November 12

Six Years

It’s been a while since I tagged a story under the “Muse” category.  I don’t know if I’ve ever explained what that category means, but basically, they’re just stories that came to me in dreams.  Probably not the most traditional definition of a “muse,” or maybe not really even the definition at all.  But whatever.

Anyway, I don’t know how this one was supposed to end.  I haven’t written a love story in a while, and I feel like it falls a little flat in the end.  However, I’m posting it anyway because it’s been a while since I’ve posted something here, and my excuse is usually that I am not happy with something I wrote or that it’s not finished…but not this time!

——————

“Hey Ryan, you want something to drink?”

“Naw, I’m good,” I said, staring down at the smooth kitchen countertop, admiring the way it sparkled under the LEDs hanging overhead.  “Did your parents remodel?  I don’t remember the granite.”

“It’s quartz,” Ethan said.  “And yeah, they did.”

“Man, how long has it been since I’ve been here?  Six years?”

“Probably about that long, yeah.”

When we were kids, I was at Ethan’s house every weekend.  Now we had our own apartments in a different city, and this place where I spent much of my childhood felt so familiar, yet so foreign.

“When’s the last time you saw my sister?” he asked.

“I guess probably the last time I was here.”

“Wow, really?  That long?”

“If it wasn’t me being off at college, it was her.”

“Yeah, I guess so.  Just doesn’t feel like that long for some reason.”

“She home for the summer?”

“Yeah, she’s finally taking a break and not doing summer classes.”

I chuckled, remembering how hard his sister used to study.  She’d sometimes knock on Ethan’s door while I was over and tell us we were yelling at our video game too loudly while she was trying to do homework.

“Good for her.  She’ll miss college like a year after she graduates anyway.”

Ethan smiled.  “Feeling nostalgic already?”

“I’m not gonna lie, I miss the experience, but the classes…hell no.  I am so glad to be done with group projects.”

A door closed down the hall, causing me to arch an eyebrow.  “I thought your parents were out?”

“They are,” he said, lowering the glass of water he’d been sipping from.  “That’s Elaine.”

“Oh, I guess it didn’t click.  That’s why you brought her up?”

“Duh,” he said, rolling his eyes.

When she walked into the kitchen, I could feel my eyelids blinking at an unusual cadence.

“Elaine?” I said, not necessarily meaning to utter her name out loud.

“Ryan?  Oh my God, wow!  It’s been so long!”

Picture yourself as a 16-year old, and then again at 22.  In my late teens, I had long hair and wore whatever was cheap or handed down from my brother.  None of it fit right, and I didn’t much care.

At 22, I was wearing flannel button downs and slim, tapered jeans that ended in Red Wings that cost more than my entire warddrobe did in my teens.  And my hair?  Same as every other guy – short on the sides, long on the top, slicked back with American Crew.  Some people called it “hipster.”  My friends joked that I was a lumberjack.  But the point is that I was unrecognizable from my 16-year old self.

Honestly, my memory of 16-year old Elaine was a little blurry.  I remembered that she wore glasses for a while, and I think she went through a short goth phase.  Or maybe she just had a lot of black clothes?  She was cute, but I couldn’t really recall that she stood out.  Maybe that was because the last half a year or so that I’d been around her, I was dating Mindy Decker, which, if I’m still being honest, severely distracted me from looking at other girls.  I was sort of head-over-heels for her until we went out separate ways for college.

“Yeah,” I said, a bit flustered.  “Ethan and I were just talking about that.  Probably about six years.”

If I was unrecognizable from my 16-year old self, Elaine was, on the outside, a completely different person. She had on a patterned dress that was cut perfectly to accentuate her waist and hips, but stopped short at her thighs and made her legs seem impossibly long for her height.  She was no more than 5’2″, but from across the room, I’d have pegged her at least half a foot taller than that.  She wore thick-rimmed, tortoise shell glasses, and her chestnut hair flowed in waves down to her shoulders.

She was absolutely striking.  In a room full of people, she’s the one that would catch your eye, and everyone else would fall out of view.  It was almost unbelievable how different she looked.

Six years is a long time.

I got up off the barstool I’d been sitting on, trying to recognize the girl I used to know while she approached me for a hug.

“You look so different,” she said.  “You’ve got the whole lumberjack thing going on.”

Ethan snickered behind me.

“Yeah, uh…ditto on that, except for the lumberjack part,” I said, ignoring him.  “I barely recognized you.”

She laughed.  “I acquired a sense of style after you guys went off to college.”

“Tell Ryan what you’re majoring in,” Ethan said.  “No, wait.  Guess.  Based on what you’ve heard about her major, you’ll never get it right.”

I couldn’t remember what her hobbies had been back when we were kids, but it sounded like that wouldn’t have helped anyway.

“Uh…math?”

Ethan laughed.

“Close,” she said.

“Computer science?  Engineering?”

“Ah!  Very close!” she said.

“Which one?”

“The latter.”

Suddenly, Ethan’s comment made sense.  “Electrical engineering?”

“Bingo!” she said.  “Great guess.”

“Ethan gave me a hint,” I said.

“He did?”

“Our friend CJ was an EE major,” I said.  “There were no girls in his class.  Like, none at all.  He used to complain about it all the time, and it was a running joke amongst our group for a while.”

Elaine smiled and blushed a bit.  “Yeah, I’m the only girl in most of my EE classes.”

“That must be pretty rough.”

“Actually, it’s not that bad.  My friend John is in EE too.  It helps to know someone in any class, much less one that has a bit of a reputation for being a boy’s club.”

“Hey El, sorry to interrupt, but Ryan and I were about to head to Chili’s to meet up with Chad.”

“Oh, sorry to hold you guys up!  Tell Chad ‘hi’ for me.  I haven’t seen him in ages either.”

“No, it’s cool,” I said, pausing.  “Actually, if you’re down for whatever Chili’s is microwaving up tonight, you’re welcome to join us.  Maybe some drinks at Ginny’s after, too.”

She grinned.  “I’m meeting up with a friend tonight as well, actually.  But she has to leave around 7.  I’ll text Ethan when I’m done and meet up with you guys if you’re still out.”

As we pulled out of Ethan’s parents’ driveway, I couldn’t help but hope that I’d see Elaine later that night.  I could feel my heart beating a little faster as I thought about it, leaving absolutely no doubt that I’d suddenly developed the fastest crush of my life.

Do adults have crushes?  Is that what it’s called when a dude falls for a chick past high school?  Whatever, it doesn’t matter.  Maybe it wasn’t even that.  After all, what I knew of her was from 6 years ago, and those were foggy memories at best.  Was it just lust?  No, I wasn’t thinking about fucking her; I was thinking about talking to her – getting to know her better.  But I was also positively drawn to her vivaciousness, her style, and her beauty that seemed to pause time itself.  That’s what it felt like to fall for someone, right?

I didn’t enjoy my dinner that night, to be honest.  It wasn’t that the food was bad; no, it was fine for what it was.  The issue was that I was impatient and anxious, and talking with Chad and Ethan felt like the opening act to the main event, as awful as that sounds.  Yeah, they were some of my best friends, but that night, I knew what I wanted, and everything else seemed to not matter.

Ethan’s phone buzzed as we were leaving Chili’s to head to Ginny’s.  It was right after 7, and my anticipation had peaked and damn near erupted by that point.

“Is that your sister?”

“Can you look for me?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said, grabbing his phone from the center console of his car, trying to remain calm.  It was so strange having this come over me.  I felt like a kid on Christmas morning pressing the button on the chin of his phone to see the notification.

El: Finished dinner.  Ginny’s?

“It’s her,” I said, miraculously managing to hide my excitement.

“She wants to know if we’re still going to Ginny’s, I think.”

“There’s no passcode.  Can you respond for me?”

“Sure.”

On our way right now.  Meet you there?

A few moments later, the phone buzzed.

El: Yep, be there in 10.

Cool.

I figured that was the end of the conversation, but as I went to put the phone back in the center console, it buzzed again.

El: So…don’t hate me.  Is Ryan single?

I froze, but my heart apparently didn’t get the message.  I could feel it thumping and could practically see it beating out of my chest.  Besides the obvious ‘holy shit, it’s kind of obvious why she’s asking that’ that ran through my mind, I also immediately had the problem of ‘how in the world did I answer that question?’

I could tell her ‘no,’ put the phone back down, and spare her the possible embarrassment.  But Ethan would see his messages probably as soon as parked his car, and then I’d have to explain to him why I didn’t tell her it was me.  Or I could just tell her it was me, but that would be horribly embarrassing, right?  Maybe it wouldn’t be if I just immediately told her I was digging on her too.

Wait, there was a third option I hadn’t yet considered: lock the phone, put it back in the console, and pretend like I’d never seen the message.  Then there was no embarrassment for her, there’d be nothing to explain to Ethan, and I still would have the knowledge that she asked.

I put the phone back in cupholder in the center console.  “She’ll be there in 10 minutes.”  I was cool, collected, absolutely perfect delivery.  He’d never suspect that I saw that message unless he was paying really close attention and heard the phone vibrate in my hand, which I doubted.

When we pulled up at Ginny’s, Elaine was stepping out of her car.  It was absolutely perfect timing.  Even if Ethan saw the message, even if he suspected that I saw the message, he wouldn’t be able to ask me about it until we were alone.  No way he’d say anything right in front of her.

I walked over to Elaine, pretending I didn’t notice Ethan checking his phone.  My heart was still thumping, which was compounded on when she glanced down at her phone, smiled, then looked back up at me.  Had Ethan replied?  Is that what she was smiling about?

“Hey,” she said, flashing what was quite possibly the most enchanting smile I’d ever seen.

“Glad you could make it,” I said.

“Yeah, me too.”  She paused, glanced behind her, then looked at Ethan, saying, “Hey, you mind if we catch up with you inside?”

“Sure,” he said, passing casually by me.  I looked over and saw the biggest shit-eating grin on his face that I’d seen in quite some time.

All I could think was, “Oh wow, is this happening?”  And she was the one taking the initiative?  Was this a dream?

But still, I feigned ignorance.  “What’s going on Elaine?”

“This is going to sound silly, maybe, but I just…it’s just something I have to tell you.”

Hmm, okay.  Not how I thought she would lead off.

“Sure, what is it?”

“Back when you were in high school…” she paused.  “God, I can’t believe I’m telling you this.  Back when you were in high school, I had a huge crush on you.”

That’s definitely not what I was expecting to hear.

“You did?” I said, feeling a little let down.

“Yeah.”  She laughed a little, looking down at her feet.  “When I saw you again, those feelings came rushing back to me.  I guess maybe they never went away.”

I stood there frozen, unsure what to say, despite having heard exactly what I’d been expecting to hear.

“It’s fine if you don’t feel the same way,” she said.  “I just wanted to tell you.”

“No, Elaine, I-” I paused.  “It’s not that.  To be honest, I didn’t really have any feelings for you six years ago, but I definitely felt something earlier today when we reconnected.”

She smiled.  “You know, I tried so many times to tell you how I felt when we were younger.  I finally got up the courage one day, swore to myself I was going to tell you, even told Ethan I was going to do it.  Then I found you were dating that girl…what was her name?  Mindy?”

“Wait a minute, Ethan knew you liked me?”

“Oh yeah, totally.  He found out by accident, but he swore he wouldn’t tell.  Apparently he never did, either.”

“No, he didn’t,” I said.  “But, I did sort of intercept that text you sent him earlier since he was driving.  I replied to your first text, saw the second one, then panicked and put his phone back down.”

“Wait, so you…oh man, that’s actually kind of funny.  So you were probably expecting this to happen?”

“I don’t know that I was expecting anything to happen tonight, but it was pretty clear to me why you asked him that question.”

She shook her head and laughed.  “I always knew I’d have to be the one to make the move, but I never really thought it would go down like this.”

I laughed.  “But it went okay, right?”

“If you’re agreeing to go on a date with me tomorrow night, then I’d say so.”

“Yeah, I’ll definitely agree to that.”

She smiled.  “Then yeah, this went pretty well.”

July 26

Intertwined

In some cultures, it’s common to refer to the paths ours lives take as “threads.”  It’s such an interesting comparison to make, because threads have so many different qualities that make them unique.  Threads can be many different colors and sizes, and combine fabrics to make something that’s so much larger the sum of its parts.  Unfortunately though, like threads, lives can be cut short, and sometimes, threads can be stretched taut until they snap.

I met Carrie in my third year of college.  She was in one of my general education classes.  Despite our majors being substantively different, our threads still intermingled.  It’s weird how that works, and kind of beautiful in the grand scheme of things.

We didn’t sit next to each other, nor would we probably have ever talked, but we got paired up for a group project by our teacher and ended up hitting it off remarkably fast.  The reason our teacher paired us?  Both our last names started with “L.”

Carrie’s family owned a small textile company somewhere in the eastern U.S. that produced some kind of old-fashioned, high quality fabrics.  She was expected to go into the family business, but was majoring in a STEM field because, as she said, she simply lacked the interest.  I found it fascinating that she wanted to turn down the inheritance of a successful company business to go off and do her own thing, but that quality was what initially drew me to her.  Carrie knew what she wanted and was willing to work through every obstacle in her way to achieve it.  Simply calling her “driven” almost didn’t seem like enough.

Me?  I was going for a career in journalism.  The art of writing, I guess.  Quite different from Carrie’s biology major, and yet, we found so many similarities between ourselves.  The way she could describe cellular functions was poetic, which was remarkable in that she understood her passion well enough to explain it beautifully in layman’s terms to someone like me, a person whose scientific knowledge started in my 7th grade life science class and ended in my 8th grade earth science class.  It’s funny, really, remembering her expression when I stared stupidly back at her during bar trivia the first time she realized how truly lacking my knowledge of science was.  She guessed – correctly, I might add – the answer to a question, “mitochondria,” and spent the next ten minutes explaining to me things I probably should’ve remembered from 10th grade, but totally either forgot or blocked out.

The weird thing though, was the joy that radiated from her eyes, her tone, the way she sparkled when she spoke about what she loved.  I couldn’t care too much less about eukaryotic cells, but I could’ve listened to her speak vividly about them all night.  She lit up so brightly when she got to talk about that stuff.

Carrie and I were friends for only a few weeks before we started dating.  I say “only” a few weeks because I never moved quickly into relationships.  The beginning of my first year in college, I spent so much time writing and submitting articles and columns to various sites, magazines, and papers that I literally ruined a budding relationship that I’d put a couple of months of work into by that point.  The same thing happened again at the end of my first year, so I just sort of swore it off unless it seemed like it could be a casual thing.  I was really focused on breaking into the career I’d always dreamed about, and for some reason, finally seeing that focus in someone else made me appreciate Carrie all that much more.

We both knew immediately that our time together would be limited as we approached mid-terms that semester, but that was fine.  I really didn’t consider anything about our relationship “casual,” and yet, I was supposed to have sworn that off.  I guess I found it really hard to have found something so special in someone, and yet have to not let fate take its course.  Our threads had met and intertwined, and I didn’t want them to drift apart.  That I was sure of.

Mid-terms came and went, and our time together was stretched thin, but even just meeting for lunch or walking her across campus to her dorm in the evening was enough.  I was in it for the long-haul, and if seeing Carrie infrequently now was what it took to see her more frequently at some undisclosed point in the future, then I was up for it.  Seeing her smiling face, hearing her laugh and gentle whispers of “I love you” when we parted for the day, I knew the feeling was mutual.  There was no need to confirm, no need to bring up pointless things.  Carrie’s thread and mine might as well have been one.

Every once in a while, Carrie visited her parents and fell off the face of the earth for a day or two.  She always told me ahead of time and blamed her lack of communication on spotty cell coverage in her home town, compounded upon her parents’ requests of family time.  I didn’t mind, of course, it was just another thing that kept us apart.

My senior year was spent searching for an internship, and subsequently pouring my time into the one I found.  It was exhaustively time-consuming.  Every time I opened up my word processing software, I thought about how much more I wished I could be texting Carrie.  It was a daily struggle to be responsible, and every once in a while, I could tell it was for her too.  I think we both did pretty well in hiding just how much we wanted to spend more time together, but there were times I really got depressed about it.  I don’t think Carrie ever noticed, because as soon as I saw her, those negative feelings evaporated.

I don’t think it ever affected my studies.  In fact, it might’ve even helped.  I knew that failure in my classes meant repeating them, which meant more time spent with books and Microsoft Word instead of Carrie.  That was something that really kept me going sometimes.

A month before we were set to graduate, Carrie started acting weird.  Or, maybe it’s more accurate to say that I started noticing that Carrie was acting weird.  Not in a suspicious way, but it was still very concerning.  I must’ve asked her twenty times what was bothering her, but over and over, she assured me that nothing was wrong.  I couldn’t figure out why she was lying to me, and I knew that’s exactly what her assurances were.  Carrie had never lied to me in such an obvious way, and I wasn’t sure how to confront her about it.  It was such a blatant shift in her character, yet I didn’t for a second suspect her of any wrongdoing.  I figured maybe the exhaustion from finishing up finals and college coming to a close had finally begun to take its toll, as she certainly had begun looking a little more fatigued than usual.

The day before graduation, Carrie stopped responding to my texts and calls.  The next day, her name was called and she wasn’t there to walk across the stage.  I was there, and I heard my name being called, but I distinctly remember feeling like I was somewhere else.  I shook the dean’s hand and accepted my diploma, but my mind was with Carrie.  I’d asked her friends, I’d left messages on her Facebook and Twitter; I literally didn’t know where else to turn.  She’d just up and disappeared.

Two days later, Carrie finally responded to my texts.  By then, I was a wreck.  I’d called the police, but they apparently don’t take 21-year olds looking for their missing girlfriends very seriously.  The night before she finally responded, I’d cried myself to sleep and ended up waking up with a fever.  I had literally worried myself sick.

Carrie’s reply was simple in its devastation.  “We need to talk.”  I expected what I thought was the worst, which in retrospect, didn’t make much sense.  In fact, looking back, the conclusion that I jumped to almost seems narcissistic.  I thought she wanted to break up with me.  I thought it was so awkward and embarrassing for her that she’d skipped her own college graduation.

In actuality, when I showed up to Carrie’s apartment that day, her family was there.  I didn’t understand why she’d ask to meet me with them present.  After all, it was the first time I’d met her parents and her younger sister.

And it’s when I learned Carrie was dying.

Carrie smiled at me when she broke the news.  She’d known for a long time, and she’d kept it from me, and from all of her friends.  I didn’t know what to say, I didn’t know how to react, so I just blankly stared at her as she explained.  Carrie had been sick for a long time, but she was fine most of the time up until now.  Those times she’d disappeared on “visits to her parents’ house,” she was actually in doctors’ offices and hospitals getting various tests and studies done.  But nothing had ever helped, and her diagnosis was a fatal one.

She didn’t want me to worry, so she’d never told me.  I didn’t – and to this day still don’t – fully understand why she would’ve thought keeping that from me was a good idea.  It was maybe even a little cruel, despite her circumstances, but as the pieces began to fall into place, I finally understood why she was so driven.  She knew that she didn’t have a future, so the family business was out of the question.  Instead, she hoped to be able to find answers to her own body’s malfunction by majoring in something entirely different.

As I broke down, Carrie smiled sweetly and apologized for keeping her condition from me, but my head was too far into a down-spiral of melancholy thoughts.  What was wrong with her was very unpredictable, and though she’d originally been given another couple of years, the diagnosis had recently changed when the condition became more aggressive, and she took a turn for the worse.  Doctors were only giving her a few months at that point, maybe half a year if she was lucky.

It wasn’t fair that Carrie’s thread was so short.  We’d formed such an amazing bond, I just couldn’t imagine life without her.  Yet, four months later, I didn’t have a choice.  I watched her silently slip away, and personally bore witness to her thread coming to an end; to the parting of hers from mine.  To say that I was broken up about it would be an understatement, but I suppose you could expect as much.  The girl I thought I’d spend my life with was taken from me, after all.  I couldn’t write for a long time, but when I finally picked it back up many months later, stories started coming to me more easily than worldly observations.

I carry her memory with me even now, 6 years later.  The beginning of my first novel, just before the first chapter, contains a very simple memorial to her, and I couldn’t have been prouder that so many thousands of people had read those words: “For Carrie, whose thread was cut so short, despite all of the promise she brought to the world and to me.”

December 26

The World as it Was – Part 1

Back in college, I held down two jobs.  One was as a computer help desk guy for the university, and the other was as a freelance writer for a local weekly newspaper.  Well, okay, the latter wasn’t really that big of a deal.  I just wrote a 500 word article every week and pretended that I could never make the weekly meetings.  My jobs, starting with both of those, molded who I was and what I’d become.  When I graduated, I switched departments, but stayed working in IT for the university.  And it was no longer for pay, but I kept writing.  It was sporadic, but it was a part of me that I didn’t want to let go, so I posted it freely online and was okay that it had no following whatsoever.  I wrote it for me, and I enjoyed it, so that’s all that mattered.

I published a novel a couple years later, but an ill-timed server reboot at my day job brought about more fanfare than my grand début into the eBook world.  But again, that wasn’t really important to me.  I wrote for me, I wrote because I enjoyed it.  Slapping computers around used to provide that fulfillment for me, but it ended up just being a way to pay the bills.

When the war started, I was safe from being drafted because I held a professional-level job.  No one wanted to fight, it seemed, but the unskilled workforce seemed to be slowly getting snapped up into the armed forces.  My feelings were conflicted on the draft, because as happy as I was to have little chance at being drafted, I could only wonder how those draftees felt.  Did they think it was fair?  Did they wonder if their lives were worth less than mine?

A year after the war started, a private company contracted by the military completed and built a design for a combat enhancement exoskeleton for soldiers to wear.  It wasn’t armor; it just made humans faster, stronger, and more precise.  The media nicknamed them “battle suits,” which I didn’t find very fitting, but I didn’t have a say in the matter.

I wrote up my thoughts on the battle suits online, and in doing so, ended up with some fortunate side effects, the first of which was that my website traffic spiked and analytics showed that post was clearly the reason.  The other side effect was that in researching data for my post, I learned a bit about the battle suits.  They had originally begun development years before the war as a medical device – an aid to the disabled.  Slap one of those exoskeletons on a person that was paralyzed from the waist down and they could walk again.  The project in its medical form had taken years to get off of the ground and find funding, but once a use that involved slaughtering other humans became viable for the technology, funding become abundant.

Ugh, humanity.  I swear.

My day job didn’t slow down, as I supported the university’s systems that allowed students to register for classes, check their grades, and a slew of other boring things I won’t go into detail about for now.  The point here is that when the war took off, the draft was reinstated for the first time since 1973, which meant that some kids that didn’t plan on going to college suddenly changed their minds and quickly began applying for student loans in hopes they could avoid being shipped off to war.  Our university had seen its highest enrollment rates in all of its history in the past year.  So yeah, my day job was busy.

After my post on battle suits took off, I decided to use the momentum and the traffic to turn my website into a media hub about technology related to the war.  I was conflicted on doing it at first, but even if I was against the war, there was no denying its existence or the existence of this amazing new technology that would hopefully help bring it to a close as quickly as possible.

I kept writing articles on the battle suits and kept gaining readership until I was seeing a steady 1,000 unique hits a day.  Even if you’re not into website analytics, you can probably tell that’s an exciting number to hit.  One thousand different IP addresses around the globe (and one IP from the International Space Station!) had found my content interesting enough to click on, and advertising analytics showed that most of them stayed on the site for at least 10 minutes.  Holding attention like that wasn’t an easy task, and I was ecstatic at having managed to do so.

I didn’t actually know too much about the political motivations for the war, but neither did anyone else.  One of our allies had some misguided attempt at policing a country in southeast Asia and ended up dragging us into their fight.  Kind of ironic, actually, considering our own messy history with that kind of thing.  But it was like a chain reaction at that point, involving more and more allies joining in on both sides, until we ended up where we were, no longer able to rely on an all-volunteer military.  At the end of the day, I was sure that most people involved in the war were only fighting because they were being told to.  They just wanted to go home.  People were probably out there killing other people without even knowing why.

Like most, I wanted to believe that the government was keeping tight-lipped about the war for a good reason, but I was never much for believing in government, so I had my suspicions that this war was more than just an unfortunate mess that we begrudgingly got involved in.  Something about the whole thing bothered me, and I sometimes hinted at that on my website, but I never directly came out and said it.

It’s weird to think of how a chain of events happening exactly as they happen can completely change your life.  If one thing in that chain had been changed, I never would’ve been contacted that day.  If I hadn’t gotten into writing, if I didn’t understand the technology enough to write about it, if my site hadn’t gotten that traffic spike, if I hadn’t taken it in the direction I did, if I hadn’t hinted at my distrust in the government’s motivations, I never would’ve gotten the email that changed everything.

If you want to understand this war for what it really is, you need only let me know.  I can tear down the wall that’s been erected to prevent you from seeing the truth. ~VC

Imagine getting an email like that, being in the mindset that I was already in.  Thanks to ROPA – the Restoration of Privacy Act – I was fairly certain that the government was no longer snooping on us, but even that I wasn’t 100% sure of.  I guessed if they were still doing domestic spying, I’d find out soon enough.  If some men in dark suits showed up with “questions” to ask me and directed me to their black, limo-tinted SUV, I’d kindly decline and run in the other direction.  Until they tased me, or whatever it was they did to nonviolent people that posted unflattering things about them on the Internet.

I had very little idea what I was getting into, but I was compelled at that point to respond to the email.  It was almost beyond my control.  The curiosity would kill me if those men in black suits didn’t.

Almost as quickly as I could hit “send” to let them know I wanted in on their knowledge, whoever was on the other side of that email responded.

Your IP is authorized for one download of this file.  It will be deleted afterward.  Take care. ~VC

I clicked the link to download the file, which appeared to be a video of some kind.  Probably harmless to download and watch.  Well, harmless to my computer, at least.  I watched the video in total silence, and then I watched it again.

Do you remember your first crush?  Of course you do.  Who could forget the first person they ever had feelings for?  You might not remember why you liked them, you might not remember any conversations you had with them, but you remember their name.

Amanda, 5th grade.  That’s all I remember.

But I will never forget a single second of the video I watched that night.  Humans in battle suits, humans not in battle suits, weapons raised, weapons blasting, not at each other, but at something else.  Monsters, creatures I’d never seen.  Big hulking things that stood on legs that terminated at clawed toes, heads that resembled a mish-mash of dinosaur-like things from Earth’s history, skin that looked slimy but apparently tough enough to feel bullets as nothing but pinpricks.

I knew immediately that the video was real.  If the poor quality and shakiness of a carefully hidden camera didn’t give it away, the screams of agony and anger certainly did – both the human ones, and the inhuman ones.

There was no war between countries in southeast Asia; it was a war between species.  It was humanity versus…whatever those things were.  Aliens?  Some mutated life forms from Earth?  Somehow, the world had been kept in the dark for over a year, and suddenly, my suspicions made sense.  The government was keeping us in the dark so as to not cause widespread panic.  And somehow, it had worked for this long.  If the war was only raging in that one area of Asia, none of the troops were coming home, and no footage was allowed out, how would anyone know what was actually going on out there?

I didn’t sleep much that night thinking about it.  It was the biggest coverup in the history of humanity, and it had worked except for seemingly this one video.  Somehow, this video had escaped the war zone, and even more unbelievable, it had found its way to me, thanks to whoever “VC” was.

Why had they shared this with me?  Were they expecting me to use my website to spread the truth?  It didn’t seem like it would’ve been hard to publicize something like this without my still relatively small website.  So what was VC’s angle, then?  Were they just sharing information?

I had to take off of work the next day.  It was too much to ask of me to try to process what I’d seen in the video and fix whatever systems broke on what amounted to forty minutes total of sleep.  I kept watching the video, examining the creatures, trying to figure out what they were.  I emailed VC multiple times asking for more information, but my inbox remained empty until that night.

I’ve shown you the truth.  What you do with it is your own choice.  You are one of less than 10 civilians that can claim this knowledge.  Use it wisely.  Do not expect further contact. ~VC

Not the answers I’d been looking for, but I had a strange feeling that VC was telling me all they knew, just in this very roundabout way.  I wanted to know so much more, but it appeared as though I’d reached the end of that thread.

But the problem remained of what to do with the information I’d been given.  Not wanting to make a rash decision, I kept it to myself for a while and weighed my options.  The biggest problem I had with sharing this revelation with the world was that I had no way to prove it was true.  I could share the video, but VC had made sure to share it with me and only me by giving access to my IP address just once.  I had to theorize since VC had barely told me anything, but it felt as though he or she was scared of being tracked down.

And even if I shared the video, it wasn’t really undeniable proof of anything.  My belief was that it was real, but my judgment wasn’t fact.  I had to find out for sure, I had to gather 100% undeniable evidence.  It was too important to ignore.  I didn’t know how I’d do it, or how long it would take, but I’d find proof, and I’d share it with the world.

June 10

Terry Hall

Have you ever seen something that wasn’t really there?  Had an experience that you could only reconcile with one other person in the world, and for which everyone else would call you crazy?

 

In college, I was part of a volunteer group that went around the dorms passing out pamphlets about how detrimental prescription drug abuse could be.  There were lots of reports of students abusing Adderall at the time, and it had become enough of a safety concern for the school to organize my little group of unpaid do-gooders.

I honestly wasn’t too committed to the cause, but it counted toward a community service requirement for one of my classes, and it didn’t seem incredibly difficult.

Though there were some co-ed dorms, most were male or female only.  Entry to each building could be gained by waving a student ID card with the proper access in front of a card access proximity scanner mounted by most exterior doors.  Some interior hallways and most elevators and stairwells also had these scanners, but rooms were accessed only by physical keys.

Since we were an official volunteer group with a legitimate need for dorm access, our school IDs were temporarily granted access rights to the dorms.  However, we were still restricted by our sex to which dorms we could access.  Myself and the other girls could only access the female dorms and the female sections of the co-ed dorms, and vice-versa with the guys.

My friend Kelsi and I had been assigned to canvass Terry Hall, the old girls’ dorm on the south side of campus by the unused cafeteria.  The cafeteria had been shut around 5 years prior, at the same time Terry Hall was originally closed down.  There were plans by the school to renovate the dorm and reopen it, but two years later, with renovations never even started, the dorm reopened due to a lack of housing space on campus.  I thought it was an embarrassing reflection of the school’s poor planning capabilities, but it mostly went unmentioned by my peers.

Terry Hall was 40 years old, having most recently been renovated about 21 years before – save for the addition of the card access points right before it reopened.  I had been fortunate enough to be assigned to Richmond Hall during my two semesters living in the dorms, which was not only the newest female dorm on campus, but was also the newest building on campus, period.  Kelsi had never lived in on-campus housing, but one of her friends had lived in Terry Hall, so she was partially familiar with its layout.

We scanned our IDs at the front entrance and were technically supposed to sign a visitor’s log book at the front desk, but we just walked right by it.

“The desk workers don’t care,” Kelsi said.  “They don’t know we don’t live here anyway.”

I nodded and we walked past the desk to the hallway where the first floor residents lived.  There was another card access point there, so we scanned our IDs and continued through.  Neither of us was sure how long it would take to slide the pamphlets under every door, but we decided to take our time with it.  Though we weren’t being supervised, the card access system would have a pretty accurate log of our tour of the building.  If we lied about how much time it took to boost our community service hours and someone was bored enough to check the logs, we’d be obligated to have a chat about academic dishonesty with the Dean of Students.  I’d heard that such visits were also accompanied by a 20-page essay on integrity, due within a week.  Risk-taking wasn’t my game, especially when the alternative was walking around an air conditioned building with one of my best friends for just a bit longer than I otherwise needed to.

“There’s not a lot of people on this floor, huh?” I said as we slid the pamphlets under the last couple of doors in the hall.

“They’re mostly on the upper floors.  This one has a lot of offices and storage space.”

I paused for a second, then said, “Should we take the stairs or the elevator?”

“We could just take the elevator to the top floor, then work our way down with the stairs.  Easier to go down than up.”

“Works for me.”

I scanned my ID and pressed the call button for the elevator.  It took a while to show up, and five or six people poured out of it when the doors finally opened.  Kelsi and I were the only ones waiting to go up, so we entered, and she pressed a button on the panel inside.  The doors closed, and the elevator started ascending.

“Only eight floors?” I said.  “Not too bad.  We can probably get another hour and a half out of this.”

“Easily,” Kelsi said.

The elevator dinged as it hit the 7th floor, and dinged again when it hit 8, but it didn’t stop, and the doors didn’t open.  I shot Kelsi a confused glance, but before I had time to say anything, a “9” lit up on the display above the doors, the elevator stopped, and the doors opened.

“What the…” I trailed off.

I looked down at the button panel and noticed there was a space for a button above the 8, but the button that had been there was removed and the hole was taped over.

Outside, the hallway was lit solely by sunlight that was coming in through the common area windows, and there was a layer of dust that had settled and caked on the floor.

“Whoa, this is so cool!” Kelsi said.  “I didn’t know Terry had an unused floor.”

“Me either, but we should go back down to 8.”

“Come on, we can waste some time and look around first,” Kelsi said.

“Well…” I hesitated.  “Alright, but just a few minutes.”

We exited the elevator and walked toward the common area.  I hear the elevator ding and the doors close behind us, but didn’t really pay it a whole lot of thought.

“I wonder why this floor isn’t being used?” Kelsi asked.

“Beats me.  Maybe they just didn’t need it.”

The main hallway was dark due to going through the center of the building, so we stuck to the outer halls where there were windows.  We tried opening a few doors without any luck, but the fourth one we found, room 911, was already open.  I followed Kelsi in, but she stopped right inside the doorway, as it was too dark.

“Lights don’t work in here,” she said, flipping the switch up and down.

I pulled out my phone and opened the flashlight app.  The tiny LED cut through the darkness, but there wasn’t really a whole lot to see.  There were bed frames with no mattresses, a chest of drawers, and an open, empty closet.  Besides the dust, this probably looked like any other empty room in the building.

“Well, this is cool, but there’s nothing here,” I said, adjusting the strap of the messenger bag on my shoulder.  “We should go back downstairs and finish passing out pamphlets anyway.”

Kelsi nodded.  “Yeah, this is kind of disappointing.”

We made our way back to the elevator, and without really thinking, I pressed the call button.  We waited a few moments, but nothing happened.

“What’s taking it so long?” I said.

Kelsi pressed it again, and five minutes later, we were still standing there.

“Maybe it’s broken?” I suggested.

“I don’t-” Kelsi stopped mid-sentence.  “Oh shit, there’s no card reader.”

I immediately felt dumb.  Of course the elevator wouldn’t come without a proper card scan.

“Well that’s stupid,” I said.  “I guess they didn’t install them on this floor when Terry reopened.”

“How are we supposed to get down?” Kelsi asked.

“We don’t have much of a choice but to try the stairwell.”

Kelsi shrugged and checked her phone.  “We can always call Matt if we need to.”

“Matt will have to call the housing department or something to let us out of here.  We might get in trouble for being up here.”

“Well if that’s the only way out of here, it’s what we’ll have to do.”

I sighed; she was right.

We walked down the outer hallway again and passed by the room we’d gone into earlier.  There was a sign with a picture of the stairwell and an arrow pointing to our left.

“There it is,” I said.

Kelsi approached the door and pushed it with what was obviously more force than should’ve been required.

“Crap,” she said.  We weren’t really surprised that it was locked.  I mean, of course it would’ve been, otherwise students could climb the stairwell and get up here.  The lack of a card reader also wasn’t too surprising.

“I guess I’ll call Matt,” I sighed, pulling my phone out of my back pocket.  I found Matt in my contacts list and pressed his name.  After a few rings, he finally picked up.

“Hello?”

“Hey Matt, it’s Emma.”

“Oh, hey Em.  What’s going on?”

“Well, it’s a long story, but Kelsi and I have a huge favor to ask.”

“What is it?”

“We sort of accidentally got ourselves locked on the ninth floor of Terry Hall.  It’s like…abandoned.  There’s nothing here.  No card readers for us to scan ourselves out.”

Matt laughed on the other end of the line.  “Seriously?  Holy shit, that’s hilarious.”

“Hilarious?  I thought you’d be mad.”

“Did the elevator go there on its own?”

“Well, yeah,” I said.  “I mean, the button for the ninth floor was removed.”

“That’s what I figured.  Believe it or not, this happened a few times when I was working as a front desk assistant there.”

“And they haven’t fixed it yet?”

“Apparently not,” he said.

“Great.  So can you get us out of here?”

“Yeah, let me make a quick call to the administrative coordinator of that dorm.  I still have her number in my phone, so it shouldn’t take long.”

“Thanks Matt, we owe you one.”

“No problem.”

I hung up, sighed a breath of relief, and quickly recapped the phone conversation for Kelsi.  She rolled her eyes and pushed at the stairwell door one final time.

“Lame,” she said.  “What a waste of time.”

We walked back to the outer halls and stopped in the common area lobby near the elevators.  It would be dark in an hour or so, and I hated to think about being stuck there at night.  The sun’s light streaming through the windows was somewhat comforting in that regard, but knowing that it was fading, not so much.

My phone buzzed and I looked down at it.  “Dorm lady is looking for facilities dude.  They should be there soon.”

“Thanks, you’re the best, ” I texted back.

“Well?” Kelsi asked.

“Soon.”

There was nowhere to sit that wasn’t covered in dust, so we leaned against the wall by the windows and waited.  Kelsi was doing something on her phone, and in the meantime, without really thinking about it, I began staring off into space and pondering the situation.

Our school had a few urban legends, and some well-known abandoned buildings that students like to break in to explore.  I knew for sure that there was a huge classroom in one of the lecture halls that had been boarded up and closed for a decade, and students loved coming up with and spreading theories on why the school wasn’t using such a valuable space.  There was also the old geology lab, and the astronomy lab – both closed down and abandoned since the semester the new sciences building opened six or seven years ago.

I’d heard many stories of people sneaking in to the labs, the classrooms, and the maintenance tunnels that ran under the campus, but never had I heard a story about the ninth floor of Terry Hall.  It seemed odd that such a prime space for exploring would be left out of campus lore.

I decided to break the silence. “Hey, you ever heard any stories about people exploring up here?”

“No, but it sounds like Matt might know more about that than me, if other people have gotten ‘stuck’ up here before.”

She was right. I pulled my phone back out of my pocket and typed another text to Matt.

“Did many people get caught trying to explore up here on purpose? Seems like a prime location for it.”

I lowered my phone while waiting for a reply. Any minute, the elevator should ding, signaling our rescue, but with each minute that passed, I began to wonder exactly what was required for the facilities people to get up here, and why it was taking so long.

My phone buzzed in my hand. I glanced at the screen, saw that it was a text from Matt, and unlocked it.

“No, not really. I think people were a little too creeped out.”

I arched an eyebrow and typed out a response. “Creeped out by what?”

The screen displayed a notification indicating that Matt was typing a response. A few seconds later, his message popped up. “Wait, you don’t know about 9-9-99?”

I instantly grew very anxious, typing out, “What is that?”

I looked up at Kelsi. “Do you know the significance of 9-9-99?”

“Like nine thousand nine hundred and ninety nine?” she said.

“No, like the date.”

“Oh,” she paused and looked up for a second. “No, I can’t think of anything.”

My phone buzzed with Matt’s reply.

“On September 9, 1999, 9 girls, each 19-years old, committed suicide on the 9th floor of Terry Hall in room 909 at 9:09 PM.”

“Holy shit,” I said.

“What?” Kelsi asked. I handed her my phone so she could read the message herself. “Whoa, what the fuck!” Her eyes scanned the screen again. “That’s crazy!”

“How have neither of us ever heard of that? That’s a freaking statewide tragedy.”

She handed my phone back and said, “I dunno, but I really don’t want to…” Kelsi trailed off. “Wait a minute. Room 909?”

“Yeah?”

“What room did we go into earlier?”

“911.  I think 909 was one of the locked ones.”

My phone once again vibrated, but I was no longer anxious to read what Matt had to say. I looked at the text and read it in disbelief three times before Kelsi spoke up.

“What? What’d he say?”

“There’s more,” I said, a bit hesitant to read the text out loud, as if somehow that would make it more real than it already was. “He said ‘Then on October 10, 2000, 10 girls, each identified by their driver’s licenses as weighing 110 pounds, attempted suicide in room 910 at 10:10 PM, but one survived. After she woke up in the hospital a couple days later, she claimed to have no recollection of the event, and completely flipped when they told her she was the sole survivor of some suicide group. People that followed the case closely noted that she’d actually gained a little weight since getting her driver’s license, and her recorded hospital weight was 118 pounds.'”

“Is that it?” Kelsi asked.

“He’s still typing,” I said, glued to the screen despite my horror.

“Fuck, Em, this is some messed up shit…”

Another text came in. This time, I read it out loud immediately. “They doubted that she didn’t remember trying to kill herself, but then she admitted herself to a mental institution out of fear for her own life. From what I heard, she was terrified of having a suicidal split personality.”

Without another thought, I typed out, “Is that why they closed off the 9th floor?”

A few seconds passed, then my phone rang. I wasted no time answering it.

“Hey Em, this is easier than typing all of that crap.”

“Yeah, no problem, Matt. I’m gonna put you on speaker so Kelsi can hear you.”

“Yeah, no prob. So, after the 9-9-99 incident, they closed off room 909, but not the whole floor. Then after the 10-10-2000 incident, they closed off the floor and locked it down. I heard rumors that on November 11, 2001, they had guards posted all around the dorm, but nothing else ever happened. The 9th floor of Terry Hall has been closed ever since, except for the occasional elevator malfunction that lands a few girls up there.”

“How do you know all of this?” Kelsi asked.

“I’ve worked a lot of front desks in my day, including Terry’s. You hear a lot of shit, and have a lot of free time. We found out about this stuff from one of the facilities people and spent days talking about it and looking it up on the Internet. I found some weird occult sites that had a lot of this stuff on it, too. One of them said the girl that survived was ‘doomed to the Earth because of 8 pounds.’ Another said ‘it should’ve been done in 2010.'”

“Did you ever figure out what was up with the fascination on the 9’s and 10’s?” I asked.

“No, we didn’t,” Matt said. “I mean, we talked about it for a few days and then moved on. It wasn’t that big of a deal. That stuff was 11 years ago, didn’t really affect us more than it being fascinating, you know?”

Suddenly, the elevator dinged.

“Finally,” Kelsi said. “I was getting the heebie-jeebies up here.”

“Thanks for the info Matt, looks like our rescue party is here,” I said.

“Alright, later,” he said. “Be safe.”

I looked up and over at the elevator. The doors had opened, and there stood a group of confused-looking girls.

“Uh, what’s going on?” one of them said.

Kelsi sighed. “I take it you guys weren’t coming here to rescue us?”

“Whoa, is this the 9th floor?” another of the girls asked. One of them said something else, but it was around that time when I stopped listening.

I counted, then I double counted. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9. Nine girls. There were nine girls in the elevator.

But wait, I was just being paranoid, right? After all, it was November, not September. These couldn’t be the spirits of the girls from 9-9-99.

I closed my eyes and told myself to calm down.

My phone buzzed.

It was Matt. “Oh, weird. Today’s 11-11-2011.”

The hairs on the back of my neck raised, and my skin grew warm and tingly.

“Don’t step out of the elevator!” I shouted. “Hold it!”

Kelsi and I ran over and crammed ourselves in. One of the girls pressed the button for the first floor, and then some other floors, but the doors wouldn’t close. We could either stand in a crowded elevator, or we could step out and try to catch it if it went to close. It was like the thing was trapping us up there.

“Why isn’t the elevator moving?” someone mumbled.

It’s okay, I thought.  They obviously didn’t come here on purpose, so that means they didn’t come here to kill themselves.

But didn’t that one girl that survived not remember anything?  If she was telling the truth, then maybe she didn’t go there on purpose either.  It was no doubt some strange occult ritual, especially with the strange fascination with the numbers.  Something weird going on.

“Are there stairs?” a girl in the back asked.

“They’re locked,” Kelsi said.

Nine girls randomly showed up on the 9th floor.  Nine girls on November 11, 2011.  11-11-11.

Wait, there are 11 girls here, I forgot to include Kelsi and myself!

It was the 11’s.  11 girls, 11-11-11, and room 911 was the only one that was unlocked.

Holy shit.

“Kelsi, we have to get out of here, now,” I said.  “Before, 11 PM.  Way before 11 PM.”

I pulled out my phone and hammered out a few messages to Matt as fast as I could.  “Completely freaked out.  Still stuck here, now with more people.”  “Counting us, there’s 11 girls.  On 11-11-11.  Room 911 is the only unlocked door on the floor.”  “Matt, this isn’t a joke.  Please break into this building, knock down the door, do whatever you need to do to get us out.  I’m terrified.”

“Em, what’s gotten into you?”

“11 girls, on 11th day of the 11th month of the 2011th year, room 911 is the only open room.  You heard the stories, Kelsi.  Do you really want to be here at 11 PM?”

Her face started to drain of color.  “But I I love my life, I’m not going to commit suicide in some crazy occult ritual with you and a bunch of girls I don’t know.”

“What if it’s not suicide?  What if it’s more like a sacrifice?”  Kelsi remained silent, so I continued.  “The one girl that survived claimed to not remember anything about trying to kill herself.  Maybe she was hypnotized or something.  All I know is that I don’t want to find out the hard way.”

“Hey, what are you two talking about?” one of the other girls asked.

Kelsi nodded, completely ignoring the other girls.  “Let’s get out of here.”

We got off the elevator and faced the hall.  “We’re going to try to break down the stairwell door.  Come with us if you want to help.”  The girls in the elevator whispered and murmured, but didn’t move.

I walked over to the lobby area and grabbed the back of one of the old, dusty chairs.  It wasn’t particularly heavy, but it wasn’t light.  Perhaps it would make a good battering ram.  Without a word, Kelsi grabbed one too.  I guessed she’d caught on to what I was doing and wanted her own, or a backup.

7:30.  It would be dark soon.

We hurried down the hall with our chairs in town, dragging them behind us and leaving a trail of chair legs next to our footprints in the dust.  The stairwell door was there, waiting for us, practically taunting us.

“What do you want to do, hit it with the chairs?”

“I dunno,” I said.  “Whatever it takes.”

I left the chair behind me and examined the door.  It was metal, I guessed steel, and the hinges were on the other side.  There’s no way we could break the door.  Our only hope was to knock it off the hinges, but was that even possible for us?

I turned the handle and pushed, but it didn’t budge.  Frustrated, I shoved my shoulder into it and put every ounce of my body into pushing.

“Ugh,” I grunted, and without really thinking, lifted my leg and kicked the door right in the center.  My foot bounced off, and I fell back onto the dusty linoleum floor.

“This door isn’t going anywhere, is it?” Kelsi asked.

“I doubt it.”

Kelsi motioned me to the side and lifted her chair up.  I was momentarily shocked with how easily she’d lifted it, and even more amazed when she threw the thing at the door.

But unsurprisingly, the chair fell to the floor with a broken leg, and the door exactly as we’d found it.

“There has to be another way down,” I said.  “Another stairwell, some kind of maintenance passage… something.”

Kelsi’s eyes lit up.  “Wait a minute!”  She reached into her back pocket and pulled out her student ID card.  “This is an old door, so maybe…”  She pushed the card into the slot between the door slab and the frame, right where the handle was.

“What are you doing?”

“This was big a few years before we got here,” she said.  “My sister told me about it.  It’s why there’s metal plates on the doors on the other floors.  You can push the little latch thingy on the inside open with a card.”

“Is it wo-”

Click

“Holy shit,” Kelsi said.  “It worked.”  She pushed the door inward.

I hesitated.  “Should we go back for the other girls?”

“Do you really want to go back and risk something happening with the door?  We’ve got it open, so let’s just go.  We can make maintenance or someone at the front desk hurry the fuck up and send help.”

We ran down the stairs, past other girls, under flickering fluorescent lights, until finally, the first floor.

Freedom.

We’d made it out.  The fear evaporated from my body, and suddenly, anger replaced it.  I stormed up to the front desk.

“Excuse me, we’ve been trapped on the 9th floor for over 45 minutes.  Our friend called for help and said maintenance was supposed to be coming, but no one ever showed up.  What gives?”

The desk worker paused, seemingly analyzing the situation.  “So, were you locked out of your room, or what?” she asked.

“No, like, the elevator brought us to the 9th floor and wouldn’t go back down.  All of the exits were locked.  We had to break out through the stairwell door by pushing the door latch with an ID card.”

The desk worker raised her eyebrow.  “Was the card reader not working?”

“It’s the 9th floor.  You know, unused, unremodeled, top floor of this building?  Sitting up there collecting dust.  No one lives there.”

“Is this a joke?” she asked, a genuine look of confusion on her face.

My anger briefly subsided.  “What do you mean?”

“The 9th floor is remodeled, used, and is full of residents, just like every floor below it.  Are you talking about the 11th floor?”

“Terry Hall only has 9 floors,” Kelsi said.

The desk worker shook her head.  “I promise it has 11.”

“No, it doesn’t, it has 9 floors.  Everyone knows that,” I said.

“Look, I can take you in the elevator and prove it to you if you want.”

“You do that,” Kelsi snapped, obviously annoyed.

The desk worker rolled her eyes, got up, and led us to the elevator.  There, she pressed the button, and we waited for one to appear.  There was a brief ding, followed by a light above the elevator on the left.

“Hey, that’s the one, right?” I said.  “The one that was stuck up there with the girls in it?”

“Yeah,” Kelsi said, “Definitely.”

I instantly felt a little better about leaving them up there.  It looked like somehow, this elevator call had brought their elevator back down.

But the doors opened, and no one was inside.

The desk worker walked in, pointed at the button panel, and motioned us to look for ourselves.

11 floors.

I pulled out my phone to call Matt, just to make sure I wasn’t going crazy.  I unlocked it, and found that my texting app was still open to my conversation with him.  From yesterday.  Everything I’d texted him today was gone.

We never found out what happened to the 9 girls we left on the 9th floor.

February 21

Felicity

Back when my life was a constant repetition of school, sleep, eat, repeat, I knew a girl named Felicity. She was a quiet girl for years, but she came out of her shell in high school, and we became friends around that time. Not very close friends, not merely acquaintances; just friends.

I called her “F City” sometimes as a joke. It was her name minus a few letters, but she’d confided in me on more than one occasion that she liked to “fuck often, fuck many.” I wish those were my words and not hers, as her reputation was of being shy and sweet, certainly not a slut. So “F City” (Short for “Fuck City,” if you haven’t gotten that yet) was kind of a dual-meaning joke between us.

I personally didn’t care if she liked to sleep around. I was more interested in a relationship, and despite being a solid 8/10 in my book, she was not a monogamous type of girl. Not really what I was looking for, despite raging teenage hormones and all of that stupid bullshit.

I never outright told Felicity that, but I think she could tell, and that’s probably why she never came onto me. I’m pretty sure she would’ve, otherwise.

Toward the end of my 12th grade year, I was dating a girl named Emily, who was a much closer friend to Felicity. Emily wasn’t a typical high school gossip, but she did blab a little about Felicity to me on more than one occasion. It was through her that I found out Felicity had dropped ecstasy back in 10th grade, and it completely changed her. It was why she came out of her shell, and maybe also responsible for her other personality changes.

I wasn’t sure of the authenticity of Emily’s claim at the time – that ecstasy could change a person that much. But later I found out that ecstasy does sometimes have that effect on people. Makes me glad I’ve never messed with that stuff. Changing your whole personality? That’s scary shit, in my book.

Anyway, if you knew me, you’d probably be wondering how a person like me would be friends with a person like Felicity, and the answer to that question is actually pretty simple. My last name was Sawyer (which, incidentally, is what almost everyone called me by), and hers was Scott. Same grade, same classes, almost always alphabetical seating. She sat behind me nearly three-quarters of my high school life. And like I said, I wasn’t particularly judgmental about her lifestyle, and she didn’t give a shit that I was way more boring than her.

Being in classes together may have been the basis of our friendship, but at some point, it went beyond that.  I didn’t see her often after school or on weekends, but I hung out with her and some of her friends sometimes, which is more than I can say about other people I had a bunch of classes with.

Emily and I went to different colleges, but Felicity happened to pick the same college I chose. It was about two and a half hours from Emily’s, and the distance was too much for us. We broke it off on amicable terms after a few months, and agreed to stay friends.

Felicity and I didn’t talk as much after college started. When I saw her around campus, we’d stop and chat if we had time. She’d started dying her hair different bright colors, so it seemed as though every time I saw her, she looked a little more like a stranger.

Emily had lost touch with Felicity even more than I had, so when we talked, she’d sometimes ask me how Felicity was doing. I told her about Felicity’s hair, but there was never that much to say. Felicity had always been a strange combination of perky and dark, so it was sometimes hard to tell how she was without outright asking.

At the end of our first semester, I caught up with Felicity one day at the bookstore. I was looking for a book to read for fun, and she was looking for a book for one of her classes that she’d tried really hard not to buy, but ended up needing at the very end of the class. She seemed to have lost some of her perkiness, but she still talked to me like we did in high school.

“College has been hell on my sex life.”

“Seems like the opposite of what would stereotypically happen,” I’d say.

Her workload was heavy, and I suspected from her eyes that maybe she was doing drugs again, but I didn’t say anything. Stupid of me. Fuck, man.

We agreed to have lunch sometime soon, but it never happened. Finals came and went, as did winter break spent at my parents’ house, then the new semester reared it’s costly head.

Emily texted me for the first time in a while about a month after the semester started. She’d found something funny that reminded her of me in a coffee shop we used to hang out in, and of course, she had to send me a picture of it – a sign with an Internet meme on it.

That turned into us catching up, which eventually turned into a discussion on Felicity. Apparently Felicity had texted Emily something by accident – the phrase “behind Mackey’s at 11?” – that had gotten Emily worried. Mackey’s was a seedy bar in the worst part of town.

Emily was understandably worried, but out of some strange, stupid respect for Felicity’s personal life, neither Emily not I wanted to butt in. It was a very misplaced sense of respect, based on immaturity.

I texted Felicity during my conversation with Emily just to make sure she would respond. She did, and both Emily and I were relieved.

My schedule must’ve been very different from Felicity’s that semester, because I never saw her around anymore. I texted her every couple weeks just to check up on her, and she was less conversational with me each time. I had never been a bother to her, yet, I started feeling like one, so I backed off.

Emily and I kept in touch a little better during that time. She told me she was going to be in town and wanted to visit. I gladly accepted and offered Felicity dinner – my treat – to come hang out with Emily and me.

Felicity didn’t respond.

It worried me, and it worried Emily when I told her. So I pressed Felicity harder for a response by texting her another couple of times.

Six days passed, and still nothing.

I decided to call her the day before Emily was supposed to arrive. The operator message played in my ear, telling me, “The subscriber you’ve called no longer has an active account.” This was strangely relieving, but in those days just a couple years before social media blossomed, it meant I didn’t know how to get in touch with Felicity.

Emily reached out to others that knew Felicity, but none of them could get in touch with her. What else could we do at this point but give up?

Emily’s visit brought us pretty close. We talked about high school and how unfortunate the distance between us was. I still had feelings for her, and she for me, but the situation was so counterproductive to a good, healthy relationship.

She spent the night at my apartment, and we rekindled a little of the fire we once had. I really missed her, and that night made me realize that simple fact.

Emily left town after the weekend was over, and we talked every day after that.

A week passed, then a month, then two. I yearned to see her, and eventually caved and told her so. I hadn’t wanted to seem desperate or anything, I still loved her, and I needed her to know. I asked if I could visit her, and she flat out told me she knew why I wanted to, and that she’d love it if I did.

I visited, we confirmed that we’d try to make it work despite the distance, and started dating again. I was ecstatic.

The semester passed, and Felicity was rarely brought up. I never saw her, had no way to talk to her. What was I to do? If she wanted to talk, hopefully she still had my number.

It was just after winter break of my sophomore year that I saw Felicity again. I had walked off campus after class to go to a little sushi joint just a couple blocks away, and there she was, sitting outside, smoking what was left of a cigarette.

I barely recognized her at first. Her hair was stringy and oily, as if it hadn’t been washed in weeks. Even from the distance that I was standing, I could see the dark circles under her horribly bloodshot eyes. She looked to have put on 20 or 30 pounds, yet was clearly wearing an old shirt that no longer fit her.

When she stood up, I knew for sure it was her. Strangely, it was her frown that gave it away for sure. I’d seen it many times – the thin line of her lips pressed together, then scrunched to the side as she stared at her stub of a cigarette.

“Felicity?” I called out to her.

She looked up, noticed me, then looked back down. “Hey Sawyer.”

In her own way, she was happy to see me, but at the same time I could tell that she wished I hadn’t noticed her there.

I wanted to ask how she was doing, but deep down, I already knew. The moment I saw her, I remembered all of the opportunities I had to intervene, and then all of the times I’d talked myself out of it.

“You changed your phone number?” Such a dumb thing to say. I already guessed what had happened.

“Couldn’t pay my bill. They shut it off.”

Called it.

“That sucks.”

She just nodded.

It hurt to look at her. What kind of awful downward spiral was she in?

“Emily and I have been trying to get in touch with you.” I tried holding my tongue, but I couldn’t anymore. “We’ve heard some things. We were worried about you.”

She exhaled a cloud of smoke and directed her hellishly red eyes at me. “I’m fine.”

No, she wasn’t.

“How are your classes?”

“I dropped out.” She threw the cigarette on the ground and stared at it for a moment before stomping it out.

“Oh. You working here then?”

“Nope.”

Every trace of the person she used to be was gone. I could barely keep the conversation going, and it sounded like she wanted me to go away.

But I couldn’t give up on her. I felt guilty standing there, knowing I could’ve had some positive influence on her life, and yet, I looked the other way.

“What have you been doing with your life then?”

“What do you fucking think?”

Hearing those words, I wanted to cry. She’d never spoken to me like that before. The regret had welled up in me, and it needed to escape.

“Where have you been sleeping?”

“Wherever I can.”

Felicity desperately needed someone that cared, and it seemed like no one had for a long time.

“You can stay at my place for a little while, but if you do, you have to clean yourself up. No more drugs.”

“I don’t need your help.”

“I’m not offering you help. It’s just a temporary place to sleep and shower, with a condition attached. Take it or leave it.”

I was obviously offering her help. I just knew that I needed to make it seem like I wasn’t. I wanted her to feel in control. Maybe even convince her that she was taking advantage of me. Whatever it took to get her clean.

Felicity looked a little annoyed, but she was considering my offer. I knew she wanted it, but was she too proud to take it?

I pulled an index card out of my messenger bag and wrote my address on it.

“This is my address.” I handed the card to her. “I’m home after 6 every day. Come hang out if you want.”

I called Emily on my way home and told her what happened. Emily cried a little and told me I did the right thing. We both hoped Felicity would take me up on the offer.

She didn’t, and we never saw her again.

I was too late. I didn’t try hard enough. I could’ve taken her to a clinic. I should’ve been a better friend.

I thought about it for a long time, trying to figure out all of the things I could’ve done differently just so I could beat myself up with them. Both Emily and I were certain Felicity would turn up in the obituaries, but we never did see her there. We hoped she was alive and would come back to us one day, but that hope was small and ever-dwindling.

Emily and I never forgave ourselves.

December 4

A Brief History of Henry

I had grand daydreams of traveling with Roxanne.  Vision of mountains and oceans and skies waltzed through my head as I sat at work each day, confined by cubicle walls inside of even more brick and mortar walls that blocked out more than just daylight and fresh air.  We’d been to the beach, we’d been to the big city, but we’d never been overseas.  We’d never left our little pile of dirt for a brief visit to another one.

“Hey Roxy, let’s go to Europe this summer,” I’d say.

She’d laugh and nod along with my idea, but we both knew finances were too tight and time off of work was hard to come by.  Besides, we were young and had plenty of time to go to Asia and South America and everywhere else that there was to go.  I was happy with her, and that was enough.

We had a vacation fund stowed away in an envelope in the closet that had “London” hastily scribbled across the front.  It had several hundred dollars in it, mostly from tax refunds and returned birthday gifts.  As it got fuller, I got more excited about our trip.  I’d been saving up my vacation days, telling everyone at work that I was planning on the trip for years and it would soon be happening.

But Roxanne approached me one day with something to talk about.  She was pregnant, which should’ve been joyous news and cause for celebration.  Except we always used protection.  Always.

“Henry,” she broke down.  “I know you know what I’m about to say, but I don’t know the words to say it.”

My mind went blank as I stared at the floor while she admitted everything.  My dreams were dashed, my hopes tossed aside.  She felt guilty, she was sorry, and I believed her.  She wanted forgiveness, and I loved her, so I wanted to give it.  But I knew better.  I could never trust her again, and without trust, love is but a word with little meaning.

I’d expected more from her, but I’d probably never expect anything from anyone ever again.

What Roxanne did destroyed me, but I was a stronger person than to let her poor choices send me into a prolonged depression.  I knew what I had to do as the best thing for me, as I’d sometimes dreamed of doing when work got really rough.  I went online, typed the word “state,” and then smashed my fingers into the keyboard, creating a 6 letter string of gibberish.  It was a quickly improvised, 21st century version of throwing a dart at a map.  The first result contained “Georgia,” so I called a real-estate agent, packed my bags, and traveled halfway across the country to my new home.

I chose to stay in a small suburb right outside Atlanta, mostly so I wouldn’t be too far from a major international airport.  For some reason, my dream of traveling hadn’t died along with any other future plans I’d had with Roxanne, but that didn’t mean it was any easier to save toward the trip, especially after moving expenses.  I made slightly less money at my new job after moving, but the cost of living was lower, so even though I ended up ahead at the end of the day, it wasn’t by enough to get excited over.

I made a friend at work named Jackie.  Her real name was Vietnamese and started with a P, but I won’t pretend like I remember how to spell it.  Her gentle eyes and long, black hair reminded me of a friend I had in high school that I’d long since lost touch with.

Jackie brought a considerable amount of joy into my life at a time when I really needed it.  We went out together often for lunch, and sometimes she invited me to hang out or for get-togethers with her other friends.  I could’ve and would’ve fallen for her if she hadn’t been a lesbian.  She’d make some woman really happy some day.

Saying goodbye to Jackie was really the only hard part of moving from Georgia to North Carolina the next year.  She said she’d come visit, but I knew how that went.  A couple of my friends had told me that when I’d moved to Georgia and I’d seen neither head nor tail of them since my going away dinner.

Since I hadn’t been in a rush to move this time, I drove to North Carolina over a long holiday weekend and scoped it out ahead of time, as well as a few places in South Carolina that happened to be along the way.  It wasn’t that I didn’t like Georgia, or that moving there hadn’t served its purpose.  Rather, I was ready to move again because it had served its purpose.  Thinking about Roxanne hadn’t made me feel sad or angry or anything other pity for her in a long time.  This time, moving was an adventure rather than an escape.

I rented a cabin in the mountains about 45 minutes from my job.  It cost a little more, but once again, planning ahead of this move had paid off, and I was able to secure a better job in a place with a similar cost of living.  There weren’t a lot of employees were I worked; maybe 12 total in the local office and 40 or 50 among all three offices.  Most of them had been there a lot longer than me, so I was relatively surprised when my manager offered a newly created managerial position to me that would oversee a new branch of the company.

I was torn, not because I didn’t want the job, but because the job was in Tennessee.  I could still live in the mountains, but I’d grown accustomed to my little rental cabin, and even developed a fondness for its quaint charm, despite its lack of modernity and the occasional bear treading through my backyard.  I took the job, not without quite a little mental battle, but in the end, the $15,000/year raise would’ve been too hard to turn down.

Moving reminded me of Jackie, but in the 8 months I’d been in North Carolina, I hadn’t really made any friends, so there were no difficult farewells this time around.  A sad smile spread across my face when I realized that I’d been right about Jackie never visiting.

Tennessee was pretty, but I didn’t like it.  Two months in, and I regretted the move immensely.  The scenery was almost the same, the job was almost the same, but I think something inside me snapped after so many moves.  I wanted to have a place to call home.  I knew there was logically no reason for me to dislike my new location, especially in comparison to my extremely similar previous location, but I hated it.  I didn’t want to stay there, but I would have to stay somewhere if I wanted a place to call home.

I still had the envelope Roxanne and I used for our vacation fund.  The ink in which “London” was written had smudged a little during one of my many moves, but I’d kept it all this time and continued adding to it.  It was maybe enough for a short trip in an economy hotel, if those even existed in London, but the allure had been fading for over a year now.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to London anymore.  I felt like I’d been traveling for years now, moving from place to place and never truly settling down.  I didn’t want to get away.  I didn’t want an adventure.  I just wanted a home.

I thought about moving back to Georgia briefly after some nostalgic thoughts about Jackie, but we barely even texted anymore.  It was a nice thought, but really the closest thing that felt like home was North Carolina, despite having only lived there for less than a year.  I finally decided to ask my boss if I could transfer back to my old job.  I’d accept the pay cut, the demotion, and any ridicule from my old coworkers.

“Sorry Henry, we need you at the Tennessee branch,” he said.  It made sense, and he had to say that, but I’m sure he knew very well that he’d probably lose me anyway if I was that interested in moving back to North Carolina.

My old cabin had been rented, but I found a similar one in the area and moved back as soon as I’d secured a new job.  The money was okay, but that’s not really what mattered.  It felt slightly like home, or at least it did more so than Tennessee, and that was acceptable, even though I was alone.

One weekend I went to the corner store and bought some rum from a local distillery.  I tasted it by itself out of curiosity, and then added some Coke to it after I was satisfied in confirming that straight rum was not for me.  It wasn’t often that I was drunk, mostly out of fear that I would like it, but I got drunk that night and texted Jackie.

“You should come visit,” I said.

“Okay.  How about next month?” she replied.

I was shocked.  Even through my lack of sobriety I remember the feeling as I read her text multiple times to make sure my state hadn’t altered my understanding of the words on my phone’s screen.  Despite our declining communication, she’d agreed to visit, and I was excited to rekindle a friendship that was frankly cut too short by my move.

The distance was driveable, but Jackie flew since it wasn’t that expensive and would be much faster.  I was kind of nervous picking her up from the airport.  We hadn’t seen each other in over a year, but I recognized her instantly when she exited the terminal.   She smiled and hustled over to my car.  Hugs were exchanged, as were happy pleasantries.

“I’m surprised you recognized me,” she said.

“Because you cut your hair a little?  It doesn’t make you look that much different.”

“I didn’t even realize my hair was shorter since you’ve last seen me,” she said.  “I meant because I’ve put on a little weight.  My most recent ex-girlfriend was a really good cook.”  We both laughed at that, and it was as if I’d never left.

She’d planned on spending a week with me, but it only took a day of being with her to realize that something was a little different about the way she was acting.  She was desperately trying not to be obvious about it, but I too perceptive to not notice that she was flirting with me.  I’d always thought she was gorgeous, so if there was a chance – even a small one – of something happening between us, at this point, I was willing to put myself out there to find out.

“What’s up, Jackie?  You’re acting a little weird.”

Her expression didn’t change.  “You’re more observant than I remember.”

“So what’s going on?”

She shifted in the armchair, though not uncomfortably.  Jackie looked at me straight with a confidence in her eyes.  “I knew what you were going through back then when you first moved to Georgia.  I didn’t want to say anything, so I didn’t.”  Her eyes bore through me.

“About what?” I asked.

“I haven’t been with a guy in over 8 years.  Never wanted to until I met you.”

“Until you met me?”

“Don’t get me wrong,” she said.  “I don’t want this to mean anything, and it won’t.  I just want to fuck you.  Not because you’re a guy, not any guy, just you.  I want to fuck you, just because you’re you. Then I want to go back to being friends, and back to looking for a woman to share my life with.”

I stared at her for a second before I busted out laughing.

“Well geez, if you didn’t want to…”

“No, no,” I interrupted.  “I’m just laughing at how serious you are.”

She looked a little relieved.

“…well?”

“You’re hot as hell, what do you think I’m going to answer?”

My week with Jackie ended up being a very interesting one because of that, but it is still the only time in my life I’ve ever been in that kind of situation.  I look back on those years of my life with a smile, because even though I never went to London, I did find myself and enjoy my life because of everything I already had.

I haven’t seen Jackie in decades, and I have no idea what she’s up to, but every day is still a beautiful day here in North Carolina.

February 25

Chance

I usually expect letdowns. It’s my life; I’ve long become accustomed to it, but again and again, I allow my hopes to rise and expectations to form.

Normally I’d call it a rookie mistake. Quite sad for someone who is hardly a rookie.

I am of course talking about a girl I met. Well, I didn’t technically meet her. I’d only seen her. Didn’t know her name or anything else about her, but she had an infectious smile with little dimples that perfectly framed her dainty nose. It was impossible to mistake her for anyone else, and yet, I’d seen her in at least three different places.

First, she was at a clothing store in the mall. A few days later, I saw her pumping gas, and then the day after, she was ahead of me in line at the book store.

Coincidences aside, I had a strange feeling about her. It was like we were drawn to each other. How many times had I passed her before with noticing?

But that smile – how could my eyes not be drawn to it?

I was never one to believe in fate. It’s a silly notion, really. Things cannot be destined. To suggest that my choices are already made before I am even presented with them removes any notion of choice, and to live in a world where choice and chance are illusions just seems depressing. So I chose to believe otherwise.

This girl, though… In a city of 80,000, what are the odds that I’d see her on three occasions in such a short period of time, much less the odds that I’d recognize a complete stranger. Could that really be chance?

But here I stand, thinking of this all in an instant, staring her in the face in my first class in the new semester.

I don’t know if this is fate or luck, but there’s no way I am missing this opportunity to make my own destiny.

February 5

Missing

When I met Hayden, I felt as though every fiber of my being had suddenly connected to her. I became infatuated, helplessly and completely in love, and her returning my feelings was like a walk-in cooler filled with ice water in the center of the mid-July desert.

Hayden completed me in ways that I didn’t realize needed completion. She understood me, didn’t leave me wishing something was different. It was whimsically beautiful like a dream – captivatingly enigmatic like a labyrinth I had no desire to escape from. I wanted her closer even when she was right next to me, and when she said the same with just her gaze, my body became like beeswax in an oven.

I was 24 years, 19 weeks, and 2 days old when my life stopped. I could feel my pulse, and I breathed air, but it was for nothing. I’d gotten a call that no 24-year old should’ve gotten – one that I’d wish on no one and cannot think about without shaking.

Hayden had killed herself. Overdosed on some prescription drug I’ve long forgotten the name of. It was surreal to the point that I couldn’t even believe that I’d heard correctly.

Six months we’d dated without even the slightest hint she’d take her own life. Half a year I’d gone without realizing the person I cared about most in the world was hurting enough to want so desperately to escape.

Sometimes I’m okay. Other times I blame myself. No matter which though, I miss her touch. I miss her fingers in my hair and her nose brushing mine as we kissed. I can’t even begin to describe the gaping hole inside of me that never seems to get smaller.

But worst of all, I will never know why Hayden did it. I’ll never know why she didn’t talk to me about whatever was so wrong with her life. And that hurts almost as much as reaching over for a hand to hold, even knowing it will never be there again.

December 18

Text

Some amount of time ago, I received a text message on my phone from a number I didn’t recognize that plainly said “where are you.” I replied, asking “who is this?” but received no answer.

A week later, the same number texted me again with the same message asking where I was. Confused, I texted back “I don’t know who you are. Who is this?” Once again, my question was not met with a reply.

Six days passed, and I got another message from that number, but it was different. “I know where you are.” I read it a few times before realizing it wreaked of my friend Fred’s idea if a practical joke. He’d probably grabbed a texting app for his phone and gotten a free number to mess with me. Confident that I’d figured out what was going on, I sent a text back that said “And I know where you are.

I figured Fred would try to have a little more fun with me before ignoring me for a while, but like clockwork, the replies stopped until five days later. “I see you,” it said. It was a little distasteful, but I wasn’t one to let a joke easily bother me, so I sent back “Pervert” and figured I wouldn’t hear from him again for a while.

Four days passed this time before a new message came. “that red dress would look better on the floor.”

With that, I’d had enough. “dude, seriously? Stfu or ill text your brother and tell him to kick your ass. Not cool.” I mean, really? Making a joke like that? But then I stopped, looked down, and realized what was happening.

I was wearing a red dress.

But how? How had Fred known? I hadn’t seem him in weeks. Was he spying on me? I racked my brain for answers. I hadn’t left the house all day since the weather was nasty. I literally hadn’t seen or talked to anyone face to face all day. No one short of a creeper spying through a window could’ve known what I was wearing.

I raced around the house drawing all of the curtains that were open. The front and back doors were locked and deadbolted – this I double checked to make sure.

I pulled up Fred’s contact into on my phone and sent a message to him. “have you been texting me for the last few weeks under a different number? This is serious so please tell me the truth.”

A few minutes later, Fred replied. “I broke my phone a couple weeks ago and just got a new one yesterday, so nope.” He could’ve been lying, but I knew he wasn’t. I don’t know how, but I knew it.

I was still on edge three days later when another message came from the number. “the curtains can’t keep me out.”

That was it. I was done. I closed the text and called the police. Told them I was scared, told them to please hurry. I don’t remember much of that day past that moment. The cops showed up and questioned me. I showed them the texts and admitted that I wasn’t comfortable being alone in my house. I think they asked me if I had any friends or family I could stay with for a while, or at least I assume they asked me something along those lines because I remember saying I’d recently moved here from my hometown that was over four hours away.

I do remember the officer pointing out to me that the texts were coming in a day sooner than the last every time, but I was so terrified that I couldn’t think much about it. I couldn’t afford to stay in a hotel for the next week, so I knew I had to stay in the house.

Despite not replying to the last text, two days later I got another one. “You didn’t wash the dress. Thanks. It smells nice.”

I didn’t need a moment to think. I couldn’t find my red dress. It had been missing since at least the day before I’d called the cops. I grabbed my keys, ran to my car, and drove. Didn’t care about work the next day or that it was 9 PM. I just drove straight to my parents’ house in my hometown. I didn’t even call to tell them. If they weren’t home, I’d stay with Fred and his brother.

I got there at 12:30 since I’d sped the whole way. My parents were awake, and they comforted me for an hour or so after I explained everything.

The next day when my phone alerted me of a text, I was scared to look, but not knowing would’ve been far worse.

I followed you

I’m in my parents’ basement right now typing this out. My mom is pacing on the other side of the room while my dad is upstairs with his hunting rifle. As I finished typing half of this up, I got another message.

you are MINE”

I’m so terrified, I don’t know what to do. My dad called the police, and they’re on their way, but I can’t help but think of the danger I’ve put my parents in.

And still, the texts are becoming more frequent.

you can’t run and you can’t hide. I will have you one way or the other.

I have a horrifying feeling that he’s about to make his move.

November 4

Tracks

At 14 years old, there wasn’t a lot for my friends and I to do that didn’t involve the woods near our neighborhood. We were too young to drive, and yet we felt too old to be restricted to playing sports in our parents’ yards. The woods were basically the perfect place for us to hang out, as most of our parents had made them off-limits when we were younger. Being able to freely go there felt like a rite of passage, and we could do basically whatever we wanted there with no one around to tell us otherwise.

Now that I think about it, I guess it wasn’t exactly the best thing for our parents to allow of a bunch of kids that were barely teenagers, though I have never blamed any of them for lack of proper parenting.

The first of us that was allowed to go into the woods was Jerry. His parents gave him that freedom when he turned 13, but no one else was allowed to go yet, so he only went once or twice with his older brother to hunt for rabbits with a pellet gun.

Turning 14 was like a magical age. I don’t know why, but it seemed like once the rest of us hit that age, our parents finally gave in to our begging and let us venture out into places that were previously forbidden. I turned 14 first, then Frank, then Darren, then Melissa, then Jerry. When Melissa’s birthday rolled around and she got permission to go into the woods, we suddenly realized that we’d surmounted the last barrier since Jerry was already allowed. We immediately made plans for the next weekend to go to the woods and explore.

It was exactly like we’d hoped it would be. Nothing but trees for what seemed like miles. Lots of sticks to grab and hit things with. Plenty of leaves blanketing the floor to kick around. The occasional snap of a twig or cry of a small animal to creep us out. It was fantastic.

Almost every weekend from that point on, you could find us in the woods. We’d usually meet at Jerry’s at a predetermined time, then trek over there with whatever we wanted to bring, if anything. We brought a tarp and nailed it up to some trees for shade and shelter in case the weather got bad. We constructed a makeshift hammock out of some burlap sacks, rope, and a couple of two by fours. Darren wanted to make a swing, but we’d used all of the rope we could find on the hammock, and rope was more expensive than we thought it was, so we abandoned that idea.

Months passed of us hanging out like that basically every chance we got. We’d explored and memorized most every part of the woods up until a wooden fence with a bunch of “NO TRESPASSING” signs on it blocked us from going any farther. We never really got too curious about what was on the other side of the fence, but we did follow it for at least a mile one time and there was no end of it in sight.

By that point, we didn’t know every inch of the woods, but I can pretty much guarantee that any one of us couldn’t get lost there, which had been a legitimate concern in the beginning. We’d become accustomed to certain landmarks, like the pile of rusted metal scraps that someone had likely dumped there a decade ago, or like the tree that had been splintered right down the middle, probably by lightning. There were lots of little things like that that we could recognize and immediately know where we were, at least in relation to the tarp shelter we’d set up.

It was a Saturday afternoon that Melissa showed up with a girl named Jamie. This was surprising to us for at least two reasons: the first was that Melissa was a tomboy, which was lucky for her, since she was the only girl our age in the neighborhood and would have to either hang out with us boys or just be alone. The second reason it was surprising was because Jamie seemed very girlish, and to be hanging out with a tomboy like Melissa didn’t immediately make a lot of sense. However, they both assured us boys that Jamie wanted to go to the woods with us, and that she wasn’t afraid to get a little dirty.

Now, Melissa was pretty, despite the way she dressed, but Jamie was prettier. There was basically no way that a bunch of 14 year old boys were going to turn down a pretty girl’s request to hang out, so that was that, as far as we were concerned.

We headed to the woods as we usually did, only plus one. We found the trail at the edge that we’d gently worn down over the past few months and followed it a couple hundred yards to a clearing. Here, we’d determined that we didn’t want to make the path to our tarp shelter obvious, and that if we didn’t beat the brush around the clearing down too obviously, any explorer would probably just figure the trail ended at the clearing. We’d even set up some stones in a circle and made it look like a campfire site.

Continuing on another hundred or so yards, we arrived at the familiar site of our tarp shelter. It was just as we’d left it, which we’d come to expect. If anyone had ever found it, they’d never touched it or messed with it in any noticeable way. Jamie looked around with a glimmer of genuine curiosity in her eyes. I’d have never pegged her for it judging by her looks, but she obviously liked exploring.

“This is perfect!” she said, giving a nod of approval to Melissa.

“We have a lot of fun out here,” Melissa said.

Jamie examined the hammock and picked a few leaves off of it, admiring the last one before she tossed it on the ground. “So cool.”

I’d noticed that Frank had been eying Jamie the entire time, and not that Darren or Jerry or I weren’t doing the same, but his glances were far less discreet. I kind of wanted to tell him to cut it out because it was a little embarrassing, but it seemed like Jamie hadn’t noticed yet, so I kept my mouth shut.

Jamie’s eyes suddenly lit up, and she excitedly looked around, her gaze finding each of us as she spoke. “You guys want to build a fire and camp out here tonight?”

It wasn’t a new idea. We’d thought about it before, but there were a few reasons we hadn’t done it. The first one was obviously that our parents wouldn’t let us. We could get around it by lying and saying that we were sleeping over at someone’s house for the night, but there were more issues than just that. There were animals in the woods, and though maybe they would leave us alone at night as they did during the day, we weren’t sure, because honestly, we weren’t even sure what kinds of animals called those woods home. Then, there was the issue of the campire.

“We can’t build a fire here,” Jerry said.

“Why not?” Jamie’s eyelids fluttered.

“The smoke will be visible from outside of the woods,” I said. “People will know where we are.”

“So?” Jamie said.

“This is kind of our private place,” Darren explained. “That’s why we had the decoy campsite back at the clearing.”

“What’s the big deal?” Jamie said. “Camping out would be fun. No one would find us.”

It had always been understood among us, though it remained unspoken, that this part of the woods was something we didn’t want to just broadcast to everyone. But on that day, a pretty girl came with us to our hideaway, and that changed.

“Come on guys, she’s right. It would be fun,” Frank said. I knew exactly what was going through his mind. I’d seen him staring at Jamie. He just wanted to find a way to sleep next to, close to, anywhere in the same proximity as her. Maybe he even wanted more than that. Who knows for sure, but I could see as he looked at us desperately, begging with his eyes for us to agree with him, that he had an ulterior motive.

All of that aside though, sleeping in the woods with my friends did sound like fun. I wasn’t so worried about the animals, especially if we had a fire. And I knew Jerry could sneak his brother’s pellet gun out of the house – not that it could do much damage to anything that could actually hurt us, but maybe it could scare such a creature away with a well-aimed shot.

Darren was either thinking along the same lines as Frank or me, as he suddenly spoke up. “Well, I guess.”

Melissa bit her lip. “I can’t. There’s no way I can come up with a good enough excuse. Jamie is my only female friend, and she’s supposed to be staying over at my house. Whose house would I say I’m sleeping at?”

“Just tell your parents we went back to my house to spend the night,” Jamie said. “My parents think I’m over at your house, yours will think we’re over at my house.”

“What if one of them calls the other, though?” Melissa said.

Jamie dug in her pocket, then held out her cell phone. “Mine have no reason to call yours. If they need me, they can just call me.” We didn’t all have cell phones, but I had one. So did Darren and Frank. But not Jerry, and not Melissa.

“I don’t have a cell, though,” Melissa said.

“Call your parents from my phone, give them my number, and tell them if they need you to call you on it. Simple. If they ask to talk to my parents or for my parents’ number or something, make something up. Give the phone to me or one of the guys or something and we’ll impersonate your mom or dad.”

My impression of Jamie that was initially based entirely on her looks was quickly evolving to more adequately match who she actually was. She was this good at planning on how to trick parents? This innocent-looking girl?

Melissa sighed, defeated. “Fine.”

Each one of us took turns calling our parents on our phones and loaning them to others without phones. We all shared the same risk that Melissa shared, but none of our parents questioned what we told them. Mine only asked when I’d be back, then told me to have fun, and that was it. I felt bad for a moment that they trusted me well enough to not press me at all, when I was, in fact, betraying that very trust.

But it was harmless, right? I was only spending the night in the woods with my friends. It was a victimless betrayal.

We’d need supplies, and unfortunately, we didn’t think of that until after we’d already called our parents. No one could go home for blankets or chips or a lighter or anything like that, so instead, we pooled the cash we had on us and gave it to Darren and Jerry, who set off by themselves to the closest gas station to buy at least a lighter and however much food and drinks they could with the $28 we collectively had and the two sets of arms they had to carry it all back.

The rest of us were left with two tasks: to gather firewood and to find something for us to cover ourselves with or sleep on top of or both. Melissa had an idea on how to solve the latter problem, and much to Frank’s dismay, she grabbed his arm and pulled him off with her, saying she needed a “man” to help her carry some stuff. And suddenly, I was left alone with Jamie.

“Well, I guess that means we’re in charge of gathering firewood,” I said.

She nodded and saluted me. “Sir, yes sir!”

I arched an eyebrow at her and laughed. This girl was full of surprises.

“First, we need to clear the leaves away from where we’re going to build the fire,” I said. “The ground needs to be nothing but dirt. No grass – not even if it’s alive.”

“Why not?” Jamie asked.

“If we build the fire on top of leaves or grass, it could catch the entire place on fire,” I said, motioning to the woods around us with my hands. “With all of these dead leaves and stuff, this entire place is a tinderbox. We have to be careful.”

Jamie nodded, seemingly impressed with this wisdom that I had assumed was common sense.

Fortunately, finding an area of dirt wasn’t that hard. When we’d built the hammock, we’d first tried using an old bed sheet instead of the burlap sack. The sheet wasn’t strong enough, of course, so we’d spread it out under the tarp as a sort of “indoors” area for us to relax on. This, however, proved to be a terrible idea, because when it rained, the sheet got soaking wet, and the combination of the tarp and the trees protected it from the sun, so it took forever to dry. We ended up putting the sheet in the clearing instead, and set rocks on top of it. It was better than laying on the ground, and we just had to pick it up and shake it off when it got full of leaves.

That is, until it killed the grass underneath, and the area underneath became dirt, which in combination with the rain muddied the sheet so much that we just avoided it.

Until I remembered that we needed an area that was just dirt. Jamie and I removed the rocks, lifted the filthy sheet, and found exactly the area we were looking for.

SNAP

I turned around and scanned the treeline at the edge of the clearing in search of the source of the noise.

“Melissa? Frank?” I called out.

“Probably just an animal or something,” Jamie said.

I nodded, grabbed the small hand axe we had pilfered from Darren’s dad, and motioned for Jamie to follow me.

“Where are we going?” Jamie asked.

“To look for firewood,” I said.

“Why do we have to leave this area? There’s plenty of trees here.”

“We’ve already used all of the fallen branches here for random stuff,” I said.

“So just use the axe to chop some more down.”

“No, I can’t. We need dead branches. Live wood is moist on the inside and is impossible to burn in campfires.”

Jamie nodded thoughtfully and said, “Oh.” With that, we headed away from the tarp shelter and toward the center of the woods. I knew we’d gathered some branches a while back when we’d tried to make a lean-to, and we’d basically scavenged up everything in the area for it, only to abandon it in favor of just using a tarp. We could just use the branches from the lean-to, but there was a problem with that; I had no idea where it was. We’d built that thing our second or third trip into the woods before we knew them very well, and not once since then had we run across it. To be honest, I’m not sure how we ever made it out of the woods that time, since I knew every single path now, and none of the paths went by the lean-to.

It was strange, because we’d obviously used the branches in this area, so the lean-to should’ve been nearby, but I never thought too much of it. For all I knew, some stranger had stumbled upon it and used it for his own fire. Or maybe Jerry’s brother had found it while hunting and knocked it down as a mean joke, thus making it less noticeable by my quick scans of the area.

Regardless, I knew that once we passed the splintered tree, there would be wood we could use. The path there was pretty simple, but it was a five minute walk at a decent pace. Carrying back branches would be annoying, and over multiple trips, time-consuming.

“How far do we have to walk?” Jamie suddenly asked, interrupting my thoughts.

“Not too much farther,” I said.

CRACK

I snapped my head in the direction of the noise. “Guys? Hello?”

“Probably another animal,” Jamie said. I shrugged and we continued walking, arriving at the splintered tree a couple minutes later.

There wasn’t really a path, per se, as that would imply an obvious beaten trail of some sort, but there was an area that had less brush and less obstacles to walk over or around, and at this point, that area split off in two directions. I knew the left trail ended at the fence, and I knew the right trail circled back somehow and would eventually lead you to the faux campsite we’d set up closer to the entrance we used to get into the woods. The harder trail was the one on the right, because it wasn’t as clear, and it also was easier to get lost on if you weren’t familiar with the layout of the woods.

“You take the left trail,” I said. “It’ll lead you to a fence. Gather the dead branches you can and bring them back to this area, and I will go down the right trail and do the same until we’ve gathered enough wood here for the fire.”

She didn’t look at all hesitant as she nodded. “Okay.”

“I say make three trips, then wait here so we can meet up and bring what we’ve gathered back.”

Jamie nodded once more.

“Stay on the trail and you won’t get lost,” I said. “As long as you turn around and backtrace as soon as you find the fence, it’s basically impossible for you to lose your way.”

We parted ways then and did as I’d instructed. There were plenty of dead tree branches to be found, and by the time I’d brought back my second pile of branches to the fork, still only my branches were there. My trail did have more trees though, so perhaps I’d given Jamie the less fair trail after all. I shrugged and went back to gather my final bundle. I figured if she hadn’t brought anything back by the time I returned, I’d set off down the left trail to help her out. If she was having that hard of a time, we could just both go down the right trail together and pick up what I hadn’t already gathered. It was a shame, because I figured us splitting up would’ve worked out faster, but in the end, I brought my third batch of branches back, and Jamie still hadn’t added to the pile.

I set off down the left trail, beginning to wonder if maybe she got lost, as I started to notice obvious firewood candidates laying strewn about the sides of the trail. But I kept on, as I was certain Jamie was not dumb enough to lose her way on this very simple trail. It did not branch out, did not fork or become unclear at any point unless you left the trail once you got to the fence.

Sure enough, she hadn’t lost her way, as I shortly thereafter found her walking toward me with a bundle of branches in her arms.

“Hey!” she said.

“Hey. What’s up?”

“Sorry, I got sidetracked.”

“By what?” I asked.

“Well, you didn’t tell me about the railroad tracks. I got curious and wanted to explore.”

I arched an eyebrow at her. “Railroad tracks?”

“Yeah, the ones down by the fence.”

“There’s no railroad tracks that run through these woods,” I said.

“I literally just came from checking them out,” Jamie said. “I will drop these branches right here and take you back there if you don’t believe me.”

What in the world could she be talking about? I knew this area well. I’d been here many times with the group and a couple of times by myself. Maybe, at some area of these woods, far, far away, there were railroad tracks, but not here. Not by the fence.

“Yeah, sure. Let’s go,” I said, hoping she would just laugh at me and say she was messing with me. But she immediately released her hold on the branches, dropping them as she stood, and turned back around while waving me over to her, all in one swift, fluid motion.

I followed her over the familiar trail, across areas that were etched into my mind like street name signs on the intersections of roads I’d traveled my entire life. We were getting close to the fence, and as it came into view, I literally felt a chill go down my spine as the train tracks also became clearly visible.

“What the hell…”

“See? I told you!” she said.

Words failed me at that moment. The tracks were real, they were obviously unused, and they were clearly decades and decades old. Weeds and vines had grown over the tracks in many places, and the resulting takeover of this manmade thing by nature was beautiful, almost artistic in a way. Man had tried to take this strip of land from nature, and nature was reclaiming it.

But it didn’t make any sense. These tracks shouldn’t be able to be “reclaimed” by nature, as they shouldn’t be here at all. I’d been to this area. I’d explored along the fence. Many times, even.

“Are you seriously trying to tell me that you’ve never seen these tracks before?” Jamie asked.

“It’s not that,” I said, with what must’ve been the most unusual look of bewilderment on my face. “I’ve been here before. Like, many times. To this exact spot. These train tracks were not here, and Melissa or anyone else can confirm that.”

Jamie looked at me for a second as if she was trying to decide whether or not she believed me.

“I’m not messing with you,” I said. “This is really screwing with my head.”

CRACK

Once again, I was drawn to look toward a sound that did not have a clear source. But now I knew something was wrong. I was no longer in the mindset of ignoring things that didn’t seem right.

“Who’s there?” I said.

“It’s probably just-”

“No,” I interrupted. “It’s not an animal.” The words came out so forcefully and confidently that I believed them even more than I expected to.

“Who’s there?” I called out again. After a few moments, I spoke up again. “I know someone is there. Stop following us and come out.”

I said those words knowing what they meant, but saying that seemed to make them real, and suddenly, I realized that we were almost certainly being followed. In the middle of the woods. With no one around for what could be miles.

“Jerry, Darren, Melissa, Frank – if it’s one of you guys, cut it out and show yourself.”

The woods weren’t very thick in this area. You could maybe conceal yourself easily at night, but during the day, all you could do is hide behind a tree or duck down behind one of shrubs or bushes. I thought for a moment that maybe I was wrong; maybe no one was there because it would be so hard to hide, but I had a strange and unsettling feeling, and this feeling was sending a chill down my spine and making it so that my confidence in the fact that we were being followed was quickly turning into the resulting fear of a person that knew he was being followed. I held the axe tightly at my side.

“I said SHOW YOURSELF!” I shouted. I had meant for it to sound frustrated. I hoped that it was just one of my friends playing a joke, and that frustrated me, because this joke wasn’t very funny at all, but when the words escaped my lips, they sounded only angry.

Before I could get a response though, I felt the ground beneath me begin to shake.

“What the…” I said.

“What is this?” Jamie said, suddenly grabbing onto my shoulder.

“Earthquake?” I said. But there were no earthquakes here. That was silly. Something was making the earth rumble though, and I couldn’t figure out what. It would have to be pretty big though.

And that’s when it hit me.

“No…that’s impossible,” I said.

“What’s impossible?” Jamie asked.

“A train,” I said. “A train would make the earth rumble like this.”

“But these tracks haven’t been used in years.” Jamie’s face showed an obvious concern.

WHOO, WHOO

“Get away from the tracks!” I yelled, yanking at Jamie’s arm and pulling her back toward the trail. Whether I’d seen the tracks before or not, that was a real train whistle, and standing anywhere nearby sounded like a terrible idea.

The earth shook harder as the train slowly came into view.

“You’ve gotta be kidding me…” Jamie said.

My thoughts were a mess. This was impossible. There weren’t supposed to be tracks here, much less an active train. Was there even a train that passed through town that could go through this woods? I couldn’t think of one, but I could barely think at all.

The train chugged toward us, and as it zoomed past, the resulting wind rushed over my body and Jamie’s, and we stood in awe at what we were witnessing.

It was a short train, or maybe it was long and the time just seemed to pass quickly as we watched it. It continued on down the tracks and slowly disappeared into the distance, hidden by the trees.

Jamie didn’t say a word, and I wanted to, because there were so many things to say, but I kept my mouth shut.

Until I looked down at the tracks.

They were no longer covered in growth. In fact, they looked new. The rails were shining even without an abundance of sun, and the creosote that treated the wood underneath permeated the air and filled my nose.

“What in the world is going on?” I said.

She remained silent for a moment before responding. “What happened to the fence?”

I looked up to discern what she meant, and was met with yet another unbelievable sight. The fence was dilapidated and falling apart. It had never been new since I’d known of it, but it wasn’t in disrepair. But now, parts of it were completely gone, and other parts were hanging on a single nail, just waiting to fall to the ground.

I was shaking now. There was nothing about this situation that didn’t terrify me.

“Jamie, let’s get out of here.”

She didn’t argue or provide any resistance as I grabbed her hand and pulled her back down the trail. I didn’t let go as we raced down the trail back to the beaten path, back past the splintered tree, back to where our tarp shelter was.

Or should’ve been.

Nothing was like it should’ve been. The tarp was gone. The hammock was rotten and muddied on the ground. The dirt area that we’d uncovered to build the fire was overgrown with grass. In fact, the whole area was overgrown.

We stopped there for only a bit, took all of this in, and kept running. My friends weren’t there. I hoped they were safe, but waiting there for them wasn’t an option. We ran back past the fake campsite, through the trails, and darted out of the woods as fast as I could run while holding onto Jamie.

It wasn’t far to my house, so we ran there first. Melissa’s was not far, and I’d have to bring Jamie there. We’d have to make up a story about canceling the sleepover, but it could work, hopefully without them ever finding out that we’d lied in the first place.

I went to open the back door to my parents’ house, but it was locked. I found that to be pretty weird, since they never locked the back door, but weirder things have happened. Just 10 or 15 minutes before, actually.

I knocked and waited for my mom. She was also faster at answering doors than my dad, after all.

The wave of confusion that passed over me when my mom finally did open the door is difficult to describe. There she was, my mom that I knew and loved, but she looked…different. Her hair had grayed a little and was much shorter. There were wrinkles on her face that hadn’t been there before, and the look she displayed when she saw me probably nearly matched the one I had.

“W…Warren?” she stammered.

“Yeah mom, it’s me.” I didn’t know what else to say.

She reached a hand forward and cautiously touched my face. “Is it really you?”

I nodded. “You look different, mom.”

Her warm hand didn’t falter as she began to cry.

“Mom, what’s the matter?”

Jamie just stood there, not understanding what was wrong. After all, she had no idea what my mom normally looked like.

“Son,” she forced through tears. “Where have you been for the past 10 years?”