by Catherine Nichols
Standing on a street corner in downtown Encinitas, California, Jake Reinhold looks at the tourists passing by and wonders how his life would be different if he’d gotten two of them as parents instead.
Earlier on Friday morning, he overhead a whispered conversation between his mom and his dad. He could almost feel the bumps of the deep furrows on his mom’s forehead. He knew his dad was stroking his chin, thinking intently about whatever it was they were discussing.
Jake knew money was tight but they always seemed to make it through. His dad worked two jobs and was rarely home. His mom cleaned rich ladies’ homes while Jake was at school. When she picked Jake up in the afternoons, she also picked up a brother and sister and took them to their home. She would leave her own son alone while she cared for two kids Jake didn’t even like. She would make them a snack and then make their dinner. Meanwhile Jake would grab some potato chips, and microwave a frozen burrito.
Maybe money was the issue once again. Jake tuned them out and got back to enjoying his summer vacation while he could. He figured if his parents were talking about money, they were probably getting ready to ask him to get some kind of job to help out. What could a 10-year-old do to make money? He didn’t know but didn’t want to think about it anymore and put his earbuds in.
On Friday afternoon, Jake’s parents called him downstairs. They smiled at him in a funny way and said they were going to take him out to a nice dinner, and then he could sleep over at a friend’s house. Jake was so excited because he never got to go out to dinner with his family. And a sleepover! He didn’t know he had been invited. Jake kept mostly to himself at school.
“Whose house am I sleeping over at?” Jake asked with increasing excitement.
“You’ll see. It’s a surprise,” replied his mom a little sadly.
Jake’s mom and dad took him out to his favorite place, In-n-Out Burger, where he ordered the biggest burger they had. He relished every morsel, even the last limp fries resting in a pool of ketchup.
Back into the car, Jake waited impatiently to find out who had invited him over to spend the night.
Jake’s dad backed out of the parking space and drove slowly toward the beach. He wished his dad would hurry up and get him to wherever he was going for the evening.
From Encinitas Boulevard, the family turned left onto the 101 and headed into downtown Encinitas where so many new shops had replaced the old. Encinitas had become trendy and stylish where it was once a real surfer’s paradise. Now the surfers couldn’t go into any of the stores barefoot and in their wetsuits.
Jake wondered who he knew in Encinitas. Maybe he had made a new friend and didn’t know it.
Jake became more impatient at each traffic light. His dad finally parked and turned around in his seat. His mother was crying quietly with her head down. His father fumbled for words.
“Jake, your mom and I can no longer afford to keep you. I know it’s hard for you to understand now but maybe someday you’ll get it. We all have to make some changes and your mom and I have to move to another state and we can’t take you with us. We are leaving tonight.”
Jake could hardly comprehend what was being said. This was what his parents had been talking about at the table earlier that day.
“We hope to come back and get you one day but it won’t be for a while. But we promise to come back.”
Jake slowly opened the door of the car. It felt like it was made out of lead. He got out of the car with his backpack and closed the door on the only world he knew.
“Here’s some money to help you through a few days, Jake. We would give you more but we need money to move.”
His mom still refused to look at him.
“Well, ok then. I guess this is good-bye. Take care of yourself, Jake,” and with that his parents drove away. Jake watched the car until he could no longer see the taillights and wondered which state his parents had chosen.
When his legs got too tired to stand anymore, Jake slid down the side of a building and leaned his back against it and waited for something to happen. His view constantly changed with the legs of various people. Nobody looked at him as they walked by; he was invisible.
At sunrise, Jake got up and walked toward the beach. He knew there were bathrooms and sinks where he could wash up before happy families took it over. The sinks and toilets were gross and not clean like at home but they would have to do until he figured out where he was going to go. He thought of friends he could call but he had no phone and he was too shy to ask to borrow a stranger’s.
After washing up, he sat and watched the waves. He was mesmerized. They rolled in and out with a certainty that Jake didn’t have in his life anymore.
He sat like that for a few hours, then slept. Before long, a few days had passed, and then a week. Jake’s money was about gone.
Sitting outside a store one day, a woman he had seen many times during the week stopped and asked, “How are you doing?”
It was such a simple question but no one had spoken to Jake in a week.
The woman continued, “I’ve seen you around a lot lately.”
Jake didn’t know what to say so he said nothing and continued to look at the cars passing by.
“Do you have a home?”
And with those five little words came the tears Jake had been holding back for a week. He sobbed like he hadn’t since his first day of kindergarten.
The woman handed him a napkin from her fast food bag. She then swiftly raised the bag and said, “Why don’t we go over to the park and share some lunch?”
Jake nodded and got up from his well worn spot on the concrete. The woman could see the boy was fairly clean despite his homelessness.
They walked over to the closest park and sat at a concrete table, quietly watching other families eat and play.
The woman was deeply concerned for Jake’s safety. She knew the dangers the kids on the street had to face.
With a mouthful of hamburger, Jake listened to the woman talk. She told him her name was Claire and she bought and sold property in San Diego. She said her family was all back East and she had recently moved to Encinitas from La Jolla. While Claire rambled on, Jake savored what might be his meal for the day.
Finally, Claire asked, “Where do you sleep?”
“At the beach,” Jake replied quietly.
Claire stared at the laughing kids on the swings, and asked, “What’s that like?”
“It’s colder than I thought.”
“Yeah, I bet it is,” and then before she could think anything through she asked, “How about you stay at my house tonight until we can find your parents? It’s a bit cleaner than the beach and you can have your own room. What do you think about that?”
Jake swallowed his bite and replied, “Sure but my parents don’t want me anymore. I don’t know where they are.”
The ease Jake declared this fact broke Claire’s heart. Who could leave this sweet boy behind to fend for himself? Claire thought hard for a minute about what she was about to propose because it came from her heart rather than her head, something she wasn’t used to in all her business dealings. Claire was a practical woman who made a lot of money in real estate but had very little else. She was starting to feel as if she needed more life in her life. Maybe Jake was a part of the life she was seeking.
“Well, in that case, if you’re comfortable, why don’t you stay at my house until we can figure out what to do next?”
Claire knew Jake’s parents would never be located but her heart and mind were finally in sync; she knew she was offering to take over where the parents left off, and although Claire felt bad for the boy, she knew she could give him a good life. They could give each other a good life. She’d help smother the scars.
Jake sighed in relief at the thought of a soft bed and a fluffy pillow. He grabbed his dirty backpack, got up from the concrete bench, and asked, “Where’s home?”