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Dear Johanna

A Horror Story

By AphoticPublished about a year ago Updated about a year ago 21 min read
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Dear Johanna
Photo by Kym MacKinnon on Unsplash

Dear Johanna;

 I learned your name this morning. It was written beneath your picture in the paper. There, I learned that your love for adventure was unrivaled. That and your affinity for helping others. You had an old soul and a kind heart. You were predeceased by both parents and two brothers. You have a twin sister named Mariana. You will be missed dearly.

 Mariana lives in Prague, according to her Facebook page. She has a husband, two children, and a cat. Her page is flooded with empty condolences from people who barely knew either of you. She hasn’t responded to any of them. Her last update was written weeks ago. It was about you.

 If anyone has heard from my sister Johanna, please, please call me ASAP. There were countless comments from people who wanted to help find you as well as those who clearly just wanted to be part of what they hoped to be some true crime drama playing out in real time. All of them gave off the same vibe. Cliche’ and unoriginal. Sending thoughts and prayers.

 You were supposed to be in Prague that night. You always visited Mariana and her family overseas for the holidays. For some reason, you decided not to go this year. Mariana had written on your Facebook page; “I’m sorry you couldn’t make it across the pond this year, we will miss you!” You replied with a single heart emoji. Six days later, on Christmas night, you were standing on that bridge where you were last seen alive.

 Other things I learned from your social media presence: your favorite color was blue. The car accident that killed your parents and brothers happened when you and Mariana were eight years old. They were on their way to pick the two of you up from a sleepover when they were hit by a drunk driver who ran a red light at a busy intersection. You never mentally recovered from that. You were haunted by guilt even though it wasn't your fault.

You loved to sing and play the ukulele. You never shared your songs with the world because you never believed you were good enough. I bet you were. You were a mortuary makeup artist, renowned for your uncanny ability to make almost any corpse look alive again. You were expertly skilled in your craft and the praise you were inundated with on your social media pages by the loved ones of the dearly departed spoke volumes for your dedication.

 I’m sorry there is nobody who can do that for you. I’m sorry that no amount of makeup and prosthetics can ever fix what was done to you—what I did to you.

 I will never know what brought you to that bridge alone on Christmas night, but let me tell you what brought me to that very same bridge on that same night that both our fates were frozen in time.

🐺

The Alaskan wilds are mostly unexplored. Millions of frozen acres that have either never seen a human, or the humans they had seen never lived to tell the tale.

 I was always somewhat of a thrill seeker. The idea of being the first man to explore that uncharted wilderness was invigorating to me. My footsteps would be the first where I was headed. It was going to be the adventure of a lifetime, something book-worthy. My best friend and fellow adventurer Tom would accompany me over the next two weeks in my exploration. We had done extreme adventures over a dozen times before between the two of us. We would be prepared for anything nature could hurl at us.

 Only, what we encountered out there was far from natural.

 The locals had warned us about venturing out into No Man’s Land, Alaska. They cautioned us that there was a reason it was untouched—nobody ever made it out that far and lived to tell about it. There had been rumors at a local bar about some ancient tribe roaming the unexplored expanse of forest, but we shrugged it off as another urban legend. Such tales were abundant in the area.

 Our first three nights went better than expected and we were able to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time with the snowmobiles we had rented for the trip.

 We had set up camp in a small clearing and built a fire, bringing more sticks and branches than needed for when we would inevitably need to feed the hungry flames. I remember looking at the moon through the trees, remarking to Tom how it seemed so much brighter so far from humanity. Later, I would come to detest it.

 It started sometime around midnight. First, we heard wolves. We knew going in that there would be an unchecked population of them, but we also did our research on all wildlife known to dwell in the Alaskan wilderness. It wasn’t likely that they would see us as prey and in the event they did, we were well-prepared.

 Still, the sound was beautifully eerie even though we had expected it. There is nothing that can prepare you for such a serene yet haunting choir of nature. It was a humbling experience to hear it in person while isolated from human civilization. It was what we heard next that made my blood run cold and my heart stutter.

Disrupting the call of the wolves was a terrible sound so appalling that it caused a dreadful pit to take shape in my stomach and every inch of my skin to prickle with chills. Tom and I exchanged fire-lit looks of worry. I grabbed my rifle which had been propped next to me and cradled it across my lap, finger on the trigger.

The noise was something between the tormented cry of a dying man, a timber wolf's howl, and a grizzly’s baleful roar—but it was none of those things by itself. It was the preternatural combination of those sounds that made my skin crawl with fright. It was alien to the both of us. It carried on for almost a full minute before cutting off and leaving the forest dead silent around us besides for the rustling of the wind and the crackle of our fire.

 We threw more sticks and branches on the fire to keep it brilliant, warding off any potential predators. There was something out there with us that we were in no hurry to meet. It had sounded close—no more than two klicks away. It wouldn't take long for an animal to cover that kind of ground, particularly one that sounded so formidable. If it did come prowling, we would be ready.

🐺

After what seemed like an eternity of eldritch silence, we began to hear rustling in the briars. The acoustics of the clearing made it difficult to pinpoint its origin. The sound of loud, guttural panting followed, moving in a circle around us; somewhere beyond the reach of the fire’s glow. Despite the luminescence of the full moon through the clouds, it was impossible to see what waited in the shadows of the trees. One thing was clear, though. We were being watched.

 Tom stood quickly, shouldering his shotgun, darting his flashlight around the brush frantically. He swore he saw an emaciated bear, but it skittered out of sight so quickly he couldn’t be sure. It didn’t look normal, he had alarmed, but we both knew at that point that the concept of normalcy was abandoned so far out in the frozen wilds.

 I followed Tom’s lead and stood tall, shining my light into the trees. We made as much noise as possible, waving our guns overhead, screaming into the darkness. Even still, something paced around the outskirts of the firelight, unafraid of our voices. I fired my rifle into the sky to scare it off, but when the ringing in my ears subsided, I could still hear the thing breathing around us. Our fire was dying and we had already used the last of our reserves. Neither one of us was prepared to leave the light of the fire to fetch more of it, so we helplessly shouted into the night as our fire slowly died.

 Soon, we were working with barely more than embers. Up above, the clouds were parting, allowing the moon’s beams to illuminate the shadows and everything lurking within their dark recesses. My eyes darted about the trees to find our watcher, but when they landed on the frozen beam of Tom’s flashlight I realized he had already found it.

 Between the firs, easily standing seven feet tall, was a grotesque bipedal beast the likes of which I had never seen in my worst nightmares. The teeth were what I noticed first. Its elongated maw was wide open, cartoonishly large teeth jutting from its black gums. Its tongue lulled out over them. It had hands at least the size of my head, long narrow fingers attached(and attached to them were claws that could surely decapitate a man with minimal effort). Its fur was matted, mangy, and bare in some places revealing hideously pale skin. When I found its eyes—wild yellow with vertical pupils and a voracious hunger in them—they were trained on Tom.

 There was nothing I could think to compare it to. It had to be a demon. It uttered a low groan so monstrous and horrific that it made me physically ill. The last wisp of flame went out, leaving only glowing coals where the fire had been. The thing lunged forward immediately and latched its enormous jaws around Tom’s neck, giving us no time to react. His flashlight went flying and miraculously landed with its beam illuminating the struggle.

 I shouldered my rifle without hesitation and fired a round into the thing’s ribcage. It turned its attention to me then and in less than two seconds took me to the ground. I used my rifle as a barrier between the creature’s gnashing teeth and my face, but it snapped the gun in half as if it were a fragile stick. In the same instant, a shotgun blast rang out, echoing through the vast wilderness.

 My vision went black as my face was showered by the warm stench of blood, flesh, and wet dog. A crushing weight fell on top of me, stopping my lungs. With my free hand, I frantically wiped away at the gore over my eyes and blinked away the blurriness. Tom stood facing me with his shotgun held limply at his side. His other hand was painted red and pressed firmly to his neck, blood bubbling through his fingers. He dropped the gun and collapsed into the snow.

I kicked and shimmied forcefully to get myself out from beneath the dead weight, all while avoiding looking at the mutilated beast. Soon, it became almost weightless as if it had spontaneously shed a hundred pounds and I was able to wiggle myself free.

 I rushed to Tom’s side, limping from an injury I hadn’t realized I sustained. With the velocity and intensity of which the thing pinned me to the ground I shouldn’t have been surprised if every bone was broken. Tom’s eyes were closed and his hand was no longer pressing on the wound. I slapped his face until his eyes fluttered open, placing his hand back over the wound on his neck and forcing him to apply pressure. He fluttered his eyes open weakly.

 “Hey Will?” He whispered hoarsely, his eyes rolling to and fro in their sockets, delirious.

 “I’m right here.” I forced the words through welling tears and an aching throat as I squeezed his free hand in mine.

 “I think I’m dying.” He choked. I could hear the blood in his voice. The tears broke from my eyes. My best friend—the guy who had just saved my life—was fading fast. He was not going to make it out of the woods.

 “You’re going to be fine, look at me.” His eyes finally managed to focus on my face. I wanted to keep the lie going, to tell him how we’d look back on that moment in three months and joke about how we cheated death, but I could no longer speak. I thought I saw the glimpse of a smile pull up the corners of his mouth, but it was brief, fleeting. He died then.

🐺

After letting myself grieve for a few minutes, I pulled myself together—the only way to survive. I closed Tom's eyes and turned to examine the beast that killed him, to curse it back to hell, but it was gone. In its place was a man, or what was left of one. He was less than half the size of the demon that had attacked us. Above his shoulders was a gut-wrenching sight that made me lose my dinner.

 While trying to make sense of what I was seeing I realized there was only one explanation that worked, but it made no sense. The man had been the creature. It was impossible, it was insane, but it was the only explanation. Something that should not have been but somehow was.

 With the adrenaline worn off and the severity of the situation fully dawned on me, I noticed a stabbing, stinging pain in my shoulder. Upon examination, my coat was torn, red-soaked goose down leaking out of it. The thing had managed to slice me during our struggle. The night seemed to grow eerily still then. I needed to get out of the woods.

 I quickly found my flare gun and tucked it into my jacket. I grabbed Tom’s shotgun and broke down one of the tents, using it as a makeshift bodybag. I dragged him to one of the sleds and strapped him in. I couldn’t leave his body out there. I left everything else, afraid that there could be another demon close by, lying in wait.

 As soon as I had cell service I called the police who referred me to the rangers. They took Tom’s body away in a coroner’s van and the reality set in. My best friend was gone.

 The version of events I gave to the authorities was quite different from what actually happened, but I’m sure you can understand why. There was an investigation, but my story checked out and people died in the wilderness all the time. Once I was cleared to leave the area, I got on the first plane to New York.

 The first time I slept after that night was on the plane, when the exhaustion had finally beaten me into submission. When I woke in a cold sweat, half the other passengers were staring at me, clearly disturbed by my presence. The unfortunate woman in the seat next to me had shaken me awake after I started screaming and thrashing in my sleep. My head was pounding. I tried to recall my dream and immediately wished I hadn’t.

 It came back to me in a flash of red and white. Blood and bone. Teeth and pale skin. Tom’s face like untouched porcelain suddenly morphing and turning completely inside out on itself, his eyes bulging out of their sockets. A dog with a mouth that kept growing until there was no dog left, only maw. A shotgun blast followed by a man’s head exploding repeatedly. My mirror image, drenched in blood and brain matter, smiling maniacally. A man drowning in a pool of red, until only his fingertips broke the surface. A starving, emaciated bear mauling a man to death while he screamed raggedly. Disgusted beyond measure at the horrific images replaying in my mind, I wretched into my lap.

 The nightmares didn’t stop after I landed in New York. In fact, they got worse. I won’t get into the gruesome details as I think you’ve heard enough already. It was as if I was…possessed. Like something intangible and sinister had latched onto me, haunting me in my sleep.

 The wound on my shoulder had been dressed at a Hospital in Anchorage, but when I got home it looked in worse shape than when I had initially gotten the injury. It was bruising badly and the veins around it were black with what looked like infection. I went to a doctor who said it wasn’t infected, but gave me antibiotics to be safe. After the drugs it looked no better. I became extremely ill, vomiting nonstop, the blackening of my veins growing, the bruising getting more severe, a constant fever and chills, sweating profusely despite being shivering cold, excruciating body aches. I was living in hell on Earth. Purgatory.

Then, one day, something incredible happened. I spontaneously healed. I went to bed in misery and woke up in bliss. When I checked my wound it was completely gone, not a scratch left in its place. If not for the bandages I would have thought I dreamt the whole thing. It went against everything I knew about biology. People didn’t just heal like that.

 I noticed other things too. My reflexes were improving along with my speed and my strength. My eyesight changed. Not better or worse, just different. I couldn’t feel pain. I had gone from never having felt worse to never having felt better overnight.

 As much as I wanted to silence and avoid the thought, there was no stopping the bird in my brain from pecking away at the impossible truth I had stuffed away in my subconscious. The knowing fear I couldn’t keep shoved into my psychological abyss while I slept. And it always came out when I slept, that hideous truth.

🐺

It came to me again in another nightmare on December 25, 2015.

I was walking through a park to get some fresh air after starting to feel dizzy and asthmatic at my mom’s Christmas dinner. I looked up at the sky and the moon looked just like it had a month ago in the Alaskan wilds. For some reason I felt compelled to howl at it. The sound ripped out of me without a thought and what came out was not my own voice. I wouldn’t even call it human. Soon I was on the ground convulsing, my vision going in and out. Agonizing pain tore through me from my shoulder where the wound had been and radiated through the rest of my body like a flood breaking a levy. I was drenched in sweat within seconds and sick to my stomach. The smothering heat was heightening my delirium. I took off my clothes and rolled around in the snow, like some strung-out lunatic. There was something inside me that I needed to get out. I started clawing at my own skin. Tufts of hair bursted through the gashes. My teeth and gums hurt so badly I wanted to rip off my entire jaw. The pressure in my head was so intense I thought it was going to explode. I was praying that it would. Anything to relieve me of my torment.

 Then, in an instant, it all stopped. It was as if the thing I had felt inside me — eating my every cell — had busted out, escaped its prison of flesh. I suddenly felt free, untethered. I breathed in the cool night air and uncurled my body, standing taller than I had ever stood before. I was almost certain that if I jumped I could grab the moon.

After reveling in my newly acquired senses and height, I caught a scent in the air that was irresistible. I got down on the ground, on all four limbs. Then I ran. I didn’t know what I was looking for, just that I had to find it. It was as if an instinct had taken over and was driving me where I needed to go on autopilot. The world blurred in and out for a while.

It came back into focus at the Pine Park Bridge.

I stopped running and there you were. You looked so delicate in the light of the full moon. Cold Moon. You saw me before I saw you. There was a string of Christmas lights wrapped around the railing and something else.

 Your hands.

 You gripped the railing like it was the only thing holding you on the ground. Your eyes lingered on me, your face unreadable. I knew right away you were the thing that I was after. My brain became a fog. Something took over. I saw your beautiful face and then — I saw darkness. Then blood. Then darkness. Then the moon. Then darkness again.

I woke up in my bed at noon, relieved that it had only been a dream. Still, I always felt ill after such repulsive nightmares. This time was different. More intense. My head was pounding, my stomach sick. When I finally felt okay enough to peel myself from the bathroom floor, I checked my phone. Several missed calls from my mom within the last two hours. I was about to play the voicemail she had left when a banging at my door made me jump, throwing my phone across the room. It was her.

 She had been worried sick all day, she had told me. She said I had gone outside during Christmas dinner to get some air and never came back. Like in my dream. She asked if I’d heard the news. My stomach twisted. She mentioned Pine Park, the park just across from her house. The rest of her words sounded far away and dreamlike. Unreal. My world fell away.

 For a while, you were a Jane Doe. I read every paper going forward, first page to last, obsessively searching for any confirmation of who you were.

 Another full moon came toward the end of January. I booked a flight to Alaska and spent a week in the woods leading up to it, further out into the unknown than I had been with Tom on that horrible night. I don’t remember much, just that I woke up late the next day, fully dressed with a pounding head and hazy memory. I faintly remembered getting too hot and removing my clothes like before, but I didn’t remember putting them back on. The last thing I remembered besides for the endless frozen brush was spotting a moose and feeling that fog take over my brain. Three weeks later, back in New York, I finally found you.

 Despite the bleary memory of that night, I did remember one thing clearly. Your face is one I will never forget as long as I live. And there it was, printed in black and white before my eyes, staring back at me. Your name was typed in bold beneath your picture, last then first. Morris, Johanna.

As you know from the start of this letter, I proceeded to scour your social media as well as your sister’s. I wanted to know everything that I could about you. Now that I’ve learned who you were, I feel like I killed a soulmate. In another life with an alternate ending I know I would have loved you. But this isn't that life and we don't get a happy ending.

 They had to identify you by your teeth. I read that in the paper with a heavy heart the day after I found your obituary. That explained why it took so long. I cut out your picture and taped it to the ceiling over my bed. I know it doesn’t erase what I did or make things right, but I want to be reminded of your face as the last thing I see when I go to sleep and the first thing I see when I wake up.

 Your funeral is tonight. Closed casket. Mariana wanted the service to be open to anyone wishing to pay their respects, so I bought a nice suit and some dress shoes. I can’t take back what I’ve done, Johanna. I would kill myself a thousand times if it could bring you back, but it can’t. Nothing can.

 I am sorry for everything. I never wanted any of this to happen. I unwillingly share my body with a monster now. I should have trusted my suspicions instead of shoving them away into the back of my mind. I should have seen it coming and gotten ahead of it. Instead, I let my denial win and you were the one that suffered for it. Just know that I never wanted to hurt you.

It's like that old gothic novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. I become a ravenous beast and abandon all morals and reason. Only, it's fully against my will and control. Still, even if I never end another life, I will always be a killer. What I did to you is evil and unforgivable, regardless of what possessed me at the time. So I will understand if you can never find it in your soul wherever it shines, but please—forgive me, Johanna.

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About the Creator

Aphotic

Horror|Sci-Fi|Fantasy|Poetry

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