Seeker

I see him the first time when I am five years old. He is standing near me by the elephant exhibit at the zoo, but he is watching me instead of the elephants. I stare up at him, because he is as tall as my daddy, but he looks younger. After my eyes meet his, he shifts his gaze to another kid.

The little girl hides her face from him as she clings to her mommy. She doesn't answer when she is asked what's wrong. Her mommy calms her down with crackers and juice. She no longer looks scared when she looks back in this direction.

He doesn't look scary to me, just not friendly. His flat, onyx eyes stare coldly, but they fascinate me. I get the feeling that there are secrets hidden in them, and that I could almost see what they were.

"C'mon, Goldilocks," my daddy says. "Let's go see the tigers."

I skip behind him as he leads the way, and I smile at the young man. His blank expression changes into something slightly less devoid of emotion but still unreadable.

I see him again later that day while we are having lunch. He scares another little kid, this time a boy with memorable red hair. The toddler cowers from his glance and calls out for his mommy. She turns from fussing with the baby in the stroller to attend to her distraught son. Offering to buy him ice cream seems to do the trick, and he is soon paying no attention to the stranger who frightened him.

My own baby brother distracts me with a cute little gurgle, and I spend a couple minutes talking to him while he grasps my finger in his tiny hand. "Do you like it here?" I ask him. "We're gonna see more animals."

"Finish your chicken nuggets, Mila," Mommy urges me.

I manage to eat one more chicken nugget before I am too full to eat another bite. Daddy takes the rest and eats them quickly.

"Tim," Mommy scolds. "She only ate two nuggets."

"We would be waiting here all day," Daddy tells her. "I paid for the rainforest too, and we still have to get over there."

"Let's go there now," Mommy says. "She might get too tired later."

I see him for the last time that day inside the rainforest. He rides the elevator with us to the second level, and I feel thrilled when he notices me again. He's the first to exit the elevator, but he stops right in our way as he scans the faces of the people waiting to ride down. A chubby little boy with expressive dark eyes stares back at him in terror. He turns and runs down the corridor.

"Lorenzo," his mom yells and struggles after him. "Lorenzo! I can't take the stroller down the stairs."

My daddy is keeping the elevator doors from closing so that Mommy can push the stroller out. She is going to run right into the young man, but both the stroller and my mommy pass right through him like he isn't there. I step around him and reach out to touch him as I pass. My hand skims over the pale skin of his arm, and he looks down at it.

My parents are urging me to keep up, so I hurry toward them. We enter the exhibit area, and my daddy points out the porcupines. The young man comes to stand beside me, and I glance at him while my parents are talking about porcupine quills. He reaches out to hesitantly touch my hair before pulling his hand back. Then he turns and walks back out into the corridor and out of my view.

We are at the piranha tank when Daddy says a bad word.

"Tim!" Mommy says in her scolding voice.

"Sorry, but look at her hair. What the hell happened to it?"

"Oh my God," Mommy yells. "Where did it come from?"

I can't see what they're talking about, but they both look so upset that it worries me. "What, Mommy?"

"Did somebody spill something on your hair?" Daddy asks me.

"No," I answer.

"I'll take her to the restroom," Mommy says.

I see it in the mirror while she turns on the faucet. There's a small patch of black in my blond hair. Mommy rubs water on it, but it doesn't wash off. "We'll wash it with shampoo when we get home," she tells me.

The shampoo doesn't wash it off either.

"It must be dye," Daddy says. "It'll fade away in a few weeks."

"I'd cut it off if it wasn't up so high on her head," Mommy sighs. "I just can't imagine who would spill dye on her hair, and in such a small amount. There was no chemical smell either, so I guess it must be some kind of natural dye."

I become bored with listening to them talk about my hair. There are more interesting things for me to think about, like the young man that people can walk through. I tell my mommy about that when she's tucking me into bed that night, but she thinks that I'm pretending.

"I walked right through him?" Mommy asks in her happy, pretending voice.

"It's not pretend," I insist. "He was there."

"Yes, baby," she agrees, but I can tell she doesn't mean it.

"Did you see him?" I press. "He was by the elephants too, and the porcupines."

She frowns, and now she looks like she might believe me. "What did he look like?"

"His hair is this color." I point to where I know the patch of black is on my head. "And his eyes too."

Her frown deepens. "Was he holding anything, like a bottle?"

"No," I say. "He wasn't holding anything."

"Did he say anything to you?" Mommy asks.

"No," I reply. "He just touched my hair."

The expression on her face scares me. "Touched it with what?"

"With his hand," I tell her anxiously, worried that I did something wrong.

"Tim," she yells, and I begin to cry.

"It's okay, sweetie," she assures me. "We just want to know about the man."

I'm too upset to go into all the details, so I don't say anything about him scaring the other kids.

Everything except my hair seems to go back to normal over the course of the next week—until I notice my parents looking anxious again. They ask me questions about how I'm feeling, if my throat hurts or if my tummy doesn't feel good. I tell them that nothing hurts, and they look relieved.

Another week passes, and I happen to notice a familiar face in the newspaper. "He was at the zoo," I exclaim excitedly, recognizing the boy with the red hair. "Is he in a movie?"

Daddy folds the paper, and I can't see the picture anymore. He looks at Mommy.

"No sweetie," she tells me. "He's, uh, sick."

I wonder why he's in the newspaper if he's not in a movie. I've been sick before, and my picture wasn't in the newspaper. Then I think that maybe I didn't see it. "Was my picture in there when I was sick?"

"No, baby," Mommy replies, but her voice doesn't sound right.

Then I see the tears in her eyes. "It's okay. I don't care if my picture's not in there."

Mommy feels really sad about it, though, because she begins to cry.

It isn't until a few days later, when I hear two teachers talking about it on the playground, that I realize the boy died.

"It looks like the third kid isn't going to make it either," my teacher says.

"I hope she pulls through," the other teacher says and sighs. "So sad about the two boys, Lorenzo and the red-haired one. I always forget his name, poor little guy."

"The only connection they could find between the three of them is that they all went to the zoo on the same day. My niece was there that day too, and my sister is worried sick about her. I told her she would have been showing symptoms way before now. The children that died were symptomatic within a week."

"What's so scary is that they don't know what it is," the other teacher declares loudly.

"Don't scare the kids," my teacher admonishes.

I drift back toward my friends on the monkeybars. They had all wanted to know why I painted part of my hair black. I had told them that it happened by magic.

It wouldn't be until years later that I made the connection between everything that had happened and the young man who had left his mark on me. The patch of black in my hair never did wash out or fade. It had become a permanent part of me. What I didn't know was that I had also left my mark on him.