Obsession

“Police were unable to locate the missing children until 3 PM the next day. They didn’t even know the exact location where they’d set up camp the night before. It was the smell of rot in the hot air that ultimately led them to the tent which the boys had pitched next to the creek.”

Seth leaned forward in his seat, he had his hand in front of him, reading the article aloud while he followed line-by-line with his finger. The blue light from his triple monitor setup glowed in his glaring eyes.

“All three youths were found with the crumpled and tattered remains of the tent collapsed on top of them. Their bodies had been beaten over and over with a blunt weapon which authorities are yet to locate. It’s speculated the three fourteen-year-old boys were already dead before the unknown assailant, still at large, started stabbing at their bodies repeatedly through the fabric.”

I turned away from him before he could glance over and make eye contact. I sat on the edge of his bed and then lay all the way down. I wondered when he’d last washed his sheets. Over a month at least. Definitely not how he used to be, but I wasn’t all that surprised. No one around to impress when you’ve deliberately turned yourself into a social recluse.

Of course, it had become my responsibility to address the issue. I suppose his mother had exhausted all the nagging techniques she could muster over the past couple weeks before she decided to give me a call.

In fairness I’d known Seth since in middle school. He’d always been one to experience his temporary bouts of timidness and introversion– but this was taking it to the next level. When you go nearly four weeks only travelling to-and-from work and stay locked in your room on the weekend, ignoring all texts and calls, bailing on plans you’ve already made– there’s a problem there. Something is lingering beneath the surface.

“It’s terrifying, isn’t it?” Seth said. He narrowed his head closer to the screens. “The more I research it, the more I see what a high frequency of murders and disappearances this area has. We’re more than twelve times the national average.”

“Where did you get this figure, Seth?”

“I’ve been super into these cases recently.”

“Obsessed?”

“Whatever you want to call it. It’s just impossible to ignore once you lay it out in front of you. It’s almost like they are neatly distributed among the surrounding townships throughout the county. Like they’ve been spread out just far enough so no one could piece it all together on first glance. I’m starting to think I should be a detective or something. I’d be really good in this line of work.”

“Either that or you’ll end up one of the unsolved mysteries yourself.”

I tried to say it as jokingly as I could, hoping I would get some kind of light-hearted response out of him. Of course, he gave me none. It was almost as if he didn’t even hear me. All he could see was the murder article on his computer.

I checked his bedside table. The digital alarm clock had just turned to seven and that meant that we were starting to run out of time. We needed to be headed back to my place to start pre-drinking within the hour so we could get a good buzz on before we met up with the other guys downtown. I grabbed a mini football and started throwing it up and down.

“Do you remember the Gianni Falco case?” he asked. He started clicking through more articles bringing different news articles onto his screens.

“If I were to pour you a shot of whiskey right here and right now, would you take it?”

He scoffed at me and waved the back of his hand at me.

“Do you remember the Falco case?”

“No.”

“I don’t understand how people just forget these things,” he said and shook his head. “It wasn’t even eighteen months ago. Happened a little bit outside downtown. He was walking his dog, passed tons of witnesses who confirmed they saw him. He goes over the Huntington Bridge and is never seen on the busy street from the other side.”

“So what Seth?”

“So what?! The railings are like six feet high. You could only get over them if you tried.”

“So maybe he did try?”

“Yes. That’s what you, the police, and everyone else in town seems to think. Just weird that when they found his body downriver at the dam three days later. There was light bruising around his eyes and forehead.”

“So you think someone beat him up and tossed him over?”

“Yes. And I think they took his dog with them afterwards. They never found it.”

“And this just happened randomly in broad daylight?”

“Broad daylight… yes. Randomly? No. I really don’t think so. Come here and check this out.”

I tossed the football from hand to hand and then finally decided to sit up. I scooched to the end of the bed to get a closer look.

“What do you think of this picture?” he said.

It was a black and white photo of two men. One was Falco, I could recognize his face from other articles he had open. He was dressed in a tux and stood in front of a boardroom table, shaking hands with an old man.

Whoever that man was, he had a really abnormal look about him. The kind you would take a second glance at if you saw him on the street. He had bulging, almost rectangular-shaped eyes pulled to the far sides of his face like a hammerhead shark. His flat head was completely bald on top and covered in liver spots. Grey and curly hair lined the sides of his head. His crooked smile was missing teeth all over.

“What’s significant about this picture? Is this some sort of special article?”

“It’s not from an article. I found it myself.”

I peered down at Seth from the corners of my eyes. The way he was still so fixated on the screens unnerved me. Such attention to detail on any particular subject required some level of unhealthy obsession. And I wasn’t convinced this fascination would necessarily yield positive results.

“You found it on your own?”

“Yes… and it’s fucking creepy, right?”

“It’s not the only thing that’s creepy.”

“It’s also not a one-of-a-kind image. Here, check this out.”

His head darted between the three monitors. His fingers scaled the keyboard while he typed in the three boys’ names from the tent murder case and brought up their Facebook pages and then started scrolling through them.

He searched through the photos of the now-deceased teenagers. He scrolled over the well-wishes and sentimental posts from friends and loved ones. He passed them by like they were nothing, mere inconveniences slowing him down from where he needed to go.

All of this happened while I stood silent over his shoulder. I needed to get out of that room. I had to think of an excuse to leave and then call his mother on the way home and make sure she fully understood the extent of her only son’s social and mental issues. This had progressed well past the point where a serious talk with an old friend could fix things. This needed to be addressed by a professional.

“There!” he yelled out so loud it startled me and snapped me back into focus.

He had a picture of one of the boys in his school uniform. He was at what looked to be some kind of fun-run or some other outdoor charity event. He was on a soccer field with students and parents all over the place.

He stood right in the centreer of the photo, his face definitely one of the boys pictured in the tent murder article. He stood separated from the other children and shook hands with the same creepy looking man from Falco’s boardroom picture. The old man was dressed in the same button-up shirt and corduroy slacks.

A cold shiver ran down from my neck to my lower back. I needed to sit on his bed again to collect myself.

“Is that…”

“The same guy? Yes.”

“How did you find this?”

“Research.”

“It’s possible it’s a coincidence, you know. Ten thousand people in town. Not that big of a place.”

“You think so?” he said.

He started clicking wildly again, this time bringing up the articles of someone I did know: Uri Malarkey. He’d transferred to our school last year and was fitting in well until he died in a car accident driving home from a party over Christmas break.

“You’re not going to show me what I think you’re going to show me…”

He opened Uri’s Facebook page and scrolled through his photos. And sure enough, he’d found it. He stood on the sideline in full gear during a football game at his old school. A wall of coaching staff was lined up behind him. Sure enough, that same old man was there leaning over and shaking his hand.

I didn’t know what to say. I was at a loss. The fact that Seth had even stumbled upon this was something that should have never happened. The fact that such a connection could even exist was so hard to fathom.

Yet there it was, right in front of me.

“Glass of water?” he said quietly. There was a certain arrogance in his voice like he was so proud of the fact he’d brought this to my attention.

“Y… yes.”

He expanded the three images individually to each monitor. Then he got up and left. It sounded like there was a skip in his step as he made his way down the hall and towards the kitchen.

I stared hard at all three photos. My eyes could only stay on each one for so long. It was just so intimidating. Something about that man shaking the different victim’s hands seemed so foreign. Like he wasn’t meant to actually be there.

Then it struck me. There was something physically off about all three pictures. The man… he wasn’t only dressed in the same clothes each time. The way his body leaned and oriented itself to the victim– it was a mirror image of the same position. Then I noticed the blurred lines and pixels around his edges.

It was so subtle, so carefully done that I likely wouldn’t have been able to notice unless I had been staring at all three pictures blown up on the monitors and laid out side-by-side.

Those photos had been altered. That man felt off because he wasn’t actually in any of those images. He’d been superimposed there.

What exactly had Seth done? Had he photoshopped the pictures himself and found a way to get them up on these dead people’s Facebook pages? Had he tricked me somehow and the truth was he had them saved on his computer all along. Was this some sick and twisted joke to freak me out?

What else could his motivation possibly be?

It was no longer a priority to get him out for a night of drinking with the boys. The only thing that mattered to me in that moment was getting out of his house and putting as much distance between me and him as possible.

I stormed out of his room just as he returned with two glasses of water. I jogged over to the door and started putting on my shoes.

“In a hurry?” he said. “Was hoping you would stick around and we could discuss? Maybe dive deeper into some theories about this man?”

“Got to get back.”

“Should I still come meet up with you guys at the Bull?”

“Uhh… sure. Actually, I don’t know. I’ll have to check if the guys are still thinking of going out.”

I slammed the door and ran all the way home. I didn’t care who saw me or how silly I looked. I needed to be away from Seth.

***

I was ecstatic to not hear from Seth and safely assume he’d chosen to bail on us in the end that night. I wound up drinking myself into oblivion at the bar. I needed the escape. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable enough to take an Uber back out to the suburbs by myself and sleep comfortably in my own bed if I hadn’t been so wasted.

I think I could have slept into four or five in the afternoon the next day if I hadn’t been woken up by my mother shaking me. She was on the verge of tears, saying something terrible had happened and that the police were at the door and needed to speak to me right away.

They would question me briefly there and then eventually bring me down to the station to make sure they could get the most thorough and accurate series of events from the night before while it was still fresh in my mind.

When I ran out of Seth’s house the night before it was apparently the last time anyone had seen him alive.

He’d inexplicably decided that instead of coming out for a night of drinking, he would rather go for a midnight swim in the quarry on the other side of town. This was despite the fact he could hardly swim and even decided not to mention anything to his parents or anyone else. They found his clothes resting on top of his shoes next to the water. His body was at the bottom, minor bruising all over his midsection.

I told them everything exactly as it happened. Even all the insanity he’d displayed along with his extensive research and photoshopped pictures. Not that any of it would end up proving useful in the subsequent investigation.

They held his funeral the next Saturday. It was a drizzly day, patrons’ jackets and umbrellas were soaked through. They held it at the cemetery built a little downriver from the Huntington Bridge.

There was a photo display set up inside the main doors of the church. So many memories of the two of us and our group of friends were immortalized on a corkboard. I could have spent hours looking at it and reminiscing on the good times we had before his very sudden decline into self-exclusion and mysterious death.

My eyes travelled over all the photos until they stopped dead on one on the bottom right corner. It wasn’t pinned on like the others. This one had a couple staples running through it.

My legs literally collapsed beneath me. My father rushed over in a panic to pick me up.

The photo was from inside his bedroom. The three monitors on his desk had familiar news articles on them. I lay flat on his bed, with a mini-football in my hands. The digital alarm clock read 7 PM.

Seth sat at the end of the bed, right next to my feet. He looked sad staring into the camera, unlike the other photos from the old days when there was no murder obsession on his mind. 

On his right sat the same old man in the same old clothes who grinned at the camera. He leaned in to shake Seth’s hand.

I stared as intently as I could. That picture had not been photoshopped.