June 6, 6:30 pm
Howard wanted to believe that he had gone mad. But he also knew that was too easy of an answer. And too convenient. How nice it would be, after all, to just tell himself that everything he had experienced was only in his own mind, and that none of it was real.
But it was all real. He knew it. That voice in his head was not his own.
His name is Justin.
The presence had a name, and it had spoken to him as if they were old friends. But friends never did to you what this presence did to him.
After the thing had left him, he had leaned over the toilet and vomited up the ham sandwich and jello they had given him for lunch. Sitting on the cold concrete floor, he looked at the wet semen on his hand and dotting the orange fabric of his prison issue uniform. He quickly used some water from the tap at the back of the toilet to scrub the telltale spots away, but had to stop halfway through to vomit one more time.
The water left dark stains on his chest and crotch that made it look even worse.
He did not know how long this Justin had been inside of him. It had felt like hours, but he knew that wasn’t possible. It couldn’t have been nearly that long. And shortly after he had… assaulted him, he felt the thing’s hold on him weakening. He had struggled up from that deep well in his mind and regained control of his body once again. The last thing he heard from Justin was a laugh, and a promise to return.
Howard knew he would. And that the thing would be stronger. Justin had promised that he would eventually have Howard’s body as his own permanently, and he had intimated that when that happened, Justin would be locked in that well forever. A pet, kept at the pleasure of a sadistic master. Someone to tease and torture and… use.
He felt dirty and wished that he could strip off all these clothes and put his body under a hot shower. So hot that it would turn his skin pink and in the pain he could forget everything that the dark presence had done to him.
Howard sat on the cot in his cell, and tried to make himself as small as possible, alert for any sign of Justin’s return. But even through his trauma, Howard felt a small thrill growing inside him. As terrifying as the experience had been, he now had something he didn’t have when he woke up in this cell this morning.
He had information.
His first two possessions had felt more like dreams than anything else. And he had almost managed to convince himself that he had just blacked out, or perhaps had some kind of seizure. Even though he had hazy memories of everything he did the night that Richard Pratt died, it felt as if he had watched it all from afar.
As if, he realized, I had been at the bottom of a dark well.
Before today, he had really believed he was just suffering a psychotic break. But this time the presence had spoken to him, and that voice made all the difference. This time he had been fully aware through the entire incident. Absolutely, painfully aware of each and every thing that was happening. Perhaps that was only because Justin allowed it. It would be no fun tormenting a victim that couldn’t comprehend the torment. But it was still a relief to actually know, finally, what was happening to him.
If only he could dismiss Justin as a demon, or something out of a horror movie. But what he had heard in the voice was someone much more mundane. This was no ancient evil. This presence felt far too… human. Too modern. The words it used were too common. In fact, it felt—young. It actually felt and sounded like he had been possessed by some bitter, angry kid.
Howard had known plenty of bitter and angry kids in his time. Hell, he had been one not that long ago, and he remembered those feelings, that frustration, and all those confusing emotions. Every bit of resentment and uncertainty and general disgust at the world he had ever felt was in the voice of Justin.
He felt his stomach turn over again, as he remembered the violation. Because it wasn’t just his mind Justin had wanted. It wanted his body. It wanted to touch and invade and use and possess every part of him.
He felt as if he might vomit a third time, remembering that hand stroking over his chest, and then down, into his pants. It was his own hand, but it also wasn’t. Having a hand, a real hand, seemed intoxicating to Justin, and he had used it for all it was worth.
The realization made others come to him, like dominoes.
He used my hand because he doesn’t have one of his own. He doesn’t even have a body, and he must not have had one for a long time. He was intoxicated by the feeling of flesh, and the sensations that came along with it. Breathing, blinking… Coming. Everything a being without a body would miss.
Did that make Justin… a ghost?
Howard looked up, and Carla Grayson was standing outside his cell.
Oh god, not now…
He turned from her, hoping she would just walk away. But the guard was already unlocking the cell door, and she was walking in. Looking down, he saw the wet stain in his lap, and quickly pulled the thin blanket they gave him over his crotch to hide it.
“Hello, Howard,” Grayson said, sitting on the stool she brought in with her. “How are you today?”
Her voice was calm and motherly, as it always was. He knew he shouldn’t trust this woman. But he still found her presence soothing.
“I’m fine, ma’am,” He said, avoiding her eyes. “And how are you?” Howard winced at the sound of his own voice. Why would he still be aping all those rules of politeness? Even here, in this shit hole?
Grayson was silent for a long time, and finally, Howard looked up at her. She had concern written across her face, and she looked directly into his eyes. But it surprised him to see as much weariness in her face as she likely saw in his.
“When is the last time you slept?” he asked the woman, surprised at his own audacity.
She managed a sad smile and toyed with the folder on her lap. It was a thin folder, and Howard could see his own name written on the tab. “Do I look that bad?” she asked. And without waiting for a reply, she said, “I supposed I do. I pulled an all-nighter last night, so I’m going on thirty-six hours with no proper sleep. In fact, I probably shouldn’t be here.”
Howard looked at her quizzically, already feeling his anxiety draining in her presence. She looked so human today, like she had been through things she couldn’t speak about. Just as he had. Strangely, that felt like a bond between them.
“Why?” Howard asked. “Why shouldn’t you be here?”
“Well, Howard, I’m afraid that I’ve been pulled from your case. At least temporarily. Did you hear about Valley Fair Mall?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Hmm. Just as well, probably. You’ve got other things to worry about. But there was a mass murder there yesterday. West Valley has asked me to assist, so I may not be back here for a while.”
Howard could see the pain in her face. He didn’t ask for details about the incident, but he knew it must have been bad.
Returning her gaze to the folder on her lap, she held it up for him to see. “You might remember I promised to let you know when we got your psychological evaluation back. It arrived in my office about an hour ago, and I wanted to let you know.”
“What does it say?” Howard asked, although he felt that he probably already knew.
Rather than just telling him, Grayson put the folder back in her lap. “You know, you don’t have to talk to me today. We can wait to go over this with your lawyer present, if you’d like. I heard you finally got a public defender. Has he come by?”
“No. They said he would, but I haven’t heard anything.”
Howard saw true anger cloud Carla’s face, and he realized it was the first time that he had really seen her angry since all this began. She had certainly never looked at him that way.
“He should have come by today. He promised me he would.” She crossed her legs and leaned back in the chair. “Your mom also told me she had a lead on a pro bono lawyer that might be willing to help you folks out. Have you heard anything from her about that?”
“I know she’s looking. But I don’t think she’s found anybody. I…” Howard was embarrassed that his throat was constricting. “I haven’t seen her today either.”
Carla pulled her stool closer. She leaned toward him, and for a moment he thought she was going to put a hand on his knee. But after what had happened this afternoon, the thought of being touched by anyone made him pull back and draw his knees up to his chest. Carla withdrew her hand.
“Maybe I should come back when your lawyer is here. We can go over this then.”
“I can talk to you,” Howard said, overcome by a desire to make her stay. “I’ve already told you everything, so it doesn’t matter. And I’d really like to know what she said. The psychologist, I mean.”
Carla appeared to consider her options for a minute, and Howard felt sure she was going to leave. But then she sighed and opened the folder.
“Okay. You can read the report, but I’ll have to take it with me when I leave.” She extended a document toward him, but Howard kept his hands in his lap, clutching the blanket that covered him.
“Could you, maybe, just tell me what it says?”
Carla pulled the paper back. “Sure, Howard, I can do that.” She opened the folder. “There is a lot of psychological mumbo jumbo, of course. But the part that really matters is here on page four. It’s the conclusion and summary, and that’s all the judge will pay attention to. It’s not long. I can read it to you if you’d like.”
She cleared her throat and began to read. “‘It is the assessment of this office that Howard Gunderson is a distraught and terrified young man. However, we can find no evidence of impaired cognition, reasoning, or any history of memory loss before the night of the incident. He exhibits symptoms of anxiety and panic disorder, but only in the degree that would be expected for a young man in his present circumstances. Here, too, we find no compelling history that would support a diagnosis. However, our assessment is that he is fully aware of what is right and wrong, and we can find no credible evidence of amnesia or any other cognitive issue that would prevent his case from being moved forward in the normal course of judicial operations.’”
Howard looked at her with some confusion. “That’s a lot of words. But what do they mean?”
Carla leaned forward and looked directly at the boy. “Howard, they were looking for any reason to believe that you weren’t in control of yourself the night of Richard Pratt’s murder. And this report says they can find no evidence that that was the case.” She was clearly trying to soften the blow of what came next. “In general, what this report says, is that you weren’t mentally impaired, and there is no barrier to you being tried for Richard Pratt’s murder.”
It surprised Howard how little those words affected him. And he knew it was what he had been expecting all along. He had tried to explain the strange, out-of-control feeling he had that night, but the psychologist had not believed him.
“So she thought I was lying.” Howard said.
“Well, they won’t say that. All they can say is that they could find no evidence to support your claims of being unable to remember what happened that night, or control what you were doing.”
“They think I’m trying to appear mentally ill, but they don’t believe I am.” Howard said, matter-of-factly.
Carla seemed hesitant to respond, but then she sighed and said, “In essence, yes.”
Howard considered telling Carla everything. He came very close to blurting out what he now knew about Justin, and about how this presence was trying to take over his body. He wanted to tell her he was no longer confused about what happened that night, as he had been when he talked to the psychologist. Now he knew exactly what had happened. He wasn’t the one that killed Richard Pratt. It was Justin. And Justin was angry and vengeful and that he was… fucking in love with him and wanted to have him forever…
He considered telling all that to Detective Grayson. But even in his head, the words sounded insane. And after what the psychologist had determined about him, wouldn’t it all just sound like him trying even more desperately to make them think he was crazy? He himself wouldn’t have believed the story, if he hadn’t lived through it.
If he wasn’t still living through it…
So instead, he spoke slowly, and chose his words carefully,
“Detective, something happened to me today… I don’t understand exactly what it was, but it made me realize it wasn’t me that killed Richard Pratt.”
“Okay…” Carla looked confused, but he had her rapt attention.
“I know it sounds crazy. And I don’t want you to think of me that way. But it just… wasn’t me.”
Grayson was hanging on his words, hoping to hear something that would save him. “Do you mean you weren’t yourself? Or do you mean someone else actually fired that shot?”
Howard looked at her and realized it was hopeless. There was no way he could explain this to her. He had so many questions himself. Maybe, with time, he could understand it well enough to make her understand too. But that wouldn’t be today.
It was likely that he would go to prison for the rest of his life. And soon, it would be a prison within a prison. He would live the rest of his days watching the world from the bottom of a well in his own head. He would be Justin’s pet, who could use him in whatever way, and for whatever purpose, he saw fit. Whatever was left of his life, it wouldn’t be his. It would be Justin’s. If there was any consolation, at least Justin would be locked away, and unable to hurt anyone like Richard Pratt again.
“Never mind,” he said to the woman on the stool. “Detective Grayson, I’m really tired. Would you mind if I got some sleep?”
It was clear she was reticent to go, but Howard just closed his eyes and turned away from her, and wouldn’t respond to any of her questions. Eventually, Carla left the cell.
When she was gone Howard looked under the towel. The spot on his orange pants was almost dry now. He threw the blanket at the foot of the bed and listened to the distant clanging of iron doors. One, after another, after another.