I sat on a wooden bench that someone had attempted to create for lounging comfortably. At least for ten minutes at a time. Stuffed in between two of the wood pieces next to me was a cigarette butt. I looked a little closer and shook my head. No. There wasn’t enough left to get anything good out of it, so I left it stranded; a reminder of the smoker who sat here before me. I looked up at the green leaves that sprawled over my head hiding the bench from the hot sunlight that was peeking through the clouds. There was a musical giggle and I turned my head towards the sound. A small child was running across the pavement with a woman trailing behind pushing an empty stroller that was the size of a small car. Bags were folded and pushed into every available space with only the small spot remaining for the child to sit in once her legs were tired. Brown hair shining in the sunlight; the child ran past me and over to the small man-made ravine that held little metal water toys. She ran to the edge and stuck the toe of her little pink plastic shoe into the water before squealing and jumping back. Again, inching forward, she stuck her foot in further this time, laughing and jumping back. She turned to make sure the woman was seeing all the fun that she was having. She did this a few more times before seeming to become bored. A determined look came over her small face only a short second before she jumped into the shallow water with both feet. The water barely came to her knees, but the splash was great and the girl stopped laughing and turned to run back to the woman, crying about the water on the lace of her dress. The woman laughed and looked over in my direction. Our eyes met and she gave a little smile. I smiled back as if we shared some silent connection or joke about kids being kids. Behind her eyes I saw a flicker of something as she took in my appearance before she looked away.
I moved my gaze over to the table that sat across the pavement from me. Two men were involved in a serious chess game with a few other men watching and providing sporadic support. This had been going on for about an hour already and the game had increased intensity. One bystander whispered in one of the player’s ear and made a sweeping motion at the board and the player followed direction and moved a knight to a new checker on the board while the other player narrowed his eyes at the helper. Every few minutes a stray person would stop for a moment and watch or take a photo of the group or ask a question. But otherwise they were in their own world of serious battle. I could see the younger of the two players getting heated for a moment as his ears turned slightly pink and he furrowed his brows at the board before making a hasty move that made the other men laugh.
Beyond the group of men was a crowd of people, getting on or off one of the tour boats that floated lazily as they got into line next to the park. The people in this group looked to be mostly made up of families. Annoyed looking parents tugging on kids arms. Kids screaming about one thing or another. Adults talking to their partners in hushed angry tones or jabbing at a map. All standing in the middle of the sidewalk not paying attention to the gamers or small kids that were playing in the water. Most of them had wide Canon straps holding their cameras around their necks. Announcing to the world that they were visiting here and didn’t belong. Just like me. Although I was private about it. I watched as the families slowly walked in an organized line to enter one of the large red boats that stood waiting in the water. Other families slowly joined another line to climb onto one of the red buses that stood patiently on the street. A few people in the lines would laugh. The others continued to look confused or frustrated. And a majority kept wiping the sweat that was running down their faces. The water of the river slapped lazily along the side of the wood planks that held up the park on this pier. It was a peaceful sound that almost couldn’t be heard above the people talking and babies crying. The water was a matted grey that couldn’t even reflect the blue that shone down from the sky. But the seagulls didn’t seem to mind. They flew overhead, taking a moment to dip into the water, before they would come back to the cement or wood and chase the donated food that was tossed from the people eating around me. I watched as two birds fought over the remains of a hotdog on the ground next to me and saw the little girl standing next to me as she watched too, the damp dress forgotten in her fascination with the battle of the birds. She lost her hesitation and stomped over to the birds, clapping her little hands and giggling as they flew off in panic and left their food to be stolen by another bird once the threat of human child subsided.
I looked over to the left where kids and adults ran over the cement and through water that shot without rhyme or reason out of small holes in the ground. All the water would shoot up out of the cement in a circle and fall back to earth splashing people who were trying to cool down in the warm afternoon sun. The adults would laugh like children at their damp clothes and the kids hunched down and stared at the holes in anticipation of the next un-timed shoot of water. Some of the kids were braver than others and would get splashed in the face when the water finally decided to show again. Then everyone would laugh and run around again waiting for the following splash to come. I watched the water come out of half of the holes, arch at the top and come back down and I found myself smiling at the laughter that followed. The simple pleasure of a fountain in the heat.
I felt a nudge at my hand and looked down. The little girl stood in front of me, trying to push a rock into my hand. She pushed her tangled hair out of her face with one dirt streaked little hand and looked up at me with big brown eyes. I opened my hand and accepted the gift that she had decided that I needed. She smiled and ran back to her mom, peeking out at me from behind her safety net. The mom either didn’t notice that the girl had wandered over her or was only doing her best to not make eye contact again. I looked down at the hard surface in my palm and saw a smoothed grey rock that fit perfectly in my hand. Where did she find this? I looked at the ground around the ravine and the bench but couldn’t find the home that this rock had come from. I rubbed my thumb across the smooth surface and then shoved it into the front pocket of me jeans, ignoring the fact that it almost reminded me of a rock that I had seen before. A rock from the dead man’s life. The girl grinned at me from behind her mother’s arm as I looked her direction and thanked her with a smile and a nod. Such a strange kid. She must have brought the rock from home with her. She didn’t find it around here.
I looked backed towards the fountains and saw a girl standing next to the fountain in a blue dress. She pulled out a stick from her bag and expanded it so that it reached far up into the air. Then she proceeded to pose. Snap to take a photo. Pose again. Snap. Pose again. Snap. The wind blew and her skirt exposed her legs. She laughed and snap, took another photo. Pose. Sna… no there was no snap. Her smile frozen on her face. Her dress held by the air that had stopped blowing. Frozen. Everyone. The people playing in the fountain, the girl with a thousand photos, the families looking at their maps, the chess players, even the water in the air. They froze and faded into silent grey. The stillness deafened in my ears as I seemed to be the only thing that was moving in this moment. A calmness swept over me as quickly as the quiet did.
I saw her. She wove in between the groups of people, smiling at the maps in their hands and the kids playing on the ground. She looked up at the sun and closed her eyes for a moment, like a cat sunning herself in the warmth. She stood there for a moment and I sat watching her, not breathing or making a sound. I turned my head to see a man stuck in time, in the air as he had jumped down from a bench. I looked back at the woman, the only other one unaffected by this moment frozen in time. She worked her way past the chess players and bent over, grinning, before she moved the white queen. She walked towards my spot on the bench and leaned over the metal railing to watch the water stopped mid-lap against the side. She didn’t seem to notice that it was odd that no one else made a sound and she didn’t notice that I could still move. She stood on the bottom rail and the back strap of her sandal slipped of her heel as she closed her eyes again taking in the quiet and the heat. She stepped down and adjusted her sandal and then turned away from me. Walked past the line waiting to get on the boat, her orange dress moving against her calves. And she was gone.
I grabbed my duffel bag and jumped to my feet as everything slowly picked up pace and the people around me resumed normal activity as if nothing had just happened. I stood on the bench, scanning for the top of her dark head but seeing nothing. I must have dozed off or passed out. Had a dream. I heard an exclamation from the chess players. One of them was blaming the other for moving his queen. Shit. I jumped down from the bench and ran in the direction that she had disappeared. People yelled behind me as I shoved my way past the line of people waiting to tour the river. I made it to the other side and saw no sign of orange in the form of a dress or anything else. Where could she have gone? I know she was just here. I know it. Right? I was walking quickly towards the path that followed along with the river. She must have gotten in a car or a cab or something. To be gone this quickly, that would be the only explanation. It’s for the best anyway. What would I have said to her if I would have found her? “Excuse me; did you see the time stop? Weird, huh?” Yeah, that would have gone over well. I tried to shake the fog from my head. What was going on? I told myself that was the reason why I wanted to find her. Not because of anything else. Just to see if she could tell me what just happened. But she was gone. And so was the moment.
Not wanting to go back to my semi-comfortable spot on the bench, I decided to walk further into the city. I still had twenty dollars in my pocket and more in my bag. I should grab a beer, try to shake this feeling. This uncomfortable thought in my mind, like I was trying to make sense of something that could never make sense. I walked up the street and away from the river, noticing very little on my walk except for the littered ground beneath my feet and the smell of fresh shit drifting from the corners of the sidewalk. I kept walking, forgetting to look for a bar and just thinking about the orange dress. Did I know her? I feel like I should know her but she was a stranger to me. Maybe my subconscious was trying to tell me something in this strange dream. It was a dream… wasn’t it? I was almost thrown back as a man ran into me not looking up from his phone or even glancing at the man he just ran into. Just kept walking. I looked at the people swerving around me not looking at anyone or anything around them. I kept walking forward towards the corner of the street, neon lights flashing at me in the dimming day. The sun was creeping to hide behind the buildings and the wind started to cool my warm arms. I stepped to side out of the way of the onslaught of foot traffic and unzipped my bag to pull out a flannel shirt. Awkwardly holding the bag in one hand I worked the sleeve up over my right arm and up onto my shoulder before rolling the sleeve up to my elbow. I switched the bag to my right hand and followed suit to cover my left arm. I continued walking toward the white walk symbol on the corner of the street. I stared at it for a moment – a man frozen mid-walk. His little white leg started to move as if he were going to take a real step. I closed my eyes before looking at the cement below him. I saw the amount of people on this sidewalk and turned right at the corner to avoid more people while I walked. I took a left and jogged across the street to find myself in a street lined with trees and brick houses. It was as if I was immediately thrown into a different world as I continued to walk, paying close attention to the jagged edges of the broken cement; the grass sticking up between the chunks of stone. Pay attention, I told myself as I tried not to get lost in my mind again. Focus. Focus on the sidewalk laid out in front of me. It took a minute before I realized that the street was quiet. The people seemed to have disappeared into their homes, happily greeting their families before a warm dinner or a cold drink. I stopped on the sidewalk and turned towards the buildings next to me. My eyes slowly scanned up the building and I found myself face to face with a long dead bearded man as he stared down at me. Judging me. I was standing in front of an old grey brick church. The color was coming from lights within, flickering against the stained glass of the man on the cross. His eyes didn’t look sad as they stared into me, a drop of blood trailing red from the thorns at his head. His arms outstretched and thin against the wood cross. What is he thinking as he watches me? This man made of glass and paint.
I jumped a little when something nudged my knee. I looked down looked into brown eyes framed into dark fur. I knew those eyes. “Dog” I gasped in shock. But then I saw the leash and the owner of the dog as he pulled it away from me with an apologetic look. Not Dog. Just a replica. A shell that looked like Dog. I sighed and glanced back up at the eyes of the glass man before turning back towards the far corner of the street.
My breath caught. I saw orange fabric and a foot covered in a thin sandal fade out of view as she turned the corner. My heart thudded against my chest and I ran away from the quiet sidewalk and the dog that wasn’t Dog and towards the obvious apparition as if I was possessed. The end of the block seemed to get further and further away the faster I ran. I was out of breath by the time I finally got to the corner where she had been, and I turned right expecting to see her standing there waiting for me. There was no one in the darkening street. There was just another row of houses and dark shops. Only one that had a light and an orange sign in the window that announced ‘Bar’. She must be in there. She must. There is nothing else open in this damn street. I walked over in long strides and pulled open the heavy wood door to music and the bustling noise of the after-work crowd. I stood there as the realization that I couldn’t have really seen her hit me. Why would I have thought that anyway. She was a dream. A fuck up of my own mind sent to mess with me. Screw this. I walked over to the bar, sat my duffel bag down and perched on a worn bar stool that had seen its days in drunks.
By my third beer, I had a decent buzz and had almost forgotten about the woman in the orange dress or the dog that wasn’t Dog or the rock that had found its way into my pocket from my past life. I sat and listened to the music playing in the background and the vapid discussions happening next to me while a man tried to impress a woman with his self-professed prowess in life. I knew assholes like this guy before. But listening to him, here and now, when my life had changed so drastically, it just made me laugh. Now he was trying to tell her all about how much money he made without actually mentioning a figure. His boat and his apartment and his… She just sipped on her drink and responded with an occasional “mm hmm”. Finally, I couldn’t keep it in anymore. I laughed. Loudly. It must have been the third beer. They both turned to me sitting on the stool next to her and while he looked annoyed, she grinned and turned her body towards mine. “Wanna buy me a drink?” Interesting. The beard must have suited me and any dirt hidden in the darkness of the room. While I knew that this would deplete the funds in my pocket and I would have to draw from reserve that lay in the sock in my bag, I agreed in an attempt to save her from continued monotonous conversation and a hopeful reprieve from me just talking to myself in my head. The asshole walked away as we talked about non-personal useless subjects and he looked back once with a glare. Another two beers later I was drunk. It was time to go. I needed to find a spot for me to hole up in for the night that was out of site and safe and would allow me to nurse the inevitable hangover that would come in the morning. I apologized and wished the woman luck as she wandered over to a group of eligible looking men. I reached down and fumbled with the zipper on my bag, pulled out the full roll of socks and struggled to locate the extra cash. I finally found it and pulled out the stack as the bartender brought my bill. Shit. That took a lot of my money. What was I thinking? I chastised myself as I put just enough on over the receipt and shoved the rest of it, along with the socks back into the bag. I slung the bag over my head and pushed through the new crowd of people towards the door before the bartender could see the amount left there for him.
I pulled the door and it didn’t budge. I sat confused for a second until I remembered and pushed at it, letting it swing heavily open into the thick night. I stumbled outside and walked a few steps. The dark pavement shone against the streetlights from above. The cool air hit my face. The scent of fresh urine. I only experience a moment of that street before something smashed across the back of my head. I remember the warmth that followed from the blood and the sidewalk quickly coming up to greet me before pure black.
(c) Kassie J Runyan
This novel is in a raw form, post beta-read but pre-editorial - for your enjoyment only