little boy blue

Charlie’s little brother Tommy pulled the trigger and everyone down on the ground involuntarily ducked. The report hit Charlie’s ears like a clap of thunder and time became surrealistically slow. Even from thirty feet down he could see Tommy’s head jerk hard to the left while his right arm, unprepared for the kick of the shot, flailed all the way around to his back. His mouth opened wider than the dentist could ever get it to and his eyes shut tight from the point-blank blast.

I could have stopped this, Charlie thought. I should have seen this coming.

The gun slipped out from Tommy’s fingers. He tilted way over to the right and started to fall off the beam. Charlie’s mind froze, reducing time to a series of snapshots. The emergency lights all stopped cold in their frantic spinning, their red and blue beams steadily illuminating random spots. The wind ceased to blow and the branches of the nearby weeping willow hung at an angle, as though gravity had shifted. The gun froze in mid-air next to Tommy’s knee. The world was silent.

I should have seen this coming.


Daddy and Mom had only died once; yet the forms were all in triplicate.

“Hey, man, how are you?” A cafeteria comrade dropped his tray across from Charlie and sat down uttering what was more a common greeting than an inquiry. Charlie answered it anyway.

“Okay, I guess. The courts both gave me guardianship of Tommy and settled the will. Means a little money extra for a while.” Charlie recited the news update for the fifteenth time that day — and it was only lunchtime. Curiosity comes in waves. He poked listlessly at his food, as though pondering its meaning and purpose.

“Enough dough to quit this mess?” The ambulance driver asked through a mouthful of food service broccoli.

Charlie mentally noted that more than half — eight, now — of the day’s information seekers had instantly asked about the money. “No, unfortunately not. One of the conditions of the guardianship was keeping this job. Besides, it takes my mind off of other things.” Takes my mind off Tommy, that’s what is does. For Charlie, going home to Tommy was an nightmare. Tommy didn’t seem to care much for school life. Charlie didn’t blame him. Tommy didn’t seem to care much for anything. That worried Charlie.

“Hey, Tommy, how was school?” Charlie always tried to speak in that soft, quiet parental voice that junior high kids found to be nauseatingly condescending but first graders considered soothingly reassuring. Tommy somehow managed to be a first grader who found it nauseatingly condescending.

“A colossal bore.” Tommy answered in a distant, detached voice. “I’m going to the moon, Charlie. I’m going to go there and be with Daddy.”

Charlie groaned inwardly. “Um, Tommy… Daddy isn’t on the moon. I don’t know where he is.”

“Yes he is.” Tommy was resolute.

“No he isn’t. Daddy isn’t anywhere.” At the very least, Charlie told himself, not anywhere you or I can find him.

“Yes he is. He is on the moon and you can see him from here. Go look. You can see his face.”

“No, that just looks like a face. It’s not really a face.”

“It’s his face. He made it and I’m going there.”

Charlie decided to tackle the practical side of the problem. Little kids, he remembered reading somewhere, were a lot more practical than reasonable. Tommy at least looked like a little kid. “So how will you get there? There aren’t hourly buses, you know.”

Tommy paused and thought for a minute. “Oh, I’ll figure that out later.”

I should have stopped it then.


All the emergency lights turned a quarter revolution. The gun fell two more feet and so did Tommy. Blood splattered onto the white aluminum siding around the opening Tommy crawled out of onto the beam.


Charlie had tried to dismiss the whole thing as a childhood fantasy, but he couldn’t. Even when he wasn’t actively thinking about it, a verse from an old Harry Chapin song kept ringing in his mind.

Cat’s in the cradle with a silver spoon,
Little boy blue and the man in the moon.
When you’re coming home, dad, I don’t know when
But we’ll get together then, dad
We’re gonna have a good time then.

Letting the kid go and work on the practical side of getting to the moon was the mistake, Charlie thought. Tommy had really loved his father and determination counts in this world. Charlie would know — it took him forever to get through paramedic training because he really didn’t care about it. Life in the mountains sounded much more appealing to Charlie than patching up gang members who shot each other. He was good at it, though, and figured it was something to do in the city. Passed the time.

Tommy didn’t seem to care about anything. He examined the walls for hours, apparently intent on making the paint peel through rigorous observation.


Another snapshot and everything was red — a beam from an emergency light stopped right in his eyes.


“I figured out how to get to the moon, Charlie.” Tommy sounded cheerful and happy.

“Did you really, Tommy? How are you going to do it?” The bowl of corn flakes was getting half Charlie’s attention; Tommy and the Times split the other half evenly.

“I’m gonna go around the corner to the movie place and have one of their effects guys send me there. They did it in all those space movies, they can do it for me. I’m little and much smaller and lighter than those big metal cans they used.” Tommy beamed at the reading Charlie.

The studio around the corner had seen better days. “Tommy, that studio doesn’t make space movies. They make commercials now, and they used to make westerns.” Charlie looked up just as the smile faded from Tommy’s face. “But you can try anyway. Just don’t get in the way.”

Tommy came back an hour later, hiding something under his sweatshirt. I could have stopped it there, Charlie thought. I could have asked him what he had under his sweatshirt. I could have found that ancient six-shooter under there and taken it from him.


Another quarter-turn of the lights; the gun fell another ten feet; the tree jerked to a new position; Tommy turned in the air so that his back was to Charlie. It was another snapshot with everything in razor- sharp focus.


Charlie’s mind replayed the horror of racing out to an unknown address, riding shotgun in the passenger’s seat of the ambulance and acting as a second pair of eyes, to discover that it was his own place and his own brother was the armed jumper the radio reported. A crowd had gathered in clumps around the edge of the police line, and the yard and street were covered with police and fire vehicles. The whirling emergency lights cast changing shadows of the boy and the beam he was sitting on against the wall behind him.

Charlie sagged back against the ambulance.

A large police officer nearby saw the stagger. “What’s the matter, man?”

“Um. I… I…”

“Need food? Here.” A bag of doughnuts was shoved under Charlie’s nose. He pushed the bag away.

“No, no, no, no. Has he said anything?”

The officer pulled back the rejected bag and took a doughnut from it. “Something about going to the –”

Tommy aimed the gun at the waxing moon that resembled the enticing grin of the Cheshire Cat, put his head in the line of fire, and pulled the trigger. Charlie’s mind screamed, I could have stopped this.


The gun struck a fireman’s helmet with a dull thunk and with a rush everything went back to normal speed. The lights raced back up to full spin and the sirens resumed their wailing. The sound Charlie expected from Tommy’s gaping mouth finally came, a high, piercing shriek that made every hair stand on end. The wind returned and bit into Charlie’s face. A bystander screamed and Tommy fell, twisting in the air, and landed with a disturbing crunch on the safety net, his leg bent back underneath him.

The gun, still trailing a little smoke, landed in the grass and was instantly picked up in a gloved policeman’s hand. The officer snapped open the chamber and looked at the remaining shells. “Blanks. All he’s got are powder burns. No slug.”

“Small mercy. I think his leg is broken.”

“Get a board, now! Tommy, can you feel anything when I do this? No? Nothing? Okay, we’re going to try to straighten your leg out. If it hurts, just say so.” The paramedic moved Tommy’s leg around and a jagged slice of bone broke through the skin. Blood quickly obscured the protrusion.


“Am I on the moon yet?” Tommy asked the board.

“My god, he didn’t feel that. Possible spinal cord damage. He’s losing a lot of blood. Vital signs?” The paramedic pulled open a roll of gauze and tried to wrap Tommy’s leg. Charlie’s action reflexes finally kicked in, and he staggered over to try to help.

“Charlie, Charlie, is that you? Am I on the moon yet?”

“No, Tommy, not yet. Not yet.”

“Vital signs low but stabilizing. I think they’re bottoming out.” Charlie couldn’t peg names or even faces to any of the voices. His mind was thinking about the Rockies. I could have stopped this. I could have taken Tommy and moved to Boise and spent all our time in the mountains. Here, there is nothing to do but watch the gang wars and the rich snobs fight amongst themselves.

“Medivac unit landing at the school two blocks east of here. North City General is getting ready for him.”

Someone loomed over with a camera. “KNBC News, here at the tragic scene of –”

“Shut him up. Get him out of here.” The first him was the reporter; the second him was Tommy.

Another paramedic objected: regulations were not to be broken. “He’s not stable yet. We can’t move him.”

“Fuck stable,” was the logical response. “Get the board under him. Ready? Lift!”

Charlie watched helplessly, the pace of the head paramedic far outdistancing Charlie’s reactions. They got Tommy on a board and strapped him down. Charlie bent down and grabbed Tommy’s hand. Charlie followed the hand and before he even knew what was going on, he was in the ambulance with Tommy and one other paramedic. The tires squealed as the driver took off towards the school and the waiting medivac.

“Am I on the moon yet, Charlie?” Half of Tommy’s face was covered in gauze, and the uncovered left eye stared blankly at Charlie.

“No, Tommy, not yet. Soon. Very soon. We’re going to a helicopter, and the helicopter will take you there.”

“Good.” Tommy was quiet. His leg was broken, his spinal cord was snapped, and his face and neck were badly burned on one side; yet Tommy was quiet.

The verse ringing in Charlie’s head changed to the final refrain.

Cat’s in the cradle with a silver spoon,
Little boy blue and the man in the moon.
When you’re coming home, son, I don’t know when
But we’ll get together then, son
We’re gonna have a good time then.

“Tommy, Tommy, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Tell Dad I said hello. I’ll put a picture of the moon in the cabin, okay?” Charlie opened up a syringe and pulled the plunger out a little bit to make an air bubble.

I can stop all this.

Tommy smiled weakly. “Cabin? Good. You always hated the city. Wanna know a secret? So did I. So did I.” Then his unbandaged eye closed and his face relaxed.

Charlie looked up calmly at the other paramedic. “Turn around for a minute, will ya?”

“Man, I do not want get involved with this. Not at all.” He turned around anyway and opened a cabinet door.

Charlie didn’t care about his job, but he was good at patching people up. He held Tommy’s hand and turned his arm a little, then found a vein.


This was published on 28 Feb 1990.
A permalink to this post: little boy blue.

If you are reading chronologically:
The next post is: .