From the author: Myra, living alone in a block of flats, is intrigued and tormented by a gang of mysterious children who bear the names and play the games of children 100 years earlier. Then the boy who leads the gang asks her to join them....
The hopscotch grid was scrawled in bright chalk, pinks and greens and yellows on the gray concrete walkway of the top floor flats. Thea got almost to her door, arms laden with groceries, before she thought: What kids play hopscotch these days? Aren’t all their games on computers?
She had instinctively stepped over the chalk lines so as not to smear them, unconscious encouragement for the brightness and the creativity of them, not the mindless damage of vandals’ tags. The flywire door shut behind her and she felt the usual relief of sanctuary. She dumped the bags on the kitchen counter and returned to shut the main door. There hadn’t been any kids out there, she was certain, no one on the stairs that were faster than using the rickety lift, no plants or benches or bins to break up the monotony of concrete and hide a small child. Even so, as Thea closed and secured the door she thought she saw a flicker of movement near the hopscotch pattern and heard the rhythmic high note of a child’s voice playing.
“School, school, the golden rule! Spell your name and go to school!”
“We can’t play that one!” squeaked another voice.
“Shush!” a third ordered and Thea heard no more.
Kids playing hopscotch on the top walkways? The oddness of the idea took a while to penetrate; until she had unpacked the groceries and restored the kitchen to tidiness. They weren’t forbidden, of course, these massive stacks of brick belonged to Homeswest and you almost had to be a social delinquent to live here. There were kids mucking around with expensive computer games and mobile music and phones, even if their parents didn’t have enough money over to feed them that night. They didn’t play hopscotch and jump rope.
Thea shrugged. It was a minor mystery, that was all. Everyone on the top floor was a single; these apartments were too small to cram in families. She and the other singles didn’t seem to get visitors. It was possible that other residents nearby had no more family than she had or at least, no family who wanted to embarrass themselves by visiting a member who had failed by not getting married or at least having a partner/children. Since her mother had died, there was only Alanya and Thea’s sister was far too busy being successful in business and raising a family…
“How old are you?”
Thea had a bag of apples in her hands. They fell out as she froze, her back to the door, the door she had locked, and the voice. Only the fact that the voice was high, clearly a child’s, stopped panic but she was already tense as she jerked around. The child – a boy? – was still near the door, his hands shoved into the pockets of baggy cargo pants. His old-fashioned button-up red and black checked shirt was too large for him. His face was as fair and freckly as some sentimental 1950s image of cuteness.
“Forty,” she said flatly, refusing to kowtow to any modern stupidity about a special voice for children. “And I didn’t invite you in. Out you go.”
“You need to pull the door to harder than that,” the boy said. “You thought you’d locked it but it wasn’t and all I had to do was slip in once you’d left it alone.”
“Where were you?” Thea demanded. “I didn’t see anybody outside and I looked.”
“The warding hid me,” he said as simply as though it had been, “I hid around the corner.” He looked at the flat, the clean spare tidiness of it, in a doubtful sort of way. Thea felt a surge of anger over nervousness; how dare this child look at her home as though there was something the matter with it? She cleaned it every week for eyes which never saw it, made sure her groceries were always bought on Saturday mornings so there would be no need for emergency night time journeys. She could not remember the last time she had left her sanctuary at night or the last time, indeed, that anyone had come inside since she had moved here.
Thea heard his words only as childish nonsense, the way kids played with adults and tried to make fools of them. All children did that if you weren’t vigilant. She had warned Alanya when her sister’s first child was newly walking and her sister had stared at her in that blank, shaken way as though Thea had said something wrong. That was the time Alanya’s husband Tony had taken Thea home and said it might be better if she didn’t visit for awhile. Two years ago.
The boy said, “My friends and I could need somewhere to hide. Would you help us?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t play kids games,” Thea said. “I think you’d better get back to wherever you live now, go on.” She took a step towards the child, wondering remotely what she would do if he didn’t back off. He was small and reedy but could probably dodge her easily enough. She didn’t exercise apart from the inevitability of the stairs. There was no way she was using the urine-soaked lift. The boy, though, did step back with unexpected grace and reached for the door to open it before she could.
“My name’s George,” he said and bowed, a quite distinctive motion. Thea stared, sure now that she’d been picked as the patsy in some childish trick-or-treat, though it was at least a month till Halloween – stupid American import!. “Please reconsider. We will need help.”
“Why?” Thea asked in spite of her distrust. The boy was out the door now and she felt better the moment that happened. “Do you have some kiddie gang thing going? If you do, I’m warning you to take it somewhere else or I’m reporting you to the block caretaker.”
“I’m afraid that’s not possible,” George said with that eerie adult politeness that was beginning to get right under Thea’s skin. She advanced to the door, banged it shut and checked the bolt, twice. Then she stood there, counting under her breath until she had counted away five minutes and then wrenched the door open. In the horror movies, the child would still be standing there, pale and big eyed and smiling bloody fangs. Of course, there was no one there. She banged it shut once more and went to forget the incident with a hot shower and some television. She made dinner; beef rissoles and potatoes and peas, with a glass of orange juice, and went to bed by 10pm. You did that in cold weather to save heat. If you were sensible.
She was in bed, drifting off to sleep, when she realised something else she’d seen when she opened the door to see whether George was still loitering. That bright hopscotch pattern which the boy had called “the warding” and claimed that it had hidden him – it had not been there.
Next morning Thea encountered Ben Whittaker, the flats’ caretaker. When she first met him, she’d privately thought he looked like someone in need of his own caretaker. Rheumy-eyed, shuffling and at least eighty years old, he had the job in return for accommodation and a small cash payment to supplement his pension. She’d had that from the woman at the agency, not Ben himself. On this occasion, as he had when she introduced herself, Ben glared at her as though to warn her off any complaints. “Morning, Ben,” she said calmly, imagining that there was a good solid teller’s bench and bulletproof glass between her and that glare. “Did you know some kids have been scrawling graffiti on the walkways? Up there, just outside my place.”
“Bloody little buggers,” Ben mumbled, shuffling away from her.
“I’ve washed it away,” Thea continued mendaciously, “but I thought you should know they’re running around on their own up there. One of them was quite a nuisance last night.”
“Kids got no respect,” Ben concluded. “What the hell you think I can do about it, huh?”
“Nothing at all, I guess,” Thea muttered after him. “Same as always.”
There were two girls with George when she saw him again. Once more the oddness of the kids’ behaviour made Thea halt on the bitumen between her car and the outside stairs. For one, both girls were in dresses despite the chilly day, with old-fashioned stockings to protect their legs. Another; they were dancing in a circle, chanting words she couldn’t catch, probably nonsense words. Something about queen bees and following the leader. Below the dancing feet Thea saw more chalk lines. Not a hopscotch pattern; she couldn’t tell what this was but old Ben was going to be saying a few things unsuitable for young kids to hear when he saw the mess. Maybe the kids had cleaned up the first pattern to avoid trouble but this time perhaps Ben would report them.
The kids saw Thea and stopped. George smiled; the expression making him look somehow elderly. And both girls curtseyed. Thea stared.
“Good afternoon, Miss Warecombe,” the boy said. “This is Myra and this is Gladys.”
Neither girl could be over nine years. Thea was comfortably certain no female child had been saddled with either of those names in a good eighty or ninety years. Were they playing some weird historical game then, pretending to be people from the 30s or 40s? That didn’t sound right. Kids their age were obsessed with video games and those games’ creators weren’t interested in history, unless it was bloody battles. “Well,” Thea said into that eerie polite silence, “you don’t look as though you need help now.”
“How old are you?” Gladys asked.
“She’s forty, Glad. I already told you.”
George was too patient, too kind. Was there some older person directing these kids in some weird scam? A hidden camera?
“Would you like to be our age again?” Myra asked. She was quite thin-faced for a child, serious and careful with her words. “You could be younger if you wanted; we’d help you. It depends how many years you’d be willing to give up, you see.”
“There’s more power, the more years you give,” George said, overriding Myra. She made a face but let him talk.
“Uh huh. And what are you, the chief magician?” Kids did still read those sort of books, Thea was sure. But they didn’t, as George did, smile back at her and then quickly hide the smile.
“We can’t tell you any more until you commit, Miss Warecombe. But if your energy is to do us any good, you need to make the decision soon, at least by the equinox. Good day to you.”
Friday night. Thea closed the door behind her with her usual quiet sigh of relief, then doublechecked to be sure it had locked. George had taught her that much. She put the ready-made apple pie on the counter, glanced at her answering machine – no flickering light – and went to shower the job away and get on with the evening’s email and television. Once online, she remembered George’s odd comment about the equinox. Of course, everything that kid said was odd; there had to be some adult behind the scenes tutoring those three. Costumes, faces, lines, everything was so damn perfect. A few query words and she now knew that the spring equinox, the day when day and night were of equal length before the day outdistanced night, fell on September 21. Tonight was September 9. Twelve days before some mysterious deadline, quite a long time for little kids.
The equinox was also the beginning of her two weeks leave from the bank, she recalled and smiled at her own forgetfulness. She hadn’t chosen to take it but if she didn’t, she was going to lose that accrued leave. A couple of the other tellers had asked Thea whether she was going away. They’d been a bit nonplussed when she assured them no, she was staying right here and not wasting her money. She planned to rent a stack of DVDs, maybe buy some mystery novels and live on junk food the entire time. Before she got the bank job two years before, she had been unemployed for way too long and she was never going to fall into that trap again.
“So what did you do before you had this job?” one of the other tellers had asked and quickly backtracked, “I mean, you work so hard and they’ve had to make you take a holiday.”
“I just stayed home,” Thea said. “I applied for a lot of jobs online and I went for walks, that’s all.”
“How long did you do that?”
This was pushing the level of polite social conversation which was all Thea liked to allow. This girl was crass, she decided, one of her favourite words from older detective stories. Thea only looked at her coldly and turned her attention back to her mug of coffee. There had been no reason, Thea thought now, in the comfort and peace of home, why she had to lay her entire life bare for the mostly younger and boyfriend-obsessed set at work. Two years ago she had last seen Alanya and Tony.
Five years or was it six, her mother had died in that accident and Dad over twelve years ago from cancer. He had not told any of his family until the cancer was so far advanced that he had to be hospitalised. Back and back…she had moved in here three years after graduation when it became clear that graduate employment and/or a relationship and family were not for her. Fifteen years of sideline. No, she didn’t need to mention any of that and largely forgot it when she could. It had taken a pushy child to remind her and also to surprise her. “How old are you?” She didn’t feel forty. The surprise was that those years could have trekked by with so little impact, so quietly.
There was another brightly chalked hopscotch pattern on the sidewalk when Thea went to do her Saturday grocery shopping the next morning. She didn’t glimpse George, the two girls or anyone else.
Over the next few days, without consciously spelling out her intention to herself, Thea watched out for those kids or any others who could be part of their gang. By the next weekend she thought she had noted all of them. There were eight, maybe nine kids who hung around from time to time in groups ranging from two to five; never all at once. They never approached or spoke to any other adults or older kids. The youngest was maybe five or six, with George as the oldest at about ten.
They played a series of games around the flats which involved the hopscotch patterns, skipping games, a lot of repetitive chanting, running and giggling. Thea had even seen George, alone, drawing with chalks on a lower walkway but for some reason even she didn’t know, she hadn’t stopped him or mentioned it again to Ben. The last point was that she had no idea where in the complex the kids lived. Thea usually only traversed a limited area; car-park to flat to laundry and back again but on the next weekend she made a point of covering the entire area, walking along all of the walkways on all seven levels.
She surely should have seen at least one of the kids somewhere near his or her home in that time but there was no sign, not even scattered toys or an irate mother shouting. The only way was to complain to the caretaker and after all, the kids hadn’t annoyed her – much. Not enough to warrant eviction of their parents and Ben tended to have only two responses to complaints, either he flat out ignored them or he sent a letter to Homeswest recommending eviction when some offender made the mistake of bothering Ben himself.
Perhaps she should move, Thea wondered. She had probably saved enough to rent a little place somewhere with space around it, so she didn’t have to endure the thumpings and music and sexual congress of her neighbours. The thought of such change increased her heart rate and perspiration. Only when she got back inside the flat and told herself sternly there was no need, she wasn’t moving, she was fine, did she start to feel better.
On Wednesday morning, when Thea found the body on the stairs, she reconsidered that comforting decision. She stood, thinking herself quite cool, above the tiny crumpled form. One of the children. She had always known something bad would happen to one of them, the way they raced around screaming and not paying attention to anyone or anything. Still, she must be upset, mustn’t she? You were supposed to be more upset when it was a child who died. She did fumble getting her phone out of her pocket. The little silver thing clattered on the steps and she jumped, suddenly panicked that someone would see her with the body.
“It happens, Miss Warecombe.”
“Thea. I told you.”
“Thea.” George, in his decades-old hand-me-downs, as eerily calm as she had thought she was. He was on the steps below the body, her phone in his hand. He handed it to her, then knelt down and turned the body, struggling a little as he wasn’t much larger than…Myra. Eight, nine-year-old Myra in her funny little old-lady skirt and blouse. Myra with her badly cut blond hair and her face…Thea looked at it numbly. A face containing eighty years of wrinkles or more, of skin that had felt eighty summers. A tiny, silent face in the boy’s hands.
George looked up at her from his crouched, awkward position beside Myra. “Please decide soon, Myra.”
“You are a stupid little kid, you know?” Myra hissed. “Get away from her! I’m going to call the police and it’s probably a good idea if you and your friends aren’t seen around here for a while, understand me? I don’t know what happened to her but we’ll find out, all right?” She wanted to hit him and comfort him all at once and didn’t know which decision would have won through because George only nodded, stood and backed down the flight of steps and disappeared around the landing.
Ben was coughing worse than usual as he talked to the police. Thea had to stand there, uncomfortable under the cops’ scrutiny as the finder of the body. She had seen their grimaces of disbelief when they noted the state of Myra’s face and hands. Any skin, in fact, which showed beyond her clothing. Finally the police let Ben go and took Thea back into her flat to give her statement. She was even more uncomfortable having them there in her place than she had been on the walkway but she let them set their recorder and ask their questions and told them, as briefly as she might, how she had found Myra.
“Do you know this child?” one cop asked.
“Not really. I’ve seen her playing around but apart from her first name I know very little. I don’t even know which flat she lives in.”
“Have you seen her on her own?”
“No, with other children. Never an adult.”
They wanted to know, with disturbing intensity, about George and Gladys and the others whom Thea had seen from time to time. They asked about the bright hopscotch patterns but Thea shrugged that off. “Kids do that sort of thing, don’t they?”
“Not since my granny was their age,” answered the talking cop. The non-talking cop minded the equipment and watched Thea like an indifferent cat.
Finally they wound up the interview, thanked Thea and wrote down her phone number, though Thea had no idea what else she could say. “It’ll probably be on the news,” the talking cop said on their way out. “Oddity like that will take their interest, so watch out.”
“Thanks ever so,” Thea sighed. There went her chance of a peaceful holiday here at home, unless poor Myra’s death was supplanted by more exciting news some time in the next week. “Uh, why do you say oddity? Do you mean her skin condition?”
The two cops looked at one another as though in mutual agreement to shut up. Thea looked at the talking cop. “Ms Warecombe, the last person I saw with skin like that was a hundred years old,” he answered finally and escaped before she thought of anything else, such as the admission that Myra’s skin had been perfectly normal for an eight-year-old child when last Thea had seen her alive. She gave the cops two minutes start and then quietly slipped out behind them to be sure they were really going and not lurking around the steps to collect evidence. They were walking out to their car in the car park and did not notice her.
Thea felt the familiar relief of isolation surround her and was turning to go back inside when she heard Ben’s congested cough and glanced down over the railings to see him standing below one of the festooned Hills Hoists in the concrete courtyard, arthritically clipping socks to the line. He wasn’t alone. George stood nearby, apparently talking, though his voice did not carry to Thea’s ears. She went quickly back inside and called in sick to work.
The chalk patterns proliferated. They appeared on walkways, in the car park, on footpaths and even walls, cheerfully and even cleverly rendered so that Thea heard people saying that they actually didn’t mind graffiti if it was that pretty. Ben Whittaker walked past them all, coughing and glaring when spoken to about the graffiti or anything else. Thea gritted her teeth and did her best to ignore them going to and from work. She would go to a hotel for her holiday, she decided.
Two people, one bearing a Tv camera, got in her way yet again as she walked towards the stairs. The story of the little girl who had fallen to her death and been found to have the appearance of a 100-year-old woman had caught the public interest. The tv stations knew Thea had been the one to find her and had seen the children playing and made as much of that as they possibly could. The spiky blond woman in front of her began gabbling, beaming brilliant white teeth and wafting expensive perfume in Thea’s face.
“Miss Warecombe, could I speak to you? I’m Tracee…”
Thea tuned out Tracee and her mindless introduction. “No comment,” she said grimly, repeating it like a mantra until she got past them and up the steps. “No comment!”
Feet thundered suddenly behind her and Thea pressed herself into the railing in alarm. Surely the press wouldn’t come up after her? That had been made clear to them, this was private property from the steps up. But it was not the inopportune Tracee and her shaggy cameraman but George’s entire gang. George himself charged frantically past in the lead, followed by Gladys and at least seven others including the five-year-old boy. Voices behind them made it clear that the pair from the television station had company; a man in a suit and a woman in the equivalent female office uniform who looked startled to see Thea, as though it was she who intruded.
“What’s going on?’ Thea demanded.
“We’re from Children’s Services,” the woman said. “Do you know those kids? Where do they live?”
“I have no idea. They seemed to be headed up to the top…”
By their faces, they thought she was protecting the kids. They ploughed on past her. Thea took her time. When she got to the top level, the pair were standing there as though lighting had struck them, gazing at yet another hopscotch pattern sketched very hastily at the end of the walkway, leaving only one pace or so between it and the railing.
“They must have gone that way,” she offered, wanting only to get them out of her space. She pointed along the walkway to the left. “It turns and goes around the entire building. You can get to the interior gardens from there as well.”
“Not today,” the man said. He seemed bewildered and a little shaken. Thea left them to take a look herself; was the government staffed completely with incompetents? She nearly walked into it, so busy looking for signs of the kids that she barely braked in time to avoid the new paint gleaming along the walkway outside the unoccupied apartment next her own and the witches’ hats barrier set up with a notice advising residents to please use the next level down. There were no small running footsteps set into the gleaming gray surface and there was, quite clearly, nowhere the kids could have gone except into the paint or over the railing.
She returned shrugging at Children’s Services, who wanted to look inside her flat.
“I’ll look,” Thea said. “Once I find my key to my door which you may note is locked!”
They only went away, in the end, when she allowed them to look inside and note no presence of children running from the law. Of course, when she actively tried to find George or Gladys, there was no sign of either of them or their gang. No doubt they’d gone to ground, even kids could see sense in the end. There were no more chalk drawings or patterns and the flats returned to their usual clean gray dullness. Thea refused to admit to herself that she rather missed the bold colours and the chanting voices. Finally she knocked on Ben Whittaker’s ground floor flat door. He took at least ten minutes to answer and cracked the door barely enough for Thea to see half his face and an eye.
“What do you want?”
“You know, Ben, a bit of people skills would probably help you in your job?” Thea retorted. She regretted that immediately; she was even less likely to get any helpful replies now. “Wait! I’m looking for George, you know him? Fair hair, old fashioned clothes, about ten years old? Somebody’s asking about him, says he’s a runaway and they want him to come home. Do you happen to have seen him?”
“You accusing me of kidnapping kids now?”
“No!” Thea forgot about hiding her irritation. “I didn’t say anything of the sort! I saw you talking to the kid a few days ago so I thought maybe you might know.”
“Yeah, I talk to the kids. I talk to all sorts of people. I’m a caretaker. I’m practising my people skills.” He closed the door in her face. She heard him coughing with the effort of speaking, liquid and laboured in his chest.
It didn’t matter, Thea decided as she returned home. Okay, so the kids’ behaviour was weird, especially since Myra died but that was no business of hers in the end. Probably Ben would take the side of the kids against The Government, who never paid enough pension money. If the kids buttered him up enough, he probably would even let them stay in his flat if they wanted to hide, though what kids so young were doing running away was beyond her. Even George shouldn’t be old enough to have sufficient street smarts to keep away from authorities and survive, not without older kids to help and hide them.
The equinox was a Friday and the beginning of her break. Despite her initial reluctance to take the holiday and all the messing around, Thea felt a sense of great relief as she got out of her car that evening. In her bag she carried several new mystery novels and also another bag containing Chinese food. She was just going to shut out the world and its irritating folk and relax. So she did, through the evening and up until she went to bed and to sleep. She woke, knowing she’d slept only a short time, hearing a drumming in her head and high pitched juvenile voices, impossibly loud. Thea never remembered getting her clothes on and stumbling out her front door without even checking that she had her key. She didn’t know how she managed to get down the flights of steps to the car park without killing herself, drawn by the hypnotic and yet infuriating noises in her head. She had even less idea why none of the other adult residents had come out to deal with the racket.
They were there, all the children gathered in the middle of the night, pale and ridiculous in their old-fashioned clothing. In front of the others were two girls holding the ends, of all things, of a skipping rope. They saw her but didn’t react as they began to skip the rope together, chanting together without looking at one another. Like a well-trained chorus the others joined in.
"Dum dum dodo! Catch me if you can, I can run faster than Georgie can!”
The rope looped around in the secure whipping motion, skip, skip, legs rhythmically jumping, skipping, feet beating the ground. She saw George, fair hair flying, face grimly serious, run in to skip the circling rope. Beyond the rope was a haze; the bitumen of the car park blurred into a smoky whiteness. The children’s outlines were blurred, George’s hair, Gladys’ skirt whipping in a wind of their own creation. Georgie, Gladys, Margaret….Thea fought to stop her eyes watering. Somehow it was important to mark each one, even the nameless ones she had never known by more than appearance. Jeremiah….The little five-year-old ran in, laughing and jumped, faultless as the rest. Henrietta, Mary, Frankie, Agnes…. Names of bygone times, names of people who should be sixty, eighty, one hundred years old.
Surely that was all. With Myra gone there were eight children in the gang, caught in the pattern of the skipping rope. She was almost seeing something, very nearly understood as though a voice was speaking to her, eager and serious and committed, under the noise of the wind.
Then a ninth child ran in, a boy about George’s age with dark messy hair and a grin that wouldn’t quit. He wore baggy clothes, trousers belted in by a leather belt tied in a knot and a shirt which could have belonged to a grown man. His energy was remorseless. He danced in the wind of the whipping rope and the chants of the other children grew louder and larger around him, encompassing him and taking him in. Thea heard the song change and felt the difference it compelled in the world. It was raising the wind, she thought clearly, more clearly than she had thought for years. Drawing the power. These were the mages and this the spell and she had not seen it.
“Windy, windy weather,
All in together,
June and July . . ..
Windy, windy weather,
They all run out together,
June and July . . . . .”
Back again it changed to the first song, as the wind wrapped itself around the new child. Eager, careless, immortal. “Dum dum dodo, catch me if you can, I can run faster than Benny can!”
Thea stood still at the very edge of that chilly wind striking and teasing at her face as she stared at the children, the new boy and then George, visible on the other side of the rope before the fog, holding out his hand. For a moment George looked at Thea with a sad, regretful look before shaking his head. Then he gripped the new boy’s hand and pulled him past, into the fog. The girls holding the jump rope moved together, stilling the rope and coiling it as though they had done this a thousand times before. They ran after the dark-haired boy into the mist.
Thea stumbled forward without having clearly decided to move. She didn’t know what she wanted to ask or do. All the children but George were gone now and he was on the verge of flight.
“Wait,” Thea said, “I need time…”
“You would have had time. If you had given your years you could have been one of us.”
“Wait,” she said again, the understanding a cramped, chill thing, “do you mean I could grow up again?”
“You could have had this,” George said, waving in the direction his friends had gone. “As long as people give their years. We’re going now, you won’t see us again, Thea.”
Her eyes watered to a blur. When she wiped them, a bare second later, there was no mist, no rope and no children. Only a middle-aged woman standing alone in a little car park containing only three or four cars. Thea turned, stumbling to the safety of her apartment and her books. She felt sick, headachy and gut-cramped but not enough to go to a stranger neighbour and ask for some pills. Perhaps she could have gone to Ben, who would have growled and probably handed over some aspirin but somehow she knew she wasn’t going to find him, that no one would ever see Ben Whittaker, to recognise him, ever again.
This story originally appeared in Aurealis: Australian Fantasy and Science Fiction Issue 41.