He can’t stop looking at the boy.
He shouldn’t be here, but in this moment he is free and everything else can wait.
The shrill playground laughter exploding from the primary school gates is music to him, and he allows it to drown out the hum of passing traffic and all other irrelevant ambient life.
From the other side of the street he watches the children dance, never losing sight of the boy weaving in and out of others, shouting and laughing while immersed in a tried and tested game of catch or kiss-chase.
He thinks about the boys laughter, how it seems to sing louder and clearer than any other. He wonders what that laugh might sound like if it were married with only his own, then tries to remember his own and fails to recall.
No matter. The school air is filled with joyous abandonment, and he breathes it in long and deep as if it were his first refreshing cigarette of the day.
The bell that cuts through the playground chorus is jarring and unwelcome for all. He watches a plump man dressed in corduroy appear and begin ushering the children inside.
He sees the boy linger, clearly reluctant to leave the temporary freedom of the playground, and for just a moment he wonders if their eyes might actually meet. He feels his heart thump. He shifts his weight to the other foot, as if this small gesture from across the street might catch the boys attention and change the course of the next few seconds, but before he settles the boy turns away, and he watches corduroy man place a protective hand on the boys shoulder and steer him back inside.
That moment of contact lingers in his mind. He wonders how it might feel to be that close to the boy. He plays the image over and over, but now it is now his own hand touching the fresh white cotton of the boys shirt. He feels the warmth of the boys back and his heart thumps once again, as in the safety and comfort of his own daydream the boy turns, grins from ear to ear and throws himself enthusiastically into the arms of his father.
The street beats out its own discordant rhythm as he walks slowly through the city. He has no protection from the rain that has started to light up the pavement so he simply pushes his hands deeper into his pockets, draws his shoulders up to his ears and lets it hit him from all sides. By the time he reaches downtown he is sodden, cold and in need of a drink.
The barman knows him, knows his limit and always lets him surpass it by one or two. It’s for that reason he comes here more than he should. Good business. He sits at the bar and drinks the first like it were his last, then orders another and lights up a lucky strike while he watches it being pulled. He nods at a few regulars, but has no interest in small talk, preferring his spot at the bar and the uncluttered pleasure of his own company.
By the time he downs his fifth beer things are beginning to feel normal again. The boy is no longer so vivid in his mind. A softer, somewhat duller memory replaces the crisp reality of his earlier longing, and this new fuzzy recall is so much easier to sit with. He likes this place,- his very own private drunk sanctuary. He orders again, watches the crisp, cold amber climb steadily up the thick glass, letting the anticipation build in his mouth until he can almost taste the sting of that first carbonated sip, then makes real the fantasy and downs the pint in one.
His pocket begins to itch and vibrate, and he knows it’s the call he’s been waiting for. He places the phone on the bar, watches it scuttle gently left and right, ponders the idea of not answering, then grabs it and flips it open with one hand. He holds it to his ear and says nothing.
“Flynn? You there?”
He waits. He has no interest in making this easy for the caller.
“I’ll just assume it’s you then shall I? Fuck’s sake. Listen Flynn, Mr. Walker has asked me to call you. He says you know what it’s about but I’m to ask you anyway. Do you have it? And bear in mind, Mr. Walker has asked me to point out that this is the very last time he’s askin’. So, what shall I tell him?”
He exhales a long, narrow plume of smoke which then swirls and ascends randomly. He drags his cigarette butt around the yellow plastic ash tray he’s been staring into, slides it back across the bar and eases himself off the barstool.
He leans on the bar, looks at his feet and tells the caller that no, he doesn’t have what Mr. Walker wants.
“Well, shit, Flynn. That’s making my job really difficult. Now you got me pissed. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mr. Walker doesn’t give me shit just for bringing him that news, man, and that ain’t cool. You hear me?”
He sighs, watches his foot scuff the floor and then tap the foot rest in front of him a few times.
“Okay Flynn. Well I guess that’s all we got to say to each other, eh?”
He nods to himself, waits for the caller to hang up. That imaginary seventh beer is starting to taste real good in his mouth.
“Oh, except one thing. Mr Walker wanted me to tell you that he’s done a little diggin’ on you. He’s been playin’ amateur detective. That is, he’s been gettin’ me to play amateur detective. Surprising what you can find out with a coupl’a calls to social services and the DMV. That ex-wife of yours, the one with the kid. You never mentioned either of ‘em before. Why’s that Flynn?”
The taste in his mouth evaporates, along with all its moisture. His stomach kicks and he stands bolt upright, sober and attentive. He swallows hard. A thick, dry, loud swallow that he fails to disguise.
“Uhuh. Bet you’re listenin‘ real good now ain’t ya. Tell me something Flynn, this ex of yours, she still live at 2939 Applewood and Main? Wait, what am I talkin’ about, of course she does. I just watched her park up and head inside.”
He’s out the door now, running hard against the dusk rain. He pounds up the riverbank and over the busy intersection, dodging the onset of rush hour traffic. He grips the phone tightly in his hand as he cuts through the edge of the park and onto the lower end of Main St. Minutes tick by. He runs fast, but not fast enough. A cab pulls out from a side street and he aims for it, forcing it to judder to a halt right in front of him. The driver is still cursing him as he slides into the back seat and shouts his destination.
His heart slams in his chest and his stomach flops like a dying fish as they drive the twelve blocks up Main St towards Applewood. He opens his phone, tries re-dialing the last number received but gets only a dead tone. He squeezes it tighter in his hand as they get stuck at light after light. He doesn’t want to be here on this street, doesn’t want to notice the deli he used to visit religiously every Sunday morning for his favorite turkey and cheese bagel, extra jack. Or the grocery store to his left where he and Stevie used to come every Tuesday night for their ‘family‘ shop. He remembers how he used to love that phrase, loved the simplicity with which it said so much.
Memories streak by one after another like a twisted cine film of unwanted past. He closes his eyes and dials Stevie’s number. Straight to voicemail. He tries again. The same.
They finally swing right onto Applewood and the driver curses once again when a tan station wagon nearly hits them as it flies out across the stop sign without so much as slowing down.
He grabs whatever change he has in his pocket and throws it at the driver before leaping out the car and running up the steps to Stevie’s house.
His heart heaves and thick dread fills his stomach and throat as he approaches the porch and sees the door ajar.
He calls out Stevie’s name. His voice sounds higher than he wants it to and he finds himself shouting louder, more aggressively. He pushes the front door open even wider, peers down the darkened hallway and sees the orange glow of an oven light coming from the kitchen. Adrenaline pounds through him like static as he steps inside.
The house is deadly quiet, but for a faint rustling sound coming from somewhere out back.
He pauses, looks around for a weapon, sees only the tall, ugly vase Stevie’s mum brought them back from her trip to Europe sitting on the hall table. His hands shake as he grabs it, quietly empties it of the dried flowers it’s been home to and holds it up ready to strike.
The rustling sound appears closer, causing him to stop. His breathing involuntarily stops also and he can hear his own body trembling as he stands completely frozen. A shadow flicks onto the wall just inside the kitchen. He tells his body to move. Slowly he raises the vase above his head and prepares to use it as Stevie steps out from the kitchen and into the hall clutching an armful of empty shopping bags.
“Flynn? Jesus Christ what the fuck are you doing? What the fuck are you doing here? I could get you arrested, you god-damned idiot.”