When He Was Five
When he was five, he came and stood beside me on the beach. Gentle waves were crashing and a tame breeze was blowing, keeping the heat moving and so not quite so fierce.
I was sitting on the sand, watching the ocean move and play. He just stood there. He didn’t seem to be moving, but eventually his bare legs were touching my bare arm.
“Hey, Champ,” I said easily, after a bit. “Where’re you folks?”
He didn’t say anything. He just stood there.
I let a few more minutes pass. It wasn’t silent. The gulls would argue with each other in their strident, unpleasant voices. The waves and surf made their incessant, susurrating noises. The boy, however, was noiseless. He stood still, but the contact remained.
He couldn’t have been more than five. His hair was blond and longish. It hadn’t been cut in a while. His skin seemed pale. He was any five-year-old. He was every five-year-old. I looked at him without moving anything but my head and eyes. He was cute, but what five-year-old isn’t? He was staring at the ocean, as serious as a streetwalker.
“Where’s Mommy?” I tried again.
I faintly heard a very slight sniff. Nothing else.
A few more minutes passed. I was starting to feel something. What was it? Worry? Fear? Dread? It wasn’t focused enough that I could identify it.
“I’m going to get something to drink. Would you like something too?”
He slowly turned his head and looked into my face. I melted. He had tears silently running down he face. His face was dirty, and the trails glistened clean in the sunlight. He didn’t speak.
I reached up and took his hand. His was soft and compliant and he didn’t curl his fingers around mine as is the usual response from a small child. His hand was limp and unresponsive.
“There’s a stand up the beach a ways that sells drinks, and I’m thirsty. Let’s go.”
I stood up unhurriedly. I didn’t need to brush any sand off because I’d been sitting on my towel. I picked it up and was about to throw it over my shoulders when I thought to look at the boy. His shoulders were pink. I draped the towel over him instead. He shuddered. He didn’t speak.
I turned and began walking up the beach, trudging through the sand. He was walking beside me, holding my hand. I walked slowly, matching my stride to his, allowing him to fight through the tenuous grasp of the sand on his feet just as I had to. He stayed glued to my side, our skin still touching.
I asked him what he wanted to drink. The stand had all kinds of drinks. He looked up at me. He didn’t speak.
I order myself a coke. I looked at the boy. He looked at me. I bought him a bottle of cold water. I opened it and handed it to him. He looked at it. He looked at me. He took the bottle and put it to his lips. He drank.
He drank most of the water. When he stopped, a few drops were running from the corner of his mouth. I used a finger to wipe them away. He looked into my face.
“What’s your name?” I asked him.
He was staring at me. I didn’t think he was going to answer, but then he quietly, timidly, said, “Tyler.” His voice was soft, high and feminine.
I looked at him as he looked at me. We were standing in the shade of the roof projection of the stand. My towel was draped over his shoulders. It was 3 PM.
“Tyler, huh? Pretty great name, that. Tyler. Where’s your mommy, Tyler?”
No reply. Large blue eyes, staring at me. Sober and serious and staring. At me.
“Did she bring you to the beach today?”
No answer. I thought maybe he nodded. If he did, it wasn’t much of nod. I might have seen it.
I turned and looked back at the ocean, taking a long, slow breath as I did. I didn’t need this. My life was pretty simple. I liked it that way. I needed it that way. I needed it that way.
“Do you know your address, Tyler,” I asked with no hope for an answer. Which is what I got. “Do you know where you live?” Nothing. “Do you know your last name. Tyler?” Nothing. “Tyler Smith? Tyler Brown? Tyler Whosthiskid?”
I smiled at him. He almost smiled back. His eyes were locked onto mine.
I looked at the ocean some more. The waves were just waves. The gulls were just gulls, being busy at whatever gulls are busy at, terribly unconcerned with my problems.
I should go to the police. Everyone knows that, right? That’s what I should do. I looked down at Tyler. He was still looking up at me.
The day was hot. Even on the beach, it was hot. Usually it was pretty cool on the beach. The wind, the water, it was usually cool. I walked back towards the water, not holding his hand, just to see what would happen. I sat down on the sand, maybe 30 yards from where the water was attacking the beach, chasing higher then coming back again, less greedy this time. As soon as I’d settled, Tyler was sitting next to me. His thigh was touching my thigh. He was looking at the waves. I placed my hand on my thigh, palm open and up. He put his hand in mine. We looked at the waves. Neither of us spoke.
I knew what would happen. That was the problem. I knew. They’d come and put him in a police car and take him to a police station and they’d all be dressed in uniforms and they’d take him there and adults would talk to him and he’d be a boy in a small swimsuit with a towel draped around his shoulders if they didn’t take that away from him and they’d be dressed with shoes on and he wouldn’t and he’d be looking up at them into the fluorescent lights and they’d be looking down at him with curious and strange unemotional faces and there’d be phones ringing and men calling to each other and a few laughs would pollute the background and they’d be asking questions he couldn’t answer and he’d have no idea what was happening now or would happen in the next minute and the next one after.
I’d been a social worker before it’d made me sick. Watching children like him. Failing them.
I didn’t want to think about kids being thrown away. I didn’t have an answer for it when it had been my problem. Back then. I didn’t now.
“Do you want something to eat?” I asked it softly, not looking at him, and shook my head at myself. That wasn’t the way to do it. It was what seemed natural, but I knew it didn’t work. It hadn’t ever worked with someone like him, but I did it anyway.
I waited a while.
“I’m going to get something to eat.”
No reply, but I felt his hand twitch in mine.
I walked back to the stand, him brushing against me all the way. I asked for two hotdogs and two cookies. A coke and another bottle of water. I asked the boy what he liked on his hotdogs.
I put mustard and onions on mine. I carried it all back to where we’d been and sat down. He sat next to me. I handed him a plain hotdog. And a bottle of water. Then I looked at the waves and took a small bite of my hotdog. After some chewing and swallowing and a sip of coke, I glanced at the boy.
He was looking at the waves like I was. I didn’t see anything that looked like a hotdog anywhere.
“Hadn’t eaten in a while, huh?” I asked lightly, not expecting a reply. All I got were two blue eyes focused on mine.
I handed him a cookie. He pulled his eyes from mine and looked at it. I looked at him. He ate his cookie, then looked at me.
I didn’t need a kid. My life was simple. I’d worked with kids for years. I didn’t need one. They were a problem. They were lots of problems. I wasn’t very romantic when it came to kids. I was, in fact, burned out when it came to kids. I was 48 years old, single, gay, and not a bit into kids. They’d been my job once. But I’d cared too much.
What to do, what to do, what to do?
I knew people, which made it different. If you took a kid home and didn’t call the police, you’d spend some time in jail, unless you were connected or knew an awfully fine lawyer. There were ways to do these things. Ways that were well thought out, unless you were the kid. Then they weren’t so good.
“I’ve been here long enough. I’m going to go home now,” I said to the waves. I waited, then looked down. Tears were running down his cheeks again, but he didn’t say anything.
“I’m going to go home now. You can come with me if you’d like.”
The tears didn’t stop. The only change was, he squeezed my hand so hard it hurt.