By Anna Stolley Persky
A girl has disappeared in the woods behind our house, that is a fact. I can guess what happened to her.
The police officer stands solid at the screen door, asking my mom and me if we have any insight into the girl’s disappearance. He stares especially at me, probably because I am a teenager and, as a teenager, always suspected of doing something wrong. And my hair is longer than he likely thinks it should be, and I cast a rebel shadow over his feet flat law-enforcement stance. Maybe he thinks I’m hiding something. The truth is I am.
Teri Lynn’s been gone since early this morning, off to play in the woods, maybe dip her fingers in the stream, like she’d probably done before, but maybe not on her own. She’s only eight years old.
The neighbors are flocking out of their split foyer homes. They call out her name, “Teri Lynn, Teri Lynn,” their flashlights dancing light across the sky. They gather in the middle of the street, gearing up to charge into the dark brush, onto the dirt path that snakes from our neighborhood to the next, and then the next.
I think she’s gone. I think she’s been eaten, limb-by-limb. I think I know who did it.
It’s been six years since the rainy afternoon I created Golem. I wanted a protector from all the bad things in my life. My parents’ divorce. The kids that called me names and shoved me down at the playground. Deep in the woods, I formed Golem from desperation and dripping soil because that’s how magic works. I molded a round stomach, stump legs, holes for eyes, bulky arms, and closed fists for punching, but only if necessary for defense, of course. I gave him a gaping mouth, which meant he always looks surprised, maybe aghast at the world in which he was born. The truth is, though, he never protected me from anything.
For almost a year, I hid him in the skunk cabbage and checked on him every afternoon, as he grew larger and larger, until he towered over me, although he could shrink down when he didn’t want to be seen. But he started talking, as magic creatures do, asking questions I couldn’t answer.
Golem got hungrier and more resentful, and I shouted at him one day, repulsed, as a struggling baby fox dangled from his mouth.
“Put the baby down,” I said.
Golem kept chewing through a chunk of fur.
The next day Golem told me: “I have learned all I can from you. It’s time for you to leave my kingdom.”
“How can you do this to me? If it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t be alive.”
“You think you created me?” Golem laughed. “I created you.”
“Why don’t we go with them and help, Adam?” my mom says, as the officer turns from us and strides towards the search party, which is looking more like an angry mob. Mr. Wallace is saying, “It’s those damn immigrants that took her,” and someone else is saying, “Hell yeah,” and I am thinking about what Golem can hear and what, if anything, he will do when the crowd descends upon his territory, his kingdom. Even though I haven’t seen him in years, I have always felt him out there, lurking.
I wonder if Golem ate Teri Lynn in one slurpy gulp and then spat out her bones close to the path. Maybe her body parts will be strewn on the banks of the stream or in a sloppy pile by an ironwood tree. Maybe Golem swallowed her whole, a secret forever obscured by his belly.
“Nah,” I say. “I’ll stay here. Maybe you should too. Who knows what’s out there?” I don’t really want my mom and Golem to meet, because if Golem is now taking to consuming humans, he might find her a tasty option.
My mom looks at me with a frown pulling her wrinkles deeper around her lips.
“I’m going,” she says. I can see she is in her own way as suspicious of me as the police officer was, and maybe it is worse, because she knows me at least a little better than he does. I let her go.
The searchers spend all night in the woods. They find nothing, no Golem, no Teri Lynn. The police comb the area the following day, and the day after that, until they are sure there is no trace of her, no DNA, no abandoned shoe. The prevailing theory is that a stranger from elsewhere lured Teri Lynn from the path and into a car, but the police check all the cameras and come up empty.
My mom joins up with a neighborhood watch, cruises the streets to keep them safe from murderers. I start driving lessons with an old woman who chain smokes, throws her cigarette butts in the street while I am at the wheel. I don’t tell her to stop because I need her to like me, give me good marks so I can get my license.
On the morning of my final lesson, I open up the garage. There, in front of our Subaru, is a neat stack of thin bones and a child’s skull.
I don’t know if it’s a warning, a present or a reminder of something I don’t quite understand yet. I know the bones are impossibly white, licked clean.
* * *
Anna Stolley Persky, a lawyer and award-winning journalist, lives in Northern Virginia. She’s pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at George Mason University. Her fiction has been published in Mystery Tribune, The Satirist, Five on the Fifth, The Write Launch, VOIS, and The Plentitudes. Her poetry has been published in the Sad Girls Club Literary Blog, You Might Need to Hear This, Washington Writers’ Publishing House, and The Closed Eye Open. Her creative nonfiction has been published in The Washington Post.