“Ok, I’m just saying, you are not allowed to be even the slightest bit productive tonight.”
Brynn’s huge, fuzzy ringlets protruded above the fridge door, her face bent down inspecting the contents of our refrigerator.
“Uggh, please tell me y’all bought more of those sweet and spicy pickle chips. I am going to cry if you didn’t.”
I watched her with amusement from my favorite chair at our small wooden table. “Ok, no productivity tonight, check,” I said, with an exaggerated deep breath.
“The pickle things?” she tried again, peeking at me hopefully over the fridge door.
“I think you may be S.O.L. there,” I said with regret. “Put ’em on the grocery list, and better luck next time.”
Over the past thirteen years, each of our houses had begun carrying the other’s favorite snacks, a true testament to the level of our friendship. Not only was Brynn considered a second daughter in our house; I ,too, was always more than welcome among Brynn’s family. To be fair, everyone was welcome among Brynn’s family. More often than not, Drew, Lav, and I would wake up in various rooms within the Elwood Home and sit down to a breakfast at the huge dining room farmhouse table as if we belonged there. All eight seats were often occupied.
While everyone was equally welcome in our house, it was much smaller and less lively. My mom and I were the only occupants, and she was often at work, leaving the house to me. Two stories, but extremely narrow, our home consisted of two bedrooms, a conjoining bathroom, a cozy kitchen, a breakfast nook, and a living room. Brynn’s house, in comparison, was a massive structure composed of five bedrooms, two entertainment areas, a huge dining room, a fully decked out kitchen, and an extravagant back garden.
The house also held an appealing aura; the Elwoods had always promoted interesting conversation and laughter. It was just such a comfortable place to be, for each member of the family was extremely unique but equally accepting. There was always something to discuss or debate, and it seemed that every conversation was frequently interrupted by the comforting boom of Michael Elwood’s laughter. Best. Laugh. Ever.
Brynn’s father had always been one of my favorite people, perhaps because I’d lost my own dad and appreciated his paternal influence. Or perhaps because he was rarely caught without a bright smile. The kind that would reach his rich brown eyes and form laughter lines that gently creased his rich brown face. Brynn’s mother, Meghan, may have enjoyed laughing even more than her husband, and she seemingly made it her personal mission to ensure that I didn’t brood or take things too seriously for obnoxiously long periods of time, even when I tried my hardest. I felt like this was secretly a goal of the whole family’s. Like they had weekly meetings and took notes on the progress that they’d made on my levels of contentment.
After renouncing parts of me that hurt too much to invoke any longer, I’d gradually become someone who found pleasure in the more serious aspects of life.
Serious. Responsible. Reasonable. That’s who I’d become when Aemion no longer come to me at night. After mourning his absence, alongside my father’s, for many years following the Spring and Summer I was six, I determined that I had subconsciously created him to battle the loss of my dad and the terrors that followed.
This had been a reasonable conclusion, as I had no longer been plagued at night by the Faceless Man’s presence. But even after deciding that Aemion had to have been a figment of my imagination, I couldn’t avoid the sense of betrayal I’d experienced each morning upon waking and discovering that he had, once again, failed to come to me in the night. Even with the knowledge that our friendship may have been forged by the smiths of a child’s malleable understanding of the world, I’d still felt, for the longest time, that nothing could have been more concrete and life-altering.
The crushing weight of disappointment upon losing him was what ignited a transformation inside of me. I’d chosen to said goodbye to my imagination, to my free spirit, to my love for the fantastic. I’d turned it off as though I’d flipped a switch. Only those whom I loved and surrounded myself with could sometimes remind me to let go of the realism I so desperately clung to.
I supposed that was why my tribe was made up of, for the most part, louder, more playful personalities than my own, who did their very best to guide me back to the creative, fun-loving six year old girl whom I’d left at the edge of the woods on a stormy Summer night. She’d stayed behind with a bronze boy with copper curls, amber eyes, and hooves.
“Ok, we’ve got to get ahold of some food in here before our night proceeds any further.” Brynn was now in the midst of poking her head into our kitchen cabinets, quite unnecessarily standing on tiptoe, despite her long, slender legs.
“At risk of sounding as though I’m judging you right now, which I’m totally not, you ate at three o’clock,” I pointed out, smiling in anticipation. I knew what her reaction would be before she ever opened her mouth.
“Are you going to make your point?” she threw back, pulling her head from amongst the contents of the cabinet and turning it in my direction.
“It’s…. four o’ clock.”
“A growing girl’s gotta eat, Nia! Are you implying that I need to deprive my body of sustenance? Are you saying…” she paused for dramatic effect…”that I’m fat? Because body shaming is a big no-no, especially in today’s society. Have you seen the poor girls walking around like coat hangers, looking like they are all but allergic to food? Is that what you want for me, Nia? Because your little ‘it’s four’o clock’ comment could very well be what drives me to the edge. Is that what you want?” She said in a dramatic, breathy finish, her hand on her heart.
At this point, I could see her clenching her jaw to keep from laughing, and I snorted, rolling my eyes.
“Yeah, that was my exact intent,” I said dryly. “By the way,” I added, “I don’t think you are supposed to shame the slender girls either. You should keep that in mind.”
“Ooh, very aware of today’s societal issues. Impressive,” she said before plopping next to me at the small kitchen table.
“Hey. Are you ok, though? Like, honestly? Tell me what has been going on.” She laid a golden hand on my arm, and her laughter had disappeared. “I remember what this did to you. When we were little. Nia, I will never forget your voice when you’d call. I’ll never forget your screams when I’d spend the night. I can’t erase that. I can’t bear the idea of you going through that again. Alone. You don’t have to be so strong all the time, you know…”
I nodded my head, my throat sticking on some imaginary object. “I know, B. In truth…” I sigh. “In truth, I’m freaking out. I’ve wracked my brain, and I can’t think of a single reason, a single trigger, that would bring this back on. I’ve been scouring the internet like crazy, and it’s apparently super unusual to have night terrors after you’ve reached adolescence. I mean, I’ve put a little extra stress on myself lately...” She tilted her head and gave me a pointed look. “Ok, a lot,” I admitted. “But to this degree? I just don’t get it. It’s been freaking twelve years. I’ve been a stressed out, high strung know-it-all all this time and had no problem. Why now?”
She stared at me empathetically.
“Gah, and I hate burdening you guys with my issues. You know I hate that crap.” I really did.
Her expression became stern. “No, you hate leaning on people and treating them like they are your friends. You know, those people who choose you and lean on you when they need you, and ask that you do the same when you need them? Those people. Your squad. Ringing a bell?” She eased up as she fed Mr. Darcy a small chunk of cheese she’d been nibbling on.
“Yeah,” I sighed, releasing a huge breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding. “I mean I totally get it.”
“Do you, Nia? Do you get that? Because you treat us like we can’t handle your shit. Like we are just here for the good but not the bad. Like you don’t trust us when it comes to the real stuff,” she said frustratedly. “You know I can handle it. I’ve been there with you before.”
“Ok, ok,” I said, holding my palms up in surrender. “I’ll put all of my problems and woes on your shoulders. I hate to see you beg.” I tried to lighten the mood. I could tell I’d legitimately upset her in my attempts to protect her.
“Thank you,” she said, sounding truly pleased. Her green eyes were lighter already, less concern clouding them. She hopped out of her chair and began making her way toward the living room.
“But, B? I called, tentatively.
“What’s up?” she called back.
“If things get rough tonight, I… apologize in advance.”
She popped her head back into the kitchen. “Hey, I know. It wouldn’t be the first time you peed on me. Don’t sweat it.” She winked.
One large pepperoni pizza, one Romance Comedy, and three episodes of Law and Order later, we lay on my bed, exhausted from our sedentary evening. Mom was working a double and would be home in an hour or two.
“I can hardly hold my eyes open,” Brynn said, already tucking herself under my covers. Mr. Darcy curled up at her feet, leaving mine cold and lonely. Figured.
“Probably a food coma. You annihilated that pizza,” I responded sleepily.
“Dammit, Nia, what did we talk about earlier?” Her speech was slurring, and her eyes were closed. She was out before I could respond.
I decided to leave my lamp on, and settled under my comforter, letting Brynn’s body heat lightly radiate towards me, soothe me. Her deep breaths lulled me, and I began slipping into my own world of sleep.
I woke up what must have been hours later in my bed, enveloped by a pungent darkness. My lamp had been turned off; I assumed Brynn turned it off after a bathroom trip. I was unsure of what had disturbed my sleep, as the night was silent, and Brynn was on the other side of the bed, peaceful and still.
Then I heard it; a familiar creaking so ominous that my blood froze. I knew the source of the sound. I also knew not to seek it out, yet I felt my feet meet the cool wooden floor involuntarily. I was moving toward my window, my heart squirming in my chest, threatening to fall right through my bowels. I made the familiar journey to my window with no light to guide me.
My curtains were already parted, and I peered out to a scene so familiarly haunting that my knees buckled and threatened to give way. I absurdly detected a fragrance I didn’t recognize. It was musky, with a mixture of something like sage and dirt.
His back was to me, as it always was. There was no moonlight, yet I could discern his silhouette. His suited form always appeared the same, and he always donned the black fedora I was forever begging him to wear in my childhood. My father. Sort of. He was haunting his usual site, the ropes of my tree swing straining vehemently against the oak branch from which they hung. He was slowly rocking, his back board- straight and perpendicular to the pallet of wood on which he sat. My stomach churned, and I silently begged him to stay put- to remain facing the gravel road.
But I knew he wouldn’t. He never did.
I was now shaking uncontrollably as the swing came to a slow hault. Ever so lazily, as though in slow motion, he rose. My eyes strained to follow his every move, though, somewhere inside, I was screaming at myself. “Nia, go back to bed. Don’t look at him! Don’t…”
He stood for mere moments before his body began to pivot, ever so deliberately. I wanted to rip the curtains closed, but my hands wouldn’t allow it. All I could do was stare in terror as he turned to meet my gaze. I knew he was looking straight at me. I could feel it in the very marrow of my bones. But there was no way to truly discern this, for his face was a blank molding of the most ghastly white, hollowed at the eyes and mouth and elevated slightly where a nose belonged. It was as though white wax had melted over his skull, masking his features and mimicking what once was. I tried to process this image for what felt like the hundredth time, tried to detect some distinguishing trait of my father’s. I don’t know how or why, as a child, I’d been certain this creature was a distortion of him. It made no sense. My dad hated wearing his suit. My dad had the most memorable smile. I suppose it was that fedora…
I attempted to convince myself that this being was nothing malicious.
As I watched him, something new and unexpected began to occur: the slightly concave area where his mouth belonged began to shift, to split, to elongate. A sliding motion resulted in what can only be compared to dried wax shredding apart, as though someone was digging through the man’s flesh from the inside out. I distantly registered the warm sensation of hot liquid running down the inside of my right thigh, a puddle pooling at my feet. The gash was gradually growing into something more grotesque than I could handle. The hole of his mouth finally finished forming into what I could only imagine was a silent scream.
I felt a palm hesitantly touch my shoulder, and my own scream pierced the air. Brynn was saying my name, apologizing, and asking if I was ok. Simultaneously, we looked down to the puddle of urine pooling around my feet.
“Nia? Hey, look at me.”
I turned back towards the window, and, to my horror and astonishment, I saw a black shadow moving towards the woods.
“Brynn, we have to go out there!” I heard myself say. I could only register my own shock for a moment, before I began moving towards my bedroom door.
“Nia, what the hell are you talking about? Why would we go outside at three in the morning? Nia, let’s clean you up and get back to bed, ok?”
I wasn’t listening. I was racing down the stairs, leaving wet footprints behind me. Brynn was following close behind, sheer panic in her voice. “Nia, please, what are you doing? Just stop!”
I was out the door, my toes meeting cool, wet grass. The air was heavy with moisture and electricity, a storm gathering.
“Brynn, he’s out here! I saw him!” I called to her, as I met the tree line.
“Who’s out here? The Faceless Man? Nia, he’s not! He’s not real!” she called in panic. And why would we follow him? This is bad, this is so freakin’ bad,” she was saying hysterically.
Distantly, I heard my mom’s car pulling into our drive, the familiar rumble of the engine and crunch of tires on gravel. I again was overpowered by that earthy smell.
My feet screamed as rocks tore at them, and my legs took brutal whippings from low hanging branches and overgrowth. I hardly noticed. I weaved through the blackness, my breath hitching. I vaguely detected Brynn’s voice traveling towards me, but this didn’t deter me.
If the Faceless Man was real, then- well, then I didn’t know what. All I knew was that I had to find him. There was nothing to defend this logic; it was my gut moving me forward, not my head. I continued to race towards the unknown in the hopes that I’d finally find answers.
I stopped abruptly, my eyes catching sight of something in the inky onyx night. No light reached us beneath the thick canopy of branches and leaves, but my eyes had done their best to adjust. My breath hitched, and Brynn lurched to a stop beside me, trying to jerk me around, but my body wouldn’t budge. It was as though I’d been soldered to the ground, my legs leaden and rooted.
“Nia?” Brynn whispered shakily, now detecting something sinister in my abrupt halt.
I released a whimper and slowly brought up my arm, pointing my index finger toward a space only twenty feet in front of us.
His body was tucked slightly behind the bulk of a huge pine, but I could just see the glow of that ivory waxen flesh staring boldly in our direction. As I began to crouch in some inexplicable response to the fear gripping me, I found that he was moving around the tree, his stiff limbs carrying him toward me. Toward us.
By this point, I was on all fours, my fingers digging into the earth in search of support. My mind was reeling, spots beginning to steal away my vision. My terror spiking, I felt myself being swallowed up in utter blackness.
“Nia!” My mom’s voice sounded like it was traveling through a tunnel. “Nia.” Closer now. “Nia, baby, wake up.” I began to register my body and slowly peel my eyes open. I was lying on our old cushy couch, the texture of terry cloth beneath me. Someone had lain down towels. I was wet and shaky, and I put a hand to my head to stifle the pain growing there.
“Hey, baby,” she said, somewhat frantically.
“Mom, where’s Brynn?” I said, sitting up in a panic.
“I’m here.” Brynn’s voice was quiet, but I could hear the confidence she was feigning for my sake.
I huffed out a relieved breath, slamming my body back down on the throw pillows. “Oh, thank god.” My head was attempting to split open, and I moaned. Mr. Darcy was circling my feet, whimpering as though it were he who’d experienced everything. His fur brushed me, and I realized it was matted and wet. He’d followed us. Somehow, I hadn’t even noticed.
“Nia, honey, what happened? Brynn said she thought you were having a terror. But you were awake, and you ran outside and…. Tell me what happened. I don’t understand.” I could hear stifled tears muffling my mom’s voice.
“Could I get some aspirin? My head is on fire…” was all I could manage. I heard Brynn rustle around and head toward the upstairs bathroom. She came back moments later, offering me a glass of water and two candy coated pills.
“I have no… I don’t know what happened,” I said slowly, unsure of myself. I felt naked, vulnerable, completely laid bare, though I didn’t know why. Beneath these emotions lay something else, something like anger.
“I saw him, I swear.” I turned to Brynn, meeting her gaze emphatically. “Brynn, I was awake. It was real, right? Wait, you would have seen him too! In the woods.. You were with me. You saw him…” I was saying in a jumbled attempt at coherent speech.
“Nia, I…” She was looking at me guiltily, compassion in those mossy green eyes. “I didn’t see anything. I mean, we couldn’t have- it was so dark,” she was saying. “You just kind of, freaked out on me, you know, but…. Nia, there was nothing there.”
“I know what I saw,” I cut her off. I was angry, embarrassed, scared out of my mind. “He was right in front of us.” I released a frustrated sigh and closed my eyes. Why was she doing this? Pretending she saw nothing? She couldn’t have missed him.
“Nia,” mom gently began…
“Mom, I’m not crazy. I know what I saw,” I repeated hotly. I didn’t know where all this anger was coming from, but it was consuming me like a fire, the flames licking my brain, the pain wrapping itself around my head and thrumming against my skull.
After a failed attempt at an interrogation, Mom eventually allowed us to make our way back up the stairs to my bedroom, where I peeled my muddy clothes off and traded them in for a dry, oversized t-shirt. Brynn coaxed me to the bathroom, where she silently helped me wash the filth and blood from my feet. We returned to my room, and I noticed that someone had cleaned up the puddle I’d made by the window.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Brynn asked softly.
“No.” I tried to sound short, but the syllable came out in a wobble. “Not tonight. I just want to go to bed.” I was exhausted, as if I’d just run a marathon, but my mind was buzzing, and I feared sleep would evade me. At this point, humiliation consumed me, as did a fear I’d never known, and I didn’t know what to say.
“Nia, I think you need to…”
“I don’t have anything to say,” I growled, but a tear escaped against my will.
The next thing I knew, I was shuddering in Brynn’s arms. She sat us down on the edge of the bed, and I lay my head in her lap, releasing everything. She ran her long fingers through my dark blonde waves, assuring me that it would all be ok. After what seemed like hours, I began to believe her, and my hysterics began to die down. As she rubbed my back, I was reminded of six-year-old Brynn holding my hand as we would fall asleep in a bed that seemed so much bigger then.
My gratitude collided with every other heightened emotion I was battling, and my exhaustion again took me under.