Halfway through an hour’s walk in the cold, I was perched on a cinder-block wall in front of the Grace Baptist Church in Portland, Maine. There are not many places to rest in this part of town, and I needed a rest. It was overcast and lightly snowing.
A boy who looked about nine years old was trudging along the slushy street, backpack slung low. He was also carrying a reusable grocery bag with something bulky in it. He looked weary.
To my surprise, he put a cloth mask over his small face and walked towards me. I noticed that his ears were red. The mask had a Batman logo on it.
“I’m lost,” he said, simply. His voice was even but quiet. I could sense panic just held at bay.
I tried to be as calm and reassuring as I could. “Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m sure I can help you out. Let’s get this figured out.”
“Can you tell me where you are going?”
He gave me the name of a street in the next town over, which took a few tries for me to understand, as his voice was muffled by the mask. I pulled out my phone and typed in the street name. The route was direct, but Google Maps said the walk would be two miles and take forty minutes.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Wesley,” he said.
“I’m Josh,” I said. I showed him the phone and told him it was a 40-minute walk. He was discouraged, since I guess he’d already been walking a while.
The light snow turned to light rain.
“I live pretty close to here,” I said. “We could walk to my house and I could drive you home.”
He didn’t respond. Walking to a stranger’s house and getting in a car was probably not something he was ready to do — stranger danger, you know. And I didn’t blame him.
“Can we call someone?” I asked.
“I know my mom’s phone number,” he said. “Let’s call her,” I said. He recited it hopefully, and I called it.
A woman answered.
“Hello,” I said. “My name is Josh. I’m here in a church parking lot with a boy named Wesley. Is he your child?”
The woman began crying.
“He’s fine,” I said. “He got lost on his way home.”
“Thank God,” she finally managed to say. “We’ve been worried sick. Where are you?”
I explained where I was.
“We’ll be there soon,” she said.
“Do you want to talk to Wesley?”
“Yes.” I put the phone on speaker and the boy talked to his mother. He’d been waiting at school, no one had arrived for forty minutes, so he had started to walk home. There was a lot of confusion. Wesley’s mom said she’d be there in about fifteen minutes and thanked me. Wesley had started crying a little, quietly. I promised I would stay around until they showed up.
Now it was just Wesley and me. What do you talk about with a nine-year-old kid?
“Where do you go to school?” I asked. He explained that he went to a school down the road, because his father lived in Portland — not the next town over where his mother lived. So I guess the parents were separated or divorced.
“Do you like football?” he asked. He was actually trying to make conversation with me. Actually, I don’t like football much. But I wasn’t going to say that.
“Big game coming up,” I responded. “Who do you root for?”
I can’t even remember what he said after that. What must it be like to have to come up to a random stranger in a church parking lot, in the cold drizzle. And here he was trying to make me more comfortable. Poor kid.
We sat there quietly for a few minutes. A greenish minivan and a well-traveled black pickup truck pulled into the parking lot. There was some sort of construction logo on the side of the pickup. Mom got out of the van and Dad got out of the pickup.
Wesley ran over, backpack bouncing up and down, and hugged his mom. I stayed seated on the cinderblock wall, I didn’t want to intrude. She looked like an average working-class mom, a little tired, with a worn-out minivan. He had a little black goatee and a gimme cap. Now he was hugging Wesley too.
I waited a minute or so to see what would happen. Nobody was shouting or screaming. They were just hugging and talking. Happy ending.
I waved and walked away. It was warm in my house when I got home, but it was still cold and raining outside. Wesley was found, and that made things seem a little better.