The feeling has no name. It reaches out to anyone who has lost someone, parting the close and empty dark—a hand on their shoulder, a whisper in their ear, and that’s how they know that they’re not alone anymore.
He welcomes it at first. Does all the things every child knows they’re not supposed to: leaves his candles unlit and his doors unlocked. Waits for the dead that he knows will return. Paces barefoot on the rotting floorboards where the damp seeps in, listens to the call of the lake night by sleepless night.
And finally, the feeling comes. He’s in the boathouse, penknifing gashes into all his notebooks, thoughts full of wool and nothing; and a cloud passes over the grimy thumbprint of the sun and he knows it, he can feel it—he’s not alone.
He leaps to his feet, but the feeling’s wrong—not the one he was expecting to feel. He wonders if it’s nerves, that creeps shadowy fingers across his spine at the thought of the end of his isolation. He’d spent so long afraid of her that even now he can’t shake the feeling of her peering over his shoulder, her light and saccharine voice drawing out the syllables: sen-pai.
He lies down on the bare ground and closes his eyes. He stares at the afterimage of her burned in the backs of his eyelids. Her perfume seeps into his nostrils -something floral, something candy scented and childish- and he can feel his heart beating into a frenzy until finally, he claws at her imaginary neck with his hands, and with a half-remembered scream and the delicate snap of bone, he’s alone in the boathouse again.
After that, he doesn’t dream.
When he wakes in the middle of the night, she’s there again: for real this time, sitting at the softly-rotted table with her legs crossed. Her neck that was made for his hands is bent at a perfect ninety-degree angle. She’s still wearing their school uniform, the prim pretty lines of it soiled with grave dirt.
When she looks at him her eyes overflow with love. “You’re so smart, senpai. You were born to give me happiness.”
He takes a step back. He doesn’t know this girl, he thinks. His heart beating rabbit-fast again, scared like he thought he’d never be after she was gone. This is not a teenage girl whose neck would give under his hands. That girl lies somewhere in restless sleep, her lungs full of lakewater.
The chair clatters as he backs away. “Who are you.”
The girl at the table keeps smiling. The bizarre angle of her snapped neck gives her a thoughtful air. She can’t turn her head, so she feels for the edge of the table before she stands up. “I’m sorry I left you alone for so long, senpai.”
His penknife is still in his hand. He covers it in his palm, slowing the panic spidering through his veins. “Who the fuck are you?”
“Like you don’t know,” she says, coy. “You’ve forgotten my name already, senpai?”
He closes his eyes, tries to seek the calm in the corner of his mind. He’s sluggish now: his body was a blade sharpened to slice one neck, but now that she’s gone he’s just a tool with no use. What can he do, when something has risen from the dead in her place?
“You’re not her,” he says, but his breathing’s skittering again.
“Maybe,” she allows. “But I love you so much more. And isn’t that what you always wanted?”
She moves to him between blinks. His nostrils flare and fill with the smell of rot and sweet perfume and he lashes out with his knife, and it cuts a clean line across her pretty face that pungent lake water begins to dribble out of.
She pauses, dabbing at her cheek. When she’d been alive she’d always been so careful to always be presentable: it was always her lackeys that beat him for her. Now, she -whoever’s wearing her skin- pauses, wipes some of the grime on her cheek. The sound that comes out of her crushed throat is gurgled and curious.
Measured now, as if she’s playing with him, she pauses to pick up one of the dirty mags scattered across the room like confetti. “Really, senpai, why do you bother with these things? You’re handsome enough that any girl would throw herself at you.”
And before he can blink, she’s forced him to the ground. The rotted wood cracks as he goes down, splinters at his neck and his knife clattering to the floor: then she straddles his thighs, and puts her mouth to his.
His stomach roiling, gallons of putrid water wash over him like a drowning tide. Up close, he can see the clean crack of her neck, meat and bone, and he lies under her paralyzed as she siphons brackish water lovingly into his lungs. Her hands are like iron clamps on his wrists. Exhausted and trembling, he opens his mouth to swallow out of reflex—and she makes a satisfied purr in response. The pressure lessens when he begins to drink, his body numb as it sloshes down his throat into his gut.
When she's done she leans back from him, licking her lips.
“You asked me my name,” she says sweetly. “Didn’t you already know when you made such a cute little offering to me? I’m hurt. Sen-pai.”
When she’s gone, he doesn't dare to sleep. He used to sit in his room for hours in the dark, planning how he would kill her, but now he feels as if she has carved out that part of him that had the instinct to survive. He wonders, if he survives this, if he could ever step out of this boathouse, stop pacing its rotted wooden floors.
He outsmarted a teenage girl. He doesn’t think he can outsmart a god.
He makes himself crawl to the desk she was sitting at. The drawer has a newspaper clipping, and her smile looks out at him from her missing photo. Different knick-knacks that he had hoarded when he was following her from school to her house. The notes she had written to him once, inviting him to the rooftop where her friends were waiting with bats.
Beyond that, there is the heart locket he took from her before he heaved her body off the side of the boat.
He buries the locket in the forest where they first met. She had a teenage girl’s sentimentality about those things— that's so sweet and pathetic, senpai. His nails crack and split as he digs. His body is stiff and cold. He thinks about all the things he should have told her: that it wasn’t her fault. That they were born to be each other's ending— her at the bottom of the lake and him breathing in grave dirt.
He should probably offer something— some incense, some flowers. Once upon a time, with his hands ringed around her throat, he had promised her a proper burial. If you don't, senpai, I'll haunt you forever.
He thinks about the rocks he had tied to her neck, the way he'd watched till his eyes burned, till her body had been swallowed whole by the black water with her skirt billowing around her. It had been a ceremony alright. He'd kept his promises.
“There,” he says. “Now stay down.”
He puts the last of the dirt over her. For a split second his ears are full of nothing but silence. He closes his eyes and sees her again: her long dark hair fanning out in the water, grey skin and huge milky eyes.
He opens his eyes to darkness. The crush of water presses in on him from all sides. He can’t move. He opens his mouth and breathes in lake water. He thinks for a moment that he tripped on the cattails and fell, and then his hand touches soft sand and bone and he knows where he is. He was the one who chose this place to throw her body overboard, after all.
The feeling comes again. He’s not alone, and it’s not her: not his sweet, cruel sweetheart.
Thanatos smiles at him, her eyes overspilling love like she might die from it. “You came to me first!” She reaches out, puts his hands on her neck. Squeezes ever so gently, gentler than her kiss. “I always knew you were mine.”