Oliver woke from a dream.
Someone had fought him, taken him somewhere, left him. But as he came into consciousness, fragments of his dream merely lingered, until slowly, they began to slip through the crevices of his mind like sand through a filter. And no matter how desperately he tried holding on to them, he knew for some reason that the moment he opened his eyes, it would all be gone.
Sun struck his pupils and his whole face squinted. From the bright rays, from the throbbing in his neck. He felt like he’d been tossed around like a wrestling dummy but couldn’t remember why. And what was that smell? Meaty and thick; comforting. Pot roast. Pot Roast? Suddenly, its meaning left no impression.
Moving without pain felt as impossible as trying to fly, so he let his eyes and ears take in his surroundings. He was tucked up in a corner against a green, wooden door with a glass window and muffled bits of conversations trickled up to where he lay. Slowly, worry began to creep over him. Nothing registered as familiar. Nothing. Not where he was. Not even how he got there. He peered upwards and saw a sign on the door. “Closed. Back at 8am.” What time was it? The air felt chilly, despite the bright sun, so it must be morning. That felt right. It felt good to feel right.
Suddenly, footsteps sounded from behind the door, and before someone could spot him, he stumbled to his feet and forced himself to move.
He wandered down tree-lined streets, staring hard at each store name, each street name, each mailbox. His forehead was scrunched so tight in concentration; however, only hazy images hovered behind his eyes. It was eerie and becoming more so. Each time he tried to extract one thought, one memory from his mind, he felt like he was searching for a golden thread in an all black tapestry.
As people in good humor passed him on the street, parents with kids, couples holding hands, he felt their eyes linger. Did they know him? Should he not be here? But their gazes didn’t feel judgmental. Pitiful, more like it. And soon he knew why. He jumped at the sight of a small boy in one of the glass storefronts; hair a tizzy mess; bags under his eyes; gaunt skin. Bright blue eyes stared back at him. He blinked. So did the boy in the glass. That pitiful boy was he.
Was that his name? Oliver Pastorius, he repeated, rolling his tongue around his mouth as if tasting each word. Yes. That sounded right. Oliver.
He scanned his own face, clothes, shoes and noticed several grass stains smeared across his jeans, even on the olive green jacket and grey sneakers he couldn’t remember putting on. Colored ink had seeped into his left palm, leaving some sort of angular mark. And his hair, caked in something that had dried like super glue, refused to lay flat. Last time he showered could have been days ago. From the smell of his hair–yuck. Like rancid milk and sweat. It could have been weeks. Keeping his head low, he skulked down the street, avoiding as many glances as he could.
On and on he walked, eventually climbing several steep flights of stairs until he reached the top of a slope that overlooked a vast city. Some city–where a tall pointy tower loomed in the distance and a large body of water glistened in the sun. It was beautiful and yet made him feel very small. The giant cluster of buildings, the expansive stretch of water, the endlessness of it all intensified his fears of being lost and an aching of loneliness suddenly entered his body like a virus.
Where was he?
Where’d he come from?
How’d he get here?
But answers refused to come, and the sunshine, beaming down on his face, slowly eased the urgency he had felt all morning and cloaked him in protective warmth. His body relaxed; his eyes closed; a breeze skipped over his face and infused his nose with the scent of freshly cut grass. And for a while, he embraced the present.
Then the sound of laughter snapped his eyes open. Quickly, he found its source–a few feet below him, families ran freely across a grassy knoll. Their joyful screams pierced his ears like a jack hammer. Too happy. Too carefree. The antithesis of his new, looming feelings. One girl with frizzy blonde hair peeked out from behind the bushes, and for a split second, they locked eyes; for reasons he couldn’t explain, hope enwrapped him.
However, he blinked and she was gone, taking his hope with her.
As the day wore on, Oliver’s stomach began to growl and worry returned all too quickly. He had ignored the obvious survival questions all morning, which now, he realized was stupid. But when “I don’t know,” became his only answer to, “where was he staying” and “where could he get dinner,” ignoring them seemed easier.
A long, narrow marketplace, filled with the tang of sea water and fishand an endless row of booths, selling fruit, candy, flowers–everything, made his stomach roar louder. A throbbing in his temples intensified with every brightly colored food he passed. His eyes flitted over the dozens of bags in people’s hands and felt all the moisture in his body rush to his mouth. As he staggered through the marketplace, he discovered a clear, rectangular bill in his jacket pocket. Money? He had to try. He practically tripped over someone, hurrying to a stand where the air dripped with sugar; however, when he handed the clerk his bill, she eyed him curiously and returned it.
“Where are your parents, sweetie?” she asked. She had a gentle face with soft creases framing her mouth and clear blue eyes that shifted searchingly over his head. Slowly, disappointment seeped through him. No sweet, delicious round pastry. No solution to his cramping insides. He swayed slightly. The lack of food was catching up to him and the sugary aroma merely taunted him.
“Oh, they’re around here, somewhere,” he said, pocketing the bill, and before she could ask questions he didn’t have answers to, he disappeared into the crowd.
Back outside, Oliver hit pinnacle levels of worry. No food. No drink. No money. Which meant that the ballooning queasiness would only get worse. As he shuffled blindly down streets, the sun had lost its protective warmth and instead blared like a flashlight in his eyes. All he wanted was to sleep away this nightmare. Climb into a cozy bed and shut his eyes so tight he’d force his way through to his dreams. The problem was his only bed was a hard concrete step. Home, an unfamiliar nook. But waves of loneliness were hitting harder with every family he passed, and soon even his nook sounded comforting.
As best he could, Oliver retraced his steps, clambered up to the door, and sat as tucked away in the corner as possible, so no one could see him through the glass. He chipped away at the goo in his hair and stared at the lamppost across the street–until he realized it was staring back. A pair of large hazel eyes blinked from behind the post. Blonde hair. Frizzy. Oliver scrambled to his feet when he realized who it was. The girl from the park.
“Hey!” he called out, waving. Hope once again enveloped him. He had to get to her. She must know something about why he was here. But as he started towards her, the door behind him opened.
“What are you doing here?”
Oliver’s attention was rattled just enough; he whipped his head around at the woman’s voice, booming from the door but immediately regretted it. When he turned again to look for the girl behind the post, she was gone. Again. His head drooped between his shoulders.
“Huh,” he muttered, eyes frozen on his shoes.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
Her tone. Her accusatory tone, like he had defaced her door, slowly woke him from his stupor. He was tired. Hungry. Dirty. And alone. Having just lost the one person he’d recognized all day. His palms began to burn as he squeezed them tight. He opened his mouth to say something, to yell excuses, but suddenly his eyes fell on the woman at the door and all he managed was a drawn out, “Uh.”
At well over six feet, she towered over him; her wispy mane, brushed with ashy greys and muted reds, draped around her body like a cloak. The sun had left her skin leathery and tan and her stark white pants and matching top reminded Oliver of boat sails he’d seen billowing on the water earlier that day. Her eyes bore into Oliver’s as he stood, mouth agape, wondering how she fit through the door.
An awkward pause passed between them. Oliver swore he saw her wrinkle her nose when the wind kicked up; he dropped his gaze quickly, his face flushed with heat, and turned to leave.
“Wait,” she said. Something in her voice had softened. “How old are you?”
Oliver scanned his brain for his age. Nothing. “Eleven,” he blurted out.
“Huh. You’re pretty scrawny for eleven,” she said. “You selling something, kid?”
“Lose something then?”
He shrugged, glancing again at his feet and blinking quickly to force away tears. Then again…he looked at her. Let the wetness stain his cheeks.
“Oh, now,” she said, pulling a rag from her pocket and handing it to him. He blew loudly.
She chuckled, the wrinkles on her face elongating. “Didn’t mean to make you cry. Kids don’t usually visit my gardening store, here. So, figured you were trouble. You’re not trouble, are you,” she said, resting her hands on her hips. Oliver shook his head. It was working. She was softening. He threw her a sheepish smile.
“Well, you can come in if–” she started as Oliver handed back her rag. Yet her eyes spotted something and she froze. “Oh, I see,” she mumbled, wrinkling her forehead. “Don’t believe this. Can’t ever get a moment’s peace.” She began backing up, shaking her head at him.
“No. I don’t want anything to do with that,” she said, pointing at Oliver, her voice rising. “I don’t know who sent you or what you thought you’d find, but I’ve been living here a long time and don’t need snoops coming around here, bothering me.” She narrowed her eyes before slamming the door in his face.
Oliver stood, hands limp by his sides. Stunned. Anything to do with what? he wondered, repeating her words in his mind. All he could think of doing now was turn away, put as much distance between himself and his nook. His nook. Loneliness hit him all over again, and as he hurried passed people, their faces blurred by the tears clouding his eyes, he realized that that nook was his last resort. Now what?
Warmth and light were evaporating quickly, and soon darkness would blanket the sky. He walked, on and on. Slowly, the streets cleared; storefronts grew dim; and an eerie quiet hung in the air. He lost count of how many stairs he’d climbed or if a lamppost looked familiar or not. But he had long ago given up on trying. For all he knew, he wouldn’t remember any of it tomorrow.
Hours later, Oliver was alone on the streets. His eyelids began to droop, and several times he felt his head dip towards his chest. He sat down on a small bench, letting his eyes rest. Just for a few moments, he thought firmly. Just long enough to…
Oliver’s eyes snapped open. And was practically blinded by a blazing light flashed at his face. He threw his hands over his eyes, moaning.
“Sorry about that,” said a voice. The light moved. “Where are your parents, kid?”
Oliver lowered his hands. “What?”
“Your parents,” said the man who was in some kind of uniform. Black hat. Black jacket. Black baton of light. “It’s two in the morning. You can’t be out walking alone. So tell me where you live, and I’ll take you back home.”
Home. The word hit him in the gut.
“Look,” he continued, tilting his hat up so Oliver could see his face more clearly. Scruffy salt and pepper beard. Wrinkled forehead. Bulbous nose. “Are you in some kind of trouble?”
“Run away? Steal something?” he pressed.
He spoke so quickly, Oliver failed to keep up.
“Because if so, I’ll need to take you–”
“Take me where?” asked Oliver, perking up.
“To a foster home.”
Home. He said it again. But something didn’t sound right. This was the place he woke up in. This was the place he needed to stay. To figure things out. “No,” said Oliver, pointedly, wracking his brain for a plan. “No, I just got lost. I…I live with my grandmother.”
“Okay,” he said drawing out each letter. “Where does she live?”
Oliver grew annoyed. He didn’t have answers for him. But doubt was beginning to appear on the man’s face. “Um, at a gardening store. With a green door,” he said. “I don’t remember the street name.”
“You’re lucky I know where that is. Come on.” And he lead Oliver back to the nook he had fled earlier that day. “This it?”
His stomach twisted into a knot. The same green door. The same lonely nook. “Uh huh,” said Oliver. But not convincingly enough. The man raised his hand to knock.
“Wait! She’s, um, asleep. I don’t want to wake her.”
“Really,” said the man, eying him curiously.
Oliver nodded. “We do this all the time. I like exploring, and she goes to bed. She’ll just be annoyed that you woke her up, and she’s not super friendly,” said Oliver. Well, that last part was true. “I’ll just let myself in,” he added, wrapping his hand around the knob. He’d slip in, wait for the uniformed man to leave, then disappear back into the night. She’d never know he was there. “Thanks for your help.”
“I’m not leaving until you’re inside.”
Oliver sighed. Of course. Hands hot and shaky, he slowly jiggled the knob, praying it would open.
It was locked.
“You sure this is the place?” the man asked, now surveying Oliver’s greasy hair and dirty clothes more closely.
“Yes! It is. I just–”
“Because it seems to me you’re lying. Dirty hair. Grimy clothes. I get it now. Don’t want to go back into the system. We see it all the time,” he said, nodding as if he understood something clearly Oliver didn’t. “Let’s go, kid.” And he pushed Oliver towards the street with his meaty hands. “I’m taking you with me.”
Just as Oliver was about to bolt, the door swung open.
“What’s the problem out here?”
“Sorry to disturb you–”
“It’s two in the morning–what is it?” the woman asked, in that same accusatory tone. That same booming voice.
Oliver wanted to melt right into the concrete.
“Ma’am, is this your grandson?” asked the man, seemingly surprised by her abrasive questioning, and spun Oliver around by his shoulders to face her.
Oliver couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t move. He simply stared at the woman at the door, feeling like time had froze. He watched her watch him. Study his face. Glare at him. Roll her eyes. Then, “Yes. That’s him.”
The man sighed, almost disappointedly, and released him. “Well, fine. If you could keep him from running around at late hours of the night, I’d appreciate it.” He tipped his hat, shot Oliver a warning glance, and left.
Oliver stayed breathlessly still. Should he bolt? Should he speak? Would she yell? But she grumbled something under her breath and headed back into the darkness of her store, the door wide open. For several seconds, Oliver didn’t move. Didn’t know how to move. Like he had lost all memory of that too. Until, he heard her. “Be sure to lock the door, you hear me?” she said, from somewhere in the back. “I don’t want anyone stealing anything.” A door slammed and Oliver was once again, alone.
He shuffled inside, locked the door, and sat, back pressed against the door’s frame, numb. The room was cold, dark, still. His heart was still beating at rapid speeds; his mind still processing what had just happened. What had just happened? But as he sat, arms wrapped around his knees, now tucked under his chin for warmth, his eyelids began to droop, and before the entirety of the day’s worries could overwhelm him, he rested his head against his knees and let the still darkness sweep over him.