The girl wears shiny patent leather shoes. There's a scuff of mud on the left heel. Her tights are bright white, shockingly white, like too-perfect teeth or brand-new sheets. Her dress is red velvet. A long ribbon encircles her waist and ends in a luxurious bow at her back.
Her mother presses three dollars into her hand, folds the fingers over her palm. “Right to town and back,” she says. “Follow the sidewalk all the way. No turns.”
The girl nods absently.
“Are you listening?”
“Follow the sidewalk all the way.”
“To the bakery and right home.”
“No dawdling. No talking to anyone.” Her mother smooths down the skirt of the girl's red velvet dress and gives her a smile. “You're growing up.”
The girl blushes, twists the skirt in her hands.
“Just don't grow up too fast,” her father adds, opening the front door.
She can feel the eyes of her parents on her back as she skips down the street. She knows her mother will be timing her return. She feels herself hurrying.
Merryweather Street is to her right. To her left, a long brick wall, mainly red, but patched over in places with a thin layering of grey cement. She wonders who lives behind that wall. She thinks it must be a lovely place for a birthday party. She imagines large gardens and balloons; ice cream cake and pinatas suspended from branches.
The sun warms her back and she is filled with joy at her freedom. She begins to skip towards town. And as she skips a familiar melody floats over the red brick wall. She hums to it, incorporating the melody into her movement until the song becomes a part of her; and she becomes the song.
She pauses. Cocks her head. The song is different from the way she sings it at school; the tune is accompanied by a strange sound. Flesh against flesh, like someone slapping away mosquitoes.
She slows to a walk and approaches the wall. She runs her index finger between the bricks until she comes to a crack in the wall. She worries away mortar with her finger, working out a chink, leaving a small hole behind. She presses her eye to it. The brick is cold against her face, and rough, too, like the Saturday bristles on her father's face that remain throughout the weekend before they're smoothed away on Monday.
Images come to her in pieces: A little boy. A limping dog. A purple stool overturned. She sees a red-faced man, reaching for the boy; sees the thick hand come down against the boy's face. As the man strikes the boy, he sings the words to the song. The girl gasps as her brain fits the pieces into a cohesive whole. The boy meets her eye. His mouth forms a single word that she cannot hear. And yet, she understands.
* * *
“Good girl,” her mother says when she returns. “I'm proud of you.” And her father smiles.
The little girl does not tell her parents about the man behind the wall. Nor of the child. Nor of the dog. She does not speak of purple stools and children's songs. And this day, she has grown up much more than her parents intended.
“Let's watch a movie,” her father suggests, after they have eaten the bread with their dinner. He licks his finger and presses it into a crumb on the tablecloth.
She sits on the couch between her parents. The screen flashes to life and images hit her retina, flooding her brain with color and motion and possibilities. Some comic book brought to life: Superman or Batman. Perhaps Wonder Woman. It doesn't matter.
Ten minutes in, her father pauses the movie, wanting a snack. Her mother rises to pop corn. While the air fills with the scent of melting butter, she tells her parents about purple stools and slapping hands.
Her mother bites her lip. Her father shakes his head.
Oh, look, her mother says. There's a bit of mud on your shoe. She licks her finger and rubs the spot away. Her father takes a handful of popcorn and tosses it in his mouth.
They return to the movie, incapable heroes cloaked in capes.