Not many people (make it sound like a fact) think it is a marvelous idea to play a game of hide and go seek within a ruined neighbourhood. Especially not when it is a still night, where the stars have not come out to burn themselves down in order to simply observe the little people down below.
Yet they persisted in joining the game, partly afraid that the other children who were allowed (or so they say) to have a round would shun them for their inherent cowardliness, and partly gutsy enough) to see what the big fuss was kicked up about.
“I don’t want to be outside. Let’s go back to sleep, it is too dark.”
So what if only one of them really wanted to play? It was the same anyhow, since wherever Heidi thought it was best to explore and experiment, there came Damien bumbling clumsily with arms outstretched, always to ruin the peaceful adventure, and coincidentally most when it concerned particular nooks and crannies that Heidi was not allowed to look and see.
Damien sniffled, clutching the slowly rusting harmonica hanging conspicuously around his
neck. Heidi did not remember the exact moment he procured the item, which irritated her as she prided in herself for her elephant memory. What she did know was that it was an old trinket back when things were good in the family. Before father started coming home silly, spouting nonsense and talking about winning tremendous with sudden fortunes, (will be let it remain so because in a ten year old’s mind, the ‘but’ negative connotation isn’t explicit) that could pay for all their greatest desires. Before mother decided that it was in their best intentions to move away to a strange place, where Heidi and Damien did not know where to buy sweets or swing around the park in the hopes of catching fragile lanterns in the air.
“Don’t go. I have to tell you something very important. If we walk around and lose each
other, I can’t tell it.”
“Don’t be like that. You want to them to like you right, you want to make some friends? We don’t know anyone here and they seem to know everything here, so let’s be their friends. We have to play their game.”
Heidi decided that this was going to be the best game ever, just because she said so. Sneaking out of her bed after mother had put her to bed was not easy, but she had accomplished this great feat for a 10 year old. Her little brother was definitely not going to turn it by letting the other children think they were backing out without a fighting try.
The group of children stood still, the presumably eldest at the forefront with his hair curled like an upside down question mark. Noel, he said proudly. The pagan title celebrating the joy of caring and sharing. How optimistic. Heidi reckoned she might develop a crush on him,
if she was bored and had nothing else to pick apart and ponder about.
“Quite simple. The seeker will count to a hundred and run around, finding everyone for half an hour. Once you have been caught, you have to come back to this meeting spot and wait until everyone is here. Understand?”
Piece of cake. How hard could this be? It is different though, when not in familiar surroundings and in the night-time. Shades of graying shadows can play tricks on the unsuspecting eye. Everything always looked so looming, the spinster thin trees looking to snatch naughty children not in bed.
Scratching one hollow cheek with his finger, Damien pulled down his yellowing blouse furiously. This game might slow down because someone is being a spoilsport.
Time to follow the owl’s hoot and hide in the nearest run-down house. Many huge patches were in a state of dilapidation and warranted a good clean up. Scaffolding bent in disfigured oblong shapes and flaps of scraps of canvas hung like welcoming ghosts to the midnight feast. Bones protecting an empty glass heart. Many unknowns were here to cheer them on in this maze. Tugging her brother’s arm patiently as he let out a yelp at being pulled just so, Heidi started towards the far end of the long straight road, hoping that there were more curves around the bend.
Approaching the first plot of land that held little more than a rubbish junkyard, Heidi did a slow jog towards the fence to the obvious hole, made by whoever thought venturing into deteriorated places would be good for their mental well-being. Gesturing to her brother, whom she hoped she was not hearing silently sobbing into his papery thin palms, she hopped into the low hole to enter the land.
“Isn’t this wrong? Won’t someone come and scold us for going into someone else’s house?”
“Damien, look around you. No one lives here. If they do, they like to keep their homes dirty for other people to step in.”
One feet wobbling over the crudely cut fence with his red satchel caught in between, Heidi sighed heavily as she held out her hand, not unkindly, for her brother to grasp. It was tiring to constantly look over your shoulder when one should be looking ahead to the dim future with its explosive universe of discoveries, waiting to be unraveled, one mystery at a time. But this was the trade-off, letting Damien tag along or risk him going back home and possibly waking Mother to two empty crumpled beds.
Striding as fast her little legs could, she crossed the wide expanse of tedious yard, pummelled by rotting fauna that naturally blossomed in the wake of less civilised occupation. Reaching the diagonal corner, she scrambled up on the hastily thriving creeping plantation, and into the simply fashioned hedge that had seen better days. Peering above, she saw just what they needed: a hidden labyrinth, perfect for children to explore while some other silly children tried to find them.
“I see a good spot to rest. Come on Damien, stop wandering and poking about.”
Crossing his eyes in apparent dissent, Damien placed one foot firm, looking to be a reticent ox and stand in the exact square of area he was before thinking that it was better to follow his adamant sister, who would probably leave him as he was. Still as statue, it was not good to stone and become part of the landscape where he did not have Heidi to show him where to pee.
Climbing up the towering haphazardly grass sprawl, he held onto the green carpet tightly lest he fall down straight, and he did so dislike scrapping his knees. The red enemy seemed foreboding, something alien against the paler cloth of skin fibre.
Heidi sat on top of the ledge before leaping down, holding out her arms like an angel to catch Damien. Stumbling a bit after his jump, he looked right at her eyes briefly before righting himself with as much dignity as child of seven birthday parties could. A sign of complicit trust only siblings could establish.
“Looks like a good place to skip and play, right Damien? You can just sit right here and play with your harmonica.”
“Come back. I keep forgetting, but I will remember it soon. There is something I have to tell you.”
“You sit here and try to remember what you have to tell me alright? Count to three hundred and thirty three backwards to have a clearer connection between your brain pathways to facilitate efficient transmission of information.”
Giving him one last stare against his exasperated one, she proceeded to seek to her heart’s content. A pirate would loot and plunder the treasures, never stopping to think twice about being robbed in return by the ghosts of cursed items. Always greedy to keep and enclose everything, plucking out the moth’s legs and bounding its wings into the iron cage, for fancy display to an imaginary audience who were too disgusted to actually point out the ivory elephant.
Heidi opened her small red satchel and took out a carefully worn notebook, pages upon pages transparent with constant rubouts and scribbles concerning nothing and everything. These notes were of utmost importance, always putting down records in pencil and paper. Lead scratches were proof of her empirical conduct, ready to catch and reflect the science of deduction. Every time we experience any sensation, the experience would change in the next occurrence. In the next micro-second. If we blink too fast, we would not catch the sly details that reality tries to fool us.
Slowly strolling about, taking in the entire scene before her in all its decaying glory, she turned a corner before bumping into a sharp marble pillar of sorts. Looking down she squinted to scrutinize the fading lines embossed on it.
In somber memory, our disgaceful Emmanuel.
What an odd dedication. Why spend precious gold on someone you detested? There were stranger things yet to be found in the world; of that Heidi was sure about. People have died alone having given so much and there have been idols made revered without accomplishing useful deeds. Like the person who invented rubber playgrounds. What fun is it without the ominous element of getting splinters and burned bottoms from wooden swings and metal slides?
Her head above, her eyes met a few more similar looking rows of severe epitaphs. A graveyard garden to the possibly forgotten dead. Death by regret.
The crunch of leaden wellington boots clouted clear in the silent solitude.
Well, that put a temporary end to her positivist escapism. She had to see who decided it was a good time to interrupt her traverse, and get out with her brother in tow. Damien! That was one factor she did not rationalise in her earlier book-keeping, he might have encountered this yet identified persona. A male in his mid to late fourties, gruff from his tone of voice. Living alone. No one with family would spare a minute to be in this forsaken land.
Heidi emerged from the pillar that served to engulf her tiny child’s body. It was better to see who it was so that she can (present perfect tense) assess the situation and calculate the predetermined fortunes surrounding the circumstances.
“It is just me. I was trying to find my house and I guess I got lost.”
Unfocused guesses were for ones who did not know what they wanted, doomed to be always searching for their one true destination. She was in wonder for the next greatest pot of gold, never stopping to think if it was necessarily endgame. Life is not a fixed cube with an infinite number of possibilities; it was the juggernaut accidentally on purpose dug apart to examine the constrained patterns that predicted people’s experiences.
His eyes were guarded, fingers curling tighter around a long spindle, a lone lantern aglow on the hook poised to do his bidding. The Mouth is dormant, without a trace of sound.
No one just happens to wander in here, where it is unclean and dangerous. To come here, you must have come here specifically.
To come here, you must have had to.
“I came here with my brother Damien. We are hiding here, playing hide and seek. With a group of children. The ringleader, his name is, Nathan, Nolan, yes, him, Noel. About this tall, with very messy hair like worms, in dirty overalls.”
Cocking his eyebrow straight at her, he shifted his foot and brought his mighty staff closer to himself, as though shuddering to himself. Not a single utter from the crumpled lips. For the first time, Heidi felt some sort of trepidation. As though she ought to remember something important that was not meant to be forgotten, but it always ended up in the dustiest compartment, woollen in by the cobwebs of the cerebellum.
Shifting his beady eyes to the left, he signalled her to scroll down the nearest pillar from which she had first seen.
He is dead. That is his grave.
They are all dead.
All of them!
Now someone was playing a cruel joke. How childish of him to stoop to such a clownish
Plucking the rod out of the soil not yet set in stone, he raised it to approximately one third the horizontal length, aiming the hook straight at her. The lantern bobbed against the movement, spiralling down to the tip, flashing a warning.
Pointing towards the corner at end of the line where two spaces lay, a pile of dirt surrounds both like condiments to mix the incarcerated subsistence. Sand coffins ready to encapsulate and engrave the walking dead.
Two beds for two maids in a row.
A ghastly grin wrinkled at the corner of his lips, twitching open to reveal a mouth full of pearly white teeth.
I have been waiting for you.
She may have been found, but she was not going to be caught.
Light as feather, fleet as a fox, she ran out of the graveyard.
Sputtering about like a frightened rabbit, she ran back to the toppling slab stones to get to the other side from where she had originally come from. She might have been outrun by him, as he hooked one of her legs, the lace of her calf length cotton sock getting tangled with his gilded instrument. The child catcher would do his up-most duty to get his two charges.
Not before letting her see Damien sitting in a corner from where she had left him. Good boy.
“I am cold, Heidi. I keep telling you, but you don’t seem to listen to me.”
She certainly did not have time for his ramblings and mutterings concerning his sense of touch and its effect on his overall body temperature.
“Damien! Get yourself here! DAMIEN!”
Looking up in alarm, he ran to his sister’s distressed cry and shot up. But he was too small to quite reach up and pluck her from the clutches of a vile man made to do his sacred job.
Crash silence with crushed noise.
“Use your harmonica. QUICKLY!”
Scrounging his features into a compact of amused terror, he looked at her paralysed at the lack of running logic.
The child catcher had caught her other unscrupulous foot, determined not to let this pursuit run without cause.
“Just do what I say! Hurry!”
Believing in the moment, he grabbed his long disused harmonica. It drops, escaping from the gaps between his fast sweaty fingers twice before finally placing it in his mouth to bellow a string of unsynchronised sounds from absence of meticulous practice.
A long screech tore into the night as he cried out in absolute horror, mouth open in silent
omission. Hand dropped the lantern rod, and reached up to cover his assaulted ears. The sudden broken sound of silence is too much to bear.
Exploiting his sudden catatonic state, Heidi tugged her feet loose from his clawed grip and scrambled up the rest of the steps and dived down to her awaiting brother, who was still producing cacophonous strains that can hardly be classified as white noise.
Stumbling unto the ground, she did not waste time grabbing Damien’s hand and sprinting them towards the scratched out fenced hole. Gathering him up her arms, she stuffed Damien through the hole, then herself, before running towards the main road.
“Wait a minute, Heidi. I have to tell you something. The thing I was supposed to remember. I remember it know! I –“
“That we are not supposed to be here. You twice got something right.”
“No, no, not that! Something even more important!”
High on the thrill of helping his obstinate sister, he patted her arm, which she was still holding onto excitedly. She decided to reward him by indulging him, just this once.
“What is it?”
“I remember how we got here, how – “
“Damien, let’s not recollect horrid memories, alright? What happened has happened. Forget them Damien, throw them away. Just like how we forget our parents. It is of no use to us, only existing as much as we believe in it. And we will chuck those pieces aside, especially because as much as these are of no use to the living, these do not have any bearing on the dead.”
Looking at his pale cheeks and shadowed circles embracing his too eager eyes, she sighed.
Time to find a new hideout. They will not lose to the child catcher, capturing dead children crying to their graves.
One hundred …