When he wasn’t in class for the third day in a row, Sabrina went over to his house. Tried to, anyway. She rounded the corner onto his street and saw a couple of cop cars, one in the driveway and one on the street. So he wasn’t home, and his parents didn’t know where he was, either. As she diverted course, walking through the intersection quickly and hoping no one would come out of the house and see her, she figured it out. If his parents didn’t know where he was, she did.
Sabrina hadn’t been in these woods since middle school, but she followed the path like it had only been yesterday. All the old markers were still there. The rock with the graffiti. The downed tree, laid across another downed tree. The little chips Nick had carved into the tree bark with his dad’s Swiss army knife, back before his father had found out he had it and beat him with an inch of his life. He’d been out of school three days. You couldn’t really see the chips unless you knew what you were looking for.
Finally, there it was. The tree house, just a cube of boards with some holes cut in the sides for windows surrounded a tree trunk twenty feet in the air. Boards nailed to the tree acted as a ladder, and a final hole cut into the floor let you in. Nick used to have all sorts of stuff hidden up there. She didn’t know what I looked like now, although she could see old blankets pinned to cover the windows.
“Nick?” she called. “It’s Sabrina.”
The wind hustled past her, making her wish she had something more than her knit sweater. School had already been out now for an hour. It was late fall, the days so short. Already the sun was close to the horizon, cutting through trees to the west. Usually she liked the fall. Even now, like this, the forest was quite pretty. A few firs stood defiantly green while the rest of the trees were almost bare, their yellow and red and orange leaves carpeting the ground.
A sound made her whip her head north. Eyes scanning, she found nothing but the forest and the cold.
But she had been sure…
“Nick, if you’re up there, I’m coming up.”
He was up there. A fact she didn’t know until she finished climbing the ladder with near-numb fingers and too-large feet and heaved herself up onto dangerously creaking boards. She pushed herself in, huffing and puffing from the exertion of climbing twenty feet into the air, the whole while thinking she must have been wrong. The only sounds had been hers.
When she finally lifted her head to look around she found him sitting in the corner.
Sabrina gasped, flinching away from him.
“What the fuck,” she breathed out, leaning against the tree house floor with her palms. She looked up at him again. Pale, gaunt, bags under his eyes. Still Nick. He gave her a little wave.
Sabrina heaved herself up. “What are you doing up here, Nick? And why didn’t you answer me? Didn’t you hear me calling?”
Nick shifted in his corner and nodded. He was sitting on a chair cushion stolen from his grandmother’s house and wrapped in a couple of blankets.
“I heard,” was all he said.
Sabrina lightly threw up her hands before sitting next to him.
“What the fuck is going on, Nick? You send me that bizarre text and then you just up and disappear for three days? Don’t answer your phone, don’t respond to any messages…”
Nick swallowed. “My parents have…had…a location app downloaded onto it. I smashed it and tossed it into the river.”
Is that all this is? More family drama?
They’d been friends too long. He read it on her face and grew sullen.
“They don’t have anything to do with this. I didn’t want to be found.”
“Why did you come here, then?”
“I didn’t think you remembered this place.”
Her turn to make a face. Not remember it? After all the time they’d spent here together? Every time his parents fought. Every time her stepdad decided to get…weird. Entire summers passed with the two of them living above these woods.
“Just because I have new friends doesn’t mean I forgot everything that came before them.”
Nick sniffed and turned to stare toward the window.
“Could have fooled me.”
Sabrina sighed and put her hands up against the back of her neck, as much to warm them as to try to work out her frustration through meaningless physical movement. Nick was alive. He said he wasn’t here because of his parents. She didn’t believe him. And she wasn’t going to have this conversation again.
“Glad you’re okay,” she said, standing. “If you get too cold you can come to my place. Camp out in the basement. Gary’s on the road again and Mom won’t care.”
She was about to climb down the ladder when he spoke again, his voice barely more than a whisper of branches against a window in the night.
“I’m not okay.”
Sabrina sat next to him again, shifting to try to be comfortable on the cold boards. For the first time, she noticed Nick was clutching a photo album.
“It’s not your family?” she asked.
Nick shook his head.
“Bullies at school?”
“What is it, then?”
“You won’t believe me.”
“Maybe not,” she agreed, leaning forward. “Maybe I will. You won’t know until you tell me.”
He opened the photo album and pulled out a stack of pictures. Too quick. His hand was shaking as he gave her the stack. Sabrina stared at him as she took them.
Nick was desperate for someone to believe.
Nick didn’t say anything, only switched his glance from her to the stack to her again. Sabrina swallowed a sigh and looked through them.
All pictures of Nick. They’d be friends so long, she was in some of them. At first, baby pictures. Sitting in a high chair. Naked in the sink. In his mother’s arms. Older, then, more than a toddler. Dressed as Batman for Halloween. First day of school, the name tag with NICK written in a child’s handwriting taking up most of his chest. On a bike in front of his house. He was ten or eleven in the next picture. Out in the snow, posing on a snowboard.
That was the last of the real photos, glossy and fingerprinted. The other half of the stack were all on paper, printed from phone pics. All from the last year, too, Sabrina realized as she thumbed through them. She went through the stack twice. Thought about trying to joke, saying something like, are these for a school project or something? Saw the look on his face and decided against it. She didn’t want him to shut down again.
“What am I looking for?” she asked, straining to keep her voice neutral.
“Behind. Look behind.”
Slowly, she flipped through again. Whatever it was she was supposed to be seeing, she wasn’t. Maybe it wasn’t there at all. She knew he’d been depressed. Who the fuck wasn’t? She was on her own mix of anti-anxiety meds. But maybe this went beyond depression. They were both seventeen, now, Nick almost eighteen. They’d learned about stuff like schizophrenia in health class last year. It didn’t start until the late teens. It could happen to either of them, now. Or maybe-
She was about to flip from the Batman picture to the first day of school picture when she saw it. Froze. Held the picture to her face, squinting.
The picture was taken outside, in front of the cluster of trees that grew between his house and the neighbors. The picture had been taken at dusk. It was hard to tell what she was seeing.
But she believed that one of the trees behind him was not a tree.
The next picture, the one taken out front of the school. Bright day. Almost too sunny. No woods behind the little boy, just other kids and the school and group of teachers chatting under the entrance awning.
One of the teachers looked odd. Too thin. Washed out. Sabrina couldn’t make out his face.
The first picture, the Halloween picture, she brought back to the front. Yes, yes, it was entirely possible that the thing that wasn’t a tree could have been a man. A very tall man in black. She went back to the beginning.
Sitting in a high chair. A smudge in the shadows of the hall.
Naked in the sink. A shadow through the kitchen window.
In his mother’s arm. A curious stranger facing the camera, far back behind the crowd.
On a bike in front of his house. In the woods again.
Out in the snow, posing on a snowboard. Peeking out from behind a tree.
This…man, this thing, was in the new photos, too. Even the ones taken in the cafeteria. A couple of them she really had to search, but she always found the man.
Sabrina looked up at Nick. His eyes were watery, but the look was of clear relief.
“You see him?”
Sabrina nodded and he let out a single sob before pulling himself up short. He wiped as his eyes with the sleeve of his shirt and let out a shaky laugh.
“A part of me thought I was going crazy.”
“Maybe it’s some weird artifact? A problem with the camera?”
But she knew that couldn’t be true. Maybe the ones of his younger self were taken with the same camera, but the newer ones were all taken with phone cameras. Different ones, too, she recognized a couple of the pics as ones she had taken.
“He’s not just in the photos,” Nick said.
Sabrina had to swallow a few times before speaking. Her mouth had gone completely dry.
Nick nodded. “I used to see him all the time. Out of the corner of my eye. Through foggy windows. I was never able to see him clearly, you know? But I knew he was there.”
“Why didn’t you say anything? Why didn’t you ever tell me?”
“When I was a kid, I thought he was an imaginary friend. He didn’t frighten me. I…I got used to having him around. Then, one day, I stopped seeing him.”
Sabrina flipped through the photos, splitting them between old and new. “Around ten?”
“Uh huh. Figured I’d grown out of him. Missed him for a while. Then I forgot about him. Then…about a year ago…I started seeing him again. This time, I didn’t say anything because I was afraid.”
“Afraid you were losing it?”
“Yes, and…” Nick sniffled and wiped at his nose. “Afraid of him. He’s not the same as when I was a kid. Back then, I never got any sort of feeling from him. He was just sort of around. I used to call him the lonely man, because that’s what he felt like to me. Like that kid who hangs outside the group but is too scared to actually say anything. Then he came back and…it’s so different. I don’t understand. Every time I see him, I feel this…chill up the spine. I know, I know, such a trope, but I do, I really do. And, and, God, this feeling of…this feeling of hate. And desire. And…and I don’t know…”
He covered with his face with his hands and sobbed a few more times. Sabrina shifted to sit right next to him, patting him on his back. She’d never seen him like this before.
A year? An entire fucking year?
Had there been signs? Had she missed them? The sun was almost gone and in the new darkness of the room she played out the last year. Hadn’t he seemed a little more jumpy? A little more pale? Could she think of times she had found him staring at nothing, lost in his own mind?
Nick collected himself. Wiped off his face. Gave her a smile and patted her knee.
“He’s coming closer. He’s almost here. And I think he wants to take me.”
Sabrina struggled to find words. “Take…where?”
“I don’t know. I don’t…” He trailed off, trying to pull himself together again. He only spoke when he was sure he wouldn’t cry. “Three days ago I was getting ready for school. It was exactly like a horror movie. I was in the shower. I rinsed my hair. I opened my eyes and he was there, Sabrina. On the other side of the shower curtain. He’s never been that close. Never. I pulled the curtain open and-”
Despite herself, Sabrina held her breath.
“Nothing. He was gone. But he was there, I know it, I saw him, so close I could have touched him…he could have touched me…I knew I had to leave. Hide. Go somewhere no one else knew of.”
Despite herself, Sabrina asked, “If this…thing…has been stalking for you years, you really thought it wouldn’t find you here?”
Nick gave her a small smile. “It’s been three days, right? And I’m still here. I haven’t seen him once. I-”
A sound. From outside. A single footfall on the leaves.
Sabrina patted his arm. “It’s got to be a rabbit or something. Squirrel, running across-”
But panic was spreading across Nick’s face like ice across a fresh lake in December. Pale. Stiff. Unstoppable.
“No, no, no, no.”
“I can feel him. Oh, shit, Sabrina, he’s here.”
But Sabrina didn’t feel anything.
Had it gotten colder? But not on the outside. Their body heat had filled up the little wooden tree house and her skin under the sweater was warm to the touch.
Inside her. Inside it was freezing. Her stomach turning to stone and her heart writhing. Ice was touching every rib.
“It’s not real,” she said.
“I think it is,” he said, clutching at his stomach. “This is the worst I’ve ever felt it. I feel like I’m going to blow chunks. My heart is going to stop. Think…I can’t think, can you think?”
But she didn’t say it. Suddenly she couldn’t form words.
“How did it find me? Three days, and it…”
They locked eyes, each realizing at the same time. Sabrina forced the signals to carry from her brain to her mouth.
“I would never,” she managed.
“I know,” he said. “Not on purpose.”
Her eyes drifted down to the photos, now scattered on the floor. Skipping over them, one by one, her mouth slowly dropping in skittering realization.
Every photo. I was there for every one.
If not in it, then nearby. Their mothers had been best friends. They grew up together. Bathed together as kids. Trick or treated together. Rode bikes together.
The gap. We pulled away. Didn’t see each other. We weren’t friends again…until last year.
Nick swallowed hard. “It wants me…but it follows you.”
His eyes went to the space above her head, the space behind her, and went wide. Wider. So wide she couldn’t see the whites anymore.
Sabrina clenched his fists in hers and refused to turn around. She didn’t want to see.