It was bound in sinewy strings and thin, translucent fabric. The cover was a worn black leather — cold to the touch, but otherwise plain and unremarkable. No name, and no postage…just a small black notebook, so small that I may have walked over it a few times before spotting it that day. It rested upon the doormat, like a guest patiently awaiting entry.
I didn’t get past the first page. It bore a single sentence, hastily scrawled into existence, floating in a sea of off-white paper:
Have you ever wanted to save someone who was beyond saving?
I hurled the book down the hall, then immediately called my husband. The phone rang one time too many — like it does when the other person is debating picking up.
“Did you do this?”
“I — um, I…I don’t understand what you mean.”
“Don’t play games with me, David. Is this some kind of joke to you? Why would you send me this?”
“Honey, I don’t know what you’re talking about. Please tell me where you are.”
“Clearly, you know EXACTLY where I am. I told you I wanted space, but instead you send me - what, some sick message in a book, like some fucking psycho?”
“Allison, honest to God, I have no idea where you’re at, and I don’t know anything about a message or a book. And I HAVE been giving you space.”
I tumbled his words in my head, analyzing their tone. He was being truthful.
“Allie, sweetheart…can you just come home, please? You don’t have to do this alone.”
After a brief pause, he added, “I miss you.”
“I’ll talk to you later.”
After I hung up, dread crept across my skin; it coiled around my chest like a boa, constricting my heart. I thought to myself, ‘if David didn’t send me that, who did?’ I didn’t tell anyone where I was…and even if I did, no one had the guts to mention Cera - especially not like that. No one had so much as said her name in months.
I hadn’t, either. Not after they found her.
Not after I saw what she looked like.
The notebook had landed face-up near the stairwell, wide open. I stared down at the pages, and they stared back.
Have you ever wanted to save someone who was beyond saving?
I picked it up and flipped to the end, looking for a signature or marking of some kind. When I didn’t find one, I quickly thumbed through it once more, but aside from that one question, it was blank. I shoved it into my coat pocket, then went back to lock my door before heading down the stairwell. Upon stepping outside, I was met with clammy gusts of Portland wind. A mildewy rain misted my face as I made the trek toward the Tenth Avenue Liquor Store. There’s only one trash can on that 15-minute journey, and once I came across it, I promptly chucked the book inside.
The next morning, I felt a strange inkling to check outside the door. When I did, that notebook was on the doormat again, wrapped in that same rustic packaging.
“Who’s doing this?!” I shouted down the hall.
Frustrated, I kicked the notebook away. When I did, my foot caught something that almost tripped me. It was a manila envelope, stuffed gluttonously full. I probably wouldn’t have opened it, had I not caught the glimpse of what was peeking through the failing crease, and seen that familiar shade of grass-green.
The envelope held two stacks of $100 bills; each stack was neatly swaddled in a yellow-and-white strip of paper that repeatedly read “$10,000.” I gasped, dropping it all on the ground. I’d never seen this much money before, and to see it then was shocking. Feeling myself beginning to panic, I snatched up the cash and notebook before closing and locking the door.
I thought about how people often wish to stumble across a small fortune, waxing on about how great it would be…but it didn’t feel all that great. I was terrified, desperately racking my brain for who would give me this much money, and why. I opened the notebook again; this time, the first page read something new:
The money is yours — along with the truth, should you seek it.
My hands were trembling, and my breath was shallow. I poured another glass of vodka — the last of the bottle. I thought about calling David again, but then I pictured his face, and all I could see was Cera. How could I not? She had his eyes, his smile…they even laughed the same. No, I didn’t want to talk to David. I didn’t want to talk to anybody. Calling the police also seemed pointless; those bastards didn’t take women seriously, and being drunk on a Wednesday morning would surely be grounds for dismissal of my concerns, genuine or not.
But, I did want to know who gave me this book, and why they wanted me to have it so bad. So without any other way to contact this stranger, I wrote my own message: ‘What is the truth?’ Then, I quickly opened my door and set the book outside before locking myself in again. I grabbed a chair and sat with my ear against the wall, listening, waiting for someone to come by and grab the book, hoping to catch them in the act. I waited for a while but heard nothing. I waited and drank, waited and drank until I passed out in that chair.
When I woke up and looked out my peephole, the notebook was gone.
But when I turned back around, I saw it sitting on the bed.
Everything was quiet. I stood still, frozen in fear and indecision as my eyes darted around, expecting to see some ax-wielding serial killer, raring to chop my head off. I was scared of who — or what — I might find in my hotel room, but eventually, I did my search. I opened the closet, peered under the bed, and glanced in the bathroom. But aside from the notebook, I didn’t see anyone — or anything — new. The door was locked and dead-bolted, seemingly unchanged.
“Where are you?!”
It just laid there, so boring, so unassuming. I picked up the notebook and opened it to the second page, expecting a new note, but finding nothing. However, when I turned back to the start, I saw a different sentence scribbled inside:
Not all who are lost, are gone.
I felt unease, pain, rage. “Who are you?! Stop playing games with me!” I was trembling, in full-on fight-or-flight mode with nothing to kill and nowhere to go. I just stood there, alone in that hotel room. I thought to myself, ‘maybe I’m the one who’s lost.’
“Journaling is a good way to process,” Dr. Gray’s voice echoed in my head. “When we write, we’re very solution-oriented.
“Through writing, we sometimes can solve our own problems.”
Perhaps my drunken stupor bolstered such wishful thinking, but I picked up a pen from the nightstand and wrote something else in the book:
If not all who are lost are gone, then bring my daughter back.
Bring Cera back.
I clamped the book shut and swallowed another gulp of vodka. The liquor scalded my throat, and its fumes seeped from my nostrils. I rocked back and forth, breathing heavily through my nose, trying to calm myself and failing. The room swelled and shrank before my eyes. When I opened the book again to write more, there was a message in different-but-very-familiar handwriting:
mommy please help me
this is so much worse
I’ve never screamed louder. It wasn’t fear, though…it was something deeper, something primeval. I smashed my tumbler against the wall, and I kicked over the end table. I threw my open suitcase across the room, and I tore down the curtains with bleeding hands. I ripped pages from the book, I ripped hair from my head, I bellowed into a void of silence.
Then I sank to the floor and cried. I cried so hard I was shaking. I couldn’t stop, and I didn’t really want to. I thought about how Cera looked when they found her, about all the horrible things they’d done to her. I thought about how she would have been seventeen in a few days, and how we’d planned for her first car. I thought about all those nights I spent worrying about her future adult self on the open road, and how pointless that worrying seemed now — how it was just wasted time, wasted moments I could have been telling my daughter how much I loved her, how much she meant to me, how I would give my life to keep her safe.
The book laid open on the floor next to me. Despite knowing I’d ripped out the pages, it was perfectly pristine — as if I hadn’t even touched it. Suddenly the first page fluttered upward as if blown by a sharp exhale, before settling to the left of the spine.
Now, the second page had a message — not in Cera’s handwriting, but my own.
What is the truth?
I grabbed the rag on the floor next to me, using it to wipe my burning eyes and snot-covered mouth. I gazed upon the sentence I’d written earlier today, unmoving, unrelenting.
I began writing underneath my own question, tears dampening the paper as I spoke what I wrote. “Cera is dead. She was murdered, and now she’s gone.”
When I turned to the next page, it read:
You do not seek the truth. You seek closure.
You lie to yourself.
“If I’m lying, then what happened to my daughter?”
You lie about your circumstances. You lie about what brought you here.
The backside of the page was black with ink. When I turned it, four scribbled words covered the entire spread:
WHAT IS THE TRUTH?
My lips trembled, and my pulse raced. I started sobbing again, a deep sorrow tugging at my insides. “It’s my fault,” I choked out, not bothering to write in the notebook. “It’s all my fault…I didn’t know this would happen. I’m so sorry. Please, give her back to me. Please, give me back my daughter, my baby…”
Right before my eyes, the pages turned themselves.
What you know is no more.
It has gone, for someplace new.
I can take you there. If that’s what you desire.
When the book stopped advancing itself, my trembling hand reached out and turned to the next page.
I saw a shape — one I cannot describe. The lines appeared to slide off the paper into Escher-like forms, morphing, tessellating…breathing. Then it started growing, fleshing out. It bloomed out of horrible necrosis, like a flower dying in reverse, a technicolor nightmare. I was horrified, but I could not close the book, and I could not look away.
do not be afraid Mother
this isn’t the end.
I handed the sales rep 1800 krone — the last of the $20,000, down to the penny. The drive was long and silent; I didn’t really think much during it, nor when I arrived at the location and pulled off the road, nor when I waded through ankle-deep snow hardened by the bitter chill of winter. I walked for what might have been hours, traipsing over sticks and frozen mud into a seemingly endless forest.
I knew I was in the right spot when I saw the clearing. It was a perfect circle, surrounded by trees whose branches intertwined, hugging like campers surrounding a warm fire.
I knelt to the earth, feeling the icy ground upon my skin. I rifled in the bag until my hands grasped the Black Book, then promptly laid it open in front of me.
Now, let us begin your journey.