Alan winced each time a kink surfaced in Jerry’s fifth birthday party, fearing he’d catch the heat of Maggie’s ire.
He was innocent of the first problem; the rain ruined their scheduled activities at the new park, a square block of reclaimed grassland from the surrounding urban waste. Due to the rain, there was no hike and no homemade birdfeeders, only a dozen small boys, fueled by cake and punch, whooping and running inside the tiny park headquarters for two hours. But the second hiccup rested with him; Alan forgot the treat bags at home, the special cookies with Elmo in icing brought by her sister from St. Louis.
“Get them,” Maggie commanded, and Alan shrank away.
He sped home, retrieved the treats, and hurried back. He trotted toward the park with the plastic bag in one hand and ten minutes to spare. A city bus let out a low, groaning sigh and stopped at the bench at the edge of the park grounds. When the bus lurched away, one man was left behind blocking Alan’s path.
Alan’s neck twitched.
The man coughed and wiped his mouth on a mud-colored sleeve. “Nice day.”
Alan stepped to the curb. “Do you mind?”
“Sorry.” The man moved aside.
“Oh,” the man cooed, pointing a finger at the plastic bag in Alan’s hand. “What’s in here?”
“Those are for my kid’s party.”
“Still don’t know what’s in here, do I?” His body shook, vibrating with another round of coughs. He steadied and reached a chapped finger toward the bags. “Food, I guess?”
“Cookies, actually, for the kids.”
“Really. Don’t suppose you have any extras.”
“No extras.” Alan pushed one hand in his pocket, groping for change. He pulled out a wrinkled bill and a few pennies. “Here. It’s all I have.”
The man leaned closer, close enough for Alan to suffer a face full of whiskey-taint. “Can’t eat money, can I?” His fingers slipped toward the bag at Alan’s side. “Just get me one cookie — ”
“No,” Alan interrupted, yanking the sack away.
The rain started again, tiny tap-taps against the pavement. Alan moved toward the park office, followed by the stranger. A hand clutched Alan’s shoulder, and he wheeled.
“I’ll fight you for a cookie.”
“I’ll fight you for a bag. C’mon.” The old man cracked his knuckles. “Name’s Bob, by the way. Bob Saxton.”
Alan glanced at the building.
“C’mon, slick. Give an old guy a chance. You a pansy?”
“I’m not going to — ”
“Afraid of your wife. I get it.”
Alan’s knuckles whitened as he squeezed the neck of the bag. “All right. But not here.”
Bob shuffled toward the trail. “Here’s the deal: I get three clean punches in before you can smack me, I get a bag.”
Alan bobbed his head and followed onto the path away from the office.
“Should warn you. I was lightweight champ back on the Nimitz in ‘Nam.”
“Wha — ”
Bob’s right cross interrupted the question. Alan spun with the impact and splashed into the mud. The bag of cookies tumbled to the ground.
Bob bent over, puffing for breath. “Sorry… haven’t had this much fun in years.” Another wet, raspy cough.
Alan pulled himself up and lifted his fists. “Ready…” He swung wide with his left and slipped on the wet ground, catching an uppercut on the chin.
“That’s… two,” the old man wheezed. He clutched his chest. “One… more.”
Alan straightened his back and lunged. Bob stepped aside, smacking Alan in the side of the head. Alan tumbled to the ground again, his knees sinking into cold slush.
“Whew… I’ve worked up… an appetite…” Bob staggered over to the bag of cookies.
Alan lurched to his feet. “Hey, I was kidding, I can’t really give away those cookies.” He caught the back of Bob’s tattered jacket.
“A deal… is… a… deal,” Bob wheezed. His face swelled purple. A small clucking noise cracked from his lips. His face flashed to a pale, waxy tan as he spun and staggered back. Alan’s grip slipped from the coat. Bob dropped to the ground.
His eyes were still open, staring at nothing. Rain pelted his white skin.
“Sorry buddy, but my wife would kill me. Really, I’ll give you the cash, but the cookies…” Alan’s voice evaporated. “I shouldn’t have agreed to the fight.” He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment and opened them.
Bob hadn’t moved. His mouth hung open like a limp ‘O’.
“Bob?” The thought, while not welcome, carried the truth: dead. Alan probed with his right hand, poking Bob’s sleeve. He glanced down the path leading to the nature center.
He could call 911, an easy choice. The right choice. But the day had not gone as planned. He looked at his muddy jeans and the brown streaks on his hands. How would he explain the dead man to his wife? The parents who came to sweep their little angels home after Jerry’s fifth birthday party? The police if he dialed 911? His mouth started to throb at the spot where Bob had landed a solid punch. Alan’s eyes wandered further down the nature trail — the trail flanked by tall native grasses and wildflowers.
A bum could die anywhere.
He poked his hands under Bob’s armpits. “C’mon, buddy,” he wheezed, “how can you weigh so much?”
Maggie stood under the shelter, arms crossed while Jerry played with a new Power Ranger on the bench. Her face was locked in a scowl. Alan, damp, sore, and muddy, stumbled toward them from the trail, startled when he saw his wife, and tried a weak smile.
“You,” she said, pointing at Alan’s chest, “were supposed to get the cookies. My sister brought those. Well, where are they?”
Without thinking, Alan glanced over his shoulder, toward the path.
“The trail? You left them on the trail?” Maggie stepped toward him, squinting at his face. “Is that blood?” Shaking her head, she turned and waved to her son. “C’mon, Jerry. Let’s get your cookies.”
Aaron Polson was born on the Ides of March: a good day for him, unlucky for Julius Caesar. He currently lives and writes in Lawrence, Kansas with his wife, two sons, and a tattooed rabbit. To pay the bills, Aaron attempts to teach high school students the difference between irony and coincidence. His stories have featured magic goldfish, monstrous beetles, and a book of lullabies for baby vampires.