A Little Child Will Lead Them
Disclaimer: Scarecrow and Mrs. King is the property of Warner Brothers and Shoot-the-Moon Productions. I make no money from the story and no copyright infringement is intended.
Credits: Short quotations from: Remembrances of Things Past, We're Off to See the Wizard, Unfinished Business, Rumors of My Death, Santa's Got a Brand New Bag, Matter of Choice,
Timeframe: Post Season Four: September 1991 - with flashbacks to September 1987
Summary: The Stetson-King family members are irrevocably torn asunder until a small miracle offers them a way back to each other, if they are willing to take it.
Authors Notes: Thanks to the talented Vikki who guided me through the writing process in 2004. The story was originally posted on another site.
September 22, 1991 - Outer Banks of North Carolina
Labor Day was a distant memory and so was the crowd of tourists who'd reveled in summer's last hurrah. In one mass exodus, the vacationers had left the seashore mecca and reluctantly returned to the daily grind of school and work.
Now a state of calm welcomed the most recent visitors to the barrier islands, gifting them with stunning azure skies, puffy white cloulds, and the sparkling emerald ocean. Sea oats grass waved in greeting from the high dunes, and pristine sand spread like plush carpet along the shoreline, tempting bare toes to delight in its soft texture.
A hint of autumn chilled the air, and unseasonably cool breezes rippled across the surf and sand of North Carolina's Outer Banks. At high noon, most folks left the water's edge and headed indoors for lunch. The tranquil beach was nearly deserted, save for a small boy, a few walkers, and a lone sunbather relaxing lazily on a blanket.
Despite the absence of sun worshippers, boogie boarders, and shell seekers, the little boy was content with his inventive play. The towheaded tyke crouched low in the sand as he inched toward a large, gray-feathered bird. Very carefully, the child stretched out his sticky fingers in hopes of touching the wings of the white-breasted seagull.
With his small left hand, he offered a chunk of bread, trying to tempt the elusive bird to come nearer. Keeping an eye on the squawking flock overhead, he maneuvered forward in his childlike version of a duck waddle. Closer and closer, the boy moved, until he felt the prey snatch the proffered bread from his hand. Instantly, he found himself surrounded by the descending beggars of the beach, the would-be benefactors of another tourist feeding.
Soon the child tired of the dizzy dance with the seagulls. Popping the last of his peanut-butter sandwich into his mouth, the boy grabbed a bright red bucket. Then he began his careful selection of stones and shells that lay unceremoniously dumped on the water's edge by the incoming tide.
With the onslaught of the surf swirling over his bare feet, he switched his attention to the wet sand squishing between his toes. Dumping out his bounty, the imaginative boy turned his versatile bucket into a soldier's helmet. He marched with precision in goosestep style, halting his parade long enough to study the footprints he made in the sand.
"Bil-ly." The mature female voice strained to be heard over the pounding surf. Maude Mayfield leaned over the deck railing and firmly addressed her charge. "If you can't stay away from the water, you'll have to come up here with me."
"Okay." The disappointed child obediently moved away from the shoreline and searched for new attractions on the beach. The bucket was quickly abandoned as the youngster spied sandpipers making fast tracks toward the lone sunbather. Stopping only long enough to jump over the slimy mass of a large jelly fish, Billy followed the birds' imprints to the blanket of a snoozing man. Gazing at the long form of the stranger, the child pondered the wisdom of disturbing, what looked to be, a sleeping giant.
Matt Hamilton lay prone on the blanket, resting his head on one long arm. By all appearances, he was down for the count. However, his fine-tuned senses were totally aware of the encroaching visitor. With eyes shaded by sunglasses, he watched as the kid crept closer. Then with a quick hand, the miniature intruder masterfully snatched the binoculars, resting on his blanket.
Biting back a protest, Matt waited to see what would happen next.
The little boy ran a sandy finger over the black surface of the field glasses. Nervously, the child inspected the treasure and then cautiously returned the binoculars to the proper resting place. Stepping away by a few yards, he sat down and began to pile sand over his legs and feet.
Great, now what? Was the kid waiting for him to wake up? Maybe if he went back to sleep, the little prowler would give up and go away.
Lulled to sleep by the steady rhythm of the waves, Matt dozed intermittently. It was so hard to just let everything go and relax with the sounds of nature. As part of security for the Outer Banks beach communities, he'd been pushed to the limit by the hectic summer season.
Six days a week, from Duck to Kill Devil Hills to Kitty Hawk to Nags' Head, he dealt with whatever the barrier islands threw in his path. If it wasn't a drowning, or a shark sighting, it was illegal fireworks, drunken college students, or even an occasional drug bust. While not exactly the danger, excitement, and intrigue of international terrorism or warring super powers, the job kept him busy and exorcised the demons from his past.
Feeling the tug of consciousness, Matt rolled his long frame over and ran a hand across the two-day growth of stubble on his chin. Opening his eyes to the glare of the sun, he was startled to see the still figure of the child staring down at him. Obviously, he hadn't gone away.
"Hi, mister." The sweet childish voice was barely audible above the noise of the surf.
"Hi, yourself," Matt muttered, wondering why the child was once again invading his solitary space.
"My name's Billy." Shyly, the boy took a step closer and pointed at the binoculars. "Are those yours?"
"Ah, yeah." Matt hesitated before resigning himself to unwanted company. It wasn't like he had anything else to do. Smiling at the hopeful face, he held out the coveted prize. "Would you like to hold them?"
Billy brightened immediately. Reaching for the offering, he pulled the strap over his head and peered through the wrong end.
"Here, kid, let me show you." The reluctant playmate sat up and reached out a big hand to reclaim his binoculars. Before he could get his fingers around them, the little boy lunged forward. Then, with sandy feet and a damp bathing suit, he landed squarely on Matt's lap.
"Hey." Valiantly, the astonished sunbather swallowed the expletives that normally flowed from his lips. Grabbing the child's thin frame, he stood up and placed the inquisitive nuisance in the sand. Silently reminding himself to be patient, Matt felt his annoyance subside as he knelt behind the little boy and guided the binoculars into position on the small face.
"Wow," the child squealed in delight. Scanning the sights along the beach, Billy leaned back against Matt's bare chest and placed his fingers on the long legs that flanked his small body.
Warming up to his tiny companion, Matt entertained his guest with the wonders of nature. Soon they were playing "I spy", focusing on the fishing pier, a school of dolphins, and even a ship far out at sea.
"Bil-ly." The beckoning neighbor interrupted their game. Maude Mayfield waved an arm as she made the trek from the "Ocean Watch Retreat" beachfront house. Widowed for eight years, the determined proprietor had practically run the place solo, long after most people her age would have retired.
"What am I going to do with you, child? You shouldn't bother Mr. Hamilton." Maude smiled as she slowly moved toward the duo. "William Lee, you need to apologize."
Matt's head snapped up at the child's familiar name, but he quickly shook off the reminder from his past and rose to greet his neighbor. "Hi, Maude, I take it you know this guy."
Billy ducked behind his buddy's long legs and belted out an apology for the caregiver. "I'm sorry."
"I'm sorry, too, Matt," Maude added. "I should keep a tighter rein on the boy. I know you need your privacy after a long hard summer."
"He's fine, Maude." Prying the sticky hands from his leg, Matt eased Billy to his side and braced the child against his muscular thigh. Cupping the little blond head with his large hand, he rubbed the short-cropped golden hair that seemed to stick out in all directions.
"So, Matthew, how was your summer on the Outer Banks? You obviously survived the dangerous duty of babysitting the summer tourists. Will you be hunkering down for a second desolate winter in the Harrington Seaside Cottage?"
"Yeah, I rented it again. Someone has to stay on and provide security for all the prime beach properties during the winter. It certainly beats my cramped, summer apartment."
"Pretty lonely lifestyle, Matt. Most of us will abandon you in a few weeks. I'm heading back to Charlotte to stay with my son's family for the winter. You should return to family or friends, too."
"Hey, what can I say? I'm a loner, and loners like to be alone." He looked away to hide the sadness that tugged at his features. Faint images of beloved faces paraded through his thoughts. With a sigh, he turned back just in time to catch the worry in Maude's eyes.
She offered a weak smile and reached for the hand of her little charge. "William, say thank you to Mr. Hamilton."
The child looked up, happiness plainly etched on his face. "Thanks, mister. I sure like playing with you."
"You're welcome, Billy. Come again, okay?" Matt patted the child's sandy back and smiled at the dimpled grin on the boy's face. Turning toward Maude, he asked the obvious question. "So, is this your grandson?"
"No, but I wish he was mine. He's a great little boy, even when he's running me ragged." She smiled at Billy, before continuing. "I'm watching him for a friend. There was a death in the family, so his mother had to travel to Washington, D.C."
"Daddy Joe passed out," Billy piped up as he hopped on one foot.
"That's passed on, dear," Maude corrected.
Matt felt a familiar pain rip through his torso. "Billy's father died?" he asked in a whisper. "The poor little guy . . . ."
Maude shook her head and kept her voice low. "Well, not his real father, but he's gone, too. It's a long, complicated story." Watching Billy fidgeting beside her, Maude changed the subject. "Matt, why don't you come to dinner tonight. All my guests and summer help are gone, so it will be just the three of us. Is six-thirty, okay?"
"Thanks, I'd like that, Maude." Matt smiled and called out to Billy. "See you later, pal."
Matt shook his head and chuckled when the boy stumbled backward, trying to wave and walk at the same time. "Poor Billy," he mumbled to himself. "The kid's all arms and legs, just like I was at that age."
To Be Continued: