Thanks for joining me! So I’ve heard it over and over. You need a blog. And, because I am, by nature, reclusive and strange, my response has always been ‘ick, no.’ But, lately I’ve been thinking about my life as a writer. See, my reclusiveness is at odds with my desire to share my stories. I want more readers and this year is set to be one of the biggest in my career, release wise and the blog thing has become almost a chant from every single person I talk to. So here we are. You sitting patiently, waiting for me to be brilliant and me sitting over here like ‘why are you looking at me like that?’
Yeah, blogging has never been my thing. I don’t go to parties, my taste in movies is downright weird, and even when it comes to books my recommendations are often odd. I could spend hours telling you how to write, but every single bit of advice is going to be meaningless once I give you the only thing you will ever really use. Which is: figure out what works for you. I could tell you what I do every single day. And none of it might work for you. One writer will tell you to write every single day and another will tell you they only write when they have a handle on the story. If you are a writer, this is your fight and the only way to be any good at it is to figure out what works for you.
So there I was, with this confusing muddle of ‘what could I possibly have to say’, cringing every single time someone told me to start a site with a blog, trying to figure out another way to find my readers. Then it hit me like a load of bricks (you know, the sort stamped with ‘how did I not think of that before’) dropping right on my head. I don’t teach writing classes and I’m not looking to start. There are so many people out there that are better for that job because my second piece of advice is ‘suck it up, Buttercup, and read the last paragraph’. I’m not the sort to coddle you through writer’s block because I’ve been there a thousand times and have come to know it for exactly what it is. Self pity and avoidance. Something is not right in Wonderland and you need to figure it out for yourself. And sitting online reading a thousand blogs will never, ever help you because it is your muse pouting silently in the corner and, like your last girlfriend, she’s waiting for you to say or do something to make her love you again. Hint: start by turning off your phone and logging off Facebook.
So why would I start a blog giving out my opinion on anything or trying to offer up advice other writers have already given a thousand times over in far kinder ways than I am capable of? I wouldn’t and that was where I so often ran up against a wall when the word ‘blog’ came up. What I would do, however, is tell stories. Because that is pretty much all I want to do, all the time, every single day. Not just my own stories either. See, when I was about ten, I became fascinated with two things. Ghosts and magic. In fact, I became so enamored with both that I read every single thing I could. I have read so much over so many years that I can tell you stories from Celtic Mythology and reel out the names of all the Gods and Goddesses in Greek Mythology just to turn around and give you a lecture on their Roman incarnations. Then I can tell you all about the most famous haunted houses and more than a few nobody else really knows about. Urban legends? Right here, baby. And, yes, I can give you a list of excellent books to read if you are into any of these things. What hit me, my dears, is the simple, inescapable fact that, until now, I’d never thought to attach to the idea of blogging what I practice in my stories. Write what you love.
I was that kid at Halloween that was watching the Garfield Halloween special on one channel and taping Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman on another. I was the kid in high school English that wrote a twenty page paper on the Pantheon of Greek Mythology (true story). I am that crazy person that wishes I’d gotten a letter from Hogwarts and still stubbornly insists that Santa Claus, in some form or another, does exist.
So here’s the deal. I won’t promise to be brilliant. Writing short has never been my strong suit. But I plan on sharing a number of things with you. I am going to be drawing on everything from my vast library of myths and legends, my knowledge of ghost stories, and my own short fiction, some of which will include short stories from my War For Inìsfail series and my own ghost stories. I am going to, on occasion, be lazy and tell you who else you ought to be reading (and that’s a list we’ll never get to the bottom of) and why. And, yes, this is all copyrighted. Please do not steal from me; I bite.
Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton
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“No ghost put that photo on a tree.” He says this as if it’s an inarguable fact that finishes an argument, though no argument has taken place.
I never said one did. James put that photo there.” I tip my head, smiling at him. “What scares you more? That ghosts might be real or that they might have enough power to hurt you?”
“I don’t have time for this nonsense,” he warns. But there is a glimmer of some desperate memory in his eyes.
“You’ve seen her,” I say.
He glowers at me. “Every day for twelve years, but it wasn’t a ghost.”
I smile wider. “Sure it wasn’t.” I can tell a lot about him by this simple, stubborn refusal to admit what he knows he has seen. And I can tell he has seen it a lot. Being haunted gives you a certain look. As if nothing, not even ordinary things, are to be trusted. I have that look. James had it. And now I recognize it in him. His spoken disbelief is just a desperate attempt at denial. And I know too well how that works.
I don’t exactly take pity on him. But I see that the storm clouds have begun to appear over the mountains. Distant though they remain, it won’t take them long to get here. It’ll be a loud one, full of thunder. Perfect for drowning out screams. This isn’t the time for confessions or discussions about ghosts. “James left the picture for me. And it wasn’t the last. She began to come to me more, both in and out of dreams.” I bite my lip. Thinking about James hurts. It’s like thinking about Cody. It is another name to add to a list of those I could not save. They say artists are tortured. James certainly was. For twelve years he’d been trying to bleed her out on canvas. For twelve years, he’d been failing. He thought that I could help him put her to rest. I couldn’t. I can only hope I am not stuck with her; unlike Roxy, there is nothing of Caroline I want to keep.
“You felt sorry for him,” he says. He sounds surprised.
“I sympathized,” I correct him. “I know how he felt. How he struggled. I know what it’s like to be haunted by someone I could not save.”
“I wouldn’t have thought you were capable of pity.”
I smile. “Is that supposed to hurt my feelings?” He raises an eyebrow, smirks, and shrugs. “I am not emotionless,” I say softly, smiling back. “If anything, I feel too much. I suffer for those I know I could have helped and failed.” It’s true. I’ve gone a thousand times through Caroline’s death. What she must have felt, how she must have struggled, desperate for survival. It is this which drives me to hunt.
“Did James tell you about her? What happened to her?”
“Some,” I say. But I don’t tell him all of what James told me. Not yet; some things have a time and now is not right for that part of the tale. We are still one short.
I don’t understand,” he says. “Why would you kill him? It seems like he would have been less target than accomplice. Wouldn’t he have made a good replacement for Daniel.”
“I don’t need partners,” I say. My voice is sharper than I intend. I will not discuss Daniel with this man. It is none of his business what Daniel was or was not to me.
“But why kill him? Did you think he would turn you in?”
“I never said I killed him,” I reply. “Just that he didn’t help me. Exactly.”
“What does that mean. Exactly.”
I think of the pictures. “I would never have known who I was hunting without him.” I hear a rumble of thunder. “It was storming when I first saw him.” I shake my head. “Mom was afraid the power was going to go out. She grew up on a farm. She was never afraid of the dark. But it was different in the new house. Like the trees scared her. Or maybe it was Daniel. There was a real monster hiding in the dark. Too bad she never realized it was sleeping in the next room. Maybe she would have been less afraid.”
I shrug, trailing my fingers over the dusty window ledge. I remember the flashlights. Laid out on the kitchen table like a row of soldiers, as familiar to me as the smell of Uncle Sonny’s makeshift office at the top of one Grandpop Joe’s barns. Not the usual sort. The kind made of airplane metal. These were extra long and heavy. They could have knocked out the Hulk, if swung hard enough. They were battered and scratched up, but still as strong as the day they’d been bought. But their batteries were weak with age. “They were Grandpop Joe’s,” I say, smiling a little, he looks confused, but I don’t care. I was pleased to see them that day in the kitchen; they were part of my childhood. No matter where you went on Grandpop Joe’s farm, no matter how dark the corner, there was always a flashlight waiting. Each one had a home and was neatly labeled on the base in his cramped handwriting. “He insisted any equipment he bought had to be like those flashlights. Dependable. Strong. He was prepared for Armageddon, my sisters used to say. And Mom is every inch his daughter.” And she is. Sometimes she’s flaky. Sometimes she’s a bit too naive. But she’s also pragmatic when planning for disaster and good and making sure everyone is loaded for bear.
“We need batteries,” she’d said, tapping at the keyboard of her phone, making a list. “And a few other things. We’ll have to go to Harrisburg.”
“Better get it done, then,” Dad said. He stood and groaned. He was walking slow; our run had left him walking like he was eighty. He folded the paper and laid it on the table. The sun was still shining, but there was a promise in the unseasonably warm air. It tasted of rain and had that thick, green smell, the sort that reminds me of the deep, wet heart of summer. We’d been promised aggressive storms that night, the sort that tore roofs off houses and tossed cars up trees.
“I could stay here,” I said.
“Not a chance,” Dad said. “Grab a book.”
“It’s not like anyone can get to me,” I said. “The FBI is parked in the driveway.”
My mom looked at me over the top of her phone, the gray eyes I’d inherited from her shining with terrible knowledge. “People can die in the time it takes for someone to run up a driveway.” She did not say another word. She didn’t have to. I can murder football players twice my own size and laugh in the face of their threats or hunt a murderous redneck in his own woods with nothing more than a knife. But my mother still scares the hell out of me. I went upstairs and grabbed a book. I climbed into the back of the car muttering darkly, but I didn’t try again for freedom.
My parents hadn’t just left Grendel behind. They had left civilization as much as they could. The nearest superstore was almost an hour away. I tucked myself into the back seat, drowning myself in the words of my favorite novel. I didn’t mind those trips as much as I let on; I didn’t miss Grendel or superstores, but I always like car rides. And being with my parents in the car was different than being with them in the house.
We were our most normal in those moments. Mom stopped brooding and standing in windows watching for attackers. Dad would tell stupid jokes to his captive audience until we were forced to laugh. And, during that ride, I was interested in the world for the first time since Roxy, paying attention to the beauty of the land around us. I even let Dad talk me into a hot fudge sundae. I was not coming back to life, not yet. I was just sliding back into the roll I’d always had. I was not yet myself again, but I wasn’t asleep and waiting to die either.
The first rain arrived while my parents were loading the groceries. The sky had become heavy with roiling gray-black clouds. The first drops were fat, round things that hit the windshield with a satisfying smack. The smell of rain mixed with that of sun warmed asphalt. Then, with a crack like the world was splitting in half, the skies opened. I watched as an entire parking lot of people scrambled for their cars, holding coats, bags, purses over their heads, looking like ants fleeing before a flood.
One girl imediately earned my love; she grabbed her boyfriend and began dancing with him, laughing. Her hair was black and her frame slim. For just a moment, she was Roxy as she should have been, full of life, always finding a way and a reason to dance in the rain. For a moment, she brought Roxy back to me, not in the ruined, shadowy form she’d returned to me as, but the real Roxy. The one that had been more sister than friend, my mentor, my confidant, the only person in the whole world who had understood everything about me and loved me anyway.
The moment was quickly gone; the girl was not nearly as pretty as Roxy and she did not burn with that wild, inner light. But still, something in me stirred and I remembered what it meant to love, remembered what it was to have a friend. It was only a small thing, but, in hindsight, I see that it was the key to rediscovering myself.
It was the only time James could have stood out. I would not have noticed him if not for the rain. Everyone, even the dancing girl, had a reaction to the storm. Flinching from the thunder, cursing the rain, running for shelter, dancing, nobody behaved as though they didn’t know it was storming. Except James.
He stood between two other cars. He was watching us – no, staring at me. His ashy hair was plastered to his scalp. His gingery beard was scraggly, thin in places, as though he pulled at it a lot. The rain caught in it in gleaming droplets and it reminded me of an over used pad of steel wool. Rain streamed down over his high forehead and hollow cheeks. It stuck his ratty flannel to his boney shoulders and turned his baggy, stained jeans nearly black. His watery green eyes were focused on me and it could have been nothing more than a bright, pleasant day because he didn’t even reach up to wipe his face off.
“Sam.” My mom was just climbing into the car, rain drops glittering in her golden, blond hair. The warning in her voice made me look at her. Her face was white. Her lips were pressed together. The look she was giving the man was that of a mother lioness about to eat someone’s face off for threatening her cubs.
My dad followed her gaze and his face darkened. My father rarely got angry. It just wasn’t his style; he was calm, quiet, and smiled far more than he frowned. But he was angry now. I felt a chill run through me. He shook his head and started toward the man.
“Who is that?” I asked Mom.
“Just some homeless man, I wager,” Mom said flatly.
“You’re a terrible liar,” I told her.
She glanced back at me. “He’s no-one.” And her voice said drop it. I knew her too well to think arguing would do any good. I let it drop, but only because I was already plotting my attack on Dad.
I watched him speak to the man. Whoever he was. He kept his eyes on me until Dad touched his shoulder. I wished fervently that I could read lips. Dad wasn’t yelling, but even at this distance I was nervous; Mom has a temper, but Dad is the one you want to be careful of when he’s angry. I was half afraid he was going to hit the man. The man looked at my dad for a long moment. Then he sighed and it was like a balloon deflating. His shoulders sunk and hunched forward. He turned without saying a word and began trudging off across the parking lot.
Dad watched him for a long moment, as if to make sure he was really leaving, then came back and slid into the driver’s seat. I put my ear buds in, hoping my parents would talk about what had just happened. But they chattered on about my sisters and the weather, and not one word was said about the man in the parking lot. It was as though he hadn’t even existed. But I couldn’t get him out of my head; like Caroline, I had a feeling I ought to know him.
I break. Right here, right now in this parking lot full of rain reflecting the gunmetal sky. I break because this is the last bookstore standing at the end of an ill tended parking lot. I break because I came home, but it isn’t home anymore. One bookstore is a liquor store. My favorite grew up to become a Goodwill.
And now this one, fighting on, but without the invitation of long, slow days spent browsing and tasting pages in armchairs. Now it is half toy store, one quarter music store, and the books are sandwiched in between. There are no tables to write at, no lingering groups. Just people moving fast, fast, fast, barely even aware of what books they do buy.
I break for the half stocked libraries and the imaginations left untended and withering in the heartless glare of a phone screen. For the beauty of a thousand books left untested and unloved. For the people I see, gray faced, tired, unhappy, who cannot say when last they found pleasure in bending close to smell paper, ink, and binding glue.
I break because I came home. But home isn’t here.
Remember that these chapters are only rough drafts and may change drastically before publication.
All material contained within this post is copyrighted and may not be reproduced in any way without written permission from the author.
“There was no-one there.”
I shake my head. “Not even a sheet.”
“So it wasn’t some stupid prank?”
And, after that, the nightmares got worse?”
“Is it a nightmare if you aren’t asleep?” I ask.
“You didn’t know who she was. So that must have been frustrating.” His sympathy is edged with almost laughter. He doesn’t believe me. That I didn’t know her, that I saw her when I was wide awake, I don’t know which. Or maybe it’s both.
“Not then. It didn’t take long to find out, though.” I wonder if I care if he believes me. Once, I would have cared a lot. Now, though… what others think of me has become trivial. “There were more visions. More of everything. She was there when I was sleeping, a nightmare like you said. But she was also there when I was awake. She was familiar, but not, and it drove me mad, not knowing who she was or where that lake might be.”
“You found her in the end, though,” He’s watching me with careful eyes.
I shrug. “You could say that. But it would be closer to the truth to say she put a chain around my neck and led me straight to her.” I ignore the sting in my eyes. “But first, James found me.”
“Right. He left you Caroline’s picture.”
“That was his first gift,” I say. Then I pause, listening. I thought I heard something deeper in the building. A shuffling or footsteps, maybe. But all is silent. All is still. “I started to see him around, just this face in a crowd, someone that was always there, but never seen. At least, most people wouldn’t have seen him.”
“But you did.” I can tell he’s interested; he looks more attentive, now, more curious, as if this is the thing he’s been waiting to hear.
“My parents did,” I say, frowning. I’m still a little angry at them. Not for trying to protect me. That is their job. But for taking it so far. “They saw him in the parking lot when they took me grocery shopping.” I smile at his raised eyebrow. “I was not left alone. Not ever. Not if they could help it.” I am not angry. But I am still annoyed; they behaved as though I was made of glass. And, considering that they didn’t know what I was capable of or what I’d done, that was understandable. But their over-protective behavior was only bearable when nothing mattered. After I came back to myself, it grew old very quickly; almost the moment I came back from that first, desperate night run, in fact.
“My parents love me,” I whisper to the trees outside. He makes no comment. He doesn’t need to. If they’d loved me a little less, I wouldn’t be here.
Everyone with over-protective parents has a moment. Maybe it’s while they’re still young, maybe when they are older. But it is a moment that must be had if the person wants to live any kind of life. It is the moment of reckoning, of not just saying ‘I am not a child’, but proving it by turning around and walking away from the chains of restriction.
That moment is not to be mistaken for disrespect; it is simply an act of demanding that respect is given. And mine did not happen after the first run. Or the second. Or even the third. Oh, I wanted to yell at them, but I was caught, see? I was like a fly in a web, stuck between child and adult, unsure I was ready to move forward, but certain that I no longer needed coddling. I didn’t know how to respond; screaming was childish and left a person powerless while tears were equally demeaning. For my mother, I was still to be guarded like a new puppy that didn’t have the sense to stay out of the street. Yet I was no innocent. Not anymore.
It wasn’t until I found the picture that things began to crack open. But it took time. It took James to shake me loose of those last vestiges of childish reticence to disappoint my parents.
I knew the word cadaverous and had believed I knew what it meant. But James made me understand it. He wasn’t just thin or pale. There was something about him that made me think of corpses. It could have been his scraggly beard or the way his bones stuck out from his skin like sharp, awkward objects thrown into a bag without care for order. But, really, it was his eyes, sunken and glittering within the depths of his skull. It was the sort of gaze that gave you the shivers; it was a look that spoke of ghostly things, of death and mental scars so deep they cut the bone. It is the look of someone with terminal cancer two days before they die, the eyes of someone who had a gun pressed to the underside of their chin. Only someone standing with Death’s skeletal hand on their shoulder has that aura. It is the look of someone who is already dead.
“Did you find the picture first? Or James?”
I shiver. “The picture. But James left it for me. He knew where I was. He’d known for a very long time.”
“So he left the photo for you. The girl on the dock.”
I look hard at him, mouth tight. “Caroline on the dock,” I say. I take a small pleasure in the way he flinches from the sound of her name. Guilt or fear, I cannot tell; her name has a way of drawing her. But she is already here. And we both know she doesn’t care if he believes in her or not.
“That’s just what he called it,” he says, leaning back, fingers tracing the lines of the gun. “The original is probably worth a fortune.”
I shrug and don’t comment; the picture left in those woods for me was not the original. Not really. Because the real art came later. After she was gone. “It’s just a picture.” But it isn’t. Not really. And it isn’t just some piece of art, either. It was the beginning of something and the girl in the picture didn’t know where it would end anymore than the boy taking it.
“You found it in the woods?” he prompts me.
I nod. “Pinned to a tree.” I can smell the rain coming over the mountain. It reminds me of that day; spring had come suddenly, as it had a tendency to do, sweeping in on a singular night, rain and wind, thunder and rage. The morning dawned with golden sun streaming, butter soft, over the trees, turning clinging raindrops to diamonds, filling the air with the rich, deep scent of earth.
Dad was waiting for me in the kitchen. There were lines around his eyes that I was certain weren’t there before Roxy and the nightmare that followed. His smile was strained and a little guilty; he knew I didn’t need watching. “Thought I’d go out with you, Ladybug.” I raised an eyebrow. Dad wasn’t unfit, not by miles. But he was not a runner and never had been. I knew instantly this was Mom’s idea. Her way of trying to keep me safe.
“In those?” I waved a hand at his sneakers; they were once white, but time had turned them dingy gray and they looked as if the fist hill might leave them in tatters.
“I know they aren’t fancy, like yours, but they’ve got a lot of miles on them and they are nice and broke in,” he said.
I snorted. “I can see that.”
He grabbed at his chest in mock pain. “Breaking my heart, kid,” he said and, just for a second, everything was okay. There was no Daniel, no Roxy, no dead boys. It was just me and Dad, making jokes and being normal. Maybe that was my chance, the universe offering me a door back to a life that was not haunted. Or maybe it was just giving me a comforting pat before the lights out punch. Maybe I could have went into the living room with the Twinkies Mom kept stashed in the cabinet above the stove, sat down with the T.V. and proceeded to slip back into the life I’d had before Roxy. But I don’t think so; she was already there. She’d found me. And she wanted Blood. Mine or theirs, I don’t think it mattered.
We went out into the forest. I was still a little out of shape, but I still had some stamina. Enough that I found myself looking back and realizing I’d left my father behind more than once. I would take those moments to walk, cool off, stretch. I made a game of it; I still had so much anger inside me. At Roxy, for leaving me behind, at myself for not trying harder to stay with her, at Daniel for not doing a better job of killing me. I could see how easy it would be to let that spill out and drown my family. I didn’t want that. They were just trying to take care of me.
It was during one of the breaks that I saw it. A flicker of movement off in the woods. At first, I didn’t think anything of it; just a deer or a bird diving in and out of the forest. But then it happened again, a flash of blood red in the dim. My stomach tightened. I could hear my father, shuffling feet scattering stones, heaving for breath as he struggled up the hill. I suddenly realized how far we’d come. How far we were from help. A nasty little titter came from my left. I swung, but there was nothing there. “Want to play a game?” The voice was light. Childish. But not a child. More like an adult woman mimicking a child. Something hot and painful flashed through me, but ti twas gone before I could understand it. Anger? Shame? I still don’t know.
“Who’s there?” I hissed. I didn’t expect an answer. The forest had gone silent and still. I saw another flash of red. A cruel laugh was punctuated by a flash of red, closer this time. Someone in a sheet darting from tree to tree? I could hear Dad and I knew he couldn’t be here. I might want to believe spirits had not real power, that it was all my imagination but I remembered to well the mug of hot coffee, broken pottery, blood. I saw another flash of red and I swallowed hard.
“Tag, you’re it,” I managed to say. And I started to run.
This was not gentle stride. It was a sprint. I knew I couldn’t keep it up for long, but I needed to get this thing, whatever it might be, away from my dad where it couldn’t use him as part of the game.
I fled down confused, twisting paths, turning away from movement in the woods, from sharp, mean giggles, and breaths of cold air that felt like the sweep of reaching hands just missing me. Every time I tried to pause and catch my breath, something would begin brushing up against my hair and face, something cold, wet, and horribly soft, like fingers too long in the water.
At a crossroads, I was driven one way by a flash of something running down the path, toward me and, at another, driven again by sharp, unkind laughter. I ran until I was gasping, until it felt as thought my heart would burst, until, at last, I fell to my knees, oblivious to the gravel digging into my hands and knees. My phone began to ring, but before I could answer, Dad’s caller ID vanished from the screen and my music app popped up. Sweet Caroline, a song I knew I did not have, began to play. But the words kept fading in and out, running together in an eerie hell version of the song.
“Eva,” the pained, whispered gasp of my name, the sort of thing I’d always imagined coming from Roxy in her last seconds, echoed out of the air. A plea. A warning. Damnation. Then a giggle. I jerked away, clawing up the trunk of the nearest tree; I’d discovered not just a need to live, but fear of this unknown thing hunting me. Roxy had been mad, but she had still loved me in a way. This felt like pure hatred.
A soft, wet whisper in my ear. “Olly, Olly Oxen free.” I spun to face hands that caressed my hair and found myself looking at a picture. The picture. It had been pinned into a bit of sun which fell perfectly upon it, a beam that would not have been there ten minutes before or ten minutes after. Even then, he could not deny the artist within him.
With trembling fingers, I reached out and touched the smooth face of the photo. “Hello?” I called. I was already reaching for the small, but very sharp blade I had hidden under my running shorts, safe against my left hip despite my many frantic turns and the rough collapse in the center of the path. I heard no answer. Just the silence.
I pulled the picture to me. It was old enough to have been taken with a real camera, the girl smiling softly at whoever held it. Just as her vision, she was beautiful in her soft way and the lake behind the color of moonless midnight. I turned the picture over and saw the line written there in dark, flaking red-brown. Come play with me, Eva.” I whispered the words and, all around me, the woods were suddenly full of birdsong and light.
All material contained within this post is copyrighted and may not be reproduced in any way without written permission from the author.
“That took courage. Running out into the woods like that, at night.”
I turn to look at him. The gun gleams in the half light. “Courage has nothing to do with it,” I say. I lift myself onto the widow sill. He shifts, as if he thinks I’ll jump out of this second story window, even though I would likely break my leg on the weed choked gravel drive below. Or my neck.
We look at each other for long seconds. I can’t read his expression. Distaste? Anger? Admiration? I cannot tell and I don’t know that I care. Off along one wall, there is a low cabinet with doors and it tugs at my attention. I don’t look. I don’t have to; I know about the darkness within it. I know the secret it hides.
“Did you dream of her again?” he asks.
“It wasn’t a dream,” I say. I can feel the cold blade of my knife resting against my arm. It never warms up, no matter how long it lies against skin. Or stays buried in flesh. “But yes. I did see her again.” My fingers flex around the bone handle. I’m tired; I wasn’t sleeping well even before this all began. Now I barely sleep at all, living in a high alert state, a hunted animal with no safe den. No matter where I go. No matter what I do. She will find me. If I am to escape her, I must finish this.
Was that first vision what drew her? Or had my memories of the lake brought her? I don’t have those answers. I only know that my first sight of her was of the girl she was. After that, it was only the thing she’s become. The spirit, the legend, the ruined and violent demon that nobody tried to save.
“There was a quiet place in my life after Daniel tried to kill me. I was wandering through a wasteland, waiting for the day when I could move on. Then she came to me. With her rage and her cruelty, hungry and murderous.” I bite my lip. “And she brought James to me.”
So James came to find you?” he asks. “Do you think he came to hurt you?”
I shrug. “I don’t know. Maybe. I’ve been in his place. Maybe that’s what she wanted. Maybe not.” I don’t want to feel sorry for him, but I do anyway. “It’s funny, but I never really think about how I would look to the rest of the world if they knew Roxy drove me into killing. That I did it so we could both have peace. But, after meeting him….” I shake my head. I cannot imagine how he survived so long. Perhaps because, even in death, even in her insanity, she had a soft spot for him. If you can call haunting someone until they are a skeletal wreck of their former self a soft spot.
He looks at me. I look back. We are silent. We are perfectly matched, neither of us stronger than the other. Neither of us in any hurry to finish this. What comes to pass will pass. And I’ve no place else to be.
I cross to the cabinet and put my hands on top of it. There is just enough space inside to curl up and hide, but it is coffin tight. Just enough room for one. “What is it you think she wants, Eva? Justice? Revenge?”
I shrug. “Death.” And that is the only real answer; she is a mad thing. She doesn’t have any one target. She would drown the world, I think, if she could manage it. “She hates everyone.”
“And you think this will stop her?” He motions around. The walls run red. The gritty floor is spotted with bright, wet pools. There is something lying in the center, but it is nearly unrecognizable now.
My smile is wicked; she is not the only one with rage to burn. “What makes you think I’m doing any of this for her?” I’ve surprised him; for all that he thinks he knows about me, there is so much I’ve managed to keep tucked away, hidden from all but those I kill. And Daniel. But Daniel does not count.
“I grew up in an ordinary neighborhood,” I say. “Neat lawns, nosy neighbors, trees lined up along the street. Once, I went door to door selling pet rocks and even though nobody ever really liked my family, every single house bought at least one.” I see the confusion on his face. “I remember, you understand? I was five. Maybe six. Maybe April was there. Maybe not. But even though it’s a small memory, I have it. It makes sense. It belongs in the narrative of my life.”
I lean back against the window sill. The sky is still clear. The sun unforgiving. But something in me knows a storm is coming, that it is hidden just beyond the mountains, but moving toward us at a steady, implacable rate. “I did not remember black lakes or forbidding houses. I did not remember her. Yet there was that familiarity, as if she was an old friend. As if I ought to remember. But she didn’t belong, you see?” I move the photo to the window sill, looking down at it. The black water of the lake gleamed under a lost sun. One wall of the house – more glass than wood – reflected tree, grass, water, and girl. And she smiled at the camera as though the person holding it was the only one in the whole world. She’d been beautiful in a different way than Roxy.
Roxy was wild. Beautiful because a flame burned so hot and bright within her that none could resist her magnetism. But the girl in the picture was sweet. Her naïveté and blind trust were obvious on her face. Her expression was one of desperate pleasure. It was something I’d seen all too often on my own face before Roxy. It was an echo of how I’d felt inside when Cody was near. I knew the girl too well; I’d once been just like her.
“So what was she, then?” he asks. “Why did you remember her?”
I shake my head at him. “We aren’t there yet. No fair skipping ahead.” I smile, enjoying the frustration I see on his face; he needs to understand. It will drive him mad if he can’t find some sort of logic. But I don’t much care about the state of his mind. “What I can tell you is that, after that first time, what came to find me was no innocent girl. It was a damned spirit, looking for someone to drag to hell with it.”
“So she came to you as a… a… ghost?” He grimaces as the word passes his lips and why not? He is not a man of belief.
“A demon,” I say. “Some people will tell you that demons are fallen angels. But they don’t see the dark underside of humanity. They don’t want to see. Easier to blame some unknowable thing than accept ourselves as the villain. Easier to say it is the devil. Because, if you can believe your neighbor can become something terrible, then you also have to believe it of yourself.”
“Do you really think that?” he asks.
“I know that,” I say quietly. “I know what I am. How much worse I could be. You know, in order to truly hate something, you must know it? Well, who better to torment humanity than something that once was human?”
He shrugs. “But maybe there are no such things as demons or ghosts. Maybe this is just all in your head.”
I smile at him. “Or maybe it isn’t and that scares the hell out of you.” He shifts, uncomfortable. I’ve won this round because he knows there is more, but does not like to think about it, spends most of his time trying to deny it. I wonder if he’s afraid of being judged.
We sit in that silence for a few minutes. Victor and defeated. Then he looks hard at me. “When did you see her next?” His clinging to stubborn denial of the unseen grows boring. I tap the blade against my forearm, squeezing and relaxing my fingers, wondering that the bone handle feels as though it was made for me. “When you saw James”
“No,” I say and my irritation is clear. I close my eyes, remembering that day, remembering the perfect, blue sky and the smell of spring. “She found me in the woods.” I bite my lip. “Only, I didn’t realize it was her. Not right then.”
“Why?” His tone says he has decided to humor me. “Were you on another night run?”
“It wasn’t dark out,” I say. My stomach gives that weird twist, that sense of falling down inside. I’d thought I was used to ghosts. But they aren’t something you can get used to. They are unnatural. They are the echo of what never should have been tied up with ribbons of rage and unholy desires.
Roxy bordered on cruel, at times, scaring me often enough that I’d been half mad with her presence. But she guarded me too. She’d saved me, even gotten angry on my behalf. But Caroline Brown….
I hadn’t even known her name. I only knew that my unfamiliar memories began to haunt my dreams. I woke often and went running. But running was my addiction, so it did not take long before I was back to running just as much as I used to, day, night, it didn’t matter. I was leaping rocks, climbing the steep hills of Shawnee and descending into valleys, chasing peace and able, for those hours, to forget about Roxy’s absence and Daniel’s fingers around my throat, able to leave behind the FBI special agent that watched me with suspicious eyes and kept constant guards at the end of our driveway. Able to stop thinking about the way my parents looked at me, half frightened, half desperate to make it all okay again. In running, I was whole and at peace. And so I spent much of my time in the forest. It was there that she found me. On a bright, almost warm spring day.
There are things so stereotyped that they have passed into funny and back out, into the realm of terrifying. Like, because it was so overdone that it became ordinary and people forgot about it. So when it comes back, it is that much worse; no-one would ever use such a worn out joke. Which means it must be far worse than a prank.
Ghosts in white sheets aren’t scary anymore. We do not, as a society, see the sheets for what they once would have been. Winding shrouds for corpses. We see only the cartoon version of the halloween gag. We don’t find it terrifying because we do not make that once common connection, that whatever is under the shroud must be dead. Not just dead. But rotten.
But, that cartoon ghost stops being funny when it isn’t a cartoon anymore. To see something standing beneath a sheet, to see it and know that, whatever it hides isn’t human, that is when the gag stops being funny and starts being horrifying all over again.
It was waiting for me around a corner. Standing so still it might have been a shrouded statue. The sheet was heavy with… not water. Or, at least, not only water. It was soaked crimson, but not evenly. It was dark in some places, almost black, and pale in others, such a light pink that it was clear that, once, it had been white. It was plastered against whatever stood beneath, giving me the shape of a head, shoulders hunched just slightly forward, and what could have been the swell of breasts. But there was something… wrong. Whatever stood under the sheet was twisted somehow. Not quite the right shape. The only sound was the dripping of the soaked sheet, leaving dotted lines under the edges of it. There were no eyeholes and, somehow, that made it worse.
Most girls would have screamed or sprinted away. They would have reacted with fear. Even a man might have had a little scare and wanted to run away. But I am not like other people. I lived with Roxy’s furious shadow for months. I learned not to run from mad dogs. And something told me this one would tear me apart if I did.
I backed away, steps slow. I turned only when I was far enough away to feel as though I couldn’t be reached. The thing beneath the sheet did not move. It was so still, in fact, that I thought maybe it was a prank, a late Halloween joke that I’d happened into unexpectedly. A mannequin, maybe, set up in the middle of the path for some local kid to stumble on. Or maybe anyone would do and I was the unfortunate butt of this stupid joke.
I started back down the path, turned the corner, almost sighing with relief, certain I was right. And there it was. The shrouded figure standing as though it had been there all along. It was the same as before. But not quite. It had shifted just a little, as if caught in the process of stepping forward. “Eeeeevaaaa.” The soft, wet voice sighed all around me, rippling out of the trees, the grass, the sky.
I stepped away. It stood, as still as stone. I turned. And it was there again, just a bit closer. This time, the sheet was spread a little, as if arms were rising. And that terrible stillness held it. But it was a lie. I could feel that it was a lie. It was mocking me, waiting to pounce.
Back step, turn, and there it was, arms slightly higher, as if preparing to yell boo at me. “Fuck,” I muttered. I kept my eyes on it while backing away. Several steps, keeping my eyes locked on the sheet. It stayed still.
I took a deep breath. Spun. And there it was, nearly on top of me, arms stretched up, ready to fall down over me. And it seemed that there could be no more terrible thing in the world, that, if it touched me, something horrible would happen. I could smell it, a mix of sweet copper and murky, rotten mud, the sort you find as stagnant water begins to recede. “Eeeeevaaaaa,” the voice called my name with a gurgling giggle that made my skin crawl. “Come play with me, Eva. Come and play!” With the last word, the sheet fell down on me.
I did scream then. I flailed and kicked that the cold, soggy mess, gagging on the smell of blood and scummy, foul mud. I clawed at the sheet, but it drew tighter, closing over my face like a rubber glove, cutting off my breath. I tore at it and, for a second, I thought I wasn’t going to get free, that it was going to suffocate me. An hour before, I would have said I didn’t really care if I died. But, suddenly, I did care. I cared a lot.
I fought harder and, without warning, the sheet loosened. I yanked it away from me, threw it, rolled away along the dirty path, and scrambled to my feet, looking around wildly. There was nothing. No sheet. No figure. Just an empty path. I was utterly alone.
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I have been here before. Standing in the midst of ruin, both of my own making and that of time. There is blood on the walls and the dirty floor. It is pooled in the uneven places, mixing with the dirt, feeding the vines which have risen up through the concrete, crumbling floor and wall, cracking, breaking, reclaiming that which man thought would last forever.
I am not afraid. And I am not sorry. Just as before, it was justified. Just as before, those that I have punished bought my vengeance with their sins. Just as before, I was compelled to speak – and kill – for the dead.
If anything is different, it is simply that I have done this in an effort to save myself. Last time I did not care what happened to me; the world without Roxy was cold and dark. This time, there is another, and it is her sense of betrayal that I seek to appease.
She came to me and there was no escaping her. Her rage is overshadowed by her insanity. Her fury has become the demon that hunts me, day and night, driving me forward, looking for the sacrifice that will slake her terrible thirst. I know, even as the blood begins to cool, that I have not yet found the source of her pain. Maybe I never will.
I remember the first run after my death, flying through the woods near my parent’s new house in Southern Illinois. I was lost; Roxy was gone. Grendel was behind us and my future was a black hole of the unknown; nothing had turned out as I had planned. The feeling of not knowing – and not caring – was driving me out of my mind.
I could have outed Daniel’s lies. I could have told them, as I’d told him, and given myself to prison or a mental institution. Had I been able to speak when Edgar Dean brought me back, I would have. I was still strong with fury, still a warrior. But, as the hours ticked by, Roxy’s presence so absent, the space left behind so cold, that my fierceness faded. I sank back into myself, full of sorrow, plagued by nightmares I couldn’t remember when I woke. I fell into a quiet sort of indifference. I did not eat unless prompted, spoke in single words and only in response to direct – often repeated – questions. I spent my days sitting on the porch, staring out at the woods. I spent my nights sitting by the window in my bedroom, staring out into the darkness. Nothing mattered. I was an instrument. I had been born to avenge Roxy. And I had outlived my purpose.
The dreams often tore me from what thin, unrested sleep I managed, screaming and flailing at my bedclothes like a mad thing. My parents would run to me, faces pinched and white, their helplessness written in the lines of their faces and the unshed tears in their eyes. But none of that was what drove me into the forest that first time. It was the thing that came to me after a nightmare, one I’d managed to escape without my usual bout of screaming.
It felt like a memory, but, at the same time, it wasn’t my memory. It was unfamiliar, an alien that highjacked my mind and twisted me to its will.
I sat up, springing out of sleep as if someone had just shouted in my ear, and, for a moment, all I could see was a long, wooden dock hanging like a tongue over the glassy, black water of a lake. My stomach dropped. I was filled with the sense that I knew this place, but, at the same time, I knew I’d never been away from the flat, featureless landscape of Illinois cornfields or seen a lake in which the water was the color of midnight.
I looked up, fingers pressing against my temples, and, for a singular moment, I thought there was a girl standing there on the dock. She was pretty, in a solid sort of way. She was a girl with shape. Hips and breasts, a rounded, curving line that would never have fit on a runway, but there was a beauty to her that had nothing to do with societal expectations. She was the sort of girl to whom the phrase ‘timeless beauty’ referred because there was nothing and no one that could make her less. Her dark eyes were framed by heavy, black lashes, her black hair hung over her shoulder in a thick braid, and, like the lake, I knew her, but I did not know her at the same time.
I wasn’t afraid. I did not even believe what I was seeing was anything more than a strange hallucination. I simply could not accept these visions in the same place as my need for Roxy, grief over losing her, and the empty hole of her absence which, unpleasant though it might be, I did not want to fill. I did not decide on a course of action. I was out of bed before I could even consider what I was doing.
My room was more storage space than home. There were boxes along one wall and, with the exception of my bed, there was no sign that anyone lived there. Each box was labeled in my mother’s neat hand. I was opening the one labeled ‘running’ and pulling on sports bra, tights, and shirt before I remembered it was still dark out, but this did not make me pause. I pulled on my shoes and fled from the room, my old pain, and this new, strange development which felt as though there was some purpose behind it.
A full moon spilled silvery light over the yard and the forest beyond. It was early spring, so the trees were still bare. I paused once at the edge of the forest, not out of fear, but surprise; I’d crossed right to a trail that I must have already, on some level, known was there. Which meant that I’d been prepared for this night.
Then I was running. And it hurt like hell. My lungs burned. My legs quickly grew tired and turned to cement. I was forced to stop and walk before I was completely out of sight of my parent’s house, its white sides practically glowing in the moonlight.
I had a choice in that moment. I could turn around, go back to my room, and drown in my unhappiness – and I knew right then that I would drown in it, that choosing that path meant turning my back on life entirely. Or I could fight on, through the chilly air, through the physical discomfort, onward to something else.
I stood for a moment, aware of the soft creak of trees, aware that my tights were a little too loose – I’d lost both muscle and weight – aware of the weight of my running shoes, unfamiliar, like they were brand new again. There was a heavy sort of quiet around me, as if the world was holding its breath, waiting. And then I moved forward, deeper into the forest. Onward. And the parts of me that had been asleep for nearly nine months began to wake up. And even though I was not yet obsessed, I was thinking about the lake. I was thinking about the girl.
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