Cat’s Paw, 2012 Published by Rustin Petrae
Copyright © 2012, Rustin Petrae. All rights reserved.
No similarity between any names, characters,persons, and/or institutions in this publication is intended and any such is purely coincidental. Cat’s Paw (including all prominent characters) featured in this story (and the distinctive likeness thereof) are copyrighted by Rustin Petrae.
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.
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?”
“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 half way 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 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 were 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.
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 door knob. 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 it was 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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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 were swirling 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 awhile, 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 remembered 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 also bleeding and 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 and anxiety 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.