BY SUZANNE KARIOKI
As she stopped to catch her breath, she looked back, clutching her side and wheezing with her hands on her knees, smudging her glasses with shaking fingers as she tried to wipe the sweat out of her eyes. Around the corner came a shadow - small, and moving painfully slow but always too close - and her heart caught in her throat again. For a moment she was paralyzed, unable to breathe or move or look away from the little boy. In the dark, he looked lost and tired, as if he’d been wandering the streets, calling out for his mother for so long that he’d lost his voice. He moved as if it was all he knew how to do any- more, but it was always in a straight line and it was always toward her.
He passed under a flickering light under a fire escape and his pale, blank face appeared, eyes wide and chapped lips slightly parted, expression vacant. He walked a slow, soldier’s march, in his scuffed shoes and ragged socks, his knees as dirty as his face.
She’d been running for so long and yet he still came after her, no matter how many times she told him to leave. She was so tired.
It had seemed harmless at first, taking pity on the boy next to the door at the convenience store halfway down the street. She’d been passing through after work, and she never stopped here, but she’d needed milk. She’d stopped, looked around to see if anyone else had noticed him and felt a little angry - he was filthy and shivering in the fading light, and no one had helped him, despite the fact that she was sure that other people had come into the store and left before her while he was still here.
He stared straight ahead when she crouched in front of him, until she spoke. “Are you all right?” she’d asked, even though he clearly wasn’t. His eyes were so light they were almost translucent. He seemed so afraid.
“Are you waiting for someone?” she tried again. She’d set her gallon of milk down and had started to check her coat pockets for her phone when the doors had slid open again and a man almost tripped over her coming out. In the chaos that ensued - a lunge to save her gallon of milk, the man apologizing profusely as she handed him his dropped keys and told him not to worry - the boy had somehow disappeared. In the space where he had been - right there, next to the door - was a stray, plastic shopping bag, rustling in the wind.
“You okay?” the man had asked, and she had blinked, shook her head and tore her eyes away from the blank wall.
She’d smiled at the man a little too cheerfully, told him she was fine, and hurried back to her car with her own keys between her knuckles because it was getting dark and she’d realised that he’d misread her smile.
She didn’t feel like she’d imagined it, but there was no time to think about it. She always had so much work to do. She had to get home.
The next day, while staring vacantly out of the kitchen window at work waiting for the coffee machine to wheeze to life, she saw him again. It was pouring outside, and she could see a man with his jacket pulled up over his head, running through the parking lot in the sudden downpour; and there was the boy, between two silver cars, staring straight up at the fourth floor like he’d been expecting her to be there.
She’d startled and stumbled backwards onto a coworker’s foot, and in the time it took her to explain “Spider! There was a spider on the window!” he was gone, again.
She’d taken her coffee back to her desk, had an-
other cup during lunch, and had promised herself to go to bed earlier. She went to bed early that night, but after that he was always, always, there.
He was there when she went to pick up groceries the next day. He was there the day after that when she ran into an old high school friend at the place she sometimes went for better coffee. He was there when she finally returned the library books she’d almost forgotten. He was there when she almost left the pharmacy counter without her credit card. He was there when she pulled out of her usual parking spot after working late one night. And he was there, right behind her, just before she turned off the light after brushing her teeth.
She’d tiptoed around her apartment for half an hour, checking every single corner, moving furniture she hadn’t shifted since she’d moved in, even checking under boxes and impossibly small spaces. She’d turned on all the lights, found the baseball bat Jennifer had never come back for, and after finding absolutely nothing, she gave in to camping out on the couch in front of the TV for the night. She dragged her comforter off her bed, and shivered under it. Between one slow blink and the next, as she started to drift off to an infomercial about some miracle weight loss machine, he was there again, staring out of the TV screen.
She couldn’t remember ever having screamed louder than she did in that moment, couldn’t remember feeling terror so deep in her bones before, and yet instead of running she’d been trapped, grasping at her unwashed hair with tears and sweat mingling on her top lip, blubber- ing pathetically in the holey shirt she wore to bed.
She had no friends she could confide in, no one at work she knew well enough to tell about something like this, no family left that she cared about, or that cared about her. She had nothing and no one but her ex’s baseball bat that had fallen to the 83 floor, and the TV’s loud static.
Eventually, her tears subsided. She heard shifting and muffled voices upstairs, but they didn’t matter to her. She covered her eyes with her hands for a moment and tried to force herself to breathe normally, one breath after the other, in and out until she was almost-
She’d felt his breath on the back of her neck and this time she had run without looking back.
And now she was here, in the dark, running and running without her keys or her phone or her shoes. She hadn’t seen a single other human being even though she felt like she’d been outside for hours. She’d stopped crying entirely a while back, too exhausted and dehydrated to spare the water. She couldn’t feel her feet, or her knees, although she knew she’d fallen.
As she tried to summon her last reserves of energy for one more run, she saw a light in the distance that seemed like hope to her. In the fog, it looked like a store, open very late or very early, but it meant other people and a chance to escape the dark. She chanced one more look back at the boy, sucked in a deep breath and dashed forward, arms pumping like she was running the last leg of the race and the automatic doors were the finish line.
She was sure she looked crazy, sweaty and probably a little bloody, wearing nothing but her old shorts and a ratty shirt. She stumbled toward the counter and the startled cashier, begged for him to call the police between gasps of air, and he’d been all too happy to oblige if it meant she’d stop trying to climb over the counter to get to the phone. He’d offered her something to cover herself with, but she’d refused and wrapped her arms around herself and shivered until the police and the ambulance arrived. They knocked her out with something, she thought, because afterwards she couldn’t remember what happened between the ambulance siren and waking up in a hospital bed feeling like she’d been run over twice. But she felt better somehow, even with an IV drip in her arm and the bandag- es she could feel on her legs, because the stark hospital smell, the white sheets and the sound of machines and other people just down the hall made her feel less alone.
Later that day, when the sun had fully risen and after she’d dozed a little, a doctor came to see her to ask how she was feeling-
“-and there’s a police officer who wants to see you, but if you feel that you’re not ready to talk, I can tell them to-”
The doctor had paused suddenly and looked at something beyond her. When she glanced towards the window, she’d seen nothing but the empty bed next to hers and the window that showed a spectacular view of another part of the building from the third or fourth floor.
The doctor had shaken her head, and smiled apologetically. “Sorry,” she said, turning back to her notes. “Thought I saw a kid or something.”