No one ever had to tell Alice that she was special. She just knew
No one ever had to tell Alice that she was special. She just knew.
Keeping her distance from the other children never bothered her. She was an independent and curious little soul.
It was important to let the curious explore on their own. And so, Robert and Charlotte sat a fair distance away from the toddler, watching from afar what their immortal eyes could never miss.
Here, they were just another young couple among so many who came to the park on a Sunday afternoon. They always took the same bench, every time they came to the park – the one that was furthest away from the playground, in the grass, under the tree with the tiny white blossoms. It was always empty and waiting for them, as if the other families knew it had been claimed since the very first day.
It had been Charlotte's idea to visit the park. She sometimes passed the playground on her way to the market, and the sights and sounds of giggling children had been stirring a happy inspiration in her mind for some time. Finally, she shared the proposition with her husband; then shortly after, with their daughter.
Alice was anything but wary when it came to embarking on a new adventure. For her first time, they'd taken her early in the morning, before the sun had even yet to rise. It would be best, they thought, if she had the chance to explore without the intrusion of other clashing curiosities.
She was still drowsy when they buckled her into the car, but her eyes were wide by the time they pulled into the lot.
Alice was stunned by the playground in all its charming simplicity. She was captivated by the lack of complexity in an environment that had been specially designed for the minds and bodies of her unique age. Everything was perfect, shining, and just the right size. It was full of surprises, without being overwhelming. It was safe without entirely eradicating that mild sensation of lingering dangers.
The playground was adventure – all neatly packaged inside a splinterless square perimeter, a multi-colored plastic kingdom upon a vast bed of cedar chips.
Alice loved the playground.
They took her there again and again; she just never grew tired of it. Each time they went, she discovered something new.
Twelve days ago, she stepped in the sandbox for the first time. It was like a tiny beach, she'd said. She'd trailed sand behind her for hours afterward, but it had been worth it. She didn't ask to go to the beach nearly as often as she'd asked to go back to that sandbox.
Last week, she decided to try the tallest slide. It was the most intimidating, not only because of its height, but because sliding through an enclosed tube of dark purple plastic required courage on the part of a four-year-old child. Charlotte held her hand while she climbed to the top, and Robert promised to catch her at the bottom.
Three days ago, she discovered the water fountain. It was shallow and full of shiny coins. Once she'd seen other children tossing coins into the water, and she asked politely if she could try it.
It was a lucky thing that her father always had spare change on his person.
"Remember to make a wish," her mother reminded.
Alice's silver dollar was still there, a few inches from the center of the bowl. It seemed to sparkle more than all the others.
Robert and Charlotte often found themselves wondering what she had wished for.
Sometimes, when Alice grew bored with the playground, they would take a walk around the path that encircled the park. Alice stayed between them always, each of her hands being hugged by one of theirs while they walked. Sometimes they lifted her up off the ground, and she would laugh... delightful, sparkly, naturally captivating baby laughter.
Charlotte was addicted to the sound. She would often catch her husband's eye, finding his glance just as overflowing with significance; he knew precisely why she always sought his gaze at that moment the laughter began. Charlotte could not help it. Seeing her own joy reflected in Robert's eyes just made the sensation infinitely more poignant.
Alice's laughter worked like an adhesive between their gazes. It was unfathomable to them that no matter how many times they repeated whatever had elicited that laughter in the first place, it always came back, just as strong and just as amazingly enthused as before. They had to look at each other when they heard it – it was not a choice – it was a necessity.
For the perils of this deliciously joyful trap, they found themselves locking gazes more often than not.
Alice kept right on laughing.
Never did a day go by where Alice failed to mention something about the park. She may never have guessed just how much her parents loved going to the park, too. Maybe even more than she did.
The other children rarely used the swings – they seemed to have little interest in the more daring of activities, instead choosing to spend their time stationary, closer to the ground. But Alice was a regular thrill-seeker – a trait, Robert liked to tease, she must have inherited from her mother.
Her tiny hands reached out to clutch both chains of the swing, and she gave an experimental push, perhaps to test its reliability. Her chin tipped up as she raised her glossy brown eyes to the top of the swing, silently marveling at the strangeness of the foreign contraption. Her little pink lips parted in wonder, and with a look of determination, she gracefully hoisted her weight onto the seat of the swing.
After pausing to adjust to the shift in balance, she slowly began to rock her stubby legs back and forth, every ounce of effort harnessed to set herself in motion.
Charlotte muffled a helpless chortle of sympathy, the touch of her amusement promptly infecting her husband. Hands still linked, they kept still for a while longer just to watch and wait for what may happen, consistently victimized by their daughter's witless charms.
How would the solution to this miniature dilemma come about? They wondered.
"Should we help her, do you think...?" One would ask the other, concerned that their distance might be read as neglect.
The other would tighten the tangle of their hands in reassurance, and with a smile, settle. "No, let her try for just a little bit longer..."
It was getting late, and while the other children were saying their goodbyes, Alice was still there... the lone little girl on the swing set, hopelessly determined to find a way up to the sky.
She tried a few more variations on the forward kick, but coaxing no luck to come her way, she finally surrendered herself to the helpless stare.
Her eyes targeted the familiar couple on the other end of the park, her stare wide and helpless as she sat, still as a baby doll on the motionless swing.
That was the stare God had so expertly designed for caregivers alone – the aching creation of two pleading eyes – silently asking for just a bit of help...
Neither Robert nor Charlotte was ever very skilled at resisting such a heart-tugging sight. Their sensitivity simultaneously seized them, and by mutual and somewhat urgent instinct, they rose to their feet and abandoned their bench in favor of their struggling daughter.
Without a word, Robert walked up behind the swing, and taking both chains into his hands, he told Alice to hold on tight.
And soon enough, she was flying, like the chocolate-curled cherub they knew her to be, with her chubby legs flailing out to the sky and her hands gripping tightly to the chains.
She giggled her perfect, sparkly baby laughter, and it echoed all for them as the park steadily cleared out and the sky steadily darkened.
They asked her many times if she was ready to come down yet, but she consistently refused their offers. There was no way for either Robert or Charlotte to refuse her. If she chose to, Alice could keep them there all night long - if she chose to, she could ask to be pushed higher and higher, and never come down. And they would be trapped there forever, watching her kick the clouds on her endless swing.
They wondered if she knew just how much power she had over them.
She went on and on, and no matter how Robert might try to discreetly lighten the force of each push, she noticed immediately and insisted that he keep her going higher.
There was something enchanting she'd found in that swing. It was the stuff of miracles really, how no matter how much energy it took from her, she seemed to generate her own energy from the act itself. No matter how breathless she became, or how much effort it might have taken to help keep herself aloft, she only grew more excited and more determined to fly higher yet.
But even the most energetic and restless of children will recognize that playtime must, at one time, come to an end.
Charlotte noticed the signs first – the droopy eyelids, the bashful yawns, the loosening of little fingers around the cold rusty chains. The soft squealing song of back and forth soon replaced the sparkly giggles of the one who lethargically wore the ride down. She hardly noticed when the aid of stronger hands behind her had ceased their gentle pushes, but she did notice the moment when her feet finally brushed the dirt beneath the swing.
Some of that dirt got into her sandals, but nothing looked dirty on their precious Alice. She made that pressed brown dirt look like cocoa powder. She was just that sweet.
She looked up with bleary brown eyes, silently confirming with her audience that the ride was now over. She had landed at last from her long flight.
Although Robert and Charlotte did not dare tell her, they knew that soon, she would be able to fly on her own.
It sometimes made them sad to think that one day, maturity would wind their daughter in its graceful embrace, as it often did to those young girls who met their prepubescent years. She would no longer find the playground a place of adequate adventure – she would seek out newer and bigger adventures, outside the perimeter of wood chips and laughing children. She would need no one to carry her in and out.
But for now, she asked to be carried.
No one ever had to tell Alice that she was special. She just knew.