"who's that kid?" i ask, pointing at the boy whose hair cannot decide if it is red or gold. he holds a basketball in his small hands, bouncing it, once, twice, before putting it through the hoop in a perfect arc.
"james," the counselor responds, and leans closer. "he's a foster kid, you know."
i don't know.
the boy turns at that moment and catches me watching him. unthinkingly i form my thumbs and index fingers into a heart and flash it at him. he nods to his teammates and leaves the court, climbing the bleachers to where i sit.
"did you see my shot?" he asks.
"yes." pause. "i'm kelsey."
"i know," he says, and runs back to his game.
at the end of the camp day i wave to the buses as they leave the parking lot. the final bus clicks and pops to life, and from the last seat i see james cup his hands into a heart and press it against the window at me. i fumble to free my hands and return the gesture, but the bus turns the corner and he is gone.
it doesn't take long for me to vow that if i had the time and the money i would adopt this boy and raise him as my own. unfortunately i have no time and no money.
for now, his hugs will have to be enough.
the pieces of james that make him lovable:
the way he doggedly keeps shooting for the hoop even though the ball sometimes misses the net. the way he unabashedly serenades me with justin bieber. the way he is always the first to help others.
the pieces of james that break my heart:
the way he searches for me first thing every morning. the look on his face when he's thinking about something serious. the way he'll play with the other children but gravitates towards the adults, cracking jokes and trying his hardest to show them that he is worthy of love.
i show james the friendship bracelet i spent all night on and he willingly offers me his right wrist.
"i'll tie it loose," i say. "in case you don't like it."
"okay," he says noncommittally, combing the fringe with his fingers. the next morning he hands me a note:
Do You Rember that Answer that I gave you about loosning the bracelet up and I said "okay" That is the wrong answer the answer is I will never take it off : )
weeks pass and the bracelet remains on his arm, its edges frayed and worn. sometimes when he is upset he grabs it tightly, a cheap talisman that i can only hope will bring him luck.
for every moment of his bald-faced enthusiasm there is a moment of somber silence.
i notice james staring into the woods and call his name to shake him from his wondering. he turns, frozen in place, and only the slightest quiver in the corner of the mouth shows that something is wrong. the helplessness hits me in a rush--i don't know what it is that bothers him, only that i want it to stop. i hug him fiercely and smooth his hair and think of the stories i would tell him if i had the time, stories about witches and dragons and basketball players. stories with happy endings.
maybe i'd tell him a story about a tree. i'd tell him how the tree grew tall and strong in a forest until one day there was a terrible storm. because the tree was rooted so deep in the ground, the only thing it could do was pray it wouldn't be split apart by lightning.
i don't know how the story would end. maybe james could tell me.
"i love you," he tells me, and absentmindedly presses his hand to my face.
"i love you too," i tell him, not because it's what he wants to hear, but because it's true.
james has a grin that could power a city. see, he doesn't know how long his happiness will last, but he smiles like it doesn't matter.
fridays always hum with pent up tension. it's the end of the camp week and the children are in chaos, hurrying to get to their buses and their mcdonalds and their air conditioning. it's been a horrible day and my head is pounding when james tentatively approaches.
"can i have another hug?" he asks. "because i'll probably never see you again."
"james!" i sputter, aghast, and his face crumples into an uncertain grin. i am frustrated and tired and not in the mood for jokes. "don't say things like that, i saw the registration. we'll both be back monday. there will be plenty of time for hugs the next time i see you."
he hesitates. "but--well, okay. promise?"
"cross my heart, hope to die."
it's monday. i am waiting for him and i am sorry. i am so, so sorry.
does he know it?
i wish i'd turned the world off for just one moment and let him hug me tight. i wish i'd stopped being selfish and pressed my face into the soft redgold of his hair. i wish his foster family hadn't had to move to florida and give him up, abruptly cutting him from my life and letting him disappear into a new family without a trace. i wish i could just know if he's okay, if he still has his bracelet, if he knows everyone misses him.
james: i am staring at your empty bus seat and waiting for your hug and i will never stop waiting. i promised.
my heart has been crossed.
you crossed it.