Now there was a rabbit in the sky.
The figure moved, urged on by the light breezes that whipped the light-brown hair over his scalp and blew ripples in his Disneyworld shirt as he lay on the ground. Pretty bunny. But too slow. If something were chasing it…
Another cloud began to take shape directly behind the puffy white rabbit. The cotton-like mass melted and formed, sculpted by the gentle wind. Now it was a cat, and the celestial chase was on.
“Don’t let ‘im getcha!” He screamed, waving at the still-shifting mass that resembled the rabbit. “Run, run, run, bunny!”
The two figures just crept along, but the cat was gaining.
The bunny heard…and changed. What were long ears blew sideways, and the rabbit’s head dissolved. The body had already begun to blow out; spreading and losing definition. By the time the cat-cloud reached it, the rabbit was totally gone. By way of punishment for ensuing, the cat began to erode as well.
“Yay!” He screamed, and held out his arms toward the heavens to clap. “No bunny for you, cat!” He whooped and clapped some more, then fell silent to watch for other shapes.
The two clouds joined, and continued to sculpt. They fused together to form an eagle that spread across the sky. He could imagine those gargantuan wings singing along the crosscurrents of air in the heavens, the bright dot of blue for the eye searching the Earth for tasty morsels, and suddenly he didn’t like the eagle at all. Not one bit. It was searching for him, he knew; but before his fear had gotten the best of him the clouds shifted again, changed, and the eagle melted away to form a nondescript shape. It changed some more and now it was a mouse. Harmless enough.
Joshua sighed, bored with acting audience to the forever changing blue stage above him, and sat up. Drifts of sand fell from his body to form miniature dunes on his jeans. Some stray sand had found their way into his sneakers and he moved his feet, wincing as the sharp grains scratched the skin between his toes. Then he laughed and kicked off his Pro-Keds. His running was over for now, and he didn’t need them in the sandbox anyway.
There were toys in here, too. A Tonka dump-truck with wheels that had rusted in place was half-buried, its tinny radiator facing the sky in gasping protest. Joshua reached over and plucked it out of its sandy grave. The yellow paint had grated down to metal in some places, where corrosion had set in like disease to eagerly rust the spot brown. At least the bay still worked, and he rocked the dumper back and forth, its small hinges squealing with bits of sand and rust. He pushed the truck along, its wheels digging furrows in the sand.
“Brmmm! Brmmm!” he shouted, and moved the rubber exhaust pipes. He scooped up sand with a green pail and plopped it in the dumper, then moved the truck forward to one corner of the sandbox and relieved its mock-load against the layer of three stacked railroad-ties forming the walls of the box.
“Earthquake,” he said softly, and pushed a load of sand over the dump-truck, burying it. He was tired of this game.
A blue plastic shovel stuck in the sand, handle-down. He took it up, and now he was farmer MacDonald--flattening the soil and preparing it for seeding. He had never seen a real farm, but he saw this done on Sesame Street. That farmer had grown beans. He patted the sand down in some places and cut it with the edge of the shovel in others. There. All set for the seeds…but of course there weren’t any. Even if there were, Joshua noticed, it would be difficult to poke finger holes in the dry sand, which caved in on itself. Okee-dokee. This game had also grown boring.
He laid down again, feeling the warm sun on his face. There were fewer clouds now, and those that were there formed things that even his active imagination couldn’t classify.
An occasional droning of a far-away engine brought the small dark dot of plane into view, coursing its way across the sky like an ant across a blue wall. He knew there were people in them, and that was funny because planes got so small when they flew. They were big, huge things on the ground. He had been in planes before, and was so scared they had to put him out to make him stop crying. When he woke, he was always in a new place—poof. Like magic.
The last time the magic brought him here, to California. He liked the weather. It was warmer than his old home in Chicago, but the house he lived in reminded him of the all the others: big birds of prey that swallowed him up in drab walls that lacked windows. It frightened him, but now and then he got away and went outside.
He closed his eyes, and saw red where the sunlight bled through his eyelids. Spreading his arms, he flapped arcs in the sand, like he used to do with snow in New York. Now that was fun! He could remember waking up to the ghostly white glare through the window, and if he stood on his bed he could peer through to marvel at the blanket of snow that fell during the previous night. After lunch, if he was good, he would get bundled up in his red jacket with the funny hat that dangled drawstrings at his chin so he could help build snowmen and have snowball fights. He missed that, but really this was just as good. It was almost always sunny here.
Sleep almost took him. The sand underneath him was warm, and the sunlight increased his fatigue—he had been running a lot today—and the sticky fingers of slumber almost gouged into him. No, he couldn’t have that. If he fell asleep, that would end his fun. He opened his eyes. There was something there, standing over him.
He reeled back; got ready to run, then stopped. The shadow that stood in the glaring white started to take shape, and that shape was far from intimidating. Joshua blinked, and the sunlight died from his eyes to reveal a blonde-haired young boy. He sat down again.
“Hi,” Josh said. “M’names Josh. What’s yours?”
The boy said nothing, and for a moment he looked as though he were going to run. But now Joshua was smiling and holding out his hand. He knew he made friends easily; they told him so at home.
“Hi,” the boy finally said, though hesitantly, and stuck out his own hand. “My name’s Kevin. Kevin Travers. I live there,” and he turned to point to the brown house directly behind them. “Whatcha doin’ in my sandbox?”
“Oh…buildin’ stuff,” Joshua said dreamily, and dug out the dump-truck. “Wanna help?”
Again, the boy looked unsure. “My mom’s over at the Kelley’s. She’s comin’ home soon. Then I gotta go in for dinner.”
Josh’s stomach growled, and he was suddenly aware of the one thing he would miss about being home. But that was okay. He could do without food for a while. He shrugged. “S’okay. I gotta go home soon, too.”
Kevin smiled, and stepped into the sandbox. “Whatcha want to build? I got some more toys and stuff in the shed…”
Joshua shook his head. “Nope, nope, nope. We’re gonna build a castle. Like at the seashore. Ever been there?”
“Once,” Kevin said thoughtfully. “Mom took me. I found a starfish.” He glanced over his shoulder. “Mom’s over at the Kelley’s now.”
“What we need first is some water,” Joshua said. “Sand’s too dry. Got to make cakes. Sand won’t pack. Got any water?”
“Yeah,” Kevin said. The interest in his new acquaintance was growing. “See that green bucket? We could fill it.”
Joshua grabbed the pail and handed it to Kevin. It took three trips to the spigot outside the brown house to get the bleached-white sand dark with moisture. When Kevin was finished dumping, Josh’s pants were soaked down to the underwear, and his socks dangled soggily at the ends of his feet. Kevin stepped into the sandbox.
“I never built a whole castle before,” Kevin said uneasily.
Joshua smiled. “It’s easy. First, we fill up the bucket,” and he tipped the pail over and scooped up wet sand. He packed it, and sheathed the excess off the top. Then he dumped it over, and shook the pail until a neat cake of sand came free of the plastic walls. Kevin gasped appreciably. “See?” Joshua said. “It’s easy.” He mashed the cake flat with one palm. “Ya got another pail? Cups too?”
Kevin nodded and bounded off. A few moments later he came back with two more buckets and two small plastic cups. “We’re gonna have to wash these,” he said, holding the cups. “I got ‘em from the kitchen. Mom’ll pitch a fit.” He threw the bounty in the sandbox and stepped in after them.
“You be the brickmaker,” Joshua said. “And I’ll build. Okay?”
“What’s a brickmaker?”
“You make the cakes,” and Joshua handed Kevin the buckets and cups. “I’ll tell you what to make. If I say ‘cake,’ you fill a bucket. If I say ‘cookie,’ you fill a cup. ‘Kay?”
Kevin shrugged. “Okay.”
“Cake. Three of ‘em.”
Kevin took up the pail and filled it. Joshua helped him skim the top and turn it over, but the cake broke when Kevin tried lifting the pail free. “Try it again,” Joshua said patiently. “Ya gotta shake it…fast.”
Kevin tried again, and a perfect dome of molded sand came out of the bottom. He smiled proudly.
“Now ya gotta put your fingers under it and lift,” Joshua instructed. “Ya gotta do it careful, or it’ll break. Give it to me.”
Kevin combed under the sand, and struggled to lift the load. His thin arms trembled violently, and he had to put it down. “I…can’t,” he said.
“Okay,” Joshua said. “Then you just make ‘em. I’ll lift.” And he took up the cake of sand and placed it where his imagination dictated. “I need two more cakes.”
Kevin made them as instructed, and Joshua placed them in a tight bundle in the center of the sandbox. “See, this is gonna be the main building. We need lotsa sand for that. I think we need three more cakes.”
Again Kevin obliged, and soon there were six large bundles of sand grouped in pairs. Kevin watched as Joshua filled in the cracks formed by the sloping walls of the sand domes.
“Five cookies, chocolate-chip!” Joshua said, and Kevin giggled. The cups were easier to handle, and Kevin handed five small bundles to Joshua, one at a time.
“What are those for,” Kevin asked. He was pushing his fingers under the last cupful.
Joshua didn’t say anything for a moment; he was still filling gaps with the cupfuls of sand lying next to him. “Huh?”
“Whatcha gonna use those for,” Kevin repeated.
“Oh. Those are…” and he thought. Why did he ask for the cupfuls? An idea came to him. “Those are for the tower. Y’know. Where the prince lives.”
Joshua filled in the last of the cracks, and now he scooped up the smaller bundles of sand and carefully placed them on top. He used an index finger to smooth out the seam between the newly installed tower and the larger bucketfuls underneath. “Yeah. Prince. He lives here.”
Kevin shook his head. “Why would he live way up there?”
Joshua finished installing, and four small towers stood on the top of the castle. One cupful capped its four brothers. “He lives up here to be free,” Joshua said. “So he can be high up so they can’t watch him.”
“The eagles,” Joshua said. “There. The castle’s almost done.” He grabbed a stray twig and stuck it ceremoniously into the topmost bundle. “Now we gotta make the gate. I need cookies. Lots of ‘em.”
“Lots,” Joshua said. “I’ll tell ya when to stop.”
Kevin started, eager to make the smaller, easier bundles. As he worked, he glanced up at Joshua. “What’s your name again?”
“Josh,” he said, and smiled. “I remember yours. It’s Kevin, right? Kevin Travers.”
“Yeah,” Kevin said. “What’s your last name.”
Joshua shrugged. “Don’t got one.” He began to take sand bundles from Kevin and line them around the castle.
Kevin stopped. “What do ya mean you don’t got one! Everybody’s got a last name!”
“I used to a long time ago. I forgot it.”
Kevin shook his head. “You can’t forget your last name. What’s your dad’s last name?”
Joshua sighed. He wasn’t having fun answering Kevin’s probing questions, and fatigue was starting to make his head hurt. The searing sunshine blasted the back of his neck, and he knew there would be a sunburn where his unprotected skin felt itchy. He could feel his temper draining from his system in gushes, and he clenched his fists. A last name. Fast. Everyone’s got one.
“Oh, yeah,” Joshua said, continuing to line up the sand domes. “Last name’s Cooper. M’name’s Josh Cooper.”
Kevin began making the cakes again, satisfied. “What kind of prince lives here?” he asked.
Joshua looked up, surprised. “Oh. He’s real strong.”
“Why does he live up here again?”
Joshua lined up ten small cakes that formed a crude corner to a rectangle partially surrounding the castle. The dump-truck was in the way, and he hoisted it out of the sandbox where it landed on the Travers’ lawn with a clatter. He looked up at Kevin and smiled. “So the eagles can’t watch him. They always watch people, and sometimes they swoop down and getcha…”
Kevin handed Joshua another pile. “Dad says eagles only eat mice and stuff,” he said feebly. He scanned the clear sky, looking for diving birds.
“They don’t eat ya!” Joshua shouted, and laughed. “No, no. They swoop down after lookin’ at ya for a long time. Then they take ya away.” His voice drowned out, and the curve of smile died from his lips. “An’ ya never come back.” He looked up, and rubbed the back of his neck. There would definitely be sunburn tonight. He held his hand out to Kevin, but the cupfuls had run out. Kevin quickly dipped two of the cups into the sand and constructed two more cakes, which he held out to Joshua.
“Are there lots of eagles around, Josh?” he asked, a tremor of fear chilling his voice a few degrees.
Joshua was looking at the castle, one hand still at the back of his neck. “Yup,” he said flatly. “They’re all over. And ya gotta be careful.”
“S’okay.” Kevin said. “They won’t get me. My dad says I can run real fast.” But his voice still trembled, and his smile was forced. Again his eyes scanned the sky.
Joshua shook his head. “They only want people who live in castles. You don’t have to worry.” He smiled, then surveyed the work. “Hey—I need lots more cookies!”
“Comin’ up,” Kevin said, relieved to change the subject. He dipped the two cups in the dirt at the same time, and tamped down both with each palm. He was getting used to the task. “You live around here?”
Joshua took the two bricks and shook his head. This was dangerous ground.
“Where ya from?”
“Faaaar away,” Joshua said lazily, and held out his hands for more bricks. He looked up when Kevin didn’t move. “I’m visiting here.”
“Oh,” Kevin said, and continued his work.
The sun started to burn its way down the other side of the sky, and a summer breeze whipped at the two boys. Joshua shuddered, his wet clothes growing frigid with the touching wind. The shadows along the grassy backyard were long when Joshua finally stopped asking for cupfuls of sand. He sat back, looking at the near-finished product.
“Looks neat,” Kevin offered. “Are we done?”
Joshua grabbed another small twig. “Almost. Now we gotta make doors and windows.”
“Doors and windows?”
Joshua nodded. “Yeah. Y’know, so the prince can get out.”
“If he gets out, won’t the eagles get him?”
Joshua thought about that for a moment, then smiled slyly. “Not if he’s careful. Eagles are dumb.”
“Here,” Joshua said. “Watch what I do,” and he scratched out a large door on the front of the sand edifice. “See? Just draw ‘em. Here,” and he broke his twig, giving one half to Kevin. “Make lots of doors all over the place. The prince likes lots of doors so he can go outside.”
“What about windows?”
Joshua thought, licking his lips. “Make ‘em big.”
“So in case the doors get locked, he can still get out.”
“Oh,” Kevin said, and sat cross-legged over one wall of the castle. “Josh?”
“What?” Joshua was busy with another wall of the castle, etching away.
“I like you.”
Joshua’s smile beamed proudly over his round face, and he patted Kevin on the shoulder. “I like you, too, Kev—”
And then he stopped, staring at something over Kevin’s shoulder. His face went ashen.
“Hey Josh,” Kevin said quietly. “S’matter?” He turned to look behind him, and he saw it, too.
There were five men standing near the sandbox, their faces stony. Three of them wore what looked like wine-colored pajamas with badges pinned to their breasts that showed their pictures through clear plastic.
The other two were policemen. A sixth man wearing a white lab coat was crossing the green lawn, coming towards the sandbox. He was talking to a blonde-haired woman wearing a blue dress and white blouse. Some of the conversation could be heard as they approached.
“…and when I saw them playing, I knew something was wrong. Oh, God.”
“Mom?” Kevin asked softly.
One of the burgundy men turned to the woman. “What’s his name?”
The woman had been crying. Her eyes were red-rimmed and wide with fear. “Kevin,” she rasped.
The man leaned over, putting his hands on his knees. “Hi, Kevin.” His voice sounded like a machine clotted with gravel. “Why don’t you come over here, okay pal?”
Kevin looked at Josh, then at his mother. He started to stand.
Josh’s face was still grey, but he suddenly grabbed Kevin by the ankle. The woman let out a strangled cry, and the policemen started forward. The burgundy man was still hunched over, but he held out a hand to stop the advancing patrolmen.
“NO!” Josh yelled. “He’s my friend!”
“Josh,” the burgundy man said softly. “You shouldn’t have left without permission. You were told never to do that again, remember? Now let go of Kevin—”
“He can’t go! I won’t let him! We’re playin’…” tears started to well up in Joshua’s eyes. “I don’t want to go home.”
“Josh,” the man said again. “Let go of Kevin’s foot.”
“Mom, it hurts,” Kevin said, and the woman choked back tears. Mascara ran from her eyes, and a trembling hand covered her mouth.
“Josh, you’re being a very bad boy. A very bad boy,” the man said again, his voice becoming sterner. “Dr. Cooper is here, Josh. I don’t think he likes the way you’re behaving.”
To emphasize, the man in the white lab coat frowned and shook his head. “I’m very disappointed in you, Joshua.”
Tears were streaming out of Joshua’s eyes. “I ain’t goin’ home,” he said, and his fingers whitened on Kevin’s ankle. The boy howled in pain.
“NOW!” the man in burgundy said, and five men lunged.
A patrolman pried Joshua’s fingers loose from Kevin’s ankle, and the boy ran free. Mrs. Travers enveloped her son in a tight bear-hug.
“I don’t wanna go home,” Joshua cried, and fought. A thick hairy arm whipped around and caught one of the burgundy men across the face. Blood poured from the man’s nose, but he managed to hold on to that arm, bringing it around Joshua’s massive back, where he pinned it.
“I don’t wanna go home, I don’t wanna go home!” Joshua shouted. He stood up, dragging the one man off his feet. His right hand was still pinned behind his back, and with his left, he flailed wildly. Another burgundy man caught it, nearly got thrown, and brought it forcibly to Joshua’s side. The two policemen held his legs, and Joshua fell to his knees.
The man in the white lab coat was slowly filling a hypodermic syringe. Seeing his patient under control, he advanced and administered the dose. It worked quickly. The struggle was over.
Joshua looked around groggily. The afternoon sun was blinding, and all he could see through the white haze were the darker blobs of people around him. He looked down at the castle. He knew that from all of his thrashing, it should be demolished. But it still looked whole, the towers still in place, still holding the prince. He fought against the coming sleep, and focused his eyes on the smallest of the figures staring at him. Kevin was still holding fast to his mother.
“Better erase the doors, Kev,” he said, his voice slurring. “Prince can’t get away from the eagles. They’re not so dumb, sometimes.”
And then Joshua collapsed, knowing that when he awoke, he would be home.