The green post-it notes were stuck onto most of the kids’ registration forms. The day camp relied on them to relay information like: Peanut Allergy—mild, Call Mom’s cell first, No Wednesday PM, that sort of thing. I saw the post-it notes every day when I checked the identification of the parents who came to claim their kids in the evenings, but I was usually too distracted by the stream of questions (Will you tie my shoe? Why is your hair like that? Are you married? Is that a pimple?) and the smell of sunscreen and the sand in my shoes and the downward tugs at my shirt by eager fingers, to really register their contents.
Just after lunchtime that day, the heat was already monstrous. I nearly slipped in a smear of hot strawberry yogurt on the sidewalk. My group of campers was agitated, having been torn from the pool early when the sun-burnt lifeguard quit on the spot. Maddie Graham was clinging to my arm with a sweaty hand. She was small, both in general and for her age. Big brown eyes, clothes that swallowed her up. Her mom flashed pleading smiles at me between hurried explanations at pick up time.
“I hate to buy them so big—Maddie, pull up your pants—but I know she’ll get a growth spurt soon. Right, Maddie?”
But Maddie was the kind of child you could never imagine grown up, so I just smiled back, and that was about it. It was awkward talking to parents about their kids. I existed in this strange place between them. I wasn’t a kid and I wasn’t an adult. It was my job to ensure that nobody broke an arm or stuck a bean up their nose, but, sometimes, one of them broke an arm or stuck a bean up their nose.
I peeled Maddie’s hand off mine and nudged her toward the others. Inside the building, the girls had discovered a new box full of old clothes donated for playing dress-up by somebody’s older cousin, and they were all beside themselves. The heat was oppressive. Pink frills flung everywhere. I opened a window.
“Fashion show! Fashion show!” they chanted.
Maddie screamed with delight as she pulled it out. It was all roses and yellow lace. She held it above her head so that the others could see.
A statuesque man I’d never seen before pushed through the clanking cafeteria door. His big brown eyes found Maddie right away. I went to grab the registration book, ready to check for his name and ask for ID. Then, Janelle Avila stuck her little fists to her hips, and her voice somehow pierced all the ambient noise of the room when she said, “These dresses are not for black girls, Maddie!”
Maddie held her elbows locked, her brown eyes round and unmoving. The dress, in front of her, quivered slightly in the breeze from the window.
The man crossed the room in less than a second, scooped Maddie and the dress into his arms, swaddling her in yellow lace. She didn’t make a sound.
“Baby,” he said, “Baby.” Again and again.
The intimacy of this moment shamed me and though all the children stared, my eyes dropped to my hands. There, Maddie’s registration form lay facing me in the open binder, where I read her green post-it note for the very first time.
No Dad pick-up. Call the police.
The clank of the cafeteria door. The bottom of a shoe and the hem of the yellow dress disappearing into the afternoon blaze. I tried to follow. I lurched forward, my heavy feet lagging behind my brain, and then I was pushing through the door to the other side where my vision went black and spotty as my eyes fought to adjust.
Nothing moved but a ripple of heat rising from the asphalt in the empty parking lot. I felt the weight of my phone in my pocket, and inside, the other girls had already moved on to the next treasure in the box.