I cut through that alley a lot on the way to work. It was in the arty part of town, near the college, so there wasn’t much danger of being jumped by toughs. The biggest annoyance was the occasional graffiti, either by some “let’s all group hug the world” hippies or wannabe gangsters trying to throw up old school to disguise their middle-class origins.

For as long as I could remember, there had been a splotch of red paint on one of the brick walls, left over from when one of the dumpsters had been recolored. One day, some wisenheimer had chalked a body outline around the paint, making it appear that the red was spattered brains from a murder (ignorant of the fact that real cops haven’t used chalk outlines since the 60s).

I didn’t think anything of it—well, I guess I did chuckle a bit in a moment of weakness—until a few days later. On my way through the alley I saw that the chalk was still there despite a recent rainstorm, and someone had added a message in red paint of the same shade as the “brains:”

THE CHALK OUTLINES ARE SPREADING.

It did look a little spooky, like a framegrab for a bad, low budget horror flick. But I quickly dismissed it as some anti-war granola-shitting peacenik trying to be edgy with the color that best reflected their political leanings.

The next day I saw another chalk outline, complete with a dab of red paint on its “head,” on the sidewalk near my house. Later in the week I noticed another one near my shop. When I cut through campus on the way to the pharmacy on the first of the month, there were dozens, each contorted into a unique position.

I read in the paper that the cops were trying to catch whatever macabre graffiti artists were behind the outlines, but the thing that began to unnerve me was that they persisted despite frequent rains and the occasional effort to wash them away. The outlines were chalky to the touch and my fingertips came away white, but they resisted removal.

By the time I couldn’t take a step on the sidewalk without standing on a chalk outline with red paintdaub, I was officially freaked out.