Bogleech.com's 2016 Horror Write-off:
Six Easy Steps
Pablo called it Hollow Face.
It hung in the middle of his living room, all bony angles, starving-thin. Its head was huge and bulbous, and half gone - where its face should have been was just a jagged-edged cavity. Hence the name.
At first glance, Hollow Face looked like a desiccated corpse, like a mummy from a bog. But it was fake, Pablo knew; on the inside of its hollow skull, though wrinkled and warped, the orderly print of newspaper pages was clearly visible. It was all papier-mache. Plus, he could see the strings which made it move.
In stark contrast to its cheap construction, along Hollow Face's bottom jaw - which was, in fact, its only jaw - ran a row of very real teeth. They were long and thin, perfectly straight and jarringly white. And there were so many of them. They were packed tightly together, like a whitewashed fence.
When Hollow Face spoke, its jaw worked inanely: up and down, up and down. Hollow Face spoke very often.
It had appeared in Pablo's apartment for the first time on November 2. On November 1, the Day of the Dead, Pablo drank too much, and dreamed of calaveras.
(Mexico was a distant memory, and he had never lived there to begin with, but in his own defiant little ways, he tried to observe the old traditions.)
When he woke up, the day after, it was past noon. He groaned through a mouth that tasted like wood, and rolled over to escape the daylight spilling through the window blinds; it was the thought of a long shower that finally got him out of bed.
He passed through the bedroom door, and was greeted by the sight of the thing suspended in the middle of his living room, between the TV and the couch.
He froze in abject horror. The wrongness of the intruder was only intensified by the normality of its surroundings, by the warm autumnal light pouring through the windows. Pablo stood rooted in place for an endless moment, until the thing spoke.
"How To Become A Ghost In 6 Easy Steps," it said to him.
Pablo relaxed, though his heart still raced. It was a prank, of course. Now he saw how cheaply it was made, the strings which it hung from. Only - who would play a prank like this on him?
(Through a string of associations, Pablo thought of his grandmother. They had gone to visit her, sometimes, in Mexico, when she was still alive. One year, when his parents had taken him to see the Día de Muertos celebration in their hometown, she had given him a alfeñique, a treat made from sugar paste in the shape of a little skull. He had forced himself to eat it. It was a gift from his abuela, after all.)
"How To Become A Ghost In 6 Easy Steps," the puppet hanging from his living room ceiling repeated. (It had awful teeth. This was not a very good prank, Pablo decided.) "Who doesn't want to become a ghost? Not only do ghosts never age or die, they are unhindered by the limitations of the flesh. No more having to work just to be able to eat - you won't need to eat. You will never eat again."
Pablo went into his miniscule kitchen to fetch a chair. Though his skin still crawled, he stood on the chair to take the puppet down. It was nobody from work, he decided - he knew no-one from work well enough for them to do something like this. And the few friends he had had all moved to greener pastures.
Did he do this?
He paused, staring out the window. He supposed it was possible - though he was distracted, the hangover still throbbed in his head, reminding him of how black-out drunk he'd gotten the night before. There was - yes, there was a gap in his memory during which he might have done this. But he couldn't imagine what would possess him to do something so elaborate and bizarre.
All the while, the thing kept talking. "To most people, the thought of becoming a ghost is just a distant dream like a distant dream of hollow reeds air blowing and voices singing, bells ringing bells ringing and distant singing. It's not surprising - the secret of becoming a ghost is a well-kept one, for a number of reasons. Dermatologists will hate you when you leave your skin behind like so much unwanted garbage!"
Pablo was close enough now to read the words on the inside of its papier-mâché skull. He didn't want to. He didn't even want to touch this thing - but he would force himself to, if only to stuff it in a garbage bag and leave it on the curb.
Only - he paused, gaping slack-jawed at the ceiling, where the strings from the puppet merely ended. They were not attached to anything. They simply ended at - or passed seamlessly through - the stucco.
"In this article, you will find the six easy steps to becoming a ghost," the thing in Pablo's living room said. "What have you got to lose? What will you lose? What is better off lost? What are you waiting for? It's quick, it's easy, and it's free!"
As it turned out, Hollow Face worked off a more-or-less outlined script. Sometimes there were bizarre tangents, or weird glitches in its language, but it was always basically the same. Pablo had heard its spiel more times than he could count by now. He could have recited it word for word.
"1. Sew black thread into your skin."
It would begin with a preface about the supposed benefits of being a ghost, then listed the "six easy steps" which would apparently allow one to become one. It was funny - Pablo had never believed in ghosts, until one appeared in his living room.
"The first step to becoming a ghost requires some DIY. You will need a needle and a spool of black thread. Once you have these materials at hand, the rest is easy - just thread the needle and sew the thread into your skin. It doesn't matter where or how much, but of course, when you're doing something like this, more is always more!"
At first, he had tried everything to get rid of the thing. He tried to cut it down, but the strings wouldn't break; then, in frustration, he tried to tear it apart. He tore large chunks of papier-mâché off of it and savagely twisted the chicken-wire underneath. All the while, Hollow Face simply talked.
"Make sure not to hurt yourself. It's only your corporeal form, true, but it pays to be careful; losing too much blood can, in a worst-case scenario, result in a premature cessation of biological functions."
The next time Pablo entered the room, the thing looked just as it had the first time it appeared, as if he had never touched it.
Pablo began leaving his apartment. Instead of going home after work, he would go to a bar, or simply buy a six-pack of beer and drink it on some park bench somewhere if it was warm enough. Instead of returning home to sleep, he would check into the motel down the street. His money soon began running out, though, and before long, he was back in the apartment. Walking through the front door was the hardest thing he ever did; he could hear Hollow Face's voice all the way out in the hall.
"2. Sacrifice an animal in a dark room," it said as Pablo entered, by way of greeting. "Many people decide to do this even without the end goal of becoming a ghost in mind. And let's be real - why wouldn't you? It's quick, it's easy, and it's free."
"What the fuck do you want from me?" Pablo growled, kicking off his shoes.
"All you need to do is take a living animal's life in a dark room," Hollow Face replied, its voice flat. "Make sure it's a mammal, though - it's a rookie mistake among people attempting to become ghosts to sacrifice a reptile or an invertebrate. Awkward!"
"Shut up," Pablo moaned, walking into the living room where the repulsive thing dangled from its strings. "Shut up!" All the while, Hollow Face kept babbling, as if it was unable to hear him speaking, or as if it didn't care.
Pablo felt the tears come. He lunged at the thing. "Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!"
When he fell back on his ass on the couch, sobbing and out of breath, there were only tatters of papier-mâché remaining on Hollow Face's chicken-wire frame. He hadn't touched its head, though. He couldn't bring himself to go near those teeth. Its jaw worked up and down as it spoke.
"An ordinary cleaver, the kind you'll find in most kitchens, will work for this. Slit the animal's belly open and lay its entrails out on the floor. A word of warning: don't be alarmed if you hear distant clanging noises and see vague, half-formed images flash before your eyes. In semi-rare cases, the animal may speak to you. Do not listen to its lies. It can offer you nothing that we can't."
The next time Pablo entered the room, the thing looked just as it had the first time it appeared, as if he had never touched it.
He followed the first step almost without thinking. He had stopped at the arts-and-crafts store after work and bought a sewing needle and a spool of black thread. When he got home, he sat himself down in the couch. Then, almost as if in a trance, he sewed the thread into his wrist, a band of cross-stitches all the way around. All the while, Hollow Face had been blessedly silent.
The second Pablo put the needle down, it started speaking again.
"3. Cut ties to the world around you. As a ghost, you will need to be completely unfettered by personal ties."
Pablo sat on the couch, looking up at Hollow Face blandly. He let the thing's droning words wash over him. Its voice was hollow, just like its head, and distant, like a telephone call with poor reception.
"Let's be honest - you never really liked that job anyway. For this next step, you'll get to do exactly what you always dreamed of doing, and give your boss a piece of your mind! Who said becoming a ghost wasn't fun? And don't stop there - say goodbye to your friends, your family, your spouse. You don't need them anymore. They don't need you anymore."
He looked up, past Hollow Face, at the ceiling, at the strings from which it was suspended. White stucco. Black strings.
The second step was harder, much harder.
The third step was easy. Pablo didn't have very many people in his life to begin with - his father had died of a heart attack back in 2009, and his mother lived in a retirement home and had late-stage dementia. There was an ex-girlfriend, Maria, but she was years in the past; there was the handful of friends that he'd lost touch with. Really, the only "personal tie" he had was his job at the meat packing plant.
Far from giving the boss a piece of his mind, Pablo simply called to say that he would not be coming in anymore. The news was received stoically. They would have no problem finding a replacement for him, he knew.
He went onto the roof of his building, where he sometimes smoked, to make the call. It was difficult to focus on anything else with Hollow Face's voice droning in his ears.
Every time he followed one of the steps, it was like he was empty, but not in a bad way. He felt something approaching peace. No thoughts disturbed him, just the singular, clear goal of following the instructions. Afterwards, he couldn't say exactly where the impulse he had acted on had come from.
It wasn't that he wanted to die. Quite the opposite. (Hollow Face made it sound like becoming a ghost was a preferable alternative to dying, but in the privacy of his mind, Pablo still equated being a ghost with being dead.)
It was just that he had nothing better to do.
Pablo made sandwiches for lunch. It wasn't the most nutritious meal, but his money was running out and he didn't really have the energy to cook anything more ambitious. He supposed he could have taken the car and driven to McDonald's, but lately, for some reason, the thought of leaving the apartment had made him ill at ease.
He paused, looking down at the sandwiches on the counter. Then, he left them there.
"4. Eat and drink only paper and water for seven days."
He hardly heard Hollow Face anymore. Its litany was just background noise, like radio static. It washed over him in waves, so insistent that it was hypnotic. He lay down on the couch and stared up at the ceiling. On the edge of his field of vision, Hollow Face hung from its strings.
"Did you know there used to be a Buddhist practice called Sokushinbutsu? Buddhist monks practicing Sokushinbutsu would fast and meditate to the point of self-mummification. This fact has nothing to do with this next step, so put it out of your mind. For this step, you'll need to subsist on a diet consisting entirely of paper and water. It's an all-natural cleanse that will purify your unclean spirit and make you worthy of becoming a ghost!"
Pablo felt himself drifting off.
"Starve yourself for seven days - it's quick, it's easy, and it's free!"
The hardest part about step four was keeping track of the days. Time seemed to pass in a funny way, Pablo thought - it would stand still, as if there was only a single moment which stretched on forever, and then when he looked out the window it would be night already.
"5. Put your head under water. This is an easy one! If you have a bathtub at home, just fill that baby up and dunk your head under. If not, a bucket or bowl will do - as long as your head is completely submerged, up to the neck."
Pablo sat on the couch, an old newspaper in his lap. Every now and then, he would tear a strip from the current page and eat it. There was a gnawing ache of hunger in the pit of his stomach. The ache didn't seem to want to go away. He would have to eat more.
For all its talking, Hollow Face wasn't much of a conversationalist. That was alright. Pablo didn't mind listening.
"Incidentally, this will be a nice sneak preview of what life as a ghost is like. When the illusion of flesh is stripped away, you will see the world as it truly is. The streets will be like canyons like canyons under great waters, and you will hear the rushing of the waters and you will not think and the sun will never, ever come."
Pablo didn't know what would happen to him, once he followed all six steps.
"6. Wait," Hollow Face repeated. Its jaw worked, its single row of perfect teeth gnashing mindlessly at nothing.
It said: "YOU WILL BE QUICK"
It said: "YOU WILL BE EASY"
It said: "YOU WILL BE FREE"