Just one alley too far, and the world starts to bleed away...
Bradley was a bright kid. Balloon cheeks dotted by silky freckles, sharp ginger hair cast with unusual jet black overtones. He was riding his bike down the sunny suburban street, training wheel rims rolling. It was familiar, but just at the edge of what he would have called his own neighbourhood, which is a small place when you’re a child. Just one alley too far, and the world starts to bleed away… as it did that day, for Bradley.
He pushed himself further on his bike, back bolted on wheels dipping into cracks in the pavement, change jingling in his pocket like a sleigh bell. Farther than he should have, then even he himself was comfortable with. But he had the money saved for a trip to the convenience store, and his discomfort, he was sure, would fade on the way back, cold slush drink melting in hand and staining his summer sweat fingertips with cool condensation.
Bradley fuddled with the hat in the office. His wife stroked his back as his therapist looked on. It was ratty, tattered; cardboard bits that held the shape peeking out from beneath green fabric, stained greener by grass, by football fumbles, by time and the passing sun. “It’s okay,” she pleaded with soft words and soft eyes, “It’s okay. Nothing will happen.” He lifted it up to his brow for an instant. The visor scraped, tickled his brow hairs, now older, but with that same unique blackness. They had darkened over time. He brushed his hair out of his forehead. It clung there in anxious sweat. His hands flinched, fumbled.
The convenience store was set back from Bradley’s own neighbourhood, across the few blocks and alleyways of longer shadows and then even further by an intersection. Not bustling, but more busy than the seldom streets winding in front of Bradley’s home and school. Here a few cars passed each minute. There was always some lonesome figure loitering at one of the poles on the diagonals, under the blinking lights of either a man walking or a hand held high. Bradley was old enough to know to be wary of them, but not old enough to know why. The neon Q of the Quick Stop store caught the sun even when it was off, and glowed an electric shimmer as the tube glass rotated around, around, around; a carousel on its motorized sign. The store itself was low and small behind it, resting flat, nearly in line with the weeds, the indistinct trees that could not be forest, could not be nature, but only suburbia; yet somehow still unkept.
“Kids see all kinds of fantastic things because they’re willing to see them,” the older woman, mind you, not much older than him, croaked behind perched glasses with dangling chains, and that old masonite clipboard. She tapped the pencil unknowingly against it. It was supposed to dispel his feeling, but it burned him: they were willing to see it. Maybe it was not that it had not happened, it was that other people did not expect to see it, and so, then, they didn’t. He hung his head in his hands, twirling the baseball cap closer to his scalp on the finger its loop lay off of, then instinctively flinching it away again. His wife’s pats on the back were more rhythmic than soothing now. She had turned mechanical. Would he?
A man walked across the street, from the side with the small grocer’s and liquor store, over towards Bradley’s section of sidewalk. He had on an old ball cap that he ruffled his hair through, and then reaffirmed to his head. His clothes were baggy. His walk was weak and relaxed. His face was mostly hidden, but a small beard could be seen. Short, hardly more than stubble. But wiry, not relaxed, no: electrified with fear that was stretched over days into a long worry. Bradley caught hold of his pupils out from under the nighted visor as he walked, turned, looked back: the light in them too was small and quivering and scared.
Bradley stopped riding forward, lingered there on his bike behind the corner a few yards back, waiting for the man to pass in front of him. Something kept him away, far away from the man marching around the road. The man now turned to face the Q sign head on. The light on the other side switched from hand to man, blinking with static for an instant. He made steady steps across the road to the convenience store.
“There was a car,” Bradley’s voice trailed off, his head still in his hands, his wife’s hand still on him, “There was a car too, and… they must have seen.”
“You don’t know who it was?” The psychologist already knew the answer; she was asking to calm him down, but it only made him feel lost, small and sick under that sneer. It’s not real, everyone told him. Except for that day. That memory. He started talking without realizing it, “You know, it’s funny,” he brought his head up to look at his wife, “When I was a kid, you know, learning words and letters… I hated the small words. They were so simple. The house. The cat. The dog. The hat,” he spun it in his hand, “I wanted to get smart and go onto the big ones. But the small ones are, really, so much bigger: there’s so much more room for them all. What is it? You can decide, you can picture it. The hat.” He gripped it in fingers, tightly, carefully, like it was a knife that he was stopping himself from using only with the fixation of his eyes, “The hat. It’s so much more than just a hat.”
A car did pull up. Blue, old. Not at the time, but old to him now. The kind that still had fins peeling off the back, still had the top down. It stopped for him. The man walked in front of it, across the asphalt slowly. Bradley couldn’t make out — maybe just couldn’t remember — the figure driving the car, stopped, idling over its rumbling engine. It was so far away. He was only a few yards back, but it was too far away. Someone had to be driving that car. He watched the man from yards back, wobbling on the unbolted wheels of his bike.
The hat fell to the ground. Drifted like a falling leaf, lost from a branch unseen. From nothing there. Underneath it was no man. Bradley blinked. It wasn’t a figure of his imagination; the hat was there, laid there on the road, tufts of fabric lighted, loose threads catching on the wind. A seeming popping noise caught on that wind, of the air rushing into him from around, rushing to fill up the gap. The hat still remained. The white walking man blinked, bled red and to that stretched hand further away. The Q sign roared left, behind itself and behind itself again. He blinked. The hat was still there. The car drove on as if not noticing. The tires traced over the ball cap, bore tar sweat marks into it and the ground. Marks he was holding, older and greyer and rougher and dirtier, now, twisting them over in his hands. Sweat dripping from his forehead in the therapist’s office.
He stood up, walked over; didn’t notice the two weeks of allowance change that fell out of his pockets. Didn’t even notice that he left his bike there. He was in such a daze from grabbing that hat, stuffing it into his pocket, and then stuffing it into a closet for thirty years. He had never put it on. But it was proof, maybe. It was proof he knew, that something… It was right there in front of him. He felt the grit of it in his hands; turned it over. Felt its weight.
He sighed, and lifted the crown finally to his head. The two women watched on with unblinking eyes. His eyes and brows flinched underneath it, as its shadow passed over his face, a long shadow, cast from the dim bulb in the dusty office. He lowered his fingers to his ears, all trembling. He felt the hat scratch the outer tips of his black stained hair.
The hat collapsed onto the couch cushion.
Two women sat in a room. Both blinked. The psychologist looked puzzled; for an instant she had forgotten who her appointment was with, “I’m sorry Mrs…” the other woman corrected her, only just as uncertain, “Ms…” she had to think, “Allbright. Ms. Allbright.”
“Yes, Ms. Allbright, what was our appointment today about?”
“Oh, I can’t…” she drifted off.
The psychologist noticed the dirty cap falling off the rounded couch cushions, “Oh, someone must have left it behind. It’s not your hat, is it?”