My story begins in Michigan. We’re naive as children. I never fully understood how strange this town was or the danger I was in. The story that I am about to share is not for the faint of heart.

You learn many things in elementary school. What may be odd for you was normal for me. I noticed that my teachers wore robes—cream in the front and sleeves and creamy orange covering the back. There were words written in big black letters on the front of the robe and the back. It was written in a language not taught in school.

Another thing we kids noticed was an odd grin on the teachers’ faces. No matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t mimic that broken smile.

At random times throughout the year, students disappeared. Our teachers reassured us that it was only their turn for Gishiki, something everyone here goes through. Gishiki is the first step to becoming an adult, or so we were told. The missing children reappeared a few days later, but they were not the same. They stopped smiling and playing, and they wouldn’t speak. It was as if they were in constant fear. By the time I realized what they were afraid of, it was too late.

In 4th grade, I learned something new about myself. I loved stories. All kinds of stories. Action, adventure, mystery, horror, romance, anything. Just as long as the story piqued my interest. There was one particular Saturday morning cartoon that I loved above everything else. One day I sat in my room and wrote fanfiction based on that cartoon even before I knew fan fiction was a thing. I created my very own character to interact with the characters I admired. I was so proud of it that I showed it to my teacher the next day. That was my biggest mistake.

My teacher, Ms. Gibbins, liked my story and was proud of me. She encouraged me to continue writing. She asked me to write a story to share with the class. I was elated. Even before school ended, I was almost done with the first draft. The next day, Ms. Gibbins read my masterpiece in front of the entire class. Everyone enjoyed it. Story writing became my outlet for exploring my imagination. However, it wouldn’t last.

One day my mother told me that it was a special day. More important than any birthday. So significant, in fact, that I took time off of school. It was my turn to go through Gishiki.

The night my mother told me it was my turn, she woke me from my sleep and bade me follow her, and I did. Into the night, then through the depths of the town hall, we went. The atmosphere in the underbelly of the town was ominous. A person wearing a unique cloak guided me to a circle made with wax candles. It was dark, quiet, and cold. The ground beneath me was dirt mixed with something wet and gooey. My mother disappeared into the darkness, and people from the shadows began chanting. I couldn’t see them, but the chanting continued for hours.

The chanting made me drowsy. However, I couldn’t sleep. My body wouldn’t allow it. Something felt wrong, but my body felt incapacitated. I could feel my fingers and toes, but I couldn’t move.

A man wearing a mask with a terrifyingly twisted smile emerged from the shadows adorned in scarlet. He pinched my nose and forced me to drink from his cup. It was the worst thing I had ever tasted. Then, he poured what was left into the dirt. It was a human fetus bathed in blood. I instinctively tried to escape, but I could not muster the power to move.

Near the end of my Gishiki, all of the men hidden in the shadows emerged. They wore cloaks of scarlet and clocks of blue. Each of them wearing masks with disfigured smiles. The chanting grew louder, and the flames blew high enough to make them all disappear. Finally, a man adorned in scarlet and gold walked through the fire. He cut my palms and pressed them down into the gooey, bloody dirt. Something entered through my wounded hands. When he raised them, they were healed. He left. But whatever he did, it wasn’t over yet.

The gooey, black substance was alive. It stuck itself onto my body. No matter how hard I screamed, no one would rescue me. At that moment, when I was most afraid, I somehow fell asleep. At least, I think I did. Because when I came to the goo and the fetus was gone. The men continued to chant around the flames. That’s when I realized what happened.

I could feel it. Something kicked me from inside my stomach! It’s there; I can see it. Black goo crawling through my skin! Good god, goo is everywhere inside my body, letting me know it’s there!

At that time, my body obeyed me, so I run. But as I tried to break free from the circle, that goo restrained me. It kept me in there until the chanting was all done, the final moments of Gishiki. Then, finally, the flames went out, and the cloaked figures left me behind in the dark. My mother later came and carried me home. The next day, I was back at school. And I was one of those kids afraid of their own shadow.

Even now, at night, I feel it moving around my body and crawling on my brain. Baby laughter, punches, and kicks taunt me to no end.

After that night, I was too afraid to look at my mom. I had to do something, so I ran. The night after the ritual, I stuffed a change of clothes into my school bag then put as much distance between me and that town as possible. I didn’t stop to rest or eat, and I took very few bathroom breaks. I wasn’t sure where I was going or how I would survive. All I knew is that I had to go.

Two days passed before anyone took an interest in me. A stranger stopped and asked why I was dirty, smelly, and wandering around by myself at dawn. He wouldn’t let me leave until the police arrived. At that time, I was too scared to say anything. News channels informed the public of this missing child, but my mom never came.

I was taken to an orphanage where I stole food and ran away again. My goal was to get as far away as possible from my home. Sometimes I was found in a few days. Other times a few months. I spent plenty of time in Juvenile Detention, and I dropped out of school at age 16.

When I was finally out of the system, I worked in a factory. A facility that didn’t require me to do any type of paperwork. Every time I write, I feel it taking control. My new mission was to save up enough money to move to South Ossetia or some other little-known place where they would never find me. I never made it out of the country.

While in Orlando, of all places, I applied for a comfy janitor position. As I entered a room to conduct my interview, the lady escorting me pushed me inside and closed the door. Unfortunately, there were two others inside, and they wore robes all too familiar. I tried to run, but the door was locked; I couldn’t escape. I banged on the door even attempted to break it down. I yelled as loud as I could, but no help arrived.

They took me back to the village after all those years. All of my childhood friends welcomed me with open arms and big creepy grins. I was reunited with my mother. She told me that it was time for me to contribute to our village with my unique talent, just like everyone else. Everyone here does work that puts a smile on their faces, she said. So I was allowed to roam free for all that time to give me life experiences. To inspire my writing. I fought it for years, but they sat me down in front of a notebook and pencil. That black substance took control of my hand. I couldn’t stop myself.

Five years have passed since then. I try to fight it, but I can’t win. I can’t. I write this from the village now. I plan to make a life here. Start a family of my own. After all, they just want to see me live up to my potential. My dad got away by getting a lengthy prison sentence, but what kind of life is that? That is where we belong. Where all we do are things that make us happy. That puts a smile on our faces.