The Collector

By Jess Charle

The story told most often is that Greg Wilson was a child rapist, a murderer, and a monster, feeding off the trusting nature of young boys. But Greg had been my friend, and I know he didn’t do those things. I’ve tried to tell people the truth, but no one will listen. Maybe one of you will believe me.

The southwestern town I grew up in was small and isolated, surrounded by tall mountains, and resting near a deep canyon. There was one two-lane highway that stretched through the mountains and ran lazily across the town from one end to the other. Buying comic books there was impossible before the internet, so for me and the few other nerds and geeks in my town, Greg was the hero we thought we deserved, but, as we learned later, not the one we needed.

Greg owned the only comic book store in my town: The Rusty Robot. It was my favorite place in the world when I was a preteen. My friends and I worshipped Greg, whose inventory, as well as his personal collection, was the envy of everyone from small kids to some of my friend’s dads.

Greg had inherited a building when his father passed away, a two story space with a store on the ground level, and an apartment on the upper floor. After he inherited the place, Greg changed it from a hardware store into a geek’s paradise, filled ceiling to floor with stacked boxes of backlogged comic books. Figurines and collector’s items lined the tops of shelves, while valuable items were carefully positioned in shadow boxes behind the large glass counter, which held first editions of classic books.

One night, when the store was empty except for me and Greg, he swore me to secrecy as he donned white cotton gloves and delicately brought out a rare edition of the first book in the original Amazing Spider-Man series, placing it on the counter with a reverence reserved usually for holy objects. It was the most beautiful thing my young self had ever witnessed.

I loved comic books, but my real passion was collecting figurines from Fireball XL5, a sci-fi show popular in the sixties. My father had watched the show when he was young, and we used to watch it together when I was really little. My attachment to the show was solidified when my father passed away a week before my sixth birthday. I became a bit obsessed.

Greg knew of my collection, and would let me know if he found anything on the road at a convention or another store. Once, he purchased a pristine figure of Colonel Steve Zodiac from a Japanese collector he ran into in Indiana. He knew I was low on funds at the time, so he gave it to me as a birthday gift. Birthdays were hard for me, and he wanted to give me something that’d remind me of the happy memories with my dad. His mother had died when he was little, and I think he felt especially attached to me since we both knew what it was like to lose a parent as a kid. He really was a great friend.

Our town had a history of children disappearing: usually one a year. Each loss was devastating to the town, but between the mountains, the cliffs of the canyon, and the wild animals that occupied both, these disappearances were nothing anyone thought of as intentional malice.

The year I turned thirteen, that changed. Four boys went missing within nine months. The first one, Brandon, nine years old, went missing that January. The entire town got together and searched for him in the mountains and along the closest wall of the canyon. Then Jack, eight, went missing in February and the town doubled their efforts. Kyle, nine, disappeared one evening in early June, and Zack, seven, in September.

The kidnappings didn’t affect me much, beyond my parents spending a few nights assisting the searches. I hate to admit it but, as a new teenager, dealing with puberty and the selfishness found in most teens, I didn’t pay much attention to the missing flyers that began appearing in great numbers all over town. That is, until Zack was taken.

The town’s Middle School had a program called Kids Assisting Kids. Older students would sign up to tutor struggling Elementary School students. I had been tutoring Zack in math, and we had grown close over the year. As an only child, I found it nice to have a younger boy look up to me. I had gotten him into comic books, and he’d accompanied me often to The Rusty Robot. We were as close as an eight year old and a thirteen year old could be. When his mother called me, I was horrified. I remember feeling scared for what my friend might be going through, as well as anger at whoever could have taken such a sweet boy.

People noticed the trend of disappearing children instantly, and suspicion and accusations started spreading like wildfire. By the time Zack went missing, everyone in the town was in full panic mode. It was a small town and so everyone knew that all four of the boys had only two things in common: they went to the same school, and they all frequented The Rusty Robot. Greg became the town’s main suspect.

My mom, like most people’s mothers at that point, banned me from going to the store, so I didn’t see Greg for almost a month. From the news reports, I knew that they had found no evidence to support that Greg was the one behind the boys’ disappearances.

One weekend in late October, my mom went out of town on business. I woke up that Saturday a free man. I used a mixing bowl instead of a regular bowl to eat my Lucky Charm’s, and filled the late snowy morning with cartoons. A little after lunch, I decided to check in on Greg. I bundled myself in my thick winter jacket and boots, and hopped on my red Mongoose mountain bike. I rode down to the small central street in our town, lined with mom and pop shops.

Stopping in front of the door of The Rusty Robot, I noticed the “closed” sign hanging in the dirty glass. My stomach dropped. Greg never closed the shop during the day, especially not on a weekend. The media must have been doing more damage to the business than I had realized.

I pounded on the glass door, but heard nothing from inside. I pressed my face to the door, blocking the sun from my vision with my hands, and peered inside. The place was dark and empty.

Turning to the buzzer at the door, I rung the apartment bell. A window opened above me, so I stepped back to see Greg’s face hanging out.

I waved up at him.

“Oh, heyya Nate.” Greg said, without his usual enthusiasm. “I’ll let you in, one sec.” With that, Greg’s face vanished back into the apartment, and I heard the window close.

Moments later, I could see Greg approach the door from inside the shop. He waved as he saw me, and unlocked the door, stepping aside as he opened it to allow me past his large frame.

“Hey Greg!” I said, as cheerily as I could, and stepped inside. He closed the door behind me and gestured for me to follow. We walked to the back of the store, past rows of comics and graphic novels. The sun feebly stretched from the glass door towards us, but without much success. The posters of poised superheroes and cut outs of famous sci-fi characters looked menacingly down at me in the dim light as we passed. I stopped in front of Farscape’s villain, Scorpius, who loomed above me. His leather mask revealed taught grey skin. Deep red lines that looked like a blend of wrinkles and scratches, stemmed from beneath his eyes and mouth. His black lips were pulled back into a nasty smile, revealing yellow pointed teeth.

I shuddered. The show was silly, and I had never been shaken by the character’s appearance before, but his face morphed into a nightmare in the dark stale air.

I jogged to the stairway at the back of the room, which Greg had vanished into. That had been the first time I ever saw the door to his apartment opened. I followed him up into the dark unknown.

Entering the kitchen, I squinted at the sudden light. A bare bulb above me illuminated the entirety of the main room, which consisted of both the kitchen and a small living room. Greg’s apartment was pretty much what I was expecting. The first thing I noticed was that, like the store, the walls were lined with boxes from floor to ceiling. The contents of his collection. The kitchen’s once white linoleum floor was curling with aged and yellowing from a lack of mopping. The wooden cabinets looked warped, one door hanging loosely from its top hinge. Outdated wainscoting ran along the perimeter of the entire room, cut off halfway up by an over the top but faded floral pattern.

The kitchen had an old rectangular table in the middle, with two chairs on either side. There was a worn beige armchair with a matching footrest in the living room, placed strategically in front of a small television I recognized from shows that played after cartoons stopped during weekday afternoons, like I Love Lucy and The Happy Days. I’d watch them sometimes when I was home from school, sick.

The room smelt bodily, like a mix of sweat, old food, and fear. I mindlessly picked up a figurine I didn’t recognize, and examined it. It was an amazingly realistic depiction of an older man. He was tall and thin, his mouth set in a tight scowl. He felt like he might have been made of leather, the texture of his skin more forgiving than the hard plastic I was used to, and his fine white hair rested in a comb-over above splotched wrinkled skin.

I felt the heaviness of the silent room around me, and looked up at Greg, who stood before me, staring at the floor. His face was oddly unshaven, and his hair was even frizzier than normal. He looked like he had lost weight, his skin waxy and loose.

Uncomfortable in the silence, I finally spoke. “How is it going?” I asked, realizing how stupid that question was in the moment, but unable to think of a better conversation starter.

He looked up at me with eyes outlined in red, and stared for a moment. I swallowed, shifting my feet beneath me in discomfort.

“I’ve been collecting.” He responded.

I looked around, nodding encouragingly, “yeah, this place is full of stuff!” I smiled at him, hoping the conversation would become less awkward.

“No, not this stuff.” He said, gesturing towards the boxes. “I’ve been collecting something better.” He emphasized the last word, his eyes growing wide. “A man from Russia came into my store six years ago and sold me something. Something… special.” His face gleamed with a manic thrill.

I nodded slowly, trying to figure out what he was trying to tell me.

He continued, “at first, I just used it to get this place started. But then, over the years, I’ve grown to love it.” He leaned closer towards me, and I took a step backwards, uncomfortable with his tone. “I’ll admit, it’s turned into a bit of an obsession.” He paused, his eyes never leaving mine. “You’re a collector.” He said in a low tone. “You understand how addicting it can become.”

My heart was racing. This was not the Greg I knew. This was a Greg, who for the first time, I realized might be as bad as the press claimed he was. But I had never even heard Greg swear, let alone express any interest in violence against someone else. He even refused to carry some of the more mature comics for that very reason.

“I’ll show you.” He turned, and shuffled to a door in the back. He opened it, and I reluctantly followed, lead by a loyalty to my friend, even though my heart pounded with fear. The door revealed a much cleaner and neater room then the rest. White bookcases lined the walls, filled with what I recognized as the more valuable part of Greg’s collection. The items were illuminated by small lights set into the top of each shelf.

He gestured to a thin glass cabinet in the corner, set apart, and stopped. I walked up to it and looked inside. It displayed nine small figures of children. They were each about six inches tall, and were the most lifelike figures I had ever seen. The features of their faces were incredibly realistic. I examined each one individually, in complete awe of the detail.

I stopped at the last figure, my blood turning cold. I recognized that face. It was Zack’s.

I turned slowly towards Greg, who was behind me holding a small futuristic toy gun. It looked sort of like one of the Phasers from Star Trek, but it was different somehow. The more I looked at it, the more real the collectible seemed. It wasn’t one of those cheap plastic things you usually see, but actually made of metal and glass.

“What’s going on, Greg?”

“I got this from the Russian. He had called it a Ctatyetka Gun. It sounded impossible, but the price was cheap enough, so I bought it on the spot.” He rubbed the toy affectionately, then turned his attention back to me, “I’m so happy you came. I’ve been waiting for you.”

“What do you mean, Greg? What does that gun do?” I said, my throat tightening with fear.

Greg nodded to the glass case, to the figurines, to the young boys shrunken and frozen in time. I knew that even the ones who had disappeared years ago still had family searching for them, hoping with the last of their strength that they were okay. Despite all logic and reason, these boys were standing in a display case in Greg’s apartment.

My eyes grew with realization and horror as Greg held up the gun, aiming it directly at my chest.
“I have to leave here soon, Nate. I have to get out of this town.” Greg said, stepping towards me, “You’re a little old for the collection, but I love you so much, I can’t bear to leave without you. I want you to be apart of it.”

I stepped back, trying to make my way towards the door.

I watched Greg’s finger tighten over the trigger. He shook his head, “now we can be together forever, Nate. I can be the father you deserve.”

Instinctively, I dropped to the floor. A high pitched buzz vibrated over my head, and an unnatural green light illuminated the walls. Greg’s face was bathed with the eerie light. He looked like he was radioactive, his facial features tight with determination, his thin lips twisted into a sneer.

I remembered the old man figurine I was still holding. I reached up and smacked Greg’s hand as hard as I could. He yelped, and the gun flew out of his grasp, landing by my leg.

I grabbed it and jumped up, aiming the weapon at his chest. Terror washed across Greg’s face.

“Guess I’m not as slow as a nine year old.” I growled. I felt my outstretched arms shake with anger as I thought of the missing posters all over town. Zack wearing a bright yellow jersey, on one knee in a grassy field, a soccer ball resting on his thigh. I could see the wide warm smile that followed me as I biked through the familiar town streets, the right front tooth missing.

I tightened my finger over the trigger, and shot him. Green light spilled from the narrow muzzle, encapsulating his large body in a sickly aura. I watched with fascination as Greg shrunk in front of me. The green light grew brighter with every second, and I eventually had to turn away from the sight. My eyes burned, so I shut them tight, small tears of pain and loss escaping my eyelids. I let go of the trigger, and looked up.

An eight inch figure of a man stood in front of me, the statue of the older man lying on the floor next to him. I put the gun down on the table beside me, and picked both figurines up. The new one was a man in his late thirties, the red shirt and grey pants he wore were stained and worn. I looked at Greg’s tiny face. His expression was one of betrayal and hurt. My eyes darted to the older man’s and I screamed. I dropped both dolls and ran outside, jumping on my bike and pedaling as fast as I could away from there.

The old man’s scowl had transformed into a satisfied smile.

I called my mom the second I got home and told her what happened. She immediately canceled the rest of her trip and came back. The next week was full of police questioning. I repeated my story over and over again, but no one believed me.

The official story is that Greg Wilson tried to kidnap me, as he did the others, but I had escaped. Greg had left town when his attempt was foiled, but neither him nor any of his victims were ever found. During the next ten years, the disappearance rate of boys under ten in my childhood town diminished back to what it had been before Greg’s father passed away six years ago.

The part of the story I had never told anyone before now is that I went back to Greg’s apartment later that week. The figurines weren’t taken as evidence, and I found the gun on the table where I left it, surrounded by what a naive cop considered collectibles of the same value and nature.

As an adult, I’ve continued growing Greg’s collection. But not with little boys. I prefer older men. Despite the trauma of that day, I still think fondly of my other memories with Greg. And besides, Greg wasn’t a child rapist, nor was he a murderer, or even a monster, really. He was a collector.

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