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Serene ambience of the courtyard cafe was punctured, all of a sudden, by horrific screams as people took cover beneath the tables while shots rang.
Pop, pop, pop.
Cursing, I fell to the floor. As disbelief began choking my senses, I found my thoughts going round and round the same loopy track, screeching, “It can’t be happening! This is not real. It’s not real!”
Someone fell behind me and a table and it’s contents crashed to the floor. Too afraid to help them, I stooped closer to the ground as the commotion grew tenfold. Somewhere around the corner of the cafe, out of the line of sight, a woman could be heard shrieking madly. She was calling for someone. I couldn’t make out the name. Her voice was getting hoarse and it was breaking off. But she continued screaming. I wanted her to shut the fuck up. I wanted her to stop drawing attention to herself and eventually, to us. I wanted to get out of my hiding place. Crouching behind an overturned table, I was feeling sorely exposed. The veins in my ears were thumping loudly and I could hear my heart beating against my throat.
I turned around, thinking of running inside the building behind me. But my table was right by the side of the street and as I angled my chin up to see if I could run to a better shelter, I saw that between me and the entrance door, there were toppled tables, chairs, food, and a pair of lifeless legs sticking out from underneath a downside-up patio umbrella. Though I saw no blood, but given that this person was no longer flinching like the rest of us at the sounds of the bullets flying every which way, that poor sucker seemed dead all right. In spite of myself, my eyes started welling up.
The stream of shots being fired could be heard clearly. Sometimes it would stop for a few seconds and then it would start again. The sounds of screams, however, didn’t let up. There was another street-side cafe across the street and it looked just as battered as ours. Afraid to linger too long on its upturned mess in case I see another body, I quickly shifted my gaze along the street and that’s when I saw him. A boy, no more than eight or ten years old, standing by a large old tree that stood magnificently lit by the mini lights and lanterns beside the cafe. Crying, all alone and, confused, he kept looking from side to side. I felt the urge to run to him and take him far away from this horror. But my body felt stuck, feeling too scared to even move.
Before I could talk myself into doing anything, I saw a tall man walk up to the boy. It was a strange thing to witness. Watching him just walk up to the boy in the midst of shots still being fired somewhere nearby. Like the man was on a stroll and he had decided to stop by and say hello to the child. Something felt off about him. For one, he was too tall and even under the bulk of his clothing, he seemed too thin. I couldn’t make out his face for he was wearing a sort of black cowboy hat and a black trench-coat with its collar upturned as if he was trying to pull off a Sherlockian look after having binge-watched its live action adaptations.
But I remember his hands. They were the palest hands I have ever seen. So pale that they stood odder against his odd fashion choice. This strange man now stood in front of the boy, with his back to me. I could barely see the child and I realized that he had stopped crying. Suddenly I felt queasy. I can’t put my finger on it but suddenly I felt more scared than I ever was and given the situation I was in, that’s saying a lot! I saw that the man opened his overcoat and he held it wide open. Then I heard a blood curdling scream of a child. Despite trying not to, I blinked and the next thing I saw was him buttoning up his long coat and walking away. Where, a few minutes ago, stood a little kid, now there was a small pile of clothes and no sign of any child whatsoever. I wanted to yell, I wanted to run up to where he stood. I wanted to tell myself that this was a trick. He must have been hiding behind the old tree. He must have snuck back into the cafe across the street. But all I felt was numb and all I did was nothing. I just stayed where I was, glued to my hiding place and kept staring at the little pile of clothes.
I told the police what I saw. I told a few other people too. No one believes me, of course. I was hyperventilated and in shock. A few months later, after the incident, I was diagnosed with PTSD. There was a missing child’s report filed for a kid who fit my description. The detective thought I had witnessed his kidnapping but my unfit mental state at the time couldn’t comprehend another tragic event. My therapist agrees and says it was my brain trying to process something dreadful in ways that seemed fantastical and therefore not real in order to protect my already fragile psyche.
My friends and family have grown tired of sympathizing with me. Some want me to get over it and others, out of reservation, keep their distance. I don’t go out much anymore and I take seven different pills just to get through the day. Nights, though, are the bitchiest. Usually, I can’t sleep. And when I do, I always find myself trapped in the same recurring nightmare where I am watching the strange man unbutton his coat with his long, pale fingers; slowly and purposefully. Only this time, he is standing in front of me, holding his coat wide open.