When the front door opened, it’s like walking out of the doctor’s office, or peeling the sticky paper wrapper off of a lollipop. The feeling of released happiness always hung in the air whenever he opened the front door and said “Go outside to play”. And as she dashed out the door, her dad would never fail to call out “Come back home when the streetlight on the corner turns on!” As her skinny legs raced down the cracked sidewalk, Jace would nod to herself. When the sky got dark, the big light on the tar-smeared pole would glow with hazy yellow light, and that was when she knew to go back home.
Jace’s dingy shoes made the tall grass whisper as she walked into the neighbor kids’ yard where she always played with them. She had lots of shoes. Some were sparkly, but her favorites were the ones that were ripped up and stained. Not knowing exactly why, she always chose the shoes with dirty laces. Maybe because the clean shoes didn’t feel right on her feet. Maybe because she never felt as brand-new as the sparkly shoes. The grass around her worn-out shoes was brown and trodden on by many young feet like her own.
Here in this backyard was where Jace was happiest. Here, she and the three neighbor kids would smear mud on their faces for war paint and two kids would go in the creaky old play fort and be cowboys with stout twigs for guns, and the other two would storm the fort with their best Indian war cries and makeshift bows and arrows that didn’t shoot far. Jace would always play an Indian.
Eventually they would get tired of screaming warfare and sometimes they would make a peace treaty with the cowboys. The Indians would make food and the cowboys would hunt and keep the lions away from the fort.
Armed with brightly-colored sand buckets, Jace and the neighborhood girl Abby would go out foraging for food. Sometimes they stripped stalks from budding bamboo to pound up into green wheat. Other times they would find big bunches of plump yet small sun-ripened berries burdening the branches of some vine or miniature tree. When they found these treasures, the two small girls would fill their buckets with berries and take them back to the fort to mash up with large rocks to make medicine and jam.
Occasionally, the cowboy scout would spot smoke from hostile Indian campfires in the next neighbor’s yard. Even though Jace tried to convince them that the smoke was from the neighbor’s afternoon cigarette, the cowboys would insist on fleeing the fort and making the arduous trek across the yard to dig defending trenches in the soft dirt in the shade of the fence. After the trenches were dug, the cowboys and Indians would await the attack, armed with sticks and various trowels and spades found in the garden. As the sun got hotter and the kids got sweatier, the Indians would usually decide to attack the cowboys and get it over with. After much dispute about who won the stick-to-stick combat, the battle would end with a truce and the Indians and cowboys sitting peaceably on the back porch eating apples dripping with condensation in the summer heat.
Eventually, after doodling rainbows on the sidewalks with chalk or racing down the streets on battered bikes, the sun would drop behind the rooftops, taking the heat with it and leaving only humidity that clung to skin. That was when the streetlight turned on, beckoning for Jace to come home. While swatting at mosquitoes and inspecting new rips on her faded jeans, Jace would trudge home, sweaty hair clinging to her little face, tired but happy.
To Jace, the streetlight pole seemed to get shorter every year and the light got dimmer. The Indian and cowboy wars were exchanged for a shiny Playstation and the apples for soda pop and Cheetos. However, the neighborhood kids could still never decide on who exactly won the Nintendo wars, and Jace always walked in grimy shoes with a shining streetlight beaconing her home at dusk.
Until one night, when Jace walked out of the neighbor’s house with an almost empty soda can in her hand, and noticed that it was dark, just like every other night. But the streetlight wasn’t on, unlike every other night. With a glance at the dead lightbulb atop the pole, and a remembrance of the growing tension at home, Jace turned down a different street than she had the years before and did not go home that night, or any night in the following year.
The heap of shiny shoes underneath Jace’s bed became dingy as dust gathered on them, just like the despair began to blanket the minds of Jace’s parents. Every night, her dad would open the door to let the dog out, and whenever he said “Go outside to play”, her mom would quietly cry at the painfully familiar words. But soon her dad began to stop repeating the phrase, until everything that reminded him of his little girl was silent.
Dirty shoes tread on the uneven sidewalk. An ancient toad croaked accusingly. The parched grass whispered uncertainly. An old fort smeared with faded berry stains creaked. A front door opened, mingling inside light with outside twilight.
A young female voice asked hesitantly as Jace stood in the doorway, a streetlight gleaming brightly over her shoulder.