The rain pelts down as Johnson peers over the slippery dip, the distorted plastic bending under the pressure of his troops sliding one by one into the woodchip gravel below. They pull their undeveloped limbs together like missiles and toboggan down the turns; left, left, left, right, left. The good ones hit the ground running. The weakest don’t make it, their little feet skid until they lay face up, drenched and forgotten at the other end of the battlefield. Every so often, Johnson looks over his shoulder, identifies the wounded, turns back and stares forward; cold, like on TV.
No-one remembers how we got here from Hopscotch.
A distant radio explains to anyone who’ll listen, exactly where Iraq is.
On the ground is a tennis bomb, matted like a small wet round dog. Johnson creeps toward it and picks it up in his fingertips, feeling the extra water weight. He backspins it, a trick he learnt at cricket practice (before all of this), and it spatters rings of liquid bullets. “Perfect.” He pulls it to his mouth (his teeth clenched) and pulls out the pin. Sssst. He rolls it underneath the wooden draw bridge towards a figure obscured by diagonal streams of rain, turns away, blocks his ears, squints; his eyelids gathered together like clenched fists. Buurghshh. His lips roll in explosion. There are sham cries coming from the other side of the bridge and Johnson turns, a sly grin creeping across his face. It isn’t Williams on the ground, but a third grader mustering all of his performance skills into a dramatic death. Almost in preparation, his t-shirt is pre-stained with recess’s jelly donut residue, the red goo seeping from his chest to his stomach. Williams peeks out of the miniature fortress window, chuckling in a voice much deeper than normal.
“Gawdammit.” Action and Western films merge into this new vernacular of war.
He crouches down and begins to stalk the perimeter of the small cubby house, the rain and voices of other wars drown out the crunch of his sneakers on the rubble. He adopts wartime strength.
“I can see you in there Williams.” He yells, both to his enemy and to the gods of melodrama. His appropriated southern drawl stretches to reveal a New York heritage.
Williams crouches in the corner of the cubby house, silent.
“There ain’t no-one left but us.”
The word ain’t slides around his cheeks to the back of his throat… foreign.
Through the cracks in the wooden floor, Williams can see Johnson crawling underneath the cubby house and setting a pinecone bomb.
“This one’s for my pop, he was a good man. A good man.” He sets an invisible timer.
Williams calls back, “If you want the oil, you’ll have to come and get it yourself. You’ll never take me alive,” and starts climbing the wall, up and out the window.
Johnson is underneath, setting the bomb directly below where he had heard William’s voice moments before. He’s vengeful and determined. Williams had embarrassed him that morning and no-one embarrasses George Johnson.
“10…9…8…7…” Nervous excitement builds with each decreasing number; revenge gurgles steadily up his throat.
Williams is on the fortress roof now and Johnson has crawled to the edge of the playground with fingers in his ears, his counting getting louder.
Williams is ready to jump.
“One!” Johnson screams and then curls his lips up to announce the bomb’s detonation. A crooked painted smile.
Where there should be an explosion, there is a hard crack as Williams hits the ground and slides down onto his back, hard. Nothing but the white noise of rain and distant cheers; certainly no explosion. Johnson holds back a while, his heart beating with guilt. It was never meant to come to this. He didn’t mean to really hurt anyone.
He runs to his nemesis, crouches next to his head and lifts it onto his lap.
“I’ll be okay, George.” Williams whimpers quietly, each word painfully brave.
“I’ll go get some help.”
“No…it’s okay. I’ll be okay, just wait.” Williams becomes quieter with each word.
Johnson looks around, trying to connect with another face, to signal for help. There is no-one.
“Just stay with me a bit, it’ll be OK.”
There is water through their hair, playclothes now completely drenched. Raindrops travel down unwrinkled foreheads, pooling on the tips of their noses before dropping and cascading through the ridges of tight lips. Their legs are cold from the rain, rugby shorts sticking to their thighs, thin hair forming patterns on the wet skin.
Johnson takes off his jacket and holds it over Williams’ head, then positions himself under it, his head against Williams’ chest. He closes his eyes as a sound catches him.
“What ya doing, George?”
“Can you hear something?”
Johnson holds for a while, his face tight in concentration.
“As long as I can hear you thumpin’, you gonna be alright.”
In the distance, the school bell tolls.
In the silence, the muffled beat pumps through. Stronger and faster. They feel it together. Johnson grabs Williams by the shoulders and sits him up, then with their arms around each other, they stand and head back to class.
Thump, thump, thump.
A hop, skip and a jump.