Monkey Bars

July 5, 2008
By Maggie Cregan, Mayfield Village OH, OH

Li Mei felt the sweat on the back of her neck turn cold as she watched the chase. From her vantage point at the top of the slide, she could see her last fellow survivor being closed in on by the sleek, cat-like form of 'it'. Brandon’s legs churned up the surface of the playground, sending little brown woodchips flying in his wake, but his valiant efforts were not enough, she knew. Li Mei tore her eyes away, shooting down the slide while she still had time. Out of the corner of her willowy eye, she saw Brandon go down into the sea of woodchips, tagged out by terminal touch of it.

This was tag at its finest. Normally, when enough were tagged out, the children grew restless and began pursued other acivites. They were, after all, kindergarteners. But today they stood enthralled in the heat of the sun, watching 'it' move like a finely tuned machine, never pausing, never faltering. They squatted at the sidelines, spellbound as any SuperBowl swarm. One by one, the players were eliminated, and forced to silently join the ranks of the defeated. Now all eyes were on Li Mei, regardless of where their sympathies lay. She was bent over, hands clutching the shiny surface of the fire hydrant that served as home. Ruby-red and chipping, it was a safe haven, but only for the allotted fifteen seconds. The bell was due to ring any moment, and every mind there was asking the same question; could champion player Li Mei evade capture for an entire recess? Could she set the new record for, and win the respect of, the entire kindergarten class?

Li Mei’s eyes, slender as bamboo shoots and darker than any Halloween midnight, saw all the possibilities spread out on the play ground before her. 'It'’s long, powerful form was tensed and ready to strike, mirroring Li Mei’s position where it stood by the monnkey bars. (The rules were adamant on the subject of puppy-guarding on this playground.) Should she dash to the swings, fake-out towards the sandbox, and dart over to the climbing tubes? But no; she would have to run between 'it' and the big slide; far too close for comfort. And, in a flash, 15…14… and 13 had ticked away. The pounding of Li Mei’s heart counted out the precious seconds, and yet her mind whirred at a much faster pace as she sorted out the possibilities. She could try the zip line, a plan many others had tried and found no success with. But if she went fast enough, and tucked her legs beneath her, out of harm’s way… she could ride the zip line, and jump straight from its end to the opening of the slide, and scramble up… No, no, she would be caught scaling the sticky surface of the slide. …12… 11… 10…

The crowd at the border jostled in the rising temperature and tension. Agony to a six-year-old is waiting, and even these few seconds clocked by at an excruciating rate. All eyes were on the two opponents, their shadows rippled on the bumpy woodblock surface. Li Mei’s swayed left and right as she shifted her weight from one PowerPuff sneaker to another, but 'it'’s only movement was slow, steady blinking. Brandon crossed his chubby, childlike fingers behind his back for Li Mei, as 9… 8… and 7 were gone.

Li Mei felt the sharp jarring of a woodblock in her sneaker, the punishing heat of the sun, and the pressure of waiting with a small, separate part of her mind. All the rest of her energy was busy drawing up maps of escape at a rapid-fire rate, and dismissing them just as quickly. Past the big slide to the back of the zip line…? No, no, and no. Around the fire pole, through the sandbox and… no, no, what could she be thinking? Each instant more precious than the last, Li Mei felt 6… 5… and 4 take their leave with acute pain, wondering whether there was any way out.

The crowd saw Li Mei’s predicament clearly, as she was very nearly cornered. The fire hydrant sat at the back edge of the playground; up and to the left was the big slide, forward and right were the two smaller ones. The slides were connected by a bouncing bridge and a system of climbing tubes, and the only other elevated parts of the playground were the fire pole and monkey bars. Beyond the raised portion were only the sandbox, seesaw and zip line; Li Mei was surely doomed, for there was no way out.

Not without a struggle, Li Mei kept desperation at bay. She had resigned herself to her backup plan; which was to run like mad without a set course, hoping to evade the fatal touch until the recess bell rang. And yet, she knew there must be a better way… And there it was. It was daring, and crazy, and foolhardy and very dodgy… and it was the only way. 3… 2…
Li Mei never waited for 1 to make her mad escape.

A fake-out leap towards the little slides caused 'it' to falter, but not to fall. She darted around the big slide, and, at arriving at the sandbox, flew over it with one giant leap. Uselessly asking herself if this was a good idea, she ran up the seesaw… Successfully baited, 'it' ran up behind her, and the greater weight lifted Li Mei’s end. With perfect timing, Li Mei took advantage of this. Having bent her knees just as 'it' boarded the opposite end, Li Mei sprang up into the air, hands waving wildly through blue skies. The collective gasp of forty-six kindergarteners was lost to Li Mei, whose diminutive ears heard nothing but the fast rushing of blood through her veins.

One small, sweaty palm slipped from the hot metal bar, but the other clung firm. Reaching the other hand back up, Li Mei put her weight on her palms, and lifted her thin legs through the gap in the monkey bars. She stood, shaking and triumphant, above the battlefield; PowerPuff sneakers planted firmly on bars shiny and red in their newness as the recess bell rang.

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