WHEN I FIRST SAW CHARLOTTE, she stood by the back door, eyeing us as we unloaded boards and colorful pipes that would become the children’s new playground. She cocked her head, staring at the skid steer, which we had unloaded ten minutes ago. For a second, I thought I knew what was going through her mind, that this piece of machinery was one of the tools we needed to install playground number five from our catalogue, which included three slides, monkey bars, a sliding bar traversing two platforms, swings, and a central lookout that was fourteen feet at its highest. Maybe she was thinking of all the new toys and elements to explore. Come next week, her and her friends, or companions? No, fellow inmates? They’d be able to enjoy all the primary color posts and platform, the orange spray paint marks fading into the earth. But this wasn’t a prison. It was a place for problem kids. Detention center? Amy, who was leading this project, said as we drove through the chain-link gate this morning, “Troubled parents breed troubled kids.” The facility was called Wishing Hopes. How stupid.
Then there she was, Charlotte. Of course I didn’t know her name yet. I only knew her as one of the children, a girl, with long brown hair tied into a ponytail, wearing a bright red shirt. She held what looked like a green crayon, and I couldn’t help but think of Christmas, and I wondered where she came from, what her family was like, if they were still around, what presents she had wanted, still wanted, when she looked me in the eyes and, without blinking, raised her free hand to slowly extend her middle finger.
I nudged Amy, “Is that kid really flipping us off?”
Amy turned around, propping a bright yellow pipe against the trailer. “No. She’s just flipping you off.” She put both her hands on the black fender and mouthed “fuck you” to the girl.
The girl disappeared inside the door, her red shirt whipping as she turned.
BIRK WAS THE CAMP COUNSELOR. Or, the manager or facility supervisor. The job description on his name tag seemed to change every time we saw him, which was whenever he was chasing a kid who was trying to escape or to offer us advice on how to deal with them.
“Just stretch your hands out wide so you look bigger,” he said when we watched a kid in a blue shirt take off down the dirt road we had driven up this morning. A staff member in a bright orange polo ran after the kid, yelling some name into the air. “Like this,” Birk continued, miming how to do it, as if we weren’t helping to catch kids but trying to defend our playground equipment from an imminent bear attack. We raised our arms and followed along with Birk. With his short blonde hair, tan shorts, and bright orange shirt, he looked like he was teaching us construction yoga. “Now do this,” he would say, switching to another pose, this one reminiscent of using a shovel. “When you get a hold of the kid, just grab them around the collar of their shirt. Don’t worry about hurting them. They’re tougher than they look. Besides, if they do get hurt, it’s like a mini vacation for them; they get to go to the clinic,” he said, now leaning against the trailer. It was lunch, and Amy and I had finished digging the holes for the yellow supports.
The sun pressed down on us, flattening the mounds of dirt next to the holes. The air had a slight chill to it. September was almost over. Which meant on the first of October it would be a year since the birth of my baby, Vincent. How my wife Penelope had cradled him, how we gravitated toward the hospital bed, pressed our bodies together, how an electric cord ran from his tiny heart to ours—bright, orange, pliant—and all that light from the ceiling and the windows coughed against some darkness we had yet to understand.
Amy ate a sandwich, her back resting on the inside of the trailer. She was looking past Birk, and I followed her gaze to the building. The girl in the bright red shirt walked our way, dragging a doll on the ground. The doll must have been heavy; a deep wake of dirt marked the path she took to us, winding between the many holes. At one point, before she arrived, she hid behind a pile of dirt so that we could only see her face, expressionless.
Birk said, “Hey Charlotte, what are you doing?”
She reached us, ignored Birk, stepped over his plain black shoes, and stuck a hand out to Amy. A handshake. Amy said, “Why, hello, Charlotte is it?” They shook hands, Charlotte staring at Amy’s face.
Charlotte dropped her hand and walked to me. We shook hands. “Are you excited to have a new playground?” I said. She only stared; her doll, which looked like a girl about her age wearing a blue dress, looked at the sky. Cloudless. “Who is this?” I pointed at the doll.
“Bang,” Charlotte whispered, though I’m sure we all heard her.
“Why Bang?” I said, crouching so that we were the same height.
“She likes to bang.” She walked to one of the yellow supports and swung her doll against the metal. A sharp rap sounded. She did it again. And again, the doll denting, the paint flaking off.
“Hey, what the fuck,” Birk leapt at Charlotte, tackled her small body to the ground. He grabbed the doll and tossed it away. “What are you doing?” he said, picking her up by an arm. He gave us a pained look and marched Charlotte back inside the building.
Amy had dropped her sandwich in the commotion. She picked it up, wiped most of the dirt and pine needles off the mustard and mayo covered ham, reassembled, and took a bite. “That was odd,” she said.
The doll’s limbs were stretched out, as if the doll was imitating us from our earlier session with Birk, and along the side of the doll’s head, the stitching was torn. Rocks were stuffed inside. Some had spilled out. Doll brain matter. “Crazy,” I said to Amy, but I knew she didn’t hear me.
SUN STRUGGLED THROUGH the pines. It was quitting time, and Amy was locking the trailer hitch. We would leave it onsite and start again tomorrow. I closed our toolboxes, putting away screwdrivers and hammers and clippers and bolts and nuts and a couple power tools for tightening the frame together. We pulled the truck around the construction site, which looked like the start of some wacky, short skyscraper. The yellow uprights were in the ground and the foam we used was settled enough that we could leave. It seemed irregular, all those yellow lines shooting into the sky, but there was a pattern, a plan. And when they drove by, the yellow lines morphed with our perspective, now twenty separate posts, now eleven thicker ones, now thirteen, now twenty, and then they diminished behind us, toothpicks, checking to see if the earth was baked enough.
At the gate to Wishing Hopes, a bright red spot appeared. She was crouched behind the trunk of pine. We slowed to stop. I got out, told Amy to wait, and squatted next to her. At the base of the pine, which swayed in a breeze higher up, was an egg. The egg had cracked on a rock that protruded from the ground. And from the cracks was a yokey, spidery baby bird. The bird’s unfinished form crumpled on a bed of pine needles. It was as if Charlotte had made a funeral pyre. A bulbous, closed eye was the only feature that felt right. She asked what it was. I said that it was a stillborn, that these things happen, that there’s nothing you can do, that you can still deliver, that you can still hold a baby even if there’s no breath and there hasn’t been for a while, and all that light from the ceiling and windows.
She meant what kind of bird. I said it was probably a robin. But did it matter? I asked her. And she shook her head.
“I like birds,” she said and poked the bird with a twig.
“Stop,” I said, and grabbed her arm. I took her to the truck. We both sat in the bed, and Amy drove us back to the building. As we watched the gate shrink, I asked her why she poked the bird. Did she like doing things like that? She rubbed her wrist and kept her eyes down. She said, just over the sound of the exhaust and suspension, the jangle of shovels and picks rattling around our feet, that she was trying to bring it back to life.
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BENJAMIN MURRAY is a graduate of Eastern Washington University’s MFA program and an advisor for Transformation Tuesday, a poetry and performance event with a focus on marginalized voices. He enjoys roaming the woods of the PNW for Sasquatch and kayaking in rivers. His work has been published or is forthcoming in Arkana, Cobalt, Rock & Sling, Pamplemousse, Sweet Tree Review, Stone Coast Review, River River, Construction Literary Magazine, and After Happy Hour Review. His flash piece, “So, Coach Andrews Interrogates Me,” was shortlisted for Columbia Journal ’s special edition on Uprising.