A long tunnel amplified the little girl’s scream – her reaction to the fast approach of her pursuers. She quickly wound her way to the tunnel’s end, her Converse clad feet landing on a torn up, rubberized surface, and then she sprinted fast, hoping to find some sort of hiding spot before the savages chasing her exited the tunnel and spotted her. Frantically, she glanced here and there, looking for cover.
The oversized tire? No, too far away.
Around the corner of the brick building? No, out of bounds.
The swings? No, too open.
Two crazy-eyed boys roared out of the blue tunnel slide and briefly scanned the playground before eyeing their prey, still determinedly searching for a hiding place. The girl screamed again before racing back to the same toy she’d just slid off. And the boys continued to chase.
Andrew quietly observed the scene from beyond the playground fence outside the elementary school. Seeing the girl stirred inside him a peculiar mixture of uneasiness and longing. While much of him flatly despised the memories her image projected into his mind, there was another sensation that ran much deeper. Even as he knew his immediate purpose in this neighborhood – even as he dug at the flesh of his pocked forearms, shuffling anxiously from one to the other – the vision of the playing girl drummed up emotions so buried, he barely remembered when he’d felt them before. He felt himself desiring something of the familiar, like a song he’d heard over and over as a child, or the taste of an oft eaten food, or the scent of home. The warmth of Mom.
HMMMM MOM She hurts hurts hurts
Swirling whispers snapped for his attention. His shuffling became more desperate as he glanced down the street, looking for a face to relieve him.
“Drew!” He heard the girl yell from the playground.
He quickly crossed his arms, suppressing the incessant urge to claw at the fire inside his elbows. He thought for a moment about walking away, but couldn’t bring himself to do it. Still longing enough for the familiar, he stayed at the fence as the girl ran toward him.
“Hey Sophie!” he said, trying his best to sound enthusiastic, to sound innocent. “What’re ya doin?”
“Will and Jordan won’t stop chasing me!” she said, referring to the two boys who’d been hounding her around the big toy.
Andrew eyed the boys, who’d stopped several yards away. “Well, you tell them your big brother is watching them.” he said, narrowing his eyes playfully.
“I’m glad you’re not dead, Drew!” she exclaimed.
“Dead? No, why would I be dead?” he asked, chuckling nervously.
“Mom said you’re probably dead.”
MOM She hurts hurts hurts
He caught himself shuffling a moment, then stopped, but couldn’t keep his voice from shaking. “Mom?” clenching his teeth. Forced smile. “How’s Mom doing, Sophie?”
“Good, I guess. She works at the wine store. And watches game shows, mostly.”
Sophie hadn’t mentioned anything about a man, the main purpose of Andrew’s inquiry, but he was compelled to ask. “So it’s just you and Mom? Nobody else staying with you?” Glanced again down the street. Still no relief.
“Nope. Just me and Mom. I’m glad you’re not dead, Drew.” She smiled. “Where you been, anyway? I mean, where do you sleep?”
“I’ve got a place to sleep, don’t worry.” His ringed, sunken eyes were still fixed down the street.
“You know, you don’t look so good, Drew. Maybe you should come home awhile.”
There was someone rounding the corner a few blocks down. Recognizing the hardware on the guy’s jacket, relief! Andrew turned to start walking down the street before catching himself. His need was frightfully urgent, but he found himself obligated to the girl a moment longer – she, the only person who still mattered. He crouched low and focused on Sophie, satisfied there was innocence yet in her bright, lovely face.
“I can’t come home, baby, but don’t you worry about me. I got a great place.” Gripping the fence, he said, “But I want you to promise me something.”
“If Mom has a man come stay at home again, you need to leave.”
“Leave? Where am I supposed to go?”
“Anywhere! You can come stay with me.” He realized the absurdity of his statement even as he said it.
“But I don’t even know where you live, Drew! What sort of man are you talking about? You mean like the wizard?”
He visibly shuddered at the name. “Yeah, like the wizard. If he…” – checked to see if the jacket was still there, eyes watering, shaking – “…if he, or any other man shows up, you come find me. Or go to the police. Promise?”
“Ok, Drew, I promise.” she said. “Where you going?”
“Sophie! Get away from that fence!” hollered a teacher from the playground.
Andrew stood. “Gotta buy some medicine.” he said, groping at his forearms. “Bye, Sophie.” He waved and departed before the teacher got much closer.
“Bye Drew.” he heard her say quietly as he left.
His pace was just short of a run as he made his way toward the guy with the jacket. What’s his name? Gary? Larry? Who cares.
A block down, he crossed in front of a tall guy wearing a frumpy grey sweatshirt and a Giants baseball cap. Undercover. Drew knew the guy had to know what he was after, wondered if he’d try and follow him to the deal. No time for that! He decided he had no choice but to let the cop know he was aware of him and hoped he wouldn’t bother to watch where he went.
“Hi officer.” he muttered as the tall man approached. The guy displayed a wide smile beneath the brim of his cap and continued crossing the street. Andrew kept an eye on him, saw him slow down, turn and look at him with eyes narrowed, intense.