By Angel Vargas
A lab coat clad pediatrician with a furrowed brow and pursed lips looked me dead in the face while my one month old son wailed and thrashed in my arms. In this situation, there was a word no new, sleep deprived parent should ever want to hear. That word was “Colic.”
As the word seemed to tumble out of our suddenly apologetic pediatrician’s mouth, my wife, Kat and I shared a wide-eyed glance. We’d come across the term during the few minutes of early morning internet research we could manage between our baby boy’s massive crying jags. The things we’d read about colic inspired abject terror in us both.
I stared at my newborn son, Leo, at that moment. He wore an open-mouthed grimace until the edges of his quivering lips turned down in a rictus of agony.
I closed my burning eyes and sighed. I let my shoulders slump a little.
My boy screamed, undaunted by my change in mien.
And so, Kat and I continued the arduous trek through Leo’s turbulent newborn phase. To attempt to soothe Leo’s crying, we’d tried multiple, ultimately fruitless formula changes to mitigate possible allergies.
For a while, breastfeeding seemed to calm the ailing infant, so we ran as far as we could with that football. We changed the way my wife held him during breastfeeding. We embraced paced bottle feeding to both support and encourage nursing. We’d even gone to a special type of physical therapist to try to ease some of Leo’s muscle tension.
Leo’s interest in nursing seemed to ebb and resurge, much to my wife’s confusion and ultimate chagrin. The nights where he cried at her breast were among the most agonizing. We had no clue what the source of his anguish was, or why he would often turn into a tiny, red ball of screaming, tearful rage.
“His screaming pierces my brain and tries to crack my skull,” I’d said one day with a shudder.
“I know,” Kat replied, a nervous smile crossing her lips.
I turned away from my wife and stared at our refrigerator. Pictures hung there, affixed by magnets, reminding me of our transition to a larger family. One of those pictures was of Kat in a green dress standing next to a tired, but beaming version of a bearded me in a blue denim jacket and black jeans. Sitting between the two of us, strapped into a brand new infant car-seat that rested on a hospital mattress was a tiny, crying pink baby in a blue knit cap. Baby Leo’s eyes were squeezed shut, his toothless mouth agape in a grimace. Still, Kat and I smiled anyway. We were brand new parents leaving the hospital just days after Leo’s birth. What the hell did we know?
I turned back to Kat in that moment and let her gentle, hazel-eyed gaze soothe me. “I wish I was stronger.”
She sighed, releasing shocking red tresses from a hastily constructed bun. “Well, I carried him in my body for nine months.”
“And you think that makes his crying less painful for you?”
“Well, nine months of growing a living being inside me should count for something,” she chuckled, almost indignant.
I offered a wry smirk in return. “Well, thanks. Now I know where I stand in all this.”
“If it makes you feel any better,” Kat said with a smile, “even Chloe doesn’t know how to react to Leo’s crying.”
This much was true. Our Calico, Chloe, often became confused when Leo began to cry in earnest. She’d taken an unexpected liking to baby Leo that seemed to bring out her protective, maternal instinct. But if Leo emitted a few keening cries, Chloe’s ears shot backward and lay flat against her skull, and she lowered her head while scrambling away.
“She does better with his crying than I do, sometimes.”
“Chloe still loves you best,” Kat reminded me. “Leo loves his daddy too.”
“That the only thing they have in common?” I prodded.
“What do you mean?”
“They’re both easily distracted, aren’t they?”
“Chloe often chases the invisible bugs at the living room window,” Kat said with a chuckle.
I scoffed, “And everywhere else.” I sighed. “Leo’s the same for some reason.”
“He’s a curious boy.”
“Or maybe he also wants to track things that aren’t there.”
“He’s peculiar,” I shot back. “I almost called a Catholic priest last time he did it.
“You love him, though,” Kat interjected in a sing-sing voice that she often used when I became sullen.
My sarcastic smirk became a grin. My wife was making a silly, wide-eyed face. The performer in her never rested, even in potentially serious moments. That was how she provided balance for my constant, ponderous solemnity.
“Of course I do!” I exclaimed. “Even if the pair of them are batshit crazy.”
The pain and misery which seemed to comprise Leo’s Colic-driven wailing soon took a toll. Sleep deprivation became the murky waters through which I swam, and was often the fulcrum for some of the worst arguments between my wife and me since our relationship began.
Things went on like this for quite some time. During my paternity leave from work, I often found myself gritting my teeth and walking away from an inconsolable Leo to stare out my living room window at the sky. Like I did as a kid, if there were clouds, I turned their ever-shifting shapes into mythical creatures and objects. I was often too tired to do more than stare, even when Kat walked into the living room and gently tapped my shoulder to say three magical words.
“Leo fell asleep.”
However, things began to take a strange turn just before Leo hit his second month. I soon realized that even when Leo was calm, I would feel some unseen force pulling me toward the nearest of our apartment’s windows.
The most memorable time this happened, I was alone with Leo and changing his diaper in our bedroom. The changing table, which abuts the wall to the right of our bedroom’s entrance, stands just feet away from the rear window. I stood, leaning over my baby boy and grinning. Leo, who’s always had such an expressive face, suddenly paused and proffered what I can only describe as the soul-piercing gaze of an ancient shaman. The eerie, adult recognition in his gleaming, dark eyes froze me in place.
Without warning, I was yanked to my left. My feet, however, remained rooted to the spot. A second, violent tug sent a wave of cold energy through my body, and I felt I was about to be dragged off my feet. I stumbled and grabbed the edge of the changing table with both hands to steady myself. With a quick glance to my left, I realized the window blinds were up.
I scooped up Leo, placed him in the co-sleeper, and quietly paced toward the rear window, noting Leo’s absolute silence during my strange reverie. My heart beat a violent drum solo against my rib cage.
As I inched closer to the window, I craned my head upward. I was staring at what appeared to be a bright, blue afternoon sky adorned with some cumulus clouds floating lazily eastward. One billowy cloud seemed to glide directly overhead, and I sighed in inexplicable frustration.
“What the hell am I doing here?” I muttered.
It wasn’t long before an oddly terrifying answer revealed itself. As I continued to gaze skyward, something seemed to make a perfectly diskoid section of the cloud appear to bulge outward, as though a giant magnifying glass was being held up to it. Within seconds, the bulge, for lack of a better way to describe what I saw, skimmed north along the cloud’s surface. The effect was almost like watching a human foot move beneath a silk sheet.
The sci-fi nerd in me immediately thought of refracted light and invisible space vehicles. But the objective, rational part of me wanted to shit bricks.
Chloe suddenly hopped onto the windowsill, purred, and brushed past where I’d planted my right hand on trembling, splayed fingers. Her cold, wet nose grazed my wrist, yet I didn’t look away from the cloud. I just couldn’t. What if that mystery object returned?
“What are you looking at out there?”
As Kat’s voice seemed to float to my ear through a tunnel that started and ended behind me, I wiped cold sweat from my brow. That very moment was when I realized I’d heard the toilet flush seconds before I registered my wife’s question.
“N-nothing,” I stammered. I shook myself from my stupor and turned away from the window.
“Is Leo ok?”
I sighed. “He’s just fine.”
I really wanted to believe that everything, in fact, would be “just fine.” But my return to work loomed, and childcare issues remained unsolved in spite of this eventuality.
With just days to go before Leo’s third month, I was still puzzled over what I saw in the clouds that afternoon. However, with no further sightings, it was becoming easier and easier to shrug the event off or explain it away. I might have been tired that afternoon, for instance. After all, I was getting precious little rest these days.
However, I knew myself better than that. I felt more confident in the result if I could try my hardest to debunk any momentarily shocking and unexplained event before coming to an unusual conclusion, especially one with “other-worldly” implications.
I knew what I saw that day, but I still couldn’t explain it.
The evening before my return to work only served to deepen the mystery.
Once again, I was alone in our bedroom with Leo. This time, however, I’d already changed his diaper, and I was sitting next to the co sleeper, admiring how truly beautiful my baby boy was. With almond shaped eyes, so very much like mine, Leo peered at me through the white mesh of the co-sleeper wall. I watched in total awe as his eyes began to flutter closed, and his fat little fists unfurled into pale, limp little hands. As a new father, I lived for those small, precious moments when Leo was content enough to fall asleep in my presence.
As I stared, the mesh helped create a strange, pixelated effect, and Leo suddenly looked like an eight-bit Nintendo version of himself. I chuckled, thinking of old, favorite games like Castlevania and Mario Brothers.
I grinned right back, noting with relief that his eyes were finally closing. With a sigh, I set my tired arm on top of the co-sleeper wall, and I let my suddenly heavy head sink onto my arm, my wrist pressing against my throbbing left eye socket. God, it felt good to be off my feet!
An unforeseen wave of adrenaline seemed to burst from within my sternum, radiating to my extremities. I started, nearly falling to my knees. Stranger still, I felt a powerful sense of urgency. Immediately, I lifted my head and focused on the baby.
Leo’s tiny chest rose and fell with steady breaths, his eyes still shut.
I inhaled deeply, calming myself. I was about to exhale when Leo’s eyes abruptly shot open.
My son didn’t cry out. He didn’t blink his eyelids. Leo lay perfectly still, his dark eyed gaze boring into me.
I couldn’t tell if the mesh of the co-sleeper wall was deceiving me. Leo’s eyes had no whites anymore, and they were completely black.
“What the hell?” I whispered, pressing the palm of my right hand to my chest.
Neither of us moved. The air had gone still, and I could hear the “tick-ticking” of my watch’s second hand. My heartbeat seemed to hammer throughout my ribcage, almost matching my watch’s cadence. A minute passed. Then two.
I was preparing to turn away from Leo when I noticed once more how pixilated he seemed to look. A crazy part of my brain wondered if I was suddenly staring at an ASCII portrait of my son.
Without warning, a pale “square” in the area around his right eye darkened. Another one just above Leo’s left eye followed suit. More and more squares turned black, reminding me forcefully of the Connect Four game of my childhood; except this version of the game spread to infinity, defying space and time itself as more and more pale squares were filled with inky blackness.
I gulped, killing the gasp that threatened to escape my suddenly dry throat.
What stared back at me was a terrifying hybridization of my son with something not of this world. He was still a diminutive creature, but his eyes were now humongous, insectoid pools of inky blackness that covered most of his face. His cheeks were still chubby, and his jawline remained soft, his pink lips tiny. Leo’s button of a nose now seemed to recede into his enormous skull until only reptilian slits were left. His ears had vanished.
A shudder ran through me as gooseflesh erupted along my extremities. I could feel my arms tingling, the hairs standing on end as my knees threatened to buckle. Yet I slowly rose from my bedside perch as a powerful internal feeling pulled me once more to the rear window of the room.
There was something I needed to see out here. My doubts were gone, my questions washed away by a strange new energy that seemed to thrum through my core. My strides were gigantic despite what I thought I was telling my body. I put my hands out in front of me to slow my strange, out of control momentum.
Like a kid outside a candy store, I pressed my nose to the glass. I immediately looked up and somehow knew that whatever I so desperately sought was east of me, as my window faced north. I turned my head left and gasped at the dark, grey mass of moisture that suddenly glided into view from the south. The setting sun created a yellow haze behind the cloud that somehow made it appear even more ominous.
The cloud split like a torn off piece of cotton candy. The escaping section moved northward, revealing an unusual, floating metallic object. The rectangular oddity, which appeared seamless, seemed to lack any means of propulsion. There were no rotors, no exhaust ports that I could see, and yet the object seemed able to move with ease against the prevailing north wind, circling in place. Before I could get past my initial shock, a bright white point of light popped into existence just above the UFO. The light began to pulsate between the white glow and a new, bright blue hue.
The “vehicle,” or whomever was controlling it, appeared to point this pulsating light squarely in my direction.
Cold tendrils of terror skittered up and down my spine. This fucking thing was scanning me.
Before I could run or call out to my wife, another whirling section of dark, grey cloud scudded in front of the object. Within seconds, the fast-moving cloud was gone, and so was the floating metallic mystery. All that was left in that spot was a patch of cloudless, orange sky.
I looked high and low, scanning every bit of sky I could lay my eyes on. With no noise whatsoever, no exhaust trail, no anything, the satellite or whatever it was somehow “winked” out of existence.
I whirled and leaped back toward Leo, suddenly terrified that he’d been permanently altered, and now wondering what possessed me to leave him in the first place. Why hadn’t I called for Kat? She was in the next room working from home thanks to the pandemic.
I quickly scanned Leo. He appeared like a normal, sleeping, nearly three month old baby boy, eyes, ears and all. I looked back toward the rear window, then glanced again at Leo. I’d no idea what just happened, let alone what to make of it. Seeing strange things in the sky is one thing. But to suddenly have my baby boy connected to such phenomena was, at best, a dizzying prospect.
The protective father in me was, for better or worse, attempting to consider all angles. What mattered most in any given situation was my gut feeling. Even picturing the mystery craft in the clouds made my breath die in my throat. I didn’t get a friendly feeling from that encounter.
I don’t remember how long I stayed with Leo after that. I refused to leave him lest that UFO returned. When Kat eventually came to check on us, I chalked my hovering up to the joy of watching our baby boy sleep. Kat turned and beamed at our sleeping child, and I knew I’d strummed the right chord with her.
Over the next few weeks, I found myself hard pressed to settle back into the routines of my job. However, the distraction of such concerns provided much needed emotional distance from that evening’s bizarre ufo encounter.
Also distracting was the myriad of pediatric specialist appointments we made for Leo concerning his Colic. Everyone from the pediatrician to the gastroenterologist to yet another lactation consultant was called. Some rather expensive advice was given.
Yet through it all, I hadn’t found a way to talk to my wife about our “visitor” in the clouds. I still lacked a scientifically sound explanation for that one, especially as the “visit” had been preceded by a powerful vision that I felt had somehow been externally induced. That was another rabbit hole rife with wild conspiracy theories, academic bias and fictitious speculation. I could go there, or simply chalk everything up to exhaustion-driven hallucinations.
I didn’t like either of those options. I only knew what I saw and felt.
UFO’s wouldn’t be the only new sky phenomena to give me pause.
The end of the summer brought with it a series of powerful and dangerous thunderstorms that I viewed, at first, as summer’s last stand. The first of these squalls occurred three weeks after my return to work. My wife and I were in our bedroom, having settled the baby, getting ready for bed ourselves. The storm arrived quietly, with a quick series of flashes catching my wife’s eye first. Out the rear window, I saw the next flash in a smokey purple grey sky, followed by twin forks that whipped in opposite directions, one east, the other west. The air in the apartment had gone oddly still. Even Chloe took notice of the lightning strikes, stretching herself along the windowsill as though about to take in an evening movie.
On the opposite side of the courtyard, a sudden burst of forked white heat struck the top of the apartment complex.
From behind me, Kat gasped.
Chloe raised her head and straightened her shoulders. She was on high alert.
Lightning bolts continued to strike close to our apartment complex and, it appeared, all around us. Chloe remained transfixed, peering at the sky.
Without warning, a deafening sonic boom shook our bedroom walls, vibrated through the floor, and seemed to threaten to crack my ribs.
Chloe still didn’t move.
Kat and I winced. After a quick glance at each other to confirm neither of us was crazy, we turned toward Leo’s co-sleeper. I wondered why Leo hadn’t cried out in fright already.
In a flash, I leaped out of bed and went toward Leo, but Kat, who was already up and leaning over the co-sleeper, held up a forestalling hand.
Her brow knitted in both maternal concern and surprise. Kat stared at me, mouth agape. “He’s still asleep.”
At another flash of bright light from behind me, Kat yelped. “That was way too close to us.”
I whirled around to see our cat frozen in a partially alert position, still staring out the window. In the next instant, a charged lance of blinding starlight struck the very center of the courtyard.
At least, that’s what I thought I was pointing at while Kat emitted a soft “Jesus” from behind me.
Chloe jumped from the window sill and hid under the bed. She’d had enough.
The next two storms were equally strange. Eerily, though Leo slept through a bone-rattling thunderclap in the first storm, the thunder didn’t return for the other squalls. In each case, our apartment appeared to be at the epicenter of where the bolts would impact. This was too scary a coincidence for three consecutive storms.
The effects of global warming weren’t lost on me, but the precision and persistence of these deathly silent lightning strikes seemed to indicate intelligent movement or origin. This bone-chilling possibility, as unlikely as it sounded, caused me insomnia by the end of the week.
“He looks like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man,” Kat said with a twinkle in her eye as she hoisted Leo closer to her shoulder.
“He does not!” I jeered.
“Yes he does. When he cries, he has the same angry face.”
“You mean the face when Stay Puft rampages through New York City?”
Kat nodded emphatically, biting her lower lip, her eyes wide with mock innocence.
“The face he makes when he steps on a church?”
My wife held our son up to me, facing him toward me. She drew closer until Leo’s nose was inches from mine. “That’s the one,” she said.
I kissed Leo’s forehead. His face, ever so expressive, lit up so that I laughed. “Such a meanie.”
“I think we should dress him up as Stay Puft for Halloween!” Kat exclaimed, the pitch of her voice rising with anticipation.
“Aww no!” I laughed. “Are you serious?”
Kat’s responding grin was the most mischievous I’d seen from her in a long time. “Think about it.”
“Do I have to?”
“I sent you a link.”
“Oh shit,” I chuckled.
The link sat in my mobile phone’s text messages, and I went to the kitchen and clicked on it. I had to admit it. She had a fair point. Looking at the puffy costume of a rampaging movie villain from the eighties, I knew Leo could definitely pull off the look, especially at his most irascible.
A while later, I heard Kat struggling to soothe Leo during yet another crying jag. I held my phone up to my face once again, the Stay Puft boy innocently grinning back at me. I laughed so hard I doubled over, put my hands on my knees, and shook with unrestrained mirth.
Leo had just turned four months old a few days ago, and he’d apparently chosen to mark the occasion by serenading us nightly with even louder, more sustained crying. I remembered what the literature said, and what doctors and specialists had confirmed.
“Colic tends to hit its peak at around four months of age.”
My boy was already a living, breathing statistic. I wiped a tear of laughter from my face, convinced that Kat’s proposal for Leo’s costume was her way of acknowledging that the baby’s Colic was driving her crazy too.
It didn’t surprise me, therefore, to find myself waiting in a hospital orthopedic clinic while my wife took Leo into an upper east side hospital ER on Labor Day. Covid-19 protocols dictated only one parent could enter with a child. Hospital personnel hurriedly ushered Kat into the ER waiting area, pushing Leo’s stroller. This ostensibly left me to my own devices.
As she’d ordered an xray and an ultrasound of his lower abdomen, I knew Leo’s pediatrician was looking for something serious. I was a worried father trying to identify any possible causes for my baby’s pain. Yet my mind wandered back to recent, unnerving events, and I suddenly wondered if doctors were just as likely to find some sort of extra terrestrial tracking device inside my son.
“Oh lord,” I whispered to myself. “Am I going to become some UFO nut who sees conspiracy everywhere?”
“You need to calm down,” said a man’s voice to my left.
I looked toward the speaker in surprise only to see a tall, black man with grey hair, a pink, short sleeve polo and khakis speaking with wide-eyed intensity into his mobile phone. I sighed, looking away, only to see another man across the lobby in a blue T shirt run a nervous hand through his curly, white hair. I noted the Indian couple that stood to the right of the main entrance. The man, sporting a salt and pepper beard, donning crisp, “dress casual” attire, put a consoling arm around a frowning brunette woman wearing a beautiful, deep emerald Sari. Both wore eye-catching gold jewelry.
The security officer spoke animatedly with a blonde nurse.
Nobody looked my way. Why would they?
Without warning, the lobby’s temperature seemed to plummet, and the hair at the back of my neck suddenly stood on end. A cold wave of terror surged down my spine, and I sensed I was being watched.
“Who the hell?” I whispered to myself
I scanned the room again, realized nobody was looking my way, then peered at the front exit. This exit comprised a central revolving glass door and four regular glass doors, two on each side of the revolving entrance.
A lone figure resembling a tall, broad shouldered man ensconced in pure darkness stood inches from the revolving door.
I froze. That man should have been easy to see. With all the street lights and other light sources in the city, someone would have to wear an all black jumpsuit and ski mask for their identifying features to be that well hidden. That was scary enough.
This figure seemed darker than darkness itself, almost as if it could swallow light. The shape was masculine, as far as I could tell.
For reasons that still escape me, I stood up. My palms felt moist, and my throat went dry, but I continued to stare at the shadowy figure. As I was rising, the figure seemed to double in bulk, as though Bruce Banner had just gotten angry enough to silently Hulk out. This mystery man also seemed a lot taller than I thought.
Then I thought of my son with my wife two doors away, and something shifted inside me. My chest swelled, and my muscles tightened. Searing anger suddenly shot to my extremities in a jolt. I straightened my spine, planting my feet shoulder width apart. I didn’t know this man from Adam, but his very existence was suddenly an affront to me, especially as he just stood there, perfectly still, watching me as though he had all the time in the world.
“Your move, dickhead.” I whispered, suddenly remembering the stranger wouldn’t be able to read my lips behind my mask.
Before embarrassment could sink my superhero paternal machismo, twin points of bright blue light flashed into existence within the hidden face of the shadow man.
Were those supposed to be his eyes? I almost didn’t want to know. Even as a shudder ran through my torso, I refused to look away.
The points of light took a more defined form, their top edges slanting inward towards the bridge of an unseen nose. A pair of white pupils completed the frightening look, glowing with what felt like ominous determination.
This wasn’t a man at all. Was it even human? Was it alive? Whatever the hell it was, this “apparition” hadn’t moved.
Against my better judgment, I took a stride forward, refusing to back down even though my mind was screaming at the rest of me to stop and reconsider my options.
The instant my lead heel touched the floor, the inky solidity of the massive stranger seemed to phase out of sync with this reality, and he became transparent. I could suddenly see through this man to the cars zipping down Madison Avenue just behind him.
After a few seconds, only the eyes remained as solid and as bright as before. They narrowed into tiny, malevolent arches, and I could somehow feel this figure was proffering a mocking leer.
“You okay, man?”
I gasped, jumping just about a foot in the air before whirling around. I was met with the concerned, but calm gaze of the security officer behind his desk.
“Y-yeah,” I replied, clutching my jacket sleeve. “Think someone out there just got a jump on Halloween, is all.” I hitched my thumb behind me, toward the front entrance.
The officer craned his head forward and squinted. “Who? There’s nobody there.”
I knew he wouldn’t see anything or anybody, but I still cringed when the officer said those four words.
“You sure you’re okay?”
I held up a forestalling hand and shut my eyes. “Yeah, I’m cool. I think I’ll just go get some air while I wait for my wife and kid.”
And that’s what I did. Sort of. I actually patrolled the block around the ER for another hour and a half, looking for that thing. My wife and son were inside. I couldn’t risk that psycho, monster, whatever the hell it was going after them, yet how was I supposed to talk to my wife about this?
“I’m here, honey. Just patrolling for some crazy, glowy-eyed spirit man monster thingie in case it wants to hurt you. No worries!”
Even thinking these words made me laugh, albeit nervously.
“Seriously, what the hell is going on here?” I asked myself as I walked back toward Madison Avenue. “And how the fuck is it somehow connected to my son? Is it connected to my son?”
Eventually, my wife and son were discharged. We walked home together though it was a little over a mile away. Kat hadn’t been out of our home for quite a while, and she was actually walking down the street pushing the stroller with a bounce in her step.
Thankfully, Leo was asleep. He had no horse in this race.
I was on high alert the rest of the night. I kept feeling someone’s gaze on me, and I turned to inspect random spots along the sidewalk if I thought I saw something strange.
At one point during our walk, we encountered another apparently abandoned stroller beneath a scaffolding close to Cathedral Parkway. The stroller’s brakes were on, and it was left next to some residential buildings and a shuttered retail front that used to be a Starbucks. A tattered, unzipped backpack full of dirty clothes, strips of paper and sordid junk lay ensconced beneath the stroller’s dirty and worn canopy. The streets were oddly devoid of other people or vehicular traffic. Only long shadows of buildings, dumpsters and parked cars next to street lights remained to bear mute witness to this creepy moment.
While staring at this dilapidated stroller, I felt an ugly churning in the pit of my stomach, and I was certain we were being observed. Was the thing I saw earlier responsible for this? Was it mocking me and my family with this hideous, terrifying display?
Again, I did a complete 360, scanning everywhere. No visible being was spying on us.
I practically snatched Leo’s stroller from my wife’s hands, walked away from the hair-raising, abandoned baby vehicle and was home with the family within ten minutes.
Days later, we received word of the results of both ER exams. All they’d found was extreme gas. No solutions for that were put forward.
The mystery just became more complicated. Other doctors had insisted Leo’s Colic was due to extreme reflux, known in medical circles as GERD.
Now we might be dealing with a two-pronged problem. Balls.
Fortunately, both were theoretically treatable. Unfortunately, many of the experts with whom we were dealing had different, even opposing philosophies and interventions for us to ascribe to and try. Kat and I were already exhausted from the stress and lack of sleep. I didn’t think it was worth taking more expensive trips to specialists who ultimately couldn’t or wouldn’t help us. Kat eventually agreed, though she always kept an ear open for more information.
A sort of Hail Mary formula change from Luke’s pediatrician meant a larger hit to the wallet. What I would find out later was how difficult so specialized a formula was to obtain in our Harlem Neighborhood. This meant a forty-five minute walk to an eastside Target one day after a terrible morning shift at work. Target was the closest location to have the formula in stock, and their online delivery portal was broken.
Kat decided to come along, which of course meant this was now a family trip. I was stressed, and had hoped to do this on my own, but I knew Kat needed the outdoor time. Hopefully, Leo would sleep through most of the trip.
The walk there wasn’t so terrible as it was long. It was the walk back that concerned me.
I’d spent more money than I’d budgeted (welcome to fatherhood), so I wasn’t in the best mood. But as the sun went down, dark, almost apocalyptic clouds began to slowly roll in from the north. That sent a prickly feeling down my spine that made me pick up the pace a little. I was pushing Leo, bobbing and weaving his stroller through cracks in the sidewalk, pedestrians who paid no mind, even bees hanging out near street corner trash cans.
Halfway through the trip, I felt that sinking in the pit of my stomach that told me we were being monitored by someone (or something) again. I was gunning it home, my grip on the handle of Leo’s stroller so tight that I could hear my knuckles pop every so often.
As darkness approached, shadows lengthened, and the air almost hummed with malevolent energy. People’s movements became more difficult to track, and I found myself watching their eyes and their hands more carefully.
We made it home without incident.
The feeling of being watched manifested multiple times after the ER visit, yet its occurrence was inconsistent. I could go for days at a time, just living life, losing myself in the challenges of caring for Leo and his Colic. Then, something in the air would unexpectedly shift, and noise just died around me. Birds stopped chirping. Traffic slowed. Even people’s random conversations faded the moment they sensed the presence too.
Given the already tense situation with Leo’s colic, my paranoia, for reasons real or imagined, wasn’t making things any easier on our family. I was edgier than ever, unable to stomach feelings of being followed while trying to care for an intense, colicky baby. The situation got so bad one day, Kat had to stop me as I was frantically yanking all of our blinds closed to ask what the hell was going on.
At that point, I was ready to risk my wife’s scorn or ridicule. I told her everything she didn’t know about, and how it might all tie in with the freaky storms we both witnessed in the summer.
My wife grasped my shoulders and kissed me. “You need a break,” was all Kat could say as her eyes watered.
I lowered my head, almost in surrender. Kat reacted exactly as I expected, and she had ample reason to do so. Any of the things I’d experienced could be exhaustion-induced hallucinations. Connecting everything I saw and felt with those eerie summer storms made for a great story, but it wasn’t proof. I knew that, deep down. The abandoned stroller could easily have been a scary coincidence. Tensions regarding Leo’s medical care were so incredibly high. Was it really so strange that my mind might seek an other worldly explanation for something so traumatic and outside my comfort zone?
Frankly, given how elaborate my story was, I was lucky my wife didn’t have me sent to the hospital or something.
Instead, Kat employed a mid September visit from my mother in law to allow me extra time to rest up. The visit, which lasted a week, was a welcome reprieve. Kat and I were given just a little more time to relax together, especially as Leo’s doting grandmother was so great with him.
As my physical and emotional fatigue ebbed, my feelings of being stalked by a mysterious malevolence died down. I began to think more clearly, and I helped my wife make plans for the family’s future. Due to a lucky opportunity, we moved into a larger, two bedroom apartment from a one bedroom setup. A new bedroom meant a new nursery for Leo. It also meant more space for me, Kat, and our four legged family members.
Fall eventually arrived. Daily temperatures dipped a little, though humidity levels remained high for the first three weeks. Leaves began to fall, and the sweet, musty smell that came with the rich reds, yellows and ambers reminded me of playing with piles of Central Park’s fall leaves as a kid. I couldn’t help but smile while picturing an older Leo kicking up dried leaves in the same park while playing games with other kids. I hoped the pandemic would be under tighter control by then.
Colic remained an issue, but that didn’t stop Kat from making good on a promise she made (mostly to herself) to find a Stay Puft Marshmallow Man Halloween costume for Leo to wear for his first Halloween. She priced out and eventually ordered an outfit appropriate for 3-6 month olds. The costume arrived with ten days to spare before the Holiday, but I chuckled in amusement at my wife’s barely restrained euphoria. Minutes after I brought the costume package upstairs, Kat strolled into our new living room from Leo’s nursery, gingerly carrying a rather pensive looking mini-Stay Puft that looked a lot like my son.
“Don’t step on any churches this time,” I said with a laugh.
Halloween arrived. I looked out the south-facing nursery window while Kat dressed Leo in his Stay Puft finery. Leo remained curiously calm, even while his diaper was changed and the costume had to be buckled onto him for a proper fit. Kat insisted on putting it on him herself.
“So who are we meeting?” I asked.
Kat chuckled. “One other mom from our building.”
“You met her through that Facebook group?”
“Yep. She dropped off some hand-me-downs for Leo before the move.”
“Oh yeah! Marcus’ s mom, right?” I nodded. “She seemed nice. Cute kid too.”
Without looking my way, Kat gave me a “thumb up.” She began to struggle with the last of the costume’s buckles. I offered my help, and my wife happily stepped back. “Do you remember her name?” she asked.
I smiled sheepishly. “No.”
“This should be very interesting.”
Leo responded by making a noise that sounded like a drawn out “squee” of a happy dolphin.
We both laughed.
Getting to the park once Stay Puft Leo was strapped into the stroller was an enjoyable affair. Kat, who’d donned a long, black fall coat with a beautiful embroidered peacock on the back seemed to be in her element. She’d gotten her hair done this morning, and her favorite colorist had done her justice, creating a deep almost blood orange red that went well with the peacock themed makeup Kat expertly applied just before dressing Leo. She exuded an almost languorous confidence.
I wasn’t in costume, but Leo and Kat were more than welcome to partake in the holiday spirit. I was content to enjoy the crisp fall air and the occasional swirl of dried, dessicated orange and yellow leaves around my boots.
We took the same path we’d always taken, meandering in Harlem from Saint Nicholas, up through Manhattan Avenue, past the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine on 110th. As we made our way to the nearby Central Park entrance, we came to the same scaffolding where, on the night of Leo’s ER visit, we’d found that abandoned stroller.
I was pushing Leo now, as then. When we began to pass underneath the metal cross beams, Kat gave me a sideways glance.
“I’m okay,” I laughed. “Really.”
“I don’t think we’re being watched or followed or anything if that’s what you’re worried about.”
Kat’s response was to pat my shoulder, grab onto one of Leo’s stroller’s handlebars, and push the stroller past this point as quickly as possible. Now, it seemed, it was her turn to be nervous.
We made it to the Park entrance. A smiling woman with a mocha complexion, wearing a dark shawl and grey tights waved at us as her baby son, Marcus, clad as a giant fuzzy pumpkin, bobbed up and down excitedly in his seat.
Kat squealed a hello to this woman, who shrieked back happily. “You made it!”
“Of course, Debra!” Kat exclaimed, glancing at me before quickly shifting her attention to Leo.
The woman pointed to Leo, paused briefly, put a hand on her chest and laughed. “Your baby is dressed like Gozer!”
Kat and I just burst out laughing. Who knew our neighbor was a fan?
“Are you okay?”
Kat sighed, sidling up to me while pushing Leo in his stroller. “You haven’t said much to Debra or Marcus. And you seem nervous.”
I almost snorted. My wife read me very well. I’d been sensing that something was off ever since we got to the park, yet I couldn’t put my finger on what it was.
“I feel like a fifth wheel,” I grumbled. “Where’s Marcus’s dad?”
“He couldn’t come. Debra didn’t say why.”
I huffed like a frustrated horse.
Kat laughed. “You sound like our rabbit now.”
I stayed quiet, not wanting to pick a fight and ruin Kat’s time out with a new friend.
Kat waited a beat before she rallied. “You can go home if you want.”
“Are you serious?”
She nodded. “I can stay with Leo. You might need more time to yourself.”
After a deep breath, I shook my head. “Nah. I’ll be alright, even if I am the only guy here.”
“Trust me,” Kat said, smiling. “You’re getting huge daddy points for that.”
Kat dropped back with Leo so she could re-engage with Debra and Marcus. It was just like Kat to watch me act like a paranoid weirdo and still give me “daddy points.”
All the “daddy points” in the world couldn’t get me to shake off the unease I felt. I just got the impression that something or someone was lurking around here just.. waiting.
I stopped at the turtle pond just feet from the park entrance and took a better look at people. Many parents, some excited, others looking tired or distracted by their phones, walked by with kids in various costumes. There seemed to be a preponderance of kids dressed up as the Mandalorian. Other kids jumped out from behind trees dressed as various dinosaurs or giant amphibians. A couple of little Loki lookalikes pretended to gore people with their plastic horns (too young to appreciate a good comic book villain). Superheroes, witches, Frankenstein and one lone “wolf-girl” walked past, baring her fangs at me before waving with her tiny paw.
I found myself wondering how Leo would take to Halloween as he grew older when I realized neither woman had caught up with me at all. I hadn’t been walking that fast, and we’d barely made it into the park.
I turned toward the park entrance, expecting to see them laughing and talking with one another. Maybe Leo was finally awake and enjoying the weather.
However, I suddenly didn’t hear any people at all. I turned on my heel, scanning the park. Absolutely nobody else seemed to be about anymore. No more kids in costumes dragging tired parents behind them. No adults on their way to grown-up Halloween parties dressed as Roman senators and naughty nurses.
Once I realized I could no longer hear any sounds of wildlife, my stomach lurched. The park was so silent, my ears began to ring. I was too used to the cacophony, to the sheer buzz of people in NYC. An evening in Central Park during Halloween should have been especially active.
Awful thoughts began to rush through my mind, and I quickly fought to stem that tide through action. I pulled my smartphone from a jacket pocket. There were no text messages or voicemails from Kat.
There was also virtually no battery power left though I’d left the apartment with a fully charged phone less than an hour ago. What the actual fuck? Still, I took a chance to send one text to Kat.
-where are you?
A minute passed. Then two. Then I got the dreaded red words “not delivered” underneath the message. After that, my phone died. Smartphone my ass!
I felt the sweat start to gather on my forehead, even as I fought to inject logic into these increasingly worrisome events. If there had been some sort of major accident nearby, that might account for the absence of many people here, but not all. I never heard anything, and we’d still been close enough to the park entrance to hear a major accident. Further, no emergency vehicles were blasting their sirens, rushing to the scene.
I stalked back into the park, entertaining the slim possibility that both women with babies in strollers somehow moved past me noiselessly while I was distracted. Otherwise, they backtracked and went home without me.
I didn’t like the implications of either scenario.
I trekked on, and saw no one lingering in the encroaching darkness. Storm clouds gathered above me from all directions, and I quickened my pace. Shadows stretched and lengthened wherever there was light from sparsely placed street lamps. I moved, scanning the area, pretending my head was an oscillating scope.
Minutes stretched like hours. The unexpected shrieking of an infant reached my ears, and I almost fell down, sobbing. I sprinted, zooming past the baseball field to my right without a backward glance.
At the sight of a stroller just yards away, I just about flew forward. However, as I got within feet of the familiar object, I swore and almost lost my footing. Instead of Leo’s normal vehicle, there stood the abandoned stroller from that fateful September night. The thing seemed even more worn than before. Moth eaten holes littered the canopy. Shreds of cloth hung down from the seat as if a massive beast had torn at the thing with lethal claws.
I jogged the last few feet, preparing myself for some nightmarish scenario involving possessed baby dolls or dismembered infant corpses.
Instead of a filthy backpack, Leo was indeed inside this haunted-looking wreck, bawling his eyes out. I immediately picked him up and held him to me, kissing his cheeks before I quickly inspected him for obvious trauma. No blood, no broken bones. Just a shredded Stay Puft Costume, which brought to mind way too many frightening questions.
I held Leo upright in one arm and took a step back from the stroller. After looking around, I realized I was back at the turtle pond. I didn’t remember reversing course, and a large circle would also have felt obvious. Perhaps adrenaline temporarily wiped out my internal compass.
“Where the hell is your mother, Leo?” I pleaded. “She never would’ve left you alone.”
True heart- pounding, cold-sweat-on-the-brow panic began to eat away at any sense of calm I had left. Debra, Kat and the two kids might be in serious trouble, and I could neither summon them on my phone nor call the cops. I wasn’t winning any “father of the year” awards for losing my wife and her new friends, but I’d found Leo. That was a start.
I walked back into the park again. With deliberate pacing, I attempted to landmark while surveying our dark surroundings. I held Leo closer, and he silently clung to me, squeezing with his tiny hands.
A jolt in the pit of my stomach set my hackles up, and I felt like prey being stalked. I fought the urge to turn tail and run, but I had to stay calm now, as much for Leo’s sake as for mine. A crying infant would be a shining beacon to any apex predators, vengeful spirits or knife wielding psychos out here, and I was no longer sure which I was dealing with.
I snuck once more past the dimly lit baseball field. My wife wasn’t there. Nobody, in fact, appeared visible. That sent a violent chill throughout my body. When I came upon a hill that I hadn’t ever seen before, I froze. Leo picked up his head as I’d stopped moving, and I could feel his chest swell, for he was about to wake the dead with a shriek.
In haste, I scrambled up the hill with Leo, knowing that reaching the top left us clearly visible to a vigilant hunter. I hoped to find my wife, Debra and Marcus on the other side.
So when I arrived at the other side and saw the exact same turtle pond I’d stopped at twice before, my stomach heaved. A cold wind seemed to stab at my cheekbones while freezing tendrils of fright snaked along my vertebrae.
“What the fuck’s going on?” I asked, holding Leo tighter.
Before I could gather my wits, a colossal “boom” shook my world, rattling my teeth. I fell on my ass, holding onto Leo for dear life. As I looked above the treeline behind the pond, forked lightning split the sky, casting the surrounding clouds in an eerie green hue. To my absolute bewilderment, the bolts appeared to bend around a gigantic, black triangle hovering perfectly still in the night sky as though it had always been there.
“Kat, are you in that thing?” I blurted out. “Debra? Marcus?”
Prongs of lightning forked and danced in the atmosphere. I heaved myself to my feet, pressing a sobbing baby to my chest. Another thunderclap cleaved the air right above us, shaking the ground. Leo started in my arms.
There was one thing left to try. I held Leo like a football, pivoted, and took a short, steadying breath, preparing to charge toward the park exit. Rain hadn’t fallen yet, so I might be able to avoid slipping as I escaped with my son.
A sound combining bending metal, the spinning rotors of a massive helicopter, heavy electronic interference, and something inexplicably organic seemed to swirl around me. A voice emerged from within that sound uttering one “word” that was, at once, ethereal and sepulchral.
The word wasn’t spoken aloud. Instead, an external thought was planted into my brain and allowed to swim within my grey matter until it coalesced into a command I understood; an order I refused to follow.
Lightning struck just feet in front of us. The bolt never hit the ground. Instead, a tall, familiar shadow figure appeared to snap into existence below the tip of the prong. With a wide stance, “it” raised what looked like a pair of clawed hands.
I hopped back with a cry, bringing Leo into a two armed hold.
“Not a request,” commanded the same, alien voice. Yet I somehow knew the shadowy creature was not the speaker.
I wasn’t going to try to get past the shadow monster. Going further into the park was clearly out. A subtle shift in air pressure caused my ears to pop, and I gasped.
I didn’t want to turn toward the turtle pond. The leaden feeling in my stomach told me real danger was imminent. A prickly sensation scuttled over my limbs, and I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand straighter than porcupine quills.
My body chose to home in on the pond despite my mind’s desperate calls for a “cease and desist.” I wanted to put Leo behind me, to protect him. Yet some grotesquely stupid and suggestible part of my psyche was being manipulated by something terrifying I couldn’t identify. All I could do was clutch Leo tightly in front of me while the rest of my body betrayed me.
Lightning danced throughout the sky, the flashes reflected in the shimmering, black pond water. From beneath, a small mound broke the water’s surface, and concentric ripples flared outward. The shadowy mass, so black it seemed to swallow the light around it emerged and began to take shape. A large, oblong form rose first resembling a giant, upside down bowling pin. What followed was a much larger oval, and for a split second, I allowed myself to picture a badly constructed snowman in the middle of someone’s unlit, rural backyard.
The lightning ceased, and in the near darkness, I felt my knees tremble. The mysterious object floated just above the water’s surface. I looked and listened hard for signs of intelligence or life itself.
A titanic thunderclap seemed to split the heavens. A humongous lightning bolt struck the top of the dark structure, triggering the instant, explosive release of what resembled smoky, black tentacles. Four of these appendages shot straight for me and Leo before splitting apart from one another at the last moment. Two of these things whizzed by my ears.
The shock brought me back to my senses. I pivoted, turning my back to the pond and trying desperately to protect Leo from whatever the fuck this was. I shut my eyes, holding Leo as close to me as I could while these appendages darted past my ears, brushed past my shoulders and swirled all around us.
Though I was desperate not to, I opened my eyes. What I saw made my stomach turn.
Thick, segmented appendages swirled and danced around me with apparent serpentine intelligence. What I thought was smoke coming off the limbs seemed to be darkness itself, as though it too was alive with its own energy. The being’s remaining skin seemed transparent at first. However, the color and texture of this skin shifted right away to match its environment. This combination of features was difficult to visually track on numerous, independently moving extensions.
Of course, that became easier when one of these tentacles almost obligingly slowed down to point at my face. Flashes of lightning briefly reflected on parts of its surface.
I was hypnotized, watching this unusual limb shimmer, then change color to match the tones of my skin and clothing.
The thin barb that extended itself from the tip with a “snap” broke that spell rather fast.
“T-time?” I stammered.
The very tip of the barb began to glisten. The shining point expanded into a droplet. The droplet, now an almost fluorescent green, grew again while the tentacle subtly twitched.
The next things I saw and felt would be difficult for anyone to describe. The image of a strange, black figure forced its way into my mind, yet I felt as if I was standing in front of a slowly spinning fan, and behind the rotation of each blade, the figure shifted and writhed.
An intense white glow suddenly shone on the creature, as though it were standing in front of a stage light. A rapid, nauseating strobing effect began. Each ‘click’ of the light threw the being’s features into sharp relief.
Roughly nine feet off the ground, the head sat atop a long, triangular torso that included broad, yet emaciated shoulders within a protruding, skeletal framework. Long, spindly arms appeared to dangle at the figure’s sides. A pair of stretched, sinewy limbs resembling the hind legs of a shaved dog supported the torso. However, four enormous talons comprised each of this creature’s feet.
An elongated face, which included a pointed chin and an enormous, almost dome-like top, lowered its gaze to me. There were no apparent ears. Enormous, insectoid pools of a fathomless black stared down at me, unblinking, atop a pair of tiny slits for a nose. A thin gash for a mouth slowly opened, unexpectedly long and wide, revealing lethal, needle-like teeth.
The horrific visage sent an arctic chill straight through me, and I fought back tears.
The alien tilted its head as though observing a peculiar specimen.
“No,” I muttered, fighting against the unfolding epiphany within. This silent standoff began to reveal a forbidden knowledge lost and forgotten by some, purposefully hidden from others. It dawned on me that my son was somehow directly involved in the saga of an ancient, alien world still largely unknown to contemporary humanity.
I’d been given clues that something was different about my baby boy. I just didn’t know what that “something” was until now. For the first time in my life, I saw a bigger picture of the known universe, and I despised it.
“No,” I growled through clenched teeth. I was about to snap.
Leo, who should have been screaming bloody murder at all this, had once again been silent as the grave.
The creature shifted its gaze to him, nodding in one frighteningly human gesture. The moment felt artificial, like an animated drawing within a gigantic flip book.
I looked down to Leo, still wrapped in my trembling arms. Leo had extended his right hand to the creature, his chubby little fingers splayed; a signal of human innocence.
“Time to go..”
Three things happened in unison.
A pair of writhing tentacles suddenly rocketed straight for Leo.
A sharp needle-like tip pierced the side of my neck with a bone-popping thud.
I tried to scream. Nothing escaped my quivering lips.
A tingling sensation radiated through my chest as my muscles slowly released their tension. Only my trembling arms remained tight as they continued to clutch Leo.
However, a ringing began in my ears, and what looked like two tiny, writhing black serpents began to swim into my field of vision.
As my shoulders relaxed, the serpents seemed to multiply slowly.
Meanwhile, I heard Leo’s shrieking cry, his voice altered as though he were being held in front of a giant fan on a “low” setting. My baby boy’s voice swirled around me like a dust devil, though it started to fade beneath the thundering of my heartbeat within my ears.
My limbs were losing their strength. I struggled to remain upright, to protect my son at all costs.
Unfortunately, my knees gave out, refusing to support my weight anymore. As I began to plummet, something tugged at Leo. I felt myself careening forward as I hung onto my baby’s fat little legs, but the world and everything in it was moving in slow motion. I almost felt like a helium balloon being dragged along by a little boy.
Leo would not be that little boy.
My tongue refused to work anymore. A strange giddiness started to assert itself within me, and I fought to tamp it down.
My fingers lost their grip on Leo, and my final connection to him was the tip of my tingling pinky to his little toe. At least I thought that’s what I felt. My senses were blunted, and my thought process slowed down.
I wound up falling on my back, staring up at the sky. By now, the ringing in my ears blocked out all remaining sound. I thought I felt the ground shake, but was no longer sure. Only my eyes seemed to want to work, but my field of vision was rapidly narrowing thanks to the presence of multiple tiny, wiggling and darting things floating in front of my eyes.
Another flash of lightning showed me the gigantic triangle hovering in the sky, and It seemed to be rotating slowly. Within the next flash, the triangle vanished.
I knew right there and then my baby boy was gone, and as the darkness closed in on me, I let the euphoria take over, desperate not to feel the pain of my ultimate failure to protect my family.
I’ll find you again.
Find out more about Angel on his Facebook page.