You actually noticed the redheaded boy who stood silent and motionless on the edge of the park, obscured by the branches of the fiery orange vine maple. None of your friends did, and you almost pointed him out to them. But you didn't. Your reasons were actually kind of dumb, in retrospect: you wondered if he might not be real. He seemed a little bit too perfect.
His clothes fit just right – the way clothing looks on mannequins in the store, but never seem to hang on actual people. His skin was pale and almost lustrous in the evening's dying light, and he had wide golden eyes.
But they were so full of hurt that you felt a pang in your chest just looking at him.
No, you finally decided, he has to be real. If he were a figment of your imagination, he wouldn't look so incredibly sad.
You still didn't call attention to him, though. The moment you were witnessing in his life seemed a little too intimate to share with anyone. The depth of emotion he was showing was something that should have been kept private. Of course, you couldn't bring yourself to look away, but it seemed cruel to invite anyone else to watch. He wasn't an exhibit in a freakshow, after all.
Immediately you wondered what he could be watching that would hurt him so badly. All you could see were picnics and games of Frisbee between high school students and families with kids. Finally, you decided that the boy had to be watching one of those families.
You figured out which one, but his expression still didn't make sense. It wasn't like the family in question was unhappy. On the contrary, in fact. They looked like they were having a wonderful time. You were actually a little bit jealous of them, though you didn't want to admit it.
The man was the first one you noticed, of course. He had shoulder-length black hair and a deep complexion. He looked a lot like one of the reservation boys that you always saw hanging out at First Beach, but older – maybe mid-twenties, or so – and a good bit handsomer. His eyes were shiny and full of laughter as he picked up a stuffed bear that had been dropped on the grass.
His wife was there, too. Or you just assumed they were married, because the toddler that ran back and forth between them was obviously their daughter.
Still perplexed by the sadness of the boy behind the tree, you decide to listen to the family's conversation.
"Jacob, if you keep picking up her toys she'll never learn to get them for herself, and she'll leave them all over the place," the mother scolded gently, tossing her long brown ponytail over her shoulder.
"What if I wanted to play with it?" the man – Jacob – demanded, sticking out his tongue. His wife simply rolled her eyes, but the little girl giggled and raced over to her dad.
"It's mine!" she exclaimed, jumping up and down and trying to reach it. Jacob, still laughing, held the toy just out of the reach of her chubby little arms. When her expression finally changed from glee to frustration, he picked her up and handed her the toy.
"I'm sorry, Sarah," he said, kissing her on the forehead. "That wasn't very nice of Daddy."
Sarah shook her head, still looking a little sulky.
"But I bet getting tickled would turn that frown upside down!"
The little girl squirmed and squealed as her daddy tickled her neck, burying her face in his shoulder.
"Mama! Mama, make him stop tickling me!" Sarah squealed, still laughing.
"Okay, okay," the woman finally agreed, walking over and accepting her daughter as Jacob passed her over.
You noticed that the girl looked like her mother, too, when you saw them so close together. They had the same smile, and possibly the same nose. Even if Sarah had her dad's silky black hair and charcoal-colored eyes, she was going to grow up to be her mother's daughter. You could already tell.
It was a sweet scene, no doubt about it.
But the boy beneath the tree was unmoved. His expression was as painfully stoic as ever, and you hadn't seem him blink yet. That seemed uncanny, after all the time you'd spent watching him. You wondered lamely if he was so focused on the family that he had just forgotten. As closely as he was following their actions, it didn't seem so impossible.
"We need to go home and eat supper soon," the wife said, bouncing Sarah on her hip. "It's been a long day."
"No doubt," Jacob agreed. "Hey, Bella – what's for dinner?"
Oh. So the woman's name was Bella. It sounded kind of familiar, but it's not like it was terribly uncommon. Out of the corner of your eye, you thought you saw the boy under the tree flinch.
What was up with him?
Bella was oblivious, fortunately.
"I actually thought we might get takeout," she admitted. "I haven't gotten to the grocery store yet this week."
"No problem," Jacob replied, his expression totally open as he turned to his daughter. "Did you hear that, Sarah? You get lo mein!"
Sarah's eyes lit up. Clearly this was a favorite.
"I'm glad nobody's too disappointed not to have a home-cooked meal," Bella said, chuckling.
"Of course not," Jacob said. "You shouldn't have to cook every night, hon, even if you're a pro."
"You're sweet," Bella replied. Jacob leaned in for a kiss.
It was fortunate that you chose that moment to look away from the family and back to the boy who was watching them, because if you had waited a second longer, the boy might have been gone already. It was clear that he had had enough of whatever was hurting him so much. You saw shake his head and sigh before picking up a hat on the ground beside him. He jammed it on and walked quickly down the sidewalk, staring at the ground all the way.
Shocking you, he stopped suddenly and in plain sight of both you and the family he had been watching. Digging down in his pocket, he pulled something out and conspicuously dropped it into the grass – acting almost as though he wanted someone to notice so that they could come and pick it up. How bizarre.
It looked like his wish was going to be granted, too, because Jacob watched, wide-eyed, as the boy quickly turned and walked away, obviously having completed the task he came to do.
Sarah's shoe had come untied, so Bella missed the whole thing. She only looked up in time to see Jacob blink and return to reality.
"Something wrong, baby?" Bella asked.
"No, it's fine," her husband replied, shaking his head. "Just spaced out a little – that's all. Hey, do you have the number for the Chinese place on the corner near us?"
"Actually, I think I do. It's on my cell phone, though, which is in the car. Want to head on out?"
Jacob took a turn carrying Sarah, and the three of them casually walked off in the direction of the parking lot. You kept waiting for Jacob to take a detour and walk the family past where the red-haired boy had dropped whatever it was that he had dropped, but it seemed like Jacob intentionally led them in the other direction.
"Hey, guys – " you start, noticing that your friends are surprised to see you finally speak up. It had been awhile that you had been watching the drama with the mysterious boy and family. "I'm going to go check something out. Be right back, okay?"
You hear some assorted answers in the affirmative, so you walk over to where the boy had been standing. You look around surreptitiously, but nobody's watching, so you bend down. Sure enough, your hand closes around something small and cold. Examining it in the light of a streetlamp, you're completely clueless as to what it has to do with anything you just watched happen.
It looks like a charm from an antique charm bracelet. You almost wondered if it was a diamond, but that was silly. Nobody went around dropping diamonds in the grass at Olympic National Park. It was pretty, though – a clear, crystalline stone cut in the shape of a heart.
You knew it had been meant for the mother, but it probably wasn't ever going to reach its destination.
Astonishing yourself, you walk over to the tree where the boy had been standing. With a bizarre sort of reverence, you bend down and pull up a handful of dirt. You place the little heart where it had been, and close the earth again overtop of it. If the stone wasn't going to the person for whom it had been intended, this seemed like an apt resting place.
You remained deep in thought as you walked back to the blanket where your friends sat. You got a couple of odd looks, but nobody said anything.
You had been acting oddly that night, anyway.