Short Story: Charlie’s Heart

An assortment of open books laid out in a geometric pattern
An assortment of open books laid out in a geometric pattern
Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

Charlie looked around the empty room — his room, or at least it had been until today. His posters were rolled up in cardboard tubes and his toys packed away. He had a few things in a backpack to keep him busy on the long plane ride east. His mother kept talking about how exciting it would be on the plane. Charlie was scared. Planes crashed. But whenever he said he was scared, his mother said, “Nonsense. It will be fun. You’ll get to look out of the window.” Charlie didn’t want to look out of the window. He wanted to sit in the middle and pretend he was on the ground.

Charlie carried his backpack out the front door and put it in the front seat of the car, then returned to the house. The movers came and took the last few boxes out of Charlie’s room. Soon the moving van pulled away. His mother looked around.

“Do you have everything?” she asked.

Charlie nodded.

“Well, take another look around just to be sure. If you leave it here, it’s gone forever.”

Charlie had been certain until that point that he had everything, but his mother had a way of making him doubt himself. He checked each room of the house, and then looked in the backyard, finding nothing. Still, he worried that he had left something behind.

Finally, his mother locked the house and they got in the car. Charlie looked at the house and started to cry.

“Hush, now, Charlie. It isn’t so bad. You’ll make new friends this summer and when you start second grade in the fall.”

When they got to the airport, he asked her, “Will Daddy come to say goodbye and pick up the car?”

“Oh, I don’t think so, sweetheart. Daddy’s busy today. He’ll pick up the car later.”

Charlie shrugged. He had expected that. His father was always busy. Two nights ago he was supposed to take Charlie out for pizza, but he didn’t show up until after Charlie was tired and cranky. Then his mother said something sharp about his father being late. They fought loudly in the foyer while Charlie crept silently to his bed, waiting for the inevitable sound of the front door slamming.

As they made their way through the airport, Charlie’s mind again turned to the possibility that he had left something behind. By the time they reached the airside terminal, he was crying again.

“What’s the matter, honey?”

Charlie shrugged.

“Would you like me to call Daddy for you so you can talk to him before we go? Is that what’s wrong?”

Charlie shrugged again. He knew that if he told his mother that he’d forgotten something, she would either tell him he was being silly or tell him that he should be more responsible.

“Phil? Hi. It’s me. Yeah, we’ll be boarding in a few minutes. No, that’s not what I called about. Damn it, why do you have to start this every time? No. I don’t want to have this conversation, Phil. Damn it, your son wants to say goodbye to you.” Then her tone changed. “Here, sweetie. It’s Daddy.”

Charlie had been trying his best not to listen. He took the receiver. “Hi, Daddy.”

“Hiya, pal. You being a good boy for Mommy?”

“Uh huh.”

“Are you excited about the plane ride?”

“No.”

His father responded without listening. “Good! You’ll have a great time. I wish I could be there to say goodbye, but I’ve got to earn Mommy’s alimony.”

“Oh.”

“Well, pal, I’ve got a meeting in a few minutes, so I gotta go. Be good for Mommy, okay?”

“Okay.”

Charlie handed the phone to his mother. He didn’t feel any better, because he hated hearing his parents fight, divorce or no divorce. But he smiled and pretended everything was okay. He didn’t want his mother to worry.

Charlie tried to smile and stop fidgeting while they waited for their flight to be announced, but it was hard. His mother was angry. Charlie felt responsible. If he hadn’t been so upset, she wouldn’t have called his father. Then she would still be in a good mood. He also was sure that she knew that he would have rather stayed with his father. He had told the judge, a frizzy-headed woman who echoed everything he said back to him, that he wanted to stay with his father, stay in California with his friends. She had asked all kinds of questions about the times he spent together with his father and listened very carefully to his responses. She had nodded and said she understood. For a minute, Charlie had believed her. But she must have been lying. Charlie was sure that the judge had told his mother what he had said. That was why his mother cried every night after she put him to bed.

After what seemed like hours, their flight was announced. He followed his mother to the gate with mobs of people surrounding him. He clutched his bag to his chest. He didn’t think anyone would take it, but he was afraid he would somehow lose it in the crowd. He still hadn’t been able to shake the feeling that he had left something behind, and he didn’t want to lose anything else.

His mother herded him down the ramp onto the plane. It smelled stale and the whine of the idling engines filled his ears. A garish flight attendant swooped down to greet him. Charlie shrank back against his mother, startled. His mother laughed.

“Charlie’s a little shy, I’m afraid.”

“That’s okay, Charlie. Is this your first time on an airplane?”

Charlie nodded.

“I bet you’re excited, huh?”

Charlie shook his head. The flight attendant laughed and patted his head, mussing his hair.

“Oh, don’t worry. It isn’t scary at all.”

Charlie shrugged, resigned to his fate, and followed his mother to their seats. They sat near the back of the plane. He buckled his seat belt like his mother told him to, then tried to draw to take his mind off things. Soon the whine of the jets changed. The plane started moving. His mother leaned past him and opened the window shade. Charlie glanced out at the building crawling by as they taxied, then closed his eyes. What if they crashed? He had seen plane crashes on the news. One happened last month. His mother told him not to worry, that it was a rare thing for a plane to crash, and that they were flying on a different airline with a good safety record. Charlie wondered if some other kid’s mother had said the same thing to her son just before that other plane plunged to the ground.

The jet lumbered onto the runway and began to pick up speed. Charlie heard the thunder of the engines, felt the plane tremble. Charlie felt himself being pressed back into his seat and the plane leaped into the air.

“Momma, I’m scared.”

“Don’t be scared, sweetheart. Everything is going to be okay.”

“But what if we crash?”

“We won’t. Think about something else.”

Charlie tried. “I can’t.”

“Well, then count your heart beats as high as you can go.”

Charlie put his hand on his chest. He felt nothing. He moved his hand down a little; maybe he had it in the wrong place. Still nothing. Breathing faster now, he placed his hand on his neck, like he’d seen people on television do. No matter where he put his hand, though, he didn’t find a pulse. He got scared. Was he dying? He waited a minute, the airplane ride completely forgotten. He kept breathing. He felt fine, except a little lightheaded from breathing so hard. No pulse.

“Well, Charlie, how high did you count?”

“Momma, my heart’s gone!”

“What?”

“My heart’s gone! I tried to count my heartbeats like you said but I couldn’t find it. I lost my heart!”

Charlie’s mother laughed. “Don’t be silly, sweetie. You can’t lose your heart. Not literally, anyway.” With that, she frowned and returned to her magazine. Charlie waited a long time, hoping to feel his heartbeat.

Charlie still couldn’t feel it when the flight attendant came by with the drinks, but since he hadn’t died yet, he thought he probably wouldn’t. Maybe he hadn’t put his hand in the right place. His mother was probably right. So he drank his soda and read his comic book.

That didn’t hold his attention long, and he soon discovered that he didn’t want to play with anything in his bag. He was bored. He started to kick his feet, but the rotund lady in the seat in front of him turned and said, “Would you mind, young man,” so he stopped. The lunch was a tuna sandwich. Charlie didn’t like tuna, but his mother thought he did, so that’s what he got. He managed to eat it anyway, grateful for the peanuts to take the taste out of his mouth when he finished. It was only then that he realized that he wasn’t scared anymore. He slid back into his seat, closed the shade, and went to sleep.

* * *

When they arrived, Charlie followed his mother off the plane and out to the main terminal. She threw her arms around a scarecrow of a woman with iron gray hair. Gramma Paul.

“It’s so good to see you, Mom.”

“It’s wonderful to see you, too, Anna. How was your flight?”

“Oh, the usual. Charlie, aren’t you going to say hello to Gramma Paul?”

Gramma Paul swooped down and picked him up. She was stronger than she looked. “Well, hello there, young fella. What did you think of the plane?”

“Hi, Gramma. It was scary.”

Both adults laughed, and then Charlie found himself deposited on his feet again. He followed Gramma and his mother to the baggage claim and helped them pull the suitcases off the belt. After they had collected all their bags, they loaded up Gramma Paul’s giant station wagon and set off to her house.

The next day, his mother helped him unpack his clothes and put them away, but since the rest of their things wouldn’t arrive for a week, that didn’t take very long. At lunch, he asked if there were any other kids in the neighborhood. His mother laughed.

“I don’t think so, Charlie. We’re kind of isolated out here. There isn’t another house nearby.”

Charlie looked crestfallen, but Gramma Paul gave him a little bit of hope. “Actually, Anna, there’s a park with a small playground not too far from here that was built last year. Charlie might find some children to play with there.”

Charlie begged to go to the playground. His mother insisted that they had too much to do today, but Gramma Paul shooed them out of the house.

“Anna, take the boy to the playground. You can decide what to do with your furniture when it gets here.”

The park was small, with a few trees and a small open area. The playground consisted of two sets of swings, two slides, a row of see-saws, and a spinner. An old man sat on one of the benches with a big pad, drawing. He was thin, with a white mustache and gray stubble on his cheeks. His legs were pale under blue shorts. He looked up as they passed and said hello. Charlie looked at the drawing and asked him what it was.

“Just a sketch of those squirrels over there,” he said, pointing. He showed Charlie the sketch.

“I wish I could draw like that,” Charlie said.

Before Charlie’s mother could protest, the man handed Charlie a pencil, then turned the sketchbook to a blank page. “Show me what you can do,” he said.

While Charlie drew, the man introduced himself to Charlie’s mother. “I’m Ken.”

She shook his hand. “I’m Anna, and this is Charlie.” They exchanged a few pleasantries while Charlie drew. When he finished his drawing, he showed it to the adults. He’d drawn the playground.

“I couldn’t get the spinner right,” he said. He had drawn it as a circle, so it looked like a giant O standing in the middle of the playground.

“It’s just a matter of perspective. You’ll learn. You did a good job on the see-saw here,” Ken said, pointing at the drawing.

Just then another woman arrived with three children¾a tow-headed boy of about Charlie’s age, a husky seven-year-old, and a toddler. Charlie’s mother shooed him off to play with the children. “We shouldn’t waste anymore of the gentleman’s time, Charlie.” Although the man protested that he didn’t mind, Charlie’s mother insisted. Charlie went to play. After an hour, he told his mother that he was ready to go.

“Did you have a good time with the other kids?”

Charlie shrugged. “I guess so.”

“I told you that you would make new friends.”

Charlie shrugged again. “Yeah.” He looked out the window. He missed his old friends back home. His mother had told him not to think of California as home anymore, but he couldn’t help it. This certainly wasn’t home, and all of his friends were on the other side of the country. He didn’t like these kids. The oldest one was too bossy and too loud. He was turning nine in July, he had said, and since he was the oldest, he was in charge. The younger boy picked his nose all the time, and the toddler only liked to spin around until she got dizzy.

Charlie felt himself getting homesick. He wished he could have stayed with his father this summer like he would next year, but his parents had decided that it would be better for him to spend the summer in North Carolina so that when he went to school in the fall, he would already have gotten used to the area and not have to deal with too much all at once. His parents had announced this to him just like they had announced the divorce. He had no say in the matter. It didn’t matter one bit that Charlie didn’t want to be in North Carolina or that he didn’t want his parents to be divorced or that he didn’t want them to fight all the time.

Charlie snapped back to the present. He felt tears coming, but he forced them down. If he cried, his mother would get upset too, and he didn’t want to make her sad. So he shrugged again and said, “Yeah. I guess.”

* * *

His mother took him to the playground every day except on the day their furniture arrived. “Too busy today. I know it’s disappointing, but I’ll make it up to you.”

Charlie shrugged. He wasn’t disappointed, but his mother wouldn’t listen to him. He didn’t like going to the playground anyway, because he hadn’t hit it off with any of the other children. The only thing that interested him was the old man, who was there every day without fail, scribbling in his sketchbook. Charlie wanted to talk to him, but his mother told him not to be a nuisance.

Charlie was happy that their things had arrived from California. Maybe his heart would be hidden in one of the boxes. He didn’t remember packing it, but he didn’t remember misplacing it, either so he must have put it away. He helped as much as he could, but mostly he just got in the way. He couldn’t carry much, and his boxes were the last ones off the truck. In the meantime, his mother sent him outside to climb in the trees with a warning that he shouldn’t climb too high.

Finally, though, his things were brought upstairs to his room. He dug into them like a terrier digging out a rabbit. He piled books on the floor haphazardly and dumped his toys one by one on the floor of the closet. He was more careful with his models, placing them carefully along the top of his dresser and standing on a chair to reach the shelves over his bed. When his mother checked on him several hours later, all the boxes were empty. Newspaper covered the floor, and the room was in complete disarray. Charlie sat on the bed, forlorn.

“What’s wrong, sweetie?”

“Nothing.”

“Something must be wrong for you to look so sad. Aren’t you glad to have all your toys and books again?”

Charlie nodded, but a tear slipped down his cheek to betray him. “It’s not here,” he said.

“What’s not here, sweetie?”

“My heart. I thought maybe I had packed it up, but it isn’t here. It’s gone!” And he began to cry.

Charlie’s mother held him and made shushing noises. “Oh, Charlie, I know just what you mean. It’s hard moving to a new place and leaving everything behind, and you feel like a part of you is missing. But you’ll get over it.”

Charlie let his mother hold him for a while. She didn’t understand. She thought he was making it up about his heart being gone. But that night he lay in bed awake, listening to the wind move through the trees and holding his hand over his chest, feeling for a beat that never came. Eventually he drifted off to sleep.

* * *

It was a few days before they returned to their old routine and Charlie went to the park again. He noticed his mother watching him carefully, but he didn’t know why until one night he overheard his mother talking to Gramma Paul in the kitchen.

“I’m worried about Charlie, Mom. He isn’t making new friends.”

“Nonsense. He plays with the other children at the playground, doesn’t he?”

“Yes, but…”

“Well, there you go. He’s just a little shy because of the move and all, Anna. He’ll be fine.”

“When we moved here, he said he’d lost his heart. Maybe he’s homesick.”

“Lost his heart, indeed! That’s a creative way of putting it.”

They were silent for a few moments, long enough for Charlie to think that the conversation was over, but then his mother spoke again. “Mom?”

“Yes, dear?”

“Do you think I did the right thing, bringing Charlie out here, away from Phil?”

Charlie heard his mother start to cry and he crept silently up to his room, being careful to walk close to the banister so the steps wouldn’t creak. He wished his mother wouldn’t cry. He wished his parents hadn’t gotten divorced. He wished he hadn’t lost his heart. And then Charlie cried, too, until he finally fell asleep.

* * *

The next day, Charlie’s mother took him to the playground again. He decided to try harder to get along with the other children so that his mother wouldn’t worry about him anymore. When the oldest boy said they were going to play tag, Charlie agreed to join the game. He couldn’t run fast, so “It” tagged him right away. His turn to catch someone, so he targeted a smaller girl who was even slower than he was. She squealed and ran under a seesaw. She short enough that she could run under the support bar, but Charlie smacked his forehead on it. He fell down and started to cry. His mother came running.

“Oh, sweetie, you should be more careful! Oh, goodness, you’re bleeding!” That frightened Charlie even more, and he cried harder. Between sobs, he heard another voice.

“Excuse me, ma’am. I used to be a pediatrician. Can I take a look?” It was the old man. Charlie’s mother looked up and then moved out of the way. He squatted down.

“Well, now, young man, that’s quite a bump you’ve given yourself there. Does it hurt much?”

Charlie nodded.

“I bet it does. Well, let’s have a look at you.” He peered into Charlie’s eyes. “Pupils look good. What’s the last thing you remember?”

“Chasing Celeste.”

“Feel sick to your stomach?”

Charlie shook his head.

“Did that make you dizzy?”

“No.”

“Good. He touched Charlie’s throat lightly, frowned and picked up Charlie’s wrist.

Young lady,” he said to Charlie’s mother. “Would you be so kind as to go to my car and get the first aid kit out of the trunk? It’s the white Volvo with the dent in the rear fender.” He handed her his keys and she scurried off.

“Well, now. I’ve never seen a boy without a heart before. What happened to it?”

Charlie’s eyes grew wide and he forgot about the pain in his head. “You mean it’s true?”

“Yes, sir. A genuine medical curiosity.”

“Momma doesn’t believe me.”

“Moms are like that. Tell me how it happened.”

“I’m not sure,” Charlie said, and proceeded to tell him about his parents’ divorce, moving, and how he had discovered on the plane that his heart was gone.

“Maybe,” Ken said, “You can draw yourself a new heart.” He didn’t get a chance to say anything more because Charlie’s mother had returned. The doctor cleaned the blood off Charlie’s forehead and put a little iodine on the cut, then carefully placed a Band-Aid over it.

“Just a cut,” he said when he stood up. “I doubt he’s concussed, but it couldn’t hurt to have him checked out at an ER. At the very least, keep an eye on him for a few days. Any dizziness, nausea, confusion, you take him in right away.”

“Thank you so much.”

“I’m pleased that I could help. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I should be going. I’m meeting my daughter for lunch.”

“Certainly. And thank you again, Doctor… I’m sorry, I don’t think I ever caught your last name.”

“It’s Solomon, but please call me Ken.” He turned, took two steps away, then stopped and turned back. “Charlie, would you like to learn to draw better?”

Charlie nodded.

“Next time you come, bring some paper and a pencil. I’ll show you a few tricks I know.”

Charlie promised that he would. He didn’t know what drawing had to do with it, but he was certain that Ken would help him find his heart.

* * *

The next time they were going to the park, Charlie brought a pencil and one of his sketchpads. His frowned when they got in the car.

“I’m sure that Dr. Solomon was just being polite, Charlie. I don’t think he really meant for you to bother him.” Charlie tried to interrupt, but his mother talked right over him. “I don’t want you bothering him. Do I make myself clear?”

Charlie nodded. He wanted to argue, but “Do I make myself clear,” was one step away from, “You’re going to get a spanking,” and he knew not to cross that line. So when they got to the park, he slid the sketch pad under the seat of the car before getting out. There were no other kids at the playground that day, and the old man sat on his usual bench, his sketch pad beside him. He was looking up at a robin reprimanding a squirrel that had had the audacity to climb its tree. Charlie didn’t say anything to him but went over to the swings farthest away and sat on one, moving very slowly back and forth.

The old man approached his mother, and Charlie watched the two of them talk before his mother got up and walked toward the car. She came back with the sketchbook and pencils. She talked to the old man for a few more minutes, then he looked at each of the drawings in it, nodding almost imperceptibly as he examined each one. Then he came over to Charlie and sat down on the swing next to him.

“Momma said not to bother you,” Charlie said.

Ken cleared his throat. “Yes, she said as much.” He moved his swing back and forth in rhythm with Charlie’s. Neither spoke for several minutes. Then he said, “Let’s go over to the bench and I’ll show you a few things.”

He turned to the page in his sketchbook that Charlie had drawn the first day he came to the park. Charlie cringed a little when he saw his failed spinner.

“Do you know why the spinner looks odd, Charlie?”

Charlie shook his head. “No. I mean, yeah. It looks like it’s standing up. I couldn’t make it…” He struggled for the right word. “I couldn’t make it lay down.”

“That’s because you were trying to draw it as if it was a circle.”

Charlie gave him a funny look. “It is a circle.”

Ken shook his head. “No. Only from overhead. Look at it, Charlie. What shape is it?”

“It’s a circle.”

The old man scratched the whiskers on his cheek. “I’m not making myself clear,” he said. “Let me try again. What color is the grass?”

Charlie answered without hesitation. “Green.”

Ken bent down and plucked a blade of grass, handing it to Charlie. “Is this green?”

Charlie looked at the leaf. “It’s kind of yellowy.”

“You see, when I asked you what color grass was, you assumed it was green. You didn’t really look at it. When I asked you what shape the spinner was, you didn’t really look at it, you just said, ‘a circle.’ Look at it again. Trace it in the air with your finger. What shape do you see?”

Charlie closed one eye and held up his left index finger. He peered intently at the spinner, tracing the contours of its image with his finger. Then he grabbed his sketchbook and started drawing. In a few moments, he had drawn it right. Ken smiled at him.

“Very good,” he exclaimed.

“I saw it! I really saw it. It’s shaped like a pancake on its side!”

“You see, you should trust what you see rather than what people tell you to see.”

Charlie nodded, then brought up the topic he’d really wanted to discuss. “What did you mean when you said I could draw myself a new heart?”

Ken sighed. “Six years ago, my wife died. It was quite sudden, a stroke one day while she was out puttering around in her garden. I didn’t know what to do. I’ve never been so sad in all my life. I missed her terribly. It felt like someone had cut my heart out of my body.”

“And you drew yourself a new heart?”

“Not exactly. But when I was a little boy, like you, I’d always loved to draw. I always wanted to become a great artist. But my father thought drawing was a waste of time. He wanted me to be a doctor. He won. Then I got married. We had a daughter. I forgot about drawing.

“After Lisa died, I started looking for some way to fill my days up. I noticed the senior center was offering drawing lessons and signed up. I still had the talent, and I learned very quickly. And one day as I drew a picture of Lisa, I realized that my heart had come back.” He looked at Charlie. “Maybe if you draw yourself a new heart, it will be just as if you’d never lost it.”

Charlie opened his pad. He drew a playing card heart. It didn’t feel right. He wrote his name across the heart. It still felt wrong. He showed it to Ken.

“Is that what your heart looks like?” the doctor asked.

“It’s the way they draw them on the Ace of Hearts.”

“But is it what your heart looks like?”

Charlie shook his head and admitted that he didn’t think it did. Ken explained that real hearts didn’t look like playing card hearts. While he talked, Charlie continued to doodle. When he finished drawing, he had drawn a page full of identical hearts.

Charlie’s mother announced that it was time to go. In the car, she said, “Well, it was certainly nice of Doctor Solomon to spend so much time with you today.”

Charlie nodded and gave her the page full of hearts. She oohed and aahed over it, and when they got home, taped it to the refrigerator.

* * *

After dinner, he looked up the heart in Gramma’s dusty set of encyclopedias. He had to admit that the pictures didn’t look anything like what he had drawn. He took the volume to his room and copied what he saw. It didn’t feel any righter than the heart he’d drawn earlier in the day. He sighed. Maybe this wouldn’t work at all.

The next day the sky looked angry and yellow as a big storm swept toward the coast. Charlie sat in the window, staring out at the sky and hating nature for keeping him from his appointment with Ken. He begged to be allowed to go to the park by himself, but his mother insisted that he stay in the house. She wouldn’t even let him go outside to play in the yard.

That night the rains began. Charlie sighed and moped around the house all day. His mother tried to cheer him up, but he insisted that he wasn’t interested in any of his games or toys. He refused to play cards, even when his mother and Gramma Paul offered to teach him a new game. He loved cards, but he knew he wouldn’t be able to concentrate.

By the end of the next day, he was more depressed than ever. What if Ken forgot about him? He was old¾what if he died? Charlie drove himself into a frenzy envisioning all sorts of awful fates. He didn’t think that he would be able to find a heart without Ken’s help, and he didn’t know how long he could keep living without it. Whenever he brought the subject up with his mother, she either laughed or told him to stop being silly.

As his mother tucked him in that night, he asked, “Can we go to the park tomorrow, Momma?”

“We’ll see, sweetheart. It depends on the weather.”

* * *

The next day dawned with only a few clouds in the sky. The air turned humid as the sun beat down. Charlie’s mother promised to take him to the park in the afternoon after she had gone to the grocery store. Charlie was a nervous wreck all morning. He couldn’t sit still, and it was all he could do to keep from pestering his mother. Then the car got stuck in the muddy driveway, and by the time a tow truck came, it was already too late to go to the park. When his mother broke the news to him, Charlie started to cry.

“But you promised we’d go to the park!”

“I know, sweetie, but by the time we get there it will be time to come home. I know. How about we go to the beach tomorrow?”

“No! I want to go to the park. How come you never listen to me?”

“If you’re going to take that tone with me, we won’t go anywhere tomorrow.”

“You’re mean! I hate you!”

His mother’s face turned red. “You can just stay inside all week, then. You’re grounded!”

Charlie started to cry harder. Gramma Paul intervened. “Now, Anna, you shouldn’t be so hard on the boy.”

“Damn it, mother! I’ve just about had it with him whining and moping around.”

As the women argued, Charlie crept upstairs and threw himself on his bed. He would never find his heart and it was all his mother’s fault. He listened as the fight below him raged. It was just like when his parents had been married, except this time he doubted he’d go downstairs to find things broken or a hole in one of the doors.

After a while, Charlie sat up and looked at the clock. It was only 3:30. Plenty of time left. He crept downstairs, sneaked out the back door, and retrieved his bike from the shed. He pedaled away as quickly as he could.

When he arrived at the park, he spotted Ken sitting at a picnic table away from his usual spot near the playground.

“Ken!”

“Well, hello there, Charlie! Sit yourself down. How are you?”

“I’m okay.” Charlie looked at the clutter that covered the table. Several tubes of paint lay open; others filled a small basket. A jar of murky fluid sat on a corner of the table, and a tabletop easel stood off to one side. Charlie looked at the painting, a mess of color that didn’t look like anything. Maybe a lighthouse?

“What’s that?”

“I call it The Triumph of Perseverance.”

“You draw better than you paint.”

Ken smiled. “Thank you, I think. I’ve just started learning to paint, and I haven’t quite got the hang of it yet. Hence the title.” He began to clean his brushes in the murky fluid.

“Where’s your mother?”

“She’s at home.”

“Does she know you’re here?”

Charlie shrugged. “I’m supposed to be grounded. But I had to see you. I tried so hard to draw a heart like you said, but even though I drew them just like the encyclopedia, none of them were right. I don’t know what to do.”

“Well, I might be able to help you. But first, we’d better call your mother and let her know where you are. If she’s noticed you’re gone, she’ll be worried sick.”

Charlie told Ken his mother’s phone number. Charlie couldn’t make out her side of the conversation, but he could tell she was frantic.

“I’m in big trouble, aren’t I?” Charlie asked when Ken finished the call.

“Maybe. We’ll wait for her in the parking lot. Would you help me pack up?”

In the parking lot, Ken put his case of paints and his unfinished canvas in the trunk of his car. He picked Charlie up and sat him on the trunk lid after it was closed. He leaned against the car next to Charlie.

“Are you mad at me?” Charlie asked.

Ken shook his head. “No. But you mustn’t ever run away like that again.”

“I didn’t run away. I came to see you.”

“That doesn’t make it right. Charlie, there are a lot of very cruel people in the world. You didn’t know that I wasn’t one of them.”

“Yes, I did.” He was certain of that.

“Nevertheless. Promise me you’ll never do this again.”

“I promise.”

They sat in silence for a while. The trees cast long shadows over the yard. Although the sun was still up, it seemed like twilight.

“Why can’t I draw my heart?”

“You’re doing the same thing you did when you drew the spinner. Don’t try to draw what some book says your heart should be. Draw what it really is.”

The crunch of tires on the gravel driveway announced the arrival of Charlie’s mother. She stopped the car in front of them and flung herself out of it, the engine still thrumming. She seized Charlie from the trunk lid and bear-hugged him so hard she almost squeezed the breath out of him.

“I was so worried about you, honey,” she said.

“I’m sorry, Momma.” He started to cry. He didn’t want to make his mother sad.

She put him down.

“Doctor Solomon, thank you so much for looking out for Charlie,” she said.

“My pleasure. Can I talk to you while we put his bike in your trunk?”

Charlie climbed into the car while his mother and Ken went to the back. A few minutes later, she slid into the back seat with him. Charlie looked at his feet. He would get it for sure now. He could forget about the drawing lessons, forget about the park, forget about even going outside for a long time.

“Charlie…”

“I’m sorry, Momma! I shouldn’t have run away.” He started to sob. He had never been more frightened in his life.

“I know, sweetheart.” She pulled him close to her and held him until his sobs slowed to whimpers, then handed him a tissue to blow his nose with. He blew noisily.

“I’m sorry, too, Charlie.” Charlie looked up, startled. “I shouldn’t have been so harsh with you.” Charlie nodded, stunned into silence. He would never in a million years — no, a zillion years have expected this.

“Dr. Solomon told me how you’ve been feeling.”

“You’re not mad?”

“No, sweetheart. Except maybe a little at myself.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s a Mom’s job to encourage her little boy to be happy. And I thought that if I told you to be happy that would be enough.”

“I kept trying to tell you and you wouldn’t listen.”

“I know, sweetie. And I promise I’ll try harder from now on to listen¾I mean really listen¾to what you have to say.”

“Okay.”

“And you have to realize that it will be hard for me at first to change my habits. But I’ll keep trying and eventually we’ll get it right. Okay?”

“Okay.”

* * *

Late that night, after everyone had gone to bed, Charlie turned on his bedroom light and padded quietly to his desk. He took out his drawing pad and a pencil and began to draw. He drew himself in the middle of the page. On each side of him, he drew his parents, facing away from each other. He drew the frizzy-haired judge who had decided he would stay with his mother. He drew his old house and his friends. He started crying and kept drawing through the tears until he had put in every detail he could think of or remember. When he was done, he put away his pencils and tore the page out of his tablet. He turned off the light and lay down beneath the sheets with the picture clutched to his chest. When he woke up in the morning, the picture was gone, but his heart was beating.

#

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