Eleven-year-old Ben was about to defeat the latest villain in his game when his mother, Jodie, snatched the phone out of his hands.
«Give it back!».
Ben lunged for the phone, but Jodie held up her hands.
«You spend too much time with this. Every time I see you, you’re glued to the screen. You haven’t even heard me call you for dinner, have you?»
«Please, Mom! I’ll lose everything if you don’t give it back to me,» Ben pleaded.
«It’s just a game, Ben,» the mother stated. «You have to spend more time in the real world in order to succeed; otherwise, you’ll end up just like your father, who is a bum.»
«At least I don’t have a heart of stone like you,» her son replied resentfully.
Jodie’s face unhinged and her lip trembled.
«How dare you! I work hard to provide you with everything you need, and you don’t appreciate any of it. Go to your room.»
Ben ran to his room. He felt bad for making Mom mad, but she didn’t understand anything! All she did was yell at him.
The boy ran his finger along the faint ray of light that fell on his quilt. His hero would never abandon someone who was hurt. If he could use kindness to turn villains into good people, then he could make peace with his mother. She was probably just as lonely as he had been since the divorce.
Jodie was in the kitchen, and looked up when Ben walked in.
«Mom, can we go to Comic-Con together?» the boy asked.
«Comic…what?» Jodie frowned. «I don’t have time for that nonsense.»
«You haven’t even asked me when it is,» Ben lamented. «You’re always yelling at me for not doing things with you, but when I really want to do something, you say no. You never want to spend time with me.»
Ben’s words haunted Jodie for the next week. It was difficult to find the balance between running her business and being a mother, but she realized the truth in her son’s words.
She wanted him to feel appreciated, so she came home early one day to surprise him. Jodie’s plan was to take the boy to the park. She also bought donuts for them to share.
She glanced at the clock several times as she waited. As it got closer to the time Ben usually came home from school, Jodie began to worry. Half an hour later, the boy still hadn’t arrived.
Normally, he’d be home playing with the phone by now. Jodie bit her nails. She never would have thought she’d miss the sound of video games, but she did. She called him, but the phone rang with no answer.
After thirty-seven calls, it seemed Ben’s phone battery had died. His phone was no longer reachable, and Jodie was frantic. She wandered aimlessly between the living room and her son’s room, and finally ran to the garage and jumped into the car.
Jodie sped into the parking lot of Ben’s school. She was on her way to the principal’s office when she saw some of Ben’s friends in the playground.
«When was the last time any of you saw Ben?» asked Jodie as she approached the yard.
The children looked at each other and shrugged. Only one of them worked up the courage to answer.
«The last time I saw Ben he was with a man with a strange mask on his head. He left school with him,» said one boy.
Jodie’s blood ran cold.
«A masked man? What did he look like?»
«Big, yellow and covered in feathers.» The boy looked at his friends and they all burst out laughing.
Jodie ran toward the principal’s office. She was just in time to catch him on his way out.
«My son has been kidnapped and you have to do something,» Jodie exclaimed, on the verge of losing control.
The man looked at Jodie with a frown.
«I’m sorry, but the school is not responsible for after-hours students.»
«How can you be so indifferent?»
Jodie wanted to shake him until he came up with a solution, but she knew it wouldn’t do any good.
Instead, she got back in her car and started driving. She would find Ben herself. It couldn’t be too hard to track down a man dressed as a chicken. She drove from one end of town to the other, but saw no sign of her son.
Jodie burst into tears. She was about to enter the police station when she saw a sign on the wall. She immediately braked in the middle of the traffic. Cars honked their horns behind her, but she didn’t care.
«Comic-con,» whispered Jodie. «I didn’t even ask when it was being held, it’s today! Ben must be there.»
She stepped on the gas and sped off to the convention center where the event was being held.
«Thank God for that sign!».
As she entered the center, she immediately realized that finding Ben would not be easy. The place was crowded with adults and children dressed in a variety of costumes, some so intricate that they looked more like life-size puppets.
She made her way to the outside area and climbed onto some crates next to one of the stalls. She surveyed the crowd of fantastic creatures. In the distance, near the stage, she spotted an ugly chicken suit. It looked vaguely familiar, but Jodie focused on the boy walking next to the chicken.
She jumped down and began to make her way through the crowd. The stage was getting closer and closer. Jodie circled a large red dragon, but tripped over its tail and landed in the mud.
People were crowding around her and Jodie struggled to get to her feet. She was worried about being trampled, but then two fluffy paws helped her up.
«Are you all right?» The bright pink leopard who helped her up put some wipes in Jodie’s hands. «Here, so you can clean yourself up.»
«Thank you. I’m looking for my son.» Jodie scrutinized the crowd, but now the ugly chicken was nowhere to be seen. «He’s here with a chicken.»
«I haven’t seen any chickens,» replied the pink leopard. «You should ask if they can make an announcement to help you find your son. I think the information booth is that way.»
The pink leopard pointed back the way she had come, but Jodie had a better idea. She made her way to the stage and climbed up. A security agent appeared to stop her.
«I need the emcee to make an announcement,» Jodie pleaded with the security officer. «Please, my son is here and I can’t find him.»
Tears streamed down Jodie’s cheeks as she spoke. She was embarrassed and felt totally out of place, but she needed to find Ben and wrap him in her arms. Once he was safe by her side, she would never let him go.
The security officer took pity on her and let her talk to the emcee.
«Would eleven-year-old Ben please come up on stage,» the emcee said. «Your mother is looking for you and is very worried.»
Jodie looked out at the crowd from the stairs leading to the stage as the emcee repeated the announcement. Minutes passed, but it seemed like hours to her before she recognized her son in the crowd.
Her heart leapt with joy until she saw the ugly chicken next to Ben. The man pulled the mask off his head, and a fiery rage flooded Jodie’s thoughts as she recognized her ex-husband, Chris.
Now she understood why she remembered that ugly costume: he’d worn it to hand out flyers for a fast-food restaurant after losing his job at a marketing firm.
«Please don’t punish Ben,» Chris said as he approached, «I just wanted to spend time with him.»
«Don’t be mad, Mom.» Ben took Jodie’s hand. «You said you didn’t want to come, so I asked Dad. Look at the awesome Naruto costume he made me.»
«I didn’t give you permission to see it.» Jodie was shaking with anger as she looked at Chris. «In fact, neither of you asked me about it.»
«And you!» she said, turning her gaze to Ben. «Why didn’t you answer the phone? I’ve called you so many times. I’ve gone crazy with worry.»
«I’m sorry, Mom.» Ben hugged Jodie. «I was having such a good time with Dad that I completely forgot about the phone. Please, will you stay with us?»
Jodie looked at her son in amazement. Ben never forgot his phone or his games. If there was one thing that had been bothering him it was his attachment to the device, and hearing him say that gave her hope.
«Yes, please join us,» Chris said.
Jodie looked at her son, who was watching her with puppy dog eyes. She had never been able to resist that pleading look.
«But I don’t have any costumes to wear,» Jodie said, pointing to her dress. «I may be surrounded by dragons and unicorns, but I feel like the oddball!».
Chris reached under the brim of his costume and pulled out a bundle of fabric, which he showed Jodie. When she saw the brunette wig with the trademark bows on either side, a surge of tenderness filled her heart.
«Princess Leia. You remembered my favorite movie.» Then she noticed the unevenness of one of the hems. «Did you sew it yourself?»
Chris gave her a coy smile. Behind them, the emcee announced the start of a contest, and Ben insisted on participating. As the boy hurried to the stage, his father pulled Jodie aside.
«Listen, Jodie, we need to talk.» Chris sat down on the grass and invited her to sit next to him. «People get married and divorced all the time. It’s normal nowadays. But we still share a son that we both love very much.»
«I know we’ve had our differences, but I respect you as Ben’s mother. I was glad he stayed with you because you make more money and have more to give him, but I still want to be a part of his life.»
Chris looked at her seriously.
«I have a good job now and I want to see him at least once a week, please.»
Jodie wiped away the tears running down her cheeks. Just when she thought she’d had enough emotions for one day, this would happen.
«This is important to me, Jodie.» Chris put his hand over hers. «Think of the good example we can set for Ben by getting along and raising him together, even though we’re divorced. And he’ll be so happy to have both of us in his life.»
«You’re so right, Chris. Our son deserves to have both of his parents in his life.»
Jodie looked him in the eye and for the first time since their separation, they were able to give each other a friendly hug.
«We should go support Ben in the contest,» Chris said.
Jodie agreed. They hurried toward the stage and arrived in time to see Ben acting out his character as he grinned broadly.
«I never give up!» shouted Ben.
«Naruto! Naruto!» chorused Jodie and Chris.
Soon the entire audience joined in their chant. On stage, Ben looked like he was about to burst with happiness.
Everything changed after that day. Ben was meeting with Chris once or twice a week, which gave Jodie more time for herself. He was no longer glued to the phone and enjoyed spending time with his family and friends.
Jodie and Chris gradually built a strong co-parenting relationship, which continued to strengthen even after they married new partners.