I fall to the ground when my fingers miss a monkey bar, and I am blinded by the sharp woodchips which line the cement base of the shiny blue-and-yellow metal playground in order to save us from getting hurt. But of course they don’t save us. Instead they poke our eyes out. I fall through the ground and into a room made only of white, only two chairs and white, with no floor and no ceiling and nothing solid on which I can rest. My bed from home appears in the middle of the white, all pink and soft like the blister after a burn, and it stops my fall in a way much softer than the way of the woodchips. I hear nothing. Then I hear laughter. I am surrounded by white and the cruel laughter of the other children who look like me but aren’t me, they laugh at my sickness, my dumbness, my blindness. Then I wake up, in the same bed but surrounded by the walls of a suburban northern California house, and I realize I had been dreaming.
I watch the clock at the front of the room like the other kids who look like me but who aren’t me, wishing for 11:15, when recess will come. I stare at the clock and at the same time I write down the multiplication problems from the board up front and solve them without looking. I always solve my math problems without really having to look. That is how I get A’s in all my subjects, except one, “gets along with others.” Numbers in black behind a plastic cover waiting to announce my freedom, numbers in shiny slick blue and green ink on the dry-erase white board counting captivity, numbers to count that it’s me against them. The classroom is small and crammed; it isn’t a real classroom you know; only a portable trailer they rolled in to accommodate the onslaught of new students riding buses in from the rapidly developing cookie-cutter beige tract-houses, those neighborhoods with gates and names like “Stony Brook” and “Hampton Village.” There are no windows. Our little-kid lunches hang in thermal cases from hooks near the door. I probably have something like crackers and artichoke dip. The other kids probably have something like peanut butter sandwiches and Go-Gurt. The carpet, at least it looks like carpet, is some kind of gray-blue and it feels like moldy sandpaper. I can even feel it through my sandals as I scrape them against the floor under my small second-graders desk. It is that kind of desk that has a hole in one end to allow space for books and rulers and pencil cases. In my hole I hoard Chewy bars for blood sugar emergencies and Junie B. Jones books to sneak out under the desk when the numbers all get too easy and boring, and a notebook that is all my own, for when I have ideas. I am pretty sure the other kids have only the schoolbooks and pencils that the teacher forces them to keep in there. I think with only a little bit of guilt that perhaps the other kids don’t even have any ideas, so they don’t need pleasure books or personal notebooks anyway.
The Lava Monster grabs me by the ankle and pulls me down into oblivion, a black hole of shouts and rough-grabbing hands and those same dangerous woodchips that I think could probably kill me, if one managed to stab in just the right spot. All I see as I fall are splotches of red, red from the plastic slide above me, red from the blood pouring from my elbow, red from the angry eyes of the Lava Monsters who look like me, but who aren’t me. Lava Monsters are terribly frightening. No one else seems to think so. Lava Monsters are mean. Lava Monsters have no mercy, especially not when you are smaller than they are, and when they know that you are defenseless against their boiling lava malice. Now I am the Lava Monster. I am not terribly frightening. I give up the game.
Far away from the playground monsters I go, to a tree at the end of the soccer field. There are always kids playing soccer. I almost always get hit in the head. I suppose it is probably an accident, when that happens. But then, maybe it isn’t. I don’t play soccer. I am too afraid to get hit in the head.
I build houses out of moss up and around the tree, houses for the fairies. I figure, if I don’t take care of the fairies, who will? And if the fairies don’t take care of me, who will? It is not so much a house as a maze, a one-story labyrinth with long hallways leading to tiny little rooms with a banquet hall in the middle. Once, I really did see a fairy fly into the banquet hall and sit down to drink a fairy tea. But the other kids don’t believe that is true.
I lie on my back and I look at the sun, and I wonder how it can still be winter and cold when the sun shines so brightly. I think how the leaves of the fairy tree aren’t only one kind of green but hundreds of kinds of green, and the greens look even greener against the blue sky. I catch a glimpse of yellow in one of the leaves. I hope that doesn’t mean fall. Spring is supposed to come next, I think. Underneath me is moss, flat now, and shapeless. When they came to retrieve the soccer ball that had flown into my face, yet again, they laughed at me. I think they thought it was my fault that their ball had flown away from them and into me. They kicked the fairy house down. I cried, of course, and they called me a crybaby. Crybaby. Crybaby. But I am used to being a cry baby, now. That is why the monsters can always get to me first. They are playing again now, kicking the bizarre little black-and-white ball into my beautiful sky with the beautiful sunlight and the leaves-of-many-greens, still looking at me and laughing. I only hope that the fairy survived. I mean, if she is gone and she can’t take care of me here, who will?
I hold the woodchips in my hand and almost wish they really could poke my eyes out. My eyes have been wet for a long time now. I am only seven. I wish I had a clock now to watch, to know how many more minutes until the math problems would resume in the safe cramped world of the blue carpet and the grown-ups. But there are no clocks here. Only soccer balls and woodchips, and monkey bars that burn my hands and leave the blisters. Only leaves. Only sky. No walls and no ceiling. Only them and me, in the tunnel-vision mega-world that is morning recess. Only laughter. I wish I had appreciated the math problems when I had the chance. I will next time, I say. Then the bell rings, and I am still stuck exactly where I am, and I realize that this time, and all the times, I hadn’t been dreaming.