It started in the fifth grade, the year they let him walk to school. A few days before the first day, his parents mapped a course, ran practice runs, even timed them, but it was the final preparation, presented as a laminated note card, that lasted long past elementary: The Rules: Never Deviate – No Stopping – Speak to no one. Below these directives, typed in ominous boldface, was a warning: There will be consequences. Fifth grade, that’s when it started. And it never stopped.
He most easily reached his office on foot and it took either fifteen minutes or forty-five, depending on which way he went. Early morning factors decided his route, things like length of shower, number of tries to tie his tie, lace-ups or loafers, one cup or two. Extra time sent him down nicer streets with mature trees and smooth sidewalks, he would call on the baker who sold muffins so fresh, blueberries surrendered with an audible pop. But that hardly ever happened. Most days he dashed down an L-shaped path that proved to be the fastest track to his office.
But that morning he landed somewhere in between. He had too much time for the L, but not enough for muffins, so he broke a rule and deviated to new streets, streets always there but new to him, in-between streets. And their offerings were just that–nicer, but not as nice. With nothing noteworthy to slow his pace, he kept step until an empty lot flanked by four-story row homes begged a question: What happened to the house? He stopped to contemplate likely answers and realized the house may have been missing, but the lot was far from empty. Someone had made the space into a playground with everything a playground should have. Almost. Absent were the scurries and screams expected with childhood recreation, but he reasoned they would be along soon enough. In that quiet moment the playground reminded him of a science fiction film, one where the kids had been whisked away, leaving everything else just as it was.
He readied himself to move on but movement near the rear caused a pause. Early entrants had arrived. A young mother pushed a swing and spoke to her child, said he was free, free to fly, and though the sentiment seemed sweet, her tone came across sorrowful. He strained his still-tired eyes and uncaged a truth he would rather have left locked up. Alone in the playground, she pushed an empty swing and spoke to a child who was not there, whisked away, leaving everything else just as it was.
And in that moment, he could have ushered his thoughts to a safer place, somewhere immune to the remnants of childhood. But that’s not what he did. Instead, he broke the final rule and spoke to the young mother, asked if she was okay and she said she wasn’t. He shook both hands like they were wet with water, then pinched his nose between the eyes. From his pocket he pulled a ragged lamination and read the rules. And while he awaited the consequences, he said he wasn’t either.
Foster Trecost writes stories that are mostly made up. They tend to follow his attention span: sometimes short, sometimes very short. Recent work can be found in Potato Soup Journal, Right Hand Pointing, and BigCityLit. He lives near New Orleans with his wife and dog.
© 2022, Foster Trecost