The killer

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John Doe

M is dead. I checked all places of pulse. There is none. Her face is the opposite of terrified. Mine is flushed of whatever life there was, but hers, hers is filled with peace. Teddy tried to kill me. The bag was over my head, and I was beginning to fade away. And then he pulled it off.

But, Teddy is quiet now. He spoke from the car vents. Furious. Final. He was going to kill me. I could hear it in his voice. The immediate anger that M’s final words brought out of Teddy is something I’ve never seen before.

Many of the other children would cry. Terror would fill their eyes. They would struggle and scratch. They would bite, fighting in any way possible to get away from me. For every kill, Teddy has been in control of these hands. And I’ve watched from the only place that is still mine: the eyes. I have watched the bag wrap around their head loosely, and as they fought, form to the shape of their faces. It didn’t matter what the child looked like, when under the bag they all took the same nameless form. Their face became hollow indents, as their hands would grab for anything, first desperately, and then nothing whatsoever.

Teddy would step out of me. My body would become mine again. An air of joy would cloud around Teddy. It would linger in me, until it finally faded away. I would have to dispose of the body. That was my task. Teddy didn’t help with that. He did the killing. I did everything else…

… Except with M. She is still the sweet, blonde haired Marcy Mills. She isn’t a nameless form like the rest. The bag never took her away. Teddy never took her away. Maybe that’s why he almost took me instead. There was no joy when Teddy stepped out of me this time. No air around him. No fading streaks of it in me. And now I can’t feel him at all.

Somehow, I don’t miss Teddy. The weight of him has lifted. M’s final words fill my head. Without Teddy to stop them, they pour in: Jesus wants me to tell you the light isn’t gone. I hear it in her voice. I close my eyes. There are no blotches of blood. There is no daddy waiting to stick me with his piece. There is just light.

Matthew Mills

I don’t know how long I screamed… or when I stopped. I don’t know when Janet kneeled down next to me. The pain that unhooked from my chest fell into the center of me and shocked my body with violent shivers. Now I can feel nothing whatsoever. Even Janet’s fingers feel alien to my own.

She has asked me why my eye is a swollen socket. I haven’t answered. It doesn’t even feel like I am here. Her kisses against my cheek only feel wrong. But, I let them move to my lips. I kiss back. My eyes close. Marcy blood soaked at the top of the steps is all I can see. Her already-gone eyes haunt me.

I open my eyes again. Janet is kissing my swollen eye, and now the tip of my nose. I look into her eyes. My wife is staring back at me, not the unrecognizable. And she is as sweet and caring as ever. It pulls me back to this reality.

“It’s going to be okay, Matthew.” she says.

“Marcy is missing.” it falls out of me unintentionally. I can’t unsay it.

Her eyes don’t change. No hint of fear sits in them. She just looks at me and says it again, “It’s going to be okay.”

John Doe

The light was white and warm. It wrapped around me. And then it faded. Now my hand is clasping my mother’s. We are sitting on a park bench. There is a colorful sky above me, and green grass beneath me. On the horizon, I can see a city that spreads across endlessly.

“Where am I?” I ask.

“You don’t get to stay my sweet boy,” she smiles. The lines of age still trace across her face, yet somehow she seems without age. “But, you get to see heaven from here: the city without end. The Lord made this spot just for me. He knows that one of my favorite memories with you was watching the sunset from the bench in the park. We used to live outside of a city. You would sit on my lap and coo. The setting sun always made me think of heaven. I would tell you how much Jesus loves you. That hasn’t changed, my sweet boy. The light isn’t gone.”

She’s fading. Her voice. Her face. Her warmth. I can hear the traffic on the highway zipping past. My eyes open to find my hand is holding my own.

Matthew Mills

It’s going to be okay. They are the only words Janet has said about the situation. When I try to describe the absolute certainty I have that our daughter is gone, she doesn’t try to reason it away. She doesn’t grasp desperately for hope of finding Marcy alive again. Her eyes say that she has already accepted the news that still makes me feel bottomless. When I close my eyes, I think about the razors in my shaver. I think about locking myself away and slowly bleeding—I now think about what I know: the Word. The Lord has promised to never give us more than we can handle. It’s a promise He saw through when my dad died long ago.

The wreck I was then became the man I still am. At least I have to believe that’s the man I still am. I have to believe that God has a plan for taking away my unborn son a week ago, and now, taking my daughter today. It’s all I have left.

Janet’s eyes have been staring at my swollen face since she said those words.

“You hit yourself, didn’t you?” she asks, seeming to already know the answer.

I look at her with a slow, extended blink, saying nothing.

“Did it help?”

I shrug. The question is something I can’t answer. It gave me something to hit. And as the swelling decreases, and the bruising increases, so will the pain. Maybe it did help. It’ll give me a distraction. It’ll make me feel grounded in my body, instead of hovering despondently.

I look at Janet. There is some part of me that wants to scream at her. I want to yell, “When the baby died, you were a basket case! Your daughter’s gone and you’re calm?!” But, I don’t. That’s the angry, envious part of me. That’s the part that wishes I could feel the same. I can see the Lord’s light in her. I am jealous and guilty for the way I feel.

“It’s going to be okay.” she says it again. She pauses, and I see her bottom lip begin to quiver. “I-I was lying in bed, sobbing. I cried out to Jesus that I couldn’t take anymore. I wanted it t-to end today, Matthew. I thought about the pi-pills in the bathroom cabinet. I thought about the ra-razors in my shaver. I thought about fi-filling the tub with just enough water that I could slip beneath it and drown looking u-up at the ceiling. And then I heard the deepest voice tell me to stand. I did. In the darkness of the room, I saw a wall of light appear. It almost looked like a door. It was pure light. White. Warm. I never wanted it to end. And then hands came from it, just far enough out that I could clasp the fingers. There were holes in His wrists. The light shone through them. The only words I heard were, ‘It’s going to be okay.’ And then it disappeared. So sweetheart, it’s going to be okay.”

John Doe

The way it feels to leave mom’s side is the way it felt to watch her die when I was a boy: one minute she is there, the next she is gone. Only when I was a boy, I still believed in something as beautiful as the endless city on the horizon.

But, just like the way mom faded from memory years ago, the visit with her on the park bench is already slipping away. The reality of the day is back in the front of my mind. The plastic bag that nearly killed me is now a crumpled ball in my hand. It somehow seems right that M is dead in the backseat. She brought the idea of light back into the darkness of me. And for a brief time, I saw something beautiful. I saw a light.

But, everything has returned to what it was. I am not the boy mom left years and years ago. I am a killer. I have lured each child to a death Teddy planned long before they entered the car. I am the one who stuck their dead skin with a needle, withdrew their blood into a vial, and placed it inside of their teddy bears propped on the shed shelf. I am the one that buried them within walking distance of the shed, under the deck of my old house.

Even if that brief moment of time on the bench was real, I deserve punishment. Sometimes late at night, my head fills with the images of parents pleading for whoever has their child to let them come home. Teddy likes to watch them give their press conferences on the TV. He likes to see them hurt. And when he likes it, some part of me does too.

I don’t deserve somewhere better than this world. She does. She deserves the view of absolute beauty. She deserves the warmth that wraps around you. She deserves that happiness. I deserve torment. Maybe that’s why Teddy is in my life. Maybe he’s here to keep me from happiness, because I deserve every pain he inflicts on me. I deserve much more.

The very mention of light made Teddy want to kill me. And now I know why. Come back to me, Teddy. M said the light isn’t gone. But, it is. It has to be. Because I deserve everything you do to me. You aren’t my friend, Teddy. You are my punishment.

Matthew Mills

A year before my dad died, I was given a dream of his resurrection. Ridiculous or not, I believed it to be true. At the funeral, I stared at the casket, waiting for God to breathe life back into him. Despite all of my relatives’ tears, I did nothing but stare. I believed God had the power to bring him back, to show Himself in the way He did back when Jesus walked the earth. But, my dad didn’t resurrect. The preacher said his words. The casket lowered. And the dirt was reapplied. God died too, for a very long time.

He never promised an easy walk. He promised to give us the strength to endure. He has to have a reason for taking my little girl. I can’t lose my faith. It’s all I have. But, the pain is sharper than I’ve ever experienced.

Janet grabs a hold of my hand and says the same thing again. This time, I believe it.

John Doe

I’m not on the shoulder of the highway anymore. I’m going seventy in a sixty-five. It’s a long drive to the shed. And soon M will join the other fourteen beneath the deck of my childhood home.

Teddy is quiet, but I can feel his presence next to me. I am not searching for any form of comfort. Teddy will no longer provide me company. He will tell me what to do, and I will do it. No hesitation. No questions asked. And that will be what my life returns to. And many more children will join M and the others.

The radio just turned on. I didn’t touch it.

“In a stunner, the Twins beat the Yankees, building to a nail biting twelfth in—

The station changes: “Hallelujah and glory to the Lo—

It changes again: “Welcome to Talk Radio. It’s our open hour. Call in about what you want to discuss. Aliens. Sex. Violence. All three.” the man chuckles. “First caller, you are on Talk Radio.”

“I was reading about curses.” it’s a woman.

“And what did you discover?” the man asks.

“I discovered that you can kill someone with one. Okay, I already knew that. But, how easy it can be, I didn’t know that.”

“How easy is it?”

“Let’s just say I prayed darkness on you. At first, nothing would happen. You would maybe have a few strange dreams, nothing more. But, soon enough that darkness would start to grow in you. You would see blood when your eyes closed. It would belong to nobody at first. And then soon it would belong to your wife, and son. Those strange dreams would become strange activities that you didn’t remember doing. And then one morning, you would wake up to find the blood you saw when you closed your eyes, is now on the floor. It would all come back to you, as you remembered killing both your wife and son. And then you’d kill yourself too.”

“I don’t have a wife and son.”

“Imagine you did.”

“Well, that’s interesting caller. Any experience on it?”

“What do you mean?”

“Have you taken a life?”

“No, but how easy it would be.”

The radio shuts off as fast as it came on.

Matthew Mills

The screen on my cell shows a buzzing phone. I answer this time. The voice on the other end is trying to hide panic, but it’s all I can hear.

“Mr. Mills?” she says.

“I got your messages.” surprisingly, there is no quiver to my voice. It’s calm and collected.

“I’m so sorry—”

“I know.” I interrupt.

“Ms. Brands remembers nothing. But, she called Marcy down to the office. We heard it on the intercom. Minutes later, Marcy was gone. Maybe you can come down and talk to her?”

“Sure,” I can hear the tone of my voice. It’s flat and blank. “I’ll be down soon.”

The lady on the other end wants to say sorry again. I can hear it in the way she is breathing, and the long pauses between any sounds whatsoever. Instead, she says nothing. And the call ends.

I look up from hanging my head, to see Janet smiling at me from the kitchen. In her hands, she has a dish towel wrapping crushed ice. She walks toward me, kneels again, and applies it gently to my swollen eye.

With my good eye, I look at Janet, and then past her. The picture of Marcy framed on our wall seems brighter than the rest. I remember taking that picture. We were having a picnic. Marcy wanted to feel giant. She remained standing, as I took the picture while lying down, catching the sky behind her. It was what I called Ant Vision.

Janet follows my gaze, to look as well. She crawls next to me and nuzzles close. And then we lay down completely, remembering when Marcy got to be giant

John Doe

Teddy is here, yet he isn’t. I can think about things I never could before. The blood doesn’t come from me as it once did. His voice doesn’t fill my head until control slips from my fingers into his.

But, all I can think about is what I heard on the radio: curses, and how easy it would be to kill someone with one. Those thoughts feel like Teddy.

A different thought just came to mind. This thought doesn’t feel like Teddy. It feels like something that Teddy would bleed me dry for thinking. Yet, I’m thinking it, and nothing is happening: If Teddy was gone, would I still take children? How can the answer be so easy? It shouldn’t be, but it is. If Teddy was gone, I wouldn’t take children. But, the question is irrelevant, because the real truth is, if Teddy was gone, I would be too. There is no other reason for me. He has been with me for as long as I can remember, keeping me hidden, keeping me in the shadows.

The shed is where those shadows lie, covering a secret that Teddy has kept hidden. And his power has spread out from the property, slowly emptying the surrounding town. Minea, Minnesota used to be a town like Payne, North Dakota: not big, but active. Now, it’s empty.

Matthew Mills

The sun pours onto my face as soon as I step from the house. It feels clean, close to the way it felt to be baptized in the Spirit.

Janet’s fingers in between mine feel as intimate as when we make love; that, I can’t begin to describe.

I told her she could stay home. I told her she didn’t have to come down to the school with me. She wants to.

We pass our two vehicles, walking the same path I walked with Marcy only hours ago. I’m hiding my swollen eye behind sunglasses; my nose is badly bruised, but not broken as far as Janet can tell.

“Does it hurt?” she asks.

“I’ll be okay.” I’m not sure what hurt she’s referring to. The inner pain is nearly unbearable; the outer pain is keeping the first from taking me to my knees and keeping me there.

“We’ll be okay.” Every time she smiles, I look for hints of sadness. I shouldn’t, but I do. And all I can see is faith fully surfaced. This visit to the school is going to be much harder for me than it will be for her. She just touched Jesus’ hands. She just heard Him say, “It’s going to be okay.” Her eyes aren’t set in the limitations of this world anymore. I imagine those five words are all she is hearing, over and over again. And they will carry her through whatever we hear at the school, and whatever we return to at home.

I’m walking with her, but the clean feeling has become sadness. Her fingers aren’t in between mine anymore. She’s only holding my hand. I close my eyes and imagine Marcy in place of her. Every time I think about making it through the days without seeing my little girl, I think about how her voice will never call for me again, how I will never get to hug her, or tell her that I love her. And now, I think about how Janet’s five words seem more meant for her than me.

John Doe

Before mom died, Minea was a town I actively participated in. I was in the elementary T-ball program, even though I was the slowest of the kids. They called me heavy hitter, fat boy, and John Doe the slow. It was funny to them. Dad came to the games and cheered me on. I’m just remembering that now.

Teddy has kept me fixated on the day daddy stuck me with his piece in the shed. It’s all I’ve been able to remember. It’s all I have thought about when thinking back to the days of my childhood. Until now, I’ve only seen him the way he was after the shed. But now, for some reason I am remembering before the shed. Before his piece. Before Teddy.

The roar of the road is quiet. The hum of this Buick is nearly non-existent. No matter how much I listen, Teddy isn’t in my thoughts.

All I can think about—all I can see—are the T-ball days:

“Go get ’em, John!” dad said. He wasn’t heavy set like I was. He was tall and thin, and cleanly shaven. Handsome was the word my mom used. I just now remember that as well. I must have only been six, maybe seven at the time. To remember any of this after twenty six years of only remembering the day in the shed, I somehow feel alive, more alive than I have in twenty six years.

Matthew Mills

All I can wonder as I walk toward the office is this: If I fall, will I get back up? Janet fell and nearly gave up because of it. Had The Lord not visited, she would probably be in the act of ending her life right now. But, He did visit. He helped her back up, and now she is walking with me.

It’s going to be okay. They are not Janet’s words. They are The Lord’s. They are a promise. I have to take it as that. If I don’t, I will fall, and I will stay down. Faith is all I have left. It’s not an exaggeration. It’s a statement stripped to its barest truth.

The feeling of being human doesn’t change with this realization. There is no elevating above this. Pain shapes us. It will shape me. Lord, help me see Your plan, because I don’t.

“I love you, handsome husband of mine.” Janet says. Her eyes glisten with the same personality I fell in love with.

“You haven’t said that you love me since the miscarriage.” I answer quietly. “I wasn’t sure if you still did.”

“Of course I do. I was ashamed. I was broken into so many pieces. I failed. It was all I could feel. And I was even failing as M’s mom.” something has grown in her eyes: sadness, or something close to it. “I know that Jesus came to me. I know that He told me, ‘It’s going to be okay.’ But, I was so hurt, I neglected her. I could have had one more week with my daughter, my little M. And now she is gone.”

Why is comfort the only thing I feel from seeing Janet’s sadness? If I’m completely honest with myself, I envied her. Deep inside, her indifference to the situation made me feel like my wife was already gone. But, I was wrong. Her eyes are set in this very moment, in this very reality. Jesus didn’t numb her of what we have to face. He picked her back up, and let five words be His promise. Now, it’s about faith. Now, it’s about letting His promise keep us afloat.

Grief is tumultuous. It’s a sea with waves that keep tossing and thrashing. The only thing that keeps you from sinking is whatever piece is left from the already sunken ship. And you drift. Days become weeks. Weeks become months. Months become years. You stay in the present moment, because the future is too big. All you have is that little piece of the ship. You cling onto it. If you let go, you drown. If you give in, you die. I have lived this. But, there’s something this metaphor on grief doesn’t include: the Holy Hands that lift you back up to the surface even when you let go.

We are at the office doors now. I can see two women through the glass windows. They see me too. Their eyes seem to dart away from mine. Janet opens the door. Our hands stay together as we enter.

“Hi, Janet,” one of the women say. She is the younger of the two. The other is an old face of layered wrinkles.

“Hello,” Janet replies.

“And you are Matthew?” she asks.

“Yes,” I answer.

“I’m Mrs. Fig. I’m the Principal.” she pauses. “First of all, we have already made the authorities aware of Marcy’s disappearance. I want to apologize to you both. I don’t even know how this happened. Marcy was in class. Ms. Brands paged her down to the office. And then—” she stops whatever she was about to say. “Ms. Brands is going to tell you what she remembers.”

The face of wrinkles moves. I can now see that her hair is a tight white pony tail.

“I can remember talking to her. I don’t remember what she asked me. I don’t remember what I said. I just remember seeing her.”

“Was she with anyone?” Janet asks.

Ms. Brand’s eyes fill with confusion, like asking a patient with dementia to remember their social security number.

“Uh,” she says, now blankly staring past us.

“Ms. Brands?” the Principal is sharply authoritative.

“I’m sorry. I don’t remember.”

“Go home, Ms. Brands. We’ll decide what actions to take tomorrow.”

Without another word, she gets up and leaves. Her eyes don’t meet mine. She just leaves, eyes still completely lost.

John Doe

The closer I get to the shed, the more everything about it returns. It begins with daddy. It always has. Not the man I am remembering, but the man he has been to me for the past twenty six years. It begins with how I helped Teddy become as strong as he is, because when it all started, he couldn’t shield me from their eyes. He couldn’t keep me hidden. He instructed me on how to grow that power in him, and that covering over me. And I listened.

“It begins with his blood.” he told me after the cops left. “Use the leftover needles in your mom’s bag. Withdraw a sample of his blood from the floor, and inject it into his cigarette box. Leave it out and on display in the shed. There is power in the blood, John.”

I did what he told me to do. The pack is still on display. It’s the first thing I see whenever I go back. And then I see the teddy bears on the highest shelf, with eyes painted to match the child they belong to.

Even as I think about the shed, memories of before continue to spill in. He was a happy, hopeful man. You could see it in his eyes. He carried it like a badge. He loved my mom with all he had. You could see that too. And he loved me.

The shed has always been a place for keeping things hidden. If Teddy were talking to me right now, I know he would say that this time is different. There was something about Matthew that weakened him. This isn’t just another visit to bury M. He wants Matthew dead like her. He wants to showcase his power. Just like with dad twenty six years ago, he wants me to help.

I don’t know why Teddy hasn’t said a word to me since nearly killing me. The radio program had the feel of Teddy, but it was distant. He wasn’t in the deepest parts of my brain, fighting for control. He was on the outside. The only thing that has changed since he nearly killed me is the light I saw, the light I don’t deserve.

Is that your weakness, Teddy? Light? I saw it in Matthew and it was the brightest I have ever seen in M. If what she said is true, Teddy, the light isn’t gone from me. Not completely. And now you can’t control me like you did. You can’t keep me from remembering dad before the shed. Every trip has been to bury things, but this time, Teddy, I’m going to dig something up. I’m going to find the reason dad changed. He had love once. Where did it go? I think you know, Teddy. I think you know.

Matthew Mills

After Ms. Brands left, Mrs. Fig stuttered through a badly rehearsed speech. Words like don’t worry and keep the faith were peppered throughout. Janet and I left her office with the same fake handshake we met her with. I have learned nothing about what happened to Marcy. The words I was told inspired nothing in me. No false hope. No new insight. Nothing.

We are both walking slowly. My eyes glance at Marcy’s empty locker. Janet’s fall on it and stare.

“Everything is going to be okay, sweetie.” I don’t know why I am saying this. By the way her eyes look at me, she doesn’t either.

I have had faith in every aspect of my life, from marrying Janet young, to trusting the Lord in the loss of my first and now second son. But, every time I try to wrap my head around the reality of Marcy’s death—I feel like I am floating away. Janet’s hand is holding mine, but her closeness is fading.

Grief is a vast sea. I was on land. But now, I am drifting away. There is only one truth I know for certain. I will not be able to drift for years like I did when losing my dad. Right now, I won’t even make it weeks, maybe not even days.

Janet’s pace has suddenly quickened. She is pulling me with her. Marcy’s locker blends in with the rest; the doors are only feet away. We break through. The sunlight doesn’t have the same clean feeling it did when I left the house. Now my face is throbbing. The nose pieces of the glasses feel like tight fingers pressing together. I pull off the shades.

We turn to leave the way we came. Ms. Brands is standing at the end of the sidewalk. Her back is hunched, staring across the street. She still looks lost.

“If you want to talk to her, you can. I’m going home.” Janet says. And with that, she leaves my side. No kiss goodbye. Just a quiet exit.

Before I arrive, Ms. Brands turns to me. “Albert’s eyes were scared.”

“What?” I ask, staying a few feet away.

“Albert’s eyes were scared. Pained. Terrified.” by the way she now looks, those words could be describing her.

“Who’s Albert?”

“My Albert.” the reply creaks out of her, soft and troubled. “My Al-Albert.”

“Your husband?”

“Not anymore.” she answers, as if talking to herself. The answer isn’t directed at me. It’s just a reply. Her eyes have yet to focus on mine. “He’s dead now.” now, her eyes look empty. There is no sadness to them, or bitterness, or hostility.

What I know of Ms. Brands is what I have heard over the phone. Whenever Marcy was sick, she would take the call-in. Ms. Brands’ voice was tight and strict. She was an old woman who had been doing the job too long. Everyday was routine. Children were headaches. That was the woman I knew over the phone. This woman is a scooped out shell, troubled and lost.

I haven’t thought about this morning until now. The Lord prompted me to anoint Marcy. When I look into Ms. Brands’ eyes, I get that same chill I had when Marcy looked at me before running down to the devil’s call. The visions of blood, the restless nights—it makes sense now. The Lord knew something was coming that would directly affect me. He was preparing me. But, I don’t feel prepared.

John Doe

Perspective is beginning to grow in me. I don’t know where it’s coming from. The only time I remember having true perspective was before the shed. I have lived in a fog, completely aware of it without trying to escape. There was nothing outside of Teddy and our existence together. No brighter days. No happiness. No light. After dad stuck me with his piece, Teddy became my only friend. A companion who helped me carry my shame in secret, in hiding.

Teddy never implanted in me a fascination for children. There has never been an attraction to them, nothing close to it. But, this is where my perspective ends. Why I have lured so many children away from their protected lives to let Teddy kill them, I will never know.

I am fighting. Even if there is light in me, do I want it to be there? Do I deserve to feel any sort of redemption? Any kind of relief from this fog? Any light in the darkness of me? The man I was at the beginning of this day is not the same man I am now. Not completely. I don’t feel so trapped inside myself. The view from my eyes has cleared and I can see things for what they are now. Not what Teddy says they are.

I don’t miss him. I thought I would. I thought it would feel like a friend abandoning me. But, instead it feels like chains being loosened.

I can see M in the rearview mirror. Her skin is still the color of pale cream. She has yet to appear what she is: dead. I look at myself in the same mirror. The man looking back at me is unrecognizable. My facial hair curls unevenly across my top lip and bunches in uneven patches across my cheeks, chin, and neck. My teeth are something to be hidden, but I look at them anyway. The cut from where I dug my nail is now a hardened scab. Everything about the way I look is the same. Yet, I don’t recognize myself.

Drug addicts describe this feeling as clean. There’s something inside that is different. It’s what makes the reflection seem like a stranger. They have only known that dirty feeling for so long, that clean is unrecognizable.

My sins aren’t piling up in my head. I am completely aware of what my role has been in killing children. I deserve the dirty feeling. There is no other truth. I deserve to feel trapped inside myself, yet I don’t.

I take a deep breath, and then another. Clean. It’s all I can feel.

Matthew Mills

I asked Ms. Brands to tell me about Albert. The reply has been vague. He was her husband, but only at times does that register any emotion in her. I haven’t tried to bring up Marcy again. Ms. Brands can tell me nothing about it. Though, the darkness in her knows. It’s what The Lord has been preparing me for.

“What are you?” I ask.

Her eyes snap alive with piercing accuracy. “I am powerful.” it whispers. Her hand touches mine. But, it’s not her hand. It’s tighter than that. My eyes close. I can’t stop them. Children are screaming: Help me!, but it’s muffled. There is only darkness. The cries have become laughter. Deep. Distorted. Now, it’s building. There is more than one. It’s a symphony of mocking sounds. I can hear the cries. I can hear the laughter.

As soon as it started, it stops.

“Marcy is next!” it resumes, fuller and more chaotic than before. I try to call the name of Jesus, but my tongue won’t form words. I try to pull away, but I am paralyzed.

“He-Hel-Help,” it’s all I can say. It does nothing. The darkness has faded into the image of our last time together. But, the view is not mine. It’s from across the street, through eyes that belong to someone else. I am watching me. We are being watched. Or, we were—I still am.

“Daddy!” it’s Marcy. I would know her voice anywhere. “It hurts! Help me!”

I try to say Jesus again. The words bunch up into something else and come out as Sesuj. A second try brings Jusje. The third is stuttered then strong. I call His name. As soon as they closed, my eyes open. Ms. Brands is blank once again.

I walk away, saying nothing more. My steps are fast and only quicken. When my eyes close, I hear the laughter and the cries. The tight grip on my hand is still there, even though nothing is holding it. I feel watched, by eyes I can’t see. They are peering into the deepest parts of me, pulling apart my defenses—they know my weaknesses. The Lord is my Shepherd. He is my Savior. But, I am drifting, and a storm is coming. No. It’s already here. And I am vulnerable.

The eyes that see into me have a familiar feeling. After dad died, darkness and I shared a room. It perched in the corner, watching me. I know darkness. It’s a weight that only gets heavier. It’s a lie that convinces until it’s your truth: There is no God. If there is, why does He let you suffer? You don’t want to live. There is just this miserable, heavy, painful life. Kill yourself. No one cares about you. No one would even notice if you were gone.

Darkness is a lie I once believed.

John Doe

Quiet used to be deafening. Now, it’s nowhere close. The road is a quiet roar beneath my tires. My mind is toying with an idea that I haven’t been able to have before. I don’t want to drive to the shed, and add M’s body to the rest. I want to bring her back to Payne. Just as her death was peaceful, I want the same for those who love her. There isn’t much left of me. Even this new layer is just remains of a man who has nothing to live for. I am remembering happiness, but that doesn’t change the things I’ve done. I am accountable for the lives I have ruined. My punishment will be severe. It needs to be.

The gas is nearly half. I could probably make it another couple hundred miles. Once it runs out, this is over. I will turn myself in. Her body will make its way back to Payne, and her family can say goodbye. If Teddy were still here, I would have been dead long before this plan had a chance to enter my mind.

Teddy is in the corner of my eye. Small yet large. It is just a bear. Faded brown. Aged. He is small in size, but the presence surrounding him fills the seat next to me. It is returning again, not in my mind, but in the car. The radio is back on. Static. Station. Static. Station. And then it stops.

“Found in the woods earlier this morning was a male. John Doe, approximately mid to late 30’s, was found split open and gutted. Authorities believe it wasn’t human.”

The station changes:

“Eyes multiplied. Two times eight. And then double. It sees me, inside and out.

Daddy touched me. It watched. It laughed.

Lids. Half of them shut. Half of them open. And then switch.

It’s a man. It’s a creature. It’s not human. It watches. It sees.

There is no escape.”

The radio is off. I now don’t know if it was ever actually on. It feels like I was sleeping. The tingle of Teddy is present, but it’s fading.

Time feels different. My gas gauge is much lower than I remember. The sun’s placement in the sky seems closer to the horizon. It was just after twelve o’clock when I last looked at the clock on the radio. Now, it’s two.

Matthew Mills

I have been in the basement since getting back home. It’s been well over an hour and a half, and I have yet to go back upstairs. Janet might not even know I am down here. I am haunted. The darkness that grabbed my hand has followed me home. Now, whenever I close my eyes, the laughing fills my ears.

My dad’s notes have kept me sober in situations that drive many to addiction. He was an addict. That was before he and mom met, before I was even a conceived idea. Mom was an addict, too. The Lord delivered her in a cleaner, more severed way though. He also delivered my dad, but there were scars from an abusive childhood that never healed. And they became translucent, mostly through these notes.

He kept them hidden. I found them when cleaning out the attic of the old house, when helping mom move. I don’t think she even knew about them. We all keep secrets. Dad’s were of struggle. And his struggle gives me hope. No matter how much we fall, the Lord will pick us back up. My dad was living testimony to this. He faced his consequences, because those are promised to us just as much as blessings are. But, in the end, his walk with Jesus was all that mattered.

Mom has always told me this: sin knocks as a stranger, enters as a guest, and stays as a master. Nothing is truer. Sin is a living creature. It remembers who it shared a room with, who it used to own. It knows me. I’m older now, both in spirit and in age, but it remembers the hold it used to have.

Something familiar grabbed hold of me. I feel eyes, the same eyes that followed me in my bedroom this morning, the same eyes that watched me from inside Ms. Brands.

I am flipping through dad’s notes. They are scrambled, with thoughts scribbled. Dashes are spread across them like commas. Some of these were written during his sickness, others before. He didn’t date them. These notes aren’t a chronicle of his illness. There is no timeline. Some are written in ink, some in pencil. He hardly ever mentions the cancer. But, I recognize some of the scenarios. I remember being the little boy, next to him when no one else could be, hearing the grim diagnoses build until it was us accepting his drawn out death.

I have searched these notes over and over, especially since Janet had her second miscarriage. Dad had to deal with two miscarriages himself. There was brief mention about it in one of his earliest notes. It isn’t dated. There is just a look to the paper, the smeared ink, and the little doodles that line the sides. It looks older than the rest, considerably.

His sanity, worth, and identity were always in question. But, he never questioned Jesus Christ. He wasn’t afraid of death. In many of the notes, he talked about it as a reward: Death is the light; life is the dark. Dad probably never knew that these random scribblings of self doubt, fear, and faith would speak to me as if he were still here. Or maybe he did.

John Doe

These hands are still mine to control. If that is the truth, where did two hours disappear to? Teddy has taken over this body many times, but I have always been aware of it. In my own way, I have allowed it, because it was going to happen regardless. This feeling is something different. It feels like I had freedom, only to remember that a chain is still clasped around my ankle.

That is a life that isn’t mine. But, I try to cast the freedom away, only to find it clings to me. There is more. Or something has me believing it. Teddy’s hold is strong again. I helped grow his power—his hold on me. And as we get closer and closer to Minea, his influence is finding its way back. I felt lighter, but now the weight is becoming heavy again.

Two nights ago, I had a dream that a chain was wrapped tightly around my ankles. I was being pulled. I only had control of my eyes. I could only watch. The sound of the chain dragging against ground echoed against my ears. My hands were pinned to my sides; my legs didn’t kick to get free. I watched as it pulled me through my childhood kitchen toward the basement stairs. There was nothing I could do. I was pulled down the stairs slowly, hearing the creak of something following behind. As my feet hit the basement floor, countless eyes opened on the walls. They were the eyes of children; they were the eyes of Teddy; they were the eyes dad had when he stuck me with his piece. Behind me, I could still see the light of the upstairs. But, the chain kept pulling me forward. Inch by inch, foot by foot. Until, I saw deformed hands the color of soot.

And then I woke up. Two nights ago, the dream was just that: a dream. But, as I have come to find perspective, I’m a fly in a spider web, slowly being pulled to my death. Teddy got in again. He used the radio. He messed with my perception of time. I don’t know how far we have traveled. I just know that his presence is heavy and full next to me once again.

But, he still doesn’t have full control. These hands are still mine to control, at least, for the moment. I know one thing for certain. Teddy and I are not the pairing we used to be. I’m a puppet who now knows that life doesn’t come with strings. And I want free. I know I don’t deserve it—no, I do deserve it. Those children are dead because of these hands, but someone else was always controlling them. Dad was the only one I killed. Teddy made me feel fresh despite all of my shame. Dad became everything I hated. I didn’t question why he would do something like that. I questioned nothing. When my teddy bear came to life, I felt safe. After the shed, safety was all I wanted. But, it didn’t last. It never does.

Matthew Mills

The stairs are creaking. I can hear the quiet breathing of Janet.

“Matthew?” I can hear her call too. “Are you down here, sweetheart?”

“Yes.” I reply. Dad’s notes are back behind the desk, in the box where I found them.

“What are you doing down here?” Her question reaches me before I see her face.

“I don’t even know.” And I don’t. I suppose I am just trying to pass the time. When three o’ clock comes, I know that I’ll wait to hear Marcy come home.

“Sweetheart, your face looks very swollen.” Janet’s in the doorway of my small office now.

I have disregarded the fact that it has become more difficult to see out of my right eye. The pressure that’s been building around the center of my face has numbed completely. My face is bruised and beaten. It’s how I feel inside, both in body and in spirit. Ms. Brands had something in her, and it attached itself to me. I feel exhausted in every aspect.

“Come upstairs with me. You don’t need to be down here alone. I know that you want your time, but I know you, Matthew. When you look at me with eyes like that, you are letting every thought fill your head. We can cry, but not alone. Not down here. There are too many shadows, too much darkness. You need light.”

“Okay.” I don’t want to go with her. She can talk this way only because Jesus came to her. Before that, she treated me like a crazy for having faith. I anointed her this morning because I felt something dark trying to get in, and she laughed at me. Only hours later, how can she be the one who has the solid ground? How can she be the one who is offering me the light?

I have been standing in the gap for her for five nights, willing to take on her hurt so she doesn’t have to feel it. And it has transferred. My knees are about to buckle. I am haunted. I am in throbbing pain. My faith is there but hard to reach. Every time I try to give it all to Jesus, and lay it at the foot of the cross, my feelings overtake me. Feeling is enemy to the Spirit. It is fickle and fleeting. It is human, backed by emotion, thought, and reason. It is telling me to resent Janet for how easy it has become for her.

But, I don’t. She would be dead had it not been for that encounter. It’s a selfish part of me that wants to see The Lord for myself. I wasn’t nearing suicide, like Janet. I wanted her to be lifted up. And now that she is, part of me wants her sad again. This is feeling.

John Doe

Everyone called him Little Tommy. His actual name was Thomas Aerie. Dad’s death gave Teddy a hold on my childhood home; Thomas Aerie’s gave Teddy a place to call his own. The events that led to the killing of Thomas began with something as simple as an idea. I remember the moment that it flooded into my head, images and all. He was a pale skinned boy with blonde hair almost the same color. His voice was quiet and careful. He didn’t like to offend, or disrupt. It’s the reason I believe Teddy had for choosing him. The light in Thomas was almost as bright as it was in M.

Thomas Aerie is my true origin, and I still question how I could have done what I did to him. He was only seven and small for his age. I had seen Thomas many times before. He lived in Minea, just minutes away from me.

I was barely fourteen. The fingers of Teddy were already deep in me—they had been since the moment I killed dad. His voice was the only one I wanted to hear, like a compass guiding me. He didn’t just sit in my thoughts. He pulled on my feelings. When I saw Thomas, I could only see the light. The light that I no longer had. The light that had been taken from me when my mom died. And it made me hate him.

That hate grew, until one night I dreamt of turning out the light in him. And when I woke up, my mind filled with vivid ideas of just how to do it. It came in images and sounds. It wasn’t something Teddy was telling me, but he was presenting the option. If I couldn’t have the light, why should anyone else?

When I thought of Thomas, I thought of dad, and then I thought of the shed. I thought of the fear I felt, and the hate that accompanied it. Killing dad was the beginning. But, it didn’t end there. It only grew.

Teddy knew of my pain. He said it would be lifelong. He said that turning the lights out in others would help make the pain go away. It did at first…

Thomas ran through my yard, out of breath and terrified. Three others had followed him. They were boys, my age and younger.

“We just wanna play, Little Tommy!” they said. He ran down the gravel path, past the house. At first I only heard his feet kicking up gravel, but then I saw him. Teddy had told me it would happen this way. And as it was playing out, his voice whispered directions to me. He told me to call him toward the house. And I did.

I was his protector. That was Teddy’s first direction. Thomas ran toward me, and slipped inside the house. We waited in the entryway.

“They’re gonna hurt me.” his voice was still that small squeak, now covered with a coating of fear. I could nearly hear his heartbeat in his breath.

“No they won’t.” I don’t want to think about what comes next. Every word I told him was a lie. Every small smile I gave, every reassuring word I said, was all an act. I never had any intention of protecting him. It was all part of Teddy’s plan. I could have stopped, but I didn’t.

A small voice tried to tell me that I didn’t have to do it. It tried, but failed. Whenever I would consider listening, I filled with hate. Maybe that was Teddy. Or maybe it was me. I still don’t really know.

I only know what comes next in the true origin of me. I led him away from the entryway, and up the stairs. Knocks were coming from the front door, with voices saying, “We know you’re in there, Little Tommy! You can’t hide forever!”

His eyes weren’t wide and terrified anymore. They were like M’s. The light I saw made me grab a hold of his neck and squeeze. I thought of dad sticking me with his piece, the pain of losing mom, and before I knew it, breath didn’t come from him anymore. I don’t remember a struggle. Maybe there was none. All I remember are his eyes. They haunted me, because even in his death, I saw the light.

Matthew Mills

I’m at the top of the stairs, hugging Janet. Her head fits like a puzzle piece with my shoulder. Neither of us has said anything. I can tell that it’s something that she missed. I’ve missed it too.

When we were young, our hugs became extended slow dances. Sometimes music wasn’t required at all. I would do my best rendition of Elvis’ Can’t Help Falling in Love. I try it again right now, but only tears come to her eyes. Maybe it’s too soon.

Now, there’s a kiss.

“I love you, Matthew.” she whispers as she kisses me a second time. “I love you so much.”

“I love you too, beautiful,” I reply. She smiles. And just like when we were young, our hug has become a slow dance. I have never actually known the lyrics to the song, so I just hum over the parts I don’t know. That makes her smile. The Lord has given me this moment to have with her.

I’m midway through the chorus for a second time. Her smile is pulling me in, and I’m about to kiss her deeply. It’s the first time in at least a week that I have felt this way toward her. Nothing sexual can happen. It’s far too soon after the miscarriage. Even in my attraction I know this. And she does too. But, that doesn’t keep her from kissing me deeply, and rubbing her hands down my arms. We know we can’t, but we want to.

There’s a knock at the door. I can see the immediate switch in Janet’s eyes. The mood is gone. She kisses me once more and then walks into the kitchen.

The first knock was quiet. The second one isn’t. It’s loud. I get to the door before a third knock happens. It’s Ms. Brands. And all I can feel is fear. Something is in her, and it followed me home. And now, so did she.

Her eyes are different than when I last saw her. They are more aware somehow.

“Marcy didn’t leave the school alone. There was a man with her.”

“What did he look like?” I’m shocked, but able to speak. My stomach feels bottomless.

She is turning around to leave.

“What did he look like?!”

When she looks at me again, her eyes are lost.

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