Daniel woke up early for high school like most Fridays, but this weekend was his annual family get-together. The party usually took the form of a family picnic in Astylburry Park, which was a five minute drive from his new house. He never really looked forward to the picnics since he usually ended up babysitting his numerous younger family members (who he honestly had no idea how he was related to). As he got ready for the school bus, he heard his parents arguing: the new norm since last month.
About three months ago, his father was transferred to a new city for a position at the machine plant he worked it, which to Daniel just sounded a glorified assembly line. It was a stroke of good luck to the family, moving to a nicer city and having better paycheck, but since the company went under about a month ago, his father was out of the job. As the days went by the arguments got louder, and it became more and more difficult to hide them from Daniel. Two weeks ago, the argument was about how they were going to pay off the new mortgage, last week it was about eating through their savings, and this week, it was about his Father’s drinking.
Daniel got out of bed and went about his morning as usual. He brushed his teeth, showered, made his breakfast and poured some food for his old dog Sonny, named after his bright orange fur. Sonny was going deaf with his age, so he wouldn’t get too excitable when the arguments would start. Sonny was actually so docile that most mornings he would sit in Daniel’s lap as they both ate their breakfasts sitting on the kitchen floor.
That morning, Daniel’s father woke up still drunk from his bender last night as drinking was all he could do to cope with the inevitability that they were going to lose the house. Daniel's mother was still trying to keep the arguments as quiet as possible so that Daniel wouldn’t hear, but that never worked. In fact, Daniel started treating the arguments as if they were his morning cartoons.
In this episode, his mother said that his father should seek counseling, to which he replied that they couldn’t afford it. Then, things really got heated when his mother suggested that they seek help from her family. His father was stubborn and filled with pride, so he shouted, in a drunken fervor and said that he would fix things. In Daniel’s mind, if his father needed a surgery with a 90% mortality rate, he’d call the surgeon a hack and try to do it himself.
Daniel got so caught up listening that he realized the bus would be there in a minute, so he hastily finished his cereal, poured his dog some more food, since he knew his parents would be too preoccupied to remember, and ran for the door. As usual Sonny ran after him through the doggie door, stopping just at the end of the driveway like Daniel trained him, and watched, waiting for Daniel to get on the bus.
A few minutes later, the bus pulled by and Daniel got on, sitting alone like he has been since he moved, but as he looked out the window, he saw that the argument had reached outside. Daniel slunk down in his seat, hoping that none of the kids would notice the argument spilling outside. To distract himself, he decided to start thinking about the picnic and how he would have to keep the kids in line as the bus drove to school. He really wasn’t looking forward to tomorrow.
When the school day had ended, the bus dropped Daniel off last, as usual, and he ran over to the front door and rang the doorbell. However, nobody answered, so he decided to unlock the door with a key that they kept in a fake rock next to the door and entered the house. As Daniel called out that he was home, there was no reply. He shrugged at the silence, assuming that his mother simply hadn’t heard him, and heated up whatever food was left over from last night, this time it was spaghetti. Afterwards, he went to his room to start on his homework. Usually his mother would leave him a plate of freshly cut apples at around 5pm, but when the clock struck five, nothing. He started to worry, so he looked for his mother, but she wasn't home. He decided to call her on the phone, but she answered in tears.
Sonny was run over by Daniel’s father as he sped away in their pickup truck shortly after Daniel left. She hoped that the vet could treat Sonny, that she could bring him home before Daniel came back and lie saying the injury was his age, but no. Sonny had passed on. Tears welled up in Daniel’s eyes, and he began to cry silently. Sonny grew up with him, he was there when Daniel lost his first tooth, when he lost his first girlfriend in middle school, when he lost all of his friends by moving, but grief filled Daniel’s heart when he realized he couldn’t be with Sonny when he needed Daniel the most. The sound of his mother was drowned out as Daniel leaned on the kitchen fridge, slowly sliding to the ground where he ate his breakfast with Sonny, and Daniel couldn’t help but imagine how frantically Sonny must have been looking for him as he had to be euthanized.
Over an hour had passed since he called his mother, but Daniel still hadn’t moved. When his mother finally came home, she was still in tears, going to hug Daniel, but he was motionless. The rest of the night he tried to appease his mother, acting the best he could so that she wouldn’t worry about him, talking fondly about Sonny when he could, but there an angry voice -a preoccupation- repeating on a loop inside of his head: “When is my father coming home?”
It was 10pm and his mother went to bed, but Daniel sat upright in his bed staring blankly at the floor. No tears, no thoughts, just thoughts of nothing. He couldn’t sleep, how could he? He looked around his room, the desk to his right, the bookshelf ahead to the left, Sonny’s blue oval shaped bed, the door ahead and to the right and finally the clock above the door. The clock had struck midnight and he decided he needed to go to the bathroom. Splashing his face with water, he looked at himself in the mirror, deep into his green eyes. They were red with his fatigue, his grief. He decided would be best to rinse his mouth with some mouthwash and try to lie down again.
As he opened the mirror to grab the green mouthwash bottle, he noticed something next to it. His mother had been diagnosed with a sleeping disorder, but she never took her pills. “Two before bed” the orange pill bottle read. Daniel stared it the bottle for a moment before deciding that maybe just one wouldn’t hurt. He slept like a rock.
He woke up at 3pm completely exhausted despite having slept for over twelve hours, but he couldn’t bring himself to get up. He had no energy to do anything, his head hurt, and his mouth was unnaturally dry with his tongue feeling like sandpaper. He looked at his desk and noticed a plate of apple slices, so he turned over at ate them still lying down. He accidentally knocked the plate down and his mother walked over to his slightly open door.
“You’re finally awake.” She said, picking up the apple slices, acting like nothing happened yesterday.
He looked towards her briefly, but his eyes wandered towards Sonny’s bed which he stared at longingly.
“Come on,” She said grabbing Daniel’s hand, “We’ve got to get to the picnic.”
He sighed, having completely forgotten about it.
“It’ll be fun.” She said, almost trying to reassure herself as much as Daniel, “We should get out of the house for the weekend anyways, why not spend some time with our family too?”
“Do we have to?” Daniel said monotone, still trying to wake up.
“Yes.” She said with a motherly polite yet firm tone.
She pulled Daniel up from his bed, leading him to the bathroom. He performed his routine autonomously as usual, brushing his teeth and showering, but his head was killing him. He opened up the cabinet without a thought and ate another pill, swallowing it with tap water. He felt a tingle, but then a calm, and he went on with his routine eating while sitting on the kitchen ground, but with a blank stare off into nothing: thinking about something but nothing at the same time.
After getting into the car and driving for a few minutes he began to realize that his father still hadn’t come home. He looked over at his mother, but she was humming along with the radio as if nothing was going on. He could sense that she was just barely holding it together, so he didn’t bother to bring it up. Family was what always helped her get through any problem, he thought to himself.
When they arrived at Astylburry Park, Daniel’s mom got out of the car and was greeted by her sister who whisked her away to the party almost without any concern for Daniel: typical. As Daniel opened up the car door to catch up with them, he heard something metallic clang in the door’s tray compartment. Digging through the napkins and fast-food coupons stuffed in the door tray he finally grasped something smooth and cold. He pulled it out.
“A flask?” He whispered to himself. The silver flask glinted in the sunlight and he could see his sullen face reflecting off of the flask. He swirled it and felt that it was full and then looked towards the party. He saw the children playing who he would no doubt have to watch over and the parents off to the distance who didn’t have a care in the world about them. He began to put the flask away, but he heard the bark of a dog off in the distance and looked behind him to see a large Saint Bernard dog off in the distance. Daniel looked back at the flask, into the reflection of his eyes. The sounds of the children laughing, the bark of the dog, the loud conversations of the parents: it all began to become louder, even deafening. He closed his eyes tightly and in an instant, he quickly stuffed the flask into the inside pocket of his leather coat and slammed the car door shut. Looking towards the party, he knew that nobody had seen what he had done, or else they’d be storming towards him, so he decided to jog towards the adults of the party.
Since he had no family that was his age, Daniel was quickly put to work as a babysitter for the various children he still had no idea how he was related to. The usual three age groups played their typical games of tag on the playground equipment that day. All of his many aunts and uncles sat at the picnic tables underneath the shade of the large oak tree, supposedly watching their children, while in reality, they talked about American politics until the sun went down.
All the while, the younger teenagers of the family engaged in a large-scale game of football on the large flat area of freshly cut green grass about ten feet away from the oak tree. Often times there was an overweight child who was torturously picked on until the point of tears, and at that point a parent would step in and take the football. Then the large-scale football game turned into a game of hide-and-seek where the overweight kid would hide for dear life and the others would hunt him down like a pack of wolves.
Daniel didn’t feel like being there, not to mention socializing, so he grabbed one of the red cups which were by the soft drinks their family left out for the kids and filled it with soda. When the coast was clear, he poured some of the liquor into the cup and sat down on a green lawn chair to watch the kids play football. After half an hour of watching them, he had gone through almost all of the cup. Shaking his coat to hear if there was any more liquor left got up and began walking towards the soda table, but he noticed his mother was pouring herself a cup of ginger ale. He knew his breath must have reeked, and his mother’s nose would be able to smell even acute amounts of alcohol because of his father.
Daniel decided to walk off to a cluster of trees away from the party where he could be alone. There, he took out the flask and decided to finish it there as quickly as he could. Gulp after gulp the liquor scorched his throat, and his eyes began to water. He had to stop and cough every now and again, but he kept drinking. His thoughts kept turning to his dog and his father. His dog and his father. The new job, more money, new town, being fired: it had to stop. Daniel hoped the liquor would clear his head, but it only had his thoughts less salient. He could remember yesterday, but it felt more distant with each drop he swallowed. He didn’t want anybody to see him like this. Even Sonny would be ashamed of him if he saw him now.
Despite drinking an entire flask within the span of an hour, he didn’t feel any different, in fact, he didn’t feel anything. “Is this what feeling drunk is like?” He thought to himself. “I thought that your mind would become quieter, not more complacent.” He wiped his eyes and his mouth, before putting the flask away and walking back to the green fold-up lawn chair. However, the moment he took his first step his head felt like there was liquid sloshing around in it: as if a ship that was about to go topside. He stumbled but maintained his composure. He then stood still for a second holding his hands out as if he was gripping something to keep himself upright. Daniel decided that it would be best to not be near anybody he knew and walked over to the playground nearby to take a seat at one of the benches there.
As he treaded towards the playground, stumbling a few more times, he watched the kids walk along the bendy bridge on the main playground structure. He noticed that the equipment looked especially colorful today, with the long spiral slide’s orange gleam being blindly bright. He thought to himself, “Did I take the same pill as he did last night?” He felt dizzy standing in the strangely blistering heat of early September, so he decided to sit on the blue bench near the swings and watched all of the kids play. He found it especially odd to watch the children since the biggest concern of a seven-year-old child was getting the newest toy or going the highest on the swing set and being brave enough to jump off.
Daniel sat there for a while watching the kids on the playground, waiting to sober up enough to walk back to his green lawn chair. However, he noticed one little girl who simply sat alone on a swing, watching the others play. She wasn’t a family member, just an extremely skinny little girl with short black hair and pale white skin. She wore pink sweatshirt with a black puffy vest coat, black leggings, green and black striped long socks and light brown fur boots. She couldn’t be any older than seven. Daniel looked around for her parents, but every adult was either a family member at the oak tree or playing catch in the basketball court just to the right of the playground.
Back at the party, without Daniel’s supervision, the teenagers’ football game got a bit rougher than usual when the overweight kid finally lost it when they tackled him into the mud. At that point the kid got out of the mud and hurled the football as far as he could. The football flew so far that it went into the playground space and hit the little girl right in her shoulder with such a hard bang that she actually fell off of the swing and straight onto the woodchip filled ground. One of the boys from the football ran over to grab the ball, but they only briefly glanced at the girl before grabbing the ball and leaving, as if they were saying it wasn’t their problem. In fact, nobody seemed to care.
Daniel quickly ran over, the thoughts in his head swirling with every step, and shook her saying, “Hey kid, are you alright?” She was completely limp and unresponsive, so he began to panic. He used his right hand to check her pulse on her wrist, but then she suddenly shrieked in his face and he actually fell back and screamed back in surprise. Sobriety hit him like a ton of bricks, and he was terrified that he came off as some sort of pedophile. However, that fear went away as she began to laugh profusely.
“Ha, ha! I scared you Mister Watcher Man!” She said playfully. He was extremely confused.
“Are you okay little girl?” He said while laughing uncomfortably.
“Yeah,” she said rubbing her shoulder. “I’m used to it now. Mommy said I should get used to being hurt since everything in the world is made to hurt you to test your resolution… whatever that means.” She said gleefully. His confusion was now replaced with a sense of concern and he crossed his legs together and sat on the wood chips in front of her. She then dusted herself off and sat back up onto the swing and began swinging her feet back and forth.
“Where is your Mommy?” He asked nervously.
“I dunno. She forgot my birthday and brought me here and said that she had to go and get my present. Then she just drove off, and I’ve been waiting for a while and she still hasn’t come back Mister Watcher Man.” He looked at her in bewilderment.
“How long has it been since she left?”
“Not long. Only a few months.”
“Wait…” He said in concern, “Where do you live little girl?”
“Well I used to live about an hour away, but for now just over there.” She said pointing to a closed concession stand at the other end of the park.
“There?” He said. “That place has been closed ever since I moved here.”
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure that was because of me…” She said looking down in shame. “I used to be so hungry that I used to sneak into the stand while the man went to take a bathroom break and take a few bags of chips or some water. After a while I cleared a few shelves worth and I think he thought that the place was haunted, so he left. Do you think that’s true Mister Watcher Man?” She said this while suddenly looking up at him with her brown eyes glimmering with hope.
“N-no. I think he just moved away.” He said lying through his teeth. “Do you stay inside there alone?”
“No silly.” She replied while giggling. “I live in there with Randall.”
“He’s the little squirrel that comes into my house to visit me every day. I have a tiny appetite so I usually give him the rest of my food, plus I won’t need that much since Mommy will come back soon, so I give whatever I don’t finish.”
“Okay…” He replied feeling more disturbed. “By the way, why am I Mister Watcher Man?” He asked trying to lighten up the mood.
“Oh, because all day you’ve just been sitting there and watching people.” She replied with laughing.
“So, then you should be called Giggles since you keep laughing so much.” He said jokingly.
“Giggles?” She said laughing even more. “Okay then, I’m Giggles, but now I get to give you a new name since you changed my name from ‘little girl’ into Giggles.”
“But I already have a name it’s-“
“No.” She said cutting him off. “Your new name is Mister Cowboy since you spent so much time drinking from your canteen. Is it really that hot for you today?” His face turned red and he was speechless for a few moments. He looked away, not being able to stand tainting her innocent eyes with his gaze.
“N-no.” He said awkwardly, scratching the back of his head.
“Okay then…” she said, drawn out. “How bout you’ll be Strawberry since you’re as red as one right now.” She said playfully. “Do ya wanna go on the swings now?” She asked pointing at the empty swing next to her. He didn’t hear her. He was staring off into space, his head feeling like a water filled balloon. He could hear the St. Bernard off in the distance barking and the laughter of children. It reminded him of the first time he met Sonny, how he was scared of Sonny at first, but started laughing after licking his face. A single tear slid down Daniel’s face as he swayed back and forth slightly from the disorientation caused by the alcohol. She then jumped off of the swing and gave him a hug. He couldn’t bring himself to hug her back since depression hit him so hard that he felt he lacked the energy to even move.
She let him go and then said, “It’s okay, we can just sit here, but the Sun’s gonna set soon and we can get the best view up there.” She said pointing to the larger straight slide. “I’ve always wanted to go down the slide, but I’m scared since the first time I went down it, I flew off of the bottom of it and straight into that pole that holds up the swings.” She said in a bit more of a disappointed voice.
He then looked at her and smiled. “How about I help you by standing at the bottom so I can catch you?” Her chocolate brown eyes seemed to light up and she smiled. Without a word she rushed over to the playground and run up the stairs. Then she went across the bridge that wobbled when you walked on it and past the larger area with black steering wheels on the wall. Then she went up the last few stairs and to the top of the large slide in what all took what seemed to take minutes to get up to.
“COME ON YA SLOW STRAWBERRY!” She screamed. “DON’T MAKE ME CHANGE YOUR NAME TO SLOWPOKE NOW!”
“Calm down!” He replied screaming while genuinely laughing. He then ran over to the bottom of the seemingly 20 foot tall slide and knelt down so he could catch her. “Come on now if you do this then I can claim you ‘queen of the playground.’” He said in playful voice. “Since I was a Watcher Man, I know that nobody else here has had the courage to go down yet…” Without a second thought she then grabbed the faded yellow handle bars on top of the slide and used them to swing herself down the slide to gain momentum. She then slid down the slide, yelping with joy while raising her hands up in the air. She came off the slide with such momentum that she almost knocked him onto his back for the second time today, but this time he caught himself with his right hand while holding her with his left.
“Again! Again!” she said quickly breaking free and running for the stairs. This went on for what felt like hours as the party went on until about 7:30pm, just as darkness fell upon on a lovely autumn day. When Daniel’s mother called him over, telling him that they were leaving, he had just caught the little girl on the bottom of the slide and let her go. She was then nowhere to be found. He didn’t hear the metallic clang of her light-up, white flower covered shoes hitting the old steel stairs or her laughter anymore. It was too dark to even see if she was heading back to the concession stand, but he didn’t want to tell his Mom that he’d just be a minute while he looked for some random little girl. So, he left without saying a word about her.
When they got home his mother and him had dinner, his mother laughing and talking about how nice it was to see her sisters, but Daniel had only one concern: “Where is my father?” Sure, his father had done something terrible, but Daniel realized just how lucky he was to still have somebody around, no less a parent, who took care of him. His father may have acquired a vice, but that was after years of working long hours of overtime at his job. Then after finally being rewarded for his toil it was just taken away like that. How could somebody come back from that, especially when the people you’ve supported suddenly turn on you when you need them the most: in your time of need? He wondered what it felt to feel so alone, to feel forsaken by the world. To feel so alone. To feel so alone...
After Daniel’s mother went to bed Daniel stayed awake sitting at the dinner table waiting for his father to come home. Where there was once a dog barking or arguing, there was now deafening silence. At least in the moments of pandemonium there was something ambient to distract himself from the loudness of his thoughts. Now there was a vast emptiness in the house. It was as if the removal of a cancerous tumor accidentally resulted in removing too much brain tissue: the patient now catatonic. Daniel sat there, shaking his foot rapidly for hours, but nobody came. He ended up falling asleep at the kitchen table.
The next day Daniel woke up early in the morning, even before his mother who usually woke up with the sun. Drool drenched his face from resting his head on the kitchen table, and his back ached from sleeping in such an uncomfortable position. Daniel walked to the bathroom and washed his face, holding his aching back. He opened up the medicine cabinet and began reaching for some painkillers for his back but stopped just as his fingertips touched the smooth gray plastic bottle.
Daniel then suddenly remembered how the plastic on the bottle felt like the plastic wrapped around the chains of the swing set he pushed the little girl on yesterday. He remembered her laugh and grinned lightly. The house felt unusually hot, like a furnace. Usually his father closed the heat at night, complaining that he wasn’t made of money, so Daniel opened up the bathroom window. He shivered from the first kiss of the autumn wind, and he looked outside. The sun was just rising over the suburban neighborhood with the street signs, houses and shrubs all black, moments from being illuminated. Daniel walked towards the kitchen to turn the heat off, but as he entered the kitchen, he saw Sonny’s oversized orange blanket sitting on one of the kitchen chairs. After turning off the heat he grabbed the blanket, and his black faded leather jacket he wore yesterday. He put on the jacket over the white t-shirt he slept in, laced up his ancient white sneakers and began to jog to Astylburry Park.
As he was nearing the park, he began to hear the annoying noise of two metal objects clanging together every time he took a step and he then realized he forgot to empty his pockets yesterday. He then dug into his inside pocket and pulled out what he now realized was the flask from yesterday. He stopped and examined it more closely, looking at how the morning light glinted off of the silver metallic flask. He could see his reflection, his resolute eyes and unkept brown hair. He then shook it and heard that there was still some left. After a brief moment of contemplation he walked a few steps down the sidewalk and dropped the flask down a rusted sewer drain and continued onwards towards the park.
However, as he arrived it seemed that she was still nowhere to be found. “Was she okay?” He wondered to himself, lightly shivering from the cold despite his jacket. He walked over to the concession stand to find some park rangers and lots of empty chips and various snack bags and a few candy bar wrappers inside of it. They seemed to be talking about a homeless man who broke in and stole food, but if this was true, then was she also stolen by the man? The thought filled him with panic, and he frantically ran towards the picnic area where there was usually a homeless man begging for more money for meth, but the man was sound asleep faraway underneath the wooden gazebo area, as it was nearly 7am. “So, she’s really gone.” He thought, as he sat onto the ground, and propped his back against the enormous oak tree. He forgot that he was still in pajamas and the wet morning dew quickly seeped through his pants, causing him to shiver, so he grabbed Sonny’s blanket and laid it down so he could sit on it.
Daniel sat there for a while in a trance, trying to fixate his mind on scenery around him so he didn’t have to be trapped within the darkness of his mind. The sun rising up into the sky. How it created a vibrant shade of magenta. Piercing through the darkness of the night sky. Bringing back the natural ocean blue color of daytime sky. The leaves falling from the sky like embers falling off of timber in a fireplace. The breeze gently blowing white dandelions away from their homes, never to return. Out into the great beyond of the ever so green field.
He stayed still with his eyes closed, his mind empty for at least an hour until he heard cars approaching in the not so distant parking lot. It was Sunday after all, so it was no surprise that parents brought their children to the park. The once quiet park was then filled with the laughter of children, parents saying please and dear to their sons and daughters, playground equipment creaking, balls bouncing.
Daniel stood up, grabbed the now dew soaked blanket he was sitting on and decided to walk over to the green-roofed restroom building near the playground to get a drink of water. There was a small line as a father, knelt down, lifting up his triplets up to the drinking fountain, one by one to get a drink. Daniel looked around, trying not to rush them, and examined the cobblestone walls, the long wooden brown supports to the canopy, how upon closer inspection it was all covered in graffiti.
As he turned his head to the right to sip some of the water from the fountain, , he took notice of some graffiti on the women’s restroom wall. It was written with pink dry erase marker. He read it aloud, “The past can’t hurt you anymore, unless you allow it to.” Looking around and not seeing or hearing anybody nearby he walked into the restroom and touched the wall, it was still a little wet on the smooth rock wall, smudging the word “past”.
“Giggles?” he called out into the restroom. It reverberated throughout the restroom, but eventually: silence. He sighed and walked back outside. He looked towards the playground to see the family of triplets taking up all of the swings with the father trying his best to keep all of them at a safe swinging speed. He saw a few kids climbing up the blue spiral slide with one standing at the top yelling at them to move so he could go down. He looked towards the concession stand and saw that the park rangers were gone, so he decided to walk over there.
The door was locked with a padlock but the screw holding the latch on was so loose that Daniel simply pulled it off and pushed open the door. The stand was empty, with numerous empty chip bags bunched up near one corner of the stand. The wooden shelves were knocked down and stacked so they could connect up to the now closed front window. He saw a small squirrel laying on the window’s shelf inside of a green and black striped sock, with the other sock on the floor. Daniel knelt down and touched the sock on the floor, it was cold and dry. Not wanting to wake up the squirrel, he folded up Sonny’s blanket and left it on the ground in front of the bunched-up chip bags.
As he crept out of the concession stand and he lightly closed the door, he heard a familiar sound. He looked towards the parking lot and saw a car with a mother, a little girl and a dog get out of the car. He could hear the panting of the yellow golden retriever followed by a few barks. The dog tackled the little girl down to the ground, dirtying up her dark gray peacoat, knocking her black beret off of her head and unravelling the knot on her crimson colored scarf. A strong gust of wind blew the scarf off of her neck towards Daniel and it hit him in the chest, where he promptly caught it.
The little girl quickly ran over to Daniel with her dog following her. Daniel handed the scarf over to the little girl and she actually curtsied to him, causing him to chuckle at her aristocratic politeness. The dog walked up to Daniel’s left hand, sniffed it and started licking it. He pet the dog on the head, letting the soft yellow hairs of the dog run through his fingers. He then scratched the dog on top of his head to which the dog panted and let out an excited bark. The little girl’s mother called out to her and she lightly tugged on his leash to go back towards her mother. She gave Daniel a little wave as she ran off towards her mother, and he waved back. He smiled as the little girl ran over and grabbed the mother’s hand as the family walked towards the playground. He took one last look at the playground he wouldn’t return to for a year and walked home into the sunlight.
I creatively write poetry, short stories and novels in my spare time.