Met a Pilgrim Shadow
by Tim Waggoner
"That's right . . . take a look,
Mikey-boy. Take a
good, long look . . ."
Barnhorst was back by the pharmacy checking a display of cold
and flu medicines - making sure all the major brands as well
as generics were included, and that the boxes were straight
- when he saw the man who had abducted him when he was a child.
He froze, hand halfway to a box of Drixoral that was
slightly askew, and stared, not trusting his eyes.
After all, it had been thirty-two years since . . .
since what he had long ago come to think of as That Day. Maybe his eyes and his memory were playing tricks on him.
First off, the man was too
young, not that much older than Michael.
Mid-forties, early fifties, tops.
Then again, if the man - if Chester,
his mind whispered - had been in his twenties back then, he'd
be in his fifties now. So
it was possible, if not likely.
After all, what were the odds the man would walk into
the drugstore where Michael was a manager three decades after
That Day? Then again, the fabric of life was often woven
from strange coincidences.
Seeing the man here was no more remarkable (in a statistical
sense) than seeing someone Michael had once gone to high school
with. People sometimes bumped into one another again years and even decades
after the last time they saw one another. It happened all the time.
The man who Michael didn't
want to think of as Chester wore a blue jacket over a plaid
shirt, along with jeans and tennis shoes.
He stood before the shelves containing first-aid products,
holding a roll of white tape - the kind used for keeping bandages
in place - and reading the information on the back of the
Wonder what he plans to do with that tape? Michael thought. Use it to bind young, thin wrists and ankles?
Secure a gag over a mouth outlined by soft, tender
man had short brown hair shot through with gray, a narrow
clean-shaven face, and long, delicate fingers that Michael
thought resembled spider legs. He remembered fingers just like that reaching
out, wrapping around the soft flesh of his upper arm, and
pulling him forward . . .
outstretched hand began to tremble, and sweat beaded on his
upper lip. His head swam and gray nibbled at the edges
of his vision. A cold
sick feeling crawled around in his stomach, and acid splashed
the back of his throat. He clamped his jaws tight to keep from throwing
was him. Chester the Molester.
satisfied with the product he'd chosen, the man turned - without
looking in Michael's direction - and started toward the front
of the store where the registers were.
Michael experienced two equally strong but opposing
emotions: the first was relief that Chester had departed without
seeing him, and the second was fear - fear that after all
this time, Chester was going to get away, that Michael might
never see him again, never get a chance to confront him, miss
his one chance to finally know.
choices. Michael could
stay where he was (stay safe), wait for a few minutes until
Chester had paid for his first-aid tape and left, and then
return to straightening the display of cold and flu medicine
and do his best to forget that he'd seen the man. Or . . .
took a deep breath (not that it helped) and followed Chester
to the front of the store.
Along the way, Michael passed an elderly woman who
was standing before shelves full of hair-care products, a
confused look on her face.
me," she said as Michael approached.
"Do you work here?"
No, Michael thought. I'm just
wearing this white shirt, these black pants, and especially
the plastic badge that reads "Michael Barnhorst, Manager"
for the fun of it. Out loud, he said, "Yes, ma'am, but I'm afraid
I can't stop to help you right now.
I'm . . . following a shoplifter.
I'll send someone back to assist you as soon as I can."
"Shoplifter? Oh my!" She
looked around as if she expected to be attacked any second. "Should I leave? Is it safe to stay here?"
wanted to tell her that there was no such thing as "safe,"
but instead he said, "Everything's under control, ma'am.
Don't worry." And
then he was past her and moving toward the cash registers.
Ashley was working check-out this morning, early twenties,
mouse-brown hair, pale skin with a sprinkling of freckles,
a mouthful of braces, and her usual dull-eyed stare.
She was wearing her orange Pharm-o-Rama vest like a
good little worker bee. One of the few perks of being manager was that
Michael didn't have to wear one of those ugly things.
she said as she handed Chester a small plastic bag containing
his purchase, her tone completely devoid of emotion.
Chester said nothing, just turned and headed for the
stopped and watched as the automatic door swung open and Chester
walked through. Then
Michael hurried up to the front counter.
. . . got to go out for a few minutes."
His voice sounded strained and too high-pitched, like
he was on the verge of hysteria (which maybe he was), but
he couldn't help it. "Can you hold down the fort until I get back?"
just stared at him, expressionless.
He might as well have been speaking Farsi for all her
he mumbled, praying for the day when computerized self check-outs
would make the Ashleys of the world no longer necessary, and
then hurried after Chester.
He was going so fast that he almost banged into the
automatic door as it opened, but he turned sideways and with
a skip-step managed to slip through the exit without collision
and then he was outside, blinking in the sunlight, cool autumn
air on his skin.
breath caught in his throat, and he felt a wave of burgeoning
panic. He was outside
. . . where it wasn't safe. But he fought the feeling down, and quickly
looked for Chester. He
expected to see the man getting into a car, but Chester was
walking, heading down the sidewalk at a slow, steady pace,
the plastic bag no longer visible. Probably
tucked it into his jacket pocket, Michael thought.
a moment's hesitation, he followed.
"Do you know what you are becoming, Mikey?
A seed. My
seed - and I simply cannot wait
to cast you upon the ground."
Mikey tries not to look at the awful things the dark man
is showing him, but no matter how hard he tries, he can't
turn his head, can't even shut his eyes.
"Are you the devil?" Mikey whispers, tears spilling down
The dark man laughs, the sound harsh and brittle as snapping
bone. "I'm something
worse, little one. Much
Mikey can't see the dark man's face, can only see the horrible
images the dark man is showing him - atrocities beyond measure,
blasphemies without number - but he can hear the grin in his
"If you must give me an identity, think of me as a gardener.
No, better yet, as Johnny Appleseed . . . and you,
my fine young fellow, are going to be the fruit of my dark
More laughter, only this time Mikey can't tell if it's issuing
from the dark man's mouth or sounding inside his own head. And still the images keep coming, one after
another after another after another after . . .
Street sounds assailed him:
rumbling engines, squealing brakes, blaring horns . . . the
sound of shoes slapping pavement, people talking, laughing,
yelling . . . Smells, too, the acrid stink of vehicle exhaust,
spilled gasoline, dripped motor oil . . . Too much movement, too much noise, too damn much everything.
He stopped and stood motionless on the sidewalk in front of the Pharm-o-Rama,
unable to take another step, heart pounding in his ears, breath
coming in short, sharp gasps.
His lungs felt heavy, and he could've sworn that his
throat was beginning to swell shut.
Another few seconds and it would close entirely, cutting
off his air. He'd
start to feel light-headed, his vision would swim, begin to
grow dark, and then he'd black out . . .
Stop it! There's
nothing wrong with you - it's just a panic attack, that's
all . . . that was more than enough, wasn't it? He wanted to turn around, go back inside the store, and hide in
his office (which was actually just an old metal desk and
chair inside the storeroom) until he felt better.
It wasn't that he was agoraphobic, at least not technically,
but out here, on the street, there were just so many things
that could happen. So many dangerous
things . . . A car
could jump the curb and slam into you.
A mugger might reach out from an alley, grab you by
the arm, and drag you into the shadows. The people that walked by, so many of them
coughing and sniffling . . . who knew what sort of diseases
remembered what the old woman standing in front of the shampoo
had asked him. Should I leave? Is it safe to stay here? And
he remembered what he'd thought in reply, that there was no
such thing as "safe." But
there was, however, such a thing as safe-er. Inside the store he would definitely be safer
than he would out here. If
nothing else, he'd at least feel calmer.
if he gave in to his panic and went back inside, he'd lose
Chester, maybe forever this time.
I can live with that, he thought. A second went by, two, and then, No, I can't.
took a deep breath, or at least as deep a breath as he could
manage, and continued after Chester, keeping his gaze fastened
to the back of the man's head and doing his best to avoid
contact with the other pedestrians as he followed.
better watch out, Mikey.
Chester the Molester's been cruisin' the neighborhood."
and you're exactly the kind of kid he's lookin' for."
likes them small with a little meat on 'em."
to get a hold of."
to hold on to."
cushion for the pushin'!"
big boys laughed, but Mikey just kept swinging and tried to
ignore them. He knew from experience that if you responded
in any way, it only encouraged them.
There were three: his big brother Randy, Dwight Terrell
and Morgan O'Brien. They
were fifth-graders, and to six-year-old Mikey's eyes, they
were as close to grown-ups as to make no difference.
Which meant that maybe they knew what they were talking
about, maybe they were telling the truth. The problem was, they might just as easily
do we gotta hang around the park for?" Dwight asked. "Let's go down to the river and see if we can catch some frogs."
Morgan chimed in. "I
got some firecrackers back home that I've been saving since
the Fourth of July. We can stick them up the frogs' butts, light
'em, and KA-BOOM!"
boys laughed, and Mikey laughed too, though he didn't find
the thought especially funny.
In fact, it made his tummy queasy to think about a
frog exploding. And
did it hurt to have a firecracker stuck up your behind? He bet it did, bet it hurt lots.
can't," Randy said. "I
gotta stick around and watch my brother.
he'll be okay," Dwight said.
"He may be a little squirt, but he's big enough to
swing in the park by himself."
when Chester's on the prowl," Morgan said, and giggled like
a girl. The other two boys didn't laugh this time,
though. Instead, they
looked a little worried, which frightened Mikey.
He couldn't imagine anything worrying his big brother.
lowered his feet to the dirt and allowed them to drag until
the swing came to a stop.
"Randy, is he real? Chester, I mean."
three boys exchanged glances, and Mikey thought they were
going to start teasing him again, but Randy said, "Yeah.
He's some perv that drives around in a car talking
to kids, trying to get them to take
a ride with him."
was something about the way that Randy said take
a ride that made Mikey shiver.
He wasn't sure what a perv
was, exactly, but he knew it was something bad.
heard my mom and dad talking last night," Morgan said. "They said Chester almost got Mary Ellen Parker
yesterday, had hold of her arm and was just about ready to
pull her in through the open car window when a man came by
walking his dog. When Chester saw the guy, he let Mary Ellen
go and drove off."
deal," Dwight said. "My
dad says that all sickos like Chester want to do is wave their
wanker in front of kids and that's all.
He says it gives them a thrill, but that they don't
really hurt anyone."
didn't like the idea of having to look at some stranger's
thing, but if that's all he did, if he didn't real do anything else,
it wouldn't be so bad.
not what my parents say."
Randy gave Mikey a sideways glance, as if trying to
determine how much detail he should go into.
"They say if men like Chester get kids into their car,
then they do . . . bad things to them. Sometimes the kids never come back."
was really getting scared now, and his bladder ached as if
he had to pee real bad, even though he'd used the bathroom
before they left the house. "Randy, what kind of car does Chester have?"
knows his real name," Randy said, sounding exasperated, as
if he were growing tired of the subject (although Mikey wondered
that if, in truth, his big brother wasn't more than a little
scared, too). "It's just a nickname people - "
He broke off suddenly.
"Why do you want to know?"
answer, Mikey pointed. The
park they were in was small, just a few swings, a slide, merry-go-round,
fence, no trees to shield it from the street.
Parked at the curb, engine idling, was a dark blue
car - so dark it was almost black.
The engine rumbled softly, sounding like the relaxed
breathing of a large animal that was, for the moment at least,
resting. The car window
was rolled down, and though they couldn't see far enough inside
to make out the driver's features, the man's arm rested on
the door, and they saw a flannel shirt sleeve, a plaid pattern
of light and dark browns, and a hand that ended in long, tapering
didn't need the big boys to tell him that it was Chester the
man sat there for a moment, watching them, and then the car
one of the boys said (which one Mikey couldn't tell; his attention
was completely focused on that car, that arm, those fingers),
and then they were running, Randy included, running past him,
leaving him, hollering for Mikey to get the hell off the swing
and run too, but Mikey didn't, he couldn't, he just sat there,
swaying gently on the swing, hands clutching the chains as
Chester got out of his car, closed the door, and began walking
first thing Mikey noticed about the man was his smile. The second thing he noticed was the man's eyes.
The third thing he noticed was what flickered and danced behind
that's when Mikey started to cry.
didn't happen all at once, of course.
Michael didn't immediately retreat from the world after
Chester released him. It
was days, maybe even weeks before he began to feel funny about
going outside, riding the bus to school, walking down the
hallways to gym and lunch.
But gradually, as time went by, he found his heart
beginning to pound, his throat swelling shut whenever he was
forced to go someplace where he felt exposed . . . vulnerable
. . . which was just about anywhere.
this, he made it through high school, managed to get a job,
move out on his own, and create at least a semblance of a
life for himself. But now, in his late thirties, his entire world
consisted of his one-room apartment, his used Tercel, and
the Pharm-o-Rama. He
didn't feel comfortable, didn't feel safe,
anywhere else. Whatever
supplies he couldn't buy from work, he ordered over the Internet
and had delivered to his home.
He had no friends (his co-workers didn't really count),
and the thought of dating a woman, marrying her, and starting
a family was ludicrous. How
could he possibly bring himself to love anyone when so many
terrible things could happen to either them or him at any
moment? Better to live alone.
knew that ultimately safety was nothing but a cruel illusion
- Chester had taught him that, taught him damn well - but
he had come as close to creating a safe existence as anyone
could. And it wasn't
such a bad life. Not
I ask you a question?"
looked at the elderly black man - he wore a brown suit, white
shirt, brown tie, brown hat, black shoes; his face was lean,
with a large kind eyes and a salt and pepper mustache - and
gave his head a quick shake.
man looked startled, frowned, said, "Okaaaay," and kept moving
knew the man had probably just wanted to ask the time, or
maybe he merely needed some directions.
But it was all Michael could do to keep walking, keep
following Chester. He couldn't bring himself to talk to any strangers
(as if they came any stranger than Chester). Besides, he couldn't afford the distraction;
if he stopped to help the man, he might lose sight of Chester,
maybe lose track of him for good.
And Michael was determined to catch up to Chester and
confront him, no matter what - because he had to know.
what had happened after Chester had grabbed his arm and escorted
him back to his car, know what had taken place during the
seventeen hours Chester had held him before letting him go
to wander the streets in the middle of the night, dazed, almost
catatonic, to eventually be found by a patrolling police officer
and taken home. His
mom and dad, relieved to have their youngest son back but
terrified by what might have been done to him by his abductor,
took Michael to the hospital, but aside from a bruise on his
arm where Chester had grabbed him, the ER doctor found no
signs of physical or sexual abuse. Whatever games Chester
the Molester had played with Michael during the seventeen
hours they had been together, they hadn't been games of the
had no memory of his time with Chester.
He remembered Chester taking him to the car, and he
remembered walking down the sidewalk, shivering in the cold
night air. But nothing in-between. For
thirty-two years he had been haunted by the mystery of what
the man might have done to him, what had been so awful that
little six-year-old Mikey had chosen to bury memory so deep
in his subconscious that it would never resurface.
Michael thought, if he knew, no matter how terrible that knowledge
might be, he could deal with it, put it past him.
Maybe he could learn not to be so afraid all the time. Maybe he could get his life back.
If he could catch up to the sonofabitch,
and if he could
make him talk.
A little further, a little faster, ignore the
thud-thud-thud of your pulse in your ears, ignore the ache
in your chest, the thick-tight wet-cotton feeling in your
throat. Shove past people, excuse me, sorry, get the hell out of my way!
Almost there, reach out - do it, dammit! - grab his
shoulder and make . . . him . . . stop!
spun the man around, grabbed him by both shoulders, opened
his mouth to say . . . something, he wasn't sure what, but
whatever words might have come died before he could speak
them. The man before
him wasn't Chester the Molester.
that he was close to the man, Michael could see that while
there was a superficial resemblance - the height, the shirt,
the hair - the face wasn't quite right.
It was rounder than Chester's, the complexion more
the fuck?" the man demanded, half-scared, half-angry.
jerked his hands away from the man as if he'd been burnt. "I'm sorry, I thought, I thought you were .
man planted a hand on Michael's chest and shoved. "Get away from me, you crazy bastard!"
took a step backward, almost stumbled, but he managed to maintain
his balance. The man
who wasn't Chester turned and hurried off down the street,
obviously eager to put as much distance between himself and
Michael as fast as he could.
thought you were someone else," Michael said softly as he
watched the man go. Jesus,
what the hell had he been thinking?
Of course, it hadn't been Chester, not after all this
time. He was losing
it, plain and simple. Time
to seriously think about pulling out the Yellow Pages and
turning to M for Mental Health Services.
turned, intending to head back down the sidewalk toward Pharm-o-Rama,
when he saw a car had pulled up to the curb, engine idling. A blue car . . .dark blue. So
dark it was almost black.
"Hi, Mikey-boy. Long time no see."
was no mistaking that voice, no mistaking the face of the
man that was leaning over and looking at him through the open
felt frost gather on his spine.
The sounds of the city, so loud a moment ago, had fallen
away, and all he could hear was Chester's voice.
Chester, who hadn't aged a day in the last thirty-two
my little seed doing?" Chester
gave him a grin. "Do
you know why you chased that man, Mikey?
Because you wanted to see me again.
No, you needed to see me - needed it so badly that
you hallucinated that man was me.
Your need called to me, Mikey.
It brought me back."
opened the passenger door.
in. Let's go for a
shook his head, tried to say no, but his mouth refused to
form even so simple a word.
continued to smile, but his eyes flashed, and unspeakable
images slid across their dark, wet surfaces.
you want to know? To
A mocking tone to this last word.
hesitated for a moment, two, and then before he realized it,
he was stepping toward the car.
"The loving uncle who finds his fingers straying
too close to his niece's bottom as they play tickle-torture
one sunny afternoon in the back yard.
The former honor student who is no longer satisfied
to make due with mere fantasies of raping cheerleaders.
The devoted mother who wakes up one morning and decides
that, instead of giving her kids a bath, she'll drown them
instead. . . . These
are all my children, Mikey.
My sweet, sweet fruit.
"Did you ever wonder why, when reporters interview family
members and neighbors, they always say the same thing? 'He was such a quiet man . . . so sweet.
We just can't believe he'd ever do such a thing.'
It's because of me, Mikey, and others of my kind.
We travel the world, borrowing children, showing them
the wondrous dark potential that exists inside them, encouraging
it to grow. And when
our teaching is done, we release them. They become our seeds, Mikey. Seeds of darkness. Sometimes they sprout weeks later, sometimes months, sometimes years.
But eventually they all blossom.
"It's your time to blossom now, Mikey. But you're not going to do anything so mundane
as poison a neighbor's dog or go into work with a loaded gun. I've got something much more special in mind
what do you think?"
woman frowned. "It's
a little out of our price range."
man gave Michael a "don't-listen-to-her-we-can-afford-it"
smile. "I think we can manage it, hon. If
we want to buy it, that is."
up to you, of course," Michael said.
"But it's a great house for the money, and it's in
a good neighborhood. A
woman gave her husband a glance that said We Need to Talk. Michael had been in real estate now for four
years, more than long enough to know he should make himself
just step outside for a minute."
He left them in the living room, walked into the kitchen,
opened the patio door and stepped into the yard.
The couple's twelve-year-old daughter was doing cartwheels
on the grass.
closed the patio door and walked toward her.
do you think about
girl finished her cartwheel and came to rest on her feet. She looked at Michael and shrugged. "It's okay.
I like the house we have now better, but Dad says we
have to move because of his new job."
She cocked her head, as if she'd just thought of something.
"Do you like your job?"
smiled. "Yes, very
much. I enjoy getting out and meeting people. But do you know what I like best about my job?"
what?" She was already
beginning to sound disinterested, but Michael didn't mind.
That was just the way children were.
reached out and put a hand on her shoulder, and darkness moved
across the surface of his eyes.