Ria really liked the playground behind her apartment building. It was smaller than most playgrounds she’d seen in the city but that was okay. It meant her playground was mostly empty at night when she was able to play on it. She could never play on it during the day since that was a very important rule she had to follow. She wasn’t quite sure why she had to follow that rule except that it had to do with her safety. Playgrounds weren’t safe in the daytime so she had to wait until nighttime if she wanted to play.
It was nighttime now but it almost didn’t feel like nighttime since the moon was so big and huge in the sky. It was also really, really round tonight. Kind of like a humongous black and white orange. Normally the moon curved like a banana but Ria really liked it when it was round because it lit up her playground a whole lot more. Not that she needed any light to be able to swing on the swings but this way she could see if someone else was coming to play on the playground too.
If that were ever to happen she was supposed to run away and find somewhere to hide. Ria had yet to see any strangers on her playground at night so she wasn’t too worried about it now. Besides, if a stranger were to ever come up to her before she could find a place to hide she knew she could call Aunt Nat to come help her. Her aunt had given her a super special phone that she was supposed to keep in her pocket at all times incase she ever got in trouble or was really scared.
Ria let go of one of the rusty chains so she could pat the giant pocket on the front of her sweatshirt to make sure the phone was still where it was supposed to be. The solid lump in the folds of her clothes reassured her and she quickly moved her hand back to the swing’s chain so she didn’t lose her balance and fall off. She’d fallen off only once before and she never ever wanted to do that again. Especially not now when she had an Auntie who might question why she had bruises all down her back.
Unless maybe she never came to visit her again? Maybe her aunt would only come to visit her if she were scared or hurt? Ria felt her heart skip a beat inside her chest at the thought of never seeing her again.
Suddenly growing worried, Ria lowered her heels into the tiny pebbles beneath her swing, abruptly halting her previously soothing back and forth motion. It wasn’t a smooth stop and she nearly fell off the swings anyway despite her fierce grip on the chains.
What if her Auntie Nat wouldn’t come to play with her unless she were hurt or scared?
Ria closed her eyes and tried really hard to remember what Nat had told her about the phone. Was she allowed to call her if she just wanted to talk? Would Nat come visit her if all she wanted was to cuddle and watch some more cartoons with her? Or would she get mad at her for calling unless something really bad happened? Ria really didn’t want something bad to happen to herself but she also didn’t want her Auntie to never visit her again.
What if she fell and scraped her knee? Would that be an okay reason to call her? What if she swung back and forth really really fast and then let go of the chains? If she fell and hit her head on the rocks maybe her Aunt would come make her feel better? Or maybe she should scrape her knee first and then fall on the rocks? Ria didn’t like when she had boo-boos from her adult job but maybe this would be different? Maybe they wouldn’t hurt as much if she were the one that was awake when they happened?
Except her work boo-boos usually involved guns or knives, two things she was never, ever, ever allowed to touch. Falling off the swings sounded like a lot better plan anyway. If she hurt herself too badly then she might not be able to call her Auntie in the first place and then she would just be hurt and alone and definitely very scared.
Ria chewed on her bottom lip for a few moments, now trying to decide if she wanted to fall off the swings or maybe fall off the slide? There weren’t that many steps so she might not hurt herself as badly if she fell off of them instead. But then how many Littles her age actually fell off the slide? Would Auntie Nat be able to tell if she made herself get hurt on purpose?
Or maybe she didn’t have to be hurt to call? She was also allowed to call if she was scared, so maybe she could find something to scare her instead of something to hurt her? The swings and the slide didn’t really scare her though, but the idea of leaving the playground and going somewhere else really did.
But that was good! If she wanted Auntie Nat to come then she had to be for real scared and not pretend scared. Her aunt would definitely be able to tell if she were lying about being scared.
You can do this. You can do this.
Ria slowly climbed off of the swings, not wanting to accidentally hurt herself now that she’d decided she didn’t want to hurt herself.
You can do this. Auntie Nat will come help you. Just leave the playground and walk around a little bit.
Deciding for once to listen to the “voice” inside of her head, Ria took a few tentative steps towards the boundary of the playground. There was a short wooden ledge that went all the way around the courtyard in order to keep all the tiny rocks and pebbles from going onto the sidewalk. Ria made sure to keep the ledge in her focus as she walked, definitely not wanting to trip over it and hurt herself now.
Once she made it past the ledge she switched her focus onto the cracked sidewalk as she walked away from the playground, frowning a little as she noticed how broken it was. There were so many pieces and they were all different heights. She was going to have to concentrate really really hard now not to fall. Or maybe she should just turn around and go back to the first plan? Hurting herself in the safety of her playground seemed a lot less scary then hurting herself on the sidewalk where anyone could see her.
Wait-- what if someone saw her?
Oh no! Oh no!
She was breaking the most important rule of all! She had been so focused on scaring herself that she’d forgotten she wasn’t allowed to leave the playground and be seen!
Panicking now, she quickly turned around only to let out a choked back whimper. Where was her playground!? She didn’t remembering walking that far so why wasn’t it there!? Maybe she turned around a corner? Did she turn around a corner? She couldn’t remember!
Stupid Maria! Stupid Stupid Stupid!!
What was she going to do?! She couldn’t stay where she was because someone could find her and then she would be in so much trouble. Even more trouble than she was in right now! She had to run! She had to find a place to hide!
Turning around in a circle she desperately searched for somewhere to go except she couldn't really make sense of what she was seeing. She understood that she was outside of her apartment building in Washington DC but why didn’t it look like she was in the city? Why was everything suddenly so bright and hot and covered in sand? This didn’t make any sense! Why was she was back in the scary bad place?!
“Excuse me, Miss, are you alright?”
Ria stopped spinning in a circle at the unfamiliar voice. She instinctively reached for her hips and her back but she didn’t know what she was reaching for. There was nothing there for her to grab.
“Oh, I’m so sorry, I didn’t realize you were dropped! It’s alright sweetheart. Are you lost? Do you need help finding your Mommy or Daddy?”
Ria dug her hands frantically into her sides, her fingers tracing over every inch of her body until finally she came upon something small and hard in her sweatshirt pocket. Acting entirely on instinct now she pulled whatever the item was out of her clothing and held it up in front of her face. Her hand was gripping it so hard she thought she might accidentally break whatever the small plastic object might be.
Unless it was something she couldn’t break? There were lots of small objects she wasn’t allowed to touch in the scary hot place. Was this one of them? She had already broken so many rules she wasn’t sure what would happen if she broke yet another one.
“Is that your phone? Is there someone’s number on there that I can call to come pick you up? It’s late and you really shouldn’t be on these streets by yourself. If you give me your phone I can call your Big to come get you.”
What a second, is that what she was holding? A phone? Why did she have a phone? She wasn’t allowed to call anyone so why would she have a phone in her pocket?
“Oh sweetheart, it’s alright. You’re safe now, I promise. Wherever you think you are in your mind, that’s not where you are right now. It’s 2007 and you’re on US soil. Washington DC to be exact. Does that sound familiar?”
Ria didn’t know anything about dates but she remembered Washington DC. That’s where her apartment was. She liked her apartment. It was small and quiet and safe and it had a really nice playground behind it.
“Wilson, is everything alright? Do you know this girl? Is she okay? Did something happen?”
“It’s fine Riley, she’s just a little confused right now but I think she’s coming around. Sweetheart, can you tell me your name? I’m Sam and this is my friend Riley. We’re both United States Air Force.”
Ria recognized the term Air Force but she wasn’t quite sure what it had to do with anything. She was still clenching the phone in her hand but she slowly lowered her arm until it hung loosely at her side. She was really tired all of a sudden. Being really scared always made her want to take a nap afterwards. Maybe Auntie Nat would come lay down with her if she called her?
“Nat,” Ria whispered, opening her eyes for the first time now and glancing at the small flip phone in her hands.
“Nat? Is that your name?”
Ria shook her head quickly before finally glancing at the figures on the sidewalk before her. They were strangers but they didn’t seem all that scary to her. The one who had been talking the most had a really nice smile and was obviously a Big. Ria could feel the calming waves all around him, pulling her in his direction. She kind of really wanted a hug but he was still a stranger and she just couldn’t break any more rules.
“I think that’s her Big, or at least whoever’s number is in that phone. Is Nat your Big? Would you like us to call her for you?”
The second person was definitely not a Big and Ria took a step backwards, pulling her cell phone to her chest.
“Riley, let me handle this.”
“Why? I’m a Little so she shouldn’t be afraid of me.”
“That makes absolutely no sense. Clearly she’s weary of you so can you please just back off? Why don’t you head back to the hotel and I’ll catch up with you once I’ve made sure she’s where she needs to be.”
“Yes, really. Go, please.”
“Whatever. It’s your funeral. You better make sure she’s unarmed incase she freaks out again.”
“We’ll be fine, Riley. Now go, please. I know what I’m doing here.”
Ria had no idea what they were arguing about but she was glad at least that the Little was now turning around and walking away. It wasn’t until he was entirely out of sight down the block that she relaxed and once more unclenched the phone in her hand.
“Okay, how about we start again from scratch? Hi. I’m Sam Wilson.”
The man stuck his hand out in a gesture that Ria recognized but wasn’t sure she was allowed to do with others. It would mean touching his hand and letting other people touch her was a hundred million times worse than other people just seeing her.
“Hey, it’s alright, we don’t have to shake hands. You probably shouldn’t be shaking hands with strangers on the street anyways now that I think about it. Can you at least tell me your name?”
Ria wasn’t sure if telling the Big her name would be breaking another rule but she felt compelled to tell him anyways. He was smiling at her in a way that made her want to answer anything he asked. “Maria,” she told him shyly, her heart skipping a beat when his smile widened in response.
“Maria? That’s a really pretty name. So tell me, Maria, is Nat your Big? If we give her a call on your phone would she be able to come pick you up?”
Ria frowned and shook her head, but then stopped and began nodding her head. “My aunt,” she explained, her eyes glancing down at the phone by her side. Aunt Nat had given her the phone. She remembered that now.
“Okay, well, would you like me to help you call your aunt? Her number is in that phone you’re holding, right?”
This time Ria only nodded her head.
“Is that a ‘yes, you want my help’? Or a ‘yes, her number is in the phone’?”
Ria kept nodding her her head, not sure she even knew how to use the phone properly herself. If she gave it to the nice Big he could call her aunt and then she’d come get her and take her home. She really wanted to be home right now curled up on her couch with her Auntie’s arms around her.
Tentatively she raised her hand, holding the phone out for the man to take.
He gently took the phone from her hand and flipped the cover open. Ria had no idea if it was even turned on or not but the man seemed to know how to work it and before long he was pressing buttons and then holding it up to his ear.
“Hi, my name’s-- What? Um, yeah, she’s right here, that’s why I’m call-- Yes, of course.”
Ria watched as the man’s face shifted from warm and comforting and happy to something that looked like confusion? Or fear? Or maybe anger? Did her aunt say something mean to him? Why would her aunt be mean to the nice man?
“She wants to talk to you,” the man explained as he handed the phone back to her.
Forgetting about her own confusion Ria eagerly took the phone and placed it to her ear. “Aunt Nat?” she asked tentatively, her heartbeat thudding in her chest at the sudden realization that she was finally going to talk to her aunt! And she didn’t even have to scrape her knee or fall off the swings!
“Oh god, Maria-- I mean Ria, are you alright? Where are you sweetheart? Did that man hurt you? Are you in trouble?”
Ria felt her excitement begin to slip away at the distress in her aunt’s voice. “I’m sorry I bothered you Auntie Nat. I was bad and I broked the rules. I’m sorry,” she barely paused long enough to take a breath between each sentence, her eyes filling up with tears as all of her emotions came pouring out.
“Oh honey, it’s okay. I’m not upset with you I promise, but you need to breathe. Can you take a deep breath for me? Breathe in slowly, hold it for a few seconds, and then breathe out slowly.”
“‘Kay,” Ria whimpered, the single syllable dragging out as she hiccuped every few breaths. She looked over at the man to see if he was still angry and was relieved to see that he wasn’t. He looked like he wanted to reach out and hug her so she took a few steps back in case he tried to grab her. Even though she really wanted him to give her a hug right now that was a rule she knew she couldn’t ever break. Bad stuff would happen if a stranger ever hugged her.
“That’s a good girl. Breathe slowly for me. In, one two three. Hold. Out, one two three. That’s good sweetheart. You’re doing so good. I want you to keep doing that while I talk to the man who’s with you. Can you hand him the phone for me please? I promise I won’t hang up on you.”
Ria really didn’t want to give the man her phone again but her aunt had asked her to which meant she had to do it. “‘Kay,” she whispered, wiping at her nose with the back of her arm as she pulled the phone from her ear and handed it back to the Big.
“Hello? Yes, of course. My name’s Sam Wilson. I’m with the United States Air Force. I’m on leave and just happened to be in the area with some members of my unit when I saw-- What? Yes, that’s my home address. How did you-- Wait a second, hold on, how do you know my social security number? And my bank account number? Who are you?”
Ria pulled her arms around herself as she watched the man start to pace. He looked confused again, and scared this time. Or maybe nervous? Yeah, he was definitely nervous. Ria’s adult self tended to pace when she was nervous. But why was the man nervous? Did her aunt threaten to hurt him? Why would she do that when he was being so nice to her?
“Okay, alright, I get it. You’re clearly a higher up in some intelligence agency and can easily destroy my career if something happens to the girl. Okay, or kill me, sure, if that’s more your thing. Look, I really don’t want any trouble. Tell me what I can do to help your friend. Is there someone who can come get her? Or somewhere I can bring her? Uh huh. Yeah. That’s actually not far from here. Maybe two blocks at most? Yes ma’am I can walk with her and make sure she gets into the building. Would you like me to walk her to her-- Okay, just to the building is fine. I don’t want any trouble, really. I just want to make sure she gets home safely.”
Ria was really happy to hear that her building was so close. She was growing more and more tired the longer they stood out on the street. She turned around a few times, looking up and down the road in both directions to see if she could spot something familiar. Even though it was an orange shaped moon and not a banana one it was still too dark to see much of anything. The streetlights didn’t ever work on her street, something she knew made her adult self very happy. Unlike Ria, her adult self felt safer in the dark.
“Okay, we’re heading there now. It was nice talking to you. Come on kiddo, your home’s this way.”
The phone was suddenly being waved in front of her face and Ria almost dropped it as she fumbled to take it and bring it up to her ear. “Hi Auntie Nat,” she spoke into the phone, her anxiety once again disappearing as soon as she heard the woman’s voice respond back.
“Is Mr. Wilson treating you okay?”
“Uh-huh. He’s very nice and he has a nice smile.”
“Ria, did he-- Did he touch you? Or try to touch you? Please tell me the truth sweetheart. I can have the police there in thirty seconds if you say yes.”
Ria frowned at the thought of her aunt calling the police. Weren’t the police only for emergencies? The nice man wasn’t trying to break into her apartment so why would the police have to come? “He didn’t touch me Aunt Nat. I promise. I really wanted to hug him but I didn’t because that’s a super big no-no.”
“Okay. And yes, that’s definitely a super big no-no. You did the right thing, Ria. I’m really proud of you.”
Ria couldn’t help but light up at the praise. The man had started to walk down the sidewalk and she followed after him, making sure to keep her eyes on the broken sidewalk so she didn’t trip and fall.
“Can you come over? I want to see you,” she asked, hoping that her aunt was already on the way.
“Oh sweetheart, I wish I could. But I’m very far away right now for work. If things go well I should be home in a few days.”
Ria stopped dead in her tracks, her eyes spilling over with tears as her mind replayed what her aunt had just said. She was too far away to come see her! “But- but- but- you said you’d--” she couldn’t finish her sentence because she’d begun crying, and talking while crying was really really hard.
“I know baby girl, I know I said I would come if you called. I want to be there with you more than anything else in the world right now but I need to finish my job first. There are little girls just like yourself that are in trouble and I need to help them before I can come home to you. I’m so sorry Ria, I should have told your adult self that I had a mission.”
“I’s ‘kay,” she whimpered, her sobs lessening but only a little bit. Her aunt sounded upset and she didn’t want her to be upset. “Can you stay on the phone with me?” she eventually asked, almost tripping over her feet as the man she’d been following stopped by a familiar set of steps.
Wait a second, those were her steps! She was home!
“Okay Maria, your aunt said you knew the code to get in and that I should just--”
Ria ignored the man as she ran up the stairs and pushed the buttons on the wall in the special order she had memorized. There was a loud click as the doors to the building unlocked. Without wasting anymore time she pulled the doors open and ran inside and across the small lobby. “I’m home Aunt Nat!” she exclaimed loudly. She was halfway up the first set of stairs when she remembered the nice man who had walked her home.
Quickly jumping back down the steps she ran back to the front door, relieved to see that he was still standing there looking in through the window. She wasn’t supposed to open doors for strangers, even ones that were nice and had nice smiles, so she simply waved to him through the glass and said the words “thank you” as loudly as she dared. It was still really dark outside and she didn’t want to make her neighbors angry by yelling too loudly.
The man smiled and waved back for a few seconds before he turned and went back down the steps and onto the street. “Auntie Nat I’m home and the nice man is walking away,” Ria explained into the phone as she turned around and once again ran up the stairs. She lived on the second floor so it didn’t take very long to get to her front door.
“Auntie Nat? I said I’m home. Can we watch my Ducktails show now? If I sit really close to the TV you can listen to them talk through the phone.” Ria quickly pressed the numbers on her new door lock, almost dropping the phone in her eagerness to get inside.
“Auntie Nat? I’m inside my house now. I’m sorry I was bad earlier and broke the rules. Do you still want to watch Ducktails with me?” Ria felt her anxiety creep back up the longer she waited for her aunt to respond.
“Auntie Nat? Are you there?” She pulled the phone away from her ear so she could look at it. The screen was still on and the letters N-A-T were there so why wasn’t her aunt responding?
“Auntie Nat? Are you--”
Suddenly a loud beeping began and Ria tore the phone away from her ear in fright. What was that?! Why was her phone beeping at her?! What happened to her Aunt Nat?!
Ria let out a sob as her legs quickly turned to jelly and she collapsed down onto the floor. She was still in the front room of her apartment so the floor was really hard and not soft like her living room, but she didn’t care. Why did her aunt hang up on her? Did she do something wrong? Was this her punishment for breaking so many rules?
“I’m sorry,” she whimpered, dropping the phone to the floor as she pulled her legs up to her chest and pressed her face to her knees. “I’m sorry I was bad. Please come back Auntie Nat. Please. I’m sorry. I’ll be a good girl, I promise,” she cried openly now, rocking bath and forth as she listened to the angry beeping still coming from the phone.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Please don’t leave me. I’m sorry,” she repeated over and over for what felt like hours until eventually her exhaustion overwhelmed her and she passed out asleep.