4, 5 & 6

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manhattan

I received the above photograph this evening. I assume this was where I was for the last two weeks — I don’t know for sure, but this came in an envelope addressed as “#5.”

The contents of #4, however, are what I assume led me to the above dark and frightening place; a place that was so dark for so long, I completely forgot the arrangement of my own features. I was so hungry, sleep deprived and delirious by the time I was found, that when I saw my emaciated body in the sunlight for the first time, I passed out.

Anyway…#4. Lets see if I can tell this without getting lost.

I received the fourth letter  four days after I’d thought the entire thing had blown over; chalked it up to a cruel prank — people in this town love to fuck with anyone who’s anyone, and because I occasionally have a few photogs stalking my house, I’m on that list.

I stepped out of my house that day for my usual morning run and I was actually excited. Nothing strange for a few days…relief was starting to flow through my veins and I was once again happy to have gotten away with leaving Kristyn in the dust.

I slid my headphones in and slammed the door behind me a little too loudly, undoubtedly waking my mother — a mistake I didn’t usually make as this makes her very, very cross. She’s been in such an odd mood since her trip. I made a mental note to flip the coffee pot on when I came back in when I saw my backpack and my bike, resting on the sidewalk, waiting for me to mount and ride. My heart was beating so fast, my ears started throbbing and I started to see tiny black spots.

Someone had been in my house to get this. Hell, someone had to have watched me hid the empty pack; it was unnerving, but I knew this was some sort of invitation. I snatched the pack, toppling the bike over and hastily flinging to the ground to examine the contents.

I found all sorts of things that made up a meager survival kit; usual things, first aid kit (though several parts missing) oranges, a peanut butter sandwich, a map and most peculiarly, a notebook that was detailed in the most extraordinary fashion, with notes, directions and commentary. Pictures of me, my mother, her friends and what few friends I have left slid out, attached to this typed letter:

“Dear Paige,

Congratulations! You’re going on a long trip. You’re going to tell everyone you’re training for a marathon; you work so hard. I’m so proud of you. Everything you’ll need is in this notebook. Do not miss a step, read ahead or tell anywhere we’re you’re going. They will end up on the list (see pictures for order.)

The backpack includes all of your transportation documents and a cellphone where you will receive updates. You will only receive updates upon a termination or for further directions. Do not respond or try to call out.

The bike will be checked upon your arrival to the airport.

Make the correct choices along your journey.

Have a safe flight!”

I was going on a trip, a long one, if I wanted to save my life and apparently the life of many others.

My mom was number ten of ten.

I had plane tickets, a cellphone, a few toiletries and two sweat shirts. I opened the notebook and was warned to not set foot in my house again, “Step Number One.” These were all written out in the most beautiful calligraphy; someone had taken special care to plan this warped excursion.  I knew in my gut not to go against any of these instructions.

Fear began to take over my brain.

I took a deep breath in and looked around my neighborhood, taking it all in just in case it was the last time I’d see it. I had a bad feeling about this, but this could be my chance at redemption for fame — real fame, even if I had to die to be remembered as something other than the girl who was best-friends with Kristyn Hofstadter.

The first leg of the journey was eery. I got on the plane as directed, then another and then one more. I got on the bus and rode to a very familiar place in Colorado – the same park that Kristyn and I visited before she “disappeared.” To say I was creeped out was an understatement; whoever was fcking with me really, really want to get their point across.

My next instructions in the notebook were obvious. I got on my bike and followed it down the path Kris and I had taken that day. Deja vu flooded me; the sights, the sounds…everything was the same.

I was riding along, albeit trying to enjoy the weather and the scenery when I came to the place — I knew it well; an image branded in my memory that I could never forget. I got off of my bike and stood before the thicket of rocks and thorns where I’d watched Kristyn’s body tumble that day; where I’d left her to die.

Now, a patch of overgrown weeds covered a bit of the area, making it seem less like painful terrain and more like a sweet spot for someone to die; just for Kristyn, no doubt. I’m not sure why, but it was marked: a little pink, wooden tab stood out of the ground with a “K,” carved on the top. Next to it was her backpack, fully loaded. I threw up, either from exhaustion or nerves or both, and picked up the pack. Emotional recall is absolutely physical.

I started to unzip it, but instantly remembered the stern warning etched in the notebook, over and over and over:

DO NOT OPEN HER BACKPACK. 

Nerves shot down my spine and brought me back to my mission. I continued on for hours, diligently following my directions, when I came upon a house in the middle of nowhere. I felt weary, though these fifty miles I’d traveled were nothing on a bike in comparison to on foot.

I stood at the house and I knew.

I paced back and forth for a while, assessing my hunger, delirium and general nerves. I was mentally preparing for what was behind that door. I knew Kris was in there, I just didn’t know what state she was going to be in. I’ve only seen a handful of dead people in my life and they were all embalmed and beautiful, resting gently on silky pillows and in their Sunday best.

This dilapidated cabin didn’t exactly scream, “Welcome.”

  • Step Fifty – Put on both backpacks.
  • Step Fifty-One – Lean bike on the side of the house.
    • Note: Take a good look, you will never see this bike again. 

I had both backpacks on, said goodbye to the most expensive bike I’d ever owned and braced myself. I couldn’t have imagined what I’d find next.

I opened the door and the scent knocked me off my feet; urine, decay…rotten food. It was disgusting. I stumbled in to the doorway, masking the smell with my hoodie. I surveyed the room: floor to ceiling pictures of me and pictures of Kristyn, some of us together, some new, some old. Some were photo-shopped to look like we were sleeping next to each other, some were pasted in such a way it looked like we were talking. Graphic pictures of us lined the walls. There were pictures of Kris strapped to various objects, naked and beaten. There were pictures of me that I’d sent, with captions of who I’d sent them to — naked photos I’d sent to Kristyn’s boyfriend.

My ugly was showing, and Kristyn could see it everywhere. The biggest, most constant reminder of her fair-weather friend: a larger than life picture of me hanging before this almost-dead girl, who almost looked like my friend Kristyn. I was poster-sized. She was chained to the wall and table by her wrists and ankles, exhausted, dirty and malnourished. I’d done this to her.

I studied her in disbelief. She was a fraction of my once amazingly fabulous and perfect friend. For a moment, I felt the urge to brush my hand to her cheek and apologize for leaving her alone. “Had I thought you were alive…” Yeah, couldn’t start a sentence with that. Even in her hollowed state, she looked at me with hatred.

I looked down at the notebook for my next directions and choked:

  • Step Fifty-Seven – Open backback.
  • Step Fifty-Eight – Break phone in half.
  • Step Fifty-Nine – Take out selection.
  • Step Sixty – Make a choice.

There were a few pages of commentary, as this was the end of the contents of the instruction manual, though I can’t really count it as the 5th letter; that would come later.

“Paige,

You’ve done quite well to have made it this far, though only 5 out of the ten people remain on your list. “

— this person plotted these deaths and knew what moves I was going to make before I even made them; an elaborate setup indeed. The notebook was just a way to make sure I failed correctly.

“I watched you years ago make a cowardly decision. I was randomly on the same trail, ‘bird watching’ if you will and saw everything. You left your friend to die in the woods; you killed her, yet her she lies, nearly lifeless. I followed your story on the media for a long while. I was impressed you were never convicted of the crime, you wore your jealousy so plainly. I know what it’s like to want shine, so I thought I’d give you the opportunity for some redemption. I’ve provided you with many options in the pack” – a tiny handgun, rope, an array of knives and a little tab of acid, which was explained, to only torture her further. “Choose one quickly and carefully, as you must be on your way to the additional part of your extended journey; someone is waiting for you. Should you fail to finish your task in a timely manner, two more people will expire at your hands. Just two more, or I’ll tell.

I’m watching.”

I began to cry.

“Do you want me to feed you?” I asked Kristyn with zero emotion in my voice. She only stared. I guess that’s all I would do too.

I was trying to find my darkness, begging it to show up so I wouldn’t regret this tomorrow. I learned from watching my mom for so many years. She was capable of conjuring it in some way that I wasn’t. She’d laugh at me sometimes and say I didn’t have a mean bone in my body. I made the mental note that I wanted to prove her wrong and set about my mission.

I scanned the room and realized there were other ways to go about performing this act without the options in the backpack. Laying around the room I spotted: baseball bat, plastic bags, extra chains, a pillowcase…I could tip her over, away from the small plate of food that was covered in flies that was no doubt what she’d been eating — and for a while as best as I could tell.

I paced the floor. I couldn’t imagine firing a gun on another person, stabbing her or adding to the heavy amount of torture I knew she’d faced already. Time was running out and I couldn’t find the strength to do it; that kind of courage is hard to muster, even for the dark ones.

Out of nowhere, “Manhattan,” by Blossom Dearie began to play. I couldn’t make out from where, but I took this as a signal that my time was running out. My mother played this kind of music when she cleaned the house. I imagined her putting fresh sheets on my bed and knew what I was going to do.

I shook the flat pillow from its case, knotted it tight enough around her head and tipped her over gently. I threw up all over myself as I turned her away from the table and I realized I was crying hysterically. Normal jealousy doesn’t lead to things like this. I know something is wrong with me, but I didn’t know I could allow it to come to this.

I was disturbed by the things I’d seen in that house. As a familiar figure was approaching me, I blacked out.

Days later — I’m not sure how many — I woke to darkness. My body felt as though it had been resting for eternity, like I hadn’t been alive for a while. I’d been given the left over acid, no doubt. My only memory is from that room, a place I was afraid to explore. I never found the dimensions of the room, I don’t know if I was there alone or there with Kristyn. Thinking of her half-dead body inches away kept me from sleep; a facsimile of her morose face was above, below and on every side of me.

I spent my days squinting, trying to see the face that brought me here, the face that showed me this side of darkness. Time in between those moments of attempted differentiation, I drifted in and out of consciousness, dreaming about my family and Kristyn. I dreamt of riding on beautiful days, of wide bike paths and finding little cottages in the middle of the woods.

I dreamt of my hand reaching so far in to the mailbox that I could sink my nails in to cold, muddy earth. Each time, I pulled out Kristyn’s hand.

Sorry, I’m losing myself here.

All I know is this: Yesterday, apparently fourteen days after I received the fourth letter, I was miraculously rescued from the pictured apartment, which as I had predicted, was in Manhattan. An anonymous tip on a suspicious detail about my disappearance led them to believe that this was where I was located. After spending hours trying to break the system’s code, the building unlocked by some stroke of luck.

I was blinded by lights and questions and loud voices and sunlight. I registered what was going on and passed out immediately.

My most glorious moment, and I was basking. It was bittersweet, my favorite flavor. Whomever had given me this gift knew exactly what I wanted. I spent the night in the hospital, awaiting my mother’s arrival so we could get through this together. I was poked and prodded and sampled before she finally made it there, but I was glad to see her when she arrived.

“Well, I’ve always wanted to come to New York!” my mom said when she arrived at the hospital. I mustered a chuckle, though I found the joke ill timed. I’d just been peppered with a round of questions from every detective in Manhattan while in a hospital gown. This was not the time for humor.

I turned my thoughts to Kristyn now and decided not to be greedy. I sent a tiny “thanks” up to her for allowing me this moment of heroism in the sun. I’d gone out to save her and ended up being abducted myself. I was in absolute heaven. I thought about the interviews, the books that would be written, the movies made. This was a story worth telling, and I was the star.

I’d just come out of the bathroom — I was admiring my thinness. “Kidnapped,” gives a girl a certain frame — when I heard them talking.

Kristyn Hofstadter was strangely discovered, “alive near the open field where she’d been abducted after a biking accident, while on a bike ride with her best friend Paige, two years ago.”

I was famous for twenty minutes.

No news of her abductor has been reported. We aren’t sure if our cases are linked or incidental. The investigation is underway..this could get interesting.

The media is in a frenzy of the discovery of this American sweetheart, who survived.

When I was rescued, I knew it was all over and I was relieved. Twenty-four whole hours of no fear or paranoia, in the limelight… until I received letter #5 today as soon as I walked through the door, and after the longest day of travel — that stupid picture with a coffee ring crusted sticky note that read:

“You did well. I’m so proud of you, my shining star.

Love,

Mom”

I am still in disbelief. My mom hasn’t left my side since she met at the hospital, so there’s no way this is possible. Whoever is playing this joke…well, I get it. I’m laughing okay. I am laughing til I am crying.

***

“I blew her up in that house years ago, Paige. I don’t understand how this could be happening now.”

I watched her face closely and could read unsure blame starting to pool in her eyes. Had she blacked out and done all of these things?

There was enough evidence all over the house and in our yard to prove that she had, but I couldn’t dream of it. Our creepy neighbor from across the street would later be the one convicted for the crime.

“It just can’t be possible….I dropped the match myself.” The whisper in her voice brought me back to present day, away from a memory I was only anticipating.

My mom was lost in thought, referring to her own nightmare of a story.

We were sitting over coffee a few hours later, attempting to rationalize all of the craziness, when the doorbell rang.

It was Kristyn. Right on time.

“Look, I don’t know what kind of sick, fucked up funny joke you think this is, but this accidentally came to my house. It was in my mailbox this morning.”

She handed me an envelope, addressed to me, but with Return to Sender stamped on it. Perfect.

Photographers were gathering in my front yard and I knew I needed to give them a minute to get a few good shots.I stared at her a moment too long, for flair, and closed the door.

That was the last time I would see Kristyn.

I presented the letter to my mom in quiet, calm hysterics, placing blame without actually accusing her. She was already thinking it, I just had to give her a nudge. It was important that this happened, otherwise Langston Gregory wouldn’t have gone to prison for torturing us and previously (coincidentally) sexually assaulting five other women in the early 90s.

Guess I have an eye for this sort of thing.

My mom was flipping through an old photo album now, looking at pictures of her mom; it looked like a collection photos from the Mayan Riviera. I knew all about that trip and what it had done to the grandmother I never got to meet.

After about an hour of convincing me she had nothing to do with sending Letter #6, I claimed fatigue and went up to my room.

Five days later it would start. First they’d search my house, based off an anonymous tip I’d paid a guy to make. This would push my mom to the front of the investigation, which I felt bad about, but knew she’d never be arrested for anything.

Gregory dropped something in my room while he was digging for my backpack; a small something that was overlooked. His house was searched and my DNA, Kristyn’s DNA and copies of every photo in that tiny little house in the woods were found in his garage.

Yes, it was all going to go off without a hitch.

I flung myself on the bed in total satisfaction. I’d nailed it, every last detail of this perfect fucked up story belonged to me.

I had to relive it in my mind just one more time before it was all over, before I let all the details of all the lies I told slip away. I couldn’t afford to have this much knowledge in the days that would follow.

I guess I should explain myself.

I never, ever get any mail and this upsets me to no end. There’s something exciting about receiving something from somewhere else; it’s an excitement I can’t explain.

Kristyn’s boyfriend was three years ahead of us and lived out of state — Colorado, to be exact — and would send her care packages and letters all the time; he was head over heels for her and it made me crazy. Crazy jealous.

When we were on the bike path that day, Kristyn had injured her head quite badly, from the exact fall I described. I didn’t want it to end like this for her, it wasn’t enough for her to just bleed out in bubbly, blonde glory. I made a hasty decision, hoisted her up as best as I could, and for three days, we trekked through the woods, bleeding and starving.

I came upon the little house I left her in, by luck only, and dumped her in. I made myself a little note of where we were in my notebook and moved on; I didn’t have time to sit and linger in the agony of my decision. I back tracked a few miles and left a few things to make it look like I’d been disturbed as well. Locked my bike around the tree, left a jacket and peeled an orange. After that, my first stop was the Park Ranger’s office to report what had happened.

I made everything look completely normal, really went method with it. I practically killed and starved myself for the exact wounds I wanted for when I told the story. I’d pictured it all up to this point.

I drove back and forth to Colorado every three months to feed Kristyn, making sure she could reach things just enough, though starve without dying. I would tell my mom I was going to look for her or train for marathons I never ran.

The important key to it all: I never let her story die. People were beginning to give up, but I couldn’t let that happen. That’s when I started sending myself letters in the mail.

I suppose at first it started as an innocent prank. I realized the third trip or so to Colorado that I’d gone too far and that I needed to wrap up this game.

My mom has said for years how much she wanted to go to New York and I wanted to give her that; the trouble was, it had to look correct. Mom knew all about the mail I’d been receiving and how paranoid I’d been over the last few weeks.

Didn’t I deserve a vacation after all of this hard work?

I dumped Kristyn’s weak body where she laid two years ago and left her to die, one last time. I shouldn’t have been shocked that she didn’t die; ever the survivor, that golden girl.

It didn’t matter now, I didn’t need her to die to remain in the light.

I stumbled my way through the woods and found a Greyhound station three miles from the mouth of the park. I got on a bus which took me to another bus station and so on until I eventually got on the train in Philadelphia. I rode it all the way to Manhattan. I meandered through the city for a few hours, had a slice and a beer, then decided I’d camp out in Sunnyside until my cash ran out.

I’d paid off quite a few people, which is why I picked NYC. People will do just about anything for money in that city so I took advantage. I needed:

  • Someone to lock me in a room for a week and starve me.
  • Someone to tip off the police about the locked room I was in.
  • Someone to help me plant all of the information the detectives would need.

I found all of those things easier than I could have imagined. Once the transactions were made, the whole thing was done and all I needed to do was wait, play my part accordingly.

You know, orchestrating this was expensive, yet less daunting a task as the charade went on.

People can be bought.

I think next time, though, I’ll just send myself cake.

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