I was woken by weak fragments of sunlight seeping through the cracks of the plastic tube slide, at the center of the park where I had spent the night. I lay for a while, listening to mute sounds of dripping water and distant traffic. I thought about squirrels, what they do when it rains, if the trees provided enough cover. Then, I pushed myself down and out of the slide, my jeans wetted by the small puddle that had accumulated at its base, and headed towards the distant sound of cars. I kept walking until I reached an intersection. I stood there for a while, watching the cars go by. The sounds of tires ripping across asphalt like wet Velcro. I thought about what it would sound like if someone got hit. I thought about a wet sponge being thrown at a brick wall. Then I turned and continued down the sidewalk.
The cars grew in number. People began to fill the sidewalks. Stores lit up. I kept walking until I arrived at a Seven-Eleven. A steady stream of people was flowing in and out. As I passed by, a man standing near the entrance beckoned me over. He was leaning against the wall next to two other men. A large black trash bag sat at the base of his feet. I approached him.
“You got a dollar?” he asked. He was shorter than me. I looked at the two men standing beside him.
I nodded, opened my wallet, and handed him a dollar. He took it and disappeared into the Seven-Eleven. I waited. I looked at the two other men. One of them was staring at me, grinning, and tugging at the base of his pale brown beard which ran down his chin like tresses of dead ivy. The other stood with his eyes closed, wearing a sleeveless t-shirt.
“You cold?” I asked. He opened his eyes, looked at me, then closed them. The man with the beard stifled a laugh. More silence. Eventually, the first man returned from the Seven-Eleven, holding a bottle of Nyquil. He looked at me, then at the man with the beard who was still smiling, then took his place in front of the black trash bag.
“What’s in the bag?” I asked.
“Stuff,” he said.
“Like?” I said.
He picked up his bag and held it open, revealing some clothes, a pack of cigarettes, a half-eaten bagel.
I nodded. Paused. Then turned back to the sleeveless man.
“Want to borrow my jacket?” I said.
“Fuck off,” he said.
“Just take his jacket,” said the bearded man.
“Fuck off,” the sleeveless man said. The bearded man kept grinning.
The man with the trash bag turned towards me. “What’s up with your pants?” he said.
“Water. From the slide,” I said.
“He shit himself,” said the bearded man.
The man with the trash bag rummaged through his bag and pulled out a pair of basketball shorts.
“Trade,” he said. “Dry for wet.”
“You got underwear?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Just these.”
They smelled of bagels but I said okay and took them. I quickly changed while those passing by stopped and stared. The man took my jeans and stuffed them into his trash bag.
“Take his jacket too,” said the bearded man.
“I’ll give you a bagel,” the man with the trash bag said. “For your jacket.”
The sleeveless man kicked the trash bag man in the shin. “Fuck off,” he said.
As I stood with my legs exposed to the wind, I began to wish I hadn’t made the trade.
“You cold?” The sleeveless man said.
“No,” I said. The silence resumed.
The could feel the skin on my calves begin to peel, so I turned and left. From behind, I heard someone call out—where are you going? —but I ignored it and kept walking.
I spent the next few hours wandering aimlessly until I came across a grocery store. Asides from a few shoppers and a janitor wiping up some orange mess in the soup aisle, the store was relatively empty. Most of the store’s tasks were carried out by machines. Automatic doors, automatic cashiers, a help-yourself-desk. I walked around for a bit, letting my legs soak up the warmth. There were a couple private bathrooms in the back. They smelled of fresh soap and lavender. I locked the door, and lay on the floor, thinking about how nice it would be to live in a grocery store.
I’m not sure how long I slept. I was awoken by the sound of keys. I looked up to see a janitor standing in the doorway, holding a mop. “I’m sorry,” I said. I got up quickly and tried to get past him. He grabbed my arm and told me to “wait.” Then he disappeared into a room in the back. I didn’t wait.
It was still bright out but not as cold. I headed back to my place of comfort, the park with the plastic tube slide. I bought a bag of candy corn from Seven-Eleven on the way. It was on sale. The three men were no longer there. When I got back to the park it was no longer empty. Children played while their mothers sat on the benches staring at their phones. Sharp screams and mute laughter. I sat on the swings, opened a bag of candy corn, and began to eat, letting each piece melt slowly between my teeth. I pulled my jacket over my knees so that it covered my legs. After a few minutes, I heard the shuffling of woodchips. A chubby little girl stood in front of me. She had two light-brown pig tails, poking out of her head like rabbit ears. Her cheeks, plump and squishy, her body wrapped in a fat pink windbreaker, and her right index finger shoved firmly up her nose. She was watching me eat.
I held out the bag out and told her to help herself. She waited for a second, then stepped forward, hesitantly, and reached into the bag, not with her good hand, but with the one she had just removed from her nose. Then, she sat down on the swing next to mine and began started eating.
I asked her what her name was.
She looked up and said, “Lily,” before resuming her work.
“Doesn’t suit you,” I said. No response. We sat in silence for a while. Gently swaying. “Do you have a dream?” I asked.
She knitted her eyebrows then said, “I have dreams.”
“No,” I said. “I mean like, what do you want to be when you grow up?”
She paused her chewing for a second, then said, “dancing.”
“That’s a pretty shit job,” I said.
“You will hate it,” I said.
“May I have some more?” she said, holding out her palms. I poured in a few more pieces.
“How old are you?” I asked.
She held up six fingers, which caused her to drop a few pieces of candy corn. She picked them up and put them in her mouth.
“It’s not a job you can be proud of, you know,” I said.
“Can I have some more?” she said. Once again, holding out her empty palms.
“Look, your dream is a waste of time and let me finish—” I said, brushing her hands away from the bag of candy corn. “—and by the time you realize it, by the time you realize how useless you are, it’ll be too late. Just do what everyone tells you to do and you won’t end up so unhappy.”
She held out her hands and I filled them up.
“Can you push me?” she said, waving her legs back and forth, the swing awkwardly wobbling.
“You’re not listening,” I said
“No one’s going to give you a push when you grow up.”
“Push me,” she said.
“I’ll push you once and then you are going to have to swing yourself,” I said. I got behind her and gave her a strong push. But either it was too strong or she wasn’t prepared because she slid right off the swing, spilling her candy, and planting her face into the woodchips. She sat up, at first in a daze, then she burst out crying. Little bits of orange and yellow spilling out of her mouth.
“It’s okay, I have more,” I said, holding out the bag of candy. But she continued to cry. She wouldn’t listen. It wasn’t long before an angry mother was on my heels. She was beating me with her purse and shouting at me, calling me a creep, and saying she would call the police. I tried to explain it to her but she wouldn’t listen. I couldn’t take it anymore. I lay down on the woodchips, curled into a fetal position, and began crying. I cried louder than the girl. I cried because it was cold and I was hungry and I hate candy corn. I stayed like that for a while. By the time I was done—by the time my throat gave up, and my cheeks were chapped, and my mind slowed down—I felt calm, a warm sense of euphoria. The mother was gone, and so was the little girl. The few people remaining were staring, but I didn’t mind. I got up, brushed the woodchips off my jacket, and walked off.
I looked for a place to buy some alcohol. I passed through a district called Antique Row. A one-way street. Two human-sized mesh-wire figures stood sentry in front of an old British silverware shop. They were made from an assortment of utensils. Forks for hands, spoons for eyes, knives for protection. As I passed by, I moved off the sidewalk and onto the street to avoid the reach of their long-wired arms.
I found a place with a wide selection of beer. I bought a six pack and headed back to the park, taking a different path to avoid passing through the Antique Row. When I got back, the sun had gone down and the park had been deserted. I drank and danced around the park while singing happily. I tried riding the swings but I threw up, so I stopped. When I got tired, I crawled into the tunnel slide and fell asleep.
I was woken by the heavy droplets of rain beating down on the roof of the slide. It was still dark and I was still inebriated. I pulled my legs up to keep my shoes from getting soaked. I tried to tuck my legs into my jacket but there wasn’t enough space in the slide. I lay there for a while, listening to the drumming rain. Staring through the small cracks of the slide into the darkness. I was thinking about a movie I saw in the past where statues would come to life and go around converting other people into statues. Then I heard something in the distance; it sounded like a large key-ring with thousands of keys attached, slowly shaking up and down, waves of dull metal, drawing closer after each clink. I thought of the mesh figures on Antique Row. It kept drawing closer, until it was right next to the slide. Then it stopped. I felt my heart begin to speed up. I wondered what it would be like to be turned into a statue. The sound started up again, clinking, moving towards the back of the slide. I looked up. I could see rain flashing in the darkness, like falling needles. Then a figure began to move into view, slowly. A face. Without waiting to confirm what I saw, I bolted out of the slide. I ran, and kept running until my shoes were too soggy to run anymore. I took shelter under a patio that belonged to a row of bakery stores. And I waited.
I was still awake by the time the sun rose. The rain had stopped. The world felt strange. People started moving about, but they didn’t seem real.
They are all the same, I thought, all parts of a perfectly functional machine, and any loose screw would be crushed between their tightly rotating cogs.
My vision wasn’t functioning properly. Thin ripples wove through the air, like cellophane wrap floating in water. I kept walking.
Eventually, I reached a cross section. Cars were blurring by like strokes of wet paint. Pedestrians filled the sidewalks. Across the street, a young couple walked hand in hand, a little boy trailing behind them. Everyone was laughing. Everyone was smiling. Then, as if to disturb the peace, the boy dashed into the street; he dropped something, I never saw what. At the same time, a truck shot through a red light a quarter mile down the road, heading straight for the boy. A woman sat at a bus stop reading a newspaper. I sprinted towards the boy. A flock of crows dispersed from a nearby rooftop. I dove. A woman screamed. I pushed the boy as hard as I could. In that moment I thought, what a great way to go. I might have been useful to someone at the very end.
But seconds went by and nothing happened. I lay face down on the concrete. I opened my eyes. The couple was no longer holding hands. One of them was shouting, “Someone call the police.” The other had his phone out. I looked to the boy. He was sitting on the sidewalk holding his bleeding knee, crying. Then I heard the honking of a truck that had stopped in front of me. A man was poking his head out of the window.
“Get off the road, asshole,” he said. He was shouting and slamming on the horn.
“He just assaulted that child,” I heard someone say.
I got up and just started walking away. If anyone wanted to give chase, they would have to follow me through the oncoming traffic. I kept walking. I couldn’t care less. Cars swerved and honked but none of them hit me. I kept walking.
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