Through the thick morning fog and the glare of oncoming headlights they ran, and I saw them from a distance as I approached closer in my car. I slowed more quickly than I should have; coffee sloshed from my mug and splattered specks of caffeine-laced amber all over the steering column.
The stray liquid didn’t phase me at first; I was still focused on the two lithe bodies that were running for their lives across the busy three-way intersection. The last thing I need to see early in the morning are two young does being plowed by oncoming traffic and splattered like hided watermelons on the dewy asphalt. Deer are not pretty after they’ve been victims of traffic; I see the proof of that alongside I-79 every glorious, bloody day.
In a momentary reverie, I stole myself and went back to days of innocence and forgotten youth. I’d always heard “boogeyman” stories, as most children did. By the time I was eleven, I knew the boogeyman didn’t exist. I’d never spotted him under my bed or hiding out in my closet, even though I’d peeked, with my heart in my throat, beneath the dust ruffle five-hundred times. Nothing, ever. After the legendary boogeyman, I began to hear stories about the phantom “strangers” out there. I was forbidden to ever speak to anyone I didn’t know; they just might be apt to steal me away and do horrid things to me…or so I was told.
Even as a child, I thought too much and too deeply. With a naive mind and heart I came to the conclusion that these phantom strangers were just another figment of adult imaginations, one conjured to scare us and keep us out of trouble and close to home. No boogeymen: I’d never found so much as a crumb under the bed. No strangers, either. I’d never been approached by someone that I didn’t know.
Until that day.
Cheryl and I had decided to take a bike ride to the other end of our neighborhood to buy a few bottles of peach soda at the Ma and Pop store. The noon July sun beat down upon us mercilessly, so we cracked open our sodas and sipped them as we pedaled slowly home. We were giggling and talking trash about the other twelve year old girls at our school who didn’t yet have tits enough to wear bras. I teased her about her severe crush on David Blankenship, the most dashing young man at our school, and was in the process of quipping about the two of them having a dozen babies and living in a treehouse. I was allowed to tease her without discretion; she was my best friend. Amidst her giggling and telling me to shut it up, I heard the approaching automobile behind us.
“Excuse me, ladies,” a husky male voice said as the car pulled alongside us. “I’m trying to find the school.”
“There’s no school here,” I said flatly to the unkempt, pudgy man behind the steering wheel. His steel-blue eyes examined both Cheryl and I from our heads to our toes in a split second. Uneasy, I began to pedal ahead of the car, and Cheryl followed.
“You sure?” the man asked again as he pulled alongside us once more. I noticed the odd twitch in his thin bottom lip, the shaking of his hands on the blue leather steering wheel, the bead of sweat that had popped from his temple.
“I’m sure,” I uttered quickly. A sudden mental image of my legendary boogeyman flashed in my mind, and that familiar burning crawled up into my throat. I pedaled faster. The car followed. Cheryl’s front tire bumped my back one, and I momentarily thought I’d wreck on the spot. Suddenly, the car swerved right in front of me, and I smashed right smack into the side of it. Cheryl smashed into me, then she tumbled to the ground in a heap of screams.
Before I could turn to help my friend, the stranger stepped out of his car and grabbed her by the hand. He wasn’t attempting to help Cheryl up from her fall; he was practically dragging her towards the open car door. Finally, the boogeyman had materialized. He didn’t look a thing like I’d always expected him to. The boogeyman was a pudgy, balding man in a blue sedan. The boogeyman didn’t live under a bed; he was a predator on a back road….and he had my best friend by the arm.
The events unfolded in slow motion, it seemed. Every breath burned my lungs, every scream that escaped Cheryl’s lips rang throughout my entire being and vibrated my nerves. I reached out and took hold of her other hand, and with a strength that I haven’t experienced since, I pulled her from the grasp of the boogeyman, and together we ran across the street, our feet barely touching the sweltering asphalt, and into the woods that we’d explored a hundred times since we were small. We hid inside the remains of a giant, hollow oak, the same one we’d attempted to carve our initials into several years before.
We stayed there until we could breathe again. When we peeked out, the boogeyman was gone. Gone again, to hide beneath someone else’s bed. We ran home as fast as our legs would allow and told our story to two sets of very surprised and shaken parents. Cheryl had to be taken to the emergency room; I’d broken two of her fingers when I took hold of her hand and pulled her from the clutches of uncertainty.
Peach soda will never taste the same…
The two of them ran, one closely behind the other, across the intersection. A mingling of fear and determination permeated from the glare of two sets of lovely doe eyes. Through the fog and beyond the glare of oncoming headlights, they bounded in a pair into the thick brush, and I lost sight of them.
© Anna Christine Wess, 2001