He saw the ginger haired child walking alone along the pebble path. He was very short and very stout. He couldn’t have been older than ten. There was no one else around. Pickings were slim today. The kid wasn’t his type, especially being a boy, having ginger hair and a podgy belly, but he couldn’t wait all day in the bushes, so he decided to make his move. It could be hours before another lone child came along as most were with their parents or friends.
But not this boy.
The man got up from his crouching position in the foliage and stepped out onto the pebble path.
-Mister! the boy cried out, shocked. -Don’t be jumping out on people like that! Don’t you know there’s been a stranger in this area who’s been at kids recently? Doing things like that could give the wrong idea!
-Sorry, buddy, the man said, smiling and showing discoloured teeth. -Didn’t mean to scare ya.
-What were you doing in there anyway? asked the boy, looking over the man’s shoulder to where he’d just come from.
The man couldn’t think of what to say. No one had asked him that before. Finally, he said the first thing that came to mind, -I’m… keeping the park tidy. Yeah, that’s right! I’m going round picking things up, making sure the area looks nice! I’m the… park keeper!
-Is that why you’re wearing such a big, long coat? asked the boy, pointing to the grubby Mac.
-What do ya mean? asked the man, puzzled. He hated this nonsense and just wanted to get on with the business he had planned.
-A big coat means big pockets! said the boy. -You use your big pockets to put things in! Am I right?
-Er, yeah, said the man, playing along. This idea gained momentum in his mind. -That’s exactly right! I go around picking things up and then put them in my pockets. Things like…
He trailed off, thinking.
-Stones! said the boy, finally, making a point of staring deep into the man’s eyes.
The boy’s eyes were changing. They looked so riveting. The man couldn’t look away. There were swirls of colour in those eyes. Round and round they went like mixed paint down a sink drain.
-Stones, repeated the man, softly, his eyes unblinking.
-This park is full of rocks and stones! said the boy.
-Yes, said the man, now in a trance state, -this park is full of rocks and stones.
-And they must be cleared, said the boy. -You’d best continue collecting rocks and stones or someone might trip over one and cut themselves…
-Yes, said the man, -I’d best continue collecting rocks and stones…
The man bent, scooped and stashed. Bent, scooped and stashed. Bent, scooped and stashed.
-The stones on the path are very tiny, said the boy. -Why don’t you pick up the larger ones that are lying to the sides?
-Yes, said the man, in a voice that sounded programmed and robotic, -the stones on the path are small. I must pick up the larger ones at the sides!
The stones were so large and so heavy, the man had to use both hands to pick them up. He bared the weight long enough in one hand to slide them deep into the pocket he held open with the other. He alternated between pockets. One by one the rocks went in.
The pockets became so full, the bottom of the coat started to drag along the ground. The man felt like he was in a dream – the sort of dream where every move you make is slow and sluggish.
-You’re doing well, said the boy, laughing.
-Yes, I am doing well, repeated the man.
-You’ve nearly collected all the big stones. You can now go back to the smaller ones again. If there isn’t any room in your pockets, put them in your mouth and… swallow.
-Yes, said the man, -there’s plenty of room in my tummy.
He cupped handful after handful of pebbly stones and put them into his mouth. They were too hard to bite on, but small enough to swallow whole.
-Good, said the boy. -You are the best park keeper I’ve ever seen. You really do clean up well, don’t you?
The man nodded and continued his consumption.
-Like you, I’m good at cleaning up, said the boy. -I thought I’d use my special power to clean up the filth in the area, too. A different kind of filth, though.
The boy momentarily looked away to rest his eyes. His head ached. It always did when he used his special power.
-What kind of filth? asked the man, shaking his head and slightly coming to.
-Why, deviants of course, said the boy.
-You don’t talk like a child, said the man.
-That’s because I’m not really a child. I’m twenty. I have a hormone deficiency that makes me look younger than I am. But what I lack in height, I more than make up for in my special ability – mind control. All I have to do is stare and… bam, you’re mine and I can make you do what I want.
The man looked at his hands full of stones and started to shake his head again.
What had he been doing? Had he gone mad?
The boy started to stare at him again. Colours started to swirl in his eyes. Round and round they went once more.
-My sister is the child in our family, said the man child. -She’s only nine. She came here last week by herself and a man jumped out of the bushes and… assaulted her.
The man looked worried now. He tried to divert his gaze but couldn’t, no matter how hard he tried. No one was around to help. The park was as dead as heaven on a weekend.
He knows, he thought. He knows what I am and what I’ve done.
He knew all along!
-Do you know what I love most about this park? said the man child. -The lake. I used to fish there all the time when I was my sister’s age. Things were different back then – a child could be safe here by themselves. It hasn’t been safe lately, but I’m determined to make it that way once more.
-Tell me, raincoat man, do you feel hot?
Help me! thought the man. Someone please help me!
The boy opened his eyes wider. Round and round the colours went.
The man was losing control once more.
-Yes, he said, once again in that programmed robotic voice. -I feel very hot.
-Would you like to take a dip in the lake with your stone laden raincoat and stomach?
-Yes, I would like to take a dip in the lake…
-Then off you go, my man, don’t let me stop you.
The man dragged his stone filled coat and belly full of pebbles to the water’s edge.
He didn’t stop there.
He continued walking until the water was up to his knees.
Then up to his chest.
Then up to his neck.
Soon, his head was gone.
Dirty straw hair was pulled under.
Bubbles burst on the surface of the water.
But it wasn’t long before the water was as still as the grass in the windless daylight.
LJ Jacobs was born in Chester, England and raised in North Wales. He lives in a small Welsh hamlet and enjoys the quiet life with his lovely family. He enjoys playing and listening to music as well as writing. He’s contributed to numerous anthologies and online journals with publishers such as Mind’s Eye Publications, Wicked Shadow Press, redrosethorns, New Edition, Theaker’s Quarterly and Culture Cult. He hopes to collect his work for his own anthology one day.