"Stop touching it!"
The two boys sat around their Lego spaceship. The bigger kid grabbed the smaller kid's wrist and pulled him back. The smaller boy rolled his eyes, a trait he'd picked up rather precociously. "Jake, this ship is boring. Let me put some bigger wings on it."
Jake pouted. "No. This is the way the instruction book said it should-Hey"
He was cut off by a blonde girl stumbling into him. "Jake, move!" She barked, brandishing a stick she'd found on the playground.
"Be nice, Rachel," a girl said from behind her. She nursed a stuffed pig in her arms. Band-aids were pasted over its body; a Kleenex bandage was taped around its head. Jake smiled at her, pleased that someone would stand up for him against his cousin. Nobody could push Jake around except his cousin and his big brother.
"Hey, Rachel, where'd you get the stick?" The small kid asked, all the while trying to sneak some Lego pieces onto the ship behind his friend's back.
"None of your beeswax, shrimp," Rachel said, turning the stick over and over in her hands and grinning mischievously. Jake suspected that she was considering smacking the small kid – Marco – with it.
"You're not supposed to bring sticks inside, Rachel," the girl with the pig sniffed. Jake nodded enthusiastically, not sure if he was doing so to convince his cousin not to hit his friend with it, or because he wanted the other girl to see he agreed with her.
Rachel sighed heavily, put her hands on her hips and glared at her friend. "Cassie, I thought you liked nature."
"I do. We just should play with nature outside instead of in here. We might break the spaceship or something."
"I don't see what's wrong with that," Rachel shrugged.
"Hey!" Jake yelled. "We worked twenty whole minutes on this ship!"
"Thirty minutes," Marco corrected.
Cassie stared evenly at all of them. "Look, I'll put Pigglette away in my cupboard and then we can all play outside, alright? We can bring our lunches. It'll be like a picnic."
"Sounds good," Jake said before the other two could protest.
Rachel shrugged again, probably just excited to go find more sticks to hit people with. Marco quickly added some last adjustments to the ship and followed Jake. He'd follow Jake anywhere, so it was probably fortunate that Jake thought the yard in the daycare was an adventurous spot.
The daycare yard was spacious and well-kept. A bored teenager reclined in a sun-chair, peering at the kids occasionally over her magazine. A few plastic play-sets were being occupied, so the four kids found themselves drawn to a small patch of bushes and trees in the back.
"Besides," Rachel added, "this is where all the best sticks are. Rocks, too".
"We should make a fort or something," Jake said, noting that Marco was picking up a dirty tennis ball from the ground and eyeing Rachel as if he were going to throw it at her.
Cassie sat straight down in the mud, oblivious to the mess it made, and started arranging twigs for the base of the fort. Marco started gathering rocks by making a sling of the front of his t-shirt, though he kept the dirty tennis ball. Rachel and Jake both waded into the bushes, looking to uproot some bigger branches for some structural integrity.
Jake started at the sound that came from right next to him. Upon closer inspection, he saw that a skinny blonde kid was hiding in the bush. The bustle had caused some of the pokier parts of the bush to jab into the kid.
"Oh, hey, sorry. What're you doing in a bush?"
The blonde kid extricated himself from the bush. He was covered in superficial scratches and dirt, but he seemed loathe to leave his hiding place. He looked around a bit nervously. "It's my cave. I was playing caveman."
"How do you play caveman without dinosaurs?" Rachel asked.
"I forgot my dinosaur toys at home. I usually have them all here. Besides, dinosaurs weren't around when cavemen were," the blonde kid said. Still, Jake could see that there were drawing of dinosaurs in the mud surrounding the bush.
"They are in the Flintstones," Marco interjected.
"That's stupid," the blonde kid said. "My uncle doesn't let me watch cartoons anyway, though."
"I can only watch them after dinner," Jake said sagely. "What's your name?"
"That's a funny name," Rachel said, but her attention had already wandered back to sticks. One of them had thorns! She grinned wickedly to herself.
"Wanna build a fort with us, Tobias?" Cassie asked.
"I guess, since I can't play caveman anymore," he said somewhat sullenly, but secretly he seemed glad that these new kids weren't trying to take his toys or make fun of him.
"Maybe we should build a bunker instead of a fort," Jake said excitedly, thinking that they could play army.
"No way. We should make it the Enterprise," Marco said. His father watched Star Trek a lot on the television and Marco always thought space battles were much more fun than the stupid Revolutionary War stuff Jake was into.
Tobias looked excited too. He knew about Star Trek too. He had something in common with these kids.
"Guys, a spaceship will be way too hard," Cassie sighed. "And I hate space games."
But the boys had already started arranging sticks into a crude octagon. "Just use your imagination and pretend it's a real ship," Tobias said.
"And pretend we're saving space animals or something," Rachel added, just as eager to play space games. She'd found several large branches. Jake and Marco would want to use them to make the body of the ship but she knew their true purpose: awesome guns.
For a solid hour the kids toiled on their spaceship, making a loving if completely inaccurate copy of the famed Star Trek vessel. Unanimously, they voted Jake to be Picard. They squabbled over the others, eventually deciding on Rachel to be Uhura, Tobias as Spock, Cassie as the doctor and Marco as "the guy from Reading Rainbow". Following their completion of the ship, Cassie declared it would be a good time to sit down and eat their lunches.
"I don't have my lunch," Tobias said softly.
"Well, go inside and get it," Rachel said back.
"No, I don't have a lunch. My uncle didn't pack one." Tobias' face turned a bit red. He hated admitting these sorts of things to other kids.
The kids stared quietly, a bit disbelieving. Surely all children were supposed to have lunches.
"You're just trying to get us to give you our lunches," Marco said suspiciously, but Tobias just shook his head and looked away.
"If you don't have a lunch, when do you eat?" Rachel asked.
"There's usually snacks at Latchkey. And I get school lunch during the school year."
"You're a Latchkey kid?"
Tobias didn't say anything to that. He picked apart a leaf in his hands. He didn't look at anyone else for the long, uncomfortable silence.
Finally, Rachel said "sometimes my parents work late and I have to do Latchkey. Maybe we can play together next time I'm there."
"Yeah," Cassie said brightly, "I wanna be a Latchkey kid. When I go home I have to do chores."
"Hey, guys, if we all give Tobias a part of our lunch he can have a whole meal." Jake rifled through his Superman lunchbox and pulled out half of his sandwich, handing it over to Tobias.
"Good idea." Cassie handed Tobias some fancy healthy corn chips. It was no secret she was always trying to trade her mom's health chips for chips that tasted good, but giving them away was the next best thing. Besides, Tobias looked hungry, and he could probably use some healthy food.
Rachel pitched in her pretzels. Marco declared that there was no way Tobias was getting his Oreos, but relinquished some baby carrots and a juice box.
"Gee, um…thanks, guys," Tobias said, both surprised and grateful. He couldn't remember the last time he'd had a full meal for lunch, and even when his uncle did remember to pack him something, it never included juice, chips and pretzels.
For a while they ate, chattering occasionally about Star Trek while Cassie pretended to be interested. Nobody's parents would be around to pick them up until three o'clock, probably. They had all the time in the world.
Jake noticed Tobias looking nervously over one shoulder. "What are you worried about?"
Marco answered for Tobias. "It's that stupid kid Drake. He probably picks on him."
Before Tobias had a chance to flush with the shame of being a bully magnet, Marco continued, "don't worry about him today. He only goes after people when they're alone. You're safe with us."
"I didn't know he picked on people." Jake looked confused.
"That's 'cuz no one picks on us Berensons." Rachel grinned. It was true. "We gotta protect everyone else."
"We don't need protecting," Marco whined, but Tobias didn't mind the idea. Rachel, with her assortment of big sticks and mischievous grins, probably could fend off Drake, or anyone else, any day. It was a comforting thought.
Deep down Tobias knew that these kids would probably never play with him again. It had just been an accident that they'd all happened to be playing near the bushes. Dumb luck that they'd invited him to play instead of pushing him around and messing up his drawings. It didn't even seem like they knew each other all that well – Rachel and Jake were related, somehow, but it seemed like Cassie and Marco didn't know each other at all.
And none of them knew him, Tobias. They'd probably forget his name the next day.
"You gonna eat that sandwich?"
Tobias snapped back to reality.
"I said, can I have your sandwich?" Marco asked, completely unashamed in mooching off of the kid who formerly had had no lunch.
"No you can't!" Rachel yelled. "Tobias is gonna save that sandwich for tomorrow if he doesn't eat it today."
"Well, you could give me your sandwich," Marco shot back, but before it could escalate Jake tossed a yogurt at his friend.
Marco drank the yogurt straight from the container. Rachel looked disgusted. Cassie was fixated on a caterpillar walking over her knuckles.
"Eat fast, you guys, I wanna get back to playing." Jake carefully packed up all his trash into his lunchbox. Acting as if Jake had given an order, they did.
Oh well, Tobias thought. He could at least enjoy today. For the moment, a full stomach, no bullies and someone to talk about Star Trek with wasn't any reason to be sad. Besides, Spock had a job to do.