Leonard had gone down to the playground as he usually did on Fridays. It was as crisp, and sweet an Autumn day that could be found and was going to waster no time in enjoying it while he could. The doctors had told him not to push himself too much; to “take it easy” as it were, but he didn’t have time for that and he knew it. Deep down inside his socks; he knew that.
After all, His son, Devon, and he had fallen out years ago over Devon’s choice of wife and mother for his children. Leonard hadn’t liked Lorraine from the start and made mention of it on several occasions. She wouldn’t work and left Devon to provide for his family through teaching and also doing tutoring on the side for the kids with “special needs” as they were called now he thought.
Lorraine, in Leonard’s eyes, was a freeloading, materialistic fishwife who constantly berated Devon for “not working hard enough” or “not caring enough to do better” and that set Leonard off each and every time. It had gotten so bad that he couldn’t remember the last time they all were together nor the last time he saw his granddaughter, Sarah. He didn’t like to think about that especially.
He had been given just short of 6 months to live. That was just a few weeks ago, before the doctors found that the chemo hadn’t been “as promising as they’d hoped for”, whatever that meant. The news hit him hard but not as hard as he’d expected…because he was alone and had become so despondent anyway at where his life had come to that, well, he’d just told himself “seems fittin’”.
From that time on, he had come to the playground each Friday. Partially to feed the birds, true, because after all SOMEONE had to, right? But also because he would watch the children play and pretend to himself, if just for a little while, that he could see Sarah on the slide, or on the merry-go-round or on the swings…especially the swings, and that gave him some peace.
Each day he came, he would just sit and watch. He’d feed the birds and answer a child’s question when he would get one about his funny hat with the little feather in it (“It’s called a Fe-DORE-Ah”) he would say and just enjoy a few hours waiting for the cancer to spread more and eventually take him away. He had hoped that maybe, if came often enough, it might actually meet him while he was there and he could think of no better place to meet his maker than this park.
On this particular day, while watching the children play, he had spied something sad and a little strange. He had noticed a small girl, who couldn’t have been more than seven years old, swinging very slowly by herself. Her feet dragged the ground as she barely swung and her head was down. She looked dirty and unkempt, like she had been left outside in the rain or something…or abandoned. He watched the girl for a long time; noticing no other child ever asked her to play or even really took notice of her really. Just a few odd glances in her direction, but no other child made contact with her or attempted to.
As the day passed, the girl did not move. She did not lift her head either. She just kept barely swinging along, dragging two ruts in the ground where her feet were and humming quietly to herself. It got later and later, and children started to go home; or wherever they go he thought; but she did not move. Dusk set in and Leonard started to get a little concerned at that point. “Maybe she’s actually been abandoned”, he thought or “Maybe she’s homeless and waiting for someone to find her a place?”. Either way, Leonard had made up his mind that he would give it just another few minutes or so and then he would go talk to her.
Those few minutes came and passed. Fifteen to be precise. At that point, Leonard had seen no change in activity and, straightening his Fe-DORE-ah, and his Jacket he slowly stood to his feet and walked towards the little girl.
She did not raise her head upon his approach, although the Autumn leaves crunched and cracked beneath his feet as he advanced on her. She just kept her head down and that low hum and that slow, slow swing going. As he got closer he could see she had dark brown hair, tied into two dirty pigtails that looked unkept, torn stockings with one of the knees sticking out, a very worn dress that looked as if it had been taken from a large doll in a thrift store, and that her shoes were ill-fitting. His heart sank.
“Honey?” he said, in a very soft voice, not wishing to scare the child, “Honey? Are you OK? Is your Momma around? Or your Poppa?”. The girl stopped swinging. She did not raise her head but simply shook it slowly from left to right and Leonard could hear her crying very softly.
“Shhh…Shh..It’s Ok”, he said, and gently placed his hand under her chin and raised her face to his. She reacted with a start and stiffened as if afraid. She sat up suddenly and tried to get out of the swing but he caught her and saidagain”Shhh..shhh..little one, it’s Ok….where are your folks? It’s late..”.
The little girl said, in a very small voice, dried out like she had gone a long time without water, “My name is Luala…my folks run a restaurant around here somehweres…I come here to play but no one plays with me because I’m poor…but, “ and she began to cry harder now, “I’m lost! I don’t know how to get home! I don’t know here I am now!….” and fell into Leonard’s arms , a small heap of pain and vulnerability.
Leonard bent down and, once again, lifted her head to his eyes. “It’s gonna be Ok Luala. My name is Leonard. I’ll help you, OK? The restaurant can’t be that far…after all, you walked here didn’t ya?. She nodded. “Then take my hand and we\ll go find it together…now..where did you come from to get here, what looks familiar to you—do you know what familiar means?” She said, “Yes, it means a place you know”. “She’s smart, “ thought Leonard…”I’ll get her home OK”; and for the first time in a long time, he felt vital and purposeful again.
He took her hand and said “Ok, Luala! Which buildings around here look like you know them?” Luala dried her tears and looked around for a long time. She looked and looked and then finally she opened her eyes wide and said, “That one! that’s the one I walked by I just know it!”. She had pointed to a small, care-worn shoe shop on the northwest corner of the park. ‘Ok, then “ Leonard said, “Let’s go find your folks!” and off they went.
They approached the old store, “Bill’’s Shine ‘Em Up Shoe Repair” the sign read. They stopped and Leonard bent down again and asked Luala “Ok, we got this store here, now look around and tell me what you think you passed next…”Luala looked again, and, after another long while, she once again opened her eyes wide and pointed again to the northwest. “That one! Over there! I know that one too!” “See?”, said Leonard, “it’s just like Dot to Dot games, you connect the dots and we will be with your folks in no time!”. Luala looked up and a slight smile came over her face. The smile was that of a child who had broken a vase but didn’t want her Momma to find out about it.
They walked to the northwest again and came to a store called “Absalom’s House of Cats”. Leonard thought that was a little odd. But it looked like it was an emporium for the discerning cat owner as inside were large, oddly shaped poles and structures fitted with holes and ropes he supposed were for cats to climb, and scratch and tear into. The windows were dirty and the sign on the door said “We’re Closed, Please Visit again in time…” which he also thought was odd; but he made no more thought of it.
Instead, he asked Luala again, “Where to now? What do you know? Look around now…”. Luala looked again and this time, her eyes opened so big he thought she would lose them. “That place there! it’s just a little ways away from the restaurant, I know it! Oh thank you Mister Leonardo!”. “It’s Leonard, darlin, off we go!”. And so, they went.
They went to the Northeast this time, into a neighborhood where the shops and buildings weren’t as nice or upscale as he had seen before; not that the other shops were super-ritzy or anything, but these were—well; not inviting. The sidewalk for one was crooked and he could tell the city didn’t come down much because the sidewalk stones were all catty-whompus, going up and down like there had been an earthquake or something. The shops looked a lot like how Dickens had described Scrooge’s House; as have been playing with other shops and suddenly found themselves scattered and lost in a place they did not fit.
Many of the storefront signs were either painted over or broken and many were for goods and services he had never heard of like “Beanie’s House of Aslor Strappings” and “Grentha Barbing and Gig-cabling Services”. Just odd stuff. The interiors seemed dark and poorly lit and he could see figures walking around in what almost looked like gaslit conditions. It was almost like walking in to the third world. The sun had gone down to the point where the sky was purple and gray and the buildings looked like they had begun to lean in behind them, walling off any kind of way back out to the real world. “Just the light” Leonard chuckled to himself.
The street lights flickered on. They were a strange, yellow green color, as if they shone through stained glass or something and made the ground and buildings, and the whole neighborhood look jaundiced and pallid.
Just then, out of the blue; Luala started jumping up and down and yelling “There it is! There it is!” and she broke free and ran as fast as she could to a shop marked by blue green neon at the end of the street. Leonard ran his best too as he wanted to make sure he got her in there safely in this strange place and also to get his bearings before heading back home. He had to stop and rest his hands on his knees and catch his breath by the time he got there. It was a dingy little place; with a broken up mosaic of green and blue tiles out front that were kind of shaped like a lion’s head—almost a man-lion or something in the entryway. He reached for the door and saw the place was called “Pischaca’s Fine Foods” and there was a plaque under the name of the place that read “Best Unique Cuisine as Voted by Gourmet Journal 1987”. “Must be good chow” Leonard said, and opened the door.
A bell chimed above the door and Luala ran to hug him. She wrapped her arms around his legs and said “Oh Thank you so much Mr. Leonard! My Moms and Pops are so happy I’m back safe!”. And, indeed they were, so it seemed. Directly behind her stood Mr. and Mrs. Pischaca. They had very wide grins on their faces and had both arms out towards Leonard in a gesture of welcome and thanks. Leonard thought they looked like they were waiting to wrap their arms around him and carry him off as they did not look quite right even if they did have those smiles.
“Oh Meesteer Leonaard”, Mr. Pischacas announced, “We is so being grateful to you for bringing back our little Luala!” Leonard noted his dialect was very foreign indeed and he was struggling to understand it.
“Yeese. we are being veery happy indeed!” said Mrs. Pischacas, and she walked towards Leonard, arms outstretched. She embraced him firmly and he noticed a smell of raw herbs or something and a sweet, sour odor that must have been from whatever they were cooking coming from her body.
“Now, Pleese, Sire, if you weeel! Pleease stay and dine with us! Eet is the leest we can offur to you for you to be bringing our sweet Luala back to being with us!” “It’s Ok” said Leonard, “truly—I’m just glad she’s OK; I appreciate it but—I’d better get home now it’s getting’ late”.
“Oh No, I Inseest!” said Mr. Pischacas. “Pleease, take this! Eet is our Finest of the tables!” and he pulled out an old, worn chair for Leonard to be seated. Leonard thought for a moment to himself and said in his mind “What the hell. These folks ain’t got much. They love their little girl and I’m dying. I’ve got nuthin but time right?”.
“That’s right!” said Mr. Pishacas. And Leonard stiffened.
“Heere is the being the menu!” Mrs. Pischacas said; and handed him a menu that was rather greasy to the touch. He opened it and realized to his embarrassment that he could not read the language it was written on. Apparently they were from some foreign land and this was a restaurant that served the cuisine from that place or something. Leonard gestured to Mr. Pischacas and asked him to come over.
Mr. Pishcas said “Yeese Meesteer Leonardo?”. “It’s Leonard and that’s fine—I’m really sorry, I can’t read this language…can you just suggest something?”. At the utterance of those words, Mr. Pischacas smiled very broadly and said “Oh yeese. Try the Skal. Skal is the BEST we has to being offered. You weel enjoy it eemeensley!”
“Ok, then”, Leonard said, “Skal, it is!” not knowing just what he hell “Skal” even was.
He took an opportunity to look around. This was a basic little restaurant, almost like your basic run-of the-mill Italian place. Small tables with grey and black checkered tablecloths. Chairs, old, but useable; although the legs were warped it seemed in odd shapes…probably due to age. Strange pictures of old world scenes were hung on the walls; they looked like animals chasing people or forests on fire and other odd imagery. One showed the same man-lion with what looked like an unfortunate hunter in its paws….
He also looked at the clientele as well. This was an odd bunch None of them sat upright. They looked like a lot of old people who had back surgery or hunch issues; probably the result of old-country living and bad nutrition. They were all very grey and pallid too; many almost looked embalmed as they had a sheen to their grey looking skin.
Then…that is when he saw it. He noticed what they were all eating. He hadn’t seen it before or heard it either in all the excitement of meeting the Pischacas and getting Luala home. Each “dish” being eaten in the restaurant…was moving. And also each dish was screeching a small gurgling screech; like a crying…..child. “Oh my G…” Leonard thought and he bolted to his feet to run as fast and far from “Pischacas Fine Foods” as was possible. He got to the door only to see it was locked with a small sign which read “said “We’re Closed, Please Visit again in time…”
He turned to see the entire clientele had risen to its’s feet, or should he say, hooves; as that was what they were standing on.. The group grinned hideously and then, slowly, parted down the middle allowing the Pischacas and Luala, to advance towards him carrying a large tureen surrounded on a tray by green vegetables that looked rotted.
“Mr. Leonard”, Mr. Pischacas said in rich, and perfect voice devoid of any dialect; “We do so appreciate you brining our dear Luala home to us. After all, she is our best hunter and we were almost out of Skull”.
Leonard turned again to the door to try and get out some way; ANY way, then saw the sign by the door—“Fresh Skull en route! Thursday is Skull Night at Pischacas!”. He could not get the door to open nor see any other way out.
Just before the sword severed his head from his shoulders, Leonard turned and heard Mr. Pischacas say “Look man, Demons have to eat SOMEWHERE right? Don’t they deserve the VEST? They work hard just like you do!”
And the sword fell and Skull Night at Pischacas was underway.