The leaves, as green as they would be all year, glisten in the late May afternoon light as the sun streams down on Crapo Park, Burlington. The park, tucked gently alongside the Mississippi River in the southern Des Moines County region of Iowa, seems at peace. The slightest of breezes tickles the air once in a while, illustrated only by the merest hint of a flutter in the trees that dot the park’s perimeter.
The air is calm, serene. Peppered only by the occasional childish exclamation quickly followed, as is usually the case, by a muted yet stern rebuttal of said child by that same child’s adult guardian. And the odd birdsong, but even these are decidedly muted. The heat simmers, hinting at an ability to strain to hotter extremities but restraining itself all the same. A calm, tantalising dance by nature on the cusp of summer.
Throughout the park children – mainly teens but not all – lie sprawled across the bone-dry grass, slumped in a thousand varying yet, ultimately, common poses. Poses which all point to one simple, undeniable truth; school was out. The 1999 summer vacation was finally here. And whilst others may celebrate such an achievement, or state of being, in a more frivolous manner, reminiscent of an Alice Cooper song and accompanying video, the newly-free schoolkids strewn across Crapo Park choose a form closer in kind to transcendental meditation than heavy rock. They are at peace. Exaltation would come later. For now, the vast majority still bedecked in their school uniforms, the day and moment are theirs to soak up and appreciate. In the near distance the great and mighty Mississippi, equally as calm and content, seems to nod its approval.
Towards the edge of the park, five girls slowly linger close to a long disused and derelict segment of a rollercoaster, the remnant of an amusement park that once operated within the park itself. Their movements seemingly as sluggish, or glacial, as the remainder of the park’s inhabitants but their postures at least render them vertical unlike their horizontal equivalents. Each wearing a red-and-white checked school uniform. One of the girls, Emma, breaks off momentarily from the group and crouches down a touch as a small cluster of vibrantly pink roses catches her eyes.
‘Hey, guys’, she says, still staring at the roses as she loosens her ponytail, allowing her luscious blonde hair to temporarily cascade down below her shoulders, before instantly rearranging and retying it again, ‘what are these?’
‘What are what?’
Hannah, the smallest of the group, turns, as do the other three, to look towards Emma.
‘These’ says Emma, pointing to the roses.
‘Well…roses. Duh!’ Madison screws up her face as she walks towards her friend.
‘No,’ sighs Emma, with a knowing exasperation, ‘I know they’re roses but what kind?’
‘Do we still say ‘duh’? I mean, is ‘duh’ still a thing?’ says Hannah.
‘What?’ Madison looks across at Hannah.
‘Duh! I mean really Maddie, we HAVE just finished Junior High,’ says Hannah in her best sarcastic sorority girl impression, ‘I mean we are, like, High Schoolers now. Is that not a bit immature? We’re 13 girlfriend, not 9 anymore.’
‘Whatever.’ Madison turns and crouches down alongside Emma as the latter prods gently at the pink stems of the flowers.
‘They’re wild roses Em’ says Rosa as she approaches slightly behind the other three.
‘Wild roses?’ Emma turns, smiling.
‘Yeah.’ Rosa returns the smile.
‘Yeah, Rosa’s right’ Chloe crosses behind Emma and crouches by her other side. She stumbles slightly as she does, leaning her hand on Emma’s back for support before just as quickly drawing it away. Emma turns to her, placing her hand on her arm slightly in a silent gesture of support. Solidarity. Friendship. Chloe stares at her smile, glancing down at Emma’s hand on her skin. She returns the smile briefly, awkwardly, before shaking her hand free. Acutely aware of the heat rising to her cheeks. ‘Yeah…wild roses. That’s the state flower of Iowa.’
‘Hmm’ says Emma turning back to look at the roses, resplendent beneath the sun’s glare, ‘well they’re beautiful. Aren’t they?’
Madison’s frown returns as she looks at the other three nodding their heads’ gently in agreement. She turns to Emma, glances at her hair before brushing her own brunette locks behind her ear.
‘Well,’ she says, ‘they’re only flowers aren’t they? I mean, like, a flower’s a flower.’
‘Oh, don’t be a downer Maddie’ says Hannah. ‘They are beautiful’
‘Well I might have known you’d say the same, Han.’
‘Oh yeah?’ Hannah looks at Madison with a wry smile, a knowing glance sitting neatly outwith the bounds of seriousness. ‘And why’s that?’
‘Well two words,’ says Madison. ‘Andy and Jack.’
‘That’s three words’
Madison rolls her eyes at Hannah’s retort. An eyeroll heavy with the weight of experience, one well-versed in Hannah’s light-hearted replies. Emma turns her head towards Madison, still smiling but blushing slightly, at the mention of ‘Andy’. On her far side Chloe’s expression visibly darkens. She pulls herself up off the ground quickly, harshly brushing fragments of grass and bracken from her dress. Rosa, still standing, smiles tentatively before looking into the distance, only half-listening to the conversation.
‘God, you know what I mean Han. The two of you are both loved up. So nice pretty flowers and all that shit is catnip to you just now. You’re probably both already dreaming up scenarios where your ‘boyfriends’ turn up at your door with a bunch of pink roses.’
‘Don’t be silly Maddie’ says Emma as she stands up.
‘Yeah, green isn’t a nice colour on you Maddie’ says Hannah, laughing slightly.
‘Oh shut up Hannah, as if I’m jealous. I could get nearly any boy at that school!’
‘And you probably already have’ mutters Hannah.
‘What?’ says Madison, straining to hear.
‘I said, ‘that’s true’
‘Yeah so what’s the problem?’ asks Emma. ‘Anyway, me and Andy aren’t, we’re only just, maybe, seeing, like, what might…we’re not really…’
‘I don’t like him.’
The girls turn to look at Chloe. A determination laced with more than a twitch of nervousness spreads across her face.
‘What?’ Emma’s smile fades slowly as she looks at her friend.
‘I…I don’t like him Em. You…you know I don’t.’ Chloe adjusts her glasses slightly.
The other three girls look at each other as a silence descends upon the group. Emma continues to stare at Chloe with something resembling disappointment. Although as the silence lingers the disappointment appears to give way to a building anger. Hannah gestures to Madison, almost in mime, urging her to say something conciliatory, to turn back the clock as it were. Rosa shrugs as Madison turns to her.
‘Look…look guys I was only…’
‘No Maddie, I want to know why,’ says Emma, refusing to take her eyes off Chloe, ‘I want to know why my best friend feels like it’s ok to diss my boyfriend.’
‘You just said he wasn’t your boyfriend’ says Chloe, herself growing in rigidity.
‘Forget what I said, what’s your problem Chloe?’
‘You know why?’
‘No I don’t know why. That’s why I’m asking you…’
‘He’s bad news.’
‘He’s bad news?’
‘He’s immature, he’s a jerk and you heard how violent he was when…’
‘No Emma, you asked me why and I’m telling you why. He’s not good for you, he’s…’
‘Chloe…’ says Hannah.
‘No Hannah, it’s ok, it’s ok’ says Emma, ‘it is just jealousy isn’t it? You’ve not got a boyfriend of your own – in fact you’ve never ever shown any interest in getting one – and you can’t stand to think that your best friend might be taken away from you. That’s it isn’t it?’
‘No Em,’ a sadness creeps into Chloe’s eyes as she shakes her head slowly, ‘no. It’s not just me thinking this. Is it Madison? Hannah?’
‘Woah woah Chloe, don’t drag me into this’ says Hannah, her arms up in protest. ‘I’ve never…’
‘Even Rosa. And Rosa hardly says a bad word about anyone, does she. Rosa?’
Rosa sighs, a tiredness infecting her expression, and looks at both Emma and Chloe in turn, ‘look guys, I don’t think we should be doing this just now, it’s not…’
‘No Rosa, I really think we should’ says Emma peeling her stare from Chloe and wheeling round to look at the other three, her eyes welling. ‘You really all think this? You really all don’t like Andy? I mean, even you Hannah?! Not once have I said anything bad about Jack. Not once. And…and…and for you to…’
‘Look Em…’ says Hannah, stepping towards Emma.
Her approach is halted almost immediately by a sudden and sickening bang.
The girls, each one of them, jump slightly. Emma and Madison both let out jolted screams. A shiver runs through Chloe. The bang sounded metallic. It was close. Very close. Even though the thud seemed dull it also seemed to reverberate ever so briefly. They slowly turn and look at the disused rollercoaster segment.
‘Oh god’ Rosa covers her mouth in shock as she runs quickly over to the grass and weed strewn metal graveyard, evidently noticing something on the ground beneath it.
The other four look at each other quizzically, an uneasy truce rapidly replacing the previous enmity that has infused the group. They slowly, uneasily begin walking toward their friend.
‘What is it Rosa?’ says Madison.
‘Rosa? Rosa, what is it?’ Chloe asks concernedly as she approaches.
As they approach they see their friend crouched, almost exactly as Emma was only minutes before. Only as they step closer they see the sun’s gaze highlight a tear dripping down her Latina skin.
‘Oh god, what is it Rosa?’ says Emma, breaking into a slight run alongside Hannah as they clamber to be with her.
‘Look’ she says, nodding down towards the ground at her feet.
‘Oh no’ whispers Hannah, her hand covering her mouth.
The other three follow suit as they stare down at the small, by the girls’ reckoning, baby bird twitching futilely through its death throes by Rosa’s feet. Shards of blood stain the bird’s dark neck and white stomach, the impact of the collision painted in garish horror-like strands across its perspiring frame.
Hannah and Emma both instinctively place their hands on Rosa’s shoulders as the small bird appears to breath its last, lying in profile on a small patch of dirt within the overgrown foliage around the rollercoaster. Beside them Chloe and Madison hold and caress each other’s hands briefly in an unspoken display of friendship. They both crouch down, Madison trying not to look at the bird, as they hug into Rosa.
‘Poor little thing’ says Hannah, piercing the silence, desperately fighting within herself against the urge to break the tension with a pithy remark.
‘Oh Rosa, it’s ok, it’s ok, it’s just a little bird’ Emma leans into Rosa to embrace her as the latter’s sobs increase tenfold.
‘No’ says Rosa covering her eyes, wiping at the tears as they continue to stream from her face. ‘No, it’s not the bird. It’s not the bird.’
Emma looks around at the other three, receiving blank stares.
‘What is it then?’
‘It’s…my parents…my parents are splitting up…my Mom’s kicked my Dad out…the other night…he…he…my brother and me, we just…we just…’
‘Oh honey’ Emma hugs back into Rosa as the others follow suit. The sun beats down on the rusting metallic fragments above them as they form something resembling a protective cocoon around their tearful friend. Grasping onto her, and each other, tightly as her sobs increase before eventually dissipating. They stand up.
‘You know, parents are overrated anyway Rosie,’ says Hannah, failing against the previously-quelled urge, ‘I mean my Dad’s an asshole, I’d love to get a break from him now and again. And my Mom come to think of it…’
Rosa looks up at her, staring Hannah in the eye. The other three freeze, unsure which direction the conversation will career into next. Rosa laughs. A snotty, relieved laugh, one that bursts through the stagnant, symmetrical waterfall silhouette of tears adorning both her cheeks. The others (Hannah in particular, if she was being honest) breathe a sigh of relief. Rosa smiles at Hannah. A thank you transcending volume and language.
‘You know’ says Rosa, a sudden flurry of energy flowing through her, ‘you know what we should do? We should bury it. We should bury the poor thing right here. It’s such a shame to see it there on the ground. Any animal could come for it later tonight. What do you say guys?’
‘Of course, we should’ smiles Emma, her eyes glistening with warmth.
‘Why not’ smiles Hannah in turn.
‘Sure…of course we should, sure…’ says Chloe hesitantly, turning to Madison.
‘Yaaay…’ mutters Madison through gritted teeth, a slight look of disgust distorting her face.
‘Ok, great’ says Rosa, ‘I’ll go and find some branches or something to dig, Chloe and Madison, you can come help me? Ems and Hannah, you stay here, make sure nothing gets to it? Ok?’
‘Yaaay again…’ says Madison, once again through gritted teeth.
As the five splits into their agreed three and two mini-groups Chloe hangs back slightly as Madison and Rosa stride forward into the denser part of the wooded area. She catches Emma’s eye whilst Hannah leans down towards the bird, prodding it slightly with a piece of tree branch. The two stare at each other from a slight distance. Chloe’s eyes water slightly, her glasses magnifying the impact, as she mouths ‘I’m sorry’ to her friend. A smile slowly creeps across Emma’s face. She nods. Chloe smiles.
Chloe turns and walks after Rosa and Madison as the afternoon sun begins to dip over Burlington, Iowa. In the near distance the Mississippi River makes itself heard, only slightly, as the coastal breeze begins to flex its muscles.