I huffed and wiped the sweat off my eyebrow for the hundredth time in the last five minutes. The pink toenail polish that Aunt Carissa helped me paint on this morning glistened in the sunlight.
I wasn't having a very good time.
“Wanna play hopscotch? I’ve got chalk. Pink ones too if you like. My mom says girly-girls like pink. Your bow is pink so you're definitely a girly-girl. I like your bun. You look like a ballerina. Are you a ballerina? Can you show me your moves?”
The soft voice above me rushed the words out before I could raise my head. I looked up and was staring into twinkling green eyes and a chubby face. She reminded me of my mom’s statues that she often called a cherub.
“Willow,” she stated.
I continued to stare.
Her wild mane of curly red hair that was more like a copper color was currently spread in every direction like it had never met a brush before. Freckles covered what seemed like every inch of her face and framed her big round eyes. Her bright green overalls had a yellow daisy print that she paired with purple sneakers. She definitely had the adorable kid look down.
“Hi,” I finally responded after the silence became awkward. I could see some of her confidence disappearing when I continued to stare.
“What’s your name?” she prompted nervously. I wasn't sure I should answer her. She looked like trouble and a long day. I didn’t get the chance to answer though. A lady with equally red hair, but carefully swept back to rest on her shoulders, interrupted before I could.
“Willow,” the lady called out in a stern tone. “What happened to your hair? Oh, never mind. Where is your brother? It’s time to go home.”
“Mooooom,” she whined. “How would I know? Buddy’s five! He’s practically an adult!”
I‘m almost sure that isn’t right.
“Willow Olivia Waters,” her mother started, turning red.
“Lake”, I stated abruptly.
They both turned to me, her mother appearing confused while Willow grinned at me triumphantly. I guess learning my name was some kind of victory for her. Weird.
I only gave my name as a distraction because for some reason I didn't want the other girl in trouble, but now I didn't know what to do as they both stared at me.
“Mom, Lake and I will find Buddy and we’ll meet you at the car,” the girl rushed out as she grabbed my hand and took off running across the playground.
We quickly passed swing sets, merry-go rounds, and jungle gyms, but I never really saw any of it as she pulled me across the park at top speed. We finally came to a stop near a set of bright blue monkey bars. It looked pretty scary to an eight-year old so I could only imagine how the younger boy in denim overalls, crouched over in tears, on top of the bars felt. I wondered how and why he got up there. The monkey bars were meant for kids three times his size.
“Buddy!” Willow called out next to me.
“Willow, help me. I can’t get down!”
I could see him shaking from where I was standing and felt sorry for the little guy. I turned to his sister expectantly to see what she would do but she no longer looked like the vibrant girl I met a moment ago. She looked scared. I nudged her, which seemed to break her out of her trance.
“I can’t go up there,” she whispered softly. Her rosy cheeks paled as she turned to me with wide eyes.
Great, she’s scared of heights.
I looked around for their parents and noticed we were surrounded by trees on the far side of the park away from any adult help. I thought for a moment to go and get help but the little boy was near hysterics and Willow continued to look around nervously.
What was the big deal anyway? The monkey bars weren’t that high. I sighed, knowing I was going to be the one to climb the monkey bars and coax her little brother down.
I knew giving her my name meant a really long day. I started forward and grasped the first bar, ready to climb, when I heard him.
I froze and immediately looked in the direction of the unknown voice. I was looking into a stranger’s eyes for the second time today. These eyes didn't twinkle though. No…they were dark and reminded me of the thunderstorms I hated so much. They were scary and mean.
Everything about this moment felt different. I was unable to look away from his startling gray eyes. They were taunting me, daring me to look away and risk the consequences.
I didn't, or rather I couldn't look away and I didn't know if I wanted to.
I watched him watch me and suddenly I wanted to know what he thought of me. I needed to know what he saw when he looked at me. I wasn't entirely sure what I saw when I looked at him but I knew the reaction we were having towards each other wasn’t normal. It was too powerful.
He was leaning casually against the ladder on the opposite side from where I began my climb, but his intense stare said this encounter was anything but casual.
I could tell he was around my age or maybe older. His dark shaggy hair fell forward partially shading his eyes because it was slightly longer in the front.
Little rivulets of sweat lined his angular face and sharp cheekbones that were still slightly rounded with youth. A basketball was lying at his feet so I guessed he just finished playing.
“I want to go home.” I heard the sniffled cry from above, snapping me out the trance I was in. I noticed a few other kids now standing around the monkey bars watching Buddy cling to the bars but no one moved to help.
There was a smaller boy standing close to him who favored him. He was staring at us; watching our silent exchange. Without giving a response or another glance I continued on, the moment gone, but the awareness very much present. However, I didn't get my foot on the next bar before he stopped me again – this time with a hand on my right leg. His eyes seemed even darker up close. It made me pause.
How did he get over here so fast?
“No,” he said this time. It almost sounded like a growl, but that couldn’t be right. People don’t growl. But apparently he could because he continued speaking in the same forceful tone. “He got himself up there, he can get himself down.”
What? He was just a little kid, I thought angrily. But then so were we.
“Look, I don't know who you are or what your deal is, but he needs help and he is going to get it from me. Got it?” I rushed out when I found the courage to speak. Truth be told, he was scaring the crap out of me.