's 2018 Horror Write-off:


Submitted by Verity Aron (email)


                                     by Verity Aron

  It started with my last my birthday, I think. Everyone gathered around the cake, singing my name. I counted the candles silently. Could I really be that old? I felt like all my years of life had happened in a dream. It wasn’t always this way. Growing up, when someone called my name I answered right away. Recently I had started to think “Oh. That guy.” when someone addressed me. Staring at my face in the mirror, I was looking into the eyes of a stranger. When I smiled, their mouth would twitch upward. When I scowled at them, they would grimace. But when I didn’t do anything, they just stared. I thought It must be the melancholy of growing up, and not becoming the person you thought you would be. Or maybe it was just the disappointment of my flaws, the dirt embedded in my skin, my lack of accomplishments. Despite reassuring myself that this was normal, I couldn’t shake these feelings of disconnect. My family and friends, they didn’t seem so lost. Even if I could hardly recall our first meetings, I loved to travel in my pack of friends, going to the movies, the mall, the bowling alley. In a way, it was my undoing. I wish I had stayed home.

 It was a warm Friday when I first saw him. Here we were at the bowling alley again, Tim, Rachel, Mike, and I, all getting strikes and beers in solo cups. I was having a good time. In a group, it doesn't matter who you are individually. We were a mob of laughter and energy. I had just rolled my spare and straightened back up when I saw him. A man standing in the next lane, staring straight at me.  His eyes, narrowed into slits, looked hollow and black under the shade of his hat. He was as motionless as a cat frozen in front of a gopher hole,waiting to pounce. The old neon lights above him flickered, just once. In the split second of darkness, I thought I saw something floating above his head, like a cloud. Then the light snapped back on and a security guard asked him to move out of the lane. He walked back to his seat silently, but I could feel his eyes on the back of my neck. I kept bowling. I didn't want to walk home alone, but I also didn’t want to tell my friends I was afraid. They would just laugh and tell me I worried too much. Who would stalk me, the lord of underachievers? It was nothing. I was imagining things. In hindsight, it’s surprising how quickly I forgot such a strange event. When I walked home with the group, I didn’t even check to see if he was following me. When we passed a man in a floppy hat on the street, I didn’t even look.

   For some reason, the next day I felt happier than I had in awhile. As the weekend air turned sweltering, I picked out a few of my friends and arranged a trip to the movies. We just had to see the newest Marvel film before it went out of theaters. Shadows filled the gaps between buildings as we waited in line, squinting from the sun. The movie was good, but it could have been better. My friends rushed off right after it ended, but I wanted to stay for the after-credits scene. I waited in the dark of the tiny theater while the credits rolled by. It occurred to me, after the guy who swept up the popcorn left, that I might be alone in the room. I looked up at the light from the projector, and lazily followed it back to the projectionist’s box. Then I looked down at the seats. Dark eyes met mine, from somewhere in the shadows of his face. He was the only person left in the theater, standing up two rows exactly behind me. He must have stood up silently just before I turned around. I stared back at him. I was terrified, but I wanted him to know I saw him. Maybe if I glared at him long enough, he would leave. But he didn’t move. The projector switched off. In the dark, I couldn’t see him, but something was still staring at me. In the space where his head would be in the dark, a hazy shape glowed. It stretched off of him like a plume of smoke, a serpentine body with curled claws for arms, it’s eyes gaping voids, staring down at me. I ran. Don’t judge, you would have done the same. I looked at the ground and sprinted out of the room, out of the theater, into the sun of the street. Outside my thoughts caught up with me. What had I seen? The thing had seemed to rise out of the man like a twisted jack-in-the-box. But I could only see it in the dark. Suddenly I noticed the lengthening shadows that lined the street. I didn’t feel safe outside. I jogged home, looking over my shoulder every few minutes. I saw the man again on my way there, standing on the street, watching me pass, staring at my back while I ran.

  I tried to stay home as much as I could, but it didn’t help me much. I began to lose myself again, waiting sleepless in the night with all the lights turned on. Sometimes I thought it wouldn’t be so bad if I died, just as long as I was alone. I saw him outside my window, sitting in the tree. I closed the blinds. I would go out to work, and I wouldn’t see him anywhere at first, but then he would find me. He never approached me. He just stared. That thing that lived in him, I saw it watching me too. It glowed clearer every day, and I could see it teeth now, a spiral of knives in its face. It rubbed it coiled claws together like a praying mantis, waiting to strike. I tried telling Mike once. While we were out having lunch, I pointed out the man watching us from across the street, said he had been following me. He suggested I call the police. He was being so helpful, I foolishly asked him if he could see the thing coming out of the man too. He looked at me like I was crazy. I called the police. They couldn’t find the man. I would tell him where he was, they would show up, he would disappear. Then, once the police had left, he would be back again watching me.

  I could have lived my whole life ignoring him. But I couldn’t live with myself. In the dark my reflection warped. My eyes were empty and black. Sometimes I thought I saw the thing in the mirror, floating behind me, its raptorial claws raised. I couldn’t go on. I was nothing now, more than ever before. My name, my memories, my thoughts, meaningless. At midnight I walked outside. He was there.They were there.

“What are you and what do you want?” I said. I was too tired to be afraid anymore.

The thing spoke. It twisted in the air like ribbon and uncurled its claws. In my mind I heard it.

You have lost yourself. You are trapped.

“I..I don’t understand”

The thing bent down into the man, passing under his skin like a ghost. It put it’s head into the man’s head like it was wearing a mask.

I am free, but you are stuck. You have forgotten. The man mouthed the words.

Join us again. Free yourself.

I didn’t know what to say, but my mouth formed the words on it’s own.

“I can’t.”

The thing bent forward to look at me.

Then I will do it for you.

It lunged into me, it’s spiraled maw flashing, it’s black hole eyes swallowing me up.

I couldn’t see. Someone’s hands were around my neck. I thought that my mind would fade as I felt my last breath of air dwindle in my lungs, but it remained sharp. Only my body slipped away. I couldn’t feel anything anymore. Shapes appeared in the dark. I was looking down on the street. My body lay crumpled on the ground. The man sat near me, hands still clutching my throat. I was floating above them, as high as the treetops. The thing was next to me.

Do you remember now?

I did, but I was trying to push these new memories away.

You got so caught up in your host's life, you forgot everything else.

I looked down at my own curled claws, and then further down to the human lying on the ground that I had thought was myself. It’s a strange feeling, realizing your whole life was just something you stole from someone else.