A Silent Playground by Sean Crouch

The world stops. Lincoln no longer hears the sounds of recess through the open kitchen window facing the grade school playground. In the living room, his wife holds fast, motionless, her words clipped as quickly as shears snip a stem. The silence rushes over him the way water envelops a diver. It’s startling and complete.

From the school behind his backyard fence, he usually hears small voices echoing off brick, the running, staccato steps of worn tennis shoes, the thud-thud of basketballs, the sword-from-scabbard zing of the balls through metal-link hoops. From September to June, he hears shouts of all kinds—joy, pain, anger. The angry shouts are always followed by the sound of a teacher’s whistle, as if one noise can’t exist without the other.

But now—nothing.

He leans forward, looking hard at his wife sitting on the couch across from him. He says her name, “Cecily, Cecily,” and waits for her to move, but she holds fast. He watches for her to blink, but she only stares back without seeing, like a mannequin gazing at nothing. He waves, claps his hands. She remains perfectly still.

Sliding off the chair—baffled, afraid—he crosses the floor between them, reaches out to touch her. Her flesh is warm, and the thin skin of her hand moves over the bones, but the bones stay rigid, fixed. He curls his fingers under her palm, lifts it up, squeezes. She doesn’t respond. When he lets go, her hand remains where he’d held it, stuck aloft.

This sets him tumbling backward over himself, his knee slamming painfully into the hardwood as he scrambles into the corner of the room near the front door. Pressed into the corner, he thinks about times when he’s suffered sleep paralysis, awakening in the middle of a dream to find he can’t move, shrieking his way into consciousness, and the relief of the first spasm of a thumb or a calf muscle. Scream now. Scream awake.

But even his tremulous, strange bellow doesn’t startle Cecily. Her glossed lips, parted mid-sentence, catch an unwavering glint of sunlight. Though wet with life, her eyes hold perfectly still. He notices the wall clock—hands unmoving. His watch, too. He can’t begin to comprehend what he’s seeing, how it’s possible everything could simply stop. People always say that time seems to slow down in moments of extreme stress, that seconds feel like hours. But this is something different, some horrifying violation of natural laws.

He shouts again, screaming until his vocal cords strain and his face feels like it’s swelling, but when his voice fails, the silence again takes hold. His breathing and pulse fill his ears for a moment, and he bends over, palms on knees, feeling he might vomit, and then he straightens, leans back against the wall. Cecily stares. Her expression says, Didn’t you notice before?

Then—distantly—he detects the persistent chime of metal against metal. The free-swinging chain ringing against the tetherball pole, a high ping crossing the blacktop of the school yard, reaching him through the open kitchen window. Unnoticeable as the ticking of a clock, though now, a softness in his ears bringing on the fullness of the silence.

Along the wall he creeps like a frightened child. His eyes never leave hers. Like a grotesque wax figure, she looks unflinchingly at the chair where he sat when everything stopped.

Only when she’s out of sight around the corner does he turn. On the table lay the settings for a lavish dinner. An expensive bottle of Barolo he’d been eyeing at the wine shop for a year, waiting to be decanted. Polished Bordeaux glasses. Spotless plates placed between her grandmother’s silverware—only brought out on holidays. She’d taken the afternoon off to set this for him. But he’d come home from work unexpectedly, popping in to get some files for a project, and spoiled the surprise. “What’s the occasion?” he’d asked. An expression of guilt from her. She’d been caught, and she struggled to answer. It only took a moment for his temper to flare.

She’d led him by the hand to the living room, sat him in the chair and told him about the blue plus sign on the little plastic stick. They were going to have a baby. Then everything stopped.

This was only minutes ago, he guesses, though he can’t be sure.

Through the dining room, into the kitchen. He crosses the linoleum, his raw throat a knob of unease, his knee throbbing. He looks out the window over the sink, and past the fence onto the school yard: the shapes of a hundred children locked still in their playtime, frozen as Cecily. On the blacktop, near a halted basketball game, two girls hold the unmoving bow of a jump-rope, a dingy woven arc, stiff as steel. Beyond the blacktop, the soccer field, tacked with lithe but motionless children, open-mouthed. Further still, the baseball diamond, chain-link backstop, a game with players no more animate than trading cards. His fear grows.

Is this happening? The countertop beneath his palms is firm and cool, and his throat hurts from shouting, and every detail is concrete and true to what he knows. Even the ding in the metal where, months ago, he struck the faucet by accident flinging rinsing water from a chef’s knife after one glass of wine too many. The red-brown stain on the hand towel draped over the oven door handle from Saturday’s barbecue dinner. Outside, in the corner of the yard, a squirrel hovers unceasingly above the seed in the bird feeder he’d been promising for a month to re-hang after the wind had knocked it off the tree.

Again, he hears the chime of the tetherball chain, the only thread of life in an inanimate world. He leans into the open window, looks to where the blacktop meets the greening spring lawn, finds the lone pole. His eyes strain.

There are times in the summer evenings, school no longer in session, when he stands at the kitchen window and looks out on the empty playground. He rests his eyes on blankets of fat green blades of grass stretched with amber sun, and he feels peace. No children, no games, no shrieking bells—those sounds that shape the world from September through June.

From the cabinet next to the stove, he takes down a bottle of bourbon, pours a shot, coughs it down. Then he pours a larger dose and swallows it. He feels a little comfort seeing the liquid tip from the mouth of the bottle, feeling the heat in his stomach. Some things still work. He stoppers the bottle, sets it back in the cupboard and, ignoring the frozen children and the tolling chain, he turns his attention to Cecily.

From the dining room, he peers around the corner. Still as he left her, seated on the couch, her mouth and eyes frozen mid-announcement. You’re going to be a dad. He looks at her belly, trying to see evidence of something growing inside her. Her shirt is loose, swooping designer material hanging flat. Stupid to think he’d notice anything. She’s only a few weeks in. Three weeks? Six weeks? When do they know, and how can you tell?

He steps closer. She looks beautiful. You look like you’re glowing, others might say. He reaches for her.

The moment his fingers touch the fabric of her shirt, he shouts and snatches back his hand—there’d been movement. He’d felt it. Hadn’t he? A minute bulge, a ripple in the cloth? He stands now, a pace withdrawn from her. Eyes wide, he cranes forward and looks at her face. Then down her body.

He lifts his arms above his head, laces his fingers behind his skull, calms his breathing. After a moment, he notices the tetherball chain has stopped ringing.

He runs into the kitchen and leans over the sink to look through the window out onto the playground. Beyond the branches of the budding maple tree, over his back fence, he sees the pole. A bright yellow ball now dangles from the chain.

The bourbon hits and for a moment, his senses swirl.

His nerves are playing tricks on him. No, because he hears the sound of small shoes pounding across the blacktop. His eyes pan from one end of the school to the other. Where’s the sound? The drumming feet seem to turn a corner and vanish.

He sprints through the kitchen, out the back door, and in seconds, he’s over the fence. He sprints the perimeter of the school grounds as fast as his legs will pump, his dress shoes slippery on the pavement, his tie streaming behind him over his shoulder. His heart punches his sternum like a fist in his chest.

Past the swing set with children suspended in the air. Round the back of the red brick schoolhouse alongside the empty hopscotch court. Down the length of the building, children’s faces frozen in classroom windows. Laughter cut short. Cries from a scraped knee made into a grotesque, soundless mask. The dismount from a cherry drop now a terrifying sculpture—a girl with a fixed look of concentration, body parallel to the ground, hair splayed in the still air like a fanned peacock tail. The bourbon turns sour in his belly.

He stops, nauseated. Silence hangs until his lungs cry out and the spent air in his chest burns with a loud grunt echoing across the brick and blacktop. He stands, catching his breath and watching for one of the statue children to move. No footsteps. No movement.

He walks through the basketball players, snaps his fingers at the eyes of a boy stretching for a layup. With his foot, he touches the shoe of one of the onlookers standing on the edge of the court. Then, holding still, he notices even the sound of cars on the next street have ceases. No birdsong, no wind chimes—no wind.

After he’s searched the blacktop, he heads for the field.

The grass flattens under his feet and when he reaches the backstop of the baseball diamond, he turns to find his trail follows him like footprints in green snow. There is not another one.

From behind home plate, Lincoln sees the entire playground. He steadies his eyes, waits to see if he can detect any movement. The baseball game is stopped mid-play—a frozen runner vaulting toward first base, halfway to the bag, legs scissored in stride. Just past second base, a boy squats, glove down, poised to field the grounder. The ball rests in the air, two feet off the ground, followed by an unmoving spray of grass and earth. It popped off a clod of dirt, jumped the boy’s glove. Though still, the boy begins to flinch. When—if—the world starts to move again, the ball will smash squarely into his cheek.

Lincoln walks up to the boy. Eight or nine, maybe? Ten? He’s never been good at guessing age. It’s something of a joke he and Cecily share when he complains about the six-year-old at the restaurant and she tells him the child was only four.

He reaches down and touches the ball with one finger. The white skin is soft and worn and registers as something genuine and tangible and real. He gives the ball a whisper of pressure and discovers it moves as if there’s nothing there at all. He pushes it a little more, floats it over three of four inches so it will clear the boy’s head. It occurs to him this is what it’s like to be God.

How much can he manipulate in this world? How much could he change?  He could pull the person from the crosswalk before they’re hit by a car, take guns out of hands before triggers complete the trigger squeeze. But then what? What happens if the world never starts again? What would it matter?

He grinds his molars and squints his eyes and concentrates so that time will resume. A noise reaches his ears and he perks up like a hound. Had it worked? But the boy still winces, unmoving, and the ball rests in the air.

Then he hears a noise again.

Across the schoolyard, the tetherball is gone, and once more, the chain is chiming against the pole.

He could use another drink. But he doesn’t want to be in the house with the mannequin form of Cecily. Briefly, he considers seeing if his car will start so he can drive to the neighborhood place where they know his cocktail. Though that’s irrelevant now. He could drink as many as he wants, just walk behind the bar, help himself. He could leave cash. Or not. If the world never starts again, it won’t matter.

A minute later—or an hour, how can he tell?—he steps through the orange metal doors into the school. Pinned to the carpeted walls, he sees artwork made with construction paper, crayons, Elmer’s glue. The ceiling is low. He stops and looks in one classroom. The teacher, a woman about forty, leans into a cabinet, reaching forever after something on the shelf.

In the room, he lifts the top of a desk, glances inside. A ruler, box of markers, scattered pencils, a notebook tattooed with drawings, a spelling test marked in red. He takes the notebook from the desk, flips through the pages—drawings of lions, volcanoes, spaceships. He’d done drawings, too, but when his teacher saw them, they sent him to a counselor.

He peers into each and every classroom, pokes his head into the library with its child-sized shelving and colored paint stir-sticks keeping the place of books kids have taken to browse.

Then, the sound of running, and Lincoln twists, his neck jerking to search the corridor. At the end of the hallway, a brief dark ripple like the shadow of a bed sheet on a clothesline. His feet slap on the hard brown carpet. He traverses the length of the school in a dozen breaths, trips to a halt.

A child is there, down at the end of the side corridor connecting to the office and the front entrance of the school. The little boy peers from his hiding place behind the American flag, no taller than Lincoln’s hip. Lincoln knows this game. He’d played it as a kid. Hide and Seek.

“I see you.” He says it aloud, hears the sound carry down the hall. He tries to make his voice sound playful, tries to think of what adults sound like when playing. “Here I come.”

He places one foot in front of the other, sidles down the hall, cautious to avoid startling the little boy like a cat frightens a sparrow.

“I won’t hurt you,” he says, stepping slowly.

What if time starts again? What happens when the baby is born, when they give him a name? What if he’s loud, if he won’t listen, if he won’t obey? What will happen when one of them gets angry with him one day?

More than ever, he wishes he’d taken another pull of bourbon to steady his nerves. The boy shrinks further into the corner. Lincoln holds up, squints, looks long at the boy’s shoes, thinks he recognizes them. Lincoln moves again, but more slowly. It’s like a spotlight shines on him, like this is his third-grade program all over again. He’d locked his knees, fallen off the little stage into the crowd. That night, his dad had given him hell. If the world starts again, he’ll have to tell Cecily everything. Even the things he won’t let himself remember.

What are you supposed to say to save yourself in Hide and Seek? He can’t recall the silly phrase.

Then, it’s no longer like he’s walking down the hallway toward the boy. It’s like he’s standing behind the flag, playing the game. Only it doesn’t feel like a game anymore. God, he’s terrified. Olly olly oxen free. That’s all he has to say to be safe. Say it. Say it and this will all be over.

Sean Crouch

Banner image: Pixabay

5 thoughts on “A Silent Playground by Sean Crouch

  1. Hi Sean,
    This was eerie, thought provoking and beautifully written.
    I am very interested to see what else you can come up with.
    All the very best my friend.
    Hugh

    Like

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