believe the same.

I returned to a familiar thought. If I were a planet, my orbit would be slightly askew against the orbits of all the other planets that fell freely around our great Sol. My path would repeatedly send me falling from the cold, outer-limits of the solar system, the Oort Cloud, to intersect the plane of this elliptic; it grew increasingly lonely as I only crossed paths with others at odd, fleeting intervals, the remainder of my journey spent looking up at or down on all of the other solar objects as they obediently followed the seemingly natural order of things. My plane of existence was almost entirely alienated from the norm.

Space is cold and empty, and as the universe expands, everything in it moves farther and farther apart from each other (or so many astronomers believe; many others have differing views on the shape of the universe and its expansion or contraction). This was a growing distance I often felt with each passing day. I feared there would come a time when I had been drawn so far apart from everyone and everything else, there would no longer be sufficient gravity to tether me to what I observed to be real and worthwhile. I would be utterly alone and drifting, forgotten, a distant memory, a disembodied object in the emptiness of space.

Though I felt I had little connection to others beyond Erica, even I couldn’t admit to not having some interpersonal influence on my peers. For example, we believe that the planets of our solar system orbit the sun at its center. No one thinks of the sun to be orbiting anything (unless you consider the galactic center – but let’s not get too deep into the weeds just yet). But as these nine planets orbit the sun (at least there were nine, then), propelled to in-fall by the sun’s enormous gravitational pull, the planets, having gravitational fields of their own, tug against the star they orbit. The tug on the sun is mostly imperceptible (except for that of the gas giants – Jupiter, may actually be the remnant of a dead, brown dwarf star – which exert a greater pull given their greater mass), but that pull is there and the sun can do nothing but lean into it. So, in a sense, though observationally indiscernible, in mathematical reality, as the planets orbit the sun, so does the sun orbit each of the planets. Think of it like grasping the hands of a friend and both of you begin to spin in a circle. You tug at one another as you revolve. All people being unequal, the center of gravity does not lay precisely between you both nor inside either one of you. It is located nearer to the stronger, larger of you two. So, when you spin together, though the stronger, more massive of you may appear to be the engine of revolution, pulling the other around and around, the truth is the other pulls back, tugging the larger of you out of a stationary, fixed point. In this way, each of you is orbiting the other, though this is only subtly observed of the more massive of you both.

I wondered about such interactions, entanglements, connections, and what might happen to them as distances in time and space grew between them. There was no doubt in my mind that my own orbit, as it related to the orbits of others, would someday come to be little more than a fall through emptiness, experiencing little to no influence or effect from other objects in space and exerting little to no influence or effect on those same objects. To use the expanding universe analogy, there must come a time when all of us should be objectively disconnected from everyone else, as we dance our dances and move in our solitary circles. But what holds us together over time, until then? That answer has eluded me for so long.

Remembrance

How great the pain experienced when you come to realize you are but a mere footnote in your own life story – and a minor one at that, little more than an ibid.

This thought came to me while attending Amanda’s memorial service. I’m jumping backward here, as the service came long before that evening I observed the strange shadow figure following me. Then, as I looked around at the number of people in attendance, I believed my existence to be substantially less significant than Amanda’s. More than two-hundred people had come to the service – more people than the small, Lutheran church Amanda had attended with her parents could comfortably seat.

The service was moving. Friends and family read bits of scripture and original pieces of prose and poetry meant to shine a light on the wonder that was Amanda. She had been a beautiful and intelligent young woman driven by countless passions. But her life had been cut far too short, and the world and its future history would suffer for the loss.

I sat with Erica and watched tears spill down her cheeks. She sobbed silently and when it was her turn to speak, she was barely able to get through her own public praise of Amanda. When she returned to her seat next to me, I wanted to take her hand, hold it tight, and be the comforting presence she needed. My own hand was stayed, however, by my own insecurities. How could I provide the comfort she needed? Why would she accept such comforting from me? What if she balked at my touch and forcefully withdrew her hand? I felt guilty for such thoughts because I was making this time about me, when the moments inside that church should have been about Amanda, and to a lesser extent, Erica. No, I dwelled on my own fears, my own inadequacies. I began to wonder who would see me off at my own service when I passed, or if anyone would even bother to show up.

The service having ended, we all filed solemnly out of the church and trod over a striking green lawn, toward the reception being held at the church’s children’s center across the way. As I always seemed to do, I followed slightly behind Erica, silent, as she engaged with some other friends from school. At that moment, I could have been a faded figure in the background of a group portrait. Or, at least, that’s what I felt. I knew the feeling to be irrational, but I could not prevent its siege of my better sense.

During the reception, the bereaved shared more stories about and memories of Amanda. I stood alone, surrounded by others, studying a photo collage that captured Amanda’s life on a single canvas. In every photo, she was smiling or laughing or hugging or being hugged by someone. Here she was in hiking gear with her family as they prepared a climb up one of the local mountain trails. There she was bundled in her ski gear preparing for a run down one of the many slopes at one of the many ski resorts outside town. Another photo captured her in a Princess Leia costume on a long-ago Halloween night, her dark hair coiled in the iconic fashion that adorned the character’s head like earmuffs or giant cinnamon rolls. So many pictures. So many memories.

One photo caught me off guard and momentarily stilled my breathing and caused my heart to run a short sprint. There was Amanda and Erica splashing away in Amanda’s family’s swimming pool – I could almost imagine the scene captured in the photo play like a film strip. And there was me, like a twig of white ash, sitting on the edge of the pool, head down, and mysteriously intent on my dangling feet in the water. But I had no memory of this frozen moment in time. No matter how carefully I searched my mind’s archives, I simply could not locate the memory. When was this? Why was I there?

In that moment, as I gazed at that photo, I found myself missing Amanda more than I thought I ever could, saddened by a friendship that might have been but never was.

The Lost

I slept fitfully. Though I had no recollection of any dreams I might have had, I had my suspicions that memories of the strange figure from the night before filled the dark corners of my very own dreamscape.

It was yet another school day, and I felt very strongly about not going. This was not a new internal struggle; it was almost a daily one. It was often hard to drag myself out of bed, even on days I had something about which to be excited. But I had promised Erica I would keep her company after school as she finished up the research and writing of her Chaucer project. There was also an ill-defined part of me that felt as if I needed to be with her, to protect her…from something. It would be an understatement to say I was a little unnerved by the shadow-figure from last evening, and after having seen it, I had a profound fear that there was more to Amanda’s death than might currently be imagined.

I did not believe the Devil himself stalked the streets of our quaint suburb, but I felt sure that an evil of a sort was at work here in some capacity. But try convincing a community that accepted the extraterrestrial but balked at the supernatural…

Not that I completely believed that anything supernatural was at play here, but it was hard to otherwise rationalize a 10-foot-tall shadow entity sporting ram-like horns stalking an ordinary suburban-like neighborhood. Moreover, it was disconcerting that it seemed to have been following me. Or at least that was what my mind told me.

However, could I trust what I thought I saw to be real? It seems strange to say, as we often associate our minds with our being, but my mind and I were often at odds. We disagreed about many things. The conundrum here was if I were not my mind, then what entity was impersonating me and disagreeing with my mind? Truly, it’s a rabbit hole if there ever was one and not worth much more time spent on the subject, but it is important that you are aware that these were the kinds of thoughts that informed my existence. Suffice it to say that I often had thoughts I knew to be irrational yet could still rationalize them enough to engender, at the very least, a tenuous belief in them.

Still, we were a few short weeks beyond an unexplained murder of a classmate, a suspect had yet to be identified, and circumstances surrounding the death posed more questions than answers. The local papers implored the community to be vigilant while excoriating local law enforcement for not exacting swifter justice – or any justice at all. Yet, the reporters had about as many leads as did the investigators. One could always count on some measure of hypocrisy to color any tragedy. Everyone wanted to point a finger at everyone else, but few were willing to accept any responsibility they might have and search deeper for the hidden truths.

This was how I convinced myself to go to school that day. I often wished for the ability to quiet my mind just for a short while, but the hamster up there was always scurrying within his (or her) wheel.

I showered, I dressed, I grabbed breakfast, and I walked to Erica’s house, where she was waiting for me on her front porch pushing into her mouth the final half of a burnt piece of toast. Now, there was a perfect example of circle where a square should be. You, or at least I, didn’t see many girls stuffing their faces the way a guy would. But Erica was as much satin and lace as she was jeans and leather. She could be a lady one moment, demure and easily embarrassed, and the next throwing at Bobby Lynch, who thought he had the right to grab at an inappropriate part of Erica’s anatomy, a left-fisted gut punch quickly followed with a right hook. In short, she was a study in contradiction.

Erica walked down the drive to meet me, offering a muffled “good morning” around a mouthful of toast. I responded in kind, but without the hindrance of the mouthful of toast. We walked to school in a slightly uncomfortable and unexplainable silence. She had never displayed any signs of difficulty with talking to me. However, I was and am intimidated by anyone, especially women, who I perceive to possess greater intelligence and eloquence than me (throw in exceptional beauty, and I am unmade entirely) – which in my reality is and was most everyone.

This year, we did not share any of the same classes, so when we reached the school’s front door, Erica reminded me about meeting at the library later and asked if I still wanted to keep her company. I acquiesced, and then we parted for our separate homerooms.

The mood at the school was still one of melancholy and inconceivable loss. Even the regular band of bullies had assented to an unspoken armistice. As much as was possible, classes and teachers dragged and droned on, respectively, as if the faculty and student population weren’t still reeling from a horrible tragedy. But it was a thinly-veiled façade. The bathroom where Amanda had been found was locked and its entry barred with police tape; a constant, grim reminder to everyone who walked through that particular hallway, especially to those who knew her, that the chorus of voices that echoed daily through the now-hallowed hall was sadly one voice short.

My last period of the day was American History. This early in the school year we were only at the period of the New World colonization, coincidentally the disappearance of the Roanoke Island settlers. The mystery of the Lost Colony was an eerie counterpoint to the mystery of Amanda’s death. I’m not sure anyone but me felt this, but listening to Mr. Hawthorne’s lecture raised goosebumps up and down my arms.

The Stacks

When the final bell tolled and Mr. Hawthorne officially released us, we quickly shuffled out of the classroom into the crowded hall beyond. To get to the library, I had to struggle against the current that was that day’s mass exodus from campus. The library was on the second floor, and I climbed the stairs, pressed against the wall to avoid being knocked down and subsequently trampled. The library occupied a central space in the three-story school building, like the hardened core of a small planet, the guarded keep within a fortified castle, the inner sanctum of a sacred temple. Inside, one could find a fraction of the collected knowledge of the world.

Finally, I found myself at the library’s plain double doors. I pulled open the door to the right and stepped inside the silent realm ruled by Ms. Richter, the school’s head librarian. Though she inherited the unfortunate librarian stereotype (true, she had her black hair in a bun and would look at you over the short rim of her reading glasses and she could be rather curt at times when you didn’t follow the Rules), Ms. Richter was actually a kind-hearted, youngish woman with a sometime-twisted sense of humor. Both Erica and I held her in great regard, and I think she had a unique fondness for us. When I entered, Ms. Richter was at the circulation desk helping a student with his book check-out, but she quickly noticed me, winked, and tossed her head in the direction of the “Quiet Discussion” area where, presumably, Erica had nested.

The center of the library featured an octagonal, glass enclosure reserved for silent study. As I passed it, the space was occupied, of course, by two chatty students. The rest of the library was open and students were permitted to whisper quietly to one another. The rationale was that study was not always a solitary endeavor; sometimes collective discussion and debate could inspire new connections and deepen existing knowledge. However, with her finely-tuned, almost supernatural, hearing, Ms. Richter recognized when such discussion and debate surpassed a decibel limit, presumably, of her choosing, and she would rebuke those offenders with threats of incarceration and torture within her secret dungeon. Such intimidations were always accompanied by a smirk and a wink, but it wasn’t far from the truth to say that the student body shared a communal belief or suspicion that Ms. Richter possessed a dark side and that the veracity of her threats, ostensibly given in jest, were not necessarily without some merit.

Those that knew Ms. Richter, though, knew her to be a kind, fun-loving woman not so long removed from her own high school career. She was subtly beautiful with her raven-black hair – no one had yet to observe that thick mane unfettered from the bun that was a part of her librarian persona – and emerald eyes that sparkled behind her glasses like those self-same jewels. Her skin was smooth and pale, like fresh milk or newly-fallen snow. Ruby lips accentuated an approving smile or a reproving frown. She was short in stature, always wearing a dark, print-less dress that hugged a lithe body underneath. Did most of the of the male students – and several of the female ones – enjoy fantasies from time to time featuring Ms. Richter? One could hardly believe otherwise.

I found Erica as I knew I would – a semi-circle of books opened before her to various pages as she hunched over a notebook, her left hand scribbling away.

I stood watching her for several moments before she was aware of my presence. She looked up from her writing and smiled. We simply gazed at one another for several moments before she asked whether I was going to sit down or stand there the whole time like a sullen statue.

I pulled out a chair and sat at the table across from her. She regarded me briefly and returned to her writing.

This was a time in my life when I was very interested in mythology, especially the stories of Arthurian legend. I know Chaucer was a literary figure, but I did not then understand his appeal or the significance of his works.

I picked up various books Erica was using for study, careful not to lose her place in any one book, and studied the titles. There was nothing there I recognized.

The book I did notice to be missing was Chaucer’s work itself: The Canterbury Tales. This baffled me, as I figured it would be the essential book to have if one were writing a paper on it. I mentioned this to Erica sarcastically. She looked at me for several moments through eyes narrowed beneath a furrowed brow before she admitted that, indeed, it was a necessary component of her paper, but that the library’s copy seemed to be lost. It was probably the reason Amanda had insisted working on the project at the public library, which had several copies of Chaucer’s acclaimed work, even one in the modern, more easily understood vernacular. Erica told me she had informed Ms. Richter of the book’s absence, and the librarian searched the stacks herself but was unable to locate the tome, even though her records indicated that it had not been checked out any time recently.

Erica handed me a scrap of paper and said playfully that I was more than welcome to look for myself rather than simply sitting and staring and not providing any measure of contribution.

I unfolded the paper she handed me and forgot to breath for several moments.

You must remember it was a different time back then. We still used card catalogues held in long drawers to locate library books, and any research was conducted through exhaustive searches in countless books. We didn’t have the Internet (at least not one available to and easily accessible by the public) or the World Wide Web. I suspect that earlier, when I revealed the scrap of paper taken from Amanda’s stomach, and the writing that was discovered on it, your first impulse was to Google that alpha-numeric code. So, you could very well have anticipated this moment. We did not have that luxury, and seeing that same alpha-numeric code written on the paper Erica had given to me had the effect of a battering ram to the stomach.

As I was only standing and staring at the paper she had given me and not scurrying off to search for the book like a good little errand boy, Erica finally looked up from her writing to playfully scold me once more, until she saw the look on my face and gleaned there was something happening now to which she was not privy.

She asked me what was wrong, and I told her.

I had never mentioned to Erica that bit of evidence that was exposed to my father by the FBI forensics experts and that I discovered while snooping through Amanda’s case file in my father’s study. But I did now. That scrap of paper that Amanda presumably swallowed had written on it, presumably, the call number for the library’s copy of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.

Erica and I were both silent after this revelation, and then, as if we shared one mind, we both rushed into the stacks, traversing the maze using number-ranges on the endcaps of stacks as our guide markers. Finally, we reached the stack, the section, the very shelf where the book should have been located, but it was not there.

Of course, it was possible – and we both acknowledged the truth of this – that the call number did not necessarily refer to an item in our library’s collection. But we found the coincidence highly suspect given the circumstances.

I found myself scanning the books on the surrounding shelves to see if it was improperly shelved and Ms. Richter had simply overlooked it in her own search. But my efforts went unrewarded.

Erica was more hands-on and creative in her own search. She began removing books to see if the missing one was lost or hidden behind them. She ran her fingers across the undersides of the shelves with the apparent suspicion that Amanda had affixed the volume so in an attempt to keep it hidden. I followed her lead and did the same with shelves supporting books with call numbers not even in the immediate range of Chaucer’s. Still nothing.

I asked Erica if, perhaps, Amanda had snuck the book out of the library and kept it hidden at home (as part of the investigation, Amanda’s bedroom had been thoroughly searched by deputies, but nothing suspicious or out of place had been discovered). She said that such an act was not in character with Amanda. Somehow, I already knew the same even as I was asking the question.

We seemed to have reached an impasse. All we knew to do at that moment was to stare at one another as if we hoped some answer or solution would be revealed in the other’s gaze.

It was then it struck me to ask Erica what precisely her Chaucer assignment entailed. She responded that she (they) were examining both how social class and relativism were significant themes threaded throughout the tales. Erica said the topics of research had been Amanda’s choices. It was with that last statement coupled with the memory of the picture from the church of the three of us together at Amanda’s family’s swimming pool that a ridiculous idea occurred to me.

I told Erica to come with me as I sought Ms. Richter’s assistance. The librarian was still at the circulation desk, now flipping through an issue of Cosmopolitan magazine. After asking her what I wanted to know, she closed the magazine and bade us follow her as she took us to the section of the library in which I was interested. Once there, she indicated the exact shelves that held the volumes specific to my request. Her duty fulfilled, Ms. Richter smiled and returned to the front and her magazine.

Erica simply gazed at me with a questioning, confused look. I shrugged and simply told her I had an unfounded and unlikely hunch. I had had Ms. Richter take us to the section that held books on the mythologies that informed the cultures of the world. I was specifically interested in those on Arthurian legend and chivalry, the French romances that were themselves retellings and re-imaginings of earlier Celtic, Roman, and Germanic stories. From there, it did not take long to locate the missing Chaucer book. Other than its re-shelving in an area completely opposite its proper location, there was no other effort made by Amanda to hide the book. It stood conspicuously between thin translations concerning the search for the Holy Grail and the death of King Arthur.

I plucked the book from the shelf and turned to give it to Erica, whose eyes were wide with wonder and surprise. She asked how, and I honestly didn’t have an explanation other than the feeling that something outside of me had taken the reins, so to speak. She simply shook her head in disbelief and opened the book. She uttered a quiet gasp, hand to mouth, and looked more intently at the page in the book to which she had opened. After a couple of moments, she began flipping through various pages, faster and faster, her demeanor becoming more frantic and frightened.

I watched with growing concern but kept silent. Erica finally stopped rifling through pages and turned over the book to me. I scanned one page and then another and another. I jumped from beginning to end to middle. I read several pages over the course of several minutes and finally understood what had unnerved Erica so.

The once empty margins of the book were filled with scribblings seemingly between two people, as two different ink colors were scratched across the pages. There was so much writing that virtually no white space remained on the pages. It seemed Amanda had been carrying on a sordid romance with another within the pages of Chaucer’s book.

It was Erica’s next statement that filled me with terror and brought home the gravity of recent events. I had not noticed it at first, but Erica was sure that all of the written exchanges between Amanda and someone identified as M were all in Amanda’s writing.

M

We really didn’t know what we held in our hands, except that it revealed something disturbing about Amanda and may be a foot in the door to understanding the reason or reasons underlying her murder.

Without really thinking, Erica moved to check or sneak the volume out of the library so that she (we) could subject it to further study. With a brazen hand (at least for me) on her shoulder, I implored her to think the matter through. Taking the book to be checked out might only invite scrutiny of the volume by Ms. Richter, and if she discovered the defacement as it currently existed, she would likely have an aneurysm but not before having secured the book and locking down further access to it. She would want to know where we found it, and that could lead to uncomfortable revelations. Removing the book from the library was just unethical (Erica shot me an irritated glare at that, and I knew she was thinking of the ethics involved in murdering her friend), not to mention that it appeared to be tell-tale evidence in which the authorities would be interested. In the end, I persuaded her to return the book to the location in which we found it. I promised her that every day after school we would return to the library and examine more closely the scribbled writings Amanda committed to the book’s pages. We would give ourselves three to four days and then we would have to alert my father.

I was willing to forestall involving law enforcement at this time because I was as curious as, if not more than, Erica to discover who this mysterious M was to Amanda.

However, I suspected that pouring through what she had written may reveal an Amanda I, and to a greater extent Erica, had not known existed. That was frightening enough for us to take pause. But in the end, Erica saw the logic in my arguments – she didn’t like them, but she understood that cooler heads would elicit greater success.

So, we returned the book to its spot between the volumes describing the search for the Holy Grail and the death of Arthur.

We returned to the table where Erica’s research volumes were still fanned out and her paper, abruptly cut off in mid-sentence, beckoned for completion. Erica plucked her pen from the floor where it had evidently fallen as we had begun their sudden search. And then she continued to write, but not with the focus and intensity that had driven her earlier. She had something else to crowd her thoughts, and more than once – and this was unusual for her as her writing was always carefully, deliberately planned before pen touched paper – she scratched out several passages after reviewing them.

***

 

Erica held true to her word – and then some.

Over the next few days, I saw little of her during official school hours. Usually, I could expect to run into her in the halls or occasionally enjoy an afternoon lunch with her, but I did not catch even a glimpse of her until our agreed upon meeting at the library after last period. It was then I saw she had been very industrious.

As I sat across from her at the same table where she had been writing her paper, which was, I guessed, completed and turned in by this time, Erica barely glanced up from her frantic writing in a thick, green notebook. The Chaucer volume was open next her, a sheet of paper placed over one page, probably as a low-tech security measure should Ms. Richter saunter by. Erica would be able to cover both open pages by turning the notebook sheet, hiding the text from prying eyes.

It only took me a moment to realize she had begun transcribing, as close as she could approximate, the strange exchange that filled the margins of the Chaucer text. I glanced at the book and saw she was on page 10. I hadn’t examined the book too closely, but I assumed it to be nearly two-hundred pages. This was going to take some time – time we really didn’t have.

I voiced to Erica this observation, and she snapped back that she was going as fast as she could, but the writing, in parts, was quite difficult to decipher.

The alleged exchange between the individual identified only as M and Amanda, though appearing to be in, virtually, the same handwriting – Amanda’s – alternated in ink color. Everything meant to be written by M was in black ink in a style that strongly echoed Amanda’s but also displayed properties that deviated slightly from Amanda’s familiar handwriting. M was deliberate, even commanding, in his (or her) written communication. The writing looped neatly, but with a force that left, undoubtedly, permanent impressions on the page. In contrast, Amanda’s part of the dialogue was written in red ink. It displayed a degeneration of the neat looping displayed by M, with errant markings that indicated some level of excitement or fear, as if she would often start a thought and then hesitate. Her writing appeared as if it were written with a trembling hand at a feverish pace. It was cluttered, frantic, almost scratches on the page. There was no denying that the same person wrote the entire dialogue, but each “writer” displayed a contrary personality in the script produced. Here were two different sides of the same coin.

I sat quietly, watching Erica for a long while. After a time, she apparently felt my gaze and looked up. Though I remained silent, she understood my silent query and with an impatient sigh she took her notebook to the photocopy machine and began making a copy of the text she had thus far transcribed.

I picked up the Chaucer text, marking Erica’s place with my middle finger as I closed the book and began a close examination. The book was old; that was the first thing one noticed. The pages were sewn – not glued – to a tri-ribbed spine that was connected to two solid covering boards. The entire book was wrapped in a smooth emerald fabric that might have been suede or leather, which were, indeed, strange coverings for a book produced long after the Middle Ages. The title and author’s name were embossed in gold, calligraphic script on the front cover. The three ribs divided the spine into four equal portions. Above the first rib, in the same embossing and style, but writ smaller, was again the title followed by Geoffrey Chaucer. Inside, the paper certainly was not of the cheap, recycled variety. It felt like what I imagined actual parchment would. The text font was also strange – not one with which I was familiar, but seemingly an older style than any used today. I turned to the copyright page: © 1826. The text had not been translated from the original Middle English, but credit was given to a Charles Dexter for clearing up inconsistencies in vocabulary and style as well as providing a brief foreword and afterword. The title page was inscribed. The writing was in a faded, barely legible hand. As far as I could tell, the inscription read:

To Porter Aldridge,

Enjoy these tales told during pilgrimage. Twilight nears,

and with it, the long journey into an endless night,

where the true gods will triumph over the false!

M

If I were being honest, at the time, such an inscription meant nothing to me. If anything, it only confused a turn of events that were too baffling in and of themselves. I doubt now, even had I invested more time and thought into those words scratched into the title page of a very old copy of a revered piece of literature, that I would have been able to deduce what was to come. Then, the dedication only made me more curious as to the identity of our mysterious M.

As Erica returned with the copies of those pages she had transcribed, I placed the book back where she had left it and opened it to the page at which she left off. All thoughts of the cryptic inscription faded as I returned her sheet of concealment and took possession of the copied pages as she extended them to me. The paper was warm and smelled of fresh ink, which prompted a sensation I had almost overlooked as I had held the mysterious book. It had had an aged smell – not surprising – but there was something that remained beneath that obvious smell. There was a hint of rot and decay as well – but not of anything inanimate. This was the rotten smell one associated with days-old roadkill, sour and pungent, stomach-churning. It was subtle, obscured beneath the aged smell, but once you sensed it, it became almost overwhelming. For reasons other than the most obvious, I couldn’t help but associate this book with death, and a very unpleasant one at that – if death could ever be said to be pleasant.

I asked Erica if she noticed the same, but she admitted all she could smell was the fetid odor of an obviously old book and that I must be imagining things.

I shrugged in reluctant agreement and began to read through what Erica had thus far transcribed. Though written in one color of ink, she did identify the “speaker” as a playwright would in his or her script.

***

Amanda: Are you there?

M: Yes.

Amanda: Who are you? What do you want?

M: You may address me as M. I am a lonely soul. I want a friend. Companionship.

Amanda: Why me?

M: Why not?

Amanda: Are you in my head?

M: I am in this book. I am in all of these books. My words call to you from their pages.

Amanda: I don’t understand.

M: You do not need to, child. You only need to come to me. I can give you what you crave.

Amanda: How do you know what that is? You can’t know what’s in my head.

M: Oh, my delicate flower. I know your thoughts. I know your heart. Pretty girls like you always crave the same thing. You seek love, and I can provide you with that love. Sadly, he cannot and will not.

Amanda: Who can’t? What are you saying?

M: There are more things in Heaven and Earth, my child, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Amanda: I don’t understand.

M: I am telling you that I am the only one who can show you all of the wonders that exist between earth and sky. I am the only one who can love you in the manner you seek, in the way you need. You are a beautiful young woman, my Amanda, but I sense the darkness at your core. It is that darkness that will keep you from having what you are not truly aware you desire. There is a longing blossoming within you, but you do not recognize the seed from which the flower grows. You and he exist in a plane that does not permit the reconciliation of likeness. You both are the sides of similarly-charged magnets. Unknowingly, unintentionally, you repel one another. He is a dream that you will cease to remember once you wake with me.

Amanda: Am I going crazy? Why me? How can you know anything about me?

M: I have lived to see the making of many histories. I have watched you from afar and have known your pain as if it were my own. It called out to me in the darkness. I want to save you, Amanda. I want to save you before there is nothing left of you to save.

Amanda: You’re scaring me. I don’t know who or what you are or what you want with me. Am I crazy? I feel like I’m going crazy. I hear you everywhere except in my head. I would feel better if you were in my head.

M: Your mind is but an arbitrarily engineered organ that exists to perform a narrow function. But your soul…I am within your soul. The brilliance of your soul illuminates my being. But inside, again, there is that blooming darkness. I need to save you. I need to take you somewhere you will be safe. Will you accompany me?

Amanda: No. I can’t. At least, not yet. I have to go. Will I speak with you again?

M: The choice is yours.

Amanda: I don’t know.

M: Your absence will pain me, but that will only make our reunion that much sweeter. Come to me when the time is right. Be well, my love.

***

To say that what I just read did not chill me to the bone would be the understatement of understatements. I hadn’t even finished what Erica had thus far transcribed, but I felt in uncertain depths that I needed to stop. I needed to step away. There was too much there to digest; too much that made no sense to me, especially the fact that one person wrote the entire exchange acting as two. For the first time since Amanda’s death, I felt a weight of fear like an anchor around my neck, and I was being dragged beneath a black, frothing sea and breathing my last breaths. I don’t think I had ever been so frightened – not even when I had been followed by the shadow-figure that night. The pages I held in my hand, the hand-written dialogue that filled the pages of an innocuous – albeit disquieting in its apparent age – volume of literature overwhelmed me with a sense of dread, a pervasive feeling that there was an evil here we did not yet understand; that there was a darkness coming that might extinguish all light.

I wondered if we were moments from that “first shot heard round the world” that would signal, like a bastardized trumpet from heaven, the beginning of a war for our very existence.

What Dreams May Come

As a writer, I avoid at all costs the inclusion of dream sequences in my writing. I believe the practice to be the tool of a lazy storyteller. If a writer is going to subject the reader to a dream sequence, that part of the narrative better be crucial to the forward momentum and plot of the story. Too often, these dream sequences are used for shock value, to add something the author believes the reader might find captivating enough to push forward through a story the writer already knows is collapsing beneath its own dead weight.

That said, I’m hesitant – even reluctant – to include in this narrative what will follow. It is a retelling of a dream I had after having read several more pages of M’s strange courtship of Amanda. However, there is a strong possibility that what I experienced was both a sleeping and waking vision. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Though written by the same person, Erica and I were both beginning to accept reluctantly that the exchange was, indeed, between two separate entities (although this suspicion had already been seeded in my subconscious after having read those very first pages). We still did not know M’s agenda, but it was quite apparent that Amanda had almost completely surrendered her heart, her being, to this thing that manifested only as words on a page.

What Erica and I had to wrestle with was whether this separate entity – this being simply referred to as M – was a delusionary figure conjured by Amanda, by some psychosis from which she suffered. Or was M entirely alien, disconnected from Amanda’s conscious or subconscious? Was M real?

As much as Amanda pleaded, M refused to reveal its name (we had grown to harbor a difficulty in referring to M as a him – or even a her – as if to do so would imbue it with a humanity it could in no way possess). This was in and of itself bothersome. Not long after their communications began, Amanda begged for a name every time they corresponded. But it responded coyly to her requests, and I felt like such a revelation might ultimately strengthen its hold over Amanda, that to name it would give it form, give it shape, give it reality. Thus, trepidation gripped me, and I dreaded such a revelation. As much as a name might make M more real for Amanda, it would also tear apart the delicate veil that was right now, for me, separating fact from fantasy.

The more we studied the ongoing dialogue between Amanda and M, the less we were able to deny the frightening truth revealing itself to us. M knew things. It knew things that in no uncertain terms would Amanda be privy. We had to begin to prepare to surrender to the frightening possibility that M might somehow, in some way, be real.

And I had the constant memory of the shadow-figure, the appearance of which was beyond coincidental, to bolster our disturbing suspicions.

I had told Erica that we could spend a week with the book, but then we had to turn it over to law enforcement, to my father. The book, however one might interpret its contents, was still evidence in a murder investigation. Did it speak to Amanda’s state of mind before her death? Yes. Did it offer up a likely suspect? Yes, even though this suspect, in our minds, was likely and unexplainably incorporeal in nature. Nevertheless, though quite confident the book would yield no relevant clues (because, again, the supernatural was not something people took seriously in these parts), we were still impeding the investigation by keeping it in our possession.

The dream came to me on the night before the agreed-upon day Erica and I would turn over the book to authorities after our post-school research/transcription. By that time, Erica had transcribed nearly one-hundred pages. The further into the text she got, the more often Amanda had scratched out parts and then entire exchanges she had written. I wanted to believe (although such belief would make Amanda’s end that much more tragic) that M’s hold was weakening and she realized that these portions could not see the light of day, or M had commanded her to redact their conversations in order to protect whatever agenda it had. Neither Erica nor I believed at this point that M loved Amanda, that it had no intention of providing her with a better life. No, Amanda was bait of some sort. But bait for whom or what?

Both Erica and I tried to keep up normal appearances at school, but what we were discovering consumed us to such a degree that the world around us began to appear like little more than the distant light at the end of a tunnel, or a light from which you are quickly being drawn from, down the gullet of a horrifying beast and into the thick darkness of its dank bowels.

I began to feel even more cut off from everyone and everything, except for Erica. I had a couple of friends with whom I would ride bikes through the countryside after school and on the weekends, see a second-run movie at the town’s only theater, or discuss the books we were currently reading. But I had all but forsaken them. Though what we had discovered brought Erica and me closer, it also strained the other relationships we tried to maintain and tore at the relationship we shared – one I already believed to be tenuous and felt I did not deserve. We were often terse with one another when we weren’t enveloped in the silence that punctuated those periods when she was lost in her transcription, and I was lost in my own growing anxiety and loneliness.

Also, Ms. Richter began to take more frequent notice of our presence in the library. Her curiosity was in no way disguised as she many times wandered by our table intent on discovering what we were doing. I had taken to sitting at the head of the table so that Erica was seated on the side to my immediate left in order to keep lookout for anyone on approach. My vantage point gave me enough time to shift books around on the table, feigning a search for one in particular, and in doing so making sure the Chaucer volume was inconspicuously covered. There was only a single stack behind us and then the library’s corner shelving. There was really no threat of being unknowingly disturbed.

We stayed after school in the library until Ms. Richter threatened to lock us inside. Neither Erica nor I would have been distraught at such imprisonment, as it would have given us more time with the book. During the week we discovered the volume and Erica began transcribing, we hid ourselves away in our defensible corner for nearly three and a half hours each day. Of course, it would have been more efficient had we used the photocopier to capture the contents of the book, but that most assuredly would have called to us unwanted attention from Ms. Richter as we tried to duplicate approximately two-hundred pages. A more honest explanation as to why we didn’t go this route was the simple fact that, even between the both of us, we didn’t have the money to accomplish this – we might have gotten fifty pages or so, but that would have been all we could afford with our meager savings and daily lunch allowances. However, Erica seemed to derive some measure of satisfaction from doing the work herself, as if doing so somehow brought her into the conversation, peeled away the time and space that separated her from the here and now and the participants whose words were dead lines on the page. She felt her efforts breathed life into the words, a life that we could examine and dissect.

Of course, Ms. Richter closed the library at six-thirty, at which time we were exiled into the already fallen darkness. Each night I walked Erica home. We talked very little, both lost in thoughts of our own but which likely often intersected. It was the second night walking home that I felt its presence. The shadow-figure. I suspected that it might be M, but I really had no idea what it was or why it seemed interested in me, if not both of us.

I considered bringing Erica into the fold and alerting her to the figure’s presence. I have to be honest, the thought crossed my mind that doing so would be like going to the doctor when you were sick. Once you were finally seen by the doctor, none of your symptoms presented and you felt fine. I was sure that once I told Erica we were being watched and she sought out our voyeur, the figure would simply vanish like smoke in the wind.

But it didn’t.

***

Before revealing the dream, though, I feel it necessary to include another portion of Amanda’s conversation with M. This was near the end of what Erica had thus far transcribed.

M: I feel as though something has changed in you.

Amanda: Maybe something has.

M: Do you no longer love me?

Amanda: Did you ever love me?

M: Child, do not provoke my anger.

Amanda: You didn’t answer the question.

M: And I will not. You know the answer. You know what is in your own heart. You know what you believe. I have shown you what awaits beyond the threshold. Now is not the time for doubts.

Amanda: Even though I have seen his face every day for years, I had forgotten what he looked like. He smiled at me today. It was tentative, shy, but it was a genuine smile. For me. I couldn’t smile back. I was embarrassed and ashamed. But it was the first time in a long time that I truly saw his face. That I truly saw anyone’s face. You have given so much of yourself to me, and I’m grateful, I really am, but I’m not sure I can follow. You are drowning out everything around me. I’m afraid of getting lost.

(Here, whatever M’s response had been, Amanda had violently scratched it out, having even torn through the page).

Amanda: You’re scaring me.

M: You should be frightened.

Abattoir

The dream/vision as I remember it:

I stand outside the first-floor girls’ bathroom at school, the din of a tolling bell echoing through the empty halls. This bell is not the piercing ringing that accompanies the sounding of a school’s bell. This has the deep resonance of a church bell calling parishioners to worship or marking the passing of the member of the community.

I am alone and feel icy fingers scratch at my exposed arms as a frigid wind gusts through the hollow halls. There is no way to explain the presence of such a wind. Where I stand is not any sort of breezeway, nor has this hall ever received such turbulent air. It crosses parallel to the front doors of the school, but at the building’s opposite end. Several doors are closed against dark, unused classrooms filled with deep shadows that cover the floors like a thick, churning mist snaking between and around the long-unused desks within. It is early autumn and not quite seven in the morning. The front of the school faces north, so this end of the edifice is cast in the waxing first light of morning, which falls as little more than a darkened bruise upon this part of the school. Still, shadows of all sorts linger here at the southern border of the campus. Leaf-shadow dapples the back playground where several dying ash reach like gnarled claws from the weed-strewn earth beneath. At least, this is what I expect to be.

Though the only interior windows providing views inside these classrooms are the textbook-sized panes in the upper center of the doors, I know the shadows are there. I don’t have to look. I have no doubts, even though I have never been in any of these classrooms. As the temperature falls, a film of frost begins to overtake the small windows, moving from the outside-edges toward the centers until the frost hardens into layers of ice. A chorus of sub-human vocalizations escapes from those rooms, from the shadows within, and adds to the sound of the still-tolling bell a distinct, uncomfortable discordance.  

It takes moments for me to realize the width of the hall is decreasing as the tomb-like classrooms lining the back of the school encroach upon the interior spaces. The classroom doors begin to vibrate violently, increasing in intensity and bulging outward until the glass panes shatter. The indistinct shadows that I know to be inside begin to resolve into likenesses of many clawed hands reaching through the newly-breached doors. The shadow-hands stretch into impossibly long arms that begin to transform into corporeal, darkly-scaled appendages.

And they reach for me. Desperate cries, mournful screams, and agonized howls fill all the empty spaces. The bulging doors begin to crack, and I cannot bear witness to what is entombed behind them. I glance to my left and right to assess an escape route (though a part of me knows I must break protocol and enter the girls’ restroom), but both ends of the hall fill with the ranks of beings of hellish breeding.

Through the egress created by the splintered and shattered doors, the writhing shadows spill into the light of the hall. Their appearances are more horrid than anything I could imagine. But what is almost more terrible is the scene I spy through the exterior windows of the classroom before me. It is unrecognizable as any landscape in existence on earth. It is the most disturbing dreamscape that has ever been painted upon the canvas of my mind.

The sky is deep crimson, though a white sun burns from a lofty arc above the horizon. Gone are the mountains and the thick tree-growth at this end of the school has become a vast expanse of skeletal remains of trees long-dead, now little more than gnarled stalks, jagged at the tops where, presumably, they had been torn asunder. They stand no higher than a full-grown man and appear as gray as the dust and dirt from which rise their remains. Many are blackened as if by fire or the lightning from the cloudless sky that stabs at the blighted earth. Some are stained with a dark residue that resembles dried blood. More strange creatures prowl this veritable boneyard, creeping ever closer to the school when not attacking one another. Some come on four or six oddly-articulated legs, their snakeskin-like bellies dragging in the ash. There are some bipedal creatures that exhibit the same manner of exaggerated appendages as the shadow-figure I had seen on that earlier occasion. They amble like the undead, though some hold chains leashed to several of the other creatures, which struggle futilely against their restraints.

Through the exterior windows, I can feel the hot wind as it blows through, carrying with it the fine dust and the sour stench of fetid feces and rotting corpses. I cannot suppress a gag response. Gazing out and surveilling within, I have the sense of being corralled. The snaking shadows writhe around my ankles and throughout the hall, obscuring the floor. All around me I hear uncomfortable mewls, whispers, and growls. The shadow serpents wrap tightly around my legs, the creatures laying siege from outside now make their way through the shattered windows, and the goblin- and gargoyle-esque creatures at either end of the hall have closed significantly the gap between me and them.

I know that, against every impulse of physical and mental self-preservation, I will have to enter the girls’ restroom or face the uncertain, yet likely horrible, whims of the fiendish hell-spawn that close in on me. I can see them rending me limb from limb, lapping up my blood, chewing upon my entrails, and sucking the marrow from my bones. And yet, I have no doubt that what awaits beyond the door before me will be the greater nightmare.

I push open the door and step not into a foul school restroom but a wide, stone courtyard where hard rain falls from a black abyss high above. From here, significant portions of the second and third floors have vanished. Wide arches on all three floors open onto what would be the southern sections of the school, but the spaces beneath those arches are thick with shadow and there is no way of actually knowing what one might now find in those impenetrable depths. I gaze upward into an unbound, bible black void where the second and third floors had been. The falling rain tells me there is likely no roof above this space, as well, but the absence of any light contradicts the appearance of the crimson sky I had seen earlier. This no longer looks or feels like the high school, but it’s the same building, only much older and steeped in a palpable evil. It is now a stone fortress lacking most everything recognizable as an institution of higher learning or repository of knowledge and wisdom. Dread descends over me like a shroud, and I can feel that Millers Gap High School has become a place where cruel individuals mete out unfathomable pain and suffering in a manner devoid of purpose or restraint. All around me, I feel the souls of the men, women, and children who have met their violent ends within the walls of this massive abattoir.

To say I am not in any bathroom I have ever seen is an understatement. The courtyard is, I estimate, roughly the width of the school, but I can’t be sure anymore. I feel as though spaces have shifted and the building has rearranged itself. I am sheltered from the falling rain by the second-floor walkway above, which looks out onto the courtyard before me. I glance behind me and, not surprisingly, the door through which I entered is gone. In its place is a solid, stone wall.

The rain, as it reaches the courtyard floor, runs in rivulets formed by the mortar binding the paving stones together. The floor is obviously inclined so as to funnel all of the run-off into a wide, circular drain at one end of the courtyard. A grate covers the drain, and Amanda hangs suspended by her outstretched arms above grate and drain. She is held as high as the missing second floor. Chains extend from the darkened archways, seemingly held by nothing or no one, the hooks at the end of those chains pierce too many parts of Amanda’s pale, naked body. The sight sickens me, and I am almost glad she is dead and is not suffering.

Until she opens her eyes.

Her blood pools with the rainwater, turning the drainage run-off the color of packaged meat juice. I can now hear her sobs and pleas, and it is then that I finally notice the tall, crimson-robed figure, whose back is to me, standing several feet in front of the strung-up Amanda.

I am frozen in abject terror. The robed figure is saying something or chanting something, but I can’t make it out over the sound of the pelting rain. The only thing of which I am reasonably sure is that he/she/it is not speaking or chanting in English – or any language I would have any hope of recognizing.

Movement in the far corners where more shadows collect tells me there are others in the courtyard. Points of orange and yellow and red are vaguely visible within the shadows, and it doesn’t take me long to realize they are eyes – but not all of them appear in pairs.

I turn back to Amanda as she screams. The chains pull visibly away from her, drawing apart and tearing her flesh even more.

I want to move…forward, backward, anywhere…I want to act…but my feet have become one with the stone floor by way of my shocked and terrified subconscious.

I want to wake up!

The chains draw tighter. Amanda screams even louder. Her body is streaked with blood that runs freely from head to toe into the drain below. I cannot bear the weight of her suffering. I squeeze my eyes shut and press my fists against them. I try to take a step forward, but my legs buckle and I fall hard to my knees despite reaching down to cushion the impact. My eyes spring open from the shock of that impact, and Amanda is smiling and staring right at me.

Somehow, she holds her smile as the robed figure steps forward and raises an impossibly long arm to Amanda’s heaving, bloodied chest (blood flows and is washed away by the sheets of rain; blood flows and is washed away by the sheets of rain). Then, with a bone-thin hand, fingers and palm at least twice as long as any human’s, the figure reaches between Amanda’s cleaved, budding breasts, slipping its ghost-white hand inside her chest as easily as if it were plunging its hand into a bowl of cream.

With the physical intrusion, penetration, Amanda’s eyes widen and she lets her head fall back. Rain pelts her face, and a brief flash of memory tears at my heart: Amanda, Erica, Derek, Aaron, and me standing outside in the rain, laughing tearfully at some long-forgotten joke, those same tears being washed away in the falling rain.

Returning from my reverie, I see the figure holding Amanda’s still-beating heart. It brings the organ to its face as if to inspect, maybe smell, it. I am in no way shocked that Amanda is looking at me once again. Her smile is gone, however, and her eyes appear vacant – even from this distance. All of the tense struggle has gone out of her body, which sags as much as it can against the hooks and chains tearing at her body. I have no explanation for this belief, but I swear, despite the rain that continues its deluge, I watch her eyes fill with and then spill the last tears she will ever cry.

Then the hooks and chains, with unimaginable fury, are pulled back into the shadows by whatever holds them, and Amanda’s body is torn apart.

My scream is deafening in its silence. I hear it in my head. I hear it beyond wherever it is I have found myself in this dark, terrible dreamscape. But I do not hear it with my ears in the here and now. Still, the figure turns and begins to walk toward me. Behind him, twisted and malformed creatures scurry from the shadows to scavenge Amanda’s remains.

The figure is cavalier in its approach. The darkness inside the hood pulled low over its head mostly obscures its visage. The only features I am able to make out are a pointed chin and a wide mouth with thin black lips and pointed teeth. Its skin reflects the pallor of death. Continuing its approach, it opens its robe with the hand that does not hold Amanda’s heart. It is naked beneath its blood-red robe, the body within having all of the telltale signs of one twisted and ravaged by scoliosis. I suspect, though, that such a human condition is not the cause for such deformity. As it draws nearer – now approximately fifteen feet from where I stand – I see the tight, paper-thin skin covering its stomach and chest (it has no breasts or nipples – or genitalia, for that matter) seethe as if dozens of organisms are crawling underneath. A gash opens in its gut (10 feet now – and I can hear voices behind me) and the vile thing in front of me plunges Amanda’s heart deep inside. The gash seals as if it had never been.

My head only comes to the level of where that gash opened as the figure stops directly in front of me. I want to vomit from its putrid smell and the sight of its rippling, churning skin. A hand grasps my head like a basketball player might handle a basketball. Those long fingers squeeze, and then I can feel them inside. I reach up in a vain attempt to tear the hand away.

Voices. Louder.

It shoves me to the ground, which is now tile slick with blood. I manage a quick glance of my surroundings. I am in a restroom. The mortar between floor and wall tiles glows a blinding blue, silhouetting a man, back to me, dressed in a suit, walking away from me, toward and through the far wall…

…the blue light vanished and cold florescence bathed the bathroom.

Carnage was all around and beneath me. Through the gaps beneath the stalls, I saw a body, presumably female and naked, kneeled before the toilet in the middle stall.

I scrambled to get to my feet, but I kept slipping in the blood and could not get to my feet. Just then, however, the door behind me opened and four girls breached the threshold, screaming before they had made their way fully inside as they saw the bathroom floor, walls, and mirror streaked with blood and entrails. Then they saw me sprawled on the gore-splashed floor, a bloodied razor blade clutched in my crimson-stained right hand.

I would find shortly that I was fully awake, and the body in the stall belonged not to Amanda, but the senior class president, Carolyn Buck.

Photo by Mathew MacQuarrie on Unsplash

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