The parents were in the kitchen with the hostess, drinking wine from plastic cups, eating hummus, talking about the drought. The aunt stood in the living room, a safe distance away, running her hand through her niece’s hair, which was flecked with sparkles and bits of grated cheese.
A boy with purple lips stared.
“Are you her grandmother?” he asked.
He was wearing a fake coonskin cap and eating a popsicle.
“No,” she said. “Are you?”
He laughed, then sang, in a whisper, “Barney stole my SUV so I stuck a shotgun up his nose.”
He marched past the parents, out the kitchen door.
“Come outside,” said her niece, pulling her hand.
She followed them.
The parents didn’t seem to notice.
Outside was dry grass and dirty plastic toys fenced into a yard. They followed the boy through a slack swing set and a rotting picnic table into a thicket of saplings at the back of the lot.
In a clearing, three little girls sucked popsicles by a plank of wood leaned against a high fence like a ramp.
The littlest girl clutched a naked, snarled-haired Barbie wrapped in a washcloth. “I’m not scared,” the littlest girl was saying. “I just think it’s dangerous and I don’t want to do it.”
One of the bigger girls said to the aunt, “She says she’s going to tell the parents we’re climbing the fence.”
The boy ran up the plank. It bowed and rattled.
“Don’t!” the littlest girl said, and looked at the aunt.
The aunt had no idea if what they were doing was dangerous or not. She decided she didn’t feel like telling them what to do; she wasn’t their mother.
The boy looked over the fence.
“What’s there?” said one of the girls.
“Prisoners,” he said, dropping his popsicle stick onto the other side.
He turned and jumped down, falling on his knees. His coonskin cap fell off. The aunt considered picking it up for him, then decided not to.
He stood, brushing off his knees, looked at her, then picked it up himself.
“Wanna see our secret fort?” he asked.
“Absotively,” she said. “Posilutely,” she said to herself, following the boy through a rut behind the skinny trees, brown leaves clinging to their trunks all from one direction. There must have been a flood before the drought. The other girls walked behind them, the littlest one last.
They came to a circle of rocks: the fort. The boy stood on the largest rock.
The aunt sat. The littlest girl handed her the Barbie and asked, “Can you make her a braid?”
The Barbie’s hair was snarled and stiff. It took a few tries to get the braid right. The aunt re-wrapped the washcloth around the Barbie’s body until it made a good dress.
She handed the Barbie back to the girl who smoothed the braid and admired the dress.
Through a gap in the slats of the fence, the aunt could see a parking lot and the apartment complex where the prisoners lived.
The boy got up and stuck a finger through the slats like a gun.
“I could shoot a water pistol through here,” he said.
“I like your thinking,” the aunt said.
The boy picked up a stick. “Where are your children?”
“I don’t have any,” the aunt said. “Do you?”
“I want a rat.” He whipped a tree with the stick. “But they won’t let me. Stupid,” he said.
She nodded. She agreed.
The older girls were climbing into the crotch of a thicker tree.
“Help us spy on the grown-ups,” the boy said to the aunt.
She said, “What do you want me to find out?”
“Find out…” the boy kicked clumped-up leaves. “Find out…”
“These popsicles are magic,” one of the older girls said to the aunt, from the tree.
“How are they magic?” the aunt asked.
“When you eat them, they make you happy.”
“I want one of those,” the aunt said.
“But you’re already happy,” said the boy.
Sadness settled in her like cement.
“I guess they work when you watch people eat them too,” she said.
She picked up an old pie plate that had a butterfly wing stuck to it.
“That’s where we keep our treasures,” the boy said.
“Hold my popsicle,” her niece said, handing her the popsicle and climbing the tree. Skinny limbs on skinny limbs.
“There’s no room,” said one of the other girls to her niece.
The aunt didn’t interfere. She sucked the popsicle.
“Don’t!” her niece said to her.
“It jumped into my mouth. I’m trying to get it out.” She pretended to try to pull the popsicle out of her mouth.
The kids laughed. They were an easy audience and the deadness inside her pretended it wasn’t there.
The sound of crunching on the leaves came from the thicket.
“Uh-oh,” said the boy.
The hostess climbed through the trees and looked at the aunt, sitting on the rock, popsicle in her mouth, holding the pie plate.
“Let’s not play back here,” the hostess said, talking to the boy, smiling in a tight way. “Let’s come back to the party.”
The aunt stood and brushed leaves from her butt.
The girls jumped down from the tree. Her niece took the popsicle back.
As they followed the hostess through the trees, the aunt whispered to the boy, “What should I find out from the grown-ups?”
“Find out…” he said. He whacked a stick against a tree. “Find out…”
But he didn’t say.
The girls ran ahead across the yard to the parents at the picnic table.
Her niece climbed onto the bench, grabbed a handful of grated cheese from a plastic bowl and put it in her mouth.
The aunt didn’t say anything. She wasn’t her mother. She sat at the table and was given a paper plate of spaghetti and a plastic fork.
The boy stood on the picnic bench. “Barney stole my SUV,” he sang, “So I stuck a shotgun up his nose.”
“What did we say about singing that song?” his mother, the hostess, said in a firm, soft, annoying voice. “Look at me.”
The boy looked at her, chin raised.
“What did we say about that?” his mother asked.
“Sit down at the table,” said the man who must have been the boy’s father.
The boy sat and put a handful of spaghetti in his mouth.
“We don’t use our hands,” his mother said, in her tone.
“She did.” He pointed at the niece.
The boy’s parents looked at each other.
The aunt poured herself a cup of wine.
She could still taste the popsicle.
The parents talked about Jazzfest and litigation, schools and bicycles, triathalons and raised garden beds. Drones. The drought.
The kids went into the house.