Ashley is five years old.

Last Monday at the after-school program where I work, Ashley stuck a straightened paper clip into a wall socket. You hear about kids doing this all the time. A little shock and they never do it again. Ashley will assuredly never do this again.

I don't know what weird combination of factors came together at just the wrong moment. None of us know exactly what happened. I didn't see it, but about 40 subsequently very freaked-out kids did. They told me various versions of the story, each more grisly than the last. As it turns out, none of them were exaggerating. The adults who were supervising that room at the time (it's a big room, and they can't be everywhere at once) told me that three jets of fire burst out of the wall, knocking Ashley back about ten feet.

The carpet was burned down to bare concrete in three spots, including a charred coil shaped like the unbent end of the paper clip. Before she dropped it, it burned an identical coil onto the side of Ashley's index finger.

Her hand was blackened and bloody. Her fingers were described to me (when I tell people this story, I cannot bring myself to say this out loud.) as being split open like a hotdog that's been in the microwave for too long. They said you could see things inside, like tendons, and bone.

The woman who wrapped up Ashley's hand, and put ice on it, and sat with her until we could get the mom on the phone to verbally ok our driving her child to the emergency room (the legal hoops we have to jump through in situations like this are unbelievable) - that woman, my co-worker, fainted while telling me this story. She's good in a crisis but blood freaks her out. When she came to, she cried.

Ashley's mom is an alcoholic. Divorced. Full custody. ("Please call my daddy. My daddy will come and take care of me.") She works from home and lives three minutes from the school, but does not pick Ashley up when school lets out at 2 - rather, she waits until 6:30, when the after-school program is ready to lock its doors. Ashley is always the last child to leave. Mom stomps in the door and growls, "Where's the little bitch?" They go home and Ashley is put to bed at 7 pm. She might get dinner and she might not.

Some of this information comes from Ashley, and kids exaggerate, but her father has confirmed that it is true. I have only spoken with him once. I told him he had a sweet kid (I did not mention how sad and scared she looks all the time. he knows.) and his eyes filled with tears and he touched me on the shoulder and he told me how hard he is fighting to get custody. He told me how much he misses her. Every day.

She didn't come back to school for days and days, and I was thinking, dude, even if they chop off your arm, you'd be back to school in a week, right? Unless. Unless your cunt of a mother gets pissed at you for being a kid and doing kid things, and she beats the shit out of you, or knocks you down the stairs, or breaks your arm, or punches you in the face and is ashamed to let the world see the black eye? A lot of things could happen. Every day: no Ashley. None of her friends have seen her. We call their house and the line's been disconnected. What do you do? I mean, really, what are you supposed to do?

Today, the kids are shuttling over from the school building to our building, and they're lining up to get signed in, and I'm checking their names off the list. And I look up and there she is. And she's grabbing Emma's butt with her good hand and Emma is sick of it and she is hollering QUIT IT, and Ashley is shrieking and I have to threaten to separate them, and I've never been happier.

Later, she lets me look at her hand. I'm no doctor but my verdict is: miracle. She says it hurts, and I think, Good, that means those parts are still hooked up right. I had been thinking amputation all week, but, no. It still looks pretty bad - vicious purple slashes on her index, middle, and thumb. But there is no black flesh, or disfigurement, or stumps. She will have scars - that coil, burned into the side of her finger, will always be there, I imagine.

I ask her if she got in trouble for what she did. She says her mom wasn't mad, only disappointed. Which probably amounts to a massive guilt trip laid on the poor kid. "Verbal abuse" is such a poor phrase for words that can ruin a kid's chances, from the start, of seeing herself as anything other than useless and in the way.

Then again, Ashley says her mom told her about when she was little, and she got a bad shock from an exposed wire. And she says that when they got home from the hospital, they watched a video and had ice cream. I know it is too much to expect that one bad accident could completely reverse this hateful woman's attitude toward her daughter, a lifetime (five years.) of disregard and cruelty. But then again people change all the time, and something has to start it. Right? Can I hope for that? This little, little kid doesn't want to tell me about how much her fingers hurt, she wants to tell me about how great it was to snuggle with her mom on the couch that night, watching 101 Dalmatians. She's shining up at me. She's so happy. Can I keep hoping for more of this? How can I not?

update: Today I happened to be in the lobby when Ashley's mother came to pick her up. I've never talked to her very much; she scares me. I made my face as innocent as all get out and I said, Hey, we were all so glad when we heard Ashley was all right.

I've never seen tears well up in anybody's eyes so fast. She said she was on the interstate when her cellphone rang, and they told her what was going on, and she had to pull over to throw up. "I mean, I just - " She closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead with her fist.

"I was so scared. You know?"

Yeah, I think. I know. And I think, you keep that taste in your mouth. You think about it. This might end up ok.

update, even better: Ashley's dad won full custody. She told me with a gigantic grin. "I get to go live with my daddy!"

I won't be seeing her any more - dad lives far away - which is fine. Ashley says her mom "has to go back to the hospital." I don't know if that means rehab or what, but it has to be a step in the right direction.

update: October 23, 2003