Portrait of a Young Boy Alone in a Snow Covered Park

Six inches of snow had fallen a day ago, and though not much of it had hindered the roadways, a decent accumulation had grown on the banks of the streets, and across the lawns and rooftops of Ashland. Deeper into the city, much of the snow had been cleared away by foot traffic, but in the small playground nestled between the grey monoliths of the city the snow looked untouched. This is where the young, black-haired boy found himself. The boy had not gone to school that day. He was sick. However, he had departed for school that morning, and he had not returned since. Instead, he had spent the day wandering, initially with a destination, but that had been forgotten hours ago. Now he sat alone in the snow-blanketed park, utterly lost and unsure of where to go now that daylight had vanished, leaving nothing but its pale silver imitation. He sat and stared at the black cyst that occupied the center of the park and his thoughts.

Rhythmically, great bulges would burst against the dark flesh of the cyst. It was as though its infernal heart was pumping thick spurts of blood through its arteries, causing them to press against the skin as the blood squeezed through. The boy looked at this biological nightmare, not with a gaze of fear, but one of profound, pitiful sadness. The snow reflected the moonlight into his wet eyes. He sat at the bottom of the playset's tin slide, unable to even entertain the idea of moving.

A shuffling in the branches of the park's singular tree broke the boy's stare. He saw it out of the corner of his eye, and when he turned to look, he couldn't immediately identify the cause. After a moment though, he could make out the dim silhouette of a creature. Its shape was roughly human, but as though that human had been stretched like dough, or taffy. Its limbs were far longer and more emaciated than any human's. The creature's arms were about six feet long themselves, its legs were perhaps slightly shorter than that. By far, the longest feature of the elastic creature was it's neck, which was about seven feet long. It stood with a slight hunch, supporting its frame by resting on its knuckles like an ape. Deep into the tree's foliage, it had buried its head and was rummaging around. The boy, unsure of what to do, did nothing.

For several minutes, the creature continued to dig around in the treetop, and the boy remained frozen. Finally, the creature pulled its head out of the leaves, and when it did the boy recoiled slightly. While most of the creature's flesh was a sooty black, its face was quite different. It was human. In fact, it quite resembled the boy's own face. However, it only resembled it. The creature's eyes met the boy's, and it cocked its head.

"Hello," the creature said.

The boy swallowed hard and waited a moment before responding. "Hello," he said trying to conceal his timidity.

The creature sauntered over to the boy. The boy hadn't noticed it before, but the creature held in its hand a rusted chain, with which it was dragging a large, trapezoidal weight behind it. When the creature reached the boy, it lifted the weight into the air with one hand, looped the chain around its neck with the other, and let go. With a great crash, the weight yanked the creature's head down to the boy's level. The creature gave the boy a weak smile.

After a moment, the boy asked, "Why did you do that?"

"So I could be with you," the creature replied, then gave another smile.

The boy paused, but then, unable to think of anything more to say, turned his head away from the creature and back to the cyst.

"Are you worried about it?" the creature asked.

The boy said nothing.

"Is that why you're here?"

"No," the boy shook his head. "I didn't go to school today. I didn't want to go home either."

"Why didn't you go to school?"

"I'm sick." The boy gave the excuse almost ashamedly.

"Being out in the cold couldn't be good for a sick boy."

The boy said nothing.

"Don't worry about it. There is always the chance you'll get better."

The boy remained silent, and so too the creature fell to silence. The two remained like that for quite a while, watching the pulsating rhythm of the black cyst.

Most of the lights of the city had gone out, but across the street the neon glow of an arcade broke up the veil of darkness and moonlight. The boy had made plans to go to the arcade with his friends. He wondered if they went without him. He wondered if they had missed him, or if the lights and noise had drowned out the silence of his absence.

Periodically, the boy noticed, the creature would look away from him and toward the top of the tree. Through the matted darkness of the leaves, the boy saw a shimmering fruit. After a while, the creature ceased returning his gaze to the boy, and his eyes remained locked, mystified, on the fruit.

"Are you hungry?" the boy asked.

The creature blinked and looked confused as though it had been unbound from a spell.

"It's okay if I am." The creature turned back to the boy and flashed another weak smile. "I'd rather be with you."

"Couldn't you just take the weight off?"

"If I want to see you, I need this weight. If I take it off and eat that fruit, I will be very happy and it will be hard to put the weight back on. Soon I'll forget you. I don't want to leave you, so I'll stay here."

The boy didn't understand what the creature meant, and was unsure of what to do with the information.

"Will," the boy paused, "will something bad happen if you leave me?"

"It will hurt me to forget you, but I won't remember the pain." The creature gave a weaker, more pitiful smile than any of its previous. "Also," it added in a low voice, glancing away, "there is a beast with shimmering eyes..."

The boy swallowed again and tried to look the creature in its eyes. "Will it hurt me? The beast?"

"Not on purpose." The creature's voice was less convincing than its words. The boy said nothing in response, and after a moment the creature became enraptured by the shimmering fruit once more.

"What if you take the weight off and eat the fruit, then I call out to you so you don't forget me?" the boy asked.

"That might work," the creature tilted its head considering the possibility. "Do you want to try it?"

The boy nodded.

Without hesitation, the creature unraveled the chain around its neck. Sighing triumphantly as it raised its head, the creature stretched then cantered over to the tree. The whole time, its eyes remained locked on the fruit. It plunged its head into the tree, and, after just a moment, had eaten the entire fruit, not even leaving a core.

"You can come back now." The boy said calmly as the creature's face reappeared.

The creature began to poke its head back into the tree at different angles in pursuit of more of the fruit.

"You can come back now," the boy spoke louder this time. More forcefully.

The creature pulled its head back out of the leaves with a sullen look on its face. It hadn't found any more fruit.

"Come back, please!" The boy's voice now had a gentle shake.

The creature looked around as if searching for something, but failing to find it, turned and began to leave the park.

"Wait!" the boy leapt to his feet. "Wait! Come back!" He dashed after the creature, but its long strides carried it away faster than the boy could chase after. "Please! Don't forget me!" but it was no use. The creature was swallowed up by the darkness of Ashland.

The boy, dejected, walked back to the playset and crawled under it. The creature's attention had been uncomfortable, but with it gone the boy remembered how much he hated being alone. The lights of the arcade were still casting away night across the street. It occurred to the boy that his eyes felt very heavy, and not even a moment later he was asleep.

In a much deeper part of the night, he awoke. Now there was barely any light, even the parl moon had hidden away behind a thick curtain of charcoal clouds. Only a faint flicker painted animations of orange slits and shadows dancing across the snow. The boy quickly found the cause: a shimmering flame in an empty corner of the park. Its gentle warmth invited the boy, and reminded him how cold the night was.

The boy approached the flame, but as he did, something moved in front of it, blotting out the light. It was difficult to make out, but the boy could see the fuzzy, blurred form of the obstructor. It appeared, to the boy, to be some type of bird, but very large. When the bird turned its head, silhouetting its profile, the boy recognized it as a raven.

For a moment, the boy considered what to do. He quickly drew the conclusion that the raven was merely cold like him, and would not mind his presence. However, as the boy circled around the raven, she moved into his path, blocking him from the flame. The movement was so slight for the large raven that it could've been unintentional, but when the boy tried to move around again, and she once again blocked him, he knew it was not.

"Hello," the boy said meekly, then, remembering the etiquette that he was taught to address adults with, he added, "excuse me."

The raven said nothing. Didn't even look at him.

"Excuse me, I'm cold. Could I please stand next to that fire?"

Blistering silence.

The boy attempted to move toward the flame again, and the raven continued to block him. A sudden, crushing sadness welled up in the boy's chest. One he didn't fully understand.

"Why won't you let me stand with you?!" the boy demanded.

The raven gave not even the dignity of a response.

The boy, in a burst of rage, threw a fist at the raven's plumed back. She threw open her wings and cawed in shock. For the first time, the raven looked directly at the boy. Her eyes echoed a bewildered sense of betrayal that, as she lowered her wings, faded to a cold anger. She turned away again.

The boy clenched his fists, bared his teeth, and flared his nostrils, but quickly the anger simmered into sadness. Somehow, the look the raven had given him planted a seed of guilt. Defeated, he flopped down on to the ground just behind the raven. He pulled his legs close and clutched them tightly to his chest.

It was so dark the boy could barely see the rest of the park. Certainly nothing across the street. It was as though the snow-laden playground was an island of reality in a dark, empty chasm of nothing. The boy was too young to think about things in such terms though. Instead, he hoped the raven would not leave. Even though the raven hated him, if she left he would be alone again. He very much wanted not to be alone.

The boy slumped against the raven's back. It was an accident, but her plumage was so soft and warm he couldn't pull himself away. The raven continued to ignore him, so the boy curled himself up and pressed against her. The warmth from the shimmering flame washed through her and into him. He could feel the raven breathing, and his own breath in tempo with hers. His eyes began to become heavy again, the warmth and rhythm was lulling him to sleep.

The raven shuddered. Then again. The boy tried to ignore it. She shuddered again, then started to shake. The boy heard the raven draw a ragged breath. The boy pulled away, but the raven didn't stop. Her labored breathing gave way to sobbing. Weak at first, but then great, heavy sobs. Unbearable ones. Unceasing. The boy snuck around the fire, and this time the raven didn't stop him. He looked at the ravens face, tried to meet her gaze, but she couldn't meet his. The light of the flame glinted off the tears rolling down her face. Instead of looking at boy, her eyes drifted to the black cyst.

He couldn't understand why, but the boy understood he had hurt the raven. Glumly, he retreated away from the raven and the flame, back under the playset. Frost began to grip him again, but he could not bear to be awake any longer. As he faded off to sleep, his eyes switched between the raven, the cyst, and the raven again. Then he was asleep.

No light could be found in the park when he next awoke. No moon, nor the neon of the arcade. No shimmering flame. Nothing but absolute and total darkness stretched out before the boy. He couldn't see the snow. He couldn't see the playset. He couldn't even see his own body. The cold had numbed him so much that he couldn't feel his own body, either. It was as though nothing was there, not even himself. He was very alone.

"Hello?" he asked the silent park.

"..." the park replied.

"Hello?" he asked the empty void.

"..." the void replied.

"... hello..." he asked nothing.

"Why are you here?" the beast with the shimmering eyes replied.

The boy spun around, shocked by the voice. Less than two feet away from him, two shimmering eyes hung in the darkness. The boy could not see any more of the beast, but nonetheless, his heart fluttered. He wasn't alone. The beast was still here with him.

"Why," the beast growled, "are you here?" The boy didn't know how to answer. The beast smelled foul. The boy was too young to name the scent.

"I... I didn't go to school..." the boy tried repeating the same excuse he had given the creature earlier in the night.

"Nooooo," the beast drawled sarcastically, "not that, I don't care about school. Why are you here? Why were you born?"

The boy felt tears well up in his eyes. He couldn't answer.

"Do you understand what you've done? What a waste you are? What you've brought into my home?"

"W-what are y-you-"

"That thing," the beast's eyes swayed in the dark.

The boy couldn't tell, but it seemed he had gestured toward something with his head. Though it was too dark to be sure, the boy felt the beast meant the black cyst. He didn't know how it was his fault, but he felt he should apologize nonetheless.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean-"

"I know you didn't mean to bring it here! But you did! You dragged it into my home, and now I have to deal with it!" the beast gave a snarling grunt, "Do you know how much it hurts?"

The boy didn't understand. The boy just didn't understand. He didn't know what he could do.

"Do you know how much grief has been caused? What it's like everytime I look at you and all I can see is the years wasted? The pain? The rift you've caused in my own home? How much guilt I feel over how I can't bear the sight of you?"

Shimmering flecks of diamond dust were falling from the beast's eyes. Spit flew from the beast's invisible maw. The boy wanted to run, and hide. He wanted to curl up and hide somewhere where he wouldn't be found. Where he couldn't hurt the beast with shimmering eyes anymore.

But the boy couldn't bear to be alone.

"Please!" the boy cried, "I'm sorry! Please! Don't hate me. I don't know what to do. I don't mean to hurt you. I can't help it!"

The beast sniffled, and wheezed. "I know. I know that thing isn't you fault but," a heave, "it's all I can see when I look at you... So I can't look at you any longer." With that the boy heard a violent eschnikt.' He recoiled in terror, fell to the ground, and kicked himself away from the beast. However, to his surprise, the beast did not lunge at him. Instead, the boy saw a shadow of the beast's claw pass in front of its eyes. Realizing too late what was going to happen, the boy cried out.

"Wait! No!" but the boy could do nothing. The faint glow of the beast's shimmering eyes barely illuminated the scene as the beast ripped them from their sockets. There was a loud shriek, but neither the beast nor the boy knew if it was their own or the other's. The boy saw the optical cords snap, then darkness. The beast was gone, and the boy was alone again. He said nothing, and the park, and the void, and the the nothing answered in kind.

***

"Hello?" said the girl.

The boy's eyes fluttered open. The sun gleamed off the top of the snow, and glistened off the tin slide. It was morning, gaggles of children were gleefully running off to school together, joking about the shows they had watched the night before, gossiping about who liked who, complaining about their teachers and homework. Alongside them, businessmen strode with a brisk pace, constantly talking on their phones about numbers, and figures, and getting upset at such transient things as those.

Beside the boy was a girl from his class. Her brown hair spilled out from the hood of her white sweater. Over top of that, she was wearing a heavy, black jacket that looked far too mature for a girl of her age, with many shiny, black buttons and a belt that looped around her waist. Her birthday had been the other week. She had brought in a cake for the class. Eleven candles. The boy remembered counting them, then crying later that day.

"Are you okay?" the girl asked. The boy sat up. He had been sleeping on the park bench. The girl took a seat next to him. "Did you sleep here the whole night?" The boys cheeks turned red. He realized how silly he had been the day before.

"I got lost on the way home from school," he lied.

"You didn't go to school yesterday." He hadn't talked much to the girl before, perhaps at all, but he should've known better than to lie to her. She was very clever.

"I was sick, so I didn't go. I didn't want to go home though so..." the boy trailed off thinking of ways to avoid the inevitable question that was coming next.

"Why didn't you want to go home?"

The boy looked at the girl. Her face was genuine, but bore no expression of concern or pity. She just wanted to know. He couldn't deny her an answer.

"I have cancer."

...

The girl said nothing.

The boy said nothing.

"I'm sorr-" the girl stopped herself. She remained silent a moment longer, then asked, "How long?"

"They don't know. They said if I'm lucky March." The boy would be eleven in April.

"Are you afraid?"

The boy looked at her. Still, there was no pity on her face. Just honesty. "Yes," the boy answered.

"Of dying?"

"Yes," he repeated, "but... not just of dying." He looked away from her. "I'm afraid of dying but... I can't do anything about that. What I'm most afraid of is that when I die, people will forget me. Or worse, they'll hate me then forget me." Tears welled up in his eyes. He felt the girl staring at him but could no longer look back.

The girl wanted to tell him it would be okay, but she knew it wouldn't be. She wanted to tell him no one would hate him, or forget him, but she didn't know if that was true. She knew those were not things he needed to hear. Wordlessly, she reached behind her neck, and unclasped the thin necklace she was wearing. In a plain gesture, she placed it into the boy's hand. It was a simple, silver necklace, unadorned with even a pedant. It could barely be considered jewelry, but in the boy's hand it shimmered.

"I promise that I won't hate you," she said without pity, "and that I won't forget you."

The boy couldn't contain himself anymore. He burst into a heaving fit of tears and flung his arms around the girl, pulling her close. She had no way of telling if she had done the right thing, and feared that somehow she had given the boy false hope. Still, she had said nothing more or less than the truth, and so, cautiously, she wrapped her arms around him and held him against her until the last of his tears ran dry.

The boy had lost his wallet the night before, so the girl gave him the fare for the bus home. He could've gone to school, but they both decided it was best if the boy saw his family. The girl was already late, so she wandered around the streets of Ashland a bit longer and finally went to class just after lunchtime. The next day, the boy returned to class and the two talked during lunch and recess briefly about inconsequential things. They did the same the next day, and the day after. This continued for the next two weeks until the boy's condition significantly worsened and his family pulled him out of school.

The boy hated staying home, but he had quickly become so weak that getting out of bed was almost an impossibility. His doctors urged him to stay in the hospital, but he knew it wouldn't make a difference. His family would only talk to him during the meals he could attend, or when one of them would bring a meal to him. He hated when his father brought them the most. He remembered the way his father would look at him in the past, when he brought home an "A" on a school project, or some piece of art he had made in class, or the simple look of pride he had any time they were together. He compared that to the way his father looked at him now, the way his father looked through him, and he felt empty.

The girl came by once to visit him. The boy was asleep at the time. She sat in his room for a few moments pretending to read to him. He was wearing the shimmering necklace she had given him. Knowing he could not see her, the girl finally allowed herself a moment of pity, and cried a few silent tears before she left.

In March the boy died.

A week after what would've been his eleventh birthday he was buried. The funeral was small, the burial was even smaller. Only his family attended. The gravekeeper of Rosemary Cemetery, where the boy was buried, tried to keep himself detached emotionally from his job. He tried not find out about the people he buried, however with the boy's death he had failed. The boy's struggle with cancer had made the local paper several months back, and he quickly recognized the name on the headstone. He hated burying children, but he told himself it at least provided the grieving with some small comfort. At the burial, he tried to avoid the looks on faces of the family. His eyes glazed over the empty grief of the boy's towering brother, whose lanky limbs barely fit inside of his dark suit. Nor did he pay any mind to the silent torment of the raven-haired mother, who hid her face behind a plumed hat and a black veil. The father, however, he could not ignore. In a chance moment, the gravekeeper met the father's eyes. It was only a second before the two looked away from each other, but during that brief window, the gravekeeper saw the shimmering tears in the father's eyes and watched them stream down his face.

After the burial was finished, and the family left, a rainstorm came through. Within minutes, the calm skies turned into a violent turmoil. The gravekeeper retreated to the small cottage located on a hill that overlooked the cemetery. As he was making his dinner that evening, an odd hint of motion outside his window caught his eye.

A young girl wearing a white hood and a black jacket slowly made her way through the cemetery, undeterred by the rain. With a solemn pace, she approached the boys grave and knelt in front of it. She waited for a few moments as the rain beat down upon her, then, from under her jacket, she produced a bouquet of white carnations and placed it on the grave. For only a moment more, she lingered, then she was gone.

A young girl wearing a white hood and a black jacket slowly made her way through the cemetery, undeterred by the rain. With a solemn pace, she approached the boys grave and knelt in front of it. She waited for a few moments as the rain beat down upon her, then, from under her jacket, she produced a bouquet of white carnations and placed it on the grave. For only a moment more, she lingered, then she was gone.

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