For this week’s Writer’s Workshop (go see Kathy at Mama’s Losin’ It for the details), I chose the prompt:
Tell us about that time at the playground when that thing happened…
It was summer. I was 8-years-old. My world was filled with jacks and jump ropes, Mr. Softee chocolate cones (with chocolate sprinkles), and Bye-bye Miss American Pie sung at the top of my lungs while swinging so high, the swing chains buckled. Puff the Magic Dragon was simply little Jackie Paper’s imaginary friend and the worst thing that had ever happened to me was the chicken pox. Life was good. I was innocent… safe... invincible. And part of every summer day was spent at the Tappan Street playground with my friends.
The day the thing happened was, for the most part, the same as every other summer day. After a long, hard play in the sun, my friend Joette and I were heading home. We’d stopped at the playground gate to read our Bazooka wrappers, each of us chewing a big wad of pink, sticky goodness fast and furiously, to see who could blow the biggest bubble first.
We were sharing our comics when we heard screams from up the street. Looking left, we saw a car coming down the hill, two girls running behind, waving frantically and screaming, “STOP! STOP!” I recognized both of them, as they lived at the top of our hill. They were sisters, one much older than the other. The younger one, half of a set of twins, was a year behind me in school. I didn’t know their names, as we didn’t run in the same circles and the twins didn’t go to my school, attending, instead, one of the Catholic schools in our neighborhood. They and their friends at the top of the hill were not especially nice and Joette and I didn’t like them much. But we were curious about what was going on and why one of the twins and her older sister were chasing after the car.
The car came to a stop at the light in front of the playground and the older sister ran to the driver’s window, still screaming. She reached in and started pummelling and pulling at the driver, as if to yank him through the open window. We were stunned by her behavior, as was the crowd of kids that had formed around us, watching the spectacle.
Then I realized why she was so upset. At the back of the car, the younger sister had flung herself to the ground. She was on her belly, reaching for something under the car. Beside her, I could see an arm, clad in a plaster cast, protruding from behind the rear tire. I remembered one of the twins had broken her arm and had been wearing a cast the last time I’d seen her.
We all stood, watching in horror as the police and ambulance quickly arrived, sirens blaring. Parents ran out of nearby houses and stood with us, watching anxiously as the girls were pulled away from the car, sobbing inconsolably, and the driver was put in the back of a police cruiser. The grown-ups were talking around us and snippets of the story floated down…
“Hit and run…”
“Caught under the car…”
“Dragged down the hill…”
It eventually became clear that the twin with the broken arm had run into the street while chasing a ball, and had been hit by the car. The driver claimed he didn’t realize he’d hit her and, as such, didn’t stop. He’d actually driven over her as she lay in the street and, caught on the car’s under-carriage, she was dragged down the hill.
Then she died.
That little girl – one half of a set of twins, a cast on her arm – died. Right there on the street in front of us… right in front of the playground; the place where we spent long, sunny summer days; the place where life was good; the place where we were innocent, safe, and invincible… she died.
She was 7-years-old and one of us, even though we didn’t play together or even like her very much. She was one of the children who ran in our neighborhood; who played the same games we did; who bought ice cream from the same truck and read the same Bazooka Joe comics; who sang the same songs... one of us.
The summer went on, as summers do, but life changed that day at the playground… for all of us. We still played jacks and jumped rope. We still ate ice cream and blew big, pink Bazooka bubbles. We still sang while flying high on the swings. But it was different. Just a little bit. It was in the air. It was in us. Because, whether we realized it or not, a little bit of our innocence, our safety, and our invincibility died with that little girl that day…
… the day that thing happened at the playground.