I survived this, if you’re worried about me. I don’t think you want my worries.
This happened to me back in my hometown. I come from the suburbs, doesn’t matter where. Picture clean-cut lawn rows, wood picket fences, idyllic summer swelter. In the evening, I’d take walks around that neighborhood. My mom would always say to be home before dark, but I was a boy and boys don’t fear the dark yet.
Please stay with me a while longer.
There’s a moment, just before night, when the streetlamps come on, and my neighborhood is reintroduced to me in hoops of light and shadow. In the park, all of the soccer kids on the soccer fields have left with their soccer moms and it’s just a field with fizzling night lamps. I’d walk past sleepy houses and stretches of shadowy earth until my doorway, rectangle of light. That’s where I was headed the night I was found.
“Hi! I’m almost there. If he listened, he’ll be by the field.”
A woman walked behind me, talking on her phone. She sounded like the quintessential Soccer Mom, replete with ringlet earrings and bob haircut. Of course, I couldn’t actually turn and confirm that. That’s the way it is when someone’s walking behind you. You can’t see them without them seeing you see them, and people have got to ignore each other when they’re on their way places.
“I don’t know if he’s going to play next year. What, you don’t think he might get hurt with the older kids?”
I tilted my head. She probably got that image from me.
“He never tells me he loves me anymore, you know? He’s growing up; he doesn’t need me.” She laughed.
My back prickled with heat. I tugged my shirt, looking around. The trees caught the light from the lamps and reflected yellow-orange foliage; they cleared ahead into a park of trodden grass. At the far end of the soccer field was a boy I see more often these days.
He looked like me. A lone boy, far after others had gone. Lone boy who hasn’t needed anything from anyone. Lone boy who wouldn’t come home. The air behind me sizzled up with snug mother-love.
“I bet he’s exhausted. I’ll let him sleep when we’re home.”
I realized that I’d stopped walking, and the boy vanished. I’d been seeing shadows as I moved; the field was empty, and the summer night heat coursed around me like a bloodstream. I noticed that the mother’s footsteps had stopped.
Lights fell. My back burned up, burning and smothering like the inside of a heart, and her voice was above, around, inside me to make everything float away.
“No need to worry. I’m picking him up right now.”
The ground fell away. My senses crumbled to warm dark inside a sensation like a velvet cocoon. My breath thrashed, dampened, then ceased; I didn’t need to breathe anymore, didn’t need anything wrapped in her embrace.
My head eased into numbness, touch disappearing down my body. I was not scared. I wasn’t able to be. My body began shaking in a way of ending, discharging life and dying soft. I gave one last kick with my soccer-kid leg.
My sole struck the path. It hurt. I pushed it forward, hurting again, dragging myself through miles of her embrace. Piece by piece the dark and heat tore away, and I heard her voice languish behind me as I was born back onto the sidewalk, running away into the freezing summer night.
“Don’t stay out too long.”
“I’ll bring you home later.”
Down the street, towards my house, throw the door wide. I shut it behind me and sat, cradling my head with eyes wide open. Through the door, I felt her warmth at the base of my spine. I couldn’t bear the way it soothed me.
And so I sat there until morning with her pressed against my back like love.
I haven’t slept much since then. Every time my eyes close, I feel her warmth around me. I tell stories to keep myself up, but they’re all this story, one way or another. The cold of the world hasn’t left me since that night, and I keep telling myself that’s the only reason I shiver.
I stay awake from her. I do all that I can not to need her. But maybe that’s just how she wants me: a scared child, waiting for her to pick him up.