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Forums Forums Business The Burned Photo [Part 12] : nosleep

  • The Burned Photo [Part 12] : nosleep

     Arianna updated 2 years, 10 months ago 1 Member · 1 Post
  • Arianna

    Member
    January 17, 2020 at 12:23 am

    Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11

    *****

    Felicia Cox, 11/30/2017

    I left IHOP with Benjamin, abandoning Kira with my half-empty carafe of coffee, and checked into the first motel I saw. It was a dirty little outfit called The Meadows Inn, with seafoam-green walls in the lobby, broken vending machines, and a bored teen-aged boy playing a game on his phone behind the front desk.

    The kid was nice. He showed me to the door of my room and volunteered to drag a crib out from storage, for Benjamin. I caught a glimpse of myself in the slanted hotel-room mirror: old jeans, a stained UCLA sweatshirt that had once been Isaiah’s, yesterday’s running makeup, and my dirty hair falling out of the bun and sticking up at odd angles. The teen-aged clerk probably thought I was a fleeing abuse victim or an off-the-clock sex worker.

    Benjamin immediately nodded off in the old metal crib. I was so tired I didn’t even bother pulling back the tightly-tucked hotel sheets before crawling under the comforter. But, as my eyes adjusted to the dark, I couldn’t sleep. As soon as I felt myself drifting off, I was accosted by the image of The Thing, wearing Ezekiel’s mangled body, standing by Benjamin’s crib. I saw his smile. His giggling played in a loop in my head. It embodied a child so effortlessly; if I didn’t know the truth my heart would have melted. I would have pulled the little mangled boy into my arms. I would have held Ezekiel close, hugged him until he forced a knife into my back, or until he sucked the life out of me and left me empty and dry.

    And it just stood there, acting cute and innocent. Within grabbing distance of my own child. I could deal with the burning bookshelves and the blocks. But the thought of waking to see that thing, leaning on the bars of the cheap hotel crib, staring at Benjamin, moon-eyed and giggling – that thought snapped me right out of any slumber I might’ve been tempted to slip into.

    The message in the blocks, months before, had been prophetic. I was now truly alone.

    Kira was gone. It had been the right thing to do, and I didn’t regret pushing her away, but I’d appreciated her presence. It was nice, having a teammate. She knew my darkest secret, believed every single unbelievable story I’d relayed, and had been the person I could scheme with, like elementary-school best friends playing make-believe.

    But we weren’t children playing make-believe. And, I realized, I’d been angry because I expected too much out of her. When we first met, she’d given me answers. Context. Her father’s research, her incredible scrying skills, and Zoe’s diary provided a much better understanding of The Thing’s motivations, and the reasons it followed me. Kira’s obsessive nature led us to Doctor Joachim, to Scarlett, and to Arthur Gurden, and – fuck – it was her who deciphered the meaning of I170. I’d become confident that, if I gave her information, she’d have the ability to pick it apart and extract an elusive kernel of meaning.

    That night, at the Ihop, I truly believed she’d be able to dislodge some clue from my recounting of the Doctor Joachim chapter of Voodoo in Southern America. I thought she’s twirl her hair around her finger, stare off into space in one of her obsessive spirals, and fight her way out with a completely new understanding of what was going on and what we should do next.

    But she hadn’t. She’d been upset. And, honestly, she had every right. I’d dragged her out of bed to listen to me narrate a fairy tale.

    Kira became a liability, then. She was fresh out of answers, and the search for them was driving her crazy. If I kept leaning on her, confiding The Thing’s latest terror tactics, I’d only feed her obsession. She’d grow angrier, and more desperate, and more reckless, and I couldn’t manage her emotions and protect Benjamin at the same time. She was an addict. I’d cut her off cold turkey.

    *****

    I gave up on sleep. Instead, I pulled out my phone and began Googling the name Arthur Gurden. I didn’t find much. He died in the 60’s; though he wrote six different books about American magical and occult traditions, his career never progressed past a professorship at a mediocre university. Critically, he hadn’t made much of himself. The best review, out of the few I could find, described him as a “colorful character” who was “marvelously entertaining, if lacking in credibility.” The worst accused him of outright fraud. In another book, he swore to have witnessed a backwoods ritual in which a snake slithered out of the mouth of a possessed girl, exorcised by a Pentecostal preacher.

    In short, the man exaggerated.

    Still, I couldn’t get Voodoo in Southern America out of my head. Kira might not have been impressed with his addition to the canon of The Thing. But she hadn’t read those words. She hadn’t felt them settle over her like warm water in a shower.

    I could see the multicolored plants in Doctor Joachim’s garden and feel Alphonse’s shovel in my hands. When I came to the part where the mob burned down the doctor’s greenhouse, Alpnonse’s panic curdled my own blood. And as he described the gruesome deaths of those ten men, a feeling of utter despair settled over me. Tears ran down my face.

    The story resonated in my bones. Sure, it was ridiculous – as I’d said to Scarlett, a dementia-riddled old man could hardly be considered a botany expert or an authority on the paranormal. And no one else seemed to believe a word Gurden wrote. But no one else was experiencing what I was and, with all that had happened to me, the most ridiculous tales were the exact ones I needed to take seriously.

    I was sure, if I could find my own copy, it would lead me somewhere. To some understanding that Kira couldn’t provide. The Thing wanted me to read Voodoo in Southern America. And the feeling I had that night, as I huddled in my car in a 7-Eleven parking lot after fleeing my house, Benjamin sleeping in his carseat beside me, devouring page after page by the light of my cellphone – I wouldn’t call it calmness. It was better than calm. I felt peace, interconnectedness, the zen hyper focus I’d obtained the one time, in college, I popped an Adderal to study for a statistics final.

    Kira found her connection with the universe through scrying. I found mine reading Voodoo in Southern America.

    I posted ads on Craigslist. I e-mailed the anthropology departments of six different southern universities, twelve rare book dealers, and every Voodoo practitioner I could find. I wrote on hq message boards. I would find Gurden’s book if it killed me. If I’d only been able to finish that chapter before the book dissolved to dust in my hands, I would have found my relief.

    *****

    At some point, my exhaustion got the better of me. I woke to Benjamin’s cries a little after ten. We checked out and went home.

    I’d received a few e-mails, but they were all useless. Only one person – an assistant professor at the University of Alabama – had even heard of Arthur Gurden, and she regretted to inform me the library didn’t keep copies of any of his books. I also had two missed calls: one from Kira, and one from Chantal. I called Chantal back. She was going to be in town at the end of the month and volunteered to watch Benjamin again, despite my insane display the last time I’d tapped her to babysit. I ignored Kira.

    Kira called me six more times over the next few days. She sent me texts: she really needed to talk to me, and wanted to do it in person. I contemplated blocking her.

    Benjamin and work kept me busy. The Thing stayed quiet. I had trouble sleeping, but that worked out for the best; in my now-constant exhausted haze, my nerves dulled and my fear numbed. I zoned out often.

    My mind would wander to Natchez in 1855. I visualized beautiful purple flowers on lush green vines that were alive, lashing out at their caretakers and laughing about it. I wondered what it would’ve been like to hold a pibbler (they disgusted Alphonse, but seemed cute to me). I thought about the other slave assistant, Cash, and imagined his daughter growing up and sailing to Paris with Narcissa, Kira’s great-great-great-grandmother or aunt.

    I wanted to know what happened to all of them – Alphonse, Cash, the Barrington family. But as days passed, this seemed increasingly unlikely, as no one I’d contacted could provide me with a copy of Voodoo in Southern America.

    Then, unexpectedly, someone could.

    The assistant professor at the University of Alabama sent a follow-up email. Her friend, she wrote, owned a secondhand bookstore with an extensive magic collection. She’d called this friend, and put the woman in touch with me. The used bookstore had one copy of Voodoo in Southern America in stock. It was old and dog-eared and, because it had sat on a shelf untouched for years, she would mail it to me if I paid the postage costs. I readily agreed, paid extra to have it shipped in two days, and all but waited by the door for the delivery.

    Doctor Joachim died violently, Scarlett had said. Maybe he was captured and killed by my four potential ancestors – Chamberlain, Woods, Barrington, and Harding. Perhaps he cursed them with his dying breath.

    I found myself Googling flights to Mississippi. I, a descendant of one of the four, may be required to find the doctor’s grave and apologize. Tender a sacrifice. Somehow make amends or cast a counter-curse, offer my own blood, whatever I had to do to make The Thing go away. Voodoo in Southern America would reveal my path to me. The solution had to be hidden within its pages.

    I was obsessing. This, I thought to myself, is what it must feel like to be Kira.

    *****

    The book came, on schedule, two days later. When I found the little brown package on my doorstep, I all but squealed like a schoolgirl as I tore off the wrapping. The cover was red faux leather and the title page, calligraphy.

    Chapter 3: Doctor Joachim.

    Benjamin occupied with legos on the floor, I paged through the book, trying to find where I’d last left off. As I jostled it, something came flying out from between the pages and landed, upside down, on the floor. A notecard? I knelt and retrieved it.

    No. It was a photograph.

    A little boy of around three, dressed as a ninja, cuddled in his mother’s arms.

    Cuddled in my mother’s arms. The woman was my mother. The little boy was Shane.

    My insides turned to ropes and my blood chilled. No. No, no*, no, no, no.*

    The book was on fire. Red and yellow flames devoured Voodoo in Southern America before my eyes. I watched it burn. Like Scarlett’s copy before it, my new copy was reduced to white ashes, which dissolved into nothingness like sugar in water. Feeble wisps of smoke hung in the air. One snaked its way above Benjamin’s head; he reached for it and giggled. And, though the destroyed book had caught fire on my couch, there wasn’t so much as a black spot left behind.

    I stared at the photograph in my hands. I studied Shane’s chubby toddler’s face, and my young mother’s. She was laughing. There were no lines extending from the corners of her eyes; her smile radiated only joy and love, unfiltered gleefulness and hope. Her world was a blessed one. She hummed with energy; with the naive exuberance of a charmed twenty-something who blindly trusts the world and truly believes her blessings will only multiply.

    I had never seen my mother look so happy. Not once.

    Then the photo, as well, disintegrated to dust. I was left looking at my own child. At Benjamin, innocently constructing a lego tower.

    “So that’s how it’s gonna be,” I snapped at the universe. “Got it. I’m not allowed to read the rest of the book.”

    I received no answer. I already had my answer. I’d seen what The Thing wanted me to see; anything else in Gurden’s work was off-limits. The Thing was completely in control. It could manipulate my thoughts and dictate my perspective, and any attempt I made to understand on my own terms would be sent, literally, up in smoke.

    I didn’t scream or cry, and I realized then that I was no longer afraid. It wasn’t a relief. As soon as fear was gone, I missed it. Because its replacement was so much worse.

    I felt despair. My last hope had been torn away. I was left with nothing but a cold, dark hole.

    *****

    That day, I returned Kira’s calls.

    I’d been unfair to her. It wasn’t her emotions that were a burden, it was her face, and what she represented. She resembled Zoe – the long-dead little girl eternally locked in some grey, otherworldly prison. And I couldn’t think about Kira without thinking about her father. Drew Barrington, the man who’d discreetly, meticulously executed a plan to murder his own children out of mercy, to save them from the thing I’d last seen mooning over Benjamin. Kira was my worst case scenario made flesh. But that wasn’t her fault.

    I met Kira in the conference room of Royal Bash Marketing. She, as expected, had a fresh new angle we could use to trick The Thing into cooperating with us. Solomonic magic, this time. I won’t waste space explaining that concept – Kira can do it a whole lot better, anyways. I put up a bit of a show, throwing around boilerplate warnings about black magic, because it seemed like something I should do. In reality? I’d try anything. I took strange comfort in Kira’s Prime-time CW plan. At the very least, plotting would distract me.

    The ritual magic was exactly what I thought it would be – a chalk sigil and a Biblical chant. But when I asked how, exactly, Kira planned on luring The Thing into her chalk circle trap, her rationale went in a completely different direction.

    The last time we’d spoken, I’d mentioned off-hand that The Thing, as Ezekiel, told me he didn’t want me to die. That he needed me. I’d assumed the statement was just a new mind game The Thing was trying out; I hadn’t taken the wording seriously at all. But Kira clutched the idea with both hands and ran with it. We’d both long sat with the knowledge that, despite having ample opportunities, The Thing hadn’t actually hurt me or Benjamin. Kira went a step further: she thought The Thing, for reasons unknown, was preserving me. And that if I were in danger, The Thing would rush to my rescue.

    Her idea: I’d take a handful of sleeping pills and sit inside her magic chalk circle. The Thing, sensing my peril, would have no choice but to manifest and become my savior. Once inside the sigil, it would be trapped and forced to answer, honestly, any questions I proposed.

    “I know I’m basically asking you to risk your life,” she said quickly. “And I totally understand if you don’t want…”

    “I’ll do it, Kira,” I said.

    She bounced on her feet, like a child given permission to go to the toy store. Her enthusiasm was almost cute. She looked much better than I felt, dressed in a black mini dress, her red hair pulled up in a bun, very much a West Side young professional. Isaiah never spoke about her – he’d mainly focused on marketing strategy, while Kira was an underling of Brett Speier, the partner who specialized in events. Brett loved Kira. The resourcefulness and pure, stubborn grit she displayed while grappling with The Thing had, before she met me, been directed towards being very good at her job.

    “If the ritual goes right,” Kira continued, “you can ask Tanmitadore what he wants.”

    I frowned at her. “I’ll do it, but I’m pretty sure it’s not going to work.”

    “We can practice…” she started.

    “What if that’s what The Thing wants?” I blurted out. “What if the ultimate endgame is to convince me to kill myself?”

    Kira’s enthusiasm was effectively quelled. Her face became serious. “Are you saying that because of my dad?”

    “I’m not.” I wasn’t. “It’s… it’s just something I’ve been thinking about.”

    I didn’t tell her about my copy of Voodoo in Southern America. And I didn’t tell her about the photographs.

    *****

    The first photograph – my mother and Shane, dressed like a ninja on Halloween – disintegrated almost as quickly as Gurden’s book. I couldn’t so easily erase the image from my mind. I wasn’t sure I wanted to.

    I had no photographs of my mother. They’d all been destroyed, courtesy of The Thing, in a storage locker years before. And because I couldn’t see my mother’s face, I rarely thought about her . Definitely not as much as I should have, and nearly always in the context of The Thing. I couldn’t remember what her voice sounded like. I’d all but forgotten her perfect recipe for macaroni and cheese, and the hours of Nickelodeon she’d watched for my sake, and it was unfair to her memory. Mom had been something besides a victim. So much of our life together – so much of how she’d raised me, completely alone – had absolutely nothing to do with the supernatural fiend that now occupied my every thought.

    I found the second photograph in my silverware drawer. I’d reached in to grab a spoon for my coffee and there it was, resting on top of the knife set.

    This photo was older than the last one. My mother sat in a green field, baby Shane nestled in her arms. Mom was pure eighties gorgeous in a jean jacket and chunky pink necklace, crimped hair pulled up into a high ponytail. Her eyes were awkwardly half-closed and her mouth wide open; captured halfway through a bout of wild laughter. Shane, all cheeks and dark eyes, stared into the camera with innocent wonder. The downward angle was less than ideal and an awkward shadow fell across Shane’s face; clearly not my mother’s skillful photography.

    No. My father had taken this picture.

    The third photograph I found, face-up on the tile floor by my bed, was of him. He sat on a stool at a bar, suavely clutching a beer bottle. My dad, James Ibanez, looked like a young Samuel L. Jackson in a white t-shirt and bomber jacket. He held up his drink as though he were James Bond, a hokey smirk on his face that he clearly thought was seductive.

    This photograph, like the last two, had been destroyed before I was born: in the fire that leveled the house in Miami, securing my mother’s freedom but incinerating every single picture she’d taken of her husband and child. The memory of James Ibanez must have dulled in her mind. She rarely spoke about my father, to me or to anyone else. I knew almost nothing about him. He was half Cuban and half Dominican, he was a pilot, and that was about it.

    Except, there he was, flashing that goofy smile, again and again and again. I’d find two, three, four of them a day. More photographs. My mom and Shane, building a sandcastle on the beach. Shane, holding an Easter basket as though it were a cache of treasure. My dad and Shane, at a carnival, posing triumphantly in front of a game stall. It was the game where you throw a ball to knock down a stack of milk bottles, except it’s always rigged because the bottles on the bottom are weighted. My father must’ve un-rigged it, though, because Shane cuddled a fuzzy stuffed bear bigger than his toddler body.

    If Shane hadn’t let Artie inside, I would’ve been a part of that beautiful, happy family. I’d have grown up in their little yellow house with the blue door. Shane would’ve been a protective older brother who taught me how to ride a bike. I’d have knit with my grandmother and made macaroni and cheese with my mom in that ridiculous red oven she kept in the kitchen. We’d go to the beach in the summer, Shane and I would build the best sandcastles on the east coast, then at night we’d walk to the carnival and my dad would win me the biggest, fluffiest stuffed bear in the place.

    I didn’t have a father, or a brother. This absence had never bothered me; the experience of the standard American family was as far removed from my existence as aliens and superheroes. But, as I stared into their exuberant faces – my father’s glowing with pride and unspoiled adoration, Shane’s alight with innocent trust – I was overcome with longing, heartache over the loss of something that was never mine.

    I knew The Thing was leaving the photographs for me to find. I knew it was all an elaborate form of torture. But I didn’t care. I savored each one; I found myself deliberately searching my house for them. And when, inevitably, they disintegrated into dust, I felt empty. Another chunk scooped out of my heart.

    *****

    Meanwhile, Kira and I hammered out details for our Solomonic trapping ritual. I let her play strategic commander.

    We decided to proceed the weekend Chantal was in town; I would leave Benjamin with her, keeping him far out of The Thing’s reach. As for the location, I happened to know of a convenient piece of concrete up in the hills, a short walk from my house. There had once been a small campground out there. The place was abandoned after a fire, but a rest stop with bathrooms and a shower still stood, on a concrete square large enough for Kira’s chalk sigil and far enough away from anything that we were unlikely to attract unwanted attention.

    Kira was practicing. There was an empty building near the office with a large employee parking lot, backed into an alley that was hardly used. She’d drive there after work and draw the sigil, perfecting every detail. I went with her once.

    We also experimented with sleeping pills. We had a system. Kira wrote a list of questions I should ask The Thing, once it appeared within her chalk circle. I’d take a set number of pills then, as warm drowsiness numbed my thoughts and melted my cognition, I asked her the questions off her list. She’d respond, differently each time. We would continue until my eyes became heavy and I began to slouch. Then, Kira would force me to vomit.

    I disliked that part. Vomit in general disgusts me, and the sensation of my own body bucking and heaving felt like what I imagined being possessed would feel like – a loss of control over my own internal processes, to a sensation so unpleasant my own esophagus rebelled. The first time, Kira used a mixture of raw eggs and paprika. It tasted so terrible, I was jerked immediately out of blue nothingness and projectile-puked all over myself and my living room floor, then stumbled half-conscious to the kitchen and sucked down tap water until I vomited again, the stringy-gummy texture still coating my mouth.

    “We’re not doing that again,” I ranted to Kira. “No more eggs. I can’t.”

    Kira smiled sympathetically. “Fine. We’ll try soap tomorrow.”

    Once the pills had been expelled from my system and I was sufficiently reanimated with coffee, Kira had me repeat the answers she’d given to the series of questions I’d asked. The first time, I forgot all but the one answer. But slowly, surely, I got better. I forced my mind to imprint words, to encode sentences for future recall, even as my eyelids drooped and my senses blunted under the effect of the powerful sedatives.

    We ran through the bottle of sleeping pills she’d stolen from Vera. So I made an appointment with a local psychiatrist and, thirty minutes later, had a prescription of my very own. It’s concerning, how easy it is to obtain narcotics when you’ve got the right insurance and zip code. But the doctor definitely didn’t have the wrong impression of me. I hadn’t been sleeping well.

    I’d moved Benjamin’s crib to my room. We slept with the bathroom light on, but the darkness in my head remained as terrifying as the darkness of the big, empty house. Every time I felt myself drifting off, an image would imbed itself behind my closed eyelids: Ezekiel, mangled throat bulging like an Amazon bug, wrapping his little fingers around the bars of Benjamin’s crib, staring at my son with a devious smile on his face. I’d jerk awake. Then I’d lie in bed, tensed like a spring, half-ready to snatch up my son and run, half wishing I could dissolve into nothingness like the photographs – to a state where I’d feel nothing and think nothing, because the void was preferable to the rat-in-a-cage chaos of my worldly existence.

    *****

    One morning, I sat on my couch on my laptop, focusing intently on a fourth-quarter tax projection. Benjamin’s bell-like voice cut through my concentration.

    “Mama, boy!” he tittered sweetly. “Mama, a boy!”

    I snapped upright so fast I knocked over my laptop.

    The computer landed on my tile floor with a loud crack; the sound muted as every sensory nerve in my body redirected to counter the atomic bomb exploding in my brain. My muscles contracted to the surge of boiling panic that started in my stomach and shot outward. My skin chilled, moist with a sudden sweat, as Benjamin’s words replayed themselves like a skipping record.

    Mama, it’s a boy. Mama, it’s a boy.

    Mom, there’s a girl outside. She says her name is Katie. Can she come in to play?

    No. No, no, no. Was there… had The Thing…

    Benjamin, distressed by the dread splashed across my face, took a nervous step back.

    Then, I saw he was holding a photograph in his pudgy little hands. A photo of a boy.

    My muscles loosened, electric heat dissipating to clammy warmth. My heart rate slowed. My inner monologue steadied itself. I felt myself trembling as the epinephrine rush subsided.

    I snatched the photograph from Benjamin’s hands.

    “Don’t play with that, baby,” I told him. “If you see another one, don’t touch it. Okay?”

    Benjamin cocked his head, smiled, and was in moments completely involved with his toy car collection, the boy in the picture all but forgotten.

    I stared at the photograph. This one was of Shane alone, sitting on his training-wheeled bike under the canopy I recognized as our parents’ carport. He was older than he’d been in the previous photos, school-aged. About the age he’d been when he died. When my mother snapped this picture, had he already met Artie? Was he already following the breadcrumb trail that lead to his doom?

    I set the photo down and stared at Benjamin, happily organizing die-cast cars. My little boy was growing up. He’d turned two in October. Soon, he would start preschool. School meant socialization, friends, hours outside the house and out of my sight. And my ability to supervise him would only decrease from there. Soon, he’d be wanting to ride his bike around the neighborhood, spend the night at his friends’ houses, walk the four blocks to the 7-Eleven for Slurpees by himself.

    And every second my eyes weren’t on him was an opportunity for The Thing to slip into his life.

    I always knew this was coming, on some level. But, since Isaiah died, I’d been too focused on the immediate – the mortgage, The Thing’s blocks and fires, my adventures with Kira – to actively plan Benjamin’s and my future. The future always seemed so far away. But, the moment Benjamin uttered those words – Mama, a boy – inevitability crashed over me like a wave.

    Would I, like my mother, install a rule that I must meet all Benjamin’s friends and their parents before they were allowed into our house? Would Benjamin, as I had, find that rule ridiculous? One day, someday, would I find myself staring into the eyes of Ezekiel, or Artie, or any of the others, sitting on our porch, disarming grin spread across their face?

    At what age would I confess the truth to Benjamin? How would I explain that he, like I, was prey for an unsurpassable supernatural force, and that if he were to make the wrong friend, allow the wrong child into his life, he and everyone he cared about would die a violent, fiery death at the claws of an otherworldly beast?

    Benjamin turned, saw me looking at him, and gave me a goofy, open-mouthed smile.

    I seized up again, overcome by a second explosion of terror that bubbled into nausea. I retched, limbs trembling anew.

    A nightmarish image flashed in my mind.

    I saw Benjamin, standing in front of me. His smile was wide and sinister. His movements deliberate, a foreign thing learning to walk and speak and gesture like a human boy. And, behind his big brown eyes, I saw the warped consciousness of The Thing. The Thing, wearing my son like a glove.

    I would’ve drank bleach to erase that vision from my memory.

    *****

    Two mornings after Benjamin found the photograph, I deposited him in Chantal’s arms at her mother-in-law’s house. Chantal was pregnant with her second child, I recognized, several months along. They were hoping for a boy. Before I drove away, she pressed a key into my hand.

    “It’s a spare,” Chantal said. “If you fall asleep again and wake up at one in the morning, you can come get Benjamin without knocking the door down.”

    I still wasn’t sleeping. The visualization of Benjamin as another puppet of The Thing joined the long lineup of potential nightmare scenarios that inundated me, as I lay in the semi-darkness in my bed, my son’s gentle breathing barely calming my nerves. As I drove back to my house to meet Kira, I felt myself drifting off more than once. I stopped at a drive-through Starbucks and ordered a large coffee with two extra expresso shots.

    This would be the day of Kira’s Solomonic ritual.

    Kira was already there when I arrived. The coffee left me jittery and nervous; she thrummed with something like excitement as we hiked out to our location, her reciting our plan over and over as we schlepped through tall, dry weeds and spiny bushes.

    She drew the sigil masterfully – I was impressed by just how much effort she had put into our newest plot. But my mind wasn’t on Solomonic magic.

    I was focused on the smoldering lump of panic that sat like a stone in my stomach. The lump had taken form as I pulled into my driveway and saw Kira, waiting like an obedient puppy outside her beat-up Civic, backpack of supplies dangling from a shoulder. It was creeping intuition; the folkloric “bad gut feeling,” which was frustrating because I couldn’t quite put my finger on what, exactly, made my gut feel so bad.

    While Kira sketched her blue chalk symbol, I stayed out of her way and entered a dialogue with the rock in my stomach. What was I afraid of?

    Was I scared the ritual wouldn’t work? I glanced at Kira, tracing a Hebrew phrase in beautiful calligraphy. No. That wasn’t it. We were both aware the supposed-ancient summoning could be complete bullshit. If the chant went wrong, or Kira’s chalk lines weren’t straight enough, or The Thing just didn’t show up, then Kira would force me to vomit and we’d be in the exact same position we were in right now.

    What if the ritual did work, and The Thing, furious over being tricked, violently attacked me? That thought did inspire a small flitter of apprehension. But it made no sense. I’d come face-to-face with The Thing before, several times. It never hurt me. It never expressed anything resembling anger, directed at me. And besides, Kira had assured me that, if the ritual worked, the circle would serve as protection from all manner of spiritual beasties.

    “I don’t know,” I murmured to myself.

    Kira, who had finished the sigil and was now crouched digging through her bag, paused and peered up at me.

    “We’ve run through it,” she said, smiling encouragingly. “I’ll be here, watching you, the whole time.”

    I caught sight of the contents of her backpack. There was coffee, a measuring cup, two of those energy drinks Royal Bash was stumping, a tin can, a Ziplock bag of a black substance, and several bottles of water. I felt a rush of residual nausea. We’d found a mixture of baking soda and warm water was the most effective at making me vomit. She’d also brought eggs.

    “Are you sure The Thing’s gonna show up?” I asked Kira.

    And then, like a chemical reaction, the smoldering lump inside me melted and evaporated, coating my insides with warm, moist fear.

    That’s what I was afraid of.

    If the ritual worked perfectly, and The Thing showed up and, as Kira promised, within the circle The Thing could not lie – then what would it reveal to me? I could ask anything I wanted and trust the answer I received was honest.

    I was terrified of the answers The Thing might give.

    *****

    Kira was still talking. “…will keep you awake until it’s all out of your system.”

    She stared at me, smiling, completely oblivious to the torment in my mind. Expecting some sort of response.

    “What if it tries to hurt you?” I asked, to fill the air.

    Still grinning confidently, Kira reached into her backpack and pulled out a long, sharp steak knife.

    “I’ll manage,” she chirped. “Besides, I don’t think he will. Zoe said he’s weak on earth.”

    She set the steak knife on the ground, pulled out a bottle of sleeping pills, and rattled them.

    The sleeping pills were mine, my prescription. I’d given them to Kira the last time we’d met, two days before. I asked her to hold them for safekeeping. I told her Benjamin was fascinated by the things, and had started climbing up furniture and grabbing. I laughed it off.

    I didn’t tell her I couldn’t keep the sleeping pills in my house anymore. No matter where I put them, I’d find myself staring at the little bottle, sometimes for what seemed like hours. And sometimes, as I stared, I’d feel a small smile ripple across my cheeks. It would be so peaceful, I thought. I was so tired.

    I imagined myself crushing the entire bottle of pills. Pulling the blender from the back of the kitchen cabinet. Mixing all the white powder with Hershey’s syrup, milk, and ice cream. Pouring half the chalky syrup into Benjamin’s Paw Patrol sippy cup, and the other half into a wine glass I’d kept from my wedding…

    I snapped out of it. Utterly terrified and disgusted, I’d all but shoved the sleeping pills into Kira’s purse myself. I couldn’t be trusted with them.

    Now, I was staring at that bottle once again. And, for better or for worse, I was about to act out my twisted fantasy. I thought about something I’d said to Kira, weeks before. What if The Thing wants me to kill myself? What if this was the purpose of all its emotional torture? If the ritual were to work, and I were to ask The Thing how to make it go away, what would I do if it instructed me to hurt myself? Hurt Benjamin?

    I snatched the pills from Kira’s hand. She held out a water bottle.

    “I’ve officially gone insane.”

    I palmed the first pill and washed it down my throat. Suppressing my gag reflex and the memory of all the times I’d vomited these pills before, I swallowed another. And another. And another. We’d decided on six pills. I took eight.

    At my first step towards Kira’s circle, I felt woozy. The blue chalk on black asphalt was too bright; in the midday sun, it glittered as though divinely inspired. Maybe it was my drugged state, but the double circle with four quadrants seemed to move, to rotate.

    “Remember,” Kira called after me, “when he’s in the circle, you can ask him whatever you want. And what he tells you is the truth.”

    Yeah, I thought. That’s what I’m afraid of.

    I sat cross-legged at the edge of the circle. The hot asphalt radiated through my jeans, stinging my thighs. It was too warm. Too much light. I couldn’t look directly at the chalk lines. Dust rose, and the air above the asphalt seemed to ripple in the heat. I stared straight ahead. I focused on an oak tree a few hundred yards in front of me.

    There was a tree like that in my backyard. Behind the little house we rented in Cleveland.

    I realized, then, that Kira had begun to chant.

    “O Lord, our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! who hast set thy glory above the heavens. Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength…”

    I blinked. The world was hazy. Had the tree moved closer? The tree was glowing.

    “…the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End; thou who hast established all things in thy wisdom; thou who has chosen Abraham thy faithful servant…”

    No. It wasn’t the tree. It was a figure. A person.

    A person of pure light. I couldn’t look away.

    “Thou who hast granted unto Solomon thy Servant these pentacles by thy great Mercy, for the preservation of Soul and of Body; we most humbly implore and supplicate thy Holy Majesty, that these pentacles may be consecrated by thy power…”

    Then, darkness. No. I’d closed my eyes. I was so tired.

    The asphalt no longer burned my legs. The air had cooled. I forced my eyes open.

    Fog, all around me. And a boy. A tall, brown-haired boy.

    And I let the darkness take me.

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