So, this is based off of a creepy dream/nightmare I had. I also focused on using dialogue in this piece effectively, because I feel that’s something I drift away from in first person stories, at times to the detriment of the overall story. It’s kind of dark, and I’m aware that this may have potentially triggering content. It discusses complications in pregnancy, miscarriage, and infant death. All of those can be potentially triggering for individuals, and so if this is a sensitive subject for you, I might suggesting skipping this entry. I did my best to handle these topics respectfully, but I understand discussion of these topics may conjure painful memories or experiences for some. Thank you.
Steven and I had been trying for months, for what felt like years. We had been married four and a half years, and were ready to turn the storage room into a nursery once and for all. I had never quite understood the process involved, nor that I had months of disappointment before me; growing up people had simple announced the baby full of smiles, but here we were reading temperatures and following calendars without a bit of luck. So, every time I was a day late, we both knew it would be a trip to the drugstore and then a disappointed dinner of take out and ice cream.
After about 18 months of really trying, the test came up positive. We didn’t know what to think when we saw those lines; we were shocked. The next few weeks were a blur of doctor’s appointments and giddy phone calls. We mailed little booties to our parents’ homes, and then eagerly waited by the phone to hear their congratulations. And then, after only a few weeks of bliss, I woke up in the middle of the night, my stomach roiling into cramped knots. There was blood on the sheets. That was miscarriage one. Our weeks of bliss turned into weeks of somber grief.
Miscarriage two and three were not necessarily easier, but we had learned at least. Our hopes did not rise above the concrete, and we kept the giddy phone calls to a minimum. My mother visited for a long week where she and I stumbled around each other in awkward silence, both feeling the hole where joy should have been.
When the fourth pregnancy rolled around, Steven and I began to grieve. We should have quit, given up, but we had to hope. Only that positive news made my heart sink a little deeper, certain that we would say goodbye to yet another child before we ever met him or her.
And then nothing happened. Week nine, ten, eleven, and twelve slipped by with nothing more than routine check-ups. Of course, given our history, our check-ups were a bit more stringent than “routine,” but there was no cramping, no terrified waking to bloodstained sheets. We had been so ready to grieve that we did not know how to rejoice. Of course, this would not be my story if this truly ended happy, but at that point I was so blindsided by joy that I almost felt that same shocked somberness from the first miscarriage.
The foundation of that joy began to crack during in our fourteen week check-up. One blood test abnormal, an ultrasound scheduled to confirm or deny a defect. Just as we began to cling to the idea that this time might just be it.
Our doctor was a nice man, if a bit perfunctory. But sitting in his office following our ultrasound was pure torture. He came in with our file, looking run down which only confirmed my fears.
“Mr. and Mrs. Gaines,” he began, flipping through the chart with tired eyes. “You know we discussed last time that you tested with an elevated AFP—”
I interrupted, though I knew I shouldn’t. It felt as if I could argue my way out of the words he was certainly going to say. “But you said that could be anything. Or nothing.”
He smiled a smile that told me he had given this talk many times before. “Yes, the AFP test alone is not clear. Unfortunately, the ultrasound today was. The fetus—”
“Our child.” This time, my husband was the one to interrupt, a steeled look in his eyes. Now, I don’t mean to argue the point at which life begins or any political stance. All I can say is that this was our child; every failed pregnancy had been ours, lives cut short.
“The child,” the doctor corrected gingerly, “has a condition called anencephaly. This means that the brain is not forming normally. In fact, a large portion of the brain is missing. If carried to term, the fet—child would be highly unlikely to live past a week. I’m very sorry. We can schedule an appointment to terminate, and maybe look into some alternative fertility methods—”
“No.” Steven and the doctor both fixed me with slightly surprised stares. But, to be honest, I couldn’t do it. We fought so hard, and even now I could not stand the idea of passing up a week with our child. “I don’t want to terminate.”
The doctor smiled. “Mrs. Gaines, I understand. This is very hard, shocking news. How about you and your husband go home and talk this over. We can schedule at a later date.”
“Is there anything else we can do? Any medicine? Treatment? Surgery? Maybe the ultrasound was wrong?” I could feel the room slipping from me, beginning to spin wildly around the bitter news. The doctor gave the same stretched, sad smile.
“No, Mrs. Gaines. It’s not wrong. And there is no treatment. This is a lot to take,” his eyes shifted to Steven, searching for rationality. Instead, he found a man resolute. “Mr. Gaines, perhaps you should take her home, give her some time to come to terms—”
“Doctor, I believe she’s answered your questions. We’ll be going.”
I don’t remember driving home; I don’t remember the next few days clearly. I remember looking at the slight bump of my stomach, wondering what had cursed me. Weeks passed, and we got pitying looks as we went through the motions of doctors’ appointments and prenatal screenings. I think the doctors and nurses thought we were crazy. Maybe we were. Then, Steven found something. He came home one day with a smile and a business card for a doctor who claimed miracles. We were desperate, and I was on the phone in minutes. It was nearly 7:30pm when I called, but cheery receptionist was ready at the phones, and scheduled us for an appointment the next day.
We were shipwrecked and clinging to anything to stay afloat. Foris Medical Center was our life raft. Dr. Smith was a charming man, tall with short clipped hair beginning to thin on the sides. He smiled behind thin frames, and sat in a brightly lit office surrounded by posters of happy families.
“We were able to get copies of your past medical records,” he smiled, “and, as you know, performed our own ultrasound. We can confirm the initial diagnosis of anencephaly.”
My heart shattered. “But you said you could help!” I was speaking too loud, my voice was cracking, and tears were biting behind my eyes.
He kept smiling. “And we can, Janet. Please, have a seat so I can discuss the procedure.”
His words almost didn’t make it through the sorrow beginning to rage inside my body, but Steven was pulling me back into the chair and pulling me back to the office. We listened, and my heart began to beat again.
We would carry to term, or as close to term as possible. And then we would come to Foris for delivery. In fact, they would take over all prenatal care to that point. And it would all be free for our participation in their treatment trial. Following the birth, they would take our child—our son, they told us—and conduct some cutting edge surgery. It would be a few weeks before he would be able to come home with us, but we would have our son. Ideally, without any complications. It sounded too good to be true; in hindsight, it was. But all I could hear was that this time I would hold a crying baby to my chest and smile into his beautiful eyes.
They held true to their promises. They covered all the rest of our care, even providing in home assistance with cooking and cleaning when I was prescribed bed rest. And when the day came, we found ourselves in a state of the art surgical room, surrounded by smiling faces.
Michael was born as 11:56 on March 15. True to their word, the doctors whisked him away immediately into a nearby surgical room. I was told to rest, recuperate, and get ready to see him in a few short days.
I never questioned our miracle. I did not dare to risk a second thought as we brought him home at a month old to his nursery. I loved the joy of looking into his half-opened eyes, rocking him slowly to sleep. I cherished every minute of seeing his little body grow and develop. It went by so fast.
I noticed some odd things in those first few weeks, but I was so terrified of uncovering something else, that I brushed it off. I suppose the first thing was how fixed his gaze could be. I was used to seeing infants with their eyes unfocused, maybe gazing strangely at a ceiling fan or image. But his gaze was different. His eyes were fixed, bright, knowing. The followed and watched like a hawk. I felt absurd admitting it, but I found his prying eyes unsettling at times. But I shrugged it off.
And then there were the times his eyes would change entirely. No longer were they the glassy blue eyes I was used to, but instead solid black. From corner to corner, his eyes would turn solid black. At our check-ups at Foris, I mentioned this, and the pediatrician assured me that, due to pigment changes, sometimes newborns’ eyes can change color. Don’t worry about it, she said.
Also, we had to get rid of our cat. My parents took her in, but we were terrified of something bad happening. Now, I’m not one of those who buys into the myth that cats will sit on and suffocate babies, but from the day we brought Michael home, Zissy would not stop standing outside the room and growling. She hissed at him whenever he got to close, and we did not want for one or both of them to get hurt.
I said it went by too fast, but I mean it. I was not prepared to consider stopping breastfeeding at 3 months because his razor sharp teeth were tearing into soft, and already chafed flesh. We tried to switch to a bottle, but he would not take it no matter what I tried. I was at my wit’s end.
“Michael has to eat,” Steven provided. He shrugged and looked at me. “We know he’ll eat natural, so maybe we just have to give up on the bottle idea.” I felt so angry at him, at the little smile in his eyes. But he was right. And so I endured it, and did my best to keep the wounds cleaned so that Michael only got milk. Then again, the pediatrician told me it was normal for some bleeding and such. Don’t worry about it, she said.
I also wasn’t ready to find him standing in his crib at four month old. Advanced, I told myself. Advanced, as I noticed his toys moving about his room when no one else was in there. Advanced when I saw the drawings on scratch paper of human-like figures and crisply drawn rows of symbols. He was just advanced, the pediatrician smiled, don’t worry about it.
Michael was nearly six months old, potty trained, and feeding himself when I got the comment on my blog. I had posted the story of our miracle, of the gentle ministration of Foris Medical Center, on my blog, and it had received a decent amount of traffic. Most people wrote it off, told me the diagnosis had been wrong, but this comment was different. The username was ForisKilledMyBaby, and you can only imagine what she said.
Dana, as I later found out, told me about her picture perfect pregnancy at Foris. She had no complications, no death sentences on her developing child. Everything was going fantastic. She said labor was a breeze, and she heard her daughter’s shrill cry fill the room, only to have the child secreted away, just like my Michael had been. Only, this time, the doctors did not bring back a smiling baby, but tearful news. Her baby, Elana she told me, had not survived. Cord trauma, they told her. I wouldn’t have believed a word she said if she hadn’t had the pictures.
Dana told me she was never supposed to get them, and I believe her. They showed her little girl ripped apart, her skull sawed open and emptied. Dana told me that her Elana had died for my son. His defects had been replaced by her healthy daughter. I still didn’t want to believe it. I deleted the comment, stepped away from the computer, and tried to forget those graphic images. I think you’ll understand if I don’t provide them here. I still have nightmares, and spreading the misery will in no way relieve mine.
These thoughts were wriggling through my mind at Michael’s six month appointment, but how do you ask a doctor that? Especially a doctor who would be implicated in such horrors. I brought up the strangely rapid milestones, and was met with smiles from the doctor.
“Our treatments seem to be working even better than expected, then, Ms. Gaines. Have there been any problems with Michael?”
“No,” I whispered, feeling guilty for questioning my miracle. “But isn’t it odd? He’s only six months old.”
Dr. Doe smiled at me. She had a friendly face, making her a clear fit for a pediatrician. “Milestones are just estimates. Some children reach them faster than others. Some of the procedures surrounding his anencephaly may have other outcomes that we are not aware of. You are one of our first in this study, after all.” She smiled down at Michael. “Aren’t you just a little superman?”
There was a ruckus in the hall, and I saw the smile drift from Dr. Doe’s eyes. It stayed plastered to her lips as she set down the thick file on Michael and looked back at me. “We’re almost done here, but it sounds like something I might need to check on. Give me a moment?”
She was gone for five minutes before my itching fingers opened the file. Inside were your general demographics, records of his immunizations, weights, growth chart. All normal things. But then there were some pages, written in English but covered in the same squarish script Michael had been drawing. Then x-rays that just looked wrong. No surprise, but I’m no radiologist. I’ve seen x-rays on TV, and well, these just looked wrong. The bones seemed to be too short in some places, too long in others. And the skull was a mess of shaded tissue and a strange fibers that wove throughout his skull. Things just looked wrong.
Then final page is what confirmed that something was going on. It was a simple fact sheet. Hybridization Status, read the top. There was information about me, my childhood, my marriage. All presented under the headline “Human Participant.” There was a much more sparse account of Steven, but this conspicuously titled “Foris Participant.”
Michael was looking at me with those black eyes, staring at me. I felt scared, and then felt silly at being scared by my infant. Surely, I had misunderstood something. Maybe Steven had signed up for a program of some sort, or maybe it was how we were entered into the trial program. But niggling fears reminded me that there was information I had never given to Foris, typed there in black and white.
Dr. Doe walked in, all smiles again. She glanced at the file, and her smile faltered. “Any other questions?” she asked, her eyes beginning to look panicked.
I tried my best to smile convincingly. “No. Is everything okay out there? Can we leave? It’s almost his nap time.”
“Well,” he voice faltered, the cheer fading as she glanced at the file again, “if you’re sure there’s nothing else, of course. We’ll see you again soon,” she began to recover her enthusiasm. “Goodbye Michael!”
I went to pick up my son, and he turned faster than I could imagine. His teeth snapped down on my hand, sharp enough to draw blood. I was shocked, and Dr. Doe smiled broadly. She didn’t know I saw her, because her face had been reorganized into concern by the time she was dabbing at my injured hand with gauze. “Are you okay?”
I tried to laugh it off, but I felt terror creeping up. “I’ll be fine. Told you it was passed his nap time.” She wrapped the bite on my hand, and I snapped Michael into his carrier. His eyes were staring up at me, bright blue again.
We got home and I put Michael down for a nap. And then I dove to the computer, trying to find that comment, trace down her email so I could ask her questions. I began searching, trying to turn up any conspiracies about Foris. The searches were clean, and my paranoia began to subside. There was a logical explanation. Surely, there was a logical explanation.
Three days later, my initial terror dulled, Dana emailed me back. She asked me to meet her at a coffee shop on West and Delaware to talk. Without the baby, she specified.
So, I told Steven I was going to meet a friend from college one night, and asked him if he would mind. At first, he argued.
“Janet, honey, you’re his mom. I think he needs you to take care of him.”
“Yes, but you’re his dad Steven. I think you can watch him for an hour and half. I’ll feed him before I leave, grab a water at the coffee shop with Lizzy, and be back home before you two get done with bath time. I just don’t feel right about taking him out that late and in such a public place.”
Steven sighed. I hated lying to him, but since I had read that file, I noticed how close a watch he kept on me. How cold his eyes looked, even as we lay side by side in bed at night. Steven was my husband, but I suddenly wasn’t sure who that really was.
Eventually he acquiesced, but I felt uneasy about it. I smiled, and kissed his cheek.
The coffee shop was crowded, but I found Dana in the corner, holding a copy of Catch-22 just as she promised. I felt uneasy walking into the noisy place, convinced that some pair of eyes was following my trail through the cluttered room. Dana stood and greeted me with a hug, like old friends.
“Foris receptionist in the corner,” she whispered in my ear, followed more loudly by, “Janet! It’s been too long!”
We sat down and she leaned in close, a smile plastered to her face. “So, you know I suppose?” He voice was quiet, and her hands and face moved as if she was sharing brilliant news. To an outsider, I assumed, it would look like two old friends catching up. Unfortunately, I knew I was not a very good actress.
“I’ve read some weird things. I mean, I don’t know what to think—”
“It’s all true. Whatever you think, you probably only understand half of it, but it’s true,” her voice rose suddenly, “So tell me about this new baby boy!” she exclaimed, just as a woman in a long brown coat brushed past us on the way to the bathroom.
“M-Michael?” I stuttered. “He’s fine. I mean,” my face crumpled into confusion, “you know all the weirdness, and the For—”
“Oh, aren’t all toddlers that way?” Her eyes were screaming at me. “What have you been up to?”
I caught on, and we began a stilted discussion about our idealized lives. She played the role of an old sorority sister well. As we wound down, she stood and smiled broadly, extended her arms. “It was so good to see you,” she exclaimed loudly. The lady in the brown coat’s eyes glanced up. “We really should do this more often.” Then her voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper, “Take this. Read page 119.” She shoved the book into my hands, and traipsed out of the coffee shop with a final wave. I stowed the book into my purse and followed after a moment of cleaning up the litter from the table.
Once in my car, I ripped the book open. “Janet,” it read in hasty script, “they followed me here, so I’m sorry I can’t tell you more. Hopefully this will clear some things up. Foris is NOT a medical group. They have no interest in anyone’s health but their own. Foris ARE something else. They are some sort of life form, much like us, but distinctly different. And they have plans for us humans. Your husband, S you called him on the blog, he’s one of the them. Go home. Get out. You are their test tube. The DNA doesn’t match quite right, so they need others like me. Like my,” here the text grew soft, halting, “Elana. Don’t go to your parents, your family, or your friends. Destroy your phone. Find a hotel, pay in cash, and email me later.”
My head was swimming as I drove home. I arrived to find Steven seated at the computer, slowly scrolling through the history from the web browser.
“Janet?” he asked, turning slowly to face me. “Care to tell me about Dana?” His eyes were solid black, just like Michael’s. His smile was wide, lined with sharp teeth, just like the teeth which bit my hand and breast. There was a flicker of something utterly inhuman, something made of shadow and smoke, and then my Steven looking at me with rage in his eyes.
I sprinted out of the door. I jammed the keys in the ignition and tried to ignore Steven’s hands pounding on the window. I ignored the image of my six month old son standing as a silhouette in the doorway, laughing at developmental milestones. I ignored the occasional glance of something sinister and smoky bursting from the container that was my husband.
I drove away. I drove and drove until it was dawn again. After some time, I pulled over and lobbed my phone over a bridge. I drove on for another hour, and then pulled off into a dingy strip motel. The owner took pity on me, as I’m certain I looked like a wreck, and accepted my $20 as payment for the room. From what I’ve seen so far, no one else is here, so I suppose having someone stay in the room is better than nothing. I told him my husband chased me out of my home, and so he’s let me stay here the past three nights. I emailed Dana the first night, but she never responded. All I got back was a link to a newspaper article about a terrible car accident from three nights ago. Some poor woman leaving a coffee shop, shoved off the road by a drowsy tractor trailer.
I guess I’m alone now. I’ve been at this computer for hours, hoping to see another email come through. But it’s silent. I feel like my whole world is silent. What now?
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Woohoo! Spring break! Here’s a first (and I do mean first! Just wrote this in one sitting this afternoon) draft of something I;m working on. Definitely has its problems, but getting it out there the first time was my main goal today!
Candace and I were closest friends, in that way you can only be friends with someone you met when you were too young to know what friends meant, and simply grew into it together. We had lived in the same subdivision, gone to the same school, played tee-ball on the same team. By the time we were eleven, when everything changed, we were mostly inseparable. Our houses, you see, were separated by a relatively dense band of woods where the subdivision had yet to bulldoze and develop. By the time we were old enough to be left out alone, we traipsed through the woods between our houses, eventually making the woods our own private kingdom. We built forts and trekked along soggy creek beds. We explored fallen logs, created hidden caches in rotten stumps, and climbed far higher into trees than our parents would have allowed. It was a haven, and we had our castle in that fort. It was really just a collection of interwoven sticks and leaves leaned against a fallen tree, but in our minds it swelled with stone walls and brilliant banners. There is a romance to sunny woods that you can only fully appreciate as a child, dancing between the fiery spots of sunshine and the chill shadows of leafy branches.
And then, when she was eleven and I was ten and a half, bad things happened. Candace’s mom had been sick for a long time, and I heard the whispered words of cancer floating between our homes. I watched as her mother, my second mother after long days spent in their living room, lost her hair, her vibrancy, her health. Her skin faded and sagged, showing the deep signs of fatigue after an arduous fight. Her eyes grew dim and sad. It wasn’t long before I stopped seeing her mother, though I could hear movement in the bedroom, someone shuffling and adjusting the machines the hospital had sent over.
I remember the phone call late one night. I was still too young to understand that a call so late inevitably meant bad news, and so I simply rolled over in mild irritation at the sudden alarm. I remember my dad sitting on the edge of my bed, shaking me awake to deliver the bad news. I remember the numbness and the fantasy I felt, as if I was still dreaming and Candace’s mom was just a short walk away, sleeping peacefully herself. By the time I awoke the next morning, the illusion had caught hold and I packed up to meet Candace at the fort.
She was there, reinforcing my own delusions, but her swollen red eyes shattered all of that. I felt my own tears pricking my eyes as I sat down next to her, trying to be strong and feeling completely vulnerable. Death had visited me, and I was wholly unprepared to respond. We sat together, neither of us speaking, not knowing in our brief span of life how to really deal with something like this. Eventually Candace did speak.
“I’m cold,” she whispered. It was not particularly cold even though it was late fall, but she was still wearing her pajamas, mud stains and all. I later found out that she had been sitting by that fort since dawn, despite her dad’s concerns. At the funeral, I noticed how distant and broken he appeared, which made me angry then. Now, being old enough to understand, I realize he was a man whose whole world had been crumbling in slow motion, and was now in shambles. He could barely grieve, nonetheless be the father he had been before.
That winter, Candace spent a lot of time at my house. We laughed and went on with life, but sometimes she looked distant and pained, as if someone were whispering hurtful things into her ear. Those moments would pass, but she would remain lost in her grief. I was too young to really understand, though I did my best to be a great friend to her even during those times. Spring broke and we tore back into the woods, ready to feel the dirt beneath our feet again after what had felt like an eternal winter. The first thing we did was dig a hole for the time capsule we made over the winter. We had filled it with toys and letters to the future, all tucked inside a coffee can. Candace and I dug a deep hole, beginning to feel like our old selves again, and then we found it.
We were used to finding arrowheads and pottery scraps in the woods, but this was different. It was, we initially thought, merely an oddly shaped stone. But, then we saw that whatever it was, it was some sort of carving. There was a face on the top, with two wide and bug-shaped eyes dominating most of it. The nose and mouth were simply lines etched into the stone. From there, a large, round belly protruded under the jaw. Finally, the whole figure rested on two angular feet. On the side, we could barely make out etchings that seemed to be arms, ending in long, branch-like fingers. It was one of the coolest things we had ever discovered, and we probptly placed it in a place of honor in our fort. She became the queen of the fort, and we spent our days completing wild, fanciful quests for her.
Eventually, I noticed Candace did not go home when I did in the evenings. My mother would call for dinner, and she would smile dimly and wave, her eyes never meeting mine. And I noticed that she arrived well before me on the weekends, carrying a crumpled paper bag with her lunch for the day smashed inside. I thought it was odd, but there were many times I wished for more hours in the day to dive into the woods, so it never struck me as a bad thing.
Candace’s birthday fell early in the summer, and that day I woke up as early as I could to get out to the woods. I rushed to get dressed, scribbled a note to my parents on the fridge, and then sprinted into the woods with the first pink of the sun in the sky. I had planned on spending a little time alone getting the fort ready for Candace, cleaning up the broken limbs and maybe putting some strings of flowers along the walls. I had borrowed a banner from my mother that read “Happy Birthday” in bright primary colors, and I intended to hang that as high as I could reach. But, when I reached the fort, Candace was already there, sitting with a woman. Sitting with her mother.
I stood, frozen in my tracks as Candace’s mom softly stroked the girl’s hair. I was not sure what was going on, and I felt the hair on the back of my neck begin to rise. Something was wrong. The woman’s back was to me, but I could see the peaceful, if terribly distant, grin on Candace’s face. However, I began to notice that everywhere that perfect hand touched my friend’s skin, the skin darkened, turning ashen and gray before returning to normal. Something was very wrong.
“Candace?” I found my voice, and watched as my friend’s eyes widened in alarm as they shot to me. In that same instance, the woman’s head snapped around, fixing me with an icy glare. I saw, at first, Candace’s mom looking at me, her hair long and flowing and her eyes bright again, but then it shifted. Then I saw, for the briefest of seconds, the tortured cancer victim looking at me with drawn eyes and pale skin. The image flickered for a moment between these before dropping altogether.
I spent a long time trying to come up with rational explanations for what I saw, and many therapists explained it away in ways so convincing, I almost believed them. But what I saw does not make sense. Where there had been my best friend’s mother only seconds before, there now stood some…thing. It was tall, shaped like a person, but with dusky grey-brown skin that matched the trees behind her. Its face was almost human, but not right. Instead, I recognized the same, wide-spaced, round eyes from the statue staring at me. The eyes were black, almost bug-like, and in that moment full of rage. Her mouth was a lipless scar across her face, and her body swayed below a sharp-cut jaw. The arms were long, but not with branch-like fingers. Instead, claws snapped against the underbrush, cutting through whatever stood in her way. The thing that took me years to understand, however, was her stomach. It was large, round, and distended in an awkward way. Compared to the slender, tree-like quality of the rest of her body, it stood out like an unsightly knot in her trunk. It would take me undergoing the same phenomenon to identify that unusual bulge. She was pregnant.
The mouth opened and she screeched at me before charging. I dropped the supplies in my hand and ran with my own scream. I tore through the woods, into my home and straight to my parents bedroom. My screams had already woken them to a state of alarm. My dad checked me out, trying to find any injuries, while my mom simply pleaded with me to answer. I’m certain my jumbled account made even less sense than this at the time, but they still understood that some of my abject terror was related to Candace and the woods.
When we got there, Candace’s dad was running up, looking even more distraught than usual. Candace was gone, as was the woman. I was a tearful, sobbing mess looking with paranoia at every bush. We searched and searched before finally someone called the police. I was whisked away to retell my story, and they undertook a search for Candace, presuming a kidnapping. It was not unheard of for children to create fantastic tales to cover dingy reality.
It was well past dark when there were shouts from the now dry creek bed that ran through the woods. Candace was lying unconscious in the bottom, her clothes muddied and torn, but otherwise fine. Team after team had patrolled that area, but only now did she turn up. The paramedics hauled her away, and that was the last I saw of my friend. I was still filled with terror because the worst thing was, no one ever found that other thing. No one saw it or even believed my story. They did investigate a possible kidnapping, but nothing ever came of that either. When Candace woke, she began raving about the woods and her mother, so her father decided it would be best to check her in to a facility for intensive therapy. Not long after that, he came over, tearful again, to speak with my parents. The conversation was in private, and try as I might I could not hear anything through the thick wooden door besides the occasional sobs. My parents exited later and, after showing Candace’s dad out, told me as gently as possible that Candace was going away. I would never see her again.
The rest of my childhood was scarred by that experience, but even that grew dim after a few years. The woods held a certain terror for me, but I was better at convincing myself that my memory was lying. Still, without Candace around, I had no good reason to while away the afternoons in that shadowed wood.
That is, until I came home from college my sophomore year. There was something about college that stirred a lot of old nostalgia. I tried to find Candace on Facebook and reconnect, but there were so many results and not enough leads on my end. Still, being home that summer, I resolved to at least revisit that fort and finally conquer my demons.
I found it just as before, if somewhat battered by ten years of wind and weather. Surprisingly, most of the limbs still stood, and most of our treasures were still inside with only minor fading and weathering. I smiled, feeling so many happy memories flooding back. I even saw the strange statue nestled in the corner, and found myself remembering our quests for our queen. It still had a crown of twisted grapevine perched on its round head. Seeing the statue reminded me of our time capsule. We had resolved to open it in ten years, and so I saw no better use of my day than to relocate the sacred trove and take the opportunity to hear from my ten-year-old self.
When I got to the location, I saw the large sandstone slab we used to mark the spot. I also saw Candace.
I assume it was her, as the woman standing in front of me was tall, blonde, and smiling. She looked like her mother, but younger and with her dad’s bright brown eyes. “Candace?” I asked, shocked. I could feel nostalgia and joy rushing through me, threatening to suffocate me beneath them. “Candace! Where have you been? I’ve missed you, and I came to open our—” as I rushed forward, I noticed something odd. Candace didn’t speak or move, but merely smiled vacantly at me, holding out her hand.
“Candace?” I asked again, slowing my pace. The form that looked like Candace smiled a little wider. “Can you say something?”
The silence was oppressive; I finally noticed that even the birds and squirrels were silent now. I stepped back. The image faltered.
Candace’s smile faded, irritation crept into her eyes.
“You’re not her.” I stated. I felt like I was crazy, and I hoped that the woman standing across the clearing from me would tell me that I was. Instead, she flickered again.
This time I saw my friend, still little more than a child. Maybe twelve, but not much older than when I had seen her loaded into that ambulance. I saw her eyes wide with terror, her hair a knotted mass of mud and twigs. Her mouth was frozen in a scream.
“You’re not her!” I screamed at the image, just in time to watch it dissipate. Again, I took flight through the woods, rushing back towards our fort with that thing in pursuit. Only, this time, I heard a screech coming from deeper in as well. Two of these things were now chasing me. I reached the fort and saw the gangly creature thundering through the brush. The eyes were round with rage again, boring into me even as it sliced aside the brush. I did the only think I could think of and picked up the small statue, hurling it toward the creature, It seemed surprised, unable to react quickly enough to my attack. The rock struck it, and Candace tumbled to the ground, the strange tree-like woman gone.
I again was shocked, certain of my insanity. I rushed over to my childhood friend and tried to see if I could do anything. There was a bloodied knot on the side of her head, but she was breathing. I lifted her, hoping to carry her from the woods, when the second figure burst through the trees. It screeched at me, and this time I was close enough to smell the hot, putrid breath. My limbs weakened and I felt Candace’s body slide from my shoulders. I stumbled as it continued to scream. Raising its slender arm, it struck out at me. The claws ripped through my shirt, leaving thin red lines across my abdomen. In my attempt to escape, I tripped backwards over a fallen log. I was helpless as the creature grabbed Candace and dragged her back into the woods.
As soon as I could move again, I made my way back to my house and a phone. I called the police, explained what had happened. I confessed to attacking Candace, showed them my wounds, and led them back into the woods. There was no sign of such a struggle, no blood on the stone. They began to search the area, expecting to find a body, but nothing.
Eventually, they called me in to the precinct to tell me they hadn’t found any evidence of a crime, but maybe I should seek psychiatric help. I pressed them on it, feeling that familiar terror for my friend resurge. Finally, the officer I was talking to sighed deeply.
“Well, listen, we can’t find anything. And this Candace you supposedly attacked is fine. We talked to Candace and her mother. Just let it go.”
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