In local news, police continue to search for leads regarding a rash of murders plaguing the county. At least a dozen deaths have been attributed to the individual dubbed the No Sleep Killer, though authorities speculate the true number of victims may be significantly larger. If anyone has any information about this case, please call the law enforcement toll-free hotline at…
“Dad! Daaad! DADDY!!!”
From where he sat on the couch, John Morrison sighed, the nightly news blaring on the television in front of him. This was the third time Davey had called since he had put the eight year old to bed a little over two hours ago. Heaving himself to his feet, John made his way across the room and walked up the staircase, the wooden steps complaining loudly under his bulk. At the top of the stairs he flicked the switch for the overhead light and walked down the hallway to Davey’s room.
Cracking the door, John stuck his head through the opening. The light from the hall pushed into the room in a narrow beam, just enough that John could see where Davey sat wide-eyed in his bed, the covers tangled around his legs and feet.
“What’s up, sport?”
“There’s a monster in my closet, daddy,” Davey whispered, fear audible in his voice.
John smiled to himself. This had become something of a habit with Davey lately, particularly flaring up whenever he got back from spending a weekend at his mother’s house. John didn’t know what his b***h of an ex-wife did to put poor Davey into such a state, but he felt for the kid. “A monster in your closet? Didn’t I check in there before we said goodnight?”
“He wasn’t there then, daddy. He snuck in through the window,” Davey’s voice trembled.
Pushing the rest of the way into the room, John walked over to the window. Giving it a quick inspection, he found it was closed and locked, as always. “You sure you weren’t just having a bad dream?”
“I was having a bad dream, but then I woke up,” Davey whimpered. “That’s when I saw the monster climbing in. And when I yelled, he hid.”
John sighed. He was going to have to talk to Miranda about this. Whatever she was doing to the poor kid was obviously giving his nerves a beating.
“Ok, sport, I believe you. But don’t you worry, your daddy knows how to handle monsters in the closet. They’re hiding in there trying to scare you, right? So you just have to scare them back, surprise them when they don’t expect it. If you do that they disappear. Want me to show you?”
Davey nodded, clutching the covers up to his face so only his eyes peeked over the top. John moved to the closet.
“Be careful, daddy,” Davey whispered.
John put a finger to his lips. “You have to be quiet, son, or the monsters will know you’re sneaking up on them.”
Slowly he extended his hand toward the knob, lightly grasping it. He paused for a moment, cocking his head as if listening for sounds within, before twisting the knob and violently wrenching the door open with a yell.
The opening was dark; so dark, in fact, John thought wryly that even if there were a monster in there he wouldn’t be able to tell. Suddenly, impossibly, the darkness moved. Out of the blackness flashed a whisper of silver, reflecting the hallway light ever so slightly. John felt a sharp tug at his throat. He took a step back, confused, one hand reflexively reaching for his neck. Something there was hot and wet, and when he removed his hand he could tell from the light of the doorway his fingers were stained bright red.
He barely had time to consider this thought before he found himself flat on his back in the middle of the floor. John had both hands against his throat now and could feel spurts of warm blood pulsing between his fingers. Black dots swarmed his vision and it took him a moment to realize that the tremendous pounding in his ears was the sound of his beating heart.
A dark shape stepped across him toward the bed where John could hear Davey screaming. He reached out, clutching desperately at the figure, but his hands were too weak; the shape effortlessly pulled away. A wordless croak of anguish escaped him as Davey’s terrified cries were abruptly silenced. For several moments John lay sobbing, his life slipping through his hands, when he felt a presence standing over him.
Opening his eyes, John saw the face of the thing from the closet illuminated by the light from the hall. Whatever it was couldn’t be human. Scraggly black hair framed a face so pale it was practically white. The thing’s mouth had been brutally mutilated at the corners, carved into a permanent, hideous smile. And its eyes… The eyes that watched John as his life flowed through his fingertips were unblinking and dark, black as the pits of hell. John reached to the figure in one last, silent entreaty. As the remains of his vision fled John could barely see the shape raise a single finger to its scarred lips, the motion the same as John had made to Davey bare minutes ago. Slipping into darkness, John could just make out the words the thing whispered to him, his consciousness falling away into uncharted depths. “Shhh,” the killer purred, “go to sleep.”
The water was dark. Jeff could see light as he swam upward, desperately, his lungs burning. Just before he broke the surface, he looked down.
Jeff’s alarm went off without warning. His hand reached out to slap the switch and kill the annoying buzzing, but aside from that he didn’t move, instead simply staring up at the fan rotating lazily on the ceiling. Lately the dream had been coming more and more regularly, and with greater intensity. After maybe ten minutes, the sounds of the house’s other occupants reached his ears, but even these failed to stir him. His mother’s voice was muffled through the door.
“Liu, could you check on Jeff and make sure he’s up?”
“Yeah, sure, mom.”
A few moments later he heard the click of his door being opened as Liu stuck his head in.
“Hey, bro, you up?”
“Go away, a*****e.”
Even though he wasn’t looking at him, Jeff could hear the grin in Liu’s voice.
“You kiss your mother with that mouth?”
“Yeah,” Jeff turned his head to face Liu, “your mom too, dork.” Despite himself, he felt his face break out in a smile of his own, something his younger brother always managed to do.
Liu plopped down on the bed beside him. “Come on, man, big day. New school and everything.”
Jeff groaned. “Don’t remind me. A whole new group of insecure clowns to take s**t from. Just kill me now.”
“Hey, on the bright side it’s Friday already! And, c’mon, you’re looking at it all wrong. See, the way I figure it, you’ve been missing out on a prime opportunity. That skin of yours, guarantee you could have all the super hot goth chicks throwing themselves at you with a little effort. I have on good authority those girls are crazy … in all the right ways.”
The good mood that had been threatening to break through the black cloud surrounding Jeff’s mind was washed away in an instant, taking his smile with it. “Don’t, Liu.”
Liu gave him a pained look. “Awe, Jeff, you know I didn’t mean it like that.”
“Don’t.” Jeff glared at his brother. “I’m up. Get out.”
Liu’s shoulders slumped. “Yeah, ok. Ok. I’ll see you downstairs.” He slunk unhappily back into the hallway, closing the door quietly behind him.
Jeff remained in bed for another moment before sighing and rolling to his feet. He picked through the room still filled with half opened cardboard boxes and made his way to the bathroom down the hall. Turning on the sink he stared at the mirror. Only a concerted effort kept him from shattering the hateful thing. From the other side of the glass, an unnaturally white skinned creature looked back at him, all pale hair and light eyes. Some days it was hard to believe the reflection belonged to him. Liu was one of the only people who saw past Jeff’s outward appearance, the appearance that had been the source of so much hate and bullying in their last town, the bullying that had indirectly driven the move across the state. It wasn’t Liu’s fault, and Jeff knew he hadn’t meant anything by his comment. But that didn’t lessen the sting.
Well, I think you’re beautiful.
Jeff smiled sadly. The voice in his head wasn’t there, not really.
“I know you do, Katy. But you’re gone.”
He returned to his room and rummaged through one of the boxes until he found what he was looking for. He perched on the bed and inhaled deeply. The plain white sweatshirt still smelled like her. For several long moments Jeff sat, steeling himself for the day to come, and remembered a better time; a time when he was happy.
When Jeff finally made his way to the kitchen Liu was sitting at the table finishing off a bowl of cereal. Their father was across from him reading the morning newspaper and glanced up as Jeff entered.
“Good morning, Jeff! And don’t we look chipper today!”
Jeff’s only reply was a grunt as he pulled a chair out and fell heavily into it.
His father’s clenched teeth could almost be confused with a smile. “Keep up the attitude, smart guy.”
Jeff opened his mouth to reply but his mother moved from the stove and slid a plate of eggs across the table towards him with a warning look. Jeff glowered but stayed silent, choosing to simply shovel food into his mouth. His father turned back to the sports section and for a brief time the family sat together in relative peace. A knock prompted Jeff’s mother to get to her feet and answer the door.
From where he sat, Jeff couldn’t make out the words being said but could tell from the voice that the person at the door was a woman, probably a neighbor coming by to introduce herself.
Tell her to go away, mom. Tell her to mind her own business and leave us alone.
The sound of shared laughter from the doorway told him those were probably not the sentiments his mother was passing on. After a few more minutes of small talk, the door shut and his mother returned to the kitchen.
“Well that was Barbara Randle from across the street. She just came by to introduce herself and invite all of us to her son Billy’s birthday party tomorrow.”
Jeff sneered at his plate. “Yeah, that’s happening.”
His father slapped the folded newspaper down on the table, causing a small explosion of scrambled eggs to jump into the air. “All right, that’s it.”
Jeff threw back his chair and went to stand as his father rose to his feet.
At the crack of her voice, both Jeff and his father froze. Jeff’s mother stood, hands raised as if forcing them apart. Her lower lip trembled but her eyes were ablaze with anger and determination as she looked at each of them in turn.
“Sit. Down. Both of you.”
Without breaking eye contact, Jeff and his father slowly returned to their seats. After a moment, Jeff’s mother sat down as well. Liu remained motionless, his downward gaze intensely studying the checkered pattern of the table cloth. Primly taking her napkin to wipe the corners of her eyes, Jeff’s mother continued to speak as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
“Now then. We will be going to the birthday party tomorrow afternoon,” she pointedly looked at Jeff. “All of us. We will have a good time. We will show our neighbors what a normal, fun loving family we are. We will make friends,” she sniffed. “And that’s final. Clear?”
“Yes, mom,” Liu mumbled, still not raising his head.
“Yes, dear,” Jeff’s father replied.
She turned to Jeff. “Jeffrey?”
Jeff sneered. “Family? Families have each other’s backs. Families believe in each other. This is no family.” Abruptly he stood and turned, practically throwing his chair under the table before storming towards the front door.
His father started to get up. “Now, listen here … ”
“NO,” Jeff’s mom snapped. “Let him go, Peter. Please.”
Jeff left the house, pausing only to grab his jacket where it hung by the entrance, and slammed the door behind him. He raged down the sidewalk, not really thinking about where he was going, just knowing he had to get away. After a couple blocks, he came to a bench and collapsed onto it, head in his hands. Throughout everything that had happened, Jeff and his father hadn’t yet come to blows, but it was a close thing. The shouting matches were happening with more regularity, and each time Jeff felt himself wanting to lash out just a little more. His thoughts turned back to the day that had started it all: Katy, her beautiful face now even paler than his, her body motionless in the tub, the water crimson, lit by black candles burning low and illuminating the odd inscriptions painted upon the walls in her own blood. Jeff had been the one to find her. There’d been no note.
You shouldn’t get so mad at them. It’s not their fault.
“I know,” Jeff replied quietly, “it’s not. You’re right. You’re always right. It’s just … I miss you. So much.”
It’s ok, Jeff. You’re allowed to miss me. But I wish you wouldn’t feel bad. I’m happy now, happier than I ever was in life. I don’t want you to be so sad. I wish you’d smile more.
“I should have been stronger. Should have stood up for you,” Jeff’s voice was a whisper, “you should have been happy with me.”
You were the one bright spot in my life, Jeff. You being stronger wouldn’t have made a difference. My decision was my own. I chose to go to sleep. It’s so much better here; you’ll see. Someday, everyone will.
The voice in his head fell quiet, and for some time Jeff simply drifted, lost in thoughts of the girl he still loved.
Jeff looked up to find Liu standing next to him. Without invitation, his brother sat down on the bench. After a few moments, Liu broke the silence.
“Talking to Katy?”
Jeff grimaced. “Yeah.”
“It’s cool, man. I miss her too. She was a great girl.”
Jeff didn’t reply.
“Jeff, for what it’s worth, I know you didn’t have anything to do with what happened. I know you loved her. You wouldn’t have helped her kill herself, no matter what anybody says.”
Jeff sighed. “Her parents didn’t think so. Or that detective. Dad either. He blames me for everything. Her dying. All the b******t with the cops afterwards. Us having to move to get away from the media s**t storm. Hell, he probably thinks it’s my fault those a******s drove her to it. Maybe he’s right. Maybe if Katy’d had nothing to do with me they would have left her alone.”
“Seriously?” Liu looked at him with a cocked eyebrow. “That’s ridiculous. All of it. Well, maybe not her parents and the cops, but the rest of it. Dad’s having a hard time processing everything that’s been happening and you acting like a d**k just sets him off. He loves you, but he’s scared. You two are so much alike it’s ridiculous. And the other part. Guys like them … they don’t need an excuse to bully people, Jeff. They see people who are unique or different and their own insecurities just take over. Katy was awesome. But she had her quirks too, all those pagan rituals, how she cut off her hair and wore that wig around. They would have given her a hard time whether you were with her or not. Hell, you being around probably deflected some of the stuff off of her onto you, gave the a******s another person to target.”
Jeff sighed. “You might be right. Doesn’t make it easier. She’s still gone.”
Liu nodded. “Yeah, I know, bro.”
They sat together in companionable silence.
“You know I didn’t mean anything,” Liu blurted out, “by what I said this morning. Katy wasn’t crazy. Definitely weird, but not crazy.”
Jeff shook his head. “I know, man. I wasn’t even mad at you, not really. It’s just … the thoughts in my head. With everything going on, all the stuff that’s been happening, they get so loud, it’s all I can do to function. I’ve just been getting these weird feelings lately, this … anger. Since she died I keep having this dream that I’m drowning. More and more it seems like it’s bleeding over into my real life; sometimes it’s like I’m losing myself in the pain and the rage, that something else is taking over,” Jeff stared ahead, eyes fixed on nothing. “I hear her, you know. In my mind, I hear her voice, clear as if she were standing next to me.”
Liu smiled gently. “What does she say?”
“Mostly? That I should stop being so hard on myself, stop blaming everybody. That I should smile more, be happy.”
Liu laughed. “Well, bro, sounds like disembodied-voice Katy gives pretty good advice. And that she’s still smarter than you.”
Jeff felt the corners of his mouth twitch ever so slightly. “Yeah. Isn’t hard huh?”
“You got that right,” Liu grinned, “Come on, how about we start walking to the bus stop? We should still be able to make it. Won’t make a great impression if we’re late to our first day of school.”
“Because I care about that.” Liu glared and Jeff rolled his eyes, “Ok, fine, mom. But I’m not going back home to get my stuff.”
“Gotcha covered,” Liu passed Jeff his backpack and reached out a hand to help pull Jeff to his feet. Together they started walking back down the street towards the bus stop.
“Honestly,” Jeff mused, “Katy was a little crazy. That thing with the wig … God, I was so pissed at her. Her hair was so pretty, but she insisted on wearing that ugly black thing.” He paused. “You know, I still have it. The wig, I mean, and a couple more of her things. I pulled them from her locker before her folks got there to clean it out. Figured I’d want something to remember her by.”
Liu gave him a look. “Huh. Maybe Katy wasn’t the only one that was a little crazy in you guys’ relationship.”
Jeff chuckled. “Whatever. Doing crazy things is normal when you’re in love. Not that you’d know about it.”
“You got me there, bro,” Liu grinned mischievously, “just don’t let me catch you dressing up a mannequin to make out with or something.”
“Don’t worry,” Jeff smiled back, “I won’t let you catch me.”
“Good,” Liu said, “Now what the heck is this?”
They were half a block from the bus stop. As they drew closer it became apparent that the smaller boy surrounded by three larger ones was having a bad day. Two of the larger boys, one whip thin and angular, the other huge and fat, held the smaller one’s arms out to his sides to keep him upright. The third boy punched him, occasionally working in a slap to the head between close-fisted blows to his ribs and belly.
Jeff laid a hand on Liu’s shoulder. “Come on, man, do we really want to get involved here?”
Liu glared at Jeff, pulling his arm away. “Don’t be a jerk, Jeff. Wouldn’t you want somebody to step in if that was you getting the s**t beat out of you? Hey!” Liu shouted, enraged, “What the hell are you doing?”
The one doing the punching paused briefly and swept his gaze over Liu and Jeff, his face a mask void of surprise or concern, before turning back to the captive. Cocking his leg he delivered a hard upward kick to the boy’s groin. At a nod, the two holding the victim’s arms let him fall to the sidewalk in a moaning heap. The assailant crouched close to the boy’s ear, whispering something Jeff and Liu couldn’t hear as the boy nodded his head violently in agreement, tears and snot dripping down to mark the pavement.
Apparently satisfied, the bully stood and, with a final kick to his victim’s ribs, growled, “Glad that’s all cleared up. Get out of here, you little b***h.” The boy started pulling himself down the sidewalk on his hands and knees before attempting to stand and stumbling off.
Jeff, Liu, and the others watched until he turned the corner and was lost to view. The lead bully, now flanked by his cohorts, turned to the brothers, his face breaking into a smile. “Well. Well, well, well,” he grinned, “fresh meat.”
The boy stepped forward. “Now, I’m sure I’d remember a freak like whitey there, so you two must be new. Allow me to introduce myself and my friends. This is Keith,” he gestured to the skinnier of his two sidekicks. Keith smiled with his teeth, looking like a starved, rabid wolf. “And he’s Troy.” The enormous boy slowly nodded his head, the fat under his chin quivering at the motion.
“And I,” the boy continued, “am Randy. Now, for all the kids in this neighborhood there is a small fee for … bus fare, if you catch my drift. Those that can’t pay, well, you saw what happens to them. So, what do you say?”
Liu took a step closer to Randy. “I say you’re welcome to try to take it.”
Randy’s eyes glinted menacingly. “I see.” He sighed, disappointed, “and here I had hoped you’d be more cooperative. Keith?”
At his name, the skeletal boy reached into his pocket and removed a thin bladed knife, snapping it open and placing the handle into Randy’s outstretched palm. In a flash he stepped up and pressed the blade to Liu’s throat as Jeff’s brother started to raise his hands in surprise.
“Ah, ah. Hold still, hero.”
Liu froze. With his other hand Randy fished in Liu’s pocket and removed his wallet.
Jeff heard the words in his head clear as a bell. It was the same voice he heard in the quiet times he talked to Katy, but different. Violent. Enraged. A furious heat pulsed from deep within his core and spread down his limbs, his muscles singing with foreign power.
As Jeff watched, Randy slipped Liu’s wallet into his own pocket. His hand free, the bully slugged Liu in the gut, causing him to gasp and crumple to the ground.
“Should have done it the easy way, friend. I’ll be back for you in a minute.” Randy turned his gaze to Jeff. “And what about you, powder?”
NOT AGAIN. NEVER AGAIN.
Jeff stepped forward, his body humming like a live wire. “Listen here, you little punk. Give back my bro’s wallet and f**k off. Or else.” The words were his own but felt somehow fuller.
For a beat Randy looked at him, unable to believe what he was hearing. As one, he and his goons burst into laughter. “Oh, really?” he chortled, incredulous. “And what are you gonna do?”
The words were barely out of Randy’s mouth when Jeff’s closed fist hit him squarely in the face. With a grim sense of satisfaction Jeff felt the cartilage of Randy’s nose snap with a sickening crack. He stepped forward, grabbing below Randy’s knife hand in a vice-like grip, the bones and tendons in the wrist popping like bent springs. Randy screamed as Jeff plucked the knife from his hand. Overcoming his momentary shock, Keith rushed forward. Contemptuously, Jeff dropped Randy’s arm, the bully falling to the ground in a whimpering heap. Face locked in a wolfish snarl Keith lashed out, his punches a blur, but Jeff easily slipped past the blows. He drew his arm back and with one precise, brutal motion stabbed the thin boy in the arm, the knife blade easily sliding through the muscle. Now it was Keith’s turn to collapse to the ground screaming, cradling his bleeding limb.
Without warning, Jeff felt himself lifted off the ground in a crushing bear hug, the sudden attack causing him to drop the knife. Though he looked the least intelligent of the three, Troy had used the confusion of Jeff’s fight with Keith to sneak behind and wait for his moment to strike. Spots started to dance in Jeff’s eyes as the boy bore down ever tighter. Jeff struggled, but his position offered him no leverage to try and break the hold. Finally, he wrenched his arms apart with all the force his newfound strength could muster, just enough for him to slip Troy’s grip. Twisting his torso, Jeff threw a vicious elbow into the soft spot below Troy’s ribs. The larger boy dropped to his knees, his breath coming in desperate, shallow gasps before emptying the contents of his stomach onto the sidewalk.
With that it was over. Jeff stood unharmed surrounded by the gang, two boys whimpering and crying in their own blood, the third continuing to dry heave over a sickly puddle of vomit. Jeff’s gaze fell on the knife he had dropped. Bending over he picked it up, his attention turning to the huddled masses of the bullies.
It would be so easy. So easy to end this now. Make sure they never hurt anyone ever again. Do it. DO IT!
He shook his head to clear it and could feel the strange strength slip away, the internal voice falling silent. From where he fell, Liu had managed to raise himself up onto his arms to watch the fight, his face locked in disbelief. Jeff shuddered and folded the knife into his jacket pocket before walking over and helping his brother to his feet.
“Jeff? How… how did…?” Liu stammered.
Jeff shook his head, saying nothing.
Liu paused for a moment, composing himself. “Ok. Come on, we have to get out of here. The bus will be coming, and no way will anyone believe these guys were the ones who started it. Neither of us has a mark compared to them.”
Jeff nodded in agreement and the brothers took off running. Sure enough, the bus turned onto the street as they reached the corner. Looking back, Jeff saw the doors open and the driver rush to where Randy and the others still lay sprawled. Jeff turned and caught up with Liu.
The boys arrived at school just as the final bell was ringing. Liu pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket.
“Ok, mom gave this to me before I left. It’s got our assigned homerooms on it.”
Jeff glanced at the paper as his brother went on. “Jeff, we can’t tell anyone about what happened. If we’re lucky Randy and his goons will be too embarrassed to admit they got beat up by two guys. Even luckier if nobody else saw us.” Jeff nodded in agreement as Liu continued, “Hell, one guy really. All I did was lay there. Do you really have no idea how you did it?”
Jeff shrugged, speaking for the first time since before the fight. “None. I just had this … feeling … come over me. It felt like I could lift a truck.”
Liu shook his head in amazement. “I never would have believed it if I hadn’t seen it. Jeff,” he gripped his brother’s sleeve as he turned to go. “I don’t know how to explain what happened. But something just doesn’t seem right about it. At the end there, when they were all laid out and you were standing over them? You had this look: it was terrifying. I’ve never seen that expression on your face before, not even after you found Katy. It was like you were someone else. And your eyes, bro,” he shuddered, “I know it’s impossible but I’d swear they were black. Pitch black, like a shark.”
Jeff forced a laugh. “That’s crazy, man. Sure you didn’t hit your head back there? Come on, I’ll meet you here after school. We should probably avoid the bus for a couple days and walk home. Later.”
Liu frowned at Jeff as he walked down the hall.
Feeling his brother’s gaze on his back, it was all Jeff could do to avoid breaking into a run. Turning the corner at the end of the hallway he was relieved to find the door to a restroom and shoved his way inside. Locking himself in the stall at the end of the row he collapsed trembling. Liu was right; there had been something wrong about the fight, something unnatural. Even discounting Liu’s comment about his eyes, and Jeff had no idea what to make of that, there was still the matter of the incredible strength he had temporarily possessed. Jeff had heard stories of adrenaline allowing people to perform amazing physical feats in times of crisis, but somehow he knew that’s not what had happened.
And as for the look Liu had seen on Jeff’s face as he loomed over the defeated bullies, Jeff remembered exactly what he was feeling at that moment: an intense desire to rip and cut. To hurt. To kill. What scared Jeff the most was that it was the same feeling that had slowly been growing as the shouting matches with his father increased. Somehow, thinking about wrapping his fingers around his father’s neck, or slowly sliding his knife into Randy’s throat, made him feel happy, an emotion he’d lost since before Katy died. For a while this call to violence had only been present when he was angry, but lately it had become omnipresent, changing in intensity but always there, throbbing, like an itch he didn’t dare scratch. Until this morning, with the bullies.
“What the hell is wrong with me? Katy, what the hell is wrong with me?”
The internal voice that had become so familiar to him over the past months was ominously silent.
Eventually Jeff regained enough emotional control to leave the restroom. He made his way to class and briefly apologized to the teacher for being late, explaining he’d had some trouble finding the room. The rest of the day went by in a monotone shade of grey. Jeff avoided talking to any other students, refrained from participating in any of his classes, ignored the stares and whispered comments his complexion always brought. Soon he found himself waiting by the front entrance as Liu walked up to join him. The brothers traveled home in silence, neither wanting to bring up the strange events of the morning. Letting themselves into the house, Jeff ignored the shouted hello from his mother, instead going straight upstairs to his room and slamming the door closed, dropping his jacket on the floor and himself onto the bed.
The water was dark. Jeff could see light as he swam upward, desperately, his lungs burning. Just before he broke the surface, he looked down. Below him he saw Katy, her face frozen in a horrific doll’s smile, her eyes black as the grave.
The doorbell startled him awake. Through the bedroom door Jeff could hear low, muffled conversation.
“Jeff? Liu?” his mother called, “Could you boys come down here for a minute?” Her voice was strained.
Grumbling a curse under his breath, Jeff rolled to his feet and stumbled from his room, avoiding the cardboard boxes. Halfway down the stairs, he paused. His mother was at the open front door quietly speaking with the two police officers standing just outside.
“Mom? What’s going on?”
One of the officers lifted a hand.
“Please, Mrs. Woods, allow me. It’s Jeff, right? Well, Jeff, we had three boys show up in the ER today with everything from broken noses and cracked sternums to stab wounds. They’d been in quite a scuffle!” he chuckled. “Their bus driver noticed two individuals fleeing the scene and was able to provide a pretty detailed idea of what they looked like. Now, it took a little footwork to check with some of the neighbors to see if they knew anyone that matched the descriptions, but I’ll give you three guesses where they eventually led us. First two don’t count.”
“What?” Jeff stammered, “That … that’s b******t! Randy and those other two pricks were the ones who attacked us!”
The second officer laughed.
“Hah! See, Bob! I told you that’s what it was.” He paused, “Hmm. But on one hand we’ve got the testimony of Randall McQuaid, honor student and son of Deputy Police Chief Charles McQuaid. And on the other,” he flipped through some papers on the clipboard he held, “Jeffrey Woods, 17. Former resident of Arthur’s Wake.” He looked up at Jeff. “You know I’ve got a couple police academy buddies over in The Wake. After we got an ID I gave them a call. You know what I found? Course you do. A history of petty crime. Minor assault. And, oh yeah,” he smirked, “person of interest in the death of one Katy Robinson, 16.” He cleared his throat, “So, Jeff, tell me again what happened?”
Jeff was at a loss for words, his mouth hung open aimlessly. Everything they’d said was true. There was no way they would believe anything he had to say without any evidence. At this point it was just his word against Randy’s. He shook his head in frustration.
The officer smiled. “That’s about what I thought. Come here, kid.”
Jeff’s eyes narrowed.
These cops are the same as the ones before. They tried to blame you for my death. Now they’re trying to pin this on you!
Jeff’s hands clenched into fists as heat began to rise deep in his chest. The familiar call to violence flared, insistent.
SHOW THEM. SHOW THEM WHAT WE CAN DO!
Jeff took a step towards the officers, whose eyes widened slightly, their hands hovering towards their holstered guns.
Surprised, Jeff turned to find Liu at the top of the stairs, the voice in his head falling silent and the alien strength slipping away. The siren song calling to violence dropped away to background noise as Liu slowly stepped down until he was standing next to Jeff.
“Liu,” Jeff whispered through clenched teeth, “What the hell are you doing?”
Liu faced forward, ignoring his brother. “It was me, officers. I beat up those other kids.”
The second officer paused, still looking at Jeff . “Now, son, that’s a very serious claim. You sure you want to make it?”
“Sure. It’s the truth. Jeff just tried to hold me back. Got the knife right here.” He carefully reached down, setting the closed blade on the step at his feet.
The officer pursed his lips in thought. His partner leaned in, speaking quietly, “Steve, Randy and his friends didn’t specify who assaulted them. If this kid says he’s the one, and he’s got the weapon, it’s going to be tough to pull them both in without more details.”
Coming to a decision, the officer nodded his head slowly. “Well, all right then. Mr. Woods, I’m not sure I quite believe you, considering your brother’s history, but we’ll see if a couple nights in the juvenile holding facility doesn’t change your story.” He turned back to Jeff’s mother as his partner retrieved the knife and handcuffed Liu, leading him out to the squad car. “Mrs. Woods, just so you know, Judge Creed will sometimes release juvenile delinquents to their parents. However, due to the violent nature of this crime, Liu may end up having to remain at the center at least until his initial hearing. In either case it will be Monday before anyone from the court contacts you about what items you can bring him during his stay. They’ll make sure he’s comfortable until then.”
Jeff’s mother nodded, her face numb with shock. “Of … of course, officer. I understand.”
“Thank you, ma’am. And you,” the policeman pointed at Jeff, “stay out of trouble, young man.”
He left, Jeff’s mother shutting the door behind him and resting her head against it. Jeff could see tears rolling down her cheeks, her body wracked with silent sobs. He took a step down the stairs toward her.
She turned to him, her face struggling to compose itself. “Go to your room, Jeffrey.”
“But I just…”
“I SAID GO TO YOUR ROOM!”
He retreated up the stairs, unable and unwilling to press the issue. What could he say that she would believe anyway? That he’d been the one to beat up Randy and his friends? Such a confession wouldn’t solve anything, and might only make matters worse, give her one more reason to hate him. Why had Liu taken the fall for him? He slammed the door of his bedroom in frustration and threw himself on his bed. After a few minutes of silent stewing his gaze fell on a piece of paper resting in the center of the room. Retrieving it, he read the hastily scribbled words in Liu’s handwriting.
Jeff, Gotta make this quick. Cop car out front. You’ll say I’m an idiot but let me do this for you. My idea to get involved with those a******s anyway. All the s**t you went through with Katy, you don’t need more police interest. Thxs for leaving the knife in your coat. Love you, bro.
A hollow pit opened in Jeff’s gut as he read the note a second time, then a third, finally balling it up and throwing the crumpled paper into the trashcan by the door. His brother, his best friend, had sacrificed himself for Jeff, and Jeff wasn’t man enough to try to stop him. Tears filling his eyes, he blindly groped through the box and retrieved Katy’s sweatshirt, curling up on the bed with it pressed to his face.
He was dimly aware of his father arriving home from work some hours later, his raised voice making his anger clear to Jeff in his closed room. A small part of Jeff hoped the man would come upstairs, kick in the door, and beat him bloody, felt it was all he deserved and more. But it wasn’t to be. For an indeterminate time Jeff simply wallowed in grief and pain, the cumulated losses of Katy, his old home, and now his brother simply too much to bear. At last he slept.
The water was dark. Jeff could see light as he swam upward, desperately, his lungs burning. Just before he broke the surface, he looked down. Below him he saw Katy, her face frozen in a horrific doll’s smile, her eyes black as the grave, reaching for his ankles with clawed fingers. He kicked frantically, knowing if she caught him, he would never reach the surface.
Jeff was awoken by sunlight streaming onto his face. He squinted, raising a hand to shield his eyes from the window where his mother stood, pulling the curtains open, all emotional traces of the previous night masked.
“Come on, Jeffrey. It’s almost three in the afternoon, and we’ve got things to do.”
“Mom, what … ?”
“Billy Randle’s party. We’re walking over in ten minutes.”
Jeff scowled. “Mom, you’re joking right? You can’t expect me to …”
“Jeffrey, this is not a discussion,” she interrupted. “We are all going. Now, get dressed.” Although her voice was calm, her eyes brimmed with unspent tears. Jeff could see she was barely holding on; attending this party, a chance to pretend to be normal after everything they’d been through, was the only thing keeping her from sliding over the edge.
“Fine,” he grumbled. Getting out of bed he threw on jeans and a plain t-shirt. Heading downstairs, he met his father at the front door.
“Good morning, sunshine! Glad to see you dressed up for the party.” His father’s usual mocking tone was tinged by barely restrained rage, daring Jeff to smart off.
Jeff scowled, but remained silent. His mother bustled up.
“Never mind, no time to change. Let’s go meet some new friends!” She herded Jeff and his father out the door.
Walking across the street, Jeff inwardly laughed that a casual observer might mistake them for a normal happy family.
But at the thought of Liu, locked away and doing God knew what, Jeff felt his already cloudy mood blacken even further.
He stepped onto the porch with his parents and Jeff’s mother rang the bell. A few clacking steps preceded the door opening to reveal Barbara Randle.
“Margaret! Peter! So glad you could make it!” she beamed, “And you must be Jeff. Oh, but where is your other son? Didn’t you say you had two?”
Jeff’s mother returned a strained smile. “Liu had a few unexpected things come up and won’t be able to make it today, unfortunately.”
Barbara laughed, “Of course. We’ll just have to meet him another time. Jeff,” she turned to him, “Billy and his friends are back in the yard. You can head out there if you want to get away from the stuffy adults.”
“Sure,” Jeff grunted.
“Now, Margaret, let me introduce you to everyone. There are so many people you simply have to meet!” She led his parents off.
Left on his own, Jeff wandered. Based on the furniture and decor, the Randles had money. Jeff’s mom would love that. With nothing better to do, Jeff made his way to the backyard, taking in the scene as he exited through the sliding door. There were maybe a dozen kids already there, small knots scattered throughout the yard talking quietly. One group in the far corner had suspicious wisps of smoke curling up from the center of their huddle as they took turns shooting furtive glances back at the house.
One boy sat alone at the picnic table in the center of the yard, ignored by the others. To Jeff’s surprise, he recognized him; the last time Jeff had seen the boy he’d been getting beat up. Jeff walked up to him.
The boy jerked, turning to face Jeff in surprise. He looked nervous. “H-hey.”
Something clicked in Jeff’s head. “You must be Billy, right?”
He nodded hesitantly.
Jeff smiled. “Mind if I sit down?”
Billy nodded again, slightly, his eyes wary. Jeff sat. After a moment Billy spoke up. “Do … do I know you? You look familiar but I don’t…”
“I’m Jeff. We never officially met. My brother and I interrupted an a*s kicking you were getting yesterday.”
Billy looked down, embarrassed. “Ah. That. I really appreciate what the two of you did. I’m sorry I didn’t stick around but,” he shrugged, “you know.”
“I get it, man. Don’t mention it. Anybody would have stepped in.”
“No,” Billy shook his head, “they wouldn’t have,” he indicated the groups around the yard, “none of them would have done anything. They would have just let it happen, or joined in themselves. They aren’t my friends. They’re just here because my parents are the richest people in town and their parents made them come to s**k up.”
A thought struck Jeff. “You know, you actually have my brother Liu to thank for us helping out. He’s the one that insisted.”
Billy nodded. “Please pass my gratitude along. I’ll be sure to tell him myself when I see him.”
“Well, that might be a bit of a problem,” Jeff said, “seeing as he’s currently being held at juvie. Funny thing, Randy and his friends are claiming they were the ones attacked. And with Liu and me being new in town and with no one to back up our side of the story…” he trailed off.
“I see.” Billy lowered his head for a moment, pensive, before turning to look at Jeff. “Yes, I think I can help you. My father knows people. I’m sure I can get him to straighten everything out.”
It felt as if a huge weight was lifted off of Jeff’s shoulders. “I would … you have no idea how much that would mean to me, Billy.”
The boy smiled. “It is literally the least I can do. It doesn’t seem right that someone else should suffer for trying to help me.”
Jeff frowned. “Why do those jerks have it in for you anyway?”
Billy shrugged. “I’m not sure. Probably because my parents have money. Troy wouldn’t be so bad except his dad works for Randy’s at the police station. He’s been following Randy for years. Keith is just a lowlife. I think Randy keeps him around because it makes Randy feel like he’s more badass. And Randy … he wasn’t always the way he is. His mom died a few years ago, and everyone knows his dad hits the bottle pretty hard. Randy started to come into school with some pretty bad cuts and bruises, but no one would say anything because his dad is the police chief. It wasn’t too long before he started his bus fare collections.”
“That’s no excuse,” Jeff shook his head. “I’ve got plenty of problems. You don’t see me taking them out on people smaller than me.”
“What can I say? Maybe they’re just a******s.” Billy smiled and Jeff laughed. The boys continued talking for several minutes exchanging stories, and Jeff found himself warming to Billy Randle. This was someone Jeff could be friends with, even more so if Billy managed to help get Liu out of trouble. Despite everything that had been happening, the thought that his violent urges might be dispelled, that things might just turn out all right, threatened to disrupt Jeff’s general depression.
“So then there was the time my dad was going to take us… oh no.” Billy froze and Jeff followed his gaze to the door leading back into the house. Standing on the verge of passing into the yard were Randy and his cronies.
Any hope Jeff might have had that he wouldn’t be spotted was dashed when he realized all three were staring directly at him. As he watched, Keith leaned over and whispered something in Randy’s ear. The lead bully nodded his head slowly. Somewhere inside, Jeff felt a thrill of satisfaction. Randy’s wrist was in a cast and the broken nose had given him a pair of black eyes that made him look like a raccoon. The trio approached where Jeff and Billy sat.
“Oh God,” Billy whispered, “my mom must have invited their families.”
“It’s fine,” Jeff murmured back, “they won’t try anything here.”
As they got closer Jeff could tell that Troy moved stiffly, probably from having his chest wrapped, and saw under Keith’s shirt where his upper arm was bandaged.
“Powder! Fancy seeing you here!” Randy sat down on the bench next to Jeff with Keith and Troy standing in front of them. “I see you’ve met my friend Billy.”
“My name’s Jeff. What do you want??”
Randy smiled. “You know, whitey … sorry, Jeff,” he sneered, “I was hoping you’d be here today. The way I see it, we have some unfinished business, you and I. So, you’ve got two options. The easy way, you walk with us out the back gate over there and take your lumps. Or the hard way, Keith here pulls out my dad’s service pistol from his backpack and things get… messy,” he grinned, “Part of me hopes you choose the hard way.”
Jeff shook his head. “You guys are crazy,” he hissed before pausing to think for a moment, looking at Billy. “Fine, I’ll come. Just don’t hurt anyone.”
Randy smiled. “Good choice.” He turned to Billy. “And not a word from you, birthday b***h, unless you want the same.” Billy nodded. “All right, let’s go.”
Jeff followed Randy out the gate with Keith and Troy flanking him on either side. They crossed a field into a wooded area, walking through the trees for a time before they stopped in a small clearing.
Randy looked around. “This’ll do. You ready?”
Jeff held up his hands. “Randy, come on. I … I don’t want to fight.”
Yes. YES YOU DO.
Jeff shook his head to try to quiet the voice suddenly present in his head, to dissipate the growing, screaming urge to rip the bullies apart.
“I kicked your asses and now my brother’s in juvie. The way I see it we’re even.”
Randy smiled. “I don’t get even. I win. And who said anything about fighting?” Jeff turned just in time to see a bottle descending as Keith swung it at his head. An explosion of pain was followed by sudden blackness.
The water was dark. Jeff could see light as he swam upward, desperately, his lungs burning. Just before he broke the surface, he looked down. Below him he saw Katy, her face frozen in a horrific doll’s smile, her eyes black as the grave, reaching for his ankles with clawed fingers. He kicked frantically, knowing if she caught him, he would never reach the surface. He felt her hand tighten about his ankle, wrenching him away from the life-giving air. Jeff screamed with the last of his breath, knowing that there was no way he could break free as she pulled him, struggling, deeper and deeper into the inky blackness below.
Randy and his cronies argued to the side of where Jeff’s body lay.
“Are you kidding me, Keith? I thought we were just going to scare him, rough him up a little,” Troy’s voice was shaking, “You might have killed him, man!”
“Awe, stop being such a b***h, Troy. He challenged us. We have to make an example. Back me up here, Randy.”
Randy looked sick. “Is he breathing?”
Keith sneered. “You worried? Come on, man, of course he is. I’m not gonna kill him. This is our chance to make sure no one screws with us from here on out. None of those little f***s at the party will say anything. And if they do, we’ll do the same to them.” Keith had unscrewed the top of the bottle he had hit Jeff with and was pouring the contents over Jeff’s still form.
Troy grabbed his arm, roughly pulling him away. “Keith, what are you doing? Is that alcohol? What’re you gonna do, burn him? That’s way too far,” Troy shook his head, “I can’t let you do it, man.”
Keith rolled his eyes. “I’m not actually gonna set him on fire, you p***y, I just have to make him think I might. Just like we weren’t gonna shoot him with your dad’s pistol, Randy. F*****g thing isn’t even loaded.”
Randy sighed. “Ok. We’ll do it your way. But no flicking the lighter, I don’t want you ‘accidentally’ letting it slip.”
Keith laughed. “A*****e. Fine. Now, let’s wake sleeping beauty. Hey, how funny would it be if he pisses himself?”
The three turned to where they had left Jeff and stopped, dumbstruck.
“Where the f**k did he go?” Randy whispered.
Unseen, a pale hand snaked from behind Troy and closed on the large boy’s throat.
“Urk!” Troy pried where the hand tightened on his windpipe, nails drawing blood as he desperately tore at the digits digging into the soft meat of his neck. With a sickening gurgle, his eyes rolled back in his head and he fell to the ground. Keith and Randy watched, mouths agape, as the thing that was once Jeffrey Woods stood over the body, gazing at it almost tenderly. Suddenly, it turned its attention to the two remaining boys, smiling wickedly at the slow trickle of urine running down the leg of Keith’s jeans. Sharing a glance, the two turned and fled back the way they came. With a laugh, the Killer took chase.
Randy sprinted through the trees behind Keith, trying to keep up with the slim boy as best he could. A fallen branch caught his shin and he tripped, falling heavily to the leaf covered forest floor. He fumbled for the knife in his pocket, turning on his back to face the way he had come, weapon held at the ready. Except for the sounds of Keith crashing through the brush farther ahead, the woods were eerily silent. Cautiously regaining his feet, Randy turned only to find a nightmare waiting behind him. The Killer’s smile was wide and filled with teeth as it grabbed his arm. In an instant Randy was pinned to the ground, the knife plucked from his hand like a magic trick, its sharp blade held against the soft hollow of his neck. “Please, no!” he begged. “No, no, no, no, no…” He started to scream as the metal slid in, inch by agonizing inch, until the sounds were nothing more than wet, sucking moans. Before long, those too were silenced.
Keith’s breath came in ragged gasps where he hid, trembling behind a fallen log as twilight set and shadows lengthened around him. He couldn’t know for sure what had happened to Randy after he’d tripped, but the gurgling screams that had come soon after gave him an idea. Straining his senses to detect any sign of pursuit, Keith failed to notice the pale figure stalking through the trees behind him. Like a ghost, the shape flitted ever closer, the gasps and sobs of its prey drawing it onward. At the last moment Keith turned as the figure lunged, his scream cut off as hands of iron wrapped around his neck. Staring into eyes black as death, Keith scrabbled in his pocket for his lighter. As his consciousness drained away, the world in slow motion, he managed to pull it out, desperately trying to ignite the tiny spark. The Killer snapped Keith’s neck with a dull crack. Dropping the lifeless body to the ground, the thing that had been Jeff Woods stared at it, transfixed, until even its own pale form was lost amid the gathering darkness.
Margaret’s eyes opened where she lay next to her husband. Something had caused her to wake at two in the morning, though truth be told she had been sleeping very lightly lately. Moving quietly to avoid disturbing Peter, she swung her legs over the side of the bed and drew a robe around herself. When Peter and Bob Randle were alerted to the emergency by Billy’s panicked pleading and had initially found the motionless forms of the boys who had taken Jeff, she had been terrified he was dead. But they never found a body. For more than two months she had barely slept, frantic she would somehow miss the call that would give her the barest shred of hope of finding her boy. Now, something had woken her.
She slipped down the hall and paused briefly to check on Liu. Her younger son snored in his bed, dead to the world. Once Billy had come forward to support Jeff and Liu’s side of the events surrounding the bus stop fight it had not taken long to remove Liu from the tender care of the juvenile detention facility. Margaret knew she should be happier he was home, that it wasn’t fair to him to be so depressed. But any joy she felt was lost in the void left by her missing child. She and Peter had treated Jeff so coldly lately, she only hoped she would get the chance to tell him she was sorry.
She paused outside Jeff’s door, considering whether to proceed for a moment, before pushing her way inside. The room appeared untouched, the bed unmade, half opened cardboard boxes remaining where they had since the family moved in.
Margaret, Peter and Liu weren’t the only ones interested in finding Jeff. The police hoped to question him regarding the deaths of the three boys since Jeff was the last one anyone had seen them with alive. Margaret knew they were considering Jeff a suspect. But the victims had been ripped apart, the savage nature of the attacks practically incapable of being administered by a human, let alone a teenage boy. Margaret prayed that the boys had simply been victims of some psychotic killer, as terrible as that would be. It scared her to think of the police accusing Jeffrey of the crimes. It terrified her to consider they might be right.
She was about to leave when a faint whisper of autumn breeze caused the curtains to gently flutter. The window was open. Moving across the room she firmly closed it and threw the latch. She considered for a moment; she was sure the window had been closed before she’d gone to bed. A noise from back down the hall startled her, drawing her attention away from her pondering.
Cautiously creeping back the way she came, more faint noises soon let her identify they were coming from the bathroom. She stuck her head into her bedroom and hissed her husband’s name, receiving no response. Not wanting to alert the potential intruder by calling louder, she instead reached around the doorframe to the corner where Peter had propped an old baseball bat, the feel of the hard wood in her hand granting her just enough courage to carry on. Pulse pounding, Margaret edged ever closer to the bathroom, bat clutched in one hand and holding the other before her, until it at last rested on the door. Heart in her throat she threw it open and flicked on the light. Her mind whirled as it took in the scene that greeted her.
It was a moment before she realized that the figure curled on the bathroom floor clutching a kitchen knife was her son. He was almost unrecognizable, but for the skin of his face, still glaringly white as ever. From some far mental way off she dimly knew she recognized the dark wig covering his head.
“Katy,” she thought, “that poor girl …”
Her gorge rose as she realized Jeff had used the knife on himself, cutting upwards at the corners of his lips to extend his mouth in a grotesque, unnatural smile. Blood continued to run down his cheeks, soaking the now stained white sweatshirt he wore. Jeff raised his face to look at his mother. In horror, she saw his eyes were pitch black.
“She said She wanted me to smile more. But I couldn’t keep smiling, it hurt after a while. Now I can smile forever.”
Margaret’s mouth dropped open in shock as Jeff grinned, baring his teeth.
“What’s wrong, mommy? She says I’m beautiful. Aren’t I beautiful?”
Seemingly without moving, the Killer was on his feet and had closed the distance to his mother. In one motion he thrust the knife between her ribs as Margaret made a soft sound of pain. She dropped the bat, grasping weakly at the hand holding the knife in her side.
“You said She was gone forever. Mommy, you lied. She’s still here, with me. She showed me the truth. There’s no pain here. No bullies, no anything, just floating in the deep dark water. But people are scared to make the choice, they aren’t brave like Her. So I’ll help them choose.”
The knife was pulled out and bright gouts of blood poured from Margaret’s side as she fell to the floor, gasping.
“I’ll help daddy, and Liu. Billy and his parents. I’ll help everyone. She was right: there’s only one choice, and everyone has to make it eventually. I’m just speeding things along.”
Margaret raised her hand, eyes pleading in protest, wanting to tell her son she still loved him, that she was sorry for everything that had happened. Jeff the Killer raised a single finger to his scarred lips.
“It’s ok, mommy. It’s ok. Shhhh.” He smiled. “Just go to sleep.”