The First Billboard
We saw the first billboard while driving along Lake Road. We’d driven the road a hundred times before, because it was the only road out of town that went anywhere worth going, and there was fuck-all to do in town except get drunk, get stoned, and get in trouble.
Lake Road let us go ice fishing in the winter. Lake Road let us go camping in the summer. Lake Road let us drive and pretend like we would keep going, like one day we would get out for good. Yesterday we’d taken the road to the old factory at the edge of town to throw bricks at the scraps of remaining glass, so we knew the billboard hadn’t been there then. It hadn’t been there until the moment we drove by, flashing in our peripheral vision, as if it had grown up overnight against the trees.
“What the fuck?” Josh said.
Trey was already stomping on the brake and none of us had to ask what “what the fuck” Josh meant, because we all knew the billboard felt wrong.
The car idled in the northbound lane, but there were so few people in the town that no one would come along to rear end us while we sat there and breathed.
We were scared, but none of us said it aloud, because you don’t say that kind of thing when you’re out with your boys. Unless you want to get your ass beat, you never admit being afraid out loud.
Trey slowly turned the car around. Tires crunched the gravel along the shoulder as the car dipped briefly off the road. Then we were pointed right at the sign, headlights washing the poles holding it aloft, staring.
Any Way You Slice It, Our Blades Are the Best!
A Cut So Clean, You Won’t Feel a Thing.
The words in bright white against true black took up most of the billboard. In the left-hand corner, like an afterthought, was a picture. It looked like the photographs we messed around with in the darkroom at school when we were supposed to be getting easy credits for a class that didn’t ask us to do fuck-all except wander through town with the cameras we checked out of the school lab, taking pictures of trees and broken down cars and artsy doors and shit. It could have been a picture any of us might have taken and left to overexpose, hazy and half-hidden, the subject fighting to emerge.
A sink, but not all of it. An old-fashioned razor with its straight blade left halfway open or halfway closed, we couldn’t tell. There wasn’t anything as overt as an ominous blood splatter staining the porcelain, and that made it worse.
“Why would someone put that there?” Ryan asked, and we all looked around, expecting one of the others to answer.
It made us think of those signs that had started springing up around town a few months ago, with words like You Matter, and You Are Enough, and You Are Loved, that we all knew were bullshit, because nobody in town really cared. They were in our yards too, so we knew them well. The billboard even had the same kind of number you could text, crammed way down in the corner, which we didn’t even notice until Trey pointed.
“You think we should?”
“Don’t be stupid, man.” Ryan cuffed Trey on the back of the head. “You know those things are just a scam.”
“What the fuck are you talking about? What scam?”
“I don’t know. It’s just a scam.”
Ryan couldn’t explain, but it was enough to break the tension and pull us out from the terrible thing hanging over us like a storm, so we could go back to calling each other assholes and passing a joint around.
Three days after that, the first suicide occurred.
The Day After the First Billboard
We were all lying around Trey’s basement, stoned, because what else was there to do, sipping beers someone’s older brother bought for us.
“We should drive out to the old factory,” Devon said
“Why?” Trey said, because he was the one with the car and he didn’t want to get his ass up off the ground. “We were just there.”
“Something to do,” Josh said. “I’m sick of fucking nothing happening.”
“I can get us more weed on the way,” someone else said, and we all sat up and looked around. “I got the hook-up for some really good stuff.”
The guy in the corner grinned, and we all realized we’d forgotten he was there. And we all wondered who had invited him and tried to remember his name.
We knew him, of course we did. He was the new guy, and one of us must have said “Hey, why don’t you come and hang out with us later?” because we all had classes with him, even if none of us were sure exactly which ones. Our town was the kind that once you were there, it was like you’d never been anywhere else. So if we really thought about it, we could remember playing Little League with him, water-gun fights when we were ten, and that time one of us dared him to jump off the library steps on a skateboard and he broke his arm.
His eyes were kind of half-closed, and he did this thing with his head to flick his hair out of them. The part of the basement where he was sitting had the most shadows, so his teeth looked extra white in the dark.
“All right. Fuck it, let’s go,” Trey said and slapped his hands on his thighs as he stood.
The guy in the corner unfolded from the beanbag chair and we all trooped up the stairs. Because he was the one with the hook-up to the good weed, we let the new guy sit in front so he could give directions while the rest of us crowded into the back.
“Now that’s what I’m talking about!” Trey punched the steering wheel and passed the joint back over his shoulder, and we realized we must have already stopped and picked up the weed while we were all trying to figure out exactly how well we knew the new guy and for how long.
Trey pulled into the lot in front of the old factory—dust and scrub grass, broken bottles and used condoms. The chain link fence had fallen down long ago, and no one bothered to put it up again, because there was nothing left worth protecting. Our older brothers and our fathers and maybe even our grandfathers had come here before us to throw bricks and bust out windows, but somehow, there always seemed to be one last bit of glass to shatter.
“Bullseye!” Devon shouted as a brick arced perfectly and smashed through a window like a tooth regrown. We were all amazed he could throw so straight as high as he was.
“You know what they used to make here?” the new guy said, his hands in his pockets, his chin tilted slightly upward.
“Razor blades,” he said. “The old-fashioned kind. They used to make guns too, and needles for sewing machines, and mirrors, and all kinds of things.”
He rocked back and forth from his heels to his toes, and none of us asked how he knew all this stuff or why he thought we’d care.
“They tried to go into mass production during the war, but they couldn’t figure out how to scale, so the factory shut down. The owner killed himself and the factory fell into ruin.”
In the moonlight, a faint W stood out against the brick, followed by an I and an N, the ghost of letters that we could just now read as WINSTON.
“Shit, wasn’t that—” Ryan said, uneasy, but the new guy cut him off, still delivering his history lesson.
“They used to run these billboard ads, like Burma Shave on Route 66 back in the day.”
His grin was a razor cut, the two halves of his face not quite fitting together. We all tried to remember if he’d been in the car with us yesterday, if he’d seen the sign and was trying to fuck with us now.
“This place is haunted, you know,” he said, and his voice went soft, whispering a secret, so close we could all feel his breath right up against our ears. “When my brother killed himself, he did it with a razor that he found in the rubble. It looked brand-new, even though the factory had been shut down for years, like someone had left it there just for him.”
“What the shit?” Devon swatted at the air near his ear, like he’d caught a mosquito buzzing.
We all looked where the new guy pointed with a tilt of his head and for just a moment, we did see someone standing there where two crumbled sections of brick that once had been walls met. Something gleamed in his hand and it could have been a razor blade or just a piece of broken glass. Then the moon went behind a cloud and when it came back, there was nothing there at all.
“What did you say?” Ryan asked, but the new guy shrugged apologetically like he wasn’t sure what any of us had heard, but he hadn’t said anything at all.
Three Days After the First Billboard
The guy who killed himself was named Steve. Some of us knew him from AP Bio; some of us knew him from track. He didn’t seem like the kind of guy who would kill himself. He seemed happy. College recruiters had already been around, watching him run. He got good grades, so he could probably have gotten a scholarship even if the track coaches didn’t want him. He had a girlfriend named Amber who we’d all fantasized about losing our virginity to. His family owned the one good restaurant in town. He was the one we were all sure would make it out one day.
We heard he walked out onto the train tracks. We heard—though how could anyone know unless they were there and watched and did nothing to stop him—that Steve stood in the middle of the tracks waiting for a train to come, waiting for the light at the front of the train to burn into him and erase him. And when that didn’t happen, he took his dad’s handgun, put it under his chin, and shot himself.
But we didn’t really know, because we didn’t see it happen. Like we didn’t see the bruises and how hard Steve pushed himself, how sometimes his hands wouldn’t stop shaking, how maybe it wasn’t just one thing but a thousand little things piling up until it all got to be too much.
We told ourselves that it was a fluke. Maybe even an accident. It couldn’t have really happened that way, because Steve was the one who was supposed to get out, and if he couldn’t, then what hope did any of the rest of us have? And we tried not to think about it.
We were almost successful. Until the second billboard appeared.
The Second Billboard
The second billboard showed up on Lake Road too, but on the other side of town. There wasn’t much southbound, no camping or ice fishing, but if you drove far enough you might eventually find a highway, though none of us had the patience to figure out how far we’d have to go. Our town is like a black hole. It exerts a pull and time slows down on the edges. Even as you’re falling backward you think you can still get out, until you realize you’ve been going nowhere your whole life and it’s always been too late.
Trey was running the heater full blast for some reason, but the new guy had his window down, so we were sweating and freezing at the same time.
“Shit,” Devon said. “There it is.”
Like we’d been out specifically looking for another billboard, like we’d already known.
The lower half of some guy’s face ghosted out of the billboard’s darkness. His nose down to his chin, but the only thing in focus was his mouth. He had very full lips, sewn shut with black thread so thick it almost looked like wool.
Loose Lips Sink Ships!
Sew Up Your Secrets with Winston Needles.
They’re the Sharpest.
“Fuck me,” Ryan said.
“Do you think . . .” But none of us could finish or give voice to the rest of that question.
Then the new guy started telling a story, his voice all low-like, so at first, we couldn’t be sure we were really hearing him. He spoke directly inside our skulls and by the time we realized it, it was too late. We couldn’t tell him to shut up or fuck off; we had to sit there and listen.
“When my brother killed himself,” he said, “he stitched his mouth closed. He took a big needle and pushed it right through his skin. He had to keep wiping the blood away, but he kept going until his mouth was sealed, then he climbed into the bathtub with a straight razor blade.”
We listened, even though we didn’t want to, and somewhere deep down we were all afraid this was a story we already knew. It ticked in the back of our minds, a terrible thing we’d tried to forget. The new guy excavated it and held it up to the light while our breath filled the car, steaming in the dark like ghosts.
“His blood ran down the drain and the razor fell on the floor and I found him the next morning with his mouth stitched shut and his wrists cut open. And I know who to blame.”
Two Days After the Second Billboard
“I did it,” Trey said, his eyes glassy, not just high, but really fucking high, his breath shallow and fast like he’d run a two-minute mile. “I texted the number after we got home.”
He held out his phone. His hand shook. None of us wanted to look at his screen.
“Why the fuck would you do that?” Josh tried to slap Trey’s phone away, but he kept holding it out into the circle of us, tilting the screen so we would have to see.
We watched fingers push a needle through skin, dragging dark thread and stitching a pair of lips closed.
“What the fuck?” Ryan said.
“I tried to delete it,” Trey said, “but it won’t go away.”
The video ended and started again without any of us touching the phone. It could have been a special effect, some movie makeup bullshit, except it looked really fucking real. And we knew, we all knew, whose lips those were, and that as the new guy said without saying, we were all to blame.
A Week After the Second Billboard
The girl who killed herself was a cheerleader. She hanged herself from her bedroom ceiling fan. And we all thought, stupidly, because it was the least important thing in the world right then when we heard, how it was hanged, not hung, because our English teacher, Mr. Melton, had made a big deal of it earlier in the year. An active word, not a passive word. Hanged, like it was emphasizing that this was a thing she chose.
We all knew her from football games, when we’d show up high and scream like we cared about the score, but really we were there to make fun of the kids who painted their faces half white and half red and went to spirit rallies and tried so hard to belong to something, to fit in.
Her name was Christy, and we’d all heard the rumor that she’d been pregnant in junior year, but that she’d lost the baby. She was pretty, and we’d fantasized about her like we’d fantasized about Amber, but that never stopped us from writing shit about her on the bathroom walls.
The third person to kill himself was a teacher, and that really caught us off guard. Mr. Henry taught physics to freshmen and had a mustache and wore pullover sweaters even in the summer with the sleeves rolled down all the way. Sometimes in class he would read aloud from a book of poetry, like he wished he was our English teacher instead, and he liked to keep all the windows open in the spring. He drove a Volkswagen and one year some guys carved the word faggot into his driver’s side door and he had to pay a lot of money to get rid of it, but he didn’t press charges even though everyone knew who the boys were.
After Mr. Henry, we started sleeping with the lights on.
We waited for the next billboard to come.
And then Ryan showed us the text he’d gotten on his phone even though he’d never contacted the number from the billboard the way Trey had. A hand reached for a razor blade, lifting it to press against skin, but the video always stopped and started over again before it could draw blood.
We spent every day after school in Trey’s basement, in Devon’s basement, in Ryan’s basement, getting high even though we were already paranoid. None of us ever invited the new guy, but he was always there.
We told ourselves there was safety in numbers, but the truth is, we were scared to be alone.
A Week and a Half After the Second Billboard
Ryan wasn’t there at the beginning of track practice though we could all swear he’d been right behind us a moment ago. Coach Miller had us running laps, and the next time we passed the bleachers, we cut off and jogged back to the locker room, cold despite the sweat sticking our shirts to our skin. We found Ryan in the shower, sitting in the smell of bleach and mildew, his back against the wall, his knees up under his chin.
“I got another one,” he said. “And I don’t know. I don’t know.”
He held his phone out, and we all looked, even though we didn’t want to. We watched a pair of hands we knew belonged to Christy twisting a bedsheet around and around. We wanted the camera to show her face so we could see if she looked afraid or calm, if she was crying, or she was just relieved it would finally end. It never did though. The shadow of the ceiling fan passed over her again and again.
Ryan buried his face, muffling his words.
“I don’t know if I can. Much longer. I don’t know.”
We wondered if he’d been in love with Christy, but we didn’t ask him. We wondered if he’d filled secret notebooks with poetry he’d never shown her. He always wrote the nastiest stuff about her on the bathroom wall, because that’s what we did to make ourselves feel better. If we were heartless, we could never have our hearts broken. If we were cruel, we were safe from any kind of pain.
Three Weeks After the Third Billboard
“We should go camping,” Trey said. “I’m serious. I don’t care if . . . I have to get out of this fucking town, or I’m going to lose it. If I have to stay here another night I might . . .”
He swallowed the rest of the words, but we all exchanged glances, knowing what he’d been about to say. Could he bring the sickness into our midst by speaking it out loud?
“I’m serious,” he said, and looked at all of us to see who would back him up.
Then we heard, though we weren’t sure exactly who told us—maybe the new guy—that the old lady down the street had killed herself. We were pretty sure all our moms knew her and that she used to babysit us when we were small. She took too many pills, all of them, and knowing that was like the storm breaking over us that we’d all been waiting for. We said, yeah, fuck it, let’s go, because we knew it didn’t matter. We weren’t safe. It would find us anywhere.
There was no billboard on Lake Road on the way to the campsite. We were looking for one, waiting for it to pounce from the trees and tear our throats out. Instead, it paced us, unseen. Flickering between the trunks, hiding words we couldn’t read, a ghost for each of us, like we’d packed it on purpose along with our socks and our sleeping bags, like we’d invited it along, because we knew we could never leave it behind.
We thought about the time we’d pushed Bobby Sykes off the jungle gym in third grade and called him a pussy and made his nose bleed. We thought about how we’d called Tamika Hill a slut. We thought about every picture that shouldn’t have been on our phones that we’d shared, all the times we didn’t ask Steve if he was okay, all the people we looked away from because they looked too much like us.
We peered into the corners of our minds to dig out whatever might be lurking there. We were sure there was something important, something we’d forgotten, something even worse than the things we could recall.
The new guy stuck his hand out the window, catching the air. He leaned his head against the seat and closed his eyes. None of us had invited him along, but we all had, and we knew as much as we wanted to, we couldn’t ask him to leave.
The shadows from his eyelashes caught on his skin and made his eyes look like they were stitched closed.
We drank too much beer.
We passed joints around the fire.
We hooted and hollered and defied our terror with the sounds of forced joy. When our bladders were full, we stood up unsteadily to piss against the nearest trees, afraid of straying too far. We brought enough tents that we could all have our own, but we only set up two and crowded into those.
And sometime between when we crawled exhausted into our sleeping bags and when the sun finally rose, we woke to realize we were listening to a ghost story.
A voice next to our ear, a body pressed close against our own.
“You took him out onto the lake in the middle of winter.”
Our teeth chattered, our muscles ached with the pain of wanting to flee and being unable to move.
“When you were young, your fathers taught you how to chop a hole in the ice and dangle fishing lines through and that’s what you said you were going to do. You made him think he was your friend. But when you got to the middle of the lake, you made him take his clothes off. He was too pretty for a boy, and he scared you. The very fact of his existence made you angry and anger made you cruel.”
We wanted to say no, it never happened that way, we never would, but it sounded like something we would do. We could feel the cold slipping around the edges of our parkas. We could see our breath clouding in the air. We remembered, even though we were certain we’d never been there. But we were, and we knew.
“You called him a pussy. You called him a cocksucker. He was so scared he pissed himself and that only made you laugh harder. You only wanted to mess with him, push him around a little, but he slipped into the hole and you said oh shit, but you were still laughing. You pulled him out and his skin was blue.
“For you, it was only a second between when he fell and when you pulled him out, but for him, it was a lifetime. Burning in the cold, unable to tell up from down. Certain the ice would close over his head and you would leave him there and no one would care.
“You gave him one of your beers. His hands were shaking so hard, his teeth clinked against the rim of the bottle. There were bruises on his skin where he hit the ice. Under the water, the cold put its fingers on him, it put them right inside. Shame crawled inside his skin because he couldn’t stand up to you, he couldn’t say no. He so wanted to please you. He desperately wanted to be your friend.
“You wrapped him in an old blanket from the back of your car that smelled like a dog. You called him ice dog all the way home and put the heater on full blast like that made it okay it was just a joke it’s fine we’re all friends and you won’t tell will you. You gave him a hit of your joint and you were already forgetting what you did to him because to you it didn’t mean anything. To you it was all a game.”
No, we wanted to say. Stop. We didn’t. But it didn’t matter. If we didn’t do it, then someone else did. In our town, we all wore armor. We were all cruel. We all had the signs planted in all our yards like white flowers, but we were too afraid to really care. We didn’t ask who was okay and who wasn’t. We couldn’t say when we ourselves were not okay.
“My brother was the only one who saw my bruises,” the voice whispered against our ears. “But I was too afraid to tell him about the cold from the lake that had come to live under my skin. I was too afraid to talk about my shame and I already knew there was only one way to get out for good.”
Did we even notice when it switched from a story about his brother to a story about himself? Had we killed him one day a long time ago? Maybe it wasn’t us, but we were still guilty, because it sounded like something we would do.
The Third Billboard
Waited for us on Lake Road on the way home.
See No Evil?
Look in the Mirror!
Winston Crystal-Clear Glass Always Shows the Real You.
The picture might have been from one of our high school yearbooks. The eyes had been scratched out, like someone had taken a black marker and scribbled over them, so even though we almost recognized the person, we couldn’t tell quite who it was. He looked familiar. Like someone who we’d always known.
“Shit, where’s Ryan?” Josh said.
We looked around, trying to remember when we’d last seen him, if he’d been there when we’d woken up. Maybe he’d stepped away to take a piss while we were packing the car and we accidentally left him behind?
Except we knew. Somewhere between the time when the ghost story stopped and when the sun finally rose, Ryan walked into the lake with stones in his pockets. And we were to blame.
The Day After Ryan’s Funeral
We set out looking for the billboards, wild with mortality and anger and fear. We had some bullshit idea that we could be heroes. We would burn the billboards to the ground, fell them like trees with axes and chainsaws.
We drove the roads all night, but we never found a single one.
Two Days After the Funeral
We had dreams that were like that out-of-the-corner-of-our-eyes-shit-what-did-we-just-see feeling. Dreams we couldn’t quite recall, full of terrors we couldn’t precisely name.
A guy who looked so familiar even though we couldn’t remember his name followed us through a series of crowds.
A child’s scribble drawing crawled across an endless series of billboards a thousand feet in the air.
There were words and words we couldn’t read.
A hole opened in the ice, waiting for us to fall.
Three Days After the Funeral
People kept dying.
We tried not to hear about it, but the news found us where we huddled in basements, a flock of birds coming home to roost.
A girl we all knew swallowed broken glass.
A man three streets over put his head in the oven.
A boy we’d seen around ran out in front of a car with a smile on his face and let it hit him.
Young people. Old people. So many people we kind of sort of vaguely knew, but had never thought to ask about, had never tried to care about, not in a sense that mattered anyway. A plague, rippling out through the town, and we were patient zero.
We looked around for the new guy, and for once, he wasn’t there. We wondered if he ever had been, or if we’d manifested him out of our collective unconscious, guilt crawling from under our skin like words crawling across the billboards.
We sat on battered couches and beanbag chairs, curtains drawn closed, drinking and smoking at all hours of the day. We stopped going to school.
We dreamt about Ryan, who looked kind of like someone we knew, crawling out of the lake, crawling into our beds, whispering killing words into our ears, closer to us than skin to bone, slipping inside us and making a home.
Four Days After the Funeral
We prayed, even though none of us had been to church in years.
Five Days After the Funeral
We got blackout drunk on cheap vodka we stole from the liquor store.
Six Days After the Funeral
We finally, each of us alone in the private darkness of our rooms, broke down and cried.
Seven Days After the Funeral
We drove into the woods. We screamed we were sorry at the top of our lungs.
If there were bones we could lay to rest, we would.
If we could show our sorrow, we would carve it into our skin.
We didn’t mean it, we swear, we’ll never do it again.
We would stitch our mouths closed if we could make it stop.
Make it stop.
Ten Days After the Funeral
It doesn’t matter what we do.
A long time ago a man built a factory on the outskirts of our middle-of-nowhere, fuck-all-to-do town. The factory produced sharp things, killing things, and glass so we could see ourselves. We didn’t like what we saw. We tried to outrun it, pretend we were strong—the hunters, not the prey.
But all the while, we carried our ghosts with us, just under the surface of our skins.
Now they haunt us.
They will never let us go.
They will hound us and bully us to the ends of the earth to prove that they are stronger, they don’t need us anymore. They are not afraid.
It doesn’t matter if they’re real or not. They’re real to us. And they will never stop. They will never let go.
We know. We understand them.
Because it sounds like something we would do.