I Admired the Marvel Socks, Not so Much the Dead Doll's Eyes
We jerk to the left, Wren narrowly missing the turn for the parking lot of the hotel and expo center that has the giant sign hanging from the side wall: HELIXcon. Mayday leans over and smacks Wren upside the head.
“Stop trying to kill us!”
“Oh, I thought I’d purposefully run right through that tree over there, those flowers look pretty, don’t they?” Wren hisses and then pulls into a parking spot, he must’ve because I feel the car stop. I don’t let go of the handle. I don’t open my eyes right away. I breathe in deep, and exhale.
The monster isn’t real. We made a video game. It’s a TV show. It’s no more real than Batman.
As stupid as it sounds, that thought made me feel a bit better. People are obsessed with Batman, but it didn’t bring him into existence. Superheroes and villains are idolized and stuff even more than my monster, and we don’t have them blowing up the world outside of movies and the many, many origin remakes and stories. Still, it’s weird that mine and my best friends’ creation is on par with other pop culture, like, enough to have a panel at a convention.
We basically have a cult following. I don’t want to be in a cult, I don’t want to have started a cult. There are enough articles and podcast episodes about my friends and I, and about our fandom (Christ, we have a fandom). Sure, I created this monster, and it’s mine, but for the love of Christ it’s not my child. I am proud of being able to get through my thesis because of it, I’m proud of what my friends and I created, I’m excited of what is to come, but I still do. Not. Like. The. Monster.
Especially when I can’t shake the feeling that there’s more to it now than ever. A chill goes down my spine and I glance over my shoulder, the parking lot behind us is nothing but empty cars.
There is a knock on my window. I turn back to the front. There is Mayday, with Wren and Doc behind her. She waves me out, and I open the door.
“Hm, debating on it.”
“Die in the heat of a locked car, then.”
“Sounds promising, really.” I sit up straight, my feet finding my flip flops on the ground. The car is already uncomfortably warm, and I squint into the sunlight, blinking up at Mayday.
“Are you really not up for this?!” Wren groans. “We created something HUGE here!”
“This started off as a student thesis, how did it get here again?”
“Because people love us.”
“People love TRIGGER.” I correct him, getting out of the car slowly. The sun bears down on my uncovered arms.
“And it’s still a bit unsettling.” Mayday reaches out and touches my forearm gently. Her touch is cool compared to the sun. “But, you’re excited, aren’t you? Something we created, something popular that people love.”
I look at my friends, and smile slightly. I can’t lie to them. Or, rather, to myself and the butterflies replacing the nausea in my stomach. The shadows fade a bit, and the chill leaves me with one final icy caress on the back of my neck. I suppress the urge to shudder.
“Ok. I guess I’m a little excited.”
“But, you know, what if-“
“BOO! NO!” Wren cuts me off. He points a finger right in front of my nose. I flinch back from his outburst and his attack in my personal bubble. “NO WHAT IF. YOU STOP THAT. YOU STOP THAT RIGHT NOW.”
“WHY ARE YOU YELLING AT ME, THAT ONLY MAKES IT WORSE.”
“BOTH OF YOU STOP YELLING.” Mayday shouts and stands between Wren and I. “Doc, are you gonna intervene?”
Doc holds up his hands in defense. “I am playing Switzerland right now.”
“Ugh,” Mayday loops her arm through mine. “You guys are such a pain to deal with. C’mon, Dru. Let’s get inside.”
We all pick up our luggage from the trunk of the car and start to make our way through the filling parking lot. We have to dodge some cars. Eyes stare practically through me. Do they know what they’re looking for? Had they all tried to follow me on Instagram before I made it private after 500+ follows at once?
Sweat beads on my hairline as we trudge as a small unit to the front of the hotel. The sky is a bit too blue, the ground is shimmery and the heat travels through the bottom of my flip flops. Still, I feel cold from the inside out, it sinking deep into my bones, the chill sharp and tight against my nerves.
I force my shoulders down as I stand up straighter at the sound of my name. I train my eyes on my best friend, who leans into my body as we walk. Mayday furrows her silver blonde brow at me, chocolate eyes boring into my weary soul. I avert my gaze downward.
“Are you alright? You’ve been acting strange since we got off the exit.”
“Yeah, just…uneasy. My skin feels too tight.”
“You’re probably just hungry,” Wren grabs my shoulders and sways me on my feet, I look over my shoulder and make a face at him. He grins wide through his shaggy red hair, I can barely see his electric blue eyes. He lets me go and his twin wraps his arm around my shoulders. Where Mabel is a faerie, the boys are pixies. Or trolls. Some form of pesky, rough-type of creature. Maybe elves.
“Maybe it has to do with your shitty driving.”
Wren leans his head back and lets out a foghorn like groan.
“Don’t start that again-“
“No, I think you’re both wrong. I’m pretty sure it has something to do with stuff like that.”
Doc points over to a group, also with suitcases and duffle bags like us, but so not like us, are stopped in their tracks and openly staring. I almost double over as the icy steel trap chomps down on my stomach. Fuck. Doc squeezes my shoulder, and I silently thank him but also curse him at the same time for always being right. His brother is fire, and Doc is ice with softer blue eyes and straw colored hair.
“Yep, yep, definitely, yes. They are staring at us like we’re one body with four heads, yep, yeah. Oh jeez.” I mutter, my dark brown hair hanging in my face. I shrink back as they point and talk rather loudly, so sure we look familiar and wondering if it really could be us. It is the US they want it to be, but I really wish I had more time to figure this out. The world is too bright and hot and I’m icy cold and there are people who think they know who we are but they don’t know us. But, they know of us, and why we’re here.
“Are they coming over here?”
“They’re definitely coming over here.”
“They’re practically tripping over themselves to get over here.” Wren steps in front of me. “Get behind me, Dru!”
“Wow, defended by a beanpole, don’t I feel safe!”
Mayday snorts as Wren scowls at my sarcastic remark. Doc waves at the people as they come to a stop about two feet away from us. “Hi! Can we help you?”
One of the girls bounces on the balls of her feet, obviously excited. “Are you guys the creators of TRIGGER?”
I shrink back behind Wren, my face burning up. Mayday, thankfully, reaches for my hand. There are three of them, six prying eyes looking at us for the something that they think we made. That they know we made. I feel like a zoo animal. Is this what it’s like to be a zoo animal? How could they spot us so far? How could they truly know that it was us, the us they were looking for.
“Yes, we’re the team behind TRIGGER.” Doc replies, and Wren wraps his arm around his brother’s neck.
“Thaaat’s right! The beloved monster that can consume your soul in an instant is our love child! It’s me, Wren, and my brother, you can call him Doc, behind the coding and game,” He points at Mabel. “Mayday there does most of the art aaaaand,” He juts a thumb out behind him, at me. I try to duck from his point but that’s useless. “The cutie standing behind me is the writer of the lore, the legend herself, Dru!”
“Please never call it our ‘love child.’”
I sigh and sheepishly move from behind the twins and give an awkward wave. I stand off to the side like I did when we first presented TRIGGER in class for our thesis. We stood on the stage as Wren amped up the energy and Doc showed mechanics and Mayday showed her designs, and I didn’t really interact until we got into the story and Lore. I was able to breeze through that, because stories are my life and I know TRIGGER like the back of my hand thanks to the outpouring of writing I did with Uncle Lukas that day. By the end of our pitch and spiel, everyone was leaning in their seats and wanted to ask questions and see some gameplay and try out our demo. We got high praise and marks on it, and the idea to post the full game online from other classmates and even the professor. I felt as excited as my friends at the time, but there was still that laser-heat feeling on the back of my head, like eyes burning into my skull. Burning red and orange eyes and black haze plagued the blindspots of my visions for the rest of the day. I took a full dose of my emergency medicine to get myself to zonk out that night.
I also do what I did back then when I first got on that platform: I focus on their shoes. One of them is wearing Marvel socks that go up their legs past their doc martens, and then I’m brought back into the moment, that I’m at a con. Only, we’ve never been recognized just as ourselves. I still can’t believe it. I don’t want to believe it. I feel like the sky is starting to crack and is going to cave in on me.
“Uh, hey. I’m Dru.”
Fuck, Wren already introduced me. I cringe at my own awkward.
Instead of focusing on my social blunder, the two girls and the one guy all freak out. That reaction has me looking up at them, something stirring in my chest other than the tight pain of a panic attack. It’s warm, and I give a slight smile as I feel my friends beaming beside me. Mayday squeezes my hand and I squeeze back, she’s keeping me from shaking as they come closer, and it’s obvious what kind of conversation is going to start. The girl with the marvel socks holds out her phone and looks at us.
“Can we get a selfie with your guys?! We basically just came here for your panel!”
“Get out of town.” Wren is grinning so much I think his face might split in two. “No, just kidding, please take a picture with us and then gas us up even more.”
“Don’t, I think his head is already swelling.” Doc smirks and stands straight, the tallest of us all, beating his own brother by a half an inch. “Do you want me to crouch?”
After a few moments of jostling uncomfortably close together and staring at the cellphone screen, the girl takes the photo using her selfie stick. She squeals again and goes to hug me. I stagger back for a moment, then return the hug. She’s got a tight grip, I wonder if all fans are huggers. How many hugs am I going to get? I don’t think this would’ve ended well if I didn’t like hugs. Maybe I should’ve brought more sanitizer. I’ve heard about the con cough, I’m probably going to get it. Plague. Die.
Stop it, reel it back.
She lets go and smiles at me.
“Your stories basically brought the three of us together as friends. I’m Maggie, by the way.”
“Nice to meet you, Maggie. And that’s…great to hear!” I hope there wasn’t too much hesitation. Was that too much hesitation? I don’t see anything in her eyes that registers as confusion. She doesn’t seem like she’s haunted by our creation like we are, neither do her friends. Could it be all in my head? Is she disappointed by what she found in us? A bunch of young adults who barely know what they’re doing but managed to make the newest internet icon of the year, a horror for all subgenera and tastes.
“It really just…is amazing.”
“Heh, thanks.” I grin wide, though my hand wanders up my arm to the crook to scratch at an itch, it goes raw from the amount I’m scratching at it. If only you knew what actually went into it. And how much I want to skirt around the edge of falling right back into it. Keep it separate, I got this, I can do this.
“But, I have to ask you, why do you like it?”
Maggie stares at me for a moment, thinking of an answer a bit harder than she should have to, and then shrugs one shoulder at me. “Why not? Who doesn’t love a good original monster?”
I feel what seems like a a rumble of laughter tickle my ear with another hot, humid wind that cuts through me and more sweat drips from my thick hair and into the hem of my hoodie. My stomach clenches and I resist the urge to turn around and scream at the creature living so close like it’s my shadow. I swat like there’s a mosquito instead. The cicadas in the trees surrounding the area the hotel/convention center is in are screeching even louder than before. The sensation leaves, for now. I smile again, knowing that as long as I’m not alone it can’t make me as afraid as it wants. I mean, with my friends and new people who know of TRIGGER around, I don’t feel as strange. Still, I don’t want to start thinking of Maggie and her friends, and other fans like them, making the monster stranger.
Y’know, if my theory is right. As much as I hope they aren’t.
“I can’t wait to hear more about everything in the panel, we don’t want any spoilers!”
“Haha, then you better skedaddle!”
“Oh my God, you’re an embarrassment.” Mayday turns from talking to the guy, who keeps staring at her profile as she stares pointedly at Wren.
I nod. “Yeah, I fully agree. You need a time out.”
There is a laughter that passes with a gust of humid wind. They wave and Maggie smiles at me again before walking off. We watch them go, and then the twins and Mayday start freaking out with one another, high fiving and Wren lifts me off the ground to the point where I’m kicking the air.
“PUT ME THE FUCK DOWN, WREN!” I curse him, but I’m laughing. I can’t help it. It feels good, it feels good to be excited, to some extent. Should I feel guilty for having people fall for the venom from within my person? For how much they put into it after we gave it to them, and now it’s maybe real? Probably? But, right now, I’m laughing with my friends, and I can deal with this. I think. The sky won’t cave in, the monster won’t absorb into me. I won’t die. Everything will be ok.
At least, I hope.
“We’re moving on up, guy and gals!”
“I still can’t believe that just happened.” Mayday hugs me tight and I smile big at her enthusiasm. I love seeing my friends happy. “We got recognized!”
“It’s surreal, right?” Doc nods in agreement and his gaze sweeps over all of us. “And we’ve got a panel full of people like that tomorrow night for the movie.”
“That’s also something I still can’t believe.” Mayday points out.
“Do you remember how I basically fainted on the couch?” I ask and we all laugh. But it’s true. After a few months into the creation of our comic and story about a monster who preys on the negativity within a person to consume them after breaking down every last part of their will and soul, TRIGGER had taken the Internet by storm.
A new email popped up in the TRIGGER email and I opened it, thinking it was just spam from Netflix, and then I saw the offer and the next thing I knew I was yelling for Mayday and literally almost flipped myself over the couch and took the couch with me. I had to save the laptop and allow myself to fall face-first onto the floor, both the hit and the news jarring me. I seriously never thought we could do this, that I could make something that was poison into something worth paying attention to. We never thought the lore we made would become such a cult following, especially enough to have Netflix ask to help us bring a full-length film to their streaming services. It was a win-win. But, now that we’re going from convention to convention, starting here, doing panels on our film, it feels more than just a flip over the couch. It’s like we brought to life something to ignore one thing, and now we can’t just ignore it. At least it’s out in the public, and away from us to a point where it’s more of a collective subject then something brewing inside of me.
We continue our journey inside, more sweaty and excited than we were before. My eyes immediately scan the air-conditioned lobby of the hotel. Inside are all sorts of people in all shapes and sizes. There are people in graphic tees and others in full-out cosplay. Maggie and her two friends are nowhere in sight, but it doesn’t matter. I stick by Mayday’s side and try not to internally count how many people are in this lobby with us. Instead, I check out the cosplay, then my eyes land on a poster with familiar faces on it. That’s my face next to my friends.
“Guys, we’re on that poster.”
We’re all beaming again, although it churns my stomach a bit. I force the smile to stay on my face. This is real, you are here and you made this and people like that you made it. I have to keep reminding myself of this.
Before, when we first made it, it didn’t seem like it would go further than some dark recesses of the creepier stories of the internet. There are so many monsters on the web, that at least I thought that it would gain maybe some fans if anything, but I’d be making this and letting it out instead of bottling it up. Instead of keeping it in me, the toxin is released and out there and not in me where it’ll fester. TRIGGER came from me in a way that left it raw and rather dangerous on its own before we even gave it a name, before the twins gave it a code, before Mayday gave it a face that was a carbon copy of what haunts my every waking moment. Now, now, we’re here and we’re famous for this thing that I used in a therapeutic sense. And, now, it might be on the loose.
We get to the desk to check in and I pull out my phone to text my Uncle Lukas, who is basically our manager, and who basically raised me. He’s running the business end, while we do the rest. I sometimes wish he didn’t let us do the rest all on our own, he’s a great buffer. I let him know we got to the hotel safe and that it’s humid and that I hope it breaks so we can enjoy the outside. Before I continue to run on I press send and pocket my phone. I blink and a chill goes down my spine. I glance up and lock eyes with someone across the lobby.
My blood runs cold at their black-rimmed eyes, their sockets shadowed and the irises practically black from this distance, but I’m hoping they’re just a really dark brown. Not that I want to find out. I shudder and look down at my hands, crack my knuckles, but when I look up, the girl is still staring at me. Her hair is pulled into a side braid, though it’s a bit ratty-looking. Her skin is pale, and the shadows under her eyes are so deep it looks like she got punched in both of them. Her shadow starts vibrating behind her and a chill runs down my spine and I have to look away. I can’t think about shadows and TRIGGER, I can’t focus on shadows and funny looks. I can’t, I can’t slip back this way. I can’t fall in again. I refuse to acknowledge, I refuse to drown. I don’t want to drown.
Mayday’s voice pulls me out of my catatonic state, “Dru, what’s wrong?”
“Do you see that girl over there?” I break eye contact again and look at the floor, but I still feel her stare burning a hole into my head. I play with my fingers, my heart rate accelerating, and I try to keep my breath even. “She’s been staring at me basically this whole time.”
“Maybe she’s just a fan.” Wren wiggles his eyebrows, and I roll my eyes, but still end with them trained on my sliders.
“She has murder in her eyes.”
“Do we have fans like that, too?”
“We all know that cons are the time for even the crazies to come out,” Mayday squeezes my shoulder and then pats my cheek. “Don’t worry about it, Dru. Let’s focus on other things, okay? I know I could use a shower and a change of clothes.”
“I second that notion!”
I nod and glance at the girl. Is it just me, or does her shadow seem taller than her? Another shudder goes down my spine and I turn away to pick my duffle bag back up. “Yeah, yeah, sorry guys. I’m just paranoid, sorry, that sounds good, let’s go to the room. Yeah, before I start assuming everyone here is an ax murderer out for our blood.”
“As opposed to just some?”
“Yeah, I think I’m going to just keep assuming the worst if we stay out here.” I stuff my hands in my pockets and bounce on the balls of my feet. Anxious energy. Mind going off in so many places. Weird setting, weird circumstance, we belong here more than when we usually do. “I could use a rest and a shower and seclusion.”
“Good, cause I’m pretty sure that we’ve got a collective outside smell going on.”
“You’re such an asshole, Wren.”
We continue to joke about as we walk further and further away from the lobby and the girl, down the hall to the elevator. I look over my shoulder and the girl is still there, eyes still trained on us. My heart thunders loud in my ears, and I’m finding it hard to breathe. Oh no. Not here. I gulp, and then turn my head back only to walk face-first into a cardboard cut out. I yelp and shove it away, blinking hard as I stare up at the illustration staring down at me, and my blood goes to ice.
Long, shadow-like limbs. Fingers long and sharp like needles. No feet, only points, and my gaze travels up to the shapeless face with oval-shaped neon orange eyes, multiple, all over the body, and a jagged mouth like on a jack-o-lantern. I stagger backwards and gulp, and I hear some gasps around me. That’s it, that’s our monster’s normal form, after it swallows some souls. The image that is burned into the red of the back of my eyelids. The creature that taunts me with rumors of it being real. Of sighting videos, of articles like the one I read about it being more than a game. Of conspiracy theories and dark nightmares. It towers over me, glaring down at me with all of those accusatory and terrifying eyes.
Just like the night terrors.