So, get this.
Four days ago, people in my life started to be... replaced. Well, I say four days, I mean, it could've begun at any time in recent history, but I only really wised to it last week. Anyway; I'm getting off-topic here. I've got a story to tell, and neither of us is going anywhere for a little while, so we might as well make the best of it, right?
So I'm at an inter-school football match, and there's, like, a minute left on the clock, and the ball comes my way. I've never really been into sports (I only joined the team so the Jocks wouldn't lay-into me, like they did everyone else), and while I'm not a bad player, I've never scored in an official match before. So I see this as my opportunity to silence the post-game taunting in the locker room. I make a dive, but misjudge the distance and go down hard as a whole host of other players go for the ball. In the confusion, somebody's foot comes smashing down into my temple. Everything is red flashes and black holes and, for the briefest moment, I catch a glimpse of a silhouette in some kind of jester's hat, hanging upside-down in my field of view and silently laughing at me. So, I blink, and suddenly, my pal Pete Greenway is kneeling beside me, reaching for me. I reach up to him, and he grabs my wrist to pull me to my feet, and he says:
“Took quite a knock there, bud.”
This is when it gets kinda hard to explain. My head feels about a thousand times its usual size, and everything is swimming in my vision, but I somehow just know that this isn't Pete Greenway. Like, since when has Pete Greenway ever called me “bud”? Since when did Pete Greenway have a tiny, pale scar on his chin? Details, man. Details. I'm struck by this sense of unfamiliarity. The closer he gets, and the more his stupid fucking smile looms in my face, the less close I feel to this guy who had, two weeks previously, spent the weekend drinking with me in my dad's old cabin to celebrate my nineteenth. I mean, this replacement is good! When he speaks, I'd swear that I was hearing my friend, but there is something so unnervingly unfamiliar about him.
So I pull away from Not-Pete-Greenway, and scramble to my feet. There's blood in my mouth, and more trickling down the side of my face, and someone steers me over to the stand while the others play on. All the while, this "actor," this stranger, is watching me with a weird, dismayed look on his face, as though I'd shattered some plan he'd had. I'm suddenly aware that everyone in the stands seems to be looking at me. Like, when I'd look at them, they'd be laughing and cheering the game, but out of the corner of my blood-muddied vision, I'd swear that all eyes were on me.
Now I've always hated people staring at me, so I hurry off the field, and back to the showers, which are deserted, as the game's still going. Once I've cleaned up, I drive back to my dad's place, head full of images of crimson supernovas. The Old Man isn't home, so I park in the drive and lie in bed with the lights off for a few hours, but it doesn't do me any good, because in the shadows above me, silhouetted in a different grey to the rest of the darkness that covers my bedroom, the Jester hangs, his shoulders heaving in that awful, silent laugh. I turn the lights back on, but the only things hanging from my ceiling are cobwebs.
The phone rings, and it's Pete. I'm absolutely sure he's not the actor, because his voice is so real. Unlike the waxy automaton on the playing field, hearing him speak fires-off memories of my old friend in my head, and I can't help but feel a relieved smile play over my lips. He sounds over-the-fucking-moon, and more than a little drunk. In fact, he's slurring his words so I don't get everything. Apparently there's a party going on at his place, to celebrate the results of the game. The others are worried about me.
"Katie Gilbert is going to be there," he says, in the mocking way friends do when they know you're crushing on someone. Classic Pete, man. Anyway, apparently she's asking after me.
I say, "I'll be right over," and put the phone down. My head starts to hurt again, but I swallow some painkillers, and throw on a fresh shirt. I don't want to look like a slob in front of Katie.
As I near the door, the pain in my head returns. My vision begins to blur into red starbursts, and that spectral abomination is chuckling away, silently, in the corner of my eye. Beneath the blind panic and pain, I feel a sickening surge of fear—fear at the Jester, fear at what may lie beyond my own front door. I reel backwards and the pain recedes. The thing in the corner of my vision becomes my own shadow, falling-across the cupboard door where my Old Man keeps all his fishing gear.
I pause to catch my breath, and reassure myself that it's probably just the concussion, but even as I do so, I'm reaching for the cupboard's door handle, turning it and pulling the light-cord. Inside, atop a Tupperware box of spare hooks, I find his hunting knife, buckled into a faded sheath. When I take it, the niggling fear and the throbbing pain at the back of my skull dim. Safety in a sharp blade. I tuck it into the back of my pants and pull my shirt down to cover it.
The party is in full swing by the time I get there. It's dark, all strobe lights and a cheap-as-shit smoke-machine Pete bought from the dollar-store, and which smells like burnt plastic. All eyes are on me, when I enter. Not that I can see them too well, of course, but I know it. I can feel it, you know? Eyes on me as I turn my back on the guests. I pretend to ignore it, grab a beer from the kitchen. There's no sign of Pete, and though I am feeling reassured that what happened on the playing field was a one-off—reassured at being armed—I still don't feel confident enough to mingle with the others, so I stay in the kitchen, and press the cold bottle against the wound on my temple. I feel beads of moisture trickle down the glass, but as I turn back to the door, Katie Gilbert bursts in, all red lipstick and low-cut top.
“Dave!” she yells, “You came! I was waiting for ages!”
She grabs me by the hand, and drags me out of the kitchen and towards the stairs. Not that I mind too much, of course, I mean, this is Katie-fucking-Gilbert we're talking about here. You remember her, right? Like, the single hottest girl in our year? Now she's drunk as shit and pulling me towards a spare-bedroom. I'm not complaining. So, anyway, she's blabbering away and sipping from my beer, and her giggling friends are looking on from the door to the lounge.
Then we're in the bedroom, and she's kissing me, hard, and I can taste the alcohol on her tongue. When she pulls away, she runs her fingers through my hair, then rests them against the wound on my temple, gazing at it with what I think was supposed to be an empathetic expression.
“Oh, Dave...” she says. She probes at it, experimentally, and pain shoots through my head like a camera-flash. I see the Jester, reflected in the dark glass of the window, and suddenly I begin to sweat. I stagger back a little from her, but she grabs me by the shoulders. She starts to ask questions about how I'm feeling, but I'm not listening. I'm inspecting her face, the proportioning of it, the gentle slope of her freckled nose, and the way her hair frames it all so perfectly. Too perfectly.
“Where's Katie?” I ask.
“I'm right here!” she laughs “What are you talking about?”
My fingers curl about the handle of the knife. The Jester stops laughing.
It's easier than it might seem to flee a party, covered in blood. Everyone is drunk, and nobody will remember shit the next day. The hard part is actually cleaning oneself up. I showered twice, then burned the clothes I was wearing and put on my hunting gear. The padlock on my dad's bedroom closet is a polymer piece of garbage from Walmart, so I lever it off with the knife. The shotgun is exactly where I remember it being. In fact, I don't think it's been moved since Pete and I took it out to shoot cans in the quarry outside of town, that one time in Spring. I grab it and stuff my pockets with shells. My head-wound starts to bleed again. The Jester flickers in and out of the corners of my vision, but every time I swing around to face him, he's gone. Then there's a click, and the light comes on.
“David?” says my Old Man. I turn around, a half-formed explanation dying on my lips as I look into the eyes of a man that is most certainly not my father. My jaw works, as though trying to chew a particularly rubbery object, and tears sting my eyes. Pete and Katie were important to me, sure, but now I was looking into the eyes of a man desperately trying to imitate the only family I'd ever had. A seasoned actor, no doubt, but not my father. The Old Man steps forward, wiping the oil from his fingers on his already grimy overalls. His face, lined and cracked like old leather, is pinched with some emotion. Concern? Fear?
“David?” he says, again. He reaches for the gun in my hands.
“Where. Is. He?” I snap.
“Why are you doing this!? What have you done to him?”
“Son...” he says.
I shoot him once, in the chest. He tumbles away from the cupboard, sending the bare bulb above my head into a wild, hangman's dance at the end of its string. As the actor lies, quivering and bloody on the floor, I crouch beside him and unsheathe my Dad's knife. I can feel rage—feel hatred—overwhelming me and forcing my hand towards his chin. I can't see the Jester, but somehow, I just know he's behind me, peering intently at the dying man on the floor. The Old Man stares past me, into the creature's empty eyes.
“Let's see who's under that mask.” I snarl. The knife flickers in the waltzing light.
So, I lie low for a while, after that. Or at least, I try to. I visit friends in town—friends that I thought I could trust—only to find the actors one step ahead of me every time. Ricky, Brian and even Mira, who I've not spoken to since she dropped out of school last year. Every time, they try to talk me down, telling me to, “turn myself in.”
The one pretending to be Ricky slammed the door in my face, and I was so sure I heard the real Ricky screaming from inside, that I chased after him. After I'd dispatched the fake, I searched the whole house, but to no avail. Now I think back to them—the way they try to trick me. It's “for the best,” they tell me. They plead so convincingly, and I start to think that maybe the only real thing about them is the fear that I cause when I fight back.
But even if I want to turn myself in, I can't. I know it's a trap. Brian had his TV on, and while I was holding him down and trying to find the seam on his mask, I saw Sheriff Moore giving a press conference. Turning me into a monster with honeyed words. Making me the enemy of all the townsfolk. I sunk the knife behind Brian's ear, then got up and turned the TV off. I saw the outline of the Jester, reflected in the screen in the fraction of a second it took for the light of the picture to fade, but he wasn't there when I turned around.
Anyhow, you know Sheriff Moore was a good friend of my Old Man, right? Used to rock it up to our house for coffee when he was supposed to be on highway duty. I'd know an imposter when I saw one. The knowledge that I'm on my own, here, is strangely comforting, though. Me against them. I don't know what's happened to the folks in my life. Don't know how far the rot goes—how many people they've replaced. But it's all or nothing, you know? I'm going to keep killing them until the Jester stops laughing. Keep killing them until I've gotten to the bottom of all this.
Look, you've been real patient, and I gotta thank you for that. The reason I've contacted you is this: what with all those cops buzzing around, and all my close friends and relatives... well, you know...
Long story short, I crossed state lines, and I'm in town. Two minutes away, actually—in that coffee place we went once, remember? Sure you do. Anyway, I'm on my way over, now. I just need a place to lay my head for the night. I know we've not seen each other in a long time, but I was sure I could trust you not to be one of them.
...I can trust you, can't I?
Anyway. I'll be over in a second.