DAVID PIKE COULD FEEL himself sinking. His mother lately looked at him as something stuck, not just in a rut, but in a sand trap. She told him that he was too quiet, tried to help him find girlfriends by circling personal advertisements in the paper and leaving them on the kitchen table next to his breakfast. David never answered any of them. Not even the one from an attractive woman named Cindy, a SWF with one son and a job as a florist. His mother told David that she sounded like quite the catch but his mother had been trying to rescue him for years. No matter what lifelines she held out, how many branches she dipped down next to David Pike’s hand, he refused to grab any of them.

“You’ve got to do something with yourself, David.” She would say.

Sometimes he grunted and went back to his meal, scooping eggs into his mouth as if he were in a hurry to get somewhere.

“I’m worried about you. Your father, God rest his soul, would be worried too.”

He wasn’t irresponsible or uncaring. He washed his dishes when he was done using them and he always kissed his mother hello and goodbye. When his mother would show him the new lace curtains or the upgraded coffee pot, David would look at them and nod appreciatively.

Like a child, David Pike heard his mother’s voice echoing do’s and don’t’s in his head with great frequency. He looked both ways before crossing the street, was wary of strangers, and ate meals that had represented at least three colors on his plate. David didn’t touch metal during thunderstorms, always wore clean underwear, didn’t scowl in public and never picked his nose, only discreetly “scratched at” it.

At work, David sat in a cubicle in the only corner of the building that had no window. He was next to the copy machine and grew accustomed to the dull thrum of Xeroxes shooting out in quick succession. David filed reports, checked figures, and, although his job had a title, it was of no significance to him or anyone else. When he arrived home at the end of the day, he watched Wheel of Fortune with his mother.

Except for one thing, every year, month, hour, minute, of his adult life would have been joyless. But David had an obsession: David Pike loved photographs of children.

Not the explicit ones like he often saw disturbed men fawn over on late-night crime shows. David loved to photograph children playing, crying, standing, in any pose or mood. On the weekends, he went to the park and took as many pictures of children as he could before the mothers ushered their sons and daughters away from “the bad man with the camera.” How David longed to become closer to them! He wanted to reach out and take their small palms in his own, hand clasped around as many of the pudgy fingers as would fit. Sometimes he dreamed of their touch. David read books and in them he learned adjectives to describe the way it might feel to have a child near him—sticky, warm, light, angelic, satisfying, clumsy. He felt as though he had never been a child himself, remembering almost nothing from before his father’s death. Once, he supposed, his father must have thrown him into the air and caught him. David must have skinned his knees and cried and been patched up again, had the tears wiped off his large face. But he could only suppose. There were only a handful of pictures of him from that time and he had them in his collection with the rest, thumbing over his own face as if he were a complete stranger.

At the park, David could sit across the way from the mothers and pretend to read a newspaper. Usually he was hidden from their sight by a tree but if he tilted slightly to either side and brought out his camera, he could see everything. He could see Marcy with the little girl called Emma. Emma was six and afraid of heights. “We’ve bought every book we could find but we can’t cure her,” Marcy had said to the other mothers weeks ago.

“I’ve heard that you should just wait it out.” Lisa was feeding her baby while keeping an eye on her son. “Jordan used to be afraid of the dark and it nearly killed Jerry and I to hear him yelling whenever we tried to take away his nightlight. After a year he just told us that there was too much light for him to sleep and that was the end of it.”

“I wish it were that easy,” Marcy said with a sigh.

“Look at it this way,” Kay said, a woman with short red hair who wasn’t a mother but an aunt. She looked out for the twins Kyle and Jeremy on weekends. “At least you don’t have to worry about Emma climbing up on something and falling. Count your blessings, Marcy. She’ll either outgrow it and give you less to worry about or keep her fear and give you less to worry about.”

David Pike heard all of these things and tried to take photographs when they weren’t looking. He kept the children’s secrets. David had no one else to tell, but still, those little quirks seemed to make each child belong to him in the same way they belonged to their mothers.

Though trying to be as unobtrusive as possible, it was often pointless. David was a man with a camera. The mothers usually called their children within a few minutes of his arrival. He thought that perhaps they would have been more willing to feign acceptance of another woman, a sad woman. If David were a woman, they might assume she had lost a child and was lonely. “How awful,” they would say to each other.

David Pike went to the park even when the women weren’t there. A few times he had tried to climb on the jungle gym, almost getting stuck in the tube of the slide. He tried to haul himself across the monkey bars, his meaty legs dragging against the wood chips even when they were bent. Once he tried to pump his legs as he had seen a group of boys doing once and swing himself as high as he could. The swing set creaked under his weight, rocking dangerously back and forth. David Pike got down. He didn’t try again.

Once a month David developed his photos and added them to the ten albums that he kept hidden on the top shelf of his closet. David knew it was a safe place because his mother had a bad back and could not reach that high without difficulty. So, after Wheel of Fortune, he retired to his room to take out an album and look over the pages. He tried to remember the day he took each photograph. Sometimes, David Pike would come across one where the child-subject was looking straight at him. His chest tightened. At times like these he felt ashamed, as if the mothers’ overprotection was a reaction to something that he could not yet see in himself. Was he really no better than those men on television? But it was their childlike intensity that he wanted to be close to, not their bodies. David Pike wanted to take the happiness in Emma’s smile and lay it down in bed. He wanted to hold it, feel its small heart beating against his chest. Sometimes he lay awake and thought that if he could find something to bring that child-essence close to him, he too might become childlike—a miracle elixir for youth. But David Pike tried not to look too hard for it, afraid to hold that hope too dear.

He wanted nothing more than that. He had pushed through the motions of adolescence with a fire that people at times thought was independence or a drive for success. He had only ever wanted to get done and get out. For years after high school and college David had lived at home and worked and been empty until he stumbled on the park the first time. He was biking home from work and there was construction on the road he usually took. It had started as nothing more than a detour. It had started with nothing more than a look to his left, seeing Emma and the other children. It started when he heard them laughing and the soft creaking of the swings and the low whistle of evergreen trees in the wind. In that moment, David Pike’s senses had never been sharper. Remembering that moment, he could smell the sweet sweat that little children seem to carry on them. Emma’s hair was soft and Kyle’s had a stick in it, a leaf that crunched when he tried to pull his hair clean.

David could not help but think back to last Wednesday night. David Pike had gone to work as usual, ridden his bike home through a shower of rain, and decided to stop at the park. He had supposed it would be empty—the mothers rarely brought their children out in bad weather—but as he parked his small bicycle against the large oak tree he sometimes watched from, David Pike saw something that could have changed his life. There was a child, one he had never seen before, huddled under the slide. David quickly looked around the park. He thought that surely there was a parent nearby but while he motioned his head to the left and right there was no one. The park was almost silent save for sound of rain that beat down on his yellow slicker making a noise that echoed around his head. David felt like he was in the center of a drum circle and the thighs of his pants were soaked. His heartbeat thumped in his ears. David called out to the child. “What are you doing under there?” He took small steps toward the huddled figure.

There was no answer. As David got closer he slowly began to see that the child had curled himself into his knees. He was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt that was too big for him—there was some logo for a sports team on the back that David did not recognize. It looked like a wolf or a dog or a fox; he wasn’t sure. “Hey…you.”

David was almost underneath the play structure now. One more step and he would have to duck his head. The boy said nothing. David stretched out his hand and tapped the boy on the shoulder. The figure’s head began to rise. He turned around to face David Pike, wiping a runny nose with his sleeve. “Don’t tell them I’m here.,” he said, as if David could somehow know who was looking for him.

David sat down on the wood chips. He shook his head.

“You won’t tell them?”

Pausing for only a moment this time, David asked simply, “Who?’

“My parents.”

When David asked why the boy didn’t want his parents to know where he had gone, the boy shrugged his shoulders. The child’s face was red and puffy. David felt that he must have been out here crying for hours. The boy couldn’t have been more than eight or nine.

“I’m running away. I’ve already gone over fifty blocks from my house. I counted.” The boy sniffled. David pulled out a handkerchief from his back pocket—it was wet and slightly warm from being so close to his body. “Thanks,” the boy said and blew his nose. “My name is Tommy.” He handed the snotty rag back to David. “Don’t tell anyone. You promised.”

“No.” David swallowed. “It’ll be our secret.” He prepared to get comfortable. “Now, Tommy…why don’t you want to be at home?” As the boy answered, he started crying again. Tommy leaned into David Pike’s shoulder. There was a moment when no one moved—Tommy, snotty and arms flung around a large man; David, mouth dry, wondering what he should do next.

But David did not have to worry until one week later when he came home from work to find his mother quietly fixing dinner. They ate silently. He offered to clean the dishes and the sound of each plate being put on the counter to dry was almost deafening. He and his mother sat in front of the television. They were like this for two hours; his mother opened and closed her mouth, taking a sharp breath during every lull in the noise level. The lights were dimmed, yellowed, as if a haze had fallen over the entire living room. David knew she had something important to say. The contestant had already bought a vowel and solved the puzzle. His mother didn’t even try to guess it first.

When Wheel of Fortune ended, David Pike got up from his chair, offered his mother an arm, and walked her to her room. He kissed her goodnight at the door. In his room, he climbed out of his clothing. David opened his closet. It smelled of mothballs and had more broken hangers in it than clothing. But when he reached for one of his albums, he felt nothing. David opened the door all the way and stood on the tips of his toes to see farther inside but the shelf was empty except for a layer of dust and the flattened body of a spider. He slammed the door, threw his clothes back on, and went downstairs. David felt as though he was dreaming and he hit himself to make sure he could feel it, to convince himself that the photographs were really gone. His arm smarted from the blow.

When he opened the door to his mother’s bedroom it looked at first like she was praying; her shrinking form kneeled in front of the bed, arms in front of her. David Pike walked closer and saw that rather than clasping her hands together, his mother had his photo album and was looking through it.

His mother flipped through the pages, running her hands slowly over the faces of each child. It was as though she was mourning something, as if the photographs were of children who were dead and underground.

“Give that back, Mother. It’s important.” Still, it was as if David Pike wasn’t there at all. He looked around the room and realized that he had not been in this part of the house in over two years.

“There are hundreds of photos here,” his mother finally said.

“I know. It’s nothing.”

“It’s an obsession, David.” She flipped another page, saw a photograph of Emma and her mother. “I wondered where you were going every weekend.”

“I wanted to tell you but—“

“It’s wrong, David.” With this his mother creaked up onto her feet, turning slowly to face him.

“I don’t want to hurt them if that’s what you think.”

“What am I supposed to think? I’ve seen TV shows about people like you before.”

David paused. “Look,” he said, holding the album upside down so his mother could see it. “This is Emma. She acts like she’s afraid of heights but she’s not—I’ve seen her climb this slide when no one’s looking. And this,” he pointed to another, “this is Kyle and Jeremy. They’re twins and they never talk to anyone but each other, not even their aunt.” David looked at his mother hoping to see understanding. He kept going, flipping a few more pages until he found the perfect ones. “See these? That’s Jordan squashing bugs with a few boys who only come to the park every couple of weeks. I don’t know their names but they’re not there so often. But look, if you go a few more pages you can see him burying them. He was trying to hide it from everyone, even his mother. He stays there for hours just to bury what he’s killed. I can see his mouth moving sometimes when he does it. He prays for them!” David started to turn another page but his mother held her hand over the album. She stepped toward him. Without realizing it, he took a step back each time.

“That’s enough, David.”

“I just need to show you—“

“That’s enough.”

David found the page. “No.” He pointed to a photograph of himself next to a small boy. “The boy’s father took this picture. This is Tommy.”


“So he tried to run away! I found him. I kept him safe until his parents got there. Who knows what could have happened if he kept wandering around by himself; it was ten o’clock when they thought to look in the park.”

She gently took the photo album from his hands. “And what were you doing with him that whole time in the dark? You should have brought him home.”

David stood up straight. “He didn’t want to go home.”

“It wasn’t his decision.”

“Why not?”

“Because, David. Because he was too young to know better.” His mother turned away from him. “I have to go to bed.”

“We’ll talk about it tomorrow then.”

“No, David.” She took one last step, leaving him in the hallway. “This ends now.” His mother closed the door slowly, as if it, too, were tired. He could not move, heard a click, and knew that his mother had locked herself inside. She had kept his photos.

He yelled at the door, “We’re all dead. Dying. Mother, all I did was age until I started taking these pictures. Please.”

He waited. He knew she would not answer him.

David grabbed his yellow rain slicker and camera, walking outdoors without bothering to put his shoes on.

He took off at a run. David didn’t stop until he reached the park. There were no shadows, just a star or two come out from between the clouds. He could feel his bare feet shuffling a beat onto the pavement, ssh ssh ssh ssh—the whisper calmed him. It felt like hours of running before he got there, fumbling his way down the road that he knew so well. He couldn’t see himself. He couldn’t see his hands, feet, stomach, and for that he was glad. David Pike lay down underneath the wooden play-castle. His face pressed against the wood chips when he was on his side. David shifted himself onto his back. He held the camera over his chest, clicking the shutter so that he could hear the sound of his finger sticking against it. He took no pictures. David Pike covered himself and the camera with the yellow slicker. Beginning to think of Tommy, the last time he lay in this spot, David wondered if he too didn’t wish to be found. As soon as he closed his eyes, he was asleep.

When he woke the next morning, David looked up at the wooden floor and the light coming between each slat. He felt for his camera. The lens was cracked. Maybe he rolled over in the night. David Pike had been crying but felt nothing. For the first time in years, he thought of his father’s death. David was eight when it happened and couldn’t remember anything before that moment. His father was pushing David on the swings when it happened, the young boy yelling, “Higher. Higher.” Suddenly his father’s hands were not behind him and the swing felt like it was going too fast, too high. David Pike turned and saw his father on the ground. He couldn’t get down—a little boy waiting until the swing had slowed almost to a stop. At the funeral, he felt nothing. It was as though his father had never existed. For David Pike, the world quickly became colorless.

Once as much a ghost as his own father, something in him had changed when he first saw the children. It was as though a passageway opened inside of him that led somewhere few people could understand—perhaps artists knew, people in love. Every day seemed to go more slowly. He could not comprehend that for the first time he was waiting for something, making plans, looking forward to. But now his camera was broken. He tried to turn it on and take a picture but when he looked through it the world was misshapen—trees came from the middle of each other and the swings seem to stretch on forever.

David decided to sit upright. He blinked his eyes a few times and opened them for good. Wood chip stuck in his hair, he left his camera on the ground. It was still early; he was slightly damp from the dew. The sun was coming up between the tree branches, a jagged filtered light that made everything seem colder. But this was when things changed because he stood and, without the camera, he saw the swings clearly. There were four of them, a straight line of metal chain and rubber. When the wind blew, David knew that they moved and creaked slightly but there was no wind now and the swings were quiet. He dusted off his pants, drops of water flicking from his hands. David Pike took ten steps to the nearest swing and held the chains. In this moment, his head was clear. He could not hear the sound of Kyle and Jeremy in the distance, their mother telling them not to dawdle. He could not see Emma’s skinned knee from falling off the slide yesterday afternoon. He did not even know that she slipped. Suddenly he was in the air, legs pumping, his torso moving, propelling him forward. Now David Pike was higher than he had ever been before. He moved his legs faster, harder, trying to see above the treetops to look at the town where he lived. In the light, the rooftops had a greenish tinge as if they were covered in moss. David inched higher and with every push grew closer to seeing his home from a new angle. A heavy sleep like fog hung over the town. Even as the people stirred, woke up, the fog did not go away. Some blinds were being opened, others closed. David continued to swing. The chains went slack as he reached the top. He could feel himself falling straight down before being caught, pulled back and forward again.

TOVE K. DANOVICH is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn. She is a contributor to The Nervous Breakdown and an associate editor at Anderbo literary magazine. Her work has most recently been published in The Brooklyn Rail and Grist.  She is also the author of a children's book titled Mary and the Birds and the food blog Eighty-Sixed


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