The unpredictably smooth rhythm of the rain against the windowpane had effectively lulled the child curled in her lap to sleep as Nancy stared out into the dark barrenness framed by solid oak. Graceful shielding fingers lightly stroked the little girl's soft brown curls. The surge of protective emotion almost overwhelming Nancy as she clung to the small life in her lap. The heat of the fire blazing in the hearth nearby did nothing to warm Nancy as her mind tumbled over the chilling events of the day.
The day had dawned fresh and lovely, sun shimmering in an azure sky, complete with a smattering of fluffy white clouds. A perfect day for a trip to the park. Elizabeth, or Lizzie, as Nancy called her, would play on the swings, run about in the healthy air, feed the ducks, and have a long talk with her favorite, Mr. Daffy. She would smile with the joy and wonder reserved for the young. Watching Lizzie look at the world with her fresh innocence always served to set Nancy's usually plain face with a bright and almost beautiful glow. She smiled, remembering the look of pure adulation on Lizzie's cherubic face when Nancy announced the day's outing. The girl danced about for a good ten minutes giggling and chattering about the things they would see and do. She then had hurried upstairs to dress as Nancy went about the chore of packing up a small lunch for them both and gathering a soft blanket for them to settle on when it came time to eat. Oh, and mustn't forget crackers for Mr. Daffy. Lizzie would be hard pressed to forgive Nancy should she forget that detail in her packing.
Lizzie came downstairs, a confined whirlwind of lace and bows, begging Nancy to help her tie the laces on her new shoes. She knew how, a little voice vowed. Nancy had recently taught her, but in her impish excitement to be off on their adventure, Lizzie had forgotten. With a shake of her head and a small "tsk tsk" to the child, Nancy fastened the laces with a secure double knot and straightened, smoothing her skirt as she looked down into Lizzie's excited and flushed face.
"Shall we be off young lady?" Nancy asked teasingly. "Or perhaps you would rather stay inside today?"
Lizzie wrinkled her pert little nose then. "Oh nooo, Nancy, pweeeeeeeese can we go to the park?" she begged, tugging lightly on the apron tied loosely around Nancy's waist.. "Momma and Daddy will be gone all day and inside is boring." Nancy could not help but be affected by the child's puppy-eyed pleas and nodded. "Of course, lil one, I have packed us a grand lunch and we shall spend the entire day frolicking and playing with your precious ducks." She reached down to tweak that wrinkled nose, causing the girl to giggle. The sound lilting and delicious to Nancy's ears.
Having reassured the small child, Nancy turned and lifted the basket, placing it in the crook of her elbow. Tossing the apron on the back of a kitchen chair, Nancy reached downtaking Lizzie's small round hand in hers and headed out into the fresh spring air. They walked at a relaxed and steady pace to the park a few blocks away, Lizzie chattered away about this and that, her tiny mind racing with thoughts and ideas to express.
That grand afternoon provided all of the pleasure that the morning had promised. They laughed, played on the swings, enjoyed a rousing game of tag, followed by a bout of hide and seek. Lizzie earned herself a small friend or two with her winning smile and impish personality. Lunch was made better by the exercise mingled with the sweet smell of the breeze and the kiss of a brilliantly shining sun.
Settled comfortably on a park bench, Nancy couldn't help but laugh as Lizzie clumsily chased her favored ducks about on the sloping hills that surrounded the small pond. The startlingly urgent ring of Nancy's cell phone interrupted the perfection of that moment. Still laughing at her sweet charge she answered the intrusion.
"Hello?" Nancy listened distractedly as she watched Lizzie begin to tell Mr. Daffy her favorite joke, coincidentally, also the only one the young girl knew.
"Yes, this is she." "Who is this?" A long pause. "Oh God. Yes, ...yes I will be right there. Yes, I understand. Thank you."
It's funny how quickly storm clouds roll in, that when you're not looking, the sky can grow dark and foreboding, like some punishment for not being vigilant enough. Nancy hung up the phone and tucked it back into her pocket, her face pale and suddenly older then her twenty-six years as she turned her attention once more to the face of innocent and blissfully ignorant youth. She took a deep breath, gathered up the empty picnic basket and moved to where Lizzie squatted beside a small mallard, tossing crumbs of her bread crust in his direction, trying desperately to coax it close enough for a light pet.
Nancy pressed back the flood of panicked emotion, cleared her suddenly dry throat as she called to the child while stuffing her shaking hands into her pockets. "Lizzie? Darling, ... we have to go now. The sky, ...yes, umm it looks like it is going to rain dear-heart. We must be getting home now." Nancy was amazed at how calm and even her voice sounded, considering the turbulence coursing through her.
Lizzie looked up, a small frown on her sweet lips. She stomped her little foot as she turned her eyes to the sky a moment and contemplated the validity of what her nanny had said. With a soft, almost adult sigh the girl nodded. "Guess your right, momma would have a fit if I got my new shoes all muddled up."
Nancy's heart sank when the girl mentioned her mother, her already pale face going stark white. She recovered quickly. "Yes, yes, say goodbye to Mr. Daffy and let's be off then."
The rest of the day whirled by for Nancy. The seemingly unending list of unpleasant chores and duties weighed her down as the clock ticked by with the speed of a comet.
Upon returning to the house, Nancy had tucked Lizzie in for a hopefully long nap. Then leaving her charge in the care of the household cook, she had headed off to the morgue to identify the bodies of the young couple tragically killed in the crash that afternoon. That particular chore took a great tool on the woman. She answered a few questions for the police investigator and was given the details of the cause of death of each of the girl's parents. Nancy stepped from the police station looking much like an apparition, her face ghostly white still and her stomach churned unhappily. Nancy had respected and genuinely liked her employers, and the idea that life was so quickly snatched away had the young woman visibly and understandably shaken.
She returned to the house to make a long list of the most unpleasant and dreadful phone calls, informing all sorts of people, from distant family relatives to the cold strangers working at the bank and utilities company of the day's horrible tragedy. She listened to an endless string of condolences and sighs of genuine dismay.
"Yes, Ma'am than you for your concern. Yes...yes their daughter is here with me and fine. Yes I will, thank you." Nancy hung up the phone, the list finally completed and her own emotions coldly blank, as if something within had turned off as a defense against the constant pounding pain of it all. By the time Lizzie woke from her nap Nancy was ragged, harried and exhausted to the very soul.
Unable to decide how to tell the girl what happened and still being a bit numb herself, Nancy opted for a bit of a stalling lie. She explained to the girl that the trip her parents took, would last a bit longer still and that they would not return this evening. No, not tomorrow, either. The next day...well no. She was not sure when exactly. Finally Nancy stemmed the tide of questions and consoled the girl by assuring Lizzie that she would stay with her until they returned. That everything would be taken care of and not to fear. Yes of course she would help her feed her goldfish as well. Didn't she always?
A streak of blinding lightening and the accompanying crash of bellowing angry thunder wretched Nancy back to the present, back to the feel and smell of the little girl nestled obliviously in her lap, the soft even breathing of the small form bringing a rush of tears to the woman's eyes. She took a deep calming breath, her mind still racing with unpleasantness. How could she make this sweet girl understand cruelties even she could not yet comprehend? How could God and fate be so cruel and harsh with one so wonderful and till now, happy? However could she explain to Lizzie, that mommy and daddy were never, ever, coming home from their trip?