A little over a week ago is when Kariann Rose Nathan went missing. In the photo they used, she’s holding a stuffed giraffe and smiling wide. A towheaded girl who’s hair is a vibrant yellow, almost white, cascading messily down her shoulders. Adults with teeth missing tend to smile with their lips pursed together but Kariann is beaming, the dark gap of a lost baby tooth in the top row on proud display in that way only children with missing teeth can do.
Her parents put their six year old to bed on Wednesday night. Her mother combed the knots and tangles from her hair just before that and slowly brushed it for her until it shone like spun gold. When they woke up the next morning, she was gone. There was no sign of forced entry and the pajamas they put her to bed in were found on her dresser.
Kariann Rose, the happy missing child with the missing tooth.
They know the stuffed giraffe is with her because it went missing that same night. Nothing else seems to be missing but the girl and her prize… She must be wearing something, but they have no idea what is gone from the overstuffed closet of their only child, so there is no line in the news story beginning: “Last seen wearing…” Perhaps it’s down to bad parenting, but they simply don’t know…
But I do. I know what she wore. I know that she woke around 3:00 that morning. She folded her pajamas neatly and put on a dress. It’s light blue with a sunflower print. It fell off it’s hanger some days before and now on the floor, it was the only thing her little hands could reach. I know that she took the stuffed animal and went into the garage and began to rummage through her father’s toolbox. I know that after she found what she wanted, she left through the garage’s side door.
I saw it all happen, but I don’t have anything to do with her disappearance. I can’t tell anyone. They’ll think I’m involved and I know it may be hard to believe, but I didn’t do it… I have nothing to do with it.
The day this began, she stared out to me from the computer screen from her most recent photo; taken at the Harvest Fair. You can tell because the shape of the ferris wheel is rising up in the background behind her like a sinister shadow. It’s out of focus and looming there, nearly unrecognizable. That meant the photo could be no more than three days old.
The looming shapes of cranes and coaster tracks and swinging ships and loop-de-loops only sprouted from the horizon of the Bradenville Fairgrounds in the afternoon that Monday. I grew up near there but lived far outside of town now, thank God. I’d seen them from the highway on my evening drive to work. They looked just the same as they always had. The shadows of memories from my youth in Bradenville are enough to put my teeth on edge on any normal day, but that evening I found my gaze transfixed by them as I drove. Their silhouettes burned against the sunset. More shadows of memories, returning as ghouls on the edge of night. A shudder rolled through my head, slowly creeping down my back and finding a place where it could hide forever in my spine. The mass of crude twisting beams against the orange of the dying sky were Bradenville’s Robotic Heralds of Autumn and in this sunset they seemed to be bringing the fire of hell with them on their backs.
I’m still here. Y’all come back now. the town whispered to me from someplace in my head. Oh, and by the way…Happy Fall Y’all!
You might get out of town if you’re lucky, but I learned quickly that you never get far before the doubt creeps in. It took some doing, but I got out of Bradenville. I tried so many times to leave, more than I could count, but it isn’t easy to leave a small town like that in the rearview as you think it might be. Then one day I finally did it. One day I passed the sign and it didn’t stop me and I didn’t look back.
“Thanks For Visiting, Y’all Come Back Now!”
No. Fuck no. Not ever…
That day I laughed like a nutjob as I merged into traffic on I-65. Like the fucking Joker. I was all alone in the car so nobody worried that I was howling like a madman as I drove. I was young and I was free. It didn’t take long before the doubt set in, but I didn’t go back. As the old saying goes, you can’t go home again.. I just pulled off at Exit 42 and that’s where I stayed. I worked 8 miles north of town and I kept the job even after I moved 32 miles south. The drive was long, but the job was good, and the town was not. Bradenville was a pit of leeches set to suck you dry. A place that’s hard to leave and even harder to explain. I had to get out. The 40 mile commute was long and shitty, but each day as I passed Exit 74 and the watchful glare of Bradenville beyond, I reminded myself that I’d won. Not a big win… but a win was still a win.
On Monday, it was the same forest of colossal mechas that grew out from that field for two weeks each October and in all the Octobers of my childhood. Never sprouting in the same configuration, but I felt they were the same forest of rusted trees they’d always been. Death traps. The exact carnival rides and games I knew when I was Little Missing Kariann’s age, only by now they’d be 24 years older and the oxidation older still. I imagined the carnival rides with robotic faces, plagued with rust so old they were pitted with holes. Grinning wicked beasts that yawned with jagged death, rust eating gaps into their support beams and struts. Machines with holes in their rusted razor gears of teeth as unabashedly uncovered and displayed with the same prominence as Kariann’s smile.
I saw her picture on Facebook the day after she went missing and I saw where she’d gone in a dream later that night. A dream I forgot quickly in my waking haze. Each night I dreamed the same, again and again, remembering a few more scraps each time. The dreams might have started the night she disappeared — the night we had the big storm — but I didn’t remember them until a day or two later. I have the same awful dream every night now.
Friday afternoon, I woke up to the sound of my own voice calling out in my sleep.
But she couldn’t hear me, and it’s too late for her to hear me. It’s something that’s already happened. Shadows of the past. Ghosts. Karianne is a ghost now. I know it. I don’t know how I know it. I just do.
Just like any dream, it blurred away and frayed at the edges when I woke. It grew fuzzy, like the ferris wheel in the background of her photo, moving further and further away from me as I opened my eyes until I couldn’t see or remember what was in the background in the first place. The bed was drenched in cold sweat and I was still screaming as I sat up. I kept screaming not even realizing I was doing it and couldn’t remember why. Breathing heavily, I untangled my feet from the knot of sheets and walked into the bathroom with tears in my eyes on my shaking knees to look in the mirror. I stayed there, staring at myself and trying to slow the rise and fall of my chest. Running my hands along my face, I pulled my cheeks taut, inspecting my own bloodshot eyes. I looked as though I hadn’t slept at all. I opened my mouth and traced the line of my gums with a finger to assure myself that my teeth were all still there. Still rattled by something I could no longer remember, I fixed my matted hair and took a drink of cool water from the faucet with my hands. I tried very hard to remember why I was so upset when I woke up but I found I couldn’t. I didn’t even remember little Kariann that first day. The only thing I could recall was that I had the most awful dream and it turned out, I’d been fine all along.
I didn’t remember that Kariann was missing. I didn’t know who she was. She was just a face I scrolled past on Facebook. She was just a link. A scrap of information my mind gathered and dismissed upon deciding it held no context or meaning for me. She was still just a ghost that existed as I slept and faded quickly when I woke. She wasn’t real enough.
The distribution facility where I work is a central warehouse for a chain of grocers. The pay is decent and the hours are nights. Overtime, benefits and weekends off — the works. I didn’t look for another job closer to home because there wasn’t any reason too. If I ever found myself frustrated by the drive as I headed north on I-65, I tried to remember the reason why I was doing it: I’d rather live anywhere but Bradenville.
I was distracted as I drove, going through the motions automatically in a daze. I would have — could have — stayed that way, hypnotized by the drive for the entire commute if it weren’t for the outline of the ferris wheel as it began to crest the top of a hill from the other side of the south bound lane.
The dream. I remembered it now. Some of it.
The little girl. Her name was Kariann. She was a Facebook post. That ferris wheel in the background. I saw what happened to her in the dream. I saw her tiny hands rummage through her father’s tool chest as she drew something out. I watched her leave barefoot and begin to walk.
A car honked as I began to drift lanes, shocking me back to reality, so I pulled over. I could feel my heart begin to race as things came back to me in images like puzzle pieces that didn’t quite fit together. There weren’t enough of them to make the full picture and understand.
Kariann walking barefoot down the road.
A bear. There was a bear in the dream.
A van came up behind her and slowed…
There was something here…I’d seen something awful through that little girl’s eyes while I slept and I could feel my mind just on the edge of it…
When it came to me, I opened the door and leaned out. Everything inside me came up then. I threw up over and over until all that was left was air, then stayed that way, dry heaving until I felt faint and my vision became spotty… when I was done, I called out of work for the day and sat in my car staring out at the highway and the other drivers as they zoomed past and I lost track of time. Soon the sun vanished and the sky around the fair was a glow of rainbow lights spinning in the distance. I started the car and began moving again before I’d finished processing the dream fragments… I had to get away from this fair and the distracting presence of the town that held it.
Kariann standing in someone’s yard at the edge of the woods with a vacant look in her eyes. The house was dark foreboding as clouds rushed across the moon overhead.
Kariann digging in the dirt.
Kariann holding the little giraffe in her left hand and something else in her right.
Kariann and blood. So much blood. Smeared across her face. So much blood and dirt smeared across her dress.
Kariann, somewhere in the woods, lifting the stuffed giraffe onto the stump of a fallen tree and propping him up to watch as he waits for her. Her six-year-old hands are so small that she needs them both to open the handles of her father’s dirty pliers. She places the needle-nosed end of them inside her mouth, searching for something. Finding it, she uses both hands to squeeze the handles together.
Gripping one of her tiny teeth firmly, her small hands on the handles of the pliers, Kariann Rose Nathan began to pull.
When I returned home there was a package waiting for me. For no reason whatsoever, I felt my stomach churn when I picked it up from the doorstep and I managed to convince myself the arrival was a coincidence, but not really. Between the missing little girl, the looming shadows off I-65 and the package origin, there couldn’t be a coincidence. Inside, I felt it was all connected because, isn’t it always all connected?
I didn’t know until later how right this intuition was, but for the moment I felt like the man in a horror movie who returns home to find a twitching crow dying on his doorstep…or a box with a human heart stuffed beneath a mound of tulle. It was an omen.
The box was reused. I felt like the smile of the worldwide shipping company’s logo was grinning at me. Taunting maliciously. Taped to the underside was an envelope, the generic, brightly colored kind that comes free with the purchase of a greeting card. That part in this felt harmless enough so I opened it and found a folded note inside.
Found some of your Halloween things and thought you would like to have them. Missing you back at home but glad you made it out on your own.
I placed the box on my kitchen counter where it remained unopened.
I sat quietly staring at it from the couch as though it could decide to move on its own. As it smiled at me, I began shutting the remembered pieces of the dream from that morning out, compartmentalizing the fragments of it and storing them away in the dark corners of the warehouse in my mind. Each piece tucked inside it’s own imaginary box where it couldn’t play with the other parts. Where I couldn’t think of them. It was easy enough to imagine these boxes with the dark intent of the actual delivery filling the room.
“What happened to that little girl?”
No. Put that back in the box. The imaginary box. The harmless box.
“But the pliers? Her teeth!? She was pulling out her own teeth!”
No. That one in that box too.
I was losing it.
Brooding on my couch with my laptop, I scrolled the national news sites hoping for a distraction and it worked for a short time. I found between glancing back and forth from my countertop to the glow of the screen I could think about something other than Kariann Rose. It didn’t last for long. One of the boxes in my mind would flop open and she would come crawling out of it only to be shoved back down. Each time I expected to look up and see that thing on the counter where it would be growing spider legs and coming toward me–but it remained just a box. It didn’t even shudder.
I read about the latest gadgets, global warming and wars on the other side of the world and avoided the local stories because I was afraid I’d find her there with those innocent eyes staring hypnotically back. Thanks to my shifts at the warehouse, I’d grown accustomed to late nights and I wasn’t tired. Not yet. Hello Darkness, my old friend.
As the sun began to rise, I raged against my usual bedtime with coffee and horror films. There was no logical explanation for this choice. Maybe I was trying to desensitize myself or maybe I was a sadist. In the end it was no use and I could feel my resolve flagging even with every light in my apartment blazing. Everytime I felt my eyelids drop I slapped myself awake and shot a cautious look at the package which still hadn’t moved. I was faltering quickly now into Dreamland. Even with Linda Blair’s screaming I was losing.
Regan MacNeil is possessed by the devil and she’s just a scared little girl trapped in there.
Kariann is just a scared little girl. Is she trapped somewhere too?
The Exorcist was a bad choice but I hadn’t realized it at first.
A girl can be like a box with things inside.
I turned the TV off and stood in the center of my living room. I was sure that I couldn’t sleep standing up… Did you know that you can? I found out about it when I fell over and bruised my leg on the coffee table.
I needed something else, so I blasted a hardcore band on my living room stereo and I suppose in the end that thrashing guitar and machine-gunning drumkit became the lullaby that soothed me to sleep on my carpet.
I wouldn’t know until hours later that my suspicions about the box and its contents were correct. It was an omen. Like the dreams, it waited for me to sleep to come to life and the lid flopped open on the counter by itself and something…a sort of nightmare, long-forgotten, was freed.
Kariann was leaving her garage in a replay from the night before. I saw the world through her eyes as she walked quickly through the wet grass. Her tiny stride could be no more than a foot and a half long and she was moving quickly away from home one and a half feet at a time. The pajamas were light and she should be chilly but the cold seemed to have no effect on her. There were barely any clouds of vapor that escaping her as she exhaled. Onward she went until she reached the road. After so many hours in darkness, the asphalt still held a lingering warmth from the day. It felt rough beneath her feet but she didn’t mind. Her mind was somewhere else. Her mind was lots of places else.
I knew that I was dreaming in that way you do when you sense the impossibility of the dream…but she wasn’t dreaming. She was awake. I could hear all of the things her little mind was doing.
234, 235, 236
There were many thoughts at once and one of them was counting. A few of the others made me shudder and I tried to ignore those but I couldn’t shut those out the way I wanted to. Kariann didn’t have any imaginary boxes inside where she hid dark things and she didn’t want to have them. I watched it all like a drive in movie, but the car was moving. She was the driver and I was in the passenger seat. The movie played and the world moved as she drove us.
3518, 3519, 3520
Her head quieted and she stopped. Setting the giraffe and the pliers down on the ground, she placed her tiny hands inside her mouth. The first few wouldn’t be as gruesome as those to come, so many were already loose. She went for the weakest tooth she had and gave it a tug. It wobbled in the space next to the one that was missing already in her picture. It took her less than a minute before she snapped it free. The full October moon glinted on the spider’s silk thread of her saliva as she removed it. In the pale of the night, the tooth shone like a precious stone. With her free hand, she stuck her index finger into the ground and placed the little bone from her mouth inside and covered it up before collecting her belongings and moving on.
1, 2, 3
The noise in her head began again, with the counting part reset back to one. Blood drooled down her chin, but her mind was away on more important matters.
The heels of her tiny feet moved quickly on the dark road. The pace was more than a walk but you couldn’t quite call it a run. It was like watching her amble down the street in a home movie at a regular pace, only the replay was sped up. Fast forward. I’d seen my dad do this so many times forcing the footage of our family vacations onto uninterested parties.
“This part is boring. Wait until you see what Darrell says next. Funny stuff. I could send this in for that show. I bet they’d play it. It’s good enough for national television, on that show.” I could hear him saying it. I could hear every one of Kariann Rose’s thoughts too, along with my own.
783, 784, 785
Every bit of her moved at this preternatural speed except the rise and fall of her chest and the beating of her heart. These things happened slowly, defying logic and her speed as she went. Her feet began to bleed before the second mile passed, but she never slowed or reacted to the pain.
3518, 3519, 3520
She stopped again and set down her things. The sounds inside her stopped once more too and the calls of the crickets filled the void of silence like a growing tide. The next tooth she chose was one from the upper row. It was more stubborn than the last but she didn’t seem to mind. Mouth agape and hands inside, she pulled at it as she stared into the stars above. I found myself looking down on her from the branches of the treetops and out at the moon through her own eyes simultaneously. Looking up or down, all I saw was vacancy. There was nothing in the sky but the stars above and nothing looking out from behind her eyes. I felt a chill at the realization, but not really… Because I was Kariann now and Kariann didn’t feel cold at all. She didn’t feel anything. She just worked at her tooth until it broke free from the hold of her mouth. She looked at it and smiled red as it shone in the moonlight like one of Hansel and Gretel’s gleaming pebbles or breadcrumbs (depending on the teller of the tale) and buried it in the ground where she would never see it again.
Nobody would ever see any of the breadcrumbs Kariann left to mark her way. They weren’t for the little girl to get back home. They weren’t for her parents or police to follow. A search dog might find a few of them, but maybe not. Maybe she moved too quickly through the dark for her scent to stick and lead them down her swift and quiet path.
As she began to count again…
1, 2, 3, 4
And the crickets subsided amid the noise and static of the thoughts that rattled inside her tiny head…
5, 6, 7, 8
It occurred to me…
9, 10, 11, 12
She might be leaving them for me.
I jolted awake on my living room rug. The music and my head was still pounding and outside the sun was beginning to set. I turned the music off, but the incessant pounding continued. It took me several moments to realize it wasn’t my head. Someone was at the door.
I set the chain and opened it slowly.
“What in the name of hell are you doing in there?”
It was the woman from across the hall.
“Ex-excuse me?” I said. My throat was dry and the word came out in fragments.
“I said, the fucks wrong with you?” She shouted. One of her scabbed arms swung a hand against the door from the other side.
I could have been nice or apologetic, but the dream was still with me and still vivid. I wasn’t in the mood. “Don’t touch my fucking door.” I said instead.
She looked wild at that, rage burning from her eyes and began kicking and pounding it in earnest. Her jagged methmouth hurled every insult she could think at me. “You frickin stupid asshole. People gotta sleep. People gotta work.”
She pressed her face into the doorframe. That made me more angry and I began to feel wild too.
“You don’t work, you’re a junkie and you make more noise beating your boyfriend in the middle of the night than I ever have in my whole entire life.”
“What you say bout me? You son of a bitch, I’ll mess you up real good.” She pressed her face and now a hand further through the small gap of my door. I rammed my shoulder into it and felt a crunch. She spun away, holding her face as I closed my door behind her and set the bolt. I looked out at her through the peephole and was sure that I’d broken her nose and at least one of her fingers.
“I’m calling the cops!” She wailed from the hallway.
“You won’t!” I shouted back at her through the door. And I knew she wouldn’t. Also, I didn’t care if she did. Being a noisy neighbor on a Saturday isn’t illegal. I shook my head as I stepped away from the door and heard her slam her own behind her. I started to feel kind of bad then. If she hadn’t been so aggressive, I might have apologized that my stereo was so loud. I wouldn’t have meant it, I thought, it’s the middle of the day, but I might have said I was sorr–.
My thoughts trailed off as my eyes locked with the box. It hadn’t moved from the countertop but the tape that held it closed was peeled back and the flaps sat open. Had I opened it? Maybe in my sleep?
No. I thought. No. I didn’t.
I couldn’t have because I was walking along a stretch of road and then through the woods all night. Did I remember something about a bear?
I couldn’t have opened it. The last thing I remembered, I was standing on my living room rug, which is where I woke up. I was sure I hadn’t moved from that spot in my sleep.
As the orange glow of sunset filtered in through my living room curtains, I inched closer to the box. Why was I so afraid of this thing? It was just a box from home. From my own mother…
But it wasn’t. There was something wrong with it and I knew that when I brought it inside. I walked slowly to the counter and peered past the flaps. The top layer was a collection of rubber bats. Beneath that was a ceramic skull and a number of other Halloween paraphernalia I left behind when I left home.
I removed everything, slowly, cautiously… Why was I so afraid of this thing the night before? I found a set of rubber teeth as crooked and black as those of my neighbor, the methfairy. At the bottom was an old photo album and I felt my stomach knot with understanding. I’d known this would be in this box with the rest. The photo album from my mother’s shelf. I knew the album full of pictures of my yearly costumes and fall activities well. The words “Darrell’s Halloween Photos” were scrawled in my mother’s spidery handwriting along the spine.
I opened it and when I saw the face that stared back at me from the first dusty page, my stomach coiled and immediately I felt like I might throw up.
It was a photo of me at six years old. My blond hair was cut into a horrible mullet that cascaded over my shoulders. I was holding up a prize proudly. A stuffed bear. The ominous blur of the Ferris Wheel rose up behind me with the sky burning in orange from the setting sun in the background. It was the same, but different because it was me and not her. A different child with a different toy, striking the same exact pose against the same background. I was even missing the same tooth in this photo as she was missing in hers.
Horrified as though the thing was crawling with spiders, I threw the book against the kitchen wall and retreated to my bedroom. I don’t know how sleep managed to find me ever again after that, but it did eventually and Kariann was there waiting for me.
The dream began again where it always did. A little girl, waking up and changing from her PJs in the dead of night and walking for miles along the dark roads beneath the moon with trees flanking her on either side.
1843, 1844, 1845
She counted each step as she went. There was no reason why a six year old could know how many of her tiny strides would add up to make a mile, but she knew it regardless. I knew that because I knew what she knew. Her head was still full of noise, her thoughts flitting from cartoons to her mother brushing her hair at night. Her thoughts changed like television channels from herself as a little princess on a mission she didn’t quite understand, to her baby dolls and each time the channel changed, my ears rang with static like the TV in my childhood bedroom did when I was young. She thought about ponies and the pretty flowers as she walked quickly past them in the moonlight, counting all the while…
3518, 3519, 3520
She stopped then and all the thinking stopped too as she set the giraffe down on the ground and yawned her mouth open. The tops and bottoms of her feet were covered in blood now–the bottoms because she’d forgotten her shoes; the tops from the blood that dripped slowly from her chin and down her pretty sunflower dress all the way down and down and down until it landed on her feet as she walked. By about the fifth mile, every tooth she buried was removed from its rightful home inside her gums with her father’s needle-nosed pliers. Sometimes they came out easily. Sometimes it took a few minutes but they came out just the same. In these moments when she stopped to bury her tiny treasure, it was like she disappeared entirely and we both sat quietly inside her head; passengers while something else drove her. She never felt any pain in her mouth and not in her feet, not while she drove herself… not while we glanced patiently out through the dark windows of her eyes as her chauffeur drove us both. She buried the tooth when it was finished and carried on her way.
1, 2, 3, 4
The crickets would grow quiet and the channels would flick and flick and flick. Her thoughts would settle often on the same channel as she cycled through fairy tales and Barbie and Ken and she’d settle back on the boy she’d seen on the news a year ago. He was older than her. Had a little wisp of mustache on his lip. Zits and freckles across his face. His name was Trevor. He’s lost like us, she thought…
After Trevor disappeared was when her mother told her not to talk to strangers because kids went missing all the time.
There was a girl in her thoughts too, she went missing a few years earlier. Her name was Holly Sue. She was lost.
She’s lost like us, too. But that wasn’t her word. That’s just what the news man said. “Lost.”
But they weren’t lost like us, because we weren’t lost at all. We knew exactly where we were and where we were headed. We’d left the breadcrumbs along the way.
We? These were her thoughts. Not mine. I was dreaming. Just a passenger. Did she know I was there, along for the ride?
“Yes.” she said out loud. She let out a sigh and rolled her eyes, like it should have been obvious to me by now.
“This is the way Darrell.” she said to me “I’m showing you the way…”
Kariann walked quickly along the road in the middle of that October night. The only company she kept was me as her passenger, and the moon. She walked faster than a normal child could and she went on for miles, planting teeth along the way like blighted seeds from which nothing but nightmares might grow.
I watched her, unable to comprehend exactly what was going on as she went. I watched it all from the beginning just like the last time. I watched again and again as events played out the same way as they had in my other dreams of her; from the first tooth to the second to the tenth. The radio station of her brain constantly shifting from songs to games and friends. She thought of people she knew and people she didn’t. She thought of other children who seemed to be doing the same thing as her, going through the same motions until time became a blur and I wasn’t sure how much had passed at all. It was hard to tell in the fast-walk trail that she made what kind of time she was keeping. She had to be going a mile every few minutes without faltering or slowing her stride.
I watched her pull the 15th tooth and then the 16th. The toenail came free from one of her big toes but she never stopped moving unless it was to use the pliers. When she was done, she retrieved her stuffed giraffe and carried on in her unusual pace. The blood continued to collect on her dress and soaked into the giraffe’s neck, the fresh red mingling with stains that were set and beginning to dry.
Somewhere along mile 17, a van slowed. The driver didn’t seem to register that she was moving faster than she should be as she stepped quickly along the edge of the pavement. He licked his lips and thought of awful things and smiled to himself as he drew closer.
He rolled down his window, shouting “Hey!”
And Kariann Rose Nathan stopped and turned to him. It was the only time that night she went missing when she stopped for reasons other than prying out and burying the little pieces of herself in the dirt.
She just stared at him without saying a word. An uncomfortable silence hung in the air as the sounds of the crickets returned and her thoughts grew quiet. An owl hooted someplace nearby.
Slowly, the man’s eyes and mouth grew wide as he gulped at the beer tinged air in the cab of the van. He was visibly shaken by what he saw more so than by what he meant to do to the little girl that walked along the side of the road in the middle of the night all alone. He began to shiver slightly and then to quake with the terror of realization. Blood was smeared across every inch of her face, dry in some places and sparkling by starlight where it was still wet in others. Her dress was stained at the neckline and dark patterns traced in rivulets where it beaded off and led down to the hem at the bottom. The lines went further, tracing trails down her legs.
Finally, because the man was still sitting there, she spoke, “I don’t talk to strangers. My mommy says not to.” Her voice was clear and unafraid and suddenly the man didn’t want to talk to her anymore either. He pressed his foot to the gas all the way and the van peeled off loudly. The air still stank with the stench that wafted from the van; beer and the acrid ghost of burnt rubber on the pavement when the crickets grew quiet again. Her thoughts resumed their regularly scheduled channel surfing. She resumed walking much too quickly once more.
Somewhere along mile 19, she left the road and headed straight into the trees. The forest was dark. The canopy above blotted out the moonlight except in places where the branches and leaves had begun to thin. Most of the things that lurked in the darkness of the woods gave her a wide berth, avoiding her. Everything that crept in the shadows. I couldn’t tell if they were avoiding her because she frightened them the way she frightened me as she showed me the way, or if they were afraid of the bear. It may have been both.
Somewhere along mile 20, she buried another of her diminishing stock of teeth and I became aware of that bear. It must have been following us for longer than that, because I only heard it when she stopped thinking. Even the crickets grew quiet this time. I watched both views in tandem: the one from Kariann’s eyes and the one from the treetops. She could hear the bear moving through the undergrowth, snapping twigs and rustling shrubs as it came, but it was behind her so she didn’t see it. Like the pain in her mouth and the pain of the broken skin on her tiny broken feet she paid it no attention. My view from above allowed me to see it somewhere where it lurked hesitantly behind her left shoulder. At first it was drawn to her through the trees lustfully, following the scent of blood. It seemed to be prevented by its on curiosity from doing much other than following her. I understood how that bear must have felt.
As she began counting again…
1, 2, 3, 4
…it became just another of her passengers along for the ride, keeping pace close behind.
Kariann? I thought.
She replied by cocking her head to the side as she has walked.
Why are you showing me this? I asked.
“You don’t remember?” she said in return, her voice was quiet but alert.
No. I told her.
She never slowed as she went, simultaneously counting her steps and thinking her thoughts about Trevor and Holly Sue and someone named Zachariah and someone named Danielle and others. She kept all of this going as she spoke…
When I woke on Sunday morning, I felt horrified in equal measure by both the dream and that I managed to have slept in the first place. I didn’t lay down. I couldn’t remember lying down. How could I have fallen asleep? But I must have, because there seemed to be a long span of time that was unaccounted.
What had I been doing? I wondered, and my mind drifted back to that box and and the album and it’s disturbingly familiar photo. The photo of the towheaded boy that used to be me that was hidden on the pages inside.
I remember that night that the photo was taken. It was the day before Halloween. The year was 1999. Under normal circumstances, it would be strange to remember a date so vividly. Especially when I’d been barely 6 years old at the time… But sometimes things happen that make other things stick to you and leave a mark you don’t ever forget.
I took a moment to remember, but the details were hazy at best. My father won the stuffed bear for me at the fair’s shooting gallery. There was a storm…I was coming up stumped on the rest of the memory… so I searched it online…
Bradenville Fairgrounds Storm 10-31-99
Results pinged and the headline read:
When I begin to remember, it’s like I’m watching all of this happen around me through someone else’s eyes. Like watching everything be reenacted by a child actor or watching someone in a dream.
The day had been cooler than those before it and Little Darrell was bundled a bit too tightly for the seasonably pleasant October weather, but his mother had insisted and so before the family left, she bundled Darrell up in his winter jacket.
“It’s only 58 degrees outside, Lori.” Dad argues, but Mom insists that the boy will catch a cold.
“You remember how he had to sit out last year with chicken pox, don’t you?” She says “kid’s only got a handful of Halloweens to enjoy before he’s too old to. Better he doesn’t get sick and have to sit out another one.”
Dad relents and the three of them head out.
The road out to the fairgrounds is slowly being encroached by the ancient oaks that seem to grow taller and wider each year. Their low hanging branches bowing over the disused roadway form an autumnal tunnel of warm colored leaves, that burn with the last embers of the afternoon in reds and yellows. Soon they will wilt and fall away for winter but for now they’re bright and colorful.
Darrell likes the way the tires of Dad’s old blue Civic crunch across the gravel. The sound makes him think of plastic skeletons come to life, their teeth bending as they attempt to munch greedily on broken headstones. Fake skeletons eating rocks in the cemetery. This makes him think of how when they pass the graveyard, Dad usually points and says “Look Dare! Dead Dudes!” And Darrell laughs at the idea because when Dad says that it always makes Darrell laugh.
Even before the carnival comes into view, the world that undulates past the windows of the sedan is lit with the mystery of autumn. As the fair grows closer, just beyond the windshield now, the bright dance of orange and purple lights shrug that mystery away and Halloween comes to life.
Dad wins the teddy bear for Darrell at the shooting gallery. At some point they take his picture with it. Shortly after, the sun goes down and it begins to rain. They huddle into one of the tents and watch a sideshow with a bearded lady that also swallows swords and a strongman who also is a knife thrower. The rain howls outside throughout the show. It pelts on the waterproof canvas, sounding like a hundred snaredrums. The rain outlasts the sideshow and the family decides they should try their luck and run to the car from the massive tent. The doorway is flapping against the rain and the wind like a flag.
Mom says: “See, I told you he needed this jacket.”
And Dad huffs.
Ignoring her, he says: “I’ll run get the car and pull it up as close as I can get it. I’ll honk for you when I get to the fence okay?”
Mom decides that’s a good idea and Dad sways in the doorway looking for his nerve. When he finds it, he’s off like a bolt of lightning into the storm and through the mud and puddles that are slowly taking over the fairgrounds.
Mom is saying something but Darrell doesn’t hear. He’s watching that creepy old house just in front of them. He remembers that Mom said it was a historical something-or-other. It’s an important house. Someone important once lived there. Through the rain, it just looks haunted. When the bolt of lightning splits through the house, Darrell screams and buries his face into the bear. It doesn’t matter that the bear is soaking wet. The dead old house on the edge of the fairgrounds is coming to life now. It’s turning yellow and red and orange like the leaves. Like it’s moving.
“The Braden House is on fire!” Someone shouts, and Darrell lifts his head from the wet fur of the teddy. People are running now, some going towards the haunted house to help it or get a better look but most people are running away. Darrell and Mom just stand there. Mom looks shocked, and Darrell is both scared and fascinated. The house is on fire, he sees it. Even despite the rain it’s on fire and that scares Darrell because water is supposed to kill fires and this time it isn’t working. It’s incredible and scary all at once.
When the car horn sounds through the chaos, Mom comes out of her shock. She picks up Darrell and begins to run towards the car and away from the haunted house. Darrell watches it over his shoulder as it burns and gets smaller and smaller as they leave it behind.
That house became somewhat of a legend in the years that followed, but not because it burned down in that unexplainable storm. The storm was a freakish and intense one, coming so late in October, but the mystery of it went further than that.
The news article that came up in the search was from the archives of the BradenSun.
Storm Causes Braden Manor To Burn…Police Are Seeking Information
Publish Date: 10-31-99 @ 4:15am
A storm late yesterday evening baffled local meteorologists as well as residents on the outskirts of Bradenville, but strangeness of a different sort is now baffling police in the early hours of Halloween morning.
The rain began without warning, chasing fairgoers from the Autumn Festival. As though this weren’t enough, the chaos went quickly from bad to worse when the Braden Manor, a local historic landmark, was struck by lightning and caught ablaze.
Firefighters managed to extinguish the blaze just after midnight which led police to make a shocking discovery at the scene. The caretaker of the property, Errol White, who was in one of the downstairs offices when the lightning struck insists that aside from himself the house was empty at the start of the storm.
“I was in the office doing some paperwork and I felt the bolt go right through the house. Nearly knocked me out of the chair I was sitting in,” White says, “took me a moment to realize the building was still moving afterward. Heard the place rattling round upstairs, so I run [sic] out the front door.”
White claims he did not hear the screaming until he was in the front yard and running from the blaze. His claims have sparked an ongoing investigation.
After the fire was extinguished and the Fire Marshall cleared the property for entry, first responders found themselves confronted with a gruesome sight. Inside the ground floor of the property and throughout the rooms of what remained of the historical landmark were several bodies.
Moments ago, Sheriff Downs released a statement from the Braden County Sheriff’s office.
“We are asking that everyone make contact with any loved ones in the area. Most of the people inside the building when it burned down were young. We expect that they’ll show in autopsy that the cause of death was smoke inhalation and that there is no reason to believe these deaths are the result of any foul play whatsoever. We will attempt to identify what remains we find with the resources at hand…” Downs said, “traditionally that would be done by the medical examiner using dental records, but we may have to look to other means. It’s a strange and somewhat gruesome detail, but thus far, none of the remains seem to have their teeth. I’m releasing that now and saying so because I think officially we want the public to know we are seeking any information about missing persons or just some insight into what in the hell happened here.” Sheriff Downs did not take any questions from reporters after making her statement.
We will update this story in print as more information becomes available…”
That night I dreamt of Kariann Rose Nathan again. When I found her in the woods she was still followed by her friend, the new passenger, the bear. She was still a long way off from where I hovered and I found myself cringing mentally as she reached her small hand out to it. I reeled at the thought that it might take it from her, off in its mouth at the wrist, but that wasn’t what happened. It was gentle and receptive to her. She was handing it one of her teeth, which it subsequently buried in the dirt on her behalf. She picked up the giraffe and carried on the way she had every night since I began dreaming of her.
I approached like a ghost through the canopy of autumn leaves, their color drained to grayscale in the moonlight.
When I was close enough to her, I began to see through her eyes again and I knew she could feel me there because she spoke.
“Do you remember now?” She asked me.
I don’t know what I’m meant to remember. I thought in reply.
Maybe I do. I remembered something, but it had nothing to do with you. I still don’t understand.
She sighed in annoyance.
“Aww. But you’re not trying hard enough.” She kicked at the ground with one of her bleeding feet, the one with the big toe that was missing the nail.
“Come on Bear.” She said, and she began moving deftly through the trees at that unnatural speed while counting all the while. The bear followed obediently.
While she walked she thought of another kid. I caught his name bouncing around in her head the night before… Zachariah.
1239, 1240, 1241
The woods were still and quiet hung in the air like the world had frozen around us. The chill grew so cold I began to worry if the temperature fell much more we’d see an early out-of-season freeze. The girl didn’t know what frostbite was so this never worried her. The bear was still keeping time with us as we went, its breath coming in harsh grunts and clouds of mist at her back. Her hand still clutched the giraffe and bloody pliers as she skuttled through the darkness and I began to wonder how many teeth she could possibly have left in her to bury.
“Not many left to go,” she assured me, “we’re almost there.”
Her thoughts drifted from kid to kid in the dark. Once or twice she even thought about a few that were not kids at all, but around my own age. Every one of them was moving at a supernatural speed through the dark, painted black and white by the moonlight with dark smears of blood on their faces.
Kariann, who is Zachariah? I thought.
“A lost boy.” She said.
2664, 2665, 2666
“Like us. But not.”
“Zachariah’s been lost for a lot longer.” She said. Her tone was so matter of fact, it sent chills through my head. I wouldn’t have been surprised if I shivered in my bed as I slept. There was something ominous and strange about the way she said it… It was like the way some kids say things like “Mama went to heaven.” or “Daddy just comes home mad sometimes” with a shrug while unconsciously stroking a bruised forearm. She said he’d ‘been lost for a lot longer’ like she was in a daze. It was one of the few times she didn’t seem to be communicating with my clear headed. I wondered if she didn’t know as much about this boy as she was pretending to. I saw the boy in question inside of her head, walking through these same woods from another direction.
What were left of Zachariah’s teeth were chattering and his lips were turning blue despite the stream of warm blood that dripped from his mouth. In her thoughts, he was walking barefoot too, but someplace else in the darkness. Over a plaid shirt, he had on a pair of overalls. The knees were dirty and the legs were cuffed halfway up his calves. He wore a newsboy style cap on his head. He didn’t have a set of pliers, but clutched a strange looking hammer instead. Something seemed off about him but I couldn’t place it right away. The hammer looked old.
Why do you keep thinking about him? I wondered. What’s so special about him? Why was he different?
3518, 3519, 3520
She stopped and set the giraffe down, about to remove one of her three remaining teeth. The bear sat on its hindquarters and waited for her.
“He’s missing the longest,” she said, placing the end of the needle-noses between her lips, “amb I wike is at,” she added, but I didn’t understand.
What? I thought.
“Ang on” she said with the pliers firmly squeezing a tooth. She pulled it away with a grunt and handed it over, covered in blood, to the bear who licked it from her palm with its long tongue. It turned and dug at the ground for a moment and then buried its snout into the hole.
“I said ‘I like his hat.'” she repeated.
She began walking again, her counting resetting back once more…
1, 2, 3, 4
You should go home I thought, your parents are worried about you. I saw your face online
Even as I thought it, I knew it was no use. I’d already tried convincing her to turn back before.
“It’s too late for that, or did you forget again?” she said.
She was right. I knew what I was seeing had already taken place. I couldn’t urge her to change any of this. It already happened. The dreams were like watching a replay. This was all past now. All of her trek from the moment she stepped out of her parents’ garage to this moment I saw now had already happened on the same night that she’d gone missing. By that point it was days from when I’d first seen her face scroll past on Facebook. I didn’t know if they’d ever find her. I hadn’t ever checked for more information about her. I had no way of knowing if the authorities had more information about her disappearance. Maybe none of this was real? Maybe they already found her and I didn’t know? Maybe she was fine?… Maybe the moon was made of ice cream?
None of it seemed likely.
Not even the crickets were making sounds now. I knew eventually she’d show me the reason why she kept bringing me on this trip with her. Perhaps she already had but I’d forgotten all about it, the way we sometimes do with dreams. Every time I dreamed of her walk, when I woke, I seemed to remember more and more.
Something hit me then… Something that she’d said.
You said he’s been missing longest? I asked. When did he disappear?
1939, 1940, 1941
The next thing she said, she said outloud…
And I knew she wasn’t only counting another step. She was, but she was also answering my question. In her thoughts, he looked out of place and time and on the verge of death, just as she did.
I wondered if she had or hadn’t just shown me the face of a ghost.
When I woke up, I got on the computer again to do another search. I looked for him. Zachariah White was not a Facebook post. Not like Kariann… But he was a news story just the same. It was harder to find because his story was written a long time ago.
In 2017 the library in Bradenville began converting their expansive collection of microfiche to PDF.
I found him there, in the library’s online database.
The article was short and the three that followed-up on the search, shorter.
Zachariah disappeared from his bed one night. The year was 1942. For two days they combed the woods for him and after nothing came of that, he was quickly forgotten by everyone, except maybe the parents who lost him. It occurred to me that this was the fate of all Lost Boys and Girls.
Some things don’t change. The only people still thinking about Kariann so many days later were her parents…and me.
The album still sat on my counter and the box sat next to it. There was no ominous cloud hanging over the package now. The thing I feared was inside was the album and it was out now. I’d known it would be inside. I’d rifled through its pages every October since I was young–becoming the Halloween enchanted kid frozen on the pages. A dragon. A little vampire. Peter Pan with a little girl–the neighbor–my childhood best friend–as Tinkerbell.
Peter Pan. My mother made that costume out of green felt. She went to the hobby shop and bought everything because I wanted to be Peter Pan from the Disney cartoon. The neighbor-girl and I were thick as thieves in those days. She wanted to copy the idea.
“You can’t both be Peter Pan. Why not Tinkerbell, Holly Sue.”
That’s what her mother had said and her mother convinced her.
The two women worked on the costumes together accompanied by a box of wine, hoping that maybe they could make them perfect. They might weave some of their magic into it and stop us both from growing up. Maybe they could slow it down…if not they might at least capture the Halloween that we’d found Neverland and wrap it in the cellophane pages of this book. The page crinkled as I turned it. Here was the bolt of green cloth. Here were the patterns they made and the glasses of wine. They’d documented it all. No great seamstresses, having only made pillows before this, it might have been their first attempt at clothes, but it was going to be magical for an 8 year old me and seven year old Holly Sue. They spent hours sewing it, getting it right…knowing one day we’d grow up and forget the energy the women had spent on it.
Don’t grow up… they thought… But it didn’t work because I did grow up all and forgot all about that Halloween.
Holly Sue didn’t. She went missing that next night. November 1st 2001. They never told me what happened… Maybe they thought it would scare me. I never saw her again… After almost two decades I forgot she even existed once. I didn’t remember her face or even remember her name when Kariann brought her up from the depths of her little static mind to show me.
I felt sick and began to cry. I wiped my face with my hands and used the front of my shirt to blow my nose, turning the tanktop from pink to bright red with the damp. I wiped my hands on my pajama pants.
I turned back to the first page. I looked at my own face staring back…a smiling kid, missing that same tooth. About to get rained on. About to watch a monument burn. About to grow into a thirty year old man who was dreaming of dead little boys and girls. Lost boys and girls.
I closed the book and went to my room. Lying down, I felt certain Kariann already showed me on more than one night how her journey came to an end, but I couldn’t force it to the surface. I tried now and the memory was still obscured like it was hiding behind a storm cloud or a dark shadow like thick smoke. Perhaps I wasn’t ready to know before, so I blocked it out each time I woke.
I was ready now. I closed my eyes and called out to Kariann Rose Nathan until her name became a drone in my mind and I drifted back to sleep.
I knew what I’d find and it defied logic and reason. Before now, I couldn’t see the full picture for what it was… that time when I drifted to sleep, I finally came to understand how all of this was connected. The pieces of the puzzle grew exponentially and when I slept again, those pieces became sentient and finally locked themselves into place on their own…
I found Kariann near the end of her journey. This time she wasn’t fast-walking through the dark of the woods like before.
She was sitting in a clearing on the dark grass. A small mound of dirt, displaced by the bear was near her right hand. The animal itself circled her in a wide arch as coyotes howled someplace in the distant shadows.
I floated at the treetops like a boy high on happy thoughts, looking for their glowing eyes where they stalked her in the dark. Happy things were hard to keep, even stored away in my mind. I felt them slipping but I kept rummaging through the imaginary boxes.
Kariann looked up at me and sighed impatiently. She rolled her eyes.
All of the boxes were empty now. I opened one and tossed it aside and opened the next and tossed that aside too. There was nothing there but dark and thoughts of missing boys and girls like Kariann. Like us. Lost.
I drifted down.
When I was seated once again as her passenger, she stood and began walking–but this time not as swiftly.
She smiled and it was horrible. A grimace of blank gums and empty sockets. One tooth remained inside. It was loose from the work she’d made on the others. It would come free easily enough.
She made the entire trip at that breakneck pace in just a few hours and I knew it had been an impossible distance to cover in that time. Perhaps in a dream, but Kariann wasn’t dreaming. It wasn’t a dream. Something called out to her in her sleep. Someone did. Then the rest of them called out to her. They were just ordinary kids. They weren’t Peter Pan; they didn’t fly–but in a way they sort of did. They called out to her in her dreams and she followed their call with her tiny hands pulling teeth all the way. They wanted her to join them there…at the destination. They gave her magic and made her feet fly across the ground.
She would never grow up.
She walked slowly now, and we reversed our roles. Before, I had been the one asking all of the questions and she was The Sage. The Oracle showing me a future I always knew was waiting…hidden in the past.
“Do you understand now?” She asked, except it came out as ‘boo you umberspan mow’ from her ruined mouth.
Yes. I said. I think so.
“Bood” (Good) she said and I had no trouble making out her words.
“Ib it muck father?” (Is it much further?)
No. You’ll be there soon. I told her.
And we went on quietly like that for a while as she counted the steps away.
2394, 2395, 2396
“Bid boo mane to brow up?” (Did you mean to grow up?)
No. I just did one day. It was a silly thing to say but it made sense. One day I was a kid and it was Halloween. Then next day I had responsibilities and I didn’t want them so I tried to run. I tried to leave the small, shallow place where my youth happened… But it didn’t let me get very far. Small towns never let you make it away very far. Their fingers squeeze you–squeeze everyone–and nearly nobody makes it through the spaces between and before you know it, you’ve ran and ran for miles and you can never go back because you’re different now. You’re older and maybe wiser and maybe not. You can never go home.
3517, 3518, 3519
Kariann stopped, emerging from the trees. We were standing in a yard at the edge of the woods. She had a vacant look in her eyes. The house was dark at the back.
…It hadn’t burned yet…but that didn’t make any sense because Kariann was missing now–in the present and that house had burned down decades ago.
We’d moved towards it, following the undertow of time as it pulled us back until we found the place together. More children came out of the darkness. Dozens of them.
Holly Sue, Zachariah and Trevor. Bailey and James and David…
They wore outfits that spanned decades and eras. They each came out the same, bloody-mouthed and looking at the house with empty, midnight eyes as dark as wine.
The last one to emerge was Darrell. Me. I saw myself through that little girl’s eyes, and then I saw all of them on my own. I wasn’t like the rest of them because I had gotten so much older than I’d promised to get. My cheeks were sliced open and the edges of my lips were ragged
I wasn’t like them, but I wanted to be. I wanted to be. Desperately.
I looked down and saw that I was barefoot and my feet were cracked and journeyruined. A little toe was broken and spun away from the rest like a sullen child turning its back to them. My toenails were mostly gone, but that was fine. I wouldn’t need these feet much longer. The tanktop was stained again from pink to red but this time it wasn’t because I’d cried on it, or blown my nose on it. These new stains were blood. The pajama pants I’d fallen asleep in were tatty from meeting with branches and starting to come apart.
We glanced around at each other–all of us–from left to right and back again, standing in a semicircle behind the house. Then our focus shifted as foreboding clouds rushed across the moon and the sky opened up in a deluge of rain and thunder.
We buried the last bits of who we were in the wet dirt–deeper this time–digging all the way to our elbows. Nobody would find these last fragments because they wouldn’t think to look here, of all places. They’d be too confused by the things they did find after the fire. Some of these children hadn’t gone missing yet. We buried them like a trail that they could find in the future–in their dreams–so they could follow the way.
They wouldn’t realize that the bodies they found inside weren’t just missing in 1999. They were lost in time and space. They would always be children and they always had always been. I was the only adult here, but I never wanted to be. I didn’t ask for this.
Lightning hit the house and it was almost time.
Somewhere, on the other side of the fair a car sounded its horn and a woman began to run with a little boy watching as it burned away from him. He’d be clutching a bear that his father won in the games.
Then we walked inside and were frozen forever by the flames.
I woke up and the only thought I could think was that they were still out there waiting for me.
I needed to tell you this. I needed my mother not to worry when she finds me gone. I want her to know that she did a good job. I had a good childhood. I didn’t want to be an adult, but now I know I don’t have to and more importantly, I know how.
Kariann disappeared and when she did, she left me breadcrumbs in the dark to show me the way.
Before I go, I’m going to turn the music on. Hardcore music. Full volume. Repeat.
Hopefully my neighbor will shove her face through the door as I lock my apartment and head down the stairs. Maybe she’ll tell me to “grow up” and I’ll laugh because her fingers and nose are bandaged and wouldn’t that be a funny thing for her to say?
I’ll fly down the street after that and down the shoulder of I-65 and go for miles. Before long, the Heralds of Autumn will rise on the horizon and light my way back and I’ll find myself in that backyard on October 30th, 1999 where all of the other children who didn’t want to grow up will be waiting.
I’ll take my hunting knife because I don’t have pliers, but I have that thing. I can fold it and keep it on my belt. My wisdom teeth are impacted so they’ll be the worst of it, but I’ll get them for you. I’ll make sure to leave a good trail.
Maybe I’m the last one, but I can’t be sure. I don’t think I am. I think you’re supposed to come too, but take your time. 1999 isn’t going anywhere. It will be there when you want it. I’ll find you in your sleep and call out to you there. I’ll teach your feet to fly across the ground and meet us. I’ll leave you a trail just in case.
I can teach your feet to fly and you can do it all in just one night.
You can bring your shadow to keep you company if you like, but you don’t need to. The bear seems to find most of us after a few hours in the dark. I still haven’t figured out his role in all of this but perhaps if you find the reason, you can tell us when we meet? You’ll have lots of company in any case. All of us will cling to you and you won’t think of anything else but counting steps and all of the Lost Boys and Girls and making sure that you’ve left a trail through the dark for the other dreamers to find so they can see that there’s a way to get to Neverland and never grow up…that is, if they really, really don’t want to.