For the Love of Children

Rough, weathered planks on the old park bench creak under my weight. Chill seeps deep into my arthritic joints. Windburn reddens the thinning skin on my nose and cheeks. Delicate snowflakes disappear into the coarse, wiry mess slowly extruding from the lower half of my deeply lined face. Time has been a cruel companion. As my old, tired body warms this splintered throne, I sit and I watch.

The winter scene presenting itself before me is rich enough to inspire poetry. Barren deciduous trees glisten with the thinnest icy sheen. Stroller wheels leave parallel tracks in the tiny, dense forest of stiffly frozen blades of grass. Ducks, lacking the good sense to leave for the winter, swim eccentric routes in a hole cut through the thick crust of the otherwise frozen pond. Icy stilettos hang beneath the eaves of what we once called a comfort station. A crystalline sky with the barest hint of the most delicate blue stretches overhead as far as my eyes can see. But I am not a poet. These details do not hold my interest. For me, today’s park is the same as yesterday’s school yard, which is the same as the previous night’s darkened bedroom, into which I quietly peered.

I sit here, not for the scenery, but for the children. Tiny feet toddle past, crunching frozen grass. Unblemished innocence. So pure. Older siblings dangle precariously from outdated playground equipment. Legs and arms flailing, their ear-piercing screams and shrieks slice through the dry frigid air, piercing my soul. Warming it. Even the adolescents on the basketball court draw my attention. On the cusp of adulthood, surging hormones amplify their insecurities. They feel life so intensely that I can almost see waves of energy and emotion rippling away from the congregation of teens. As those waves flow over the bench on which I sit, smelling sweetly of excitement, fear, and confusion, I inhale deeply.

The adults are of no more interest to me than I am to them. I am simply a harmless old man on a park bench. Sometimes I bring stale bread for the birds, plucking off minuscule pieces and scattering them one by one on the grass. The tedium of this act is quick to bore even the most attentive of parents. Their short attention spans are much more easily held by the colorful, ever-changing screens on the phones they each hold. I have no use for their arrogant, greedy, polluted souls. No, the adults do not concern me.

It is the children I feel compelled to watch. It has been this way for as long as I can remember and I know that this is unique in me. I am drawn to them through some force that I can neither understand, nor explain. It is simply what I do. I could no more choose to stop, than one can choose to stop drawing breath. Day after day, night after night, season after season, I come to where the children are and I watch. I have seen so much over the years.

One spring day, I see a tender two year old, ebony ringlets contained with a ribbon. She watches with fascination as the ant works his way back home. The pudgy finger descends, finds its target, and leaves an ant sized smudge on the path. She releases a wail, not of remorse, but rather of irritation that her entertainment has come to such an abrupt end.  Salty tears slide down tiny round cheeks as smooth and silky as chocolate milk. Desire fills me. I long to take this precious creature home. I think of the games we could play together. I know she likes candy, they all do.

In Autumn, I see a trio of grade-school children enjoying the thrill of a merry-go-round. The oldest wraps his slender fingers around one of the vertical bars. Leaning into his work, he straightens his elbows and begins to push. Each step exposes pale, almost translucent skin stretched over narrow ankles. It peeks from beneath his outgrown pant legs. Right, then left, then right. Ankles strangely delicate, they look out of place on this lanky boy. His little sister hops on board and tightens her grip on a horizontal rail, her whole face lighting up with a gap-toothed grin. Half a revolution later, their brother leaps up onto the platform, wedging his rounded little body between the perpendicular hand rails opposite his little sister. With the younger children safely on board, the merry-go-round picks up speed; loose clothing, limbs, and hair fly wildly. Gleeful screams and laughter spiral out across the park as inertia and centrifugal force have their way with the children. The sights and sounds of young lives are so are exquisite, so intense. This is what sustains me. It’s my reason for being.

But there is no more time to reminisce. Night has fallen. The dropping temperature and freezing winds drove the children inside long ago. I watched their games and squabbles. Watched over young families as they enjoyed a warm, evening meal. Heartfelt prayers were said by bedsides as I stood witness outside, concealed by darkness.

Now I must return home. My work has kept me away all day; I’m frozen to my old brittle bones. I want nothing more at this moment than a hearty dinner and a soft bed, where I can reflect on all I’ve seen. My body fails, but my mind remains sharp. So many sweet memories, so many tender young lives I’ve touched, forever captured in my mind. I can re-visit them anytime, consider the details, savor each moment once more. But first, I must give the reindeer some fresh water and grain. They love the excitement of December, its their favorite time to fly.

Author’s Note:

I came across this old post and thought it was appropriate for the season and good enough to post again.  Below is my original Author’s Note from 2 years ago.

This story was quite a stretch for me. It is my first work of fiction. It is also told from the perspective of an old man, which I am not. At the beginning of December, I considered what a creepy old man Santa is. Even as a myth, it seems odd to me that parents would choose to tell their children that it’s okay for a stranger to be watching their every move and recording who is naughty and who is nice, observant to the point of determining what they would enjoy for gifts. Who would do that? How could it even be accomplished?

The Right Thing to Do

This has to be the place, Kathy thought, staring at the wisp of light escaping into the dark near the front door. Nothing else out here except the highway.

The dome light became a beacon in the darkness as she opened the driver’s door and got out. Reaching into the backseat for her bag and the casserole dish, a chill crept up her spine.

She was arms-length away from the front door when it swung open, revealing the warm glow of candlelight and Greg’s smiling face.

“Kathy, what a surprise! Please come in. What brings you all the way out here?”

Kathy followed him into the cozily furnished old farmhouse,”Well, it isn’t like you to miss church. We were worried. I know you don’t get cell service out here so dad sent me to visit and make sure you were okay. And mom sent a casserole, of course. Where shall I put it?”

“Here, let me take that,” he said as Kathy handed him the heavy dish. “Your mom’s so thoughtful. You guys didn’t need to go to all this trouble for me,” he said, moving into the kitchen and sliding it into the mostly empty fridge.

“Would you like some coffee? Tea?” Greg offered, turning on the electric kettle without waiting for an answer.

“I can’t stay long,” she said, “but a cup of tea would be nice.” Greg seemed uncomfortable and Kathy chalked it up to the unexpected visit. He probably didn’t get much chance to entertain way out here. Then again, maybe it was something else. He hadn’t explained his absence yet.

“We missed you at church,” she prompted.

“I wish I could have been there.” Tendrils of steam gently wafted from the mugs Greg set on the table as he slid into a chair. ”I was feeling under the weather and I didn’t want to spread my germs around. I’m doing better now.”

“Good to hear,” said Kathy. They sipped their tea in silence. She knew Greg shared her values, since he was a longstanding member of her dad’s flock. Other than that, she didn’t really know anything about him. Kathy was glad when her cup was empty and she could leave.

“Thank your mom for the casserole for me and thanks again for checking on me,” Greg called from the doorway as she returned to her car.

“No problem. It was the right thing to do.”

Pulling back onto the highway, Kathy thought, Greg’s a decent guy, but he seemed off somehow. She couldn’t put her finger on exactly what was wrong, it was just a feeling. It will be nice to get back to the city. This country air smells an awful lot like B.O. If this is what cows smell like, then you can keep them! The odor seemed to be getting worse, not better, as she drove.

There was no traffic on this stretch of highway, but she checked her mirrors out of habit. Nothing to note except her bag in the back seat. Her eyes returned to the road. Her peripheral vision picked up her bag on the seat next to her. Kathy did a double take, then checked the mirror again. If that wasn’t her bag, then what was it?

She couldn’t keep staring at it or she would drive herself into one of the deep ditches bordering the highway. She would have to pull over. But where? At the next driveway, she told herself, I’ll slam on the brakes, jump from the car, and pull open the back door. A high school track star, she thought she had a decent chance of out-pacing whatever was back there.

Spotting a turnout ahead, Kathy put her plan into action.

In a flash, she had the back door open. The dome light converted her fear into curiosity. Staring up at her from the floorboard was a filthy, terrified man. His wrists were bound with stained twine and he offered them to her in supplication.

“Please, help me.” The words came out as though speaking was a new skill for him. Immediately, he dissolved into tears, head on the floor, bony spine shaking as sobs racked his body.

Kathy stepped back, taking in the situation. The man wasn’t well, that was obvious. She couldn’t leave him on the side of this little used highway, in the dark. If nothing else, the coyotes would kill him. She couldn’t trust him either, though. She didn’t know anything about him. She gave him a minute to collect himself as she tried to come up with a plan.

“I have some bottled water in the trunk. If you can sit up, why don’t you have a seat instead of crouching on the floorboards and I’ll be right back.” She patted her pocket to make sure she hadn’t left the keys in the car, then went around back.

She returned a minute later with a bottle of water and a tie down strap. They looked at each other, then she explained. “I want to hear your story, but until that happens I need to know that you won’t attack me while I’m driving. Have your drink and then we’ll use this to bind your arms under the seat belt. It’s the best I can do. If you don’t like it you can get out here.”

He guzzled the water, then said, ”I understand,” and turned his back to Kathy so she could tie his arms down. She felt more than a little uncomfortable leaning in to fasten the seat belt around him, but he didn’t resist.

Returning to the road, she said, ”So, Hi. I’m Kathy. Who are you and what are you doing in my car?”

“I’m Daniel,” he began, hesitantly. Daniel found his voice quickly and spent the rest of the drive into town telling his wild and crazy tale. His car had broken down several days ago, in the middle of nowhere. He had come across Greg’s house and knocked on the door to see if he could use a phone. Greg invited him in, but explained that he didn’t have a landline and, as Daniel already knew, there was no cell service out there.

Greg offered Daniel a cup of coffee, a bed for the night, and a ride into town in the morning. At that point Daniel didn’t have any other options. Over coffee, he had shared that he was on his way to the coast to see the ocean and make a fresh start. He had no family left, so he could go wherever he wanted. Greg seemed friendly and interested, asking questions.

Daniel woke up on a mattress in the basement, tied up, with no idea how he had gotten there. Each day, he had been given a peanut butter sandwich and a plastic cup of water. No explanation, no conversation, nothing. It made no sense. He immediately began planning his escape.

He discovered that one of the tiny window frames near the ceiling had rotted through, but he was afraid of making too much noise taking it out and plus he had nowhere to go. When Daniel heard Kathy arrive he knew it might be his only hope, so he took the chance at being heard. He pried out the window and squeezed through the gap. Then he sneaked over to her car, overjoyed to find it unlocked.

“That’s a lot to take in,” Kathy said when he had finished. “I imagine you’ll want to go to the police with this, but I think you should clean up first. Maybe have a hot meal and a good night’s sleep. Besides, the station will be closed at this hour. Are you hurt?”

Daniel sobbed again, speechless. He shook his head no. “I’m just so grateful you came along. Who knows what might have happened to me.”

Kathy pulled to a stop in front of a small church. “You’ll be safe with us,” Kathy said, unbuckling Daniel and helping him out of the car. She led him toward the parsonage next door as she explained, “My father, Ken, leads the congregation here.”

She led Daniel into a small room just inside the doorway and asked him to give her a minute to explain the situation to her parents. Daniel was still in shock. He was exhausted and hungry. He was so overwhelmed with relief, he couldn’t think. He just sat on the edge of the small bed and thought about how grateful he was to Kathy, his rescuer. When this was all over, he would take her out to the nicest restaurant in town. Daniel fell asleep dreaming of the menu, having never even noticed that there was no doorknob.

I knew Greg must be up to something, thought Kathy. She told her parents what Daniel had told her. “I put him in the guest room. He’s still tied up. He’s a wreck.”

“We’re just glad you’re not hurt. You did the right thing in bringing him here, Kathy. Your mom will see that he’s well taken care of. Meanwhile, you and I have some matters to discuss with Greg,” said Ken, grabbing his jacket and car keys.

Father and daughter listened to the oldies channel on the way back to Greg’s place. It was a reminder of simpler times.

“Dad, I’m sure Greg will have discovered that Daniel is missing by the time we get there.”

“Don’t jump to conclusions, honey. You listened to Daniel with an open mind, now it’s Greg’s opportunity to explain. Once we have all the information, then we can make the right decision.” Said Ken. “If Daniel’s tale is true, Greg will be held accountable. He’s a trusted member of the flock and I will allow him to explain before passing judgment.”

It was quite late when they arrived, but Greg seemed to be waiting for them. They filed into the living room and took seats on worn, but well cared for, sofas.

“Greg, Kathy found a man in her car tonight who said you had been holding him prisoner,” began Ken.

Greg looked at the floor, wringing his hands. “I had no intention of putting Kathy in danger. You know my devotion to the church. I would never do anything to harm that,” He pleaded. “I was going to bring him to the church, I swear! I never intended to keep him for myself. The flock is like family. What is mine is ours. You know this.”

Kathy looked skeptical, “I was here for half an hour tonight and you never mentioned a guest. I could have helped make arrangements for more suitable transport than a surprise in my backseat.”

“Regardless,” said Kathy’s dad, ”What’s done is done and he’s where he belongs now. The only question that remains is what to do about you.”

“I didn’t handle it well, I’ll admit. I was caught off guard, though. Try to understand, when your prey walks right into your den of its own accord,” he paused, “well, the temptation is great. Perhaps I wasn’t thinking clearly.”

“I understand,” said Ken. “Thank you for speaking with us tonight. I think we have all the information we need to proceed.”

Kathy hummed along to The Mamas and The Papas while Ken drove them home. Greg tried to keep the beat with his drumming, but he wasn’t doing very well. Kathy couldn’t hold it against him. He probably couldn’t hear very well way back in the trunk. Greg had been a bad, bad, boy, and he would be held accountable for his actions. Nobody holds out on the church.

Suitable human sacrifices were very rare to come by. Kathy had only participated in a few such ceremonies in her whole life. Now they would offer up two. This had turned into a very exciting evening.

Author’s Note:

This was a contest entry for Sinister Short Stories. The prompt was “you are driving along a country road and discover a man you don’t know hiding in the back seat.”

It isn’t a very Thanksgiving themed story, sorry about that. I’m busy working on NaNoWriMo all month and didn’t write a new one for you. I though you might enjoy this holdover from my October horror experiment.

12/5/17 Update: It won first place in the contest!