by Em Catrin
A demon stalks it's prey, taunting them with shoes on the line.
| “There’s shoes on the telephone lines again, Mags,” she whispers, yanking her fingers away from the slats of the blinds. I stiffened at the breakfast table, my spoon hovering, and at the sink, the dish my mother was washing clunks loudly against the metal basin. Silence coiled around us like a noose and no one moved or spoke until my youngest brother, Tomas, burst into the kitchen in a flurry of blond hair and gangly limbs. I dropped my spoon back into the bowl, my appetite gone, and pushed away from the table and darted up to my room, feeling the anxious energy humming beneath my skin settle as I drank in the sight of my favorite white sneakers with a scuff on the toe.|
As I pulled on my shoes, I felt a wave of sickness at the relief thrumming through my veins that it wasn’t me or my sisters this time. Clarissa O’Hare was the first girl to go missing from her bed in the middle of the night and her bright pink sneakers were dangling from the wires. For two weeks, her mother printed flyers and search parties were organized to scour the surrounding forests and the news played the press conference with her sobbing parents pleading for her return on a near-constant loop. The Sunday of the second week, the night exploded into chaos when they found Clarissa on the steps of the church, bloodied and bruised, her dark hair crudely shorn to her chin and dressed in a mass of lace and tulle, a bloodied letter clutched in her shaking hand. When the police had tried to question her, she could do nothing but hand them the paper. The monster had cut her out her tongue.
My sister, Helena, had been working at the hospital that night and when she got home early Monday morning, she woke me and Alina up as she climbed into our bed, pulling us both close and pressing salty kisses to our foreheads as we dozed. On Wednesday, I sat at the top of the stairs and listened to my mother on the phone with Mrs. O’Hare. The contents of the letter made my stomach squeeze and burn.
A month after Clarissa was first taken, the town awoke to another pair of shoes strung up for everyone to see. Every four weeks, on Monday morning, as sure as the sun rises in the east, the omen would appear and every girl on the block would run to their rooms choking on the anxiety clotting in their stomachs and climbing up their throats until they saw their shoes. All except for one. No matter what anyone did, how many cops were stationed in the neighborhood, how many locks were put on windows and doors, she would always disappear, as if swallowed up by the shadows huddling in the corners of her room. For two weeks, it would be posters and press conferences, interviews and interrogations and then fourteen days later, she would resurface, battered and bloodied in that ivory dress, letter in hand, on the steps of a different church. The phone tree would move quickly and soon everyone would know that she had made it home and the countdown would begin again.
I tugged on my shoes, grabbed my backpack and Alina and I made our way to the bus stop, the sharp scent of blooming flowers stinging my nose. Our hands locked together and neither of us let go until we were safely beyond the gates of the school. The classroom was hot as the sun beat through the windows and the air was buzzing when I walked through the door, my eyes snagging over the faces of my friends. I couldn’t quite understand how they could all laugh and joke at a time like this. Weren’t they scared? Mrs. Seguin rose from her desk in a cloud of chalkboard dust and floral perfume as the bell rang and my classmates scattered to their respective places and all at once, we noticed the empty desk. The girl, Laura Childs, had been quiet and kept to herself mostly, but her vacant seat was a looming specter over all of us.
The news came early Friday morning with the sound of Mrs. Childs’ screams cutting through the dewy dawn. Laura had not made it home.
“Did you hear? They found Laura on the steps of the church last night. I heard my dad talking to my mom about it and he said that Laura’s body was the worst thing he’d ever seen. She was wearing a wedding dress and when they did her autopsy they said her heart was ripped out!” Addie said to the group of girls huddled around her. They all gasped and clutched each other, their voices tittering as they gossiped. Laura and I hadn’t been friends but she was nice to me and it didn’t sit right with me, the way these girls talked about her. That night, my mother made us all carry over trays of food and a horrible orange quilt she’d gotten from Ms. Meiler to the Childs’ home. Our footsteps sounded like mortars as we dutifully put everything down on the scarred dinner table, careful not to touch the remnants of Laura that haunted the home. As my mother spoke quietly to the circle of women in the kitchen, all armed with more food and flowers, I drifted from the room. I crossed the threshold to the living room, my feet carrying me past bookshelves lined with knick-knacks and picture frames. I stared at the artifacts lining them, my fingers softly brushing over a dusty trophy that had Laura’s name stamped on it. Little Marlin’s Tee-Ball MVP: Laura Childs. 1971. Beside it, a photo of Laura with a great big smile, her little bat thrown over one shoulder as she posed with her parents. A little further down was a photo of a fat faced baby wearing a drooling, toothless grin, frosting and bits of cake stuck to her. Another of Laura, this time her eyes squeezed tightly shut, those round apple cheeks taking over her face as she squeezed a stuffed animal to her chest at the top of a ferris wheel. In these few moments, I knew more about Laura than I ever had in the years we had spent as neighbors and peers.
I spied Mrs. Childs in what must’ve been Laura’s room once, clutching a pale blue blanket as she laid in that little bed and I turned sharply, leaving them all behind in that mausoleum as I dashed out the door and into the yard. My mother scolded me but the look in her eyes that night as she tucked us in, something she had not done since before Tomas was born, I knew she was afraid. Laura’s death was a festering sore, raw and weeping and so we all bandaged it up with quilts and flowers and casseroles and church services until you couldn’t see it anymore.
Days blended together, and on the morning of the fourteenth day since Laura’s discovery, there wasn’t a pair of sneakers hanging and as the sun set and rose again, there was still nothing and we all held our breath. On the sixteenth day, as we all gathered around the breakfast table, the morning anchors announced the arrest of Frank Bolton. They flashed his photo on the screen and I was struck by him. This man stole girls from their beds and evaded every protective measure anyone could think to put into place. He killed Laura. In my mind, I had pictured him almost wraith-like with dark, beady eyes and hands like claws. Watery eyes the color of soil stared at me from behind the clunky tortoise-shell glasses propped up on a hawkish nose. His dishwater hair spilled across his forehead, his bushy brows were pulled low, and his thin-lipped mouth was a tight line. He could have been anyone in all his averageness. On the walk to school I recalled his name and those dirt clod eyes but as I sat in my seat, I couldn’t quite remember the color of his hair. By the time a month had passed, girls had stopped checking every day for their sneakers and mothers didn’t hover at their doors in the middle of the night, listening for a phantom.
“Alina! Let’s go! I’m leaving you behind if you aren’t ready in the next five minutes!” I yelled, banging my hand against her door. I walked into my room and tugged on my favorite pair of socks, blue and green stripes that went to my knees, and spun to grab my sneakers only to find the spot where I left them empty. My stomach turned. I dropped to my knees and pressed my face to the cool floor, my eyes searching frantically in the darkness beneath my bed. I shoved aside a stray shirt and my old cleats and there was nothing but dust. Getting to my feet, I scoured every part of my room, ripping it apart until I was panting and my skin was flushed. They were simply gone. There was a flicker of movement out of the corner of my eye and I turned and found my curtains askew and my gaze flew to the telephone lines. “No.” The word was a whoosh of breath and then I was running down the hallway, , taking the stairs two at a time, my socked feet nearly slipping out from underneath me as I reached the bottom. My shaky fingers twisted the locks and I pulled the door open too hard, the handle cracking against the wall. I blinked against the still pink sky and I could hear my mother yelling at me as I stumbled down the short steps. My blood turned to ice as I stood at the foot of the porch, the laces of the sneakers floating on the breeze like a ghost. Hands were on me, pulling and tugging as if they could rip me away from my fate. My mother let out a choked sob from somewhere behind me and my vision tunneled, the blackness edging in.