Hide and Seek

By cymbalism

They used to play hide and seek a lot. There weren't so many places to hide -- especially after you'd lived there awhile like Mush had and you knew them all already -- but they played anyway.

From where he stood now, on the corner across the street, Mush could see the window of the third-floor washroom. There used to be a wardrobe in there for towels and stuff, and at when it got close to laundry day there was room to squeeze under the lowest shelf. That was a pretty good spot in his day. Chances were that wardrobe wasn't there anymore, though. The way Jack and some of the Refuge's other more recent survivors told it, there wasn't exactly a surplus of supplies in the place. Given the stories he'd heard about the struggle just to get decent food, Mush wouldn't be surprised if making sure every kid got a chance for a decently dry towel in the morning was low on the list of Warden Snyder's priorities.

Mush pocketed a penny from a passerby and handed the gentleman a paper. This wasn't a stellar selling spot, but he did okay with the afternoon edition here. Some days he just had come back to see the place. Check up on it. Look for changes.

And it had changed.

It didn't use to be a jail for kids with bars on the windows. It used to be -- well, he would never admit it to any of the other fellas but, it used to be home. Where else was there for an abandoned tot? One of the aid society folks found him crouched in a doorway, dirty and skinny and sniffling. That's what he'd been told, anyway, and he never thought about what would have happened if it hadn't worked out that way. If he concentrated hard enough with his eyes closed, he could see flashes of a woman with dark hair and big soft eyes, and he figured that was his mother. But most of his childhood memories were from the Refuge, and most of them were even happy. Like the ones of hide and seek.

His side of the street was empty, but the crowd still bustled by across the way. He shouted a headline, lifting a pape overhead with the front page picture showing. Hardly anybody looked up. He walked down the block a bit and called again.

A man not too many years older than Mush detached from the flow of pedestrian traffic and came his way. Mush smiled and accepted his penny with a polite thank you and a nod. The man paused to open his paper and his gaze lingered on him. Mush pretended not to notice, turning away to shout another headline. Sometimes he got stern, distasteful looks, other times he got curious looks, and some looks, like this man's, registered an interest Mush couldn't put a name to. He didn't turn around until the man moved on.

The trick to hide and seek was not to do too good a job hiding. The perfect spot was somewhere good enough to keep the hunt going, but not so good that nobody ever came for you.

At first they all said he'd be adopted straight away. He remembers that -- the aid society worker women cooing about his angelic baby face, stroking his forehead before bed, telling him he'd surely find a home. Adoptions didn't happen often, but often enough to hope and they always said there was hope for him. But nobody wants a kid whose skin they can't explain.

He jangled the coins in his pocket. Not a bad day.

Hiding was Mush's favorite part of the game. Well, really it was being found he liked most -- that giddy nervousness you get as the footsteps come closer, the certainty that someone's out there looking for you. And then that moment when the wardrobe door opened or curtain pulled back and there was a smiling face of a friend shouting, "Got you!" and extending a hand to help yank you up or out of your genius hiding spot. Even if he was the first one found and had to do the seeking for the next round, Mush could never bring himself to mind too terribly much right then.

The sun slipped out of sight behind one of the taller buildings next to the Refuge and the street got suddenly gloomier. Mush only had a few papers left. He could get rid of them quick and get back to the lodging house and off the streets before the sun went down fully. Still got cold at night during this part of spring. The lodge was home now and, come to think of it, had been for longer than the Refuge was. He'd started selling papers as soon as they said he was old enough and a year or so after that he started paying for a bunk on Duane Street.

That was also when he'd given up hope that anyone would come find him.

He still thinks about hide and seek, though. In a lot of ways, he's still playing it -- it's just different now that he's more grown up. As a grown up, you hide the stuff no one can see anyway, like not telling anybody about living at the Refuge. Few guys could look past what's like now and understand how he misses it. And he doesn't tell anyone his best guess about why his skin is a few shades more brown than everybody else's. Or that he's not really shy about girls like they think he is. Or that those extra-interested looks he sometimes gets make him feel kind of interested, too.

Instead he smiles and laughs and jokes and sells papes and gets along, hiding in plain sight. The perfect spot.

Mush handed his last paper off to a harried woman in a rumpled shawl and looked up when he heard someone shout his name. Blink waved and jogged across the street, dodging a horse and buggy and slipping through a gaggle of gossiping old women. "Hey," he panted, grinning. "I found you!" He looked over his shoulder at the dark windows of the Refuge then back to Mush. "What're you doing over this way?"

Mush smiled slowly, watching Blink's brown crinkle. Maybe he wouldn't have to hide away, after all.