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Sky Blue MAG
The basketball grazed my fingertips, returned to the dirty New York City concrete, and was again in my grasp. I saw an opportunity for a layup and took it, shoving Ian to the ground on my way. That was a foul by any standards, but this game had different rules.
Ian shuffled to the side with his head bowed, not willing to challenge me. I smirked – I knew I had gotten my way – so I took the shot unobstructed. I missed, scowled, and returned to the other side to defend. I was playing with Jack and Joe, the twins; Kevin, the comedian; Shawn, the jock; Ian, the brain; and Dan, the quiet one. Not one of them dared speak. Even Kevin failed to make one of his famous snarky comments.
As for me, I don't fall into any of those categories. I was on top of them all. They were always ten steps below me on the ladder. If anyone so much as tried to reach for the next step, I would have a rock ready to drop. Some people are born to play “follow the leader” their whole lives, but not me. I was meant to lead.
The game continued with joking banter and occasional disagreements over the rules. When our energy had been exhausted, I suggested we take a break. I walked over to the curb on 59th Street and the group trailed behind.
Busy tourists walked around us, unwilling to let us interrupt the flow of the ever-moving city. The hot-dog sellers bellowed their rhythmic rhymes to potential customers, who, in this city of obsession, were too absorbed in a homeless man playing guitar to notice. Drills at construction sites pounded out a few beats in the city always growing out of its shoes. There was the horn of cars and buses that filled collision city to the brim. The lights of stores and restaurants in a city so bright that even the stars gazing upon it were forced to shield their eyes. The chatter of people who suspected nothing of the conspiracies lurking behind every closed door.
We settled around a gutter next to Boe's Bakery. Shawn ran the rim of his sneakers along the gutter's edge. Ian and Kevin played tic-tac-toe with a rock on the concrete while we exchanged remarks usually ending in churlish insults.
“My brother just got home from college,” said Jack, with a mouth full of bagel. “And he –” Jack swallowed. “He told me –” Jack was struggling to down his bagel, so Joe finished the story as Jack nodded.
“Jason said that there's a witch in the park!” Joe excitedly told the group, pointing to Central Park across the street.
“Ghost stories are for babies!” I told him, because they were. This wasn't story time. Kindergarteners did that. “Are you a baby?” Kevin chuckled with me and Joe looked away.
Jack picked up the story for Joe. “He said that she's there every night at the stroke of midnight.”
I laughed loudly at this, but motioned for him to continue.
“She speaks of evil things and casts spells that bring back the dead. The witch has a gross, pointed nose and one of those hats – the ones with the pointy thing at the top. But that's not the worst part!” He grinned devilishly. “She has a ring, and when you touch it ….”
Jack paused for dramatic effect. By this point all the boys were hanging on his every word.
“Within ten seconds you feel kinda sickly,” he continued. “Then, after a minute, you feel strangely numb. Here's when the worst comes. Thirty minutes later your skin is gonna start to burn. They say it feels like your whole body is in flames. Like when Carla Toni's house burnt down. That kind of fire. And the next thing you know ….”
Jack paused again, and Joe took the opportunity to join in.
“You're dead!” they screamed out in unison. Even I had grown silent. Only the sounds of the city filled our silence.
“Ain't none of that true,” said Kevin slowly. “The only way to know about that is to experience it, and if you experience' it you'd be dead.” He concluded by laughing nervously, although nobody joined him.
“Yeah! You two try and explain that!” I added.
“All I know is that it happened!”
“Why should we believe you? You're just trying to scare us,” I countered.
“And you seem pretty scared,” someone interrupted.
We all turned to see Dan leaning against Boe's Bakery. He was neither grinning nor upset. His face was expressionless. His arms were folded across his strong chest. I had never noticed his muscular build before. In fact, people rarely noticed Dan. He seemed to blend in, and at any moment could be mistaken for a shadow. He was not like the rest of us. He was not invisible, as most quiet people are; rather, he was everywhere and everything.
Dan felt like New York. He was the quiet chatter of passing people. He was a businessman calling your name. He was the lead in the Broadway play. He was the angry screeching of taxi cabs stopped by a red light. He was New York stripped down to its bones. He was the center of the center that was the whole. And Dan scared me.
I could always feel him watching me. Although he rarely spoke, his presence was enough. There was something strange about his eyes. A sincere knowledge filled them, but you couldn't see what he knew. There appeared to be clouds blocking your view and they turned his eyes a pale gray.
I stood to face Dan, trying not to show how much he intimidated me. His mouth twitched. Was that a smirk? I nervously shifted my weight, and I could tell he noticed. He watched my every move as I asked, “Are you saying I'm scared?”
He said nothing, so I was left to continue the argument with myself, the eyes of the group turned toward me. “Well – well, I'm not,” I stuttered and felt myself fall five steps down the ladder.
Dan spoke again. “Prove it.” His face remained emotionless. Although I knew he could see the strain he put on me, he did not seem to take pleasure in it. “Go to the park at midnight and touch the ring.”
“Deal. I'm not afraid,” I said, extending my hand to Dan, who merely looked at it and turned away. I could feel the group's stares piercing through me.
“Fine. We'll meet here at 11:30 tonight.” I turned to the group. “What are you all looking at?”
Without a moment's hesitation, the twins, Shawn, Kevin, and Ian scampered away to their little mouse-hole apartments, leaving me, the cat, in peace and quiet. I almost took a deep, relieved breath when I noticed Dan still leaning against the wall. He looked like a creepy gargoyle cemented to the building. He stared at me. I looked everywhere else – anywhere but his expressionless gray eyes. I swallowed, preparing for a fight, but he pivoted soundlessly and walked away to who knew where.
That night we all gathered outside Central Park at 11:25, except Dan, who chose to arrive at 11:30 to the second. When he got there, I signaled everyone to stop fooling around. I smirked at Dan without reciprocation. Mortified, I began to walk wordlessly to the middle of Central Park. I led the group through shortcuts and unpaved paths only a New Yorker would know. Dan trotted along so quietly that I had to glance back several times to check that he was still there.
I finally stopped by a large bush and could feel the domino effect as each person stopped behind me.
“Here?” I whispered, and Jack and Joe nodded simultaneously. I glanced at my watch. It was 11:58. We settled in, listening to the silence that could not usually be found in Central Park during early spring. Birds were usually always chirping, and babies were always crying. For a while, I felt I had reached a calming escape, a paradise away from the noise and the pressures of my life. Here, in my fantasy, I wouldn't have to pretend to be someone I wasn't. I could just be plain me.
Then Kevin nudged me and pointed at his watch. It was midnight and there was no witch in sight. I closed my eyes as relief rushed over me. However, that didn't last long. A short, stout woman entered a circle of benches and chose one to sit at.
“There she is,” I heard myself saying as we all watched in awe, exchanging terrified glances.
Dan raised his eyebrow. The rest of the group looked from him to me and then back to him. I breathed in deeply and stepped out from behind the bush. I could say I felt sick. But I knew my friends would see right through it. They wouldn't see the sparkling image of a hero they saw in Dan. They would just see plain me: a coward.
Was that a tear? I couldn't be crying, not now. I discreetly wiped my face, hoping the group wouldn't see in the dark.
I was near the bench now, and I could see the dark figure, hunched over, murmuring spells or something. I could distinctly see the arch of her back and soon realized that it was shaking. She clutched her dark, ragged coat tightly around her, and I became aware of the chilly air. Could witches shiver? I began to feel a tinge of sympathy until I saw it and came to my senses. She was rocking back and forth, clutching something. As I neared her, to my horror, I realized it was the ring. My breath caught in my chest, and I felt dizzy, but there was no turning back.
I was five feet away and could make out almost every feature. I saw her crooked nose with its warts. I saw how her hat wilted in the moonlight, and suddenly I wasn't afraid. I reached over her shoulder without my hand so much as trembling, and did not lightly touch her ring: I grasped it completely.
The woman was not, as I had expected her to be, surprised. She didn't even jump. It was as if she had been waiting for me. “Sit,” she commanded with a sweet smile, patting the bench.
I obeyed and sat next to her. Then I remembered my imminent death, but I realized ten seconds had already come and gone.
“Thirty years ago this day, he died.”
All of a sudden I became uncomfortable. I didn't know who died or why she was telling me, but it frightened me. The dark figures of the other boys peeked out from the bush, watching my predicament with great respect. I knew I couldn't run or I would forever be known as a coward, but I had never been so scared in my life.
“I can't …” I began, but became conscious of the tears in her gray, sad eyes. I stayed on the bench, prepared to run at any moment. She seemed to sense my tension and for some reason this saddened her.
“It was thirty years ago,” she began again. “We met at a little bakery. I was sixteen and had just started my new life in Manhattan after moving here with my father. I was lost in this city. My whole life seemed clouded over, with no hint of sunshine – until I met him. As soon as I saw his bright blue eyes, I just knew. We talked over coffee, and then he started to visit me regularly. Even though my father disapproved.” She chuckled and I relaxed a bit.
“And then, one day –” She swallowed and bit her lip. “One day they told me there had been an accident. On that day the sun dipped behind the clouds again, never to return. When he died, he took everything with him but his promise. He didn't say anything upon presenting me with it, but I knew what this promise meant: everything.”
She held up the ring, which I had not seen clearly before. The moonlight fell on the diamond at its center, which shone so brightly any star would be jealous. Its gleaming surface was not white but blue.
I reached toward the ring but didn't touch it this time. I felt it. I felt the ring for what it was. I closed my eyes and felt every corner, every turn of the ring. I let the curved base guide my fingers up to the jewel at the center. I could feel the ring growing and expanding until it didn't feel like a ring any longer. It felt like a basketball.
When I opened my eyes I saw that it was a basketball I was holding. I stared at it, horrified at its new color: blue. I blinked, and my blue fantasy disappeared. I noticed Jack, Joe, Kevin, Shawn, and Ian all staring at me, waiting. I smiled. I didn't know or care how I got back to the alley between 58th and 59th, but I was glad to be there. I passed the ball to Ian, who stared at it. I never passed.
“Go on, Ian, you got this,” I said. Ian, still confused, shot, but missed. “That's all right. You'll get it next time,” I assured him. Ian rubbed his eyes and looked at me again. I waved. I wasn't afraid of people staring at me any longer. I was no longer scared of what they might see. He appeared to suddenly notice that his mouth was agape and quickly closed it. I blushed and looked down. This would take some getting used to, but I felt good about the new me.
“Let's go sit down,” I suggested.
We sat down next to Boe's Bakery. Shawn ran the rim of his sneakers along the gutter's edge, and Ian and Kevin played tic-tac-toe with a rock on the concrete while I talked with the twins. A feeling of déjà vu came over me, then I abruptly remembered something. “Where's Dan?” I asked.
“Who?” said the twins, puzzled.
“Never mind.” I laughed, and just as I did, I thought I saw something in the dirty window of Boe's Bakery.
I saw a man and woman laughing and talking together as if there was no one else in the world. I recognized both; it was Dan and the woman from the park. I saw the sparkle of her ring and the smiles they shared. The woman was much younger and more beautiful. Her brown hair cascaded over her shoulders and her face didn't have a single wrinkle. However, something else looked strange. Their eyes were now bright blue like the sky on a clear day. They kept them focused on each other, two skies peering into one another's parallel universe. But then again, maybe I was just seeing things. After all, it was a dirty window, and as soon as I blinked they were gone.
I was left with the sounds of the city and the busy, bustling people marching through their busy, bustling lives. The clear spring sky loomed above, gazing upon its people and offering up an escape for those brave enough to find it.