At some point in every life there is a moment where innocence is lost. It most often comes at times when we least expect it. For me this happened much, much later in life.
You could say I had to grow up fast, going through life poor and without a father. I was forced to endure and experience things some kids would never go through. Having to watch all the other kids at school with their complete, almost perfect families. Wearing new clothes. Riding shiny bikes. Listening to them talk about how their Dads can do this or that. It was a world I didn’t know, and in many way still don’t.
Maybe this is what sets me apart from everyone else. Even though I’ve done my best at becoming a responsible adult and raising a family of my own, there’s always this feeling that’s never left me. One I could never put a finger on. An, uneasiness I guess. Darkness, maybe. And for all these years I had no idea why. Now I do.
The first time I ever saw the Man was walking with Mom on the way home from school. I must have been in first or second grade at the time. That calm and peaceful afternoon was ripped in half by the roaring engine of his beefed-up muscle car. A car, now looking back, that screamed of shortcomings.
He pulled up alongside to pace us as Mom turned our casual gait into a brisk walk. Within the shadow of the driver seat I could barely make out his sunken cheek bones and gaunt complexion. I only knew that he was smiling at me. I don’t recall the brief conversation that occurred between them other than that one clear piece within the small talk:
“Leave us alone!”. Her tone erupted into both terror and anger. One I’ll never forget. He sped off with the same fury to which he had arrived.
It was a short time later, a month perhaps that he showed up again. This time we were at the grocery store where he had been following us. He gave my Mom such a fright we left a full cart of groceries right there in the aisle. This was the first time I got a good look at him. As I told the police, who had come later to our house, he had dark bushy hair, was tall and stood a little hunched over. I saw the policeman write down on his note pad the words “bad posture”. That a stuck with me. At the time Mom always used to tell me to stand up straight or I’ll end up having bad posture.
I was warned to make sure and call the police or to get an adult if I ever saw him around again. And in the months that followed we never actually did, but we knew that he was there. I’d find a shoebox on the doorstep with a brand-new pair of sneakers. Or a shopping bag with a new dress for Mom.
Sometimes there would be an envelope mixed in the mail with a few hundred-dollar bills inside. My Mom would gather up whatever was left at our door and throw it away in the dumpster behind the liquor store, even the cash.
I would argue with her about keeping the stuff. We were poor and could most definitely use the money. But she refused.
“Don’t you EVER take ANY of it!” I didn’t understand why at the time.
On top of everything the news around town was becoming equally troubling. It was as if bad news was waiting for us in every corner. I recall a girl at my school had gone missing and a family of four were killed in a hit and run incident a town over. Mom was glued to the television every time there was a report and it felt like something new would happen almost weekly. An assault, a kidnapping, another family gone missing, these were dark times. Broken, perhaps.
One night I awoke to hushed voices coming from somewhere outside. It was Mom. She was pleading with someone outside her window.
“Please, please leave us alone”.
I heard her voice tremble, breaking into muffled cries. I could almost feel the terror as she repeated to whomever was outside to leave us alone.
Once she slammed the window shut I heard footsteps shuffling closer. I jumped back into bed and buried myself under the covers. I lay there frozen, listening. The shuffles approached louder and louder until they stopped right outside my window. I slowly peeked out from the safety of the blankets and saw a dark figure looking in at me. It was him.
He stood there for what seemed like forever. I mustered up the courage to peek again, but he was gone. I could hear Mom in the next room sobbing uncontrollably. This was the first time I really felt the pain of not having a Dad, or someone to protect us. It was awful.
A few weeks later we quietly moved to a different town, then a few months after that moved out of the state. I recall acclimating to the new town and especially a new school to be quite challenging, but soon things became normal. Before I knew it, high school was just a summer away. Mom was doing well too and had found a good paying job. She even started seeing someone, a guy named Gary. It was nice having him around. He made us feel safe but especially because he made Mom happy.
The best thing about all of this was that we hadn’t heard or seen the Man at all. I had tried to ask Mom about him a few times.
“Don’t you talk about him, EVER”.
I admit, it left me wondering. But I was a young teenager and things were going so well I eventually forgot all about him. That is, until one day after school.
There was a detective sitting in our living room next to Mom. I knew that look on her face. It was one I’d hope to never see again. I instantly knew he had come back. But that’s not why the detective was there. He was there because of Gary, dead from an apparent suicide. Gary was found in his apartment hanging in the closet with a belt around his neck. This didn’t make sense. I knew right away that Gary would never do this to himself. Mom and I locked eyes as the detective wrapped up his interview. We both knew. He had found us.
In the weeks that followed, familiar news reports began to surface. More assaults, another kidnapping. There was a kid at school whose Dad had gone missing. It was as if a dark cloud had descended upon my new town. Again, there was bad news waiting in every corner, like a killer stalking its prey.
But it was the gifts left at our doorstep that reinforced our claim. There were three old brown bags. Inside of them were rotting and withered groceries. The stench from the rotten meat and liquefied vegetables made me gag when Mom and I shoved them into the trash. I noticed mixed within the variety of foods a box of cereal that at one time had been my favorite. And then it dawned on me, these were the same groceries we had left in the cart the last time I saw him. He must have bought and kept them. It had been at least five years, maybe more.
That night Mom and I had an intense drag out. An argument like this had not happened before. It was teenage angst, I guess. It filled me with such lethal anger that I didn’t know what was really happening. I begged Mom to tell me who he was and to call the police, but she wouldn’t. She stood her ground.
“It’s for your own good!”
But I didn’t let up. I kept pounding away, driving her to her breaking point. Her voice was broken. The last time I’d heard those muffled cries was that night he stood outside my window. I remembered that moment like it was yesterday.
“Please, you won’t understand”.
She pleaded with me to stop my tirade. I eventually did. But it wasn’t until she was completely torn down.
After that day Mom and I hardly spoke to each other. It was the beginning of the end. Our relationship did nothing but deteriorate in the years that followed. I felt a darkness that had been building inside of me for the first time. I had unspeakable thoughts.
And it wasn’t long before I began to act on them. First with a couple of verbal arguments at school that quickly escalated into daily street fights. It got to the point where I’d take out my dark anger on anyone in my way. I was infected with a hatred that resonated deep within the very marrow of my bones. I could feel it. Taste it. I once beat a homeless man until the flesh peeled away from his cheekbone. I might have left him for dead.
I believed the Man was still out there, periodically watching Mom and I struggle on
with our lives. And each time I felt him, in a familiar turn of events, the local news would spit out deranged stories of murder and loss. I once thought I saw him amongst the crowd at my high school graduation, another time when I had moved away to college. But the biggest surprise was years later at my wedding. I saw him standing down the road from the reception as my wife and I drove away in our limousine to start our life together. I dismissed it as a figment of my imagination.
It had been quite some time since I had felt his presence. But inside, I knew it was him. We had received an unmarked envelope within our wedding gifts. A few hundred-dollar bills were inside. It was all too familiar. He was still there, watching.
Shortly after the birth of my son, Mom developed cancer and passed away. I was at her bedside when she quietly left our world. We still hadn’t spoken to each other the way that we should have. I regret that.
“Remember, it was the thought that counts”.
The last words that her dying body could muster were ones I’ll never forget. It made me sick to my stomach that in her final and dying words, she attempted to condone the Man’s actions. If I had any innocence left it was ripped from me like a band aid exposing the bloody wound beneath it.
I have never told my wife about the Man that had barged into our life and stalked us throughout the years. It was just us three now and all I wanted was to put those rough times behind me. My wife had lost both of her parents when she was young. All that mattered was our son, now a spunky second grader, and things were going really well.
…until I received a call from my wife yesterday.
It was about our son. He had gone missing from school. At some point during morning recess he simply disappeared. There was a furious search throughout the neighborhood. The police had set up a base camp in my front yard. I sat in my living room, helpless. All I thought about was the Man. He was here, and he had my son.
There was an intense debate inside my head. I needed to tell them. But what exactly? About a Man who had stalked Mom and I for our entire lives? It sounded crazy to just think it much less say it out loud.
Then out of nowhere, my son came walking down the street. He was alone. My wife scooped him up with a furious hug. Tears poured down her cheeks. My son wore a most confused look on his face at the police presence in our house. He didn’t seem phased at all. I noticed immediately his shoes, brand new sneakers.
The police sat him down and began their questions. As he explained calmly, a nice old man had come to see him again during recess. He had dark bushy hair and stood hunched and thin. One of the officers asked if the Man ever said his name. My son turned to look directly at me when he gave his fragile answer…