This story is by Stephen James and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Light refracts off grains of sand with a somber gentleness. Scattered about the sandbox are toys; a yellow plastic dump truck, a tiny red shovel, and a blue bucket. None of them interest you. Rather, you are content to bounce on your knees the stuffed white bear that you have known your entire life. Its once pristine fur has now become tinted brown on the tips from constantly being at your side. You refuse to let mother take it away and wash him. The big old washing machine at home always makes the most chilling noises. Never in a million years would you let Bear into its gaping maw. Dad has been pestering you to leave Bear at home when you make these excursions to the playground together. “You’re almost six. Do you see any other kids your age carrying stuffed animals around?”
The wind picks up and scatters sand across your legs. A stronger gust follows and you use Bear to cover your face. The breeze passes, bringing back a sense of calm. This is when you realize Dad is nowhere in sight. The park bench he was sitting on a moment ago is empty. “Dad?” you call pointlessly to the bench. Hopping out of the sandbox, you scan the rest of the playground, looking for anyone lanky with glasses and a beard. “Dad?” your voice is weaker now. Maybe he ran to the bathroom? Maybe he went to find a drink of water? You circle the playground one more time and just as you are about to panic, you see him clear across the park. “Dad,” you shout, but he does not turn. Is he playing some kind of game? There is no choice but to follow. “Wait for me,” you shout as you break into a leaping stride. The earth and the grass are soft beneath your feet, you run faster and faster. Dad has played these tricks on you before. Pretending to leave to entice you to follow when playtime is over, but this time feels different. He exits the park and turns down the neighborhood street. Dad has always told you never to walk down those streets without him or mother. You know you live close to the park, but you cannot remember where. All the streets here look the same with the colored row houses and tall trees. The street bustles with cars and this is what Dad has always warned you about. “Never cross the road without holding my hand or your mother’s.”
You are at the edge of the park and can see Dad walking down the sidewalk. “Wait for me,” you call out, but he continues his stride without looking back. Only now do you realize you left Bear back in the sandbox. Panic unfurls inside of you, spreading its icy darkness to your toes. Once again, there is no choice but to follow. Why is he doing this? Why won’t he stop? Tentatively you come up to the first crosswalk and look both ways, just like he taught you. There are no cars in sight, but there is a hesitation that holds you back. You realize you have never crossed the street without one of your parents. It feels wrong, like the time you stole a dollar from your mother’s purse.
You dash across the pavement with blinding speed. Dad is still in your sights, but he is getting farther away. You push your legs to run faster. It feels like you can run forever and despite the strangeness of the situation, it’s fun. You think of the games of chase you play with Dad at the park. With more confidence, you bolt across the next road. You do it again, and again. One more crosswalk and you will be on the same block. This time, you forget to look and race straight out onto the crosswalk. A swish of metal rushes past your face. The sheer panic and momentum of the passing truck nearly knock you backward. There is another moment of fear as you wait for the pickup to stop and for the adult driving it to get out and start scolding you, but it keeps going as if you were invisible. You double and triple-check the road before crossing and now you have lost all the ground you gained.
Up ahead, Dad turns to the right. This is a street you know. It’s busier, full of shops, and people sitting outside drinking coffee. You recognize the little market on the corner. Sometimes you and mother come here to buy fruit. Dad approaches the store and you think this will be your chance to catch him. Maybe this is where he was going all along. Maybe he left the park to come here and get you some fresh strawberries, your absolute favorite. You can’t wait for him to turn around to see the surprise on his face. Of course, you won’t mention the car at the crosswalk. You will say you looked both ways at every street. He will be so proud. Maybe he will even buy you a chocolate bar from the store. But Dad does not stop at the store. He continues walking straight and the disappointment punches you in the stomach. You are about to call out to him again when you feel a hand on your shoulder.
“What are you doing here?”
“I’ve been looking all over for you. How did you end up here?”
“I was following Dad. We were at the park, but he left. I ran all this way.”
Mother looks down the street and then behind her before turning her empty gaze back to you.
“Sweetie, I’m not sure what’s going on, but you are lucky I found you. I think you better come back with me.”
“But what about Dad? Why did he leave me? I have to find him.”
“Oh sweetheart, please come back with me. I’ll keep you safe. You realize you can’t go where your dad has gone. You don’t want to remember.”
“What are you talking about? He was right here. I need to find him. I need to know why he left. We have to go back to the park together. I forgot Bear in the sandbox.”
“Sweetheart, please. I will not tell you again. Now take my hand.”
There is a desperation in your mother’s eyes as she holds out her waiting palm, reaching like a branch climbing for sunlight. Inside, it all feels wrong.
“No, I’m sorry. I have to find him. I have to go.”
Mother tries grabbing you, but you are too quick and before you know it, you are two blocks away from her. You peer down every side street looking for any sign of Dad. Your legs never tire or falter. In your mind, you know you will not stop until you find him.
The route ends at another park, but this one is different. There are strange stones all in rows planted on the ground. It is not a place you recognize and the stones seem to go on forever. Among them you see Dad walking. You follow his path, watching every step. It is quiet here, and you feel obliged to maintain your silence, though you’re not sure why. You walk inside the footprints he leaves on the dirt trail. The trail leads to a tree, and it is at this tree that he finally stops his journey. Dad falls to his knees.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he sobs.
You are so close to him now that you can see the tips of brown hair at the back of his head rustle in the quiet breeze. Without saying a word, you stand beside him in front of two stones. On one stone, you recognize your name carved on its face. Ben. On the stone next to it, you recognize the letters M – A – R – I – A. You don’t know what it says, but somehow you know what it means.
The memory returns to you. Crossing the street with mother, Bear falls from your hand. You pull away from her and run back to get him. She screams, but you don’t listen. You hear nothing. Only as she grabs you do you see the speeding car. The last thing you remember is the pungent smell of metal and gasoline.
“I’m so sorry. It should have been me,” he cries. On the stone with your name Dad leaves your white bear, the tips of fur tinted brown.
After a while, Dad gets up and walks back down the path where you will follow him for the rest of his days.