The thick summer air began to cool as the sun dipped below the horizon. Crickets chirped. Fireflies began to glow. The kids, all six of them, were playing hide-and-seek in the tall grass and among the oak trees at the edge of Grandma’s property. Laura, the oldest, was “it” and had rooted out and tagged four of the others. They all sat in a clearing, out of breath and giggling. Joey had dried grass sticking higgledy-piggledy out of his hair.

“Hey, where’s Little Ben?” Jessica asked, always the one to notice things first.
Everyone grew quiet.

Laura’s face went white as the worst-case scenario flashed through her mind. Benjamin, the second youngest, was easily the smallest child in the family. He had an almost elf-like appearance and what Mom called an “overactive imagination.” His siblings included him in all the games, of course, but care was given not to injure his fragile body or sensitive feelings. How many times had he wandered off while having a conversation with a squirrel or a bluejay? And how many times had Laura gotten an earful from Mom or Dad for letting Little Ben out of her sight? She could hear herself trying to explain to her parents, “But being out of sight is the whole point of hide-and-seek!” She jumped to her feet and began to call out, “Ben? Little Benjamin? Where are you? The game’s up. You win.”

The others did the same as they broke into mini-search parties of ones and twos.

Then Laura spotted the back end of Ricky, their black-and-white border collie, sticking out from behind a distant tree, his tail swishing the grass slowly. She ran there full speed, ignoring the branches grabbing at her hair and clothes. As she approached, Ricky sat up, his eyes pleading with her, “What should I do?” Laura could hear little Ben crying quietly as she peered around the trunk of the giant oak.

There he sat, holding his knees tightly to his chest, tears washing little trails on his dirty face.
“Ben?” Laura said softly. “Ben? Are you OK?”
He sniffed loudly, wiped his nose on his arm and said in a tiny voice, “I got lost.”

The twins, Joey and Jessica, came running up, but Laura shushed them with her hand. Lost? she thought to herself. How could he be lost? We’re still on Grandma’s property and he knows this whole—

Ben was speaking again. “They were chopping down the trees and I could hear the trees crying so I sat down by this one and told him I would stay here and wouldn’t let them chop him down. It was just like we saw on TV. Just like Dad said.” He began to cry again so Laura sat down and put her arm around him. Ricky inched closer and put his head on Ben’s shoe.

At school, Benjamin’s classmates teased him for being so sensitive and so small, but Laura knew her parents were right: little Ben was a rare gift. She also knew that his imagination had once again gotten the better of him. She spoke into his fantasy: “They’re gone now, Ben.”

“Are you sure?” His voice was trembly.
Laura turned to the twins and asked forcefully, “Are they gone? Have the loggers gone home?”
The twins stared at her in confusion. Laura silently mouthed their answer while nodding her head slightly: “Yes.”
“Yes,” they answered like robots.

“There, see?” Laura said, turning back to Ben. “You won. Look around at all the trees still standing.” She stood up, pulling Ben up with her. Ricky got up too and wagged his tail mightily. “And this tree,” she said, turning to face the giant oak, “I think he deserves a group hug. Come on!”
The four kids holding hands could just barely reach around the old tree. Ben pressed his cheek into the woody ridges of the trunk. They let go just as the other two came running up.

“Hey, what’s going on? Did you find Ben?”
“Ben won!” Laura declared for all the trees to hear. “Ben is the victor!”

And all six kids marched through the tall grass back to Grandma’s house, their parade lit by fireflyworks. Ben, holding Laura’s and Joey’s hands, twisted around to catch a dusky glimpse of his new oaken friend.

© 2010 Jon Andreas. All rights reserved. Written 16 January 2010