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The Old Playground

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The Old Playground

It's empty. The lobby, the parking lot, even the playground. All deserted. It's not surprising, I suppose; there haven't been any students in years. It's a wonder this facility hasn't been demolished yet

I walk, hands in pockets, down the adjacent sidewalk of the old elementary school. There is little noise. A few birds tweet and call each other. A dog asserts itself with a loud yip. No other dogs answer back. Even the street seems dead, only 2 cars have come down this street in the 5 minutes I've been standing around, reminiscing.

I turn onto the dull green grass, hearing fallen leaves crunch beneath my boots. The old school playground is my destination. I felt like returning there; I hadn't been here since the incident.

I smile as I round the corner and see the first familiar landmark. A small slanted tube of blue plastic sits above a wooden ladder in a pool of gravel rocks. A flashback of myself climbing the ladder plays in front of me. Back then, the ladder was almost twice my height. It took me five steps to reach the slide, as I recall. I would sit on the smooth surface at the opening, scoot to the edge of the flat plastic and let my legs hang down the angle of the slide. Without even looking inside the slide, I remember the two handholds on either side. I never used them.

Grinning, I continue my trek down memory lane, to the swingset. 4 seats in a row, 2 of them lowered for the younger children. A breeze blows, and the swings show the slightest movement. The chains are old and rusted together, remaining stiff as the wind pushed them forward.

Turning around, I see the monkey bars. The smile of years past fades. Hesitantly, I look to my right and see a more welcoming sight.

The old maze. I utter a slight chuckle as I approach the mess of twisted twisted pipes. This plastic structure was always my favorite. I could spend 30 minutes just crawling around, pretending to explore ruins, played on by children of history. I had spent most of my time in the pipes, but still seemed to get lost many times. The entire maze was painted green, so there were no distinguishing areas in the maze. 

I bent my knees and lowered myself, peeking into one of the pipe openings. It was late afternoon, the sun beginning it's descent into slumber, so there was not enough light to see very far. It was actually...a little disturbing. As a child I would have run through the maze if I could, without a single care. Now, the dark portal to a labyrinth of plastic seemed much less inviting. Maybe it was the emptiness. Maybe it was the memory. Whatever the reason, I wouldn't have crawled in there unless my life depended on it. With the lack of light, I felt sure I would get-

"Kyle..." I gasp and spin around. A small, sullen voice had spoke from somewhere behind me. But all I saw were the swings, the drinking fountain, and...

The monkeybars. Almost directly behind me were the bars. My eyes shifted side to side, still scanning for the voice's origin. But of course, I was the only one here.

The voice sounded vaguely familiar; maybe it was just another memory, like laughter you may hear when looking back on your childhood.

Shaking the worry from my head, I step forward. The old bars. A much more unpleasant memory hits me now. The last day the playground was open. This memory makes me realize where I've heard the voice before.

These werent actually monkey "bars", per say; instead of bars, there were iron rungs hanging from steel chains. The rungs are about 3 feet above the gravel pit. Not too high for children who can't make their way across and drop down. It was only 4 feet long, 8 twin sets of handholds. Nothing for an adult, but quite a task for 7-10 year old kids.

But I managed to make it one day, for the first time in almost a year of attempts. I was ecstatic! After that, I felt ready for anything. She came up behind me. Katy Greene, a pretty young blonde with chubby legs that her long skirt couldn't quite hide. She, too, is amazed that I made it all the way across. Her cheers fuel my ego even further, prompting me to shout that it was nothing. She beams at me and steps up the 2-step ladder to the first two iron rungs.

She places her hands inside the smooth grooves. Her feet are still on the stepladder, and her legs shake with apprehension. I yell at her to come on, if I can do it then she can too. She is looking at the gravel below her, but looks up at me. Her lips twitch in an uneasy smile. But there is fear in her eyes.

Katy had never before attempted the monkey bar mile, as I liked to call it. She was content with watching other children try and fail, and laugh behind her hands at them. I got upset on that day and challenged her to try it, to see if it's so funny to her then. ...I wish I had kept my mouth shut.

One foot steps forward, over the empty space in front of her. She waits a few seconds, then lets the other leg leave the step.

She gasps as her weight drags her down, her legs dangling 2 feet above ground. She looks down immediately then up to me, clearly scared. I motion her towards me with both arms. You have to grab the next one and keep going, I tell her. She gulps and lets one of her hands leave the rung, reaching for the next. She grabs it quickly and hangs like that for a moment, arms spread between 2 sets of handholds. Her arms were shaking, I remember. Whether from the exertion of holding herself up or the panic of being off the ground, I don't know. But she was shaking.

She then reaches her left arm forward, to catch up with the right. Now she's on the second set. After half a minute of summoning courage, Katy reaches her right hand for the next rung.

Not many kids made it past the third. Either their strength or their courage gave in and they would drop safely to the gravel. Katy made it past on her first try.

It was slow travel, she had been on the bars for over 5 minutes before rung set #4, but she was doing it. When she reaches for the fifth set, she's breathing hard. She tells that her arms are tired, but I coax her to continue, she's halfway home.

Slowly, her second arm reaches the 5th set. At first I wanted her to fall, to fail, and to laugh at her for a change. But now I'm cheering her on,  confident that she is going to finish. On her first try, too! 

One hand finds the next set and closes around the rung. She hangs with arms spread again, and I can see light reflecting off of sweat on her face. She breathes heavily, looking towards me again. I think she's about to try and cop out again, but she smiles and reaches forward. Set #6 is reached.

I clap my hands together and chant her name. She reaches for the next rung.

The chain supporting the rung behind her snaps before she can reach the next one.

She screams as gravity takes her down to the ground. She hits the small gravel rocks on her side. She stays there, not moving.

My eyes pop out as I watch her fall. She was so close to the end, and then the stupid rung breaks. She didn't make it. Katy fell  like I had many times before.

Then I did the most despicable thing I could have done. I swear, if I had been smarter, had realized the situation fully, I would have broken my own nose.

I laughed. I laughed at her. Katy was lying there in the gravel pit, motionless after falling from the rungs, and I fucking LAUGHED at her.

Another child, Jason Coolier, yells for the teacher. Ms. Griswall races over to Katy, who still hasn't gotten up. My laughter dies down to a chuckle, then halts when the teacher kneels down over Katy. She calls for Brenda Arcail, a tall 5th grade girl, and tells her to get the principal. Brenda sprints toward the doors of the building without hesitation.

Children run up to the sight of Katy and Ms. Griswall, many are shouting, a couple are crying. Me, I'm still atop the stepladder on the other side of the monkey bars, unable to move. The situation finally sets it.

The school playground was blocked off the next day. Not that anyone really wanted to be there anyway. Katy had broken her neck when she fell from the monkey rungs. Being a small boy, I wasn't given many details, but I overheard my parents talking about it. They were relieved that she had died immediately, painlessly. This didn't make me feel any better.

Something crawls down my face. I touch my cheek and realize I'm crying. Reliving that day 14 years ago pulls at my heart. I look to the space below the rungs. The gravel is level, no sign of any incident. I look to the ladder I had finally reached that day, when I was as proud as I'd ever been at that point. There I was, laughing and pointing at nothing. A lump forms in my throat, and tears flow from my eyes in a stream. I drop to my knees and drop my face into my hands, fighting back loud sobs. I don't win.

"...sorry...I'm so...so sorry, Katy..." My voice shakes as I cry my apology to the heavens. The tears pool in my hands and leak to the rocks under me. 

"Don't cry, Kyle..." I gasp and raise my head up quickly. Katy.

She's standing in the pit in front of me, in the same spot she died. She looks exactly as I remember, down to the single barrette in her hair.

"Ka...Katy...I'm...I didn't-"

"Don't cry, Kyle..." Katy repeats. Her face...she isn't sad. She actually smiles. "I don't blame you...It's not your fault..." Hearing this only reinforces my sobs.

"Yes it was! I shouldn't have made you go! I shouldn't have laughed!" Her thin pale smile widens.

"No...I'm glad I went that day...I felt so strong, Kyle...I almost made it...!"

"But-"

"And I always laughed at you, without knowing if you were safe...I was mean...I deserved-"

"DON'T YOU SAY THAT!" I scream at her ghost. "You didnt deserve to die, Katy!" Her smile droops, becomes flat.

"Is that what you think, Kyle...?"

"I..yes, of course!" I yelled, confused. Her ghost smiled once again, and began to fade. I smiled back at her, glad that she had come and eased my heart. My tears stopped flowing, and I felt relieved.

I tried to stand. I found that I couldn't.

"Huh?" I let out. I tried to use my legs, but my muscles were disobedient. I couldn't move.

"I don't think I deserved to die either..." came Katy's voice from the left. I looked to toward the side and felt gentle hands take hold of my head. Katy stood before me, smiling again. Then my world went black after my vision shifted hard to the right. 

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