By Chelsea Jackson
The night they met, Ava sat around a corner booth in a local diner with her friends, growing increasingly annoyed with their tales of riotous parties and dating mishaps. Though they had all completed their first semester of college, she had opted for the university in their hometown and was still living with her parents. Ava had told everyone staying was the sensical financial choice, and while that was true, in reality, she hadn't applied anywhere else because she wasn't ready to move on. Not only did she not know what she wanted to do with her life, but she had liked growing up here; living somewhere else, creating another identity, making all new friends, and falling into different routines sounded overwhelming.
Now, as she played with the straw of her long-emptied milkshake, she was kicking herself for her lack of courage. As jealously licked at her insides, Ava made her way to the restaurant’s ancient jukebox. She hoped a song would distract her from the fact that the “best years of her life” were going to be spent living vicariously through high school friends who, one by one, would stop visiting home or texting with gossip until she was the only one left without a life, place, or adventure of her own. Well, that is bleak, she thought, as she tried to find a song to match her mood.
She was flipping through the buffet of oldies, alt-rock, and boy bands when a butter-smooth baritone voice drifted over her shoulder. “So, what are you thinking?” he asked.
Frazzled by the sculpture of a man standing in front of her, she quickly responded, "I don't know, I like a little bit of everything; you pick." She was embarrassed by her sheepishness and stood up straighter, trying to appear more confident than she felt. He shot her a heart-stopping grin and reached behind her to choose a song, only breaking eye contact long enough to push the button. A few minutes later, they were ordering fries and listening to some new-age music she suspected was put on the diner’s jukebox ironically.
His name was Carter, and he had just moved to town. His dark brown hair framed his face perfectly, and she noticed he habitually pushed it off his forehead when its curly strands covered his moss-green eyes. Maybe staying in town isn’t so bad after all, she thought as she laughed at a joke he made and shot him what she hoped was a flirtatious smirk. An hour later, her friends came over to make sure she was okay and demanded— with a shared glance—that she tells them everything tomorrow.
They shut the place down and talked about everything from music and movies to whether they believed in ghosts. She did, but he wasn't convinced, and even if they did exist, he said he wasn't worried, "There are scarier things." Intoxicated by the thought of having a story of her own, she didn’t think to ask what those things were.
Spring semester started back up in late January. Carter would often drop her off and pick her up from classes. Sometimes he would just stay on campus, scrolling through his phone or computer. Ava wondered why he didn’t have a job or how long he could sustain not working. Every time she asked, he simply said he had recently come into some money and was taking time to figure out what he wanted to do next. Either way, Ava was glad to have him to herself. Between classes and working the front desk at a local art museum, she was busy enough for both of them.
Plus, the mood on campus was somber and suffocating. There had been four on-campus disappearances in as many weeks, and even authorities could no longer claim the missing were just girls who couldn’t hack college or were chasing boyfriends across the country. The most recent to vanish had been her lab partner, but she couldn't remember her name or the name of the class they had together last semester. Ava felt safer knowing Carter was close, as the missing person flyers turned to wallpaper on the Student Center walls.
He met her parents in late February, though she seemed more worried about it than he did. The four of them ate at a restaurant downtown, and after they had cleaned their plates and exhausted pleasantries, the obligatory embarrassing picture-sharing commenced. Her mother scrolled through her phone, showing photos of Ava trying to play t-ball; dressed as a crayon for Halloween; and cradling a cat, a baby bottle held up to his unamused face.
“Aww, who’s this little guy?” Carter asked.
“That’s…um, hmmm, his name was…”
"Otis," her mother finished, giving her daughter a concerned frown.
How could she have forgotten his name? He only died last year. She had cried for days.
Carter rubbed her back gently, gave her an encouraging smile, and she let it go. People forget stuff all the time, especially when they’re stressed, and she was. Midterms were upon her though she wasn’t giving them as much attention as she should have. Instead, she was spending every possible moment with Carter.
Both of her parents seemed to like him, and later that night, her father paid the bill and gave a curt nod of approval on his way to the car while her mother smiled and hugged her tight. Ava was glad they had met but couldn't shake the feeling that she was wanting something more, a different reaction. She rolled her eyes; did she want them to disapprove or find an issue? “What sense would that make? Grow up,” she mumbled as she headed to Carter’s car.
But just a few days later, she got her wish. While washing dishes, her mom warned her not to move too fast. “We like him," she said, her eyes focused on the plate she was scrubbing, “but you've also got other goals and responsibilities. You look exhausted, and if Carter really likes you, he will understand you have other things that also take your time and energy.” She knew her mother was right, but she protested anyway. "I'm fine," Ava balked. "Me being tired has nothing to do with Carter; everyone struggles to adjust to college." She tried not to give into her defensiveness, and instead hoped she came across assertive and mature. She also decided against telling her mom about her slipping grades or that she was having a hard time focusing and retaining what she was learning. "Just remember to keep one foot on the ground; that's all I'll say," her mother responded, holding up her soapy hands in defeat.
The few friends that returned home for Spring Break echoed her mother's concerns. They were alarmed at the weight Ava had lost and how sunken her eyes had gotten, and they told her as much one night as they all left the local movie theater. She hadn't really noticed, but when she studied herself in the mirror, Ava realized they had a point. When she shared their concerns with Carter, he kissed her forehead and suggested that the stress and busyness of her schedule might be getting to her. Still, he assured her that she was still gorgeous, and he even offered to cut their dates short, so she could get more sleep.
By April, she had practically moved into his one-bedroom basement apartment. It was dark and dingy and smelled like mice were constantly dying in the walls, but it was the space for her to live her own life and for them to make their own stories.
One afternoon Carter ran out to get groceries while she showered. She lathered up the shampoo, careful around the tender point at the back of her neck right below her hairline. Somehow, she had gotten a cut there weeks ago, and it was struggling to heal, scabbing over and re-opening every few days. She was wondering if she should finally go to the doctor when she noticed the water reaching her ankles.
Ugh, he lives in such a crap hole. Maybe she would ask when his lease was up and suggest they officially get their own place. The water seemed giddy at her idea as it bubbled from the drain. But with its laughter surfaced a wad of strawberry blond hair. For a split second, she was filled with rage, certain he must be cheating on her. But her anger gave way to something much worse as she realized the strands were sprinkled with bits of flesh, their follicles clinging to a shred of puckered scalp.
Ava heard a bag of groceries hit the kitchen counter and the fridge swing ajar. She opened her mouth to scream, to tell Carter what she had found, tell him they needed to call his landlord and the police, but her throat constricted like a wrung-out towel, its icy droplets settling in her gut. Instead, she quickly stepped out of the running shower. With suppressed gags, she picked up the bloody knot with tweezers and stuffed it in her makeup bag.
She didn't know what kept her from telling Carter right away, but Ava knew she needed time to figure out what the hell was going on. She would decide what to do after he went to sleep.
That night they had spaghetti. She couldn’t look at it and washed down every stringy bite with three gulps of water. After dinner, she made some excuse about not feeling well and went to bed. Under the sheets, she researched local missing persons (there were so many of them now), pausing to inspect photos of those with lighter hair. She even searched what a real scalp looks like. There was no sense in causing a scene if some old Halloween costume had just made its way up the pipes.
When she heard footsteps down the hall, she put her phone away and pretended to be asleep. Now all she had to do was wait for Carter to doze off, then she could do more research or text a friend to help her decide what to do next. But no matter when she pried her eyes open, Carter was awake next to her. A couple times, he was reading; until…he was staring at her. Looking her up and down.
What the fuck? Was he playing some kind of joke? Did he know she was awake? She knew he was a night owl and early riser, but this was ridiculous…and creepy. Then she thought back and stifled a gasp as she realized incredulously, she had never actually seen him sleep. She felt the hairs on her arms stand up at the thought and tried to control her breathing. This is Carter, she scolded herself; you know him. Just pretend to wake up and tell him what you found. You'll figure it out together. Still, she couldn’t bring herself to move.
Moments later, still paralyzed with fear and curiosity, Ava felt Carter carefully put his hands under her and turn her over. She focused on keeping her body limp with feigned sleep, even as a squelch sounded near her right ear. Then a sudden pressure pulsed behind her head where her stubborn wound was, and she felt a painless but deeply unpleasant suction sensation. Whatever was inside the base of her skull was emptying her out.
The whole room tilted and just as she was about to give in to the dizziness, something in her clicked awake like a plug to a socket. She refused to go out like this, brains vacuumed out by some sick freak. But she couldn’t lift herself up or roll to the side; whatever tool he had in her skull would have been pushed further in or broken off inside her head. So, Ava thrashed, throwing her elbows and kicking her legs, hoping they connected with flesh.
For a second, she thought she heard him sigh, and then whatever was lodged in her skull slowly and painfully retracted as if he was purposely scraping the sides of her brain with it. As soon as it was gone, she pushed herself up and out of the bed, just in time to see a gray, slimy, branch-like rod retract back into his wrist. She screamed, grabbed her bag, and ran out of the house; the only sound her heavy footfalls and his laughter.
Ava had left her car keys on the table but was glad she remembered her purse with her makeup bag. She ran to a bus stop, not the closest one, but one well-lit and out of the way. Her first plan was to go to the police until she realized how silly she would sound explaining that her boyfriend had brain-sucking twigs shooting out of his wrists. For now, she’d have to handle this alone. First, she needed to figure out what she was up against, so she pulled out her phone and frantically began typing.
Her search gave way to pages of blog posts from the corner of the internet that last week she believed housed only nerds, horror-buffs, and people with too much imagination. And it was under the awning of the number 52 Bus Stop that Ava's world broke open, becoming bigger and more horrifying than all her nightmares combined. The pixels practically screamed it at her…WRAITH. Not only were these brain-sucking creatures real, she was dating one.
As she sped-read post after post about the monsters, the words terrified and infuriated her. She should have listened to her parents and friends, they may not have known what to call Carter, but they knew her and that she had changed. Her forgetfulness, the disappearances, the wound on the back of her neck, his magnetic charm, it was all right there, and she had fallen for it. She had been craving an adventure too much to notice she had made herself the damsel.
Luckily most people, though disturbingly not all, were in agreement on how to kill him; silver, cleansed by a flame and driven into his heart. She was grateful these tools were easy enough to get and couldn't help but let out a dark chuckle as she settled into her bus seat. Four hours before, she had been thinking about taking a romantic vacation over summer break, and now she was planning to murder her monster boyfriend. Life moves fast.
The bus dropped her off a few blocks from her parent's house. It was past 1 AM, so she was surprised but grateful to see the light on. She ran in and called out for her mom, grabbing a Spring Rain scented candle from the coffee table on her way to the kitchen.
“Mom! Where is Grandma's silver? Mom, come down here, please I need your help!” Hopefully she would believe her, or at the very least, not ask many questions.
She heard footsteps in the doorway and spun to see her mother. Tears of relief welled; she was no longer alone in this.
Whatever concern she had about her mom not believing her dissipated in her desperation. “Thank God! I know this sounds crazy, but Carter is not who we think he is; he’s dangerous; he's not even human! We’ve got to—"
“I’m sorry, who are you?” Her mother asked, lips downturned. Then more frantically, “What are you doing in my house? Get out!”
Her screams are accompanied by stomps down the stairs, and Ava’s father appeared, eyes like an animal, cornered and dangerous. “Who are you? Come to rob me, have you? Both of you get out of my house!”
As her mother turned to protest, Ava saw it, slime running down the back of her mother’s neck, coloring the collar of her robe sickly gray, the wound at her hairline already festering.
Oh my God, he’s here. Panicked, she turned around and tried to ignore her parent’s confused threats. She had to concentrate. But he had taken too much of her memory, so many things that seemed small and insignificant, things that would easily go unnoticed: like where they keep the silver.
Think…each Thanksgiving, I'd take it out to polish it; where would I take it from? She pictured the set in its dusty black box and went through the motions until it came to her. She raced to the bottom shelf of the cupboard by the refrigerator. Just as her hand wrapped around the handle, a hand closed around her shoulder.
“Well, you learned fast,” a voice said, but not a voice she knew. Not the one that said he loved her or made fun of the way she peeled bananas upside down. This voice raked her skin like sandpaper and froze the air in the room. As she stood up, she pulled the box of silver with her, but even she knew her odds.
The past six months, their meeting, their lovemaking, the loss of her memory and herself, it all played behind her eyes. All her questions, everything she thought to say in that moment, sounded shallow and elementary. Instead, she simply asked, “Why me? Why my parents?” At their mention, Ava noticed her parents’ yells had stopped. They were nowhere to be seen. Her stomach dropped.
“We’ll your parents are really just collateral damage. I do love fast food, but with everything sucked out in one go, there's no returning for seconds," he frowned. "They're not dead yet, but if turning their brains to shriveled raisins doesn’t kill them, then a murderous fight with each other or their own reflections will. Anyway,” he yawned, “that’s why I always keep a snack to play with. And you, you were hard to resist, with your boredom and desperation to prove yourself.”
“But I knew you'd find out eventually,” he continued with a sigh. "I didn't know if you would question your increased forgetfulness, connect the dots between me and the missing girls at your school, or just grow tolerant to the sedative I'd slip you each night, but you all always find out. Then you refuse to meet my needs and wear out your welcome, so I get one last taste and move on. It’s a shame; I had just gotten to know my way around this town.”
As he rambled, Ava knew she had a single chance. She was still holding the box, and either he didn't notice or, more likely, didn't care; he trusted he would win this. He continued talking as she made her way slowly around the kitchen island toward the lit candle. She wondered how many times he had given this speech, had gotten off on describing the details of his cat and mouse game to his prey. He tracked and turned with her movements but didn’t approach her until…
It all happened so fast. She reached the candle, threw the box on the counter, opened it, and grabbed the first knife she saw. She was about to draw it through the flame when she felt her side catch fire. For a moment, she was confused and stared at the candle, wondering how it had burned her; then, she looked down and let out a gravelly sob. Poking through her left side was his hideous blood-covered rod. “This also makes for a good weapon, sweetheart,” he whispered in her ear.
She bit down on her tongue, determined to finish the job, and strained toward the burning wick. But he was pulling her backward. She thrashed against the counter, throwing her elbows until she finally connected with his nose. Black liquid poured from his nostrils and flew in plumes as he grunted, "Nice spunk; it's a shame you're finding it too late." The tip of her knife had just cut through the flame when she heard it, the end in a single sickening crunch. She crumbled to the ground, nauseous with pain, and unable to feel her legs. He had driven the rod right through her spine; it was over.
Ava noticed her blood pooling on the white tiles as his left hand wrapped around her wrist, and his right tipped the candle over, a sideways, black-toothed grin spread wide across his face. The faint burn of the pavement on her back and pop of her arm out of socket was the last thing she felt as he dragged her down the driveway. Her eyes watched the flames lick her second-floor bedroom window before rolling in the back of her head.
Chelsea Jackson is a writer, editor, and consultant, and author of the forthcoming poetry collection All Things Holy and Heathen (April Gloaming, 2024). Their writing asks hard questions, interrogates inherited social narratives, and explores what it means to be human. Chelsea has an MFA in Poetry from Drew University and is published in Passengers Journal, Fatal Flaw Literary Magazine, Coffin Bell Journal, and Beyond Queer Words, among other publications. They were also a finalist in the 2020 Driftwood Press In-House Poetry Contest and the 2022 Animal Heart Poetry Collection Contest. You can find them on Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram or at their website.