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You don't remember.
You woke up and got out of bed, even though you didn't particularly feel like getting up.
You heard someone at the door soon after, almost as if the person on the other side was somehow waiting for you to regain consciousness and pull back your blanket.
You found a package just outside the door. It was wrapped in brown paper and twine, as pristine as a prop from a movie. Your address was on the top side, but there was no return address. No postage. No postmark.
You put the package down and thought hard about it. Was it an order you forgot you made? A gift from someone you knew? Maybe it was just a shipping mistake, something meant for a neighbor... but then why would it have your name written with in unremarkable black pen?
You slid the twine away from the center of the package, tore open the paper carefully, and revealed the ornate wooden box within.
You decided someone had definitely made a mistake, but you didn't know who.
You studied the box, felt along its surface with your fingers. It was etched with intricate patterns, set with dark jewels that you were sure had to be fake. The whole thing looked too expensive, too authentic... too important to be in your hands.
You lifted the lid, and for a moment it seemed as if the box inhaled the air around you. Surely, just a trick of your imagination. You assumed you shouldn't be opening such an old and expensive thing, but the contents might solve the mystery of its existence.
You found a mask and some cloth. Drawing both out of the box with trembling hands, you were unable to stop yourself. With the cloth - a red and black robe - draped over your body, you placed the wicked, grimacing gold-leaf mask over your face.
You became you.
You, the real you.
You heard the voices call to you from beyond a hazy veil of self-control and social restraint. Each voice was yours. They whispered lurid things, yelled demands, and coaxed you to commit atrocities.
You wanted to do what the voices asked. You always did.
You took what you needed. You hurt everyone who had hurt you. You hurt others that you simply wanted to see in pain for no solid reason. You cut, stabbed, strangled, and bludgeoned through an imaginary to-do list of blood-stained depravity. You ate forbidden flesh. You sucked in dying breath. You fractured minds, blackened hearts, and then provided eternal release only when it was begged for.
You reached week's end, and repackaged the contents of the box. You filled out a name you didn't know, and address you'd never heard of, and you placed the shipment outside your door. There, it disappeared from your life once more.
You don't remember, but...
I work the cliché nine-to-five job at an office.
You can picture my workplace before I even describe it. Stark. White. Cubicles that hold you in place like inhumane cages. Removable ceiling tiles and florescent lights that feel like a cruel mockery of open sky.
My boss is an idiot. His father held the position before him, and when the old man retired, the moron he sired took over... despite having little to no business skill whatsoever.
Every day, like clockwork, the same doughy coworker stops by my cubicle and asks the same inane questions he's bothered me with a thousand times. I always offer to write the answers down, but he just says he'd lose them. When he leaves, the smell of his sweaty armpits hangs in the air like bad gas.
The messy-haired guy from the IT department stands in the same spot every morning. It's right between the entrance and our work space. There, he annoys every single passerby with diatribes about how overworked and underpaid he is. We all call him "Panic" behind his back, due to his constantly frazzled demeanor.
Big deal. We all are.
When I get home after a long day of staring at a computer screen and keying in data, you might assume I like to lay back and relax. Pop open a beer, or pour of glass of wine. On the contrary, I just sit down and a different keyboard and get right back online.
Somewhere along the line, I guess I forgot all the skills necessary to detach myself from virtual life. Maybe it was trained out of me by an employer that was so soulless, it needed to steal mine.
I spent most nights playing games, staying up late and sabotaging my work ethic the following morning. Being half-asleep almost made the office more tolerable.
When my friend group got into playing Among Us, I wasn't a fan of it. It was way after the original hype of the game died down, and everyone sort of treated it as the default game for people to play together.
I didn't like the tasks. It felt like work. Running here and there, doing meaningless busywork that did nothing but slow the inevitable, oncoming threat of death... I guess it just felt a little too real. Too close to how my life was actually being spent away.
Still, I gave it a fair shot. The fact that everyone I knew insisted on playing the game made it hard to refuse, after all.
I became adept at avoiding others. I trusted no one. I kept my eyes open for odd behavior, and I was the first to call out anyone acting suspicious. After a while, I actually became good at it. I could usually tell who was playing an impostor within the first few minutes, just based on how the players moved.
I also learned that no one likes a know-it-all, so I had to find clever ways to catch impostors in the act of killing another player, or hopping into a vent to fast travel. Just saying what I knew right away seemed to ruin the fun for others.
I must've been twenty hours into the game, spread across a few weeks, when something unexpected happened.
The most surprising thing at that point was just being surprised at all. Everything in the game had become routine, and I was mostly on autopilot. It was my natural state, really.
A random player entered the round, joining myself and the few friends who were still hanging around by that time of night.
His name was a series of three question marks.
Hey, that happens sometimes. Among Us is a glitchy game, and there are plenty of kids who run hacks with various strange effects.
What was unexplained, however, was the player's color.
Not brown, not white, but semi-beige middle ground between the two. I'd only ever seen players glitch into one color that wasn't normally available, and it was always "forest green", a placeholder the devs used for the split second between joining a round and being assigned a real color.
Naturally, the chat lit up with questions and comments.
How did he get that color?
Was he hacking?
Where was his name?
Why wasn't he answering?
Should the host start the round or ban him?
The timer counted down as the round started. You'd be hard pressed to find Among Us rounds where the host actually cares about much more than playing as soon as possible.
The map was Mira HQ. For the three forest-dwelling tribesmen out there who haven't been flooded with Among Us information by now, it's a sky base with relatively few ways for crew mates to avoid impostors.
My favorite tactic for that map, when I was on the good team, would be to immediately run and hide behind the reactor. There, I would wait until I caught an impostor killing, venting, or doing something suspicious.
However, in that round, I was randomly chosen to be one of two impostors.
It's simple enough at that point. Get people alone. Take them out. Don't get caught. Most random Among Us players are little kids on smart phones, so you don't really need to be too careful beyond that most of the time. My few remaining friends that night would be the only ones to worry about.
The kill timer hadn't even counted down when I saw the first body.
There were two reasons I found that confusing. First, if my cooldown wasn't over yet - how did the other impostor kill? Second... the victim WAS the other impostor.
Again, if you've never played the game, let me clear this up for you.
You cannot kill impostors. Not like that. Ever.
Even if it were possible, who would have done it? I was the only other one capable of the act.
I reported the body, calling an immediate meeting ingame.
"Okay," I typed, "I know I shouldn't reveal I'm the Impostor, but something is broken and we should start a new round."
I was insulted and jeered, of course. Admitting I was the bad guy would seem to be a troll tactic to ruin the game for everyone.
Before I could fully explain that the other impostor had been killed - the only person dead so far - I was voted off by the rest of the players.
Everyone voted me out, except for Tan... who didn't vote at all. He never even spoke throughout the process.
Since both impostors were dead, that should have resulted in a crew mate victory. Game over. Everyone's happy, good guys win.
That didn't happen.
The game continued, and for all anyone knew there was still an impostor left to find. Everyone ran off to do their tasks and have fun as if everything was completely normal.
In the ghost chat, invisible to living players, I asked the other impostor how he died.
That was the answer, after which the other impostor rage quit the game.
It made sense right away. I felt stupid for not realizing something so obvious immediately - of course the impossible kill was carried out by the hacker with the impossible color.
As an unseen ghost, I followed Tan around the map as he followed the other players, pretended to do tasks, and waited for his time to strike.
Snap. He killed Purple in the office.
Snap. Green died trying to shoot asteroids.
Snap. Pink never made it through the hallway to medbay.
With each reported body, more and more accusations flew. People were accused, and votes were held, but no consensus could be reached. Every vote was skipped, and one by one they died to an oxymoron - a fake impostor.
You might be expecting some sort of unnatural, demonic twist at this point. My PC exploding in a ball of fire, or the stumpy little tan crew mate climbing out of my screen or whatever.
I don't blame you for thinking that's what I'm going for, but this isn't one of those posts. No, the round simply ended once enough players had been killed, and we were treated to a "DEFEAT" screen with Tan standing alone on a black backdrop.
Even I saw the losing game-over screen, and I was supposed to be on his side.
Tan was gone once everyone rejoined the lobby, and nothing unexpected happened for the remainder of the night. If he hadn't left, he would've been banned anyway.
My friends and I discussed the odd event for a short period of time, but left it at that. Mostly, we shared a mutual frustration over the fact you can't report anyone in-game.
I had completely forgotten about the incident by the time I arrived at work the next day. I was just as tired as always, and planned to catching some sleep during the quiet moments of the day, as per usual.
I entered the office, walked straight to my desk, and plopped down and listened to the boss drone on and on about the Mandalorian in the distances. The dunce actually thought he had discovered some kind of hidden gem and was describing it to everyone who was too afraid to correct him.
The big, sweaty guy stopped by to ask where printer cartridges were kept for the hundredth time, and I put my shirt over my nose and mouth to cover the stench as soon as he lumbered away.
I'm usually so good at spotting the suspicious behavior... but not that day.
"Panic". The messy-haired bundle of nerves that liked to complain to anyone who would listen each morning. He had been absent, and I walked past his usual spot without so much as a thought about him.
The scream woke me from my workday haze. It was one of the girls from human resources.
I poked my head up above the cubicle walls just enough to see the front door closing behind Panic. He had a duffle bag slung from his shoulder, and a pump-action shotgun in his hands.
As he opened fire on the shrieking, scrambling crowd of employees, a spray of blood spattered across his tan suit.
In any city, in any state, in any country, anywhere in the world, walk into any abandoned Blockbuster Video or Toys 'R Us store. Once inside, look for a homeless drifter who appears to have taken residence in the dilapidated building. You may have to search behind empty shelves, or even in the break room.
Approach the drifter and, in a shrill, nasally scream, ask, "WHERE'S THE BEEF?!"
The drifter's eyes will widen, his lips will smack, and his nostrils will dilate. If you have come at the correct point in time, a small insect will drop from his facial hair. The facial hair can be a full beard, a mustache, a goatee, or even muttonchops.
The drifter will lead you to the stock room, and he will unlock the doors by humming the Punky Brewster theme music.
Once you are beyond the stock room doors, run full-tilt, as fast as you can, and do not look back. This room does not expand into a long hallway or anything like that, so you will run straight into a cement wall rather quickly. Don't rub your head and don't exclaim "Ouchie-ma-ma!" no matter how much you may need to. Stay completely silent until you hear the sound of synth music gradually rising around you.
Open your eyes (fuck I should've told you to close your eyes earlier) and you will see the Haver of 1980s Aesthetics standing before you. He will be wearing a Members Only jacket, stone washed blue jeans, and a pair of Air Jordans. His t-shirt will bear the phrase "FRANKIE SAY RELAX", but you must not read it or dire consequences will befall you at some point in your future.
You must now offer him a can of Tab and say "Raphiel is cool, but rude." Upon hearing this phrase, the Haver of 1980s Aesthetics will remove his Aviator sunglasses, pull aside the headphones of his walkman, and look directly into your idiot face.
If he says "Bogus", you must immediately turn and run out of the room without ever looking over your shoulder again for the rest of your days. If you ever, at any point, accidentally look over your shoulder, you will instantly shit your pants and Stacy will point and laugh at you.
If he says "Radical" and plays a tasty riff on a sick keytar, you will have succeeded in your quest. Everything around you will turn to static, with the vertical hold waaayyy out of whack. You will blink twice, then find yourself in an open neon green field. The sky will be purple, and the sun will have horizontal lines through it.
At your feet, you will find a Rubik's Cube that cannot be solved. Don't even try. I'm not saying that because something bad will happen if you try, I'm just trying to save you the time.
This Rubik's Cube is item 1980 of 8000.
Small town life was never bad to me.
A lot of people will complain about living in a closed-off, kind of backward little town. For me, personally speaking, it was never really an issue. I didn't yearn to go out into the world and find adventure, and I wasn't going stir-crazy by seeing the same familiar faces again and again at school, stores, and on the streets.
If anything, I found it comforting as a young man. Disagreements rarely ended in fights, because otherwise every meddling elder in town would force you to talk it out anyway. Break-ups had to be painless, because you'd see your ex for years afterward and no one wanted the drama. The crime rate was almost zero. You could easily identify a thief when you caught them with property no one saw them buy.
So, naturally, the real characters stuck out like sore thumbs. For example, everyone knew not to leave their kids alone with Mr. Clariet, even though he'd never gotten the chance to do anything wrong, yet. Alternately, guys my age knew they could always rely on Dianne, the check-out girl down at the supermarket, if they were feeling romantically frustrated.
Another such character was Mrs. Tracey, the 70-something lady that lived in the dead end off of Mineral Road. She was a pretty average, cliché shut-in. Her home was all but in shambles, though she always made the attempt to decorate spruce things up as much as she could. Her flowers we kept nicely, and she could often be seen hunched over the front step, beating the non-existent dirt out of a welcome mat no visitors ever stood on. Her lawn maintenance was provided by the local church, as part of their outreach to older, forgotten town residents.
A clowder of cats had taken up residency in and around the house. Mostly black or tuxedo cats, though the random tortoise shell or tabby would appear in the mix occasionally. She named each one "Sweet Pea", I guess to keep it simple.
She wasn't known for her depressing lifestyle or for being a "crazy cat lady", though.
She was known for her astounding artistic skill, expressed though the carving of ornately detailed Jack O' Lanterns.
The first time her artwork affected me, I was in 4th grade. I had a really wonderful science teacher named Mr. Burker. He was short, stocky, with thick glasses and a comb-over that told you right away he loved particles and chemical reactions.
He was always happy, always funny, and loved immature kids' jokes. He was perfect for elementary school, and he was probably the only science teacher I actually listened to, before or since.
That made it all the more disturbing when my class arrived to his room one day and found him crying. No one knew what to say or what to ask, we all just exchanged looks of cold, dreadful confusion and quietly sat at our desks.
Mr. Burker explained, tearfully, that he wouldn't be teaching us much longer. He held back sobs as he spoke, blowing his nose into a handkerchief several times throughout his halting speech.
A couple kids started to cry, as well. The kid who sat next to me didn't, though. A knowing look came over his face as I stared at him for no particular reason. He then turned to me, noticed I was watching him, and leaned in to whisper something.
"Mr. Burker got carved, I bet."
I had no idea what that meant, and I wrote it off as slang I wasn't aware of. That happened a lot, kids would pick up a term form the outside world and use it incessantly until it became common.
Weeks later, Mr. Burker died from undiagnosed stomach cancer.
Amid everyone's concern over Mr. Burker, I heard the term used to describe a few more citizens over the school year. Eugene Wallace, the bait shop owner, was "carved". He left immediately town in the middle of the night, and was run off the road by a drowsy truck driver. Pastor Green was "carved" as well, and had a heart attack in bed with one of his parishioners. The youngest I heard of was a toddler who choked after being "carved", after which her parents moved two towns over.
I heard the stories in passing, and with each tale I grew more and more afraid of asking people what it meant. It wasn't until a couple grades later that curiosity won out over fear, and I started asking around.
If you ever want all the details about small-town secrets, don't ask the oldest residents, or the authorities, or your parents.
Ask teenagers. They love that stuff, and they don't hold back any punches. Random teens had told me more information on puberty than my parents, and certainly more than any health class. I figured they had pretty much all the answers in life, and would tell you bluntly.
I was about 12 years old, and though I didn't necessarily have any older friends, I knew where to look. Everyone did. "Exhibit Discs & Tapes", the music store in a dying strip mall by the highway. The unassuming, bland beige storefront bearing a paradoxically edgy sign, complete with a giant graffiti-style "X" in "Exhibit".
I wandered into the shop cautiously. Mostly because I knew I didn't belong anywhere "cool", but also because it was owned and operated by the aforementioned Mr. Claret. I was probably old enough to watch out for myself at that point. Probably.
I approached a group of somewhat-kind-of-goth teens at the back of the smokey, odd-smelling building and pretended to sort through a box of vinyl records as if I had a single clue what they were.
The group were discussing a band called "Victor Victorious" and whether or not the musical group "ate shit out of an ass". By eavesdropping, I worked out that this was a turn of phrase, and not literal. The conclusion seemed to be a four to one decision that they did indeed eat it, with the dissenting opinion of "fuck you poseurs".
Seeing the majority's opinion, I broke into the conversation effortlessly by lying about having heard the band and enjoying their music, as well. The group laughed, except for the dissenter, and I was welcomed into the conversation. Not so much as a peer, but more as an amusing little mascot. Looking back now, I think they must've assumed I was desperately trying to make friends with them.
Just as awkwardly as I had injected myself into the conversation, I quickly turned the topic to "carving". Basically, I straight-up asked "So... What's up with that carving thing, am I right?" in a manner of speaking.
That topic got them excited. A lot of "Aww, dude"s and "Like, wow"s went back and forth as they went through every bit of knowledge they had on the subject in rapid-fire succession. I soaked up every drop of it.
The only interruption came when Mr. Claret passed by, asking if we were having a good time, and reminding us that there was a couch in the office if we were tired of standing.
By the end of the conversation, of which I was merely a spectator, I had everything I needed to know.
Mrs. Tracey was the carver. Every year, in or around October, she would carve a single pumpkin to decorate her front step. The Jack O' Lantern would depict someone from the town, and within no less than six months, the subject would be dead.
It was that simple. That direct.
End of story.
I stupidly asked for phone numbers so I could talk to the teenagers again some time, as if we were scheduling a play date. One of the girls snickered excessively as she gave me hers. I never got up the nerve to call, but I assume it was a fake, anyway. Probably "867-5307" or something similar.
That was pretty much all I needed to know, and whether it comes as a shock to you or not, I was more than willing to accept the idea that a crazy old woman was killing with magical pumpkins.
Small-town, life, I guess. I heard more fantastical stories in church, and everyone told me they were 100% factual. I had no internet, no smart phone, so who was going to tell me "the carving" was an unbelievable concept? Certainly not the parents who never technically got around to telling me the truth about Santa.
Fast forward several years once again. I was a freshman in high school, struggling to get through each day due to some radical changes in my home life. My mother fell ill and spent three weeks in the hospital before coming home for bed rest, and my dad was working overtime to barely cover bills. Most of the housework, including dinner, became my job. I hated it, but I never let it show out of respect for my parents and especially because my mom was sick and needed to stay positive if possible.
All of this lead to lots of sleeping in class and on the bus.
Things got really bleak. Mom wasn't really ready to be home yet, but the local hospital was understaffed, outdated, and needed machines that weren't nearly a decade old. Dad didn't want her there, and was sick of yelling at the already-stressed nurses for ignoring her. Dad and I did the best we could to keep her comfortable and we prayed nightly, side-by-side at her bed, for her safe recovery.
October had come.
I spent the first nights of the month sleepless, though I was exhausted. An idea had popped into my head, and rolled around in my skull no matter how hard I tried to push it out. Obsessed and half-demented from fatigue, I borrowed the car one morning. I said I was driving up to the supermarket to get some essentials, and I eventually would do just that, but first I planned to take a detour.
As I left the house, Dad answered a phone call. I could tell from his side of the conversation that the caller wa was related to the hospital, and from the tone in his voice, I could tell it was bad news. Focusing on the task I had laid out for myself let me ignore it, I couldn't handle it at that time, anyway.
I pulled up to Mrs. Tracey's house a short time later.
Everything was just as I'd seen it in before, when my family would drive past and I'd peer at scenery through the backseat window. Similar state of disrepair, same thoughtfully placed decorations, but a different host of feline faces.
I didn't knock on the door. Instead I carefully, stealthily peered through the window next to it. Beyond the dusty, yellowed lace curtains, I could see a dark, hunched figure walking through a distant room.
Mrs. Tracey. She had on a worn nightgown, blue with white flowers. She also held a large pumpkin in her hands. I watched as best I could, angling myself over the trailing of the stairs as she shuffled slowly to a table, sat down with a look of pain, and slowly, meticulously began carving the gourd.
I gnawing sense of horror gripped me as I imagined her carving out my mother's face. The dim lighting and the angle of the table made it impossible to see what she was creating.
I didn't know what to do. Should I stop her? Should I shove the pumpkin to the floor and smash it? Maybe if I asked Mrs. Tracey nicely, she would just not carve it at all. For all I knew, though, she was some vengeful psychopath who would carve me into it, instead.
I stood there, frozen, for the duration. Cramps and muscle aches burned through my body as I hung half-over the rail, my eyes focused hard and accustomed to the darkness in the house. When Mrs. Tracey lit the candle and placed it inside the pumpkin, that brief flash of light, however small, blinded me for a moment.
I blinked a few times and let my eyes readjust, just in time to see Mrs. Tracey making a slow, yet unstoppable journey to the very front door I stood at.
Flustered, my mind still racing with dark possibilities and "what if"s, I stumbled down the steps. My feet met the grass just as the door creaked open.
Mrs. Tracey gasped in shock, as I stood with my back to her.
"Oh!" she declared, "My goodness, you gave me a start. Are you here for the church?"
I turned around slowly, fearful of not only the woman and her supernatural aura, but also just being caught snooping on someone's property.
"Uh, yeah I go to the church." I replied. It was true, after all.
She hobbled down the stairs, the Jack O' Lantern lit, but its imagery turned inward, toward her.
"Well, God gave me another message." she pursed her lips as she watched her steps carefully, "Also, the hedges need trimming again when y'all can get around to it."
I took a deep breath that didn't seem to do anything to help my light-headedness.
"Who is it?" I asked, my voice audibly cracking.
"Oh, I can't rightly recall", she answered, placing the pumpkin on the steps, "Too many names, I just did the whole thing."
As she stepped away, I looked at the image on the Jack O' Lantern.
It was the hospital, glowing so brightly from within that it almost seemed to be on fire.
Playing Minecraft was a sort of calming escape, for me.
The serene, simplistic environment made my world seem a lot less complicated, even if it was for just an hour or two. The repetitive motion of mining, farming, and building allowed me to concentrate on something other than my parents arguing in the next room.
Hunting Endermen and deftly avoiding Creepers gave my younger self a sense of power and control that I lacked in the real world. It was a world where I could be sent to stay with an Aunt or Uncle at a moment's notice. A world where Dad would disappear for days at a time as Mom would slowly trade sleepless worrying for black-out drinking.
Of course, at the time I didn't realize just how important these digital vacations were to my mental well-being. I just thought I was having fun.
I played on a lot of multiplayer Minecraft servers, and I did so with absolutely no parental supervision. I don't even think they realized the games I played could include other people. Mom and Dad weren't the most tech-savvy people, and had only bought me a computer because it would help with home-schooling.
The teachers had gotten a little too nosy about my dirty clothes, tiredness, and anxiety attacks.
The "Crafter Hours" server was where I spent the most time. It didn't have the dungeons or mini-games that usually attracted young players, but I was always more interested in the survival aspect.
If you've played Minecraft, you know how the process plays out. Dirt hut, survive the first night, wood tools, stone tools, iron tools. Eventually, I had a reasonably well-designed little castle in the middle of a birch forest. This was back when your stone options were basically ugly cobble, plain-ass stone, or badass stone bricks... you can probably guess which option I used for the whole thing.
Mom was having one of her less-than-sober nights when I met "Hexagony". The edgelord name impressed me, but I had registered "SwordKid4", so my standards were low. He was another player that had built one of the aforementioned dirt huts near to my ever-expanding estate.
At first, I was annoyed to find someone was making their home so close to mine. However, the idea of bringing a helper in to my existing projects seemed enticing. I had brought diamond armor and a sword when I went to clear him out, but after we chatted for a little bit, I ended up giving him food instead.
Hexagony appeared to be using the default "Steve" skin at first. The fact that he was likely a noob was part of my decision not to cast him out of my lavish kingdom.
However, when I looked more closely, I saw that his skin was indeed edited. Each surface of his cube-shaped head displayed a face. He had apparently copied the Steve image to every side. It made it hard to tell which direction he was looking in, and to be honest it struck me as a kind of nonsensical design choice.
As time went on, I joked with him about finding a new skin, and even offered to make him one - though I wasn't exactly a child prodigy myself. Hexagony always declined, however. Sometimes politely, sometimes with a rude refusal.
That was the thing I most remember about this kid. He was unpredictable. Erratic. He raised sheep and dyed them his favorite color... then he would re-dye them his new favorite color... and eventually he'd slaughter them because he "sheep are stupid". After it was said and done, he would start over again.
There were countless things like that. He would agree to help with something, then refuse to do it, then pretend I had never asked him at all. It got annoying over time, but I wasn't exactly rich in the friend department, so I always let it slide.
The weirdest experience was when I visited his finished home. I call it finished, but it looked anything other than complete. Every room was completely random and illogical. The design changed from wall to wall. Cobble, jungle wood, sandstone, clay, the blocks didn't make sense.
Despite the unpleasant jumble, I typed positive compliments into the chat box.
Hexagony, who had by this point edited his clothes into a myriad of mismatched colors, didn't seem to realize I was giving false platitudes. He was proud of his build, and didn't seem to see anything wrong with its structure.
Then, we got to the trap door.
In the corner of one of the rooms... a kitchen, or bathroom, or both... was a single wooded door into the wool floor. It lead to a ladder that descended into darkness.
I asked Hexagony what was in the basement. He flipped open the trap door and looked downward, then to me.
It wasn't a basement, he explained - it was his bedroom.
We exchanged a few awkward and thoughtless jokes about not wanting to go into the bedroom together, but curiosity won out, and I started down the ladder. He followed closely above.
The room below-ground was dark. I mean, it was completely unlit. My settings were not optimized for that level of pitch black.
Taking the initiative myself, I slapped down a few torches. One on a wall, two on the floor. They were placed mindlessly, but then again, so was everything in Hexagony's house.
I expected to see a jumbled-up hole in the ground filled with sloppily placed beds.
Instead, my heart sank with dread when I looked at what the torches had illuminated.
Bare walls of blank stone. A featureless ceiling and floor of the same. Against one wall, a stack of six chests. On each chest, a sign with a single letter.
I specifically remember writing "Talmak?" in the chat. Hexagony shot me a look with one of his many faces and walked over to the chests. He didn't even seem to understand what I was asking.
He opened some of the chests and seemed to stare into them for a moment, then walked back to me.
I'll never forget what he said at that moment.
"Dare you to see."
I didn't look. I didn't even approach the chests. Something about the whole scenario just rubbed me in a very wrong way. From the jumbled-up kid, to the jumbled-up house, to the dark cellar... and his insistence that I "see" something I was no doubt completely unready for.
I didn't know how to get out of the situation politely, and I considered just logging off right there.
Before I could make a decision, Hexagony turned his head again, a different side and a different face peering at me.
He demanded to know how I got into his room, and started throwing a fit about how I was invading his secret space. He all but chased me out, bow in hand, as I climbed back up the ladder, sprinted to one of many doors, and retreated back to the perceived safety of my fake castle.
That was the last time I saw him on the server. I figured he had gotten mad at me, even though he was the one that invited me in. Eventually, after griefers blew up his home (and part of mine), I finally just admitted to myself that he was an imbalanced, rude friend and I was better off without him.
It wasn't until years later, when I was a teenager living full-time with an older cousin, that I thought back to my younger years on Minecraft and the weird character who had spent maybe a month or two in my life.
I had finally been taken out of my abusive home after my mother succeeded in drinking herself to death. In the ensuing investigation, my father was arrested for the domestic abuse that had gone unchecked until a death forced the authorities into action.
The police asked me a lot of questions, and I didn't understand any of them.
My cousin, though, seemed to know everything as far as I was concerned. He was in his 30s, made a modest fortune in internet development, and wasn't much for keeping old family secrets.
Apparently, I wasn't Mom and Dad's first attempt at raising a child.
All told, they had six previous children.
Thomas, Alice, Lauren, Micheal, Arthur, and Kyle.
None of them made it past the age of five.
All of them had been "sleeping" in our basement.
Ever notice something that should've been obvious from day one?
The rotten bruise on a piece of fruit you just bought. The scratch or ding on a used car that looked spotless on the lot. The immediate red flags that should've told you a relationship was bad news.
I've found that the point at which you're most contented is when you should be the most worried. Arousal deafens you. Endorphins cloud your judgement. Adrenaline gives you tunnel vision.
I grew up in the 1980s. The era of unchecked overgrowth of consumerism. Happiness was getting the latest Ninja Turtle action figure. Un-boxing a gaming console was ecstasy.
That temporary state of nirvana probably explains why nobody noticed the dog.
It was my birthday. Everyone I knew was there, and as a child that felt as if my entire world, small as it was, had stopped just to watch me blow out candles and open presents.
My parents took photos of everything. The cake, me with a slice of cake, the other kids with their slices of cake, and so on. That year, they ordered said cake in the shape of He-Man's head. I was jazzed then, but looking at the photos now, the diced up pieces of a grinning face seem unintentionally morbid.
I was looking through those pictures in the middle of last year. One of my childhood friends, P.J., had passed away. Car crash. I wanted to remind myself what he had looked like before we had randomly parted ways for no real reason. The funny thing is, I never even knew what P.J. stood for, back then. I just accepted the name immediately and never asked.
The dog looked frightened. It sat there, tail between its legs, positioned beyond the sliding glass door in the background of a group shot. The party-goers, myself included, smiled for the camera as the flash lit up the animal's eyes outside.
I could barely make out what the dog looked like, since that night had apparently been black as pitch. All I saw were the twin blueish-green lights of its eyes, a curve of its body and tail, and a snout that almost seemed to end in a dramatic frown.
The sight disturbed me at first. Some dark, random beast lurking in the periphery of an old, creased photograph. However, reason stated it was just some lone stray that responded to the sound of children laughing and playing. Hell, it could've been a neighbor's pet trying to figuring out which house it belonged in.
I felt sad by the time I put the photo back into the old shoe box it had spent decades in. We hadn't noticed the poor thing. Who knows how long it waited by that door, only to be scared off by a camera flash?
P.J.'s funeral was out-of-state, so I couldn't find time to get out there and attend. I don't think anyone would have known who I was. He and I probably wouldn't have even recognized each other if we met on the street. In fact, maybe we had. Who knows?
I found a couple more photos of interest in the box. One of P.J. and myself using Super-Soakers to pretend we were Ghostbusters, and another of a cub scout troop we had both been a part of. I set them aside as the phone rang.
No answer. I repeated the greeting two more times.
"Can't hear you. Might need to call back." I said quickly before hanging up.
In that moment between taking the phone away from my ear, and pressing the button to end the call, I heard what might have been a response.
It sounded like a high-pitched whine. Like a dog.
My mind only registered it after my thumb reflexively pressed down.
The sound put me off right away. That wasn't a coincidence I could ignore. I waited several minutes for the phone to ring again. My brain told me it was just the sound of someone's phone dying, while the deepening, cold void in my stomach tried to convince me of more irrational things.
No call. Just a broad quiet that, in and of itself, became more eerie the longer I waited.
I told Alexa to play AC/DC. The complete opposite of silence.
Going back to the nearly bare drawing table I had used to search through the photos, I let out a tense sigh and instantly felt better.
"The Ghostsoakers". That's what P.J. and I had called ourselves on that hot summer day. We ran around the yard in our bathing suits, shooting water at nothing and screaming incorrect lines from the movies. My mom had to stop herself from giggling in order to snap the image. I don't know if she was laughing with us or at us.
It took a short time to notice the dog.
Cowering behind a tree, almost completely cut off on the left side of the image, it sat looking toward the camera once again. This time, the pronounced frown was gone -- replaced with what I can only describe as a flat expression.
I gasped. I had never gasped before, at least not to my recollection, and I'd only ever seen people gasp in comics and cartoons. I dropped the picture back down onto the table and physically pulled back from it.
Within seconds, I grabbed the second photo and began frantically studying it. There was my cub scout group, mostly kids I never actually knew, seated together at a wooden picnic table. The picture was taken by our den mother while we visited White Leaf park to earn our "insect study" badges. I don't even remember which child was hers.
I let myself relax again as my eyes swept across the scene and I found nothing out of place. Just smiling faces, spotless uniforms, and half-eaten snacks scattered all over the table.
I was playing a real-life hidden object game, and I was happy to lose.
Then, I realized I shouldn't be looking for a dog. I should be looking for those blue-green dots. The eyes reflecting the camera light.
Between a criss-cross web of legs and walking sticks, in the dark shadow beneath us, I found the lights. I couldn't see the dog itself, just those eyes and the pearly white gleam of a slight grin.
Before I thought about the absurdity of what I was about to do, I was dumping the entire shoe box out onto my bed. I spread all of the photos out and flipped each one face-up. Holding the lamp from my night stand in one hand, I peered into each image and frantically searched the dog.
Eventually, I sorted them into groups. Photos that included me, photos that only included other kids, photos of adults, and photos of landscapes or objects that had no people visible at all.
Landscapes and objects were ruled out quickly. They had very few spots for anything to hide, as most depicted open areas or displayed vehicles.
It wasn't until I eliminated the pictures of the adults that I realized what I had been doing. Saving the most likely candidates for last. I had planned to look at the other kids next, then finally myself.
I knew, somewhere deep inside, that I'd only find the dog in that last group.
Sure enough, when night came and I was still sorting through it all, I discovered that I was right.
I held the lamp close to a photo of a school Christmas play. I stood on the stage, dressed in winter clothes and singing (badly) while someone in an awkward Christmas tree costume danced around me.
The dog peered menacingly around the bunched up stage curtain. Beneath the nearly white, glowing eyes, what had previously been a grin was now an over-sized, impossible smile full of nothing but canine teeth.
The dog's fur was black. Featureless. Seeing it on a lit stage instead of hunched in darkness was somehow more disquieting. It didn't even appear to have individual strands of fur. Its dark body was simply the smooth, fabricated shape of a normal dog.
The phone rang again.
Maybe it had been ringing the entire time. Between the music and my hyper-focus, I couldn't tell you which was the case.
I grabbed my phone and, without answering, checked the caller.
Paul Jerome Thomas. It was P.J.
Beyond all the other obvious reasons that didn't make sense -- he never even had that number. Looking back to the previous call, the whine, I found it had supposedly come from the same person.
Perhaps needless to say, I didn't answer. I turned the ring off and slammed the phone into a drawer for good measure.
In stark contrast to my previous reaction, I didn't throw the picture down or recoil from it. For whatever mindless reason, I clung to it, held it close to my chest, as I moved through the house. I closed blinds, checked locks, and searched closets. There was no reason to think I wasn't alone, but it seemed like a good idea nonetheless.
I sat up all night, sleepless, staring at the Christmas photo and wondering why the dog was tormenting me. I questioned whether it had actually been there that day, or if it was simply appearing to me now. I watched for it to move, but thankfully it never did. Thus, I convinced myself that it would indeed move if I stopped watching.
I woke up around noon, having no recollection of falling asleep or even feeling drowsy. I guess I should have made coffee or pounded some energy drinks.
Realizing I had looked away from the photo, I checked it again. The dog was still there. So much for my paranoid theory.
With a fresh mind and calmed nerves, I was able to make some sense of that photograph. Just a little, mind you.
The "Christmas tree" that was dancing around me during that musical.
That was P.J.
The memory made something fall into place, and that would have to be enough, I suppose. It was never about me. It was about him. The dog appeared in every photo I had of P.J. and, unless I had missed something, never appeared in the others.
I thought about how he died. A car accident. I would bet anything that he swerved off the road to avoid hitting a dog.
A dog with eyes lit by high-beams... and maybe even an unrealistic grin.
I took the pictures to P.J.'s grave. I didn't know what else to do with them. I considered making copies, or even taking photos OF the photos, but all that would do is create more copies of the dog.
When I arrived at the cemetery, I wasn't sure how long it would take me to find the right plot. I didn't tell anyone I was visiting, and I wasn't even sure I'd make it all the way before turning back out of dread.
That worry was forgotten when I saw a small, dark form in the distance, sitting beneath a specific headstone. It loped away and into the tree line before I could get close enough to actually fully see it.
When I arrived at the spot, I found it had dug a hole.
A hole just deep enough to bury a few photos.
Well. You're still here after all that, huh?
I guess you've read my account of what it's like, being a deadbagger. It seems like it's been forever since I sat down and wrote about my first job with Final Returns. Thank you for taking an interest in me, even though I'm just one zombie hunter, and we all probably have similar or identical stories to tell.
Thanks for your condolences about Pike. I forwarded them to the guy who runs the Final Returns newsletter. He's working on something for a memorial, since we're coming up on the anniversary of his death. I think it'd be nice to show how many people have heard about him by now.
Putting that aside for now, I wanted to talk about something that keeps coming up. I know a lot of you have a variety of questions. What is rot nose? What happens when you have to remove a zombie from a crime scene? I'll get to all of these questions eventually, but for now I'm just going to go with the biggest one.
"You killed Bigfoot?!"
Again, it wasn't an actual Sasquatch. They don't exist. I don't know how much I can stress this, but... it's always a zombie.
I thought I made that pretty clear, but I'm not exactly the best at this stuff.
I knew something was up when the other guys at Final Returns were snickering behind my back. A call had just come in, and when it's a weird one, they usually try to stick me with it. I guess I have that kind of way about me. "Stick it on him, he LIKES the strange cases."
For the record, I don't really mind them either way. I guess that lack of annoyance gets mistaken for interest.
"Alien?" I asked, knowing full well what was going on.
Trying to guess probably didn't help with the misconception that I was enjoying the routine.
"Try again, Van Helsing." came the typical reply.
Thinking for a moment, I considered the fact St. Patrick's Day had just passed. Maybe someone got dressed up for a parade, drank way too heavily, and smashed their head on the dumpster in an forgotten alleyway.
"Tell me it's not supposed to be a leprechaun."
"Alright, just hit me with it."
Before the answer could come, Richter (one of the newer guys) came bounding into the break room like an ape, grunting and tossing papers. It left the guys in stitches, but the implication just set me on edge.
"Bigfoot." I clucked my tongue and nodded. "Let me guess - we're going hiking."
I'm not a woodsy guy. Never was. Give me four undead Jehovah's Witnesses in some guy's basement any day. It's a secure, easy-to-scope-out location. Hell, they'll probably line up on the stairs for you. If you're good enough, that's one bullet. Out in the brush, though, you could have a crawler by your ankle and never know it. Hell, you could get mauled by a mountain lion, forget the zombies.
Luckily, the new hire partnered with me at the time had been a girl scout... or a brownie... or something like that. The employee she was supposed to shadow was out of commission due to finger reattachment surgery, so she got kicked around to random mentors for a while. She was one of those rednecks that lived for the challenge of tracking footprints or pieces of torn clothing. Shit like that. Her name was Stephanie, but everyone called her "Trapper".
When I told her we were going out to White Leaf Forest, her eyes lit up like sevens on a slot machine.
"I've been there. Helen and I camped there last spring!"
"Great," I smirked, "Tell you what... you can take the lead on this one. It'll be a test to see how much you've learned so far."
If she knew I was just passing all of the bother onto her, she certainly didn't seem to care. I could almost see her reverting to a more feral state in front of my eyes. She was ready to chase down whatever crossed her path and hit it straight between the eyes with that bright yellow "safety pistol". I'd be lucky to keep up.
It was a long drive out to the boonies. The call had come in from a park ranger. The authorities had been on the scene, but the circumstances called for specialists. It's not a good idea to send K-9 units after something that's going to bite them back.
The entire ride down, Steph was all questions. I tried turning the radio on a couple times, but she turned it back down every time she thought of something new to say.
"So, we're absolutely SURE-"
"But what if-"
"It's a zombie. Trust me."
"I mean, there have always been stories of-"
The only moment of silence came when we pulled up to the park gates. The whole place had been shut down, naturally, and a group of onlookers had collected in the parking lot. At first, I figured they were just hikers, campers, and weekend BBQers whose plans had been abruptly cancelled. Then, I noticed their accessories.
Guns, all-terrain-vehicles, comically over-loaded packs...
"Oh, great." I sneered, turning to Steph and gesturing toward the crowd, "Your people."
By the time we made our way to the gates and met with a Ranger Stevens, the crowd had grown loud and obnoxious. I guess they figured we had been called in because the "sasquatch" had killed someone. Now it had a taste for human blood, they figured, which made it much more of a threat than before.
"Hey, you're gonna let a couple'a diseased deadbaggers in, but not us?" called out a stout, red-faced man with a beard that could've housed a family of wrens.
"I told you before," the Ranger called back, "There are no cryptids here."
Beard-man turned to one of his buddies and chuckled. "So that's the Government's official statement, huh?"
The crowd booed as the gates were unlocked and we slipped past.
"Thanks for coming." the ranger said, quickly leading us down the path toward a small cabin.
"I guess word got out." I replied, gesturing back toward the wannabe survivalists pressing their faces to the iron bars that separated them from a stuffed and mounted myth.
"A pair of picnickers saw something in the tree line... like a man, but covered in thick fur." The ranger paused, knowing exactly how outlandish it sounded, "It loped along, bit the head off of a squirrel or chipmunk, and disappeared back into the woods. I wouldn't have believed it, but I saw the evidence it left behind. They called the local news station before anyone else."
"Of course they did." I chuckled.
At that point, I glanced over at Steph for the briefest moment. Her grin was wide, and so were her eyes. I knew I'd be proven right in the end, but for that moment she was a genuine, authentic yeti-stalker.
"How long ago was it sighted, and how far from here was it?" she chirped.
I just hoped it was close enough to get out of the park before night fall. Just because of the mosquitoes, to be honest. Of course, I didn't get my wish and in time I could feel the blisters on my feet rising like bread dough.
Suddenly, Steph shushed us both. Until that point, the ranger and I had been discussing our shared tastes in music and whether or not Victor Victorious was going to reunite for one last tour. She stopped about three feet ahead, after leading us most of the way.
"What's up?" I asked, absently pawing my hip holster and surveying the unremarkable green landscape around me.
Steph didn't answer, instead electing to drop into a crouch-walking position, silly safety-weapon held two-handed at arm's length in front of her. We followed carefully and quietly.
"So your partner is a tracker?" the ranger asked under his breath.
"I think so." I whispered back.
It was a welcomed change from the usual kids they stuck me with. Less than half stayed on for more than two jobs, and none of them pulled their weight. Being able to actually rely on someone who did more than complain and pick their nose was a little too nice. Snapping to my senses, I realized I was the one who wasn't carrying his share this time.
"There." Steph croaked, gun pointed to a crowd of overgrown bushes full of vividly purple flowers.
"Step aside," I ordered as I cautiously moved past her. The idea of losing a mentor AND a student drove an icicle through my chest. One could be forgiven, the other was a career-ender. I guess when you deal so directly with death and danger on a daily basis, self-interest can kind of overtake everything else.
The leaves rustled, and it wasn't the wind.
"Are we shooting it or capturing it?" Steph called after me in a hushed, low voice.
My shoulders slumped and I let out a sigh as I drew my pistol.
"Shoot. We shoot zombies, Stephanie."
"Uh... right." she coughed.
My attention snapped back to the leaf cover again as the branches rustled and parted.
"We are licensed representatives of Final Returns, and we are about to open fire." I shouted, "If you are currently living, notify us now by speaking or raising your hands."
"Holy shit!" came a voice from within the plants.
I lowered my weapon and let out a string of profanities. Steph did the same, but without the colorful outburst.
A man in his 20s crawled out into the open like a snail with an over-stuffed backpack for a shell. He held a shotgun ahead of him as if he was offering it to us as tribute.
"I'm sorry!" he called, "I'm sorry! I just followed everyone else! Don't shoot!"
The ranger was on him quickly, slapping a pair of handcuffs on his wrists.
"What do you mean 'everyone else'?" The ranger demanded. "Who's here?"
The human snail did his best to roll onto his side, mud clinging to his face and 'I BELIEVE' t-shirt.
"Well... okay, don't get mad... but after you three left, some of us MIGHT have hitched a chain up to the gate. Then, someone MIGHT have used their pick-up to pull it down. Not me, though. I just followed."
The impromptu interrogation was cut shout by another call from an unseen location.
Following this, the ranger was the one spewing profanities.
"Curtis, where you at? The bigfoot getcha'?" called the disembodied voice in the distance.
Ranger Stevens made his apologies to us, hauled the young man to his feet roughly, and dragged him back down the path we had just traveled. All the while, he spoke frantically into a walkie-talkie.
"What do we do?" Stephanie asked after a dumbfounded moment.
"Hell if I know." I laughed. "We could stay on the trail, but we'll just keep running into trigger-happy yokels with more ammo than brains."
I could see the color draining out of Steph's face. She had been like a kid on Christmas morning, but now the tree had burned down and the family dog got into the presents. Really, her heart was going to be broken one way or another. After all, no matter how much you want to think otherwise, it's still a zombie.
Suddenly, the sound of shots rang out. Not just the crack of a few bullets, but a hail of gunfire befitting a small war. Shotguns, hunting rifles, semi-automatic weapons. There might've been a stick of dynamite, but my memory could be playing tricks on me at this point.
"C'mon!" Steph called out, sprinting toward the obvious danger with the drive of a linebacker going for the star quarterback who just insulted her mother.
I was right, I was lucky to keep up.
Country music filled the air, piped from the speakers of a weathered boombox. A group of about ten hillbillies had gathered in a clearing and were crowded together around something.
"Final Returns!" I called out as we approached, though I had nothing to follow that up with.
"Hey, you're too late." called a toothless, gangly albino with a coonskin cap. "Done got it already!"
The group passed around unintelligible murmurs and guffaws.
"Head shot?" I called back. Steph and I didn't slow down, guns still drawn, as we closed distance with the group.
"Whut?" the albino replied, pronouncing the 'u' very clearly.
"Did you get a head shot?!" I repeated, louder.
The stout man with the beard turned from the group and faced us as we finally arrived to the shitshow. The others followed suit, fixing their dilated pupils on us.
"Boy, you must not hunt. Y'all NEVER shoot a trophy in the head!"
A gutteral, gargling moan rose from the center of the group. For a moment, everyone was frozen, ignorant smiles still smeared across their faces. Every one of us knew what had made the noise... though we would've disagreed on what to call it.
"Damn Hell, it's still alive!"
"Well shoot it AGAIN, Bill!"
The words blended together and turned into screams.
The hunters parted quickly as one of their own fell backward, his leg clamped in the teeth of a felled, hairy beast crusted in muck and old animal blood. He shrieked in pain before spasming and passing out on the ground.
Three others pumped bullets into the creature, filling their friend with holes in the process.
"Clearance?" Steph asked, her voice uneasy and sick.
I pulled a couple guys away from the chaos, tried to level my gun, but was bumped by one of them returning to the confused storm of reflective vests and camouflage pants.
"No clearance." I replied.
The albino unloaded a shotgun into beard-man's abdomen, blowing his guts out across a nettle bush. I think he was checking to see if it was loaded. The creature climbed to its unsteady feet, pulling itself up on the albino's clothing. When it reached the top of the human ladder, it took off a large portion of his face.
"C-Clearance?" Steph asked again. She was wide-eyed again, but the grin was gone. She backed away slowly, nearly falling on her ass.
I tried to bring everything into focus.
Beard-man. No insides. Slumped over and not moving.
Immediate threat of turning. Head shot.
Albino. On the ground. Thrashing and screaming. No face.
Immediate threat of turning. Head shot.
Mustachioed flannel-clad guy in glasses. Jaw taken out by a stray bullet. Standing in shock, watching the carnage. Doesn't even know he's bleeding out. Won't make it back to civilization.
Immediate threat of turning. Head shot.
Morbidly obese man in cargo pants and undershirt. Probably dead in a couple years on weight alone. As it stands, covered in zombie bites and various other injuries. Without speedy amputation, will die from infection.
Immediate threat of turning. Head shot.
"We have clearance."
The "sasquatch" hunched itself over the scattered human debris, eating noisily.
Steph didn't say a word.
"What do you see?"
"Steph, what do you see?"
She shook her head and blinked a few times. Something I'd only ever seen cartoon characters do.
"A gillie suit."
She was right. I motioned for her to holster her weapon and stood over the supposed bigfoot. It was dressed in an outfit of synthetic leaves and vines that would help him blend in with the environment. Now, covered in dirt and black blood, it took on the brown, heavy appearance of fur.
"And the face?"
Steph crouched down again, staring at the thing's decaying, sunken flesh.
"Camo-painted. He was a survivalist. Maybe... ex-military? Or just a hobbyist?"
Without another word, I fired into its forehead. I don't know if Steph flinched, but I would've.
"What was it?" I watched the body crumple.
Steph was quiet for a moment.
That brings me to another question people ask a lot. How can you tell when it happens? How do you know the exact moment someone goes from dying... to undead?
I guess the easy answer is that you can't. Not with complete accuracy, that is. If someone's non-verbal, if they don't respond to attempts at reason, and if they appear to be fatally injured... who's to say if they're a zombie or not?
If I had a daughter... or any kid for that matter, I don't think I would want them in this line of work. I think Steph is cut out for it, though. She didn't leave after two jobs, she doesn't complain, and I've never caught her picking her nose.
Being a deadbagger is dirty, unpleasant work, and not just in the physical sense.
It can be hard to know exactly when something is dead. Especially when it's a part of yourself.
Riffs inspired by popular stories:
It's been nearly a year since I first set my eyes on the Halloween mask.
It was a pumpkin. A white one. I had never personally seen them in any color other than orange before that very moment. Something about the pallid, drooping latex made it seem cold and bloodless.
I had grown about a decade too old to go out Trick 'r Treating, so instead I took my place at the front door of the house. The job of handing sweets out to each new crop of tiny ghouls had been handed down to me. Thankfully, I had my iDevice on hand and the music pumping through my earbuds kept me from getting grumpy due to boredom.
The house was nothing remarkable, but it was nice enough. Just another suburban foreclosure taken by the bank when the previous “Hanes family” didn't make their payments. My parents snapped it up almost exclusively for the extra bathroom. I guess that living in close quarters with their “adult child”, if you'll forgive the oxymoron, had worn pretty thin for them.
That's what I've been reduced to; an oxymoron. It wasn't supposed to turn out that way, but attending college did very little for my employment opportunities. I barely learned anything, as a matter of fact, due to equal parts partying and absent professors who couldn't care less.
“Who are you supposed to be?” I asked a kid in an obvious Dracula costume.
“I'm a blood guy!!” was his disappointing response.
“Welp, here ya go.” I tossed a ridiculously undersized candy bar into his bag. “Don't bite any strange necks – you don't know where they've been.”
I got back a face-palm. From a child.
The old cliché held true that night. Halloween had indeed become generic and over-commercialized, something that would've horrified my younger self. I saw five more discount Draculas, an entire coven of weak Witches, and more licensed cartoon characters than even I could name.
Worse yet were the kids – even teenagers – who threw on whatever they had lying around. Putting on your fancy church clothes does not make you a “CEO', or “The President”. It just makes you a lazy-ass. Two tween girls showed up in beauty masks and towels, which was several levels of wrong.
It was around eleven o'clock when the stream of nougat-faced beggars finally began to taper off. The candy was almost gone as well, proving my parents were great at planning just about everything in my life. They must have factored in the ten pieces I would invariably steal over the course of the evening.
I thought the job was done. I put away the media player. Then, when my hand reached to flick the switch and turn off the porch light, a sharp, sudden knock jarred me out of my walking sugar coma.
Actually, I was more of a solid palm-strike than a knock. The frosted glass panes of the door rattled.
“Shit!!” I shouted, startled. It took a moment to compose myself. “I mean... SIT... tight. Sit tight, kids! You didn't hear what you think you heard.”
Whew. Quick thinking saved the day.
I grabbed the barren bowl of candy and awkwardly thrust the door open.
“Okay! Who do we have-”
There was no one. Not only were there no children waiting at my door, but I couldn't see a family traveling anywhere in the neighborhood. Only the dim lights in the widows of my neighbors confirmed that there were indeed other human beings somewhere else on Earth.
“If you want to play ding-dong-ditch, you have to ring the doorbell!” I called out, careful to keep from bothering others in their quiet homes. “It's the whole 'ding-dong' part...” I added under my breath.
I shook my head with a smirk, remembering how Halloween used to be the one night I'd get into any and all trouble I could find. Anonymously sass-talking adults, shoving past other kids, taking any unattended candy I found. I was a complete asshole.
As I was about to close the door, I finally noticed the very out-of-place gift that had been left on the doorstep. It was the mask.
The white pumpkin was created to look as if its facial features had rotted out as opposed to being carved like a normal jack 'o lantern. Something about this odd choice in design caused me a moment's pause. My brain took a jarring, stuttering half-step before it made the progression from “disembodied face on the floor” to “harmless costume accessory”.
“It's mine, now!” I called out again, looking toward the bushes. I scooped the jiggling empty head off of the stone step and closed the door with a smug flourish. Whoever lost it would have to come back and beg me to return it. At least, that's how I saw the situation.
“Weird kids tonight.” I called up the staircase, to the second floor where my parents had decided to sit out the festivities. There was no reply, and I reasoned that they had failed to stay awake at this late hour.
I got back around to turning off the porch light and made my way to the living room, darkening each overhead light as I passed. I liked nights, for the most part, because it was a calming time when I had full run of the house.
Plopping down on the couch, I tossed the white pumpkin face onto the coffee table. I turned on the television and sank back into a glassy-eyed stupor.
“With the Jar-A-Ma-Jig,” explained the onscreen pitch man, “you can avoid these meal mistakes... and so much more!”
Late night programming wasn't my thing, especially not infomercials. I cast a quick glance toward my gaming console and considered a late-night session. Getting in a short, casual round didn't seem appealing, either. When I played, I was in it to win. With my fatigue, that could mean staying up all night in search of a single victory.
Another bang echoed through the house. I jumped, flinging the remote control through the air. My surprise quickly turned to anger as I realized the kid must've come back for his crappy mask. I grabbed the thing up again and contemplated the idea of throwing it in the trash and going to bed.
“Coming!” I shouted. “Break down the door, why don'tcha?!”
As I passed the sliding glass door that lead to our backyard, I noticed something that stopped me dead in my tracks. It was the word “BOO!”, crudely scribbled on the glass with what looked like dog crap.
“You gotta be kidding me.”
I stormed over to the door and peered into the blackness. Someone, somewhere, was messing with the wrong adult child.
It was then that the smell wafted to me. It wasn't the rank stink of animal feces. It was sweet, familiar, and comforting. It was chocolate. Only moderately relieved, I turned away from the back door and fully intended to give the kids outside a solid piece of my mind.
It wasn't until I was nearly out of the living room that I thought about that strong smell. Going back through my thoughts, I came to a distressing conclusion. The writing was on the inside of the glass.
I could've done any number of things at this point. I could've leapt out the back door and into the yard, calling for blood. I could've gone to the front door and picked the kid up by his collar, scolding all the while. In that moment, however, I took the third option.
“Mom! Dad!” I flung the mask down and run upstairs screaming like a banshee. “Get up! There's someone in the house!”
When I opened their bedroom door, nearly crashed through it, really, they weren't there. The bed was made, the lights were off, and the room was empty.
“Are you still awake?” I shouted, sprinting down the upstairs hallway. “Did you heat what I said?”
I pulled open the door to dad's cramped home office, fully expecting to see him hunched over some boring paperwork, brow furrowed. When I entered, however, I witnessed an entirely different sight.
Dad was on the desk, seated, knees pulled to his chest and wrapped with his arms. His papers were strewn all over, and where torn and crumpled. Not a single photo on the walls hung straight, and a few had their glass broken out.
“Dad?” I whispered as he simply sat on the wooden pedestal, visibly shuddering.
He looked up at me slowly, like a child waking up from a dream. On his head, he wore the same type of pale, horrible mask I had held in my hand just moments earlier.
“Don't bother me.” He muttered, long strings of thick saliva dangling from the mask's mouth. “I'm finishing up the Schweitzer report.”
He jerked is head to one side, turned his face upward, and let out a demented, agonized scream.
I backed out of the doorway, nearly toppling over the railing between myself and a nasty drop to the first floor. Propping myself on that rail, then the walls, I hurried to the bathroom where I'd last seen my mother preparing for the night.
“Mom?! Something really terrible is-”
Again, my entry was halted by a disorienting sight. There mom was, sitting on a stool in front of the mirror over the sink. The mirror was broken into a spider's web of cracks from what looked like a straight-on headbutt.
She sat quietly in her bath robe, its collar and shoulders stained with flecks of red. She applied lipstick to the asymmetrical, gaping mouth of her white mask.
“Mom!” I screamed, my brain once again lurching along like a smoking jalopy.
She turned slowly, just as dad had looked to me. She instantly threw the lipstick onto the tile floor as if she were enraged by my mere presence.
“Why aren't you in bed?” She demanded nonsensically. “Why aren't you asleep?!”
In one quick, awkward motion, mom stood from the stool and wrenched a long, jagged piece of glass from the mirror. Her blood trailed down the length of the reflective blade as she raised it over he head and ran for me.
“WHY AREN'T YOU ASLEEEEEEP?!” She shrieked in a shrill tone I'd never heard from her before.
I barely slammed the door shut in time. All at once, I felt the same dread I had experienced as a child when I was about to be punished... mixed with the level of terror that only comes from knowing your life is about to end in the must unpleasant way you can think of.
I looked the screen on my phone and started dialing 911, completely unsure of what to say.
A blood-red hand came down hard on the phone, knocking it out of my grasp. Stunned, I looked up to see my father standing over me.
“No phone privileges.” He groaned, sounding as if the words were bubbling through a mouthful of something I didn't want to see.
A single fist rocketed toward me. I lowered myself just in time as my own father's knuckles passed through the drywall inches away from my face. Moving to escape, I was instead caught by his other hand. The letter opener clenched in it jabbed through my side as easily as if it were piercing a water balloon. When he roughly withdrew the improvised weapon, blood sprayed out, painting the far wall.
I screamed again, though this time it was a wordless, mindless howl that came from some primal place.
Clutching the fresh would in my gut, I made my way down the stairs, stumbling and falling as I did so. I landed at the foot of the staircase with a heavy thud. There, I was reunited with the mask that had been left for me. It laid where I had thrown it, and its empty, mocking stare seemed to say, “Bet you're glad you went up there, huh?”
Another palm-thrust at the front door.
“G-Go away!” I yelled, crawling away from the noise as best as I could. “Leave me alone!”
“Police officer!” A gravely, authoritative voice came from beyond the door. “We've received several complaints about the noise. Open the door.”
“Oh God.” I pulled myself to my feet and hobbled to the door, hunched over in pain. “Thank God.”
With my last ounce of strength, I turned the knob, leaving streaks of my blood across its shiny gold surface.
Standing at the door was a tall, well-dressed man in dark green. Though he was wearing a nice suit, his costume didn't seem say “CEO” or “The President”. A necktie that was little more than thorny, braided vines hung from his neck like a noose. On his head, he wore the mask I'd seen three times that night... though his was a vibrant green and seemed to have a more jolly expression.
“Trick 'r treat.” He said snidely.
I couldn't run. I couldn't fight. All I could do was collapse with a soft whimper.
“Awww. Looks like someone's already tricked you!” The mask man sounded anything but empathetic. “Well, don't worry. I'll make sure you're safe from now on.”
From there, things are a bit fuzzy. I must've blacked out and awakened several times as the masked man went to work. I remember blood... gauze... the pinch of stitches... and the cold surface of a kitchen counter top. I remember the basement, and my head striking the wooden stairs as someone dragged me by my feet.
I saw the secret doorway in the basement wall, one that no one in my family had found over the months we'd spent living in the house.
Most of all, I remember what the masked man said.
“Forgive me for not making proper introductions.” He dragged me to the middle of a stone floor and took a key ring from a hook. “The name is Samuel Hanes. You can call me Spooky Sam. Now, I admit it's a nickname I gave myself, but I think it fits.”
He walked over to a barred door and placed a key into the lock. As he pulled that door open, a human corpse fell forward, landing almost face-to-face with my all but paralyzed body.
“This is MY house, you see. The people down here were my friends.” He rolled the corpse to one side. “Hell, they were my family as far as I'm concerned. My little trick 'r treaters. Ah, the fun we had together!”
My mother stepped into view, joining the strange man. I hadn't even known she was down there.
“Unfortunately, things got kind of... complicated. I had to go away for a while, and I couldn't really ask a neighbor to come by and feed them. I'm sure you understand.”
The masked man chuckled as he lead my now obedient mother into the cell, closing her in and locking the door tight.
I could hear the man opening another cell, though I couldn't turn my head to look. I heard the soft fall of another corpse, followed by the heavy footsteps of my dad. Another click of the lock told me he had been stored away, as well.
“I'll miss them, even though I have you, now.” The masked man sighed.
He stepped into view again, this time holding the mask that had been left for me earlier in the night. He turned it inside-out and dabbed a wet cloth against the interior, right where the wearer's nose and mouth would be.
“This probably doesn't make much sense to you right now.” The man flipped the mask right-side-out again. “But that's only because...”
He slid the latex over my head. The strong smell of chemicals invaded my nostrils.
“... You're not in your right head.”
All at once, I could see why it happened. I could see why it had to be that way. I was just a nobody – a twenty-something failure with no future. Then, Spooky Sam appeared to me and gave my purpose.
It makes sense when I think back on it, now. I thought the masks made my parents insane. Now I know it's the other way around! We're the only ones with a solid grip on reality. Everyone else is bonkers!
So, as I said, it's been about a year since all of that happened.
What a long year.
What a long wait.
Sam says it's almost time to come out and play with people.
Almost time for trick 'r treat!
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