Author: BlairDaniels Page 1 of 4

Victoria’s Road

I live in New Jersey – the state known for its “haunted roads.”

Crack open a copy of Weird NJ and you’ll see what I mean. Clinton Road – a body dump site for the Mafia and home of a little ghost boy. Shades of Death Road – where a woman buried her husband’s head and body on opposite sides of the street.

But have you ever heard of Victoria’s Road?

It’s in Warren County, where the congestion of the Jersey suburbs fades out into mountains and trees. It’s easy to miss – just a narrow gap in the thick forest, that you’ll drive right by if you aren’t careful. But if you find it… you’ll see, walking along the side of the road, a woman in a purple dress.

You can ask her one question. Any question.

She will tell you the answer.

I went with my best friend Mira late one summer night. We were parked on the side of the road, overlooking the valley below, to review the “rules.”

Mira handed me the piece of paper, now damp and crumpled. “It was in my pocket all day. Sorry,” she said, through smacks of gum. I rolled my eyes and began to read.

1. You must be the only car on the road. For this reason, go late at night, or early in the morning.

Check. It was 12:45 AM.

2. Your radio must be tuned to 102.2 the entirety of the drive. Turn off all other devices, including your cell phones.

“I don’t think it’s even possible to get that station,” I said, as I turned off my phone. But when Mira gave the dial a spin, it easily landed on 102.2. Static filled the car.

3. Don’t stop your car for any reason other than Victoria. No matter what you see or hear, do not stop.

“Weird,” I said to Mira. She shrugged.

4. DO NOT, under any circumstances, attempt to make a U-Turn or go back the way you came.

“Easy enough,” I said.

I turned back onto the road and rolled down the window. Yellow fireflies danced between the trees; the sounds of crickets filled the air. The breeze was warm and humid. “Are you sure it’s this way?” I asked. The road tilted up, climbing the mountain. In a few minutes, we’d be at the top.

“Positive,” Mira said. “It’s just around the bend, there.”

She was right. Within minutes, a tilted signpost came into view. Faded and cracked, wrapped with vines and foliage.

VICTORIA’S ROAD

I turned on the blinker – despite the road being completely empty – and swung left.

The road was dark. The headlights barely punctured the thick shadows; it was as if we were submerged in murky water. Mira, however, didn’t seem scared at all. She practically vibrated with excitement. “So, if this thing works – which it probably won’t, I know – what are you gonna ask her?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe what college will accept me.”

That was a lie. I knew exactly what I wanted to ask her. Is Dad ever coming back? After he met Linda three years ago… it’s all been missed calls, one-word texts, empty promises. “So, uh, what do you want to ask her?”

“If Sarah McCoffrey likes me. Duh.”

Her?”

“What’s wrong with her?”

“Isn’t she super-Christian? Like Bibles and cross necklaces all the time? Are you sure she’s even –”

Mira stared at me blankly. “Christians can be gay too, Hannah.”

I suddenly felt dumb. “Well, uh, I just assumed –”

My foot hit the brake.

Screeeeeech.

We jolted to a halt.

A deer sauntered across the road. It stopped in the center and turned towards us, its eyes glowing in the headlights. “Oh my gosh, that scared the bejeezus out of me,” Mira said. My heart pounded in my chest.

But then she grew annoyed. “Wait, wait, we’re not supposed to stop! Remember? Rule #3. We’re going to screw it up!”

“What do you want me to do, plow into the deer? We have to wait for it to cross.”

“Fine.”

But as we sat there, the deer didn’t move. It just stood there, in the headlights, watching us. Get out of the way. Come on!

Finally – as if my thoughts willed it – it took a step.

Not towards the woods. A step forward, towards our car. “What’s it doing?” Mira asked. It walked closer, its fur scratching against the hood of the car, until it was just a few feet from my window. It stared at me with those black, glinting eyes.

Then it reared its head –

And rammed against the car.

Thump!

“What the hell?!” I screamed.

The car jolted forward, and we sped down the dark road. “What a crazy-ass deer. It must be rabid or something.” Mira shook her head. “Is the car okay? Did it leave a dent?”

“No idea. If it did, Mom’s going to kill me.”

We drove for the next few minutes in silence, save for the crackles of static from the radio. The road continued through the forest, growing even darker and narrower. I don’t like this at all. Maybe we should turn around –

Suddenly, the static on the radio stopped.

But when I looked at the glowing console, it no longer said FM RADIO; it said BLUETOOTH AUDIO, like it usually does when my phone is connected.

“Hannah?”

A man’s voice came through the speakers, cut with static.

“Hannah, hey, you there?”

I gulped. “…Dad? Is that you?”

“Yeah!” He laughed his cheerful, warm laugh. “Sorry to call you so late. But I happen to be driving through Blairstown right now – had a work thing in Philly. Do you want to meet up?”

“Now?” I said.

“Yeah. Where are you? We can meet at that 24-hour diner –”

“I’m with Mira. We’re uh, just on a little adventure.”

“Oh, sounds fun!” He laughed again. “Well, do you want to meet up? I’ll be there in about fifteen minutes.”

I glanced at Mira.

“Yeah, okay.”

Click.

“I’m so sorry, Mira. We’ll have to do this some other time.” I began turning the wheel, to swing left. “I haven’t seen my dad in six months, and we’ve been trying to reach each other –”

Mira thrust her hand into my pocket.

“Hey! What are you –”

She pulled out my phone. “You turned your phone off, remember? It was in the rules.” Her voice began to tremble. “There’s no way that could’ve been your dad, Hannah.”

“But I –”

“Do not, at any point, attempt to turn around. Rule #4, remember?”

I stared out the window. At the disjointed shadows; at the road that disappeared into the black.

And then I continued forward.

Tears burned at my eyes. Hearing his voice again… I shook my head, forcing the thought out of my head. The static faded back in. The road began to dip down, as if we were finally descending the mountain. Wayward branches scraped at the car. I slowly rolled down the window; but the summer air was silent, devoid of crickets, wind, rustling.

And then Mira screamed.

“Watch out!”

A blur of white darted out of the forest. In front of the car. I hit the brakes.

But it was too late.

Thump.

“What was that?” Mira asked, her voice trembling.

“Another deer, maybe.”

But I knew it wasn’t. My entire body felt numb, frozen, paralyzed. I didn’t want to know what was under the car. What had just happened. I wanted to turn around, speed as fast as I could away from this place.

But I forced myself to open the door. Took a shaking step onto the cold asphalt.

The headlights shone into the darkness, motes of dust and debris swirling in the light. The surrounding forest was silent. My heart thrummed in my chest. I stared at the ground as I paced towards the front of the car, waiting for something terrible to come into view.

Nothing here, so far. Maybe I’m okay.

I took another step.

Still nothing.

I took another, rounding the corner.

No.

I crumpled to my knees.

White cloth. Wrinkled, crushed, stained deep red. Patches of pale skin poking out. A tangle of red hair.

I shot to my feet. As soon as Mira’s eyes met mine, she understood. “Oh my God, Hannah –”

I broke into choking sobs. “I didn’t mean to. I didn’t even see her. It’s my fault. I can’t believe –”

My sentence ended in a strangled yelp.

Something grabbed my ankle.

Hard.

It violently tugged. I fell to the ground, screaming. The tar scraped against my chest. The metal bumper hit my head with a sickening thump.

It was pulling me under the car.

And then darkness. Darkness, save for the few inches of light between the dark metal of the car and the pavement. “Help!” I screamed; my voice was muffled, muted, under the car. I thrashed and squirmed, but the grip held tight.

And then Mira’s face appeared.

She grabbed my hand and pulled. “Hannah! Hold on!” she screamed.

Within a few seconds, I was out. Panting in the darkness. “Hannah, are you okay?” she kept asking, but all I could hear was a ringing in my ears.

Vrrrrrmmm.

We looked up.

The red-haired woman was no longer under the car.

And the car was rolling forward.

“Run!”

The car roared towards us. The mirror glanced off my shoulder. I flew into the forest, branches and trees scraping across my chest. When I finally got back up, the car was already turning around, coming back to finish us off.

“How do we get out of here?” I screamed, nearly out of breath. “I have no idea,” Mira yelled back, several feet from me in the darkness. The headlights flashed across the trunks.

Snap, snap, snap.

The car was half off the road, threatening to follow us into the forest.

“Help!” Mira screamed. “Someone, please!”

A voice, over the roar of the engine, the sounds of our ragged breaths, replied: “Yes?”

We both looked up. There, in the shadows of the trees –

Was a woman wearing a purple dress.

You may ask her one question. One question, only, and she has to answer it. I no longer wanted to ask about my Dad; all of that was gone from my mind. I took a deep breath, and shouted:

“How do we get out of here?”

She smiled, suddenly just a few feet from us. “That’s always the question, isn’t it?” She pointed into the darkness of the woods. “Run that way, until you find the stream. Turn right; in ten minutes you’ll find yourselves on a residential street.”

We didn’t need to be told twice.

We ran through the darkness, the roar of the car fading into the distance. We didn’t stop until we got to the stream; then we turned, like she instructed, until we knocked on the nearest house.

***

The police never found my car. They just tossed our file in with the rest of the strange occurrences on Victoria’s Road.

So, yes. The legend of Victoria’s Road is true. Every person who drives down it gets one question answered. But the question they choose to ask is always the same: “How do I get out of here?”

But that doesn’t mean our other questions went unanswered.

The experience forced us to ask the questions ourselves, to the people who could answer them. In the wake of such terror, asking out the girl you like – or calling up your estranged dad – just doesn’t seem that scary anymore.

We got our answers.

Will you?

Google Street View

Yesterday, I looked up our house on Google Street View.

I wish I didn’t.

The picture showed our little blue A-frame perfectly. The flowerboxes leaning out of the kitchen window, filled with morning glories. The cedar rocking chair. The splotch of brown paint on the steps from when I painted the desk.

But there were two people standing on the porch. Two people I didn’t recognize. Even though their faces were blurred out, I knew they couldn’t be us – we’re Indian, and they were clearly white.

“Who are those people?” my brother, Arjun, asked.

“I have no idea.” I leaned in to the computer screen, squinting at the pixels. “Maybe some of my friends from school?” But I knew that couldn’t be true. They looked like adults: the man and woman were both wearing gray, tailored suits. I don’t know of any 15-year-old that dresses like they work on Wall Street.

“Maybe it’s an old picture,” I said. “Maybe they’re the previous owners.”

But that didn’t seem right, either. First of all, the text in the corner read “Street View – July 2017.” Second, they didn’t seem to just be hanging out and relaxing at their own home. The woman was standing at the corner of the porch, weight on one hip, arms crossed over her chest. The man stood unnaturally straight, as if he were posing for the photo, hands deep in his pockets.

“Maybe it’s photoshopped.”

I turned to him. “Really, Arjun?”

He shrugged. “I dunno. Maybe the photoshopped it purposely. To scare us. To make us move.”

“You really think Google would let someone mess with their photos?”

He shrugged. “All those big companies, and organizations, and celebrities are super corrupt. Like Hillary Clinton. She’s been doing Satanic rituals for years, and she’s the ringleader of –”

I cut him off. “I see. Another conspiracy theory.” Sometimes I think the hospital must’ve messed with his brain all those years ago. Don’t worry, we’ll heal you up, little baby. Let us just upload some crazy theories into your head first.

“It’s not a theory. It’s true.”

“You sound like an idiot.”

“Mom says you shouldn’t call me that, Diya.”

“Whatever. It’s not photoshopped.”

“Okay, then what do you think it is?”

I stared at the photo. Those two people… they looked familiar, almost. Something about them – their gray suits, their matching silver shoes – rung a bell. “I don’t know,” I said, finally.

Arjun eventually returned to his room – probably to tweet some more conspiracy theories to his 51 followers. How they let a 13-year-old own a Twitter account is beyond me. I went back to my homework. At least, I tried to. Every few minutes, my eyes tore away from the algebra textbook and back to the photo.

Where had I seen them before?

***

Friday went by at a snail’s pace. Between getting a C+ on a quiz and nearly falling asleep in History, I forgot all about the weird Street View image. After school, I grabbed a yogurt and headed straight for my room.

But I froze when my eyes fell on a picture, hanging next to the stairs.

It was a photo of Arjun and me. My mom had taken it when we visited Philadelphia a few years ago. Arjun was holding some sort of toy helicopter; I was wearing weird floral jeans and sparkly hair clips. But there, behind us, were two people.

Two people wearing gray suits and silver shoes.

I grabbed the framed picture off the wall, brought it up to my face. A blonde woman, arms crossed over her chest; a dark-haired man, hands in his pockets. Their faces weren’t blurred out in this one, but they were wearing dark sunglasses.

“Mom?” I called, heading back into the kitchen. “Do you remember taking this picture? In Philadelphia?”

“Oh yeah, sure,” she replied, through chops of broccoli. “Why?”

“Who are those people behind us?”

Mom took the photo and brought it close to her face. Her eyes were calm, searching… and then, suddenly, they widened. “Just random people,” she said, brusquely.

“But I saw them –”

“Shouldn’t you be doing your homework?” she snapped.

“It’s Friday, Mom.”

“But your grades aren’t good.” She didn’t give the photo back to me; instead, she set it down on the counter. “You should be studying, not inspecting old family photos.”

I turned around and ran up the stairs. That stung… a lot. Usually Mom treats me like I’m made of glass – always praising me, hugging me, telling me how wonderful I am. Yelling at Arjun, sure – but me? It was out of character, to say the least.

I plopped down in front of the computer, typed in maps.google.com. I should be planning my 16th birthday party. It’s only two weeks away. Or on Facebook, checking if Bria Pierce dumped Chad yet.

But I wasn’t. I was here, on Google Maps, staring at them. The gray suits, the silver shoes, the faces that were blurred into blobs of unidentifiable flesh.

Then, on a whim, I typed in a different address. __ Roxanne Ct. Our old address. The house we’d lived in before moving here.

The image loaded.

There, in the front yard, stood two figures.

Wearing gray suits.

What?! I zoomed in, staring at the screen. Wisps of blonde hair fell on the shoulders of the woman. The man held his hands in his pockets. They both stood there in the front lawn, in plain sight, as if nothing was amiss. The text read “Street View – May 2012.”

When we’d lived there.

My hands trembled against the keyboard. My heart pounded in my chest. But I forced myself to type a third address: __ 6th St. The tiny “starter house” we’d lived in several years ago.

The image loaded. A cute, white ranch with 2 windows in front, a carpet of fluorescent-green grass, and a cracked cobblestone walkway appeared.

The porch was empty.

I breathed a sigh of relief. They weren’t there. No one standing on the lawn, in the driveway, or anywhere around the house. If it those people were following us, they’d be here, too. I took slow, deep breaths, calming my racing heart.

I was about to click away, when something caught my eye.

Something in the window.

I zoomed in. The window was dark, cut by white lines separating the glass into panes. But in the lower right pane – there was something there. Pale, pressed up against the glass.

I zoomed in again.

It was a face.

Fear coursed through my veins. I slammed the laptop shut, leapt out of my chair. And then I did what any terrified teenager would do.

I ran downstairs to Mom. “Mom!” I called, fear trembling my voice. “Mom –”

I stopped.

The broccoli lay strewn over the kitchen island, half-chopped. The faucet dripped; the napkins lay on the floor. “Mom?”

“We’re in here.” My mom’s voice. Weak. Trembling.

We’re? Oh, no, no. The two gray suits – were they here? Holding my mom hostage? I ran into the family room, my heart pounding.

But it wasn’t them.

It was Dad.

“Dad? Aren’t you… supposed to be at work?” I said. I glanced from the grim expression on his face, to the tears staining Mom’s cheeks. “What happened? Oh my God, did Grandma –”

“Grandma’s fine,” Dad said.

I stared at them.

“We need to talk to you,” Mom said, her voice broken with sobs. “About something… something we did a long time ago.”

I sat down on the ottoman, a heavy weight settling in my chest.

“Do you remember when Arjun was very sick in the hospital? When you were about six?” Dad asked, folding his hands in his lap.

That’s random. But I nodded. The hospital… the red-haired nurse who gave me a lollipop… the vending machine that had the vanilla wafers… It was all fuzzy, distorted and blurred through the lens of time.

At the time, I was too young to understand exactly what was going on with Arjun. But I was old enough to know my brother was very sick, and that my parents were miserable.

“You remember how suddenly he recovered, right?” Dad said, his tone falling from explanatory to miserable. “The doctors couldn’t explain it. Said it was a miracle. Do you remember what we told you?”

“Two angels came down straight from heaven, touched his chest, and healed his lungs.” I repeated mechanically. They must’ve told me that story hundreds of times.

“There was some truth in it. We were approached in the hospital by two people, claiming they could heal Arjun.” He averted my eyes. “For a price. We told them we were fine with whatever price they wanted. If we didn’t have the money, we’d take out loans. We’d pay them back for the rest of our lives if we had to.”

“Two people… wearing gray suits?”

He nodded. “After they healed him, they told us the price. They didn’t want money.” Dad’s voice shuddered, and he looked me in the eye. “They wanted you.”

My heart stopped. “Me?”

“They told us they’d come back for you,” Mom finally said, her eyes wet with tears. “That they’d take you on your sixteenth birthday.”

“But my birthday’s in two weeks.”

She nodded.

“What do you mean, ‘take me’? What are they going to do to me?”

Mom and Dad looked at each other, uncomfortably. “We have no idea,” Dad said, finally breaking the silence.

“We never would have done it if we knew,” Mom said, her voice muffled through a tissue. “I promise that. We love you, Diya, and never wanted to –”

“We thought we could escape them,” Dad broke in, cutting her off. “We’d just move into the middle of nowhere. Change our names, maybe. How could they find us after that? But they always did.”

They’d found us at every house we’ve ever lived in. Street View confirmed that.

Mom got up, and pulled an old photo album off the bookshelf. Wordlessly, she dropped it in my lap. “They follow us, wherever we go.”

I flipped it open.

Arjun and I eating ice cream at Cold Stone. At the next table, with their backs to us, two people sharing a milkshake.

Two people in gray suits.

Arjun and I at the lake, hitting each other with pool noodles. In the distance, near the woods, two gray figures. Watching.

Arjun and I at the carnival. In the background, lit by the red-and-white lights of the dragon rollercoaster, they stood. Wearing sunglasses, despite the darkness.

They were always following. Watching. Waiting.

There was nowhere I could hide.

“So that’s it? They’re just going to… take me… in two weeks?”

My parents looked at each other, tears in their eyes. And then they nodded.

We hugged and cried for a long time. Then I went up to my room, turned on the computer, and opened a new tab.

Not Google Maps.

Google.

I began to type, my fingers flying across the keyboard. Guns. Bombs. Mace. Tasers. Weapons of any and every kind. How to buy. Where to purchase. Expedited shipping? Yes. I’ve only got two weeks, after all.

They may be coming for me.

But I will not go gently into that good night.

I Picked Up a Hitchhiker

I was driving through rural New Jersey when I saw him.

A hitchhiker, standing by the side of the road. Surprisingly well-dressed – black suit, slicked-back hair, narrow briefcase.

Now, I know I shouldn’t pick up hitchhikers. But I’m 6’ 4”, 230 pounds, with all kinds of hunting equipment in the back of my truck. It’s not like this prissy-assed businessman is going to beat me to death and leave me on the side of the road.

Besides, I need gas money.

“Hey, man,” I said, pulling over to the side of the road. “I’ll give you a lift, if you pay me for gas.”

“Of course,” he said in a polite, almost British, accent. He reached for his wallet, and pulled out three crisp, $20 bills. “This enough?”

I grinned. That’s way more than enough. I greedily snatched the money from him and clicked the locks. “Get in, bud.”

He climbed in. His blue eyes shifted from the crumpled Wendy’s wrapper on the dashboard, to the mysterious, sticky goo on the middle console.

“Sorry, the car’s not clean. I’m going hunting,” I said, turning back onto the highway.

“Hunting. Interesting,” he said, in a strangely enthusiastic tone. “Have you always liked to hunt?”

“No, it’s the funniest thing. Never thought I’d ever hunt. Love animals, got three dogs at home. But there are so many deer around these parts, when the winter comes… a lot of ‘em starve to death. Not to mention all the car accidents they cause.” I trailed off, and we fell into uncomfortable silence.

“Just hunting for the day, then?”

“No, my buddy Matt and I will be out there the whole weekend.”

He let out a laugh. “The whole weekend? Your wife’s a saint for letting you go.”

My wife? How did he – But then my eyes fell on the steering wheel, and the silver ring on my finger. “Ah, yeah. Mary’s a doll. She’s actually pregnant, you know. 5 months with a little girl.”

He gave me a crooked smile. “A girl, huh?”

“Yeah.”

I could feel him staring at me long after we had fallen into silence. It made me feel uncomfortable; I clicked on the radio.

“How did you meet Matt?” he asked, fiddling with the dial. All that came through was static.

That’s a weird question, I thought. “Um. He and Mary were close friends. So when we got married, I got to know him well.”

“Mmm-hmm,” the man said. He stroked his chin thoughtfully, and I was suddenly reminded of a psychiatrist.

“Are you a psychiatrist?” I blurted out.

He laughed. “Definitely not. I work in finance.”

“What type of finance?” It was my turn to ask the questions, now.

“Futures,” he replied, noncommittally.

I glanced over at him. A small smile was on his lips, and I noticed his fingers had gravitated from his lap to the briefcase at his feet.

My heart began to pound.

Click, click. He undid the clasps; the case creaked open.

“What’s in your briefcase?” I asked.

“Work.”

“What kind of –”

His long fingers disappeared into the darkness of the case. He was pulling something out! My body began to seize up; the steering wheel felt like ice under my fingers. “I have a lot of hunting equipment back there,” I said, “so you better not be –”

I stopped.

He was only pulling out a sheet of paper.

For a few minutes, he was quiet. Reading the paper, intently and silently, as if his life depended on it. Scrtch, scrtch – his fingers slid over it, as they traced the text.

Then he slipped it back into the case, and snapped it shut.

What was he reading? I thought. But before I could get the question out, he turned towards me. I could barely see his face in my peripheral vision; but I knew he was staring at me, for minutes on end.

Then he broke the silence.

“Don’t go hunting,” he said, his ice-blue eyes boring into me.

“What?”

“Turn the car around. Go home to Mary.”

“What?!”

“She needs you.” He paused. “Madeline needs you.”

I paled.

I never told him we were going to name our baby Madeline.

“How did you –”

“He’s going to make it look like an accident,” he said, his voice gravelly and halting. “Just a simple hunting accident. The most punishment he’ll endure is thirty-five minutes in the police station, writing out his statement.”

“But –”

“Let me off at that diner, up ahead. I like their Cobb salad very much.”

“Matt’s going to kill me? What are you talking about?”

He turned to me, eyes wide. “What are you talking about?”

“About what you just said!”

“All I said is I’d like you to let me off at the diner, please.” He pointed to the exit, curving off the highway. “You’re going to miss it if you don’t slow down.”

With a shaking hand, I clicked on my blinker. Pulled off the exit, into the parking lot. My heart pounded in time with the click-click-clicks of the cooling engine.

“Thank you for the ride,” he said, pulling his briefcase out with him. “Have a good drive, will you?”

I couldn’t squeak out a reply before the door slammed shut.

***

I didn’t believe him. But my nerves were too shot to continue the trip, either. I texted Matt that I was sick, turned around, and went home to Mary. Mary was thrilled; Matt was disappointed. A little too disappointed, if you ask me.

A month later, after ignoring most of Matt’s calls and texts (which became increasingly frequent and desperate), I heard a faint thumping noise at the door. When I flicked on the porch light — there was Matt, hunched over our doorknob.

Holding a lockpick.

We called the police. Since then, life has been great. Just a few months later, our wonderful little Madeline was born. And as soon as we got back from the hospital, on our doorstep was a little teddy bear, a pink bow sewed on its head. There wasn’t a return address, or a card of any kind.

But I think I know who it’s from.

There’s Something in the Cornfield

At 3 AM, I jolted awake to a sound outside.

Snap, snap.

That was unusual for our Ohio farmhouse. We were surrounded in every direction by vast fields of corn, miles from the nearest neighbor. And I’d know if we left the gate open, or one of Madison’s toys was out – I’d done my nightly check of the backyard about a thousand times.

But as I lay there, still under the blankets, the noise continued.

Snap, snap, snap.

I ran to the window and threw back the curtains.

The corn stretched out as far as the eye could see, rippling and churning like some great, dark ocean. It stopped just short of Madison’s swing set, casting long shadows onto the grass that nearly reached the back door.

Snap, snap! The stalks shifted and swayed, shaking the husks so hard they threatened to fall.

“David! There’s something out there!”

“Probably just a raccoon,” he slurred, pulling the covers over his head.

“That’s bigger than a raccoon. Look at it!” The corn rippled and roiled, as if something large was moving underneath. Snap-snap-snap. “What if there’s someone out there?! I’m going to check the locks –”

“You already checked them a million times, like you do every night,” he groaned. “Just go back to sleep.”

I didn’t listen. I opened the door and stepped out of the room.

No.

At the end of the hall –

Madison’s door was hanging open.

“Maddie?” I called, my voice shaking. And then I got that terrible feeling that only a parent knows. Something’s terribly wrong. Sinking, paralyzing, throbbing in your chest, as you try to tell yourself she’s okay, don’t freak out, I’m sure she’s fine.

But she wasn’t fine.

The bed was empty.

“Madison?!” I ran out the back door, into the yard. “Madison! Where are you?!” I screamed, out into the night.

The corn was still.

Now that I was out there, I saw the evidence. Little bare footprints in the mud, leading up to the cornfield’s edge. Where they disappeared, the corn was slightly trampled – two stalks leaned in opposite directions, as if forcefully pushed apart.

“Madison!” I screamed, as loud as I could.

But I was met with only silence.

David stumbled out after me. “She must’ve just went out in the corn, to explore or something. We’ll find her,” he said, his tone barely convincing. He pulled out his phone, turned on the flashlight, and squeezed himself between the leaning stalks. “Hey! Maddie!” he yelled, with panic trembling his voice.

I took a deep breath and squeezed in after him.

The corn scratched my body. My legs were shaking so badly, every step threatened to send me tumbling into the mud. The white orb of David’s flashlight hovered a few feet in front of me – but other than that, the cornfield was pitch black.

I was about to collapse with panic when the corn thinned out.

And then we were in what appeared to be some sort of clearing or crop circle. The corn had been trampled into the ground in a small circle, roughly ten feet in diameter.

In the center stood Madison.

Facing away from us.

“Madison!” I screamed.

She didn’t turn around.

David was frozen, staring at her back, the flashlight shaking in his hand.

“Are you okay?! Madison –” I turned her around.

No.

I was staring at a blank face.

A face made of burlap. A brown wig was stuck on top with safety pins. An Elsa shirt was stretched over the bloated waist of straw. The bottoms – patterned pink fair isle – were put on backwards.

I began to shake.

“Those are the pajamas I put her to bed in.” My voice cracked. “She wanted the My Little Pony ones, but they were dirty, and – and –”

“What kind of sicko would do something like this?!” David said, his panic boiling into anger. He pulled out his phone and began dialing 911.

Snap, snap, snap.

The corn shook and shivered all around us. Shadows, slowly coalescing between the stalks, surrounded us in a ring of black. And then, before I could react –

A hand shot out between the dark stalks.

It grabbed David by the arm. He lost his balance and toppled backwards, his phone flying to the ground.

“David –”

A cold hand latched onto my waist.

I was yanked into the corn. My back hit the cold mud; the corn scratched and poked at my sides. “Get off me!” I screamed, swatting blindly at the stalks. Black slowly faded into hues of indigo and gray, as my eyes adjusted to the darkness.

And then I could see them. Interrupting the vertical pattern of the corn stalks, there were several short shadows standing over me.

Then the whispers started.

Hissing, hurried whispers, that seemed to generate the very wind that blew through the stalks. The corn shivered and shook, and then a heavy silence filled the air. I tried to scream – but quickly realized one of them had tied something over my mouth.

But then I heard it, and my heart soared.

“911, what’s your emergency?”

A tinny voice, breaking through the silence. I pulled my neck up, and through the stalks I saw the white light of the phone, glowing against the trampled corn.

“Mmmph – mmmmph!” I tried to scream through the gag. It didn’t work. Similar grunts several feet away from me rung out in the night – David.

Crrrrrrsssshhhh.

A low rumbling sound filled the air. The corn shook above me, harder than I’d seen it all night – stretching and swaying, stalks wildly crashing into each other. And as the voice continued – 911, hello? What’s your emergency? – a loud rush, like an airplane flying right overhead, filled my ears.

I looked up just in time to see the lights. Red, purple, and green, blinking in an odd asynchronous pattern.

The scarecrow, wearing Maddie’s clothes, was enveloped in white light.

And then, with a deafening hiss, it was yanked up into the night.

I looked back at my captors. In the strange, flashing lights, their faces were illuminated – and I saw that they weren’t terrors, monsters, or murderers.

They were children.

Horribly disfigured children.

Some were missing noses. Others had long scars running straight down their faces, as if someone had split open their heads to explore what was inside. Quite a few were missing ears, and one had no teeth. All of them had a profound sadness in their eyes – except for the one to my left, who had no eyes.

But they were also smiling, just a little.

As the light disappeared, and the faces faded back into the shadows, the hands on me loosened. The gag fell away; the shadows receded into the corn.

Except for one.

“Mommy!”

Snap, snap.

With a squeal, two warm arms wrapped around my waist. Maddie.

“Oh my God – Maddie –” I began to sob, hugging her tighter than I ever have in my life. “Are you okay? And –”

“Maddie?” The broken, hopeful voice of David sounded to my left. Crunch, crunch – he ran over to us.

“I’m fine, Daddy.”

“Let’s get out of here,” he said, grabbing both our hands and yanking us back through the corn.

We ran back into the house, locking the doors and calling the police. Madison was in a different set of clothes – ones dirty, smudged with mud and riddled with holes. But she was smiling, safe, and happy.

“They saved me, Mommy,” she kept saying, tugging on my arm. “The bad men were gonna get me, but they tricked them.”

As the police were taking our statements – as the sun was cresting over the corn – Maddie stood at the back door.

“Bye-bye,” she said, waving wildly at the corn field.

Something’s Wrong with the Patient Files

This week, I was supposed to digitize all of Dr. Marnen’s patient files.

I was feeling good about my progress when I saw it. A second filing cabinet, hiding behind the shelves, that I’d never noticed before.

Sighing with fatigue, I yanked open the first drawer. I plucked out a file from the ‘A’ section and began to read.

ABERDEEN, CARLA

“Alright, Carla, let’s see if you’re in the system.” I set the file on the desk, sat down at the computer, and typed in her name.

Nothing came up.

Oh, hell no. I am not doing ALL the files in this cabinet. But I sighed, opened a new patient file, and began copying the data. Carla Aberdeen… DOB 4/24/72… 5’ 9”, 176 lbs…

Finally, I got to the doctor’s notes. They were written in messy script, as if in a hurry. I put on my glasses, and read:

– Complaints of eczema

– Itchiness after eating some fruits

– Lungs may be useful

I stopped and re-read the last line.

Lungs may be useful

I shrugged, figuring it was some sort of mistake or reference to something. I typed it into the computer and took the next file from the cabinet – a Mr. David Akowski.

But the doctor’s notes were even stranger, this time.

– Family history of heart attacks

– Large skin surface area

I typed him into the system and stared at the screen. Large skin surface area? What does that even mean?

When I got to the next one – a Miss Katerina Alanson – I felt the knot in my stomach tighten. It was a file for a little girl, and it read:

– Night terrors ever since sixth birthday

– Mom says increased anxiety

– Feet are perfect size

I rolled away from the computer. Heart pounding, I picked up the file and studied it. There must be an explanation.

But I couldn’t think of anything.

I took a deep breath. Then I picked up the phone, and dialed the number on Katerina’s file. But what will you say? I didn’t even know. I just had a terrible, nagging feeling, and wanted to do something about it.

But I wasn’t in luck.

Boop-boop-boop!

We’re sorry. You have reached a number that has been disconnected –

“What are you doing?”

I whipped around.

Dr. Marnen was standing in the doorway, his arms crossed over his white coat. “I was digitizing the files. Like you told me to,” I stuttered, slamming the phone down.

“Not those files.” He violently grabbed the files from the desk, shoved them back into the file cabinet. Then he pulled a small key from his pocket and turned the locks on each drawer. Click, click, click.

“Finish this up, okay?”

I nodded.

And then he was gone.

The silence pressed in. The waiting room was empty and still. I checked the clock – 4:45. No more patients would be coming in.

It was only Dr. Marnen and me in the office now.

So I did what any reasonable person would do. I shut down the computer, grabbed my coat, and started for the door. As I hurried towards the exit, I saw Dr. Marnen at the end of the hall.

He was opening a door – the door he told me went to the supply closet.

But beyond him, I could see a set of stairs, snaking down into the darkness.

The Warm Spot Under my Floor

Floors are supposed to be cold. That’s why socks and slippers exist, right?

But the first day in my new house, I found a warm spot on the kitchen floor. There was no mistaking it – while the rest of the floor was uncomfortably cold on my bare feet, this one square-foot near the island was warm. Pleasantly warm, like the car seats with the built-in heaters.

But you know what’s not pleasant? Fire hazards.

So I brought in my brother to look at it. He does a lot of home repairs, and I figured he would know what was going on.

“I’m worried it’s an electrical problem. Like a fire hazard.”

“It does feel warm,” Landon said. He lowered his ear to the tile, his face screwed up in a frown.

“So? What do you think it is?”

He rose and nodded solemnly. “Unfortunately, it’s…” He paused, staring at me intently. “It’s a steaming pile of shit, right under your floor.”

“Landon!”

He broke into guffaws.

“What is it, really?”

“I have no idea! What am I, the dude from Curb Appeal?” He threw up his hands. “Google it or something, I don’t know.”

“Can’t you figure it out?”

“Not without pulling it up.”

I sighed. There was no way I was burning cash on this. My kitchen budget was already set aside for tearing down the wallpaper. It was horrendous – yellow with black polka-dots. I’ve never even seen polka-dotted wallpaper before.

So I tried to ignore it. But the next night, after eating an elegant dinner of canned tuna, I heard it.

A soft, high-pitched whine.

It was extremely faint – I only noticed it at all because the house was so quiet. Since I had just moved in, there wasn’t even the hum of a refrigerator or television to drown out the noise. I walked around the room, trying to pinpoint the sound. After four rounds in the kitchen, and one misguided attempt in the dining room, I finally realized –

The sound was coming from the warm spot.

Of course, I called Landon back.

And of course, he wasn’t helpful.

“Maybe it’s bugs,” he said. “Maybe you got a big ol’ termite infestation under there, and they’re all chittering to each other, and –”

“Ew, no, Landon.”

“What if it’s a dead body?” he said, now thoroughly intrigued. “And the noise is the buzzing of all the flies eating it?”

“Stop it!”

“Or what if it’s… a live body? And he’s just waiting, down there, humming to himself, waiting for the right time to strike?”

I told Landon to leave after that.

And for almost a week, I survived without giving the warm spot much thought. Whenever I walked across the kitchen, I stepped over that area; I ate my dinners in the bedroom, and never let it get too quiet down there. Everything was going fine.

Until I got the email.

From the sender’s address, I would’ve guessed it was spam. It was a seemingly random string of letters and numbers.

But the subject line caught my eye.

UNDER THE FLOOR

The rest of the message was blank.

That’s when I picked up the phone and called the handyman.

As he was working, Landon and I grew nervous.

“Maybe it is a body,” I whispered to him.

“Nah, Rosie. It’s probably just an electrical thing like you said.” But I could tell he was nervous, too. No jokes, no smiles – just his eyes locked on the handyman.

As the tile fell away, we both gasped.

It wasn’t a body, or a termite infestation.

It was a computer.

And a rather old one at that. A bulky desktop, crammed into a hollowed-out space in the floor, its fan working overtime to cool the CPU. The black cord snaked around and disappeared under the intact tile, plugging in somewhere unknown.

Landon and I stared at each other, at a loss for words.

***

“Got this monitor from my buddy Tom,” Landon said, hauling a beaten-up BenQ through the front door. “It’s got dead pixels and stuff, but we’ll see what’s on there.”

I wasn’t sure I wanted to see.

Landon slipped his fingers into the space between the computer and the surrounding floor. With a grunt, he heaved it up, and set it on the counter, pulling the power cord taut. He fumbled with the monitor cable, and after several tries, clicked it into place.

The screen blinked on.

From the blue task bar, and the image of a rolling hill behind, it looked like a standard Windows XP screen. The icons on the desktop looked normal, too; they all linked to standard programs, like Microsoft Word, Internet Explorer, and Yahoo! Messenger. Nothing looked out of place.

Until I noticed the icon in the corner.

A little yellow file folder marked PUBLIC.

“Why is it called ‘public’?” I asked.

“Maybe other people can access it, somehow. Or maybe it’s just a list of all the files they’ve uploaded online,” he replied, shrugging.

“Well – click on it!”

“I can’t very well do that without a mouse, can I?!”

“Wait, I think I’ve got one.”

After riffling through a few of the boxes in the family room, I came back with a mouse. And then, with baited breath, we clicked on it.

It opened up to a myriad of folders. 102705… 010206… “They’re dates, I think,” Landon said, scrolling through them. He clicked on one at random – 073007 – and it opened to an array of images.

He clicked on the first one.

It looked like a still from a security camera or a webcam. Black-and-white, grainy, blurred. But I could make out a woman, walking down the sidewalk of a small town. She was looking over her shoulder, her dark hair whipping around to cover her face. A block or so behind her, there was a fuzzy, black speck.

“Go forward,” I said.

Landon didn’t respond.

“Forward!”

“Okay, geez!”

Click, click. Now the woman was out of frame, although the top of her elongated shadow could still be seen at the bottom. The black speck had grown – it looked like a figure.

I grabbed the mouse from Landon.

Click, click. The figure was closer to the camera, now. It looked like a woman, though it was hard to tell from the fuzziness of the image. Something seemed off about her face, though; it was much paler than the rest of her. Except for the eyes, which were darker than I’d expect.

“Who… is that?” I said to Landon.

He shrugged.

Click, click, click. The woman was close in this one. I could see now what was going on – she was wearing a white mask. It reminded me of one of those fancy masquerade masks, from the upslanting eye-holes. But it covered her whole face, not just half.

“What’s that in the background?” Landon said.

I squinted. It looked like there were more black dots – on the sidewalk, in the street. “I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe if I scroll forward…”

Click, click, click, click!

I stopped.

The black dots had coalesced into a crowd of people.

All wearing the same white masks.

“What – what are they doing?!” I asked, my throat suddenly dry. Click, click, click.

But no more photos appeared.

“That’s the end of this folder. Dammit.”

“Aw, man! I hate cliffhangers!” Landon said, forcing a laugh. “Seriously, though, it’s probably just a Halloween party or something. Or one of those, uh, what are they called – flash mobs?”

“…Right. Yeah, of course.” I went back and clicked on the next folder.

The point of view wasn’t the street anymore. Instead, it was a bedroom. With flowered wallpaper, gray carpet, closet doors on the far wall…

It wasn’t just a bedroom.

It was my bedroom.

The wallpaper hadn’t yet faded; the carpet wasn’t yet threadbare. But it was, without a doubt, the same bedroom.

“That’s my bedroom, Landon.”

Click, click, click. There was someone sleeping in the bed. It was a blonde woman, on her back, arms splayed out and limp. Is she dead? I thought. But after making it through twenty photos or so, she rolled to her side.

Not dead.

I clicked through another several photos before I stopped.

“Landon.”

I pointed to the closet doors. A sliver of darkness had appeared between them.

Click, click, click.

The sliver grew wider. And in the shadows of the closet was a pale, grainy object. It hung as if suspended in thin air, surrounded by the sea of gray.

Click, click, click.

The door swung open.

It was one of the masks, faced at the sleeping woman. Click, click. My hand shot to my mouth, and I watched the scene unfold with wide eyes. Over the next few photos, it crept out of the closet, and pulled a pillowcase over the woman’s head. She started to thrash, but was dragged back into the closet by the masked person.

The next hundred photos were of the empty bedroom.

I looked at Landon. He just stared at the computer, mouth agape.

I clicked out of the folder. “How long do these go on for?” I asked, scrolling through the folders. 092807… 031211 … 050715 …

And the very last folder:

061018.

“That’s – that’s today’s date,” I stuttered.

“Click it.”

I scrolled through the photos.

The strength drained from my legs. I gripped the counter as I swayed violently.

No, no, no.

Me, sitting at the kitchen table, eating a bowl of cereal. Click. The handyman, crouched over the floor, cutting up the tile. Click. Landon, hooking the computer up to the monitor.

And the last few –

Photos of us, looking at the computer, our faces contorted with worry.

“Wait – that’s impossible – I don’t even see a camera,” I stuttered, trying to convince myself. It has to be fake. If there isn’t a camera in here… it must be a hoax.

Landon was already scouring the room – opening cabinets, crouching over the stove. “I don’t see one,” he replied.

I stared at the far wall. That horrendous wallpaper, covering every inch – yellow with black polka dots…

No.

One of the dots, near the upper right corner, wasn’t a dot at all.

It was a hole.

And in the darkness, I could just make out a tiny, blinking red light.

Mushrooms

I wasn’t allowed to walk anywhere alone.

Not with Frank Lonegan on the loose. Suspected of brutally murdering his wife and their unborn son with a dozen stab wounds to the stomach. “You have to walk with Jeremy, okay?” my mom said, as she pulled on her work blazer. “Don’t talk to any strangers. Come straight home.”

I nodded.

But we didn’t come straight home that day. Because, as Jeremy and I walked the short, wooded path between my house and the school, we found mushrooms.

A cluster of three beautiful, white mushrooms. One large, two small, lined up in a perfect row, poking through the moist, black dirt. “Mom said not to stop,” Jeremy groaned, yanking me back onto the path. “Come on. We’re late, anyway.”

But all day, I thought about those mushrooms. I mean, I had only ever seen mushrooms in a grocery store – never in the wild. I told Mrs. Eberhart all about it, and she gave me a nature book from the library. I spent most of lunch reading about different varieties of mushroom.

During recess, I told my friend Mabel. “That’s so cool,” she said, drawing a unicorn on the sidewalk. “Do you think they’re poisonous?”

“I don’t know,” I replied, reaching for the purple chalk. “We shouldn’t eat them, just in case.”

“Maybe I’ll dare you to eat one,” she giggled.

As soon as the school bell rang, Mabel and I took off into the woods, kicking up dirt in our wake. Jeremy followed, muttering something under his breath about “annoying little girls.”

“There! There!” I shouted, pointing to the mushrooms. They poked through the dirt, pale and smooth and perfect.

“I thought they’d have more of a cap,” Mabel said, kneeling in the dirt. “They’re kind of just… round.”

“Some mushrooms don’t,” I said. “Like shaggy ink caps.” I reached for the book and opened it to the mushroom section. “See? Like that.”

She shook her head. “Those don’t look like these.”

I looked at the photo, and then at the mushrooms. She was right; the shaggy ink caps were taller. And they weren’t smooth, like these were. I thumbed through the pages, scanning the different photos; but the other mushrooms looked even more different. Brown portabellas, red wine caps…

None of them matched. These were smooth, stubby, white things with rounded tops that were slightly larger than the stems.

“Guys, we should get home,” Jeremy said, fiddling with his earbuds. “Come on. Mom will ground me forever if she finds out.”

“Let’s pull them up and eat them!” Mabel shouted, ignoring him.

She grabbed the large one. I grabbed one of the smaller ones.

We tugged.

Nothing happened.

“Why – aren’t – they – coming – out?” Mabel huffed, tugging over and over.

“I don’t know,” I said. “But we can always dig them up.” I pushed my fingers into the soil and pawed away. “See, we can –”

I stopped.

Two more mushrooms were buried underneath the soil. Smaller than the others, caked with dirt.

And all five of them were connected.

“I don’t think… mushrooms are supposed to do this.”

We clawed away at the dirt. Digging faster, deeper, like dogs digging for a bone. More smooth, white material lay under the soil. I dug faster, my heart pounding with excitement. These weren’t mushrooms at all! They were something cool, neat, and –

I stopped.

The mushrooms – they were moving.

And then the dirt shifted and roiled, as something large underneath it began to move. Mabel and I backed away. Jeremy grabbed our hands, his eyes wide with fear. “What the hell?!”

The mushrooms shot up.

And that’s when I realized –

They weren’t mushrooms at all.

They were toes.

And that’s when something grabbed my ankle.

I screamed. I yanked and thrashed and shrieked, but the grip was incredibly tight. Jeremy rushed towards me; I glanced down –

It was a hand. Pale and white, caked with black dirt.

Jeremy grabbed me by the arms and tugged. I felt the fingers loosen, then finally slip.

And then we were flying across the path, towards the safety of home.

The police told our parents the whole story, in hushed whispers that Jeremy and I weren’t supposed to hear. Apparently, to evade capture, Frank Lonegan had buried himself in the soil. He was breathing through a small drinking straw.

My parents and I moved shortly after that. We slowly recovered from the incident, though I was still never allowed to walk to school alone.

But to this day –

I still don’t eat mushrooms.

Shadows Where They Died

I can see where people died.

No, no, it’s not what you’d think. No zombies with blood all over them, staring at me, hungry for revenge. I just see shadows, blurry and frozen – on streets, sidewalks, hospital room floors.

And that’s why I was dreading visiting Grandma.

The car pulled out of the driveway. I stared out the window, dread sinking into my heart, as Mom prepped me for the visit. “Grandma’s been taking it well, but still – don’t bring him up until she does, okay?”

I nodded.

A month ago, Grandpa had fallen down the stairs. Within minutes, he passed away. I’d already pictured his shadow a million times: long and dark, sitting at the base of the stairs.

And it would be different this time.

Because I’d be able to fill in the details. Imagine his tall, thin body there on the floor as he gasped for breath. Imagine his brown eyes, wide with terror. His thin, wrinkled lips – that were always smiling – open in a silent scream.

My mom turned on to Euler Street.

You’ll be okay, I thought. Remember the one you saw on Valley Road? It was a little one, near the gutter, blending in perfectly with the dappled shadows from the leaves above. You knew it belonged to Macy. But after a few days, you didn’t think about it anymore. You were okay.

But I didn’t know her as well as I knew Grandpa.

The car pulled into the driveway. We got out and knocked on the door.

Thump. Thump.

Soft rustles came from inside, and soon enough, Grandma was swinging open the door. “Hi, Elena,” she said with a smile, wrapping me in a hug. “I made some cookies, if you want some!”

As we stepped into the foyer, I tried to keep my gaze glued to Grandma’s face.

I tried my best.

But I couldn’t. Before I could stop myself, my eyes darted to the floor.

And that’s when I saw it –

Or, rather, didn’t see it.

The stairs and the entire surrounding area were empty. The floor glistened from rays of sun coming through the windows; the carpeting on the stairs was its bright and cheerful green.

Not a single shadow was out of place.

And so, I had a great time. “Grandma!” I said, through a mouthful of cookie. “We’re doing paintings of fruit in art class, and Mrs. Stein said mine was one of the best…” I bubbled over with excitement. The dread faded away; it was replaced with warm, happy feelings.

That was before I went upstairs.

Grandma was in the downstairs bathroom, when I suddenly needed to go. “Go use the one upstairs,” Mom said. Then she added, laughing: “Just don’t touch the bath bombs next to the tub. You know she guards those things with her life.”

I climbed the stairs, fearlessly; they creaked and groaned in response. I walked over to the master bedroom, and with a confident tug, pulled open the door.

I froze.

There, on the right side of the bed – just a shade darker than the shadows from the fluttering curtains – was a long, thin shadow.

I backed away.

No, no, no…

I immediately pictured Grandpa. Lying there, gasping for breath, dying on the bed. The din of scraping chairs and footsteps wafted up from the kitchen; but it was all silence to me, as I stared at the shadow.

And then a thought entered my head.

If he died in the bed…

He didn’t die falling down the stairs.

With shuddering breaths, I forced myself to step into the room. “Grandpa,” I whispered, the tears rushing through my face, burning my eyes. “Grandpa, what happened to you?”

I don’t know how long I’d been sitting on the bed, with my hand curled around the roundish part of the shadow cast on the pillow, when the door creaked open.

I looked up.

Grandma stared at me. The smile was gone from her face.

“Oh – uh, I was just –” I stuttered.

“You see it too,” she said. Something like panic flashed in her eyes.

“What – you mean, you –”

She shut the door behind her. Click.

Then she sat down on the bed next to me, her face frozen and cold.

“And now you know what I did.”

What’s on my Baby’s Head?

6:27 am.

The contractions had gone from cramps to mind-blowing pulses of pain. I screamed and cried and gasped for air. When will this be over? It was the same question that throbbed through my head all night, but I still had no idea.

8:32 am.

“Push!” they yelled, as I felt another contraction clamping down on my insides. “Keep it up! 10… 9… 8…” There was no way I could hold that push for 10 seconds. No way.

9:53 am.

Waaaaaaaahhhh.

He was out. I heard the clink of metal, a hush of voices, and above all his feral cry. They wiped him off and put him on my chest. I felt the rush of warmth and love, towards little Jack –

And then my fingers brushed against the back of his head.

What the hell?

It was a bump, small and round, right under his skin.

A tumor? A parasite? My mind started to race with all the possibilities, and an intense fear settled in my chest, clamping my heart like the contractions. “Dr. Ambrose!” I started, my voice quavering. “I feel something – there, on the back of his head –”

He walked over, glanced down at Jack, and shook his head. “No, no, it’s nothing to be worried about. Some babies have molding – their head looks a bit conical from the pressure of the birth. Totally normal; it’ll go away in a few days.”

“But this is a bump, not a –”

“It’s fine. Just enjoy this time with him. And try to stay calm – if you start getting stressed, he’ll sense it, and he’ll start getting stressed too.” He gave me a reassuring pat on the shoulder, and started towards the door. “Now, I’ll be right back. I just need to get some supplies from the other room.”

After he left, my fingers slid across the bump, over and over. Smooth, oblong, with a seam across the bottom. It’s normal, it’s normal, I told myself. And then it seemed to move – to twitch beneath my fingers in a fast, flickering motion. Don’t freak out, it’s totally normal –

I couldn’t take it anymore. I needed to see it.

I flipped him over.

He protested with a piercing wail. I stared down at his quivering, bald little scalp, and felt the blood rush from my face.

It wasn’t a tumor, or a parasite.

It was a little, pink-lidded eye, slowly blinking open to look at me.

I began to scream. My screams mingled with Jack’s, and we both hollered until Dr. Ambrose was running back into the room. “Taylor, what in the world –”

“It’s an eye!” I screamed, now choking on sobs. “It’s an eye in the back of his head!”

He stared at me, calmly.

And then he turned to the nurse.

“Get her sedated,” he said. “Now!”

As I felt the prick of the needle in my arm, Dr. Ambrose pulled off his surgical cap.

And as he did –

I saw something. On the back of his head, interrupting the pattern of his hair.

And then everything faded to black.

The Flight from Hell

I was not enjoying my flight.

I was in a middle seat, crammed between a purple-haired teenager and a woman with a screaming baby. I’d tried to nap about twenty times. And when I finally did doze off, a loud noise woke me just a few minutes later.

Snap!

I turned. At first, I wasn’t sure where the sound was coming from. But then my eyes fell on a strangely-dressed man across the aisle. In a weird way, he kind of reminded me of Neo from The Matrix – black hair, black clothes, and dark sunglasses. He was holding a small leather briefcase in his lap – the sound was from undoing its gold clasps.

Snap!

For lack of anything better to do, I watched him. He opened the briefcase just a few inches, peered inside, and smiled. A small smile, as if he didn’t want anyone else to see it. I watched him curiously as he began to pry it open, his smile growing wider.

Snacks?

A laptop?

A… bomb?

But no. It was none of those things.

The briefcase was empty.

Weirdo, I thought, snickering to myself a bit. Guy probably forgot all his stuff at the airport or something. I smiled to myself, nuzzled my head against the pillow, and closed my eyes.

Thump! Thump! Thump!

My eyes flew open.

The person who’d been sitting next to Neo – a sixty-year-old, rotund man – was suddenly beating on the window with his fist. It shook and rattled dangerously.

“Crazy old dude,” Purple-Hair laughed.

But it wasn’t funny for long.

Old Man grabbed his laptop, and with as much strength as he could muster, began smashing it into the window.

Crack! Crack! Crack!

“He’s going to break the window!” I shouted. I pounded the stewardess button. Come on, come on…

The silence of the airplane swelled into a cacophony of panicked voices. The person on the other side of Neo – a 12-year-old girl, wearing a yellow flowered shirt – ran out into the aisle. For a second, I thought she was getting help.

But then she ran a few rows ahead of us –

And began climbing over the passengers in the emergency exit row.

Clawing for the door.

“What’s she doing?!” Mom cried. Baby, sensing the panic, began to wail too. Purple-Hair was finally afraid, her brown eyes wide.

“Hey! Stop!” The stewardess came running down the aisle, panting and shaking. “Go back to your seat,” she reprimanded, yanking the girl by the arm.

“Let me go! Let me go!” she shrieked. “I have to get out of here!”

Then she lurched forward – and bit the stewardess as hard as she could.

A scream. Thump. She dropped her.

The girl ran for the exit again. But the passengers were ready this time. One of the guys leapt out of his seat and grabbed her by the waist.

Crack! Crack!

“Over there!” I yelled to the stewardess. “He’s going to break the window!”

Old Man was repeatedly hitting the glass. Surprisingly, Neo wasn’t making any move to restrain him; he was just sitting there, in the middle seat, with that tiny smile upon his lips.

And as soon as the stewardess’s eyes fell on him, the smile grew.

I leapt out of my seat. A few others did the same, and we descended on Old Man. As soon as we touched him, he whipped around, staring at us with wild eyes. “Don’t touch me, filthy whores!” he spat, brushing our hands away.

Crack!

“Sir, you need to calm down –”

Crack!

“The window’s cracked!”

Crack!

“Fucking stop him!”

Crack!

We finally wrestled him away from the window. Dragged him across Neo, who just watched us with a knowing smile.

As soon as we got Old Man in the aisle, we thought it was over.

But it wasn’t.

Because now two more people – the people in the middle seats directly in front of and behind Neo – were standing up, that frenzied look in their eyes. One, a nerdy-looking woman with glasses, ran for the front of the plane. The other, a bearded college guy, went towards the back.

The stewardess paled. “They’re going for the emergency hatches,” she whispered.

We ran after them.

We didn’t get there in time.

But, as it turns out, airplane hatches are wonderfully built. And it would take a few tons of force to open one of them mid-flight. That didn’t stop those two from trying, though. Nerdy Woman screamed and pulled until she collapsed into a sobbing mess on the floor. Bearded Guy grunted and pushed until he was vomiting from overexertion.

We made an emergency landing in Raleigh. The four passengers were taken into custody by the FBI upon landing. Somehow, Neo slipped out unnoticed – and, even if he didn’t, how could they take him in? He technically hadn’t done anything wrong.

To this day, I still don’t know what happened on Flight 3310. Maybe it was just the random insanity of four people. Or maybe they had planned their attack for months, even though it seemed random.

I don’t know what happened –

But I’m pretty damn sure that Neo’s briefcase was not, in fact, empty.

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