The little boy hid behind a tall sycamore tree, the wind sending a steady rain of orange and red leaves over the field behind the school. The boy adjusted his satchel again, deciding that he would play a game before going to class and beginning the day. The red leaves seemed brighter to him, little dots in the landscape. They reminded him of the instruments in his father's office, which always flashed and beeped, even in the middle of the night. He would count one hundred red leaves. And then go to school.
No other children came out of the path from the woods to come to school this morning. In the distance, as he counted the leaves, he could see the cars in their procession. Each slowing to a halt, a well dressed child emerging (the boy could tell they were well-dressed because everyone's hair was neat and no one had holes in the knees of their pants), stopping briefly for a few words from a parent, and then dashing into the front entrance.
Five, ten, fifteen red leaves. All the children would be new this year, again.
Twenty, thirty, forty red leaves. This year, his father had told him, his name was "Marshall." The boy remembered his name being "Marshall" once before. But he must not slip up, and call himself "Alan" or some other name when the teacher called him. This was very important. Father insisted.
Fifty, sixty, seventy red leaves. What was he to say, if the principal asked him where Allenstown, New Hampshire was? He was to say, "I don't know." He had practiced with Father. All last night.
Ninety-one, ninety-two, ninety-three leaves. The warning bell sounded. He did not like the new house. It was isolated, windy and dark. It was his fault that they had to move to this place; why could he not control himself? His father hugged him before bed, drying his tears. You do what you are meant to do, his father said, smiling at him. What's true for you, is true for mankind. Father always spoke of mankind.
Ninety-five, ninety-six, ninety-seven. He peeked around the sycamore tree. There she was, lingering by the swings behind the school. He could not understand, and Father would not explain it to him when he asked. She was here again. Just as she had been at every school every time they had moved. The little boy felt something stir inside of him. Some Thing (and it was a Thing, he prayed that it was a Thing and not himself) that always took over when he saw the same girl at each school. The acts that it made him want to commit filled him with equal parts loathing and longing; he began to tremble. The memories of what it made him do before came back in an instant, seared as they were into his mind. His breathing came quickly, and he braced against the wide trunk of the tree, heaving as he struggled for air, certain that he was going to die on the spot. Something like him was too bad to keep living, he was sure of it.
The Thing, whatever it was, released its grip on him. For now. He had come to a realization of late, imagining that the terror he felt when the Thing came over him, must be nothing compared to what the little girl must also feel. Every time. Tears streamed down his cheeks, even as the calmness returned to his face.
Ninety-eight. Ninety-nine. One hundred red leaves. One hundred little red specks, scattered all over the ground before his path. The words of his Father came to him, as they often did. They told him that he did not have to understand, and it was better that he did not. He was part of something bigger. Something grand. He was something that would help mankind to its completion. The little boy often asked his Father about the little girl, meeting the same wall of secrecy each time. But he never asked his Father about what completion meant. Deep inside himself, deeper even than the Thing, he knew that he did not want to ask that question. Father may answer it.
The little girl picked up her pink backpack and ran into the school. The little boy followed, running across the empty field of one hundred red leaves.
The little girl took her seat at the wooden picnic table by the side of the office building. It was lonesome, off on its own beneath an overhang. But the covered hallway gave her some protection from the weather while she ate her apple from the cafeteria. She liked to watch the wind blow the tall trees behind the school back and forth, as it whipped down from the north. She would meet her friends after eating lunch most days.
On this day, a little boy watched her from across the blacktop, peeking out from behind a tetherball pole. He looked comical, trying to hide. She waved to him. He didn't return the greeting, but instead moved hesitantly closer, as though he were one of the stray cats by the overgrown baseball diamonds. He looked very serious, not like the other boys in her class who were constantly pulling faces or shouting about something they saw on TV yesterday. She waved to him again, encouraging him to come closer. Step by tentative step, looking over his shoulder every few seconds, he came closer. She did not recognize him; he must have been in Mrs. Worthington's class, or maybe one of the special ed kids. When he finally came close enough to hear, she told him it was okay to sit down. He waited a few seconds, then did so, directly across from her.
She asked him what his name was.
"M-Marshall," he replied, almost in a whisper. He was clearly nervous. Some boys were like that, she thought.
He glanced at her, looking like he wanted to run away and hide again behind the tetherball pole. "What's y-your name? Is it, uh, Clara?"
She giggled. No, of course not. He must have mistaken her for someone else.
He looked pained, like her answer had somehow wounded him. Marshall wiped his brow; his forehead had a thin sheen of sweat, despite the autumn chill. The little girl was confused. Boys didn't usually act like this. Something was not quite right about him.
Marshall looked away, into the trees. "Did you, um. Did you know that people have all sorts of, uh, stuff in them."
The little girl shifted nervously. What did he mean, stuff? Like guts and other gross things?
The little boy's widened. He continued to stare into the distance. "Not just that. There's other things in there too. Things that, um, need to come out. Like, uh, escaping. Father says that people have truth in them. That it needs to, to see daylight."
The little girl noticed that he was trembling now. The sweat was beading up and running down along his neck. She saw that his hands were gripping the bench where he was sitting, so hard that his knuckles were white. She wanted to go now.
Marshall's face snapped toward her. She startled at the sudden movement, dropping the rest of her lunch onto the ground. The little boy looked terrified, as he trembled through sweat, his face flushed and his eyes wide. She leaned back in her seat from his gaze.
"I…I think y-you should run. You should run now. Please run."
The little girl tripped and fell back, getting up to leave but unable to look away from him. Not taking the time to dust herself off or check for scrapes, she ran for the classrooms. She was not looking at him now.
Looking down at his hands, Marshall noticed a thin trickle of blood dripping onto the ground. He had gripped the bench he was sitting on with enough force to dig splinters of wood into his fingers. They began to throb, the pain acknowledged now by looking at the wounds. His chest heaved, the shortness of breath making him feel like he hadn't exhaled for the entire time he had been sitting here.
The little girl had left her backpack by the opposite bench, forgetting to take it with her in her sudden need to leave. That was stupid, calling her Clara. She hadn't been Clara since two towns ago. He must be better about remembering names. Stupid, stupid, stupid. He blinked back tears of exertion as he struggled to catch his breath again.
The lightheadedness began to subside. His vision was clear again. He felt as though he were himself again. Or whatever he was that remained after all of the name changes. He picked up the little girl's backpack, absentmindedly wiping his bloody fingers off on the side, the red streaks dark against the bright pink fabric. She had forgotten her things. He would have to find where she had gone later. He needed to return something to her.
Father drummed his fingers on his stainless steel work desk. The motion dislodged tiny bubbles in the specimen jars lined up next to his hand. He didn't like the way the little bubbles floated up past the tiny little lumps of vaguely-humanoid flesh as they bobbed in the fomaldehyde solution. The effect made it look like they were moving. The little boy wished he would stop doing that.
"The school tells me they are thinking of consulting a specialist. That you display abnormal behavioral traits."
The little boy was silent. This information was new to him.
Father's face, ruthlessly clean-shaven even in the evening, was hard for Marshall to read. The closest thing he could guess was…amusement? But the little boy had never seen anyone have that expression while something funny was happening. Father was smiling, yes. But his eyes were full of something between pity and hatred.
"This is quite something, you know. A specialist. How can you specialize in deviance from a normal condition when they don't even know what normal is? That's funny. Don't you agree, son?"
Nothing about what happened at school was funny to the little boy in the slightest. He remained silent.
Father sighed. He turned away, looking contemplatively at the strange rifle mounted on the wall above his desk. The little boy had seen pictures of guns before, but he had never seen anything quite like it outside of Father's office. The strange wiring around the barrel looked more like a movie prop. It seemed to glow faintly at night. Father's recommendation to think twice about touching it had been warning enough.
"I forget sometimes, you're not like me. You, your kind. I must be patient as you learn."
Father turned back around. He crouched so that he could look the little boy in the eye, on his level. The little boy shivered.
"Son, you must remember. Not too soon. You cannot help but reveal yourself. In fact, you must. But in the course of time." Father stood up again. He looked down upon the little boy, a simulacrum of kindness in his warm smile and calculating eyes. "They will all learn from you. You will teach them. But you must teach them in the proper manner. Believe me, I know."
Marshall always felt that he understood less whenever he spoke with his Father. But as ever, his instructions were clear. He must work harder, to act like the others. To keep certain Things hidden away. For a time. To help ensure that they would not have to move again prematurely.
"Now then. I have much to attend to, Son. Visit your mother, would you? She's useful for soothing matters such as these."
The little boy remained in the office. "Father, am I a bad person?"
Father's eyebrows crept up, tilting his head. Confusion. "Bad? As in evil? That concept is so strange, and yet it has taken quite a hold among these people, hasn't it?"
The man considered the question. He put his hand on his son's shoulder.
"My boy, something like you can't be evil. Through you, these people learn to understand something about themselves, something that they must one day address, once and for all. A quality about themselves that they must repurpose, if they are to live together in lasting peace."
Father's eyes crept towards the mounted gun on the wall again.
"Son, I will be here with you, guiding you in one form or another until your final breath. And then, I will be with you at the next beginning, to help you on your path. As I have done before."
The father embraced the son now.
"Until everyone has learned. Until there is peace. How can someone who brings peace be evil?"
He squeezed his son tightly. The matter was closed now. He ushered his son back out of the office, as he returned to his tasks, indecipherable to the boy.
Marshall ascended the stairs out of the basement, into the kitchen. His mother stood in her usual spot by the wall-mounted telephone, eyes fixed on him as he closed the the door behind him.
"There, there," said his mother, looking at her son, moving not a single muscle, as was her way. "There, there."
The little boy proceeded down the hallway to his bedroom. Behind him was the sound of his mother repeating her remark, over and over, to the now-empty kitchen. There, there. There, there.
The interior of his bedroom was covered entirely in plastic. The Thing inside him wanted nothing more than to look at one of the books filled with photographs that he and his Father had taken several towns ago. Or to open the concealed door in the floor of his closet. The Thing would have to wait. It must be trained to wait. Father insisted.
The little boy lay on his bed, the wind howling outside as the dusk overtook the woods surrounding the house. Sleep would not come easily this night.