It had rained that night.
Later, after the carnival had closed, and all the laughter had vanished, and the crickets and frogs were the only chorus singing in the forest, a storm he hadn’t even noticed was brewing, broke. The rain pounded the metal sides of the old ice cream truck, and he held her close. Closer than he had been. In that moment, even more than before, he knew she was special. This was special. Everything about her, the universe that swirled around her, making the air sweet, and electric.
She was different. His Lucky Number Seven.
He realized that it would have been the perfect time to bring her to the pond; that the evidence would be eliminated even better than just giving her to the water, that his trail, the noise, everything would be drown by the rain even before the pond took it’s share. But he couldn’t. It was against his better judgment, but he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t fathom that this moment, this perfect moment, should be used for anything other than holding her. Holding her armless body tight against his own, imagining what it would be like to be held back by her in return. But her lack of ability to do so was almost special in it’s own way. She was helpless, and in his arms, she was safe.
He held her all night long, and listened to the rain. And in that moment, that single, fleeting, perfect moment, the world was what it should have been.
That next morning, the sun had burned off all the rain. As hard as it had come down, you could hardly tell a drop had fallen, save for some mud along the trail. He looked out at the nothing where the storm had been, and felt hollow in the pit of his stomach. It was like it had never happened. Like none of it was real, no trace of the perfect left behind at all.
The ferris wheel was spinning again in the distance, the screams and the laughs of youth filling the humid air, but it meant nothing without her. To him, it was quiet, and cold.
He knew he had to be rid of her. There was no way he could keep her in the freezer, no room. There was nowhere in the woods he could keep her, not without the scavengers catching on. In this heat, they would smell her from miles around. Which wasn’t exactly good for keeping a low profile either. But that didn’t matter as much to him as the scavengers. They shouldn’t get to experience her after he was done, spend time with her after he had to say goodbye. To stay behind as every feature that made him love her was picked away, and pretend like it didn’t matter to him. It did.
With a heavy sigh, he loaded her up and headed off to the pond.
He tried to tell himself along the way that it was just the high. That the experience was what he always felt when he did this, that sometimes it was just hard to come down. That was true; sometimes he would get so worked up he’d do two or three almost back-to-back, before he leveled out. Lucky Seven would give way to Lucky Eight, and Lucky Nine, and after awhile he’d just shake his head and laugh at how wound up he’d been.
This wasn’t like the jungle. This wasn’t like the streets. He didn’t hate her. For the first time since he’d left, for the first time since he’d been home, he loved something. He didn’t even understand who he was anymore, just what he was, and he was living with it. But last night….he almost felt real again. Or maybe not real, like what was. Like what could have been.
Before he knew it, he was at the pond.
He unwrapped Ashley, and stared at her body, laying next to bank, ready to be weighted, bound, and pushed in. He looked down at Ashley’s puffed-shut eyes, and he simply couldn’t do it. His foot nudged her, and her head lolled, barely attached to the neck, and rolled over, as if she were getting comfortable in bed.
A bird tweeted not far away.
He knew what he had to do.
He knelt down, and put his hands on either side of her perfect face. Her skin was still so smooth. Warm. He began to twist back and forth, pulling until the head worked free. With a final tendon snap, it was in his hands. He held it up, letting the sun shine through her hair. Nothing had ever been more perfect. His heart racing (ihaveheristillhaveherillalwayshaveherihavetogetherhome), he picked up some of the cinder blocks he kept at the edge of the pond, and prepared to give Ashley’s body to it’s hungry, crowded, inevitable depths. He bound the removed limbs together, pausing long enough to run one of her tiny hands across his face. He held her body a final time, pressed his face against it, saying one last goodbye to the contours and surfaces and smells he would miss, and finished tying it all up. Blocks in place, he watched her disappear beneath the surface.
He picked up Ashley’s head and washed it off in the water a bit, careful not to remove any of the lip gloss on her slightly swollen lips. It was already smudged. But it was there. Just like that night. And he wanted to keep it there.
. . . . .
Flies buzzed around the ice cream truck, but he was careful to deal with them. The scores of fly strips hanging from the ceiling attested to that, filled to the brim with the little black and green thieves.
He didn’t keep her in the freezer longer than he had to because he wanted to keep her sunbeams. Just during his routes, when he bothered to show up anymore.
He would often put her in the window of the truck so that the sun pouring through the trees would warm her up. Within a little while, she would be bright again, blushing almost, a magenta color spreading in her cheeks. The freckles were getting harder and harder to see, so the ones he could were rare, and cherished reminders of what once was.
Sometimes he would prop his chin up on the edge of the window next to hers, and stare out at the trees alongside her, spending hours in silence looking out at their safe place.
He though about getting her some new makeup, but as tempting as it was, and as excited as it made him to think of spending an afternoon together putting it on – so excited he began to sweat – it didn’t seem right. Wasn’t real. She had her makeup on, and while there wasn’t much left, it was from that night, and that was the only thing that mattered. All he would allow himself to do was fix the one pigtail that had come loose during the struggle. Running his fingers through her hair before he retied it, he nearly blacked-out.
As the days went by, the skin around her mouth began to tighten, pulling up in smile, her braces visible beneath the congealed, blood-thickened saliva. Every time he would look at it, he would nearly tear up. Smiling at him. She was smiling at him. Just like before. He could swear he could almost still hear her. Singing along to The Stones.
It was all he could do to kiss her.
He tasted what little was left of her lip gloss, and his heart nearly exploded.
That night, he made sure she kissed him back.
As the days wore on further, he found that muscles around her jaw had basically turned to leather, so tightly bound that he could no longer pry her mouth open. Frustrated, heartsick, he picked her up and began to lick her braces. He had licked her braces that night by the ferris wheel. She’d giggled. Thinking about it, his heart, in his stomach, fluttered. He’d loved her braces. She was self-concious about them, but God, she had no reason to be.
His tongue probed and caressed every inch of the metal surface, at one point catching on a piece of wire. Blood rolled into his mouth, and he grew so excited he started chewing at her gums.
As summer grew hotter and hotter in their safe place, the skin around Ashley’s face began to come undone. A little at first, then a lot; drying up here, growing moist there, tearing in some spots and peeling in others. Her sunbeams were fading. Soon, they’d be gone altogether. Gone if he let her stay in this rotting Jack-O-Lantern husk of meat he’d tried so hard to preserve, that she were now trapped in. If he didn’t get her out, it would fall apart, cave in, the little green and black thieves and their swarms of children would take her, and she’d be gone. Forever.
He would never let that happen.
He rifled through his tool box, and found what he needed.
Somewhere, far away, he heard old wood splintering. Like the time he’d fixed his mother’s porch. The sounds of weathered boards being pounded, broken and pulled loose, creaking and snapping as they came free.
He realized he was hearing it here, now.
He could field-strip and clean a weapon faster, and better than anyone in his unit. Than anyone in his unit had ever even seen. And this is the only time it had mattered. This would mean something. This would be perfect. It had to be. He had his gun at the ready. He promised himself, and he meant it, that he would put it in his mouth and pull the trigger if he failed
He held Ashley’s smile in his hands.
It was overwhelming. He had her. Finally, her, freed from the meat she were encased in. Flesh, and blood, and lacerations and broken bones that would never last beyond the moment, not matter how hard he tried.
He had her sunbeams. Trapped in one little piece. Like holding the wind in a set of wind chimes.
He realized he needed one last thing to make everything perfect, before he could give the empty piece of Ashley meat to the pond. One final thing he knew couldn’t bear to live without. Something he realized, with rapid clarity, that he wanted, needed to see and to smell and to touch nearly as much as her smile. He went back to the tool box and produced an old pair of scissors. With just a little snipping, everything was right.
When he got back from the pond, it was already dusk.
Darkness was creeping into the little ice cream truck, and soon there would be nothing but the night, and the crickets and frogs, him and her in their safe place.
He unrolled the sleeping bag he had wrapped Ashley and the others in, and laid it on the floor of the truck, an old stained pillow already inside. He untied a little leather bag attached to his belt, and removed Ashley’s pigtails. With a little doing, he tied them into his own hair. By the time he could feel them brush against his cheeks, he was bright red in the face.
Laying on the unfurled bag, he produced another small, metallic item from his bag. Ashley’s smile. He put it in his mouth and shut his lips as tight as he could. The jagged wires pierced and slashed at his gums. His mouth filled with blood, and the pain and the taste made him think of her all the more.
Breathing heavy, his hands wandered where they would.
The night was hot.
. . . . .
He awoke outside. The woods around him were familiar, this was his place, but he couldn’t place the clearing.
Everything was bright. Well, that wasn’t it, not really; there was no real way of describing it. It was day. He could see everything clearly. But there was not a drop of color as far as the eye could see. His forest was the brightest whites, the foggiest grays, and the blackest of blacks. It was if he were in the sharpest black and white photo he had ever seen.
A breeze was in the air. At least he could see it. Branches and reeds and underbrush swayed, but the air seemed….gone. It was like calmly drowning, as though you had been drowning for years, and had finally gotten used to it. Somehow, he felt cold, and hot all at once. A shadow, as black as ink, sat not far from him, though he hadn’t noticed it only a second earlier. At first he thought it was his ice cream truck, and it suddenly made sense why everything looked familiar, but different; he was standing on the other side of the clearing, like looking at the world backwards.
Suddenly, someone stepped out of the truck. Someone who hadn’t made a single sound.
Even though the man was as dark as the truck, he knew somehow that the man was staring at him.
The man seemed almost confused, but not quite. After a moment, the man calmly stepped off the truck, and began moving toward him. As he did so, the darkness seemed to fade from the truck and it’s dweller, and when it did it was apparent that he wasn’t looking at his ice cream truck at all. What stood before him was a circus car, old….somehow, he knew it was older than any he’d ever seen. It looked almost like a castle. Inscibed above the doorway were the words Paese dei Balocci.
As the darkness lifted from the quiet man, his slow movement was seen not to be walking, but floating, hovering several inches, then feet above the earth.
The man spoke to him, without making a sound. Inside. The noise in his head reminded him of what his tapes sounded like when the were being eaten by his cassette player.
She dreamt of me. And then she dreamt of you. She answered your call, and you brought her to me. You found this place without me, without my call, without my words. And you brought her to me.
“What is this place?”
Toy Land. The children play here forever. With me. And you brought me this one. This special one, who might have resisted my call, but not yours. So special this one.
He could tell that the man understood. Understood about Ashley. He was terrified that he would take her from him, but excited beyond description at the thought, the feeling that filled him, that she were here somewhere.
Do you feel that? Her sunbeams. They’ll never leave this place.
“Can I please see her? Please? I want so badly….so badly to….to feel them….”
Would you be my piper? Bring others to me? Others like this one? We can save them.
“Save them from what?”
“Can I see them if I do? See her?”
I will let you come here as often as you like. You can be their Kinderhüter.You and the children can play hide and seek. We can play with them forever. You can love them. Forever.
Suddenly, he noticed that the trees and the underbrush were filled with small crouching shapes, shadowed, Hiding. As soon as he saw them they stood, and darted off into the woods. Children. Little boys and girls – girls – running and hiding in the vast, black woods. He looked back up at the man, and as the man looked back, his gaze said, in no uncertain terms, they have no place to hide.
Just then, he saw a figure standing behind the floating man, trying to hide behind the edge of his cloak. And he knew.
“Yes! Yes, I’ll bring them to you! Please….”
The quiet man smiled even though he had no real face. His cloak pulled up, like a curtain at a theater, about to show the greatest movie in the world. There, exposed, panicked, shivering, was a slender girl with long, braided pigtails.
We’ll play with them forever here. In the safe place.
The hovering man floated aside, as if to give permission. Terror-stricken, the girl ran off into a tall thicket of weeds, headed toward the edge of the forest.
Play. Show her how you love her.
He looked down, and his hands were chainsaws. Heart racing, with excitement and joy, he took off into the thicket after his dearest Number Seven.
. . . . .
He opened his eyes.
The dream was fading, but he knew. Knew he could get it back.
He looked at his watch. 9:00 am. The sounds of the laughter and the screams of the ferris wheel drifted into the ice cream truck, and suddenly they had meaning again. Everything did. It was time to go to work.