The school officials sat on one side of a table that was laden with thick files and diet soda. Chelsea sat on the other side, on the edge of panic.
“Walter’s like a walking forest,” said the principal, without passion despite the poetic simile.
“We’re not worried about academics,” said the teacher. “They’re exemplary. He’s one of our fastest readers.”
“But he’s been through a lot,” said the counselor, who wore a brown cardigan, the color of the fallen leaves that Walter taped to his clothes.
We’d like to help, they all said.
Chelsea looked down at her lap. Outside the conference room, there were other parents waiting to be told their kids were special, too.
For twenty minutes, she learned about tests that showed that Walter did not have schizophrenia, autism, or attention deficit.
“No one truly understands a child’s mind; however, the dead leaves are symbolic of something he’s lost,” said the counselor with an ashen look.
We’d all like to help, they said again.
Chelsea rose to leave.
“I’d like to wish you and your family a happy Thanksgiving,” said the principal. “We’ll meet again after the holiday.”
The fire that occurred nearly a year ago was caused by high winds that had toppled power lines. Eleven thousand homes were destroyed in a matter of hours.
Walter’s behavior began shortly thereafter, while they were still huddled in an emergency shelter.
Some kids wore buttons that said Butte County Strong. Walter wore fallen leaves. Now he was back at school and kids were making fun of him, ignoring him at recess, picking him last for teams. Chelsea wanted to continue homeschooling for the rest of third grade, but she needed to return to work.
“No school for a week,” Chelsea said. “How ‘bout that?”
Walter sat on the wood-colored linoleum floor. The rest of the temporary housing unit looked like a spaceship, with white plastic walls and sealed windows.
“Remember about tomorrow,” he said, not looking up.
They were going ice skating for Thanksgiving. She’d read about concussions and transected spinal cords. It didn’t seem like a good idea, but Walter was persistent. He needed to skate, and that was as mysterious as the leaves.
“What are you building there?” she asked.
Not many nine-year-olds still played with blocks, but Walter’s creations were advanced. He copied buildings from a picture book of European architecture.
“The rink opens at ten,” he said, putting the last block in place.
“Well then, ten it is,” she said.
She helped him lace up in the dressing area that was flooded with loud teenagers. He had insisted on hockey skates, though they were not recommended for first timers.
Chelsea took a seat in the stands, watching Walter step onto the ice, sycamore leaves taped to his green puffer jacket. The music was 70’s disco. As skaters swooshed by, she thought of a baby playing by railroad tracks.
Walter made tentative progress, hugging the wall.
Her gaze drifted to the middle of the rink where three young girls and a man, all with matching beach-blonde hair, did figure eights, twirls, and bunny hops. The man’s arms waved in the air, like a conductor. He wore a lime-green sweater and chinos.
Walter’s legs danced furiously, and he fell on his butt, depositing leaves on the ice. Several staff members skated to his aid, but he was already on his feet, inching forward again.
Chelsea watched the man venture to Walter’s side. He bent down and they spoke. With his hands cupped under Walter’s armpits, skating backwards, he gently pulled Walter into the center of the rink.
Walter did not usually interact with strangers, but for the next fifteen minutes, the man offered instruction on how to move forward. The three girls circled them like a fairy ring.
Eventually, the family bade farewell and skated off the ice, leaving Walter alone to practice his moves.
Chelsea walked over to meet them.
The man’s face was round and flushed. His girls were nearly identical triplets, six or seven years old.
She held out her hand. “I’m the mom.”
“Oh,” he said, embarrassed. “Your little man took quite a spill there. Thought I could help.”
“Walter’s sensitive but determined,” she said, realizing that she was dishing to a stranger.
The music switched to Hello by Lionel Richie and the lights dimmed. Arc lamps traced purple orbs on the dusky ice. She worried Walter would be disoriented. They watched him together while the girls ran ahead to the snack bar.
“You know what’s the hardest part for us?” he asked.
Chelsea jutted her chin forward.
“Knowing they’re going to fall at some point,” he said. “Nine times out of ten, they’ll be just fine.”
The song ended and Walter was still upright.
“Ramsey.” He extended his hand.
“Chelsea,” she said, grabbing it.
“Would you care to join us in the café?”
Walter looked like a tumbleweed on a glacier. “He could fall again,” she said.
“He’ll be in good hands,” said Ramsey. “The staff is excellent, and they offer great classes to kids.”
She clung to the rink’s side.
“They do the best hot chocolate in the galaxy.”
“He’ll be okay, you think?”
“No worries. He’s a resilient little button.”
Chelsea drank the warmth of this stranger’s face and then she looked to Walter, who was shuffling around the rink. “Hot chocolate?”
“My treat,” Ramsey said, leading the way.
She let go of the wall, tentative, as if she were the first-timer on ice, unprepared for the kindness of strangers, and followed him into the café full of youngsters clamoring over cocoa.
Chelsea turned to look at Walter one last time before losing sight of him. He was circling the ice, more steady now, the few brown leaves left on his jacket fluttering in the breeze, as if ready to fall and be forgotten forever.