Zach disappeared April 28th, on a night when severe storms swept through Granite Valley. The lightning was purple and angry and violent, and the rain came in sideways like static patterns on an old television set. Golf ball-sized hail pockmarked cars too unfortunate to not have cover and the wind was so strong that the music store on Carter Avenue— “We Put the You in Ukulele”— took a tree branch right through the front window, shattering it to bits.
This only all started after he was gone, though, which is actually how this whole operation always goes down.
Until the caravan showed up, actually, it was a pretty calm evening. And then, kaboom, the sky exploded.
The power went out, but Zach’s parents slept right through it; in fact, they didn’t even know that he was gone until the next morning when he didn’t come down for breakfast. By then, it was too late.
But really, it was too late from the moment he signed up for the Pickshur account, the account they’d specifically told him he couldn’t have.
First off, you were supposed to be 13 to even have a Pickshur account. That’s what it said when you signed up, anyway. But since the internet is what it is, even 12-year-old kids could have them. 12-year-olds, in fact, like Zach. And because Zach was a good kid— he got As and Bs, ran cross country, was student council treasurer— he’d even done what he figured he was supposed to do which was to ask his parents’ permission before getting one.
One night, about three months before he disappeared, he asked at dinner. They were having roasted lamb, which he hated, so he was just poking at it. He poked a chunk and said, “hey, um, so I was wondering, because most of the other kids in my class do, do you think it would be okay if I got a Pickshur account? I’d keep it private, which you can do, and I wouldn’t accept friend requests from people I didn’t know. And I’d be extra super careful about not posting anything identifying. We talked about online safety in my Current Events class. So I know like, what not to say online. I mean, like, I know what I’m not supposed to share that could uh, you know, get me in trouble, or, I don’t know, let a… weirdo know if like, we’re on… vacation. Or something.” The request, cerebrally rehearsed to the point where he could likely recite it backwards as well as forwards, came spilling out like groceries from an overturned shopping cart.
His dad furrowed his brow and rubbed his chin, as though contemplating a much deeper question. He forked up a chunk of sweet potato and twirled it, like he was studying a rare archeological specimen from all sides. “No. I don’t think so, son.”
And while that should have been the end of that, these things rarely end so simply.
Later, ensconced in the privacy of his bedroom, his laptop aglow with the Wikipedia page for ‘kinetic energy,’ he opened a new private browser and typed in “pickshur.” And just like that, there it was. There were boxes for established users to log in, and a clickable link for “New User!” He clicked “New User!” and filled out the info, lying about his age to make it look like he was 16. It made him a little nervous, but it was mostly about doing something his parents had explicitly told him not to; he didn’t figure the Pickshur Police would come and get him for his malfeasance, nor did he expect to do any prison time.
He clicked “Submit!” and just like that, he was on.
He tried looking up some of his friends, but he didn’t know their usernames, and none of them were searchable by their real name. He planned on asking around at school tomorrow. So instead, friendless and feeling uncharacteristically emboldened by his new criminal persona, he looked up “#sexybutt” and “#boobs” and “#hotboobs”. There were some pretty nice pictures, but the idea of looking at that sort of thing made him nervous so he X’d out of the search as aggressively as he’d entered it, his heart jackhammering under his Granite Valley Cougars hooded sweatshirt.
When his mom yelled from downstairs—she needed to know where his cross country clothes were so she could throw them in the wash— he almost pissed his pants.
One thing was for sure: if he was going to maintain a secret social media account, he was going to have to relax or he’d end up having a heart attack.
At lunch the next day, he got some usernames to follow. His friends, of course— Corey and Chris and Hayden and Hayden H. and Stacia— but also some suggestions.
“You’ve gotta follow Aja DeMarco. She’s got tits the size of school buses and like, she barely ever wears any clothes, dude,” Hayden H. told him around a mouthful of cauliflower gnocchi. The lunchroom hummed like hornet’s nest on Adderall, and Hayden H. had to shout to be heard. Shouting caused him to spray bits of cauliflower gnocchi, so it was hard to tell if it was that or the tit-talk that caused Stacia, the only girl in their group, to grimace.
“Oh yeah, she’s hot as shit,” Chris said in a conspiratorial whisper. “But you’ve also gotta follow Ashlee Jensen. She used to be on ‘Gettin’ Stupid,’ but ever since she quit, she’s been like, wild. My sister said she got ass implants and most of her pictures are her at the beach. Like, ass shots where you can basically see her butthole.” He looked around to make sure none of this had been heard by a lunch monitor. Chris was already on thin ice at home because his parents found out that he’d been paying his little sister to do the dishes on his dish nights. The last thing he needed was for them to hear he was talking about buttholes at lunch.
“Wow, yeah, totally,” Zach said with as much feigned enthusiasm as he could muster. Honestly, he didn’t suspect he’d end up following either one. His whole experience looking up semi-dirty hashtags had made him extremely nervous; he wasn’t sure he had the fortitude to follow someone who posted almost-exclusively sexy stuff.
“Hey, you got the app on your phone?” Hayden asked.
Zach frowned. “Well, uh, not exactly. My parents kinda told me I, uh, like, couldn’t have an account, and they’d shit if they saw it on my phone.”
“You asked your parents?” Corey asked incredulously. He crushed a chicken nugget between his thumb and pointer finger. “Are you fucking nuts?”
“I was just trying to be like, responsible. I thought they’d say yeah. That way I wouldn’t have to worry about hiding anything.”
“Rookie move, Koslovski.”
Zach frowned again and picked up a chip. He already regretted asking them, but it was also annoying that now he was catching grief about it. And especially from Corey. Corey’s parents were divorced and neither one of them seemed to care what he did; for Corey, the same standards and rules simply didn’t apply. “Yeah, well. Too late now.”
“Nah,” Hayden said, dunking his taquito in chipotle mayo. “They have an app that’s like, a cover for your app. So you can get the Pickshur app, but then you get the other app— it’s called Jacket— and you like, hide the Pickshur app in the Jacket app. And you can make the Jacket app look like whatever you want. So it can be a calculator or just… I don’t know, whatever. Then if your mom looks at your phone, all she sees is the calculator. Or whatever you make it.” He shoved half of the taquito in his mouth at once and ended up looking like a hamster.
Zach considered this. While the idea of an app disguising tool felt unscrupulously deceitful, he’d already lied to them once. In for a penny, in for a pound, that’s what his dad always said.
Later that night, after dinner, after homework, after watching Dancing with the Stars with his parents, Zach was in bed, his comforter pulled up to his armpits. His bedroom window was open, and he could hear someone a few blocks away, maybe even all the way on I-15, making a huge racket with their motorcycle. When the wind gusted, the smell of hamburgers from the Hoffman’s grill snaked through the screen and into his room, making him sad about the tofu stir-fry he’d had to suffer through for the sake of his mom’s waistline.
He was supposed to be sleeping, but his face was awash with the blue glow of his cellphone light. He wasn’t too worried; his parents were fairly respectful of his privacy, and once his door was closed, they mostly left him alone.
And this was especially good because currently, he was on Pickshur (deftly hidden under the cloak of Jacket, the icon of which he’d set to resemble a weather app) looking through Paige’s pictures. Paige was on student council with him, and she was, as many of his less intelligent friends might text, “hot af.”
He mindlessly scrolled further and further back through her page, his eyes almost crossing with the cascade of photos as they turned into a blur before him. In July of last year, she’d posted a series of photos taken while she was vacationing at the lake with her family. She was wearing a two-piece bikini in most of them, and when Zach first happened upon the pics, he’d nearly passed out. So now he was scrolling, trying to be extremely careful that he didn’t accidentally hit the “like” button. If such a thing were to happen, it would be instantaneously obvious that he was perving out pretty hard, and Paige seemed like the kind of girl that might be disgusted, then laugh, then share this knowledge with her friends.
He was scrutinizing a set of Memorial Day pool party pictures for exposed skin when he got a pop-up that nearly caused him to have a stroke. Though the pop-up was only a follow request, for a split second he was convinced that it was some sort of Pervert Alert warning him to get off of Paige’s page. He laughed nervously to himself as he navigated his way to the follower request section, once again scolding himself for his undue anxiety.
The request was from someone—or something—called “Peex_&_Whispers.” It sounded porny to him, so, naturally, he clicked on the page. It wasn’t porn, though, or at least not like any porn Zach had seen. (But to be fair, he’d seen very, very little at that point.)
It appeared instead that “Peex_&_Whispers” was some sort of carnival. In the “about me” section, it read— “A carnival for Everyone. Coming soon to near you.” The bad grammar confounded Zach. What kind of legitimate business would set up their page so carelessly, he wondered. He presumed that it meant to say, “coming soon to A TOWN near you,” or maybe even “a PLACE near you.”
The pictures were just as peculiar.
There were probably 30 or 35 posts total, and they all shared similar traits: grainy black and white pictures of a different expressionless kid standing in front of some sort of carnival attraction.
In one, a girl wearing an old-time dress with blunt bangs stood in front of the booth where you threw a ball to knock over milk bottles. Her mouth was a flat slice of ham and she had dull eyes that looked like lumps of charcoal.
In another was a boy who was Zach’s age, his head shaved, same flat mouth as the girl, same charcoal lump eyes, only he was standing in front of a tilt-a-whirl. The ride’s operator was to the boys left, but his back was to the camera. The worker was wearing a long coat like a gunfighter from the kind of movie Zach’s dad liked to nap to on a Saturday afternoon.
The youngest girl in any of the photos was probably six. She looked more modern than most of the other kids, maybe, but the picture setup was indistinguishably similar. She stood with her arms hanging limply at her sides in front of a stilled ferris wheel. Her mouth was more of a frown than the others, though, like maybe she might’ve burst into tears seconds after the photo was snapped. Still, her eyes were blank saucers, conveying no emotion.
That one bothered Zach the most.
He kept looking, but he wasn’t sure why. The pictures filled him with a strange sense of dread, and made him keenly aware of his own heartbeat thudding in his ears. Down the block, the Hedgecourt’s German Shepard was going apeshit barking at someone or something. The back of Zach’s neck felt hot like maybe he was getting sick. Everything made him feel like screaming.
All of these kids looked unhappy, or if not unhappy, like their brains had been sucked out of their heads and replaced with oatmeal. Zach wondered who they were, and who took the pictures, and why they were all the same. The whole thing gave him the heebie-jeebies and he scrolled back up to the top of the page. Where it asked “do you want to allow Peex_&_Whispers to follow you?” Zach selected “NO” as emphatically as his finger would allow and closed the app.
He’d had enough excitement for one night.
Like the dream it interrupted, the next morning’s alarm was violent and insistent. Though he didn’t remember many details, he felt like most of what he’d dreamed involved the carnival. In one part, the part he remembered most vividly, a ferris wheel caught fire and became unmoored from its anchor. Zach and a little girl— maybe the little girl from the Peex_&_Whispers page, he wasn’t quite sure—were cheerily enjoying cotton candy one minute, and the next they were running for their lives as the flaming, spark-shooting wheel of metal bore down on them. The dream was so detailed that Zach could hear the wheel crunch against the gravel of the midway and the shrieks of horrified passengers as they were both crushed and flung to the side like indifferent cargo. The air smelled of burnt wiring, charred hair and scorched flesh.
He’d spent 10 minutes on that stupid page, 15 at the most, and it had managed to infiltrate his dreams in the most disturbing way imaginable. He made a mental note to block it if he came across it again.
Rolling over to check his phone, he was alarmed to see that there was a banner on his lock screen from Pickshur. This was doubly troubling because, a) he was CERTAIN he’d turned notifications for Pickshur “off” as a parental-precaution, and b) the notification said, “You Have a New Follower Request! Peex_&_Whispers Would Like to Follow YOU!”
Zach opened his phone, clicked on the banner and, when the page for Peex_&_Whispers appeared, immediately clicked “NO.” This time, a second box popped up that said, “Are You SURE You Don’t Want to Let Peex_&_Whispers Follow You, ZachAttack09?” Zach smashed his finger on the NO button so hard he was surprised his screen didn’t crack. He was almost positive that he hadn’t received the second question last night.
Something about this was weird. All of it.
In the upper-righthand corner of the page, there were three dots. Zach clicked it and was given three options— REPORT, MARK AS SPAM and BLOCK. Zach clicked BLOCK, confirmed that yes, he absolutely wanted to block this creepy-ass page with extreme prejudice, and clicked his phone off.
He figured he might mention it to someone at lunch, just to see if anyone had heard of anything like this happening before.
That day at lunch, Zach asked.
“Oh, hey, you guys, so this is weird. I got a friend request from something called ‘Peex and Whispers.’ Have any of you heard of that?”
“I don’t know, bruh. Sounds like a Russian porn bot or something,” said Hayden. He pretended to smoke his taquito like a cigar and wiggled his eyebrows like Groucho Marx. He ate taquitos for lunch every day, and at least three times per week on average, he did the Groucho Marx thing. Though Zach never came right out and said it, he figured it was stuff like this that was at least partially responsible for Hayden getting his ass kicked by Palmer Dawson and the rest of his shitheel redneck pals on a semi-regular basis.
Hayden H. laughed and popped a nugget into his mouth. His lips smacked loudly as he spoke, his open maw revealing the horror of his partially-masticated, mechanically separated lunch. “Yeah! Or a strip club. I bet it’s a strip club, Zach.” He high-fived Chris who then high-fived Corey. Stacia, Hayden H.’s sometimes girlfriend, rolled her eyes and left Corey hanging.
Zach wasn’t amused by any of it.
“But like, don’t you guys think it’s weird that when I said ‘no’ it asked me if it was sure?”
Corey shrugged. “I think it does that, man.” He was folding his napkin into an elegant swan. It was a trick he’d learned from his grandfather, the owner of Granite Valley’s only Chinese restaurant.
“No it doesn’t,” Chris said. “Just once.” He swiped at the swan, but Corey’s reflexes were too good.
“Oh, shut up, ass-muncher. It’s not even the kind of thing you notice. It’s just uh, what do you call it, second nature or something.”
Chris rolled his eyes. “Blow me.”
“Seriously, you guys are being awful,” Stacia said. Her stern tone caused all of the boys to look down in embarrassment. It was one thing to casually act like a jackass but another to be called out on it. “I’m sorry, Zach. Did you block it? It sounds weird.”
Zach nodded. Stacia was nice. Entirely too nice for Hayden H. and his repugnant dining habits. “Yeah, I blocked it.” He stared down at his folded hands and was a little surprised to see that they were shaking slightly.
“Good,” she said. “My cousin Courtney had some guy who like, tried to follow her on, I think it was Pickshur, and before she blocked him, he sent her a picture of his, you know, um, thing. And he said something about, I don’t know, watching her play volleyball. Like, he knew something specific about her rec team. She had to tell her parents and they went to the cops and everything. It was awful.” She frowned, picked up a French fry and then put it back on her tray after reconsidering.
Hayden H. leaned in and quietly, with absolute sincerity said, “yeah, man, so if that page sends you a picture of its cock, you better call the fucking cops.” Corey, Chris and Haden laughed like hyenas. Stacia rolled her eyes and then got up from the table and stormed off.
Zach just sat there frowning.
The sun laser-beamed down aggressively from directly overhead, the only way it knows to do at 3pm on an April afternoon. Spring smelled of freshly cut lawns and the choking exhaust of a dozen idling buses. Outside the school, the air was an improvised concert of excited student yells, horny bird calls, and the occasional car horn.
“Hey, wait up.” Zach finished zipping his bag and started into a light trot. The sidewalk was crowded with students making their way to the bike rack or to their bus, so he had to deftly maneuver. Stacia stopped and turned. She smiled.
“Hey, what’s up?”
“Not much. I just wanted to say thanks for earlier. At lunch. Sometimes those guys, I mean…” he trailed off, not quite sure how to complete his thought. Sometimes those guys are assholes? Sometimes I wonder why I tell them anything?
She laughed softly. “I get it. Sometimes those guys are jerks. I don’t even bother ever trying to tell them anything like, remotely serious. Everything is a huge joke.”
They walked quietly for a minute, each lost in their own thoughts. Though they’d lived on the same block since Kindergarten, they didn’t usually walk together; today, however, it felt good to have the company. It was starting to really bake, and Zach pushed up the sleeves of his hoodie for some relief.
“That’s messed up about your cousin,” he said. “Is she OK?”
“Oh, yeah. The guy was like, a sex offender, I think. He went back to prison. And her parents won’t let her have any social media until she’s 16, but I don’t even know that she wants it now. I don’t blame her.” Stacia made a face like she’d taken a drink from the milk carton not realizing it’d spoiled.
“Jesus. Me either. That whole Peex_&_Whispers thing was like, almost enough for me.” Despite the heat, he got a sudden chill that caused him to pull his sleeves back down.
“Yeah, it sounds creepy. Is it weird that I kinda wanna look it up, though?” She laughed, and he did, too, though his was tinged with nervousness.
“I mean… no. I guess not. I’d probably be curious, too if I were you.”
She tucked her hair behind her ear and stopped walking. “Well, this is my house.” It was big and tan, and called a “Litchfield” style house. There were 12 other Litchfields in a two block radius. Zach lived in a Whitworth. There were 10 of those.
She shrugged. “Sorry again.”
“Not your fault. See you tomorrow.”
Zach sat on his bed, his fingers pounding away at his laptop. He’d googled just about every approximation of “Peex_&_Whispers” that he could. With no underscores. With the word “and” instead of the ampersand. With “peex” spelled correctly. He was getting nothing except frustrated. Downstairs, his mother was making her patented triple fudge brownies, and the smell had made its way to his room. The rich cocoa aroma tickled his nose, beckoning him.
He closed his laptop a bit more dramatically than he’d intended and collapsed back on his bed. He debated going to see if the brownies were done and then having one or several of them, but instead, he picked up his phone. “From one screen straight to another,” his mom liked to remark and not unjustly. On the Pickshur app, he had three follow requests. One was Ashlynn, who he had Advanced English with. She was nice, but she smelled like a farm and cigarette smoke. Another was from Carter, a kid from his Physical Science class who had a dent in the side of his head from where he’d been hit by a foul ball at a baseball game when he was a baby. He accepted both.
The third was from “Leslie_Baybeegirl,” whose profile picture was ninety percent breast. As an ardent appreciator of breasts, Zach clicked on the profile, knowing full well that it was a bot. Apps like Pickshur were teeming with bot accounts, and it never failed to make Zach wonder who fell for that sort of shit. Lonely old guys, he guessed. Maybe guys like his dad.
Leslie_Baybeegirl’s account was bad, even by bot standards. There were three pictures of a heavily breasted woman with orange skin that all appeared to be from the same photo shoot. The captions said, “I am missing for your tuch, babby,” “if you will be my daddy,” and “come sex with me daddy.” There were three other pictures on the page, but oddly, they were all ads for sneakers. On the sneaker posts, half of the text was in English and half in Russian. He blocked the page, though he knew it was futile. Pages like this were like gnats at a farmer’s market: you could kill one, but, what was the point?
Not for the first time, he wondered if “Peex_&_Whispers” was just that— some sort of bot account. But if so, what in the hell were they selling? None of the pictures had captions. There were no hashtags, no websites posted in the “About Me” section. By all outward appearances, it was just as it presented itself: a Pickshur account for a bad looking carnival whose only attendees appeared to have an emotional spectrum that ranged from “slightly frightened” to “utterly stoic.”
As he absentmindedly pondered this while perusing Ashlynn’s page (all of her pictures featured her and her parents— and sometimes her grandparents— but none featured her with other kids, which Zach found sort of depressing), he got a notification that he had a message in his Pickshur inbox. He clicked on it immediately, and was surprised to see that it was from Stacia.
Hey, u busy
Zach took a second to think about how he should respond. Stacia had never really talked to him much outside of school, and after walking home together that afternoon, now here she was messaging him. He wondered if she had a crush on him, which was both a little exciting and a little anxiety inducing. She was, after all, his friend Hayden H.’s girlfriend, and the bylaws of middle school society held girlfriend thieves just a tick above snitches in terms of poor regard.
Stacia had never struck him as the betraying sort, though, nor had he ever really felt anything between them other than friendly vibes; if there’d ever been any sparks of a romantic nature, he’d missed them. So he said:
Not really no what’s up
The minutes crawled as the typing bubble blinked rhythmically.
So I can’t find that page at all. That’s weird right
Oh! For peex_&_whispers you mean
Yeah and that’s how its spelled right. With an X?
Yeah. And the underscores and stuff.
The typing bubbled started, then stopped, started, then stopped, as though Stacia was repeatedly rethinking what she was trying to say.
Yeah I can’t find it at all. I looked multiple times and it just says no results found. That doesn’t make sense does it
Zach frowned. He’d have to look for it himself. And then if he couldn’t find it either, good, great, that meant it was gone. Perhaps it got banned or the weirdo who ran it got nervous and deactivated it. (It had to be a weirdo, probably a sex offender like the guy who tried to get with Stacia’s cousin).
But if he did look it up, say, and it was still there, that meant that this was all more messed up than he’d originally thought. Because that meant that only he could see the page, or only certain people could, and that was an insane notion; Pickshur didn’t work like that. No social media did. Oh, sure, you could block someone, and then the person you blocked wouldn’t be able to see your page, but why would Peex_&_Whispers preemptively block Stacia? It didn’t know her. So it wouldn’t block her. So why couldn’t she see it?
You there She asked.
Yea, im here. Yea, that’s messed up. I feel like I need to see if the page is there for me, but I kind of don’t wanna. Is that lame lol
No not at all. I totally get it lol
The idea of revisiting the page made his skin break out in goosebumps. His mouth suddenly felt like he’d been drinking sand. Maybe he could just ignore it, pretend that he’d never seen the page, that he’d never told anyone, that Stacia hadn’t just told him that she couldn’t find it when she tried.
But no, that wouldn’t work at all.
Because now the thought of this ghost page— visible, for some inexplicable reason, only to him— was crawling through his body like a worm, eating away at him, making him itch. He was a good kid with a solid head on his shoulders. He got good grades and didn’t smoke pot. (Which sounded obvious, sure, but Zach had heard things about some of the bad kids at his school). And to date, he’d never suffered any sort of traumatic brain injury or had a psychotic break with reality.
So he couldn’t ignore it.
From downstairs, his mother yelled that the brownies were done, and that he was welcome to come and get one. Incredibly, he no longer wanted one.
I gotta see if I can find it its bugging me lol he messaged, hoping that the fear and desperation didn’t come through in his message the way it was resounding in his head.
No totally she said. Let me know what happens.
The page was there, just as he thought it would be. It came up before he’d even finished typing it all out. He got to p-e-e and the search box autofilled the rest. And there it was, just like he’d left it. The only difference was, there was a new picture posted. According to the date, it had been posted a little over two weeks ago, and that didn’t make sense because it hadn’t been there yesterday, but it’s not like any of this made any sense, anyway.
It was a boy who looked like he was Zach’s age. One of his eyes was milky and blind, and he had the haircut and clothing of a kid who might’ve grown up on a farm 100 years ago. He was holding a balloon on a string, but the balloon was on the ground. In the background, there was a stand advertising funnel cakes, corn dogs and ice cold lemonade, but no one was in line and no one appeared to be working it, either.
Struck suddenly with inspiration, Zach took a screen-shot of the page. If no one else could see the ghost page, he’d sure as shit make sure he could show it to them.
Having satisfied his morbid curiosity, he attempted once more to block the page. The “BLOCK USER” function was greyed out, though, meaning he couldn’t. Of course he couldn’t. Why should he be able to? Why should any of this make any sense, he wondered, almost laughing.
He hit the back button to get off the page and he got a popup. “Please let Peex_&_Whispers follow you!” it begged, which was unlike any other request Zach had seen on the app. And instead of a simple “yes” or “no” now the options were, “make us happy” and “make us sad.”
The blood in Zach’s arms felt like cold oatmeal and he could feel his heart beating in his ears.
This was all so insane.
He seriously wondered, this time without hyperbole, if he was losing his mind. If something had happened, if he’d cracked like an egg. Maybe he’d had a stroke and something had misfired in his brain, turning him into a lunatic. None of this made a bit of sense. This was nothing more than an app on his phone, but it was taunting him, and trying to scare him, and it was working. He wanted to smash his phone against the wall or scream at the top of his lungs or run downstairs and come clean to his mom and dad to see if they could fix it. Tell them that he’d lied, that he hadn’t listened, and now the app they’d forbidden him to download was becoming sentient and threatening him.
He clicked “make us sad” because he assumed that was the equivalent of “no” and he’d be damned if he was going to let this possessed app follow him. The screen seemed to freeze for a few seconds— two or three, maybe— and then a new box popped up. “you fucked up you little shit,” it said, and then his phone got hot fast and the screen went black.
Zach finally unleashed the scream he’d been holding back and dropped his phone.
To say he slept poorly that night would be like suggesting Abraham Lincoln left Ford’s Theater with a little headache.
He tossed and turned and writhed and moaned. He soaked his sheets with sweat, so much so that he woke up in the morning with the initial concern that he’d pissed his pants.
He mechanically slogged through his morning routine, thankfully managing to avoid both parents. His mom left for the office at the asscrack of dawn, and his dad was in the basement on the exercise bike. A couple of times per year— usually after New Year’s and again before the neighborhood pool opened— his dad would spend a few days in the basement on the bike before “pulling my hammy” and giving it up for another six months.
Therefore, he was able to poke at his Golden Grahams in silence, then leave for school without anyone questioning the black bags beneath his eyes or the fact that he was very clearly half awake.
School wasn’t any better. He caught himself dozing off in American History, but by the grace of some higher power, Mr. Hellman missed it. Hellman could be a real bastard if he thought you weren’t paying attention; Zach was mortified by the thought of what he might do to someone who went completely to sleep during a lecture on the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
At lunch, he reconvened with his friends, but he didn’t say much. The country fried steak— typically one of his favorite cafeteria offerings— tasted like hot salty cardboard. He forced down two bites and was done. He pushed his tray away and put his head on the lunch table. It was cool on his hot forehead, but it did nothing to dim the cacophony of people chattering all around him. The voices joined into a harsh, metallic drone that made his head throb.
The day’s final bell eventually and mercifully rang and he trudged wearily through the front doors. All around him, hordes of students scurried like tenement cockroaches when the kitchen light gets flicked on. There were whoops and hollers and shouted plans about what video games would be played and whose house had what snacks available for consumption; Zach’s only wish was to make it home without face-planting on the sidewalk.
He’d made it only as far as the bottom of the steps, however, when he felt a light hand on his shoulder. Despite the fact that the touch was feather-light and void of malice, he felt himself choking back a scream. He spun somewhat aggressively and saw Stacia, a look of wide-eyed concern plastered across her face.
“Whoa, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to—
For the first time all day, Zach actually felt alert. “Oh, no— crap, I’m sorry. Not your fault. I’m sort of…” but then his words trailed off. In the literal blink of an eye, he’d been crushed by another wave of fatigue. He yawned.
“Beat?” Stacia asked.
Zach nodded sleepily.
Zach stared at her. He knew she was talking, and she was expressing some kind of emotion— concern, he thought?— but for all intents and purposes, it was like she was a beetle. He just couldn’t quite figure out how to speak to a beetle.
Or, he thought, maybe I’m the beetle. Maybe I’ve been a beetle all along, but no one bothered to tell me. Maybe this is a reality show where they take a beetle at birth and they make it think it’s human. Then, for the entirety of the beetle’s life, they follow it around with cameras and document how human beings interact with a beetle who doesn’t know it’s a a beetle.
Maybe the show is called Leave it to Beetle.
“Zach?” She asked again, taking an almost (though not quite! Beetle Boy thought) imperceptible step back. “You’re kind of freaking me out a little.” In his head, her voice sounded like it was full of feedback and robotic distortion, like she was calling him from a cellphone with poor service in a bad part of town.
“Don’t mind me. I’m on Leave it to Beetle, but I’ve gotta go, now. Good luck, Daisy, we’re all counting on you.” With that, he snapped to attention, saluted Stacia crisply, then turned and walked away.
Stacia’s hands shook and she wondered what to do.
At home that night, Zach held it together through dinner. His parents weren’t chatty, which was great, because he wasn’t sure he could string together more than a few words even if someone offered to pay him by the syllable. He took a few sad bites of his roasted potatoes and his beans and his meat— it all tasted like paper towels— and asked quietly if he could be excused. His mom started to ask if he was feeling alright and his dad, who had been under a lot of strain at work, spat “goddamnit, Linda, he’s fine, okay? He just doesn’t want to eat this, this… dinner.” There were a lot of things that swirled around in his mouth before he landed on dinner, and none of them were kind. But he’d caught himself mid-asshole. Even still, Zach’s mom bit her lip and tried not to cry.
Zach smiled at both of them—a big, weird (obviously phony) smile, they’d later recall—and left the dining room.
“Look, honey, I’m sorry,” Zach’s dad started, but she got up without responding and carried her plate into the kitchen.
Zach laid on his bed and massaged his temples. There was a buzzing in his head, the sound of a fly trapped between a window and the blinds, but when he pressed his head just right, it stopped. And now his phone buzzed, a single buzz, which meant a notification. He picked it up and looked at it.
First one, then another one, then another, then another.
They were all Pickshur notifications declaring “You have a new follower request! Open app to see more!” But Zach didn’t open the app. He knew who the follow request was from.
He rolled over on his side and pulled his legs up toward his chest in a fetal position. He stared at his plain eggshell-white wall and felt his heart beat. It was in his chest, obviously, but also in his neck and in his ears. He wondered if he was going insane. He wondered if he was dying.
Maybe probably both.
Before he died, though, he remembered something he kept meaning to do.
He went to the photos on his phone and found the screenshot of Peex_&_Whispers. In the Pickshur app, he found Stacia’s profile and clicked the “Send a Note” option. According to the app, she’d last been on 10 minutes ago.
Just missed her. Maybe she could’ve saved the Beetle Boy, he thought and laughed to himself.
He inserted the screenshot in the body of the message and added text. See? he wrote. Told you it was real. Then he clicked “send!” And heard the “whoosh” noise that meant it’d gone through. He closed the app, turned his phone facedown on his nightstand, and told the wall, “I’m gonna go to sleep now.”
And he did.
It was black outside when he woke up, which in late April meant that it was at least after 8:30 or 9pm. He picked up his phone and saw that it was 12:20. With the exception of the ice machine making ice in the freezer downstairs, his house was completely quiet.
as the ice cubes plopped one-by-one into the dispenser bin. And then when it was full, that stopped, too.
And it was still, and quiet, the silence as thick as winter socks.
Zach felt his eyelids drooping again. Despite the peculiarity of passing out unceremoniously shortly after dinner, and sleeping all the way through until midnight, he was still very exhausted.
But before he’d fully re-succumbed to sleep’s warm embrace, he heard it.
It was faint, and far-off, but the notes carried all the way to his house, to his room, to his bed.
Music from a calliope. Circus music. Only slowed down, some, like it was at 75% normal speed. But maybe that was the distance playing tricks. Or maybe that was Zach’s lingering mental fog.
Regardless of why it sounded slower than normal circus music, though, there was no mistaking the fact that it was definitely there.
And now, Zach was wide awake.
He hadn’t sat up yet— the thought actually increased his anxiety tenfold— but his eyes were as big as the moon and his heart was hammering. His face felt flushed except for his ears and the tip of his nose which were all cold rubber.
The music was getting closer now, and subsequently louder. And now, faintly, Zach could make out other sounds underneath the swirling calliope: scores of shuffling feet and the peculiar creak of wooden wagon wheels. It was so loud now that Zach was astonished his parents hadn’t come running into his room, that there weren’t any neighbors peeking from curtains. How is no one else hearing this? He wondered. Is this in my head?
And then the music stopped.
And as much as his mind was silently screaming NO! STOP! DO NOT DO THIS!, Zach was being betrayed by his body which was sliding off the bed and moving across his floor, stepping over piles of dirty clothes, navigating to the window and parting the curtains with one hand.
The first thing he noticed was the fog. His street was blanketed with what seemed to be an impossible amount. It looked like a dance club had opened on Sycamore. Great tendrils and ribbons of white curled up and dissipated in the black sky. As the fog melted away, what lay behind the shroud began to appear.
It was the carnival.
There were large wooden wagons that appeared to be part of a train, a sickly looking elephant standing almost perfectly still, and a cage with wheels that housed a thin tiger lying motionless on its side. Peex_&_Whispers was painted in peeling letters on the side of a rotted-looking carriage; on a flatbed behind it, a single clown sat with his legs dangling over the edge. When he saw that Zach was looking at him, he grinned nastily, spat into the street and pulled out a glass pipe that he lit the bottom of, inhaled, then, after an incredible amount of time, exhaled a large plume of smoke. His outfit appeared to be splattered with something that looked like blood and gore.
The whole image was devoid of color like somehow a black-and-white projection was being shown on the street in front of his house. It flickered, even, like the picture was struggling to stick. Despite this unnatural quality, though, Zach understood unequivocally that this was real; there was a carnival on his street filled with things that looked like they’d crawled up from hell.
The elephant’s legs were shaking like it might collapse; the tiger wasn’t breathing. The clown, high on god-knows-what, was laying down now, the toes of his comically large clown shoes pointed toward the sky. A few carriages behind the clown, a thing was resting its large, misshapen head against the bars of its cage. The head almost, but not quite, distracted from the fact that it was masturbating furiously. “Martin the Mongoloid” was painted at the top of the box in something that was either shit or chunky blood.
Zach felt like throwing up. He felt lightheaded, like he might pass out.
While Zach processed everything, the door to the front carriage opened and a man unfolded out. He was tall and thin, thinner than any real living person could reasonably be, like his arms and legs were made of drinking straws. He had a long horse-face with a pointy eagle’s nose and a handlebar mustache that curled up cartoonishly at the edges. On his head was a dusty antique top hat. Zach had watched enough WWII combat footage with his grandad, though, to know that the rest of the man’s attire was that of a Nazi SS officer.
“Zachary!” The man said in a booming voice with an unplaceable accent. He pointed the cane he’d been holding up toward Zach’s window. The cane was a bone of some sort though it seemed too big to belong to any modern creature. The end was sharpened to a point so fine, Zach was sure it could be sunk into someone’s (his his his) stomach with all the resistance of a carving knife sinking into pudding.
Zach was clutching the windowsill so hard his fingernails were beginning to throb and threatening to rip from their beds.
“My dear boy, I’m telling, not asking, you to get your spindly white ass down here POSTHASTE, or so help me God, I will come into your house and drag you out by your small, hairless ball-sack. But before I do that, Zach, I will slit your mother’s throat while I fuck her, and I will gouge out your father’s eyeball before I let Martin fuck the socket.” He ever-so-slightly tilted his head in the direction of the show’s mongoloid who was still masturbating, but now also gnawing at the bars of his cage like a gerbil. “I will make you watch every second. And THEN I will drag you out, as previously suggested. So, do as I say and be FAST about it, boy!” The last sentence was spat rather than spoken.
Zach was no longer himself. It was like he’d gone out of his body and was watching disinterestedly as a thin boy with sleepy hair stood at the window with slumped shoulders. He no longer felt afraid; he was detached from reality, and on this new plain of existence where he lived, there were no emotions, there was no fright or terror. All that existed was something over endless hills, far beyond human emotion, further away than anyone could see or had ever seen. It was a colorless void, absent of meaning or purpose, like the deepest part of space, or like death, and in a way, it was comforting.
Zach left the window and made his way downstairs to the front door. He was off to join the carnival.
The next morning, Stacia woke up with warm spring sunshine slicing through her blinds and birds singing. She rolled over and, per her morning routine, picked her phone up from the nightstand. First she checked her messages on Friendly, then she checked Poster, then last she checked Pickshur. Her only Pickshur message was from Zach, which was good— he’d been freaking her out, and she was worried about him. Dated yesterday and time-stamped 9:33pm, it was a screenshot of a Pickshur account with Zach’s added text: “See? Told you it was real.”
She clicked the thumbnail to enlarge the screenshot. The Peex_&_Whispers page was very real, alright. The banner at the top of the page appeared to be a sky filled with ominous black storm clouds, and the bio said “A carnival for Everyone. Coming soon to near you.” She wondered if it meant to say “coming soon to a TOWN near you” or something. The bad grammar was odd, but not the oddest thing in the picture.
Beneath the banner and the bio, six pictures were visible in the screenshot. Though they were all virtually the same— a black and white photo of kid around her age standing dead-eyed in front of a dangerous looking carnival attraction— she noticed with horror that the most recent post, made late last night, was her friend Zach.
Wearing a ripped and soiled t-shirt that had once been white, he stood with milky, blind eyes in front of the booth where people pay too much money to shoot bb guns at unpoppably thick balloons. His face was grimy and, in the corner of his expressionless mouth, there appeared to be a tiny amount of blood.
She began to scream then, and she couldn’t stop for a long time after, not until her parents got her to the hospital and they gave her a shot that made her sleep.