It’s midday, except that it’s not. In a short while I’ll be up before sunrise, haunted by these things, writing for a means to find purpose. For now, the sun is mild and there is no breeze flowing from the colorless sky. I’m in a place where I can create, mostly at will although there is accomplishment in my efforts, versions of the things in my life that have come before. These versions are all made of soft material, like shaped balloons: They are kid-friendly and age appropriate. Here is a soft, bouncy version of the kitchen in the first home I remember, tiny ripples of not-liquid and not-solid forming the swirling rings of the electric stove burners in vibrant pinkish red. “Don’t touch,” I say calmly, “Those are hot.”
I’m leading a little girl through my fabrications, a girl I don’t know. She’s very young, maybe four, maybe less. She understands and responds to me, but mostly she listens. Sometimes she wanders ahead of me and I watch her closely. I know I am responsible for her but I’m content to let her explore as long as I can see her.
We discuss the things I’ve made casually, in that adult-to-child way when the grown-up respects the young one’s thoughts and observations as if they both had something to learn. This is right I feel. There are no thoughts, only feelings with words. We spend some time in each location, having time to spare. Her voice is high and amicable, full of bright curiosity and exquisite carelessness that is not a part of apathy but of contentment and inexperience. There is no darkening of the sky but this word-feeling casts a shadow.
The place is inside a giant sandbox I now notice. The surface isn’t sand exactly, it’s not dirty and doesn’t cling to your skin or pour into your shoes as you run. It’s stable but soft and stretches wide and far. We have much ground to cover. We pass a playhouse I’ve made that is a shop where they sell pizzas. My pretend pizzas are made with syrup and discs of candy because I think the little girl will like it better than the food I made in my first job. I tell her about how they used to tease me because I slid my foot along behind the broom when I was supposed to be sweeping the floor. They said it looked like I was dancing with it, and the girl’s giggle brings a sad smile to my face. She doesn’t understand the flushing heat of embarrassment that came with being branded the Broom Dancer. She does little twirls around the oven I created for her, holding the soft pretend broom high above her head so it whirls and blurs like a yellow helicopter blade. I don’t use the lesson opportunity to teach her about humiliation. We have time, but we need to move on.
We pad through the supple sand-like powder and she stops now and then to sit in it and run it through her fingers. I sweep it up and create another moment for her, before her eyes while she squeals with delight and claps her tiny fingers together. It is a mostly dry creekbed or man-made inlet, I was never sure, reproduced here as a model, a tiny play set in 1/64th scale. A path runs along the levee on either side, which people use for bicycle riding or jogging when the weather is nice. I top it with some paper doll people walking funny little origami puppies and the girl picks one up and says, “Aww. Doggie!” I feel words that say I had a doggie once but I don’t remind her of that. She moves the dolls along the path, echoing the memories of Saturday mornings. I don’t tell her of the time when a girl—not significantly older than she is now—told me on my birthday that she wanted to be with someone else instead and how I walked along this path in the pouring rain for what felt like hours, mixing tears with the icy drops until my jeans were soaked and my shoes squished with each step. I don’t tell her that. I don’t tell her how, a few years later, I would return to this same pathway with a different girl and tell her that after all we’d been through it wasn’t enough and we needed to go our separate ways. I leave out all of it, including the part where I just walked away, leaving her crying and alone. Without knowing that, she won’t know how it hurts to be on either side of heartbreak or how ashamed one can feel of their own actions.
The time passes and does not pass. The sky never changes, the invisible sun never sets. We must keep going, though we need not rush. We arrive after a time at the place I’ve been dreading. I’ve made for her a safe model of one of my favorite roller coasters. It has slides where the dips should go and cushy merry-go-rounds instead of frightening loop-the-loops. The colors are shimmering blues and candied greens. She pushes ahead of me, eager to try. “This was the first ride I ever wanted to go on,” I tell her, having to raise my voice to be heard over the distance. I can’t tell if my words are carrying across the landscape that separates us or not. She runs through the playground I’ve made for her in the essence of my favorite amusement park memory and she laughs. She looks ahead and runs further still, seeing more amusements re-created by me. I know something about these, but I can only hurry to catch up.
She crawls through tunnels and tumbles down ramps and gentle, padded inclines. She seems so far away and I cannot seem to cover the ground. She stops, and faces me. It looks like she’s half her size from this far away and I feel-think I’ll never catch her. She asks me a question although maybe it isn’t spoken: “What’s this one?”
I look carefully and tears fill my eyes, though I blink them back quickly and hope she can’t see from way over there. “That’s the ride I’m afraid of,” I tell her. She looks carefully at what I made, a shallow pool of bathwater, warm and welcoming, with tablets of floating foam in the shape of daisies. She skips along them, ever further out of reach. I want to tell her not to fall in. To be careful, but she won’t hear me now.
“Well I’m not afraid,” she says proudly.
I look ahead and I see what I didn’t want to have to face. It’s an opening in the sandbox, a ring of rubberized safety padding surrounding a pit. There is a cover over the pit, painted in yellows and blue zigzag designs like a ball you might buy from an enormous bin at a discount store if you could get one out without making the whole pile come down like an avalanche and bouncing across the tiled floor. The cover is a half-dome, hinged and creased across the diameter so it can retract and open. I don’t want it to open, but it will. It is.
Blue light pours from within, splitting the seam created by the widening gap between hemispheres and the girl looks at it, head tilted slightly in wonder. Tears roll down my face and I ignore them because she can’t see me anymore, she won’t look back, I know. I plead-feel Please don’t look inside and I sink to my knees. Inside is the world. Inside that passage, that pit, is danger. I’m afraid, because I’ve been there and I know. I’m afraid because I want to scream to the girl that we have to go back. I even try making something for her, something to distract her, something to get her to return to my side. I know she won’t, and I’ve forgotten how to create. I drop to my hands, needing the support, my head falls forward and I weep.
Please, no. I forgot to warn her.
She is silhouetted, black against the blue light, and my tears blur the edges until I wake.