Cat's Paw

by Rustin Petrae 2 months ago in fiction

A Novella

Cat's Paw

Tragedy. It’s a small word but it has huge meaning. I could see the effects of what that word could do in the summer of 2001 when tragedy struck my neighborhood. It infected and contaminated everything. The worst part was that tragedy came with a crap load of emotions. Sometimes devastating emotions.

Hysteria.

Panic.

Fear.

Depression.

Sadness.

I was fifteen that year. I was young and stupid back then. I thought I had no worries. No cares. I had great, loving parents. A safe and stable home. I thought I lived in a bubble and one where nothing truly bad ever happened.

The summer of 2001 changed all that. It popped my bubble with vicious cruelty.

You see, that summer a girl my age named Vicki Campbell was murdered.

It was also the summer where everything I was and everything I knew crumbled to dust.

******

I was sitting on the couch with my dad one day. It was late morning on a Saturday and we just got done eating breakfast. Our bowls were on the coffee table in front of us. On the TV was the local the news. My dad had an intent look in his eyes as he watched the various stories roll past. Normally I would’ve been up in my room watching my own TV or playing some video games. Maybe even reading a book. In short, anywhere but watching the news. I hated the news. It was boring and I never really got into it. Whenever my parents watched it, I would quickly find something else to do.

Not that day though. That Saturday, I was glued to the TV.

“There is still no sign of young Vicki Campbell,” a woman reporter said. I still remember her too. Her name was Vanessa Irving. Most of my friends (and even myself, I’ll admit) had some pretty insane fantasies involving her. She was extremely pretty. She had short blonde hair, bright blue eyes, and a gorgeous body. “Twelve-year-old Vicki Campbell disappeared from her backyard three days ago. There has been no sign and no clues as to her current whereabouts. Police Chief Bill Yearling had this to say.”

The picture switched from her to the police chief. He was on old man, his face filled with wrinkles and lines. Despite his age, there was still a sharp intelligence lurking in his eyes (even though at that moment they looked tired and worn out). He addressed the camera and his grim eyes were locked onto an audience he couldn’t see. They seemed to punch out at me. I remember that much. It was like he was staring straight through the cameras and right at me.

“If anyone has seen Vicki.” He paused so he could hold up a current picture of the girl. I focused on that picture, although I didn’t need to. I’d seen Vicki around the neighborhood many times, had even played and talked with her. The picture showed a smiling girl with reddish brown hair and bright green eyes. Her teeth were a little crooked, but I thought it lent her smile more beauty than ugliness. She had rosy red cheeks and dimples on both sides of her mouth. “If anyone has seen her, I would urge you to come forward. All we want right now is her safe return.”

I turned away from the TV and watched my dad’s face closely. It was intent and very stern. His jawline clenched and unclenched several times. His eyes were the worst though. His eyes held a blaze of anger that scared the crap out of me. It was an alien look. I’d never seen him with that anger in his eyes before. My dad wasn’t what you would call an angry person. Mostly, he was pretty relaxed and mellow.

That day, however, he looked like he was ready to murder someone.

“Dad?” I asked, hesitatingly. I didn’t want to say anything, but I couldn’t stand to see him like that anymore. I didn’t think I could stand it another second.

He turned his head to me.

“Yeah?” he asked. His voice was tightly controlled. He seemed to see my concern and that made him pause. His eyes lost focus for a second and when they came back, they were back to normal.

“Uhh...nothing. Never mind,” I replied, my voice cracking audibly. “I was just worried about you, that’s all. You okay?”

“Yeah,” he replied again. “The whole Vicki Campbell story is hitting me really hard that’s all. Why don’t you go ahead and play outside. Get yourself some fresh air.”

I nodded. I remembered thinking I could use some time with my friends. Some time to hang out and chill.

I got up and headed for the door.

“Tad,” my dad called. I turned and looked at him. “Stay with your friends. Don’t go off by yourself, you hear?”

I nodded.

“And be home before dark. Mom’s bringing a pizza home.”

I nodded again. My dad turned back to the TV and watched the news again. Barry and Kim (Vicki’s parents) were on the screen now. Both of them were crying. They were hugging and leaning slightly against each other. It looked to me like they would just topple to the floor if they weren’t holding each other up.

I walked out of the house with that image blaring in my brain. Vicki’s grief-stricken parents looked like they had nothing to live for. It was a sad thing to see. Still, that depressing image of two people who had their world ripped away from them was nothing compared to the terrifying anger in my dad’s eyes. I remember thinking that if he was in the same room as Vicki’s abductor (or abductors) at that moment of intense anger, he would’ve killed him/her (or them). Maybe worse than that.

But that was assuming someone took her. At that time, nobody was sure what happened to her.

I got outside and realized it was super-hot immediately. The air felt thick and barely breathable. It was so humid it felt like a swamp was floating in midair. The minute I waded through it, my face and back ran with sweat. I swiped an arm across my forehead, trying to get the worst of it off, but it didn’t do any good. The sweat just came right back.

I looked around for a second and tried to decide which direction to go. Mostly I did so by trying to guess where all my friends were hanging out. That was before the age of cell phones so I couldn’t just call them up and find out where they were. Luckily, they only hung out in a couple places, so it wasn’t like there were a lot of options to choose from.

I was thoroughly preoccupied with making my decision, so I wasn’t paying attention to anything else. Needless to say, I almost jumped out of my skin when something small and furry brushed up against my leg.

I let out a small (and, I’ll admit, probably girly) scream and was startled so badly that I nearly tripped and fell down my front steps. I would’ve fallen too if my hand hadn’t reached out, almost like it had its own mind, and snagged the rail. My fingers closed on it and my arm pulled taut. I grunted as a burst of pain hit my shoulder. When I had my balance back, I stood up and looked down.

I was pretty pissed. I was ready to reach down, pick the mystery creature up, and hurl it as far from me as I could. But what I saw made me pause instead. My hand was still halfway toward it. My fingers were still outstretched.

They mystery animal ended up being a cat.

On any other day, under any other circumstances, I still would’ve launched the damn thing halfway to the moon. Something about it made me pause, though. For one thing, it was the prettiest cat I’ve ever seen. It was a calico, so I knew it was a she. Calicos are all female. I can’t remember where I got that interestingly uninteresting fact from, but I knew it was true. The cat’s fur was almost completely white. The only thing marring that perfect whiteness were spots of orange and black. Weirder still was the fact that exactly half her face was tan and white while the other half was black. The two colors met in the middle and created a perfectly straight line from the crown of her head all the way to the tip of her nose. I didn’t know it back then, but I found out later that type of cat is called a chimera.

Even weirder than that was its eyes. When she meowed at me, she looked up and I met them for the first time. I felt a shudder run up my spine. There was something unsettling about them. Something that made me feel a deep, uneasy queasiness in the pit of my stomach. It took me a minute to realize what was unsettling and when I did figure it out, I thought it was a mistake. I even bent down to examine them more closely.

One of the cat’s eyes was not normal. It was the one inside the black side of her face. It was a bright green color while the other one was blue. That’s not the creepy part, though. The creepy part was the fact that it didn’t have a vertically slit pupil like you’d expect. The pupil in that eye was a wide, and very human-looking, black circle.

I shut my eyes as hard as I could get them to go, rubbed them for good measure, and then opened them again. The cat was still there and yes, its one eye was still very humanesque.

I swear it’s true. I couldn’t make that up even if I tried. I’m not that creative.

Anyway, the cat was sitting on her haunches now with her head cocked to one side and her super creepy eyes staring holes right through me. It was like she was waiting for me to do something.

I sat down on the last step and without hesitation, picked the cat up. I put her face up to mine. I wanted to see those peculiar eyes up close. I don’t know how long I sat there looking at that face. I’m sure if anyone was watching me, they probably would’ve thought I was a nutjob or something, but I didn’t care.

I was absorbed by those eyes (the strange one in particular). They seemed so intent on me. So, intent on conveying something important.

That thought hit me pretty hard. The minute it popped into my head I felt like I was going crazy. I felt crazy because I knew animals couldn’t communicate but watching that cat suddenly made me feel differently. If it could’ve talked, I’m sure it would’ve had some mind-bogglingly important information to share.

A shudder ran up my spine again, bringing with it a twinge of fear. I put the cat down, gave her a good-natured ruffle between her triangular ears, and left her there. I got up, breathed in the hot, muggy air, and headed down the street.

I didn’t get far before I heard, “What up, Tad!”

I turned and saw Jimmy Minks coming up the sidewalk. He was a year younger than me, but we were in the same grade (the joys of being born a week or so after the school’s cutoff date). He was twice as big as me though and that was all muscle. I gave him the nickname Hulk (I told you I wasn’t creative) but he was actually super slow to get angry and really mellow.

Jimmy ran a hand over his dark hair. There were drops of sweat on his forehead, neck, and chest. His dark skin was practically shining in the sunlight.

“Hotter than hell out here, ain’t it?” Jimmy asked.

“Yeah. Not liking that but at least it ain’t cold. I hate cold,” I replied. “Where’s Trev?”

“Parental lock-down,” Jimmy replied with a look of disgust on his face. “His parents put him on house arrest a few days after Vicki disappeared. They think someone took her.”

“That’s some shit. You really think that’s what happened?” I asked. I remembered the anger in my dad’s eyes, and it filled me with a dread I’ve never known before or since. It felt like my world was a fraying rope, ready to snap at any given second. “She could’ve run away.”

“I don’t know, man, but let me put it to you this way. We knew Vicks. You think she would’ve run away? You really think she’d do that?” Jimmy asked.

I thought about it and realized he was right. Vicky wouldn’t do that. She loved her home and her family.

I shook my head.

“Yeah, I didn’t think so either.” He stopped talking for a second, and I saw a touch of concern cross his features. Then they smoothed out and he looked at me again. “Hey, me and a couple other guys got a football game going on. We were down a man, so they told me to come get you. You want in?”

“Sounds good to me,” I replied, excited for the chance to get my mind off Vicki.

******

Our neighborhood was made up of a series of houses on the outside of one long oval. A street circled the oval and across that were more homes. But the inside of the circle, behind all those houses was a large, grassy field. It was the best place to play some football. It’s what we did most days.

Jimmy and I walked to our spot and found a group of about a dozen kids there. One of them spotted us and broke off from the pack. I smiled a broad, happy grin when I recognized him.

“Trev,” I called.

“What’s up losers?” He smiled back.

“I thought you were on house arrest?” I asked.

“You can’t keep all this locked up!” Trevor Potkin, or Trev to us, exclaimed. He put one hand behind his head and cocked out a hip in a very womanly way.

All three of us cracked up.

“Hey, you pansies ready to play!” Kevin Stone yelled at us. Kevin was an eighth grader and loved to rub the fact that he was the oldest in everybody’s face. It was comical, especially when you saw his scraggly mop top, painfully thin body, and thick glasses. Jimmy was already way bigger than him.

“Let’s do this,” I called back.

We spent the next several minutes picking teams. There was an even dozen of us (someone left while Jimmy got me, so Trev didn’t end up making things uneven). We had six to a team. Me, Jimmy, Trevor, along with Bruce Martinez, Chris Shwartz, and Donnie Cantrell were on one team. On the other team was Kevin, Jon Cyr, Bryce Warren, Tim Levitz, Sam Paul, and Robbie Cho.

I headed down the “field” with my team and Kevin led his to the opposite end.

We won the toss and decided to receive. I waited with the others as Kevin lined up his punt. He took a running start and dropped the football while kicking at the same time. He connected badly. The ball went spinning off to one side and I chased after it, yelling “I got it! I got it!” over and over again. The ball hit the ground and took a bad bounce, but I was agile. I twisted my body to the right, caught the ball out of the air, and took off like a cat with its tail on fire.

Jon almost had me for a minute, but that agility took effect again and I slipped through his fingers. There was a momentary tug on my shirt for his efforts, but it was gone a second later. Robbie charged at me like a bull, but he was both big and slow. I had no problem outdistancing him. Bryce and Tim decided it was better to try and tag team me, but I squeezed through them an instant before they would’ve crushed me. I was on the last twenty feet or so and only had Sam and Kevin to deal with. Sam was small. He was only in the fifth grade, but he was also unnaturally strong. If he got hold of me, there was no question I was going down. Probably hard.

I tried to burn him down the outside line. I would’ve sped past him too, but right when I was about to be home free, I spotted that cat again. That damn cat. There was no mistaking the thing either. Her white fur was a bright contrast to the deep shadows underneath the tree she was using for shelter. That, by itself, wouldn’t have made me screw up, but the fact that she was staring at me strangely again did.

I was so intent on her, even imagining I could see her mismatched eyes and the weird human-like one watching me closely, that I didn’t notice Sam (and Kevin now) get closer and closer to me.

A few seconds later, they plowed into me with the force of a freight train. One of them hit me up high while the other one wrapped up my legs.

I felt the breath whoosh out of me and my feet lift off the ground. Then my back smashed into the dirt and grass and things went a little grey for a minute.

I came back into focus a minute or two later and found Jimmy staring at me, concern on his face.

“Damn, man. You okay?”

I grunted as I tried to get my breath back. It took a minute, but I managed to get up. My head swam for a second before it cleared.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” I scowled.

I shot Kevin a dark look and he smiled arrogantly back at me. I fought an urge to attack him. To smash him to the ground and pound his acne-riddled face with my fists.

“Wasn’t paying attention. That’s all,” I went on.

I stared directly at Kevin as I said that. I made sure to tell him with my look that it was the only reason he got the better of me.

“Take a breather,” Trev told me, clapping me roughly on the back.

“I’m good,” I said, mostly because I wanted a shot at Kevin again. I wanted a chance to knock that arrogant asshole to the ground.

“Then let’s do this!” Trevor yelled shrilly and then laughed like a lunatic.

I smiled despite the pain I was still feeling and walked back to the middle of the field. It was still our ball. Despite that monster hit, I managed to keep hold of the football and not fumble it.

My team lined up. Jimmy was our center. I stood a couple of feet behind him, my knees loosely bent, and both hands out in front. I watched the other team’s faces. The two in the middle were Robbie and Kevin. Their eyes were locked on mine. They looked ready to pound me into the ground.

“Bring it!” I whispered harshly to myself.

I was still plenty angry, but mostly I was embarrassed, and it was that embarrassment that was really eating away at me.

“Hike!” I screamed, trying to throw all my anger into that yell.

Jimmy tossed me the ball and I caught it. I backed up a few more feet, putting distance between myself and the advancing horde. I looked, trying to spot my target. I found him a second later. I watched Kevin break through our line. He had a look on his face that was so stupid it almost made me laugh out loud.

I cocked my arm back and threw. I threw it as hard as I could...straight at Kevin. He looked mildly surprised as the ball hit him in the stomach. I could see the pain on his face, but it was momentary. Despite the surprise of having the ball thrown at him, he caught it. Which is what I was hoping for.

As soon as I let go of the ball, I started running. I picked up a good amount of steam when Kevin caught it. He juggled the unexpected catch for a second and right when he got control of the ball, I crashed into him with the full weight of my body. He fell to the ground and my chest ended up mashing his head into the ground and turning it roughly to the side.

I knew it hurt him. A lot.

I got up feeling smug.

Jon Cyr was the first to reach me. I just made it back to my feet. He pushed me. I stumbled back, got my balance, and then came at him with the left-over rage I still had. I pushed back but the rest of the teams, both mine and Kevin’s, came rushing in. The whole mess disintegrated into chaos. I saw Jimmy take on Donnie. Trevor was on Sam’s back, trying to bear him down to the ground. I broke away from Jon and found Kevin facing me.

“You’re dead,” Kevin roared. There was a cut on his eyebrow from where his glasses grinded into skin.

“Bite me!” I shouted back.

He came at me, trying to tackle me again.

“Stop!” a voice yelled, full of authority. Full of command. It was the voice of an adult.

I turned to look at who was yelling at us. My face was probably bright red with anger still. As soon as I saw the man, my guilt and shame swelled up inside me.

The adult was Barry Campbell, Vicki’s dad. He was on the deck in his backyard, watching us all with tired eyes. We could see his head and the top of his shoulders over his white fence. There were deep, sunken circles underneath his eyes and his face looked thirty years older than it should’ve. That guilt surged forward again, and I looked at the ground. Here was a man literally sick with fear and I was starting senseless backyard brawls over something that was, ultimately, my own fault.

I looked at Kevin. His eyes were still glistening with dull anger.

“I’m sorry, Kev.” I stuck out my hand. The anger in his eyes slowly receded until nothing was left. A smile broke out on his face. He came forward and shook my hand.

“It’s cool,” he replied but he squeezed hard, trying to grind the bones in my hand together. It was a grip that said, “I didn’t forget. You’re still going to pay.”

We broke away and so did the game. No one was really in the mood to continue. If you ask me, I think it was because we’d seen Barry Campbell.

We’d seen him before. Lots of times. He was one of those guys that was always happy. Always with a smile on his face. He always looked like a man that had everything in his life that he wanted or needed. A man who was content. He didn’t look like that anymore. Now, he looked ruined and hollow.

“Let’s go,” Trevor said, throwing an arm around my shoulders. When we were away from the others, a smile broke out on his face. “Dude, you were on fire! The way you smashed into Kevin was freakin’ awesome!”

I didn’t think it was awesome, though. I felt ashamed at what I’d done.

“That was a dick move, Tad,” Jimmy chimed in.

He stopped walking and I turned to look at him, but I wasn’t angry. I couldn’t be angry. He was right, after all.

“I don’t know what got into me,” I replied. My head was hanging down and my eyes were glued to the sidewalk. I couldn’t even bring myself to look my friends in the face.

“Don’t be sorry about it man,” Trevor laughed. “I wish I’d recorded it. I’d play that shit back over and over.”

“Shut the hell up, Trev!” Jimmy yelled, pushing Trev roughly.

Trevor got right up in his face, one bony finger poking into Jimmy’s chest.

“Both of you shut up!” I yelled, getting in between the two. “Jimmy’s right, Trev. It was a dick move! Now just let…it…go! Both of you.”

They were silent for a long time, just staring at each other. They were still angry, but the tension was dropping out of the air.

“Now what?” Trevor asked. He looked at the both of us with a sad sort of eagerness.

I couldn’t help but feel a little frustrated with him. Trevor was the type of person that always had to be doing something. He always had to be entertained. It was very exhausting at times.

“I don’t know about you guys, but I’m starving. I’m going home for some food. I’ll see you guys later.” I wasn’t really hungry, though.

That was a lie.

Mostly I wanted to be away from my friends. It was because of that guilt, I think. It wasn’t so bad with Trevor. His moral compass definitely left something to be desired. It was a hundred times worse with Jimmy. Jimmy had a conscious. Jimmy knew right from wrong. He might’ve had my back in that fight because we were like brothers, but he didn’t agree with what I’d done.

“Yeah. It is getting late. See ya, bro,” Jimmy said.

We slapped hands, held them together for a second, and then let go.

“Late,” Trev said. We slapped hands too, but instead of letting go, Trev pulled me in for one of his “bro” hugs. At least that’s what he called them. He threw an arm around my back and clapped it roughly for a second and whispered harshly in my ear. “It was freakin’ awesome, dude. Awesome. Don’t feel bad about being awesome.”

I felt disgusted by his praise, but I let it go. I started walking back to my house. I thought being away from Trevor would do me some good. Jimmy too, although I felt I deserved the reaction he’d had. Didn’t mean I had to like it though.

I was nearly to my house when I felt like I was being followed. I dismissed it for a couple of seconds, but the feeling didn’t go away. It was like an annoying itch you couldn’t quite scratch. I turned around quickly, expecting Kevin for some kind of revenge, but it wasn’t him.

Meowww!

I stared at the cat, more than a little angry with her. She was, at least in my head, the reason why I went postal on Kevin. I lashed out at her, trying to make her think I was really going to kick her, but she stayed put and called my bluff. She looked up at me and meowed again, her weird eyes never leaving mine.

“What do you want from me?” I yelled, getting desperate now.

As soon as the words were out of my mouth, the cat took off. It was like it was waiting for me to ask that the whole time. I watched her run off, relieved that she was finally leaving me alone. But when she got about twenty feet away, she stopped, looked back at me, and just stood there. I’d seen enough TV shows and movies with animals as stars to know what she wanted. She wanted me to follow her.

“Screw that,” I whispered to myself.

I’d also seen enough TV shows and movies to know that you NEVER, EVER, went strolling around by yourself. Especially when there was a big possibility that a child predator was on the loose.

I turned and started walking up to my house’s back door. I was turning the knob when the cat barreled into my legs. I lost my balance and would’ve hit the cement porch with my back if it hadn’t been for the railing. I clutched it as hard as I could. The muscles in my arms pulled painfully, but I managed to yank myself up. That was the second time I nearly died by cat.

I got to my feet and whirled on the damn animal. I was fully intending to kick the cat for real this time, but she was already at the end of my porch.

Waiting. Waiting and, you guessed it, staring at me.

“Go away!” I yelled. My control over my anger was slipping. That damn cat was really getting on my nerves.

She didn’t leave though. She just stayed there. Her strange eyes were flashing brightly in the sunlight.

I let out a disgusted sigh and turned the knob, getting ready to go in. The cat meowed again, and my hand froze on the doorknob. Something in its voice made me stop. There was an almost human-like quality to it.

I thought I was going crazy.

The cat meowed again and again she sounded so human-like.

I closed my eyes and tried to ignore her. But there was an intense curiosity rising inside me. I really wanted to know what the hell was up with the cat. There was something really strange going on with her and it was driving me mad trying to figure it out.

I opened my eyes again and turned around (against my better judgment). I decided to go for it and see what the cat wanted.

I walked back down the steps and over to her. She didn’t try to run away. I didn’t really expect her to, but you never know with animals.

I squatted lightly on the balls of my feet about six inches from her and reached out with a finger. The cat sniffed it three or four times and then rubbed her furry head on it. When she looked up at me this time, I thought I saw a pleased look buried in her eyes.

“What’s your name?” I asked it.

The cat purred loudly, rubbed her head on my pant leg, and looked at me for a second.

“All right, cat. What is it you want to show me?” I asked.

The cat looked at me for a second like she was trying to judge how serious I was. Then she took off again in the same direction as before. I sighed resignedly and followed after her. She walked slowly so I could follow without trouble. In a few minutes we were back at the makeshift football field. She kept going until she was under the shady tree where I spotted her before. She sniffed around a bit and then settled in. I sat down next to her and she crawled onto my lap.

“What are we doing here?” I asked, but of course, she didn’t answer.

We were there for about twenty minutes - with me on the verge of sleeping - before something happened. All of a sudden, the cat let out a strangled meow. The sudden and loud noise jolted me awake with a bolt of fear.

I looked down at the cat and found her watching something with quiet intensity. I followed her gaze and found Mikey Stephens coming out of his house. I watched him slide his back door shut and turn around. He saw me almost instantly and waved. I waved back and ignored another squealing meow from the cat.

Whatever she wanted, it had something to do with Mikey. That was obvious. Of course, I didn’t know what that something was at the time. Sitting here now, in the present, I can tell you I wish I’d had a clue back then and I wish to hell I’d been smarter.

“Hey, dude. What are you doing out here?” Mikey asked.

“Chillin, mostly. What are you up to?” I asked back but I was distracted. At that point, I was still trying to figure out why the cat was reacting to Mikey so strongly. Hell, I was still trying to figure out the cat in general.

“I was gonna try and get it on the game, but it looks like you guys called it quits before I got the chance to get out here,” he replied. “I guess now, I’ll see if Sam wants to hang out.”

“All right. Take it easy then,” I told him.

He nodded. “You too.”

Mikey walked off. The second he walked away; the cat seemed to go completely crazy. Her body tensed up and that squealing meow kept coming out of her, one right after the other. Her intense eyes followed Mikey, refusing to look anywhere else.

“Easy, girl,” I said, absently petting her.

I watched Mikey until he disappeared around the front of a house. That was the last time I or anyone else saw Mikey Stephens alive. He went missing that night, just like Vicki.

The cat got off me and ran after Mikey. She didn’t stop to wait for me this time, so I got up and just went home. I was a little pissed with the cat. I followed her like she wanted but she led me to absolutely nothing.

When I found out Mikey disappeared early the next morning, I felt sick with guilt. Like I said, I wish I’d been smarter. I should’ve known the cat led me to him because he was a target. If I’d put two and two together, I could’ve warned him.

But I didn’t and that’s on me.

******

After I eventually got back to my house, I went into the kitchen and got out a can of Pringles. I popped the top off and started eating them as I walked into the living room. The TV was dark, and my dad was nowhere to be found.

“Dad!” I yelled.

“Up here!” he called back.

I went upstairs and found him hunched over the computer. He was staring pretty intently at something. He seemed a little better than when I’d left him. He wasn’t as angry.

But he was acting weird. It was kind of like he was eager about something.

He looked over at me as I came in.

“Mom’s going to be here in a little bit, why are you eating?”

“Got hungry, couldn’t wait. Whatcha doing?” I asked, nodding at the computer.

“Nothing,” he replied quickly as he shut down what he was doing and turned off the monitor. “Just research for a side project of mine.”

“Oookay,” I said around a mouthful of Pringles. Tons of crumbs fell out of my mouth and hit the carpet.

“Grab your mitt. We’ll throw the ball around until mom gets home,” he said.

“Sounds good to me,” I replied.

We went downstairs. My dad got outside before I did. I had to put the Pringles back and then I went out the back door too.

Outside, my dad tossed me my mitt. It was a battered and worn glove, but I kept it because he bought it for me when he’d been on a trip to San Francisco. That and because old and worn also meant extremely broken in and easy to use.

I put it on and held it up. He threw the ball and I caught it with ease.

“Have you seen anyone strange hanging around the neighborhood lately?” he asked me.

I could tell he was being protective of me and considering the business with Vicki, I thought he had ample reason to be. But the question still frustrated me.

“Dad, really?” I asked. “We don’t even know what happened to her. You’re jumping to conclusions.”

“Am I?” he interrogated, smiling a little. “Maybe I am, but I’d rather be safe than sorry. And if there’s some kind of psycho out there abducting kids, I want to make sure I don’t let you walk outside with a target on your back.”

“No. I haven’t seen anyone strange.” I sighed and threw the baseball back at him. I put some heat on it and the ball whip-cracked into his glove.

He gave me a pleased, proud look.

We spent the next several minutes in silence, but it wasn’t awkward. It was nice. It was...comfortable.

“Dad?” I asked, thinking about the anger I’d seen in him before. “Why do you think someone kidnapped her?”

“What else could’ve happened?” he questioned.

I didn’t say anything to him then, but I caught a bit of hesitation in his demeanor. It was like he didn’t want to answer my question.

I dismissed that notion as stupid. Why would he not want to answer a simple question? Besides, he was right. What else could’ve happened? She got lost? Not likely. The odds that Vicki managed to do that were slim. We were in a pretty large, residential area. There were roads and streets everywhere. Cars. Houses. People. Civilization, in short. If she had gotten “lost” then someone would’ve found her by now.

“What if she just…you know…ran away?” I asked. I pretty much dismissed that idea already, but I was latching onto the hope that something other than abduction was in play.

“I’m glad to see you actually use that brain of yours, son,” he replied with a grin. “I guess that is possible. What do you think? You knew her. Did she ever say anything to you about running away?”

“No, but it’s not like she would’ve told me. We’re not that tight.”

“Tight or not, do you think she would’ve done something like that?” he asked.

I was growing increasingly uncomfortable with these questions. It was true that I hung out with Vicki a couple of times, but mostly, we ran in different circles. She had her friends and I had mine.

“How was work?” I asked suddenly.

I was blatantly trying to change the subject. I think that was what finally got through to him. He saw how uncomfortable I was and decided that it wasn’t worth putting me through that.

“Work was all right.” He smiled and tossed the ball back, but his eyes were far away. They were thoughtful eyes and it wasn’t hard for me to figure out what he was thinking about.

We didn’t talk anymore after that and five minutes later we called it quits. We headed back inside, and I went up to my room. I decided to watch some TV before my mom got home with dinner. My dad went back to the computer.

I turned on the TV and was just in time for the evening news. They were talking about Vicki again and I waited to hear if there were any new developments. But there weren’t. All they did was rehash the same old stuff.

A little bit later, I heard my mom pulling up the driveway. I turned off my TV and headed downstairs. She was just walking through the door when I hit the bottom step. She had her briefcase in her right hand and a pizza balanced on her left hand like a world class waitress.

“Hey, baby boy,” she greeted, smiling.

“Not a baby anymore,” I replied, smiling back.

“Yeah, yeah. So you keep reminding me. I wanted to keep you a baby forever, but your dad said no. Anyways, you hungry?”

“Starvin like Marvin, girl.”

She laughed and we both went into the kitchen and sat down.

“Greg!” my mom bellowed.

“Down in a second!” I heard my dad bellow back.

I was pretty sure he was still up there on the computer. Whatever he was doing, it was consuming him.

He finally came down a couple minutes later and we ate. The pizza was good. It was a large sausage/pepperoni from Dominoes, complete with breadsticks. I ended up stuffing myself and regretting that decision almost immediately. I finished my food quickly and excused myself. Mostly it was so I could escape the awkward tension hanging around the dinner table. I knew what was on everyone’s mind. Vicki. Her probable abduction. Is she still alive? Did someone take her? Where is she? Is my son safe? Am I safe? Questions, questions, questions.

And those questions lead to fear which lead to panic which lead to a whole lot of trouble.

Eventually, I heard my mom and dad leave the kitchen and go into the living room. They started talking to each other. They kept their voices low, but I still heard them. My dad said something about how I’d gone outside for a few hours. After he said that, the shouting started. I turned the volume down on my TV so I could eavesdrop on them.

“What were you thinking?” my mom asked. Her voice was sharp and angry but there was more than anger in it. There was hysteria too. She sounded so scared. “You sent him outside alone after what happened to Vicki?”

“Tad is a smart kid, Cindy,” I heard my dad respond in a calm, collected voice. He always got that way whenever my mom started tearing into him. “He can handle himself, and anyways, I told him to stay with friends. There’s even less chance of someone trying to take him if he’s with a big group.”

“I don’t give a rat’s ass if he’s with friends or not. The fact is we don’t know what happened to Vicki. She might’ve run away, but there’s just as much chance that someone took her,” she yelled. “I swear to Christ if something happened to him, I would never forgive you. And after everything he…”

“Shh. Now is not the time to bring that up. Besides, I know that, but we can’t keep him locked up forever. As much as I want to,” he replied, still calm. But I could hear anger in his voice anyway. It was just buried deep.

Which terrified me.

My dad’s anger was a sluggish beast. It was slow to be provoked but at the same time, I knew that once it was completely awake it was a full-fledged monster. It was one of the reasons why his reaction to Vicki’s disappearance was so unsettling for me. To see him that angry and upset wasn’t good.

For anyone.

I decided I’d heard enough. I turned the volume back up on my TV and lay down on my bed. All I did was stare at the ceiling for a long, long time and contemplated life. It was really boring.

I dozed off a couple times.

Meow.

I sat straight up, confused for a second. I must’ve completely fallen asleep because it was dark now. I looked around blearily and that’s when I saw her.

The cat.

“I don’t freakin’ believe it,” I whispered. My heart was racing. My body felt cold and my head pulsed sickeningly.

I watched the calico jump down from my open window (which I swear had been shut before). She got up onto my bed and gazed at me with her eerie eyes.

“What are you doing here? And how did you get up here?” I asked.

Obviously, she didn’t answer. Instead, she walked up to me and climbed over my legs. As soon as her paws landed on me, I felt a numbing coldness spread through my lower body. It was an entirely different species of cold than anything I’d felt before.

This cold was…paralyzing.

The cat’s front paws were on my chest and its eyes were locked on mine. I felt like I could barely move, and breathing was hard to do. I reached out a hand, not really thinking about it, and touched the cat’s head. The instant I touched her, I felt a jolting shock like I’d just rammed a fork into an outlet. Then I started seeing...things. I don’t know exactly what they were. Visions, I guess? But I wish to God I could un-see them. Even now, they’re still there. Stuck in my memory.

Just to be clear, I wasn’t a willing participant in whatever the cat did to me. Also, it was very unfair that I was being made to watch what the cat forced me to watch.

I’ll try to describe what I saw. Most people probably won’t believe me, but some will, and I guess that’s enough for me.

First of all, it felt like I’d gone back to sleep and then “woke” up again. This time, however, I was in a difference place. My bed was gone. There was only grass now. I got up somewhat weakly and looked around. I was in someone’s backyard which was surrounded by a white fence. It took me maybe a second before I recognized where I was. The fence was a dead giveaway. After all, I’d just seen it a couple of hours ago.

I was in Vicki’s backyard.

As soon as my mind made that connection, she appeared. Like magic. She was running back and forth across the grass, doing cartwheels obsessively. She must’ve done it twenty or thirty times. Then she stopped. She turned and looked at me.

“You’re here,” the girl said.

I felt my skin crawl at the way she said that. She said it like she’d been waiting for me.

“I’m...uhh...here,” I responded. I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

She looked down at my feet and a wide, radiant smile lit up her face.

“Here kitty!” she said, squealing like a, well, a little girl. I looked down and saw that the cat was standing completely still beside my feet. The second she heard Vicki’s voice, she darted to her. Vicki lifted her into the crook of her arms and petted her.

“What’s going on, Vicks?” I asked her.

She looked up at me, and a slight frown marred her face.

“I hate it when you call me that. You know that. It’s the same name as that disgusting cough medicine,” she replied.

“I’m sorry…Vicki. But this is really creepy shit and all I want to do is wake up,” I told her.

Her frown disappeared and a sly smile replaced it.

“Shit. Shit. Shit.” She laughed. “My parents can’t put soap in my mouth here. At least there’s that.” Her smile faltered as she thought of her parents and she started to cry. Without thinking, I ran to her, hugging her close.

“What happened to you Vicki?” I asked her. But I thought I knew. It was pretty obvious. “Why am I here? Do you want to tell me what happened?”

She backed away and looked at me. I could see her eyes staring intently. They looked apologetic, like she was trying to say sorry.

She shook her head no.

“Not tell you. I have to show you,” she whispered. It was low, but I could still hear her words.

Horror suddenly filled me. Whatever it was she had in mind, I wanted no part of it. I tried to back away from her, but I couldn’t move. My heart sped up and up until I thought it would explode out of my chest and land on Vicki’s backyard.

Before I could stop her or tell her no, Vicki’s hands were clasping the sides of my head.

“I’m sorry,” Vicki said. Her face was filled with guilt.

I screamed.

A second later, things got weird and before I knew it, I became her. I became Vicki. I felt like I was floating inside her head, seeing everything she saw.

******

I was running across the backyard, doing cartwheels. I did so many of them that I got tired and I stopped. So, I sat in the grass and stared at the sky. It was a pretty mix of purple and pink. I was content. I was happy.

And then arms were around me. Powerful arms. I tried to scream, but a hand was suddenly over my mouth. It tasted horrible and bitter. I gagged hard. My stomach jumped in several sudden but painful spasms. Then we were at the fence that surrounded my (Vicki’s) yard. I could see a hand reach out and push some loose boards aside. Boards that I knew hadn’t been loose before. We came out into the field behind my house and he started running.

His arms were hurting me. They were crushing me. I tried to scream harder, but my voice was too muffled by his disgusting hand. We crossed the street, ran between two houses, and then plunged into the woods. I could feel branches and bushes with thorns on them whipping into my arms and legs. I could feel blood trickling out of the scratches they’d made. It went on like that for so long. The man just kept running and running. I thought he would tire himself out, but he didn’t.

Eventually, we came out of the woods and onto a dirt road. A car was there, waiting for us.

I was scared.

So scared.

I tried to get away before he could put me in that car. I knew it would be bad if he did. I kicked my legs and scratched his arms. He didn’t yell out in pain though. He didn’t seem to feel anything I did to him.

One of my more violent kicks managed to knock him off balance. He fell to the ground, taking me with him. I could feel his hot breath whoosh out of him and spill against the side of my neck.

When we hit the ground, his arms let go of me. The second I was free, I got up and ran. There was a second where I thought I was going to make it, but a hand wrapped around my ankle and pulled. I fell to the ground and he was on top of me in a second. He picked my head up and smashed it onto the ground. Over and over again.

Then there was only black. But that was okay. I liked the black. In the black, I was safe. In the black, I didn’t hurt.

The black didn’t last though.

I woke up to a bright light shining down on me. It hurt my eyes. I couldn’t see anything at first because it was too bright. That was fine with me though. I didn’t want to see.

My eyes eventually adjusted though, and I saw that the man who took me was hovering over me. I couldn’t see his face though. The only thing I saw was his arm. Four bloody tracks were grooved into his forearm from where I’d scratched him.

I felt a sense satisfaction at knowing I hurt him.

“Let me go. Please,” I cried. My tears were hot as they rolled down my face.

The man didn’t answer. Instead, he held up something bright, shiny, and sinister. I cried harder. He brought the object closer to me. I felt it press against my skin and then I felt it when it cut into me.

“Stop it,” I cried. The pain was so huge that I immediately went cold and started shivering. “Stop it, please! Can’t you just stop? Why can’t you just stop?”

He didn’t stop though. He just kept cutting me. It was too hard to know what he did. Things were too foggy and jumpy for me to know, but they were painful, evil things. Just…evil. I cried for my mommy and daddy. I cried for help. I cried for help for what seemed like hours.

Finally, I cried for him to stop and he did. But he wasn’t done with me. He put me in a bed and strapped me down for hours. Or maybe it was days. I don’t really know. It was hard to tell. Time was there but not there. I wanted the black again, but it didn’t come to save me. To envelope me. Instead, he came back.

He started again but this time he started by pulling my pants down.

I cried again but this time I cried harder than ever before. I was crying for my mommy and my daddy. I was crying for God to save me. I was crying for anybody to save me.

But no one would.

No one came.

He got tired of me eventually. He inflicted his pain and his evil on me and then that was it. My end wasn’t quick either. He made it last as long as he could. He made the pain last as long as he could. He made me scream for as long as my heart would allow it and then it just stopped.

The black came back one final time and I welcomed it. I jumped at it.

And I finally left the pain behind.

******

The last thing I heard before that blackness stole over me was Vicki’s, the real Vicki’s, voice.

And what she said to me froze me with terror right down to my core.

Vicki told me that I had to stop him. I had to be the one to do it!

...because he wasn’t done yet.

******

I jerked awake. My heart was hammering in my chest.

“Tad!”

I could hear someone yelling.

“Tad! Wake up!”

My wild, frightened eyes popped open and found my dad’s. I saw concern and fear all over his face. His hands were shaking me roughly, trying to wake me up.

“Tad, you’re having a nightmare. Wake up.”

I seemed stuck between the real world and the horror of my nightmare. Slowly, (painfully slowly), the nightmare world receded, and the waking world took its place. My heart slowed down and my breathing turned from rapid shallow breaths to deeper, more fulfilling ones. I could feel my head getting clearer and clearer.

I sat up and looked past my dad. My mom was at the doorway, biting her lower lip. Her arms were folded over her stomach and she looked sick with worry.

“I’m okay,” I croaked. My throat felt raw and on fire, like someone had flayed it with a whip and then poured salt on it for good measure.

“Are you?” my dad asked, not convinced. “You were yelling for an hour straight. We tried to wake you up, but we couldn’t. You just kept yelling.”

“An hour?” I asked, shocked. I was locked in that world for an hour? It felt more like twenty minutes.

“You okay, baby?” my mom asked, coming inside and sitting on the bed.

“Yeah,” I replied. I tried to give her a reassuring smile, but I think it all it did was make her worry more.

I was trying to wrap my fragile brain around what just happened. I tried to tell myself it had all been a dream, but I knew deep in my core that it was way more than that.

I remembered the cat and jumped off the bed, trying to look for it. The cat was the answer. I knew it then. I should’ve put it together before that, but come on...who would really believe that a dead person would come back as a cat? And that quickly too.

“What are you looking for?” my dad asked.

“Uh…nothing,” I replied. I could see how worried they were, and my behavior wasn’t making it easier. “I’m sorry I scared you guys. I’m fine now.” They didn’t look convinced. I stared at the both of them. “Really. It’s all right.”

“You sure?” My dad.

“Positive?” My mom.

“Yeah. It’s all good.” I looked at the clock. It was almost 12:30 in the morning. “If you guys don’t mind, I’m going to try and get some real sleep.”

“Okay. We’ll go. Just…get some rest. I guess,” my dad told me.

I nodded to him.

“We love you, baby boy.”

“Not a baby, mom.” I forced a smile.

“So you keep telling me.” She smiled back but it was a humorless smile.

She leaned in and kissed my forehead. I let her because I thought it was more for her benefit than mine.

I watched my parents pull away from me. They looked scared, like they were the ones that woke up from a nightmare instead of me.

“Love you, bud,” my dad told me.

“Love you,” my mom chimed in.

Then they left me alone.

I felt…better, I guess. I wasn’t scared anymore, even though I could still see those horrible images from my nightmare in my head. I thought they would fade but they didn’t. The longer I sat there, the more powerful they grew in my mind. All of them. And I knew two things for sure.

Everyone’s theory that Vicki was dead had been right.

And someone (maybe someone close) murdered her.

I couldn’t sleep anymore. All I could do was sit in my room and stare out my window. A complex, cocktail of emotions swirled through me: anger, fear, sadness, guilt. I kept thinking of Vicki. I kept thinking of what that…that monster did to her. I could hear her screaming for her mommy and daddy. I could still hear her yelling for him to stop.

Can’t you stop? Why can’t you just stop?

I got a sudden, deep feeling that I was being watched. I looked down at the ground. The cat was there staring back at me. I didn’t know what she wanted now, but I knew what I wanted. To help her. I can’t tell you why I wanted to so bad. Maybe it was all the images of Vicki’s torture and painful death. Maybe it was the pure and simple fact that Vicki was just a little girl, and that psychotic asshole wiped her off the face of the earth in as cruel and painful a way as he could manage.

Someone had to help her. Someone had to take him down.

I wanted to be that person.

I got out of bed, walking as quietly as I could. The boards on my floor squeaked loudly if I stepped on them too hard and I wanted to make absolutely sure that my parents didn’t catch me. They would stop me, and I couldn’t have that. I had to do what needed to be done.

I grabbed a light jacket, slipped into it, and then opened the window. I was still in my jeans and t-shirt from earlier in the day, so I just kept those on.

I went to my window and silently opened it. I crept onto the roof. I walked to its end and jumped down. It was about a five-foot drop, so I landed with barely any pain. I walked across my backyard to the cat, who was waiting patiently for me.

The cat let out a soft purring sound when I got to her. I absently petted her head as I urged her to move slightly to the side so I could get through our fence.

As soon as we were out of my backyard, the cat took off. It was like she’d been given some unknown cue.

I hurried after her.

I don’t know how long I followed her, but it must’ve been nearly an hour. I followed that cat through the neighborhood. Behind houses. Through people’s backyards. I was getting pretty hot and sweaty, but I ignored the discomfort. I knew what I was doing was important.

It wasn’t long before we came to the woods.

I’ve played in those woods with my friends for as long as I can remember, but those happy, fun memories weren’t what I thought of then. What I remembered was the horrible nightmare the cat made me witness. They were so vivid that I was able to walk on my own. Those memories from the dream guided me. I had complete confidence that I knew where I was going and, in a few moments, I proved myself right. I pushed myself through a really nasty bush and when I came through the other side, I saw it. It was the dirt road Vicki’s killer had used.

Reality seemed to bend for a few disorienting moments, and I could almost see the car idling there. I could almost hear the crash and snaps of branches as someone blundered through the woods behind me.

I shook my head to clear it and then continued on my little journey. I turned right on that road and walked down for maybe forty or fifty yards. Then I plunged into the woods again with the cat still at my side.

I had to follow her now. I didn’t know where I was supposed to go anymore. The cat picked up on my uncertainty and took the lead. She was easy to follow. That glaring white on her was a beacon that was hard to lose.

Twenty minutes of that hour were spent walking through woods, woods, and more woods. It didn’t take long for me to get irritated and flustered. My drive to help was slowly being eaten away.

“Where the hell are you taking me, cat?” I asked.

The cat looked back at me for a moment, seemed to roll her eyes, and then walked on.

I sighed miserably.

“Why?” I asked it now. I couldn’t contain my anger anymore. After what it showed me, I would’ve done anything to help Vicki. To…put her to rest, I guess. But I was at the limits of my tolerance and talking to the cat seemed like a good idea at the time.

She didn’t answer me. Shocker.

“Why me? Why reach out to me?”

The cat stopped suddenly and looked at me. There was a very human emotion to go with the creepy human-looking eye. Sadness and a terrible knowledge. It was like she knew something. And I had the feeling that it wasn’t about what happened to Vicki. It was something else.

The cat turned away from me and walked again. I walked after her.

Ten or so minutes later, the cat stopped for good. She turned in circles over an area littered with dead leaves from last fall and then settled down. She curled her legs under her and just sat there, watching me closely.

I didn’t hesitate in what I did next. I immediately got down on my hands and knees and started digging near where the cat had laid down. Some imperative inside me told me that’s what I was supposed to do, so I did. I was already pretty sure about what I would find. So sure, in fact, that part of my mind screamed at me to stop. The screaming turned to yelling and the yelling to a manic, frenzied plea. It was so intense that I almost did stop three times. Each time I did, though, I heard Vicki in my head.

“Can’t you please stop!?”

That’s what she had asked him. That’s what she asked her own, personal monster. But her pleas were ignored. No one had been there to make him stop hurting her. No one had helped her. But I was here now. I was here and I could help her.

So I kept digging. I kept digging until my dirt encrusted fingers brushed against something pliable. Something flexible. I looked into the hole and found a shiny and black object. It was a trash bag. It wasn’t an ordinary one either. This was one of the big, thick ones that most people use for yard work or big jobs.

I dug my fingers into the bag and pulled it apart, my heart in my throat. My head was screaming again.

My head apparently thought I was crazy.

The bag ripped open and a puff of putrid, rancid stink smacked me in the face. I coughed harshly and backed out of the hole I’d made. My stomach was lurching in big, painful spasms. I made it to a clear spot and got down on my hands and knees. A flood of half-digested pizza spewed out of my mouth.

When it was finally over, I crawled my way back to the hole. My head was screaming even more insistently at me. It developed a whining, almost childish tone now. I ignored it. I cut that voice off ruthlessly. I just kept telling myself that I had to finish what I came there for.

I took a deep breath and looked inside. What I saw made me scream out in horror. Tears suddenly spilled down my cheeks in a hot flood. I thought I’d been prepared for what I would find but I was wrong. Vicki’s decapitated head obliterated whatever resolve I managed to have. It vaporized it.

I backed away, still crying. The cat followed me and rubbed against one of my limp hands, trying to console me.

“Why?” I asked again. Why did I have see that? Why, why, why? I slammed a fist against the ground, repeatedly. When my hand started throbbing in pain, I slammed it against the ground one last time. “Why? Why am I here?” I asked again, whispering this time.

“To remember,” a voice said suddenly.

I nearly jumped out of my skin. I backed away from the voice, scuttling along the grass and dead leaves. They were slimy and dark. I looked around with wide eyes, What I saw nearly drove me insane. I wanted to scream again, and I tried but my voice was gone. The only thing that came out was a small, almost whistling croak.

Vicki stood there. It was Vicki but it wasn’t. She was only a pale, semi-translucent apparition that seemed to be hanging directly above the cat. Her legs merged together near the knees, ending in a tendril-like rope that was tethered to the calico.

“Re-remember wh-what?” I asked.

But she didn’t answer. Instead, she seemed to dissipate. Her…particles, I guess you could say, just burst apart into a cloud and then flowed into the cat.

I managed to get to my feet...somehow. I felt drained though. My legs didn’t seem to want to hold my weight and I collapsed to the ground again. I took a couple of seconds, breathing deeply, and then got back to my feet again. I felt stronger this time.

I looked at the hole I’d dug into the ground with such sadness and anger for a while, wondering what kind of psychotic, son of a bitch could do that to a little girl. Then I pulled out my crappy, pay-as-you-go cell phone, thanked God I still had some signal out in the boondocks, and called the police. I told them where to find Vicki’s head.

I didn’t give them my name and I did what I could to erase my presence from the crime scene.

******

The next couple of weeks were the worst experience of my life. Vicki’s tragic murder was big, national news. Police started showing up in our neighborhood and asking questions. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with them and I guess I was convincing enough to fool them when I said I hadn’t seen anything or anyone strange.

Nope, officer. Nothing strange here, I remember thinking when they were asking me their questions. Nothing at all. Oh, unless you count the weird cat with the human eye leading me to Vicki’s decapitated head in the woods. No? You didn’t mean that? Well, then. We’re good to go.

The kids in the neighborhood, and I mean all of them, were forbidden from going outside unless one or both parents were with them. A couple of them snuck out sure, but they were a minority. They were the brave ones I guess you could say. Most of the kids didn’t stay inside because mommy and daddy said so. Most of them stayed inside because they didn’t want to be next.

The hysteria caused by Vicki’s murder was bad, but it only got worse. The hysteria went to new levels when it became apparent that Mikey Stephens went missing too. I could remember the last time I’d seen him. I can still remember watching him walk away. Mostly, however, I remember that it was the cat that led me to him. She’d tried to show me who the next target was, and I ignored the warning. I tried to wrap my head around that one simple fact. The cat had known. It had known who was going to be taken next.

I remember one day that summer. It was about two weeks after Vicki’s body was found. I heard my dad come home. The front door banged shut behind him. He was breathing hard and my mom starting yelling at once. She was angry but mostly she was scared. I crept slowly down the stairs and stepped over the ones that squeaked noisily. When I got to the bottom, I looked to see what was going on.

“Dad!” I yelled it before I could think better. I’d known it was a private conversation but what my dad looked like at that moment scared me nearly as much as finding a severed head in the woods.

My dad’s face was bloody. It came pouring out of his nose, which looked crooked and misshapen. I could tell he’d broken it. There was also a gash going along his left cheek. It bled crazily but it didn’t look deep. His knuckles were split and bleeding; plus he walked with a limp.

“You see!” my mother shrieked. “You’re scaring him!”

He looked at me and there was something sad in his eyes. He gestured me over and I came, crying softly. I got close to him and he folded me into one of his patented, bear hugs. He squeezed hard and then hissed in pain against my ear. He backed away and had one of his hands pressed against his ribcage.

“What happened?” My mom came up to him. She put her hands on the sides of his face and forced her eyes to his. “What happened?”

“Watch the news,” he responded. He lifted her hands off his face and walked away.

It was the first time I’d seen him just dismiss her like she wasn’t even there. She started crying but forced herself to stop when she saw me there.

“Go to your room, Tad,” she said, her voice thick. “Please.”

I nodded, dumbfounded. My dad looked like he’d been in a brawl and fought a dozen guys at once.

And my mom looked like he’d just destroyed their marriage by doing it.

All of a sudden, I wanted nothing to do with either of them. I just wanted out. I wished I lived in another neighborhood altogether. Didn’t matter which one. Just not the one I was in right then. My neighborhood let a little girl get kidnapped and murdered. Not just murdered but tortured too.

I went up to my room and sat there. I didn’t turn on the TV. I didn’t play video games. All I did was sit on my bed and look at the wall. My room slowly started to get darker as time went on.

All I could think about was Vicki. Vicki’s murder. Vicki’s abduction. I saw what those events were doing to the people around me, especially my dad. I kept thinking about what he said, “Watch the news,” he’d said. My curiosity started gnawing at me. I grabbed the TV remote off my nightstand and turned it on. I switched the channel to the news. It was just starting, and the top story was the brutal beating of a registered sex offender. The sex offender lived in our neighborhood. The sex offender, although the news wouldn’t really give specifics, was an offender against children.

I understood what my dad did. I understood that he beat the shit out of a pedophile, and I have to say, I wasn’t disgusted by the fact.

Two days after that, another sex offender in our area was mysteriously beaten. A day after that, another one. The police came again. They arrested several men in connection with the beatings. One of them was my dad. I watched the cops take him away, yelling several choice words at them as I did. They ignored me though.

I went to the window and watched them haul my dad away in the back of a cruiser. My mom was crying and promising him she would come bail him out.

And that was just the tip of the iceberg. Other beatings happened too, but nobody could figure out who’d done them. The tension was a fully tangible thing. A solid object. People wouldn’t talk to each other. Everyone was too terrified. They were always wondering in the back of their minds if their neighbor had taken Vicki. Or maybe it was their friend that did it. Or the old timer that walked the streets in the early mornings. Or the kid that mowed their grass. Or the mailman. Or the newspaper boy. Or the babysitter.

The fear was a tumor and all that tumor did was grow bigger and bigger.

My little town was on the brink of tearing itself apart.

******

A couple days after my dad got back from being in jail, I found myself in my room again. I was minding my own business when...

Remember.

The word came from out of nowhere. I was alone.

Or that’s what I thought at least.

I looked down and sure enough, there was the cat. I wasn’t surprised. I was beyond that now. The only thing I felt was a strange sort of acceptance. The cat settled on my chest, its odd eyes staring into mine. I rubbed its head affectionately, scratching it behind the ears. It purred loudly.

“What do you want now?”

Remember.

“Remember what?” I asked the empty room.

The cat didn’t react except to purr louder when I petted it. I tried to figure out what I was supposed to remember. I forced my brain to cough it up, but it wouldn’t. I pushed the cat off me in sudden irritation. It meowed loudly in indignation.

A couple minutes later, I heard something rap against my window. I didn’t think much of it at first until I heard the sound again. I got off my bed, went to the window, and opened it. I looked out and found Jimmy, Trevor, and Kate Wilson standing there with sly, we’re-doing-something-bad smiles on their faces.

I smiled back and glanced at my door. I was probably going to get in major trouble, but I didn’t care. I wanted out. I wanted away from the crazy virus of panic and terror that was slowly taking over my house.

I opened the window as quietly as I could. Then I pushed the screen open and climbed out. I turned around to close the window but before I could, the cat jumped out and landed lightly on the roof. I let out a disgusted sigh, finished closing the window, and then scooted closer to the edge of the roof. I took a look at the ground, sucked in a breath, and then jumped off. I grunted as I landed but sprang back to my feet a second later. There was another soft thump. I looked over and saw the cat.

“What are you guys doing?” I asked, my voice a harsh whisper.

“Man, come on. We can’t stay here,” Trevor whispered back. He threw worried, fearful glances at the windows to my house. “Let’s go.”

They all broke off running while still trying to be as quiet as they could. This made them all look like goofy-looking ninjas. It made me smile to see them like that.

I followed after them, running on the balls of my feet to muffle their impact.

We left my house behind in no time and I felt something almost like relief. I thought about the way my dad looked when he came home that one night. I remembered him bleeding everywhere. I remembered his broken nose and his limp. I thought about the fear and worry I caught in my mom’s eyes every time she looked at me. I realize we were probably the dumbest kids on the planet for running around outside with a child abductor and murderer still on the loose. But it didn’t feel stupid. We felt…free. Free of all the craziness going on. It just felt good to get away from my parents and what was going on in my house.

“Where we going?” I asked, breathing hard now.

“We’re just gonna chill somewhere,” Jimmy called back.

“Yeah. Anything is better than being stuck at home with nothing to do,” Trevor chimed in.

“I like your cat,” Kate said. I looked down and found her running alongside me, keeping pace easily.

I smiled lamely at her. Kate was my years-long crush. She hung out with us a lot back then.

“What’s her name?” she asked.

My brain froze for a second as I tried to think of something on the fly. The only name that kept popping up was Vicki. I stammered awkwardly for a couple of seconds and then I came up with something I could actually use. “Specter.”

“I like that name,” Kate replied.

She was a knockout for sure, but she was also super easy to talk to and fun to be with.

I felt a little thrill jolt through me as she reached out and grabbed my hand with hers. Jimmy and Trevor noticed immediately.

Jimmy said nothing about it.

Trevor, on the other hand, started making silent kissing faces at me behind Kate’s back and was stifling his urge to laugh out loud.

“Dude, I didn’t know you even had a cat,” Trevor said after he’d calmed down and gotten himself under some measure of control.

“Yeah, when’d that happen?” Jimmy asked.

“She sort of just showed up the other day and won’t leave,” I replied, shrugging. I decided to leave out the part about the cat being some sort of pawn of Vicki’s restless ghost. Or Vicki herself. I never was sure what the cat was exactly.

We slowed our pace to a walk. We crossed the street, walked in between two houses, and then made our way down a large, steep hill. The hill ended at a large flatland filled with grass and not much else. We all called the area Rocky Road. No one was sure why it had such a ridiculous name. There were no rocks and no road at all.

Near the middle of the grassy field was a couple other figures. When we got closer, we could hear laughter and loud voices.

“Let’s get this party started!” Trevor yelled.

Jimmy shook his head and walked on. Kate took her hand from mine and ran up ahead. She immediately went over to two other girls that were there, Ellie Underwood and Mae Young, and started whispering with them excitedly. Kevin, Sam, Robbie, and Bryce were there as well, although they stayed in a group apart from everyone else.

It was exciting. Being outside when we weren’t supposed to be. It had a certain thrill factor to it that was super enticing. The moon hung suspended in the air like a giant, silver balloon. The stars were bright pinpricks of light and the few clouds in the sky were nothing but small little puff balls. I took a deep breath and reveled in that feeling. In that sense of absolute freedom.

“What are we doing?” Kevin asked. “And I’m not doing anything with that jackass.”

He nodded toward me, a spark of anger in his eyes.

“Dude, let it go. Don’t be such a whiny little girl,” Trevor said, clapping Kevin roughly on the back.

I felt my own anger surge forward at the insult. I was about to get in his face and start something but thought better of it. I extended a hand instead.

“No hard feelings,” I said, with complete sincerity. “The truth is, I got distracted, and when you tackled me, I lost it. Mostly, I was pissed at myself. We cool?”

Kevin looked at me, trying to determine if I was telling him the truth. Apparently, he seemed to think so.

“Yeah, we’re cool.”

“Great. Awesome. Now we’re all bros again,” Bryce said, pushing his thick-framed glasses up on his nose. He had a slightly irritating, nasally voice too. I remember I hated that voice. “If I’m going to get busted for doing this, I ain’t getting busted for just sitting out here with our thumbs up our asses. What are we doing?”

“I agree with four eyes here,” Robbie said, ducking away from Bryce when he tried to smack him on the back of the head.

“I’ll beat the living shit out of you if you call me four eyes again,” Bryce responded, sulkily.

Sam remained silent, standing there with stoic calm. Despite the exterior though, I thought I’d caught a hint of humor in his eyes. Nobody knew why or if he was really mute, but Sam never talked. Ever. He would just shrug or raise his eyebrows or something like that. And despite his habitual silence, he was still one of the funniest kids I’ve ever known. It’s weird, I know, but if you knew Sam, you’d agree.

“What do you guys want to do?” I asked. “I only have an hour, tops, before my mom finds out I’m not home.”

“All right, all right,” Trevor said. “My vote is for manhunt. Who’s up for that?”

All of us enthusiastically agreed, girls included. We split up into two teams. Jimmy, Trevor, Sam, Kate and I were on a team. Kevin, Bryce, Robbie, Ellie and Mae were on the other. We flipped a coin and my team hid first. The others stayed behind, counting.

As soon as they started counting, we all broke off at a dead run. We hit the hill in a couple of seconds and ran up it as fast as we could. When we crested its top, we ran to the street.

“Me, Sam, and Trev will go this way,” Jimmy said. “You guys stay that way. And stay together.”

“Yeah. Ok,” I agreed, silently thanking my friend for setting up the alone time with Kate. “Alright. You ready?”

“Let’s go,” she said with a smile. She grabbed my hand and yanked me along.

I watched Trevor, Jimmy, and Sam run down the street, away from us. I remember feeling ridiculously happy in that moment as Kate held my hand firmly while looking back at me and smiling.

“Where are we going?” I asked her.

“To the middle. Behind the houses,” she replied. “To where it’s darkest…”

Kate shot me a sly look.

I felt my grin stretch widely across my face in response to that look. I felt like everything was going great, despite the fact that there was a killer on the loose. Sadly, that feeling didn’t last long. Just as we got to a space between two houses, all the happiness I was feeling just seemed to drain out of me.

I stopped running and stood stock still. That oppressive, draining sensation only deepened.

Kate stopped too. She asked me something, but I couldn’t hear her. I couldn’t hear anything. There was a roaring, ocean-like sound inside my head. Distantly, I could feel the cat winding itself through and around my legs, meowing softly. I hadn’t realized she was even still around.

As the last shreds of happiness left me, I felt a sickening, icy dread take its place. My knees felt too weak to hold me up and I collapsed to the ground. On top of the intense dread I was feeling, a drilling spike of pain shot into my head.

I had to work hard to keep from screaming out loud as the pain in my head got worse and worse.

I could hear Kate asking me what was wrong. I could feel her caring, gentle hands gripping the sides of my face and trying to make me see her. See anything! But I couldn’t. I couldn’t see a thing.

I thought I was going blind for a second, but I realized quickly that wasn’t it. It was that everything was being driven out by a white light. It was a small pinprick at first but then it expanded so quickly that the only thing I could see was white.

I felt my eyes roll up in their sockets. Kate gave one more worried cry. I heard the damn cat meow again. I thought I felt it lick my face but that could’ve been my imagination.

After that, everything went blank.

******

I woke up in a strange dreamscape.

I was in exactly the same place as I was in the real world, but this dream world had a disquieting blue tinge to it that stained everything. The light was also sharper but at the same time darker. It felt ominous. Dangerous.

I looked up and saw that the sun was a bluish ball hanging in the sky.

“Hello?” I called.

Nobody answered.

I walked around for a second but stayed in mostly the same area. That wasn’t my choice either. I just didn’t seem able to go anywhere else. Every time I tried, I’d be able to get about ten paces before my body seized up and I’d lock up like someone turned me into a statue. The feeling wouldn’t pass either. Not until I made a conscious choice to turn around and go back to that spot in between the houses. Once I did that, my muscles would unfreeze, and I was able to move again.

I turned around and found a hazy shadow figure standing a few feet away, staring at me. My heart leapt into my throat and a river of ice flooded my body. I froze again, although this time it had nothing to do with trying to leave this freaky place. I was frozen with fear.

Pure and simple fear.

The figure walked toward me, and I backed up. My foot hit a rock and I fell on my butt painfully. I resorted to crab walking away.

“N-no. L-leave me alone,” I stuttered. My voice had no real power. “Not again.”

Again?

What the hell is going on? I asked myself. I knew nothing like this ever happened to me before. That didn’t explain the emotions suddenly whirling through me: fear, outright terror, shame, humiliation, and guilt. I couldn’t understand why this weird figure caused me to feel so many emotions all at once.

Suddenly another figure coalesced into my weird dream. This one, however, I recognized easily. It was me only a younger version of me. I was maybe eight or nine in this version. He came into being already walking toward me, unaware of my presence, and equally unaware of the menacing threat close by.

I looked so happy and carefree.

That’s going to change. I thought furiously.

“Hey!” I yelled, but he didn’t hear me. “Stop! Turn around!”

But nothing got through. He just kept walking.

I screamed harder but it was useless.

I suddenly remembered I was on my way to meet up with some friends. I wouldn’t get the chance to meet up with them though.

The shadow man was going to make sure of that.

As soon as the thought entered my head, the shadow man made his move. It was quick too. One arm snaked around and clamped its hand over my younger self’s mouth. I saw my eyes grow wide and bulge in their sockets. I could see myself trying to scream. Nothing came out but sounds too muffled and low to be heard. The man’s other arm snaked around my waist and yanked me off my feet.

After that, the shadow man took off. He ran to a car still idling on the street. My heart nearly stopped from shock when I saw it. I’d know that thing anywhere. It was the same car that took Vicki.

I ran toward the car. I was screaming and yelling so much my throat hurt.

I got to it just as it drove away. I saw my younger self screaming in the back seat. I saw him pounding on the glass.

I was breathing hard and was bent over with my hands on my knees. I was panicking on top of everything else (which was making it even harder to breathe).

What am I going to do? How do I stop this?

As soon as the car was out of sight, I lost time or blacked out or something like that. It was like the entire world just disappeared for a few seconds.

The sensation didn’t last that long though. When the world started coming back, I wasn’t on the street anymore. I felt like that should be weird but for some reason it seemed completely logical in that dream world.

I looked around and realized I was in a dark, windowless room. In a corner was my younger self. I was lying as motionless as a corpse on a dirty, stained up mattress. My eyes were opened so wide I could see their whites (even though it was dark in the room).

Younger me was trying to move, but straps held me pinned to the bed. One was around my forehead and two more locked down my wrists. The final two straps were wrapped around my ankles, so my legs were pinned down too.

A massive explosion of fear went off in my chest as I watched what was going on. I fell to the ground. My legs lost all feeling. I was left a whimpering, crumpled mess on the floor while my younger self lay trapped on that horrible bed.

I was crying.

I looked up from my spot on the floor. There was a loud sound coming from the bed. It was like a creaking, straining noise. It was me making the noise. Well, younger me anyway. I saw myself pulling and yanking on the straps, trying to break them but they wouldn’t budge.

I was trapped there.

The door opened suddenly. Light filled the dark room and showed a figure silhouetted in the door frame. I saw myself go practically crazy.

The shadow man walked in. Most of him was shrouded in darkness. I did see one thing though. His wide, toothy smile. It was a creepy, greedy thing that floated in the blob of darkness that passed for his head.

My younger self and I screamed at the same time, in perfect synchronicity and in complete and total terror. The shadow man’s smile got bigger, like he enjoyed the screams. He walked fully into the room and stood next to the bed my younger self was on. He leaned over me. I saw the man’s features grow less foggy and more distinct, but it wasn’t enough for me to ID the guy.

I didn’t want to see what was about to happen. I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to force myself to wake up.

Wake up! Wake up! Wake up! This is a dream. It’s a dream so DAMMIT WAKE UP!

But I didn’t. I didn’t wake up because I was supposed to…to…Remember.

The word filled my head like someone whispered it directly to my mind. It told me one thing. I was locked in this Hell, this prison, and there was nothing I could do to get out.

Then things started disappearing again. There was a very brief respite from that nightmare world and then I was “awake” again. This time, I woke up on a table. I was no longer just observing the scene, however. This time I had merged with my younger self. We were both one.

I blinked rapidly. There was a bright light that filled my whole vision. My head felt groggy. It made my stomach roll with uncomfortable nausea. I was pretty sure that I’d been drugged. I didn’t feel right and I could barely move. My throat was dry and raw.

A voice inside my head told me not to move. Not to make a sound and to keep my eyes closed. I followed that inner voice’s advice. Soon after, I heard someone in the room with me.

The shadow man! It’s him. It’s him. It’s him.

My mind was a blast of chaotic fear that paralyzed me more than the drugs.

The shadow man came over to me and ran his hand along the entire length of my body. His touch was soft, almost caressing. It was by far the creepiest sensation I’d ever felt. I had to force myself not to shudder (which was super hard). I managed to do it, so my sleeping ruse was kept intact.

Whether I was asleep or not didn’t matter to the man. I found that out a couple seconds later.

He picked something up from a metal tray and came back over to me. Then his hands were pulling up my shirt. I had no time to react. As soon as my stomach was exposed, my world was filled with pain. He cut into me, drawing a gory line across my stomach from my belly button to just beneath my rib cage. I wanted to scream and cry, but I knew I couldn’t do that. I knew I couldn’t let him know I was awake. I bit down on the scream and tried as hard as I could to stay still. I was crying. They were big large tears that rolled out of my eyes and dripped down the sides of my face. I couldn’t do anything about those.

I took a risk and opened my eyes, but I only opened them a little. I wanted to try and see who was hurting me, but it didn’t really do any good. He was still just a silhouetted blob of darkness. It was like he was some kind of unreal demon creature.

When I opened my eyes, I saw him hunched over my stomach with a knife in one hand. My blood gleamed on its polished blade.

The cut hurt but watching the shadow man bending over me and hearing the slurping sounds was worse. And then he cut into me again. When his head came back into view, he was chewing on something.

A new wash of terror and disgust rolled through me when I understood what he was eating. It was a piece of me. My flesh. My blood. The monster had cut a piece out of me and ate it! I don’t honestly know how I managed to not move after that. Instinct, maybe. Or maybe it was some kind of deep-seated survival trick all humans are born with. Whatever the reason, I managed to keep up my little ruse.

The shadow man was done slicing into my stomach. He put the knife down and came to stand near my head. He leaned down. I could feel him looking at me. Staring at me. I closed my eyes to where I barely saw anything through my lashes.

The shadow man was leaning in closer to me. I could see his manic, greedy smile. There was blood around his mouth and chin. I looked at that smile, and my blood on his face, and my fear abruptly switched to anger. It wasn’t just anger though. I’d felt anger before. The rage I felt at that moment was so intense that I think I completely lost my mind to it. It was like I was gone and was replaced by something else entirely.

I let the shadow man get in closer, close enough to smell the faint aroma of his breath (which smelled vaguely like fruit mixed with blood). When I thought he was close enough, I honed my anger and used it as a weapon.

My eyes popped open and I saw the shadow man twitch in surprise.

I shot up, grabbed onto his ears as hard as I could, and pulled with everything I had left. His head was yanked down and as it was, I brought my forehead smashing into his at the same time. I heard the bone in his nose snap and then felt it crunch. The man howled in pain and stumbled back. He crashed into a lot of metal objects that hit the floor and then careened everywhere.

I saw my chance and took it. I shot off the table, which almost proved to be a mistake. The drugs and loss of blood about sent me to the ground but I took a second to get my bearings back. When I felt stronger, I grabbed the first weapon I could find (which happened to be the knife with my blood still on it).

I ran up to the shadow man and plunged the blade into his chest with all the strength I could put into it. I was still under the influence of that burning rage and was practically fearless. That was the only reason I had the courage to do what I did.

The impact of my attack was jarring, and my hand twisted painfully when the knife struck a bone. I let go of it, ignoring the shadow man’s outraged scream of pain, and bolted. The room was small, and I got to the door before he did. He was still struggling to get up.

I opened it, slammed it shut behind me, and ran. I ran up a flight of steps, opened the door at the top, and then barreled my way out of the shadow man’s house and ran some more. It all happened so fast that I saw literally nothing of the shadow man’s house. The only thing that sunk in was the fact that the house wasn’t a house. It was actually a cabin and it was in the middle of a heavily wooded area.

I didn’t care about that though. I just ran. I ran through the woods, praying that I was heading in the right direction. I was breathing so hard. I felt sick too. I thought I was dying. But I didn’t stop running. I didn’t stop until my throat was on fire and a heavy, painful stitch had planted itself in my side. When I stopped running, I walked. I walked for so long that time grew fuzzy in my head. It felt like I was lost in some kind of time warp, like it had no meaning for me anymore.

At some point, I managed to make it to a road. I’m not sure how but I did. I like to think God was pointing me in the right direction that day. I didn’t even pause. I just picked a direction and continued walking. Anytime I would hear a car, I would hide. I didn’t want to risk it being driven by that monster. When the cars passed on, I walked some more.

I don’t know how long I walked. My feet were cut and bloody. I remember that. It must’ve been hours, but I can’t be sure.

Eventually I got too tired to go on. I could barely see straight. My feet hurt. My stomach hurt. I was breathing hard. I couldn’t take it anymore. I collapsed to the ground on the side of the road. I kept screaming inside my head to get back up. I screamed at myself that the shadow man was probably still out there looking for me. I just couldn’t though. I couldn’t get back up. I had nothing left. I was beyond exhausted and it was too hard.

The shadow man never did find me. Instead, I was lucky, and a cop spotted me and pulled over. He ran to me to see what I was at first. I imagine I probably looked like some kind of animal or something. When he realized what he stumbled on, he immediately called an ambulance. Once that was done, he draped his coat over me. I was shivering at that point. He asked me questions that I had no answers to. My memory was gone. Completely. He stopped a minute or two later when he realized I either wasn’t going to answer them or wasn’t capable of it. Instead, he sat next to me and offered what comfort he could until the medics arrived.

Ten or twenty minutes after the cop found me, the ambulance got there. They put me on a stretcher and drove me to the hospital. The EMTs did their thing and saved my life. I’m not sure exactly what they did. Everything was hazy at that point. I remember telling them my name though. They kept asking me what it was, so I finally answered.

Once I got to the hospital, someone called my parents. I’m not sure how long it took for them to get there. Forever. At least that’s what it felt like at the time. Eventually, though, they arrived and were rushing into my room. Their faces were red with exertion. My mom was crying, and my dad had a wide-eyed look of disbelief and shock on his face.

My mom kept telling me, again and again, that everything was going to be all right. My dad just kept asking what happened. He asked it over and over and all I could do was tell him that I had no idea.

My entire memory of the shadow man and what he did to me was gone. It was like my brain said, “Fuck that shit. We aren’t gonna remember any of that horror show. Trust me.”

And I was fine with that. I didn’t care. I didn’t want to remember. I wanted to keep my childhood. I wanted to protect my innocence or whatever you want to call it. I was just a kid. I shouldn’t have to forfeit those things. Right?

Eventually, I couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t take the fear and worry on my parents’ faces. I couldn’t stand all the people coming and going. I didn’t want to talk to the cops. I just wanted an escape. So, I made myself drift off to sleep, hoping to find some sort of peace there.

******

“Quiet. I think he’s coming to,” someone was whispering.

I woke up slowly. The fog of that dream world was still pounding its way through my head. I felt like throwing up.

Everything was back. Every last memory my brain tried to bury all those years ago. I wished violently that it stayed gone. That was a memory I would’ve gladly buried back in the deepest parts of my subconscious. But now it was out, and it was enjoying its freedom. It taunted me. When I closed my eyes, I saw that...that...shadow man. I saw myself plunging a knife into his chest. I saw myself running. Running. Running and not stopping.

I tried to get up, but my head was still a little fuzzy and lightheaded. I couldn’t make it until hands grabbed me underneath the armpits and hauled me up.

“Are you okay?” I heard Kate ask me.

“Y-yeah,” I replied unsteadily. “How long was I out?”

“Almost ten minutes,” Kevin told me. “What happened to you, man?”

“I just…I don’t know. Fainted, I guess,” I replied. I felt a surge of fear when I saw them all staring at me. I was sure they all knew. I felt like they could read it on my face as clear as a neon sign. “I-I’m going to...uh...go home.”

Everyone protested but only halfheartedly. No one actually put up much of a fight because no one knew how to act about what just happened.

I walked off. Kate joined me for a little while but when it was apparent, I wasn’t going to talk to her, or really say anything at all, she said bye and left. Part of me wished she wouldn’t’ve left, wouldn’t’ve left me alone, but another, bigger part was happy she did. I didn’t want to look her in the eyes. I didn’t want to see the worry on her face. So, I was left to deal with the shattering knowledge of my real past alone. It was so hard. All I wanted to do was run home and cry. I wanted my parents to hold me and comfort me. I wanted them to keep me safe again. I didn’t want to feel like everything was crashing down around me. Then I felt anger. A lot of anger. I was enraged at my parents for letting me “forget” and also for letting me get taken by a monster. I was mad that they hadn’t protected me like they should’ve. And that they lied to me.

That tornado of emotions didn’t stop. It messed with my head all the way home. It was one of the few times in my life where I legitimately thought I was crazy.

Meow.

I looked down and of course the cat was there. It was always there these days. Stupid cat! Stupid damned cat that brought back all this pain and the memories I repressed a long time ago. I reached down and picked it up. My rage and anger were so hot, so in control, that I almost strangled her. My mind yelled, screamed, howled at me that the cat was the problem. It was all her fault! She brought back the memories like rats had brought on the plague.

But sanity returned. Or at least some semblance of it. My hands loosened around her and I set her down.

“Go away!” I yelled instead. “Get the hell away from me!”

Amazingly, she listened. She gave me a look before she took off, though. I can still remember what I read in her eyes. Guilt. And sorrow.

I let her go and I was happy she was gone. If I never saw that cat again in my life it would be too soon.

I walked on to my house and when I came to the door, it opened on its own. A human shaped blob of darkness stood in the doorway.

(It’s him. Oh Christ! It’s him! The shadow man!)

I let out a ripping, fear-ridden scream and stumbled away from the shadow person. My wide, terrified eyes bulged out of my head and my heart pounded painfully in my chest.

“N-no!” I heard myself yell. “G-get away from me!”

“Tad?” the shadow asked.

As soon as I heard the voice, I realized that the shadow person was actually my mom. She raced out of the house and folded me into a hug.

“Tad, what’s the matter?”

My body was shaking horribly. I couldn’t get it to stop.

I pulled away from her a little. I could see her face now. I could see her. I forced myself to reign in that fear, to get hold of myself, but I couldn’t. I sat down and cried instead. I let out great big, whooping sobs as we sat in the grass. She held me tightly, her grip comforting. Then she rocked me back and forth gently.

“Shh,” she cooed. “Shh...It’s okay. Don’t worry, you’re safe.”

But I didn’t feel safe. I felt vulnerable. I felt frail. Worst of all, I felt like nothing was ever going to be right again.

We spent the next ten minutes or so sitting on the grass. My mother kept talking to me. Eventually, she talked me into getting up and going into the house. I did so, rising on shaky, trembling legs. She led me to the couch, and I let myself fall into it. My mom sat next to me, her hand gently rubbing my back.

“What happened?” she asked.

“I-I d-don’t want…. I just want to…to forget it. I want it…g-gone!” I yelled through my cries. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw him. I saw the shadow man and I knew that it was never going away. Not this time. It was here to stay.

“Tell me,” my mom continued. “Tell me what happened?”

I shook my head no. Vehemently. She tried to get me to tell her again, but I wouldn’t budge. She finally kissed my forehead, which was damp and clammy with sweat. Then she stood up, gently taking me with her.

I got to my shaky, wobbling feet again and walked with my mom’s support up the stairs and to my room. She sat me on my bed.

“Get some sleep, baby boy,” she told me with a sad smile. “Please.”

I nodded silently and laid down on my bed. I stared at the ceiling, still crying a little.

“We’re gonna help you. We’re gonna get through this,” she said. Then she walked out of my room and shut the door behind her.

When she was gone, I numbly got out of bed and stood in front of my full-length mirror. I turned on my light and pulled up my shirt. Across my lower stomach was an ugly, red scar. I’d always thought I got it when I fell out of a tree but now, I knew the truth. Now I knew what really happened to me.

I put my shirt down with a horrified shudder and laid back down on my bed. I was afraid to go to sleep because of the nightmares I might see, but it came anyway and with eerie suddenness.

But, as it turned out, my fears were baseless.

I didn’t dream of anything but empty darkness that night.

Sometime later, I woke up with a headache. Bright light from my window speared into my eyes, causing the headache to go from a dull ache to a jackhammer-like, pounding sensation. I blinked my eyes rapidly, trying to adjust them to the light, and found my dad on the end of my bed, staring at me with a far off look on his face.

He was in bad shape. He looked haggard and worn out. The cuts on his face had band-aids plastered to them. The knuckles of both hands were scabbed over with thick clots of blood. When he saw me looking at him, he smiled weakly at me.

“Hey, buddy,” he said.

“Dad!” I yelled. I leaped up and gave him a hug. For the moment, my headache seemed to disappear.

He winced slightly when I hugged him.

“When did they let you out?”

My dad got arrested the other day again for assault. Him and a pretty sizable group of people went around beating the crap out of people on the registered sex offender’s list again.

“They couldn’t hold us. The people we…taught a lesson to, I guess you could say…weren’t able to positively identify us. They couldn’t really hold us any longer,” he explained. “But the cops will be watching us.”

“Why did you do it?” I asked, although I thought I could at least guess. Fear, mostly. And anger. But now, given what I remembered last night, I thought a little more.

“I don’t really want to talk about it,” he said.

“You knew,” I countered. “You knew this whole time what happened to me.

I saw the truth in his eyes at once.

“Yeah. We both did,” he replied, sighing heavily. “They said the cut was too clean. They said someone had to have done it to you. They also said you were lucky to get away. The bastard that did that to you was a killer and…and liked to torture.”

“But you never told me what really happened?” I accused, crying.

“The doctor’s said it was so traumatic for you that you blocked the memory out completely. They thought it was best to let it stay blocked. I’m so sorry, son,” he replied. His eyes were tearing up and he had to work hard to stop himself from breaking down completely.

“Is that the real reason why you went around beating up those people?” I asked. “For some kind of revenge?”

He didn’t answer but again, I read the truth in his eyes.

“Rest up and try not to think about what happened to you, okay? It’s in the past, you should let it stay buried there.”

He got up to leave but I grabbed his arm.

“It’s not. In the past, I mean.” My dad turned and looked at me, his face disturbingly serious. “It’s the same guy. I know it is. The one that took me is the one that killed Vicki. He got Mikey Stevens too. I don’t think he’s going to stop.”

“How do you know that?” he asked. “Do you know who it is, Tad? If you know then you need to tell the police. There’s nothing to be scared of. They’ll get him and put him away for the rest of his life.”

“I don’t know who he is. I just know he’s the same guy that took me,” I replied, trying to be as convincing as I could.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“I want you to stay in the house. No more midnight strolls with your friends, okay?”

“Sure.”

He left my room but not before I caught the sad, guilt-ridden look on his face. It was hard to see something like that. It looked a little like he was broken too even though that horrible event happened to me and not him. I suppose it had something to do with the fact that he was supposed to protect me, no matter the cost, and he felt he failed. I, of course, didn’t blame him, not really. He had no control over what happened to me, but I didn’t think that’s how he saw it. I think he carried around a mountain of blame on his shoulders.

I sat on my bed for a long time in a far off, thoughtful daze. My mind kept running and running. I was the first. It’s why the cat chose me and why Vicki came to me for help. The shadow man had come after me first, but I got away. Now, because I’d been unable to deal and my mind just blocked out the experience altogether, Vicki was dead. I might as well have been the one to kill her. Mikey too because I knew he was either dead already or wishing he was by now. By not doing more to stop that sadistic bastard, I practically signed both their death warrants. It was a stupid way to think, I know. I couldn’t stop myself, though.

I finally got off my bed. It was really hard to do. Most of me wanted to stay in my bed forever and never get up from it again. I knew, though, that I couldn’t let myself do that.

I shed the clothes I’d slept in and put on a fresh pair of jeans and a t-shirt. Then I went downstairs and ate some breakfast. My mom and dad sat at the table with me, both of them quiet and nervous. I could see their eyes flitting to me in quick little dashes, trying to see if I was going to be okay. After a long time of shoving food around my plate and not eating it, I finally stopped pretending and just pushed my plate away. My appetite was non-existent.

“I’m sorry,” I told them. “Guess I’m not hungry.”

“That’s okay, baby boy,” my mom said. She seemed to deflate when I let the baby comment slide without saying anything.

I went back up to my room and as I passed my window, I caught a glance of the cat in my backyard. She was staring at my window with unblinking vigil.

She looked like she was waiting for me.

Without even thinking, I went to my window and silently opened it. I crawled out and jumped to the ground. I landed about a foot away from the cat.

She took off the second my feet hit the ground.

As soon as I saw the cat outside my window, something inside me just knew what I had to do. It burst inside me like a firework.

Every last detail.

It was scary. I wish I could’ve had my dad and mom with me, but with that knowledge also came the realization that I had to do the next part by myself.

******

I walked down the sidewalk, but I was cautious. I kept my eyes on my surroundings, always trying to see everything at once. I didn’t know where to start, but I knew that time was running short. That sense of growing hysteria was getting stronger and it felt like our neighborhood was wrapped in a perpetual blanket of fear. I couldn’t let things keep going on like this. I had to end it.

Meow!

I looked behind me at the cat hovering near my feet. I didn’t feel any anger or fear anymore. All I felt was a calm sort of acceptance and a growing intuition that things were coming to an end. One way or the other.

Meow!

The cat watched me carefully. It was like she was judging me, wondering if I could pull off what needed to be done. It was also like she was trying to tell me she was ready for it to all be over too.

I felt a pang of sorrow smash into my heart at what Vicki had gone through. She didn’t deserve that. No one did.

“I’m sorry, Vicki,” I told her. “This never should’ve happened to you.”

I started walking again. I had no real plan. But what I did have was an intuition of sorts. It started as something light at first. Like a misty rain. That was back in my room. Now that I was out and walking around, my intuition rapidly picked up speed and was growing into one mother of a hurricane. The cat was a part of it. I needed her with me. She seemed to agree because she followed me as I went down the sidewalk. I let my mind drift and let my feet do the walking. When I came to, I guess you could say, I wasn’t surprised to find myself between the same two houses where I collapsed last night. The same two houses where I’d been abducted.

I guess that’s fitting. I thought then. It ends where it began. It’s almost poetic in an ironic sort of way.

I stood there for a long time. I was almost in a sort of doze, somewhere between sleep and the waking world.

“Tad?” a voice called.

I turned around, slowly. The dream that was forced on me came back with sudden viciousness. The shadow man was back. The shadow man was there. Right there! I backed up involuntarily, looking at the person who called my name with outright terror on my face. I breathed slowly, deeply, until I got it under control.

“Are you all right, Tad?” the figure asked again. But it wasn’t just a figure this time.

It wasn’t a shadow man...a creature born out of my darkest, deepest nightmare. No. This was not a stranger. It was just a man. A man named Don Walsh. Don Walsh was a well-known figure in the neighborhood. He coached almost every sport there was to play. He’d even been my coach once or twice. He was on several community boards. More than that, he had the community’s trust.

But he’d never had mine. Not once. In fact, I despised him. I always have. Pretty much since day one.

I never really understood why. He seemed like a decent enough guy. A normal guy. He worked a 9 to 5. He mowed his grass every Sunday. He was...average. Boring even.

He was also diabetic. I remembered he would use his illness as a way to motivate the various teams he coached.

“I might have this illness...this thing that could kill me, but do I let it beat me? No!”

I’m paraphrasing but that’s pretty much what he’d say.

It might seem insignificant that he has diabetes but it’s not. It’s important because in some cases, diabetes gives a person a somewhat “fruity” odor on their breath.

An odor kind of like the smell of rotten fruit.

I realized why I always hated Don. My mind might’ve blocked out what he did to me, but subconsciously, it latched onto that one clue and tried to warn me about him.

“Mr. Walsh,” I said. My throat was dry and felt like sandpaper.

“What are you doing out here by yourself?” he asked. “It’s not safe.”

“I suppose that’s true,” I replied. I looked down at the cat and found her shaking terribly.

“Come on. I’ll take you back to your house. I’m sure your folks aren’t really happy with you.” He reached out with one hand and I clearly saw marks on his forearm. Not just marks, though. Long scratches that hadn’t even had time to heal all the way yet.

A flash of Vicki’s experience went through my head. I saw her raking her nails across her abductor’s forearm, leaving bloody furrows in the exact same place as the ones that were on Don’s forearm.

I backed away from him.

He looked at me with confusion for a minute.

“Something wrong?” he asked.

“Why?” I asked him, flat out ignoring his question. Anger came surging back up. Red, raging anger. I nearly screamed the question at him.

He jumped back from me as if I’d slapped him.

“What are you…” he started to ask, but I didn’t give him the chance to finish.

“Why?” I asked again. “Why’d you kill Vicki and Mikey? Why would you do this to me?”

I yanked my shirt up, showing him the ugly scar on my stomach. The scar from an evil man who enjoyed inflicting pain on children.

“Wait a minute. I think you’re confused,” he said back.

He was looking around with nervous, jerky motions. I was being really loud. Too loud.

He tried to reach for me, but I nimbly dodged him and continued shouting. That intuition was building up faster and faster. The hurricane force of it was raging through me now.

“You did it!” I yelled back. I pointed an accusing finger at him.

“You little shit, shut up!” He was nearly frantic now.

I looked around. People were coming out of their houses, wanting to know what was going on. Don was rapidly losing control of himself.

“He’s lying!” he screamed at everyone that started showing up. Veins were standing out on his temples. He turned back to me. “You’re lying!”

But I ignored him. I was relieved to see that I was right in following that raging storm of intuition. I drew out the monster and forced him into a confrontation. The people gathering around us (more and more of them by the minute), trapped him.

“I’m not,” I replied. “You know I’m not! You tried to take me before. I was the first one, right? But how long were you thinking about doing it? A year? Ten? Your whole life?”

Don spluttered, his anger choking him. He resorted to shaking his head rapidly back and forth.

“You weren’t good at it when you took me were you?” I asked him. “You drugged me, but it wasn’t enough. I woke up and got away. Did you perfect it when you took Vicki?”

“Shut up,” he choked out.

But I had him. I could read it in his eyes.

“No. You weren’t. She woke up too, although she was under longer than I was so she couldn’t get away from you. But she still hurt you, right?” I pointed to his forearm. Everyone clearly saw the scratches.

The gathering crowd was growing and growing. I saw Jimmy and Trevor in that sea of faces. I saw Kate too. Someone had gotten my parents and I saw them there also.

My dad had a murderous look in his eyes.

“Did you finally get it right with Mikey?”

Don didn’t answer. He just looked dumbly around him, as if he couldn’t quite believe this was happening. My dad slowly stepped out of the crowd and came to stand next to me. A moment later, my mom joined him. Then Vicki’s parents came to stand next to us and finally, Mikey’s.

“Answer the question, Don,” my dad told him, his voice razor sharp. I thought that if it could become something tangible, it would’ve sliced into Don until he was nothing but quivering chunks of bloody meat.

“It’s, it’s not true,” he tried to say. “It’s not.”

“How did you get those scratches?” Vicki’s dad asked, his voice nearly as dangerous and hard as my dad’s.

“Tell the boy, or so help me, Don, I will rip your fucking head off with my bare hands.”

That was Mikey’s dad. He was a cop.

Don looked around once, opened his mouth to speak, sputtered a couple of times, and then broke into a flat out, panicked run. He barreled into the crowd, knocking several people to the ground.

There was a lot of hesitation for a moment and then people started going after him. Mikey’s dad was leading the pack, ready to make good on his promise.

“Wait!” I yelled, my voice ringing with adult-like authority.

Everyone turned to look at me, but I ignored them. Instead, I looked down at the cat to make sure she was paying attention. The gut feeling, I had told me to hand Don over to her. To trust that she would know what to do.

So, I did.

“He can’t hurt you now,” I whispered to her. Her eyes were filled with doubt, but I pressed on. “He can’t. But you can hurt him. I know it. You can make him pay. For yourself. For Mikey. For me.”

She looked up at me with something like hope. I nodded once and then threw out a pointed, accusing finger at the fading figure of Don Walsh.

“Get him!” I yelled with all the power I could pour into it.

All of my terror, my anger, my fear, my experiences, my hatred was in that one command. It was like my voice was a trigger. As soon as it came roaring out of my throat, the cat exploded after Don like a bullet from a gun. The crowd around me watched in awe.

And they also watched everything that happened afterwards.

Don got pretty far away before I sent the cat after him.

But it wasn’t far enough.

She ran him down with stupid ease. The cat jumped and landed on Don’s back. He fell to the ground with a yell we could all hear. He fought off the cat enough to where he could back away from her. It even looked like he might escape.

But then she...I don’t know...changed.

Her small cat body suddenly grew. And it didn’t stop growing until she was a six- or seven-foot actual monster. There were several shouts and screams of fear from those assembled, but most people stayed and watched. It was like a train wreck. You couldn’t not watch it.

Next, her shoulder blades popped and lumped up. Her legs bulged out with massive slabs of muscle and her paws grew heavy, sharp claws. I could see them. They glistened in the early morning sunlight. Her headfirst doubled and then tripled in size and her teeth sprang out and over her lips like a saber-tooth tiger. They dripped with saliva.

Don’s face shifted from simple fear to outright, sanity destroying terror. His eyes grew so huge they looked like they were about to fall out. His mouth hung wide open. He tried to back up and get away.

Again, he didn’t get far.

Everyone watched in horrified fascination as the mutated cat stalked Don and batted him around like a child’s ball. Then she swiped one of her large, claw-tipped paws at Don’s leg, just behind the kneecap. I could see blood spray out in a fine mist and then Don crumpled to the ground. As soon as he went down, she jumped on him and ripped him to pieces. I could hear people crying out in shock and fear. I heard gasps. I heard kids crying. I think someone was even throwing up. I heard all that, but I didn’t seem to focus on any of it.

Instead, I watched the cat murder Don. I didn’t want to. I didn’t really want to see that, but I couldn’t seem to look anywhere else. Even if it was gruesome and horrible. And it was. I can’t even describe what she did to him and all I kept thinking, deep in my mind, was that I hoped Hell was going to be like that for him. Like that or worse.

In moments, there was nothing left of him but scraps and the lingering sounds of his pain-filled screams. I sat there in a daze as the cat stepped away from Don’s corpse.

******

Nobody ever said anything about what happened to Don Walsh. It was a close-mouthed, tight-lipped secret in our neighborhood. That is until now. I don’t know why I had to tell this story. Maybe it was because of what he did to me and to Vicki and Mikey. Maybe, deep down, I felt like people should know what that monster did. I would rip, tear, and shred what remained of his name to pieces if I could, just like the cat ripped his body to shreds.

It was justice.

For the first couple of months after Don died, people were awkward with each other. No one really spoke and the silence that seemed to be everywhere at that time was...oppressive. Us kids, however, bounced back quicker. Eventually, things went back to “normal.” Then things with the adults went back to mostly normal.

There was always that underlying knowledge of what happened though. Everyone knew it. No one talked about it though.

Mikey’s parents left the neighborhood with his two younger siblings. I’m not sure what happened to them. The last I heard, they were living in southern California. Mikey’s dad was a homicide detective with the LAPD, I think. They seemed to be doing okay. As I understand it, he was doing his best to forget that he’d ever had a son named Mikey or ever lived in our neighborhood at all. I can’t say I blame him.

Vicki’s mom committed suicide a day after what was commonly known as The Incident. The note said, simply, I want to be with Vicki. It was sad, but it had its beauty. Vicki’s dad randomly left not only the neighborhood but the state (possibly even the country) one day and never came back. He left everything he owned behind. Even his car. No one has heard from him and no one knows where he was. I do remember the last time I saw him though. It was a week after his wife committed suicide. He looked more like a ghost that hasn’t died yet than someone that was alive.

His eyes were the worst. I remember there was absolutely nothing left in them. No emotion. No recognition. They might’ve as well have been glass marbles for all the life they showed. It was like someone had scooped him out like a pumpkin. All the stuff on the inside of his mind had just been wiped out.

I think my parents held out better than either Vicki’s or Mikey’s parents. They made me go see a shrink. They made themselves go see a shrink too. It was hard for all of us and there were a lot of deep-seated issues that got dragged into the light of day. When it was all said and done, we healed ourselves and went on with our lives.

The pretty calico was never seen again and after a decade or so later, she became nothing more than an urban legend. I think parents tell the story of the cat to their kids to scare them into being good now. Or something like that.

I hope the cat or Vicki (I still wasn’t sure if they were the same or if they were two separate entities) found the peace they deserved.

fiction
Rustin Petrae
Rustin Petrae
Read next: Run Necromancer
Rustin Petrae

I'm a self-published author, art director, and graphic designer. I wrote the Histories of Purga Novels, the Bane Pack Novels, Forfeit, and I'm the creator/writer for the comic book Hybrid Earth. rustinmpetrae.wixsite.com/rustinpetraeagd

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