Contemporary Happy

“What should we do today, Milo?” Dorothy smiles brightly at her six-year-old son, running her hand over his soft wavy hair affectionately. He lets her, as he is curled up by her side on the couch, but she wonders for how long. She knows she spoils him, indulges him whenever she can, but who can blame her? It’s hard enough to be a single mother, and Milo’s wide brown eyes and dimpled smile make him impossible to resist.

He turns to her now with a hopeful look that melts her heart. “The beach?” he asks. School has just let out for the summer, and for once she resists the urge be productive; to run to the grocery store, or the bank, or check off the million other things on her to-do list. For once, she decides to slow down and enjoy a day at the beach with her boy. She smiles, and nods.

They pack a bag. Milo throws buckets, plastic shovels, goggles, and toys for making sand castles into the bag and Dorothy adds sunscreen, towels, water bottles, and snacks. She doesn’t pack them a lunch because they go to Silver Beach Pizza every time. Milo, like most kids, is a creature of habit. And, like most kids, he loves pizza.

Even though they get there early, before 9am, the beach is crowded and the parking lot is full. It’s already hot and the forecast is calling for the temperature to reach over a hundred degrees by noon. It seems everyone wants to be by the water today.

Dorothy circles the lot a few times before giving up and finding a spot down the street that maybe isn’t quite an official spot. Milo is bouncing restlessly in the backseat, so she decides it will do and throws her old Camry into park. She shoulders the bag and trails behind Milo, who is already sprinting full force towards the sand, his small arms pumping. She smiles as she lengthens her strides to keep up, and soon she is sweating and breathing hard. She marvels at her boy, so young and fresh and carefree, in his happy place.

Dorothy finds a spot on the sand and spreads out two towels. She barely manages to slather Milo with sunscreen before he takes off, flinging himself into the lake water as she watches with a close eye. She joins him once she has applied sunscreen to her own fair skin, and they swim and float together until their fingers and toes are pruny. Finally Milo says he’s hungry, and Dorothy realizes it’s lunchtime. She glances over to Silver Beach Pizza, which is right on the water, and notices with pleasant surprise that it doesn’t seem crowded. She bustles Milo out of the lake and they grab their towels and Dorothy’s purse as they head over to the window to order.

“I want pepperoni,” Milo says, as if Dorothy doesn’t know. As if he doesn’t get the same thing every time they come here. “Please.” he adds.

She smiles and touches his hair, then stops short. She realizes now why there isn’t a line, why their usual pizza place didn’t seem crowded. The big handmade “Closed” sign says it all.

Milo hasn’t noticed, or doesn’t realize what this means yet. She walks closer to the window, squinting to read the rest of the handwritten sign, stalling before she has to give her son the bad news.

“Closed today, short staffed - sorry for the inconvenence!” The spelling mistake, the exclamation point, the loopy handwriting - it all infuriates Dorothy. She chews on a fingernail as Milo struggles to sound out the words.

“What does it say, mommy? Why isn’t anyone here to make the pizza?” He cranes his neck to see inside the greasy window, shut tight. His lower lip begins to tremble, and Dorothy suddenly feels her eyes fill with tears. Blinking them away, she plasters a big smile on her face.

“It looks like the workers are taking a break today, buddy, so we’ll just have to find something else. Okay?”

Predictably, he bursts into tears. She takes him into her arms, making shushing noises as she strokes his head and kisses his hair. After a few minutes his cries subside, and his narrow shoulders hitch as he hiccups.

“See now, you’re okay. We’re okay. This is all fine, and we can get lunch up on the boardwalk instead.”

She sees him swallow and take a deep breath, willing himself to be brave. Her heart clenches.

“Okay,” he says finally, in a small voice. She takes his small hand and leads him to the boardwalk, where they walk until they find a hot dog cart. By the time Dorothy buys them two hot dogs, one with ketchup for him and one with mustard for her, Milo seems to have recovered. But just in case he is still upset, she brings him over to the popsicle stand and buys one for each of them. His eyes light up and he takes his time choosing a flavor. His brow is furrowed in concentration, and the tip of his tongue is poking out the side of his mouth as he wavers between grape and cherry. Finally he takes the grape, and Dorothy chooses raspberry.

After they finish the popsicles (and Dorothy has assured Milo several times that his tongue is very purple), they wander back down to the beach, licking their sticky fingers. Milo announces that he’s going to build the biggest, best sand castle she’s ever seen in her life. Laughing, Dorothy tells him she can’t wait to see it and lies down on her towel.

Some time later, Dorothy is startled awake by a loud, high-pitched cry. She sits bolt upright, blinking furiously in the hot sun, disoriented and parched. It takes a second or two before she realizes the sound that woke her up was coming from her son.

Scrambling upright, she races towards the water with her heart in her throat, berating herself for taking her attention away from Milo. He is wailing now, holding his foot, as she flings herself down next to him.

“What happened, Milo? What hurts?” She is frantically checking the foot he is holding, expecting to see a toe missing or an enormous gash on his heel. He shows her his toe, which does have a nasty cut but she is relieved to see it’s not deep enough to need a trip to the hospital for stitches.

“I just needed a little bit of water, for my moat,” Milo says, sniffling. “And I cut my toe on a rock. A really big rock, mommy!” He buries his face in her chest and she holds him again, stroking his back until the wave of emotion passes through his small body. Finally she picks up the discarded plastic bucket and carries him back to their towels, where she digs a band-aid out of her bag and wraps it around his toe. He tells her it still hurts though, so they lie down side by side and she tells him a story.

It always comforts and distracts him when she makes up elaborate stories; the more far-fetched, the better. Today she tells him about a prince who lives in a gigantic castle and has everything money can buy, but all he really wants is a friend. A wizard appears one day at the castle door, and the prince smuggles him into his room. He asks the wizard for a friend, and the wizard puts a spell on the prince’s horse to give him the ability to speak and to fly. The prince and his horse leave the castle and travel the world together, flying over the rooftops of the village and telling each other stories. Before she finishes the story, Milo is snoring on the towel, his hand still loosely holding onto hers. She looks at his sleeping face, savoring the feel of his small hand in hers, wishing she could give him everything. She has a habit of studying his features, as if she doesn’t already have them committed to memory, as if she doesn’t know him better than she knows herself. She feels the familiar sensation of panic, watching her heart existing outside of her body. She wraps her arms around him carefully, not wanting to wake him but not wanting to let him go either.

When he finally wakes up, she is relieved to see he is smiling. He says his foot still hurts, but he wants to finish his sand castle. Checking her watch, Dorothy tells him he has fifteen minutes until they need to get going. The sun is low in the sky, and it will be getting dark soon.

Finally she succeeds in dragging him away from the finished sand castle, and they walk towards the car. Milo is quiet, and Dorothy is afraid the day hasn’t turned out as he expected. “We can come back another day when the pizza place is open,” she promises. Milo just nods.

They pile into the car, throwing the bag into the backseat, and Dorothy turns the key in the ignition. It turns and turns, but doesn’t catch.

“Oh no no no no,” she mutters to herself, feeling a trickle of sweat on her temple. “Please no, not today.” Her voice is becoming whiny, pleading. But it does no good. The car is dead. She sits back in the driver’s seat, trying to think. Milo is staring out the window, still silent, but now he notices that something is wrong.

“Mommy? Why aren’t we going?”

“I just need to give it a minute,” Dorothy says with false positivity. She takes a deep breath and tries again, but with the same result.

“Is the car broken?” Milo asks in a small voice.

Dorothy arranges her face to present a smile when she turns around, facing the small boy in the booster seat as she says, “I have an idea. Let’s go on a little walk and then we'll have an adventure.”

They walk the three blocks to the bus stop in relative silence,

Dorothy glancing over every once in a while to try to determine Milo’s mood. He is still quiet, and his face gives away nothing. She is not sure if he is ready to scream, or cry, or what. They board the mostly empty bus and ride in more silence, and finally Milo slumps against Dorothy and falls asleep again. His cheeks are rosy, and Dorothy thinks she should have reapplied sunscreen on his face one more time. When they reach their stop, she lifts him into her arms and slings the bag over her shoulder, and they go home.

In bed that night, after Milo has brushed his teeth and Dorothy has read him a bedtime story, she puts her hands on either side of his face and smiles sadly.

“I’m so sorry everything went wrong today,” she begins, but stops when she sees the look of confusion on her son’s face.

“What do you mean, mommy?” Milo asks.

“Well, the pizza place,” she begins. “It was closed. I know it’s your favorite.”

“I love the pizza at the beach but I never had those hot dogs before and mommy, they were so good! I want to get those every time now. And the popsicle too!” He licks his lips as if he can still taste it. Now that she thinks about it, something about eating a hot dog in the fresh air and following it up with an ice-cold popsicle had been so satisfying. She realized she had enjoyed that part of the day too, even more than their usual routine of Silver Beach Pizza and sodas.

“But then you got hurt,” she said, gesturing to his foot where a band aid still clung to his toe.

“Yeah, that did hurt.” He rubs his toe. “But before that, I built the most epic sand castle! And I got a band-aid, you told me a really good story. Probably one of your best ones, mommy. I liked the part about the prince flying away on his horse the best.”

Dorothy hadn’t even realized Milo was still awake for that part of the story. She remembers his eyes were closed and he was breathing deeply. She was focused on his long eyelashes against his cheek, and was continuing the story more for herself, feeling the need to bring it to an end even if Milo didn’t hear it. As it turned out, he had heard the ending and he had loved it.

She smiles, but then remembers the final obstacle of the day.

“I’m glad you liked the hot dog, and the popsicle, and the story. But then the car wouldn’t start and we had to take the bus home.”

Milo gives his mother a sly smile. “I played a game inside my head, mommy, and you didn’t even know it! I was still thinking about the prince from the story, and I was pretending to be him. I was on an adventure, like you said, with my friend. And the bus was my horse! Get it?”

Dorothy is stunned. To her, the day had been a disaster. One thing after another had gone wrong, but this six-year-old boy, this love of her life, had proved once again that he was a miracle. He hadn’t seen disaster in any of the things that had gone wrong today. He had taken each one and made the most of it. To him, it was the perfect day.  

June 03, 2024 16:48

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Kristi Gott
05:49 Jun 15, 2024

This very delightful story is so uplifting and written in a charming style. I can imagine the adorable little boy and his loving mother. The twist at the end where the little boy has interpreted the day's experiences in a positive, beautiful way takes us into his world and teaches us a good lesson. Very well done!


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Beverly Goldberg
23:29 Jun 12, 2024

A very nice story, but my editor's head had a few problems--she's a single mother with an old car, but wouldn't her job be of concern. And she has clearly taken him to the beach many times before, why is today more of a problem? I also have some problem with him being a six-year-old. He sounds younger and then the phrase "most epic sand castle," intrudes. I don't know why I couldn't just read it, it is good. Maybe it's because having raised a boy myself, I just couldn't adjust to his age. The love certainly comes through and I love the ending.


Angie Lucas
18:44 Jun 14, 2024

Great feedback, thank you!


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AnneMarie Miles
13:19 Jun 12, 2024

I had to double check if this was nonfiction; you've described it so well, it felt real. A day with a child is a great place to take this prompt. They do slow us down, in the best ways sometimes. I related to the mom - it's hard not to go for the to-do list when there's so much on it, but we have to make time to slow down with our kids. Her son taught her about all the good that happens with the bad. We learn those important lessons with them. Very sweet, I loved it! It reminds me of a story I wrote, called "Potion-making." Always something...


Angie Lucas
01:52 Jun 13, 2024

Thanks so much for the feedback! I read your story Potion-making - it's fantastic and yes, very similar. I love how much kids can teach us, and like you said in your story, so resilient.


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