Looking Back On The Summer Of 96


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This is a story about people who didn’t fit in.

It’s about a time and a place and the summer when we tried to live enough in three months to carry us through the next four years, the summer when girls my age disappeared and the summer when girls stopped disappearing and no one knew why except me – but, more than anything, it’s a story about people who didn’t belong, except with each other.

All of this happened in 1996. It was the year Garry Kasparov lost to Deep Blue, and that made me happy since I didn’t like anyone and any small blow to the collective human ego was a Good Thing. I went through high school without friends, except for that last year. Maybe it was chance. Maybe it was the fact that Chris, who really brought us all together, only transferred in that year. I would say that we had been moving in our own circles, but we didn’t really have circles.

It’s easy to get stuck in a sort of limbo in high school now, and it was even easier back then. I didn’t fit in with the other girls because I was a nerd, and I didn’t fit in with the other nerds because I was a girl. I didn’t fit in with the other neighborhood girls because this was the 90s and their parents were afraid their precious daughters would catch the gay if they so much as talked to me, and I didn’t fit in with the other black kids because it was West San Jose and there weren’t any. I was a Venn diagram whose circles kept bouncing off each other.

Anyway, Chris sat down across from me at lunch about a week after he transferred. He was a goth, so he didn’t fit in either. He wore a leather jacket and black cowboy boots and listened to Sisters of Mercy, which was enough to convince half the parents he was a Satanist. We clicked pretty fast. He was actually a member of the International Thespian Society – he’d done some kind of theater work in and out of school before he’d moved out west.

So Chris wanted to do a school production of Dracula, the 1966 version by Stephen Dietz. The Francis Ford Coppola movie was still big with goths a few years after it came out, and Chris had sort of taken the lame romantic angle from the movie and put it into the flyers he’d made. “Love Never Dies.” Within a week he had decided he wanted me to play Mina Murray. I probably should’ve been angry with him since it was pretty clear he only wanted me for the part because it would stir up controversy. But at the same time, I had to admit I kind of liked that idea myself. I wanted to see those pinch-faced soccer moms in the audience clutching their pearls.

Josh was playing Jonathan Harker, and Chris hadn’t known him any longer than he had me, but he ended up hanging out with us outside the production. I was cool with Josh because he was cool with me as the romantic lead. A lot of kids would have bailed, but Josh was fine with it. He was on the school football team and was also sort of an idiot, but he was one of those idiots who was friendly enough he didn’t really need anything else.

Sam and Josh were a thing. She was a cheerleader, because it was expected of her, and since Josh was oddly enthusiastic about this whole Dracula thing, he roped her into being our Lucy. She had also, after three years on the squad, realized that the girl posse she went around with was awful, so she started tagging along with us after practice. We hung out at her house a few times, and it was easy to see why she had no desire to return home after school. Her mother was one of those people who would have called her Samantha instead of Sam if you’d held a gun to her head, and refused to acknowledge anything her daughter said unless she called her “mother.”

Then there was Sara, who turned out, in the end, to be the most outcast of us all. I met her purely by coincidence. My home life was uneasy. My parents didn’t fight with each other or with me, but there was a sort of chasm that had opened between us over the past year or so. Like every teenager ever, I felt they made no effort whatsoever to understand me, and instead of smoking and partying and lashing out, I nursed a quiet resentment that made me easier to ignore. It was worse after they found the magazine in my pillowcase, the one with Naomi Campbell on the cover. They never said anything about it – it just went missing, and there was an awkwardness between us after that.

I was part of this Dungeons & Dragons mailing group. How it worked was that the DM would send the five of us a page or so describing the room we were in, and what monsters were in it, that kind of thing. Then we would each send our initiative rolls and what we were doing, and Tom would sort through everything, put it in the right order, and once we had all responded, he would write the next page, describing our actions in florid detail. If you’ve ever read The Eye of Argon, it ended up reading something like that. I was playing a barbarian named Rogar, because back then you didn’t really play a woman even if you were one; the rest of the group thought I was a pimple-faced white boy named John Reagan anyway. Even so, it was a lot of fun, don’t get me wrong.

Those letters from Tom were the highlight of my week. I checked the mailbox every day when I got home from school. I was taking my reply for the week out to the mailbox and I’d just flipped up the red flag on the side when I saw Sara. She was standing on the sidewalk across the street beside a U-Haul in the driveway. Men in green uniforms were carrying furniture through the open garage door and into the house under the direction of a man I assumed was the girl’s father.

She was short and strange, with hair so blonde it was almost gray, and she wore glasses with lenses that might have been snatched from a pair of telescopes. I remember that it was a warm spring day, not a cloud in the sky, but there she was in jeans and a heavy lavender sweater, arms folded, hands in her armpits. She had a face round and pale as the moon. We stood there for what felt like about five minutes, just looking at each other, and she glanced back at her dad for a second and then walked across the street. I wanted to run. I had no idea what to do when another human being acknowledged my presence. It just wasn’t a situation that came up often enough.

“Hi, I’m Zoe,” I squeaked, finally, my throat dry as a bone, and she said, “Oh.”

After a while she asked me what was in the envelope, which I had forgotten I was holding.

“Umm. Rogar’s about to chop the hell out of an Otyugh,” I said before I could stop myself.

And she said, “Oh. That’s good.”

She introduced herself. Her name was Sara, she’d moved from somewhere I’d never heard of in the Midwest with her parents, and she’d be attending the same school as the rest of us. She sat next to me in class on Monday the next week, and just like that, I’d acquired another friend – the fourth in two weeks. I wondered what the hell was going on. Mostly I wondered if they’d play D&D with me, but I was too shy to ask. Sara just sort of lurked at the edge of the stage during play rehearsals since there weren’t any parts left, and we all hung out at her place a couple times a week because she had a Super Nintendo with Street Fighter II and Bass Masters.

Sara’s parents were kind of spacy, and whenever we showed up at her place they were always watching hockey in the living room, barely acknowledging our presence other than to say hello. They never came up to Sara’s room.

Dracula went over about as well as expected. Parents hated it, a lot of the kids thought it was great because we were so obviously trying to piss people off and they couldn’t do a damn thing about it, everybody went nuts for Jonathan and Mina’s kiss at the end, and our Renfield’s pants fell down when he ran off stage because Max, the kid playing him, was so skinny we couldn’t find a pair of pajamas that looked like something you’d wear in a Victorian mental hospital and still fit him.

It was, without a doubt, the most fun I’d ever had in high school, and we all drove around in Chris’ car afterward, blasting “Lithium” as loud as we could because he was in a big Nirvana phase at that point. We stopped at Jack in the Box and headed back to Sara’s place, where her parents were, of course, watching sports in the living room and didn’t seem to mind the chatter from upstairs. We graduated two weeks after that – except for Sara, who was in her junior year – but it seemed so insignificant in comparison, just…something that happened.

The week school let out for summer break, the first girl disappeared – actually the second, but no one wanted to say it at the time. A few months before that, a girl named Emma Bland, a year younger than I was, had vanished from her bedroom, and the police had turned up nothing in the weeks that followed. I was standing in the doorway while my parents watched the news. It was one of those moments you remember twenty years later as clearly as if it happened five minutes ago. A girl had gone missing from her home. No similarities were mentioned, but you could almost see the specter of Emma Bland hovering behind every reporter.

I hadn’t seen Chris or Josh or Sam or even Sara for a week. I suppose with school behind me and Chris’ play over and done with, I just didn’t expect to ever see any of them again. That was a past life. A weird past life where, for a brief period, I had friends. So, the morning after the news report, I was more than a little surprised when Sam called me and told me they were on their way, they were picking me up. She must have been calling on Josh’s cell phone. He was one of about three upper school kids who had one, and I remember the controversy that generated. Parents considered it disruptive, a poor reflection on the school’s reputation – some wondered if Josh had become a drug dealer. I guess this was a thing they thought happened the moment you picked up a mobile phone. In hindsight, it was probably the most ridiculous thing we ever had a school meeting about.

I flew out the door as I heard Chris’ Volvo pull up outside and ran straight across the street to Sara’s place. I knocked, but there was no answer. No lights on inside the house that I could see. I wouldn’t have thought anything was odd about this if their car hadn’t been in the driveway, but it was. I looked through the window beside the door and saw nothing. I strongly remember thinking that it was as if it were not the lights that had been turned off, but the entire house and everything in it. The lights, the television, Sara, her parents…all gone inactive, like a model house, with a model car out front. It was a strange thought, and it sent a shiver down my spine that I decided was unwarranted as I went back to the Volvo and got in the back, next to Sam, with a shrug.

“I guess she’s out,” I said, and we left it at that.

We were going to drive to Westgate Mall, but we decided there would be too many people around on a Saturday afternoon, so we went instead to this strip mall maybe half an hour’s drive from my neighborhood. It had a Regal Cinema, a Marshall’s, a Bed, Bath & Beyond and a Dave and Buster’s knockoff called FunZone that barely outlasted the turn of the millennium, and while it was still a pretty busy place, it was one of those malls that had sprung up out of nowhere and just stopped, like something half-born. It was clean and modern but development had moved elsewhere.

I asked what the agenda was, but Josh just put an arm around my shoulders and said, “Zee, the whole point of summer is that there is no agenda. Sometimes…you’ve just gotta start walking and see where you end up.”

We ended up somewhere I’d been before, though only once or twice, and never for long. This strip mall had two sides to it. One side was mostly Regal and FunZone and a couple of bigger stores, and the other was where you found some of the smaller businesses – a real estate broker, a travel agent, a FedEx store and so on. One side was lower than the other, with a parking lot that wrapped around the entire thing. You could walk around the parking lot to get to the other side, or you could take the shortcut through the strip.

The shortcut was a mostly empty space that had obviously been meant to be a sort of indoor mini-mall, but then they had abandoned the strip and no one had moved into the space. There was a working escalator so people could move through it, but there was no reason to stop. Storefronts had “Coming Soon” signs that had been there for a couple of years. There were a few clothing stores that had never happened, nothing in the windows but naked mannequins, but it seemed like they had mostly planned on the space being a food court, so there were signs for Orange Julius and that sort of thing. At the bottom of the staircase was a bare customer service desk. The whole place was creepily devoid of life and, despite the parking lot outside, silent except for our voices as we walked. It was, I thought later, the same feeling I had when I had knocked on Sara’s door earlier. Like walking through a dollhouse, or reaching for a piece of fruit, only to find that it was plastic.

I didn’t tell the others what I saw, since none of them noticed it and it happened quickly enough that I later doubted that I’d seen anything at all. I wasn’t looking for anything, but as I turned my head to listen to something Chris was saying, something vanished behind the customer service desk. For a split second, I saw something on the floor, curling and black, and then it was gone, kind of slurped behind the counter. My rational and irrational brain each offered an explanation, a debate that lasted, again, about half a second.

Tentacle!

No, Zee, that is a scarf. That is the sleeve of a nasty black shirt someone threw on the floor.

Then where did it go, hmm?

I put my hands on the counter and boosted myself up, looking over the customer service desk, expecting, perhaps, to see a homeless person huddled under the desk with a black shirt bundled against his chest, waiting for the obnoxious teens to pass him by…but there wasn’t anything. Not even a place where a person could have slipped out of sight. Then I heard an “Ah, shit – “ behind me, and turned to see Josh losing his grip on a marble column he’d been climbing and fall on his ass on the tiled floor, and I pushed the incident from my mind until that evening.

Nothing else of consequence happened that day – you know, we just messed around in FunZone and watched a movie at Regal and went home, the usual stuff teens in my area got up to on a summer day – but that lonely space between one parking lot and the other remained vivid in my mind as I lay in bed reading X-Men after dinner. This was back before everything came out in trade paperback format every four months or so, and I had a couple of long white cardboard boxes under the bed with everything bagged, boarded and organized by issue.

I thought of it again – what I had seen, or what I thought I had seen. It wasn’t a trick of the light, it was something, a flash of black against the marble tiles, and then it was gone, and there was nothing behind that derelict customer service desk. I made up my mind. I’d get a job. Right there at the travel agency next to the dead mini-mall. I’d investigate. I had nothing better to do all summer. My parents were fine with it – they were proud of me for taking the initiative, looking for work that would build my intrapersonal skills.

The travel agency thing didn’t work out. I got called in for an interview and the hiring manager’s face subtly, but visibly, lost its chipper expression when I told her I was there for the job. Oh, there was nothing wrong, it’s just that she was surprised, because I “didn’t sound black on the phone.” The worst part – the part that made me flash her a death glare that actually made her gasp and drop her pen – was that there was no open malice in the statement. She hadn’t meant to hurt me. It was just something she said.

I walked out before she could say anything else – for all I know, she would have given me the job anyway – and headed through the deserted space between the travel agency and the laundromat. No sign of our presence the week before, no sign of anything. I was completely alone, but I felt…I can’t explain how I felt. To say that I felt as if I were being watched wouldn’t be enough. I was out the door at the other end in about ten seconds, and from there I marched into FunZone, took an application from the front desk and filled it out right there. Places like that were always looking for summer help, so I figured my chances were good.

Turned out they needed me to start today. A couple hours after I’d turned in the application, they tossed me a blue shirt that hung on me like a tarp and stuck me in training with the guy who ran the laser tag. You couldn’t really call it laser tag because it wasn’t, so they called it Laser Attack, which was also dubious since you weren’t really attacking anything. It was some lame bullshit where five people stood on either side and fired at these green targets that moved back and forth over the other team’s heads. We had bumper cars, a virtual reality game and some kind of flight simulator that was broken about half the time. The only thing we had that really deserved the name was the go-karts, but I hated go-kart duty because it was mostly cleaning up after kids who decided to puke on the track. If you were lucky, someone else hadn’t already driven through it by the time you got the mop and bucket from the supply closet.

I’m getting ahead of myself. I got roped into that first shift without warning, so I had to call my parents to tell them where I was. They were out on a double date with some of dad’s work friends or something and didn’t expect to be back until at least 10, so I called Sam after that, who called Josh, and the two of them picked me up in his car after I was done. My feet were sore from standing all day, and I was tired and kind of pissed off – I don’t even remember about what – but as I shut the door to my room and flopped down on my bed, I thought this might work out. I had a job, I would have money for comics, and I would be able to take a closer look around the mini-mall while I was waiting for a lift home after my shift.

I was awake at six the next morning, and the memory of a strange and unsettling dream kept me from going back to bed. I walked downstairs in my pajamas and put a couple of Eggos in the toaster. There’s something peaceful about an early summer morning. It’s not yet asphalt-melting hot, and there’s no one around to bother you with small talk or questions or anything else. I sat on the couch in the living room, eating my waffles, and froze with a bite halfway to my mouth when I saw yesterday’s paper my dad had left on the coffee table.

I was reaching for it when I heard the tapping at the glass doors that opened onto the back porch. I had put a bunch of gold star stickers on the inside of the glass years ago, and no one had ever bothered to peel them off, since a field of gold stars was preferable to a bunch of adhesive crap. Through the stars I saw Sara, hand raised, fingernails tapping on the glass. I unlatched the door and pulled the stars aside, and my confused, still half-asleep expression must have been plain on my face, because she scratched the back of her head the way she did whenever she was embarrassed.

“Couldn’t sleep,” she said. “So I walked around and saw you through the windows….”

“Mm,” I said, motioning her inside and closing the door again. We went back to the living room, and I offered to put some more Eggos or some toast in for her but she said she wasn’t hungry.

“What’s that?” she asked as I picked up dad’s paper and sat in his recliner, legs splayed to either side of the footrest.

“Newspaper,” I said, unsure what other answer she was looking for. She was sitting on the couch, wearing a pair of green shorts, flip-flops and a navy-blue tee-shirt with a name, a summer camp, probably, that I couldn’t even begin to pronounce. I turned the front page toward her so she could read it. “Another girl got kidnapped last night. I guess they’re finally admitting it’s three now, counting the one that went missing back in April.”

“Oh. That’s bad,” Sara observed. “Shouldn’t someone do something about that?”

I nodded, thinking – not for the first time – that Sara was a very odd girl. I didn’t mind. Most people talk to fill silence. It’s a compulsion. Complete strangers run into other in an elevator and talk about the weather, or work, or what someone’s kids have been up to. It doesn’t matter what they’re talking about. It’s like watching one of those nature specials where a pair of elephant seals raise up their heads and start honking and belching at each other. Just noise. Sara was one of those rare people who would sit with you on a Saturday morning and read comics, and the silence between you was company enough.

After that third girl went missing, signs went up around the neighborhood. Her face, her name, her address and what she’d been wearing when last seen. Then signs announcing a neighborhood curfew of 9 pm, which was when FunZone closed, so by the time I caught a ride with Josh or Chris or my parents and got home, my street had an eerie feeling of desolation about it. I was used to seeing kids playing well past 9 on summer break, so it felt wrong, coming home on those summer nights and seeing an empty street punctuated by street lights. Nothing in those islands of yellow light but clouds of insects. It’s difficult to describe the unique sense of dread one feels walking through the suburbs on a warm, quiet night, when anyone could be hiding behind a stand of hedges or around the corner of a neighbor’s house.

There was also something exciting about it. I think when a community is frightened but no one you know personally, or at least well, has been affected by it, it gives people something to talk about in hushed tones. You give yourself a chill thinking about it, but you don’t actually believe anything will happen to you. The next time I can remember that feeling was just after I’d graduated college, when the Beltway Sniper was all over the news, but this was different – more personal.

It was, otherwise, the only summer of my high school years that I remember with fondness. On Friday nights, we would close up FunZone as usual, but we would let some friends in through the side door – my manager, Jack, went to Asher and had a few of his frat brothers that showed up most of the time, and I invited my friends, so most nights, I had at least one familiar face to make me feel a little more at ease. We picked up some Laser Tag gear at the Kay-Bee in Westgate Mall, and once everyone had left and FunZone was locked up, we unlocked the arcade games, played those for an hour or so, then shut down everything except the main lights and chased each other around the entire building in the dark until we got bored. Sara usually just lurked, like a kraken, in the mini-golf course on the second floor – the deepest darkness in the building – and picked people off if they happened to run past. Anyone but me. We tended to form an alliance any night the two of us were there.

We didn’t think much about Emma and the other missing girls. They had become a sort of background radiation. We would hear some other school kids on summer break at the mall gossiping about someone who knew someone who knew someone who knew Ana Reyes, the second of the missing. Sometimes I caught the tail end of an evening news report my parents were watching, some connection that had or hadn’t been drawn between the three girls. There was nothing we could do about it – we didn’t know any of the girls or any of their friends. We weren’t Encyclopedia Brown. The police would find the guy, or they wouldn’t. We were all on high alert whenever we went out alone, and I’d started carrying pepper spray, but otherwise, it was just something that happened that summer. It was something those of us with some distance from the victims used, in poor taste, to scare one another while we walked back to Chris’ car at midnight on Friday nights.

By the beginning of August, I had even convinced myself that nothing was amiss in that space between Bed, Bath & Beyond and Petco. I walked through it most days to get to FunZone, since the parking lot was always a nightmare and I convinced my parents to drop me off on the other side, mostly so I could snoop, which I did, finding nothing of interest. I even managed to pry up that hatch in the floor behind the customer service desk. It was nothing – no secret passage to hell or Narnia or even the lair of a serial murderer, just a space under the floor where they stored a bunch of stuff they never used and apparently never remembered to collect when development on the mini-mall had stopped. A couple of phones they had never installed, a mess of cables and cords and power strips. It smelled of mold and was probably a fire hazard.

I let it drop after that. The place was still creepy. I still had that feeling of being watched whenever I walked through it. I told myself it was in my head, and for once, my rational brain was starting to sway the part of me that wanted a mystery to solve. It could have been a shadow. It could have been a shadow. High school summers, for me, had been more about peace and quiet than anything else. For the first time since I could remember, I was actually having fun, and I told myself I should just run with it instead of worrying about something I’d seen, or maybe not, for a split second a month ago.

With three weeks remaining in summer break, Sara and I left FunZone around eleven. We’d been on the roof with Jack and a couple of his friends, using a slingshot to fling Batman and Ninja Turtles figures off the edge, watching them shatter on the asphalt. I guess it seemed like a good idea at the time. I was glad for Sara’s company. I was nervous around men I barely knew, and if none of my friends could make it to our Friday night after-hours gaming sessions, I would always head out at closing. I’ve wondered, ever since that night, what might have happened if I had left early. If we had stayed later.

Would he have been waiting?

Sara and I walked back through the darkened arcade, past the silent carousel and food court. Chris was supposed to pick us up on the other side of the mall, so we started to walk through the empty mini-mall, nothing unusual about it. I had no dreadful premonition. My spider-sense did not tingle. There was only the impact, hard against the side of my head. My ears rang and my legs turned to jelly. I collapsed, my vision blurring. I lay on the ground, stunned, the darkness at the edges of my vision slowly engulfing me until there was nothing but blackness and silence. Motes of blue light drifted in and out of my sight, and I assumed, at first, that they were the result of the blow to my head. As I sat up, feeling as if I were moving through something thick and resistant, the motes persisted.

More than persisting, they illuminated.

Sara was…gone, vanished entirely. All around me was black, a thick, tarry black that felt like wet leather on my hands as I tried to stand and again lost my footing. The leathery ground breathed beneath me; I could feel it, I could see it by the dim light of the drifting blue fireflies. I slowly became aware of another source of light. I looked up and found that the black landscape surrounding me transitioned seamlessly into a starry night sky overhead. It was not a city night, made murky and purple by light pollution. It was a black night, punctuated by countless stars, a swath of red spread out across the sky – as if a black cloth were all that separated me from a place of pure and blinding light, and someone had poked a million holes in that delicate membrane. Letting the light in. Making it bleed.

In spite of all this, I was certain that I was awake. It didn’t have the feel of a dream, even a vivid one. The landscape was strangely familiar. Here was a jutting surface of black leathery flesh that could have been the customer service desk. The things I thought of as trees were distributed as regularly as the columns in the empty mall. There was a hill, in the same place the escalator had been. I felt my stomach heave at a sound nearby. The sound of something eating. I reached out to steady myself against one of the trees, my hand pressing into its soft, subtly warm surface.

I was looking at a wall of glistening black with half a man sticking out of it. I recognized the jeans he was wearing. I had seen them for an instant before he’d slammed the crowbar into the side of my head, and I saw that too, lying on the ground nearby. A writhing black tentacle wrapped around the man’s waist. I heard the fleshy wall crunching and slurping as he vanished into it, inch by inch.

Something leaned down over me.

The thing was also part of the wall. Or all of this, the trees, the wall, the slithering black tentacles in the dark, was part of this thing. It was shaped something like a girl, in the same way a clay figure can be shaped like a girl, or even a cloud – and though it was larger than Sara, so much larger, its voice was the same. Now it came from everywhere, because the girl-thing in the wall had no mouth where one should have been. No face. Only eyes, dozens of eyes, the eyes of goats and cats and men and fish, opening everywhere on its body, all looking at me. Blinking, separately. I swayed on my feet and felt my lips curl into a horrid grin.

“I’m sorry.” I felt a tentacle curl around my wrist, its suckers brushing against my skin.

“You gonna eat me too?” I croaked.

“No.” The tentacle recoiled as if offended. “He would have hurt you. What kind of friend would I be if I didn’t watch out for you?”

I said nothing. The sound of a snapping bone made me retch all over again. Something slithered in the darkness and a rubbery black tentacle thick as a tree trunk, its luminescent suckers as large as plates, wrapped gently around my waist. Sara was hugging me. My mind slipped further away, rational thought and reason drifting out on a black, black sea. I must have gone entirely limp, because I was staring up into the night sky, eyes unblinking. I felt her looming close beside me, watching me with her hundred mismatched eyes…waiting for me to say something.

“What happens now?” My voice sounded dull and flat and distant.

“No more girls go missing,” the voice said beside my ear. “I said something should be done about it.”

I don’t remember if anything else was said between us. I’ve tried to fill in that blank, but I just can’t. I remember the red stars and the dark between them. I remember the immeasurable leathery blackness of Sara, since I couldn’t think of anything else to call her. The squirming sensation of being looked at intently by dozens of eyes. I remember waking up late the following morning in a hospital bed and being questioned by half a dozen suspicious cops who turned my every word inside out and shook it for hidden meaning. You would think I’d bashed someone over the head with a crowbar.

Chris was briefly suspected of perpetrating the attack. He told me later that he had found me, sitting with my back against the customer service desk, staring blankly ahead. There was no attacker. There was no Sara. The police would have concluded that the attack had never happened at all – just a teen looking to get some attention – if not for the discarded crowbar and my head injury. The minor concussion, they said, might have been responsible for the memory loss, but I can’t be sure. I can’t be sure.

Nothing happened for a week. I spent another night in the hospital, was discharged in the morning, took a week off work that turned into two weeks before I finally called Jack and told him I wasn’t coming back. Everyone, even Chris, assumed the attacker had been scared off by his arrival, that it would only be a matter of time before another girl was taken, but I knew. I couldn’t tell anyone – who would have believed a word of it? If I wasn’t flat-out crazy, it would have been the concussion, or a nightmare, or…whatever. I might have convinced myself of the impossibility of what I had seen, what I thought I had seen, if not for what happened after.

Sara’s family moved away. I hadn’t seen her in a week, and the others, I guess, thought she just wasn’t up to saying goodbye. Maybe that was true. In a sense. I did some digging in the local papers. Her mother and father, always watching sports, always greeting Sara’s friends with a cursory hello, had moved here from Fresno, and had no memory whatsoever of the past few months. They had simply woken up a week after the attack in an unfamiliar house, most of their belongings still packed in boxes and stacked in the garage. How must that have felt? I had lost a night. How do you recover three months of your life, unremembered? They had no children.

The second thing that happened that week didn’t stand out at first. A science teacher from Leland High had gone missing, and other than a brief mention in the paper, nothing came of it until the police searched his house and found the locked door in his basement, and the well-lit, pristine, refrigerated room behind it. Emma, Ana – they were all there, five girls, each drained of blood and locked in her own freezer, lined up against a wall like Barbies on a store shelf. The blood was neatly stored beneath a metal sink in a collection of airtight, labeled plastic containers. A sixth girl, Ellie Parker, was still alive, malnourished and chained at the wrists and ankles. And that was that. Her testimony put any doubts to rest that the homeowner was in fact the kidnapper, the murderer, who had terrorized a small swath of central California in the summer of 1996. His face was all you saw on television for a month. Now that the monster had been found, the victims of the monster weren’t much more than a footnote. No other girls were kidnapped before the end of summer, and it was assumed that the killer had fled. Perhaps his “habit” had become too conspicuous. Maybe he was worried his absences from class would be matched up to the timetable of the girls’ disappearances. I knew he’d never be seen again in San Jose or anywhere else.

I believe they are still looking for him. It’s no longer an active investigation, but they still expect him to turn up somewhere, eventually. I’m glad they are wrong. In hindsight it feels almost anticlimactic. The end came suddenly and nobody got any closure except me, because nobody else had been there and even if I wanted to tell them what happened, what would I say? I went to a shrink for a while, on and off. Of course I did. If I had said what I wanted to say, what would have happened then? We didn’t all keep in touch after that summer, but most of us did. Chris, Josh, Sam – no one crashed and burned. Maybe we didn’t end up staggeringly wealthy, but we did all right, and that is also a Good Thing.

I think about Sara often. Sara, who was, I think, both ancient and young, and had come from very far away, and reached out a hand, so to speak, in the hope that someone would take it, and help her belong.

I wonder, if she comes back someday, if she pulls the stars aside and invites me to her home, will I be able to refuse her? Will I even want to?
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