by Jason Howell
The little girl reclined in the grass, propped up on her elbows and tilting her face to the late morning sky. She watched the blood-red stars spinning in the black behind her eyelids and soaked the July sunshine into her forehead and cheeks. Drowsing, daydreams becoming shapeless as they ambled toward real dreaming, her lips parted with a soft click. She felt blades of grass caress the sides of her hands and broken blades scratch and poke into the tiny caves made where her fingers joined her palm. She felt ants and other insects thrum under and over her fingertips. The breeze carried the smell of the beach as well as the faint crash of an incoming tide rushing to embrace the shore and then, fainter still, tearing away with the regretful sound of water retreating from sand.
With her eyes shut, the little girl could picture the creatures of the ocean, far out and away from the land and slowly, slowly flying down where the water was shock-cold, dark and still. She imagined they sang to each other and moved through the water like clouds through the sky or trees reaching for the heavens—so gradual you would have to watch for a long time to notice they moved at all. Whales, whale sharks—things much bigger than her, she knew—although, with the honest and naïve skepticism of someone who had only been alive a few years, she only half-believed any living thing could be so big. In fact, she had only recently accepted that anything (greater or smaller) really existed outside of herself and the world she knew: these bungalow apartments with their red tile roofs and morning glory vines covering almost every east-facing wall; the apartments’ playground with its half-foot of woodchips, held in by a short plastic wall, that smelled woodsy and green after it rained; the grassy slope next to the playground upon which she sat; the sky overhead; the sun when it shone; the moon when it reflected that shining.
The little girl lowered her chin to her chest and pretended with no one that her eyes were still shut as she peeked through slit lids and spied the miniature monkey-bars, a brightly colored half-circle of metal poles welded to metal rungs growing out of the woodchips. It always looked like a bent ladder to her—but bending backwards to show off or bending over protectively, possessively, she could not decide.
Pad, pad, pad. Footsteps. On the pavement. Miss Hunter and her boys, Josh and Candler, trotting to their tiny car, heads down. They had taken their shoes off. Miss Hunter shuffled as best she could in her sock-feet; arms that supported a duffle bag on the left and a frayed Spider-Man backpack on the right hovered over the boys’ heads so that she looked like a pheasant covering its chicks as they ran through the forest.
The little girl pushed herself up. In her excitement, she stepped on the monkey bars to reach her toys before they could drive away.
With a blanched but stony expression, Miss Hunter watched the little girl rise. Her older boy was just climbing into the backseat as she picked up the younger and shoved him after his sibling, still watching the advancing horror. Miss Hunter slid into the driver’s seat and shut her door as the little girl made it to the car. The girl waited for a moment, indecisive, but once the engine fired she fell on the vehicle, her knees on the pavement, hugging the roof to her chest. Glass and metal whined and crunched.
The little girl repositioned herself by degrees, always keeping one hand on the hood, her nails hooked carefully into the space where the wiper-blades rested. Still holding on, she scooted over to the walkway dividing the playground and the parking lot then carefully switched hands to allow her to sit on the narrow sidewalk. She hiked one bare foot onto the front bumper, catching her heel there. She tucked the front of her dress between her knees in unconscious modesty. She sat; she waited. The boys screamed.
When Miss Hunter tried to drive backwards, the little girl pulled the car toward her with her foot; when Miss Hunter revved the engine and tried to run into her, the little girl pushed back with both feet. She listened to the tires skid and the motor strain. She wiggled her toes at the occupants of the car through a windshield turned gray with a spider web of cracks. The neighbors watched from their boarded apartment windows.
Something in the vehicle broke with a pop and the ringing smack of unseen metal striking metal. The engine continued to heave a drawn-out retch but the front wheels no longer turned. The little girl withdrew her heel from the bumper and crawled, hands and knees, around the side of the car. First the crown of her blonde head, then her pale, sandy eyebrows and finally her emerald eyes filled the back window. Those eyes sent a picture of two wailing boys, upside down, to her brain. That brain was clever—and even more to its owner’s advantage, patient in its own stubbornness.
The little girl picked up the car, one hand squeezing the bumper, the other clawing into the groove of the trunk-handle, and shook. She shook the car up and down, slowly at first, then faster, bouncing on her toes. Then she opened her hands, careful to let the car land right-side up, careful not to let the tires catch her sun-burnt feet. Instead, two of the tires exploded. The little girl sat on the pavement a few steps away and waited, then returned, gripped the vehicle and repeated the shaking. Then she took a few steps back, a little further this time, and, catching her breath, waited some more.
After the third or fourth shaking, as the little girl took her seat on the ground at a calculated distance, the driver’s door creaked open and Miss Hunter struggled out, supporting herself in the V made by the top of her door and the partially caved-in roof. Gritting her teeth and bobbing with her whole upper body, the woman prepared to push herself away from the car, to give herself all the momentum she could gather. The little girl rose. Miss Hunter shoved off and staggered across the parking lot. She did not run because her left leg now bent sharply away from her center of balance. She had told the boys to get out of the opposite side of the car once the monster ran past and flee back to their apartment, the door to which their mother had left unlocked before they had packed and ventured out, in case events turned out just as they had. But the boys did not move from the car.
The little girl picked up the wobbly Miss Hunter by the waist and bit her head off. She dropped the body and spit the head into her palm, rolling it gently between her fingers—the eyelids blinked rapidly, like a stunned bee trying to flutter its wings back into normal flight—before tucking the head into a pocket on the side of her dress. Then she sauntered back to the car, swinging her arms in time with a made-up song she hummed. She yawned towards the sky, stretched, then reached into the open door, searching for Josh and Candler. She was a little sweet on Candler. After he stopped moving, even when she wasn’t poking or squeezing him, she buried him in the wood-chips of the playground, under the slide.
Then there wasn’t much going on so the little girl wiped her hands on her dress and reclined in the grass, leaning back on her elbows and tilting her head up to the wide, pale blue. She closed her eyes and felt the sun shining on her face.