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Author's Note: This is a sequel to The Burned Photo and Drew Barrington's Daughter.

*****

My name is Felicia.  I live with my son in a twice-mortgaged, four-bedroom house at the foot of the Verdugo Hills in Glendale, California.  The floors are treated hardwood, the furniture is vintage, and lush rose bushes flourish in the backyard, but since the day I walked through the front door and tripped over the blocks, the place has never again felt like home.

My son’s name is Benjamin.  He’s two and a half, soft and adorably pudgy, with dumpling cheeks and a square jaw.  His skin is several shades darker than mine, colored like his Nigerian grandmother.  But his large, deep-set eyes are grey and expressive in a manner reminiscent of my own mother’s.  

These days, monster stories define my life.  Stories of women with snakes for hair, women with mouths in the backs of their heads.  Men who turn into wolves and coyotes, dogs with the faces of men.  Demons summoned through black masses, lost spirits confined for eternity to bridges and graveyards and forgotten old manors.  

Monsters play by rules.  Vampires must be invited inside.  The Sphinx can’t hurt you if you answer her riddle.  Werewolves are restricted by the full moon.  Never feed a Gremlin after midnight.  If you play fair, if you mind the boundaries between what is human and what is other, coexistence is possible.  But if you cross that barrier, intentionally or otherwise… well, it’s best you keep on hand a rosary and a loaded revolver. 

You must remember me.  

A monster has been following me my whole life.  No matter how far I run, no matter how many times I try and start over, it always finds me.  It can start fires.  It makes things appear and disappear.  It always takes the form of a child.  Its true image is only visible when it is captured on film.  It tormented my late mother to near insanity, it drove my father to suicide, and it’s destroyed any hope I’ve ever had of a normal life.

It killed my brother.  Now, it wants my son.  

*****

Six months ago, I buried my husband.  

I could try and blame The Thing for Isaiah’s death, but that’s a hard sell.  It does tend to bring misfortune whenever it comes around.  Even so, the lion’s share of culpability for my untimely widowhood can be squarely pinned to the asshole who shot my husband in the stomach and left him to bleed to death in a Ralph’s parking lot in Lynwood.  They still haven’t caught the guy.  

The cops told me it was likely a gang shooting, possibly a case of mistaken identity.  There were apparently no witnesses, and if you ask me, they’re not looking too hard.  It took me a distressing amount of time to convince the detective that Isaiah wasn’t a gang member, had never been associated with organized crime, didn’t use or sell drugs, and that his criminal record was nonexistent.  He’d stopped at Ralph's for a sandwich on the way home from a marketing convention. 

Five days after Isaiah’s funeral, it left me the blocks.  

The in-laws had departed that afternoon.  Leaning over the barrier at Bob Hope Airport, they assured me one last time Benjamin and I were welcome to stay with them in Oakland, if our big house were to seem too lonely.

Maybe.

I woke around 3 am, drenched in sweat from a nightmare I didn’t remember.  Something with dancing flames and a cacophony of screams.  I was struck by just how silent the house was, now that the robust stream of houseguests - relatives and friends and assorted well-wishers bearing condolences and food - had dried up. 

I plodded down the upstairs hallway to Benjamin’s room.  My son slept angelically, moonlight streaming through the blinds casting pale lines of light over his small body.  God, he was a beautiful child. 

For the first time since I’d gotten the call from the Long Beach PD, I saw beyond my shock and grief and focused on everything I had to worry about.  Isaiah and I bought the house anticipating two incomes and a big family.  Now, neither would be a possibility.

The house had been a little out of our price range.  But it was so pretty - a charming French farmhouse at the end of a manicured, magnolia-lined block on a hill, purple mountains rising in the distance - and in the end we crossed our fingers and went for it.  I was making good money as a senior accountant with PwC, and Isaiah insisted he and his partners would sell Royal Bash Marketing within the year, netting him a seven-figure windfall.  

The prospective buyout fell through, then fell through again.  I quit my sixty-hour-a-week job when Benjamin was born and took a position at a mid-sized business management firm in Beverly Hills, handling tax preparation for a few of their biggest clients.  They let me work from home, but the cut in pay was substantial.  Isaiah’s 401k, when it was released to me, would give me enough to peel the bank off my ass temporarily, but once that was gone my salary wouldn’t cover the mortgage.  Default was a possibility.  Foreclosure was a possibility.

I decided not to think about it.  I closed the nursery door and stumbled groggily downstairs to the kitchen, visualizing a glass of the Pinot Noir left over from the funeral, and there they were.  Sitting on the kitchen island.  Five of them.

ALONE.

I think I screamed.  I lunged for the “A” block (apples, aardvark, antelope, angel) to convince myself it was there, ran my fingers over the hand-carved surface, considered lifting the little cube to my lips to taste the wood.  Convinced it was solid, I dropped the block.  It clattered to rest under the kitchen table.  

I took the stairs two at a time, grabbed Benjamin and my keys, ran out the door, snapped my son into his car seat before he was aware enough to start crying, and took off driving… somewhere.  Anywhere.  

We drove for hours along the empty freeway, past the 405, through the twisted, treacherous mountain road of Las Virgenes until it backed into PCH, then north.  I kept my foot on the gas until I saw the Pacific Ocean.  70, 80, 85, not fast enough.  I was two miles outside Carpenteria when the first streak of blue cut through the black sky and, as the darkness receded, so did the fog in my head.  

Benjamin had knocked out; his little head drooped on a shoulder and his pudgy lips curled into a dreamland smile.  I pulled off the highway, turned around, and began the much-less-graceful trek back home.  On the 101, somewhere near the Vineland exit, caught in a third snare of gridlocked traffic, I came to a logical conclusion.

If The Thing was going to hurt us, it would have done so.

This wasn’t the first time it had inserted itself into my adult life.  Two years earlier, before my son was born, I’d come home to find the same blocks - blocks that had belonged to my dead brother, Shane, before burning with his childhood home - on the floor of my living room, spelling out BEnJAMIN.  Moments later, the storage unit where I’d kept my late mother’s belongings caught on fire.  The Thing had been quiet since then, biding its time.  

My mother had been convinced it needed to be verbally invited inside to do any damage.  She was wrong - I’d been very careful to not allow strangers into my home, and I doubt the guys at Rent-a-Box Storage handed over the keys to my unit.  Yet it had no problem hanging around, starting fires and leaving me messages in blocks.  

But if The Thing meant harm to me or my son, I asked myself, why hadn’t it set my house ablaze?  If it could access my kitchen, why not snatch up my toddler in the dead of night?  I was left with two possible answers.

1.) The Thing, for some reason, couldn’t hurt us, or 

2.) The Thing, for some reason, didn’t want to hurt us.

Forty-five minutes later, I pulled into my driveway.  My house was empty and untouched.  The blocks were gone.  

*****

I never took my in-laws up on their offer to accommodate us in Oakland.  The Thing found me three times, I’m sure it could manage a fourth.  I did, however, cultivate a more strategic mindset.  I didn’t intend on spending the rest of my life - and Benjamin’s - constantly looking over my shoulder.  The Thing was playing a game with us.  Games have rules.  

The Thing operated under a set of rules.  And, if I knew exactly what I was up against, maybe I could do what my mother couldn’t.  Fight back.

*****

A week later, I received some minor good news.  I went into Isaiah’s office to sign some paperwork for his 401k, and I came out with a side hustle.  Apparently a new outfit was interested in buying Royal Bash Marketing - the entity I now owned a third of - but they were insisting on an audit.  Isaiah’s surviving partners needed someone they trusted to sort through five years’ worth of disorganized invoices and receipts.  

It was entry-level work.  But I couldn’t argue with a paycheck.

I also registered for an online class through Santa Monica College.  Anthropology 112: Magic, Witchcraft, and Legends.  According to the syllabus, I would be learning about storytelling traditions of cultures from around the world, mythology as explanation for natural phenomena, and rituals as protection against the unknown.  If I was serious about developing a strategy to deter The Thing, this seemed a better place to start than Conspiracies-R-Us on Youtube.  I coughed up $250 for a hardback book as thick as a red brick called Our Stories, Ourselves.

At first, nothing was helpful.  We spent a couple weeks dissecting macro mythology - how the world was created, comparisons of cross-cultural pantheons of deities.  Despite the fantastical subject matter, our text was extremely dry.  

When our discussion topic switched to modern folklore - which quickly turned to internet legends - I started getting somewhere.  

If you’re reading this, I’m guessing you read my last account as well - the one where I told my mom’s story.  And if you read that, you probably read the comments.  If you didn’t, here’s the summary: eight versions of “THIS IS FAKE;” three “I heard about the little boy who got killed in Florida in the 80’s, I thought the mom did it for sure;” four ads promising a “larger penis in four days;” one that proclaimed “the curse of Paddington House strikes again” (huh?); and three individuals pegging the crime on Freddy Kreuger.  

Yeah.  Pretty useless.

This time, I presented the tale to my classmates with a degree of mystique.

“Someone told me about this spirit that poses as kids,” I typed on the discussion board.  “It shows up on the doorsteps of other children.  If the child allows it in, it kills the kid.  It can create fire, and make solid objects appear temporarily.  Its true form is only visible if you can get a photograph of it.  Anyone know what legend this is, and/or has heard the same one?”

I got responses an hour later.

“Yeah, that’s the Black-Eyed Kids, or BEK,” wrote Jim Yee.

I Google’d “Black-Eyed Kids.”  There were some similarities - the pale skin, their ability to disappear on a second glance.  But that couldn’t be it.  Black-Eyed Kids only come out at night and operate in pairs, and I would have remembered if The Thing presented itself with pitch-black eyes.  

I opened Excel and absentmindedly entered data from a zip file of K-1’s, checking the comments on my class discussion board every few minutes.

“I read a creepy story like that when I was a kid,” Kimberly Escobedo wrote.  “Some lady took in a homeless black cat.  Like, two weeks later the black cat disappeared, and took her pet cat with it.  She developed this photograph she’d taken of the two cats, and the black cat didn’t show up in the picture.”

“Lol, vampires don’t show up in pictures, either,” Jessie Fuentes added.  “Because they have no souls.  So that cat didn’t have a soul.”

“What do we call an element of culture that is passed from person to person until it becomes universally recognizable?” Professor Wells asked the class.

“A meme,” Kimberly Escobedo replied.

One of the guys, Alex Frinnell, posted a link.  It was to a horror movie-disturbing, photo-shopped picture of a girl with an elongated face, evil eyes, and overlarge teeth.  There was text below, in which the “narrator” claimed to be sharing a photo he’d taken of his neighbor’s daughter.  

“That’s really creepy,” Jessie commented.  “Also, it’s weird that you can’t see ghosts, but they show up in photographs.  And you can see vampires, but they don’t show up in photographs.”

“That’s because ghosts have souls, but no body,” Mike Nguyen explained.  “Vampires have bodies, but no souls.”

A thought occurred to me.

“So, if the soul is what the camera captures,” I typed, “then if something truly evil were to take over a body, it would show up twisted and ugly in a photo.”

I looked up from my laptop, pleased with my deductive reasoning.  Then I saw them, four of them, lined up on the tile floor.  

Four blocks.  I170.  

I froze.  I’d been in the same spot for several hours, and those blocks definitely hadn’t been there when I’d sat down.  So if I was here, and they were there, that meant…

I heard something over the baby monitor, sitting on the table beside me.  A crackling sound, static-like.

I didn’t think.  I ran through the kitchen, grabbed the first knife I saw, and threw myself up the stairs.  I screamed something - I couldn’t tell you what - as I ran.  I barged into Benjamin’s room just in time to hear his first groggy wail.

His bookshelf was on fire.  An oversized plush Dalmatian - a gift from Isaiah’s sister - resting atop it burned like a red and golden torch.  

I grabbed Benjamin and fled.  I ran with him to the neighbor’s house, pounded on their door until the wife opened it.  I managed to communicate to her that my house was on fire, and I assume she called 911, because several minutes later a brigade of red trucks converged outside, sirens howling and lights flashing like a strobe.

But there was no fire to fight.  My house stood as it always had, with not so much as a hint of smoky stench in the air.

The firefighters milled in groups of twos and threes on my lawn.  Some looked this way and that, confused and awaiting orders.  One paramedic whispered something to another, and his buddy laughed.  Two men listened as I told them exactly what had happened - I’d gone to my baby’s room and found his bookshelf on fire - and agreed to come upstairs with me to look around.

Once we were through the door, I returned to where I’d been sitting.  My laptop was on the sofa, still open.  The blocks were - as I’d expected - long gone.

What I hadn’t expected was the sight that awaited us in Benjamin’s room.

Benjamin’s crib was untouched.  His toy box and closet and chests of drawers were exactly how I’d left them.  Neither his mobile nor the rocking chair stirred.  But his bookcase - the one only just engulfed in flames - was gone.  The wall it rested against was charred brown.  The bookcase had seemingly been reduced to a small pile of ashes, from which feeble wisps of smoke were emanating. 

A firefighter knelt and put his hand against the wall.  

“It’s still warm,” he said.  

Benjamin and I slept in a hotel that night.  By the next morning, both the char marks and the pile of ashes had completely disappeared.

The firefighters checked the rest of the house, found nothing else amiss, and left.  I think they thought I was looking for attention.  I don’t blame them.  Fire isn’t controlled like that; it doesn’t destroy children’s books and a stuffed dog then put itself out.  

And that message in the blocks.  I170.  Like the freeway?  I was mystified.  The Thing was many things, but cryptic had never been one of them.  I was left more confused than before, the same confusing thoughts still connecting and disconnecting in my head, mixing with the unknown meaning of I170.  

Did it want me to drive down the I-170 freeway?  What, in the end, did it want?  We didn’t talk much about motivation in my anthropology class.  Spirits are destructive, life is hard, the end.

I moved Benjamin’s crib into my room.  I knew The Thing was watching us.  

It had been watching as Isaiah and I cuddled on the couch, boxes still unpacked, flipping through pages of a baby name book.  It might have stood over my shoulder at Isaiah’s funeral, or lay quietly beside me all those nights I cried myself to sleep.  Maybe it loitered in the shadows of that Lynwood parking lot.  Maybe it whispered in the ear of the shadowy gangster with the gun, icily conspiring to rob my son of a father.  As it had robbed me.

I didn’t know the extent of The Thing’s powers.  And I theorized it was holding back.

*****

Six weeks after the fire incident, Isaiah’s sister Chantal came to town with her husband and five-year-old. She immediately offered to watch Benjamin for an afternoon.  It would be her pleasure, she assured me - they were planning a second child themselves, and wanted to give their daughter some practice being around a toddler.

“Take a Mom’s Day Off,” Chantal told me.  “Go to the spa.  How long’s it been since you did anything for yourself?”

She was right about that.  I’d been on my son like a tick on a dog, and I did have some errands to run and a shoebox full of purchase receipts from 2013 to dig through.  Chantal was a responsible mom; I trusted she wouldn’t allow suspicious strangers around the kids.  So I dropped Benjamin off with a change of clothes and his favorite stuffed dog, then drove home, intending to first handle the mountain of dirty clothes inundating my laundry room floor.

Except there was something new on my kitchen table.  

It wasn’t blocks.  It was one of Benjamin’s toys - a puzzle that depicted the the state of California, with pictures of landmarks drawn in the appropriate places.  Disneyland, Hollywood, Redwood National Forest, etc.  It sat there, fully assembled, though I hadn’t so much as pulled off the plastic wrap. Benjamin was way too young for the toy; it had been a baby shower present from a work acquaintance.  I’d forgotten where I’d put it.

Just then, I remembered.  It had been on the shelf in Benjamin’s room.  The shelf that had been reduced to a pile of ashes.

I felt my pulse in my ears.  My hands hung like weights at my side.  I don’t know how I fought the urge to run, but I fought it, and I stepped closer.

Near the bottom of the puzzle-map were two slashes, forming an X.  That wasn’t supposed to be there.  The violent markings cut all the way through; the thick cardboard ribboned, betraying that the knife (claws?) had been dragged from left to right.  

X marks the spot.  This X was positioned over one of the cartoon-y illustrations.  Through the chipped paint, I read the label.  

Vasquez Rocks.  The Thing wanted me to go to Vasquez Rocks.  

Was this the meaning of ‘I170?’  I was supposed to drive to an over-filmed tourist trap to… meet The Thing?  The thought dropped like a trap door in the pit of my stomach.  But I wasn’t going to spend the rest of my life running.  Benjamin wasn't going to spend the rest of his life scared.

I called Chantal, and was assured my son was sleeping in her daughter’s lap as the family watched Finding Nemo together.  Then I scooped up my car keys and headed for the highway.  

I veered left when the 134 Freeway split, away from the 170 turnoff.  I noticed that the 170 wasn’t even an interstate freeway.  

Eventually, I approached jutting rock formations silhouetted against the deep blue twilight.  By the time I parked alongside the weeded entrance to Vasquez Rocks, it was nearly night.  I’d been hiking there, once, with some college girlfriends.  Even during the day the place was eerie.  If you looked past the burnt-gold weeds and occasional critter, Vasquez Rocks could be the surface of Mars. 

I stood at the entrance for what felt like hours.  Waiting for the Thing?  Waiting for directions?  

Then, the clouds shifted and, by the icy-pale moonlight, I saw the blocks.  

The first one, E (eagle, eggplant, elephant, eggs), rested against a small tuft of grass about ten yards in front of me.  I scrambled to pick it up.  Once I did, I noticed the second block -  one of the blank ones - a short distance from the first.  

I double-checked to make sure my pocket knife, pepper spray, and rock salt were in my purse, then continued along The Thing’s breadcrumb trail.

It took awhile.  I hiked across dusty flat land, up and down small hills, around shallow caves.  In my head, I kept count: seventeen blocks, eighteen, nineteen.  Several times I was sure I’d lost my way, only to see the next block half-buried in a shallow crater or positioned at the top of a rock formation.  Twenty-nine, thirty, thirty-one…

I found the fortieth block - J (jaguar, jellyfish, juniper, jay) - bathed in moonlight, at the top of a low, gently-sloping hill.  On the hill was a house.

It was a large house, and a beautiful one.  Moss-drenched red brick walls, grand Palladian architecture with an angular roof, shaded porches, and white Grecian columns.  It reminded me of a set piece from Gone with the Wind.  Nobody in California lived in a house like this.  I didn’t think anyone, anywhere owned a house like this anymore.  The front door was wide open.

In retrospect, I ignored a whole lot of weird.  I should have wondered what a house like that was doing in the middle of a national park.  I should have found it strange I hadn’t seen its outline as I approached - that it had appeared out of nowhere.  

But I didn’t.  By that point I was drowning in a sea of weird, and working off the logic that only works in dreams - there’s a house there, the door is open, so I must go inside. 

I found myself in a magnificent parlor room.  The Greco-Roman theme matched that of the outside; doorways were buttressed by wood-carved columns, ornate flowers and swirls framed the windows and large stone fireplace, and the walls were painted a rich blue that complemented the dark-stained hardwood floors and spiral staircase.  China figures were displayed in a buffed cabinet, and a large brass chandelier hung from the ceiling, lit candles sweating wax.

I didn’t know what to make of it.  This house looked like an exhibit in a museum.  Except - lived in.  The velvet sofa covers were wrinkled, as if recently occupied.  A painted tea pot sat on the coffee table, flanked by two teacups.  I stepped closer, and saw that one of the cups still had tea inside.  There was a plate of half-eaten finger sandwiches.  

From there, I proceeded through a doorframe, which led into a curved alcove and then a palatial dining room with a long table.  The scene was lit by a series of gas lanterns hanging from the walls.  I assume there was food, though I couldn’t have told you what they were all eating.  

Because I only saw the bodies.

I couldn’t scream.  I couldn’t move.  Before that moment, I didn't truly understand what it meant to be “frozen in fear.”

There were thirty of them, at least.  All dressed in period clothes - the women wearing frilly gowns with hoop skirts, the men in button-down shirts and tailored jackets, the servants with lacy caps and black frocks.  They hung off chairs, hunched over their plates, sprawled on the floor. 

Maybe three feet away, a young girl’s lily-white hand reached out for me.  A small rivulet of blood pooled around the extended extremity, staining the lace cuffs of her dress and oxidizing her gold rings.  

I guessed the head that lolled to my left - swollen tongue hanging out, delicate young features distorted, ice blonde ringlets tangled around a dislodged spinal column - was hers.  As was the decapitated body leaning back in its chair like a sleeping student, mangled arm at its side, blood dripping from ripped muscle tissue, exposed at the stump of a right wrist.  

There were chests torn open, exposing bowels and ribs and hearts dangling from severed vessels.  Heads hanging backwards off folded skin and muscles, naked vertebrae popping out of stubbed necks like grotesque puppets.  Arms, legs, hands, feet, and heads tossed around like broken extremities of discarded dolls. 

I felt hot liquid bubbling in my throat.  I turned away and lurched, puking, my vomit mixing with the puddle of blood draining from the girl’s disembodied, beckoning hand.  I turned and ran, back the way I came, back through the quaint, historic, empty parlor.  

Except it wasn’t empty anymore.  

There were lifeless children, no older than five, in a pile on the sofa.  A woman lay, face-down, midway up the stairs.  There were several steps between her legs and her torso.  I swallowed a second wave of vomit and looked only towards the open door.

A body lay in my way.  It was a man, maybe in his early forties, face up.  Even in death, his wide blue eyes betrayed unimaginable horror.  His nose was large and bent, there was a pink birthmark under his right eye, and his mouth twisted in one final scream.  If I had to guess, I’d say the slimy, gossamer sacs on his chest were his removed lungs.

He’d died running, I thought.  He’d been attacked from behind.  He was killed last.  I jumped over him, clenched my eyes shut, and stumbled out the door.

I opened my eyes.  I wasn’t back on the plateau.  

My surroundings were dim and brown, lit by a single gas lamp.  

I stood in a small dwelling, on a dirt floor.  In stark contrast to the mansion I’d previously encountered, this one bore the countenance of abject poverty.  The only furniture visible was a rotting wooden table and a single four-poster bed with a leaking straw mattress.  

Despite their vast differences, the hovel and the mansion had one thing in common.

Three bodies were piled against the bed.  Three black women, all naked.  The one nearest to me - a girl no older than twelve - had no breasts, just bloody circles were they’d been violently severed.  Her genitals were doused in blood, her face so badly bruised I could barely distinguish features.  The second girl, maybe fifteen, was similarly disfigured, with the addition of a deep laceration from her ribcage to her pelvis, spilling bowels onto the bare legs of the third woman.  This one was older, in her late thirties, sporting a nearly-decapitating gash across her throat.

I choked and stumbled backwards, into a wooden cradle.  No, I couldn’t bear… but I looked anyways.  

A naked child, a boy, no more than two, stared up into oblivion, his throat slashed.  He looked so much like Benjamin I felt my eyes water and my heart gulp.

Two more bodies lingered at the table, one folded on the ground and another lying supine on top.  I couldn’t seem much of the body on the floor, and I had no desire to.  Even at the odd angle, I saw it was a child, an arm had been violently amputated, and the ground around him was soaked.  

I stepped closer to view the body on the table.  A little black boy, naked except for a pair of dirty shorts.  I could immediately see how he had met his untimely end - dark blood leaked from the gash in his neck, trailing down his chest like a necklace.  But, unlike the others, who’d died where they’d fallen, this corpse looked specifically placed.  

Blood had been smoothed across his closed eyelids.  Lines and circles were painted on his cheeks, and his chest was covered in what I’d guess were words, but not words in any written language I had ever seen.  

Finally, my eyes rested on the seventh corpse.  This one was a man, dressed in a stained work shirt and torn slacks, sitting upright in a chair at the far wall of the dwelling.  I guessed he was the father of the murdered children.  He was dead as well, but dead in a completely different manner.  I saw the bloody hole in his temple, and then the pistol on the dirt floor, fallen from his limp hand.  

I turned away from him, back to the little boy on the table.  Strange, he looked almost peaceful.  If I didn’t know better, I’d have said he was smiling.  He’d been a cute kid, too, with a square jaw and a head full of dark frizz. 

Then his eyes snapped open.  

I cried out.  The kid was alive.  He pulled himself into a sitting position on the table, hole in his neck gaping like a screwed-up cartoon.  He stared at me, big eyes wide and mirthful, grinning. 

“Hi, Felicia!” he chirped joyfully.  “Do you like my work?”  

And, with that, he hopped off the table and sauntered out the door.  

Then the house collapsed.  

The walls melted into ash like butter in a pan.  I was lost in a sea of grey, eyes burning, throat tight, air around me hot and oppressive.  I couldn’t breathe.  I coughed as I ran, eyes closed, arms flailing wildly, until I fell to my knees and curled into myself, shaking and crying and praying for help.  

I stayed like that until I realized the air had cooled and I’d cried the dust out of my eyes.  I sat upright, and found myself atop an empty hill, surrounded by white ash that rested on the dirt and low shrubs like melting snow.  As I stared at the golden city lights in the distance, I saw the whiteness receding, dissipating into nothingness, leaving the terrain as though untouched.    

Utterly confused as to what I had just experienced, I pulled myself to my feet.  My toe connected with something small and hard.  I looked down.

It was a human skull.  A small human skull, child-sized.  In any other circumstance I would have been scared, but after what I’d just experienced, this seemed par the course.  I knelt beside the bizarre object and examined it.  It looked as though it had been exposed to the elements for years.  

I don’t know how I made it back to my car that night.  My trail of blocks had vanished, and I’d been led deep into the park.  But finally, thighs aching, drenched in sweat, I opened the driver’s-side door, unsure of what to do next.  Call Child Services?  Report a five-year-old running around Vasquez Rocks, blood smeared across his face like warpaint, throat cut from ear to ear?  Call the cops and report a vanishing house, serving as a ghostly tomb for thirty-aught dismembered bodies?  

No.  The Thing brought me here for a reason.  I’d seen what it wanted me to see.  And history - both mine and my mother’s - dictated The Thing could run rings around authority figures.

Panicking, I called Chantal’s number.  She didn’t answer.  I closed the door and pulled out my keys, inadvertently glancing in the rear-view mirror.

There was a sickly-white figure sitting in the back seat.

I screamed and kicked the door open.  In the process, I got a better view of my new traveling companion, and I almost felt stupid.  It was just Benjamin’s oversized stuffed dalmatian.  

Benjamin’s oversized stuffed dalmatian, last seen on top of that bookcase, functioning as a candle.  

And then, it hit me in the face so hard I started laughing.  Why had I not figured this out before?

The Thing could start fires.  It could also re-create things that had been burned.

The blocks.  The puzzle.  The dog.  The photograph of Shane I’d come across when I was fourteen.  The horrifying, half-charred picture I’d discovered in my mother’s destroyed storage unit.  All had been incinerated.  But these burned objects couldn’t retain their form forever - after a certain amount of time, they’d revert back to their true properties.  Disintegrate into dust.  

Which meant that the mansion, and the one-roomed cabin, and the dozens of bodies…

Do you like my work?

The Thing always took the form of a child.  I knew the little black boy with the cut throat was my childhood nightmare, wearing a new costume.  

And I knew what it was capable of.  

My odometer hit eighty on the freeway, long before I realized I’d forgotten to turn my lights on.  I called Chantal eight times.  Each time I heard her cheery message recording, I breathed faster and gripped the wheel harder.  Why had I left Benjamin alone?  How could I take my eyes off my child for a second, knowing what kind of monster stalked him?  

I peeled into the driveway of Chantal’s sister-in-law’s house, where her family was staying, ten minutes to one.  I pounded on the door like a madwoman; when fists weren’t loud enough, I took to kicking and yelling at the top of my lungs.  No one answered.  Fresh sweat running down my face, anguished warmth spreading from my chest to my extremities, I fought to keep the possibilities from my…

The door clicked open, and suddenly I was face-to-face with Chantal’s husband, Brian, bed-headed and bleary-eyed.  I was immediately embarrassed, a feeling augmented when I saw he was holding a baseball bat in his right hand.  

“Fuck, Felicia,” he mumbled.  “You scared the shit out of Chantal.”

“I’m sorry,” I said meekly.  “I… is Benjamin asleep?”

He nodded and shuffled back down the hall, revealing a disconcerted-looking Chantal, hair in rollers, a squirming Benjamin in her arms.  

They were surprisingly nice about being woken up in the middle of the night; Chantal’s phone had been on silent, which was why she wasn’t answering.  I don’t know why I hadn't assumed this was the case.  I made up a story about falling asleep on my couch, sheepishly collected my son, apologized once more to Chantal, and got out of there as quickly as possible.

It was nearly two in the morning when I pulled into my driveway.  My house was dark, and my chest tightened at the thought of entering.  This would forever be my life, I realized.  I was prey.  Benjamin was prey.  Prey of an omnipotent creature that could transcend the boundaries of space and time, capable of violent destruction at any moment - but enjoyed playing with its food, torturing and terrifying us until…

As I pulled Benjamin out of the car, I tripped the sensor.  The outside lights came on.

There was a girl sitting on the porch, looking at me expectantly.  

Not a girl, a young woman.  Maybe five years younger than me.  She had pale skin and long, wavy red hair.  She wore black jeans and a red t-shirt.  I thought her eyes were blue.  She may have had freckles.  She stood up and smiled at me - she had a very big, very pretty smile.  

“Um, Felicia?  I’m Kira.  Can, um, I come in so we can talk?”

She extended her hand, still smiling that Disney princess smile.  

I felt the blood drain from my face.  My brain screamed “run,” but my legs were numb.  It had preyed on my fears all night, and now The Thing was finally making its move.  I backed up slowly, Benjamin clutched tight in my arms. 

She was two meters away when instinct kicked in.  I whirled, half-tossed Benjamin in the back seat, slammed the door shut.  Not thinking, not looking, I reached in my purse and grappled for something hard.

“Please?” the girl continued.  She was leaning on the driver’s-side window now; her smile, close up, seemed menacing.  “Can I talk to you?  I know something I really think you should know.”

I found my pepper spray.  In one movement, I dropped my purse, flicked back the cap, and pressed the trigger.  

The girl screamed violently and dropped to the ground.  I nudged her out of the way, pulled open the car door, smacked her in the face.

“Fuck!  Are you fucking kidding me?”

“Stay away from my kid!” I screamed at her, climbing into the car.  I tried to pull the door shut, but she was grabbing the frame.  I reared back my foot to kick her again.  She reeled.

“Don’t!”

I hesitated.

Blinking manically, she rubbed her swollen eyes.  

“The monster that’s after you,” she stammered.  “It’s after me, too.”

Written by NickyXX
Content is available under CC BY-SA