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,
“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
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.
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
“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
“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
“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
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
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.