Late one night about ten months ago, I found myself rushing my daughter to the hospital.
I remember the morning. What time I woke up, the food I ate, and the sound of my girl’s voice yelling “See ya, daddy!” as she ran out the door to catch her school bus.
Everything was normal…average. But were there signs? Could I have expected to bring her home from school at twelve that afternoon? Could I have guessed the cause to be chest pains, or predicted that those pains would return again eleven hours later, causing her to cry out in pain and fear? Could I have been better prepared for the race to the ER that ensued just before her heart gave out?
I don’t know.
I remember that night: the heavy rain pounding against my car, creating a slick sheen on the streets that made driving over forty impossible, the images of streetlamps and traffic lights bleeding into one another on my windshield. I remember that franticness I felt as I gripped the steering wheel, swerving and slamming on the horn to warn the blurry shapes of pedestrians to “get off the fucking road!” before they ended up getting personal with the front of my car.
I remember her: her wide eyes as she held her chest in agony…the suffocating sense of hopelessness that filled the air around her by the time we reached the parking lot where she fell unconscious…her motionless chest by the time I carried her through those automatic doors.
* * * * * *
What followed was a long forty minutes in the waiting room.
The emergency room was surprisingly empty for a Friday night, apart from the woman at the check-in desk. Her face a mask of indifference, I doubted she had much interest discussing why I was there, soaking wet and tapping my foot in my pajamas. Looking back, that indifference seems vaguely irritating. At the time, it was fine by me. I wasn’t feeling talkative anyway.
I sat in an uncomfortable waiting room chair and thought about my daughter. I wondered what those doctors were doing to her in that disgusting hospital room. My mind jumped back and forth between the present and the last time I’d seen something like this. My wife had had a similar episode eight years before: shallow breathing, chest pains, sweating, moaning, a look of panic. I’ll never forget that look – the look of someone whose time had come.
For her, it had, from a combination of heart and lung failure. She died, officially, in the emergency room, though by the time the ambulance arrived, there wasn’t anything the doctors could have done to save her. Considering that, I thought, maybe it wasn’t so irrational that I’d chosen to drive recklessly through the streets to the hospital myself as opposed to calling 911 and waiting for my daughter to die.
Still…the ride was rough. I probably did even more damage.
I braced myself for the worst. The news, when it came, fell somewhere in the middle of the spectrum: not bad…certainly not good.
“She’s unconscious, but her breathing’s stable,” the doctor started. Relieved, I interrupted and thanked him for telling me she was alright. At least that’s what I thought he was saying before I sensed his grim disposition and cut myself off.
He repeated she wasn’t dead, but went on to report that she was far from healthy. At the time, the doctors could only guess at what was causing her symptoms, but within a few days we learned my daughter was functioning with diseased heart and lungs.
“Likely hereditary,” they said. Something inside me couldn’t help but agree.
Her heart was already struggling to pump blood while her lungs made breathing difficult. Directly and quite coolly, the doctors told me if something wasn’t done, and soon, the consequences would be dire. This wasn’t a situation that could be remedied by a prescription; if she expected to live and regain her health, she would need a donor.
“For one heart and at least one lung,” they said.
So she was put on an organ donor list. We were asked to return weekly to make sure she remained stable until her number came up.
Simple. But there was one thing I neglected to acknowledge initially. Something never mentioned by the doctors, probably to keep our hopes up as stress would make things “complicated”: her blood. I was the one who had to ask; I needed to know what the chances were of finding a suitable donor.
I never found out for a fact whether or not the doctors knew her chances from the start – whether they knew all along how rare her blood was. I never wanted to know. Ignorance is bliss, as they say, and the idea that if we just hung in long enough, the organs would come like a postal package would have made the waiting more bearable.
It would have been so. I wouldn’t have inquired. I would have blamed time. Until the letters suggested I ask.
* * * * * *
It was around three weeks after that first harrowing night in the hospital that my daughter was deemed healthy enough to go back to school. Out of caution, I stayed home from work that day, waiting tensely by the phone in case something happened. At least that way, I figured, I wouldn’t be on the other side of town if I needed to pick her up.
It was one hour before she was due to return home; two hours after the mailman should have made his daily rounds. I must have been dozing off at the time, because I awoke to a strong whiff of something dreadful. It came and went so quickly I was unsure whether I had only imagined it, but for a second, my nose was filled with a pungent aroma that smelled something like burning fish and wet smoke.
Next, I heard the unfamiliar scraping sound of something sliding through my mail slot – despite the fact that no one, not even the mail man, ever used the thing. While I found it strange, I didn’t feel like checking right away to see who could have delivered the letter.
Five minutes I lay there before deciding to get my mail. Once at my door, I saw the envelope on the mat. I picked it up and examined it: completely blank. There was no return address, no sending address, not even a stamp. It was just a sealed, blank envelope.
I went to my window to peer outside. I didn’t see anyone in the yard. No foreign cars were in my driveway or parked along the sidewalk either. I shrugged, figuring I must have missed them.
Envelope in hand, I sat back onto my couch and stared at it momentarily. As I held it, I swear my fingertips started tingling, as though the envelope were made of little insect legs trying to wriggle out of my grasp. I absently passed the sensation off as nerves, before finally opening the letter
I’m not quite sure that I should have.
The tingling sensation left after the seal was broken. I took out the letter inside. Its texture was oddly damp.
I remember the message well. It said:
“You have a daughter that needs a heart and lungs or she will die.
You won’t find anything. Her blood is rare. Ask about the blood.
You can still save her. The clock is ticking.
You can exchange a child close to her age for her life.
You must have them alive.
It was when I read those five lines, I started to hear clicking, as though someone were lightly rapping their fingernail on the back of my skull at irregular intervals.
Since the message was so subtle, so ambiguous, though, my immediate questions overshadowed any other thoughts or feelings. What was this? A threat? A joke? Who knew about my daughter’s condition? She barely did! I mentally ran through a list of names of the few friends and family members with whom my daughter and I associated. None had the closeness, the timing or the motivation to pull this off.
My first instinct was to go to the police with the letter after my own mental investigation yielded no results. Unfortunately, when I did, the police investigation came up likewise short. In fact, without a return address or even a trace of fingerprints (other than my own), there was not much investigation to be done. Furthermore, without any act of physical violence, or a “direct” threat, the authorities would not or could not do much to help. They just told me to remain cautious, keep my house secure, put the letter out of my mind, and go back to work.
“Try not to think about it,” they said. “Crazy folk will do this sort of thing from time to time.”
Still, I couldn’t stop thinking about the message about the blood.
* * * * * *
That letter I received wasn’t the last. For the next few months, every one to two weeks, I received another message. Each one was more disturbing than the last. Some were short poems, detailing how I would stare at her tombstone wondering what I could have done. Others were more graphic, describing her choking on her own fluids as her faulty heart drooled blood into her flawed lungs. Each one had a different number at the bottom. Their meaning would eventually become clear, but at the time, I was simply unable to make the connection.
The worst part of the whole ordeal had to be the clicking. With every word from those letters, the clicks became louder and louder. When I neglected to read a new one, the clicks would spike in volume and frequency until I did, giving me terrible headaches from which no pain killers or ear plugs could save me.
I heard clicks when people talked…at work…on the radio; I couldn’t even enjoy dinner with my daughter anymore. I recall screaming at her once to shut her damned mouth, before storming out of the kitchen. Even in my dreams the clicks served as a metronome, a never-ending soundtrack as my mind, against my will, acted out the messages’ stories or predictions.
No one but me could hear them.
I tried chalking it up to stress of the letters reminding me that my daughter’s chances of survival were in the single digits. Still, even that excuse couldn’t prepare me for my eventual mental collapse.
One of the messages came shortly before the end of my daughter’s school year. I found her home a half an hour earlier than me, reading one of the letters. I snatched it away from her, scolding her for checking mail that wasn’t hers. Truthfully, though, I didn’t want her to see the messages often describing my or her own demise. But instead of expressing the same fear and disgust I felt when I first read them, she simply gave me a puzzled look. Then she spoke, saying something along the lines of: “Dad, it’s just a bunch of scribbles; relax.”
It was then I actually read the letter. I mean, really read the letter – not with my own inner monologue, not with the clicks, just scanning the markings on the page with my eyes. What I saw was nothing more than a series of smeared lines and curves.
After the first letter, I hadn’t thrown away the messages I received. I had thought I would collect them as evidence to eventually show the police again to better convey that this was undeniably a long term problem. But with the knowledge that the mess that was this most recent letter had at first appeared so like the others, I was compelled to go back and check through my archives of the disturbing mail I had now been receiving for months. I saw that, starting from the second letter onwards, the letters appeared to gradually become more unclear, finally reaching the altogether unintelligible state of the letter I was given today.
Still, I understood them all when I listened to the clicks. Were the clicks translating this unreadable chicken scratch?
I couldn’t go back into work thinking about that.
* * * * * *
Another week passed. I took about two weeks of sick leave from my job. I spent them waiting by the door for the next letter. I didn’t know when it would come, but I knew I had to catch the sender.
The letters. The clicks. The translation. I needed answers. It became an obsession. Each day became a blur of me staring at the door, waiting for someone besides my daughter to walk up to it. Occasionally, I daydreamed about catching this elusive letter carrier: pinning them down, bringing my fist down on their snot nosed face again and again, screaming “why” and “how” until they gave me an answer I liked.
The clicks approved of these violent fantasies.
I scared the mailman off on the third day, screaming at him that “I knew it was him”. I knew it wasn’t, though. He never came to my doorstep, and he had no means or motive to make this happen. I don’t know why I did it.
The clicks approved of the blame.
The day came eventually. I detected that memorable scent of fishy wet smoke. I wasn’t expecting it, but I didn’t have five minutes for another mental check. I leapt for the door before they could even get the chance to think of slipping another letter through.
I was sure. I had them.
I swung the door open to reveal my empty porch.
I smiled. I let out a small chuckle before giving a hyena-like laugh. I leaned against the frame of the door. Clutching my stomach, laughing, I slid to the ground.
So I was crazy! It explained so much. That damp fishy smoke I smelled was all in my head. Those clicks reverberating in my skull was because I’d snapped. I knew it. I did. I called out to imaginary men in white, telling them to stick me in a strait jacket right then and there because I had lost my mind!
That’s what I thought when I got up and walked back into my house. When I closed the door I heard the slot, and felt a piece of paper ricochet off my leg.
I didn’t feel that, I tried to convince myself. I’m crazy. I’m mad.
The smell vanished. My smile didn’t. Chills ran up my spine. I picked up the letter and took it back to the couch. I didn’t bother looking out the window or opening the door again. I knew no one would be there. I read the contents of the letter, or rather, I listened to the clicks whisper them into my ear. It was one line.
Your girl will talk with death today.
At 2:30, I got a call from the school saying my daughter had just been rushed to the hospital. At 4:00, I overheard that if she didn’t get her organs soon, she would suffer a violent death. I even heard them refer to euthanasia as an option. I left the hospital around 5:45. The clicks told me to drop by the rental place before they closed, so I did. Around eight or nine, I found myself at the bottom of a few bottles at the local pub. I can’t say for sure what the exact time was. When you’re drunk and numb, numbers tend to run together.
But somehow, even in my drunken stupor, the meaning of those numbers at the bottom of the letters hit me. How they were counting down to my daughter’s final day: the day the predictions of the letters would come true.
When I came home late, the clicks were suddenly soothing. They lulled me to sleep that night. No nightmares. No visions. All they did was click to me in black unconsciousness; repeating the first letter’s contents with a smooth rhythm.
I had my instructions.
* * * * * *
I awoke the next morning.
I felt good. The clicks told me that everything would go well today; that my daughter would soon be okay…because I knew exactly what to do. So after a wash and a brief breakfast, I headed out to pick up the van from the rental place.
For the next few hours, I drove. The clicks were quiet for the first time in a while. They were respecting my hunt.
Around midday, I found my prey. In a quiet, unfamiliar neighborhood, I spied a kid, somewhere around my daughter’s age. He had some frizzy hair, wore crooked glasses, and carried a large book bag.
I didn’t know what he was doing out or where he was going. I didn’t care. This kid was perfect. I’m not a religious man, but that moment, I was sure he was a godsend. This kid was here for me. For my daughter. I just had to get him.
I pulled up beside him.
“Hey there.” I said in my friendliest voice. “Heavy bag you’ve got there. Need a li-”
Before I could finish my sentence, the fucker bolted. Looking back, could I blame him? No. But then, suddenly, I was consumed with rage at him for running like that. He was teasing me. I shook as the clicks roared like a marching band.
“Get him. Get him. Get him!”
My muscles reacted before my brain could object as I launched the van forward.
The clicks approved of my quick decision.
* * * * * *
There was no scream. Not one I heard, anyway. It was the thud that brought bitter sanity back and the clicks lowered to the point of being inaudible. It was like waking from a dream. What was I doing?
I looked through the windshield onto the street to see something lying in front of the van. My heart stopped. I got out to get a better look. The kid’s arms and legs were crooked and bent at fantastic angles as he lay sprawled flat on the asphalt. His book bag was busted open, its contents strewn around the scene. His glasses and his left sneaker had been knocked off somewhere. I couldn’t tell where the blood was pooling from. From his head? From his mouth? From the limbs bent too far in the wrong directions?
I covered my mouth. What had I done? Why? Why? Why?
After slamming my palm against my forehead several times, I wondered if he might still be alive. Yes, he was still breathing anyway. The clicks reminded me that was all I needed: a kid that was alive. I looked around. We were still alone, too. I had no excuse. I scooped up him in my arms, ignoring his warm bodily fluids dripping onto my arms. I opened the van’s back door and laid him inside. I left before anyone could see us.
It didn’t take me long to realize that I had no idea where to go. The clicks had made no mention of where I should deliver the bleeding felony lying in the back seat. After ten minutes of cleaning the hood of the van of the kid’s blood with my shirt, and thirty minutes of aimless driving, I finally gained the nerve to head back home. Where else was I supposed to go? Without further instructions, home was my best bet. Sure enough, leaning against my door was another blank envelope.
I brought the envelope back to the van and opened it. This time, the scribbles were more like an inkblot from a Rorschach test, as if the messenger were mocking my madness. Translated by the clicks, though, it was a simple address. I took out my phone and entered it into the GPS.
* * * * * *
I can’t say what happened afterwards. All I know is that for the next few hours, I drove from location to location. I don’t remember any of the places I went, or what I did in between. All I remember is my ultimate destination.
The next thing I recall is driving along a long strip of empty road with no signs or hydro poles in sight. In the passenger seat was a stack of inkblots. I looked at my phone. It was dead. I then looked back to see that the kid I abducted wasn’t. It looked like I had bandaged him at some point to stop the bleeding. He was quiet, so he must have still been unconscious – or maybe I knocked him out again.
I don’t know.
After looking at him and then at the road, I finally started to feel guilty. Not just for running over an innocent kid, but for what I was doing to him now – where I was taking him.
I figured I would eventually come across some lone house in the middle of nowhere. Stories of mentally disturbed pedophiles keeping children in their basements for years to be tortured, raped, or worse rushed into my mind. I wondered. I love my daughter, I thought. I love her so much. But was her life, one that would end in less than two weeks, worth the lifelong suffering of this one random kid? What would she say if she knew where I was now?
The rational part of my brain finally broke through. I had to turn around. Get this kid some medical attention. Forget the letters. Forget the clicks. Forget the smell. Forget all the predictions. I had to accept that my daughter would soon die, just as my wife had.
If only I had come to that “conclusion” an hour earlier.
Impossibly fast, the road in front of me opened up. In seconds, it wasn’t road anymore, but more like an unmarked parking lot infinitely expanding in every direction. It was so smooth I would have believed it was only paved that day. When I looked back, the road I had been driving on was gone. Behind me was nothing but the infinite plain of asphalt.
Rationality was replaced by fear as the van began to slow down. Eventually, it stopped and shut off. I tried the key in the ignition. Nothing happened. There wasn’t even the cough of the engine trying to start up.
I felt my chest tighten. I was now in the middle of a surreal nowhere, sitting in a dead van, with a dead phone and a nearly-dead kid. A light fog rolled onto the asphalt plain, and I began to smell that damp smoke again, stronger than ever. I coughed. I opened the door and fell out of the van, somehow thinking the air would be fresher outside. It wasn’t.
I lay on the ground coughing for a few minutes before my lungs suddenly adjusted. Once I finally stopped coughing, I felt a ray of something warm on me. When I got up, far in front of me was a figure, holding a lantern in the fog. I couldn’t make out any details of its features.
It was then that I heard clicks from its direction. “Walk,” I translated.
The lantern began fading into the fog. I scrambled up desperately and ran for it. Eventually, however, after slowing down several times from exhaustion, I understood that as long as I kept moving toward it, the light would not fade.
Every few seconds, a light breeze assaulted me with that smell. I knew wind came and went, but never so shortly like this. Either way, I was certain I was heading to the source of the smell. When I looked down, I saw the ground had become more and more gnarled and rocky, and it continued to do so the further I went.
Then there were the clothes. The first article I noticed was a dirty sneaker that seemed like it had been there for years. It had rotted on the outside and lay there, lonely. As I went further, more abandoned sneakers began showing up. Next came shirts, then pants, then other articles of clothing littered the area. Every time that breeze came through, they would drift back slightly.
Then I saw where the clothes were coming from.
Eventually, I came across a second figure. This one looked human. A girl. I called out to her, but got no response. I saw that she had a pickaxe and was swinging it mechanically into the asphalt. Her clothes were worn; her pants were filled with holes like she’d been shot several times in the thighs. She was also missing a sneaker.
When I approached her, she didn’t notice me. She stared into the ground with red, bloodshot eyes, as if I wasn’t even there. Faint black marks were drawn down the sides of her cheeks as though she had been crying ash. I was most unnerved by her age: she couldn’t have been older than fourteen or fifteen. When I tried to touch her, I winced back. Her skin was hot – not hot like a fever, but hot like a burning stove.
Something was wrong with her, I knew, but I couldn’t do anything but continue on.
The further I went, the more abandoned clothes and kids I saw. Most of them were missing at least one, if not more articles of clothing. Some were only throwing their tools into the asphalt. Others were actually filling holes created. I glanced into one of the deeper ones being filled to see two kids, naked and just standing.
Some of the working ones…it was a medical miracle that they were even still alive. The more I followed the lantern, the more kids I began to notice who were missing things. Not just clothes. They were missing physical parts of themselves. One kid I noticed had pieces of meat scooped out of parts of his legs and abdomen like ice cream servings. I could see the white of his ribs. Another girl looked to have a clean hole in her body where her heart was supposed to be. A boy looked like his eyes had been taken out, yet still he worked.
They all still worked.
Then, suddenly, I noticed one kid. He was not working, but running out of pure horror. I saw him in the distance heading across the asphalt. I watched him, morbidly curious to see what would happen. I knew in the back of my mind he wouldn’t get far.
They came out of the fog: tall, armless creatures that swooped around him. He didn’t have a chance. There must have been five or six. They had the heads of pale, beautiful women, but the bodies of trees made of material that resembled satin.
This boy didn’t appear to be English, as I heard him plead in some foreign language. Even from a distance, I could see the figures smile sweetly; their eyes closed as they listened to his cries. They opened their mouths, but rather than saying anything, they just clicked from their throats. Clicks I couldn’t understand. They then bent their long bodies toward the center of the circle they created, and put their heads upon their victim. I could hear sloshy wet sounds accompanied by the kid’s screams as the heads bobbed up and down inside the circle.
This was the exchange I was prepared to make: my daughter’s life for the life of that kid I didn’t even know. I would condemn him to live the rest of his days and beyond in this world, working until there was nothing left of him.
I wondered what happened when there wasn’t.
I didn’t try to run – why was that, I wonder? Was it because of what I saw? Was it because I remembered the van wouldn’t work? Was it because part of me still wanted this horrible exchange?
I don’t know.
Soon, I noticed the fog getting darker with every step. I couldn’t see the sky, but something told me the sun was setting. Eventually, there came a point when I no longer heard the sound of the children working. The area was black, save for the lantern which was still guiding me.
I was already beginning to feel claustrophobic when I heard moans to either side of me. They echoed like I was in some kind of cave. Even though I still felt the asphalt below my feet, I heard stomach-turning squishes with every step I took.
As the distance between the lantern and I closed, I began to see the walls as the cave narrowed. It wasn’t made of rock, but rather, something organic. In the walls were bodies of skin, stripped of all muscle, bone and organs. Nothing was left of these figures, and yet somehow, I saw their mouths move in agony as they struggled against their moist prison.
The air was filled with moaning. “It’s eating us.”
I thought about the breeze, now strong. I wondered if I was actually in a cave at all.
The lantern-thing clicked “Stop”. Five feet separated me from the morbid walls.
The figure clicked for me to look down. A cooler was there. Inside, wrapped up and kept fresh with dry ice were one heart and two fresh lungs. It was just as they promised.
Silently, briefly, I wondered to whom who they belonged.
The clicks promised them to be satisfactory for my daughter, followed by instructions on how to present them to avoid suspicion.
I didn’t ask any questions. Whether my silence stemmed from a fear for my life, or from a sort of indifference now that the deed was done, I don’t know. I just nodded in comprehension.
“Accept.” the thing clicked. “Exchange.”
Then the lantern went out.
* * * * * *
I realized my eyes were closed. I opened them to see that I was back in my living room. The lights were out and it was dark outside. I looked down and felt the cooler on my lap.
After setting the cooler off to the side, I went upstairs and got all of the letters together. The clicks didn’t come back to translate them this time. I took them to the back yard and started a fire in the fire pit. I spent the hours until sunrise slowly tossing each letter and envelope into the fire one by one.
Once everything was done, I had no proof of my encounter with that place. There was likewise no evidence pointing toward me for the disappearance of that kid. My phone and the addresses were gone for good as I left both in the van. The van itself mysteriously returned to the rental lot in immaculate condition. I silently gave the organs I received from a “deceased family member” to the hospital for my daughter’s operation.
I had no evidence to prove my story. All I could do was try my best to accept what happened and move on.
The surgery was a success. Months passed and my daughter went back to school. I eventually managed to go back to work. I still had nightmares of that place. It was torture knowing that no one would ever find the corpse of the boy for whose death I was responsible.
They say that what goes around comes around – that karma’s a bitch and always bites back. Whoever said that was right because karma bit hard yesterday.
I came home to find my daughter gone. At my doormat was an envelope. When I picked it up, it didn’t tingle.
I opened it and found typed:
“I’m sorry. I had to. You should understand.”
My daughter didn’t come home that evening.
* * * * * *
Since then I’ve been sitting here…documenting this.
When I started recounting my story, I wasn’t sure what the account would ultimately be. A confession? No one would believe me. My suicide note? If my daughter was in that place, indefinitely, deathlessly, who would I be to take the easy way out while she suffered like that?
I didn’t know why or for whom I was compelled to write this down. I still don’t know.
But now, the smell is back. The clicks are whispering in my ear.
They tell me they have her. They tell me I can save her. They promise to help me get her back in perfect condition or better. But only after I make a few more exchanges.