Magnificent Seven

Little Girl Lost

The little girl sat among the tree roots of the ancient oak watching the people move back and forth along the path. She did not speak and no one stopped to find out why such a young child was out by themselves. Her attention was caught by movement beside her. She turned her head to see that a young man had settled himself up against the tree trunk a little distance away from her. Light brown hair fell nearly to his shoulders and framed a thin, tanned face with world weary blue eyes.

He didn't say anything. Didn't even look over at her. But she felt herself relaxing in his presence. He didn't 'feel' like a predator, something she'd learned to discern a long time ago. He had a brown paper sack beside him which he opened. She was surprised at the quantity of food within. Two bags of chips, two bags of cookies, and two fruit juices – all obviously from a snack machine – were laid out on the empty bag that lay between them. The last ziplock contained a sandwich. He took half, placing the other, still in the ziplock, on the bag. Still not looking directly at her, he began eating his half of the sandwich.

After a brief hesitation, she took the other half.

They finished their shared lunch together, sitting silently, just people watching. Her attention was caught by a bird flying by and when she turned her head back, he was gone.

This occurred over the following four days. She sitting at the tree. The man appearing. Sharing lunch. Then him disappearing. Neither spoke to the other, they just enjoyed each other's company.

"Plannin' on goin' home soon, little one?"

She was startled, but his gentle tones soothed her. She shook her head.

"Why not?" No recriminations, just honest curiosity.

She pulled her knees up, wrapping her arms loosely around her legs. "Mama's real mad at me. I done broke somethin' precious to her." She studied her knees rather than see the anger she was sure was in his eyes.

"Did you mean to?"

She took a deep breath, nodding her head.

"Why?" Again, just curiosity in his voice.

She hitched in a breath. "Cause she was payin' more attention ta the new baby than ta me. And it ain't even ours! It belongs to my aunt!" The aggrieved tones rang through the air. "Just because Aunt Jessica cain't take care a' him – why does my mama have to?"

The man was silent a bit and the girl was sure she'd made him mad, too. But he didn't leave. "Sounds ta me like yer mama thinks family's real important. Don't ya think?"

She blinked, her gaze flikering over at him. He was sitting up against the tree, the empty sack wadded in his hands, staring up at the leaves. "I ... I guess so. Mama said the little fella didn't have no other place ta go so we was olligated ta watch him till his mama gets better. She fell silent, picking at the hem of her skirt, pulling the threads apart.

"Bet yer ma misses you somethin' fierce. An' I bet yer cousin would love ta play with ya."

She glanced up through light brown bangs – blue eyes assessing him. "Ya think?"

He nodded meeting her gaze.

She relaxed, dripping her arms, sitting Indian style. "Ma must be awfully mad." She drew in the dirt with a finger, undecided. She couldn't stand having her mother angry at her. On the other hand, she wanted to go home.

"Ah, baby girl. She forgave you long ago." There was a catch to his voice, but being only seven, she didn't understand.

"I wanna go home," the longing was clear.

A brilliant, bitter-sweet smile crossed his face, warming her. "Sounds good, baby girl." He swiped at his eyes, clearing them from the tears that filled them.

He was alone and he felt a knot of tension he hadn't been aware of loosen and disappear. He gathered the remains of his lunch and rose. Dusting off his jeans, he took a deep cleansing breath. "Rest in peace, baby girl." He kissed his fingers and brushed the tips against the oak's trunk. "See ya soon."

He turned and walked away.