Nicole, a sixth grader, is swinging on the swings and thinking about the school play, an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. She wants the part of Alice, because she is Alice, because she is the type of girl who gets told by the cashier at the grocery store that she is, "A very pretty girl."
She has spent many nights at home practicing in front of her bathroom mirror. She pretends that her mouthwash is the secret potion that shrinks her and after swishing, she falls and falls down against the tiles of the bathroom floor and says in a most innocent voice, "What a curious feeling!"
Only pretty girls get the most important parts in the school plays, and she is, a very pretty girl. Much prettier than other girls.
Someday, she will be famous. Of course she will. Her mother told her this morning that she was such a lovely girl. She was the only little girl in the sixth grade with bright green eyes. Her mother is plump and cooks and cleans and her father works down at the lumber yard when the season is good and when it is not, he drives to Arizona to sell fruit. They both tell her that she will go far, much farther than they ever could and she believes them.
She believes that she will get the part of Alice in the school play, stand up on the stage in a little blue dress. The crowd will cheer and cheer and her parents will be in the front row saying, "That's my daughter."
She will feel so proud. Mrs. Crosby already promised the part to her. She has been the lead in every school play since the fourth grade. She knows other parents are upset. Her mother tells her those parents are jealous.
"Don't let them keep you from going places," her mother tells her.
Nicole swings higher and higher and sees something coming toward her. As she comes down from the peak, she looks up to see a swing coming at her. Her hands go up to block it, to protect her face and she lets go.
The sharp metal chain hits her cheek at such an angle that the pointed edge strikes and ruptures the skin. She feels the hard metal slice into her soft and smooth skin. Her cheek opens slightly, the skin stretching away from itself, pulling apart like petals of a flower blooming.
She is not thinking, but half-gasping and when she lets go, the weight of her upper body carries her backward. Her legs fly up behind her, leaving the swing jerking through the air. Her dress, a white dress her own mother sewed for her, flies up around her and for a brief moment, it is all she can see. White fabric around her like a cloud. A sea of white.
She falls into the sand. It is hard and caked down from a day of rain and then a day of hot California heat, packing it in like cement.
There is a pop when her neck hits the ground. Her right hand reaches down behind her, an instinct to help soften her fall, but she instead lands on her fingers in a way that bends the middle one the wrong way.
She lies there, not really hearing anything. She just lies there. Then, she sees Delilah, the girl who was swinging next to her, stand over her. Other children are gathering around her now.
Something warm is filling up her body. Her eyes are filling up and her ears feel full. She chokes but cannot breathe. There is a sharp pain in her wrist, a tightening feeling in her hand. Her mother told her this morning that she was such a lovely girl. Now her body feels warm.
What will the cashier tell her now? How can she play the part of Alice now?
What a curious feeling.
Be a good girl. Sit straight. Smile. You are a beautiful girl, Nicole.
But now, she is crying and all of the children are gathered around her. Short, ugly noises come from her throat. Why isn't Angie, the recess attendant coming for her? Angie will be here any moment now.
Nicole feels broken, embarrassed. She screams when she smells the blood coming from her cheek. Where is Angie?
There are no pretty actresses with scars across their faces. She was swinging and then, she was not swinging. Please hurry, Angie.
The pain swells up within Nicole, comes in like ocean waves, strong and pulsating.
"Let me help you stand up," Delilah tells her. Delilah grabs Nicole's arms and lifts her off the ground. For a moment, Nicole is upright, leaning on Delilah. When Delilah lets go of her, Nicole feels herself falling, like Alice, through the rabbit hole. Down she goes.
The world feels so real to her now.
It's recess and Delilah is swinging alongside another sixth grade girl, Nicole. There is something she wants to tell Nicole.
"Nicole," she says, "Nicole!"
Nicole does not look at her, does not stop swinging.
Delilah wants to tell Nicole about her dream. She's been thinking of it all morning.
In her dream from the night before, she was running. Where was she running? She did not know. And why? From what? She remembers her legs reaching out from her in long strides. She needed to get to the horizon. Where the light came from. But every time she almost reached the horizon, she would see an apple, bright and shining, roll in front of her. So she would stop, examine it, and put in into a bag she carried on her shoulder. The bag became heavy. She could never get to where she needed to be. It meant something. She knew it with all of her being that it meant something.
She waves her hands at Nicole. She calls Nicole's name. The California sun beats down on them and Delilah can feel the heat press into her. It falls heavy upon her, does something to her.
Nicole comes into school glimmering in new clothes from Gap and Target. Not clothes from the flea market. Not clothes from garage sales.
Delilah swings up into the air and back, letting her black hair float up into the air. The strands of her hair feel like a spider's web covering her face. She feels the heat swell up within her. She looks around at the other children running around on the playground, playing with a soccer ball on the blacktop, laughing and talking loudly.
"Nicole," she calls again.
Nicole does not turn her head, does not look at her and instead, swings higher and higher, up into the air.
Delilah scoots off of her swing and with the cold metal chains in her hands, with her fingers wrapped tightly around the black rubber seat, she hoists it above her head and throws the empty swing at Nicole.
When she looks up, the metal chains of the swing hit Nicole in the face.
Think of something else. What had her grandmother said to her this morning about the sky? Delilah, you precious little girl, she said, God put the stars in the sky for you. Her own mother never told her these things, never sat her down and told her about things like God or stars. Her own mother was never home, really, and when she was, she sat on the front lawn in the plastic chair smoking, reading those cheap magazines. What did her grandmother tell her? That God put the stars up in the sky for her.
Delilah's heart is pumping hard. She watches Nicole's body fall awkwardly, limbs waving in the air for something to hold onto. But there is nothing to hold onto.
Did anyone see her throw the swing? She thought of all the ways she could say she was sorry to Nicole.
"I am sorry for throwing the swing at your face."
No. Perhaps it was better to say something like, "I am sorry for hurting you."
She feels the heat as the other children gather around Nicole's body.
She only wanted Nicole’s attention. She is mostly sorry that Nicole did not pay attention to her. That was all she wanted. She was simply trying to get Nicole's attention. It's not her fault. She was only trying to tell Nicole about a dream.
She looks at Nicole, lying on the ground.
A good friend might kneel down and grab Nicole's hand. A good friend might stroke Nicole's blonde hair and tell her that everything is alright.
Delilah does not feel the urge to do any of those things. Besides, Angie is here. Angie will know what to do.
Delilah likes Angie. Angie gives her little candies and gum sometimes, as long as Delilah does not tell anyone. She never does. She is an honest girl.
She looks at Nicole on the ground. She wants to be sorry, she truly does. But somehow, she is not. She knows this now.
Nicole is crying and Delilah feels, not sorry, but strangely calm. Like the surface of smooth water.
Her grandmother would want her to be sorry. But she feels more sorry for herself. She has frizzy hair and a chubby stomach and wears her brother's old shoes. Delilah leans down and tries to help Nicole stand. She can see the pain on Nicole's face. She lifts Nicole up, trying not to get any blood on her own hands. When Nicole is standing, Delilah lets go. Nicole's knees buckle and Delilah watches as Nicole falls back in the sand.
Delilah steps back, watching the way the children make shadows over Nicole's white dress.
Angie, the recess attendant, no more than twenty years old, watches the children during recess. There are so many of them and she stands against the end of the swing set, watching all of them. She wants to be anywhere but here.
All she ever wanted was to leave this town. Move north where things were prettier.
Up north, people live in big houses with complicated sprinkler systems. Up north, everything shimmers, has a certain shine to it. The cars, the people.
There is nothing here except fields of fruit trees.
She rents a little apartment and waits tables after supervising recess and lunch breaks at the elementary school. She takes the bus to the community college west of here. She's studying child care development. She only goes part-time and it will take her seven years. She calculated it. Seven years. But it is what she can afford. She is not the kind of girl who has ever had the world handed to her. She knows that.
Maybe she is one of the lucky ones. She was raised by a single mother who made her finish high school. Most people her age didn't. That was just the way things worked in this town.
Angie takes in a long breath. Sometimes, like now, she thinks that perhaps there is no point. She works so hard, getting up early for work, taking the long bus ride to the college and then staying up late to finish school work. For what? She wants someone to tell her that it will be worth it. She wants someone to guarantee her that she might make something of herself. Sometimes she feels as if she is running, as if she will never reach her destination.
Is she destined to live in this town forever, work dead-end jobs just to scrape by? The way her mother does? The way most everyone in this town does?
She looks up and sees Delilah, the little sixth grader throw a swing. Angie does not move or call. Instead, she watches, feels the quiet surround her. The swing flies toward Nicole. Such a beautiful girl. The kind of girl who is meant to go places. The kind of girl who is meant to leave this town and never look back.
Nicole falls through the air. It is a strange moment as she watches Delilah watch Nicole. The other children carry on as if none of it is happening. She looks at Delilah. Angie doesn't play favorites, though if she does have a favorite, it would be Delilah. The girl reminds her so much of herself. She watches quietly from the wall as Nicole falls. Such a beautiful girl. The kind of girl Angie never was.
Nicole hits the ground.
The children begin to gather around. They didn't notice at first but then, a kind of contagion spreads and spreads until all the children swarm around Nicole's body.
Angie does not move. Her breath quickens. She feels the weight of herself fall heavily over her as she leans into the poles of the swing set, her back pressed into it. She sees Nicole lying there on the hard sand underneath the swings, only a few feet away.
The children are looking at her. For help.
How long has she been standing there, just thinking?
She pushes off the pole. She reaches for the cell phone in her pocket.
Maybe, she thinks as she dials, Nicole has broken something. An arm. Maybe, she is in pain.
Nicole will be like the rest of the town. Broken. In some way, everyone in the town is broken, has had their aspirations destroyed when the realization set in. Angie was from the poor side of town. It was the kind of poor that determined your entire future. It was the kind of poor that made life hard.
Angie goes to hit the dial button on the phone. She sees the numbers "9-1-1" shining brightly on the screen.
She hesitates. It is a brief hesitation, but Angie stops. She puts the phone down. She does not move. She does not run. The children are looking frantic now. A few are running up to her screaming, "Blood! Miss Angie, she's bleeding!"
Angie sighs and closes the phone. For now, she tilts her head up at the sun, lets the rays of warmth slide over her and into her skin.
She will call for an ambulance in a few moments. For now she will leave Nicole there, lying on the sand.
For now, she will let the girl feel the pain. Everyone needs that, to feel pain every now and then.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Mercedes Lucero is a writer whose prose and poetry has appeared in Curbside Splendor, Printers Row Journal, and Whitefish Review, among others. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and recently launched Spectrum Extract, an art and literary magazine dedicated to those with autism and developmental disabilities. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Northwestern University and her first chapbook of fiction, Six Possible Reasons Amy Becomes a Whore, is forthcoming from Medulla Press Publishing in August 2015. You can find her at mercedeslucero.com.
ABOUT THE ARTIST:
Living in Los Angeles for nearly ten years and now Jersey City since 2005 I have seen cities literally grow on top of cities. This staggering, often misguided growth is reflected in my art. I am trying to convey the struggle between city, suburb and country side. Their co-existence and how I portray it in my work is what challenges and excites me. Find out more about Kirkland Bray here.