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Lyn Michaels, you never should’ve come back.
But I couldn’t stop myself.
Crossing the width of the parking lot, the crunch of gravel under my flip-flops ceased the moment I stepped into the grass. The long green blades hadn’t been cut, prickling past the sides of my shoes as I walked up the hill towards the park I had grown up by. I took in everything. The sky, the ground with flowers and weeds budding, just the place in general. But as I looked around, I realized while my life and I had changed, nothing else had in the last twenty years. The gazebo was still the same and in need of dire repair, the old swing set and merry-go-round in the far corner were both untouched by time. A chilly wind blew making me cross my arms over my chest and rub them to get some sort of warmth. Was it always so cold when you lost something? Should’ve brought a jacket, I thought. But it never occurred to me to bring one when I had left my car. I didn’t even know where I was driving until I had parked in the parking lot. There was no reason for me to be there, but yet there was every reason for me to be there too. It was where it all started.
My attention was drawn towards a small boy, young enough to be in third grade. His small hands grasped the chains tightly as he pumped his legs, the swing set groaning loudly every time he swung forward. A mess of blond hair blew from his face, then back, each time he completed its full swing. The wind stole the song he sang, snatching it before I could hear a single word. He was in his own little world, suspended there for the moment…just like me. The boy suddenly dug his feet into the ground, bringing himself to a halt mid-swing. His big eyes looked down at his jacket, his small fingers reaching up to grab onto the zipper. Tugging on his green-blue jacket, he tried to pull the zipper up, but it never budged. He tried it again, his nose wrinkled with distaste as he yanked at the zipper forcefully.
“Do you need some help?” My voice rang out in the silence, softer…a mother’s kind of voice that I had never gotten to use.
The little boy stared up at me without seeming surprised; his light green eyes squinting against the sun as he slowly nodded his head and pulled his jacket away from his body and held it just a little higher for me.
He was supposed to be there, he was always there. And I was late. Clickety, click, click! I ran towards the gazebo, my black dress shoes warning everyone of my entrance as I clattered along down the old wooden bridge. My newly bought indigo sundress flew behind me as I leaped over a puddle of rain water that still hadn’t fully evaporated. The warm wind blew the escaped strands of brown from my face as I quickly made my noisy arrival onto the deck of the gazebo. Fearful of messy hair, I rearranged my headband with the bright orange bow on my head and didn’t bother to adjust my dress as I hopped onto the bottom rung of the railing. Peering over the edge, I looked into the dark water, but there wasn’t anything there. No gaping fish mouths, stray fishing lines, and no Don hiding cleverly on the side. There were only reflections of the sky and ripples from the natural current of the lake. I pulled myself back over the rail and stepped down from the bottom rung. Turning around doing a three-sixty, but I couldn’t see him. It was just the usual…well… everything.
I cupped my hands around my mouth. “Don?” I called out. I looked around trying to hear him calling back or catch a glimpse of his running figure which would tease me on how slow I could run. He was always the faster runner. He was always funnier. And he was always there. Or, that’s what he promised me. I tried again. “Don!” No reply. I turned away from the gazebo looking at the ground. Stupid… course he forgot… I turned back to stare out at the big empty lake and curling my hands into fists, I kicked some rocks on the side of the gazebo into the water. Plop, plop… They were quickly disappearing out of sight in the murky water.
“Hey Lyn!” I heard a voice shout behind me.
I knew that voice. I took a deep breath in, almost scared to breathe out. Would he disappear if I breathed out too fast? My frown fully disappeared as I turned around and saw him on the ‘older kids’ side of the park. The one with the bigger swings and the huge jungle gym. Don was sitting on a swing, the color of the sky, his dark brown eyes sparkling with the sun’s brilliance. His golden hair was different, cut short closer to his head rather than long enough to cover his eyes. Grinning the goofy smile of his, he waved at me and pointed to the red seat next to him. Beaming right back, I wondered how I could’ve missed him.
I sat down on the seat and pushed off, small pieces of woodchip managing to weasel into my shoes. We were silent for a while, as I mulled over my thoughts. I couldn’t get one out of my mind. I felt Don’s gaze on me, curious and concerned.
I dug my feet into the woodchips so I could look at Don without having to turn my head every few seconds. “Why…why weren’t you waiting for me at the gazebo?” I asked softly.
He didn’t answer for a while, trying to think. His legs dangled, nearly touching the ground. He swung them absentmindedly as his eyebrows scrunched up together like my dad’s. Don slowly took his eyes away from the lake and looked at me. “I wanted a new change of scenery. Change can be good. Besides, the others were there before.” Don pointed to the ‘kiddie’ playground where a few girls from my class were playing. “They weren’t being nice.” He frowned for a moment before he looked down at my dress and my hair. Slowly, he smiled.
“Why are you wearing a different look today? It’s not even Sunday yet!”
I held back my retort. As if I didn’t know. I looked at my sundress all over again wondering if it looked okay. Maybe the sundress was a bad idea… was it too much?
I looked past him at the nine year old girls. They were all laughing, playing tag with each other. None of them wore sundresses. None of them even had a bow in their hair. They were carefree, cute, lovable… I grimaced looking at my outfit. They had dresses on a week ago… Don turned away from the girls his eyes narrowed, shaking his head.
“What?” I asked offended.
“You’re not still trying to be like them, are you?” Don asked amazed. “They’re stupid. Your mom said you were unique. You’re better than them any day.”
Wanting to agree with him, I nodded as if I knew it all along. But how could they be stupid when they were the kind of girls that always had people around them? They had so many friends everywhere they went. I had one. That is, I mean, including Don. I was ‘unique’ and I didn’t fit in. It didn’t take me longer than a week – well, that week – to find out girls weren’t supposed to be gloating over catching and holding a frog or having played with tarantula. While Don and the guys thought it was the coolest thing in the world, the girls called the frog gross and screamed when it tried to jump from my hands. Never mind the tarantula when a boy had brought it in… Feeling eyes on me, I glanced towards the ‘kiddie’ playground. The girls were watching me. What had I done now? I held onto the swing’s chain tighter, the metal, warm from my touch, bit into my palms.
“Are you okay?” He looked where I did and scowled at the girls. He hopped off his swing as the wind blew sending the girl into a fit of complaints about their hair. My hair danced in front of my eyes effectively blocking my view from the girls’ funny looks at me. When I tucked my hair behind my ear again, they were whispering to each other, telling secrets. What were they whispering?
“I’m okay,” I automatically lied. What were they saying about me?
He gave me a long hard look and shrugged. “Come on, I wanna show you something.” He motioned for me to follow; pointing towards a spot by the jungle gym next to the slide that descended spiraled down from the top.
“I don’t feel like it,” I replied getting off my swing.
“Please?” he asked, his head slightly tilted.
“Alright…” I finally relented.
Trying to regain ‘composure’ as my mom would say, I smoothed over my dress with my hands the way my mom did with her skirts. I walked towards the jungle gym and Don followed behind me. He clicked his tongue so loudly I wondered if the girls noticed, but I was too scared to check. I hid behind one of the big poles and turned to face Don as he came up behind me still clicking his tongue loudly.
“Stop it,” I demanded my fingers curling. “What if they notice?”
Don clicked his tongue once more staring at me like I had grown another head. His soft brown eyes looked at me closely as he sighed.
“You don’t even like them,” he reminded me.
I glared at him, putting my hands on my hips. “Yeah I do…well…sometimes.” When they don’t treat me like dirt…
Don sat down on the ground with a huff. “They make you feel worse for everything. You can’t like them. Who needs them when you’ve got others?”
I opened my mouth, but no sound came out. Don looked at me pointedly.
“You don’t understand,” I managed trying to think of something that he didn’t know. Maybe that one of the girls had sat by me at lunch or picked me first, or even third, for gym teams, but he already knew it all. He knew they never did any of those things.
“You have everyone that matters.”
I wanted to believe him, I did, but I couldn’t. I didn’t have what the girls had. No siblings, no dad. Don’s eyes searched the ground looking for something. I looked too, wondering what could be so interesting. Then, he picked up a thick woodchip turning it over and over to get a good look at it. It was like he was trying to memorize every detail of what it looked like. His hands soon clasped over it, obscuring the small woodchip from my sight and he tried to bend it in half. I watched him as he struggled.
“It’s not going to break.” He ignored me. “Don, it’s not going to break,” I pressed. “You could just peel parts of it off.” He gave me a look. “You’ll lose parts of it, but it’ll get thinner so you could break it.”
Don rolled his eyes staring intently on the woodchip as if staring at it could make it do what he wanted. The girls’ high-pitched laughter caught my attention. Looking up and around the pole, the girls were standing on the baby swings together, their feet where the babies would sit. Why couldn’t I be like that? And laugh like that? Would it be so bad to be adored? Don mumbled something before slowly and carefully returning the woodchip to the others. He stood up and brushed dirt off his shorts as casual as he could. “Let’s go somewhere else, Lyn.”
I stared at him puzzled. Had I said something? I glanced back at the girls. The girls were like sisters, each one running around the next while laughing, telling secrets, and having fun.
I forced myself to look away as I bit my lip. “I don’t have anyone, Don…”
Don kicked the woodchips halfheartedly. “Yeah you do.” My mind spun. “You have me.”
I carefully looked at him, framed by the sun’s rays and shook my head. I sighed. “But you’ll leave too. Like my dad who had to go away forever and everyone else.”
“No I won’t.”
“Yes you will.”
“No I won’t!”
“Yes you will!”
“I won’t. I promise. I’ll never leave you for as long as I live.” Don puffed out his chest like some sort of hero. I patted the ground next to me. Embarrassingly, woodchips stuck to my sweaty hand and I had to busy myself with brushing them off as Don sat down next to me.
“Do you mean it?” I asked seriously trying to recover.
I took in a big breath and lifted my right hand holding out my pinkie, waiting. “Pinkie swear?”
With a particularly hard yank, the fabric finally came free from the zipper’s teeth. “There we go,” I said with a small smile. Stuck zippers were always a doosy. I rubbed my arms again as a cool wind blew. He visibly shivered though he had on a pretty decent jacket. I was surprised his mother hadn’t given him something ticker. I would have.
The boy nodded, his hair flopping slightly over his eyes the way a certain boy’s used to.
The little boy looked away from me to a short stout woman on the park bench with a baby stroller. Her blonde hair was tied tightly into a bun, her jacket pulled snuggly around her round features. I gave the mother a warm, or what I thought was warm, smile. She called for her son again and the boy, Alec, jumped off the swing, running to his mom without question. He momentary looked back at me, his mouth opening like he was going to thank me, but his mom called him again.
Something about the glare she sent me gave me pause to approaching her. You’re lucky to have such an adorable son, I wanted to say. Don’t take him for granted. But her eyes didn’t seem all too kind. They were slightly squinted and her lips were pressed into a tight line. It was as if she was challenging me to try to take her Alec from her arms and run with him. I was tempted, but even so, this Alec wouldn’t have been my son; nothing could’ve substituted for my son, and nothing could bring back my son. The minute Alec got near enough to grab, she took his hand and, like a pro, wheeled the baby stroller, and walked away without hesitation. I watched them until they were out of sight and even then I just stared at the far side of the park, blinking and reminding myself to take deep breaths.
“You’re welcome,” I finally murmured into the wind.
Don grinned, showing perfect teeth with no cavity in sight. “Pinkie swear.”
He held up his own pinkie with an air of pride, and I moved in to close the space between us. I paused fixing him seriously with my eyes. “Remember you pinkie sweared.”
“I will,” he promised me. Looking into his eyes, I believed him. He had never given me reason to doubt him, why would I not believe him? His finger came closer and closer. I couldn’t sit still. I shifted so that my legs were under me rather than Indian style. He stuck out his tongue and I curved my pinkie to go around his.
It went right through him. I stared at him confused. He sheepishly smiled at me, puzzled, as if he didn’t know what was going on. As if he didn’t know something was wrong. I didn’t feel his hand or skin. I didn’t feel anything. Maybe you missed, I kept telling myself. I took a steady breath and I tried again, but his hand only blurred as my hand passed through. I stared at my own pinkie, biting my lip.
I looked up. Maybe he could explain it. He always knew what was best. He always knew what to say. I turned one way, then another, searching. I jumped up to my feet and went on my tip-toes to see better.
I bit my lip and swallowed the lump in my throat.
He was gone.
Laughter from the ‘kiddie’ park filled my ears. It was just me and the girls left. I stifled my cry and walked out from behind the pole. Don… there’s no such thing as promises… The girls turned to stare at me, but they weren’t looking at my face. They were looking lower than my face. And like always, I followed their gaze. I looked down and saw that I had gotten my new dress dirty from sitting on the ground talking to my ‘Don.’ Their laughter made my muscles freeze, my vision blur. And I knew Don was right. They weren’t any friends I would ever be with. I wasn’t going to be like them and do what they wanted to do. I wasn’t going to think have the same thoughts as them. I would be original. I took off my headband and threw it on the ground as I took off away from there. Everything attempt to blend in…was all for nothing.
The swing swung on its own as the wind blew it. Silently, I sat down on the very same worn plastic seat Alec had sat on. It was already cold though he had only sat there a few minutes earlier, swinging and singing a song. I sighed, digging my flip-flop clad foot into the sand on the ground, my arm carelessly laid across my flat stomach. Engraved in the grains was ‘Don Michaels,’ a name that wasn’t just in my head anymore. It was the name of someone who actually existed, a boy I had held in my arms for a time that was all too short.
I paused. Sand? I tapped the top of the ground with my foot again. That’s new. There were no longer woodchips that based the playground. Looking around just one last time, just in case, I finally exhaled holding a breath I didn’t know I had put away. Carefully taking off my sandals, I took my time and shook free the collected sand that lined around the soles of my feet. My phone vibrated in my pocket and I knew it was time to go home back to my husband and go back to living life. I slipped on my sandal and looking back only once, went back to my car to get out of the darkening day. Just to imagine that Don was influencing me - even as an adult.