It wasn’t unfamiliar to feel the absence of breath on his tongue, the constricting of his lungs, the aching of his neck. But it was unfamiliar to not be able to move. His elbows hit the padded sides of a small, tight box, head laying on a small satin pillow, mere inches from another side of whatever he was in. Beginning to sit up, his head quickly connected with the top of this cage, sending him back down against the soft, smooth inner lining. Panic quickly filled his mind as he banged uselessly upward with his fists, releasing he was sealed in, alone, ignorantly sucking in the limited dusty air in this small, constricted space. He tried to turn onto his side, sticking his fingers into the small distinguishable crevice where the lid met the top of the box, pushing, pulling with all his might, arms screaming from the strain and the awkward position. Finally, however, he lifted it a smidge, and soil began to pile in.
Scared and unaware of where he was, Stiles knew the only way out was up. On the verge of throwing up, he dug his fingers into the thick dirt, taking one last gulp of dry air before pushing up through. The edge of the box fell hard on his back as he wiggled out, blind, deaf, mute, grasping at thin rocks and endless earth. Up, up, up, digging until he couldn’t take it anymore, lips parting, begging for air, mouth filling with loam and heart beating sporadically. His skull felt like a balloon filling with blood, ready to pop, needing air, air, air-
Suddenly, his hand burst through roots and his bare fingertips felt nothing but a cool breeze.
With a renewed splash of adrenaline, he pulled his body upward, gasping for breath once he reached the surface. It was hard to lug himself out of the dirt, sucking him downward, but he knew it was possible. Digging his fingers into the grass, he felt his waist become loose, free, then his thighs, knees, and feet. His shoe almost slipped off as the soil curled in on itself, filling in the space he had appeared from. Out of confinement, his body lay almost motionless, breathing heavily with his face pressed to the windblown, yellowing blades across the ground. He found it hard to relax once his brain registered the situation he’d just come out of; stuck in a what now registered in his brain as a coffin underground, abandoned, forced to crawl his way out of the earth like a panicked worm.
Opening his eyes, another simple, dreadful realization drifted through his mind; he shouldn’t have been breathing.
In front of him was the back of a gravestone, square shaped and smooth. He pushed himself onto his knees, crawling to the front, reading the inscription. He would’ve cringed at the convoluted writing of his real name, but he couldn’t find it in him to care about that bothersome detail, at least for now. This was his gravestone- marking his burial, marking his death.
Am I a ghost?
His question was answered for him; the marble stone was shiny and reflective, illuminated by the light of the moon, and in it, he saw himself. It seemed he had been originally dressed in a neat, tightly tailored suit, which now was tattered and dirty from his rabid climb to the surface. His hair was a mess and his skin was its usual fair pallor, but decorated with familiar pale markings. His heart quickened in a shudder as he recognized familiar claw marks raking up his neck and jaw, shortest slash ending just under his lip. Not raw, open and oozing, but healed. Same with the messy swollen cuts on his neck, and supposedly, everything else.
Ghosts didn’t have scars. Ghosts just had permanent reminders of what had killed them, always there, bloody and dripping onto the ground below. Ghosts didn’t heal.
His hands hastily met with his chest, unbuttoning the coat, the undershirt below, eyes widening in fervent trepidation at the deep scarred tissue in the shape of a thin but fatal puncture just below his sternum, flesh impossibly intact, like he hadn’t been crudely skewered from behind. The afterlife claiming him, giving him dancing images of a better life, unburdened and-
“Hello?” Stiles called, vocal chords straining like taunt guitar strings. A cough wormed its way up his mouth, sending him bent over in front of his own grave. He sniffled and felt a shiver pass his spine, waiting, silent. When he received no response, no poisonous tendrils curling around his limbs or feelings overpowering his own, a confusion sensation tickled through his sanity. He knew what this silence meant, but he didn’t feel good like he thought he would. He didn’t feel bad, either. He just felt.. nothing. A faulty response to the lack of something that he’d finally accepted as permanent.
Cold fingers trailing over the peculiar, discolored lines down the bottom of his face, he breathed a sharp exhale, throat still aching like he’d swallowed sandpaper. He went to stand before a subtle, unmistakable sound reached his ears -- the crinkle of dry grass being crushed underfoot, slow, short steps coming from somewhere to the left.
Heart, previously calmed, quickly returned to a terrified, panicked pace. He made a mad dash passed his grave and into the near treeline, tripping face-first over a rotting branch tethered to the ground. Thankfully his fall didn’t make much noise, and he was able to recover quickly, tossing himself back onto his knees. He stumbled to peek over a mottled, spiky bush, spying on whoever had come to visit him.
Two figures, close together, wandered almost aimlessly down the path. In the dull moonlight he could just make out a feminine, shorter silhouette, and another, their hands tightly intertwined. The taller figure was holding something in his hand, but despite Stiles’ best efforts he couldn’t make it out.
“That one,” the taller blurted, his voice familiar and quiet, not a tone Stiles had been expecting. The woman unhooked her hand from what he could assume was her brother and strolled over to the nearest grave, falling onto her knees right next to the rectangular stone.
A flashlight clicked on and he watched the siblings, now mostly visible, both sit down in front of his gravestone. “So that’s his real name,” the older one muttered, his voice slightly agitated, but smooth, with a rough running edge. The tone struck a chord with Stiles, and he felt himself become fully invested, curious but vaguely worried, heart aching at the gruff similarities with someone he held dear. “You remember what he did for you?”
One of the girl’s fingers rubbed hard against the words amongst the stone, tracing each letter, a look of remorseful gratefulness decorated across her boyish features. “I do,” she answered quickly, frowning. Stiles waited for the girl to elaborate, but she never did, just sat there, her hands sitting softly on the top of his grave. Her brother settled next to her, crossing his legs, revealing what he’d been holding.
“He deserves this,” he muttered, almost too quiet for Stiles to hear. “Poor kid didn’t deserve what he got,” he placed what were now visible as three sole flowers on the ground, a melancholy look in his brown eyes. The petals were round and dark, a vivid sangria, akin to the color of pooled blood. Slightly lighter filaments shot up in a line around the pistil, curling inwards as if to protect what was inside, anthers a dull pink. Gently, he nudged them against the edge of the grave, the velvet petals rubbing upon the marble. “I thought there’d be more flowers. Or at least another bundle.”
“There will be after school tomorrow,” the girl stated plainly, a sigh on her lips. “Today’s the day when they’re finally gonna address the student body,” she cleared her throat, turning toward the boy next to her. “The staff is gonna explain what happened so people don’t joke anymore.”
“Makes me fucking sick,” he spat, that same familiar anger lacing his words. “Kid tried to kill himself, gets almost murdered by a serial killer, and then dies from a fuckin’ bear attack in the woods. There’s nothin’ anyone should be laughing about.”
“I guess, maybe his luck?” she suggested softly, letting a finger pet the delicate chocolate blooms they’d brought for him. Stiles bit his lip in indignation, at the mention of his luck, how in any way that could be seen as funny. “I can see how they could find it funny how horrible his luck was, but I guess, that’s not what people are um.. Talking about.”
There was a long, solemn silence after that, before the two stood wordlessly and left in a similar fashion to how they arrived. Stiles was still in relative shock to everything he’d just witnessed; he knew that girl. And she knew him; she knew what had happened.
He had died. Or he’d thought, because now reality set deep in his brain, that he’d woken up buried in a coffin, deep in a grave, forced to claw his way six feet up through the ground. And that didn’t sound like death.
It didn’t take that long to walk home, with him internally confused at the overabundance of space in his mind, the lack of outside input. Alone to think, not to talk, to delay what his head wanted to wander upon. Filled with thought, it felt like mere minutes, despite the sky rapidly lightening. He didn’t know how safe he was, why he was alive, or how his father would react, if he even wanted his dad to see him. How would he explain himself? Did he even know how his son had died? He had to have, if reports went out that he’d been mauled by a bear.
The door was locked when he tried it, the handle refusing to budge at his attempts. He glanced around him, making sure no one was out, to see him dressed in a torn and stained suit, looking like a funeral attendee that had been chucked off a cliff.
Stepping off the stoop, he headed around the side of his home, spying the window on the second floor glaring back at him. Wrapping his fingers around the small outcrop that served as his way inside, he went to pull his body, taking advantage of the familiar path he’d used to escape before with.
Unexpectedly, halfway into feeling much more strain in his muscles than before, his hand slipped and he found himself slammed back onto the ground. His head spun for a moment but he managed to choke back any verbal output, the grass rigid and harsh underneath his palms. Climbing was incredibly harder than before; insanely harder.
A hole settled in his chest. He was lacking the extra strength he’d been gifted by his demon.
With renewed, spiteful vigor, that he could do this by himself, Stiles stood up and began to climb the wall again. He almost tumbled back down several, scary times, but in the end his fingers met with the windowsill of his window. He spat out a hiss of victory and unsteadily pulled the glass pane open, grasping the edges hard enough to lug himself inside. Sill up to his chest, he stared into his room, ready to go in and bask at the glory of not needing the demon, only to pause at what met his eyes.
Himself, but not him. His gaze was vacant of their usual gleam and a dull violet aura drifted over his person, like a sharp, purple sheen. Him, but not him. It. It sat there with a knife in it’s hand, rubbing its fingers along the dull edges, wiping away small red particles, a grin on its face, before it turned, their eyes interlocking.
This time he did fall.
The ground hit much harder than before, and he felt his shoulder momentarily pop out of place, before being unceremoniously shoved back in. A scared, quick swear echoed from his mouth, body curling around on the ground like a wounded worm. An inhuman fear settled in his stomach, eyes reluctantly opening, terrified to see someone, leaning over the window, waiting.
“Fuck,” he whispered, hands shaking. A primal sensation tickled up his spine and he, without hesitation, threw himself onto his feet and sprinted toward the treeline once again, a coward’s move. He wanted to be back in his bed but he couldn’t go in there -- no, he couldn’t. There was something wrong with his room, something wrong with his head, his eyes. They couldn’t have split into two different entities again, there was no way. He had died, won, only to be brought back, and the Nogitsune couldn’t have followed. He didn’t feel the connection, his energy being sapped to fuel a fake being, not like before.
Collapsing next to a tree, Stiles breathed heavily, letting his eyes flitter eastward and to the rising sun. A shiver stuck to his frame as he looked around the oak’s shade, back toward the line of houses that was his neighborhood. Waiting, pupils mere pinpricks, for something to happen.
Please. Please no, not again.
Heavy breathing, the rustle of tree leaves, the chatter of sparrows.
Breaths still uneven and and shoulders shivering, rationality finally decided to return to him. There was no one there, was there? He tried to remember the days after the hospital, everything that had been said to him; it wasn’t real, the demon, that parasite was gone. This time, there was no way it wasn’t the truth. There was no way around it; still sore in his mind, the memory of crawling out of his own grave reminded him of this fact. He had died, the fact unable to be sugar-coated. He’d died, mutilated and bloody, at the hands of his friends, his family, and the Nogitsune had died with him.
It still took him a good while to get himself breathing steadily again, to push himself off the ground and stand there stupidly, dressed in a torn, dirty suit, not knowing what to do next.
So, like anyone who’d just come back from the dead, he walked forward, no real destination on his mind.
Leaves and twigs cracked under his previously shiny shoes, now dirtied with soot and soil. Birds, not yet having left in dread of winter, sang against the breeze, their voices eager and insightful, indicting feelings he didn’t yet know how to recognize. The trees around him creaked with age, their branches swaying, brown, crinkled leaves barely keeping a hold among the soft wind. Every once in a while, the keen cawing of a crow or raven echoed through the crisp autumn air, each unprovoked shout causing a shudder to pass through his muscles. The loud, sudden calls made his neck itch and his spine tingle; uncomfortable, anxious… fearful?
His footfalls stopped when he spotted one of the dark, avian creatures pecking absentmindedly on a rotted tree trunk ahead of his makeshift path. Something inside of his heart felt wrong, mushy and heavy. His fingers were incredibly cold, and he held them together, swallowing thickly at the sight of this bird, before taking a step forward.
The crow stopped and, instead of flying off like expected, turned toward Stiles, an omniscient glint in its knowing black eyes. The gaze of this bird made his heart begin to batter against his chest, and he watched as it cocked its head, feathers ruffled, unnerved. Equally as perturbed as him.
Without warning, the creature open its beak and let out an ear-splitting, hostile caw. Alarm bells exploded into his head and and his heart jumped into his throat, body instinctively stumbling back a few feet. Then, the bird took off, racing into the sky, completely out of sight in only a few seconds.
The cawing of crows stopped after that.
Thunder mumbled across the doleful sky, clouds turning a desolate grey, like dark, sullen cinders, leftover from a fire. Stiles felt the storm like he’d felt the feelings of the bird; deep, uneasy apprehension, the atmosphere growing taunt and tense. His back felt hot, like eyes followed his form from every direction, footsteps seeming to join his own every other minute. He couldn’t help the panic that began to settle over his heart, as rain began to batter the canopy above; why had he walked so far out into the middle of nowhere, alone, unable to defend himself from whatever there may be?
Droplets began to spatter against his back, soaking through the greasy waves of his unkempt hair. He tucked his fingers into the small, smooth pockets of his pants, eyes wide and alert, watching the darkening sky, clouds disregarding the time of day. He felt so- so alone; like an abandoned soul left to rot. The rabid loneliness raked up his arms, digging into his chest with renewed, unsettling vigor. That, along with the fear that weighed on his mind and his rapidly soaking clothes, was the reason he believed the shape of a structure in the distance was simply his starved imagination, a mirage emerging in a last attempt to calm his mind. But, as he approached, the figure grew in size, more detailed than his mind could ever spend on anything positive.
A shred of hope shined on him and he rushed forward, an urgentness taking hold of his limbs. He found the place familiar, and quickly realized why. The hope grew as he reached the door, throwing it open and stomping across dusty wooden planks without thought.
The smell of ashes met his nose, the rain and thunder falling to a dull roar against the tattered roof of the old, burned Hale House.
Rain seeped from different places in the ceiling still unharmed enough to attain water damage. He stood there, still, feeling incredibly out of place; this unexpected shelter was a blessing, yes, but being inside, after months, maybe even years, drove a certain feeling through his stomach.
Wet and shivering, Stiles moved toward the stairs, taking a seat and listening to the charred wood creak. He was incredibly cold, the feeling hard and indescribable, starkly new. When his demon had been with him, he hadn’t minded the cold at all; instead, he relished in it, found power in the numbness of his fingers and coolness of his skin. The effect, now, was distinctly worse. He could feel the cold like it was eating away at his bones, a persistent shake traveling from his toes to his neck. A sniffle began to manifest in Stiles’ already ragged breathing, and he coughed, trying to clear his throat while also keeping his hand tucked securely under his arms, the minimal warmth somewhat comforting. It was better than nothing, of course; anything was better than nothing.
“Shit,” Stiles hissed to himself, a disconcerting, maniacal feeling building up inside of his heart. An urge to do something filled up his lungs and he swallowed, fingers grasping at the smooth, dusty edges of the expensive overcoat clinging tightly to his frame. He was dead. He was dead. This was all wrong- he was wrong! They’d buried him; they’d moved on. Maybe they were better off. But they had also killed him- ended his life without a word.
His mind switched between hatred, regret, and terror faster than he could process. Soon he was gasping for breath, his hands folding over his ears, the desperate need for warmth returning to him without remorse. He was so cold, so stiff, a dead body reanimated, blood freezing and head spinning, useless, alone-
The sudden bang of thunder send Stiles leaping to his feet, a panicked yelp sounding from his mouth, the sounds interrupting his manic thoughts. He caught purchase along the smooth railing of the stairs, muscles tense as another rumble rang through the thin walls, the ground seeming to shake, shiver like his bones underneath his feet.
“No, no, no,” he muttered, senseless, terrified. Clinging to the cylindrical engravings of the railing, he fell to his knees, shoving his head into his chest, desperately trying to block out the noises of the storm. The irregular ideas replaced themselves with a pure, violent desire to get away, but he couldn’t pry himself off from the railing, couldn’t move from this protective position. Something primal urged him to run, to escape, like a sixth sense he couldn’t put a finger on. And, with another flash and boom of the sky’s thunderous rage, it started to feel much warmer.
That instinctual sensation was too powerful for his terror to shield him from it any longer; his eyes removed themselves from the ground and landed on the ceiling, far above, the wood glowing, being eaten away-
His heart leapt into his throat and he jumped away, landing roughly away from the stairs, structure now collapsed entirely by the burning plank lying in its midst. The already unstable house was crumbling, burning again, the potential shelter ruthlessly ripped from his grasp. Without thought he flew out the front door, the rain meeting his face like a vengeful slap. He aimed to leave, to run, to get as far away as possible, but was paused at the peculiar creatures flying frantically out of the house’s smoking orifices. Crows. They’d made their home in that shell of a building, the one now crumbling to the ground. Fear shone in their onyx, glinting eyes as they struggled to get away. Some flew to blend between the puffs of dark grey smoke, only for the fowls to drop lifelessly out of the plume. Falling at his feet, still like stone, like stuffed birds meant for display.
Mud and brown, tattered leaves stuck to his shins as he scrambled away, curling up in a ball amongst the sodden soil. His ears rang as the fire, too intense and too hot, disregarded the power of the storm, the blaze impenetrable against the pummelling of rain. Untouchable, vigorous as it destroyed, dancing like ferns in the breeze. Divine in its actions.
“I burned down a house,” he whispered softly to himself, sitting at the edge of a puddle, staring down at his ashen face. The ground was soggy from the night before, but he didn’t shy from sitting, cupping his hands in the opaque liquid below him. He splashed it over his features, balling his sleeves as a makeshift towel. It barely did anything for his complexion; only smeared the cinders and dirt around, hiding in the crevices of his face and decorating his cheeks with distasteful smears. Definitely not worth the shock of the water’s chill.
He sat back, leaning on the palms of his hands. “I re-destroyed his house,” he uttered distastefully, staring up at the mottled, cloudy sky. “I burned it down to the ground.”
Of course, he knew it hadn’t been him himself who burned down the house; the lightning had. The freak storm. But something led Stiles to believe that the storm was his fault; his faulty luck that everyone found so pitifully funny. Even when it had gotten him killed; apparently, mauled by a bear.
He rolled his eyes with an absent mind, barely thinking about how he must’ve looked. It wasn’t like anyone was around, or would be around any time soon. He was practically lost in the nature preserve, having run as far away from the smoke billowing from the trees as he could. He was surrounded by woodland for miles around, the only inhabitants being him and a bundle of woodland creatures; squirrels, rabbits, maybe a speckling of deer, but definitely no people -- or, one could hope.
“I mean, I’m in the middle of nowhere, out of place, without any particular reason. Who’s to say other people aren’t too?” he spoke to himself, rubbing a piece of dry grass in between the pads of his fingers. He sighed, eyelids heavy.“Well, it’s not like many others are in my distinct predicament.” the response rolled off his tongue easily, and he fell into the comforting grasp of a conversation.
“Like, there could be someone out there, right now, staring at me,” he nodded toward the trees, increasing the volume of his voice, as if to alert anyone doing exactly what he said that he caught them red handed. “If someone’s gonna kill me, do it. I don’t know about you, but death doesn’t really seem to want to stick with me.”
Bird song drifting aimlessly along the breeze.
“Shouldn’t you guys’ have left already?” he called, catching sight of a small, plump finch tiptoeing across a short branch a few trees to the left of him. “It’s cold for me. I can’t imagine how cold it is for you.”
The bird cocked its small, red-twinged head in his general direction, its beak opening to let out a few delightful seconds of joyful chitter. He felt a smile play on his face, pleased at the reaction, especially compared to- to others. Like the birds flying desperately through the broken windows, only to end up mangled on the yellowed yard stretching out before his feet.
The smile was gone, and so was the small, plump finch. In its place was a large, jet black crow, its head cocked at him, almost mockingly.
Suddenly Stiles didn’t want to be alone.
He quickly pushed himself off the dirt, away from the filthy puddle pooled at his feet, turning his back toward the creature and marching the other way. He had to have been hallucinating. Like De- yeah, like he had said all those times.
Hallucinating birds. Hallucinating demons. Hallucinating-
Dead set on finding out, Stiles took off the direction he arrived in. Initially afraid of the bird on the branch, he was now driven by curiosity; had all of that been some sort of psychotic, hallucinogenic episode? Had the intensity of the storm been increased because of his head? Had it just been rain, lots and lots of rain, pattering down calmly on his back?
Was he really just crazy?
He was hoping he was crazy.
Instead, he was met with the remnants of firefighters, those intense ones that come by plane, that fly over forest fires and put them out with dyed water. California was notorious for its wildfires and its force to stop them; he had been an idiot to expect nothing.
The blaze had been out for awhile. Smoke still drifted lazily off the crisp, ghostly structure of a once mostly intact building, but there were no flames. The trees around were black and ashen, the fire having spread a good one hundred feet around the house. Nervously, he crept through the now nonexistent foliage, back down and stance defensive.
The few firefighters he’d seen before were now gone, having left via something that he hadn’t spotted. Nervousness ate away at his stomach lining and he swallowed, peeking anxiously from behind one of the tall, dead trees. Dead birds still lied against the grass, invoking an invasive, sickening feeling throughout his bloodstream, a ticking time bomb set haphazardly in his head. A nerve twitched and his fingers itched, lungs burned.
He stepped out from the treeline, an irony taste sitting on the tip of his tongue, his footsteps echoing like the soft dripping of blood against the pavement. Vapor floated idly in the air, swirling up his nostrils, drifting aimlessly down his throat. He inhaled it greedily, illogical shapes forming in the forefront of his eyes, coaxing him, warning him. The black bird was at his feet.
His hand shook as he crouched down, breaths quick and quiet, simultaneously aware and ignorant of the impulsive orders fogging his judgement. His fingers brushed against the soft feathers of the creature he had watched die and the ticking grew louder, the empty hole left in his head momentarily filled with static and the senseless ticking, his vision growing dim, overcast with a dull violet.
Hollow bones cracked in his grasp. He closed his eyes, a warm, sudden feeling scattering amongst his nerves. Tendons stretched and snapped, cartilage bent and split, blood coming slow and lazy. There was no driving force, no heartbeat to pump it out. Already dead, gone, akin to the very hands pulling it apart.
Swallowing thickly, he let himself drift deeper into that warm, grey area, fingers meeting the hard surface of a beak. He secured it tightly and pulled, feeling the skull fracture and break, thin skin squelching as it ripped and pulled against gaunt bone.
When he felt his lips stretch happily into a smile and a choked, uncontrolled giggle dribble from his mouth, the facade shuddered to a halt. The warmth flew from his limbs and shocked regret rushed into his brain. His eyes were open but unfocused, barely seeing the dead, newly mangled bird strung across his hands. He blinked, breathing faster, a gag on his lips.
Blood was splattered across his palms, red soaking his finger tips.
“Wh-” he sputtered, the realization of what was going on finally setting securely in his brain. The ticking halted, hole in his brain present and empty once more, painful. “What did I..?” Resentfully, he tossed the remains of the fowl as far away as he could manage, his earlier pleased expression overtaken by repulsive disgust.
What had he just done, and why had it felt- felt good?
“That’s s-supposed to be gone. It was supposed to leave with- with it.”
His hand drifted up to the single slit in his neck, the four markings snaking up his jaw, a different feeling now washing over his person. Acute acrimony and malefic animosity swelled through his veins, a doleful shiver dancing up his spine.
“Why does it feel good?”