Story: The Stalker

(This story was originally divided into two parts because it got WAY too long for to publish in one shot.  I decided to publish it all together here for the sake of convenience.  Enjoy!)

Transferring to a new school in the middle of the semester really sucks. First off, it’s a logistical nightmare jumping into the thick of seven new classes and getting caught up with all the material that may or may not have been covered in your old school. More importantly for a slacker like me, it makes developing a successful social life virtually impossible, at least for most of the remaining year. Everyone already knows each other and has formed up their little separate cliques… the school clubs and activities are running full steam and not really gunning for new members… and then, of course, there’s the omnipresent fact that you’rethe freaking “New Kid” and everybody knows it. Yeah, mid-semester transfers can be pretty crappy.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have a whole lot of choice in the matter. When you’ve gotta move, you’ve gotta move, and I definitely had to move. So here I was, walking in to my first day at Black Creek High School in middle-of-nowhere West Virginia… in the middle of freaking February. I stepped off of the bus into a blast of freezing air that made me miss Atlanta more than ever, and made a beeline for the front door. Despite the cold, a fair amount of people seemed to be socializing on the sidewalk in front of the school instead of taking it indoors, and even in the roughly twenty-second span of time it took me to cover the distance from the school bus to the building, I felt several pairs of eyes turn to look me over.

Fantastic. This was a decent-sized school, so I’d hoped the presence of a new face wouldn’t attract much notice, but apparently I was wrong. Then again, I suppose I shouldn’t have been all that surprised… it was like this every time I transferred. Somehow, no matter how much I tried to keep my head down and blend in, people always noticed me. I let out a small sigh and tugged my scarf up higher around my face as I reached the front entrance and slid gratefully into the warm hallway. I could already tell that my first few weeks here were going to be a veritable purgatory of social awkwardness, but hopefully after a month or two I’d be able to settle into a relatively normal teenage life. Hopefully…

I did my best to avoid everyone’s eyes and ignore their whispers as I picked up my new locker number and combination from the office and headed there to put away my coat and backpack. It took me several tries to figure out how to work the combination lock correctly, and I may have slightly damaged my first impression with my new classmates by pounding on the door and yelling a few obscenities after the sixth try. Still, they could have lent me a hand instead of just standing there staring until I finally managed to open the thing on attempt number eleven. Given the delay, I barely managed to make it to my first class on time, sliding into a seat in the far back corner of the room just as the bell rang. To my dismay, instead of taking the obvious hint that I’d rather be left alone, my new homeroom teacher decided to greet our session with: “Class, today we’ll be welcoming a new transfer student to our homeroom. Mister –” he glanced quickly at his class roster – “Thompson, would you like to come up to the front of the class and introduce yourself?”

…Seriously? Of course didn’t want to introduce myself! What teenage kid actually WANTS to stand up and talk about himself in front of a room full of other teenagers he doesn’t know? But when a teacher asks you if you’d like to do something, they’re never actually giving you a choice in the matter, so instead of saying “no” I got up and shuffled perfunctorily to the front of the classroom, trying not to glare at Mr. Socially Oblivious as I did so. I stood in front of the whiteboard, faced forward, and gulped quietly. The entire class was staring straight at me like a bunch of owls. Judgmental, hormonal, cliquish owls. Cliché as it was, I tried to imagine them all in their underwear, but I was never really an imaginative sort of guy, so that didn’t help very much.

“Uh… hello,” I finally managed to force out, “I’m Zach Thompson. I, uh, just moved here from Atlanta, Georgia, and, um… yeah, nice to… meet you,” I finished lamely.

I then proceeded to stand there in complete silence for a full ten seconds as everyone continued to stare at me like they expected me to say something else, though I had no idea what else to say. Then the teacher finally cleared his throat and said, “Well, it’s very good to meet you too, Mr. Thompson. Welcome to our school. If you need anything, feel free to come talk to me any time.”

Yeah, I’d definitely be doing that later – not! I nodded stiffly a couple of times and scuttled embarrassedly back to my desk without being excused. For the remaining twenty minutes of class, I kept my head down and pretended to read my syllabus, ignoring both the occasional curious glances my classmates threw back at me and whatever relentlessly boring school crap the teacher was droning on about. I was out the door almost as soon as the bell rang; I didn’t try to talk to anybody and nobody tried to talk to me.

To my horror, I was put through the same awkward, humiliating introduction ritual in each of my next three classes – though luckily, aside from that, all of my teachers seemed relatively nice (if a bit distant), and I understood most of their lectures about as well as I ever did. When the lunch bell rang, I was half-relieved that I wasn’t being shuttled off to another meaningless intro-session, but mostly nervous about being thrown into the social jungle that was the high school cafeteria. Lunch this afternoon was the exact opposite of appetizing for me – the little round cafeteria pizzas looked like white rubber melted on cardboard and probably tasted about the same, while the salad bar was nothing but wilted lettuce and little packets of half-calorie salad dressing. Still, I stood in the lunch line with everybody else… it was at least something to do besides hover around awkwardly waiting for someone to talk to me, and besides, it would look weird if I didn’t get any food.

After about fifteen minutes of silent waiting, I was passed a tray and a little bottle of water and carried them over to the end of the most deserted lunch table I could find. As I sat there, sipping water and pushing piles of lettuce around my plate with my fork, plenty of people glanced over at me, pointed, or whispered, but no one came over to talk to me or even sit anywhere near me. This, too, I was used to… you know how some people have that kind of weird magnetism that draws others around them in a crowd, making them the center of attention without really even needing to say anything? Well, I had the opposite of that. Sometimes I felt like I was walking around with “Socially Awkward” stamped on my forehead – although, I suppose everybody feels that way now and again, especially when thrown into a new place. This was why I hated moving. I sighed heavily and started clumsily trying to fold my napkin into an origami crane to pass the time. I was just about finished folding out the wings when a perky, female voice suddenly addressed me.

“Hey! You must be the new boy! Zach, right?”

I looked up, surprised and pleased that someone was actually talking to me – let alone a girl – but my heart sank just a bit when I saw her. This girl was obviously the school weirdo, or at least one of them. Her hair was the sort of really dark black you could tell instantly was fake, with several shocking pink streaks in it, and it was held into shoulder-length pigtails by a pair of grinning cartoon skull barrettes with pink bows. Her skin-tight black t-shirt bore an image of a freaky-looking patchwork teddy bear with a grinning sewn-together mouth and x’s for eyes, head tilted to the side, holding what looked like a bloody scissor blade. She wore a pink and black plaid schoolgirl skirt hemmed so short that I was surprised the dress code allowed it, with knee-high black and white striped socks and big black platform boots. She carried her backpack with her, a black messenger bag absolutely covered with various patches, pins, and keychains displaying the sort of cartoony, pop-artsy kinds of characters that are somehow nauseatingly cute and genuinely creepy at the same time. She also wore a fair amount of jewelry with the same theme, and her eyes were surrounded by heavy black eyeliner and sparkly pink eyeshadow. She was really quite cute, don’t get me wrong, but she came on way too strong with the… would that be goth-lolita?… sort of look, which made her weirdly intimidating.

“Um, yeah… hi,” I finally managed to stutter out, after staring at her for a few moments too long to be polite.

“Mind if I sit down?”

“Uh, sure, I guess,” I responded, though she’d already slid into the seat next to me before I even finished my sentence. Pushing her tray away a bit, she propped her elbow up on the table, rested her chin in her hand, and just stared at me in awkward silence, a bright grin plastered across her face. Thoroughly weirded out, I sat blinking at my uneaten lunch for almost a full minute before I even thought to ask, “So, uh… what’s your name?”

“Emily Jackson. You can call me Emi, though!” She paused for a second, then said, “And YOU’RE a mysterious transfer student.”

“I… what??” I responded, thoroughly confused.

“You’re a mysterious transfer student! You know, in books and anime and stuff, whenever anybody transfers to a new school at a weird time, they’ve always got some kind of secret or special powers or something. Nobody knows you, you showed up out of nowhere in the middle of the semester, so it’s mysterious! You could totally be anybody!”

I get it, she must be some kind of hardcore geek, or something, I thought. “Sorry to burst your bubble, but I’m just a normal kid,” I responded, trying to laugh off a little bit of the awkwardness of the conversation.

“Why’d you transfer here, then?” she asked with a playful grin.

“My dad had to move here for his job,” I answered promptly. That wasn’t really the truth of the matter, but the truth of the matter was none of her business, and it was easier to lie than to withhold information – especially from nosy, gossipy teenagers.

“What’s he do?”

“He works at the chemical plant in Charleston,” I responded. I had done my research.

“Oh,” she responded, “So not a spy or an assassin or anything?”

“Definitely not,” I agreed.

“Well, that’s disappointing. I still like you, though! I bet you’re interesting,” she said with a smile.

I just shrugged and poked at some lettuce with my fork again. I didn’t feel interesting, and I honestly didn’t really want to be interesting. I just wanted to be a normal, relatively happy high schooler.

“Why aren’t you eating anything?” she asked.

“Not hungry,” I replied, “Big breakfast. Cafeteria food sucks, anyhow.”

“Want something sweet instead?” she asked brightly, pulling a large candy box out of her backpack. She opened it up and I peeked at the contents – a half-eaten array of obnoxiously bright multicolored candies shaped like happy skulls, broken hearts, and kitty faces.

“Sorry, I don’t have much of a sweet tooth,” I responded politely, though I honestly thought the candies looked like something that might have been barfed up by a unicorn. I felt a little sick just looking at them.

“Suit yourself,” she answered, popping a candy skull in her mouth and chewing. She grinned a little as she swallowed, and whispered under her breath, “Mysterious…”, then dropped me a quick wink. I pretended not to notice. “Sooooo, where are you from?” she asked next. I seized onto the relatively normal question and started telling her all about Atlanta. We spent the rest of the lunch period having a pleasant and only slightly odd conversation, by the end of which I felt I was actually starting to like her despite the less-than-ideal first impression. I was even a bit disappointed when the bell rang to return to class, a feeling which Emi seemed to mirror.

“Oh, drat!” she exclaimed. “Well, it was really great getting to talk to you, Mr. Mysterious Transfer Student! Let’s totally do it again soon. I hope we’ll get to be really good friends.”

“Oh, uh, me too,” I replied as she got up and headed for her locker. After she got a few feet away, to my surprise, she turned back, blew me a kiss, and called loudly across the room, “Bye, Zachy!”

I grimaced a bit. Zachy? That was going to need to stop. I hoped not too many other people had heard it. With a sigh, I picked up my tray and headed to the trash can to throw away my uneaten lunch. I couldn’t believe the day was only half over; I already felt completely drained. I passed through the rest of my classes in a bit of a daze, each one having basically the same good and bad points as my morning classes. I was really relieved when the final bell rang to end the school day. Following the crowd of my seemingly equally relieved new classmates toward the front doors, I decided I’d just walk home today instead of taking the bus. It had gotten much warmer now that it was the afternoon (though not nearly as nice as Atlanta), and I felt a walk would give me more opportunity to relax and think than being crammed on a bus full of loud strangers. My place was already a ten-minute walk from the nearest bus stop, anyway. I was just setting off along the sidewalk when I heard a voice call out from behind me.


I turned to see Emi bustling towards me at a half-run, her impractical T-shirt and miniskirt now buried in a long black trenchcoat. “You live out this way, too?” she queried boisterously as I stopped to let her catch up. Then, before I even had the chance to answer, “Want to walk back together?”

“Um, sure, I guess,” I responded blandly, not quite sure whether I wanted to or not, but unwilling to just flat out refuse. “How far are you going?”

“Oh, my house is right out behind Valley Park!” she replied, “What about you?”

“A bit further down the road,” I said, glad that I’d get some alone time for at least the last leg of my walk.

“Cool! So how was your first day? I think we’re in the same science class in the morning, but I came in late today so I don’t think you saw me… Mr. Michaelson, right? What do you think of him? I think he’s a jerk; he’s got this horrible monotone and he flips out whenever anything interrupts his jabbering…”

We walked for about 30 minutes passing similar conversation, her doing most of the talking, me listening and occasionally getting in a comment or two when she stopped for breath. Honestly, after a while her voice just sort of turned into white noise and I just smiled and nodded, hoping she couldn’t tell that I was spacing out. Eventually we turned a corner onto a residential street, and she exclaimed, “Welp, this is my stop!” She gestured at a large, well-kept red brick house with a nice front yard and an attached two-car garage. I couldn’t help being a little jealous when I thought of my lodgings. Without warning, she playfully threw her arms around me in what was probably about the most awkward hug of my life so far, though I kind of doubted it was the most awkward of hers. After around five seconds, she drew back, beaming at me, and said, “Hey, I know! Let’s exchange cell phone numbers! Want to?”

I actually had to think about that for a second. I mean, Emi was nice and all, pretty too, and most guys would probably jump at the chance, but she was already seeming a little bit… clingy… for my taste, and I got the distinct feeling that getting too involved with her would be social suicide – or at least a great way to pigeonhole myself as a weirdo for the next two and a half years of my life. A second after this thought crossed my mind I felt disgusted at my own shallowness. She was the only person at that school who had been willing to give me the time of day, and here I was worrying about what everyone else would think if I was friends with her. She was probably just a little bit overexcited because she didn’t have many friends of her own, either. “Sure,” I responded firmly, digging my phone out of my bag.

So, we quickly exchanged contacts, and she trotted back to her house with another blown kiss and exclamation of “Bye, Zachy!” Crap, I’d forgotten to tell her to cut that out. Oh well, there was always tomorrow. I waved back with a smile and then headed back up the opposite side of the road towards my place, which was still a little bit of a trek away. I’d barely gotten five steps before my phone buzzed in my pocket.

EMI: heya, zach!! this thing working? 

“Yep,” I texted back succinctly, tugging up my scarf against a brisk breeze carrying the calm, mineral-heavy scent of wet soil. I had a pleasant, relaxing walk the rest of the way home despite the cold, and despite the fact that I received no fewer than fifteen additional buzzes from Emi on the way, most of which I ignored. I tried to get some catch-up homework done when I got home, but really couldn’t work up much motivation, so I wound up spending most of the evening playing games on my old GBA until it ran out of batteries. After that I decided to hit the hay early, texting Emi goodnight so that she’d know why I was about to stop responding to her steady stream of text messages. Damn, that girl could talk… I put my ringer on silent, set my alarm, then rolled over and slept like a log for the next nine hours.

When I woke up the next morning, hair in disarray and still wearing the clothes I’d fallen asleep in, I checked my phone to find no fewer than 75 new text messages from Emi, along with three missed calls. Blinking and rubbing my eyes in drowsy disbelief, I quickly scrolled through the messages to see if she’d been trying to communicate anything important:

EMI: hi zach! what color you think i should paint my nails 2nite? purple or green?

EMI: hey zachy! i’m marathoning season 2 of kuroshitsuji. bassy is soooooo hawt ❤ do u liek anime?

EMI: what’s ur favorite color? mine’s a tie bt/w red and purple lol

EMI: science hw’s a total bitch, mr. m is such a tool!! what’d you put for #6?

And so on and so forth. She hadn’t stopped texting me until 3 o’clock in the morning. I rubbed my face in exhausted bewilderment, unable to quite muster the desire or the energy to respond. I stumbled through my scant morning routine on autopilot, waking up little by little as I went, and barely got out to the bus stop in time to catch my ride. It seemed Emi must ride a different bus, or get dropped off by her parents, because the bus never picked her up. I honestly felt a little relieved about that. I passed the bus ride in silence, drowsing against the hard brown vinyl seat until we were dropped off into the cold at the front entrance.

Emi accosted me almost as soon as I stepped into the building. She was dressed even more ludicrously than yesterday, in a bright orange ruffled blouse bearing a grinning jack-o-lantern face, with a tight black corset laced over the bottom half. Her legs were covered by a voluminous ankle-length layered skirt, mostly bright orange like the top but striped with black ruffles; a pair of high-heeled boots peeked out from under the skirt. All of her accessories seemed to be jack-o-lantern based, up to the orange beret perched on her head like a pumpkin cap, complete with brown stem and green leaves. Even the streaks in her hair were now Day-Glo orange.

“Good moooorning, Zachy!” she greeted, rushing up to me and favoring me with some kind of awkward running hug-tackle that practically caused me to lose my balance and fall over. My face burned as I felt – not just saw, but felt – several pairs of eyes stop what they were doing and turn to stare at us openly.

“M-morning,” I choked out, trying to pry her off of me as gently as I could.

“You get my messages last night?” she asked brightly, finally pulling back and beaming at me intently. The avid intensity of her stare was… a little bit disconcerting, to say the least. Like that picture on the “Overly Attached Girlfriend” memes. Had she looked at me that way yesterday? I couldn’t quite remember clearly. All I knew was that now I couldn’t quite meet her eyes as I shuffled my feet and muttered: “Well, yeah… I mean, I saw them this morning, but… I was kinda, um, asleep when I got them…”

“Oh, that’s okay!” she shot back perkily. “Hey, want some of my breakfast burrito? School breakfast sucks, so I got some fast food before I came in!” She proffered me the half-eaten roll of junk food. Grease dripped from the (now undoubtedly cold) mixture of rubbery-looking scrambled eggs and unidentifiable pinkish lunch meats crammed into the cheap flour tortilla. That plus the fact that someone had already taken a few bites out if it was enough to make the thought of doing so myself mildly nauseating.

“No thanks,” I responded with a gulp and a quick shake of my head. “You can keep it.”

Emi shrugged and took another bite. “Hey, what did you think of that science homework last night? You manage to get through all of it?”

“Oh, shit, that was due today? I’ve barely even started…” Way to get off on the right foot at my new school.

“That’s okay, Zachy, I’ll let you copy mine! I’m getting a B in science!” she announced proudly, digging around in her messenger bag for the homework papers.

“Thanks,” I responded, actually feeling pretty relieved by the help. I felt a little bad about how quickly I’d been judging her a few moments ago. I even let the whole “Zachy” thing slip again for the moment as she drew the worksheets triumphantly from her bag and I sat down at the nearest table and began copying furiously (though some weird, paranoid little part of my mind seemed to whisper to me with dismay that we owed her now…). I noted vaguely that her handwriting was very loopy and she dotted all of her i’s with little hearts.

Somehow, even with her gossiping into my ear the entire time, I managed to get most of the work copied before the bell rang for homeroom. Emi and I went our separate ways (though not without a half dozen perky exclamations of “bye bye!” and “see you later!” on her part), and I actually managed to get my locker open in only five tries this time. Morning classes were relatively uneventful, except that now I knew I was in the same science class as Emi. She took her seat right behind me, utilizing the position to pass me several notes during the class period – one of which featured a very unflattering depiction of Mr. Michaelson, which I promptly crumpled up and shoved into my backpack to avoid the possibility of having it confiscated.

I didn’t really feel like facing the lunch line or the staring, whispering crowd of my peers in the cafeteria that day, so when the bell rang for lunch break, I headed for the library instead. It was quieter and much more sparsely populated there, and most of the occupants seemed to be sort of nerdy, introverted kids like me. Besides, I actually did like to read, even if it was usually comic books or fantasy/horror novels aimed a little below my age group.

I sighed with relief, feeling myself relax a bit for the first time that day, as I lazily browsed the shelves of the fiction section. I actually found a fairly nice, if small, assembly of R.L. Stine books on the bottom shelf of one of the racks. I picked out a couple of Goosebumps stories and rose from my crouching position – at just the right moment to knock into someone behind me carrying a huge stack of books. The person was only knocked a little bit off-balance, but the books went flying, dropping to the tile floor with a series of loud thuds. I immediately started apologizing profusely, dropping to the floor to gather the books before even getting a look at the person who had been holding them. After a couple of seconds I became aware of another small, dark pair of hands gathering the books as well, and another voice speaking in a quick, embarrassed manner:

“No, no, it’s fine… totally my fault… wasn’t watching where I was going…”

I stopped apologizing and looked up at the person crouching next to me. By coincidence, she looked up at about the same time, and I found myself staring into a pair of large, soft brown eyes. I dropped my gaze again quickly and blushed, returning to what I had been doing. “Yeah, I wasn’t really being careful either, though, so…” I muttered, trailing off without really finishing my sentence. After what seemed like forever but was probably only ten or fifteen seconds, we finally managed to gather all of the books off of the floor and I sheepishly handed my stack back over to her. There were about nine or ten titles in all. I noted authors like Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and Madeline L’Engle among them, which made me feel a little bit embarrassed about my own choice of reading material… hold on, where were my books? Oh crap, had I dropped them, too…?

“Um, here, I think these were yours,” the girl said, confirming my fears by handing back the pair of batteredGoosebumps to me.

“Uh, yeah, thanks,” I said glumly, blushing again. I got a better look at her as I took back the stack of books. She was a short, petite young woman with a cute round face, a crooked smile, and just the lightest dusting of freckles across her nose and dusky cheeks. Her frizzy black hair was tied back into a thick braid that fell to her shoulder blades, and she wore a fuzzy grey sweater and faded jeans. All in all, I thought she was really pretty, not to mention nice and obviously smart, and I felt like a complete dunce for both bumping into her and getting caught reading kiddie horror while she was delving into Asimov.

To make matters worse, she had obviously noticed: “So, Goosebumps, huh? Gosh, I used to be obsessedwith those when I was a kid. I didn’t know the library had any.” I was glad to hear that she’d liked them too, but the addition of “when I was a kid” made my heart sink into my shoes. Then she lifted my spirits back up a bit by adding, “I’d kinda like to re-read a few when I get the chance!”

“Yeah, they’re… pretty, uh, nostalgic,” I said with a forced grin and chuckle, trying and probably failing to sound cool and unconcerned.

“Oh, my name’s Aliyah, by the way. What’s yours?” she asked.

“Ah, Zach,” I responded. “Thompson.”

“Oh, you’re the new guy, right?” she queried. I grimaced involuntarily, and she quickly added, “Sorry, you must be pretty tired of hearing that, huh?”

I just shrugged and muttered, “Yeah, well… it is what it is, you know? No problem. I really am the new guy, after all.”

She smiled and responded, “Good! Well, it’s really nice to meet you Zach. I hope it isn’t too weird adjusting to Black Creek. There are a few jerks around here, like at any school, but mostly I think everybody’s really nice. I’ve gotta go meet with some people about a class project right now, but I’ll definitely see you around, okay?”

“O-okay,” I stuttered back shyly. “See you.”

She turned around and headed to the checkout desk with her books, and I collapsed backwards against the bookshelf, weak-kneed and grinning stupidly. Maybe my first few weeks here weren’t going to be so bad after all. At least I’d met someone nice, and she actually seemed to kind of like me…

“Do you like that girl?”

The voice, only a few inches away from my ear, took me completely by surprise. I jumped involuntarily, barely holding back a startled yelp, and whipped around to face the speaker. It was Emi. Damn, how could somebody wearing that much Day-Glo orange be such a freaking ninja? She had somehow gotten right behind me, within a couple of inches of the back of my head, without me even noticing her.
“Well, do you like her?” she asked again.

Her tone was pleasant and conversational, and she was wearing her usual sunny smile, but her stare was more disconcertingly intent than ever. “I, um, well, she seems… nice,” I stuttered nervously, feeling oddly like a cat that had been caught in the canary cage, or a kid with his hand in the cookie jar. Cut it out, I thought to myself, There’s no reason to get all defensive. It’s not like you’re going out with her or anything. Shit, you just met her yesterday afternoon, and now you feel like you’re – what? – not allowed to talk to other girls? That’s ridiculous, right? …Right?

“Yeah, but do you, you know, liiiiike her?” Emi queried, leaning closer and dropping her voice to a conspiratorial whisper.

“I, ah, wasn’t really… I mean, we just met, so… I wasn’t exactly, uh, thinking quite that far ahead?” I finished, my inflection turning the intended statement into a question. “I just think she’s a nice person, is all,” I added a bit more firmly.

Emi gave me a sly smile, like you might give someone when discussing a shared secret or an inside joke. “Oh, I’m sure she is. She lives alone with her grandparents, you know. Nice little house a bit out of the way up in the hills, ‘cause they like being close to nature. She has to walk five or ten minutes from her bus stop just to get home. Usually takes the late bus, too, on account of after school band practice, so this time of year it’s getting dark by the time she’s walking up through the woods to her house.” Emi paused for a moment, and just as I was starting to wonder exactly why the hell she was telling me all of this, she dropped the bomb into the conversation:

“I bet it would be pretty easy for her to just disappear on that walk one night.”

“Whoa, wait – WHAT?” I replied, confused and now just a little bit freaked out. “Where did that come from?”

Emi just smiled again and said, “It’s true, though! I don’t know why her senile old granny keeps letting her walk that way in the dark. Trees all around to hide in, no place close enough to hear her scream… it would be so simple for somebody to just grab her and make off with her in the night – if somebody were so inclined,” she finished, batting her eyelids innocently.

My mind was reeling trying to catch up to her train of thought. I had no idea how I was supposed to respond to this. “Who would – wait – why would… Why are you telling me this?” I finally managed to choke out.

Emi shrugged nonchalantly. “Just thought you might find it interesting, is all,” she replied in a sing-songy voice. “I’m going to go get some lunch. Coming, Zachy?”

Was she kidding? Eating lunch with her was about the last thing I felt like doing right now. I clenched my teeth and shook my head mutely – the best response I could muster at the moment – and thankfully instead of forcing the issue, she just said, “Okie dokie lokie! See you later, Zachy,” then turned and sauntered away towards the cafeteria, her voluminous skirts swirling around her ankles.

This time I didn’t collapse against a bookshelf, I collapsed right into a chair. My skin felt cold and clammy and my thoughts were whirling around in my head confusedly, generating nothing productive. Was she THREATENING Aliyah? That’s what it had sounded like. Why? Because I had been talking to her? That was crazy! But hell, maybe she was crazy. Was Aliyah in danger? Did I need to do something to protect her? Whoa, whoa, slow down. Let’s not jump off the deep end right away. Emi had already demonstrated that she was weird enough, maybe she was just remarking on it, like she’d gone off on that weird “mysterious transfer student” rant when we first met. Just speculating about the kind of shit that might go on if this was one of her comic books or horror novels. Hell, maybe she was even concerned about Aliyah… no, going that far was just wishful thinking. I knew that much.

But really, even if Emi was making some kind of implied threat, what could she ever actually do about it? I mean, she was a scrawny, sixteen-year-old girl, for God’s sake! This wasn’t a comic book. You couldn’t just go out and kill somebody whenever you wanted to – it took planning, resources, some way to make sure you didn’t get caught. Sure, okay, I guess some people our age do actually snap and find a way to go out and kill people, but that’s only a tiny, infinitesimal fraction of those who have threatened to do it. And I still wasn’t sure it was even a threat.

No… no, I didn’t think Emi would do a thing like that. No need to get all worked up over nothing. Besides, what could I even do about it, anyway? I could just see myself going up to Aliyah and saying “Hey, guess what? You need to start getting a better ride home because now that I’ve talked to you, my crazy sort-of-friend Emi is probably going to try to kidnap you and drown you in a lake somewhere. My bad.” Yeah, that would just dowonders for our budding friendship. Not only would she not believe me, she’d probably peg me as the crazy one and avoid me like the plague until graduation. Nope, better to just never speak of this again and hope it went away…

By the time I managed to come to this conclusion, lunch was over and the bell was ringing to signal our return to class. I sighed and put my Goosebumps books back on the bottom shelf unread, then trudged to my first afternoon class – U.S. History, whoop-de-fucking-doo. At this point I had developed a massive headache and was completely unable to pay attention to a single word my teachers said for the rest of the day.

When classes finally ended, I fully intended to just hop straight onto my bus and ride home with everyone else, but that’s not what wound up happening. I had just joined the scattered line of students waiting to board the bus when a sickeningly familiar call of – “Hey, Zachy! Let’s walk home together again today!” – echoed in my ears. This time Emi didn’t yell to me from across the parking lot; this time she waited until she was close enough to grab my arm and drag me bodily from the bus line, ignoring my stuttering, half-hearted attempts to object.

“Actually, I… I t-think I’d rather just ride the bus today… I-I mean, its g-getting pretty chilly outside, and, um…”

“It’s okay, I’ll let you borrow my scarf!” she responded cheerfully, still maintaining her death-grip on my upper arm and pulling us towards the sidewalk. With her other hand, she removed her black-and-orange striped scarf and threw it haphazardly around my neck like a wooly python. “There! We had so much fun walking home yesterday that it’d suck not to get to today just because of the cold, right?”

I mumbled something indeterminate and readjusted the additional scarf to make it more comfortable. Emi seemed to take this as a “yes,” because she grinned at me and launched straight into her daily tirade of gossip and complaints about classes. I glanced wistfully back at the buses, which were just now pulling out of the parking lot. I felt like a bit of a coward, but I preferred to avoid confrontation if possible, and as long as Emi stuck to talking about normal things, I really didn’t mind walking with her. I did have to wonder dismally where this relationship was going, though… I mean, I couldn’t just let her drag me around forever, could I? Eventually I was going to need to draw a few lines, tell her to back off a bit; otherwise I would probably go nuts. I sighed heavily, dreading that moment already.

The walk was pretty uneventful, but I still had a feeling of intense relief when we finally reached Emi’s place. “Well, I guess I’ll see you tomorrow,” I remarked, trying not to look too eager to be on my way.

“Wait, Zachy! Do you wanna come in for a little bit?” she asked brightly.

The question hit me from out of the blue, and in my surprise I actually managed a definite answer for once: “No,” I replied bluntly, reflexively. Then I quickly softened the response with, “I mean, I have a lot of homework to catch up on, and I really wouldn’t want to impose…”

“Oh, don’t worry about that!” she replied, “My parents don’t get home until late at night, so I’m always really lonely after school! Besides, homework can wait until later, right? I mean, if worst comes to worst you can always copy mine again! C’mon, let’s go!”

“Okay, but really, only for a minute or two!” I responded, maintaining a very thin illusion of control as she grabbed my wrist and dragged me towards the front door.

“Yay!! I really appreciate it, Zachy, I hardly ever have anyone over,” she gushed. Gee, I wonder why. She unlocked the front door and pushed it open with a thud, leading us into a clean, well-kept entrance hall. She flipped on the light and shut the door behind us in one fluid motion, then ushered me directly up a carpeted flight of stairs to the second floor. What little I saw of the first floor seemed posh, well-furnished and tastefully decorated… yet oddly sterile, like a picture of a house in some catalogue that was just too perfect. It just didn’t feel lived-in. I didn’t see any family pictures either, but that was probably because I only had about ten seconds to look before being bundled up the stairs, down the hall, and into the third door on the left…

“Aaaaand this is my room!” Emi announced with a smile. “What do you think?”

The room laid out before me actually struck me speechless for a moment. This one definitely looked lived-in, just not by the same kind of people who had designed the rest of the house. The walls were painted a brilliant blood-red, except for the one directly to the left of the door, which was completely wallpapered with vintage horror movie posters, album cover art from various alt-rock and heavy-metal bands, and anime-style character decals. Another wall was mostly covered by a bookshelf stocked with an eclectic mix of comics, novels, leather-bound academic-looking books with occult titles, and several books with no titles on the spines at all. A couple of black beanbag chairs sat on a spiderweb-shaped rug in the middle of the floor, along with a small, boxy, rabbit-eared television set. Emi’s bed was in the back corner of the room, a huge four-poster covered by a velvety black canopy and dressed with a garnet-red bedspread patterned with thin black spiderwebs. An antiquey-looking black wooden writing desk sat next to it in the other corner.

This all might be relatively normal, if a little excessive, for a teenager given leave to decorate her own room; but the other decorations were frankly a little disturbing. First, there were the dolls. Lying on the bed, lined up on the bookshelf, sitting perched atop the desk: basically anywhere you looked, a pair of glassy little dead eyes stared back. A few of the dolls were more like action figures, I’d guess probably collectibles, but most of them were these creepy, voodoo-style button-eyed rag dolls. Some even had pins sticking out of them, or rough tears in their stitching through which cotton blossomed like some strange fungus. All were grinning eerily with their stitched-together mouths. Then, there were the plants. Not live ones, but dried plants, herbs and flowers, hanging in strings and bundles from the walls all over the room. The overall effect was like a cross between a teenage goth girl’s sanctuary and the storefront of a Louisiana witch-doctor.

I examined the plant nearest me suspiciously: a big bunch of dried purplish flowers tied together by their stems and hung from a nail on the wall by rough twine. I leaned closer and sniffed warily at the bundle – then drew back with a muffled exclamation, hand clamped over my mouth and nose. The putrid stench of the dried flowers didn’t carry very far, but one good whiff up close was enough to make me gag so hard it felt as though my throat had closed up. I coughed dryly, fanning the air in front of my face to drive away any lingering traces of the smell, then gulped down the relatively clean air gratefully.

“What do I think? It’s, um, certainly something,” I responded to Emi’s question ambiguously.

Emi tittered and said, “Not a big fan of the dried herbs, huh?”

“Guess not,” I responded half-heartedly. “Why do you have all of these, anyway? Are you, like, Wiccan or something?” I paused for a second, realizing how insensitive that probably sounded, then added, “No offense.”

Emi grinned and shook her head. “Nope!” she exclaimed cheerfully, pointing towards the head of her bed. I followed her gaze and… Jesus tap-dancing Christ, how the hell had I missed that when I came in?! Above her bed hung an enormous wooden crucifix, complete with a roughly carved, half-naked image of Jesus hanging from it. I wasn’t a particularly religious guy, so stuff like that always freaked me out just a little bit in the first place, but this thing was… special. First of all, it was probably the most graphically violent crucifix I’d ever seen: the carved Jesus’ hands and feet were shown nailed crudely to the cross with thick nails, creating rough-edged, bleeding wounds. Its emaciated body was covered with deep lacerations and the crown of thorns atop its head bled profusely. I mean, I knew that the point of the thing was supposed to be that Jesus suffered and died for man’s sins, but such a graphic depiction of torture just seemed… somehow cruel and sadistic to me. Needless. Secondly, and perhaps even more disturbingly, there was the thing’s face. On most crucifixes, at least those I’d seen, the face of Jesus looked peaceful and somber, forgiving, sad, or some combination of the above. The roughly carved face on this monstrosity looked… almost like it was glaring at the viewer, eyes shadowed by a heavy brow set in anger, mouth twisted into a frown. Overall, it looked more like something out of Children of the Corn than an actual legitimate religious symbol. I twitched backwards with an involuntary grimace, resolving to keep as much distance between myself and that end of the room as possible.

“So, uh… Catholic, then?” I corrected with a gulp.

Emi shrugged. “Pretty much!”

I decided against asking her how one could be “pretty much” Catholic, and instead remarked, “Yeah, I mean, this place is actually pretty nice! Definitely captures your personality.” I stepped in deeper, looking around more closely at some of the furnishings. “I’m digging the movie posters. Bela Lugosi was a kickass Dracula. And you’ve definitely got a cool set of… hold on a sec – is that a Jeff the Killer body pillow?” I inquired incredulously, coming across the ridiculous artifact leaning against one side of the bookshelf.

“Yep! He’s my Jeffy!” declared Emi, grabbing the pillow away from me and giving it an enthusiastic squeeze. I swear, I will never understand women. I did my best to hold back a look of disgust as she gave the grotesque cloth image a small peck on the cheek, then threw the pillow haphazardly to the floor and stated, “I’ve got to go use the – ahem – washroom. Be back in just a minute. You stay here and make yourself at home! Just don’t mess up any of my stuff. Oh… and nooooo peeking!” she finished with a smile and a wink, sweeping out the door before I could respond. I snorted. “Peeking?” As if!

Left alone in the silent room, I meandered over to the bookshelf, examining some of the titles on display.Rosario+Vampire, a few Stephen King books, something in Latin… I stopped when I reached a series of a few untitled books, curiously choosing one from the shelf and letting it fall open to a random page. I was met with a pair of handwritten pages in what was obviously Emi’s writing, complete with little hearts on the i’s.

I felt a blush creep into my cheeks. Was this Emi’s diary? My immediate impulse was to put it right back on the shelf – respect her privacy, and all – but in the end curiosity won out, and I decided to go ahead and read a little bit. I started at the top of the page, and found myself in the middle of what quickly became apparent as a Slenderman fan-fiction. So, not her diary, then, I thought with a mixture of relief and disappointment. Still, I read onward curiously: the main protagonist was just about to be confronted by the Slenderman; he was coming through the window into the house, and… oh. Ohhhh, wow. That was definitely not the way these things normally went.

Apparently I had stumbled into not just any Slenderman fan-fiction, but a very particular sort of – ahem –explicit Slenderman fan-fiction. For decency’s sake I won’t go in to any detail, suffice to say that it involved a lot of tentacles in very inappropriate places. Equally fascinated and repelled, I flipped through the rest of the book, scanning the other stories Emi had written. Believe it or not, they only got worse from there – really sadistic stuff, involving chains and gags and… knives… holy CRAP. I only skimmed over the material, but I’ll admit that even what little I gleaned from my cursory examination had me crossing my legs protectively.

Suddenly I heard a toilet flush on the other end of the hallway, and the click of heels on the wood floor coming towards the door. I hurriedly shoved the book back onto the shelf and sidled away to the other end of the room. I took up a position near the desk, trying to look nonchalant as I pretended to examine one of the creepy-ass patchwork voodoo dolls perched on the woodwork.

“I’m baaaaack, Zachy!” Emi exclaimed as she entered, pausing and almost striking a pose in the doorway. I blinked at her, nonplussed. While in the restroom, she had removed her long ruffled skirt, leaving her wearing nothing on her lower half but a ridiculously tight pair of purple athletic shorts with a barely one-inch inseam. Well, that and her knee-high black leather boots. Her blouse hung loosely off of her shoulders and she had let her hair down out of its trademark pigtails.

“I, um, yeah, h-hey,” I responded stupidly, at a complete loss for how to respond to this latest development. I tried not to stare at her inappropriately as she sauntered across the room and flopped down onto her bed, throwing her arms up behind her and leaning back into a half-seated position against a pile of pillows. I must have failed to completely disguise my gaze, though, because Emi tittered at me and commented: “What, this? I just like to dress more comfortably in my own room, is all. Those skirts are heavy, you know,” she finished with a wink.

Those boots honestly looked less comfortable than the skirts to me, but I just kept my mouth shut and gulped nervously instead of commenting on it. My throat suddenly seemed very dry.

“Well, come on, I told you to make yourself at home! Why don’t you come sit down?” Emi cajoled, patting the space on the bed next to her enthusiastically.

I blinked confusedly again, my palms beginning to sweat. “Um, maybe I’ll just, uh, grab a chair…” I said, moving towards one of the black beanbags on the floor.

Emi snorted and shook her head indulgently, smiling at me like one might smile at a child having trouble grasping a simple concept. She rose to a more upright position, swinging her legs over the edge of the bed, and said “My parents aren’t going to be home for a really long time, Zachy. And I get sooooo lonely. Maybe come over and sit with me for a weensy bit?” Then, to my surprise (though why I was still surprised at this point, I don’t know) she untied the front of her blouse, leaning forward to flash me the curve of her cleavage and the edge of her black, lacy bra.

For a few moments I just stood there gaping at her like a codfish. I couldn’t think clearly enough to formulate a coherent response. This place, this situation, the abruptness with which it had all come crashing down on me and my complete lack of experience with anything remotely similar… I was on sensory overload. It felt like my brain was short-circuiting; I couldn’t tell whether I was elated or terrified. The temperature in the room seemed to have skyrocketed twenty degrees in the past ten seconds. I looked at Emi, then my eyes darted around the room, then I looked back at Emi. What I had just read in her “diary” swirled persistently in the back of my mind as I took in first her intent stare, then the myriad glassy stares of the rag dolls and the unsettling glare of the crucifix, then her stare again.

I think that was what finally decided me: the inanimate gazes of all those dolls boring into the back of my head like hot needles, and the judging glare of Jesus Himself hanging at the head of the bed. I stammered some vaguely incoherent lie about parents waiting for me at home, then turned and bolted from the room with my tail between my legs like the yellow-bellied coward I was. I exited the bedroom at a fast walk, but by the time I reached the end of the hallway, I was flat-out running. I took the steps two at a time going down. Emi shouted something behind me as I ran, which I completely ignored, half-skidding out the front door and slamming it rudely behind me. I then proceeded to sprint shamelessly down the next three blocks, turning back when I reached the main road to find that Emi had thankfully not followed me out.

It was starting to get dark by now, and cold, and I silently thanked the powers that be that I hadn’t taken off my coat at Emi’s place. I turned and started off at a more reasonable pace towards my own home, my breath fogging in the air in front of me. After a few moments I realized that my phone was vibrating almost constantly in my pocket, buzzing like an angry hornet. There was no question as to who was texting me. I drew my phone out of my pocket but didn’t look at any of her messages, instead beginning to compose one of my own:

Hey, emi. sorry i freaked out at your place earlier. this all happened just a little too fast 4 me. i think we should slow it down & just work on being friends 4 now. hope ur not mad. see you at school tomorrow.

It took me forever to finish, as I kept getting interrupted by incoming messages and calls from Emi, but I finally got through with it, gave it a quick once-over, and hit send. I then turned the phone’s vibrate mode off, put it on silent, and replaced it in my pocket. I wasn’t sure ignoring her was the best thing to do, but I just couldn’t deal with her flood of insanity right now. The sun had just disappeared over the edge of the horizon when I got home, and even though it was early I threw my bookbag down and fell asleep almost as soon as I walked in. As I drifted off I couldn’t help but think of tomorrow with a sort of helpless dread… I had no idea how things were going to be with Emi, but I got the feeling they weren’t going to go smoothly…

My bus arrived late the next morning – a blessing to me since I probably would have missed it otherwise. I barely managed to stumble out to the bus stop after sleeping through my alarm, hair a mess and still wearing the same clothes I had fallen asleep in the night before. I checked my phone as the bus rumbled towards the school: I had no fewer than 200 new text messages, all presumably from Emi, along with 20 missed calls from the same. I sighed heavily and rested my head in my hands, massaging my temples glumly. My dread at the prospect of seeing Emi again had not abated since last night. I honestly had no idea how I felt about her – I had liked her enough in the beginning, and that hadn’t entirely gone away, but she was really beginning to freak me out. Overall, I suppose I just felt as though I was in way over my head. I needed to find some sort of diplomatic way of telling her to back off, but neither assertiveness nor diplomacy were exactly my strong suit, and I just kept drawing blanks every time I tried to think of something.

I was the last one off the bus when we arrived at school; I just couldn’t muster the willpower to get up and move my legs… at least until the bus driver snapped at me to get the hell out. I shuffled into the building glancing fearfully around me like a paranoid person, hoping to be able to avoid Emi until class started. Unfortunately, she yet again managed to see me before I saw her, and my stomach dropped as I heard a loud call of “Over here, Zachy!” approaching from my left.

I was too tired to take in the specifics of her latest fuzzy, neon-green monstrosity of an outfit as she approached (aside from noting vaguely that she looked like she was late for a 3am rave). She cut her way through the crowd of students to my side with startling efficiency. Taking the initiative for once, I headed off whatever comments she had been planning to make by starting with: “Look, I’m really sorry about last night; you really surprised me and I think we probably ought to –”

“Oh, it’s okay!” she interrupted chipperly, ignoring any notion of slowing down by enveloping me in another painfully awkward hug, this time adding a quick peck on the cheek as she withdrew. I flinched backwards involuntarily. “I totally get it. You’re shy! That’s really cute.” She grinned playfully and winked at me.

I shook my head exasperatedly, starting to feel more annoyed than fearful. “No, I really don’t think you get what I’m –”

“I brought you something to eat!” she interjected again, pulling a white cardboard box out from under her arm and flipping it open to reveal a half dozen pink-iced donuts with rainbow sprinkles. “To make up for scaring you off last night. Dig in!” she said with a bright grin.

What was her obsession with feeding me? Given what I had seen and read in her room last night, I was seriously beginning to suspect that this woman was trying to slip me roofies. “No thanks,” I responded, “I really don’t like –”

“Donuts?” she interrupted for a third time. “Don’t give me that, Zachy! EVERYBODY likes donuts!”

Frosting,” I finished curtly. “I don’t like frosting.”

“Oh, that’s no problem! You don’t have to eat the frosting. Here… I can even lick it off for you!” she said with a playful grin. Damn, didn’t this girl have any boundaries at all? There was no way I was eating anything that she had licked. I was just about to tell her so when, thankfully, the bell for first period rang, which I latched onto as an excuse to get the hell out of there.

“Sorry, gotta get to class. Always takes me forever to open my locker and I don’t wanna be late. See you later,” I finished rapidly, starting to turn and walk away even before the last sentence was out of my mouth.

“Wait, Zachy!” she exclaimed, following after me through the burgeoning crowd, “Did you get any of my messages last night?” I felt one of her hands grasp my upper arm tightly, while the other suddenly slid into my jacket pocket and… withdrew my cell phone! She released my arm and I spun quickly to face her, now seriously miffed.

“Hey, that’s mine. Give it back!” I exclaimed, my voice rising in anger against her for the first time. She ignored me and continued reading through my messages as if I hadn’t spoken.

“Oh, Zachy, you didn’t even read a single one? I poured my heart out to you and you don’t even care at all,” she chastised me, face drawn into an exaggerated pout. Her voice was a grating whine that sounded more like a sardonic parody of dismay than the real thing. “You’re a real meanie, you know that?”

“Give. It. Back.” I growled, glaring with as much authority as I could muster.

“Oh, fine!” she huffed, tossing the phone back at me carelessly. Caught off guard, I fumbled with the phone and barely managed to catch it before it hit the tile floor. “You’re lucky I still like you even though you’re mean. See you after class, dummy,” she finished, turning and flouncing away with a supercilious flip of her pigtails.

Yeah. Lucky freakin’ me.

I stumbled into homeroom with a sigh of abject relief, slumping into my desk chair and letting the relentless drone of the teacher lull me into a relaxed stupor. When it came time to go to the science class I shared with Emi, I deliberately waited until the last minute to get there, then chose a seat as far away from her as possible. A little cold, I know, but she had crossed a line. I was hoping for, and fully expecting, this science class to be thoroughly uneventful – but I guess we all know how that goes. About halfway through the lecture, the monotone voice of Mr. Michaelson was suddenly interrupted by a loud noise… emanating from my pocket. The classic Final Fantasy victory fanfare – my text ringtone – echoed starkly through the otherwise silent classroom. I jumped violently in surprise, and Mr. Michaelson turned to glare at me angrily.

The ringtone went off again, and I fumbled my phone out of my pocket quickly, trying frantically to silence it as the rest of the class stared and giggled. In my panic, it took me ten or fifteen seconds to figure out how to turn the ringer off properly. Finally managing to silence the thing, I glanced across the room to see Emi blinking at me innocently, her own phone open and glowing in her lap. “Sorry,” she mouthed with a shrug, though I didn’t think she looked sorry. My face flushed with anger and I was about to mouth something very rude back at her, but was interrupted by a loud admonition from Mr. Michaelson.

“Mr. Thompson! Care to come to the front of the room for a moment, or is my lecture interrupting your socializing?” I bit back my anger and shuffled sullenly to the front of the room. Long story short, he took my phone for the remainder of the day and assigned me after-school detention, right in front of everyone. I kept my gaze planted firmly on my own feet as I trudged, scowling, back to my desk. I could have fucking swornI’d turned off my ringer last night and never turned it back on. Did Emi accidently turn it on when she took my phone? Did Emi intentionally turn it on when she took my phone? Was this some kind of weird revenge thing for not answering her messages? It made me mad just thinking about it… mad, and a little bit irrationally scared. Just what the fuck had I gotten myself into…?

I darted out of the classroom as soon as the bell rang, intent on avoiding any sort of interaction with Emi for the rest of the day. My last class before lunch was English, and at the end of that period, I asked the teacher if I could stay in our classroom during lunch and do some make-up work where it was quiet. The teacher, a pleasant enough older woman, agreed, saying that I could stay and study for as long as I wanted but wasn’t allowed to eat in here. I sat at my desk pretending to study until she finished collecting her things and left. Then, as soon as she had disappeared down the hallway, I quickly snapped off all of the lights and sat down cross-legged behind a file cabinet, hidden from anyone looking in the windows. Once again, I felt like a Class-A coward, but I had the distinct feeling Emi was going to come looking for me, and I did not want to be found.

I withdrew my old Gameboy Advance from my bag and flipped it on, settling in to play Pokemon in my hidey-hole for the next hour. Several times I heard what sounded like high heels clicking down the hallway outside the classroom, and saw dark silhouettes cross past the windows. Every time this happened, my heart jumped a little bit in my chest, though logically speaking there was no reason to think that any of the footfalls or shadows belonged to Emi. At least, not until the classroom door creaked ajar, letting a sharp shaft of light into the room, and a voice called from the breach: “Zachy! You in here?”

I froze, quickly clicking off my game so that the light from the screen wouldn’t give me away. I tried to be completely silent, sitting stock-still and holding my breath anxiously. Emi just stood in the doorway, not saying anything, for several seconds. The light from the hallway cast her spindly, elongated shadow halfway across the floor. Then, I heard the “click…click…click” of her high-heels on the tile as she took three curious steps deeper into the room. My heartbeat sped up as an irrational wave of fear broke over me, and I silently pressed myself closer against the wall, praying that she’d just go away. After another few endless moments, my prayers were answered as I heard her footsteps click back towards the doorway. She shut the door with a dull thunk behind her, plunging the room back into relative darkness, and I listened with utter relief as her footfalls receded back down the hallway.

The remaining fifteen minutes of the lunch period passed without incident, though I was afraid to turn my game back on. When the bell rang to signal the return to class, I turned the lights back on, gathered my things, and darted to my next class as quickly as possible. Luckily it was only a few doors down and I managed to avoid being ambushed on the way. Afternoon classes passed as they usually did, in a haze of useless information with unrelated worries constantly intruding on my ability to concentrate. When school finally ended, as much as I would have liked to just go home and collapse, I was almost glad that I had detention, because it meant that Emi would have to walk home without me. I reported to the principal’s office with my detention slip, and he gave me back my phone and assigned me to an hour and a half’s worth of cleanup duty – punishment and free labor, two birds with one stone, I thought bitterly, slipping the phone into my backpack.

I was given a broom and dustpan and instructed to cover several rooms on the south end of the school building, including the band room. I remembered Emi mentioning that Aliyah was in the marching band, and I wondered optimistically if I might run into her on her way to or from practice… maybe we’d even wind up riding the same late bus home! However, when I went in to sweep up the band room, I found it completely empty, and deduced unhappily that practice must have been cancelled today. Man, I could not catch a break!

I sighed heavily and started in on the cleaning. The place looked as though it hadn’t been swept in months; some of the dust-bunnies were evolving into dust-elephants. I hummed to myself a little bit to pass the time as I chipped away at the menial labor; then, realizing I was completely alone, started singing out loud. I don’t know how long it was before I noticed it over the sound of my own voice… the faint tapping issuing from behind a door labeled “Low Brass Closet.” I fell silent and stopped what I was doing, staring at the door.

Tap, tap, tap… no, it definitely wasn’t my imagination. A chill drifted down my spine. What could that possibly be? I leaned my broom against the wall and took a couple of tentative steps towards the door. The tapping grew louder, more insistent. I hesitated. Tap, tap, TAP, TAP, THUD, THUD… the sound escalated from tapping to banging, heavy and frantic. Part of me wanted to bolt, but part of me was strangely mesmerized. Hands clammy, heart accelerating, I turned around and retrieved the broom; then, holding it out in front of me like a baseball bat, I started towards the door.

THUD, THUD, THUD… I crept slowly closer, heart in my throat, a little voice in the back of my head telling me that this was stupid, but something else, some inexplicable instinct, driving me on. As I drew within a few feet of the closet, I started to hear something else under the banging. It sounded like… a muffled cry, choked and barely audible, yet still obviously panicked and fearful. The moment I realized this, my initial fear was dispelled like a misty veil, and a very different kind of fear suddenly filled me. I dropped the broom and practically ran the remaining steps to the closet, recklessly yanking open the door.

There, suddenly illuminated in the spill of fluorescent light from the band room was… Aliyah! I gasped sharply, my hand flying to my mouth involuntarily.

Aliyah lay prone on the floor of the cramped closet, arms and legs bound tightly with thick, rough-looking ropes. Flat gray duct tape covered her mouth, wrapping at least twice around her head, and her eyes were covered by a dark blindfold. Her cries increased in volume and intensity as she heard the door open, and she began to squirm and flail backwards ineffectively, obviously in a complete panic. I just stood there, dumbstruck and staring, for longer than I’d like to admit, but eventually my paralysis lifted.

“Aliyah!” I shouted concernedly, rushing forward with the intention of untying her. She jerked backwards with another muffled shriek, kicking her legs violently in my direction. Her right foot caught me in the shin, almost causing me to topple forward on top of her. “No, hey! It’s me, Zach! I’m here to help!” I protested, moving towards her more cautiously now. My shin was throbbing, but I ignored it. “I’m going to untie you, okay?”

Aliyah continued to moan and shake with fear, but she didn’t try to kick me again as I reached over warily to remove her blindfold. Her head flinched backwards as my fingers brushed the side of her face. Gently, I pulled the smooth black fabric up off of her head; her eyes blinked rapidly in the sudden light, then turned to stare at me with abject terror. “Just hold on, I’m going to get these things off of you,” I reassured, “Let me untie your arms, okay?” She looked at me for another moment, still trembling all over, then nodded jerkily. I reached down and started fumbling with the knots securing her arms behind her back, pulling at them uselessly for several minutes before finally loosing them and pulling the coiled rope off of her wrists.

Her hands flew immediately to her mouth, scrabbling frantically at the duct tape wrapped around her head. I tried to help her find the end of the tape but she slapped my hand away, still jumpy and obviously preferring to do this by herself. After several minutes of watching her struggle with the tape, breathing heavily through her nose, she finally found purchase and started haphazardly unwrapping the gag. She let out a small, sharp yelp of pain as she ripped the last of the tape off of her mouth, then took in a deep, shuddering breath.

I waited a moment for her to catch her breath before asking in a soft, tentative voice, “What happened to you?”

“I-I don’t… know,” she stammered out, still panting heavily. “I was here alone… picking up my stuff… when all of a sudden…someone grabbed me. Their hands were… over my mouth… and there was this weird smell… and then… then I was alone in the dark. Groggy… couldn’t breathe… couldn’t move… tried to… bang on the door, but… took a while to… get my strength back. God, Zach, when you opened that door… I thought – I thought you were…” she cut off mid-sentence, shuddering violently and casting her eyes down into her lap.

“It’s okay,” I soothed, “Everything’s going to be okay. We’re going to finish untying you, then we’re going to go to the principal’s office and get everything sorted out, get you home. Okay?”

“Y-yeah,” she stuttered back in a small, quiet voice, reaching down to undo the bonds around her legs. She let me help this time and we had them undone in just a couple of minutes. She got up slowly, leaning on me for support and testing her weight on both of her legs before letting go. Her knees trembled for a moment but she kept her footing. She closed her eyes and took a deep, steadying breath, then grabbed my hand and walked with me out the door towards the principal’s office. I was torn between intense worry and a flush of small, guilty pleasure at the fact that she was actually holding my hand. We reached the front office at the end of the hallway far too quickly for my liking.

She stopped in front of the principal’s door and I followed her lead, glancing over at her quizzically. “Thank you,” she whispered softly, not looking me in the eye, then rapped quickly three times on the principal’s door before I could respond.

The rest of the evening was spent in a blur of questions and explanations as Aliyah and I tried to describe what we knew of the situation first to the principal, then to the three police officers he summoned to the school upon grasping the seriousness of what had transpired. The police questioned us both separately and then together, hammering us hard for any details we could remember. What time was Aliyah attacked? Who all was still at the school? What time did I find her? Did we know anyone who might have the means or the motive to do this? I had my own suspicions about that last one, but in the end I decided to keep my mouth shut. Maybe that was irresponsible, but it wasn’t as if I was certain of anything, and I really didn’t feel the need to stir up any more trouble by pointing fingers. The officers remained calm and neutral throughout the questioning, but I could sense the suspicion in their gazes when they looked at me, and it made me deeply uncomfortable. They probably wouldn’t believe a word I said anyway.

By the time we were finished with the police, it was practically 9 o’clock at night, full dark and freezing. Aliyah and I were each escorted home by one of the officers. I spent the car ride in terse silence, staring out the window to avoid looking at the policewoman sitting next to me in the driver’s seat. I spoke only to point out the entry to the housing development I lived in, and ask her to drop me off there. Before I left the vehicle, she handed me a business card and said: “If you have any information that might help us with this case – anything at all – please call and let us know at any time.”

I nodded seriously, taking the business card and sliding it into my pocket. Then, wordlessly, I slipped out the door into the cold night air, heading off down the street towards my home without looking back. I shuddered, half with cold and half with relief, as I heard the cruiser pull away from the curb and rumble back down the road. I was cold as balls, but I was finally alone again under the glow of the streetlights, able to take a breather and try to regain some sense of normalcy amidst this shitstorm in which I’d found myself. I walked at a leisurely pace, calming my mind and gathering my thoughts.

It MUST have been Emi that attacked Aliyah, I thought. In spite of what I had tried to convince myself while sitting in that room with the police – that this was just a paranoid theory, that Emi didn’t have the means to do something like that – I was ninety-nine percent sure that the crazy, pink-haired bitch was somehow behind this. It was just too much of a coincidence, Aliyah being attacked and tied up in a closet the day after Emi had threatened her. Not to mention that Emi had been acting erratically today too… hell, she had been acting erratically since day one, I just hadn’t noticed or paid enough attention to it. What was her endgame, I wondered? What would she have done to Aliyah if I hadn’t found her and let her go? Had Emi only meant to lock her in the closet overnight – not an attempt on Aliyah’s life but just a really mean prank? Or was she planning on coming back to do something… else?

I shook my head, exhausted and scared, as I neared my destination. At least I knew that Aliyah was safe for the night, having been escorted home by the police. Suddenly, I became aware of a low, almost imperceptible buzzing sound, audible only because of the perfect silence surrounding me. It might have been going on for quite a while without me even noticing it. For a moment, I couldn’t place the noise, and stood puzzled trying to pinpoint its location. Then I realized that the sound was coming from my backpack, and it hit me – my phone, on vibrate, buried deeply under my books and gym clothes, was ringing. A feeling of dread formed in the pit of my stomach, and against my better judgment I stopped and withdrew the phone from my pack. BUZZZZ…BUZZZZ… BUZZZZ… The phone vibrated constantly, almost violently in my hand, no longer muffled now but loud and insistent. I stood and stared at it hypnotically for what must have been several minutes as message after message scrolled across the screen:

Calling – Emi

Missed Call – Emi

Calling – Emi

Missed Call – Emi

New Text Message – Emi

New Text Message – Emi

New Text Message – Emi

Eventually I broke my trance for long enough to navigate to the main menu… there were OVER ONE THOUSAND new messages in my inbox, with more coming in every minute. BUZZZZ… BUZZZZ… BUZZZZ… My heart dropped and my stomach heaved with a sudden sense of vertigo, terror, and disgust. Some small part of my mind snapped in that moment, and I chucked the phone as hard as I could away into the underbrush, letting out a small, strangled yelp of helpless frustration and fear. I covered the rest of the distance home as fast as I could without flat-out running, not even bothering to note where the damned phone had likely fallen.

I tried to hit the hay almost as soon as I got home, but even though I felt strung-out and exhausted beyond belief, I just couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned for hours, my mind racing with uncomfortable, worrisome, and downright scary thoughts, yet somehow managing to generate nothing at all productive. I was in way over my head. I felt stuck. I had no idea what I should do.

Eventually, when the sun first started peeking over the horizon, I decided to just get up and drag my ass to school. A big part of me wanted to skip school entirely, but between the transfer and my lackluster class participation lately, I knew that I really couldn’t afford to. Besides, there was a paranoid little part of my mind that wanted to see Aliyah again with my own eyes and make sure she was safe. The thought of seeing Emi, though, was almost enough to give me a panic attack. I figured I could probably spend lunch locked in my English room again if necessary, but what should I do about this morning…? Maybe I could get there before her and just hide out until class started. It was pretty early; my bus wouldn’t be here for another hour, and the buses wouldn’t start arriving at the school for at least another hour and a half. If I left now I should be able to beat them.

With that in mind I got up, quickly changed into a new set of clothes, and headed for the school. The temperature was brisk but thankfully warmer than it had been over the past several days. I traversed the distance between my place and the school in record time, arriving to find the parking lot mostly empty and the building dark. No sign of Emi, thank God. I was a little worried that the front door might not be unlocked yet, but it was.

Upon entering, I deliberated briefly on where I could find a good place to hide for the morning, then decided to head for the men’s room. No chance of being found in there. I took a seat in one of the small, graffiti-covered stalls, locking the door behind me, and withdrew my old GBA from my backpack. Ah, video games, how many uncomfortable situations have you helped me suffer through in my life? I spent the next hour and a half or so immersed in a world in which small elemental monsters obeyed my every command, I was powerful enough to destroy a large criminal organization, and the closest thing I had to a deranged girlfriend was my cheery rival. When the bell finally rang to send everyone to class, I felt a certain sense of sadness and resentment at being dragged back into the real world.

Not worrying about being late, I waited until the halls had cleared and class had begun before darting out of the men’s room and making a beeline for my locker. As I approached, I noticed a strange smell hanging in the air, becoming stronger the closer I got to the locker. It smelled like some kind of perfume or air freshener or something, a cloyingly sweet aroma of artificial strawberries. Just the sort of thing Emi would wear, I thought with a grimace. Had she been hanging out around my locker all morning? Was that what this was? God, if this was the scent she left behind, the girl herself must smell like a perfume shop exploded. Now glancing around me warily, I spun the tumbler of my combination lock right, then left, then right again, resulting in a gratifying click as the lock snapped open. I grinned a little – this was the first time I had gotten it open in less than five tries, and I felt pretty pleased with myself – but my smile wilted the second I opened up the door.

Even before the locker door swung fully open, the fake strawberry smell was instantly overpowered by another scent – the peculiar, half-savory, half-sweet smell of rotting meat. There was also a sharp metallic edge to the scent, undeniably signaling blood. I drew back in surprise, but was unable to react quickly enough to prevent myself from pulling the locker door all the way open. There was a soft sliding sound and a sickening *plop* as several large, slippery reddish masses fell out of the locker onto the tile floor. The three-foot-tall space was stacked almost half full with similar objects, lumpy and shining with blood. For several moments I stared into the locker in abject confusion and shock, heart pounding. My palms grew sweaty, and I felt myself begin to salivate. The smell was so strong now, so strong that it almost made me dizzy. How had that strawberry perfume ever covered it up?

Against my better judgment, I leaned in closer, examining the slabs of raw meat (for I was now certain that this was what they were) stacked up inside my locker more carefully. In the cramped and shadowy space, I could make out what looked like several livers, constituting the bulk of the ghoulish pile. Among them were interspersed a few small, bean-shaped kidneys and… holy shit… hearts, real hearts, dark red and dripping with blood. A small, rational part of my mind noted with some measure of relief that they were too small to be human hearts – at least, I thought so – but that didn’t do a great deal to calm me down. I looked down at the pieces that had fallen to the floor: same thing, hearts, kidneys and livers, lying in a pool of blood and other unidentified juices.

An icy spike of fear drilled down my spine. I withdrew slowly from the bloody, viscera-filled locker, backing into the opposite wall before I’d even realized how far I’d gone. Hearts, livers, kidneys… oh, no… I looked back into the locker, raising my eyes above the pile of raw giblets for the first time to notice a message scrawled in blood on the back wall:


Those two words, their sickeningly familiar loopy script dripping inside a large, crudely-drawn heart shape, told me all that I needed to know about the culprit. I bit my lip, trying vainly to puzzle out what this meant and what I needed to do next, when suddenly a hysterical shriek echoed down the hallway to my left. I snapped my head around to face the noise and saw a blond girl (no doubt another latecomer to class) standing petrified at the end of the hall, her books scattered about her feet, staring at the bloody locker in terror.

Things happened pretty quickly after that. Concerned teachers emerged from classrooms all along the hall. Curious students jostled for position at the windows and in the doorways. There was a lot of awkward, hurried stuttering as I tried to explain to three teachers at once what was going on, being consistently interrupted by one or the other. Eventually I was carted off to the principal’s office for the second time in 24 hours, where I endured repeated questioning from both him and the school guidance counselor. I tried to pay attention to their questions and advice, but my mind kept wandering back to that viscera-filled locker. Hearts, livers, kidneys… hearts, livers, kidneys… No. No way. It had to be a coincidence. If (as I was nearly certain) Emi had indeed put those organs into my locker as some kind of twisted prank or gift, she probably just chose hearts because she thought it was romantic. Livers because they were easy to buy at the grocery. Kidneys because… oh, hell, some reason. Nothing to freak out about beyond the fact that some crazy chick had shoved organ meat in my locker, and honestly, wasn’t that bad enough?

I didn’t accuse her, though. Even when the administrators asked me if I knew who did it. I’m not entirely sure why I refrained – I certainly had no idea how to deal with this on my own – but somehow it felt like getting them involved would create more problems than it would solve. I guess I’ve always had issues with trusting authority. After my long chat with the principal and counselor, the police were summoned to deal with the viscera (and, I suppose, to make sure there were no human remains mixed in), and I was sent back to class.

About halfway down the hall from the office, I realized with a sudden jolt of horror that it was currently third period. Science class. With Emi. I briefly considered going back to the office and telling the counselor I needed the rest of the day off, claiming mental trauma from the locker incident. She’d probably buy it. However, my reasons for wanting to be here hadn’t changed since this morning: I was on thin ice in most of my classes already, and I hadn’t seen Aliyah yet today either. My stomach lurched as I was struck with the unpleasant, paranoid idea that her remains might have been mixed in with the meat in my locker. I shook my head sharply, trying to dispel the thoughts as if they were a fog in my mind. Nope, I was definitely staying. I was going to have to confront Emi at some point anyway; might as well be in a safe, structured environment.

Steeling myself, I approached the science classroom and slid in as quietly as I could through the back door, hoping not to draw any ire from Mr. Michaelson. Of course, the only open seat left was next to Emi. I walked stiffly over to the desk and sat down, pointedly avoiding looking at her. I stared straight ahead, pretending to pay strict attention to the lecture. Emi poked me in the shoulder, obviously trying to get my attention, but I acted as if she wasn’t there. She poked me again, and again, harder. She poked me with her pencil so hard that it hurt. “Psst, Zachy!” she whispered, leaning in as closely as she could to my ear without attracting attention from our classmates. I continued to ignore her, even when she slid a folded-up note in front of me, then another.

We sat there like that for several minutes, the awkward tension between us almost painful in the air. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw her raise her hand.

“Yes, Miss Jackson?” Mr. Michaelson called on her, sounding a bit exasperated.

“I need to go to the restroom!” Emi chirped with her usual inappropriately perky attitude.

“Go ahead,” he acceded, waving her off wearily. I allowed myself a quick, surreptitious glance over at her as she stood and flounced out the door, voluminous skirts trailing behind her. As I turned my gaze back to the front of the room, however, my eyes fell across her science notebook, lying open on her desk. I couldn’t exactly read it from where I sat, but I saw something that looked like my name scrawled in the top corner of one page, along with several tiny heart-shapes. Struck by a sudden, morbid curiosity, I glanced around warily, verifying that no one in the classroom was looking in my direction, then quickly swiped the notebook off of her desktop. I placed it in my lap, hiding it carefully in the shadow of my desk, and re-opened it to a random page.

I had to stifle an exclamation of unnerved surprise as I stared down at the pages. There were a few science notes there, surely enough, but most of the thin, college-ruled paper was covered with repeated scrawlings of “Mrs. Zachary Thompson” in various sizes and styles. That, and a lot of little hearts. I flipped through several more pages incredulously, finding only more of the same, interspersed with a few disturbing, full-page drawings of what I could only assume was supposed to be me, often in highly compromising positions. “MINE FOREVER” was scrawled in large, uncharacteristically spiky letters across several of the drawings and pages of text.

My heart pounded wildly in my chest as I attempted to quiet my increasingly fast and heavy breathing. I felt like I was about to have a panic attack. I closed my eyes and counted to ten, focusing on my breathing. Quietly, I closed the notebook, and was about to slide it back into its place on Emi’s desk when I caught sight of the illustration on the back cover… and felt my blood turn to ice.

Sketched in exquisite detail on the yellowish paperboard, looking like something out of a horror magazine, was a drawing of a monster. The creature stood amidst a cluster of bare, spindly trees, staring out at the viewer. It was vaguely humanoid in form, but severely hunchbacked, its vertebrae protruding like small spikes from its spine. Its body was almost entirely hairless, skin grayish and rough. Wicked-looking claws protruded from its disproportionately long fingers, its lanky arms hanging down so that the tips of the claws brushed the ground. Its legs, arched like a wolf’s, were wiry and well-muscled, but the creature looked desperately emaciated, its ribcage protruding exaggeratedly over a scrawny abdomen. Its mouth was enormous, lower jaw hanging loosely down past the middle of its chest, and the gaping maw was filled with long, sharp, jagged teeth. It had no nose to speak of, just a pair of rough holes in the middle of its face, and its eyes were sunken black pits that stared soullessly, hungrily ahead out of the paper.

For a moment, I couldn’t think. I couldn’t breathe. I just froze, a feeling of unreality surrounding me like a numbing cocoon. My hands began to tremble, hard enough to cause the drawing I held to shake wildly. This seemed to snap me out of my hypnosis, and I drew in a sharp, ragged gasp, heart now racing as if I had just run a marathon. I looked up to find several students now staring at me quizzically, but I was beyond caring. I raised my hand shakily, mentally pleading to be noticed quickly.

“…Mr. Thompson?” the teacher called on me, concern crossing his face as he noticed my obvious distress.

“May I, ah, go use the restroom?” I managed to stammer out, my mouth dry as cotton.

Mr. Michaelson looked at me seriously for a moment, as though he was considering saying something, then just nodded and said curtly, “Go ahead.”

I was up and heading for the door before the words were even out of his mouth. I managed to hold myself to a walk until I exited the classroom, but as soon as I got out that door, I flat-out bolted, feet slapping the tile heavily. I ran down the hallway, through the cafeteria, and straight out the front door, continuing across the crowded parking lot and down the sidewalk towards home, all without slowing. The whole time, one single thought was running on an endless loop in my head:

SHE KNEW. Somehow, that fucking bitch KNEW.

Eventually I grew tired and slowed to a walk, chest heaving, thoughts still swirling uselessly in my head. It was at this point that I noticed the fucking notebook was still in my hands, and I chucked it disgustedly into the ditch by the sidewalk as if it were some sort of venomous animal. I walked the rest of the way home in tense silence, trying futilely to find answers to the half-formed questions burning in my mind. How? How did she know? How could she possibly have found out? Did others know? What was she planning to do? What was I planning to do? What could I do?

I reached my place in a little under half an hour, but almost automatically I kept walking, deeper into the woods, leaves crunching and twigs snapping under my feet. I don’t know if it was just nervous energy or what that compelled me to keep moving, but I just couldn’t bring myself to stop. I walked for nearly an hour, forging straight ahead through the cold and the mud, before finally pulling myself to a halt in a small clearing amidst a stand of pine trees.

This was stupid. What was I doing? I just kept walking and walking, thinking and thinking, and not getting anywhere on either front. I was burnt out. I needed a release. More than that, I suppose, I needed to EAT something. It had been far too long since the last time, I knew that. I hadn’t hunted since I left Atlanta. Fuck, Atlanta. Ever since that incident I had been afraid to even try it. Damn, what a shitstorm that had been. It’s not like it was even my fault, those hikers had been trespassing on government property. It was a fuckingnature preserve for God’s sake, nobody was supposed to be there! I shook my head as if to ward off the memory, running my hands through my hair anxiously. Well, I was going to have to get back out there eventually, and I really needed it now.

I turned my head left and right, surveying my surroundings and scenting the air carefully. Nothing but the smell of the forest extending away in every direction. I had walked for an hour to get here, after all, I should be far enough away from civilization for this to be okay. Summoning my resolve, I took a deep breath, stared up into the tree-ringed circle of clouds above me and… let go.

Slowly, I felt my back arch and elongate, curving into a hunched conformation. My arms and fingers also stretched and grew, knuckles popping satisfyingly as they reached closer to the ground. Claws sprouted from each fingertip with a sharp *snick* sound. My legs arched into a wolfish posture, balancing my weight on what would have moments ago been my toes. I moaned softly with satisfaction as my jaw popped and sank, opening my mouth wider than any human’s could go. I felt amazing. Stress and tension I didn’t even know I’d been carrying seemed to bleed out of my body as I transformed, stretching muscles that hadn’t been stretched in ages. I felt like that genie from Aladdin, emerging from his lamp for the first time in eons. “Ten thousaaaand years can give you such a crick in the neck!” or whatever it was. I realized that I now felt fully relaxed for the first time in weeks.

Just as relaxing as the bodily changes were the mental ones. When I transformed, my mind regressed to a more instinctive, animal state. I lived purely in the moment, untroubled by guilt about the past or worry about the future. This was a great feeling, but it was also highly problematic since I couldn’t exactly exercise good judgment in this state – especially when it came to deciding what to hunt. What to kill. Hence, the incident in Atlanta. Oftentimes I’d considered just staying like this, running off into the woods and living wild like an animal for the rest of my life. But I really did like being a human, for the most part, and I didn’t want to give that up. So, I kept on convincing myself that someday I really would be able to settle down somewhere, get into a safe, functional routine and live without having to worry about any… unfortunate malfunctions… occurring. Though sometimes I couldn’t help but feel like I was just deluding myself.

None of that mattered now, however. Now there was just the wind and the woods, the feel of the dirt and leaves between my toes, the scents of soil and plants and fresh prey in my nostrils. I ran with a loping gait through the barren trees, free and focused, body buzzing with the feeling of being alive. After a while, I came across a deer and chased it for what felt like nearly a mile, finally running it down and raking my claws across its throat. As it lay twitching and bleeding out on the forest floor, I gutted it expertly and devoured first its liver, then its kidneys, and finally its heart. The soft meat and fresh blood slid rapturously across my tongue, filling my empty, rumbling stomach with a warm, satisfied feeling… but not nearly enough. As always, I left the rest of the carcass for the scavengers and set off in search of more prey.

I ate from two more deer, a raccoon, and finally what I believe was an enormous black dog before my hunger was quelled and I resumed my human shape. I walked home at a leisurely pace, guided by my nose and by the stars, for night had fallen while I was hunting. Luckily, my exploits had brought me back closer to my place than I had been when I transformed, so it was a short walk.

The large drainage pipe in which I had made my home was located right behind a nice new housing development, just a few yards into the woods off of some couple’s backyard. (Luckily they didn’t have any little kids to come nosing around “exploring”). It wasn’t the nicest place I’d ever found to stay in, but the pipe seemed to have run dry some time ago, and it was at least four and a half feet in diameter, offering shelter from the elements and prying eyes. I had room for a nice, soft sleeping bag, my trunk full of clothes, my bookbag, and (thank goodness) a battery-powered space heater. All obtained through less-than-ethical means, but hey, it’s not as though Wal-Mart was going to be driven out of business by one needy shoplifter.

I collapsed into the sleeping bag, exhausted but happy, thinking more clearly now than I had been in days. If Emi knew what I really was – and that now seemed certain – there was only one thing to do. I felt a guilty little flutter of anticipation deep in my stomach and tried for a moment to suppress it, then sighed and decided to just let it be, licking my lips contemplatively.

This wasn’t going to turn into Atlanta all over again, I told myself. That was the important thing. This time there was going to be planning. This time I wouldn’t be caught red-handed. I was NOT going to have to move again. I would take care of this carefully and quietly, and after a while everything would go back to normal. I hoped.

I fell asleep composing my plan for the next day, reaching a level of forethought which I felt was sufficient before finally drifting off. I woke up late the next morning, but that was alright, I only felt the need to be on time for one class – third period science. I walked to school slowly, going over the details of my (admittedly rather simplistic) plan repeatedly in my mind. I arrived at the school building just a few minutes before third period and picked up my late slip from the office, waving off the staff’s concerned inquiries regarding my health and mental status after my panicked exit yesterday. I told them that I’d just been a bit overwhelmed and needed some time off, apologizing for not going through the proper channels, and luckily they didn’t pursue the matter any further.

I went straight to the science room after that, not even bothering to check and see whether my locker was clean yet. About half the class, including Emi, was already there, and I took the seat directly in front of her. Quickly, I scrawled a short note in large, legible letters on the back page of my science notebook:

Dear Emi: These past few days have been a bit rough, but I think I’ve finally realized my true feelings for you. I love you, and I want to be with you forever. If you feel the same way, please meet me tonight at 10pm on the back woods trail in Valley Park. There is something I need to show you. Come alone, and don’t tell anyone where you’re going – they won’t understand our love. It must be a secret between just us two. Forever yours, Zach.

The blatant dishonesty of it was nearly enough to make me gag. It was completely childish and asinine, disgustingly lovey-dovey, and obviously suspicious – but I had no doubt that Emi was crazy and infatuated enough to believe every sketchy word. Taking a deep breath, I turned and tapped Emi on the hand to get her attention (as if that were necessary – she was already staring at me eerily), then surreptitiously showed her the notebook page, taking care that nobody else in the classroom would be able to see it. I watched her eyes light up as she read, lips moving to mouth the words, then stretching into an elated grin as she looked back up at me. She nodded her agreement to the terms of the note enthusiastically. Her expression was one of pure joy, and for a moment I felt a pang of guilt resonate in my heart. Then I reminded myself that she was a psychotic stalker with a monster fetish who had stuffed my locker with raw meat and left Aliyah tied up in a closet…

Aliyah. I hadn’t thought about her since discovering Emi’s drawing yesterday. How could I have forgotten? I had been really worried about her. I hoped that I would get to see her today, make sure she was okay. Now that I thought about it: Emi had left Aliyah bound and helpless in the band room on the exact same day that she had intentionally gotten me sent to after-school detention… had she meant for me to find Aliyah? If Emi knew what I was… she had left those organs in my locker as a gift… then Aliyah was… oh God, had Emi meant for me to…?

I shook my head, cutting off that thought before I even completed it. With a forced grin in Emi’s direction, I withdrew the notebook, closed it, and slid it into my backpack. I planned to burn the page with my note on it later. The rest of the science class was relatively uneventful. Mr. Michaelson gave some kind of lecture about the atom, which I absorbed exactly none of. Emi passed me several notes during the lecture, mostly flowery declarations of love which I read with a fake smile plastered on my face in order to keep up the illusion that I liked her. When class ended, I was out the door as quickly as possible, ignoring Emi’s attempts to communicate. Lying in a note was one thing, doing it to her face was a whole other matter, one that I wasn’t quite certain I could handle. I was honestly a horrible actor. Hopefully my hurried exit came off as mysterious and hard-to-get, rather than cold and uncaring.

The rest of the day was a blur of ordinary school B.S., all completely overshadowed by my worry and anticipation over tonight. I hid out in the English room during lunch again, desperate to avoid having to face Emi before… well, before 10pm. This time she didn’t come looking for me, for which I was deeply grateful.

I did see Aliyah in the hallway between two of my afternoon classes, to my great relief. I started to approach her, but stopped when I noticed that she was crying into the shoulder of one of her friends. From across the hall, I eavesdropped a little bit on their conversation: apparently, Aliyah’s beloved family dog, a six-year-old Newfoundland, had been found dead last night in the woods behind their house, eviscerated by some sort of wild animal. My heart sank as I made the connection. Great. Just great. As if I didn’t feel like enough of a douchebag already. Oh well, I suppose she’d never have to know it was me…

Finally, finally, the school day ended, and I left the building quickly through the back door, once again managing to avoid Emi. I headed straight to the park, taking the long way around. Valley Park had a two-mile hiking trail stretching out into the woods behind the park proper, and at this time of the year, it was practically deserted. By the time the sun had set (around 7 pm), it would be completely vacant. I took up position at the back end of the trail, as far into the forest and away from the park as the trail got, and began pacing nervously. Even with hours to go until our appointed meeting, I was too anxious and excited to do anything else.

Yes, excited, I admit it. I had never actually intended to do something like this before, though I knew of others who did. It was different… invigorating. I certainly didn’t plan to make a habit out of it, but under these extenuating circumstances… I had to protect my secret, after all. No reason I shouldn’t let myself enjoy it. At least, that’s what I kept telling myself during those hours I spent pacing through the trees.

In the crisp, clean forest air, I scented Emi’s arrival before I saw her. She smelled of sweat and strawberry perfume. Feeling my mouth begin to water, I froze and waited in the dark, standing amongst the trees a few feet off of the trail. Soon, I saw the beam of a flashlight waving back and forth across the dirt trail, and Emi crested the hill walking towards me. She was dressed in the same outfit as she had been when we first met, with the addition of her long, black trenchcoat. I waited for her to reach the spot on the trail directly in front of me, then called out to her quietly: “Emi! Over here!”

She turned in my direction, scanning the treeline with her flashlight, then beamed happily as light fell on me. “Zachy! Hey there! You’ve been avoiding me, you silly guy! What did you need us to meet all the way out here for? Are we running away together?” she asked with a coy smile.

“You know, don’t you?” I responded, bluntly and without preface.

“Know what?” she asked innocently, resting her index finger on her lower lip. I could tell from her tone, though, that she knew exactly what I was talking about.

“About me. About what I am.”

“I had a huuuuunch!” she responded in a singsong voice, “Guess I was right, huh? You’ve been holding out on me, you dummy; you really are an interesting guy! A real monster. I love guys like you, I just love them! I guess you could probably tell that, haha. It’s really cool to have one of you love me back, though! You do love me, don’t you, Zachy?”

I sighed heavily and took a step closer towards her. Now that I had confirmed my suspicions, there was only one thing left to do. “Yeah, about that… look, I’m sorry about this, Emi, I really am, but you haven’t exactly left me much choice…”

Saying this, I let my inhibitions go and began to transform: back stretching, jaw widening, claws clicking out along my fingers. I began to salivate more heavily as my sense of smell sharpened and I took in her exotic, savory scent. Strangely, she looked largely unfazed by my transformation, still grinning appreciatively at me. As I began to advance, my rational mind being replaced by animal bloodlust, she reached into her trenchcoat and pulled out something small and round… then threw it to the ground in front of me.

The object instantly exploded into a cloud of white smoke. As the smell of the smoke reached my nose, my animalistic mind recognized it distantly as the same stink of the purple-flowered herb in Emi’s room. Then I was on the ground, the stench consuming all of my senses, my throat closing up involuntarily. I writhed, choking, unable to get even a wisp of the tainted air down my windpipe. My vision slowly began to darken. The last thing I saw before losing consciousness completely was Emi’s dark form moving towards me through the mist, holding what looked like a short, silvery blade…

Emi Jackson whistled happily as she skipped home from the butcher’s shop with her purchase. Fresh beef livers and kidneys, just what she needed for her new guest. She had also bought herself a few microwave meals at the grocery: usually she liked to cook, but she was always really busy when she got a new housemate, and throwing something in the microwave for dinner was quick and easy. It was at times like these that she missed having her parents around to make meals for her… but if they were still around, she supposed, there wouldn’t really BE any times like these.

Her parents didn’t approve of her houseguests, you see. They thought of monsters simply as enemies to be destroyed. Hateful abominations to be killed without hesitation, just as their ancestors had been doing for hundreds of years. They had even formed an organization dedicated to the craft. Emi, however, thought differently. She alone saw the beauty inherent in the terrible, the frightening. She alone knew how to love that which everyone else despised, that which was called disgusting and evil – and she loved with great passion. How was it that no one else saw how wonderful these creatures were, how fascinating, how amazing? How could they kill them so wastefully, aiming even to drive them into extinction? Philistines! Neither her parents nor their close-minded friends could ever understand her feelings, so she supposed that their schism had been inevitable.

It really shouldn’t have been that way, though. Disowning her, excommunicating her from the guild… there was no need for all that! She was still doing her job, after all: preventing innocent people from being killed by monsters. She just didn’t feel the need to destroy the monsters in the process. As long as she could sequester them where they wouldn’t hurt anybody, what on Earth was the harm in keeping them? Those old fuddy-duddies just couldn’t handle any sort of change at all, she thought. Even if it was difficult sometimes, striking out on her own had been for the best.

Caught up in her musings on the past, Emi arrived at her house almost before she realized it. She grinned brightly as she trotted up the front steps and stepped into the house, her thoughts now turning to the present and her dear Zachy. She had seen the signs almost as soon as she set eyes on him – changelings weren’t too difficult to spot if you knew what to look for – but sometimes there were false positives, so she’d needed to make sure. Okay, so maybe trying to do it by feeding that Aliyah girl to him wasn’t exactly in line with her parents’ organizations’ values, but the poor guy had deserved a last meal if he’d wanted it! And besides, that dumb bimbo had tried to steal her man; nobody would have really missed her much, anyway.

She was sort of surprised Zachy had turned down that golden opportunity, but she supposed that was just the way he was. Honestly, the guy was a bit too much of a “sparkly emo monster” for her liking: Going out hunting animals instead of people, putting on that whole “I just want to be a normal teenager” shtick… how boring was that? I mean, who the hell actually WANTED to be a normal teenager? Lame-o! Nobody was perfect, though, and she totally loved him anyway. He might even be her new favorite.

Emi thought these things happily as she went about preparing her new favorite’s evening meal, not that much preparation was required, since he took his meat raw. Humming cheerily to herself, she grabbed the platter of liver and kidney meat and headed for the basement door. The door swung open with a gratifying *creeeaaak,* and Emi snapped on the lightbulb above the cement staircase. Her high-heeled boots clicked loudly on the stairs as she descended, alerting all those held below of her arrival.

She sighed blissfully as she turned the corner into the basement room: her guest room, her menagerie, her little slice of perfection. “Hello, my darlings!” she announced loudly as she entered. The dark stone room was lit only by a single, swinging light bulb, casting deep shadows into the corners. Thick iron chains hung from several places on the walls, and there were a dozen cages of varying sizes scattered across the room. Many of these were empty, but there were several current occupants of the basement room’s restraining devices, and they all reacted strongly to Emi’s entrance.

A creature that looked like a furry soccer ball with a mouth full of sharp fangs, chained to the back wall, let out a pitiful squeal and pressed frantically against the wall, trying to make itself as small as possible. A catlike animal about the size of a Labrador retriever, with webbed feet and small, bony horns, started clawing desperately at the lock to its cage, mewling like a kitten. A shadowy figure, visible only in the antique mirror hanging on the west wall, silently pressed itself so closely against the frame that it became only a dark black line along the left side of the reflected image. A ten inch tall imp-like creature hanging from the ceiling in a small, square cage shook its fists and began shouting rapid obscenities at Emi in a squeaky, high-pitched voice. Emi grinned. He was feisty today. She liked that.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there was Zachy. He sat, naked, along the east wall of the basement, both arms shacked and chained to the wall behind him, both legs shackled to the floor. He seemed to be in a half-transformed state: parts of his skin bore a pinkish, human hue, others were rough and gray; one eye was sunken in much more deeply than the other; his nose was flattened and misshapen; his fingers were elongated, but bore no claws; his back was hunched, but his legs were mostly human-shaped. He sat with his eyes half-closed, staring catatonically, head lolling down so that his chin rested on his chest. A steady stream of drool flowed, unnoticed, from the corner of his mouth. He offered no reaction to Emi’s cheerful cry of, “Hey there, Zachy, how are you today!” as she approached with the meat platter.

Emi sighed. She always had trouble getting the drug doses just right when working with a new species. Apparently she had overdone it. Had to be careful not to over-correct and give too little, though, or he might get loose. Oh well, she’d get it ironed out given a few weeks. She tried for a little bit to feed Zachy his liver, but to no avail: she could barely get him to open his mouth, and chewing seemed completely beyond him. Emi set the platter aside in frustration, muttering faux-exhaustedly, “Oh, Zachy dear, what am I going to do with you?” Of course, there was no response.

Even in this state, he was still soooo cute, though! Emi wiped the drool from his mouth with the back of her hand, then ran her fingers along his cheek, down his neck, and onto his chest. He didn’t even seem to notice. She leaned closer, pecking him on the cheek and whispering in his ear, “Dear Zachy, we are going to have SO MUCH fun together once I get you sober.” As she said this, she slowly withdrew a small, silver knife from her pocket and held its edge against his chest. She pressed lightly against the taut skin, then drew the blade sideways, leaving a shallow red line slowly oozing blood. Smiling, Emi turned to look at the large, elaborate tool rack fastened to the basement wall behind her: knives of all shapes and sizes, some smooth-edged, some serrated, hung glimmering darkly from the rack, along with several thumbscrews, pliers, nails, a saw, and a fireplace poker. Her smile widened. “SO MUCH fun…”

Her murmuring was interrupted by an unusually loud burst of profanity from the imp in the cage. Emi frowned. She liked that the little guy still had spirit, but that was no way to behave in front of a new guest! Seemed like some discipline was in order… Pocketing the knife, Emi rose and slowly approached the tool rack, eyes suddenly sparkling, upper lip twitching manically as her wide grin started to return. The brazen imp’s rant trailed off fearfully and he drew back against the back of his cage. Emi ran her fingers lovingly along the collection of weapons hanging from her wall.

Yesssss, today was definitely a good day.


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