Third Place, Young Adult Fiction Category; 2010 Bethesda Magazine/Bethesda Urban Partnership Short Story and Essay Contest
Two young teens, a girl and boy, go for a walk. They are giggling, sneaking glances at each other, their palms brushing. It’s a sweet scene. After a few blocks, the two kids see a playground; he takes her hand and they run together.
They cross over the blacktop spattered with blood and sweat and kick off their shoes. They feel the cool, prickly woodchips chafing their bare feet, a reminder they are free.
The two come to stand at the edge of the playground, staring at the entrance of a large, twisting slide. The red plastic is covered with the graffiti of older kids who have come before them.
The boy yells, “Come on! Let’s do it!” and starts forward. Laughing shyly, she follows him, concentrating on the warmth of his fingers intertwined with hers. She peers up the tunnel, but can’t see to the top.
“It’s like a cave,” she says. “I bet little kids get scared in there.”
The mischievous boy turns to her with a smile.
“I’m goin’ in.”
He scrambles up the rope ladder. For a moment, before he throws himself down the slide, he grins at the girl. She’s waiting for him at the bottom, in her pretty white tank top and torn up jeans. He slides in; whooping, he pops out the bottom. His hands outstretched, he grabs her shoulders as he lands on his feet.
“Ha ha, gotchya!”
She’s annoyed; it’s boring now, and he’s grabbing her too hard. She shrugs his hands off and says with her head, Come on, let’s go.
“Aww, go on, go down!”
He takes her hand in his, and pulls her towards the ladder. Feet planted, she stands her ground until her whole arm is stretched out. He looks back at her and gives a little tug; she rolls her eyes, but follows him.
“We’ll do it together. See how fast we ’kin go.”
They get to the entrance of the dark slide, and position themselves like they did when they were younger: he sits behind her, his legs outside of hers. They start out with plenty of room between them, so when he pushes his hands against the red plastic sides, only he moves. She feels his chest lean on her back, and blushes.
It’s slow going, down this curvy slide. They go forward in short bursts, with each push of his hands. Her tank top begins to ride up. They reach the bend on the slide. She makes him pause so she can readjust. When he pushes again this time, they barely move forward at all.
“We’re stuck,” he says stupidly.
“Well, this was your idea! Do you mean I have to crawl out now?”
The plastic that rubbed against her skin is starting to itch, and she’s angry. She makes a fist and hits him on the shin.
“Owww, what’dya do that for?”
He leans down and rubs the spot, gritting his teeth. She can see his face through the darkness, now that he’s so close in front of her. She has to pause for a second before she realizes what he’s saying.
“Oh, god, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to do it that hard! Does it really hurt?” she cries, putting her hand to her mouth. “God, I’m so sorry!”
The boy grins, and butts his head against her shoulder. He’s tough, and anyways, she’s a girl. She doesn’t punch that hard.
The girl begins to laugh. At first, it’s just because of his wild, grinning face, but then she just can’t stop. He joins in after a confused moment, and the two of them sit there, leaning against each other, convulsing in laughter. They can’t breathe through giggles, and their stomachs hurt with the effort, but she loves the moment.
“O—K—I think—we should—get outta here!”
She’s still got bubbles of laughter popping out of her mouth, interrupting her speech. The boy looks at her, and has a brilliant idea.
“No, you know what we should do? We should sign our names in here. With your sharpie, ya know? Like what people did on the outside.”
She’s still laughing a little, because she can’t help it, but it’s embarrassing now that the boy has stopped. Still, she isn’t sure about his idea.
“But, uh, what if someone sees, or something? And knows us?”
The boy repositions himself so he is sitting next her. They are both on a slant, partly lying along the curve sides of the slide. He reaches into her left pocket and slides out the mini-sharpie she keeps in her pants. He feels her tense up, so he pushes his shoulder against hers again, and promises only little kids will go down the slide. And they won’t notice, or tattle, or anything. She watches, biting her lip, as he writes his name in big, block letters.
Once he has given his signature an approving nod, he turns to her.
“Here, take it. Your turn.”
She takes the marker after a moment, and writes her name slowly, gently, underneath his. She looks at the two names, one on top of the other, and blushes a little.
The boy can tell she is embarrassed, even in the dark grey, as if it were dusk, or dawn.
The girl looks at him, still biting her bottom lip, and then turns back to the signatures. When she leans away, there is a heart drawn around the two names.
“Like they do on trees, right?”
He looks at the drawing. And then at her. And back at the drawing. Then he leans forward, picks up the sharpie, and draws an arrow piercing it; cupid’s arrow.
His face is centimeters away from hers now, and if he turns his head, he would be able to kiss her. She waits, holding her breath. His teeth flash in another grin, and he turns back to the picture.
“This oughta scare ‘em when they come down!”
He leans back to proudly survey his handiwork, leaning into her. She distractedly looks at the new drawing, and sees his addition. Little droplets of blood, in the shape of tears, dripped from the arrow.
“Your turn. Wanna keep going?” the boy asks.
She grabs the sharpie from his hands, but doesn’t draw anything. He looks at her expectantly; he’s waiting for something. She just shakes her head and puts the cap back on.
“Let’s go. We have to be home soon, anyways.”
He keeps still for a little bit and then snatches the sharpie back out of her hands in a sudden, jerky motion. He pops the cap off and jabs the felt tip against the side of the slide.
The girl’s throat closes up. Who is this kid she’s letting touch her leg? She doesn’t know him, she wants to run away, fast, but she’s stuck; stuck in this cave he’s led her into. She’s holding her breath without realizing it, her limbs frozen as she watches the boy press the marker tip again and again, harder and harder, into the slide.
His nose pressed up against the hard plastic, he watches the ink seep out of the marker. It layers to form a sticky, wet, blob. The dot expands its size slowly, and begins to become deformed as the ink runs downwards.
Her breathing starts again, the first breath ragged. It’s fine, she says. She knows the boy. She’s okay. She loves the boy; the way he forgets about the world and stares at her like he’s staring at the marker, right now. She loves it.
The boy lifts his head up, and then the marker tip. His expression is soft again.
“Cool. I love the smell of sharpie, right?” He breathes in deeply through his nose, making her laugh.
“Come on,” he yells, the sound echoing down the hollow tunnel. “Let’s get outta here!”
She follows his lead, sliding herself down on her back, her feet above his head. At the bottom, he keeps pushing himself forward until his feet stick out into the open, and then he sits up.
“I can see again!” he laughs, blinking in the sudden sunlight.
The boy jumps up, turns around, grabs her ankles, and pulls her out. She slides fast into him, knocking them both to the ground.
Their faces inches away, he breathes, “Gotchya!” and scrambles up, grinning. His hot breath in her face, she makes a gagging noise.
“Ugh, gross! Go brush your teeth!”
The boy rolls his eyes. Whatever.
As she gets up, the woodchips poke uncomfortably into her hands. She brushes them off on her jeans, but she can still see the red indentations on her palm. She begins to run, away from the slide, away from playground, away from the blacktop. The boy, laughing wildly, chases after the girl.
An outing to a playground by a teenage girl and boy becomes the unassuming backdrop for sexual awakening. Their awkward, stop-and-start descent through a twisting tunnel slide mirrors the clumsy, yet irresistible pull of physical attraction just emerging from their childhood friendship. The author’s well-observed details and ear for dialogue capture the uncertainty and boldness that fuel young love.
Alice Kassinger lives in Chevy Chase and is a graduate of the National Cathedral School in Washington, D.C. She is attending Washington University in St. Louis in the fall. She wrote this story as part of an independent study course in creative writing.