by Benjamin Jacob Blattberg

“Get away from me,” she yelled through her tears. “Get away;” her words were nearly unintelligible, the tears streaming down her cheeks, and down into her mouth. They tasted really salty. She backed up, until her back touched the metal grid wall of a jungle gym. “Leave me alone.” She picked up a handful of the small pebbles that were the flooring of the playground and threw it at them in a wide arc. Some of the boys jumped away from the projectiles with practiced grace, while others just took the shots with a military stoicism.

They all kept advancing, though. The semi-circle was growing tighter. It was like a nightmare she once had, except in the dream they were pumpkin-headed scarecrows, and big roly-poly clowns.

“Oh, come on, Jamie, we’re just having a little fun.” Josh smiled when he talked, almost reflexively, and his teeth were perfectly white and straight, and when he smiled like that, and spoke in his angelic child’s voice, and said such rational things like, “It’s only a game,” then his smile was terrible. Like it was now. He was the center of the enclosing arc: the keystone. There were about seven of them in front of her, coming in slowly, like it was such a sure thing that they could get her that they could take their time. She threw some more stones at them, and started shoveling great handfuls, as much as her small, pink nine year-old hands could shovel. The stones fell like hard raindrops from the late autumn blue-gray sky. Robbie yelped and held his hands to his left eye.

George went over to Robbie, who’s face was turning red with the effort from holding the tears in. George gently pried open his hands, and looked at his face. “He’s O.K., just hit him in the cheek.” Josh continued the advance.

“You O.K.?” George asked quietly. Robbie felt silly and childish saying that he wasn’t, and he was reasonably O.K., but it stung where she hit him. His tears turned into a snarl, and he growled out, “I’ll kill the bitch.”

David came up to them quietly, and said, in his high-pitched voice, which always sounded like he was that-close to laughing, “That’s for Josh to decide.” He snickered a little, and jumped away before they could respond.

“You’re lucky you didn’t hurt him badly. Then we’d have to hurt you. Badly.” His smile was leering at her, and it seemed there was no way out. Except up. The thought had occurred to Josh also. She turned around and was about to scurry up the grid, when Neil grabbed her hands off the metal, and pulled her towards him, towards the bars, so that she was pressed face-first against the jungle gym. Neil smiled and licked her cheek. His pink tongue was insanely long, but she was screaming now, screaming loudly, a ragged syllable, pausing only long enough to breathe in, and she wasn’t paying attention to anything else, except that she couldn’t move her hands; no matter how much she thrashed about, and she did do quite a lot of that, his grip on her remained iron-hard, his fingers digging into her wrists the more she struggled.

“Oh, whatsa matter, Jamie,” said Jason, mocking her struggling. She spit near him, not able to turn her head all the way. He laughed, and she was crying more and more. The more she cried, the less anything else came to save her. She was surprised that she still had more to cry. Her entire face felt hot and red and puffy, and she just wanted them to stop and leave her alone. Jason moved over to get closer to her. Josh roughly shoved him aside, and just stood there, staring at him. Jason moved away, stepping back not so much to make room for Josh, but to put some room in between them. Alpha male always gets first pick.

Josh still smiled, and brushed his curly brown hair out of his deep brown eyes. His one distinguishing feature was his smile. All the other boys were of the same height, or near enough, and same weight. They were all lean and wiry. Jason, George and Neil had black hair, the deepest, richest, moonless midnight black. Robbie and Chris had blonde hair; David had strawberry blonde hair, hints of red in the flax, and his was the longest, straight to his shoulders. Kenny had a buzz-cut of indeterminate color, which matched his gray-like eyes that sometimes seemed blue, or green, or hazel, or any other number of colors, depending on the way the light hit them. There were nine people in this group, and the ninth called out.

“Why, hello, Misses Jankowski. What brings you out here? To our playground? Walking steadily towards the jungle gym?” he called out in an exaggerated voice, loud enough for everyone to hear him.

Josh grimaced, his upper lip curling up, showing his teeth in something not a smile. Neil had let go of Jamie’s hands and was climbing up the jungle gym’s metal grid wall. Josh leaned in closely, and whispered, “We were just playing a game, Jamie. No one was going to hurt you. O.K.? Just a game.” She nodded slowly, drying her tears quickly on her sleeves, wiping her entire face, which seemed to Josh to just spread the tears and redness all over her face. He kissed her gently on the cheek, and smiled to reassure her. He had decided that she would probably die soon.

“What are you doing Josh?” asked Mrs. Jankowski, her voice tinged with anger, her hands on her hips.

“I was just telling Jamie that I liked her, Mrs. Jankowski.” Josh had stopped smiling here, and instead looked up like a little puppy dog whose favorite treat was just taken away.

“Come over here Jamie.” Jamie meekly walked over to the teacher. Most of the boys were innocently playing with the swings, and slowly walking away, towards the bigger section of playground; a small windowless jut of red-brick school-building separated the two sections. Josh, standing there all by himself, had turned on all of his boyish charm, channeling all of it into looking forlorn, and sad. Not giving in, Mrs. Jankowski took Jamie away, with one final look at Josh, warning him about the consequences if he had lied, or even worse, made another student cry. She couldn’t imagine that some kids could be so casually mean. But still, she thought, it was better than how some of the kids related to each other in city schools. Some of her friends who had worked in those schools told her stories, stories involving guns and knives, and killing. She waited until she got Jamie inside the classroom. Jamie sat down, and dried her eyes with the tissues that Mrs. Jankowski gave her. “Tell me what happened.” Her tone was soothing and confidential, but it was a commanding tone also. Jamie blew her nose, and began to tell her (making it up using what she had overheard her older sister say on the phone) about how Josh had told her that he liked her, and how upset she was because they were such good friends, and she didn’t want to lose him as a friend. Not even this would make her forget her loyalty to the golden playground rule: Never tell a Teacher. Mrs. Jankowski listened to everything she was told, and she knew that some thing in the story wasn’t quite right. Maybe it was the way that Jamie told it, or the way she kept biting at her lower lip. The lipstick was smudged mostly off; Mrs. Jankowski was always a little surprised, upset maybe, about how the girls in fifth grade were always trying to act older. The makeup, and the training bras, and sometimes the stuffing of bras, everything which they affected, it all disgusted Mrs. Jankowski, who was feeling every of her thirty-eight years. Jamie, one of the smarter girls when it came to books, had skipped a grade, and so being the youngest, tried the hardest to act and look the oldest. Why were they in such a rush to grow up? Her deep-seated feeling was that kids should be kids. Jamie left the room, and Mrs. Jankowski used the last few minutes of recess to go to the bathroom. Women’s bathrooms, at least to men, always seem better furnished. The faculty women’s bathroom at South Grove Elementary School was an exception to this rule-of-thumb. The walls were grimy and the ceiling was patchy with mold and falling down in places. Mrs. Jankowski was used to this mess so she just went into the first unoccupied stall. She wiped the seat before sitting down. Along with the feeling of relief, the sound of urinating always calmed her. She flushed and walked out of the stall, pausing to look at herself in the mirror, before going back out. She felt old. She didn’t want to deal with children who were rushing to be old, and she couldn’t seem to convince them to be happy the way they were. They always wanted more.

Josh was gathering his group around him, calling them to their playground, now that Mrs. Jankowski had left.

“Fucking A, man,” said Jason, “Why the fuck did she have to come over here?” Jason was on the floor, blood trickling from his mouth and nose, and all before anyone had even seen Josh move. Josh’s hands were still clenched in fists, but he had turned away.

“What the fuck,” with all the emphasis on fuck, “was that for?” Josh looked at Jason for a second, smiling, while wheels turned in his head.

George looked at Josh, waiting for a sign that would tell him that it was safe to help Jason. Josh jumped at Jason, grabbed his shirt front and shook him, his head hitting up and down on the grass, most of which was yellow and dead. After a few minutes he got off him, slapping him once for good measure, and stood up, brushing his shirt down, and brushing the hair out of his eyes. George went over to Jason, holding a tissue to his bleeding face, and whispering about how to make the bleeding stop. George’s parents were both doctors, just like they wanted him to be. George was only ten, like the rest of them, so he didn’t know what he wanted, and wasn’t worrying about it yet. Josh looked at the rest of the group and smiled. Brian, the ninth person in the group, and the second-in-command, like Josh had the same shade of brown hair, but was curly, where Josh’s was straight, and brown eyes, though his mother called them hazel, because it sounded nicer. Brian didn’t smile as much though, and the reason was whenever he did, people invariably noticed how sharp his teeth were, and how much they made him look like some sort of carnivorous dog, a jackal or hyena maybe.

Sometimes, older adults would make comments to his parents about how they should get him braces so he wouldn’t look so much like a dog, like a hyena.

Brian took special pleasure then in telling them that hyenas weren’t real dogs. When he left they usually muttered something under their breath about how it takes one to know one.

Now Brian was looking at his watch and walking over Josh. “Hmmm. Josh, if you want to get something fresh to eat, we should go now, before recess is over.”

Josh nodded his assent. “Let’s go find us some fresh meat.” He started walking away, towards the little forest that bordered one side of the schoolyard. Brian, Chris, Robbie, Neil, Kenny, David, who was running around, back and then forward, side to side, followed him into the woods.

George helped Jason get up and then walked after them. Josh had started jogging, and soon the whole group was running through the woods. Jason started limping in the direction of the forest, his bloody tissue pressed to his nose. He also started running to keep up with the group, the bloody tissue dropped to the forest floor like one of fall’s red leaves. Was it just a trick of the light, the unsure gloom of the sun-dappled forest floor? Or were they running on all fours? Like wolves.