“It’s so wonderful you’re helping me, Michael,” Mrs. Brewster said, offering the boy a smile he had no intentions of returning. “I want you to know how much I appreciate it.”
Like I had a choice, you old bitch.
Michael’s mother had forced him to come, so he could help their elderly neighbor dispose of her recently-departed husband’s belongings. It was penance, she said, for receiving yet another suspension at Jefferson Middle School. “It’s either that or your phone,” she’d threatened. He knew she probably wouldn’t take that away—as far back as he could remember, his phone had offered her innumerable respites from her son’s sour behavior—but he also knew everyone had a breaking point. It was best not to push his luck and just pay the piper now when the bill wasn’t too stiff.
“Why, it feels like yesterday that my Jeffery was helping me around the house. He’s all grown up now, of course, moved out and—”
“Um,” Michael interrupted, looking at the dozens of boxes stacked high in the basement. “Like, what boxes do you need me to go through, or whatever?”
Never losing her saccharine tone, Mrs. Brewster explained what should be thrown away, what should be put into piles for the rummage sale, and what should be saved for the memory boxes. “If I do it,” she said, forcing a laugh in spite of the tears welling up in her eyes, “I’ll just save everything for the memory boxes, and then where will I be? Up to my ears in junk, that’s where!”
Michael sighed. “I’ll get started then, I guess.”
The first few minutes, Mrs. Brewster lingered, trying to make conversation, but Michal only offered sighs and one-word responses. She must have picked up on his discomfort, for she eventually cleared her throat awkwardly and said, “Um. I’ll just get started with the stuff upstairs,” and then left the boy to the arduous chore of going through nearly two dozen boxes.
Most of the shit quickly found its way into the throw-out pile: black and white pictures of Mr. Brewster standing with his car, his war buddies, and his wife and children; old medals and trophies won for who-gave-a-shit decades before Michael was born; and letters, letters, and more letters, written by he-couldn’t-give-a-shit and addressed to who-the-fuck-cares. It all went into the trash. Michael scanned some of the cards to see if anything salacious had been written—maybe by some side-chick Mrs. Brewster didn’t know about yet—but Mr. Brewster seemed to have been a choir boy.
And a hoarder!
The next few boxes contained even more shit Mr. Brewster had purchased at thrift stores and estate sales (the poorly-written descriptions scrawled atop each box told Michael this much) and then stuffed away, never to be used: an old advent calendar, a bronze candlestick, an ornate wooden frame housing the painting of some ugly old bitch and her stupid dog.
Again, Michael lamented his lot. It was bullshit he had to waste his Saturday on this. He had made his appeals about the incident earning him this sentence, first to his teacher and principal and then again to his mother, but his arguments had fallen on deaf ears. It wasn’t my fault, he’d whined. Heather had it coming. She’s always saying we don’t matter and that she doesn’t care what we say or do, so why should I get in trouble for doing just that? The ‘that’ he was referring to was a picture he’d taken and shared on Snapchat of Heather eating lunch (by herself, of course). Before hitting ‘send,’ he’d written ‘the cow grazing in her natural habitat’ atop the image, which had prompted a wave of snickers to echo throughout the cafeteria. But some bleeding heart social justice warrior bitch named Clarissa had shown it to Heather, and both of them had snitched. However, in the not too distant future, Michael would get Heather and Clarissa back. He wasn’t sure how, but it would be vile.
Thoughts of vengeance momentarily took a step back, though, when he happened across something interesting: a black-and-white picture of a man standing over an open grave, peering down into the black abyss. The man looked pretty cool, sporting a thin mustache, a fedora, and a I-don’t-give-a-shit sneer. It had been a box labelled not by Mr. Brewster’s clumsy hand but by one far more elegant. The box looked as if it hadn’t even been opened, perhaps purchased by Mr. Brewster recently so he never had a chance to rifle through it in search of a shitty crocheted potholder or some worthless magnet he could have stuck to his archaic refrigerator upstairs.
On the back of the photo, scrawled by the same elegant hand, it read: New Jerusalem, Massachusetts, October 1927. Status: Empty grave.
The photo had been paperclipped to an old journal, and he leafed through it with mild interest, catching things here and there—“in pursuit of Wolfman”; “locals say buried twenty miles north”; “behind Cooper’s farm”; “another empty grave”—but he quickly grew bored, despite the possibilities these blurbs offered: a bloody encounter, a grisly end, entrails ripped from a screaming body. But there were too many pages, too many descriptors, too much buildup. It would have been better if this thin-mustached explorer had simply gotten to the point. Better yet, why write at all? Some more of those black-and-whites would have been much more effective.
Yet despite the copious notes he’d taken, the man’s pursuit of this deadly creature seemed to have ended anti-climatically, with nothing to show for it except empty graves and so many words written about them.
No surprise there. There ain’t no Wolfman, dumbass.
Still, this box was a hell of a lot more interesting than the others, so Michael paused here and gave a little more of his time to what it contained: a number of published books written by this guy, detailing his many adventures pursuing the supernatural (booooring!); some more photos, showing him standing next to the skeletal remains of some mammoth creature and a cave painting depicting that creature ripping the head off a man’s body (cool!); and the elegant commentary he provided these images in even more yellowed journals (what a waste of time!).
At the bottom of the box, buried beneath these expeditions, was a manila envelope, with two words written across it: The Gorgon.
The fuck is that? The name didn’t inspire Michael to pick it up, but there was something foreboding about this envelope, as if it were radiating a heat promising to scorch whoever opened it. So he did just that.
Much to his disappointment, though, it contained yet another journal and a yellowed paper case containing more pictures. He thumbed through the journal, only this one seemed not to have been finished. The words stopped halfway through it, the final sentence reading: “Although her horrifying image is captured quite clearly in the single picture we managed to take, it cannot do the woman justice; seeing the creature live and feeling her eyes penetrating my own is beyond what a picture can capture, what words can capture.”
A grin stole Michael’s lips, and he quickly open the paper case. There was a stack of pictures inside: several of the mountains and even more of the wooded areas covering their sides; small towns and the locals dwelling there; and then a single image of a house that looked hundreds of years old. The image after this one, the final image in the stack, sent a chill down Michael’s spine, and a soft whimper escaped his lips. It was the picture the man had written about, of a woman (if you could call her that) with wild, gray hair and eyes bigger than they had any right to be. Her mouth was caught in a scream, revealing two rows of decayed teeth, the same color as her hair. Her skin looked like the paper found in all those journals, as if it would crumble under the slightest pressure, yet Michael knew no one would dare touch it.
Without knowing it, Michael dropped the rest of the photos and took a step back, as if trying to get away from the picture he was holding in his trembling hands. And then reality—or Michael’s limited understanding of it—crept back into his mind, where his mother’s words promising there were no monsters hiding under his bed, his father’s words mocking his stupid childish fears, and his own teachers’ denying the existence of the supernatural grew louder with each passing second. And it was this final voice, those in authority at his school, that made him think of punishment and condemnation and that bitch Heather and the social justice warrior Clarissa, and soon whatever fear and revulsion he’d felt staring at that picture was gone, and so was the interest in whatever else the mustached man had to say about this woman, his journal resting forgotten on the concrete floor.
With the deft movement of an artist pressing his brush to canvas, Michael removed his cell phone and took a picture of the screaming woman. And then, smiling and chuckling over his joke, he sent it to the world, writing “what clarissa sees staring up at her when shes fucking heather.”
As he continued throwing the rest of Mrs. Brewster’s shit away, including the journal detailing the picture that had caused a complete reversal in his mood, Michael started feeling better and better. As he finished, he thought suddenly that his father might find the picture interesting, too (he had always loved horrific shit and making fun of ugly women, and this image offered both), so he sent it to him and shared a good laugh with the old man, as well.
When Mrs. Brewster came down, she smiled and clapped her hands and told Michael “thank you, thank you, thank you.” The boy simply nodded, frowning again, and asked if he could go, grunting a “no thanks” when asked if he’d like any of the cookies she’d prepared for him. On the way home, though, as he his phone filled with messages telling him how funny he was, how clever he was, asking where the hell did he even find a picture like that, Michael was smiling again, the constant buzzing of his phone re-inflating his injured ego.
Michael’s father was still chuckling over the back-and-forth messages he and his son had shared this morning. It had interrupted an early dive into Facebook and the new bit of news regarding a pedophilia ring the Democrats were running out of a Philadelphia bakery. Enraged, he had left nearly a dozen comments on the article, seven of which called out the bleeding-heart bitches trying to debunk this story. The timing of his son sending that picture couldn’t have been better, as he followed up each of these comments by including the picture and the same message accompanying it: “what u see when u look in the mirror.” He even screenshotted these and sent them to his son, and the laughs continued. Next weekend, the boy would be visiting him, and perhaps they’d rekindle those laughs in person and then redirect them toward the source of the boy’s current anguish: his mother, that good-for-nothing bitch who nagged on him like so many of the other twats on Facebook and at work did.
Throughout the day, Michael’s father pasted the image into comment sections on social media and the local news, likening it to whomever disagreed with his points. And then around nine that evening, the man created his first meme—a picture of the screaming woman with the words “nancy pelosi at todays news conference” written below it—and posted it on Facebook. By Monday morning, right around the time Michael was returning from this suspension to Jefferson Middle School, the meme had been shared fifty-three times; it had been copied, posted, and retweeted on Twitter over six hundred times; and on Parler, it had been shared by nearly one thousand people.
And the numbers were growing.
Michael took his seat at the front of the room, chosen purposefully by Mrs. Johnson so she could keep an eye on him. However, this did not stop the boy from turning around whenever Mrs. Johnson turned her back to him and glaring at Clarissa sitting in the second row on the other side of the room or Heather sitting in the back corner. When their eyes met his, he offered only a vindicated sneer, and they knew what had given rise to it. The image had quickly found its way to them along with his message, and many tears had fallen thereafter. Neither told her parents or the school about it, though, for the message also revealed an undeniable truth: there was no justice, no respite, no escape from the likes of Michael Fitz. If you did not bear the whippings now, he would merely wait and visit those blows upon you later, ten-fold, when his anger and malevolence had a chance to grow.
Mrs. Johnson must have suspected the looks, though, must have heard the stifled giggles they prompted from the student body, some of whom were opening the image and sending out different versions with new jokes about Clarissa and Heather accompanying it, for she asked Michael to come to the board and solve the equation she’d written. Rolling his eyes, he walked forward, picked up the marker, and bounced it in his hand. “Hmm,” he said, twisting his face into mock confusion, “this sure is a toughie.” More snickers, more laughs. Clarissa bowed her toward her desk; Heather gritted her teeth against the tears and dug her pencil into the paper, where she’d drawn a picture of a young girl being flayed with great accuracy.
Michael scratched his chin, smiled, and wrote “X=ABC” and then turned toward Mrs. Johnson triumphantly before saying, “Oops, I forgot,” and then added “DEF” to the end. His teacher regarded the boy, shook her head, and began her lecture as all his teachers did, saying his name as if it were something pejorative. Before she could get past that, though, he said, smiling bigger now, “Oh, oh, I know,” and he was just about to add “GHI,” when he froze mid-movement, his hand and marker three inches from the board.
To the students, they continued seeing “X=ABCDEF,” but for Michael, those letters were gone now. In their place was the image of the woman he had seen two days before, in the basement of Mrs. Brewster, while surrounded by all her husband’s shit. It had all been so innocuous, so boring, save for that lone box Old Man Brewster had bought from some estate sale, the items not looked upon or considered since they’d been created and collected by the supernatural enthusiast and writer William A. Perdue, who had died unexpectedly and quite violently upon his return from the Appalachian Trail. The last thing Perdue had seen, the last thing he had heard, was that woman he’d sought out two days prior, whose picture he had taken right as she realized he was leaning through her front window, so he could exploit and make money off her, so he could laugh like so many others had done throughout the years, the decades, the centuries. Oh, but she would get the last laugh; her eyes filled with hatred, stoked by a lifetime of torment, housed her rage, but they also housed her pleasure. They were the eyes of a young girl in the classroom, who’d suffered daily torments without reprieve, finally getting her comeuppance. And now they were staring directly into Michael’s own eyes, and the marker in his hand began to shake violently.
The picture had only offered a black and white snapshot, but the face before him was in awful living color, as if the woman were right here before him, pushing her face through the whiteboard, and she moved with a speed he would have thought impossible considering her age.
(“It was all so funny, wasn’t it, boy?”)
His mouth moved up and down rapidly, but no sound escaped.
(“But I don’t see ya laughing now. Why ain’t you laughing now, boy?”)
He didn’t dare answer that. All at once, he felt something gripping his lungs, his throat, his mind. It was as if these vital parts had a vice around them, and this old woman was tightening it with each word spoken—only she wasn’t moving her mouth, and the boy did not hear her words with his ears. They echoed in his mind, and they were getting louder, making his eyes water.
“Michael?” Mrs. Johnson said, her frustration quickly giving way to genuine concern. “Michael, what’s wrong?”
An uneasy murmur arose behind him, but Michael didn’t hear it. The woman was leaning closer, and although every fiber of his being begged him to run, he couldn’t. His feet had betrayed him, locked firmly in place and refusing to budge even in inch.
(“You will know pain, boy.”)
Laughter played atop this, the crazed cackle of a woman who had been planning her joke all along, during the stupid, petty pranks and malevolent gossip and mocking jeers thrown her way each and every day.
(“Exactly two days. That’s all it takes.”)
Her words were deafeningly loud now, and Michael began to cry. His brain would shatter if she said any more, if that laughing didn’t stop. A thousand future scenarios ran through his mind, all of them grim, and when a hopeful voice promised tomorrow would be okay, a voice he’d always listened to in spite of whatever punishment he received, he couldn’t believe it. In the face of that laughter, there was no hope. And the boy cried harder.
(“Do you feel it? Do you? That TIGHTENING?”)
And that tightening grew stronger, around his lungs, his throat, his brain. Around his eyeballs, his testicles, his stomach.
(“So tight. So tight, boy. Until you hear it CRUNCH.”)
She offered him no lies, only a deadly truth, and those words were fulfilled within seconds, the first crunch coming from behind his left eye. Clear tears turned crimson, as three tiny rivulets of blood made their way slowly down his cheek, while the eye turned red and began to bulge from its socket. At last, his feet allowed movement, only enough to turn, though, so the audience might see, all those horrified, screaming faces who’d looked upon her image and laughed when they’d seen what the moaning boy had written.
“What’s happening to him?” a girl named Connie screamed. She had been the first to open his message, but soon, she understood, as the woman from the image suddenly appeared to her and began to speak her message again, the last words the young girl would ever hear.
Meanwhile, Michael’s nightmare continued, as he vomited a black bile onto the floor, where chunks of those internal parts crucial to life began rotting like so much meat in the sun. When the smell hit the students and teacher, they, too, began to puke. Some fled into the hallways, while others collapsed in shock, but it didn’t matter. Their last minutes of life would be the same. There was no escape. They had seen her eyes, they had laughed at her horrified face, and they twisted their own faces in exaggerated O’s of revulsion. Even those who hadn’t laughed, like Clarissa and Heather, were not spared. The woman who had once been referred to as The Gorgan—although, that, as William A. Perdue would have pointed out, was a misnomer—knew no mercy. Such sympathy had long been beaten from her soul.
Michael’s cries became a high-pitched gurgling as his right popped and a stream of blood and puss found their way into his mouth, already filled with a black sludge. Another crunch filled his head with a pain that made all that which had come before it feel like a tickle, as a noose around his brain began to squeeze as tight as it would go, yet enough power still resided there for Michael to register the pain, to beg whatever former construct of God he had to end his miserable life, to extend him this one courtesy even if he did not deserve it.
Yet the pain continued for several minutes more—for Michael and all those in the classroom, save the teacher who had been spared the image (although she had seen it Sunday afternoon, posted by a parent on Facebook claiming it to be a local congresswoman, and she would know her students’ pain all too well the next day at two).
No one would be spared.
In the back office of Fitz Automotive, while people screamed and called 911 and fled outside, a lone cell phone buzzed atop a desk stained crimson and black. No one answered it. Below, writhing on the floor, its owner let out his last choked gasp of air, staring upward with two ruined eyes, and the last sane thought Michael Fitz Sr. had before the pain reduced his world to an incomprehensible nightmare was what had he done to deserve this?
No one knew that the woman had once been called The Gorgon or The Witch of Hemple Hill or The Wraith of Winter Lake. The locals wherever she dwelled always came up with their own names, their hateful monikers, and their myths attached to them, and they always stuck like glue, defining her existence. More than anything, she just wanted to be left alone. She had never used her powers against them, not until their prying eyes had become too much to bear, their whispers and outright mockery too loud to hear anymore. She would have ended it all long before this happened, if she could, but immortality didn’t allow her such mercy—it did allow, though, the opportunity for all that self-loathing and hatred to fester into a plan and then into a deadly weapon she could point at anyone daring to come knocking at her door. All she had to do was stare back. And now, she could point that weapon to anyone in the world; she didn’t even need to leave her house.
Over the next fourteen days, the human race, for the most part, concluded its residency on Earth, a planet that did not mourn its passing. Those few who remained had no access to technology and posed little threat to the continued tenure of this third planet from the sun. No one knew what caused this mass eviction until forty-eight hours after they had seen the image, but at that point, it was too late to relay this final truth, for she already had her fingers wrapped around their throats and minds, making speech impossible.
If there was anyone left to ponder how this might have gone differently, he would inevitably turn his attention to Michael Fitz stumbling upon those old photos in the basement, and he may lament the boy’s mistake at not reading the journal before looking at those pictures, particularly where William A. Perdue catalogues the number of cases where residents came face to face with “The Gorgon” and all died exactly two days later (the notes Perdue had left about being skeptical of these accounts may have persuaded Fitz to adopt a similar mindset, though). However, such thoughts would be foolhardy, not simply because the boy had never cracked a book or taken the time to read anything he had not been forced to read (and even then, he put up a fight), but because this moment had been preordained long before the boy or his father had been born. Humanity had always been hurtling toward this moment, and if it hadn’t been “The Gorgon’s” revenge, it would have been something else.
Yet if humanity ever does regain its numbers, I can only hope it does not find a way to access that old technology or all those old sites still thriving in the digital realm, where she lives forever, waiting for the next person who will pay tenfold for humanity’s essential lack of empathy and understanding.
For the last thirteen years, Tim Hanson has taught high school English, a passion rivaled only by his love of writing. His work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Call Me [Brackets] and The Potato Soup Journal’s first anthology. Currently, he is working on his first novel. You can read more about Tim at TSHanson.com.