by Mary Kudenov
When I opened my truck door, I knocked the boy off his feet. I might never have spoken with him at all if he wasn’t directly in my path, for I was living in a part of Anchorage where the smartest course of action was to mind one’s own business. I had pulled into the parking lot of my no-bedroom, 450-square-foot “apartment” and lingered an extra few minutes in the driver’s seat to finish listening to a song, something maudlin and full of angst, I’m sure. I didn’t want to go inside because it was March, a month that straddles winter and spring and brings with it stir crazy and spring fever. I was just so tired of being inside. We had that in common.
“Hi, lady,” the boy lying at my feet said. He held up a mittened hand, a cue for me to help him up. Instead I stared down at him while he pushed himself back to standing position. Normally I wouldn’t have remembered many details about a child’s appearance—I wasn’t a mom yet, and children all looked generically cute, like puppies or kittens or any newly formed creature, and they invoked mostly fear and annoyance, emotions that I had neither the patience nor willingness to understand. But that boy was as classically memorable as Norman Rockwell subject: blonde hair, blue eyes, and plate-round face as symmetrical as a Disney character. He wore Oshkosh-by-Gosh overalls with a windbreaker. No winter coat. I thought someone is missing him, someone close, but dismissed the pang of worry.
I said something like, “Hi kid. Watch out,” and turned back to the truck’s cab to gather my things. He stayed close as I headed towards my stairs, close the way children do, so unaware of personal space that if I stopped walking he would have bumped into me. I ignored this. I didn’t want his parents, whoever they were, to discover me talking with their child and get the wrong idea. I should say here too that I was single and self-concerned (which might be a redundancy) and I didn’t want to draw any attention from my neighbors who I, perhaps unfairly, assumed were all armed.
“Do you know where my mom is?” he asked, still following. “I can’t find her and Jaden’s mom said he can’t play outside and I can’t come inside because he’s being mean to his sister.”
I scanned the windows facing my parking lot. There were no over-protective mothers watching us. In fact, most of the curtains in the vicinity were still closed.
“He’s in there somewhere.” He pointed to the nearest building, four stories of rental units with dozens of doors and windows.
“Is that where you live?”
“No. I live in a yellow house with a brown roof.”
So helpful, I thought. He stared at me with curious looking eyes. I was not used to the frank appraisal of children. His cheeks were dark pink from the cold that had not yet lost its February seriousness. I might have been a little squeamish about the snot streaming straight from his nose and into his mouth (something I wouldn’t even see now) but his vulnerability was grossly conspicuous and even I couldn’t look away.
I never wandered far in the winter. I stayed on my block, as near the wood stove and hot chocolate as a child could while still filling as many hours as possible with sled rides down snow piles. One spring day—very similar to the day I met Christopher—the sky was a Dodger-blue dome, both the sun and moon visible. The beach was pulling me and I was restless for the ocean and tide pools and hermit crabs. I wandered alone to the cruise ship dock in Haines, the small town where I was born. Only it wasn’t a cruise ship dock yet, just a long pier left standing by the remnants of the town’s first harbor, reduced by then to tarred and barnacled logs poking up at low tide. Normally my second-oldest brother, Seth, would have been a chaperone, but he had left home an autumn earlier, so sick of this town and its bullshit. My mom, a single mother, was likely working or recovering from work, which on most nights ended hours before she made it home.
At the beach I gathered straw and seashells and really cool rocks. Old shipwrecks lined the shore, sand and ants spilling from their crevices. That seemed to preoccupy most of my time—gathering, exploring, pretending to captain. I couldn’t use the bathroom at the Quickstop unless I bought something, so when the urge came I looked for a private place. The holds of the long-grounded fishing boats were split wide open by a half-century or more of winter storms. There were no leaves on the trees yet, so the bushes wouldn’t work for cover and I really had to go.
I scanned the area for familiar houses. Did I have a friend near who would let me use her bathroom? The land sloped up from the ocean steeply, the Fort Seward part of town poised above the bay. From the beach I could see the field where Seth taught me to fly a kite. He had taken me everywhere with him when he lived at home. When I could not keep up with him, he carried me and when I grew too heavy to be carried he found a solution. (The last time I visited Haines someone I have no memory of said, I remember when Seth used to pull you everywhere in a little red wagon). He would have known what to do, I thought. I needed something near. I spotted a nice house, gray with big beach-facing windows. Behind the glass an adult woman moved about. I don’t know why I chose that house, why I thought it would be safe.
When she answered my knocking I blurted, “Can I use your bathroom?” I think this made her laugh. It’s hard to say. She may have regarded me with the same trepidation I gave Christopher, but in my memory she’s morphed into a cheerful big-haired chubby woman. She smelled like cookies. She let me inside and led me across plush carpets and spotless linoleum to a bathroom near her kitchen.
On my way out I could see Glacier Bay and the beach I’d combed. The snow-covered mountains that normally seemed to loom over town appeared pastoral and dreamy from where I was. I felt like I’d made it inside a glass orb, inside something ideal.
“Did you wash your hands?” the woman asked me.
I hadn’t. She ushered me over to her kitchen sink, turned on the water, and asked my name. I asked her for a cookie. I ran the warm water over my hands long after they were clean, not wanting to leave.
“I don’t have any cookies,” she said.
“Then what’s that smell?”
“It’s a cake.”
“Can I have a piece?”
“It’s for somebody’s wedding. Have you ever seen a wedding cake?” she asked.
“Only at my brother’s wedding. It was strawberry cake with vanilla frosting and it was beautiful but I like vanilla cake and strawberry frosting.”
“What’s your brother’s name, dear?”
“The one who had the wedding cake.”
She knew my oldest brother, we discovered, and had in fact baked the cake I described. I thought for sure she would give me a piece of whatever smelled so good because she knew my oldest brother and everybody liked him, I was certain.
But she only said “I see,” alert to who my family was and why I roamed around unsupervised, inviting myself into the home of a stranger. She propped her hands on her hips, striking the classic Super Woman pose.
“How old are you, Mary Beth?”
“Almost 8,” I said, knowing the exact number of days left until my birthday.
“I bet you should check in at home,” she said. “It’s getting close to dinner time and it sounds like you’re hungry.”
“I guess so.” I dragged my feet all the way to the door.
I was almost back to the road when she called out to me, “When’s your birthday?”
“June 13th!” I said, and headed toward home.
I didn’t know what to do with the boy following me up the stairs. I couldn’t drive him anywhere—what if someone thought I was abducting him? I could have called the police but I didn’t think they would arrive in a timely manner. I had called them recently for a woman who lived alone in the apartment behind mine. She was trapped inside while one of our other neighbors, drug violent and wanting her, kicked in her door. She slipped past him and hid in my apartment. The police came several hours later, long after he finally broke her door open, as though they thought a woman ought to know better than to live alone in East Anchorage. The police inspected her splintered frame, the door that would no longer close or lock, and advised her to make a complaint to the landlord. The woman didn’t insist they arrest the man, as though she too thought she ought to have known better.
I hoped the boy didn’t wander as far from home as I did when I was a child. Haines was a small town, population in the lower four-digit range. The long distances trekked in my youth were likely shorter than my memory recalled. The boy lived in a rough part of Alaska’s biggest city if he lived anywhere near me, and I assumed he did but thought to ask if his mom had dropped him off.
“No. But I wanted to play with Jaden so I came to get him but his mom says he’s in trouble and he can’t play. She’s mean.”
At the door of my apartment I said, “Wait right here. Okay? I’m going to walk you back home.” He nodded. When I came back out he was trying to slip his head between the bars of the balcony.
“Which way is home?” I asked. He disengaged from the railing and looked around.
“It’s somewhere over there.” He pointed south. There were small houses a few blocks into the neighborhood, an elementary school where the District 22 folks voted, and softball fields beyond that, but I didn’t think he came that far on his own.
“Let’s trace your way back, okay? What is your name?”
“All right Christopher, did you come down this hill?” I pointed to Fireoved, a street I suspected was misspelled and then renamed, which ended at my driveway where it intersected with another.
“Yes,” he looked up at me. “Do you think I’m going to be in trouble?”
I thought of the sorts of trouble he could get into in our neighborhood. I had the sense not to scare him with stories of vicious dogs and pedophiles and men with guns. I told him I didn’t know. We walked up the first block of Fireoved, past apartments with blankets for curtains, past a car on flat tires, past an overfull dumpster.
When we got to the first intersection I pointed to a house and asked, “Did you walk by here?”
“Yeah. That dog scared me.” Christopher pointed to an American pit bull laying in a chicken wire enclosure. The dog watched us walk by without lifting his head, his eyes following our feet disinterestedly. Christopher was nervous though and slipped his hand in mine. His mitten felt warm and soft as summer sand. He’s so small, I thought. My concern about being accused of kidnapping lessened some and I held onto him. After a couple blocks the houses appeared tidier, more like homes and less like rentals, but Christopher kept walking.
“What is your mom doing, Christopher?” I asked to make chit chat.
“She was tired so she told us to play outside,” he said.
“You and who?”
“My little sister.”
His little sister. “Where is she?”
We walked for about 15 minutes, straight through a handful of no-light intersections. Christopher didn’t show signs of stopping.
“Are you sure you came this far?” I asked
“Yeah. I remember that house,” he said, pointing to a two-story. “Guess how old I am.”
“Eight.” I estimated up, hoping to flatter him.
“No!” He said and laughed. He held up his one hand and a one thumb. “I’m this many.”
“Wow. Are you going to start school soon?” I asked.
“Yeah, I already did.”
I told Christopher that I was in school too.
“No way!” he said. “You’re way too old to be in school.”
“I’m only 27,” I said, my feelings a little hurt.
“Wow. You’re really old. You’re even older than my mom! She was in school but she had to quit.”
“Are we getting close?” We were almost to the elementary school. I heard children playing on the next block.
“Look, it’s Tommy!” Christopher yelled, pointing with his whole arm to a boy in the distance. “My house is bigger than his!” He began pulling away, his feet itching to run to the other boys.
“Wait a second,” I held his arm. “I need to talk to your mom. Where do you live?” He pointed to a yellowish duplex with a brown roof and leaned away from me, but I didn’t let go. “Which door?”
A silver truck pulled out of the driveway Christopher had pointed to. I held onto his arm as he tried to wriggle out of my grip. The truck was coming toward us. It stopped in front of us and the driver’s side window rolled down. I let go of Christopher’s arm and thought, I’m going to get my ass kicked now. But Christopher froze at the sight of the male driver and I wanted, suddenly, to put myself between him and the man.
“Where’s your sister?” the man asked. Christopher said he didn’t know. And just like that, the man drove on. He barely looked at me. I asked Christopher if that was his dad.
“That’s my sister’s dad. Can I go play with Tommy now?”
“Go for it. I’m going to tell your mom you’re with Tommy. Okay?”
“K. Byeeee,” he said, stretching the last word into two syllables and already running.
I approached the door where I thought Christopher’s mom might be and knocked. When no one answered I knocked harder. As I turned away the door opened and a woman around my age looked at me with sleep-crusted eyes. The house behind her was dark. She wore pajama bottoms, and her blonde hair hung in long tangles over a faded t-shirt.
“Hi,” I said, hoping I didn’t look like a crazy or a missionary. “I live by the highway, on Fireoved and Taku. Christopher walked all the way over there. By himself. I brought him home.”
“Thanks,” she said and shut the door. Firmly.
The night before my eighth birthday, a special cake arrived at the American Legion where my mom bartended. She didn’t ask why I was gifted that cake or how I met the cake maker. Perhaps she already knew. The cake was suited for a princess, tiered like wedding confection, strawberry frosting over rich chocolate and a secret vanilla heart. But as delicious and pretty as it was I felt hollow when my mom brought it home, embarrassed that it was delivered to a bar, embarrassed that I’d shown that woman how lonely I was. I don’t know if it was that day or sometime soon after that I took to hiding in the gutted hold of my favorite wreck, where even on hot afternoons the sand inside stayed cool and damp. I wasn’t afraid of the beetles or the sandworms that sheltered there. I wanted my brothers to come looking for me, but they had moved on. That summer I carried the sounds of waves and the smells of tar and seawater and rotting boards.
When I walked home from Christopher’s the silver truck passed me twice. The man, at least, was looking for his daughter. I was angry because I thought I knew something of the longing that pulled that boy so far away from his front yard. I assured myself that he had good instincts. He was the kind of kid who would look for what he needed, regardless of how far it took him, and therein laid the tightrope of success and tragedy. Because I can’t ever forget him I let my hope for Christopher swell in me like a cake rising.
Mary Kudenov is an MFA candidate in University of Alaska Anchorage’s Low-Residency Creative Writing and Literary Arts Program. Her work has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Chautauqua, Permafrost, The Citron Review, and F Magazine. Mary has essays forthcoming in Chautauqua, Vela, and The Southampton Review.