Chapter 3: The Park

THE FOSTER KID

     Cory Thomas McCormick was a boy capable of great love. His first love was a stuffed dragon he won after twenty-seven consecutive tries on the coin-operated, claw-crane vending machine one Saturday afternoon at Chuck E. Cheese, ignoring the bedazzling, blinking lights and the bling and dinging of the casino-like atmosphere to focus on winning his prize. It was a deep, royal blue, soft like velvet, with a red lizard tongue, a silvery tummy, and silvery accents on its wings and on the ridges that ran down its spine. He took it everywhere he went. He took it to The Noodle Factory and showed it to the waiter, who smiled kindly when Cory introduced him to his pet dragon George. He took it with him to the zoo and tried showing it off to the gibbons, but they were too busy picking invisible things off each other’s backs, or swinging on ropes in their playground to pay him any attention. He took it with him to the drive-in, but the movie ran past his bedtime, and he fell asleep ten minutes before the closing credits rolled up the screen, unaware that in the darkness his pet dragon had fallen out of the car when his father opened his door to click his seatbelt over him. The next morning Cory searched frantically for it—in the car, under his bed, in his toy box, in his closet, then the car again. In despair, he begged his mother to take him back to the drive-in to look for it. He sobbed while his mother called the theater to inquire about a lost, royal blue, stuffed dragon. His father drove him back to the drive-in so they could look for it together, and when they were unable to find it, took his heartbroken son downtown to buy a sling shot. The two of them spent the rest of the afternoon taking turns knocking empty soda cans off the back yard fence with Cory’s new toy. By the end of the month, Cory forgot about his lost pet dragon George, and focused on perfecting his aim.

     His second love was girl named Katie Christianson in his fourth grade class who had hair the color of honey and a smile like sunshine. When he tried to get her attention by offering to sharpen her pencil for her—his desk was the closest one to the pencil sharpener—she announced proudly, “I can do it all by myself,” and proceeded to sharpen her own pencil. Whenever he found the opportunity, he attempted to open doors for her, any door, rushing to the classroom door at the beginning of recess, hurrying to the cabinet door that housed the construction paper and glue sticks, and at each attempt she declared, offended, “I am not helpless. I can open it myself.” Undeterred by the conviction of her feminist principles by which she so faithfully abided, and ignoring derision from the boys, he picked dandelions growing by the chain-link fence around the playground, gathered them into a bouquet, and presented it to her at the end of recess as they lined up to return to class. She was smitten, and bestowed upon him, finally, the sunshine of her beautiful smile. For one week they were best friends, taking long, meandering walks through the playground, playing wall ball, climbing the jungle gym, synchronizing the pendulum of their swinging when they found two available, adjacent swings—sometimes Cory would jump out of his swing as he approached the highest point of his arc, just to impress her. By the end of the week, Katie, who had many friends, soon became bored playing with the same person every single day, missed playing with her other best friend Jessica, and announced to Cory that she was tired of being with him all the time and was going to play with the girls. Cory, confused, thought she was breaking up with him, and in his moment of despair, broke into tears and declared his love for her, which weirded her out and caused her to cry and avoid him. They never spoke to each other again.

     And now, trying to reconcile the dueling pugil sticks of irritation and attraction he felt for the girl who would become the greatest love of his life, Cory Thomas McCormick burst out of the house, tramped across the lawn, and threw his skateboard down onto the sidewalk. The crack of the wheels against the hard pavement echoed down the street like a pistol shot. He needed to calm down, to clear his head. He needed to get out of that house. His sister was already on hers, already moving, dipping her sneakered foot against the pavement for each push of momentum. Except for the rhythmic clicking of wheels against pavement cracks, the evening was silent.

     “Keep straight. Go ahead and cross the street,” he called out. “There aren’t any cars.”

     She sped up as she approached the end of the sidewalk and sailed off the curb, crossed the road, crouched slightly, then kicked down the tail of her board with her back foot and ollied back onto the next sidewalk, just the way he had taught her. His heart swelled with pride. That’s my girl.

     He didn’t really find his trench coat at Dog Beach. He was in Ocean Beach, sifting through the trash for aluminum cans and glass bottles to recycle for spare change while Cozie wandered nearby, collecting shells. He found the coat three trash cans away from Dog Beach, sitting on top of the heap like some cosmic gift waiting just for him. He couldn’t believe anyone would throw away a coat that nice. There were no tears, no holes. Other than some brown paint splattered at the bottom of the coat that he initially mistook for dog shit, it was in pretty good condition. He was lucky he found it before someone else did. It was much too large, sized for a taller man with a wider girth, the bottom hem a few inches shy of touching the ground, and sleeves that had to be folded over a few times so they didn’t cover his hands. Wearing it was like wearing a tent, which suited Cory, since he didn’t have a home. It kept out the wind. It was water resistant. When he couldn’t find a foreclosed house for them to stay in, he’d make a tent out of his trench coat using the parachute cord he lifted from a military surplus stand at a flea market. He would tie the cord around a tree and stake the other end to the ground with a large branch he had sharpened with his knife, then place the coat over the cord and tie down the ends of his coat, tying string through the button holes or around the buttons and stake the string into the ground. In the meantime, Cozie would gather dry leaves and wood chips to place on the floor of their makeshift tent to cushion and insulate themselves from the cold earth as they slept, his arms wrapped around her to keep her warm. Eventually, when the nights became cold, he found an old army poncho that made a better tent, and used his coat as a blanket. And for Amber to be so condescending about the coat—his coat, the coat he used to keep away the rain and cold—it infuriated him.

     When they reached the park, Cozie rolled her board onto the grass, then sprinted to the swings, the beam from her flashlight casting a bright patch that scrambled ahead in a frantic zig-zag motion as if trying to escape. Cory looked up at the indigo sky, almost black, sprinkled with stars. He did not see the moon. He found comfort in looking at the night sky. It reminded him of home. He wanted to believe his parents were up there, immortal, a constellation watching over the children left behind. He took a deep breath, filling his lungs, inhaling the cool, earthy scent of a small forest. The park was huge, spreading over several acres, surrounded by trees much older than him. He exhaled, and relaxed, the breath of his frustrations dissipating into the cool night. He had passed this park earlier that afternoon while he was exploring the neighborhood. He hadn’t planned on returning so soon. Already he felt better.

     Dry leaves crunched beneath Cory’s boots as he followed his sister to the swings. When he reached the edge of the playground, he stopped. He heard the rhythmic squeak of Cozie’s swing, the sound of his own breathing. Nothing else. But they were not alone. Another soul radiated its presence like a beacon, another pulse of consciousness that disrupted his own the way waves from a tossed pebble disrupted a pond’s glossy, placid surface. He pointed his flashlight into the depths of the park. He heard his sister’s question as clearly as if she had spoken out loud: Who’s out there?

     “Some dude sleeping,” Cory said, “but I’m not sure.” He walked to a rainbow-shaped climbing structure, grabbed the highest bar, and pulled himself up, clearing it with his chin. He eased down and pulled up again, intending nineteen more repetitions. He needed to stay in shape. He never knew when he would end up in another fight.

     Can you push me, please? Cozie thought.

     He glanced at her as he cleared his chin over the bar a third time, then proceeded to do three more as she sat in the swing, watching him. In the middle of his seventh pull-up he said, “You’re nine-and-a-half. You can swing all by yourself.” He heard the rough edge of impatience in his voice, but he couldn’t help it. Pushing her on the swings was boring. As much as he loved his kid sister, four years of being her surrogate dad was getting old. He was looking forward to letting their new foster mom take over for a while.

     I like it when you push me.

     He dropped to his feet, stretched his arms, then walked over to her. He took her flashlight and stepped onto an empty swing to drape the lanyard over the top bar, threading the flashlight through like Tom Thumb threading a needle. The flashlight hung securely from the bar, dangling as a makeshift lantern.

     “First, I want you to do ten pushups,” he said, “then ten palm-heel strikes, ten front snap kicks, and ten side kicks. Both sides. While you’re busy with those, I’m going to check out the park.”

     She sighed, got off the swing, and dropped to her hands for her pushups—straight-backed, with excellent form.

Cory’s light cut into the darkness and lit up the path as he headed deeper into the wooded park. It wasn’t long until his light caught the shiny chrome of a shopping cart of stuffed plastic bags. Further away, a man in a puffy ski jacket lay slumped over a picnic table, his head resting on his arm. Scraggly brown hair fell around his shoulders. His fingernails were outlined in dirt. Cory heard fragments of dialogue from the man’s dream—random, disembodied words that drifted from his mind like balloons floating away from a child’s party. Cory used to listen to people’s dreams, believing the words released from their subconscious had a special meaning, and because he was the only one who could hear them, these messages were meant for him to decipher. During sleepless nights when he wandered in the park, or tried to fall asleep in a stranger’s home, Cory tried to capture fragments of dreams with a pencil and a small notebook he kept in his pocket. He played with the words the next day, shifting them around to find a hidden meaning. With his knife, he sliced the words from the paper and tried to piece them around like a puzzle, rearranging them, believing they were anagrams he had to figure out to make sense of the chaos of his life. He became disillusioned. They meant nothing. The words were gibberish. Trying to make sense of them outside the narrative of the dream was an exercise in pointlessness, a meaningless game he eventually abandoned. He turned back to rejoin his sister, leaving the man in the playground of his dreams.

     Cozie was waiting for him on the swing when he returned. He placed his hand against her back and began to push. He wondered if his sister would ever develop the ability he had, or curse, as he preferred to call it, the ability to hear other people’s thoughts, to feel what they felt, and sometimes, though he had experienced this only twice in his short life, to see the horrors inside a sadistic mind. He wished he could communicate to his sister the way she could with him, without sound, without moving her lips. Sometimes he resented her for it. Sometimes, it seemed to him, that she was the one with the power, communicating with her mind as if she was Professor X. He couldn’t make anyone understand him the way she could; there was no other mind into which he could project his own thoughts, and yet he still had to deal with the cacophony of random voices echoing inside his head like bad elevator music he couldn’t shut off.

     Cory thought getting drunk would take care of the problem, a cheap bottle of beer to fog his head and dampen the sounds, but all it did was make him not care. It also made him vulnerable. Once, while sitting on the sidewalk in a back alley with some other kids, upending bottles of Corona swiped from a liquor store, one of them stole his wallet. Cory knew the exact moment when the boy next to him slipped his fingers into the pocket of his trench coat. He laughed in his face, even announcing exactly what the kid had done, and they all laughed together. When Cory finally stumbled out of his haze of intoxication, he was anguished to discover that his wallet was gone. Also missing was his little sister. Cozie was nowhere, vanished along with his money and those boys. For the rest of that terrible day, and long into the night, he skated the grid of downtown San Diego, dodging cars, pedicabs, cyclists on the streets, pedestrians on the sidewalks, going up and down State Street and Union Street and Front Street and the streets that were simply letters of the alphabet starting with A, and all the numbered avenues starting from one and going all the way down to thirty, all the while horrified that the fantasies of those pimps who had leered at his little sister were happening to her for real, that they had kidnapped her and trafficked her into a life of child porn and prostitution. When he finally found her sleeping on a blanket between a terrier-mutt and a homeless lady with wild hair, lips that curled in on itself, and a chin that jutted out of a prune-face wrinkled and tanned from too much sun, he collapsed onto the sidewalk before her. He let her sleep, but the moment he began speaking to the woman, Cozie woke, sat up, and looked at him. Her face, an image of childhood serenity a moment earlier, twisted into a mask of anguish. Then she burst into tears, gasping out her sobs as if she had almost drowned. When he embraced her, she clung to him with a death grip that left marks on his skin. He would never forgive himself for that. Ever. He was the closest thing to a father she had in this world, and she needed him. He needed to take care of her. He had to find another way.

     And he did. Earbuds stuffed into his ears, his MP3 player cranked up until the music drowned out nearly everything including his own thoughts. It worked almost too well, because he had to remind himself to be careful about the decibel level and ratchet back the volume—the last thing he needed was to blow out his hearing, because if he lost that, then what? He’d have nothing left to listen to but the incessant chatter of raw, unfiltered insults and opinions, the whine of miseries and problems, X-rated fantasies, and mutterings of half-formed phrases and gibberish, and if that didn’t push him down the decent into madness, he didn’t know what would, and the next thing he’d he know, he’d be on the floor hugging himself in a straight jacket with a big red cartoon of a grin of the madman he would become painted on his face, banging his head against padded walls to pound the voices out of his skull. It made him jealous of his sister, sometimes, but he had only himself to blame. He was the one who told her to stop speaking and stay silent so the homeless men camping in the park wouldn’t hear them, or the police, or the drug addicts shooting up under the bridge nearby, or the family downstairs while he and Cozie slept in the attic of a home they had broken into. It was a more efficient form of communication, and he encouraged it so much that Cozie abandoned her vocal cords altogether. He couldn’t even remember the last time she had spoken out loud. It was entirely his fault. He would have to start encouraging her to use her voice again. But not right now. He wasn’t in the mood to use his voice either.

     Cory heard a shout, then felt three souls emerge from the periphery of the park, disrupting the pool of his consciousness. Narrow beams of light slipped through leaves and skittered across tree trunks. When they found the man, they laughed and poked him with sticks they had been using to flail the leaves off bushes and duel each other like Sith lords.

     What’s happening? Cozie thought.

     Cory tapped his ear, held up three fingers, and pointed into the park. Then he removed the flashlight from the bar and tossed it to his sister. In quick succession, he touched the top of his head, wiggled fingers to mimic a running person, then pointed to the park’s entrance as he spun his other hand in a circle like a wheel in motion. As his sister hurried away, he turned off his own light and slipped it into his pocket. He didn’t need light. He knew exactly where everybody was.

     The three boys circled the man like wolves, poking him as if he wasn’t a human being, but a warm, steaming lump of residue abandoned on the table. When one of the boys overturned the shopping cart, dumping everything out, the man jumped up and pushed him. Infuriated, the kid punched him in the stomach. The man, too thin for his height, doubled over as if he had nothing inside to prop him up. The boys kicked him when he fell to the ground.

Cory clutched his stomach and dropped to his knees, sucking in his breath. That was another thing—the pain. He was stuck in a permanent mind-meld with everyone around him and couldn’t shut it off. He wanted to leave. He didn’t want to be everyone’s Superman. He had his own sister to protect and his own problems to deal with. Getting involved in other people’s problems complicated his own and drew dangerous attention to himself.

But things were different now. Now he had a place to live, an actual address that was recorded at the school and associated with his name. He had three hot meals a day if he wanted them all, and a warm bed to sleep in at night. This man had nothing but the clothes on his back and his shopping cart. These were kids, not adult men. He could take down all three if he had to.

     He stepped out and turned on his flashlight. They looked young, probably still in middle school. Cory told them to leave the man alone. Then he told them to hand over the spray paint, that this was a nice park and he didn’t want them fucking the place up. One of the boys shouted epithets in reply while his two friends stood back with clenched teeth and fists, hiding their anxiety with silent bravado. The three thought of themselves as some sort of gang. Taggers. Wait—not exactly. Wanna-be taggers. Their plan was to go around at night tagging neighborhood fences and playgrounds with their gang logo to mark their territory like they were about to do tonight. They’ve never done this before, and wasn’t it just their luck the first time they went out to tag a playground with the spray paint they found in the garage that they would get caught. They were their own privileged middle class play-gang, not an official gang documented by the San Diego PD in their records. Not yet, anyway.

     The boy stopped shouting and pulled out a gun.

     “What do you think you’re going to do with that? Squirt me to death?” Cory said, amused. It looked real, but it was nothing more than a water pistol painted black. Cory held his flashlight under his chin, bugged out his eyes, and shrieked. “Ahhh, you cursed brat! Look what you’ve done! I’m melting! Melting!”

     “Fuck you, asshole.” The boy waved the gun. “This is real.”

     “I’ll show you what’s real, motherfucker,” Cory said, breaking character to pull out his butterfly knife and flip it around, to scare them. And to show off. He loved showing off his butterfly knife. He resumed his witch impersonation, enjoying himself far too much now, pointing his knife at them. “I’ll get you my pretty. And your little dogs too!”

     They ran. Cory chased them through the park, onto the back trail, not stopping until he reached the one with the backpack. He grabbed his arm and spun him around, throwing him to the ground. He snatched the backpack as the kid picked himself up sprinted past his friends, freed from the burden of weight. Cory abandoned his chase and let the darkness engulf them.

     Cory flipped his knife closed and slipped it into his pocket. He clutched the backpack and walked over to the man to check on him. He wasn’t as old as Cory had thought, maybe in his thirties. The beard made him look older. Despite the blows, the man seemed okay. Maybe some serious bruising, but nothing that Cory thought needed medical attention.

     The man grabbed Cory’s shirt and said, “I seek God!”

     Cory heard a laugh and glanced around. More laughter, then voices.

     Has he got lost? Did he lose his way like a child? Is he hiding? Is he afraid of us?

     Cory looked around again and saw no one. They were alone.

     “God is dead!” the man said. “We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from the sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives.”

     The man wept.

     “It’s okay, man,” Cory said.

     “Who will wipe this blood off us?” the man said. “What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us?”

     Cory stared at him.

     “You’re laughing at me,” the man said.

     “I’m not laughing, brother.”

     “I have come too early. This tremendous event is still on its way.”

     “You need some sleep, dude.”

     “What are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”

     The man fell silent and shivered. Despite the warmth of the trench coat, Cory felt the chill and shivered as well. He went to the overturned cart and returned with a sleeping bag. He laid it out and helped the man into it, tucking him in for the night. He set the shopping cart upright, then picked up everything that fell out—books, cans, boxes of food, stuffed bags filled with clothes—and put them back into the cart.

     The man jerked up and shouted at Cory again. Cory had to piece together the real message from the nonsense, but basically the man was begging him not to take him back. He had been tricked into swallowing pills that released microscopic nanobots into his brain, and now the government was trying to control him by sending him messages, but he could hear the Antichrist and he was afraid. They were laughing at him. Could he hear it?

     “It’s okay, man, I’m not taking you anywhere,” Cory said, not wanting to admit that he did, in fact, hear everything. People like him rattled Cory’s nerves. He told the man to have a good night and sleep tight. Then he grabbed the backpack and left.

     From a distant tree at the other end of the park, his sister’s consciousness radiated from the branches in a way that reminded him of streetlights in the Gaslamp Quarter. He reached the tree and shined his flashlight into it.

“It’s over. Time to go. We don’t want Mrs. Chandler to get worried. She seems like a nice lady. I don’t want to upset her any more than I probably already did.”

     She emerged, climbing down a few branches before jumping to the grass below. He held out his hand. She took it, and together they walked out of the park. Cory tossed the backpack into a nearby trash can, satisfied to hear the clunk of spray cans hitting the bottom. They dropped their boards onto the sidewalk at the park’s entrance and skated back to the house.

     Late that night, long after Cory slipped into bed and went to sleep, one of the boys returned, except instead of his water pistol, he brought a pack of cigarettes, a lighter, and another spray can. He tagged the play structure with a vengeance, spraying it with his gang logo and his favorite obscene words. He sprayed the bottom of the slide with graffiti of male genitalia pointing to the top, laughing to himself as he imagined little kids sliding down over it. When the boy finished, he lit a cigarette. He studied the sleeping figure from a distance as he smoked. How about a little fire, scarecrow? The boy tossed the burning cigarette butt onto the ground and watched a dry leaf ignite and come to life, curling into itself, then blacken and burn away. More leaves caught fire. The boy watched the growing blaze in fascination, until the air became hot and the flames lost control, crackling, climbing, devouring bushes, licking the branches of trees, spreading over the ground and consuming the park in a blaze of unearthly, billowing light. When the man woke screaming, the boy became afraid and ran away.

CHAPTER 4