The Midnight Paper (Episode 4/8)
11:50 PM. I sat behind the front door this time. The last few days had been bad enough for me to be a little more cautious. I was still taking aspirin to stave off the migraine that started as soon as the porch light when out on Friday night.
I wasn’t taking any more chances. There have been many comments asking me not to be outside when the paper comes, that maybe that’s what caused The Ledge Game to become real. I don’t know. I also don’t know if the people who say that it was my act of reading the papers that is changing things. But I can’t stop. Not yet. I need to read the paper to understand it, to understand how much my father knew, and how it affected him.
I’d lost touch with my dad. The funeral was hard on him, hard on all of us. He retreated after that, wouldn’t even want me over for Thanksgiving or Christmas. One thing he said back then, that I’ve been thinking about, was, “it’s my fault.” Did he mean the Midnight Paper? Did he think reading had done something to my mom?
Now he’s gone too. The doctors said he sustained several injuries. Some of them were old, already healed. Self-harm was suspected, as was some sort of mental breakdown. When I got here, most of the mirrors were either covered up, removed, or smashed. His TV’s screen was covered with cardboard and hidden under a comforter.
I’m still looking through my dad’s notebooks. He must have hundreds of them. Most don’t even make any sense, just scrambled words that I have a hard time deciphering because of his handwriting.
11:59 PM. It was time. Once again I didn’t feel ready. Once again I felt like I was doing something stupid. But I didn’t have a choice.
At midnight, on the dot, the porch light went out. Through the keyhole, I could see the already familiar patch of darkness form on the welcome mat. Then I blinked and the lights were on again. There, where it always was, was a brand new edition of the Midnight Paper.
I opened the front door…and hesitated. I was looking at that bundle of bound, black pages with the same kind of cautious respect reserved for dangerous animals and predatory pieces of machinery. You don’t put your hand anywhere close to a meat grinder. You don’t try to grab a rat or a raccoon with your bare hands. But I walked over and grabbed the Midnight Paper anyway. The second I felt its pages touch my skin, I thought that I should’ve worn gloves. Whatever. It probably didn’t make a difference. I was going to read it, and that was probably worse.
I repeated what was quickly becoming a sort of ritual: I took the paper inside, set it down on the worktable in my dad’s office, and used the knife from the kitchen to cut the twine. The paper unfurled itself slowly, and the headline popped out at me:
THE HUNGER: MASS HYSTERIA OR UNKNOWN CONDITION?
After a bizarre series of events that spanned only a few days, government officials and healthcare professionals are struggling to treat the residents of a small town in upstate New York. At their request, the name of the town is being withheld from all publications.
It started slowly. A few strange reports started trickling into the social media accounts of many of the town’s residents. Some were presented as cute: “my little guy was so hungry he got into the pantry and ate half of his new cereal box,” wrote one young mother. Others were presented as comedic: “If I eat another burger I’m gonna end up like that purple brat from Willy Wonka” wrote one girl. Lastly, on that first day, some people were writing in concern: “my baby won’t stop drinking milk. Four bottles and still crying like he’s hungry. What should I do?”
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It seemed that, slowly, everyone in town was coming down with a monstrous case of hunger. Delivery orders skyrocketed. Supermarkets became crowded. With each passing hour, it seemed that nobody was immune to the sudden onset of paradoxical hunger. And it was getting worse.
People stuck at home ate through their entire bounties. Some even ate raw spices and garbage. Whatever was at hand, they tried to swallow, anything to quell that bottomless, nagging, painful feeling in their stomachs.
The town’s residents hardly slept that first few nights, choosing instead to continue eating anything they could get their hands on.
Soon, concepts such as self-restraint and societal norms seemed to crumble away. Restaurant staff left customers unattended and raided the kitchen and even the freezer, eating food and ingredients raw. Local businesses that served no food were abandoned, and those that did serve it were overrun. People could scarcely make it out the front door, sitting on the sidewalks with their bounty and eating through it on the spot.
The town’s only hospital was filled to the brim. The lucky few who were able to get a doctor to themselves were put through a gauntlet of medical tests. Every possible avenue was pursued, from parasites such as tapeworms to neurological conditions, to psychological breakdowns…and they all came back lacking evidence. The town’s water supply was tested for anything out of the ordinary, with nothing to show for it.
It wasn't long before violence erupted. Food was running out, and anything, even dog food, even the dumpsters behind butcher shops…even pet store cages, were now viable options.
People were trading blows over scraps on the street. Soon, fists and blunt objects weren’t enough. It was long before someone pulled a knife or a firearm. But knives and firearms were to be expected, to some extent. What wasn’t expected, what was downright unspeakable, was when people started using their teeth. It was less than a week before it happened and once it did, it was as if a line was crossed. One person did it, so it became an option for everyone else. Bundles of discarded, bloodied clothing became a common sight.
The residents were soon joined by several out-of-towners: concerned family members and friends, law enforcement agencies, medical experts. Most of these people were never seen again, and those that were had already joined in.
Through it all, a few social media accounts remained active. Most of them were incoherent or entirely mute, simply liking anything related to food, and soon just liking anything that showed a person or a pet.
One account, however, contained just enough coherent writing to quote in this publication. “Everr(y)thing (yo)u Eat has a soul,” the anonymous user wrote. “(Yo)U consume it when (yo)u eat it (.) We can Eat much more now (,) Eat something (and) take it into ourselves (.) We can eat life itself if we keep going. Some are eating the groun(d) and becoming this place (.) If the sun came dow(n) we could eat it too.”
Reports from the town have since gone dark. Local law enforcement agencies have established a barricade around the area, effectively cutting the town off from the rest of the world. There have been sightings of the military as well, with some rumors even stating that gunshots and explosions have been heard.
It’s troubling, then, that there has been a trend of social media posts of uncontrollable hunger from surrounding towns in the area. Government officials have stated that there’s nothing to worry about, “these posts are part of a social media frenzy. A sick joke,” said a representative whose name has since been pulled, “the people in (the town) are being treated and there’s absolutely no danger of other towns succumbing to the same condition.”
As soon as I was done reading, I backed away from my dad’s desk as if it had suddenly caught fire. This one was worse. Worse than The Ledge Game. Worse than The Removal Doctor. Worse than The New Kid. If this one became real…it was unthinkable. Horrible.
I grabbed a garbage bag from the kitchen and used the knife to push the Midnight Paper and the pieces of twine into it. I took the bag into my dad’s backyard and pulled the grill’s cover off.
The Midnight Paper made a dull smack as it landed on the grill’s metal bars. I screwed the cap off and flipped the bottle over. Before the lighter fluid even left the nozzle, the black pages began curling up and breaking into tiny motes and floating away.
I sprayed the lighter fluid anyway, but by the time it hit the grill, there was nothing left. The Midnight Paper had vanished in seconds, breaking up into pieces so small I couldn’t even see them fly away.
I collapsed onto my dad’s living room chair, the migraine already back at full blast. You were right. I shouldn’t have read it. I should’ve listened to my dad…because when I turned the TV on it was set to the news. And they were talking about several encounters with a strange man. A strange man who claimed to be a doctor.
Episode 5 will be published 10/21/20
Written by u/MidnightPaper