Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

When All the Children Call My Name

Poe asked the question: Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream?

No. But I wish it was.

And in the meantime, in the waiting . . . another drink, another cigarette—one follows the other like sip and swallow as I look out over the porch to the fence, and the gate. In darkness.

In memories.

It used to be, this time of year, a season of excitement for me, when my skin tingled and my blood sped its youth—when you knew how much better it felt to go from cold to warm than hot to cool. Fireplaces and hearths and a warm soothing brandy meant something then, and mufflers and blankets fresh from the attic trunk and the soft easy comfort of a grumbling furnace. It all meant something then, just as it all means something now; but the difference between something and something is a years-long crossing, and if I could only find a detour I might have missed, maybe then I could go to bed.

I retired from the force nearly five years ago, long before the age when my uniform and waistline would label me dinosaur. I wanted to travel, to experience, to obey the cliché of doing that which I had never done before it was too late, and remember it with fondness. So I did, and I did, and when I returned to the village, nothing had changed that I could see, and there were no deaths that surprised me.

Last spring it was, then, when I was offered a part-time job as a guard/confessor/patcher-of-wounds in a small playground on the far side of town.

It was a dastardly move old Greshton made. He knew I’d be chafing as soon as I grew tired of bending over the roses that thorned and the apple trees that bore fruit, despite my clumsiness and the delusion that I knew what I was doing.

“Kit,” he said, not two weeks after I’d returned, “I’ll be honest with you. Nobody wants to do it for the money we’re offering.”

“Well, I wouldn’t either, Marve,” I said, “except that I might run against you next fall, and I’ll need your vote.”

He laughed, a single explosion of sound that threatened to clear his desk of its clutter. Then he tugged at an earlobe, pushed a hand through the wisps of hair clinging defiantly to the memory of their fullness. He’ll make that gesture when he finally loses it all, I thought, and every time he does, he’ll look surprised when his fingers don’t find anything.

I reached over to pluck a cigar from his humidor and stuck it into my jacket pocket. “But I’ll take it, Marve, as long as I don’t have to wear a uniform.”

“Well, I don’t know about that,” he hedged. “There are regulations, you know. And even if you are an old friend, we can’t go making exceptions. The younger ones might not understand. Why, the Park Commissioner—”

“Hell,” I said, “you’re the Park Commissioner, and the Sanitation Commissioner, and the—”

“All right, all right,” he said. “But carry something with you, okay?”

I frowned, puzzled. “What do you mean, something? What do you think’s going to happen out there, a riot because the swings break down, for crying out loud?”

Marve pulled off his glasses and rubbed them vigorously against his shirt. “Big kids,” he said, blinking through his myopia as if he resented my independence of artificial lenses. “They like to come around and bother the little ones. You know what they’re like, Kit. Carry something in your pocket, just in case.”

I would have argued, but the morning was fading and I had an appointment. I agreed to find something menacing and harmless, and we shook hands as we always did, in silence. But as I left the office, a trick of shadows that had no business being where they were halved his age to an ambitious thirty. It was a disturbing moment, because I seldom remembered how old we were, always overlooked the added fold beneath the eye, the turkey-wrinkle under the chin. Not that Marve and I kidded ourselves—with his sixty and my fifty-five—but neither did we spend our evenings in regretful lament. He was too busy being mayor and all the rest of it in a town just the right size for people like us, too busy watching his grandchildren grow and leave and return in the pages of hastily written letters.

And me, I was too busy planning my campaign.

Why is it, I wondered as I hurried outside, that men always seem to look at women as objects of a military campaign? As if they were instinctively the enemy, and we the brash young majors who would storm them into submission.

Ridiculous posturing, I thought as I stepped into the Franklin Inn. And yet I paused to allow my eyes adjustment as they scanned the faces of the luncheon customers: a throwback reaction to the days of my beat when I was the Wichita marshal seeking trouble and danger in the local saloon.

Immediately I realized what I was doing, however. I grinned and shook my head, moved hurriedly to the back-wall booth where Catherine was waiting.

Though she was the first one I’d called after my return three weeks before, I hadn’t had the nerve to see her until now. Slender, dark-haired still, aware that an inch of pancake no matter how artfully applied to a fifty-year-old face was always an inch of pancake. I’d been gone for nearly two years, and the measure of my fear of finding things changed sent my glance instantly to her left hand. Ringless. To her faintly red lip. Smiling. She half rose and I gallantly waved her down, snapped my fingers for a waitress, and ordered our drinks without consultation.

“Is that the way they do it in France?” she said. She took a cigarette from her purse, screwed it into an amber filter and waited for me to light it. Not impatient. Bemused, because she knew it annoyed me when her match flared before mine.

“France, Belgium, Italia—they’re all the same to me,” I said in mock boredom.

“And the women,” she said.

“Scrawny, busty, no hips, and no sense of humour.”

She pouted her sympathy. “Oh, poor Kit, he couldn’t pick one up, could he? You mean to say they weren’t impressed by your policeman’s record? Your exploits in the colonies?”

“More by the size of my traveler’s checks,” I said. “And I suppose you were similarly besieged? Dansworth pounding on your door, Falkner chasing you around your desk, Greshton cheating on his wife and holding secret trysts in a luxury motel?”

She nodded, and blew smoke into my face. “Take that, dirty old man.”

“Dirty, yes,” I said, and left the other unspoken. A finger reached out and traced a cross on the back of my hand. The waitress set down our order and, with a smile of recognition when I spoke to her by name, hurried off to leave us wrapped in the dim light, the dark wood, the quiet conversations that drifted without touching us. We were silent, and said much; we ate as though there could be no further intimacy. Wine, then, and we toasted.

“And how are things at the paper?” I asked. “The weekly scandals keeping you busy?”

She shrugged. Being secretary and jack-of-all-trades to the editor of a small-town newssheet, she once told me, wasn’t nearly as glamorous as being a hooker, but definitely more promising than hushing kids in a library.

“Well, I myself have a new job,” I said when she couldn’t offer me gossip. “I just saw Marve and he thought I’d make a great Chief of Police.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Yeah,” I said, and grinned. “Actually, he wants me to baby-sit a playground.”

“You don’t mean the one on Hawthorne Street?”

“That’s right! How’d you know that was the one?”

She fussed with the ashes of her cigarette, took a nervous puff and sent the smoke toward her lap. “Well, a lucky guess. It’s the only one I know of not watched by a school guard.” She faked a smile and brushed a strand of hair back behind one ear. “Aren’t you superstitious?”

“About what, a playground?”

“For God’s sake, Kit, haven’t you talked to anyone since you got back? Didn’t Marve tell you?”

I blinked stupidly and shook my head.

“Just around the time you came back,” she said, “one of the kids was murdered there.”

“Here? Murder?” My voice rose and I coughed to cover my embarrassment. Our community wasn’t pristine, but murder was something usually relegated to old maids’ nightmares.

“A young boy, fifteen. He was found by his mother.”

“Jesus,” I whispered. “How?”

“I don’t know. Nobody’s talked. Chief Dansworth had the mother and the body out of there before anyone knew what had happened. All he gave the paper was a statement.”

My first reaction was suspicious disbelief. In all the time I’d worked for him, Danny had never held anything back from anyone with a vested interest in police work. That he was refusing co-operation with Falkner’s admittedly minor newspaper seemed not only out of character, it was just plain wrong. But he did it, and was doing it, and Falkner was apparently willing to wait. It must have been a particularly brutal slaying, however, because not even the coroner was willing to discuss the condition of the body.

“Dumb,” I said finally. “Danny knows better than to act that way. Maybe if I went—”

Catherine smiled tolerant encouragement, like a pat on the head. “It’s over,” she said. “The family’s moved to New England, and as far as I can tell, your former cellmates are only going through the motions, praying for a miracle. You, on the other hand, are going back on the front lines, and you’d better get in shape.” She stared pointedly at my stomach, which, while not quite barrelled yet, was at last hinting in that direction.

“No problem,” I said, slapping my chest and flexing my biceps. “I can still handle any kid who wants to test my reputation. But now I know why Marve wants me to carry something.”

“Something?” she said. “What’s that mean?”

“For Marve, it could mean anything from a tank to a derringer.”

I could see she wanted to second the motion, but I forestalled her by rising and holding her coat while she slipped into it. We walked, then, until it was time for her to return to the office, and at our parting she made me promise to call her that night. And every night, though she wouldn’t say it.

Nice girl, I thought as I headed for home; and I must have been smiling because people kept giving me the oddest looks as they passed me.

• • • •

I wasn’t supposed to start work until the weekend was over, but a light Sunday rain turned the hours into years, and I fled the house before I began screaming. I walked, to renew my acquaintance with the neighbourhood, my old beat, the stores downtown. And though I didn’t know precisely what to expect, I was rather disappointed that nothing drastic had altered. A few new houses here and there, two shops replaced by two others—but otherwise, I could have just slept for two weeks for all that the travelling did to make things different.

Disappointed, then, but oddly pleased that I had no more culture shocks to absorb as I slipped back into my living.

And not surprisingly, I ended up on Hawthorne Street.

The playground was small, a couple of acres on a corner, surrounded by a twelve-foot cyclone fence, bordered by woodland on the two sides not touched by streets. In its centre were a half-dozen oaks so rich in their foliage the green looked like cloud, and their shadows midnight. At the base of the trees, the earth had been undisturbed except to admit a concrete bench, but the rest of the area had been paved over with a blacktop supposedly softer to land on; somehow, though, a skinned knee tinged with dirt was more natural than a torn elbow with bits of black clinging to it. Progress, I thought, and turned my attention to the far-rear corner and the swings and slides, jungle gyms and seesaws; they had been painted recently and mocked the sun in their gaiety, and seemed rather pathetic without children clambering all over them. The remainder of the area was open. For baseball, I supposed, and touch, and those screaming games of tag that jar your nerves and make you want to join rather than leave them.

Then I stepped closer to the fence.

There was a lone sliding board beyond the swings, one of many, but the only one that faced directly into the corner. Mats of some kind had been fastened to the fence, battered now by the weather and the kids who charged down the metal slope and slammed into their protection. Some mother’s idea, no doubt, to keep her fragile son from jamming his head between the links. I grinned, turned for home, and saw four children walking quickly toward me.

Now, two years is a millennium when children are growing, but I didn’t need help recognising these; and they knew me right away. The eldest was Darlene the redhead, followed like an entourage by Miffy the brunette, Tim the freckled, and finally, lagging as usual and vociferous about it, Stevie—who spent more time biting people’s legs than his meals. They were glad to see me, and I them—they’d been regular features on my beat since the day each had been born. We grew up together, so to speak, and they were laughing when they ran up to hug me.

Now, dammit, I thought, as I crouched to receive them, leaned back against the fence to consider the smiles and the grins and the giggles they gave me—now, dammit, I’m home!

“How do you like our place?” Darlene said. As scrawny as the others, if it hadn’t been for her Celtic green eyes, I would have sworn she was a boy.

“Your place?” I said. “That’s funny, but I thought everyone could use it.”

“Anyone can,” Tim said from behind his freckles. “If we let them.”

“Oh, now that’s really big of you,” I said, poking at Steve, who was eyeing my thigh. “And I suppose you charge a fee, right? Come on, now, I know you better. You make the little kids give you pennies, right?”

“Not me,” Steve said.

“You know they wouldn’t dare touch or you’d eat them for lunch,” I laughed, and he darted behind Miffy’s back, peered around her and grinned, with his thumb in his mouth.

“How come you’re here?” said Darlene.

“Who, me? Well, I like the swings.”

“You’re too big,” Miffy said, and pushed at my arm.

“Well, maybe. Actually, I’m going to be working here starting tomorrow.”

“You can’t work here,” said Tim. “There’s nothing to do.”

“Sure there is. I’m going to beat you guys up when you get into trouble.”

“Are you going to be a cop again?” Miffy asked, wide-eyed and tugging at Darlene’s elbow. “Are you going to arrest people?”

“Only if they try to steal from you,” I said, “Nope, just keep an eye on things is all. Like I used to.”

“But Mr. Craig, how—”

A faint shouting distracted us. I rose, stiffly, and looked through the oak stand to a group of boys no older than seventeen scaling the fence. The first one to reach the ground began tossing a football into the air, laughing and waving at his friends. Dressed as I was in civilian clothes, I didn’t think any orders of mine to vacate the place would be appreciated, much less obeyed, so I only watched until I knew I’d recognise them again if I saw them on the street.

On the street.

Come on, Christopher, I scolded myself; you’re no more a policeman now than the sun is the moon.

It was a bad feeling. Like looking over your shoulder and finding a fine-edged knife protruding from your spine.

I hunched my shoulders and turned to leave, stopped when I saw Darlene and the others leaning against the fence. If looks could kill, I thought.

“You kids interested in some ice cream or something?”

They declined without looking up. I shrugged and tried to console them by explaining that things like this invasion wouldn’t happen again while I was on the job. “They have their own places to mess with, don’t worry. When they see I’m back, they won’t bother you, okay?”

They said nothing.

“Okay?”

“Okay,” said Darlene, took Stevie by the hand and led them all away. I waited as they rounded the corner, keeping close to the fence, then vanished beyond the trees. I stayed for a few minutes longer to watch the game, feeling my muscles tense and relax as passes were caught, end runs were made, touchdowns sent them into screaming hysterics. Their language wasn’t the language I remembered using at their age, but then, nothing is the same when you outgrow a playground.

Finally, stomach growling, I left for the roast I had simmering in the oven. Something about the group disturbed me, but I didn’t realise what it was until I had cleaned up after eating. There had been five of the boys, and for some inexplicable and unpleasant reason, I knew without proof that they were incomplete. I wish I’d known why then, but one of the boys was missing.

And when I mentioned it, laughingly, to Marve a few days later, he nodded thoughtfully. And not without some guilt.

“Gary George,” he said. “He was part of that long-haired mob.”

“Was?”

“I thought you knew already. He was killed a few weeks ago, right there in the playground.”

I kicked myself for forgetting what Catherine had told me, but when I pressed him for more details, he was evasive and told me it was over and done. One of those small-town tragedies that never seem to be solved.

“But how is the job?” he said. “Not too difficult for your feet, I hope.”

“If you’re subtly and cleverly asking me if I’m still in shape to keep standing all day, then don’t worry. I’m doing just fine. Besides, I use the bench a lot. Read, and it’s right where I can see everything that’s going on.”

“No problems?”

“Come on, Marve, what the hell kind of problems could I have? Look, this whole job is featherbedding and you know it. There are more mothers there than kids. More carriages than I’ve seen in my whole life. Listen, those women can out-scream the whole damned police department when it comes to spotting a kid even thinking about doing something wrong.”

“All right, all right,” he said. “Don’t get excited.”

I wasn’t, and I told him so, and we finished our dinner, had a few drinks, and went back to his house to get drunk on the sofa.

Just like the old days.

When one of us was young.

• • • •

So passed July and August and the first three weeks of September.

Catherine and I saw each other several times a week, usually for dinner and a drive to the movies. It was a drifting game we were playing, and a purposeful one—the widow and the widower still clinging to their prime. Sooner or later, we’d steady the current and stop at Marve’s office so he could say the words. Sooner or later. In the meantime, however, we drifted and gossiped and remembered with lessening pain the way it had been with spouses long gone.

That playground, on the other hand, was becoming a trial.

Not because of the sullen summer heat that defied even the shade, slowed tag to a walk, made slides and swings unbearable to touch.

And not because of the others who shattered the humidity with shrill warning shrieks.

The kids, led by Darlene and Tim, accepted me rapidly, and once in a while I joined in their sport. They were often, as kids have a habit of being, cruel to each other and laughing friends five minutes later. Un-brainwashed by the adult scheme of things, they played in what I’d often thought to be the real world, as opposed to those playlets we acted in each day. But they were never cruel to me, not even unintentionally. They brought me cones when that ice-cream man jangled his infernal bells twice a day; they told me stories of their playmates and their birthdays and their visiting aunts; and once Miffy brought wrapped in a napkin a piece of a cake her mother had made.

We did fine.

It was the teenagers who consistently threw rocks into our pond.

Greshton’s Law, tacit but enforced, warned the older kids to keep to the schoolyards, which were always opened from mid-morning to past dark. But the friends of the late Gary George refused to acknowledge the mayor’s warnings, my threats, even the occasional passing of a mobile patrol. They persisted in swaggering through the gates each morning, confronting me with muttered taunts, and generally hanging on just long enough for my stomach to cry out for antacids before taking a swipe at Miffy or Steve and racing off.

When El Daniels ran away from home, the group became four; and worse: belligerent. And one September Saturday, they bowled over at least a dozen of my little people before running out of reach.

The following week, however, I saw them sneaking over the fence by the slide’s corner. One had caught his jeans on a jagged shard of metal, and I ran over to grab his leg and yank him down. The others raced back into the woods, but this one I had and I wouldn’t let go.

“All right, Davey,” I said, holding his arm and walking him back to my bench. “Let’s have a seat and a talk.”

“Ain’t nothing to talk about.”

“Davey,” I said, trying and failing to make his eyes meet mine, “when I was a cop and your house was along my patrol, you were a pretty good kid. You never gave anyone trouble, ever. So what in hell is going on around here? You know the rules. Why are you wasting your time hassling a bunch of kids just out of diapers?”

Despite Marve’s description, Davey didn’t have long hair. It was tightly curled and nearly covered his ears, but it stayed clear of his shoulders and gleamed with constant washing. He was a slight boy, fighting to grow a moustache and losing, determined that the tighter his shirts, the more attractive he would be to the opposite sex. He was proud, but I had never known him to be arrogant.

“You know about Gary, right?”

Only it took him several minutes to speak to me. First he stared at the children gathered around the corner slide; then he worked at his hands for a while before brushing nervously at his hair. I knew it wasn’t me. Black going grey, podgy after a summer’s good eating, dressed in comfortable old clothes that fit me loosely; imposing I wasn’t, so I knew it wasn’t me.

“You know about Gary, right?”

I nodded.

“You heard about El, too?”

“Sure I did, but what do they—”

He jerked his head toward the children. Playing jacks. Catch. On the swings. No one used that corner slide, but I had become accustomed to that. I think it was because of the mats—it took all the fun out of getting hurt.

“They did it.”

“Davey, dammit—”

“Well, they did, Mr. Craig, honest! I wouldn’t lie to you.”

“Oh, sure they did.” Already, he was beginning to annoy me. “And after they murdered poor Gary, they kidnapped El and took him to their hideout in the hills, right? Come off it, Davey!”

He stood, his face lifted to catch the leaves’ fragmentary shadows. “They don’t like us, Mr. Craig, and—”

“Well, I don’t blame them. After what you guys do to them, what do you want, an invitation to a party?”

“You don’t understand.”

“Oh, get the hell out of here,” I said, waving him away in disgust. “You’re as bad as they are. And stay away from here, you understand?” I called after him. “Stay where you belong and don’t bother us anymore.”

He ran, not looking back, and when I glanced over to the children they were laughing and applauding. I grinned, rose in a half-bow, and went back to my book I kept under the bench. But I wasn’t able to concentrate. Davey, no matter how he’d changed since I had last seen him, was not the kind of boy who delighted in tormenting children. I had no answer, but I didn’t like it.

The following morning, then, I was the first to arrive, and after unlocking the gates and propping them open, I toured the inside perimeter searching for lost shoes, socks, buttons, whatever the children and the mothers had left behind. When I reached the slide, however, I stopped and grabbed at the railing that bordered the rusted steps. At the foot of the curved metal slope was Eliot Daniels. His head was resting against the slide’s lip, and as I walked slowly around to kneel before him, I saw that his eyes were opened. And staring. And his mouth was agape in a silent, terrified scream. I was no medical expert, but I knew without checking that the young boy was dead; and I knew, just knew, that this was the way they had discovered Gary George.

Footsteps snapped my head up.

Darlene was approaching me timidly, a puzzled smile on her baby-fat face. I rose quickly, nearly ran to her side, and turned her around with a hand at her waist. “We’re going to open late today, dear,” I said. “Do me a favor and tell the others, will you? Tell them . . . well, just tell them we’ll be opening late.”

I didn’t stay to watch where she ran after she left me; I hurried immediately to the nearest call box and phoned in the report. Mechanically. As if I’d never left the force and I was still wearing the blue. No one questioned me after I’d identified myself; it was enough for someone to recognize my voice. Five minutes later, a patrol car and ambulance had screeched through the gates, and I told Dansworth all I knew with a minimum of conjecture. He smiled when I’d done, patted my arm and told me the playground would be closed for the rest of the day.

He knew I would hover. He knew I would dance around the fringe of the investigators, making a nuisance of myself, pretending it was twenty years ago and nothing had changed. He knew it, and he didn’t tell me to get lost. Only that the playground would be closed for the rest of the day.

For that I was grateful. More so when I stood on the sidewalk and my skin suddenly grew cold, my stomach lurched, perspiration soaked through my shirt. I should have gone straight home to bed and a brandy, or straight to a bar and a beer, or straight to Marve’s office. Instead I went hunting for Catherine and, finding her, dragged her from the office and into the Inn. I told her what had happened, and after she had gone through the motions of calming me, comforting my soul, she ordered us stiff drinks and a meal I knew I couldn’t eat.

But I drank, and I ate, and an hour or so later we were outside and walking.

“Those poor kids,” I said, for what must have been the fifth or sixth time. “Damn, this is going to tear them up.”

“I know what you mean,” she said, her hand tucked around my elbow and squeezing when I couldn’t contain a shudder. “Once is bad enough, but twice . . . they’ll be having nightmares for a year. Especially that little one. What’s his name . . . Steve?”

“No,” I said, “not them. I mean El’s friends, Davey and the others.” I told her about the talk with Davey the afternoon before. “They’re really scared, Cath, they really are. Now they’re going to think that place is jinxed or something, and they’re not going to be able to stand it, you know. It’s a blow to their manhood, whatever they think that is. They’re going to get worse, I know it. They’re going to bother those children until someone gets hurt, and then they’ll be in real trouble. Cop trouble.”

“Kit, I think you’re exaggerating.”

“Yeah, well, you should have seen Davey. He hates those little kids, Cath, he hates them so much . . . well, what can I say? Marve was right. I’m going to have to carry something around with me from now on.”

She stopped and pulled me up short. “What do you mean? A gun?”

“No,” I said, moving us on again, not liking her expression. “I still have my nightstick stowed away someplace.”

“That’s barbaric, Kit! You can’t mean that.”

“I don’t know if I do or not. Yes. Yes, I do. I don’t want any of them, big kids or little, getting hurt. I don’t want another El Daniels in my playground.”

She stopped again, this time letting go of my arm and standing back a pace. “Your playground? Kit, what’s the matter with you? It’s not your playground, and it’s not your beat. That’s over, Kit, over. You’re not a cop anymore, and those kids . . . if you try something, they could hurt you badly.”

“No, they won’t.”

“Dammit, Kit, you’re stupidly stubborn. Stop playing the role, will you, please? Will you grow up? Now! Before it’s too late.”

She left me then, standing in the middle of the block with my hands clenched in my pockets. I watched her go and I didn’t try to follow. I was trembling, not because of what I had seen, but because if my hands had been free, I would have struck her.

• • • •

I walked on aimlessly, staring at but not seeing the old and well-kept houses, the lawns still green, the trees only hinting at the colours to come. I stopped at a drugstore and bought a pack of cigarettes. I sat for a while on a bus-stop bench and watched the traffic waver in the dusk, then vanish behind headlights. I walked again, where the sidewalks were alternately black and grey, where the September warmth was lost in October’s chill.

I considered going to Marve to drown my sorrows. But if Catherine hadn’t understood, he certainly wouldn’t. He was a grandfather and didn’t believe that people could be surrogates. Either you were or you weren’t, was his belief; and if I was playing any kind of a role at all, it was being a cop.

But I wasn’t.

I’m not quite that stupid. Sentimental, perhaps, over the years I’d spent working my beat, but I hope I’m intelligent enough to realize when it’s over and the door’s closed behind me.

No. What I was trying to do, what I had done in my playground, was make myself available to the children for comfort. There were the mothers, of course, and the babysitters and the occasional father—but then there’s the old man not quite so old who always has a place on his knee, an ear cocked, a joke, a stick of gum, the small things forgotten and so delightfully needed.

When I looked to see where I was going, I found myself predictably at the playground gates. It was dark inside, and the nearest street light had been out for days. I reached out to brush at the cold damp fence, and heard voices. Distant. Almost like the afterthought of a wind.

I squinted and tried to see through the dark to the other side. A muffled laugh, a stifled giggle, and I was into the woods and making away along the fence as quietly as I could. Twigs and thorns stabbed at my ankles, sliced my hands, but when I reached the mats, I could make out a small group of children standing around the slide.

I couldn’t believe it. I would have sworn it was Davey and his friends preparing some kind of destructive revenge; but it was Darlene and Tim and a half-dozen others. They were staring up at Stevie, who sat on the slide’s platform, waved once, and pushed himself down. I tensed, waiting for the thud of his body, and frowning when I heard and felt nothing. I peered closer, and Tim was readying himself for the earthward trip. Steve was gone. I decided then that the best thing I could do was sneak back through the woods and find a telephone to call their parents. I don’t know why I didn’t call out myself, why I didn’t scold them, scare them, send them running for whatever hidden exit they had. I don’t know why, but I didn’t.

And Tim swooped down the slide, reached the end, slipped off . . . and vanished.

Not into the shadows. Not into the darkness. He vanished. Into something not there.

So did Darlene. And Miffy. And each of the others.

Down the slide, off the slide, and . . . somewhere.

I was alone. And it was silent. A breeze caught one of the canvas-seat swings and twisted it. A ghost-thing that sent me careening out of the woods, down the street, and into my home, where I stood in front of the living room fireplace and stared at the flames. Of course, I thought, I hadn’t seen what my eyes were looking at; and I began to wonder if playing the part of a playground father included playing the part of a senile old man.

There was a table by the front window, and I turned around to reach for the decanter of brandy I kept in its centre. As I did, I looked through the pane and out to the picket fence that bordered my lawn. Darlene was standing there, her hand on the gate latch. She was staring at the house. I ran quickly to the door, but by the time I had reached the lawn she was gone, her footsteps faint and fading under the night-black trees.

Now I’ve done it, I thought. Now I’ve unwittingly intruded on one of their secret games. I’m done for. No more jokes, no more comforts. They’d have nothing to do with me now, nothing more ever.

I slept badly, then, and awoke only when Marve called me to tell me I was late and was I planning to quit. I grumbled an excuse—something to do with my drinking—and forced myself through a cloud of depression to the bench under the trees, where I took out my book, prepared for a day of loneliness.

Five minutes later I looked up to see myself surrounded by a gaggle of children. Grinning. Miffy giggling.

I opened my mouth to speak to them, to find some way to apologize and excuse my actions of the night before. I was ready, but suddenly they stiffened and backed away. A motion on my left, and I saw Davey walking toward me, two boys waiting by the gates and trying to look inconspicuous. I sighed loudly and leaned back to wait.

“Afternoon, Davey,” I said coolly.

“Mr. Craig,” he said, almost comic in his formality. Then, before I could stop him, his face reddened and he shouted something unintelligible at the children. They didn’t move. He snatched at Stevie’s arm, yanked him close and turned to me. “Ask them,” he demanded. “Ask them what they did with Chuck!”

“Chuck? Davey, let that boy go immediately!” I rose and slapped his hand loose. Stevie didn’t run away; he only sauntered back to his friends, and they moved in a pack toward the swings. “Now, what’s this all about, dammit?”

Davey shoved his hands in his windbreaker pockets and wasted a few seconds scanning the overcast sky. I saw with a start, then, that anger and something else had combined to produce tears he didn’t want falling. He swallowed several times, then ducked his head to gaze at the ground. “Chuck,” he said. “He’s run away from home. Just like El.”

“Davey—”

“I was there!” he insisted. “I was sleeping over, right? I thought I heard this noise outside, so I got up and went to the window. That one,” and he pointed to Darlene, “was standing in the backyard. Chuck was there too, talking to her. I ran downstairs, but they were gone before I got there. I must have run around that block a hundred times, Mr. Craig, and I couldn’t find them. I woke his folks, but they only called the police. They didn’t believe nothing about the kid. They wouldn’t listen.” He looked up, and the tears fell. “They done something, Mr. Craig, and if somebody doesn’t help Chuck soon . . . there’s only three of us left, Mr. Craig. It don’t make no difference now what we do. God, you got to do something.”

Before I could say anything, he raced to the gates and away, the other two following closer than shadows.

I must be getting old, I thought; I don’t understand a damned thing that’s going on around here. But Davey, for all his fool faults, had frightened himself into something bordering on hysteria. He probably knew Chuck had been in some kind of trouble—a girl, drugs, something like that—and when he ran away, Davey used a dream as his excuse. But I couldn’t help thinking of my own dream that night; the kids and the slide and Darlene on the lawn. I knew it was weariness and a drink or two that made me see what I thought I saw, but it disturbed me nevertheless, made me walk slowly over to where the children were playing.

“Darlene,” I said, “Davey tells me you were at his friend’s house last night.”

She only smiled and pulled at her braids. “Not me, Mr. Craig,” she said when I repeated my not-quite-question. “I have to be in bed right after supper.”

“Me, too,” Stevie said, clinging to my leg, then sliding down to sit on my foot. “Me sleep, too.”

“Good for you, Stevie,” I said.

“Mr. Craig?”

“What is it, Darlene?”

They were all around me now, and I couldn’t help a glance at the slide, the mats, the hole that wasn’t there.

“We . . .” And she looked to the others, who were smiling broadly and trying not to laugh. I’ve seen that look before, when the children want to be solemn, want you to know that what they’re going to say is important and yet they’re embarrassed. Usually, they run away shrieking, immediately twisting the compliment into a game.

“We like you, Mr. Craig.”

I was startled. Though I didn’t know what to expect, that was definitely not it. Miffy took my right hand and rested it briefly against her cheek. And so did the others, one by one, until I found it hard to swallow and the light blurred at the edges of my vision.

“We really like you, Mr. Craig.”

The years I had weighted my shoulders. I knelt, then, and Stevie scrambled silently onto my lap.

“Would you please visit us sometime? Sometime soon?”

I would have been pleased to see their homes, but I knew from what Marve had once told me that their parents were beginning to resent the influence I had over their offspring.

“Will you let them get us?” Tim said, pointing vaguely toward the gates.

“No,” I managed to say through Stevie’s insistent hugging. “Don’t worry, kids. I won’t let them hurt you.”

They broke, quietly, and after a moment I realized I had been dismissed. And glad I was, because one more word would have had me bawling like a baby. It was a good feeling, a needed feeling, and it should have had me cloud-walking for the rest of the day, but I couldn’t help thinking about Davey and his friends; they were so terrified now they’d be moved to do anything, and I was tempted to call their parents to warn them. Tempted, but I did nothing. It would only be meddling again, or so they would think. And if they complained loudly enough, Marve would be forced to take my playground from me.

I didn’t want that.

But the following morning, Chuck was at the foot of the slide. Staring.

And people began to talk.

• • • •

The disintegration was slow. A child here, a family there, but within a week or so after Chuck’s death, the playground was practically deserted, and even the comfort of my little friends couldn’t stop me from seeing that proverbial handwriting.

Catherine told me, finally, while we were at dinner. Told me about the whispers, and the letters. “You should hear them, Kit, and read those things. It’s disgraceful the way they’re behaving.”

“What can it hurt as long as they don’t come out to lynch me?”

She puffed on her cigarette angrily, her face momentarily obscured by the smoke. When she waved it away impatiently, her bracelets jangled, the only harsh sound in the dim quiet of the Inn. Then she reached across the table and took both my hands in hers. “Kit, it’s getting dangerous for you. I hear things in the office, I really do, and there’s talk that you did it. All of it. Can you believe it?”

“Ah,” I said. “Just because Gary was killed just around the time I came back, huh? I must have learned some foul, dark sins while tramping across foreign soil.”

“I know it’s coincidence, Kit—”

“Well, of course it is, dammit!”

“—but they don’t know it. Marve called me today and asked me how you were feeling.”

That hurt, more than if she had accused me directly. “What’s his damned problem, huh? Can’t he call me? He has to go through you, is that it? Hasn’t got the damned guts to face—”

“I said you were a little tired, is all. I said there was nothing seriously wrong with you.” The “is there,” however, was as clear as if she had said it.

I bridled, immediately paid the check, and took Catherine home. In silence. In anger. Wondering what the hell I had done that would make my own town turn against me like that. But all it took, obviously, was one frightened mother, one angry father . . .

I ran to the playground, ducked into the woods, and climbed the fence back by the mats. When I was over, I had to sit on one of the swings to calm my lungs, to wipe the perspiration from my face and palms. And when I was sure I could stand without my legs trembling, I went to the slide and walked slowly around it, touching it, pressing against it, standing at its foot and sighting along its length to the top, and to the mats not three feet from the end. They met in the corner, black slabs against the night, and I blinked slowly when I imagined I saw a hazed shimmering, a distortion of vision not quite circular. I rubbed a knuckle into my eyes and knelt on the ground in front of it. Reached out my hand.

And it vanished.

Into cold/warmth, a feeling of winter/summer, sunlight and clouds.

I yanked my hand back, scrubbed it against my side, and ran. Clambered over the gates. And ran.

Again, I had had too much to drink. I know it.

But I can’t help thinking:

About coming up undetected on a child in a room, listening to him talk seemingly to himself. There might be a doll, or a shadow on the wall, or a favorite stuffed animal, toy truck, tin soldier. There would be a scowl when he was interrupted.

About watching a child chasing himself in the yard, shrieking with delight—and that instant frown when an adult comes by.

About children sitting on the ground, solemnly and intently staring at a tuft of grass, an anthill, a sliver of bark.

Kid stuff.

But my hand vanished.

Suppose, then, there’s a world—no, not a world, the world, where reality lies uncovered, to which children unaffected yet by us and our deceptions can escape. To remember, to know what it’s like, and return with resentment for what they are becoming.

Suppose, just suppose, they really get angry. With a kid named Gary, or Eliot, or Chuck. Suppose they invite Gary, Eliot, Chuck, to visit their world. Suppose they drop them down the slide and watch them vanish, rush in after them and haul out their bodies.

Why bodies?

Because despite their youth, Gary and the rest are already blinded; and the light they are exposed to frightened them to death.

We like you, Mr. Craig.

I don’t believe this for a minute, of course. Not a word. Not a thought.

We really like you, Mr. Craig.

But I don’t think I’m going to look out my window anymore.

Would you please visit us sometime? Sometime soon?

That way, I won’t see Darlene at the gate, the others beside her. Miffy with a bouquet of flowers in her hand; Stevie sucking his thumb; Tim with his baseball cap pulled down over his eyes. I’m their friend, I know, but what they don’t know is that friendships can hurt more than enmity can.

And if I don’t see them, maybe I won’t hear them. Maybe I won’t hear Darlene when she calls me out to play.

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Charles L. Grant

Charles L. Grant

Charles L. Grant (1945-2006) was the author of numerous novels and short stories, both under his own name and a variety of pseudonyms. During his career, he appeared frequently on awards lists as a nominee, and won a number of awards, including multiple turns as a winner of the Nebula, the World Fantasy Award, and the Bram Stoker Award. He also edited over twenty anthologies, including the long-running Shadows series, which in 1979 won the World Fantasy Award for best anthology. His website can be found at charlesgrant.novelhost.net.