He always ran.
He remembered what big brother said before he went away and wasn’t there to protect him anymore.
“When they come after you, Parker…” his brother whispered fiercely to him before he got in the car and drove away, “you run. You run as far as you can. You’re fast, remember? We race all the time, you’re almost as fast as me!”
Big brother wiped tears from Parker’s cheek.
“Yeah, I’m almost as fast as you, right?”
“Yeah, bud!’ Big brother grabbed his shoulders and squeezed. His face looked sad.
Parker hated disappointed big brother. Nothing made him sadder. Not even when Mommy cried because Daddy said he wanted to live in a different house. He never understood Daddy. He thought the house they lived in was perfect. Lots of toys and Mommy always made snacks! How could Daddy not want toys and snacks?
Parker decided he wouldn’t disappoint big brother again.
So he ran.
He could hear the other boys behind him as they chased after. He was faster than them. Parker knew that. He was the fastest of all the boys in his grade. Only Rachel was faster than him. Rachel and him would race and race until they were so tired they drank from the water fountain for five gazillion minutes. Yeah, he was faster for sure. They’d never catch him. Especially because Parker always got out of the classroom first and started running before they even got outside! Big brother taught him to do that. It was kind of weird that he could hear the other boys already though. Normally he was almost home by the time they even almost caught up to him!
Parker looked over the top of his Rocket Raccoon backpack.
Behind him three boys were gaining on him atop their bicycles.
When did they start riding bicycles?
Parker’s breath started coming in short gasps and sweat beaded on his forehead. He was fast but was he faster than a bicycle? Big brother had never raced him on a bicycle. Rachel either. Parker pushed faster despite the growing shallowness in his breaths and his muscles getting tired. His lunchbox that hung from his strap on his backpack slammed against the backs of his legs as he ran, right where his knee met his calf. It hurt but he couldn’t stop running. The whirring of the bicycles behind him grew louder and louder until suddenly a boy with short blonde cropped hair came up on his right as a boy with longer sweeping blonde hair appeared on his left. Derek and Timothy. The third boy, Alex, must be behind him. Derek reached out from the bike and pulled back hard on the strap attached to the top of Parker’s bag. Parker yelped as his shoulders were yanked back and he felt his bag crushed beneath his weight and the lunchbox dug into his knees that draped over the top of it. The bikes screeched as the boys skidded to a stop surrounding Parker.
Parker squeezed his eyes shut and balled his fists against his chest.
Please go away, please go away, please go—
Silence spread out between the boys. Parker didn’t open his eyes.
“Hey Parker, I’m talking to you.”
“HEY DIPSHIT.” Parker yelped as he felt a swift kick to his side. Pain shot through his stomach and he rolled onto his side, tears squeezing out from his eyes and streaking down his cheeks,
“You’re always wearing that stupid backpack, y’know.” Alex said, his voice dripping with a nasty playfulness. Parker didn’t open his eyes. He didn’t know what to do. Big brother didn’t say what to do if he wasn’t fast enough. He wished Rachel was there. She wasn’t scared of anything.
“Ya’ like that bag, Parker?” Timothy said his name as if it tasted bad in his mouth.
Another kick, this time in the back. Parker didn’t make a sound.
“Maybe if you like that bag so much…” Derek started. Parker could hear him getting off his bike. “… you should wear it.”
Parker didn’t understand. He WAS wearing the backpack! He had every day since he first started school. He finally opened his eyes. Derek, Timothy, and Alex all towered over him, sneers on their faces. Timothy reached down and grabbed one of his arms and Alex mimicked the action on Parker’s opposite arm. Together, they pulled Parker to his feet. He grunted a little at the pain in his sides and at how tightly the boys gripped his arms. Derek stepped behind him and Parker held his breath, nervous. He felt Derek’s hands grab the straps of his backpack and pull it off roughly, working it past Alex and Timothy’s hands. A few seconds later, Derek stepped back into Parker’s view on the sidewalk. Slowly, Derek turned the bag over and poured the contents onto the ground. Pencils, folders and Parker’s reading homework fell out and scattered around their feet.
“Hope you’re ready.” Derek sneered.
“R-ready for what?” Parker asked meekly.
The answer was blackness as Derek yanked the backpack down over Parker’s head. He panicked. Parker was scared of the dark and on top of this sudden dark was pain from the boys squeezing his arms as he struggled with all his heart to get away.
Big brother, I’m scared. I’m so scared.
“Like it as much on the inside, Parker?!” One of the boys cackled.
“Please let me out!” Parker nearly screamed, still pulling as hard as he could.
“But I thought you loved this backpack!”
Big brother, I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.
“Were we wrong, Parker? Do you not love this backpack? Maybe you’re not close enough to it yet.” Derek’s sinister voice came through and he started pulling down harder, bending Parker’s head down some.
“LET ME OUT.” Parker screamed.
Pink. Suddenly, Parker was seeing pink. And green. The pressure on his arms was gone and the pink started at his head and began to work it’s way down. Green and pink. Pink and green. It sunk down past his eyes and he closed them, frightened the colors might hurt his eyes. He balled his fists and brought them up to his chest. He peeked out between his lids and down by his feet he could see the sidewalk still. Distantly, he could hear the boy’s voices.
“What the hell is happening?!”
“It’s just going down over his whole body?!”
In seconds, the pink and green reached the sidewalk below him and all the noises were cut off abruptly. It was dark again. Parker was too scared to move. He was glad the boys were gone but now he was in a dark place and he didn’t know where to go. A few moments of still silence went by. Parker tried to take a step backward but his knee bumped against something hard behind him. A soft growling began ahead of him somewhere. Parker dropped to a crouch, hugging himself tightly and closing his eyes. He’d never been so scared in his whole life.
A sliver of light burst forth as a door in front of him creaked open. A tall figure stood in the doorway. Parker glanced up but was blinded by the sudden brightness. Lights danced before his eyes and he brought his hands up to rub them.
Parker froze. He knew that voice. He’d know that voice anywhere. He slowly brought his hands down, eyes adjusting to the light. Standing in front of him was his big brother, grinning down at him with a look of excitement, but also a little confusion.
“Parker? What are you doing in the bathroom still? We have a race to get to, remember?”
Parker stood quickly, glancing around him. The thing he’d bumped into moments before was a shiny toilet. He was in some sort of small bathroom like one in a gas station.
Parker rushed forward, wrapping his arms tightly around his brother’s legs.
“I’m so glad you’re back!”
“Back?” His brother cocked an eyebrow and kneeled down, coming eye to eye with Parker. “What do you mean– oh you know what, nevermind, come on you goofball! We’ve got a race!”
“A race?!” Parker grinned, his body jittering with excitement now.
“Yeah, a race! Come on!” His brother scooped him up suddenly, perching Parker atop his shoulders. Parker giggled as his brother carried him away from the bathroom.
Parker couldn’t help but gape at his surrounding. Ahead of them was a racetrack, stands filled with seats but only one person sat in the audience.
“Parker!!” She stood when she saw them and waved. Parker went to wave back but stalled as he saw the most amazing thing he’d ever seen.
On the track was a racecar. Firetruck red. Lightning bolts. Mesh screens. Parker was shaking he was so excited. His brother pulled him up by his shoulders, hoisting Parker off his shoulders and onto the ground.
“You ready, bud?” He smiled down at him.
“Wait,” Parker said in awe. “Do I get to….ride… in THAT?”
Big brother kneeled down to him for the second time.
“You bet you do, Parker. It’s your car.”
The air was knocked from his brother’s lungs as Parker jumped onto him and wrapped his arms around his neck, hugging him tightly. Big brother laughed and hugged him back for a few seconds before pushing him off gently and looking at him seriously but lovingly. Parker’s eyes shone with tears.
“I can’t be there with you anymore, Parker. And I’m sorry about that.”
“Cause’ of the mean bug?” Parker said, repeating what his brother and mother had told him over and over.
“Yeah, because of the mean bug.” His brother’s face went sad for a moment. That’s what they’d told Parker. To save him the hurt.
How do you explain cancer to a five-year-old?
“But it’s okay, Parker. You wanna know why?”
Parker sniffed and shrugged. “Why?”
“Because you can come here anytime you want.”
“… Really?” He looked at him hard. Worried.
“Really. Anytime you’re scared. Anytime you want to see me? You take your backpack and you hop right into it, okay?” He gripped Parker’s shoulders and gave him a gentle squeeze, smiling. “You can come here and we can race your car all day long with your friend Rachel!”
They glanced over at Rachel still in the stands, patiently looking at them and smiling. She yelled suddenly.
“We can ride scooters too!!”
Big brother laughed and turned back to Parker. “Yeah, you can ride scooters too! I bet you didn’t know you had this whole world in here, huh?”
Parker shook his head.
“I had no idea!” He yell-laughed. The tears were gone from his eyes now and he took his big brother’s hand as he stood.
“C’mon,” Big brother grinned down at him. “Let’s go race your car.”
“Yeah! Can we ride scooters with Rachel after?”
Big brother smiled.
“… You bet, bud.”