What Little Boys Are Made Of (or, Justice and Mercy in a Bottle)

By Shannon

Before I even got out of bed the morning after our twelve-day road trip, Halen was breakfasted and in his school uniform. It was all we could do to keep him from leaving for school an hour and a half early. He had missed his friends sorely and could think of little else.

He is like a very, very low-flying quail.
It was good that he had a full day with his friends before he came down with a fever. Although he wanly insisted that he was not ill, Abu Halen and I ruined the day’s social prospects by keeping him home from school. In the afternoon we wouldn’t even let him go out to play soccer, which made us “the worst parents ever.” Even sadder, he also missed a critical birthday party later that evening. It was cruel timing for sickness.

Fortunately, Halen’s fever broke during the night, and this morning he knocked brightly on the bathroom door as I was getting ready for church. I opened the door to find him standing in his school uniform, questioning whether I had wrapped his friend’s present yet. It was with reluctance that I broke the news that today, in fact, was not a school day. Halen’s smile fell, and he bashfully pulled off his uniform shirt.

It’s when this boy’s guard is down that I love him the most. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, I can see right into his heart.

On our way out of the U.A.E. a few days ago, we stopped at a gas station and let each of the kids choose a snack for the road. Halen chose a grown-up-looking drink in a glass bottle and stood patiently near the cashier’s counter. And when I say “stood patiently,” I mean that he swayed from side to side while making wordless boy sounds with his mouth while scanning the ceiling for water stains while shuffling his feet while swinging his arms.

Meanwhile, a man making his way from the restroom to the exit came too close to Halen’s patient standing and bumped the loosely held bottle from the boy's hand. To everyone’s horror, the bottle exploded in a fizzy pink disaster all over the floor.

I immediately flagged down a clerk and apologized for the mess. Abu Halen fumed. The girls put on the faces that best fit their world views: for Tess, excitement; for Grace, compassion; for Savannah, vindication. We were all playing our parts, so Halen tried to play his by arguing that—somehow—this had not been his fault. But the argument apparently sounded so lame that even he wasn’t buying it, so he broke off short and hid his face against my hip.

The worst of it was that we had no more U.A.E. riyals left to pay for another soda for him, so he made his way to the car empty-handed, buckled himself into his seat, covered his face, and wept quietly. Abu Halen arrived moments later, having paid for the goods. At first he made to start a “that’s what you get” lecture, but then seeing Halen’s condition, he muttered that the store clerk had told him he could pay with Saudi riyals if necessary.

Halen didn’t even look up but moaned pitifully, “I don’t deserve another one.” I think it was the first time Halen had ever considered that he might not deserve something. The thought was apparently soul-wrenching.

Abu Halen rolled his eyes.

There are a lot of things that Abu Halen is good at. One of them is serving up justice piping hot so that long after you’ve drunk your cup, your tender tongue remembers it. Mercy is a bit more difficult for him. Quietly, I suggested that Halen had learned his lesson—that he had already wished for the mountains to cover him and the heavens to strike out his name. 

Abu Halen stared at me for a moment, and then silently he stepped back out of the car, returned to the store where Halen’s fizzy pink soda was still being mopped up, and bought his son another bottle of the stuff.

I didn’t drink any of the soda, but even from the front seat, I knew how it tasted: like sweetness after a bitter draught.