Hide and Seek

Mrs. Freeman’s face was gold and black in the afternoon sunlight. Gold was the skin creased at the corner of her eye as she winced while listening to Mom talk. Black were the shadows in the hollows of her eyes, her high boned cheek, the frozen ripple of her clenched jaw.

“Another?” said Mom, her red blouse flickering in the gaps between the leaves of my rhododendron bush as she moved toward the patio table topped by bottles of vodka, scotch, and gin.

Mrs. Freeman nodded, looking down at the slate terrace in our backyard.

Mom dropped some ice cubes in a tall glass and filled it a quarter of the way with gin, the rest of the way with tonic. She stabbed the mixture with a skinny red stick spearing a green olive.

Mrs. Freeman glanced at Mom as she was handed the drink. She removed the stick and took a sip, lingering a moment with her lip on the glass rim, her gaze returning to the slates.

“Ah-h-h-h,” sighed Mom, lying back once again with eyes closed on her lounge chair angled toward the sun just starting to dip into the tree tops of our woods. “You’ve been pretty quiet lately, Felicia. You seem tired.”

Mrs. Freeman stirred the ice cubes with her finger. “I could use a break.”

“Then take one.”

Mrs. Freeman sipped her drink. “I can’t see a way right now.”

“You’ve got to make a way. Bob and I find that it puts the spark back in your life. Especially when the kids go to camp.”

Mrs. Freeman gazed up into the trees.

“I don’t know how you do it,” Mom continued, “with the commute into the City, the traveling to trade shows, having to support Art.”

“She doesn’t ‘support’ me,” came Mr. Freeman’s voice from the corner of the patio.

Mom said, “I’ve known Felicia longer than you, Art. She’s not meant to be a working girl.”

“She’s only meeting expenses until I sell my play.”

“What if you don’t sell it?”

“I’ll sell it.”

“But what if you don’t.”

Silence came from Mr. Freeman’s corner.

A car motor purr suddenly emerged from the back of the driveway, then disappeared as the river of bird notes and wind in the trees rose again.

“Well it’s about time,” Mom said, looking over her shoulder. “Where’ve you been?” she shouted toward the driveway.

“That engine’s worse than I thought,” said Dad, the car door slamming shut. “It’s still not fixed.”

“I think you should get rid of that boat.”

“You would,” said Dad, his voice coming from the garage. His tool box hit the garage floor with the jangle of wrenches inside. Dad approached and walked onto the terrace in his overalls. His forehead shone with beads of sweat gathered on his brow. “Hey, Felicia. Hey, Art.” He wiped his palm on the seat of his pants. “Please excuse the dirty hand.” He shook hands with Mr. Freeman and then Mrs. Freeman.

“That’s quite all right,” said Mrs. Freeman. “You’re a man who works hard.” She smiled at Dad and held his hand until he withdrew it and looked away quickly.

“The Smirnoff out here?” he asked, turning to the table of bottles.

“It’s in the freezer,” said Mom. “But would you take a shower first? We’ve been waiting for you to start dinner.”

Dad sighed and headed toward the house. Mrs. Freeman never took her eyes off him.

Suddenly a flash of red hair moved across the gaps between the rhododendron leaves. It was Samantha.

“Hi, darling,” said Mr. Freeman. “Wash your hands. We’ll be having dinner soon.”

“I can’t. The game isn’t over yet.”

“What game?”

“Hide and Seek. Have you seen Paul?”

“No.”

“It isn’t over ‘til I find him. I found everyone else but him.”

“Well if he were here we would have seen him. Anyway, he’ll be coming out shortly for dinner.”

“No he won’t,” said Allison, looking in the woods as she moved slowly along its edge at the far end of the yard. “He loves hiding. He’s never been found by the person who’s It. Not even once.”

She wouldn’t find me because my bush was the perfect screen. People could look through it and stare right at your face without spotting you. As long as you didn’t move and kept quiet. Holding your breath could help. The person who was It was so frantic to find someone that if he didn’t recognize you behind the screen within a second or two, he rushed on to other bushes, parted them to uncover a hider, and then ran off to the next property.

Suddenly Samantha whirled around and stared straight at my bush. She marched toward me across the terrace but stared at the last rhododendron of the row to my left. She parted the branches and sunlight hit the dirt below. Her movement was not hurried. The shafts of light stepped closer and closer to me in the dirt until there was Samantha staring down at me, the red hair upon her shoulders fire rimmed with sunlight.

I looked down quickly and waited for her laughter to begin, the laughter of the one who finally found me and who would tell all the kids of the secret place I’d never have again. But all I heard was the wind in the trees and the silence of Samantha looking down at me. So I looked up.

“You can come out now,” she said.

* * *

After dinner I sat on my bed with only the blue glow from the Sony miniature TV lighting the room. I wondered why Samantha never did laugh at me. Late tomorrow night we were both going to our sleep away camps, and I wouldn’t see her for two months. I felt like just being with her tonight. Especially since Twilight Zone, our favorite show, was on. But her family went out to a movie or something so I watched TV alone.

For a few minutes I just sat on my bed in my room. I listened in the dark to the wind stirring the trees and the sounds of our house. “Paint It Black” by the Stones bled through the wall from my brother’s transistor radio. Gusts of canned TV laughter came from my parent’s bedroom. The whine of my father’s power saw in the basement flowed through the ventilation duct.

I felt funny when I thought about leaving for sleep away camp. Not scared like I was last year, when I went for the first time. I cried on the train to Maine, threw up in the bathroom in the middle of the night. No, this year I couldn’t wait to see everybody again, especially since I was the captain of the winning Color War team for my age group. It was just that I felt funny being at home now, sitting around waiting to be somewhere else.

I got up and looked out my window at the Samantha’s house on the other side of the hydrangea bushes, wishing she would come home already. Suddenly a bright light swept across the woods with the sound of a car coming up the Freeman’s driveway. The beams from the Freeman’s car headlights tangled in the row of hemlocks at the back of their driveway and then got sliced by Mrs. Freeman’s legs as she walked over, reached down, and yanked up the garage door. The car turned into the garage; the bars of red light on its rear end went out; and the engine purr died. Car doors slammed shut in the darkness.

I looked down at the glowing green hands of my wrist watch: two minutes to nine. We could still make The Twilight Zone.

I snuck down the maid’s stairway and out the back door and dashed across our yard and the Freeman’s backyard. Samantha’s window shade was up. Flickering blue TV light danced in the pine needles outside her window. I climbed the tree. She was on her bed lying stomach down with her elbows forward, her jaw propped up in the cup of her palms, the TV about a foot from her nose. Her window was closed.

Suddenly her shoulders hunched up toward her neck as if someone had just thrown a cup of ice water on her back. She winced and leaned forward until her nose was almost an inch from the TV screen.

I knocked on the window. She kept watching the TV. Again I knocked. She didn’t turn. She must have had the volume up really high, but it seemed funny that I couldn’t hear it. For a moment I wasn’t sure what to do. I’d never found her window closed before. Usually I just pushed off with my foot from the tree trunk and leapt to catch the window sill. Then Samantha would lean out the window and pull me up by the belt loops to help me get in. As I looked at the sill more closely, I noticed a little crack between it and the window sash, one wide enough for my fingers. Holding on to the trunk with my left hand I leaned out and reached with my right hand toward the window: my finger tips barely slipped under the sash. With a grunt I managed to raise the sash about six inches not as much as I was accustomed to, but wide enough for me to leap for and grab the window sill.

Just as I started my leap Samantha turned and saw me and shouted, “No!” She sprang from her bed as the window sill hit my forearms instead of my chest, and I realized that the jump from the limb was more than I thought. I caught the sill with my hands and ended up hanging for dear life against the side of the house.

I heard the window go up, and Samantha’s head popped out of it above me. “What are you doing!”

“Help me,” I grunted as I started pulling myself up. Thank God her house was like a stone castle with rocks sticking out of the sides. My right and then my left foot found toe holds, and with a thrust up my arms were through the window, the window sill was against my chest, and I was panting like a madman. “Well help me!”

“You can’t come in now!”

“Why not!” My feet found two more toe holds, and I started climbing through the window.

“No!” she said trying to push me back out.

My feet lost their grip, the window sill slid up my stomach and chest, and I started fighting like an animal. I wriggled against Samantha’s shoving and screaming and finally came in through the window, kicking with a big shout. Samantha backed away toward her bed. I lay on the floor staring at the dimly lit ceiling as my chest heaved and the blood marched in my eardrums. When I caught my breath, I sat up. Samantha stared at me from the bed, her arms clasping her knees against her chest.

“Why’d the fuck you do that?” I said.

“I didn’t want you to come in.”

“You didn’t have to try to kill me!”

“Sorry.”

I got to my feet. “Don’t you believe in light?” I said, stepping over to her door and flicking up the light switch. Samantha remained hugging her knees against her chest, her back against the pink wall printed with teeny white flowers. Her eyes were moist and a little red. She sniffled.

“Why are you crying?”

“I’m not crying.”

“Then what’s that on your cheek?”

With her shoulder she rubbed away the tear. “My mother just told me I can’t go away to camp this year. She never made the final payment, and she’s not going to.”

Suddenly the sound of Mr. Freeman shouting came through her door.

“Why are your parents shouting?”

She turned to me. “Just go, okay?”

I just looked at her.

“Go!” she shouted.

“You really want me to?”

She stared at the television. “Do I have to put it in skywriting?”

I stood there for a moment and then went back to her bed and sat down beside her. “I’m sorry, Samantha.”

She looked at me with her brow furrowed. “’Sorry’? What are you sorry for?”

“That you’re not going to camp.”

“It’s not like I died or something. Besides, camp is for dummies.”

“No it’s not.”

“Yes it is. It’s where you have to listen to someone tell you how to have fun.”

“You’re just saying that because you’re not going.”

“No I’m not. I mean it.”

“Then how come you were just crying over not going.”

“’Cause I just felt like crying.”

“You’ve got to have a reason.”

“Why?”

“’Cause you’ve got to. No one cries just for the sake of crying.”

“Well how would you like having to listen to your parents scream their heads off?”

I thought about it for a moment. “I don’t know. My parents don’t scream.”

“You just haven’t heard them.”

“No. I would have heard them by now if they did.”

“Well mine do a lot, especially lately. And my mother deserved getting screamed at tonight. She quit her job yesterday and just let us know at dinner. She said she can’t take it anymore.”

“Take what anymore?”

“Who knows. I don’t like a lot of the stuff I have to do around here either, but I still do it.”

“So your Dad’s going to start working now?”

“He has been working, dummie.”

“I’m not a dummie.”

“What do you think he does all day at home sleep?”

“I don’t know. What does he do?”

“He works on his play.”

“What kind of work is that?”

She sighed. “Forget it, Paul.”

“No, tell me.”

“You wouldn’t understand.”

“Come on. Don’t be so stuck up.”

“Why should I bother trying to explain when you’ll still be as dumb as you were before I tried.”

“You don’t have to be so mean, Samantha.”

“Who cares. Everyone on this street is so retarded.”

“Well if I’m so retarded, then how come you always hang out with me?”

“’Cause you’re always hanging out with me. I didn’t ask you to jump through my window, you know.”

“But your shade was up.”

“So?”

“So our deal is that if your shade is up, I can come in.”

“Well I must have just left it up then ‘cause I don’t feel like seeing anyone.”

“But this is the last night we’ll get to play with each other all summer.”

“So what. Go run along to camp with the other dummies.”

I got off the bed and crossed her room. Just before going out her door, I turned and said, “You ever wonder why you have no friends?”

I sped down their stairway and through the hall back to the kitchen. Out the door and into the backyard I went. Flowers, grass, and rocks glowed with moonlight. Maybe I shouldn’t have said what I said. She deserved it, though.

Sticks and leaves now crackled beneath my feet. I was entering the woods.

“Paul!” came Samantha voice behind me. I looked over my shoulder at the little girl standing alone by the house and quickened my pace up the gradual rise of the woods. A cool wind swept through the trees. Samantha kept calling me, her voice getting closer and closer. I scampered over a little granite ridge at the top of the woods and positioned myself behind Big Rock. If she started searching for me on one side of it, I could keep moving around it without her seeing me.

The thrashing of the leaves stopped as I heard her clamber over the granite ridge. Then there was just the sound of the wind pouring through the trees as if it were coming from some big black pitcher in the sky. It slowed to a trickle; then it came pouring through again.

I peeked around Big Rock. Samantha was just standing there sobbing, sobbing, sobbing, the moonlight shining in the tears streaking down her cheeks. The whites of her eyes flashed; she looked like a scared chipmunk. “Paul?” she cried, her voice so weak and lost and alone. I stepped out from behind my hiding place.

“Here I am.”

She looked up and smiled as she ran to me and hugged me the closest I could remember ever having been hugged. We stood there hugging, rocking slightly as the wind came trickling, then pouring through the trees with the scent of all the woods and her hair against my cheek. I started to let go, but she clung to me more tightly.

“Just hold me,” she said. “Okay?”

“Okay,” I said. I held her, feeling strange, but close, continuing in this hug.

“You don’t know what it’s like just having one friend.”

A wind swept over us, painting a coat of goose bumps up my arms. Samantha’s shoulders quaked beneath her tee shirt.

“Are you cold, too?” I said.

“No,” she said, her face tucked into my breast. “Just kind of shaky.”

“Come here,” I said, taking her down into our favorite spot in the woods and probably in the whole world, a pocket formed between the sloping bottom edge of Big Rock and its granite base. It was just deep enough to cover two people snuggled together. Not that it shielded you from the wind. It didn’t. But when you stretched out flat on your backs with your faces bathing in the moonlight, as we were now, you could just lie there watching the tree trunks rise and sway like giant stalks, the tree tops tickling that endless dark skin of night sky freckled with stars. You were part of this one breathing thing that filled the sky. Its fur was the woods. Its heart kept swelling and sinking inside the two of you, if only you could keep quiet enough to feel it.

“Paul,” she said.

“What?”

“Don’t go this summer.”

“To camp?

“Yeah. Don’t go.”

“But I have to.”

“Why?”

“’Cause in summer I go to camp.”

“So?”

I couldn’t think of a better reason. I could just not say anything, but I knew Samantha would keep at me until I did.

“I’ll think about it,” I said.

That seemed to have silenced her. She snuggled closer into my shoulder.

I closed my eyes, trying to get back to that feeling of the woods. But, I thought, What if I didn’t go to camp? I was, of course, but what if I didn’t go? Wind sighed in the trees. Branches scraped the moon. What if I didn’t go?

* * *

We fell asleep in the woods. When I woke up, Samantha was gone. I didn’t know what time it was, but it was real late. The moon was almost buried behind the bottom of the tree trunks. I made my way down the dark path to my back yard and went to bed.

When I awoke this time, my room was full of sunlight. The sun was already over the house. I felt funny from having slept so long. My tee shirt and shorts were all wrinkly on me. I had forgotten to take them off.

I went downstairs to the kitchen thinking I’d feel better if I had something to eat. A hamburger cooked just the way I liked it—between two toasted sesame bagel halves and slices of tomato—no ketchup—sat on a plate upon the formica counter in front of the toaster oven. It was my favorite food, breakfast, lunch, or dinner. But I didn’t feel like having it right now. Maybe it was because it was under plastic cling wrap, and I couldn’t smell it. Maybe it was because it was half-draped by a long note on yellow lined paper in Dad’s spikey handwriting:

“Hey, sport! You were so dead asleep we didn’t have the heart to wake you. Mom and Dicky are at the club. I’m at the boat yard. If you need anything, Mrs. Freeman is next door. Enjoy the Going Away party across the street! Make sure you’re home by 5:00. We’re going out to dinner for your last night home. Love, Dad.”

I went outside still feeling funny. As I crossed the road, I could hear the cries and laughter of kids over the hill down in the backyard. It was as if those sounds, as if all sound were coming through gauze.

Suddenly out of the corner of my eye I saw something red. It was Samantha approaching me.

“Hi,” she said, smiling. “Where’ve you been?”

“Sleeping.” I looked at her as we came to the top of the hill. “Why didn’t you wake me last night?”

“You seemed so happy. I’ve never saw anyone smile like that in his sleep. What were you dreaming?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know.”

She looked at me. “You okay?”

I gazed down the hill at the other kids seated around bridge tables draped in sheets of pink crepe paper, gobbling chunks of chocolate cake.

I said, “What if I didn’t go to camp?”

Samantha touched my arm. “You don’t have to,” she said.

“But I do. How could I tell my parents now?” I looked down the hill. I looked at Samantha.

“Stay,” she said.

“Easy for you to say. You have no choice.”

“If I knew you were staying, I’d choose to stay too.”

I would have liked to say the same, but I didn’t feel that. I didn’t know what I felt. But I didn’t want to hurt her feelings.

“Tell you what,” she said, pulling a penny out of her pocket. “We’ll flip for it. Heads you stay, tails you go.”

“That’s no way to decide.”

“What is? It’s not like you have a year to think about it.” Then her eyes lit up, and she grinned. “How about Hide and Seek? If I find you, you stay. If I don’t, you go.”

It sounded as good as any other way. I nodded.

“Looks like I’ve got a partner this summer,” she said heading for the giant tulip tree nearby.

“If you find me,” I said backing up. “You have ‘til five o’clock.”

“You can’t hide from me, Paul.” She crossed her arms against the tree trunk and rested her forehead upon them. “I’ll count to a hundred.”

“Don’t peek.”

“Don’t you go out of bounds.” She started counting.

I turned and trotted toward the road, scanning the neighborhood with one swift sweeping glance. That was how the perfect places jumped out at you. The woods—-out of bounds. Inside our screened porch—-out of bounds. The Freeman’s open garage.

In its black mouth sat the Freeman’s purple Bonneville. It was kind of out of bounds, but since the door was up, it was not really enclosed. It was outdoor property. Perfectly legal. I ran down the road away from the Freeman’s house toward the Thruway. You never knew: Samantha might have wanted to find me so bad that she’d peek. After passing enough houses to put her off track, I cut over to a backyard and threaded my way back through screens of dogwood and hydrangea bushes separating the yards until I came to the hemlocks by the garage. I peered through them across the road. Samantha still stood with her head against the tulip tree. I darted through the hemlocks into the garage, opened the back door of the Bonneville, and slipped inside.

The bird twitter and trickle of wind in the leaves stopped beneath the soft clunk of the door as I closed it behind me. A faint whine from the trucks on the Thruway seeped through the rolled up windows. I lay down on the back seat with my cheek upon the leather. Why hadn’t I thought of this place before? She’d never find me. I really didn’t want to stay home this summer. Camp would be okay once I got there.

Suddenly the top of the back door to the garage swung open. I rolled onto the floor. Damn her. It was like when she was It, she was in my mind or something. I looked up and found Mrs. Freeman floating by the windows toward the rear of the car. Then the golden light from outside went gray with the growl and thundering slam of the garage door falling shut.

I sighed. Now I was out of bounds. But maybe not. A garage wasn’t something you lived in, so technically it was still outdoors. Mrs. Freeman opened the driver’s door and slipped onto the seat. Her black hair was swept up toward the back and held there by a pin bright with diamonds. She turned on the engine and then smiled as she leaned forward. With a spit of static, sweet plucking and strumming of a guitar poured from the radio with Paul McCartney singing “Blackbird.” Mrs. Freeman joined him as the chugga chugga of the motor filled the garage:

All your life you’ve been only waiting for this moment to arrive, Blackbird, fly into the light of the dark black night.

Her voice was soft and breathy, like that of someone singing you a lullabye.

All your life you’ve been only waiting for this moment to be free, Blackbird, fly into the light of the dark black night.

“Blackbird” bled into “Piggies,” which bled into “Rocky Raccoon” and “Don’t Pass Me By” and “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road” and song after song from The White Album without a commercial. I guessed the Freemans were having car problems, and she wanted to make sure it worked for when they joined us for dinner. Okay with me. As long as she didn’t go anywhere so I could stay in bounds until five o’clock. It was beginning to stink in here from the fumes, though. I raised my wrist to check my watch. I had forgotten to put it on.

The music was gone from the radio. A newscaster was saying something about American soldiers ambushed in Vietnam. I sat up. Mrs. Freeman’s head was against the head rest, her eyes closed as if she were asleep.

She and I talked all the time when I came over to their house on weekends. I just walked into the kitchen looking for Samantha, and if Mrs. Freeman was there cooking and Samantha was not home or in the bathroom or something, she and I just talked. About whatever we felt like. I liked her because she didn’t talk to you like you were a little kid.

“Great station,” I said to her about the radio.

Her head remained where it was, her eyes still closed.

Maybe she really was asleep. To check if she was, I leaned forward closer to her ear and said, “You think they’ll play more Beatles?”

She jerked up, her head whipping around. She stared at me with eyes bulging. “Paul!”

I swallowed. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“Oh my God,” she said, turning off the engine. “Oh my God.” She opened her door, launched out of the car to the garage door, and heaved it open with a rattle and a clank. Then she jerked open the rear car door and knelt next to me, placing her cool soft palms upon my cheeks. “Are you okay, love?”

I shrugged my shoulders. “Sure.” But she looked real worried. “Are you okay?” I said.

She glanced up at the ceiling and gave out a funny little “Hah!” that was somewhere between a laugh and a sung note. Then she gazed down at me so strong and tender, still holding my face in the palms of her hands, that I had to look away. “Thanks to you I am,” she said. “How about we go into town for our usual?”

She often took me to the candy store on weekends. I liked Chuckles, and she liked Snickers. But our favorite was the baseball cards. She liked to look at the players in their uniforms. I liked the cardboard-like sheets of pink gum.

“Do you know what time it is?” I asked.

“No. Why?”

“I just wanted to know how much time ‘til dinner. We’re going out tonight.”

“I know,” Mrs. Freeman said, drawing back off the seat and closing the door. She slipped back onto the driver’s seat and closed her door as well. “We’re all going together.” She turned on the engine, shifted into gear, and placing her arm across the seat tops, turned to gaze over my head out the rear window. As the car started gliding backward, she said, “I feel like celebrating right now.” She looked at me and smiled. “How about you?”

“Sure,” I said, thinking about camp. “But Dad wants me back by five.”

“If we’re not,” she said softly, the golden light flooding the car as we emerged from the garage, “it’ll be all right. I’ll tell him you were with me.”

* * *

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