It takes all of her strength and might to push the obstinate door open wide enough to slip out of the faded, dingy apartment building. The heavy glass immediately thunks closed behind her, sealing the building’s interior and occupants away from the outside world. This had once been a grand entrance with a canopy and a doorman. Now the canopy is only rusting iron ribs and the doorman has been gone for decades. The glass window next to the door appears to be decoratively etched. Upon closer inspection though, it is a spiderweb of cracks radiating from the bullet hole in the corner. The bricked flower boxes flanking the door, where seasonal foliage bloomed in days gone by, now is sown with cigarette butts, empty bottles, plastic bags, a lost or abandoned dolly with tangled hair and a dirty, scratched up face. The rubbish and debris cast off by the human detritus who inhabit the building and nearby streets.
The girl, slender in frame, pushes a tangle of hair behind her ears. At least it isn’t windy, just breezy. She had rushed out of the apartment without her jacket. Her tennis shoes are ragged and have very little tread left. Her pants may have fit in the fall, but are about 2 inches too short now, as April is turning the calendar page for May. Frowning, she hesitates for only a moment, looking right before heading down the sidewalk to the left. She walks with purpose. It is late afternoon. As she clears the edge of the building and departs its oppressive shadows, she reaches the sunlight. Her worried face relaxes ever so slightly. She reflexively slows her steps, turning her face to absorb the sun’s last rays as it continues its journey west. West toward Seattle and Portland she had learned in geography that day. She briefly ponders a life in Seattle or Portland, but those places are too far away and too foreign for her to make a clear picture of that life in her mind. She rapidly abandons this train of thought. Time is too precious to waste on vague daydreams.
Instead, she shifts focus to her immediate surroundings. The route she has chosen will take her through the park. She’ll have to hurry because it is the long way, but she is deliberately sacrificing distance in favor of the scenic route today. One block over from her doorway, the buildings already seem more cheerful with fresher paint, colorful window displays and groomed shrubs sporting a few new blooms.
Her attention is drawn by a small tan and white dog. No. It is a puppy! He’s yapping excitedly and bouncing, pulling, urging his owner lady to walk faster. Hurrying her toward the park. The pretty lady, whose nails match the puppy's scarlet leash, patiently calls him back and tries to convince him to calm down, but he is determined to get to the running place. Laughing at his adorable antics, the lady gives up the training lesson and lifts the puppy off the ground. Kissing him, and still laughing at his wet puppy tongue, she carries him down the path to the dog park area, away from the girl. Puppies are so cute. Some day she is going to have a puppy of her own and she will take him to the dog park every day if he wants.
As the girl steps onto the boardwalk that surrounds the pond, she is hoping to see her pets. At least, they are as close to pets as she will have for the foreseeable future. She peers around the pond shore near the swamp grass that hangs over the water. Yes! They are here. Flossie duck and her 11, as yet unnamed, ducklings. The ducks take notice of their human guardian and begin their cruise across the water toward her. Guilt washes over her. There hadn’t even been a stale cracker to swipe at home to crumble for the babes. How could she have come here with no food for her wards? She feels selfish and helpless, even as her heart melts watching the mama and her brood paddle toward her. She begins to count, holding her breath until she reaches eleven. She allows herself to inhale. They all made it through the night. One more day of survival. With each day, the chance improves for them to reach adulthood. They will be able to fly south, away from here, before the snows return. Perhaps. Just maybe, there is reason for hope. The girl tries hoping to see what it feels like, while the duck family swims in small circles, practicing underwater head dunks. Hope feels like a tiny warm light in the center of her chest, but it is so difficult to make that light brighter or more significant.
When Mama Flossie realizes there are no crumbs to be shared today, she rounds up her bobbing balls of yellow fluff and starts meandering back to the safety of the swamp grass playpen. She quacks farewell over her shoulder. Or did she say, “Forget you!”? The girl watches for a minute more as the ducklings line up behind their matriarch and glide away in the wake of her tail feathers. The girl’s feelings are mixed. Happy to see the floating family is intact but sad she had let them down by failing to provide nourishment.
These thoughts stay with her as she continues past the pond to the grassy open area of the park. A shadow passes before her on the ground, too big for a bird. She looks up to see a green and purple dragon flying back and forth in the breeze. A tail of shimmering silver ribbons whips behind the beast. Her eyes travel down the string tethering the dragon to a boy of about 6. He is tugging mightily on the kite to make it dance in the breeze. His mother and father are reclining comfortably on a blanket nearby, watching the dragon careen and cavort in the sky. As the mother shifts to her other hip, it becomes apparent that the boy will soon be sharing his kite, his parents and his very existence with a new brother or sister.
The girl sighs. She had carefully been collecting the happy, warm images of puppies and ducklings and dancing dragons to feed the kernel of hope in her chest. Now, in an instant, all the curated visions are propelled away by the whoosh of reality as it crashes back into her mind with an almost physical impact. Her shoulders sag and the frown reappears. She turns and exits the little neighborhood park. There is no use in dawdling any more. She must complete her errand.
A siren wails in the distance. Maybe a block or 2 over, but it is in the direction she is heading. She was already hurrying, but now she steps even quicker, goaded by both the siren and the lengthening shadows. It isn’t fully dark yet, but most of the buildings on this street are either closed businesses or completely abandoned. The recessed entries are gloomy and menacing. She moves her path from the center of the sidewalk closer to the street; away from the imagined skeletal zombie hands reaching for her.
Momentary relief swells in her as she turns the corner and recognizable signs of civilization start to materialize. Blinking OPEN signs advertise the pool hall and the massage parlor. There is a noisy gaggle of boys hanging out on a stoop across the street. As she passes the 7-11, an old man in a pink skirt and plaid flannel jacket rasps a request for change. Her hand goes to her pocket, even as she shakes her head, no. The bill is still there. Her relief recedes. Resolution moves in to take its place.
She crosses the street and strides into the Rite-Aid store, proceeding directly to the aisle strategically hidden at the back of the store so unsuspecting patrons will not have their sheltered senses sullied by the sight of these products when they come in to buy Tylenol or magazines. She walks past the brightly colored packages of Always, Kotex, Tampax. Past the condoms and spermicidal concoctions. Too late for any of those now. She stops, spending a few minutes to consider the options. She is an experienced shopper and knows that “sale” items are not always the best buy. She also knows name brands are overrated, but in this case, it’s important to get something reliable. Finally, she selects the store brand and marches over to the cashier at the front of the store. She places the pink box and the ten-dollar bill from her pocket on the counter. She looks the cashier in the eye, almost defiantly, daring him to sass or admonish her. The cashier, however, doesn’t even seem to register that there is a person making the purchase. He mechanically scans the box barcode and asks the air in front of him, “Any coupons?”. Disbelieving and wary of his non-reaction, she mumbles, “No,” and holds out her hand to receive 87 cents change.
As she exits the store, she glances wistfully at the display of cheap paper kites, remembering the amethyst and emerald silk dragon. 87 cents won't even cover the cheap one. She pockets the change. Back on the sidewalk, she heads left again. Feeling the need to hurry, but unable to make her feet cooperate. There would soon be questions as to what took her so long, but she just needs to breathe a little more air. Air, free from the responsibilities that will quickly be returned to her shoulders when she gets back to the overcrowded apartment. The worn-out shoes, little more than scraps of canvas and rubber, yet so burdensome to move, carry the worn-out girl back to the worn-out apartment building where her journey had started.
She pauses one last time. She still has 6 flights of stairs to climb to deliver this pink box to her mother. When it was all said and done, there would be 2 pink lines and in 6-7 months there would be another mouth to feed. Likely there would be months of screaming while the little body detoxes. There were already 3 little sisters up there. 2 were still in soggy Pampers. She would never get to have a puppy or experience flying a dragon kite while her adoring parents watch her. The ducklings would fly south and forget about her. No need to think or learn about Seattle or Portland. Those places are completely unreachable for her, even in her imagination. She is 12 years old and the only future she can see is raising her mother’s babies while her mother is out getting high or trying to score.
She gathers what is left of her strength. Arms straining, she inches the massive, unyielding portal open and squeezes inside. The heavy door thunks, sucking her into the unlit hallway, immediately invisible to the street. The abandoned dolly stares at the empty sidewalk.