Most of the symbols on the crime map were self explanatory. The blue men’s room signs with guns represented armed robberies, green cars were thefts of motor vehicles, baby blue houses were residential burglaries, red fists were aggravated assaults, purple R’s were sexual assaults, and green dollar bags represented thefts of businesses.
The symbol for what happened to me was black. The image was a floating phantom with a pointed head, winglike robes, and a curved trail for legs.
This phantom symbol covered the map around the liberal arts schools, the downtown design firms, and the bohemian blocks in Uptown.
Zoom into the map and you’d see phantom symbols across the street from the bookstore that hosted poetry readings, on the bus stop outside of the improv comedy club, and the lot behind First Avenue, the concert venue.
If you scanned a crime map of Texas you’d find the greatest concentration of phantoms were in Austin. In Oregon they were in Portland, and in Minnesota they were in Minneapolis. That’s where one got me.
I’d lived in Uptown Minneapolis for ten years without a car. The city had a good public transportation system, a highway for bikes (called the Greenway), and two grocery stores within walking distance of my apartment.
Back then I didn’t pay much attention to crime maps, but I knew where to avoid when walking alone.
Muggers were like mosquitoes: they were drawn to neon and every summer there were more of them. They stalked the blocks between watering holes after bar close and ran plays as coordinated as football teams.
Sometimes muggers took smart phones. Sometimes they pried the sneakers off their victim’s feet, and sometimes they took nothing more than the victim’s sense of security.
I’d see crime warnings in the entryway of my building, but I didn’t dwell on them. I was six foot four, broad-shouldered, and I didn’t exactly lag behind the heard. You could call it “height privilege,” but I walked with the kind of confidence of someone who’d never been targeted.
That summer there were reports of people being knocked down all over Uptown. The nightly news dubbed these: “Jump Scares: a terrifying new spin on the Knockout Game.”
The way newscasters put it: attackers tackled their targets, leered at them in Halloween masks, and blew airhorns in their faces. That’s the story detectives had patched together from eyewitness testimony. I can say from experience that the MPD took a lot of uncreative liberties. They downplayed the reality.
Local news outlets reported that the assailants hadn’t stolen anything, but that’s because the victims only reviewed the contents of their pockets. It took days before they realized what had been taken and months before authorities could accept what was going on.
Forty percent of jump scare victims reported what had happened, yet there were reports of them happening everywhere.
Art supply stores chronicled the carnage on the board by their OSHA requirements. The parking garage across the street from a film production house hired off-duty police officers. Gallery owners started making visitors sign liability wavers.
It was ten o’clock. I was walking home with two bags full of groceries. The moon looked like a matte painting on the set of an old film. Traffic was so faint I could hear the lights buzzing, the crackling ice inside air conditioners, and the breeze caressing the trees.
The street lamps were spaced so far apart that my shadow seemed to stretch for miles.
My fingers ached from the weight of the paper handles. The bags were filled with vegetables, props I’d hoped would make me appear dateable in the eyes of an imaginary girl who’d be around, any day now, to inspect my bachelor pad.
I cut across a park ironically named The Mall. The park was little more than a few patches of grass for local puppies to piddle on and a row of benches panhandlers called home.
I smirked at the blue emergency pylon with its web covered speaker and dusty red button. I pitied the poor soul who’d ever need it, secure in the knowledge that it wasn’t there for me.
A chill ran up my neck. I assumed it was the wind rolling off of Lake Calhoun, but there was a tune on that breeze, the low hum of a distant tuba.
I stood there with my grocery bags dripping, wondering if I could name the melody. I suspected one of Hans Zimmer’s scores blaring from a nearby entertainment system, but was it from Inception or Interstellar?
At the time I thought of myself as a musician and I heard everything through the ear of a producer.
The low melody reminded me of a song I was struggling to mix at home. I had two guitar tracks layered over each other. There was a part where the guitars were at the same frequency just slightly out of phase. Their signals canceled each other out creating annoying pockets of silence right in the middle of the recording.
My frustrations with audio engineering had distracted me from the swelling tuba sound. I assumed the song was reaching its crescendo, when in reality the source of the sound was getting closer. That dark tone lowered. The bell of the horn sounded like it was as wide as a water tower.
The tuba’s volume rose and fell, not in a steady meter, but in an increasingly fast one. It wasn’t until I saw the shoulders rising and falling out the corner of my eye that I realized the sound was something breathing.
I turned to see my pursuer. There was nothing there, but that booming tuba grew louder in my ear. There was a streak of movement in the corner of my eye: a hand, as wide as a bear trap, reached out to grab me.
My organic produce rolled across the sidewalk. I ran. My pursuer’s horn-like breathing quickened and rose in tone, modulating from the deep orchestral hits of a movie trailer to the screeching cries of a car alarm.
I looked over my shoulder and saw nothing, but when I turned back a silhouette blinked in and out of sight. He was as tall as a streetlamp, with legs as long and crooked as tree branches. A poncho, as long as a tarp, flapped from its shoulders in tatters.
I did a double-take. I saw nothing until I started to turn forward. My pursuer manifested long enough for me to see his pilgrim hat, as wide as a manhole cover and as tall as a road cone. His profile looked like the shadow of the Spanish inquisition, a colossal witch-finder on the hunt for a heathen to step on.
This would sound crazy if so many others hadn’t reported the same thing, but my pursuer was only visible when my vision was askew. He had a kind of psychic camouflage that rendered him invisible to the naked eye. I could only detect him in my peripheral, like a sleep deprivation hallucination that disappeared when gazed upon.
I should’ve ran back to that emergency pylon and pressed the panic button. I should’ve leapt over the nearest porch and dove through the window. I should’ve kept my eyes on the path, instead I kept looking over my shoulders at those outstretched fingers, as long as cucumbers.
I slipped on a loaf of dog shit and landed on my chin. When I came to there was a sharp stabbing pain in my sides. Claws were digging into my armpits, ribs, and abs. My pursuer was rolling me over. He towered over me. His psychic camouflage didn’t seem to work when he was close.
The attacker raised the brim of his hat to reveal the face all those newscasters had such a hard time describing. It was a nest of vermin. His beard was made of tarantula legs, writhing and kicking in a chorus line. His lips were a pair of worms circling the rim of a grin filled with needles that went in all directions.
He didn’t have flesh so much as he had a honeycomb of open sores, where wet sticky syrup oozed from his face.
His eyes were pitch black, but that wasn’t what made them so remarkable. It was the fact that he had eight of them: two where they were supposed to be, two more on the tops of his checks, and four on his forehead.
His jaw dropped down to his chest. There was no tongue only needles all the way down. He took a long inhale before release the full power of the brass section inside him. What I’d mistaken for a tuba now sounded like a foghorn. Tears streaked from my eyes, my hair blew straight back, and my cheeks puffed out. The force pinned me to the pavement and made my ears bleed.
You know how sometimes your thoughts can wonder at the least opportune times? Mine felt like they were being pushed somewhere.
Here I was being audibly assaulted and all I could think about was my first piano lessons. Playing scales up ivory keys, aligning my posture with my instructor, and a ruler I hadn’t remembered being there. I felt the pain of the wood scraping across my knuckles. I had a vision of my mother washing the wound beneath the sink, the sting of iodine, and the sight of a fist wrapped in bandages.
I remember throwing my arms around my mother and sobbing. “I never want to play piano again.”
That memory was followed by another. I was playing a demo tape for Lucy, my high school girlfriend. Lucy couldn’t stop snickering, rubbing her forehead, and taking long drags of her clove cigarette. She blew smoke out the car window so she didn’t have to face me.
When I asked her what she thought Lucy said, “Come on we’re late for the party.”
The final memory in the sequence found me on stage in a gymnasium. I was wearing long black mad scientist gloves, a black sleeveless shirt, black shorts, and fishnets. I strangled the mic stand with my big boot up on the amp. My crooning vocals came out in a nasal growl.
A phalanx of letter jackets stood up in the front row, cupped their hands over their mouths and chanted, “Faggot! Faggot! Faggot!”
If music had brought me nothing more than embarrassment then why was I going to school for audio production? It didn’t make sense.
In that moment everything I resented about the music industry bubbled up to the surface: how everything sounded so homogenized, dub-stepped, and auto tuned. How musicians all seemed liked models in stupid hats who only sang about nightlife, hookup culture, and excess I would never experience.
My career path seemed to be leading me off a cliff.
These were the thoughts I had while I was pinned to the pavement by a monster with the power of selective visibility.
It took several therapy sessions to realize these false memories had been implanted, and even then I couldn’t get over the humiliation, or the pain of events I hadn’t actually experienced. This conclusion was common.
It wasn’t until these attacks had become a national phenomenon that we started calling the Jump Scarers what they were: Inspiration Killers.
My ears rang long after the creature’s shouting ceased.
My attacker shut all but two of his eyes, clutched me by the collar, and flung me onto the boulevard, a drunk discarding a crushed can.
I heard his footfalls echo into the distance even though I couldn’t see him running.
When I got home I collapsed in the entryway. The next day I woke up in the bathtub, went out, and pawned my guitar.
Over the course of the summer more and more jump scare victims reported disinterest in their passions.
A movie star with a summer home by the lake walked away from his career. The tabloids said he’d stop taking calls from his agent. There was debate on whether to recast him on his TV series before the network decided to pull the plug.
A rapper got attacked walking to his car after an album release party. The next day he went to the courthouse and changed the title on his License back to his birth name.
A local author that owned her own bookstore abruptly retired. When her publisher asked her for a copy of her work in progress she claimed she’d deleted it.
Art schools installed motion sensors to protect students. After a conceptual artist got hit they installed an infrared system. The problem was Inspiration Killers only showed up on sensors while they were striking, and by the time security got to the location the creatures were long gone.
The average police response time in America is 10 minutes. The average attack lasted 30 seconds. Some art students starting carrying weapons but found they couldn’t reach them when they were pinned down by a wave of sound.
No one had any idea where the Inspiration Killers had come from and Politicians were years away from creating an agency to deal with them.
It had been a year and statisticians were saying that victims were ten times more likely to be attacked again. Psychologists theorized that we walked with vulnerable postures. Criminologists reasoned that repeat victims lacked the means to flee metropolitan areas like the design firms who’d traded the warehouse districts for complexes off the highways.
The Inspiration Killers were invading the land that was once occupied by our imaginations. Their telepathic abilities allowed them to target victims, to render themselves invisible, and to hypnotize us into accepting false memories. It stood to reason that they had plans for this psychic real estate that was once occupied by our dreams.
I believed the same people kept getting hit because the Inspiration Killers didn’t understand our drive for creation. They didn’t realize that if they murdered one artistic aspiration another would slide into its place. For many of us the drive to create was not a fame driven luxury. It wasn’t an indulgence of the wealthy. It was part of our identity.
The Inspiration Killers kept knocking us down blaring their horns and we just kept changing mediums. Poets became painters, singers became sculptors, and authors became actors.
My new medium was the art of war.
It was a night just like the one when I was attacked. I was walking down the same back road at the same hour. Even the moon was in the same phase. The only thing that was different was my grocery bags weren’t filled with peas and carrots. That and I was wearing sunglasses and earplugs.
Why was I wearing sunglasses at night? For the rearview mirrors that shifted images from the corners of my eye to the center. Images like the giant that was already barreling down on me.
The Inspiration Killer came in fast. The brim of his hat bobbed up and down, his poncho trailed behind him like a cape, and the spider legs that made up his beard reached out for me.
The low tones of his horn-like breathing penetrated my earplugs.
I dumped a grocery bag out behind me. The Inspiration Killer was running too fast to dodge the marbles rolling under its feet, and you know what they say: the bigger they are the more mailboxes they knock over. Turns out the laws of gravity still applied to demons from the fourth dimension.
I watched the Inspiration Killer kick at the sky through my rearview shades. I walked backwards along the grass until I was close enough to see through his psychic camouflage. He’d already unhinged his jaw to suck in as much air as possible. He was ramping up for his signature roar.
Few recordings were made of an Inspiration Killers howl. Like with their invisibility, the creatures had used a kind of psychic silencer. Only people close enough to fall victim to the sound ever heard it. Still there were those who were on their phones when they were attacked. Some of them managed to hit the record button.
I studied their waveforms and found the tone had a burst frequency of 950 Hz, just like a foghorn.
This is why I had a foghorn sample cued up on my phone. The same phone I’d strapped to a bullhorn, a bullhorn that I pulled out of my other bag.
When the Inspiration Killer let out his roar I fired the same sound back at him.
My false memories had me associating music with humiliation, but I didn’t forget how two signals at the same frequency muted each other when they were out of sync. That knowledge didn’t require creative reasoning. That shit was just science.
I shoved my bullhorn in the Inspiration Killer’s face and his howl fell silent.
“Eat phase cancellation you son-of-a-bitch!”
The Inspiration Killer puffed up his cheeks. The spider legs that lined them stretched in all directions. Still there was no sound.
The foghorn sample played on a continuous loop as I held the button down. The creature had taken my ability to write a score, but not my ability to settle one.
The next part of my plan involved a taser in my back pocket, but it never came to that.
The Inspiration Killer’s blood starting boiling. The honeycomb pockets that stretched across its skin bubble over. The spider legs that made up its beard went limp, and the worms that made up its lips popped like overcooked sausages. The lights went out of his many eyes. Then his face burst into liquid.
I’d pushed that deadly sound back at him, now I was up to my ankles in raspberry jam.
I got the one that got me, but I wasn’t done. The crime maps were still covered in black phantom icons. Other artists were still falling victim, and I still had a creative drive that needed to be satisfied.
All of my artistic memories had been corrupted. I had to go out and make some new ones.
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