Warning: This work has been rated 18+ for language.
They grouped around him like a pack of hungry wolves ready to eat up whatever he tossed them. Mateo stood behind Bug, his eyes sucking in the small words like black holes. It appeared normal at first. He held a small, yellowed school ID card between his fingers.
A grainy picture of a young woman with her hair in a sleek bun took up most of the card. She wore a lose, plain blue collared shirt. Her eyes were scribbled out in aggressive streaks of black marker. Her grin was broad and fake. The more he stared at it, the more it poked uncomfortably at his soul.
"What a weird name," said Em softly. Her words floated unacknowledged through the space of silence that engulfed them.
"Can I see it?" The vial spun around Lee's finger as he outstretched his free hand. Bug handed it over and they all watched in a lull of anticipation. His eyes scanned the card multiple times, his eyebrows furrowed.
"If I remember correctly this place shut down in 2005, so somehow this thing would've had to gone without detection for a couple years," commented Bug.
Em looked up as urgently and as quick as if Fate itself had just announced her own death date. Her eyes flashed with an emotion Mateo couldn't describe.
"Three years? How the hell was thing thing not f-f-ound for three years, even when the school was still open?"
Bug shrugged. "I wish I knew myself." Lee handed the card back to Bug, his face as blank and barren as the school's walls. Her smile was burned into his mind, even though he no longer looked at it. It was as if she were smug; like she knew something that everyone else did not. He waved away the questioning thoughts as though they were but servants and he a king. Mateo knew in the back of his mind they would return to haunt him later.
"Maybe she still lives here," piped up Yasmin. She tucked her poofy hair behind her ears, strands disobediently falling away and popping up in front of her face.
"Or she's dead." Her words were as blunt and as sharp as knives. It was as if she wasn't taken by surprise only moments ago. Mateo couldn't help but snort.
"That would be a blessing, this shit's creepy." Mateo's words lightened up the rest of the group. Bug ran his fingers over the small card, dust and grime sticking to his fingertips. He pocketed the card to everyone's dismay. For a moment it felt as though the floor rippled under Mateo, pulsating like the ocean waves of an oncoming storm. He looked to see if anyone's expression had changed though they were all blank as stone.
"That would be a blessing, this shit's weird." The air seemed to become lighter at his words. Treating it as if it were some trivial, weird occurrence was more tolerable than viewing it seriously.
Bug pocketed the card to everyone's obvious dismay. For a moment the floor rippled under his feet, contorting like some mass of flesh. It pulsated like the heartbeat of a traumatized, adrenaline-rushed victim. He grit his teeth together, making a cage where he couldn't have some sort of stupid reaction and embarrass himself. He looked to see if anyone's expression had changed, though they were all the same.
Some unknown feeling stirred inside his chest. He had no words to explain what it was, though it felt like a hole.
"Are you gonna do what I think you're gonna do?" Em asked with a coy smile.
"I just wanna keep it to see if she's still alive, that's all. Then I'll just throw it away or something." Lee looked unamused by it all, his eyes bleary and wandering. Mateo was glad he didn't have to stare at that knowing smile anymore, though having it out of sight unnerved him too. He couldn't help but wonder if it was simpler than it seemed and he was just being paranoid.
"And what about that blood? Are we gonna take that with us too?" joked Yasmin.
"Any of you can, I'm sure as hell not," butted in Lee. Mateo's eyes grazed the bland room, their conversation like white noise trickling through his ears. His gut pleaded with him to not let his eyes wander, though he couldn't seem to help himself. Flecks of dust floated in the light, twirling around each other forlornly.
Sometimes they drifted apart, only to immediately be pushed together again. It was as if they were being controlled. The clump of dust morphed into one, writhing like a caged, drugged beast. Enthralled, he couldn't help but look away. It was like staring down Medusa, unaware of the fate to come and hypnotized by the scene in front of him. Parts of dust slowly floated away, leaving open an empty space which gradually curled into the corners of a smile.
His skin erupted in goosebumps. He had no doubt that it would leave him as a bare skeleton if it could. An insistent trill broke through his haze. Yasmin averted her gaze as he turned his head back around. She must've seen me being all weird and staring off into space.
"Shit, I didn't even realize what time it was," Bug muttered as he fished his phone out of his pocket and answered.
"Yeah sorry, I forgot. I'm coming now. M'kay, bye." Mateo stole a quick side glance at the apparition that was no longer there. Even the dust was gone. Maybe it wasn't even there in the first place. The uncomfortable reality of the unknown latched onto his back and wouldn't let go.
His breath became shallow and controlled and his eyes stingy and wide. Innately Mateo fiddled with his shirt's collar, keeping his hands busy and his mind not.
"I gotta go, you guys can just keep the flashlight and give it back tomorrow." he said in a rushed tone. Yasmin got up from her leaned position on an upturned desk and a pile of boxes.
"Guess that's my call to go too! Have fun with that blood Lee," she said with a smile.
"Yeah. I will." His voice reeked of sarcasm. The silence that followed after another bye and the silhouettes of their bodies as they left from sight filled Mateo with dread. The bike ride home would be even worse. He could already picture tossing and turning in bed, harassed by his brain's intrusive and gory thoughts. Even worse, the two closest to him out of the group were Bug and Yasmin.
Conversations between he and Lee elicited lapses of conversation and a slight awkwardness at times. The few he had with Em were short lived and dry. It was never the same without all of them there. Mateo couldn't help but feel as though it were somehow his fault. He wanted to be funny and extroverted like Yasmin or Bug but forcing it would only make it awkward. At least I can always do the bare minimum in every situation I face, he thought dryly.
"Should we even bother to keep looking or just leave?" Mateo asked. Internally he wanted to leave, though he would never voice that aloud.
Lee shrugged. "I don't care either way, I'll probably be staying up most of the night anyway."
"I'm kinda curious, but I dunno if I wanna be down on the dirty floor looking like Bug was," said Em nonchalantly. It seemed as if their recent discoveries were no bother to them anymore. Maybe they're hiding their feelings about it.
Mateo turned to grab the flashlight Bug had left on the windowsill. For a moment he allowed the boring eyesore of night to sweep into a more ideal scene. The bland darkness burned like flames to paper and arose as tantalizing as a newborn phoenix. A centuries old grey brick castle stretched below him and overlooked an inky blue sea. The presence of a yellow, sickle moon proudly sat in the misty sky. The mirage of his imagination was fleeting, but it always filled his body with a certain warmth that was hard to replicate.
He swung around the flashlight in his hand as he approached the door. Turning to call over his shoulder, he said, "We'll just look around a bit more and then leave." This time he didn't have to fake confidence. All he had to do was take lead and then get the hell out afterwards. He looked both ways before stepping out, as though some bogeyman were going to hop out and jump scare him.
"You got that packet done for Bailey's class?" Lee's voice asked behind him.
"Nah, I googled it all and couldn't find anything," she said in response. Mateo couldn't help but smile at their talk. He had given up on that class a long time ago. He peeked his head through the fifth room's doorway, somewhat bummed at the sight of the empty room.
"Huh. Nothing here," he remarked quietly. It was at the moment he stood before the fourth room that he realized something incredibly stupid. Hadn't they already looked through all these rooms since I had gotten here earlier? Or was it only Bug and Em? The realization made his chest heavy with embarrassment, though his brain scrambled to assure him not to jump to conclusions.
"Wait, didn't you guys already look through these?" Em cocked an eyebrow while Lee stood with his arm on his hip, vacantly staring at the roof.
"Nah, Bug was so excited he looked in every room really quick 'till we got to the last one," she said in an amused tone. It made sense for him to do that. He always became eager when it came to exploring. He was like a golden retriever set on finding a stick to play with. His flashlight revealed clusters of items that put the last room to shame.
A tall, rusted metal bookshelf lay on its side in the farthest corner of the room. A stained whiteboard was attached to the middle of the wall in front of them. Mateo could picture the rows of small wooden desks engraved with pencil marks and bored kids and the conversations they could've had. The longing for something he couldn't explain stirred inside of his heart at the thought. Spray-painted on the window was an intricate grid of diamonds, stars, and lines that seemed to mimic arrows. In the center of it all was a blooming circle containing simple but odd indentations and jagged lines. It was as though someone had sat on the dirty floor and carefully guided their hand into creating the symbol. It didn't appear to be a jumble of meaningless nonsense, though Mateo had never seen it before.
"Odd thing that is," remarked Lee as Mateo approached the symbol. He bent down, shining the flashlight on the small words.
"Nick was here 2006, fuck this place, thirty-seven..." he read aloud, "nothing out of the ordinary." Just as he were about to stand, the thud of an object struck his head.
He jumped, startled. "The fuck?" he muttered. He looked to his side and saw a red whiteboard marker rolling across the floor and down the hall, abruptly stopping at the door. A sudden coldness enshrouded his body like a phantom cloak. Mateo jumped up quickly, instinctively wanting to rub himself off as though a bunch of ants had just crawled all over him.
"Huh? What happened?" asked Em from the other side of the room. Lee was crouched down by the tipped over bookshelf, casually looking through the small amount of books left.
"Nothing, nothing, a marker just fell on my head," he said quickly. He could feel Em's suspicious gaze burning through him. Mateo touched the back of his neck just to reassure himself everything was alright. It was as though a bitingly cold hand had shoved its way under his flesh and rearranged the very way his spine sat. Though the feeling itself was gone, the remembrance of its touch did not subside. He yearned to ask if they had felt something similar, yet the words became sharp and jumbled in his throat. Instead he swallowed them and suffered the punctures against his stomach lining.
"Ahaha! Hey, I didn't know there was a book about Sognore!" exclaimed Lee in a loud voice.
"Eh? Lemme see!"
Their sudden conversation was an excuse to not stand in silence any longer than he had to. He was relieved. Lee held the book slightly above eye level, his neck craned forward. Although he looked pretty ridiculous, Mateo couldn't spare a smile.
"Yo Mateo, little help? I can barely even read this."
The light revealed a small but thick tome. It was a black book, bare of any plastic cover, and empty of any words on its front. Mateo sat on his knees on Lee's empty side. The pages were mainly yellowed and aged, though it still contained hints of its former glory. A black and white image took up most of the page. A small tree stood in the forefront of the picture. Wedged in between the fork of its branches was a corpse swathed in blankets. The skull peaked out, its hollow eyes cast to the heavens.
Below it lay shattered pottery, mounds of stone and dirt, as well as broken jugs and children's toys. Mateo had to squint to read the caption underneath it.
Previously undisturbed Native American tribe, Huua-yie Tribe, grave-site located in Sognore, (1927). They all said nothing, hypnotized by the words in front of them. The information was sparse and only spoke of how long the tribe had resided here and their travels.
"Hu-huah...ye?" Lee's failed pronunciation made Em snicker. The book didn't give them any ideas of how to pronounce it anyway.
"Hey, look at that!" Em pointed a finger under five faded words.
Roughly translated: Hawk Eye[Tribe]. Oddly it was at the bottom corner of the page, excluded from the rest of the text. The opposite page gave no more information than the first one had. Weirdly, Mateo felt somewhat disappointed. He recalled hearing once about Sognore being built atop an old burial site but he never thought it was actually real.
"People say Sognore is cursed 'cause of this; that the dead spirits force people to stay here and suffer," Em stated dryly.
"As if this place needed any more curses or suffering than it already has," Mateo said jokingly.
Lee flipped through the book, flashes of grainy pictures passing them by. Some pages were clearly ripped out. It was as though it had been written by a ghost. No implication of an author could be found, neither on the front nor the first few pages. Mateo wanted to bring it home with him, though he couldn't help but wonder what Lee and Em would think. Is that weird? I guess I could just always come back later. His heart plunged down his bones and sunk into his stomach. He hated to admit it was scary, though he knew it would be incredibly stupid to come back alone. Em's bored yawn seemingly encouraged Lee to put the odd book back on its fallen shelf.
No matter how many times his gaze wandered, it pulled on his soul like a magnet. His mind searched for an excuse to take it as they began to stand and engage in playful conversation.
"I'm kinda curious about the whole tribe thing," he said with a feigned interest lesser than how he really felt, "maybe the whole curse thing is a rumor." He added a smug smile to go with his words. Mateo hooked a finger under the cover, tucking it under his arm and standing. Em's skepticism shone through her face as bright as day.
"Yea, we'll see about that. I'll bet I'm right." It was another challenge. He didn't mind if he won or lost as much as Lee would. His pride could never be broken down, no matter how small or big the situation were--or at least that's how it seemed.
"Only time will tell."
Lee's eyes suddenly bulged from his head. He looked completely mortified, as though he had just witnessed something so terrible it was unspeakable. Mateo couldn't decide if he should be concerned or somewhat amused.
"What time is it?" His surprisingly normal voice didn't match with the expression on his face whatsoever.
"Beats me," drawled Em, "though, I thought you said it didn't matter? That you'd be staying up all night?" Mateo couldn't help but be impressed with her. She had big balls. It was just in her character to poke fun at people, though he doubted he could ever do the same.
"Sorry, I don't know either. But I think when we all got here it was around eight." Lee's rigid stance was so tense he could imagine his soul flying out of his body in whatever sudden horrible realization he just had. Even with a few minutes of speculation he couldn't understand why he would suddenly be so horrified.
"Shit, my shift starts at 8:30," he said breathlessly. That's weird, Mateo thought, he had never told us anything about getting a job. And at this hour too? Although their town was small, he couldn't help but think it were dangerous to work at night.
"Since when did you get a job?" Lee patted down his pants, fishing around in his pockets. Em said nothing, though she looked like a cat who had caught a mouse by its tail. It didn't seem to be any news to her.
"Uh, like a week ago, anyways I gotta bounce, right now. Mind walking me down? I'll probably bust my ass if I even try going down those stairs in the dark." His words were jumbled and quick, sticking to each other as though they were glue. Mateo had never seen him so shaken up before. He must be really worried about this new job he has. A smidgen of suspicion arose in his mind.
He didn't even wait for Mateo to respond, walking out of the room and trusting the reflection of light shining on the back of his coat. Mateo had caught up to him in broad strides as Em trailed behind them. The halls looked less scary going the opposite way. They still strongly had a harrowing and ghostly charm to them, though it was much more enhanced when actually going in them for the first time. Mateo felt like he could finally breathe fully.
Perhaps a demon had latched onto you, maybe it possessed you! his brain teased. Disgruntled, he curled his lip. If his mind were a person, he would've gladly bitch-slapped it to the floor. He always assured himself that one day he would find a method to control it.
Yeah, right. You'll be a fuckin' failure at it, as always. He ignored its incessant babbling as they reached the exit. The door which stood in front of them was akin to the gates of heaven. The bland, wide gravel path in front of them and the lone streetlight melted away and contorted into a new scene as the outside air rushed to greet him.
The sharp, acrid odor of cigarettes wafted through the air, carrying unheard messages of demise. The full moon exposed its golden ribs to the whole world. The city was alive with light and throngs of people who were cast in warm colors. The three of them had just left a cheap, although oddly likable, old-fashion club. Though their bodies sagged with a need for sleep, the outside air recharged them with a newfound energy. The street before them was lined with fancy, oiled cars. The smoke which trailed from their engines was nearly visible.
Couples young and old walked the streets, giggling together or noticeably drunk. The restaurant nearby was upstate and almost nauseating fancy. Mateo could spot Lee staring glances at a young woman sitting at a table nearby alone. She had short, blonde layered hair and stirred the contents of her blood red wine lost in thought. Her face faded into the background as his imagination finally died down. The enchanting sounds of classical music and the upbeat, chattering voices once again became the low chirp of crickets. He was both thankful and disappointed by the fun environments which his mind presented to him.
Then again, it could have been mockful, showing him something he knew he would likely never see. Lee muttered strings of curses under his breath.
"How ya gonna get there?" Em seemed a bit more sympathetic this time. He already looked somewhat defeated.
"Uhh, well it's like--," he paused to think a bit, "five minutes away...or no, that's in a car. Ten minutes walking, probably..." His boss must be a real pain in the ass to make him so nervous. It was a rare sight. Or maybe it was because he was lying? Mateo brushed the thought away.
"What direction? Maybe I can tag along." Mateo stood there awkwardly as they had their own conversation. He fiddled with the flashlight, keeping his hands busy so that he didn't have to look obviously uncomfortable. The humid air clung tightly to his skin and attracted a hungry fly. Its incessant buzz was so incredibly annoying he felt as though he could choke someone out on the spot.
In fact, he had been so caught up with its mind numbing drone that he had nearly missed Em's words. Thankfully he had still caught her at the end of her sentence, able to not look completely like a fool.
"Me an' him are gonna go the same way, you think you'll be fine?" She already had a foot on her skateboard, rolling it back and forth impatiently.
"Yeah, yeah I'll be fine." They exchanged goodbyes and Mateo watched as Lee struggled to keep up with Em. He placed the book on his lap as he mounted his bike. Balancing both it and the flashlight was awkward, forcing him to go slower than he would've liked. His feet itched to slam on the pedals and get out of the open. Mateo was vulnerable alone, encircled by an ominous forest. He would rather see them basked in the sunlight; grey, twisted, and sickly. Knowing they were there but not being able to see them was the worst feeling.
Paranoia slithered its slender fingers over his mind, its fingernails digging into his tender brain. The flashlight looked awfully tempting, though he wouldn't stop no matter how much he wanted to. The feeling of eyes burning into his body would continue to follow him no matter what. It was something he had to accept. It was as if the whole land was alive, waiting to devour the tiny prey which tread in its den. The upcoming outlines of trailers and lit-up porches was like a beacon in the dark.
The tires skittered wildly over the old, gravelly road. The amount of potholes there are is insane! Though he had gotten familiar to Sognore's worn paths, it never failed to irritate him. His heart suddenly seemed to quiet, its beats becoming shallow and anxious. He looked up to meet eyes with a young woman, a third of her face shrouded in the pitch black darkness. She held something which thrashed desperately in her tight grip.
He quickly looked down to the ground, his heart drumming louder than his frantic thoughts. How awkward and weird...she's probably batshit out of her mind. Fuck. Fuck, fuck. It was probably just a snake, or a frog. His knuckles whitened as he tightened his hands around the bars. The air whistled cheerfully past his ears, bringing to life gusts of winds with it. He furrowed his eyebrows, instinctively checking to make sure he had sped up. The air was limp and dead only moments ago; now it flourished like a green plant that sprouted out of its own grave.
The light wind eased under the bike's tires and encouraged him to move faster. It were as though he were in the wind's grace. So caught up in the moment, Mateo did not even notice the agape book. Even the concerns and worries of the future that chased him like a rabid wolf amounted to nothing. In this small, fleeting moment, everything was just fine.