When I was 17 years old, I created a monster. Although my intentions were never vile, I do admit that in the dwindling years of my childhood, my careless actions whilst on a quest for adrenaline were solely responsible for spawning a truly malicious creature, the likes of which I had never encountered up until that point. It was because of my unfamiliarity with the realm to which this creature resided, I suppose, that I approached the entire situation with an unremarkable amount of caution and, consequently, allowed others to suffer a great deal due to my ill-preparedness. Once I had laid the framework for this monster to emerge, I was quickly thrust into a reality that I knew far too little about, and I was forced to come to terms with my own carelessness in the form of something I feared more than death itself.

Let me start from the beginning. From the time that I was born to the time that I attended college, the small and highly insignificant town of Arab, Alabama, was the place I called home. However, to describe the town as “insignificant” would be an understatement, and frankly too large of a compliment. With a population of no more than 7,000 people at its peak, if someone took a dictionary and looked up the word “forlorn,” they’d find a picture of Arab in its glory days. The town itself was an accident. Our town founder, Stephen Tuttle Thompson, had originally intended to name the town after his son, Arad, but had accidentally misspelled it as “Arab” when he applied to make his township official. Needless to say, Arab is nothing more than a product of a careless error, evolving into wasteland for local businesses and child’s hellscape, with only a rotting Super Walmart on the edge of the town to serve as a place for entertainment, or else suffer the costly and often bothersome trip to the nearest city over half an hour away if someone wanted to go see a movie or go for a round at the lanes at Bowl-O’Rama, a favorite amongst kids my age.

And so it was a consequence of this desolation that I was coerced into participating in local sports and school clubs into my high school years to keep my idle mind occupied, the hefty majority of which I either flatly loathed or simply was not nearly proficient enough at to judge whether it was fun for me. I suppose, in a way, that these clubs were beneficial to me, in that they tricked my mind into believing that Arab had more to offer than a mediocre football team and an unreasonable number of churches for such a small area, seven to be exact. The club that I found the least agonizing was my high school’s theatre department, more so due to the people it was comprised of than the actual program itself.

I auditioned for the fall production of Bye Bye Birdie early in my junior year out of a longing to escape the monotony of “school to homework to bed to school again”, I had subconsciously fallen into. I was fortunate enough to receive the highly revered role of “Male Chorus 3,” and I found myself very quickly attracted to a core group of six friends also in the cast primarily for the same reason they were attracted towards me: because we all had nothing better to do and nobody better to do it with.

Among my new group of friends were: Isaac, the resident self-proclaimed “macho man” in a group otherwise comprised of more… effeminate… members; Caroline, a “natural born leader,” as described by her teachers, that could very easily turn into a meticulous control freak when given enough power, but I never minded in our seven years of friendship; Riley Grace, Isaac’s longtime neighbor-turned-arm-candy once they reached high school; Grant, who was a bit of an eccentric that was keen to follow the group mentality; Camren, the only openly gay man in the entire theatre program (he had acquired the nickname of “loose lips” for more reasons than just his outspoken nature); and lastly there was Elizabeth, the quick-witted yet reserved blonde whom I had been friends with since diapers. She possessed a natural grace and subtle charm that I had admired for years, but was too scared to actually come out and say, often resulting in me openly making a fool of myself in front of her. She was new to the program, thanks to my prodding. Caroline had quickly become attached to her and the rest of us gladly adopted her as our own because, like the rest of us, she didn’t have any other place where she belonged.

It was the first week of October of that year when I finally came to the realization that I was trapped in a makeshift prison for another two years that served no other purpose than to thieve away my spare time and claim it was for the “further development of my brain.” Given my previously expressed sentiments towards my hometown, it should come as no surprise that my mind quickly turned restless. By this point, our theatre department was in full swing with Birdie, and what was once a fun escape from the repetitive nature of life every other weeknight from 4:00 to 7:00 had quickly reverted into yet another routine, crafting a new form of the familiar monotony of school, except with longer nights, intense choreography rehearsals, and the inescapable dread I felt inside the too frequent times I messed up in front of my director.

And in only a matter of days, I again found myself back where I had started in my quest to alleviate the boredom in my life, and so I decided to get creative. It was nearing the middle of October so, naturally, I was drawn to the more sinister realm of horror as my new source of entertainment.

“Let’s do something this Friday after rehearsal!” I introduced the subject during a water break.

“Alright, then, what do you suggest?” Caroline inquired.

“Well, it’s Halloween, so I was thinking we do something scary?” My proposal was met with a combination of raised eyebrows and disinterested silent glances.

“Like what? A haunted house?” Isaac laughed at the idea of indulging in something so childish.

“The only decent haunted house anywhere near here is all the way in Birmingham, and I don’t want to drive all the way there and back especially after a rehearsal,” Grant huffed.

“Yeah… and I don’t really do scary things to begin with, so no.” Caroline dismissed the notion altogether.

“Well, I want to do something…” Elizabeth spoke up timidly, in the face of opposition.

“Ooh, I know!” Camren jumped in to the conversation. "Let’s go roll someone’s house!”

“How does that relate to anything scary?” I asked.

“Spooky toilet paper?” His comment was met with a collection of muted laughter, but for as humorous as Camren’s idea was, it gave me a new idea.

“What if we were the ‘something scary?’” I proposed, much to the confusion of the others in the circle. I continued my pitch, “Let’s go into people’s yards, knock on their doors or leave a creepy note or something, and creep them out a bit!” Everyone continued to stare at me, now more concerned than confused.

“That sounds fun… if you're asking for a death wish!” Caroline was the first to speak up. “What if someone comes out and starts attacking us? What if someone calls the police?”

Isaac reveled in this new spin of danger. Both Riley Grace and I sensed Isaac’s interest growing, but she was the first to take advantage of it.

“Isaac, your dad’s a cop,” Riley Grace choked out. “You’re not going to take that big of a risk, are you? We could all get into some serious trouble if we get caught.”

“But we aren’t going to get caught! We’ll do it to somebody we know who won’t get mad for us pulling some dumb prank,” I pitched. “And if we end up getting caught and they are mad, we can clean up whatever we messed up. It’s like rolling a house, but more ‘festive.’” I was aware that my idea sounded strange, but I was insistent upon not spending another weekend watching Netflix on someone’s futon or playing cards in my basement.

“It sounds fun enough. Let’s do it,” Camren said.

“If Camren’s doing it, I’ll do it too,” Grant joined in.

Isaac succumbed to the peer pressure next, “You know what? Why the hell not? I like the risk.”

“Are you serious?” Riley Grace looked on with distaste.

“I’ve got nothing better to do. And besides, with Camren and Grant there too, I’ll have a better chance of running away and someone else getting caught instead.” Isaac started to laugh. I noticed the guys discreetly glare at Isaac for theoretically throwing them under the bus. Isaac looked back at them and defensively held his arms up halfway above his waist, as if to say, “It was a joke,” but he did so with only the slimmest amount of sincerity.

“I’m not putting myself anywhere near that situation,” Riley Grace concluded.

“That’s possibly the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard, so count me out too.” Caroline echoed Riley Grace’s sentiments. I looked toward Elizabeth and grinned, “Anyone else?” I watched Elizabeth begin to form words with her mouth, but then she caught Caroline’s gaze and she was immediately stunted. Their shared gaze was followed up by a hushed whisper from Elizabeth, followed by another wide-eyed glare from Caroline. Although their exact words were incomprehensible, Caroline’s condescending stare illustrated her entire argument.

“Okay, so how are we going to do this?” Isaac jumped in.

“More like to whom?” Grant continued.

“What about Maggi Yancey?” Camren gestured toward the stage where our potential victim was posed dauntingly on the stage in the midst of blocking a scene.

The priss strutted oh so arrogantly along the proscenium with that smug leading lady smirk. She had acquired the reputation of being a slimy and malicious spoiled brat throughout her high school career, and she remained a vicious jungle cat, the leader of the pack in the theatre realm, preying on the frailty of insecure geeks to establish her dominance as our predetermined leading lady.

“Let’s shake her up a bit.”

I beamed with excitement at the moment Maggi was pulled into the picture. I knew both Grant and Isaac were also rocking with excitement at the chance to harass the untouchable prick and, more importantly, get away with doing so.

“What happened to this being harmless?” Riley Grace spoke up. “That seems pretty cruel.”

“There’s nothing wrong with giving someone a little scare,” Camren retorted. “And besides, the bitch deserves it. She needs something to knock her off her pedestal.”

“I’m not getting involved in that. I don’t intend to make enemies.” Caroline folded her arms in protest. The other girls concurred with Caroline, stood up, and migrated onto the stage, leaving us conspirators to our own devices.

“Well, for those of us without sticks up our asses, let’s get planning. She lives in the Cherokee Ridge community, a couple streets down from me. We use my PIN to get in through the gate and walk from there to keep the noise down. We’ll be gone before anyone knows we’re there. Sound like a plan?”

Our confirming nods had, in an instant, simultaneously solidified our reckless perceptions and the imminent danger we would soon face.

That Friday afternoon ushered in a drastic and rather premature shift in the weather; over a span of a few weeks, the temperate faded blue sky had devolved into a bleak grey shadow of its former self; the leaves which had been highly venerated in their treetop thrones during their summer reign had all but dwindled out of existence, their vibrant complexions comprising of oranges, yellows, and reds that had for so long demonstrated their nobility had slowly retreated into their feeble uniform shade of brown. The blanket of night had grown more comfortable with these new conditions as well, timidly egressing from its lair to crawl across the sky earlier and earlier each day, casting a seemingly ever-present darkness onto our town. But what marked that day as so significantly divergent from the normal weather patterns as of late was the onset of a frigid winter chill. Although my town had acquired a reputation for exceptionally cold winters, they were not cold enough to carry with them the inherent mountains of snow or anything in that vein of merriment. Every winter for the last eighteen years had merely consisted of frigid rain and the occasional layer of frost caking car windshields in the morning.

The rehearsal that night was nothing remarkable. We practiced our choreography, we sang our voice parts, and we walked through the scenes we had blocked up until that point, but all of that stimuli was gradually consolidated down into white noise in my mind as the night drew nearer to its close. My thoughts concerning the act I was about to orchestrate with my friends were flooded with the combination of anticipation and unease. When the wall clock struck 7 p.m., all of the students rushed the edge of the stage, their shackles to the theatre broken on the dot. I fell back to group up with Grant and Camren, who were waiting to escape out the back door.

“Where’s Isaac?” Grant asked, looking around the stage to see if he got caught up in another conversation.

“I thought he was already with you guys,” I suggested, slightly puzzled.

“Oh, go figure.” Camren pointed out towards the mezzanine where the rest of our friends had clustered together. And standing right in the middle, wrapped around Riley Grace’s finger, was Isaac. She had placed her arm on his and she glared at him ever so disconcertingly. I had watched Riley Grace lecture Isaac for over a minute without ceasing when he extended his arm just enough to graze the tips of her fingers, clearly illustrating the exact moment Isaac had become Riley Grace’s subservient.

“What a bitch,” Camren antagonized Isaac’s faltering character. We walked up to the mezzanine to investigate what had just happened, and caught the collectively condescending glare of the girls.

“What are you guys doing?” I asked, catching Isaac’s gaze out of the corner of my eye.

“We’re having a big, safe, legal bonfire at Elizabeth’s house right now. You guys are welcome to join!” Caroline peppered her hollow invitation with yet another disheartening jab at our intentions, emphasizing each point.

“Well, actually, we already have plans,” I shot back, slightly pompous.

“Doing what? Isaac’s coming to the bonfire, why aren’t you?” I looked in his direction, my expression taking on a shape of malice. He looked back at me and shrugged his shoulders as if he were actually confused as to why I would be mad at him for bailing. “What’s wrong, Noah? It’s better to spend the night sitting with friends instead of in a jail cell.” Caroline cut into me even deeper.

I admit I got more flustered than I probably should have, but again Caroline had gotten her way through guilt tripping and shaming people for thinking in a way adverse to her own.

“Okay fine. If it’ll make you guys feel better, we’ll go to your dumb bonfire thing,” Camren suddenly conceded. I turned my attention towards him, radiating the same amount of aggravation in my expression. “And just as a peace offering, we’ll go buy some snacks first. Are Doritos and Dr. Pepper okay?” The girls nodded giddily. I noticed Isaac and Camren lock eyes for a moment, and nod slightly as if they were reticently cementing a plan.

“I’ll come with you guys.”

Isaac hurriedly made his way toward the outer part of the circle near where we stood. We agreed to meet the girls at Elizabeth’s house in an hour before escaping out through the backdoor. From the moment we hopped into Camren’s car and turned onto the road going the opposite direction of the store, I began to grasp what their true intentions were.

“We’re not going to get snacks, are we?” I croaked out.

“No, we’re not going to get snacks, genius,” Camren mocked from the front seat. My heart swelled with a mixture of reinvigorated excitement in our mission and an unease surrounding our deceit. I didn’t necessarily feel comfortable with lying to my friends, especially about something they had already condemned.

Grant spurred my thoughts on as he turned around to talk to Isaac, “You’re welcome, by the way.”

“Isaac, you need to grow a spine for once,” Camren chimed in. “You hardly see us anymore because of her.”

“She’s such a control freak,” Grant picked back up. “You haven't been yourself for weeks because ‘Riley Grace wouldn't want you to do something dangerous.’ You’re not fun anymore.”

Isaac readjusted himself, preparing his defense, “Well I care about her. I want her to be happy and that means I’m not going to be so… me…” This was met with exasperated groans from the car.

“So, you’re just gonna change who you are for some girl?” Camren interjected.

“What does it matter to her what you do in your spare time?” Grant’s final point managed to sway my contrasting emotional states in favor of rejuvenated excitement. I could also tell through Isaac’s waning defense that he shared a similar thought.

“I mean, as long as nobody gets hurt, what’s stopping you from having a little fun?” My input incited a round of hearty whoops and laughs of agreement from the rest of the car, and it quickly became our mantra for the rest of the night.

Our car rolled up to the Cherokee Ridge front gate shortly thereafter, and I immediately felt a massive weight pile onto my shoulders. I became overwhelmed with a sudden dread as we parked the car off to the side of the road near a construction site. I was brewing with apprehension as to whether our childish provocations would actually yield success. I paused for a moment to take in my surroundings. The starless sky displayed a mix of an inky dark blue shade and a vibrant purple hue closer to the horizon, the product of the numerous street lamps in the area.

The street in which we stood was nothing less than desolate, reticent, seemingly void of any semblance of life, or better yet harboring its usual residence in the thick barrier of trees that enveloped me. The practically identical, red brick houses lined the street on both sides in a uniform formation. The white marble monoliths that stood silent and daunting on each front porch seemed to serve as their masters’ guardians, deterrents for the most vile and mysterious threats. I have to admit they served their purpose well. As they loomed over me, observing me, I assumed the role of the invader in a foreign land.

“Well, are we going to do this or what?” Grant blurted. “Come on, the girls are waiting on us.”

And so, we hesitantly began our expedition to the home of the high bitch herself, wading through a heavy layer of low-lying fog while simultaneously lumbering over fences and then ducking into the forest to avoid detection. The low-lying fog served to mask my boisterous movements, but also managed to hinder my progress as I trudged through the interwoven branches, shrouding the whole of my surroundings in mystery. I couldn’t take a single step without grazing a splintering stump or a toppled tree trunk blocking my way.

A sliver of light from the crescent moon pierced the cage of branches above our heads, casting light onto a small clearing in front of us. In the edge of the light, I caught the outline of another house. It was the same shape as all the others, but the decorative flag sporting the cursive “Y” indicated we had stumbled upon our target. That flag stood for nothing more than a symbol of gratuitous flaunting, which fit her personality perfectly. The moon’s guiding light granted me a new sense of confidence in my journey, as if some higher being was silently leading me in the right direction, encouraging me to carry out the deed. I approached the tree line, the others close behind me. I glanced around at my friends. We each stood waiting for the others to make the first move.

“Where do we start?” Isaac asked. I simply stood overwhelmed by the grandeur of the house and the open plane of freshly cut grass in front of me. After another moment, I stepped with trepidation past the line of trees and set foot in the backyard. Isaac followed suit, more confident than me. I turned back towards Grant and Camren, who branched off in separate directions, moving around to the sides of the house. I took note of a motion-sensor light above the backdoor, and alerted my cohorts to steer clear of it. However, at that moment, I came to the realization that my plans had not been thought out past this exact moment. I halted my steps and panicked slightly. I directed my attention towards a trash can near a shed to my right and, because I didn’t have any better ideas. I kicked it over, spilling the contents all over the backyard.

“Dude, what are you doing?” Isaac emerged from behind a pillar on the back porch, carrying a small flower pot in the crook of his arm.

“What? I’m… sticking it to Maggi…?”

“Well, it just looks like a family of raccoons stopped by for a quick snack,” Isaac mocked as he nonchalantly made his way down the steps towards where I stood.

“What do you expect me to do? I want to scare her. I don’t want to vandalize her.”

“You said it yourself man: you’ve gotta have a little fun!” he said before promptly smashing the flower pot on the brick steps. I saw in Isaac’s eyes a spark of liberation. He radiated a sadistic smile with the same whimsy a child might exhibit when showcasing his latest scribbled drawing to his mother.

Grant and Camren copied this motion, turning over the outdoor tables and chairs. I somewhat reluctantly joined in their radical festivities, taking my turn at relocating their outdoor furniture, scattering it across the backyard. If I claimed I didn’t find the slightest hint of pleasure from my rebellious behavior, I would be lying, but my illusion of living outside of the law was quickly shattered when Isaac took the hoe he was tearing into the flowerbeds with and used it to smash the shed window.

“Isaac, what the hell is wrong with you?” I rushed over to him and confiscated the tool before he could do more damage.

“This is awesome! Dude, you’ve gotta try this-” I cupped my hand over his mouth.

“People down the street can probably hear you! Do you want to get caught?”

“Guys, I think I hear someone!” Grant popped his head out from around the side of the house. I was forced to cut my lecture short.

“I’m not letting this come back to bite me in the ass because of your stupidity. Now come on!”

“Just give me a minute, okay?” I kept my gaze with Isaac for another moment, waiting for him to realize his idiocy, but he continued to stand there, firm in his decision. I was already antsy, and Isaac’s reluctance had only made me more so. My body entered flight mode and I took off, seeking refuge in the wooded area on the side of the house. I ducked under a line of branches and regrouped with Grant and Camren, who were crouched on the ground, peering through the foliage to look at our masterpiece.

“Where’s Isaac?” Grant asked, gasping for air.

“He’s still in the backyard,” I said in defeat. “He refused to come with me.”

“What? What are we going to do then?” Camren sounded exasperated.

“Should we go back to the car?” I looked around in the woods for Isaac again just in case he had come to his senses.

“I don’t know where whatever caused that noise went. I’m not taking any chances.” Before Grant could utter another word, the backyard was suddenly cast into a pool of bright yellow light. Near the edge of the light stood a tall, gaunt man with a crooked and hunched spine, silhouetted from the motion-light. He heaved violently as if he were an owl regurgitating its dinner. The man, presumably Maggi’s father, proceeded to patrol the rest of the yard, stepping over the furniture strewn all across the grass. He traversed the darkness without as much as a flashlight, peering into the forest as if he were some sort of night watchman. We ducked down further, practically burying ourselves in the dirt. Several minutes must have passed before I got back up on my knees and was able to see the backyard again. The motion-sensor light had switched off, and Maggi’s father was nowhere in sight, as if the darkness had engulfed him and he had simply assimilated with it. Soon, I heard the familiar crunching of leaves and exhausted whines of Isaac meandering through the woods in our direction.

“So, what did I miss?” Isaac cheerfully pondered, squatting to speak to us at eye level.

“Where were you? You could've gotten us all caught!” I grabbed him by his shoulder, and shook him slightly to knock him out of his jaunty stupor.

“Relax! You said you wanted to scare Maggi, and so that’s what I was doing. I just needed a little more time,” Isaac attempted to reassure me.

“What were you doing?” I demanded.

“And did you see where that guy went?” Grant jumped up.

“You’ll see; and what ‘guy’ are you talking about?” Isaac answered both of our questions in quick succession, neither of which offered me any more of a sense of certainty or comfort towards the events that had just transpired.

“Maggi’s dad or brother or someone came outside and went into the woods looking for us! Isaac, do you know what could’ve happened if he caught you?” My paranoia overtook me the more I thought about how reckless this simple operation had become.

“Dude, ease up already! The point is that we didn’t get caught, so will you calm down?” I released my grip on Isaac’s shoulder, and he spoke again with a hint of annoyance. “Now come on, let’s go to the car.” I eagerly stood up and led a charge out of the woods straight for the car. Next thing I knew, we were driving past the front gate, and I felt as if I was the only person living in an otherwise empty world. The car was eerily silent, as I assumed we were all absorbing the reality of what we had just done. With conscience turning its back on us while the rest of the world slept in peace, we were granted an unprecedented amount of freedom. I still felt the adrenaline surging through my body.

Forgiving any imminent moral repercussions, what had just transpired in Maggi’s backyard was, if not for anything else, a chance for a release of all of my pent-up testosterone-fueled energy. Despite my reluctance towards the extent that we took our “prank,” I couldn't help but laugh a little at the fact we had just gotten away with something so incredibly dangerous, and neither could anybody else. Coherent words seemed to have been omitted from our vocabulary, and we substituted them with hysterical fits of victorious laughter. As long as nobody got hurt, there was nothing wrong with having a little fun.

My justification for our catty recklessness (and our celebrations altogether) came to a screeching halt as we turned down Elizabeth’s driveway. A lone two-story colonial-style farm house loomed far off in the distance, only made visible by a few scattered lights spilling through the windows. The extensive gravel stretch leading up to the house was narrow and winding. The acres of forest that enclosed the property prevented any sort of artificial light from being put in place. I felt a sense of comfort, coupled with unease, reentering the property, much like I had felt the countless nights I had slept over here as a child, and the subsequent times I had snuck out with Elizabeth to go exploring in the endless expanse of towering trees.

Our party reached the assembly of cars parked on a small patch of grass off to the side of the yard. We parked and made our way around the side of the house. Positioned around a small fire pit in the center of the backyard were Riley Grace, Caroline, and Elizabeth. We approached the circle of chairs.

The girls halted their conversation right as we came into view. It was evident by their evasive looks that we were the topic of conversation. “So… where are the snacks?” Riley Grace broke the silence with her knowing and snide remark.

“The store was… out…” Isaac stumbled to find the words as he sauntered over to where his girlfriend was sitting.

“Out of snacks? Completely out of snacks?” Riley Grace gave off a look of stern judgement.

“Babe, we’re here now! That’s all that matters-” Isaac sought to mitigate Riley Grace’s stress by wrapping her arm around his shoulder, but she rejected his offer without a word, shrugging her arm away and closing her body off. She seemed a tad more irate than what was justified. She then directed all of her attention towards Isaac, lecturing him with her familiar loud whispering technique.

“You guys are so stupid, do you realize that?” Elizabeth said in a more jovial, sarcastic manner, but Caroline echoed that with a bit of condescendence. I could tell she more disapproved of our antics, but she’d come around. Despite her public perception, she wasn’t a monster. She was still my friend. A bit of an asshole, but still.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” I played up this ignorant character with a subtle grin in an attempt to keep the mood light. Caroline turned sharply to look at Elizabeth with a look of disgust on her face, as if she were outright appalled by my attempt at a joke.

“Okay look, this isn’t anything to get that upset about-” Grant tried to alleviate any building tension, but his efforts became futile as Riley Grace stood up, on the verge of tears.

“Am I wrong to get upset about this? You guys have no idea what you could be getting into.” Riley Grace stomped off in the direction of her car without uttering another word. Isaac followed closely behind, vanishing around the wall of the house.

The rest of us sat dumbfounded at what we had just witnessed. Any further conversation was postponed for what seemed like hours, as we waited for them to return. However, we finally got our answer in the form of the sounds of doors slamming and car engines roaring. The night progressed awkwardly, those of us who remained never able to hold a conversation for very long, as our words tended to come back to either Riley Grace and Isaac or what we had done.

The lingering apprehension fizzled out with the dwindling fire. All interest in stoking up another conversation died off soon after, and so we ended up calling it a night rather early. Camren was the next to leave, claiming his father, “Wanted him home immediately,” which left both Grant and I in the inconvenient situation of needing a ride. Grant wasn't too far behind, calling his brother to come get him. I didn’t leave until sometime later though, as I had gotten locked into small talk with Caroline, trying so desperately to remedy the animosity left over from earlier but to no avail. Coupled with the expanse of trees that surrounded me on all sides, I was accumulating the feeling of crippling and inescapable tension, for one reason or another. I could blame some combination of residual adrenaline and a general minute fear of the dark for this, but that doesn’t excuse the fact I genuinely felt uneasy sitting there.

“Uh… I should go…” I said, eager to seek refuge in my home away from the hostility from tonight that seemed to be infecting more hosts as time passed.

“Do you need a ride?” Elizabeth’s face perked up, and I caught her gaze through the wafting embers of the now sputtering fire.

“Well… I, yeah- But you don’t need to-” I stammered.

“No, it’s fine, I don't mind! And Caroline was just leaving anyway.” Caroline eyed Elizabeth, and Elizabeth turned her head away and giggled slightly, covering her mouth with her sleeve, as if she had a reason to be embarrassed. A few flames seemed to reach out and touch her, and the constant orange glow on her face resembled a wave crashing onto and receding from the shore. We said our goodbyes and hurriedly made our way from the safe haven of the warm fire through the icy chill of the outside air to Elizabeth’s car: a rusting and battered red Ford F-150. The top of her head barely extended past the door handle.

“Since when do you drive a truck?” I couldn’t help but laugh at a combination so bizarre.

“Since my dad bought a new one! I like it!” Elizabeth returned the favor with a playful smile as she climbed into the driver’s seat. “And he has a name, for the record!… His name is Ol’ Red…” We had finished coasting off of our laughter once we had reached the end of her driveway. I was reaching for anything I could say to keep a conversation going.

“What a night, huh?” I sighed with a vague yet blanket statement as to not tread on any sensitive grounds.

“Tell me about it,” Elizabeth rolled her eyes. “Do you think Riley Grace and Isaac ever made up?” Her mention of Riley Grace reassured me I was clear to carry on about the sensitive topic.

“Hard to say. She seemed pretty upset,” I said. “She seemed to be overreacting a little to the whole thing, right?”

“There’s a lot more to it than just that,” Elizabeth confessed. “She was telling us before you guys showed up… They fight about a lot of things, and this ‘prank’ thing was really just the breaking point of it all.”

“I figured that much,” I said. “Isaac talks sometimes about how she can be really overbearing. He just wants to live his life-”

“Well she just cares about him!” Elizabeth said defensively. “You have to admit he can be kind of ‘off-the-wall’ at times, and she’s not really like that. That’s gonna lead to some dumb decisions and some fighting, nothing major if nobody makes a big deal out of it.”

“Well, what do you expect to happen when an unstoppable object hits an immoveable object?” There was an awkward silence hanging between us, and I felt uncomfortable speaking in place of Isaac, so I tried to divert the subject. “What do you think of all of this? The prank, I mean.”

“What do you mean?” Elizabeth asked.

“You seemed so interested at first. What made you change your mind?” I turned in her direction and saw her shift anxiously in her seat.

“I, my parents said I could have people over… and you know that doesn’t happen often…” Elizabeth scrambled to put together a logical excuse.

“I saw the way Caroline was looking at you earlier. What was that all about?”

“She… She thinks this is all pretty stupid…”

“But you don’t?” I suggested. Elizabeth seemed to hold her breath before exploding in a fury of words.

“Being around those girls so often can get so boring! I want to go out and try new things, be adventurous, like when we were kids—” Elizabeth spoke with a hint of difficulty.

“I mean, if you wanted to hang out with m… us guys more, I wouldn’t mind at all.” I flashed a quick grin, subtly hinting at my underlying intentions.

“Thanks, we don't really hang out as much as we used to! I kind of miss it,” Elizabeth smirked hinting at something more than just her words on the surface. “But I would feel bad because of Caroline.”

“What does she have to do with it?” I asked.

“You know. She doesn’t really have any other girl friends… She loves you guys, but when things… or people… don’t go her way, she can get pretty upset. And if I just abandoned her to go off on some dumb guys’ night that she clearly doesn’t support, I don’t know what she’d do. It’s like I’m betraying her.” Elizabeth exhaled deeply, as if she had been restraining herself for a long time.

“Well, Elizabeth,” I declared in a similar manner to a game show host, “The benefit of Caroline being your friend and not your girlfriend is that if you’re getting bored, you can go spend your time with… someone else… and she’s going to get over it eventually. She’s a theatre kid. She’s naturally dramatic.”

“I know, it’s just that everyone’s a little agitated right now and I don’t want to get in the middle of it.” She sighed in exhaustion.

“No, I promise tonight was a onetime thing… It was just for a reaction. It’ll die off in a couple of days and, hopefully, everyone can just chill for a while,” I paused for a moment to see if I had elicited any sort of reaction from Elizabeth. I then decided to switch gears, tripping over myself while trying to be more concise with my words and less belligerent towards her friends. “You’re a lot of fun to be around, and… I don’t know… We should hang out, like just us…” Elizabeth deliberated on my last statement, and I could feel the embarrassment swell inside of me.

“Maybe sometime soon!… After things die off.” She smiled affectionately as we pulled into the high school parking lot, and my anxieties melted away. I thanked her for the ride and I sped home, longing for that night to come to an end.

* * * * *

The biting chill of the mid-October air was a particularly uninviting creature to wake up to early that next Monday morning. The events that comprised the rest of my weekend had smoothly blurred together, as they paled in comparison to Friday night’s excursion. At first glance, the rest of the world seemed entirely unaffected by our hijinks. The other students shuffled on through their school day with the usual miserable glum and hushed whispers that were associated with high school. However, once I entered the more intimate environment of our theatre class’ rehearsal room for my final class of the day, I was able to more closely decipher the details of everyone’s quiet chatter.

It was Isaac that first approached me about the article. He held a copy of our local newspaper in his hand, transfixed. From where I was standing, I noticed the photograph displaying what looked to be the side of a wooden house.

“What is this?” I took the paper and examined it closer. The photo was indeed the side of a wooden structure, but it was small, more like a shed. It was then that I noticed the shattered window in the top left corner of the frame, and the message carved into the wood next to it: “I’M COMING FOR HER NEXT.” Beneath the message was inscribed a crude carving of a pentagram. The title of the article read: “Local Family Terrorized in Night by Unknown Threat.” I felt my heart sink.

“Dude, this is great!” Isaac spoke, his eyes full of an unsettling wonder.

“Isaac, this isn’t anywhere near great…” My hands started to tremble slightly, but Isaac seemed not to notice, continuing to peruse the article.

“Yeah, I think the article kind of romanticized the whole event a bit too much for my taste, and the title is way too on the nose, and that picture didn’t get the most flattering angle of my work, but hey, around here that’s the best you're going to get—”

“No, I mean what if the police start looking into this! We’re in the paper for crying out loud!!”

“Oh, you haven’t even seen the best part!” Isaac pulled out his phone and pulled up several Facebook posts. At least half a dozen people from around town I either knew or knew of had described waking up to their yards torn to shreds by something in the night with pictures as proof. The exact details varied between accounts, but they all seemed to carry a single similarity: the crude pentagram. Isaac started laughing giddily.

“Is this supposed to be funny?” I said. “What’s with all the weird symbols?”

“I don’t know, it’s just the first thing I thought to carve when I wrote that message for Maggi. I think it adds a little bit of a personal touch! It’s creepy, right?”

“I’m asking you why there’s so many of them! Did you do all of these?”

“Hell no!” Isaac chucked to himself, almost flattered. “I don’t even think any of these stories are real. They all popped up in the last couple of days, after what happened to Maggi went viral. People around town probably just want the same attention.”

“Why are you so happy about all of this?” I glared at Isaac, his behavior almost alien at that moment.

“Do you realize that we are responsible for the most interesting thing to happen to Arab, Alabama, in over a decade? We are internet famous! How is that not awesome?”

“Getting thrown in jail is not awesome!”

“Like the police are gonna be able to trace all of this back to us! It’s physically impossible!”

I hoped what Isaac claimed was true. I believed him when he said he wasn’t responsible for those other “attacks,” but his testimony alone couldn't rule him or the rest of us out as possible culprits.

I completed the school day and transitioned into rehearsal while maintaining a constant feeling of apprehension in my chest. The reality of what I had done finally sank in once I saw the immediate repercussions. The town was afraid. Something thriving in the darkness was threatening their families and nobody knew what to do except panic. Once word of our mischief had gotten into the hands of others, there was nothing I could do to stop it from spreading except wait for either everyone to lose interest or have a more substantial event come around.

It was then that I caught a glimpse of Maggi onstage, wallowing in a pool of anxiety, on edge knowing that her near “attacker” was still out on the loose. Her snobbish yet always amiable attitude had been drowned out and only a hollow carcass of her former self remained. She was dressed from head to toe in grey sweats, as if to reflect her inner state of mind. On one hand, I thought that Maggi was overreacting to the entire ordeal, but I was also able to understand how exactly she might be feeling, having discovered a mysterious death threat in her backyard made out just for her. She honestly didn’t deserve what she had been dealt, but there was no way I could assuage the situation at this point, or else be publicly reprimanded for the entire ordeal. I needed to make amends soon, but that would soon prove more difficult than I had initially hoped.

I spotted Caroline from across the auditorium as she was heading backstage, and ran in her direction. I needed to talk to someone sensible about what was going on. I grabbed her by the shoulder as she was walking through the stage door, catching her by surprise.

“Caroline, did you see the newspaper?” I spoke anxiously, but gently as to not provoke a lecture. She humored my question, but almost immediately returned to her current objective, speaking over her shoulder.

“Oh yeah! I’m sure everyone in town’s heard about this little game by now.”

“That’s the thing. I didn’t-”

“What are you expecting? A reward?” she scoffed.

“I’m serious! This is getting out of hand really quickly!” I hushed her, fearing someone passing by might hear us.

“That’s what happens in a small town! News spreads, so deal with it.” I felt undeserving of as much blame as she was dealing me.

“This was Isaac’s fault! He left that weird message at Maggi’s, and now everyone’s talking about some psychopath that’s running around town at night leaving threats on their doorsteps.”

“Maybe you should’ve thought of what could happen before you ransacked one of your friends’ homes.” I didn’t consider Maggi as a friend in even the loosest sense of the word, but I continued.

“I didn’t think Maggi would react by calling the cops! I didn’t think we’d even go that far-” Caroline cut me off before I could embarrass myself any further, and placed her hand on my shoulder.

“Relax, dork. If you’re worried about any of us ratting you out, don't be. We’d be just as viable for all of this as you,” Caroline stepped back for a moment, and recomposed herself in a much more sympathetic way, “Look, if you guys just lay low and stop talking about this, people aren’t going to suspect a thing.”

“That’s kind of what I’m worried about…” I looked away from Caroline, dreading this wasn’t going to be the end of it all. For a moment, I felt crazy for even suspecting my friend of any wrongdoing, but I could tell that behind Caroline’s stoic reassured gaze, she shared the same fear that I had unleashed a fever inside of Isaac which, despite any efforts, I may not be able to extinguish easily.

Thankfully, the initial story didn’t gain as much traction as Isaac would have hoped, although that wasn’t for his lack of trying. He would ride his adrenaline high until it completely sputtered out if he could. His growing obsession became the most apparent while in smaller circles, where he knew he could get away with openly bragging about his “masterpiece,” and any news updates he found. Over the next week, I stepped back as talk of this pentagram-sporting parasite started to infect every outlet of Isaac’s life, to the point where I couldn't get through a single conversation without him filling in me and anyone else who was around to listen about the latest activity. He had always been known to fixate on the most bizarre things, but this absolutely took the cake. However, it wasn’t until the next school week had started that I noticed that our little urban legend was evolving into something much more sinister.

With the worsening load of homework issued to us as we neared midterms, discussions of what happened at Maggi’s lost their relevance. The seven of us had agreed to look the other way and forget what had happened, so long as it was never brought up again.

I had just received a ten-page study packet for my human development class (an egregious overcompensation considering the material) that would fill up my schedule for the next few days if I was to complete it before the deadline. However, I found my determined attitude to be rather less so once I actually settled down that afternoon, ready to begin my intensive study session. The volatile Alabama weather had cast a pleasant and breezy blue afternoon into the shadow of a gray, thick, condescending mass of clouds. The subsequent patter of heavy raindrops on my roof resonated throughout my room, filling my brain with a steady hum akin to a mother’s lullaby. My mind began to fall under the rain’s spell, and I was soon mesmerized by its silent song, and I slowly started to drift…

SCRATCH. It sounded as if a metal claw was scraping against the side of my house. I catapulted up in an instant, ripped out of my slumber, and raced over to the window to confront the source. However, when I looked down, I saw my backyard desolate as ever. The chainlink fence that encircled the overgrown patch of grass was slightly bent in on the right side, as if something heavy had pushed it down, but again there was no further evidence of any sort of intruder. Neither the puddle of mud directly below me nor the grass around it bore any footprints, so maybe the sound was forged in the deep tunnels of my subconscious while I slept. Not all the evidence could stack up in favor of either explanation, and so I sided with the latter in an attempt to reassure myself. I knew I was still on edge from the other night, and I was merely still susceptible to paranoia.

I needed to put my worries to rest, however, and so I went downstairs to examine the backyard. Unfortunately, once I got out there, what I found only heightened my paranoia. Laying just outside of my range of vision from the upstairs window was a small square sandbox where I had spent countless afternoons as a child, where in the center was engraved a crude pentagram. The drizzle of rain continued to fall, and I watched as the mark was slowly washed away, camouflaging itself with the rest of the muddied sand. I could only assume that whoever the artist was, they must have left this just for me, making sure I would come out and see their drawing before it was washed away. Who would do that?

My mind immediately jumped to my former accomplices, Grant, Camren, and Isaac, as they would be the only ones who would directly target me with a prank like this. It was too much of a coincidence, and nobody in their right mind would seriously try something like this in the middle of the day. Knowing their hubris, whoever the culprit was would fess up to the joke, too proud of the finished product to not take credit.

I awoke the next morning, anxiously waiting to test my theory. I slipped past my parents enjoying a quiet breakfast without even so much as a mention of what I uncovered the afternoon before. As I pulled up to the school, I was met with an overwhelming wall of apprehension, not knowing how I should go about all of this. It still didn’t all line up in my head: whatever transpired in my backyard seemed unmotivated. Grant, Camren, or Isaac would have done it for the same reason a dog might sniff its own ass, yes, but surely they were at least still marginally on edge the same as me, and would have the slightest inkling of decency to not evoke more paranoia. Then again, I might have been giving three 16-year-old boys with too much time on their hands and nothing better to do a little too much credit.

I slowed my fervent pace as I entered the building. Amongst the bustling hordes of students criss-crossing to their lockers or classrooms, three boisterous and distinct voices penetrated the hum, and I steered my focus in that direction. As I made my way through the crowd, the voices took on a more obvious inflection: one of malice, of heightened anger.

“What did I tell you? I thought I said to leave me out of this!”

“I did! But then one of you guys thought it’d be funny to do it to me-”

“It wasn’t me! I swear to God!”

“Well, somebody’s lying!”

I pushed my way into a clearing near a patch of lockers to find Caroline, Grant, and Camren standing in a circle, all pointing fingers at each other. I approached cautiously, as if I were stepping into a tiger’s cage.

“Whoa, whoa, what’s going on?” I said, more afraid then I had intended. Their fiery feud continued without interruption.

“Stop trying to be funny!” Camren leered at Caroline.

“Does it look like I’m laughing?” Caroline reeled back. “You scared the shit out of me!”

“Guys!” The three of them instantly turned their attention towards me. “What the hell is going on?” Camren stepped forward to speak, but his words still seemed targeted at the others.

“’’What’s going on?’’” Camren started in a tone as if I should already know what their argument was about, “What’s going on is one of these assholes carved a pentagram into the glass on my bedroom window! How am I supposed to explain that to anyone?” My body turned rigid at the mention of that symbol. I continued to listen, transfixed.

“It wasn’t me!” Caroline stepped up, “Someone literally tore up my entire backyard, and carved that stupid thing in the dirt! And only one of you guys would be so stupid to try something that big!”

“Oh, because we’re just such bad people to you, now?” Grant closed the discussion up to just the three of them again. “Why would I do that to Camren? Or why would he do that to me?”

“How can I know both of you are telling the truth, and aren’t just trying to screw with me?” Caroline snarked. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I found only the slightest comfort knowing they had all experienced the same thing and that I wasn’t alone in this, but honestly this revelation brought on a much larger wave of pure dread.

“Wait, so you guys all found that pentagram somewhere at your houses?” I asked cautiously, not ready to rope myself into this.

“Well, they say so, but I know one of you is lying! Just admit it!” Caroline was both right and wrong. There was no way all of this could still be a coincidence, but I highly doubted either of the guys would lie about something like this unless… I remembered Isaac and the fever I saw in his eyes as he stared at the paper. Could he have been the one responsible for this? What was being described came off was much more severe than just a dumb prank, I didn’t think he would do something like that… but I felt that night at Maggi’s had made Isaac even more impulsive, unpredictable.

“That was me…” I suddenly choked out. “That was all me, I’m sorry. I got a bit carried away.” Even as the dots started to connect, I wasn’t about to start a witch hunt based solely on speculation. I needed hard evidence, but I needed to put this to rest, and that meant putting a definite face to these attacks. “I thought it would be funny, but I guess that didn’t work out.”

“Clearly not,” Caroline blurted out. “What the hell made you want to do that?” I stammered, looking for a logical explanation.

“I don’t know… I just… I promise I’ll pay to get everything fixed-”

“Good.” Caroline crossed her arms, content to not hear anything else.

“Thanks, man,” Camren said, somewhat reluctantly.

“Sorry I got kinda pissed, thanks.” Grant’s reassuring words didn’t distract from the idea brewing in my mind that Isaac, or whoever did this, had some deeper motive.

Starting that morning, I watched Isaac. I observed his mannerisms, what he said, what he didn’t say. Class to class, he seemed just as carefree and wild as ever, nothing to hint at any hidden agenda. However, at lunch, he seemed a bit more off-putting. As the rest of our circle was attempting to return to normalcy, Isaac remained quiet and reserved. The details of that conversation evade me now, as all I can recall is his shifting glances side to side as we coordinated a movie night for that night after our rehearsal. He jumped slightly at the sound of his name, when asked a question. Instead of hopping on board the discussion, Isaac blatantly dismissed the idea entirely, preferring to stay at home that night and get some rest.

Isaac had devolved from a sporadic and engaging guy to something utterly unrecognizable. Because of this, I knew I was never going to get any solid confirmation from him directly, even though his behavior heavily suggested he was in fact up to something. I would thus have to defect to more extreme measures, like Isaac, to get any sort of resolution. I ducked out too.

Accompanying the ball of flailing heat and fire in the sky as it grazed the horizon that night was a hush, a whir of silence that painted the streets vacant, and the entire town mute. Arab was a small community where its inhabitants tended to keep to themselves more often than not, but the events of the past week had added the byproduct of paranoia to the town’s unusual level of silence. Every step I took towards my car in the shadow of night seemed to compound in the eerie quiet, echoing across my neighborhood. This gave me no comfort as I navigated my way towards Isaac’s house in Pine Lake, a tiny residential community on the north border of the town, carved out of 60 acres of pine forest.

As I passed the entrance, I was enveloped by the thick forest of lumbering trees swaying in the wind. They arched over the road in some places, fully encasing me in a dome of foliage. After another few minutes of driving, I rounded a sharp bend, and Isaac’s house emerged at the top of a small hill in front of me. His car was still parked at the edge of the driveway, and the light in his corner bedroom still shined through the window, making me question my actions. I parked my car at the bottom of the hill, off of the left shoulder, and proceeded to wait. I felt seedy and slimy stooping to this level, but my drive for answers overpowered my courtesy towards his privacy. Although his alibi checked out, the conveniences of the past week had led me to question everything.

After another half hour of intently watching Isaac from a few hundred feet away, I was interrupted by an oncoming pair of headlights racing down the hill. I tensed up, looking for a way to hide, but knew there was nothing I could do to get out of the way. Before I could fully react, the headlights swerved around the side of me and continued to zoom on past me, honking the entire way. However, just as the taillights were about to turn the corner, they stopped and began to back up in my direction. At that moment, the level of my stupidity finally hit me, as I was either about to be reprimanded for my actions, or more simply draw too much attention to myself and risk blowing the operation entirely. The vehicle slowed to a halt as its front window reached mine, although it towered over me. Just as I was about to give up hope, I caught the shape of the vehicle from the reflection of its lights: a familiar beat-up red Ford F-150.

“Noah?” The truck’s window rolled down and I could see Elizabeth sitting in the driver’s seat.

“Hey! Yeah, it’s me…” I said bashfully. I hadn’t seen her outside of school since the night at her house, and so this was understandably uncomfortable on its own, let alone under these specific circumstances.

“What are you doing just parked here?” Her cheeks were pale and rosy, most likely a combination of October’s bite and blushing from having to endure this awkward interaction.

“I, uh, I’m picking up Isaac. We’re going out… What are you doing over here?” Elizabeth looked up the road, gesturing towards a house around the bend.

“I’m going to Riley Grace’s. Tonight’s movie night…”

“Oh… Duh… Forgot that was tonight…” At that moment, I realized that, in her eyes, I was blatantly ignoring them, which caused me to stumble over, which clearly wasn’t going to help me in any way.

“Yeah…” Elizabeth simply smiled and looked down. Unwavering, refusing to look me in the eye, she spoke again, “What do you mean by ‘going out?’” I stared at her blankly, unsure of the proper response.

“Oh, um… We’re just going to… Uh…” Elizabeth cut me off before I could mutter another incomprehensible string of syllables.

“Are you guys doing that again?” I immediately understood what she was referencing.

“What? No… Like I said, it was a onetime thing.” Elizabeth looked up at me, slightly disheartened.

“I’m a little worried, Noah.”

“Worried? About what?” The hairs on my arms started to stand up.

“That it won’t stop…” She paused again, as if what she was about to say was something hard to accept. “I woke up and saw a pentagram carved into a tree in my front yard… I talked to Caroline, and she said you did it to her too-” Her lips trembled so much that it overwhelmed her words, forcing them shut as a tear welled in her eyes.

“I… I wouldn’t do that, trust me…” I said weakly. I knew I had to come clean to somebody, especially with the fact Elizabeth had now been roped into this too.

“Something’s going on, and I just need to get to the bottom of it.”

“What do you mean?”

I tried to coerce myself into spilling the truth, but I just couldn't bring myself to spark more tension.

“I don’t know yet…” I whispered more to myself offhand than to her.

“Well, have fun, I guess…” Elizabeth sped off before I could say another word, almost as if she were ashamed to have appeared so pitiful.

As her taillights sailed out of sight, I turned my attention back to my front. My gaze drifted back to Isaac’s upstairs window, and I could see a dark shape silhouetted by a bedside lamp. The figure stepped into another light, and it illuminated Isaac’s full body. He stood directly in front of the window, holding something flimsy in his hands. After another moment of goggling at what he possessed, Isaac turned around and placed the object to his face. I silently observed as he slipped the thing over his head, a mask, and returned to the window, as if he were a crowned royalty observing his subjects.

The glow of his lamp grazed the side of the mask, and I could make out some vague features from where I sat. It resembled the face of a clown: a thick and greasy orange mane cascaded down the back of the head, and the deep eye sockets were accented with light blue diamonds surrounding them, the signature red smile bore a single row of off-white jagged fangs. Isaac’s features were entirely eclipsed by those of the mask. Whatever the purpose of such a disguise, it seemed to compromise Isaac as person, as he took on this other persona with such ease and glee.

In another instant, Isaac ripped the mask from his face, and stuffed it inside his backpack laying on his bed. He swept the bag up and was out of sight before I could register what he was doing. After another minute had passed, Isaac opened the front door to his house, and cautiously stepped into his car and started the engine. I scrambled to do the same, attempting to flee from sight before Isaac could pull out onto the road.

Luckily, as I looked back up, Isaac’s headlights were headed in the opposite direction.

I took a moment to breathe. Had I really just let my paranoia overtake me to such a degree that I actively feared what my friend might do to me? Surely everything that had transpired in the past week could pass as entirely circumstantial. If I was to believe the evidence at face value, I still lacked a clear motivation for Isaac’s rather bizarre actions, and so the validity of my claims had fizzled. There was no way I would be able to delve into Isaac’s psyche just by doing this. I desperately wanted to forget tonight had happened altogether.

Without another thought on the matter, I turned my car around and just began driving aimlessly. I must have driven around for hours, blankly staring at the limited view in front of me, too uneasy to think about anything. Despite my best efforts, I felt a push within me to see firsthand what Elizabeth had described to me. I then sped in the direction of Elizabeth’s house, taking advantage of the long drive to actually collect my thoughts. I danced around the fear and doubt in my mind until those thoughts eventually subsided with the emergence of Elizabeth’s gravel driveway. I pulled up closely behind her truck and stopped.

The rustic red in my headlights stood out against the blanket of black, which had washed out the vibrant greens and oranges and yellows of the surrounding forest. The air was heavy, and was persisted by a looming aura of unease, as if I wasn’t truly alone. This paranoia was finally getting to me. Something inside of me urged my body to walk up to the door, to finish the conversation that had unceremoniously been cut off earlier that night. I wanted to be able to talk about what I had seen to someone I could trust so maybe I could put to rest all this speculation and gain some peace of mind, or at the very least confide in someone, and gain the confidence to accept what was unfolding before my eyes.

I killed my engine and approached her front door, my mind empty of all thought except for the need to talk, to form some reasonable explanation for this. But I couldn’t make it past the large dogwood tree in her yard. Just as Elizabeth had described, carved prominently in the trunk was a crude pentagram, Isaac’s now signature mark. An icy chill surged through my body, as the whole reality of the situation was beginning to take shape. The effects of my reckless prank were spreading, causing mental distress to people I cared about, and I wasn’t ready to fully accept that. I retreated back to my car. If this all was as dire as I was perceiving, Isaac would continue. I promised myself that I would confront him if he did, which I feared was inevitable.

I found my suspicions to be warranted the next morning. I awoke to the sound of the morning news anchors resonating from my living room. They reported two new “attacks” from last night by the same mysterious person, each victim claiming to have woken up in the middle of the night to find their backyards torn to shreds and a carving of a pentagram left somewhere on the property, whether in the grass, onto a window pane, or in one instance, directly into the side of the house. The town reacted accordingly, the mayor issuing a town-wide curfew, restricting all citizens to staying indoors after sundown. The local news had also coined the name “The Night Stalker” for the person or people believed to be responsible for terrorizing the town.

“‘The Night Stalker?’ Are they serious?” Isaac wailed as he took another bite of his lunch. I simply stared at him, unsure of whether or not he was legitimately more concerned about his new title than the ongoing investigation. “I mean, it’s not as dumb a name as ‘The Phantom Menace’ or anything like that, but they could’ve done a lot better.” He stood unwavering in his egotistical stance. “I was hoping they’d go for something a little more mysterious and threatening like ‘The Zodiac Killer’ but what can you do?”

Grant and Camren laughed alongside him like mindless lackeys, while I stayed quiet. I couldn’t tell if they were just blindly following this regime of his, all I knew for sure is that their scared demeanor from yesterday had not deterred them from laughing this off. I so desperately wanted to believe that they were just obliviously swept up in the novelty of this character we had created, and weren’t infected by the same lust that Isaac had.

I found myself mentally fleeing from the images and thoughts that had been supplanted in me from the previous night, but as I dove deeper into my pursuit for normalcy, the more I couldn’t escape this. Elizabeth, likewise, seemed to be going through the same emotions. She had been growing noticeably more distant since that night at her house, choosing not to sit with us at lunch, or not lingering after rehearsal to talk. It was only by pure coincidence that I spotted her in the school courtyard between classes.

“Elizabeth!” I called out. She paused for a moment until she noticed it was me calling, and she picked up her pace. I called out to her again and she stopped long enough for me to catch up to her. “Elizabeth, what’s wrong? Can we talk about last night?” She looked at me stupefied, almost embarrassed to be seen with me.

“It was just a ‘’onetime’’ thing, huh?” she mumbled under her breath. Before I could respond, she started to pick up her pace again, but I took her hand before she could walk away.

“Elizabeth, I swear I’m not a part of all of that… Not anymore.” I pulled her back towards me slowly, reassuringly.

“I thought you said things would die off by now.” Her lip started to tremble, causing me to flare up defensively.

“I didn’t know this was going to happen!” Elizabeth reacted similarly.

“What? That Isaac was going to turn into some crazed knife-wielding psychopath?” She paused to catch her breath. “First me, then Caroline, and Grant, and Camren, and now he’s going around doing this to total strangers? My family is scared to death that someone is going to break into our house one night and kill us all, and there’s no way I can just tell them what’s actually going on without bringing all of us into this mess! Meanwhile, he’s going around and feeding on their fear and it’s disgusting—”

“Wait, so you think that Isaac really is the one behind all of this, like everything?” I asked more to reaffirm my own hypothesis than anything.

“I don’t know… Things are adding up and… Honestly, is there anybody else we know that would actually go through with this?” Elizabeth made a good point. “Well, regardless, he’s taking this all a bit too seriously. I’m scared if we don’t step in, he’s going to take it too far… That boy has issues, I can see it.”

“I know what you mean…” I spoke more softly. “So, what are we going to do?”

“Can you just go talk to him?” In an effort to appease Elizabeth as well my own lingering apprehensions, I agreed to the task, somewhat reluctant to face this head-on.

After the final bell that day, I rushed out to the parking lot to catch Isaac, hoping that talking to him face to face would bode well, easing him off his pedestal. I stopped several paces from him, and watched as he marched towards his car with that same gusto I saw the night before. His underlying fire made me hesitant to continue, but I wasn’t about to let my fear consume me. My monster needed to be stopped before it got more out of hand.

“Isaac, hold up!” I yelled as I made quick pace in his direction. Isaac turned to face me, his innocent jovial smile only distracting me for a moment.

“Hey, man. What’s up?” I made no time for introductions as I shoved him against his car.

“‘Night Stalker?’ What the hell, man!” I shouted in an accusatory way.

“What about it?” His tone shifted, becoming more aggressive.

“We agreed to drop it! What happened to that?”

“I know… and I did! Cops don’t know a thing, and we are free to go on as we please.”

“Stop lying to me!” I couldn’t believe he could lie so convincingly to my face. “You’re doing this on your own still, why?” Isaac’s perplexed look slacked once he realized I’d caught on to his schemes.

“You have your hobbies, I have mine,” he smirked. “Like you said, it’s no different than rolling a house. Just with more of a rush. You should see the looks on their faces when they see what I did!” Isaac contorted his face into one of exaggerated terror, mimicking the people I’d seen on the news dozens of times.

“This is nothing like rolling a house, Isaac!” He stepped back, genuinely surprised that I was upset with him. “And Caroline, Camren, Grant… Elizabeth… Why did you… visit them?” A shiver ran down my back as I spoke.

“I don’t know what would you’re talking about!” Isaac’s face held a look of genuine confusion.

“I didn’t tell them it was you… I didn’t want things to change between us.” I backed away for a moment. “This needs to stop, though-” He cut me off before I could finish my sentence.

“What’s the big deal? It’s not hurting anybody!” Isaac leaned in closer, almost whispering at this point. “Grant and Camren came up to me earlier. They said they want to give it a face!” His tone turned snarky, as he and I both knew he was gaining the upper hand, and no matter what I said, he wasn’t going to stop.

“What do you mean? Give what a face?”

“‘The Night Stalker!’ We’re gonna use a black robe and my old Halloween clown mask and make a fake ‘sighting’ video later by the soccer fields! It’ll be hilarious!” I shuttered at the mention of that mask. “You know, if you weren't as much of a tightwad, I might have asked you to tag along… Plus, I think Grant and Camren are a little pissed at you, I don’t know why though-”

“I’m not being a tightwad!” I shouted. “We had our fun, but it’s gone too far! Trespassing? Possibility for assault? What next?”

“Too far? Noah, we’re just getting started. You’ve gotta admit this is exciting, right? I get such a rush!”

“Isaac, this isn’t about you anymore!” I snapped, remembering what Elizabeth had said. “People are afraid of something they can’t see, can’t prepare for, and worst of all, something they don’t know what its capable of!” Isaac’s sparkle dulled, and his face fell stern.

“Oh, not this shit again,” Isaac rolled his eyes. “Now you and Riley Grace both are riding my ass about this.”

“Isaac, I’m serious,” I pleaded. “This is bigger than we realize. Just look at what it did to Maggi! Do you not feel anything?”

Maggi just doesn’t know how to take a joke. Come on, Noah! Ease up.” Isaac reached out to me with his hand.

“I’m not going to ease up!” I swatted his hand away. “Don’t expect me to dig myself deeper into this mess just because I’m your friend.” Isaac was growing legitimately dangerous. This ’Night Stalker’ persona had triggered within him a release of some sort, and he was slipping further and further into this delusion by the second, thinking that everything was okay.

“Okay, whatever,” Isaac said as he sat down in the driver’s seat. “Then don’t expect me to listen to you either. I’ll do whatever I want to do and neither you or Riley Grace can tell me what’s right or wrong. I’ll teach you guys how to play along.” And with that thinly veiled threat, Isaac closed the door and sped off, nearly running me over in the process. I watched as a brief and spiteful and childish thought I had once slowly slip outside of the realm of my control and mutate into a monster that I couldn’t stop. Where my obsession with this facade stopped, Isaac’s had kept going.

It was now my responsibility to stop this from going any further. I ran to my car and dialed Caroline’s number as I sped off towards the soccer fields. Before she could respond, I began spilling everything, slightly shaken from my confrontation with Isaac. I told her everything that Isaac had just told me, and that I couldn’t just lie dormant on this issue any longer, and that I needed her help if Isaac was going to listen to what I had to say. I knew that her “take charge” sort of attitude would be what would get her to come along. We met several minutes later at the soccer fields, the grey overcast sky tainting the dying grass of the fields and the chipping paint on the goalposts, neither of which helped lift the feeling of unease that was quickly settling on my shoulders.

Off in the distance, I saw Grant and Camren making their way along the gravel trail that lead into a patch of woods. Grant was dawning the black cloak that Isaac had described to me, and he was holding in his hand the mask. I took notice of the smaller details: it was littered with little bumps and holes, either by age or design. The face was more elongated up close, the flaming orange hair stood out amongst the desaturated backdrop of the forest. The eyes of the mask were very sunken in, same as its gaping maw of yellow rotting jagged teeth.

Caroline and I continued our approach as Grant began his performance. He trudged through the thick wall of trees with irregular steps. I heard Camren call out to the mysterious creature and right on cue, Grant turned in his direction and emerged through the tree line, prompting Camren to turn around start running in the other direction. By this point, we had reached the start of the trail, and we managed to catch Camren by his shirt before he ran too far.

“God, you scared me!” I took in the irony of that statement. Camren then looked up at Caroline, who was glaring back coldly, and his tone shifted instantly. “What are you two doing here?” Camren pocketed his phone, but not before posting the video on Twitter.

“Camren, what the hell is wrong with you?” I spouted, almost instinctually. The damage was already done, and I couldn't stop this from spreading. Now Grant had become privy to our presence and was beginning to make his way over to us.

“We’re just having some fun! Jeez, Noah, this whole thing was your idea in the first place…” Camren nudged my shoulder in an attempt to make me acquiesce to their antics.

“Hey guys! What’s up?” Grant slowed his fervent step to a trot when he spotted Caroline.

“You guys need to stop this now! You’re only fueling Isaac to keep doing what he’s doing.” Caroline resembled a mother scolding her children, although she only stood at about shoulder level to them. Despite this, they looked absolutely terrified of what she might say next.

“Isaac?” Grant stepped back. “What about Isaac?”

“He’s the Night Stalker! Like, the real thing!” I cut in. “He’s the one behind all of the attacks on the news! This is more than just some dumb prank to him… I don’t know why but… shit like this isn’t helping anyone… He’s putting people in real danger and I’m not going to go down with it…” I rambled on trying to phrase my sentences in such a way that they conveyed the correct sense of urgency. Grant and Camren stood silent for a moment, taking in the true severity of our combined actions.

“Oh my God…” Caroline paused, turning to examine her surroundings. “Where is Isaac?”

“He was supposed to meet us here right after school… He hasn’t said anything since.” Camren caught on to Caroline’s revelation, and he, like the rest of us, started to fear the worst.

“Right before he left school, he said something about ‘showing everybody how to play along,’” I began connecting the dots. “He specifically mentioned me and… Riley Grace.”

“What? Do you think that he’s going to actually hurt Riley Grace?” Grant finished my thought for me.

“I don’t know, he didn’t say he was going to hurt anyone but… I don’t know,” I kept backtracking on myself. “He seemed pretty serious about whatever he was planning… But he’s not a psychopath.” I wanted to give Isaac every opportunity to redeem himself, but at the same time, I didn’t want to ignore the possibility that he was capable of a lot more harm than he let on.

“I’m not going to take that chance,” Caroline stepped forward slightly. “Do you see how far this has already gone?” Grant and Camren lowered their heads, feeling partially responsible. “Then let’s go find him.” A few minutes later, we had all piled into my car and were headed towards Riley Grace’s house back in Pine Lake.

We would reach the house in about half an hour, but I couldn’t run the risk of Isaac beating us there, so I instead reached for my phone and dialed a failsafe.

“Hello?” Elizabeth answered quickly with a hint of confusion.

“What are you doing right now?”

“Nothing much… why?”

“Could you do me a favor?”

“Who are you calling?” Camren leaned forward in between Caroline and me, almost worried.

“Just a minute!” I brushed him away.

“What kind of favor?” Elizabeth eased into my proposal.

“Listen. This is going to sound weird, but I need you to meet me at Riley Grace’s house as soon as possible.”

“What for?” I could feel her pulling away. I continued to plead with her.

“I’ll explain later, just wait for us to get there. Don’t tell her you’re there-”

“No way. You’re not bringing anybody else into this!” Caroline interrupted.

“We can trust Elizabeth!” I reassured.

“Elizabeth?” Grant poked his head out from the back passenger’s seat, a look of apprehension plastered onto his already frantic face. “Might as well just call the cops and turn us all in, because that’s what’s gonna happen if you keep letting people in on this little secret. You do realize we’re all connected to this, right?” Camren nodded subtly in concurrence.

“She already knows about Isaac,” I confessed. “And besides, she’s a decent ways closer to Riley Grace than we are. We could use all the help we can get.”

“Noah, this is weird,” Elizabeth spoke up. “I’m not going anywhere until you tell me what’s going on.”

“It’s Isaac,” I said. “I’m afraid he’s going to go hurt her and I want you to get there first and make sure it doesn’t happen.”

“What?” Elizabeth’s voice shrank. “So, you were right-?” My phone was ripped from my ear.

“Noah, stop,” Caroline grabbed my arm. “She has no place in this. You need to deal with your mistakes yourself.” I pulled my arm away from her. She huffed in defeat before crossing her arms and turning to face the window. I returned the phone to my ear.

“I don’t know about this…” Elizabeth murmured. “If he’s really this dangerous… I don’t know. It’s getting dark out and I’m not about to break the curfew, anyway-”

“Please, I can’t stop this by myself...” I paused, and then lowed my voice. “Do it for me?” Grant and Camren both raised an eyebrow when I said that. There was another pause, but she finally spoke.

“Okay… I’m headed over there now. I’ll see you soon, I guess.” Elizabeth hung up.

For the next twenty minutes, I raced against the falling sun as I made my way across town. The trees lining my path cast elongated shadows across the winding road into Pine Lake, and with the emergence of the full moon, the scattered shadows gave way to a heavy layer of darkness, caked by only scattered pools of light piercing the arched treetops. I felt like a prisoner walking back in to his jail cell. We were the sole wanderers in a desolate world, all the community’s residents having retreated inside before curfew. The spill of light from some living room windows served as my only guide on the last remaining miles of the drive.

“Over there!” Caroline perked up, pointing towards two familiar cars parked on the side of the road, about 500 feet ahead of us. I pulled off on the other side of the road, and rushed over to Isaac and Elizabeth’s cars. Isaac was nowhere to be seen, and I assumed Elizabeth wasn’t too far behind him. Ahead of us lay a narrow stone pathway that led up a hill to a small one-story house. If all was well, Riley Grace was sitting in that house, entirely unaware to the imminent danger that awaited outside. I hadn’t received any updates from Elizabeth, and coupled with the fact that she had seemingly vanished, I was starting to get concerned.

I dialed Elizabeth’s number again, now more on edge than ever. The phone rang only once before she picked up. Despite her hurried answer, her speech was much slower, more methodical. She didn’t even speak until she was prompted.

“Elizabeth, hello?” She hardly spoke, her words interspersed with heavy breaths and sniffling. “Elizabeth, where are you?” I couldn’t make out a clear sentence. She seemed to only say, “This was a mistake,” and that she, “hated this,” over and over again. I interrupted her yet again. “Elizabeth, we’re in front of the house. Did you find Isaac? What’s going on? Hello?” My cries were answered as Elizabeth emerged from the woods on the side of the house. Her head hung low and her walk was feeble. By the time she reached us, she could no longer hold back her tears, and she fell against the side of her car. Caroline, Grant, and Camren came closer as I grabbed her by the shoulders to keep her from collapsing onto the ground. “Elizabeth, talk to me! What happened?” She wiped a tear from her eye before she spoke.

“I got here and Isaac was already back there… in the woods… I tried to stop him but he just…” She struggled to catch her breath. “I watched him walk up to the house… Knock things over… Banging on her window… She looked out and realized it was him… came out… and then he just started laughing… Laughing like a maniac…” Elizabeth began to cry again.

“Elizabeth, slow down!” I pleaded. “Is everyone okay?”

“No!” She screamed matter-of-factly. “She started yelling… She told him it wasn’t funny and he started yelling back, I didn’t know what was going to happen… and then she turned and she saw me.” Elizabeth paused to stifle back another tear. “She thinks I was in on it… I tried to explain, but she wasn’t going to listen… She thinks I’m going around at night and doing all of this… this bullshit…”

“Hey, I’m sure she’ll understand if-”

“She hates me now because of you!” Elizabeth shouted. “She stormed inside and threatened to call the police without another word.”

“The police?” Grant spoke up, panicked.

“I’m not sticking around for that,” Elizabeth inched toward the driver’s side door. “So much for your big heroic rescue.” She slammed her truck door in my face and disappeared into the shroud of night before I could protest.

And as Elizabeth disappeared, Isaac made himself known. I spotted him retreating from the woods. He stopped a few paces in front of us, his typical innocent grin decorated his face. He spoke as if nothing was wrong.

“I’m assuming Liz was with you?” He waited for any sort of response, but continued anyway after he was met with a panel of silence. “So, I see you guys decided to come back and join in the fun! Caroline, you never struck me as this type, but I’m glad you’re exploring-”

“Why were you here, Isaac?” I said before he could get another word out.

“Like I said, I wanted Riley Grace to play along! I was about to head over to the soccer fields, but as you can see, I got a little hung up here because apparently she’s too stubborn to get over herself and open up-”

“Dude, get over yourself!” I shouted. Suddenly, Isaac raised his hand, gesturing me to wait on him.

“Yeah, just a minute, I’m getting a call,” Isaac took out his vibrating phone, and answered nonchalantly. “Hellooooooooo?” Isaac said, stringing out his “o’s.” On the other end of the line, I could hear the muffled voice of Riley Grace.

“I told you to get lost!” she was fuming.

“Babe, come on! It was funny!” Isaac weaseled his ill-fitting charm into this conversation.

“This isn’t funny! Now, please just leave me alone!” Isaac’s charm vanished with Riley Grace’s continued insistence. He seemed confused by her phrasing.


“Go home, Isaac!” And with that she hung up. It only took Isaac a moment before he returned to slyly worming his way out of this confrontation.

“Like I said, she’s being stubborn, but whatever-” I cut him off, not wanting to hear any more of his stupid quips.

“When you left school, you made it sound like you were going to kill somebody!”

“I can see that… Sorry. I was a little fired up, but I’m fine now,” Isaac said calmly, smugly. “But then again, if I was going to kill somebody, why would I tell you where to find the body?” Isaac actually started laughing.

“What the hell, man?” Grant stepped up.

“Relax!” Isaac contained his laughter, as he caught on to the fact no one else was joining in. “It’s all a part of the character!”

“This ‘character’ just indirectly threatened my friends’ life!” Caroline in a spout of rage lurched forward and punched Isaac squarely across the jaw. He grabbed his face in pain, then slowly looked back up to face us. His demeanor devolved into something more volatile, sensitive, furious.

“So, I guess the world is against me all of a sudden…” He spoke softly. “My girlfriend is calling the police on my ass, meanwhile, all my friends think I’m some sort of psychopath.”

“Nobody’s against you, Isaac! But this isn’t normal,” Caroline spoke apologetically. “Everyone’s a little paranoid, and I think it’s best if you quit before you get yourself or one of us hurt.”

“You know what I think?” He adjusted his stance to appear taller. “I think you guys are just a bunch of little bitches. What’s the difference between what I’m doing now and what you were doing at the soccer fields? You’re cowards,” Isaac barked those last two words in my face, his voice morphing into something more hostile. “You’re so scared that someone might get their feelings hurt, and so that suddenly means what I’m doing is wrong?”

“Isaac, you’re legitimately starting to sound psychotic… People are scared for their lives-” Before I could finish, Isaac took me by the shoulders and threw me against the side of his car.

“Maybe they should be!” He backed off, looking around at all the other people in the crowd.

“Isaac, you’re angry again. You don’t mean that…”

“How should you know? I AM the Night Stalker,” he spoke with an unhinged sense of pride. “I’m a freaking urban legend around this town and it’s so damn fun. And you’re so preoccupied with coming and rescuing some dumb bitch whose business isn’t yours to begin with!!” And with that, all of the pieces suddenly fell into place. I raised my hand defensively, keeping him at a distance.

“This is about more than the Night Stalker… Isaac, why were you here?” Isaac got in my face, and spoke with a steadiness I hadn’t seen from him in weeks.

“Stop prodding, Noah.”

“I’m not prodding!” I returned the action. “But death threats aren’t how you handle your relationship problems!”

“How about you stop trying to control my life!” I froze, clearly treading onto some thin ice. “Now is there anything else you have to say to me, doc?” The intervention was cut short by a faint police siren off in the distance.

“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me” I heard Camren groan.

“Let’s go!” I led a charge back to my car. In an instant, everyone broke into a furious sprint down the road, not stopping for a second. I fiddled for my keys and scrambled into the driver’s seat as soon as I heard the liberating click of the door lock. My engine sputtered to life, my headlights illuminating the road ahead of me. However, my escape was halted by something in the road. It was Isaac, on all fours. From the looks of it, he appeared to be mumbling to himself, desperately scrambling for something buried in the cracks of the asphalt. I rolled my window to decipher his incoherent chatter.

“My… My keys… Where are my keys?” Isaac was hopelessly grabbing around for something that was most likely buried under a mound of dirt and leaves back in the woods.

Isaac’s ramblings slowly dissipated as the police siren in the distance grew stronger. My greatest fears were converging all at once, and it was unclear what posed a bigger threat: Isaac’s revealed deteriorating mental state, or the fast approaching police car that would likely seal the fate of this whole endeavor. Suddenly, Grant interrupted my train of thought.

“What are you waiting for? Drive!” He was right. I wasn’t about to humor the possibility of letting myself get caught, but a part of me found it difficult to simply abandon Isaac and leave him to take the blame for everything, despite it solving both of my problems.

Isaac sprinted around to my back-passenger door, pulling forcefully on the locked door handle in a last stitch effort to evade getting reprimanded. As he continually banged on the window, I locked eyes with him and I saw something that resembled a wounded animal caught in a trap. For the first time since this all started, Isaac was afraid. Just then, I saw headlights approaching from over the lip of the hill. The overwhelming wave of shouts from my passengers enveloped my train of thought, causing me to make a split-second decision that would seal all of our fates. I shifted the car into reverse and floored the acceleration, retreating blindly back into the veil of night, leaving Isaac to face the retribution for his actions.

“Please! Help!” Isaac sprinted towards my car, only prompting me to speed up. As I fully retreated behind the curve, I saw the pine branches light up red and blue, as the high-pitched wail of a police siren echoed against the wind.

“No, no! I promise I didn’t do anything please!” Isaac continued to shout in the direction of the lights. “I didn’t hurt anybody! It was all just a stupid hoax! Please!” I couldn’t take it anymore. I floored the accelerator and sped away.

It was finished. We were innocent. We had our scapegoat. We were finally safe from the looming threat of Isaac… “The Night Stalker.” Blood continued to pulse through my body, but the pounding in my ears gradually eased out and was replaced by the steadying breaths of my friends in the backseat. It was finished. We were innocent. I arrived at home half an hour later after dropping everybody off, and immediately collapsed on my bed. I finally managed to stop heaving from my guilt long enough to fall asleep. It is finished. I am innocent.

* * * * *

Over the next three weeks, the routines and patterns that helped preserve our community, for the most part, fell back into place. After Isaac was exposed as the Night Stalker, many of Arab’s public officials attempted to normalize the goings-on of the town. The day after Isaac was apprehended, the curfew was lifted, as the attacks (the real ones at least) appeared to be the product of a bored teen, and there was nothing else to fear. However, due to the semi-viral nature of the Night Stalker, the fallout of Isaac’s rampage came soon after in the form of several sporadic unrelated claims of sighting the crazed entity as well as subsequent “attacks,” which were either largely disregarded, or deemed as poor attempts of people desperately trying to get themselves on television.

Although the majority of Arab was trying to invalidate everything associated with the Night Stalker, I was caught in the middle of a fury of several parties that kept me pulling back in to the situation, no matter how hard I tried to forget it.

My school held an organized rally in the gym. The guidance counselor came out and spoke to all of us, telling us that everything was okay, and offered us resources if we wanted to talk about having a knife-wielding psychopath in our hallways. The theatre program was much less forgiving. I can vividly recall the lectures in class, at rehearsals, saying how what Isaac did was an embarrassment to the program, and anyone else possibly involved in all of this was inherently responsible for the program getting threatened with shutdown. Our delinquency had destroyed the theatre’s reputation, and also those of the students that comprised it.

The repercussions of that night affected my circle of friends as well. While I remained primarily unharmed from the decision I made, I saw my once stable friend group fracture: Camren was grounded heavily because of his heavy appearance in the sighting video with Grant, which everyone in town had seen by morning, and as consequence I hardly saw him outside of school, and even when we were forced to interact, he remained distant, as if he were ashamed by his betrayal by association. Grant similarly, started conjuring up excuses as to why he couldn't be around the rest of us outside of rehearsal. I stayed quiet, as did everyone else, and so I slipped by without retribution.

However, after Grant, one by one, everyone else gradually followed suit. Caroline declared outright that she wanted no part in having anything to do with the Night Stalker anymore, and as consequence personally removed herself from our friend group. Elizabeth found idle things to keep her preoccupied, to hide her guilt. It broke my heart to see firsthand what I had done to her and the rest of them. I was victim, yes, a victim of misperception. From my narrow point of view, I saw what I was doing as harmless and did not take into account the reasonings of others. Riley Grace was entirely justified in all of her tirades, but my skewed approach to the situation prompted me to villainize her and her beliefs in favor of Isaac’s, which had consequently allowed that hellish persona to manifest itself.

Isaac… There was a lot more to him that he wasn’t telling us. Apparently, his fascination with his character stemmed from years ago. He had frequented doctors and psychiatrists secretly to treat his delusional disorder. Isaac had been diagnosed with grandiose delusions at a young age, and as a consequence possessed an over-inflated sense of power, of identity. The local news had found and leaked his medical records along with anything potentially damning a couple days after he was caught, which is where I first heard about this. I felt just as disconnected from Isaac as he had been from himself. I also heard that through the inner workings of a small town judicial system, as well as his father pulling some strings down at the police station, Isaac’s punishment had been largely reduced, and he was now serving his sentence under house arrest, with the addition of increased semi-frequent psychiatric evaluations.

I had indeed created a monster, but not just in the physical sense. Yes, from my mind, I had spawned a creature veiled by night that terrorized those I called neighbors and friends, but with that came the more vile entity called betrayal, which singlehandedly tore my friends and me apart, and I was left to pick up the fragments.

Late one night after tensions had fizzled out enough, I decided to approach Elizabeth to hopefully make amends for what I’d roped her in to. I sat staring out of my bedroom window, almost falling into a trance listening to the steady patter of rain against my windowsill. However, it didn’t deter me from my mission. I focused on the litter tossing itself in the wind, passing the cars parked along the one-way street, and anything else that could distract me from what I was about to endure. I dialed her number, and after five drawn out rings, I heard a click on the other end followed by a heavy sigh.

“What do you want?” she spoke sharply.

“I just want to talk,” I stammered, sounding weaker than I had intended.

“Well, you could've done that anywhere,” Elizabeth spoke with an inflection equivalent to rolling her eyes.

“I’ve tried! But look, everyone’s mad at each other and nobody’s listening. I want to make things right”

“Can you please just go away?” she groaned. “I’m not in the mood to talk about this.” I was confused a bit by the way she phrased that last sentence, but I continued.

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m not answering the door, so just stop knocking. You know I’m home alone tonight, and it’s really starting to freak me out.” My body turned rigid at those words. I took a step back from what she’d just said.

“Elizabeth, I have no idea what you mean. I’m in my room…” She paid no attention to my shaking voice, and just continued her short rant.

“I just saw you from my window! You think it’s so funny to show up in that stupid clown mask? I thought you wanted this all to stop!” I was suddenly overrun with an unmatchable terror.

“Elizabeth, that’s not me!” I pleaded.

“Then who is it? Grant? Camren? Only you guys would be such assholes-” Suddenly I heard glass shatter in the background, and Elizabeth let out a high-pitched shriek. “I’m calling the police!” Elizabeth hung up quickly.

My mind started racing. There was physically no way Camren was responsible. Knowing his parents, they wouldn’t let him out of their sight. And Grant had no reason to lash out like this, however there was still another possibility…

My body surged with a sense of vitality and I sprung up, throwing on my coat. If I was correct about what was actually happening, I had no time to waste. The police would take forever to respond to a call from a girl home alone hearing “spooky noises” that might as well have been a raccoon, but I feared Elizabeth was in real imminent danger. I rushed out my front door without explanation, hopped into my car and sped in the direction of Elizabeth’s house. As my headlights carved a path out of the darkness in front of me, I dialed Grant. He answered, sounding confused as to why I was calling him.

“Dude, what are you doing right now?” I spoke, almost out of breath.

“Um, I’m sitting in my room… Why?” he groaned.

“Something happened to Elizabeth!” I continued the conversation while only half-paying attention to the road ahead.

“Wait, what?” Grant sounded concerned, now taking things like this seriously.

“I don’t know exactly, but I’m headed over there now…” I said as I turned onto the highway.

“Oh my God, um, give me a minute I’ll come with you,” Grant said, and I could hear him scrambling around his room.

“No! No, I need to go now…” I insisted. “I don’t want anybody else getting involved in this… Please just don’t tell anybody about this.” It was entirely the fault of a petty crush that she became a part of this in the first place, and I wasn’t about to let her or anybody else get hurt because of me. Suddenly, my mind lit up, and I grabbed Grant’s attention again. “But, I do need you to do something.”

“Yeah, anything. What?”

“…I need you to check on Isaac,” I spoke, unsure of what his reaction would be.

“Isaac? Is this him?”

“I don’t know! Just… Call him, do whatever… Let me know when you hear from him.”

I hung up quickly and floored the accelerator as I flew down the street towards Elizabeth’s house. After about fifteen minutes, and navigating the town’s narrow backroads, I turned down her driveway, and I suddenly felt transported to an entirely different realm. I looked up at the sky to see just a vast expanse of inky black. The moon was absent, and the only light that shone down on me came from a few scattered stars penetrating the layers of dark grey clouds. The storm clouds were accumulating, the downpour ever increasing. I swerved into the grass and threw my door open, making quick pace towards her front door. I banged repeatedly on the chipping white wood, but got no response.

“Elizabeth, it’s Noah! Let me in!” I shouted. “Are you okay?” I stood there for another minute, then decided to shift my focus towards the backyard. If she wasn’t going to listen to me, I was still going to solve this problem on my own. I traversed the backyard with extreme caution. After I was reassured I was alone, I continued my sweep, and I hesitantly dialed Isaac’s number, hoping to confirm my hunch. The dial tone left me with a bizarre sense of comfort in this otherwise desolate place.

I listened closely for the accompanying rings from his phone most likely somewhere close by in the woods, yet I was met with the same still silence. After seven more rings, I was greeted by Isaac’s voicemail box, which caused me to pocket my phone in frustration. As I did so, I spotted a clump of something bright near the edge of the fire pit in front of me. It took shape as I approached it, and I could clearly see it was a patch of fiery orange hair.

Suddenly, the snapping of a twig deep in the forest jolted me up. I felt lured to the source despite everything inside of me telling me to retreat. Another crunch. I traversed the boundary from the backyard into the deep black maze of trees. The deeper I trekked, the more brittle and jagged the branches became. Crumpled brown leaves blanketed the forest floor, leaving the trees bare and completely void of life. Another crunch. I turned to my right, towards the source, and I could just barely make out a tall black mass standing a few dozen feet in front of me. The dense tree canopy above me prevented even a sliver of light from piercing it, leaving the mass encased in a protective shadow veil.

“Isaac, what the hell are you doing?!” I yelled, once again hoping to confirm my waning hunch. However, the mass paid me no mind. “Isaac!” The mass began walking away from me and moments later disappeared back into the camouflage of night. I pursued the mass that I presumed to be Isaac further into the woods, eventually coming up on him again once I rounded a large tree trunk.

I yanked out my phone and shined my light onto him, and my jaw dropped, sending me into a state of shock. The figure was indeed wearing that awful clown mask, but his stature was too broad to be Isaac’s. The man standing in front of me possessed heavy wide shoulders, and was hunched over as if he were heaving. His frame was almost familiar in a bizarre way. I stood there frozen, partially on my own accord as I tried to tie it back to something, but then it clicked: The man I saw before me was the same man I’d seen and presumed to be Maggi’s father that night in her backyard. Even though I could not see his eyes, his gaze instilled in me a sense of unease, the same I’d felt at the bonfire, in Elizabeth’s driveway… It made so much sense: the tapping on my window, Riley Grace’s strange comments the night Isaac was caught… Isaac’s obliviousness through it all…

In an instant, my mustered prowess was stripped from me as most everything I had come to believe over the past few weeks was suddenly invalidated. We were wrong to pin all of those crimes on Isaac, when in reality this thing standing in front of me had been, on at least two accounts, responsible for two violent attacks against the town under the presumed anonymity of the Night Stalker, and had been given free reign to do so after we had ousted Isaac for the crimes he had truly been innocent of.

My mind returned to reality for a moment to register that the mysterious man in front of me had turned back around and was running full speed in my direction. Without another thought, I broke off into a sprint deeper into the woods. The constant rhythm of crunching leaves against the pattering of rain pushed me forward as I bobbed in between the piercing jags of the trees. The air smelt of rust and hot sweat the further I went. I kept my pace for nearly two minutes without shaking my pursuer. His footfalls seemed to resonate against the trees, creating an echoing effect that made it seem as though I was surrounded by dozens of identical masked chasers. Without any illumination to guide my escape, I quickly became disoriented, and was no better than a rat stuck in a maze.

However, I could soon make out the growing drone of coursing water in the distance, and my mind was suddenly flooded with the memories of days spent with Elizabeth building makeshift forts near that creek. From memory, the creek was too wide to jump across, especially in its current flooded state, but somewhere along the stretch should have been a bridge, one that Elizabeth and I had dedicated several weeks to building back in first grade that I could use as a secret escape, preventing the man in the mask from chasing me any further.

I sprinted upstream, taking no time to wipe the torrential downpour from my face. Far ahead of me, I could make out the rough outline of a bridge constructed from twine and rotting tree branches. I entered the last stretch of my escape, throwing every obstacle I could behind me including loose rocks and twigs to hopefully deter the Night Stalker long enough. I reached the edge of the footbridge, and without a second of time to debate, I leaped across it as far as I could. I was able to propel myself a little over halfway to the other side before I fell back onto the stacked twigs, causing some to snap in half and slipping on the others, which almost sent me tumbling down into the rapids below. Holding on by only one leg and two slipping hands, I climbed back up slowly, pulling my right leg out of the frigid water, and scrambled across the rest of the way on all fours.

Once I was on stable ground again, I arose to my feet and bolted in the direction away from the creek. My lungs filled with the frosty thin air as I hurled myself over a fallen tree trunk and slid down a steep hill into a muddy narrow ditch. I curled into a ball and waited with baited breath for what must have been fifteen minutes for the Night Stalker’s rustling to reemerge, but fortunately I only heard the gentle yet forceful churning of the creek, and the easing patter of raindrops.

I shattered the enveloping darkness by unlocking my phone and unleashing its blinding glow. I hoped for good news, but only saw a list of three missed calls from Grant, followed by two messages:

Call me as soon as you can.


Followed by another string of missed calls from Grant, and an unusually chilling message:

I found Isaac

That last message prompted me to immediately call Grant, more desperate to hear a familiar voice than anything else. After only one ring, Grant picked up, breathing irregularly as if he were holding himself back from crying.

“Noah, where are you?”

“I’m still at Elizabeth’s… What happened?”

“I drove over to Isaac’s house and saw his car was crashed in a ditch. He must have been trying to break house arrest or something, I don't know why-”

“Oh my God….” I couldn't believe what I was hearing.

“Yeah I called the 911 and now there’s like six police cars and an ambulance in the driveway. He looks beat up pretty bad, like really really bad.” This wasn’t a coincidence.

“Grant, if you can, check the backseat, or the trunk to see if you see anything-” Grant cut me off, clearly still in shock.

“Okay, just give me a minute… It’s really weird. Like, how could you even crash this bad right in front of your house?” He didn’t crash, and I knew without a doubt the reason it happened: someone wanted the mask. The mysterious man’s last piece of the puzzle before he could fully assume his new identity. I could only assume that’s why he’d gone after Isaac, who had either intended to fight off or chase down the person who put him through all of this hell, but through one way or another lost in the end.

“Okay, Grant, I’m going to need you to just go home. Lock your doors, and stay inside until morning.”

“What? What’s going on? What don’t I know about?” I couldn’t bring myself to tell him the truth, whether that was out of my permeating self-doubt of the whole situation, or I still feared I’d be putting him in more danger.

“I’ll explain later! Just please do this for me.” I could hear him sigh deeply on the other end, desperate for answers.

I hung up before he could protest, and I began my trek out of the woods. I took extra caution with each step I took, making sure my whereabouts remained hidden from any lurking figures, animal or otherwise. After another half hour, I reached the edge of the woods, which gave me the confidence to pick up the pace to a light jog. I nearly rounded the side of the house without a second glance, but I forced myself to check on Elizabeth again. I approached her back door and knocked gently twice. Several seconds passed and I knocked again, more forcefully, but again I heard nothing, not even a shuffling from inside. I decided it was best to leave it at that, and just reassure myself that she was safe inside.

I plopped into my car soaking wet and dripping clumps of mud, but I could only concentrate on the gravel shooting out from underneath my tires as I sped home. My mind jumped back and forth between the night at Maggi’s, Isaac’s arrest, and the sighting video. Whoever was truly behind all of this, we had given them everything they needed: the name, the mark, the look. Every step of the way, we had given them easy access to it all, and had inadvertently opened ourselves up to his wrath.

The rest of that night remains only as a blur. The trauma I endured that night forces me to only remember scattered points in time. I can remember coming home to my parents to see them as furious as they were confused by my sudden departure. I explained everything down to the mud on my sneakers away by stating that Isaac needed help getting his car out of a ditch. I can remember lying in bed that night, making a pact to myself that come tomorrow, I would come clean about everything. Hopefully then, Isaac would be acquitted of the blame, and maybe the police would have enough information to find and convict this mysterious man.

However, my hopes slowly started to fray as days progressed, starting when Elizabeth stopped showing up to school. Her parents returned home a few days after that night only to discover their daughter missing, and a pentagram scrawled in mud on their living room floor. I still came forward to the police, telling them what had happened that night, and everything else, hoping they would find a lead somewhere, but we went weeks without hearing another word. Neither Elizabeth nor the real Night Stalker were ever seen again.

The next solid memory I have comes from Elizabeth’s funeral. It was, in a way, the final nail in the coffin, as some people liked to joke, on the issue of whether she was still alive or not. It signified that the town had wholly given up hope on finding her, yet they still felt she deserved a proper farewell from this world. I understood the sentiment, but I tried everything in my power to avoid going. I didn’t want to come to grips with the fact that I wasn’t able to save her that night, that me dragging her into this was the sole reason for her disappearance. With enough convincing from the rest of my friends though, I came around. It was an unusual experience. It was good to see everybody together on the same side again. I can remember Riley Grace and Isaac embracing, Caroline crying over the grave after most everybody else had left, and Grant and Camren still in shock this was actually happening. Overall, the ceremony was very awkward, many people stepping around certain words, too afraid to admit certain facts, but I can understand why. Like everything else we had endured over the past several weeks, we didn’t know how else to react.

In hindsight, I’ve come to realize that no matter how frequently I try to disregard how prominent a role I played in the events leading up to Elizabeth’s disappearance, I am defenseless against the evidence that the events that transpired that night were the culmination of my own personal misconceptions. I was solely responsible for the near ruination of entire friendships because in my hysteria, I had been quick to label Isaac as a maniac capable of doing real harm to those I cared about. Yet in my oversight, I was unable to make the connection that Isaac, along with the rest of us, served only as the muse for a more insidious threat to masquerade as. We all served our own roles in perpetuating the situation, as we kept creating the scenarios for this entity to exist in in our selfish quest for high adrenaline, or abandoning each other in the thickest of it all. This had stoked the flames of this creature I had drafted in my mind, which only served to prolong its lifespan, this monster acquiring power, gaining notoriety and all the while growing ever closer to us, learning from us…

I often find myself grasping at straws, struggling to fit the pieces together, trying to understand why someone would have put in the effort to assume our fabricated identity, but I nonetheless conclude it came down to coincidence. Whatever that man had planned to do to Maggi’s family that first night, we had stopped it, but we had also presented a veil, a fad under which a dangerous threat could hide and continue his tirade, and redirect his attention on to a defenseless group of insecure teenagers, as I can recall each instance he was within my sights without my knowledge.

With this revelation came the unnerving possibility that this monster could have taken me as its prize at any time, but there still remains an inkling of doubt in my mind as to if I was ever its intended target. Once that beast caught sight of Elizabeth, there was nothing I could do to stop it from abducting the most virtuous and innocent of us, who had likely become its most passionate fixation. And after the monster was appeased, it presumably moved on to somewhere else. The only thought that manages to ease my mind when these events invade my nightmares time after time is the possibility that I was not solely responsible for bringing this monster to light, that I merely served as a catalyst for an already present threat to emerge. Regardless, this reassurance still leaves me with a lingering feeling of unease: that man, the real “Night Stalker,” had managed to infiltrate my small circle of friends for weeks through a series of premeditated attacks without us noticing. I can’t fully understand why this became his new mission, even though I know the end result. What was his full plan for a group of 16 and 17-year-old kids from a small town, and why do I still feel a lingering unrest, as though it wasn’t completed?

Written by NuekerFilms
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