There’s no one on the swings today. Marcus goes over and takes the one on the end. He kicks out his legs tentatively, bends them back and leans his body forward, then does it again. The swing squeaks and the motion hurts his bad leg, but he keeps going anyway. Mama said he had to move it to make it strong.
There are a couple of girls in the sandbox. One of them has a cloud of red hair and sunburned shoulders. She looks at Marcus and pokes out her tongue. Marcus is about to poke his tongue back, when he sees a mop-headed boy running across the grass, headed straight for the slide. There’s a grey-haired man walking behind him wearing a green cap. The boy is smaller than Marcus but he runs fast, really fast. Marcus pouts and slips off the swing. He edges over to the scrub of long grass and nettles up by the fence and finds a stick. He doesn’t want to watch the little boy anymore, as he skims up the plastic slope in three clean strides without even holding onto the edges. He’s a show off. Only show offs run up the slide instead of climbing up the stairs like you’re supposed to - and inconsiderate children who are also rule-breakers.
That’s why Marcus doesn’t see the boy come up behind him. He only feels someone pulling on his t-shirt and when he turns around the boy is grinning. His two front teeth are missing at the top. He pushes his tongue through the gap before he says, “Whatcha doin’?”
“Nothing,” Marcus replies, and pokes his stick in the nettles.
“Yeah. You are. Those are nettles. They sting,” he offers.
“I know that. I’m not stupid. Why do you think I’m using a stick?”
“Don’t know,” he shrugs. “I’m Esca.”
Marcus turns back to where he was jabbing into the weeds for no particular reason except he actually didn’t want that scrawny brat talking to him. Marcus lost his front teeth two summers ago and his adult teeth have grown in to fill the spaces. Esca is younger than him and he can run faster than him, and Marcus hates it. He wishes Esca would go and play somewhere else.
“You know there’s no such thing as the tooth fairy?” Marcus says casually, turning his head and hoping to see Esca’s face fall.
“There is.” Esca frowns in disbelief. “Who told you that?”
“Oh, everyone knows it. Except babies. Go ask your Granddad if you don’t believe me.”
“He’s my Dad.” Esca puts his hands in his shorts pockets and looks a bit sad. He glances over at his Dad, who’s picked a bench on the other side of the playground and has tipped his hat over his eyes, like he might be taking a nap.
Marcus’s tummy does a flip and he can feel his cheeks getting hot. He’s hurt Esca’s feelings and it doesn’t feel good like he thought it would. “Do you want a Tic Tac?” The box rattles as Marcus pulls it out of his pocket and flicks open the lid.
Esca looks up and him and grins again. “The orange ones are my favourite.”
“Me too,” says Marcus, and he tips and taps the box onto Esca’s outstretched hand. Four come out at once and Marcus doesn’t even ask for any of them back. “I’m Marcus. I’m eight.”
“I’m six, nearly seven.” Esca puts all four Tic Tacs in his mouth at once and adds, “My Dad’s old.”
“My Dad’s dead.”
Marcus hasn’t had to tell anyone yet. His Mama did it for all his school friends and the neighbours. The words don’t sound real, like someone else said them. Marcus wonders what Esca will say. He hopes he doesn’t say he’s sorry. Everyone says that, and Marcus doesn’t want to hear it anymore.
Instead, Esca crunches his sweets, mouth full of orange as he says matter-of-fact, “My Nanna died, and my Granddad John, before I was born. Is your Dad in heaven?”
“I think so.”
“That’s good. It’s nice there, I think. Do you want to go on the slide?”
“Nah. I’ll watch you though.”
Esca seems to like this idea. His thin legs, poking out from baggy shorts, motor off to the play structure. He swings on the monkey bars, without having to put his feet down, all the way across. And he can climb up the pole as well as slide down it. Marcus couldn’t do that, even before the accident. But he could ride his bike no-handed. Esca probably can’t do that.
Esca is jumping and leaping and swinging and sliding, and making funny noises and he looks like the happiest person Marcus has seen in such a long time - maybe a whole week.
Marcus can’t help himself. He limps a few steps from the fence towards Esca, his stick forgotten, to watch him at his antics. Esca pulls a face and Marcus laughs. When Esca hangs upside down his t-shirt drops over his head and Marcus can see his skinny body, all ribs and milky-white skin and he really wants to know if Esca is ticklish. But Esca’s already swinging off and shimmying through a plastic tunnel, out of sight.
Head hanging, Marcus nudges back to the fence and pretends he doesn’t care. He didn’t want to chase Esca and tickle him and watch him push his tongue through the gaps in his teeth.
The stick is on the grass and Marcus picks it up, whacking the fence and the nettles. He does it over and over until the stems are all bent and broken and mashed up.
Esca runs over after a couple of minutes, a bit breathless, cheeks bright pink, except where they’re brown with freckles. “Can I have a go?” He reaches out his hand.
Marcus clenches his stick tighter, pulls his hand back and snaps, “Find your own.”
There aren’t any other sticks on the ground. Marcus watches Esca kick about, ambling away to look for a weapon. The tree branches hang quite low where Esca’s searching and it doesn’t take long for him to lift his glance up instead of down. A look of triumph crosses his bright-eyed little face.
Esca reaches up, on his tippy toes and Marcus watches, like it’s all slowed down. It’s just like the day when the car skidded off the road and his Dad got crushed and died and Marcus’s leg got squished and broken to pieces. The branch is a bit too high and Esca jumps up for it, his tiny hands reaching up; his tongue sticking out of the gap where his two front teeth should be. He catches the branch all right, but the branch doesn’t want to break off. Esca won’t let go; he pulls and pulls, skids on the grass and stumbles into the fence, straight into the nettles.
Then time goes back to normal again and Esca jumps back, scrubbing his hands on the front of his shorts and rubbing over the front of his calves. His lips are pursed as he drags his feet over to Marcus, trying to smile through it, saying, “It doesn’t hurt. I’ve done that loads of times.”
The red marks stick out like strawberries on Esca’s small, pale legs. He’s sniffing back tears. Marcus steps towards him, sorry, so sorry. It’s his fault. “Let me see, Esca.”
Esca holds out his hands and Marcus can see the tiny stinging hairs all over Esca’s swelling palms. Marcus knows what to do. Looking along the fence, there are dandelions and lots of other plants, not just grass. Marcus hobbles along the border of the park scanning, poking his stick, until not far from where Esca is blowing on his palms, Marcus sees what he’s looking for. “It’s okay, Esca. I’ve found some,” he calls over.
When Marcus returns, fat tears are rolling down Esca’s cheeks and he looks away. His legs are shaking like he needs to pee.
“These are dock leaves. They’ll take the sting away.”
Marcus doesn’t wait for permission. He clasps Esca’s hands and starts to rub the leaves into the sting until Esca’s palms are smeared with green. They sit down on the grass, and do one leg each. Esca stops crying and itching and Marcus wants to give him a cuddle, because that’s what his Mama would have done, if it had been him that was stung. Only Marcus doesn’t know Esca very well, and he looks too wriggly for cuddles.
Marcus leans over, digs his fingers into Esca’s ribs and tickles him. Esca laughs, giggles from right low down in his belly. He curls away but not so far that Marcus can’t still reach him. “What was that for?” he squeals.
“I knew you would be ticklish,” Marcus says.
“Yes you are.”
Esca dives over Marcus and pokes his fingers under Marcus’s armpits and wiggles them without mercy. Marcus shrieks and laughs and laughs and Esca stops, suddenly. He slips off Marcus and kneels in the grass at his side. He touches his fingers gently over Marcus’s jeans. “What happened to your leg?”
“I was in a car accident.”
“Oh.” Esca picks at a blade of grass, then scratches under his nose. “Have you got any more Tic Tacs?”
“Yeah.” Lifting the box to eye-level, Marcus sees there are only three left. He empties them onto his palm, picks one out and pops it in his mouth. “There, you can have those two.”
Esca looks at him wide-eyed. He takes both Tic Tacs and Marcus is disappointed because sharing might be right but it sort of sucks – until Esca puts one of them into the side of his mouth and bites down. There’s a sharp crunching noise and Esca holds out the result. “Here, half each.”
The teensy weensy half an orange Tic Tac is covered in Esca’s spit, and probably in germs.
With a happy, happy smile, Marcus takes it and eats it anyway.