Two nights later, I found myself sitting in a booth at Steam, sipping on my trusted plum tea while considering my next move. I’d had to abandon my sacred seat; there were five of us tonight, as Lavender wasn’t working for once, and we’d convinced Corinne to join us for a night out. I was told my laptop was banned from this excursion, so I instead stared intently at the game board in front of me, nearly certain that Mrs. White had used a knife to butcher the forever reviving, forever dying, Mr. Body. It was always Mrs. White, the creepy old hag. Mrs. White. White.
I began to zone out, conjuring up another image. It too was white. A white, empty face. A suit, blacker than the night itself, a contrast that made that pallid face nearly glow. The sheen of waxen flesh near the mouth’s indentation forming a menacing hole.
“Are you going to roll, Nia?”
Corinne was watching me with a concerned smile. She handed me the dice, and I mentally shook myself before rolling the cubes before me. I couldn’t even make it to a guessing space. After my turn was quickly concluded, she gently leaned toward me.
“You ok?” she asked under her breath, a soft smile still resting on that perfect face.
“Oh my god, are you reading my aura again?” I said with some exasperation, the others laughing at something Drew had said.
“Umm, no. You have goosebumps, and you’re shivering. And you were making a face like something was hurting you. Or smelled bad. Or both. So I thought I’d check.” She gave my forearm a gentle squeeze.
“Oh.” I hadn’t realized.
“You two whisperin’ about how tantalizin’ my body is?” Drew said loudly, giving Corinne an obnoxious wink. “You don’t have to be shy about it, ladies- nothin’ I haven’t heard before.”
“You don’t stand a chance,” Brynn said to him mercilessly. “Eventually that reality is going to make it past those pretty little curls and into that ear of yours.”
“Corinne, could you do somethin’ for me?” Drew ignored Brynn’s comment and continued to smirk at her aunt. Before Corinne could reply he continued, “I need Brynncess to be the first you inform when you find that you’ve fallen irrevocably in love with me.”
“I’ll be sure to do that,” Corinne answered. And in her sweetest voice, she asked the rest of us, “How long do you think we have before hell freezes over?”
While the girls indulged in a laugh at Drew’s expense, he began nodding appreciatively. “Hard to get. I like that in a gal.”
“Ok, so not to change the subject, as I can tell it’s really goin’ somewhere with the two of you and all,” Lav says, throwing Drew a quick grin, “but, did you two-” she nodded at me and Corinne- “figure out what’s going on with…. You know, the nightmares, or whatever they are?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Drew said, leaning forward and replacing his laugh with a serious expression. “What do you think Nia’s seein’?” We were all looking at Corinne. I didn’t bother to correct Lavender’s terminology. While I myself was in no way sure what to call the Faceless Man’s appearances, I couldn’t exactly say that the experiences weren’t nightmares.
“I really can’t be sure,” Corinne said, looking over at me apologetically. “When Nia described him to me- the man she sees, I mean- she mentioned that he wears a hat like one her dad used to own. On one hand, that leads me to believe this entity is one that she conjures as some sort of subconscious replica of her father.”
“But why wouldn’t he have facial features? I mean that’s just bloody creepy,” Lav said, stating aloud something that had always troubled me about my own theory.
“Well, what if - and this is all just speculation-” Corinne added, putting her palms up- “What if this is symbolic of some subconscious fear that she may one day forget her father’s face? I’m in no way claiming to be an expert on dreams or psychology, but I have read a few books that have touched on the subjects. I’m just thinking out loud.”
“Hmm… I like that. I mean, it would fit,” Brynn mused, playing with her gold hoop. “I mean, I definitely think he somehow ties to your dad, Nia. He started coming to you right after, you know… he died, so…” she trailed off.
I nodded, still unsure. I had always been so certain that he must be my dad, somehow. Like his soul embodied in another entity. But now that seemed implausible. The Faceless Man scared me, had always scared me senseless. He seemed so threatening and sinister, and that in no way correlated with the relationship I’d had with my dad. It seemed odd to me now that I’d ever made a connection between the two.
Brynn looked back to Corinne. “But, you said ‘on one hand’. What else do you think it...he… might be?”
The game lay currently forgotten.
“Well, here’s why I’m struggling with my initial conclusion,” Corinne said tentatively. I noticed that she now had chills herself. For some reason, I found this very disconcerting and hoped that she was cold.
“And correct me if I’m wrong, Nia,” she continued. “Nia was really close to her dad, right?” She glanced over at me, and I nodded. “So, if this is the case, then this entity should in no way give her these sinister, and, from the way it sounds, threatening feelings. Her responses to him, both physical and emotional, are constructed from fear. I’m a firm believer in following your instincts, and it would seem that Nia’s instincts detect danger in his presence. This just leads me to believe that this being may be something more, I don’t know, malevolent.”
There it was. We were on the same page.
“And if it is?” I asked, not sure I wanted to hear the answer. “What do I do? How do I get rid of him?”
“I’m not really comfortable advising you on that, Sweetie,” she said, sighing apologetically. “I have my own… methods… for keeping the spaces around me cleansed and free of dark vibes, but I’m not going to push my ideologies onto you. You may prefer to seek some other form of counseling, especially with something this delicate.”
I looked at her desperately. I didn’t want to go to a bunch of professionals. A large part of me feared that they’d determine that I suffered from some kind of psychosis, like paranoid schizophrenia or something. Especially after my little stunt the other night. I could almost feel Corinne reading my thoughts. She probably was, knowing her. Who knew what kind of hoodoo she was into?
“If you’d like to try some alternative options,” she said, and I sighed inwardly, “I can show you how to smudge your home with sage, and I can give you some crystals that are great for protecting one during sleep. You can put them under your pillow before bed.”
I nodded. She was certainly right in stating that this was definitely outside of my comfort zone, but I also trusted Corinne, and I needed all the help I could get.
“Such a selfless soul, sharing your woo woo with those in need,” Drew sighed, placing his chin in his hand.
Corinne cocked her head and smiled, unphased, but Lav gave him a hard kick. “Are you ever not makin’ a jackass of yourself? If you weren’t my baby brother, I’d…”
“Baby?” Drew laughed. “I’m five minutes younger than you, you cow. The only woman at this table who is permitted to call me “baby” is Corinne. Understood, ladies? As far as you three are concerned,” he pointed to me, Lav, and Brynn, “I’m off the market. Taken. You are startin’ to come off as desperate,” he said to us with a warning tone.
“Can we please continue the game before his head explodes?” I said, shaking my head.
Feeling a tinge of relief, I allowed myself to relax, and the rest of our night was lighthearted and enjoyable. After Lavender annihilated us all three times in a row at Clue, we decided to deem her champion and retire to the Elwood house for a movie and popcorn. While I fully knew Drew and Brynn could live on horror films, no one proposed a title more threatening than “Marley and Me.” I ignored this feeling that I was a bit of a buzzkill and chose to enjoy the simple beauty of a night without pell grant forms. Technically, my schooling was paid for; I’d received multiple scholarships based on testing scores and academic achievement, but I wouldn’t say no to a little extra cash if I could get it.
To no one’s surprise, we ended up watching Ace Ventura: Pet Detective for the hundredth time; Drew had won rock-paper-scissors in a brutal battle between him and Lav, and he never failed to choose a Jim Carey film when horror was off the table. Which was every time I was around. Despite all our complainings, and much to Drew’s pleasure, we all laughed and quoted the film throughout. I found myself completely content and actually looking forward to our camping trip the following day.
Later that night, I woke suddenly, finding myself on Brynn’s couch, my head slowly lifting from Drew’s bony shoulder. Lav’s head was resting on a pillow in my lap, and Brynn’s long limbs were sprawled across the living room floor where she lay on her stomach. The movie was over, the screen stuck on the main menu. For a moment, I sat in a drowsy fog, trying to figure out what had woken me. A sickly awareness of the hair on the back of my neck sent prickling sensations down my arms and a jolt to the pit of my stomach. I acknowledged that I needed to use the restroom, but an inexplicable sense of dread kept me rooted to my seat. I closed my eyes, sweat gathering beneath my arms. I breathed slowly, deeply, wishing I’d had Corinne “smudge” me with the damn sage. She wasn’t even in the room; she must have stolen off to bed before the movie ended. Through my eyelids, the bright light from the television screen began to flicker, and panic set in.
“Lav,” I whispered, keeping my eyes closed. I shook her gently, but I got no response. As if on some nauseating cue, the screams of coyotes began piercing the air. The cacophony sent chills down my spine, and I felt the very marrow of my blood quivering. Coyotes. They weren’t super common around Northern Virginia, but I’d heard them enough to recognize the call.
“It’s just coyotes,” I whispered to myself. “Get a grip, Nia, you know that sound.”
I slowly opened my eyes, my vision slightly off. I turned towards Drew, and felt a scream and a gasp mingle into a choking gargle in my throat. A white face stared back at me, and I scrambled from the couch, forgetting Lav’s head in my lap.
“Nia? Nia, Nia, what’s wrong?” Drew moved quickly from the couch, crouching down next to me on the floor.
I was gasping as though I’d been holding my breath underwater; my hand clutched my chest in order to keep my heart from escaping.
“Drew,” I panted. “Oh my god, Drew, you scared the shit out of me.”
“I scared you?”
“I think the TV screen brightened your face, and, and my vision was blurry because my eyes were closed, and I couldn’t see your eyes,” I was rambling. “Jesus. I thought you were him. Oh, sweet baby Jesus.” I was somewhere between laughter and tears, and Drew put his arms around me.
“Damn, woman, you nearly gave me a bloody heart attack, yourself. We need to get you some special rocks, ASAP.” He forced a small, breathy laugh. “I could go up to Corinne’s room now, if you need?”
“I don’t think that will be necessary, but thank you,” I said with a knowing smile.
“I do wonder if she sleeps starkers? Seems the type, doesn’t she?” he added mischievously.
“God.” I gave his side a little pinch, and we both released nervous laughter.
“We’re goin’ to get you through this, you know that, yeh?” His forehead was pressed to mine, his voice low.
I nodded my head against his, wanting so badly to believe him.
Lav’s voice was gravelly from sleep as she drawled, “You two bloody making out over there? At least turn the telly off so’s I dun have to watch.” Moments later her deep breaths returned.
I’d be lying if I said Drew and I had no romantic history, but I’d be completely justified in saying that we’d never have a romantic future. During our sophomore year, he and I finally gave in to the relentless rumors circulating our small school. Drew had still been considered fairly new to Fort Clair, and his implacable interest in me had become the talk of our grade. I found his unrelenting nature obnoxious and distracting, but Brynn hadn’t allowed me off the hook that easily.
“You are going on a date with him, Nia. I don’t care if I have to smother you with chloroform and kidnap you; I will get you wherever it is he wants to take you,” she’d said one day by my locker, shaking my shoulders and piercing me with her eyes.
Needless to say, I’d caved, but the dates were few, as I turned out to make a pretty cool friend, but a super lame girlfriend. Our newly forged friendship had deepened quickly, though, and we were able to, completely comfortably, bring Lavender and Brynn into the fold. Some bonds are imminent, indescribably permanent, and perfect, as though they are fated. The four of us were the final strokes in an incomplete painting, each a different color necessary to complement the others.
Drew and Lav had come to the States the year prior to that, their mother chasing dreams that she would never have the drive to make a reality. Vanessa Jensen lived for the newest love interest, the escape of a drunken stupor… Her beauty was undeniable, but it was forever being clouded by various insecurities that she had let define her life, as well as the lives of her kids. Luckily, with the support of one another, Drew and Lav had built themselves from a much more resilient material. Neither was in short supply of confidence or drive; they were so sure of who they were and what they wanted from this life. They, unlike me, never felt like they had to be perfect at anything, as long as they were true to themselves. Brynn was similar in this way. I can’t say that I didn’t ever feel this sickly green envy creeping into my veins when I saw them modeling this tenacity like it was no less a part of them than their bone structures.
Drew’s passions lay in working with his hands, fixing and improving and molding and shaping. Making old things new, unsightly images beautiful. When Vanessa discovered that she was no more efficacious here than she had been back home, she moved herself and the twins in with her brother, Colin, a successful mechanic. Uncle Colin had lived in the states for nearly twenty years, building rapport in this small town through contagious smiles and excellent, trustworthy services.
Drew’s gravitation toward the body shop had beeninevitable; he thrived when he was with his uncle. The two worked together like cogs in a machine, turning and producing results with an indescribable grace that didn’t seem to correspond with the grease and sweat that forever camouflaged them.
On the other end of the spectrum sat Lavender, though her dreams were no less attainable to her. Her fascination with the cosmetic realm had been growing since her pre-teen years. She was forever advancing her knowledge of hair, makeup, and fashion, and she made it look so easy. Even with her limited funds, as she and Drew helped Uncle Colin with his mortgage, she managed an appearance comparable to that of a model. Even in our tiny town, she’d managed to snag a couple of indie modeling gigs; her face was like a magnet to beginners trying to build a portfolio. One day down the road, she expected she’d own her own salon; I had zero doubt that this would happen. What the Jensen twins wanted, they attained through sheer will and charm.
And in Lav’s case, the desire to escape Vanessa.
Unlike Drew, Lavender lacked any sympathy for their mother’s never-ending supply of poor choices. Her tolerance had taken too many hits, and she did all she could to avoid the harsh words that she knew were inevitable in Vanessa’s presence. Drew, on the other hand, couldn’t let go of his need to fix their mother. Again, fixing damaged goods is what he excelled at, and he struggled to accept that anything was beyond repair. Vanessa was simply more challenging than most of his jobs, and he couldn’t give up on what he knew she could be. What she should be.
Sometimes, when I found myself jealous of Drew and Lavender, I reminded myself that we all had stories. None of us had an easy life handed to us. We all had different paddles, but rode in the same boat, together.
After making a small pallet on the floor near Brynn, I scooted up behind her as I had when we were girls. Drew sidled up behind me, and we become three spoons, bound together by something so much more poignant than we could comprehend. My breathing had returned to normal, and I closed my eyes, overwhelmingly grateful for the support system that surrounded me.