He didn't look like the devil at all. He looked like somebody's grandfather, grey hair, glasses, cardigan sweater, and grandpa hat. Maybe had a name like Papaw or something like that. He knew he couldn't rely on his looks though. What he was doing was a lot like fishing, and these fish, they scare off real easy.
There were six kids playing in the park this late Saturday afternoon. He'd watched each one of them get there, and only two of them had shown up without parents. They came from different directions - one on a bike, one on foot. They obviously knew each other. They'd brought gloves and had been tossing hardball for the last twenty minutes. To Mr. Cunningham, they looked to be eight or nine. Plenty old enough to have memory stick implants. That was key. That was what it was all about. You had to know what you were fishing for.
One mother herded up her two kids and got in the car to go. Mr. Cunningham tried to smile to himself as he scattered some more breadcrumbs for the birds. It was getting late and he may get lucky, but everything would have to go perfectly, or he'd need to hold off and go home empty handed. He wiped a bead of sweat off his forehead with a hanky.
Just then, one of the smaller kids fell off a swing and set to squalling, skinned knee. Time to go. Mom packed her and her brother into the Subaru and they were off.
About then, a baseball came sailing in and rolled right to Mr. Cunningham’s feet. He looked up to see the smaller of the two boys running up to him. The one that showed up on foot. He was light-skinned but sunburned on his freckled nose with a green baseball cap on backwards. Mr. Cunningham could see a slightly lighter patch of skin on his right temple - a fake skin patch to cover his memory stick socket. Mr. Cunningham could just sense the incredible trove of memories stored in there. He could taste them in the air. Afternoons at ball games with dad, playing in the woods with his best friend, climbing to the very top of a tree just to feel it swaying in the breeze. Years of that stuff. These were the things Mr. Cunningham needed, the things he lacked.
He picked up the baseball and tossed it overhand back to the boy.
He said, “You got a pretty good arm on you, kid. You play on a team?”
“Yeah. I’m second base.”
“You gotta think fast to be on second. I used to pitch.”
“Oh yeah? How long ago was that?” The kid smiled.
“A lifetime ago, seems like.”
“Cool. See ya,” he waved and turned back to heave the ball at his buddy.
After that, it was timing. When the boys looked tired and started bickering with each other, Mr. Cunningham headed for his car. He drove a baby blue 1974 Karmann Ghia hardtop. A cool car, but also entirely harmless looking. Just like him. Float like a butterfly…
He caught up with the boy as he walked up the street from the park, cruised up as cool as could be. He timed it so he’d reach the boy along a wooded stretch, no houses.
“Hey, kid! You drop this over by the bench?” He held up a big ol’ silver dollar with dirt caked on the edges.
Mr. Cunningham could see the silent war going on behind the kid’s green eyes. In the end, greed won as usual.
“Yeah. I think I did. I mean, yeah.” He was already sidling towards the stopped car.
“Hop in, and I’ll drive you to your house.”
“How you know where my house is at?”
“I don’t, but you can tell me.”
Mr. Cunningham looked down at the memory strip on his workbench. He knew he should feel something for the boy’s loss, but he also knew you couldn’t get blood from a stone, he just didn’t have that part in him. Anyway, the kid was still alive, might even be back home by now. Just missing a few years of his memory. These memories, right here.
Mr. Cunningham carefully plugged the memory strip into an external harness and laid it on the bench. Then he took a patch wire, plugging it into his right temple. With a sigh, he slumped back against the wall.
Here was the part of himself that he was missing. The normal, beautiful childhood, and it was just as good as he had hoped for. The kid, Jeremy, had two loving parents. Nobody beat on him, and nobody had ever locked him in a closet or left him forever. With perfect electric recall, Mr. Cunningham became Jeremy. He learned how to bicycle from his sister, he built blanket forts with his brother. He ran down the street to play hot box with the other neighborhood kids. He even remembered getting a puppy for his birthday. His mom and dad hugged him when he came home with good grades. No matter what he did, he was loved. The staggering beauty of it all brought tears of joy to Mr. Cunningham’s eyes.
Hours later, he pulled the plug and it all flushed away. He reached down to disconnect the strip, put it in a plastic baggie and wrote “Jeremy” on it in black sharpie. Maybe he’d send this one back to the kid in the mail. He knew where he lived now. Maybe that was the right thing to do.
But no. He stood up, crossed the room and put it on the special shelf with all the others, slid between “Jason” and “Jonathan.” He knew from his own childhood that monsters were real.
And now he was one.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Carl Gable is a longtime graphic designer, illustrator, and writer living in Atlanta with his wife, two children, and one cat. He reads science fiction of every type from classic era to hard science to space opera. He enjoys a bit of dark humor and is a three-time winner of the New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest.