Erik found his daughter out along the driveway. It was early for a child to be up and about. But there she was, all dressed and ready on her own. Such was the state of things. Erik paused, a recently separated hunk of alfalfa hay dangling at the end of his arm. He watched his daughter, hunched over, engrossed in whatever she had found among the tall weeds next to the gravel driveway. Strong wind tossed the grass around her head, and played with long wisps of her hair.
His wife’s horse nickered from the pen and broke his reverie. Erik crossed what remained of the distance to her pen and threw the hay into her feed bin. His daughter rose slightly, shuffled forward, and then dropped back into the weeds. Erik reflected that it was past time to trim up the growth along his driveway. But no matter how much it needed to be done, he simply didn’t have the time. There were always more important things to do.
Isabelle glanced over at his boots when he stepped up next to her, but then went back to plucking the heads of wildflowers. Erik noted that her lap held a small pile that she had already collected. They were both quiet for a few breaths of time. Erik turned his gaze up to the clouds, white and grey racing across a deep blue sky. The valley below held livid shades of brown and green. A cold, crisp spring day.
“Whacha doing, Sweetie?”
“Flowers. For mom.”
Erik had thought that grief was something that would follow him around forever. And it was. But after all those repeated phrases, grief had lost its edge. He would say it once more, and it wouldn’t hurt at all this time.
“Isa, Mommy isn’t…”
She interrupted him by standing suddenly. She took her flowers into her hands and cast them up high into the air. The wind caught them, swirling them away in its grip. They flowed along the air as upon an invisible current. And there it was, the grief that Erik thought he had stepped beyond; it once more struck Erik as vividly as the first day.
“The wind,” Isabelle said. “The wind will carry them to her.” She looked up at her dad as he placed his hand on her shoulder. They watched the flowers sweep out over the fence and down into the valley. Erik couldn’t think of anything to say in the face of such a gesture. He wished he had thought to do something like that for his wife.
“Let’s go get some breakfast, okay?”
Before, his daughter would always pull away whenever he tried to hold her hand. She had always been so independent. And she still was. But with expectation she lifted her hand to him now, and Erik reached down for her. They walked together in silent reflection back to their house.
“How come you’re up so early?” Erik asked as he poured his first cup of coffee. Isabelle sat merrily eating a bowl of oatmeal. She answered with her mouth full, and Erik felt no inclination to correct her.
“I had a bad dream.”
“So you got up and went outside?”
“No, I went back to sleep. But I kept waking up after that, you know?”
Erik did know. But he didn’t think that his little girl should.
“Does that happen a lot?”
“No. Usually it’s not a big deal. I just go back to sleep.”
Some kids pretend at being older than they are. Too often, they mimic the worst idiosyncrasies of whatever adults they are around. It always came across to Erik as ugly and tragic. Maybe he was prejudiced concerning his own daughter, but she didn’t seem to pretend at all. Yet she spoke on occasion with more maturity and intelligence than many of the adults that Erik dealt with.
“Last night was different. The dream…”
“What was it about?” Erik asked, not sure he would get an answer. This wasn’t the first time they’d talked dreams. But Isabelle never remembered what her dreams were about. She would only ever be able to tell him that they made her feel good or bad. This time, however, she answered without hesitation.
“The slender man.”
“The what man? When did you learn that word?”
His daughter looked at him with her big eyes and shrugged.
“I don’t know. I just know it, you know?”
“I guess so. So there was a slender man. If he was such a twig, why didn’t you just beat him up?” Erik put on an aggressive face and punched the air. “I thought you told me that you can do Kung Fu.”
She gave him a coy smile, but dropped it quickly. His antics weren’t helping.
“I couldn’t. He stretched out his arms,” she held her arms out as far as she could, “and they just kept stretching. I couldn’t run away.”
“What did he want?”
“To take me away.”
“To where he takes everyone.” She spoke as though her father should already be familiar with the slender man, his stretchy arms, and the final destination of his victims. Her eyes had dropped down to her breakfast, but then she lifted them to meet Erik’s gaze. A sharp horror prickled Erik’s skin and his pierced his soul at the same time as he watched his daughter shutter with sudden fear. “He’s going to be back tonight. I know it.”
Erik comforted his daughter the way any parent would. Dreams were just dreams. Nightmares did not come true. She didn’t exactly cheer up, but she shifted her focus. It was another of those things that Erik didn’t think children could do. But Isabelle did it readily enough. She had things to do, there just wasn’t time to waste on something that scared her, even if it scared her to the point that it kept her up all night, even if it caused her to shiver when she talked about it.
Erik didn’t move on so easily. He helped his daughter finish getting ready for school. She cried silently when he brushed her hair. Tears because it hurt, silence because she’d had worse. He dropped her off in front of school, smiling by himself in the car when she found a friend and they skipped together to class. But his heart was worried. Never, ever had he seen his daughter frightened like that before. And the part that obviously upset her was not the memory of the slender man, but the anticipation of his return.
But why was he so upset and fixated? It hadn’t even been his dream.
There was a secret voice in Erik’s mind, one that he hated, one that embarrassed him. But he could never quiet it. It blamed him for his wife’s death, and then cast doubts upon its legitimacy with the next breath. It talked him into arranging everything in his house in a certain order that was supposedly the safest way possible. It forced him to avoid ever mentioning anything he hoped or feared aloud. Now the voice asked, “What if the slender man does come back tonight?”
Erik hated the voice for that question. He was embarrassed by it. But he still couldn’t quiet it.
Erik tried to go about his day as he needed to. A single parent has so much more than twice the amount of work than half of a couple. If he slowed down, one pile or another would rise up and overwhelm them. Dishes, laundry, bills, business paperwork, horse manure. For a time, he gnawed on the slender man with a portion of his brain while the rest occupied itself with the task that was directly in front of him. Then, slowly, with imperceptible minuteness of graduality, Erik’s focus changed as well. He forgot all about the slender man by the time he picked Isabelle up from school. She didn’t remind him. She had words for only one topic: the talent show. The business of the day continued, and Erik didn’t think of his daughter’s foreboding prediction again until his daughter sobbed out the words into his ear that night, “The slender man!”
Isabelle had auditioned to perform in the school’s talent show that night, and she had been deemed worthy. She would be singing. Truthfully, her whole class would be singing together, led by their teacher. But those details were unimportant in Isabelle’s opinion. Father and daughter went home. They had but little time together before the show. The combined rituals of homework and housework devoured that time quickly, accelerated perhaps by Isabelle’s excitement for the evening. Time never passes more quickly than when we have none to spare.
They left again before Erik could even stop and take a moment to appreciate all that he had. It was a thing he had promised that he would never again do. Not a stick of his house was guaranteed to remain to him when he returned. Not a single breath was owed to him after that which was in his lungs. Not even his precious daughter could be considered permanent. It had been a hard lesson for him to learn. It was even harder to force himself to remember it on a daily basis. But somewhere in between tossing a clean outfit to his living daughter, and tossing hay to his dead wife’s horse, Erik forgot to practice his resolution of thankfulness.
Isabelle hit the ground running. As soon as Erik brought the car to a stop, she was out the door and off to join her classmates in their room. They where to gather there so they could enter the MPR together. Erik kept his eye on her until he saw her pass through the door. Then he gathered up his camera and her jacket and made his way onto the school grounds. Erik steeled himself, and stepped through the door of the MPR into the sea of mothers.
Any time Erik showed his face at the school, they were there. They asked about his health, and that of Isabelle’s. They checked the thickness of his jacket. He received offers of ready-to-bake casseroles. His daughter’s appearance was always praised with a hint of surprise in the tone. All the while, he was aware that his own appearance was being evaluated. Did Erik’s grief show in his eyes? Was he flaunting his second bachelorhood? Had he let himself go? And every bit of it fell just short of an outright declaration that he wasn’t capable of raising a daughter by himself.
Nothing was ever spoken to his face, of course. But Erik was not deaf to their whispers. The husbands of these mothers were no help to him. The loss of his wife had attached to Erik a stigma for those men. They politely ignored his existence, no matter how much their wives fussed about him. Erik actually preferred this to the obsession of the women. Among them there was no ignoring. Every last one of them fixed upon Erik some manner of attention. The spectrum began with pity, then ran into compassion, sideways over to flirtation, and then down to fear, distrust, accusation, jealousy, and ultimately hatred. Yet, no matter how they felt privately, they all joined in the public ritual of thinly-veiled scrutiny and equal, apparent goodwill.
Erik understood. He was an anomaly. Death is not supposed to take a woman and leave her man behind. Men feared it, and so they avoided him and his physical manifestation of something that should not be. The women feared it, and so they attacked his existence like white blood cells attack a splinter. Their reactions were inevitable. Obviously, Erik didn’t like it. But they couldn’t help it any more than he could. He cut his gradual way through the concentric circles of supporters, supplicants, and detractors and found his own place to sit. He was forced to decline several seats that had been saved for him.
Because they were young, Isabelle’s class performed early on in the show.
They sat together in the front seats of the car. Erik’s shirt was wet from her tears. For a long time, she wouldn’t talk. Erik didn’t push, he knew better. He could not, however, wait until she stopped crying altogether. That would be too late. When her sobs had mostly quieted, he asked her.
“What happened, Sweetie?”
“What about Mom?”
“She was there. With him.”
“There with him? With who?” Maybe it was the wrong question. But his mind had suddenly turned into a riot of thoughts. Erik had just asked the first question that made its way out of his mouth. Maybe there wasn’t a right question. In any case, Isabelle broke down again. She flopped across the console and buried her face back into Erik’s shirt. She bawled wordlessly for a few moments, but then reclaimed her composure through a perceptible effort. She looked up into Erik’s face. Her voice broke when she spoke.
“The slender man! They were watching!”
Nothing Erik said would convince Isabelle that she had not in fact seen her mother and the man from her nightmare watching her sing in the variety show. She was dead certain. Yet, for all her longing after her absent mother, Isabelle didn’t want to go look for her. She just wanted to leave, immediately. Erik wanted to leave as well.
The sight of his daughter suddenly freezing in the middle of her performance had sent an empathetic heat of embarrassment to color his own brow. But as she remained fixated upon a spot somewhere behind the crowd for the rest of the song, Erik had become worried. It wasn’t just a case of stage fright, she looked actually scared of something. The teacher had to lead her from the stage by the arm when it was over.
Then, as they sat together in the car, the nagging, loathed apprehension that had distracted him for so much of the day surged back upon him. He remembered his daughter’s shiver at the breakfast table. He remembered her words. He’s coming back tonight. Erik carried his daughter around to the back seat of the car, so small at times like this. They left the school talent show before it was even half over.
The way home was winding and thickly wooded. Not long ago, Erik had seen nothing but beauty in the rural life. The trees held shade, not shadows. But the forests, especially on this road, had become ominous to him. Now, beyond shade and shadows, there was only darkness. However, the route through the woods was the only way home. Isabelle rode in silence behind him. The headlights pushed through the dark ahead of him.
Erik rushed, harried by the unsettled feeling in his stomach. He wrung the steering wheel in his hands and yanked it through the turns. His toes squirmed in his shoes. The glow of small eyes appeared in the brush to the left of the road. Cat, he thought. He watched them, knowing that cats are especially foolish pedestrians at night. The eyes held quite still right up until the moment that Erik was about to pass by. Then they winked out of existence as the cat fled deeper into the woods. Erik had been so worried about the cat that he hadn’t noticed the other set of eyes. A deer bolted suddenly into the road from the opposite side.
The impact made a sound and shutter in the car like the slamming of a door. The deer was swept from its feet and collided with the windshield. The body rolled up and over the car in a flash of tan fur and red blood. Isabelle screamed. The car spun and Erik wrenched the wheel in desperation. It was no use. They skid off the pavement and the car slammed sideways into a tree.
This was the spot. His wife’s car had been found right here with the door standing open. What had become of her, nobody could tell. The blood, the abandoned belongings, the still burning headlights. Detectives from the police department thought they all pointed to murder, but it was still a mystery. Erik had been officially exonerated, and the case was still open. Erik tried to ignore the place whenever he passed by. But now he sat in the same spot where his wife must have pulled over, his headlights still burning, and his daughter teetering into the woods by their light.
Erik couldn’t open his door, the tree was up against it. Broken glass and bark lay in his lap. The trunk of the tree loomed right next to his side window. He scrambled frantically over the seats and crawled head-first out the passenger door. His mind screamed questions at him. Where is she going? What is she doing out there? What happened while I was knocked out?
He called to her as his feet scrambled for purchase. The ground was muddy and his shoes slipped. Isabelle continued deafly forward. Erik caught her up in his arms a moment later and held her up into the light. No blood, no bruises. He saw nothing wrong with her except for the tears that flowed freely from her unfocused eyes. He suddenly became very aware of the throbbing in his heart and lungs. And then he looked beyond Isabelle, into a clearing illuminated by the headlights of his car.
Erik recognized the slender man at first sight. Tall, lithe, a dark suit, long arms and fingers clearly visible in the light. The face was more horrible because it was up too high to catch the headlights. Did he have a face? Was that Erik’s wife standing behind him? Or was she in front? How close are we to them? None of these details were clear to Erik. He felt himself lost there, just steps from the road home, but unable to return that way.
His wife, it was her! beckoned him in his mind. She was really there, really inviting him to join her. He heard the melody of her voice without words. He smelled the memory of her perfume. But with the sound was an awful awareness of far off screaming. Under the scent he perceived an ancient rottenness.
The slender man had his own allure. Different. Stronger. It was the pull of the inevitable. He reached out his arms, fingers even elongated in anticipation. Erik felt like he’d dreamed this very thing before. It was just like Isabelle said. The arms stretched, and they just kept stretching. Erik felt both horrified and comforted by them. The slender man’s persistent silence pulled like a fishhook. Erik couldn’t move, could not get away. The slender man wanted to take Erik away, and Erik had nothing to say or do against it.
But his daughter stirred in his arms, and Erik remembered what the slender man and his dead wife had somehow made him forget: that he was not alone. Her putrid-sweet comfort, his determined clutch, they were not to be accepted. But still his arms, still her dead eyes, how could he withstand them?
Erik looked within himself and discovered a strength. Developed day by day, every time he rose early in the morning, when he folded his daughter’s laundry, when he sat down to help her with homework, Erik had unknowingly cultivated a secret determination in the core of his soul. It came through the habit of putting Isabelle’s welfare above anything else. He could resist the slender man because he had been doing it for some time now.
Erik held his little girl close and made sure her eyes wouldn’t get another look. He turned his back on the clearing and its proposed embrace. He felt their hunger and frustration at his back as he walked away. Tears of loss and relief ran down his face. Father and daughter made their way back to the wrecked car. Erik placed Isabelle into her seat, and climbed back into his place through the passenger door. A wave of exhaustion swept over him. He gripped the steering wheel and laid his head against it.
“Daddy? Daddy? Are you okay?”
He sat up and rubbed the lump on his cheek.
“Yeah, Sweetie. I’m okay. Are you hurt?”
“Just here.” Erik looked back so see her point across her chest where her seat belt had bruised her. “What happened, Daddy?”
“We hit a deer and I lost control. We ran into a tree.” He reached over and patted the tree trunk through the broken window. He carefully swept the glass from his lap and scooted out of the car through the other door. He pulled Isabelle out and squeezed her tight. They stood there with their backs to the forest, hand-in-hand, waiting for help to arrive.