Stay Away From The Gray Astro Van

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Officer Shearer pinned her police cap in her armpit and told Mrs. Cullen's 7th-grade class that, "Due to the recent events, Halloween will be canceled tonight."

Mitchell knew exactly what recent events meant. It meant the stalker trying to lure children into the back of his gray Astro Van. It was all anyone at Henderson Middle School could talk about for the past two weeks.

Everyone was a rabbit with fear speckled eyes. The fox could be anywhere. Parents got special permission to leave work early to usher their children directly home. Except for Mitchell. His Dad took off eight months back and his mom's shift at Suds n' Buds started at three. So, when the bell rang at 3:30, he had to walk home alone. Only his footsteps on the dead leaves broke the predatory silence of the streets.

On those endless walks, his imagination brewed vile concoctions.

In one he'd be dragged into that hulking gray beast, his fingernails scraping back as he'd cling to the asphalt in vain. Then what awaited him in the bowels of that Astro Van? Sawed in half? Skewered? Slowly dissolved in acid with a dropper?

Mitchell wasn't the only one trying to figure out what the maniac wanted. It was the only conversation at recess. Whispers hung over huddles. A week ago Mitchell overheard Sally Strickland suggest that the stalker was scooping out children's bellies with an ice cream scoop and serving it to a group of billionaires with sprinkles and chocolate syrup. Then Marcus Lee offered that the The Van-Man was going to remove your eyes, ears, and tongue, but he'd keep you fed, so you'd spend the rest of your long life in nothingness as he randomly stuck you with long pins.

As October carved itself towards Halloween the panic began to froth over. But a part of Mitchell had to confess that this panic was welcome news. The other kids were obsessing over the Gray Astro Van which meant they had stopped harassing him. No longer were they waiting past school property to pelt him with rocks or sticks slathered in dog poo. These days everyone was too afraid of being kidnapped to bully Mitchell.

Officer Shearer cleared her throat and said, "As I'm sure you're all aware, there's been another attack." Out of the corner of his eye, Mitchell caught Dana Gorman pulling her blue shirt sleeve over the purple-brown-yellow-and-green splotchy bruise on her arm.

Thursday after volleyball practice Dana had escaped abduction. Thursday by dinner the news had trickled into the ear of every kid in town. But seeing her ugly bruise that looked like a hand confirmed the tale.

He felt bad for Dana even though she was part of Mitchell's inner circle of tormentors. She'd hiss mean lies meant to embarrass him, which always elicited titters. Defending himself only made it worse. He couldn't understand how Dana became so mean. She used to be his friend. Mitchell even thought they might be each other's crush. They had slow danced in the gymnasium during the last dance before summer vacation. But now Dana hated him. Mitchell was keenly aware that every single kid in his class did.

"It never hurts to review what you need to do if you see any suspicious vehicles or persons," said Officer Shearer keeping one thumb tucked into her belt, "And to help me, I would like to invite one of your classmates up to the front. Darren?"

Three rows down, and two rows over from Mitchell, Darren Birch popped up from his desk and took his place beside the policewoman. He began in his very rehearsed style, "You scream. Scream your guts out. And you run. Bang on a neighbor's door. Make as much noise as possible. It's the only thing that saved my life." Darren paused with a very serious face that conveyed that he still relives the trauma.

The officer asked if he needed a moment. Darren motioned that he'd brave through it and continued to recount his close call

Mrs. Cullen nodded in approval and her students craned their heads in a sort of reverence. Darren was a survivor. A hero. He was the first to be attacked. And since then Dana Gorman and her twin brother Roger had nearly been abducted. Countless other kids had reported sightings and close calls as well: The gray Astro Van followed me home. The gray Astro Van was around the corner. I looked out my window at night and under the lamp light at the edge of my street was the gray Astro Van.

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