Duo Maxwell knew he
wasn't like the other kids even when he was very, very small. He knew
because he could hear them playing outside during the day when he had
to stay shut up in his room with all the curtains drawn and shades on
all the windows.
He could hear them laughing. He could hear them shouting. He could tell
from the sounds, just what they were doing in the park right across the
street, because he'd played in the park too. He just had to wait until
the sun was gone before he could go out.
Every night he clutched his pail and his little shovel close to his chest
and waited by the door. Waited for the sun to go away. Waited for his
mother to say it was ok to open the door. Waited for his turn to play
in the park. Every night, when his mother smiled and said, 'all right',
he would throw the door wide and run as hard and as fast as he could go,
but he never managed to get there before the laughing was gone. Never
got to see... only to hear. Never found anything in the sand box but footprints
and the ruin of the day's construction.
So Duo sat in the sandbox and played by himself, not allowed to go play
outside the pool of light from the street lamps, where his mother could
see. He dug holes and wished there was someone to laugh with. Made hills
and wished he could run faster. Made roads and wondered where they might
He wondered about the other kids too; the ones whose footprints and handprints
where left behind. Wondered where they lived and if they knew there was
a little boy who played after they'd all gone home to bed. Wondered if
they would want to play with him if they knew.
Wondered what their names were.
And every night, before he dug his holes and made his mountains, he just
sat for awhile and looked at the sand and tried to imagine the games that
had been played there that day.
There was a bare-foot kid who didn't come into the sandbox much, but sometimes
ran through the corners. There was a girl, Duo was sure from the shoes
that left Little Mermaid prints, who liked to make hills that were maybe
supposed to be castles. There were two pairs of tready sandal prints that
were always together. And there was one kid who always sat in the corner
and made really big holes that looked like craters. Sometimes there were
the tracks of Hotwheels cars and Duo imagined that they'd gotten blown
Sometimes he made up names to go with the footprints, and sometimes he
spent hours wiping out those prints so that he could leave his own.
But every night when he came running to the park, his marks were gone
and the other marks were there and it was like he'd never been.
Sometimes he thought he was more a shadow than a boy.
It made him sad that the kids he could hear never seemed to notice that
he'd been there. Made him sad that he was never able to run fast enough
to get to the park before they were all gone.
Then one night, when he got to the sandbox, the corner that was always
full of craters and blast holes... was smoothed flat and right in the
middle was a hand print, the fingers spread wide and mashed carefully
into the sand. Duo sat and looked at the print for a long time, holding
his hand out and comparing. The other hand was just a tiny bit bigger
than his, the palm wider, though Duo thought his fingers might be a little
bit longer. He thought about the kid who had left the mark for a long
time before he carefully pressed his own hand into the sand right beside
He didn't play in the sand very much that night, just sat and looked and
thought and wondered, and when his mother called him in for lunch, he
didn't really want to go. He had trouble sleeping that day, seeing the
print even when he closed his eyes.
The next night he didn't even take his shovel and pail, just waited by
the door for his mother to let him go, and then he ran as hard as he'd
ever run, but he still didn't make it. He thought for a minute that he
just might cry, but then he looked in the sandbox and there was something
brand new. The corner where he'd found the hand print was ringed about
with rocks, like someone had built a tiny fence to keep people out. And
in the middle, the hand prints were still there... the other kid's and
his own, but under the one was written a name... 'Heero'. Very carefully,
with the stick that had been left there, he wrote his own name under his
own print and then he did sit down and cry, guarding the marks from everything
until he had to go in for lunch again.
He worried all that night and all through the next day that something
would happen to the prints before the other kid found them, but there
was nothing he could do until the sun went away and he was free to run
to the park again.
He thought his heart would stop when he found the spot all rubbed smooth,
the stones still guarding it, but not a sign of the hands and the names,
but then he noticed the stick standing up right in the middle, and he
sat down to dig. He wasn't sure how he knew that something would be there,
but he was very sure that's what he was supposed to do, and his heart
started up again when his fingers found something hard and cool in the
sand. He fished it out and held it in his hand, a silver star all shiny
and heavy and it was like finding a treasure at the bottom of the sea.
Duo just held it in his hand for a very long time. Then he ran back to
his house, getting yelled at for tracking sand inside, but he didn't care.
He went straight to his room and straight to his desk and pulled out his
box for treasures. It held all the important things that he'd collected
during his short life and the star went right in the box, right in the
middle. It nestled there between the rock his Dad had let him fish out
of the big lake, all worn smooth by the water, and the feather he'd found
in the back yard. Out from under the bit of super soft material that he'd
rescued from the trash after his Mom had made a pillow for the living
room, he pulled a coin. It was shiny and gold and was his most prized
treasure. On one side there was a picture of the sun the way it looked
on television, like Duo had never seen, but only imagined. His Grandpa
had given it to him not long before he'd died.
With the coin clutched tight in his hand, Duo ran all the way back to
the park and put it in the hole he'd dug the star out of, carefully planting
the stick atop it, just as he'd found the other treasure.
Then he sat on the edge of the sandbox, staring at that spot and worrying
about leaving something so important out all night, but the other kid…
Heero… had left his treasure for Duo to find, and how could Duo do any
It was hard to go in for lunch that night, and harder still when he had
to stay in after, for studies. He got points off because he kept looking
out the window, even though there was nothing to see in the dark, and
had to work very hard to be good afterward. Too many points and he wouldn't
be able to go to the park.
He wanted to ask his Mom about sun-block that morning while she was tucking
him in, but asking questions about sun things always made her look very
sad, and Duo didn't like the way that always made him feel. So all he
could do was wait through the day, trying hard to sleep.
The corner of the sandbox was still marked off the next night and Duo
was glad that his new friend hadn't gotten tired of the game yet. In fact,
when Duo thought about it, there might even be more rocks than there had
been… the wall made thicker. Duo was eager to dig under the stick.
He was surprised when he unearthed a glass bottle, the old-fashioned kind
that he knew milk used to come in. The end was stoppered with a piece
of cut off wood. It didn't fit perfectly and there was a bit of sand inside,
but not much, and Duo had to work to get the wood pulled out. Inside the
bottle was a rolled up piece of paper. When he spread the paper out across
his lap, he was surprised to find a picture drawn with pencils and crayon.
It was a tall mountain that Duo thought might be a volcano until he saw
the snow on top. There was a funny little building and even funnier little
sticks in one corner. It was… quite the puzzle. Duo wasn't sure what he
should leave in return. Though looking at the picture gave him a funny
feeling, knowing it had been drawn just for him.
He didn't play in the park that night, but took his picture home and sat
at the desk in his room looking at it. A picture, he thought, would be
the right thing to leave, but he couldn't decide what to draw. Wasn't
sure what his own picture meant.
His Mom came in to put away clean laundry while he was sitting there and
she made that funny little noise that Duo knew meant she was surprised.
'Where on Earth did you see a picture of Mt. Fuji?' she asked, and laughed
when he just looked at her. Ruffling his hair as she left the room with
her own clean clothes still to be delivered. 'Japan, honey. Where did
you see a picture of Japan?'
Duo knew she thought he'd drawn the picture, and he didn't bother to tell
her different. Somehow, he thought that his new friend should probably
stay his own secret. He knew about secrets and knew that some were bad.
Knew about talking to strangers and stray dogs and that whole playing
with the yellow snow thing. But this didn't seem like a bad secret at
all, and Duo decided to keep it. He liked that it was something that was
But his mother had given him ideas and he looked at the picture again,
wondering if the other kid was telling him that he was from Japan. Wondered
how he'd gotten to America and if he missed that mountain in the picture.
Duo thought about it and decided what he should draw. Knew about missing
Before Duo had come to live across the street from the park with his Mom,
he'd lived with his Mom and Dad in a place near the ocean. Lived near
his Grandpa. Lived where there had been more sand to play in than could
ever fit in a sandbox.
Duo drew the ocean and the beach and the great rocks that rose out of
the water. He colored it with his colored pencils, and he thought about
making it the way he thought it was during the day, but there wasn't much
color in his world, so he though maybe he shouldn't do that, and made
it just the way he remembered when he walked there at midnight with his
The picture went into the bottle and the bottle back into the sandbox
and then it was time for lunch.
The next night there was a paper with those funny sticks and Duo's name,
and it took awhile for him to figure out that's what his name looked like
in Japanese. Not knowing another language, Duo left a note that simply
said 'I live in the yellow house'. The night after, he knew that Heero
lived in a big white house with green shutters. He was disappointed that
it wasn't close enough to the park to see.
They left trinkets and toys, notes and pictures, odd treasures and sometimes
just bits of findings. Duo put it all in his box of treasures, the silver
star, the picture of Japan, his name, the polished rock, the bright red
feather. Anything that Heero left for him became his most important possession
until the next night brought something new. He was ecstatic that he had
a friend, and couldn't wait each night to go to the park. The first time
the weather was bad and he couldn't go, he was near sick with worry that
Heero would forget him, but when he went back again, there was the bottle
waiting, the ring of stones renewed.
He was crushed the day that there was a note saying Heero was going on
vacation, but in a week there was a bag with a post card and a sea shell
and one of those squished coins that said 'Homosassa Springs' on it and
a picture of an animal that took Duo three nights to find in the dictionary.
His mother had not understood his sudden desire to go to the all night
Wal-mart, and even less did she understand when he used his own money
to buy a silly post card from right there in their home town. But she
just smiled and shook her head, ruffling his hair the way that she did
sometimes, the way his Grandpa used to, and took him home.
He carefully wrote, 'having wonderful time, wish you were here' on the
back of the card, just the way he'd seen people do on TV, and then off
it went into the bottle and into the sand.
Duo had never really been on vacation, it was too hard to travel only
at night, his Mom said, but when he looked at his post card and his shell…
he felt like he'd been. He made a point of finding the Homosassa place
on the map so he knew where Heero had been, and dreamed of going there
himself one day. Maybe even of seeing one of the funny manatees for himself.
Someday, he thought, when he was better.
But then one night, when he dug the bottle out of the sand there was a
letter. A long letter like he'd never gotten before, and he thought his
heart had done something bad because his chest hurt a great deal while
Heero was moving. Moving away. Heero was a 'military brat' the letter
said, though Duo didn't understand that part. But it seemed to mean that
Heero moved a lot. And now he was moving again. Maybe back to Japan, the
letter didn't say, so Duo didn't know. Just Heero was sorry, and Heero
would miss him, but Heero was moving all the same.
And Duo… didn't know what to do.
He sat in the sand for a very long time that night, making his mother
call him twice and getting yelled at for not answering. He didn't eat
his lunch and that made his Mom check his forehead for a fever and she
sent him to go lie down even though she didn't find one, just because
he 'didn't look good'.
He went up to his room and he got out his treasures and he sorted through
them and thought very, very hard about what he could leave for Heero this
one last time, but nothing seemed good enough. Nothing seemed special
enough. But he couldn't not answer what Heero had left for him. Finally,
he took out his notebook and wrote the only thing he could think of. He
put the note in the bottle and he went back to the park even while his
Mom was yelling at him, and he buried their bottle one last time.
'Don't forget me', the note said, and Duo wished that it might be so.
He got grounded for going out when he was supposed to be resting, but
he went to the park the next night anyway.
'Never', Heero's note said.
He'd have been grounded for the rest of the week if his Mom hadn't felt
so bad about his crying so much. Especially when he couldn't explain why.
He went back to the park on nights after, but there was no bottle and
no messages, and eventually the rock wall went away too. And then winter
came and it was too cold to be allowed to play in the park and Duo didn't
even hear the laughter coming from outside in the daylight. He tried sometimes
to miss a certain voice, but he'd never known it and was somehow sad that
he couldn't count it gone.
Winter turned to spring and then another. Duo didn't play in the park
nearly as much, though he sometimes went and sifted through the sand in
a certain corner, hoping against hope that military brats sometimes got
to go back to places they'd been, but he never found anything.
As he got older and his studies brought him the ability to read better,
he began to look things up and he knew what a 'military brat' was, and
he knew what kind of birds had bright red feathers, and he knew where
Japan was and saw real photos of Mount Fuji. He dreamed of going there
one day, and finding Heero, but then he got older still and understood
how impossible that dream really was.
When he was ten, he got pretty sick and it made his Mom cry quite a bit.
When he was fifteen, it was his turn to move when they changed states
to be closer to a specialty clinic, and his Mom began to cry sometimes
during the day when she thought Duo was asleep. When he was nineteen,
he decided that his Mom had cried enough and he signed up for the experimental
treatment that she had been too afraid to try.
'You could die,' she had said.
'I don't think I'm alive,' he'd replied.
She cried a very great deal then, but by then he was old enough to know
it would pass.
One way or the other… it would pass.
It took months; long hard months, and when they came out the other side,
Duo wasn't cured, but he was better. Better enough that he felt he could
move out on his own. Better enough that when the handsome intern asked
his mother out, she accepted a date for the first time in Duo's memory.
And best of all… she didn't cry all the time.
By the time Duo was twenty, he had a tiny little apartment to call his
own, and a decent job that kept him inside. He didn't have any real friends
because he'd never really learned just how one went about making them,
and he kept mostly to himself, reading and surfing the internet and talking
to his plants. He subscribed to the little local paper from that town
where he'd grown up, having it mailed to him in the town he'd ended up
in. It was the only connection he could make to that long ago friendship
and he never failed to hope that he'd see some sign of Heero's name when
he read the news of that place.
And then one day the paper came and on the front page was an article about
the new shopping center that was going to be built there. Nothing fancy;
just a little strip mall that would house a laundry, a grocery and some
offices. Just like a million others all across the country… except this
shopping center was going to be built on the site of 'the old Bradley
Duo had to read the paragraph three times before he could completely take
in the information. The Bradley Park. His park. His and Heero's. They
were going to bulldoze it under and pave it over. No more trees, no more
grass, no more swings, and especially… no more sandbox. He surprised himself
when he threw the paper on the floor, and surprised himself even more
when he sat and cried.
After the tears dried, he picked up the paper, washed out his breakfast
mug, and went to plan his first ever vacation.
His Mother was horrified at first, but his new Step-Father was there to
help reassure and she eventually stopped wringing her hands and threatening
tears. The evening he left, his Mom gave him a sack with three tubes of
sun-block and his Step-Dad gave him a new baseball cap to shade his face.
They even managed to smile and wave him off. Of course he promised to
The paper had said there was a ground-breaking ceremony and Duo was only
sorry that they hadn't printed the article earlier; he would have wished
he could have gone sooner. Seen the place before the heavy machinery got
to it. He wasn't so naïve that he thought things would be untouched. Ceremonies
are just that… ceremonial. Things go right ahead and move at their own
He was pleased to see the old Wal-mart still there when he reached town
and he stopped to buy a post card to drop into the mail for his folks.
Taking a moment to write something wittier than 'wish you were here'.
He couldn't help a sad smile as he dropped it in the mail box out front.
Then he went back in the store, bought a second card and addressed it
to himself. He swore the cards hadn't changed in fourteen years.
It surprised him mightily how much trouble he had finding their old street
and when he got there, the ceremony was in full swing and he ended up
having to park a block away. He was wearing his sun-block, his sunglasses
and his hat and he couldn't help gawking around like a tourist as he walked
to the park… he'd never seen the neighborhood in the light before. He
paused for a moment in front of their old house and found it much smaller
than he'd remembered. Then he turned his steps across the street and went
to join the group of people in… what had once been a park.
As expected, there wasn't much park left, and he was struck with a wave
of depression because he hadn't gotten there soon enough to dig in the
corner of the sandbox one last time, fearing that maybe at some point
over the years there had been a message left that he'd never gotten.
He only half listened to the pretty speeches about progress, trying to
tell past all the people just where things once had stood. There had been
a big old tree right there, and swings just to the left. Something else…
a rock perhaps, that he'd never played on.
He was struck by just how many years it had been. There had been a lot
of changes in his life, but in that moment hiding under his hat, behind
his sunglasses… he still felt like just a shadow boy.
A silly ribbon was cut and people applauded and just like that the crowd
began to disperse. It all seemed so pompous. So unnecessary. The park
was already gone, what difference did the talking and the theatrics make?
Blindly, he reached to brush his fingers over the silver star that he
wore on his wrist and wondered what message he would have liked to have
When the people were mostly gone, a few parents leading children around
and pointing to things that weren't there, Duo tried to orient himself
and find where the sandbox had been. There was no hope of anything still
being there, but he had come a long way to do nothing but listen to politicians
He found it by just a trace of sand left mixed with the churned up dirt,
and he shivered listening to a few of the kids laughing in the distance,
chasing each other around the bare ground, bored and waiting on their
parents to get over their nostalgia. It was too much like hearing the
voices outside his window. Too much like memory.
Sighing, he squatted down and reached out to sift a handful of dirt and
sand through his fingers. Were he completely alone, he would have dug,
but with no more clue than he had, he couldn't tell where the corner had
been and he'd have felt foolish.
'There used to be a sandbox there,' a voice said and Duo looked up to
find a young man standing not so far away, watching him. Feeling self-conscious,
he stood and dusted his hand off on his jeans.
'Yeah,' he replied. 'I know. I used to play in it.'
'Me too,' the man said, sounding sad. 'Maybe we met?'
Duo tried not to sigh, not knowing how to explain. 'I doubt it. I was
here at… odd times.'
The stranger was quiet for a moment, looking at Duo and not at the missing
sandbox. 'At…at night?' he ventured, and made Duo blink.
'What?' Duo said, his heart suddenly feeling very odd. Odd in a way he
hadn't felt in a long time. There was something in the air that felt very
like anticipation. 'What did you say?'
The stranger didn't reply, but stepped closer, reaching up to pull a pendant
out of his shirt. Duo couldn't take his eyes off the familiar gold coin,
wrapped round with wire and turned into a necklace. He thought his knees
were going to give out.
'Duo?' the stranger asked cautiously and Duo held up his wrist, displaying
the silver star he'd long ago woven into a leather bracelet.
'Oh my God,' Heero breathed, and he sounded like his knees might just
feel weak too.
And then they stared at one another, finally making Duo laugh on a burst
of nervousness. Heero blushed and laughed too, running his hand over his
neck in a gesture that seemed odd and familiar to Duo all at once.
'I've had a million questions forever,' Heero suddenly said, looking like
he was trying to see Duo's eyes. 'And I don't even know where to start.'
Duo smiled and reached up to pull off his sunglasses.
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