Brianne had never much liked her best friend Tanner.
He was self-absorbed and condescending, treating Brianne like an annoying sidekick who was lucky her neighbor would even look at her. He was right, but that didn’t make his behavior suck any less. He was rude, loved to make fun of her for being—of all things—a girl, and wouldn’t even hold the door open for her when she was right behind him.
But as Brianne was a stand-offish bookworm who lived closer to the national forest than town, her options were either Tanner or die alone. When she was sprawled over her bed with four books and a thermos of tea in reach, that latter option didn’t seem so bad. But when her other passion was wandering the woods, the ‘dying alone’ option became much more immediate and thus much less attractive.
“Come ON, BRAIN!” Tanner bellowed from outside her open window. “Stop putting on your makeup! If you don’t get out here I’m gonna leave without you!”
She grimaced—disgusted with him, disgusted with the misogynistic comment, disgusted with herself for not saying anything—and tugged her exploring bag over her shoulder.
“Give me three minutes!” she snapped.
“One mississippi—two mississippi—three mississippi—”
Swallowing her anger instead of exhaling it, she slammed the window closed, checked over her exploring bag—heavy-duty flashlight, compass, giant water bottle, spare batteries, whistle, neon-yellow twine, all check—and stomped out of her bedroom.
Her parents were off to work, so there was no one to annoy as she clunked her way down the staircase, hopping on one foot and sliding with the other. She could have opened the front door and allayed Tanner’s short patience, but that would invite in mosquitos, so instead she let him stew there as she scribbled a quick note on the whiteboard near the shoe cabinet:
Out in the woods with Tanner, be back before sunset
She flumped down in the entryway to pull on her boots and looped her favorite pink scarf over her shoulders, spending valuable seconds of Tanner’s patience tugging out her hair—a task when it was almost a yard long. Her mother had described it as a waterfall—straight as gravity and falling a long ways down—which was beautiful enough to make Brianne reluctant to cut it, but just like waterfall spray it got everywhere.
Tanner was already shouting from the side of the house again before she’d managed to get it out of her way and stop sitting on it.
“I counted to two-hundred-six, which means you’re forty-six seconds late,” he said the moment she pushed the door open and stepped outside. She’d hoped he’d still be waiting around the side of the house, but he’d, of course, already stomped around to the front door in his clown shoes. “Whoda thought, the Brain can’t even time three minutes right.”
Tanner was a small boy, and his father’s enormous hand-me-down outdoors jacket and Kingdom Hearts-proportioned hiking boots made him look positively miniscule. He hadn’t even scraped five feet yet, even taking into account the foof of ash-platinum hair and the unfortunate cowlick. But just like little dogs, his ego was larger than their entire state.
Brianne swept at her straight-cut bangs, even though they’d been specifically trimmed to be above her eyes and there was no point in the gesture but expressing frustration. “Three minutes is one-hundred-eighty seconds, meaning I was only twenty-six seconds late. And what kind of pedantic jerk do you have to be to count?”
Tanner’s face twisted in annoyance, more at the word-choice than the mathematical error. He was Not Good at math, and owned it; Brianne using words he didn’t know undermined his self-conceit.
“Jeez, if you keep swallowing dictionaries you might choke on one, you know,” he taunted her. “And maybe if you stopped people’d like you.” Brianne’s scathing retort about her diction died in her mouth; she couldn’t quite swallow past a strangely rectangular block in her throat.
He started walking away, and she followed meekly behind.
“When do your parents expect you back?”
“Whenever. They know I can’t get lost.” He shot her a toothy grin, reveling in his own orienteering skill. That one she couldn’t fault him for—he did have an excellent sense of direction, and a knack for remembering places, paths, and landmarks. It was the one thing she genuinely respected him for, and since her skill was about the same, she knew he actually respected her for it, too.
“I need to be back before sunset.”
He gave a single, wordless laugh at that, but didn’t comment—regardless of what he said, that was his curfew, too.
Mercifully, they didn’t exchange a lot more words as they made their way into the forest.
While their state was famous for growing a certain vegetable she would not deign to mention, that was only the southern half—the northern half was a paradise of evergreen forests and stretching blue lakes, with pockets of civilization nestled between the trees and not the other way around. Like most introverts her safe place was her home, especially her bedroom and most specifically her bed. But she loved the forests of the Inland Northwest, too—she’d been exploring them all her life, and they were every bit as familiar and comfortable as her living room or kitchen. Not exactly her place, but a place where she was welcome and safe. Even with Tanner beside her.
Summer vacation was when the forest was at its best. The sunlight streamed through the leaves and needles of the trees until late into the evening, lighting everything up like a window of green stained-glass, and the weather never got hot enough between the trees to be really uncomfortable, even with a pack and exertion and enormous hand-me-down jackets. Most of the trees in the area were evergreens, but there were still plenty of deciduous trees around to lend color and variability.
… Maybe Tanner had a point about her reading too much.
He stepped off the path, heading down a gentle incline and into the trees. Brianne didn’t mind and stepped after him, picking her way carefully around the foliage and tucking her bag into her side to avoid catching a branch. They both preferred walking through the actual forest instead of following the paths, even if the rational part of Brianne’s brain—which was admittedly most of it, and most of her problems, too—sighed and shook its head. She liked the feeling of… separation, of being in a new place that was detached from everywhere else, the forest’s own space. An introvert stepping out of the public eye and into their own house. It was a relaxed atmosphere, natural not in the sense of ‘nature’ but of ‘not affected’.
They wouldn’t go too far, of course, and they did their best to maintain a straight line, no curving or zig-zagging that would make the path harder to find or their steps harder to retrace. Usually, every fifteen minutes or so Brianne would tie some of her twine to a tree branch, the neon-yellow flag to guide them on their way.
But this time… she didn’t.
She didn’t need to differentiate one part of the forest from the others because it was already doing it itself.
Everything was getting… grayer. The further they went, the more the forest felt like… autumn. The light turned grayer, and the temperature turned cooler. The plants turned thinner and more brittle, the trees felt closer and their gnarled branches emptier and emptier. The crunch and crack of their footsteps was becoming muffled, like they were being made by people walking further and further away.
She glanced at Tanner, and it was impossible to say if he was thinking the same thing, but he seemed to be feeling the same thing. This wasn’t right.
Brianne fished her phone out of her pocket to check the time. She didn’t think they’d been walking long—it was maybe 4:00? 4:30?—but it was getting so twilight-y… Was it already sunset? She looked up, but couldn’t see much of the sky through the bristling evergreen needles. Was there a storm coming?
The lack of reception didn’t surprise her—they were in the middle of the woods—but the time did:
Exactly what she’d thought. Except it was summer, and this close to Canada, the sun didn’t set until 9:00, or even later. The weather forecast had never said anything about storms, and the air was clammy, but not… rain-heavy. The whole world was just becoming… cooler. Grayer.
Like, she had to think, a body.
When had the trees gotten so close? They had to squeeze their way through bare branches and twined trunks, which seemed as constant and present as bodies in a crowd. Brianne tried to press herself through the Y of a pair of conjoined tree trunks, when the strap of her bag caught.
An irrational panic welled up in her throat, but an even stronger and less logical terror pressed on her to stay quiet. It was proof of how terrified Tanner was, too, that he stopped and waited for her to extricate herself before he kept walking.
But they kept going, because ‘forward’ is the only real direction people have.
A couple feet in front, Tanner stopped. Brianne did, too, and a glance to her right almost made her step back.
There was a cemetery.
In the middle of the forest.
It was just a small thing, a square forty feet by forty feet picked out by a sagging wrought-iron fence, the metal black black black. Like, Vanta black. The crooked, chipping gravestones listing inside were an unnatural black, too, like they’d been covered with paint that couldn’t then be scrubbed away—an imperfect, charcoal color that sucked in light and looked more like a layer of shadow.
Despite the color, there was something too natural about it, too real to be a Halloween decoration or a movie set.
Looming over the far corner was an enormous tree with bare limbs, its gnarls and turns sharp as articulated joints. Its stretching, stretching, stretching limbs were splayed around it like insect legs with a hundred fingers, curled towards the sky with victory or the ground with want. It was black black black, too.
Brianne could feel that the sky was not above them but always touching the earth, and it felt like it weighed a million pounds.
Brianne forced down a silent, shallow breath, then made herself breathe out again, taking great pains not to unsettle the oppressive atmosphere around them. She wasn’t sure if Tanner was breathing at all.
He took a step towards the cemetery—not really a step, more like, entranced, he leaned too far forward and he had to catch himself before he fell. Brianne caught him by the back of the jacket.
“No way,” she whispered, voice firm. She wanted to ground both of them. “We need to leave.”
He looked back over his shoulder, face twisted into a paralyzed mask of fear. He glanced again at the cemetery. She understood. The air was so heavy, and the place so strange…
She stared at it, too, marveling at their discovery. Discovery… Were they the first ones to have found this place in… Years? Centuries? Did other people even know it was here? It certainly wasn’t used, not for a long time. And there was such a sense of… forsakenness to it, like no one had ever actually used it. Even though there were grave markers right there, fourteen or so of them sunk into the dirt.
Everything stayed still, the same, nothing moved, but she felt… coming. She felt approaching, not presence but the promise of it, anticipation, like knowing your parents came home an hour after school and you’d already been home for fifty minutes.
Something was coming.
She jammed her hands into Tanner’s shoulder and hissed, a heckled cat with its spine arched and no time to try and get words through its teeth. Tanner was bristling, too, and with big goo-goo doll eyes and not a single word he turned around and started rushing—not running, things chased things that ran—back the way they’d come.
The part of her that read voraciously and half-tolerated bad horror movies expected resistance as they fled, but the forest offered none. Like rewinding a tape, they returned to their forest as easily and gradually as they had… entered this one.
The trees backed off, leaves began to live, the colors bled back in, the air rose in temperature and the humidity lowered, until they were back on a worn-dirt path in perfect technicolor woods with deep green pine needles and air dry and pale-blue. The kind of Inland Northwest summer they advertised in the brochures.
They’d walked their way out, but they both panted, gasping like they’d held their breath since stepping off the path, like they’d just surfaced from the waters of the Bermuda Triangle. A place where things were lost.
Brianne did the thing her 6th-grade world history class should have taught her not to do: just like Orpheus, she looked back over her shoulder.
There was nothing.
Well, there was a lot, actually—trees and bushes and crushed foliage where they’d stomped along—but there was nothing… bad or wrong or spooky. She swallowed.
When she looked back, Tanner was standing with a nonchalant expression and tight shoulders, which meant the hands he’d casually stuck in his enormous pockets were balled into fists.
“… Let’s go back,” Brianne said, too polite to word it like the order it was. Tanner shrugged one shoulder, like he didn’t really care. He didn’t argue, which meant he really did.
The forest felt like a new house—slightly unfamiliar, with a nice smell and no sense that you weren’t welcome, but neither a sense that you really belonged—but they were nonetheless relieved when they crossed the treeline and back into view of their actual houses.
Brianne dropped her shoulders and shook out her fingers, because they were a bit… jittery, and certainly not shaking. Tanner’s expression was curious and wistful, like he was thinking, or more likely that he’d only just remembered the lyrics to a song he’d been humming.
“Do you wanna come over and watch a movie?” Brianne asked, awkwardly tucking a lock of hair behind her ear. She didn’t really want to keep hanging out—but she didn’t really want to be alone, either. She just really, really wanted whatever period of time included the cemetery to be over.
“… Nah,” Tanner said after a long pause and a longer shrug. He seemed to feel the same, and she felt both rejected and relieved. “I should… work on some of my summer reading. Before my mom yells at me.” Tanner’s parents were absolutely lovely people—Brianne liked them more than him—and she didn’t believe for a single moment Mrs. Moret would do such a thing.
“Okay,” she said. “See ya tomorrow.”
And they split the last twenty feet between their doors and Brianne went back inside.
Home was warm and familiar, and her parents’ warm and familiar voices welcomed her back from different rooms in the house. Brianne sighed, trying to let the last of her anxiety out, and set her exploring bag on top of the shoe rack.
The evening was normal. Dad made dinner and the three of them talked about their days. Dad had work in the morning and errands in the afternoon; Mom worked all day; Brianne mentioned exploring and did not mention the cemetery. She took a shower. She watched TV with her parents for a while before saying goodnight and making her way upstairs. Unlike Tanner, she really did pick at her summer homework—Ivanhoe, why assign something like that?—and did her best to not think about the cemetery.
When that didn’t work, she pulled out her maps and rolled them out onto her bed. She pored over them, looking for any sign of a cemetery out in the forest. There weren’t any.
She would have been more surprised to find something. She didn’t believe in the supernatural—she was a rational, practical girl, and that didn’t leave a lot of room in her worldview for unexplained spooky things. But that didn’t mean the cemetery wasn’t real. She couldn’t explain what it was or why it was there—but those weren’t her questions to answer. She didn’t understand it, and she didn’t need to, and that was good enough. She wouldn’t go back to that particular area of the forest again.
She was just about to turn off her light—judging by the sounds the last one awake in the house, as usual—when there was a cli-tunk against her window. She sat frozen, shocked by a storybook experience. It almost sounded like someone had thrown a rock at her window, but that was something that only happened in TV shows and movies.
It came again, this time more tunk than click, and she scrambled out of bed to pull up her blinds. It was Tanner, standing below her window just like he had that afternoon, arm wound back with a third rock that looked even bigger than the first two had sounded.
Without thinking Brianne slammed her window up and stuck her shoulders out of it.
“You’re going to break my window!” she hissed. She was careful not to be too loud—she didn’t want to wake her parents.
She had no idea if Tanner heard her, but he dropped the rock, and without a word gestured sharply for her front door. Before she could say anything he took off, turning sharply from view and making his way around the house. She bit down on her lip to bite back a curse, then shut and locked the window and slipped out of her room.
She didn’t strictly have a bedtime during the summer, but she was routinely upstairs and asleep by eleven, so coming down at 10:30 would have raised her parents’ suspicion. There was nothing for them to be suspicious of—and nothing for Brianne to hide—but she still slid down the stairs silently, moving carefully to avoid drawing their attention. She loved and respected her parents, and they loved and respected her, but she didn’t see much reason to have them involved in her personal matters. Especially matters that included opening the front door at 10:30 at night and would undoubtedly be about a weird, creepy cemetery.
“What is it?” she hissed at the precise moment she pulled the door open. She was standing there in her nightgown—pajamas, normal kids called them pajamas—but he was standing there in that Out Exploring jacket and his huge hiking boots, his bag slung over his shoulder and a lime-green scarf around his neck against the cooling night air.
He grinned, bold as brass, which was an old saying but she liked it so she used it.
“Let’s go,” he hissed back, like a tea kettle boiling in excitement.
She stared at him, dumbstruck. “Sorry?”
“Don’t be.” She rolled her eyes but he continued unabated. “Come on, put on clothes and let’s go.”
“Go where?” she hissed again, a disheveled snake to his tea kettle.
He bounced on his toes. “The cemetery, of course.”
Of course. Still, her eyes went huge.
“The cemetery?! The spooky one in the middle of the forest?!” He rolled his eyes, like her stupid question hadn’t been warranted by his stupider suggestion. “Did the weird gray air do something to your brain?! You want to go back? Now?”
He rolled his eyes and shrugged, full of nervous energy, positively raring to go storm a creepy freaking black cemetery in the middle of the woods in the middle of the night. “I don’t care, let’s go! Or if you want to be a baby about it I’ll just go by myself.”
She froze for a moment, stuck.
She didn’t like him very much, and it was the middle of the night—twelve year-olds did not go unaccompanied into the forest at night.
On the other hand, there weren’t a lot of people that were willing to put up with her, and she didn’t want to jeopardize the singular one she had by saying ‘no.’ He was a bad friend, but he was still her friend, and she liked him in the way one is obligated to if they consider someone their friend. And she couldn’t just let him get hurt because she recognized it was a bad idea and he was too dumb and too much of a boy to do the same.
But going out into the forest. Alone. AT NIGHT.
“No way,” she said, with iron instead of heat. She wasn’t angry—she wanted to impress on him that she wouldn’t go because he shouldn’t go. “We can… Maybe we can go in the morning.” Nope, she did not want to go back ever. But if it would make him give up the idea, she’d be willing to do it. That’s what friends did.
“No way,” he echoed her, iron and heat. “I want to go now.” His eyes went dramatically wide, pretending to have just figured something out. “No way. Don’t tell me the Brain believes in ghosts?”
She didn’t. She didn’t believe in anything supernatural—ghosts or psychics or astrology or weight-loss plans—but she didn’t have to for that cemetery to make her uncomfortable. Something was wrong there, and even if it was something like too many magnetized rocks in the area killing the trees, or a hive of bacteria poisoning the water—something natural and not at all spooky—it was still bad, and she didn’t want to go back there again. Not even to know why.
“Oooh~ It’s spooky~” Tanner hummed, pitching his voice all over the place and shimmying his shoulders like a floating bedsheet ghost. It was stupid, but it stung, and Brianne’s pride rankled at the accusation. Her eyes sharpened into a glare, and she had a very intimidating glare, but Tanner wasn’t swayed.
“I do not believe in ghosts. I’m not scared because I think there’s something unnatural out there, I’m uncomfortable because I don’t like it. We’re friends, and you should respect that.”
He snorted. “You’re just a coward,” he spat. “Come on.”
“I said no.”
His light, playful expression started to fold into a glare, too. She usually said yes to things. Not at all because she was a pushover. Because she wanted to make this ‘friends’ thing work. Because she was willing to do a few things she wasn’t interested in in the name of not feeling so crushingly lonely all the time.
But she wouldn’t do this. And he was starting to realize that.
“I’ll go without you,” he threatened. “What happened to all your safety talk, brainiac? You wouldn’t actually let me go out there alone, would you? It’d be your fault if something happened to me.”
For a moment, she felt a thrill of adrenaline shoot into her heart, the staticky sulfur-yellow of anxiety. Was he right? If he did something stupid and she didn’t stop him, it would be on her hands—
“No, it wouldn’t,” she snapped back, impressing it on both of them. “I am not responsible for your bad decisions. If something happens to you, it’ll be your own fault. I’m staying home tonight. You should, too. It’s dangerous to go into the forest at night, and I don’t think going back to that cemetery ever is a good idea.”
“That’s just ‘cause you’re a useless, spineless nerd that only books can stand to be around!”
She slammed the door in his face.
Mom and Dad were in their room, but they probably weren’t asleep yet. She could tell them. Snitch to her parents that Tanner was going to do something stupid, and then they’d either go after him or tell his parents, and then he’d be grounded and they wouldn’t be able to go out exploring the forest for the rest of the summer, maybe for the rest of ever.
She gave a frustrated huff and marched up to her room.
She wouldn’t ruin his life over something he wouldn’t really do. Because there was a small part of her that worried he’d actually try it, but the rest was unconvinced. There was no way. He’d go towards the forest, sure—maybe even a little ways in. Partly out of adventure, mostly out of defiance. Showing her wrong that he wouldn’t be brave enough, mocking her for being scared. But he wouldn’t keep going—he’d be too scared, and with no witnesses to know he was backing down, he could run with his tail between his legs and no harm to his pride.
When she tucked herself into bed she was frustrated and angry, but not at all worried. And worry had nothing to do with why it took her forever to fall asleep—it always took her forever to fall asleep. She was right in that weird floating limbo-space deep inside your own numb body, right before you fell asleep, when there was a knock at the door.
Her eyes snapped open in pure, unadulterated disbelief.
According to the red numbers projected on her ceiling by her alarm clock, it was 2:30. TWO-THIRTY. IN THE MORNING. And there was a knock at the door?!
It was Tanner. She knew it was Tanner. Who on earth else could it have possibly been? Probably back to gloat about how far he’d made it—an exaggeration of how far he’d actually made it, of course. Or maybe he’d chickened out and was so determined to make her come along that he was willing to admit to losing the battle if it meant he could win the war. Maybe he’d slipped off the trail and hurt himself, and he was too scared to wake up his parents and admit to what he’d done, and hoped Brianne being bad at sleeping—she’d talked about it before lots of times—meant she’d be around to administer first-aid.
That one made her feel a little uneasy.
She waited for her parents to open the door—she wasn’t allowed to at the best of the times, and 2:30 am was not the best of any time. But the knock continued, for several minutes. Not obnoxious or aggressive—just regular, with polite pauses between each dok-dok. That was… weird, but maybe Tanner didn’t want to alarm her parents. Who were, apparently, dead asleep.
By minute five—and Brianne was counting each second in the flashing : of her alarm clock projection—she crept out of bed, silent in case her walking woke her parents when the knocking could not, and slipped down to the front door.
It loomed in the dark hall in front of her, and she did not open it right away. She wished she could look through the front door. She laughed at Tanner sometimes, but she’d only conquered five feet by a single inch. So the eyehole was beyond her.
Silently, she rummaged through her exploring bag and fished out her enormous flashlight. Even if she was certain it was Tanner—and she was, otherwise she wouldn’t undergo this venture—she was not stupid. She gripped the textured metal tight in her hand before closing on the door.
“Who is it?” she hissed, loud enough, she hoped, to slip around the hinges of the door.
“Tannet,” came Tanner’s voice, but it was a little muffled and unclear. She had to think for a second—had the end of his name not sounded right? Probably just the door, and tiredness.
Still, she hesitated. But she pulled it open.
And when she pulled it open, it was not Tanner.
It was not Tanner, and it could not be stressed enough how very, very much not Tanner it was.
It was his body, for sure. They’d grown up together—she knew his high cheekbones and round face, the shape of his gray eyes and the way the foof of his hair exasperated his cowlick.
It was definitely Tanner’s body—Tanner’s corpse.
Because he—it?—the body—was dead, there wasn’t a single doubt in her mind. Faster than crime TV shows suggested, his skin had already gone a strange gray color, and there was a rigidity to the way he stood that suggested his bones weren’t sitting in loose muscle and moved by malleable tendons. His gray eyes were unfocused, even if they were fixed on her like they knew she was there.
It was an empty shell—or would be, except there was something inside it.
“Hello,” the dead body of her deceased best friend said lifelessly.
The corpse did not shift. Or blink. Or pretend to breathe.
What was it? What did it want? What should she do? What would it do? She had never, never believed in the supernatural—but she wasn’t about to doubt what was obviously in front of her face. Something about not needing faith if you already knew or something—she was under a lot of stress right now.
There was… something supernatural, probably EVIL in her dead best friend’s body, and she wasn’t going to be an idiot in a horror movie and play the skeptic.
There was no question of why in her mind. She knew exactly what had happened.
He’d done it. The idiot had actually done it, gone back through the woods and to the cemetery and gotten himself killed. Whatever creepy thing had been lurking there—for who knew how long—had devoured and taken over him.
“Brianne please come outside.”
A shudder shot up her spine. So it knew her—it didn’t know how to inflect a sentence, but it knew her. And it had known Tanner, to some degree—it had used his name. How? Had it… read his memories, or something?
She took a deep breath, and for a second it… clicked. Tanner was dead. D E A D. Her best friend—her only friend—her neighbor and babyhood playmate… he was dead. This thing had killed him. Eaten him?
But then she took another breath, a shorter one, a shock of oxygen to keep the thoughts at bay. Unless she wanted to be d e a d too, she needed to deal with… this. Avenge Tanner or something.
“Are you alright,” the corpse asked. “You were quiet a very long time. And your heart rate went up very fast.”
“I’m fine,” she answered automatically. “Why are you here?”
“I want to talk,” it responded. Brianne’s grip on the flashlight tightened.
“About what? It’s the middle of the night.”
“I want to talk.”
“That’s not an answer to my question.”
“I want to talk about things.”
Brianne continued to stare.
“Can we talk, Brianne?” it asked, and it hit both the pause and the upward intonation of the question. It was getting better. It was learning. Digesting Tanner’s memories?
If it was going to change—become more natural, less suspicious, stronger—then (her hand tightened even more around the flashlight) she needed to do something. Fast. Now.
It was staring at her, and she eyed it in return.
“Let’s talk about ‘things’ inside,” she said, taking a step back and watching its every movement.
She didn’t want this thing in her home. But she sure as hell wasn’t going to deal with it outside. In the dark, in the world that was its. This place was her… safety. Her fortress. ‘Home’ had a special meaning to introverts, one of the few places that really felt safe and comfortable. She didn’t want to invite a dangerous, supernatural entity into it—but if she was going to fight this thing, and she sure as heck was, she wanted it on her turf.
It nodded Tanner’s head and stepped over the threshold without issue. That made her… nervous. She’d always liked that part of vampire stories where they couldn’t come in unless you invited them. That introvert sense of home as the safest place in the world.
It didn’t shut the door behind it, but it did remove its boots before walking further into the house.
Watching it was… disconcerting, for all the reasons it shouldn’t be. It struggled, like it couldn’t properly move Tanner’s arms yet and wouldn’t dream of fine motor skills for another week. It shambled and wrestled with the boots like a baby deer trying to stand. She almost… felt sorry for it. Yes, it was a dead thing impersonating her best friend—which it had murdered and possibly consumed—and was now trying to fool her into thinking it was Tanner, but it was doing such a bad job of it… She felt a little pity in her heart. And like with the two-thirty-knocking, just a little offended.
If she was going to be assaulted by a ghost or a monster or something, shouldn’t it have at least been something that knew what it was doing?
When it finally got Tanner’s boots off—nearly taking its socks with it, which pooled around its feet and left wrinkles in uncomfortable places under the arch of its foot—she put her back against one wall of the hallway and pointed at the closed door to the living room.
“In there,” she ordered, and it just nodded vaguely and walked with its strange, rigor mortis gait over to the door.
And then something happened that threw her world into a tailspin.
It opened the door, took a step back, and gestured for her to go inside. It stood patiently, one hand against the door—holding it open for her.
It was nicer than anything Tanner had ever done from her.
“Thanks,” she said, forcing a half-smile, “but I’d rather you went in first, if you don’t mind.” It stared at her for a couple seconds, as if it didn’t understand. Then it nodded once and shuffled into the sitting room. It sat in the center of the sofa and just… waited.
When she followed the dead thing into the room, she shut the door behind her—the better to keep it contained—and it looked at her. Its face was still completely neutral, with no sign of hostility, malice, or hunger. She edged her way to stand behind one of the arm chairs opposite him—it—watching vigilantly. It made no move to speak or… move.
“… You said you wanted to talk?” she said, trying to goad it to speak. It blinked.
“… Yes.” But it didn’t continue. She thought maybe it was a… waiting game, a power play. But as time stretched on, she couldn’t help thinking, like before, that maybe it didn’t know what it was doing.
“… Then how about I choose a topic?” she suggested, gathering her own hostility, malice, and anger. It blinked, unworried and accepting. “What are you, and why are you here?”
It blinked again, very confused. It blinked about fourteen times.
“What?” But there was something under the syllable, something that was not a half-asleep, half-numb, half-dead Tanner’s vocal chords. The grip on her flashlight tightened. She wished she had something more than just heavy metal and wiring, but she’d bought this bludgeoning weapon because it was a bludgeoning weapon.
“I know you’re not Tanner,” she said, heavy and immoveable as concrete. “I know you’re something else, something… supernatural and spooky inside his dead body. But I don’t know what kind of spooky you are, or what you want. Tell me.”
It took a long time to respond, and did nothing in the intervening time.
“Are you wrong, Brianne?” it asked, and the grammar checked out, but the meaning didn’t. It really didn’t have any idea what it was doing. “It is me, Tannet.”
“Tanner,” she corrected it, wielding her flashlight in both hands. “His name is Tanner.”
“That is what I said. Tannet.”
“TANNER,” she repeated, really putting emphasis on the R.
It didn’t hear it. It still didn’t hear it. It had consumed Tanner, taken his memories for its own like a cheap dollar store disguise, but it hadn’t gotten them right. She said Tanner, but it could only think Tannet.
She was… ASTOUNDED.
And it… was confused. Desperately, helplessly confused. It realized at her instance that it had done something wrong, but it didn’t understand what. Her heart curdled with pity again—and a little bit in disgust, at this excuse of a shadowy, undead horror sitting in her living room.
“What do you want, dead thing?” she demanded again. The confusion wiped off Tanner’s features, and he sat blank again, numb, dead-eyed.
It didn’t answer her. There’d been long pauses before, but this time there was nothing.
“You killed and consumed Tanner, didn’t you?”
“Yes.” A shiver ran up her spine at it agreeing with her. She didn’t think her grip on the flashlight could get any tighter—but it did.
“And you want to do the same thing to me and my family?”
No answer. It was thinking? It didn’t have an answer?
“Are you going to hurt us?” Still silence. “Do you want to hurt us?!”
It shifted, in a way that looked like it might stand up. It didn’t, but Brianne had already taken a step back—and her foot caught in the carpet.
She windmilled wildly, trying to save herself from a fall, from leaving an opening for this thing—but she only had one free hand, the other locked around the flashlight. It smashed into a lamp, which shattered into a million pieces, scattering glass over her and into the carpet around her. It was a disaster that couldn’t possibly get worse.
Then she smashed her head into the wall, and her neck wrenched, and she slumped to the floor.
For a moment she was terrified that she’d killed herself before this thing had its chance—but after the first wave of shock wore away, she found she was… okay. Her head throbbed and her neck was sore, but she could still move and breathe.
Tanner’s body was at her side a few seconds later, not in a supernatural-teleportation kind of way, but in a worried-bystander-coming-over-to-check-things-out kind of way.
“Are you alright?” it asked, looking her over, more consternated than concerned. It was not the kind of eldritch horror she was expecting, and she didn’t seem to be the kind of victim it was expecting. They were a good fit.
It held a hand out, offering to help her to her feet.
She remembered earlier that day, when she’d gotten hooked on the creepy trees near this thing’s cemetery, and Tanner had just stood there and stared, the extent of his kindness not walking off into the terrifying unknown without her.
The most absurd thought entered her mind, and an even more absurd question escaped it.
“Do you want to be friends?”
If she could have melted right through the floor, she would have. She would never be that humiliated, that stupid, or that humiliated by her own stupidity ever again.
Oh, hello shadowy abomination that murdered and possessed my friend’s corpse, you seem nicer than him, do you want to be friends?
It stared at her. It retracted the hand it had offered. It looked up at the ceiling.
“Yes,” it answered. It looked back down at her with Tanner’s dead eyes, but they were slightly more in focus now.
And that was that. Not exactly, of course, they had a very long talk in her living room about rules, boundaries, and what ‘Tannet’ was and was not allowed to do, such as torment or try to devour her family.
Throughout the entire discussion the nightmarish shadow hell monster seemed quite amenable and attentive, and did not fight, protest, or make one snide or misogynistic remark.
And by the end she saw it—him out the door, and he told her he would see her tomorrow, not in a creepy-stalker kind of way, but in the way she heard kids at school talk to their friends.
She shut her front door, went to up to bed, woke up the next morning healthy, unharmed, and alive, and went to Tanner’s house. The creature opened the door, in the same clothes as before, just as obviously a corpse as before, and it wished her a stale but not insincere good morning.
And that was how Brianne made her first actual best friend, Tannet.