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One Day He Went Out For Milk and Never Came Back
At the bottom of the swimming hole lays a strange plant I've never seen before.
The water looks like air from up here, impeccably clear with only a thin sheet of glass to give away that there was something there. Extending downward like a domed cylinder, there are patches of grass and garbage caked with dirt. On one side, a half buried bicycle, and an old jukebox, bleating out the newest hits. The cracked, inky screen only displays fractions of words and letters. Sometimes I wonder if sunken beneath the clay-lined bottom are the bones of the kids who delved too deep to find the secrets of this town. "Too deep for their own good," is what I always hoped the greasy-headed mastermind would say. He would look like a kid himself, to gain our trust, but his haunted eyes and sociopathic tendencies would give him away to the wisest of us. We would unravel the plot, clue by clue. Unmask the stepford smilers, until all was laid out before us and the mind behind it revealed. He would say his piece about why he was right all along, and battle would ensue ending with those meddling kids coming up on top once again. Or a tragic death of the main character, that would inspire others to lead a revolution against his tyrannical rule. Cue the string orchestra, accompanied by a foreign choir.
But such things were not permitted. Fairy tales will be fairy tales, as the old rulers once said. They're gone now, we know longer associate ourselves with them, but we still get phone calls now and then. Despite this, there is still nothing new to offer, so I go back to my bunk for the night, and resolve to find my mysterious plant some other day.
Fast forward eight restless hours. Breakfast is loud and boisterous, as the children run to and fro. We have to shout to be heard over the clatter, but none of us are really morning people, so no one bothers yelling. I can't help but notice the new kids at the next table over, sitting by themselves, as they've done every morning. They arrived only a few days ago, and already changes have occurred. There's one in particular, a hobby-child, that immediately caught my eye from the beginning. His hair has been cut, and he's got a new coat. Snazzy, for sure, but not exactly the right attire for breakfast. Is he planning on running away? I briefly wonder if he might allow us to accompany him, and go on some kind of grand adventure, but the moment is gone as we are whisked away for the day.
Today we are taken to the woods, green and lush. It is warm and vibrant and the scent of spring flowers is heavy on the breeze. The new kids are also here, but we keep to ourselves. Spending time with the family is what's on our respective minds now. We run and we play, and enjoy our time as it lasts, but are always careful not to show signs of discontentment while in the presence of the masked minions. Silent sentries, they walk the trails, and give direction. Not un-friendly, but always quick to deal out punishment and escort away wrong-doers. Sometimes the good-doers get taken away, too.
As I lay hidden in a pile leaves, the hobby-child stumbles over my slight frame and falls in a heap. "Watch where you step, eh! What are you even doing in place like this?" I shout in a mock rage. The question is an experiment to see what he will say. Nobody ever knows why they are brought here, only that quite suddenly one day they are ripped from their bed and taken and bound. The worst part is when we realize we've forgotten everything of the life we had before. The hobby-child is in the in-between stage. He's forgetting, but he does not know it. He doesn't respond to the question, only stares in surprise for a moment, seemingly searching for words, before scrambling to his feet in some sort of overly enthusiastic display. Immediately puzzling, but fascinating all the same. A grinning response, a few snatches of what could be called a conversation. Curiouser and curiouser, this child.
I don't remember much anymore. I remember when the family found me in the woods, teeth sharpened and palms stained red, but not much else. Big brown eyes looking down on me with intense fascination. There were others, too, that came and went. Some with a bang and much exaggerated nonsense. Others, quite suddenly, and without a word. I sometimes wonder if they sunk beneath the water and clay, or perhaps just walked away one day, and didn't stop walking. I liked to think that someday in the future, maybe they would be found again, hidden under piles of leaves like I was, twigs all tied in their hair and speaking in tongues. A lot of kids were found that way. Most of them grew out of it. Some of us didn't.
Days passed, and change grew slowly. I watched his siblings gradually move and drift away. I saw the moment when their eyes turned dull. I saw the sugary white glaze where the masked things placed hands on their shoulders to guide them away. The hobby-child, though, he still had spark in his black pits. That was the reason why we took him in. Like us, he caught on early. Walk the path and follow direction, but keep your eyes spiteful and always be aware. He learned it over again like we had done years before him in our own ways, and learned it just as those before us had learned before they sunk away, too. I saw them in their bunks on rainy days. When I stuck my hands between the bars, I could see the water gathered beneath our windows. A misty-eyed viewed as the forest steamed and chaos returned to the world. It was refreshing. In the shadows of the trees I could see the neon eyes of the masked minions creep just out of site. They always watched. It was all they ever did, when they weren't adding or subtracting to our numbers. Somedays it feels like we're dwindling, but numbers are always consistently even. I let my hands hang in the outer world until after the fog comes and goes. The hobby-child and I shared a look when we saw the masks lead another child out into the woods, and we both knew we wouldn't see them at breakfast tomorrow.
Many hours. Many words. Quite a few hot and humid days. Little rain. Very humid, but little rain. What a tease. It was also a hot and humid day when they took the us to the lake to see what we could find in the cold shallow waters and stony beach. I slipped away to visit my pond again. It looked just the same as it did before, grassy slopes wavering in a wet, invisible breeze. There was one difference though. At the base of that strange plant, there lies a pearly white mask, half buried in the soft moldable mud. I dove after it eagerly. Cool like liquid glass slipping past my skin, I kicked my way down, reaching for the wooden thing. Suspended in that watery cavern, I brushed a hand over the mask's face. Curved, black, eyes and sarcastically arched eyebrows gave way to a small smirking mouth. Mesmerized by imaginings of who it may have belonged to. Perhaps some kind of crimson-eyed demon with charcoal skin and a rigid spine, or a green serpentine thing nestled in a hole somewhere, biding it's time until the next rains. Or maybe more blue in nature, with big purple paws and stripes. What things could they have seen? What devilish purposes? And then, quite suddenly, I became aware of the ache in my chest and the blurring of vision. For now, my mask is hidden away in folds of clothing.
Strong arms pulled me up and I coughed and sputtered and spat out more water than I thought I could hold. Shoes in my face, the hobby-child's face above, high in the sky. Wet and dripping, he chastises me. I pretend I'm listening, but I'm too enamored with thoughts of swirling, red eyes. Chitter chattering away, I pick myself up and keep an eye over my shoulder as I creep away. For awhile, there is peace. The air is hot and heavy and uncomfortable, but it is peaceful. The children leave the cities and return to the forests, where the reaching branches cast shadows we can hide in. The family's been preparing for this day, and it feels so interesting to be here again on the bridge between civilization, and a world of damp wood and primal tools. Mostly just a lot of sharpening of the teeth and brandishing of pointed sticks, but we'll still build our homes the same way our fathers did. Ain't it a shame?
But most of all, we'll fall into piles of leaves, and hide ourselves away until we're needed. That's when we'll seep through the cracks and veins to do what must be done, and make sure the designated antagonist is foiled once again. But until then, we will hide in the piles of leaves.