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Met a Pilgrim Shadow
by Tim Waggoner

"That's right . . . take a look, Mikey-boy.  Take a good, long look . . ."

Michael 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 package.

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 child-lips?

The 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 . . .

Michael's 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 up.

It was him.  Chester the Molester.

Evidently 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.

Two 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 . . .

He 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.

"Excuse 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?"

He 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.

"Thank-you-sir-have-a-nice-day," 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 exit.

Michael stopped and watched as the automatic door swung open and Chester walked through.  Then Michael hurried up to the front counter.

"I've . . . 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?"

Ashley just stared at him, expressionless.  He might as well have been speaking Farsi for all her reaction.

"Thanks," 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.

His 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.

After 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 his cheeks.

The dark man laughs, the sound harsh and brittle as snapping bone.   "I'm something worse, little one.  Much worse."

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 voice.

"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 loins."

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'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 they had?

He 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.

But 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.

He 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.

"You better watch out, Mikey.  Chester the Molester's been cruisin' the neighborhood."

"Yeah, and you're exactly the kind of kid he's lookin' for."

"He likes them small with a little meat on 'em."

"Easier to get a hold of."

"Easier to hold on to."

"More cushion for the pushin'!"

The 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 be lying.

"Why 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."

"Yeah," 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!"

The 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.

"I can't," Randy said.  "I gotta stick around and watch my brother.  Mom's orders."

"Aw, he'll be okay," Dwight said.  "He may be a little squirt, but he's big enough to swing in the park by himself."

"Not 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.

Mikey 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."

The 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."

There 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.

"I 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."

"Big 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."

Mikey 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.

"That's 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."

Mikey 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?"

"Nobody 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?"

In answer, Mikey pointed.  The park they were in was small, just a few swings, a slide, merry-go-round, teeter-totter.  No 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 fingers.

Mikey didn't need the big boys to tell him that it was Chester the Molester.

The man sat there for a moment, watching them, and then the car door opened.

"Shit!" 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 toward him.

The 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 those eyes.

And that's when Mikey started to cry.

It 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.

Despite 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.

Michael 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 really.

"Can I ask you a question?"

Michael 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.

"No."

The man looked startled, frowned, said, "Okaaaay," and kept moving past Michael.

Michael 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.

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 flesh.

Michael 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.

Maybe, 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!

Michael 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.

Now 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 ruddy.

"What the fuck?" the man demanded, half-scared, half-angry.

Michael jerked his hands away from the man as if he'd been burnt.  "I'm sorry, I thought, I thought you were . . ."

The man planted a hand on Michael's chest and shoved.  "Get away from me, you crazy bastard!"

Michael 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.

"I 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.

Michael 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."

There was no mistaking that voice, no mistaking the face of the man that was leaning over and looking at him through the open passenger window.

Michael 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 years.

"How's 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."

He opened the passenger door.

"Hop in.  Let's go for a ride."

Michael shook his head, tried to say no, but his mouth refused to form even so simple a word.

Chester continued to smile, but his eyes flashed, and unspeakable images slid across their dark, wet surfaces.

"Don't you want to know?  To be free?"  A mocking tone to this last word.

Michael 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 for you."

"Well, what do you think?"

The woman frowned.  "It's a little out of our price range."

The 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."

"It's up to you, of course," Michael said.  "But it's a great house for the money, and it's in a good neighborhood.  A safe neighborhood."

The 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 scarce.

"I'll 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.

He closed the patio door and walked toward her.

"What do you think about the house?"

The 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?"

Michael smiled.  "Yes, very much.  I enjoy getting out and meeting people.  But do you know what I like best about my job?"

"No, what?"  She was already beginning to sound disinterested, but Michael didn't mind.  That was just the way children were.

He reached out and put a hand on her shoulder, and darkness moved across the surface of his eyes.

He smiled.  "Planting apple seeds."