The Gulch – Samuel Milligan

        One night, out for my nightly walk, I was greeted at the entrance to the paths by two families colliding, their dogs dropping tennis balls from their mouths and circling, nipping at the other’s tendons. I walk in the footpaths of the gulch behind my housing development.  There’s a baby rabbit I see every night.  He sits at the foot of the stream that runs dry in the dip of the gulch, near a drainage pipe.  The moment I stick my head around the bend and can see him, he turns his back to me and disappears into the brush.

        “Tyler?” a blonde woman was calling, again and again.  “Tyler?”

        I took my earbuds out, something that I never do.  These walks are, after all, my time.  I walk alone with the dropping sun and the cool air that settles to the ground at dusk.  I do not acknowledge strangers.  But a man holding one of the dogs by its collar reached out and grabbed my arm and said: “Have you seen a small boy, on a scooter, with shoulder-length blond hair?”

        “No,” I said.  “What’s wrong with him?”

        “He’s lost,” said the man.

        I thought to myself: Well, have a nice night, then.  Not my problem.  And I walked away, past the dogs.  “Tyler?” the woman kept calling.  I passed her on the sidewalk next, at a fork in the sidewalk heading away from the development.  She took one fork and I took the other, happy as I turned to know that Tyler and his family were no longer my problem, that he was just something lost in the foothills behind me, and that my walk could continue as normal.  I do not live in a busy house—I live alone.  I like it that way.  I have lived with other people and it turns out that all other people do is try to make you like themselves.  Other people don’t want you to be a true self. They want you to be the most palatable and acceptable version of yourself that they can imagine, and when you refuse to change, they will leave, and leave you alone in a neighborhood full of families, and move off on their own with halfdrawn impressions of true love and companionship, and ignore your phone calls and postcards and email and regular mail and even when they do pick up the phone it’s just to say there’s nothing to talk about.

        As I walked the rounded curves of the sidewalk, the flowered belly of the gulch became unfamiliar to me.  Each cactus a broken elbow peering up from the grasses, each rock the sandy-colored back of a crumpled skull. In the distance, I spied a little child holding a dog, and I suddenly realized that I had misheard the man holding the dog.  He hadn’t said Scooter, he hadn’t said blond child, he hadn’t said anything about hair color at all! 

        I didn’t start walking faster, but I did imagine myself walking back with the child, his hand in mine, to present him to his mother.  Perhaps I would say something mean, to ruin the moment of reconciliation for her.

        “Look after your kid better,” I might say.  “Maybe he ran away because he knew his mother wouldn’t be the one to find him.”

        I found, as I approached the little boy with the dog, whose name I now realized must be Scooter—a little boy with Scooter, yes!—that my stomach began to tighten, to rise up and settle in my ribs in an unpleasant way.  I could see him standing with his hip cocked out casually, the dog scratching behind its ear with a muddy black foot.  I thought: why aren’t you more worried?  Shouldn’t you be panicking like everyone else?  How can you expect to be found and saved if you’re not acting lost?

        As I neared, I saw that the little boy’s neck was wrinkled, and that he wore a jangling cohort of bracelets on the wrist held away from the dog, and that it was not a little boy at all but a spry old woman, her hair graphite-dull in the fading day’s light.

        “You’re not Tyler,” I said.

        “What are you all sweaty for?” she said back. 

        “The lost little boy!” I said.  “Why aren’t you looking for him, if you’re not him?”

        “I know Tyler,” she said.  “He’s always lost.  It’s whatever.”

        “I’m just out on my walk.  It’s not my problem,” I said.  “But if you know him, you should help.”

        “I’ll keep an eye out.”

        “He might need you,” I said.

        “Okay,” she said. 

        “Good,” I said. 

        I made my way to the highway’s edge, and the sprinklers were on, even though it had rained the night before.  I wondered if their sensors were broken and they could not tell when they were or were not needed, and erred on the side of soaking the median until it was soggy and my flip-flops sank a little, the mud pulling them away from my feet as I walked, dodging the water flung through the air and avoiding the puddled sidewalk.  

        When I got back to my house, where I usually stopped after one lap, I thought to myself: my legs are still fresh.  I’d better keep going.  I got back to the entrance to the gulch, the parking lot where those dogs had been biting at each others’ back legs, and there was no one there.  The families were gone.  A tennis ball, still wet, sat in the middle of the sidewalk.  The voices were gone.  I listened to the echoes of fireworks being set off in some other neighborhood and waited to see them pop into sight in the darkening sky.