The Monsters Within, Technical Notes

Evil Pumpkin (4)
We try to deny it, but we all have monsters within us. They seethe just below the surface, all fangs and teeth and incorporeal rage. We glimpse them when we turn away from mirrors, out of the corners of our eyes. We feel them when we look at a beloved friend lying asleep and some part of us, some dark, hungry part of us that cannot be tamed, feels the urge to do something terrible. It is not enough to acknowledge these monsters. We must understand them, lest they control us, urge us into actions as horrific as they are sublime.

This understanding is my great endeavor, and it is through this work that I have discovered these truths that I am about to unveil. These monsters are not nameless, nor or they formless. Once the light of rigorous scrutiny is shined upon them, they are all too familiar. We each are made up of not one monster, but three.

Specifically, we each have within us the following:

  1. A zombie
  2. A ghost
  3. A lycanthrope

Before I go into detail, a note on my qualifications. Firstly, I was born on October 27th, which was the date of the original Halloween (probably) back when it was a pre-Indoeuropean festival honoring Dark Cthonia, Lord of Horror Stories. It’s important to note that the reason their god of evil and fright was the god of stories, because unlike their descendants, these peoples weren’t dumb enough to think that shit was real. Also I made up the name Cthonia because records from that period are sketchy, but I think it sounds pretty call.

In addition to the birthday thing, I’ve read a lot of urban fantasy. Also my wife has read even more of it (all of it? nearly), and she’s told me about a lot of it in pretty good detail.

Okay, back to the theory. We are all made up of a zombie, a ghost, and a lycanthrope, and these three factors explain everything about us. Well, okay, they don’t explain everything about why we decide to become plumbers or why we like black olives. But they describe everything about how we manifest as monsters. Let us address each one briefly.

The Zombie: Our zombie is our corporeal body. That part of us that is nothing but empty, hungry flesh, seeking to sustain and duplicate our own existence mindless of the costs and the consequences. It also years to improve itself, to regain the intellect it lost when it was a complete entity, but its methods for doing so are as futile as they are useless. The zombie is even unable to recognize that the last sentence is redundant.

The Ghost: The ghost inside of us is our spirit, and our mind. The ghost allows us to think and function as intelligent beings, but it is shackled by its attachments. The emotional urges that make up so much of thought are present in the ghost, but it is lacking both the neurochemical factors that originally produced those urges and also the corporeality to act upon them.Thus, the ghost can think and feel but by itself it cannot change.

The Lycanthrope: The lycanthrope is the most rarefied of our monsters, but perhaps also the most important. The lycanthrope is the living principle. It is the spark of life that turns the lifeless zombie and the bodiless ghost into breathing, bleeding humans. It is also what lets us grow and change. But it also encompasses our rage, our passion, and the extremes of our emotions. NOTE: the lycanthrope was originally the werewolf, but the source material has taught me that maybe not everyone is a werewolf. Some people are turtles and probably also other things.

In a normal person, all three of these monsters are present and in balance. Strange things happen when you remove them.

If you rip the ghost out of a person, what remains is a ghost and a zombie. This is where ghosts and zombies come from. In this procedure, the lycanthrope is torn in half, and each of the remaining creatures has a fragment of it.

The zombie that remains is the hungry, mindless, brain-eating beast found in novels, movies, and parts of Detroit. It has no mind, because it has no ghost.

The ghost that remains has the personality of the original person, but obviously it also has no body of its own. It can interact with the physical world only weakly if at all. The personality that remains is only a shadow of its formal self, however, because it cannot change. Lacking the physical brain of the zombie and the full lycanthrope, it has only a limited set of emotions and thoughts, usually those it experienced at the moment of death. It is usually drawn to scenes of its life, people and places that remind it of what it was, in an attempt to regain what it cannot understand that it has lost. An isolated ghost is a slave to its own identity, as we all are, sometimes.

A full-blown lycanthrope manifests if this monster aspect gains dominance over the other two. The mechanisms for this are varied and outside of the reach of this endeavor.

If a lycanthrope is removed or destroyed from a person, what is left is a vampire. This conclusion is inevitable, both because of the logic I am about to present, and because of course there’s a vampire.

Once the life-force in the form of the were-creature is removed from a person, what is left is a body and a mind that are not alive, lacking in life’s vibrancy and dynamic nature, but still full cognizant and functional. It will not die naturally because it no longer has metabolic function. It can no longer change. It can still reproduce, but that reproduction is mechanical and infectious. It cannot create new life as that requires the lycanthrope. It can only transform others into those like itself, but since it has the mental awareness granted by its ghost, so do its “offspring.”

It requires very little additional speculation to see how this theory can be used to explain how people can be transformed into all variety of monsters. At least, all variety of the Urban Fantasy/World of Darkness/Halloween variety which are the purview of these notes. For example, it takes very little imagination to see how one would use these rules to explain the advent of mummies, or pumpkin kings, or teen wolves.

There is much left to be explored regarding the nuances of this theory, but its explanatory power is undeniable. As are its practical applications. By learning to comprehend our inner monsters, we can learn to resist them. More importantly, we can learn to harness and utilize them, for our own terrible, terrible ends.

 

Red On The Tip of My Pen

How well I could write if I were not here!

 

I don’t know how this happened. I think about it a lot. That gets me nowhere.

“I’m writing a new novel I’m really excited about,” I said to Maya on the phone the other day. That’s my mom. I call her Maya.

“Oh, great!” she said. “What’s it about?” I heard the apprehension in her voice. She knew what I was going to say.

“It’s a horror novel.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah. You wouldn’t like it.”

“Right.”

“I don’t know where this comes from,” I said. “I never liked horror movies as a kid.”

“I know. That was your brother. Do you like them now?”

“Yeah. Kind of. I mean, I really like them. Some of them. It’s weird.”

“You’re weird,” she said, with the kind of unconditional affection wrapped in mild insult that is the hallmark of mothers everywhere. At least, the good ones.

As an adult, I love horror movies, but it was a long time coming. I’ve loved horror fiction for a long time, but something about movies put me off. I remember sitting in the finished basement where I spent almost all of the free hours of my childhood. My brother and I were both stuffed on the love seat with the brown flower pattern that used to be my grandmothers, watching our tiny TV. Mostly it got used for Sega Genesis games and Saved By The Bell after school, but it was the weekend, and either it was my brother’s turn or I didn’t have a game I was playing. He had the remote, and he flipped from channel to channel.

He stopped on a shot of a boy with wide eyes. Creepy music in the background.

“Change it,” I said. “This looks stupid.” He didn’t change it. An awful owl puppet showed up on screen, and something scary happened.

“Ooo, a bad horror movie,” my brother said. “I love bad horror movies.”

“I’m going outside.”

I didn’t love bad horror movies. I still don’t. I love good ones. But not all of them. When I talk to people about horror or browse horror websites like Bloody Disgusting I feel alienated. Because I love scary. I love creepy. I crazy love unsettling.

But I don’t like gore. Blood and guts both disgust and bore me. They’re supposed to do one, but not so much the other. Furthermore, I don’t even understand why people find them appealing. I mean that literally. I consider myself highly empathetic, and I don’t bat an eye at the fact people have different preferences than me. I don’t like raw onions, but it’s not weird that other people do. They have a different mind, different senses, different reactions to the same stimuli. So I accept that people dig sprays of blood on the screen. I’m just not sure why.

It’s more true for me than it is for other genres I don’t like. I’m not a fan of romantic comedies, but I completely grasp their appeal. Human connection, the fantasy of idealized romance, the warm, beautiful feeling that real love is out there, possible, never even that far away. But with gore? I just don’t get it.

Which makes the next part weird. This novel I’m writing, that one my mother will be sad that she can’t read if it somehow gets published? It’s pretty gory. There’s blood. There flesh flying off of people’s faces and splatting against the wall. At some point, someone’s head pops clean off and lands amidst a pile of Doritos. I’m less than 10,000 words in. And my other novel? That was pretty gory, too.

It’s not that I hate blood and guts. Not enough to turn me off of a horror story or movie that otherwise appeals to me. Sometimes it’s even the whole point, but everything else is so conceptually interesting or well written that I love it anyway. Kill Bill is one of my favorite movies. One of my favorite short stories is Clive Barker’s Midnight Meat Train, which is not about cooking steaks on an electrified third rail. Although I should totally write that story.

When I read bloody, visceral descriptions of blood and viscera, I always wonder what the writer is thinking. Do they find this kind of thing appealing? Are the just totally unfazed by it? I used to think the answer had to be yes. Now I’m not so sure. Because I don’t find it appealing, and I am definitely fazed by it. But not while I’m writing.

I’ve noticed that my brain sometimes writes jokes I find distasteful for demographics I don’t identify with. The frattiest of frat boys, or the reddest of rednecks. Jokes I think would be legitimately funny to people in those groups, but that I don’t find amusing at all. Maybe generative creativity goes isn’t about the appeal to the brain that generates it. Maybe writers don’t always write for themselves, but for the ages.

Or in this case, ages 13-17, mostly male, parental permission required for entry.

 

More Than Just Fear

candyman

 

“Candyman’s not as scary as Freddie,” Alexis said, leaning on her desk.

“He’s much scarier,” said Gene. “Freddy’s not scary.”

“Freddie kills anyone. With Candyman you have to say his name three times in front of a mirror. Who’s gonna do that?”

“Well, yeah, but with Freddie you have to say ‘Kruger Kruger Kruger.’ So it’s the same.”

I watched the conversation with abstract anthropological interest. Or at least, that’s how I describe it now. As nerdy as I was, even I didn’t see myself as a pop-culture anthropologist among my peer group in sixth grade. But I did find it fascinating to listen to people talk about their passions, even those I didn’t share.

This conversation further cemented something for me: I hated horror movies. After all, they were all about making you feel scared. That was their entire purpose. Who would want that? Fear is terrible. I spent enough time frightened of dark and impossible things as it was. Adults wax about they miss innocent joy and belief in the fantastical children possess. But they forget about the fear.

Children spend so much of their time afraid, because they Believe. How can they not? We only know that the world is round, that certain mushrooms can kill us, that there used to be a thing called the Roman Empire where they spoke a language no one speaks anymore except the Pope and some Catholic school teachers, because someone you trusted told us, and we believed them. To a children, the world is full of dark, hungry things. They are just as real as Santa Claus, life after death, and the Boston Tea Party. Things that are never seen or touched, but that, in the right moments, cannot be doubted.

I just watched Candyman for the first time the other day, more than twenty years after Gene and Alexis made me never want to watch it. It sprang to my mind because I saw Tony Todd, the actor who plays Candyman, in two separate episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Playing two separate characters, although in their defense one of them was a Klingon. To many people I’ve known, Todd is and always will be Candyman, no matter what other roles he plays. Seeing the actor made me realize I’ve never seen the movie, and that was a gap in my knowledge. Because now, as an adult, I love horror movies.

I love them in a way I never could as a child. There are two major reasons for this. The first is that I came to realize that my middle school classmates had a very unsophisticated view of the purpose of horror. They were after what might be called “popcorn horror.” Popcorn horror is all about the fear. It’s about the thrill of being scared, decontextualized from any exploration of themes or interesting narrative or character work.

A friend of mine, writer and filmmaker Evan Alexander Baker, summed it up perfectly with the following quote:

As a lifelong horror fan, I ABSOLUTELY DO NOT prioritize being “scared out of my wits.” I watch horror movies because I want to be confronted with interesting, resonant images and ideas relating to the abject and the uncanny.

I am not there for a “thrill ride.”

Are there some genuinely scary horror movies that are also masterpieces of the genre? Absolutely. Are they masterpieces of the genre BECAUSE they are scary? Nope; they’re scary as a byproduct of their ideas and imagery.

When filmmakers set out, first and foremost, to be “scary,” they produce hollow technical exercises.

It took me years to appreciate that it’s not horror that I don’t like. It’s cheap horror. A lot of people gauge horror on the “scare” scale–like it’s a love-tester with “love” replaced with “fear”– and there’s nothing wrong with that. Popcorn horror has its place, for the people who like that kind of thing. I’m just not one of them.

I still don’t exactly enjoy being scared, but I love being unsettled. I love engaging in the vast landscape of imagination that exists in the places of the human mind that make us uncomfortable. My favorite kind of horror is the type that makes me doubt my view of reality and the world.

I love it for the same reason that I love really fantastical fantasy like China Meiville or AD&D Planescape setting, or conceptually experimental science fiction like the works of Philip K. Dick or John C. Wright. I love them because they are mind-expanding. At its best, horror is even better at this than any other genre, because it is unafraid to stretch your worldview until it breaks. Until it bleeds. It expands the mind in a way that is both intellectual and viscerally primal. Cartesian radical doubt for the senses.

The other reason I love horror as an adult, when I could not as a child, is because I can take it. I no longer Believe. Not the way that I did. I still get scared walking into the basement in the dead of night, but it’s not the paralyzing dread it was as a child. I can grit my teeth and make myself do it, because this basket of clothing isn’t going to wash itself. Hopefully. When something is frightening enough, it is real. As a child, you might understand intellectually that the shadow on cast by the door doesn’t contain a smiling beast with teeth for eyes. But emotionally, you know it is there. In your brain you feel it as strongly and completely as if you had seen it walked across the living room floor.

Adults have this kind of fear, too. You can see it when a parent loses track of their child in a crowded grocery story. They might go into complete panic until they find them. The odds that the child has been abducted in those three minutes are very small, but the fear is so real it feels like a certainty.
As we grow older, we learn what the world contains and what it does’ t. We come to rely on these patterns. They’re comfortable. The world becomes a safer place because we’ve seen its shadows enough times that our belief that they are harmless is stronger than the monsters. I can watch horror movies now, even though they still frighten me, because that fear is no longer the threat that it once was. It won’t slip under my skin and whisper in my blood for years, the way it did when I was small.

But it still frightens me, because I still Believe. Not as much as I did, but it’s still there. I dread the person I’ll become if I ever lose that entirely. I don’t think humanity will ever fully understand the world, and so there are places for the things that live in the cracks and lap at the wounds of our nightmares. I did not find Candyman to be that frightening, but I’m not going to say the name out loud. Because I just don’t know. And even now, as I write these words, I’m happier than I like to admit that there are no mirrors in this room.

They Have Teeth

Strange tree trunk

Another 37, Day 14

I’m not quite sure what I have against wood, lately. Anyway, here’s another horror poem! But I quite like I this one. It sort of formed in my head while I was working and supposedly concentrating on other things. It’s been running through my head all day.

 

 

wooden teeth
They Have Teeth

just so you know
the trees have teeth
they like to eat pork
they’d rather have beef

but if they can get it
it needs to be said
they prefer the soft tissue
that lives in your head

you’ll never see them
though they’re always bared
they hide in the places
you’d rather not stare

if you see them glisten
in the venomous night
you’d best strike their form
from your mind and your sight

for if they ever realize
we know that they’re there
you won’t want to breathe
what they leave of the air

so there’s only one truth
that I need to bequeath
just forget that I told you
the trees, they have teeth

Those Ideas

ONE up mushroom : tshirt painting, san francisco (2013)Another 37, day 12

The other day as I walked out of work I saw a neat looking mushroom on the grass. I was extraordinarily tired on this particular day because it was the morning after Daylight Torture Time day, an alternate version of Daylight Savings Time day that overlays the usual version and has exactly the same effects, except that it can only be perceived by those of us cursed to work Sunday mornings. I assure that on that day we hate all of you. Also probably other days? We’re an angry people, us Sunday workers.

I was also tired because, despite working Sunday mornings, I always go out Saturday night. Hey, you’ve got to live, even if your version of living involves Saturday Dungeons and Dragons where you play some kind of elf ninja assassin who is the scion of a fallen magical kingdom. Not that you would ever admit such a thing on a blog. Anyway, the point here is that I was very tired, but I was also in a very good mood because I was walking out of work, which is the desirable direction. Also we gained a level in the game the night before. Hypothetically.

I was tired, in a good mood, and I saw an interesting mushroom. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of writing—for evidence see…this blog post– and during those phases my brain generates a lot of story ideas. Sometimes they are passing fancies, and sometimes I fixate on them long enough to come up with an actual narrative. But they almost always seem at least mildly amazing during the moment of conception. I like to think that my brain has a filter where it only lets the good ideas through. I like to think a lot of things.

As soon as I saw the mushroom my synapses lit up and got to work. What if there was an entire region composed of just these mushrooms? Wouldn’t that be fascinating? A whole kingdom. Some kind of…mushroom kingdom! The idea danced around in my mind, and I got all the way to my car—a good, embarrassing 45 seconds—before I realized that “Mushroom Kingdom” wasn’t a new idea. Did I mention I was tired?

Not all fiction writers come up with a lot of ideas. Not all writers are even interested in coming up with a lot of ideas. People have different writing superpowers, and idea generation is just one of them. It’s one I happen to have, but I’m honestly rather jealous of people who have fewer ideas about crazy stuff and, I don’t know, naturally write rich dialogue or distinctive characters. Their grass always looks so much purpler than mine.

I don’t know what it’s like inside of the minds of other idea-writers, but I have a feeling it’s just as messy and ridiculous as it is the chocolate factory perched atop my own neck. The thing is, an awful lot of being good at something is just about caring about it. Research into expertise shows that the best violin players aren’t the ones with the most natural talent, but the ones who practice the most. Studies of genius show that the most intelligent people are always deliberately learning; they don’t just suck in information, they fixate on it. Likewise I find ideas intoxicating for their own sake, so I think about them; I pursue them. I’m sure I’m not alone.

On the other hand, coming up with a lot of ideas means coming up with a lot of bad ideas. And being fascinated by them. Certain ideas pop into the mind and seem amazing, but are either really stupid or too nebulous to articulate in a way that is even a little interesting. I make lists of my ideas so that I can come back to them later, and whenever I read through those lists I have to conclude that one of the anthropomorphic beings sits in the abstract representation of my brain and runs my creativity is, in fact, a dumbass. He probably wears a stupid hat.

Right now I’m combing through a list of horror story ideas for a horror comic I’m going to be working on with a friend. There are some pretty cool ideas in there, but there also a few that are…less cool. Here are a few of my favorites, copied exactly as they appear in the file:

  • Creepy wooden doll that is creepy in some way.
  • A horrible church, where everyone gets up to horrible things.
  • Something about a statue? Like, maybe an evil…statue. Ugh.
  • There’s something here about fog. A really good idea. About fog. I don’t quite have it.
  • A man who hates trains.

I don’t remember the moment I came up with all of those. But I can assure you that each of those ideas seem to me, for at least one, crystalline moment, utterly brilliant.

Limericks, Malebogia Style

Sock Zombie Puppet

Another 37, Day 12

I seem to be in a horror mood again. Which is kind of a shame, since the serial novel I plan to slowly write over the next year or so isn’t horror. Oh well. These phases never last. Anyway, I’m always in the mood for limericks! And by always, I mean never. But ever since that passage in the second Harry Potter book spoke of a book that made anyone who read it speak in limericks for the rest of their life, I’ve been practicing. Just in case. So here are a few that I come up with while dwelling inside…whatever pit of midnight-black and clown-car yellow you need to splash around in to make horror limericks seem like a good idea.

 

Limericks, Malebogia Style

I can’t get enough of your blood
it flows from the hole like a flood
just one little nick
with this nice sharpened stick
and you fall to the ground with a thud.

We found an old book in the attic
inscribed on the skin of a haddock
we tried a spell
and it worked pretty well
except now my own brother’s a paddock.

I heard a strange sound in the night
it was dark so it gave me a fright
then came in a thing
made of darkness and wing
and began to devour the light.

There once was a man name of Sutton,
he finished the last of his mutton,
then he looked at the town
and said “screw it I’m down”
before pressing the very last button.

Lacey looked down at her grave
quite depressed that she couldn’t be saved
but there’s always a lining
hell, her future was shining
time to go out and be more depraved.

The blood on the knife, how it shined
and there’s no way those ropes will unbind
time to go watch some Grover
the day’s almost over
and there’s more than one way to unwind.

Jessica seemed ordinary
so no one knew she was a fairy
at night she stole kids
parents blamed it on SIDS
and never did think to be wary.

Twigs, Part 2 of 2

scary

Another 37, Day 10

Twigs
A Short Horror Story
Part 2 of 2 (Part 1)

 

It was when I was walking home from school, this time in the spring. Now that I think about it, it was the last day of school, so there was an extra bounce in my step. Most of the time I walked home with my best friend Genna, but her parents had picked her up directly from school so they could set out on vacation straight away. So I was all by myself. I knew I would miss Genna for the weeks she was gone, but summer vacation stretched out in front of me and nothing could bring me down.

I took the long route home along the back roads and over near the edge of town where the rich people lived. Or at least, what he had that passed for rich people. They had gardens in full spring bloom and trees covered in blossoms and it was beautiful. I used to go out for walks by myself all of the time, and even though I liked walking with Genna or my other friends I realized that I missed this solitary time to just be out in nature with no one around to distract me. I wondered why I never did this anymore. A moment later, I remembered.

“Pick us up,” said a deep, scraggly voice just a few feet away from me.

I shrieked and jumped into the air. My bag flew off my shoulder and smacked against the ground. I heard a muffled shattering noise that could only mean the unfinished Snapple in the bottle pocket had broken, and my books and notes would be soaked. I didn’t care.

“No,” I said, half to myself. “No, you’re not real.”

“That’s right,” said the voice. The voices. “We’re not real. Nothing to worry about. Just pick us up.”

I couldn’t do that. Anything but that. I had to get out of here. That’s what I thought, and I barely noticed my outstretched fingers until they brushed against the bark, and felt it pulsate.

“No!” I screamed. I jumped back and began to run. I didn’t stop to pick up my bag. I didn’t turn around to look. At one point I tripped and scraped my knees and my hands, but I just picked myself up and kept on running.

I burst through the gate of my front yard ten minutes later, slamming so hard against the fence that white paint flew off in chips as it crashed against the other side. I hunched over and breathed in ragged, gasping pants. Fire lanced up both of my sides, the scratches on my knees screamed, and my lungs felt like I would cough them out in bloody clots. But at least I was home. At least I was safe.

“We won’t forget about you, little girl.” The words scratched their way into my ears. I turned in horror towards the sound to see a small branch just a few feet away. It undulated on the neatly trimmed grass. “We never forget. So go ahead. Pick us up.”

 

I locked myself in my room that night and hid under the covers. When my mom came to wake me the next day for First Day of Summer Breakfast I told her I was sick and I couldn’t eat anything.

“You do look pretty ragged,” she said as she felt my forehead. “I don’t think you have a fever. Better just get some rest. You look like you haven’t slept in weeks.”

“I feel like it,” I croaked. It wasn’t far off. I hadn’t slept a single minute the night before.

“Poor baby,” she said. “I’ll make you some chamomile, okay? I’ll bring it right up. Let me know if you need anything. I can make you some soup.”

“Maybe later,” I said. My voice was very scratchy. I didn’t like the way it sounded. “Thanks, mom. Mom, can I ask you something?”

I was about to bring it up. The twigs. Then I saw her face. It froze up, into a mask. Before I even said anything.

“Yes?” she asked, her voice utterly empty.

“Nothing, mom. Nothing at all.”

 

I didn’t leave the house for a days. It wasn’t like me, but the rest of the family chalked it up to my illness. I did feel ill, but not for the reasons they thought. So I stayed in and I read books and I watched Netflix and played card games on my tablet. Anything to keep me busy, keep me from thinking. And I tried not to look out the window. They were out there.

Was I going insane? Surely there weren’t really living, talking twigs littering the streets of my town, begging stray girls to pick them up. I tried to tell myself that. That I was crazy, or that I had just had some kind of weird dream. I could almost believe it, except that it all felt so real. I could hear the blend of deep, craggly voices, thick with anticipation as I reached for them. I could smell the lilacs in bloom in the exact spot where it happened. I had always loved that scent, but it now it sickened me.

It took a week before I dared put a foot outside the house. I volunteered to check the mail. It had been my turn a few times, but I got out of my chores because I had been sick. My parents both believed me because I never stayed in this long, and because what kid fakes being sick right after school lets out? But after a week trapped in my own house I felt cramped and restless, and I knew I couldn’t stuff myself inside forever.

So I walked through the front door, hesitantly. I inched towards the mailbox, one step at a time, glancing in all directions and starting at the noise of a squirrel as it scurried up a nearby tree. I made it to the mailbox. I grabbed the mail. I was almost in the front door when I heard it.

“We never forget.”

This was real. This wasn’t going away. I was terrified, but I couldn’t let it keep me from the world. I had to do something. I had to tell someone. Someone I could trust. Genna. I had to tell Genna. She would be back from vacation in a week, and I would let her knew. She was my best friend, and she was the smartest person I knew aside from my dad and my 6th grade math teacher, but I was scared to talk about this to an adult. Genna would believe me. Genna would know what to do.

I counted down the days until her return on my room calendar. The stretched out far, far longer than summer vacation days are supposed to. I went outside a few times. I wore headphones so I could blast my music.  I tried to stay as far as I could away from fallen branches, but it was impossible. Sometimes I saw movement out of the corner of my eyes. Sometimes I thought I heard a voice, and I turned my music up. All the while a single question ran through my head: what would happen? What would happen if I picked them up? The thought terrified me. But at the same time…no. Best not to think about that.

Finally the day of Genna’s return arrived. I texted her in the few days beforehand that I missed her and I really wanted to see her as soon as possible. She said she felt the same. So it wasn’t hard to arrange to go over to her house the day she got back.

“Hey Stace,” she said as she opened her front door and I hugged her. “What’s up?”

“Nothing much,” I said as I stepped in. “It’s just been boring around here without you.”

“I know, right?” she said.

“Hello, Stacey!” her mom called to me we walked through the living room towards the stairs up to Genna’s room.

“Hi Mrs. Beaumont!” I said to her.

“You kids want some snacks?” she asked.

“Maybe later, mom,” said Genna, and we raced up the stairs.

“How was Paris?” I asked.

“It was super fun,” she said. “But I wish you could have been there. And we went to way too many museums.”

I giggled.

“So what’s on your mind?” she asked. “You sounded like you had something way important to tell me.”

“Yeah, it’s…it’s nothing. I was just bored, like I said.” She gave me a skeptical look. I wanted to tell her. I had to tell her. But not just yet. Not when I had this chance to have fun with my best friend and forget about things for a while.

So we sat on her bed and she showed me the pictures she took on her phone at the Eiffel Tower and her “favorite French cafe.” Then we played with her dolls for a bit. We were both way too old to play with dolls, of course, but that’s why we only did it when we were together. Mutually assured social destruction. Then she showed me the fan fiction she was writing and I gave it a Serious Critique.

It was fun, but as time went on my stomach started to twist up. I couldn’t put this off much longer. Did I really want to tell her? I had to. They were still out there. They weren’t going away. If I didn’t tell someone I would scream. So after we ate dinner and I helped her do the dishes we ended up back in her room, and I decided I couldn’t put it off any longer.

“Genna, can I ask you something weird?”

“Yeah,” she said. “Of course.”

“No, I mean, this is really weird. You might not like me anymore after I tell you. It’s that weird.”

“Weirder than when you told me you liked Josh Corbin?” she gave me a wicked smile.

“Yes,” I said, and my voice sobered. “This is serious.”

“Jesus Stacey,” Genna said. “You’re freaking me out. What’s going on?”

I took a deep breath. “Have you ever, I mean, have you ever seen something so strange you couldn’t make sense of it? Like, something…I mean, have you ever heard of a stick, like, a twig or something…talking?”

Genna’s eyes widened, and her face became a mask of horror. I heard her door open behind me, and the sound of footsteps.

“Did you…did you hear a twig speak to you?” She sounded terrified, more scared than I had ever heard her.

“That’s normal,” said a voice behind me. It was utterly without inflection. I turned around and saw her mom holding a tray of cut fruit. Her face was expressionless. “Don’t worry about that. It’s normal.”

“Mrs. Beaumont?” I said. “Are you okay.”

“Everything is okay,” she said mechanically. “Everything is normal.”

I looked back at Stacey, and she regarded her mom in shock. Then Mrs. Beaumont’s countenance softened. “I thought you girls might like some dessert.”

“Thanks mom,” said Genna. And I muttered my thanks as well. Mrs. Beaumont put down the tray and smiled at us and walked out of the room.

“What did you see?” Genna hissed in a loud whisper. “What did you hear, did you…did you touch them?”

“No,” I said. “I mean, almost, I…”

“Don’t pick them up!” Her voice trembled. “For the love of God, Stacey, whatever you do, don’t pick them up!”

“Did you…Genna, have you seen them? Have you heard them, too?”

She shook her head. “Not me. But my sister did. She told me, before…”

“What are you talking about? When did this happen?”

“Isabelle,” she said softly. “ A few years ago. My little sister. Isabelle.”

“Genna, what the hell are you talking about?” I looked at my friend in confusion. The next words were out of my mouth before I had a chance to realize what they meant. What they suggested. “You’ve never had a sister.”

“Yes,” she said as she closed her eyes. “I did.”

Genna and I didn’t talk about it anymore, after that. But things between us were never the same. Sometimes secrets bring people together, and sometimes they make you think about things you don’t want to think about. I didn’t ask her about Isabelle. Maybe I didn’t want to know. Maybe it was because I did want to know, and that scared me even more.

That was a long time ago, now. The twigs were telling the truth. They never forgot about me. Oh, I didn’t always hear them. I didn’t always see them writhing just on the edge of sight. Sometimes years would go by with nothing. But they always came back. And I could never forget them, not for a single day. Any stick, any severed branch could be one of them. Could speak to me, could tempt me.

They’re talking more and more these days. They’re getting harder to resist. Harder to ignore the voices that sometimes come from everywhere. More and more I just want to stop running. I don’t want to be scared anymore. And maybe there’s something else, too. There’s always been something else. Something that made my fingers reach out before I could stop them, so long ago, in that park, in the twilight. Maybe I want to see what happens. Maybe they spoke to me, of all people, for a reason.

It would be so easy. So very, very easy. Then it would be over. Then I would have my answers. The simplest thing in the world. All I need to do is reach out

and pick them up.