Read a Chapter
The four- year- old boy stirs in the backseat of the station wagon, his body little more than a bump beneath the blanket draped over him, his hip sore where the seat belt’s buckle presses into it.
He sits up, rubbing his eyes in the morning light, and looks around, confused.
The car is pulled to the curb, idling beside a chain- link fence.
His father grips the steering wheel, his arms shaking. Sweat tracks down the band of flushed skin at the back of his neck.
The boy swallows to wet his parched throat. “Where . . .where’s momma?”
His father takes a wheezy breath and half turns, a day’s worth of stubble darkening his cheek. “She’s not . . . She can’t . . . She’s not here.”
Then he bends his head and begins to cry. It is all jerks and gasps, the way someone cries who isn’t used to it.
Beyond the fence, kids run on cracked asphalt and line up for their turn on a rusted set of swings. A sign wired to the chain- link proclaims, IT’S MORNING AGAIN IN AMERICA: RONALD REAGAN FOR PRESIDENT.
The boy is hot. He looks down at himself. He is wearing jeans and a long- sleeved T-shirt, not the pajamas he’d gone to bed in. He tries to make sense of his father’s words, the unfamiliar street, the blanket bunched in his lap, but can focus on nothing except the hollowness in his gut and the rushing in his ears.
“This is not your fault, champ.” His father’s voice is high-pitched, uneven. “Do you understand me? If you remember . . . one thing . . . you have to remember that nothing that happened is your fault.”
He shifts his grip on the steering wheel, squeezing so hard his hands turn white. His shirt cuff has a black splotch on it.
The sound of laughter carries to them; kids are hanging off monkey bars and crawling around the beat- up jungle gym.
“What did I do?” the boy asks.
“Your mother and I, we love you very much. More than anything.”
His father’s hands keep moving on the steering wheel. Shift, squeeze. Shift, squeeze. The shirt cuff moves into direct light, and the boy sees that the splotch isn’t black at all.
It is bloodred.
His father hunches forward and his shoulders heave, but he makes no sound. Then, with apparent effort, he straightens back up. “Go play.”
The boy looks out the window at the strange yard with the strange kids running and shrieking.
“Where am I?”
“I’ll be back in a few hours.”
His father still doesn’t turn around, but he lifts his eyes to the rearview, meets the boy’s stare for the first time. In the reflection his mouth is firm, a straight line, and his pale blue eyes are steady and clear.
“I promise,” he says.
The boy just sits there.
His father’s breathing gets funny. “Go,” he says, “play.”
The boy slides over and climbs out. He walks through the gate, and when he pauses to look back, the station wagon is gone.
Kids bob on seesaws and whistle down the fireman’s pole. They look like they know their way around.
One of the kids runs up and smacks the boy’s arm. “You’re it!” he brays.
The boy plays chase with the others. He climbs on the jungle gym and crawls in the yellow plastic tunnel, jostled by the bigger kids and doing his best to jostle back. A bell rings from the facing building, and the kids fly off the equipment and disappear inside.
The boy climbs out of the tunnel and stands on the playground, alone. The wind picks up, the dead leaves like fingernails dragging across the asphalt. He doesn’t know what to do, so he sits on a bench and waits for his father. A cloud drifts across the sun. He has no jacket. He kicks the leaves piled by the base of the bench. More clouds cluster overhead. He sits until his rear end hurts.
Finally a woman with graying brown hair emerges through the double doors. She approaches him, puts her hands on her knees. “Hi there.”
He looks down at his lap.
“Right,” she says. “Okay.”
She glances across the abandoned playground, then through the chain- link, eyeing the empty parking spots along the curb.
She says, “Can you tell me who you belong to?”