Once there was a boy on site who stole small things.
He took paper clips, pen caps and hair bands. He took clothespins from the line, and let the pictures come fluttering down as he walked away. This frustrated the other children, who wrapped their hands protectively around their crayon stubs and race cars whenever he came near.
“Go AWAY, Ellis,” they would say. “Stop stealing! You are always stealing.”
He came by me and rocked on his heels for awhile, scratching at his hand. I pulled a handful of pebbles from my pocket and tossed them onto the ground, then sat down cross-legged. I flicked one of them towards his shoe and he swooped to pick it up, cradling it in his nail-scraped palm. Stacking the pebbles, then laying them out in a ring, I watched from the corner of my eye to see how he was responding.
Ellis rolled the pebble in his hand, whispering to it, listening to it whisper to him. I flicked another pebble, not quite across his foot but in his general direction. He pounced, kneeling on the hard tarmac and pushing the two pebbles together with his fingertips. There was a lull in the noise of the site, and I strained to catch his whispers on the wind.
“Help, help,” he said, as the pebbles clicked together. “Ellis, Ellis,” and the pebbles spoke his name.
A breeze came up, bringing dust from the tarmac crevices into the air. A group of girls stirred berries and glitter into a cup, shouting and giggling to one another. One ran off and pulled threads from a length of fabric draped from a tree, then balled them up and ran back to the circle. Another playworker was at the opposite end of the site, a large piece of fabric covering his shoulders as he swayed and dove like a raven at a child who emerged from a mask of his own hands, growling.
Beside me, Ellis whispered over his pebbles, now huddled in his palm and speaking through him in a high, frantic voice. He did not look at me, but the twist of his body and raise in his voice brought me in.
“‘Ellis, Ellis,’ this one is saying.” His voice was his own again as he explained, though softer than I’d ever heard it before. “This one says ‘Help Ellis Ellis Help Ellis Help.”
“Help Ellis Ellis Help?” I echoed. He nodded, stuffed the pebbles into his pocket and ran.
I did not know then, I will never know, where the commas in that sentence came. I did not know whether the pebble was begging for help or providing it – whether it was the pebbles, or Ellis himself, who was in such trouble.