I quickly walked out the condo before I could hear any more vicious sounds of delicate items smashing against scratched wood floors. It hurt to see my father like this, but from lessons at school called “life skills” I knew it was best to “remove yourself from the situation”.
The stairs leading down the small living place were ragged and broken. Lots of things had been smashed against those too. They would never be fixed, so we were forced to look at the memories every day.
There weren’t many places to go in Spanaway, Washington. But I had been running through the town enough times to memorize where everything was. My favorite place to go was the playground, which might seem weird for a girl in high school, but that’s just the way my brain works.
I started my jog at a light and slow speed. No need to rush, since I had a feeling I would have to be out for a long time before my father could calm down. The sun was just starting to set, and it spewed brilliant colors against the dusty blue sky. I wanted to stop and gaze at it, but it was dangerous to stand on the side of the road. Sunsets were always the most beautiful in Washington. Not that I had ever been out of the state, but anything more stunning than this would be overkill.
The further I got from my house, the cleaner and fresher the air smelled. In fact, all of my senses heightened with every heavy step I took forward. The warm summer wind against my face stung, but it was a humble reminder of every inch of my skin.
The tops of the three sets of swings loomed ahead over the hill. Most of the metal poles were rusted completely, but they still served their purpose, which was to bring simple joy to children or teens, in my case.
I didn’t stop my jog. Instead I sprinted into the nearest swing. I jumped over the splintering wood and plopped into a sitting position. I took a minute to observe my surroundings and catch my breath.
There was one toddler playing in a sandbox and gurgling to the tune of a song I’d never heard before. A babysitter, possibly, lied on a bench near the child. She stared up at the sky with a look of longing. I too turned my head upward. Now, the clouds looked like ghosts of sharp orange and magnificent magenta. The sun had barely touched the horizon. It was a beautiful, if eerie, sight. I had maybe three quarters of an hour before night settled.
Pumping my legs, I climbed higher through the thick air. Once I was at a height where I could see across the whole park, I reached down and untied my shoelaces. Then I sat back up so I wouldn’t lose any momentum. Closing my eyes, I kicked off my ripped up sneakers. I listened for the thud of them hitting the ground. After forty seconds I opened my eyes just in time to see one navy shoe with threads billowing off its edges hit the dirt. Strange, I thought to myself. I didn’t think I kicked it that high. But my mind was elsewhere today, maybe I counted the seconds wrong.
I continued my blissful swinging, bathing in thoughts of happier times. Then I started thinking about that pair of shoes. Suddenly an odd thought occurred to me. I had only seen one shoe land. I never saw or heard the right one touch the ground. Perhaps I was just losing my mind tonight. But just in case, I slowly opened my eyes, all the time I still swung back and forth on that rusty old swing.
Searching the ground for any object that might resemble a shoe, worry crept into me. The sun was now going down at an alarming rate and now I was barefoot. Even worse, the one shoe that I had seen minutes before had disappeared.
I stopped pumping my legs back and forth and leaned against the movement of the swing. I looked around to see the toddler in the sandbox now having a tantrum. The girl who had been lying on the bench leaned down to pick the little boy up and carried him out of the playground.
The child could’ve taken my shoes, but that was unlikely since it would’ve had to have moved very fast in and out of the sandbox.
Before the swing had come to a complete stop, I had jumped off and was running around the area of where my shoes could possibly have landed. Then a bright color caught my eye. Tucked carefully under the corner of a large stone, was a leaf. In mid-summer, I was not expecting to see a neon red leaf lying around. As I looked close in the dim light, I saw there was a word imprinted in the direct center of the leaf.
Keep? What could that mean? Did it even mean something? I looked around again, for anything that would be another clue to this curious word. Then I saw it.
A red treasure chest, made of plastic of course, and the corners were bitten, probably by a dog. I smiled. “Keep” was referring to something you would keep something in. What would be in this little chest, I had no idea. But I doubted it was a treasure, unless of course it was my lost shoe, which would be a precious treasure to me. This seemed like some form of mind game, and though it was frightening, part of me couldn’t help but feeling entertained.
I ran over and opened the chest to find another leaf. This one was electric blue with another single word on it.
I sighed inwardly. I don’t think my shoes are worth this effort. If I want to get back before the streets become dangerous, I had better start back now. I felt a prick on my ankle and yelped. Probably just a bug, I thought. I glanced down and saw it was a spider. I’ve been to this spot in town a hundred times. I’ve explored every inch of the soil a thousand times. Never has there been a single spider in the area. I swatted the creature away and looked up for something one could fall from.
The monkey bars would be an obvious choice. But there was nowhere to hide a bright colored leaf there. There was also the rope structure that I used to climb up when I was younger. But I was the only kid who would fall from those. Unfortunately, there wasn’t any other option.
Of course, there was a leaf wrapped around the intricate pattern of ropes. I had a nagging feeling that whoever was playing this joke knew me personally. Something as simple as a rope wall was easy to climb, and anyone else wouldn’t be expected to fall.
This leaf was neon green. It reminded me of the color of the woods in the morning. The word on it this time didn’t give me any help at all.
This is just great. The sun had dropped fully under the sky and it was now night. Surrounding the little playground was miles of forest. Whoever put these out must be crazy to think I would just wander into the woods at night with no shoes.
But then again, I had nothing worth going home to.
I started towards the edge of the wood closest to the swing set. At this point I was just wandering based on memory, because I could barely see my own hand in front of me. And because today seemed to be my lucky day, I tripped on a loose rock.
After mumbling some swears to myself, I reached back to find what exactly I had stumbled on, I felt stiff fabric, then rubber, then laces. It was my right shoe. I laughed to myself at how silly the whole situation was. Then I slipped my shoe on and walked further into the woods.
It had been seven minutes, according to my watch, that I had been walking aimlessly through unfamiliar forest when I heard a rustling in the leaves above me. I looked up and saw a figure jump down and land about four feet away from me. As my eyes adjusted to the new movement, I saw the figure was a person. It looked like a boy around sixteen years of age. He stuck out his arm and for a second I thought he was going to strike me, but then I saw a flash and heard a thud. I looked down to see the faint outline of my left shoe. Thankful for the ease off my bare feet, I quickly grabbed the shoe and slipped it on. I didn’t bother to fix the tongue or pull the laces out from the inside. The boy was still standing there. He walked a few steps in the opposite direction I had been coming. He turned around and may have given me a meaningful look, but I couldn’t see since it was pitch black out now. He waved his hand to me until I took a reluctant step towards him.
I am definitely going crazy. Why would I follow this boy? Even if I was lost in the woods, I would’ve found my way out eventually. But who knows where he could be taking me.
Eighteen minutes later our sprint had slowed, and the forest stopped. He stopped and looked straight ahead into the distance. As I leaned over to catch my breath, I realized where we were. This was the back of my house. I spun around taking in the view from this spot. I had never even realized there were trees in our backyard. I was too obsessed with leaving to see what was around me.
I became acutely aware of the boy next to me. Now his features were dimly lit by the street lights in the distance. His features were sharp and it made him look rather serious and unhappy.
He took one backward step, then turned around and swerved between the trees until he was out of sight. That was really strange, I thought. I’ve never seen that boy before, and I knew almost everyone who lived here. Maybe he didn’t go to the local high school. I wonder if I’ll ever see him again… How did he know where I live? Why did he steal my shoes?
Muffled sobs from inside the house distracted me from my thoughts. I remembered my father and how I had left him. One thing to deal with at a time.
Walking up the back porch steps, I turned back for one last look. I could’ve sworn I saw a person hanging from a tree, but my mind was playing a lot of tricks on me tonight.
I made a silent resolution to take my runs in through these woods instead of on the street.