The dad looked ahead at the middle boy running in the morning sunshine; he ran fast and free, never looking over his shoulder. The dad smiled to see it. He didn’t run; he was happy to hang back and hold the youngest’s hand as the boy gambolled along the path swinging both of their arms back and forth.
The youngest glanced at the flesh of his upper arm as the sleeve of his white polo shirt rose over and over to give flashes of pale skin.
‘Dad?’ he asked.
‘Yes?’ the dad replied.
‘Why can’t we eat our own skin? It’s just meat. We could just eat it.’
The dad glanced around to check for mums and the middle boy. All were at a safe distance, but still, he knew he should probably shut the conversation down. Instead he smiled a slightly wicked smile at the youngest and said, ‘You can.’
The youngest stared up at the dad and then down at his arm. ‘No, you can’t,’ he said and then chomped, cartoon-beaver-style, on his arm to prove his point. ‘See?’
‘You’d have to bite a lot harder than that.’
The youngest opened his mouth as wide as he could, bared his teeth and raised his head high, ready to plunge his teeth into his arm.
‘It’d hurt though,’ the dad pointed out.
The youngest’s teeth snapped closed and he frowned up at the dad as if pain was somehow a parent’s fault.
The middle child drifted back to them; he watched the youngest. The dad noticed a hyena glint in the middle’s eyes.
The youngest, not noticing the middle’s manoeuvres, carried on the conversation. ‘You couldn’t bite yourself that hard,’ he said to the dad.
Before the dad could agree the middle child spoke up. ‘What are you talking about?’ His voice dripped with innocent intent. Every drop was faked.
The dad stepped in ahead of the youngest’s inevitable overly-trusting response. ‘Nothing,’ he said. He said it a little too sharply, the sharpness born of wishing he had shut the conversation down.
But the youngest always answered his brothers, even when it wasn’t sensible for him to do so. Naiveté was much of his charm. ‘Eating your own skin,’ he said happily. ‘But it’d hurt too much to bite your own skin off.’
The middle nodded knowingly. ‘You’d need a knife,’ he said. ‘A sharp one.’ He stepped to his brother and drew imaginary lines across and down the pale flesh of the youngest’s upper arm. ‘You’d have to cut here, here and here, and then roll the skin back.’ He spoke with the authority of a mad scientist determined to create a new species of human that would follow his bidding.
‘And you’d need a nice hot pan,’ the dad added. He couldn’t help himself. He looked around again for mums. This close to school they surrounded him, but he thought he had probably got away with it.
The youngest’s face dropped.
The middle carried on. ‘And straighten it out and fry it and then roll it back up again!’ The youngest’s face dropped further and his fingers fell limp in the dad’s hand, but the middle wasn’t stopping. ‘And we’d have skin pancakes!’
‘With jam,’ the dad added, and then silently told himself off.
There was a brief silence as both children looked up at him.
The dad couldn’t stop himself. He replied, ‘Because of the blood. It would look like jam. A little bit, at least.’ He looked around at the mums as heads turned towards him. ‘Never mind,’ he said.
But it was too late. ‘Yes!’ said the middle, the hyena glint now a full Halloween outfit. He ran into the school playground shouting about blood and skin pancakes and cannibal games.
The dad watched him go and sighed.
The youngest looked up at the dad, his eyes accusing and his face pale in the morning sun.
The dad looked down, smiled a smile not at all wicked and shrugged an awkward apology. ‘Have a good day?’ was all he could think to say.