When Nick saw his mother get into the car and start to drive away, somehow he knew he would never see her again. And he wasn't angry, just sort of hollow and confused.
His Auntie Karen and Uncle Tommy were very kind. They gave him the best room in the house- the one with the balcony that overlooked their neighbors backyard. He spent most of his free time on that balcony, watching the road, waiting for his mother to realize she had made a mistake and drive back and get him.
She never came.
It's always sort of a revelation for kids, when they first realize that their parents have first names, and its ridiculous to imagine their parents as actual people, with friends just like them. Nick never knew his mothers name. He just thought of her as mommy, and as he got older, he stopped thinking of her longingly, and started hating the word "mom" altogether. It was just a reminder of what he didn't have. Other kids had mommies. He had an aunt, an uncle, and a memory.
He grew up in that room with the balcony and the hardwood floors. His bed was always too big, too empty, without the stuffed animals he had been forced to leave behind. His shelves were too light without his storybooks. Auntie Karen tried to get him stuffed animals, and Uncle Tommy took him book shopping more than once, but it was hard for them. They had never had kids, and suddenly there was a lonely four-year-old living with them. Adjustments had to be made, and even then, neither Karen nor Thomas was sure how to deal with the little boy who had lost the most important thing in his world.
His favorite place in the world became the balcony leading to his room. He could see past his neighbors yard all the way to the street. From another side, he could see across his street to the park. On the last side were trees, and the woods extended far from his house.
It was sitting on this balcony that he first saw her.
Maybe three years after his mother had left, Nick was seven years old, and he saw a teenage girl sitting with her back to his neighbors house. He watched for a moment, studying her with all the solemnity and interest a seven-year-old could muster.
She looked sad. She was watching her bare knees, and the light wind was mussing her downy hair. The girl was willowy, with fragile-looking wrists and ankles. Her elbows and knees jutted out in bony angles.
Nick had never seen any kids or teenagers coming out of his neighbors house, so he wondered who this sad girl was. He wondered if she felt lost and alone, just like he did.
The seven-year-old leaned out over the balcony, digging his bare toes deep into the concrete to keep himself from falling. The iron grate jammed right under his ribs, and he shifted, trying to get it to sit more comfortably.
"Hey!" He called, loud enough to be heard by the girl, but not by his aunt or uncle, who were downstairs watching TV. The girl didn't respond, so he called out to her again.
"Girl!" Dark eyes looked at him curiously, and then widened when she saw he was looking directly at her.
The teenaged girl acted strangely. First she looked around, as if she were trying to find someone else that he might be talking to. Then she looked at him, and pointed to herself. At his eager nod, she paled considerably.
Then she was gone, and Nick was scared and confused.
She hadn't gotten up and run away, but simply vanished right before his eyes. Nick had stumbled into his house, shaking with terror, and run back downstairs, crying out for his aunt and uncle. People didn't just vanish, but she had.
(Maybe she wasn't a person.)
Karen and Thomas chalked it up to an overactive imagination, telling him that he had probably fallen asleep, and had a night terror.
For weeks after his mother had left, he had had nightmares. Bad ones, about her dying or not wanting him anymore. Every time he had woken up, screaming into the night, Karen and Tommy had been there with a big mug of hot chocolate and a smile to drive away the terror.
Now he began having those nightmares again, and after a while, the girl simply blended together in the nightmare, until Nick could no longer distinguish his memories from his terrors. His aunt and uncle told him, when Nick confided that the girl kept appearing, that he had always had the most overactive imagination, and that it was common for kids like him to have scary dreams.
But the dreams hadn't made sense. White coats all around him. Huge, bulging eyes. A small body, lifeless, covered in scales. Needles and knives. Endless pain. The vanishing girl was nothing in comparison.
So Nick had listened to them, and dismissed the girl as a shadow in the night. One of the many monsters that hid under his bed. He didn't realize then, or any time soon, how right he was.