“How’s your rice, dear?” Mother asked.
“It’s weird,” Shelli said, poking at the small pile of rice with her fork. “Can I just take my pills?”
“Shelli!” Mother implored. “Remember what the doctor said. We need to try new things.” She leaned across the table and whispered, “…for Anton, dear. You understand.”
Shelli shrugged. “I think Anton’s all right. You just never let him do anything.”
“Enough of that,” Shelli’s father said sternly. “I think your mother and I know what’s best for Anton.”
Everyone looked over at Anton, who sat tucked in the corner of the booth playing quietly with a flashing cube in his hand. Mother placed a finger under his chin to lift his face so he could see she was smiling at him. He twisted away, put the cube on the table, and pointed at his sister’s plate of rice. “Try some?”
Shelli started to push the plate across to him but Father’s hand reached out to block it.
“Oh, no, son. Choking hazard.”
“Maybe he could try a little,” Mother said.
Father glared at her. “I thought we had an agreement. We do this by the book.” Father pulled a thin plastic card out of his shirt pocket. He held it up to his lips and whispered, “Feeding precautions.”
The foggy surface on the plastic cleared and Father read, “Up to age six, it is safest to keep children on liquid diets.” He looked up and said pointedly, “I believe our little Anton is five.” Then reading on, “After that you may switch to pills. Be ever cautious with the old foodstuffs. They were not designed to be as safe as today’s products and can cause choking and stomach discomfort.”
“There,” father said triumphantly. “Better safe than sorry. I think we can agree on that.”
But before Father had finished, Mother had reached over to Shelli’s plate and taken two grains of rice. “We’ll mash them,” she said as she placed them on a small plate, crushed them with her fork, and slid the plate in front of Anton.
Anton quickly pressed his finger down on the rice and put the flattened grains in his mouth. He swallowed with a thoughtful look on his small face.
Father stiffened and held his breath like he expected Anton to suddenly clutch his throat and turn purple before his eyes. Instead Anton grinned happily.
“There, see,” Mother said. “I believe that was just what Anton needed.”
Father shook his head. “Let’s not forget about Shelli’s finger, shall we? I believe that was your idea, too, now wasn’t it, dear?”
“Oh, Father,” Shelli said. “That was nothing!”
“Let’s have a look at that finger. Is there any scarring?”
“Mother. Make him stop.”
“It was just a tiny splinter,” Mother said.
“A splinter from that old toy that you insisted on giving her. What was wrong with the approved blocks, like Anton’s?”
The hard plastic block in Anton’s hand flashed off and on. The letter B appeared on the sides of the cube and a soft voice was coming from the block, “B…B… as in boy and big…B…B.”
“She liked the old ones…the ones made of…now what was that called?”
“Wood. A very dangerous material.”
Shelli rolled her eyes and slumped back in her seat. “Never mind, Father.” Shelli reached into her pocket. A faint suggestion of music came from the tiny implant in her ear and she was lost to the rest of the family.
Father looked out the window. The restaurant was built on the edge of the water overlooking a small harbor. There were rowboats and motorboats anchored just below them. The water was as smooth as glass. In the distance, a gleaming white seawall curved out into the bay. The seawall blocked the waves and restless motion of the ocean beyond.
“Well,” Father said, “we came all this way to see the ocean so perhaps we should go. Better give Anton his jacket. There might be a breeze.”
Father paid the man at the counter as they left. “Thank you, folks. Have a safe day.”
Outside, Shelli was the first to reach the sidewalk conveyor. Anton watched as she paused next to it, leaned forward, and then quickly stepped on and was carried away. Anton rushed up for his turn.
“Not so fast, little man,” Father said as he came up behind Anton and swept him into his arms. “Don’t want to take a nasty spill.”
Anton struggled but Father held him tight. Just then a young lady wearing the distinctive powder-blue body suit of a Safety Monitor glided up to them.
She smiled at Father. “Cute boy,” she said. “Now be sure and lean forward when you step onto the walk. No small children unattended. Use the handrail once you are on board.”
Father stepped carefully onto the moving walk. He put Anton down and the three of them stood in a small knot against the handrail. Shelli was up ahead. The conveyor took them slowly beyond the buildings and along the edge of the harbor. They went past where the seawall curved in to meet the shore. Once they were in sight of the ocean, Father led them off the walk onto a platform.
“Will you look at that?” Father said, as he held out his hands to keep the family back. “I believe the ground is covered with grass.” A freshly clipped lawn spread out before them. At the edge of the lawn was a tall fence, which stretched as far as the eye could see down the shore. A few people stood along the fence looking at the ocean in the distance.
An older gentleman in a Safety Monitor uniform stepped up to them. “Help you folks?” he said.
“Is it safe to walk on the grass?” Father asked looking uncertainly at the people down by the fence.
“Oh, sure,” the man said. “Was a time when people had their own grass, you know. Used to walk on it all the time.” He noticed Anton peeking out from behind Father’s leg and gave him a wink. “Kids used to love the stuff as a matter of fact.”
Father reached down and held Anton firmly in place on the platform. “We’ll see about that,” he said and pulled his card from his pocket. He read for a moment and said, “Ah, ha. Says here there are germs in the grass and something called ‘chiggers.’ Now what about that?”
The safety monitor shrugged. “Never heard that it hurt anyone to play in the grass, Sir.”
Shelli had had enough. She pushed by Father and ran down to the fence. Mother said, “Let’s risk it, dear. I think Anton will be all right.”
“But the germs,” Father sputtered, but Mother had already pried Anton from Father’s grip and was leading him across the lawn.
Soon, they were all standing at the fence, looking at the ocean beyond. From where they were, they could barely hear the sound of the waves crashing on the beach. Even Father seemed a bit disappointed that the fence kept them so far from the water. “Well,” he sighed. “It would be terribly unsafe if people could just walk right out to the water, now wouldn’t it?”
He had barely finished speaking when they saw a small figure beyond the fence dart across the sand not far from where they were standing. Shelli was the first to react. “Ah, oh,” she said.
Father and Mother gasped together as they recognized Anton. He was marching across the sand toward where the seawall swept in and met the shore. “I thought you were watching him,” Father said angrily to Mother as they ran along the fence.
“I thought you were,” she cried.
They found the spot where Anton had crawled beneath the fence. The ground had given way and left just enough of a gap for a small boy to fit under. Father grabbed the bottom of the fence and began yanking but it wouldn’t give. He ran off searching for a way over or under. Trying hard to control her voice, Mother called out, “Anton. Stop right there. Turn around, dear, and come back here. Stop, Anton!”
Apparently Anton could not hear her because of the noise of the waves and the steady breeze blowing toward the shore. He had reached a set of steps that led up to the top of the seawall. He climbed the steps with surprising speed.
Father returned dragging the Safety Monitor, who was fumbling with a gadget in his hand. “I can’t get this thing to work,” the man was saying.
They all watched as Anton began making his way along the top of the seawall heading out to sea.
“Oh, my God!” Mother said.
Father was shaking the Safety Monitor by the shoulders. “He’ll be killed if you don’t do something quick. He’s five years old. He has no idea what’s safe. He’ll walk right off the wall into the water and drown. Now get help at once!”
The top of the wall was smooth and flat. Anton thought it looked like the moving sidewalk except there was no rail on either side. He stayed right in the middle and walked along slowly. On his right, the water was calm and smooth. On his left, the water was churning up and down, foaming and slapping at the rocks below.
Some brightly-colored shapes on the rocks caught his eye. He lay down on his stomach and slid his legs carefully down the slant of the wall until his feet touched the rocks. He sucked in his breath when the cold water lapped up over his shoes and socks. There were starfish and other creatures attached to the rocks. Anton reached down into the water and felt their leathery skins.
Suddenly, two sleek brown heads appeared out of the water nearby. A pair of sea otters wreathed around one another, slithering back and forth. They looked at Anton and he looked back at them. Then he heard an odd barking sound, a deep-throated, hoarse “arhp, arhp.” He looked up to see brown sea lions scattered on the rocks farther along the seawall. One raised his head and shook it as he barked.
Mother clung to the fence with tears streaming down her face. Shelli held her around her waist. Father was still cursing at the Safety Monitor who in turn was cursing at the gadget in his hand. Then Mother gasped. Two small hands had appeared on the edge of the seawall right where Anton had disappeared a moment before. The rest of Anton appeared. He began calmly walking back to shore along the top of the wall. He climbed down the steps and ran back to the fence where his family stood.
Mother and Father each took an arm and dragged him back through the hole under the fence. As soon as he was through, Mother locked him in a bear hug, sobbing violently.
Anton struggled to free his face. He was grinning from ear to ear. “There were nice animals out there,” he said. “The water is very cold. There are orange things stuck to the rocks and big animals barking!”
“Anton, you should never have gone out there,” Father said shaking his finger, but Mother stopped him.
“What’s important is that he came back,” she said. “Thank God.”
Father thought about that for a moment. “Gosh, Anton, why did you come back? I mean…well…you came right back.”
“I had to come back.”
“Because, Daddy, it wasn’t safe.”
For once, Father was speechless.
“You know what,” Mother said. “I’ve got an idea. Let’s find a place where we can all go right down on the beach. We could even build a sand castle.”
Everyone looked at Father. He started to reach for the card in his pocket but stopped when he saw the frown appear on Anton’s face.
“Well,” he said after a long pause, “if we all stay together, maybe we could.”
Shelli gasped with surprise. “Gee, Daddy, that would be awesome!”
“I’ve been freelance writing both fiction and non-fiction for the past 4 years with some success. For the past 22 years, I’ve worked for CTB/McGraw-Hill in Monterey, California, in achievement test publishing. Before that I lived in Poland for four years teaching English as a Second Language on a Fulbright Exchange. I’m married with two teenage children.” E-mail: gdudney[at]ctb.com.