We saw him just after Christmas. The holidays were over, school was back, and the air was still crisp enough, still cold enough, to leave frost on the pavement for us to crunch every morning. No leaves yet, though. No warmth. The world was grey and white and cold and walking to classes was a chore.
Macca saw him first. He called us over and chuckled, put his finger to his lips as a sign, winked. Shh. The wind was rustling the tops of the trees.
'Check it out,' he said, flicking his head towards a small crack in a fence. 'Look in. Barmy! Look in!'
We were thirteen, fourteen years old. Life was a joke. I smiled and cocked my head.
'Just check it,' he said again. Pete leaned forward and pressed his eye to the crack. 'What...?' he began, then, 'Eh? Ha!'
'Let us see...' I said, stepping forward. Pete pulled back and laughed. I stared through the splintered wood into a dead, forgotten garden. Old, brown leaves sparkled in the chill. Bushes had grown up over some weed filled gravel path. And then...
'Is that a man?' I asked, pulling back. Macca nodded.
'A tramp,' he said. 'Did you see his hat? Did you see his coat? He looks like a clown.'
'He looks Victorian,' said Dave.
'Did you see his suitcase? And his brolly? Looks like a penguin!'
'Do tramps wear black suits?' I asked. The man was lying down just beyond the fence, curled under the bushes, his face hidden in his arms. He was definitely breathing. Macca nudged me.
'Let's throw stuff,' he said. 'Let's wake him!'
'He looks old...' I said. I sighed, shook my head. 'Leave him, mate. What's he done?'
Pete was laughing now, hunching over and limping. He growled and leered at us. 'Gimme a child to eat!' he muttered. 'Let me crunch his head! Rar!'
I looked through the fence again. The man was still sleeping on the hard, black earth. ‘Think he needs help?’ I asked. Macca sighed.
‘Always worrying, you,’ he said. ‘Always fretting and moaning. Why’d he need help? He’s got enough stuff.’
‘I’d like to see you spend a night with no bed,’ said Pete. He grinned and stood up straight again. ‘Let’s have another look,’ he said. The fence creaked slightly as he put his hands against it.
‘What d’you think he eats?’ he asked. Macca bent down to look back in. I clicked my tongue, looked up the street, looked at my watch, and bent down to join him. Now we were all watching, watching the tramp to see if he moved.
‘We should poke ‘im,’ said Pete. We all knew we wouldn’t. We’d never go into the garden. School was calling. Time was moving.
And that was when it happened, quick as lightening, silent as ice, a single, terrible thing. A rabbit was crossing the path – we had enough of them around here, not shy of school kids if they knew we kept our distance – and it moved too close, I guess. Its hops were lazy, random – just searching for food, maybe, out in the morning air. It moved too close to the tramp. His hand shot out with incredible speed and grabbed the thing by its neck. There was a tiny, far off crack, barely more than a twig snap, and the rabbit was limp in his hands. The tramp raised his head and looked at the rabbit, a smile spreading over his face, his tongue licking his lips. He sniffed the air, frowned, shifted his weight. He looked at us, turned his head slightly, and winked. He tipped his hat and laughed, then lowered his mouth and bit and chewed.
We didn’t scream. I don’t think people really do when they’re really, truly scared. But we ran. We ran till our sides hurt and we kept running, not looking back, imagining terrible things, that the man was behind us, that he was flying, that he was chasing us with rabbit blood still warm in his mouth.
We never saw him again. At least I know I didn’t, and if Pete did, or Macca, they never said a word. We laughed about it as months went by. After a few years we didn’t really believe what we’d seen. Kids make mistakes, we thought. People don’t catch rabbits with their hands. It turned into a memory of a story we must have been told. We told ourselves it wasn’t true.
Sometimes I have dreams, though, and it’s always the one same scene. A man, in an old, faded suit, living wild, never dying, the ground around him dark and red with the blood of all those dead bunnies.
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