Chapter 1:

Birthday

33


Part 1: The Van
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Owen watched the rusted van from a safe distance, making sure to keep a watchful eye out for any sign of life. The grey dusky sky made the scene look almost like a still life painting, with only the brown grass that framed the image twitching ever so slightly in the gentle evening wind.Bookmark here

The van had startled Owen at first. The field he was walking through was like a private sanctuary for him. It used to be a parking lot, but had been demolished a long time ago, and had been reclaimed by the forces of nature. There were plenty of fields like it in the northern post-industrial town he called home, but he was drawn to this particular one for reasons he couldn’t explain.Bookmark here

He would often traipse through the tall grass and busted up cement to clear his mind whenever he was feeling depressed or stressed out. The van was an intrusion on this meditative process, and stood out like an ugly mole on the face of a beautiful woman.Bookmark here

Still, Owen was curious. What was the van doing there? Did it belong to a drug dealer? A homeless man, perhaps? One thing was for sure: he wouldn’t get too close unless he was certain there was no one inside.Bookmark here

Another minute passed… then two… then three. Absolutely nothing stirred in the big metal vessel.Bookmark here

It’s time, he thought to himself as he began walking forward slowly and steadily.Bookmark here

As he got closer, he squinted and peered through the van’s slightly tinted windows, still sensing no movement within. It appeared abandoned, but appearance could always be deceiving.Bookmark here

Once Owen was a couple feet away, the stench of something rotten filled his nostrils, causing him to wince in disgust.Bookmark here

Ugh! What’s in there?! he thought, bringing up an arm to shield his nose.Bookmark here

The van appeared dusty, covered in dirt and pollen. It had probably been there at least a couple days. It wasn’t too far-fetched to assume that no one would have thought to check on an abandoned vehicle, considering the only place of note near the field was a scrapyard that was full of such vehicles.Bookmark here

Slowly, Owen reached out and grabbed the handle to the side door.Bookmark here

Here goes nothing, he thought before sliding the door open. As soon as he saw the morbid tableau inside, he felt nauseous and began dry-heaving.Bookmark here

Oh god!Bookmark here

A cloud of flies burst forth from the van, flying over Owen’s head as he attempted to regain his composure. He wasn’t sure exactly how many dead bodies there were in that mangled pile of bloated decomposing flesh, but he didn’t feel like examining them close enough to find out.Bookmark here

He felt at the phone in his pocket, wondering if he should call the police and notify them about all of this, but decided against it. It wasn’t his problem to deal with, and they could possibly even suspect him of being the killer.Bookmark here

Not worth the hassle, he thought. I should just get out of here.Bookmark here

He reached towards the door again to close it when something caught his eye. On the burgundy-carpeted seat closest to the door Owen had opened sat a black envelope and a white blood-splattered sheet of paper.Bookmark here

Curiosity got the better of him. He briefly turned around to make sure no one was watching, and then grabbed the paper to read what was on it.Bookmark here

It appeared to be an itinerary of some kind:Bookmark here

“June 18th - The Oaktree Hotel Haunting. Bookmark here

June 26th - The Summerton Sasquatch.Bookmark here

July 1st - The Gainesville Goblin.Bookmark here

July 14th - The Birch Creek Banshee.”Bookmark here

Are these the names of horror movies or something? he thought. Maybe they were filmmakers…Bookmark here

As curious as he was, Owen couldn’t afford to stay and ponder on what the dead people did for a living. He flipped the paper over to see large scratchy writing that read “IF YOU FIND THIS, DO NOT LOOK AT THE PHOTO!” Bookmark here

A photo?...Bookmark here

Owen felt a chill run down his spine and glanced over at the black envelope that had been resting next to the paper. The flap on the back was open ever so slightly, revealing the white back of the photo underneath. Perhaps it was related to their death somehow.Bookmark here

A… cursed photograph? The idea was ridiculous, but considering the state the men were in, he was inclined to follow their instruction for now. He grabbed up the envelope, planning to make a getaway, then noticed a video camera in the hand of one of the bodies. A grey baseball cap was still firmly planted on the head of the dead man.Bookmark here

Should I?... He stared at it for a moment, listening to the flies buzz around the corpses. Ah, screw it.Bookmark here

He grabbed the camera and pulled. There was a surprising amount of resistance, as the dead man still had a firm grip on the device. All at once, it ceased, as if the corpse had simply given up and ceded the camera over to Owen.Bookmark here

Creepy, Owen thought, trying to suppress the shivers that were now pulsing through his body like relentless ocean waves.Bookmark here

I have to get out of here…Bookmark here

He slipped the mysterious black envelope into the notebook, tucked it under his arm, and swiftly made his escape.Bookmark here


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Part 2: Someone Has to DieBookmark here

Owen was seated on a couch in this apartment’s living room, playing around with the camera he’d stolen.Bookmark here

Is it really stealing if it’s from a dead guy though?... He decided not to dedicate any more time to this unnecessary moral quandary and simply switched the camera on.Bookmark here

The user interface of the device was easy enough to figure out. When the memory card was accessed, the saved videos appeared on a menu in the viewfinder screen so one could easily browse through them.Bookmark here

The memory card was more than halfway full, indicating that the people had filmed quite a bit of footage already. Scrolling through, he decided to pick a random video near the beginning of the list.Bookmark here

The footage appeared to be in an old abandoned theater, filled with dust and cobwebs. Three men, including the cameraman, were wandering through the darkened hallways, lighting up the path in front of them with flashlights.Bookmark here

“I can't believe they actually let us film in here,” one of the men said. He was wearing a grey baseball cap and letterman jacket.Bookmark here

“Me neither,” replied a mustachioed thin man in striped flannel. “This is so legit.”Bookmark here

The cameraman held up what appeared to be an audio recorder. “Want to get started on the EVPs?” he asked. The man in the hat turned to look straight at the camera, making Owen shudder just a little.Bookmark here

He was definitely one of the dead bodies in that van, he thought, remembering the corpse that he snatched the camera from. He pushed the memory aside for now and watched the video play on.Bookmark here

The man in the hat took the audio recording device and switched it on. He then proceeded to ask questions to no one in particular, raising the recorder up just a little as if he were expecting an answer.Bookmark here

It was a process that Owen recognized thanks to a “paranormal” phase he went through in high school. Supposedly electronic recording devices could pick up communications from the spirit world that humans weren’t able to detect using their senses. This principle of “ghost hunting” applied to both photographs and audio recordings, with the spirit voices captured in audio form referred to as “EVPs,” short for “Electronic Voice Phenomenon.”Bookmark here

These guys must have been paranormal investigators, Owen thought, switching over to another video.Bookmark here

In this one, the same guys were walking through a forest late in the evening. The deep blue-grey sky behind the investigators indicated that it would be night very soon.Bookmark here

“Look for signs in the branches,” one of the men said, nodding towards some of the trees that lined the path they were on. Owen recognized him as the mustachioed man in the previous video. “Broken branches,” he continued, “especially ones out of reach for most normal animals, are good indicators that a Sasquatch is nearby.”Bookmark here

It appeared these investigators did Sasquatch hunts as well as ghost hunts. Owen remembered the itinerary on the piece of paper he had taken from the van earlier that day, with the names of various creatures written down on it, and put the pieces together in his mind.Bookmark here

So this is what that meant, he thought. The men were apparently putting together some kind of paranormal investigation series. Perhaps as an internet show, or as a pilot for a TV series.Bookmark here

It appeared that particular mystery had been solved. However, there was still the question of the photograph in the envelope. Owen scrolled through the videos until he got to the very end.Bookmark here

Strangely, almost all of the later videos were corrupted. Their preview images wouldn’t appear, and when he selected them for playback, they’d simply produce an error message.Bookmark here

Weird…Bookmark here

He decided to find the last video that was still intact before all of the corrupted videos started, and hit the “play” button. This particular video showed the paranormal investigator trio riding down the highway in their van, apparently the same one Owen had found their bodies in.Bookmark here

“Tell ‘em where we’re going, Joey,” the man holding the camera said to the driver, the cap-wearing man from before. Joey gave a quick glance towards the camera, his gaze hidden behind dark sunglasses, and chuckled.Bookmark here

“We’re going uh… Oh man, this one is weird… We’re going to pick up a haunted photograph!” He said this almost mockingly. “You know, like the kind that kills you after you look at it. Spooky, right?”Bookmark here

“Oooooh!” the cameraman jested. “Spooooky! Do you actually believe it’s real?”Bookmark here

Joey shrugged. “I dunno, man. We’ve seen a lot of weird stuff so far. It could be real for all I know.” He turned to the camera once again and smiled. “I guess if we end up dead, you’ll know it’s real.”Bookmark here

The two laughed just before the video cut out.Bookmark here

If you end up dead, huh?... Owen turned to glance at the black envelope that was resting on the coffee table in front of him, a pit of anxiety forming in his stomach.Bookmark here

There was one video after this that still remained accessible. It was the very last one on the camera’s memory card.Bookmark here

The final one they filmed before they died...Bookmark here

Owen took a deep breath, attempting to steady his nerves before clicking the play button.Bookmark here

The video took place the night after the first video, with the timestamp indicating that it was just after midnight. It apparently took place in the same van, this time illuminated with the vehicle’s interior lights.Bookmark here

The camera was pointed at one of the walls of the van. Owen couldn’t see anything particularly strange about the wall, but nevertheless the cameraman lifted a shaky hand and pointed at it frantically.Bookmark here

“Th-th-there! Oh god! Do you see it!? Oh god no! Oh god!”Bookmark here

One of the other men led out a blood curdling scream and began thrashing around just out of view. The cameraman jerked the camera toward him, and the screaming man lifted his head. His hands were covering his eyes tightly, while small rivers of blood poured down his cheeks.Bookmark here

It was there the video stopped. It wasn’t the end of the video. It had simply frozen there as a result of some kind of glitch, with the man’s blurry blood coated scream of terror in clear view.Bookmark here

Owen closed the viewfinder and dropped the camera back down onto the counter. He could feel his heart pumping aggressively in his chest, as if it were trying to escape from its rib cage prison.Bookmark here

Good god…Bookmark here

He turned and glanced at the black envelope resting on the coffee table once again, the man’s screaming face stuck in his mind. The black flap on the back of it was still open ever so slightly, as if taunting Owen and daring him to give it a look.Bookmark here

Owen rubbed at his temples, his mind racing with questions and possibilities. Did the photograph really kill those men? If so, then how did it do it? Where did they even get something like this?Bookmark here

There was no way around it: He needed to put the curse to the test. But how would he even test a thing like that without potentially killing someone?Bookmark here

No, he thought. It’s impossible… Someone has to die.Bookmark here

Owen didn’t have any particular principles against killing. He probably would have taken out a few people in his lifetime had he been completely sure that he wouldn’t have been caught, and perhaps this photograph could grant him such an ability. If what the investigators claimed in the video was true, it would make the photo an extremely powerful weapon.Bookmark here

But the question still remained: who would be the first to die?Bookmark here

Owen leaned back on his tiny couch and stared at the tacky popcorn ceiling above him. He took in a deep breath as he meditated on the situation.Bookmark here

There were a great many people who had wronged him throughout high school that he’d be overjoyed to kill. There was Jeremy, the burnout who would always slap the back of his head when they passed in the hallway. Of course, Owen didn’t know where Jeremy was at the moment. They had no reason to keep in touch after graduation…Bookmark here

There was also Michael, the kid who challenged Owen to a fight his freshman year. He blacked Owen’s eye and gave him a concussion that put him out of commission for a couple days. He did apologize for it a few years later though…Bookmark here

Who did that leave?Bookmark here

The answer came suddenly. Austin, he thought. It’s gotta be him.Bookmark here

Austin worked at the “A+” convenience store down the street from Owens apartment. Owen had stopped going there entirely after their first few encounters, so he’d nearly forgotten about it.Bookmark here

Back in school, Austin began dating a girl Owen had a crush on, and teased Owen for it when he found out. He would later go on to cheat on her with another girl.Bookmark here

Absolute scumbag, Owen thought to himself. The world wouldn’t miss a guy like that.Bookmark here

He played with the flap of the black envelope as he thought through his plan. It wouldn’t have to be a complicated one if all it took was a glance at the picture. And if the curse didn’t work? Then he’d go about his daily life as if nothing had ever happened.Bookmark here

Am I really ready to do this? he asked himself.Bookmark here

If he went through with his plan, there would be no way to ever go back. He would forever be a murderer.Bookmark here

But… It would be so easy…Bookmark here


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Part 3: Redhead
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One of the lights inside of the A+ store’s sign was nearly burnt out, causing an annoying persistent flicker in the right half of the bright green logo.Bookmark here

After stepping out of his old baby blue Toyota, Owen clenched the black envelope tightly in his hand and walked across the damp asphalt towards the front door. It had been raining just a little bit earlier, but had stopped just in time.Bookmark here

It’s a sign, Owen thought. I've made the right decision.Bookmark here

The glass and steel door creaked as Owen pulled it open. Just as he expected, Austin was standing behind the register with that familiar smirk on his fat bearded face.Bookmark here

“Yoooo! It’s Owen!” He said enthusiastically. “What’s happenin’, man?”Bookmark here

Owen paused for a moment, feeling anxiety suddenly set in, then forced it all to the back of his mind.Bookmark here

Gotta act natural, he thought.Bookmark here

“Nothing much,” he replied with a shrug. “Just uh…” He gestured towards the refrigerated energy drinks at the back of the store. “Just picking up a Zappy energy drink.”Bookmark here

“Right on,” Austin said with a nod.Bookmark here

Owen walked robotically to the freezer and plucked out an ice cold can of sugar-free Zappy, then turned and walked towards the front counter. The entire time, it felt as if there were electric eels squirming through his brain, firing off all of the neurons they touched.Bookmark here

Although he remained calm, a light sweat began to coat his oily brow.Bookmark here

“Thunk!” He set the can down onto the counter, looking Austin straight in the eye.Bookmark here

“Just this,” Owen said emotionlessly.Bookmark here

“Alright, man,” replied Austin. “That’s two-fifty.”Bookmark here

Owen produced his card from his wallet and inserted it into the small black card reader on the counter. Austin watched him the entire time, smiling the same smug grin.Bookmark here

“Say, Owen,” Austin said suddenly. “You free this coming Saturday?”Bookmark here

The question caught Owen off-guard, making his eyes widen momentarily.Bookmark here

“N-no,” he stammered. “Why?”Bookmark here

“I’m heading to a little party and was wondering if you wanted to come. We never got to talk much when we were in school together. I wanna see if I can get you to cut loose a bit, ya know?”Bookmark here

A party?...Bookmark here

Owen had never been invited to anything resembling a “party” since he went to a classmate’s birthday party in middle school. And even then, that was just a typical cake-and-ice cream get-together at the local pizzeria. To him, “party’s” were just some mythical force of nature that happened far away from his reality.Bookmark here

“Uh… I…” He couldn’t find the right words to answer.Bookmark here

Austin chuckled. “Hey, dude. It’s no problem if you’re unsure,” he said, grinning widely. “I’ll be here tomorrow too. Just come on over and let me know if you’re in. It’ll be fun!”Bookmark here

Owen nodded, trying to put his nerves on ice and revert back to his previous robotic state. “O-okay. Thanks,” he replied.Bookmark here

“No problem!”Bookmark here

Becoming suddenly aware of the envelope still in his hand, Owen remembered his mission and launched into action.Bookmark here

“By the way, Austin” he said, resuming his calm tone from before. “Could you do me a quick favor?”Bookmark here

“Uh… Yeah, sure dude,” Austin replied with an awkward laugh.Bookmark here

“What do you see in this photo?” Very carefully, Owen slid the picture out from its paper sheath, the front of it directed at Austin the entire time. The back of the photo had a small number written in the corner in pencil: “33.”Bookmark here

Austin’s eyes widened, then tensed up into a squint as he scanned the photo in front of him. After a few moments, he smiled once again.Bookmark here

“What is this? This your girlfriend or something?” He laughed loudly. “I didn’t know you were into redheads.”Bookmark here

A girl? Owen thought, making a mental note. With red hair?...Bookmark here

“But dang,” Austin continued. “That’s freakin’ creepy, man. Where’d you find that?”Bookmark here

Satisfied, Owen slipped it back into the black envelope and returned it to his side.Bookmark here

“Just at a friend’s house,” he fibbed. “Pretty weird, huh?”Bookmark here

“Yeah, dude. You got some weird friends.” Austin was playing it off as if the whole thing were obviously a joke, but there was a definite hint of worry behind his eyes.Bookmark here

“Anyway,” Owen said, grabbing his energy drink up off the counter. “I’ll be back tomorrow to let you know about the whole party thing?”Bookmark here

“Uh… Yeah, dude!” Austin replied with a nod. “Looking forward to it! You have a good night!”Bookmark here

“You too.”Bookmark here

Back outside of the convenience store, Owen let out a deep breath, then suddenly chuckled to himself. The hand holding the envelope tingled with an excited energy, and a sinister smile slowly crept up onto his face.Bookmark here

The deed was done, and all that was left was to wait.Bookmark here


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Part 4: 20 Seconds; 20 HoursBookmark here

Back at his apartment, Owen paced back and forth, trying to figure out his next move.Bookmark here

It wasn’t until after he showed the photo to Austin that more questions began to present themselves. For instance, how long would one have to look at the photo for the curse to take effect?Bookmark here

The notebook has simply said not to look at the photo at all, but what if there was a set amount of time that was required before one would die? Austin had only looked at the photo for about twenty seconds. Would that be enough?Bookmark here

Owen rubbed at his temples, trying to soothe his anxiety away.Bookmark here

It’s alright, he told himself. The heavy lifting is done for now. The next step is to wait until tomorrow.Bookmark here

It took less than a day for the photo to kill the men in the van, at least according to the timestamps in the videos. Also, Austin said he’d be working tomorrow night as well. If Owen showed up for Austin’s shift tomorrow and Austin wasn’t there, that meant something had happened to him.Bookmark here

Alright, that settles it, Owen thought, finally satisfied. He glanced at the clock on the wall. It was around midnight.Bookmark here

That means I have around twenty hours until I get my answer…Bookmark here

“Hehe…” He had to laugh to himself about how absurd all of this was. But he couldn’t deny that he hadn’t had this much fun in a long, long time.Bookmark here

Things had suddenly gotten very interesting.Bookmark here


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Part 5: On EmptyBookmark here

“Thunk thunk thunk!” Devin punched the steering wheel of his car, unable to hold back his frustration. A large teddy bear wobbled back and forth in the back seat behind him, a small greeting card placed in front of it.Bookmark here

Can’t even give my daughter a birthday gift anymore, he thought to himself, his rage-filled grip tightening on the steering wheel.Bookmark here

All he wanted to do was surprise his daughter after work. Had his ex-wife simply told him that she was throwing a birthday party at her mother’s house and staying the night there, all of this could have been avoided.Bookmark here

He spied the clock on his dashboard and noticed that it was nearly midnight.Bookmark here

Now I missed her birthday entirely because I had to drive all the way across this god-forsaken dump of a city, he thought, silently fuming. And on top of that, my gas gauge is on E.Bookmark here

He sighed and tried to let his rage subside as he pulled into the nearest gas station.Bookmark here

Don’t let it get to you, man, he told himself. Otherwise she wins.Bookmark here

After parking his car near one of the gas pumps, he got out and headed towards the convenience store. The square “A+” logo that loomed over the front entrance flickered incessantly.Bookmark here

Someone’s gotta replace that bulb, he thought, shaking his head.Bookmark here

“Creeeeeak!” He opened the door and looked around. The place seemed completely deserted, with no employees in sight.Bookmark here

“What the…” he grumbled to himself, turning to check the hours listed on the door. Just as he thought, the store indeed advertised itself as being open “24/7.”Bookmark here

“Hello?” he said aloud, glancing around the store again. “Is anyone here?”Bookmark here

“Mmmph!” Devin jumped slightly, startled by a sudden grunting sound from behind the checkout counter.Bookmark here

What the hell was that?!Bookmark here

He made his way over, eyes fixated with eagle-like focus on the counter. The fluorescent bulb on the ceiling flickered a couple times, as if sending him a warning in a cryptic code.Bookmark here

Just a couple feet away, he heard another grunt. “Urgh! Gurrrgh!”Bookmark here

Sounds like someone having a heart attack, he thought, sliding his hand into his pocket. He didn’t want to call 911, but he was fully prepared to do so if the need arose.Bookmark here

Devin leaned over the counter to see a portly bearded man on the floor. The man squirmed around, seemingly panicked by something, with his eyes tightly shut.Bookmark here

“N-no!” the man suddenly shouted. “Urgh!”Bookmark here

“You alright, brother?” Devin asked, reaching for the phone in his pocket.Bookmark here

“I don’t wanna-... I don’t wanna see her!” The man thrashed around some more. “Make her go away! Make her stop!”Bookmark here

“Who?” Devin asked. “Make who stop?”Bookmark here

“OH GOD! URGH!” Laying on his side, the man dry-heaved and put his hands up to his mouth. He then began coughing violently, his fat stomach undulating with every breath. “ACK ACK ACK! CAAAACK!”Bookmark here

“Alright, I’m calling an ambulance,” Devin said, putting his phone to his ear.Bookmark here

“H-hair,” the man muttered between hacking coughs. “The red- ACK!” He reached his hands into his mouth and motioned as if he were pulling something out of it.Bookmark here

Hair? Is this guy on drugs?Bookmark here

“911, please give us your location,” the operator said over the phone’s speaker.Bookmark here

“Hi. There’s a guy freaking out here. Might be high on something. I’m at the A+ over on-... Uh…” He tried to recall which road he had been travelling down, but was distracted by a sudden grotesque cracking noise coming from the fat man.Bookmark here

His eyes grew wide with fear when he realized what was happening.Bookmark here

“Sir,” the operator said. “Sir, are you still there?”Bookmark here

Her calls fell on deaf ears. Devin was left speechless as he watched the grizzly scene unfold right in front of him. Wet popping and crackling noises filled the store while the fat man gurgled helplessly on the dirty tile floor.Bookmark here

“Oh my god…”Bookmark here

Real Aire
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