Olivia Hayden watched the school nurse smear anti-itch cream over the small stickman figure she’d drawn on the inside of her left wrist, and the rash that surrounded it. The nurse taped a bandage over it to keep her from scratching it further and looked up at her.
“I hope you learn a lesson from this, Ollie. Ink is meant for paper, not skin.”
“Yes ma’am,” Olivia replied flatly, convinced that the ink hadn’t caused the rash. It hadn’t bothered her for the three classes after English. In fact it only began to itch after she’d bumped into Julie Armistead in the hallway. Dressed in her usual head-to-toe black, long dark hair hanging in strings from her head, Julie of the black lipstick and pale white skin variety.
“Watch out, weirdo,” she said to Julie after almost dropping her phone.
True to her usual anti-social form, Julie had taken her arm, looked at the stick man and mumbled a few words of gibberish, then winked at her and smiled before walking away as if nothing had happened. Shaking her head as she watched her go, Olivia’s right hand went to her wrist and started scratching the stickman, now suddenly itching like crazy.
She walked to math class fighting the urge to scratch and despising Julie even more.
“What happened to your arm, sweetie?”
Olivia shrugged at her mother. “I don’t know. It just started itching so I went to the nurse.”
A fire of alarm lit in Brenda Hayden’s eyes as she went to her daughter, now shrugging off her backpack onto the kitchen table. “Let me see? Is it a reaction?”
“I don’t know, mom,” Olivia wined, allowing her mother to take her arm. “It’s okay, really.”
Brenda looked at her thirteen-year-old daughter’s arm, then her face, then her arm again. “What is this?”
“It’s a rash, mom. That’s why I went to the nurse.”
“I see that it’s a rash, but what’s this?”
Olivia looked down at the edge of the bandage. Her eyes locked onto the stickman doodle. “It’s a stickman I drew, but it’s moved!”
“Don’t be a smarty, Ollie.”
“I’m not, mom. Seriously. The stickman was in the center of the rash. I thought it caused it, so did the nurse.”
Brenda sighed and shook her head. “Just wash it off, okay. It’s been a long week and I want to enjoy the weekend. The rash looks like it’s going away. You’ll be fine.”
Olivia walked to the window, allowing the sunlight to fall on the stickman. Had the stickman really moved or did the rash just gone away around it? She shook her head as she studied it carefully.
At least the itching had stopped.
“Oh yeah,” her mom called from the other room, “We’re going out to eat tonight at that new Italian place. It’s kinda nice so you’ll want to change.”
“Okay, mom,” Olivia called, still staring at the stick man. “I’m watching you, little man,” she whispered to the stickman.
Olivia kept her arm in her lap, forearm up, so she could keep an eye on the stickman. He’d already moved another inch up her arm since she’d gotten home from school. None of it made sense. Something was wrong, but what? She didn’t know what was happening, but it wasn’t normal.
She stole a glance at her mother, working on her second glass of wine. Telling her would be useless. She’d already dismissed her earlier. Now they were in a nice restaurant. It was best not to make a scene.
When the waiter appeared with their food, he placed a steaming plate of lasagna before her, warning that the plate was hot. She looked at her delicious food, then to her arm that rested just beside it. What would happen, she wondered. What would happen if she touched the stickman with the hot plate? Would he jump? Would he move away?
She slid her arm closer to the plate, but the stickman didn’t move. She moved it closer still, bringing it very close, but not touching the plate. The stickman stood motionless, but his arms were now crooked so that the end of the thin lines rested on his hips.
Olivia swallowed hard and forced herself to look away. “It looks really good,” she said, hoping her voice didn’t belie her racing heart. “This is a nice place, dad.”
“It is. I like it.” He smiled and motioned for the waiter to bring him another beer. “Food looks delicious.”
“Since it’s such a nice place, maybe we should use our manners,” her mother said, wagging her finger at Olivia’s arm resting on the table.
“Oh, sorry.” Olivia slid her arm gently along the hot plate as she removed it from the table, gritting her teeth as the plate touched her skin. Stealing a glance at her arm as she cut her food, she saw a thin, red welt already beginning to form on her skin, but the stickman had moved. He didn’t move toward her elbow, but the top of her arm, away from the heat of the burn.
So, she could affect it’s movements.
Olivia flopped down on her bed and took out her phone. She snapped a few pictures and reviewed them, expanding the image. It was just a stick man drawn in black ink. Although it had moved further up her arm, it was still the same half inch tall as she’d drawn him. At least it wasn’t getting any bigger.
She sighed and stared at the image, wondering what the hell was going on. The whole notion was crazy, but here it was. As much as she wanted to deny it was happening, she couldn’t.
“Is there any way to stop you?” she asked in a whisper.
An idea came to her and she smiled. Digging a pen out of her backpack, she drew a circle around the figure and nodded.
“Let’s see you get out of that,” she said with a triumphant smile, but her victory was short-lived. Her eyes widened as the figure began to walk to the edge of the circle. It made its way around the perimeter, pushing at the ink line she’d drawn.
“Gotcha,” she said aloud. “Now you just settle down.”
The stickman moved to the part of the circle closest to her and began to push against it. The circle bowed out slightly but held. The stickman pushed harder. The circle bulged more, but still held.
Olivia’s smile faded as she watched the figure struggle against the edges of the circle. “You’re a determined little bugger aren’t- aww.” Her hand went to her forearm, rubbing the searing pain that suddenly began along the edge of the circle in front of the stickman. When she removed her fingers, a section of the circle was gone and so was the stickman. A small bruise was already forming around the broken line.
Gasping, she turned her arm over, searching for him. She found it on top of her arm, standing with his arms crossed as he looked up at her.
“Why you do that for?” she asked. The figure didn’t answer.
“Why are you here?” she asked. “What are you going to do?” Fear crept into her voice, and her mind as the realization that the words that Julie Armistead mumbled might have actually been a curse. A real curse!
Olivia grabbed her phone and found Julie’s number. “What did you do to me?” she texted.
A smiley face emoji was the only response.
“I’ve got a rash now. If you don’t tell me, I’ll tell my mom and she’ll call your mom.”
An emoji of a hand flipping her the bird showed up on her screen.
Olivia groaned angrily and dropped her phone. The stickman hadn’t moved since his escape. That was good, but she wanted him gone. But how? She’d have to get the ink off somehow. Chewing absently on a thumb nail, her mind raced to find a solution.
“There,” she said as she placed the last band-aid on her arm, completing the ring that went all the way around her forearm, in front of the stickman. “Now what you gonna do?”
She settled back on the bed and grabbed her phone, intent of filming the figure if he moved again. She centered the stickman on her screen and waited. If he moved at all, she’d have proof.
She sighed when the stickman didn’t move after a few minutes. “You’re a clever little guy, aren’t you?” she asked. Relaxing into the pillows, she resigned herself to a long wait. Her phone still had half a charge, so she had plenty of time.
“I will catch you,” she said, stifling a yawn. “I got all night.”
Olivia woke to a sharp pain in her arm. She sat up in bed and immediately looked for the figure. He was standing just past the barricade she’d built, his arms raised in victory. Just behind him an adhesive end of one of the band aids stood puckered and stuck to itself. He’d pried it off her skin somehow.
She stared at him as desperation and fear began to build in her chest. She wanted to tell her parents, but the whole situation was so surreal; so unbelievable. They’d think she was crazy. She had to tell somebody.
Olivia picked up her phone and scrolled through her friends. She stopped on a name, her thumb hovering above it, wondering if he’d think she was crazy too. Finally she pressed the phone icon beside his name. Luckily, he answered before she lost her nerve hung up.
Olivia smiled. “Uh, not much. I was just wondering if you could come over.” She looked at the clock. It was past eight thirty.
“Think your folks will spaz?” he asked.
“I’ll meet you on the porch and tell them it’s a school thing. Mom’s had a few glasses of wine and dad is probably half asleep anyway. They won’t care.”
“Be there in five.”
Olivia watched Rainie ditch his bike by her mailbox and walk up the short sidewalk. Smiling, he mounted the steps and joined her on the porch swing.
“Thanks for coming over.”
“I’m here to serve,” he said with a mock bow. “Sup? Something wrong?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.” Olivia took her hand off her arm and showed it to him.
“What am I looking at? Art class extra credit?”
She nudged him playfully with her elbow. “I wish. Don’t think I’m crazy or anything, okay?”
Rainie shrugged. “Okay.”
“Seriously, Rainie. You have to promise.”
“Okay. Okay, I promise.”
“The stickman, it’s alive.” Olivia watched his face for a reaction as he stared at the figure on her arm. She saw only incredulous disbelief.
“Alive?” he asked, looking up at her, then at the figure again. “Like, alive, alive?”
Olivia nodded. “That weirdo Julie Armitage saw it on me and said something like a spell or something in school.” She paused to judge his reaction, but still saw only disbelief in his blue eyes. “I drew it here.” Olivia pointed to her wrist. “Then a rash formed, and it started moving. You see where it is now.”
“Okay, let me get this straight. You drew a stickman on your wrist, Julie cast a spell on it, and it came alive?”
“Exactly. Look, I know it sounds crazy but-”
Rainie held his finger up to stop her. “It does sound crazy, Ollie. It really does. It’s a doodle of a stickman.”
“I know what it is but listen. I drew a circle around it. See what happened?”
Rainie studied the broken circle on her arm and the bruise. “It broke out?” he asked with a grin.
“Yes, and it hurt like crazy too. Then I put this line of band aids around my arm, hoping to catch it on one of them so I could pull it off.”
“I fell asleep but woke up when he pushed one of them loose and crawled under.”
The boy sighed. “You do understand how this sounds, right? Is this a trick or something, Ollie?” He looked around on the porch. “Got a hidden camera or something? Am I being punked?”
“No.” Olivia shook her head. “I know it sounds crazy. I tried to tell my mom and she didn’t believe me either.”
“Look, I’m sorry. It’s just very weird, Ollie. Really.”
“I know it’s weird. I know it sounds crazy. Believe me I know.” Olivia wiped a tear from her cheek. “Fine then. I’m sorry. Just go home then. I’m sorry.”
“No, look. I’m sorry. Are you really being for real here? No jokes or nothing?”, he asked, taking her arm as she tried to turn away.
“No,” she insisted. “I don’t know what to do. I even tried to text Julie and she just laughed.”
“What are you going to do? Have you tried washing it off?”
Olivia looked at her friend and nodded emphatically. “Yes. I’ve used everything I could think of. It won’t come off.”
Rainie took her arm and held it before him. “I wonder if we put tape on it and yanked it off.”
Olivia shrugged. “Right now I’d try anything. Dad’s probably got some in the garage.”
Rainey tore a short piece of gray duct tape off the roll and pressed it onto Olivia’s arm. “It might work better if we give it a minute to transfer, or get stuck, or whatever.”
The two friends stared down at the tape on Olivia’s arm. “Rainie, tell me you see that.” Panic was rising in Olivia’s voice as she stared at her arm.
“Crap! I see it. My God, you weren’t kidding,” Rainie said as he stared wide-eyed at the figure wriggling beneath the tape. “Holy crap. It’s like he’s trying to get away.”
“Okay, it’s starting to burn, Rainey. Get it off.”
Rainey picked at one edge of the tape, trying to raise it enough to afford him a grip.
“It’s burning. C’mon. Get it off.”
“I’m trying to. It’s stuck pretty good.”
“Get it off. It really hurts. Rainie, get it off.”
Rainie finally freed a corner of the tape and snatched it free.
Olivia put a hand over her mouth to stifle a scream as she shook her arm wildly.
“Are you okay?” he asked. “Ollie?”
Olivia nodded despite the tears in her eyes. “Is it gone? I can’t look.”
Rainie took her arm and turned it to him. His eyes widened when he saw the figure standing in a red rectangle of a quickly growing welt. “It looks angry, somehow,” he said.
“It feels angry,” Ollie replied, wiping her eyes with the palm of her free hand. “What am I going to do?”
Rainie stared at her arm. “I don’t know. I really don’t know.” He released her arm and fished his phone from his jeans pocket. “It’s my mom,” he said, looking at it. “I’m gonna have to go soon.”
“Please don’t leave me alone, Rainie. I’m starting to get scared.”
“I have to. I’m just getting off being grounded from that whole thing with Kyle. They’ll kill me if I stay out too late.”
“Can’t you tell them you’re at the mall or something?”
“They know I’m here. You don’t know how they are, Ollie. I’ll never see the light of day again.”
“What am I going to do?” she begged.
“Look,” Rainie looked at her arm again, running a thumb over the red stripe where the tape had been. “Don’t mess with it. Maybe it won’t do anything if you don’t mess with it.”
Olivia stared at him and shook her head. “I want it off me. I don’t want it crawling around all over me.”
“I know. I know. Look, leave it alone.” Rainie sighed. “I’ll get up early and come over. We’ll figure it out tomorrow.”
“Okay,” she agreed reluctantly. “Thanks for coming over.” Olivia shook her head as she stared down at the figure.
Rainey put a hand on her shoulder. “It’s going to be okay. Just try to rest or something. You don’t look so good.”
“You think?” Olivia asked, pointing to her arm.
“I’m going to have to go. Look, though. I know where that psycho, Julie, lives. I’ll stop by and talk to her.”
“It won’t help, but thanks.” Olivia sighed. “Go. I don’t want you to get grounded again because of me.”
“I wish I could stay. I really do. That’s some wild crap right there.”
“Just go already.”
“Okay. Text me. I’ll stay up with you all night if you want.”
“Thanks. Now go.”
Olivia watched him leave and leaned against her father’s work bench with a huff. Her eyes washed over the tools and lingered on one of the handsaws hanging on the pegboard behind the table. “Good Lord,” she said shaking her head. “I’m not that desperate yet.” She turned to go inside but stopped. Turning back to the table she grabbed a box cutter and slid it into her pocket before heading inside.
Sitting on her bed again, Olivia pushed the blade out of the box cutter and stared down at the stick figure. She poked it with the sharp point. The stick figure jumped, then turned to look at the blade. She poked it again, this time hard enough to draw a tiny drop of blood. The figure moved quickly to dodge the point but kicked at the blade angrily.
“You don’t like that. Do ya?’ she asked with a smile. “Now you know how I feel.” She poked the figure again, this time catching one of the thin legs with the point of the razor. The stickman bent to the knife and grabbed his leg, trying to pull it free. When it couldn’t free itself, it stood and stared up at her.
“You get off me and I won’t do this again,” she told it.
The stickman shook his little head slowly then turned back to the knife.
Olivia recoiled instantly as the tip of the razor began to burn, dropping the knife onto the bed.
“That’s how this is gonna be?” she asked. Anger was quickly replacing the fear and desperation she’d been feeling all afternoon. “I don’t know what you are, but I’m getting tired of you.” Olivia jumped from her bed and rushed out the door.
As she reentered her bedroom with an ice pack, she heard her phone vibrate. Grabbing it up, she found a series of texts from Rainie.
“Went by Julie’s house. Her mom wouldn’t let me talk to her. Went around back.”
“Her bedroom window had 10 stickmen drawn on it like the one on your arm, but bigger. They were in a line across it.”
“She came to the window and flipped me off. Had to go home. Sorry. Text me.”
She told him she was going to take a bath and try to sleep, then dropped the phone. Sitting on the bed, she looked at her arm again. The stickman had moved closer to her elbow, but not much. She laid the ice back on her skin, covering the figure.
After a few minutes, she removed it and stared at the stickman, its arms now folded to its chest. “Cold, little man?” she asked. The figure extended his arms and the skin around it began to warm quickly. Feeling the heat, Olivia replaced the ice pack, holding it tightly to combat the burning sensation on her skin.
The small circle of heat began to move beneath the ice pack, progressing down her arm toward her wrist.
“What the heck?” Olivia asked gripping the ice pack. She wadded it in her hand, noticing that the frozen gel had already thawed. She shook her head. Normally the pack would have stayed cold for half an hour easily. She tossed it aside and looked at the man, now just above her wrist.
“What is your problem, dude? Just get the hell off me.” She grabbed her arm next to the stickman and squeezed. “That’s as far as you go.”
The stickman responded by walking to her fingers and pushing against them. Tiny points of pain began, like two needles pricking her skin, but she held tight. Grimacing through the pain, she watched as he pushed harder.
“This ends now, stick man. Do you hear me?”
The stickman drew back one hand and punched the side of her finger. Olivia gritted her teeth as she struggled to keep her hold. The stick man released a torrent of punches, each one producing a stabbing pain, until Olivia finally gave up.
She shook her hand, then wiped a tear from her cheek. Olivia stared down at the man, her breath coming in angry pants. This was a violation of her body and she didn’t have to stand for it. It was time to end this game.
Picking up the knife, she slid it quickly across her arm. A thin red line of blood formed on her skin that ran across the tip of the stickman’s left arm. Despite the pain, a smile came to her face as she watched a section of his arm fall away.
“Now what?” she asked with a grin. “You’re done, Stickie.” She pulled the razor across her arm again, but the stickman hurried out of the way. She sliced at it again, but again it jumped out of the way.
“Nimble, aren’t we?” she asked, her eyes narrowed as she watched the figure. She slid the knife across her arm again, this time in front of the figure. It stopped just before running into the blade and retreated. She pulled the blade across her wrist in front of it, and again missed.
Olivia watched the man intently, bent over her arm as it rested in her lap. “I got you, you little bastard.” she mumbled with a laugh. “I got you now.”
She chased the stick figure up her arm with the knife, determined to catch him. Halfway up her forearm she became aware of the blood running onto her lap, but only vaguely. The cuts would heal, if only she could get rid of the stickman. If he would leave everything would be fine.
Just above the elbow, she almost caught him. The blade sliced through her skin, lopping off half of its right arm and a piece of his leg. The stickman turned and hobbled away from her blade, moving to the fresh, unmarked top of her arm.
“You’ll not get away that easily,” she said with a grin. She followed him, slicing wildly, as he ran down her arm and rounded her thumb. Cornering him in the palm of her hand, she made four quick slashes and boxed him in.
“I got you now,” she said, watching as blood began to pool around the stick figure. She changed her hold on the knife and gripped in in her hand, point down. She stabbed at the stickman’s head several times as he ducked and jumped around the tiny box of cuts.
Finally, she cornered him. He stood looking up at her defiantly next to the pool of her own blood. She clenched the knife hard and drove the blade into the palm of her hand, right through the stickman’s head.
She growled in pain as the blade pierced her skin but managed a satisfied smile. The stickman struggled momentarily against the blade, then fell still. Still smiling, she watched as her palm filled with blood, covering the man completely.
“Okay, sweetie, I’m going to bed now. If you- oh my God!”
Olivia looked up to find her mother running toward her.
“What have you done? Frank! Frank!” She wrestled the knife from her daughter and threw it across the room just as her husband entered the room.
“It’s over,” Olivia said with a smile as her mother hugged her. “It’s okay now, mom. I fixed it.”
The doctor adjusted his glasses and looked at the worried couple sitting before him. “I’m not going to sugar coat this. Your daughter is deeply disturbed emotionally. This wasn’t a textbook suicide attempt, but it was a textbook cry for help. One is as bad as the other. Olivia has some very deep seeded emotional issues.”
“But she was fine. She’s been fine. Good grades, friends. Everything.”
“Mister Hayden, I can’t tell you how many parents have sat in that same chair and said the same thing. What we think we know and what we actually know is often rather dissimilar.”
“She did not try to kill herself!”
“Maybe, maybe not. Either way, she cut herself one hundred and four times. That is not typical behavior.”
“What’s this stickman she keeps talking about? What is that?”
“It’s a deflection, an excuse. She doesn’t want to face whatever is bothering her or admit that she hurt herself because of it. I’ve heard all sorts of excuses.”
“But I did see a stickman doodle on her wrist. The nurse bandaged the rash that formed around it.”
“I believe there may have been something, but I feel like the rash was just the beginning of this episode. She probably did it herself, the rash I mean. All of this isn’t new. Believe me.” The doctor clasped his hands before him and sighed. “But we’ve searched her from head to toe and didn’t find anything. Short of shaving her head, we saw no stickman. Believe me when I tell you, it’s not about the figure she drew on herself. This is a much deeper issue.”
“What do we do now?” Frank Hayden slid forward in his chair. “Can we fix her?”
The doctor shook his head. “It’s not about ‘fixing’ her, but rather healing her. And to do that I’m recommending you commit her for a while. Six months at the very least.”
“Six months?” Brenda asked as tears began to roll down her cheeks.
“At least. She’s a very disturbed little girl.”
Olivia sat on her hospital bed, slowly unraveling the fresh bandages from her left arm. With each revolution of the bloody wrap she examined her skin carefully. She methodically made her way down her arm all the way to the wrist, satisfied that the stickman was gone. Pulling the gauze from her wrist and hand, she examined the fresh wounds carefully.
Nodding her head, she smiled. She scratched the right side of her head as she laid back on the bed, staring up at the plain white ceiling. It was over. She had won.
Closing her eyes, she relaxed into the pillow with a heavy sigh.
Yawning, she raised a hand and scratched her head through her long blonde hair. She wanted a shower almost as much as she wanted sleep. Friday morning felt like a lifetime ago. Between school, battling the stickman, the doctors at the Emergency Room, and being brought here, she’d been awake for most of the past 36 hours and her body was begging for relief.
Raising a hand again, she scratched her head just above her right ear, wondering what was making her head itch so bad.
Olivia Hayden’s eyes flew open suddenly as both hands went to her hair. Her screams echoed in the closed rooms as her hands closed around two fist full of hair and began to pull.
This story was first published in The Eldritch Journal (2020) and Southern Gothic, 2020.
Edited by Marie Ginga
John Ryland lives and works in Northport Alabama where he writes poetry, short stories, and longer works. Some of his latest work has appeared in Bewildering Stories, Otherwise Engaged, The Eldritch Journal, the Chamber Magazine, and others. He has published two novels, Souls Harbor and Shatter, as well as a collection of short stories, Southern Gothic. Two of his novels, The Man with No Eyes, and Peripheral will be published in 2022.