Mr. Flysuit and the Mandela Effect

pexels-photo-373511There’s this thing—a phenomena, really—called the “Mandela Effect.”

This lady, Fiona Broome, coined the phrase back in 2010 and it’s some bat-shit crazy stuff, lemme tell you what. See, Fiona Broome swears up, down, and sideways that Nelson Mandela died some time back in the 1980s while imprisoned in South Africa. And she’s not alone. She, and a whole slew of other people claim to remember details about Mandela’s funeral, including alleged CNN news coverage and even a scuffle over publishing rights involving Mandela’s widow, Winnie.

But here’s the wonky thing: none of that happened. None of it. Zero.

Mandela was freed from prison in February of 1990, went on to serve as President of South Africa from ’94 to ’99, and didn’t pass away until 2013. So, Ms. Broome is wrong. They’re all wrong. Every last one of the thousands of people who remember Mandela’s prison death. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. It’s a fact. Yet, these folks insist that it isn’t; they insist Nelson Mandela died in the 1980s. They hold onto it like a religious creed, which is both fascinating and bizarre. And stranger still, more people are “remembering” this sequence of events all the time—it’s like a disease, spreading around the internet, infecting minds and memories.

And thus, the Mandela Effect was born. Or maybe discovered.

Now, this would be weird enough, except there are other, similar, instances. Lots of them.

There are loads of people who believe in the existence of a 1990s movie called “Shazaam,” where Sinbad plays a genie. Except that doesn’t exist either. There’s no film footage, no studio invoices (and there’s always a paper trail), no reviews, and Sinbad’s gone on record stating unequivocally that it never happened. Period. The end. But it’s not the end because people still believe—despite all evidence to the contrary—it happened. They can’t seem to get the notion out of their collective heads’. Then, there’s the Berenstain Bears—or is it Berenstein Bears?—controversy. And Billy Graham’s televised funeral, even though he’s still alive (2017). And what about Curious George? Tail or no tail? Or Jif Peanut Butter vs. Jiffy Peanut Butter (hint, it’s always and forever been Jif).

There’s an enormous Reddit forum entirely dedicated to the Mandela Effect, with more topics and more examples if you’re interested in seeing the weirdness of the internet in all its glory.

Now, some experts say the Mandela effect is a mass delusion; a false memory somehow contracted by thousands of people all at once. A type of collective misremembering. But there are other theories, too. Some people claim the Mandela effect is evidence of time-travel. No joke. They believe someone from the future went back and altered the past, creating these odd little ripples in time. Maybe, someone saved Mandela, causing the Berensteins to be replaced by their doppelgangers, the Berenstains, and poor Curious George ended up losing his tail—shwick gone. It’s the Butterfly Effect played out in the minutia of life; just these little innocuous tweaks here and there.

Maybe that’s it. Maybe not.

Ms. Broome, well she claims the Mandela Effect is the result of parallel universes—ones slightly off-kilter from our own—interacting. Rubbing shoulders while passing in the hallways of the cosmos or maybe slamming together on the subatomic level. Personally? That’s the way I lean. But what the hell do I know? I’m not an expert. I’ve never gone to college, and I work at a crappy security booth making minimum wage.

Okay, so if I’m not some diploma-wielding “expert” why do I bring all this up?

I’ll tell you why, because I’ve experienced the Mandela Effect, too. It’s not some big internet-breaking meme like the Berenstain Bears or Sinbad the not-genie. It’s smaller. More specific. More intimate. But if the fucking Mandela Effect is real, then this is it in spades. It has to be because I don’t know how else to explain it. My Mandela Effect has to do with the house on the end of North Cedar, and I know it’s real because the place almost fucking killed me. And it did kill Jackie Morgan and Mark Leaman. That’s a fact.

Murdered them both, though it all got blamed on train accident.

It wasn’t a train accident, though. Not by a country mile.

***

Okay, okay, let’s roll things back a skoosh.

I grew up in Lusk, Wyoming.

It’s this little dirt-speck town of maybe 1,500 people, sandwiching the US 85 like two pieces of stale bread, rotting from age. It’s the kind of place that hardly warrants map space. The kind of place people drive through, but only because they’re headed somewhere better, cleaner, nicer. Lusk has lots of old brick buildings—remnants from a different era—run-down motels, shitty glass-fronted dinners, and even shittery gas stations/truck stops. Every vehicle in town is liable to be a pick-up; all of them old, rusted-out, and, of course, American made. It’s a Podunk town, full of cow-shit covered farmers, bored-ass rednecks, and wrinkle-skinned retirees.

With all that said, there is one interesting thing about Lusk: and that’s the house at the end of North Cedar past Jefferson Street, all the way at the edge of the cemetery.

It’s an old dilapidated American Foursquare, perched on top of a small rise, snuggled back among a cluster of dark pines and leafy oaks. I can still see it perfectly in my head, just like an old photo. The sprawling front porch, framed by squat, square columns. The boards all worn and slightly warped. The white paint, stained and peeling. Dull windows running along the front, both upstairs and down, staring at the world like the menacing eyes of some giant spider. And it had this kooky weathervane on top—an antique brass rooster, riddled with green pockmarks—jutting up like a giant middle finger to the world. That damned weathervane always stands out in my mind.

Anyway, the place scared the absolute holy bejesus out of me as a kid.

Me and my pals, Jackie Morgan, Caroline Buckner, Mark Leaman (we called him Scooter), and Danny Carlisle, we’d go riding by it sometimes. We’d do it on a lark, just tear-ass past, pedaling our bikes a million miles a fucking hour, sure that something would burst out from beneath the front porch. Either that or come barreling out the front door, jaws yawning wide, yellow claws raking at the air, ready to disembowel the lot of us. I don’t know why we thought that. No one lived there—the place was vacant and perpetually empty—and we’d never seen anyone go in or out. But the thought, the fear, persisted nonetheless.

All of that is to say, I remember that house in razor-sharp detail. And I remember what happened there, back in June of ’95—and it did happen, God’s honest truth.

It was the second week of summer break when we went in for the first time. And for the last, I suppose. We were having a sleepover—a “camping trip” technically—at Caroline Buckner’s place, which was off of 4th and Holly by the elementary school. It’s weird thinking back to that. I mean, we were all fourteen—except Danny, who was fifteen, held back a year because he was a fucking retard—and we were still doing co-ed sleepovers. That’s the mid-90s for you, though. None of our parents cared about Jack-shit as long as there was a modicum of supervision, and technically Caroline’s dad was there.

In reality, Caroline’s dad was a full-blown alcoholic who was black-out drunk ninety-five percent of the day, so we were on our own. We could’ve been running trains back there, and that jackass wouldn’t have noticed.

I mean we didn’t, ’cause Caroline was basically one of the guys, but we totally could have.

What we did do, though, was steal a bottle of Vodka—it’s fuzzy in my head, but I’m pretty sure it was Crown Russe—and got shitty drunk around a big ol’ campfire. The booze tasted like paint thinner mixed with nail polish remover, but I remember drinking the holy-living crap out of it anyway. Burned my throat going down and left my eyes watering like I’d sliced a whole bag of onions, but I took slug after slug like a champ. All of us did. We stood around, smoking stale Reds (also stolen), bathing in a drifting cloud of blue-gray smoke, while we cracked jokes and told ghost stories in the flickering firelight.

Some of the stories were classic urban legend fare: the Clown Statue, Bloody Mary, The Hook. Oldies but goodies, one and all.

Scooter told a couple of stories from that book, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. I still remember “Wonderful Sausage” and “The Red Dot.”  And Scooter was a helluva storyteller. He had a real knack for it. Knew exactly how to pace things, how to hit all the cues just right and string you along like some gullible sucker at a used car lot. He did this thing, where he’d drop his voice real low, so you’d have to crane your neck to hear, then boom an explosion of noise or a clap of his hands, and suddenly you were on a one-way trip straight to Scare-City. But, those stories were all bullshit, and we knew it.

Even in the dark, alone, with the Wyoming wilderness at our backs, we weren’t scared.

Not really.

Not until Jackie told us his story about the house at the end of North Cedar.

“I’ve got a story,” he’d said, his brown eyes downcast, his shoulders slumped, his mousy body curled in on itself while he smoked.

He’d gone in, not so long ago.

Decided to check it out after he heard some seniors from Niobrara County talking about how there was all kinds of booze and cigarettes stocked piled in the basement like ratios squirreled away for the fucking Apocalypse. Loads and loads of old Whiskey and homemade moonshine. Good stuff, not like the swill we were drinking that night. So, Jackie went. Broke in through the back door, then trekked down into the gloomy basement all by his lonesome. But there hadn’t been any liquor waiting for him down there. Nope. Instead, there’d been a hole in the wall, beneath the basement stairs by the water-heater.

Inside that hole had been a man, or maybe not a man—Jackie seemed undecided about that. He wore old rags, this creep. Layers and layers of heavily stained coats and dirt-caked jeans. He looked like the most down-and-out Hobo Jackie had ever laid eyes on.

And if that weren’t enough weirdness, he wore pelts, too, all stitched together like a cape. Rabbit skins, stained with old blood and gore. Bits of antler and yellowed bone attached with on leather straps. His skin was ashy, Jackie said, and withered like a worm left out in the sun. At first, Jackie had genuinely thought the guy was dead. Laying in that hole in the wall, unmoving and stiff as an old board. But when Jackie backed away, making for the stairs like any rational human being would, the guy shot right up.

His eyes wide, back arched, arms rigid.

Jackie wasn’t an idiot, so he didn’t wait around to bullshit with the weirdo. Nope. No way.

He bolted for the stairs like an Olympic track star, legs pumping as fast as they’d carry him. He was most of the way up when the pounding started. Thump-thump-thump-thump-thump. A pair of fists beating furiously against the underside of the wooden steps. When Jackie got to the top of the stairs, he faltered. Run his mind clambered at him, run and don’t ever look back. But he did look back—it was a compulsion too strong to resist. A bit like watching an oncoming car accident: you know it’s gonna be fucked, but you just can’t seem to look away.

Well, Jackie looked, just a quick gander over one shoulder, and honestly, I can’t blame him. How often have I slogged up the stairs late at night, but then paused to look back down—to reassure myself some snarling beast isn’t tearing after me?

It’s instinct. Nature.

The man, loaded down with pelts, waited at the landing, one skeletal finger outthrust in accusation. Jackie lingered, fascinated and horrified in equal parts, his legs suddenly unwilling to cooperate or carry him any farther. The man-thing canted his head to one side, rheumy eyes squinting, and opened his mouth. At first, there were no words, just this long, building screech like a bag full of cats stuck in a cement mixer—Jackie’s words, not mine. It was a sound no human could ever make. Still, Jackie stood transfixed. Watching. That screech, it built and built, rising in a terrible crescendo, slowly morphing into actual words:

“LET ME IN! LET ME IN! LET ME IN! LET ME IN!”

The words were a constant stream, screamed from a thousand different voices all at once, each one slightly out of key with the other, but all coming from the same mouth. That awful racket, it seemed, finally broke the strange spell rooting Jackie in place. He turned, darted into the foyer, and right out the front door like Hell was on his heels.

Jackie shrugged when he finished telling us the story, then ran a trembling hand through his sandy blond hair. He tried to play it cool, but he failed—he was scared, and we could all see it. “Probably just some hobo hitching on the rails,” he’d said after a time.

That was possible.

It wasn’t unheard of for Hobos to occasionally stopover in Lusk for a day or two, since the Union Pacific Rail Line curved just north of town and south of the cemetery. We all bobbed our heads in agreement, but we also edged closer to the fire because none of us believed it.

The “Red Dot” might’ve been bullshit, but this was something different. We all felt it in the gut, I think. This was a real thing, a confirmation of something we’d always believed deep down. Sometimes, I wonder if our belief is what opened the door to that Hellhole in the first place. Doesn’t really matter, I suppose. We were quiet for a while, smoking our cigarettes, passing around the cheap Vodka, all the fun ghost-stories discarded and done away with like spent party favors. Everyone was shaken, but okay, right up until that moron Danny fucktard Carlisle had to go and open his drunk, idiot mouth.

If anyone should’ve died in there, it should’ve been him.

***

After all these years, I can still hear Danny’s voice echoing around the campfire, his words slightly slurred and blurred on the edges. “Holy shit guys, let’s fucking go there.” He swayed drunkenly on his leather shit-kickers. “I think Jackie’s full of cowpies. His eyes are turnin’ brown from all the horseshit he’s spoutin’. So, I say we call him out. Go over to that dump and march right down to the basement. And if there is some hobo”—he sneered and grabbed his crotch in a fuck-em gesture.

No one wanted to go, of course.

We all felt the weight of Jackie’s story, the uneasiness of his words.

But we were young, dumb, and full of cum, and even more importantly we were full of cheap Vodka. Way, way, way too much cheap Vodka. Fucking Crown Russe. Besides, even though no one wanted to go, no one wanted to say so and be singled out as a pussy. Even Caroline, who legitimately had a pussy, didn’t want to get slapped with that moniker. Shit, if anything, she was even more go-hung, eager to prove she was braver than any dick-swinging dude in our crew.

So, like the teenage idiots we were, we went.

None of us had a car, so instead, we loaded up on our bicycles—a mix of Treks, Huffies, and vintage Schwinns—and peddled our drunk asses across town, sticking to the dusty back roads to avoid getting caught, and up to that god-forsaken house at the end of North Cedar. It was dark as the heart of the ocean when we got there. The moon, a sickly thumbnail of silver hanging in the sky, was so obscured by rolling clouds it was as useless as tits on a helicopter. We had camping flashlights, though. Big ol’ yellow sonsabitches that required a battery as big as a baseball to run.

Danny was the first one to turn his on, cutting through the deep cemetery gloom with the yellow beam.

The house looked the same as it always did—same boxy columns, same chipped paint, same dull windows—except now, the front door was open. Waiting for us. Just a crack, understand, showcasing a thin crease of inky black. But it was fucking open. If there’d been one brain cell between the whole lot of us, we would’ve turned back right that second, and screw youthful pride right up its ass. But here’s the thing about being young: you think you’ll live forever. Everything’s a joke and a dare because nothing bad can happen to a fourteen-year-old.

Not anything really bad. Like death.

“Let’s do this shit,” Danny said, overflowing with false bravado, cracking his knuckles like he was getting ready to wade into a fistfight instead of the mouth to Hell.

“Yeah,” I replied with a nod, trying not to sound like a colossal piece of chicken-shit.

“Does that mean you’re volunteering to go first?” Scooter asked, his gaze shifting nervously between me and the barely-open door. His question hung in the air; every eye was fixed on me, expectant for my answer. You a pussy, dude? Those stares inquired. You all talk, or do you got the balls to back it up?

“Yeah, obviously,” I replied with a sniff and an eyeroll. “It’s just a shitty old house. And if there is some crackhead hobo?” I paused, bent over, and picked up a rusty piece of rebar laying on a pile of loose scree. “I’ll fucking show him what’s what.” With the rebar in one hand and my square flashlight in the other, I soldiered forward, leaving the others to trail behind me. I took a deep breath and trudged up the steps; the old wood bowed under my weight, letting out soft moans and groans as though the house were a living thing. I flashed the light across the windows, but the curtains—dreary yellowing things—were closed tight, obscuring the interior.

I used the length of rebar to nudge the door open, sweeping my beam into the foyer.

A fine layer of dust, recently disturbed by the passage of feet, Jackie, probably, covered the hardwood floors, which were heavily scuffed and stained. Floral wallpaper—bubbled, deeply cracked, and sporting more than a few splashes of graffiti—decorated the walls. I inched into the room and swept my flashlight left; the beam washed over a boxy living room with the same tattered and peeling floral print. There was an old couch pushed up against the far wall; an ugly thing of faded orange and yellow fabric, which had to be from the 60s. Most of the cushions were slashed open, trailing white stuffing like gory ropes of intestine.

There was also a stained mattress in the center of the floor, covered in empty beer bottles and old piss stains, which reeked like the inside of a hot Porta-John. The whole house smelled like that. Fucking gross.

Further on, connecting to the living room, was a square dining space with a great big ol’ table, which lay in pieces on the floor, all its legs ripped off and scattered. Nothing that way, either. I paused for a moment, stealing a peek over one shoulder at my friends who were lined up on the porch behind me, clustered together, looking small, pale, and frightened to their toes. “Come on,” I said. “The stairs must be over that way”—I jerked my head toward the right and moved deeper into the house.

There was a kitchen up ahead, the floors covered in green linoleum. The few appliances that remained—a beat-to-shit gas stove and a drunkenly leaning fridge with the door hanging open—were so dusty I could tell they hadn’t been used in ages. A lone chair, wooden and high-backed, sat in the middle of the room. There was a big staircase hugging the right wall, shooting up like an arrow, but I didn’t see the stairs leading down.

There were two doors, though, situated between the kitchen and the staircase, and both were closed up nice and tight. I adjusted and readjusted my grip on the length of rebar—my palm slick and sweaty—and headed for the pair of doors.

The floorboards squeaked and squealed as my friends followed, completely silent except for their footfalls and the sound of heavy breathing. I padded closer to the pair of doors, a creeping dread building in my stomach and clawing up my throat like a bout of nausea. I pushed it down, determined not to pussy out.

Which door to pick was a coin-toss, so I tucked the flashlight beneath my armpit and pulled open the one on the left, closest to the kitchen. I let out a ragged sigh of relief as my light splashed over the interior of a small bathroom with a chipped clawfoot tub, a porcelain sink, and a broken mirror—the jagged pieces carpeting the floor. One down, one to go. I scooted over to the next door, this time hesitating, my hand quivering on the knob. Sweat broke out across my forehead, and my heart thumped like a jackhammer in my chest. More than anything in the world, I didn’t want to open that door. I didn’t want to go down into the basement and meet the hobo in the furs.

“What’s the fuckin’ holdup?” Caroline taunted from behind. “You lose your nerve, Mack? Maybe you need to grow a pair? Might be, I have some I could lend you”—she grabbed at her crotch. That earned a chorus of nervous, muted chuckles.

I absently flipped her the bird in reply, steeled myself, and yanked open the door, ready for a faceless monster to pounce.

The door whooshed out, but there was no monster waiting. No man, loitering at the foot of the stairs demanding I let him in. I took the wooden steps slowly, descending into the dark as the hairs on the back of my neck stood stiff. There were spaces between each step and I couldn’t help but envision a pale white hand shooting out and wrapping around my ankle, clamping down like a vice, then dragging me away. But there was no hand or ankle grabbing, just like there’d been no murderous hobo.

The basement was gloomy and dank, but no creepier than the rest of the fucked-up house. Some old boxes—warped and moldy from the accumulated moisture—took up space against one wall and copper tubing, littered with spider-webbing, decorated the ceiling. There was a rusted, pot-bellied furnace, complete with an actual door for feeding in wood, in the left corner. Metal ductwork poked up from the furnace like gnarled fingers, disappearing into the ceiling. Beneath the stairs was the water heater, and just as Jackie had said, there was a jagged hole in the concrete next to it.

An artificial cave, six-feet high and four or five deep.

Tucked inside was a pallet made of old blankets, but no bum. There was, however, liquor. A shit-ton of bottles, some plastic, others glass. Wine, Whiskey, Vodka, Schnapps. Good stuff, too, though no smokes.

“Holy shit,” Danny said, spotting the treasure-trove, “we hit motherfucking pay-dirt here.” The others whooped and hollered, clapping each other on the shoulders in congratulations, the fear banished, replaced by adrenaline and greed. Jackie didn’t look relieved, though. He looked even more anxious.

“Well, let’s get the real party started,” Scooter said, shoving past me and into the hole, pulling free a full bottle of Goldschlager. He held it up, giving it a swirl, the flecks of gold dancing and weaving in the beam of my flashlight.

***

We’d been drinking for maybe an hour when we heard the clunk, clunk, clang of something scraping and rooting around. It sounded like an animal, a big one. Everyone fell deathly silent, eyes going wide and wild as the sound came again. Clunk, clunk, clang. Louder this time. In the quiet, it wasn’t hard to tell where the noise was coming from: the potbellied furnace in the corner. Everyone scrambled to their feet, beating a hasty retreat for the stairs as the sound grew louder and more persistent. Jackie was the first one up the stairs, his shoes thudding on the wood, followed by Caroline, Scooter, Danny, and me, bringing up the rear.

Everyone froze, though, as the handle on furnace firewood hatch screeched open, and the metal door swung outward with a rusty groan. My hands trembled—flashlight wavering, rebar twitching—as I stared at a square of pitch black, hardly large enough to accommodate a small child, in the center of the furnace. There was nothing there, though, and for a second I almost chalked it up to coincidence. Maybe some sort of critter had gotten in. Like a possum or a large squirrel. But then a pallid face—completely bald, maggot white, and deeply creased like old boot leather—appeared in the opening.

A crude set of symbols were carved across its forehead, the wounds still red and puffy. After all these years, I can still see that damned symbol clear as day—like it’s tattooed on my brain or something. I drew it out for anyone interested:

The breath caught in my throat and I thought I might vomit as the thing stared at me with milky pink eyes. I would’ve said it was blind—how could it not be?—but then it winked at me, as though reading my thoughts, and offered me a sly lopsided smile. Its pencil-thin lips pulled back, revealing a mouth full of nubby, black teeth like pieces of broken glass. A tongue, chalky and white, slipped free, running around the edges of its too-wide mouth. Then, the creature—and I was sure as shit it was a creature and not a man—pulled itself from the furnace in the herky-jerky motions of bad stop-motion animation.

Spidery hands, tipped with dirt-caked nails, came first, attached to overlong arms as it wriggled and wormed its torso free. Its arms were bulky, as though it were wearing jacket after jacket, but it didn’t take long to notice the “coats” were moving. Shifting. I gagged. Not coats, though that was an easy mistake to make at a glance. Flies. Millions of the black-bodied things. And over the top of those, were the pelts. Rough cut garments, crudely stitched together into a tattered cloak of fluttering trophies. There were patches of pale pink flesh—almost like dried, uncured pigskin—woven into that grotesque mantle.

One piece of leather, a little larger than my palm, had a faded tattoo on it: a pair of praying hands with a rosary looped around them like a noose.

“Holy fucking, McFuckerson!” Danny screamed from behind me, grabbing my shirt with a meaty palm and pulling me on. His words, bristling with unapologetic terror, seemed to jar everyone to frantic motion, and we all broke like a herd of stampeding cows. Unlike Jackie, I didn’t pause when I reached the top; I didn’t need to because I could hear the thing scrambling and skittering over the concrete floor, drawing ever-closer. I knew it hadn’t made it to the stairs yet, but I could almost feel it reaching for me, its hot, fetid breath brushing up against the nape of my neck.

I darted through the entry; Danny promptly slammed the door shut behind me with a booming thunderclap.

“Get the fuck outta the way,” Caroline hollered, sprinting toward us with the lone chair from the kitchen. I shuffled back, head reeling from what I’d just witnessed, as she crammed the chair up beneath the door knob. And not a moment too soon. The second she had it wedged firmly in place, the door handle rattled and shook, followed by a fist slamming against the wood. Thunk-thunk-thunk. I stared at the door, trapped and immobilized. Then, the creature shrieked, an inhuman noise like a buzzsaw cutting into a piece of sheet metal.

“LET ME IN! LET ME IN! LET ME IN! LET ME IN!”

“Let’s go,” Danny said, tugging on my shoulder. I didn’t need much prompting. I wheeled around and beelined for the front door, except Scooter was already there, desperately turning the knob, trying to pry the door open. It didn’t budge, not an inch. “The windows,” I said, my voice oddly calm and detached, “bust ’em out.”

Jackie was moving before the words were even out of my mouth, sprinting toward the windows in the living room. He threw back the musty yellow curtains, but faltered, confusion and fear dashing across his face in turns. It was easy to understand why. Instead of cloudy glass, staring out on the forlorn graveyard, there was simply a sheet of implacable wallpaper. Smooth and seamless, as though no windows had ever existed there. Caroline tried the windows near the stairwell leading to the second floor.

More of the same. Just blank walls, covered in that gaudy floral print.

Another crash from the basement doorway drew my eye. The creature was still shrieking its let-me-in hymn, but now it was working over the door like a boxer going to town on the heavy bag. The door rattled in its frame, the wood bowing and splintering with each successive blow. “Backdoor, and kitchen windows,” I yelled at Jackie, “check ’em all. Everyone else …” I paused, glancing around wild-eyed. “Weapons. Find a weapon. Anything you can defend yourself with.” Everyone scattered, most heading for the living and dining rooms, while I made for the basement door.

Since I already had a weapon, and a decent one, I planted myself in front of the basement door, flashlight trained on the cracking wood, rebar raised and ready to go.

“It’s the same back here,” Jackie called out, scampering out of the kitchen, a pitted butcher knife clutched in one white-knuckled fist. “Door won’t budge, and there aren’t any windows.” He spun in a slow circle like an animal trapped in a cage. “What are we gonna do, Mack? What the fuck are we gonna do?”

I shook my head because I didn’t have an answer.

The others appeared a few seconds later, clutching an assortment of wooden table legs from the dining room and busted beer bottles from the piss-stained mattress in the living room.

“Alright, backdoor’s fucked, too,” I said, never taking my eyes off the basement stairwell. “Only way left to go is up.”

“You fuckin’ high?” Danny hissed. “Why would we go up? There’s five of us, one of him, and we got weapons. Let’s just bust this sumabitch up.”

“Shut the fuck up, Danny!” I yelled, rounding on him. “That thing isn’t human you fucktard—it’s a monster. A demon or some shit. I dunno. And you don’t even get a say because you’re the only reason we’re here. ‘Let’s fucking go there … Jackie’s full of cowpies.’ This is all your fault, jackass, now shut your mouth and get upstairs. Maybe the windows will work up there, and if not … Well, maybe there’s a way we can get to the roof.”

Jackie and Caroline went without hesitation, but Danny and Scooter lingered, heading over to the living room, preparing to take a stand. “Don’t be morons,” I said, backtracking for the staircase, happy as a pig in shit to get away from that screeching—“LET ME IN! LET ME IN! LET ME IN! LET ME IN!”—playing on repeat like a broken record. I was a few feet from the staircase when the basement door exploded outward, chunks of wood flipping through the air like shrapnel. The thing from the basement didn’t waste a second. Nope, it scuttled out on all fours like an overgrown, human-faced fly.

Mr. Flysuit, I thought deliriously.

“Let’s get this fucker!” Danny screamed, charging in, a broken table leg upraised like a medieval mace while his flashlight beam bobbed and weaved. Scooter was a step behind. I rounded the stairs, but had to stop—had to—and watch. I honestly can’t say why. Mr. Flysuit was skinny even with the layers of shifting flies carpeting its body, but it moved like a snake and hit like a Mac-Truck. Danny lashed out with his club, a wild swing, which sailed clear over the creature’s head. The demon shot inside his guard and blasted him in the chest with a closed fist, lifting Danny into the air, flipping him ass over tea kettle.

He crashed in a heap not far off, limbs splayed out, eyes hazy from shock.

I hesitated, eyeing the stairs then Danny, the stairs then Danny.

Finally, I rushed over, helping the moron to his feet, glancing up in time to see Scooter lung forward, thrusting a broken bottle toward the thing’s face. Flysuit batted aside the attack with lazy ease, then leaped like a pitbull, nails slashing into Scooter’s throat, drawing a deep line of red across the skin. Scooter dropped the bottle and staggered back, clutching his ruined neck, mouth wide as blood leaked between his fingers. Flysuit wasn’t done. It tackled Scooter around the middle, driving a shoulder into his gut, and bringing him to the ground.

I tore my eyes away.

There was nothing we could do here. Not for Scooter. Maybe not for ourselves. Instead, I turned and dragged Danny up the stairs, pursued by the gut-wrenching sound of Mr. Flysuit chewing and slurping. There was another door at the top of the stairs, but Jackie and Caroline were gone. Vanished. Danny and I shoved our way through, leaving Scooter to die, guilt riding my back like a monkey.

***

The door swung shut, and darkness enveloped us, save for the meager illumination our flashlights provided. But there wasn’t anything for our flashlights to illuminate. The room, if it was really a room, seemed to stretch on forever with no walls and no visible end. It was an impossibly big space, and there was no way to tell where we were or where we needed to go. There was no sign of Caroline or Jackie, either. Danny and I were lost in an ocean in the dead of night without any idea of where the shore lay.

“Where the fuck are we?” Danny asked in a harsh whisper, sweeping his light fruitlessly from left to right. “Where the fuck are we?” He said again, this time more to himself than to me.

I turned around, searching behind me for the door. I found the wall easily enough—covered in the same awful floral print as below—stretching off in either direction for as far as I could see, but there was no door. I turned again, pressing my back firmly against the wall, and shouted. “Jackie?!” I paused as my voice echoed and bounced, oddly distorted. “Caroline?!”

After a few long moments, Caroline answered. “We’re here … Near the door.” Her voice sounded faded, weak, and impossible to pinpoint. It felt like hearing someone shout while under water. “Follow the wall,” Jackie called. “But watch out for the …” his words guttered and died, as though the house had silenced him before he could spoil whatever surprise it had in store for us.

“Jackie?! Caroline?!” Danny hollered, a hand cupped around his mouth. This time, there was no answer. Just crushing, terrible silence and all-pervading darkness.

“Come on,” I said, nudging Danny in his meaty shoulder. I turned right and walked, trailing the length of rebar along the wall as I scanned the featureless room for any sign of Jackie, Caroline, or an exit. Danny walked behind me, checking our backtrail every few steps to make sure the freak from the basement wasn’t tagging along behind us. I didn’t see anything, but I felt eyes on my back the whole while, as if someone, or lots of someones, were watching us from just outside the range of my flashlight.

We walked for a long time, ten minutes maybe, when my light finally flashed over something up ahead: a corner, with another long wall angling off to the left.

Instead of celebrating at the find, though, I skittered to a stop. Danny ran into me from behind, “What the fuck …” he started. His words cut short as his gaze landed on the boy standing ahead, head bowed, facing the corner like a toddler in time out. He was a dusky skinned black kid, maybe five, in thoroughly stained blue pajamas. The cuffs were ripped and frayed. I crept away on silent feet, driven by instinct, but stopped again when I heard the rustle of movement coming from behind me.

The noise was faint, barely-there at all. The scuttle and scrape of nails on the floor and the distant droning of flies.

The kid in the corner seemed to hear the sound, too, and turned his head toward us, the rest of his body stiff and unmoving. A scream built in my chest, but caught in my throat like a piece of popcorn; all that came out was a weak, hollow squeak. The boy had no face. It was like someone had used a giant ice-cream scoop to hollow out his entire skull, leaving only a sliver of chin and an edge of forehead as a reminder of what had once been. There was no blood, gore, or bone, though. And no strings of gray brain matter. Nope. Just a hollow cavity, filled with inky shadow.

The little kid lifted a finger, placing it where his mouth should’ve been. “Shhh,” he hissed, despite not having a mouth. “He comes”—the scuttling intensified, the scritch-scratch-scritch drawing closer as the buzzing built—“and all will be punished.” Then, the little boy simply turned back to the wall, resuming his self-imposed timeout.

“Fuck this shit,” Danny said, shaking his head like he refused to believe his eyes. “We gotta go, Mack. We gotta go.” He spun, not waiting for me to reply, and bolted away from the wall, running headlong into the darkness and not caring. Anything to get away from the creepy-ass kid without a face. I hesitated for only a heartbeat before taking off too, training my flashlight on Danny as we ran. This was dumb, I knew—we should’ve tried to skirt around the boy and follow the wall—but I couldn’t stomach the thought of being stuck in here alone.

I saw nothing as I ran, just choking blackness and scuffed hardwood floors underfoot. But I heard the constant scritch-scratch-scritch of nails on wood the whole way. Eventually, a wooden door—the frame covered in jagged green script, pulsing with cancerous light—materialized out of the dark. Aside from the strange runes running along the frame, the door looked identical to the one we’d entered the room through. Except there were no walls around it. It stood free and unsupported like an ancient Egyptian obelisk.  I slowed my mad dash, and circled it slowly, carefully, running my fingers over the surface as I walked.

It vibrated subtly beneath my digits, but didn’t seem to lead anywhere. How could it?

When I tried the knob, though, it turned easily in my hand, swinging open, spilling a pool of dirty purple light across the floor. What the fuck is this place? I thought before hustling through—eager to leave the black room behind. The odd door deposited Danny and me in a new room, except it wasn’t a “room” at all. It was a fucking forest is what it was. The ground a sea of lush green grass, the landscape peppered by towering oaks, old growth pines, and broad-leafed sycamores. And like everything else in this place, the forest wasn’t natural.

The trees were wrong, for one: The leaves and pine needles were all varying shades of red. The tree trunks were twisted things that looked like human bodies, but distorted and broken, with faces protruding out—each permanently locked in a rictus of suffering. High above, a bloated purple moon hung in a cloudless sky like a rotten plum. Strangest of all, though, were the doors. More freestanding doors, haphazardly strewn among the trees. Each door was nearly identical: thick wood, scrolling runes, and a square window in the center. But each peered out on a different destination.

I saw a few towns—Podunk places, not so different from Lusk—and a handful of big cities with yawing skyscrapers of steel and glass. But there were other places, too. Fantastical, impossible places where the air burned, were islands floated unsupported in the sky, where creatures made of discarded branches, rotten vines, sludgy mud, and bits of bone, milled about in deep shadow.

None of those doors were ours, I knew—they might open for others, but not for us. There was only one door for us. One door which would lead back to Lusk and that was the one we needed to find. “Let’s go,” I said to Danny. “We need to find Jackie and Caroline if we can. Either that or the way out … If there is a way out,” I finished weakly.

“Yeah,” he mumbled softly, wheeling about, eyes wide as saucers.

We walked—walked for so long, I lost track of time. I was on the verge of giving up, sitting down, leaning back against one of the distorted body trees, and closing my eyes for a while, when Danny gave out a hoot of joy, pumping a fist in the air. Jackie and Caroline emerged from a thick cluster of pines not far ahead, stumbling around drunkenly, their faces pale, their movements languid. Even at a glance, I could tell they were exhausted to the bone, but they looked up at the sound of Danny’s cry, huge smiles breaking across their faces almost in unison.

Those smiles slipped, though, falling by the wayside as they caught sight of something behind us. A creeping dread spread through me like a fever and I was suddenly sure the man with flies was behind us, silently creeping through the grass on all fours, ready to pounce. To maim. To kill. A cold sweat broke out along my forehead and trickled down my back. I clenched down on the spit of rebar and spun, lips pulled back in a snarl. Instead of the Mr. Flysuit, though, was the front door to the house at the end of North Cedar point.

And not just the door, the whole foyer. The floral-clad walls grew right up out of the ground as if they were a natural part of the landscape. Except now, a single phrase was gouged into the drywall over and over again: Let Me Out. The ragged edges of the lettering, combined with smears of dried brown, made me think those marking had been made by hand. Carved out with desperate, bloody fingers. I glanced down and noticed the floorboards were back, too, blending and bleeding seamlessly into the grass behind me—it was impossible to pinpoint where one ended, and the other began.

“We never should’ve come here,” Jackie said, his normally mousy voice, certain and somber. “This is my fault. I knew it wasn’t a hobo, but I told the story anyway. I started this.” He clenched his jaw tight and marched forward, slipping between Danny and me and right up to the door. He extended a hand, but hesitated just inches from the knob. Unsure. Thinking back, it’s almost like he knew what was coming, even though that’s impossible. He nodded his head, then, as if accepting his fate, and clasped the knob, giving it a sharp turn.

This time, the door swung inward with a squeal, revealing the grassy rise and the cemetery beyond. Flysuit was also standing there, crouched low to the ground, its lips pulled back, revealing its broken-glass teeth. It shot forward, jabbing its talon-tipped fingers into Jackie’s gut, plunging in and out, over and over again like a pair of meaty pistons. Jackie stumbled back, dropping his table-leg club, groping at his stomach while frothy crimson gurgled between lips. His heel caught on a rock, protruding from the ground, and he went down like a load of bricks.

Flysuit attacked like a shark with a nose-full of blood, scrambling onto Jackie, driving its bony knees into his ruined gut, clamping its jaws around his throat, while flies poured into Jackie’s open mouth. Their writhing bodies choking off his cries. Caroline, Danny, and I had two options at that moment: attack the thing murdering our friend or run. Fight or flight, distilled down to its most basic form. Danny chose first, shoving past me as he lumbered for the door, terror in his eyes and Jackie already forgotten. I wish I could say I’d done something different, that I’d been braver. Better.

I wasn’t. I hooked an arm around Caroline, frozen in place with indecision, and bolted.

I glanced back one last time as I’d cleared the front porch, and though it’s hard to be certain, I could’ve sworn Flysuit loitered in the doorway, and behind him, was a new sapling sprouting up from the center of Jackie’s sunken chest.

***

I don’t remember how we got back to Caroline’s. None of us did. We all woke up the next morning as the sun crept up over the horizon, shooting golden fingers into the pale blue sky. It almost felt like everything from the night before had just been a terrible nightmare, brought on by a combination of too much alcohol and too many cheesy campfire horror stories. Except we were two people short. Scooter and Jackie were gone, their bikes nowhere to be seen. A farmer—fella by the name of Lesly Hawthorn from Manville—found their bodies later that day, over by the tracks.

Hit by a Freight train then picked over by a pack of coyotes. I still have the article:

***

Okay, there it is—the story I haven’t told a soul, not in twenty years. Now, let’s get back to the present and back to the Mandela Effect. So, a couple of months ago, I returned to Lusk for my twenty-year high school reunion. I didn’t go back for the ten-year, because I couldn’t force myself to see the place again, not after what had happened. Couldn’t stand to look my parents in the eye, to drive down the 85, or talk with the old crew, sans Jackie Morgan and Mark Leaman, obviously. I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t want the nightmares to come back.

But after twenty years? After twenty-years … Well, I just threw my hands up and said fuck it. Fuck it all.

The town was more modern than I remembered, but only just. Mostly, it was the same shitty brick buildings, the same glass-fronted dinners (a few had different names, at least), and the same sagging faces, even more tired and worn down by the years. Honestly, the place looked like it had one foot in the grave—one stiff breeze might’ve blown everything over and wiped the whole place right off the map good and proper. That probably wouldn’t be a bad thing. Still, there was some part of me that felt good being there; going back was this cathartic experience, like I was finally ready to move past everything.

To really put it behind me.

Naturally, the first thing I did was putter on up to the house at the end of North Cedar in my Camry: the tires bald, the suspension shot, the front window cracked, a huge dent in the front fender. I headed north on 85 (South Cedar Street in town), cruising past a mom-and-pop drugstore and the Harald Newspaper building, then over the train tracks on the edge of the town proper. I veered left onto North Main Street—a two-lane cut of asphalt with a squat, white plaster propane shop on the right—and headed straight for another two-hundred feet, which saw me through the stone cemetery gates.

I idled past the swath of green grass, studded with tombstones like blunt gray teeth, and into the pine trees on the far side. It didn’t take me long to find the rise at the end of North Cedar, the one where the house should’ve been, but wasn’t. I killed the car, unbuckled my seat belt, and slid out. I frowned, fished a pack of Reds from my pocket, and lit up a smoke as I leaned against the hood of my car. I stood there for a good half-an-hour, chain smoking cigarette after cigarette, my arms folded across my sunken chest, nicotine flooding my system, as I stared at the unassuming plot of land.

There was an old concrete slab there, pitted and chipped. A foundation. Like maybe someone, years and years ago, had thought about building something out here, but finally decided against it. You can see that slab on Google maps if you’re inclined to check (42.773047, -104.452130), but there wasn’t any sign of the house. No sign of the basement either. It had been twenty years, so my assumption was someone had just leveled the damned place and backfilled the basement in with concrete. Except, that’s not what happened.

It was the fucking Mandela Effect.

See, I climbed into my car and headed back into town, stopping at this cozy hole-in-the-wall for lunch.

I ordered a greasy burger and made idle small talk with a tired looking waitress with a wave of chestnut hair, going gray at the temples, and deep bags under her eyes.  Eventually, I asked her about the house at the end of North Cedar, the one past Jefferson Street by the cemetery. She’d been in Lusk almost as long as I’d been away, but she’d never heard of the place. Not a once. Not even as part of some scary, local urban legend. I smiled, thanked her, and finished my meal in peace. After that, I made a pit stop at a gas station, asking a pudgy kid of maybe nineteen about the house.

Same question, same answer.

The Harald Newspaper was open, so I stopped there next. James Mackerson—a bean pole with a basset-hound face, who’d run the Harald even when I’d been a kid—was tooling around the office. The guy had to be in his early seventies, but he was still working hard, and looking pretty damned spry for such an old fella. He didn’t remember me (not that I offered him my name), but even more disconcerting, he didn’t remember the house. He insisted no such place had ever existed. Just that stone pad, laid out in the 1940s, by a pair of brothers named the McClains.

No one remembered.

No one except, Caroline Buckner.

Jackie and Scooter were dead, and Danny was long gone—in prison from what I could find—but Caroline was at the reunion.

She hadn’t aged well. Her body had gone soft and flabby, her hair prematurely gray; not that I was in a position to cast stones. I looked like a giant bag full of soggy dicks. Still, I knew it was her in an instant. I could tell by her steely blues eyes and the lines of her jaw. And one look at her told me all I needed to know: she remembered, alright. The way she tensed up when she saw me: the wild, panicked look in her gaze followed by a wave of guilt sprinting across her features. I didn’t need to ask because the memories were carved into her flesh like old scars. I did ask, though, because I’d come from Milwaukee for this and I needed to be sure.

Needed it more than I’ve ever needed anything else.

Our conversation was brief; neither of us could stomach talking about what happened in the house, I think. But she remembered, and maybe even more importantly, she also told gave me a few names—people like us who knew about the house, too. Brian Wilkerson, this guy a couple of years older than us, who went to Niobrara County High. Jamie Burakoff, a soccer mom from Manville who dated this high school buddy of mine, Chad Jenkins. Not a lot of people, but enough people to reinforce that I wasn’t bat-shit bonkers.

The motherfucking Mandela Effect, am I right?

I mean, I know that place is real. I’m not crazy.

And Mr. Flysuit? I know he’s real, too. Know it as sure as I know the sky is blue. Him, I still see. Not always, not even often, but sometimes. In a pocket of deep shadow. Or as a blur, just out the corner of my eye. Sometimes there’s a flash of him in my mirror, or in my computer screen late at night. I see his face, distorted and indistinct, mouthing the words let me in, let me in, let me in. He’s already got his hooks into me. Not enough to break through from wherever he lives, but enough for me to get a glimpse of him whenever our universes rub shoulder from time to time.

I wonder sometimes if there are others like me out there—other people with their own versions of the house at the end of North Cedar. Haunted places that don’t exist, not in this version of reality, anyway, but maybe in some other place and time. In some other world, remembered only by a few. There’s gotta be right? There were a shitload of doors in that weird forest and all of those trees, twisted and oddly human? Had those all been people once, like Jackie? When I say it out loud, it sounds crazy as fuck, totally impossible. If thousands of people remember Mandela dying, however, even though that never happened, then why not this?

But then I think this is probably all just a bunch of bullshit—a terrible, half-remembered nightmare I concocted to make sense of losing two friends. Probably, Jackie and Scooter did get hit by a train while drunk. Maybe the Coyotes picked over their bodies.

Maybe.

Some part of me hopes so, because the other alternative is too fuckin’ scary to get my head around—and probably not for the reason you’re thinking. Sure, what happened was traumatizing as shit, that goes without saying, but what I’m really worried about is that someday down the road he might come back for me.

’Cause, here’s the thing, it seems that once the Mandela Effect takes root in the collective hive-mind of humanity, more and more people begin to remember. It’s like catching a mental cold—a virus passed on through belief, imagination, and memory. And the more people who remember, who believe, the more real it becomes. And maybe that’s not such a big deal with little things—like Shazam or Curious George’s tail—but what about the monster that lived in the house at the end of North Cedar Street? Will that collective belief spawn more houses and more windows for Mr. Flysuit to gaze through?

And if it does, how long before someone slips up and lets him through for good? How long before he finds a way to let himself into my home? Or into yours?