by Karen Pullen
I remember every detail of that last morning. I’d fixed pancakes and bacon for the three of us. Our seven-year-old, Connor, rocked in his squeaky chair, humming, lost in his crazy-boy thoughts. When sunlight struck a crystal hanging in the window, scattering rainbow flickers around the kitchen, he reached out his hands to catch the flying jewels. He hooted his excited-monkey noise until I silenced him with the last piece of bacon.
After a twelve-hour patrol shift, Greg looked drained, even with the rainbow glimmering across his face. Budget cuts had reduced the police force, but not the workload. Just as many folks gone adrift as ever.
“I’ll take him to the beach park this morning. You get some rest,” I said.
Greg kissed my ear. “You’re a keeper,” he said, his breath sour and warm. He started loading the dishwasher but I shooed him out of the kitchen.
At the park Connor would swing happily as long as I kept pushing him, and though after the thousandth shove on his bony bottom I was exquisitely bored, it was a good day to be alive, to enjoy the ocean’s sparkle, the cries of gulls, the fresh iodine-smell of the sea.
We were alone until a girl sat on the swing next to Connor. Pleased at the diversion, I was a bit puzzled at her appearance out of nowhere; I hadn’t noticed her approach though the area around the swings was open space. Her golden hair was long, dirty and tangled. She wore a grimy white dress and black leggings with lace trim, and was barefoot. If cornered in a witness box I would put her age at ten, though she was slight and could be any age, even twenty. Alone, thin and dirty—at first, I felt a pang of sympathy.
Though she hadn’t made a sound, Connor twisted toward her, dragging his feet to slow his swing. He smiled. Was he smiling at her?
Then a miracle occurred. “Hi,” said my nonverbal son. “I’m Connor.”
You can’t imagine what joyful emotion flooded me at this instant as I realized that he’d spoken to someone. This girl had triggered something in him that a dozen therapists had tried and failed. He was being social.
She turned to us. Her features are hazy in my memory but there was something compelling about her and I stared at her until I realized what it was. Her eyes were solid black, reflective like marbles. Her eyes were all I noticed about her face.
When my gaze dropped to her dirty bare feet, my vision blurred. Were those claws? I blinked. No. Scaly, pointed toes. I felt pity, curiosity and revulsion, and hoped my feelings didn’t show. Though I was happy—and proud!—that my son had made a connection with another person, I had trouble believing what I saw—the strangeness of the girl’s eyes and Connor’s recognition of her were too far from my everyday normal.
“Can I go home with you?” she asked. “I’m hungry.” Her voice was low, confident and too mature for a child. As though she knew her eyes alarmed me, she half-closed them and looked away. A feeling of dread fell over me, my instincts whispered she is something other and I made a decision.
“No. Leave us alone.” I turned my back to her, tugged Connor from his swing, and trotted to my car. Usually he was limply docile, but he could be a handful when he was balked, and he struggled, kicked me and wailed. Adrenaline made me shaky and I fumbled as I buckled him into his seat.
The girl stood close behind me. “Please? Take me with you.” Her thin body drooped, her voice a hoarse whisper.
“Get away.” I slid into my car and locked the doors. She leaned towards my window, and her dirty gold hair fell about her pale face, framed her solid black eyes. As I drove away, I looked in the rear-view mirror, then scanned the parking lot and beach. Like that old cliché, she’d vanished into thin air.
Connor’s wailing intensified. He had an eerie cry, a high-pitched “eeeee” so painful you’d do anything to make it stop. He cried all the way home, where I had to hold him tight and rock him for almost an hour before he quieted down.
When I told Greg about the girl, he was skeptical and made jokes about broomsticks, aliens and spaceships. I brooded, wished Greg had been with me to see what I saw. I locked all the doors.
In the afternoon we took Connor to an appointment with his occupational therapist, where we watched him roll around in a ball pit, then refuse to button his shirt.
When we returned home, guess who was sitting on the porch?
“Oh, dear God. That’s the girl from the park,” I said. “Don’t stop. Just drive off.”
“Naw, she’s a kid.” He pulled into the driveway, and I shrank into my seat.
She came to Greg’s side of the car. “I would like something to eat, please,” she said, in her strangely adult voice. She studied Connor, who was asleep, with her coal-lump eyes. “Just a little something. I like cereal.” She was so close I could see the dirt rings on her neck, her bumpy skin.
I grabbed Greg’s arm. “Her eyes, Greg. Put your window up and lock your door.”
Greg looked at me impatiently. “We can’t sit here all day. And what’s a little bit of cereal?”
He got out of the car and motioned her up the steps. When she followed him into our house, I slouched down and waited for my heart to slow its thumping. As minutes passed, I wondered whether I should check on them, but I didn’t want to leave Connor sleeping in the car. To be honest, I didn’t want to leave the car, period. The girl scared me. Greg feared very little; he was a big man, a cop, and didn’t seem to sense what I did. And he took care of people, that was his nature.
By the time Connor woke up, writhing to be let out of his car seat, I decided that maybe I was a neurotic mess, afraid of someone who looked a little different, a dusty homeless girl with an unusual eye disease. Maybe this was the breakdown the therapists had warned me about: a caretaker’s collapse, the result of ignoring myself for too many years. Feeling numb, I unbuckled Connor and took him inside.
The house was silent and cold. In the kitchen, a cereal bowl held a few soggy corn flakes and a trace of milk. I looked all over the house but they were gone. I tried to be calm, rational. Maybe she needed Greg’s help, or had something important to show him. Surely he would return soon.
Connor rocked and hummed, his chair squeaked. I paced, sat, turned the TV on and off. I had a bad feeling and it got worse as the hours passed. I fixed a simple meal of chicken nuggets and green beans, but I couldn’t eat, my stomach was like cement. Something had happened to Greg, but what? If I called for help, what would I say?
Darkness fell. When I pulled back Connor’s blanket to tuck him into bed, on his pillow was a scarlet splotch the size of my hand that looked like blood. And a coarse gold hair.
I phoned the police. They came quickly; Greg was one of theirs.
It was hard to keep an eye on Connor; the cruiser’s flashing lights lured him outside and he twirled around in the darkness while they questioned me. I was well aware the police didn’t share my belief that the black-eyed girl was an evil being, an other. I knew how it sounded—my husband had gone off with a girl half my age. I was describing her for about the twentieth time when I sensed a blur of motion along the beach path, a glimpse of white dress, and saw my son run, flying to meet her, disappearing into the black vacuum of an moonless night.
Screaming Connor’s name over and over, I ran after him, but in the pitch dark I tripped over a clump of roots and fell hard onto the sand, knocked breathless. Someone lifted me up. “My son,” I gasped, pointed, “out there.” They ran towards the beach.
I am alone now. I hate this house because she was in it, but I can’t move away because what if they come back?
Every day is the same. I fill a baggie with corn flakes, tug on my floppy blue hat and walk the narrow path that leads alongside my house, down to the beach where fishermen chat over bait buckets and the first beer of the day. Wave at the bowlegged, leathery jogger running barefoot along the tide line. Stoop down to pet the bulldog inspecting the spiked shell of a horseshoe crab.
The crystal hangs from my neck, sending rainbow flickers onto the sand, into the wind.
I walk. I walk for miles, past surfers, sunbathers and couples, under boardwalks, around sand castles and tidal pools. I’ve become a fixture on the beach, the woman in the blue hat who walks all day and into the evening, and sometimes people join me. I tell them my husband and son are missing, and show them pictures of Greg and Connor.
I ask if they’ve seen the black-eyed girl. My memory has a blank hole, her features elude me and I can’t tell you what she looked like, other than her solid black eyes, dirty gold hair and pointed, scaly toes.
But that should be enough.