It all began with a crying baby and a mistake. And the fire, of course.
The fire changed everything.
“Darby! It’s time—get a move on.”
Her mother’s voice wafted through the back door, just faint enough for her to legitimately pretend not to hear. Darby stood poised, one toe on her skateboard, and stared up at the massive tree in her backyard. No leaves just yet, but the ends of the branches were looking green and promising. A sparrow rustled and twittered sweetly. Spring was coming, and the roads were calling.
“Come on, kiddo—can you get in here? I’m already twenty minutes late.”
Nestled behind the house, you could believe that everything was going to be all right with the world. That babysitting and homework were a part of someone else’s existence. That the tiny gate in the fence led to the biggest and best skateboard challenge in the world . . .
A baby howled in the background and her mother’s angry face was suddenly framed in the doorway.
“Now look what you’ve done!” she yelled, gesturing into the house with an accusing finger. “Gracie’s awake, and I was trying to sneak away, and you know how important this lunch is to me, Darby. You’re out here ignoring me and mooning over your damn skateboard. I need you to help me, here. You are the big sister.”
“I was not mooning over my skateboard—I was figuring out my history project,” said Darby. “And I don’t recall asking to be anybody’s big sister.”
“That’s enough of your smart remarks, Missy. You are a member of this family, and as such, you are expected to help out. Now get in here and look after Gracie. I’ve got to go.” She dug frantically through her purse. “Where is that stupid lipstick?”
Darby didn’t move. “Mom, I do help out. I cleaned up my room this morning. I took out the compost. I just don’t think it’s fair that since I was born first, I am automatically expected to be the babysitter whenever it suits you.”
Her mother didn’t look up from the purse. “Just put that thing away and come inside.”
The phone rang and she dashed back in. Darby could hear her voice through the screen door.
“Hello? Oh, Lois—how are you?”
Darby dragged her feet up onto the back porch and flipped open the wooden chest that her mother had designated for skateboard storage.
“Lois, I’m so sorry. I am on my way—just sorting out the childcare at the moment.”
The childcare? Darby’s fingers tightened around the skateboard and her mother’s voice rose over the baby’s cries.
“Oh, I know you’d love to see her, but just listen to her! I need a little break from being a mother for an hour or so. Darby’s here—she can look after Grace. You are so sweet, but really, they’ll be fine here together. They need the bonding time.”
Darby silently closed the lid of the storage box. She felt like a little bonding, all right, but with her skateboard, not her crying baby sister.
“Really, she’s perfectly happy to stay. There’s nothing they love more than spending time together. See you soon!”
In the house, the baby stopped crying long enough to take a breath.
“There’s a good girl, Gracie. You’ll be a sweet baby for your sister, won’t you?”
The baby’s voice rose to a wail once more, and the back gate clicked silently closed.
Darby cruised along the paved path into the schoolyard. There was still a bit of grey, gravelly sludge and she didn’t want to risk her trucks getting rusty, so she hadn’t actually hopped onto the deck until she’d got to a spot where the path was relatively dry and clear.
Since it was the weekend, there was a chain across the school driveway. She aimed right for the centre, where it hung lowest. Maybe fifteen centimetres above the ground. Pushed off twice, to increase her acceleration. Flexed her knees and took a deep breath. The timing had to be just right . . . and . . .
She cleared the chain and landed perfectly, knees bent a little, both feet on the deck as it slid out smoothly under the chain.
From behind her she could hear the sound of clapping. She hopped off the skateboard, toed it up into one hand and turned to see her friend Sarah sitting on one of the swings.
“Not bad, Christopher. Not bad. Wish I’d had my video cam—you could have used some footage for posterity.”
Darby tried not to smile too broadly. “When I heard you clap, I thought someone was being sarcastic. It’s not that tough a move.”
Sarah smiled back. “I thought it was pretty good. You look like you’ve been practising.”
Darby shrugged. “Not much. I have to spend most of my time with Gracie these days.”
Sarah’s smile became wistful. “Geez, I wish I had a baby sister. Or even a brother. Babies are so sweet.”
Darby rolled her eyes. “Let me tell you, a look at the contents of just one of her diapers would change your mind forever.” She smiled at Sarah, but her stomach clenched a little at the recollection of ditching Gracie with her mother. “Enough about babies. What are you doing here? I thought you were with your mom this weekend.”
Sarah pushed off on the swing. “I’m a glitch,” she said, and pumped her legs. Her curly brown hair corkscrewed in all directions with the wind.
“A what?” Darby dropped her skateboard and sat on the other swing.
“A glitch. Dad forgot to sync his BlackBerry at home, and he missed the change in my mom’s weekend plans. They both thought the other one was taking me. I’m officially a scheduling glitch.” She shrugged a little and swung higher.
“So what are you gonna do?”
“Ah, they’ll sort it out. I told ’em I’d be fine at home, so one of ’em will come back and stay with me by tonight, I’m sure. But for now, I’m just here.”
They swung awhile in silence. For a moment, Darby could feel the warmth of the sun on her face, but the clouds scudded over again.
“Look,” Sarah said, “there’s another one of those stupid posters.”
Sarah let go of the swing long enough to point to a large sheet of paper flapping at one corner and pasted onto the brick wall of the school. Then she grabbed on tight, took a giant pump and leaped off.
“Good jump!” Darby hopped off too and followed Sarah over to the school.
It looked like every other school in their Toronto neighbourhood. Old. Brick. Crumbling more than a bit at the corners. Most of the windows had wire mesh over them, but as they walked over, Darby could see through to Mrs. Anansi’s science lab, chairs neatly stacked on the desktops, shrouded in weekend darkness.
The poster hung on the wall, under the wooden overhang of an old shed where the janitors stored all the salt and shovels for keeping the walks clean in winter. Darby leaned on the shed beside Sarah, and they studied the poster in silence.
A white background. A brown hand holding a grey gun. A small red maple leaf where one of the fingernails should have been. Above the hand, a sentence: “stop gang violence in canada.” Below the hand, in bold letters: “Keep Our Schools Safe.” And in tiny script across the bottom: “One Death Is Too Many.”
“I don’t get it,” Darby said at last. “What’s wrong with it? Gangs are bad, and they hurt people. I think the poster’s a good thing. What’s your problem with it?”
Sarah shrugged. “I don’t know. I sorta hate that they made the hand holding the gun brown.”
“Aw, it’s just a symbol for a bad guy.”
“But why does the bad guy always have to be black or brown?”
“It’s just a colour, Sarah. It doesn’t mean anything.”
“You don’t get it. Stuff like this is everywhere. I’ve seen these posters all over since that kid got shot downtown. It’s like, ‘Take action—a white kid got killed.’ But nobody pays as much attention when black kids get killed. It’s racist. Maybe it doesn’t bother you because you haven’t had to deal with it, but it bothers me.”
“What—like you’ve had to deal with racism?”
“My dad’s black. Did you forget?”
“No, I didn’t forget. I just don’t think about it, okay? So what if you have a black dad and a white mom? So what if you have two black parents or two white parents or two Asian parents? Who cares? You’re my friend—I don’t think about what you look like. I think about who you are.”
“Yeah, well, you may not think about it, but some people do. The people who made this poster do. They could have made the hand holding the gun purple, but they made it brown. And that’s bullshit, Darby. You know it is.”
They stared at each other for a long, uncomfortable moment.
Darby looked away first. She leaned under the eaves of the school as the wind rattled through the tree branches.
“Look,” she said at last, “lots of people are trying to stop gangs in Canada. There are motorcycle gangs that do terrible things—those gangs have nothing to do with race.”
Sarah shrugged. “Of course there are other gangs, and of course no one supports groups that break the law. It’s just . . . this stupid poster is not fair.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Maybe we should get rid of it. It’s a bad example. It’s racist.”
Darby rolled her eyes. “You’re getting carried away! I don’t know why this is bugging you so much. If you don’t like it, don’t look at it.”
Sarah glared at her. “In history class, Mr. Hobson said we have to take a stand against injustice.”
Darby crossed her arms across her chest. “Look, I’m in enough trouble at home. If we get caught ripping this poster down, my mom will probably be really mad. She’s a big believer in free speech.”
Sarah snorted. “It’s not free speech to blame only one race when things go wrong.” She put a hand in her pocket and drew out a silver lighter with a flip-up lid. “And who says we have to rip it down, anyway?”
“Where did you get that?” Darby said, suddenly wary.
Sarah grinned. “I’m holding it for Caitlyn. She smokes, you know.”
“No, I do not know. Since when does she smoke?”
“Since she stole a bunch of cigarettes off her brother’s girlfriend. The lighter is some kind of family thing—her grandpa’s, I think. Anyway, her mom found the cigarettes and she got in trouble, so she asked me to hold this for her until things cool down.”
Darby studied Sarah’s face. She didn’t like the glint she saw in the corner of Sarah’s eyes. “So are you smoking too?” she asked slowly.
Sarah snorted. “Like I would! I’m not stupid. Caitlyn’s just showing off. I’m only hanging on to this to protect her.” She held the lighter up to the corner of the poster and flicked it.
“Don’t do that! It’ll catch fire, you idiot.”
“Maybe I want it to.” Sarah flicked the lighter again, and a tiny trace of smoke rose up from the corner of the poster.
“DON’T do that, Sarah!” said Darby. She snatched at the lighter but missed as Sarah pulled it away. “Burning this poster is not going to solve anything. And our parents will kill us if they find out!”
“It’s not so bad . . .” began Sarah, when a gust of wind puffed and a tiny flame licked up the side of the poster. The edge began to singe and curl.
Their eyes met.
“I’m outta here,” said Sarah.
The poster burst into flame.
Darby scooped up her skateboard and followed Sarah at a run across the playground. Rain, riding high on the fresh wind, began to spatter down at last, and they paused for breath under a large tree at the far edge of the playground. A car drove down the nearby road, its tires flicking up water as the rain began in earnest.
“See?” said Sarah. She nodded at the school, where a piece of charred poster paper fluttered down to the ground. “Nothing bad happened, and that stupid poster is gone, right?”
Darby nodded slowly. “I still wish you hadn’t burned it,” she said quietly. “I can smell the smoke from here.”
She could see it, too—a wisp of grey under the eaves of the shed.
“Whatever.” Sarah shrugged, but she looked around uneasily. “Anyway, nobody saw us, right? So it’s done. And neither of us is going to say a thing, got that?”
“I’m no snitch,” said Darby.
“Right,” said Sarah, with no trace of her former grin. “I gotta go. Later, gator.”
“Later,” said Darby.
She watched Sarah run through the rain all the way to the end of the school field and round the corner before she tucked her skateboard under her coat and headed for home.