Last summer, I flew back to my hometown for a school reunion. It had been almost three years since I had graduated from school, and aside from close friends, I had heard nothing from the rest of my classfellows.
The reunion took place at the school itself, lasting till midnight. I arrived home early that day, giving me time to catch up with my family before I headed down.
At the reunion, almost everybody had turned up. There was food, drink and plenty of time to get up to date with what had been going on in everybody’s life. Boys I hadn’t seen in ages gave me aggressive hugs and said things like ‘long time no see.’ Girls I hadn’t seen in ages fussed over me in a motherly way, saying things like ‘Oh my goodness! You’re so grown up!’
Then everybody went round talking to nearly everybody else, asking and answering all manner of questions. For the first two hours or so, some of our former teachers who still taught at the school were there, which was nice. They left before sundown.
As the night drew to a close, and most people began to head home, I and a few others hung around outside the school hall. I leant against a railing and sipped lemonade while listening to the conversation. One of the girls asked about a certain boy who hadn’t turned up.
“He said he couldn’t be bothered,” explained another, “He says he’s going on holiday with his uni friends or something.”
“Typical.” Someone commented, and they all began to reminisce about how antisocial that particular classfellow of ours had been. As they talked, my mind drifted off elsewhere. I tried to think of who else hadn’t turned up. Among a few other absentees, one person stood out – Maisie, a tall quiet girl who had been in many of my classes.
“Hey did any of you see Maisie Heathen?” I posed the question out of the blue.
The others quietened down, registered the name, thought about it, and shook their heads.
“Nah,” said one boy, “but let’s be honest – she was probably the least likely to turn up. I mean, she hardly turned up at school, some weeks.”
“Yeah,” said one girl sarcastically, “says the guy who skipped school to play video games. At least she still got respectable grades.”
“Woah, no need to get personal,” the boy grinned, “Her attendance didn’t really make a difference, anyway – she was naturally smart.”
“Unlike you, right?” The girl teased him. The others continued bantering, while I thought about Maisie. It struck me that she hadn’t entered my thoughts for so long. Three years at university many miles away with another set of friends in another town had taken their toll. It felt like all the excitement of student life had made me move on from this small world which was my old school, and in moving on, I’d forgotten so much.
“Didn’t she go to Oxford or something?” I heard someone ask. I tuned back in to the conversation, as they were talking about Maisie.
“Wouldn’t be surprised.”
“I’m pretty sure she applied there.”
“Yeah, and she got in. I remember seeing Mr Thompson congratulating her on it.”
“She was odd,” remarked a boy named Joe, “nice, but sort of in her own world, you get me?”
“Hmm,” I nodded. I knew what Joe meant.
“So, anybody know what she’s up to now? Anybody in touch?” Asked Joe. We all shrugged.
“Maisie went missing last year.” Said a low voice from a few yards away. We looked to see a man’s outline standing in the darkness. He stepped into the light. It was a former classmate, David, who had been eavesdropping from the shadows.
“Huh?” I looked at him stupidly, feeling suddenly cold.
“She went missing last year,” he repeated, “they still haven’t found her.”
We all exchanged uncomfortable glances.
“Oh come off it, David,” I heard a girl say, “stop trying to frighten us.”
David came and leant against the railing beside me.
“I’m really not trying to be funny.” He said, “You know I’m not known for my sense of humour.”
It was true. David, a lanky fellow with glasses, had always been rather dry.
“Honestly. That’s what I heard, at least. My parents told me about it around when it happened, last autumn. People were talking about it in church. Her family was stressed. Everybody was trying to console them.”
Nobody said anything for a while. The party had become noticeably quiet, and people were leaving by the minute.
“That’s… weird.” A girl said. “Do you know what happened? How did it happen? Where?”
“I don’t know the little details, but I do know that she had gone on a trip alone. Apparently she had wanted to get away from everything for a while. So she had booked some cottage in the middle of nowhere in Scotland, gone to live there by herself, and after a few days, vanished.”
“That’s terrible,” someone remarked. I don’t remember who, as I was too caught up in my own thoughts.
‘Vanished?’ I wondered, ‘what on earth could have happened?’
Shortly, the gathering dispersed and we all went home. Joe offered me a lift, which I accepted. We hardly spoke, and when he dropped me off, we exchanged short, sincere goodbyes. Something was seriously wrong. Maisie had disappeared and not been found. That in itself was inherently a frightening thing. But I had a nagging feeling that there was something greater behind her disappearance – something that had been building up over the years. I felt like I knew something about what might have happened, but, for some strange reason, couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was.
I lay awake that night, trying to think back into the past. Slowly, it all came back to me, and when it did, I shivered.
Maisie had joined my secondary school in year thirteen – the final school year. From her first day onwards, she kept to herself.
She was a tall, delicately made girl with refined features. With her prominent grey eyes, dainty nose, and flaxen hair neatly bound in a single braid, most agreed that she was pretty. She usually sat alone in class and spent more time gazing out the window than paying attention to the teacher. In spite of this, she got high marks in most exams. And although she hardly took part in athletics, when she did turn up, she could outrun even most boys.
Over time, her reclusiveness earned her dislike from some members of the class. Her high achievement only made them resent her more. I, on the other hand, felt bad whenever I saw her, and more than a little curious to know what was up with her. She never seemed quite there – it was as if she were constantly engrossed in another, faraway dimension. At the time, I saw it as enigmatic. Now, having thought about it a bit more, I’ve come to realise that her behaviour was troubling. A sign that something was troubling her, and wouldn’t leave her alone. But as a simple seventeen year old boy, I didn’t understand these things.
I sometimes told my mother about Maisie’s behaviour, and she told me to ‘be nice’ to her and ‘be a gentleman.’ I remember one particular conversation we had – my father was at work, so it was just me and my mother in the kitchen.
“Mum?” I began, tentatively.
“You know that girl Maisie?”
“Of course I know her, you’re always talking about her.”
“Well, she still hasn’t made any friends. She literally doesn’t talk.”
My mother smiled.
“Well… I don’t understand girls, and I just find it strange. Do you have any idea what could be the matter with her?”
“Really, Daniel, there’s no need to pry into people’s lives like that. It’s nosy.”
“But I’m sort of concerned, mum.” I said plaintively.
“That’s sweet of you, but I’m sure you don’t need to worry about her. Everyone has their own problems, and I think she’d prefer to keep them to herself.”
I thought about what my mother said, and wondered what kind of problems Maisie might have had.
“Do you mean, like, family problems? Are her parents getting divorced or something?”
“Could be, but I doubt it. I’ve met her parents, and they don’t look like they’re splitting anytime soon. And they seem to be really nice people.”
I realised that I had seen them once, too. They had seemed like nice people. They were the sort of gentle, charitable church-goers who cared a lot about community and never skipped mass.
Their daughter was different. I figured that whatever was on her mind was something very personal that she hid even from her family.
But whatever could that be?
My simple masculine brain couldn’t get over her mysterious sullenness.
“You know,” my mother suggested one day, “if you’re concerned, you could go talk to her. Perhaps she just feels isolated at this new school. You never know, it might make her feel welcome here.”
I considered it.
“I might do,” I said, “yeah, I might do, mum.”
I first spoke to Maisie Heathen on the way home from school. I wasn’t expecting to cross paths with her, as I had just had an afterschool detention. I was likely the only one at school apart from the caretaker. It was a chilly, blue-skied evening in October, and the sun had sunk enough to slightly darken one half of the sky.
The homeward path cut through farmland at the back of the school, where a path had been demarcated with low wire fences on either side to keep students out of the fields. I noticed, about two hundred yards ahead of me on the path, Maisie.
I realised this was my chance, and tried to walk faster to catch up with her, then ran. I noticed she looked downwards slightly when she walked. But she moved quickly, and I was a little out of breath when I caught up.
That’s when something weird happened. When I was about five yards behind her, panting like a hound, she heard me and turned round with such a look of fear upon her face as I won’t forget. It scared the heck out of me, seeing her face tightened into that silent, wide-eyed scream.
When she saw who I was, she looked with embarrassment at her feet.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“No,” she shook her head, “I’m sorry. I thought –. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry. I should learn to make better first impressions. I was running to catch up with you.”
“Why?” she turned fully round.
“Because,” I tried to think of a reason. Eventually, I just said the truth, “Because I wanted to talk to you.”
We continued down the path through the fields, then exited onto a lane that led down to town, where I lived, and where she presumably lived.
Maisie was surprisingly easy to talk to. Her manners were a little funny, but she responded to questions and even asked some about school-related stuff.
I asked her how she was finding the new school. She shrugged and said ‘good.’
“You mean you don’t actually like it.” I remarked.
“No. I’m indifferent.” She said, and we walked on quietly for a while before she explained, “we move around a lot. I’ve been to so many schools that it makes no difference to me anymore.”
“So… why do you move around? Is it because of your parents’ work?”
She completely ignored that question, and said something to change the subject – I can’t remember what. I just remember it took me aback how hastily she changed the subject.
We eventually parted ways at a crossroads. I told her that if she should feel lonely at school, she should feel welcome to approach me. She responded with a quiet smile. It was a sweet, genuine gesture of gratitude, but something about it sent a chill through me. I could see through those eyes of hers that she knew something I didn’t, and that she had been through things I couldn’t fathom. It was a fragile smile, quietly haunting.
I walked home feeling glad that I had broken the ice between us. I felt like I had been a ‘gentleman,’ whatever that meant.
But somehow, something still didn’t feel right.
The first occurrence that struck me as genuinely odd took place later that year. I took a job cleaning the school on Friday after school. It was a warm day in early summer, and I had the task of cleaning the theatre hall. This hall had been built sometime in the fifties, and was rather grand. The seats would be full and lively whenever there were performances. On that day, I thought I was the only one there.
I was carrying the vacuum cleaner to a backstage room, when suddenly the door to that room opened and a girl, white as a sheet, came out. I almost screamed. It was Maisie Heathen. She had been in the room all along. She looked terrified. Like she’d seen a ghost.
“Woah, everything alright?” I said, laughing.
She looked ready to burst into tears, then ran out of the hall, leaving me utterly confused.
Suddenly, I felt afraid to enter the backstage room. What on earth was in there? What had scared her so badly? Against my instincts, I went in. There was nobody there. I checked all potential hiding spaces and turned on every light. Nothing. Perplexed, I got the vacuum on and started cleaning. All the while I was in there, I had this sinking feeling in my stomach – a feeling that something bad would happen any second. That I would see something any second, and then run out of there white as a sheet. But nothing happened. I vacuumed the place and got out of there quickly.
I never raised the topic with Maisie. The year wore on and nothing of that level of weirdness happened.
Many weeks later, something did happen. Not weird. Disturbing.
Believe it or not, Maisie was actually beginning to fit in. She made some friends.
Occasionally, she would engage verbally in lessons. This turned heads, as it was strange to see someone so silent suddenly so vocal. Not that she was particularly vocal – she was still quiet and understated, but it seemed as though some mysterious shadow had shifted away from her.
There was a summer concert in which she played a piano solo in front of the whole school. I applauded heartily.
I gradually came to the conclusion that she had simply had some form of anxiety earlier.
Then, on the last day of term, school finished early. It was a sunny day, and I had been planning on going to the cinema with some friends. It turned out they were all going to a nearby nightclub that evening. I, who hate alcohol and everything to do with it, had no intention of joining them, so I settled on having a quiet evening at home.
But as I set off along the homeward path through the fields, I noticed Maisie Heathen ahead of me – just as it had been the first time we had spoken. But it was high summer now – not autumn – and the day was cloudless, and she was at ease.
“Maisie,” I called as I caught up, “do you have a moment?”
She turned and nodded. We had not spoken in a while.
As we walked, the sound of crickets in the grass filled the air.
“So,” I said, after much anticipation, “do you like films?”
“Do you like films?”
“I don’t mind them.”
“Would you like to see one? Tonight? At the cinema?”
She seemed to be considering my offer, because she smiled quietly to herself. Then said yes.
I expressed my gladness, and, when she asked why I was asking her, told her about my friends ditching me for a nightclub. That seemed to amuse her. Then I told her which films were on.
She settled on the horror – which surprised me. Horror? Really? She didn’t seem the type.
“It starts at eleven thirty, though,” I warned her, “are you going to be able to come that late?”
“Sure I can.”
“Then that’s sorted, I suppose. Shall I pick you up?” I offered.
“Where shall I pick you up from?”
“I don’t know where you live.”
On the way home, she told me where she lived. It was close to my own home. I went home and killed time till night fell.
At eleven, I drove my parents’ car to her house. She didn’t own a mobile phone, so I waited outside. All the while I waited, I felt, for no apparent reason whatsoever, a touch of dread. I had the radio on and was sitting comfortably in a car parked in a pleasant suburban neighbourhood. But something outside seemed to be stirring. I kept looking out of the windows, expecting to see – well – not knowing what to expect to see. But there was definitely something about the place that night which was making me uneasy.
I jumped when somebody opened the car door, and climbed in on the seat beside me. It was just Maisie. I hadn’t seen the front door of her house open.
“Where’d you come from?” I asked, “I could swear I never saw the front door open.”
“I came through the back door,” she explained, “It’s quieter, and I don’t want to let my parents know that I’m going out.”
“Oh… right.” I realised I was doing something against her parents’ will. I didn’t want them to worry if they found her gone, and I didn’t want to be the one responsible. But I guess I had no choice. Calling it off was out of the question.
The drive took twenty minutes or so, and aside from ours there were only about five cars in the carpark. This cinema was, bizarrely, a standalone building a few hundred yards off the side of a very long 50mph road. Usually cinemas are in town centres, or part of shopping complexes, but this one was just a large cinema theatre with its own carpark and no other buildings around for some distance. It was quite nice, really – away from everything else. The only noise usually came from the road – but at eleven thirty, long after dark, it lay silent. Beyond the cinema, woods stretched on seemingly endlessly.
We bought tickets and joined about ten other viewers in the theatre. The film itself was about some demonic possession – fairly cliché. But it gave me the cheap thrill I’d paid for, and the audience screamed at least thrice. I would occasionally glance at Maisie. Something about the way she watched the film was strange. Rather than looking excited or bored or afraid (how people usually look when watching horror), she seemed intense and… angry? Maybe not quite angry. It was more a look of hatred – not obvious, but subtle and cold.
I found it disconcerting, but shrugged it off. Then told her I was going for a toilet break. Her expression loosened into a pleasant smile as she nodded.
Alone in the men’s room, I relieved myself at leisure by a urinal. It was perfectly silent and relaxing, until I noticed footsteps moving about in the corridor outside. I assumed somebody was coming to take a leak, but whoever they were didn’t enter. Their footsteps sounded flappy, as if they were barefoot, and there was a lot of time between each step, suggesting that whoever it was had very long steps. Or legs.
I washed my hands and left the toilet. There was nobody out there, strangely enough. Again I shrugged it off and returned to the film.
When it ended, I and Maisie waited until the end of the credits, by which time everybody had left. Then we made our way out to the car.
“Wait, I left my pullover in the cinema,” she remembered just as we reached the car.
“Shall I get it for you? It’s empty in there now.”
“No, I’ll go.”
So I slouched in the driver’s seat and watched her hurry back in search of her pullover. She was pretty brave, going in there alone. The place tended to get a bit spooky at this time. Creepily enough, mine was the only car left. I wondered if there was anyone else at all in the building with her.
Anyway, I flicked the radio on and waited. She was taking a while. I began to get nervous, and turned to open the door. Then I froze. I saw something alarming. In the woods behind the cinema, there was a man standing, facing me. He was far away, but I saw clearly that there was something wrong with him. First of all, he was stark naked. His pale body, wirily lean, was on full display. This began to sound alarm bells. The only rational explanation for his state of undress was that he might be an escaped mental patient. Or perhaps he was a pervert. He could be dangerous, I realised. I got out of the car, and the man disappeared into the trees at once. I was getting increasingly uneasy.
I decided to go find Maisie. A lone eighteen year old girl in an empty building at night just seemed like something bad waiting to happen.
But to my relief she came out right then, wearing the pullover.
We got into the car and shut the doors. I switched the radio on and, when the silence between us lasted too long, asked her what kind of music she liked.
“I don’t listen to music.” She said.
I half expected that answer, and shook my head with a laugh.
“But you play it quite well.”
She shook her head with a smile. I switched the radio off, remembering the man I had seen. I reckoned this would be more a more interesting topic.
I told her what I had seen and began to regret it. She became suddenly on edge, asking me where I had seen him. I pointed at the trees. He was no longer there.
“I need to get home now,” she looked me squarely in the face. “Please.”
“Okay,” I asked no questions.
I started up the car and we drove out of there in haste. We didn’t talk until we had left the cinema far behind.
I stole glances and saw that she was biting her nails. Something was bothering her – something about the man’s description? I had no idea. I just kept driving.
Several minutes later, I stopped midway along a country lane and got out.
“Why?” she asked.
“Just like that. I need some fresh air.”
“Here?” she looked round cautiously. But we were alone.
“It’s nice here,” I explained, “really, you should come out with me. I cycle along here with friends sometimes.”
Doubtfully, she joined me. We leant against the car while looking at the fields which lay as far as the eye could see on one side of the road. On the other side were thick woods. On that quiet warm night, it was nice to stand out and simply gaze at the fields.
In spite of her earlier unease, Maisie seemed to feel more and more comfortable where we were. Perhaps it was the pleasant view before us, or the fresh air, or perhaps it was the excitement of being out at night – whatever it was, something made her forget whatever had frightened her. I told her about how I had once been roughly at this same spot with some friends at sunrise, and how beautiful it had been. Then she opened up and tell me about how she was honestly finding living in this town and going to this school. We laughed a little about the antics of our French teacher, and even discussed poetry we were studying.
Occasionally we would say nothing and simply take in the night air.
During one such silence, I felt a sudden inexplicable pang of dread. Not sure why, I turned to look back at the road. What I saw flooded me first with confusion, then utter disbelief, then relentless creeping fear; the naked man from the cinema – he was there, standing less than a hundred yards away.
How? How was he there already? More chilling was the question of why. What did he want?
When I had first seen him, I hadn’t thought much of him besides that he might be a potentially dangerous pervert. But where he stood in the moonlight, other odd details became clear. He appeared to be very tall – perhaps somewhere between six and seven feet. His body was lean to the point of starvation, but his thighs and shoulders carried disproportionate muscular bulk. There was something disturbing about his face. It looked deformed and blotched – like a plastic clown mask melted to disfigurement. Perhaps it was a mask. I couldn’t tell.
“Uh, I think we should get in the car.” I said.
“Huh? Why?” she turned to me, then she must have seen him too, for she stiffened.
“Hey, come on, get in the car, quick.” I began to breathe heavily. She didn’t seem to hear. She looked as though she were in another dimension. I opened the door and tried to usher her inside – but she was alarmingly firm.
The stalker stood still. The more I watched him, the less I thought of him as a person and the more I thought of him as… something else. There was something disturbing and inhuman about his face. His presence stank of raw, otherworldly menace.
He moved. He began to sprint. Towards us.
Maisie took off. I knew she was fast, but I’d never seen her run like she ran then. It was as though she had been maddened by pure terror and lost control.
“Shoot!” I cried, fumbling with the car door. My hands were sweaty and felt weak, as if enfeebled by fear of the stalker. Looking back, I was shocked by waves of cold panic; he was quick. Demonically quick. There was no way she could escape him on foot, let alone I.
I overtook her in the car and called repeatedly from the window. Hearing me eventually, she got in. Then I put my foot on the gas and drove like there was no tomorrow. I expected to see the stalker in the rear-view mirror. But instead I saw nothing. Empty road. It was as if he had never been there in the first place.
I didn’t dare say a thing throughout the drive home. My thoughts ran wild and my arms shook on the wheel. We reached our hometown in silence, and it wasn’t until I stopped outside her house that she spoke.
“No,” she whispered, “Take me to your house. I don’t want to go home.”
“Sure, sure,” I was baffled, but didn’t want to fluster her by asking why, “not a problem.”
So we drove a few more streets to my house, entered through a back-door, climbed the stairs to my room and closed the door firmly. I drew the curtains and turned on a reading lamp.
“Feel free to take the bed. Don’t worry, I’ll sleep on the armchair.” I smiled, and felt so stupidly false for acting as though nothing had happened. She got under the covers without a word, and hid her face in her hair.
I settled down, still shaking, on my chair.
“Don’t leave.” she said. It was more of a plea, and it made something within me go soft.
“Trust me, I won’t.” I said. That’s the last thing she said before, somehow, falling asleep.
I sat there for hours trying to make sense of what had happened. Something about that strange man had really shaken Maisie up. So much so that she couldn’t sleep in her own home. Why not? Did she think he’d follow her there? I realised that my mother would be most dismayed if she found me with a girl in my room at night. But I was her friend, and hated to see her so afraid. I couldn’t have said no.
She slept a few feet before me, breathing calmly, apparently in peace. But I knew that something was troubling her. I got the terrible feeling that the weird distorted-clown-faced man was somehow connected with her strange behaviour.
‘No, surely not. This was a random, one off incident.’ I told myself.
‘But then why was she so afraid of him? Why did the mere description of a skinny naked man arouse her immediate fear?’
‘Could she know him? How?’
‘Who the heck is he, anyway?’
There were too many questions and my head was too tired to attempt to answer them.
Eventually, from the exhaustion of sitting upright, I began to doze off. I was lulled to sleep by the hum of the night breeze, the quiet whirr of the fridge downstairs, and the soothing sound of footsteps. Bare skin slapping against concrete outside. Slowly. As if whoever was out there, had long legs.
After the incident at the cinema, Maisie more or less stopped talking to me. I didn’t hold it against her. I assumed she just needed time. But weeks passed and she kept silent. During the last week of school, I passed her in a corridor and we made eye contact. She forced a wry, short-lived smile.
“Daniel,” she spoke at last, “I…”
She sighed and hurried away without finishing what she wanted to say.
We finished school without ever speaking again.
On the last day, I slipped my number into her locker, in case she ever wanted to get in touch.
She never did.
The summer holidays dragged by. University began. Years passed. Before I knew it, I didn’t remember much of what had happened. You’d think someone would remember things like that. But no. It was almost as if my brain was deliberately trying to erase the memories.
After what David said at the reunion, things came flooding back. I revisited the archives of my memory, and was frightened by what I found.
I spent the following days strolling round town, thinking nonstop about the whole frightening affair. Trying to understand.
About a week later, I was going for a run in my hometown and crossed paths with someone I hadn’t seen in years. Maisie’s father. He had thinned and lost hair – but I knew him at once. He didn’t notice me until I said hello, and seemed to only vaguely remember me, which was upsetting.
We stood talking about what I had been up to. Uni and stuff. Then there was a silence, and I dared to mention the topic of his daughter’s disappearance.
“Look, Mr Heathen, I heard very recently about… Maisie. I’m devastated.”
He looked up at me through his old-fashioned glasses with a tragic, defeated look in his eyes.
“Young man,” he said softly, “this world has things in store for some people that seem so unjust, so cruel, that they test our faith in the Almighty. But we must keep faith. It’s all I have now. That, and Mrs Heathen.”
I waited for him to carry on. Instead, he tenderly took one of my hands in his. It chilled me how old he seemed for his age.
“What’s troubling you, boy?” he asked, “you seem to have something on your mind.”
“I – I do,” I admitted.
“If you wish, you may tell me. Let us go to the house of God,” I didn’t know what he meant until he gestured to the church, “evil things won’t follow us there.”
Shortly, we were seated beside one another in the old town church. It was always open and always empty. Apart from Sundays when a few regulars would attend.
I described to Maisie’s father how I had often felt concerned about his daughter. I told him a lot. But I didn’t mention the night at the cinema.
He listened intently, sighed, and then spoke.
“Mrs Heathen can’t bring herself to accept it, but deep down, I know that Maisie was afraid of something. I think you will have noticed that she could be withdrawn, sometimes – perhaps a bit unresponsive, as if she were not quite there.”
“Well, she wasn’t always like that.” he reached into his breast pocket and handed me a photo. I knew at once that it was his daughter – only she was several years younger than when I had known her. It was a school photo, and she was smiling. It was a carefree, sincere expression, untouched by any underlying anxiety.
“I’m not sure what it was, but something in her changed when she was thirteen. I think I know when it happened. You see, we lived for a short time in another part of England. In a small rural town up north. There were woods near to the village that had a reputation for being… unwholesome, haunted even. The place had a dark history, according to townsfolk. We were new in town, and had come because of my work. Maisie didn’t fear the superstitions. One night at a sleepover, she and a few friends she had made at the local school thought it would be exciting to go walking through those woods.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“Nothing happened.” Then he hesitated, “Not at first. But things began to happen soon after.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I fear that something followed her home that night. Something from those woods latched onto her, and never let go.”
“Something,” he explained, “an evil being. A demon, if you will go that far. Whatever it was, it haunted her, and when we left that town, it followed.”
“It was nothing much at first – just nightmares. Then she complained about a presence in the corner of her bedroom. This was, naturally, unsettling. But nothing came of it. We put it down to too many horror films. Then she stopped eating. She struggled sleeping. She demanded that we take down the mirrors in our house. We didn’t know what to think. I got the first feelings that something… unnatural… was happening. But I wasn’t sure. I never once saw anything unusual with my own eyes. But sometimes, I admit I would go into her room at night and feel the hairs stand up on my neck, inexplicably. She would go through phases of being extremely paranoid, then she would have months of going back to normal completely. But whatever it was kept coming back.”
“Mr Heathen,” I said, my voice shaking, to my surprise, “did she ever describe what this thing looked like?”
“Never. Maisie avoided talking about it. I don’t know if it even had a visible form.”
I couldn’t help but think of the man at the cinema – his elongated body, his hideous deformity, his strange aura of threat. I tried to remove the image from my mind.
Her father carried on.
“Before she vanished, Maisie rented a cottage in Scotland, by the sea. She told nobody about this apart from a university professor whom she trusted. It was a strange thing for her to do. Our family has no affiliation with Scotland, nor had she been there before. The cottage was far from any human settlements. It was as if she wanted to escape everything. It didn’t make sense.”
“Then she didn’t return. Police searched the area thoroughly, but there was no trace or clue to be found. No sign of foul play. But they found something.”
“Her clothes. They were left in the cottage. The odd thing is that they were not strewn all over the place as you might expect. They had been neatly folded and laid on the bed.”
I had hoped the conversation would help better understand the mystery. But the more Maisie’s father told me, the more mystified I grew.
“What do you make of it all?” I asked.
He replied in a hushed voice.
“I think, young man, that this was something from beyond our world. Grief has toughened me, but it pains me when I say this. I think that something evil lured her to that cottage, cut her off from society, and left her there, vulnerable. Then one day, as she was stranded in that obscure part of the world, it came for her.”
I saw the old man’s eyes watering. He wept at my side for a while. I couldn’t do anything. No word of consolation could have helped.
He dried his eyes and then smiled weakly.
“I’m afraid I can’t talk any longer,” he said, “My wife will be waiting. She’s not well.”
I thanked him and apologised many times. As he turned to leave, I called out to him; I still had his photograph.
“Keep it,” he said.
“What? No. I couldn’t take this.”
“You seem like a good lad.” He said, coming back and putting a hand on my shoulder. “You were kind to my daughter, and behaved like a gentleman. It would make me glad for you to have that photograph.”
“Mr Heathen –”
“Please. It’s nothing. Take care, young man. Never abandon faith in the Lord.” And with that, he turned and was gone.
I was left standing in the church alone. Evening was coming on, and shafts of moody golden sunlight fell through the stained-glass windows onto the pews and carpets. I looked at the photograph in my hand.
“What happened to you, Maisie?” I said aloud, “where did you go?”
For an unnerving moment, I half expected the photograph to answer me. I hurried out of there and ran home.
I don’t think I’ll ever know what happened to Maisie Heathen. As uncomfortable as it makes me, I sometimes believe it really was a demon that was making her life a misery. I can only hope for a more rational, logical explanation.
Until recently, I had a habit of keeping my dorm room door unlocked, believing (ridiculously) that someday she might come looking for me.
I used to sleep with her photograph in a silver frame on the bedside table. It made me feel strangely at ease.
Then one morning I woke up to find that somebody had entered my room overnight and stolen the photo.
What unnerved me is that they took nothing else. Not even the frame.