Playground Games (Double-Dutch)

Gina Thayer

At recess, Nia and the girls jump Double-Dutch. A twirler stands at either end. Nia lines up with the others, waiting. Their eyes trace steady curves as the ropes slice through the air.

Nia has never made it to the middle. Her legs don’t follow the required rhythm. The ropes appear where she doesn’t expect them. The cadence breaks. The turners sigh. They untangle the cords and start again. Nia shuffles to the back of the line.
But Nia’s time is running out. Fall is on the brink, and with it, the promise of cold, of frost, of recesses bundled in thick coats and heavy boots, of fingers gone numb in hand-me-down gloves. Double-Dutch will be traded for snowball fights and group toboggans, and Nia, having never proved her mettle, will scrape stiff snow angels on the big field, alone.
A girl named Emily dances into the ropes. She jumps, spins, one-foot, two-feet, eyes-closed, double-time, hands clasped behind her back. The girls cheer. Emily pirouettes out. The ropes spin on, their arcs unbroken.
Nia arrives again at the front of the line. She counts the ropes’ revolutions against her heartbeat, a staggered counterpoint, out of sync. She is taking too long, stealing precious seconds. Any moment now, the recess whistle will blow. Nia catches her breath, ducks her head, and runs into the spinning center.
She braces for the clash of rope against skin. The slash of pain, the red-faced retreat. But the ropes whiz around her, uninterrupted. Nia skips at the center of their orbit. She looks up, triumphant, to meet the other girls’ eyes.
But the girls are gone. Vanished. The ropes twirl of their own accord.
Nia’s breath hitches in her sternum. A new world presents itself between flashes of rope—all still, silent, vacant, decayed. There is no shimmer of movement inside the school windows. The swings hang motionless from rusty chains. There are no children at the monkey bars or the basketball hoop. Even the clouds are frozen in the sky.
The ropes are turning faster now, held up by nothing, two red-and-white-striped blurs. Their plastic beads slap the pavement, cracking like gunshots across the empty schoolyard.

Nia knows she cannot trip. She must not stop the ropes in their feverish turning. But Nia’s feet are fumbling, unwieldy things. She conjures the chants the girls sing to keep time.

Miss Mary Mack,
All dressed in black,
With silver buttons,
All down her back.

The ropes spin faster. Nia’s breath is rising in her chest.

Skipping through the gloomy cave,
Skipping over Grandma’s grave.
Skipping in the old ghost town,
Skipping when the sun goes down.

Faster. Nia’s calves are cramping. Her left hamstring twinges with every skip.

Nia, Nia rows her boat.
Nia tries but cannot float.
Up comes a storm when Nia blinks.
How many waves until she sinks?
One, two, three, four…

A rope catches Nia’s ankle, bites into the soft skin above her sock. Then the ropes are falling, pulling the world down with them. A sweeping pressure. A rush of gray. Nia opens her mouth to shout.
The ropes hit the pavement.
The world gutters out.

If you enjoyed reading this story, please consider purchasing a pdf or print copy of issue 13. Purchase options are in the sidebar at right.

Image by Hans from Pixabay