When I was a child, I considered my backyard a safe place. It was a realm that my twin sister and I would mold with our minds. We could take a normal stretch of dry, browning grass and turn it into an endless desert, baked by the cloudless sun. Or we could take three trees and a bush and turn them into an Enchanted Forest, filled with magical creatures and terrifying demons.
No matter the weather or season, we were outside. We could always be found with our shoes off, even if our mother yelled at us each time we did it. I like to think that I lived those years through my feet. They felt the sharp edges of rock, the sticky patches of mud, the dry crunch of fall leaves, and the occasional burning pain of a bee sting. Back then, we were as invincible as the heroes we created ourselves to be.
We were safe. Never a worry in the world.
By noon one June day, the warm summer sun was calling my name. I gave my sister the “let’s go out” look, and we were running out the door before our mother could finish saying the word “Yes”. I don’t remember the grass and trees ever looking so green. The sky was a typical summer sky, with the fluffiest white clouds floating lazily along. I just knew that the shade under those trees would feel great.
Our shoes lay abandoned as our bare feet led us to the bare dirt stretch under that old maple tree, found in the back right corner of our yard. The branches reached out and created a green ceiling above us. This spot was where all worlds were created. With our hands, we pushed any lose dirt into a pile. The fine dust then drifted in the slight breeze as we jumped in it. Around us, the yard turned into whatever world we had thought up. We aged from small 13 year olds to brave adults, taking on evil masterminds and tragic feats. Just a normal day.
Then I heard a stick snap behind me.
To this day, I still don’t know why it stopped me. I hear noises all the time. The wind in the trees, the occasional police siren, and even acorns knocking on every branch before hitting the ground. But this one didn’t make much sense. I watched my fake world melt away into my backyard again. In front of me, I saw my sister distracted by her dust covered feet. Again, confusion bubbled up in me. If she is in front of me, then what could possibly have done that?
When I turned, the first thing I saw was the tree’s old trunk.
The second thing was a man’s bare chest.
And finally, I found his eyes. And he found mine.
I don’t know how long we stood there looking at each other. It couldn’t have been more than 5 seconds. To me, I was there for years. My mind worked to take it all in. He couldn’t have been more than 10 feet from where I stood. He stood with one foot forward, as if he was just going to stroll into our world with us. He was blonde, but his hair was turned dark with grease. With his lack of shirt, I could see the ribs and collarbones of his scrawny chest right through his pale skin. I don’t remember much of his face, only his dark eyes capturing me where I stood. Later, my twin claimed he had a stick in his hand. But it must not have stuck out to me.
The one thing that did: he didn’t try to hide.
I was instantly covered in a cold sweat. The beautiful colors of my surrounding faded. A pressure filled up behind my eyes, and my throat began to close up. My mind was filled with white noise, with a chanting starting up with words all rushed together - heshouldnotbehereheshouldnotbehererunrunrunrun. It took every fiber of my being to not take my advice. I blinked, and my mind narrowed down to one thing:
Get your sister and run.
My eyes never left his when my legs finally began to work. I carefully went to where my shoes lay, and picked them up. Still not looking away, I spoke to my sister.
“Get your shoes and run.”
From my peripherals, I saw her turn to me. I never saw if she looked confused, but I heard it in her voice.
So I repeated: “Get your shoes, and run.”
I thought I sounded calm. I kept my voice at a normal volume, so she didn’t panic. After a moment of hesitation, she came over to me and grabbed her shoes. Then she turned her head and looked at where my eyes were stuck.
I finally broke his gaze, only to stare into my sister’s terrified eyes.
The next thing I knew, we were running. Never in my few years on this planet had I ever ran so fast. Once near the back of our house, we stopped. We took a moment to look at one another before looking back to our sacred spot. In my mind, I envisioned the man to chase us down. But instead, all I saw was our empty yard. From where I stood, I could not see him. Truthfully, I don’t know if that scared me more.
Before we had a chance to catch our breath, our bare feet tore across the gravel of our drive way. Up and away we flew around the house, leaping onto our front porch and flinging ourselves into the confines of our living room. Our sudden entrance startled our mother, who looked up from the newspaper with surprise.
“Back inside so quick?” she asked.
At that moment, the calm inside me broke. The cold hand of fear reached into my chest and froze my lungs. In an instant I had flung myself to my mother’s feet, wrapping my thin body around her calves. She came down to the floor with me, trying her best to ask what was wrong. My twin had become a statue at the doorway, staring blankly into our cream colored walls. Eventually, we both began to choke out the same sentence. My voice was thick with tears, and hers was dry. We repeated like some mantra:
“There is a man out there.”
The last thing I remember is my mother calling out to my father, and his rushing out the door past my sister. In time, I finally sobbed myself into a dark nap. And in my sleep, I only saw him.
It was well into the next summer that we could finally go back out to our spot under the trees. The man, who turned out to be our neighbor, had long since moved away. And yet, we still found ourselves facing the spot where he broke in to our world. I felt that if my eyes wandered away, he would be there when I looked back.
Every time I recall the memory, I am haunted by his presence. The spot under those trees have become one of my favorite places to go again, though I do check to make sure the spot is empty. I find myself constantly checking behind me when I walk, even in the middle of the day. When I go somewhere new, I feel the need to make a mental check of all beings around me. I find myself asking: Is it easy for someone to sneak up on me? Can I get away if they do?
And I am left with unanswerable questions: Why was he there? Why did he destroy our world that day? How long had he been there? Years later, my father confessed to me that he confronted the man when he ran out. He found him exactly where I said he would be. He did not move, he did not hide. And when asked why he was there, he simply shrugged and said, “Just watching”.