“What is that? On its head? Is that a hat or…a deformity?”
“It’s too hazy to see when it’s in motion,” I said. “We’ll have to pause.”
“The lights are on. We can see everything. I thought he only comes when it’s dark.”
“No, remember that mom who was taken when she was tucking her kid in. He was awake and his light was on.”
Jules and I were reviewing all of the preliminary evidence. I didn’t want to keep looking at this video. Seeing a girl getting dragged away. All the rumors that the person dragging her away may not even be human didn’t make it easier. Some of the first rumors were of alien abduction. The latest rumors had turned the abductor into some kind of urban legend.
There wasn’t anything obviously useful in the video. No clear image of a face or distinguishing marks on the abductor. The girl reaches toward the camera that she had set up to keep running through the night. She reaches and then she goes limp, as if she’d been knocked out. But her abductor only ever touches her on her ankle. He comes out of nowhere. One minute, there’s nothing. Then, there’s the figure beside her bed. His hand already around her ankle, not yanking or pulling. He’s facing toward the closet, and just starts to walk toward it. She doesn’t scream. She doesn’t kick. She just jerks awake and rolls to the floor. She breathes terrified choppy breaths. She lets out a scared moan, then she grunts, as if she’s psyching herself up. The whole time, she struggles to calm her breaths. She’s on her knees, reaching out to the camera, straining her arm. Then her eyes close and she drops, and he drags her away.
I glared at the gray figure in the paused video. I want him to turn around so I can see his face. I want to reach into the video and drag him out. Drag him out and throw him at the feet of all the people he’s dragged away. It’s a useless and helpless thought. It’s dangerous for me to be thinking of vengeance instead of justice, especially since no bodies had been found yet. There was still hope.
Watching the video again and again wasn’t doing me any good. So for the moment, I switched gears and read her journal. It was actually a binder and it was almost three inches thick. It was more like a field log, a lab notebook, and a journal all rolled into one.
April Majus had been taken the previous night. She was the latest victim of what the media was calling the Bagger. Witnesses were few, but they described the figure as a gangly man wearing a hunter’s cap, or one of those medieval plague masks, with a full sack slung over his shoulder. Every part of him from sack to hat to skin was a pale gray. He was hard to see, to focus on, they said.
Those witnesses were from the first few days, after the abduction of the first victim, who happened to be a big and burly guy just over six feet tall and just under three hundred pounds. He’d been taken while he was sleeping. He’d put up a fight and lost. His bedroom was chaos. Books from the nightstand were scattered on the floor. The comforter and sheets from his bed strewn in a trail that led from his bed to his closet. The closet door had been open. Nothing inside seemed out of place, according to the man’s wife, who had been away on a business meeting. They had no children. There had been no one else in the house to see what really happened, but the guy’s profile indicated that he was not the type to up and vanish. That was two weeks ago, and we still hadn’t found him.
We hadn’t found the forty-something mother of three kids who’d been taken as her youngest hid under his sheets. We hadn’t found the little girl who’d never made a sound because she’d been carried off in her sleep. We hadn’t found the half a dozen others he had taken. Now, he had taken another.
There was nothing that the victims had in common. The only reason we were even able to identify them as victims of this Bagger was a detail that had not been released to the media or the public. Tiny teeth were found at every crime scene. Between four to six teeth each time and some were tapered. The shape and size seemed off for them to be human teeth, but we had them tested anyway. Sure enough, they didn’t match any of the victims. They couldn’t be matched to any animal or anything that was in the database.
So the guy, if it was just a guy, and not some otherworldly thing, was getting better at taking people. I read the latest entry in April’s notebook.
I know what’s happening. But I can’t tell anyone. Not without solid proof. Incontrovertible proof. People are losing their loved ones. Thinking that some serial killer has taken them. Afraid of not knowing, afraid of the worst. How could I tell them that I think it’s something supernatural? What a despicable thing to do, unless I can get them back. I think I can use myself as bait.
I’ll start leaving the camera on. If something happens to me, I’m sure it’ll be found. I want someone to see. Because if someone else sees, then I won’t have been alone in the last moments of my life.
I sucked in a breath. I blew the breath out through my lips, took a deeper one, and kept reading.
That’s not how my life will end though. Not if I have anything to do with it.
“Attagirl,” I whispered under my breath.
My partner, I kept forgetting despite having worked with him for five years, had excellent hearing. I turned to him and showed him the journal.
He sighed. “I don’t know,” he said.
Jules had started to form a theory about the latest victim that even he didn’t like. Among the evidence we found in April’s room, there were the tangled sheets and signs of a struggle that we had seen at some of the other crime scenes. But there were extra things that demonstrated at best an obsession with the Bagger. Her notebook was full of information she had learned about the Bagger that we hadn’t. Or so she believed. There were some still photos, most of them blurry, of her closet and what could be a figure lurking inside, but could just as easily be normal closet things in a creepy configuration. Most vivid of all, there was the video. She had started turning on her camera every night for the past five nights, in anticipation of being taken.
“People are being abducted. Dragged into their closets.” I raised my brows. “April’s video confirms it.”
“By what? The boogeyman?”
“I don’t know. But everyone else is looking for a guy. And they’re right to. Usually when stuff like this happens, it’s not a monster or some otherworldly phenomenon. It’s a person. A human being.”
“What makes you believe what this girl wrote in her diary? She’s a kid. Exaggerating. Big time.”
“Some kids are real good about coming up with details when they imagine things.”
“And the video?”
“She could have faked it. People can do all sorts of special effects with their home computers nowadays. She latched on to the rumors that this guy is some kind of…boogeyman.”
“That would be in extremely bad taste considering what the loved ones of all the abductees are going through.” I paused to see if my partner would come back with anything. Jules had already asked some pointed questions about the video. “Her parents insist she’s not the kind of person who would do something like faking her own abduction and inventing a monster to explain it.”
“And all parents know their kids so well.” Jules shook his head. “Tell me this. If she didn’t fake it, how did she know it was coming for her? None of the other victims did. I checked. None of the families reported any odd behavior. No mention of feeling the heebie-jeebies. Or feeling like someone was watching. Or a sudden and inexplicable fear of closets.”
She knew about the teeth too. It was one of the first details I noticed when I started flipping through her notebook.
“How could she know so much?” Jules asked. “Unless she’s involved somehow?” When we first started reviewing the video footage, he looked for signs of staging. After we found her photos and notebook, he started looking at April not just as another potential victim, but as a perpetrator.
Jules told me to keep him on the straight and narrow, in case he started wanting her to be the perpetrator. As depraved a hoax as it would be, for a young girl to manifest some urban legend of a tall man stalking people when they slept, and dragging them away into their closets, Jules would rather deal with an obsessed kid who had gone too far, but hadn’t seriously hurt anyone, than the alternatives. The most likely alternative was a human abductor, a man who hadn’t yet revealed his intentions. The most unlikely alternative, but one that I couldn’t let go of, was that there was some truth in the rumors. The Bagger was an otherworldly creature.
The best hope that everyone was holding on to was that no bodies had yet been found. None of the people who’d been taken thus far had any kind of condition that required a regular dose of medication for them to stay alive. The hope was that they were just being kept somewhere. If the abducted had a way to get some fresh water, all of them might still be alive. They’d be in need of serious medical attention. But they might still be alive.
Not everyone held to that hope. My partner was one of those who didn’t like speculating. He’d seen many a case through, and had never been able to predict which ones would end with him breaking the worst news to a family, or with him being hugged and kissed by the weeping and grateful loved ones of someone he had helped save.
“She was on vacation out of state when the first abductions started,” I said, flipping through her file.
“How does she know about the teeth?”
I shook my head and shrugged. Maybe I could find out. I kept reading.
It took me a few minutes of flipping to realize that she did have some organization to her writing and notes. There was her journal of direct observations. There were her notes on acquired knowledge, which she mostly seemed to have gotten from the internet, her local library, and astral projection. That last one was another reason that Jules suspected her of being out of touch with reality. Then there were her thoughts and musings on everything she knew. Like her theory on what was inside the Bagger’s bag.
Where do our thoughts go when we’re done thinking them? Where do our feelings go when we’re done feeling them? I think I know. I think they go inside his bag, or its bag.
Most of the sections of her notebook were in chronological order from present to past. I flipped to the back of her section, to when she had started just with curiosity, speculating about what the Bagger could be, if he wasn’t a human being.
It’s weird how I can’t find anything specific about monsters coming out of closets, or from under beds, except general stories of kids being told by their parents to be good or the monster will get them. All the other monsters and supernatural creatures have all these specific things you can do or use to trick them, catch them, or kill them. Stakes, silver bullets, enchanted ink, holy water, sacred oil. How do people who research stuff like this for a living know where to start?
When she started keeping notes, it wasn’t just to passively record what was happening. She had an agenda. She was trying to find out how she could gather some actual evidence to back up the rumors. She wanted to somehow help the people who’d been taken.
There seemed to be no pattern. No rhyme or reason to the abductions, save that they were happening in a certain geographical area. April visited the center of that area and found nothing but a thrift store. No secret altars in the back or dimensional gateways in the basement.
I think I’m forgetting or losing most of what I learn when I’m projecting. It’s like, when I’m outside of my body, my mind is a computer with limitless memory and faster-than-light speed. But if my mind has grown with all the information it’s gathered, then when it has to go back into my brain, it can’t fit and has to throw stuff overboard to try and get in. I just remember that I knew more before I woke up. But I don’t remember what I knew. I don’t even remember how I knew what I knew. I do remember being in a library, but I couldn’t touch anything or anyone. I could only read what was already out. I remember speaking to people. Were they other astral people? I’ve been writing down whatever little I do remember when I wake up. It’s actually a lot more than I used to remember from dreams I’ve had, even vivid ones.
I flipped back further for some context for her references about being outside of her body.
I just looked it up because I forgot what it was called. Astral projection. So the spirit, or soul, essence, I’m not sure, it leaves the body and travels around. The person can do it on purpose. The soul can find its way back to where it came from if an anchor is established. The body is the usual anchor. But advanced practitioners can anchor their souls to objects temporarily if the body is unavailable. Separated too long though, the body will die, and the soul will move on.
I shouldn’t be able to do it. I haven’t studied and meditated for years and years. I don’t have any psychic powers in my family, at least not that I know. I actually did ask my mom, just to see what she would say. I thought she would wave it away, but she really thought about it for a while. Then before dinner, she told me that she doesn’t think we do, but she’d look into it. I don’t get it. Whenever I think she’s going to dismiss me, she takes me seriously. And whenever I think she’s going to pay attention and be interested, she’s not.
I smiled. She had a few such asides about her daily life, all of which had some remote connection to the main thread of the notes. I was trying to skip them. But sometimes, they followed so closely after some detail or description that I’d find myself reading them, and getting to know April a bit.
This is how I can find the information I need. But not just anyone can do it.
She had managed to do it, to astral project, or so she claimed in her notebook. That’s how she had gathered information from various sources that would otherwise be out of her reach. Jules suggested she had just made a connection online. Someone who could access information that wasn’t readily available from a quick browser search. In recent day’s entries, she was focused on her fear of and preparation for what she believed was her eventual abduction.
I think I’ve started seeing the signs. There are teeth in the corner of my closet. I’m scared.
But if it’s going to happen, I have to make sure I’m ready. I have to be prepared. I have to figure out how to get all of us out.
I frowned, wondering what made her think that she could get herself and even the others out of wherever they were, away from the Bagger.
I too learned what April had learned, however it was she learned it. One legend she found explained what manner of being the Bagger was. According to the legend, there once were creatures in our world, who were tall, lanky, and gray, too wispy to contain their own souls, so they had to carry their souls around in bags. Sometimes, rarely, they would lose their souls. And sometimes, instead of trying to find their own souls, they would go hunting for another one. They would steal another’s soul. For such crimes, all the creatures were banished to a realm from which they could not reach another soul.
But they found a way. They could not smell, taste, or hear anything in our world. But they developed three eyes that each saw something different. They could open and use one eye at a time. One eye could see our world. One eye saw the creature’s own world. One eye saw souls. But it could not see souls contained within living bodies. That’s why most people were safe most of the time. Only souls that were departing their bodies were vulnerable. But the rituals of death protected such a soul as it moved on.
The creatures soon discovered another vulnerability. The traces of our souls could be found in the objects that were part of our lives. And the creatures were able to touch and absorb those traces. One of the most powerful of such objects were the clothes we wore. They were the husks that contained our bodies in, just as our bodies were the husks that contained our souls. The creatures made their way to the place where we kept our clothes when they weren’t worn. Our closets.
April had discovered even more. The creatures had become a part of the natural order in some ways. We didn’t usually see them. They came to live in our closets. It was where we kept our secrets, our demons, our skeletons, our secret selves. It wasn’t always something sinister we kept in our closets. But it was always something secret.
The creatures collected all the lost and unwanted thoughts, feelings, and intentions—the essences of our souls—that clung to the items stored in closets. Those essences were enough to partly fill the creatures’ bags. Some were content with the essences of souls. Some were simply too weak to reach into our world, even if they could see into it.
Over time, those ephemeral thoughts, feelings, and intentions—good, bad, and everything in between—evened out for most. But sometimes, horrors collected in a closet, hidden there, deep inside, by those who were ashamed or corrupt. The creature in the closet would fester and congeal, its bag filling, brimming not with the essence of a soul, but broken pieces of a soul.
A Bagger could manifest, born of malice, ill intent, a particular kind of strife. Such a Bagger, hungry for a soul, and sustained only by the worst essence of a soul, could physically appear in our world. It found the best prospects and left its teeth as a marker, so it could find the place again. And instead of trying to steal a soul that by chance was outside of its body and unprotected, it could just take the whole person, body and soul.
I recounted April’s findings to Jules.
“It’s powerful enough to emerge from any number of closets,” I said. “Maybe even your own.”
“So—and I’m humoring you here—are we seriously considering that the skeletons in our closets are becoming real and coming after us to steal our souls? Okay, where has he taken the people he’s abducted? How is he going to get the soul out? How is he choosing who to take? Who’s next?”
I took a deep breath. “I don’t know the answer to the other questions.” Neither did April. “But I can tell you where the people are. They are in their own closets, in some kind of pocket dimension maybe. I don’t know how those things work.”
“Pocket dimension? Come on, partner. How the heck are we getting people out of a pocket dimension?”
“I don’t know.”
Jules folded his arms. “Oh yeah? Your new partner doesn’t have any bright ideas about it?”
“She did. She has a plan. I just don’t know what the whole plan is. But I did want to show you this.”
I played the video again. The one we’d both watched dozens of times. I prompted Jules to look at April’s face. To just focus on her. We’d done that already of course. But I narrated for him as we went.
“Tell me. Does she look scared to you?” I asked.
He frowned at me. “Of course she’s scared.”
“I don’t know. She’s startled. She’s reaching. For what? She was too far away from the dresser to hold onto it. Why wasn’t she reaching for the bed?”
For all his alternative theories about how April might have set up the whole thing as a hoax, with accomplices yet to be discovered, Jules hadn’t really convinced even himself. It didn’t make sense for her to know as much as she did about the actual facts. Her extraordinary story about astral projecting didn’t make sense either. Being a depraved kid who had gathered some cronies and did a depraved thing did made sense. But there was no proof and there were no other leads.
“Come on,” he said, “the poor girl was being dragged away. In that situation, would you be calm enough to think, ‘gee, I should reach for the heaviest thing in my proximity so I can grab on to it and it’ll be more difficult for the psycho who’s broken into my home to drag me off.’ If it were me, I’d be frantically grabbing for anything.”
“But she’s not frantic. She’s struggling, but it’s almost as if…she’s struggling against something she knows she can’t stop, or reason with.”
“Then what do you think she’s reaching for. The camera? How would that help? You think she wanted to take a close-up of the thing and leave it for us? A noble sacrifice thing?”
“I don’t think so.”
She must have been reaching for the anchor. She must have devised an anchor in the physical world that she could latch her soul to if her body was taken. Wherever her astral form—her soul—was, it would find its way back to the anchor. It was part of her plan, to keep her soul safe. But she hadn’t written down the rest. She hadn’t written down how she would get her body or the rest of the abducted back.
Maybe that’s where I came in. Maybe I had to help somehow, meet her halfway. I opened my top desk drawer and pulled out the object that I thought—hoped—was April’s anchor. It was her notebook.
They’re strong. So strong. I think it’s because they don’t have to carry the great burden of a soul.
I’d been rereading some parts of April’s notebook. I felt as if I were missing something, as if she had indeed left the details of her plan, but it just wasn’t laid out neatly. Maybe she did that on purpose to hide the plan from the Bagger. She hadn’t mentioned anything about the Baggers speaking to or having any interactions with human beings the way other monsters did. There was no taunting or terrorizing.
It was late, and I’d been staring at computer screens and papers all day long. I set aside the mug of cold coffee on my desk, moved some of the files to clear some space, and lay my head down to rest my eyes.
I felt something on my ankle. Something wrapped around it. Cold and unyielding. Fingers. I held my breath and opened my eyes. I was sitting at my desk with my head lying on my arms on the tabletop. I had turned off my desk lamp. The room was dim but not dark. Light from the main floor flooded in through my office window. I held still and focused on the feeling. Whatever it was that was wrapped around my ankle began to tug and pull. I sat up and pushed back my chair.
I reached for the light on my desk and turned it on. I stood up and crouched to look under the desk. I glanced around the room. There was no one there, of course. I sat down and pulled my right foot up to rest it on my knee. I examined my ankle. There was no sign of anything unusual.
I know I’ll be taken soon. I’ve been feeling his hand on my ankle for the past two nights.
That’s what April had written.
My heart was racing. I tried to calm my breathing. I jumped when my phone began to ring.
It was Jules.
I walked into the emergency room lobby, holding out my badge for hospital security, and searching for my partner. Jules emerged from a hallway and waved me over to the ambulance bay.
“They’re just starting to arrive,” he said. “They’re being triaged.”
We stepped out of the way as a gurney with five people surrounded it and one person lying on it zoomed past.
Through the chaos and clamor, I heard something I understood.
“What’s in their hands?” one of the emergency room nurse’s asked.
“Looks like teeth,” someone answered.
“Second victim,” Jules said. “Luckily the first one lives closer and was found right away. They’re already working on him. He’s in critical condition. But most are coming in with dehydration, hunger, and hypothermia. Scratches and bruises. Treatable stuff.”
The abducted. They were back. Jules was the lead detective. He had started getting calls, and was still getting calls from families and loved ones.
In the twenty-five minutes it had taken me to get to the hospital, half the abducted had been found and were at or on route to the hospital. Jules had officers calling the loved ones of the other abducted to prompt them to check.
From what Jules could put together, the abducted had reappeared in their own beds. The earliest one was at least ten or fifteen minutes before he called me. That’s partly how he figured out they had all come back at the same time. He started fielding calls from multiple people at almost the same time, most of them after the family had called the paramedics.
Jules answered another call, but as he did, he glanced at me, tipped his head, and pointed down the nearest hallway. I looked where he was pointing. There was a girl sitting on a gurney. She was shivering uncontrollably. Her blonde hair was damp and flat against her skull. She looked sleepy, exhausted. Someone had covered her in a blanket, but peeking through the opening, I could see her hands and arms. There were bruises up and down both her arms. Her knees were scraped. One side of her face was scraped.
I approached her. “April?”
She responded to her name by glancing in my direction. Before she saw my face, she saw the binder tucked under my arm. She opened her eyes wider and smiled slightly at the sight.
Then I saw her hands as she turned them over. There was something clutched in one of them. She opened her grip and I saw what it was. It was gray and dripping with a sickly gray-green ooze. But it was unmistakably an eye.
The whole of April’s plan suddenly flashed before me. She left her soul behind, anchored to her notebook, so that her body would be strong, strong without the weight of her soul to bear. She knew her notebook would be taken as evidence, consulted and constantly surrounded by light. Her soul, even unprotected by her body, had a good chance of being safe from the Bagger. She had attacked the Bagger after he took her, stolen his eye. It must have been the eye that could see our world. Maybe she had help if it was the Bagger’s teeth that the emergency room staff was finding on the other abducted. She had used the eye somehow, to find her way back, to guide the others back.
I wanted to ask her where he was. I wanted to ask if she had killed him or if he was coming back. I wanted to ask if the cold grip I’d felt on my ankle earlier had been her, coming back to reclaim her soul, and not the Bagger.
She raised her gaze from her notebook, her anchor, to my face.
I saw the look in her bright clear eyes. The look I saw in the mirror sometimes before I went in to work. The look I sometimes saw on my partner’s face, my captain’s face, and the faces of pretty much everyone I worked with.
The look of someone who had faced and defeated a great horror with great effort, and who would do it again and again on behalf of those who couldn’t.
My questions could wait.
Copyright © 2016. Story by Nila L. Patel. Artwork: “Reaching” by Sanjay Patel.