Ron – the closest thing I had to a friend in school – had disappeared.
That's not all. It was much worse than the simple disappearance of one boy. Much worse, trust me. What's left of their families still seek answers, but they won't find any – only I know what really happened. A pity no one believes me.
Oh … wait. Shame on me for jumping ahead. I've been somewhat stressed, you see. The events of my childhood have taken their toll on me, haunted me, one might say, in an assortment of horrid ways. Please forgive my bloody awful storytelling manners, and I shall set things right at once.
Let's see … background! I must give you background, and spare no details, so you don't think I'm mad. I'm not, you know – mad. Others will tell you differently, but they are the mad ones for never believing me.
Twenty years is quite a long spell, yet I still recall the exact sequence of events as if it were yesterday. I implore you to listen to my story – really listen – then dare you to tell me I'm mad.
October 25, 1986
I glanced over my shoulder. Buggers! George was gaining on me. If God put me on this earth to be bullied, why didn't he at least bless me with long legs?
My sides pained me as I struggled to run faster. Winded already, I would soon be caught by him. Hiding became my next best option.
An idea struck – old Sneed's cottage! It was long-since abandoned, even rumored to be haunted. He won't hunt for me there.
Making a sharp turn to the right, I huffed and puffed along the dirt road, hopped the rickety fence, and hid behind a rotten stump in the cottage's front yard.
Peering through a hole in the wood, I watched him, holding my breath.
"Arthur, you can't hide forever. You know the rules. You give me your lunch money or you get your ugly mug beat into the ground."
I stayed crouched, nary moving a muscle. Trembling. Waiting. Watching.
Not a patient sort, before long, George turned and stalked away, muttering threats into the air.
Whew! That was close!
I had been painfully sitting on my haunches, so I sat back with a thump on my bottom, then flopped onto my backside into the tall, neglected grass. I closed my eyes and concentrated on regaining my normal breathing.
My peace didn't last long. You know those eerie chills you get when you're being watched? Well, they hit me and my eyes flew open to find another pair looking down upon my recovering body.
"Ahh!" I yelled, scrambling to my feet.
I was almost to the fence when I heard the sweetest voice. "Don't go."
Abruptly, I stopped and turned and took a long look at her. There stood a young girl, likely of similar age, smiling – at me.
"Do you want to swing with me?"
At once, I fancied her. There was something in her eyes that made me accept her offer ... something quite familiar. I nodded and walked back towards her, plopping down beside her on the wooden swing.
"What were you doing?"
"Nothing." I averted my gaze, suddenly embarrassed.
"It didn't look like nothing. You were afraid."
My face burned hot not wanting to admit to a girl I was afraid.
Her hand covered mine giving it a light squeeze. "You can tell me."
And I knew I could tell her. Somehow, I knew. "Just didn't feel like dealing with George today."
"This George … is he a foul boy?"
"You could say that. No fouler than the others though."
"I don't have any friends either," she stated, having jumped to an assumption about my social standing.
She clasped my hand tighter and we swung ... back and forth, back and forth, back and forth in comfortable silence.
Suddenly, she brightened. "I know! We can be friends!"
"I'd like that," I said, returning her smile.
I felt it in my bones – a rather pleasant change coming into my life.
October 26, 1986
Plodding into class, I slipped into my usual front-row seat, and couldn't help but notice the buzz around the room. The name "George Adams" seemed to be on everyone's lips.
It seemed George hadn't come home last night. His mum had called Edward's mum, Winston's mum, and Andrew's mum, looking for him. Of course, she hadn't called my mum. I guess everyone knew he wouldn't be caught dead at my house. I admit, my first feeling that I might not see George again was joy.
After school, I decided to walk by the old cottage, hoping Alice might be out and about.
The rickety gate released a lengthy squeak when I opened it; I hoped the noise would draw her out. Always shy around parents, I would rather not knock on the door in case her mum or dad might answer. Before I could reach the porch, the front door opened and she merrily skipped out.
"Hi, Alice." I gave a slight wave.
"Hi, Arthur!" Her voice pitched in excitement which warmed me all over. "Come sit on the porch with me."
I climbed the stairs and sat down in the chair beside her.
She smiled sweetly at me, wearing a wide-brimmed hat atop her head, shadowing most of her face. A black cat curled around her leg.
"He likes you," she said, pointing to the cat, soon curling against my leg. "I like you too," she added, making my tummy flutter.
I smiled. It felt good to be liked, noticed, and paid attention to, for once.
"You look happy."
"I guess I am. George wasn't at school today." I wasn't sure if I should tell her, but her eyes led me to trust her. "It seems he's gone missing."
Surprisingly, her mouth spread into a wide grin. "And does that please you?"
October 27, 1986
I walked into the classroom to overhear murmurings about another boy's disappearance – Robert. Funny enough, he'd chosen to be unkind to me just yesterday and had been George's best friend. A few others surmised they had run off together, hoping to garner some attention. We were days from Halloween and maybe they were playing a joke of some sort, thinking it'd be cheeky good fun having everyone in an uproar over their disappearance.
I didn't really care either way. Neither in school today meant a happier day for me. The only thoughts occupying my mind were thoughts of seeing Alice again.
When I arrived after school, she was in the swing again, so I joined her. She was quite easy to be around. I don't remember ever feeling this comfortable around another person. Even my parents. They didn't know, but I heard their whispers about me. No one understood me. No one except Alice.
"Alice, I was wondering…" I sat in the yard swing, glancing towards the dilapidated cottage. "Where are your parents? I've never seen any cars here or any signs of them around the cottage."
She paused before answering, then stated with pride in her voice, "I'm on my own."
"You mean you don't have any parents?"
"No one understands me, so I'm on my own."
"No one understands me either."
She started fidgeting, then abruptly turned towards me. "Arthur, don't tell anyone I'm here, okay?"
"Okay, but can I say I have a friend named Alice?"
She thought for a moment before responding. "Hmm, I guess so as long as you don't tell anyone where to find me."
"I'll just be our secret." Her eyes twinkled as she held her hand out so we could seal our agreement with a handshake.
I liked us having a secret. Sharing a secret with her made our friendship feel all the more real. Maybe I'd share some of my secrets too someday … maybe.
October 28, 1986
William Thompson – the worst half of the Thompson twins had disappeared. The news shook the whole town. Well, most of the town.
Mum said the police knocked on every door, well into the early morning hours, seeking information as to the whereabouts of the missing boys. No clues were found. It was as if they all vanished into thin air. It was a mystery no one could solve. Three boys missing in three days. I guess I should have been worried, upset, nervous, something, but I was none of those things.
School carried on as usual and I didn't mind suffering through it knowing I'd see Alice afterwards. Since I'd met her, the boys' meanness didn't bother me as much.
In the lunch hall, Edward Thompson stalked toward my lunch table. I was surprised he was even in school since his brother was missing. My sort-of friend, Ron, noticeably bowed his head in submission before he even reached us. You see, Ron had a lazy eye. Not sure why that made a difference to the others, but it did. It wasn't as if you could catch his lazy eye from him, so what was the big deal? Lucky for him, however, it turned out to be me whom Edward wanted.
"Hey wanker," he said, pausing to allow his insult to take proper effect. "You didn't give me my finished homework this morning, so I guess your ugly mug will be feeling my fist after school."
Somehow without his evil twin backing him up, he was less threatening.
"Sorry, I'm visiting my friend after school."
"What friend?" He roared with laughter, unknowingly drawing the attention of the lunchroom monitor. "You have no friends!"
"Move along, Edward." The monitor was upon us.
"Just saying 'Hi' to my good buddy, Arthur, Miss Adams," he said before flipping my hat off my head as he walked away.
Miss Adams gave me that "poor kid" look everyone gives me and walked back to her table.
"What friend?" Ron broke my brooding mood with his question.
"Oh, Alice!" I replied.
"Just a girl I met. She has a cat."
October 29, 1986
Mum broke the news as I ate my biscuits.
"Arthur, another classmate has gone missing." Worry lined her face.
I didn't react and she continued, "His poor parents, losing both boys!"
"Have to run, Mum. I'll be late for school." I ran out the door before she could say another word.
That day passed without incident. I guess everyone was too preoccupied with the missing boys to pay attention to bullying me. When the bell rang, I was the first to burst through the door, eager to see Alice again.
"Where did these other cats come from?" There were several now lounging on the porch. "Didn't you just have one a few days ago?"
"Oh, the woods, I guess. They must know I like cats."
"Peculiar they are all black, don't you think." One jumped into my lap and began "making biscuits" on my stomach. It purred as I pet his head. Curiously, I'd never found cats to be particularly friendly, but these cats behaved as if they knew me, and moreover, liked me.
When I got home, Mum called me to the kitchen.
"Where have you been? I expected you home right after school?"
"With a friend."
She dropped her dishtowel, turning to face me with eyes sparkling. "Oh? That's fabulous, Arthur!" She clasped her hands together. "Who was it?"
Her brows furrowed. "Alice? I don't know that I've heard of an Alice in your class. Tell me about her."
"She's just a girl. Just a girl who likes cats."
"Oh, I see. Well, I'm tickled you've made a friend."
October 30, 1986
News of another boy gone missing spread through the classroom. This time it was Andrew. His favorite thing to do was knock my books out of my hands whenever I walked past him. If my papers flew out of my folders and scattered on the floor, well, it was all the funnier to him.
I had a lot of homework that day, so I decided to drop my book bag off at home after school before heading to see Alice.
"Arthur, come into the kitchen, please," called Mum.
I walked in to find Mum and Dad sitting at the table wearing grim faces.
I pulled out a chair and sat down wondering what I had done now. Mum reached across and covered my hand with hers.
Oh, no, this wasn't good.
"Honey, we wanted to talk to you … just make sure you're all right."
"I'm all right. Why wouldn't I be?" Truth was I'd never felt better since meeting Alice.
She squeezed my hand. "Well, your … friends …"
Shaking my head I replied, "Mum, we all know they aren't my friends."
"I told you he was fine, Carolyn," Dad grumbled about Mum overreacting and stood up from the table. He turned and stared me down, "Just be careful until the police figures this mess out, okay?"
"I will." For some reason, I wasn't unsettled by the disappearances. In fact, the more kids who went missing, the better my life became at school. No one picked on me at all today. I can't remember the last time I went a whole day without anyone bothering me.
"Is that all?" I was in a hurry to go visit Alice.
Mum nodded and I was up and out the door. I'm sure Mum and Dad meant well, but they had a way of making me feel as odd at home as the kids did at school.
October 31, 1986
Trick-or-treating was going to be fun this year. I was chuffed Ron had agreed to join me. It was probably the last year we could go before we were considered "too old" by our parents.
We were approaching our first house when we ran upon a group from school. Figuring they had no interest in talking to us, I quietly maneuvered around them. When I reached the porch, I realized Ron was no longer behind me. Looking over my shoulder, I saw him standing with the others.
"Um, Arthur," he shouted, as he stood fidgeting.
"I think I'm gonna join them for a bit. I'll meet up with you later."
What? They invited lazy-eye Ron to hang with them, but not me!
Gathering what was left of my dignity, I shouted, "Yeah, sure. Whatever."
I mustered a slight smile and he waved good-bye to me. At least my tears waited until they were out of sight to fall.
Wiping my eyes, I rang the doorbell. I didn't need Ron! Good riddance! I'd hit a few houses then go share my stash with Alice. She was more fun anyway, and at least when I looked at her eyes, they both looked back at me at the same time! Dumb ol' Ron.
Later, I stopped by my house to grab a jacket before I headed to see Alice. Ron's mum was standing in the hallway with Mum.
"Arthur! Thank God! Where's Ron?" She roughly gripped my shoulders and her face was stricken with terror.
"I … I … don't know," I stuttered, alarmed by her behavior. "He left me to trick-or-treat with the other kids." My voice carried a little more venom than intended as I could clearly see she was upset.
"No, Arthur. I have spoken to them and they said Ron felt badly about leaving you and left them to rejoin you."
Oh, no. "I haven't seen him." My heart sank, knowing what this meant.
She stood sobbing and Mum ushered her into the kitchen reassuring her that her son would somehow be found.
I was affected by this. Truly affected. The others didn't matter, but Ron … he had been the closest to a friend I'd had at school. My heart ached more upon learning he hadn't abandoned me after all. Knowing only one person who would understand, I fled to see Alice.
As soon as I arrived at the old cottage, things felt different. Something was different. I felt a wave of uneasiness I had never felt on any prior visits. I called her name, but she didn't answer, so I decided to sit on the porch steps and wait for her. Her black cats were roaming around and one noticed me and bounded over.
He began purring and figure-eighting around my legs. Then, the unthinkable happened. You must understand the shock I endured. The cat gazed up at me and I saw it – his eye! He had a lazy eye!
It all sorted in my mind now – the mysterious disappearances. My eyes darted around quickly counting the black cats circling me. One, two, three, four, five, six! Six black cats to match the six missing boys!
"What's the matter, Arthur?" Her usual friendly tone was replaced by an edgier, clipped voice.
I jumped at her sudden appearance, my wide eyes only to be outdone by my gaping mouth.
"What have you done?" My chest tightened with the realization of what had happened.
"Nothing you didn't want, Arthur." She took a step towards me, hands outreached.
"I … I … I didn't want this, Alice!" I stepped sideways to skirt around her, but she matched my movements, blocking my escape. Finally, I managed to maneuver around her.
"Where are you going, Arthur?" she called after me.
November 1, 1986
A good night's sleep evaded me, despite being bloody knackered from the events of the night. My dreams were filled with screams of terror from my missing classmates. By morning, I could no longer stand the ghastly scenes playing over and over and over in my head. I woke Dad, relaying the events of the last week with my voice trembling. I spared no detail, breaking my promise to keep Alice's whereabouts a secret.
He, of course, doubted me and wanted a look for himself before notifying the police. Neither of us spoke on the short drive to Sneed's Cottage. We climbed out of the car and I stuck close to him as we neared the gate. My head snapped this way and that way not wanting her to sneak up on us.
Dad walked around the yard for a bit then took a deep breath. "Son, there's no one here. No one's lived here for as long as I can remember."
"Dad, she lives here! I've seen her every day for the last seven days … right here!" I ran over to the swing, rattling the chain. "We sat on this swing the first day I met her, seven days ago!"
Dad walked over to me then bent to swipe his hand across the undisturbed dirt-covered seat. "Son–" He held his dirty palm up to my face. "–no one has sat on this swing in ages."
'"Dad! I'm not lying! She … was … here!"
He rubbed his hand back and forth across his forehead, eyes tightly clenched. When his eyes finally reopened, he sighed and told me he'd have a look inside. Doubt covered his face and I could tell he didn't expect to find Alice there. Nonetheless, he opened the door and walked into the cottage.
After mere minutes, he returned and braced himself against the doorframe as if it alone kept him standing. I grew nervous watching the color drain from his face. "Son–" his voice caught in his throat, "–bloody Hell. How could you?"
Surely, you understand what happened after connecting the dots. Six black cats. Six kids. Six days before Halloween. I'm not mad! I didn't want them to disappear! You believe me, right? This wasn't my doing! You see that, don't you?
Pounding my fists against the padded wall, I tilt my head upward to plead once again to the ever-watchful eyeball in the ceiling.
Don't you see?