“Come on, just jump!”
Back and forth you pump your legs, and for one fleeting moment, you feel as if you are aboard a rocket ship whose engines are failing at the peak of its climb. You’re afraid to take flight. It’s easy for Max to say jump; he’s on the ground. Where he will stay.
Gravity isn’t the only force holding him down. You are scared of the free-fall to Earth, afraid you may burn-up in your descent.
“I’m not trying to end up like Jimmy!” you yell down, the wind distorting your voice.
“That kid had it coming!”
Max is right, but you’d never say that out loud. He always got away with saying things like that. When you’re in a wheelchair nobody picks a fight with you, and if they do, they’re a jackass.
Last month Jimmy jumped off the new jungle-gym intending to fly and you watched him plummet into the ground like an asteroid. You remember the silence that followed, as if the whole world had stopped to watch. His arm bent backward like one of your toys, the bone bursting right out. No one played on the jungle-gym for a while after that. Jimmy was a bad person, but looking at him writhing on the ground, his arm like the branches you’d break under your feet on your way home, you’d felt bad for him.
“How about you say it a little louder—maybe the aides will hear you next time,” you say.
“Stop stalling! Just jump!”
“It’s not stalling if you were never planning on doing it in the first place!”
The school bell rings—recess is over now. You dig your feet into the dirt, your momentum ceasing in an instant and jump off the now stationary seat. A feeling Max will never know.
“I did it.” You smile.
His mouth contorts a number of ways, but rolling away, up the hill and out of sight is his only reply.
That was years ago.
The chains of the swing-set nestled behind Collin’s Elementary are rusting, their individual links slowly deteriorating—fragmenting into peculiar shapes, loosening their grip on one another, yet still trying to hold on for one last summer before they’re retired for something new, something colorful.
Walking toward the swings, you are waiting for someone to rush by and take your spot, but recess has been over for a long time. Gravity pulls you into the seat, your weight causing it to reshape itself, to constrict around your legs as if it were a boa trying to consume you. The plastic still hurts your ass, but it’s a reassuring pain—at least the swings had tried their best to stay the same.
In a few weeks you’ll be transferring to a new college—away for the first time.
The smell of the woodchips resting underneath your feet remind you of the time you’d spent here as a child. Remind you of Max, of his wheelchair as it lurched across the uneven terrain like one of those battery-powered Jeeps that you never had, but for some reason, always had a friend that did. How he’d sit egging you on. Trying to get you to jump at the peak of your swing. You remember how scared you were back then. How scared you still are.
Scared of ending up like him—sentenced to stagnate within a chair for the entirety of his life.
As you watch the sun fade away behind the trees, all you want is to hear his voice again. To be urged to take flight one last time. To follow the tire tracks imprinted on the ground back to the blacktop.
There are no voices today, no screams, no tracks are carved through the woodchips peppered throughout the playground. Max is not here. He never will be again.
You didn’t mourn him when he died, shed no tears, hadn’t even heard about it until months later.
At the peak of your swing you lift off, the air grazing your face, and you feel as if touching the stars is attainable, you feel what you’d taken for granted all these years. Max wasn’t asking you to jump for his entertainment.
He was asking you to jump for him.
Phillip Russell is a recent graduate of Michigan State University, where he studied English with a concentration in Creative Writing as well as a minor in Japanese. He published his first personal essay when he was procrastinating to write a college final. To his friends’ dismay it bolstered his big-headedness, a trait he’d discovered in the Bahamas, in a taxi, as he waited for paramedics to free his head from between the car’s two front seats. His work has appeared in Writer’s Digest, Crunchable, Hypertext, and Dialogual.
Follow him on Twitter: @3DSisqo