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I used to be the meek and quiet kid who never caused trouble. By virtue of this, I was also most likely forgotten by others during any given childhood game.
Picking teams for kickball? Guess who was picked last.
Playing tag? Guess who was off to the side, as the person who was "IT" was not even glancing over.
Hell, once I had spent two hours on a swing when I was really little, because the teacher forgot I was there after recess. Though I didn't mind THAT much. There was a certain comfort in being completely unnoticed. There were no expectations, bullies tend to leave you alone, and so on. Really, it could have been much worse.
I am not trying to complain about it, is what I am saying. However, this fact of my youth came into play on at least one occasion that I will openly admit was one of the worst experiences of my life.
Despite being often forgotten, even seeming to disappear in the middle of conversations with others, I was always still ready to play another game... to try again at being a part of the group. Such was the case one elementary school recess period when a game of "Hide-N-Seek" was called. Everyone hid, and "IT" began seeking.
There was a small clearing in some trees near the playground that not many kids knew about, unless they were going to there to do something wrong.
I knew about it because, well, I usually did not have much else to do. As a child, the clearing seemed large, but looking back, it could not have been more than four-by-six feet. The ground was worn to packed soil, but the foliage completely concealed the area.
You might be able to guess where this is going. Yes, they forgot about me. At first I was giddy about my successful hiding space, but that slowly faded into sadness, as I realized nobody even remembered that I was playing. It took another few minutes to stop myself from crying. That was definitely something I did not need the other kids to see. My eyes were definitely red and irritated, as I did not even see the root that tripped me and sent me head-long into a fence post buried behind tall weeds.
When I woke up, it was cold. I heard moaning sounds, like cows when they bellowed from the slaughter house whose pasture bordered the property I grew up on. As my thoughts became clearer, and my vision started coming back, the sounds also got sharper and more defined. They were human voices, calling out my name in that long, drawn-out manner one hears whenever the search is on for a missing child.
I could barely walk as I stumbled through the bush, somehow managing to follow the flickering flashlight beams in the pitch black of night.
That was not the worst experience of my life. It came close, however.
My parents thought I was more affected by this incident than I actually was. I think now that they were just projecting how THEY had felt onto ME. They thought I had been kidnapped, probably killed, and they wanted to make sure this sort of thing never happened again.
They took me out of school, and stopped short of actually sueing the school board over the incident when they agreed to some sweeping changes that I did not really understand at the time. I became even more ostracized. I barely even left the house to play in the yard.
After a few months of this, we got a visit from my Aunt Georgia. She was much older than her sister, my Mom, and was always regarded as a bit nuts. You know the type - fun Aunt, terrible Mother. Even at that age, I'd come to realize my Cousins were pretty screwed up... damaged.
Aunt Georgia always came with a gift or two, but usually nothing I wanted. It was more about what she wanted to do than what I wanted to get. There were always shirts with weird, nonsensical creatures on them, bootleg toys with sharp edges and dangerously small accessories... stuff like that. This time however, she came with a rolled-up, glossy tube beneath her arm... a poster. I took it from her with the usual sacrifice of cheek pinching and vaguely "wrong" kisses directly on the mouth.
When I unrolled the poster, however, I was immediately amazed. It was a huge crowd scene full of cartoon characters, each character doing some specific task, like fixing a roof, walking a dog, catching some rays... stuff like that. Every inch of the poster was crammed with little people, from edge to edge. It was almost maddening as I looked it over. The closer I held the image to my face, the more detail I could see. The further I held it, the dizzier I would get.
And when I say 'detail', I mean incredible detail. There was a man in a cowboy hat and an American Flag shirt roasting hot dogs over a BBQ, and if I looked close enough, I could see the outline of Texas on his belt buckle. Keep in mind - This buckle was about the size of a grain of rice.
I thanked Aunt Georgia and immediately told her how much I loved "Where's Waldo" and that I would hang this up just as soon as I found him. She frowned for about a split second, like I had said something wrong.
I looked at the poster again. In the top left corner was a colorful logo that read: "WATCH FOR WILLY!"
Beneath that, the text: "Watch Willy wander! Can YOU find Willy in this busy-busy town full of colorful, oblivious little people?"
My heart sank.
It was another Aunt Georgia bootleg. While this shouldn't have mattered at all... it DID. This kind of thing always reinforced what everyone else seemed to be saying... that I wasn't worth remembering, wasn't worth playing with, and wasn't even worth buying the REAL product for.
Yes, it seems greedy now, even to me, but as a child these things can be crushing.
Doing my best to salvage the situation with my childish intellect, I quickly backtracked and told her I meant to say I loved "Watch for Willy".
Yeah. Not my best lie.
I hung the poster up in my room with a thumbtack at each corner, mostly because my parents and Aunt accompanied me there and I had no way out of it. It hung on the wall opposite my bed, where I could always look at it and remember that I hated it. After they left, I decided to find this "Willy" person as quickly as I could just to be done with the thing.
This is where things started seeming odd to me.
The poster didn't make any mention whatsoever of who the hell Willy was, or how to find him. There was no inset picture of him, that basically said "find the guy who looks like this", and there were no details to go on. Nothing about how he was dressed, his features, anything. I also didn't know what "oblivious" meant, or what it said about the "colorful little townspeople".
This was by far the shittiest thing I'd ever seen. I knew it was shitty, and I was just a little kid.
I looked over the poster for a short while longer, basically just to see if I'd missed anything. I studied the guy in his shorts, no shirt, mowing his lawn. His wife was bringing him a lemonade. It reminded me of my parents, so I paid special attention.
The only other thing that really caught my attention was a young woman in a bikini who seemed to be dancing around in the cool spray of a broken fire hydrant. Basically, because she was a young woman in a bikini.
Well and truly through with the poster, I left to see Aunt Georgia and my parents again before she went out for another unknown span of months.
I couldn't sleep that night. It was probably since I had eaten a lot more chocolate than I was usually allowed to, because Aunt Georgia would slip them to me against my parents' wishes. I clicked on the light and just stared into space for the longest time, before I fixed my gaze on the poster.
Where the fuck was Willy?
Walking over to the poster in my pajamas, I decided that was the real reason I could not sleep; that if I could just figure out where Willy was, it would magically take away the twitchy, itchy feeling that was keeping me awake. I started looking over the poster again. Still no sign of who Willy was, what he looked like, or how to find him.
Then I stopped looking and moved close to the poster... very close... I clearly remember feeling the coolness of the slick surface against the tip of my nose. And that was when I noticed something strange.
The Texan was dead.
There he was, cowboy hat, American Flag shirt, bent over the BBQ, and he was on fire. His arms were drooped down the sides of the grill, with a trail of blood moving down his arm and dripping from his fingertips.
The scene was, like the rest of the poster, frozen in time... cartoony... but still incredibly disturbing.
I quickly moved back from the image, terrified. I wanted to scream for my parents, but the sound seemed caught in my throat. I got back to my bed as fast as I could and threw the blanket over me. I pulled all my limbs in tightly and did not move a muscle or make a sound. This was how I stayed for what seemed like forever until, without even realizing it, I fell asleep.
When morning came, I was still stuck in that position, like a corpse with a death grip on its own body. The terror had passed, and I knew it had been a nightmare. It was not the first I had experienced, so naturally my reaction was to force myself out of bed, no matter how unsettling the experience had been.
It was just a dream. It was not real.
I wanted to walk out of the room without so much as looking in the general direction of that poster. I felt like sprinting through the door. However, I knew that when I looked at the "Watch for Willy" poster again, I'd see the Texan was fine, and I would reassure myself that everything was as it should be.
With a sigh and some fidgeting, I forced myself to look. The Texan was not slumped over the BBQ anymore.
That was because he was completely gone.
This was still disconcerting, but seeing NOTHING where he once stood was much better than seeing a burning corpse... so without a second thought, I looked around the scene once again for any clue as to what was going on.
The man mowing his lawn was still there, shirtless, in the exact same place... but his wife was no longer bringing him a lemonade. Instead, she was at the front door of the house, holding a phone to her ear and looking worried.
This was still not as scary as what I had already seen, so I looked around even more.
The man walking his dog was gone. His dog sat obediently in the very spot he had been previously. His leash was sprawled on the ground with no one to hold it.
Other than that, everything was normal... or so it looked. The sheer number of little cartoon people on this poster made it completely impossible for me to truly tell who was missing and who was present if I had not already memorized them.
I ate breakfast in silence. When my Mom asked what was wrong, I told her it was nothing. I don't know why I did not tell her what was going on, it was not like I thought she would call me crazy or say I was lying. I didn't even think it through that far. I just told her nothing was wrong because I had absolutely no idea what WAS wrong.
It was not until that night that I thought about the poster again. It was almost time for bed, and almost time for me to go back to my room. It suddenly dawned on me that, yes, I was about to go back to a small room with a strange object that was doing something it should not.
I threw a tantrum that night. I did not want to go to bed, and I screamed and howled and carried on like never before. Having previously been a pretty good kid who never caused a fuss, my parents were shocked, and pretty pissed off. In the end, it got me sent to my room even faster.
When I got there, I decided to take the poster down. Maybe I would roll it up and put it in the closet, or maybe I would just ball it up and throw it away. Would my parents even notice? There was a slim chance they would not, and even if they did, the thing would be gone and there would be nothing to do about it.
I walked up to it and started to pull out one of the thumbtacks. Before I could free it from the wall, my eyes were already studying the graphics. I could not help it, like when you do not want to see something in a scary movie, and before you realize it you are peeking through your fingers at the worst moment.
The man on the roof was dead.
His nail gun lay beside him, and five bloody holes now marked his chest and stomach. The ladder that previously rested against the house had fallen over.
My eyes darted around again, without my permission.
The young woman dancing in the water was dead.
She was in the middle of the street, faced down in the pooling water. Her dark hair was spread out in tendrils with a bloody open wound on the back of her head. Her bikini was even askew, a detail that somehow made it even more sickening, as if she had really fallen dead with no chance at keeping her modesty.
By the time I had quickly looked over the whole poster, there were five corpses who had suffered various injuries. I did not know the other three because I had not studied them yet.
I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes, and I was having trouble getting my breath. I felt disoriented, cold, and shaky... what I would later come to know as a panic attack. I left the thumbtack in place and ran to my bed again. It worked before. Nothing "got me". So it seemed like the best idea at the moment.
It was there, cowering under the covers like the non-person everyone thought I was, that I eventually calmed down and built up my courage. This was stupid. It was just a poster. A poster that I never even wanted. I could take it off the wall if I wanted to... I could throw it away if I felt like it... it was just a piece of paper no matter HOW strange and frightening!
It was just... a piece... of paper.
Before I even gave another thought to what I was doing, I was at the wall pulling the thumbtack out again. And before I even got to pull out the thumbtack, my eyes were back at the poster.
The man on the roof and the girl in the water were missing. So were the other three people I had only noticed after they had died. However, that was not the only thing different when I looked again.
The man mowing his lawn was sprawled out in the grass with the mower over his head... a pool of blood surrounding him.
His wife was on the front steps, cut in half at the waist.... it looked like her torso actually crawled toward her husband for a few seconds, leaving a trail of blood and gore behind...
The person who had been sunning himself on the porch was now lying in the exact same position, but without his head. In a matter of seconds, I spotted the severed head several inches away, mounted on a picket fence post in someone else's yard.
There was a mailman gunned down in the middle of the sidewalk.
A pregnant woman was seated on a bench was now slumped over with her throat slit and blood staining her flowered maternity dress.
There was an entire wedding party on someone's lawn that was now little more than a series of scattered limbs around a smoldering crater. The bride and groom had been thrown from the blast and laid in crumpled heaps at the foot of an oak tree. The Reverend was resting similarly on his head, his neck twisted so his face was situated below his back.
It had not occurred to me that the Texan's propane tank had previously disappeared.
Perhaps most disturbing of all, to one corner of the poster, a pair of bare human legs protruded from a child's playhouse, a trail of blood left behind from being dragged there and stuffed inside.
I yanked the thumbtack from the bottom corner of the poster and, without thinking, threw it to the side. I did not even want to touch anything that touched this monstrous piece of shit.
That was when I noticed a single droplet of blood... sticky, translucent, crimson... dripping down my wall from behind the poster. It was not coming from where I had removed the tack. It was actually coming from beneath the paper's surface. I carefully lifted the bottom edge of the poster as strands of sticky, congealing redness stuck between it and the wall.
I had revealed them. The missing corpses.
The Texan, the young woman, the dog walker, and maybe twenty others I had not even noticed were missing.
Tiny, cartoony bodies, somehow were all drawn directly onto my bedroom wall. They lay there in a heap as very real, pungent human blood seeped out of them.
I half expected the little bodies to tumble down, off the wall and onto the floor... but they did not move. They were just as immobile as they had been on the poster itself. Frozen above them were barely visible flies, detailed right down to their legs, which were thinner than a hair.
Something caught my notice just beneath the section of poster I had not yet lifted. It was a leg. I pulled the paper off the wall a bit further, to reveal the owner of the leg.
There, impossibly standing on nothing amidst the blank expanse of my wall, was a tiny, average-looking man in a shirt, sweater vest, jeans, and boots. He had a tiny mustache, thick-rimmed glasses, and a balding scalp.
He was covered in bloody masses of gore from head to toe.
"I found you," I whispered, with a slight crack in my voice.