Garden at the Edge of the Other Side of the World
by Royal Young
He knew he would be kidnapped. He knew it would happen in the summer. It made sense that the blistering month in which he was born would swallow him again. He had known for a long time.
On a trip to Vermont for his eighth birthday his had parents pulled their rental car over at a garage sale. The fat woman in thick glasses peered at him in the back seat.
“Careful with your boy,” she said. “Been a lot of snatches round here of little kids. Dogs barking last night. My husband and I think that monster tried coming near the house. We got two of our own.”
His parents thanked her for the warning.
But they were from the New York. They wanted to look still at her chatchkes. It was sunny, the trees were re-born green and there was a stand selling blueberries down the road. Yet, bad things could happen here.
He lay flat in the backseat of the car, looked up through the windows and waited calmly for the man—he imagined with a mustache and tan cowboy boots—to come and take him. After that, his vision stopped and he couldn’t see what would come next. But it seemed special.
Back home, Dad told him about the little kid who was playing baseball and the ball flew high out the field, rolling into shadows of the abandoned sanitation building when the neighborhood was still dangerous. It was always a fresh, bright day when kidnappings happened and this one was no exception, early summer and promising ice cream cones and hydrants broken open soon.
That other boy walked into the building and among the chunks of ceiling tile on the floor found not his ball, but a homeless man who wrapped the kid in rags that smelled like night and took him away forever.
“But where did they go?” he asked.
His father, a blunt artist wearing a beret said “The homeless man murdered him.”
The boy, staring at the building, now restored and covered in ivy saw a palace.
You could just go away and didn’t that make life better? He didn’t like feeling sorry for himself and there was no one thing. His best memories were of summer.
He remembered a neighbor’s wedding, his first bitter sip of champagne, his delicious fear when Dad let him uncork a bottle and the top flew down the hall with explosion, bubbles spilling around his small hands. Mom let him have a tiny bit—reward for a young prince—and she smelled like flowers. She sang with him after, lullabies on the roof after all the guests had gone and the wooden deck which the neighbors had built was covered in torn paper lanterns and crushed cigarette butts he rubbed under his feet until they were furry filters blonde as the fine hair on his tan arms.
But there were cracked sidewalks and broken glass, old spaces like the basement and airshaft of the tenement building where they lived that filled him with visions he could not understand: stuffed animals with rotting eyes stretched high up to the light through bars, rumbling boilers and dark corners where rats chewed on chicken bones from the cheap fried restaurants with bright awnings down the block. The nightmares, where he woke shaking, tears clouding his eyes and the doorknob to his room turning slowly, slowly to let who in?
He knew he should be happy. He knew he was lucky. He knew he should not want to disappear.
The sun soaked garden near their building grew from mounds of earth carefully picked clean of hypodermic needles and used condoms, the brown innards of blunts enriched the soil.
Lower Manhattan was a wasteland of parking lots and discount stores, wild men and women who dashed out into the street washing windows of cars frantically for change. Near the garden was an abandoned entrance to the subway tunnels and he saw crackheads file in single rows down into the humming ground, carefully shutting the metal grate behind them.
Wild strawberries grew in the garden, they were small and rough but when he picked them, they were sweet and stained his fingers red, small seeds lingering under his stubby nails. Joe ran the garden, long white hair tied in bandanas of many colors, dark arms tirelessly tying strings along the fences for vines to grow, raking out dead leaves and twigs to add to the compost.
Mom and Dad started a small compost collection in their own kitchen, throwing eggshells and orange rinds into paper milk containers, which they let him bring to Joe in the garden. Sometimes Joe would point out roses, tulips or lilies bursting into bloom, “Those are yours, from your compost,” he said.
In the garden he could hide behind bushes or around the backs of trees for hours while his parents gossiped over potluck picnics arranged by the neighborhood coalition. He would cover his ears and close his eyes and in the quiet imagine himself away, blending into the ferns until he was nothing and everything. Wind, water, sun, bark, branch, bud with no thoughts or hopes. No knowledge he would be taken away.
When and how it would happen is what he thought about in school, especially math. His teachers said he was one of the brightest eight year-old boys they’d seen, but he didn’t apply himself. They did not know why. But he knew there was no need. Numbers would not matter to him. He would not grow to use them.
One day in school, they passed out flyers for parents at the end of the day and Mom told him that a boy from another school had been taken. A poor school, where even when you were young you walked home alone because your parents had to work all the time. A man came up to the boy and promised him treats, candy and a Happy Meal from McDonald’s but instead he brought him to an empty parking garage in Stuyvesant Town and there security cameras had lost sight of them, the boy’s hand still pressed into the man’s, his book bag carelessly unzipped halfway.
“It’s a good thing I never eat McDonald’s,” he told his mom, because her happy face was sad, twisted and she laughed but then looked down at him very serious.
“You are never to go with a stranger. Never. Never. Never,” she said, “Do you understand?”
“Yes,” He nodded.
In school, they watched videos of what you should do if someone tried to take you. You should scream as loud as you can I do not know this person! This person is not related to me! I have never seen or met this person! This person is trying to kidnap me! Please somebody help me! You should not get in the van, no matter what. One real live girl was interviewed. She had faked an asthma attack to escape from the man with the van, she bit his hand and ran. She hid behind hedges in front of a library and his boots passed by once, then twice, but he gave up and left and she was safe. He knew sometimes the kidnappers did sex things to you. He knew sometimes they hurt you in ways he could not imagine. But somehow this made him tingle, seemed like a secret he must know before he ended.
He was good at secret math. He counted the days till it would happen. He counted cracks in the sidewalks, clouds in the warm skies, steps in the stairs; thirty-two down to the basement of his school, where the auditorium was. The curtain hung deep blue and faces of men were carved out on the walls behind the stage: Franklin, Irving, Grant. The seats were wood, peeling in places and in the silence, echoes sprang up and ran to distant corners where ghosts waited for him to join them. Where he might go once he had left.
The options of where he could go once he was gone were endless and the best, could be the bottom of his orange plastic pumpkin in which he collected candy on Halloween (“No candy with broken wrappers,” Dad said, “No fruit. They hide razor blades in the centers of caramel apples.”), could be under the big slide in the park you had to climb ten tall wooden steps to get to the top of and on every one were circles with dots in the center he knew were breasts next to sloppy penises in black marker with phone numbers written underneath, but the shade under the big slide was where he would go, no one made graffiti there. Or his soul would stay in the auditorium of his school and play with colored lights above the stage when they did shows for parents, knock over cardboard castles that were sets, rustle sheets of paper with programs on them, sing in silence.
The sky was yellow with summer storm. Between the tenement rooftops out his parent’s living room window he watched. Licking sweat from over his lip he thought of the garden, how the flowers would reach to feel the rain when it came. The earth would get dark with wet, smelling like the damp clay his father molded into fantastic shapes of his choosing.
He rushed to the kitchen, pushing compost down into the milk carton and folding the top over.
“Sure I guess, but get back fast before the storm,” Mom said, face hidden by the pages of her book.
He promised, door already banging shut behind him. He jumped from the sixth stair to the bottom. Landed on his feet.
Joe waved, smiling, the first raindrops falling on his sturdy shoulders. Pushing past the garden gate, he presented his compost proudly to Joe.
“The prince of the garden,” Joe said, “Just in time.”
“In time for what?” He asked.
The sky answered with thunder. Joe pointed up, not saying anything. Lightning kissed the tops of trees and loose leaves burst out, down to the ground in clumps. He dropped the compost and grabbed Joe’s leg, suddenly scared and shaking.
“Don’t worry,” Joe smoothed his hair in rhythm, like his mother did when he woke from wicked dreams. “Nothing can hurt you.”
He barely felt the earth beneath his body. Joe had touched him and squeezed his neck tight and the summer air rose in temperature till everything was heat and pounding. After all his waiting it had caught him off guard. He had never seen this. No man with a van, no long journey to a dark basement but still he had been taken.
The compost fell over him gently. It was softer and smelled sweeter than he had imagined. Half buried in it, the smell was dirty sweet like the bitter squares of baking chocolate he had once stolen from Mom’s cupboard. He saw but could not hear the storm playing, turning in on itself and spitting out jagged light.
Joe’s face was above him, eyes hollow. Joe lifted a shovel and spilled more dirt over his chest. He could not move. Summer had come to reclaim him. He imagined worms using his bones for telephones like in the song they learned in school about corpses. Sometimes when Dad had dropped him off he’d say twice “Good bye, good bye,” just to be prepared. Above him the sky opened and cleared.
Royal Young is the author of Fame Shark. For more, visit www.fameshark.com.