Clearly, very clearly, things were not what I thought they were. Things were not what Nick thinks they are either, but here’s the thing: Nick probably still thinks we’re playing a giant game of Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego instead of a life-and-death scenario.
My war room, as I call it, is complete. Well, complete in the sense that it is as update to date as it can be at this moment. It will only be complete when I’ve found The Collector and I have all the answers. For now, it’s not a full room exactly, just most of my living room with all the furniture moved away and a bunch of maps and papers on the wall. I’ve only been able to pinpoint a few locations I think The Collector has been recently based on the stories he sent us, but I took great pride as I placed each of those push pins on my giant map. I brought in a couple of folding tables to put my research and computer on (I even bought a printer! Just for this!).
It may look a little crazy right now (a girl came over to hang out the other day, but left quickly, backing out of the room, eyes darting from one pinned-up clue to the next), but sweet vindication will be mine when I blow this whole thing wide open. And Noa and I may be one step closer.
Last week, I was at a stand-still right now. All my leads were cold. I tried Dr. Blanchard at SMU, but the department’s administrative assistant said he was on leave. I tried to find out more about that club on Lower Greenville. Nothing. I contacted Tinder about Alexis’s account. No dice. I went back to the graveyard where Noa attended the funeral. I tracked down the family of the person that was buried to see if I could find out more and the priest and funeral organizers. A lead as dead as that body that was buried.
And speaking of Noa, she wasn’t returning any of my calls or texts. Jerk. Here I was busting my ass trying to figure out this whole Collector thing, and she was probably off doing whatever or getting frozen yogurt or something. Oh, frozen yogurt, I thought. That sounds delicious. Sometimes when you’ve hit a wall, you just need to go relax and have a frozen yogurt, and hope that something will come to you. So I rode my bike (it’s good for the environment and it’s bonus exercise) over to one of my favorite frozen yogurt places off of McKinney. I loaded mine up just how I like it: chocolate yogurt with chocolate chips and chocolate brownie bites on top. Then I thought that I should probably go back and eat it at my place, just in case something did come to me while eating it, I would have my notes right there. So I got on my bike (it’s hard to steer a bike and hold a cup of frozen yogurt) and headed back toward my apartment. As I was riding I realized that it would probably melt before I got to eat it. I may have veered off the road a bit (steering a bike and eating from a cup of frozen yogurt is even harder) and didn’t see the cop car coming.
Luckily, it saw me and swerved. Swerved a little too hard. It went up on two wheels, then slammed into the wall of an apartment building. I caught my balance, but I’m sorry to report the frozen yogurt didn’t make it. Its final resting place will be the hot pavement where it landed. It deserved better.
The doors of the cop car were ajar. Smoke rose out of the dilapidated engine. The smell of burnt rubber assaulted my nostrils.
“Hello? Is anyone conscious in there?” I asked. No response. I approached slowly, only to find that there was only one body in the car: Noa’s. “Noa? Did you get arrested? Did you steal this cop car and were trying to drive it from the back seat?” There was no response from her. She was out cold. Or dead. I didn’t have time to check. There was a crack and then the back window of the cop car shattered. Another crack was followed by a ping on the side of the car. I dove into the car on top of Noa. Or what used to be Noa. AT THE TIME I DIDN’T KNOW. The shots continued. I peeked up over the back of the car and saw a cop, the right side of his face and right arm covered in blood, gun raised right toward my face.
“Just come out and I won’t hurt you,” he said, his voice booming.
“If that was true you wouldn’t be shooting at me. You’re a cop! Why are you even doing this?”
“Just come out, Collector-boy.”
Ohhhhh, I thought. Now it makes sense.
I definitely wasn’t going to do what he said now. I scanned the immediate area for an escape option. There was only one. A beer delivery guy, earphones in, wrote something on his checkboard and pulled the back door of his truck of his truck down. He didn’t lock it. I watched as he climbed in the front cab and started the engine. This was my chance. I threw Noa’s body on my back (I could feel her still breathing, so whew), jumped out of the car, and sprinted toward the truck, screaming the first thing that came to my mind.
The cop got a few more shots off, but luckily he was tired and injured. They missed and I was able to pull open the back of the truck and get both of us in just the driver drove away. The door slammed down right as the cop fired again. It hit the back of the truck, but the truck just kept on going. He must have kept those earphones in.
In the back of the truck were some towels, and a small refrigeration unit with some beers in it. Probably for samples or something. I grabbed an ice-cold beer wrapped it in the towel. I placed it on what was becoming a pretty serious bruise on Noa’s forehead. Her eyes opened.
“You’re welcome,” I said.
The thing about being an member of an international ring of people who want to murder unwitting members of a resistance is that you’re not gonna be super nice.
That’s what I’ve learned this past week, at least.
I was about to hit post on my latest translation from The Collector when my vision went dark. I don’t react well in situations where my vision is suddenly taken from me, so I started hitting things. I connected with something solid, and heard my fist thud against it.
"Don’t. Don’t make this hard on me. Then I’ll have to make it hard on you," a voice said. I recognized it—the man who helped me defend my home not so very long ago.
"What? Why are you here?"
"I have to extract you."
"May I ask—"
"No you may not."
"May I post—"
"This time? No. Not this time."
With that, he wrenched me to my feet and frog-marched me out my back door and into the backseat of some anonymous car. I heard him pace around the front, tap twice on the back window, and felt the seat shift down as he sat beside me.
The car began to move, slowly.
"We’re in danger? We’re not moving very fast."
"Yeah they’ll be looking for that, girl."
"Don’t call me that. Look, what the hell is going on. Who’s on their way now?"
"Oh thanks. It’s all clear now."
His fist connected with my chest. My breath choked out of my lungs and tears welled up behind my blindfold. It felt like a car crash—dull and bone-shaking all at once.
"I could do without the attitude, girl.”
I struggled for breath, tried to grab hold of the door latch. I knew I had to get out. I found nothing. Cop Car, I thought. Cop cars don’t have door latches in the backseat.
"Are you a cop?" I wheezed.
"For now, yes."
"You set that up. The attack. You aren’t with The Collector."
"Can we do this not talking, girl?"
"Look, what do you have to gain by taking me?"
"Gain? Nothing at all. You’re not my target. Not y—"
My body crashed hard into his, and I blacked out into darkness. The next thing I knew, I was in the back of a van headed God knows where, with an icepack on my head and Nick kneeling over me.
"You’re welcome," he said.
For the next two weeks after I was nearly murdered by a pack of strangers thanks to the interference by another stranger, I was a little jumpy.
I hit Nick a few times. I apologized for most of them. A couple of times he snuck up on me and he really should have known that something was going to happen.
One night I went for a drive, hoping to get away a little bit from the chaos of my life. Something about loud music and fast cars always calmed me down. Always drowned out the chaos of everything else.
I noticed the black car following me. I just didn’t acknowledge it.
I noticed when the second one drove up beside me. I drove faster, shimmied onto an exit too quickly for them to follow.
I saw the text that said, “They’re from me. -TC.” I just didn’t respond.
I pulled up to my house and a red X had been painted on my garage door.
I slammed my hand down on my dashboard and screamed.
"WHY? WHY THE FUCK IS IT ME? WHAT DO YOU NEED ME TO DO? WHY AM I IN CONSTANT FEAR OF DEATH? IS IT REALLY WORTH IT?"
No one answered, of course. No one was listening. I was furious. I got out of my car and slammed the door.
"WHO ARE YOU?!"
A hand clamped down on my shoulder and spun me back against the car.
"You’re gonna die if you keep this up. Just take the note. Just shut up. Just do what you need to do."
I never saw his face. It was as if he wasn’t there, just the disembodied hand. Voice.
The note was crumpled in the leaves in front of me.
"Soon. Keep your cool. I still need you. Page 115."
Gregor Diefenbaker lived in a large castle atop a rocky piece of land that was somewhere between a hill and mountain. He lived alone, unless one counted the servants, who certainly did not count him. They rushed through their duties, cooking (though Gregor rarely ate), cleaning, doing yardwork, then retreated with much haste to the servants quarters. They always locked the door behind them.
A village nestled against the base of the hill-mountain. The village was peaceful and serene, with a market that bustled just enough. Nearly every person that lived there was friendly and generous, quick with a smile.
But the servants in the castle and the people in the village were only bustling or cleaning in the daytime, and Gregor was a creature of the night. The sun seemed ill fitted to light the activities that he took part in.
Gregor walked down the flight of stairs toward his lab, his hand holding a dim gas lamp to light his way. His body was thin and sharp, a pale (sickly, you could say, and many did) knife cutting the the darkness of the stairwell. The steel door that led to his laboratory crawled open, shrieking and moaning in protest, as if it was trying to contain what was inside. Gregor felt along the wall until he found the large switch, then pulled. The lights flashed on all at once. The village didn’t even have electricity yet, and Gregor’s laboratory was the only place in his castle that had it. The villagers didn’t trust it, and the servants wouldn’t even go near the room, though that may have had more to do with what went on the rooms than the electricity.
Machines whizzed and crackled as they powered up, filling with electrical energy. Gregor walked from station to station, nothing inspiring him. Finally, he sat on a stool in the middle of the middle of the laboratory, shoulders slumped even more than usual. The truth was, he was lonely. Gregor was surrounded by servants and a whole village of people, but had no friends. And it wasn’t for a lack of trying. He tried bringing villagers up to the castle. But the villagers didn’t share the same interests as him. They didn’t enjoy cutting open cadavers and rearranging their insides. They thought his collection of jars filled with body parts and fetuses in embalming fluid was grotesque. His electric iron maiden was “painful,” his dinners of boiled bat organs and fox brains were “too garlicy.” Even his favorite hobby, taking different parts of animal bodies and combining them into hybrid beasts, failed to garner anything but terror and disgust.
He had applied on multiple occasions for membership to the Evil Mad Scientist Coalition and Summer Handball League, hoping to attend some of their social events and meet some like minded people, but they rejected him time and time again. Though he showed great potential, they said, the most evil thing he had accomplished so far was finance the killing of the many trees it took to supply all the paper for his applications.
Without thought, he walked among the fresh cadavers that were delivered that afternoon from down in the village. Some unruly cattle had led to the deaths of three men, now stretched out before him. He looked over at the tables a few feet away, where the carcasses of an ibex lay on one table and a lynx on the other. The gears inside Gregor’s brain turned. Perhaps if he couldn’t find a friend from another source, he would do what he always did: make one himself. He set about his task. He took the man and transferred him to the main table in the middle of the laboratory. He removed the arms and replaced them with the arms of the front legs of the lynx. He replaced the human teeth with lynx teeth. From the ibex he took the long horns atop his head and grafted them to the skull of the man. The cows made a mess of the internal organs and bones of the three men, so Gregor did his best salvaging and combining the best of what hadn’t been damaged. Gregor considered the brain. Not just any brain would do. He wanted this new creature to have a brain akin to his own. Over along the wall was a shelf holding jars that contained the brains of most of his late family members. He grabbed the most recent, his cousin, who had died in an unfortunate accident when experimenting with attempting to attach new limbs to those who had lost them. The accident had occurred when the husband of one of his former patients that had died from infection stabbed Gregor’s cousin repeatedly for “killing his wife.” Gregor’s cousin had accidentally forgotten not to get stabbed.
Gregor removed the brain from the farmer’s head and replaced it with his cousin’s. The stich and staple work holding the body together was some of Gregor’s best, if he did say so himself. He was always meticulous about such things. With the body assembled, Gregor hooked up the wires from his generator at strategic points around it. He gripped the switch that would funnel volts and volts of electricity into the newly assembled body, then stopped. What was he thinking? This was stupid. This never worked. He had tried many times before. Create a friend? Never gonna happen.
He threw the switch anyway. At least he would get to see a body twitch and burn before he settled back into his despair. He flipped the switch and watched the body convulse for a little bit, but even that made him sad, so he turned the electricity off and flopped down onto his stool. But even with the electricity off, the body kept moving. “Uhhhhhhhh…”
Gregor shot up and took a few steps back. The creature broke free of one arm strap, then the other. It used its claws to free its legs. It stood up, taking a moment to find its footing. Its eyes locked on Gregor, and it smiled, revealing its maw of predator’s teeth.
Gregor couldn’t believe it. It worked! It actually worked! He would finally have a friend. They spent the next few days running experiments. The servants were even more frightened than usual and refused to even be on the same floor as the creature. Unfortunately, as the experiments continued, he realized that the creature’s brain was not developed or high-functioning enough to be any kind of real friend. He was disappointed, but at least he could use to creature to get into the Coalition, and gain some friends from there.
When he had enough data, he wrote to the Evil Mad Scientist Coalition and Summer Handball League with his findings. Surely they had to respect him now. They could no longer deny him entry. Soon he would have friends from all over the world!
It wasn’t long before the coalition responded. Gregor ripped open the envelope, unable to contain his excitement, but his face fell as he read the letter.
Dear Dr. (?) Diefenbaker,
While your success no doubt has some great scientific significance, we’re aren’t entirely sure that it is really evil, persay. Maybe if you could get the creature to cause some havoc, or be responsible for a series of brutal murders or something we will reconsider, but for now your application has been denied.
Evil Mad Scientist Coalition and Summer Handball League
Gregor crumpled up the letter and threw it in the trash. He was furious. Denied again. Fine. He would just have to prove himself to them. He wondered if they accepted beginners on the handball teams, or if there was a beginners league of some sort. If was ever going to get there, he knew what he had to do.
For the next few weeks he set a strict training regimen for the creature, which he decided to call Kreatur. Not overly creative, but direct. So each day Gregor walked Kreatur through ways to terrify, maim, and kill, but something happened along the process. Everything went well except for fire, which terrified Kreatur. As his brain continued to awaken, he and Gregor became actual friends. Kreatur laughed at Gregor’s jokes. He especially like when Gregor would do puppet shows with the cadavers. A few times Gregor threw a cloak over Kreatur and they went down to the village to watch the public hangings. They laughed at all the same parts, mostly when the doomed plead for their lives.
Eventually Kreatur was ready to do some terrorizing. Gregor gave him easy tasks to complete at first, like mauling pets and farm animals in the night, but soon Kreatur graduated to grisly murders throughout the village and surrounding areas. For a moment, Gregor hesitated on even telling the Coalition, but despite his reservations, he submitted his application. I can always use more friends, he thought.
This time the response came not in the form of a letter, but in a knock at the door. One of the servants led the guests down to the laboratory. Gregor sat with Kreatur, going over melee fighting techniques and ways to be more terrifying, when the servant opened the door.
“Guests, Lord Gregor,” he said, then ran away.
There were five of them, all different shapes, sizes and ages, all wearing the official lab coat of the Evil Mad Scientist Coalition and Summer Handball League. It was the tallest, skinniest one, with a long hook nose and jet black hair slicked back that spoke. “We are here to see the creature.”
Gregor gulped, and gestured toward Kreatur, as if to say “here he is.” The representatives from the Coalition inspected Kreatur and spoke to him. Sweat gathered on Gregor’s forehead and underarms at first, but as the inspection went on, the representatives became more and more impressed. Gregor stopped sweating. When the inspection was over, the tall representative walked over to Gregor and handed him a piece of paper. Gregor took it, his nervous hands shaking. The nervousness turned to excitement when he read what it said.
This certificate hereby and forthwith, grants Gregor Diefenbaker, M.D. (?) immediate and full membership into the Evil Mad Scientist Coalition and Summer Handball League.
The signatures of the five representatives were at the bottom of the paper.
He did it. He was in.
“Welcome,” said the tall one. “Now, we must discuss the tour…”
And tour they did. They took Kreatur from country to country, city to city, showing him off to every division of the Coalition. He was a hit everywhere they went. Kreatur was the toast of every party, meeting, or mauling they attended. Gregor, on the other hand, felt like luggage. This may have had something to do with that fact that he was often made to sleep with the luggage. Or because the others dragged him around behind them and ignored him like luggage. Or because they kept trying to open him and put clothes in him like luggage. Everyone was interested in the creature, but not the man who had created him. Gregor grew tired of such treatment and was eager to return home, so he asked Kreatur is he was ready to go back.
“Hmmmm,” said Kreatur. “I think me stay with other scientists. Hang out more.”
“Fine,” said Gregor, and left for the long journey home.
For a while Gregor tried to keep up with Kreatur. He sent him letters, and Kreatur would respond with pages full of incoherent markings. Writing was outside of Kreatur’s grasp, it seemed. Eventually the responses tapered off. Gregor only heard about what was going on through the Coalition’s newsletter and from reports of strange maulings around the globe. Occasionally he would run into Kreatur at different Coalition events. They exchanged awkward, stilted greetings and continued on. That is, if Gregor could get through the crowd of admirers that followed him everywhere at those events.
Without Kreatur, Gregor’s accomplishments weren’t very impressive, and no one really wanted to be friends with an unaccomplished evil mad scientist. They put him on a summer handball team, but only as an alternate. He tried to creature a new creature, but he couldn’t replicate his results from when he created Kreatur. He tried to cook up some new evil schemes, but then he would see something in the laboratory that reminded him of Kreatur and the sadness would creep in. He tried going to the public hangings alone, but the same thing happened. Same when he did cadaver puppetry.
His castle seemed even more lonelier now than it ever had. Most of his time was spent sitting in his chair, staring into the fire, thinking Kreatur hated fire.
Noa protested, but I sort of insisted on calling the cops. I mean, multiple attackers entering your home isn’t something you just brush off as if they were just haters.
I dialed 911 and the phone rang twice before it was picked up. “This is Nick-“
“Damn it I know who you are. What they hell are you thinking? Don’t try to pull something like this again.” A click signaled that whoever had answered the phone had hung up.
Naturally, I tried calling again but the call wouldn’t go through. It’s clear now The Collector has connections. I just hope he lets my call go through if I have a non-Collector related incident. I helped Noa clean up her house that night then headed home, not having slept at all. I needed to get my head clear if I was going to find The Collector, so I went for a walk to try to put some connections together, and to formulate a clear plan.
And what better place to do that than the German-fest that was taking place at a park a few blocks from my apartment. I wandered through crowds of people wearing leiderhosen, eating bratwurst, drinking beer from ramsteins, and listening to terrible polka music. The smell of the smoked sausage lured me into one of the food tents and I approached the makeshift bar they had set up. I walked through the fold in the tent and quickly found the front of my shirt covered in beer thanks to an impact from running into someone exiting the tent.
“Please forgive me,” he said in a thick German accent without a trace of levity.
“Oh no worries it was probably my-“ I stopped short when I looked at the man. He was tall, with brown slick-backed hair and wore what looked like a military officer’s more casual uniform. But what stopped me was the man’s face. Half of it was burned, and a large scar crossed his right eye. “-fault.”
“No please. Let me buy your food or drink.”
I tried to protest, but he grabbed me by arm and ushered me up to the bar.
“Please,” he said, gesturing toward the girl behind the counter.
“I uhhh, I’ll take a bratwurst on stick I guess.”
“I vill pay for it,” said the stranger as he slid payment across the counter. “I apologize again for your shirt.” I watched him leave the tent, then turned back to the girl across the counter. She smacked her gum, and had her arms crossed on her chest, one hand up in the air, holding a piece of paper.
“We don’t take pieces of paper. We need like tickets or whatever.”
I took the piece of paper from her and handed her to 15 tickets for the Bratwurst On a Stick.
The writing on the paper read simply “Page 32.”
Nick and Noa,
For once, I’m not writing in the midst of danger. Well, I suppose I’m always in the midst of danger now, but the danger currently isn’t as immediate. I’m sitting in a café in a small village in Ecuador. The natives here, tribes like the Secoya, Cofan, and Waorani, have given me many fascinating stories. Hopefully these stories will eventually reach you.
You may think me crazy for still collecting stories despite the mortal danger that follows me around, but I can’t forget why I started this journey in the first place.
You’ve done well so far. I’ve kept up with your progress, and we’re right on schedule. I will continue to do my best to protect you, but I can make no guarantees. I regret having to involve you or anyone else, but it has become necessary. You’ll be meeting many of my aquaintences, and you’ll meet more soon. Traditional channels of communication aren’t safe, so the secrecy and passing notes is necessary. These exchanges are to be short and to the point. Do not become or ask a bunch of questions. I ask that you continue to trust me. DO NOT try to find me. Do not seek out information about me. The more you pry into this the harder it becomes to keep you safe.
Don’t trust anyone. Curiosity killed the cat. Whatever other clichés you can think of. Oh also some women that you meet that I know might be a little bitter. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and some have alleged that I have done some scorning. But I just need my space, you know? You guys understand.
A man just sat down across the café. He does not belong. I’m afraid this place has been compromised. They’ll have this place locked down momentarily. I must go, but before I do,: Nick, I’m sorry about your arm. Wait, has that happened yet? If not, sorry in advance.
Keep transcribing the stories.
We’ve received another letter from The Collector. This time it came to Noa via some stranger that showed up at her house one rainy night. But I’ll let her tell that part of the story. Suffice to say, its contents don’t put me any more at ease. And how does he know where we live? Where we’ll be at random times in the day? How to reach us at any time? Is my phone bugged? Is he watching me while I’m in the shower?!?
He’s already making me paranoid and insane. I don’t particularly enjoy feeling like I’m going insane. Like I’m constantly being watched. Getting chills down my spine when walking alone on a street late night IN THE SUMMER. And after spending an evening in a club that I’m not sure even existed, I think it’s time we find out who this Collector is, particularly if I’m going to continue doing his dirty work. Okay, so I don’t really know if the work is dirty or not, but if something is done with a bunch of secrecy it’s usually not good. And if I’m going to be in potential danger just for deciphering these stories from his diary, I think I deserve more information. Which is why I’ve come to this decision (which I had made before we received The Collector’s new letter): I’m going to track him down.
To do this, I need to have all my resources at the ready. I played enough Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? growing up that I think I know how to track down a globetrotting master mind. And that’s where I started. I dug through some old boxes in my parents attic until I found our old copy of the Carmen Sandiego computer game, and more importantly, the copy of The World Almanac and Book of Facts that came with it. Then I went about gathering all the other supplies I would need. I put together a list of what I would need and checked them off as I got them.
The World Almanac and Book of Facts? Check.
iPad charger? Check.
World map? Check. (Sometimes technology fails).
Pens and pencils (you never know)? Check.
Snacks? Check. (Trail mix, the kind with M&Ms in it).
People Magazine’s Book of Celebrity Crosswords? Check. (What? I might get bored and regular crosswords are really hard).
Sweet messenger bag to carry it all in? Check.
I put all these items together and headed over to Noa’s house to let her know my plan. Well, sort of plan. At least the idea for the start of part of a plan. Rain poured down as I jogged up Noa’s front sidewalk. I rang the doorbell, and almost immediately the door swung open and I was greeted by an angry-faced Noa holding an aluminum baseball bat, ready to beat my face in.
“WOAH! Calm down it’s just me.” Her face softened. She lowered the bat. “Can I come in? It’s raining a lot out here.”
She cracked open the door enough to stick her head out to twist in left and right, then motioned me in. I was too excited by my new mission to even notice he behavior, and started talking as soon as I walked through the door.
“I know that he keeps warning us of the danger, but I think it’s time we find out who The Collector is.”
The wooden floors creaked as I paced back and forth on them, pleading my case. “How do we know he’s even the good guy? How do we know that he’s not the bad guy and what we’re doing is helping some evil cause?”
“If I’m going to be risking my neck, I would at least like to know who I’m doing it for and why.”
“And honestly? My life is boring. This is our chance at a real life Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego. Well, if Carmen Sandiego was a man. Who like stories a lot.”
“Nick this isn’t a game.”
“I know it’s not a game.” I’ll be honest, I said this just to appease Noa. It sort of is like a fun game. A fun, possibly life-threatening game. “But he could be anywhere, and be up to anything. He sneaks around the world from Kiev to Carolina, a sticky-fingered filcher from Berlin down to Belize, he’ll take you for a ride on a slow boat to China-“
“Are you saying the lyrics from the Carmen Sandiego theme song?”
“It doesn’t matter what are the lyrics to what. You’re missing the point.”
“The point is we need to find out who The Collector is and what his motivations are.”
“We got another letter from The Collector.”
That’s when I saw the open package on the table. While the message inside didn’t do anything to put me at ease, in fact, the opposite, I am now even more resolute than before. Who in the world is The Collector? I have to find out.
I’ve been through so many emotions the past few weeks about The Collector that I’m not even sure what to feel anymore. It’s exhausting, trying to figure out what you’re supposed to do next when it feels like the world is on your shoulders and the only man who can help you is…well…a ghost.
Maybe literally. I really don’t know. He could be dead for all we know, and it wouldn’t even surprise me a little bit. I might even feel a little better then, because then I could explain to myself how he seems to know everything about Nick and myself.
Seems like I can’t him off my mind. It’d feel like a junior high crush if I weren’t constantly looking over my shoulder.
Last weekend, I had finally relaxed a little bit. My husband was out on business, and I was enjoying a quiet weekend to myself, binge watching X-Files, painting my nails and enjoying an ice-cold Shiner Ruby Redbird. It was peaceful. Fun, even.
I heard a knock on my door about 11:45 pm, and seeing as how I was a tiny woman home alone, I didn’t answer. As a knee-jerk reaction, I stood up to go quiet down my dog who barks like a hell hound every time anyone comes to the door.
She wasn’t barking. I started to walk to the back door to see if she had gotten out somehow, and I heard the knock on the front door again, this time much louder, much more insistent. Still no dog. The hair on the back of my neck raised. I stood in the door between my kitchen and the living room, the house lit only by the light of X-Files, still playing.
"Don’t answer the door. Don’t move. They know you’re here. They’ll be coming in soon, and you need to be ready to fight."
The voice came from the door, swung partially open right behind me. My mind, my body was now rushing with adrenaline, everything moving faster and slower at the same time.
"Who are you?"
"Be quiet, and go get the bat that’s underneath your bed."
I was as quiet as I could be, slipping down the hall, grabbing the bat and clutching it in my hands, and slipping back down the hall. I saw a hand in the darkness come from behind the door to the kitchen, motioning me to stop. The knocks on the door became ever more insistent. I tightened my grip on the bat.
In the movies, when someone breaks into your house ready to fight you, they always kick it in and rush in, guns blazing, screaming, raising hell.
When they finally made their way inside, it was so quiet, so calm that I almost didn’t hear it. They just slipped the door open, cracked the windows, and 4 people dressed entirely in black slipped in, hunkered down, eyes glancing around nervously. I heard the back door open and knew they were going to be coming from both sides.
The light lit the 4 eerily, in green and black tones. It was spooky. It was unreal.
When the line of the 4 people stepped just outside of the hallway, I saw the man behind the door rush out. I launched myself at the closest one and started swinging, connecting with his ribs. I pulled back and swung again, this time feeling his shoulder crunch beneath the bat. It was intensely satisfying. I rushed forward and hit the next one, a smaller guy, nailing him in the stomach.
The man behind the door was doing alright alone, punching his way though three of them who’d come from the kitchen. I paid for looking away when a fist slammed down on the right side of my body. It was so hard it felt like my ribs bowed inward. I lost my breath but gained rage, and as soon as I felt another punch to my back—a cheap kidney shot—I spun and cracked the bat over someone’s face, and then didn’t stop swinging. I could have been hitting the man behind the door and I wouldn’t have cared. I was on a bat-cracking roll.
"Whoa whoa whoa—they’re all out in here. Stand down."
I froze in place, hands still white-knuckled around the grip.
"Who the fuck were they?"
"They came to stop you. To cut off the arms of our operation."
"Did you think it was just the three of you? You have a lot to learn."
"Can we not be sarcastic right now? Are there more of them outside?"
"I have my shit together, girl. I’m scanning the area."
Of course this motherfucker had FLIR heat signature goggles. Jesus, what was even happening?
"You know you have possums in the attic?"
"Yes, I am aware, but thank you. Do you happen to see any murderers?"
"Looks like we’re clear for now. Here," he said, tossing a wooden box onto my dining room table. "This is your next mission."
"It’s not clearing the bodies from the floor? WAIT OH MY GOD ARE THEY DEAD?"
"What bodies?" He asked, walking towards the front door, and slipping out into the darkness. I looked around and…it gives me chills…there weren’t any bodies.
What the fuck was happening?
Tyler was the life of the party. More so, he WAS the party. In his five years in college, he was famous up and down Frat Row, the street of nice houses with Greek letter hanging on the outside. Tyler didn’t even belong to a fraternity, but they all did whatever they could to get him to come to their parties. No amount of alcohol ever seemed to phase him, only seemed to make him more fun. The same went for any type of drugs, all of which Tyler consumed on a regular basis. He jumped from roofs into pools. He streaked. He snuck into crazy places. He danced, hard. Songs that were played at every party to no special effect became epic dance tracks just by him being there. He always brought the largest pack of Natty Ice he could find.
If a person has only a limited amount of times to cheat death in their lives, Tyler burned through all of them in college. The night of graduation he was (where else?) at a house party. He did a keg-stand, threw up some high fives, then went hard on the area that had been designated the dance floor (normally the living room of the house). Then he died. Just collapsed on the floor. Students would say he partied so hard that he died, but the coroner would say that he died because there were more drugs in his system than actual blood. Many would say, What’s the difference?
Yet the party, as they say, never stops, and so Tyler had unfinished business.
Tyler’s body was buried across the street from a neighborhood of apartments and townhomes where mostly people in their twenties and early thirties lived. Fall was starting to set in, but Tyler didn’t feel the cool air setting in, and he sat atop he tombstone and surveyed the neighborhood. He didn’t feel much, except for the unquenchable need to par-tay.
The first thing he noticed was that it took a lot of ghost energy to make himself visible to the living. Manipulating physical items was an energy-suck as well. That he couldn’t do both at once was clear when he stopped by the convenience store to pick up some Natty Ice and a whole case floated out the door. The freaked out phone call the cashier made to the police convinced Tyler that he couldn’t just tote a box of Natty Ice around the neighborhood, as a free-floated box of cheap beer would hardly go unnoticed. He left the beer and headed to the first party he could find.
Not to say the party wasn’t any good before Tyler showed up, but as soon as he walked through the door (literally, but luckily no one seemed to notice) the party blew up. He was back in his element. Even in death, he could still make a party feel like those parties you see in movies but don’t think actually exist. Things went awry when another partygoer challenged Tyler to shotgun some beers with him. In the heat of the moment, Tyler grabbed the can, punctured it, and put the can to his mouth. The physical exertion made his body disappear.
“What the fuck?!?” said the other partygoer. “WHAT IN THE FUCK?! GHOST! THERE’S A FUCKING GHOST AT THIS PARTY.” He pushed through the crowd toward the front door. Other partygoers turned to see the floating beer can and beer pouring straight to the ground. Girls screamed. Partygoers scrambled over each other to get out of the apartment.
“Aw come on guys, don’t be scared!” shouted Tyler over the music. “We can do all kinds of crazy stuff. Later you can run cars through me, or we can freak out some cats or something!” None of the partygoers listened, they were too busy running away. “WHATEVER. I’M A PARTY GHOOOST! PARTY FOREVAAAAA! PARTY FOR ETERNITYYYYY!!!”
Party for eternity. That was a solid tag line.
The same thing happened the next week at a rave, when floating glow bracelets and necklaces freaked the crowd out. And then the next week during a keg stand. And then the next week when a girl tried to twerk up on him and him backwards through him. Then the next week when he thought maybe he could possess someone and party that way, but he just walked right through the guy. The legend of the Party Ghost spread throughout the neighborhood and city. The number of parties dropped significantly, and they were harder and harder for Tyler to find.
One night he floated along the street, invisible to the living, wishing he could just give up on trying to find a party, but of course, he couldn’t. The need to party is what brought him into his ghost state.
Something bumped, in rhythm, in the distance. Tyler followed the sound, the beat intensifying with every block he floated past. Could it be? It was. Someone was having a house party. Tyler dropped to the pavement and concentrated on being visible. He flew through the door (again, literally) of the townhome the music was coming from and ran up the stairs.
“WHO’S READY TO PAAAAARRRTAAAAAAYYYY?” he shouted as reached the top of the stairs, then stopped. The room was full of people, sure, but it definitely wasn’t a party. Everyone in the room wore mostly black, girls and some guys had black eye liner on. Most were teenagers. They had the same depressed look on their faces. One of them turned off the music.
“Are you a real ghost?” one of them asked.
“Fuck yeah. And I died to PAAARRRTAAAAY. So let’s fucking do this thing! IMMA PARTAY GHOOOOOST!”
No one moved.
“I think about death a lot. What’s the aftlerlife like?”
“Who cares? Let’s get some fuckin’ music goinggggg!”
No one moved to turn on music. A girl in the corner (was it possible that they were all in a corner somehow? It seemed like it.
“Does it hurt to be dead? Sometimes I cut myself because the pain makes me feel alive. I bet since pain makes me feel alive that it doesn’t hurt to be dead. I bet it’s like when I take some of my mom’s codeine.”
“What the fuck? Don’t you guys wanna throw back some beers back? Take some shots? Make some bad decisions?”
“Have you spoken to Satan?” This time it was a guy, lots of piercings and acne. “Tell the Dark One his followers await his orders.”
If ghosts could sigh, Tyler would have. Instead, he just floated back downstairs and out into the street. A similar thing happened a few more times. People made it sound like a party was happening to lure him in. One week it was an old lady asking him if he could speak to her dead husband. The next week it was a ghost fetishist. Then next week it was a group of girls having a slumber party, daring each other to summon the party ghost. Tyler left each time, defeated. Eventually, he no longer went into the homes, just stood outside and danced to the music until it stopped. Every now and then, he would chance it, and a real party would be happening. For those precious moments before he did something ghostly and ended the party prematurely, he felt alive again.
If you’ve seen someone dancing outside of an apartment building or townhome that looked like it was having a party, then you’ve seen the party ghost, doomed to wander the weekend streets, looking for the ultimate party and never finding it.
I tried to contact Dr. Blanchard via the phone number listed on the SMU website, but only got his voice mail. He hasn’t called me back, but that may due to the fact that part way through leaving the voice mail message I remembered that maybe it wasn’t the best idea to openly talk about why I was calling or give any of my information, due to The Collector’s warnings, so the message ended up going something like this:
“Hi Dr. Blanchard, this is Niiiii..uhhh..kita. This is Nikita. La Femme Nikita. You..I…we met recently at one of your lectures. We have a mutual friend. If you get what I mean. Wait, that doesn’t sound exactly right. What I mean is that I want to ask you questions about your “special friend.” God that sounds like I am asking about your penis. Sorry. Look, I..I want to ask about The Collector. Fuck. Welp, just call me back. My numberrrr…should not be said in this message. Okay bye.”
Hopefully he has some sort of caller ID on his office phone.
It’s exhausting being hyper aware all the time, waiting for a note or message to come from anywhere at any time. Yet that is how I’ve been for the past couple of weeks. Every time I open my dishwasher or my food is handed to me in a drive thru, I expect it to contain some sort of message from The Collector.
I read Noa’s journal entry where she bitches about me getting to meet someone who knows The Collector, meanwhile completely overlooking the fact that she met someone with either some sort of awesome burning super power, or at the very least someone who owns a cool hand-burning gadget. I guess she was too focused on the pain or whatever.
Eventually I did get my message from The Collector, and from a source I completely did not expect it to come from. I’m really putting myself out there by admitting this, so I ask that everyone be cool about it, but my message came from, well, Tinder.
Yes, Tinder, the dating app on smartphones where you swipe left or right depending on whether or not you think someone is attractive. Yeah, it’s shallow. And populated mostly by the worst people on Earth. But, I’m a single guy that has, at best, poor social skills. I gotta do what I can.
Thursday night I received a notification from a girl named Alexis. Her profile featured mostly pictures an incredibly attractive blonde girl showing a good amount of skin, dancing while holding a drink in one hand, glow-in-the-dark bands on her wrists.
This might be forward, my friend is DJ-ing at a club called Deluxe tonight. You should come by! I’ll put you on the list. ;P
The wink and the tongue were a bit overkill in my opinion, and most people would dismiss this immediately as a bot, but what else did have going on female-wise? I let her know I would be there.
I drove to Lower Greenville, and it didn’t take me long to find the club. I parked (a process that only took 35 minutes!) and walked up to the entrance, bypassing the line. I mostly expected it not to be, but my name was on the list and I went inside.
The club was filled with bleach-blonde-haired girls carrying tiny purses and dancing while a bunch of the douchiest guys imagine stood around holding drinks, trying to look cool. Axe body spray coated my lungs every time I breathed in. The DJ was on a stage on the far end of the room, across the sea of people, blaring something that sounded like it was a Backstreet Boys song at one point, before demonically-possessed boom box ate it and shit it out. A huge banner that looked like a dollar bill hung above the DJ, proclaiming him “DJ SKULLZMONEY.”
I was only at the bar for a moment before Alexis appeared, almost out of nowhere.
“Hey! You came!” Yelling was required to be heard over the music. She gave me a hug that lingered. “What do you think of the DJ? Pretty great, right?”
“I would say the music is somewhere between terrible and a weaponized sonic frequency designed to rupture all of our brains.” I said this with a smile, though, because I did still want to sleep with her at some point.
She laughed. Her hand was on my leg, she leaned in right up next to my ear hand rising further and further up my thigh as she did so. “Hey why don’t you order a drink and I’ll be back in a sec?” She said this as sexy as those words could possibly be said.
“Did you want anything?” I asked.
“I’ll get something when I get back.” She reached in her purse and pulled out a CD case. No one had given me a CD in a long time. “It has the DJ’s best mixes on it!” She smiled, kissed me on the cheek and disappeared into the crowd.
The CD cover had the same dollar bill imagery on it as the banner. I shoved it into my back pocket. And motioned to the bartender. He made some acknowledgement of me, letting me know that he knew I was there, but had many attractive women to serve first.
I spotted Alexis at the other end of the bar leaning into some other guy. She pulled out a CD out of her purse and handed it to him, pointing out something on the cover. The guy feigned interest but mostly just looked at her boobs. I had been had. It might as well have been a bot. I had been fooled by the DJ’s super hot marketing department.
The bartender finally made it to me. “What can I get you?”
I figured I might as well have a drink to wash away my idiocy. “I’ll take a Strongbow.”
“That’ll be sixteen dollars.”
I left the bar.
I walked to my car, threw the CD case in the passenger seat, and drove home.
The next day I was reading over some Collector-related materials and checking for any communication from Noa when I came across my last journal entry. Specifically when I mentioned, as a joke, a club called Deluxe and a DJ named SkullzMoney. I thought I had made them up. I must have seen or heard the names somewhere and they just came out subconsciously, I thought. I quickly Googled “Deluxe” and “DJ SkullzMoney.” Nothing came up. I rushed out of my apartment and down to my car. I threw open the passenger door, grabbed the CD case, and opened it. There was no CD inside, just a Post-It note that said “PAGE 67.”
I jumped in my car and drove back to the club. Accept it wasn’t a club. The fancy décor from the night before were gone, replaced with a dilapidated building with boarded up windows, and it looked like it had been that way for a while.
I was in that club the night before, I know it. And I have the CD case, so I’m not crazy. I’m still not sure who exactly The Collector is, what he wants, or what he’s trying to tell us with these stories (particularly not this week’s), but I am sure of one thing: we have to find out. No more waiting around for the next message.