It was the early summer of my final year of college. I had traveled abroad as a nonprofit charity project and was helping refugees fleeing from war find new homes in Europe. We were in France at the time, moving people into apartments the government had built and subsidized. They weren’t the nicest places to live, but I knew it would be better than the places the refugees were coming from. War-torn countries and terrorist-riddled nations where safety was no longer a reality.
I spent my time helping children who had been separated from their parents, or who had been orphaned, find families who were both willing and able to take care of them until either their parents arrived in the country, or they could be properly adopted. There were hundreds of children, all under the ages of ten who had no one to look after them. Each time a new child came into the refugee center where I worked, my heart broke. These small people, with little or no understanding of what was happening, being forced to survive along side strangers in a place they were unfamiliar with.
I couldn’t handle the idea of letting these children suffer more than they already had. I loved children and someday, after college and my work abroad had ended, I wanted to adopt. Not that I couldn’t have children of my own, though the doctors said it would be difficult with my medical history, it was that I wanted to. I had seen so many children in need of good homes, I couldn’t consciously return to the United States and begin having children, when I knew first hand how many lives could be changed for good, if only there were someone to adopt them.
However, I am unsure now, if I could ever bring myself to raise any children. My trauma, my experiences during that summer, would alter my perspective on reality, and forever change me.
I had been sitting at my desk, filing papers and putting things away when there came from the front of the building, a loud shouting. We were based in Paris, and all refugees entering the country were brought to our facility for screening and papers. I was used to the occasional protester, screaming and yelling from the street or sidewalk, complaining about how crime rates and murders had gone up since refugees were let across the borders. That we were letting in terrorists or some other non-compassionate excuse for being angry.
This, however, was not the typical sound of protest coming from outside. This was louder and more frantic. Quickly I stood from the chair and made my way out to the lobby of the building. Through the large floor to ceiling windows that lined the entryway, I could see a woman clinging to the arm of a small child. It was a little girl, no older than eight by her height, though she as clearly underfed and malnourished based on her thin frame. Holding the girl’s other hand and tugging on it violently was another woman, a protester. Behind the woman stood four or five other people cheering her on and yelling, in French, obscenities.
Without hesitation I ran outside and put myself between the two women, wrenching their hands-free of the little girl, whom I held tightly to my chest.
“What do you think you’re doing!?” I shouted.
The protester took a step back. She and I had been a fight once before. She was a cruel woman without compassion. She didn’t care who the refugees were or where they had come from. She simply wanted them gone. It didn’t matter if they went back to countries where they would be killed. None of it mattered to her. She was an elitist, a self-proclaimed do-gooder and outright racist.
She hissed at me as she spoke. “These people don’t belong here!” She said. “Take them back to where they came from! They can’t even take care of their own children!”
The woman behind me shouted back, tears in her eyes. Her French was broken, but understandable nonetheless. “We have nowhere else to go! Please, you must help us!”
I looked at the sobbing woman. “We’re not sending you anywhere. Come inside and we’ll get everything sorted out, I promise.”
The protester behind me spat. “Sure! Let them loose into our country! Let them ruin our economy, steal our jobs, and murder our children!”
Handing the girl back to the crying woman I wheeled around to face the bigot.
“How dare you! What do you know of murdered children!? Imagine, just imagine, the government is corrupt! They take your food, they take your clean water, and they torture and kill anyone who tries to stop them! Warlords steal the children of your neighbors and force them to carry machine guns into combat. They rape you and your daughters and they mutilate your bodies!
“Imagine that eventually, someone decides to take a stand and rise up against that oppression, only to start a civil war that never seems to end! Imagine that you’re not allowed to go to work because the building has been bombed and three people you know, people you used to see every single day are dead! Imagine now, that you have a chance to escape from that; to go to a place free from that type of danger!
“Would you take it? Of course, you would! Who would be stupid enough not to take such a chance!?” I was fuming.
“All you’ve ever wanted was a life free of danger for you and your children! Now imagine coming to a country offering to protect you from such things, offering you a chance to start over! But, when you arrive there are people shouting at you, screaming at you, to go back to where you came from!
“Why!? You hadn’t done anything wrong! What could you have done wrong!? Then you find out the reason you’re being yelled at and shouted at, and spat upon is because you are a member of a different religion! Really!? Your faith? You believe in the same god, you believe in the same basic principles, why would such a thing be such a big deal!? And yet it is, because bigoted arrogant fools like you think you know what is best!” I climbed closer into the protester’s face, screaming mere inches from her.
“You know nothing of suffering!” I cried. “You know nothing of what these people have been through! Why don’t you go back home and finish reading your racist propaganda and masturbating to images of the swastika instead of wasting my time! I have real work to do! Real good to accomplish!”
I motioned for the woman and child to enter the building and stormed in after them, leaving the protester on the sidewalk, shocked and dumbfounded.
Once inside I took a long moment to compose myself. My hands shook with adrenaline and anger. I closed my eyes, inhaled deeply and slowly let my breath back out. When I felt calm again, or calm enough to speak, I turned to the woman. Her tears were dried and she was smiling.
“Thank you,” She said. “You do not know how much that means to me, to know there is still good in this world.”
I smiled in return. “I am so sorry for that. I am sorry you have had to go through everything you’ve been through, only to experience that. I’m sorry your daughter had to witness that.”
The woman shook her head, looking down to the girl, a sense of trepidation growing on her face. She was small, thin, but adorable the way only children can be. She had large brown eyes and beautiful dark skin. “This is not my daughter.” The woman said. “She has no parents.”
I frowned. How many times had I seen this? How many times had children suffered? How many more times would it have to happen before things change?
“I’m sorry. Do you know her, or her parents?”
The woman shook her head again. “I do not know her parents, and she does not speak. I do not know who she belongs to. She was with me when we crossed the border out of our country, and have been traveling together ever since.” The woman seemed worried.
I nodded. “Well, let’s go over to my desk and we can talk about paperwork, and getting you settled.
We made our way to my cubicle and each sat down. I behind my desk beside my computer, and the woman and girl across from me.
“Before we get too into this, I have to ask, do you intend to keep the girl with you? I only ask because we’ll have to complete several forms for that.”
The woman seemed torn. I could see the stress on her face. She looked at the girl sitting in the chair beside her. She wore worry and fear like a mask. I spoke first.
“I understand that taking care of a child, especially one that isn’t yours, can be challenging and in some cases impossible. I’m not telling you that you have to do anything. This choice is completely up to you. I only assumed you might want to take care of her, seeing as you have been with her this whole time.”
The woman shook her head, watching the girl as if waiting for the rejection to suddenly make sense. The girl simply stared at me, most likely unable to understand our French. “I”m sorry, but I cannot take the girl.”
“I understand,” I replied. “When we are finished, I will take the girl and we will find her a home with another family until we can locate her parents.”
An hour later the woman had left, her paperwork in order. She had family, other refugees, living in the city. She would move in with them until her asylum was granted and the government would allow her to have her own apartment. When she was gone, I took the girl by the hand and led her to another section of the building. She held on and seemed trusting enough. The poor thing, I thought, must have been through so much, she probably had no idea what was going on. She must have been so frightened.
I knocked on the door to my supervisor’s office. It stood open and inside I could see the familiar round face of the man behind the desk.
“Carl,” I said. “This little girl came in without parents. The person she was traveling with can’t take her and they said she doesn’t speak. Do we have someone we can set her up with?”
My supervisor looked up and smiled, looking at the little girl standing next to me. “I meant to tell you, Sarah, there’s been a complication with the paperwork. We can’t assign any more children to foster families. They’ll have to stay with the people they come in with. I know it’s frustrating but it is the best we can do until things at the Capitol are resolved. They’re talking about closing the borders to refugees entirely.”
“What!?” I exclaimed. “Carl, that’s more than frustrating! I can’t send her home with the woman she came in with, they’ve already left!”
“Then call them back,” Carl said. “Have them take her, at least until morning. In the meantime, I’ll see what I can do about approving a foster family.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I knew it wasn’t Carl’s fault, but the politics of the whole thing was simply unbelievable.
“Carl, I can’t just call them back. They don’t even know the girl, they can’t take her.”
“Then you take her home, just for the night. Like I said, in the morning I’ll have something worked out. You haven’t filled out any paperwork for her yet, have you?”
“Then she’s not in the system. Take her home for the night, it will be fine.”
I shook my head. As much as I wanted to take care of this girl, as much as I wanted to help, I could lose my job, my scholarship, I could lose my student visa. Who would I be helping if I got caught?
“Isn’t that against the law?” I asked.
“Isn’t it a crime against humanity to close the borders to refugees fleeing war? Take the girl home. Nothing will happen, and if need be, I will vouch for you. But that will not happen.”
I looked down one more time to the small child clinging to my hand. “Okay,” I said. “We’re going to go home.”
The ride home was quiet. The girl, I knew, hadn’t been speaking, and I didn’t assume she’d open up around me, but she didn’t even make a sound. She sat quietly in the back seat, staring out the window as the city passed by.
When we got back to my apartment I drew her a bath and made her dinner, both of which she seemed neither eager nor displeased for. I helped her wash and dry, then helped her eat what she could. I knew I couldn’t give her too much and wasn’t prepared to force more food into her than she could handle.
She picked at the food, a plate of macaroni and cheese being the best I knew how to cook. I showed her the small TV in the living room and gave her a notebook and pencil to draw with if she felt like it.
Lastly, before making her a bed on the couch, I introduced her to my cat, Jasper. He was a slender orange and white cat with beautiful swirls that reminded me of the planet Jupiter. The girl smiled for the first time, and softly pet the cat.
I was so happy, finally, something the girl liked. Something that pulled from her, some sort of response that wasn’t catatonic.
As the night grew late, I tucked the girl into bed and, tired from a long day’s work, went back to my own room to fall asleep.
My eyelids had grown heavy, and my thoughts began to stray when suddenly I was yanked from drowsiness. I had heard something. Though what it had been I couldn’t tell. I lay still, unmoving and unbreathing in my bed.
Then came the sound again. This time, more clearly. It was a loud, crunching noise. At first, it sounded like a bunch of celery being broken, but then, as I heard it a third time, it seemed too moist, like twigs snapping beneath a layer of mud.
Certain the girl was unable to sleep, I climbed out of bed and made my way through the dark to the living room.
There, standing over the half eaten corpse of my cat was the child. Only, she wasn’t a child. She was something else. Her face was gone. Not missing, but nonexistent. In its place a dark and empty void. A hole, deep and black. I watched, entranced by what I saw, as the child-thing grabbed a handful of cat and placed it into the open space above its neck where eyes, nose, and mouth should have been.
I gasped. The child moved it’s head in my direction as if to look at me. Could it see me? Could it sense where I was? It took a step, widening its stance and hunkering low to the carpet as if preparing to pounce. I couldn’t move. My legs just wouldn’t move!
Deep from within the creature’s hollow head came a high pitched wailing that seemed to echo from somewhere deep within the void of its empty skull. It lunged, dashing forward toward me, moving too quickly to be a malnourished little girl. I ran, stumbling backward toward my bedroom and slammed the door behind me. A half second later, something collided with the door and began pounding on it.
I turned the lock on the doorknob and backed away. Again the thing wailed its hollow cry, filling the air with an ear piercing shriek. It banged on the door, knocking against it incessantly. I had to escape.
I ran to the window, pulled it up, and climbed out onto the fire escape. As I moved, scurrying down the stairs toward the street below I glanced up. Peering down at from the window was the child-thing. By the light of the moon I could see it more clearly. Everything about the child remained the same, save for the hole where its face should have been.
I fled from the apartment building, and eventually from the country. I returned home, failing my classes and forgoing my graduation.
I don’t know if I’ll ever overcome what I saw. I’ve tried in the past to rationalize what had happened, but I know what I saw, and there is no rationalizing that.