There was a time when I believed running might help; if I could pack up my few belongings and burn the rest under cover of darkness and flee, I could start over somewhere new. But in this bleak frostbitten place, I admit to myself, truly, that I cannot outrun him, that I can never escape him. And should I slip into the warm embrace of doubt after an unnaturally long stretch of peaceful, empty days, he will be only too happy to remind me of this.
There’s almost nothing left he can take from me. The days before him are fading like an aged photograph now, a hazy yellow dream of stability and happiness with a long future of happy possibilities stretched ahead. Today, I am huddled in the eaves of a collapsing barn in the Yukon Territory, desperately trying to start a fire with sodden and rotting hay. The more I burn now, the less I have to use as a blanket. It is a delicate balance that I have not quite mastered.
I hitchhiked across the border two months ago, and have been making my way north steadily. Going any other direction than north is no longer an option. I do not know what I will do when I reach the Artic Ocean. Perhaps continue across the sea ice, if it has not thinned to the point of breaking. What I cannot do, ever, is return to my life, to Seattle. I can never see my son again.
It seems absurd to think that just less than a year ago, my life was unfractured, whole. The pieces of my life were trite and predictable. I was an insomniac, and used to lie awake staring at the ceiling, chewing over my doubts and secret fears: that I may not be able to keep up house payments, that I may not love my wife any longer, that I would repeat my father’s failures with my son. These phantoms of doubt and fear filled my bleeding stomach with ragged holes that I recall now with almost fond nostalgia. How easy it all was, then.
The manila envelope was stuffed in the mail slot when I rose to prepare breakfast for my son. Unlabeled, unaddressed, only my name was written on it in jagged capitals. It contained one black VHS cassette, its label long ago faded and blurred. Over the top of the label was a black ink smiley face, blindly grinning up at me.
It took me a day to find our VCR in the small attic crawlspace, bundled with a few dozen home movies of our son’s soccer games and birthday parties. Late at night, long after my family had drifted off to sleep, I connected it to our television. It whirred to life with a sharp smell of burning dust, and I inserted the tape.
For a few moments, the static leapt and fizzled on the screen, then blackness. The silent image began to brighten to a washed out shot of an elementary school parking lot at the start of day, and the picture zoomed into a small group of children among the chaos, and I recognized my son and a few of his friends. I began to wonder if I had accidentally retrieved one of our old tapes, when, almost as an answer, the camera tilted forward into the inside of a car. The zoom lens racked forward on a crisp copy of the Times and lingered momentarily on the date. Two days prior. My guts curdled with unease as the screen again went dark. A few seconds later, letters appeared, the bright and jagged electronic font of cheap in-camera titles.
YOU CAN’T SAVE HIM.
My insides turned to ice water and I slumped in the couch, my limbs feeling distant and useless. The letters vanished in a gust of static.
I did not tell my wife, and certainly never told my son, but I drove to the police station in the morning. The heavy oppressive dread of the night before had somewhat dissipated as I handed over the tape to the jowly and half asleep officer, and answered a few mumbled questions. He registered my concern with condescending impatience, and I eventually had to clasp my jaw and walk out quietly when I realized he would never view it as anything but a harmless prank.
Two days later, with the unease in my stomach waning little, I received another tape, adorned with the same grinning cartoon. The image that this time resolved out of the static was a hallway, painted in night vision and gloom. The unseen cameraman walked slowly forward towards the last door. A little sigh of relief bubbled up in me when I could not recognize the doors and windowless walls. This was someone else’s house.
The camera tilted down to see a gloved hand twist the doorknob; the only sound in the air was the clacking spin of the VCR heads and the tape’s reels. The door opened to reveal a small and cramped bedroom and a dark, huddled form on the bed. The camera approached the form and a sleeping face soon filled the screen. It teased me with familiarity, tantalizingly close, but I could not yet recognize the face.
Two objects dropped down onto the man’s chest, thudding slightly and rousing him from his sleep. The first, a policeman’s badge, all I need in a flash of recognition to connect this slowly stirring form with the Desk Sergeant. The second sealed his identity: it was the first tape, the crude smiley face pointed perfectly upright. The policeman blinked twice and then squinted into the camera.
In the few frames before blackness, I could see the brief impression of a flash, and a symmetrical flower of blood and bone erupt from his skull, just a brief flicker of streaking colors and light. I moaned pathetically in the darkness, an animal whimper of helplessness. Like a bolt of lightning, the jagged text lit up the screen.
I did not move until the pale light of morning, first letting the tape play out through a further hour of static, and then later sobbing silently under the cold blue light of the idling VCR. After a few hours of that quiet delirium, doubting what I had just seen, I rewound the tape, and started it again.
It was blank. Finding a set of small screwdrivers, I dismantled the tape and gingerly separated its carapace. Inside, was a small magnet, ingeniously placed on a loose spindle inside the right spool of tape; the tape was erased the moment I watched it.
Taped firmly to the side of the black plastic housing, was a small, folded photograph. It was my wife and son, walking hand and hand out the front door of the house. On the back of the photograph, in the same blocky script as the envelope, were three letters and three sharp periods.
There were times in the following year, when I believed that only suicide would save my family. He never told me what, if anything he wanted. He never revealed himself, or his reasons. He seemed only content to watch the engine of my life to shudder to a halt. I descended into a fog of self-pity and utter horror as all my relationships dissolved around me.
At irregular intervals, always just enough time passed to make me believe that it had ended, that I had dreamt it all, I would receive a package. They each contained a half a dozen photographs on glossy paper. My son in school, doodling in his notebooks, shot through an open window. A soccer game, his leg frozen in mid swing. A front yard game with two neighbors, my son suspended in a leap, his tongue out, stuck in a mask of joy.
I received the last package a month after my wife had left me. Unable to cope with my stony, hollow eyed silence and slow motion disintegration, she had returned across the state line, to Idaho, and her mother’s house, where she made unsubtle attempts over nightly phone calls to convince our son to join her. Whatever amicability there was between us was flaking away like old paint, and I knew a court intervention was imminent.
For myself, I did not know if I could keep my son safest close to me, or whether I was dooming him by my presence. He was increasingly distant, angry at my sudden shift in personality, and inability to make his mother happy. His presence, no matter how he pouted and hid, was the one bright and shining point of that time, a silver thread to hold onto in the maelstrom. The week of the last package, he had taken a Greyhound bus to see his mother, already hinting at a desire to stay and live with her; I was in a black and foul mood when I found to the familiar manila envelope in the entryway.
It contained a single photograph, and the first video I had gotten since the policeman’s murder. The photograph was of my son, sleeping, in his bed at home. I held it my hand, clutching tight and staring, not wanting to comprehend what I was seeing and its sickening implications.
On the video, the smiley-face was gone, and its place, was a clock. I slid it into the VCR in a state of cold shock and sat at the edge of the couch, my eyes watering and my jaw hanging slack.
IT IS TIME.
YOU CAN KEEP HIM SAFE.
The jagged letters crashed through the static and captured my gaze. Frozen in place, my lungs would not expand and my vision swam dizzyingly. The letters vanished and there was blackness again, but only momentarily, as a burst of cold light brought a new sentence to the screen:
The ashtray impacted with the center of the screen, and the television tube made an audible popping sound, as glass and circuitry spilled from the wound. I hadn’t even been aware that I was throwing the heavy pewter dish, but now I felt a hot wash of anger, the helplessness and fear of the last year flared in me.
I would leave, I told myself. I would leave tonight, and tell no one. If one good thing came from my miserable shipwreck of a life, I would keep my son safe, and I couldn’t do that in the sorry state I was in.
It seemed so obvious then, with suddenly clarity: of course he was not interested in my son. It was me he had been torturing all these months. If he hated me this much, enough to slowly break me, utterly and deliberately, then he would follow me, like hunter to prey, wherever I went. So I would go.
I almost made it out that night, but doubt ate away at my resolve as I packed a few bags, and I soon succumbed to a rare desire for sleep. In the warm cocoon of blankets, the idea of recklessly fleeing seemed so rash and foolish, and I knew that a new day would bring clarity and level headedness.
I awoke to the golden light of dawn streaming into my bedroom onto a scene of unfathomable violence.
Blood and drying viscera coated the walls in uneven splatters. The sharp copper tang in the air shook me like smelling salts to damnable clarity. The carpet was soaked and spotted with crimson, thick puddles of blood glistening in the morning sunlight.
In the far corner, where the walls were painted nearly black and the carpet invisible beneath a tiny lake of blood, was the body. The diminutive limbs were dark and smeared, stacked like cordwood; two slender arms and two legs, capped with a pair of small curled hands and two feet, so smeared in gore that I mistook them for shoes. Beside the little pile of spindly limbs was a child’s torso; momentarily I could not comprehend that this was part of the body, so surreal in its isolation and stillness.
In the farthest corner at the apex of the slaughter was the broken television on a small table, the screen fully shattered to reveal a small interior space. Inside this hollow of plastic and metal, was a child’s head, balancing gracefully on its ragged neck, and faced away from me.
It was a long time before I moved, longer still before I ceased sobbing and walked on sodden carpet and wobbling knees towards the television. I prayed that I would not see my son’s birthmark and scars on the limbs and I held my gaze straight ahead as I approached the grotesque altar. Was that my son’s hair? Was it ever so black, or is that just the light?
I reached out, slowly with both hands to gently cup the small head. I was empty now, the morning breeze blowing straight through my shell. All I had to do was turn to see my son’s face, to know that I had failed him utterly, and then I would dry out like a husk and drift away on the wind.
It was light in my hands and still ever so slightly warm. I slowly spun it to face me, angry at myself for not knowing by heart the sight of my sons ears or and jaw line well enough stop now, to prevent the inevitable rotation.
The eyes were mercifully closed, but the cheeks were slit wide and high, in grim mockery of a smile. In his mouth, jammed far back and between the ragged slices of his face, was a video tape.
A wave of pure undiluted relief was followed by a sharp pang of guilt. This was not my son. I recognized the boy behind the curtain of blood, a friend of my son, yes, but this, this was not my son.
Obediently, like in a trance I took the video to the VCR, now connected to my son’s tiny black and white set. With a wad of white paper towels, I had dried and cleaned the soiled cassette, and I now slid it into the machine and watched solemnly while the letters appeared.
THIS WAS YOUR ONE WARNING
YOU CAN STILL SAVE HIM
FIRST, CLEAN UP
It dawned on me what he means, and simultaneously, why. I thought of the drying footprints of blood I’ve left around the house, my fingertips pressed against the corpse. I tried to imagine who might believe that I had slept through that act of unbridled cruelty, but seen and heard nothing.
I jerked with a start at this screen, as if the teacher has called my name and caught me day-dreaming. I rose to my feet and stopped the tape.
When I thought my son was dead, I believed that no pain could rend me worse. I now could see the foolishness of that. If he were truly gone, then I could not be hurt any worse, and in a way, the man in the dark would have lost. But he lives. He lives for me to agonize over yet again, and this time, I don’t have to wonder about the stakes. I have to do everything I can to keep him safe, I decided. This cannot happen to him.
When I returned from the woods, carrying a shovel wrapped in a thick canvas blanket from the truck, and leaving tracks of dirt and clay, I began to pour the first gallon of gasoline on the bottom floor of my house. When the house was fully saturated, I returned to the VCR and its tiny monitor to watch the rest of the tape. I am a marionette now, dancing to a silent tune, free will no longer even a factor.
The next sentence on the screen was familiar to me; though that was truly the first time I read it. I recognized it by the shape and outline of the letters; it was beneath the ashtray a split second before the impact.
I was puzzled for a moment, a little resurgence of the self at this oddly vague and cryptic instruction. Just a direction and a command. I wondered where he meant for me to go, and how.
GO NOW. YOU WILL KNOW.
And the tape ended. And I went.
An hour later, a plume of smoke was visible to the south, fast receding behind truck. I drove as far as the truck would take me, until it lost traction on the ice somewhere in British Columbia, and ended broken axle’d in roadside culvert. From there, I walked. My wife shut access to my bank accounts weeks ago, and the small amount of cash that I still carried has long since vanished.
It’s been a month so far, homeless and trudging like a sentinel, through the darkest of winter. The snow and ice bring me comfort, the silent purity of the ground against the noonday sky, white on white. My life is only a direction now, and that anodyne of simplicity has bled into the land.
When I cannot find a house to beg shelter in, or a barn to break into, I build small covered trenches in the snow, and wrap myself in my tarp and blankets. This is more and more frequent as I travel northward and as my clothes begin to stink and mark me as a transient.
During the day, I walk; in the dark, I sleep. I sleep. Long and blissfully hours of oblivion come to with an ease I haven’t had since childhood, and I wake fully rested each day.
I am never alone of course. He is with me, as he always has been. When the last of the money was gone, the pangs of hunger only lasted a day. On the next morning, outside my small snow shelter, a pair of white rabbits lay stretched across the snow, only the red of their blood picking out their outlines on the snow.
During that past year in the fog of his nightmares, I never even considered who he might be. I never catalogued which clients might have secretly loathed me, or which elementary school victim of my bullying now wished me dead. I wonder now, how willful was this ignorance?
The sunlight is warm and unexpected on my face when I exit the barn the next morning, coat speckled with straw. It’s a few miles to the next town, and I can make it time to beg for some breakfast, and supplies for the next vacant stretch.
I call my son from each payphone I pass, direct to his mobile and listen to him get increasingly frustrated when I say nothing. Hearing him angry and alive is everything I need to keep going.
My son is safe, now that I’ve left him. As I believed he would, but for all the wrong reasons, the hunter, the man in the dark, has followed me here. He is no longer a danger to my family, and he can take nothing more from me now.
He is happy now, because we are going north, and so am I, because I know at last and truly, that I have saved my son. The cost is the pittance of my own life, and now I understand; I am grateful to give it to him. I am thankful to be pack horse to this monster, carrying us both onward.
I do not know what he wants for us here, at the top of the world, but I know when the time comes, he will make it known. So until then, I go north.
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