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  • Writer's pictureNicole Jorge

Follow Me (Down)

You have to understand, I was never really into the social media thing. What others saw as a great, broad expanse of connection always felt more claustrophobic to me. For most people, it was a way to reach out to the world at large with an ever-stretching arm. It was a way to touch the far away without ever leaving the comfort of your own home, to forge connections that transcended boundaries made by man and nature alike. And that’s great, don’t get me wrong. Maybe it was just the way I was raised, by a close-knit clan of paranoid shut-ins inhabiting the same plot of land they’d inhabited since anyone could remember, taking what they needed from the land and nothing more. God knows I hated it, when I was a kid. I couldn’t wait to get away. You’d think I would’ve embraced it all, right? A way to see things that were different from anything I’d known, a way to expand my horizons with relative safety and convenience.


So let’s say I’m just a paranoid shut-in of a long, prestigious line. Call me what you want - I won’t be offended. It was bad enough being watched by the people around me. Being watched by people halfway across the world, too? Why would I want that? Why would anyone? That was my reasoning. And in the end, it’s this social media bullshit that’s to blame for what happened. It’s the only reason I found my path crossing Katrina’s, throwing us together for - but no. I won’t go there. Not yet. Not until I’ve had another couple beers, anyway. Pass me one from the cooler, would you? You might want to grab one for yourself, too. You’re going to wish you had, if you don’t.


I never called Katrina Thurber a close friend. It was my Digital Media professor who bullied me into the Instagram account my junior year at university. Up until then, I’d been satisfied with checking in on the Facebook doings of friends and family maybe once a week. Just enough to make sure no one had died, you know? Then I made the mistake of showing Dr. Jaime the Governor’s Palace photo. It was one of my best shots, and also one of the most disturbing. You can hear any number of ghost stories about the Palace - the tree in its patio area was once used for hangings, and the remains of a baby were uncovered in the walls during a renovation. What I’d managed to capture was a shot through a street-facing window of a woman’s face. There had been a murder in that room, I’d heard, a violent one - a woman beaten to death by robbers who’d entered the grounds late one night. A devout skeptic might have dismissed the picture as a trick of the light, a reflection from a street lamp outside. But they would’ve had to be trying very hard to see it as anything but what it was: a woman’s face, angled towards the light, her eyes shut. It was the face of a martyred saint, passionate in its suffering.


“This,” Dr. Jaime said, his eyes wide. “You have to post this somewhere.”


I wasn’t ready to seek out those kinds of connections, wasn’t ready to share any part of myself like that. But Dr. Jaime wouldn’t let it go. And the truth was by then I’d already lost interest in school almost entirely. It was the pictures that kept me going. Pictures that taught us things, pictures that helped us communicate - and what, then, was the use of keeping your pictures in the dark? Dr. Jaime helped me set up the account - I was MadiDeLosMuertos, enthusiastic photographer-cum-ghost hunter, here to track down spooky shit and document it for the masses. Those first days were dizzying. Hashtags, filters, follows - I was a digital dunce. Under my professor’s guidance, I began to plod my way through the social media cesspit at last. I remember how excited I was when I got my first like, when I hit 100 followers. It was the summer before my senior year when Dr. Jaime introduced me to the Drear Brothers, whose ghost tours were booked solid through October, and they hired me for a series of shoots for their updated website. I didn’t give a second thought to posting some “behind the scenes” photos to Insta. And that was when Katrina found me.


It took me a few days to realize that red little dot meant I had a message waiting for me. WanderingW3ndigo wrote: Nice pics, Madi! I didn’t know you were still into this, read the first message. Then, This is Madi, right? It’s Katrina.


Katrina. It turned out we’d taken a couple classes together Freshman year, before she dropped out and returned to her hometown of Alexandria in North Carolina. I barely remembered her as anything beyond that quiet goth girl in the expensive-looking boots who always sat in the back of the classroom. I wasn’t sure what I expected to find as I navigated over to her account - pictures of outings with friends, vacations, maybe some food. But there wasn’t anything at all like that there. At first glance, I thought her work was just nature photography. Here and there were the dark trees of a swamp on the horizon, the moon shining bright overhead. There were the waters of a lake, a deep, stretching mass that swallowed the light. But there was something surreal about the photos, something that was...not right. She’d made use of odd angles, like she’d taken her pictures while hiding in a bush or crawling through the grass. And there were things in the pictures. They were a bit like my suffering woman - at first glance, you might convince yourself that you hadn’t seen anything at all, just an oddly-shaped tree trunk or a shadow warped over the terrain. There were figures in some of the photos. In one, something vaguely humanoid arched its back at an unnatural angle as it peered up at the sky, its arms hanging down past its knees. In another, luminous eyes peered out from behind a bush, round and crimson as they reflected the light. There were tracks in the mud, long and three-toed. A flipped kayak lay among the weeds looking almost mundane, until you spotted something like a human hand reaching for it above the water. Something had clawed up the trunk of a tree and left deep gouges marring its surface. In one particularly gory scene, half of a fox lay in the brush - an unsettlingly even half, as if something had bitten it neatly in two.


There were so many pictures. I spent a couple days scrolling through them, unsure whether I should be impressed or freaked out. There was this ethereal quality to Katrina’s work, something otherworldly. Maybe it was something about the angles, and the framing. I wondered how she did it. Some well-placed lighting, maybe, and a clever use of filters. Staging those scenes must’ve been a real pain. Her props were certainly impressive. I tried to show my roommate, who’d never hesitated to tag along on my shoots, but she didn’t make it past the picture of the fox. “That’s super gross,” she said. “That’s some backwoods hillbilly Texas Chainsaw Massacre shit, taking pictures of dead animals.”


I tried not to take it too personally. But I’d been one of those backwoods hillbillies, once. Maybe it was just in my blood, running through my veins like dark water. Whatever it was, I couldn’t get over those photos. I became a devoted follower of Katrina’s account. I checked it first thing every morning. I soon realized that she was documenting her nighttime wanderings. Several nights a week she was out in the swamp, zooming in on serpentine figures swimming across the water’s surface, starlight glinting on dark scales. It was a study in nocturnal wonder...or nocturnal horror.

Yes, you could say what happened was my fault. I hadn’t been home for the holidays since the blowout my sophomore year when my unstable younger cousin threatened to murder the whole family. My parents booked themselves a flight to spend Christmas in Cancun, something they conveniently forgot to mention until well after Thanksgiving. Even if I’d wanted to join them, flights were prohibitively expensive. By then, Katrina and I were exchanging messages fairly regularly. You know what? she wrote, after I mentioned my predicament. You should come out here! The drive isn’t so bad. We could do a shoot together.


Well, I remember thinking, why not? I booked myself a room at the little Emerald Inn in downtown Alexandria and loaded up my car with snacks and my photography equipment, and I was off. I got into Alexandria sometime around 2 in the morning on Christmas Eve. Katrina met me at Louie’s diner, which was full of Alexandria University students devouring pancakes and coffee in an attempt to sober up. The smell of grease frying soaked into my hair, and my clothes. Katrina hadn’t changed much. There was still a strange, almost manic energy in her dark eyes. She’d brought her camera to our meeting, and to my delight, she let me look through it for unposted photos. When I confessed I couldn’t figure out how she’d managed them, she looked a bit smug.


“It’s all about the location,” she said. “The Great Dismal Swamp has its secrets. Would you like to see them?” I hadn’t been expecting the offer. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t accept it at once. I wanted to learn more about Katrina, see how she worked. I wanted to understand. And I’d never been to a swamp before. I thought, how dangerous could it be? I suppose that’s what the kayakers thought. There was a sign posted just inside the entrance to the park, four smiling, unassuming faces. Missing for four weeks now. I thought nothing of it. Disappearances out in the wild weren’t so uncommon, after all. The state park was massive, and there were all kinds of ways you could get hopelessly lost. I tried not to let the poster shake my enthusiasm. I was with Katrina, after all, and she knew what she was doing.

But it wasn’t long before I was glad she did, because the dizzying route she took us on into the swamp was enough to make my head spin. I didn’t know up from down anymore. When she took her Jeep off the trail I couldn’t help but protest - we’d end up in the lake, at this rate! But Katrina just looked more pleased with herself.


“I know what I’m doing,” she said. “I do this all the time, remember? You’ll never find anything worth seeing if you aren’t willing to take some risks.”


For the rest of the ride, I tried to talk myself down. She was right, wasn’t she? If I wanted anything like her success, I’d have to be willing to work for it. Except, I’d started to think about those kayakers again. I’d started to think about Katrina’s photo, that lone kayak floating empty on the water, a hand reaching for it as if desperately trying to stay afloat.

No. No, that was ridiculous. What a weird connection my mind had made! At best, it was a bizarre coincidence. At worst, it was a joke in poor taste. Maybe I’d ask Katrina about it at the night’s end. In the meantime, I just intended to enjoy myself...maybe even learn something. I learned a lot that night. And Katrina was my teacher, guiding me blindfolded through a terrifying lesson plan I’d never be able to forget.


She stopped the Jeep once I was feeling thoroughly turned around. We were a good way from the trail, surrounded on all sides by trees stretching high over our heads. How could she ever find this place in the dark? I guess there was something about it that demanded silence, because neither of us said a word as we assembled our gear.

“Stay close,” Katrina said at last, quietly. “Whatever you see, don’t make too much noise. You don’t want it seeing you.


It? What did she mean by it, I wondered? I wish I’d never found out. Katrina strode confidently out into the swamp, and I followed after her more carefully, sure I’d trip over something and fall on my face if I wasn’t. I’d never be able to afford another camera if I lost this one. All around us I could hear the sounds of rustling, living things moving amongst the trees around us. But when I looked up, my eyes couldn’t penetrate the dark veil above our heads. It made my skin crawl. Katrina crept along in front of me, her eyes darting back and forth. Every so often she lifted her camera to her face and snapped a picture. Of what, I couldn’t say. I just couldn’t make out a damn thing. Then, finally, I discerned a light ahead - the moonlight shining through the trees. Katrina stopped me just short of the treeline, crouching low. I heard a low splashing sound. When I looked over her shoulder I saw something at the edge of the water - the Great Dismal Lake, stretching out long and deep before us. And as for the thing itself….


Ugh, it makes my skin crawl just thinking about it. I’m going to need another beer. No, not that one, I hate IPAs. The Hefe will do. Anyway, the thing by the lake was a nightmare. It was humanoid, I guess, all stooped over like it moved on all fours. There was no hair on its round, shiny head. Its skin was so pale, pale like the moon. As I watched, it dipped its long-fingered hands into the water and lifted them to drink. The sight of it moving made me feel kind of sick. I turned to Katrina, expecting some kind of explanation. But she was just grinning. She looked thrilled. She took a moment to fiddle with her lense before taking a picture of the white thing. “No,” I hissed, but it was too late. The thing lifted its head, searching the tree line for us. Any moment now it was going to head our way, and then what would we do?


Something moved out on the water. The white thing turned away from us. It was a moment too late. I watched, horrified, as something that looked like a gator - but no, it couldn’t be, it was too long, too wide - snapped its jaws around the white figure. The figure let out an inhuman shriek, the sound of a wild animal that knows it’s all over. Then the gator-like creature retreated into the water with its prey, and all was silent.

Oh, God, I remember thinking. I’m going to puke.


Then I did puke, losing my Louie’s meal at my feet. Katrina made a tsk sound. “You almost scared it off,” she said. “I told you you should be quiet out here.”

“Go back,” I said. “We have to go back.”

Her eyes widened. “What, now? We’ve hardly seen anything. Are you chickening out on me, Madi?”


I was chickening out. I felt no shame in it. Katrina looked disappointed with me, but she turned to lead the way back to the car, grumbling quietly all the while. All the noises around us had taken a more sinister air. There was movement from the canopy above. Katrina looked up at it, frowning. She set her camera down. I watched, horrified, as she reached into her coat and produced a pistol from its holster.


“Stay close,” she repeated. We crept along. Something traveled from branch to branch after us, the telltale flapping of wings audible over singing insects. I wasn’t sure how much more of this I could take. Then I finally snapped. It was driving me crazy, not knowing what was following us. I lifted my camera. When I took the photo, my flash penetrated the darkness above. I immediately wished I hadn’t. There were...things up in the trees. They looked a bit like birds, but their wings were broad and leathery, and their eyes shone red as they looked down at us with their leathery heads cocked.


The sound of Katrina’s gun firing filled the air around us. “Go!” she called, giving up on quiet altogether. “Move!”


I didn’t have time to think about tree roots anymore. I followed close on Katrina’s heels as we ran back towards the Jeep. As we climbed in, slamming our doors shut after us, I realized I’d lost my camera - dropped it in our escape. I didn’t have time to worry about it before Katrina threw the Jeep into gear and took off, tires spitting mud after us.

She dropped me off at the Emerald Inn. Neither of us had spoken a word to each other for the rest of the ride. I couldn’t even demand an explanation. I watched her Jeep disappear down the road before heading up into the inn. I checked out first thing Christmas morning. I didn’t send Katrina a message, or any kind of explanation. I don’t think she expected one. It would be weeks before I checked in on Instagram again.


She’d uploaded photos from that night. There was the white thing by the water, then a blurry shot of the gator-like monster as it dragged its meal back into the water. Then, inexplicably, a shot of the gray creatures in the canopy. It was my picture - it had to be. Which meant she’d found my camera. Which meant she’d gone back to that place.

Needless to say, I never spoke to Katrina Thurber again. I didn’t even bother to ask for my camera back. It’ll be a cold day in hell before I set foot in another swamp.


Even if I’d taken myself out of the photography game, I found myself checking in on her account every once in a blue moon. It remained active for another couple months in which it was clear Katrina was still lurking around her old stomping grounds. Then, inexplicably, it went quiet. It’s been two years without a post now, and I think I might be relieved. What became of Katrina, I’ll never know. But her account still stands, a memorial of things too weird and terrifying for the outside world. A memorial to a girl who saw too much, went too far, and never returned.

"Swamp"by enneafive is licensed under CC BY 2.0








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