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Jake stopped. Ten feet ahead of him, his parents and the thing were standing at a game tent—a ring toss. His dad and the thing pretending to be Jake were both tossing small rings, trying to drop them over the necks of soda bottles. His mother was looking at the prizes stacked at the front of the booth—stuffed animals, model cars, pocketknives, hats, an assortment of random junk that would have fascinated Jake an hour ago.
“It’s toying with them,” the girl said. Jake ignored her. He’d just noticed something. The thing was tossing the rings with its left hand. Jake was right-handed. The thing, the Only Child, didn’t know that—but Jake’s father, of course, did.
He sidled up to his father on the side away from the thing. “Dad,” he hissed. The man didn’t look at him. “Dad,” Jake said louder, and this time he reached out and pinched Dad’s arm as hard as he could, twisting the bit of skin. Dad jumped and looked down at him, actually looked at him, and Jake felt a burst of hope and gratitude. He grabbed Dad’s arm again. “It’s me, Dad,” he yelled. “I’m Jake. I’m right-handed, remember? Look, that thing is throwing leftie!”
He had taken too long. By the time he said his name, the flicker of interest and awareness in Dad’s eyes had died away, and once again he shook Jake off fiercely, sending him sprawling onto the ground. He wanted to scream, to burst out in hysterical yells, but as he opened his mouth, the Only Child stepped between him and Dad, staring down at him, and Jake’s mouth went dry, the yell coming out as barely a squeak. The thing looked at him and shook its head, lifting a finger to its lips, lips that looked just like Jake’s.
Jake swallowed. He was about to start scrambling backward on his butt, desperate to get away from the thing, but then he saw something that pinned him in place and made him feel that the ground was about to swallow him.
The balloon was not tied to the Only Child’s wrist—it was growing out of it. A tendril of flesh, like a misplaced finger, came out of the back of the thing’s right wrist and, as it rose, gradually altered to look more and more like a silver ribbon, the kind you might see tied to any other balloon. Up close, though, it was unmistakable. The Only Child and the balloon were a single thing.
Jake was so transfixed by this that he barely noticed as his dad flipped his last ring toward the bottles, and the three of them turned and walked away, the Only Child giving him one last disdainful smirk. Jake crawled into the narrow space between the ring toss and the next tent, shaking with fear. He couldn’t imagine trying to stop the thing again. He couldn’t even imagine going near it again.
He sat against the canvas of the tent, clutching his knees to his chest and rocking slightly.
The girl crawled into the space and knelt to face him. “Now you see,” she said. “There’s nothing you can do.”
“What will it do to them?” Jake asked flatly.
“We don’t know,” she said. “None of our families ever come back. But the Only Child will.”
“What will happen to me?”
“You’ll stay in the park,” she said. “It’s not so bad. You won’t grow up. But you’ll fade a little more every year. And eventually, you’ll just be gone.” She settled down onto the ground, cross-legged. “It takes a long time.”
He buried his head in his hands. “Why don’t you stop it? If there are so many of you, why don’t you team up and stop it?”
“You can’t fight it.”
He looked up. “Why not?”
She frowned. “You . . . you just can’t. It’s the Only Child.”
“Stop saying that like it means something! It’s just the stupid thing you call it!”
She shook her head. “Just accept it,” she said. “This is your place now. With all of us.”
Jake felt himself getting angry. It was better than being scared. “Maybe that’s just what you want. Maybe you just want more people stuck here with you in your lousy park.”
Leaning over, he pulled the tent flap aside a few inches and scanned the part of the crowd he could see. He saw sweating parents, screaming kids, and bored workers, but no faded children. “Where are all these others, anyway? Why aren’t they here with you telling me all this?”
Now it was her turn to look down. “They don’t spend time together if they can help it. It’s too sad. I try sometimes to get the others to play or just talk, but they just drift around the park, waiting to fade away.”
“So you’re just . . . alone,” he said.
“Yes,” she whispered. Then she looked up. With a gloomy half smile she reached up and took off her big blue sunglasses. Jake bit his tongue to keep from crying out.
She had no eyes. The skin of her forehead simply continued, with only her nose and her mouth breaking the flat unbroken plane of her face.
“Alone in the dark,” she said.
“But you pointed,” Jake said. “You must be able to see.”
She smiled more widely, the expression only making the blankness more unsettling. “We can see, in a way,” she said. “You’ll find out. Your eyes go first. That takes a few years. Then other things. You’ll get quieter. Move less.” Her voice dropped to a whisper again. “The ones who have been here longest say it’s peaceful.”
Jake closed his eyes and imagined being unable to ever open them again. Maybe the girl was right. There was nothing to do but accept it, accept that his last real conversation with his parents had been an argument over a roller coaster, accept that he was going to spend long years here alone, or nearly so.
There was a rustle, and then the girl was sitting beside him. “That’s it,” she said quietly. She put her hand gently on his shoulder, and again he felt numbness begin to spread from the place where she was touching him. “It’s okay. It doesn’t hurt. I’ll show you around.”
Jake took a deep breath. She was right. There was nothing he could do.
“It’s easy. Just forget.”
The numbness was spreading through him. It was easy. It would be easy to lean back against the tent, perhaps sleep, and just wait for whatever it would be like. . . .
“NO!” he cried out with a feeling like breaking up out of the water after a dive. He shook her hand off and scrambled away from her, stumbling to his feet. “No! You’re tricking me! You just want me to give up because you have!”
She stood herself, leaning back against the tent and putting her sunglasses back on. “There’s really nothing else you can do,” she said. There was no longer anything soothing or restful about her voice. “Night is coming. They may be gone already. And once they’re out of the park and you’re trapped here, it really is over.”
“There must be something,” Jake said. He rubbed his temples, urging himself to think. The Only Child. Its teeth, its red eyes. The faded children and dazed adults. The ugly, bruised-looking balloon that was part of it. Anything. A weak point.
Thinking about the balloon again, and the way it was attached to the Only Child’s wrist, made him shudder with revulsion—but it also reminded him of something. A video they’d watched in biology class last year, about some kind of giant snapping turtle, a strong, vicious, but slow hunter. It had a tongue that looked just like a worm, and when a fish would come to investigate what looked like a tasty meal, the deadly jaws would close with a force and speed that the video said could shatter bones.
The child is just the lure.
Jake stepped forward and grabbed the girl by the shoulders, pinning her against the tent. His hands went numb immediately, but he ignored it. “The balloon. It’s always got the balloon, right? The Only Child?”
“What?” She squirmed against his grip. “Yes, of course. That’s how we know it’s back.”
He had to get to the exit before his parents left. He turned away from her and sprinted out of the narrow space between the tents, back onto the main concourse, looking up at the sky. The girl was right. Night was coming.
A thought struck him, and he skidded to a stop and then turned to run back to
the ring toss tent. He elbowed past three people who were playing the game and grabbed a pocketknife from the stacks of prizes, right under the nose of the man running the game. Nobody paid any attention to him.
He slipped back out of the knot of people. The girl was there, reaching out her hands to him, her mouth open, but if she said anything, he didn’t bother to listen. He broke into a run, heading for the main exit of the park. As he went he pulled the knife out its box, tossing the package aside and unfolding the biggest blade. It was only a few inches long, but there was no time to look for anything else.
The crowd was already noticeably thinner than it had been earlier, and he was tortured by the idea that he was too late, that he’d wasted too much time back there feeling sorry for himself, listening to her urge him to surrender. What if they were already gone? What was the thing going to do to his parents once it had them outside? The girl had said that none of the parents ever came back. Had he seen them for the last time?
No—he saw the balloon up ahead, definitely moving toward the exit, but still twenty or thirty yards away from it. Jake put on an extra burst of speed. He knew what he was going to do. He would get only one try to do it right. There were footsteps behind him, keeping pace with him. The girl. She was yelling something, or maybe just sobbing. He had no time to listen.
They were directly in front of him now, with nobody in between. His mom was on the left, rummaging through her purse, no doubt already looking for her keys. His dad on the right, walking as he did when he was very tired and just needed to get home. In between was the Only Child, half turned toward Jake’s mother, as if to urge her on, as if eager to leave.
At the last second, as Jake came flying up, it seemed to sense something, and the evil little replica of his own face started to turn, but it was too late.
Jake took a running leap, as high as he could, and caught the ribbon in his left hand. Immediately, the entire left side of his body felt numb to the point of death; cold, like being plunged into a freezing mountain lake.
There was a howl of rage, but he wasn’t sure if it came from the false Jake or from above him. His momentum carried him past his father and the Only Child, and although every part of his being recoiled from it, he pulled the ribbon in tight between his left arm and his body.
As he continued forward and down toward the ground, the ribbon was pulled with him, the balloon following it down. His feet and then knees hit the concrete, and he kept the ribbon under him, scrambling forward to pull it down all the way until the balloon was on the ground directly in front of him. It radiated the dull heat of a living thing, heaving in a way that was not like a balloon at all. Jake could sense it fighting him, trying to break free and return to the air. Being this close to it was bringing Jake even closer to throwing up than the roller coaster had.
There was a hand on his back—the girl? His parents? The Only Child? He couldn’t tell whose it was or whether it was trying to pull him back or help him forward. There was no time to think about it.
No time to think at all. He raised his right hand and, with all the force he could muster, drove the blade of the pocketknife into the very center of the balloon thing.
There was a scream that seemed to come from everywhere at once. An angry wind lifted Jake and threw him several feet back. He saw his parents staggering backward, the girl on her knees, holding her head as if in agony, and the Only Child, its Jake features melting away to reveal something hairy and writhing for just a second before there was a blinding flash of light that took the entire world away.
“Feeling better, buddy?”
Jake opened his eyes. He was on a bench just inside the park entrance. Dad was sitting next to him, holding a bottled water he’d just taken from Jake’s lips. Mom stood over them, her hand on Jake’s forehead.
“What—what happened?” he asked.
“You fell down, pal,” his father said. “Seemed a little groggy there for a minute.”
“Too much sun,” Mom said. “I knew it was too hot for this today.”
Jake looked around. A few people were glancing at the three of them curiously, but none of them seemed to be faded, and there were no strange balloons around.
He moved his head and arms experimentally, surprised to discover that he felt fine. “I’m okay,” he said. He looked back and forth between the two of them. They both looked like they always had, nice if a little distracted, but they could obviously see him clearly. “Are you guys all right?”
His father barked a short laugh. “You’re the one who fell down, cowboy.” Jake had never understood his father’s compulsion to call everyone by anything that wasn’t their actual name.
“So . . .” Jake tried to figure out how to ask the dozens of questions he had. He settled for “Where’s my balloon?”
They both looked confused. “I don’t think you had a balloon today, sport,” Dad said. “You sure you’re okay?”
So . . . it had all been a dream or something? Jake didn’t care. He just knew that he wanted to get away from this place. “Absolutely fine,” he said, leaping up. “Come on, let’s go!”
His parents exchanged confused looks, and shrugged. They followed Jake, who seemed simultaneously anxious to get out of the park and unwilling to get more than a foot or two away from them. He breathed a sigh of relief as they passed under the iron arch marking the entrance to the park.
They stopped at the edge of the immense parking lot. Mom sighed and looked at Dad, who immediately got the message. “You guys wait here,” he said. “I’ll go get the car.”
“Thank you!” Mom said, handing him the keys. She plopped down on an open bench, arranging her purse and their bag of souvenirs around her. “You should sit down too, Jake. You’re probably still a little feverish.”
“I’m all right,” he said. He was looking back at the park entrance, thinking about the girl. “I never even asked her name.”
“Whose name?” his mother asked. She was flipping through her cell phone. “Oh, your aunt Jane has called four times today. I’d better see what this is about.” Within a few seconds she was chattering away. Jake heard her say that they’d had a fine day, but that the heat had gotten to all of them.
Jake kicked himself mentally. Stupid to be feeling guilty for never asking an imaginary girl her name. Clearly he had hallucinated the whole thing, some confused half dream brought on by the sun and the dizziness of the roller coaster. He’d tell his parents about it on the drive home, though he already knew they wouldn’t really get it. He stuck his hands into his pockets.
“Ow!” Something in his right-hand pocket had cut him. He pulled it out carefully.
It was the pocketknife, still open, the blade covered with something sticky and purple, and the edge now marked with his blood where it had sliced into his knuckle.
Jake stopped breathing. There was a honk behind him, and he turned to see Dad at the curb, Mom already opening the door to get into the car, both of them looking at him expectantly.
And way off at the far edge of the lot, crystal clear, he saw another family getting into another car.
A father, a mother—and a girl with a balloon the color of an angry bruise.
by Alison McMahan
FOR CHARLOTTE AND FOR JACK-HENRY
The green iguana, originally from Central and South America, is not native to Florida.
Duh. Green Iguanas. Could this assignment be any more boring?
I pull my hair back into a ponytail and keep reading.
It is regarded as one of the most invasive species since it was introduced into the ecosystem, probably by irresponsible pet owners, in the mid-1990s.
Those irresponsible pet owners! Letting their iguanas run away . . .
I have to make a PowerPoint presentation on non-native species in Florida. Which should have been an easy cut-and-paste from the internet, except Mr. Matlo, our science teacher, thinks he’s clever, so he made a rule.
We have to take our o
I have to go out and find three non-native species, take pictures of them, and write them up. I got some Egyptian geese yesterday. Now I need an iguana. Then after that, who knows?
One of the benefits of Mom downsizing our lives is that our new condo complex has a pool. I grab my phone, mutter something to her (I’m still not talking to her), and go out there. Not because I really think I’ll find an iguana by the pool, but because I can’t think of anywhere else to go.
I work my way around the pool fence, slowly, camera phone at the ready, waiting for an iguana to run out.
A group of kids is huddled around one of the barbecue grills. I’m hoping they’re just trying to keep warm. It’s, like, freezing, even though this is South Florida.
One of the huddlers has seen me. I recognize him, vaguely, from school. He’s one of those guys, the kind who’s good-looking and knows it. He goes by Spike. So lame.
His squad, Thing 1 and Thing 2, are with him, of course.
“Hey.” I walk over to him.
“You’re the new girl, right?”
“Whatcha doin’?” That’s Thing 1.
I hold up my phone. “Lookin’ for non-native species. Did you do that assignment yet?”
“Oh, we got one right here.”
Like an idiot I go right up to the grill where they are standing.
My stomach clenches. The PB&J from my lunch tickles the back of my throat.
There’s an iguana lying on the grate.
It looks dead.
“Did you kill it?”
Thing 1 and Thing 2 bend over laughing, slapping their thighs. What is it with Florida that everyone acts like they’re a cartoon character?
“Of course not.” Spike taps the iguana on the head. The iguana does not respond. “When they get this cold, they go into hibernation. He’ll wake up in a minute.”
I’m about to ask how he knows that when I see it: It’s a gas grill, and the flames are on, licking up toward the iguana’s belly.