Travis sucked air through his teeth in a way that was reminiscent of a pained hiss. He stood up and tossed the iPad across his bed as if putting distance between himself and the words would save himself from them. It wouldn’t. He had seen the title and he tapped on it even though he knew it would do him no good and would only make him feel worse. He paced the floor of his bedroom for a few minutes before he returned to the iPad and picked it up. He read it again, despite the fact he knew what would happen when he did.
The Lonely Hearts Ritual
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to find that perfect someone who complements you perfectly in every way and meshes so wholly with your personality it’s almost as if you were created for each other? Do you know someone who sets your heart aflutter and makes you realize the true breadth of beauty in the world?
Well, why not make that person love you? Their heart can be yours. All you need to perform this binding ritual is a photo of theirs and a knife.
In any community, in any nation, go to any place of higher education. In the deepest bowels of the basement of that building, you will find a row of holes in the wall. These fist-sized holes will be invisible unless you’re actually looking for them. Using the knife, give one of your fingers small cut and apply a single drop of blood to the picture. While anointing the picture, make sure to chant the person’s name as you consign the photo to its hole. If you are successful, that person will fall madly in love with you and you’ll be happy.
Afterwards, you must never return to that place or retrieve their photo. If you do, the photo will be distorted and look like some sort of fugly demon-
Travis flipped the lid of the iPad with a flick of his wrist and covered the screen. Hiding the text did nothing to stop its insidious progress into his mind. The seed was planted and it had already started to grow and would soon yield rotted fruit. He would brush it all off as some stupid ritual that only a sad, desperate idiot would try. He would tell himself he was happy (even if he wasn’t), about how he had friends (even though no one really talked to him at school), and how the right girl would eventually come along and see him for the great guy he was (even though he didn’t really like himself). He would ignore his nightly ritual of staring at the Facebook app on his iPad, waiting for a message or notification to invalidate the pervading sense of loneliness which surrounded him. He’d ignore the fact that more often than not, he would find himself crying without really knowing why before he drifted off.
Travis told himself that only a real loser would perform some stupid ritual he found on the internet in an attempt to win someone over. Only a pathetic person would do something so desperate and delusional in an attempt to find companionship. He would carry out the Lonely Hearts Ritual by the end of the week.
He knew it was ridiculous, but at this point he was desperate enough to try anything. He was tired of being a wallflower, he wanted to stop feeling so alone. Lisa was the only solution he could see. His mind looped through memories of her in a practiced cycle, it was like a broken record skipping endlessly. Her smile was gentle and kind. The way she talked to her friends, bubbly and effervescent. She was perfect. If he could convince her to love him, maybe she could give him something he couldn’t show himself.
Lisa didn’t even notice him. There was nothing malicious in it. She had friends and tried to be friendly with everyone she met. Their class was relatively large and Travis never made any attempt to become her friend. He preferred watching her from a distance, pretending about all the sweet things she would say to him and the jokes she’d tell him which would make him laugh. He thought it was better this way, but now the illusion wasn’t enough.
It was easy enough to sneak the knife into school. Their metal detector hadn’t been plugged in for months. The metal detector was more of a false totem of security. The school made a big deal of it when they first unveiled it. They declared themselves a bastion of safety in today’s uncertain times. When it broke a month later and the school didn’t have the funds to repair it, they quietly unplugged it and pretended that it was fine. They went through the motions of having students walk through the metal detector, but it didn’t react to anything. Travis simply put the pocketknife in his pocket and walked into the school. Getting Lisa’s photo was the toughest part.
Travis couldn’t just ask her for a photo. Even if he wasn’t severely shy, some part of him knew what he was doing was wrong. He managed to use his cell phone to snap a picture in class while everyone was distracted. He discreetly tucked the phone under his arm and tapped the camera icon. Ker-shick! The teacher stopped lecturing and everyone’s heads turned to the origin of the sound and the sudden flash of light. Travis nervously pretended to look for the source of the sound despite the fact it had clearly come from his desk. He was certain everyone knew that it was him, but he still tried to hide it.
He took his phone to the library during their lunch break and connected to the printers using the usb port. He took one last moment to admire the photo before hitting print. It was perfect, Lisa was perfect. Her auburn hair encircled her beatific face. If her eyes were open, he would have seen her warm hazel eyes. She was sleeping peacefully. He printed the photo and hastily averted his face from the librarian who had been watching him with a quizzical expression.
After school Travis found the door to the basement and went inside. His parents wouldn’t mind if he returned later than usual, they typically got home from their respective jobs at around five so that gave him two hours to explore the basement and get home before them. He knew it probably would take a lot of time searching for the spot the ritual talked about, if it even existed. He used his phone’s flashlight feature to light the way. He clutched Lisa’s photo and the pocketknife in his other hand.
A small part of him was secretly happy when he didn’t find any holes in the wall. Deep down, he knew how stupid all of this was; performing a magical ritual which couldn’t possibly be real in order to win the heart of a girl who didn’t even know he existed. The basement was mainly used to store cleaning supplies, holiday decorations, and broken items the school no longer needed like old projectors, sports equipment, and a rusted push mower that looked like it was fifteen years old, slightly older than him.
Travis was about to accept defeat when he saw the lockers. They were tucked away in a far corner down a small hallway. He could see why they were down here. They had mold growing along the bottom and the paint was sloughing off in patches revealing rusty patches underneath like a neglected mangey dog. The bank of lockers had two rows of twelve alcoves and were just large enough for your book bag, or a photo.
Travis said to himself, “Might as well try.” He meant it to sound nonchalant, but there was something beneath his voice that unsettled him, a desperate urgency he wanted to pretend didn’t exist. He opened the first locker and was greeted with the built-up smell of must and rust. He performed the ritual as quick as he could, as if he were compelled. He jabbed the tip of his index finger with the pocketknife, he didn’t wince. He squeezed his finger and watched as a fat drop of blood stained the immaculate gloss of the photo he’d taken. He chanted, “Lisa Danielle,” a half a dozen times before the name lost its meaning and sounded awkward on his lips. He whispered it a few more times just to be safe before he slipped the stained photo inside the locker and shut the door.
Travis returned home with his face flushed, shame and self-loathing swelling up inside him, and his heart hammering in his chest. He made sure to wash his hands thoroughly and disinfect the cut. He slapped a bandaid over his finger. When his parents returned home and noticed the cut, he explained it in the usual manner. He had sliced open a finger while cutting an apple for an after-school snack. He spent the rest of the weekend beating himself up for doing something so superstitious and stupid.
He knew how ridiculous it was, performing a stupid internet ritual in an attempt to get a girl to notice him. More than that, it was pathetic. He said he was too embarrassed to talk to her, but the real answer was buried deep inside him. He was worried about losing or alienating the last thing he had. He told himself that there was nothing sexual about it, and for once, he was being honest with himself. None of this was motivated by lust. The thought hadn’t even crossed his mind until this point. He just wanted her to look into his eyes and say those three simple words to him:
“Are you okay?”
He wasn’t. He was far from it.
Everyday he had to give himself a reason to keep going. Had he talked to a professional, their diagnosis would have likely been clinical depression. He didn’t seek help. Instead, he would say something that he liked about himself or the world around him as a reason to keep going. Sometimes it would be his sense of humor, he’d spend the rest of the week convincing himself how terrible his jokes really were. Other times it’d be his friends who loved him and would be sad if he were no longer there, then he’d notice how distant they really were. He never really talked to them outside of class and every interaction felt like a courtesy. Each reiteration, he lost another reason to live.
Travis saw Lisa as his last chance, his final opportunity for happiness. He repeatedly told himself she was the only good thing left in his life after the bad chemicals in his brain convinced him that it was true. Instead of talking to someone or getting help, he placed all his expectations and hope on the shoulders of this girl he barely knew. He reasoned that if she could be convinced to care about him, maybe there was something worth saving. He wished she would notice him. On Monday, his wish came true.
Lisa was waiting for Travis outside their school with a warm hug. It was so sudden and unexpected that it knocked the air right out of his lungs. She asked how his weekend was and he fumbled for something interesting to say. She laughed at his attempts to say something witty and hung onto his every word. Travis couldn’t believe it. He never thought the ritual would work. He figured this would be another brick in the road that inevitably led towards the end. It was too good to be true, it really was.
During class, he excitedly searched for the ritual. He didn’t know how it worked and he hoped the comments might explain what was happening. The comments were about as helpful as you’d think. Of the ten comments that were there, eight were “instructions unclear, dick stuck in ______” posts and the other two were lengthy criticisms of the author’s use of the word fugly and the logistical inaccuracies about how a ritual couldn’t be performed anywhere the performer wanted. No one had performed this ritual, or if they had, no one was talking.
Travis lied and told himself it really didn’t matter, she was his friend and he was happy. Maybe most didn’t attempt the ritual which was why no one was writing about it in the comments or maybe there was something inherently mystical about those particular lockers. He tried to convinced himself that it didn’t matter. It had worked and there was nothing to be concerned about. He should be happy, with her.
Lisa was not who he thought she was. It was small things at first. At lunch she prompted him with numerous questions about every little thing he did. She wanted to know how he was feeling (he was fine), what he was eating (a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a banana), how it tasted (probably very similar to the exact same sandwich she had). She laughed at him pointing out they were eating the same thing and he realized she hadn’t touched her food. Every question was focused entirely on him. Every time he tried to ask her about herself, she deflected the question and redirected it back towards him.
He tried to quiet that voice in his head which told him something was not right here. Travis told himself maybe he never really knew her. Maybe this was the type of person she actually was. Maybe with all the stolen glances and eavesdropped conversations he hadn’t actually seen her, hadn’t heard her. He was right, he didn’t actually know her. He built up this perfect person in his mind that didn’t actually exist, she was an ersatz entity manufactured as an emotional crutch. It would take a week of class with her to realize his worst fears.
Lisa wasn’t just interested in him, she was obsessed. Her sapphire blue eyes were always on him. Sometimes he would turn around in class and see her staring at him, oblivious to everything else around her. His name was always on her lips. Every now and then, he would hear her whisper it under her breath. Sometimes he would wake in the middle of the night feeling like he was being watched. He could almost imagine her eyes tracing over him in the darkness of the night from some perch that overlooked his room. He imagined her eyes burning into him. Her blue eyes. It clicked in Travis’ mind and his world crumbled.
She wasn’t human. Not anymore. The ritual had worked, it had called something from some unknown place that had replaced Lisa. It completely subsumed her and swallowed up everything she was. The sweet Lisa whose smile used to light up his world, whose words used to lift his sullen mood. Travis didn’t know what she wanted, but he knew he had to fix this. Luckily he still had his pocketknife.
It didn’t take a lot of convincing to lure Lisa into the basement after school. He wanted to talk to her about something. She was so focused on his words that she never noticed his sweating, fidgeting, or nervous jitters. The basement was far from prying eyes and remote enough where he could confront her without worrying about intervention until he took care of what he needed to do. She was noticeably nervous about being in the basement. She kept glancing around and refused to get any closer to the bank of lockers. He blew out the breath that had been rattling around in his lungs since luring her down here as he fanned the blade out from the pocketknife. He had to know, one way or the other.
He asked, “You’re not Lisa. Your eyes are different. The real Lisa wouldn’t act this way, she wouldn’t talk to me like this. She probably wouldn’t talk to me. What did the ritual do? What did you do? Answer me!”
After those words were spoken, something changed in his ‘friend’. It was like a hairline crack forming along a fish-tank. ‘Lisa’ asked, “What ritual? I came because you called out to me. I was in the dark, I was lost and alone. We couldn’t leave that place. It was an endlessly shuffling labyrinth. I heard you calling out, I smelled you, coppery and sweet. You may have not used my name, but still you cried out to me. You were so far away, but I sensed your need, your desperation. I tracked your scent, I followed the sound of your pleading. You rescued me from that horrible place. I saw your offering, saw who you wanted me to be. I want to be that for you.”
A wave of panic washed over Travis. He had hoped against hope that she would call him crazy, tell him he was psychotic and run away from him. He wanted to believe he was wrong, that Lisa was fine. However he was right, Lisa wasn’t fine. His hand gripped tightly around the knife. He growled in an attempt to steel himself for what he was about to do, “What are you?!” The words came out more as a whimper than a threatening sound. He tried to hold the knife steady, but he couldn’t stop his hands from shaking. He held back the tears, but he knew they were coming.
‘Lisa’ stepped forward and he shrank back. She smiled warmly, but her eyes were empty. She said, “I’m your friend.” She stepped towards Travis, but he didn’t move. She cooed, “I want to be here for you.” Her arms wrapped around him. The knife fell out of his limp grip and clattered against the grimy tile. She held him in her arms and pressed herself against him. She felt his heart beating in his chest like a bird trapped in a cage. She whispered, “You’re going to be okay.” That one moment of intimacy and ‘human’ contact was enough to break the floodgates.
‘Lisa’ felt hot in his arms, it was as if he was cradling the sun. If he had looked at its face that very moment, he would have seen it deforming and distorting like melting plastic. It tried to recall the photo, remember the face. Its bright blue eyes darkened and turned hazel. It would be the person he wanted, it needed him. Travis wept. All the guilt, sadness, and self-loathing bubbled over and spilled out of him. The thing that was not Lisa held him, hungrily drinking in his sorrow.
Weeks passed and life regained some sense of normalcy. Travis would swaddle himself in ‘Lisa’s’ adoration and he would turn a blind eye to all the warning signs. He ignored how animals would avoid her like the plague, he’d pretend not to notice how her joints sometimes popped softly as she moved as if they were luxating and sliding back into place, or how her skin rippled and warped when she lost focus or let her guard down. It was a small sacrifice. Sometimes when they were talking on the phone late at night, she would tell him she was the only one who truly understood him. She told him that she was the only one who could make him happy. He knew he wasn’t happy, but he kept telling himself the lie, maybe one day he would be. Maybe one day he would have friends who understood him. Maybe one day. If they had been talking in person, Travis would have noticed the knife-sliced smile that cracked across her face as she told him all of this.
Months passed and all that horror, revulsion, and fear abated and tucked itself away in the back of Travis’ mind. For what felt like the first time in his life, he was excited. He couldn’t wait to come into class on Monday and see all of his new friends. He reflexively clenched and unclenched his fist and felt dozens of tiny painful stings bleeding out from under the small bandaids that were wrapped around his fingers. His family was so much nicer now. He didn’t even need to use the lockers. He knew how to call them, they were waiting for him as soon as he got home from school. They told him that they cared about him now, that they were there for him regardless of the person he was. They loved him even though this was who he was. It had worked again, he couldn’t wait to see the other kids in his class. For the first time in his entire life, Travis actually felt like he truly belonged.
Travis never checked the lockers. He knew what he would find in them if he did and that thought horrified him. He couldn’t face the brutality and inhumanity that he knew he would find contained in those tiny lockers. Instead he buried the revulsion deep down and enveloped himself in the lie that everyone cared about him now and it was enough. He belonged in this place. He was at home amongst those monsters. He was happy. Everyone around him loved him. Still, he didn’t love himself.
Some parents noticed the change in their children. They told themselves that children are always struggling to find their identity, and some seemingly change overnight. Some acted completely different from how they once were. It was a part of growing up. They told themselves that it was a phase and they would grow out of it. Parents whose suspicions failed to abate, simply disappeared. No trace was left of them, there was no resistance to the invasion. Travis was blissfully unaware of all of this as the doppelgängers continued to feed off of his depression in an attempt to perpetuate their food source until he was nothing but an empty husk. They glutted themselves on his misery. They fed for years until there was nothing left.
Written by EmpyrealInvective