When I Was a Kid
They grow up so fast, sadly (2/18)
When Peter was just a kid, he never noticed how dark it got at night. Now, he was aware of the seemingly infinite blackness that enveloped him and his little sister, Sally, every night now that they slept in the park. His night vision had improved dramatically. Now, he could see through the gauze of dusk until about 9:00PM. After that, he sensed rather than saw, but he’d quickly acquired the ability to know when someone was coming with enough advance warning to wake Sally and hide. Or run. He was still learning when each was called for.
These new skills had saved them more than once since their Ma and Pa were gone.
So much had happened, and happened so fast, Peter didn’t remember much. One day things were normal; the next, shiny clean men with flat clothes and big black uncomfortable-looking shoes were tearing up their couch and ransacking their trailer. The next morning, Social Services arrived, even more earnest than the dozens of times they’d visited before. The following day, before the Do Gooders returned, Peter and Sally–ages seven and four–slung their knapsacks over their shoulders and headed off on their own.
Even though it was summer, it was late enough in the evening now that Peter could see his sister shivering. With the lighter he’d shoplifted from Mac’s convenient store, Peter started a small fire with some dry twigs he’d collected. He pulled out what passed as a clean sweatshirt from Sally’s backpack and tugged it down over Sally’s filthy mop of curly blonde hair.
“Thank you, Peter,” Sally said in her ever-polite way. Even through all they had been through, Sally remained well-mannered. Their mother, despite being an alcoholic, did her best to properly raise Sally. “You must always be a lady,” she’d say, even on nights when the word must came out sounding like mushed.
“You’re welcome, Sally,” Peter said, unconsciously following the lead of his young sister. He patted her on the head and said, “Tomorrow we’ll go down to the lake and take a bath. have you noticed? People turn away from us because we’re so filthy.”
“We are not.”
Peter glanced at his sister and softened. “Yeah. You’re right. We’re… we’re… tan, that’s all. Not our fault we tan black, not brown or pink.”
Sally giggled and Peter pulled her close. After a few more minutes of talking, the two children curled up next to one another and were soon fast asleep.
At daybreak, Peter swept his right foot through the dirt a few times to cover up the small fire pit from the night before. He could feel some of the soot and soil sneak into the hole at the toe of his left tennis shoe. He and Sally found semi-private positions amidst the trees and did their business. When they were ready, Sally said, “I’m hungry.”
“You’re always hungry,” Peter replied.
The smile drained from Sally’s face.
Peter quickly realized what he’d done. “Don’t worry, kiddo. So am I. I’m starvin’. In fact, I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.”
“I’m so hungry I could eat an elephant,” Sally said.
On and on the game went until Peter was sure his baby sister no longer worried about being a burden, something about which she worried a lot, even before their parents were gone.
Peter and Sally made their way down Black Diamond trail, out the back of the park. It was a two-hour walk to Lake Cherrywood. Peter’s plan was to arrive before the ranger station opened at 10:00AM. That way, they could clean up in the lake without being spotted by a well-meaning park ranger or a nosy visitor.
As planned, Sally crouched behind the large glittery boulder while Peter scouted the path toward the beach. After a few minutes, Peter returned and gave the all clear sign. Sally stood and swung her backpack over her shoulder, started humming rub-a-dub-dub, three men in a tub, and ran down the path to the beach. Peter hurried to keep up.
When he finally caught up to her at the shoreline, Peter shushed Sally, but Sally could tell he didn’t really mean it. Peter waded into the lake until the water was up to his knees. Sally stood at the water’s edge, handing items of clothing to Peter as he called for them. After Sally handed him each item, Peter scrubbed it with the sliver of soap he still had, dunked it in the clear blue water of the lake, and tossed it back to Sally. A few minutes later, when he was done washing all of their clothes, Sally jumped into the lake to join Peter. She brought the small bottle of shampoo they had stolen from a housekeeping cart at the Motel 6 on Elm Street and the two children used it to wash the grime out of their hair. When they were done, Sally tossed the shampoo bottle up onto the beach, near their backpacks, and began splashing around.
Peter heard the sound of a branch cracking and he hushed his sister. The two children dipped low into the water, only their noses and eyes above the surface. They waited.
Two men’s voices. Then, two men. They appeared from around the bend in the trail that led down to the beach. From their matching green outfits and wide brim hats, Peter could tell they were park rangers. Peter stayed as calm as he could, willing his sister to be still.
Then Peter looked toward the beach in front of him. Their backpacks and clothes! They were right out in the open!
The two rangers stood at the bend in the path. One pointed out at the lake. They were talking to each other, but Peter couldn’t hear anything. Peter dared not turn to look behind him, toward the center of the lake. He hadn’t even noticed if any boats were out on the lake. He told himself to remember to check for boats the next time they went to wash. And to hide their packs. If there was a next time.
A few excruciating minutes later, the men turned and headed back up the path.
“That was close,” Peter said.
Sally nodded, still to afraid to speak.
“C’mon. Let’s get our stuff together and get out of here,” Peter said.
Sally shoved the wet clothes into her backpack after putting all of their other, dry possessions into Peter’s.
They quietly headed back up the path, needing to find something for breakfast. Maybe behind the Wal-Mart, Peter thought.
As he hoisted his little sister into the dumpster to snatch a damaged Twinkie box, Peter found himself wishing he was still just a kid.
It had been eight days since he and Sally fled their trailer.