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Children of Air

And it is but a child of air
That lingers in the garden there.
—Robert Louis Stevenson

Welcome to the park. There is a path from the sidewalk through the close-cropped grass, a white marble fountain with seven slender bronze swans that shoot water from their beaks, and a bench inside a small green marble shelter with a bronze plaque on the wall.

Welcome to the park. It is very lovely, and the plaque dedicates the park to the children of St. Paul. Where are the children of St. Paul? The living children of St. Paul prefer different parks. They prefer bridges with wooden slats to pinch their toes between, and rock-climbing walls to tumble from and bruise their legs, and at the very least a set of swings from which they can leap and slip and skin their knees and palms on gravel or sand or woodchips.

The children of air are less enchanted with pain.

How is it that you have only just noticed this park, even though you bike home down Summit Avenue from your job as a Macy’s sales assistant every day? You have only just noticed this park because normally, you bike up the Grand Avenue hill, which is sane. You do not normally bike up the Summit Avenue hill, which is suicide. Seriously, what were you thinking? It’s like they transported that hill to St. Paul from San Francisco.

At least you didn’t bike up the Selby Avenue hill past the Cathedral of St. Paul. The slope of that hill is much less steep, but in the avenues between Selby and Summit the careful grid plan falls apart, twists into winding streets like grapevine tendrils. To get to the park from Selby, you must stumble upon Maiden Lane, the brick road rippling as though something has slowly shifted in the earth beneath it. You don’t want to stumble upon Maiden Lane.

Also, we would prefer that you not stumble upon Maiden Lane. We would like to get some sleep.

Now that you are at the park, why not take a moment to relax? The sun is shining. The close-cropped grass is surprisingly soft. Everything smells crisp and green, like a produce aisle, like Crayola crayons, like summer. There is a book in your back­pack that you’ve been meaning to finish—The Host? Really? Well, we won’t judge.

Lie down. Take a moment to slow your hammering heart. Take a moment to remember how your lungs feel when they aren’t burning in agony. Have you tried not having lungs? It might be worth looking into!

Open the book. That’s right. You’re definitely going to read a chapter. You’re definitely not going to fall asleep in a public park.

Welcome to the park (dream edition, available for a limited time only). The special dream edition of the park has many exciting features not available in the original version. The gurgling of the water in the swan fountain plays your favorite song. Please try to choose just one favorite song; right now it’s stuck between “Family Portrait” and “Don’t Stop Believin’,” which is just not fun for anybody. If you gaze long enough at the swan fountain, you will be able to see through it and the earth beneath it; you will be able to see that instead of stones, its foundation is made of the skeletons of thousands of small children, curling inward, their skeleton hands tucked under their skulls. You will look and look for when the children stop, but there will be no end. It’s children all the way down. The infinite grey-and­blue sadness seeping into your bones is provided free of charge.

Remember to drink lots of milk when you wake up! There’s no scientific link between depression and calcium deficiency, but it can’t hurt anything.

Wake up. Where has the time gone? We should really invest in a better leash for it, and maybe a doghouse. Anyway, you should head home. Don’t forget to drink that milk!

Yes, your bicycle is heavier now. How do you feel about sleepovers? We’ve been foster parents for a few hundred years, and you’d think we’d have this settled by now, but the fact is that we’re still divided on the issue. Sure it’s nice to get one or two—or in your case, seven—of the children of air out of the park so we can rest for a bit, and we’re sure that it does them good to practice socializing and making new friends. But on the other hand, we do worry. And we know they’ll just call us around nine o’clock anyway, say­ing that they want to come home because they can’t sleep or they wet the bed or everything is on fire.

How did you feel about sleepovers as a child? We apologize for all these personal questions, but we were never children, we were born bone old and ancient and unknowable. Not eldritch, though. Only assholes and H. P. Lovecraft use that word. Please don’t use that word. Please don’t say it out loud or type it into a search engine when you get home as you try to put a name to that inchoate fusion of long­ing and despair weighing down your heart as you rode home from the park with the children of air on the back of your bicycle.

Ugh, that word. Honestly, we feel embarrassed just hearing you think it.

Slow down; the children of air would like to see. There’s so much that’s new: the lime-green Nice Ride bikes lined up like eager horses by the white columns of the William Mitchell School of Law; the Little Free Library next to St. Mark’s, its slanting roof of wooden shingles making it a birdhouse for books; the streetlights that don’t just blink red and green like Christmas trees but recite: “Wait . . . wait . . . wait . . . ”

The children of air have long ago memorized the house next to the park, majestic and matronly, wrought iron gates, gables like tiers of wedding cake, dark ivy up one brick wall, the red roof tiles brought back from Italy in 1924. It has been so long since they have left. The trees have grown so tall, the roads so smooth. They wish they could climb. They wish they could run.

Be sure to hit the potholes on the Kowalski’s 24-Hour Grocery overpass! They get a big kick out of that.

It’s all downhill from here, past the bunker-like dorms of Macalester College and the sweet-spicy smoke rising from the Cat Man Du Restaurant. If the children do decide to stay overnight, could we ask you not to let them read your copy of The Host? We haven’t read it yet, and we’re concerned about what that book might portray as a healthy romantic relationship.

We would like to take a moment to stress that we do not actually have the skeletons of thousands of small children under the fountain. That would violate all sorts of building codes. Their skeletons are actually in all sorts of places: that graveyard on Cedar Avenue, a crawlspace in a Merriam Park split-level, the trunk of a Chevy Citation left at the unused railroad tracks by Fairview. What we are storing under the white marble fountain are just the ideas of skeletons, which we think you’ll agree is much more sanitary.

Pour yourself a glass of milk. You’re not lactose intolerant, are you? In retrospect, perhaps we should have asked you that first. Pour the children of air their own glasses of milk. Pour one in the glass that used to hold Puck cream cheese from the Lebanese deli, and two in St. Thomas University mugs, and three in Mason jars, and one in a Burger King collectible Star Trek glass, the Uhura one. Uhura is an excellent role model.

Set the glasses of milk on the pink card table. Put an Oreo cookie on the table next to each glass of milk. Do not let the children of air sneak an extra cookie. It will only end in tears.

After fifteen minutes, pour the milk down the sink. It is only milk now. The children of air have drunk all the idea of milk that it had. Throw away the Oreos too.

Pass the rest of the evening with a light-hearted board game! Whatever you do, do not choose Monopoly.

Don’t try to see the children of air. The children of air can be seen only by the shapes of holes in the world where children might be. They are the pristine parts of the pink card table where fingerprints might have been smudged, the silence where there might have been squeals and shrieks and breaking vases. They are open windows in reality where something has left. This makes it very difficult to play Charades with them; we wouldn’t recommend that any more than Monopoly.

Why are you crying? Would you like a hug?

The children of air surround you. They press the arms they do not have around your legs, your waist, your shoulders. They do not like it when you cry, but they understand. We don’t, but we’re willing to go with them on this one.

The children of air have lost their names, but it is best to treat them as individuals. After you get to know them, we think you’ll find the little scamps are really very easily distinguishable! For example, some of them were shaken too hard, while others were locked in basements without food. Like snowflakes or fingerprints, the children of air are all unique. Some of them fell off carriages a hundred and fifty-three years ago, while chemotherapy failed others only a few months past. At the park, we believe in celebrating differences.

You should call your mother. Don’t mind the children of air; they will amuse themselves. There are many mice in the walls with which they can amuse themselves, and rats, and cockroaches. Stop them if they get too close to your bookcase, though; we can see that you have the entire Hunger Games trilogy, and we’ve heard there’s a lot of violence in those books.

Call your mother. Ask her if she remembers that park, the one in Yokosuka, with the slide that went all the way down the hill. The slide had rollers so you went very fast, and when you slowed halfway down the slope where the slide flattened out, you could push the rollers—they were red, and blue, and yellow—and get yourself moving again. Remember when you were moving? Why did you stop?

(Which reminds us, when you get a moment off the phone, let us know: can you get us a discount on sweaters at Macy’s? The children of air do not need sweaters, but you know how it is when kids see other children with things like sweaters and bicycles and lungs.)

Ask your mother if she remembers that park near the Okefenokee Swamp, with the blackberry bushes and the stuffed alligator whose mouth they put you into to take a picture. Ask your mother if she remembers the park in Danville, with the goose poop and the fireworks in the summer, and the ice that crackled beneath your skates in winter.

Your mother has to go. Your mother does not remember any of the parks. She would remember our park if she visited, but we will not be issuing an invitation. We reserve our invitations for those who can almost see the children of air.

Your mother has to go. Thank goodness. The children of air are almost running out of mice. Oh, look! They have made you an art project. We like the eyes.

We, the founders of the park, would like to remain anonymous.

We are one of the oldest families in the city. No, strike that, no false modesty—we are the oldest fam­ily in the city. We have been below Maiden Lane since before there was a Maiden Lane. We were here before the Cathedral, before Pig’s Eye Pierre and his tavern, before those other charming people you keep trying to exterminate, before the ice, before the fire. Before the bang, you know, the big one.

The park is relatively new, though we have always been involved in the community. We have not always been involved in the community in ways that you might approve of. We have done some things that you might call—in a strict, rigid, Puritan sense—“objectively terrible.”

But you must admit that we have chosen a very good address for the park, for the children of air. The American Planning Association named Summit one of the “Ten Great Streets.” You can look that up; it’s on Wikipedia.

It is seven o’clock. This is normally the children of air’s bedtime. We’re going to leave it up to you whether or not you send them to bed now. It is, after all, a sleepover.

Please remember to tuck in the children of air. They will each need a blanket. Towels can be substi­tuted for blankets, as can paper napkins and crum­pled bus passes. It’s the idea of blankets that counts.

Please remember to wish the children of air sweet dreams. They will not have sweet dreams. They will have nightmares. Stay awake staring at the pattern of headlights on the ceiling; this will keep you from falling into the nightmares. If anyone calls out to you, do not go to them. Do not go to them no matter what they call out. It all happened a very long time ago, and there is nothing you can do.

If you cannot sleep even after the nightmares stop, go into the kitchen. Drink some more milk. Stare at the peeling linoleum with the fleur-de-lis pattern. Stare at the magnets on the fridge. We like the banana one. Stare at the art project. Make a list of nice things you can say about it. It’s very important to encourage children’s creativity.

When you go back into your bedroom, the children of air will be gone. We told you, they always call home around nine.

Would you like to donate for the general upkeep of the park? We accept payment in a variety of forms. We accept assorted small plastic dinosaurs, matchbox cars, books by Dr. Seuss or Roald Dahl, paper dolls, My Little Pony stickers, marbles, bottle caps, and small bits of shiny trash. If you have an item that is not on this list but you believe would be beneficial to us, bring it in and we will discuss the terms.

We regret that at this time we cannot accept DVDs. Not even DVDs of “really quality” children’s shows, such as Avatar: The Last Airbender or The Sarah Jane Adventures.

Please come at night, but before the children’s bedtime. Their bedtime is at seven o’clock.

Please build a small pyramid of your donations on the edge of the white marble fountain. Please recite a short prayer to the deity of your choice, or not; that part is mostly for you.

Please leave immediately.

Welcome back to the park. Please do not walk on the grass. Please do not tear at the grass. No, seriously, please stop, that grass is specially ordered and very expensive. Stop it! Stop it now! What do you expect to find under the grass? We already told you that there are no actual skeletons.

Well, you’ve found the ideas of the skeletons now. Are you happy? It will take weeks to grow back that grass. Months, maybe. We don’t know; we’re not grass experts.

Why are you crying?

You will not find yourself here. Not from that time you raced into the middle of the highway to touch the center of the road, or the time the branch broke in the tree you were climbing, or the time you slipped off your Styrofoam noodle in the pool and no one saw you and you could only surface for less than a second before the water swallowed you up once more, nothing for your hands to hold on to.

Did you want to find yourself here?

Did you think that would explain why you stopped moving?

Nothing is that easy.

Bike the rest of the way to Macy’s. It is raining. The road is slippery. Do not veer out of the bike lane. Be sure to stop at traffic lights. The children of air know you now, and we want you to set a good example.

Punch in. The fluorescent lights are bright and humming. Sell scarves. Everything smells like rubber and chemicals. Sell shoes. Do you still believe in the park? Sell hats. Someone has shit in the changing room again. Call housekeeping. Explain to the customers. Call housekeeping again. Watch the way the customers’ faces ripple as they yell at you, uniquely human monstrosity. Call housekeeping again. And again.

Do you remember how large stores used to be, when you were a living child, so small? Do you remember looking up, and up, and up?

Housekeeping has arrived. The customers are still yelling. Would you like us to take away their mouths? It’d be no problem.

The air smells like shit and industrial cleaner.

Remember how lovely the park was. How green.

Why are you standing still?

If you choose to, you can move.

Please take a few minutes to complete this short survey. Do you feel you have been changed by your visit to the park? How can we make improvements to the park to enhance future visits? Did you find the park accessible? Would you like it if the park served refreshments? Having visited the park, do you feel you are less likely to stick duct tape over children’s mouths, or wrench their arms out of their sockets, or put them in very small boxes? Would you be less likely to lock children outside in the snow with no shoes if you knew that we were hideous beasts with glowing red eyes, or if you knew that we could not be distinguished in a crowd? What if we were right behind you?

Thank you for your responses. We will consider them all carefully. We value visitor feedback!

Thank you for visiting the park.

Originally published in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Issue 36, Spring 2017.

About the Author

Gabriela Santiago’s work has previously appeared in People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction!, People of Colo(u)r Destroy Horror!, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and Strange Horizons, among others. You can find her online at writing-relatedactivities.tumblr.com or @LifeOnEarth89 on Twitter. She has been to the park.