The City Does That to People (Flash)

My daily routine included, until recently, a late lunch in the little park next to my office tower.   It’s a bit hemmed in, but weather permitting the setting was still more pleasant than a café or the office break room, and it was a half-hour well spent.   The advantage of the late lunch was the lack of competition for what I had come to think of as my bench.   I got to sit in the air, listen to the squabbles of sparrows, and enjoy a little separation from others.   After the regular lunch hour, the park was pretty much deserted.

The last time I went there, I had just unwrapped my sandwich when a young woman parked a stroller across from me, in the shade of one of the little trees.   She smiled at me, I nodded back and began to fish for my ear-buds; if I wanted to talk to anyone, I’d have stuck at the office.   She was spreading out a blanket on the grass and chattering to the infant about what I nice day it was when my current audio book drowned her out.   I watched her for a moment longer, trying to work out if she were the child’s mother or a nanny.   Her hair and nails had a definite look of someone with a moment of free time available in the morning, and her outfit lacked the slept-in look I associated with mothers of the young.   No conclusive evidence, of course, and I looked away without settling the matter, not wanting to be a staring park creep.

Off to the left, there was a new tower, just finishing, one full of condos rather than office cubicles, and the banner clinging to the side showed the prices were nearly reasonable. I contemplated whether moving closer to work might not be wise, not really attending to the voice in my ears, when suddenly through that voice came a thud like the closing of a huge book.   Before I had quite processed that, there was a wave of a terrible smell I couldn’t identify, like a blend of sewer and spray paint and the front end of a car covered in squashed bugs on a hot day, all bound together by something else I never smelled before.   It mingled with the taste of the half-chewed bite of sandwich in my mouth, and I bent over to spit it out, barely mastering the urge to vomit.

A moment later, the kid began to howl.   I understood why; the reek, if not the sound, was something to get upset about.   I looked up from my ejected sandwich, with a notion of giving the woman some stink-eye if she weren’t moving to quiet the child.

No woman.

Not even a blanket.

Beyond the stroller, which was shaking with the strength of the kid’s complaints, there was just a bare patch of green, shaded grass.   I looked around, and saw no sign of her.   It’s a small park, but could she really have fled it that fast?   If she could… why?   I stood, slightly dizzy from the dissipating stench, and scanned around once more, without result.   She was gone.

The kid, however, was not.   I pulled out my phone, not positive that this was really a 911 sort of situation, but at a loss as to just who else to call.   I stepped across to the stroller, looked at the angry pink face in it, and dialed.   I was still looking downward when I heard the operator answer, and saw there on the grass one of the shimmery earrings the woman had been wearing, bright but for something stuck to the hook.   I did not bend for a closer look.   I clung to the thought that it was just a piece of gum.

And that it absolutely was not the end of a bright red fingernail on the pavement next to it.

I switched off my phone and walked back to my office.   I’m sure someone else came to help the kid after I left.   He was making a lot of noise, and the stroller was gone when I came out at the end of the day.

I just couldn’t get involved.

“The City Does That to People” © 2013 Dirck de Lint

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