Sheltering shadows from the outstretched arms of the evergreen provided a protective umbrella from the harsh August sun. Abella cultivated her mind alongside her shade garden, protective of her privacy and of her plants. The branches of the tree flexed with their own weight, causing the outermost tips of the slender bark-covered fingers to touch the ground, creating a most perfect secret garden for the pubescent girl.
For uncharted hours, Abella read, drew pictures, dreamed, and spoke to her flowers and herbs. She was at peace in the piney bower, and instinctively braced herself against intrusions by her only slightly older sister, Canelle.
As much as Abella was frugal with her words, gentle with the sounds formed by her soft lips, Canelle was hard-edged, bright with competition, and quick to criticize. Still, Canelle protected her younger sibling when she was required to participate in social interactions.
Abella wasn’t afraid of people so much as she didn’t often feel the need of their company. Flowering plants, fruits, small animals, shells, and rocks all provided sufficient friendship. Canelle could not understand this and did not have the capacity to look inward enough to realize that she too could speak the languages of what she thought were inanimate objects or dumb animals.
That fateful day, Abella was dawdling in the basement, counting seed potatoes and generally showing reluctance to button up her boots and gather her papers and books for school. She could be exceedingly quiet, and always knew how to camouflage herself into near invisibility. Canelle, always eager for school and social interaction, had no patience for Abella’s shenanigans. Hair brushed back into a gleaming black ponytail and wearing a freshly pressed pleated skirt with a peter pan collar blouse and knee socks, Canelle slipped on her patent leather loafers and grabbed her worn leather satchel. She dashed out the front door, almost leaping along the slate paved path to meet the shuttle.
She didn’t remark Abella’s absence until the shuttle bus drove into a tree. The driver’s head lay cradled against the steering wheel. He was eerily silent, and Canelle tiptoed up to ask him is he was ok. She stooped, and with uncustomary gentleness, she whispered in his ear, jumping back when a single garnet bead of blood pooled at the tip of his ear lobe. Her index finger brushed against his cheek, still silken from a morning shave, and already cooling.
Her heart pounding with sudden terror, her body was propelled backwards, her legs weightless and senseless. Out of the shuttle she ran, her hard soled shoes pounding the pavement, strings of black hair escaping her barrette and whipping into her mouth and eyes. Tears streamed from her nostrils to her neck and the hot air burned in her throat.
Cutting through a sandy path between two properties, Canelle paused. Her hands braced on her knees, she held her head down and tried to breathe. Ragged snot festooned her tonsils, causing her to choke, and her lips and teeth were dry, feeling as if they might crack. Light-headed, Canelle followed the path.
The shiny tip of her right shoe caught on a tree root emerging from the gravel, and Canelle, as light as an eggshell, was propelled forward. Like the bus driver, her body was no longer an obstacle to motion, thought, or decisions of any kind. She flew, and felt released from the constraints of ordinary weight or time.
The crown of her head made contact with the water in the pool at 9:03 am. At that same time, Abella was rocking herself. She had tiptoed up the cellar steps and raised her head, ear to the door, wondering if someone had remembered that she had not left for school. The house was silent. Abella had crept out of the cellar and had curled up on the sheepskin rug in front of the hearth. She was caressing the soft wool and rocking herself when the crown of Canelle’s head made contact with the perfect aqua blue surface of the pool. She did not know what had happened, but she became very still.
Canelle’s body, still lighter than air or feathers, sliced through the still, warm, chlorinated liquid. Arrow straight, the young girl’s body would have appeared very graceful to anyone who might have been watching. No one was there to see her as her head encountered a colorful wooden block that lay on the glistening tiled floor of the pool.
Slicing open her scalp and notching the intersection of the plates of her skull, Canelle’s body wilted like a crumpled doll, then floated to the surface. Her bleeding scalp produced a crimson halo around her flowing hair. From a balcony, a parrot in a cage released a series of squawks. An elderly man came shuffling out, questioning the bird, who continued to vociferate. The man then noticed Canelle’s inert body in the pool. Stumbling from fear and the need to take action, the man re-entered his apartment and called the emergency alert number. He knocked on his neighbor’s door.
At home, Abella felt a choking sensation in her throat, and a burning in her nose. At 9:05 am, chlorinated water was ejected from her older sister Canelle’s lungs, as a pair of firm and confident hands applied pressure to her chest.
Abella carefully stood up, and she walked over to the dining room table. She pulled out one of the chairs with the caned seats and looked at the woven pattern of the cane. Her eyes began to swim, and she flailed her arms, falling unconscious to the floor. Her mind fell into the space and time of a dream, and in the dream she saw her parents standing over her sister, who was soaking wet. Her sister was wearing a luminous red velvet dress, and her hair was tied with an oversized matching velvet bow. Her feet were bare. Behind her sister and parents was dressed a banquet table, loaded with delicious foods, exquisite candelabras, and surrounded by uniformed servers.
Still in the dream-space, her sister stood, unbothered by her dripping dress, and had her plate filled by a short and stocky waiter. The dream Canelle sat on a carved chair with a satin damask patterned seat cover. Elegantly, she conversed with their parents, who were suddenly dressed in evening wear.
Abella awoke, and she looked around herself. She was still alone, at home, and was now lying on the floor.
She heard a key turn in the lock of the front door. It was her grandmother. In hushed and comforting tones, she explained to Abella that her sister Canelle had gone missing, and that her parents were conferring with local police in an attempt to locate her. Apparently, she had never showed up in class today, although the bus driver had been found unconscious and was taken to the hospital.
The elderly man at the apartment complex, dismayed by the sight of the young girl’s body in the pool, came downstairs, accompanied by a younger woman and a small dog. The limpid blue water sparkled, untouched by a single ripple, was entirely empty. Beside the glass tiled border of the basin stood a miniature city, built of colorful wooden blocks, casting the crisp shadow of a skyline onto the concrete and mosaic walkway.
Stuttering, the elderly man stared in befuddled amazement at the clear water in the empty pool. “I’m so sorry…I saw a…a young woman here. She was hurt.” The woman patted his stooped shoulder in reassurance. “Let’s go have a cup of tea and a biscuit. Everything is fine.” Nodding his head in agreement, yet still frowning in puzzlement, the man shuffled behind the brisk young woman. Neither of them paid any heed to the city built of blocks, but both were careful to step around it.
Abella told her grandmother that she wanted to go outside to take a walk. Fearful to leave her alone outside, given the circumstances, the older woman took her cane, and the pair walked together out of their subdivision towards the bus stop and middle school.
The sun was now sharply angled at late afternoon, drawing dark but vivid shadows onto the brick bordered cement sidewalks. Abella felt herself drawn towards the apartment complex where she had often seen a grey tabby cat slip between the bars of the fence gating the community. She waited for her grandmother to catch up, listening for her quiet huffing and the tap tap of her cane. They followed a sinuous bed of flowering lilies and grasses, which led to the pool.
Unlatching the pool gate, the pair walked onto the terrace lined with lounge chairs. Abella’s grandmother, glad for a bit of shade and a rest, seated herself under an umbrella. As if in a trance, Abella nearly glided towards the mass of wooden blocks, which she caressed gingerly, as if afraid to knock down the imaginary city. She looked at the city from every angle, memorizing the entirety of the architectural plan, then she began to gather the colorful blocks, one by one, holding them in the pocketed apron she wore.
“We can go home now, Grandmother. I’m ready.” Abella touched her grandmother on the shoulder, as she had nodded off. Clearing her throat, her grandmother rose with difficulty, stretching her stiff limbs and joints. Her apron knotted and thunking against her knees, Abella supported her grandmother’s elbow, and together they walked slowly home.
Abella slipped under the pine tree soon after her grandmother unlocked the front door of the house. “I’m just in the yard, Grandmother! I won’t leave.”
Unknotting her apron, the brightly colored blocks spilled onto the fragrant pine straw like jewels in a nest of silk. Kneeling by the toy blocks, Abella carefully reconstructed the city, reproducing it exactly as she had experienced it by the pool. Standing, she brushed off her knees and skirt, breathed in deeply, and went back into the house.