The came for Ed in the woods, in the middle of the night.
It happened a week and a half after the night Kristen came to his room. During that time he didn’t see Kristen at all. She stopped coming to school.
“Good riddance,” said Marisol after Kristen was gone for a few days. “Maybe now things can get back to normal.”
They didn’t. All of the people who had been following Kristen around seemed listless. They just wandered through the hallways of the school aimlessly, going to classes and not talking or interacting with anyone. Some of them just sat on benches in the halls and never got up. There was one boy who Ed noticed was wearing the same clothes on Friday he had on Tuesday. Ed wondered if he’d gone home, or if he’d been on that chair for the entire week.
Ed for his part wasn’t sure how he felt about any of this. Marisol said Kristen was a psycho, and she was probably right. But that didn’t change the fact that Ed missed her. He missed looking at her. He missed touching her.
“What did you even see in her?” Marisol asked.
“She was perfect,” said Ed.
“Perfect like a deadly virus, maybe.”
Ed pretty much agreed. But how often do you get to touch perfection?
It was well into April, now, and the cold weather showed no sign of letting up. No one seemed to really notice. Or rather, no one seemed to really care. Not caring was going around. Even though Kristen was gone, the strange effect she was having on everyone seemed to be getting worse, not better. Even many of the teachers weren’t bothering to teach, anymore. The students of Okenville High, and the people of Okenville, seemed content just to drift through life, without interacting with it.
“It’s like they’re all turning into you,” said Marisol. “No offense.”
“Only, you know, you did it before it was cool.”
He thought about Kristen a lot. Especially at night. He wasn’t sleeping much. At all, really. She burned in his mind when he closed his eyes. Like she was always right there, nearby. In the darkness. But he could only see her while all other light was gone.
“Why don’t you go find her?” asked Marisol. “Like, go to her house.”
“I don’t know where she lives,” said Ed.
Except, maybe, for the darkness. He tried to keep distracted so he wouldn’t think about her. He read Call of the Wild for the fiftieth time. He played video games. Increasingly, he snuck out of the house and night to go walking in Fallsdale woods. He tried to find the clearing where the party had been, but he couldn’t. Even though he remembered how to get there. He went back to the place where the log fell on him, and Kristen watched him dig himself out for two hours. But mostly he just wandered.
That was where they got him.
“Ed,” said a voice from behind him. “Don’t move.”
Ed turned around to look.
“Dammit! I said don’t move dammit!” It was Arnaud, the large guy from the bonfire who had punched Ed in the face.
“Sorry,” said Ed. Arnaud glared at him.
“I’ve got him!” Arnaud called out.
Ed saw a bunch of people coming from various directions towards them. He couldn’t see them very well at first. It was very dark. But they all had flashlights, and when they got close he could just make out their faces. Marcy was there. So was Razor, and Bagel, and several other people who had been at the party.
“Hi, Ed,” said Marcy. Her voice was slurred, just like it had been at the party. Was she drunk again? Or still drunk?
“Nice job, Arn,” said Razor. She walked up to Ed and rubbed her hands along his arms through his Gore-tex jacket. “We got you.”
“Okay,” said Ed.
“And now you’re going to come with us, motherfucker,” said Bagel.
“Yeah,” said Arnaud. “We bringing you with us.”
He thought about this for a minute. He could go with them. It’s not like he had anywhere else to be. On the other hand he didn’t care for any of these people terribly much. They were all either strange, assholes, or boring.
“No,” said Ed. “I don’t think so.”
“You don’t have a choice,” said Arnaud.
“We’re going to make you,” said Bagel, with an excited edge in his voice. “You can’t stop all of us.”
“Yes,” Ed said. “I can.”
“Oh come on, Ed,” said Marcy. “Don’t you want to come? It’ll be fun!”
“Not really,” said Ed. He turned and started to walk away.
“Don’t be like that,” said Razor. “If you don’t come, Kristen will be so disappointed.”
“That’s right,” said Arnaud. “We’re bringing you Kristen. She wants to see you.”
Ed knew he should just keep walking. That’s what Marisol would tell him to do, and she usually had the right idea. He hew that’s what he should do. Instead he turned around.
“Fine. Whatever. Just lead the way.”
They walked for a long time. Ed had no idea why it took so long. He’d been all through these woods, and it shouldn’t take this long to get from one side to another. It wasn’t until the sun rose above the craggy trees that he realized they were in a part of the woods he had never seen before. And that wasn’t the only thing he didn’t recognize. Now that it was light enough to really see them, these people he was with didn’t look like they had before. They had changed.
Razor’s tongue lolled out of her mouth. And her skin glistened in the sunlight, like it was covered in some thick, slick substance. Arnaud was even bigger than before. Too big. It looked like his muscles were threatening to burst through his skin, and had, in a few places. Marcy’s eyes were huge, and her mouth looked like it had be stretched out by hooks. Bagel’s face was covered in cuts. Dozens of them, still fresh.
Razor smiled at him.
“Do you like it?” she asked. She ran her hands up and down her bare arms and moaned. It looked like she was trying to be sexy. It made Ed feel ill.
The trees all around were strange. Many of them looked like they had been burned, but they were still growing. The shrubs were covered in orange berries Ed had never seen before. He had the strong urge to grab them and shove them into his mouth, but he resisted. It seemed like a very bad idea.
They kept walking.
Eventually they got to a clearing. It looked like where they held the bonfire, but it was different. There were signs of several fires lit and extinguished. They looked very old. The trees that lined the clearing were very tall. Taller than any tree Ed had ever seen before. And strange. The branches were too uniform. They jutted out of every tree in exactly the same way. They seemed to form shapes in the air. Like letters of some foreign alphabet.
“Here we are,” said Arnaud.
“Where’s Kristen?” asked Ed.
“She’s coming,” said Marcy. “You have to be patient. She’ll be here.”
“Sit down,” said Arnaud. He pointed to a spot on the ground next to one of the old fires. Ed didn’t see any reason not to sit down, so he did.
The others started to talk among themselves. Ed sat in silence. He listened to them for a while, but they weren’t saying anything that made much sense to him. Soon enough he drifted off into the non-thought where he spent much of his time. Several hours passed. He barely noticed.
“You’ve kept me waiting, Ed.” The voice was harsher than the cold. Harsher than the scorpions that so recently gouged their way into his flesh. It had been a long time since he had felt any pain, but this voice dug into Ed’s brain, and he winced.
“Hello Kristen,” he said as he stood up.
“Sit down,” she said. He sat back down.
He heard her footsteps crunch on the frozen ground. She walked around to face him. He looked up at her.
The skin covering her face was gone. In its place were sheets of a strange crystalline substance. Like solidified fire. So this is what she really looked like. This was the real Kristen Selka. Ed had never seen anything so beautiful.
“You’ve given me a lot of trouble, Ed,” she said. Curls of steam drifted out of her mouth and upward into the winter air. “I don’t know what your game is, but I’m not going to play it anymore.”
“Shut up!” she barked. There was an edge of desperation in her voice. She reached down and picked up a handful of snow. “You think this is going to save you? You think this would hide you from her?”
Ed said nothing.
“You won’t give me what I came for,” Kristen went on. “So I am going to rip it out of you. One way or another.” She turned to Arnaud. “Hold his arms.”
Arnaud walked up to Ed and grabbed one of his arms. Bagel grabbed the other. Ed didn’t resist.
Kristen stared into his eyes. “Goodnight, Ed.” A wild look filled her face. She screamed a shrill scream into the air, and she thrust her hand to his chest. Her fingers hit his sternum with a thud.
“No!” she screamed. She clawed at him with her fingernails. “No!”
“What’s wrong?” said Razor from behind Ed.
“It isn’t working,” Kristen shrieked.
Ed felt heat rolling off of Kristen’s body like waves of magma. She screamed again.
“Fine. Then I’ll take it out of your corpse. Marcy, give me the knife.”
“Kristen,” said Marcy, “are you sure you should…”
“Give it to me!”
She reached over his shoulder. When she drew her hand back she was holding a long hunting knife.
“This wasn’t how it was supposed to be,” said Kristen. “You haven’t given me a choice.” She raised the knife in the air.
For a brief moment, Ed’s life tried to flash before his eyes. It didn’t get very far. He thought about everything that had led him to this moment. He supposed he should be scared. Or angry. But he wasn’t. Maybe there was something wrong with him, that he couldn’t feel the things a normal person would feel in a situation like this. But it was hard to worry about it, right now. Looking up at this insane girl he had felt such intense emotions about, he just felt sorry for her.
“I’m not mad at you, Kristen,” he said. “I just wanted you to know that.”
Kristen’s eyes softened. Then they hardened, and she thrust the knife into Ed’s chest. Right through the center of his Gore-tex jacket. Right through his heart.
It didn’t hurt. There wasn’t any blood. But all of the energy drained out of him. He felt calm. Peaceful, even. For the first time in over a week, Ed closed his eyes and went to sleep.