No One in the World

I felt like I knew the kid. I knew his crooked-cut bangs, his chipped left front tooth. His name was Christopher Thornton, and he lived in one of the scorched-looking houses—the houses that appeared to have been set on fire and then put out, repeatedly—across from Riverside Park, here in Twilight, Indiana. I knew his house’s collapsing front porch, and the burned-out-looking hole in the house’s roof that swallowed birds: I used to watch birds fly through the blackened hole and disappear, never come back out.

I didn’t know Christopher was an acrobat—until the day I planned to kidnap him, when I found him doing backflips off a picnic bench, one after another, and there was no one in the world paying attention to him except me.

Usually, Christopher built dirt castles because there wasn’t any sand in the park. Sometimes he scratched his initials—C.T.—into the painted horses attached with poles to the top of the carousel. The carousel was broken: There were no hanging rings to grab hold of; there was no calliope music. It had been busted—seventeen dangling, unmoving horses—for over twenty years, since back when I used to come here as a kid.

But that day, Christopher wasn’t piddling with dirt or performing minor acts of vandalism. He was doing backflips, and they were amazing.

I watched him from the road that circled the park, a half-mile loop, while I walked laps. His knees bent, his crooked bangs lifted off his forehead, and then his eyes squinted a little, his feet landed squarely on the grass. He wore shoes too big for his feet—generic Keds, women’s shoes, the color of dirty snow.

It was late September, a few weeks ago. I was still working nights—one until six in the morning—at Twilight’s pig plant, on the clean-up crew. I was the only white person on the crew, one of only two people who spoke English, and I was the boss. The other guy who spoke English, Roberto, worked as a conduit, translated the orders I gave.

I know about ten words of Spanish. I can say, “Hola.” I can say, “Como estas?” None of the guys, not even Roberto, would talk to me. I gave the orders, they followed them. When I tried to speak to the guys, using the few Spanish phrases I know, they chuckled at me like I was telling a joke, then they went back to work.

We worked with hoses, hoses that shot streams of water strong enough to scoot a thirty-gallon tub of pig guts across the floor like it was a toenail, or a chip of bone, which is what we mostly cleaned up: bone and blood. We wore yellow rainsuits, pants and tops. The rainsuits were supposed to keep us dry, but when I got home each morning, the money inside my wallet was damp, my jeans and T-shirt were tinted pink.

That afternoon, I had already called in sick to work for the night, and I was dressed in khaki pants and a blue polo shirt. I smelled clean, like deodorant and shampoo. My hair was parted on the side, neatly combed. And, folded in the pocket of my khaki pants, I had one of Christopher’s spelling tests—he’d missed nine out of ten—and a geography test on which he had written only his name.

Christopher didn’t have a backpack—he dropped papers all the time. Christopher didn’t have any friends either.

While he was doing his backflips, two kids about Christopher’s age walked over by the picnic table, and I thought, they’ve got to appreciate this. I mean, I’d seen kids walk up on Christopher when he was trying to make dirt castles or when he was digging mussels out of the Snake’s Head River and cracking their shells open on rocks, watching the slimy little creatures die, and I kind of knew the reactions they would have when he did those things; I didn’t expect them to appreciate Christopher then as much as I did. But when the kids found Christopher doing those backflips, I thought, maybe I won’t have to kidnap this kid after all.

The two kids, they looked like river kids. They looked like Christopher. They were passing a one-liter bottle of Mountain Dew back and forth, and I couldn’t hear exactly what they were saying. Their mouths looked like mumbles. They were kind of circling him.

Christopher ignored the kids and climbed onto the picnic bench. His knees flexed. And then one of the boys whacked him behind his knee with the half-filled Mountain Dew bottle. Christopher collapsed. His kneecaps hit wood, and he fell backwards onto the grass. The river kids laughed and left him there.

I wanted to go to Christopher right then—I stopped walking for a second—but he was already back up on the picnic bench. “Hey!” he yelled to the kids. “Watch this!”

The boys yelled back, something unkind, something about monkey dicks and mule balls. But they did stop walking. They did watch.

Christopher bent his knees, jumped—his bangs lifted off his forehead, his eyes squinted—but he didn’t bring his feet around to finish the flip. He kept his legs straight out, spread his arms wide, and timed his rotation so he landed belly-first on the grass. He thumped when he hit the ground, when he landed on the grass like an upside-down snow angel.

The boys didn’t bother to yell anything. They looked a little sickened.

And then Christopher did the exact same belly flop again. And again. The kids stopped watching.

After his third half-flip, Christopher kept his chin on the ground and moved his arms and legs in small arcs, like he was trying to leave an impression of himself there in the dirt and grass, and I thought, I have to kidnap this kid.

This kid is just like me. I have to save him.

* * *

I could have been kidnapped the summer I turned nine. This was in Twilight, in 1984, three years after the disappearance and murder of Adam Walsh and one year after the NBC TV-movie-of-the-week Adam aired. Kids were disappearing everywhere, and everyone in places like Twilight was a little leery when they took their children to shopping malls or saw unmarked white vans parked in their neighborhoods. Most parents began labeling their children’s coats with identification tags and asking their kids questions like, “Do you know how much I love you?” when they dropped them off at school or their friends’ houses.

My parents didn’t do these things.

My parents were kind and sweet and old. I never told them the story of my possible kidnapping. In their kindness and sweetness, they were a little isolated from the world around us in Twilight. They were a little isolated from me.

It was like they were disintegrating, dying right before my eyes. My father slept, my mother clipped recipes out of magazines and glued them in a spiral-bound notebook. I am pretty certain neither of them saw Adam. I am pretty certain neither of them would have missed me.

We lived in a small, one-story brick house in Twilight, just two blocks from the Snake’s Head and three blocks from the scorched-looking houses across from Riverside Park, where I was allowed to go by myself that summer. I would go in the evenings, after dinnertime, when the sun hung over the trees that lined the banks of the Snake and the air was thick with heat and evaporated river.

Besides the broken carousel, there were two playgrounds at Riverside. One was modern, with contraptions made of plastic and wood, set on a bed of cedar woodchips, near the softball diamond, and was littered with the children of the men and women who played there each night. The other was in the corner of the park nearest my house. It was old: three teeter-totters, four swings, monkey bars in the shape of a rainbow, all placed on gray pebbles. Large maples and oaks surrounded the peeling paint of the old equipment, and I liked the shadowy world of that playground, where I could be alone.

The man who almost kidnapped me came up behind me while I was hanging from the monkey bars, trying to do a set of ten chin-ups. I was three or four in, and my arms were half-flexed—I was struggling so hard I could feel my heart beating in my neck—when I felt someone’s hands on my calves. The hands were soft, uncalloused. I felt a light—very light—pressure on my legs, and then the hands helped lift me up until my chin touched rusty metal.

The hands let go of my legs once my arms were fully extended again. And then the man to whom the hands belonged walked around the monkey bars, so he was facing me, and began his own set of chin-ups.

He was not very tall—he only had to bend his knees slightly to keep his feet from scraping the gray pebbles beneath us. He had curly, sandy-brown hair and a small frame striated with muscle. His skin was very tan.

I was halfway to the bar for the second time when the man finished his set of five and walked behind me, put his soft hands on the backs of my thighs, and helped lift me to the bar again. Together, we did three more chin-ups. My arms grew more tired with each one, and the pressure of his hands on the backs of my legs grew stronger.

The man cheered me on while I struggled, like I have seen men do in gyms, saying, “Come on, buddy. That’s it!” After my last chin-up, I let go of the bar, and the man eased me down to the gravel. My arms burned. I began shaking them out at my sides.

“You’re pretty strong,” the man said. He glanced at the softball field or at the kids on the other set of playground equipment, screaming in that joy that sounds like terror. Then he reached down and held my arm, at the top of my biceps.

“Are you a Taurus?” he asked.

“A what?” I said. I have no idea what kind of face I made. I imagine my eyes crossing, my whole face screwing up.

The man took his hand off my arm, and laughed.

“A Taurus,” he said. “When’s your birthday?”

I told him it was May tenth.

“I knew it,” the man said. His eyes widened. He rocked up onto the balls of his feet, in a jumpy kind of calf-raise.

“That means you’re a Taurus,” he said. “That means you’re a bull, just like me. That means you’re strong like a bull.” He focused his eyes on one of his lean biceps and made a quick muscle.

I liked hearing this, that there was something about my birthday—some unknown universal force—that determined I was and would forever be strong. I jumped up and grabbed the monkey bars again, tried another chin-up.

“Get ‘em, Taurus!” the man said.

He walked around me and grabbed the backs of my knees. “Be a bull!”

The man only had hold of my legs for maybe three seconds, but there was something different about his grip this time; it was firmer, more insistent. I thought maybe he was trying to squeeze some of his strength into me. I felt light for a moment, held up only by him. And then the support went out from beneath me, and I dropped from the bar.

When I got my balance and turned around, a woman in a tank top and running shorts was walking by, squinting at me. The man who’d been helping me with my chin-ups was hurrying away towards a van parked on the street.

I didn’t want him to leave. Not yet. I wanted him to stay there with me.

“Come back!” I said. I raised my arms above my head and waved them. “Wait!”

The man didn’t even look back.

The van he drove off in was neither white nor unmarked. It was rusty and brown, and had a freshly painted sign on the side that read “Dan’s Windows and Doors.”

* * *

I didn’t drive a van the day I planned to kidnap Christopher. I rode a bike I stashed near the carousel while I walked—a nice, silver mountain bike I paid for with money I earned at the pig plant. The bike was for Christopher. The day I bought the bike, I also bought him a blue backpack and a pair of Nike tennis shoes, high tops.

I didn’t know if Christopher’s father was around, but I knew Christopher’s mother. I saw her once, outside their house with the collapsing porch. With one hand, she held an enormous bag of pork rinds and the handle of a baby stroller with Christopher’s little brother or sister inside. With the other hand, she fed herself—two and three pork rinds at a time. It wasn’t very attractive.

Christopher’s mom put both hands on the stroller’s handles to try and maneuver the porch steps, but one of the stroller’s wheels fell off, and she started kicking the stroller for breaking. She must have forgotten the baby was inside. She was really doing some damage. Another wheel fell off and rolled down the small dirt hill that was their front yard. Pork rinds spilled.

I mean, what kind of a chance was Christopher going to have? This was a kid who walked around, literally, in his mother’s shoes.

My parents weren’t like Christopher’s mother. They weren’t belligerent; they were barely there. I used to crawl into their bed when I was a child and put two fingers on each of their necks, to check for a pulse. Their hearts beat—slowly.

I remember this, something my mother used to say: Your heart has no secret that your conduct will not reveal. It had a biblical ring to it, but we weren’t religious people. We didn’t go to church. We didn’t go anywhere.

I used to wonder what my parents’ conduct revealed about their slowly beating hearts. Maybe their hearts were tired. Maybe their hearts were asleep.

* * *

I could have been kidnapped. I wasn’t.

My conduct afterwards revealed my tiny heart’s simple secret: I wished I had been kidnapped.

For an entire week, I returned to the monkey bars at Riverside Park at the hour of my near-abduction. I wandered around the old, shade-soaked equipment, did some chin-ups, and checked the street every few minutes for the van marked “Dan’s Windows and Doors.” It never showed up.

For an entire week, I returned home more disappointed. My father was asleep, my mother was clipping recipes from magazines and gluing them in her spiral-bound notebook. The pictures next to the recipes looked like the food she cooked each night for dinner, only prettier, better.

I started to imagine what my life would have been like if the man had kidnapped me. I didn’t think about what had happened to Adam Walsh, about the long search for his body, or the TV-movie-of-the-week that filled parents everywhere with dread. I started thinking that maybe I had missed out on something, a better life—far from Twilight—a life that had nothing to do with the one I was living.

And then I began keeping a notebook like my mother’s. Only I filled it with people I considered my relatives, only prettier, better.

I clipped pictures from my mother’s magazines of men from toothpaste and shaving cream advertisements and women from ads for dish soap and air fresheners, and I glued all of them in a blue, spiral-bound notebook I labeled “My Maybe-Family.”

I created a large maybe-family for myself and wrote long and involved stories about each of my maybe-family members. I had wise, old grandparents and young, athletic parents and a host of brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles who all lived amazing, exotic lives, who all adored me.

I cut out the pictures of missing children on our empty milk cartons and taped them in my notebook, too: my lost maybe-brothers and sisters.

My notebook started filling up, and then I began to combine body parts I found admirable from several different ads into one man or woman or child. I would stick one pearly white smile on a perfect, square jaw and then find a nice nose, a pair of blue eyes. These new family members were all out of proportion. They looked like ransom people, like the ransom letters kidnappers made and sent to the families of the children they’d kidnapped. Ears stuck out. Foreheads bulged.

I would sit in bed at night and memorize the features of my maybe-family members—both the old, perfect ones and the newer, more grotesque ones—and imagine what my life with them would be like. I was good at imagining all the things they did—one uncle worked as a television news anchor, one aunt was discovering the cure for cancer—but I couldn’t ever decide what I would be doing with them. What I imagined was mostly a setting: We would live far from Twilight, in wooden cabins, near a lake filled with tropical fish.

Back then I didn’t think much about what my life would be like once I was an adult. But I don’t think I would have imagined me in charge of a clean-up crew, wearing a yellow rainsuit, washing the pig plant’s floors with a hose each night. I don’t think I would have imagined me still living in the house where both my parents died.

* * *

My conduct when I tried to kidnap Christopher revealed this: My heart was pure, simple, and alive.

And when Christopher walked over to the old playground where I was almost kidnapped, and when he climbed up on the monkey bars, I felt like he was my child. I didn’t feel like I was kidnapping the boy. I was returning him to his rightful owner, me.

I reached the carousel and walked over to the bike. I brushed off my khaki pants, tucked in my shirt. I ran the palm of my hand over my neatly parted hair, to smooth it down, and lifted my, or Christopher’s, nice, silver mountain bike off the ground, and got on. The seat was too low—set for Christopher—but I managed to get the pedals going and took the long way around the park to him.

Here was the Snake’s Head, the softball field, the newer playground equipment. Here were the scorched-looking houses where the river kids lived, and the picnic benches where Christopher had performed those backflips.

It felt good riding the bike. Blood flowing, wind rushing through my hair. My body, like my heart, felt pure, alive.

I rounded the end of the park and stayed on the road. Here was the softball field again. And here were the old monkey bars. Here was Christopher.

He sat at the very top of the contraption, straddling the rainbow, and he held both hands on the bars, like the whole thing was a horse that might gallop off and take him with it.

I hopped the front tire over the curb and pulled the bike onto the thin layer of gray pebbles, and then I set the bike down, gently, and walked to the monkey bars. There was no paint at all on them. They were solid rust.

Christopher looked at me, then latched his legs over a bar and let his head fall towards the ground. He hung there, upside-down, his mouth slightly open, flashing his chipped left front tooth.

I grabbed the bar a few feet down from him, started a chin-up.

I didn’t turn out very strong, the way the man who almost kidnapped me said I would. I pulled myself halfway to the bar and then decided it’d be better just to hang there, not let the kid see me struggle.

Christopher dropped his arms down so they stretched like his crooked-cut bangs towards the ground, and he started to hum.

“What’s your name, buddy?” I said. The rust was scratchy on my hands. I wanted to let go.

“Terrence,” Christopher said. He resumed humming.

He was lying, and it disappointed me. I wanted to give him a chance to tell the truth.

“Terrence?” I asked.

“Terrence Whitehead,” he said.

“Terrence Whitehead?” My hands really burned. Blood pooled in my feet.

“I know,” Christopher said. “It’s not a very good name.” He reached his hands up to the bar and flipped his body so he landed on the ground, on his feet, so I let go of the bar too.

“The girls do those,” he said.

“The girls do what?”

“Those flexed-arm hanging things. In gym class. Only they put their chins near the bar.”

I tried to wipe the rust off my hands, but my palms were sweating. Tiny brown flakes stuck to my fingers.

Christopher kind of cocked his head at me, looked me over.

I couldn’t get the rust off my hands. “Do you live around here, Terrence?” I asked.

“What was the name of your dog?” he said. “When you were growing up?”

My conversations with co-workers at the pig plant would go about like this. When I didn’t say, “Hello,” or, “How are you doing,” I would say to one of the men, in Spanish, “It’s hot in here.” And the man would say something in reply that I would be pretty certain was unrelated to what I had just said. He would make a gesture towards one of his friends, and then they would speak quickly to one another, pointing at me, and laughing like I’d just said the funniest thing in the world.

“My dog?” I asked.

“Everyone like you had a dog growing up.”

He picked up my bike and put both his hands on the handlebars.

“Well, Christopher,” I said. “I never had a dog.” I realized I’d called him by his real name, but the kid didn’t even flinch.

“Nice bike,” he said. “Can I ride it?”

Now this is what I was looking for. I had thought I might have to tell him how strong he looked, or ask him when his birthday was, or maybe even compliment him on those backflips, but I didn’t want to freak him out. I wanted him on the bike, riding it away from the park, towards my house.

“Sure you can,” I said. “Hop on, buddy.”

The bike’s seat was still a little too high for him. When he tried to ride the bike, the front tire wobbled, and his arms jerked from side to side. I walked beside him, steadying the handlebars with one hand. “That’s it,” I said. “You got it.”

“Why don’t you lower the seat a little more?” he said.

I did. And then Christopher was riding little circles around me while I walked.

“I bet you wanted a dog while you were growing up, didn’t you?” he asked.

“Not really,” I said. “But I wanted a little brother or sister.”

This prompted Christopher’s second lie. “Not me,” he said. “I like being the only kid.” He performed the lie so effortlessly I almost believed him.

We were at the edge of the park, in the road, only three blocks from my house. I started to imagine what Christopher’s face would look like when we got there and he saw his new backpack and his new pair of Nikes. I thought, we will become friends right away. We will save one another.

Christopher tried popping a wheelie, but couldn’t lift the tire off the ground. He tried again, and again, until he’d gotten pretty far ahead of me. I called for him to come back, and he made a slow, looping turn and began pedaling towards me. He used the hand brakes to stop the bike just inches from my feet, so close I could smell tire rubber.

“That was close,” I told him. I put my hands over his hands on the handlebars and squeezed. “You almost ran into me.” I smiled at him.

“It was a trick,” he said. He smiled back. “I was just getting close, testing the brakes.” I let go of his hands and he rode another small circle around me. “This sure is a nice bike.”

I thanked him. I was about to tell him he could keep the bike, that I had another one just like it at home. But we were only two blocks from my house. We were almost there.

Christopher pulled up alongside me, pedaling slowly. He was already pretty good with the bike. He was riding like a pro. I started thinking about all the places Christopher and I would ride our bikes once we left Twilight. There are trails for bikes like these in the mountains, around lakes.

“Say,” Christopher said. “What names did the kids call you in school?”

I stopped walking. “What names?” I said.

“Everyone like you,” he said, “got called names.” He used the hand brakes and stopped the bike in the road, facing back towards the park. I was facing home.

“I didn’t get called names,” I said.

“Come on,” he said, and blew his crooked-cut bangs off his forehead. “Look at you. Those pants. That hair. I bet you had it pretty tough in school.”

I felt all hot and wiggly, like my insides were coming loose. I could feel my heart beating in my neck.

“Get off my bike,” I said. “Now.” I started towards him. “Hand it over.”

Christopher had one foot on the ground, the bike resting against his thigh. “All right. All right,” he said. His body went slack, like he was going to give the bike back to me, and I stopped short of where he stood and held out one hand, as if he could literally hand the bike over.

Christopher’s conduct revealed this, something I couldn’t possibly have known, about his heart: He was not the one. He was past saving.

I stood there with my hand held out and Christopher said, “I told you my name was Terrence.” He put one of his big shoes on a bike pedal. “Not Christopher.” Then he remounted the bike and took off towards his house.

When he tried to hurry, though, his big, women’s shoes slipped off the pedals, and his groin fell against the bar, hard.

I didn’t chase after him. I liked how he got away. He kept his eyes on the road ahead and didn’t look down at the mistakes his feet made. He never once looked back.

There was something in my heart right then, some secret, that I wasn’t sure how to conduct. Christopher was disappearing, getting smaller and smaller the closer he got to Riverside. My face felt hot. My insides tingled.

I reached into the back pocket of my khaki pants for my wallet. The leather was still a little wet, slimy.

“Hey,” I yelled. “Terrence!”

I opened the wallet and reached inside, pulled out four one-dollar bills. “Look at this!” I said.

I waved the four damp bills in the air like they were a million dollars. They were stuck to one another from the moisture, and the little clump of bills sagged onto my fist, like wilting flowers, but I kept waving them. I held the wet money tight in my fist and stood there in the middle of the road, waving my money at Christopher like it was everything, like it was all I had in the world.

*****

 

No One in The World first appeared in Gulf Stream #23 (2005).

Chad Simpson is the author of Tell Everyone I Said Hi, which won the 2012 John Simmons Short Fiction Award and was published by the University of Iowa Press. His work has appeared in many print and online publications, including McSweeney’s Quarterly, Esquire, American Short Fiction, and The Sun, and he has received awards from the Illinois Arts Council, the Atlantic Monthly, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. He lives in Monmouth, Illinois, and is an Associate Professor of English at Knox College.

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2 thoughts on “No One in the World

  1. Pingback: 25th Anniversary | Gulf Stream Literary Magazine

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