"Can I color?" The three-year-old I care for asks.
"Sure." I say, walking to where the markers and paper sit stacked on the counter. When I flip to a fresh page, she asks that I tear it out. I do. She dumps the markers onto the kitchen table. Four fall to the floor. I pick them up and align them beside her paper. "There you go." I say. Two short pencils and a set of old keys have also fallen from the container. I return them to the plastic bin and click the lid closed.
At the sink, I glance over to watch as she drags the tip of her marker into a blue swirl. She holds it up to show me. "It looks like a rose!" I tell her. Seconds later, she is holding one of the short sharp pencils and drawing a line from the blue squiggle to the bottom of the page. "Only draw on the paper." I say. (The marker ink only shows on the specific paper they're paired with.) She obeys my request, carefully keeping the lead on the page. I turn to the stove, grab the pasta pot and place it into the deep metal sink. That's when I suddenly see her head beside the kitchen island. I ask her what she's doing, afraid she's taking the graphite to the white cabinetry. She doesn't respond. Then a brilliant bluish-white flashes before her. I rush around the downed dishwasher door. I check her. She's silent but breathing and not bleeding. I look behind me. One of the keys from the marker bucket is sticking straight into the electricity socket at the end of the island. With my wits tangled by jitters, I grab the charred keys, which luckily do not shock me, and throw them onto the counter. I check the child again. I inspect her cheeks, eyes, fingers, tummy. She looks past me, sees the soot stain on the wall and begins to sob and mumble incoherent sentences. She then turns and runs away like a teenager. I let her go. I call after her, but decide to give her space. As she clambers up each step to the second floor, I watch from below. Then my sense returns. She isn't thirteen, she's three. I go after her, running up the stairs, my socks slipping me slightly.
In her pale pink room, she tries to hide beside her bookshelf. There is a little space between the painted plaster and wood. She comes here when she needs a confined private place or when it's my turn to count during Hide-and-Seek. Today, however, there will be neither counting nor hiding in cozy crannies. I pull her to me and carry her flailing limbs to the rocking chair. "You're ok." I say over and over again. But when I sit us down, she escapes me with frantic wiggling.
"Why don't you go into your bed." I suggest. She goes, steps up onto the ottoman and climbs over the lowered bar into her crib. She dives her face into the covers then turns her sniffling nose and mouth up for air. I sit beside her, rubbing her back and assuring her that many kids have made the same mistake. Immediately after the flash, while I was checking her for holes and singed banana curls, she'd said she was trying to unlock it, the outlet. Now in the safety of her soft blankets, she stops crying, but looks visibly weary.
"Why don't you fall asleep." I urge. But she won't. Instead her eyes protest by barely blinking. I decide to pick her up. "I'm going to pick you up." I warn. This time she doesn't resist. I wrap my fingers around her ribs, lift and carry her back to the chair. The side of her face rests on the side of mine. The skin to skin touch soothes her. I begin to rock, shifting her head to my chest. Seconds later, her breathing deepens and her long standing cough begins to rattle within her ribs, causing a snore that sounds like that an old man. With one hand around her head and the other spanning her back, I rock to a slow rhythm for twenty minutes. As we sway, the reality of the event catches up to me. Her fingers could have been touching the keys when the electricity reached the metal. Her heart could have stopped. What would I have done if her heart had stopped? Then my thoughts begin racing on a new track. What if she has a concussion somehow and now that she's sleeping she won't wake up? This stomps my feet and halts our momentum. I start tapping her toes like piano keys and telling her that it's time to pick her brother up from school. She stirs and squints. She's fine! She's fine. She's fine. I lay her head back to my chest, collapse into the curve of the chair and rock her back to sleep.
Last week in a Connecticut elementary school, twenty children, all just six and seven years old, were killed by the unforgiving wrath of a "troubled young man" with access to semi-automatic rifles. The school psychologist, principal, the murderer's mother and four teachers were also slain before the killer took his own life. No one shot survived. When the firemen and paramedics arrived there wasn't even anyone to revive or rush to the hospital.
When the little girl awakes in my arms, I offer her a juice box. To my relief, the gloom is gone. The nap, it seems, has distanced her from the shock of our little socket show. Later I will have to coax her back into the kitchen, but it won't be terribly traumatic. After that she'll walk beside me on the sidewalk while I call her mother to tell her the story of the soot stained socket.
Isn't it difficult enough to keep our children safe? Safe from brass keys and inviting outlets, wet monkey bars, and busy streets? Safe from cyber bullies, sexual predators, lead paint, and sharp rusty corners? Safe from chemically constructed food in bodegas, vending machines and cafeterias? Safe from prescription drugs with suicidal side effects, boiling pots on stovetops, plastic bags and abandoned refrigerators? Safe from old steam heating burners in living room corners, slippery bathtubs full of warm suds, psychotic strangers on the bus and broken beer bottles at the beach? Safe from rickety window screens, knives in the open dishwasher, bleach below the sink and pornographic popups on our computer screens? Most of us do our very best to keep a child safe and to defy, as best we can, the impermanence of innocence. Why then do we allow these semi-automatic massacre machines to be bought and sold in our stores like bicycles? Is it because the majority of us have yet to have a child shot to death beneath his/her desk, a cousin murdered at the movies, a sister shot down on her front stoop, or a father executed in his cubicle? Is it because those of us lucky enough to escape tragedy live within the assurances of statistics, secretly convincing ourselves that most likely we, and our loved ones, will not be shot dead in the next senseless massacre? Because that shouldn't matter. Love thy neighbor now. Demand from our politicians laws that protect our lives and not just our rights.