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Kelly Anderson could feel his presence close by, feel him searching for her, reaching out to her.
He’d been there, usually hovering just out of sight, for as long as Kelly could remember. Even when she’d been a tiny baby, long before she could walk or talk, she’d caught glimpses of him.
In her dreams, his face would come to her out of the darkness of sleep, leering at her, horrible features twisted into a malicious smile, his fingers—the clawed talons of a carnivorous bird—stretching toward her. She would awaken screaming, and her mother would hurry to her, lifting her from her crib, cradling her, soothing her, whispering to her that she was safe.
Those words were the first she learned.
Even now, at sixteen, she could remember speaking the word.
But she hadn’t been safe. Not then, when her mother had whispered to her that everything was all right, that she’d only had a terrible dream, and not now, when even wide awake she could feel him creeping closer to her, reaching out, reaching.…
What was it he wanted from her?
She knew nothing about the monstrous figure of her nightmares; had no idea who he was, nor where he’d come from.
All she knew was that he was there, never far from her. Waiting. And he wanted something.
Tonight, as Kelly moved restlessly around the small house she shared with her parents, she knew he was closer than ever.
It was an oppressive night, unseasonably hot for early June, the kind of thick, muggy night that hung heavily, threatening to suffocate her. She’d opened the windows an hour before in the vain hope that even the faintest of breezes might stir the air, might cool her skin, might even drive away the madness that threatened to destroy her tonight.
She knew that’s what it was.
There was no man; there were no hands reaching out to her.
It was in her mind, all of it.
That’s what she’d been told, first by her mother, and then by the doctors her mother had taken her to.
The man who pursued her, who skulked eternally on the fringes of her life, existed only in her own mind. She’d made him up sometime long ago, and should have forgotten him, too, sometime almost as long ago.
She’d talked to the doctor for an hour a week, and tried to do what he’d told her, tried to figure out why she might have invented the man. For a long time the doctor had insisted that it was because she was adopted, telling her that she was imagining a father to replace the real father she’d never known. Kelly hadn’t believed him—after all, if she was going to create a father, he wouldn’t be anything like the terrible image she saw in her dreams. And why wouldn’t she have imagined a mother, too? Besides, she’d seen the man long before she’d ever known she was adopted, long before she’d begun to understand how different she was from everyone else.
Finally, when the nightmare man refused to go away, and she’d known he never would, she stopped talking about him, stopped trying to think of reasons why he might be there. Instead, she’d simply reported to the psychiatrist that he was gone, and at last she’d been allowed to stop going to the doctor.
For almost five years, she hadn’t mentioned him at all. But the frightening image that haunted Kelly’s nights had not gone away.
She’d stopped crying out in the night when he suddenly appeared out of the darkness of her slumber; stopped telling her mother when she caught glimpses of him at the veiled edges of her sight.
She stopped talking about much of anything, terrified that somehow she would slip, and her parents, or her teachers, or the other kids she knew, might find out that she was crazy.
For that’s what she was.
Her terrible secret was that only she knew it.
But tonight it would end.
She stopped her aimless prowling of the house and went to the small bedroom that had been hers for as long as she could remember. The hot, humid night seemed even more cloying in the confines of the room, as Kelly glanced over the few objects that stood against its faded walls.
It was, she thought, a tired-looking place, filled with worn-out furniture that had never been any good, even when it was new.
Just like herself: tired, worn-out, never any good even to start with.
A few months ago Kelly had covered the walls with posters-strange, dark images advertising the bands whose records she collected but rarely bothered to play.
Another of her secrets: she didn’t care about the bands, didn’t really like the music, didn’t even like the posters very much. But they covered the dullness of the walls, just as the clothes she wore—mostly black, decorated with metal studs and large ugly pins—were meant to cover up the aching emptiness she felt inside.
Except that Kelly wasn’t empty anymore.
She could almost feel the baby she knew was growing inside her.
Where had it come from?
Could the man have put it there?
Could he have taken her one night, creeping up on her when she was asleep?
Wouldn’t she have known it? Wouldn’t she have wakened, feeling him inside her?
No, she wouldn’t.
She would have shut it out of her mind, refusing to recognize what was happening, for had she allowed herself to experience it, she would have screamed.
Screamed, and wakened her parents, and then they would have seen how crazy she was.
No, she must have kept silent, must have retreated into sleep while the man took her. But she knew he’d been there, knew what he’d done.
She’d known it a month ago, when she’d begun being sick every morning, fighting not to let herself throw up, terrified of letting her parents know what had happened to her.
Last week, when she’d missed her period, Kelly had begun planning what she was going to do.
She wasn’t sure where the idea had come from. But now that the time had come, and she was alone in the house, and had made up her mind, she had the strange idea that she’d always known it would end this way—that some night, when she could no longer stand the sight of herself, she would end it all.
She left her room, not bothering to turn off the light, and entered the tiny bathroom that separated her room from her parents’. She stood in the gloom for a few minutes, staring at the image in the mirror. Only half her face was lit, illuminated by the dim light that filtered from the hall. She could see one of her eyes—the eyes her mother insisted were green, but that she knew were only a pale brown.
The eye stared back at her from the mirror, and she began to have the peculiar sensation that it wasn’t her own reflection she was seeing at all. It was someone else in the mirror, a girl she barely knew.
A stranger whose features looked older than her own sixteen years, whose skin seemed to have taken on the pallor of age, despite her youth.
She saw a lifeless face, devoid of the joy and eagerness of youth. The face of the orphan she truly was, despite what the parents who had adopted her tried to tell her.
And then, over her own darkened shoulder, another image appeared.
“It was the man. The man Kelly had seen so often in her dreams but only caught glimpses of when she was awake. Now she saw him clearly.
He was old, his loose skin hanging in folds, his eyes sunken deep within their sockets. He was smiling at her, his lips drawn back to reveal yellowing teeth.
Kelly gasped and spun around.
Except for herself, the room was empty.
She reached out, switched on the light, and instantly the gloom was washed away. She stood still for a moment, her heart pounding, but then her pulse began to ease. Finally, controlling her panic with the same grim will with which she had hidden her madness for the last few years, she turned back to the mirror once more.
He was still there, leering at her, his aged, ugly face contorted, the claws that were his fingers reaching for her throat.
“No!” Kelly screamed. “No more!”
“Her hands clenched into fists and she smashed them into the mirror above the sink. The mirror shattered and most of the glass dropped away. But a single shard, razor-sharp and shaped like a sword, remained where it was.
In the bladelike fragment Kelly could still see her ancient tormentor, mocking her, laughing at her, reaching out for her.
Another scream rose in her throat, but this time there were no words. Only a final cry of anguish echoed in the house as Kelly reached out and snatched the fragment of glass from its frame.
Clutching it in both hands, she stared at it as if mesmerized, then raised it up. Now. Now the time had come. In one swift motion she plunged the blade into her belly, determined to end the life of the monster that was growing inside her.
End its life, and end her own.