“Okay, hold him up a little higher…”
“Hurry up, he’s heavy!”
It’s amazing how much a seven-month-old weighs when you’re holding him over your head. I swore I felt the beginnings of muscle fatigue as I settled Sam into the crook of my arm. The life-size cardboard cutout of Elvis, with Sam beside him, would make a fun addition to the ever-expanding cache of baby pictures.
It was Christmas weekend, cold and bright, and the rest stop was full of happy tourists. Many of them toted cameras like Jim’s, and were snapping pictures of their kids in the play area. One man in particular caught my attention. “Hon? Look over there.”
Jim paused to see where I was pointing. Nothing too out of the ordinary, just a man on a bench. But there was something…
His hair was blond, the sort of pale golden shade that rarely lasts past childhood, and his face was ageless. He could have been anywhere between thirty and sixty. His clothing was simple, functional. Jeans, boots; a denim jacket with a sheepskin collar. His attention was on the children at play, and a benign smile softened his features.
As I watched him, I came to realize that he was focused on one little boy. Son? Grandson? Had to be. Surely such a nice, ordinary-looking man couldn’t be one of… those kinds of people.
Jim seemed to share my fascination with the stranger, and clicked off several shots with the camera. It’s our shared hobby, that camera. Jim takes endless pictures and I fill endless photo albums. Nine times out of ten, they’re just ordinary photographs. Every once in a while, though, magic happens. A single ray of sunlight breaking through the clouds to illuminate a perfect rose. A diamond-bright drop of water preparing to fall from an icicle. A cherub-faced Sam, looking impossibly tiny as his two-week-old self is cradled in my hands. These are the moments that feed the shutterbug.
Jim and I headed back towards the main building of the rest stop. I wanted to check the state map; Jim was probably looking for one more picture. We’d taken about ten steps when the scream froze us both in our tracks.
It was like being underwater. That cliché about everything moving on slow motion? It’s true. Time slowed to a crawl as we watched, helpless to stop the scene that unfolded before us.
The little boy who had been the object of interest for the blond stranger had tired of his play. Breaking loose from his mother’s hand, he bolted for the family car across the parking lot. He almost made it.
The car that skidded toward him is permanently engraved on my mind. Lime green, with rust around the fender wells. A crack in the windshield. The obligatory fuzzy dice hanging from the rearview mirror. The worn tires that lost traction on a patch of ice and sent the car straight for the little boy.
The boy’s mother was screaming as she ran, a look of horrified certainty on her face. Jim ran, too, stumbling over a clod of frozen dirt. Everyone in the area ran, but none of them had a hope of reaching the little boy. Except one.
Out of absolutely nowhere, the blond stranger swept the frightened little boy into his arms and out of harm’s way. The car screeched to a halt, the driver’s eyes wide and terrified. His shocked and babbling apologies were lost amid the tears and cheering from everyone who had witnessed the event.
We all took turns hugging the sobbing, elated mother and her boy. And the stranger? He faded into the background. The boy’s mother couldn’t even find him later to pour out her thanks.
Jim and I talked about that moment for the rest of our trip. We couldn’t wait to print the pictures we’d taken. When they came back, I flipped through to the rest area shots. The temperature of the room dropped about ten degrees as I looked at the blond stranger.
There was a flaw in the film. Well, not a flaw, but something none of us had seen at the time. Hovering above the blond stranger, as he watched the little boy he was soon to save, was a pair of large shadows.
By Penny Dreadful