Gabe would start kindergarten soon, so his father, Howard Larson, thought one last trip to McDonalds—the newer one south of town with the big tunnel playground—was in order. Howard had spent much of the past five years watching Gabe grow, and the two had consumed a small mountain of cheeseburgers in the last few, adding a least an inch or two to Howard’s swelling waistline. While they ate, sitting a grey plastic bench just inside the covered play area, Gabe gawked at the bright tubes criss-crossing overhead. He had barely touched his food.

“Hey, Dad. Where do they go?” Gabe paused, his face wide and curious.

Nowhere. Just full of a bunch of squealing kids and a lot of germs, Howard thought. “C’mon, buddy, take a few more bites, okay?” He pushed Gabe’s tray a few inches closer.

The boy broke his trance long enough to shove a few more fries in his mouth. A dab of ketchup dropped to his blue shirt, staining the ‘A’ in Adidas. His eyes roamed again as he chewed, drawn back to the hooting children and hot-pink molded tunnels. “Can I play now? Please?”

Howard looked at Gabe’s half-chewed cheeseburger, closed his eyes, and nodded. The boy hopped from the bench, yanked the shoes from his feet, and tucked them on a shelf next to one slide. He vanished up a blue tube before his father could think, he grew up so fast. Too fast.

As he tugged Gabe’s track across the table, Howard began to remember. He thought about all the special time they’d had as father and son over the past few years, special time afforded because Howard worked from home editing legal articles. Horribly boring work, but it pays the bills, he thought. Gabe had never known the interior of a day care center, not even one of those grandmotherly outfits in the basement of some middle-aged woman’s house.

Howard looked around the play area, scanning the long, taffy-stretched faces of other parents. One thin old man, old enough to be the great-grandfather to any of the kids playing there, sat at the far end of the play area, leaning back on a molded bench. God, they look tired. Do I look that tired? He knew the last few years hadn’t been easy, what with Emma’s post-partum depression, and the grueling hours of her new job. He knew he hadn’t had the patience for his son, his wife, and the editing work that kept the family afloat while she bounced from job to job. For better or for worse was supposed to be easier, he thought.

“Daddy,” Gabe called from somewhere above him. “Daddy, there are so many different tunnels!”

The father cast his eyes toward the maze, scanning for his son, but finding no trace. “Great, buddy. I’m glad you’re having fun.” He picked up Gabe’s half-eaten sandwich and crammed a few bites into his mouth.

“Energetic kid you got there.” The old man had left his bench and now stood at Howard’s side.

“What?” Howard looked up, sizing the old man’s ink-blot eyes. “Yeah, yeah. He’s a handful sometimes. How about you—your grand—”

“No,” the man stopped Howard with a wave of his stretched skeleton hand. “No. None of these are mine, grandchild or great-grandchild.” He coughed, raspy and wet, and brushed his lips with a handkerchief. “I just like to come here…makes me feel, younger.”

Howard squirmed a little, unsettled by the emphasis on that last word. He sipped the last drops of Coke from the bottom of his cup with eyes focused on the table in front of him. From his periphery, he knew the old man still stood there, looming to his left.

Gabe scampered out of one tunnel and sprinted to the table, snatching his cup and slurping a mouthful of Sprite before Howard could speak. “Dad,” Gabe panted after swallowing, “there’s a tunnel up there I haven’t seen before.”

“Sounds interesting buddy.”

The old man stooped, placing one gnarled hand on Gabe’s shoulder. “Be careful in there boy. Some of those tunnels go a lot farther than you’d think. You might just land somewhere you don’t intend to go.” He chuckled lightly, but Gabe pulled away and flashed his dad a wide-eyed glance before vanishing into the maze of plastic tubes.

Howard set his cup on the table and turned to say something to the old man, but he was gone. Strange old coot. Hope he didn’t freak the boy out too much. The last thing I need is to nurse Gabe through some nightmares inspired by a senile stalker at Mickey-D's. His glance fell on the windows; the sky had begun the slow bleed to night.

But we’ll all be in that old man’s shoes someday. God willing, after a long, happy life. Howard shook his head, the small, curling ends of a smile threatening his tight lips. He tilted his head back, watching for a flash of dark blue in the netting or through one of the clear plastic sections of the play set. Even my boy, someday. Hard to believe he’s grown up so fast—

Howard Larson’s body flushed with an infusion of icy water. A scream interrupted his thoughts, a scream followed by rapid voices and rushing feet in the main dining room. The cry came from behind him, not from the play area, but he instinctively rose, eyes darting, and called for his son. “Gabe! Gabe, come down now, we need to get home.”

Someone shouted, “Call an ambulance!” from the dining room.

Howard lurched forward, away from the bench, his eyes moving more frantically, as he circled the room, hoping for a glance of his son. The rest of the play room was empty, swept clean of the last few stragglers when the cry came. Sirens swelled, the cacophonous mash up of police and ambulance that answered any emergency call, and flashing lights darted and jerked around the room.

He’s not here. Howard shook his head. He crawled somewhere in one of those tunnels. Howard shook his head again and started to the doorway, brushing a few beads of sweat from his forehead. It’s like the old man said.

In the dining room, Howard nearly bowled into a police officer. A small crowd gathered, but had been pushed back. Two EMTs squatted on the ground next to a prostrate body. Howard could just see a pant leg, brown and polyester—the old man wore the same pants.

“Sorry officer,” Howard sputtered, his heart lumping away inside his rib cage. He stood on the edge of the small gathering, watching as the EMTs wheeled in a gurney and shifted the body on board. It looked like the old man, at least the dress did, but something wasn’t right in his face. The old man had a long, drooping face. This was more rounded, almost chubby like a child’s face, but lined and impossibly old. Gabe.

“Excuse me,” Howard said, almost whispering.

“Sir?” The police officer turned to Howard.

“My son…he’s missing. I mean, he was playing in there, I heard the shouts, and I couldn’t find him.” Howard poked a thumb into the play area. “I’m just afraid he got scared, wouldn’t come out. I’m sorry to bother—I know you’re busy.”

“I think I’m done here,” the officer nodded to another policeman. Howard glanced over his shoulder and noticed the EMTs had covered the body and were wheeling the gurney through the doors. “Just a minute.” The officer stepped into the playroom.

Howard looked at the floor, trying to avoid eye contact with anyone, trying to hide his nervous discomfort. “Gabe’s fine,” he whispered to himself. No, he’s not. His eyes caught a brown lump on the floor. The rest of the crowd huddled around the other police officer, offering their accounts of what happened.

“Just keeled over,” one plump woman said in a high, almost hysterical voice.

Howard moved to the brown lump, a wallet, and picked it up. His fingers acted on their own, as if guided by wires. He flipped the wallet open, looked at the driver’s license. It was the old man, at least the way he looked when they scooped his dead body onto the gurney, and a name: Gabriel Larson. Howard dropped the wallet, his body suddenly limp, and staggered to the nearest bench. He closed his eyes.


Howard’s eyes opened. The first officer stood in front of him, a small boy, a boy about Gabe’s age, but wrong—this boy’s face was long, stretched almost like a piece of taffy. He was wearing a blue Adidas shirt with a ketchup smudge on the ‘A’. The boy smiled.

“Sir, is this your son?


# # #

Tunnel Vision by Aaron Polson
originally published July 30, 2009



Aaron Polson lives in Lawrence, KS with his wife, two sons, and a rather sturdy—almost supernatural—tropical fish. His fiction has appeared in Johnny America, Reflection’s Edge, GlassFire Magazine, and Cemetery Moon. You can visit him on the web at

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