Bianca Astore Bowman
Second place, Nonfiction, Heard/Arlington County Detention Center, August 2019
Richard paused in the forest to listen. He didn’t think anyone had followed him. But he was growing paranoid. The rustling behind him was probably just the wind through the trees. Though he didn’t feel any wind now. No breeze to dry the sweat accumulating on his forehead.
He had to keep moving. He couldn’t afford to hang around waiting for the fickle wind to start back up. A handwritten note in his jacket pocket was summoning him forward. It had been left at his apartment door, now miles away: “Midnight. Old oak.”
He knew better than to follow its demand. To come back here —toward the old oak of his childhood playground, the old oak he had grown to hate, the old oak where he had last seen his father-terrified him. But his obsessing mind had won out. He had left sure-footed as a cat, but now, he wondered if curiosity wasn’t going to be the downfall of them both.
With the wind still absent, he continued forward. His legs simultaneously alive with energy and unsteady as a sapling in a storm.
The anticipation of what he would find at the oak made him miss the subtle breaking of fallen branches a careful distance behind him. Thoughts of his father’s muffled yell the day he had gone missing overshadowed an equally muffled cough, now a few meters away. Memory of his pre-pubescent legs racing and tumbling, searching in vain for his father, still filled his head as he now came upon the very man he had been looking for ever since.
“Ricky…I only did it to protect you.”
But the sounds of the forest had caught up to Richard and were wrapping a blindfold around his eyes.
His world now buzzing with darkness, he was guided to a sitting position in front of the old oak. The bark clawing its way through his jacket. More noticeable was his pulsing heart, thundering heavily in his head.
“Ricky — I hope you’ve lived the best life possible. I love you more than anything, I didn’t think they would come for you so soon…I thought you had more time.”
The unnatural sounds of the forest now added their voices.
“Your old man’s right, kiddo, he does love you. Talked about you every damn day.”
“But he was wrong to think we still had use for him. We need someone nimble, someone new. And he made us a deal, Ricky.”
“We need to collect our debt, the one your daddy left to you. We need to keep you around awhile. ‘Til it’s come due. Ain’t that right, old man?”
There was a scrambling to Richard’s left. His father’s voice, now farther away, pleaded out to him.
“It’s only a little bit left. I tried to pay it all back, I tried. I know you can do it, son. You won’t be greedy like me. They’ll treat you alright, they won’t hurt you. Just a few jobs. Just a bit of time and we’ll see each other again. I’ll protect you again. It’s been my only job. It’s all I’ve done. You weren’t one of my mistakes.”
His father’s words merged with the sounds of the forest.
Ricky had returned to the old oak. He had found what he was looking for. He had won the game of Hide and Seek.
He had lost the prize.