By David Williamson
The floor under the trampolines was mud and ooze. All gas and suction and smelling like vomit. Caleb gagged, slid across the slickness on all fours, shook his head, and recovered his sense of balance, orientation.
It was Todd’s birthday and Caleb had been invited to celebrate at the indoor trampoline park. Just moments before he was chasing a rogue dodgeball that went sailing over his head and cleared the trampoline’s parapet. He knew the word parapet because he misspelled it on a vocabulary test just last week. He ran halfway up the slanted wall, which was also a trampoline, leapt, grabbed the top edge, and hoisted himself over. It was something he couldn’t do last year when he was only nine, but pride rushed out of him when he cleared the top edge, and his body fell for entire seconds (seconds!) before hitting the mud floor.
Now, he could only see by what light seeped through the tiny breathable holes of the woven trampoline material several yards above his head. The indentations of feet from jumping bodies stretched down to him like nightmares trying to break through.
Caleb shook the excess globs of whatever from his hands, his forearms, elbows. Dodgeballs, partially submerged in the mud, looked like swollen eggs, something alien, and – another vocab word – secreting.
In all directions was just mud and balls and horrible feet coming down at him and support beams holding up the trampolines above him. No walls. No ladder back to the top. No way out.
He called up through the trampolines, but his voice was drowned out by the joyous screams and laughter.
Then a horrible gripping fear tightened in his chest.
I can’t get out. Are they looking for me? Do they know I’m gone? How long have I been down here? Has Mom given up and gone back home?
He waited for a response. The descending feet answered with a stretchy distressed yawn, coming down impossibly close to his head. He tried to smack them, to get their attention, but they retracted too quickly.
He couldn’t remember if you could see beneath the trampolines, not even when you were down on the concrete floor of the trampoline park. He started not remembering other things too, but he forgot what they were. Something was stealing things from his brain. It was like a vacuum hose pressed against the crown of his head, and every few seconds a clot of some memory would dislodge and fly out of his mind like…like something.
Do they notice my goneness? Am I missing a something? A search party? My search party I’m missing?
His feet suctioned in the muddy stuff when he walked.
“Do you know the way?” It was a girl smaller than him. She wasn’t there before. “I can’t find the way.”
“No,” he said.
“I’ve been here so long. They’ve left. They can’t find me. Gave up.”
“No,” he said. “They’ll come. What’s your name?”
The girl rubbed her face. She looked like she was from a different time. There was fresh muddy stuff on her too, slicked-over layers that had crusted over, dried and cracked.
He was about to tell her his name to encourage her, but it didn’t come to him right away, so he reached out his hand instead. He felt like a big brother. Someone who had to be brave. “Do you have a name?”
The girl shrugged.
“You don’t know?”
“I think I do, but I forget.”
“Here,” he said, careful not to let his voice quiver. “We’ll find the way together.”
They walked a few steps, and then he stopped. “I don’t think we should go much further. We should stay where we are. When you’re lost, you should stay where you are until someone finds you.”
“I’m too far already, I think.”
The boy lifted one foot out of the muddy suck, then the other. He tried to think of questions to ask, but none came. What good was he?
She stopped crying but looked as if she’d start again.
“Maybe we could sing a song,” Caleb said.
“Do you know one?”
The boy started to sing but lost the tune. It was right there, but he couldn’t grab it.
“Do you know a song?” he asked.
The girl pulled something small out of her pocket, put it back. “What?”
“I don’t know.”
A hole ripped open above them and light poured in. The boy and the girl squinted at the brilliance. When his eyes adjusted, he said, “Look.”
Men descended on ropes. “Caleb,” they hollered.
The boy looked at the girl who just shrugged. “You?” he asked.
“I don’t think so?” she said.
“CALEB. CAAALEB! Where are you? Take my hand!”
“Here?” he said. “Here?” Then, with more confidence. “Here. I’m here. I am here!”
The boy smiled to the girl. “They’re here.”
“Those aren’t mine,” she said. Sadness fixed on her face like the mud that dried in shells around her knees, the slope of her chin.
Maybe she had strayed too far. She had wandered so long, from another trampoline park, maybe from another town, another world. Maybe not a trampoline park at all. The boy could see that something had once lit up her face but was now gone forever. So, what could he do?
The boy reached up and felt a strong grip on his forearm. He was lifted out of the mud. He clung to the man’s arm and ascended into blinding white light above his head. The chill slipped from his skin, and the boy was glad when he could make out the faces of his rescuers in the warm buzzing light.
He couldn’t tell how he knew, but he felt as if he were about to go somewhere he wanted to go. There was something pulling him toward something he wanted to see. Maybe someone. His brain felt heavy and gray as he strained toward an electric, exciting new thing. Some kind of relief. He didn’t know for sure, but it didn’t matter. From here on out, he was a found thing, and he carried this knowledge with him, indelible on his heart.
David Williamson is a writer living and working in Richmond, VA with with his family and a whole bunch of animals. Williamson’s stories have been published in X-R-A-Y, BULL, Maudlin House, HAD, and others.