All eight of the empty playground swings rock to and fro, unprovoked. Each pair moves in opposite directions, looking like pendulums from the end where Mira stands. Not a soul in sight but in the distance, a melodic laugh is heard. Distinct and childlike.
Whipping through mangled branches of an oak tree and then swooping over the open field, a high-pitched ‘chirp’ screeches across the amethyst sky with unnatural speed, making Mira jump. The tiny object is gone as fast as it had appeared into the tangle of trees on the other side of the playground.
In only a few short minutes, it will be too dark to see such small creatures anymore.
_________* * *_________
Nikolai appears. His cherub-like face—young, round and impish—smiles playfully, but cannot be seen. His angelic and engaging features would appear harmless enough upon first glance.
Until you look closer at his eyes.
They couldn’t be mistaken for a child’s. They are piercing and wicked. They reveal nothing good. The worst parts of human nature are all you'll find if you have the misfortune of falling into such eyes. Their wickedness accumulating with each despicable deed he commits. And should Nikolai look into you, he will see all the bad and wicked things you’ve done as well.
To be stared at by him is unnerving, to say the very least. Most people drop their eyes immediately from his glare--but Mira, no she couldn’t. At only five years old,that primal instinct, ingrained in all of us at birth, warned her. It told her that her survival depended on hernotlooking away from him at this moment. Just one glance; that’s when he would strike.
_________* * *_________
Nikolai crouched low in the moist lawn. His knees cracked at his sides and his elbows pointed up at the sky behind him, all limbs perched at weird angles to allow his belly to graze the pointy blades of grass beneath him. He dug his fingers into the dirt, gripping tightly, to propel himself forward at just the right moment.
“I’m over here,” his voice called with pure and innocent tenure; a hint of having been said through a smile. Heissmiling. A knowing, iniquitous smile.
The children’s laughter rings out as they run around, chasing only the sound of their footfalls in the grass while playing Hide and Seek in the dark. Excited and trill, their voices are all that give away their locations in the burgeoning night. Until they run away again. Hiding behind great oaks, camouflaged in the night, wearing black clothes, against black shadows and black shrubs. None of them could’ve discerned Nikolai’s voice from the others. It blends flawlessly with their own.
Unsuspectingly, and excited to find the first ‘hider’, the little girl, Mira, runs toward him first.
The deceit is what makes the game so much more enthralling for Nikolai. Tricking his prey directly into his trap, their unquestioning nature leading them right into his clutches; oh, sweet anticipation. He finds the saliva, gathering at the tops of his sharp teeth, savory in its saltiness. To get them before their fear can sour their quintessence is paramount to his ambition.
Nikolai giggles this time. The irresistible chime erupts, giving the little girl another hint as to his location. She corrects her trajectory and is now coming straight for him. He hunches nearer to the ground, unwavering, as she gets closer and closer.
Undaunted, Mira giggles in response, andfollows the playful sound coming from somewhere in front of her while flicking her flashlight on and then off again. She's unaware that the other voices, the familiar ones, are becoming more distant.
Lights in windows of the housessurrounding the playground slowly switch off, one by one. Fewer and fewer of their yellow squares, like beacons guiding the children home,speckle the edges of the tree line. With supper hour well passed by now, and the older folks are winding down for the night.
“Mira! Where’d you go?” they call out for their sister--her siblings; laughing and chasing.
Their flashlights shine on, and then dash off, their happy faces appearing and then disappearing as they tease one another. Two older brothers, one nine years old and the other twelve; and one younger than she, about four years old, run amok over the rolling curve of the field.
Like a train, they follow one another around a small fenced-in prairie, then around a lone pine tree’s rounded bottom, then behind the thick, mature width of an oak’s trunk, and finally, back up the lawn’s gentle slope.
The streetlamps shine bright with artificial orange alongside the lone narrow street, backlighting all objects that lay before them into black silhouettes. It's just enough light in one’s peripheral to conceal anything that stretches beyond the field in a swathe of night.
“Mira! Come over here and get us!” the eldest boy calls again, laughing still, but falling wayside from the chase, and unwittingly flicks his flashlight in Nikolai’s direction.The beam is too weak to illuminate the distance between them, but it is enough to catch the backs of Nikolai’s pupils, which flare like silver mirrors in a desolate black sea for only a second.
“Hisssssssssssss! Kitty, kitty!” the boy whispers noisily when he the two tiny dots in the distance flash back at him.
He wasn’t able to make out the creature’s shape, but recognizes the iridescent way light reflects off an animal’s eyes when he sees it. He figures it's either a raccoon or a cat. Most likely the latter.
The hiss grabs the attention of the two younger brothers. They change direction, bringing their banter with them as they head in the direction of their older brother, who is busy trying to capture the pair of dots with his flashlight again, with no success.
“I got you!”
“No you didn’t! It didn’t touch me! You have to touch me and you’re too far away!” the little boy teases the youngest.
“Kitty, kitty, kitty,” the older boy coos again. This time a sinister disposition fills his voice when he summons the animal.
The younger boys’ recognize their older brother's mischievous change of tone. Whatever's going to happen next, it promises to be fun, when and if he catches this elusive kitty cat.
As they get closer to where the boy saw the reflective eyes, the wet sound of chewing snaps and squishes in the quietness. Like a dog with a rawhide bone, or a squirrel with twigs, perhaps.
“Sounds like Sonny when he’s eating!” the nine year old laughs, referring to their beloved family pet; a black Lab that’s still more puppy than dog.
“Kitty found a snack?” the eldest jibes, meandering closer to the sound.
“I bet he got a bat!” the four year old offers.
“Don’t be stupid. Cats can’t jump that high,” the nine year old quibbles.
The older boy’s flashlight catches something purple and red against the grass.
Shiny, glistening, black grass.
“Found you, Mira!” the four year old announces proudly when he recognizes his sister's jacket.
As the boys approach, the girl’s purple jacket lay there empty, shredded, and saturated with blood. A tangle of matted brown hair, an eyeball, a tiny finger, a shoelace and a white, globular item with brighter red flecks upon it, all sits there in a pile upon the grass. The sopping, glossy, red pile, wrapped in Mira’s clothing.
The twelve year old stops in his tracks, and holds an arm out for the other two to stop with him. He runs the shaking orb of light over the gruesome mass slowly, until he comes upon the girl’s shoe, still attached to a small leg that disappears under the remains of the purple jacket.
“Mira?” he says, his small and insignificant voice scratches against his dry throat in the deafening quiet.
“Mira?” the four year old's shrill scream squelches after him.
Dozens of chirps whip through the air as a mass of black, fluttering shadows thrash across the sky from out of the large oak’s warped branches. The bats, in their unpredictable and lightning fast flight, exchange from one tree to the next. The urgent sound of their thin wings beating the airpierce the night in a torrent of noise one minute--and then…there is only absolute quiet.