We all have irrational fears when we're little. Sometimes we look back on them and laugh, other times that sense of dread never really goes away.
For me it was TV test patterns. I don't know if it's the noise or what, but they always freaked me out as a child. I remember one station had one with a picture of a little girl on it. I'd see her often in my nightmares. Sometimes I'd dream I was walking into the kitchen to get a glass of milk and she'd be there, playing with a carving knife, looking me up and down with eyes filled with a lust I was too young to understand. There was a girl who looked just like her in my class in first grade. I always avoided her, until one day at recess she ran up to me with tears in her eyes asking what she'd done to make me not like her and I was so utterly embarrassed at myself.
She was the girl who gave me my first kiss. Test patterns haven't bothered me as much since then.
For my little sister it was murals. There was one painted on the wall of the lobby of our apartment building, a pastoral, though derivitive, scene of families picnicking in a park, and she'd always hide behind me or our parents when we went out. If we passed by one painted on the side of a building or something, it'd be the same thing.
When asked why she found them so upsetting, she'd tell us she believed there was something hiding in them. That sometimes she could see something moving in them out of the corner of her eye. Our parents always tried to reassure her, of course. Told her it was just her imagination, that nothing was going to jump out of them and get her. And of course, she was still terrified of them.
One day as we were heading off to school, I was in 8th grade, my sister in 1st, she pointed out something to me in the lobby. There was a man in the mural who hadn't been there before. I did indeed see what looked like a man's figure silhouetted in the shade of the trees in the background, which I'd never noticed before. Still, I didn't think much of it. My sister insisted it was never there before, but I was skeptical. After all, how would she know, I mocked her, if she was always too scared to look at the thing for more than a second? She was angry that I didn't believe her and pouted at me all through the bus ride to school, but I didn't think much of it until a week later.
As we got out of the elevator and started through the lobby, my sister let out a horrible scream. She pointed wildly at the mural on the wall, shrieking and crying incomprehensibly before running back into the elevator. As the door closed, I curiously inspected the painting. It took me a while to notice it, but I saw what had freaked my sister out so badly.
The shadowy figure in the trees appeared to have moved closer.
I had to have been imagining it, but the figure was much bigger than I remembered it, much closer to the foreground. Not only that, it wasn't completely silhouetted anymore. I could make out that the figure was wearing brown shoes and dark grey trousers, but the upper body remained cloaked in shadow. As I stared at the mural in disbelief, it dawned on me that this figure was the only one standing on its own. All the other people in the picture were sitting down or playing with friends and family, but not this one. He was just standing around in the shadows.
Eventually I rationalized it as a prank by either the original artist or some clever vandal to scare people. It hadn't moved, it probably just looked like it did when the light hit it differently. I went back up to the apartment to fetch my sister again and dragged her off to school, again, thinking no more of it, though from then on both of us generally avoided looking at that damn wall. Supernatural or not, it was certainly unsettling and once you notice a hidden thing like that it can never be unseen...
Except, this time, it could and was. Around the beginning of September, when I was preparing for the nightmare that was highschool, meaning I now had to be up one hour earlier than my dear little sister and thus spared of her antics in front of the mural, I noticed that the shadowy figure had dissapeared. I was rather surprised when I noticed the change and spent a confused minute looking all over the wall, but he was nowhere to be found. Maybe somebody complained about how creepy it was and it got painted over... though, I never noticed any painters around the place.
I didn't have much time to ruminate on it, as the new loads of homework I was saddled with everyday kept me pretty busy. The occasional reminder would come, though, when my sister would sometimes come home shivering, saying she'd seen the Shadow Man in another wall somewhere. Once it was a grafitti-covered alleyway, another time it was on the school gymnasium. My parents and I felt she was getting a bit too old for this nonsense and did our best to ignore her when she got that way.
Then, one day, she didn't come home from school at all.
For weeks, it was total chaos. The police bombarding our family and anyone who had ever come into contact with us with questions; CSIs ransacking the apartment, looking for any piece of evidence that could be used to pin it on us; my mother barely able to speak through anguished sobs; my father stomping around in a rage so intense I swear I could see steam rise out of his ears, swearing a bloody vengeance on whoever had taken his only daughter away from him. And in the middle of it all, there was me, a stupid, awkward teenager, desperately wishing he could do something to help, all too aware that he couldn't.
As the months passed, I watched helplessly as the case went cold and my family slowly came apart at the seams. Dad took to the bottle. Mom just sat around, doing nothing, like she was waiting to die. Sometimes I'd have to force her to eat. It wasn't long before I began to resent my parents. We were all in a lot of pain over our loss, but they were completely consumed by it. Didn't they realize they still had each other and another child to think about?
I fell in with a bad crowd. Seemed the natural thing to do, I suppose. Started skipping class to drink and do drugs with other juvenile delinquents. Trying to forget how much I missed my sister's sweet little songbird voice, how much I missed having actual parents. Grew up too fast. Just fourteen years old, hiding under the stairwell on the bottom floor of a deserted parking structure, trying to enjoy the feeling of pierced pink lips and smooth, chubby thighs while keeping an ear out for the security guard.
But enough of that nonsense.
I suppose by now you're wondering where I'm going with all this. I guess the best place would be my 16th birthday. A bunch of us ne'er-do-wells had gotten together on the beach after dark. Somebody rolled an empty trashcan out onto the sand and we started a bonfire in it. Beer and cheap wine flowed like water and that's exactly how we drank it down. By the middle of the night, I was feeling a bit poorly, and had to run to the nearest Parks and Rec building, only to find the washroom doors were already locked, so I leaned against the wall and threw up into the sand. When I finished, I got a good look at the wall, illuminated by the glow of the nearby bonfire.
It was a mural. A scene of happy beach goers, not unlike a maritime version of the one back in the lobby of that apartment building. But, like that one, there was something amiss.
At the shore, there was a small, dark lump of tattered cloth and scraggly hair. Two seagulls perched upon it, one with its head and the bold, heavy brushstrokes of its wings raised high, beak wide open, squaking in triumph; the other, looking more dignified with its wings folded, was digging its beak into the carcass.
I couldn't see her face, but I didn't need to. I knew at that instant, the fear she must have felt. That utter, irrational terror, and worse, for I was no longer a child.
I no longer had the hope of outgrowing the fear and despair that consumed me. I would never be able to look back on it and laugh.