With her foot, Ginny flipped the black and white soccer ball up and onto her toe. Then she tossed it in the air in front of her where she bounced it on one knee before it fell back to the grass. She rested her right foot lightly on the ball with the left foot close beside it. Hopping up, she placed her left foot on top of the ball and then rapidly switched feet, back and forth thirty times, like her soccer coach had taught her to do. She ended this drill with a kick, dribbling the ball around the jungle gym and weaving through the trees with a vigor and dexterity only to be found in youth. The soccer ball looked more like a disco ball as it rolled through the shady trees and reflected dappled sunlight. Joyful shrills of rowdy children sounded all around her. Winfeld Park was a popular place to play, and Ginny’s mother always brought her here on Thursday afternoons after piano lessons and before meatloaf. Bleh.
A gentle wind combed through Ginny’s blonde ponytail as she confidently directed the ball around the sandbox, and she knew her team was going to beat the Midtown Magicians this time. They had lost to them last week, and the week before that. AND the week before that, but tomorrow, the Prime Valley Volts were going to taste victory!
The children’s voices grew distant as she dribbled along the perimeter of the park, and she found an old woman sitting at the end of a wooden park bench. The draggled coat she wore looked big enough for the woman to get lost in, and two brown socks were rolled down to worn out brown loafers at the bottom of her drab floral skirt. The elderly woman sat slumped, looking sad and utterly alone. Ginny lightly kicked the ball closer to the bench.
“Hi,” Ginny said meekly. The old woman didn’t acknowledge her. Two sparrows flitted around the woman’s head and then flew to a nearby tree. She didn’t acknowledge them either. Ginny tapped the soccer ball with her toe. “Do you want to see a cool trick?” At this, the woman quickly turned to face Ginny, and she could see the woman’s eyes had brightened a bit. With a flick of her toe, Ginny hiked the ball into the air and bounced it from one knee to the other. The old lady didn’t seem to watch the ball, but kept her eyes on Ginny’s face instead. “Cool, huh?” she asked. The lady didn’t answer, but she did maintain an interested expression.
“Are you here watching your grandkids play?” She peered closer at the deep creases in the lady’s face. “Your great-grandkids? Which ones are they?” Ginny looked over her shoulder at a group of unruly middle school boys playing full-contact checkers on a massive holographic board. Her great-grandkids must have been among them.
“You look lonely. Do you want me to keep you company?” Ginny asked. The woman’s grin grew, but she still didn’t answer. “I’m kinda lonely too. No one wants to play soccer with me, and my mom is playing with my baby brother on the slide. I’m not going on the slide with him. Last time we went down the slide together, he was in front of me and I was holding on to him, and he pooped his diaper right as we slid down. All I can say is that was a loooong, stinky mess. We BOTH had to go home and change clothes, so no more slide for me!” Ginny’s face crinkled at the smelly memory. The old lady’s grin didn’t waver.
“Do you want to see another trick?” The withered woman’s eyes became even wider, and a smile spread crookedly across her face, pressing her wrinkles together like a deflated accordion. Excited to have an audience, Ginny kicked the ball up in the air, then ducked under it, attempting to catch it at the back of her neck. She failed. The ball bounced off her back and across the feathery grass. “Aw. I can do it most of the time,” she said, a little embarrassed. Before the ball rolled far, it disappeared and reappeared, hovering over Ginny’s purple com-ring. First it was a blue, holographic outline, then an animated representation of a ball, and finally as a fully rendered, physical ball. The elderly woman continued to smile and stare at Ginny, as intently as a dog watches a hand with a treat in it. “Ok, ok, I can’t do that trick most of the time. I’m still working on it.” She smiled sheepishly, and closed the soccer ball app on her com-ring. The ball flickered and vanished.
“Hey!” Ginny patted the front pocket of her shorts. “Do you want…” she began as the old woman’s smile broadened even more. Ginny continued fishing through her pocket, sticking her tongue out a bit with the effort. Finally finding what she had been searching for, she held them out triumphantly toward the old lady. “Do you want some red laces from Cora’s Confectionary?”
The woman’s milky eyes were eager and hungry, and her smile stretched even wider, revealing empty red gums. Stepping closer with the candy dangling from her fingers, Ginny could see the pink skin of the old lady’s scalp beneath wisps of straight white hair that lay smooshed against her head in some places and stuck out in odd angles at others. With knobby fingers, the woman took the candy lace from Ginny’s hand. Ginny blinked at her toothless mouth and wondered if she would even be able to chew the gummy candy. The rumpled woman’s eyes were locked on Ginny’s as she slurped the lace between thin lips. She mashed at the raspberry flavored treat with her bare gums until pink drool bubbled down her chin. She didn’t wipe it away, but her smile returned this time so wide that Ginny thought it shouldn’t be able to fit on her face. Who could possibly have a mouth that big?
The elderly woman rocked back and forth in an awkward attempt to stand. Ginny, finally realizing what she was doing, rushed to help her. She grasped the woman’s elbow and supported her as she rose to her feet. Her eyes never left Ginny’s face as she pointed a knotted finger toward a place behind them, away from the park.
“What is it?” Ginny asked, looking at a row of houses across the street. “Oh! Do you have candy you want to share with me?!!?” The old lady’s smile somehow stretched even wider, the corners of her lips nearly reaching her keen, round eyes. A bit of red lace candy that had escaped the gum-mashing poked out from the left side. Grasping Ginny’s hand, the woman began to hobble in the direction she had pointed. Ginny shuffled alongside her, trying to guess which house belonged to the ancient-looking lady. They were moving at an unbearably slow pace, though. It would be dinner time before they even reached the corner! Ginny declared silently that this lady’s candy had better be worth it. And it better not be that yucky black liquorish her dad liked.
They passed—ever so slowly—a birthday party off in the distance by the volleyball court in the park. Ginny had a lot of time to watch a younger boy with kinky, brown hair open a few presents and slice into his cookie cake. Then a promising thought expanded and rose much like one of the boy’s brightly colored birthday balloons. Maybe the old lady had made cookies. Crispy sugar cookies with sprinkles and extra icing! She could almost taste them! Ginny just needed to hold on to that image to get her through the sluggish walk to the woman’s house. She squeezed the old lady’s hand in thanks for the delicious treats floating in her imagination. She still stared at Ginny, her smile still the broadest Ginny had ever seen, her vacant gums open slightly.
After what seemed like hours of listening to the old woman’s worn brown loafers scrape the sidewalk, they finally reached the corner of the park where they would cross the street to the houses. But instead of going straight, the old woman guided her, albeit at a snail’s pace, to the right. They were now heading away from the row houses. Ginny crumpled her face in confusion. If the old biddie wasn’t taking her to her house, where were they going? Perhaps she worked at a bakery! This was getting better and better! They had nearly stepped off the curb in the direction of a street lined with shops and office buildings when Ginny heard her name called.
“There you are!” Ginny’s mom looked harried as she marched toward the corner. Her mousy hair was pulled into a pony tail at the back of her head. She wore white jeans with grass stains at the knees and a ten month old baby strapped to her chest. “Virginia, I have been looking everywhere for you!”
“Mom!” Ginny groaned at the revelation of her full name. “It’s such an old lady name. Oh, um. Sorry.” She glanced at the old woman who didn’t appear offended judging by the fact that her avid smile was still frozen in place.
“Who is this?” her mom asked pleasantly, but also with a furrowed brow. Ginny’s little brother, Wyatt, repeated his mother’s query in a high pitched tone.
Ignoring her little brother? Ginny said, “This is, hmm… I never got her name. But I met her at the park. She was watching her great-great-GREAT grandchildren play,” Ginny added an extra great now that she had experienced how slowly the lady walked. “I shared my candy with her, and she was going to get some right now to share with me! Maybe even cookies!”
“Honey, can I talk to you for a second?” Ginny nodded as her mother tugged her a few steps away from the old woman. “Sweetie, you don’t just leave with other people no matter how nice they seem!”
Wyatt echoed in his tiny voice, “mad how nicey!”
Ginny’s mom threw her hands out to the side and continued, “Especially with people I don’t know!”
Wyatt in turn flung his arms out and mimicked, “speshy peep no no!”
“Now, come on. I have to get the meatloaf in the oven.”
Ginny groaned again. “BUT I HATE MEATLOAF!”
“MEALOAFFF!!” Wyatt said.
“Pardon us, Mrs. Ummm—” Ginny’s mother turned around to speak with the old woman, but she wasn’t there. “Where did she go? That’s odd.”
Ginny yawned. “I don’t know.”
“Hmm.” Ginny’s mother uttered suspiciously. “Come on now. Time to get home.”
Ginny shambled along behind her mother as they made their way to the skytrain platform. After shuffling next to that strange old lady for so long, her mom seemed to be speed-walking. She also wasn’t in a hurry to get home to a meatloaf dinner instead of sweet and crunchy iced sugar cookies.
Ginny fiddled idly with the remaining red lace in her pocket. She wondered if she would be like the old woman and slurp up the stringy candy like noodles or cut them with a knife and fork when she got old and all her teeth fell out. Only time would tell.