By the end of today, Amy Aiken would be said to disappear. Amy's disappearance would be a lost fact in history—and what happened to her is not well-known. Some say it was a jailbreak. Others say it was a lynching. I'm not sure if Foster City ever figured out what happened to her.
But I know what happened to Amy Aiken. I saw it with my own eyes.
I woke up that morning with an origami bird staring at me from the desk. I shot up from my bed, grabbed it and unfolded it, shaking my head to get the blur out of my vision.
You've made an excellent scout. Like a Tonk. — Signed, the Queen in Pink.
I crumpled up the note and shoved my fist into my pocket.
I dropped by the sheriff's office in the morning to check on Amy. He relayed that Amy did not capture any 'pink thing,' and to visit her at the usual hours. Him and his wife went off to their ranch at the Pedernales as they often did, and wouldn't be back until the evening.
I realized, after they had left, I could have just gone up to the second floor and talked to her anyway, without anyone noticing. I wondered even if I could find the key to the cell and unlock it. However, I decided to respect the law and wait.
I checked in on Mr. Foster. The Queen did not show up to their scheduled meeting.
"It's found me out," he muttered, "Thar goes my holdings. Bet them shareholders are gonna gimme the boot in no time."
I stalked around the town as the blue was waning into pink. It was an unusually quiet day, compared to the bustle that had begun since that graduation ceremony. Actually, Foster City was supposed to be this quiet, by the usual standard. I forgot that this sort of quiet was "normal." Over the course of just several days, I had gotten used to the chaos: People yelling and screaming and gossiping and gathering in front of the barbershop and Ms. Daeth's house. It was awful, but now the quiet bothered me. It felt like acceptance of a new order.
Graduation day, certainly, was my coming of age. It was the day I became an adult. That scene on the sofa changed how I look at the world.
The Queen did not make any public appearances today. Perhaps Ava or some other had received notes like me, but they weren't publicly read out. A lot of things happen in private, I realize.
I loitered, wandered, stalked around. I should have been helping my aunt and uncle with work, but I was still in a bad state. They gave me a pass, at least for now.
Under the pink sky, I found myself waiting outside the limestone cube. I'd never thought I'd look at a jailhouse so fondly. It had become routine, a sort of guilty pleasure, to come here daily. I thought of the girl inside, in the cell on the far end, that had been thrown in here many nights over. She had thought of this place fondly. When I first ascended to her floor and met her at her cell, that was one of the first things she said, wasn't it?
"No kiddin'. It's nice in here. No one to bother you. No chores, no responsibilities. No folks asking you to hang out. I like bein' alone. All I have to do here is sit and do nothing. Doin' nothin' is kinda fun, honestly."
Living life must have been exhausting for her. So exhausting that she felt relief over being in a jail cell. In spite of—or due to—her hyper-sociability, she found solace somewhere where she didn't have to put up a face. Where people wouldn't touch her, ogle her. The jail was a convenient excuse for her to keep away. And it was a convenient excuse for me, too. It gave me an excuse to visit her, talk to her. In 4 days we had undone 4 years worth of silence, thanks to this excuse. I worried that we may return to silence after the excuse was retired, and I wanted to cherish whatever time left we had talking to each other under this odd arrangement.
And suddenly, looking up at that cube, I felt a sense of dread. The cathedral-like barred windows stared at me like eyes, the door left open felt like it was going to swallow me. I did not like how quiet it was. I did not like how it was looking at me. Was Amy in there right now? I felt like I shouldn't enter. Like I was being lured in. I wanted to run away, but I felt such terror that I stood frozen: If I ran away, the cube would chase me. The jailhouse would follow me and swallow me. No, it would watch me. It would watch me and remember. It would remember that I ran.
I was snapped out of it by the return of Ella, the sheriff's wife. It was a bit early. She was going to cook dinner. Did I want some? No, auntie's probably got something ready for me. I followed her in, scarcely aware that it was the last time I'd ever enter that jail. She went up to the second floor, then came back down looking flustered. Amy wasn't hungry, apparently. Ella interpreted it as her wanting to see me, and she teased me about it. Oh that girl. She'd set aside a plate for her anyway—leave it at her cell once I leave.
I went up to that second floor and took that barren stroll to the cell at the last. There she was at her corner.
"Hi.... No balloon?"
"No balloon. Din't come."
"That's what I'd like to do to that thing."
"Y'know Kev, Ah've been thinking about how to get by in the modern world. Staying sane, y'know?"
"What do you got?"
"It's where ya get on the floor on all-fours and crawl around for a few minutes."
"What the hell."
"Call it a yoga exercise or somethin'. And you can do it whenever. Like even in the middle of dinner, or sex."
"W... What!? What!? W-w-what is even the point of that!?"
"It's a way to break a suit, I guess. I mean, things like that, basically: Ass-crack scratchin', through-the-pocket crotch scratchin', snortin', full suit barefoot, polka dot tie, messy eatin', eye-lickin', nose-pickin', skin-pickin', scalp-pickin', creepin'. They aren't, y'know, unrestrained freedom and happiness on the plains. But there's a subtle sublimity to them. Like pockets o' euphoria."
The cell was tinted almost blindingly pink.
Maybe it was something that my subconscious had developed over sleeping on it. But those mannerisms of hers that I had grown so accustomed to began to unnerve me. The way she'd awkwardly waddle around. Sneak a mirror underneath the sheets. Fixate on the window, facing away from me. Hide her face underneath her hair. Offer glimpses of her face only when she wasn't talking.
"By the way, Kev. Whaddya know about the Mothman? Daddy was really into that stuff. Y'know, he talked to a buncha Indians on the reservation an' all."
"Err, yeah... not much."
"Daddy—and I guess that pig bladder too—told me a buncha things about it. Y'know, 'ccording to Daddy, the Comanches blame the Mothman for their downfall."
"I mean, think about it, right? Well, what was the Mothman to the Indians, exactly?"
"As far as I know, they thought of it as something like a God. The 'King of Spirits', Ms. Daeth kept saying. Sounds like they praised it."
"Right, well that's the problem, ain't it?"
"I told you, remember? The Comanches thrived on havin' a decentralized culture. That's what separated them from Christianity, right? That spread out, decentralized, spontaneous 'world of Spirits' was the philosophy they lived on. That's how they were able to, y'know, make such bold, bombastic decisions, and take on such barbarous raids. Their whole culture—way of life thrived on that.
"So what the hell's up with this 'God' nonsense, huh? Ain't that suspicious? 'ccording to Daddy, the Comanches reported trading with the Mothman. The Comanches would provide it with animal remains and spoils of their raids, in return for information on the locations of white settlements."
"So we can blame the Mothman for some of those brutal raids."
"Guess so, but hold your horses. It's thanks to that, y'see, the Comanches started praising it so much. The Mothman was the most useful 'Spirit' to them, 'fter all. It's no wonder they'd start to worship it an' all. And there ya go: Their unChristian, Godless world started to have an somethin' within it that was like a God.
"It's kinda like, the Mothman converted the Comanches to something like monotheism, aint it? It's funny: The Spanish, before 1800, had tried, and failed like jackasses, to convert Plains Indians to Christianity with their missions. But the Mothman? It kinda succeeded implicitly: provided them with a mental model that'd make them more agreeable down the line to a traditional religion. It gave them a sense-a hierarchy. Made em more agreeable to somethin' like a reservation, maybe.
"Doesn't it sound like the Mothman had, like, an ulterior motive? What's a better way to take out a bunch-a decentralized Stone Age warriors than make a hierarchy outta them? 'Fact, the Mothman—since it was so friendly with 'em, gained special access to witness a lotta their war dances an' training sessions. An' people wonder how Hays was able to emulate their mounted combat and track 'em down so well... What if the Mothman was just pretending to be an ally to the Indians?"
I suddenly remembered one of the notes: "To beat the Southern Caucus, you have to be the Southern Caucus."
"Well, Kev, here's where things get creepy. I said the Mothman traded with the Indians, right? Say, Kev, how would you describe the Mothman?"
"Like a man: 6-7 feet tall, black and highly furry, huge wings—usually closed, and glowing red eyes."
"Okay, okay. And do you know, like, what sorta things it liked to trade for?"
I thought in silence for a while, and suddenly a shiver went up my spine. I remembered Ms. Daeth's lectures. And I recited a line that I had heard many times over, what must have been word-for-word:
"'Whose hunger for buffalo hide, crow feathers, hummingbird feathers, sandhill crane wings and eyes, and human skin was insatiable.'"
"Well, ignore that last one for a second. Do you see what I'm seein'? Maybe a better translation for what the Indians were sayin' would be 'iridescent' rather than 'glowing'—y'know, the hummingbird feathers."
"Are you implying that the Mothman was just someone in a costume?"
"Someone, or something. Yeah. Kinda crazy huh?"
"That seems far-fetched. How could the Indians praise and trust something like that?"
"Well, it was friendly and helpful to them, right? And there was prawlly an element of fear too. I'm guessin' it looked pretty intimidating, even if they coulda prawlly just taken it down with a single arrow."
Acting powerful often translates to being powerful.
"Wait, why would the Mothman want human skin?"
"I dunno. Well, I have some ideas. Kev, do you know, erm, what the Mothman sounds like?"
"I'm not sure it has a 'sound.' I heard it was a master of mimicry. It could talk in anyone's voice."
"Yeah. I think that's important here. Now, this is what pig bladder told me, so take this with a grain-a salt. Err, let's take an example... Y'remember learning about, erm, Martha Sherman back in school?"
"Well, yeah. One-a those. But details matter, 'specially here. Like the Parkers, the Shermans were maybe a bit too far out on the frontier and got raided by the Indians. Now, actually, most of the Shermans escaped. It was Martha who'd get one hell of a treatment.
"While Martha was tryna escape, the Comanches grabbed her, dragged her back and gangraped her. They noticed she was pregnant, so they shot a buncha arrows into her abdomen. And finally, they scalped her alive, right? And then they let her go. It's one-a the only times they've let a scalped victim live and return to her family. Maybe they did it on purpose as a publicity stunt, cause it sure spooked a buncha white settlers off the frontier. Martha lived for 4 days before dyin' after givin' birth to a stillborn, thanks to the arrows. See? The scalpin' wasn't what killed her.
"Now think about that Kev: They peeled her head off, leaving her skull exposed, and she still lived that long. She lived for 4 days without a head. White folks who saw her were horrified. That's how technically masterful the Indians were at torture. It wasn't an easy thing to do: It took them hours to make the cuts correctly, apparently. Imagine sittin' there, just havin' been violated, arrows in your stomach, and the Indians just carefully workin' on your head like that. Workin', like surgeons. That's advanced knowledge, y'know. Hell, most surgeons today probably wouldn't know how to do that."
"Anyway, 'ccording to the Queen in Pink, thanks to that sort of stuff, the Mothman was very, very interested in Comanche torture sessions. It'd often sit in on 'em."
"So whoever was in that costume was a sadist."
"But hold on, Kev. That's not quite it, right? Remember: The Mothman was workin' against the Indians."
"I don't think the Mothman was really interested in torture, or causin' pain. Hell, maybe it didn't torture anyone at all. What it was interested in was the technical wizardry, I think: How to make clean cuts on the human body. Think about how clean the scalping of Martha was. It musta been so clean you'd prolly be able to plop her scalp right back on her head. And the Comanches also skinned humans: Think about how good they musta been at it. Maybe the Mothman was interested in how to scalp, skin, and dismember a human body, and do it so cleanly and elegantly that it could be near seamlessly put back together. At least for a bit o' time, till the body parts began to decay and smell, and had to be discarded, shed, spread around."
She brushed her hair aside, revealing her excessively make-up ridden, smothered face, and her lipsticked smile.
"The other weird thing the Queen told me, is that the solution to the scavenger hunt is off the road from Austin to Foster City, at XXX'XX.X,XXX'XX.X, beside a patch of prickly pears."
Her lips weren't moving while she spoke. Her clothes collapsed onto the floor, revealing no body, and her smiling face started flying all around the cell before escaping through the window.
I ran downstairs, told the sheriff's wife something and left the cube. I told my aunt and uncle something, stole a shovel from our house and stumbled into the family car and drove to those coordinates.
It took me an hour or two to correctly identify the spot, and an hour or two more to dig.
What I saw underneath the pink light was, unmistakably, the corpse of James Aiken. Nude, and mostly intact. There were his hands, his feet, and most of his skin. The only things missing were his genitals, the skin of his face, and his scalp. There were bullet holes in his chest.
I realized then that James Aiken hadn't made it to Foster City on graduation day. That what I had encountered on that day wasn't James Aiken. I remembered now, wobbling that gloved "hand." How that Stetson covered the stitches on his scalp. How his thick beard covered the lack of movement of his lips. How those clothes covered the lack of skin underneath. How his figure stumbled and lumbered around so awkwardly, as if drunk—as if incapable of walking humanly—like something in agony, painfully twisted and stretched out of its usual form.
And I remembered how I ran into the house that neighbored mine, desperately hoping, praying that Amy was okay, and I saw the sofa on which sat the Queen in Amy Aiken's skin beside the corpse of Amy Aiken.