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Image by Caroline Hernandez
Spooky Meal
By Robert Keal
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Why does a grandfather refuse to recognise his grandson? 

This little kid walks up to me carrying a box. He holds it by two paper handles, both flimsy, like wet fries. Without any prompting, he shoves the ketchup-red container toward my face. I jump and blink repeatedly.

“What’s that?” I ask because I can’t think of anything else to say.

“Lunch,” the kid replies.


I nod and keep nodding while he stares at me, box dangling between us, swaying back and forth, back and forth, reminding me of a hypnotist’s pocket watch.

“Looks good,” I say after several silent moments.

“But you haven’t seen inside.”


I twist around, clutching the slippery booth top. It’s getting crowded here. It’s Saturday afternoon, and “Eric sucks donkey schlong,” according to someone over by the condiment dispensers. A minefield of wannabe cool dudes detonates with laughter. Near the entrance, people jab orders into screens big as billboards, before orbiting the counter like lunar modules, checking if their food has landed. An electronic sign pulsing the same ellipses over and over gaslights several customers into gripping their tickets tighter, pressing them closer to already cholesterol-clogged chests.


When a fresh number combo bursts with confetti popper effect across the sign, the woman who has those digits actually whoops and claps. As she shuffles off with her bloated tray, the dudes send out another volley of laughs.

“Is that your mom?” I point to the woman who cheered and hope I’m wrong.

“You’re silly.” The kid rattles his box. “I want you to open it.”

I can feel my forehead tense.


The kid shrugs.

“Fun, I guess? Mom buys me tons of these, but grown-ups don’t always get prizes. It’s not fair.”

I laugh and say, “True.”

“Exactly.” The kid indicates the box, shaking it again.

“Does she know you’re here?”



“She told me to wait with you. You know, in case you get lonely.”


My throat’s gone raw and dry, but I manage to say “That’s sweet of her” without coughing.

The kid, however, doesn’t reply, shaking his box harder.

“OK, OK.”


I grab it from underneath for support, but all that loose cardboard and paper just falls apart anyway, collapsing as if blown down by a nursery rhyme wolf. While I salvage his food, the kid bunny-hops onto the stool opposite me.

His elbows don’t quite reach the table.


On which I see mostly bright, primary-colored wrappings and cartons, some breathing faint gasps of heat into the air above them.

But there’s also this squat, fuzzy-looking thing I’m praying isn’t alive.

“This the prize?” I question the kid, who mumbles, “Uh-huh,” while gazing at it in amazement.

I poke the thing twice: no movement.

So, carefully, I pick whatever it is up and roll it over in my palm.

Cat-like, with stitched-on whiskers and felt fur the dim purply blue of twilight, it seems this soft toy prize was made for rolling. Despite being inanimate, it topples eagerly out of my hand onto the wiped wooden surface below, falling each time I try to prop it up against the kid’s shrunken water bottle.


He, of course, can’t stop giggling.

“So, who’s our dinner guest?” I ask.

“Let’s see.”

He reaches across the table and unfolds a star-shaped tag attached to one of the toy’s thin fabric paws.

“Spooky!” he shouts.

“It’s not that bad,” I tell him.

“That’s his name.”


“I’ve never found Spooky before; he’s really rare.”

The kid looks down. After several moments of no eye contact, I nudge ‘Spooky’ forward.

“You take him,” I say.

“I can’t.” The kid shakes his head so much I’m worried he’ll get dizzy. “I gave him to you.”

“I won’t call a lawyer. Besides, I want you to look after him for me.”

“You sure?”

“Trust me, you’ll do a better job.”


The kid dives for Spooky, scattering his food. I grin.

“No problem. Now, what’s say we look for your mom?”

“But she said to wait here. With you.”

This again.


I scrunch my eyes shut for a few seconds, pinch the bit between both brows, then reopen them, exhaling.

“Are you sure that’s what she said?”


“It doesn’t make any sense.”


I lean backward. I even do a quick searchlight sweep of the restaurant, but don’t recognise anybody.

Clueless, I ask the kid, “Have your mom and I ever met before?”

“Grandpa? Are you OK?”

It feels like the booth’s swallowing me whole.

Then, albeit reluctantly, my brain serves up a brief morsel of a memory.



Most adults are nice about it.


These days there are people to help: with your groceries, driving you to the hospital, that type of thing.

Sometimes, like today, you get to go out with your loved ones as though nothing’s changed (unless they’re wondering if you’re still capable, in which case no one can relax).

But Cal – he can’t stomach all that yet.


Because no matter how kind or well-meaning people are, it doesn’t change the fact that this disease is a carnivore. The meanest beast.All it does is eat and eat, gorging itself on great chunks of you – everything you are, everything you could continue to be if it’d let you – until eventually there’ll come a time when only crumbs remain. For now, though – for both our sakes – hope is a dish best served small.


So, I manage to smirk and say, “Gotcha.”

Nonetheless, Cal’s face drops.

“You scared me,” he mutters.

“Sorry, bud.” I cough back tears. “It won’t happen again.”

“You promise?”

“I promise.”

And I really want to keep it.




“Sorry. The line was nuts.”

I’m guessing it’s Cal’s mom who’s joined us at our table, carrying two overfed trays. She sets them down one after the other then sits next to him.

“So, what did I miss?” she asks.


Cal resumes explaining that Spooky enjoys doing cartwheels because they let him pretend to be a bat, except he doesn’t have wings, not even skeletal ones. This, Cal goes on to say, is a serious design flaw on the part of the manufacturer.


I laugh and sip soda through a paper straw.When Cal decides to make Spooky cartwheel off our table and land near the empty tray station, his mom quickly retrieves the now-motionless acrobat.

She puts Spooky in her jacket pocket, telling Cal, “You can play together later.”

“I’m gonna use the restroom,” I say, standing up.

“I’ll go with you.”

Once more, Cal’s mom’s on her feet.

“I’m fine, honey, relax.”

“Dad, please let me help.”


She looks at me the same way she looked at Spooky moments ago: as something she needs to watch closely or risk losing forever.

“Hon,” I tell her. “I can do this.”

Which, judging by her expression, I suspect isn’t always true.

She hesitates, but finally sits back down.

“Tell one of the servers if you need anything.”

“I will.”

“We’ll be right here.”




“You should take Spooky!” the kid shouts, sounding excited. “He protects people from monsters; it says so on his tag.”

I smile, tell him I’ll be fine, and promise that when I’m back we’ll go look for his mom because no one runs off and leaves their child with a total stranger.


As I warp my joints even more than they already are to squeeze past so many restless, impatient mouths and guts, none of them giving a nugget of shit about anyone else, this high-pitched voice, like a little girl’s calls out, “Dad, Dad!” the cries of which become more and more urgent.

Poor kid, I think to myself.

And keep walking.

Image by Thomas Griggs

Robert Keal lives in the UK, hailing from Kent but currently living in Solihull, West Midlands, where he works as a copywriter. His recent work can be found with Ink Pantry, Ink in Thirds, The Ekphrastic Review, and 100 Word Story. He loves walking the tightrope between strangeness and reality.

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