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
“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
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
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
“Sir?” The police officer turned
“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
published July 30, 2009