Life’s a Beach (4-7-18)

[WP] Children who die at a young age are given a very special role in the afterlife: they become invisible friends, assigned to other children who need them back in the living realm. [Link to post.]

Six year old Katie sat alone in the mall’s food court. Though she never went exploring she knew the whole mall was empty. She colored a picture with crayons while she waited, looking up every now and then to check for anyone. No one appeared, so she kept coloring. Katie was smart enough to know she should be worried, scared, or even sad; but, she felt none of those things. She felt perfectly content coloring her pictures. She never ran out of paper or crayons, though she didn’t know how long she’d been there.

“Hi, Katie,” a quiet voice startled her. Katie jumped in her seat, her head twisted to her right where she heard the man’s voice. A pale man wearing in a dark suit leaned against the counter of the Great American Cookie Company. He smiled when Katie noticed him then he began to walk toward her, holding a cookie in each hand. “Would you like a cookie?” Katie nodded eagerly. She remembered her mother drilling the phrase, “don’t talk to strangers” into her, but she didn’t think of the suited man with brown hair as a stranger. He was the only one in the mall and he knew her name. Of course he wasn’t a stranger. 

“Yes, please.” She reached for the cookie the instant the man stood within reach of the table. He handed it to her, then sat down himself across from her and placed his own cookie on a napkin in front of him. 

“You’re so polite!” he enthused with a smile. Katie nodded while devouring the cookie. “You’re a wonderfully special girl, Katie. I have a problem, and I need someone like you to help me. Do you think you could do me a favor?” Katie finished her cookie by the time the man finished his question. Her lips smacked as she cleaned the last bits of chocolate from them with her tongue. She stared at the man. 

“What’s the favor?” She asked.

“And you’re smart too! Never agree to something without knowing what it is,” the man said. He leaned over to his side, as if he were going to pick something up from the floor. He surprised Katie when he lifted a large black leather briefcase on the table between them. 

“Where’d that come from?” she asked. The man’s reply consisted of a single wink with his left eye, and a smile. He opened the briefcase, pulled something out, then closed it again. The man handed Katie a 5×7 picture of a pale ginger boy. Hundreds of freckles dotted the upper half of his face surrounding his green eyes. Despite it being a photo the boy did not smile. He stared out of the photo through watery eyes and slightly turned down bottom lip. 

“Why’s he sad?” Katie asked. The man across from her smiled. 

“You’re very observant Katie, you’re definitely the right person for the job. That boy is named Russel. The kids at his school call him Rusty, but he doesn’t like that name. Russel needs a friend, and I think that friend could be you if you’ll help me,” the man said. Katie smiled immediately and nodded.

“Yeah! He looks nice. Does he live near me? I’ll ask mommy to set up a play date with him,” Katie said. She continued to stare at Russel’s picture and did not notice the man in front of her letting out a light sigh. He hoped that she was bright enough to have figured it out on her own, but the kids that came through never did. They were too innocent. 

“Katie how long have you been here coloring?” he asked. Katie’s eyes rolled upward as she pondered the question, then she gave up with a shrug.

“I don’t know, a little while? I guess I lost track of time,” she answered. The man nodded. 

“Do you remember what you were doing before you started coloring?” he asked. Not everyone got that question, depending on how they ended up there. Sometimes learning how they died robbed them of their innocence and left them unqualified for the job. Katie did not have to think very long.

“I was going to the beach with my parents,” she paused. “And then I started coloring.” She crossed her arms as anger sharpened her voice. “I didn’t even get to use my shovel and pail!” The man chuckled and opened his briefcase again. After he closed it he presented Katie with a set of beach toys. A small blue bucket decorated with seashells held a bright yellow plastic shovel in it, she took it from the man with a smile. 

“My bucket!” she grabbed it. “How’d you get my bucket?” she asked. 

“I know magic, and you know magic too. You can use your magic when you play with Rusty,” the man said. 

“Hey he doesn’t like that name. Don’t call him that,” Katie defended her new friend. The man smiled and nodded. He didn’t know why he felt the need to test her, but she passed it easily. “What kind of magic?” 

“You’re right. I’m sorry, Katie. To answer your question, I like to call it the magic of pretend. I pretended that I have a black briefcase that I can pull things out of. You can pretend to be anything you want to be. If you pretend you’re a fairy, Russel will see you as a fairy. If you pretend you’re a tiger, he’ll think you’re a tiger. Russel doesn’t have any magic, but that’s why I want you to be his friend. Share your magic with him and make him smile. Can you do me that favor?” The man asked.  Katie looked at the man, then she looked around at the empty mall and back to the man again. 

“This isn’t the beach,” Katie said flatly, her eyes locked with his. The man nodded. “I was going to the beach, but this isn’t the beach.” He nodded again. “My mom and dad?” Katie asked. Her eyes looked down and she began to fiddle with the shovel inside the plastic blue bucket. 

“They’re fine. They miss you.” 

“How come I’m not scared?” she asked. 

“The worst part is over,” he said. Katie nodded. 

“Can I go play with Russel?” she asked. The man stood and took her hand. 

“As long as you want.” 

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