Updated: Mar 23, 2020
In the center of town, there’s an old cemetary connected to the Baptist church. Behind it, there’s a service trail leading off into the woods, which connects to a dilapidated caretaker’s cottage that’s been out of commission since the fifties. When I was in school, it was a popular spot for kids to sneak away and make out or get high. I had a hard time imagining teens slipping back there these days, now that the forest had swallowed up any semblance of civilization. The path was overgrown and narrow, with low tree branches reaching out like the claws of forest giants, scratching the car on both sides as I drove slowly past.
I pulled O’Brien’s cruiser back there deep enough that nobody would spot it from the main road, killed the lights and engine, then got to work.
I used the pass code I’d gleaned from Vanessa’s file to get inside her phone and started with emails and texts. Not too much to see, but there was a long conversation chain with somebody named “Toulouse.” They had first started chatting a couple months ago.
Vanessa - “I had a good time yesterday. Looking forward to our next hang sesh.”
Toulouse - “Wow. Desperate much?”
Vanessa - “Lol, kiss my ass. I’m trying to pay you a compliment.”
Toulouse - “What the hell is a compliment?” Is that some kind of sandwich?”
Vanessa - “God, ur so weird.”
Vanessa - “Wanna come over and play smash bros tonight?”
Toulouse - “Can’t. Got a thing.”
Toulouse - “It’s super mysterious, yet important as fuck.”
Vanessa - “Sounds intriguing. Can I have a hint?”
Toulouse - “Gotta help a guy get rid of some bodies.”
Vanessa - “Well, when you’re done, come play smash bros.”
Vanessa - “And bring beer.”
I’ll spare you the gritty details, but there were a few times when I had to put the phone down and roll my eyes.
Is this how kids flirt these days?
Toulouse seemed mostly harmless, but immature even by teenager standards. I honestly couldn’t tell what Vanessa saw in him (or her?), but there’s no accounting for taste, and Toulouse made her type “LOL” enough times that she must have enjoyed his company. There was nothing overtly sexual in their messages, just a strong overtone of two horny kids trying to figure themselves out.
I felt like such a creep, but then reminded myself that this was what I did for a living. Stalking couples, waiting for cheaters to get busy, then stealing some photos while they were going at it. The only difference here was that I knew the person whose life I was digging into. But even still, I couldn’t shake that nagging thought: this feels wrong.
Vanessa and Toulouse’s texts weren’t as expositional as I’d hoped. A whole lot of “see you tomorrow’s” gave me the impression that Toulouse was from work. A couple “I had fun last night’s” told me that they had gone out for some not-dates. A ton of emojis back and forth reminded me just how out-of-touch I was with this generation. And then the whole thing ended abruptly, with a few messages from Vanessa.
Vanessa - “Hey. Whatcha doin?”
Vanessa - “You there? I’m bored. Wanna hang?”
Vanessa - “Hello?”
Vanessa - “I guess you’re not talking to me anymore, huh?”
Toulouse - “Lose my number.”
Vanessa - “Wtf? What the hell did I do?”
Toulouse - “Vanessa was a friend of mine, douchebag.”
Vanessa - “I should have listened to everybody when they said that there’s something wrong with ur brain. U r an asshole.”
Toulouse - “Sorry, my bad, autocorrect.”
Toulouse - “What I meant to say was”
Toulouse - “Vanessa was a friend of mine, you twat-waffle Mcfuckface.”
That’s how it ended. The date of the last message put the conversation at about a week before her disappearance. I saved Toulouse’s number on the burner I got from Roger and made a plan to track the line down once I had a moment’s reprieve.
The next step was checking her phone for pictures. I opened the gallery, scrolled down a ways, and started flicking through the slideshow in chronological order. Vanessa was a normal teenage girl, and she took what I would consider an average amount of selfies. One for every day or so. I studied them, looking for any sort of clue or indicator that something was wrong, or about to go wrong. But she was always happy. Always wearing that same old brown jacket and that same typical teenage-girl smile.
I had to smile when I first saw it. The jacket. I recognized it as the one Donny used to wear all the time. It was a little too big on her, but she made it work.
Starting around a month back, there were more frequent pictures of her. Four, five, or more each day. Not selfies, though. Somebody else was taking pictures of her, with her phone, while she looked back and laughed.
The last picture on her phone was taken an entire week and a half before she went missing. Two days before her breakup text with Toulouse. And that last picture was the only one I needed to see.
The last photo showed her and Toulouse, cheek to cheek, smiling in a shared selfie, and I recognized the guy she was with instantly. When I had met him the day before, he said he didn’t really know her all that well. Only back then I knew him as Jerry, and I was quickly running out of reasons not to beat the shit out of this guy.
I lit a smoke to calm my nerves, then remembered I wasn’t in my own car, and O’Brien might not be too merciful if she got her car back smelling like tobacco. I rolled down my window, and that’s when I smelled it. That sour, putrid stench. The one from the bowling alley.
I flicked on the headlights, illuminating the forest path in front of me, but as far as I could see it was empty.
Then I heard it. Stomping through the overgrown trail far behind me, walking towards the cruiser from the cemetery, and I instantly realized why O’Brien always parked her car facing the road.
I couldn’t see what it was, but I could smell it from a mile away. The thing, whatever it was, kept walking. Closer and closer. The outline of its shape slowly taking form in the darkness: an unnatural juggernaut, enormous, wide, dark, and dragging something behind it that scraped at the road with each step. From this distance, there was no way for me to make out exactly what I was dealing with. It was protected by the shadows, and whatever manner of monster, one thing was glaringly obvious: I didn’t want to be out here alone with it.
I turned on the engine, then reached for the gear shift and heard the sound of that thing’s feet slamming into the ground as it sprinted down the path towards me with impossible speed. By the time I had the car in gear, it was there.
The car rocked as the back window shattered into pieces, the roof buckled, and suddenly the front window erupted into a spiderweb of broken safety glass. I dropped my lit cigarette onto my lap and tried to figure out what the hell was going on.
In the center of the smashed glass, a giant piece of metal wiggled and pulled itself free, then disappeared into the sky and came right back down into the windshield again with a loud impact that completely covered my entire field of vision in broken glass.
The reality of the situation clicked into place and I screamed, “Oh shit!”
That thing was standing on the roof of the cruiser, swinging a giant mallet into the windshield, and by the looks of it I didn’t have long until there was nothing left between me and the hammerhead.
I couldn’t see anything in front of me and even if I could I didn’t have anywhere to go. The trail would dead end in the forest and I would be fucked.
Reverse didn’t feel like a much better option. The back window was busted out but there was no light to guide me and I’d be pretty much flying blind.
There wasn’t enough room to turn around and I sure as shit wasn’t going to leave the rapidly deteriorating “safety” of the vehicle.
The piece of metal that had penetrated the laminated glass in front of my face started to budge, like the thing was getting ready to pull it back out for another swing, and I made a split-second decision to kick the car into reverse and put the pedal to the floor.
We lurched backwards and started flying down the trail, but somehow the thing on the roof didn’t fall off. An enormous hand, the size of a baseball glove, reached down and wrapped its fingers through my open window. Giant grey, inhuman digits gripped the roof just inches from my face and I could see another hand on the opposite side as it smashed through the tempered glass of the passenger window. This titanic fuck was laying flat on top of the car, with an arm span wide enough to reach into both side windows at the same time.
I kept my foot pressed hard on the gas while I yanked out my Beretta, pressed it against the roof, and fired off three shots.
I would have fired a fourth but the car bounced over a tombstone and we went into a quick spin. I yanked the wheel back, gaining control without ever dropping speed. I’d cleared the forest road and hit the cemetery and we were going over graves, colliding with markers, mowing over the smaller ones and ricocheting with the biggers. At one point I ran over the back bumper, and before I knew it we were through the ditch and back on the main road.
There were street lights here, and I could actually see the path in front of me. I swung the wheel again, fishtailing into a near perfect ninety degree turn that pointed me in a straight line down the road. We climbed in speed, and in no time I was redlining the RPMs, but the thing held firm onto the top of the car.
The road was about to run out, a sharp deadman’s curve to the left, and despite my performance up to this point, I wasn’t so sure I’d be able to hook another turn at these speeds in reverse gear. If I stayed the course, I was going to crash into another dense portion of forest. So I made one more split-second decision.
I picked up my gun, put it against the roof again, then started shooting at the same moment I slammed the breaks sending us into a long skid, tires screeching against the road loud enough to wake the dead.
The thing finally flew off the top of the car and landed somewhere between the trees across the ditch with a loud crash. I immediately pointed the gun back there and waited to see if it was going to get up.
The only sounds were those of the unhealthy rattle of the cruiser engine and my own heartbeat pounding in my ears. I still hadn’t gotten a good look at it, and now I couldn’t even tell where the thing was.
What are you doing? Get out of here!
I turned in my seat to face forward then realized that I still couldn’t see out the front window, the shattered laminated glass held in place was impossible to look through. I pointed my gun at it, then caught myself.
That won’t work. This isn’t a fucking movie.
Okay, so what are my options?
There weren’t any. I had to get that windshield out or this car was useless.
I put the cruiser in park, opened my door, took a breath, and stepped out onto the road, bracing myself for another attack. That thing wasn’t too far away, I knew that much from the horrendous smell that continued its assault on my senses. My gun wasn’t about to leave my hand until I was at least ten miles down the road.
When a few seconds had passed, I finally turned half my attention away from the forest and looked at the deputy’s cruiser. The vehicle looked like I felt, beat to hell and back and running on fumes and prayers. The sides were scraped up and covered in dirt and the frame was dented in to the point that any reasonable insurer would call it totaled twice over. But somehow, the engine was still running, and the car could still go, and right now that was all I needed from it.
Yeah, if I managed to survive all of this, O’Brien was going to kill me.
The mammoth mallet still sticking out of the windshield was a metal-gripped sledgehammer. I climbed onto the hood of the car and grabbed the thick handle with my free hand and pulled until it started to come free of the glass. This wasn’t going to be easy. The tool was a custom job, a steel pole (thick enough that I could barely grip it with one hand) welded to a block of square metal. A weapon for someone or something way stronger than me. Before too long I realized that this heavy bastard was a two-handed job and begrudgingly holstered my gun for just a moment while I put all of my strength into yanking that hammer out of the glass and dragging it off the car onto the road. Without a doubt, the weapon weighed more than I did.
On the bright side, the hole that the sledgehammer left in the windshield was big enough that I could see through, and I didn’t waste any more time before putting some distance between myself and that thing in the woods.
I left the cruiser parked behind the daycare center a few blocks from Vanessa and Jamie’s house, then made my way through backyards, praying there wouldn’t be any unchained pit bulls along the way. For once luck was on my side, and I got to the my brother’s backyard without any hitches.
I was annoyed to find that the back door was unlocked. It was clear that Jamie was way too trusting to live in this town on his own, and this just reinforced that I had made the right call in what I was about to do.
“Hey, kiddo!” I yelled from the kitchen, suddenly realizing for the first time that I had fucked up my ears. I snapped my right finger next to my head to confirm, and I was definitely deaf in that ear.
He came out of his bedroom and took one look at me before saying, “You look like you’ve been in a fight.”
I turned my head slightly to point my good ear at him and responded, “You should see the other guy.”
Could be temporary. Maybe not. It’s weird that I could make it this far without realizing I had fucked my ears up. Yeah, adrenaline really is a wonder drug.
“We need to get you out of town,” I said, “Right now.”
“We don’t have time to discuss it. I’ll explain in the car. Get packed, only what you need and can’t live without for the next 48 hours, understand? Leave your phone. Leave any electronics. You get thirty seconds to pack. Now move.”
“Uncle Eric, I don’t think I ca-”
“Twenty-eight seconds. Did I stutter?”
He ran back into his room, and I pulled out Roger’s burner and called O’Brien.
She picked up after the first ring and said, “Yeah?”
“Ok, I need that favor as soon as you can.”
“Don’t say I never did anything for you.”
She hung up, and I crossed into the living room, over to the blinds, and peeked out. The deputies sitting outside in unmarked sedans couldn’t have been more obvious if they’d tried. I could see Williams, reclined in his front seat and playing a game on his cell. If this was all I was up against, it would be an embarrassment to get caught. But the real threat was still out there, and I’d have to give these guys the slip first.
I watched as Williams got the call over his radio, sat up, and answered before he pulled out of his spot and drove away, followed shortly by two other cars.
O’Brien would have just called in the report. Shots fired at the high school. Eric Riggin had lost his mind and started trading lead. She was pinned down and needed backup. The distraction would give us just enough time to get out of there.
I yelled towards Jamie’s room, “Ten seconds, kid. Don’t forget your jacket.”
That was the moment.
The moment it all slipped into place for me.
They say your subconscious keeps working on problems when they’re in the back of your mind, even when you don’t realize what you’re actually looking for.
It’s not what’s there but shouldn’t be...
I’d read the report on Vanessa more times than I could recall. That night she disappeared was a cool one. And damned near every picture of her on that phone had one thing in common. She was always wearing Donnie’s old brown jacket.
Jamie came out of his room with a backpack slung over his shoulder and said, “Okay, I’m ready.”
“The night your sister went missing, you said she was wearing a yellow t-shirt?”
The question caught him by surprise. “Yeah. So?”
“Was she wearing her jacket?”
He shook his head, “No, I don’t think so.”
“You don’t think so? Or you’re sure?”
“I’m sure. I’m positive. She wasn’t wearing dad’s jacket.” His lip quivered, and I got the sense that maybe he was hiding something.
“Jamie, look at me; is there something from that night you aren’t telling me?”
“No.” He was lying. It was written all over his face. He stared at the floor and said, “Can we just go now?”
I walked past him to Vanessa’s room. We were spending precious seconds here, but this was important. I knew I was on to something, just not sure what it meant yet.
It’s what should be there but isn’t.
I had already gone through every single thing in this room, but I needed to see if maybe I had somehow missed it. Donnie’s old jacket had struck a nerve when I saw it in the pictures. I recognized it the moment I saw her wearing it. I would have had that same reaction if I’d seen it in here earlier, but I hadn’t.
Jamie came into the room while I was digging through the clothes hung up in her closet.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Does your sister have any laundry anywhere?”
“No, she did a load the day before she went missing.”
“What about her jacket? Have you seen it anywhere? Do you know where it ended up?”
“No. Maybe she left it in her car.”
I knew for a fact it wasn’t in the car. And it wasn’t here in her room. And she wasn’t wearing it when she disappeared. That thing was clearly more than just a piece of clothing to her. It looked stupid, but she wore it to work every day anyway, so it had to have some sentimental value to her. So where the hell was it?
“Jamie, this is important. Are you sure you don’t know where the jacket is?”
“I swear. I have no idea. Why?”
“Don’t worry about it; we need to go. Now.”
We took the back roads, headed away from the school. Jamie was kind enough not to make a big deal out of how junky my car had gotten, ignoring the fast food containers and empty liquor bottles on the floor.
I kept one eye on the rearview mirror and waited until we were a few miles from his place before I started digging into that suspicious look he’d given me earlier when I asked if there was more to the story.
“Jamie, I need to ask you some more questions.”
“That night Vanessa went missing, I know it’s hard, but I need you to go back there again and walk me through the whole thing. What was the first thing you remember that day?”
“I don’t know.”
“Ok, we’ll start with that night; you were watching television, and she came out of her room, didn’t say a word, and walked right out the door. Is that correct?”
“Yeah, that’s what happened.”
“Ok, what were you watching?”
“I…” he stammered, “I don’t know. I don’t remember.”
“But you do remember exactly what she was wearing?”
“That’s a little weird. Your memory sure was being selective that night, huh?”
I hated this, but it had to be done. You can’t treat him like family. He’s a witness, and he’s hiding something, so nut up and grill him.
“Look, I told you everything that was important.”
“That was 'important?' What aren’t you telling me, kid?”
He was silent, so I slammed on the breaks and yelled, “Hey! Tell me what you’re keeping secret! I just spent the last two days getting the shit kicked out of me by every fucking weird thing in this town, the last thing I need is for my own blood to start lying to me, too.”
“I’m not lying!” he shouted back with tears in his eyes, “It just wasn’t important, ok?”
“Bullshit! I’ll decide what’s important. You just tell me the truth.”
The tears were running down his face as he said, “We had a fight, okay?”
“I don’t even know. Just some stupid stuff. I thought she had been acting weird, like there was something wrong with her. And then… and then… the last thing I said to her…”
He lost it at that point, sobbing into his hands loud and ugly and real. It broke my heart, but I knew we were getting somewhere.
“Look, I loved your dad, ok? And I know he loved me too. He was my only sibling. And we used to get into fights all the time. Not just play fights. Something about growing up together gives you the ammo to really hit someone where it hurts. We could tear each other apart. But at the end of the day, I knew we were family, and nothing could change that. Your sister loved you, and an entire lifetime of being your big sis isn’t going to get wiped out over one stupid fight.”
“You don’t understand,” he sobbed, “The last thing I said to her was that Mom was right.”
“What did you mean by that?”
“I told her I didn’t really believe she was my sister, then she left. And that’s the last time anyone saw her. I think I made her-”
“No, shut up, don’t you dare say that, don’t even think it. Your sister was smarter than me, she didn’t do anything. You didn’t make her do anything. Somebody took her, and when I find out who, I’m going to make them pay.”
“Do you… do you think she’s still alive?”
I didn’t answer. I just started driving again and watched the road.
“What the ever-loving fuck is this?” O’Brien yelled while I stood in her doorway with Jamie at my side.
“We didn’t have anywhere else to go.”
“Literally anywhere else in the fucking world, Eric. Not my house.”
Hey, she called me “Eric.”
I let her scream and yell and make a big deal about it, and once she was done I pointed out the fact that this wasn’t for me, it was for my fifteen year old nephew, and at that point she couldn’t really say no.
She had sobered up a lot in the couple hours since the bar, where I had convinced her to call in the bogus shooting at the school. After that, I gave her a ride home in Vanessa’s car. Then I stole her keys, went back to the bar, and stole her cruiser, but she didn’t know about that part yet and I was fine with letting her figure it out on her own later, after I was dead or out of town.
Once Jamie was safe inside O’Brien’s house, I turned to leave.
“Aren’t you coming inside, too?”
“No, I’ve got someone I need to talk to first.”
“That’s too bad,” she said, “Do me a favor? Try not to die.”
My next stop was at the shitty gas station at the edge of town. I pulled into the parking lot to find Toulouse with a water hose, smoking a cigarette and spraying down the concrete. I parked, got out, went up to him, then snatched him by the neck and put him against the wall.
He calmly took the cigarette out of his mouth, smiled at me, and said “Hey detective. What’s up?”
I held Vanessa’s phone next to his face. The picture on the screen was the selfie he had taken with her. The last picture to be taken before she disappeared.
“Wanna tell me anything?” I asked.
“Not particularly, but if it’ll keep you from kicking my ass I’ll tell you whatever you want.”
“It will,” I lied.
“Ok, so here’s the thing, Van and I were close. But you’re, like, her dad pretty much and I don’t do well with parents.”
“You’ve got three seconds to stop with the bullshit before I make you eat this phone.”
“Okay! Fine! You got me. I lied to you because I didn’t know if you were really looking for her or if you were one of them.”
“Cut it out with the vague pronouns. Who are them?”
“I have no idea. The ones that took Van.”
I put the phone in my pocket, pulled my Beretta, and put it to his head. Just in case there was any confusion about whether or not I meant business. But Jerry just chuckled and said sarcastically, “Oh no, not a gun against my head! Look detective, believe it or not, this ain’t my first rodeo.”
“Just tell me what you know.”
“Well, you wouldn’t have believed it yesterday. But maybe now you’re ready. The truth is that somebody took Van. But it wasn’t two weeks ago. It was more like a month ago. I figured it out right away, that thing that came into work the next day, that wasn’t her. Sure it looked like her, and it acted like her, but I wasn’t going to be fooled. Now, I know you’re not going to believe this, but I have a little experience with clones, and she wasn’t a very good one.”
I tried to figure out what I thought of this. Honestly, I couldn’t decide. Toulouse took my hesitation as an opportunity to put his cigarette back in his mouth and take a drag. I let go of his neck, then put my piece away and asked, “Why would somebody want to clone Vanessa?”
“Isn’t it obvious? She was the test run. If she could infiltrate Vanessa’s real life without raising suspicions, then they would know that their recipe works. But it didn’t, so she had to go before anyone with credibility realized what had happened. That was a couple weeks ago. It’s entirely possible that they’re still switching people out. Maybe they fixed the kinks in Vanessa, and now… now we don’t even know who’s real and who’s been replaced.”
“What’s the point in switching people out with clones?”
“Well, duh. This is an invasion, man.”
He finished his smoke and flicked it off into the grass. Then I asked, “The night Vanessa went missing… the real night she went missing, assuming this is true, did you see her?”
“Yeah, we were together.”
“Do you remember what she was wearing?”
“Can you tell me what she was wearing the night she actually disappeared?”
Jerry thought for a second, then said, “Hold on one sec,” before digging out his cell phone, flicking through a few photos, then holding it out to me, showing a video he had recorded of Vanessa and him taking turns tossing 2-liter bottles of soda to each other while the other tried to cut them in half with a sword. In that video, she wore jeans, a green long-sleeve, and Donnie’s brown jacket.
When it was finished, Toulouse smiled proudly to himself and put the phone back in his pocket.
“That was the last night before--as you say--she was taken and replaced?”
“Yeah. I had just gotten that rad sword and came up here to try it out. We ended up breaking it like two days later, but it was totally worth it.”