Global Warming – Sarah D. LaGioia
I started seeing it on trips to the ocean, where sandcastles that had taken me hours to build disappeared in minutes when the tide took siege. There were vacations to the mountains that left me standing at the foot of redwood trees so big around that it would have taken ten of me with my arms stretched wide and grasping to fit around some of them—I checked. Some were smaller. Most were bigger.
It’s the opposite with people. Some are big, but most? Most of us are small, nasty creatures that love to do terrible things to one another. People are small when they kick dogs or con the elderly or hurt their children. That’s how I ended up with eight year old Jamie hunched in the back seat of my ugly little Prius. I hated the thing, mostly for my copping out to the whole "go-green' fanaticism, but these days, the job I used to think made me one of the bigger people had me noticing that the sun no longer smiled so much as snarled, and that the trees no longer whistled so much as creaked. Thank you global warming.
I checked my rearview mirror for the tenth time in ten minutes. My knobby-kneed little passenger was still clinging to his stuffed Pluto dog, staring out the side window with wide, astonished eyes. He hadn’t said a word since I’d gotten him into the car, but I didn’t take it to heart. According to the officers on his case, Jamie hadn’t said a word since they’d taken him out of his mother’s custody. Most times that was from trauma or failure to thrive or just plain nerves, but his dad was God knows where and his mom had been mixed up with meth, so only God knew what he’d been exposed to.
I wondered idly if he’d gotten the stuffed animal from Disneyland, then stamped the idea out with a sick feeling. His mom had been selling drugs, not balloons, and happy was very rarely part of that equation. When I stopped at the intersection and saw there was a McDonald’s coming up. I cleared my throat and watched him squirm, somehow feeling like a bully, but wanting to make it better. “Hey, kiddo, you hungry?” Say yes, say yes, my mind begged.
Jamie tightened his arms around the plush toy and kept staring out the window, but he gave a distracted nod and that was good enough for me. The light turned green and I headed for the restaurant.
“You like cheeseburgers, right? French fries?”
Another nod. His small face remained straight and pale. I pulled the car into the line for the drive-thru. “We’ve got about another hour before we get there. Do you have to go to the bathroom?” I didn’t want him to say yes, and luckily he didn’t. I’ve had kids hide in public restrooms for long periods of time some trips, and that was never a good sign. It had always been a relief when they’d said no in the past, but I couldn’t even get this kid to look at me, and that made this whole job feel somehow worse than it did when they cried or complained or shouted. Worse even, than the vacant-stare kids, who were just completely spaced-out and paid me no mind at all.
Jamie could hear me, and he was responding willingly enough. It weirded me out, him acting as though he were just along for the ride, and that this wasn’t a monumental part of his young life. Like the stunted trees that grew up strangely in the face of such polluted conditions, he looked too old and infirm for the young thing he was.
We pulled up to the speaker to place our order: a number four and a happy meal, with extra happy. I spared a quick look in the mirror again, hoping to see a faint grin, or at the very least, a look of perplexity. Nothing, and I was so caught up in my disappointment that I tripped over my tongue ordering a Coke and… Jamie said nothing. I sighed to myself and ordered a second Coke.
Jamie stuffed Pluto between his knees, then plucked the Happy Meal container from my hand with his smallish one and accepted the drink with care, wedging it between his sneakers like a makeshift cup-holder. He peeled open the flaps of his box with more relish than I’d seen from him yet. I decided to eat in the parking lot before I killed us both trying to eat, drive, and spy on him at the same time. Women tend to be great at multi-tasking, but my skills tended to stop somewhere after walking and breathing and chewing gum simultaneously. In the back seat, Jamie was cramming his food into his mouth like he hadn’t eaten in days.
“Hey, kiddo, slow down or you’ll choke,” I warned lightly, then mentally kicked myself when he stopped eating altogether. By the time I’d finished my own burger, he still hadn’t returned to his. No matter. I’d just wrap it up for him later so he could finish it at the Peterson’s place.
Traffic wasn’t terrible, which I always took to be a good sign. It wasn’t so much that it was nice to get the transportation bit over and done with as it was nice that the kid's anxiety wasn’t prolonged—not that Jamie seemed to mind, but I was ready to search for optimism under rocks if that’s what it took to make the boy at least feel like a child.
It was about then that I realized Jamie had his nose pressed to the glass and was blinking hugely at the children running around in a schoolyard. A whole group of them held hands and danced a circle around a maple tree. Ten kids. To the image in my rearview mirror, I said “you know, there are some trees so big around that all those students there would have to press their cheeks against the trunks and stretch real far just to be able to keep holding hands.”
Jamie looked up quickly, then got embarrassed to find me staring at him and turned back to watching the playground. It was brief, but it was progress.
“You don’t believe me, do you?” I chuckled. “Well, it’s true. Whole, great big trees you can hardly see the tops of, and can’t hug by yourself.”
Since he didn’t seem all that impressed by that, I switched up my game. “That’s going to be your new school. Do you like the looks of it?”
He nodded absently.
“One of those little boys looks familiar, actually. I think he might be one of the Peterson brood, too. The one in the blue t-shirt there, see?”
Another nod. We passed the school and as we did so, Jamie sat face-forward in his seat and began watching me instead. Pulling up to a stoplight, I nearly slammed on the brakes when Jamie said, “that’s sad.”
Grasping at words, all I could manage was, “What is?”
“That the trees are too big for one person to hug ‘em.”
I stilled. “Oh. Well, that’s what makes it kind of cool, actually.”
He blinked his big eyes at me, waiting for an explanation. “Well, see, they’re so big that everyone has to hug them together, and the more people it takes, the stronger the hug is, and the more people who'll end up happy.”
He stared at the toy in his lap, then, and went quiet for some time. It wasn’t until we were in front of the home of Jamie’s first foster family that he spoke again: “The world must be really big.” Jamie had Pluto tucked under one arm, and his McDonald’s leftovers in his other hand; I had his one suitcase and my purse. There was a tree in the Peterson’s yard and Jamie stared at it long and hard before asking me if I knew just how big the world was.
“Really big. Humongous.”
Jamie gave me a troubled look. “But how big?”
“I’m not sure,” I answered honestly.
Jamie frowned, but it wasn’t at me, it was at the tree. “I can reach all the way around that one by myself.”
I looked at it. It was a scrawny thing--an apple tree if memory served its purpose--though I’d never seen an apple on it in all the trips I’d made to this house. “Yeah, you probably could.”
“But there are some that are bigger?”
Jamie’s face went carefully blank again, and we went about the last leg of our journey together the same way we’d gone about the first part.
That night at home, I got a phone call from the Peterson residence. At the dinner table, Jamie had asked them if they knew how many people it would take to hug the world.