January 3, 2017. I snapped the lid onto the container of decorations. I would touch those ornaments again in eleven months and they would feel new then, but for now, they were stale. I vacuumed up the scattered pine needles from our tree’s stubborn exit, reclaiming the living room that Christmas had monopolized. Ah, a fresh start in a pristine year bursting with hope and second chances—and still unsullied by death. Or at least that of anyone I knew.
My cell phone pinged, alerting me to a text.
This is Tiana from across the alley. Don’t know if you heard, but the mother of the kids next door died of an overdose yesterday.
The Alley Kids. My stomach flipped.
I had first encountered the three little ones years earlier when their dad had dropped them off in our yard—along with their dog Daisy—for an unexpected visit, then disappeared. They had toddled about our property, exuberant and trusting. I smiled back at them, tucking away my worries so they wouldn’t see. When would he return? Did they have a mother who wondered where they were? Was anyone thinking about them?
Over the years, the kids played basketball at our place. And on our driveway we watched them grow. The boys, ages ten and seven, clumped around in untied high tops. One of them wore adult-sized shorts that reached his ankles. Five-year-old Laya’s too-small shirts always popped up, exposing her belly.
My neighbor Tiana and I commiserated over the kids. She braided Laya’s hair whenever she could. Husband and I had our talks too that drifted into our pavement classroom out by the garage. Pick up your garbage. Respect other people’s things. You’re good kids. We believe in you. But the lessons didn’t seem to stick, and we said goodbye to the basketball hoop, our only link to The Alley Kids.
I texted Tiana back: I wonder if there’s something I can do…
As if she knew the secret of how to repair the gouge from losing one’s mother.
Her response: Want to go over together?
The next evening, I headed out the back door at six o’clock. Tiana emerged from her house. Crossing through her dark back yard, she brought Light.
“Hi, honey,” she called out, then wrapped me in a hug in the middle of our alley.
Gifts in our hands, we inched along the icy path until we reached the sidewalk.
“Two days ago, there were police cars and an ambulance over there,” she said. “I can’t stop thinking about those kids.”
I blew out a breath. “Same here.”
Eight people streamed from the duplex as Tiana and I climbed its steps. Inside hummed life. The smell of cigarette smoke mingled with chatter and laughter. A boy played a video game in the living room. Laya scampered by and Tiana patted the girl’s head, covered in a swirl of braids.
T.J., the kids’ dad, cut through a cluster of well-wishers and ambled over to us. Tiana gave him a plant and a heart-shaped box of chocolates. I handed over my gift, fresh cookies, which suddenly seemed like a strange offering.
“How are the kids doing?” she said.
“When everybody leaves, then it’ll hit ‘em.” T.J. nodded, his mouth wobbling. “It’ll hit ‘em good then.”
“If there’s anything I can do—” She gave him a hug.
Our condolences spent, Tiana and I left for home. We had lived across the alley from T.J. for a decade and a half, but Tiana and her family had been in the neighborhood only a year. And in that time, she had often checked on the kids next door, braided hair, and illuminated her part of the block.
Light, set in a dark place, only knows how to shine.
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*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.