THE CHILDREN OF PECULIAR

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Submitted Date 12/05/2018
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Peculiar is green as envy in summer. You can see the old water tower from the highway if you pass through – flanked by redbrick buildings, its name black and blocky on its face. If it’s warm out, which it always is, you’ll see the townsfolk manicuring their lawns and hustling about the grocery outlet. On a Sunday, you’ll catch them in their best, praising the Good Lord and brunching afterward in the local diner. You might even smell the crackle of charcoal-grilled burgers, feel the fizzle of 4th of July that seems perpetually present in the air. But the one thing you won’t ever see is a child.

You won’t see them, because there simply aren’t any left.

It all started with Ellie Mendoza.

She was, by all accounts, a bright girl. She wasn’t necessarily beautiful, but she had potential to be, and was pretty in the kind of way some young girls are – a brunette mass of unkempt curls, a smattering of freckles, a certain gloss to her slender face with the right make-up applied. I’m sure the children had a list of names for her, but to many of the adults, such as myself, Ellie was “The Babysitter.”

She had retained a childish propriety that most other girls her age in the town had already begun to shrug off. Her braces and bookishness afforded her little popularity but, to us, they marked her as something special. Everyone knew that if Ellie was watching their children, no unwanted boyfriends would come around, no vodka bottles would be refilled with water upon return. In all honesty, Ellie’s tendency to be more adult than the other teenage girls probably arose out of her parents’ divorce – out of her mother moving to the East Coast and her father being left in shambles. From then on, Ellie was Mother and Daughter in the household. Ellie took care of herself. Ellie took care of our children.

She went missing on a Tuesday.

When Mr. Mendoza found the window in her room open, he did the only thing that made sense to him – he called the police. From what the rest of us gathered, they came, took a statement, but expressed that, maybe, just maybe, Ellie was off somewhere with friends. But Mr. Mendoza knew his daughter would never sneak out. Mr. Mendoza knew that something was wrong. All of us did.

Ellie never came back.

Two weeks passed and, by then, every telephone pole, storefront and bulletin board around town had her face plastered on them. The police had questioned almost all of the children in her class. They had questioned her teachers. They had even questioned many of us parents who had employed her – going so far as to request conversations with our children. Of course, I let my son, Austin, speak to them, though I doubt he was much help. At eight, he was still more interested in comic heroes and cartoons – not the whereabouts or plans of the babysitter he always swore he didn’t need anymore. But I let the police speak their piece to him nonetheless, if not for the thought of poor Mr. Mendoza.

Many of us parents, worried as we were, began to take precautions. They were, by no means, strict. As terrible as it may sound, disappearances like this do happen, and while it was a horror to see it occur so close to home, we did what made the most sense – we reaffirmed our beliefs that our children were steering clear of strangers. We made them vow to talk only to adults that they knew and trusted, to be careful, and to always watch out for each other. We parents filled each other in with phone calls and meetings. And the police – they kept on looking for Ellie.

They released a statement, not long after, that they believed that the ex-Mrs. Mendoza had kidnapped her daughter. Although she had been afforded no custody rights, she had expressed a strong desire for them, as most of us already knew. Many of us townsfolk had borne witness to Mr. Mendoza’s simultaneous attempts to not demonize the mother of his daughter while still trying to fend her off and keep Ellie safe. We had supported him. Most all folk in Peculiar were given to treating each other like family, after all.

When they had reached out to inform Ellie’s mother of her disappearance, they had discovered, instead, that she, too, had disappeared. And so it seemed, logically speaking, that it was the most hopeful and realistic conclusion to come to. Mr. Mendoza refused to believe it, and the police promised to keep looking with the same fervor they would afford any kidnapping, but the rest of us only offered quiet consolations behind closed doors.

That was, of course, until other children began to disappear.

Next, it was Sandy Whitaker’s son, Donald. Then it was Sandifer, and Jen, and Milo. The town, still struggling to return to some sense of quiet normality, was thrown, once again, into chaos.

The police issued another statement as soon as they possibly could. This time, they expressed absolute unknowingness in the cause of the disappearances, but they shared the details of each case in the hopes that it would help others protect their children.

They said that the children disappeared in the night. They said that the families had heard nothing. But most importantly, they said that there had been open windows. At each scene, an open window.

Despite what you may think, peculiar things happen rarely in Peculiar. News travels quickly in quaint and quiet towns. Lies do not linger, conspiracies do not fester, and, most of all, children do not go missing. But on the day of the second police statement, something peculiar did happen in Peculiar – and it took the form of an entire town’s worth of people flocking into the only hardware store around.

It didn’t matter the type of lock – bolts, padlocks, even chains were all sold out. By the end of the day, the windows, usually inviting of a breeze or the sweltering Southern heat, were all closed. Those who had come too late resorted to boards, or pictures, or whatever else would work, and Lowell – the proprietor of Lowell’s Hardware and childless himself – was in most probability a new millionaire. But worse than the heat trapped in the homes, worse than the caging of one’s own family and cutting out the rest of the world, was the creeping fear that someone, somewhere amongst us, knew what was becoming of the children. Someone, or many someones, were stealing the children of Peculiar right beneath our noses.

The next few weeks were strained. Many of the parents gathered in the school gymnasium for a sort of kangaroo court, and there we decided to instate a city curfew. All children were to be home before the sky grew dark, and were urged to tell their parents wherever they were, whenever they were there. The police, agreeable to this given the circumstances, enforced the curfew as best they could with the minimal amount of manpower they had, and while safety was still unsure, there was a period of time where all seemed to be fine.

But it wasn’t fine. It never was. And, eventually, children went missing again.

This time, nearly fifteen disappeared overnight.

Twelve sets of parents awoke to empty beds and open windows. Some called the police, some wailed in the streets, and others began to blame those whose children had yet to go missing. The police were now in far beyond their paygrade and called on the State and the surrounding police departments for help. Shull Elementary, and most of the other surrounding schools, were closed until further notice, despite the school year having only recently started. Phones rang at all hours, people sought solace in the churches, or the community center, or with other families in whom they trusted. Others moved, fearing Peculiar to be a hunting ground for human traffickers.

Overnight, the playgrounds were emptied, and the streets fell silent, and trust began to dwindle.

My husband and I remained in our own home.

At dinner, Austin pushed his Mac n’ Cheese around on his plate. Each glance my husband and I cast toward him was met for only a second.

“Buddy. You know we would never let anything happen to you, right?” My husband stared down at his plate, sawing his steak with knife and fork.

Austin almost winced. He grumbled an “mhm.”

“Now we know things are scary right now, but your mother and I promise that you’ll be okay. Besides, it must be pretty nice to get some time off of school, hey?” Their eyes met again and my husband smiled.

“Yeah,” Austin chimed, “but I don’t want to go back. If Tony and Mark are really gone, I don’t want to go back at all.”

I glanced at my husband. Tony Walczek and Mark Kuzinski were two boys who had disappeared from the neighborhood in the most recent kidnapping. We had, of course, known this to be the case – after all, we had had their parents over for football games and cookouts more than a handful of times, and had spoken to them since the disappearances – but we had never mentioned a word of it to Austin. He had asked to see them a handful of times, but we had simply explained that their parents were concerned for them just as much as we were for him. I silently wondered how perceptive my son really was of the situation at hand.

“Who told you Tony and Mark are gone?” My husband asked, setting his silverware on his plate.

“No one,” said Austin. He set his silverware down too, and his hands fell into his lap.

“Well, then what makes you think they are?”

Austin shrugged. “I dunno. I can just feel it, I guess.”

We were quiet. The chirrup of cicadas outside beat rhythmically – far-off and dreamy sounding beyond the boards and the blinds.

“Can I be excused?”

I looked to my husband, but he didn’t raise his eyes from his plate. I nodded. Then I rose and collected the dishes.

Just as I suppose everyone else did, we watched the local news at all times. The phone calls had lessened in number since the advent of the disappearances, but they were still common. We did our best to console our friends and neighbors – the people we’d grown up with and, now, were missing children of their own; the people who had once been children of Peculiar just like us. But mostly, we stayed indoors, and we made work fit when it could, and we were careful.

There are times, in life, though, where it doesn’t matter how careful you are. Some things are written in stone, are unavoidable, are fated to happen. And the worst part of it all is you will know when it is coming – you’ll feel its pull somewhere in the pit of your stomach. You can kick, and you can fight, and you can rail to the High Heavens like an animal caught in a trap – but there is no saving grace, no moving out of the way. You are cemented in Destiny’s path as it barrels toward you, snarling and fanged, and all you can do is watch.

For me, that’s what losing Austin felt like.

I could feel it in the air, that Sunday morning. I had stayed up to watch the news – to wait for my husband to get home from the night shift at the gas station – but where usually I would doze in the armchair by the television, there was an electricity that had kept me awake. More than once, I had climbed the creaking stair to the second floor and peeked through the door to Austin’s room. I had seen his face, nestled in a crook of sheets and pillow. But each time I had looked, I had felt the weight grow heavier in my chest. No matter how long I looked, it wouldn’t leave.

It was almost 4AM when I heard the door creak. I knew it could be any manner of reason – he couldn’t sleep, God knew it was hot enough, or he had to go the bathroom – but my mind wouldn’t let it be. I wrapped my robe around my body, pulled myself from the chair, and moved toward the stairs, the flickering television casting a silhouetted double against the wall. I saw Austin moving – slowly, quietly – from his darkened room

“Hey baby, can’t sleep?”

There was no response. He disappeared.

“Austin?”

I moved up the stairs, the wood cool against the soles of my feet.

“Honey?”

I rounded the corner and there he was, still walking, almost silently, toward the window at the end of the hall. The moon was swollen and wan beyond it, and the blue of night seeped through, stabbing into the shadows. For a moment, it was calming. For a moment, it was something from a storybook – something serene. But then, in a whisper of morning air, I saw the billow of curtains. I saw the lock on the floor.

“Austin! Stop!”

I charged down the hall toward him. He was reaching the window now, splaying his fingers toward its sides.  Gripping them.  Pulling.

I wrapped my arms around his waist and tore him backward, but my arms screamed with pain and my back caught suddenly – unable to complete its arch. Hands still clasped around him, I pulled again, throwing the full force of my body into it, feeling my feet stick to the hardwood as I pivoted to pitch him away from the window. But my hands, slick with sweat, slipped. My fingers disentangled and I heaved myself instead – away from my immovable son, away from his unstoppable path. In a moment, he disappeared through the window, and out onto the roof.

I scrambled frantically to its edge and, in the same fluid movement as I’d watched him perform, I threw myself out onto the shingles. They glittered as their rough faces collected the moonlight and scraped against my skin. I pushed myself against the face of the house, and climbed from my knees to my feet.

There was my son, at the edge of the roof – pale limbs stretching from his t-shirt and shorts, sharp against the night that surrounded us. But beyond, I saw another figure – and another, and another, and another.

“Cassandra! Get down here now!”

“Rhett, goddammit! Come the fuck down!”

“Jenny…”

“Levi…”

“Tom…”

Parents hung from windows, circled in packs on lawns. Others struggled to climb to their roofs, and others, such as myself, stood begging their child to come back. But the children – they were silent. They stood stark still as the cool night’s breeze licked past.

Then, in one, singular movement, they jumped.

How do you describe the indescribable? How do you help someone believe in the unbelievable? How, in all that is Good and Holy and Natural, do you convince someone of a sight they could never see? Are there words? Is there another language – one of the eyes, or the body – that can prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that what another has said is God’s Honest Truth? I don’t think it’s possible, but I’ll try.

The Children of Peculiar did not plummet from the eaves of their homes to the cement and dirt below that night.

The Children of Peculiar did not crack against the pavement and spill their brains like brittle, beautiful, little eggs.

No.

The Children of Peculiar jumped – and they kept going. They passed the moon in a swell, like bats in the dark, silhouetted against its ashen face. They shuttled upward, rigid, black on black. And then they disappeared into the murk – into the forever-night that laid beyond.

And we never heard from them again.

Some part of us that remained dissolved into the darkness along with them that day. Peculiar, the quiet town, the quaint town – the town with a single hardware store, the town with a park of Eastern Red Buds that had been planted by hands that no longer existed – changed. And no matter how hard some of us tried, we changed with it.

My husband saw the children from the gas station window. He didn’t know, at the time, that our son, our Austin, was among them – but he had come immediately and assumed the worst. No amount of crying, no amount of fighting, no amount of loving could suture the tear that grew between us – and so he did what he had to do.

My husband left.

And I? I stayed.

I spend my Sundays in the church and the diner, listening to the townsfolk chatter on. I spend my weekdays working at the gas station, ringing up food and cigarettes and all manner of things for the traffic endlessly running to and from Harrisonville. I shop at the grocery outlet, and I cut my lawn, and, on occasion, I even go to a cookout beneath the buttery Southern sun with what few friends I have left.

But every night - every night - I sit on my porch and I stare at the sky, and I wonder what, in all Creation, called the Children of Peculiar into the great abyss.

But, perhaps, more importantly – I wonder why.

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