A little boy – about five years old at first glance – appeared on the outskirts of the field of wildflowers beside the railroad tracks on a hazy Sunday morning. He crossed the wooden slabs and metal rail on the balls of his feet slowly and achingly, avoiding prolonged contact with the uneven gravel. At the other side, he approached the field cautiously, reaching out a sooty hand to tug out a handful of the tall grass.
The dirty blond hair at the back of his head stood straight up and his overalls hung loose on him, the cuffs dragging on the ground, even when they were rolled twice. When he walked, he didn’t bother to hold the pants, causing the cotton up to his knees to grow dark with a mix of dirt and soot. He didn’t wear shoes. His feet were practically black with only the skin between his toes anywhere near his true skin tone. He limped on his left foot because of a large burn spanning the length of the arch of his foot to his heel.
He sat on the small gravel slope beside the tracks and cleared a small place in front of him. Working meticulously, he arranged the fistful of tall grass stalks and wildflowers in a pile. Every so often, he crawled back to the field and plucked more, trying not to pull out any with thorns or sticky leaves. As he worked to pad the pile, he stuck his tongue between his lips and chewed on it softly. He stopped when the inch deep pile was a rectangle big enough for him to curl up on, his cheek leaning against the back of his hand on the ground.
His thumb moved subconsciously toward his mouth as he closed his eyes. He yawned loud and long and slid the tip of his thumb between his lips, his teeth scraping against the dirt that was like a second layer of skin around his nail. He swirled his tongue around his finger and sucked off some of the grime. He jerked his thumb away quickly, as if he’d been hit, when he realized what he was doing.
He heard the girls round the corner at the near edge of the field before he saw them. When he sat up, he saw the younger girl first, skipping down the road with her hair in two long yellow braids. He dropped his fist into his lap and froze. They chattered excitedly, arguing about what they would eat as soon as they got to some kind of fair – caramel apples, fresh peach cobbler, or sweet tea. His mouth watered.
A fly buzzed around his ear, and he jerked suddenly, slapping at the air with an open palm. The buzzing grew louder, and in his efforts to either capture or kill the menacing insect, the little boy lost his balance and tumbled onto his back, rolling down the slight incline. His back hit a small protruding rock and he yelped. As he slowly pushed himself up to his feet, he realized the younger of the two girls had stopped, and she was looking right at him.
His eyes widened, and he didn’t blink.
She called out to the other girl. “Megan! Megan – look!” She thrust an arm out towards where the little boy stood, frozen in place. She took off running through the field towards him until only the top of her head reflecting the midmorning sun was visible.
When she stumbled out of the brush, the little boy was gone.
He watched curiously from behind a tree, one hand pressed flat against the chapped bark. He leaned around the side of the trunk to watch her.
The girl bent over his make-shift mat and poked the edge of it with the toe of her sandal, scattering some of the grass. She destroyed the practically perfect rectangle he had created.
She whipped her head around, her lips parted in a slight gasp. “I don’t know where he went.”
“Who?” The second voice was lower than the first, more gravely, and sounded irritated.
“The little boy,” she whined. Maggie turned in a slow circle, eyes narrow, squinting at each tree and bush in turn. She found him out, and he froze again, his fingers digging painfully into the jagged bark. He thought that, as long as he didn’t move, maybe she couldn’t really see him, and she wouldn’t bother him anymore. He tried not to make a sound. He held his breath until it was as painful as being suffocated by smoke.
She smiled sweetly, extending her arm, palm facing the sky. Her mouth opened and closed once, but she didn’t say anything. She took a step forward, slowly, putting one foot in front of the other carefully, as if any noise that either of them made would scare the other away. Maggie stepped on the end of a stick, and it cracked.
The little boy took off running awkwardly toward the tracks, stumbling over the extra length at the bottom of his pants.
“Wait!” She ran after him, braids flapping against her shoulders. She dashed up the hill to the tracks and lunged forward to grab at his arm. She missed by less than an inch and lost her balance, falling into him. Together they tumbled over the other side and slid under a shelf of low pine branches.
The boy got up first and wiped a sap-covered palm off on his thigh.
Maggie lay on her stomach, her arm bent at an odd angle above her head. He poked her shoulder once, then jumped backwards as if she would leap up at him. When she didn’t move, he lifted her arm at the wrist, then dropped it.
“Maggie!” The gravel crunched on the other side of the trees.
The little boy ducked under a low-lying branch and crawled behind a tree before he could be spotted.
“Maggie!” The second girl shoved aside the branches and tripped to her knees beside the fallen girl. Her voice was high and quick, sounding as if she were strangled. Her breath came in short spurts as she said the name a third time. In a panic, she ran back through the trees, yelling out for help.
The little boy put his back to the tree trunk and slid down the rough bark until he sat on the roots. He squirmed once so a large knot wasn’t digging into his thigh. His back stung where the wood cut into the bare skin between his overall straps. He put his thumb in his mouth and waited.
+ + +
When Maggie came back, her arm was in a blue sling.
The little boy looked up as she crossed the tracks and sat down a few feet away from where he had been asleep a few minutes before. He looked at her and blinked to focus, his head under pressure from just waking up. He wasn’t used to having a soft pad for his head while sleeping.
Her hair was still in two braids. “What’s your name?”
He picked at a weed sticking up between two rocks. He puffed his cheeks and exhaled, but he didn’t answer her.
“I told Mama about you,” she said, scooting closer to him. “When she asked me how I got hurt. Did you see my arm? Dr. Brown said it wasn’t broken. It’s just sprained. But I have to wear this sling until he says so. Did you get hurt?”
He looked at her and pulled up his pants to his knee. He pointed to the burn on his foot.
Her eyes widened. “Is that from yesterday?”
He shook his head and let the pant leg fall.
She frowned and chewed on the side of her lower lip.
He tucked his foot underneath him when he realized she was still staring at it, even though the burn was covered by his muddy pants.
“My name’s Maggie.” She reached out and stuck her good arm toward him, but he didn’t take it. She moved closer again. “Can you talk?”
He opened his mouth and grunted once. “Billy.”
“Your name’s Billy?”
He nodded again. He pulled the weed out, roots and all, and tossed it aside. Then, he picked up a thin twig laying next to him. It was burnt black, and pieces flaked off as he stuck it into the hole and twisted it. The soot came off on his palms. “Water.”
Her lips formed a small oval and she nodded quickly, standing up. “I can get you water,” she said, motioning for him to follow her.
He shook his head.
“I won’t hurt you, Billy,” she said. “C’mon. I have some at my house.” She held out her hand to him.
He turned to look over his shoulder back into the woods before he stood up and pointed to her hand. He shook his head again.
Maggie dropped her arm to her side. “Okay. Come with me.”
They climbed silently over the railroad tracks and through the wildflowers to the road. Billy walked three or so paces behind her, and Maggie kept looking back to make sure he was still following her as they reached the white fence surrounding her house.
The house was a comfortable farm house with a line of cherry trees leading up the driveway to the front door. There was a large wrap-around porch and as they climbed the steps to the front door, the wood groaned under their feet.
Billy stopped at the top step and turned his head toward a bonfire cackling in the orchard. He watched the flames rise and a log crack and fall. Sparks scattered and flew out from the edges of the flames. He leaned towards it, mesmerized by the way the smoke disillusioned the air, making the trees on the other side appear to flicker.
Maggie touched his arm, and he jumped. “Let’s go inside.” She pulled him down the hallway while he tried to crane his neck back to look outside.
“Do you want lemonade or water?”
He jerked his head to look at her then shifted his weight. He slipped his hands into his pockets.
She took hold of one of the kitchen chairs under its seat and dragged it across the floor to in front of the sink.
Billy covered his ears to block out the screech the legs made on the wooden floor and squeezed his eyes shut.
Using only her good arm, Maggie clambered up and leaned over the sink to a cabinet. As she stretched her arm out, she almost knocked over a vase drying on the counter. She filled two plastic cups with tap water and then sat down, spinning to face Billy. Her feet dangled a few inches above the floor.
Billy hesitantly took the red cup from her, then scrambled across the kitchen and sat on the threshold of the doorway with his back against the wall and his short legs straight out in front of him. He lifted the cup and swallowed down the water in four quick, successive gulps. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, leaving a black streak across his cheeks and lips.
He held out the cup and nodded.
The screen door slammed. “Maggie, are you here?”
Maggie hopped down off of the chair. “Mama?”
A tall woman with a tight bun and small glasses perched at the end of her nose almost tripped over the end of Billy’s pants as she hurried into the kitchen. She stopped suddenly and looked down at him in confusion. “Who – what –?”
He slid backwards into the kitchen, eyes wide in fear.
“That’s Billy. He’s my friend.”
Billy cowered behind one of the legs of the kitchen table.
Her mother turned to look at her. “Where did he come from?”
The older woman knelt next to the table and pushed her glasses back on her nose. She tilted her head and regarded Billy curiously. “Billy? Is that your name?”
He looked, panicked, toward Maggie and started backwards away from them both quickly, losing his balance. He stuck his hands out behind him on the floor and landed hard on his bottom. He winced and bit his lip.
“I’m Beth.” She took a quick breath. “Where are your parents, Billy?”
He looked back and forth from mother to daughter twice, eyes round, and then crawled out from under the table and hid behind Maggie, who was a few inches taller than him. He cupped his hand around her ear and whispered something, never letting his gaze move from her mother, as if he was worried that she was going to lunge for him.
“He says he doesn’t have any,” Maggie told her mother.
“You don’t have any parents?”
He shook his head and then nodded.
She sat back on her heels and let out a low hiss through her teeth. She lifted a hand to her forehead and closed her eyes for a second. “Are you hungry?”
Billy looked to Maggie and with only a slight inclination of his chin, she understood his answer. She turned to her mother and nodded.
Beth stood up and slapped her palms against her thighs. “Alright then, let’s get something on the stove.”
Both Maggie and Billy grinned.
+ + +
Beth took Billy upstairs and bathed him until the water turned brown from the dirt peeling off him. She refilled the tub once for him and threw his overalls away. She found a pair of her son’s old denim jeans and a cotton undershirt to dress him in, even though the new clothes hung more loosely on him than the overalls had. She gave up with trying to get a comb through his sticky hair, and instead just let it stick up as it dried.
She fed him dinner, and he ate quickly, shoving the food into his mouth before he even finished the previous bite. The bread was gone in minutes. After drinking four glasses of lemonade, Maggie showed him to the bathroom and waited outside the door to make sure everything went well. Still, he wasn’t speaking to anyone except her, and only then it was, as Maggie said, one or two words, sometimes incomprehensible.
As the sun set over the orchard behind the house, Billy and Maggie sat on the floor of the parlor with a pile of building blocks in front of them.
“Maggie, can you help me fix the bed upstairs in the guest room for Billy?” Beth asked, poking her head into the room.
She put the final blue block on top of the small pyramid and then stood up. “Sure, Mama.” She nudged Billy’s knee with her toe. “Be right back, Billy.”
He didn’t acknowledge her.
“Are you gonna try and find his parents?” Maggie asked in a hushed whisper.
Her mother nodded. “Mrs. McCain said to bring him down to the church tomorrow morning.” She let Maggie walk out through the door first and then closed it halfway behind her, leaving Billy alone in the parlor.
He lifted his head and looked around the room once. As he turned suddenly at a noise outside the window, his elbow hit the pyramid and knocked it over, scattering the blocks. He saw nothing out the window but the burning embers of the earlier bonfire. He shifted his gaze to look at the candle flickering on the table.
Billy stood, transfixed by the flame. He reached his hand out, fingers bending like a claw as he stepped toward it. He let his fingertips brush the edge of it once before pulling his arm back from the heat. The flame danced from a breeze coming in through the open window, and the light cast his shadow on the wall. He took another step closer and picked up the handle, holding the candle out at a comfortable distance from his body.
He returned to his spot on the floor, shoving the blocks out of his way as he sat down and set the candle in front of him. The flame lit up a small circle around him, and he leaned in close until he could feel the heat on the tip of his nose. He trailed his finger up and down the candle, letting the wax build up and burn his skin.
Then, slowly, he picked up the candle and tipped it until the flame hovered inches above the carpeting. A drop of wax fell. He lowered the flame until it hissed against the carpet and caught.
When Maggie returned, Billy was standing on a chair watching the flames consume the carpet and work their way up the leg of a chair next to the window. She screamed, but Billy was out the window before anyone came running.
+ + +
“Billy!” Maggie called out to him from the edge of the woods.
He nudged a tree branch out of the way to look for her.
Her mother was with her, and so were a few other people, all carrying flashlights. Their voices jumbled together and only a few words were recognizable, including his name. He leaned farther through the leaves.
Maggie pointed suddenly in his direction and yelled. They started toward him.
He ran. He knew how to duck around trees and climb under the fallen trunks. They couldn’t see him when he slinked through the dirt and squeezed through the darkness off the path. He hid in a small cave of rocks for a while and he heard them talking, calling to each other to ask which way he’d gone.
Spots of light from flashlights hit patches of green and brown randomly. One lit up the side of his face for a second and he froze. But the light left just as quickly as it blinded him.
He waited there until he heard them leave, their footsteps cracking tree branches and crunching among dried leaves and sticks. He turned his head to listen for any sound unnatural to the forest. A cricket chirped and he jumped slightly, hitting his head off the rock above him. He rubbed the bump beneath his hair and crouched to step out of the cave.
Once his eyes adjusted to the pale moonlight slipping through the breaks in the trees, he climbed over a large tree trunk and searched the ground for the familiar worn path. He followed it quickly, his feet knowing better where to go than his eyes. He stumbled over the leg of a broken chair on the front walk. He touched the angled stump of an old mailbox. There was no sound but the crickets, and the smell of smoke still hung in the air. He scratched his nose and yawned.
When morning came, Billy sat on the stone steps in front of the charred remains of a small house, turning a silver candlestick around in his hands.