Trigger warning: Missing child
The day it happened I was five and wearing the light-up sneakers I had begged my mom for during our shopping trip last week. Well, actually I had begged for the ones with my favorite superhero, but they were more expensive and Mom had negotiated me down to generic ones with a character that was just slightly wrong in a way I couldn’t put my finger on.
But it didn’t matter, because they lit up, and light-up shoes made you fast. Everyone knew it. Gabriel had gotten a pair last year for Christmas, and he always beat me when we raced. But today that would change. I knew it.
Gabriel lived on the other side of the neighborhood, but thanks to its weird layout, our backyards ended up being almost back to back, separated by a stretch of woodline that extended to the undeveloped southern part of the subdivision. We were only allowed to play in this stretch, from a fallen tree on the right to a stack of boulders on the left, and our imaginations went wild creating stories about the monsters that might live beyond those boundaries.
Being in the woods never failed to feel like an adventure; we’d play hide and seek among the thick trunks and wood piles, race around the perimeter, or try to climb saplings that likely weren’t much older than ourselves. And that day, thanks to my new shoes, I was going to win a race for the first time.
It was late fall, and with each step the flickering lights that would propel me to victory were accompanied by the soft crunch of leaves. The slate gray sky made the flashes of purple and blue illuminating against tree trunks even brighter, and I daydreamed about winning the race. I did jumping jacks and high knees, like I had seen runners do before races on TV, until I saw Gabriel trotting towards me, the bright red and yellow stripes on his shirt bouncing up and down with each step.
“Guess what?” I yelled, breaking the silence and bridging the distance between us.
He cupped his hands around his mouth, as if we were separated by miles, not yards. “What?”
I jumped up and down, showing off my new equipment. “I’m gonna win!”
“No you’re not. I’m faster than you!” To prove his point, he picked up the pace.
As he got closer, I saw he wasn’t alone. Another boy tagged along behind him.
He was tall, almost as tall as my cousin Lindsey, who was nine and rolled her eyes whenever I asked her to play with me. His face and clothes were streaked with mud, and I wondered how much trouble he’d get in when his mom saw. As he got closer, he reminded me of the character on my shoes. Something was off, but I didn’t know what.
“Who’s that?” I asked in a child’s blunt, matter-of-fact way.
“This is Ruddy.” Gabriel replied, pointing at the boy. “He’s my new friend. Can he play with us?”
It was a question that didn’t require an answer—as an only child, I was more than happy to have another friend to play with, even if he seemed a bit odd.
I nodded, and the left side of Ruddy’s mouth turned up, his expression teetering between a grin and scowl. Looking at him made something deep in my stomach hurt, a feeling I recognized from when I had broken a vase at my grandmother’s house and gotten in lots of trouble. But I wasn’t in trouble now, so it didn’t make sense and I pushed it away.
We spent the next hour challenging each other to a variety of races. Sprints from tree to tree, long distance circles and figure eights, hurdles over short brush or fallen sticks. After a particularly grueling sprint, we fell to the ground panting, inhaling more bugs than air. Extra protein, as my dad liked to say.
Our competition ended, as they often did, with a fight over who actually won. With both Gabriel and I refusing to admit defeat, we decided that Ruddy would be the tie-breaker. He had participated in the races but lagged behind both of us, despite his longer legs.
“Come on, Ruddy, I’m your best friend,” Gabriel pleaded, bouncing on his toes, his energy already renewed.
“Hey, you don’t get to be his best friend just because you met him first!” I protested. “Let him decide!”
Ruddy grinned again, that same half-smile, and my stomach turned as he looked between the two of us, studying us.
“I think we need one more race,” he smirked, “to determine who’s my best friend.”
“Sure! Um…” Gabriel hesitated, scoping out our territory for new beginning and end points. “That tree to that rock?”
Ruddy shook his head. “I have a better idea. There’s an old barn deeper in the woods. It’ll only take a few minutes, and we can run there and back.”
“I’m not allowed.” I blurted out almost before he had finished. My stomach was doing full gymnastics now, and I thought I might throw up. “My mom said to stay between our yards and the tree and rock pile.”
“Scaredy-cat!” Ruddy laughed, the cold, harsh sound splitting the cool air.
“Yeah, scaredy-cat!” Gabriel jumped on the bandwagon, siding with his new friend instead of me without a second thought.
“Scaredy-cat, scaredy-cat, scaredy-cat!”
Their chanting filled my ears and tears quickly blurred their faces. I fought them back, not wanting to add “crybaby" to their taunts.
“No. I can’t.” I coughed and tried to swallow the emotions and bile bubbling up in my chest.
Ruddy shrugged and turned to Gabriel. “Well? Are you a ‘fraidy pants too?”
“No.” I heard a note of hesitation in his voice.
“So you’ll come with me?”
“Yeah. Sorry, Lil.” Gabriel smiled sadly and gave a half-hearted wave. “You should go home. I’ll tell you about it later.”
I stared in disbelief as my friend took off into the trees, his outline disappearing in the fading light. When the telltale crunching of their footsteps faded and the silence around me grew heavy and oppressive, I went home.
I never saw Gabriel again. Mom said that he had to leave, but she wouldn’t tell me why. I asked about Ruddy, too, but my question went unanswered.
Raindrops spattered on the eaves as I approached my mother, reading a book as she so often is, and watched the worry lines disappear as she looked up at me and smiled.
“Do you need something, dear?”
I’ve never understood how she could do that. How she could pull herself from the world she held in her hands so effortlessly, crossing between worlds like she was entering a threshold, not diving into the black depths of a strange body of water.
“I…do you remember Gabriel?”
“Yes, of course.” A heavy sigh escaped her lips. “I didn’t know you did, though. You were so young.”
“I was five, right? Most people can remember stuff from when they’re that age.”
“Things like kindergarten or family vacations, maybe. Not usually things like this. They say our brains try to protect us from these types of things, even as adults. We—I assumed that since you were so young, you’d be spared.”
The air between us grew heavy and damp. The worry lines returned to my mother’s face, and I watched them creep across her smooth skin, weaving and coalescing into a mass threatening to overtake her features.
“What do you remember?” The lines retreated when she talked.
“Not much. I remember playing in the yard. And then I remember asking why Gabriel didn’t want to play with me anymore.” I let my voice drop into a whisper. “But, of course, now I know that it wasn’t that he didn’t want to play with me.”
Mom stiffened, opening her mouth to respond, but I decided that I’d gone too far to back down now.
“I tried to look it up, but there’s not much. One news article published the day after, reporting a missing child. Then just…nothing.” I felt the tension growing in my shoulders as I thought back to the one result my search had revealed. “There’s no way a little kid goes missing and there isn't more media coverage or updates.”
She stared at the reviews littering the back of the book she held and I wish I could tell what she was thinking.
She cleared her throat. “Why are you asking about this now? It’s been fifteen years, hon.”
I couldn’t explain it to her. How could she understand that I’d been having these nightmares for years, but lately they had been increasing in both frequency and intensity, from occasional to nightly, frightening to terrifying. How could I explain waking up drenched in sweat, ears ringing, dry heaving as if purging my stomach could purge the images from my mind?
Something had changed.
Mom said that the police had actively searched for Gabriel for years, but like too many other missing children, his case eventually went cold. They had no evidence and no leads. Tip lines remained silent, reward money unclaimed. And Gabriel’s family would forevermore have an empty chair at their table and a five-year-old in their hearts.
But after all these years of silence, I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something we were missing, a puzzle piece, forgotten, dusty and hidden under a piece of furniture, that could give us answers. An image of the completed puzzle flickered at the edge of my consciousness, just beyond my mind’s grasp, as if taunting me, laughing at my inability to see it clearly.
When the nightmares first began, it had been like I was watching everything happen in a movie. The dream played out exactly as I remembered. But after a while, things had begun to change.
First, it was when Ruddy suggested going out to the barn. Instead of refusing, I agreed. As if startled by the unforeseen change, I woke up immediately. The next night, we made it to the barn. It was decrepit, held up by rotting boards and tree branches that had breached the walls. A hay hook hung over the door, its claws threatening. The doors had long ago succumbed to the weight of gravity, the openings black chasms both beckoning us to enter and cautioning us to leave.
Each night it was as if one or two puzzle pieces clicked into place, filling gaps in the image, and each day I would search for the missing one. I spent hours at the library reading old newspaper articles and coroner reports, on the off chance that this wasn’t the first time this had happened. I tried to find Ruddy, but with nothing but a first name and a child’s best guess of an age, I got nowhere. I tried to talk to the police, but they refused, claiming the case was still open so they couldn’t talk about it.
I even looked up Gabriel’s family. They lived about forty-five minutes outside of town. I drove there one night, but I just sat in my car across the street and stared at their house. I couldn’t bring myself to dredge up their pain.
This pattern continued for weeks. Dream, wake, research, dream, wake, research. The only progress I made seemed to be in my dreams, although I knew that wasn’t real progress. My subconscious was just playing the role of storyteller, filling in the blanks and attempting to provide closure, creating plot from the tropes and archetypes ingrained in human consciousness.
And yet they felt so real…
One day, after scouring the internet yet again and finding nothing new, I decided to put my dreams to the test. I opened my back door and started walking. I walked for what seemed like miles through woods that were foreign to me despite surrounding me my entire life. As I walked, I began wondering why I had never come back here before. It didn’t make sense. When I was younger, sure, I was scared, but what about when I was older? I didn’t remember making a conscious decision to avoid them, but I must have.
They were beautiful. Sunlight streamed through the leaves, dappling the ground in light, and birds flitted from branch to branch chirping at me as if to say Welcome to our home. I watched squirrels play tag among the branches, butterflies float on the breeze, and even a fox dart between the trees.
There was no defined trail, but it seemed like the underbrush opened up for me, accepting my presence, allowing me to wander unhindered. I was so entranced by this new world that I failed to notice the dappled sunlight fading.
The realization stole my breath, stopping me in my tracks. It was silent. No singing birds. No frolicking squirrels. No wind rustling the leaves. Everything was cloaked in dusk, the colors dimmed and faded. I spun around, suddenly unsure of where I was but fully aware that I was no longer welcome.
The trees and bushes grew thick and harsh, cutting me off from the way I came and obscuring my line of sight. Impenetrable walls of branches and leaves surrounded me. The world began to spin, faster and faster, greens and browns blurring into unnatural hues, while the silence grew until my eardrums threatened to burst with a pressure that I couldn’t escape, and I rushed forward, flailing my arms to break through the spiderwebs of branches clawing and grasping at my clothes and hair.
Ruddy’s face rushed into my mind, and I saw it, what I hadn’t seen all those years ago, as clear as the hidden image in an illusion once it's pointed out to you.
His eyes were solid black.
I took one look at the clearing, dropped to my knees, and puked.
In front of me was an old, decrepit barn, held up by rotting boards and tree branches that had breached the walls. A hay hook hung over the door, its claws threatening. The doors had long ago succumbed to the weight of gravity, the openings black chasms both beckoning me to enter and cautioning me to leave.
I knew what was waiting for me inside. The sour aftertaste of vomit threatened to make me sick again.
My body took small, hesitant steps forward, despite my internal pleas to run, run as far as I possibly could and forget I was ever here, forget that this place exists. It drew me in, step by step, even as my trembling muscles threatened to succumb to the earth’s pull.
As I crossed the threshold, shadows launched themselves at me and icy gusts of wind numbed my extremities until I could no longer feel myself shaking. An unholy sense of deja vu washed over me and I stared at the back wall, waiting for the letters that were already imprinted in my mind’s eye to take shape.
In dark, red liquid they appeared, dripping down the wall, sending cascades of cold, clammy sweat down my spine. And I knew, even before the blow came, that these were the last words I would ever read.