Duo Maxwell knew he wasn't like the other kids even when
he was very, very small. He knew because he could hear them playing outside
during the day when he had to stay shut up in his room with all the curtains
drawn and shades on all the windows.
He could hear them laughing. He could hear them shouting.
He could tell from the sounds, just what they were doing in the park right
across the street, because he'd played in the park too. He just had to wait
until the sun was gone before he could go out.
Every night he clutched his pail and his little shovel close
to his chest and waited by the door. Waited for the sun to go away. Waited
for his mother to say it was ok to open the door. Waited for his turn to
play in the park. Every night, when his mother smiled and said, 'all right',
he would throw the door wide and run as hard and as fast as he could go,
but he never managed to get there before the laughing was gone. Never got
to see... only to hear. Never found anything in the sand box but footprints
and the ruin of the day’s construction.
So Duo sat in the sandbox and played by himself. Dug holes
and wished there was someone to laugh with. Made hills and wished he could
run faster. Made roads and wondered where they might lead.
He wondered about the other kids too; the ones whose footprints
and handprints where left behind. Wondered where they lived and if they
knew there was a little boy who played after they'd all gone home to bed.
Wondered if they would want to play with him if they knew.
Wondered what their names were.
And every night, before he dug his holes and made his mountains,
he just sat for awhile and looked at the sand and tried to imagine the games
that had been played there that day.
There was a bare-foot kid who didn't come into the sandbox much, but sometimes
ran through the corners. There was a girl, Duo was sure from the shoes that
left Little Mermaid prints, who liked to make hills that were maybe supposed
to be castles. There were two pairs of tready sandal prints that were always
together. And there was one kid who always sat in the corner and made really
big holes that looked like craters. Sometimes there were the tracks of Hotwheels
cars and Duo imagined that they'd gotten blown up.
Sometimes he made up names to go with the footprints, and
sometimes he spent hours wiping out those prints so that he could leave
But every night when he came running to the park, his marks
were gone and the other marks were there and it was like he'd never been.
Sometimes he thought he was more a shadow than a boy.
It made him sad that the kids he could hear never seemed to
notice that he'd been there. Made him sad that he was never able to run
fast enough to get to the park before they were all gone.
Then one night, when he got to the sandbox, the corner that
was always full of craters and blast holes... was smoothed flat and right
in the middle was a hand print, the fingers spread wide and mashed carefully
into the sand. Duo sat and looked at the print for a long time, holding
his hand out and comparing. The other hand was just a tiny bit bigger than
his, the palm wider, though Duo thought his fingers might be a little bit
longer. He thought about the kid who had left the mark for a long time before
he carefully pressed his own hand into the sand right beside it.
He didn't play in the sand very much that night, just sat
and looked and thought and wondered, and when his mother called him in for
lunch, he didn't really want to go. He had trouble sleeping that day, seeing
the print even when he closed his eyes.
The next night he didn't even take his shovel and pail, just
waited by the door for his mother to let him go, and then he ran as hard
as he'd ever run, but he still didn't make it. He thought for a minute that
he just might cry, but then he looked in the sandbox and there was something
brand new. The corner where he'd found the hand print was ringed about with
rocks, like someone had built a tiny fence to keep people out. And in the
middle, the hand prints were still there... the other kid's and his own,
but under the one was written a name... 'Heero'. Very carefully, with the
stick that had been left there, he wrote his own name under his own print
and then he did sit down and cry, guarding the marks from everything until
he had to go in for lunch again.
He worried all that night and all through the next day that
something would happen to the prints before the other kid found them, but
there was nothing he could do until the sun went away and he was free to
run to the park again.
He thought his heart would stop when he found the spot all
rubbed smooth, the stones still guarding it, but not a sign of the hands
and the names, but then he noticed the stick standing up right in the middle,
and he sat down to dig. He wasn't sure how he knew that something would
be there, but he was very sure that's what he was supposed to do, and his
heart started up again when his fingers found something hard and cool in
the sand. He fished it out and held it in his hand, a silver star all shiny
and heavy and it was like finding a treasure at the bottom of the sea. Duo
just held it in his hand for a very long time. Then he ran back to his house,
getting yelled at for tracking sand inside, but he didn't care. He went
straight to his room and straight to his desk and pulled out his box for
treasures. It held all the important things that he'd collected during his
short life and the star went right in the box, right in the middle. It nestled
there between the rock his Dad had let him fish out of the big lake, all
worn smooth by the water, and the feather he'd found in the back yard. Out
from under the bit of super soft material that he'd rescued from the trash
after his Mom had made a pillow for the living room, he pulled a coin. It
was shiny and gold and was his most prized treasure. On one side there was
a picture of the sun the way it looked on television, like Duo had never
seen, but only imagined. His Grandpa had given it to him not long before
With the coin clutched tight in his hand, Duo ran all the
way back to the park and put it in the hole he’d dug the star out
of, carefully planting the stick atop it, just as he’d found the other
Then he sat on the edge of the sandbox, staring at that spot
and worrying about leaving something so important out all night, but the
other kid… Heero… had left his treasure for Duo to find, and
how could Duo do any less?
It was hard to go in for lunch that night, and harder still
when he had to stay in after, for studies. He got points off because he
kept looking out the window, even though there was nothing to see in the
dark, and had to work very hard to be good afterward. Too many points and
he wouldn’t be able to go to the park.
He wanted to ask his Mom about sun-block that morning while
she was tucking him in, but asking questions about sun things always made
her look very sad, and Duo didn’t like the way that always made him
feel. So all he could do was wait through the day, trying hard to sleep.
The corner of the sandbox was still marked off the next night
and Duo was glad that his new friend hadn’t gotten tired of the game
yet. In fact, when Duo thought about it, there might even be more rocks
than there had been… the wall made thicker. Duo was eager to dig under
He was surprised when he unearthed a glass bottle, the old-fashioned
kind that he knew milk used to come in. The end was stoppered with a piece
of cut off wood. It didn’t fit perfectly and there was a bit of sand
inside, but not much, and Duo had to work to get the wood pulled out. Inside
the bottle was a rolled up piece of paper. When he spread the paper out
across his lap, he was surprised to find a picture drawn with pencils and
crayon. It was a tall mountain that Duo thought might be a volcano until
he saw the snow on top. There was a funny little building and even funnier
little sticks in one corner. It was… quite the puzzle. Duo wasn’t
sure what he should leave in return. Though looking at the picture gave
him a funny feeling, knowing it had been drawn just for him.
He didn’t play in the park that night, but took his
picture home and sat at the desk in his room looking at it. A picture, he
thought, would be the right thing to leave, but he couldn’t decide
what to draw. Wasn’t sure what his own picture meant.
His Mom came in to put away clean laundry while he was sitting
there and she made that funny little noise that Duo knew meant she was surprised.
‘Where on Earth did you see a picture of Mt. Fuji?’ she asked,
and laughed when he just looked at her. Ruffling his hair as she left the
room with her own clean clothes still to be delivered. ‘Japan, honey.
Where did you see a picture of Japan?’
Duo knew she thought he’d drawn the picture, and he
didn’t bother to tell her different. Somehow, he thought that his
new friend should probably stay his own secret. He knew about secrets and
knew that some were bad. Knew about talking to strangers and stray dogs
and that whole playing with the yellow snow thing. But this didn’t
seem like a bad secret at all, and Duo decided to keep it. He liked that
it was something that was all his.
But his mother had given him ideas and he looked at the picture
again, wondering if the other kid was telling him that he was from Japan.
Wondered how he’d gotten to America and if he missed that mountain
in the picture. Duo thought about it and decided what he should draw. Knew
about missing places.
Before Duo had come to live across the street from the park
with his Mom, he’d lived with his Mom and Dad in a place near the
ocean. Lived near his Grandpa. Lived where there had been more sand to play
in than could ever fit in a sandbox.
Duo drew the ocean and the beach and the great rocks that
rose out of the water. He colored it with his colored pencils, and he thought
about making it the way he thought it was during the day, but there wasn’t
much color in his world, so he though maybe he shouldn’t do that,
and made it just the way he remembered when he walked there at midnight
with his Grandpa.
The picture went into the bottle and the bottle back into
the sandbox and then it was time for lunch.
The next night there was a paper with those funny sticks and
Duo’s name, and it took awhile for him to figure out that’s
what his name looked like in Japanese. Not knowing another language, Duo
left a note that simply said ‘I live in the yellow house’. The
night after, he knew that Heero lived in a big white house with green shutters.
He was disappointed that it wasn’t close enough to the park to see.
They left trinkets and toys, notes and pictures, odd treasures
and sometimes just bits of findings. Duo put it all in his box of treasures,
the silver star, the picture of Japan, his name, the polished rock, the
bright red feather. Anything that Heero left for him became his most important
possession until the next night brought something new. He was ecstatic that
he had a friend, and couldn’t wait each night to go to the park. The
first time the weather was bad and he couldn’t go, he was near sick
with worry that Heero would forget him, but when he went back again, there
was the bottle waiting, the ring of stones renewed.
He was crushed the day that there was a note saying Heero
was going on vacation, but in a week there was a bag with a post card and
a sea shell and one of those squished coins that said ‘Homosassa Springs’
on it and a picture of an animal that took Duo three nights to find in the
His mother had not understood his sudden desire to go to the
all night Wal-mart, and even less did she understand when he used his own
money to buy a silly post card from right there in their home town. But
she just smiled and shook her head, ruffling his hair the way that she did
sometimes, the way his Grandpa used to, and took him home.
He carefully wrote, ‘having wonderful time, wish you
were here’ on the back of the card, just the way he’d seen people
do on TV, and then off it went into the bottle and into the sand.
Duo had never really been on vacation, it was too hard to
travel only at night, his Mom said, but when he looked at his post card
and his shell… he felt like he’d been. He made a point of finding
the Homosassa place on the map so he knew where Heero had been, and dreamed
of going there himself one day. Maybe even of seeing one of the funny manatees
Someday, he thought, when he was better.
But then one night, when he dug the bottle out of the sand
there was a letter. A long letter like he’d never gotten before, and
he thought his heart had done something bad because his chest hurt a great
deal while he read.
Heero was moving. Moving away. Heero was a ‘military
brat’ the letter said, though Duo didn’t understand that part.
But it seemed to mean that Heero moved a lot. And now he was moving again.
Maybe back to Japan, the letter didn’t say, so Duo didn’t know.
Just Heero was sorry, and Heero would miss him, but Heero was moving all
And Duo… didn’t know what to do.
He sat in the sand for a very long time that night, making
his mother call him twice and getting yelled at for not answering. He didn’t
eat his lunch and that made his Mom check his forehead for a fever and she
sent him to go lie down even though she didn’t find one, just because
he ‘didn’t look good’.
He went up to his room and he got out his treasures and he
sorted through them and thought very, very hard about what he could leave
for Heero this one last time, but nothing seemed good enough. Nothing seemed
special enough. But he couldn’t not answer what Heero had left for
him. Finally, he took out his notebook and wrote the only thing he could
think of. He put the note in the bottle and he went back to the park even
while his Mom was yelling at him, and he buried their bottle one last time.
‘Don’t forget me’, the note said, and Duo
wished that it might be so.
He got grounded for going out when he was supposed to be resting,
but he went to the park the next night anyway.
‘Never’, Heero’s note said.
He’d have been grounded for the rest of the week if
his Mom hadn’t felt so bad about his crying so much. Especially when
he couldn’t explain why.
He went back to the park on nights after, but there was no
bottle and no messages, and eventually the rock wall went away too. And
then winter came and it was too cold to be allowed to play in the park and
Duo didn’t even hear the laughter coming from outside in the daylight.
He tried sometimes to miss a certain voice, but he’d never known it
and was somehow sad that he couldn’t count it gone.
Winter turned to spring and then another. Duo didn’t
play in the park nearly as much, though he sometimes went and sifted through
the sand in a certain corner, hoping against hope that military brats sometimes
got to go back to places they’d been, but he never found anything.
As he got older and his studies brought him the ability to
read better, he began to look things up and he knew what a ‘military
brat’ was, and he knew what kind of birds had bright red feathers,
and he knew where Japan was and saw real photos of Mount Fuji. He dreamed
of going there one day, and finding Heero, but then he got older still and
understood how impossible that dream really was.
When he was ten, he got pretty sick and it made his Mom cry
quite a bit. When he was fifteen, it was his turn to move when they changed
states to be closer to a specialty clinic, and his Mom began to cry sometimes
during the day when she thought Duo was asleep. When he was nineteen, he
decided that his Mom had cried enough and he signed up for the experimental
treatment that she had been too afraid to try.
‘You could die,’ she had said.
‘I don’t think I’m alive,’ he’d
She cried a very great deal then, but by then he was old enough
to know it would pass.
One way or the other… it would pass.
It took months; long hard months, and when they came out the
other side, Duo wasn’t cured, but he was better. Better enough that
he felt he could move out on his own. Better enough that when the handsome
intern asked his mother out, she accepted a date for the first time in Duo’s
And best of all… she didn’t cry all the time.
By the time Duo was twenty, he had a tiny little apartment
to call his own, and a decent job that kept him inside. He didn’t
have any real friends because he’d never really learned just how one
went about making them, and he kept mostly to himself, reading and surfing
the internet and talking to his plants. He subscribed to the little local
paper from that town where he’d grown up, having it mailed to him
in the town he’d ended up in. It was the only connection he could
make to that long ago friendship and he never failed to hope that he’d
see some sign of Heero’s name when he read the news of that place.
And then one day the paper came and on the front page was
an article about the new shopping center that was going to be built there.
Nothing fancy; just a little strip mall that would house a laundry, a grocery
and some offices. Just like a million others all across the country…
except this shopping center was going to be built on the site of ‘the
old Bradley Park’.
Duo had to read the paragraph three times before he could
completely take in the information. The Bradley Park. His park. His and
Heero’s. They were going to bulldoze it under and pave it over. No
more trees, no more grass, no more swings, and especially… no more
sandbox. He surprised himself when he threw the paper on the floor, and
surprised himself even more when he sat and cried.
After the tears dried, he picked up the paper, washed out
his breakfast mug, and went to plan his first ever vacation.
His Mother was horrified at first, but his new Step-Father
was there to help reassure and she eventually stopped wringing her hands
and threatening tears. The evening he left, his Mom gave him a sack with
three tubes of sun-block and his Step-Dad gave him a new baseball cap to
shade his face. They even managed to smile and wave him off. Of course he
promised to call.
The paper had said there was a ground-breaking ceremony and
Duo was only sorry that they hadn’t printed the article earlier; he
would have wished he could have gone sooner. Seen the place before the heavy
machinery got to it. He wasn’t so naïve that he thought things
would be untouched. Ceremonies are just that… ceremonial. Things go
right ahead and move at their own pace.
He was pleased to see the old Wal-mart still there when he
reached town and he stopped to buy a post card to drop into the mail for
his folks. Taking a moment to write something wittier than ‘wish you
were here’. He couldn’t help a sad smile as he dropped it in
the mail box out front. Then he went back in the store, bought a second
card and addressed it to himself. He swore the cards hadn’t changed
in fourteen years.
It surprised him mightily how much trouble he had finding
their old street and when he got there, the ceremony was in full swing and
he ended up having to park a block away. He was wearing his sun-block, his
sunglasses and his hat and he couldn’t help gawking around like a
tourist as he walked to the park… he’d never seen the neighborhood
in the light before. He paused for a moment in front of their old house
and found it much smaller than he’d remembered. Then he turned his
steps across the street and went to join the group of people in… what
had once been a park.
As expected, there wasn’t much park left, and he was
struck with a wave of depression because he hadn’t gotten there soon
enough to dig in the corner of the sandbox one last time, fearing that maybe
at some point over the years there had been a message left that he’d
He only half listened to the pretty speeches about progress,
trying to tell past all the people just where things once had stood. There
had been a big old tree right there, and swings just to the left. Something
else… a rock perhaps, that he’d never played on.
He was struck by just how many years it had been. There had
been a lot of changes in his life, but in that moment hiding under his hat,
behind his sunglasses… he still felt like just a shadow boy.
A silly ribbon was cut and people applauded and just like
that the crowd began to disperse. It all seemed so pompous. So unnecessary.
The park was already gone, what difference did the talking and the theatrics
make? Blindly, he reached to brush his fingers over the silver star that
he wore on his wrist and wondered what message he would have liked to have
When the people were mostly gone, a few parents leading children
around and pointing to things that weren’t there, Duo tried to orient
himself and find where the sandbox had been. There was no hope of anything
still being there, but he had come a long way to do nothing but listen to
He found it by just a trace of sand left mixed with the churned
up dirt, and he shivered listening to a few of the kids laughing in the
distance, chasing each other around the bare ground, bored and waiting on
their parents to get over their nostalgia. It was too much like hearing
the voices outside his window. Too much like memory.
Sighing, he squatted down and reached out to sift a handful
of dirt and sand through his fingers. Were he completely alone, he would
have dug, but with no more clue than he had, he couldn’t tell where
the corner had been and he’d have felt foolish.
‘There used to be a sandbox there,’ a voice said
and Duo looked up to find a young man standing not so far away, watching
him. Feeling self-conscious, he stood and dusted his hand off on his jeans.
‘Yeah,’ he replied. ‘I know. I used to play
‘Me too,’ the man said, sounding sad. ‘Maybe
Duo tried not to sigh, not knowing how to explain. ‘I
doubt it. I was here at… odd times.’
The stranger was quiet for a moment, looking at Duo and not
at the missing sandbox. ‘At…at night?’ he ventured, and
made Duo blink.
‘What?’ Duo said, his heart suddenly feeling very
odd. Odd in a way he hadn’t felt in a long time. There was something
in the air that felt very like anticipation. ‘What did you say?’
The stranger didn’t reply, but stepped closer, reaching
up to pull a pendant out of his shirt. Duo couldn’t take his eyes
off the familiar gold coin, wrapped round with wire and turned into a necklace.
He thought his knees were going to give out.
‘Duo?’ the stranger asked cautiously and Duo held
up his wrist, displaying the silver star he’d long ago woven into
a leather bracelet.
‘Oh my God,’ Heero breathed, and he sounded like
his knees might just feel weak too.
And then they stared at one another, finally making Duo laugh
on a burst of nervousness. Heero blushed and laughed too, running his hand
over his neck in a gesture that seemed odd and familiar to Duo all at once.
‘I’ve had a million questions forever,’
Heero suddenly said, looking like he was trying to see Duo’s eyes.
‘And I don’t even know where to start.’
Duo smiled and reached up to pull off his sunglasses.
‘How about we start with… hello?’
Fiction : GW :