Cecelia texted william a address and told him to go there.
This is just the ﬁrst one, the text said. There will be more of her. But I want you to
He left work a few minutes early and walked across several neighborhoods. It was a week into November, and he was glad for the cool temperatures and the opportunity to move at full speed. He ended up in North Lawndale, a part of Chicago that the city government had not only neglected but treated badly for a hundred years. William looked around at the sagging housing and remembered walking through this area the night before he’d tried to kill himself. He’d had no idea where he was at the time—he’d known only the terrain close to Northwestern in those years—and he’d seen Charlie. William smiled at the memory of his father-in-law appearing in a doorway. Charlie had been deemed a failure in his lifetime, but almost thirty years after his death, his daughters’ love for him ran so deep that he could be considered the most successful person William had ever known. People still came up to Sylvie in the library, after all this time, to tell her about a kind thing her father had done for them. Sylvie, Cecelia, and Emeline had told Izzy so many stories about her grandfather that she could probably win a trivia contest about the paper-factory worker who’d died when he was close to the age William was now. All the memories Sylvie wrote about her family
focused on either her father or her older sister, as the two cornerstones of her being.
The address turned out to be a playground. There was a beat-up basketball court, a set of swings, and a climbing structure that was in terrible shape. Several teenage boys were playing three-on-three on the court. One of them spotted William and called out, “Hey, Coach! What are you doing here?”
William waved his arm in greeting—the boy was part of Arash’s clinic—and shrugged. The rectangular playground wasn’t full, because of the hour and the time of year, but kids wandered in small groups and several girls were perched on top of the jungle gym as if it were their nest. When William reached the center of the space, he turned around in a circle, not sure what he was looking for, until he saw it. A giant mural was painted against the back wall. William walked in that direction and took a seat on a bench that offered a good view. He examined the lower corner and saw the CP flourish, which was how Cecelia signed her work. A handful of young boys ran around William’s bench, gulping with laughter, and then sped off in different directions.
The mural showed roughly twenty kids standing together, as if for a school photo. The children were smiling brightly in unison, suggesting the photographer had just told them a joke. William ran his eyes along the top row of kids; this was a habit, because he had always been put in the back row of every picture growing up. At the end of the back row stood a white girl with blond-brown hair, wearing a shy smile. William stopped breathing for a moment. The little girl’s face looked exactly like his own as a ten-year-old. She couldn’t be anyone other than his daughter. It was Alice. He continued to move his eyes, like a typewriter spitting out words, unable to take in what he’d just seen. William studied the middle row, where one beaming child stood beside another. These kids looked like younger versions of the boys and girls in Arash’s clinic, and they might have been, since many of the players lived in this neighborhood. At the end of
the bottom row, there was a redheaded girl—brighter than all the other children, probably because she had recently been painted onto the wall. Cecelia had taken care to blend her in and had updated some of the lines in the rest of the mural, so Caroline didn’t stick out. But still, with her red hair and excited grin, she looked the most alive, the most keen to leap off the wall and run toward the swings.
William sat on the bench for a long time. He had a flash of anger at Cecelia for tricking him into taking in the visage of his daughter, but the anger was gone as fast as it had come. He made himself look at Alice and Caroline. He made himself look without wincing, without fear that he would extinguish their light and beauty with his gaze. This was the first time he’d ever given his daughter his full attention. Parents shaped their kids; he knew that better than anyone, and he realized now that he must have shaped Alice by his absence, by his silence, even though he’d intended to save her by the same means. This realization was a personal blow, and he said, “I’m sorry,” out loud. His premises had been wrong, and he wondered what else he’d been wrong about.
William knew already that he would visit this wall again, many times. He’d assumed that Cecelia would paint his sister alone, because she usually did individual portraits, but he was grateful that she’d placed his lost sister and lost daughter together. The two girls would exist for as long as this wall stood, in the same neighborhood William had wandered through when he was at his lowest point. The fact that he’d also seen Charlie in this neighborhood didn’t feel like a coincidence, either. Sylvie had written once about Emeline being stuck in a tree when she was a kid and refusing to come down until her father pointed his tractor beam of love at her. Charlie would have chosen this area of the city to haunt so that he could keep loving his family. He would spend his endless days in this playground, admiring his daughter’s art, reading poetry to the two little girls and lighting them up with his affection.
William shook his head, amazed that he could believe in children keeping each other company in a painting and a dead man locomoting through Chicago. As a younger man, he’d believed in very little, and without his noticing, that had changed. William also used to worry about what he did and did not deserve, but no one around him seemed to think in these terms, and it turned out that he no longer did either. He texted his sister-in-law Thank you, and she replied <3. William frowned at his phone, confused, before realizing that Cecelia had sent him back a heart.