Let me get this out of the way:
This is not a cursed internet chain letter. You will not be asked to forward this story; reading it or hearing it will not kill or curse you.
This is a story about my childhood– a memory– one that just resurfaced, kicking and screaming to the forefront of my mind. I’d managed to forget about it, but the past always has a way of coming back around.
Forgetting didn’t make it go away.
I was a kid when the internet was new and cell phones were an expensive novelty. I didn’t have as many distractions as modern children, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Rather than pay attention in class, I’d create my own distractions. It didn’t take much; I was a daydreamer with a well-traveled imagination.
As I got older, I became more interested in making new friends. Real friends, which were easily gained when I invented a game for the entire class to play. It wasn’t exactly imaginative, but it was fun. The game? Passing a single note around without getting caught. Simple, right?
The game didn’t have a name. We figured if we didn’t name it, it would be a lot harder to get caught. We didn’t even use the word ‘game’–we referred to it as ‘Taking Notes’, just in case anyone overheard. A lot of the fun came from the secrecy, and the ‘ninja moves’ we had to master in order to pass the note around unnoticed.
There were three rules:
- Don’t get caught.
- Add something.
- Pass it on.
We won when the note was passed around and came back to me. At recess, we’d read the note and have a good laugh. Sometimes we’d collectively make up one big story, or each share a joke. It all depended on what I wrote first. It was only a little bit of power… but it still went straight to my head. Suddenly, I was the most popular kid in class! I didn’t need the daydreams, not like I used to.
We almost always won; I’m not sure if we really were master sneaks, or if Mrs. Knott didn’t care. In order to be stealthy enough to play, we were well-behaved and didn’t interrupt lessons. It was a harmless game; part of our camouflage required us to actually take notes for class. It was funny, I didn’t realize the game inadvertently defeated the purpose… Kids really aren’t as clever as they think they are. At least, I wasn’t!
I remember when everything changed.
The game started off like it always did: every time the teacher turned to write something on the whiteboard, the note changed hands. I could hear the scratching of pencils and pens on paper with the quiet monotony of the lesson.
My thoughts were set adrift; I thought about how things had been different just the year before. Real friendship was a lot less frightening than the warped version my mind had made up. I didn’t miss any of my imaginary friends, they were all but erased as I started learning the social skills I’d lacked when I was younger.
I was roused from my reverie when Lydia jumped out of her seat, stumbling backwards and falling on her butt. Most of the class laughed at her expense, all of us immature enough to find it funny. No one disliked Lydia; she was a little chubby, but very sweet… but seeing anyone fall like that was bound to get a laugh.
Every eye in the room watched the girl fumble and fret. Lydia was red-faced and sweaty as she quickly collected her papers off the floor and sat back down at her desk without a word. Her round cheeks quivered as she tried to compose herself, but the damage was already done.
“I thought I saw a spider. A big one.” Lydia explained, “I’m sorry for interrupting, Mrs. Knott…” Lydia hung her head, wringing her braids. Mrs. Knott nodded and turned back to the whiteboard without comment, either accepting her explanation as true or choosing not to question it.
I turned my attention back to my note-taking, and before long… the note made its way back. I didn’t look at it right away; I liked to be surprised at recess. The bell rang, and I cheerfully shuffled out the door for lunch.
The class seemed quieter than usual as we filed out and headed for the cafeteria. Lydia stopped me in the hallway, her face was still red and her eyes glossy with unshed tears.Lydia usually kept to herself– she participated in ‘Taking Notes’, but was shy and didn’t usually socialize unless she had to.
“What’s the matter?” I asked, perplexed. We were alone in the hall, staff and students alike didn’t waste time going to lunch, especially on Pizza Day. I felt a flutter of annoyance, but given the look on Lydia’s face… I pushed it back.
“Don’t show the note at recess.” her hands gripped her twin braids “Please…”
“Why?” I asked, reaching for the note so I could see what the problem was. “Half the class already saw it since you passed it on.”
“I wish I hadn’t!” she was pulling on her braids, I was worried she might pull them right off her head! “The ga– taking notes isn’t fun anymore. Not if it’s going to be like this!”
“Like what?” my first thought was that someone drew boobs or wrote swears, either of those options would have been scandalous to our fourth-grade sensibilities. Lydia looked at the note I was unfolding, chewing on her bottom lip so hard it started to swell.
In an instant, I understood the problem.
It was Lydia. A drawing of her; so well drawn there could be no mistake. It was almost like looking at a black and white photograph… if not for the horizontal blue lines faintly visible beneath the expert pencil strokes.
The drawing was not at a fourth grade level, but that wasn’t what was alarming about it. In the picture, there was a horizontal cut across her stomach- her hand held the wound open, bloody fingers digging in to pry the apparently self-inflicted wound wider… her other hand unraveled intestines, pulling them to gore-smeared lips as though she were about to slurp them up like noodles.
Her chubby arms were bloody up to the elbow, even in black and white I could tell what I was looking at; the rivulets were dark and glossy, even forming a reflective pool to display the gore from a different angle. Never in my life had I seen something like this … I wanted to throw up just looking at it– I couldn’t imagine how Lydia must have felt.
Once the full impact of the drawing hit me, I came back to my senses and crumpled the paper into a tight ball. “I won’t show anyone.”
Lydia nodded, shuffling from foot to foot in an awkward dance of nerves.The girl opened her mouth to say something else… then thought better of it, scurrying down the hall. I’d lost my appetite– no doubt Lydia did too. The air was thick with unasked questions… who had drawn that? When I’d started the note that drawing hadn’t been there. I really didn’t think anyone in the class would have (or could have) drawn it. There was no obvious explanation, but I didn’t want to think about it. For some reason, it felt wrong to even wonder.
At recess, half the kids protested when I said I’d ‘lost’ the note… the other half was conspicuously quiet. No one mentioned the drawing. There seemed to be an unspoken rule– we couldn’t talk about it; we didn’t want to, it was unanimous.
The next day, Lydia wasn’t in class. At first, I wasn’t going to play the game– but some of the kids kept looking at me expectantly. Only about half the class knew what happened, the other half expected we’d be ‘Taking Notes’ as usual. For some reason, pretending it didn’t happen seemed like the most sensible option.
The game continued.
I tore out a fresh sheet of notebook paper and stared down at it blankly, unsure of how to start this one. Any sense of mischief or fun was long gone for me, I didn’t want to play anymore. Why did it feel like I had to?
I scribbled something down, I don’t even remember what. The game began, but I didn’t really pay attention until the dreaded note made its way back.I felt like a prisoner to the game; It was only a piece of paper, but it felt heavy to me. I didn’t know what I’d see, I couldn’t convince myself the game hadn’t changed in some fundamental way.
I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Just days before, we were all laughing and smiling… not anymore. Only about half the class waited eagerly for me at recess, the other half trickling in– heavy-footed with reluctance. It was as if they were here out of obligation. As I smoothed out the creased note, I almost wasn’t surprised to see the new drawing.
This time it was Brian, a grisly scene sketched out with such realistic detail that my brain refused to register what I was looking at, at first. Bubbling, blistered and blackened skin might have left him indistinguishable, if not for the fact that his face was left untouched by the licking, angry flames– drawn out in color this time; red, orange, yellow and black.
Brian’s dimpled smile and freckled nose were unmistakable; his body positioned in a crouch beside a wall of flames, as though he were merely warming himself by a campfire, arms extended — hands rubbing together, charred skin flaking off with friction– peppering the fire with bits of blackened flesh.
I pressed my hand over the drawing, covering it up… but it was too late, we’d already seen it. Even the drawing felt hot beneath my palm, words and bile competing in my throat as my eyes skimmed the rest of the note.
Everything else was harmless, snippets of conversation and jokes– benign doodles… I recognized the handwriting, knew who wrote or doodled what. Everyone was accounted for, except for Lydia. The only addition I couldn’t explain was that drawing, it shouldn’t have been there.
It was as though some malevolent presence had decided to include itself in our game, uninvited.
No one spoke of it, but it was clear from the shock and tears… we’d all seen it this time. When I pulled my hand away from the drawing, it came away stained red and black. I buried the note, along with the one depicting Lydia by the sledding hill. A cluster of silent children; it felt like a funeral.
Brian was the last to leave the mound, his skin was the color of sour milk which made his freckles seem dark in stark contrast. He didn’t cry, he didn’t ask questions, he just stared at the dirt with glassy eyes … even after the bell rang and everyone else went to class.
When I began to trudge back to class reluctantly, I swear I heard a whisper:
“Pass it on.”
Brian and Lydia were both absent the next day, their two empty desks an ominous reminder. No one wanted to play, but all of us felt strangely compelled to participate. I ripped a new page from my notebook, not caring when the paper ripped like jagged teeth along the side.
I started the game with a plea: I don’t want to play anymore. The scrawled message almost illegible, as if even this violated some implicit rule. My hand kept moving across the page, before I even realized what I was doing– before I realized I wasn’t in control of my arm anymore– I’d written a reply:
“Pass it on”
Written in perfect cursive, handwriting that wasn’t my own. I’d lost feeling in my hand, looking down at it… it felt somehow separate from me; detached, as though I were looking at someone else’s hand.
My hand — the hand — passed the note to William next, and so the game repeated. With each game, a new deadly prediction was pictured; although we didn’t know what happened to the students chosen by the note, we did know that they never came back to class.
Tammy’s demise was drawn, a snarling pack of dogs tearing at her legs and snapping her bones between sharp, bloody teeth. The girl smiled in the picture, petting one of the dogs as though it weren’t tearing the flesh from her forearm.
Calvin’s portrait painted his body at the bottom of nightmare stairs; his body contorted– bent and broken in every unnatural direction, his arms and legs resembled the very stairs he must have fallen from.
No one wanted to play anymore, we were the ones being played. When I resisted, my arm would move on it’s own… I wasn’t the only one. We stopped looking at the drawings, but it didn’t matter. Someone would still be missing the next day.
… Then we were caught.
That day, there were seven empty desks.
Lucy was about to finish the eighth deadly game when Mrs. Knott swivelled around from the whiteboard and caught her slim wrist. Without hesitating, the teacher took the note out of her hand and began lecturing us about ‘disrupting our learning environment’.
The lecture was worth it. By getting caught, Lucy had lost the game. Losing the game had freed us somehow, breaking whatever hold it had over us.
We never played the game again.
Seven students never returned to school. As children, we were spared any sort of explanation … and no one asked.
I spent the rest of that year, and every year after that… as a serious student. I went back to being a loner with no friends or games of any kind. I didn’t even go to recess, opting to work on homework or read books in the quiet solitude of the library instead. I didn’t think about what happened for a long time, I moved on with my life.
Until last night.
I was drinking by myself at the bar into the early hours, hoping that liquor would lubricate my sleepless night. An old woman claimed the stool beside me, her body stooped with age — that didn’t stop her from swallowing several shots in quick succession.
I didn’t pay her much mind, staring vacantly at the assortment of hard liquor as a drunken haze began to sweep over me like a warm blanket. I could feel the woman’s intent stare as she slid a piece of paper towards me, a soft rustle I somehow heard even over the loud music.
I stared down at the note on the counter; dirty notebook paper, folded into a square with frayed edges. I looked up at the woman, her mouth was moving soundlessly– but I could tell she was saying the same thing, over and over again.
I recognized the woman– it was Mrs. Knott. There was no doubt about it. She hadn’t aged well, her eyes dark and haunted, touched with madness; her features were haggard and pale, her body frail– as though she were made of paper-mâché.
I didn’t need to open the note to know what it was. For all these years, that last game had gone unfinished… until Mrs. Knott finally passed it on… back to me. The game was won. I can’t begin to guess what happened to my old teacher, but it was enough to drive her to seek me out and deliver this note.
I had to take it. Although my right hand felt like it was filled with pins and needles, it was my choice to reach out and take it. The game had been my idea, the lives lost were my burden to bear; the curse could only end with me.
“Thank you, I’ll take it from here. You protected us… I’m so sorry.” it was clear my old teacher had been fighting this curse for so long– long enough that I had time to forget.
Forgetting didn’t make it go away.
“I’m sorry too…” she weakly whispered, terror and regret competing on her face. We both sat and drank for a while, before I sent her home in a cab and headed home to face my fate.
I haven’t slept since; the note is on my desk, unopened. It doesn’t matter, even if I don’t look… the game is over. I don’t even need to wonder who this game will claim next. Although I live alone, I haven’t been alone since the note found its way back. From the corner of my eye, a dark, ungraspable shape asks:
“Did you miss me?”
I wrote my story knowing no one will believe it, there isn’t time to do anything else… Fortunately, there’s nothing to leave behind. No family, no friends, not even a pet; maybe I knew this would happen all along, somewhere deep down… I didn’t want anyone to miss me.
Meeting this monster, I realized something I’d secretly suspected all along. Whatever this creature is, I know it. I’d called it my friend once, back in those daydreaming days. This nameless, shapeless thing… my imagination had taken credit for it, an innocent assumption.
I’d turned my back on a lonely darkness, but it wouldn’t let me go.