By Rebekah Orton
After school, Cady watched her son Bridger’s body arc across the monkey bars on the school playground. His arms reached, his legs lingered and his hands fairly flew. At the end of the bars, he hung gracefully by one arm long enough for a neat turn and swung back across, skipping every other rung. The late afternoon sun illuminated his lithe form. The noise of other children lingering on the playground faded away until there was only the near silent rhythm of Bridger’s hands on the bars.
“Chicken FIGHT!” The words broke Cady’s reverie around the same time that Conner Dietrich swung from the first rung on the side opposite Bridger. Conner was not graceful, but he was large, and he had broken Bridger’s concentration so completely that her son stopped mid-swing, one arm holding on and the other outstretched. From there, it was easy for Conner to wrap his massive legs around Bridger’s small waist. Once Conner had his legs around, his weight was too much for her son and Bridger dropped.
Cady rushed forward, certain that Conner had broken some part of Bridger. Hesitating, she barely resisted the urge to take her third grader in her arms to check for boo-boos.
“You’re not supposed to chicken fight,” Cady told Conner when Bridger had scrambled up and shaken off the fall.
Conner crossed the bars one rung at a time, his arms straining from the weight of his body. He dropped down in front of her without finishing, his face curled up like the end of a villain’s mustache. “I do what I want.”
Usually, Cady had no problem keeping her cool, but something about Conner Dietrich started the rumble of a dormant volcano deep inside her. If she were his mother, she would stick Conner in time out until he was thirty-five.
But she wasn’t Conner’s mother. His mother was the one in the designer yoga pants and the oversized sunglasses waving her overpriced manicure as she chatted with the mothers on the other side of the playground. Cady considered dragging Conner over by his ear and informing Sheena Dietrich what her son had just done. But Bridger had already gathered his backpack and now called that he was ready to go.
Cady turned to give Conner her most serious don’t you dare do that again look, but he had already sauntered off to the jungle gym.
“Are you alright, baby?” Cady asked, running her fingers through Bridger’s hair.
Bridger ducked away from her, looked to his right and left, then stepped into the street. “I’m not your baby,” he called back.
Cady shoved her hands in her pockets and curled her feelings into herself. She hardly recognized the gangly child that walked half a block ahead of her; even though she’d been there every day of his life, she still felt like he’d transformed before her eyes.
A week later, Cady looked up from the sink where she rubbed ineffectually at a foot shaped blur of mud on Bridger’s new coat. “I thought the teachers told you not to chicken fight.”
“I didn’t!” Bridger insisted. He had the type of transparent honesty that Cady felt she could trust.
“Did he swing into you again?” Cady asked.
Cady’s husband Matt looked up from his iPhone. “Conner Dietrich is a bully.”
“He’s not a bully,” Bridger said.
“If he’s not a bully, I’d like you to explain how his foot came to touch your coat.”
“I got too close to him.”
“Too close?” Matt asked. “Were you laying on the ground? How exactly does one get too close to someone else’s foot?”
Bridger squirmed. Cady set down the coat. She was going to need more Spray’N’wash.
“The monkey bars, Dad.” Bridger blinked back tears. “Every day at lunch Conner and his friends race across. My back got in Conner’s way.”
“Your back can’t get in someone else’s way,” Matt squinted his eyes as he considered this. But Bridger looked too sincere to be lying. “Someone needs to talk to that kid’s mother.”
“Tomorrow,” Cady promised. She put her hands on Bridger’s bony shoulders and fought the urge to carry him over to the rocking chair she couldn’t bear to donate. “You just stay out of his way, ok?”
The next afternoon, Cady crossed the playground for a chat with Sheena Dietrich.
“I’m Cady? Bridger’s mom?” Cady wasn’t sure why everything she said came out as a question. “Our sons have been in the same class every year?
“Oh.” Sheena tossed her hair over her sculpted shoulder. “How’s Bridger liking third grade?”
Up close to Sheena, Cady felt excruciatingly aware of her own waistband biting into the twenty pounds she’d never lost after Bridger was born. She launched into the story of Bridger and Conner and the chicken fights and the footmark while Sheena listened with a surprisingly compassionate face. “And so if you could just talk to him?” Cady finished unsurely.
“Of course,” Sheena said, not moving a muscle or apologizing. “I’ll talk to Conner as soon as we get home.”
“Thanks?” Cady said with a gulp.
A week later after school, Conner passed out red envelopes to every boy, starting with Julian and saving Bridger for the very last. Conner’s lip curled and he glared at Cady before he handed the final envelope to Bridger.
Bridger tore open the envelope so loudly he didn’t hear Conner say “my mom made me invite you,” under his breath.
Bridger shoved the invitation toward her. “Can I go, Mom?” Bridger asked. “Can I go?”
The boys were past the age for robots and dinosaurs, but Cady hadn’t expected a paintballing party. She looked over at Conner who had his friend Julian in a headlock and immediately saw Bridger at the party, his camouflage outfit covered with splats of color, the skin underneath rising with welts.
“Well,” Cady began.
“Please?” he begged, stretching the word beyond its single syllable.
“We’ll talk about it later,” Cady said, returning Sheena’s wave. She tried not to worry and be glad Bridger was excited.
For two weeks, Bridger talked non-stop about the party. He and Matt researched different paintball guns online, and discussed what Bridger would wear. They went together to Outdoor Adventure and bought a pack of camouflage paints for Bridger’s face.
“This is better than the monkey bars!” Bridger said after Matt took him to a paintballing range where they shot at little targets until blue and green splats appeared.
“Are you sure about this?” Cady asked.
“It’s good for him,” Matt insisted. “The kid’s a dead eye. He’ll shoot that Dietrich kid where it counts.”
“Matt,” Cady protested. Sure, she might have thought about aiming a paintball gun at Conner’s Neanderthal brow, but she wouldn’t actually do it. Then again, she wouldn’t exactly be sad if Bridger happened to leave a few paint splatters over Conner’s cold dark heart. She shook the impulse off: thinking that way just wasn’t like her.
On the day before the party, Cady slid three slices of celery with cream cheese and four raisins each across the counter. “Do you want to get Conner’s present today or tomorrow morning?”
Bridger picked a raisin off his celery. He licked it then dropped it on the plate. “Conner says I can’t come to the party.”
“Can’t come to the party?”
His head bobbed up and down uncontrollably. The color purple rose in his face. “He says I’m supposed to be sick tomorrow.”
“Did something happen?”
“He made me chicken fight him on the monkey bars,” Bridger said to his celery stick. “And I beat him.”
“Good for you!” Cady couldn’t help giving a tiny fist pump. She would have liked to have seen her small son besting the third grade tyrant.
Bridger’s lower lip wobbled into an upside-down u. “But then he told me I couldn’t come to his party.”
“That little twit.” Cady covered her mouth because she couldn’t take back the words. Still, she felt a surge of relief: her beautiful, sensitive son wouldn’t be pummeled by paint pellets under a duck blind. She hid her smile and rubbed Bridger’s arm with brisk compassion. “You tell him you don’t want to go to the party.”
“But I do want to go to the party!” Bridger wiped his nose on his sleeve.
Cady blinked and told him what she wished she had said from the very beginning. “I say you can’t go to the party. You’ve got other plans.”
Bridger picked at his dinner and that night, he climbed into their bed after a nightmare. His toes brushed her knees, which made Cady feel at once happy and sad. She lay beside him wide-awake and listened to his snuffled snores. They reminded her more and more of the way Matt breathed. When had Bridger gotten such slim cheeks?
At dawn, Cady stumbled to carry Bridger to his own bed down the hall. She had to angle him to get through the door, but even so, his ankle cracked lightly against the doorframe. He winced and curled even more tightly into her arms. Cady didn’t realize how much she had craved this protective moment. After she finally settled him back in his own bed, she leaned over and imagined she could smooth away his every worry with the brush of her maternal hand.
On Wednesday, Bridger came home with his face fighting tears so hard that it scrunched up like a prune—the edges faintly purple and everything shiny and oozing. He had worked so hard on his diorama. Cady had stayed up until 11:30 with him to make sure he finished. And there was Bridger’s papier-mÃ¢ché castle with a foot shaped indentation, the same size as Conner Dietrich’s Sasquatch sneakers.
“It was an accident!” Bridger insisted. But Cady knew better. She’d like to sink her own size six sneaker into Conner’s face.
The next morning, Cady found Bridger’s library book half under the couch when she was tidying the house. She set aside the vacuum and walked the book up to the school.
She’d come at lunchtime, so she saw Bridger walking along the low brick wall that ran between the blacktop and the jungle gym. Children all around him ran and jump-roped and swung and slid. Bridger kept his eyes down, studying his feet going heel-toe, heel-toe along the wall.
“Bri-id-ger,” Conner’s voice rang out from the top of the gym. “It’s your mo-om-my.”
Bridger froze and Cady could see the blush rising up his face to the scarlet curve of his ears. Cady steeled herself from Conner’s voice.
“You forgot your library book,” Cady greeted him.
“Oooo,” Conner called. “Did mommy bwing Bwidgew his libwawy book?”
Laughter from the boys around him.
Bridger muttered thanks without looking up. Cady felt a blaze of indignation that she could barely tamp down.
“Why aren’t you playing with the other kids?” Cady whispered.
Bridger shrugged. This wasn’t the time to press him, Cady knew. She patted his cheek and reached over to kiss his chilly forehead before she left.
“Oooo,” Conner called again. “Does Bwidgew need a little kiss?”
The boys around him cackled. Cady narrowed her eyes at them, and they quieted, but Conner stared back at her as if they were equals.
“You should play on the monkey bars if you want to,” Cady said to Bridger, her eyes locked with Conner Deitrich’s.
Bridger’s voice came out a whisper. “Conner said I can’t.”
Cady’s pent up hatred for the nine-year-old across the playground hit her like a bad smell.
“Conner doesn’t get to say you can’t.” She grabbed Bridger’s hand and half walked, half dragged him towards the monkey bars.
“The monkey bars are for everyone.” Cady said to Conner.
“The monkey bars are mine,” Conner said back. One of the boys behind him let out a long round noise that told Cady she had just been read her rights. Without thinking, she jumped up onto the platform opposite Conner Dietrich.
“You want a chicken fight?” she asked.
“With him?” Conner said.
Cady shook her head. “With me.”
The boys behind him tittered. The sun glinted off Conner’s exposed canine. “Sure.”
Cady felt the cool rungs of the first monkey bar under her fingers and let the smooth metal bite against her skin. Across the bars Conner Dietrich gripped his rung. A gathering group of children watched them, and she felt, more than saw Bridger’s presence behind her right elbow. When Conner’s body left the platform on his side of the monkey bars, Cady swung out too. Her adult flesh burned as her heavier weight dragged down. But it was too late to think about her hands because here was Conner with his legs stretched toward her, ready to wrap around her middle. The children around the yard had begun a slow chant of “Con-ner, Con-ner.” A redhead in a pink rain jacket began clapping along.
Cady swung to the next rung and used the momentum to hit Conner’s legs with her feet. He swung backwards, but readjusted his hold in a series of small grips that made his hands look like they were hopping along the bar. He came at her again, swinging forward with his legs out to wrap around her. She let out a gasp as one leg hit against her upper thigh, but she fended off his other leg with her opposite foot, which she’d kept bent high and ready. Conner twisted sideways at the impact.
The children’s chants for Conner were rising, but here Cady saw her opening and she swung her knee up fast while he was still adjusting with those small infuriating hand hops. Her legs were so long that with the help of a phenomenal forward swing, Cady found she could reach Conner’s scrawny little arms. Her heel caught him in the crook of his elbow and she got to see panic cross his face as he lost his grip with his left hand.
She pushed his arm downwards with her shoe, hoping to drag his entire body down with it. Conner kicked wildly with his legs, but by this time, Cady had swung away from his reach and he couldn’t make contact. In the split second that she hung at the farthest point away from him, Cady glimpsed Bridger dart through the crowd. That finalized her resolve. She aimed this time for Conner’s other arm, striking before he had fully righted himself.
Maybe size suspended him, or maybe it was the chanting crowd, whose call of ConnerConnerConnerConner rang even more steadily as Conner slipped in slow motion toward the ground. Either way, Cady had never seen anyone fall so slowly or create such a spectacular spray of playground bark as he landed.
The cheers stopped as soon as Conner’s body did, and Cady’s hands were in agony now that the fight was over. She let go, the ground meeting her feet far too soon.
Cady had expected Bridger to cheer for her from where he stood under a tree on the other side of the playground, but he didn’t seem to move. Already the children were dispersing, only a few gathering around Conner as he caught his breath.
The playground supervisor materialized, and Cady saw her running over. Everyone held their breath while the supervisor helped Conner rise to his feet. Cady, suddenly aware of what she had done stepped toward him.
The supervisor was a nice woman for whom Cady had donated twenty dollars as an end-of-year thank you gift last spring. Now she gave Cady a look that most people reserved for cockroaches. “You should be ashamed.”
Cady rubbed her sore hands against her pants and trudged across the playground where Bridger stood.
He turned to her, his face an unbearable mix of hurt and shame. She thought, in the moment that hung between them, that he might come to her, that they might rewind time back to when things between them were a little more straightforward: last year perhaps, or a few years before that, or even, she wished, five minutes ago.
Bridger shoved the library book back at Cady with a grunt. His footsteps rang out across the pavement as he ran to line up with the rest of his class.
Cady bought a set of monkey bars for the back yard. Matt dug holes in the ground for the posts and Bridger helped halfheartedly to fill the holes with concrete. Most afternoons, after he finished his homework, Bridger swung by himself along the bars, skipping every other one, then going backwards, and finally hanging upside down, his hair reaching toward the ground and a contemplative look on his face.
One afternoon Cady tried to join him, but Matt had sunk the posts so low her feet dragged on the ground. Bridger climbed off the bars and sat on the porch, watching her with a measured curiosity that made Cady feel itchy. After that, Cady watched him from the windows going back and forth across the bars hand over hand over hand.