A haze, a humid layer of air hovering lazily about a crowded play park. The slide, jungle-gym, swings and sandbox are overflowing with playing children. The sound of chattering children is all that is heard. The heat hasn’t kept these children away today.
Moms, dads, nannies, and guardians of these children are sitting on benches, picnic tables, on the grass or on blankets—watching the playing children, reading, chatting with one another, napping or daydreaming. Occasionally some of them will call their own children over for them to have a sip of cold water. The children don’t let the heat stop them from playing, and hydration or dehydration, these things do not cross their minds.
“Mommy—come on! Hurry up! Are we almost there? I wanna play!”
“Yes. Soon. Oh, hang on for a second here.”
Rachael had tried to teach her six-year-old son, Toby how to tie his shoelaces, but she figured right now probably wouldn’t be the best time for a lesson, not when his need to play would be so great. As she bends down to tie the lace so he won’t stumble, she looks into his beautiful blue eyes—she thought them piercingly beautiful, and she knew some day a pretty girl would be mesmerized and would melt at their striking intensity and blueness. They were the exact eyes of his father. At the moment though, the eyes grow impatient at her need to stop to tie his shoe, and now her wandering off into adult thoughts, preventing him from getting to his destination.
“Ok—I’m finished. Now we can go. We’re almost there. But first, before we can cross the street, remember—hold my hand.”
They hadn’t had far to walk, as they lived only a few blocks from the park (one of the things her and her husband had looked for when house hunting), but it was such a humid afternoon that her T-shirt was already sticking to her back. Toby walked beside her, wearing his shorts, ready to go into the water, and she herself had her bathing suit on under her shorts and T-shirt. She could send him into the water and stand at the edge to watch, like most of the other parents seemed to do, but she liked to play with him. Also, it was hot enough that the thought of the water would be much preferred to standing under the boiling hot sun.
Now, they were close enough that they could hear the sounds of the children playing across the street, but there was one more danger to watch out for. She makes sure she has his small hand held tightly in hers to cross the street.
Once, one of the first times they had come walking to this park, she had been thinking about something else for only a few seconds (something having to do with unpacking the bathroom), when she looked up and a sudden sharp pain shot through her abdomen. When she hadn’t been paying attention he had seen across the two lanes of traffic to the play equipment he wanted to get to–off he went, and something horrible had just about happened.
“Yes, but remember what we talked about—holding Mommy’s hand to cross the street?”
“Ok, but hurry up! Mommy look—I want to go swimming.”
Yes—she had had the talks she knew you were supposed to have with your children: they were rules really, things all parents should make sure to teach their children; Always Hold A Grown-Up’s Hand To Cross The Street, Never Talk To, Follow, Or Take Anything (candy) From a stranger; so many rules. As they approached the park.
This parenting thing with all of its rules, talks, and fear—she hadn’t stopped being afraid since he was born: ever since that first moment, when the nurse placed him in her arms, she stared down into his small pink baby face and knew she’d protect this precious child with everything she had in her.
It had not been easy, pregnancy and the birthing process, for her. They had tried several expensive rounds of IVF, and after many disappointments of hoping and being let down and two miscarriages, the doctor entered the office with a face that was blank and impossible to read. As he sat down to give them the news, her husband took hold of her hand and squeezed, the gentle but steady pressure, the most reassuring feeling she knew.
Now he was here, had been for almost seven years now, and she loved him more than she could have believed possible.
They were still so new to the area she hadn’t had much of a chance to meet any of the neighbours. It was better now she had established a routine of sorts, and the afternoons meant a walk to the park to play for a few hours. He would start school in the fall.
The cool water feels nice on her toes after the heat and the walk, as she removes her feet from her sandals. He has run ahead of her now that they have reached the park, and she has just now caught up. He’s already wading into the pool, and she’s caught up to him. Sure, she knows, just by looking around that she’s the only one over five feet tall in the shallow wading pool, she also knows it’s important for her son to play with children his own age, to make new friends, and not to play with his mother alone, but she always thought that more parents should get off of their butts and play with their children. She didn’t consider herself an over-protective or over-bearing parent. Her son interacted well with other kids and she knew when to step back and let him make friends, but she couldn’t just sit on a bench in the shade when she could cool off and keep a better eye on him at the same time.
She crouches down at the center, the deepest point of the pool, the water only coming up to her chest, barely her shoulders, and let’s the water cool her by degrees.
“Hey! No,” she scolds. “Don’t splash people.”
The opposite side of the park is lined with several large shade trees: under these are people on benches, stretched out on blankets, and having picnics, a very sinister shadow stands disguised behind one of the tree trunks. The shadow is extremely good at remaining hidden, invisible really—at least, nobody ever seemed to notice. This invisibility seems to serve the shadow’s purpose quite well.
“Wait! Before you go on the play equipment, you need some sun tan lotion so you don’t burn.”
“But Mommy …”
She knows her son is too young to understand why he’s being slowed down by his mother, Again—getting in the way of playing, and he shows this confusion by squirming as she attempts to rub the lotion into his cheeks and nose.
“Now you can go. Do you want Mommy to push you on the swing?”
“No. Climb up with me, Mommy. I can swing from that high-up bar. I’ll show you how I can do it.”
The elusive shadow scans the park and all the people, eyes coming to rest on a young child and his mother. The mother is bent down applying sun tan lotion to the child’s face. They move off toward the climbers, and the shadow continues to watch…
Her stomach has that sharp sudden pain pierce through it, like a puncturing of the insides at sudden and present danger, a threat.
“Hey! No! Watch out! Be careful! Hold onto the bars, so you don’t fall off and break something.”
As his face falls slightly and his little hands find the two bars on either side of him, her stomach relaxes. She finally reaches him, and she holds onto the bars a few down from him and his position at the top.
“Now, watch me—watch me Mommy!”
Before her eyes can follow his swift movement, he is dangling–first only his small fingers gripping the top bars are all she sees, but then she lowers her gaze and sees him, his legs swinging in the open space.
“Here I go, Mommy. I’m going to jump down now. Watch me jump, Mommy!”
“Wait, no! Can you just hold on until I get back down?”
She doesn’t hear an answer from him as she turns quickly, hoping to beat him down to the ground. However, as she starts to climb back down the way she’d come up, a couple of kids come toward her. Without thought, she moves to the side to let them pass safely, and when she finally reaches solid ground again, she looks around, up to see if he’s still miraculously swinging from the top bars or if he has already jumped, but her son is gone…