I was on a break from school, staying at my parents house. I was at that stage in adulthood where I wanted to be seen as grown up, but was still afraid of my parents disapproval. Hence, I had taken up the habit of sneaking outside for my nightly cigarette. It was a hot night, muggy, slightly sticky, with the start a cool breeze. We were in the middle of a heatwave, and everyone was anticipating the cool change. I enjoyed this time of night, the stillness, the break from all the clatter of the day. I was old enough to appreciate solitude, but I didnt yet need or crave it.
Not like now.
I walked down the street, far enough away from my house should my parents unexpectedly come outside I would have enough time to quickly dispose of the smoke and make a hasty excuse. This hadnt happened yet, my parents seemed accustomed to my comings and goings with the type of weary resignation that only parents with college age children seem to have.
At the end of my street ran the train track. Many people would complain living so close to a station, but the noises and sirens, the clanging of the alarms and chugging of the engine felt familiar to me. It was the noise of my childhood, the noise that had raised me. It sounded like home. When growing up next to a train station, all the sounds become part of the background noise of everyday living, like the cries of the kids next door, or the traffic passing by.
Over the train tracks ran a bridge. Not the big, wide, bridges that run over several lanes of traffic, but a small bridge that allowed commuters to pass from one side of the track to the other. I had fond memories of that bridge. It was old and made of wood, and looked like a relic from old time, somehow out of place yet still belonging to the area. The bridge itself was just a part of my memories as the noises of the trains themselves. The red paint that always seemed to be peeling, no matter how recently the last layer had been applied. The comforting clunk, clunk noise my shoes would make as I raced from one side to other with my friends, out of breath, sweaty, always late to school, home, appointments, somewhere, anywhere, everywhere.
I was thinking of that noise as I lit my cigarette and took that first necessary deep drag. Looking back, that moment always strikes me as so ordinary. So mundane, so commonplace. At that time, I was so unaware of what my life would be, what I would be, and how much that simple moment would change everything.
Next to the bridge was one lamppost. The positioning of the lamppost seems as if it were by design to make the bridge look as if it should be painted. As if there is a sign over the scene screaming Hey, quaint suburban setting over here!. A cute little tourist trap element, perfectly picturesque.
The light from the lamppost falls over the right side of the bridge, covering half of it in light, and the rest in a shadowy darkness. I took a glimpse down towards the post, still thinking of that clump, clump noise of my feet on the bridge.
Thats when I saw it.
Im pretty sure that it is the right description, although my mind automatically thought him. A figure, undeniably masculine, in a clean black suit stood directly under the lamppost. This would not usually be cause for alarm, except for some large points of difference.
The man was tall. Extremely tall. Impossibly tall.
His head fell just below the top of the lamppost. His back was hunched slightly forward, leaning over. His arms were long, insect-like, dangling by his side. At the end of his arm was something brown, unrecognizable. My mind tried to focus, to shake the image, but I felt rooted to the spot, frozen. My brain was yelling at me to run, but my body refused to follow suit. It was as if I were in a deep sleep, screaming at myself to wake up from the nightmare, but stuck in that still, dark, motionless state.
My eyes forced me to look closer. The black suit seemed not be made of material, but seemed to be a part of his skin. It looked like a dinner suit, but couldnt be. Dinner suits dont move like that, dont breathe like that. There was even a tie, right below his face.
Oh god, his face.
I saw a whiteness that could not be possible on any human being. It was at that second when I realised whatever I was looking at, whatever I had discovered, was not a peaceful creature. It had the posture of a jaguar inspecting its prey, muscles taut, crouched over, focused on the object in its hand. It lifted the object up to its face and it, it smelled it. It breathed in deeply, relishing the scent as one would a fine wine or a bouquet of flowers.
It was with icy cold horror that I realised I had stumbled upon something dangerous. It was a creature alien to me, yet everything about him screamed of a predator. Once again, my mind screamed at me to move, to run away from this impossibly tall, impossibly white thing, but again my feet refused to obey. I decided to change tactics, tried to stay as still as possible, hoping it wouldnt notice me. I was sure it could hear to beating of my racing heart.
The man again breathed in deeply, then did the unthinkable.
His head turned and looked towards me.
My last thought was about that face.
He had no eyes.
I found myself on the street some time later. I had no idea how much time had passed. As I looked down, I noticed that my hand between my index and middle fingers was burnt, scorched, red and sore looking. I felt no pain, but I was aware that the cigarette must have burned down through my finger. This was my only indication that any time had passed. It was still dark. Was it slightly cooler? Maybe, but it could have just been my body.
I have not felt warm since.
I walked inside and went straight to my room. Like a child, I hid under the blankets and closed my eyes. Instinctively I knew that my old trick for beating the bogeyman would no longer work.
I figured it was worth a shot.
I knew when I heard it on the news what had happened. Like a mouse encountering a snake and surviving, I knew deep down that there was only one way I could have seen such a predator and still survived.
It had just fed.
There was a lot of media coverage for the next few weeks. Local tragedy, a childs death, can be big news. Little Annie Walters, so young and so pretty, had died in her bed. A charity in her name set up by the grieving parents to raise money for research into whatever genetic disorder or disease the doctor put on the death certificate. I know the doctor must have found some answer, maybe believed in some answer, because the fact of the matter is that perfectly healthy and normal six year old girls dont die in their sleep. They needed a reason, the parents needed a reason, and the community needed a reason. So for the next few years, there was talk about changing childrens medicine or immunization shots, because Dr. So-and-So said it may have contributed to poor little Annies death, Then after a few years, it became just another urban legend for our town. For everyone but the parents.
I saw them sometimes. In the grocery store, or at the pharmacy. Down the street or at some community event. Even at the movies once. They had continuously red eyes and a sallow colour to their faces. They tried to smile but it never reached their eyes. When exchanging pleasantries, it was like talking with a robot. They spoke words, but they never connected. The death of their little girl had broken them.
I thought about telling them for a while. The idea was ludicrous of course. I would either be arrested for harassing the grieving parents, or thrown in a loony bin. It just wasnt possible. I couldnt tell anyone else either, for the same reasons.
Every once in a while, if I let myself, I think about him. I think he only feeds once in a while, and I think he feeds on children. Once the shock and horror had lessened, and I could recall that night without having to resist the urge to scream, I allowed myself to recognise what he had been holding that night. The brown object that it had beensavouring.
It was a teddy bear.
I think I knew it at the time. I now know why he was so familiar, because I think at some time or another, we have all seen him. He is the monster our parents told us was make believe. He is the thing we trained ourselves not to think about, because to do so would invite in madness. He is death made real.
The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesnt exist.
Now years have passed, I have tried to rebuild what is considered a normal life. There was a definite break for me, pre-him and after-him, as if my life were neatly halved by some invisible knife. For a while I dropped out of school, and withdrew. My parents talked of depression, and a million shrinks and doctors gave me medicine while I smiled and nodded and learned to say the right things at the right time. The key is to let people believe what they want to believe. I understand that more now than ever.
I still dont sleep well, and when I do sleep it is fleeting, I toss and turn and wake every few hours. I say inside a lot, and if it gets really bad, I go back into bed and try to breathe under the covers. But mostly, I get along okay. Only sometimes, at random times, I will be brushing my teeth or making my bed, while performing some trivial mundane task, and I will freeze. My mind will be locked in that moment back in that day, and I will be looking back into that face. These moments only last a few minutes, but I know, I know what is happening. That he is thinking of me.
Because, you see, on that night, that horrible night when he looked at me, I thought my heartbeat had given me away. It hadnt.
He had smelled me.
He smelt my panic, my fear, and he liked what he smelled. Of course, at this time he had recently fed, so I was passed up like a piece of cake at the end of a hearty meal. He let me go. But for how long?
I wonder often at how frequently he eats. Im hoping its decades, or maybe longer. But the freezes are happening more often, and I know he is thinking about me more. I know that one day; they will find my body, cold in my bed, dead from some undiscovered ailment. I know he eats children, but I think that may just be his preference. I hope not.
And I really hope he doesnt feel like a snack.