“Oof”, Ripley falls onto her bed. The comfort holds her body like a coffin. The warmth cradles her amongst the stress of midterms which is almost over besides a project to hand in tomorrow. With that being finished, she is excited to relax for the first night since the Summer. The window is slightly open and the fall breeze comes in and brushes her face. Despite having track practice tomorrow, she was happy to spend an hour alone while her roommates were gone. This left an empty and quiet apartment for the book worm. She looked at the book she had been lent, Picnic at Hanging Rock, on her roommate Alison’s recommendation.
The book has an old and faded hardcover, featuring three girls making their way up the hill. The girl on the front of the cover was looking up in a brave and curious way. As Ripley flipped the book open, there was a small excerpt about the author, Joan Lindsy, inside the cover. As she read through the information, she found a commonality with the author, both were from Australia. In this moment there was some longing for her homeland. She hasn’t seen Sydney in 12 years, and wanted to return at some point. Her attention was pulled when she heard a thud against the window.
Ripley dropped the book. The young woman could feel her heartbeat out of her chest with surprise. Standing up slowly she walked slowly over to the window. There was nothing above or below her. The most viable explanation was a tree branch smacking the window in the direction of the wind. In Ripley’s mind, she felt like a child. Her mind had played a trick on her and left a bitter feeling of infancy in her mouth.
While they lived in a fairly safe neighborhood, she kept as vigilant for danger as possible. In response to natural paranoia, she closes the window. Even if there was nothing outside the house, she wanted to be safe. This prompts her to go about a little chore, closing all windows and doors to the apartment. Including a thorough check of the closets and dark crevices of the house. Ripley had to make sure there were no intruders inside already.
Ripley sits back down on her bed, scrunching up into the corner of it and opening the book. All of a sudden she feels like an animal in the zoo. A voyeuristic eye looking into her life and peering at her in a vulnerable condition. Ripley immediately stands up and goes through the house. She has to make sure all the blinds are closed and no one can see in. Even though all the blinds are closed, she continues to fear. Even the smallest molecular crack could allow in a peeping tom or an unwanted presence. Her skin crawls as she shivers in her spot.
Ripley stands up prepared to make sure everything is under lock, checking each and every crevice of the room. She tells herself that this is the last time she’s going to check for cracks and crevices. There is a control that she had a few minutes ago that was now robbed from her. A peace that was there is gone and her mind is in disarray.
Ripley looks at her watch, her heart rate has gone up with the continuous pacing around the apartment. Trying to pull herself together, she resumes her original activity. Every word she reads becomes skewed in her mind. Part of her hopes for the return of Lia or Alison. Some company, protection, or just to assure her she was being insane.
Looking over to her bedside there is a bottle of melatonin. Ripley shakes it, causing two small tablets to fall into her palm as she stares contently at it. She drinks some water and eagerly takes the supplement, hoping it will allow her to sleep and forget about her anxiety. She enters a warm daze as she stares at the window. The comforting feeling reminds her of the times her mother was present as a child. A warm touch to the cheek or a brush of her hair was something that seemed distant. Now, at 20 years old, this is a distant memory. Pictures that play in her mind without much context. Her mother never contacted them. Ripley had no clue where she was or why she would abandon them. As these thoughts start to roll out like unending threads in her mind, she enters a blurry and welcomed peace that comes with sleep.
The sunlight fades as the car continuously drives down the highway. A young Ripley bounces in the seat as she peers out the window at the rolling fields of corn, and the farmhouses behind them. Her brother is fastened in a booster seat next to her and is falling asleep to the hum of the engine. Their father is driving. His eyes rest on the road as his aviators are pulled up, scruffing his auburn hair.
The car engine slows in vibration as it pulls into a small gas station. The bright Sunoco sign glares in the twilight of the evening as the crickets roar loudly. The midwest differed from the busy city where they entered the country. It was familiar to her father, but not to her. The small family entered the gas station. Ripley and her brother are drawn to the large displays of candy and other snacks. All of a sudden her father grasps both of their shoulders.
"Stay close to me", he says sternly. His aviator sunglasses were firmly placed on his rigid nose. His demeanor suggested that he was on the watch for someone. A protective lion who knew someone was after his cubs. A man who refused to lose what was left of his family.
All of a sudden, Ripley’s younger brother broke free and ran down the aisle. Ripley called for him looking back and forth. Ripley could see him standing in the back near an attached dinner. He is staring up as if looking upon a scarecrow. Ripley quickly pulls her brother close to her at the sight of the looming presence
“Hello”, a soft voice escapes the tall protruding figure in a dark trench coat and suit. “We’ve been looking for you, it’s time to bring you back to the kingdom”. The man looked gentle, like the kind of person who gives you candy or money in the grocery store or teaches you a magic trick on a park bench. There was something more sinister than those experiences thought. Ripley’s father made it clear they were not to talk to strangers, but something about this man seemed recognizable. “Your mother is looking for you”, this all but tore Ripley’s heart out. It sounded like one of the men from the congregation. In the young girl's heart, she hoped he would take her to see her mother again. Ripley looked up but felt the joy cease at what she saw, the man in the suit and trench coat had a blurred-out face. His face without any features; eyes, nose, and mouth, was all gone. He was a faceless man that somehow stared into her soul and prepared to devour it. The diner behind them was no longer brightly lit but was a dark and empty tunnel. Faint cries and screams could be heard out of it, including her mother's.
“Come with me”, the man grabs Riley’s hand. It feels cold, scaly, and rigid to the touch. The young girl turns her eyes to see her brother walking into the tunnel, before he disappears he turns his head. His eyes are no longer the deep brown that most Asian boys have but are entirely black in the entire sockets and pupils. Ripley cries loudly but her brother cannot hear her, he continues to walk into the darkness as it swallows him. Ripley feels tears fall from her eyes. Loud sobs come out of her mouth as the man begins to guide her into the blackness.
“Hey!” A gruff voice calls behind her. She is looking around and sees no one. “What are you doing with my kids?!” The same voice calls as there is a crack and a break against the tile floor of the complex. Everything blurs more at that moment. The surroundings have splotches of colors and lights like an impressionist painting. There are blurs of faded yellow, dark red, and blacks and blues along with small splotches of neon colors. For a moment Ripley does not know where she is.
All of a sudden there is a field of focus and it’s on the suited man. He is now face down on the floor below her father. The parent is bloody knuckled and holding her brother close. She is in tears and unsure of what was going on. The faceless man is no longer faceless but can be seen to have closed eyes and a broken nose. The creature that once threatened to steal her lies unconscious. The black empty cavern that led to nowhere is now a brightly lit dinner again.
“Sweetheart!” The voice seems far away, “Are you okay?!”. Ripley can feel her father pull her in and wrap his arms around her. He is crying, he never cried.
Ripley’s eyes shot open. She is drenched in sweat and breathing heavily. Alison and Lia’s voices can be heard several rooms away in their common space. There is some relief in knowing that two familiar faces are inside and not an intruder. The presence of her friends made her feel safe.
The fear from the nightmare begins to cease. She was no longer there but knew part of it was a memory, or at least how that memory was perceived as a child. It was always strange to her that her mother never called her father. One day they were living normally and the next they left early in the morning without notice. There were no calls, no lawyers, no arguments. It was like she was in their lives and then she wasn’t. Ripley had vague images of her mother and that early world in Sydney.
When she pictured her mother, she saw a woman who looked like the spitting image of herself but as a vessel. An empty yet beautiful vase. Her mother always looked empty, lobotomized, and removed from reality. They would be sitting in what seemed like some kind of church, but there were no crosses, and it was dark. Ripley could not remember what was said, besides that she found the speaker unsettling. He looked like a sweet old man but the words that came out of his mouth were despairing. Her father was less involved in these services, before they left he had withdrawn totally despite their mother's attendance.
Ripley picks up the phone and scrolls through the contacts. Looking for a possibility to answer the questions she had, or at least had the nerve to ask. As brash as she could be when it came to her family she hid.
“Hey Dad,” Ripley speaks in a soft tone in hopes to get some answers to what she had either forgotten or what was being hidden.
“Hey Rip, you never call. Is everything okay?” As her father says this she feels bad. It’s true that she doesn’t call often. School and sports took up a good portion of her time, and due to the secrecy, it felt odd to call her father out of the blue.
“Uh, did you ever get in a fight with a guy who was following us? Like when we were little and just left Australia?” Ripley buries her face in her hand. Preparing for her father’s reaction. He was always very vague regarding what happened. Riley had worded the question to avoid her mother being brought up, but the mention of the country would surely bring the mysterious woman to mind.
“Ripley, what brought this up?” His voice was silent and stern. His line of questioning reminded her that he was at one point a private investigator. A man of high skepticism and suspicion. The one unyielding view he had in life is that people were dangerous and not to be trusted.
“I had a weird dream, it seemed more like a memory in some parts.” The other end of the phone was a sea of dead silence. In the poor signal, the only thing to be heard was fuzz. “Dad?”
“Does this have something to do with your mother?” He asks, venom lying behind the sharp words. Ripley can picture him now, leaning against the kitchen wall of their small home. He must have been ready to pour himself a drink due to the subject matter of the conversation.
“No, Dad, it doesn’t.” A partial lie, but how else would he tell her anything.
“Listen, the fact that they followed us when they left is enough of a reason to put it behind us. You and your brother would have been destroyed if we stayed in Sydney.” His anger was different this time. His words were jagged, but behind them was a soft sob of pain from a concerned parent. Ripley had no clue what he was protecting them from and she wished he would be forthright about the subject.
“Dad-” Exasperated, the young woman tries to interrupt.
Ripley was interrupted as her father continued to rant. “Your mother wanted to stay, she shunned us, then sent those sociopaths after us.” His voice raised in volume as the memories intruded on his mind.
“Dad-” Ripley raised her to match his.
“What?!” He finally yelled with a halt in the conversation.
“They? Were we in a cult or something?!” As she asked this there was a deafening silence on the other side of the line. Her father let out a groan of frustration.
“We’ll talk about this when you come home, this isn’t a conversation to have on a school night.” Ripley hears her father click the phone. If any aspect of that dream was a memory, it implied several things to her. One, that they were at one point involved with a cult, and their father had pulled them out. Two, her father was afraid of the damage the organization would do to her and her brother. Three, her mother was still a member. Ripley wondered if she should search out her mother, or if her mother had tried to find her at all.