“ ’Cuz I’m a crybaby.”
“You are no crybaby, Bobby. You’re a very brave boy.”
“Tell me what happened.”
“We were makin’ Christmas ornaments out of cotton balls and Life Savers. I said I din’t want to make one, and Arnie asked why, and I said ’cuz the ornaments were stupid and he said I was stupid and I said I wasn’t. Then he socked me.”
I want to say, Arnie’s an ass, but I hold back. “Why didn’t you want to make an ornament?”
“ ’Cuz we aren’t gonna have a tree.” His voice catches. He glances at the door his father just slammed. “My mom would never forget Christmas.”
I know I should keep my mouth shut, but when I look down at this bruised little boy, I am drawn by some force that can’t be denied. “You never know, Bobby. Christmas is full of magic.”
For the remainder of the afternoon, Bobby and I play board games and watch Winnie-the-Pooh movies. All the while I can hear Daniel working upstairs—hammering, sanding, walking from room to room.
I tell myself to stay out of their business, but the admonition has a hollow, empty sound.
These two need help, and it’s Christmas. I may have lost my own holiday spirit, but I can’t watch a little boy lose his. Besides, this is my first real adventure. What kind of adventurer ignores the needs of others?
“Let’s play again,” Bobby says, reaching for his game piece.
I laugh. Three rounds of Candy Land are all any adult can reasonably be expected to survive, though, with Bobby drawing my cards and moving my game pieces, I must admit that I’ve hardly been paying attention. “No way. How about we do something else?”
“I know!” He pops to his feet and runs upstairs; moments later he’s back, holding a mason jar full of rocks. “It’s my collection.” He flops down on the floor and dumps out the jar. Dozens of stones splatter out. Several arrowheads are mixed in with the pretty stones. Bits of beach glass add color to the pile.
I kneel beside him. “Wow.”
He picks them up one by one; each piece has a story. There are agates, beach rocks, and arrowheads. His voice runs fast, like a weed eater in summer as he talks. Mommy found this one by the river. This one was at the beach, hidden underneath a log. I found this one all by myself. When he’s finished, he sits back on his heels. “She always said she’d find me a white arrowhead.”
I hear the drop in his voice, the way grief sidles in beside him. “Your mom?”
“Yeah. She said we’d find it together.”
To change the subject, I say, “What’s that nickel doing in the jar?”
He barely looks at it. “Nothing.”
There’s definitely something in his nothing. “Really? No reason at all? Because those are your special things.”
He reaches for a perfectly ordinary nickel. “Daddy gave me this when we were at the county fair. He bought me a snowcone and let me keep the change.”
“And that blue button?”
It’s a moment before Bobby answers, and when he does speak, his voice is soft. “That’s from Daddy’s work shirt. It came off when we were playin’ helicopter. I . . .” He throws the nickel in the jar, then scoops everything back in. The arrowheads and rocks rattle and clang against the glass.
I smooth the hair from his forehead, but he is so intent on the nickel that he seems not to have noticed my touch. He looks as bruised on the inside right now as he is on the outside, and the sight of this poor kid, looking so lost, tears at my heart.
“How about if I read you a story?”
A smile breaks across his face. “Really?”
“Really. I don’t suppose you have Professor Wormbog and the Search for the Zipperumpa-Zoo?”
“No, but I got one my mom always read to me.”
I hear the tiny upward lilt in his voice, the single note of hope, and it makes me smile. “Go get it. And if you have a Dr. Seuss, get that, too.”
Bobby runs upstairs. I hear his hurried footsteps overhead, the banging of doors.
In moments he is back, clattering down the stairs, clutching a pair of books. “I found ’em,” he yells triumphantly, as if they were big game animals he’d bagged.
I sit down on the sofa and he curls up next to me, handing me a lovely blue book that is the Disney movie version of Beauty and the Beast.
I take it gently, open it between us, and begin to read aloud. “Once upon a time, in a faraway land, there was a magical kingdom where just about everything was perfect . . .”
The words take us to a place where plates and candelabras can be a boy’s best friend and a beast can become a prince. I lose myself in the words, and find myself. In the past years, as my job became more and more about computers and technology and Internet searches, I’d forgotten why I started. The love of books, of reading. There’s nothing a librarian likes better than sharing her love of words with a child. When I close the book, Bobby is beaming up at me. “Again!” he says, bouncing in his seat.
I put down Beauty and the Beast and pick up the bright orange Dr. Seuss. “Now it’s your turn.”
His face closes tighter than a submarine hatch. “I don’t read.”
“Come on.” I open the book, point to the first sentence, and read: “I am Sam.” Then I wait.
When the quiet stretches out too long, Bobby looks up at me. “What?”
“I’m waiting. It’s your turn to read.”
“Are you deaf? I can’t read.”
I frown. “How about just the first word?”
He glares at me, his chin jutted out. “No.”
“Try. Just the first word.”
I can feel his surrender. He goes limp beside me and sighs.
He stares down at the book, frowning, then says, “I. But that’s just a letter. Big deal.”
“It’s also a word.”
This time when he turns to me he looks scared. “I can’t.” His voice is a whisper. “Arnie says I’m stupid.”
“You can. Don’t be afraid. I’ll help.” I smile gently. “And you know what I think of Arnie.”
Slowly, he tries to sound out the next word. When he stumbles, I offer a tiny bit of help and a heap of encouragement.
“S . . . A . . . M.” Bobby frowns up at me. “Sam?”
“You read the whole page.”
“It’s a baby book,” he says, but a smile plucks at his mouth.
“Babies can’t read I Am Sam. Only big boys can do that.” I turn the page.
By the time we get to Green Eggs and Ham? Bobby has stopped frowning. It takes a long time, but he finally sounds out the entire story, and when he finishes, he is laughing. “I read the whole book.”
“You did really well,” I say. Gently, I add, “Maybe you could read with your dad.”
“No. I heard him tell my teacher that I needed a too-tor. That’s something for dumb kids.”
“A tutor is not something for dumb kids. I tutor kids in the library all the time.”
Before I can answer, I hear footsteps coming down the stairs. Bobby and I both look up.
“Come on, boyo,” Daniel says tiredly. “Let’s go get some dinner in town.”
“C’n Joy come?”
The curtness of Daniel’s answer hurts my feelings—as ridiculous as that is—until I see his face. The question has wounded him. He is jealous of me—of Bobby choosing to be with me. I know a thing or two about jealousy, how it can cut you to the bone and bring out the worst in you. I also know that it is grounded in love.
“Talk to him,” I whisper; the irony of my advice doesn’t escape me. Apparently a woman running away from a conversation with her sister has no problem telling others to talk.
“Come on, Bobby. They run out of meatloaf early on weekends. And it’s your favorite.”
Bobby gets up. His shoulders droop sadly as he walks away from me. “No, it isn’t. I like pizza.”
Daniel winces. His voice tightens. “Let’s go.”
After they’re gone, I sit on the sofa, listening to the dying fire. Rain hammers the roof and falls in silver beads down the windows, blurring the outside world. It is fitting, that obscurity, for right now, what I care about is in this lodge.
I have to do something to help Bobby and Daniel.
That night, I have trouble sleeping again. There are too many things on my mind. Sleep comes and goes; too often I am plagued by nightmare images of my sister and Thom, of the wedding invitation she handed me, of the plane crash.
But when dawn finally comes to my small, small room and taps on the window, I have only one worry left. The others I have let go.
This is a problem I can solve, unlike the issues in my own life. Here and now, I can do something that will make a difference in someone’s life, and perhaps that—the simple act of helping someone else—will help me in my own.
After a quick shower, I redress in my “new” clothes and head for the lobby.
As I suspected, Daniel is outside already. I can see him on his tractor, clearing the area down by the lake. Already, I know him well enough to know that he will work most of the day. Now is the time.
Running upstairs, I go straight to Bobby’s room and find him still in bed. “Bobby? Wake up.”
“I have a plan.”
He rubs his eyes. “What for?”
“A secret mission.”
He sits up. “Like we’re spies?”
“Exactly like that.”
He throws back the covers and climbs out of bed. In his Spiderman jammies and clotted hair, he looks incredibly young.
“Downstairs,” I say, checking my watch. “It’s 9:07. You have five minutes or you’ll miss the mission. Don’t forget to brush your teeth.”
I’m smiling, too, as I head for the door. Four minutes later, he comes barreling downstairs like a Saint Bernard puppy, all feet and exuberance.
“Did I make it?”
“Right on time. Now, Agent 001, we need to be quiet and careful.”
He nods solemnly.
I lead him outside. We move cautiously, not wanting to be seen. Not that it matters. Daniel is deep in the trees now, out of our view.
We go to the spot where Daniel was working yesterday. There, at least a dozen young fir trees lay on their sides, waiting to be chopped into firewood. “Hmmm,” I say, tapping my chin with my forefinger. “Which of these trees wants to come to your house for Christmas?”
Bobby gasps. “We’re going to put up a Christmas tree?”
“My dad won’t like it.”
“You let me worry about your father,” I say with more bravado than I feel.
Bobby giggles again. “Okay, Secret Agent Joy . . .”
“Shh. You can’t say my name out loud.”
He clamps a hand over his mouth and points to a rather sad and scrawny tree, which he drags back to the lodge.