Alex was surprised to see the small child alone, sitting on the grass. Unlike the other children who were playing and shouting and running all over the playground gleefully, the boy kept to himself, quiet and watching the others. He was thin and looked very ill. He had a pale, greyish tinge in his complexion. Suddenly, the boy caught Alex staring at him and smiled politely. Much to Alex’s astonishment, the boy approached him slowly and shook hands with him.
“Hi! I am Liam. It’s nice to meet you!” the boy said, quite nicely. Alex felt a slight shiver run down his spine as his hand touched the boy’s. Gradually, he indulged in talking with the child and when he was about to leave, the boy said, smiling, “It was so good to spend time with you, because we usually have nobody to talk to. Mummy and Daddy would be very happy if you’d come to our place some day. Our house is close by, just opposite to the old town church.”
“I’d love to visit you. Thank you Liam.” Alex said very politely though he felt something weird about his new acquaintance.
When Alex returned home, he told his older sister Olive about the child he had met in the park and about his warm invitation. By the time he finished talking, Olive had a very frowning expression on her otherwise cheerful face.
“What is it, Olive?” Alex asked.
“Are you sure you saw him at the park?”
“Of course, I am! That little skinny boy with a pale face.”
“I think I saw him too. Near the school library, today. A small pale-skinned child. He was alone, leaning against one of the pillars, probably watching the other children. He barely smiles, don’t you think?”
Alex kept quiet. Olive could not be joking. She never could when she was serious. And Olive was serious at the moment.
The next day, Alex and Olive left for Liam’s place before sunset. “I remember the address, just opposite to the old town church”, Alex said. “Why would anyone want to stay in such a deserted area of the city?” wondered Olive as she walked down the road with her curious little brother.
The church was away from the main city, in an area full of wilderness. Even when Olive was born, the place was a popular picnic spot for the city dwellers. It was full of lush green trees and cool air and a large, blue pond teeming with fish, and the church, though very ancient, was a well-visited site as it had a vast collection of stone and earthen antiques. It was considered a mini ‘museum’. When they reached the place, Olive recalled the fine sunny day she had come for a picnic over there, with Mum and Dad. Alex was not yet born then. Then suddenly, one day, a strange disease broke out in the area, and all those who lived there, died. Nobody knew anything about the disease, but the knowledgeable folks believed it was caused by a very rare insect which had just started living in the woods. But a lot of things were intact, including the cottages, the fields, the pond which had turned green now and even the deserted church.
Liam’s house was just opposite to the church, a big old villa overgrown with creepers and shrubs. There were innumerable cracks in the walls and they were infested by several creatures including bugs and spiders. Alex shivered and held Olive’s hand tightly as they approached the large wooden front door of the house. Olive pulled the door knocker. Very soon, a tall and fair lady opened the door of the two children.
“Come on in dear, I guess you are Alex and Olive, aren’t you?” she asked, very politely. The children were charmed. Though the lady was very thin and had a faint figure much like Liam himself, she was gentle and very hospitable. She welcomed the children into the large front hall furnished elegantly with luxurious sofas, couches, tables, bookcases and beautiful wall clocks. Liam, the pale boy was sitting quietly at one end of one of the couches with a wide grin on his face. Olive smiled back. Alex didn’t. He felt weird as Liam’s mother, their hostess patted him lightly on the back.
“Go on, children, sit together and have fun while I bring you some snacks” she said, breaking the awkward silence in the hall.
Alex and Olive joined Liam on the couch, careful enough not to get too close. They started talking about school and friends and so on, when they did not notice Liam’s mother, Mrs Wendy by name, was not to be seen around. The hall room was huge, surrounded by a row of doors on either side. Each of the doors were locked and a winding staircase at the far end of the hall led to the upper floor. Soon, Mrs Wendy came in with a tray full of sweets, chips and juice. She offered them to the children. Though scared, Alex and Olive took some juice and chips and Liam ate the rest. After they had finished eating, Mrs Wendy said, “Kids, why don’t you explore the house while I prepare something delicious, the special porridge that we offer to our guests as a symbol of care and our good wishes?”
Liam, suddenly, jumped to his toes and cried happily, “Yes Mamma, I’ll take them around the house!” Mrs Wendy smiled and nodded. Liam hopped along towards the staircase with the confused siblings following him. They visited the library, the guest rooms and finally the bedroom at the end of the corridor. As they were about to enter, one of Liam’s shoelaces broke open.
“Oh, it’s nothing. You two may proceed while I do something about this.” He said, encouraging them to go forth. Olive and Alex entered the room, but as they saw what there was inside the room, Alex gave a shriek and fell unconscious to the floor. There was a stately white bed, with a little boy sleeping on it, and a lady resting her head on the blanket, while kneeling on the ground. The boy’s face had turned whitish and full of small patches. A bowl lay beside the lady’s right knee. A bowl full of porridge.
Alex opened his eyes to see himself lying on a hospital bed, surrounded by his parents, Olive and some doctors. The doctors explained to him what had happened. A few years ago, a strange case of smallpox broke out in the church area. It had affected the entire place and all had died of it. Liam’s family had been one of the very last ones to die. The pathogen had entered their food system and killed one and all. Since then, Liam and his mother continue to live in the house, and they entice many people to visit them and they show them great hospitality and offer to take them around their rooms. When people enter their bedrooms, they see the dreadful sight of the dead Liam and his mother, and immediately acquire the strange disease.
“My child, Alex, you were very lucky to be one of those few people who survive this illness. You are really lucky…” said one of the doctors.
Later, Alex found a small note in his pocket. It read: “Alex, I am Liam. You may be scared of me. But I want to help you. I want you to live and be happy. So I am sparing you and Olive with good health. Take care. – Liam”