The stall appeared just off the High Street one morning. No-one had seen it arrive, but by the time the first few shoppers
began to trudge wearily up the pigeon
, the old man
was there, smiling, next to his little black box
It was perched upon a thin, tall wooden pole, similarly painted black. The box was small, no more than a cubic foot. About eye height off the pavement, was a thin slot, covered by a sliding panel. Next to it was seated a tiny, bald, and extremely wrinkled old man, seated upon a rickety stool with his hands folded in his lap. He was smiling faintly, wearing a pair of blue shorts, an open hawain shirt, barefooted, and staring out at the pigeons. Next to him, leaning against the pole, was a small cardboard placard, with one word carefully stenciled on it in black ink. It stated, quite simply
It was tucked away in a corner formed where an alleywayabutted the bustling High Street, against a graffitied wall and a dumpster. Strangely enough, the busy crowds hurrying past it seemed to ignore it completely, not even sparing an idle glance. Almost all, that is.....
The first to notice the little tableux was a tall, fierce-looking man wearing a business suit and an angry frown. He was clutching a hot baguette in one hand, and a leather briefcase in the other. It was about noon, and he was rushing along, pushing his way rudely past a couple of old ladies, when he noticed it out of the corner of his eye. He stopped suddenly, like a rock in the middle of a rushing stream. He strolled casually over to it, and looked the stand and the old man up and down carefully. The old man was still smiling peacefully and gazing out at the pigeons. The other barked
"Truth eh? I'd like to see this.....how much is it?"
The old man looked up, and shrugged, waving one hand at the box. When the other continued to merely glare down, the old man nodded insistently, and again waved at the box. The other shrugged, leant down slightly, slid back the hatch, and put his eyes against the narrow slit.
He didn't move for one long moment. Then, finally, he straightened slowly, staring straight ahead with a curiously blank expression. With great care, he slid the hatch back, and looked down at the old man, who was already scrutinising him carefully, like a geologist with a particularly unusual rock formation. He had stopped smiling. When the other looked down at him, the smile broke out again, and his expression softened. He nodded slightly.
The other nodded back, and turned, re-entering the crowds with a slow, unsteady walk, his head cocked to one side and staring out into space. His lips were moving slightly. He continued along in this fashion for a while, directed by the currents of the crowd rather than any internal direction. Abruptly, he stopped next to a section of seating with a flock of pigeons resting nearby. His face suddenly cleared, the clouds of confusion melting away before a blinding light, and stared down at the pigeons. The corner of his mouth twitched. His nose wrinkled. He blinked a couple of times. He started to smile, at first the mere ghost of a smirk, but quickly widening into a full blown grin. He snorted. He chuckled quietly.
And then, he began to laugh. It burst out of him in a flood, causing all others around him to jump suddenly, and the pigeons to scatter, taking to the air and flustering over the rooftops. He laughed, something finally released, seriousness suddenly seeming as futile as holding back the Nile with a rickety wooden fence. Tears of mirth flooded down his face, washing away the grime and cynicism of a lifetime. His hands fell limp and powerless by his sides, the sandwich and briefcase crashing to the floor, sending their contents skidding across the pavement. His legs fell away, collapsing to the floor in the spotless Armani suit. The laughter cut through the multitude of conversations, the drifting muzak from nearby stores, the distant sound of traffic. All on the street heard that manic sound, causing them to stop and turn, many heading towards the rapidly increasing crowd around the screaming source. He lay on the cold paving, his rumpled overcoat spread below him, paralysed in spasms of laughter, like a fallen angel. Later, when he was taken away in the back of a police car, he was still laughing. He died two hours later in a holding cell, continuing to spasm for hours afterwards. His only companion at the time, a drunk trying to sleep it off, said that he awoke just in time to see him die. Just before the grin froze for eternity, the man grabbed the drunk, pulled him close, and whispered in his ear
"They're all wrong you know. Its green."
A couple of hours later, when the man had been taken away and the old, gossiping shoppers were replaced, another noticed the box. A young woman, dressed in a scruffy pair of jeans and a t-shirt, was walking along happily, humming to herself with a wide smile upon her face. She had just came out of a discount clothing store next to the dumpster with a large carrier bag, and was about to turn the other way when she stopped, smile freezing and hum dying away, mid-bar. Very slowly, her head turned till she was staring right at the box, and her eyes unfocused. Suddenly, they snapped back, her smile relaxing, and the hum picking up again. She strolled over to the box, glanced at it, then looked down at the old man, who was still staring out at the pigeons and smiling. She said in a maddeningly chirpy voice
"Heloo! This is new. Just arrive?"
Almost imperceptibly, the man's head rotated on his neck till he was staring up at that bright smile. His smile vanished, and he began to frown faintly.
"Uh...huh. Well, can I have a look then? Don't see a price. Is it free?"
After a moment of silence, the old man began to smile again, but it was....different somehow. He nodded, waving one hand at the box.
The young woman shrugged, and stood on tiptoes to see, sliding back the hatch before peering in. Almost instantly, she fell to the floor, entirely unnoticed by the busy shoppers all around her and the box. She continued to lie there for one long moment, before raising her head and looking with tear-filled eyes up at the old man, shaking her head very slightly. Still smiling, and with great care and deliberation, the old man looked down, and nodded just once. She nodded uncertainly back, and her lips suddenly narrowed. Very carefully, she stood, and brushed off her clothes, closing the hatch slowly. Then, with similar care and thoughtfulness, she stepped back into the crowd, heading in a very certain direction. After a couple of minutes walk, where the High Street joined a busy traffic filled road, she didn't stop and wait for the green man. She stepped right in front of a speeding truck, turning to face the driver for just a second with a "weird, spooky grin". She survived the initial impact with massive internal injuries and bone fractures, and was quickly taken to hospital. She died two hours later from a massive internal haemorraghe, clawing wildly at the air in sudden spasms. Just before she died, she gasped out
A couple of hours later, when the crowds were starting to thin out and the sun was sinking slowly over the rooftops, the man was still sitting with his strange smile. There were no pigeons on the benches currently, but he was still staring out at them. This time, however, someone was staring back. A young girl, no more than seven or eight, was sitting on a graffitied bench opposite, staring back at him blankly. She was wearing a faded blue dress, tattered and torn by years of wear. She had greasy blond hair down to her waist, clumping together in some places, desperately thinning elsewhere. She was barefooted, and was flexing her grubby toes absentmindedly, dangling her feet about a foot above the pavement. Despite the rest of her appearance, her face was curiously clean and pure, with a carefully blank expression. She was staring directly at the old man, who was starting to look irritated, and was purposely staring at the pavement underneath her feet. Although she had no visible carer, the few straggling shoppers left ignored her completely, as they did the old man After a few more long, painful minutes of the same, she got up and walked slowly over to the box. She had not blinked once in the last 10 minutes. The old man at last turned to look at her, and smiled pleasantly-but there was something lurking just beneath the surface of his good natured expression, something angry and dark.....
He stood, bowed stiffly, and offered his stool. Still staring up into his eyes, she took the stool gently, stood on it on tiptoes, and pulled back the hatch, peering into the darkness beyond. The man continued to stare at her carefully, still smiling. Very slowly, she turned and sighed, stepping down carefully off the stool and handing it back to the old man. She looked up at him with a curiously sad expression, and shook her head. The old man's smile slowly faded away, to be replaced with a look of confusion. For just a moment, the mist in his eyes cleared, to hint at some great misery beyond....until once again the fog gathered. His air of confidence and power had evaporated as though it had never been, and gazed down at the girl helplessly, a look of desperation piercing his cloudy eyes. She smiled, and took his hand in hers gently, giving it a slight tug. He followed her meekly across the now almost empty street. She stopped on the other side of the street, and pointed at the stretch of blank wall opposite his own. He looked down at her with a frown. She nodded, and motioned at the wall with her free hand. He glanced up, and started. Just in front of the wall he was looking at only a moment before was another box, identical in every way to his own, except this one was painted a pale, sky blue. It also had a sign, which stated
He glanced down at her again, and she nodded. With shaking legs, and gripping the young girl's hand tightly with his own, he stepped up to the box, pulled back the hatch, and peered cautiously in. A strange change began to creep over him. His legs stopped shaking, and he let go of her hand. His skin began to tighten, the wrinkles fading rapidly and a tinge of colour coming back into his cheeks. He collapsed to the floor, completely still, but still the changes continued. His skin writhed, as though a nest of snakes were burrowing just underneath the surface. It spread like a rash down from his forehead, smoothing and purifying wherever it touched. Slowly, the deathly white flesh began to glow a warm, welcoming pink. His limbs began to retract inside his body. Greasy clumps of black hair sprung from his scalp, writhing across the pure white skin, not stopping till they reached the shoulders. After eternity had passed, it was over in an instant. On the floor was lying a young, scruffy boy of about seven or eight, dressed in tattered pair of shorts, and an open hawaian shirt. He was barefooted, and lying face down on the pavement. At last, he looked up at the young girl standing over him with a smile. The mist in his eyes was gone, replaced by a youthful innocence. He stood gently, with an easy going smile. He bowed elaborately at the girl, and she gave a short curtsey in return. They stared seriously at each other for a long moment, when both simultaneoulsy burst out in a shower of pure, innocent laughter. Linking arms, they skipped down the deserted street in the last rays of the dying sun, whistling a vaguely familiar, uplifiting tune.
When the first strokes of dawn began to brush the high street the next morning, both boxes were gone. The faint echoes of a child's laughter drifted on the breeze.