Mismatched sandals she calls slippers flop on rough terrain strewn with broken glass as she trails behind the bigger kids. Year after year, I watch them grow.
One who used to be our constant shadow, now elusive as he runs with a tougher crowd--bigger boys who trade in school for the shelter of the neighborhood gang. I see him only briefly, his once-sparkling eyes now hollow and lost. He hardly looks at me, hardly smiles that had-me-at-hello grin. Who will protect him, this darling boy who used to be protector of the little ones?
His younger brother smiles wide as ever, reminding me of the first PB&J we ever shared, the one he thanked God for in a beautiful 8-year-old prayer I wish I could remember by heart. He still greets me at the door with a shout and a toothless grin. He comes and goes more now, but still wants to play, still wants to talk. I ask him if he is studying hard, choosing good friends. "Yes ma'am," he says, meeting my eye. He tells me of his dream to go to the States. When we part ways at the end of the week, he hugs me long and hard, and I wonder how long he'll be little-boy enough to shamelessly hug the white woman who brings all her friends.
Another, the goofball of the family, looks at me with dancing eyes that promise mischief. He wears stolen sunglasses and a bandana tied like Bo peep's bonnet, making us all laugh. He answers to no one, not even to me, but looks out for the littler kids. He lies about having already had a snack and shares with a hungry neighbor. He runs ahead of the group and grins when I call him, weaving back and forth to keep an eye on us.
Their neighborhood friend has moved out of her family's plywood shanty and into one of the richer looking houses across the street. Some of the girls take me there reluctantly, saying she never comes out to play anymore. They tell me she lives with Ms. Rose because her momma kicked her out for being sassy. Ms. Rose beats her, they say. When she joins us one afternoon, she gives me her usual pout until I talk her down and tell her I've missed her and that we are going to have the best day. Finally a smile, and I cringe, thinking how they try to squelch her spirit. She is hard-as-nails to protect what they have tried to take from her. Later she comes climbing up the ladder to find me on the roof. I sternly tell her to get down, that I will find her in a few minutes. If only I had known it would be the only day we'd have all week, I'd have sprinted down and snuggled her so tight and never let go. The next day, Ms. Rose refuses to let her come and my heart is in my throat and I am imagining what is happening in that drug-lord house with its drawn blinds and all its secrets.
Her sister/cousin/friend--I only know they used to live in the same white shack--asks me about Connecticut, wants to know "is it fun there?" I laugh and tell her Connecticut is boring, that I love the Bahamas best. She says cable TV would make it fun here. I tell her I don't have cable either, and she stares at me in disbelief. "Connecticut is boring," she repeats, even and convinced. "I can come with you?" The next day, her voice on the other end of the phone shatters my foundation, leaves me reeling. I nearly double over as she tells me her momma has said she can come home to live with me. I stand there for what seems like forever, not speaking, evaluating my life and everything else I know, trying to think of an answer that will explain to a 12-year-old what I don't understand myself: why I have to leave her here. why life isn't fair. why some people live in shacks and others live in mansions. Gritting my teeth I tell her I can't take her with me. Promises to visit next year that used to seem adequate fall desperately short now.
The little one looks up wide-eyed--eyes that already have seen too much. She is obeying more than five days ago. We have made progress with this barely two-year-old wonder who was all backtalk and curse words and running out in the street at the beginning of the week and all smiles and snuggles and "yes ma'ams" at its close. The light in her is so bright, this half-pint fierce and full of daring. I wonder who she will become. Childhood slips away too quickly here; the others have taught me there's not much time.