Fear

FROM HER BEDROOM WINDOW Keira Eason stares at unusual activity across
the street: a large green truck has backed into the driveway and two men stand
leaning on it, drinking from paper cups and grinding out cigarettes on the grass. It’s
Saturday morning, and though Keira is too young to understand what qualities a
perfect day in June is supposed to possess—what the air is supposed to feel like,
smell like, even look like through sun-squinting eyes—some inherent awareness
prompts her to raise the window a few inches.
Through the screen she can hear them swearing, using language she isn’t sup-
posed to use. They yell the f-word over and over and one of them shrieks about this
shitty job. She silently admonishes them. She’s ten, but she knows better than to say
words like that. Moments later some other grown-ups come out of the house, the
conversation quiets, and the two men remove something heavy from the back of the
truck—something large and soft and colorful, mostly green but with flecks of yellow.
They lug it around back, out of sight. They’re big men but they struggle with it, then
return and carry more items, less appealing and less colorful. Machinery maybe,
something on wheels. Another trip and another, and Keira watches until some time
later the truck pulls away and rumbles down the street, Carlson’s Inflatables, in
yellow, painted on its side.
“Those trucks shake the whole house,” Keira’s mother says. Keira did not hear
her come in and doesn’t know when she arrived.
“The men were swearing, Mom.”
“Yes. I heard them. Looks like a party,” she says, and points out the balloons tied
to the porch lights, the fence posts, even the branches of a newly-leafed red maple in
the front yard. Keira had been so taken by the truck, she didn’t notice.
“Are we going to the party, Mom?”
“We don’t really know the Reed family that well.”
“But on Halloween I went there to trick or treat. You let me go by myself.”
“Because it was close by, but they’re just neighbors,” her mother says. “I’ll bet you
don’t even know the little girl’s name.”
“It’s Sylvy. The men brought something in that truck. Something big.”
“A dinosaur,” her mother says, ignoring her daughter’s correct answer. “You
blow it up and bounce on it, or in it. It’s something new.”
“You bounce on it?”
“Like the trampoline at cousin Cathy’s party. Remember how you had a headache
afterwards?”

Keira remembers the headache, but remembers also how her cousin laughed and
told her it was a small price to pay for fun. Of course her sister Hayley fell and bent
her finger back and cried for an hour. She’s only seven and cries all the time anyway.
But that was a while ago. What Keira wants now is an explanation of why there’d be
a dinosaur across the street when she won’t be bouncing on it. She can see one daf-
fodil-yellow corner of it sticking out from behind the garage. It’s right there, practi-
cally within reach.
“Too hot for that kind of thing anyway,” her mother says, her voice flat and
unconvincing. She wipes her forehead with her sleeve to confirm the statement.
“Everyone will be sweating and hot, overheated.”
Keira barely registers the comment.
“Can I go over there and play?”
“That would be party-crashing,” her mother says, then carefully explains why
such a thing is not to be done, how parties are planned with a certain number of
guests expected, and how if there are too many there won’t be enough cake, enough
ice cream, enough anything. She races through the litany of reasons, precluding the
opportunity for questions or objections. Keira listens attentively. She always does,
just like in school when a teacher is explaining something in arithmetic. She even, at
some level, understands that she is not entitled to be at this party.
“I guess,” her mom says as she leaves the room, “you should have gone with your
father and sister.”
To the library? On a Saturday? Why? Keira had no stupid second-grade assign-
ment about birds to do, so she didn’t need to be looking through picture books on
some long table writing down notes about feathers and nests. She’d rather have the
morning to herself and play with Hayley in the afternoon. But Keira doesn’t sulk,
doesn’t dwell on disappointment. Not ever. By noon she has forgotten the party
entirely, immersed as she always is in some fantastical drama in the backyard play-
house her father built and in which she keeps the characters of her little plays.
Then the music begins.
It’s awful music, tinny, blaring, the same series of notes again and again, but it
sounds like the merry-go-round at the carnival her father always claims is dirty and
horrid yet takes the family to every April when it comes to town. She walks around
to the front of the house and stands on the sidewalk. She hears voices, high-pitched
and screaming, voices she has heard on a spinning carnival ride where some kids
threw up but she begged to ride again and did.
She is beginning to understand why people crash parties.
A blue station wagon pulls up. It’s Laura Marin’s mom. Laura is her best school
friend and yet, here she is, across the street, walking up the very same sidewalk
where Keira walked on Halloween…by herself. She shouts Laura’s name and moves
closer to the curb, stopping just short of the street. The mother proffers a half-
hearted wave but Laura herself, carrying a gift in both hands, lays it on the ground
and gestures wildly.

“Come to the party!” she yells, but her mother picks up the gift—Keira can see a
yellow bow on it—and quickly pulls Laura around back.
It takes Keira only seconds to realize that playing with her best school friend is
different from crashing a party. And this best school friend has actually invited her.
Come to the party, she said. Keira doesn’t doubt she has heard her correctly.
She steps off the curb and dutifully looks both ways. There aren’t many cars on
Maple Drive, not ever, but she has learned to be careful. During a bicentennial
parade, three years before, a little boy in her class was struck by a car and taken to
the hospital. Keira was only seven but she remembers.
Now she’s ten. She knows very little about deceit and subterfuge. She doesn’t
know how to look as if she belongs. She’s just suddenly there, in those drab green
shorts and that simple gray t-shirt, standing amidst the booming music and the
golden streamers and the girls in the colorful jerseys. She considers going home to
change into something pretty when a voice stops her.
“I know you. You live across the street.”
It’s Sylvy.
“I came on Halloween,” Keira says. She is about to explain her presence when
Sylvy cuts her off.
“I thought you couldn’t come. Do you want to bounce with me?”
“I think I can do that,” Keira says, carefully parsing her mother’s concerns. “But I
can’t have cake and ice cream because there won’t be enough. And I think I can play
with Laura.”
“Laura Marin? She’s fat,” Sylvy says. “Why do you want to play with her?”
“She’s my friend.”
“I’ll be your friend if you want to bounce. Come on.”
Keira sees a line of kids and, for the first time, sees this inflated dinosaur up close:
that heap of plastic those men dragged from the truck has been transformed into
something wondrous and huge, higher than the porch of the house, spewing out
that music which now, so close to the source, seems slightly less awful. Laura is in
line talking with other kids she recognizes, though most are strangers to her. And
Laura doesn’t look fat even though she does have breasts that are bigger than
everyone else’s. That doesn’t make her fat. That’s what Keira’s mother said anyway,
and she’s always right.
Almost always.
“I guess we should get in line,” Keira says.
“We don’t have to. Come on. Bouncing is more fun when you sneak in.”
Keira follows her new friend through a yard festooned with flags and balloons
whipping about almost to the horizontal in the suddenly freshening breeze. Grown-
ups linger on the edges of the group, holding glasses that drip condensation. Some
of the men drink from bottles; a few of them smoke cigarettes. At the front of the
line a large man stands, the father from across the street—Sylvy’s father—the one
who dropped candy into Keira’s plastic Halloween pumpkin the previous fall. In one

hand, he holds a can of soda and in the other a cigarette that he occasionally puffs
on, aiming the smoke downwind away from the children. Keira eyes him warily.
“If your father sees me….”
Sylvy pulls her along. “I’ll show you a secret, but you can’t tell anyone.”
Keira follows the girl onto the back porch and into the house, passing a boy
coming the other way. He holds a wad of bloodstained tissue to his nose and looks
ashen while a woman, his mother maybe, leads him back into the yard. He looks
straight at Keira, there’s a moment of recognition and his right hand goes up in a
near-wave, but in that same instant he seems to remember his own embarrassment
and humiliation. She knows him from school, but she isn’t supposed to be there and
tries to hide behind Sylvy. It doesn’t matter. The boy doesn’t want to be seen either,
his bouncing fun apparently over. The girls pass a gray-haired woman with tiny
glasses who seems busy with something in the sink as water splashes everywhere.
She never sees them.
Sylvy leads the way down some steps. The basement is dark, but Sylvy insists that
they not turn on a light, that they might be seen. Enough midday sunlight streams
through the undersized windows to allow them to see where they’re going, but Keira
feels unsure that she should be there. It was one thing to be standing in the yard
looking for Laura, but it’s something else to be sneaking around in someone’s cellar.
If she could leave…but Sylvy has a tight grip on Keira’s hand and leads the way
across the concrete floor toward a sliver of light.
“Up those stairs,” Sylvy says, “is the dinosaur. There’s a slanted door that goes
outside. If we push it open a little bit and squeeze through, we won’t have to wait in
line. I’ll go first.”
“But your father….”
“It’s my birthday and Daddy says I can do whatever I want. I told him to get the
dinosaur so it’s really mine.”
“To keep?”
“No, stupid.”
Even without the condescension in Sylvy’s voice, Keira knows her question made
no sense. Still, just for that moment Keira envisions it: an amusement park right
across the street. She and Sylvy, and Hayley too if she’s not too young—every day,
all summer once school got out. Maybe not Laura, but so what? Still, the question
was stupid and she’s embarrassed to have asked it; besides, Sylvy is already pushing
open the door and Keira sees a widening band of light under it, like the sky in the
evening when the sun has set and a thin strip of daytime remains and she knows it’s
time to go into the house.
Then something bangs on the metal door and Sylvy laughs.
“Someone jumped on it,” she says.
“What if you open it and someone jumps on it then?”
“Then they’ll crack their head open,” she says, laughing even harder.

Keira sees it differently…sees the door landing on Sylvy and cracking her head
open. Maybe she should warn her, but then what? Have herself be called stupid
again? Besides, they’re this close….
So she chooses instead to watch her new friend open the door by inches until
there is almost enough room to squeeze through. At that instant the girl turns
around and Keira can see her face. Sylvy isn’t scared at all. She is laughing and her
mouth shows the randomness of her teeth and the spaces where there will be more.
There’s a look of triumph and accomplishment, maybe the same look Keira has
when one of her playhouse dramas has turned out well, when all the characters have
behaved and the ending has left everyone feeling satisfied. So it’s okay after all to
crash a party and make a new friend. She won’t even be punished.
And then just like that there is no light and no smile and no sound except a door
smashing shut and the softer sound of something striking the cold concrete floor at
her feet.
For a moment Keira says nothing. Waiting. Sylvy will have to push that door
open again. Just a delay. In a minute or two they’ll be on the dinosaur.
“Get up,” Keira says. “Come on.”
Sylvy doesn’t answer.
Keira bends down and feels around. It’s really dark. If she pushes that door open
—but she can’t. She’ll be caught for sure.
“Come on, Sylvy, get up.”
She sounds like her own mother awakening the girls for school. She and her sister
always obey quickly, but this girl….
Keira’s voice became louder, each plea more demanding and more desperate, her
shouts swallowed by the motorized roar of the machinery and the music blaring
alongside it.
“Come on, we’re gonna get in trouble.”
She nudges Sylvy once, then again. Maybe the girl is ticklish. She feels around
some more, finds her knees, and squeezes the skin just above the kneecap. Nothing.
Maybe she’s hurt? In school the nurse has given them a first-aid lesson on what
to do if that happens. Call somebody: that’s most important, but who? Her mother,
who had specifically told her not to go? Sylvy’s mom, who had specifically not
invited her? She could tell her own father maybe—at least he didn’t know about any
of this—and even though there might be punishment later, he had never raised his
voice to her and she was sure he wouldn’t this time either.
But her father isn’t home and she can’t leave the girl there. She squints in the
darkness. There are parts of Keira’s own cellar that she avoids—corners with spider
webs and beetles and oversized bugs too ugly for names—dark areas where the light
barely reaches. If this is one of those places, she has to make sure the girl is awake
before she leaves her there.
And so she sits, the tops of her legs recoiling against the cold concrete. Above her
the loudspeaker continues to pump out music at the same monotonous, but almost
6•Chuck Radda
comforting, level. As long as the music plays…. Occasionally a scream interrupts,
someone has been knocked down or has jumped too high or is just thrilled to be
part of such an extraordinary event. Maybe the boy with the bloody nose has
smashed his face again.
And then the machine stops and she hears more adult voices than children’s.
At first they are calm and inquisitive, like her own mother entering Keira’s bed-
room and calling her although they both know she’s there. Not so much a question
as a greeting.
Then the voices grow more demanding.
“Come on, now, Sylvy, stop hiding.”
It’s a man’s voice. Then a woman shouts something about presents.
And cake.
And ice cream.
Forbidden items.
Snippets of sentences resonate above the metal door in the suddenly quiet yard
and Keira nudges the girl again.
“I can’t have cake,” she says. “My mother said not to. There won’t be enough.”
But it isn’t her mother who proclaimed the rule: it’s Keira herself. That had been
the deal. No cake or ice cream or anything else meted out to guests. Just playing with
a friend. And now she hasn’t even done that and she’s angry. Sylvy has ruined the
whole day.
“I can’s stay here now,” she says, then lifts herself off the step and walks slowly
across the cellar. She can hear footsteps above her, water running, voices with more
urgency.
She is ready to run out of the house and across the street, without looking both
ways if necessary. But when she steps into the light of the kitchen, the house is quiet.
At the sink the same woman is struggling with a pile of paper plates, trying to tear
off the cellophane.
“Did you find the bathroom okay, little girl?”
Keira mumbles a yes and sidesteps the puddle of water on the floor. The woman
grunts without ever having looked at her.
“As soon as we find out where my niece is hiding,” she says, “we’ll have cake.”
Up until that point the idea that Sylvy is merely hiding never occurred to her.
Hide-and-go-seek was fun, of course, but people usually hid alone. They didn’t drag
a friend along and hide with her. But the Reeds, well, maybe they played the game
differently. Or maybe there was a new variation that hadn’t gotten around the
schoolyard yet. Or maybe Sylvy was playing a trick on Keira, pretending to be
asleep, sort of like hiding. It wasn’t a very nice trick, and it meant there would be no
bouncing on the dinosaur. Maybe Sylvy didn’t like her after all.
“She’s down there,” Keira says, and points to the cellar door, slightly ajar as she
left it. She is angry now. It was bad enough not to be invited, but to be cheated like
this?

tight,” she says, then leans toward the window in front of her and yelled outside.

“Why in the world…?” the woman begins but lets the thought go, takes a sharp
knife, and pokes the blade into the packet of dishes. “They wrap these so damn
have the dishes. Anyone find her yet?”
Before there’s an answer, Keira is gone. She recrosses Maple Drive and sits on the
big rock outside her play house watching some bees hovering near the salvias. Such
a strange name for a plant, gross like saliva, but pretty to look at. And always cov-
ered with bees, their hum filling the space between the afternoon silence and the
shrill scream of the police sirens that begins a short time later.
Sometime after that a policewoman comes to the Eason house. The lady in the
kitchen struggling with the paper plates remembers a little girl but has no idea what
she looked like or what she was wearing. The officer’s questions are innocuous and
humane; nobody is accusing anyone but everyone wants to know how it happened.
Keira admits to having peeked into the yard but nothing more. Her parents, both
home now, confirm it.
On the TV someone calls it a freak accident, says that ten-year-old Sylvia Reed
had become the innocent victim of childhood mischief, the desire to play a harmless
trick. But (the reporter says) at the moment she pushed open that cellar hatch,
someone else at the party jumped on it, someone who had been running and chose
that split second to land full force, to knock her backwards, to cause her head to hit
the concrete steps and end her life.
A freak accident.
Keira doesn’t know what the term even means, but something about it seems to
erase all responsibility: hers, Sylvy’s, the boy who jumped on the door. No one is to
blame.
That night she tells her parents the whole story. Her mother looks wary but her
father seems pleased.
“You should always tell the truth,” he says.
Keira nods.
“But sometimes,” he says. “The truth makes it worse and people need to hear…
nicer things.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“See,” her mom says, “If you tell Sylvy’s mom and dad what happened, they’ll be
even sadder. It’s better to say that you weren’t there and it was just an accident.”
“But it was an accident.”
“Yes, and that’s why nobody is responsible.”
“I don’t think Sylvy liked me anyway. She said I was stupid.”
“Well you’re not stupid,” her father says with exaggerated incredulity. “We all
know that.”
Her mother nods. “She isn’t a very nice girl.”
She isn’t.

Just like that the conversation slips into the present tense, and just like
that there has been no death—just Sylvy who doesn’t like Keira. Sylvy who isn’t a
very nice girl.
Keira, anticipating some sort of punishment and finding none in the offing,
accepts the argument. But it’s a strange conversation: her father always makes jokes,
but tonight there are none. He doesn’t smile or laugh. And Keira still doesn’t under-
stand how the truth can make someone sadder, but she has occasionally been sent to
her room for little bits of misbehavior, and this escape seems too good to question.
Besides, some of the story really is true.
She never bounced on the dinosaur.
She never ate any cake.
Sylvy did, in fact, ruin the day.
That night it snows so hard and so heavily that Keira can hear the flakes striking
the roof above her bed. Her play house is buried and the street is blocked by drifts
taller than she. Now no one can cross, and anyway there’s nothing to cross to: the
Reeds’ house has vanished and bits of daffodil-yellow plastic whip across the white
landscape, occasionally striking her bedroom window before disappearing in the
riotous squall. A policeman stands in the street as the snow rises and covers him.
Keira should tell somebody, but then she hears her mother awakening her for
school. On Sunday? On Sunday? Keira repeats it as loudly as she can but her mother
doesn’t seem to hear: how can she with the snow crashing on the roof like that?
Keira pulls the sheet over her head but it does no good. Her mother will not relent.
Angrily the girl jumps up to confront this woman who refuses to let her sleep, who
can’t figure out that there’s no school on Sunday, who can’t stop the terrible, deaf-
ening snow.
“You were having a nightmare, Keira.”
“But it’s Sunday,” she answers, half mumbling. “There’s no school anyway.”
“Of course there isn’t. You’re sweating, honey. Do you want some water?”
Keira shakes her head, steals a glance at the window. The shade is drawn but ruf-
fles slightly in the nighttime breezes. There’s no snow slanting by, not tonight.
Across the street it’s perfectly quiet, though cars lined the curb when she went to
sleep and every light was blazing.
“I thought it was snowing….”
“Not on the longest day of the year.”
“It was making so much noise.”
“Nightmares are never real,” her mother says.
“I remember the street filling up and a policeman….“
“Most of what you think you remember isn’t even true.”
“Like Sylvy?”
“Like Sylvy.”

Years later when Keira Eason considered the events of that Saturday afternoon, she could not say with any certainty that she had ever crossed the street, descended those stairs, been with Sylvy at all. And her parents, from the beginning, agreed.