The Boy with the Paper Hat

Marvyn stumbled into the sandpit while his sister still sat on the stones, unsure what to make of the yellow material in front of her. That day, in early March, I saw the boy for the first time. He was older than most of the other kids, maybe eleven or twelve. his t-shirt and jeans had holes.A paper hat sat slanted on his dirty blond hair.

The boy just stood at the other end of the playground, staring towards the sand and sometimes at the other kids. I remember thinking that he must be cold.

It was Anne’s first time at the playground, at least she wouldn’t remember the first time. For Marvyn it was the first time in a few months – and he was accordingly excited. Marvyn was five. Anne was only one.

When she finally made her way into the sand Anne stayed close to my feet. Occasionally she looked up to see if I was there. She tasted the sand and spat it back out. Marvyn tried to show her how to build sand castles but Anne’s attempts always crumbled and she kept destroying Marvyn’s work.

After a while Marvyn gave up. He went further into the sand, where most of the other kids were rollicking around, and joined into play with a few boys his age.

Looking up I saw him again. The boy with the paper hat had barely moved, but he had changed his position. Still he just stood there, silently and with his eyes on the other kids.

I tried to read his emotions, see whether he was worried or scared or whether he might have bad intentions. I didn’t like it when his stare fell on Marvyn but I couldn’t read his face. He looked calm, maybe unhappy but not angry or aggressive.

Looking at the boy I nearly forgot about Anne. She crawled to the side, nearly towards the end of the slide. I caught Anne just before an older girl came with full speed and and a squeaking voice down the slide.

From March on we came to the playground often. We joined a parents’ group with other parents from Marvyn’s school. Three times a week a parent or two went with the five kids to the playground and the other parents had time to get important things done.

Whenever I went he was there. The folded newspaper on his head he stood and stared.

Once I tried to talk to him. I walked casually over to his side of the playground. I pretended to look for Marvyn but when I came close the boy stared straight at me. Then he ran off into the woods.

The other parents told me that they had the same experience. The boy was always there. He never played. He never talked. When an adult approached him, sometimes even when other children approached him, the boy raised a hand to his hat and ran.

In May he changed. His expression stayed the same and he still ran off when an adult or an older child approached him. But he began to play.

When I went to the playground Anne was always with me. The duty of a stay-at-home dad. Still, with five kids to watch and an additional infant that demanded extra attention it was hard to keep everyone in sight.

When the boy was in the sand some of the younger children tried to play with him. They brought him a shovel or a bucket of sand like younger kids sometimes do – but he ignored most of them. He played only with very few children. One of them was Marvyn. Another was the youngest kid from out group, a shy girl called Johnnie.

The boy always kept a certain distance to the children he played with. I figured he was maybe autistic. Not just that his eyes stayed distanced, he also hated being touched. Whenever another child touched his arm or leg he jumped away. Often that startled the other child. Twice when I was there he made Johnnie cry, once Marvyn.

The boy always wore his hat, folded out of slightly yellowed paper. Sometimes, when there was a light wind, he had the hat attached with a string that went around his chin. I never got close enough to see whether it was always the same hat or a different one each day.

In late June one of the other parents took Marvyn along to the playground. I spent time with Anne and prepared dinner.

When Marvyn came home I held my breath for a moment. He proudly walked into the house. A yellowed paper hat sat on his head.

“The boy showed me how to fold it,” he said. “But nobody else knows how.”

“Why not?”

“He showed me behind a tree.”

Outraged I called the mother that had taken care of Marvyn. First she denied everything, then she admitted that she was distracted by a phone call. She looked away from the playground and when she looked again Marvyn was gone.

“He came back right afterwards,” she said. “I’m really sorry. I thought you wouldn’t find out.”

A week later the same mother watched over the kids. Another phone call. Just in time she saw Johnnie disappearing into the woods. She caught Johnnie before the boy could pull her further away.

Johnnie didn’t get a hat. Marvyn wanted to get her one.

I watched carefully as Marvyn and Johnnie played with the boy. The boy bent forward to pick up a bucket of sand. Marvyn jumped up and grabbed the boy’s hat.

I never saw the boy cry before. I never saw him running that fast. And I never saw such a huge scar on a child’s head.

From that day on the boy refused to play with Marvyn. Marvyn too kept his distance.

I felt relieved. The boy had always been odd but gentle. The way he had run away and the way he looked at Marvyn since then, that wasn’t just anger, it was hate.

A few weeks later Johnnie had her paper hat. Marvyn had begun to leave his at home but Johnnie wore hers with pride. When an adult asked how she got it she always just shook her head.

In June I noticed that the boy with the paper hat finally accepted being touched. There were two kids that he allowed to touch him: a small Indian boy with an overprotective mother that always pulled him away from the boy, and Johnnie.

Most of the time he played with Johnnie. It went so far that Johnnie barely played with anybody else.

Their games were odd. While Marvyn and the others were chasing each other, building castles or using the playground toys, Johnnie and the boy mostly just sat. They drew patterns in the sand and sometimes they dug holes. They always played quietly, except for Johnnie’s occasional hums.

Johnnie’s mother was the day manager for a restaurant. She was always busy and rarely managed to fulfil her part of the watch-the-kids rota.

We told her about the boy and their strange games.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “Johnnie is fine, she just likes that boy. She even sleeps with her hat.”

She winked.

“Maybe he’s Johnnie’s first love?”

It should have been my day. The last day of June, a Sunday.

Johnnie’s mother volunteered to take over my shift to make up for the many she had missed. I accepted.

That day, for the first time, the boy made a noise. Marvyn played catch with another boy. Marvyn got too close. The boy hissed.

Marvyn fled.

Johnnie laughed.

I was with Anne at the mall when I got the phone call.

“Please come,” Johnnie’s mother cried into the phone. “I can’t find her.”

One of the other mothers was already there. She took Marvyn and the other three kids home.

Six officers had arrived, more came later. We ran into the forest.

It wasn’t large. It should have been easy to find the boy and Johnnie, or to find a witness that had seen them leave. Should have.

We found nothing.

Two hours later the search dog arrived. The dog walked around in circles. He stopped and barked near a stack of old newspaper, not far from the playground. From then on he searched aimlessly.

Three days Johnnie’s disappearance was headline news. There were hundreds of hints – but they all led nowhere.

After three days Johnnie’s mother broke down. She ran aimlessly through the neighborhoods, calling her daughter’s name. She switched between cursing the boy and begging for him to give Johnnie back.

The fourth day, stumbling at 4am through the woods into which her daughter had disappeared, she found the body.

The boy’s body lay next to the stack of old newspapers. His body was already cold.

Head trauma. Internal bleeding. Death.

There was a large bloody gap at the top of his head.

There was no paper hat.

Today, for the first time, we went back to the playground, just Marvyn and Anne and me. The news had had their effect. The playground was empty except for us.

Anne was next to me. Her sand castle crumbled. She cried. I picked her up.

A moment later Marvyn came down the slide.

I froze.

“Look daddy,” he said.

Running I plucked Marvyn off the ground. With both kids on my arms I climbed the stairs up the slide.

The small wooden cabin was empty.

Marvyn smiled.

“You like it?” he asked. “Johnnie gave it to me.”

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