Go back in time to an event you think could have played out differently for you. Let alternate history have its moment: tell us what could, would or should have happened?
When I was twelve I got lost in Vienna’s Prater gardens. We were in the amusement park area. I went alone to get cotton candy. On my way back to my family, I took a turn. Before long, I was strolling along tree-lined avenues that went off in all directions. I didn’t worry. I kept walking, confident that I would soon be back where I was. I finished the cotton candy and kept on walking.
The Prater gardens are to Vienna what Central Park is to New York. The official website will tell you that it “covers six million square meters…its main artery is 4.5km long…was once an imperial hunting pavilion…lined by 2,500 trees.” It also says “take a few steps away from the main avenue of the Prater and you will find an expansive area of meadows, woods and former Danube channels.”
I suspect that I took those few steps away from the main avenue.
After a while, I had finished and walked off the cotton candy. I looked at what money I had in my pocket – the change from the cotton candy. It was just enough to get me a Magnum ice cream from an isolated snack stand. A plain Magnum, not the one with almond slice sprinkles and definitely not the jumbo dark chocolate one with a caramel center. Disappointing, but I bought the plain one anyway and kept on walking. Still not worried. Enjoying my surroundings, my ice cream, expecting to soon be back where I was.
A man on a bicycle rode up beside me. An Austrian, older. But then again, who knows? I was twelve. Anyone over the age of 18 was considered “older”. But I think he was older older. His face has not stayed in my memory. It was very shortly after my family migrated to Europe, so I couldn’t tell white people apart yet. Of our small talk in mutually broken English, I remember nothing, especially not whether I told him that I was lost or not. I doubt it had even dawned on me that I was lost. I thought I was just taking a longer than expected way back.
He asked me if I wanted a ride on his bicycle. I said no. He may have persisted, he may have not. I never felt scared. Maybe uneasy. The same unease one feels on a first meeting with anyone new. I don’t think he kept offering me the ride. If he had, I would have gone with him. That’s how small my unease was, an amount that would have disappeared with another thirty seconds of gentle convincing. A jumbo Magnum might have done it. He said goodbye and rode off and I, you guessed it, kept walking.
Eventually, just as I knew I would, that is, through no mental effort other than by continuing to walk aimlessly, I found myself back where I was before the cotton candy. The rest, after my mother held me so tight like she wanted to kill me and/or never let me go, is what has led me to this point today – writing down the story, wondering what might have been.
What might have been, based on what I’ve since learned about bicycle rides, is that I would have become either a Lolita or a Nikita; sex pet or international assassin. Both stories would have ended in death. What story doesn’t? For the part that comes before though, I’d prefer to have ended up a black Nikita: terminatrix extraordinaire, birthed by the forest, huntress for hire.
Replay: Austrian offers a ride. I hop on, unsteady because I don’t know how to ride a bicycle and, despite being just a passenger, feel like I have to keep the balance. When I realize that all I have to do is sit, I relax. If he had not done so before, he offers to buy me another Magnum now. The thought of more sugar makes me nauseous. I prefer actual food but I’m too shy, so I decline. We ride around the park for a while, attracting curious and disgusted glances. Him asking me everything, me answering, asking him nothing.
When we’re by the Danube it occurs to me to ask if he likes to swim. He does. We make plans to go together someday. He’ll pick me up from my home. Where do I live? I tell him that too. I’m still expecting that this bike ride will lead us back to the cotton candy stand, somehow. He asks if I’m hungry. We’re friends now so I tell the truth. Yes. We can ride to Wienerwald, he says. A chicken place I love. I feel strange about sitting with him in a restaurant where I so often go with my family. He offers to go and bring the food here instead. I like that idea. This is nice. A picnic by the river. I’ve only seen picnics in movies.
He goes. I watch him disappear among the trees in the direction of the main avenue. Once again, I’m alone, more than before because this part of Prater is just river and woods. If I go for a swim now – a quick one – I’ll be dry by the time he comes back. I can hear nothing but the water, so we must be very far from Wienerwald, I think.
Wade in the water. My feet, ankles, calves, knees. It’s cold but soft. I bend, run my fingertips along its surface.
Shot rings in the air, like a cracked whip.
My neck jumps with pain, my hand flies up to the spot, water on my face. I squeeze my eyes against the splash. Then, nothing. Black.
I open my eyes. Black. I reach out, feel cool rock. I release a sound. The black space swallows it. I don’t know how long it’s been.
From the nothing, a booming voice asking my name. I answer. Again, my name? My name. I answer. Even now, I don’t ask questions, I only answer. Again, the question. What is your name? I wait, think, answer. No, again. Yes. No, again. Yes. The question, over and over. I stop answering. Blind standoff. Time passes, as long as a blink, as short as a life.
A tremor starts in my jaw, spreads down my throat, yanks open my mouth and makes my voice hurl the question back, at the black nothing. What is your name?
For answer, a door. Opens. The cave explodes with light.
If I had felt my way along the walls in the dark so long ago, would I have found it? Would I have pushed it open, been free?
Outside, snow. They wait, already pleased.