A miniature park with two or three benches, a pair of swings, and a small wooden table, where pensioners sit and play chess every dayâ€”one of those little neighborhood commons that used to be in front of every residential building. Ever since high-rise blocks have begun springing up like mushrooms after the rain, these little parks have become a rarity.
It was midnight on a summer eveningâ€”when it is most beautiful, Maya concluded. Only in the summertime, when the watchâ€™s hands greet each other at their midnight passing, do you get that perfect blend of darkness and warmth, nor do you have to wait too long to see the sunrise. Just four or five hours. Quite enough.
But that would be too clichÃ©d, she thought, and decided all this had to end sooner, before those first rays that make you squint. There, on the little chess table, she had made her first move when just three years old. On the lap of her grandfather, the best chess player in the neighborhood.
â€œThis wonâ€™t do at all; the little one is helping you. You canâ€™t win without her,â€ his opponent quipped and laughed loudly.
Maya remembered that moment as if it was yesterday. Her first chess move, and later her first victory. All she did that day was move a pawn. But it helped someone, and her grandfather won thanks to her! After that she sat on his lap every day and always moved the first pawn. And her grandfather always won.
Back then she realized for the first time that she was important in this worldâ€”she could change things.
Now, sitting on the bench, she just smiled. Her grandfather was to blame. He started it all. It was no coincidence that she had chosen this park. Here, where everything started, it ought to finish.
The two swings hung peacefully. She wanted at least one of them to move a little and creakâ€”that would be so fitting right nowâ€”sadly and nostalgically, to remind her of the day she found Jacky.
Jacky was a little puppy she saved from the neighborhood bullies. We all know kids like thatâ€”the loudest and roughest, usually from problem families, with a real destructive streak. Maya always thought they were far more dangerous than all the adult thugs and muggers. Childrenâ€™s viciousness is just as genuine as adultsâ€™, and their psychopathic traits donâ€™t go away over the years; people simply learn to conceal them.
Jacky was whimpering pitifully, and it broke Mayaâ€™s heart. At one point she couldnâ€™t stand it anymore, and her fear of the bullies was suppressed by the sincere instinct to help and do the right thing. She pushed her way through them, grabbed the puppy, and they fled together. The dog was faster. The roughnecks caught Maya and beat her black and blue. But so whatâ€”it wasnâ€™t so terrible. Nor was it terrible that the bashings went on for weeks and months wherever they saw her. What counted was that she had made a difference. She had saved the life of a dog, and it was worth more than that of many humans she knew.
Her contemplation was interrupted by the local drunk. He staggered past without noticing her in the dark and collapsed onto the bench opposite. If it had been anyone else, she would have been frightened. But no one was afraid of Smalley. He slept in the cellars of their apartment buildings, lived on peopleâ€™s charity, and bought himself rakia with the money from begging. Sometimes he got his ration â€œon the slateâ€ at the local shopâ€”they trusted him there and knew he was an honest drunk who always repaid his debts.
Childrenâ€™s viciousness is just as genuine as adultsâ€™, and their psychopathic traits donâ€™t go away over the years; people simply learn to conceal them.
On one such evening, many years earlier, she was sitting on this bench with her first boyfriend. He gave her chocolate, and she didnâ€™t know it was actually stolen. That was the greatest love in the world. He even took her with him to the local amusement hall and let her sit next to him while he played video games with his buddies. None of them took their girlfriends with them, only him. That was a real distinction and made her special in the neighborhoodâ€”she felt just like she did when she had been the only child sitting with the pensioners, watching them play chess and sometimes allowed to move one of the pieces.
The two of them were sitting alone. He was slobbering around on a bottle of beer that he had managed to smuggle out of home. He proudly held the bottle in one hand and her with the other, and when someone passed nearby he always spoke a bit louder to gain their attention.
Along came drunken Smalley and, as often happened, he collapsed onto the bench and fell asleep.
Her boyfriend was thirteenâ€”big enough to want to prove himself a man but still so weedy that he chose the most cowardly way of doing it.
â€œPiss off, you creep! Iâ€™m here with my girlfriend, and you stink!â€ he provoked, standing up tall and puffing out his chest like a rooster.
But Smalley was fast asleep. The alcohol had taken hold of him. He breathed heavily and lay like a log on the bench. And he snoredâ€”a very distinctive kind of snoring, Maya recalled, now listening to the same sound once again.
â€œHey, Iâ€™m talking to you, get lost!â€ her boyfriend yelled and went up to him.
â€œLeave him alone, heâ€™s not bothering meâ€”,â€ Maya tried to say but was rudely interrupted:
â€œShut your trap! Iâ€™ll decide if Iâ€™m going to leave him alone or not!â€
He grabbed Smalleyâ€™s weak, gangly body with both hands and pushed him off the bench. Smalley plumped heavily to the ground, then rolled over and started to moan:
â€œOh, leave off it, kid, I ainâ€™t bothering you. OK, Iâ€™m going . . .â€ He tried to stand up but reeled and landed on the ground again, on his bottom.
â€œKid? Me, a kid? Move it, you stupid alkie. Get out of my sight! Do you hear? Iâ€™ll show you â€˜kidâ€™!â€ he yelled furiously and started to kick him. Smalley couldnâ€™t get up, he groaned and begged him to stop, but the pleas came out as a garbled murmur, perhaps because of the alcohol, or the pain. Or both.
All at once, Maya got up and went to him. Her boyfriend stopped his kicking and turned toward her, amazed by her defiance:
â€œDidnâ€™t I tell youâ€”,â€ he blurted, but he never finished what he was going to say. A sharp slap cut across his pimply cheek, and he just stood there with his mouth half open. Words failed him as he looked into Mayaâ€™s piercing dark eyes. He would certainly never forget that look, she smiled as she recalled the â€œstrong manâ€ taking fright and bolting, and he never mentioned that evening again. She helped Smalley back to the bench, and he muttered: â€œI knew youâ€™d help me, my child . . . I knew youâ€™d come back.â€ The next day, Smalley had forgotten what happened and didnâ€™t remember Maya either. But that didnâ€™t matter. She had helped, she had made a difference.