No stars. No moon. No lights. Nothing moves at night.
But at night it's a different world from the one you went to sleep in.
I softly close the house door without the slightest click. When the coast is clear on this cloudy night, I move out into the woods. Or the neighborhood nature trail as it was officially designated.
I'm home here in the woods, you see. There are none here but me and the leaves crunching beneath my feet. Not an animal is heard.
I remember my parents scolding me not go into any forest by myself. They talked of all kinds of bacteria and vicious raccoons that lurk there.
My argument to them was that they were never here before. Or discovered what uses I have made of it; it was a shortcut to school, a secret meeting room, and a place to sit and think. So how could they prejudge this?
Nowadays, when I can't get the sleep I need for my job locked in a cubicle, I run off into the woods until grow tired of running and walk exhaustedly back to bed. Sarah says that's insane and that we should save up for a treadmill. Why bother? You get the trail and fresh air for free, I keep on telling her. Sarah then talks of all the uncleanliness and how she has to clean my shoes every week because of the dirt. I still love her dearly, but she is one firm pediatric.
I'm told to wear neon in the dark, yet why light the darkness? I'm embracing the darkness to blend in with it, not set myself from it. And there are those who tell a crazy old man like me to wear white when jogging at dawn. Those will forever live in fear of their choices.
The abandoned and holed cylinder of the water tank stands in front of me. I circle around and see the ladder. When I was younger, I would climb up to the top and shout "Bow before the one who is at the top of the world!" This rusty forgotten object is now used as place to think and look around.
The ladder is getting rustier. So far it has been able to hold my weigh. Yet I am certain that I will climb one day, ripping off a rail, and then fragmenting my butt.
When I climb to the top, I realize I'm not alone.
"Hey!" I call out, seeing a lone figure on the top of the tanker. I meant to scare him and make him run. Yet it seemed as if he was already here preparing for something.
The figure turned around, his face hidden under a dark hood.
"Hey, yourself." His voice was that of a young adult and it tells me something else; the hooded figure that was actually a she. But she looked too short to be a girl. Then again, kids these days are very unusual.
"You up here for the view? It's better on summer nights." I decided that if I was going to make an introduction to this young adult, I would be the nice and caring, not scolding like they expect other grownups to be. That just made them dislike people like me even more.
At first, she was silent. Then in a calmer tone, she said, "Couldn't sleep. I was just exploring and ended up here."
Now she had to have stayed for reason; to dwell on her thoughts? To speak to someone?
"Yah sure you don't want to talk? It's gets very lonely up here, dear," I offered.
At first, I thought she was walking towards me. But when she walked past me, and went to the edge of the tank.
"I have to get home."
After she said those words, she immediately jumped off. I ran over the edge only to see she had fallen with one foot down on the soil
That was the last word she said that night before running into the direction of the neighborhood.
What a fox, I chuckled to myself. The youth of these days would never "hang out" with the old. That wasn't unlike when the old were once the young and the passed away were the once the old.
I decided to crawl down from water tank. Resuming my walk, I found no soul in my sights all the way back home.
Three days later, she appeared again in the morning.
I was just making myself a sandwich for lunch at work. The process interrupted from the loud ring of doorbell. Who could possibly come right this moment?
I open the door and see her carrying a clip board and a pen. She wore a brown jacket with hood. Her shoulder-length hair was completely jet black, much like Sarah's nice. However, acne obscured some of her face, popping in at random locations. I didn't totally realize it was her until she spoke.
"Good morning sir. I'm just here to-"
"Good lord, it's you!" I interrupt.
The youngest raised an eyebrow. "Have we met before?"
Oh, right. "We met at midnight. When I was walking thought the woods and you were on that abandoned water tank."
Her eyes and smile widen when she knows "Oh, right it's you!"
I chuckle. Usually, you don't run into the same person twice unless it's at common place. Often, I never saw people ever again.
"What brings you to my doorstep?" I ask
"A survey, mister…"
"Zackerman." I introduce my surname for the first time to her.
"What's your age?" She asked.
"Sixty-three." I realized that I was actually sixty-four, since my birthday passed two months ago. It's just that I had trouble adapting to change.
After writing that down, she bought up another question "What is your opinion on gay rights and abortion?"
What now? "Wait…what is this quiz for anyway?"
"History class." She answered, as if it made sense. Maybe she was supposed to ask these questions on yesterday afternoon but now she saved it to very last minute.
"My opinion? Well…I don't care much for homosexuals…and I just think abortion is plain nasty" Done.
While the girl wrote down my response, she asked, "Can you explain why?"
Dear god, I was worried I'd be late. Why couldn't she just fabricate everything?
"It's just that… no one should determine who you should love. Sometimes you can't stop it. So I just don't say anything about straight or gay love and let things happen for the better or for the worse. But abortion? If you didn't want the children just send them to an orphanage. Or just bear with it for the better. I've have children of my own. They sometimes do stupid things…but in the end they make your old age worth living."
She was deep in thought, writing that all down. After I'm told to sign my signature, she cheerfully states "Thanks for your time. See yah."
"You too," I murmur back, clicking the pen's tip back into place. As it leaves my hand, I see it has in a pink grip around it.
She starts walking in the direction of the garage door. I peek out of the doorway and find her bicycle resting against it. That was quite a risky move; had I been in my car already, the bike would have fallen down in the path of my car. Then there would have been have argument to kick off my day.
"What's your name?" I call out.
She doesn't answer immediately. I hear her say "Anna."
Then, Anna walks her bike to next house to give out the same summary.
I jump into my car and thankfully get to work on time. But I remember that I forgot my sandwich as I park.
I can't sleep…again. I repeat my weekly pilgrimage into the forest and come to the abandoned water tank. Anna is there again, her back turned to me, sitting on the edge.
Anna doesn't say a word.
"Are you alright?" I edge cautiously forward. She must be locked deeply in thought.
Finally she speaks. "What did you always want to grow up to be?" Questions….all she asks is questions….why nothing else? Does have even have friends?
"A special operations marine…with a telescopic rifle." I say hard and firm, bringing back the days when I always said that to my father. At first, he treated it as joke. Then he told me not to say those things anymore. He finally stopped me at thirteen after showing me a gruesome picture of man's leg being amputated.
"You mean a sniper rifle." The girl corrects me. Whatever the heck they call things these days.
Now it had to my turn to ask questions.
"Anna, two strangers meeting coincidentally twice is unusual. What do you know of me?"
"Nothing, but it doesn't have to do with the phrase 'when the student is ready, the teacher appears'…."
I try speaking in calmer tone "Please, Anna…is there something wrong?"
Anna looks up at the cloudy sky. "I want to be an animator."
I sat beside her, my own legs dangling off the water tank. "That's a good goal. So what's wrong with that?" Slowly, I believed the problem was being revealed to me. But too slow
Anna still avoids looking at me, but she responds "I don't have any money to go to an art school. And…my parents have…different plans for me."
I remember telling my son repeatedly that I wanted him to be a doctor, since it had great pay and you can work anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, he couldn't stand the blood, get an A on his biology exams, or memorize all the parts of the heart. I tried to conceal my anger when he took the path of being a programmer for Apple. However, we ended up getting a lot of money and all kinds of gizmos in the house. My son was busy 24/7….but I guess that helping pay for most of his college tuition had paid off
"Try giving one of their plans a try. And if you still don't like them, then prove to them that you are good in art."
Anna pauses. But then says "Okay…I'll…see about it…"
"What are their plans, anyway?" I immediately inquire.
My answer doesn't come from Anna, but from some kind of shouting off in the distance.
Anna name was repeatedly called somewhere in forest, and coming closer. It was somewhat like hers. But lower and slight meaner. "Who is that?"
"Nobody. Just stay here and out of sight, no matter what. And I suggest leaving after he is gone. I'm in hot water now."
"Anna, who is that?" I repeat my question
The girl put her palms to my mouth, a signal meaning 'shut up'. She fiercely pushes me to the ceiling of the water tank. The she jumps off the edge landing on the ground, even though I don't see it.
"Where the heck have you been!?" An older voice croaks loudly. I can tell that his feelings were mixed in a swirl of worry and anger.
Anna was struggle to hold a firm tone "I was just getting some exercise-"
"It's midnight, Anna! Who wakes up at midnight? You know how I'm worried with you starting to do this!"
"Alex….I wasn't doing anything like that-"
"Anna, if you get caught, we are screwed to hell. Its tough enough is using your friends ID card at school. And it's even tougher for me to hold a job without worrying about you"
Anna sighed. "Fine…let's just go home" Then I hear both their feet scuttle away
After waiting five seconds, I peek over the edge. I spot two silhouettes running silently in the dark, the vanishing into it.
Walking across the ceiling, I slide down the rusty ladder-
And I fall on my back.
I limp to my two feet, pressing the pain away. Watchful of my surroundings, I don't stop running until I'm back in bed despite the pain in my back; I prayed that it will be temporary.
"I'm telling you, it's been about a month and I haven't seen her, Sarah. Those teenagers are hiding something. But why would one of them come to me?"
That's what I say to my wife after pulling out my coffee out of the microwave. Because I wasn't holding the handle, the blood in my hand is flared. Like what all husbands would do, I try to conceal it.
"She's a teenager, Mike. Do really expect her to visit anytime soon? She probably is busy with homework." Then Sarah sternly states. "I don't like you going out with girls at night."
"Sarah, if I wanted to consort with her, why did I break my back in process? Besides I found her first in the forest by surprise. Beside she was with a guy named Alex."
"Oh, really?" Sarah hisses "Shame on you for stalking-"
"I went to church on the night I met her!" I argue. But my voice cannot match the bitterness in my wives. The coffee is burning my hand. She returns to her paper
My wife is in the middle of reading her newspaper. I never bothered to read it; at work I look up all the news I need to look. Sarah avoids any kind of bright screen and looks to loose papers and ink. I know newspapers are dying out, replaced by the news on TV. Yet its slow enough for her not care.
I chuckle lightly. "Remember the time where we first we snuck out?"
She lifts her eyes from the paper scratching her red head. It was starting to grey at forty and she didn't have the time or care to color it.
"Yes, I do…." Then she sighs sadly.
"What bothers you?" Usually recalling memories back always brightened up her day.
"She can't go out to dances."
I instantly think of who means "Anna?"
Sarah nods sadly. "Yes; family issues…."
"How come? Did you meet her?" I ask
"At first, I didn't know it was her." She begins, with me listening intently. "While you were away for conference to Boston last week, I decided to explore every corner of the neighborhood just for fun. All of sudden I come across a brother and sister arguing right beside the nature trail entrance. They were new faces in this neighborhood, yet I dared not to alert them of my presence."
"Was one of them Anna?"
Sarah slowly nods "That's what the older brother called her. After arguing for some time, Anna just turned and headed into the forest. Her brother trotted away, looking angry"
Now this interested me; why would a pair of siblings be here. Where were their parents? "I guess…I'll have to go see Anna again in the forest. Tonight."
Sarah gives me cold stare "You're not doing what I think you might do…"
"What?! No, no, god no….Sarah you just had to…just no" I tried to push the disturbing and disgusting image of me being a prostitute. "What the heck made you think that?" I'm not that kind of old man."
Sarah grinned "Nothing, dear. But I guess she likes talking to you."
"I'm not the kind of person for family issues." I confess, bringing back memories that pained me. I was pretty strict on my own son, creating problems rather than solving.
"Nope. That's why you are such a joy to talk to while you coffee is turning cold."
I place my hand on the room temperature mug. I frowned at though that it was singing my palm a few minutes ago.
"How long has it been since you went into the forest for my midnight walks?" I ask climbing the ladder of the water tank under a shower of rain. Thank god it wasn't too hard.
"I stopped coming when my brother appeared that one night." Anna replied helping me up.
I pause before saying what I have to tell her "Anna…I want to know more about you and your family." I wait for her reaction. And I can tell by how her face twists it won't be a good one.
"What?" her voice is unsurprisingly stern tonight. I was hoping she would cheer for me and hug me like I was her father; but that only happens in movies with clean-shaved young heroes.
"Anna. What is going on?" I demand.
The girl then looks down breaking eye contact. "I was to be to killed before my mother gave birth to me….she hates me."
"Hates you?" I ask aloud. Is that why she was asking about abortion?
Anna nods "She didn't want any more children and she drank a lot. My dad was a dead veteran at the time. My brother…traveled here to work. So one day when I decided I had enough of my mom's…drinking…and abusing….I ran all the way here, from Arizona. My bro told me to wait and work hard, but I didn't heed his advice."
"You ran from all the way up north?" I echoed. This seemed too preposterous. I tried to see if Ann was lying, but her tone or her eyes were telling me the truth.
"And now…I don't know what to make or do with the world….I just keep asking myself questions. I was able to go to school under a friend's ID card and a bit of my brother's bribing….but still, I'm in a risky place. My brother….I know he tries to be the best of people yet I can't tell him everything because he is so busy…"
I reply "And all this is because back in Arizona your mom abused you."
"And I think she has called the police to hunt me down….And…I…"
I pull her into a hug "Yes?"
She sobs into my shirt. I feel Anna's tears colder than that of Greenland. "I…I don't know how to start anew…or even without her. Evading her was always a part of my life…I was bullied for my height and acne. When I left I didn't have any time to say goodbye to my few friends. I'm still haunted…by her…"
And here I am, wondering what I should do about a short girl with a face obscured by acne. Just then, I hear footsteps climbing up the ladder from behind us. The footsteps finally belong to a person; I assume that is Anna's brother.
Clean shaven, with silver piercing in his ear. Anna gasps worried that now her brother finally knows about me. I just give hard stare wondering if the brother was just like the mother.
"You must the old man Anna was taking about seeing on some nights." he shakes my hand.
"You are her brother, I assume?" I question. I then remember his name was Alex but he introduces himself anyway.
"Yeah…Anna was looking for you last week. I'm worried about her going outside too much." The brother mentions.
"And why is that?" I ask fiercely. You didn't need a permit in the forest or to go outside. Just don't do anything stupid.
Alex replies in the stern tone of a soldier "If she is caught then I am doomed. I was already searched once by the police to see if I had kidnapped her. Her mom definitely wants her back."
"So she does?" I say.
Alex explains further "No; she just wants to teach Anna a lesson. It's the customs of my Mom's side of the family that no child leaves the family until they are considered an adult." Then he adds darkly "Or an adult that the family would look up to."
"Isn't she drunk?" I ask.
"Yeah – that's okay if you're an 'adult'." Alex replies
Anna frowns "From when I was a little girl, I was looked down on as someone who had dreams so wild, that people never thought of them as goals." Then she pulls out a piece of paper for. Judging by the formating of her cursive handwriting I can already see that it is a poem.
I have no future…I….wanted to a soldier,
but they said I would die.
I wanted to be a programmer
but I sucked at math.
I wanted to be therapist
but I had problems of my own.
I wanted to be lover,
but none loved me because of how ugly and short I looked.
I wanted to be an animator,
but it costs too much.
I wanted to be a friend….
but I didn't want anyone believe the horrors I went though
"So your plan is to keep on hiding?" I question, lifting my eyes from the piece of paper.
Anna twirls her hair silently; Alex says "When you put it like that….yes. I can take care of her as long as she-"
Anna silently protested "But you have life, a job, a future. Maybe you'll even get a family. But you can't have that if you have to help me hide."
"Anna…I'll do whatever it takes to protect you….but I can't give you the happiness you seek." Alex states.
"I know…"Anna replied.
Somehow…Although I know that her story probably was too far-fetched to believe, so was the fact an old man would go out at midnight, acting like a teenager again.
"I could take her in."
Anna looks a little dumbfounded. Alex give me a look he is trying to be cautious.
"I just met you. How can I trust you and how can you take care of Anna?" Alex argued.
I raise my hand to calm the young man down; he looked awfully a lot stronger than me so I had to keep a firm stance. "Well…what I mean to say is that I can help her…" I then turn to Anna "You left your mom in Arizona because you hated her. Don't you hate this life and want to life a better life? Like normal person who doesn't have to be masked by other's IDs? Or concealed from the world?"
Anna nods. "Yes…but if I do come with you, what if my mom finds me and you?"
I shake my head "Anna…she is trying to keep you scared and prevent your dreams from coming true. And if you are still scared, then she is still succeeding all the way from Arizona…"
Alex brings up something. "If you can earn more money to take care of her and help her, that's fine with me old man. As an elementary teacher," he put his hand on his chest "it's a difficult task to keep two dreams coming true."
Anna then looks to me and then to her brother Alex. Her stare almost reminds me of that of phantom drawing its gaze into nothingness.
"I…kind of need to think about this…" Anna then walk to the edge of the after tank and then flies to the ground, landing with one knee to the dirt before starting off deeper into the woods.
Then it was only me an Alex me left on the water tank.
"Does she do this all the time? She's always in hurry to leave." I ask.
"She always wanted to when she was young." Alex answer then he regretfully admits that he should have been in Arizona when his sister was abused.
"And least you kept her safe," I reply
But Alex looks down saying, "Safe is one thing; freedom is another, old man. You can't run skip and jump without getting a bruise in your life. And you can't hide in the dark living off of what food and information you get."
Before I go back home to tell Sarah all what had happened, I ask Alex what he meant by 'two dreams coming true'. He replies that his dream was to have better family to raise and look up to.
Anna never came back to us that night. I called the police, I called her brother, yet she just went off the grid into the forest – maybe even beyond it. I promised her so much…yet still either by choice or by unlucky chance, she disappeared. Her brother felt depressed and confused for his younger sister for months, avoiding talking to me. Everyday, I go to the top of the water tank I and whisper, "Where are you? I can promise you so much more…" Strangely, I now do it in the day. Because every single time I do it in the night, a chill runs down my spine, and old age catches up with me as the mind's hallucinations bring to me a hooded ghost before its form fades away.