Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

The Boy in the Park

Neil knew his mother well. Or at least he thought he did. He knew to tell her to look away when they went past the town’s shoe shop, for when she glanced at those ocean blue slippers sit- ting on the shelf at the window, she would ask him to go inside with her, just so that she could try them on, to see how they looked on her... and soon Neil would find himself running away with his mother, right when the cashier wasn’t looking. Down the road, under the bridge, into the bushes at the park.


Which was where he sat now. Staring at the playground below, the dusty streets, the foggy sky. He was wounded all over. Some teenagers with no money, had beat him up in an alley a little past the park.
He wondered where his mother, Samantha, was now. Would she return? He didn’t know.
He took a bite of a rotten apple that a boy had given him the other day. Perhaps the boy had intended to be kind, giving the homeless boy in the park some food, but the apple was rotten, and would surely make Neil sick.


“I swear,” Samantha had promised only a week earlier, “that I won’t leave you alone anymore.” It was an empty promise. It meant nothing.


Neil was used to coping for himself, though, because he had to live with the same unreliable lady as a mother for 13 years.


Looking up, Neil saw the place where the bag of money and stolen articles that belonged to Neil and his mother usually stayed. Nothing was there anymore, the teenagers had taken everything. Every cent dropped into his mother’s hat from pedestrians passing by, every piece of clothing that was warm and cozy for the winter time or light and breezy for the summer, every item that Neil and his mother worked all their lives to obtain.


He sighed.

 

Neil got up with great effort and limped down to the sidewalk. He had nothing to lose. Continuing down the road, he turned onto a busy street. It was loud and rushed. There were honking cars and people hurrying along the sidewalk to the places they needed to be. Neil never had a place he needed to be. He was an invisible little boy who mattered to no one but his mother who might not even return from wherever she was. He was nothing compared to all the hustling people who felt like they were important, like they had a use in the world.


A bell jingled as he pushed open the convenience store. Compared to outside, the store was dead silent. Only an old lady at the back, in the canned soup section was present, save for the staff member at the cash register. The lights were dim and the room smelled slightly of oranges, thought Neil.


Still limping, he headed down an aisle. He grabbed a box of crackers, a sugary cereal, and a banana. This could last Neil a few days. But how would he steal all of it if he was injured, and he was tired, and he was hungry.

The cashier was eyeing him, almost expecting him to take something without paying, based on the way he was dressed. A brown shirt that was once white, and some ripped pants that were somehow wet.


The staff member turned to her computer. Neil took a risk - there might not have been another chance - by stumbling as fast as he could to the door. The cashier saw him from the corner of her eye.


“Hey!” she shouted, her voice rough. Neil felt his ears turn red. This was where it would all end! This was it. Neil’s heart was beating.


The cashier looked as if she was going to destroy Neil, seek revenge because he was going to steal. If he didn’t know any better, Neil would’ve thought that she would explode. But Neil did know better. And he knew he was about to be in a whole lot of trouble.


She then took another glance at him. Her expression changed as she no longer saw a shop- lifter standing at the doorway, she now saw a terrified little boy who was in desperate need of help, of food, a child who was limping for he was obviously hurt.


“Do you need a bag?” she said softly. There was silence.


A wave of confusion fell upon Neil. A bag? But he hadn’t paid. Perhaps the cashier didn’t notice... No, she knew. Maybe this was her way of saying that he was caught? Neil doubted it. Her voice had sounded sweet and sincere, almost as if she felt for Neil.


“Uh, y-yes please,” Neil replied, still unsure of what would happen next.
“Here you go,” she handed him a bag with a smile. She then plopped a few more food items in and waved him goodbye.


Neil turned to go. He then stopped and spun on his heel back at the smiling lady. He had never seen such kindness in his life. How could he return the act of generosity? Neil looked all around him. There was nothing he could give her to repay her.


Almost as if she was reading his thoughts, the nice woman said, “You don’t need to give me anything, you know. Just knowing that you’ll have enough food to eat today is enough to make my day.”


There was a pause.

 

Her words sunk in.


“What is your name?’ asked Neil eventually. He had said it so quietly that he didn’t even
know if she could hear him. “Emma,” she replied.

 

“Thank you, Emma.” he said slowly, and with that, he left the store.

 

As he lay in his favourite bush that night, he could hear the sound of an ambulance’s siren off in the distance. He could hear the sound of the booming music of a party somewhere further down the road. He could hear cars zooming on the highway on the bridge and a plane fly by. And yet... everything seemed quiet. In his mind, everything was peaceful. Like the waves of an ocean crashing against the shore on a hot summer day.


Then in the darkness of the night, an image appeared slowly and ran up to the bushes. Was it another teenager who was going to beat him up? Was it a police officer who had caught him stealing? No, it was... Samantha.