I'd just made a trip to the grocery store when I found out. Pulling into my space in the carport between the rows, I couldn't help but stare at the two police cars and gathered crowd of concerned onlookers. Grabbing some of my groceries, I began carrying them into my apartment, pausing each trip to look across the carport and try to discern what had happened.
"Hey," I said to my disheveled metal-head neighbor. "What happened?"
He closed his gaping mouth and looked over at me from next to his car. "That lady freaking out? That's the mom."
He furrowed his brow. "Kid disappeared. Little girl, seven years old. The one always screaming out here with her friends I think. They're handing out pictures."
A sinking feeling filled my chest. I focused on grabbing some grocery bags from my trunk to keep my composure. "That's terrible…"
"Yeah. Said she was playing with other kids around the five hundreds."
I looked up the stairs at my door's hanging number - eight forty. That would put the incident in the opposite corner of the apartment complex. Not sure what else to say, I slammed my trunk shut and carried the last of my things inside.
Things like this happened all the time, surely, but in my very own neighborhood? To a family right across the carport? The sense of violation left me shaken. After a few irked minutes inside, I decided to go for a run to clear my head.
Leaving the opposite direction to avoid the crowd in the carport out back, I turned and headed out, running along the high barbed fence marking the edge of our development. Nice-enough houses and a few forested areas passed by outside, but nothing that seemed dangerous, and I saw no holes in the fence or other paths through.
Wracking my brain, trying to remember if I'd seen anything suspicious or anyone unfamiliar, I turned toward the interior of the complex. Running past the outer rows of apartments, I passed through the small gap in the carport wall, entering the back paths.
The back paths were beautiful and well kept, lain brick sidewalks lined with trees, forming a maze that twisted and turned between every building. The summer sun remained distant through the foliage, keeping the shaded paths cool and refreshing. I paused for a breath at a picnic table placed at an angle before two large bushes, not sure exactly where I was.
No numbers were visible along the backsides of the apartment buildings. I walked back and forth while I caught my breath, but only smooth unbroken aluminum siding remained visible behind the thick trees. The back paths were a favorite place of mine to run, always empty, cool, and solitary, but I'd lost my way while distracted.
A light breeze shifted the trees overhead - an unexpectedly humid and unpleasant chill. Looking down one path, I saw only endless sidewalk curving off into tree-lined paths, shot through by dappled sunlight. Down the other lay a picnic table by two large bushes, and a circular basin framing planted flowers.
Walking over in confusion, I studied the picnic table. Was it the same one I'd just stopped at? They all looked the same, I supposed, but I didn't remember the sidewalk circling around flowers… I would certainly have noticed their bright purple… right?
That strange, chilly breeze came again, strong enough to ruffle my clothes. I narrowed my eyes to test my vision, wondering if the area was growing darker. As I picked a direction and ran, my suspicions were confirmed. The first drop of water hit my shoulder, making me jump and look around, but of course nobody was there.
Except the quiet now felt strange, almost curved, as if someone was nearby - just around the corner, or walking along a nearby path. The presence felt aloof, like uninterested passersby on their way somewhere, but I still had an inexplicable urge to remain quiet.
Walking quietly, taking care to avoid the stray nuts and leaves on the brick path, I listened intently to my lightly ragged breathing and the increasing drizzle on the leaves overhead. Turning at a bend once more, I came to another picnic table. A square basin held a large patch of dark green ivy. How the hell had I missed the exit? Any exit? There had to be gaps to the different carports everywhere… I must have just missed the last one somehow. Maybe bushes had grown over it, and, so distracted, I'd walked right by…
The rain finally passed the leafy canopy overhead, dripping regularly down on me.
Now a little scared and more than a little frustrated, I took off running as fast as I could, bolting down the green-lined pathways.
As the noise of crushed nuts and crinkled leaves radiated from under my pounding feet, the sound of scraping metal echoed back. The presence I'd felt before seemed to snap to attention, now anything but uninterested. The high squeal of metal faded, replaced by rapid, heavy footfalls.
Spurred on by a surge in the rain covering my noises, I turned, ran, turned, ran again. Bushes, trees, brick, and smooth aluminum siding blurred past me, never opening, never offering escape. The heavy footfalls grew closer, less than one angled curve behind me.
Suddenly coming up short, I slid along the slick sidewalk, my legs shooting forward, the harsh sidewalk scraping right up my thigh. The stop had been worth it - a gap in the brick to my left opened on a car-filled lot. Finally! I shook my head, almost laughing. I'd just gotten lost in the back paths, and freaked myself out with all sorts of imagined fears and -
It came around the corner slowly, that high metal squeal rising again.
My entire awareness seemed to freeze, refusing to take in the rotting thing lumbering down the path toward me. Misshapen and grotesque, the very act of motion seemed to send visible waves of pain across a twisted face that ran half the length of its body, ending at broken teeth set in its waist. Black gore seeped from open stumps where the left half of its vaguely human body should have been, but it continued shambling as if the limbs were there, somehow supported in impossible ways. The metal squeal came again, sharp steel on stone, but I could see no source for the sound. I had the distinct impression that what I was not seeing was far more horrific and dangerous than what I was seeing…
Grasping stone, shouting hoarsely at the top of my lungs, I recovered as fast as I could, scrambling for the gap in the brick. I darted behind a van, slowing as I realized that the rain had suddenly stopped. The sun was shining overhead, and the hot day felt as normal as any other. Peering around the edge of the van, I watched the gap to the back paths, but nothing showed.
Taking a moment to catch my breath, I finally had a chance to analyze the last sound I'd heard, a distant noise following my shout - the terrified scream of a little girl.
She was in there. She was… I stared at that gap, the terrible thought really hitting home… in there!
Running back to my apartment, I sighted the police still at the mother's house, and the onlookers still hanging around talking in hushed tones.
"Jeez, what happened to you, dude?" my neighbor asked, still standing outside his apartment.
Running a hand down my face to slick off the rain, my clothes still soaked, I realized I couldn't tell the police. What would I say? Some horrific aspect had come over the back paths of the apartment complex? I would look like a madman, and the focus would almost certainly turn on me. And I couldn't risk that, because I was the only one who knew where she was…
I just stared at him for a moment, profoundly unhappy.
I had to go back in there.
"Someone's stupid sprinkler," I finally said, turning to head inside and change.
A half-step into it, I paused. Whether it was real or whether I was losing my mind, another perspective would be very useful. I turned back to him. "Hey man, what are you doing right now?"
"Nothing, what's up?"
I considered not telling him, but it would be brutal to trick him into going into that horrible place, especially when my instinct was telling me that what I'd experienced was only the tip of the iceberg.
There was another option. He might actually believe me - provided he was in the right state of mind. "You high right now?"
He laughed and smoothed down his t-shirt, glancing over at the cop cars. "Yeah. Of course."