When I woke up, I was in a clean white hospital bed. I looked at the room reflected in the dark window. It was night.
My mom and dad were sitting in the chairs next to my bed. They looked like they’d been there for hours. My mom was crying, and my dad could barely stay awake. He must have flown in all the way from Seattle.
“Nina …” my mom whispered. More tears fell from her eyes, and she grabbed my hand. “Baby, can you hear me?”
“Yeah,” I mumbled. The first thing I asked for was water.
My parents tried asking how I was, but I didn’t know what to say. Even I didn’t know how I was. I just knew that when I looked to the end of the bed, only my right foot stuck out from under the covers.
Then a doctor walked in. She wore a white coat and flipped through her clipboard to find my name. When she found it, she introduced herself to my parents.
“Fortunately, the surgery was successful,” she told them.
“Successful?” my dad scoffed, fully awake by now. “You cut off her goddamn leg!”
“For god’s sake,” my mom hissed, “not in front of her!”
It didn’t matter. I already knew the leg was gone. There was no feeling below my left knee, and not like the numbness you get at the dentist’s office. I couldn’t even feel where my foot and toes were supposed to be. It was like they never existed.
Still, I had to see it for myself. While the doctor and my parents talked, I pulled back the sheets up over my knees. My left thigh was there, and my knee was wrapped in layers and layers of bandages. Other than that, there was nothing below it. I had a fucking stump.
My right leg, of course, was completely intact, not that it did me much good. What was I supposed to do with only one leg for the rest of my life?
“What the fuck …” I said softly, just taking in the insanity of it all. No one even told me to watch my language.
My dad was still pissed at the doctor. “You couldn’t just give her a skin graft or something?” he protested. “You had to chop the whole damn thing off?!”
“Not now,” my mom warned through clenched teeth.
The doctor tried to calm them down. “It was our only option,” she said. “The leg had developed a severe case of sepsis. If we hadn’t amputated, it might have spread through her whole system and possibly been fatal. If there was a better course of action, we would have taken it.”
“So now what, she’s just going to have one leg now?” my dad demanded. “How’s she going to live like that?”
My mom buried her face in her hands. She was done arguing with him.
“When the knee heals,” said the doctor, “we’ll be able to consider a prosthetic as an option. The nerve damage wasn’t too severe, so it’s a very likely possibility.”
“Thank god,” my mom whispered. She looked up at the doctor. “So she’ll be able to walk again? With the technology, you guys can do that?”
“It will require extensive physical therapy,” said the doctor, “but at this point it’s a definite possibility.”
Of course, things can always change, I thought, but I didn’t say it. Honestly, I hoped I’d walk again. But even though I’m only thirteen, I already know… Nothing ever goes exactly how you hope it will.
My parents and the doctor kept talking back and forth. My dad eventually calmed down. They obviously didn’t need me to participate in this discussion. I soon fell asleep.
When I woke up, it was morning. My mom was still there, sleeping upright in the seat. My dad was somewhere else.
“Mom?” I called softly.
She slowly opened her eyes. “Hey, sweetie. How you feeling?”
“Fine,” I murmured. I was too groggy to make much conversation.
She asked me if I wanted any breakfast, but I felt too sick to eat. Instead, a nurse brought me one of those nutrition shakes. It actually wasn’t that bad, but it didn’t do anything for me. To be honest, I don’t think I’ll ever enjoy the taste of anything again.
“There’s something you need to know,” said my mom.
I finished my drink and took a few sips of water. “What is it?” I asked.
“It’s your friends, Ashleigh and Jenna,” she said. “They’re here too.”
By now, nothing surprised me. “Why?” I asked. But I already knew.
“I didn’t tell you before, because I didn’t want you to worry,” she said. “But the thing that happened to you … It happened to them.”
Even though I was expecting it, my eyes still teared up just from hearing this. There was still so much I didn’t know.
“What’s happening? … ” I asked, as my throat tightened. “And why? Why’s it happening?”
My mom sighed. “Honey, I wish I knew. I don’t. Their parents don’t know, the doctors don’t know. Everybody’s in the dark.”
“Mom, is someone doing this?” I could barely get the words out. “Is a person doing this?”
More tears fell, from both of us.
“Sweetie,” she said, “the cops are going to be here to ask you some questions…”
Sure enough, just a few minutes later, two cops showed up, a man and a woman. The door was already propped open, so they just walked in. There were weird distorted voices crackling in and out from their radios. I didn’t understand a single word, but it probably meant something bad was happening somewhere else, to someone else. Bad things are always happening.
The cops talked to my mom first. They asked her if she was my legal guardian, if she gave permission for them to question me, if she’d sign a waiver, that kind of thing – and of course my mom agreed. Then the male cop went back to guard the door, and the female cop spoke to me as my mom listened in.
She was really pretty, I noticed, especially for a cop. Her dark, wavy hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and she had a few light-brown freckles on her cheeks and across her nose. She’d probably be even prettier if she actually wore makeup.
“Nina,” said the cop lady, “we’re just going to ask you a few questions, okay?”
“Okay…” I replied.
She went on to ask me if I knew what was going on, if I understood that if I lied to her I could be charged with perjury or some weird shit, and other questions I quickly said yes to, just so she’d shut up. Then the interrogation began for real.
“What were you doing Friday night before the injury took place?” she asked me.
I started to give her a brief run-down of what happened. “I was watching T.V. with my mom…”
“Which show?” asked Cop Lady.
“A few shows, actually.” I named all the shows I’d watched on the DVR that night. I might have no idea why I woke up with half a leg, but I’d never forget an episode of Grey’s Anatomy.
“Then what happened?” she asked.
“I did my nails …” I said.
“But your fingernails aren’t polished.”
“My toenails,” I clarified. I moved my right foot out from under the covers to show her my black and pink self-pedicure. She nodded.
I was just about to use my right toes to move the covers up to show my left toes, but then I remembered…I didn’t have any left toes.
“Okay …” said Cop Lady. She clicked the pen in her hand and made some notes on a legal pad. “Then what?”
“My mom went up to bed,” I answered, “and I waited for my nails to dry.”
“What time did your mom go to bed?”
“I think … maybe 10?” I looked at my mom. She nodded.
“And when did you go to bed?” Cop Lady asked me.
“I fell asleep on the couch,” I said, “a few minutes after midnight.”
“And when you woke up, the injury had already taken place?”
“Yeah,” I said. “My leg was gone, if that’s what you mean.”
“Was the whole left leg gone?”
“The skin and muscle, I mean,” I told her. I tried to look back in my memory and describe that moment, and it hurt just to see those foggy mental images again.
“And did you wake up at any time during the night,” she asked, “while the injury was taking place?”
“No,” I said. I would’ve remembered if I did.
“And at any time at all during that night,” Cop Lady went on, “did you see or hear anything unusual?”
I thought for a moment. “No, I don’t think so,” I said.
“Are you sure?” she asked. “No weird noises coming from outside, anything like that?”
“Not that I remember,” I said.
The Cop Lady sighed, unclicked the pen, and clicked it again.
“Were there any windows open?” she asked.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “The windows in the living room were all closed.”
“What about the curtains or the blinds? Were they open?”
I thought back to when I was painting my nails. There were the windows, and the flickering lights from the TV reflecting on them, except where the vertical blinds were drawn …
“The blinds were half-open,” I said. “But the whole room was dark except for the TV. No one would have seen anything from outside.”
The cop’s eyes softened. “People assume that all the time,” she said. “They think that just because they can’t see anyone standing in the street, that someone can’t see them inside their homes. Remember, if your windows aren’t covered, and if any lights are on – even if it’s just the TV – someone could be looking inside. You can never be too careful.”
“I guess you’re right,” I admitted. Not that it did me any good now.
“Are you sure you didn’t see anyone standing outside?” she asked again.
This sent chills down my neck. “No, I didn’t see anyone,” I answered to the best of my knowledge. But did that mean there could have been someone, hiding in the dark? Tears pricked my eyes.
“Is there a person doing this?” I asked. “Are they still out there?”
“We can’t discuss any details at this point,” she said, and I figured as much. “But Nina, I need you to focus.”
“Did you notice any strange lights?” she asked.
Strange lights?! I thought. What the fuck was this, an X-Files episode? I could almost hear the eerie theme song playing in my head.
“You mean like, from outside?” I asked.
“Please answer the question, Nina.”
Just then, I don’t know why, I thought of the marsh. I thought of the skeletal trees, and the deep darkness of the shallow water, even darker than the night sky. Somehow I just knew … There was something wrong about that place. It shouldn’t be there, right behind our houses. Or maybe, our houses should never have been built there.
So I asked the cop, not even faking the fear in my voice:
“You mean like … out by Dowlin Marsh?”
Cop Lady clicked the pen. I could see it in her face. She knew something.
“Did you?” she asked.
I took a deep breath. “No,” I said. “I didn’t see anything.”
She sighed, and I could hear her frustration. Clearly, she knew exactly what I just did there.
“Okay then,” she said, snapping the pen back onto the clipboard. “Thank you for your cooperation. We’ll keep you posted if we find anything.”
My mom nodded. “Please do.”
Then the male cop said something into the walkie-talkie, and they both left.
As soon as they were gone, my mom gave me a puzzled look. “What was that all about?” Even she knew something was up.
“Nothing,” I said. “Just thinking out loud.”
She nodded vaguely and started scrolling through her phone. I asked where my dad went, and she said he had to go back to Seattle because he couldn’t miss work.
Sounds about right, I thought.
“Anyway,” I said, “you were saying about Ashleigh and Jenna? Are they still here?”
My mom looked up from her phone. “If you’re sure you want to see them,” she said nervously. “It might be kind of a shock.”
I frowned. “Why, because girls with missing legs are hideous freaks or something?”
She sighed. “No, of course not. I’ll get one of the nurses.”
Then she stepped out into the hallway, and got the attention of a nurse making rounds. The nurse brought in a wheelchair and pushed it up to the bed. It looked kind of gross, especially considering how many sick people must have sat on it over the years, but I didn’t really have a choice. I leaned on the nurse’s arm, and she helped me step off the bed and get situated. It was the first step I’d taken in nearly three days.
Would I be like this for the rest of my life? I wondered. I didn’t even want to think about it.
Of course, my mom offered to go with me, but I told her she could stay in the room. She’d probably need a break, and I didn’t want her listening in on me and my friends.
The nurse took me into the “Day Room,” which was really just a sad waiting-room type thing with ugly wallpaper, and some reality show on TV that no one was watching. Ashleigh and Jenna were also in wheelchairs, facing the window. I’d been expecting the worst, but even that couldn’t prepare me for what I saw.
Jenna, like me, had a stump for a leg, except it was her right leg. Ashleigh was missing her left arm from the elbow down. She also happened to be left-handed, but I’m not sure if that’s an important detail or not.
Anyway, I cried the second I saw them. They turned their heads and looked at me with sad, crinkling faces – like they wanted to cry with me, but couldn’t. I don’t think they had any tears left.
The nurse said she’d be outside the door if we needed anything. Other than new limbs, I assume she meant. I slowly rolled my wheels toward Ashleigh and Jenna. It was easier to move than I thought.
“Hey, guys,” I said weakly. What was I supposed to say?
“Hey,” they echoed back.
We all sit in silence for a while, just letting the insanity of it all sink in.
“Did it happen when you were asleep?” Jenna finally asked me.
“Yeah,” I said.
“That’s good,” said Ashleigh. “I mean, not good, but you know … it’s not something you want to happen when you’re awake.”
“Does anyone know why it happened?” I asked, even though I already knew the answer.
“Not that we’ve heard,” said Jenna. “Like all our parents are freaking out, they have no idea what’s going on.”
“No one does,” said Ashleigh.
“Did the cops talk to you guys too?” I asked.
“Yeah,” said Jenna. “They just asked really basic questions, like ‘Did you see or hear anything suspicious’, that kind of thing.”
“And did you guys?” I asked.
“Not really,” said Ashleigh.
“They asked me if I saw someone standing in the street,” I said. “Did you guys see anyone sketchy just standing around?”
“No, not at all,” said Ashleigh.
“And why would there be?” said Jenna. “If there was some psychopath doing this, they wouldn’t let anyone see them. Nobody’s that stupid.”
“I know,” I said, “None of this makes any sense, and that’s what freaks me out the most. Like is there really a person breaking into peoples’ houses at night and peeling their skin off? I mean, who the fuck does that?”
We all cringed at just the thought of it.
Then I remembered something.
“You guys …” I said, “when the cops questioned you, did they say anything about … strange lights?”
I expected them to laugh, maybe even say it sounds like a bad sci-fi movie. But they didn’t, and their dead silence nearly made my heart stop.
“Did you see them too?” asked Ashleigh, barely above a whisper.
“What? No,” I said, “that’s just what the cops asked me.”
“Holy shit,” said Jenna. “I saw them too.”
“Guys, what lights?” I demanded. “I never saw any!”
Jenna stared off into space as she tried to remember. “It was like…” she began, “…It was so weird. Almost like someone was shining a flashlight out by the marsh. Except it wasn’t moving around. It was just standing still, kind of fading in and out. I thought it might be a car with a headlight out or something, but there’s no road going into the marsh. A car could never drive in there.”
“Maybe a car got stuck in there?” I suggested.
“I mean, it’s possible,” said Jenna, “but why would anyone do that? Besides, it would’ve caused a huge scene the next day. There would’ve been a tow truck and everything.”
“True,” I admitted.
“I’ve always hated that marsh,” said Ashleigh. “It’s creepy as hell. I won’t even walk my dog there. If I even try to pass by it, she growls and acts really weird. I think she’s afraid of it.”
That’s right, I remembered. Ashleigh had a dog. Some Dutch-Shepherd-mix or whatever named Ida. Maybe the dog smelled something, or knew something we didn’t.
“Was Ida acting weird the night it happened?” I asked Ashleigh.
She thought about for a moment. “Now that I think about it,” she said, “before I went to bed, Ida was barking at my window. But I thought she was just, you know, being a dog.”
“She might have heard someone out there,” said Jenna.
I think we all got chills just thinking about it.
“Whatever it was,” I said, “this shit is fucked up.”
We all sat without speaking for a while, and pretended to watch lame reality show reruns. The volume was set on low and there was no remote anywhere in the room, but it didn’t matter. We weren’t listening anyway. No, I think we all just realized that now we had way too much real shit going on to ever care about celebrity gossip again. Our lives were changed, and we weren’t normal anymore.
We’d never have normal lives again.
Then suddenly, the silence was shattered by the sound of an ambulance. We could see it from the window, and we all rolled up closer to get a better look.
The ambulance drove up to the bright red EMERGENCY ROOM sign. At first we thought nothing of it. People get put in ambulances all the time. Maybe it was an old person who slipped in the bathtub, or a car crash victim. It could have been literally anyone.
“Heh, sucks to be you,” muttered Jenna. Someone had to troll them.
We watched from the window, trying not to be too interested as the EMTs carried the injured person out on a stretcher. It looked like they’d draped the person’s jacket over them so they wouldn’t get cold.
But wait, I thought. I know that jacket. It was black-and-pink plaid, and small enough to fit me. It was also drenched in blood.
“Oh my god,” Ashleigh screamed. “It’s Brittany Smyth!”
“Jesus Christ,” I gasped.
“What happened to her?” cried Jenna. But we had no idea.
She had all her arms and legs still attached, so that wasn’t the issue. Maybe it was something else, I hoped for a quick second. Something that had nothing to do with what happened to us.
No, as they rushed her to the emergency doors, we noticed, even from far away, that her face was covered in bandages. Blood-soaked bandages.
Brittany’s face was gone.
It took her face.