Joey was out of his desk and pulling open the classroom door before the bell rang for the second time. He was the first kid in the hall, rushing headlong down it’s length towards the double doors that screamed freedom.
“No running in the halls!” Mrs. Lightfoot called out after him in vain. They both knew she wouldn’t be able to stop his running.
Bursting through the threshold of the education system’s hold on him, Joey took in huge lungfuls of fresh October air. The chill wind whipped against his red baseball jacket and for the millionth time that day he regretted wearing shorts. Looking around he didn’t know what to play on first; he was debating the merits of the centuries old slide versus teeter-totter debate when a hand clamped down on his shoulder.
“Knew I’d smell you out here,” Pete said, giving him a wide gap-toothed smile.
“You sure that’s not just one of your farts?” Mike asked, stepping up beside Pete.
Joey crunched up his nose as if he smelled something terrible. “It’s definitely coming from you, Pete.”
Pete hit him in the arm, “You know Mrs. Lightfoot was yelling at you again?”
“When isn’t she?”
Mike laughed, “So what you want to play?”
Mike and Pete both agreed and they set out to take their places. Pete was the commander of the Earth Anti-Alien forces headquarters, so he got to sit at the top of the big slide blasting away the oncoming aliens while Mike and Joey had to fight their way towards headquarters from the battlefield. They made their way across the lava pits of the teeter-totters, avoided the quicksand boxes, passed under the rainbow of death; until, finally, they were at the edge of headquarters.
“What’s the situation?” Pete called down to them, his blaster pistol fingers at the ready for any sneaky alien tricks.
“They’re everywhere Captain,” Mike called back, ‘I think this is the big one!”
“Of course it’s the big one, we knew that already. I want to know what they’re planning.”
“I think they want to blow up the school!” Joey called up.
“Oh, well,” Pete slid down the slide, “Let’s leave them to it then.” They all burst out laughing and went to play in the sandbox.
“You think aliens actually exist?” Joey asked.
“Of course they exist,” Mike said, “haven’t you seen how many stars there are at night? I bet each one is an alien planet.”
“Nu uh,” Pete said, “My mom says there’s no such thing as aliens.”
“Your mom’s stupid.”
“Take that back!”
It looked to Joey like they were going to get into another fight. All three of them were the best of friends but Mike and Pete had a tendency to start swinging fists.
“Catch!” Joey yelled, throwing a handful of sand at each of them. Mike fell over backwards while Pete returned the throw in kind. They all laughed again.
After a few hours of playing the sun was beginning to set, painting the sky a fitting orange hue. Even though they each only lived a few minutes down the road, the setting of the sun marked the end of play and so each day always ended the same.
“I gotta get home for supper, if I’m late mom will flip.” Pete said.
“Yeah, same here,” Mike agreed.
“I’m gonna stay and swing for a bit,” Joey said, eyeing his favorite seat.
“Don’t stay out too late, you know the way your mom gets,” Pete ran his finger across his neck.
“Yeah, she can be a total monster,” Joey said and giggled as Mike pretended to be a huge monster with eyeballs on the ends of his arms. “Catch you guys later.”
“See ya!” they waved as they took off down the street, side by side.
Joey watched them leave, feeling surprisingly morose about the departure. He’d see them again in the morning but something about saying goodbye really got to him. It was the same feeling he got when he watched his older brother leave on the airplane for college.
Once they were out of sight Joey turned and headed for the swingset. It was a beat up set, supported on the ends by an inverted V of steel bars, with another V set in the middle separating two swings to either side. The bars might have once been a bright red color but were now faded to a rusted shit hue. The swings themselves were black or orange plastic seats held up by fresh new chains; all except for one.
It was the last one on the left side of the set, an orange seat that was held up by ancient chains that creaked and whined with every rise and fall. None of the other kids liked it very much. Where the ground underneath the other three swings was worn into ruts from children’s feet that collected water whenever it rained, the ground beneath Joey’s favorite swing was flat and still had patches of grass sticking out. On the bottom of the orange plastic someone had written in black marker ‘Mrs. Lightfoot smells like fish’.
Joey hopped up and started swinging his feet causally. He sat so he was facing the building and, as he continued to slowly gain height, found himself reflecting on the school. It would be his last year here, everyone’s last year here. They had built a new school a town over, a big one, his mother had told him, so big it would contain four districts. He didn’t know what a district was but he knew it meant he would be going there next year.
For the first time, he would have to take a bus in the morning and then again after classes. He would no longer be able to stay after school and play with Mike and Pete, or walk home the way he did these days. He liked his school, he even liked his teachers. Even Mrs. Lightfoot. The last thing he wanted was for it all to change.
He closed his eyes and pumped his legs faster. He could feel his body reaching higher and higher, shooting towards the sky. His feet folded beneath him and it was as if there was no ground, as if he would just leave the world behind. It was freedom. Not having to change schools or do homework, just float through space with no boundaries.
His stomach growled and he remembered supper. He was only supposed to swing for a minute or two. Eyes still closed he imagined himself as an astronaut, the swing his spaceship as he came drifting back to Earth. He kicked his legs out to the ground to slow himself down…
…only they didn’t touch anything.
He felt no ground beneath him and when he opened his eyes and looked down he screamed.
Underneath him where the ground had been only moments before was a hole. It stretched beneath the swing he was on and, looking to either side, he could see it spread out encompassing the entire set. The rusted metal Vs were standing on nothing, empty air except for the colors.
The hole excreted bright reds, fabulous blues, blinding yellows, terrifying greens, all in arcing lights that curved and twisted, distorting the air around them. They reached out, like tendrils climbing a wall of nothingness, to wrap around the swing set, one, then two, then fifteen, twenty, until the entire set was encased in a technicolor sphere. Joey screamed and watched wide-eyed as that scream left his mouth looking like a pale blue eel.
The colors were dancing in front of his eyes, shifting in place to the rhythm of the swing. Joey’s feet were still instinctively pumping back and forth, back and forth, and for a moment, not even a second really, at the top of the swing, the colors parted way, the slightest bit, and he could see the school.
In that moment he saw his one chance at freedom.
Joey pumped his legs, faster, harder. As he travelled the three feet back and forth he noticed the lack of air. He could breathe, but where he would normally feel himself cutting through the air, the wind cool against his face, he felt nothing. It was as if the sphere of colors stole even the air around him. It made him want to be sick, but he had no time for that. Every time he reached the top of his arc, the colors parted ways and he could see the school. The higher up he went, the more space was revealed.
When he was almost parallel to the ground, or rather where the ground should have been, the opening was the size of his locker. He didn’t know if it would be big enough to get through, but he had no choice, it was the best he would be able to do.
Just as the swing was coming back on its forward arc and, reaching towards the sphere, he could see the school through that hole, he did the only thing left for him to do.
The sun was still rising when Mike met up with Pete by the slide that morning, throwing a splash of red across the sky.
“Red sky in the morning, sailors warning.” Pete said as Mike approached him.
“What does that even mean?”
“I don’t know, but my mom’s always saying it. You see Joey around?”
“I haven’t seen him anywhere, his mom called last night.”
They walked as they talked.
“Yeah, same here. Mom asked me if I’d seen him and then started to talk in whispers.”
“My mom said he probably went off with his father.” They stopped by the sandbox and Mike threw a handful of sand at Pete.
Neither of them laughed.