COMING FROM BLACK ROSE WRITING, OCTOBER 2019
We were driving along a four-lane highway when I first saw them. Small brown people, standing in the woods that bordered the road.
I had just turned seven and had been imagining myself on a beautiful palomino horse, whose smooth gallop kept magical pace with our car. I used to do weird things like that when I was a kid. Suddenly, instead of the fantasy horse, I saw real people standing among the bare trees. They were child-sized, but I knew they weren’t children. They were the color of the dried oak leaves and pine needles under their feet, so they should have been almost invisible. But I could see them.
At first, they felt like part of my daydreams, like I’d flicked from one fantasy to another. When I was young, I was always fantasizing about something—wizards, flying horses, dragons. Having adventures. Becoming a hero.
But the next time I saw the people, our car was now going the other way on the same giant road. I couldn’t help saying, “Look!”
“What, dear?” said my mother from the back seat, where she sat to make sure my baby brother Jake didn’t get bored in his backward-facing car seat and begin to scream.
“Small people,” I said, pointing. “They must live in those woods!”
“Yes dear,” Mom said. My stepfather Craig frowned at me—I sat next to him in the front seat—but he frowns a lot. Mom says he works too hard.
Jake said something that sounded like “Hah ba ba ba ba,” and my mom said, “Yes! Bear-Bear!” He certainly did love his fuzzy bear toy; it was always covered in drool. Jake must have been about eight months old that summer, not talking, only babbling. Too bad that didn’t last.
“Where do those woods go?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Mom said. “Usually there are houses or industrial parks behind them.”
“Why are they there? I mean, why don’t people live there? It’s a waste of space.” My stepfather sometimes called people a “waste of space,” and I liked the phrase.
“They’re buffer zones,” Craig said. “They keep the highway away from the houses, so children who live in the houses won’t run onto the highway.”
“I wouldn’t run onto the highway,” I said virtuously.
Then Craig’s phone went off, and he talked into his headset, while Mom played with Jake and I stared out the window at the buffer zone waste places, looking for more of the small brown people.
Every weekend, as we drove on the giant roads to visit my grandmother in her condo, or go to parties with friends of my parents, I looked for the small people, the Buffer Zone people. It needed a lot of concentration, and some kind of inner shift, like seeing a pattern in a random collection of dots, like the ones in the comic pages of the newspaper. My birth father loved the comics printed in the Sunday newspapers. He used to read them to me when I was too young to be able to read them myself. Before the divorce. I still read the Sunday comics. My parents read the opinion pages and worry about the state of the world. I have more fun than they do.
At first, in those random dot things, the picture just looks like scribbles. But if you hold the page at your nose, and slowly move it away, it comes into focus as a 3D boat, or a word, or something. Seeing the small people was kind of like that.
Trying to see them made my head feel fat like I’d been too long on one of those merry-go-round things they have on playgrounds. Looking back, I wonder if I hadn’t spent my first four years in a city apartment, and the last three in a big old house in Newton with a tiny yard surrounded by fences, would I have seen the small people? Maybe I would have thought they were deer, or squirrels, or even foxes. But the biggest animal I’d ever seen, outside of a zoo, was a squirrel. For whatever reason, I knew perfectly well that I was seeing people, not deer or foxes. Or squirrels.
Then one day, when we were stuck in a line of traffic getting off the highway, I spotted four Buffer Zone people very clearly. They were sitting in the bushes that grew under the trees.
“There they are again, “I announced. “Those small people that live in the woods. In the buffer zones. What do they eat? Do they have houses? How do they live when it gets cold?”
My stepfather turned his head to frown at me. “Andrea,” he said, “those are just fantasy people. Like in all those books you read.”
“No, they aren’t,” I said, frustrated. “These people are real!” We turned off onto one of those ramp things, going even more slowly. “Right there!” I pointed. The Buffer Zone people were gathering something from the ground. “Don’t you see them?”
My stepfather sighed and shook his head; then glanced at my mom in the rear-view mirror.
That glance told me that something was wrong, but I didn’t find out what until a few days later when Mom came into my room one evening. After she had married Craig Kimball, we’d moved to a house in Newton, where I had my own bedroom. It was tiny, with spectacularly ugly turquoise wallpaper with pink poodles on it, but it was mine. In the apartment that Mom and I had together before Craig and after the divorce, we had to share a bedroom.
“How are things, Bug?” asked Mom. When I was a baby, Mom and my birth father, Mike, called me Bug because, Mom said, “I crawled constantly, exploring every corner of the apartment.”
“Good,” I said, looking up from my book.
“What are you reading now?”
I showed her. It was one of the Narnia books.
“Is it a story about woodland people?” Both Mom and my stepfather are totally clueless about the books I like to read. Mom writes marketing materials, and Craig had started his own computer development company. They read what my stepfather calls “non-fiction.” He says it as if “fiction” is kind of silly.
“No,” I said. “I haven’t found any books about them yet.”
“So you made them up all by yourself,” Mom said, admiringly.
“No,” I said.
“Honey, you know they aren’t real, don’t you?”
I did not know that. I’d seen them. I’d learned how to see them. But Mom had that little wrinkle between her eyes that she’d had so often before she married Craig Kimball.
Now, I think about all the time I wasted, when I could have maybe found a way to meet the small people. But before Mom married again, it was just the two of us, and she had that little wrinkle all the time.
My birth father, Mike Jernigan, left before I turned three. After that, he’d visit and take me to the park. I loved the worn grass and spindly trees. I was a city kid and didn’t know any better; didn’t know anything about forests full of huge trees. Mom was working, so I was always in daycare and nursery school and after-school programs. They didn’t have grass or trees. They playgrounds all had that spongy stuff underneath instead of grass.
Even when I was only four years old, I knew that Mom worked too hard and that she was unhappy. Then Craig came along, and we moved to Newton, and that little line faded out of Mom’s face. I didn’t want to bring it back.
So, when Mom said the woodland people weren’t real, I said: “I guess so.” She smiled and left me with my book, and I never mentioned the buffer zone people again. I still saw them. Sometimes they were sitting under the trees, watching the cars whiz by. Now and then I’d see them in those little hollows that the off-and-on ramps circle around.
I started to look at maps, so I’d know where we were when I saw them. I kept a secret locked journal using a code: “7/4/14 Rte 3 Taunton 3 sitting.” Which meant I saw three buffer zone people on our way to Taunton for a party with my parent’s friends. Or “11/22/14 Nana 4 running,” meaning that I saw four buffer zone people running through the woods along the highway when we were on our way to Nana’s condo for Thanksgiving. I still have the journal. It’s still secret, and it’s still locked.