TYLER MOSS was a second grader at Public School 16 on Bunting Avenue, smack in the middle of a crowded city. He lived with his mother and little brother, A. J., who went to day care and not a "real" school. Tyler's father was a fireman. Monday to Friday he lived on the top floor of the firehouse not far away. On weekends he would join the family.
More than anything else in the world, Tyler loved candy - Milky Ways, Starburst, gooey Sugar Daddies, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, M&M's, Kit Kats, licorice sticks, frozen Junior Mints, any kind at all, the sweeter the better.
Of course his mother wouldn't have let him eat all that candy, and his piggy bank was empty, but a kid could always dream. Even a second grader.
"One piece of candy for dessert Saturday night," his mom would say. "Take your pick." No matter what kind Tyler chose, the candy was sure to disappear fast. Munch. Munch. Down it went. He liked candy better than cookies and ice cream put together. Better than butterscotch sundaes. Better than pizza. Better than ... recess.
Tyler knew that his mom wasn't being mean or anything like that, not at all. She was just watching out for him.
Every school day she and A. J. would wait with Tyler on the sidewalk in front of their apartment building for the bus to pick him up and take him to P. S. 16. It was a good mile away. What's unusual is that it wasn't a school bus that stopped for him, but a big city bus, crowded and smelling of soot and grime. Tyler had to pay the bus driver 25 cents for the ride. Kids' rate. Whenever his parents took the bus they had to pay double. A. J. went free.
That meant Tyler's mom had to give him two quarters every morning - 25 cents for the ride to school, 25 more cents for the ride home at the end of the day. Two quarters. He'd put one in the coin machine next to the bus driver (different ones all the time) and put the other safely inside his pocket.
"Hang onto your lunchbox," his mom would shout from the sidewalk, as she and A. J. waved goodbye.
The year before, when Tyler'd been a first grader, taking the city bus to school had been kind of scary. All those people. All those sounds - roaring engine, squeaky brakes, strange voices. No other kids he knew. One of the bus drivers had a beard and yellow teeth. Seats were often hard to find. Tyler's heart would thump-thump, and he'd never say a word. Coming home was easier because the bus wasn't so crowded.
It had taken a while, but now the bus ride didn't bother Tyler at all. In fact, he sort of liked it. Liked watching all the people getting on and off. Liked some of the bus drivers, the ones who'd say a word or two. "How's it going, kid?" or "Anything good for lunch today?" One lady driver he liked because of the nice perfume she wore. He got to like the sound of the engine, almost as loud as the fire trucks his father drove. And he no longer cared if he got a seat or not. He was proud and brave. Besides , what second grader worth his salt would be afraid of a bus?
One sunny day, while waiting at the bus stop, his mother said, "Tyler, I don't have two quarters to give you today. Here's one quarter, two dimes, and five pennies. Don't lose it."
O problem. For as any kid knows, two dimes and five pennies are the same as a quarter. It's just in a different form. And as for losing the money, no way. Tyler was too smart for that.
Moments later the door to the bus swung open and Tyler got on. He put the quarter in the coin machine ("Hey kid, how goes it?"), pocketed the dimes and pennies, found a seat, and waved out the window to A. J. and his mom. He took a peek inside his lunchbox to see what goodies his mom had packed - cream cheese and jelly sandwich, granola bar, apple, and orange. No candy - again. "Guess I'll have to wait 'til Saturday," he thought to himself.
But he was wrong.
At the end of the school day Tyler did what he always did - raced out of the building with all his classmates, down the steps and onto the sidewalk, to stand next to the sign that said BUS STOP.
Many kids, after waiting for the guard to stop traffic, crossed the street. Others headed off in the opposite direction. Only a few waited with Tyler, mostly older kids who pushed and shoved, stole each other's belongings, and made a racket. Not one other second grader, but who cared?
Just then something caught Tyler's eye. Half a block down the owners of a grocery store had set up some vegetable bins on the street. They were always there - those bins. What had him on alert was something new, a bubble-like thing on a stand, almost as tall as he was, filled with what looked like brightly colored marbles. No, not marbles ... gumballs. GUMBALLS! Hundreds of them, green and yellow, orange and blue. Pink and purple and ... red. Red gumballs were one of Tyler's favorite candies. Right up th ere with Tootsie Roll Pops.
What he wouldn't do for a red gumball.
Step by step (not that anyone would notice) Tyler moved down the street, until the gumball machine was right before him. All those wonderful candies! He could tell they were fresh by how shiny the colors were. And as many reds as any other color. Surely this was a special machine. A sign on it above a slot said, "Gumballs 1 cent."
Like that - snap your fingers - Tyler had a penny out of his pocket and into the slot. Click! Out popped a green gumball. Good, but not exactly what he was looking for. He put the green gumball in his shirt pocket and dropped in another penny. Click! Out popped a yellow gumball. He put it in his pocket. Click! Out popped an orange gumball. Click! Another orange.
Tyler took a deep breath - one penny left. Click! Out popped a red gumball. At last! Whew! He put it in his mouth.
Mmmmmmmmm! Delicious! Yummy!
Yikes! What had he done?
An awful feeling crept over him, made his skin itch, his heart thump-thump, the gumball taste turn sour in his mouth. He'd spent his bus money. Not all of it, but anything less than 25 cents wasn't enough. All he had left was 20 cents. Two dimes. If he promised to pay the rest tomorrow, would the bus driver let him on anyway? That lady driver with the perfume, she liked him. A couple of the others did, too. Besides, he was only a kid.
While Tyler'd been putting his pennies into the gumball machine the bus that'd take him home had come and gone. He could see its black fumes two or three blocks down Bunting Avenue and on the move.
What should he do? Cry? No. Shout for his mommy? No. Spend the rest of his money on gumballs? Definitely not. He was already in enough trouble. He thought to tell the crossing guard, but she was gone. Could he get a taxi? With 20 cents? Not a chance.
Could he hitchhike? No. No. No. That'd be the worst thing to do. "Don't you dare ever hitchhike," his mom had warned. Could he wait for the next bus? Yes, but that could take hours. No, as he saw it there were only two possibilities. Go back into school and have the office call home or ... walk.
What good was calling home? His mother'd probably left work by now, but she didn't have a car. She and A. J. would have to walk all the way down the avenue and back - two miles in all - to pick him up. Was that fair? And how embarrassing! Besides, maybe if he walked he could get home before she did and get away with his mistake - spending his pennies on gumballs. He knew the way home. His building was on the very same street as the school. Only far. Faaaaaaaaar.
Lunchbox under his arm, Tyler decided to walk.
Walk, walk, walk, walk, walk.
Cars and trucks - even a few buses rumbled by. Screeching tires, honking horns. And people - he'd never seen so many people in all his life. Bumping and laughing, shouting, talk-talk-talking, hurrying this way and that. Good thing no one said a word to him, because he wasn't allowed to talk to strangers.
Walk, walk, walk, walk.
Past groceries, dry cleaners, newsstands ("Paaaaaperrrr !"), clothing stores, restaurants, a pharmacy, a movie theater, a car wash - so many places he couldn't keep count. He must have crossed a dozen side streets, waiting each time for the light to change, as he'd been taught. Walk, walk, walk. Tyler'd never walked so far... .
Meantime, this was happening:
YLER'S mother had gotten home from work early, even before she picked up A. J. at day care. She thought she'd surprise Tyler by waiting for him at the bus stop in front of their apartment building. Imagine her surprise and worry when the bus stopped and he didn't get off. Where could he be, she wondered. He'd never not come home before.
She hurried up the four flights of stairs to their apartment and called the school. "Is Tyler Moss still there?" she asked the secretary. No, he was gone. She called Tyler's dad at the firehouse, but he was out on a call and couldn't be reached.
Then she called the police, answered many questions, even gave a description of Tyler. "Maybe if you start walking toward school, you'll catch sight of him," the policewoman on the phone suggested. "And I'll have one of our patrol cars be on the lookout."
Mrs. Moss thanked the officer and hung up, left a note on the kitchen table that said, "Tyler. Stay here. I'm looking for you. Love, Mom," zipped up her jacket, hurried back down the stairs, and headed along Bunting Avenue toward P. S. 16.
Surely she and Tyler would meet. But they didn't.
At the last minute, tired and hungry, Tyler thought he knew a shortcut off Bunting Avenue. His mom went one way, Tyler the other, missing each other by seconds. Some time after that Tyler got home. He had to catch his breath before he went up the four flights of stairs. The door to his apartment was locked. He put his ear against the door and listened. Not a sound.
"Maybe I won't get caught after all," he told himself.
He used the key that his Mom kept in a hiding place to let himself in and went straight for the kitchen, thinking, "Food," saw the note, knew he was in trouble, did what he usually did - hid under his bed, but not before taking the four gumballs out of his pocket - green, yellow, and two oranges - and stuffing them into his mouth.
Hiding and chewing, he waited.
But not for long. A door key rattled in the latch, and a moment later he heard his mom's voice call out, "Tyler! Are you home?" Fear and a cheek full of candy made the word that came out his mouth sound like, "Ungggaah."
"Are you in your room?"
His mom was with someone - a stranger. Tyler could hear them talking, hear their feet coming down the hall and into his room.
"Are you under your bed?" his mom asked.
"Well, get out of there." She didn't sound happy.
Tyler climbed out. Next to his mom was a policewoman.
"Where have you been?" his mom wanted to know. "And what's that in your mouth? Spit it out." She held out her hand, and out came the gum, a sticky pink blob the size of a tangerine.
"Now tell me. What happened?"
Tyler told the whole story. When he got to the part about the shortcut, two tears came out of his mother's eyes and rolled slowly down her cheeks, he wasn't sure why. She was also smiling. That adults could cry and smile at the same time was still a mystery to him.
"Don't you ever do that again," Tyler's mother told him after the policewoman had left. She gave him a hug - a hard one. "Next time go back into school and call me. I was so worried... ."
One more thing. The next day, when Tyler opened his lunchbox on the bus to see what his mom had packed, underneath some carrot sticks, a tuna sandwich, and some granola was a ... Tootsie Roll Pop.