February 8, 2013
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Haliburt was a small farming town in the countryside of England. There were few inhabitants anymore, and the few who did live there knew by heart the story of how the townspeople had died years ago. It was said that a plague had swept over the land, leaving no person untouched. Even if a man did live, by some miracle, he would have gone mad and killed himself soon after. It wouldn’t have been easy, seeing the things the fever made you see. Even harder was knowing that your loved ones would die before you, that you were healthy while they were suffering. Oh yes, a person could go mad in the old days. But just as it came, the sickness swiftly killed everyone it found in the country and vanished. It was no more than a few years until people began to repopulate the remote countryside, but no one ever forgot the stories.

Oscar was a young boy when he first heard the stories. He and his younger sister, Alice, had been at the church sleepover that was required for their age group once a month. Alice, then four, had hardy understood the stories, only being frightened by the screaming and shivering of the other children. But Oscar, a boy of eight, had understood perfectly. He remembered how the man of the story, John Wilcox, had wandered into the forest at night after slaughtering his family, laughing as he stabbed himself over and over again. He walked until he fell from the lack of blood, and it was days before his body was found, half eaten by the wild animals. He remembered how the pastor had pointed a finger at each of the children, warning them to stay out of the woods at night, lest the haunted spirit of John Wilcox come to slit their throats. He hadn’t slept that night, and ever since then he had nightmares and fell asleep only from exhaustion, listening each night for any sound of maniacal laughter.

It was a few days after this story that Oscar met her. He had been wandering through the woods, which he loved doing in the day. As much as the woods scared him at night, he was never afraid in the light. He marveled at the way the light fell between layer after layer of browning leaves, and his favorite thing was to sit along the riverbank, listening to the rushing water and the cadence of the birds and frogs. On the days after particularly bad nightmares, he always made sure to take Tiber with him, his old bloodhound. Tiber was as old as Alice, and he loved to run through the woods at the side of his master. When Oscar went to the river, Tiber would run from tree to tree, jumping and barking at the squirrels that kept just high enough to tease the poor dog. It was a day such as this that Oscar first found the barn. He thought it to be the greatest find of his life. The barn was old, maybe built even before the sickness, before even his father was born. You could tell it was old from the way parts of the ceiling had caved in from the weight of the branches growing on top of the roof. Grass and flowers littered the floor, which grew especially high in the two stalls that must have been for horses. There was a pile of damp, old wood in one corner, and stale hay could be found in the loft above. The color of the wood had once been a magnificent cherry, but the barn had been ravaged by a fire at some point, turning it to a charcoal brown color that only added to the marvel Oscar saw.

It was here that Oscar found her. She was a young girl, maybe only a year younger than him, and she seemed different than the others. Perhaps it was the way that her hair was a soft red that looked dull and faded, or the way her green eyes looked hollow and empty. Maybe it was the way that the light seemed to never really brighten her dress, a white thing covered here and there with faded yellow flowers. Maybe it was the way that one moment there was no one in the barn, but when Oscar went to look outside for a brief moment, she was suddenly there when he came back. He hadn’t heard her approach, and he was startled enough to fall over. She wasn’t looking at him. Instead she stood facing the back of the barn, hunched over something in her hands. He stared at her, shocked, until he gathered the courage to stand up. He swatted at the bottom of his khaki pants and brushed any dust from his blue polo shirt, then stared, unsure what to do. Nervously, he began to pull at the loops on his pants, rubbing his hands on the legs of his pants. When that didn’t call him, he began to tap his thumbs on his legs, and quietly he cleared his throat, hoping to get the girl’s attention.

“Wh- who are you?” He asked, almost cowering as he heard his voice echo in the empty barn, louder than he had expected. The girl didn’t turn for a moment, and when she did Oscar could see some blue looking objects in her hand. He frowned, wondering what they were, when he noticed them beginning to move. He stepped forward, and saw they were caterpillars. The slowly formed into the word “goodbye”, and then crawled up her sleeve and out of sight. He realized that he was extremely close to the girl, and quickly stepped back, clearing his throat again. His thumbs began to tap on his pants faster. She looked up and stared at him, her dull green eyes piercing through his own brown pupils. He gulped subconsciously, suddenly remembering the stories. Could there be more ghosts than John Wilcox out here? He whistled once, and Tiber came bounding into the barn, sniffing around for a few minutes before coming and lying in front of Oscar, rolling onto his back and grinning stupidly. Oscar stared incredulously at his dog and muttered, “Some attack dog you turn out to be.”

Laughter filed the barn. It was a sweet, angelic sound that was perfect for the moment before it seemed to chill the room. He looked back at the girl to see her smiling.

“You’re Oscar, aren’t you?” He nodded once, and then caught himself looking astounded. How did she know who he was? She seemed to understand his confusion, simply stating, “I’ve seen you around.” She paused and then added. “I’m Alphonse, Oscar. Alphonse Rose. It’s nice to meet you.”

He stared at her for a moment and then said, “Um, I’m Oscar. Oscar Forrest. But I guess you knew that so… It’s good to meet you too?” The laughter filled the room once more, and this time he couldn’t help but smile.

“I think we’re going to be great friends, Oscar.”

Alice had a habit of following her brother when he went into the woods. After the stories that Pastor Grey had told them, she had to keep an eye on him, especially in the woods. She was the only one who knew about his nightmares, because they shared a room. And if John Wilcox did kill Oscar, someone had to be able to tell her dad where her brother was. She was only four, but she knew she could run faster than John Wilcox. He had died years ago, and she doubted that a man who hadn’t run for years could run faster than her. Maybe Oscar could run faster than him, too, but she loved her brother. She missed him a lot, because he had started going to school and she suddenly had no one to play with during the day. So today she stood behind a tree clutching her dolls, Tina and Karry. She had followed her brother into the woods, hoping to catch up to him and ask him to play. Maybe they could go on an adventure together. But when she had finally caught up to her brother, he was in an old barn. Alice stared at the barn, unable to move. It looked so scary and black, like something from a horror story. It also looked like it would fall. She was afraid her brother would be crushed, but the thought of the building crushing on her made her stay out. As she stood behind the tree she felt something wet toughing her hands. She nearly screamed, jumping into the tree, but then only laughed when she realized it was Tiber. “No, Tiber, you can’t eat Tina. Tina isn’t food.” Tiber stared at her, uncomprehending, and then they both looked towards the barn as they heard Oscar shouting, “Wh- who are you?” Only a few moments later, Tiber bolted towards the barn as her brother’s whistled pierced the forest. She considered going after him, then stared at the barn again with a weary look. She sighed, annoyed by how scared she was, and sat to wait for her brother.

It was almost dark before he came out, and when he did he didn’t seem shocked to see her. He merely waved for her to follow him home, and said, “I’ll play with you after supper, okay?”

She frowned at him, following slowly. “Oscar, who were you talking to?”

He blinked at her, obviously surprised that she knew that much. “Oh. Uh, a friend. She said not to tell you about her yet. But you can meet her soon. Promise, okay?”

The walk home was silent, and it was the last day brother and sister would share their loving bond. After that day, Oscar would never be the same.

After six years of disappearances, Alice had gotten used to her brother being gone. He no longer took Tiber with him when he went to the barn, and he was sometimes later than their father getting home. But he never told their father where he was, always saying instead that he had been fishing. They had fought often about the lack of fish Oscar was bringing home. One night, when Oscar was particularly late, their father had thrown a bowl against the wall, breaking it. The soup had sloshed all over the floor, and Tiber had rushed to his unearned dinner. Her father had stood, pointing at Oscar with maddened eyes.
“Oscar, I’m sick of this! You’re either lying to me, or the worst fisher in the entire country! Every Englishmen can fish! So where are all the fish!?”
Oscar, who had always loved his father and had never said a word against him, even earning many punishments from bullies for sticking up for the “worthless cropper”, was suddenly infuriated. He stood, tossing his bowl at his father and shouting back, “If I’m as worthless as you are, why don’t you just go ahead and admit it! You’ve never made anything of yourself, why should I? You think I like this? You think I don’t see how you hide behind going to church, like it can save you from your pathetic life? I don’t like church, dad! I hate it! I hate going and listening to the stories, listening to the old pastor spreading lies like harmless gossip!”
The bowl hit their father in the side of the face, cutting his cheek from his lip to his ear. Their father stumbled backwards, shock written all over his face, then he charged towards the boy. He smacked him sideways, then grabbed him by the collar and shook him.
Alice began to cry, and not knowing what else to do she shouted, “Dad, stop! He can’t help it. It’s not his fault. It’s… It’s Alphonse!”
Both men turned to stare at Alice, confusion coming from her father, shock and hatred emitting from her brother.
“Alphonse…?” Their father questioned.
“D-don’t listen to her dad! She’s making stuff up!” Oscar shouted.
Their father released Oscar and glared at him until he was silent, the turned back to Alice. “Alice, sweetie, who is Alphonse?”
She stared at her brother, who was glaring her murderously. She was suddenly scared of her brother, convinced that the boy she was staring at wasn’t Oscar anymore.
“Well… She’s this girl. I think. I mean… Well… She’s Oscar’s imaginary friend, okay! He didn’t know I knew about her, and I know he doesn’t want you to know… That’s where he’s been going everyday. He goes out to this barn in the woods and he’s always talking with Alphonse. But I’ve never seen her. I mean, I’ve only been around her once or twice, but she’s not real… Oscar isn’t too old to have imaginary friends, is he?” Alice suddenly fell silent, ashamed of ratting out her brother. Her father looked shocked, his mouth gaping and his eyes wide. It was a frightening look, with all the blood running from the gash in her father’s face, but she couldn’t bring herself to say anything else. Slowly, their father turned Oscar, still gaping.
After he got a hold of himself he grabbed his coat and stalked out of the house, muttering, “…go talk to the pastor.”
Oscar glared his sister, screaming, “Way to go! I hate you!” before running up the stairs to their room. Alice would never sleep in their room again.

“Oscar…. Oscar… Help me, Oscar… Help me… Or I’ll kill you.”
Oscar woke with a jump, finding himself on the floor. He lay there for a few moments, panting with fear. When he sat up, he found himself drenched in sweat and rubbing his face. He must have fallen from his bed. He sat on the edge of the bed and stared at the ground, clenching his fists to keep himself shaking. It had been Alphonse. Alphonse, who had been his friend to guide him through life, his friend to tell him how wrong his father was, his friend to tell him that his sister would betray him and that he couldn’t be trusted, had been in his nightmare, threatening to kill him. The girl had been covered in blood, her arms crawling with those blue caterpillars. Had that really been Alphonse? He shivered, and then lay back in bed, praying that it had only been a dream.

When Oscar came down for breakfast, he found his sister strangely sleeping on the floor near the fireplace, and his father packing a bag full of clothes, a bible, and what looked to be cookies. His stomach rumbled. Cookies. Oscar loved cookies almost as much as he loved Alphonse. He grinned at the thought of going to see her against today, and quickly pulled his shirt off, tossing it to the floor and grabbing another from the stair rail, hoping it was clean. His father looked up suddenly, almost jumping. He looked nervous and regarded Oscar with the look of a trapped animal.
“Hey dad…” He noticed the red, puffy gash on his father’s face and frowned. “Hey, what’s wrong with your face? Are you okay, dad?”
“You’re going away, Oscar.” His father stuttered, resuming packing the bag.
“What? Going away where? What’s going on?”
Determined not to look up, his father’s brow furrowed, and he began talking to the bag. “To camp, Oscar. A church camp. I went to talk to the pastor after…” He looked up, almost immediately looking back at the bag. He turned to the cupboard, grabbing socks and stuffing them in the bag, along with some paper and pencils. “After last night… And he said his is what’s best for you. For us. For Alice and myself. He said it’s safer…”
Oscar stared at his father, the saw a flash of movement in the corner of his eye. He looked out the kitchen window, suddenly catching a glimpse of Alphonse. He frowned, knowing she never came near his house. Alphonse stared in fear at Oscar’s father, then waved to Oscar, her eyes piercing through his again. He felt himself shiver, and suddenly she was gone.
“Oscar… Oscar, are you alright son?” His father stared at him, then turned to look out the window. When he looked back, Oscar was calm, his eyes intense as he stared his father down. He picked up a knife from the table, pointing it at his father with a relaxed grip.
“I’m not going anywhere. I’m staying right here, with Alice. You’re leaving. You’ll take that bag and leave town. Leave the city. Leave the country. I don’t care. But you’re leaving. And never coming back.” He threw the knife down, and it stuck in the table. “And if you’re still here when I get back, I’ll kill you. Now leave.”
Oscar stormed out of the house, only turning back to stare at his sister, lying there so quietly. He seemed to address them both as he spoke, his tone commanding. “She’s not imaginary. She’s more real than either of you could ever know. You’re the fake ones…” He stormed out towards the woods then, leaving his father speechless, staring after him for moments.
“I have to go…” Oscar’s father rushed out of the house, leaving the bag behind as he hurried towards the church.

Oscar ran to the barn, arriving out of breath. He leaned over, gasping for breath as he looked around. “Al-Alphonse…?” When she didn’t answer, he began to search the barn, inside and out. He still couldn’t find her, and began to walk around the woods, shouting her name. The crushing sound of leave made him turn around, his face excited. “Alphonse!?”
He frowned, disappointed when he found it was only his sister. She stood there, watching him like she was prepared to run, her arms encircling herself against the cold air of fall. She was wearing a longer skirt than normal, and her winter coat. As usual, she wore no shoes. He frowned, suddenly realized he had left his shirt at home and he was only wearing his khaki pants. He looked down at his feet, suddenly seeing the thorns sticking out of the soft sides of his feet, the tops covered in scratches. He didn’t even want to imagine what the bottoms of his feet looked like.
“Oscar… are you okay?”
Oscar looked at his sister, and then smiled, trying to comfort her. “I’m just looking for Alphonse… I’m fine, Alice. Really.”
She didn’t look convinced. She sat against a tree, and then offered him a lightweight jacket that he recognized as his father’s. He shivered, then threw the jacket on and sat next to her. “What’s going on, sis?”
Alice stared at him quietly and then whispered, “Do you remember the night Pastor Grey told us the story of the sickness? You remember the story about John Wilcox?” Oscar nodded. Of course he did. He remembered the stories like yesterday. Alice stared at her brother quietly then quietly muttered, “Oscar… I think Alphonse isn’t real…”
“What!? Of course she’s real! You just don’t understand her! You don’t know what she’s done for me!”
Alice stared at Oscar quietly and then sighed. “You remember the story of John Wilcox, how he slaughtered his family? Well… Pastor John said he did it because of the things he saw. He said the sickness could make you feel things differently. He said that the things John Wilcox saw made him a different man. A corrupted man… Oscar… are you sick?”
Oscar saw that his sister was crying, and he frowned. “Alice, why… why would you think that?”
“Because I never see her! I lied to dad. I’ve followed you for a long time, Oscar. I followed you for the first two or three years after that day… And I watched you sleeping. Ever since you found her, your nightmares have only gotten worse. You’ve become a different person. You… you scare me. And Alphonse… I think she’s to blame. I think she’s the sick part of you… Oscar.. What does she tell you?”

“No, Alice. No… It can’t be. I see Alphonse, she has to be real! I mean… Maybe, maybe you just haven’t really looked! She’s not all that bad. She just… Well… she just tells me…” He frowned and then suddenly stared at Alice, silently whispering, “She told me to kill dad. She said… She said it was the only was I’d ever really be happy. She… She said that you couldn’t be trusted, that you’d try to hurt me. But… I couldn’t believe that. And dad… Oh no, Alice… Oh no… Did I kill dad?”
Alice stared at her brother. “You mean… you don’t remember last night?”
Oscar clutched his head, tears running down his face. “I killed him, didn’t I? Oh God, I can’t have done that. No, no, no. I loved dad. I mean, he was going to hurt Alphonse, but I loved dad. I just, I don’t know who to choose…”
“No, Oscar! No, you didn’t kill dad! You kind of threw a bowl at him, but he’s alive!” She hugged her brother until he stopped crying, and then smiled at him. “Come on, let’s go home. Pastor Grey can help us. We’ll go see him tomorrow, okay? I’ll make cake when we get home.”
He grinned at her quietly and shook his head, “You know I can’t stand cake… Cookies are much better.” The two stood and he quietly asked, “Am I going to die, Alice?”
She hugged him, and they began to walk. “I hope not, Oscar.”

The night was calm. Oscar wasn’t able to sleep, too enveloped by the day’s occurrences and by his worry for his father, who had yet to come home. Alice was downstairs, cleaning and cooking her worries away. She was mature, for an 11-year-old, and much more insightful than he had ever thought. After tomorrow, he may owe his life to her. He smiled at the thought, when a crash made him bolt upright in bed. He looked around in his room, and shouted down to his sister, “Are you alright, Alice!?” When she didn’t answer, he began to get out of bed, rushing towards the door. A sudden whimper from behind him made him stop. He slowly turned, his eyes wide with fear. His hands clenched and unclenched as he tried to keep himself calm.
When he turned around, he was shocked to see Alphonse standing before him, in the middle of the dark room.
“Alphonse? Jeez, Alphonse, where were you today? I looked all over!” He started towards her, reaching for her, then stopped as she looked up at him. He stared at her, shocked too find her crying, her expression frightened. “Alphonse, what’s going on? Are you okay? Let me help you.” He started towards her again, but this time she backed towards the window.
“Help me, Oscar. Help me… They’re coming for me… Help me…” Alphonse disappeared at the window. When Oscar ran to it, looking outside, he found her figure standing a few feet from the house, looking at him. He waved her back to him, but she screamed a frightening scream, running off towards the woods. Oscar stared after her then bolted down stairs, pausing only to notice his sister lying on the floor next to a broken bowl. He paused, staring at her quietly until he heard another blood-curling scream. He bolted out the door, shirtless and shoeless, jumping over the fence between his house and the fields leading to the forest, running as fast as he could until he reached the edge of the forest. He stopped, suddenly remembering John Wilcox, and continued more slowly, jogging at an even pace in case he needed to flee for his life. He reached the barn, assuming that was where Alphonse would be, but she wasn’t there. He frowned, looking outside, only to find her behind the barn.
“Alphonse… no…”
The girl was lying on her back on the hard earth, her head twisted an odd way and blood soaking her dress in oddly shaped blotches. She looked to have been stabbed repeatedly, and as he came closer, he found the blue caterpillars she loved so much to be eating her flesh, two groups of them focusing on her eyes. As he watched, three caterpillars climbed out of her mouth, racing towards her nose. He stumbled backwards, trying to keep his stomach in check, turning away from the sight. As he turned, a rush of air blew at him, knocking him down. He gasped, as his mind filled with Alphonse’s face from his dream, a face of rage and terror.
“You didn’t help me, Oscar. You killed me. You didn’t help me... So now, I’m going to kill you.”
He struggled to his feet, the air around him seeming to push at him from all sides. He began coughing, feeling as if he was choking on something, only to find himself spitting out a caterpillar into his hand. He shrieked, tossing the bug to the ground and rushing away from the barn. As he ran he heard the sound of laughter from behind him, a laughter that he knew could only belong to John Wilcox. He screamed in fear, running even faster. He could easily picture the demented ghost chasing him, a bloody knife in hand. He turned to look behind him and saw a ghastly figure, a man dressed in bloodied dress clothes, a large butcher's knife covered to the handle in blood as Oscar had imagined. The man laughed, reeling his arm back and throwing the knife at Oscar. As Oscar ducked, he felt his foot catch on something. He stumbled, turning to look in front of him, and then suddenly realized he was falling next to the small waterfall that the river became. He stared at the ground below, growing ever closer, and closed his eyes quietly. When he hit the ground, a sickening crunch, the sound of his neck snapping, resounded through the woods, heard by no one. The last thing Oscar heard was angelic laughter.

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