It was August 9, 2009. I was thirty eight years old. My oldest daughter Avis was twelve, and the younger pair, Joanne and John, were nine year old twins. I’d been married for fifteen years. I worked at an insurance firm. And every Sunday, while my wife and Avis went to church and the twins went to my mother’s house, I took a walk.
It was a clockwork sort of arrangement. My wife knew never to push me into going with her, I was an atheist and set on staying that way.
Of course, given what’s happened, my views have changed.
It was just a normal day. Avis gave me a kiss on the cheek and told me to not forget my coat, even if it was an abnormally warm day. I’d say it was maybe sixty five, maybe sixty eight degrees Fahrenheit. My mom picked up the twins. And I started down my walk.
We lived off the beaten path, so to speak. Our road was never busy and most of the area was taken up by farmland. A truck passed me on the road and I waved. I was pretty sure it was Art, although it could’ve been one of his sons on his way to church. Either way, he waved back.
I took a turn to the right onto Hensel. Hensel was a dirt road but it was never travelled except by farmers, and today it was quiet. Good time to collect my thoughts.
Every other time before this, I’d turn back around once I reached Art’s farmhouse, although occasionally his wife would pull me in for lemonade and gossip.
But August 9 would be the day I took the longest walk of my life.
I was passing by the cornfield when I heard laughter. To be more specific, it was a child’s laughter. I paused and looked into the cornfield.
A pair of forest green eyes looked back at me.
The girl looked to be no older than seven, had red hair tied into twin braids, and I assumed she was one of Art’s grandchildren. She smiled broadly.
She darted back into the corn and I could hear her giggles slowly fade away.
Normally I would’ve scoffed at going into the field, as I’d have to cross the ditch and I didn’t want to get dirt on my pants. But I felt a little bit of concern, a small child running around the field by herself. So with a jump that I knew my knees would feel in the morning, I jump into the corn field.
Using the sound of her laughter, I started pushing through the corn. The dry leaves scratched at my face and hands, and dust kicked up into my face.
I knew she couldn’t outrun me for long, even if she was a child with boundless energy, I had longer legs.
However, I exited the cornfield in a place I didn’t know.
My house was nowhere to be seen. And there was a light layer of snow covering the ground.
I spun around but the corn was gone, replaced by frosted evergreen trees. The temperature had significantly dropped and I was now thankful that my daughter insisted I bring a coat. I shivered and spun around a few more times, trying to make sense of this dream I’d apparently fallen into and where was that little girl?
I finally spun around enough to see her, peering past a branch. She grinned.
“You catch me, I’ll show you the way out!”
That began the chase.
Getting smacked with tree branches was far worse than the corn, the needles tearing at my skin like knives as I pushed past them to find that little girl. Whenever I got lost, I’d hear her laugh. She was having fun. I was not.
The wet snow beneath my feet made it impossible to gain traction, and forget running- I’d slip if I so much as stepped wrong. With every minute I got colder and colder. My teeth chattered so hard my jaw ached.
Then I broke from the treeline into a grassy meadow.
I didn’t expect the change so I ended up toppling over. The grass smelled sweet as honey. A fat bumblebee trundled past my head and landed on a Black Eyed Susan. It was heaven.
But the peace of the meadow was broken by that girl laughing again.
“Awwww, are you already giving up?”
The warm sunlight made her glow, like a tiny angel, but as I stumbled to my feet, I caught something behind those big eyes I hadn’t before.
She was toying with me and she knew it.
I can’t tell you how many times the environment changed. One minute it’d be across a meadow, then a desert during a sandstorm. I’d have to rely solely on hearing her in places like that. Sometimes we’d be back in the cornfield, and I’d shout for Art to get me out of here but no help ever came. Sometimes we’d be running across barren tundra, where she’d be just out of my grasp.
She wasn’t always a little girl either. Sometimes she was a young teen, with a gap between her teeth and who’d hum sweet tunes. Sometimes she was a ravishing model, with fiery hair and a flirtatious grin. And the times she wasn’t any of those, she was an ancient crone, with a bent back and arthritic hands that clutched to her cane but still managed to hobble away from me.
She called herself Clarice occasionally. Other times it was Lolita, Dixie, Isabella, Hope… I lost count of her names too. A straight answer was impossible. She’d never lie to me though, just avoid answering any of the questions I’d ask her.
So I knew she was my key out of there.
It was in the meadow where I finally got her.
She was a little girl again, and her taunting was beyond cruel this time. She’d stop, pick flowers, and run on before I could grab her. She’d throw the flowers about and sing ridiculous nonsense songs and I knew I couldn’t ever win like this.
So I dropped to the ground.
The little girl stopped.
“Oh, are you really giving up now? You’re sooooo close!”
Nothing. I remained still as I gasped for breath.
I heard her get closer and closer.
“Mister? Are you okay? Do you need a break? You’ve been going on a really loooong time…”
Once I saw her shadow I lunged.
She almost got away but my hand wrapped around her braid and I pulled her back so hard I could’ve snapped her neck. I embraced her in my arms and breathed out, “I got you.”
I’d never felt so successful in my entire life. I’d finally gotten her.
She turned around and smiled sadly.
“Can we play again? We were having fun. You don’t have to go back, we can stay here.”
No way. I was done with this. “Nope. You let me out of here right now or I’m strangling you with your own braids.” A little dramatic, perhaps, but I gripped tighter onto her hair to make clear my point.
She sighed before she kissed my cheek. The same place Avis did before church.
When I woke up, I was in the middle of the plowed cornfield.
It was spring time, the ground was churned to mud and the water freezing cold. I peeled myself off the ground and began stumbling home.
It was then I noticed how tired I truly was. My mouth was parched as the deserts I ran through. My body was stiff and ached like I’d run a thousand miles, and there was a chance I had. I had one goal in mind though, and that was home. I could finally go home.
Despite tripping through the mud a dozen times, I caught sight of my house and immediately began to cry. Barely able to move, I just pointed myself to the backyard. My wife should be home about now. She’d see me and come to my aid.
Two teenage boys were on the back porch, one was smoking while the other was playing on his phone. I couldn’t recognize either of them. Had my family moved? I raised my hand and attempted to speak, but it came out as a raspy moan.
Both boys jumped out of their skin, the one smoking dropping his cigarette and they backed off. The shorter one raised a hand. “Sir, you’re gonna have to…” He trailed off and his eyes widened.
The eyes that looked exactly like my wife’s.
I passed out on the ground, just a few steps from the back door.
I woke up in the hospital. I’d been cleaned up, had an IV running into my arm, and a woman was sitting next to my bed. Fast asleep. With a tattoo of a bird on her neck. A sparrow, to be exact.
Avis always loved her sparrows.
I’d been gone for a little over seven years. When I didn’t return from my walk, my wife reported me missing. At first law enforcement assumed I’d just ran off with another woman, but when that line of investigation went dry, they realized I’d been the victim of foul play.
Search parties were made. People were questioned. No one was imprisoned. They never found me. And life marched on.
Art apparently died about a year after I went missing. Stroke. The farm went to his sons, who ended up selling the whole property to another family. A family who stayed oblivious to the fact that was the place I was last spotted.
The boys on the back porch were in fact my boys. I just hadn’t been around when Joanne announced he was now James, at the age of thirteen. I wish I could’ve been there to help him become a man.
I apparently had a good replacement though.
After four years and it looked like I was gone for good, my wife met someone new. His name’s Clark. They’d gotten married six months after they met. Clark was a real outdoorsman, hunter, fisherman, and loved to go camping. As I chased a fairy child through her playground, he was taking James and John out on trips every weekend and putting away money to help James afford his surgeries and the like. Clark had two kids of his own, and I was soon a memory in this house. They could survive without me.
Avis was the only one who hadn’t given up on me. She pursued every lead. Every dead end. Every chance that I could be there, she was chasing it. Stubborn girl. My girl. But she’d grown from a girl to a woman since I’d been gone, and it was like talking to a stranger. A strange who had my chin and nose, but a stranger nonetheless.
My wife did want to help me adjust though, and kindly offered the guest bedroom for me while I recovered. I’d apparently been through hell, bones were broken and healed, muscles torn and strained beyond their limits. I was malnourished and could barely stand without my walker, and I just had nowhere to go.
It was not a place I could stay though.
Clark’s kids looked at me like I was some bogeyman that lived down the hall. Clark and I tried to be polite to each other but things became tense as my now ex-wife was struggling whether or not she should officially put down on paper who she would divorce.
I was just in the way.
But the little girl wasn’t gone.
Nightly I’d see her outside my window. She’d peer in, with those big eyes, and mouth the words,
“Come with me.”
I’ve told my wife I’m just going out for a walk.