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The River's Boy
I found him in the water. It was weird. One minute it was nothing but water and rocks and next he was there, staring up at me. He was really young then. Six, maybe seven. Or that’s how he looked. He was scrawny, his ribs and spine very visible under his skin and he was naked. He stared up at me with dirty blond hair hanging in the biggest, brightest sea blue eyes I’d ever seen. They made my heart melt.
“Where did you come from?” I asked.
He didn’t reply so I tried again.
“What’s your name?”
Again no response. His eyes shifted from my face to the picnic box beside me.
“Are you hungry?” I asked. He nodded and I gave him half of my lunch. He ate in quickly. His body seeming to absorb the nutrients right away. His ribs were a little less noticeable by the time he was finished.
“Do you want some more?” I asked when he continued to stare at the box.
He nodded so I gave him the rest and watch him eat it. He looked much better when he finished my picnic. He almost looked well fed. He smiled at me, showing perfectly straight, white teeth and then he was gone. I don’t remember if I blinked or if he just disappeared, but he was gone and I was alone again, sitting on the bridge with an empty picnic box.
I went home and there he was again. He was clothed now in neat little breaches and a white shirt. His blond hair was clean and combed back out of his face. He looked up at me with those adorable eyes and smiled.
“How did you get here?” I asked, only half expecting an answer. He shrugged his shoulders and looked at my breadbox. I gave him a piece of bread and he ate it happily before curling up in my bed and going to sleep.
He stayed with me from then on. I couldn’t turn him out. I had no idea where he had came from or what he was but he seemed to like me so I let him stay. I figured if he were a normal boy (which I doubted) that he would need someone to look after him and I had nothing more important to do with my time. If he were a spirit (which I also doubted) he would be angry with me if I stopped giving him food and letting him use my home. If he was something else, I didn’t know what I was dealing with so it was best just to let him be. If that wasn’t reason enough, I needed him just as much as he needed me. To tell the truth, I had been lonely before he came. I lived alone in the house I inherited from my aunt and rarely interacted with other people. It was nice, having him follow me around, even if he didn’t speak.
We were sitting in my kitchen when I heard his voice for the first time.
“My name is Alton,” he said.
I was so surprised I cut myself with the knife I was using to chop carrots. I didn’t notice the blood leaking from my finger as I stared at him. He gave me one of his huge, white smiles and a boyish giggle came from his throat. He hopped off the stool he was sitting on and took my hand. He took my finger and kissed it where the flesh was separated. I watched in amazement as the cut closed up.
He didn’t speak for a day or so after that. The next time he was asking for more bread. He began to talk a little more after that. Once a day became twice a day. A few sentences became a conversation. A conversation became several conversations. Soon he talked all the time and I was more than happy to listen. He was much smarter than he looked. Our conversations ranged from gardening to philosophy. Half of the time I didn’t really know what he was talking about. I guess it showed on my face when I was confused because he was stop, give me one of his best smiles, and switch to something simpler that I could understand.
It was strange, he never made me feel ignorant or uneducated, though both were true. I was a simple country girl who was raised by my aunt after my mother’s death. My aunt taught me as much as she knew and that was just enough to allow me to live on my own. She had hoped I would move away, find a nice man, and get married. But then she got sick. I refused to leave her and when she died, I stayed to take care of the house. I never left, I never met a man, I never met anyone. I was afraid, I guess, of getting close to other people. I was alone, and that seemed like the way it should be. The way I should be. Alton didn’t count as a person though. He wasn’t human so he was safe.
“Can I ask you something?” Alton asked me one night. He was sitting on a stool, watching the fire.
“Of course,” I replied, looking up from my sewing. He didn’t usually ask permission before questioning me. “What is it?”
“Why do you live here?” he asked, his eyes focused on the flames. “You could live elsewhere, yes? You could live where other people live. Why do you stay here?”
“I like it here,” was my first response. “It’s quite here. Peaceful.”
“It’s lonely here.”
“Maybe a little,” I admitted. “But now you’re here, so I’m not lonely anymore.”
“I’m just a kid though,” he said, still focused on the fire. “I’m not the kind of company you want.”
“That’s not true,” I told him frowning. “You’re perfect company.”
“Not the kind you need,” he said, getting up and crawling into bed.
The next day he brought me flowers. They were forget-me-nots, tied up with a purple ribbon. I didn’t bother to ask where he’d found the ribbon. He was always pulling things from nowhere. I put them in one of the few un-broken vases my aunt had owned and set them on the table. The next day he offered to cook for me. I let him, thinking it was kind of cute. The food he made was delicious, but he didn’t seem satisfied.
After that he brought me things almost everyday. Mostly flowers, herbs, sometimes a fish or small animal he’d caught for our evening meal. And sometimes he would even bring me ribbons like the one he had tied the flowers with. I thanked him and praised him every time he brought me something but he never seemed happy with it. One morning I woke up, and he was gone.
I searched for him but I couldn’t find him anywhere. I went down to the river and stood on the bridge where I found him. He wasn’t there. I called, he didn’t answer. I made breakfast, thinking maybe he would come back if he smelled the food. He had a weird way of knowing when I was cooking. But he didn’t come for breakfast, or lunch, or dinner. The sky got dark, and I crawled into bed, alone, for the first time in two months.
Alton didn’t come back the next day, or the day after that. On the fourth day I stopped looking for him. I sat on my bed and cried. It was childish, I know, but he had been the only friend I had for a long time. For the first time I actually considered leaving the house I had grown up in. Maybe I did need to be around people.
On the fifth day I went out to look for mint and sage. If I was going to leave I wanted to do it with a full stock of herbs. Who knew when I would have a chance to get some more. That was the first time I truly saw him. He was tall, the breeze blew his blond hair out of his cleanly shaven face. He was wearing a plane white shirt with neat brown breaches and he was walking towards me with a huge smile, showing off his bright, white teeth. It made my heart skip a beat. He looked exactly like a grown up…
“Alton?” I asked, standing slowly. I half expected him to laugh. He just smiled.
“Do you like it?” he asked, his smile reaching for his ears.
“H-how?” I asked, touching his shoulder, his arms, his face, to make sure he was real. He was.
“Do you like it?” he asked again, taking my hands and looking deeply into my eyes. He had an odd expression in his eyes under the smile.
“Yes,” I answered without thinking. It was strange, having those sea blue eyes stare out at me from a new face. “But how did you do it? You were a little boy four days ago.”
“I changed for you!” he grinned, spreading his arms and spinning around once. “Now I’m the kind of company you need!”
“You were perfect before!” I insisted. He’d changed for me? He was a man now, and I was painfully aware that I was a woman. Our relationship had just changed dramatically and I wasn’t sure if he knew that. “I don’t need a man. I’m perfectly fine without one.”
“You… don’t like it,” he said, his face falling. “I thought it would make you happy. My gifts didn’t work, I thought this would.”
“Your gifts? They were wonderful,” I told him. He’d never acted this way before. It confused me. “I loved your gifts, what do you mean they didn’t work?”
“They didn’t make you happy,” he said, “They didn’t… never mind.”
“Alton, what is it?” He was acting so strangely. Was this because he was a man now? He turned away from me and didn’t answer. “Please,” I said. “Tell me what this is about.”
“How do I do that?” he asked. “I’ve never done it, so I don’t know how. How do you tell someone you love them? Flowers didn’t work. Ribbons didn’t either…” He turned to me suddenly, his fist clenched in his pocket. “What about this?” He pulled his fist out and opened it to reveal a gold diamond ring. “Is this what you want?” he demanded. “Is this the key to your heart? When men give women rings they fall into their arms. Is this what it takes for you to love me in return?”
I was speechless. Four days ago he’d been a little boy who brought me flowers in the afternoon and slept in the bed beside me. If anything proved my ignorance this was it. How had I not seen the adult mind living in the seven-year-old body? That wasn’t what shocked me though. It made me feel stupid, yes, but what had me frozen in place was the fact that he was in love with me. The thought had never crossed my mind because I never thought it was possible. All of his gifts just seemed like friendly gestures, nice little things to make me feel special. Tokens of love. I couldn’t imagine them.
He was still holding the ring out to me, staring at me with those big eyes of his, and I didn’t know what to do. He wasn’t the little boy I’d given my lunch to anymore. I knew that. And I didn’t know what to do with him anymore. He didn’t seem to even breath as he watched me. I knew one thing, and that was I didn’t want him to leave again. So I reached out and a took the ring he offered and I slipped it on my finger.
“If I fall will you catch me?” I asked.
His brilliant white smile resurfaced and he nodded. “I would never let you fall,” he said, his other arm joining the one already extended. I fell into his arms and I’ve stayed there every since.