The girl in the red jacket is staring at me. Not in a creepy way, but not in a way that‘s exactly normal, either. I mean, who stares at strangers in the park, or, well, who keeps staring at strangers in the park, once they’ve been caught.
She’s got this weird little half-smile going on but I’m pretty sure she’s not checking me out. Which is too bad. She’s kinda hot, in a I-stare-at-strangers kind of way. We’re probably about the same age too, which is a surprise, because other than when my mom makes me take my little brother, the only people here are usually under seven or over forty. This girl can’t be more than seventeen.
Now I’m staring, so I shift my gaze to the playground, looking for Max, and making sure he’s not getting in any fights or talking to any creepers. He’s got Asperger’s and he’s not the best judge of character or at social situations in general. But he’s a cool little dude.
He looks alright. He’s swinging on the swings with his head tipped way back, watching the clouds. I used to do that. All of a sudden, I miss swinging so much it’s like they outlawed it or something. Like all the swings died in some kind of swing flu epidemic. I want to go out there and join him but I won’t. A 6’ 1” kid on the swings? I have enough working against me already. No need to add fuel to the loser pile.
I feel her breath in my ear a second before she speaks.
“Hey.” It’s a whisper so low that if I didn’t feel it I wouldn’t be sure someone even spoke. I whip my head around and she’s on the bench next to me. The girl in the red jacket.
“Uh, hey?” My voice cracks and it comes out like a question. Smooth. That’s me.
She smiles like she just won the lottery or something, her tongue sliding out between her teeth. “I have to tell you something.”
This’s gotta be a prank. Maybe her bitchy friends are hiding nearby and this is some dare she has to do. Cute girls don’t come up to me in the park. They don’t come up to me anywhere.
I look around, but no one’s paying any attention to us. If she’s got friends watching this, they must be experts at camouflage. I turn back to her and her eyes are wide, round, like she’s excited to see me. She leans toward me and I kinda want to kiss her, but instead I say, “Okay?”
Her face flips from happy to serious like she’s a TV and someone changed her channel. Now her round eyes – brown, with flecks of gold – are somber. “It’s a secret.”
I’m almost positive this chick is crazy, but I kinda don’t care. I smile and drop my voice to a whisper. “I can keep a secret.”
She smiles back, coy this time. “I know.”
A breeze blows then, tugging her dark curls away from her face and for a second all I can do is watch them float around her head. She giggles, an airy sound that sends a shiver through me. Before I can ask what she means, she slides closer and cups her hands around my ear. She takes a breath and I go still, waiting to hear what this strange girl has to say. It feels like an hour passes as the world drops away. There is nothing but her hands on my ear, the tickle of her breath and then she speaks.
“The game starts now.”
I wait for more but she just laughs. She drops her hands and stands.
“Shh...” She puts a finger to my lips. “You have four hours.” She winks, like I’m in on the joke, and then turns and runs away.
What the hell was that? I should’ve known a girl like that wouldn’t be talking to me for any good reason. Suddenly all I want is to go home. I walk to the playground, looking for Max. He’s not on the swings anymore.
“Max! Come on, let’s go.”
No reply. I scan the playground, I don’t see his big round glasses anywhere. Shit.
“Max!” I trot over to the swings, like maybe he’s still there but I just can’t see him. “Max!” The rusted hinges creak as the swing sways under my hand. It’s still warm.
The playground spins around me and all the noises are sucked away. My heartbeat is the only sound in my ears. My eyes sting, growing wet. I couldn’t have lost him.
I catch a glimpse of something red melting into the tall hedges that surround the playground and somehow I hear her voice—that airy giggle. “Wait!” I chase after her. It’s too coincidental that she just comes up and talks to me and now my brother is gone. “What game? Do you know—” I push between the hedges and trip over something small, sending me flying face first into the sidewalk.
The girl in the red jacket vanishes around the corner. I turn to face the offending object—a pair of small glasses, I’d recognize those coke-bottle lenses anywhere.
“The game, Joshua.” Her voice is a whisper in my ears. “Four hours. Shh…”
I don’t want to play her stupid game. I want my little brother. “Where’s Max?” I don’t get an answer.
I lay on the sidewalk for what feels like forever staring up at an empty sky, not seeing anything. I know I have to find him, but it just feels so hopeless. Like somebody told my brain to shut off and forget about him.
“Joshua?” I turn to the sound of Max’s voice, still in a state of stupor. For a second I don’t believe he’s real. His face looks like plastic and his eyes seem too small and too dark. He bends over me and takes his glasses. One of the lenses falls to the ground and shatters.
Max frowns, a too-grown-up expression on his little kid face. “You broke them.”
“Uh. Sorry?” I pull myself up off the cement and when I tower above him, my big brother mode kicks in. “Where were you?”
“I was here, Joshua. Looking at this.” Max holds up a dead bird by its foot. Its black wings fall lifelessly toward the ground, revealing a flash of red feathers underneath.
“Gross! Put it down.”
Max shrugs and drops the bird on the sidewalk. I cringe, about to yell at him, but then I remember his Asperger’s and let it slide.
“C’mon. Let’s go home.”
“I don’t want to go home. I want you to play some more.” Max looks over his shoulder at the playground.
I’ve had enough playing. “No.”
“But the girl said you have to keep playing, and I’m supposed to make sure you do.”
A small shudder runs through me. “What girl?” She was just some random crazy chick, and Max was here all along.
“The girl in the red jacket.”
I grit my teeth. “What ever happened to not talking to strangers?”
“You talked to her.”
I run a hand down my face and draw a breath. “Fine.” Mom says it’s best to indulge him sometimes, because it helps with his social skills. “What did she say we--I had to do?”
“Find the red things,” he says, like it’s the most informative direction he’s ever given and I’m a dolt for not already knowing.
“The red things? Like what?”
“I’ll show you.” Max takes my hand. His fingers are icy and sort of blue. I need to get him home soon. “But it’s a secret.” He holds one skinny finger up to his lips. “Shh!” And then he leads me back into the playground.
My eyes skirt around the hedges waiting to see her or some other snobby bitches giggling behind them. Why do girls get so much power? Thinking about how bad I wanted to kiss her and the tickle of her voice in my ear makes me want to puke.
Max leads me past the swing set and over toward this tree-house thing that has a rock wall and a slide on the back. I used to love that thing. I was king of the rock wall in second grade.
Max scuttles up the wall like a little spider monkey and a sad smile tugs at my cheeks. If he had friends who actually noticed him, he’d be rock-wall king of the 21st century.
It’s not so much fun now when I can climb the whole thing in one step. I duck into the tree-house. Max is standing there, staring down at the floor, the suggestion of a smile on his face.
“Okay, little dude. What’s so—Oh!” Shit.
I just sort of stare because it’s so dim in here that there’s a chance it might not be real, but then the smell slams the back of my throat and I have to battle with the violent urge to toss my cookies. I press a hand over my mouth and try to keep it all in.
“What is it?” Max asks and I realize that he’s squinting, not smiling, because his glasses are more than a little broken. It’s probably a hell of a lot better that he can’t see. I don’t know how he’d react if he could and the last thing I need is to take him home with fresh trauma in tact.
A dark red pool sits like oil on the floor. Its edges are thick and tall and form an uneven circle around what I’m way too certain is a heart. It’s not big enough to be a cow heart like the ones we cut up in bio. This one is small, the size of my fist, which means it could be human. It looks odd, though, not that I want to take the time to figure out why. More and more this feels like some elaborate prank. I’ll probably be on YouTube before I get home with some catchy title like ‘Playground Puker!’
I reach out and tug Max back toward me. “Looks like old steak or something. It’s gross whatever it is. Don’t touch it.”
A gust of wind funnels through the little window of the tree house and for a moment the air is clear. Max shivers and I remember how cold his fingers were and how seriously messed up this game is.
“Max, we need to go home. Mom will be worried if we’re out too long.” It’s pretty much blatant manipulation, but sometimes that’s best.
“No, Joshua, listen to me. She said we have to play. We must find the red things. The red things must be found.” He shifts his weight on his feet, back and forth. Rocking himself to stay calm. “It’s important because it’s a puzzle and there are pieces missing.”
I think, you’re the one with pieces missing. Somewhere outside and behind me, a crow barks and it’s like he’s barking at me, chastising. I grind my teeth and remind myself Max is a good kid and this isn’t his fault.
“Please, Joshua, it’s important.” He says, trying to focus on my face.
“Okay, Max.” I stand away from the door. As long as I can get him out of here and away from the bleeding heart on the floor, it’s a partial victory. “Where to next?”
He springs into action, diving down the metal slide on his belly. He sort of sticks at the end and inches to the bottom like a worm. I’m sure I’d get stuck one foot from the top if I tried. I hop down the way I got in and find Max dusting his hands on his jeans. “C’mon!” He calls, racing off into the field we just left.
I don’t know how he’s picking his directions, but I follow as he heads toward a whole pile of crows. They erupt in front of him and he crouches over whatever god-awful thing they were tearing apart while they scream their displeasure from seven feet away.
“Look! Look! What is it?”
The smell is strong, so strong that I know what I’ll see before I get there. It’s half buried in dying grass, and the blood is a soggy mess in the dirt, but it’s exactly what I was expecting. Or, almost exactly.
It’s not a whole heart, but half a heart with all the chambers open to the sky above. With another vicious twist of my guts, I realize that’s why the other appeared so small. It was missing a piece.
“That’s it.” I say standing up. “We’re going home. Now.” I say the last just as mom would when she’s at her most terrifying.
Max lowers his head and speaks in a small voice. “But there’s one more piece. Just listen to me. You never listen to me. She said four and we’ve only found three.”
“She said four hours, Max, not four pieces and she was clearly a psycho. You just can’t tell because you – because she was nice to you and you can’t tell the difference between nice and evil, psycho bi-“ I stop because he’s looking away and rocking on his feet. “I’m sorry. I can’t tell the difference either. C’mon.”
He follows now and I feel bad because I can tell he’s trying not to cry. I hate upsetting him. It makes me feel like a total dick.
We’re halfway home when the skin on the back of my neck prickles. Red flashes in the corner of my eye and I turn to find her standing next to a streetlight. It’s not dark enough to be on, but her dark curls are edged with orange light. It’s gotta be coming from the sun, but it looks more like it’s coming straight out of her hair in a Hi!-I’m-the-devil sort of way.
“I wouldn’t give up, if I were you.” She sings because that’s what crazy, hot chicks do.
“I’m not giving up.” I say without stopping. “I’m not playing.”
“You don’t have a choice. The game’s started and you’re in it.” Her voice follows us down the road. “And you’re running out of time. Remember what I told you, Max.”
The whole trip home is less than fifteen minutes, but it feels like it takes an hour. When we get there, I go straight up to my room. All I want is for this four-hour time limit to pass so I can start to forget this stupid game.
With five minutes still on the clock, I think, Max walks into my room. He knocks and enters all in one movement, which is something we’ve talked about without successful changes. It’s not usually a problem. I was only doing bio homework. This time.
He sits on the bed next to me. “Joshua, please don’t be mad, but I know where the fourth pieces is.”
“Max,” I start, but he raises his hands to stop me. They’re still pale and blue and I realize he still looks cold.
He lays back and lifts his black shirt over his torso revealing a flash of red underneath. For just a second, I don’t understand what I’m looking at, but then all of the pieces slide into place and cold spills over my shoulders and down my back.
In his chest is a dark, blood-black hole where is heart should be and all I can think is that I’ve lost.
Photo by i_yudai on flickr.