The schoolyard was scattered with kids after lunch, and the monkey bars seemed to be the hot spot. I was one out of the eleven or twelve who twisted or hung in different ways, trying my best to blend in while I looked towards the school. The movie my dad let me watch last night had a detective in it, and in many ways I felt like one. My skilled eye locked on Ross and his cronies, giving me the upper hand.
It was the beginning of recess, and they hadn’t left the concrete yet. Leaning against the brick wall of the school, most of them looked the same with their flannel shirts half buttoned and sleeves rolled up. The cronies thought they were tough because Ross was tough, and would always sneer at me whenever I walked by. I wasn’t afraid of them, though. It was Ross who terrified me. Ross looked like he’d been held back two or three times. He was bigger than all the other kids, and I wouldn’t be surprised if anyone new to our school thought he was a teacher. He had no hair, and a face as dull as an unsharpened pencil. I noticed his hands were tucked away in his navy pullover jacket, and my detective mindset wondered if he was carrying a concealed weapon. He looked half Irish and half Eskimo. The thought made me chuckle, but I became straight faced when I saw him and his crew of idiots leaving the concrete.
Ross scoped out the schoolyard, and pointed at the farthest field from the school where kids played pickle. The mutes nodded their heads and followed. The weather must have known how I felt, because a cool breeze blew as they walked away. My face was sweaty, and I unzipped my brown and yellow windbreaker to feel the wind. The breeze calmed me down some, and gave me the spirit to leave my current post and walk over to the swing sets. My best friend Keith was standing in front of the swings while Julie swung in front of him. Keith had been following Julie around the past couple of recesses, and I didn’t like what she was doing to him.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“I’m gonna catch Julie,” Keith said. There was a brief silence between us as we watched Julie pump her legs. She had black hair and pale skin. Sometimes during class her eyes even looked black.
I turned my head to look at Keith, but his eyes were stuck on Julie. He moved his hat up and down from the brim like he had a scratch on his head. It was teal green and matched the shirt he was swimming in. I hated that hat, and I wanted to ask if he got it from Julie. “Do you know why Ross wants to beat me up?”
“I didn’t even know he wanted to,” he said. “What you do?”
“Nothing, I don’t think,” I said. “But he’s been chasing me around for two days now.”
Keith put out his arms to show Julie that he was ready for her. “Sounds like he’s on a mission.”
Julie laughed at the way Keith was standing and I asked him to repeat what he said.
“He’s on a mission,” Keith said. “Ross is going to do whatever it takes to get you.”
Next to the swings was the basketball court, and I saw Nick Jenkins playing there. Nick lived next door to Ross, and was a pretty nice kid. Maybe he would know why Ross wanted my head on a platter.
“See ya later, Keith,” I said, and began walking to the basketball court.
“Bye, Derek,” Julie said.
I stopped and sighed loud enough so she could hear it. “Bye, Julie.”
Nick was still in the middle of a game so I waited. I kept looking around for Ross and I could feel the sweat on my face again.
A high-pitched scream brought my attention back to the swing sets. It was the kind of scream that could break glass or make your ears bleed if you were close enough. The scream came from Julie. Her hands covered her face while she hovered over Keith who was in the sand. Everyone who heard rushed over to see what happened. I pushed through the crowd, and saw Keith’s face covered in blood. It reminded me of a wrestling match I watched where a guy got his head cut open with barbed wire. I remember the wrestler screaming in pain as blood poured into his eyes. But Keith wasn’t screaming, he just laid there, with a bloody face that had sand surrounding it like a morbid picture frame. Julie was crying, and kept her face covered from everyone as three teachers plowed through the crowd. One tended to Keith, while the other two told us to go play. Some kids followed orders, but others stayed. Asking if he was dead and other stupid questions that annoyed anyone over the age of twelve.
One teacher picked up Keith’s lifeless body, and the remaining kids made a path for him. Julie followed, but not on her own. Another teacher pulled her by the arm, and I could tell from the force she was in trouble. The rest of the kids went back to playing, but I stood next to the third teacher who stayed outside.
He was watching over the rest of the playground. “Don’t you want to play?”
“I don’t know. Will Keith be alright?”
His eyes zigzagged to every edge of the playground. “I’m not sure.”
I saw Keith’s hat in the sand a few feet from where his body was, and I used my feet to bury it. The teacher didn’t say anything while I did it. I don’t think he even noticed. Him not being sure about Keith upset me, and I walked over to the monkey bars before he could say anything else. I climbed to the top feeling the cold bars on my hands. The pickle field was far away, and I could see Ross and his cronies stomping through the grass towards me. I sat on top of the monkey bars waiting for them. Ross looked at me with a face as plain as a sheet of ice.
“Get down here,” Ross said.
“Why don’t you come up?” I asked.
“No, down here.” Ross pointed at his sneakers. “Now.”
His dogs began to climb up to fetch me, and I waited until they were in arms reach before I jumped. I landed next to Ross, and his cronies stared as they climbed back down.
Ross and I seemed to be in some sort of standoff. It was just the two of us, and no one else at the moment existed. The wind began to pick up and blew sand in our faces. He didn’t move, and nether did I. We were like two gunslingers in an old western. Ross raised his fists to his face while his eyes pierced through my soul. I was going to die, I was sure of it. He started bouncing up and down like a prizefighter, and hopped closer to me.
“I don’t wanna fight you, Ross.”
Ross threw a right hook that made contact with the left side of my jaw. I fell in the sand and held my face hoping it was over, but Ross was far from done. He grabbed me by the hair and brought me to my feet.
“I don’t like you Derek, you think you’re so cool,” he said.
I could taste the blood in my mouth. “What are you talking about Ross?”
He took me by the hair again and shoved me back in the sand. “You know what I’m talking about, dammit. I heard you.” Ross began to cry but wiped away the tears quickly.
I stayed on the ground and watched him as he waited for an answer. “I don’t remember what I said, Ross. For real.”
“You don’t remember?” Ross got on top of me, grabbed my hair again and planted the back of my head in the sand. “You don’t remember saying anything last Monday in science class?”
I could feel the sand caked in my hair, but I didn’t dare to shake it out. “No, what did I “James took my seat, so I pushed him out of it, then you said, ‘I’d be an asshole too if my dad beat me’. A few people heard you and laughed.” Tears were swelling up in his eyes and his voice cracked a little. He got up and turned his back to hide his face.
The bell rang and Ross’ cronies looked confused, like the plan wasn’t supposed to end this way. I sat up when they ran inside, and watched the back of Ross’ jacket in silence.
Tim Bemis has an MFA in fiction from Southern New Hampshire University’s low-residency MFA program. His work has appeared in the Henniker Review, Tacenda literary magazine, and Lost on Route 66: Tales From the Mother Road. He lives in New Hampshire, and is currently in the final edits of his first novel (hopefully).