It was my twelfth birthday. Like every child, I woke up excited and looked forward to all the gifts I would receive. Dad and mom got me the MTB I had been lusting after over the past few months. It was Ferrari red in color and had stickers of black flames on it. It was the coolest bike on the street. I took it out after breakfast to show off to my friends. But I didn’t find anybody at the street corner. I guessed they were at the mall and rode over there. Again, I didn’t find the bikes at the usual place. Since I was at the mall anyways, I decided to treat myself to an ice cream. I locked the bike and went into the mall. I took the ice cream and went to our favorite spot, the fountain. It had a low wall running around it, which is where we liked to sit. The music store next to it played their music loud and we liked that too. I sat down to enjoy my ice cream.
Suddenly, I felt someone touch my left shoulder. Turning around I looked into the face of a stranger. A strange stranger. If you ask me what was strange about him, I would be hard pressed to tell you. He seemed ordinary enough, but there was something about him like he was a fugitive or something. He wore a faded, much-used jacket over a t-shirt that was off-white or so old that it had forgotten how to be white. His jeans were faded and worn out too. But overall he looked presentable, like someone who took care of his appearance. He kept looking around as if searching for someone or something. I remember thinking that he would have loved to have his head on a swivel so he could spin 360 degrees.
“So you are 12 today?” he said.
“That’s a wonderful age”, he said, looking around him. “You are stepping into your teens. You should be able to take responsibility.”
I was confused.
“Do I know you?” I said.
“Do we ever know anybody?” he said. “Anyways, here.”
He held out a neatly packaged box to me. It wasn’t a large box.
“What’s this?” I said.
“Your birthday present. But remember, it is a powerful gift. With great power, comes great responsibility.”
I smiled at the Spiderman dialog.
“I can’t accept gifts from strangers”, I told him.
“Ah! You don’t understand. You can’t choose to accept or refuse this gift. The gift has chosen you.”
He put the box in my hand and walked away.
Suddenly it all made sense, or so I thought. My friends were playing a prank on me. So I looked around to see where they were hiding. But I couldn’t catch any of them. I wasn’t going to fall for the trick. I guessed they wanted me to open the box and find whatever obscene thing they had put inside it. I placed the box on the wall beside me and waited. They couldn’t stay hidden forever.
But 10 minutes later, I was still sitting there all alone. I looked at the box and my curiosity got the better of me. I ripped open the wrapper and then the plain, brown box. Inside was a Polaroid camera. I was stunned. I looked around to see if I could find the strange man, but he was nowhere to be seen. I looked at the camera, turning it around to see if it was real. For all intents, it seemed like a real camera. I flicked the power switch and the red light showed me that it was on. I held it up to my eyes and focused on the fountain, then clicked. The click was followed by a whirring sound and then the camera spat out the picture. I watched the image develop.
“What the …” I caught myself before I completed the profanity.
I looked up at the scene in front of me and then back at the picture.
“What the ….” I murmured again. There didn’t seem to be a better way to express what I was seeing.
I had taken a picture of the fountain in front of me. There was no one or nothing between the fountain and myself. But in the picture, there was a boy standing in front of the fountain. A very muddy boy. He looked like he was five or six years old and he was covered in mud, wet mud. The brown muck seemed to be dripping off him, as if he had rolled in a puddle. He was facing the camera, but his right hand was outstretched as if pointing me in that direction. I looked up again but there was no sign of the boy I had caught in the picture. I wondered who let a child play in the muck like that. Definitely not my parents. I would have hell to pay if I even suggested it, let alone do it.
I studied the picture for some more time and then I noticed something very strange. To confirm this, I looked back at the scene in front of me. There was no puddle where the boy should have been standing, just clean blue tiles. I looked back at the picture and noticed that there was no puddle under the boy either.
I was thoroughly confused by this time. I held the picture out in front of me and began to walk around the fountain. But I did not find a puddle of mud anywhere around the fountain. That’s when I noticed something even more stranger about the photograph. This was a Sunday and the mall was quite crowded. People were milling about the mall but in the photograph, there were no people. The photograph had captured the entire scene but apart from the muddy boy, there were no people in the picture.
I held up the camera again and clicked another picture of the fountain. I held up the Polaroid and waited till it developed. There was the muddy boy again, standing in front of the fountain, facing my camera. The only difference was that he had adjusted his position so he was still pointing in the same direction as the previous photograph. I turned around and took a picture of the music shop. In the viewfinder I could see the man who ran the shop and a few window shoppers at the clothing store next door. I clicked and waited.
The photograph showed the entire scene without the people and there was the boy, bang in the middle of the frame. Again, he seemed to be pointing me in a certain direction. I looked up to see where he was pointing me, and realized he wanted me to leave the mall – he was pointing to the exit.
On a hunch I walked up to the exit and holding up the camera, I took another picture. This time he was standing in front of a black Mercedes Benz, pointing towards the east. I ran to my bike picked it up and made my way out to the pavement. Then I took another picture. He was pointing east again. I rode to the end of the road and stopped to take another picture. He was pointing me back the way I came. So I turned around and this time I took a picture at each intersection. Three intersections down, he pointed me to the left. I went down that road, still stopping and taking pictures at each intersection.
Finally, I was standing in front of Mahatma Gandhi Park. I took a picture of the gate and the boy was standing inside the gate, pointing into the park. I kept following him and he kept taking me deeper into the park. He was taking me into the wooded area of the park. Dad had told me not to go in there on more than one occasion, so I stood outside the woods – hesitant. But my curiosity was aroused now and I dived in. The trees were densely packed here. Very little light filtered in, and although it was the middle of the day it felt like it was dusk. He led me to, what I assumed, was the middle of the woods. There was a small clearing there, where the land dipped as if it had been a little lake some time ago. I stood at the periphery of the dried up lake and took a picture. Sure enough, the boy was standing in the middle of the depression and pointing into the ground.
There was no way I was following him there. So I sat down on the grass and wondered what I should do. The boy was pointing to the ground and I guessed he was buried there. But how did he end up there I wondered.
Had he been killed and then buried there?
Had he wandered there and been sucked in by the soft bottom of the lake?
It was too dangerous, I did not want to risk going where the boy went. So I turned my bike around and began to cycle back. I had slung the camera on my shoulder. As I went further away, I could feel the camera becoming hotter. Soon each time it touched the side of my torso, I was yelping. I finally stopped and threw the camera to the ground. It was glowing hot red and then it just melted. All that was left of it was a molten mass of plastic and rubber.
I went back home to my birthday celebrations. But I could not stop thinking about the muddy boy. Years went by and I eventually forgot about the boy, except on my birthday of course. Every birthday I would say a small prayer for him.
Just recently, a couple of months ago, there was a news item in the papers about the remarkably well preserved body of a six-year old boy that was found in the lake at the center of the woods in M. G. Park. There was a photograph of the boy with the article. As you can imagine, my blood ran cold when I saw the picture of the boy who had appeared in those photographs on my twelfth birthday.
I know what you are wondering about – where are the photographs. Well I have them with me, but all of them just show you a molten mass of plastic and rubber. The boy is nowhere to be seen.