By Hannah Whatley

“What are we going to do, Jack?”

The question came from an eight-year-old boy, who by now had nearly forgotten his name. Once in a while he remembered that his mother had called him Sky. For comfort, little Sky leaned against his dog, Jack, a Whippet who was taller than his human friend when they sat together, as they did now. On that bright summer’s day, the two of them sat on the burning hot sand of an isolated beach, watching the waves lap peacefully against the shore. Sky, however, felt neither bright nor peaceful. The little one had been on the run for three months, evading the clutches of an abusive father—whose only name for his son was “Boy” and only touch was a stinging backhand—and the cold social workers, who only wished to hide him away in a children’s mental institution.

The boy had escaped during a late March night, quietly sliding the bathroom window up and tumbling out with only the clothes on his back and a small sack of things he thought he might need: his toothbrush, three packs of Goldfish, a clean pair of socks, and a tattered picture of his mother.

His mother. Oh, how he missed her.

Sky wrapped his arms around Jack, yearning for the solace of a warm body against his own, inwardly reaching out for his mother. He wished more than ever that she had been brave enough to stand up against his father, but then, how could she, when the only response she would have received was rage and drunken beatings.

Jack shifted to lean closer to his friend, instinctively offering as much love as he was capable of. Sky nestled his head into the dog’s neck and rested there for a few moments, grateful to have found the dog on the street, a wanderer just like he was.

Soon the heat became unbearable, forcing Sky to remove his gray hoodie. It had been the only clean shirt available when he made his escape, but now he wished he had just grabbed a dirty t-shirt in preparation for the fury of a Gulf Coast June. Reluctantly, he pulled the sweatshirt over his head, not wanting to expose his body to anyone who desired to hurt him, even though no one was in sight.

Or so he thought.

“Son,” a voice said behind him.

Sky quickly twisted around, eyes and heart full of fear. He expected to see his father, drunk and furious—although Jason Eastman had never called Sky his son. The man he saw, however, was nothing like his father.

This man had thick brown hair and inviting hazel eyes, unlike the thinning red hair and dark brown eyes of his father. Of average height and build, the stranger’s appearance gave no indication of threat or evil intention.

Sky was swallowed by the kindness in the man’s eyes, but fear of trusting anyone pulled his heart back, not allowing the boy to move or communicate. The man didn’t seem to mind. He only offered his hand.

Sky felt a gentle nudge on his arm. Looking down, he discovered Jack pushing him toward the stranger, an expression of complete faith in his innocent eyes.

The little one took that gesture as a sign. He accepted the man’s hand and stood, then was suddenly enveloped in a tight embrace. The man held the back of Sky’s head and guided it to his chest. Never before had Sky felt so safe. Somehow his heart felt as if it were being pulled apart and sewn back together again—the pain, distrust, and fear were drawn out, and healing, faith, and love woven back in.

After a few moments, they both pulled away, and Sky’s new and nameless friend tousled his hair playfully. Then the man nodded toward the west end of the beach. “Come on, I’ve got something to show you.”

The man began to stride in the indicated direction, and without hesitation, Sky bid Jack to come and followed after him. With every step, the friend became more excited. Occasionally he would glance over his shoulder and joyfully beckon to Sky. “Come on!”

Sky hurried after him, jogging to keep up with the man’s long paces. Jack bounded after them, seeming to understand that happiness had appeared where there once was only sorrow.

The stranger rounded the corner of a rock formation that bordered the beach. Another few steps, and Sky and Jack had cleared the rocks as well. Then the boy stopped. Where had the man gone? With sudden trepidation, Sky glanced about him, but his new friend was nowhere to be found.

Someone else, however, caught his eye.

Standing by a familiar red minivan, which sat at an angle in the beach parking lot as if it had been hastily parked, was his mother.

Caroline Eastman threw up her hands and ran toward her son, joyfully crying out to the wind. Before Sky could think, he was lifted into his mother’s arms and grasped tightly.

“Thank God. Thank You, Jesus. Oh, thank God,” she breathed in the midst of unashamed tears.

Hesitating only a moment, Sky returned her embrace and began to cry, feeling none of the hurt or loneliness or fear he had expected. Only healing, faith, and love.

Sniffling, Caroline pulled away from her son long enough to kneel in front of him, take him by the shoulders, and look him in the eyes.

“We’re never going back there, Sky, never, ever, ever. I’m so sorry I let my own fear keep us both in your father’s grip. We’re going to get far away from there, where Jason won’t be able to harm us anymore. All we can do is pray for him now.” She wrapped her son up in a hug again, and this time Sky gave back that hug in full abandon.

Sky introduced his mother to Jack, and the woman gladly accepted the dog into their family. Sky and Caroline held hands on the way to the car, and as they walked, Sky glanced back toward the pier off the beach.

There stood the stranger, his smile as bright as the setting sun behind him, gazing back at the boy with knowing eyes. Then, as quietly as a shadow stretches along the ground, a gathering of fog sidled around the man and swallowed him, leaving nothing but the sparkle of the ocean’s waves in its wake. Sky suddenly knew, without a doubt or question, that he would never again be alone.

hannah-whatleyHannah Whatley is a homeschooled senior who loves writing but knows that she has a long way to go in learning the art. When she writes, she tries to remember what a wise woman of God once told her: “Your writing is not from much study, not from your head, but your heart.” She has been a believer for most of her life, thanks to Jesus “knocking on her heart door” and her parents’ devoted teaching. She lives in Mississippi with her parents and her dog, TJ, and enjoys dancing, playing violin, and acting out Shakespeare with her best friend, Shelby, in Shelby’s barn loft.