I was bumming around with Em, years ago, sitting on a bench at a little park. It was autumn and cold and there were no kids around. We were just sitting there without talking, there was nothing more to say. Over her shoulder I saw a little playground with some plastic animals set on springs. I got up and walked over there and she followed me. We both took an animal and started rocking back and forth. Hers was a dragon. Mine was a sea horse.
“Are we old?” She asked.
“No,” I said, “not yet.”
“I feel old.” She shivered beneath her coat.
We sat there side by side, rocking gently back and forth. I tried to reach out and touch her, but she bent sideways on her spring, so I stopped. A breeze blew some dry leaves off the trees and they settled on the ground around us. I was looking at them when I saw the kid. He was standing by the swings, one arm looped around the pole, just looking at us. Well, he wasn’t looking at us exactly, he was looking at our animals.
“Can I try?”
“Yeah dude, knock yourself out.” He came walking up to my sea horse and put a hand on its curved plastic tail. I stepped off with one leg, but my pants caught in the spring. The horse pulled forward with me as I tugged. When I yanked it free the horse jumped up.
Em gasped. My hands rose of their own volition and gripped my hair. “Oh shit.”
“Why did you do that?”
“Oh my god, look at him. Something’s wrong with him.”
She was right, something was wrong. I went over, crouched down and looked at him lying there. The fingers of one hand were clenching and unclenching, like an insect without its head. I looked at his little ribs. “He’s breathing.”
“Why did you do that?” She asked again. She wasn’t looking at the kid anymore, she was looking at me. I wasn’t going to answer a question like that. It was cold and the dying leaves rustled on their branches. Another one broke and came drifting down.