The first night it happened, exactly 437 days ago, Jeffrey was walking to the bus stop around 10 p.m after working a long day at the office.
This was the only thing that Jeffrey could find comfort in. It was nothing related to the steps he took down the dark sidewalk, nothing related to the freezing air that bit at his ears and face, nothing related to the way he tugged on his coat in an attempt to pretend he was walking down a beach, a nice, warm beach- no, none of that meant anything to him. It was simply the only memory he could hold onto, and he felt as though he gripped that cold winter night so tightly that his knuckles turned white. There wasn’t a single clue for him to examine. There was no evidence.
When Jeffrey found himself sitting on the end of his bed, the first question in his dazed mind was, did I fall asleep?
He didn’t recall getting on the bus. He didn’t recall watching the window as he always did every night. He didn’t recall walking up to his door, he didn’t even recall reaching his bed. Most of all, he had no idea why his skin and clothes were drenched in blood.
He had a full fledged panic attack once he had taken in his appearance, staring at his reflection in the full-body mirror and begging his eyes to deceive him; but no matter how many times he squeezed his eyes shut, or how long he kept them strained and closed, the blood remained. He couldn’t find any open wounds anywhere on his own body, which brought him to the terrifying revelation that the blood was not his.
Jeffrey had been absolutely devastated the first few nights. He always hoped each one would be the last, but they never stopped. He began counting his steps to the bus stop every night, checking the time every few minutes, taking in his surroundings and taking note of every single person that stood or walked anywhere near him. Every detail, every step, every number, time, date, temperature, weather, physical state, mental state, every single component that could have made up these tragedies- they never revealed anything. They never connected. The nights he had marked on his calendar seemed to be completely random, no correlation between when he would black out and when he’d wake up confused and alone in his home.
One of the most baffling parts of these nights were that although he did have memories each day, the transition between his consciousness and the blank slate of memory in his mind was a blurred line that Jeffrey could never truly make out. He didn’t know the exact moment the light switch flicked off in his brain. The only clue he had was that it was always at night. He never blacked out in the day time.
There was never a weapon in sight, and never a presumed victim anywhere in his room or his house. He had even gone as far as searching under the porch, tearing up floor boards and digging up different parts of his backyard, finding absolutely nothing. He was completely lost and helplessly alone. He was afraid to speak to anyone about it. He knew they’d speak to the police or get him locked up in a mental hospital, and he was terrified of confinement. He couldn’t risk it. He just couldn’t.
The first three nights were separated by about a month each time. It was always the same- he’d wake up in his room, usually sitting upward, sometimes tucked under the sheets. He’d get up, each time breaking him more, and he’d stand in the shower for two hours. He’d change the sheets, get dressed in fresh clothes, and try his hardest to keep his eyes shut and fall asleep.
He never slept on those nights.
The rest of these nights were more scattered about. He had counted eleven in total, usually separated by a month or two, sometimes longer, sometimes shorter. He could feel his sanity slipping away by the fourth night, and by the eighth, it had become a numbing routine. He was a slave to his mind, giving up on searching for answers. There was nothing he could do, and he began to accept that- until the twelfth night.
That Friday had been quite uneventful. Nothing particularly out of the ordinary had occurred. Jeffrey made himself a cup of coffee and a bagel, rode the bus, walked into work, and left to ride the bus again home. His memory had faded out around 10:30 pm, only vaguely containing the first few minutes of the bus ride.
Jeffrey awoke at the end of his bed. He glanced down at his bloodied clothes with a blank stare, almost not noticing the small glint of metal in his hand. He uncurled and extended his fingers, staring down at the flash drive sitting on his palm. It was stained with the usual blood that coated the rest of his body. It took him a moment to even realize what it was. He felt as though the tiny device was a beacon of red light between his fingers, and he was afraid to move a muscle in the fear that he would somehow tarnish it and lose whatever it contained forever.
Once he ripped himself out of his trance, Jeffrey stood up from his bed quickly, his legs weak and shaking as he stumbled towards his lap top. He frantically wiped off the blood with a tissue and stabbed the flash drive at its slot several times before his shaking hands finally made it in. He powered up his computer, cursing himself for staring at the blank screen for longer than a few seconds.
He tapped his foot impatiently as he waited for it to turn on, his heart pounding in his chest. Once the home screen had lit up, burning into his bloodshot eyes, he focused his vision on a single folder titled “Introduction” in the left corner of his desktop.
Jeffrey clicked the file repeatedly until a video file began loading. He blinked profusely, feeling nauseous, afraid of what gruesome images would appear before him. Would he see what he had done? Would he finally find answers? Did he even want those answers?
To his surprise- and horror- Jeffrey found himself staring into the eyes of himself, sat in front of the very same laptop.
He could hear his ears ringing and feel his heart pounding as he struggled to take in what he was seeing. With great hesitation, he clicked the play button, holding his breath.
“Hey, Jeffrey! I’m sure you’re wondering what this is, right? It’s been far too long.”
Jeffrey felt his stomach sink as he heard the man speak. As he heard himself speak. The voice was undeniably recognizabe, undeniably his voice; the only difference was the tone. This strange copy of himself sounded disturbingly lighthearted and enthusiastic. It was nothing like Jeffrey’s voice- he hadn’t felt or acted like that in years.
“I’m so sorry this has taken so long. I guess I was just waiting for the right time, but the timing’s never right, you know? Unfortunately, this is a bit of… an urgent situation.” Digital-Jeffrey giggled, a high-pitched noise that sent shivers down the real Jeffrey’s spine as he sat shaking in his chair.
“Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Collin.”
Jeffrey’s twitching fingers paused the video, squeezing his eyes shut and opening them again, trying to adjust. His eyes darted around the screen frantically, searching for any clue for what could possibly be happening. Once again, like every other night, he found nothing. He would have to listen to what… Collin had to say. He would have to endure the terror in his chest and click play- which was exactly what he forced himself to do.
“I’m not you, but I kind of am, too. I’m a part of you; kind of like another person in the back of your head. I can see everything you see, but once in a while, I take the lead and operate the “machine.” You don’t remember what I see and do during that time, because it’s better for you to not know. As much as I’m sure you’re thinking right now, ‘of course I’d want to know!’ I completely understand that- but I’m here for a reason.” “Collin” seemed to be twirling something around in his fingers, but Jeffrey couldn’t exactly make out what it was. It looked like it may have been some kind of necklace.
“I was ‘born’ back when you still lived with Ben. You remember Ben, right? Of course you do. I protected you from him. You didn’t know it, but I was there with you the whole time. I’d take away the worst memories for myself, so you wouldn’t have to feel the pain of remembering them. Think of it as a window- the truth is right outside, but I pull the curtains over the glass so you can’t see it. I already know what’s outside, and I’m able to cope with it. All I’ve ever wanted was the best for you.”
Jeffrey felt a sharp pain in his chest just hearing his step father’s name. He didn’t want to think about him. He didn’t want to remember how much of a monster he was. The day Ben went missing was the day Jeffrey found he could finally breathe again, even if those blurry memories still stuck with him for the following twelve years. In the few months he’d been forced by his mother to see a doctor, he remembered what they had listed out in a monotone voice- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He remembered the confusion and fear he had felt in his chest when they explained to him how the brain sometimes forgets things that hurt too much. He stopped going to therapy when they started to try to make his brain remember.
He never wanted to remember.
Jeffrey returned his gaze to the screen, feeling lightheaded, and listened to himself continue to speak through his computer. He would force himself to listen. He had to.
“That’s why you couldn’t know about any of this. I didn’t want you to know at all, but you always managed to wake up before I could clean up the blood. I’m sorry I left you alone in the dark for so long, I really am. I should’ve been truthful to you. I now realize how dangerous and illogical that was. My life, my… actions, were going to affect yours one way or another.”
“Those feelings in your chest were always there. You always had that lingering pain when you saw something that reminded you of Ben, and I acted as the person who could carry out the destruction that made the feeling go away without leaving you with the shame. I don’t feel shame, or guilt. I care about you, myself, and no one else. So it was just better that way, see? I thought I could help the both of us, leaving you innocent and unaware of the details. I was foolish to think we could go on forever like this. I was foolish to think nobody would catch on.”
“The police have started an investigation on two of those people. Remember those two nights in the same week, back in January? I was being too reckless. They were found in the same place, the same injuries, and most importantly; the weapon and its fingerprints. I feared that if I didn’t tell you, you’d mistakenly give us away to the police due to lack of information. I’m sorry, I really am. I should’ve been more careful, and now you must be afraid and hurt- but it’s okay! As long as you allow me to take the lead when needed, we won’t be found out.”
Jeffrey strained his eyes as “Collin” finally raised his hands only slightly, displaying the necklace in full view for barely a second. Jeffrey slid his mouse across the screen to move back, pausing the video so he could see the object in his hands.
The glint of the gold and the sparkle of its ruby gave it away. Ben’s engagement ring to his mother was hung on a thin silver chain, taunting and terrifying him.
Attempting to steady his shaking hands, Jeffrey reached just below the neckline of his shirt, pulling out the necklace that he had so desperately wished to not be there. He couldn’t read the date engraved on the ring since he couldn’t keep it still, but he knew it was there. He knew this was the ring that Ben never took off.
“For now, please wash up and go to bed. We’ll figure this out in the morning. You need the rest. Goodnight, Jeffrey. I’m-”
Jeffrey picked up a bronze trophy from his desk, smashing the screen in one swift moment. He began screaming, watching flickering digital lines form on the screen until the screen had faded to black completely. He continued to slam the figurine into it, his voice growing hoarse from yelling and his vision blurring from the tears, before picking it up and throwing it at his wall as hard as he could. He walked over to the mess of parts on the floor that had previously been his laptop, raising his boot to stomp down on it, before staring down at the flashdrive, his body frozen in place. He had stopped screaming, panting heavily. He fell to his knees, struggling to keep his twitching hands in control as he carefully pulled out the flash drive from what was left of his computer. The flash drive remained shockingly untouched, a disturbingly holy sight, as if some greater force had spared it in his fury.
Jeffrey didn’t hesitate to get up again and begin running.
He shoved open his door, allowing it to swing open and remain that way as he listened to the melodic sound of his boots pounding against the ground. He could barely feel the rushing wind swaying him from side to side as he made his way to his car. Starting it up in unorganized movements, he slammed down on the gas and sped off down the road.
Jeffrey stumbled out of his car once he had reached his destination, running towards the doors with small windows lit up by artificial light on the inside. As he approached the entrance, his pace slowed down slightly, his feet shuffling into a robotic motion of one in front of the other.
Stepping inside, Jeffrey glanced around at the room in front of him, acknowledging he was being stared at.
His hand gripping the flash drive so tightly his knuckles turned white, he wiped away a tear with his other bloody hand, a strangely peaceful smile on his face as he stood face-to-face with a perplexed police officer.
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