The blaring light woke him, intense enough to pull him out of a deep dream. He was down on his mattress, buried deep in the ground, when it yanked him up by the collar and shook him vigorously.
The glorious ray of light held a rich golden intensity, the broadness of it …vast and illuminating …spanning. He shook his head, trying to make sense of it all. His eyes blinked and he squeezed them back shut, thinking he was dreaming. But this was no dream.
He spurted off the mattress. It had to be car lights. Someone had found him. What else could it be? It didn’t make sense. Poised at the bottom step, he listened, then sniffed the air, stumbling backward when the scent that drifted in carried the familiar essence of children.
He rushed up the ragged steps, two at a time, exalted at what he knew was waiting for him on the other side.
Their laughter rang in his ears.
Staggering backward, he collapsed, going down on his bare knees. He gripped his head, reeling, flabbergasted to see what had unfolded before him.
Stunned by the vivaciousness of the sky, he looked up. It was brilliant …shimmering a vivid gold …blotched with streaks of blue and pink crayon scribbles. The air smelled of sweet, whipped vanilla strawberry shortcakes and pink cotton candy on a stick, with little sprinklings of rubber bouncy balls mixed in on the breeze.
He was stricken, but his face broke open …and bloomed.
The children were wondrous, their contagious laughter paralyzing while they zipped through the air on the swings …squealing …laughing …crying. His thirst for them was unquenchable and he laughed exhilaratingly, tears pouring down his face. He stumbled toward them.
When he rushed, stumbling—his arms outstretched to catch them before they fleeted away—he faltered and fell. He couldn’t get to them fast enough. “Meggie …Josh …you’ve come home! You made it!”
He got close, closing his arms in to embrace them. He swiped …swiped again …but they were gone. Two empty swings were the only things left. They swayed lightly in the breeze; the chains …needing oiled, whispered sadly. The sky shrank inside itself, returning to its normal light blue …a few bumpy clouds littering its smooth surface.
His eyes, with their long lashes, blinked quickly, looking like a spider trying to scurry to safety. He steadied their wild darting and focused, realizing that it wasn’t swings at all—with their squeaking chains and white plastic seats—but just two dead, white tree branches, rubbing and scraping against each other in the breeze.
“Meggie …Josh …don’t leave me.” He stared down at his empty hands. His shoulders quaked and he sank to his knees, sobbing into his palms.