Jack spent much of his time outside a little coffee shop near Fisherman's Wharf, where one day, he noticed Kevin. Jack's first observation was that Kevin appeared to be a nice young man. He was younger than Jack, probably in his late 20's, and was of a remarkably average height and build for a man. Jack was most impressed by how nice Kevin's hair was. Jack didn't meet a lot of men with hair as well groomed as Kevin's.
Jack couldn't put his finger on it, but he knew that there was something else that attracted him to Kevin. After a few minutes of pondering, Jack decided what he liked most about Kevin was his pristine white sneakers, which were in much better shape than Jack's shoes, each containing multiple side holes.
Kevin sat at a table on the coffee shop's patio, next to the entrance. Jack was on a bench at the opposite end. He wanted little more than to approach Kevin and sit with him, but Jack knew that if he got too close to the door, the security guard--a large man with an angry face--would yell at him. Jack liked almost everyone, but the coffee shop guard was one of the few exceptions, as he once yelled until Jack cried.
Instead, Jack chose to keep an eye on the door and wait for the guard to turn away. Barring that, he would catch Kevin as he left. Kevin was like a nice guy, and Jack knew they would hit it off, even if their meeting had to be delayed for a bit.
Jack imagined all the things he and Kevin could do together. He was particularly excited to introduce Kevin to his two best friends: Green Bucket and Big Blanket.
Jack had met Green Bucket at Ocean Beach a few months ago. One morning, he was walking across the sand, searching for coins. On his way back, he came across Green Bucket sitting alone, as if it were abandoned. Jack felt he and Green Bucket were alike in many ways, so he brought Green Bucket into his life and they became best friends. He'd feed Green Bucket many things. It's favorites were food, change, candy, and shiny objects. And Green Bucket would also help Jack clean up when he was able to find access to clean water or a decent restroom.
Big Blanket was Jack's other best friend. A few weeks earlier, Jack and Green Bucket were walking downtown and found a large box sitting on the sidewalk. Per usual, Jack looked inside, searching for shiny things. Instead of shiny objects, he only found a bunch of junk: Kids toys, a tiny guitar with four strings, shoes that were too small for him, and assorted DVDs. But what stole Jack's heart was a large grey blanket, noticeably worn. Jack felt it was immoral to throw out something so beautiful and even more immoral to leave it sitting on the street if you find it. Ever since, Jack, Green Bucket, and Big Blanket were together forever.
Studying Kevin, Jack knew the man would be a wonderful addition to his little family. Kevin was spending a lot of time looking at his phone, then looking around, then looking at his watch, then his phone again. For a while, Jack thought that perhaps Kevin was waiting for him to walk over, but dodging the security guard was more important than approaching Kevin, who wasn't going anywhere.
Jack wrapped his body in Big Blanket and watched the door. The guard stared back with the same scary face that made Jack cry. Jack tried waving to the guard, but the man just pointed at him. Jack read that was an invitation to make amends, but the moment he stood up, the guard walked through the door, and yelled "no!"
While Jack planned his move, he saw someone walking toward Kevin's table. Kevin put his phone away and stood up to hug Mei, a young woman, about half a foot shorter than Kevin. Jack was happy to see her and when she and Kevin embraced, Jack knew his little family of three was destined to become a family of five.
Kevin and Mei walked inside. Jack kicked himself for not making his move sooner. Following them was out of the question, but he was sure they would return soon enough. It was a nice spring day and nobody was using the patio, so it would be a nice quiet space for the five of them to chat. Jack couldn't recall ever seeing many people sitting outside--maybe one or two a day. He would sometimes see someone take a seat, but they often left just when Jack decided to introduce himself.
He wiped a smudge off Green Bucket, and watched as Kevin and Mei returned to the patio, drinks in hand. They sat at their old table and began chatting. Jack noticed that they were sitting next to each other. He first thought that was odd, as that left lots of unused space on the table. After mulling it over, Jack realized that the couple was saving a spot for him.
He didn't want to disappoint them, but what could he do about that guard? The big man was still staring daggers into Jack, so casually walking to the table wouldn't work.
Jack decided that the best option was to be sneaky. He stood up, covered his whole body in Big Blanket, leaving only his eyes and his feet exposed. And he slowly began walking toward the table. It made sense to Jack: If he moved slowly, the guard would assume a blanket creature was going to spend time with some friends. Blanket creatures had to be allowed at the coffee shop.
As soon as Jack reached the midpoint between the bench and the table, the guard stepped through the door again. "Hey buddy! You can't be here," he yelled. The large blanket creature waved at the guard who added "You gotta go!" Jack, nearly tripped as he ran back to the bench. He was wrong: Blanket creatures were not allowed at the coffee shop.
After what felt like days, Kevin and Mei got up. They talked a bit more, then tossed their cups in a bin and Kevin checked his phone. Jack stood, ready to catch up to his pals, and Kevin pointed north. Like that, Jack and his friends walked toward the San Francisco Bay.
Jack stayed behind the couple, but matched their pace. He wasn't sure where they were headed, but was excited to go there. The last few times he had socialized didn't end on happy notes.
When they got close to the water, the crowd got bigger. Kevin and Mei struggled to make their way through the mass of people, but that wasn't a problem for Jack. In fact, everyone on the sidewalks was incredibly polite, stepping out of the way when he walked past, just so he didn't have to push through people and fall behind his friends. Jack was grateful for that.
At last, they reached their destination: Fisherman's Wharf's vintage arcade! The arcade was one of Jack's favorite places in the world. The inside was noisy, exciting, and free to enter. And when Jack sat on the benches outside, people would feed quarters to Green Bucket. Green Bucket loved quarters.
Jack had only visited the inside of the arcade a few times, the last with his friend Chris. Chris hadn't spoken much to Jack, but would often leave a game half-played so Jack could play the rest. Jack appreciated Chris's generosity.
Jack was excited to see what kinds of games and the five of them were going to play together. The first stop was the change machine, one of Jack's favorites. Kevin pulled a ten dollar bill from his wallet and fed it to the machine. Out popped forty quarters. Jack clapped for his friend. Mei also looked happy, especially when Kevin gave her half his winnings. Jack was a little disappointed that he didn't get a share of the prize, but he figured it was safer to only let two people hold onto the money, rather than risking an extra person losing some of it.
The group started with the oldest machines. The first was a game that showed an old west saloon populated by little men. When Kevin put a quarter into the slot and pressed the button, the little men started drinking beer, playing cards, and dancing. The man playing the piano in the corner was Jack's favorite. Jack remembered a time when he would have fun acting just like the little men, but it was fun watching them, too. Suddenly, the card players stood up. One of them walked around the table and punched the other. The music stopped and the scene froze. Jack looked at Kevin and Mei. They smiled and laughed at the show. This made Jack smile and let out a huge guffaw.
Mei and Kevin looked at Jack laugh. That's how he knew they were having a great time. The saloon show ended and they watched a few others, including one where a wooden puppet wearing a puffy dress did a shaky dance. Jack laughed at each show and danced along with the puppet. He was happy everyone was having fun.
The next stop was the game where you hit gophers who pop out of the ground. Jack liked that one because he had played it once before. His friend Chris had passed him a quarter by dropping in on the floor. He didn't say anything but Jack knew that was his friend's way of telling him "hey, you should play this game," and Jack was grateful for that. Jack hit three gophers--his personal record.
Mei was the first one to try her hand at rodent whacking. She hit the first six without issue--Jack was impressed and cheered her on. Once two started popping up at the same time, she started to struggle. When three holes were occupied simultaneously, Mei couldn't keep up. When it was over, Kevin laughed and put his arm around her, while Jack laughed and gave her a huge thumbs up. He also raised his hand for a high five, but she didn't notice and the couple walked on.
They made a few more stops in the arcade--pinball, a game where you sat on a motorcycle, and one where a weird green monster beat up a fat man in a towel. The group's final stop was Skee-Ball. As they approached the machines, Jack saw Kevin look his way, then whispered something to Mei before handing her a quarter. Both walked up to a machine and began to play at the same time. Mei struggled, scoring only 300 points. Kevin did well, scoring over 700--Jack was sure that was a world record. They smiled and laughed. Jack smiled, laughed, and clapped for them both. Kevin then put another quarter into his machine and started a new game. Instead of playing, the couple stepped aside and looked at Jack. Kevin motioned toward the machine.
Jack tucked Green Bucket under his left arm, draped Big Blanket over his shoulder, and approached the game. He reached for his first ball. It felt much more like a rock than Jack expected. And while had had never played Skee-Ball before, he had watched enough to know what he was doing. He studied the ramp and looked at the rings. He looked at all the scoring zones. Jack didn't know the best strategy, but Kevin was paying for the game and he didn't want to let him down. Jack decided to aim for the 50. It looked easy enough.
He gripped the ball tightly, pulling his arm back over his shoulder, then launching it forward, throwing the ball as hard as he could at the number 50. Instead of going into the hole, the ball bounced off the protective net above the machine, dropped onto the ramp, and rolled back to Jack.
He wasn't sure what went wrong. But Jack was certain he had done something nobody had ever done before, so he clapped for himself. He turned to Kevin and Mei to witness their reactions.
They weren't there.
Jack's heart sank. He had taken his eyes off them for just a moment and his two newest friends had disappeared. He couldn't help but assume the worst and it was all his fault.
Jack looked around the arcade, but couldn't find either of them. He checked every room, every doorway, every photobooth, every game, and the main entrance. Nothing. Unsure what to do next, Jack decided to clear his head. He vowed to do everything in his power to find his pals and would stop at nothing until he knew they were safe. He walked to a bench just outside the arcade's rear entrance, sat down, and placed Green Bucket next to him.
Jack rocked back and forth for a while, wrapped in Big Blanket, which helped him stay calm and think clearly. People passed, but most didn't say anything. A few fed quarters to Green Bucket. That made Jack feel a little bit better. He was grateful for that.
He had to do something while he could! Jack saw a police officer and considered asking for his help, but most cops Jack spoke to were just as mean as the guard at the coffee shop. He had also once seen an officer use his gun on someone who reminded Jack of himself. Since then, he had been nervous around anyone in a policeman's uniform.
Jack had to solve this mystery on his own. First, he retraced the group's steps through the arcade. He couldn't find any belongings, tracks, or signs of a struggle. Whatever happened to Kevin and Mei was well-hidden.
Then, he went back to Skee-Ball. Jack remembered he had left a game unfinished, but when he approached, he found a young boy playing that machine. Jack cheered for the boy, but as soon as the kid rolled his last ball, his mother rushed over and took him away. Rats! Jack had hoped to ask the child if he had seen either of his friends. He looked at the machine for a moment, then moved to where Mei and Kevin had been watching him.
Jack slowly turned in a circle, hoping to see someone he knew. He saw only strangers. He looked a while at the back door. Jack had already been there, but decided to look around instead of moping on the bench outside.
Jack stepped out and scanned the area. He saw a lot of water, a lot of people, and a lot of trash on the ground. He also watched a pair of seagulls fighting over half a slice of pizza, and saw a family heading toward a submarine. Many people exited the arcade and went straight over to tour the old sub. Jack wasn't allowed to, though. Every time he tried to visit, the lady in the ticket booth told him he needed money to get in. Once, he tried to hand her some of the quarters Green Bucket had eaten, but she shooed him off.
Jack looked at the line, but saw neither of his friends. For a moment, he wondered if they were inside, but that didn't make sense--they wouldn't have went in without him! The only explanation was that someone must have kidnapped them.
Jack knew the kidnapper couldn't have gotten far. After all, there weren't many cars in that part of Fisherman's Wharf, as it was a walking area. Jack passed the submarine and continued down the walkway until he came across a bunch of shops and restaurants.
If someone had kidnapped Mei and Kevin, Jack knew this would be a good area to bring them, as there were plenty of good hiding spaces: Under tables, in kitchens, behind counters, and under piles of San Francisco t-shirts. Since Jack didn't know who the kidnapper was (though his best guess was the security guard from the coffee shop), he didn't have any idea what the person was thinking. He figured he'd start at the first shop and work his way down the block.
The first place was a shop selling "San Francisco" and "California" gear. Jack wrapped Big Blanket around his neck like a scarf, tucked Green Bucket under his arm, and marched into the shop. The moment he stepped in, a woman walked toward him, saying words he didn't understand, and she shooed him away with her hands. Just like that, Jack was back on the street.
The next few stops were equally unfruitful. Each time Jack set foot in a shop, someone ran up to him, yelled, and forbade him from entering. Those people had already checked their businesses for Kevin and Mei, so Jack would have more time to check other spots that weren't as helpful. He was grateful for their assistance.
Jack reached the end of the shopping area. The last building on the block was a fancy-looking hotel. Jack knew it was fancy because the sign looked like the sun. Jack believe that if he had kidnapped someone, he would have hidden them in a hotel just like that. It seemed like a happy place where his victim would be able to relax and forget about their troubles for a bit.
He stepped into the lobby and was awestruck. Jack saw a large couch, a few comfy chairs, a huge television, and a pretty rug. There was a big hallway in front of him, and a woman at the front desk. The woman looked at Jack for a moment, then picked up the phone and started talking. Jack decided to wait until she was done before he asked about Mei and Kevin. In the meantime, he relaxed on the couch. A basketball game was on television. Jack used to have a friend named Blue Basketball. They went to play at a park one day when three kids walked up, hit Jack, and kidnapped Blue Basketball. Jack looked for days, but could never find his friend.
Watching basketball made him sad, so Jack stood up and looked out the window. His favorite burger joint was across the street. There was outdoor seating that Jack liked because people would often walk off, and leave the rest of their food for him. He watched a few people walk by. He saw a group of women sit at a table, eating and talking. And two tables over, he saw Kevin and Mei!
Jack ran out of the hotel. He passed an incoming security guard, who yelled something at him, but Jack didn't care. He moved across the street toward the tables. He approached Kevin and Mei and sat at the empty table next to them. Kevin looked at Jack, who waved back. Kevin leaned over to Mei and said something--Jack wasn't sure what. Mei turned slightly and looked at Jack, who waved to her, too. The two continued to whisper, which led Jack to assume they were planning some kind of thank you surprise.
Jack took a whiff of Big Blanket--he believed Big Blanket's scent complemented feelings of happiness--and waited patiently while his friends planned his surprise. Finally, Kevin stood up and Mei followed suit. They took each other by the hand and started walking toward the water, while the sun was beginning to set.
Jack was afraid of losing them again and wanted to show them how much he had been. But as he was walking past their table, he saw his thank-you gift: An order of french fries, half eaten. Jack dumped the fries into Green Bucket and followed his friends toward the bay.
Mei and Kevin were clearly walking far ahead so Jack could have time to eat his fries in peace. He was grateful for their delicious gift, especially since they had been having so much fun that he hadn't remembered to eat all day. He wanted to find a way to especially thank Mei for thinking of him. She was so nice.
A few blocks into their walk, Jack realized where they were going. They were headed to a park that overlooked a tiny beach! Jack hadn't been to a beach in a couple months, and he was looking forward to spending time in the water with his pals. As a bonus, beaches were like a second home to Green Bucket, who had only been back once since joining Jack.
Jack finished his fries as they reached the park. The grass sloped downward toward the sand, with only a small walkway dividing the two. From the grass, you could sit and see the San Francisco Bay and the land on the north side. Near the top of the slope, Kevin and Mei found a bench where they could sit and watch the red sky cover the water. The bench was only big enough for two people, but Jack was grateful that he got the best seat. He laid down Big Blanket and sat next to the bench.
Together, the five of them sat and watched the sunlight fade. Boats were sailing on the water, an elderly couple was strolling across the sand, and other couples were enjoying each other's company while soaking in the beauty of the sea. Kevin, Mei, and Jack were all silent. Their gazes fixed on the water. Jack thought he had heard one of them speak, but knew he was mistaken. Who would want to ruin such serenity by talking? He held Green Bucket to his chest with both arms and took a deep breath.
As the lights in the park illuminated, Kevin and Mei stood up. They kept their arms around each other and moved toward the water. Jack was the last to stand--still lost in the moment--but he quickly made his way down the slope so he could enjoy a nice time on the beach with friends.
When they reached the sand, Mei looked toward Jack, said something to Kevin, and pointed at her shoes. Kevin shook his head, looked at Jack, then whispered back. They stepped onto the wet part of the sand, shoes still on. But as Jack got near the water, he removed his sneakers and followed.
The couple stood side by said and stuck close to the water, just far enough in to avoid getting wet. Jack, meanwhile, filled Green Bucket full of sand and ran straight into the bay. He went until he was ankle deep--Green Bucket in one hand, shoes in the other, and Big Blanket over his shoulders.
Jack couldn't remember the last time he was so relaxed. He had never been to a beach and didn't enjoy himself--that was impossible. He cheered and laughed as he kicked the water and spun around in circles. He felt the ocean around his feet and the breeze in his hair. The only better feeling in the world was the friendship he had built with the four folks he was with that day.
Jack closed his eyes and soaked it in. When he opened them, he turned around and saw Kevin and Mei wandering away from the beach. Jack dumped the sand out of Green Bucket and filled it with water. He splashed some of it in his face and took a sip. Jack didn't like the taste of the water too much, but Green Bucket always enjoyed carrying clean water. Jack then ran back to the shore, shoved his wet feet into his shoes and caught up to his friends, who were heading in the direction of the burger place.
Jack spun and danced behind the couple. He was overjoyed by the water and only stopped frolicking for a moment to hug Green Bucket and drink in another mouthful of the bay.
During his dance, he noticed Kevin pulled out his phone. Jack figured his friend was going to take a picture of the five of them to remember the night. Jack struck a pose with Green Bucket and Big Blanket, but Kevin and Mei kept walking.
They reached the corner next to the burger place, across from the hotel. Mei and Jack stood quietly, while Kevin poked at his phone. Jack tried to peek over Kevin's shoulder to see what he was doing, but wasn't able to figure it out. Jack continued to spin and laugh. Mei continued to glance at Jack, then quickly turn away whenever they made eye contact.
She whispered something to Kevin, who put his arm around her and held her close. He held his phone, and started looking around. The couple watched both streets at the intersection. Jack stopped spinning because he was getting too dizzy to stand straight. He took another swig of water and stepped closer to his friends.
Soon, a grey car pulled up in front of them. Jack noticed a cute pink light in the window and waved at it. Kevin and Mei walked to the car, and Kevin opened the rear door, closing it after Mei stepped in. Kevin walked to the opposite side and opened the door. He looked at Jack, who took a few steps closer. Just as Jack was close enough to touch the vehicle, Kevin got in, closed his door, and the car took off.
Jack ran as fast as he could without dropping Big Blanket or Green Bucket. Kevin obviously didn't realize Jack wasn't in the car, and Jack was scared of worrying his friends again. The panic he felt at the arcade returned, multiplied by a billion.
Water was falling from Green Bucket as Jack tried his best to keep up with the car. He made it about a block, when the driver turned right. Jack did his best to follow, but when he reached the middle of the street, another driver slammed on the brakes, leaned into the horn, and stopped inches in front of Jack's face.Jack dropped Green Bucket and immediately picked it up, losing about half the remaining water. He ran to the sidewalk and looked for a car with a pink light in the front. He couldn't find it.
He failed failed his friends. Jack held back tears as he realized his family was down to three again. He kissed Green Bucket and hugged Big Blanket and together they walked back to the coffee shop. The shop was closed and the tables were locked inside for the night. Jack wandered over to his bench. He splashed some water on his face, shaped Big Blanket like a pillow, hugged Green Bucket and decided to get some rest. Despite the heartbreak Jack was grateful to be able to spend time with friends. He was looking forward to meeting new ones tomorrow.