The playpen is littered with black and white. The children inside are all dressed in the same monochrome attire: Miniature ebony suits dotted with white roses and handkerchiefs tucked discreetly into pockets and matching dark, velvety dresses are draped across short, sturdy limbs and over scabby knees.
She watches as a pudgy girl dressed in a black and white polka-dotted gown tumbles into another boy, who immediately topples over into the next boy in the cramped space until all of the children are lying on the floor, either laughing or squabbling.
A few are bawling at scraped knees and elbows. They hold their arms out imploringly for their dear mummy and daddy, stumbling about drunk on tears and teetering upon the heels of their feet.
The small girl next to her is sniveling, looking as if she is on the verge of throwing a tantrum as her face slowly turns red. She should probably do something.
She gropes upon the scratchy carpeting absentmindedly, and finding something hard and plastic, lifts it for examination.
Her lips quirk up the minute she sees it. Whoever had made the playpen had thought it appropriate. A black theme for the carpeting, the gate, even the games. Chess, a small black rabbit that sadly inhabited a corner of the pen, a Halloween witch’s cat with a soggy, chewed-up ear, and apparently, dominos as well. Did they think it would honor this event? What fools. Children had never cared for these sad processions. They merely knew they had been forced into itchy, tight clothing, pushed into a black limousine, and pinched every time they attempted to smile or laugh.
She holds the rectangular piece up to the light. It is battered and looks as if it has been chewed upon, but it will do. Flicking off some grayish fluff hanging on its corner, she hands it to the sniffling girl.
The girl’s watery eyes cast her a surprised glance as she takes the proffered object and then attempts to stick her mouth.
“Don’t do that.”
“What’sth ith for then?” she asks, voice slightly muffled by the item her tongue was busily curling itself around to form the necessary syllables.
“Play with it,” she replies, seating herself upon the carpet, tucking her legs and long, black skirt beneath her.
“Line ‘em up.”
The girl spits it out into the palm of her hand, staring at it as a loose strand of saliva dribbles onto the floor.
“I’ve only got one.”
“Find some more.”
She leans her head against the playpen’s gate, causing it to creak in protest. She should really be in the church right now, giving some long speech about all of the wonderful points of her brother’s life and how he was a great brother, son, colleague, etc.
She doesn’t want to. He would have hated it anyway.
The girl comes back, hands clutching more of the black and white pieces she has scouted out.
The girl pours them into her lap and proceeds in staring at them, as if she expected them to magically jump up and start waltzing.
“Line them up,” she tells the girl, lifting her dress’s skirt so they tumble to the ground.
She stares as the girl cups her hands over the dominos, preparing to rain the spit-stained, soggy items into her lap again.
She reaches a hand up and selects a domino, fishing one out that she hopes is not too soggy.
“You set them up,” she told the child, balancing it upon one narrow edge on the uneven rug, “one by one.”
The words aren‘t hers. She’s merely an echo.
“You set them up, one by one,” he said. The dominos obliged to his will, lining up in an orderly fashion, jaunty soldiers with their sharp, white dots. “Arrange them any way you want. It never gets boring.”
“It’s boring,” the girl declares, “when’s the fun part?”
She gives the girl a dry smile as she lines up another four. They wave gently in the air like exotic, underwater fronds upon the bumpy surface.
“Wait,” she chastises the girl, “I’m not done yet.”
The girl gives a harumph and plops herself down upon her frilly dress. She looks like a Little Bo-Peep in black.
“Why do grown-ups like boring games?”
“I don’t. I hate dominos.”
The girl casts her a curious glance, which she ignores.
“Why would you hate dominos?” he asked, boyish lips attempting to form a pout that quickly broke into a Puckish grin. His charming, blue eyes danced with an odd fire. “Let’s play make-believe!” A protest. “You’re not too old! Come on! Come on! Just one round! For old times?” No response. “For your brother?” No response. “How about double fudge ice cream? My treat.” A nod, followed by a wild hoot of victory. “Alright! Pretend….that you’re one of the dominos! You go down, and suddenly you’re starting a whole chain reaction! Imagine the confusion! The mystery! They’re part of domino history and don‘t even know it!” A rambunctious laughter spread through the living room. “Wouldn’t you love to be a domino? Hmm? Go on a wild adventure?” A swift shake of head. The response comes swiftly. “No. Never.”
The girl’s mouth opens in a question, but she beats her to it.
“Would you want to be a domino?”
The girl’s mouth closes and she eyes her.
“That’s a really weird question,” the girl informs her.
She shrugs and sets up the last domino, beckoning the girl forward.
She flicks the domino, sending it teetering off of its already fragile balance and into the next. A series of clacks are heard as they fall into each other one by one. They can’t help it. They never had any control. Just one random action started it all.
“Actions and reactions,” her brother said as the last domino teetered as it was hit. It had been poorly aligned with the rest, placed a centimeter or two further than the others had been. He gave her a large grin. “Wanna save it? Save our last soldier on the field? Just stick your finger out.” She shrugged and waved him off. She has decided to remain only an observer, so she only watches as it topples, hitting the polished coffee table with a final click.
The girl shakes her, “They’ve all fallen down. Now what?”
“Look at the pattern they made.”
The girl studies it for a while.
“All I see is a giant mess.”
“No…if you use your imagination… That row there makes an X mark… and doesn’t that clump look sort of like a snail’s shell?”
She traces the dominos, her finger skipping over them. She‘s really just lying. There‘s hardly a pattern to be found. Sometimes, she wonders if “pattern” is just a fancy, eloquent word for “mess”.
A potted plant crashed into the wall, staining it brown. “What do you think you’re doing here? You’re no longer welcome in this household!” her father roared, dressed in his Sunday best, “Get out before I call the police!” “I just came to see Annie!” came the angry retort. “Out! Get out! Are you trying to fill Annabelle’s mind with your dirt as well?! Another atheist, eh?!” Her father waved his arms, making contact with a hefty Bible . “-can’t show my face at Church!“ He aimed with another book, which crashed into the coffee table instead, black and white spilling onto the maple-wood floor. She simply flinched and moved as the coffee table tipped over. “-Addisons are pointing fingers and staring!” Another book. “-stopped going to seminary! All that time and money wasted!” The teenager stepped forward at this, heels crunching upon the petals of the up-rooted red begonia plant. She saw the same mad fire burning in their eyes as he taunted back. “Well, don’t you think it came from somewhere, Father? Sixteen-year old teen with a baby boy and a wife! Ring a bell?” He nimbly darted away and to the door as a book sails into the glass shelf, shards of glass raining down upon the floor and brown couch, mixing themselves with the fallen dominos. He danced like a devil over the glass shards, the crimson petals caught upon the heels of his Adidas sneakers unpeeling themselves and fluttering to the floor. He reminded her of one of the secret agents from the movies, playing limbo with the laser alarms. “I can see why Mom divorced you,” he spat out, stumbling over a large piece of the pot as he reached for the doorknob. Her father offered no reply. He teetered for a minute before he fell to lean on the door, wrenching it open. He tumbled out like a drunkard. “Annie!” he called, “I’ll see you later, okay?” She opened her mouth and closed it again. She nodded. She should say something, she really should. But she was far too use to it. What good will it do? Her so-called rationality triumphed over her conscience that calls for her to do something. Wouldn’t any attempt be considered affectionate, a nice sentiment, but otherwise useless? Previous observations have told her such. She leaned downward to glance at the dominos. The pretty pattern he had made for her, a big letter “A” and an “N” following it, her initials, were gone. There was nothing but a giant jumble of glass and plastic, dirt and pottery. She contemplated what would have happened had she reached out to stop that last domino.
“What are you doing?”
It’s a rhetorical question, for she does have eyes, and she can clearly see that she is patiently gathering the dominos and putting them back into their neat rows.
“You said you didn’t like them. Because they’re boring.”
She shakes her head.
A simple response.
They are all lined up again, soldiers swaying about, stirred by the smallest vibrations. When they all fall the war is lost.
She stares at them, taking in their little black-and-white uniforms.
It isn’t long before a boy’s foot smashes into it as he enters a skirmish over some toy.
She catches the last one before it tips and re-positions the rest. The cycle repeats with a carelessly-thrown ball.
The dominos are lined up again.
It’s never a victory. A victory would imply complete success and even the survivors will eventually fall once the next force comes.
She stands, brushing off spittle from wet dominos off of her black dress. She totters unsteadily upon her high heels (accessories for any formal event), leans upon the stone wall for a bit of support, and leaves the playpen.
The girl is busily rearranging the dominos, absorbed in her oh-so important work.
Her watch informs her it is 12:48. The sparse amount of relatives and friends they had were probably standing around the casket now. It’s a closed casket ceremony, she knows that for certain. No one wants to see the improvised noose about his neck, too tight and thick to be cut without possibly severing his head. Her father won’t be there. He will be at home, his home, reading the Bible, sitting upon his brown, leather armchair.
She wonders if he sent out a prayer.
She heads for the church’s exit. The priest eyes her as she walks out, but she gives him a sweet smile.
“I’m just going to get some fresh air.”
She walks for a block and calls a taxi from there.
“Corner of Noir Pavilion,” she instructs, “Newman Residence.”
There are still some pieces she needs to pick up.
Age 14, Grade 9
Hunter College High School