Owen Gage stood over me, knife in hand, while I lay bound and bleeding on the bedroom floor. What transpired that night would prove a pinnacle moment in time. It would forever alter the courses that both our lives would take.
The significance would be lost without knowing that the story didn’t start nor end there. It stretches a long way both directions in time and goes all the way back to the first grade.
Mrs. Chen had brought our class through the woods beyond the schoolyard one Friday afternoon for a nature study to finish off the week. She paired us up and sent us off to collect different types of leaves to see if we could identify what tree they belonged to.
I don’t remember exactly how I lost my partner or why I had strayed so far from the group– but for whatever reason, my six-year-old self decided to forage off the path alone.
It took a little while for the fear of straying from the group to kick in. At first, I thought it fortunate to find another of my classmates away from their partner and the group as well.
I knew his name was Owen because on the first day of school he’d said Octopus Owen when Mrs. Chen had us all introduce ourselves with the name of an animal starting with the same first letter as our name. After that little exercise, I hadn’t heard him say a word to me or anyone else.
He kneeled at the edge of the creek downhill from where I stood. His light blue jeans were muddied from the cuffs up through his shins. He kept his back turned to me while he worked away frivolously on something in front of him.
I lifted the bottom of my dress and used a stick to keep me upright while I carefully made my way down towards him. About halfway, he heard the leaves crunching beneath my feet. His head perked up. His hands stopped moving and he lifted his head.
“What took you so long?” he said before turning to face me. His change in facial expression was instantaneous. So much shock, so much fear.
“What do you mean?” I asked him when I reached the bottom of the hill. I tossed my walking stick into the creek and watched it float for a while before getting caught against the bank close to where he’d been working.
Owen moved his lips to say something but quickly thought better of it. He took a step back to the place where’d been working. He closed his legs together so I couldn’t see through them. He pivoted his body to keep blocking my view while I made my way towards the water.
I pretended I didn’t notice what he was doing. Again, I lifted the bottom of my dress to keep dry to the best of my abilities and knelt next to the creek. I started making little zigzags along the surface with my finger and watched the Water Bugs skip upstream towards where he’d been working.
I was in a spot Owen couldn’t completely obstruct my view. What I saw in the spot he’d been trying to hide was tough to process at first. Three miniature bodies were strewn out on a rock. Their brown and green skin was moist in the areas where it wasn’t ripped or broken. One of them was separated from its webbed feet which looked like they’d been ripped off and cast away into the mud. Their frog organs had been pulled out from their bellies and were dangling way below them.
I looked up and met Owen’s eyes.
“Don’t tell,” he said.
“Owen, what did you do?”
“Don’t tell, Heather.”
Perhaps I was too naive to grasp the gravity of the situation. I stood up and started to walk towards him, his shoulders slouching more and more with every step. My eyes periodically glanced at the carnage he’d left on his little makeshift work station behind him.
Owen moved out of the way without any fuss when I reached him. From up close, it became very clear what the young boy had wandered off to the creek to do that day.
A little bit of my innocence died. I started to cry. My sobs sounded in the open air and trees above us.
“Don’t tell,” he urged again from behind me.
I covered my eyes with my hands and tried to control myself. I wondered if the rest of the group was close enough to hear me.
“Please, Heather, don’t say anything. I’ll be in so much trouble. They’ll call my parents.”
I looked at the remnants of the frogs one more time then looked down towards my feet.
“Mrs. Chen will tell my parents and they’ll take me out of school.”
There was a long silence that followed. I wished with everything inside me that I had never strayed from the group.
“I won’t tell,” I said finally. Perhaps I was feeling particularly compassionate that day. More likely I just said it because I thought it would be the best way to leave the presence of Owen Gage and get back with the class.
It was the right call. When I turned back towards him, he had my walking stick gripped in his hands and maybe a foot or two behind my head. His face was cold and he was looking at me wide-eyed, with his teeth grit.
Fortunes were in my favour that I didn’t push the disturbed young man too far that day. He was able to reign himself in. He wouldn’t lash out at another human for a couple years.
Naive as it may have been, I did, in fact, keep my word to Owen and never told anyone about what I saw down at the creek. I also made a point to avoid him as much as I could from that day forward. Not that it proved to be a particularly difficult task. I just continued doing as myself and the rest of class always did.
Never interact with Owen.
I wonder what Mrs. Chen and the other school staff thought about Owen were from their adult perspective while he progressed from grades one through three. Though obviously never in plain sight of us, my guess is that there were many discussions behind closed doors with Owen’s parents about why their child was having such a hard time getting along at school.
From the outside looking in, it’s hard to pinpoint what or when exactly it was where things failed to click for Owen as a developing child. By all accounts, he was in good health and part of an Indiana middle-class family in a middle-class neighbourhood. He was raised as a single child in a loving home with all the opportunities and resources that any kid in town had. His father was a plumber who did work on my house as well as plenty others on my street. His mother was a teacher who taught in another school on the other side of town.
Unless a dark and evil secret existed behind the walls of that little red house on Cecil Street, no one could fairly pin the blame on his mom and dad or the environment they raised their son in.
I believe Owens problems ran far deeper than any of us could see on the surface. He was doomed and outcast by the sum of the many moving parts within his nature. Something dreadful from deep inside him was always urging to hang back from the group, to eat alone at his desk, or spend the teacher’s lessons drawing morbid pictures of people dying at his desk.
How long can a child go through middle school like that and fly under the radar? How long before he becomes the inevitable victim of the physical and psychological torment of his peers?
Not very long. An already disturbed mind was not equipped to handle the suffering he experienced nearly every day at school.
I can say with honesty that not once did I partake in the constant bullying of Owen Gage. I was never the one calling him names, stealing things from his backpack, or hunting him down at recess to beat him up.
You could say I was guilty of being a bystander– and you will get no argument from me. I was raised to always do the right thing and that’s what I thought I was doing all along. Even if that meant standing idly by while the popular boys, the ones who my friends were hanging out with more all the time, picked on Owen at every chance they got.
Understand that Owen was more than simply the social outcast with an obsession with all things dead and dying. Ever since the day at the creek, the day I promised myself I’d make as little contact with him as possible, I could feel him hovering over me like a bad omen any time I was in his presence. It was like he was always just out of the corner of my eye.
Sometimes it would be something seemingly harmless, like catching him staring from across class– this is when we were young, long before the prepubescent boys started to do the same.
Other times it felt more sinister. I would notice him hanging around the line of trees at the end of the yard, hiding and staring while I skipped rope with my friends. Sometimes I’d look over my shoulder and see him twenty paces behind me while walking home. He lived in the other direction from the school than I did. There was no reason for him to be heading the same way.
So you see it was an act of self-defense that I never stepped in to help Owen Gage. I couldn’t risk strengthening the bond with him in any way.
I started getting interested in boys in the third grade. It was the beginning of the early stages of an innocent attraction towards a boy in my class. I started finding it preferable to leave my friends at recess or stay late after school to hang around with the guys on the baseball team.
I took an affection towards a boy named Chase Anthony. He played Shortstop and was the best hitter on the team. As time passed I started to suspect his feelings towards me were much the same. His friends would tease us when we walked around the outside of the field together and say one day we’d grow up and have babies together.
The joke never bothered me. I was smitten with Chase. For years it did seem like the direction we were headed.
I was the first girl in my grade to get my first kiss. I can’t say for certain, but I think Chase was the first of the boys as well. Either way, the day both his friends and mine spread whispers amongst each other that eventually led to us meeting behind the last portable at the edge of the yard was the most nervous I’d ever felt.
Chase was already waiting there. He told me that he’d kissed a girl at summer camp the year before, but I didn’t believe him. His cheeks were so red and he kept looking at the ground instead of looking at me.
My stomach felt like it was going to crawl up my throat and jump out my mouth. I knew everyone was watching, so I just acted. I walked briskly towards him, grabbed his head and pulled it down towards mine.
Everyone was swooning in the background and giggling amongst each other. Chase’s big body trembled. It felt like he was trying to pull his head back against the hand I was using to hold him in place. Slowly he relaxed, and for a brief time, I knew that he was enjoying it just as much as me.
Then every muscle in his body relaxed at once. He went entirely limp and his full weight collapsed in my arms.
I opened my eyes. The girls screamed behind me. Chase’s friends were yelling angry things that I couldn’t make out while I was fumbling with Chase, trying not to drop him.
I slowly lowered to the ground and lay him as gently as I could on the concrete. I looked up and saw Owen taking big steps backwards away from us. He had a big rock, like the one he’d killed the frogs upon, brandished above his head. He tossed it to the ground and ran in the other direction before Chase’s friends caught up and proceeded to pummel him within an inch of his life.
Chase’s eyes stared distantly up towards the clouds. One arm was stretched over his head, the other over his body with his fingers dangling above the ground. Blood dripped out from somewhere under his hair where Owen had struck him. It pooled around his head and my shoes.
I screamed so loud the world shook. Fuzzy sounds filled my ears that I think we’re the shouting teacher’s running towards us.
Fortunately for us all, Chase did not die that day. He was out of school for two months while he recovered and returned to the loud cheers of the whole school at an assembly in the gym.
Unlike Chase, Owen never returned to school after that day. The school staff was very careful to make sure we didn’t hear anything about him or where he’d gone.
I saw that as the biggest gift that could have ever been given to me. What happened that day made me hate Owen Gage with all my being. It was a blessing to never have to see him again.
For the next nine years of my life. That’s exactly how things stayed. I even took extra measures, making sure that if I was walking near his neighbourhood that I would take the long way on the main road to bypass.
The most I heard of Owen was when the rumour spread amongst our class in eighth grade that he’d had been kicked out of his new school for luring a girl into the woods and beating her within and cracking her skull with a bat. Some kids said that he’d been taken out of State for Juvie Hall. A couple kids said that he killed himself the same day.
Whatever happened, little information was given to us or even the local media. As far as I was concerned, that was for the best.
Chase and I started dating shortly after he returned back to school and we’d stayed a couple for the near entirety of our childhoods. He had a big dent on the back of his skull from where he’d been struck and sometimes he’d force my hand over it whenever he wanted to make me squeamish.
For all the time that followed up until our senior year, my life and his, returned to the normal suburban upbringing it was always supposed to be. To think that I believed that delusion so long simply because I thought the ever-dangerous Owen was gone forever.
Sometimes, even while lying in Chase’s comforting arms, I would get that little prick of recognition. That feeling where the white hairs on the back of your neck stand up and you swear that someone is watching you. It was so similar to when I would catch Owen staring or stalking from the trees.
All the way up until the night of my prom, that’s the way it remained nothing more than a distant feeling. That night, however, was when everything changed. When my whole world was turned upside down.
Chase and I eventually split in the second semester of our senior year. It was long overdue. He’d been bothering for me to sleep with him since tenth grade and was getting increasingly frustrated with me telling him that I wanted to wait until after we were married.
I broke up with him after last period on a Friday at his locker and scurried all the way home without stopping. I remember him wailing in front of everyone and slamming his locker over and over. I stayed put in my parent’s house that weekend, crying the whole time in my room while my mom brought me meals and told me that it was all for the greater good.
By that end of that weekend, I’d decided not to attend any more parties (not that I was ever big on drinking) until I was away at college the next fall. It even took me a long time to eventually decide to go to prom alone. I probably wouldn’t have tried had it not been for my friends constantly nattering at me.
That was the most peer pressure I succumbed to. I only had a few cups of punch and refused everyone who offered me a sip from the flask or water bottle filled with vodka they’d snuck in.
I went directly home after it was over and was the only one who didn’t go to an after party of some kind. I wouldn’t have been much fun if I had decided to go regardless. I saw Chase with his baseball buds along with all their dates having fun on the far side of the dance hall. Chase looked over his new girlfriend’s shoulder and smiled at me like he was the best thing I’d ever lose.
I didn’t bother stopping to make small talk with my parents when I got home. They were in the living room watching a Dateline with the volume up and barely turned to look when I stormed passed them towards my room at the back of our little bungalow.
I turned the lights on and it was off with the blue dress my older sister wore to prom the year before right away. I tossed it over my chair, along with the rest of what I wore, and lit a couple scented candles.
I went into my bathroom for a shower where I planned to quickly rub down all the sweat and hopefully a little bit of the stress I’d accumulated over the course of the evening.
I didn’t bother washing my hair. I turned the water off and reached for a towel to pat myself dry and then slipped into the pajamas I’d left lying on the floor earlier that morning.
Something was wrong the moment I stepped back into my room. It ran deeper than the simple observation that the space I’d left alight was now dark save for the candles I’d lit on the desk.
That feeling was back. It had crawled out of the deepest corners of long forgotten memories and made a renewed appearance so strong it almost brought me to my knees. It seemed like so long since I had felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up quite the way they did in that moment.
The presence was unmistakable.
The bathroom door squeaked closed again behind me. The shadow, which had been waiting on the other side, stepped forward. A massive hand cupped over my mouth and pulled me back. The fingers clenched, the short and rigid nails dug into my skin.
Another arm wrapped around my neck and started to choke me. I tried to scream, knowing full well my dying breath would barely make it passed the fingers cutting me off.
The large frame twisted and ripped me off my feet. Gently, it lowered my body to the ground, pressing its lower half on top of mine so it could bring me down without making any noise and so I couldn’t kick or thump my body.
Oxygen ran low. I wanted to fight harder, to find some kind of deeper strength from within me, but it simply wasn’t there. The urge to live flickered. Submitting suddenly didn’t seem so bad.
In my moments of vulnerability, I discovered a renewed sense of clarity. In the pale orange light, I could make out the face of the one who’d returned to me. The boy who’d finally came to take what he’d always wanted and what I’d been guilty of keeping from him.
He was the only person who knew that the rectangular window next to my bed would squeak open, even with the latches locked, if you put enough weight right at its base and pushed from the outside.
What possessed the boy I’d loved for so many years to do such a violent and awful thing was lost on me. The only thing I knew for sure was his intent after breaking inside my room. He rolled on top of me and increased the pressure on my neck. He slid his body up so his mid-section pinned mine to the floor.
I was on my last reserve of oxygen. Little black blotches started to cloud all over my vision.
Even if I had enough left in my lungs to let out a single yelp to alert my parents, who were still awake and maybe fifteen feet away and separated by two walls, he wouldn’t slip and allow me his chance. His mind was set on his goal and only an act of god was going to save me.
From inside his jacket, he withdrew three pieces of cloth. One, which he balled up and shoved inside my mouth when he took his hand off momentarily. The second, he used to tie around my head and make sure that one inside my mouth was held in place and couldn’t be spit out or moved ajar.
The third, he used to tie my hands together. Just in case I had any energy left he felt needed to be restrained.
“Why did you do this to me?” he whispered.
He put his hand on my shoulders. They started to slowly glide down my arms and then towards my hips. I swore I could have heard him crying. Like a spoiled boy, overwhelmed by finally getting what he wanted.
“I’m not going to hurt you.”
I screamed into my gag as if I expected any sort of sound to escape.
His hands moved my hips to my belly. He pulled the bottom button of my pajama top open. I heard a creaking noise from the window next to my bed when he reached for the second. The rest was deja vu.
Chase’s forced moments of intimacy were put to an end. This time, his body was so much bigger and it was my flat body that broke his fall when he dropped and rolled to the side.
In the space behind him, Owen Gage stood over me, knife in hand, while I lay bound and bleeding on the bedroom floor.
For reasons that would soon be made clear to me, he had perhaps been my saviour for as long as I’d known him. The one barrier constantly pulling away his only friend and keeping him in check.
The same one who I’d held so dear for all those years. The one who finally snapped when he wasn’t going to get what he wanted in the “normal” way.
Owen lowered the knife to the ground. I saw his arms– his whole body even, tremble. He pushed Chase’s lifeless body a little farther away and sat down beside me.
He told me about how he and Chase had been friends since the first days of kindergarten. He told me about how it was not him, but Chase who had struck the poor girl in the head with the bat they never found. It was one of Chase’s old baseball bats. He could even show me where it was buried.
He told me that he hit Chase on the head with the rock because he knew that he was sick just the way was. Chase only knew how to camouflage himself better.
The last thing he revealed was that this was the first time he’d ever given into the suppressed urges which had haunted him his entire life. It was the only time he’d allowed himself to kill another human being. It was a door he said could never be closed once it had been opened.
I hugged him and swore I’d never tell that he’d been there that night. I’d tell everyone I’d wrestled the knife from Chase and stabbed him myself.
My dad’s footsteps sounded from down the hallway. Owen increased his grip on my body, I felt his nails digging so far into my skin that it hurt.
He untied my hands and then he fled back out the window and pulled it closed behind him. It was the start of another long period in my life that I would go without seeing the deeply troubled Owen Gage.
I met my husband at Notre Dame the next year and we got married shortly after graduation. We moved out to California and had one daughter who’s getting ready to start her freshman year at high school in the fall.
We returned to Indiana last fall to visit my mother, who in her twilight years, had to move into hospice care. My visit there was largely uneventful, save for holding back the tears while I watched the shell of my mother slowly peel away and get ready for her final rest.
Outside of all the grieving, there was one thing that caught my eye in the many hours that I would stay by my mother’s side. One lanky staff member who looked about my age. His name tag said, O. Gage. He didn’t interact much with the other staff or visitors, but once in a while he’d allow himself to make eye contact and spare me the slightest bit of recognition.
I noticed that he’d sit by the beds of those who he knew were close to passing. Patiently, he’d watch them fade away into death. Even after they’d pass, he’d sit there still and staring for some time before finally getting up.
I saw a certain beauty in how he’d found his way of keeping himself restrained. He’d made his compromise with all his inner demons.