WEEKS LATER, I STILL can’t shake her haunting words. “My dad got shot,” the darling pixie of a 6-year-old with brown eyes and long, spaghetti-straight auburn hair tells me.
I don’t want to believe her and even question the truthfulness of her statement.
But she is too quick to respond, to say that her dad, Bill, is dead, “buried in the ground.” The father who stole a car and went to jail was shot by someone who came to the house when she was only one, she says. I don’t know if she has her story spot-on correct, but I figure she’s heard it too many times to mess up the truth.
Recently, the police stopped by her house—the one across from the park with the boxspring leaning outside the front door and the stockade of a fence enclosing the back yard. “I don’t know why they came,” she says. I can see the hint of fear in her eyes.
I don’t pry. But I want to swoop her up, hug her, take her away from the bad memories and the stories of the violent death of her father, away from a life that seems not all that stable even now.
Yet, I’ve only met her as my husband and I are in a southern Minnesota small-town city park on a Sunday afternoon. I want to advise her and the boy, who isn’t her brother but lives with her because her mom and his dad “are in love,” that they shouldn’t talk to strangers in the park.
But she has already told me the dead father story and rolled her eyes at the living arrangement between parents. I can’t just tell her and the little boy to go home. Be safe. Don’t talk to strangers or accept food from them. She’s already caused my heart to ache.
So instead, we offer them food. She refuses any. But the boy, about four, gobbles up the potato chips and grapes we give him. It is 1:00 and they have not eaten lunch, although the six-year-old says they ate a late breakfast.
I’m not so sure. Maybe she’s heeding advice she once heard about not accepting food from strangers. Yet, she’s the one who approached Randy when we first arrived, when I was using the porta potty, and told him he looked like her friend Emma’s grandpa.
They seem hungry, not only for food, but for someone who cares.
“I have a dad,” the boy shares between mouthfuls of chips. And that’s when the mite of a girl tells us about her dead father.
Soon the boy’s older sister, by a few years, arrives at the park, apparently sent over to check on the other two.
“Do you want some potato chips?” I ask. She accepts a handful.
“She stole a peach,” the redhead accuses.
“From the grocery store?” I ask, thinking I may now need to teach them right from wrong.
No. The peach was stolen at home.
“I stole pop tarts,” the talkative six-year-old confesses. “She told me to.” She looks directly at the other girl, the one who may someday become her sister if the two in-love parents marry.
I don’t understand her word choice—“stole.”
“We’re supposed to ask (for food),” she explains or “get in trouble.”
Now I am worried. “You don’t get hit for taking food, do you?”
They say “no” and I inwardly breathe a sigh of relief.
Then, after we give cheese slices to the little boy and his sister, with the pixie girl still refusing food, she obeys a summons to come home. The boy is still standing near the picnic table, his sister a short distance away. He struggles to unwrap the single cheese slice.
“Here, let me help you,” I say. He hands me the cheese and I unwrap it. He shoves the slice into his mouth and runs home. His sister declines my offer to remove the cheese wrapping, determined to do it on her own. She does.
I leave the small-town park unsettled and worried about the future of these three children. Already they’ve experienced so much in their young lives: Violent death. Police knocking on the door. Food they feel they must steal.
My heart aches for these children. Will they grow up tough, hardened by the life they’ve already lived? Will they overcome the pain they’ve already experienced? Will they continue to approach strangers in the park…to talk about the dad who was shot, the food they must “steal?”
I wonder. I worry. Should I have done something more?
THE NAMES IN THIS STORY have been changed to protect these children who thought nothing of walking up to strangers in a park. That also is the reason I am not revealing the Minnesota town where I met them. The rest of the story, sadly, is true.
© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling