Hyperreal by Blaine Toneé

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Hyperreal by Blaine Toneé
Illustration by Sue Babcock

“Can I see?” said Evan Danvers, peering over his daughter’s shoulder.

Emadalia quickly placed her tiny arms over the face of the drawing she was working on. “No,” she replied. Her tone was unnervingly serious for a five-year-old.

“Why not?”

“It isn’t safe.”

“Ema,” said a newly suspicious Evan Danvers, “you need to show Daddy that drawing. Now.”

“No,” said Ema.

Until about a month ago she hadn’t been like this. Ema was a good girl. For some reason she had become very private about her artwork and it was this privacy that led Evan to suspect that the nature of her drawing was inappropriate. Images flashed in his mind of a crudely interpreted child hanging herself, a three-line sad face etched on her face in blue crayon. Red lines blurred together in a waxy pool of blood, spilling freely from the bean-shaped body of an adult with a knife inside his chest. The shape of the adult in Evan’s mind was constantly changing; one minute he thought it might be himself, the next his wife, and then people like the mailman and various teachers began to be substituted for the victim. In Evan’s mind, the adult also wore a sad face.

“Now,” Evan repeated. He hadn’t taken this tone with his daughter in years.

Ema held her ground. “It’s for your own good Daddy.”

“Well if you won’t show me, can you at least tell me what it is? It’s not anybody being hurt, is it?”

“No.”

“You wouldn’t lie to Daddy, would you Ema?”

Ema shook her head.

“Then prove it. Prove you aren’t lying.” Even as the words left Evan’s mouth he felt a pang of shame for forcing a child to substantiate her innocence. Ema was nothing if not an honest girl and over the years her father had found it to be her one exploitable quality. She did not respond well to punishments or threats but she could always be counted on to break when her honor was at stake.

A tear welled in the girl’s eye. Evan knew some would label him a bad dad for this approach. He also knew damn well that there was no low to which he would not resort if it meant ensuring the safety and sanity of his only child.

Reluctantly, Ema took her hands off the paper. She kept her eyes down toward the table as though awaiting a fatal verdict.

“I’m not lying Daddy. I don’t ever lie to you.”

“I know sweetie.”

Evan lifted the drawing and inspected it. It was a hash of lines done in black crayon culminating into a surprisingly detailed figure with horns on its face and a body that looked like dark fire. The last drawing of hers he’d seen had been a couple months ago and had been the basis for the crude crayon horror show he’d been expecting. Ema’s improvement since then was glaringly evident; the lines were crisper and more intentional, lacking the childish uncertainty of most beginner artwork. He wasn’t even sure if he could do better himself.

Evan’s initial relief at the relatively benign subject of the drawing sank into the pit of his stomach as its true nature dawned on him. He looked at his daughter, focused on the table and motionless.

“Is this the Thought Man?” he said.

Ema remained silent.

“Damn it,” muttered Evan Danvers under his breath. Ema’s nonsense about the Thought Man had been the reason for her first trip to the therapist. In a voice he hoped was sufficiently affable to mask his concern, he said, “It’s beautiful, sweetie.”

The subtleties of Evan’s fluctuating intonation were not lost on his daughter. But Ema had become accustomed to catching more than was said to her and she played along as usual.

“Thanks, Daddy,” she said. “Can I have it back now?”

“Of course, sweetie.”

Evan Danvers slid the paper back onto the table and pulled out his cell phone. He walked out of earshot before dialing the number, but Ema still knew who he was calling. It was fine though; a part of her had actually enjoyed the last therapy appointment. It was better than being left alone with her imagination.

When Evan Danvers left the room, the Thought Man began to speak. Its voice was not any less frightening than it had been the first time.

You are improving, it told Ema from the dark and comfortable crawl space of the little girl’s mind. He could tell what it was that time. But you need to get even better. You need to make him see me for real.

“I’m doing my best,” she told it.

It isn’t good enough. Here. Let me show you.

“No. Please. Not again.”

If you don’t look, you’ll never learn.

“I don’t want to learn.”

You must.

“Why?”

Because you know what I’ll do to you if you don’t.

Ema took a deep breath.

“Fine,” she said. “Show me.”

At once, the Thought Man appeared, near and tangible, no longer confined to the child’s head. It was a mass of blackness and shapeshifting evil that moved continuously like blazing flames but somehow managed to retain a consistent ghastly shape. What Ema regarded as its eyes were a fiendishly bright tangle of red and green and she thought she could see its malevolent soul coursing through its figure at all times. To look upon the Thought Man was to know boundless terror; to touch it was boundless pain. Ema knew this from experience. The demon had not had to torture her for long before she had agreed to its demands.

“Ema?” came Evan Danvers’s voice from the doorway.

“Yes Daddy?” She looked away from the Thought Man but could still feel the pricking heat of hellfire against her skin. She tried her best to keep her composure and silently prayed that her father could not see the thing.

“We’re going to see the doctor again tomorrow after school.”

“Is it the same lady from last time?”

“Yes. Doctor Hawkins.”

“Good. I like Doctor Hawkins.”

Evan smiled. “I like Doctor Hawkins too.”

When he left again, Ema had half a mind to call him back, to cling to his comforting presence for as long as she could. Though, if she did that, the Thought Man would simply wait until he went to bed. She would rather deal with it now and get it over with. At night it was much more terrifying.

“He still can’t see you,” Ema said.

“Of course,” replied the Thought Man in a real voice, one that Ema could hear with her ears instead of just her mind. “He doesn’t know what I look like yet. But you’ll show him, won’t you? And then he’ll be able to see me just fine.”

“I’m not good enough yet,” she said, tearing a new sheet from her sketchbook. She looked upon the grotesque figure and began to imitate what she saw with her pencil. It was abominably complicated.

“You won’t be for a while,” said the Thought Man. “But think of all the fun we’ll have in the meantime.”

It wasn’t until her junior year of high school that Ema finally became good enough to appease the Thought Man. By then, she could do it without looking.

#

As usual, Ema was the first to arrive. After she had secured her favorite spot at the isolated back corner of the classroom, other students began to trickle in. She took from her dark green messenger bag a sketchbook, some pencils, colored and graphite, markers, paints, pastels, and black charcoal and arranged them all in a half circle around her desk. To the others she would appear as a zealot but the true reason for her wealth of supplies was to barricade her work so that nobody else could see it. In truth, only the pencils and the sketchbook ever saw any real use.

Ema’s sketchbook was leatherbound and had a lock on it so most people thought it was some kind of private journal. This had the intended effect of discouraging onlookers and whenever she drew in it in class she made a concentrated effort to keep her body angled around the surface to ward off prying eyes. She had also honed her reflexes to be able to quickly hide her art from anyone who came within a certain distance. Right now she could make out a figure approaching from her left side in her peripheral vision. Casually, she pretended she couldn’t see him and absentmindedly caressed the lock to make sure it was stable.

“Hey Ema.”

“Hey Damon.”

“What are those master’s hands of yours going to work on today?”

“Whatever they’re told to.”

Damon snorted. “No sense of individuality.”

“Well,” said Ema with a rehearsed smile, “maybe I’ll add a little flavor. Tell you what. If it has to be black and white, I’ll try to sneak in a little gray.”

“There’s that rebellious spirit.”

Ema did not particularly like Damon, nor did she particularly dislike him. His friend Josh, who he was rarely seen without, disgusted her profoundly, but her unspoken distaste seemed to have driven him away after their first encounter. Ema’s eyes darted over to where Josh was sitting then quickly averted themselves when they saw he was making contact. He even tried to catch her with a smile but she ignored it.

“He likes you, you know,” said Damon.

“Really? What about me does he like?”

“Everything.”

“Everything as in my master’s hands and rebellious spirit?”

Damon took a quick once over of Ema’s body with his eyes. “Not exactly.”

“I see.”

Sometimes Damon could be pleasant. Though their banter often suggested a crush Ema firmly thought of it as one-sided if it could even be said to exist. He was less like boyfriend materiel, or even regular friend material for that matter, and more like a convenient way to kill time during intervals. If she filled the same role for him she could not say, but she often thought it would be ideal.

“Don’t suppose you can show me something today?” said Damon.

“It’s locked for a reason,” said Ema.

“Why so shy? I thought you were supposed to be good?”

“I am good. Too good. That’s the problem.”

“I can’t see your work because it’s too good?”

“Right.”

“How does that even make sense?”

“Well,” said Ema, making a show of folding her hands under her chin and focusing on her audience, “it isn’t really about the quality. I don’t think you could handle the subject matter. It’s too…” She turned her eyes curiously upward as though searching for a perfect word. “Realistic.”

Damon rolled his eyes. “Right. Can you at least tell me what it is?”

That’s right Ema. Tell him what it is.

“Um…” said Ema. She was trying to ignore the presence inside her, the burning in her blood and the blackening force within her mind. “Yeah I guess you can know.”

Demons. Tell him you’re drawing demons. Ask him if he’s ever wondered what they look like.

“Self-portraits,” said Ema.

“Self-portraits? What’s so bad about that?”

Ema raised her eyebrows. “They’re all naked.”

“Really?”

“Shh. Don’t tell.”

“I won’t if you show me one.”

Ema zipped up her hooded sweatshirt all the way to her neck. “Use your imagination.”

Damon laughed. “Suppose that’s the best deal I’m going to get.”

“Suppose so.”

The bell rang and Damon returned to his desk, a smirk on his face that let Ema know that the one-sided crush theory had just reached a new level of truth. She had kind of been leading him on a little. She would have to phase out that behavior slowly and work to once again achieve the equilibrium of neutrality that had been the basis of their relationship until now. No matter. It was worth it to keep him away from the Thought Man. Not even Josh deserved that.

Ema no longer referred to the Thought Man as the Thought Man; it was now simply the Fiend. “Thought Man” was too childish and the Fiend no longer regarded Ema as a child. As she had grown its teasing, familiar demeanor had become meaner and more diabolical, especially in terms of punishing her after a failed drawing. And the implications of Ema’s progression into womanhood did not escape the Fiend’s notice; they simply provided it with new ways to motivate her.

Her father had set up many appointments for her over the years because of irrational and erratic behavior, disturbing art, disturbing poetry, as well as a slew of other reasons that she always attributed to her demonic host. She always told the truth when the counselors interrogated her. After a while, calling her malevolent parasite the Thought Man out loud seemed almost like she was patronizing herself so she transitioned into calling the thing what it really was.

“Today will be a free practice period,” said Ms. Shine, Ema’s Advanced Placement drawing teacher. “Refine the techniques we’ve been working on this week. I will be circulating and offering critiques. Though this is informal practice, you should take it as seriously as though you were being graded.”

No worries there, thought Ema. She always took her art seriously. As though it were a matter if life and death.

Ema raised her hand. “What medium?”

“Artist’s choice,” said Ms. Shine.

Not wasting a moment, Ema unlocked her book and flipped hurriedly to the next blank canvas. She decided that this one would be in color.

With the unconscious precision of well-practiced hands, she drew from rainbow crown of upturned spikes a spring green pencil without looking. Choosing colors was a matter of muscle memory now and Ema’s focus was instead directed toward the endless ocean of blank white lying flat on the table in front of her. The idea that such a universe of undiscovered possibilities could exist within an 8.5 by 11 rectangle never failed to leave her awestruck. It was not without the certain pride of one who has earned her talents and knows her craft as intimately as her own soul that Ema set to work with a single green circle slightly above the center of the page.

Perfection shattered in an instant. With one mark, Ema had set a boundary to confine that which, only a moment ago, had possessed limitless potential. The bright green circle shone from its prominent vantage point on the page, demanding inclusion in the work that was to come, barring any and all possibilities in which it had no place. The marring of unbroken silence, the transition from imaginary to definitive, was one of the many aspects of art that Ema relished like a first kiss or the opening sentence of a brand new book. Now that the act was done, her pencil began to move with heightened certainty in pursuit of a concrete objective. What now existed only as an intangible formation of mental images would soon manifest into stoneset reality.

The circle transformed into an iris that an onlooker might mistake for human. More shades of green layered onto the base color to add to the expert realism. Ema traded her greens for a palette of bright reds and subdued crimsons and blended them into the shadowed eye. Subtle lines twisted around the pupil to create an impression of unspeakable evil. In moments the eye was joined by its twin, which morphed into a color inverse of the other; a crimson center that worked its way outward toward the green. The contrast created an eerie effect.

The finished eyes were connected not by a face but by a blackness that further pronounced their vivid coloration. Within the blackness Ema etched subtle markings that looked somehow ritualistic. Though she had no concept of their meaning, they had been burned into her brain and she knew with certainty that years of practice had sharpened their likeness to perfection.

Shadows suggested clawlike appendages that Ema left intentionally ill defined. Her precision was great enough to indicate a network of living veins beneath the overlay of the being, coursing with what might have been blood if it, too, had not been black. A cruel heart beat at the center of the thing, pulsing like hot magma. Ema added some of its coloration to the runes and the veins to create the illusion that the heart was pumping its essence into the rest of the picture. At present, the result of her efforts would doubtlessly raise concerns if either her teacher or her parents saw it. By the time it was finished, Ema would hardly be able to look upon it herself without being subjected to nightmarish mental imprints.

The Fiend will be pleased with this one, thought Ema. I might even get to sleep tonight.

No you won’t, said an echo in the back of her mind.

Ema bit her lip and paused. She closed her eyes in an effort to shake away all the terrible thoughts of what was to come.

A sudden burning corrupted Ema’s bloodstream as though she were being boiled alive from the inside. The fact she was able to keep from screaming out loud was testament to how often she had endured such pain before.

I didn’t tell you to stop, the Fiend said.

The pain dulled to a dim throb as Ema continued her work. Sorry Master, she thought. It tended to go easier on her when she spoke submissively.

“What are you working on today, Ema?”

Ema slammed her sketchbook shut with a reflexive immediacy. The Fiend’s momentary intrusion had distracted her just long enough to be caught off guard. Breathing heavily, she stared at her teacher. Had she seen?

The Fiend apparently wanted to know the answer as well. It materialized in full form right behind Ema, who felt its flames licking at the back of her neck.

“Well? Are you going to show me?”

A few seconds passed. Ema exhaled in relief as the Fiend retreated into its dark corner. Ms. Shine had seen nothing. If she had, she’d have been dead by now. Or worse.

“I’d rather not,” said Ema, securing the lock on her book.

“Again?”

“It’s a personal piece. Sharing it would be traumatic.”

“You say that every time.”

“It’s true every time. Read my school accommodation plan.”

Ms. Shine sighed with exasperation. “Believe me, I’ve combed through every word looking for a loophole. And I get that your therapist wants you to have your privacy. But this is an AP course, Ema. How am I supposed to give you a grade if I never see any of your work?”

Ema sighed. Trading her molten orange for a regular lead pencil, she took out another sketchbook, this one more traditional and kept on hand for such situations as this. Turning to a blank page, Ema began to draw.

“Give me fifteen minutes,” she said.

The hand with which she set to work was a soulless one devoid of its owner’s usual impassioned strokes. It had not even achieved the first line when the pain began.

This is not what I told you to draw. If you refuse to follow orders, then you will suffer.

It’s only fifteen minutes.

A minute in hell is a year in the mind.

Ema did not need to communicate her agreement for the Fiend to know it was right. Because the landscape of Ema’s mind was as much the monster’s as it was her own, the Fiend was able to read her every thought; in fact, it was impossible for it to avoid. During the course of her sketching, Ema’s mind would idly weaken and instinctively beg for release from the unsympathetic agony. It was a counterproductive reaction; anytime an idea of hope would cross her mind in a moment of panic, Ema immediately felt the exact pain she feared simulated as a physical torture. These ideas were largely reflexive and left their host with little power to repress them. When such a notion would occur, Ema would immediately follow it with a more intentional thought of No, not that. Please. Anything but that.

And that is exactly what the Fiend would do.

It burned. It burned more than anything but also it stabbed and it cut and it sliced and it slashed in ways beyond the comprehension of a purely physical being. It met the most delicate pockets of her soul without mercy and inflicted unhesitant damage to where it would cause the most pain with a sadistic and uninhibited delight. Ever the relentless tormentor, the Fiend continued to keep its promise of turning Ema’s minutes into years. With each passing second, the girl endured a lifetime of suffering.

The beast rended what felt like blood from flesh and like flesh from bone and like bone from helpless socket. A hopeless despair settled upon the young girl’s heart, a despair from which apathy could be no defense. It wasn’t like Hell; it was the thing: all the wretched turpitude of the world at once descending upon a tiny snowflake of innocence. It was more than she or anybody else bound by the frail circumstance of humanity could bear. And yet she endured, silent, hiding her pain from those around her and wanting nothing more to shake the room with violent shrieks.

The savagery with which the demonic entity ravaged its host was unrestrained. All that kept Ema from surrender was the knowledge that doing so would not be an escape; it would be a sacrifice. Nobility played little part in her decision to confine her suffering to herself while that common egocentric need to regard oneself as moral drove her every thought. In the long moments of her torture, Emadalia Danvers felt the full burden of humanity as only one who has chosen the facsimile of courage over true righteousness can.

All the while, she continued to draw.

Over the course of the time limit Ema had set for herself, four separate pieces took shape, collectively encompassing the culmination of an expert’s base skillset. Naturally, the works lacked refinement, but they made it abundantly clear that their creator knew what she was doing. Light and shade, line quality, composition, texture, and spatial acuity all coalesced into each of the forms to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt the level of mastery to which Ema had ascended.

“Done,” Ema said, panting heavily. Her whole body was coated in the cold sweat of survival. Though her tangible body remained intact, the invisible damage Ema had incurred left her weary and barely conscious.

On the desk were the rough etchings of a sunflowered landscape, the base layout of a complex city, a cluster of random objects Ema had referenced from around the room, and a very detailed and unnecessarily flattering portrait of Ms. Shine.

“You’re even better than your father said you were,” said Ms. Shine, smiling admiringly at the portrait.

Ema didn’t reply. She had collapsed onto the floor and was out cold.

#

“You’re going to be okay,” said the nurse. “You were just dehydrated, that’s all.”

Ema slowly came to and groggily surveyed her surroundings. She was on a bed and the sheets were sticking to the back of her shirt, which was damp with sweat.

“What happened?”

“You passed out in art class. Everyone was really worried. Do you have a history of illness?”

“No,” said Ema. “Just demonic possession.”

The nurse forced a laugh but Ema could tell she was uncomfortable. Ema decided to avoid further conversation. She sat up on the bed and looked around. A tight feeling gripped her throat an unwelcome feeling of emptiness settled upon her, a sense that something was not right.

“By the way,” said the nurse, pulling a dark green messenger bag from beneath the table, “I believe this belongs to you. A nice young man from your class brought it back.”

“Thanks.”

The feeling subsided. Ema realized that what she had been experiencing was separation anxiety and had not realized until now how she would feel about being away from her art. It was like a ravenous dog that only she knew how to control; something that could not be left alone for even a second lest it go on a rampage. It would bite and scratch her to no end but that was okay so long as nobody else got hurt.

The feeling of dread crept upon Ema once more. She noticed it immediately, even before she had fully opened her satchel. Her leatherbound sketchbook was missing.

“Fuck,” she said.

This is good, said the Fiend. Perhaps I will let you sleep tonight after all.

#

“Did you get it?”

“Yeah. She’s gonna be pissed.”

“Aw. Are you worried that this will ruin your little plan?”

“Nah. She doesn’t really like me anyway. Besides, it’s harmless. We’ll give it back to her tomorrow.”

Damon Hall pulled an 8.5 x 11 inch leatherbound book from his canvas backpack and set it carefully on the dining room table. It had a small lock on it to keep it from being opened. The touch of the leather and the knowledge of what was inside made Damon’s pulse quicken.

His buddy Josh Corey rummaged through the kitchen drawer in the next room and took out a set of cutters. He returned to the dining room and picked up the book.

“Can’t believe Ema went out like that,” he said. “Worked out for us though. It was a miracle we even got a chance to snag it with the way she was guarding it all period.”

“Can you really blame her?” said Damon. “Sketchbook full of nude selfies isn’t exactly something you’d want falling into the wrong hands. But don’t you feel even a little bad stealing something from an unconscious girl? The only reason we got away with it was because everyone else was busy freaking out.”

“Not stealing. Borrowing. Like you said, we’ll give it back. Anyway, the bitch should have just shown you when you asked,” Josh said smugly. “She probably secretly wants someone to see anyway. I wish I could see her face right now. Maybe we could take pictures of the drawings and blackmail her into showing us the real deal. Then again, if she’s as good as she says she is, there shouldn’t be much of a difference.”

“Hey,” said Damon, his expression softening. “Maybe we shouldn’t do this after all. Let’s just leave the lock on and tell her it fell out. We’ll tell her we didn’t look.”

“Having second thoughts?”

“Kind of. Yeah.”

“Are you crazy, man? Do you even realize what kind of opportunity we’ve got here?”

“I don’t know. Something about this feels wrong.”

“Grow up. It’s just a notebook. It’s not like we’re robbing a bank.”

“No, that’s not what I mean. I mean, she keeps this stuff secret for a reason. Feels kind of like rape or something, you know?”

“Quit being dramatic.”

Josh closed the cutters around the smooth curved bar clasping the lock to the book and applied pressure. The lock snapped with ease.

“I’m just going to flip to a random one first,” he said, grinning. “Hope it’s in color.”

It was.

 

BIO: Blaine Toneé is a writer and English teacher in the Pacific Northwest. He started writing fiction in college and hopes to get pretty good at it someday.