Grub rattled the wooden stick along the wrought iron fence, each spoke flicking the stick back out as he walked along.
Considering the warm bathing glow of the sun on that early Saturday afternoon, Grub’s attire was peculiar. He wore a pair of black tracksuit bottoms, flayed and ripped in several places, so that as he walked the milky flesh of his legs beneath peeked through with each and every step. The mucky trainers that hid under the strips offabric at the bottom had long seen their best days behind them. Their original colour was impossible to guess. His dark grey hoodie fared no better, the elbows threadbare and worn, the pull-string from the hood itself long since lost. Grub had the hood draped over his head, and it leapt with each step that he took, threatening to jump off of his skull and droop down his back. But it stayed exactly where Grub wanted it to. His face was hidden, swathed in shadow.
If it wasn’t for his timid four foot nine frame that seemed to be enveloped by the clothing, a quick glance of Grub walking down the street would make you think that he was on his way to a costume party as the grim reaper, a small sharp stick standing in for the ubiquitous scythe.
Yet, regardless of temperature and clothing, Grub did not sweat. His forehead was bone dry, as if he were in his own little climate zone, oblivious and immune to the heat.
Most of the town knew of Grub, so called because of his bedraggled and dirty clothing and the fact that no one actually knew his real name. They knew of him, but knew nothing about him. All they knew was that he was trouble.
He had never actually been caught red-handed doing anything illegal or violent, but there was a strange aura that followed him about. Something that warned others to stay away. Like the feeling you get when you see a canine lying in the mid-day heat. They knew Grub was a mad dog waiting to bite, so they kept their distance. They told their children to do likewise, to avoid playing with the child with no friends.
Schooldays were easy. Grub never attended school and the authorities never managed to successfully follow this up. No matter how hard they tried, they could never work out where he lived or who his parents were, or even if he had any. Every time they tried to catch up with him and to ask him some questions, he would disappear. Not literally of course, but it was like he could blend into his surroundings, invisible to the naked eye. They would take their eyes off him for a second and he would be gone. Grub would turn a corner, or their line of vision would be obscured by a passing car or van and when they looked again, he would be nowhere to be seen.
So Grub was avoided but he was tolerated as well, like an embarrassing village drunk who everyone wishes would go away, but no one is prepared to ask.
Like a playing card that has been attached to the spokes of a bike, Grub continued to rattle the stick along the fence. The metallic clink of each pole sounded dull in the sunshine but they fulfilled their purpose.
Grub could feel the eyes on him without looking to see who was watching. Adults watched and tutted under their breath. Families upped their pace and even passing car windows were wound up.
He walked up and down the iron railing, clanging the stick at different speeds, slowing up and picking the pace back up again indiscriminately. If the people watching could see inside the hoodie, they would see the apparent disinterest that was etched across Grub’s face.
It was on Grub’s fifth passing as he was turning back for another run that Kady Simmons saw him and watched him with intent.
Her parents had told her to stay away from Grub, just like every other parent had told their children. Kady had promised to obey and until now, she had stayed true to that promise. It had been easy enough, she had never seen him before, either with her parents or by herself.
Now she saw him, a figure covered in dark fibres, walking up and down alongside the railing. The noise he made with the stick made her smile. It was, after all, the sound of benign youth. A noise made for no particular reason, with no malice or anger that was just being made because it could be.
It caught her attention and she stopped outside the butchers shop window, transfixed in the sunshine. She shielded her eyes from the glare and watched Grub walk up and down the fence, dragging the stick along as he went.
Although she was across the other side of the street, two lanes of traffic between them and the high street they were on was awash with other people, making noise and going about their daily business, she heard him.
It was impossible, but at the same time she knew it was him. He was saying something. Kady was unsure if he was saying it to her directly, but she was certain he was saying it nonetheless. A number whispered, yet all so clear.
She frowned, unsure of what to do next. She didn’t want to break her promise to her parents, and yet she found herself suddenly filled with childish curiosity. This fabled boy was right in front of her and regardless of the ambient noise, he was somehow saying something that she felt only she could hear.
The number repeated itself in her head, reverberating in her brain as if was the most important word in the world. As if forgetting it would mean the end of life itself.
Kady found herself spurred on, her feet carrying her between two parked cars. She had the forethought to pause and wait for a break in traffic, but the waiting was killing her. Interspersed with checking for traffic, she glanced at Grub and realised that he was no longer at the fence. Looking in both directions and spotting a gap, Kady rushed across the street and skipped up the opposite kerb. She peered down the pavement, back towards the town centre and then back again, towards the industrial estate. A second later and she’d have missed it.
She caught a glimpse of Grub’s tattered tracksuit bottoms evaporating between a pair of broken wooden fence panels. Like a child caught in the hypnotic sway of the Pied Piper’s tune, Kady followed and squeezed through the gap.
Once she was through to the other side, the noise of the main road seemed to vanish and Kady looked around desperately, afraid that she had lost sight of Grub, just as so many before her had. Her fears seemed to be true as she saw no sign of the figure she had been following and she sighed to herself.
But then, just as she turned back towards the fence, she heard the word again. This time it was so much clearer, as if it were being said straight into her ear.
Spinning around on the spot, she scanned left and right and finally saw him sitting upon a tyre that had fallen onto its side. She thought it strange that she had not seen him before, the tyre brazenly lying all by itself, unhidden. In fact, Kady remembered seeing the tyre on her first viewing of the rubbish strewn ground, but swore that Grub had not been perched on top. His head was bowed as if he was in prayer, the stick still clutched in his hand, tracing shapes in the dirt.
Kady looked down at her clothes and realised that they were polar opposites.
Grub couldn’t be any darker with his clothing, whereas the fabrics that encased her body were light colours. White and cream. Almost virginal.
“Hello?” Kady said, her voice shaky as if she were in the presence of her favourite celebrity.
Grub paused his tracing for a moment, like he had been surprised by her voice, before carrying on.
Kady mustered the courage to walk forward a few steps, to edge closer to the ghost of a boy who she had wondered even existed.
She spoke again, “Hello? Grub?”
He paused again and the hoodie raised slightly. Kady couldn’t see his face in the gloom offered by the hood, but she could almost feel him looking at her, staring at her. She felt naked, as if her clothes had fallen away, torn asunder and stripped off by his eyes. Kady hugged herself, suddenly feeling cold, regardless of the overbearing heat of the day.
He rose from the tyre and stood as straight as possible, his diminutive frame being made to stand as tall as it could. His lack of height did not dilute his presence and Kady felt slightly afraid, as if she realised exactly why her parents had forbidden her from seeking him out.
She managed to raise the confidence to speak once more. “What does it mean? Fifteen?”
He did not respond. He did not shift or move in the slightest. Still Kady hugged herself.
“Is that your age?”
The hood shook to confirm to the negative.
“Do you have any friends or family?”
Grub raised the stick skywards, pointing straight up into the clear blue sky.
“I’m sorry.” Kady said.
She felt sad for him. It was obvious to her now that he was a misunderstood orphan, his family dead. He was alone. Maybe she could be his friend.
“Do you want to play a game?”
Grub tilted his head to one side as if pondering the question.
“We can play whatever you want to.” Kady offered.
Grub bent over and drew something in the earth. Kady took a step closer and looked down. She could see a number one followed by a number 5. Glancing back up at Grub, she smiled.
“Fifteen is a game?”
Grub nodded again.
“How do you play?” Kady asked, her interest piqued now.
Grub stepped aside and motioned Kady to sit on the tyre.
She moved forward, careful to watch her step to avoid tripping over on the debris beneath her feet. She had always wondered why the council had never done anything to clear this patch of land, to turn it into something useful.
As she sat down on the edge of the tyre, Kady realised that it was larger than it had looked from where she had been standing before. It was undoubtedly a tyre from a tractor or other similar industrial field vehicle. Perched on the side of it, she looked up at Grub to see what the next part of the game was, but he was standing two steps away, shaking his head again.
“But I thought you wanted me to sit down?”
He nodded slowly, but pointed his finger toward the ground and waved it around in a circular motion.
“Oh, you want me to turn around?”
Grub nodded once more.
“Okay then.” Kady said, lifting her legs over the tyre so that she sat down with her feet inside the rubber circle, her back to Grub.
“What now?” she asked, waiting for next set of instructions.
For what seemed like an eternity, Kady waited patiently, forgetting that Grub had not uttered a word to her, except for the almost telepathic announcement of the number fifteen.
She started to grow impatient and wondered if he would still be there if she turned around, when she felt the tyre move ever so slightly, the giveaway sign that Grub had knelt down on the edge behind her. Kady felt a tingle of excitement as she waited for the next part of the game.
She was about to talk again when she felt Grub’s hand clamp itself over her lips, covering her mouth. Surprised by this move, she frowned and tried to turn her head, but Grub held it firmly in his grip. Kady let out a muffled moan, trying to ask Grub exactly what he was up to.
Then, she felt his breath on her neck. The smell was rancid, as if he had eaten offal that had been left out in the sun to rot and then never brushed his teeth. She tried to break his grip but found that Grub had now pressed his chest up against her back and he held her tightly in his grip.
Kady heard Grub’s breathing, heavy and deep as he moved his mouth next to her ear.
Movement out of the corner of her right eye caught her attention and she strained to see what it was. Her eyes widened with fear as she realised that Grub was holding the sharp stick like a knife.
He lifted it up in a sweeping arc and thrust it downwards, plunging the splintering wood into her neck. Her screams silenced by the hand still covering her mouth, Kady’s vision faded and she lost consciousness as she heard Grub speak for the first and very last time.
“Sixteen.” He hissed.