“Jo-anne, are you going to play house with us or not?”
The brown spots had appeared on Joanne’s face a few days after they took the stitches out of the bite mark near her eye. For weeks, Joanne had been the center of frenzied attention. Even fifth and sixth graders had come up to her to see the girl that had been bitten by the jungle cat. Teachers had taken the opportunity to teach about the jungle and its animals. A man from the evening news even came to see her, though her mother had turned him away. That had made Joanne’s father very angry.
But the spots had gained Joanne a different sort of attention. Now, girls stared without saying anything to her. Today, Rachael, the most popular and well-dressed girl, asked Joanne to play house with her and her friends.
Joanne didn’t want to play house. She didn’t care for that sort of thing. She liked having dolls with hair that she could brush and braid, but playing house always seemed dumb to her. But she didn’t want to pass up a chance and make Rachael mad at her.
“Yeah, I’m coming.” Joanne zipped up her windbreaker and ran to catch up.
Rachael, Elizabeth and Heather had staked out the jungle gym as their “house.” They were gathered in the middle and Joanne easily moved through the bars to join them.
“Actually, house is pretty boring.” This was from Heather who had corn silk hair and always got a chocolate bar in her lunch.
“I agree,” said Elizabeth. She always agreed. She reminded Joanne of a gerbil. She had the same dirt brown hair and pointed nose.
“Let’s play Cinderella instead,” said Rachael. She wore her golden hair in barrettes and pins, just like their teacher. She even wore lipstick. “I’ll be the mother. Heather, you and Elizabeth can be the sisters, my daughters. And Joanne, you can be the adopted sister.”
“Yeah,” said Heather, “you have to do everything we say because that’s how the story goes.”
“Why can’t I be one of the daughters?” Joanne asked.
“We’ll take turns.” Rachael nodded and clapped her hands signaling that the game had begun.
“And if you don’t like it, you can go play with Sally Delphi.” Sally Delphi was playing on the swings by herself. She hardly ever talked to anyone. Joanne wasn’t alone in thinking that she was a little strange.
“Now, Heather, be nice to your poor unfortunate sister. Joanne, why don’t you clean out the fireplace while we get ready to go to the ball.” She pointed to a square section of jungle gym pipes. There was a pile of gravel there that Joanne was sure had been gathered by Rachael or Heather. Joanne climbed into the area and began tossing out the gravel.
“Don’t make a mess on the walkway outside the castle, Joanne. Otherwise, princes won’t come to visit us.” The other three were primping their hair with invisible brushes and applying imaginary eye makeup.
“Better clean up the walkway,” said Elizabeth.
Joanne moved the gravel to the grass. She knew the story, but she joined the other girls in their play boudoir anyway.
“Time for you to clean the chimney,” said Rachael. She pointed up to the top bars of the jungle gym and handed Joanne a scarf. “It’s so smoky in here.”
Joanne was good at climbing around the jungle gym. She moved easily and had very good sense of balance. She put the scarf around her shoulders and headed upward. The pipes were cold and she wished she had her gloves with her. Despite it all, she decided one bar from the top that she would stay up there if they forgot about her.
She perched on the top in the wind and looked down. Rachael, Heather, and Elizabeth were curtseying to each other. Sally was twirling around on her swing. Other groups of girls were talking or had set up their own imaginary households other places. Beyond, the boys had a game of kickball going.
“Hey, get to work up there.”
“Are you sure you want me to use your scarf?” Joanne asked.
“Yes, it’s an ugly scarf.” The scarf had brown and black stripes, not pretty at all, but it was made of nice, fuzzy material. Joanne shrugged and began to wipe off the bars with the scarf.
“You’re doing it all wrong.” Rachael started to climb up after her. “You need to get the under the bar too.” She didn’t climb all the way up. She was scared of heights, but she stayed up near Joanne to supervise. “That’s better.”
“Be sure you get that big glob of bird poop.”
“Heather! Don’t say words like that!”
Joanne was certain she had heard worse from Elizabeth’s lips, but it didn’t stop the girl from feigning horror.
“Sorry,” said Heather.
The bird poop was a few bars over. Joanne balanced on the second highest bar and began to shimmy across.
“You’re going to fall.”
Joanne scowled at Heather. She had done it millions of times. But never with a scarf in one hand. She had settled in near the bird stain when her foot slipped slightly. Joanne grabbed with her right hand, the one she had wound the scarf around. She fell backward and grabbed at air. She fell forever until her back hit against a bar parallel to the ground. Her left hand caught a second bar and her right hand wrapped around Rachael’s ankle.
All the girls were shrieking, but Rachael’s voice rose above them all. She tried to shake her leg loose from Joanne’s grasp, and succeeded only in jarring Joanne from where she had landed.
Both girls tumbled to the ground. Rachael had landed on top of Joanne. Heather scrambled over to them, while Elizabeth yelled for a teacher.
Rachael sat up and got off of Joanne. Her ankle was bleeding through the white tights she wore. Her eyes were wide and her jaw rattled with sudden cold.
“Are you okay?” The first teacher had reached them. She hadn’t seen Rachael’s wounds yet.
Or the strange claws that slowly retracted beneath Joanne’s finger nails.
Comments are always appreciated, or give me a ReTweet! Chapter Seventeen will be posted on September 26, 2010.