She misses hot fudge sundaes sometimes. She misses swirling a plastic spoon through the chocolate sauce, and combining it with cool, sweet vanilla until she's scraping her spoon to catch the last melted bit of sweetness at the end.
She misses grease, sticky and glistening on her hands as she reaches to snatch another golden fry from its overflowing basket. She misses meat, medium rare and dripping its flavor all over her plate each time she cuts into it, and the cool carbonation of soda sliding down her throat as she finishes a meal.
She never used to eat the maraschino cherries that came with her sundaes. She would slide them around in the melted ice cream until the end, and then leave them there for the waitress to clear away. They were too red, too fake- little rubies dipped in sickeningly sweet syrup, meant only for decoration.
Now, alone, she remembers those cherries left uneaten on her dish, and she wonders at her past self's pickiness. Thoughts of those glorious, sparkling cherries with their heavy, sweet scent both torture and comfort her on nights like these, when the air is crisp and cold, and her stomach aches with hunger. She thinks she misses them most of all.
She doesn't get many handouts. People don't go out of their way to help girls too scared and too proud to stand on a corner with a sign. She frequents the local bakeries and cafes, looking for work that they never seem to need. Sometimes she gets lucky and receives cash or a stale meal from a kind stranger, but it is never enough. Most days, she returns to her little playground with a growling stomach and empty hands.
She has learned not to sleep on the streets. The wind is unforgiving and cruel at night, as are other alley residents. They are a pack of manipulative wolves, eager to devour her, and she is haunted by those first nights spent in their clutches, forced to do as they say to survive. Even now, when she spots one on the street, she always runs, terrified they will catch her and drag her back into their dark world.
Now she sleeps curled up in the base of the yellow tunnel slide in the park. It's cramped, and graffitied with initials of couples long since gone, but she doesn't mind. She pretends that she's safe here, hidden in the slide, tucked away from reality. She pretends a lot of things.
Most days she is invisible to the world. Children and parents alike frequent her park, and she likes to sit with legs curled up under her on a bench and watch little toddlers waddle around the playground, babbling happily as they play while their parents sit and text, enjoying the peace and the sunshine.
She can sit that way for hours as long as she does not try to talk to the children, or play with them. Then the smiling parents will herd their children away quickly, shooting her cold, accusatory glares as they go. She feels like a monster under their harsh gazes. Maybe she is, in her ratty, too small clothes, and her unwashed shell of a body. Her hair is matted and she has given up trying to comb it smooth with her fingers. It hangs in her face, lifeless, and she does not shove it away.
He can see her. The little boy with the dimpled grin and the love of outer space always waves to her on her bench, even when she doesn't dare to wave back. She likes it when he comes to the park, hanging on his older brother's leg and chattering happily about aliens and how he can reach "just about to the moon" on the swings.
Sometimes he manages to convince his brother to join in his adventures fighting invisible bad guys around the slides, or swinging across shark infested waters on the monkey bars, claiming that "it's no fun alone, Max!" He loves the tunnel slide the best of all. She wonders if he has any idea how many nights she's spent huddled inside.
She wishes he wouldn't eat chips when he comes to the park. The scent swirls in the air, causing her hands to tremble slightly in her lap, and the noise. He sits on her bench, swinging his short legs as he chews, and she still can't figure out why he isn't scared of her presence. Sometimes he presents her proudly with a chip, and she never knows how to refuse, so she takes it. Just one. He tries to talk to her, and she'll listen as he prattles on about space, and the moon, and alien death gliders until his brother pulls him away, sending her suspicious frowns and reminding him for the hundredth time not to talk to strangers.
He doesn't come to the park anymore. She watches for him, waiting patiently on her bench for the cheery presence she's grown accustomed too, but he has gone. His brother comes sometimes, with shoulders hunched and hands shoved into pockets, but he does not acknowledge her.
Once more she is invisible.
The brother is sitting on her bench when she returns one morning several weeks later with an only slightly stale blueberry muffin and a small smile. She has just procured an odd job weeding gardens, and she feels the sun on her back warming her spirit- inspiring hope. Her hair is pulled back in a hair tie, and her step bounces.
He is not smiling. His head is buried in his hands, and he's shaking slightly. Her little friend is nowhere in sight. She feels her good mood vanish. Something isn't right. Something has happened. He does not notice her until she reaches up and touches his shoulder hesitantly. Then he jolts and swears, shrugging away and tugging his hood over his profile. He does not leave the bench.
She asks him. She has to know where the little boy is- why he hasn't been at the park.
He looks up slowly, eyes haunted and dark, and tells her to leave him the hell alone.
She doesn't say anything else after that.
The next time he comes to the park, his dark hair is combed smooth and he's wearing a black suit and a pale, fixed expression. He wanders to the swings, and she watches from her spot on her bench as he begins to pump his legs slowly, gaining just enough momentum to keep the swing moving.
It's no longer sunny outside.
A small, brightly colored action man has wedged itself in the slats of her bench, and she pries it free with trembling fingers, tracing the lines of its cheap, plastic spacesuit.
Somehow she knows her little friend won't be back to claim it. She wonders if they have maraschino cherries in heaven.