The sun's rays shone overhead, almost overpowering the nearly cloudless sky. All around the large little league ball park, the sounds of summer echoed- birds chirping, the cracks of bats making contact with baseballs and softballs, the cheering of parents and young teammates on the four spread-out fields. It was a typical Saturday afternoon in Fairfield.
Perhaps thirty feet away from the bleachers of the ten and under field where his older brother was playing, Jesse kicked at the speckled rocks on the ground, then bent over to examine one that caught his eye. His mama and daddy were watching his older brother on the bleachers; annoyed and distracted by Jesse's restless fidgeting and repeated requests to buy snacks, they had told him to go play with the other children on the playground near the field. Jesse had set off to do so, but seeing the older, larger kids racing about on it, had opted not to join in, intimidated. Bored, resentful of his parents' lack of attention, he had walked around aimlessly for perhaps 20 minutes, playing with the rocks and sand.
Jesse did not notice the man coming toward him until he was already standing beside him, or actually, until he crouched beside him, looking intently at the rock in Jesse's hands. He was old in Jesse's eyes, but younger than his parents- maybe as old as Taylor, the college-age son of Jesse's aunt. Jesse looked up at him, startled and a little nervous- was in he trouble for touching the rocks?
But no, the man was smiling... he looked nice. Still Jesse stared at him, his mouth slightly open, until the man spoke.
"That's a real nice rock, buddy."
Jesse nodded wordlessly, still staring at the man. The man smiled at him, shaking his head.
"Ah, I get it, you don't want to talk to me because you don't know my name. Smart boy. You can't be too careful, huh? I bet your mama and daddy tell you not to talk to strangers. Well, my name is Jonathan," he said, and he stuck his hand out for Jesse to shake. Jesse shook it solemnly. He had never shook hands with a grown-up, like he was a grown-up too. It felt funny, but neat- like a big kid.
"There you go, bud, now you know me and it's okay to talk a little- right?" the man- Jonathan- asked.
Jesse thought about it, then nodded. "I guess so," he mumbled. He glanced over toward the bleachers where his parents sat, but neither looked back at him. Both were watching his older brother's game intently. It was almost, Jesse thought resentfully, as if they had forgotten he was there, or just didn't care.
Jonathan had followed Jesse's gaze with his own, and now he asked him quietly, "They're not paying attention much, huh? Your mama and daddy, I mean. Is that your brother playing baseball?"
"Yeah," Jesse told him, "baseball's boring. I wanna go home."
Jonathan laughed. "I agree, baseball is definitely a dull sport. Especially when performed by juveniles. I don't blame you for not wishing to observe it."
Jesse looked at him, not understanding his words, but his tone was friendly, and he seemed to be agreeing with Jesse. Jesse smiled uncertainly.
"It's real boring, and they won't even buy me no candy or nothing," he confided. "And they told me to go 'way to the playground but there's a bunch of big kids there."
"The big kids are rough, aren't they?" Jonathan commented. "So you thought you'd just play with the rocks. I don't blame you- what's your name again, bud?"
"Jesse," he said, and Jonathan smiled again. Jesse smiled too, liking the way his eyes sparkled.
"Jesse. That's a cool name, kid. Do you really like rocks, or are you just looking for something to do?"
"I like rocks," Jesse said. "I got alotta rocks in my yard,and I pick 'em up and keep 'em. I got all kinds- gray and brown and white and black- and some speckly ones like this too." He pointed at the rock in his palm.
Jonathan nodded seriously. "That's cool, Jesse. I was just wondering, because I collect rocks too. I've been collecting rocks since I was just about your age. How old are you- six, seven?"
"No!" Jesse trilled, delighted to be mistaken for an older kid. "No, I'm only four!"
"Oh really? Well you're such a big guy I didn't realize," Jonathan smiled. "I've got all kinds of rocks, Jesse. Pink, purple, green, sparkly, speckly, blue, even fools gold. Hundreds of rocks."
"Wow!" Jesse breathed, his eyes widening. "I want to see, Mr. Jonathan!"
"You don't have to call me Mr.- just Jonathan is fine... and you can come see them if you want to, Jesse. I've got them in a special case in my car. You want to come see?"
"Yeah! Yeah!" Jesse cried, bobbing his head enthusiastically, all previous reserve gone. "I want to see- show me! I wanna see!"
"Well come on then," Jonathan told him, and his smile grew wider. "Come with me to my car. You don't need to ask you mom and dad- we'll be right back. Maybe I'll even let you keep one, Jesse."
Taking hold of the boy's hand, he began to lead him from the park, away from the bleachers, away from the adults and parents who paid him no notice. With Jesse skipping beside him in anticipation, he lead him to his car.
After that- after walking with Jonathan to his car- Jesse remembered nothing. He knew dimly that Jonathan must have taken him somewhere, kept him for some length of time, but where and for how long, what he might have done to him, he cannot recall. There is nothing but blankness in his mind, a space of missing time.
It is because of this blankness, and the memory of his parents' faces afterward, their refusal to speak of it, that Jesse was certain he did not want to know, did not want to remember. There's no use talking about it or even thinking about it, they had told him when he came back to them. There was no point in dwelling on unpleasantness. Jesse was all right now, and he was back, and that was all that mattered.
Jesse had had no choice but to take their word for it, for he did not remember. Gradually, as time passed, even his memory of meeting Jonathan seemed hazier and hazier, as though maybe it had happened to another child- or perhaps it had never happened at all.
Jesse shifted restlessly on the hard metal bleachers, knowing he would come to hate them more by the end of the ninety minute T-ball game. Why did they have to make the blasted bleachers so hot and so uncomfortable? At least he wasn't wearing shorts- in this heat the metal beneath his legs would scorch bare skin.
He shaded his eyes with his hand, squinting as he searched for his neice in the outfield. At six, Marina's ball games were hardly scintillating yet. Try as he might, he couldn't work up enthusiasm over a little girl's ball game like his brother could. He supposed that went along with being a father.
He sighed to himself, already regretting his agreement with Dustin to drive her to and watch Marina's T-ball game. Dustin and his wife were both working late and weren't coming until later, so guess who had been called up to do it for them? Childless, mostly responsibility-free Jesse. He couldn't exactly tell them no, dull as he knew it would be- Dustin rarely asked for favors, and was always good about helping Jesse out when he needed it.
At least when Dustin showed up Jesse could leave. He shouldn't be TOO long.
After another twenty minutes or so of watching little girls swing at- and often miss- the ball perched on a tee, Jesse couldn't stand it anymore. He had to gt up, walk around a little, wake himself up. It wouldn't be too good if Marina glanced over, looking for approval, and saw Uncle Jesse was fast asleep.
He stood abruptly, squeezing past other spectators, and deciding to get a drink from the concession stand. Some caffeine should help.
He was only about ten yards away from the seemingly endless line leading up to the stand when he saw him. A young boy, perhaps four or five years old, standing by himself by a spread of sand. The child was crouched, picking the sand up and letting it trickle through his fingers, and there were no adults anywhere close to him- none at all.
Jesse froze, watching the boy with intensity, something about the boy being alone, with seemingly no one looking out for him, struck him. Dark hair bowed, the child continued unconcernedly in his doings, seeming quite content, quite used to his state of solitude.
Without thinking about it, Jesse found himself approaching the little boy, kneeling carefully down beside him in the sand. The child glanced up, undaunted, and Jesse knew he had to speak with him- somehow he just knew.
"Hello there," he said quietly. "What are you doing, bud?"
"Diggin'" the child replied, glancing at Jesse only briefly before looking back at the sand.
"Looking for anything in particular?"
"Nah, I just like the way it feels," the boy told Jesse. "Feel it, see?"
He trickled a handful into Jesse's hand, and Jesse closed a fist around it, then let the sand flow out.
"You're right, it does feel neat."
"What's your name?" the little boy asked, looking up at Jesse with innocent eyes. Jesse looked back at him, his face serious, and his tone was as somber as if he were speaking to an adult when he answered.
"Jesse. What's your name?"
"Brandon," the child replied. Still looking at Jesse, frowning slightly, he said, "You look sad, Jesse."
"No," Jesse told him, and he smiled quickly. "I'm only thinking, Brandon, that's all..."
Something was bothering him, niggling in the back of his mind, and he could not remember, did not know what was plaguing him.
He returned his attention to the boy, still watching him closely. "Where are your mommy and daddy, Brandon? Are they not with you?
"Nuh uh," Brandon answered, shaking his head. "They're with my sister. She's playing ball."
"I see," Jesse said quietly, his mind returning to Marina and her game. Dustin would be here soon- she had probably not even noticed he had left her game.
"Guess what?" Brandon piped up,and Jesse turned his attention back to the child. "I'll be five in October."
"Well that's great," Jesse told him. "You'll be a really big kid then, huh?"
"And maybe I'll get a puppy," Brandon continued, the excitement evident in his voice. "I might get a puppy just for me. Wouldn't that be awesome?"
Jesse wanted to smile at that, but he was thinking now, thinking hard... something was troubling him, something-
"That would be awesome," he said.
"Yeah, and I'll name it Tarzan. And it'll play with me and I'll throw sticks," Brandon elaborated enthusiastically. "And-"
"You know, Brandon," Jesse said suddenly, interrupting both Brandon's talk and his own troubled thoughts, "I have a puppy."
"Really?" Brandon asked excitedly, "what kind?"
"A Labrador," Jesse answered. "I have pictures of him in my car... if you'd like to come look at them, you can come with me and see."
Brandon nodded excitedly and standing up, Jesse took his hand, looking around quickly before beginning to walk him to his car in the parking lot. With every step, something seemed to be scratching at his brain, pleading for him to realize, to remember, some shadowy fragment of something-
"Here, come sit in the passenger seat while I get it," Jesse told Brandon, and he did as he said, looking at Jesse eagerly.
"Where you got the pictures? I wanna see!"
He smiled at Jesse expectantly, waiting. But instead of showing him pictures, or anything else, Jesse shut his door, leaning over Brandon to shut his door as well. As he pressed the button on the driver side to make all the doors lock, he took up his keys, starting up the car.
Confused, Brandon looked at him with a frown. "How come you turned the car on? Jesse- you ain't drivin' away, are you? I thought the pictures were in your car. I wanna see them. Don't you got them?"
"It's all right now, Brandon," Jesse said quietly. "You'll see. Everything will be all right now."
"Where are they?" Brandon persisted, "you said you'd show me your doggy pictures!"
"I'm taking you somewhere safe,Brandon," Jesse told him soothingly. "Your parents didn't watch you, didn't take care of you like they should have. They didn't give you the right kind of attention. I'll take care of you now... I'll love you the way they should have loved you."
He began to back out of the parking space, driving away from the ball park. Beginning to panic, frightened, Brandon pulled at the door handle, becoming even more panicky when he discovered it was locked, could only be unlocked on the drivers side.
"Where are we going?" he yelped, his face crumbling, near tears. "I don't wanna go away! I wanna stay with my mommy and daddy! Let me out!"
He pulled harder at the door handle, beginning to cry. Jesse's chest tightened- it was clear the poor kid didn't understand. He was trying to save him, love him, just like-
Jesse didn't know, didn't remember. He only knew he had to do this.
"It's all right, Brandon," he repeated. "I'm helping you. I won't hurt you."
The little boy continued to pull on the door handles, crying and begging Jesse to let him go. It hurt Jesse to watch him, to see how terrified the child was. He just couldn't understand that he was only trying to save him...
As he drove, he tried to remember, tried to realize what half memory, half vision was trying so desperately to push its way to the surface of his mind. What was it- why did everything seem so urgent, strangely familiar- and yet, so new and grounded in the present?
Gradually Brandon's cries softened, then faded away entirely, as did his frantic movements. He slumped in his seat, tired, soggy from the tears, his eyes dull and afraid. It disturbed Jesse, something in the boy's eyes... but he couldn't stop, couldn't walk away simply because the boy did not understand. He had to finish, go all the way through with it...
Nearly three quarters of an hour had gone by before Jesse saw it. An old, abandoned car wash, decrepit, shoddy, just off the main road... no cars passed by, no house seemed occupied near it. An odd place for a car wash- but a perfect place to pull over.
He drove up into one of the washing tunnels, parking his car in a darkened, cobweb-filled half circle surrounded by badly rusting machines and brushes. Switching off the engine and putting the car into park, he turned to face the boy beside him, smiling gently. Brandon shrank away from him, pressing himself into the seat.
"Here we are, Brandon."
"How come you tooked me?" Brandon asked in a tiny, quavering voice. "How come you told me you had a doggy when you didn't? I think you're a bad man. Don't hurt me, please..."
"No,I'm not a bad man," Jesse said,genuinely shocked by the child's words. "I won't hurt you. I would never hurt you. I only want to show you how to love..."
In his head something was pressing tight against his skull, almost painfully... something was screaming at him, begging for his acknowledgement, his recognization. Something was begging him to remember.
But he couldn't... it was too long ago, the memory too dark and shadowy, and Jesse did not- would not- remember.
He smiled now at Brandon, his voice gentle. "I'm here to save you, Brandon. I'm here to show you how to love."
He reached out, placing a hand on the little boy's leg. Brandon cringed, flinched away from Jesse's touch wide-eyed, but Jesse persisted, sliding his hand up the little boy's thigh.
As Jesse began to pull the child's pants down, something flashed suddenly in his mind... there was another boy, terror stark on his face, as another man's hands crept up his legs.
It was his face, his face as a child... what did this mean, what... was that really him? What-
Just as abruptly the vision was gone, and there was another boy before him, another child with fear twisting his small features... and his was the man's hand on the child's legs.
It meant nothing, the vision. It couldn't have... this is what he had to do.
But even as he thought this, as the child began to weep at his touch, Jesse was shaking inwardly.
WHY was he doing this... why did he have to do this?