Yesterday, I looked up our house on Google Street View.
I wish I didn’t.
The picture showed our little blue A-frame perfectly. The flowerboxes leaning out of the kitchen window, filled with morning glories. The cedar rocking chair. The splotch of brown paint on the steps from when I painted the desk.
But there were two people standing on the porch. Two people I didn’t recognize. Even though their faces were blurred out, I knew they couldn’t be us – we’re Indian, and they were clearly white.
“Who are those people?” my brother, Arjun, asked.
“I have no idea.” I leaned in to the computer screen, squinting at the pixels. “Maybe some of my friends from school?” But I knew that couldn’t be true. They looked like adults: the man and woman were both wearing gray, tailored suits. I don’t know of any 15-year-old that dresses like they work on Wall Street.
“Maybe it’s an old picture,” I said. “Maybe they’re the previous owners.”
But that didn’t seem right, either. First of all, the text in the corner read “Street View – July 2017.” Second, they didn’t seem to just be hanging out and relaxing at their own home. The woman was standing at the corner of the porch, weight on one hip, arms crossed over her chest. The man stood unnaturally straight, as if he were posing for the photo, hands deep in his pockets.
“Maybe it’s photoshopped.”
I turned to him. “Really, Arjun?”
He shrugged. “I dunno. Maybe the photoshopped it purposely. To scare us. To make us move.”
“You really think Google would let someone mess with their photos?”
He shrugged. “All those big companies, and organizations, and celebrities are super corrupt. Like Hillary Clinton. She’s been doing Satanic rituals for years, and she’s the ringleader of –”
I cut him off. “I see. Another conspiracy theory.” Sometimes I think the hospital must’ve messed with his brain all those years ago. Don’t worry, we’ll heal you up, little baby. Let us just upload some crazy theories into your head first.
“It’s not a theory. It’s true.”
“You sound like an idiot.”
“Mom says you shouldn’t call me that, Diya.”
“Whatever. It’s not photoshopped.”
“Okay, then what do you think it is?”
I stared at the photo. Those two people… they looked familiar, almost. Something about them – their gray suits, their matching silver shoes – rung a bell. “I don’t know,” I said, finally.
Arjun eventually returned to his room – probably to tweet some more conspiracy theories to his 51 followers. How they let a 13-year-old own a Twitter account is beyond me. I went back to my homework. At least, I tried to. Every few minutes, my eyes tore away from the algebra textbook and back to the photo.
Where had I seen them before?
Friday went by at a snail’s pace. Between getting a C+ on a quiz and nearly falling asleep in History, I forgot all about the weird Street View image. After school, I grabbed a yogurt and headed straight for my room.
But I froze when my eyes fell on a picture, hanging next to the stairs.
It was a photo of Arjun and me. My mom had taken it when we visited Philadelphia a few years ago. Arjun was holding some sort of toy helicopter; I was wearing weird floral jeans and sparkly hair clips. But there, behind us, were two people.
Two people wearing gray suits and silver shoes.
I grabbed the framed picture off the wall, brought it up to my face. A blonde woman, arms crossed over her chest; a dark-haired man, hands in his pockets. Their faces weren’t blurred out in this one, but they were wearing dark sunglasses.
“Mom?” I called, heading back into the kitchen. “Do you remember taking this picture? In Philadelphia?”
“Oh yeah, sure,” she replied, through chops of broccoli. “Why?”
“Who are those people behind us?”
Mom took the photo and brought it close to her face. Her eyes were calm, searching… and then, suddenly, they widened. “Just random people,” she said, brusquely.
“But I saw them –”
“Shouldn’t you be doing your homework?” she snapped.
“It’s Friday, Mom.”
“But your grades aren’t good.” She didn’t give the photo back to me; instead, she set it down on the counter. “You should be studying, not inspecting old family photos.”
I turned around and ran up the stairs. That stung… a lot. Usually Mom treats me like I’m made of glass – always praising me, hugging me, telling me how wonderful I am. Yelling at Arjun, sure – but me? It was out of character, to say the least.
I plopped down in front of the computer, typed in maps.google.com. I should be planning my 16th birthday party. It’s only two weeks away. Or on Facebook, checking if Bria Pierce dumped Chad yet.
But I wasn’t. I was here, on Google Maps, staring at them. The gray suits, the silver shoes, the faces that were blurred into blobs of unidentifiable flesh.
Then, on a whim, I typed in a different address. __ Roxanne Ct. Our old address. The house we’d lived in before moving here.
The image loaded.
There, in the front yard, stood two figures.
Wearing gray suits.
What?! I zoomed in, staring at the screen. Wisps of blonde hair fell on the shoulders of the woman. The man held his hands in his pockets. They both stood there in the front lawn, in plain sight, as if nothing was amiss. The text read “Street View – May 2012.”
When we’d lived there.
My hands trembled against the keyboard. My heart pounded in my chest. But I forced myself to type a third address: __ 6th St. The tiny “starter house” we’d lived in several years ago.
The image loaded. A cute, white ranch with 2 windows in front, a carpet of fluorescent-green grass, and a cracked cobblestone walkway appeared.
The porch was empty.
I breathed a sigh of relief. They weren’t there. No one standing on the lawn, in the driveway, or anywhere around the house. If it those people were following us, they’d be here, too. I took slow, deep breaths, calming my racing heart.
I was about to click away, when something caught my eye.
Something in the window.
I zoomed in. The window was dark, cut by white lines separating the glass into panes. But in the lower right pane – there was something there. Pale, pressed up against the glass.
I zoomed in again.
It was a face.
Fear coursed through my veins. I slammed the laptop shut, leapt out of my chair. And then I did what any terrified teenager would do.
I ran downstairs to Mom. “Mom!” I called, fear trembling my voice. “Mom –”
The broccoli lay strewn over the kitchen island, half-chopped. The faucet dripped; the napkins lay on the floor. “Mom?”
“We’re in here.” My mom’s voice. Weak. Trembling.
We’re? Oh, no, no. The two gray suits – were they here? Holding my mom hostage? I ran into the family room, my heart pounding.
But it wasn’t them.
It was Dad.
“Dad? Aren’t you… supposed to be at work?” I said. I glanced from the grim expression on his face, to the tears staining Mom’s cheeks. “What happened? Oh my God, did Grandma –”
“Grandma’s fine,” Dad said.
I stared at them.
“We need to talk to you,” Mom said, her voice broken with sobs. “About something… something we did a long time ago.”
I sat down on the ottoman, a heavy weight settling in my chest.
“Do you remember when Arjun was very sick in the hospital? When you were about six?” Dad asked, folding his hands in his lap.
That’s random. But I nodded. The hospital… the red-haired nurse who gave me a lollipop… the vending machine that had the vanilla wafers… It was all fuzzy, distorted and blurred through the lens of time.
At the time, I was too young to understand exactly what was going on with Arjun. But I was old enough to know my brother was very sick, and that my parents were miserable.
“You remember how suddenly he recovered, right?” Dad said, his tone falling from explanatory to miserable. “The doctors couldn’t explain it. Said it was a miracle. Do you remember what we told you?”
“Two angels came down straight from heaven, touched his chest, and healed his lungs.” I repeated mechanically. They must’ve told me that story hundreds of times.
“There was some truth in it. We were approached in the hospital by two people, claiming they could heal Arjun.” He averted my eyes. “For a price. We told them we were fine with whatever price they wanted. If we didn’t have the money, we’d take out loans. We’d pay them back for the rest of our lives if we had to.”
“Two people… wearing gray suits?”
He nodded. “After they healed him, they told us the price. They didn’t want money.” Dad’s voice shuddered, and he looked me in the eye. “They wanted you.”
My heart stopped. “Me?”
“They told us they’d come back for you,” Mom finally said, her eyes wet with tears. “That they’d take you on your sixteenth birthday.”
“But my birthday’s in two weeks.”
“What do you mean, ‘take me’? What are they going to do to me?”
Mom and Dad looked at each other, uncomfortably. “We have no idea,” Dad said, finally breaking the silence.
“We never would have done it if we knew,” Mom said, her voice muffled through a tissue. “I promise that. We love you, Diya, and never wanted to –”
“We thought we could escape them,” Dad broke in, cutting her off. “We’d just move into the middle of nowhere. Change our names, maybe. How could they find us after that? But they always did.”
They’d found us at every house we’ve ever lived in. Street View confirmed that.
Mom got up, and pulled an old photo album off the bookshelf. Wordlessly, she dropped it in my lap. “They follow us, wherever we go.”
I flipped it open.
Arjun and I eating ice cream at Cold Stone. At the next table, with their backs to us, two people sharing a milkshake.
Two people in gray suits.
Arjun and I at the lake, hitting each other with pool noodles. In the distance, near the woods, two gray figures. Watching.
Arjun and I at the carnival. In the background, lit by the red-and-white lights of the dragon rollercoaster, they stood. Wearing sunglasses, despite the darkness.
They were always following. Watching. Waiting.
There was nowhere I could hide.
“So that’s it? They’re just going to… take me… in two weeks?”
My parents looked at each other, tears in their eyes. And then they nodded.
We hugged and cried for a long time. Then I went up to my room, turned on the computer, and opened a new tab.
Not Google Maps.
I began to type, my fingers flying across the keyboard. Guns. Bombs. Mace. Tasers. Weapons of any and every kind. How to buy. Where to purchase. Expedited shipping? Yes. I’ve only got two weeks, after all.
They may be coming for me.
But I will not go gently into that good night.