What happens when two lonely boys meet in a shopping mall food court?
The boys had the afternoon stretching in front of them, no homework and so nothing they had to do. Josh asked Bryan if he’d like to play video games.
“Actually, I’d like to do something outside. Work off some energy. Do you do anything physical like that? Run, maybe? Play basketball? Any other kind of ball, like foot or base, or maybe soccer or tennis?”
“You forgot croquet. And ping pong.”
“Uh, I guess I don’t. I’m sorry. I’m just not a sports kind of guy.”
“Is that because you don’t like the activity itself, or because you don’t think you’re any good, or because you’ve never tried it?”
“Truthfully? I think it’s because I never did anything like that when I was little, and when I got older, all the other kids knew what they were doing and were good at all those things and I wasn’t. If I ever tried, pretty quickly they were all laughing at me and calling me spazz and it wasn’t fun, so I just stopped trying.”
“Would you like to try with someone who won’t laugh at you, just the two of us? We’d get to be outside and move around a little bit, and if you didn’t enjoy it, at least you’d know what it really was you didn’t like and would have a good reason why.”
“You know, I’ve tried a little bit in gym. We play basketball sometimes, and I get picked last, but I’m at least there.”
“That isn’t really playing. The guy that gets picked last never even gets to touch the ball. He just stands there on the outside of everyone else and the games go on around him. No, I mean we’d play and you’d actually dribble, you’d shoot, and I’d help you. The only trouble is, I’m sure you don’t have a basketball.”
“Actually, I do. Dad got me one a couple years ago because he didn’t think I should sit inside reading all the time. He even put a hoop up on the garage for me to shoot at. I tried it once, and a couple neighbor kids came over, and they were a lot better than I was and pretty soon I was sitting by the side and watching them play. That was about it. They came over again wanting me to play, but I told them I was busy. They didn’t come back.”
“Are you willing to try?”
“I don’t know, Bryan.” Josh was not a bit enthusiastic about it.
Bryan gave him his best puppy-dog-eyes look, and Josh started laughing. “Okay, okay, just never do that again, huh? I’ve seen better hangdog looks on a dead cow.”
Bryan was just happy to be going outside. Getting Josh to go too was an added bonus. Josh found his ball in the back of the garage and even a hand pump, and soon they were bouncing the ball on the driveway. Bryan watched as Josh tried to dribble. It quickly became apparent that Josh was not unduly uncoordinated. He didn’t look awkward as much as he looked totally unaware of what he was supposed to do.
“Josh,” said Bryan, grabbing the ball and holding it under his arm. “May I tell you a couple things, things to try?”
“Sure. I’m all ears. You want me to try dribbling with them? Probably do just as well.”
“No,” Bryan snickered, “only as a last resort, and we’re a long way from that. No, listen. You’re slapping at the ball. Dribbling doesn’t involve hitting the ball down at the ground. Actually, your palm should never touch the ball. You only touch it with your fingertips and thumb. And then, you don’t hit it. Dribbling is actually catching the ball with your fingertips as it rises, then pushing it back down. Watch.”
Bryan then dribbled slowly in place for several bounces before tossing the ball to Josh.
Josh tried, Bryan helped, and in a short time, Josh was actually controlling the ball and not looking quite so herky-jerky doing so.
“Now I want you to try dribbling without looking at the ball. I don’t know if you have ever been to a basketball game, or watched one on TV, but the players don’t watch the ball. They’ve played and practiced so much, they’ve learned to feel where they’re bouncing the ball, and they know from where they push it down where it will come back up. So they don’t need to watch it, and they can look at where they’re going and where the other players are without watching the ball. It’ll feel awkward at first, but try dribbling while looking at me.”
They continued working, with Bryan being very encouraging and instructing only occasionally, and Josh, without having to be defensive about his play, was letting his intelligence and natural ability take over. He was learning rapidly. He had difficulty when Bryan had him begin to alternate with his left hand, but even that wasn’t a disaster, and Josh’s improvement was steady.
They kept working until it was time to fix dinner. Josh finally called a halt. When he did, he told Bryan he’d had a good time, maybe the first time he could ever remember when he’d felt good doing anything at all with a ball.
“Good,” Bryan responded. “Tomorrow we play for money. Ten dollars a basket.”
“Uh, we didn’t shoot at all today, just learned how to dribble.”
“All part of my plan, my man, all part of my plan. Heh heh heh.”
----  ----
Josh fixed meatloaf for dinner, with Bryan telling him he was doing it all wrong the entire time. Bryan insisted green pepper would ruin it, and said he was using way too many bread crumbs, and one egg was plenty and not to use two, and why wasn’t he adding any Worcestershire sauce, and Josh just kept smiling and telling him he didn’t need to eat any if he didn’t want to, but to trust him, he knew what he was doing, and Bryan kept shaking his head and rolling his eyes and saying it sure didn’t look like it. Then when Bryan was making the rice, Josh told him not to use so much butter, asked him why he was adding garlic powder, and told him he’d never heard of anyone adding oregano to rice. They bickered back and forth, and both enjoyed it immensely.
Dr. Warren came in while the meatloaf was in the oven and the rice was simmering. When he had put his briefcase down, Josh came over to him with a huge smile on his face and gave him a lengthy and enthusiastic hug.
“Dad, I was so proud of you today, I thought I might burst. You were really cool! I love you Dad, and wish I’d said that at school. You were great.”
Dr. Warren returned the hug. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you say that before, that you were proud of me. That really makes me feel good. Thank you. That makes me happy.”
They stepped back and each smiled at each other, and then Dr. Warren affectionately tousled Josh’s hair and went into the living room.
Bryan was smiling at him. “That was cool. Way cool.”
Josh blushed. “How much longer for the rice?”
“You know how much longer. It’ll be done the same time the meatloaf is. You’re just changing the subject.”
“Damn, Bryan, you’re getting to know me too well!”
“Do you like or dislike that?” asked Bryan, curiously.
Josh looked directly at him. “Actually, I like it a whole lot.”
“Good. I do too.”
Dinner was fun. Everyone was in a good mood, and for once Dr. Warren didn’t bring a book to the table. There was a lot of teasing going on at the table, but it was all gentle and supportive, and it quickly became evident to Dr. Warren that the two boys liked each other a lot. He had always been sad that Josh didn’t have friends. He seemed to get along fine without them, but Dr. Warren knew how valuable good friends were, especially for young boys, and he’d worried about Josh. Now he had a friend, and everything he saw in Bryan met with his approval. Looking at Bryan when he was teasing Josh, he only saw kindness and consideration. He thought he should get to know Bryan better before making any final judgment, but the more he saw of him, the better he felt about him, so he had already come to a quick decision about the boy. He could feel instinctively that this was a good kid.
After dinner, Dr. Warren did the dishes, and Bryan took Josh outside for some more basketball practice. They played around and talked and relaxed. Josh could actually dribble fairly adequately by the time they called it quits.
Josh led Bryan up stairs. Josh flopped on the bed, and Bryan pushed him over and then lay down too.
“You seemed to handle that meatloaf all right. As I remember, you had three pieces.”
“Okay, okay, maybe I was wrong. Maybe the green pepper added something. But you didn’t seem to have any problem with the rice, either.”
“I think I may be learning to trust you a little. At least as far as rice goes. Nothing else, but maybe with rice. You know what I’d like now?”
“The rest of your story.”
“Oh, you mean, sleeping at the mall? All that? I’m not even sure I remember where I stopped.”
“I have an excellent memory, Bryan. Excellent. Nice try, but it won’t fly. The last thing you said was, you stole a bunch of that poor little shop’s items, befouled them by sleeping on them with your naked body, and went to sleep with a pure conscience and no regrets over treating them so shabbily.”
“Did I really say that?”
“Well, no, but I could read between the lines.”
“Uh, maybe you should be telling this. You seem to have a different slant on it than I do. I only lived it. Your version sounds better.”
“No, that’s okay. Go on. I’ll just listen.”
“All right. If you’re sure you don’t want to butt in some more.”
“Nope. I’m fine.”
“All right then. Let me think for a minute. You know, this wasn’t that long ago, Josh. Your getting me to come here has changed things, everything’s so different now, even thinking back seems a little strange. It almost seems like it happened to someone else. It almost makes me wonder if it really happened. But I know it did. Let me see.”
Bryan stopped and collected his thoughts. Then he started talking.
“I slept all night that first night and woke up early. I had my watch and checked. It was 6:30. The middle row of fluorescent lights was still on, so the room looked exactly the same as when I’d gone to sleep. This was the time I’d wanted to wake up, however, and I was a little surprised I could do that without an alarm. But I did.
“The mall and the store were still dead quiet. I used the bathroom and brushed my teeth and put on some clean clothes from my duffle bag. They were rumpled but at least clean. It didn’t seem to make much difference if I took them out of the duffle the night before I wore them or not, they were still pretty wrinkled.
I wondered if it would be safe to leave the duffle bag there all day, on the top shelf behind the boxes. The problem was, I didn’t know if they opened or moved those boxes or not. They weren’t covered with dust or anything. I just didn’t have enough information.
“I decided not to chance it. What I did was, I used a pencil and put a little line on the shelf by the corner of each box. It only took a minute, but if they moved those boxes, I’d know about it. Then I put everything I’d used back in the boxes I’d got them from and put the boxes back where I’d found them. I grabbed my duffle bag and backpack and cautiously opened the back door a crack. No one was around. It was about quarter to seven, and the mall didn’t open for almost three hours. It should have been deserted in that alley, which I’d found ran behind the bottom of the U of the mall, and it was. I quickly stepped outside and closed the door. I felt a curious sense of accomplishment. I’d gotten away with it. I’d found a place to stay and it had worked out. Pretty neat.”
Bryan smiled at the memory of his small triumph and the feeling he’d had, walking out that door that morning. Then he resumed.
“I didn’t know if I’d be able to get into that same store again that night—it still seemed kind of lucky I’d gotten in the night before—but I was at least going to try. I’d spent some time thinking how to get in again that night and had come up with a plan. It might not work, but at least I had the plan. I wanted to get back in there. It had been a good place to sleep and leaving in the morning was easy.
“I’d taken some food with me when I left home, and now got some crackers out of my duffle and ate them for breakfast. Then I stuck the bag behind the same bushes where I’d hidden it the day before. It was still too early to go to school but I didn’t have anywhere else to go. I was a little annoyed with myself for leaving the store so early. This was all new to me, and I had a lot to learn.
“As long as I had the time, I decided I might as well use it. There was a 24-hour supermarket a couple blocks away and I got my bike and rode over to it. They had everything I wanted, which were a box of Pop-Tarts for the next day’s breakfast, a ball of string, a roll of Scotch Magic tape and a box of crayons. I used some of my very precious money, and then decided I could just hang out in the courtyard at school as well as anywhere else. So, I went to school.
“Waiting around for nearly an hour before anyone else showed up was a pain, but I read ahead in a couple of school books so at least the time didn’t drag too much.
“School was just like normal. I’d evidently lost the feeling of everything being a little weird that I’d had the day before. Things didn’t feel so unusual, and I didn’t feel quite so spacey, maybe because I wasn’t quite so panicky. At lunch I purchased a weekly ticket, discounted for the day I’d missed. It was a lot cheaper eating there than at the mall, so it was a relief being able to do that. I saw Eric sitting with some friends and nodded at him. He gave me a wave. We didn’t say anything to each other.
“After school, I rode back to the mall. I had to prepare for getting into the baby clothes store’s back room that night, and that was going to be tricky. I needed some time, and didn’t know for sure that I’d have it.
“I wandered around in the mall, looking at the people there, the security guards, the stores. Then I stashed my backpack with the duffle bag so I wouldn’t be so noticeable to store clerks. Before doing so, I put the tape and a few crayons in my pocket, along with a length of string cut from the ball.
“I sort of hovered around outside the baby clothes store, hoping I wasn’t being too obvious. Eventually, around five o’clock, they had several customers in the store at one time, and still only a single clerk. It looked to me like this was the right time. I casually wandered into the store right behind an older couple, trying to look like I was with them. When we were all inside, I made my way to the back, staying aware of the clerk. When her back was to me, I entered the hallway that led to the back room.
“I now had to move quickly, and was operating on adrenaline. In seconds I was at the rear door. First, I had to color the top of the string as well as I could to match the push bar. The rest of the string I colored to match the color of the door itself. The push bar was a dark brass color, the door a dark brown. I’d brought several crayons that approximated those colors, and by selectively rubbing them on the string, it didn’t take long to get what I wanted. It was far from perfect, but I did the best I could.
“I tied the string to the push bar, then stretched it out to where it was up against the section where the round bar attached to the piece that connected to the latching mechanism. Lying directly against the connecting piece, the string was almost unnoticeable. Using a small piece of tape, I secured the string in place, rubbing it so it became invisible. Then I ran the string along the underside of the latching piece and over to the edge of the door itself, keeping the string underneath the latch so it couldn’t be seen by someone standing up, using little bits of tape where necessary. When I reached the edge of the door, I quietly pushed the door open, then ran the tape along the outside corner of the door down to the ground. I’d rubbed brown crayon on that part of the string and it was just about totally unnoticeable in the early darkness of the alley.
“I taped the bottom of the string to the bottom outside of the door, leaving just enough to get hold of from outside. Then I shut the door, latched it, and looked at it. Nothing could be seen except the circle of string going around the push bar, and that didn’t appear to be very noticeable at all. The night before, the clerk had rattled the bar and pushed on the door itself, from the sound of it. Doing that again tonight, I doubted the string would be noticed. I was counting on it being invisible.”
Josh couldn’t remain quiet any longer. “You figured that all out? And then did it all, knowing someone could come into the back room at any time? I can’t believe it! Weren’t you shaking too much to tie a knot? How did you do all that?”
“Yeah, I was scared. But you know, when you have to do something, and you know you have to do it, well, you just do it. It took about as much time to do it as it did to tell it, no more than a minute or two, and I was counting on the clerk staying in the front of the store while all those customers were there.”
“Still, that’s incredible. But did it work? Could you open the door from the outside?”
“Hey, who’s telling this story? My triumphs or despairs all come later. I need to build some drama here!”
“Well, tell it now. I’m ready.”
“Nope. I’m telling this. You have to wait till I get there.”
“Okay, okay, go on then, but hurry up. You put the string in place. What next?”
“You know, Josh, I’m getting a little thirsty. And we didn’t have any dessert. I could bake some cookies, or, at the very least, maybe a bowl of ice cream would be good. You have any chocolate sauce to go with it?”
“Okay, that’s it. You’re going to die!” And Josh pounced on Bryan, who was now laughing too hard to put up much of a defense.
It was twenty minutes before they were back on the bed.
Bryan had convinced Josh he needed ice cream, though in fact he loved leaving Josh in suspense. They each now had a bowl of ice cream, they each had chocolate sauce on top, Bryan had salted peanuts on his. As Josh sank a spoon into his sundae, Bryan continued his story.
“I couldn’t check whether it would work. That would take too much time, and then I’d have to tape it all back together. I trotted back to the hallway, then slipped into the restroom. There, I flushed the toilet, washed my hands, then went back into the store. It was still busy enough that I could make my way to the front and on out without drawing much attention.
“I walked back into the mall, and that’s when my nerves kicked in big time. When I was doing all that in the back room, I was concentrating on what I knew I had to do and getting it done and hadn’t allowed myself to be nervous. Now, I started shaking, and sat down on a bench. It took several minutes to compose myself. I just sat and watched people. Eventually, I was able to get up and walk around. I went back outside, and when no one was around, retrieved my backpack. I went back to the food court and decided which delicacy I’d have for dinner. Taco Bell won. I had dinner, then did my homework.
“I was nervous, wondering whether the string would go undetected, whether it would actually work, but I was able to eat, able to do my homework without being too upset. Concentrating on Boyle’s Law wasn’t easy, but I did it. I was starting to have some good feelings about myself. I started to appreciate the fact that in tough situations, I wasn’t going to fall apart. My entire situation was bad, but I was also learning things about myself that were good, and that felt kinda neat.
“Anyway. I ate, I did my homework, they shut down the food services at 8 PM again, and then I sort of wandered around till 9. I looked in some stores, sort of scouted around looking for somewhere else to stay if the baby clothes place proved impossible. I found a couple places I needed to check out a little more closely. They were possibilities.
“At 9, the mall had emptied out pretty much, and I thought I’d better leave too. I went outside, stashed my backpack, took my bike and just rode slowly around the outside perimeter of the mall parking lot. An hour’s a long time, but I waited till 10 o’clock. Then, with the mall absolutely deserted except for those same two cars parked in the same place, I rode back, locked up my bike, and collected my duffle bag and backpack. Then, trying my hardest just to look natural and not a bit sneaky or surreptitious, I walked back to the alley running along the bottom of the mall where the baby clothes store was.
“Now I was feeling nervous. If this didn’t work, I had no idea where I’d sleep that night. I was all alone in the alley. I kept walking till I came to the right door, about half way down the alley. I dropped both bags and crouched down. I peeled the string away from the bottom of the door, then started pulling it up, tearing the tape from the door. Magic tape isn’t very strong, which is one of the reasons I used it. It’s almost invisible when rubbed, and tears easily. Both made it perfect for me. I pulled up on the string and it tore through or pulled off the tape as it came up. I was careful, and even though I felt very nervous that someone might come into the alley and see me and wonder what I was doing there, I didn’t rush. I pulled the string till I’d reached the level of the push bar.
“I’d checked when I’d left that morning and found the door was loose enough in the frame for a string not to be pinched. What I didn’t know was if the string was strong enough to work the bar latch without breaking. I thought it was. The bar worked easily. But I hadn’t had either the time or the guts to test it. Now I’d reached the critical point. I started pulling on the string. It tightened up. Then nothing happened.
“I had to pull harder. I had no choice. I pulled. Then I pulled harder again. Still nothing. I was thinking the string was sure to break as I pulled even harder, beginning to despair, when I heard a click, and the door swung open. In less than ten seconds, I’d grabbed my bags and was inside.”
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