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  • 25 May 2020
Content warning: Discussions of abuse and vicarious trauma You feel it descend as the kids run off through the aisles in the supermarket. As soon as they’re out of sight you are alert and tense. Occasionally it happens while you’re distracted, so when you look up and realise they’re gone you don’t know exactly how long or which way they went, and when that happens you go straight to third gear. Short breaths, quickening movements. Whatever you were holding flung in the general direction of the shelves as you spin away into the search.

There’s a thing you do — walking as fast as you can, rushing, hyperalert, checking along and under and at the same time throwing glances towards the exit for any sign of a kid being hustled or carried out past the bag checkers — all the while trying not to look like a deranged helicopter parent. Must not helicopter.

You’re thinking about He Who Walks Behind The Rows. When as a teenager you read about Stephen King’s supernatural demon, the source of evil in a story about a cult of children killing adults, the words had a heft of their own that sunk in and stayed with you. Like a line from a song or a poem that pops up from time to time in response to the right stimuli. Decades later, you used it to name another chilling character you encountered, but he who walks among the aisles wasn’t squashed safely between the pages of a paperback. He was a real person from a real case who, with help from a single accomplice, took a child straight out of a shop past dozens of people and security guards. Although your left-brain knows you’ll never meet him he’s there with you in every supermarket, toy or department store moving along quietly out of sight; watching, waiting.

In court his breathing was loud and deep, Vader in a cardigan. He looked annoyed, his lawyer was pressing his rights and you ground your teeth but you were, as always, polite and professional. It’s not as if you’ve never had to press an argument that left ash on your tongue.

Just as you start to hyperventilate you find them three aisles away, pottering and smiling. You know they’ve done nothing wrong but you admonish them gently and, just for a second, hug them a little too tightly.

At the fringes of the legal system, there