When I was 10 my mom and I had to drive through the Colorado Rockies in the middle of the night. We were going home from a family reunion and on the last leg home crossing six states, she said we had enough money left for gas or to stay overnight in a hotel room, but not both. Everything on the trip had cost more than she planned for, and she was pretty broke after recently divorcing my dad. So we basically coasted on fumes, financially speaking, from Denver to L.A.

It rained on and off and we had to go slower than usual because of a thick fog that was almost as heavy as rain, but not quite. I was watching her carefully because I could tell she was tired and I worried she might drive off the edge of the winding highway. (For the record, my mom was perfectly fine, this is just how I perceived things as an anxious kid. I also asked her more than once what would happen if we hit a bear on the freeway.) My strategy was to keep her awake with junk food, which I paid for from quarters I squirreled away in a Crown Royal sack from my allowance.

At some point after midnight we stopped for gas and I got out to buy some sodas. Before I went inside, I heard someone say “PSST!” and I was confused about where it came from until a kid about my age stepped out from the side of an ice machine. He was wearing dark sunglasses even though it was the middle of the night and I thought maybe he was playing with me, maybe pretending to be a spy.

“Will you buy me something?” he asked.

I laughed nervously. “Like what?”

“I don’t know. I need to come into the store to pick it out.”

I felt awkward and mumbled no, turning toward the entrance. Right when I was about to pull the door open, the kid stepped out further from the ice machine and said, “Please, I’m hungry. I want a Coke. I want a Pepsi. I want a Doritos. I want a...”

He kept listing things off in a flat voice and I remember feeling suddenly colder. I wondered why he wasn’t wearing shoes or a jacket in this rainy weather and I also wondered where his mom was.

Then, BANG BANG BANG! A man was pounding on the glass door from the inside and yelling at the kid. “I TOLD YOU NOT TO COME AROUND HERE! GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE!” Then the man turned to me and yelled “DON’T TALK TO HIM! DON’T LET HIM IN MY STORE!”

I was terrified and ran back across the parking lot to the car. I locked myself in and ducked down in the backseat with my jacket over my head so I couldn’t look out the window. When my mom finished pumping our gas she got in the car and said, “If you’re tired you can just go to sleep.” I guess to her I looked like I was sleeping, not hiding, and I was quiet as we pulled out of the driveway.

Some hours later we stopped for gas again and I was still spooked. I would not have gotten out of the car if it weren’t for the fact that I had to pee so badly, so my heart was thumping as I speedwalked inside to get the bathroom key. I didn’t see anyone when I went outside to the bathroom, or back inside to return the key, but when I turned around to leave, BAM BAM BAM! The cashier was banging on her window and yelling outside. “DON’T TALK TO HIM! DON’T LET HIM IN HERE. HE KNOWS HE CAN’T COME IN HERE.” She was screaming at my mom, who stood in the parking lot talking to a kid — THE kid — who kept talking calmly even as the clerk kept banging on the glass.

I tore outside toward the car. “MOOOOOM GET IN THE CAR! GET IN THE CAR! GET IN THE CAR MOM!” I must have been about twenty feet away when I ran past them, but I felt near enough for him to touch me, like I was just about to feel his fingers on the back of my neck. When I got to the car it was LOCKED (!) and I kept pulling the door handle like it was miraculously about to open on its own. “MOM! LET’S GOOOO!”

I saw her say something to the kid, then she jogged back to the car, unlocked it, and I dove into the backseat again. “Go go go go go go!”

When we were just about to turn out of the driveway I peeked out the window to see if the kid was following us, and afterward I wished I hadn’t. This is the image that sticks with me. He was standing on the edge of the lot, right where the pavement disappeared into tall grass, where he suddenly lurched over and slammed his palms to the ground. It was almost the same posture as a downward dog in yoga, but instead of bending at the hips, his back arched up into the air in a perfect tight arch like a Halloween cat. It was grotesque and cartoonish and did not look human at all.

We drove away and mom was silent, not asking me what happened or why I was sobbing. She put her hand on my knee and squeezed it a few times until I finally caught my breath. Finally she turned to me and said, “Something’s not right about that kid.”

She loves to tell this story at Christmas and other gatherings where she’s had a lot of wine around a lot of people. She loves the part where she gets to say, “He asked her for a candy bar, but he asked me for a ride home.”