VI: Perception & Fact
I take a look back at my cousin, who’s still thrashing around in his sleep. It’s pretty obvious that whoever wrote this note is talking about him. The note itself, though, is preposterous. Ty is suffering from night terrors; the truth is as simple as that. As much as I would love for there to be some magical solution to all of this—some grand slam epiphany that can make it all better—magic isn’t real.
I walk over to Ty’s bed, at least as close as I can get to it without falling victim to a flailing limb. As I stand by helplessly and watch him suffer in his sleep, I try to make sense of his incoherent muttering. I desperately need to make sense of something, because something needs to make sense.
At first, it all just seems like a cluster of irrelevant sounds. The longer I listen, the less I understand, the more I begin to subconsciously tune out. As I tune further and further out though, the trees become a forest—and the forest is haunted.
All at once, I realize that Ty hasn’t been muttering, at all. My cousin is laughing. Under his breath, he’s laughing a strange, disjointed laugh the likes of which I’ve never heard. I take a step back. Screaming is one thing, but this is just creepy; there’s no other word for it.
As if on cue, Ty’s arms and legs abruptly stop moving, and fall into a relaxed position. Slowly, strangely, he turns his head toward me. His eyes snap open as though of their own accord, exposing their whites to me. I can see the edges of his irises, fluttering just beneath his upper eyelid. Clearly, he’s still sleeping, still dreaming. His body, though, is moving as though he’s awake. Then, so are his lips.
He only says four simple words. In my current state, though, they’re just the right words to break me.
“Mr. G is coming”.
Then, his eyes snap back shut. Once more, he’s a cluster of manic motion, laughing that eerie laugh that I know for a fact doesn’t belong to my cousin.
The same Mr. G whom I’d heard Tasha Emerson talking to nobody about in the halls earlier today? It’s too much of a coincidence to actually be a coincidence. I want to tell myself that I was right last night; that this is all some sick prank. It’s the only way for me to rationalize all of this. I can’t tell myself any of those things anymore, though. Rationality has completely gone out the window.
At the back of my mind, I know that I’ve seen things that I can’t explain. I know that I’ve been avoiding that truth, but I can’t avoid it anymore.
For reasons that I don’t know how to explain, something comes back to me. It’s something that I learned in Mr. Tanner’s class. Arthur Conan Doyle. Sherlock Holmes.
“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
What remains is the impossible, though. The things that have been happening over the past few days defy reason and now apparently, my family is in the middle of it. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m more than willing to sacrifice some things in the name of my realist tendencies.
I’ll sacrifice novels, TV, friends, a social life. What I will not sacrifice is my family. Whatever all this is, it’s now gone one step further than I’m willing to allow.
I slip on a hoodie, and take one last look at Ty as I prepare to climb out my window. I know that he’ll be in a state of panic when he finally wakes up, and that me not being here won’t help to alleviate that. I also know that if whoever wrote me that note really does have answers, then those answers are something that I need. I refuse to be kept in the dark any longer.
I scribble a quick note on the notepad sitting on the small table between our beds. I want to tell him what’s happening, I want to tell him that everything will be all right. I want to tell him all those things that I don’t know. I don’t know them, though, so what the hell do I tell him? Instead I just write, “be back soon”. Then, I climb out my window to find out.
This is the first time I’ve ever snuck out, but I’ve seen Ty do it plenty of times. Where he goes, I don’t know. I only know that for the first time, I’m grateful for it. Thanks to my cousin’s habitual, if harmless delinquency, I know exactly how to safely scale the downspout of the house’s gutters from the roof down to the ground below. Once I’m down, I unchain my bike, and head off.
There’s little doubt in my mind who I’ll find waiting for me at the school’s gym. All things considered, it would be strange if it wasn’t Tasha Emerson. Then again, it seems like I’m currently in a situation where strange is no longer the strangest thing that can happen.
When I arrive at my destination, the double doors to the gym have already been left ajar. I’m expected. I chain my bike to the nearest tree, and make my way inside. Whoever’s here hasn’t bothered to turn on any of the lights, probably so that they don’t attract any unwanted attention from outside.
“Alright, I’m here,” I call out to anyone who’s listening. “Let’s get this over with. Let’s hear what you have to say.”
“I told you he’d come,” says a familiar voice. It’s whatever—whoever—Tasha had been talking to in the hall earlier; Daff. “He has a soft spot for his family.”
“Yeah, whatever,” Tasha says from somewhere in the opposite direction. “Let’s just get on with this.”
I turn to face her, only to find that she isn’t alone. A tall man with graying-brown hair walks behind her, causing me to curse. I don’t mean to, but the hits keep coming and I’m already far past my wits’ end.
“What the hell? Mr. Tanner?” I demand. “You’re in on this—whatever this is?”
Suddenly, I’m furious. My mind is racing back to the college fair—to the conversation we’d had—to the things that he had said to me about my mother and my father. Finally, I just snap. Rhyme and reason no longer matter. The world around me is dark, but it is also red.
“What, so all that stuff you said about my parents—that was some kind of game to get inside my head? You think that this shit is funny?”
I storm toward him, not quite sure what I’m about to do. Part of me is glad that Tasha steps between us. Still though, I’m out for blood and she’s the closest thing that bleeds, so I sink in.
“And you—who the hell are you? What the hell are you? First, I hear you talking to voices of things that aren’t there—talking about things that you can’t possibly know—and now this?
“You show up in my life, and without warning everything gets turned upside down. Are you the cause of all this?”
My finger is pressed hard into her sternum. She’s looking at it like she has every intention of breaking it, but she doesn’t move. She doesn’t speak. She doesn’t do anything. She just stands there, daring me to do something.
Instead, I just shout. I shout this guttural, primal, utterly incoherent shout that doesn’t even sound as though it’s coming from me. It bounces off the walls, mocking me with my own frustration until it fades back into nothing as I’m left there pulling at my hair because I have no idea what else to do with my hands.
“Are you done?” Tasha asks me so calmly that it’s almost like I didn’t just have a nuclear meltdown right in front of her.
I want to tell her no. I want to keep yelling at her; at Mr. Tanner. I want nothing more than to lay into them with every fiber of my being. The contents of my mind are a complete blur, though. I grasp at words, but catch none. So, I stay silent and I stare her down. I wait for her to get on with it. As mad as I am, I came here for answers and I intend on getting them. It’s Mr. Tanner who speaks up next.
“I know that all of this is incredibly overwhelming, James. We truly are sorry for that,” he says.
“Overwhelming?” I ask. “That’s the word you’re going to use? Not, ‘insane’? Not, ‘impossible’?” I repeat the word that’s been rattling around in my head all day. It feels somehow cathartic to let it out into the open.
“Impossible is a pretty broad category,” Mr. Tanner replies. “Or narrow—I guess it depends on how you look at it.”
“No,” I interject simply. “We’re not having this conversation again. I didn’t come here to listen to you prattle on about your complete and total philosophical crap. The note said that you know what’s wrong with Ty. That’s why I’m here.”
“To be fair, one does inform the other,” Mr. Tanner says in this tone that pretends the riddles he’s talking in make complete and rational sense.
It’s at this moment that I notice there’s something off about him. It’s the way he speaks. It’s the way he stands. Gone is his usual flare. No more are the theatrics with which I had assumed he’d approached every conversation he’d ever been in. In their place are a kind of cold calculation which I’ve never seen from the man before. It’s almost as though he’s assessing me, as though he’s meeting me for the first time, tonight.
“This is pointless,” Tasha says. “I’ve been saying all along that there’s no hope for him. I don’t know why we’re wasting our time here.”
“He’s not a waste of time,” says another familiar voice from off in some distant corner of the room. I look around for the source, but there’s nobody there. “He’s like this because of me. I owe it to him to make up for what I’ve done.”
“I’ve told you before, Bump,” says Mr. Tanner, “What happened wasn’t your fault. Timing is to blame for that. Suffice to say, it couldn’t have been worse.”
The differences are more pronounced now. The dramatic energy that follows the man around has definitely vanished. Now, when he speaks, he sounds flat, blunt, final. In spite of that, he still manages to sound somehow kind as well; sympathetic as he consoles the supposed “Bump”. I, however, don’t need his sympathy, and I sure as hell don’t want it.
“How do you know that name?” I demand, putting on my best intimidating face. “How do you know about Bump?” Tasha and Mr. Tanner look thoroughly unimpressed. “And where do those invisible voices keep coming from? Is this some kind of stage magic, to mess with my head?”
Without warning, faster than I can comprehend, I feel the floor on my back and fire in my face. Tasha has just punched me, knocking me flat.
“I’m about tired of you!” she shouts. “For whatever reason, the world has decided to open up and show a worthless piece of garbage like you all of its secrets, and you can’t even take a minute to stop whining about how it’s all some trick! I waited my whole life for somebody to prove to me that magic is real, and all you can do is act like you’re too good for it. You act like you’re too good for everything!”
I’m laughing now, my own manic laugh; I can’t help it. It isn’t as unsettling as the one Ty was laughing, but it isn’t mine. This is the laugh of somebody who’s become disjointed with reality. This is the laugh of somebody who doesn’t know what’s real, anymore. This is the laugh of somebody who’s losing it.
“Magic?” I finally manage to ask through incredulous cackles as I prop myself up on my hands. I can’t believe that any part of me ever took this seriously.
“Well, not quite,” Mr. Tanner replies in his unusual new inflection. “More like…mysticism, really. I believe that people have taken to calling it, ‘the supernatural’.”
I think about the voices coming from nowhere, and I say the first, dumbest thing that pops into my head.
“What, so ghosts?” I’m still laughing, but it’s more subdued now. I’ve calmed down a bit.
“Spirits, to be more accurate,” Mr. Tanner replies, continuing to act as though all of this crazy is one-hundred percent normal.
I’m not laughing anymore.
“You must be kidding me. You’re honestly about to try and sell me on the idea that my cousin is possessed right now, aren’t you?”
I stand the rest of the way up, clenching my fists.
“Not possessed,” Mr. Tanner says, “not yet. Just…I guess you’d say, haunted.”
“The two of you are both out of your minds,” I say. “You have the nerve to say that I’m wasting your time, but you’re nothing but a waste of mine. I’m out of here, I’ve got a wall to fix.”
I turn to leave, but I don’t make it far. Just as I’m about to begin walking, two pairs of disembodied eyes appear in front of me, floating. One of them glows the same spooky green as the pale kid’s from last night. The other glows a striking shade of golden-yellow. Slowly, two bodies begin to materialize around them, painting the air with flesh.
One of them, unsurprisingly at this point, is the guy from last night—the one who claims to be my childhood imaginary friend. The other is an olive-skinned girl who I’ve never seen before. Her lips are painted dark red, and her dark hair is long and curly, but cropped short on one side so that it hangs asymmetrically over one shoulder. This must be Daff.
I stumble back a few steps and bump into Mr. Tanner, who’s now standing closer to me than he was before.
“We’ve been very patient with you, James,” he says. “We’ve tried to let you come to see the truth at your own pace. We knew that you’d be stubborn, but we didn’t think that you’d be this stubborn.”
“I did,” Tasha points out, raising her hand lazily.
“Not the time, Ms. Emerson,” Mr. Tanner says with an exasperated sigh, massaging the bridge of his nose. “Look, James—Mr. McArthur—There is a lot that you don’t know. Apparently, there’s a lot which you refuse to know. We need you to know those things, though. We need you to accept them; if not for us, then for the sake of the natural order. You are free to leave here, but not until we’ve said what we need to say. Is that clear?”
“Who are you?” I ask him, trapped. “Who are you, really? Because you’re damn sure not just a twelfth grade English teacher.”
Mr. Tanner scratches his chin in consideration of this question. He mulls it over for a moment, tongue in cheek. For somebody who was so keen on speaking just seconds ago, he’s certainly taking his time. Finally, he answers.
“The living have several names for me, truth be told. They call me the Angel of Death; the Grim Reaper. I find all that to be a bit dramatic, if I’m being honest. I prefer the name, Shepherd.”
I go flush, but I attempt to maintain a façade of composure, however obviously fake it may be.
“You expect me to believe that my English teacher is Death, himself?” I ask, at this point much less incredulous than I would like to be.
“Of course, not,” Mr. Tanner laughs.
It’s a genuine laugh. For a moment, I breathe an internal sigh of relief. Then, he finishes that thought.
“Geoffrey is one of my Aspects. I’m just borrowing his body right now, so that I can speak to you.”
I want to tell him how crazy he is, but I’ve already used so many variations of that word, that it’s lost its weight. Whatever weight it once had isn’t heavy enough anyway. This is more than that. This is heavier.
“There goes that look again,” says Whoever-This-Guy-Really-Is. “James, you literally just saw two people appear out of nothing. What else do we have to do to prove to you that we’re telling the truth, here?”
It isn’t a rhetorical question. He remains perfectly silent, and gazes at me expectantly. He actually wants to know.
“…Explain,” I say. I don’t know what else I can say.
He exchanges a look with Tasha, who just shrugs. Then, he looks back at me but really, he’s looking past me; behind me.
“Bump,” he says, “I think it would be best if you did the honors.”
I turn around to look at the shadowy-haired pale boy with the glowing green eyes. If they want me to believe all this, he’s the last person they should have explaining it to me. Out of all the people here, I trust him the least. I’m not sure why, I just do. He scrunches his eyebrows and grimaces. He’s obviously hesitant, but he does what he’s told.
“Jimmy, what do you know about purgatory?” he asks me.
“My name is James,” I say, cutting into him with my stare.
He doesn’t respond to this. His eyes shift away from me, toward the floor. They’re glowing so brightly that they’re like beacons in the dark. I can see every little movement that his irises make.
“It’s supposedly the place between heaven and hell,” I answer grudgingly. “A place for spirits with unfinished business.” The word, “spirits,” tastes bitter on my tongue. I swallow it, and wait for him to continue.
“Heaven and hell…” he says, exhaling deeply. “That’s a little bit black-and-white. Purgatory is more like…it’s like a waiting room for the afterlife.
“When you die, your spirit sort of just floats aimlessly around until Shepherd…” his glowing eyes shift over to Mr. Tanner, “until one of his Aspects finds you. When that happens, the Aspect weighs your life—all the good things, all the bad things; everything that you’ve ever done. They weigh all of it.
“If the good outweighs the bad, you’re given a good afterlife; a peaceful one. If the bad outweighs the good, you’re made to pay penance. I don’t know what that means, but I think it’s some kind of punishment. You pay for all the bad things that you’ve done, and then when you’re done paying you get to move on. You get to go to the better place; your good afterlife. I think there are some people who have done so much bad in their lives, though, that they never make it there.
“Then, there are the other cases.” His eyes dart toward the girl called Daff. “Sometimes, the good and the bad that a person have done just cancel each other out completely. Sometimes, they just haven’t done enough of either. In that case, there’s a special protocol.
“The Aspect does something to the spirit. They take away all the memories that the spirit has of their previous life, and revert them back to the form of a child. Then, we’re assigned to a kid in need—it’s a test. If we’re able to help our kid, have a positive impact on their life, then we’re sent straight to our good afterlife; the happy one. If the kid is worse off for their time with us, then we’re sent to the bad one and made to pay for the bad we’ve done in our lives.
“Adults call us Imaginary Friends, but we’re not imaginary. They just can’t see us; only kids can. We prefer to just be called Friends. Children are so young that they’re still closer to the truth of reality. They haven’t had it pushed out of them yet. They still have a bond to the mystical, so the Aspects use that bond to attach us to them; either until they don’t need us anymore, or until it’s decided that we’ve failed our test.
“Some spirits reject this test altogether, though. They go rogue, in hiding from Shepherd and his Aspects. They’re bitter about being tested, so they take it out on children. It’s usually not the one they were assigned to, because that would be too obvious. They would be caught and shipped off to the afterlife immediately. Instead they hop from kid to kid, scaring them when nobody else is around; tormenting them. People call them Boogeymen.
“Boogeymen used to stick to their own devices. If they stay solo, they’re less likely to attract attention from any Aspects who might end up sending them away. Thirteen years ago, that changed.
“One Boogeyman had an idea so radical, that he managed to draw a few over to his cause. I guess word spreads quickly, because a few became more; more became all of them. They all wanted the same thing. They wanted to choose their own fates. The wanted the Shepherd’s Scythe, and they weren’t above starting a war to get it.
“A war is exactly what they got. They progressed from harmless scare tactics, to actually hurting kids to draw out Shepherd and his Aspects. Shepherd had no choice—he had to do something that he never would have done otherwise.
“He cut off humanity’s connection to the astral plane, until such time that the Aspects could apprehend enough of the Boogeymen that the Rebellion would no longer be a threat. Unfortunately, that day never came; most of them are too good at hiding.
“Jimmy, Shepherd made that call on the same day that your parents died. I wanted to be there for you so badly, but I couldn’t. You couldn’t see me. I’m so, so sorry…”
Tears are cutting lines down his cheeks now. It’s a long moment before I realize that they’re cutting lines down mine, too—the first tears I’ve cried since my parents’ funeral. I wipe them away as quickly as I can. I don’t want him to see them. Whoever this guy is, he doesn’t deserve them.
For a long moment, silence hangs heavy in the gym. In that silence, I notice something for the first time. It’s been there all along, but there was too much going on for me to pay it any mind. A soft, fragrant smell is permeating through the room. It’s the scent of strawberries—my favorite.
“…Bump?” I ask, not daring to believe it.
Not daring, because it’s impossible. Not daring, because fantasy is all just fiction. Not daring, because none of it makes any sense. Not daring, because god I want to. I want to dare. I want to believe. I don’t want to want to, but I do and I can’t help it.
All at once I’m a child again, standing in front of my imaginary friend who was apparently never imaginary at all. I wanted so badly to believe that magic wasn’t real. I wanted to believe that miracles were impossible. I wanted to believe that everything could be could be explained by reason. I can’t seem to remember why I wanted any of that anymore.
“It’s me, Jimmy,” the pale young man—Bump—says to me.
Before I know it, we’re locked in a tight embrace. I’m not falling through him. He isn’t falling through me. He’s really here. Bump is real.
“About damned time,” Tasha sighs from off behind me.
For the first time since I met her, I agree with her.