by Joshua Blanc
-Strange – 6 Pages –
Most kids, Billy’s Mum was apt to tell him, built sandcastles at the beach. Not Billy; he was much happier digging a hole. Sometimes, if he dug deep enough, he would reach the water level and all sorts of strange worms and insects would writhe out of the wet sand. To him, a deep hole was just as rewarding as the tallest sandcastle you’d care to think of. Besides, sandcastles only get kicked over anyway.
Billy sat in the cool of his latest excavation with his head below beach-level. The noise of the waves and people washed past, muffled by the sand around him. So did the sound of his parents: who were bickering. Again. He threw out another spadeful of sand.
“Billy!” came a voice. “Come and look!”
Billy sighed. It was Fiona. He clambered out of the hole, being careful not to cave it in, and joined his little sister at the high-tide mark. A collection of shells, driftwood, seaweed and whatnot stretched down the beach in a wavy line. Fiona had found something interesting, and was poking it with a stick.
“What is it?” she asked, batting her wind-tousled hair out of her face.
Billy knelt down to get a better look. At first he thought it was a stranded sea-creature that had dried out in the sun, but it turned out to be a sock — no, a sock-puppet. Bits of it were covered in thin patches of sea-sponge. One of its eyes was a broken yellow button, and the other was a `cat’s-eye’: the little eye-like trap-door from a periwinkle shell.
“I think it’s a sock-puppet,” said Billy. “But a strange sort-of one. It’s all grown over with sea-sponge and things.”
Billy picked it up. The sponge had filled holes and tears in the white material. It was as if it had been repaired by some skilled sea-creature.
“It’s yucky,” said Fiona, screwing up her button nose. “Throw it away.”
Billy made to do so, but found — to his alarm — that the sock-puppet had slipped itself over his hand. He tried shaking it off, but only felt his hand go numb, and then-
“Hi there! I’m Mr. Sockforahead!” said Billy, but in a voice that didn’t belong to him.
Fiona giggled; the puppet had lip-synched to the words. Billy’s shocked expression turned to one of anger, and he attempted to wrench the sock off with his other hand. Mr. Sockforahead evaded him, ducking this way and that.
“Hey, you don’t wanna do that, Billy. We can have so much fun together.”
Billy’s eyes widened. The sock knows my name!
“How are you doing this?” Billy asked, looking around for someone suspicious with a remote-control.
“Magic? ESP? Take your pick. Who’s this, your girlfriend?”
Mr. Sockforahead was `looking’ at Fiona, who’d been watching the exchange with increasing confusion.
“No,” said Billy. “She’s my sister.”
“Well, then. Shove off, sister, we’ve got guy things to be getting on with.”
Fiona looked, dumbfounded, at Billy. Billy shrugged, then his right hand jerked down suddenly and he tipped forward. Mr. Sockforahead scooped up a mouthful of sand, shot back up again, and dumped it down the front of Fiona’s bathing-suit.
Fiona ran off, crying, to Mum.
“What’d you do that for?” said Billy, still trying to grasp that he was talking to a sock.
Dad rose from the sand like a wobbly meerkat. He glared through his glasses and called Billy over.
“Hey, are those your parents?” said Mr. Sockforahead. “Let’s go meet ’em!”
Billy tried once more to get rid of his uninvited guest, but there was no budging him. He steeled himself and trudged over for his reprimand.
“What did your sister do to deserve that, young man?” said Dad.
“Nothing… I, it wasn’t–” Billy began.
“Cool it, Pops,” said Mr. Sockforahead. “There’s nothing wrong with a little sand in the pants. Not that I’d know, being a sock and all.”
“What in the world?”
“Where’s a guy with a drum roll when you need him? Oh well.”
“Drop the act, Billy, and get that horrible thing off your hand. Who knows where it’s been?”
“But Dad, it’s not me, I swear! The sock is somehow… alive!”
“Snitch!” said Mr. Sockforahead. “I’ve been in the sea, for your information. Some fat wannabe policeman drove me off the pier. Well, that’s not strictly true. I was driving him off the pier, but he got out of the car at the last minute.”
“Stop it right now, Billy, and apologise to your sister!”
Billy could practically hear his father’s blood boil. He expected steam to start shooting out of his ears.
“Surf’s up!” said Mr. Sockforahead, and head-butted Billy’s Dad in the privates.
Dad crumpled and crashed to the sand. Billy stood there wide-eyed, unable to believe what he’d just done. Mum looked similarly shocked, but was too busy comforting Fiona to do anything about it.
“Hey,” said Mr. Sockforahead, “let’s play fugitives!”
“What? No way!”
“What we need is a weapon. A gun or something.”
Billy watched his father, angry and hurt, squirming in the sand. Mum was yelling something, but the words wouldn’t make themselves clear. He let them wash over his head like the other undesirable noises.
“There are knives and forks in the cooler,” he said distantly.
Mr. Sockforahead got to rummaging in the cooler. He tossed all manner of things out of the box, while Billy just stood; wishing it was all just dream.
Mum got up from her beach chair, helped her husband up off the sand, and stormed over. She grabbed Billy by the arm, only to have Mr. Sockforahead brandish a butter-knife at her. With a shriek she backed off, and Billy stared down at the knife in the sock-puppet’s mouth.
“Here,” said Mr. Sockforahead, thrusting the handle into his free hand. “It’s a bit blunt, but fugitives can’t be choosers. Maybe we can sharpen it on a rock or something later. Come on.”
Before Billy knew it, he was running towards the pavement with his legs under Mr. Sockforahead’s control.
“I am sorry, really!” he called back. “I don’t know how to stop!”
“That’s the spirit, Billy-boy! Make ’em think you’re crazy. That way you’ll get off scot-free if they catch you.”
They reached the sidewalk and ran along it. People stepped hurriedly aside when they saw the knife.
“Where are we going?” he asked, his breath running short.
“On the lam,” said Mr. Sockforahead. “That’s what all fugitives do.”
“I don’t think they have lambs at the beach.”
“Pfft! What do you know? Leave the heady stuff to me. I’ve got more brains and I’m a sock, so what does that tell you?”
“Can’t we stop for a rest? I’m exhausted.”
“It’s always something, isn’t it?”
Billy stumbled to a halt as his legs were returned to him. He hadn’t realised until now just how much they hurt. He leaned against a lamp-post to catch his breath, and stole a look back in the hope that his father might be running after him. It was a double-edged hope, considering the
mood he’d be in. But on the other hand — so to speak — if he could convince him that–
“Are you all right, sonny?” said a voice.
Billy turned to see a policeman standing there.
“You oughtn’t run with knives, ya know — even if it is only a bread kn–“
“Oh no, the fuzz!” said Mr. Sockforahead, and before the policeman could react, he stabbed him in the ribs with it and set Billy running again.
Billy was too shocked to speak. He looked back to see the policeman collapse on the sidewalk. There was a spark of hope when at last he saw Dad in the distance.
“You killed him!” he cried.
“Nah. Stupid knife. I told you it was too blunt.”
Billy’s possessed hand let the knife drop. He flexed his liberated fingers, and tried to keep it together. For the first time he realised he too could be in danger from this maniacal sock: whoever or whatever it may be.
I’d better play along, he thought, before he could worry whether or not Mr. Sockforahead could read minds.
“Uh, seen any lambs yet?” he managed.
“The plan’s changed. Now that the fuzz is after us, we have to find someplace high to jump from. Preferably a huge waterfall.”
Billy’s heart, already racing, stepped it up a notch.
“But there aren’t any. Do we really have to–?”
“Do you see what I see?”
Billy looked, and saw a public pool surrounded by chain-link fence. Visible over the top was a five-metre diving board.
“Oh-no,” said Billy, as his legs propelled him across the street towards it.
He was momentarily relieved when he saw the turnstile at the entrance. Billy bumped against it as Mr. Sockforahead continued on regardless.
“Ow — take it easy!”
“What’s wrong with this thing?” said Mr. Sockforahead to the startled attendant.
“You have to pay,” said the attendant.
“Fuck that,” said Mr. Sockforahead, and made Billy crawl beneath it. “Thsppp!”
Billy was on his feet again, and lost among the crowd before anything could be done.
Officer Peter Gumption turned from the sno-cone stand to see his partner, officer Lyndon Carter, doubled over clutching his ribs. He hurried over, his flabby limbs flailing, and arrived with his face red and puffy from the short burst of exertion.
After his encounter with Mr. Sockforahead some months ago, he’d undergone a psychiatric evaluation. It was recommended he be transferred to a position that allowed him to `get out more.’ Thus, he left his job as evidence room desk clerk, spent several weeks at Police Academy on a refresher course, and was reassigned as a beat cop. So far he’d found it invigorating, and the doctor was pleased with his progress. Even so, he was still awaiting the truncheon he’d requested. A condition of his probationary reassignment was that he wasn’t allowed any weapons. He had, after all, shot an officer in the foot. The fact that a sock-puppet had pulled the trigger was neither here nor there.
“Lyndon, are you okay?” he asked. “What happened?”
“I feel wretched admitting it,” said Lyndon. “A little kid stabbed me with a butterknife! Luckily I’m only bruised, but if it’d been sharp…”
“Why did he do that?”
“I’ve no idea. I saw him running down the street with it, and asked him what was up, when — hey, you know what’s funny? He had a sock puppet on his hand.”
Peter dropped the sno-cones he was holding.
“What’s up with you?” said Lyndon.
“Did he stab you with his free hand, or the one with the sock-puppet on? Think carefully.”
“Let’s see… it was his left. That was the free one.”
Peter rubbed his face. Overreacting, he thought. It couldn’t be Sockforahead. Could it? The evil sock-puppet could control more than just one hand. And how much will-power would a kid have?
“Which way did he go, this kid?”
“Up the street,” said Lyndon, pointing. “He dropped the knife over there.”
Peter picked it up. There was no blood on it, so at least no-one had been too badly hurt with it.
“We’d better go after him. I have a bad feeling about this.”
“You sure you’re okay?” Lyndon straightened up. “You look pale.”
“Let’s just hope I’m wrong,” he said, reluctant to elaborate on the sock-puppet’s history.
Just now a man in swimming trunks limped over. He was pale and flabby and looked more suited to selling insurance from the inside of a suit.
“Officers, have you seen a small boy with a sock-puppet and a, oh – I see you have the knife.”
“The boy your son, is he, sir?”
“He stabbed an officer — my partner here — with this knife.”
Lyndon displayed his bruised ribs.
“I’m very sorry, officers. I don’t know what’s gotten into him. Since he picked up that sock-puppet off the beach he’s been acting very strange.”
Off the beach, thought Peter. He looked down the beach to where the very pier he’d driven off all those months ago jutted from the shore.
“We have to find your son, and quick. He’s a great danger to himself and others.”
The three of them made their way up the street. There was no sign of the boy. Peter was filled with apprehension. A sick feeling steadily rose in his stomach.
“He could be anywhere by now,” said Lyndon, wiping sweat from his brow. “Let’s split up.”
Peter bit his lip. The last thing he wanted them to do now was split up. He started to shake.
“All right,” he said at last.
Lyndon and the boy’s father crossed to the other side of the street. Peter stopped a passerby and questioned him, but the man just shook his head. He heard laughter and splashing from a public pool nearby. Then he saw the cinema. There was a crowd of people gathering as the matinee tickets went on sale. He made towards it.
“Officer! Officer!” he heard behind him.
He turned to see a woman flagging him down.
“Yes, Madam?” he said, approaching breathlessly.
“A kid just went through my concession without paying, and now he’s causing a scene on the diving board!”
“Look, I don’t have time for– Wait. Did he have a sock-puppet on his hand?”
“How’d you know that? It blew a flippin’ raspberry at me as they went in.”
“Lyndon!” Peter called. Officer Carter and the boy’s father hurried over. “He’s in there, up on the high-dive, apparently.”
“High dive?” said the father. “What’s he playing at now?”
Peter struggled like an overfilled water-balloon over the turnstile and the others followed. Kids were jumping about and enjoying themselves in the water, while a handful of parents and other adults lazed about poolside, soaking up the blazing sun. They picked their way through the throng, dodged a couple of boys wielding supersoakers, and headed for the diving board.
A group of children were waiting their turn at the bottom, and more were up on the rungs. The boy at the top, who looked to be fifteen or so, was arguing loudly with whoever stood on the platform.
“All right, down you come, everyone,” said Lyndon. “Keep it orderly.”
“Aaargh!” cried the boy at the top, who slipped, clutching his nose. He hurried down after the others, with blood streaming down his face.
“What happened?” said Peter.
“The little bastard punched me in the nose with that sock of his!”
“Let’s get you over to first aid,” said Lyndon. “You handle this okay on your own, Pete?”
Their quarry chose this moment to look down from the top of the ladder. The boy was on his hands and knees. Even from here Peter could see he was frightened out of his wits.
“Billy!” said his father. “Come down from there!”
“I… I can’t!” Billy called down, shutting his eyes tight.
“I’ll have to go up,” said Peter, gripping a lower rung with his sweaty ham-fist, and secretly wishing someone would intervene and say: `no, that’s okay officer Gumption, I’ll go up, you go spend a fortnight’s paid vacation at the North Pole.’
He took a deep breath and began his ascent.
“Billy, listen closely,” he said, climbing slowly but steadily. “I’m officer Gumption — a policeman — I’m coming up now to help you down, okay?”
There was silence up above. Whimpering. A faint argument. Peter was almost half-way up. He took his eyes off the top of the ladder, stared straight ahead, and took a few controlled breaths. When he looked up again, he saw-
He scrambled to keep his footing. There was no question that the sock staring down at him could be anysock else. It was stitched back together and bleached clean by the ocean, but still oozing with evil.
“Hey, it’s Peter Pumpkin!” said Mr. Sockforahead, in that same horrible jolly voice. “Don’t tell me you were promoted?”
Peter clenched tight his gaping jaw. When Mr. Sockforahead had punched the other boy in the face it had left a blood stain resembling a red nose. It looked comical, but only made the illusion of innocence more perverted.
“It’s Gumption, not Pumpkin, you inanimate freak!” he called up, on the verge of hysterics. “I’m a beat-cop now, and beat-cops don’t take shit from socks like you!”
“You see what a shining influence I’ve been on you? Where would you be if I hadn’t shot that nice policeman in the foot and taken you on a murderous joyride?”
“Murderous? No-one was killed!”
“Yeah, shame really. Still, there’s plenty of time for that, eh, Billy?”
The boy whimpered again. His free hand was gripping the edge of the platform for all it was worth. Peter resumed his climb.
“Boy, we’re good at this game,” said Mr. Sockforahead to the nearly swooning Billy. “Now’s our chance, let’s jump!”
Billy pushed himself up off his belly. Even with Mr. Sockforahead controlling them, his legs wobbled beneath him. The five metre drop to the water below looked like twenty. He grabbed tight to the railing.
“I’m… going to be… sick,” he said.
“Great! Let’s see if we can get it in the pool!”
Below, officer Gumption yelled for his partner, who began urging people out of the pool. Billy threw up onto the diving board, and now the swimmers didn’t need urging; they left the water in one big swarm. Billy had barely recovered when Mr. Sockforahead hijacked his mouth again.
“You missed,” he said. “But you get ten points for artistic merit. Picasso would be proud of that puke.”
There was a noise behind him, and Billy swung round. Wheezing, shaking, and pouring with sweat, officer Gumption reached the top of the ladder.
“Billy,” he managed. “Take my hand.”
“Sorry, I don’t travel by blimp,” said Mr. Sockforahead. “Besides, everyone knows when fugitives are cornered they have to jump.”
“No!” said Peter, summoning as much authority as the situation would allow.
“If I go, I’m taking you with me!” shouted Mr. Sockforahead so that everyone could hear.
He started Billy walking towards the ladder. It was now that Billy realised Mr. Sockforahead hadn’t planned to jump into the pool as he’d envisioned. Beyond officer Gumption the crowd, and the concrete, loomed. He felt his head grow light.
“Billy, listen to me,” said Peter. “You have to fight him. I did, once, and succeeded.”
“Yeah, and you had as much willpower as a bar of soap,” said Mr. Sockforahead.
“Concentrate on moving your legs!”
Officer Gumption moved up a rung, so that the diving board was level with his waist. Billy stopped before him. Peter was practically face to face now with the sock.
“What is it you want, Sockforahead?”
Billy could see the officer shaking. He looked at Mr. Sockforahead, also curious.
“That’s Mr. Sockforahead, officer Bum-chin! Let’s see, what do fugitives usually ask for? Millions of dollars. A helicopter. A deserted island with a treehouse and a private beach; where we can dig all the holes we want, and no whale-sized cops can beach themselves and bother us, and–“
“And proper parents who don’t fight all the time!” Billy shrieked, in his own voice, tears streaming down his cheeks.
“Oh, son… son!” said his father down below. “Please come down and we’ll talk about this — as a family! Billy, I love you — so does your mother — come down!”
“Well, you heard the man,” and Mr. Sockforahead bent Billy’s legs in preparation for launch.
Officer Gumption put up an arm defensively. Everything seemed to slow down. Concentrate, the officer had said. Billy looked down at his father who was staring up, frightened and distraught. He focused on moving his left leg backwards, even though he was starting upwards now under Mr. Sockforahead’s control. He closed his eyes and saw himself lifting his leg and putting it down again. There was a lurching motion, and with delight he realized he was tipping backwards. He lifted his other leg, and opened his eyes. When he stepped down this time he slipped in something warm and wet. Relief turned to panic as he fell sideways off the diving board and everything sped up again — much too fast!
Peter watched Billy slip in his own puke and fall writhing into the pool. There was a great splash, and for an instant he was reliving the moment his car, with Mr. Sockforahead inside it, splashed into the bay. Returning to the present, he hurried with concern — and relief — down the ladder. He had no time to get his land legs; he hurried to the side of the pool as Billy rose to the surface, unconscious.
“Can anyone swim?” he asked, feeling foolish when he remembered where he was.
Billy’s Dad dived into the pool, and a moment later Peter was helping him drag Billy onto the pavement. Billy coughed a couple of times, then opened his eyes.
“Billy, I’m so glad you’re okay!”
Billy and Peter both looked down at his hand.
“Where’s Mr. Sockforahead?” he asked.
Peter got up, leaving the boy in his father’s care. He gazed into the pool but saw no sign of Mr. Sockforahead in the undulating water. Lyndon joined him.
“He didn’t leave that sock thing up there, did he?”
A couple of kids decided to hop into the shallow end of the pool now that the crisis was over.
“Hey, stay out!” said Peter. “Nobody goes into the pool until I say it’s safe!”
“Isn’t that a bit rash, Pete?”
“I know what I’m talking about. I want that sock found. Check the filter!”
Lyndon gave him a concerned look, but went to fetch the pool man. A moment later they had the lid off the filter and were crouching to examine the contents. Peter craned his neck to see.
“Nothing in here,” said Lyndon. “Wait, what’s this?”
Lyndon turned around, and held out his palm. Sitting on it was Mr. Sockforahead’s cat’s-eye.
“Do you suppose the chlorine dissolved the little blighter?”
Peter wiped his forehead. “I doubt it. He’ll be around, somewhere. There’s no killing a sock like that.”
He looked at Billy and his dad, who were joined now by the rest of the family. Emotions were running high.
“At least this time there’s a happy ending.”
“Shall I let everyone back into the pool?”
Peter nodded. Lyndon dropped the cat’s-eye into his hand, and Peter stared down at it. He stared for a long time.