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When I was just a tot, no more than three years old, I got away from my parents. We'd taken a trip to the Mall, and I had seen some other kids playing in a "fun zone". We didn't have time to stop, so my undeveloped brain reasoned I needed to escape their clutches and circle back.
The children were friendly enough, though they were bigger than I was. I got to take turns and had my share of fun until my Mom came into the foam-padded utopia like a screeching madwoman.
I saw a stranger that day... saw him for the first time... I don't recall how or when I noticed him, nor what he was doing other than watching me play... but I remember waving "bye-bye" to him as I was carried away.
The man was tall and pale. I remember that much, because I mentally connected him to a snowman. I immediately thought of him as a safe, whimsical plaything just off to the side in my peripheral vision.
The stranger didn't wave back. He just watched.
It wasn't until years later that I saw the strange, leering man again. During recess in Elementary School, a group of friends and I were playing "War". In our version of the game, the boys formed a hierarchy (I was the Henchman) and plotted an assault on the girls.
The girls didn't know they were playing.
As we scruffy, snot-nosed males began to invade the jungle gym, I saw the stranger again. He stood in the distance, toward the tree line. I only thought about him for a second before returning to the game, though I did recognize him immediately.
There was something disturbingly familiar about him. He mattered as little to me as any random face in a hidden picture book... he was one of the characters you weren't looking for, an extra doodle thrown into the crowd.
Middle School came and went, and I was glad it had ended. Kids turned mean, girls turned weird and attractive... the whole era was a confusing, hurtful stain on an otherwise happy childhood.
My family moved before I attended High School. We moved out west, thousands of miles away, and I lost just about everyone I knew.
Everyone except the stranger.
Some other teens and I were hanging out at an abandoned general store just off the highway. It had become the sort of spray-painted, moldering wreck that drew teenagers in like a roach motel.
One of the girls noticed the stranger before I did. She let out a sudden, bone-chilling scream and pointed off toward a flickering street light.
Me, I wasn't surprised or even scared. The tall, thin man stared back at me, and for a moment we shared the same blank, emotionless glance.
Everyone wanted to leave... to get the Hell out of there and never come back... but I assured them it was fine. I told them I knew the guy, and suddenly the stranger wasn't a stranger at all. To me, he was like an old friend.
They begged me not to go toward him. They called it an unholy thing... a mutant or ghost or whatever they personally believed in. Still, I was drawn to the skinny man, and I knew that someone dressed as sharply as he was could be no real threat.
"Hello." I smiled as I stood toe-to-toe with him.
He said nothing.
"I don't know what you want," I continued, "But I think I'm ready."
The man's white skin shuddered. It rippled and twitched, coming loose from the lanky frame of meat just beneath. The featureless, smooth, uninterrupted swath of perfect, unmarked flesh slid free of the body it covered and levitated in the open air between us.
I looked at the body it left behind... some stretched and distorted person, long dead and drained of its vitality. The thing was a pathetic husk bereft of any lingering humanity.
That body was the last thing I saw before the disembodied skin covered me like a warm and slick bed sheet. All at once I felt warm and comforted. I felt safe, as if in an eternal protective embrace.
I felt my limbs working though my mind no longer controlled them. Through that skin I could not feel anything in the outside world. I simply knew, logically, that I was picking something up... putting it on... the black suit? The tie?
I think I was smiling, though with my senses completely dulled, I can't be entirely sure.
Then... a horrible feeling... a sense returned to me with the same horror I'd imagine comes with a resurgence of cancer.
Hot. Heat. Burning, searing pain washed across my face and chest. Suddenly, the skin retracted from my body. I screamed, let out a muffled cry, as my pleasant, all-encompassing sheath peeled away and left me cold and abandoned.
I fell to my knees. One of my friends... now feeling like an enemy... had lit a rag soaked in gasoline and brandished it at the end of a tire iron. The skin smoked and bubbled as it retracted from the flame, hovering higher and higher to avoid the boy's reach.
"No!" I screamed, reaching impotently for the fluttering blanket above, "Nooo!"
As the slender kite drifted off, away from the horrible light, its skin twisted into a long, willowy tendril.
It reached for me, as well.