I was eight years old, the first time it happened.
Mom had shopping to do, and dragged me along with her. I tried to convince her to leave me in the magazine section so I could read comics, but she wasn’t having any of it. Instead I followed her up and down the aisles as she compared prices on bread, and looked at off-brand cans of vegetables.
At the far end of the aisle, a man was pretending to look at the fancy soups. He kept sneaking glances at us as we moved down the aisle. He was excessively normal: average height and build. He wore a hat and glasses, along with a long coat and scarf. Even now, I couldn’t tell you what he looked like exactly, other than “normal”.
Moving down the aisle, I grabbed Mom’s hand as we passed him. Mom smiled and gave it a squeeze and for a moment that day, I felt safe and loved. I was the perfect center of her universe.
When she tucked me in bed that night, she stopped before turning out the lights. She cocked her head a little and said, “Are you okay? You’ve been quiet all afternoon”
“I’m fine,” I said with a shaky voice. “Just don’t feel well.”
She nodded and turned out the light. I lay on the bed staring at the glow in the dark stars on my ceiling. They had lost some of their glow over the years, and it seemed like every morning there was another fallen star on the carpet.
Just as I started drifting off to sleep, there was a bright flash of light. When I opened my eyes again it was morning, and Mom was shaking me awake.
“I’m not telling you again,” she said. “If you don’t get up now, you’ll miss the bus, and I don’t have time to drive you in.”
“It’s Sunday,” I said, rolling over. “There’s no school today.”
“I don’t have time for this, Colleen. You need to get up now.”
Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I got dressed and shuffled downstairs to get some cereal. Mom was waiting in the kitchen, her eyes moving anxiously towards the clock on the stove. “There’s not going to be time for breakfast,” she said. “You’ll have to eat on your way to the stop.”
Not wanting to argue, I grabbed a banana from the fridge and my backpack from its usual spot by the door. Mom pulled me over and kissed me on the head.
“Don’t forget, I’m working tonight,” she said. “Michelle will be waiting for you, so you need to be ready right after school.”
I nodded and hurried out the door. I was determined to go to the empty bus stop and wait for a bit before coming home. Mom was going to feel so stupid when she realized it was Sunday, I was sure of it.
When I got to the stop, the usual kids were there. Standing off to one side was a skinny blonde woman. She was older, close to Mom’s age, and wore the same coat, hat, and scarf as the man I’d seen. My heart started racing and I had to remind myself to breathe. I nudged Jimmy, who lived a few houses down from us and nodded my head at the lady.
“Whose mom is that?” I asked.
Jimmy glanced at her and frowned before giving me a shrug. “No idea. Must be a new kid’s mom or something.”
I looked around the stop before shaking my head. “There aren’t any new kids here,” I said.
“Yeah, probably a new kid’s mom,” he said with a slightly vacant voice.
“Hey Jimmy,” I said, trying to ignore the weird feeling in my stomach. “What day is it?”
He raised an eyebrow at me as though I had just asked the dumbest question he’d ever heard. “It’s Tuesday.”
“Oh, yeah,” I said. “Thanks.”
I tried to look over him at the woman, but she was gone. “Where’d the new kid’s mom go?” I asked.
“What new kid? There aren’t any new kids here, Coll,” he said. “You sure you’re feeling okay?”
I nodded, afraid to say anything else. I spent the rest of the day staring out the window, waiting to see if another strange person showed up. None of them did, not even after school when Michelle and I walked back to the apartment. I told her all about the woman at the bus stop and how I was pretty sure she was connected to the guy at the store.
“You’ve always had a good imagination, kiddo,” she said with a smile. I tried not to feel insulted by the dismissal.
Four years went by before it happened again. Mom had married Alan, this accountant from Albuquerque. He was the type of guy who said, “Oh, sugar” instead of “Oh, shit”. When they got married, we moved out of the apartment and into his house in the suburbs. I missed the noise of the apartment, and had a hard time falling asleep in the new house.
We’d only been living there a few days, and I was riding my bike after school. It was a new housing development so there weren’t many kids there yet. Mom insisted that I could only go as far as the end of the block. She and Alan were out having a “date night” and left me to myself. It was finally my chance to do some real exploring.
The first couple of blocks were the same cookie cutter houses and manicured lawns. But once you moved down a few streets, you got to see the ones that were still being built. There was one, at the end of the cul-de-sac, that was mostly finished. It had floors and rooms done, and even though it was the same as the house we lived, it felt different.
I wandered through the upstairs rooms for a while, running my hands along the walls. I don’t think I had been there very long, when I heard footsteps.
Teenagers, I thought. Who else would come to an empty house at night?
Back then, I wasn’t scared of other kids. But something inside told me that I needed to get out. I was halfway out the window above the garage when I saw him. The man from before, standing in the doorway. He looked exactly the same, right down to the scarf. But he didn’t move. He just stood there, staring at me.
There was another flash of light.
I think part of me had been waiting for this, knew that I hadn’t imagined it after all. I forced myself to keep my eyes open, to remember something. Mostly, what I remember is pain. A whole lot of it. Pain and a dark, empty room.
Then I was back, sitting in the driveway of the empty house next to my bike. My head was throbbing and I don’t think I’ve ever been that thirsty, before or since. I couldn’t ride the bike, hell, I could barely walk. I don’t really remember how I got home, to be honest. After I stowed my bike in the garage, I stumbled up to my room and curled up in my bed, trying to ignore how much my body hurt.
When I woke up the next morning, I noticed a long, thin scar running up the side of my stomach. I have to admit, I freaked out a bit. I remember stumbling down the hall, trying to ignore the memories of the house from the night before. Eventually, I found Mom in the kitchen. Alan had already left for work. I wanted to tell her, tried to think of the right words. Something that wouldn’t make it my fault.
After a few seconds of me staring at her, she finally asked, “Is something wrong?”
“Something happened last night, while you were out,” I said.
Mom set her coffee cup down on the table, a little brown liquid slopping over the side. “Are you okay?” she asked.
I shook my head, and lifted the bottom of my shirt, showing her the scar. She raised an eyebrow and shook her head at me. “Okay,” she said. “What am I looking at here?”
At first, I couldn’t believe it. I pointed at the scar that ran from just under my rib cage down the side of my stomach. “This. Something got me last night, Mom. They…hurt me.”
“Last night? When? Did you sneak out after we went to bed? And who hurt you?”
“I don’t know who they are,” I whispered. “It was while you and Alan were on your date.”
She stared at me for a second, then sighed and shook her head. “Colleen, I don’t have time for this. Now please, I barely get any quiet time to myself as it is, so if you don’t mind?”
“Mom, please. Something happened last night–”
“Last night, we all went to the movies. You were with me the entire time. And I don’t think it’s funny for you to scare me like that.”
“Where’d I get the scar from, then?”
“That? That’s when you had your appendix out. That happened years ago.”
“My appendix? Does this look like an appendix scar? Mom, I’ve never even been to the hospital!”
She pinched the bridge of her nose between her thumb and fingers, before shooing me off with her other hand. “Please, just go outside and do something,” she said. “I get one Saturday a month where Alan goes to the office. One hour, that’s all I’m asking for.”
I went back to my room, feeling truly scared for the first time in my life. I stared at myself in the mirror, lifting my shirt to see the scar. I tried to remember going to the hospital. I could almost see it, feel the searing pain in my side. But then it was gone. Replaced by a dark room and a flash of light.
If I closed my eyes, I could see them standing in the darkness. They were tall, and very thin, like someone had stretched them out. Then something cut into my skin, and I was back in the driveway.
After that, I stopped exploring. I stopped doing much of anything, really. Mom wrote it off as normal teenage moodiness, and I don’t think Alan gave a shit one way or the other. Mostly, I stayed in my room. Eventually, I convinced Mom to let me move down to the basement. I saved up my allowance and hung some heavy curtains over the tiny windows in my new room. If they couldn’t see in, maybe they couldn’t get me again.
When I went out, I kept my head down. If we went out to eat, I always tried to avoid a seat by the window. Any time I walked down the street, I stayed in the exact middle of the sidewalk. My eyes stared at the ground, but my mind was constantly on the vast and empty space above me. If they could grab me twice, and make people forget, then I was going to make it as difficult for them to grab me as possible. No windows, and no open doors behind me.
By the time I graduated high school, I was the weird kid that nobody talked to. But, I hadn’t been taken in six years. It made me lazy, I guess. Caused me to let my guard down.
I was waiting for the bus downtown when I saw her. Her hair was a little different, but like the man, she wore the same clothes as last time. She slid through the crowd like a shark, eyes moving back and forth. I ducked down a little as she passed. She’d gotten about halfway down the block when she turned back and stared at me.
People moved around her like she wasn’t there.
We stared at each other for a few seconds, and then she smiled. She turned and hurried into the crowd. I still don’t know why I followed her. I guess that I thought if I stayed far enough back she couldn’t hurt me.
She turned into an alley, and like an idiot I waited outside the entrance. There was another flash of light, and I was laying on my back in the alley. There were clothes on my body, but they weren’t mine. The shirt was too big and the shoes were too small. There was also a chunk of my shoulder missing.
It turns out that a teenaged girl bleeding from a shoulder wound gets attention. I stumbled out of the alley, blood running down my arm. I only got a few steps before I fell over. The next thing I knew, there was a cop talking quietly to me. He asked me questions about who hurt me and where I’d been. I must have looked confused because he quickly forced a smile and said he was just glad I was safe.
They took me to the hospital and ran a bunch of tests. I had to talk with a social worker, who told me that I’d been gone for a week. All I wanted was to go home and not have to answer a bunch of stupid questions. Finally, I just stopped talking. The doctors decided I was in shock. After all, who loses a chunk of their body and doesn’t know how it happened?
And now I’m here, talking to you people. Everyone says that talking about it will help the healing process. That if I let it all out, I can take those first steps towards recovery. Someday, the doctors say, I might even get to go home. Mom and Alan stopped visiting a couple of months back. I don’t blame them.
I see the man and the woman, still. Sometimes they watch me from the hall, or at night when I’m falling asleep. I’ve started counting the scars. They’re the only things I have left that belong to me. There are over twenty now. Each one a tiny souvenir from a place I never wanted to visit, and a reminder of the place I can never go back to.
©2015 Chris Page. All rights reserved.