A MOST BEAUTIFUL PICTURE
The sun was almost down. It was at the perfect moment of twilight where the surge of night and the ebb of day meet to paint the most beautiful picture in the world. Jonathan's breath was the only sound besides the creak of the old brown chains on the swing and his daughter's endless talking. He didn't know if his daughter was talking when he said to her, "Anna, I used to play here."
"It looks old," his daughter said, frowning. Jonathan's eyes swept the playground. The swings were the only things that were all still erect and working. The tree house with the big yellow slide had a pile of fallen logs at its base and the slide was brown and cracked. The sandbox used to be a bright white sea in a bed of woodchips but now it was just a giant, tainted black mess. Even the woodchips were worn down, and weedy grass had grown in through the unguarded spaces.
"How long . . ." Jonathan murmured.
His daughter plummeted off the swing and fell into the woodchips. "Whee!" she exclaimed. Jonathan smiled as the swing hit him gently on the stomach on its backswing.
"Where'd you learn that?" he asked.
She got back on the swing. "Sara. She's from school. Wasn't that cool?"
"The coolest." His daughter, Laura, was beautiful. She talked like an angel, her breath like butterflies against a purple sky. Her deep black hair was a collection of black diamonds all molded together. When the sun shone in her eyes, they turned into round, blue crystals.
"Hey!" Anna yelled, her eyebrows dipping down at the front. She stepped off the swing let it barrel back at him.
"What?" Jonathan asked, irritated.
"Where's my brayslet?" she asked.
"Yeah," she whimpered. "I don know where it went." A tear slipped down her cheek.
"Don't worry, honey. We'll look for it."
When they couldn't find it after a scrambled search all around the playground, Jonathan asked, "Are you sure you brought it with you?"
"Yes! I saw the sun shining on it when I was swinging."
"What color is it?"
She thought a moment. "Purple—and pink. And shiny."
"Well we can look for it again."
"Maybe it fell off when you jumped off the swing," he suggested.
Her eyes lit up. He smiled, for it was hard not to. So they looked for it again, but they still couldn't find it. Anna had tears in her eyes, flaws in her crystals.
"But Daddy, it's my bracelet!"
"It's, okay, hon. We can find you one when we get home," he answered. "You and Mommy can go shopping. He knew how his daughter loved shopping.
"How? I don't think that is gonna happen," Anna said. She slumped back into the swing. It creaked with acceptance.
"Why not, honey?"
"Yesterday morning, Mommy said for a while we might not be getting any more toys very soon."
Jonathon sat down in the swing next to her. She was swaying in the breeze. He said nothing for a while. He looked up at her and grimaced. "You know Daddy lost his job?"
She said nothing. A tear slipped from her eye and plummeted to the woodchips. It made a soft splat.
"Anna, she's right. I'm sorry if I got your hopes up. I just forgot about it." He changed the subject, "It's great, you know, coming back to this playground."
"Were you a kid in this town?" Her feet raked the ground. They both watched.
He nodded slowly. "I grew up here. In this playground, me and my friends played here."
"I used to be rich!" Jonathon shouted, jumping of the swing. "I owned this town," he muttered. He walked over to the sandbox and stared at it for a long time. His daughter, watching him, fell asleep, her head leaning against the chain.
"Hey!" a voice came from the parking lot. Jonathon looked up and saw a cop leaning on his car. "Who are you?"
"Jonathon. Jonathon Meakly.
He thought he recognized the name. "This town's deserted. Hallis was abandoned fifteen years ago. What're ya doing here?"
Jonathon walked a few steps, pondering the question. "I don't know. Nostalgia, maybe? Reliving old memories. Warm memories, beautiful memories," Jonathon answered thoughtfully, looking at the curb separating the grass from the woodchips. He wondered what would happen if the curb suddenly vanished and grass and woodchips ran and grew all over each other; a big, frenzied mess.
The cop watched him. "That your daughter?"
Jonathon nodded, grinning suddenly. "Beautiful, isn't she?"
The cop looked at the girl on the swing. It took a lot of effort not to wince. The girl on the swing, still sleeping, had long, matted black hair, ridden with white spots visible from where he was standing. Her clothes were dirty and ragged at the sleeves. Her face, leaning on the chain, was blotched with pimples all over. The cop looked back at Jonathon.
"All right," the cop said, looking away from the girl and up at the darkening sky. "You'll need to—"
"Leave," Jonathon finished. He nodded, and in his mind, the curb had vanished already. It had vanished a long, long time ago.
"All right, take care," the cop said as he turned to his car, all the while his expressionless face watched the cool night sigh into existence. He wondered if an artist could ever really capture the energy, the feeling from a real sunset.
Jonathon woke Anna and took her to the car. Half-asleep, she didn't say a word. Before he started the engine he looked at his daughter in the rearview mirror, already sleeping again. He then thought that maybe some other lost father and his daughter would come back to his hometown to relive past happy memories. He wondered if maybe the little girl would find a bracelet in the woodchips in the playground and smile.
Jonathon started the engine and looked at his daughter again. Asleep, she was beautiful. Her crystals were being renewed, refueled, guarded for safekeeping. He was rich. He wondered if an artist could ever paint a picture like this—a most beautiful picture.