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Gossamer(10)
Author: Lois Lowry

"Okay."

"Once upon a time," the woman said, "there was a little boy. His name was John, and he was—"

"At the beach. He was at the beach with his mom," the boy said sleepily.

"Yes, he was at the beach with his mom on a beautiful sunny day. It was warm, with a nice breeze. Seagulls were overhead, and—"

"Shells," he said, but his eyelids were fluttering and his voice was drowsy.

She glanced over to the table, where the boy had placed a delicate pink seashell that he had taken from his suitcase. "Yes," she said, "there were beautiful shells on the beach." She continued stroking him for a moment, whispering, "Shhh, shhh," until it was clear that he was sleeping again. She gazed at him briefly, then tiptoed back to her own bedroom.

From their watching place, Thin Elderly stirred himself and reemerged. Littlest did the same. "Now we have much work to do," he explained to her in a low voice. "Gather your best fragments. We must strengthen him."

14

"Who's this jerk?" John asked. He had taken a framed photograph from the piano and set it down on the kitchen table, where the woman was still sipping her morning tea.

She reached for it. "He was a friend of mine," she said, and touched the edge of the silver frame with her fingertips.

"Now he hates you, right? You thought he was your friend, right? But now he hates you."

"No, he never hated me. But this was a long time ago. We were both very young then."

"So where'd he go? California? I bet you don't even know. I bet he just left and didn't tell you where." John picked up his spoon and ate another mouthful of cereal, then made a face. "I hate this kind of cereal. I only like Sugar Pops."

"Don't eat it, then. I can make you some toast if you'd like." With her napkin she wiped the smudgy fingerprints from the glass that protected the old photograph.

The boy held a fingerful of soggy cereal under the table for Toby, then withdrew it quickly when the dog came to sniff. He wiped it on the knee of his jeans and kicked the dog lightly with his sneaker.

"I bet he never wrote to you or anything," he commented. "I bet he didn't send you any money. You should throw the dumb picture away."

"He wrote to me often. But then he died. Do you want toast?"

"Yeah."

She looked at him wryly. "Yes, please?" she said.

He repeated it sarcastically. She smiled, rose, and dropped two pieces of bread into the toaster on the counter.

"How did he die? Did he get murdered? I know somebody who got murdered."

"Not exactly. But he was shot."

The boy made his fingers into a gun. "Blam," he said, and shot Toby, the dog. Then he shot the refrigerator. "I'm gonna get a gun," he said, and ate another spoonful of cereal.

"So did his wife shoot him or what?" he asked, with his mouth full.

"He didn't have a wife. He was killed in the war, in France."

"I know a poem about France: 'I see London, I see France—'" he began in a singsong voice, then interrupted himself. "Does your dog ever run away?"

"No. Toby always stays close to the house. He's always waiting for his next meal," she told him, laughing lightly.

"He'll die, though."

"Someday. But he's not terribly old. He'll probably live another, oh, maybe seven years. Won't you, Toby?" she said to the dog, who lifted his head at the sound of his name. She leaned toward him and scratched his neck.

"Well, if you don't want him anymore, you can get someone to shoot him. I'll do it for you after I get my gun."

"I'll never not want Toby," the woman told the boy. "There's your toast, popped up. I'll get some jam from the cupboard."

"Don't you ever get mad at him?" The boy lifted the two pieces of toast from the toaster and dropped them onto the blue plate on the table.

"Of course I do. Once he stood on his hind legs and grabbed a whole roasted chicken from the counter. I was furious."

"Did you beat him? I bet you beat him."

"No. But I called him a few not-very-nice names. And I shut him in the back hall for a while."

"Did he cry?"

She laughed. "He whined. Piteously."

"Sometime you'll get really, really mad at him," John said. He tore one piece of toast in half and stacked the two pieces on top of each other. "Then you won't want him. You'll probably give him away.

"You'll probably give him to some jerk with no TV," he added matter-of-factly, and poked a hole through the remaining slice of toast with his index finger. "Can we play war again after breakfast?"

15

"I'm looking for a job," the young woman said into the phone. "But I've been busy. I moved, you know that. It was a pain in the neck to move.

"But I'm looking for a job now. I'm really cleaning up my act."

She exhaled some smoke and glanced with a wry look around the room, at the stacked unopened cartons, the stained rug, the dirty dishes, and an opened pizza box with the stale crusts still inside. "Not my apartment," she added under her breath.

"I know," she replied to a question from the person on the other end of the line. "Yes, I'm very aware that I have to be here for him. He'd be in school all day, and then I'd be home when he got home. I'm looking for something part-time, maybe like eight to two. I saw an ad for a receptionist and it said 'flexible hours.' I'm just about to call there."

She listened for a moment. She stubbed out her cigarette and reached for the half-empty pack nearby.

"No, I wouldn't leave him alone again. Of course not." Nervously she twisted a strand of her long hair around one finger.

"And also," she went on, "I did what you suggested. I took out a restraining order."

She lit a cigarette and listened. "He's gone. I don't know where he is. I probably didn't even need the restraining order. I think he went to California.

"So anyway, as I said, I'm really getting it together. I'm going to counseling. But I need John back. It's totally weird having him gone. He's my best friend, you know?"

She listened and made a face, grimacing to herself. "No, well, I didn't mean that. I know he's my child. I know all that. I'll set limits. I can do all that stuff. But I need him back here so I can do it, right? I mean, how can I do parenting if my kid isn't here, right?"

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