Ten, maybe twelve years old, wearing a leash attached to one of those dog training collars with the inward facing spikes. She was sitting on the balcony of my neighbor’s apartment, her dirty bare legs dangling through the iron bars. She stared at me where I sat with my book on my own balcony, so I gave her a little wave. She didn’t so much as blink in return — she just kept swinging her legs through the bars and staring. I figured the collar was some kind of ironic fashion accessory, although it hardly matched with her thread-bare summer dress.
Five minutes later, she was still staring and I was beginning to feel a little uncomfortable. I set my book down and asked:
“What’s your name, missy?”
“He calls me Cheesey,” she replied, flashing all her little teeth like she was posing for a picture.
“That’s an unusual name.”
“’Cause he says I make him sick. Like cheese.”
“Oh.” I looked down at my book. How the hell was I supposed to reply to that?
“Are we friends now?” she asked, squishing her face between the bars.
“Okay, friends.” I couldn’t help but smile at her innocent charm. “Can I call you something other than Cheesey though?
“He also calls me cockroach,” she chirped conversationally. “Little freak. Shit face.”
“Who calls you these things? Your father?”
But she didn’t get a chance to reply. A vicious tug on the leash tightened the spikes into her throat. Her fingers clutched at it, but she couldn’t loosen the grip. A moment later and she was helplessly reeled back inside her apartment. I ran to the edge to look, but my view was obstructed by the jutting concrete which separated the balconies. I just saw her being dragged inside, and then heard:
“What did I tell you about talking to strangers?”
“He asked me a question —”
“I knew it was a mistake to let you outside!” The sliding glass door slammed. I couldn’t make out anything after that. My stomach felt like I’d just eaten a pound of garbage. I’ve never spoken to my neighbor before — a severe, quiet man who wore dark sunglasses inside and out. I didn’t even know he had a kid. He didn’t seem like the type, although there’s a chance she wasn’t even his. Either way, I called Child Protective Services to let them decide.
They thanked me for the information and said they would send someone over. I walked around the rest of the day feeling like a hero. I had a few errands to run, but I got back just in time to see an authoritative black woman in a pristine blue suit standing outside my neighbor’s open door.
“I’m sorry, there must have been some mistake,” he said from inside his apartment. “I live alone. No kids.”
“My apologies, I must have gotten the wrong address,” she said. “Would you mind if I take a peek inside just so I can check off my forms?” The pause was slightly too long.
“No, that’s not okay. This is my home. My sanctuary. Go bother someone else.”
“It’ll only take a few —”
The door slammed shut. The woman immediately began knocking again, but there was no response.
“Excuse me, CPS?” I asked.
She looked me up and down as though evaluating my potential to be a scumbag.
“You the guy who called?” she asked.
I nodded. “What’s your next step?”
“My next step? What’s your next step?” she snapped. “I don’t have any next steps without a signed warrant from a judge, and I’m not going to get that without some evidence. You get a picture or anything?” I shook my head.
“Well call me if you do.” She was already half way to the elevator.
“What do you mean ‘that’s it’? I got three more cases tonight, and chances are at least one of them isn’t going to be so pretty as this. I got a job to do, honey, but I can’t do it here.”
Sounds like I had a job to do too. He couldn’t stay in there forever, right? Either he’d leave with her and I could follow them, or he’d leave alone and I’d have a chance to talk with her and find out what was going on. I brought my book into the hallway and sat down to wait.
Half an hour did the trick. The door opened and sunglasses gave a quick, paranoid scan. They landed on me.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Lost my key,” I lied. “Gotta wait for my roommate to get home.”
He disappeared back inside and the door closed. I thought I missed my chance, but a moment later the door opened again and he exited with ‘Cheesey’. She was still wearing the collar, but the leash was bundled up and he rested his hand on her shoulder so it was barely visible. As they passed, she glanced back at me as if to say: Goodbye friend. But it wasn’t goodbye yet.
I followed them out of the building while pretending to stare at my phone, but I couldn’t get a clear shot of the collar. I snapped one of them together, but that didn’t seem like enough for a warrant yet.
I might feel like a masquerading pillar of vigilante justice, but I certainly wasn’t as smooth as one. By the time the pair had gotten to their car the man must have noticed me a dozen times. The chase was on.
We’d only been out in the night for about five minutes when he suddenly pulled off the road into a dirt clearing beside some cornfields. I was so caught up in the excitement that I hadn’t even paused to consider what I would do when I actually caught them. He must have known his secret was out though, and if something happened to the girl tonight I’d never forgive myself. I pulled off the road and parked behind him while dialing 911.
“Put the phone down.” The man had gotten out of his car. He walked around to the passenger side to drag the girl out by the leash. The powerful yanks sent the clear signal about who would pay the price if I didn’t obey. I hung up and got out of the car.
“Did I tell you to get out?” he barked. “Back in. Keep driving.”
“What the hell is wrong with you?” I shouted, vainly hoping to draw some attention to our dark road. The man flinched at the sound. “Where do you get off putting a collar on —”
“If you knew her, you’d do the same. Or worse,” he growled, his hands turning white from clenching the leash so hard. “This little freak deserves it.”
“Daddy I can’t breath,” the girl whimpered.
“Shut your disgusting mouth —”
I couldn’t take it anymore. I barreled headlong into the man, throwing him against his car. One of his arms was tangled in the leash, and that gave me a chance to pin his free arm and punch him across the face. The man slid to the ground, dragging the girl with him as she clutched at her collar and howled. I couldn’t divert my attention long enough to unfasten the collar, so I just stomped on the man’s hand that was holding the leash.
“God damn idiot!” he shouted. “Do you have any idea how long it took me to capture her in the first place? Now look what you’ve done!”
I did look, and damn was I proud. The man lay there nursing his hand while I unfastened the collar from around the girl’s neck. She was grinning from ear to ear.
“I’m going to call the police now,” I warned him, stripping his wallet and ID. “You better stay put unless you want the collar on you.”
“Don’t bother,” he moaned. “We’ll both be dead before they arrive.”
An idle threat from a desperate man, or so I thought. Until I glanced back at Cheesey. I guess I hadn’t noticed how long her neck was under the metal collar. At least twice as long as a neck ought to be, and it was growing by the second. I swallowed hard, but it felt like there was cotton in my throat.
“What are you waiting for?” the man shouted, all pretense of discretion gone. “Run!”
The neck was still stretching. Her figure stayed the same — her face was all smiles — but her neck was almost as long as her whole body now. It twisted sinuously through the air as though it had no bones at all, stretching luxuriously after its confinement.
Little freak wasn’t such a bad name. Did you know that most of their body is a hollow cavity which stores their folded neck? Or that silver collars were the only way to keep them from extending? I certainly didn’t. Not until I read the papers stuffed in his wallet. Not before I stood in shocked awe on the side of the road and watched her jaw unhinge to consume him whole.
“Police dispatch, what is your emergency?” faintly droned my phone.
“Friends?” I asked the girl.
She nodded, choking the man’s still squirming body into her grotesquely swollen neck.
“Friends,” I repeated as I hung up the phone, backing into my car. Her eyes watched me while she continued to gag the body down.
Well shit. So much for being a hero, but at least I was still a hero to her.