Mikey Smalls finds me at recess. I’m by the back fence, the new one they built after that kid slipped through and got himself drowned in the retention pond. I tend to stick by fences. Keeps things from sneaking up on you.
“You still got a bad uncle?” Mikey asks.
I shake my head. “Not a working man anymore, Mike. I don’t take jobs like that.”
“You gotta make lunch money.”
I flash him my pad of stolen hall passes. “I do. My way.”
Mikey looks over his shoulder, back toward the monkey bars. I can tell he’d rather be there, taking dares, eating worms. Makes me wonder about his angle.
He reaches in his lunchbox and pulls out something the size of his fist, egg-shaped and wrapped in white foil. In bright colored writing are the words ‘Kinder SURPRISE!’
“How the fuck you get this, Mikey?”
He grins, tosses me a second. “Canadian, smuggled over the border. It’s the real thing. Hollow chocolate egg and a toy in the middle.”
Now I know something’s rotten. Mikey doesn’t have these resources. These are harder to get than candy cigarettes, than lead-painted toy soldiers.
“You do a job for me, this is just the start,” Mikey says.
“You got more?”
This time he hands me a Polaroid. It’s a photo of his bedroom, plastic dinosaurs, an X-Men poster, a sea-shell nightlight. But there, middle of his bed, they sit – six cases of chocolate contraband.
I can’t keep the shock off my face, and Mikey basks in it.
“That’s your pay,” he says, and then, cooler than a worm-eater has any right to be, the kid turns on his heels and crosses the gravel playground.
* * *
Playground used to be run by this kid named Turk. Real piece of shit, but he kept things under his thumb nice and neat. But things happen. Orders disorder. For Turk, that meant choking to death on a marble. Things were one way, and now they’re not.
With Turk out of the picture, two fifth-graders, the King and Mr. President, muscled in. After another chat with Mikey Smalls, things start to make more sense. It’s not Mikey who’s hiring me. It’s the King.
Out past the swing sets is a grass hill, and that’s where I find the King. A growth spurt called Fats flanks him on the right. Sitting at his left, reading Judy Blume, is the new girl, Shelby. Strawberry blonde with hair kept out of her eyes by two pink plastic barrettes. The King’s trophy – everybody wants the new girl, but it’s him that got her.
“You came,” he says. Beside him, Fats has an expression like he wants to see how my guts sparkle in the sun. We have us a history, me and Fats. I ignore him.
“Mikey Smalls showed me a picture,” I say. “Had to wonder how a kid like that hits the lottery.”
“Michael’s a good kid,” says the King.
“Mikey’s a swing set scrapper, bad in fights but good for a dare. What do you want with him?”
“You got a bad uncle, is what I hear,” says the King.
Shelby glances up with her eyes, nose still in the book. She’s got a look – almost enough to make me forget my girl Emily, if Emily weren’t the kind to gouge eyes and bite ears.
“Told Mikey, I don’t do that work anymore.”
“No,” says the King, “you’re in hall passes now. Good business if you don’t get caught.”
“Hall pass is a small thing, King. Easy to ditch. Tough to get caught unless there’s a snitch.”
The King raises his face to the sun, breathes in slow. A breeze makes waves in the grass on his hill, and Shelby’s hair.
“Smells like rats to me,” says the King. “You think about that bad uncle. Sometimes the best way to be left alone is to make a compromise, now and then.”
* * *
Bell rings. I head in from recess, head down, thinking on things. Bad uncle’s a distraction trick, like pulling the fire alarm during a convocation. So who does the King need distracted, and why?
Before I can think of an answer, somebody grabs me by the neck and pulls me into the bushes. He keeps a hand over my mouth while everyone else files in. I don’t see his face, but I can smell him. He’s wearing deodorant. Only one kid in Westlake Elementary wears deodorant.
“Hate to do this to a voter,” says Mr. President. “But this is a matter of school security.”
When he’s sure I’m not going to make a run at the door, he lets go. We’re beneath a window and behind the bushes, sitting on a mat of dead leaves and dried out mulch. Mr. President is wearing his customary short-sleeved button-down and clip-on tie. He’s smiling. Mr. President always smiles.
“This is about the King, isn’t it.”
He nods as gravely as he can while wearing a tooth-bearing grin.
“You know we don’t get along,” says Mr. President. “You know our philosophies are different. The King wants to run the playground same as Turk did. Iron fist, fifth-grade enforcers, bullies on his payroll. I’m of the people. You’ll notice I grabbed you myself. I didn’t hire someone else to do it.”
“Sure,” I say. “I noticed.”
“You remember how things used to be. Under Turk, we never could get support for a student council. With him gone, we have a real chance at democracy. But it’s fragile. I’m the first class president, and we could lose everything if the King gets too powerful. I know he’s spoken with you. I know he wants you to work for him.”
“I don’t work for anybody.”
“Self-determination,” says Mr. President. “That’s what I want for my voters. That’s what I want for you.”
He pulls a small box of chocolate chip cookies from his pocket and presses them into my hand.
“These left over from the election?”
His smile wavers. “Excuse me?”
“Seem to remember a lot of kids walking around with these that Tuesday morning. Some people called it a bribe.”
“Campaigning,” he corrects. He’s gritting his teeth now, but goddamned if he’s not still smiling. “You don’t have to like me. You don’t have to like anyone. But you do have to live on this playground. Think about that.”
* * *
On the bus ride home, I give my girl Emily the scoop. She hates when I call her my girl – she says she just wants to hold hands and drink cherry Kool-Aid, not make things official – but she’s loyal as a German Shepherd, with a more vicious bite.
“War’s coming,” she says. Her fingers tickle my palm as she extends them slowly across my hand. “Stay out of it. You pick a side, you’re going to lose.”
“Might not have a choice,” I say. “I don’t pick a side, the whole schoolyard will be after me.”
“You could spend recess in detention,” she says. “Spend it with me.”
I squeeze her hand but don’t answer. She knows lock down makes me crazy. I’d rather be free and in the cross hairs than safe behind a closed classroom door.
Emily gets off at the third stop. Her house. We can’t play together since she started biting. Parents think I’m a bad influence. It’s just as well. Can’t say what she’d do if she saw the strawberry-blonde waiting for me on my front porch.
“You should walk,” says Shelby, moving across the lawn. “Bus takes too damn long.”
“Not safe out there,” I tell her. “Kiddie fiddlers and stray dogs. Kid can get eaten alive.”
She pulls at a piece of gum, stretching it from her teeth with a pair of long pink fingers, slow and sure, before popping it back in her mouth. “Didn’t think you were the kind to get scared.”
“There’s a lot you don’t know about me. But if we’re just here to list my faults, we’ll be here all day, so maybe you should run along home now.”
“I’m good at making friends,” says Shelby. “Perk of being an army brat. You learn how to get along.”
“And when someone avoids you like the cooties?”
Shelby laughs too hard, falls forward so that her hair cascades down her shoulders like liquid gold. “They don’t.”
* * *
I take Shelby to the tree fort out back. It’s safe, and I keep a water gun up there, filled with pepper juice, along with a dozen concrete chunks pulled from the front walk of an abandoned house down the block. Used to run a little business out of here, but I stopped all that. Stopped trying to fix other people’s problems and just handle my own.
Still, having Shelby up there, it starts to feel like old times. A cicada buzzes. Birds sing. If she asked me my hourly rate, I might even tell her. But she’s not here to hire me.
“They say you have a bad uncle,” she says.
Shelby shakes her head. “I was hoping not. I was hoping the King was, I don’t know, delusional. He gets these ideas in his head.” She pops a fresh piece of gum in her mouth and chews, anxious. “I don’t think you should do it. Don’t take the job.”
“You think I have a choice? The King’s got Fats working for him. He’s got friends I don’t know about.” I almost say, he’s got you, but I don’t want her thinking I’m scared of her. Something tells me this girl is trouble.
“They need to make a deal,” she says. “The King and Mr. President. Split the playground, fifty-fifty.”
I laugh. She slaps me.
“Nobody hits me like that,” I tell her, grabbing her by the wrist. Her slap-bracelet falls to the ground. “You get one warning.”
“The King will listen to me,” she says. “And Mr. President will listen to you. We can broker a deal.”
“This is how it is,” I tell her. “You’re new. That comes with certain powers. But newness goes away. You get old, get boring, everybody learns your name. New girl comes in, this time from Maine, this time from Florida, and suddenly Royal Oak sounds like Hickville, USA. You might think you’re something special, but I’ve seen a million like you before, and you won’t be the last.”
Shelby rises from the floor, and starts for the ladder. She pauses and looks up at me.
“You might be surprised.”
* * *
Mr. President is making a speech on the merry-go-round when I find him. He stands at the edge, campaign manager pushing him in slow turns at his addresses the small gathering of kids around him. When he sees me in the crowd, he motions for his manager to stop pushing, makes a quick concluding remark (May this henceforth be known as the freedom-go-round!), and dismounts. It still takes him fifteen minutes to make his way through the crowd, shaking hands and kissing baby dolls.
“How’d you like those cookies, champ?”
I hand him the unopened box. His smile twitches.
“So you’ve made your choice,” he says.
“I don’t see that I’ve got one,” I tell him. “You need to broker a deal with the King. Split the playground. We can survive like that. It’s been done before.”
He scoffs. “Don’t quote recess history at me, friend. My older brother was there when the playground was nothing but a collection of fiefdoms. It was barbaric – tribes run by bullies, the lunch money raids, weapons improvised from gym equipment. Is that what you want?”
“Way I see it, I’d rather worry about a war than fight one.”
He tugs at his tie, jerking the top of his shirt down his neck. A bead of sweat makes a track down his throat. “A fledgling democracy needs a cause. I’m in no rush to fight, but a war might bring the people of this playground together.”
“Sure,” I say. “But under who?”
* * *
I’m in the bathroom, finishing up my business with the urinal, when someone grabs me from behind and shoves me into the wall.
I taste blood and as I’m pulled back by two meaty fists I see a dark smudge where my nose smacked tile. A knee drives into my back, sending me sprawling onto the ground. I manage to roll onto my side, and look up to see Fats standing there, eyes dark.
“Been waiting for this.”
Before I can get a word out, he kicks me in the stomach. Breathless, I push off with a sneaker and slide toward the stalls. If I can get in and get the door locked, it might buy me some time. I’m just about under, but when I try to stand a hand grabs me and drags me down. My head smacks the corner of the toilet paper dispenser. I wrap my arms around the john and hope my shoulders don’t pop out of their sockets as he yanks on my legs.
“Get out here,” screams Fats. “Be a fucking man!”
When he yowls and lets go, I assume he’s lost his mind, that Fats has fallen into a berserker rage that will leave me scattered in pieces around the Hallway B bathroom, head rotating slowly in a john clogged with my entrails. The ultimate swirly. But then I hear another sound, a familiar snarl.
I ease out slow from under the toilet wall and see Emily, all teeth and nails, knees and elbows, working over Fats. Nobody’s scared to hit Emily – she gave up her exempt status as a girl the first time she drew blood. But scared or not, Fats can’t land a fist. She’s too fast, and too mean, and the way he’s flailing his arms you’d think he was trying to fight off a swarm of bees.
“I think you got him,” I say, trying to keep my voice from shaking.
She takes a chunk out of his cheek and spits something wet at the bathroom floor.
“Emily,” I say. “Hey. I think that’s enough.”
She lets go, drops off him spitting and snarling. Fats is bloodied but still stupid as ever. He takes a swing. Emily ducks low, Big Boy trips and clocks himself on the urinal. The sensor flushes as he crumples on the floor.
“I didn’t touch him,” she says. “He slipped, you saw him.”
I bend over Fats, wary he might be faking, but the kid’s out cold.
“Could’ve left him awake, Em. I need to know why he did this.”
Emily rolls her eyes. “The King sent him. Duh. Fats might be a rabid dog, but he’s a dog on a leash. He wouldn’t do this on his own.”
Hard truth about a fact – believe it or don’t, it doesn’t go away. Emily’s right, and we both know it, and that means the King’s forced my hand. Like it or not, I’m working for Mr. President.
* * *
I forge a bus pass and get dropped off a block north from my house on Fox Street. Just down Fox is a gas station where I do a little business. Today it’s with a bum loitering outside by the dumpster. I give him a twenty filched from my mom’s purse, and a peanut butter sandwich.
“Call this, read this,” I say, giving him a sheet of paper with a phone number and script. I’m no good with cursive, so I’ve printed it as clearly as I can on a sheet of Garfield stationery.
He nods. “The rest tomorrow?”
I show him the other twenty. “The rest tomorrow. Oh, and here.” I hand him a stack of quarters. “Make sure you use the payphone. You can keep any of those you don’t use.”
He nods, raising the money to me like a toast, then shambles toward the gas station to spend his cash, still warm from my pocket.
* * *
I give Mr. President a head’s up at first recess.
“After lunch,” I tell him. “After lunch we’re running the bad uncle.”
He grins, clapping me on the shoulder. Today he’s wearing a new tie, a real one with an actual knot and everything. He bragged that he tied it himself.
“I’m proud of you,” he says. “This is a great thing you’re doing for democracy.”
I brush off his hand, tug on his tie. He thinks it looks sharp – I think it looks like a noose.
“You might want to lose that.”
* * *
Second recess, after lunch. I haven’t eaten a thing. Emily’s in detention – Fats squealed, but said nothing about his attack on me, and neither did Emily. Nobody’s heard from him since, but I figure he’s soaking up his bed rest at home, nursing himself back to health with cartoons and ice cream. Fine by mean. Take out the King’s heavy-hitter and this will all go much more smoothly.
A teacher walks quickly out the cafeteria door, toward the playground. I can tell just by how she’s moving that this is it – the call’s been made. Until they get things figured out with my bad uncle, the school’s going to be on lock down, and in the ensuing chaos of wrangling a playground full of kids into the building the King and Mr. President are going to settle their differences.
The teacher blows her whistle just as I see Fats come out from the tube slide, scabbed and grinning.
The King knows.
I book it double-time to where Mr. President is stationed, on top of the monkey bars so he can watch the show like a general, but an arm grabs me around the neck and pulls me to the gravel.
“No,” says a soft voice.
I roll over and it’s Shelby, straddling me in the dust and pebbles, strawberry blonde hair nearly on my face.
“He knows, doesn’t he?”
“It’s going to be a bloodbath, Shelby.”
“For both sides,” she says. “I saw Mr. President recruiting this morning. His secret service is bigger than you think.”
Teachers are snatching kids off the swing sets, chasing them off the slides, corralling them like cattle into the building. But there’s a second current on the playground now, this one flowing like a riptide toward the hill. Mr. President thinks he’s got the upper hand. He doesn’t see Fats waiting at the slide, or the boys gathering behind him. He doesn’t see until too late the heavies moving in on either side of the monkey bars.
“Come on,” says Shelby, “we have to go.”
“Wait,” I say, “hang on.”
But I don’t know why I’m protesting, and so I don’t put up much defense. Mostly I want to know what’s going on – what’s really going on, like how the King got the drop on Mr. President, or why he sent Fats to kick my ass in the bathroom. And then, just as Shelby pulls me around the corner and behind the cafeteria dumpsters, I get it.
The new girl’s got chops.
* * *
“It was you, wasn’t it?”
Shelby cocks her head, like she can’t hear me. The dumpsters smell like rotten chocolate milk and old bologna. “What was?”
“It was you that sent Fats,” I say. “Not the King.”
She starts to smile, then realizes I’m not kidding. “What are you trying to say? Why would I do something like that?”
I pop a piece of strawberry bubble gum and paint her a picture. “You and me, we’re not the same kind of selfish. I want to be left alone, you want something else. Best way to make me pick a side is to show me who’s going to bother me worst. Sicking the King’s goon on me was a pretty good way to do it.”
“But why would I turn you against the King? I’m on his side.”
“I was brokering a peace, but that’s no good to you. King’s territory is already too small for your taste, and peace makes sure it gets no bigger. You got the new girl angle, but that only lasts so long, like I told you before. But you knew that already. You knew you’ve got to act, and act fast, if you want turf, because in a couple months you turn back into a pumpkin and join the rest of us in the patch.”
“I was in favor of peace,” says Shelby. “I didn’t want this.”
“Course you did,” I say. “And you played me just right. Spooked me bad enough I played the bad uncle. Got a bum to call the school, say he was my dad, say my sex offender uncle was on his way to try and pick me up. Poor guy, takes one piss on the back of a bar, he’s on the registry for life.”
“You’re too smart to be left alone,” says Shelby, and I can see she’s ready to drop the act. “You know it. I know it. Even if you got your peace, you think they’d let you alone? You’ve already been their go-between. If they got peace, you’d be stuck in the middle, forever and ever.”
I nod. “Or until middle school.”
The two of us glaze over a second, that future too distant to imagine.
Then Shelby speaks. “I want you. I want you on my side. A guy like you, somebody that gets things done… You’d be very useful.”
I shake my head. “I don’t work for anybody.”
“You should reconsider,” she says. “People that cross me have a tendency to end up taking the big nap.”
“Shelby,” I say, pausing to blow a bubble, “you got no idea how tired I am.”