Authors: Reade Scott Whinnem
For all the lake kids,
wherever they may be
our years ago I was abandoned in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
I have nightmares about a lot of things, but the scariest nightmares I have are about that day as a ten-year-old kid left alone in New York City. I relive those forty-five minutes in my sleep, except that in the dream version someone walks up to me and promises to help. It’s always a friendly-looking stranger—sometimes a security guard, and sometimes an old woman with a grandmotherly face. The person takes me out of the museum and puts me in a car. We’re miles away before it begins to dawn on me that this person is not who they said they were. It comes upon me the way things do in dreams, the way you just know that something has turned, something has gone wrong, something has never been right, only you couldn’t see it at first.
The next thing I know it’s nighttime, and the streets outside the car look like a war has just ended, like those black-and-white pictures of Germany near the end of World War II. Sometimes there are bodies in the streets, bodies of children, and other times those children are alive, but they have no parents or families or anyplace to call home. I beg the person to take me home, but they just smile and tell me that I don’t deserve to go home. I don’t deserve to ever go home again.
And there’s truth to those nightmares—a little truth anyway. Anyone could have walked up to me, smiled gently, and offered me help. I would have been so relieved that I would have poured myself into their waiting hand. Anyone who looked even a little trustworthy could have led me anywhere.
It may seem obvious to you that I should’ve just found a security guard or a clerk and said that I was lost. It’s obvious to me now, but it wasn’t then. Back then I was too scared to do anything.
My best friend, Pete Morgan, was on that field trip too. We’d worked together on a science project and earned the highest grade of anyone in the entire fourth grade. That got us two seats on the field trip usually reserved just for the fifth graders.
There was only one thing at the Met that I wanted to see—the Arms and Armor exhibit. Just thinking about suits of armor gave me the chills. It still does today. It’s something about the way they’re frozen in place. Once there
was a living man inside moving around and swinging his ax and making all that metal rise to violent life. When you get close to something like that, you get to thinking that just maybe there could be a man still hiding in there after all this time. Or maybe just his ghost. Maybe he can still move, and he’s just waiting for the right moment to swing that giant battle-ax down through the protective glass case. Maybe while you’re standing right there in front of it. Kinda thrilling, if you ask me.
That exhibit’s all I talked about the whole two-hour bus ride down to the city. It felt so sweet to be away in New York City while all our friends were stuck back in school.
Around noon we gathered outside the museum to eat our brown-bag lunches, and afterward we had some time to go to the gift shop. I wandered to the back, and I guess I wasn’t paying attention to the time. I didn’t see anyone come to look for me, though Pete said that he did. When the parent chaperone counted heads, she got it wrong, and everyone took off. I was left alone looking at a book filled with pictures of swords and daggers and shining armor.
About ten minutes went by before I realized something was wrong. I walked all around the store but couldn’t find a single person that I recognized. For a moment I thought it was some kind of joke. I thought they might be hiding from me to teach me a lesson. I rushed around the store as if I were playing a desperate game of hide-and-seek. Then I realized that I was alone, and that I was a long way from home. The one thing that I remember most clearly is panic.
It felt like someone had poured boiling water into my heart. I had no idea, no idea at all, what to do.
I was afraid that if I left the store, I might get lost forever, might never even be able to find my way back to the gift shop. I walked to the doorway and looked out into the Met’s great marble hall, but I didn’t see a familiar face anywhere.
The group finally came back. Our chaperone realized at some point that I wasn’t there, and she turned the entire group of kids around. I was still standing in the gift-shop doorway when I saw Janis Terkle, a fifth grader everyone called Turtle because her neck was so short, coming toward me. When I saw her face, I didn’t care how short her neck was, and I never made fun of her again after that day. That first recognized face meant that someone would lead me out of there, put me on a bus, and take me on the long ride home. That recognized face meant that I would see my mom and dad and little brother and grandmother and our house by the pond again. They had all been gone for those forty-five minutes. They had been gone for good.
I could tell that the other kids were ticked off. One of them barked at me for screwing up the whole afternoon. In the chaperone’s voice I could hear relief salted with anger, but I couldn’t hear her words exactly because I burst out crying. I didn’t want the fifth graders to see me doing it, but I couldn’t help myself.
I didn’t get to see the Arms and Armor exhibit, and neither did the other kids. The teachers cut the afternoon
short because of me. Some of the fifth-grade guys tossed me a sarcastic “Thanks, Stucks,” or “Good going, Stucks,” as they filed onto the bus.
On the whole ride back, Pete stayed right by my side. The chaperones made me sit up at the front of the bus, and Pete could’ve gone back there with the older kids, but he didn’t. I wasn’t saying much of anything, but he kept talking to me about the woods and fishing and all our friends coming back to their cottages for the summer. At one point I turned around and saw one of the older kids laughing and pretending to wipe tears away from his eyes. His name was Manny Fields. Pete saw Manny too. The next thing I knew, Pete was up and out of his seat and back the whole length of the bus and on top of Manny, driving fist after fist into his face, and then when Manny fell over, into the back of his head and between his shoulder blades. Pete broke Manny’s nose and one of his own fingers. There was blood all over that seat in the back, and those older kids had to sit and look at Manny’s blood the whole ride home.
Pete was suspended for the rest of the school year, but it didn’t matter so much. It was late spring and school was about to get out anyway, and because I’d helped Pete with his work, his grades were high enough for him to pass for the year.
A few days later one of the fifth graders told me that Pete had given our chaperone the thumbs-up when she did her head count, even though he knew I was still inside the gift shop. Kenny Fortner told me. Kenny was a pretty good
kid, and even though he was good friends with Manny, he wasn’t the kind of kid who would lie.
Word got round quickly about how I cried. The other kids were pretty amused by it all, and I heard their laughing at lunch and in gym class and during quiet time when we were all supposed to be reading.
I don’t like people laughing at me. Not for crying or anything else.
So that’s when I decided to stop.
And I did. I never cry. It’s been four years, and I haven’t cried since. I won’t cry, despite all the things that have happened lately, despite all the things that are going on right now. And there’s nothing you could ever do to me, nothing you could ever say or show me or tell me that would make me let you see me cry.
Nothing. Try it. Try it right now. You’ll see.
I’m dreaming about the Met as I wake up in the dirt, curled around the stones of the fire pit. I’ve walked in my sleep again. It’s almost dawn, and I’m all the way across the dirt road, into the woods, and up by the fifteen-foot-high split granite boulder that we all call Whale’s Jaw. When I wake up, Boris is there—faithful Boris, old Boris, who always seems to have one more summer left in him. He’s growling.
I’m used to waking up in the yard. Even though I close my eyes in my room, I often open them in the bushes or down by the edge of the pond. Nine times out of ten, Boris is snoring next to me, his back pressed up against mine.
What I’m not used to is finding myself out in the woods, and I’m not used to Boris growling. His tail is straight, and his eyes are locked on the path that leads up to the stone wall about two dozen yards away at the top of the hill. I instinctively want to get up on the back of Whale’s Jaw. It’s always been home base for any game we ever played as kids, and that means it’s safe. But I stick with Boris. I scratch his back and ask him what’s wrong. I ask him what he smells. I try to calm him, but my nightmare of the city hasn’t completely faded, and I just want to give in to my superstitions and climb the back of that rock as fast as I can.
Something small hits last summer’s hard ashes in the middle of the fire pit. Something else, tiny and hard, hits the back of my skull. I look up just as Pete lobs a third pebble down from Whale’s Jaw. It hits me just above my right eye.
“Oh man!” he laughs. “I’m sorry, dude! I didn’t expect you to turn around.” I can see by his eyes that he’s been up all night. He looks like cigarette smoke and stale sleep.
I rub the spot where the pebble hit. “What’s going on?” I ask him.
He laughs at me and shakes his head. “I saw you sleeping and figured I’d wake you up.”