Written for Brandywine's Hiatus Challenge Post
Opening line prompt: It consumes me, burning
Word prompt: languid, prayers, watercolor
A/N: So, this is where the opening led me… you'd think it would be some smoldering thing, with that opening line, but that's not what came out. The muses were in a quiet mood – more impacted by the words, I guess. (I decided to play with both prompts, just for fun.)
This is in four parts, beginning and ending in March 2005, with snippets from Chino in between. Updates should come smoothly – only minor editing to go.
Oh – this story has some references to little league baseball – for the sake of this story, baseball season is assumed to be summer, even though it appears that the real little league season in California might be spring. I'm from the east coast – what do I know? Summer works better for my time-lines, so I'm sticking with summer.
Summary: Remember Ryan's response to Kirsten in The Gamble, when she asks him what he wants to be now? What if 'seventeen' wasn't made nonsensical by the OC's junior year 'redo'? What if it had resonance from another place and time?
It consumes me, burning through the safeguards I keep so carefully in place, as I turn the calendar page and see his name scrawled across the 19th in Sam's handwriting, the red ink slightly smeared, the letters spilling over a little into the next day's date.
Suddenly, I don't care about the overdue supplies I've been fuming about for the last two days. The intense tropical heat no longer registers.
The lesson plans I've been working on for tomorrow lie scattered across the hand-hewn table, abandoned, and the pungent smell of simmering garlic and tomato sauce fades until it's imperceptible.
I lean back heavily against the rough wooden door frame. Unprotected, I can't support the weight of the hole inside me that's been exposed.
Sliding down to the floor, I ride a wave of memories, rolling swift and undisturbed through time, until they break and play out on a very distant shore...
It's a Tuesday, another cloudless day in California, and I'm taking center stage in our newly instituted 'Tales Aloud' summer youth program. Our group has grown a little from yesterday, I'm pleased to see, and includes an encouraging mix of girls and boys. I count 9 children in all, with several parents hovering nearby while I read to the kids from The Adventures of Robin Hood.
Midway through our half-hour time slot, I notice the tousled blond-haired boy hiding quietly under one of our bright blue plastic tables. He's not in our circle, but he's close enough to hear the story. I know he's listening because I can see his facial expressions changing as the tale unfolds.
When I come to my stopping place for the day, several of the children and parents come up to talk, asking for hints about tomorrow's conclusion, and about the week's other programs at the library. By the time we've finished chatting, the small blond child has disappeared.
It's over an hour before I spot him again. This time, he's sitting on the floor back in the stacks, tucked away in a cubby hole between the shelving and the wall. He's got the book I was reading spread open across his lap, and he's so engrossed he doesn't notice me.
"Hi," I say softly, trying not to scare him.
His reaction takes me by surprise.
He looks up from the book, his eyes wide. He crabwalks backwards until his back is pressed firmly against the wall, and sits there, breathing rapidly and clutching the book tightly against his chest.
"It's okay," I sooth, crouching down so I'm nearly sitting on my heels. I smile, wondering why he's so frightened. "I just want to talk to you."
The blue eyes that look up at me are unexpected. He can't be more than six or seven, I think, but his eyes seem far older, with a fear bubbling up to the surface that is unsettling. He blinks and lowers his head as he inches back a fraction further.
"I see you've got one of my favorite books," I say, smiling as comfortingly as I can.
He just sits there, frozen. It's like he's waiting for something. Judging from the posture he's now adopted, I get an uneasy feeling it's not something good.
"Did you like the story today?"
He glances up, shadows filtering through his eyes before he hides his face again. Just as I've decided he's not going to respond, he speaks.
"I'm sorry," he says softly. He thrusts the book out toward me, looking up at me from underneath shaggy blond bangs. "I just wanted to look at it," he explains, adding, "Honest."
"You're welcome to look at the book. That's what it's here for, honey," I assure him, hoping to ease his fear.
Judging from his threadbare jeans and well-worn tennis shoes, I'm guessing this young patron is precisely the audience I've been trying to get inside the library since I accepted this position three months ago. Kids who may not have the means to purchase their own books, but who could access whole new worlds – and worlds of possibilities – inside these walls.
I sit down on the floor in front of him, crossing my legs yoga style. I hope if I'm closer to his level, he'll be less afraid.
When I don't take the book he offers, he blinks again. "I'm sorry," he repeats, so soft now I'm not sure that's really what he said.
"The books are here for you to look at."
"I didn't mean to do it," he mumbles, reaching for a piece of paper lying half-tucked under the closest shelf. He shoves it in my direction, but keeps his head tucked against his chest.
I see it's a page out of the book, and shake my head, "You're upset because this page came loose?"
He nods as he stares at the floor, "I tore it when I was turning the pages." The eyes that finally rise to meet mine are guilt-ridden.
Letting out a relieved breath, I confide, "Sweetie, that page was already loose – it was about to fall out when I was reading earlier. I promise you, it's not your fault."
He looks up at me, blinking. "Honest?"
I nod, "Honest."
He looks down at the book he's still clutching, touching the cover illustration almost reverently.
"You're not mad?"
I shake my head, "I'm not mad at all. I appreciate that you told me, though. I'll make sure I tape the page in so it won't fall out the next time someone looks through it."
He looks up through his bangs, but doesn't say anything.
"I saw you listening during story time. I hoped I'd see you again, so that I could invite you to join us tomorrow, if you'd like to come."
"Mmm-hmm. More Robin Hood tomorrow. Would you like that?"
He nods without lifting his head.
I offer, "My name is Mrs. Hart – Megan Hart. What's your name?"
When he lifts his face this time, I study it more closely. He's tanned from being out in the sun, and he's got a little dirt smudged across one cheek. The sun-streaked blond hair looks like he's been the victim of an uneven home trim some time ago, with overgrown bangs spilling into his eyes.
He's studying me, too. Those remarkable blue-grey eyes assess me, and I find myself wondering what they find.
I grin a little, "How about just a first name?"
He seems to think about responding, but decides against it.
"Okay. We'll come back to names. Do you live near here?" I ask.
He nods his head again, but returns his eyes to the book.
"Who takes care of you?"
"My mom." He anticipates my next question, peering up at me from underneath his bangs, "She said I could come," he tells me, adding, "She said there'd be a lot of books here to look at, if I was careful with them."
"She's right," I answer, making a mental note to thank this child's mother for steering him toward the library. His eyes tell me he's still worried about the torn page. "And I'll tell her how careful you were so she'll let you come back. Okay?"
He nods, looking around at the stacks which surround us, eyeing the books hungrily. "I wish I could read all these books," he says, "But I don't know all the words."
"You'll learn," I promise, smiling.
"Really?" his eyes are eager, like I'm offering him a room full of candy.
I am inordinately pleased when he smiles shyly.
Encouraged, I lean toward him, "So, you never told me your name."
His smile disappears, as he ducks his head once more.
Not willing to give up, I tease, "I think I'll call you 'Little John'".
His eyes are suddenly fiery as he looks up and me and snaps, "I'm not little!"
Oops. "I didn't mean it like that. Little John was one of Robin Hood's bravest, strongest men. Besides, Little John was actually very big."
His voice is loaded with skepticism as he asks, "How big?"
"Want to see?"
I reach out, and take the book from his hands. He relinquishes it like I might relinquish the Hope diamond – more than a little reluctantly. I carefully turn to an illustration which shows Robin and Little John fighting with staffs over a stream.
"See them here, on the footbridge?" I say, turning the book so he can see it better and pointing to the page.
He seems to forget his shyness, overcome by curiosity. He crawls out of the corner, and squeezes up next to me. He sticks an index finger next to Little John, and looks up, his eyes asking me for confirmation.
"That's Little John, alright. See? He's almost twice as big as Robin Hood."
I look down at my nameless friend, and notice that he's skipped ahead to the next illustration, where Little John is sitting in the water, having been defeated by the smaller man.
"Sometimes being quick is better than being big," I point out.
"Yeah, but most times it's not," he counters flatly. "I'm going to be tall and super strong when I'm older. But I'm still going to be quick," he adds.
"How old are you now?"
Up close, his body seems too small for seven, I think.
His attention is back on the book. "How old is Little John?"
"How old do you think he is?"
"Old." He scrunches up his face, before he adds, "Maybe seventeen."
I try not to sputter as I realize that at thirty-one I must seem positively ancient to this child.
"Seventeen is 'old'?" I ask, intrigued as always by the relativity of age.
He nods, "Yeah. That's how old Julio is, and he's finished school and works at Volvano's Restaurant with my mom. He's really tall and he's got big muscles – no one messes with Julio, ever."
I raise my eyebrows, "So, you'll be tall, strong, and quick when you're seventeen?" I don't add in the part about 'so no one messes with you', even though I'm thinking that's an important piece of what the boy's saying.
He nods vigorously.
"I bet you're right," I say encouragingly, despite all evidence to the contrary. I probe a little further, "What else will you be when you grow up? What do you want to be?"
He bites his lip, thinking. He looks up at me from underneath long blond eyelashes as he says, "I guess probably a baseball player."
"You like baseball?"
"Yeah. I got two trophies in Tee Ball last year," he says, his voice more animated than before.
"Two trophies? That's amazing," I say, impressed. "What were they for?"
He squares his shoulders as he answers, "I got one for most hits on our team, and the other one was for being the best all around player. My brother even thought that one was cool, and he doesn't like tee-ball too much, 'cause he thinks it's not really baseball when you don't have pitchers. He says he's the reason I got Best All Around, and he's right. He taught me a lot more than the coaches did, 'cause the teams were only allowed to practice one hour a week, and Trey practiced with me almost every day."
The boy's reticence has vanished as he talks about a game he seems to love. I wish my husband Sam were here to ask good questions, but I take a stab, "What position do you play?"
He shrugs, "I can play wherever they need me, but I like infield most – it's got the most action. Some of the little kids can't even hit all the way out to the outfield, so if you're out there a lot of the time you don't get to field anything."
"Oh," I say, sure he's right.
His new excitement is unabated as he confides eagerly, "This year, I'm going to play in the minor league, where I don't have to hit off a stupid tee anymore."
"Is that right?" I'm pleased to think I at least know enough to know what a 'tee' is.
"Yeah. My brother says hitting off the tee's for babies, so he taught me to hit without it last fall. And guess what? I hit the ball nearly as far as he did last time we practiced, and he's almost eleven."
For the first time, I hear a hint of cockiness creep into his voice. Even at seven, he's got the self-assurance of an athlete who knows he's good at his chosen sport.
I look at him more closely, realizing that while he's small, he's built solidly. I'm guessing this kid can back up any claims of prowess with performance.
"So, maybe I should call you 'Ace'," I suggest.
He snorts, but then seems to reconsider. "That'd be okay, I guess."
"Although, I'd love to know your real name," I coax hopefully.
"Why?" He's staring up at me, challenging me to give him an answer he'll believe.
"Because I'm new here, and I'm looking for new friends. I'd like for us to be friends," I answer truthfully. His honesty about the book intrigues me, particularly given how frightened he seemed to be.
He sits up on his knees, facing me. His head ducks down, and I see his eyebrows knit together. When he looks up, he smiles shyly.
I feel like a small candle has been lit in our private little corner of the library. I watch the flame flicker softly, lighting the child's face and eyes from within.
"I'm new here, too," he admits. "We used to live in Fresno."
"Then we've got at least two things in common," I say.
He looks up at me, "We're both new… and what else? Did you live in Fresno, too?"
"No, I lived back east. I meant we both like books," I answer.
He blinks, and then slowly shakes his head in agreement.
Ducking his head once more, he looks up at me through his eyelashes.
"My name is Ryan," he offers softly, his eyes unfiltered.
I smile, grasping in that instant that he's offering far more than just his name. He's offering his trust.
I don't see him the next day until nearly the end of the story. He's not under a table, and I don't see him in the circle until Mrs. Rodriguez moves and I realize he's been hiding behind her sizable frame. He disappears while I'm chatting with the children and their parents, but before I can search through the stacks to see if he's hiding out there again, I have to return a call to our district supervisor.
As I'm hanging up the telephone, I see him standing in my office doorway.
I smile, pleased that he remembers my name. "Hi, Ryan. I'm so glad you came back today. I'm sorry I didn't get to meet your mom yesterday – I wanted to thank her for sending you our way."
He looks down at his feet, appearing uncomfortable, but he doesn't say anything.
I stand up, and move around to the front of my desk. "Maybe I'll get to see her today."
"She's here right now," he mumbles. "And she wants to talk to you, too."
He's skittish, backing up a little as I reach out a hand to touch him. Noting his reaction, I reach out instead with words, "I'm looking forward to meeting her."
He stares at me, moving uneasily from one foot to the other. I hear someone's raised voice outside my door, followed swiftly by a solidly built blond woman's appearance. Her hair is long and wavy, and she's dressed in denim and lace. She's frowning as she fills my doorframe.
"You Mrs. Hart?" she asks abruptly, her voice a little too loud.
I cross to meet her, "I'm Megan Hart," I clarify, noting Ryan's retreat to a position behind one of my two office chairs.
She takes the hand I offer, and shakes it firmly, her eyes sizing me up at she does. "I'm Dawn Atwood," she says, sounding frustrated. "I'm his mother," she adds, jerking her chin in her son's direction.
I point toward one of the chairs, "Won't you sit down, Mrs. Atwood?"
She shakes her head 'no', "I gotta' be at work in just a few minutes, so I don't have time. I just wanted to apologize for my kid, and let you know he won't be tearing up any more of your stuff." She turns to glare at Ryan as she says scathingly, "He knows exactly what'll happen if he does, right Ryan?"
He nods, his eyes wide and his body tense.
Suddenly quite uncomfortable with the direction of this conversation, I tender, "I don't know what you think happened, Mrs. Atwood, but I assure you that your son was perfectly well-behaved yesterday."
She scowls at Ryan, "I thought you said you told her about that book! You'd better not be lying to me!"
Ryan shrinks back, "I did, I swear." He looks desperately at me.
I try to diffuse the tension with the truth, "Mrs. Atwood, Ryan told me that a page fell out of a book while he was looking through it. I explained to him that the page was already torn – that he wasn't at fault in any way. As far as I'm concerned, Ryan saved it for us, and thanks to him it's been repaired."
She looks at me a little like the proverbial deer in the headlights, before shaking her head in acknowledgement of what I've just said. When she speaks, her voice has softened, "Oh. That's not what… Okay. Good."
She pauses, before asking a little hesitantly, "So then it's really okay with you if he comes back here?"
"Absolutely," I say enthusiastically. "I'm hoping we'll see a lot of Ryan."
She purses her lips as though she's trying to come to terms with what she's hearing, and then she smiles, moving toward her son and holding out her hand. I watch as Ryan steps out from behind the chair, hesitantly allowing her to pull him into a one-armed hug.
She beams a little, her voice taking on honeyed tones, "He's a really good kid, most of the time." She ruffles his hair, which brings a frown to the boy's face. "And he loves books, don't you Ry?"
"Um-hmm," he mumbles, looking embarrassed.
Mrs. Atwood glances at her watch, and her facial expression tells me she's running late. "Gotta' go," she says hastily, backing up toward the door. "Sorry if I seemed a little rough on Ryan, but if you knew my other son, you'd understand. I don't need another Trey on my hands."
Before I can say anything she waves at Ryan, "But you're the good one, right baby?"
Ryan grimaces, and bites his lip, but his mother doesn't seem to notice his discomfort.
She smiles one last time at me, "See you around, then," she tosses back as she disappears, leaving Ryan and I alone.
"So, I hope I will see a lot of you here," I say quietly, hoping the words will comfort him.
He bites his lip, "Really?"
I nod, "I need a helper. Someone to teach me about baseball, since I think a lot of the kids here play. And someone to talk about stories with. I was hoping I could count on you."
He stares at me beat, and then shrugs affably, "I'm a good helper."
I grin, "Okay then. So, first question -- did you like the story today?"
He frowns. "Mostly."
"Mostly?" I'm a little surprised. Most kids love Robin Hood.
His frown deepens, "I thought it was wrong to steal."
"It is wrong to steal," I agree, hastily pulling together arguments I think a seven year old will understand regarding Robin's actions.
"My dad stole money, and he's in prison." Ryan's eyes teem with conflicting emotions, and I'm at a loss as to how to separate them.
"I'm sorry," I say solemnly, wondering what else I should say.
He shakes his head, and says coldly, "I'm not." This time the loathing in his eyes trumps all other emotions.
"Do you want to talk about it?" I ask, wondering how far over my head I might be getting.
Ryan shakes his head 'no', but he's not finished. He steps closer as he asks pointedly, "Do you think Robin Hood stopped stealing once King Richard came back?"
I kneel down, eye level with Ryan. "I'm sure he stopped."
He pinches his lips together with one hand as he mulls that over, finally nodding, "Good."
Except that he still has questions. Lots of them.
We end up talking about Robin Hood for months. It's easy to forget Ryan's only seven as we hold discussions about the harsh life of the peasants, and the cruelty of Prince John. About how the poor had no one looking out for them. About tyranny and injustice. About possible justification for unlawful acts.
He tends to think about the bigger picture rather than confining his thoughts to what's in the story. He's none too happy that King Richard left his subjects unprotected in the first place. He says the people deserved a better king.
He doesn't speak of his father again – that subject seems firmly closed. However, he really surprises me when he brings up the Oklahoma bombing, and asks whether Timothy McVeigh's actions were justified. I don't know many seven year olds who watch the news, let alone make that kind of leap in logic.
Clearly, Ryan's not your ordinary child…
Reviews always appreciated…