The rubber ball made a hollow thwacking sound as it left the girl’s hand and bounced down to the pavement – up, slap of the palm, down, thwack. Around her the shouts of other children echoed across the playground, shrieks and squeals ringing in between metal monkey bars and the four-foot long fireman’s pole, punctuated occasionally by the reprimanding whistle of a camp counselor. The hot Georgia sun of a late summer day baked the ground.
Furrowing her right eyebrow and chewing her bottom lip, the girl bounced the ball directly inside the square of concrete in front of her. Thwack thwack. Too close to the line in the pavement. She shifted her body slightly, angling her hand to keep the ball bouncing while she moved.
Whoom. Something more forceful than wind zoomed past her left ear, landing with a defiant rustling of branches in the copse of bushes and trees beyond the playground. The girl looked over to where it came from, a loose gaggle of sweaty red-faced boys and girls. Their mouths were open as if they couldn’t believe where their ball had gone.
“I’ll geddit,” the girl offered. She looked down at the ball in her own hands – blue, rubbery, bits of gravel sticking to it – and tossed it towards them. A boy with spiky sweat-dried hair caught it, looking kind of amazed, before uttering a quick “Thanks!” and turning back to his friends.
While they resumed their play, the girl trotted over to the trees and bushes. There was an opening in the fence that bordered the playground, and through the crack – wide enough for a ball to fit through – peeked out a flash of neon yellow.
The girl stole a glance over her shoulder. The kids who had lost their ball were now running in circles, chasing each other and squealing, with her ball in between them. The counselor standing at the far edge of the playground next to the monkey bars was watching, with a concerned frown, the brave souls who dared venture across the six horizontal rungs.
The girl took a tentative step forward. The shade of the overhanging trees swallowed her as she crept through the fence opening. It was too easy – she didn’t even have to turn sideways to slip through – and suddenly she found herself in a grassy backyard. It was medium-sized, with a deck not too far away and a propped-open screen door. Attached to the deck was a ramp of some sort, wooden and makeshift. And sitting at the bottom of the ramp was a boy in a wheelchair, made to look smaller in being consumed by the large, black, metal chair. His face was pale and bony, as was the rest of his small body so that he looked like a doll, but his inquisitive scrunched-up eyes had enough fire in them to make the girl pause.
“Hello,” the boy said, his eyes making his tone difficult to discern.
The girl felt frozen in place, felt sweat dripping down her neck. “Hello,” she replied. He kept looking at her, so she added, “I – I just came to get my ball. Well, it’s my friends’ ball.” She noticed the yellow sphere nestled primly in the grass to her right, a mere few feet away. Her eyes darted to it but her feet made no move.
The boy said, “Y’all need to stop throwing your ball over here. My mama’s getting tired of throwing it back.” But there was a mischievous gleam in his eye.
The girl relaxed slightly. She pawed the grass with the toe of her flip-flop. “Sorry ‘bout that. Our counselors always tell us to be careful about where we throw the ball, but sometimes we don’t listen.”
The boy shrugged his bony shoulders, and for the first time she realized his delicateness.
“Say, where is your mama?”
“In the house,” he said, and she looked towards the propped-open screen door. “She’s getting me some water but she’ll be right back out.”
“We-ell,” the girl said, suddenly feeling shy again, “I should be going.” She stooped down to pick up the ball, dimly surprised by how light it was in her hands. She straightened up and stared at him.
He brushed some invisible lint off his shirt. She noticed he was wearing long sleeves and the sight made her sweat even more.
“Why ain’t you wearing a T-shirt? I’m sweating buckets out here.”
“My mama said it’s to protect me from the sun. I don’t spend a lotta time outdoors, and sunscreen’ll just irritate my skin.”
“What’s your mama like?” What are you like?
The boy closed his eyes and let a little smile creep across his face. “She’s the best mama,” he said. “She used to read me stories when I was littler to keep the monsters away.” He peeked open one eye to look at her, as if waiting for her judgement on his previous belief in monsters, before closing his eyes again, satisfied. “She don’t tell me stories no more, but she still tells me about Jesus. And she said Jesus is the best protector of all.”
The girl wrinkled her nose a little, glad the boy couldn’t see her with his eyes closed. “Jesus?” she echoed.
He nodded. “Yeah. My mama always says Jesus will protect me. No matter what happens, Jesus will protect me.”
Beyond the fence there was a shrill whistle blowing, a counselor calling out, “Line up! Line up!”
The girl clutched the yellow ball tighter, backing away towards the fence while keeping her eyes on the boy. “Tell your mama I said hi then. She sounds like a lovely mama.”
“I will,” the boy said. “Come back and visit again, ya hear?”
That day was a Friday. Two days later, Sunday, the girl was fixing herself a bowl of Lucky Charms at home. Late morning sunlight poured into the kitchen in great shafts, illuminating her mother who was reading the newspaper at the table. Her father was making eggs.
“Oh my goodness,” her mother said.
Her father looked up from where he was cracking an egg. “Something interesting?”
“The Robinsons’ little boy passed away,” her mother said. “Just yesterday. They’re having the wake in a few days and the funeral next week.”
“Does it say what happened?”
“He had cancer for a while and was wheelchair-bound, but I thought he was recovering,” her mother said. “I ran into his mom a few times in Wal-Mart. It sounded like things were getting better for them.”
“That’s a shame,” her father said, whisking the egg yolk now. “A real shame.”
“We should go to the wake,” her mother said.
The girl left the kitchen, leaving behind her Lucky Charms drowning in a lake of milk, and went to her room. She knelt beside her bed and gingerly rested her forehead on her clasped hands, the way she’d seen it done in movies and in pictures. She didn’t know what she was supposed to do or say, or even if she was meant to feel anything. But then she pictured the boy sitting in the sun, this time wearing a short-sleeved shirt with warm rays on his pale skin, and she felt a soft glow in her chest. She closed her eyes and pressed her forehead against her hands. Dear Jesus …