The restaurant reeked of reused grease and childhood disappointment. The tables were covered with hamburger bun crumbs, salt grains, and finger smears. The seats were affixed to the floor. Judith sighed and watched her son Kevin mutely munch minuscule bites from a french fry. He was humming to himself. The rest of the restaurant was empty and rain slathered thickly down the windows.
"Come on, hurry up," she said, tapping her fingers on the table nervously.
Kevin shoved the remainder of the fry into his mouth and swallowed it whole, then opened his mouth to show his mother that his mouth was clear of food.
"Yuh, okay thanks honey," said Judith. She leaned over and scrunched up the hamburger wrapped he had spread out his fries on. She put his trash with hers on her tray, then deposited it on the trash bin. Kevin ran to the plexiglass wall that enclosed the ball pit, pressing his hands and noses against it, where countless other hands and noses had been pressed. He moaned slightly.
"No sweetie, we've really got to go."
Kevin banged his head dully against the plexiglass. Judith looked out the windows, dreading the soaking walk home in the dark soggy night.
"Alright," said Judith. "Five minutes."
Kevin immediately ran to the entrance and dove into the ball pit, throwing up multicolored spheres of fun for the under tens/orbs of pestilence for everyone else. Judith sat at a nearby table and slumped down, her head resting on her hand, watching him. Her eyelids began to fall.
Judith jerked awake as her forehead hit the table.
"Wha?" she said, before coughing and clearing her throat. She rubbed her forehead and looked at the ball pit. There was no movement within. She stood suddenly, instinct and guilt instantly gripping her.
"Kevin?" she said. She looked around the restaurant. A lone employee of ambiguous gender and greasy hair was mopping the floor with cloudy gray water. "Kevin?!" The employee looked up. "Have you seen my son?" The employee shrugged and resumed swiping the floor ineffectually.
Judith leaned over the entrance to the pit. She plunged her hand in, searching.
"Kevin? Are you all right?"
Fearing he'd had a seizure of some sort, and then fearing he'd been abducted, she slipped over the side and stumbled in. She waded out to the middle, trying to feel for Kevin with her legs. When she reached the middle she started sinking.
"What the--" she managed to get out before disappearing completely.
The light was still strong, going through the balls, almost as if they were illuminated from within. She tried swimming but was still sinking. The balls seemed to stick to each other but they parted from her. She briefly wondered why anyone would make a ball pit so deep.
Soon her feet met open air, and she dropped through. She fell about ten feet before landing in a heap on a grassy field. The air smelled strongly of petrichor even though the grass and the dirt beneath were bone dry. She laid back and looked up at the strange sky. It was completely filled with the multicolored balls, floating, and waving gently.
She stood and tried to touch them, but they were just out of her reach. She looked around. There was nothing but rolling grass and an old metal swingset set on a slight ridge in her vicinity.
"Kevin?" she cried. "Kevin can you hear me?"
There was silence expect for the sound of the breeze through the grass and the balls gently abrading each other.
"Kevin..." she whispered, her voice catching in her throat.
She ran towards the swingset, thinking it might be a point of reference. As she reached it, she saw the other side of the ridge. The downslope was barren of grass and dozens of children sat motionless. Kevin sat near to her and she ran to him.
"Kevin, darling," she said. He looked back at her with blank eyes, but hugged her weakly. She looked at the others. Some looked healthy but others looked weak, and yet others were shriveled up, their eye sockets empty but still able to blink. Judith felt her mouth go dry.
"Come with me," she said. "We have to find a way home. This is...I don't know. We can't stay."
Kevin shook his head.
"Yes, honey, come on."
"No," he said firmly.
"Yes, we have to--"
A crack of lightning struck the swingset. Judith looked up. The balls were undulating swiftly. Dust started to fall down from between them. Judith looked down and shaded Kevin's eyes. Soon sand was falling. She grabbed Kevin around the chest and tried to pull him up but his feet were submerged in the dry ground.
"How did...how would that happen?" she asked herself. "What did you do sweetie?"
"It cried for me," said Kevin, brushing sand out of his hair. "It's all right mommy. I don't feel anything anymore."
"What? What are you talking about?"
"The ground is sad?"
"Yes. Because it's dry and there isn't enough water."
"Honey, that's not our problem."
Judith dug at son's feet. She pulled away clumps of dirt, which felt oddly fleshy. Finally she freed Kevin completely, pulling him up into her arms. She ran back to the swingset just as the shower of dust and sand ended.
"We have to get up there," she said, putting Kevin down and stepping onto a swing. It sunk with her weight, then gave way.
"Can't we just stay here?" asked Kevin. "I want to give the ground water."
"No," said Judith, feeling extremely confused. She leaned against one of the rusted metal support pole. "I don't know what this is...surely I'm not dreaming."
The wind picked up, howling through the supports. Judith suddenly felt relaxed by the sound.
"Wow," she said. "It does want water...how would I know that?"
"It just told you," said Kevin.
"It's so...ironic," she said. "There's an unending downpour above us, but none of that water is getting in here."
"That's why it's dry here, and always raining at home," said Kevin.
"I wondered about that," said Judith, sighing contentedly. "It never felt quite right for there to be rain all the time."
The breeze swirled around the swingset again, setting off several musical tones.
"Sure," said Judith smiling.
The ground started to rise up towards the balls in the sky.
"Hold on tight," she said to Kevin, helping him wrap his arms around the supports. The swingset quickly punched through the lowest balls, and soon mother and son were immersed in them as well. They traveled up through the layer of balls and finall emerged, swingset and all, in the restaurant. The single employee stopped mopping and looked on in dazed amazement.
"Stand back," said Judith to Kevin.
She kicked at the swingset support until it dislodged from the crossbeam and fell down. She pulled it up and held it firmly to her chest, point the top end at the window. She lunged and shattered the window. Water flooded onto the ball pit. Judith fell back, then scrambled over the side carrying Kevin with her.
"Look, it's sucking in the water!" exclaimed Kevin.
"It sure is," said Judith. "Wow."
Outside the rain began to subside. The clouds started to clear and sunlight streamed down.
"Looks like we won't have to walk home in the rain afterall," said Judith.
"Cool," said Kevin.
Judith took him by the hand and exited into the first sunny day she had ever remembered seeing.