[Prompt: Thinking you’re just playing along, you take a toy phone offered by a two year old. To your surprise, a voice from the phone says “Thank goodness! Listen, here’s what you have to do..” ]
To Darren’s immense disappointment, he had once again been forced to attend an extended family BBQ at the local park. Riding in the backseat of his parent’s van, he practiced his best interpretation of teenage angst. The repeated attempts by his mother to make eye contact with him in the rear view mirror were met with exaggerated eye rolls and breathy sighs of displeasure. Tired of acting, he stared, blank faced, out the window at the passing houses in the suburb he called home. As expected, the yards abruptly ended, replaced by the thick forest that encompassed the perimeter of the park. His eyes squinted reflexly against the bright, flickering sunlight filtering through the summer green leaves of the cottonwoods. The red van slowed and came to a stop as his mom opted for a handicapped parking spot close to the covered picnic area.
The rest of the family was already gathering, spread around six different picnic tables. Darren opted for a prime location at the end of the most sparsely populated bench. No one bothered to greet him, as usual. He hated these things. For as long as he could remember, his mother had insisted that he attend the boring BBQs and ‘be around the family’. Darren was perfectly content to be around his parents, anytime. But the extended family, that was different story.
Darren had the misfortune of being the oldest cousin, which to some may have been a blessing. But it was a definite curse. His cousin, Tyson, was the closest in age to him. Tyson was nine, which was still a seven year deficit to Darren’s 16. Tyson was annoying, never tiring of updating Darren on the latest pokemon he was hunting, or which element was his favorite for the week. Darren couldn’t help but imagine Tyson passing out every time he opened his mouth to spout some useless fact at him, the speed he talked and the lack of breaths he took were hinting at the inevitable.
There were eight additional younger cousins, ranging from age two and up. Most of them kept their distance from him, which Darren attributed to his superb display of angst. Most of them opted to openly stare at him and say nothing, usually consulting their parent for an explanation. This display of behavior only fueled Darren’s carefully crafted facade. At least being forced to leave the comfort of home allowed him to practice his acting craft.
Tyson sat with his mother at a nearby table. Darren watched his Aunt Martha point at him as she said something to Tyson. Tyson replied, looking irritated. Darren couldn’t make out what was being said between the two of them. Tyson stood up and walked towards him, slacked face and annoyed.
He sat down next to Darren and said, “Hey Darren.”
Darren grunted in response, crossing his arms and raising an eyebrow at Tyson. Darren braced himself for the factoid he would soon be receiving.
“Did you know that the move ‘splash’ was misinterpreted from Japanese and is actually supposed to be ‘hop’? That’s why it’s a normal attack and non-water pokemon can learn it which makes no sense. I caught a Spoink and he knew splash, and I was like, ‘This is so weird’ but then my friend Gary said…”
Darren closed his eyes to help block Tyson out while he endured the latest annoying pokemon revelation. The darkness created by his shut eyelids was a welcomed comfort. It was Darren’s version of a blank slate. Sure, people typically imagined a nice, white, blank canvas, but when you are tapping into inner angst, a black void is a wonderful place to start. Darren’s eyes were coaxed open when Tyson’s voice paused to take a deep breath.
“So yeah, pretty awesome! Anyways, I have to go help Tasha with the swing. Bye!”
Tyson was halfway to the playground before Darren even considered a response. As Darren watched Tyson join Tasha in the gravel filled pit with jungle gyms and slides, his body jerked unexpectedly when he felt a tap on his knee. Looking down, his two year old cousin, Dory, stood before him. She was clumsily slapping his leg with one hand while extending her other arm towards his head, a pink toy phone in her hand.
Darren momentarily broke character, amused by Dory’s effort to have her phone answered. Playing along, Darren took the toy phone from Dory. Lifting it to his ear, he nodded at Dory and opened his mouth to make up a fake conversation, but before he could say a word, a voice from the phone interrupted him.
“Thank goodness! Listen, here’s what you have to do..”
Darren pulled the phone away from his ear, looking it over suspiciously. The phone was light, it didn’t appear to be battery powered. The voice on the other end was crystal clear, not like the electronic babbling one would expect from a child’s toy. The speaking continued, he hastily put it back to his ear.
“Out on the playground I’ve hidden a clue, it’s under the tallest slide. There’s a dark red pebble that marks the spot you’ll need to dig. Six inches down you’ll find a box with the first lead. Call me back when you’ve figured it out.”
Darren lowered the phone and looked around. He was sure someone was hoping to have a good laugh on his account. Dory had scampered off, probably bored at his lack of fake conversation. No one made eye contact with him from the tables. Looking towards the playground, he hoped to spot the culprit.
Laughing children, running and chasing, squealing and squawking. None of the kids on the playground were old enough to match the voice on the phone. Darren looked over his shoulder towards the parking lot. He recognized all the cars nearby, belonging to his family. Everything seemed ordinary, not a guilty looking stranger in sight.
Shrugging to himself and partially for the assumed voyeur, Darren stood and headed to the playground. The tallest slide was on the opposite side of the giant jungle gym, fashioned to resemble a castle. Darren did his best not to make eye contact with his cousins or other children as he walked around, not wanting to have to explain his invasion on enemy territory. Spotting the slide, he let out a sigh of relief to see it had been abandoned for the time being. He took a moment to praise the bright sunlight and the city planner who had opted for the aluminum slide model over plastic.
Closing the distance to the slide, he stopped in its shade, taking a moment to look around. The kids on the playground were busy chasing each other about. High pitched enthusiasm blocked most other sounds. The dull drone of a passing airliner was the only constant sound low enough to make it through the giggles and random screams of, “I’m the Princess!” or “The Knight demands you cross the bridge!” Again, Darren’s surveillance revealed nothing.
Darren imagined how absurd he must appear to the onlooker. A lone teenager holding a pink phone next to an old slide, who kept looking around like they were lost. Oh yes, he looked the fool to some peeper. But Darren’s observation of his silliness was quickly abandoned as he looked down to his feet to see a large red pebble.
Crouching down, he kept the pink phone in his left hand as he used his right to pick up the red pebble. It wasn’t a special pebble. Just one of the many ordinary rocks one could find walking through the forest around the area. Someone had used what smelled to be red nail polish to paint the rock. Glancing from side to side to ease his suspicion, Darren tossed the ruby gem to the side and began to dig into the gravel with his free hand.
His fingers brushed something solid. He knew it was a box. Setting the phone down, he used both hands to clear the rocks and free the case. It wasn’t large. He could hold it in one hand, which he did, using his other hand to open the small brass clasp holding down the top. The top of the box flipped opened without assistance, startling Darren and causing him to nearly drop it. Small pings of sound emitted from the box, creating an eerie melody. A small, square piece of paper sat neatly in the bottom, it read:
Fancy fun and riddles done, make Jenny Jane a happy one.
Under the sheet you’ll find a way to meet.
One of many, many of more, oh I know you’ll love what’s in store.
Darren let out a snort. Someone had put way too much work into this racket. He wasn’t about to entertain the stranger any further. Rolling his eyes he grabbed the top of the box to close it and put an end to the annoying tune. His brow furrowed as he tried to force the box shut. It wouldn’t budge. He turned the box sideways, looking to see if a hinge had jammed or something. The small piece of paper fell out in the process, as did a black feather. As soon as the items were out of the box, it snapped shut as quickly as it had opened. Darren dropped the box, unsure of what was happening. A sick feeling began to churn in his stomach.
He wasn’t one for riddles, but this one had been fairly obvious as he saw the items fall. The feather was under the sheet of paper, so this must be the way to meet, as implied. He stared down at the items on the ground. The small pink phone began to buzz, the hallow plastic vibrating against the gravel. The last remnants of angst vacated Darren’s demeanor as he began to consider the dark forces at work here. This wasn’t a simple prank as he assumed. This was something more. Looking towards the forest he spotted a crow watching him from a low branch nearby. He knew where he needed to go.
“Dory! NO!” Darren’s mom shrieked and pulled Dory away from her son, snatching the pink phone from her tiny hand. Dory’s mom, Maddie, ran to her daughter, trying to console the confused and now crying toddler.
Maddie glared at Sarah accusingly, eyeing the toy phone in her hand. Sarah looked crazed, tears in her eyes as she held the simple toy and looked longingly at her son sitting at the table.
“Sarah,” Maddie said gently, “she didn’t mean to. She was just trying to play with him. She doesn’t know any better.” Maddie stroked Dory’s back as she whined into her shoulder, still distressed.
Sarah kept her eyes on Darren, the mania was gone from her voice, but she was still emotional as she replied, “I don’t care, she shouldn’t have done it. You shouldn’t have let her bring that stupid toy.” Sarah turned her attention to Maddie, “How could you be so insensitive?”
Maddie’s cheeks flushed, slightly out of embarrassment, but also from anger. She knew she had to keep her cool. It had only been six months since the accident, and Sarah was still grieving. It felt unfair for Sarah to put some much pressure on everyone else to always say and do the right thing. The thought of a toy phone setting Sarah off hadn’t even crossed Maddie’s mind as she’d packed up Dory’s toys that morning. It made sense as she considered it now, though. Maddie looked at Darren.
Darren sat in his wheelchair, unresponsive as he had been for the past six months. The family wasn’t allowed to acknowledge his ‘vegetative state’ in Sarah’s presence, she wanted them all to carry on as though nothing had changed. Maddie had tried to sit and talk to Darren after the accident, but looking into the blank eyes of a braindead teenager trying to have a ‘normal’ conversation was something that resulted in being too painful for her to endure.
Looking at the pink phone in Sarah’s hand, Maddie recalled the night of the accident. It was Darren’s first night outing since he’d gotten his driver’s license. Sarah had even let him use her car, completely trusting in her always responsible son. It had been Darren’s sense of responsibility that had doomed him. Texting his mom to tell her he was running late had drawn his attention from the oncoming traffic, distracted his driving aptitude and resulted in a head-on collision with a semi truck.
Darren survived, but Maddie often found herself feeling guilty when she looked at him. She tended to keep her distance because of the thoughts she conjured about him. She wondered why he had survived, when his present circumstances seemed so unfortunate. Maddie had once made the mistake of saying as much to Sarah, and Sarah’s response had made her wonder if Maddie only saw the bad in situations.
Sarah said Darren was still there. He may not show it, he may not say it, but she knew he was there. She said he was living in his beautiful mind, exploring his infinite imagination and going on a new adventure every day. Why should that be taken away from him?
But as Maddie looked at Darren, she wondered if Sarah’s words were just a means of comfort for herself. A small dribble of drool was seeping from the corner of his mouth. His eyes seemed glazed over. The joking, clear eyed, quick witted Darren that she had known before was gone. She found herself wondering if he comprehended what was happening around him, if he was silently begging for things to change. Shaking her head she hugged Dory tighter and tried to end the string of thoughts.
“I’m sorry Sarah, you’re right, it was really thoughtless of me. I think Dory and I are going to head home early, she needs a nap.”
Maddie looked at Darren one last time and waved, conflicted with her inner turmoil. Who was she to say what went on in his head?