13 Apr The Taklitçi
“The Taklitçi”Written by David Feuling Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by Otis Jiry
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⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 21 minutes
The Original Sin
We were just open-minded kids. We wanted to see as much of the world as possible. God forgive us; we didn’t mean to deceive anyone. We didn’t mean to give that creature a whiff of our scent, but we did. I’m sure now that we played a role in what happened. God forgive us.
Lucy and I first met in Tanzania. We were both in the Peace Corps. We learned some basic things about Islam in Dar es Salaam. We had heard about the hajj, and we wanted to see Mecca. Lucy and I didn’t think we were lying. Not exactly. We told Daoud we were new converts. We justified it to ourselves. “We might be serious about becoming Muslims.” That’s what we told ourselves, but the creature can smell what’s ingenuine. You can lie to yourself, but you can never lie to the Taklitçi.
It was 1998. Our plan was to travel by bus along the coast of Yemen until we reached Saudi Arabia. Daoud was an old Peace Corps contact, and it was through his older brother Jal’s local travel agency that we organized our trip towards the holy city. Daoud, Jal, Lucy, and I were joined by eight additional strangers who were also traveling for the hajj. There were two married couples, and four single men that were traveling alone. Our trip would consist of three days across Yemen, followed by a final day of travel through Saudi Arabia.
“You must stick together like glue,” Daoud warned me and Lucy as we loaded onto the bus for our first day of travel. “Especially after we cross the border out of Yemen – like glue!” He made a gesture with two fingers, motioning as though they were tightly attached to each other. “If anyone asks, you should say that you are married, or siblings.” We laughed at first, but stopped when we realized that Jal was upset by our conversation. He scowled and reprimanded his brother in Arabic. The elder brother then switched to English and told us sternly:
“No lies. No counterfeits or tricks. Not here. No matter what!” Jal’s lips quivered with the intensity of what he had just said, but Daoud only laughed.
“He’s superstitious,” Daoud explained. “It’s said that this is where the Taklitçi lives.”
“Like a magpie hoards baubles,” Jal hissed. “The Taklitçi covets untruth.” Daoud quickly answered.
“More than ten different languages will be spoken aboard our bus during the next three days,” he reminded his brother. Daoud smiled playfully at Jal and gestured at the eclectic group of strangers who had already boarded. “How many languages does the Taklitçi speak?” Jal only furrowed his brow, as though the question did not deserve an answer. It was true. The bus was a microcosm of different native tongues. Like a modern tower of babel, instructions had to be translated from Arabic to Pashto to Persian to Kurdish, and so on ad nauseum. No one could say anything and be completely sure that it was understood by the rest of the group. Daoud and Jal both spoke English, at least. We were lucky for that.
“Anyone who knows this area already knows the Taklitçi,” Jal spat. “Most people won’t need to be reminded.”
The bus ride on that first day was long and uneventful. We made camp around sunset.
We intended to sleep under the stars as part of our journey toward Islam’s most sacred city. On our first night, Lucy and I participated without any fear. We felt no reservation to be exposed to the nighttime sky, but our feelings would soon change.
A male stranger from our group saw that Lucy and I were sharing a tent for the night. I caught him frowning hard as he stared in our direction. He met my eyes and then called out to us in English. The man’s vocabulary in our language was limited, but his meaning was clear.
“Husband, wife?” He waited for an answer.
“Yes,” I called out firmly.
“Muslim? Both Muslim?”
“Yes,” I answered. Jal emerged from his tent and scolded the stranger for prying. He then told us to hush our voices. Daoud arrived seconds later to collect his brother.
“There is no such thing as the Taklitçi,” Daoud clucked as he led Jal by the shoulders toward their tent.
“Another lie,” Jal declared loudly.
* * * * * *
Later that night, we heard something that didn’t make much sense. Lucy and I both woke up around 2 a.m. because of it. A child’s voice with a vaguely British accent was crying out from somewhere beyond the campsite. We heard it calling out from a direction that was completely obscured by darkness. The voice was soft. It barely carried over the wind, and yet it was also undeniably there as we pricked up our ears to listen. At first, nobody else seemed to react beyond stirring in their sleep. Repeatedly, we heard the voice saying: “I’m over here! Hey! I’m right over here!”
I looked at Lucy in my surprise. I thought that I had gone crazy. Lucy looked back at me with a similar expression of confusion. It felt as though our ears were plainly deceiving us. “Nobody’s kid would just be out here alone, right?” Lucy asked me. “No child would be in the middle of Yemen, playing games at this time of night.”
“No way,” I agreed. “Definitely not in English. Not like that, anyway.”
“Are you superstitious?” Lucy asked me. She tilted her head to indicate where Daoud and Jal slept.
“No,” I whispered. “But what else could that be?” The story of the Taklitçi was fresh in our minds.
“It might just be an English-speaking kid playing a game of nighttime hide and seek,” Lucy joked nervously. “In Yemen,” she added thoughtfully. Her face fell as the unidentified voice called out again.
“I’m over here! Hey! I’m right over here!” It was exactly the same as the previous times. The phrase was meticulously identical in its pacing and intonation every time that we heard it. We didn’t dare investigate the darkness, but we also didn’t sleep much after that. That strange voice returned a few more times. It called out at irregular intervals, but it was always saying those same words in precisely that same way.
When the voice switched to Arabic, more people stirred and began to wake up. The voice was now speaking with the intonation of a female child. I heard a few travelers whispering about “ashbah” and “shayatin.” These words refer to ghosts and demons. Others were speaking about the Taklitçi directly. The sun rose to find us haggard and largely unrested.
I made a stupid joke to Lucy and regretted it immediately. We were both feeling quiet after the events of the first night. Maybe I just wanted to break the uncomfortable silence. I’m not exactly sure. Whatever my original motivation was, the sleep-addled state of my brain made the sentence clumsy.
“At least it’s a little fun to pretend that we’re a married couple,” I ventured to Lucy. Why the hell did I say it? The urge to take my words back struck me like a slap in the face. I could feel immediately that I had made my friend uncomfortable.
“I don’t like those jokes,” she confirmed. I felt a second wave of embarrassment flood over me.
“Sorry,” I told her. “I know. I forgot.”
“And it’s not personal,” she reminded me quietly.
“I know it’s not,” I answered. “There’s just someone else who’s better for you.” I felt a twinge of self-pity followed by a deeper pang of self-loathing. I felt ashamed for being so attached to a friend who did not feel the same way about me.
“That’s right,” Lucy told me. “There’s just someone else.”
* * * * * *
Daoud started making calls around midday while Jal was driving. I couldn’t tell exactly what was happening, but I felt confident that he was making new accommodations for our second night of travel. It was clear that nobody felt entirely safe sleeping outside after the odd voices we all heard last night. Rumors of the Taklitçi studded the conversations in every language around us. Every time that I heard the name mentioned in a sentence I didn’t otherwise understand, it added to my belief that people really were afraid. Because of the language barriers, that undercurrent of fear was the only thing that every single one of us understood.
Daoud changed seats on the bus around 3 pm. He moved purposefully to sit alongside Lucy and me. He had previously been seated behind his brother Jal, was preoccupied by making phone calls in a hushed voice. I still remember watching Daoud use that early cellphone that he carried. I remember thinking with amazement about how it was our only connection to all of the world’s less isolated corners.
As he seated himself next to me, Daoud reported with a hint of proudness that he had secured a place for us to sleep inside tonight. We would now be lodging inside one of the old stone and brick castles that remained from the Rasulid era of Yemen’s history. “We will not get lucky like this a second time,” he added solemnly as his smile faded. “But, for tonight at least, we will be securely fortified.” He frowned. “Fortified against the elements, I mean.” He added this last phrase hurriedly. I suspect that he was in a rush to dissuade us from mentioning the Taklitçi.
“From the elements,” I repeated. This drew Daoud’s smile back to the surface.
“I had to tell quite a story to the owner,” Daoud laughed. “It was difficult to reserve the space with only a few hours’ notice.”
“Jal says we shouldn’t tell stories,” Lucy murmured flatly and averted her eyes. I saw that the comment bothered Daoud.
“I shouldn’t have said that,” he admitted. “And please, don’t tell my brother.”
We arrived at the castle as the sun was setting. There was a main room on the second floor that served as a foyer for the private quarters, and that’s where we set up camp for the night. We chose the spot because we could all comfortably share the space without getting separated from each other. Nobody seemed to mind the lack of privacy. I think that for most of us, it was reassuring to know that we were all keeping eyes on each other.
Lucy woke me up at 4:10 am. She woke up a few people, actually. She was crying so hard that she couldn’t suppress the sound of it. I’ve seen Lucy get hurt before, and she almost never actually cries. In the Peace Corps, she used to shake off injuries like they were nothing. Even when she was bleeding, she never panicked or got upset. Lucy was generally fearless, but tonight she was clearly scared out of her mind.
“You’re safe,” I told my friend. I didn’t necessarily know whether it was true, and realized that I might have just told another small but dangerous lie. I continued as though confident in what I said, because there was no point in frightening Lucy any further. “You’re okay now. We’re safe. Just tell me what happened.” It took Lucy a few minutes to calm herself, but she told me the story as soon as she felt able to speak.
Lucy said that she woke up around 3:45. She felt sure that she couldn’t go back to sleep. She thought about going downstairs for some air, but then thought better of it. Lucy realized that she didn’t want to risk going anywhere alone. She was pacing around the upper floor of the castle when she heard a man’s voice cry out in pain from somewhere downstairs. She went to the staircase to investigate, and stood at the top of the landing to peer down into the darkness of the first floor. Immediately, she saw the source of the vocalization. Crumpled at the bottom of the stairs, it looked as though a man had taken a nasty spill. The way that Lucy describes it, the unknown person had clearly broken something on his tumble down to the ground floor.
“I went to see who it was,” Lucy told me. “It looked like he needed help.” Her tone was like a desperate apology. Maybe she just felt regretful for a bad choice that she had made. “When I got close, and leaned in to try to see a face in the dark, it… It unfolded itself. It wasn’t human, but it pretended to be until I got close enough.”
“What do you mean?”
“It wasn’t shaped like a person,” Lucy answered. “It had no legs that I could see. Every limb was an arm. I’m sure that it grabbed for me with at least three different hands.” She shuddered hard and ran her own fingers through her closely cropped hair. “It tried to grab me, but it couldn’t get a solid grip.” She let out another stifled sob. “When it saw that I could climb back up the stairs faster than it could, it went the other way and disappeared into the dark.”
“It couldn’t climb the stairs?” I asked. My mind wasn’t comprehending what she was trying to describe, but Lucy looked sharply at me with a trace of anger. She reacted as though the answer should have been obvious.
“It had no legs – just arms.”
“Did you see a face?” I’m not sure why the question popped into my head, but it sent Lucy on another crying jag. She answered after a moment.
“It didn’t even have a face. Not at first.” She paused and her eyes became glassy. She spoke again, this time in a voice that sounded even more faraway and detached than it had been before. “Imagine a humanlike head with no eyes, no ears, and no nostrils.” She began to describe things in the present tense, and I realized that she was reliving her encounter in front of me.
“There’s just teeth and lips,” she said. “They’re set in a jaw that’s too big for them. The lips stretch tight and the teeth are worn-down. The rest of its head is featureless. It’s flat, dark-gray flesh with only the oversized mouth there at the bottom. And then suddenly, the shallow pits where the eyes should be start getting deeper. The skin starts changing color. Its scalp was bald a second before, but now there’s hair growing in, right before your eyes. Eyelids form in a half-second, and they blink over the empty eye sockets. When the lids open, new eyes are suddenly there. They’re staring at you.” She paused, and then corrected herself. “They look exactly like my eyes. My own eyes are there, and they’re looking back at me.”
Lucy grabbed me suddenly by the shoulders. I could feel her quickened pulse beating through the palms of her hands. She was not playing a game with me. She was afraid for her life. “By the time I turned the corner and lost sight of it,” she said, “its face looked exactly like mine.” She glanced around before looking me hard in the eyes. “What if it tries to replace me?” she asked. My blood went cold to consider the idea.
“It doesn’t speak human languages,” I realized aloud after a second of consideration. “It can only repeat the basic phrases it’s already heard. It can’t replace you. At least, not like that.”
We stayed awake together until dawn. Just before the light was just beginning to return, Lucy took me aside and asked me to sit down with her. She put her hand over mine and took several deep breaths without speaking. Lucy was about to share bad news with me, but I couldn’t guess what it was. “Take your time,” I said. “I’m listening.” She answered slowly and reluctantly.
“I’m just so afraid. They say that the Taklitçi hears every lie. It’s stupid, but I want to feel safe again. I need to own up to something… I haven’t always told you the truth.” My stomach dropped, but I did my best not to let the feeling show on my face.
“Tell me,” I prompted again.
“I’ve never had any romantic feelings for you.” She blurted it out dolefully. “I’m sorry. There was never another guy in my life. I just don’t like you in that way… I don’t like you that way at all.” She cast her eyes downward. She looked extremely embarrassed, and I felt the same way.
“Thank you for trying to protect my feelings,” I murmured. Her hand parted from mine, and Lucy stood to rejoin the others. I took a moment before I followed her. As she looked back at me, Lucy shot me a gentle, sad smile. I felt upset, but not because my friend had been honest with me.
The thing that disturbed me was now knowing for certain that Lucy believed the Taklitçi to be real. I felt increasingly alone in my hope that the creature might not really exist. I trusted Lucy. I trusted her judgment, and so I began to feel newly afraid for my life. It was finally dawn, and so we left the castle for the road.
We were driving through the heat of the Yemeni midday, blasting our radio and AC as we went. We were trying to forget the events of the previous night. Lucy and I were playing our third game of “Twenty Questions” when we felt the abrupt jolt of our vehicle suddenly slamming on its brakes. The bus began sliding to a rough halt on the dirt road. In front of us was a woman. She was standing in the middle of the road, and her form was covered almost entirely by a traditional abaya and boshiya. Jal sat silently at the wheel, and struck violently at Daoud’s hand when his brother reached for the lever that would open the door.
“That is the Taklitçi,” Jal insisted. I felt newly afraid when Daoud did not smile or laugh. The brothers discussed something briefly in Arabic, and then Jal shifted into drive as Daoud returned to his seat. I remember shouting in protest, but Lucy didn’t move a muscle. She sat there, convinced enough of the Taklitçi to watch a woman get run down by our bus. It seemed that she could now abide anything, so long as it meant staying safe from the shapeshifter that pursued us.
Everyone except Jal, Daoud, and Lucy screamed when the bus struck the woman. I remember bouncing in my seat as the front wheels and then back wheels pushed their way over her body. Some people started crying. Others were shaking their heads in horror and disgust. I was personally speechless, and felt that I had witnessed something impossible and unreal.
It was only when the mangled body rose up again that the rest of us realized what Lucy, Daoud, and Jal already knew. It had been the Taklitçi all along. Although the creature still wore its latest disguise, it no longer pretended to be a human. To those of us on the bus, it appeared as though the partially flattened woman was now lifting herself into a full backbend.
The Taklitçi began running on all fours. I remember thinking that it moved like an unholy, inverted sort of hound. As the Taklitçi ran, the head of its human disguise dangled limply in its new, upside-down position. It looked as though the woman’s neck was broken. The creature kept pace with our vehicle, and the veil covering much of the disguise’s face fell away. I wish I hadn’t looked back at the shapeshifter while Jal sped us away from it. I’ll never forget that bloody mouth hanging open, nor the way those terribly human eyes stared straight ahead…
Still bent over backward, the thing galloped in a way the human form would absolutely not allow. Jal gunned the engine, and slowly but surely outpaced the loping form of the “woman” with the sneering, upside-down face. Twice as we losing it, the Taklitçi let out a bellowing noise that I recognized. It was the same English phrase that we had already heard before.
“I’m over here! Hey! I’m right over here!” This time the words were pronounced in a kind of slurring roar. The sound was harsher and more inhuman than it had ever been before. The Taklitçi was getting frustrated, and it was beginning to lose its poise.
Nobody wanted to sleep outside tonight. We could sense it from the chatter around us, but then again… We didn’t exactly feel safe on the bus, either. There would be no more castles between here and the holy cities. In the end, a few of us resolved to guard the others. The rest of the group would sleep inside the vehicle. We would watch for the Taklitçi in shifts.
The brothers revealed the SVT-40 that they had secretly stowed in the vehicle’s luggage bay. “For emergencies,” Jal growled, “like this one.” The elder brother showed Daoud and I how to fire it, and then we settled on our shift times. “I will watch until midnight,” Jal said. “Then Daoud can watch until three in the morning.” Jal turned to me. “Then you will watch, until we are ready to travel again.” I nodded to show that I understood.
I slept fretfully. I remember opening my eyes to check the time just before my alarm was set to ring. The clock showed 2:46. I had apparently slept without realizing it. It was now almost time for my turn to guard the bus. Had I awoken because I subconsciously sensed that the Taklitçi was nearby? That must have been it, because at 2:47 I heard three gunshots ring out. Everyone was suddenly awake, and the bus became full of chatter in various languages. I ran out to find Daoud, and so did Jal and two of the single, male travelers. Two more shots rang out. We followed the noise to find Daoud struggling to reload his weapon. His hands were shaking too badly to handle the ammunition.
I was the first to approach. Daoud spoke as soon as I was within earshot. “It was eating the goats on that hill. We are still not safe.“ That’s all he said to me, at first. He then shouted in Arabic to the others who were coming to meet us. After that, he returned his attention to me. “It was killing them instantly. I only realized what was happening because I heard the flesh tearing as it ate them.” Daoud never looked directly at me, because he was so focused on reloading his weapon and scanning the darkness with his eyes. Jal gestured that we should all be quiet as he drew close to where we stood. He whispered in Arabic, then told me something in English. “The shapeshifter can pretend as anything. It can even be two things at once. We must retreat to the bus. Now, and carefully…”
Without another word, Daoud broke into a sudden sprint toward safety. We all followed him in a wild, mad dash. I heard one of the strangers who had come outside with us scream piteously. I didn’t recognize the voice, and I didn’t want to look back. We all rushed stumbling onto the bus, and Jal immediately set about getting the vehicle into motion.
The engine struggled to start, but there was no motion. A heavy, rhythmic slapping of wet flesh on metal could be heard from outside the bus. Daoud took a headcount and confirmed that no one was missing. “It must be the Taklitçi out there. It’s taken some new shape.” Jal was still working frantically at the bus’s controls to get us into motion. Lucy turned her flashlight on, and pointed its beam out the back window to illuminate the source of the sounds. We saw it staring in at us through the scratch-clouded plexiglass of the rear windshield. The Taklitçi had indeed changed forms again.
At first, it wore the same “face” that Lucy had described previously. There were no features except for nub-like teeth and a pair of wide, overly thin lips on an otherwise featureless skull. It was physically unlike anything that I had ever seen before. I understood now why Lucy had struggled to describe its body. It hammered at the back of the bus with three cudgel-like arms that my brain initially failed to recognize. I struggled to identify what I was seeing. It was only after a few seconds that I finally realized what I was looking at.
A shock of repulsion flowed through me. At the end of each of the Taklitçi’s three arms was something familiar to me, but it was too strange to immediately recognize. A sheep’s blood-soaked head was adorning each limb. They were the animals the Taklitçi had slaughtered to disturb us. A severed head was sitting atop each of the Taklitçi’s three, hammerlike upper extremities. Where a hand or claw might instead usually be, there was now a lifeless sheep’s head connected to the flesh at each deformed “wrist.” Each of the three heads had a horrible, lolling tongue that hung out of its mouth. The animals’ eyes all stared blankly open, heedless of how hard the Taklitçi was smashing their faces against the exterior of the bus.
Slowly, the Taklitçi’s real face began to change right in front of our eyes. That featureless skull with only lips and teeth melted away once again. I don’t know if I will ever be able to describe it in a way that does the transformation justice. I can only describe the depths of my repulsed amazement to be witnessing it. Lidless eyes erupted from beneath the surface of the flesh. First one, then a second, and then a third, and so on.
The pupils coalesced last. Judging by the long, horizontal bars that the blackness formed within those yellow-gray irises, I’d wager that the Taklitçi meant to imitate a sheep’s eyes. Soon, there were six uncanny, alien eyes gazing dimly in our direction. Once they were fully formed, they began to scan about inside their new eye sockets. After a moment of searching, they focused on Lucy and me. The Taklitçi’s face began to transform again. Rapidly, it took on the features of Lucy’s face. It began to slam this new, familiar visage hard against the bus’s back window. With each new blow, the creature acted out a fantasy murder against my friend.
We were soon looking at a badly mangled impression of Lucy’s face. In my dreams, I can still see that terrible imitation of my friend’s brutalized features. It was a sight I never want to witness again. The Taklitçi’s impression of Lucy was bleeding and broken in a way that made it clear it could never be made to look healthy again. It was an obvious threat to us all.
The real Lucy – our Lucy – clicked her flashlight off. She didn’t want to see any more, and I don’t blame her for that. The bus roared to life with a few enthusiastic cheers from our group. With Jal and Daoud at the helm, we sped off into the darkness. We hurried along the unlit roads until we could no longer hear the Taklitçi’s screaming. It cried out after us in its anger. Its wavering cry was like a lamb’s fearful bleating. It could only express things that it had already heard, and so it called after us with the sounds of the animals that it had most recently destroyed.
We passed through the Saudi border without incident. Ahead of us, there were now just a final few hours of driving until we reached the holy cities. Honestly, I’m not sure how most of us felt in terms of safety. We had arrived in one piece, but the Taklitçi might still be following us. There was no way to be sure. Among the true believers in Islam, our proximity to Mecca seemed to allay most fears about another attack. It was only Lucy and I – carrying our countless small lies into the city – who continued to feel exposed.
This would be our final bus ride into the city. Lucy and I were each taking up two seats, reclining as we napped to recover all the sleep that we had missed. Daoud came back to sit next to me, and I groggily made room for him by sitting upright. Daoud seemed intent on setting everyone’s mind at ease. He had moved to sit next to several of our group’s travelers this morning. The younger brother was now moving to check on Lucy and me.
As Daoud rose this time to change seats once again, though, a woman from several rows back also moved to sit next to Lucy. The woman waited patiently while Lucy moved to make room for her. The man with whom the woman had previously been sitting glanced up and then simply shrugged. Nobody really noticed the shuffling of seats as an irregular thing. We all often moved to take turns stretching our legs in the aisle.
I was making small talk with Daoud to assure him that I was no longer feeling afraid when it happened. The woman sitting next to Lucy suddenly reached out to grasp Lucy’s hand. She looked hard into Lucy’s face, and then leaned forward to whisper something directly into Lucy’s ear. From my friend’s confused expression, I originally guessed that the woman had spoken to her in some unknown language. Lucy would later correct me; the words had been in English.
To this day, I can’t be completely sure about what the woman said. Lucy still refuses to talk about it. I’m not even sure I want to know the details anymore. I think I can guess about it, though. The way that Lucy’s face changed… I’m sure that the stranger spoke some brief and vaguely unsettling phrase. Did I imagine catching a fragment of the words? I think that she might have whispered “still not safe” in a low, gruff voice. I can only speculate as I continue to search my memory for clues.
We arrived at the gates of the holy city. I could feel the flood of safety as we joined the worshipers there. The throngs of people streamed in through every major road. We were trapped in traffic early on, and we barely moved forward for the first few hours. Even still, we had arrived at the holy site and so we were at ease. There was hustle and chatter everywhere. Noise flooded our senses as permits were checked and the roadways were navigated by pilgrims from all over the world.
After a long time, we parked near the hotel where our group would stay for the week. A few of us jumped up as soon as the bus had stopped. Others barely moved, exhausted as they were from what we had all gone through. Those who were eager to stretch their legs made a rapid line at the front of the bus and then filed off. Lucy and I joined them, and took in the undisturbed and pleasantly flower-tinged air of Mecca in the springtime.
The woman who had approached Lucy to whisper in her ear began suddenly to move away from our group. She paced into the nearby crowds with quick, purposeful strides. The woman was walking alone and without an escort into the bustling city center. We all knew that this wasn’t allowed in Saudi Arabia, and so Daoud called frantically after her in Arabic. He turned to the man with whom the woman was originally sitting. The man explained something to Daoud with an equally confused expression on his face.
“He doesn’t know her,” Daoud muttered in English. He thought silently for a few seconds, and then his eyes shot wide-open. “It got on the bus last night.” Daoud looked as though he might faint, and leaned to steady himself against the side of the vehicle. “It can be two things at once…” He began shouting in Arabic and pointing in the direction that the veiled woman had walked away. It was no use. By now, she was already completely lost in the crowds.
“What is he talking about?” Lucy asked me with a frightened tremor in her voice. “We did a head count. We’ve always had twelve people.”
“Last night…” I answered slowly. “When Daoud, Jal, and I were running back to the bus, there were two other travelers out there with us. They were two of the men who were traveling alone.” The realization made me sick to my stomach. “We heard a scream while we were running, but then we counted twelve people. We didn’t ask questions. Jal just started driving to get us out of there. It killed someone last night, and it took that person’s place on the bus.”
“But I saw the Taklitçi outside the bus last night!” Lucy insisted. “We all did! It was chasing us when we drove away!”
“It can be two things at once,” I reminded her. “By chasing us, it got us to drive away with another part of itself already on board. We were scared, and so we didn’t check carefully. We just focused on getting away.”
“So when that woman sat down next to me,” Lucy continued hesitantly. The idea was not complicated, but her mind seemed to be shutting down in response to the aversion that her realization produced. “When that woman was holding my hand, and looking into my face… When she whispered in my ear, and I could feel her breath… That was actually the Taklitçi?”
Daoud and Jal had both momentarily disappeared into the nearby crowds. They were trying desperately to find the creature before it changed its disguise. It was a fruitless attempt, but simply standing by and allowing the Taklitçi to escape was also unthinkable. The brothers were only drawn back to the bus when Lucy started screaming.
My friend had dropped to her knees right there in the gutter of the street. Her hands were gripping the sides of her head as though the ideas rushing through her mind were causing her physical pain. Lucy’s eyes were squeezed tightly closed. I saw teardrops forming rapidly in their corners. By the time that Daoud and Jal returned to us, we had also gotten the attention of Saudi police. Lucy was having a full-blown panic attack, and I couldn’t get her to her feet or convince her to stop screaming. She was completely losing her mind.
Daoud did what he could to calm things back down. The police briefly detained Lucy and I. They attempted an interview, but it quickly became clear that my friend could not explain herself. Ultimately, the police were forced simply to bring us both to a hospital. Lucy was screaming unintelligibly during most of this process. After she became too hoarse to vocalize, she just sobbed quietly instead.
* * * * * *
We never managed to participate in the hajj, and we never made it to Medina. Lucy was given sedative drugs at the hospital, and we booked our flights home as soon as she was released. Lucy’s mental state improved drastically once we were on the airplane. She seemed to find herself again as we put more and more miles between ourselves and the Taklitçi. I didn’t ask questions, and we didn’t tell the story to our families at home. This story is the first time I’ve admitted any part of this, in fact. I’ve stayed in touch with Lucy. We’re both okay, but we’ve been changed by our experience. To this day, we don’t ever lie. We hardly even tell half-truths. Lucy and I simply can’t risk it anymore, because we’ve seen the cost of it.