Even for such a small patch of grass to call a backyard, Ralphie was usually drenched with sweat before he was through. He could only imagine how hard it would be if not for the pool and brick patio that populated the backyard. Sometimes, after mowing in that summer heat, Ralphie would jump in the pool only to remember it was only there as a show of status for his parents rather than something of use. It was more like a cold water hot tub for its depth and length, but it still did the job of cooling off. Dipping his toes in the water for a few minutes, Ralphie was able to relax a bit and forget some of the heat. He only wished he lived somewhere where the weather wasn’t almost always warm and sunny. He had never seen snow, the winters would get mild, but never snowy. Quietly thinking of building a snow fort or having a snowball fight with friends, like he had seen through several programs in the headset, Ralphie realized something strange.
On the other side of the fence, be it in the direction of the Johnsons, Wiltons, or Haymeyers, there should have been noise. The neighborhood was filled with kids, none near enough to Ralphie’s age, but kids all the same. Those children should have been outside, making an absurd amount of noise that would have prevented Ralphie from really relaxing. Usually, it was nothing but screams and laughter, threats to tattle on one another, or sometimes two Haymeyer boys fighting. Yet, today, there was none of the usual childish antics nor the sound of others mowing. In fact, the wind was even dead quiet, the street silent, no air traffic, not a single sound to be heard in the backyard. There was an impulse for Ralphie to make noise, to fiddle with the speakers on his cd player and blast music loud enough for all the neighbors to hear and wake them from their stupor. However, Ralphie had some vague memory that he had tried that when he was much younger, and both mom and dad had scolded him severely after getting a notice for disturbing the peace. He wouldn’t dare try it again now that he was older, even if it meant getting some direct attention from his folks.
Heading back inside, Ralphie picked through the fridge before settling on some cola, and a couple of beef sticks from a package he had thought was already opened. With most of the day’s choirs done, he would head back to his room and listen to music or maybe make some sketches. However, the allure of virtual reality was too much after a few minutes of staring at a blank page, well an almost blank page. He had put a few lines down and, for whatever reason, outline the number four in a fancy style. What he was drawing felt close to something he had seen somewhere at some time, but where Ralphie hadn’t the slightest. If it were important, he figured, he would remember it sooner or later and could flesh out the drawing further, if he still had that urge. Yet, when the headset had finished booting, whatever vision was there in his head was replaced with another familiar albeit off-putting scene.
Again, the program running was something like a memory that felt half-lived or just poorly remembered. Ralphie had to have been about five or six when he last had to go to the Kid’s Corner daycare/play area. It was one of those all too child-friendly places in the mall that had been phased out entirely after too many kids got hurt or the people running it got tired of lawsuits. There was a sea of toys that were best suited for play by a toddler, and their stickiness would confirm this. Two televisions sat at opposite ends of the room, one with PBS seemingly always playing Thomas the Tank Engine or Sesame Street while the other was constantly being tuned to stations with less educational toons. The latter could be seen from the top of the fort that boasted three slides, a climbing net, a series of personal-sized trampolines cut through the center as some makeshift ladder, and a ball pit that not even the youngest of kids would desire to play in. All of the balls were horribly stained so that not a single one was its proper color, but that suited the place. The carpets were the same, their awful late nineties aesthetic complemented the wallpaper of a similar style.
Ralphie remembered coming here almost every day until he was old enough to go to school all day. After he stopped needing some form of daycare, at least through midday, Ralphie’s mother stopped working at the shoe store in the mall. It was convenient at the time, but unnecessary as she was home in the morning before school and could be back after the day was done. Deep in his heart, Ralphie missed this unpleasant but welcoming place, even when he was still little. There were friends he made there, kids who weren’t his age or wouldn’t go to school with him later on. His best friend Toby went there and was his same age, but his parents apparently sent him to a different school when school started. Yet, Ralphie didn’t find the friendly environment of his childhood, nor even what would become of that spot in the mall. Instead, what sat before him was the washed-out remains of the Kid’s Corner, abandoned and empty.
The big glass windows at the entry of the mall provided most of the light to the area, showing already too many stains that were not the result of children. Leaking pipes and dust mounds marred the gaudy green and pink striped carpet. Those hard plastic slides had discolored from the sunlight streaming in from the windows in the play area that always seemed to tall for anyone to see out of. An unpleasant sensation ran through Ralphie as he moved further from the entranceway with its cubbies and the separate set of shelves for shoes. It was almost like, in those shadows where sat the main desk and the entrance into the backrooms, someone was watching. Still, as he turned to leave, Ralphie felt the rest of the mall was an unkindly place and that an unseen watcher could be lurking anywhere.
Stores, their signs removed, or clearly in disrepair could be havens for anyone or anything. Feral dogs, rats, homeless, junkies, and any number of other things could be hiding out in the mall that looked to be utterly forgotten. The gates were down in front of most stores, cardboard pinned in place over some, while others had more substantial walls as opposed to those thin, metal bars. From the door, Ralphie could see the arcade that had once throbbed with life and electric light. He remembered those days when he went to Kid’s Corner. With mom, he’d pass by the sprawling room lit half with blacklight and half by arcade cabinets. The carpet and ceiling were dark, nearly black, and were patterned with a cosmos that featured dozens of Saturn-like planets. Ralphie remembered asking his mom to take him almost every time they went passed, and nearly every time, she would say they could have his next birthday there. Rodney had one of his birthdays there before the place went under, and Ralphie couldn’t help but feel some resentment at his parents. Not only had they not followed through with the promise of a party there, but they had been too busy to take him to Rodney’s birthday. He had been sore with Ralphie for a while after that, thinking he had blown it off intentionally when it couldn’t be farther from the truth. Yet, he could go there now, if he could overcome his paranoia, but as Ralphie moved to leave, he ran into an obstacle.
The play center’s doors had been chained and locked tight with a more than sturdy looking padlock. It was an annoyance beyond anything Ralphie could measure, being so close to something he longed to see so badly, and still, he was stopped. Knowing the arcade was close but just out of reach burned him up on the inside but not as much as knowing the way out was sealed. Any fear of what may lurk in the desolate mall just beyond the doors was replaced by that terror of what dwelt in the shadows behind him. As it pulsed through his mind that he could be in danger, the reality that it was all coming through the headset returned. Accessing the menu, Ralphie hastily shut off the simulation and removed the headset.
Sitting on the floor, his back to the bed, Ralphie caught his breath while fighting back tears born of terror and anxiety. He chugged down the soda, his throat had become unquenchable. Then, he looked down at the sketchpad sat on his lap. The four came into his mind more clearly, the lines were not abstract and random but part of a greater structure. Seizing the memory’s vividness and taking the drawing in less than its beginnings, Ralphie set to work. When he was through, twilight orange blurred through his blinds, and the scene was recreated in earnest. It wasn’t the play area, he at first thought it would be, but the image hearkened back to more memories. The recollection of that small-town grocery store sat on the sketch pad. That place where dad would always give him a quarter for a toy or sticker, and mom used to get him a sugar cookie at the bakery. Looking deep into the sketch, seeing the archaic designs and almost dreamy qualities of every feature, Ralphie wanted to tear it shreds. He wanted to flush it down the drain or burn it on the stove, but most of all, he just wanted it away from him.
Ralphie chucked the sketch pad to the far side of his room before he stumbled out into the hall on legs half asleep. With only the grumbling of his stomach in mind, he made for the kitchen and threw together a peanut butter sandwich. Even as he tried to escape boyhood and the nostalgia of places lost to time and memory, he found himself running headlong into childish patterns. He had toasted the bread and buttered each before smearing with peanut butter and adding the jelly he tried to delicately spread without wrecking the toast. Mom and dad used to make it this way whenever he would be too picky to eat dinner and then whine about being too hungry to sleep. And for some reason, all of that, the drawing, the simulation, the sandwich, the utter loneliness, set in on him and made Ralphie’s eyes well with tears. He returned to his room, found the razor, turned on the radio, and made sure Spike wouldn’t see what would come next.