Alan Lindsay & Dennis Anfuso
There was an old woman
Who lived in a shoe
She had so many children
She didn’t know what to do
So she gave them all broth
Without any bread
And whipped them all soundly
And sent them to bed.
“Why did she do that?”
Buddy’s mother closed her eyes and drooped her head as she closed the book.
“You’re not spose to hit children.” Buddy’s whole body shook as he said it. He knew when something was right and when something was wrong. His mother never hit him—or Ellen, or Scnapsy. Sometime she hit Scnapsy, but that was only if he peed on the rug.
“She was old.” His mother was tucking the blankets in tight around him. She handed him his teddy bear. “And she was poor. And all those children were just too much for her.”
“But you’re not spose to hit,” Buddy insisted. “You wouldn’t hit.”
“No, you’re not. And I wouldn’t. But sometimes even grown ups....” She kissed him on the forehead. Her breath was smoky.
“But you don’t,” said Buddy.
His mother turned out the light. Scnapsy jumped on the bed. He always jumped on the bed. And then his mother picked him up and carried him into the hallway and closed the door down to a crack, so just a little light came in. The light made a line across Buddy’s bed, and he could just make out the stars on his blanket.
“Good night, my angel,” said his mother through the door.
The smell of smoke came in the room. That happened every night. It floated all the way up the stairs and down the hall through the crack in the door. Like a ghost. Mommy was downstairs in the chair. And Scnapsy barked. And you’re not spose to hit people. And he didn’t like soup anyway. Bread was good. Scnapsy wasn’t allowed to bark. And then it was dark and then the lights came on and got little and got big and then the wind blew loud and the oven was on and door was open or the sun turned on and the house rose way up into the sky and then—crash. The glass broke.
The monster had him, the yellow giant. The world screamed. Everything was hot and wet. He was all sweaty. The red light swung around like a puppet’s head. And the faceless yellow giant dragged him to the broken window. And he couldn’t scream, he wanted to scream but he couldn’t breathe. His mother’s smoke was in his nose like pudding. And he fought the yellow giant but the faceless giant dragged him outdoors in the wet cold, down the cold ladder, down the steep ladder. He coughed and he wiggled until he almost fell.
“You’ll be all right. Everything’s all right,” the yellow giant said. “You’re safe.” And his voice was a monster.
And they gave Buddy to a man who wrapped him in a blanket. And the fire roared like a lion and jumped at the stars. And he could feel it.
Beth says there’s no need to panic. I’m sure she’s right. But the new boy has been missing all afternoon. “Just calm down,” she said. “You’re supposed to be the calm one around here.” (That British accent always seems to have the right effect, doesn’t it?) She told me I was no help right now, and she insisted they don’t need me. He’s probably just sitting in a closet somewhere.
So I’m here, calming myself down. I could walk the labyrinth, but I’m not going to. I’m just going to calm down. It’s a big house, plenty of room for a child to hide. I don’t know. Ever since I heard his story—lost his whole family—I’ve been having flashbacks to Suzy. Suzy came for such trauma and we lost her so quickly.
I wish Gary were here. But Gary’s gone down to bail Charlie out of some fiasco he got involved in at RISD. All very hush hush.
We need to keep better watch on these kids! Buddy doesn’t understand that he’s alone now, except for us. He announced at lunch he was going away to Mother Goose Land to find his mother!
Over the years we have had so many others like him that just didn’t adjust.
Doug was sure he’d find him in the Mother Goose Room at the end of his hall. But there was no sign he’d ever even gone there. That leaves only 27 rooms and who knows how many corridors and hiding places he may be in in this crazy house.
He could be anywhere. But lots of people are looking for him: Beth and Doug and and a bunch of the older kids. What if he’s got himself outside?
Gwen jumped up. She didn’t even close the book. The house was so big, she had to think of all the ways a little boy might find his way out.
Still, it was odd to feel this sense of panic this time. Did it have something to do with Gary and Charlie? Those two home bodies; they’d hardly left the OzHouse grounds in years. And Buddy wasn’t the first child to hide himself away. They were always found—all but Suzy.
Now they’d lost Charlie too—but that was expected. Charlie was at college—a few years late, but gone at last and, they thought, for good. When he departed for art school, Gwen finally managed to think of him as their most unqualified success. Ten years he’d lived among them. He’d entered as an angry, frustrated, silent young man prone to violence and left—well—better. He certainly talked more. And he hadn’t hit any one in years.
So maybe that didn’t exactly constitute an unqualified success, but it was far more than anyone had expected at the start. And now the news was that maybe he hadn’t outgrown the violence after all. He’d emailed with a hint of something he’d done. Maybe it was just anger that came out, but it could have been violence. Almost certainly there had been a threat of expulsion. Security had been called in. Gary passed the note around. It made people laugh at first: “That philistine Frewer, eye-candy to that stunning nothing! Mr. toothpaste Grumbachers! Mr. Rainbow Paintbox splayed like a frozen fawn...” Typically impressionistic, not rich on detail. Gary suspected he’d written the note in fury and sent it by accident. It was impossible to figure out exactly what was going on. No one at the school would tell him. So his foster dad ran down to RISD to get to the bottom of things.
Gwen pulled on the front doors. They were firmly locked.
The truth was, if anyone needed Gwen’s mental energy right now it was probably Charlie. Buddy would be okay. Or maybe Gary. Gwen was always amazed to find how much she relied on him. Not very enlightened, she knew. More breathing, then! More yoga! More counting her steps in the labyrinth!
“No luck yet.” Doug reported. He’d met her at the back door that led down past the wall and out to the wood. “I’ve already checked all the doors. There’s no way he could’ve gotten out.”
“That’s what we said about Suzy.”
Doug laughed. “That was a long time ago.”
“It was ten years ago,” she reminded him. “A quiet little girl comes to the house, she sulks around the house for two days. No one can get to her. And then just like that, she’s gone.”
Just then two little girls, Brittney and Samantha, best buddies, came up to the pair of grown ups to report in, “We looked in the Mother Goose Room and Wonderland and the Library of Alexandria.”
“Good, good, nice job Brittney, Samantha. Just keep looking.”
“Where?” asked Samantha.
“Anywhere at all.” And off they trudged.
“I think we should look in the TV room,” said Brittney as they walked away. “Maybe Sponge Bob is on.”
“Sponge Bob is always on.”
“See, no one’s worried,” said Doug.
“And I’m supposed to take my cue from a six-year old?”
“Maybe you need to talk to Beth,” said Doug.
“Maybe I need to look for Buddy.”
You do your best to help someone, sometimes it just makes things worse. I just trucked myself all the way down here to RISD, and all I did was piss Charlie off. Some people just don’t want help.
I asked him if he was coming back with me. I wanted him to say no. I wanted him to say he was going to stick it out. Well, he did say no. But not because he was eager to stay at art school. No, it was because he was afraid to come home. What the hell was he afraid of?
Maybe he was just mad. What he said was “Sometimes when you go back, everything’s just the same as it was and sometimes everything’s changed.”
One step at a time. Here’s how it went: I asked him what happened; why was he in trouble again half way through his first semester away? That was his whole reply. He seemed to think it was relevant. I never got the story out of him. And since I’m not his legal parent, I didn’t get the story out of anyone. At least not all of it. Paying the bills affords you no rights of any kind in this country.
As close as I can discover, he did something in class which someone interpreted as threatening. I don’t imagine he actually attacked anyone. He hasn’t been like that in years. And I can’t imagine he would run around the room like a bull in a china shop. (Although I suppose he’d like to do that now and again—but then again, who wouldn’t? If a teacher for whom Charlie—rightly or wrongly—had little respect praised some sophomoric effort by another student and overlooked Charlie’s own heartfelt and painstakingly rendered work, I can picture Charlie imagining himself doing the Christ among the moneychangers routine. But I can’t picture him actually DOING it. We got him past all that. I’m sure of it.)
From what I can tell, it seems he had a problem with a particular student over a painting, I believe it was one that Charlie was working on—probably one of his fantasy pieces. What happened then? Well I think some pretentious classmate looked over from the still life or figure that they were supposed to be painting and said something to the effect: Fantasy is not ART.
Did Charlie raise his hand as though to swing at him? Did he kick his easel over? Did he scatter his art supplies around the room? The “father” in me wishes he was there to splay the philistine’s hackwork over his head. After all we’ve done for that poor child, to have people discouraging him in the one environment where he feels he’s somebody.
I know, I know. Splaying wet canvasses over fool’s heads solves nothing. I’m sure I wouldn’t and he didn’t. What he did I don’t know: pushed him, yelled at him, kicked over the bowl of fruit. Something.
Whatever the event, the student files a complaint and Charlie is summoned to the dean.
Charlie wouldn’t tell me. Nor would the dean, nor the instructor. I couldn’t get the name of the student. I guess it doesn’t matter. I got the impression there was a girl in it somewhere.
He’s still so full of anger. He knows exactly how things are and how they should be, he gets so frustrated when no one else sees what to him is so plain. Sometimes I think he’s recovered. More often I think, like with alcoholics, it’s a matter of endless recovering for Charlie. Maybe for all of us. But that anger, it hides away for months at a time; but it’s never further beneath the surface than the depth of a fingernail. He was warned. He wasn’t expelled. And he decided not to leave.
What did Charlie tell me—before I got him so angry? He said he thinks school is stifling his real talent—making him learn all sorts of irrelevant things about dead painters, stuff like that. The sort of thing a young guy says when he’s full of spleen and doesn’t have the experience to know better.
I said “if you don’t want my help and you’re not gonna fix whatever the problem was yourself, then just give up. Come home.” I was hoping he’d feel challenged to stay. But that was it: he was afraid of coming back to OzHouse—funny isn’t it when for all those years he wouldn’t leave? “It won’t be the same now,” he said. “When you go back, after you’ve been away, sometimes it’s the same—as though time hasn’t passed at all; but usually it’s different.” Like he’d come back this time, and it wouldn’t be home any more.
Come to think of it, that was an odd thing to say, coming from a guy who’s never gone back to anyplace he ever left in his life. But he’s read all the books—all the books in the house I think. I told him I thought he was afraid he wouldn’t ever leave again if he returned before he was through with his degree. Hit a nerve with that one. He said, “Wake up, Gary. That’s not a place people get to stay, is it?” And then he added before I could respond, “You and your brother, and Gwen and Beth—you’re the only ones that get to shelter yourselves away in that pretty mansion.”
Of course I denied it. But I could just tell he wanted to fight. He was just looking for something to attack.
I told him what I always tell him: Be patient, your world’s gonna be big. Someone’s gonna see what you can do. Someone here, at RISD who has connections to that world. OzHouse is nothing, it’s tiny compared to what’s out there for it.
“There are whole worlds in OzHouse,” he said.
Sometimes I don’t think he and I are having the same conversation. “But that’s just an illusion of architecture,” I told him. He knows how art works. And for people like him the illusion may be a danger. We were never meant to be a monastery.
I thought I had him calmed down, but then there was this: Charlie said he had something to tell me. It was about the girl who ran away years ago. He mentioned her several times. But in the end, he didn’t say whatever it was. At least I don’t think he did. He said something, but it was pretty trivial, funny even. Maybe it was me. I didn’t exactly hurry him to the point when he first mentioned her name.
“I been thinking about, you know, that girl that disappeared,” he said.
“Suzy?” I said. “It was a long time ago.” I didn’t want to go over that again.
“I know but…” then he paused.
“We can’t live that way,” I said. “Some things are just out of our hands.” Suddenly I felt the whole weight of the trauma that led us to convert our private Oz house into this OzHouse to help kids—the hardest years of our lives, any of us—and how once we got over the pain of not having children of our own, there was quite nearly the pain of losing OzHouse when we lost Suzy. Charlie knew what I was feeling. I didn’t want him to say anything about Suzy or those days. Maybe he thought I was wondering about his part in it. I wasn’t.
“That’s not it,” he said when I asked him if he knew something we didn’t. But then he went on, tentatively, “not that I don’t.” But then he paused, “I can’t really say.” For a second I was afraid. Funny. It was the way he said it. He didn’t kill her, the way the police thought. But the thing we never got to the bottom of was the thought that he drove her away. (I think Beth has always blamed him.) Then he went into the funny thing; it was about the Narnia room. I knew he’d been there; he’d signed the guest book years ago. “It says in the book you’re not supposed to mention the room to anyone whose name isn’t in the book,” he said. “Well, I overheard Suzy mention it to one of the other kids. I forget which one. I never got very close to them. She wasn’t supposed to. His name wasn’t in the book. That’s why I was yelling at her.”
So it came down to that. He’d never mentioned to anyone what he really knew about Suzy because of a silly rule he’d found in a book that was part of a children’s game. We knew about Suzy, too, of course. At the time theirs were probably the only names in the book. She wanted to talk about it, but like all the kids she was afraid of Charlie.
Still, I should have been astonished that a room—that even THAT room—could be so important to Charlie. But I know what he means. How many hours have I spent reading in the reclining throne in the Persian room? The flying carpet, the magic lamp, the complete set of Burton, the minarets and djinn I painted all over the walls. Yes, there’s something about that leather chair in that mahogany room—that ambiance, it’s as close to magic as anything in this world can be: the right cup of coffee in the proper mug on the proper table by the proper chair under the perfect lamp.
At first I almost laughed. All these years, I knew the explanation he refused to make at the time would be that simple. But I didn’t have any idea why he’d let himself get into all that trouble rather than confess something so trivial. I thought it was exceptionally foolish of him and I told him so.
And then I thought of something else.
“Suzy never spoke to anyone,” I said.
“Maybe not when you were around.”
“You mean to tell me, she started talking and you yelled at her for it? Who gives a damn what she said. Do you realize you might have driven her over the edge just when she was coming back? Do you realize…” Suddenly I was blaming him—the only one who never had. He yelled at me then.
“That room was very important to me. I spent days and days there. I wasn’t going to have her destroy…”
“But why didn’t you tell me?”
“Your name’s not in the book,” he almost screamed it. “You never signed it.”
Oh my God. Who would have thought he’d take our scribbled instructions so seriously? “Why are you telling me now?” I asked.
“I guess it doesn’t matter now. It doesn’t work anymore anyway. Not for me.”
I didn’t bother to ask him to explain that one. It seemed like a ploy to avoid the issue.
He finally said, “How was I supposed to know she wouldn’t come back?”
Has he carried that guilt all these years—and did I just make it worse? He yelled again and then we both went silent. I could tell I wasn’t doing any good. I wished him well—and I left.
Anyway, I’m back and he isn’t. Nothing has changed of course. Gwen when I got home acted as usual, as though she hadn’t noticed I’d been gone. “Oh, you’re back,” she said. And she kissed me and set back to work helping Doug make supper. “Buddy’s gone and hidden himself away, but we’ve got to eat. I’m hoping the smell will draw him out of hiding.”
It’s amazing to see someone as truly self-possessed as she is. All the Buddhist meditation. You wonder why she even tolerates the rest of us.
Gary put down his pen. He was remembering things about Charlie—the times he’d disappear for days. It was after they stopped worrying about him so much. You never really knew how long he was out of sight; it was easy to think the others were connecting with him. There was school of course. But a lot of the schooling was self-directed, especially with Charlie. And an artistic sensibility like his needs room to develop. He would always lose himself in his art—never more than in those days after Suzy left. There was a time, during Pollack-therapy (Gwen’s invention) when he would spend days on end hurling paint at canvases—hurling cans of the deep red rage of his beaten self at the white canvass, flicking streaks of black, blue, and purple with brushes on top. You had to let him do it. Sometimes you need to stop rage; sometimes you need to let it play itself out. When the boy would tolerate it, Gary hurled paint right along with him, though Gary had very little rage to defuse. He just thought throwing handfuls of paint at walls was fun. And he liked to keep Charlie company, and now and then he got him to laugh. He even thought it helped Charlie to see someone else hurling paint. It got the rage out more quickly. Sometimes they’d fill balloons with paint and chuck them and watch them splat like giant asterisks. This was Gary’s addition to Gwen’s prescription. These were the sessions that most often ended in laughter. Gary avoided red, tending more toward the chartreuse and aquamarine. Now it turns out some of those times when Gary left him alone, Charlie wasn’t in the studio at all, but in the Narnia room. Reading, no doubt. Or just being in the one room in the house where you were least likely to be found. The only access to the room was through the back of a wardrobe they’d purchased in England. It looked just like the one Pauline Baynes had drawn for C.S. Lewis. Some fan of the book had obviously made it. They’d found it in England, ten miles from the nearest railway station, and Gary had modified the back into a door. They filled it with fur coats and just let kids find it. Behind the door was an extraordinary library and playroom the four of them had designed: A great stuffed lion was there, and a smaller one with a red ribbon, and a white rabbit with a pocket watch, and a man of tin and another of clockwork, and dwarfs and dragons, and a patchwork girl and a leprechaun with an expression on his face half a frown and half a smirk, and faeries of all sizes. And there was exactly one genie. A dwarf danced in glee by a fire, and a stuffed goose sat in a corner; it was large enough to sit on and wore a bonnet and a friendly smile. And a caterpillar sat on a mushroom. There was a nightingale on the shoulder of a Chinese emperor in splendid robes. There was a gingerbread dollhouse with candy decorations and a witch inside. Two couches were tied together in the center of the room, and on the wall was the head of a gump that would welcome you, if his batteries were charged, when you entered the room. Hanging from the ceiling over the couches was a pair of great big monkeys with wings. Books lined the walls. A very small Humpty Dumpty sat on the shelf between Mother Goose and Lewis Carroll. And just to the left of the door, visible when you first enter the room was the fancy guest book with a note and a gold fountain pen.
His cell phone rang. It was Doug. He told him about Buddy, and Gwen. “We’re still looking for him,” he said. “Beth thinks we should call the police.”
“Okay, okay,” said Gary. “Just hang on. I’ll be there soon as I can.” And once more he was off to the rescue.
The four of them gathered in Buddy’s room.
“Let’s just be clear headed about this,” said Gary.
“Clear headed nothing,” said Beth. “The boy is not in the house.”
“You remember what happened with Suzy,” said Gary. “The publicity. The things the papers said, the…”
“You can’t compare the two,” said Gwen. “Charlie’s a…”
“Charlie didn’t have anything to do with it. The paper’s don’t need… I mean, weren’t you as surprised as I was that they lit on Charlie based on no evidence at all?”
Doug chuckled. He didn’t think it was so unreasonable for them to latch onto Charlie. But what he said was, “Even if that’s so, there’s no one here they could…”
“You never know what they’ll dig up,” said Gary.
“Let them dig,” said Beth. “We could have a dozen bona fide murderers in the attic. It doesn’t matter. The little boy is missing. I’m calling the police.”
“He can’t have gotten out of the house,” said Gary.
“It’s always possible…” Doug began.
“And it doesn’t bloody matter anyway, does it? You worry about publicity. Imagine the publicity if we don’t find him.”
“He’s perfectly safe wherever he is,” Gary insisted.
“You got a house here full of guns and swords and what else, and a little boy loose, and you say he can’t hurt himself?”
“A. The guns are antiques. They don’t work. And B. the swords are clamped to the walls with…”
“Then think about that if you’re worried about the press,” Beth cut him off. “We wait and we still don’t find him. And then we call the police and the press comes into the house and takes pictures of the swords.”
“I think everyone’s getting a little out of hand here,” Gwen interrupted.
“Damn right, I’m getting out of hand. We’ve waited too bloody long already…”
“Gwen?” said Doug, seeking her opinion.
“She’s right of course,” said Gwen. “We have to.”
That was all Beth needed; she went to the door. “I’m going to call,” she said.
“Doug?” said Gary.
Beth was going to make the call no matter what. But she stood there for a moment, waiting to hear the answer. “We don’t know he didn’t find a way outside,” said Doug.
“We checked outside,” said Gary. But Beth was already gone.
“Meanwhile we can go back out and keep looking,” said Doug to Gary. “We might still find him in time.”
And then Gary had a thought: “Has anyone looked in the Narnia room?”
“How would he get in the Narnia room?” asked Doug. “He can hardly reach a towel rack.”
But they checked. The three of them went together. The door was closed tight. But they noticed before they opened it that little fingers could certainly fit under the doors and pull them open.
“Could he be that clever?” asked Doug.
“Just go in,” said Gwen.
Doug called the boy’s name as soon as the door was open. They crawled in past the fur coats, pushed the back wall out on its quiet hinges. “Buddy,” Doug called again.
“Well, hello there.” But it was just the voice of the gump from the wall. “I see you have found the room of secrets. Come in, come in.” The voice was accompanied by the chug and whir of a motor and hydraulic clicks.
Everything in the room looked the same as it always did. Green light streamed in through the stained glass Oz sign Gwen had made and Doug had installed below the eaves. Doug pulled a string and a giant yellow, sun-like orb illuminated the room and the gump talked again. The books were all neatly on the shelves. There was no sign of Buddy.
But then Gwen noticed something. “Look,” she said. Inside the two couches of the gump’s body lay an open book. Doug picked it up, “Mother Goose,” he said. “So he has been here.”
“Not necessarily,” said Gwen. But then she picked up Buddy’s bear and a box of plastic army men he’d brought with him to the house.
Gary looked at the guest book. “He couldn’t very well have signed his name,” said Doug.
The book was still open to the first page. After all these years. No more than a dozen children had ever found the room. Suzy’s name was the first on the list. Charlie’s was second. Most of the rest belonged to children that none of them could easily attach faces to anymore. The last one, a child now in the house.
“Jessica’s been here,” said Gary.
“She’s never mentioned it,” said Gwen.
“None of them ever mention it,” said Doug.
And there was something else. Over the whole bottom of the page was a scribble. Someone had taken a crayon and scribbled over everything the way little kids do when they first discover writing, formless loops.
“Buddy?” said Gwen.
“Or Charlie in his Jackson Pollock phase,” said Gary.
Doug pointed out that if he wasn’t in the room now, it didn’t really matter that he had been there at some point.
“Unless that tells us he is still in the house,” said Gary.
Gwen left the room to resume the search.
“You know why they never mention it?” said Gary to Doug as they crossed back through the wardrobe. “I realized this when I was talking to Charlie this weekend: the four of us have never signed this book.”
Buddy’s little feet in worn red sneakers hardly made a sound as he walked along the rough street. He kept looking around to see if he could find anything that looked like things in the picture in the book, but so far all he could see was grass, trees, and this long rocky street.
It was a warm, sleepy kind of day. The trees in front of OzHouse were all bare and it was always cold outside. But the trees on the road Buddy was walking along were still green, and flowers were growing in thick clusters among the tall grasses.
Buddy put his hands in his pockets. He liked the way it felt when he was scrunched up tight against himself. His fingers played with a plastic army man he had in his right pocket, while his left pocket had nothing but a small hole in it.
“Gotta find that shoe,” he thought to himself as he scuffled along. Twice he stopped and turned around. It had been a long walk for one so young and the road seemed to go off into the distance forever. Maybe he should go back. But he might be almost there, and he had to know if it was her and if she would take him back and they would go to Disney World like she promised. Then things could start to be like they used to be, before the fire.
He saw someone coming toward him. He was pushing something in front of him. Buddy had been warned about talking to strangers, especially men, but there was nowhere to hide, and whoever it was might have already seen him.
It was a man, and he was close enough that Buddy could see his face. He was smiling. His mouth was wide and toothy, and he had a big handlebar mustache unlike anything the boy had ever seen, not at all like Gary’s. The man was pushing a small cart, and he was wearing all white clothes with a small white cap on his head.
Buddy imagined he was an ice cream seller like the Good Humor Man who used to drive up his block when he lived in Manchester. Buddy began looking through his pockets for money, but he only had the one green plastic army man. His tummy rumbled at the thought of ice cream. He had left his lunch uneaten on the table after Jessica told him to be quiet.
Maybe there was a way to get ice cream without money.
“Hello, little fella,” the old man wheezed as they reached each other.
Buddy didn’t say anything.
“You on your way into town? You’re kinda late for the fair. Ended yesterday. I was a vender at the fair.” He waited for Buddy to speak. But the boy just looked at him, so he continued all the same, “Not a bad event though, shame you missed it. We had rides and games and all sorts of goodies.”
At the word “goodies,” Buddy started to speak. He really was hungry.
“I completely sold out hours before the end of the fair,” the man continued as if Buddy was asking him more questions. “Even the venison sold. Can you believe that? Beef sure you expect to sell out of beef, right? But I usually take home several venison and a few chicken. But not this time, no sirree-bob. You live here?” The man laughed as though he’d made a joke.
“Do you sell ice cream?” Buddy finally asked.
“Ice cream? Never heard of that,” the man sounded thoughtful. “I sell pies; can’t you tell?”
“Apple?” the man chuckled. “In a pie?”
“Blueberry? You’re a funny one. Blueberry? You mean Bilberry? I have chicken, beef, and venison. Real pies.”
“Mommy never made that kind of pie,” said Buddy. “Do you have some more?”
“Already told you, sold out. Maybe next year.” The man looked up as though to leave when something seemed to strike him. He turned to Buddy again and asked, “Where do you live?”
“She might take me back. I’d be good. And then she’s gonna take me to Disney World.”
“But...” The old man scratched his head. “Strangest thing I ever saw.”
“Maybe I could live here.”
“You really don’t come from here, do you? I’m sorry I seem so puzzled, young man. It’s just that, you see, this just isn’t a place outsiders get into.” And then he seemed to be talking to himself, “Had some cautionary kids show up a while back. Strangest thing. Thought they were gone.” And then he looked directly at Buddy again. “Are you a cautionary?”
“I don’t think so.” That was not a word Buddy knew, but it was clear the man did not want him to be one.
“Then how’d you get here?”
Buddy became afraid. Was this man going to take him back to OzHouse? But he still had to find his mother. “No, no, no!” he cried and ran past the man towards the village the man had just come from.
He thought the man might follow him; he ran as fast as he could on the rough cobblestones, but when he glanced back he could see the merchant had continued on his way pushing his cart.
“Good,” the boy sighed. “Be careful. Don’t tell nobody nothin’. That’s how you get in trouble.” He decided to avoid anybody he saw until he found the lady he was looking for.
A short while later, a few more people approached from the village, and Buddy wanted to run off and hide, but the trees were too thin, and there were no fences to hide behind, so once again he was forced to stay on the street. But he wouldn’t say a word to these people. No matter what they said to him. His mind was made up.
He saw them from quite a ways off, and he could tell two were women and one looked like a teenager. They were wearing long skirts and kerchiefs on their heads, and Buddy thought they looked friendly. But he wasn’t going to talk to them. No matter how pretty they were. No matter how much they giggled and laughed like his own sisters used to. One even had blonde hair just like his sister Ellen. He wished it was Ellen. But Ellen wasn’t that old; she was only in fourth grade. He really missed her, and he missed Donna, and he really missed his mom.
But the lady he was looking for looked so much like his mom. Maybe it was his mom. Maybe she hadn’t died like everyone said. Maybe she had moved to this town and was taking care of all these other children he had seen in the picture in the book. How happy she’d be when she saw him. He didn’t know how he’d find her, but he knew he had to find her, and he hoped she lived up this street.
He tried not to look at the women as he passed them, but he had to take a peek. Just to be sure it wasn’t Ellen.
The tall woman with the pink and white kerchief caught his eye as he glanced over.
“And what’s your name?” she asked with a singsong smiley voice that forced Buddy to stop and look at her. He was smiling even before he realized he was doing it.
“Buddy? That’s a new one. Nice to meet you, Buddy,” the woman said through a big smile.
“And I thought by now we’d met them all,” said the teenager. “Hello, Buddy.” And then she said to the older woman, “I wonder if he’ll tell us his rhyme.”
And then the woman looked in a kind of puzzled way, like the pie man, and asked, “What is your rhyme?”
“I... I gotta go, can’t be late,” Buddy said as he looked at the ground and started to rush off.
“Of course not,” replied the woman. “Good for you. Never be late if you can be on time.”
Buddy started to run, but then slowed down, afraid they might chase him. But no. Just like the pie man, they continued on their way, and he was all alone again.
As he reached the top of a small hill, he saw the village. It looked like the book, little houses close together with little patches of grass in between and white fences.
“I hope she’s here,” he said out loud as he started down the hill. “She just has to be. That picture was her, and she was smiling.”
His head turned left and right as he looked at each house. They were all small, even close up; picket fences surrounded their little flower gardens, and there were no garages anywhere and no cars parked in front or on the streets, which were just wide enough for walking. Buddy liked these houses. They were brightly painted and had such pretty square yards. How he would love to live in such a house. Not that he didn’t think OzHouse was fun, but his mom wasn’t there, or Ellen, or Donna, or his dog Scnapsy. The lady from the state had said they were all gone, but she could be wrong. Grown-ups were wrong sometimes.
Once Scnapsy had run away and Ellen was crying and a neighbor had said he wouldn’t be back, but a man in a gray coat brought him back two days later.
He began to imagine what it would be like to live in one of these houses with his mom and sisters, and he found himself crying.
“I don’t care what they say,” he said, “My mom is here and we are gonna be a family again. Maybe Scnapsy too.” He looked in each yard and tried to look in windows if the curtains were pulled back.
He couldn’t remember any of these particular houses from in the picture, but he felt sure he was not far from the spot where his mother would be. He saw some kids playing in a backyard and imagined what it would be like to be their friend, but there was no time for games. He had to find his mother first.
He turned the corner and stopped suddenly. There it was! Just like the picture. He knew it. His mom had to be inside. He was afraid to take another step. What if she wasn’t inside, if it wasn’t her? What if he was wrong?
It was her, and he was going to run all the way to the front door. He’d knock and knock and then she’d open the door and cry out, “Buddy! How I’ve missed you.” And she’d grab him up in her strong arms and kiss him and he’d be home, and everything would be like it used to be!
Before that picture could fade from his mind, Buddy started running. He ran through two yards to go directly there.
“Mommy! Mommy! It’s me, Buddy!” he was screaming as he reached the front door. He knocked and knocked and kept calling, “Mommy, mommy!”
The door opened so quickly it frightened him. He was standing there staring up at the woman in the doorway. All around her were other children, some crying, some yelling, some laughing.
“You...you’re not my Mommy. You’re old,” choked Buddy.
“I am many people’s mommy, but not yours little boy,” said the old woman.
Buddy’s explosion of tears drowned out all the other sounds coming from inside. He had found the woman, but she didn’t look like her picture. She tried to pick him up, but he pushed himself away from her, and backed off.
“Now what am I gonna do?” he said between tears.
No one offered him an answer, so the little boy just cried as he stood in the doorway that led into the giant shoe that was the home to this old woman and her many children.