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(check below the story for audio recordings by As the Raven Dreams and Lady Spookaria)

Everyone says that, right before you die, you flash back on your life up till that point. They say this flashback takes a fraction of a second, but that’s all you need to remember everything you’ve experienced and come to terms with the fact that you won’t be experiencing anything, anymore, ever again. I wonder – is there any way to prove this pre-death flashback really occurs? And in a more philosophical sense – if you can’t prove it, does it even matter?

    I’ll say it matters to me, at least, because I’d prefer to believe Rose wasn’t forced to relive her darkest moments before it all ended.

    When I knew her, Rose Williams was twenty years old, slim but gaining weight, her jet-black hair growing into her natural blond at the roots. She wore thick glasses when she didn’t care, contacts when she did.

    Rose was a Midwestern girl, but she didn’t want to be. She walked, talked, and acted like a rich valley girl whose existence was defined by which flavor of La Croix she was drinking. I believed the act too, at least till I heard she was from Wyoming.

    When Rose turned eighteen, she did what her friends and family expected: she moved as far away from Wyoming as possible. This took the form of attending an insignificant community college in Ohio – probably her last choice, but the only one that accepted her. Everyone figured she’d have her pick of schools after playing the sympathy card, but it turned out most colleges didn’t want the drama of a student struggling through PTSD. And she was, even if she didn’t know it – struggling with PTSD, that is – because Rose was part of the high school class that gave birth to the urban legend of Mackenzie Weaver.

    Back when I met Rose, that name didn’t mean anything to me or the general public. We didn’t have all the documentaries and memes and Halloween costumes centered around her that you’ll see nowadays. I didn’t see so much as a Facebook post when Mackenzie allegedly dug herself up from the grave, and it didn’t make national news when her boyfriend was murdered on the anniversary of her massacre.

    By that time, Rose and I were friends. We shared a Spanish class, where she was the only student I could actually stand. I won’t get into the poor life choices that led to me also enrolling at a mediocre community college in Ohio, cause that story isn’t half as interesting – or horrifying – as hers.

    I got to campus late on February fifteenth, 2014, and found Rose sitting outside on one of the pockmarked wooden benches the administration didn’t feel like replacing. She was wearing sweatpants and glasses, which I knew meant she hadn’t planned on trying today – but the fact that she was outside smoking while class went on without her told me there was something else going on.

    “What’s up?” I said, stopping by her bench. I knew I was late, but there was still time to argue against being marked absent.

    “What’s up,” she repeated, not looking up at me. She was staring at her phone, a lit cigarette forgotten in her other hand. I was silent for a moment, giving her a chance to actually acknowledge me, but she kept reading whatever was on the screen in silence. Her leg was bouncing with nervous energy.

    “What’s up,” I said again, then: “Hey.”

    Finally she looked up at me, and for a second I didn’t know what I was seeing. Her eyes, usually jittery with excitement at any proposal, were wide and empty, overflowing with what I could only identify as some part fear, some part sadness. She wasn’t crying, at least not literally: I could sense tears behind her eyes, a nonphysical manifestation of whatever she was experiencing.

    “Are you okay?” I asked, taken aback. I hardly recognized her without that glint of mischief in her eyes, the smirk she would flash before stealing someone’s cigarettes out of their purse or blocking a one-night stand’s phone number.

    “Yeah,” she breathed, and she couldn’t have sounded less convincing.

    “What’s that?” I nodded to her phone.

    “Just…Facebook,” she muttered.

    “Rose,” I said, and waited till she looked me in the eyes again. “What is the matter.”

    She looked down at her phone, then silently handed it to me. What I saw was a lengthy Facebook post, written by the police department of a town I’d never heard of. But the post didn’t make any sense, at least not as I skimmed its contents: they were talking about murder, but also, grave robbing? The word sword appeared once or twice, and I couldn’t imagine how that possibly fit in a modern police report.

    “What is this?” I asked.

    “Just read it,” she murmured, and I caught her implication: she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, explain it aloud.

    The post was of course about Mackenzie Weaver – about the murder of her old boyfriend – but the cops didn’t know that, and I sure as hell didn’t either. The actual post was an unofficial admission that there had been a string of murders…somewhere…and that the culprit had not been apprehended. The victims were unconnected, and most of them killed with a sharp weapon too big to be a knife. It was a disturbing story, but I couldn’t see why it had affected Rose so much.

    “Did you know one of them?” I asked, handing her back the phone.

    She seemed to remember she was holding a now-spent cigarette and dropped it on the ground, lighting a new one with shaking fingers. I was definitely gonna get marked absent. “Not really,” she said, as if that explained everything.

    “So you knew one of them a little bit?” I asked.

    “I can’t talk about it right now,” she said, in no way implying she would ever be able to talk about it.

    “…okay,” I offered lamely. She was obviously freaked out, for some reason or another, but I couldn’t offer a solution or even support if she wasn’t going to explain. “Wanna talk about…something else?”

    “Just go inside,” she said. Then, as if trying to cover for her brusqueness: “I’ll see you after class?”

    “Yeah,” I replied, and left it at that.

    I didn’t see her the rest of that day, and silently accepted that she’d only asked to get rid of me. There was a lump in my throat as I pushed through my homework – maybe stupidly, since there was apparently nothing wrong with her – but I was worried, and, hindsight being 20/20, I should’ve been a lot more worried than I was.

    When I saw Rose again, two days later, she looked even worse. She usually didn’t put a lot of effort into her appearance – we had that in common – but that day I could tell at a glance she was depressed, or at least in a very bad headspace. She was in class, but only physically, and must have been very dehydrated because she kept drinking out of an opaque bottle that I can only assume was full of nice refreshing water. I must’ve asked if she was okay again, cause I distinctly remember her hitting me with that classic “Yes. I’m fine.”

    It wasn’t till a couple days later that I worked up the nerve to ask her what was really going on, and if I could do anything to help; she responded with about as much annoyance as I expected, but apparently couldn’t keep it to herself anymore cause she finally told me. “You know about school shootings?” was how she phrased it. Yes, I said, I did know about school shootings. I’ve lived in America my entire life, I know about school shootings. “Something like that happened to me,” she continued, “Last year. This girl at my school, she…”

    “Jesus Christ,” I said, after her voice had trailed off. We were standing in her apartment kitchen, and she slumped against the fridge as she spoke.

    “It wasn’t a gun,” she said quickly. “It was, like, a sword. But like – one of those curved ones.”

    “A cutlass?” I supplied.

    She nodded. “This girl, M – ” Her voice choked off, and it took her a second to get the name out. “Mackenzie. She just, like, lost her shit one day and killed some of my friends. Then the cops got her.” She shrugged and looked away, as if I was supposed to think she didn’t care all that much.

    The apartment seemed colder than it had a minute ago as I considered what she was saying. I didn’t know about Mackenzie back then, and I’d never heard this side of Rose’s high school experience – but now that I thought about it I should’ve at least seen that she was hanging on to something. She had a cat – a little brown thing named Lexi – who she’d carried right into Spanish a couple times, with no argument from the professor. I realize now that Lexi was an emotional support animal, and that some days, Rose would think too hard about Spanish class and remember a particular murderous blonde she’d had Spanish with the year before. That, plus the way Rose would sometimes shut off: we’d be out in Findlay, sneaking into a bar or seeing a concert, when she would go silent and still. Sometimes it took me a few minutes to notice, but when I did she would write it off as suddenly losing a caffeine rush. I never thought twice about Rose’s smoking habit, but after finding out the truth I had to wonder if she’d picked that up as a way to ground herself after what happened.

    “So then…” I began after a minute, hoping I wasn’t phrasing the question in an offensive way, “I mean, you’ve been particularly affected recently, right? How does that…” A new thought occurred to me. “Is it the anniversary?”

    “That’s part of it,” she admitted. “But not all of it.”

    “Then what is it?” I asked.

    She shot me a look, and I could tell I was annoying her, threatening to bring back the memories she’d tried to bury, but she answered my question. “That Facebook post I was reading?”

    “The one about the murders?”

    “Yeah. A week ago. That was her.”

    Something twisted in my gut. I knew I’d misunderstood, that she technically hadn’t said Mackenzie died – but for a split second there, as her words echoed in my ears, I almost allowed myself to believe the other possibility – the impossibility – that my mind had jumped to.

    I cleared my throat. “When you said the cops got her – ”

    “Yeah,” she interrupted. “They killed her, okay. They shot her in the head, and they buried her. Then a few months later, someone dug her up.”

    I somehow managed to stumble on my feet, though I’d been standing still. Rose was looking away from me, watching Lexi step weightlessly around the kitchen counter. For the first time, I wondered if she was going to hurt me.

    “But, like, no one really dug her up,” Rose continued, her voice a bitter monotone. “They didn’t catch anyone. And all the dirt was, like, pushed to both sides of the grave, like someone was going out not in.”

    “Rose,” I said, and for a second I couldn’t think of how to continue. “That’s – no offense – but that’s ridiculous.”

    “Yeah,” she shot back, “I thought so too when I heard about it. But then I asked my psychic about it.”

    I was almost relieved at the grounded reference. Rose and I had been arguing off and on about her “psychic” for the better part of four months: after signing away my freshman year into near-indentured friendship with her, I’d found out she was one of those middle class white girls who paid an old woman with an accent an obscene amount of money to tell them they would have good fortune in upcoming months. She believed her psychic more than I’d ever known a Catholic to believe the Pope, and I’d tried to tell her that she couldn’t just believe in precognition while writing off all religion as outdated superstition, but she would always tell me to stop challenging her beliefs and kept shelling out her parents’ money to some lady wearing a fake turban in a dark basement.

    “Rose,” I said, knowing I was treading on thin ice, “You can’t believe – ”

    “Uh, yeah,” she jumped in. “I do believe it. I believe what she says, and she said Mackenzie was back to finish what she started.”

    “She’s just playing off what you’re afraid of!” I retorted. “That’s what they do, that’s how they make their money!”

    “Uh, no, she’s not,” Rose shot back, “Cause I didn’t tell her Mackenzie’s name.”

    That simple statement, spoken in my friend’s typical indignant tone, hung in the air like secondhand smoke. I crossed my arms against the cold, and against the shadows.

    “She could’ve researched you,” I murmured, hardly loud enough for myself to hear. I was pulling at straws: there was no real argument to be made, other than that Rose was lying. And maybe she was. But that would just mean she was desperate to prove herself right.

    “She’s back,” Rose said, not bothering to counter my point. “She’s gonna try to kill everyone she missed.”

    Back then, I couldn’t picture Mackenzie Weaver – I didn’t know her preference for the tank splatter mask, or the way the bullet wound was still visible across her skull. Back then, when I heard my best friend talking about an undead teenager coming back to murder her, all I could picture were dark, twisted images, like some ethereal comic book in my head: a black, impressionist landscape, twisted trees and crosses bearing bloody gods reaching towards a sky weeping dark rain. And at the center of it all, bending all natural laws around her to slip through the cracks, a small girl with skin white as bone, inky blood drooling down a skull with no face as she pulled herself back to the surface of the earth and into the world of the living. She had escaped Hell, and she wouldn’t return unless she dragged a hundred and forty-nine souls down with her.

    This moving image, my rebellious mind’s interpretation of Mackenzie’s resurrection, was playing on a loop in my head as I drove home that night. I never thought I could feel afraid in my car, knowing there was a ton and a half of steel and glass between me and the rest of the world – but Mackenzie, or my image of her, wasn’t some panhandling hobo or a wild animal. She – it – was…something else entirely. Something not of this world.

    As long as that drive home seemed, with every tree branch looking like a rusty cutlass and every pothole like a tunnel up from Hades, it didn’t take long for me to stop thinking about Mackenzie Weaver. Rose apparently adjusted to living with her psychic’s prediction, though I figured she secretly knew it was bullshit. If Mackenzie was a force of the supernatural, she could have killed Rose a long time ago.

    I wondered a couple times, what made Rose think the murders on the other side of the country were committed by her dead classmate? Eventually I decided she had known the victim, that dead nineteen-year-old I now know used to be Mackenzie’s boyfriend. Then I found myself wondering for the first time why Mackenzie had snapped in the first place – had someone done something to her? Why would she hold a grudge against Rose, living or undead? I wanted to ask her, but I couldn’t bring myself to drudge it up again. Plus, Rose and I were hanging out less and less as the year pushed on: by May, I’d found a new group in Spanish class and she had resigned herself to silently working in the back of the room, headphones on and fingers twitching nervously in the absence of a cigarette.

    On the last day of school, Rose wasn’t even in class. I showed up late and dicked around with the guys, knowing at this point our grades were locked in. I had finally finished freshman year: nine months of confusing classes and calling my parents for advice on the most basic adult functions. I was halfway through my community college career, and halfway through college in general. I was feeling good – free, and grown up – as I left my last class and checked my phone.

    I should’ve expected the text from Rose. A couple weeks into our first semester, just after we’d met, she had lent me a chair from her apartment: mine was totally unfurnished, hence me sleeping on a bare mattress for nine months, while hers came with three chairs, which she claimed was one more than the number of people she ever wanted in her apartment at once. Now, it was time for her safety deposit check and her landlord wasn’t the type who would fail to notice a disappearing chair. I had planned on tracking down an older friend of mine and asking if he’d buy us some celebratory booze, but I decided to put that off. Rose had been my best friend, even if we barely spoke anymore, and the least I could do was give her her chair back.

    So I loaded the chair in my car and drove over to her place. She lived on the second floor of a two-story house , and I knew she wouldn’t offer to help me carry the thing, so I lugged it up to the exterior landing and texted her to come out.

    A minute passed, then another. Then five. It wasn’t unusual for Rose to keep me waiting – one time, she’d invited me to dinner then ghosted me for three hours and gotten pissed when I went without her – but she was specifically waiting to get her chair back. This interaction would solely benefit her. It was her favorite kind of interaction.

    I waited for ten minutes on the deck, texting her every two. I sent her an ultimatum, claiming I would leave her chair out here to get rained on if she didn’t open the door, but I knew I was talking out of my ass: Rose had conditioned me to dread her wrath in any situation where she felt she’d been affronted, whether or not she was in the wrong. Even knowing I wouldn’t see her for three months, I couldn’t stand the idea of having her turn the caps lock on.

    It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize the door was unlocked, and when I did, something ticked in the back of my head. She could have forgotten on her way out or in, but Rose would never have left the door unlocked on purpose.

    I called her name stepping in. When she didn’t answer, I went ahead and dragged the chair inside. She would be mad that I went inside without express permission, but it was better than waiting all day to do her a favor.

    There’s music playing as I push the chair into her one-man living room: Baby It’s Cold Outside by Dean Martin. A weird choice for mid-June, but honestly, I’ve always loved the tune.

    I looked around the living room. No Rose to be seen. Alright, I decided, I’d give her one last chance via the original form of mass communication, the one my generation has totally abandoned despite being easier and more personal than texting or Tweeting or whatever the hell else we’re doing nowadays. She didn’t pick up, which didn’t surprise me, but I felt a spark of hope before I realized the voice on the other end was just a voicemail. “Heyyyyyyyy it’s Rose,” she said, and I didn’t know it was the last time I’d ever hear her voice, “Leave a message if you want, or just text me cause it’s way easier.” I hung up, knowing she wouldn’t listen to a voicemail and that I wouldn’t know what to say in a voicemail anyways.

    Might as well get out of here, I figured. She had the chair. She had a few months of my life. She had some serious issues she needed to work through, preferably without the help of psychics and conspiracy theories. I turned to go, but stopped: something had moved in my peripherals, and I turned to look directly into a pair of glowering yellow eyes.

    Lexi was sitting on the kitchen counter, staring directly at me, her fluffy brown tail nipping back and forth in time with some meter I couldn’t hear. The background music changes to Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.

    “What is it?” I asked the cat, feeling her slit eyes on me like a pair of microscope lenses. Keeping eye contact, I almost felt rebellious against the cat, like I knew she was on some higher level of being and I was an insignificant little organism in a Petri dish. She wasn’t just watching – she was observing.

    And then, I won the staring contest. Lexi turned in a half-circle and hopped off the other side of the counter, into the small part of the apartment arbitrarily designated the kitchen.

    Maybe I was curious, or maybe I was bored, or maybe I just knew my place as one of the lesser minds in the Petri dish, but either way I walked around the counter in time to see Lexi turning in a circle three times, apparently finding the most comfortable position, before settling down for a nap in the pool of blood collecting on Rose’s shirt.

    I’ve somehow forgotten my immediate reaction to seeing my friend like that, collapsed on the floor, her head bent at an uncomfortable angle against the lower cupboards. I must have blacked out, or experienced a moment of severe dissociation, because by the time I fully recognize the dried blood on Rose’s chin, the slash marks through her shirt and blood soaking into Lexi’s fur, the song has changed.

    Last Christmas, I gave you my heart; but the very next day, you gave it away.

    I didn’t want to look away. I didn’t want to turn my back on that horror, knowing that in this new world, this new universe I’d allowed myself to accept without any sort of evidence, there was no reason to believe Rose wouldn’t stand up and take her revenge on the so-called friend who had let her slip away after discovering her dark past. But I had to look away, I had to track the brown cat as she seemed to wake up and slunk off the body of her owner, stepping past me with confidence in her stride and wrapping herself snakelike in and around the dead girl’s combat boots. The other dead girl, that is.

    Same as in the hellish images that my mind had drawn months before, Mackenzie Weaver had no face. Whether human features existed on her undead skull, I couldn’t tell – but the face she chose, the avatar of whatever remnants of a soul still clung to her, was hard leather and chainmail, expressionless, emotionless, representing a body driven not by a brain, but by the abstract concept of vengeance.

    Vengeance for what? What had Rose done to her? Did it matter anymore?

    I stood there, frozen, starring into the slatted holes that functioned as her eyes. The bulletwound that ended her life was visible in the mottled white skin above her mask, pink and festering but not bleeding, never bleeding. Blood begets life, and Mackenzie had neither. But Rose had blood, blood that was spilling out of her chest, blood that I could see running down the curved blade of Mackenzie’s cutlass and dripping into Lexi’s fur.

    We were four feet apart. I was close enough to my friend’s killer that I could have seen the rise and fall of her breath, could have felt the slight human shifting and warmth of her body heat. I never realized, until I stared a living corpse in the face, how obnoxiously alive humans really are. But from Mackenzie, there was nothing. No breath. No warmth. Not the slightest movement. She stood there, my friend’s blood running over her gloves, and didn’t move.

    And then, she turned, and left the apartment. The blood trailed after her, but she didn’t seem to care: she walked out onto the upper deck and down the stairs, disappearing from my sight and not bothering to shut the door.

    It took a long time for me to convince the police that I hadn’t killed Rose – especially since, back then, there wasn’t the unspoken acceptance among law enforcement that Mackenzie’s old classmates would continue to die, and the killers would continue to get away free. Rose Williams was Mackenzie’s first victim after her boyfriend and the ensuing spree: the first death to imply that there would be more down the line.

    Well, she always did consider herself a trendsetter.

    I guess it isn’t so much your life that flashes before your eyes as it is a replay of your most intense moments: a greatest hits album of memories, as it were. A clip show of the joyful, the terrifying, the gratuitous, and the murderous. I’m not surprised that Rose Williams popped into my head before anything else: so far, my life has been fairly average, both before and after that June day in 2014, so it makes sense that anything else wouldn’t be worth flashing back on.

    But as I stand here, something like two and a half years later, frozen in a single moment, unable to move or interact with my surroundings, I almost want to laugh. I never wanted any of this: Mackenzie, Rose, the supernatural elements of this world that average people will go so far to deny. I wanted to live a normal life, to grow up, go to college, have a career, start a family. I didn’t want it all to end before I hit thirty, staring my own murder in the face.

    My friends are too far away, and the music is too loud. I’m alone in this cramped space, in a compromised position, and the crowd outside is too drunk to care. I don’t know if I’m supposed to feel at peace, or overwhelming panic, but I feel neither. What I feel is confusion. I didn’t lift a hand to stop her back then, I’ve never hurt her or insulted her, I’ve only tried to keep others from meeting the same fate as Rose. So why is she moving towards me? Why is she raising that cutlass to strike? Bullet holes riddle her clothing. A chunk has been taken out of her mask, exposing torn flesh and rotting bone beneath. She killed my friend. She’s going to kill me.

    I wish my flashback could have lasted a few minutes longer.

Narration by As The Raven Dreams and Lady Spookaria

© copyright 2020 Nathaniel J. Nelson