Grains of sand shifted through Mikey’s fingers. His red bucket laid unattended beside him. Clutching his plastic shovel, he carefully scooped the tiny grains of sand and dumped it over his legs.
“What are you doing?”
Mikey looked into curious green eyes. A boy squatted next to him in the sandbox. His clothes hung loosely on his small frame. Mikey came to the park every Saturday afternoon since he was three. He was five now, and he’d never seen this boy before.
“I’m a sand monster,” He replied, continuing to cover his legs.
The boy laughed, “Can I play?”
Mikey eyed him warily.
“I have my own shovel.” The boy held up a hand clasping a matching plastic shovel.
“Okay.” Mikey scooted over, content he didn’t have to share his toys. The boy squatted closer to Mikey, and sprinkled sand on his shoes.
“I’m Mikey.” He watched as Bobby dumped another scoop. Mikey grabbed his bucket, “We can put sand in here and it will bury us faster.”
“Okay.” Bobby redirected his shovelful of sand from his shoes into the bucket, “One time I had a bucket too. But then I lost it.”
“I lost my G.I. Joe once,” Mikey shared, understanding his new playmate’s feeling of loss.
“Do you like to play on the swings?” Bobby asked, eying the older boys shoving each other on the swing set.
“Yeah!” Mikey exclaimed, “I can go really high!”
“But I don’t like it when I want to swing and then Mary makes me push her. But I have to be nice to her because Mom always says she’s got it hard at home since she’s a mistake.” Mikey sighed.
“What’s that mean?” Bobby asked, wrinkling his nose.
“I dunno.” Mikey shrugged.
“Maybe if you push her hard she’ll go higher faster and then you can swing too.” Bobby offered his words of wisdom.
“Maybe.” Mikey considered his words.
“Do you like to slide?” Bobby asked, after a slight pause.
“I like to.” Mikey closed his eyes, pretending his hand was rushing down the slide, “It’s fun because you sit down and then you go ‘whoosh!'”
“What’s whoosh?” A high-pitched voice interrupted.
Mikey blinked at the chubby girl standing before him. Her hands were on her hips and she looked disapprovingly at Mikey’s buried legs.
“The slide,” he said, “hi Mary.”
“Who were you talking to?” She demanded.
Mikey pointed to the newly vacant spot beside him. “We were sand monsters.” He replied in surprise, wondering where Bobby went.
“You’re funny,” Mary giggled. “C’mon, let’s play on the swings. The big boys are gone now.” She knocked the toys out of his hand and yanked him to his feet. Mikey shook off the last bits of sand before following her out of the sandbox.
Mary plopped into the first swing. “Will you push me?” She smiled and two dimples creased her cheeks.
“Fine,” Mikey grumbled. Remembering Bobby’s advice, Mikey used all his might to give her a strong shove. She lurched forwards, nearly falling out of the swing.
“Stop it! You’re being mean!” She cried, jumping off to face him.
“Nu-uh! You told me to push!”
“No, you tried to make me fall! I’m going to tell your mom and she’s going to make you go home!” She glared, before storming off.
Mikey thought Mary was being a big baby, and settled in the swing. He barely started to gain speed when a hand jerked him to a halt. His mother gripped his hand and pulled him to the car. “If you can’t play nice, then you can’t play at all.”
“But Mom, I did play nice!”
“Pushing people off the swings is not nice.”
“She told me to!”
“We don’t push people, Mikey.” His mother lifted him into the car seat, and Mikey thought about how this was all Bobby’s fault.
* * *
It rained the entire week and mud puddles scattered the park. Mikey found a large stick, and poked the thick mud.
“Hi Mikey,” Bobby stood nearby, his own stick in hand.
Mikey glanced up at Bobby before pointedly turning away, “You got me in trouble and I had to go home early.”
“How?” He asked.
“You told me to push Mary hard so I did and then my mom got mad at me.”
“I’m sorry,” Bobby apologised, “I didn’t mean to. I thought it would work.”
Mikey shrugged. “It’s okay.” He didn’t like Mary much anyway.
“So what are you doing?” Bobby took a closer look at the mud.
“Making mud pies.” Mikey stuck his hands in the goopy puddle.
“I’m not allowed to play with mud.” Bobby watched enviously.
“My mom says I’ll get dirty.”
“Look!” Mikey molded the mud into a round circle, and slapped it. Mud sprayed all over his clothes and face. Bobby jumped out of the way, but a few flecks caught his legs. Mikey chuckled, continuing to splash the puddle, and Bobby shrieked with glee, jumping further back with each slap.
“No, no, no! Mikey!”
“Uh-oh,” He whispered, as his mother dragged him out of the mud and towards the car.
“I told you not to play in the mud today, remember? Grandma’s coming tonight. And she’s just going to remind me that I fail at keeping a home clean.” Mikey ignored his mother’s rant. He’d heard it many times before. Instead, he tried to wave goodbye to Bobby.
“I said get in the car. Who are you waving to?” His mother asked impatiently.
“Who’s Bobby?” She looked over Mikey’s head, trying to spot the boy.
“My new friend.”
“I don’t see him.”
“He’s right there! We were playing.” Mikey craned his neck, but Bobby wasn’t standing by the mud anymore. He searched the rest of the park but didn’t see him anywhere.
“Is this one of your little tricks?” She sighed, “I don’t have time for your little games, okay. Let’s just go home and get you in the bath.” Mikey crossed his arms. He hated baths.
* * *
Next Saturday, Mikey returned to the sandbox in the park. Bobby was already there, swirling a finger through the sand.
“Hi Mikey,” Bobby greeted.
Mikey narrowed his eyes, “Go away. You’re not real, and you just get me in trouble.”
“I am real!” Bobby defended.
“Nu-uh, you disappear whenever someone comes near. Mary couldn’t see you and then thought I was mean, and my mom couldn’t see and thought I was lying and I had to take a bath.”
“So only I can see you. That means you’re not really here.”
“Yeah, I am! I was there and we were sand monsters and made mud pies.”
“I made them. You didn’t.”
“I’ll get dirty!”
“You’re not real! Go away! We can’t play anymore!”
“I am real!” Bobby’s face glowed bright red in frustration, and tears glistened in his eyes. Mikey turned back to the sand, ready to dig for dinosaur bones, and didn’t even notice Bobby run away.
Suddenly, he was wrenched to his feet.
“Michael Timothy Logan, you are in big trouble, mister! I did not raise my son to bully others!” Mikey’s mother gathered his toys and dragged him back towards the car.
“Don’t ‘but Mom’ me. Do you know how embarrassed I am? I was talking to that nice lady who just moved into town. She has a son too, and we were about to set up a play date, when her little boy runs crying into her arms. And when I realised it was my son who bullied him…ugh, I taught you better than that.” She hoisted him into his car seat, fiddling angrily with the belt.
“No, Mom, it’s okay. He isn’t real. I told him to go away.” Mikey protested.
“Of course he’s real! Look, there’s Robert sitting in his mother’s lap.”
Mikey glanced in the direction his mother pointed, and his mouth fell open. Bobby was in the lap of a skinny woman, his head cradled in her chest.
“You can see him?” He asked, understanding dawning on him.
“Of course I can. Do you see how sad he is? You did that. As soon as we get home you are going straight to a time-out, and you better think long and hard about what you said.”