Phil peeked around the corner to see if it was still there.
It was still there.
A figure lying in wait for him if he dared go around the corner alone. He was only six, and he knew better than to cross the street without holding someone’s hand, but he’d gone and done it anyway. Spitefully. His mother told him and told him all the horror stories about children being stolen away when they didn’t listen to their mothers, but had he listened? Of course not.
But all he wanted was to ride the swing at the park. His mother was busy cooking dinner and refused to take him, so he’d opened up the door quietly, so quietly, and slipped out by himself. He played for so long that all the other children were long gone with their families, probably eating dinner and getting ready for bed by now.
Phil imagined that his mother called for him until she was hoarse, and that now she was crying, rocking in her chair. His father was away on a business trip, and Phil wondered if he would come home early if Phil was missing. Probably not.
It was so late, so far past dinnertime that Phil grabbed at his stomach as it growled in hunger. He wanted to go home so badly. This was a poor decision, and he knew it. Still, swings. Phil loved the swings.
The problem now was that he couldn’t go home, no matter how much he wanted to. The monster was between him and home. Between him and dinner and his soft, warm bed. Between him and his mother.
He rummaged around under the picnic tables to see if anyone had dropped any snacks and came up empty-handed.
One last try. He leaned around the side of the building with the bathrooms, but it was still there. Phil sniffled a bit as the tears began to set in. He was so sorry for not listening to his mother. So sorry. He took a deep breath and brushed the first tear away with a small grubby fist. He had to make a break for it. It was going to be rough, but if he did it, he’d be home in no time.
Phil took off running past the monster, but he only made it four steps before he tripped on his shoelace and fell face-first onto the hard concrete walkway. One day he would learn to tie his shoes. He cried out in pain, reaching up to feel how much blood was pouring from his face. In truth, it was more than enough blood to warrant panic, but Phil actually felt much better when he looked to his left at the monster.
He almost laughed aloud at himself. It wasn’t a monster at all; it merely looked like one in the shadows and fading light. It was an overflowing trash can. And that claw that Phil feared was outstretched waiting to tear out his throat? It was nothing more than a rusty old nail.
Phil stood up without even brushing off his wood-chip-coated knees. He laughed at his younger self, because now he didn’t believe in monsters anyway. He ran home, where his mother was so happy to see him that she cleaned him up without a word and sat him at the table for a lovely dinner of meatloaf and mashed potatoes, his favorite.
I have no idea what my time was; I had a household emergency in the middle. It’s all good now, though.
There’s so much superstition and motivational garbage about regret. Regret nothing. Live without regrets. Love without regrets. But who can definitively categorize anything as a regret without experiencing it? You never know.
And isn’t the truest cliche the one everyone learns with time, that you regret what you didn’t do ever so much more than what you did?
I had one of those, when I was far too young for regret.
Every summer between four and sixteen, my sister and I spent with or father. We had good times; she’d have a stroke of she heard me say this, but our father was orders of magnitude better at entertaining his children than our mother was. I’m sure it wasn’t her fault; she went back to school when I was young, and didn’t have the time for things like that except in the summer, when we were gone. Or I could simply be making excuses for her. I excel at that.
Good times, though. Square dancing and dulcimer playing and concerts in the park on the denim quilt my stepmother hand-tied in red string. Yard saling and flea marketing and cutting through Canada to reach New England.
We went to a Greek festival once, and to a score of miniature shops full of tiny chairs and tiny beds and tiny plates and tiny forks. We spent a day in Frankenmuth, pretending to be Bavarian. We stayed in a cabin on Mackinac Island; we slept in a fire tower in the middle of a forest.
We went to a dude ranch once, and I wandered off and fell into a freezing Colorado stream while wading where I probably wasn’t supposed to be. It wasn’t too bad, though; I didn’t get completely soaked.
It was always hard to keep me away from running water.
But I remember one experience I did lose precious childhood sleep over, fretting because I didn’t take the plunge. I don’t remember where we were; the Kalkaska County Fair? Osceola County Fair?
One of the carnies was in charge of a wall–a large white wall of Wacky Wallwalkers.
I didn’t want one, but I was a kid, and the option was given me, and by gum, if somebody offered you a new toy, you took it.
It had nothing to do with the stickiness, nothing at all. I had no idea what they felt like, because it was the first time I’d even seen them.
It was the way they moved, the sudden jerkiness of a step, or six. The jostling jiggle of the loose appendages flying free in the carnival air. The sudden stop after a flip or tumble when they reattached themselves to the wall.
They hurt my sense of reality, my understanding of how the world worked. All I wanted was to deny their existence, to push them as far away from myself as I could without ever making physical contact with anything so offensive.
I couldn’t take it. But it was free. I couldn’t reconcile those two things. Could not. And I kicked myself for it for the longest time, to the point that I had nightmares about giant Wacky Wallwalkers. But I never told anyone.
And I never, ever had a Wacky Wallwalker.
And last night my mother told me how she and I ate ants when I was two, because she told me they tasted like pickles.
I don’t know the first time I entered a bookstore. I can’t even guess. I’m sure it happened plenty; my mother has hundreds and hundreds of books, and they’re not all Book of the Month editions that came in the mail.
But a certain visit to a bookstore comes to mind when I think about it.
I was ten years old; my next door neighbor and best friend was eleven. We were both in fifth grade at the Laboratory School across the street from our apartment building, and our teacher had just that week mentioned Anne Frank. I don’t remember what I learned in class; that part doesn’t stick out in my mind at all.
What sticks out is that trip to the used bookstore. We’d gone downtown to have a look around, all by ourselves; I can’t imagine that happened now, but this was in the 80s, so I guess it was a bit different then. And our single mothers were weary college students, so maybe we got a little more freedom than we should have.
I was the first to pick up the book, and held it up to show Jennifer. This was probably my first experience witnessing a jaw drop–her eyes widened and she gasped a short, sharp breath of excitement. She practically snatched the book from my hands, even though I was already offering it to her, for her to see, you know. Not for her to take and purchase and read and love and all of those good things that come when you find a treasure in the used book store.
She took the book from my hand, and she acted out the most cliched performance I had ever seen in my life until that point, and probably for quite a few years afterwards. She put her grubby paws on either side of the poor little paperback and lifted it up as if she were going to kiss it, then quickly lowered it to her chest in a bear hug. She swayed back and forth a couple of times, treasuring the slim volume.
I might take this time to add that we both idolized our fifth grade teacher; she wasn’t just a teacher, she was a doctor. in retrospect, she was an excellent teacher.
I might also add that the initial volume that I selected was a lovely hardcover version of Anne Frank’s Diary. It was in excellent condition, something that I already well understood; valuing books came to me quite well.
Jennifer announced that she was purchasing this book, and I opened my mouth to point out that I’d found it, but I didn’t have the wherewithal to make the statement aloud, to my older, taller friend. I was a shy, timid child, and a lot of that is still with me today. I couldn’t stand up to my friend that day.
I looked again at the shelves next to us, and found an old, tattered copy of the Diary, the cover nearly falling off, the page ends ruffled and ratty, the corners either dogeared or missing. I gazed longingly at the pristine copy in Jennifer’s hands, and resigned myself to reading this far-beyond-secondhand copy.
She led us to the register, practically skipping in her joy. I was moderately upset; upset with myself for being too afraid to say anything, upset with her for not paying attention to the fact that I had been the one to find the book, upset with our teacher for assigning the book, upset with Anne Frank for writing the damn thing in the first place and causing this whole mess.
It sounds horribly melodramatic, but truth be told, I was a horribly melodramatic child. I was told too early and too often how smart I was, but I was also shown early and often how worthless I was, so I had a lot to make up for with my few words and actions.
That was a bitch move of Jennifer to take my book, though.