The sun hung high in the sky, undisturbed by merciful clouds, like an operating room light above an autopsy table. All around it beat pure blue heatwaves against the lush summer trees, ripe with fruit and pollen. When the air stilled, the weight of July bore down on my shoulders and scalp, making my skin slick with perspiration yet somehow agonizingly dry and itchy. I made a mental note to pick up sunscreen on the way home.
Jenna bounded back to me with chalk in hand, the flakes of pale periwinkle and rose drifting down onto her tan little legs like snow. Her cherubic face was painted with pure joy, and it was impossible not to smile back even as I swatted horseflies from my neck. She wordlessly handed me a stick of green and dropped to her knees to scribble enthusiastically at the driveway.
“What are you thinking for dinner, sweetheart?” I inquired as I traced light vines around her chalk flowers. I pinned her shiny back hair back from where it had gotten loose from her pigtails, gently poking her button nose, which quickly returned downward to focus on her Pollock impression.
“Pizza!” she cried, as if she already knew I was looking for an excuse not to cook — and likely burn something or myself — in her parents’ newly remodeled kitchen.
“Pizza it is then.”
Jenna’s tiny hands continued working details into the drawing. I had to admire her focus, though I wasn’t all that surprised. Being the daughter of two successful doctors had its benefits, not the least of which included this beautiful Venice-inspired home in a gated community. The enormous backyard boasted playsets that rivaled those at any McDonald’s playplace, fit with lush rose gardens that required tending at least three times a week. Unable to handle the physical toll of crawling through labyrinths of child-sized tunnels and unable to handle the emotional toll of picking thorns or bee stingers out of a baby’s palms, I usually allowed Jenna to play in the front yard with toys I’d brought from my summer camp gig — normal kid stuff, like sand pails and chalk and Skip-Its.
Inside the palatial suburban estate were rooms upon rooms containing priceless art and jewelry, with one large “enrichment area,” as her parents called it, containing all the trappings of a young protege: a violin custom-sized for a four-year-old, a baby grand piano, a canvas covered in fingerpaint, a ballet barre and slippers, and enough oversized stuffed animals to open a museum (which Jenna and I often pretended to do. We called it BearTown). No item that Jenna was allowed to touch had a value of any less than $1,000. Even her velcro denim shorts were designer — a fact I had to remind myself as I frantically dusted pigment off her little body and onto the pavement.
Not that her parents would be particularly upset if some of Jenna’s clothes required a trip to the cleaners; despite their astronomical wealth (at least relative to the area), Harry and Janet had always been laid-back and kind. Although they easily could have hired a more qualified nanny — perhaps one who could actually cook for their daughter — the middle-aged couple had chosen me to babysit a few times a week as a favor to my dad, who had been best friends with Harry since their high school days. I can’t remember a time that the parents had ever expressed displeasure with my work; after all, Jenna usually called the shots, and I just made sure she ate, did her homework, and went to bed at a reasonable hour. Even when I accidentally scratched Janet’s brand-new Mercedes, she only shrugged and said, “I wanted an Audi anyway.”
Between Jenna’s marbled daisies and my interwoven vines, the driveway’s new amalgamation of color rivaled a MoMa exhibit. She didn’t seem as bothered by the parade of mayflies and caterpillars marching over and around us, but something about watching their miniature legs churning on and on made me nauseous. I got to my feet, scooped up the toddler and balanced her on my hip, standing back to admire our work. “What do you think, babe?”
The little girl squirmed in my arms. Her hair smelled like strawberry baby shampoo and freshly-mowed grass. I blew another summer bug — an aphid, maybe — out of her face. Her chubby arms flailed against me as she struggled to get back to her drawing. “I’m not done!”
“You’re not done?”
“Okay, go finish.”
As I set down the excited child, a flash of blue and white caught my eye across the street. I glanced back to Jenna to ensure she was contentedly scribbling away, then I half-jogged to the object partially buried in the tall grass of the neighbor’s lawn. Sight and then touch confirmed that it was a rubber beach ball — one of those that seems to float forever when it gets picked up by the wind. Save for a small swarm of ants that I brushed off with the back of my hand, the ball looked mostly clean. It seemed to be freshly inflated; curious, considering that the neighbors didn’t have children and the street was quiet today. To my left and right were rows of Old Money houses with empty driveways; in some homes, small white dogs peeked through the windows with wistful expressions, watching as I returned back to the McKaney house with the blue and white ball tucked under my arm.
“Little Miss Jenna, look what I found!” I held the ball out to her before I’d even made it to the curb, and she scrambled to her feet to relay the ball from my grasp. I chuckled as she did; the ball was half her size, and her stout-yet-fragile frame disappeared as she held it up in front of her face. “Do you wanna play?”
Were it not for Jenna’s bouncing pigtails I scarcely could have seen her eager nodding. I volleyed the ball up from her grip, spiking it back toward the house. The air carried it a few feet to the left, and the little girl ran after it, sandals slapping against the rock garden, finally stopping as she caught it just before it hit the ground. I made a mental note to bring out the McKaney’s badminton set next week.
Giggling, Jenna cried “go get it!” as she tossed the ball into the air with all her might. Her eyes widened as the wind seemed to pluck it right out of the sky and carry it high and far. She clapped gleefully and pointed as it drifted all the way down the driveway, landing at the edge before rolling into the street. “Did you see that? I hit it so far! You didn’t get it that far!”
“I know, you’re so strong!” I shouted, reaching out for a high-five. She obliged and then sprinted down to collect the ball. “No Jenna, I’ll get it, stay out of the street.”
“I got it!”
“Jenna — ”
The wind hit me before the sound.
As if each of my senses were mutually exclusive and unable to function in tandem, my body reacted to the moment over what felt like several minutes. My hair flew back from my face and my nose caught the scent of gasoline. My skin prickled and I turned my head without direction, aimlessly seeking the source of the gush of heat and energy. Then the noise — hollow, somehow, but firm. Like a basketball filled with liquid cement. Steel, something snapping. Screeching. Guttural, yet raspy, like an injured dog. Wailing. Me? Was that sound coming from me?
The empty street and the sun directly overhead set the stage; front and center, dark pigtails over a pink lace tunic and size 4T jean shorts, a pool of dark red soaking them through. A small, silent Ophelia, sleeping face-down on the asphalt under a blanket of burnt rubber and tire debris.
My legs sunk through the ground into the Earth’s core and my stomach fought its way up my esophagus. I choked on it while focusing on trying to keep my teeth in my mouth. I feared that if I unclenched my jaw, my body would unravel and dismantle into nothing but my hands, which were still outstretched toward the now-vanished rubber ball. A fat black fly crawled over one of my knuckles, beating its wings, sucking the sweat off my burning skin.