The Midnight Paper (Episode 5/8)
The Perfect Being?
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It was Friday night. 10 to midnight. I knew that, right now, the newest edition of the Midnight Paper would be hitting my parents’ welcome mat in a few moments. But I wasn’t there.
I’d decided, after last time, that I wasn’t going to be reading the next article. What if it contained something worse than The Hunger? I couldn’t let it become real. I didn’t want any more blood on my hands.
I sat at the rickety table included in my motel room. Every time I hit a key on my laptop, the table rattled, tilting toward its short leg (which I couldn’t identify for the lift of me). I didn’t mind. I was counting the minutes with each time I hit “refresh” on the search page of Herricks High School’s website. On the search bar was the name “Stephanie Carson.”
I got the Midnight Paper with The Ledge Game article on Friday, September 11th at midnight. One week later, on Friday, September 18 at midnight, I had witnessed a girl jumping off a building to end her life. I read the Midnight Paper with The Removal Doctor article on Wednesday, September 16th at midnight. One week later, on Wednesday, September 22nd at midnight, I had first heard about The Removal Doctor on the local news. That means that it takes one week between getting a Midnight Paper and the article in it becoming true.
If I was right, that night, at midnight, Stephanie Carson would become real. She’d suddenly appear in the Herricks High School website as if she was always enrolled there. No memorial service. No news about a tribute or a plaque going up in her honor…just a page or two about the school’s most gifted student.
Midnight. Just as I hit refresh, a heard three knocks on my motel room door. What? No…it couldn’t….but it was. I opened my door and there, on the patch of filthy rug right in front of my room, was a bundle of black paper bound in black twine.
I grabbed a plastic bag that held the snacks I’d bought at a gas station, put on a pair of rubber gloves, and grabbed a pair of grill tongs. The Midnight Paper dangled off the teeth of the tongs, its strange electricity still somehow crackling through the rubber and making the hairs on my hands stand up. I dropped the paper into the plastic bag and tied it into a tight knot. Then I dropped that bag into another two bags for good measure and tossed them into a dumpster by the ice machine.
By the time I got back, the shitty motel internet had finally loaded the page. “10 RESULTS FOR ‘STEPHANIE CARSON.’” I gripped the sides of the shitty motel table. Would I be too late? Was it tonight?
A few minutes later I opened my motel room door cautiously. The patch of filthy carpet was empty. No new Midnight Paper. I smiled. Maybe I’d gotten rid of it entirely. Maybe not reading one was all it took for it to leave you alone. I went right to the dumpster. The bags I’d hidden the Midnight Paper in were still there. They hadn’t mysteriously vanished. I nodded and got in my car.
By the time I got to the right part of town, the night was cold and bright. Streetlights glinted off of every surface, bouncing off a thousand reflective surfaces and zeroing in on my eyes. The migraine was back in full swing. I was a little used to it by now. I chugged a bit more of my soda and narrowed my eyes. I had a long night ahead of me.
I stopped the car and unplugged my phone from its stand on the dashboard. On the screen was something I wasn’t proud of at all: Stephanie Carson’s Instagram account. It had taken me less than an hour to find it. I won’t write it here, but her username was a simple combination of her name and her volleyball jersey number. It wasn’t set to private either. A little scrolling had led me to a photo of Stephanie and her friends in front of a house that could only be described as “excessive.” It was as close to Cinderella’s castle as you could get while still being attached to a sidewalk. I didn’t know the exact address, but there was a photo of her in front of a street sign with the same group of friends, wearing the same clothes as before. It was easy to guess that they had taken the photo in front of Stephanie’s house and the photo of the street sign back to back.
That same street sign was in front of me now…and a few feet away from it was Cinderella’s castle itself…and one of the lights upstairs was on.
I walked around the block more than a few times, trying to get my story straight. I had to warn Stephanie about Mark Bailey, who she already knew about. But then she’d ask me how I knew what I did…and I was still working that part out. I could show her my posts on here, but knocking on a girl’s door and telling her that I’d posted on Reddit about her murder…yeah. No. I’d be in a straight jacket before morning.
Whatever, I didn’t need to make sense. I didn’t even need to tell her about the posts. I could simply knock on her door and tell her that I’d driven by and seen a strange man peering through her windows. She’d think I’d spotted Bailey and would probably call the cops on him. Problem solved. Then why not call the cops myself? Because they’d ask questions…but she would too…
I sighed. There was seemingly no way to do this without looking as creepy as Mark Bailey himself. I walked up to the front door, held my breath, and knocked. The sound seemed explosive in the darkness, but that was probably just the lateness of the hour amplifying every sound times one hundred. Still, no sound or movement or light came from inside. I knocked again, a little louder this time. A few seconds later, nothing had changed. I was out of options. I bit the bullet and stabbed the doorbell with my finger. The electronic chime echoed through the house, about as subtle as a carpet bombing.
One light went on. Two. Then the whole first floor lit up. I heard muted little footsteps from behind the door as if someone was walking on a carpet. Then the latch turned and the door swung open…and something hit me on the head.
“Wake up, creeper,” a girl’s voice said. I opened my eyes. Then shut them immediately. The brief glimpse of the world I’d gotten had been enough. It was white and blurred. Something cold and hard collided with my cheek, shooting fireworks across my vision. “I said WAKE UP!”
I opened my eyes again. This time the world was a little less blurry. I blinked until the person in front of me came into focus. There, holding what looked like some kind of metal sculpture, was Stephanie Carson.
“There you are,” she said matter-of-factly, “I was worried I’d hit you a little too hard. So. Wanna tell me why you’ve been walking outside my house for the past hour and a half?”
“Mark Bailey,” I said, my voice raspy and little more than a whisper. There was a metallic taste in my mouth that seemed to extend into my lungs. Jesus, maybe she had hit me a little too hard.
“Oh, great. My stalker has a friend.”
“No. Not a friend. He’s going to kill you. Tonight.” That had come out a little more clearly. I would have been pleased with myself, but it was around that time that I noticed that I couldn't feel my hands. One look down and I could see why: my wrists were stuck to the arms of a chair with a ridiculous amount of duct tape. Jeez, had she used one roll for each hand?
Then Stephanie said something that made me forget about how my hands were already turning purple: “I know.”
“What?” I asked, my voice sounding distant and slow as if it was coming from a broken speaker on the other side of the room.
“He’s been stalking me for a long time. He broke in last week and I got a restraining order out on him. He’s close to figuring it out, I can tell. He’s close to losing his shit too. It’s gonna get violent. Whatever. I figure if anyone’s going to do it, it might as well be him.”
I thought back to something Mark Bailey had said in the article, something I thought had just been the ramblings of a convicted murderer: Stephanie had gotten loose and had stood next to the kitchen knives instead of running away, like she was inviting Bailey to use them on her.
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I cleared my throat “Aren’t you going to stop him? Don’t you want to?”
Stephanie rolled her eyes like I was annoying her. Scratch the “like,” I was annoying her. “I’ll come back anyway. Well, not ‘me’ me, but it doesn't really matter. It might make my parents look back at me, this version of me, twice. Now we just gotta figure out what to do with you. If my aren'ts get back, they’ll get rid of you and stick you in an acid barrel.”
“They’re what I call the fake parents that live here. Like ‘aren’t my parents,’ get it? They’re drones. Mindless versions. Not the real deal. Do I have to explain everything to you? So, if I cut you loose, will you leave quietly?”
“But what about Mark-“
“Oh, fuck Mark Bailey! What does it even matter? You think I’m the first one of me to die? The first one to want to?”
I was speechless. That was the last thing I expected her to say. “I can’t feel my hands,” I said finally.
Stephanie nodded. She grabbed a pair of scissors from a desk next to her, and that was the first time I thought to look around. The walls were white, clinical, there were tables upon tables filled with lab equipment around us. It was like a high-end research lab, the kind of place that might be responsible for creating a deadly virus or resurrecting dinosaurs…or making multiple versions of the same teenage girl.
Stephanie cut the tape around my wrists. I winced, the blood shooting back through my bruised wrists felt like acid.
“You can’t let Bailey kill you,” I said, rising slowly.
“Who are you anyway, a teacher at Roslyn?”
“Didn’t you go to Roslyn?” I asked.
“No. That was Monica and Natalie. Stupid of them to send two of us to the same school, right? No wonder Bailey lost his marbles.”
“So you’re not the same person?”
“Wow, you’re all questions, aren’t you? You haven’t even answered mine.”
I told her my name, then went about explaining everything I could about the Midnight Paper and my posts online. I let her read through them on my phone.
It was then that I saw it, that “strange intelligence” that Bailey had mentioned. Her face came alive and I could almost see millions of hyper-complex gears turning in her mind.
“Wormhole might explain it,” she said finally, then shook her head. “Scratch that. Simulation. Wormhole was stupid. Only…hmmm. You said you got a paper tonight, right? And that it was still in the dumpster?”
“Yeah,” I said, catching up.
“Let me take a look at it.”
“Think that’s a good idea? Neither was touching the fucking thing, breathing its fumes, or trying to burn it,” Stephanie said.
“Yeah, I guess you have a point.”
We moved from one room in the basement to another, and I saw the shelves filled with the occult books that Mark Bailey had mentioned.
“Those are mine,” Stephanie said. “Can’t rule anything out, right?”
I shrugged, not sure what she was talking about. Then I checked my phone…and my heart stopped. 4 AM. Mark Bailey was due any second.
Stephanie didn’t seem to notice, she was moving so fast she was practically a blur. By the time I had gotten to the foot of the stairs, she was already in the kitchen.
That was when I heard it. A man’s voice. Mark Bailey’s voice. “What are you?” he asked, “you’re Monica-“ then, as quickly as it had appeared, Bailey’s voice was cut short.
I rushed up the stairs and slid into the kitchen. There, on the tile floor, Mark Bailey lay in a pool of his own blood. His neck was cut open. Stephanie tossed a bloody knife into the sink.
“Don’t worry,” she said, “my aren'ts will take care of it. Where’d you park your car?”
It was almost dawn by the time we were standing in front of the dumpster. I pulled the plastic bags out and cut them open slowly with the pair of scissors from the lab. Stephanie’s face lit up the second she saw the black bundle roll out.
Before I could stop her, she ripped the twine off and unrolled the Paper…then she frowned. She turned the paper toward me. “Can you read it?” she asked.
“I can’t see anything. Just black paper. No words written in white ink. I bet whoever appears in the articles can’t read them. Because I’m not real. The Paper must’ve created me like you thought.” She was actually smiling as she said it.
“Doesn’t that bother you?”
“No! You fucking kidding me? I’m thrilled! I’d much rather be created by a mysterious newspaper than my fucking parents. Read it to me,” she ordered.
Some of the words were already being erased. But I read the article to her anyway. This was what it said:
THE PERFECT BEING? EXPERTS CALL AERIAL PHENOMENON “EASY TO EXPLAIN”
It’s only been two days, but the residents of a small town in upstate New York have already grown accustomed to it. There’s a strange shape in the sky that isn’t going away…and it looks like a person.
The event began sometime after dawn on ———— morning. It’s now ————, and the clouds aren’t going anywhere.
“It’s not just a shape,” says —————— a lifelong resident of ————. “There’s light in there. Like no matter how dark it gets, there’s something in there that’s shining. Like a little sun!”
The apparition is certainly uncanny. It’s a little shape that "looks like a person in the sky.” It has all the parts you’d expect: a head, two arms (complete with their hands), and two legs (plus their feet). The arms and legs are pointed at an angle so that they make an “X” shape. “It looks like the Da Vinci man,” one woman said. She’s not the only one. Many people have drawn the comparison between the man-shaped object and Da Vinci’s iconic Vitruvian Man.
If this was only an oddly-shaped object, it wouldn’t have made as big of an impact on the residents. Indeed, there’s a strange “glow” to it, as if it reflects the sunlight in such a way that the entire human shape is lit up at once. When the sun goes down, the “glow” remains, shining like a big star that often hides behind thick clouds.
This is an age where everyone has a smartphone in their pocket, a gadget that doubles as an expensive camera. So why haven’t you heard of this before? The answer’s simple: it’s too far away.
“It’s about the size of a fingernail,” a resident explained, “just hold your little finger up to the sky and imagine something floating up there that’s as big as the nail.”
That’s not very big at all. A photography expert explained that “most phone cameras aren’t particularly good at taking photos of something that small at a distance, especially against a bright sky.”
As a result, most of the images that have made their way to social media show a blurry speck against a blazing white sky. At night, the results are even worse, at best capturing a circle of light, at worst simply showing a dark sky.
Meteorologists, astronomers, and aficionados of aerial phenomena have indeed regarded the apparition as “a trick of the light.” “I think it’s a kite,” said a local man who owns a high-end telescope, “some kind of man-shaped kite that someone let go of, maybe as a prank.” A meteorologist stated that “it’s easy to explain. It could be any number of things ranging from drones to homemade balloons. It’s nothing natural, though, certainly not a meteor and definitely not a sign of the end times.”
So how exactly did this apparition become known as “the perfect being?” A local news station was interviewing a group of onlookers when they were approached by a “strange” man. “There was something off about him for sure,” stated ———————- a veteran field reporter who isn’t shaken up by “weirdos.” “He just walked up to the camera when we were interviewing another eyewitness and saying that he made it and that it’s the Perfect Being. A weirdo. A kook. We get too many to count. But it caught on. Mostly because people were making fun of the guy.”
The strange aerial phenomenon known as “The Perfect Being” still hasn’t disappeared from the sky. Far from it. It’s actually gotten a little bigger. “It’s like it’s getting closer,” said another resident, “dropping down slowly. Like it’s falling.” Some residents have taken it upon themselves to study this steady rate of decline in a scientific manner. “If it keeps dropping at its current rate, it’ll be down in about a week,” says a young girl who looks about as serious as someone working for NASA, “it won’t drop here, it’ll drop the next town over.”
We’ll just have to wait and see if this amateur astrologer is right on the money.
When I was done reading, Stephanie was smiling again.
“What does it mean?” I asked, already getting used to relying on her superior intelligence.
“Nothing much. Just that we’ve got a doctor’s appointment,” she said.
Episode 6 will be published 10/24/2020
Written by u/MidnightPaper