The following story won 1st place in our Scary Short Story Contest.
The boy smiles. It is late. He is in the car, driving home. He is clutching his new, soft toy. He is happy.
Or he would be, if it wasn’t for the sack.
It’s only the sack that spoils things.
It’s here, in the car, with him. On the far side of the back seat. It’s like an annoying cousin, or a spider lurking in the corner of your bedroom ceiling. You want to hit things like that. Squash them with a stick. Crush them with the whipped end of a towel. Get rid of them. But some spiders are too high. Out of reach. You just have to go to sleep. Wait. Hope they’ll disappear before morning.
The boy looks out the window. It is late. Streetlight pools in the darkness. Every time the car passes a lamppost, a sickly yellow glare swings through the car. It’s like a policeman’s torch. It catches them all. His dad, with that ‘shut up’ look he gets sometimes, one hand choking the steering wheel, the other throttling the gear stick. Then Uncle J, with his arms cradled across himself, like he’s holding a sick kid or something. Then the boy himself, with his new soft toy clutched to his chest. And last, the sack. Catching the yellow flare on its shiny black exterior, flaunting the ugly packing tape that holds it so tight. As soon as they pass the lamppost, of course, the light fades. But then there’s another, and another. It’s like the sack’s winking. Light, dark. Light, dark. Like a pulse.
The boy clutches his new toy. Buries his nose in the soft fur, sucking in that new toy smell. It’s his reward. He’s been at the beach all day, at a picnic with his father and Uncle J. They said, if he was good, he’d get a reward, because good boys deserve rewards. It’s just a pity that, to get it, he has to put up with the sack. And what’s inside it. All wet and sticky with sand. He tries not to think about it. It gives him a funny tingle. Like running his fingers down the edge of a comb. Like brushing against a stinging nettle but not quite getting stung.
It came from the beach. Just after their picnic. Just after the wasp came buzzing their sandwiches. The boy remembers the sound of it, the angry whine that seemed to travel down his spine until he flinched. His father got angry. Shot out a hard hand to shoo the wasp away. It was so sudden, that hand, the boy got startled and dropped his hard-boiled egg. He didn’t pick it up. No point. No point rescuing a spoiled egg. Sometimes, you just have to let things happen. Watch. Wait for the little ants to come scurrying, to fight over the dirty remains.
The boy’s father poked him in the ribs. ‘Look. There. D’y’ see it?’
The boy looked. Uncle J was waving his cigarette around, trying to burn the wasp.
‘Not that,’ his father said. ‘There.’ He was pointing down the beach.
At a child. Playing on its own.
‘Looks like it could use a friend,’ his father said. ‘Well? What are you waiting for? Go. Play.’
Sometimes, it’s best not to think. Just focus on the task at hand. Do as you’re told. Be a good boy.
So the boy went to the child. Smiled. Asked, hey, do you want to play?
This child was cautious. Looked at him out of the corner of an eye. But the boy’d made friends before. Knew to sit, but not too close. Play nicely. Then do something silly. Unexpected. Throw sand into his own hair, to make the child laugh and, before it can stop, ask – d’you want to run?
Down to the water’s edge.
Ok! Let’s go!
The parents were close by, but it didn’t matter. Their minds were on other things. Phones. Suntans. So, the children ran. Without being called after, without being checked. Ran to where the waves beat slowly. Like a heart.
The sea had been cool on their feet. They’d paddled together, looked for shells. ‘Til the boy’d said, ‘Come. I know a good place. We can play hide and seek’.
In the dunes, the beach-grass was thin and scratchy. The boy saw his egg again. Ants all over it. So he walked a little further. Found a quiet spot. A hollow, hidden from everything but the sky. Sat. His new friend sat too. They started to dig. They did not talk. The sun felt warm. It was good to sit, to dig. Not to talk.
A sudden swooping, out of nowhere. Like being punched by the air.
The boy catches his breath. Hard hands have fastened around his new playmate’s mouth, arms, dragged them away so fast the flailing feet have barely time to kick the sand before they’re gone. Only a few small grains get disturbed. Tiny tears that trickle down the hollow, stop when they reach the boy’s leg.
Then come the noises. Childish noises, adult ones. So confused, so tangled up inside each other, they’re almost funny, the boy thinks. But sad too. Sobbing, panting, ripping.
He doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Then, squelch. That squelch. Like a snail being crushed beneath a shoe.
It runs down his spine. Makes his foot twitch.
A rustle of plastic sacking. A shiver of packing tape. A shadow.
‘C’mon,’ he says.
They walk back through the dunes to the car park. To the public toilets. Stand, side by side. Wash their hands carefully. Uncle J ruffles his hair. ‘Can’t go to the toyshop all sandy, eh?’
It is late. The boy is in the car, driving home. He is clutching his new, soft toy.
Only the sack spoils things.
But sometimes you just have to wait. Go to sleep.
The sack will disappear.
It has before.
The boy smiles. He is happy.
Nick Rawlinson is a big fan of Cease, Cows and short stories in general. Two of his favourite writers are Tania Hershman and John Connelly.
Lead image: “Dune” (via Flickr user Johan Neven)