The girl flew over the handlebars while the boy who loved her stood still. It was the girl’s birthday and now she was going to die. The neighbor man who had seen the accident through his kitchen window and called for the rescue stood behind the boy and asked questions. Every now and then he put a hand on the boy’s head and let it sit there, allowing the boy to absorb the fortitude of adulthood.
“Was she startled by something?” the neighbor said. “Did a stick get caught in her tires?”
The boy shook his head. The girl had been riding along and the boy had been running beside her. They were on their way to the bakery to meet the girl’s mother who had bought cupcakes for the birthday party. The boy, whose name was Simon and who had loved the girl, Ella, since she moved into the neighborhood a year ago, wanted to hold the girl’s hand — it looked cold there lying flat like a dark fish in the sun–but the man had told him not to touch the girl because he might hurt her further. The girl’s lower leg bent the wrong way from her knee, and blood from her head leaked everywhere on the pavement. The boy was reminded of pictures he saw on the news from the war. He always hoped to see his brother’s face in the corner of the television, his shorn head capped by a helmet and strapped under the chin, but his mother always walked in and turned his head away from the set with hands that smelled like baby powder. Sometimes, when his mother wasn’t around, Simon talked to the photograph of his brother, the one with the two boys and their father at the state fair with berry-stained teeth. Now Simon talked to Ella, the girl he loved. He didn’t ask the neighbor’s permission to do this.
“It’s not your fault,” he said. “You’re a better bike rider than anyone. That’s why I never want to race you. Because you’re so good.”
The neighbor walked in one direction then turned around and retraced his steps. He pressed his palms to his forehead. “I don’t understand,” he said. “They just paved this road. This is a safe neighborhood. No one gets hurt here.”
Simon wished the man would stop talking. It was best for Ella to hear only one voice, only his. He said now, more loudly, to be heard over the neighbor’s chatter, “I love you, Ella. Especially your hair.” Simon thought of Ella’s parents — her mother, who tied Ella’s hair into tiny braids every week, and her father, who came home from the high school every day at 3:30 and always looked surprised to see another family’s child in his living room.
When the ambulance arrived, a chubby red-haired man and a skinny black woman jumped out —like me and Ella! Simon thought, except his own hair was tree-bark brown. The man and the woman opened the back doors of the ambulance, and Simon glimpsed rows of white boxes and plastic packages. A few red lights blinked as if trying to send him a message. But the floor back there was dirty: a soda can on its side and a sleeve smeared with something brown. They couldn’t put Ella in there. He thought of fetching a plastic sheet from his garage, but he was afraid the ambulance would take Ella away while he was gone.
The man and woman lifted and cradled and straightened and wrapped different parts of Ella’s body. They talked to each other, but not to Ella. Ella needed attention! She wasn’t used to being alone. Simon was always with her. But Simon knew, too, that these were good people, and they would try to save Ella, so he backed away from her body and let the mismatched couple handle her.
But he didn’t want Ella to be scared. He wanted her to continue to hear the sound of his voice. His father told him to go ahead and talk out loud to his brother, even if Charles might not hear him, being so far away. But Simon could think now of nothing to say to his friend but her name. “Ella,” he said. “Ella.” He was singing now. He sang “Happy Birthday,” finishing, “Happy birthday dear El-la, happy birthday to you.” And many morehe heard in a deep voice in his head, the voice of his father, who always added this to the end of the song. Except his father no longer sang.
The adults loaded Ella into the back of the ambulance as if sliding a hot dog and bun into its paper sleeve, the way they served them at the fair. Simon’s feet followed her until his shoulders lodged between the ambulance doors. Following Ella was his natural inclination. Even when they walked together, Simon had the feeling Ella was leading and he was simply going along. He trusted she would lead them someplace fun, like the swings, or someplace where there was delicious food to eat, like the diner on the avenue where Ella’s mother worked. At the diner they sat at a tiny slice of table in the corner on tiny stools and shared fried eggs or pea soup or charred toast. The older kids sat in the big booths with cushions. Before he went away, Simon’s brother Charles used to sit there with his friends. Eating pancakes and laughing.
“Sorry, little man,” said the redhead. “You can’t come. Your neighbor here will take you home—or to the hospital if you want.” The redhead looked skeptical. Simon could tell the man didn’t understand. No one understood what it was like with him and Ella.
It was like finding a lucky penny and then keeping that penny in your pocket always; taking the penny out often to rub its surface with his fingers. This penny was more valuable than a hundred ugly quarters.
The ambulance man said to the neighbor, “Have the girl’s parents been contacted?”
The neighbor shook his head. “I don’t even know their last name.”
Simon knew. He spelled it now for them. “O-K-A-F-U-R. Okafur.” Simon didn’t know where Ella and her family had lived before moving to his neighborhood. They had met on the sidewalk the first day of school. They were in the same class. The only thing Ella didn’t know about Simon was his brother. By the time she came, Charles was already gone.
The men, the redhead and the neighbor, hadn’t listened to Simon when he spelled her name, so he said it again. Still no one looked, and he jumped up and shouted the letters, spelled over and over until the sounds jumbled and he got a noise headache. His father often had headaches. Sometimes he even stayed home from work, lying on the couch and watching the television news while Simon’s mother was at her job. Simon offered to rub his father’s temples, but his father told him it wasn’t that kind of pain.
The neighbor looked at Simon. “Where do you live, son? I should take you home.” For the first time the boy looked familiar. Something about the long nose and the brown eyes set far apart like an owl. The boy scratched the back of one knee. Now the other. His body was tense and did not look like it would willingly leave the scene of the accident.
Simon couldn’t go home. Not when Ella was going to the hospital. “No!” he said. Usually he didn’t like to yell, but today, right now, it felt good. “Mrs. Okafur!” he said. “She’s at the bakery!” Ella’s mother was waiting for them.
The man, who had been keeping his attention on the girl and the machines that were monitoring her, on the woman cleaning the blood from the girl’s head, thought the boy must be talking now about his babysitter. It was a summer Tuesday, and surely the boy’s parents were at work. He said to Simon, “I’m sure she won’t be at the bakery long. And you need to be home when she returns or she’ll be worried.”
Simon had turned his attention away from the ambulance workers for just a moment to listen to the neighbor—it was polite to look at adults when they were talking to you—but in that tiny moment, as small and shocking as the instant when Ella flew over the handlebars, which now felt like yesterday or last week, the ambulance engine had started and it was pulling away.
“Wait!” Simon called. The ambulance blazed red and blue lights. Simon wished he had put a sign on the side of the ambulance that said Ella Inside so anyone who passed would know what had happened. Their hearts would go out to her.
When the ambulance didn’t stop for him, his legs uncorked into a run. He ran faster than when he was keeping Ella company on her bike. Faster than racing his brother along the river the day before his brother left. So fast and hard he thought his head would pop. Simon ran several blocks and reached the end of the street in time to see the lights whirl around the corner of the old post office, where his mother used to work when Charles was still at home, before she started selling houses. Simon’s breath surged inside him like the exploding volcanoes they made in science class. Simon had made a good one, but his father had not liked watching the explosion.
The bakery. Did he remember how to get there?
Simon wore a plastic watch with Marvin the Magician arms. His mother had given him this watch so he would never be late coming home from school. Once his mother had cried when he was late. Simon and Ella were supposed to meet her mother at the bakery at 12:30, to pick up the birthday cupcakes. Now it was one o’clock. Mrs. Okafur seemed like a woman who didn’t get scared, but Simon knew that parents worried when their children didn’t come home.
Simon darted down some back alleys, shortcuts to the avenue. But what he couldn’t remember was if he should turn left or right once he got to the avenue. He wished he had his brother’s compass. His brother had told him that with a compass you are never lost, no matter where in the world, no matter what strange faces or mountains or woods surround you. His brother had written that in a letter. Simon had received a total of five letters from his brother, but only one of them, the most recent, was foreign. It was from Pvt. Sweeney. His father had explained that the army gave people special first names. Charles’s first four letters had come from Georgia, and because his family had gone there on vacation Simon did not consider those letters special. His father had broken the handle off a coffee mug when he found out that Simon had thrown the Georgia letters out.
Panting, Simon reached the avenue. Ella would be proud of how quickly he had found his way, skirting dumpsters and barking dogs. Hands on his knees, Simon threw up. Which way to turn?
Shit. Shit shit shit. The neighbor was at a stop sign. Which way had the boy gone? The last he had seen of the striped shirt was its flash down a narrow alley, the boy swerving into a comma to avoid an abandoned tricycle. At the next corner he saw a young mother pushing a stroller. What a wide ass. She wore bright green sneakers and, on her elbow, a star tattoo. As the neighbor slowed to the curb, the mother peered nervously over her shoulder. She chewed on her hair. He waved and beckoned and rolled down the passenger window. “Miss? Miss?” Was that what you called young women these days? Even women like her?
“Please,” he said, “Just a question. Have you seen a boy…”
But the woman quickened her step.
The neighbor called again, growing insistent, and then, without any warning, the woman abandoned the stroller and took off. The neighbor braked hard. Shoved the car into park and jumped out. “Hey! Your baby!” He heard a trashcan crashing over as the mother ran away. In the stroller, there was no baby. He snorted.
But the boy…how would he find him? The neighbor grew agitated, his palms sticky. He shouted, “I don’t care about your crime! I need to find that boy!” He paused, saying more softly now, “Have you seen a boy?” Somehow he believed his words of concern would bring the woman back or make another person appear, someone who could help him find the boy. But the streets were empty. No one perched on the front steps. No music throbbed from open-windowed cars. He had crashed into a forgotten neighborhood. Unlike his own and the boy’s and the little girl’s, which remained preserved and well cared for, this strip near the old post office, where there had once been a TV factory, had gone to shit.
The midday sun had disappeared and the neighbor now felt the cool of an overhead clump of clouds. The air was moist. It was about to rain.
He focused his mind on the boy’s image, his curiously familiar owl face and pudgy freckled arms. As his car cruised forward, the neighbor remembered a few other details. A pair of plastic sunglasses had popped out of the boy’s shorts when he knelt on the ground near the injured girl. The girl had been wearing a blue dress. The ambulance was from St. Mark’s Hospital. The boy had told him his babysitter was going to the bakery.
The boy stuck his nose in the air like a dog nuzzling the moon and tried to smell cupcakes. But all he smelled was rain. Browning leaves and wet city road. A fat drop found its way down his throat where it stuck and made him cough. He sped forward, thinking to outrun the rain. But the clouds did not care about him. They gathered up thick as oatmeal and roared with thunder. His arms were now slick and his sneakers soggy. If Ella was here they would tie their ankles together and jump across puddles. Once after a rainstorm, many months ago, while his brother was still in Georgia, Simon dripped into the house with plastered hair and his father had asked him why he spent so much time with Ella.
Simon’s father expected him to think before he spoke, so the boy took a moment before answering, “She knows things I don’t know. Ella knows how to have fun.” He squinted at his father and said, “Why do you spend so much time with Mom?”
“But you weren’t always. You weren’t born married.”
Simon hadn’t meant to make his father laugh, but it pleased him that the tight quiet face split into a smile. His father’s laugh was like the rapid breathing of a bunny he held once at school. Simon thought his father would keep smiling if he kept talking, so Simon said, “Ella and I could get married.”
The laugh disappeared. The bunny jumped out of his embrace.
His father opened his arms to Simon. “You should never grow up.”
“Is Charles grown-up?” Now Simon was the bunny, held tight to his father’s chest.
“You should write Charles a letter,” his father said.
That’s what his father said whenever Simon mentioned his brother. But Simon thought Charles was probably sick of his letters, the way he used to get sick of Simon when he would hang around his room touching things and asking questions. “Charles needs his privacy,” he’d said, imitating.
His father released him. “You should spend more time thinking about your brother and less with your little girlfriend. She bosses you around.” Hop along, little bunny.
The girls at school said Ella was bossy, but Simon didn’t care. He loved her. He didn’t mind being told what to do because he often didn’t know what he wanted.
Simon looked around now for landmarks. Across the street was a furniture store with a big white marshmallow couch in the window. They would never have that couch in his house. White showed dirt. But how nice Ella’s family would look lined up on that couch for a portrait. Skin shining black in the camera flash. Not that Ella’s family was the kind to sit still for a picture. They were always bustling around, doing things—opening windows, hanging laundry, banging wood together in the garage. Unlike Simon’s own home, which was still and trapped the air inside.
Simon looked at his watch. So late. Ella’s mother would be sitting by now, tired of waiting for them. Maybe angry. Fingers tightening around the braids in her hair.
A lightning bolt struck down across the street. The air snapped. Three red cars in a row sped by.
Ella would be at the hospital by now. In his mind, Simon saw the ambulance racing through the streets and screeching to a stop outside the emergency room. But once she disappeared between the sliding glass doors he couldn’t see her anymore. He couldn’t imagine what they were doing to her in there. He tried to see many helpful, purposeful people like the ones who came in the ambulance, but they didn’t fit with the quiet whiteness of the hospital room. White sheets, white bed, white walls. And Ella in her blood-stained blue dress.
Then a blue and white wall rushed him from underneath a car. It was not the wet that surprised him–he was already drenched to his underwear—but the suddenness. Like how Ella was suddenly not on the bike but flat on the ground; her body had twitched then gone still.
The door of the car that had splashed him opened. “Get in!” said the neighbor, his face red and straining.
Simon squished onto the seat and water poured down his legs. He opened his mouth but found the rain had washed away his voice.
“I know, I know, the bakery,” the neighbor said.
Outside the bakery, the rain had stopped. The neighbor used to take his niece to this bakery when she was young, back when his sister lived in the neighborhood. In the window was the same sign he remembered from fifteen years ago: Baked Fresh on Premises Daily. Couldn’t possibly be the same owners now, the Portuguese couple already wrinkled as puppies back then. The black type on the sign had faded to gray and the pink paint on the door flaked, but there was a feel of sharp effort about the place. The windows scrubbed perfectly clear inside and out.
Now that they were here, the neighbor tensed. He knew the tragedy of what had happened today, and he dreaded conveying that news to another adult. It occurred to him that the boy’s babysitter would have given up and gone home, and this imagined reprieve relieved him. He turned off the motor and looked at the sleeping boy. Head conked against the window and breathing fitfully through his mouth. Body slumped in exhaustion.
Usually he didn’t involve himself with the neighbors, but the suddenness of the accident, and the amount of blood, the young age of the kids—he couldn’t have stood by. The boy’s familiarity—the neighbor must know the boy’s parents—had compelled the man to stay with him, to help how he could.
A face appeared in the bakery window. White hair piled up into a top knot, large lenses framed in black. Mrs. Da Silva. After all these years.
He would begin by buying something. A loaf of bread, which he would throw away when he got home. It was against his diet. But his stomach was taut with hunger. The salad he’d prepared for lunch remained uneaten at home. Just as he was about to sit down, he’d seen the girl fly over the handlebars.
The boy startled awake. “Where am I?” When he realized, he struggled out of his seatbelt and leapt out of the car and up the steps.
The neighbor had forgotten how fast children were. “Wait!” If the boy told the story there would be confusion. Confusion wouldn’t serve anyone.
Inside, the air was warm, and the neighbor and the boy stood suspended for a moment, stunned by the sweet neatness of the place. The promise of all the goodies in the glass case. The pastel frosting, fat cookies, long twists of baguettes. The boy dripped onto the floor.
Where was the babysitter?
“She is frantic for you!” Mrs. Da Silva had the boy by the arms, her spotted wrinkled fingers encircling his smooth flesh. “Where have you been? Mrs. Okafur was here, looking for you and the girl, and only now you show up—an hour late?” She released the boy and stood up straight. She looked at the neighbor with suspicion. “Where is Ella? Her mother was waiting. She took the cupcakes already and went home.” She stepped away from the boy’s side and toward the neighbor. The smells of butter and disinfectant rose off her skin. “Where’s the girl?”
Keeping his eyes high, not letting them touch down on the bare, scared plain of the boy’s face, he said, “There’s been a terrible accident.”
Then Simon began to cry. In some moment of half-dream in the car he had expected everyone to be here at the bakery waiting for him—Ella’s mother and father and his own parents. Even his brother. Yes, he had expected Charles here in his uniform with his compass. He was so tired. He wanted to scream. His jaw hurt. He stretched his mouth open to ease the ache.
In this open-mouthed posture of bewildered grief, the familiarity of the boy’s face finally clicked into place. In the newspaper photograph the boy was dressed in a somber suit, the lapels laid flat. Carefully groomed. Groomed as boys only are on the most terrible occasions. The boy had been screaming into a hole in the ground. A hole filled with a box covered with a flag. Jesus Christ. If he remembered correctly, it had been an accident. Friendly fire. It had been March, the day of the photograph, but an unusually mild day. The boy’s hands were holding adult hands, whose arms were visible only up to the elbows.
The neighbor whispered to Mrs. Da Silva, “Do you know who he is, this boy?” He couldn’t get it out. The awful things this boy already knew.
“Who are you?” the woman asked.
The neighbor explained he’d seen the boy running beside the girl cruising on her bicycle when suddenly she was airborne. The next moment splayed on the ground, blood spilling from her head. “The boy doesn’t understand,” he said. “He thinks she’s going to be all right.” The neighbor looked around at the bare walls. “He insisted on meeting his babysitter here, at the bakery.”
The boy incanted a low jumble of words. Possibly a prayer. Possibly the same words he had heard at his brother’s funeral. The neighbor felt he should adopt the boy and take him to Florida, thrust him into a sunny new life. He had heard that the boy’s father no longer worked. The mother was trying to make it in real estate. There were no other children besides Simon.
The old woman grabbed the neighbor’s arm and shook it. “You’ve got it all wrong.” Behind the desk she found a receipt, held it close to her nose to read the numbers, and picked up the phone.
The boy heard sounds, but he didn’t understand them. Sometimes when adults spoke he heard only pieces, sharp points and low smooth vowels rising up and down.
Simon’s throat was dry. He hurt from his dry throat down to his sodden feet. He asked for water and drank it quickly. He removed his wet shirt and hung it carefully over the back of a chair. Then his shoes and wet socks. He noticed the neighbor’s cool hand on his head like a starfish. The hand connected him to the ground. And to the sky, where he sometimes looked for his brother’s smile.
The old woman pressed a cookie into Simon’s hand and he stuffed it into his mouth to silence whatever might rise out of him. He felt that right now he should not make any noise.
That was how Ella’s mother found him: face smeared with crumbs and tears. Simon had never hugged her before but now he rushed to throw his arms around her waist. Her body was warm and smelled of tomato sauce and perfume. Unlike Ella. He had decided Ella smelled like coconuts though he had never seen or held a real one.
The neighbor could not abandon the boy, now that he had followed him so far. But the boy wanted to ride with the mother, so the neighbor followed them alone in his car. At the hospital, Mrs. Okafur and the boy melted into some corridor, disappearing like the sunlight at the end of dusk.
In the waiting room, the neighbor wondered about the boy’s parents. He should contact them. He had their son. Yet to call them in seemed cruel to everyone. They would take the boy home, separate him from the girl. But if the girl was hurt as badly as he thought, the boy shouldn’t stay. The neighbor walked through the murmuring beige hallways, until he found the boy and the girl’s mother standing together outside a bay of surgery rooms. The boy was in a familiar pose: his arm reached upward and his hand tucked into the smooth pocket of an older, larger one. This kind of comfort was the right one for now, the boy needed to be with the girl’s mother, and perhaps she pulled something she needed from him; but soon, in a few hours, tomorrow, next week, the boy would need a different kind of solace, one he would not find at home. The neighbor picked up a newspaper, sat in a chair, and waited.
Jennifer Acker is editor-in-chief of The Common. Her short stories, essays, and reviews have been published in n+1, Guernica, Slate, Harper’s, Ploughshares, and The Millions, among other places. She teaches at Amherst College.
Her story, “A Week of Abalone,” is forthcoming in John LeCarre (TLR, Winter 2015).