There’s no way for a middle-aged man to stand outside a grade school playground, stubble on his face, stinking of cigarette smoke and bourbon, without drawing unwanted attention. Leaning against the cold wire fence, fingers pushing through the thin worn gloves, the wind would pick up and cut through my clothes, no matter how many layers I wore. I would stare across the pavement for as long as I could, watching the games they’d play, the tag and the inevitable screams, the girls with their rosy cheeks, the boys with scowls of determination. Not for long, no, I never had much time to enjoy them, their innocence and freedom. I could feel their eyes on me, the teachers, the women, and I’d quickly move on. They had their theories, and they were wrong.
It wasn’t his fault, the boy—it was always my own undoing. I wouldn’t claim me either.
I liked to make things, with my hands. I’d sit in the basement, the concrete walls dusty and gray, and inhale the airplane glue, working on the models, taking needle and thick thread to a decapitated doll, springs and gears pushed inside the toys and watches, sipping amber liquid. I let her drift away, my wife, I stopped trying—and that was the beginning of the end. She was all that was right in the world, and I was nothing but regret. When the friendship is over, when the two of you can hardly be in the same room together, when the idea of sex is not only a novelty but a growing repulsion—then something inside you dies. And in that death, a universe is born.
I grew fat and lazy in my retirement. Years at the factory bent over the conveyor belt, it took a toll. Doesn’t matter what I made, does it? Computer motherboards, ink cartridges, belts, tires—they all sucked me dry. I was hunched, crooked, and devoid of emotion—my head stuffed with cotton. When the time came, I tumbled into the machinery, bent and broken, but still alive. One more failure stacked on a pile of other failures. She was not surprised.
In the dark basement, a solitary light bulb overhead, the joint of my left arm itching, always itching, where the pins pushed up against the bones, buried deep inside the scarred and pitted flesh, I waited for an epiphany, a way out of the mess I had created. I counted the hours until my wife would slam the door shut, and drag our son with her, out into the world. He was better off with her, away from me. The boy wouldn’t come down here now, not unless I invited him, not unless his mother was standing there in the tiled kitchen, coffee burning, arms crossed, her nose twitching like a coke-addled rabbit. Not even with my own son—she trusted me as far as she could throw me. All I had ever done was provide far less than she needed, in every possible way.
This was the ghost I had become, hiding in the shadows, my dreams trapped in the filament of shrunken spider webs—wriggling, struggling—but still alive. The shell of a man became a specter at the playground, at his soccer games, where I was invisible, barely worth a nod of the head and a painful grin. She never acknowledged me, my wife. Nor did the boy. But I was there. The other parents avoided my failure like a virus they could catch.
I would laugh. And then I would catch myself, realizing that a dirty, damaged, laughing man was not the person you wanted to be. Too many times the police suddenly appeared, too many times pushed up against a brick wall—handcuffed, abused and beaten for no reason. They would look at my driver’s license, I would explain in hushed tones, and they would scowl at me, the young cops blushing, realizing they had just roughed up a drunken cripple, a man who lived just a few blocks away in a nice little house, on a quiet suburban street. I was not the boogeyman—not one of them, the unknown, but one of us—the known, the safe—homogenized. The fear in their eyes asked me how the fall had happened, how I came to be so lost—the mystery of it tense and unsettling. Could this darkness find them as well?
I started leaving the toys and dolls on the bench outside the school or tied to the fence—hidden in the brick corners of a building that held inside it children made of newly fallen snow. In my own house I was a shadow, amorphous—no more kisses at bedtime, no more stories to be read—just a darkness that in time would move on—a stain to be cleaned, a demon to be expelled. I knew it was coming, the phone calls, the hushed whispering—so maybe I’d make it that much easier. Maybe I’d hurry this whole thing along.
The things I fixed, the totems, the toys—they had been thrown away, broken, and now I had made them whole. I would lace one arm of a cloth doll through the wires of the fence, and then the other, just high enough off the ground so the kids could find them. Or simply leave a model airplane sitting on a bench, a tree stump, on top of a garbage can, as I shuffled down the street to an abandoned gas station, surrounded my gears that no longer turned, pumps that had run dry, the architecture a skeleton of past mistakes. It was all I could do to stay in touch with the realities that were slowly slipping away.
On the final day of my freedom I sat weeping on a bench at the edge of the playground, as my son approached me and took my gnarled hands in his own. I didn’t even have to commit the crime, only look as though I had. Santa Claus outside of a mall is just a drunk fat man who puts children on his lap—and that, my friend, will get you arrested. Doesn’t matter if it’s true.
“Dad, are you the one making the toys. Fixing them?”
I nodded my head.
“Why are you crying?” he asked.
He climbed onto my lap, smiling up at me with wide eyes, his only wish that I would smile and stop crying, be happy once again.
“No, son, don’t—run along,” I said.
But my boy didn’t count, his vote was worthless, it was the others, the ones that ran across the playground in fear, not caring, not understanding, as I drifted into the fractured grey sky—my son, my life, slipping away. All it would take would be one scared little girl, brow beaten into submission, afraid of the strange man, the gifts he had given, nodding her head about things that had never happened, just to make them stop. I was counting on it.
And I would not be denied.
Richard Thomas is the author of one novel, Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications, 2010) and two short story collections, Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press, 2012) and Staring Into the Abyss (Kraken Press, 2013). He was the winner of contests at ChiZine, One Buck Horror, and Jotspeak. He has published over 75 stories, including the Shivers VI anthology (Cemetery Dance) with Stephen King and Peter Straub, Murky Depths, PANK, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Pear Noir!, Word Riot, 3:AM Magazine, and Opium. He also writes for The Nervous Breakdown, LitReactor, and ManArchy. He is represented by Paula Munier at Talcott Notch.