I looked down at the white chalk. I looked back up at the blazing pits. And I thought, “You have got to be kidding me.” A rock appeared in my hand, cold against my flushed skin. I had the urge to throw it. You would have too, had you just died, showed up outside hell, and then been forced to play a game of hopscotch.
I barely even remembered how to play the game, for Christ’s sake. Couldn’t I have played an evil game of poker instead?Toss the marker. A deep voice spoke in my head, making my vision go blurry. I opened my hand and stared at the little, grey stone wobbling on my palm. “Right, the marker.”I flicked my wrist. The pebble hit the two, bounced, and landed on the five. I patted my hands against my thighs.Now’s the part where you hop. The voice sounded just slightly irritated. “Where’s the part where I get scotch?” I muttered but I bent my knees to do what he said. One leg.Okay, I’ll admit. I didn’t remember how to play at all.I tucked my leg up and almost fell flat on my face. I threw my arms out, trying to balance. “If little girls can do this, I can, too.” I flung my hair over my shoulder and jumped.My foot landed, smack, on the one. My knee was just straightening.And I wasn’t on a hopscotch board anymore.Or. I was. Or. A younger me was.Grass came up around my foot as I stood on the edge of the concrete slab and watched myself. Mini Me had just thrown her marker and was just getting ready to hop when another girl came up to her.It took me a second to recognize her without her bones sticking out and her head shaved. Pamela. Pamela Schmidt.My stomach clenched. Something bad was about to happen. It always did when I was around Pamela.“Hi, Caroline,” she sounded sweet, hopeful. Nervous.Mini Me ignored her, jumping twice so her legs were spread over two and three.Pamela shifted her pink-bedecked feet. “I was wondering if I could play with you.”Mini Me turned, her face scrunching up into a hard little knot. “I would never play with no booger-eater.”Pamela scrunched her shoulders. “I don’t eat boogers.”“Yes, you do. I saw you. Booger-eater.” It became a chant. “Booger-eater, Booger-eater. Pamela is a booger-eater.”Everyone laughed, stopping what they were doing to point. Pamela ran. She came so close I could have reached out and touched her.Her eyes glistened as she tried to hold back the tears.Hot. The air. The earth. My face. I was back in hell. In hell for labeling Pamela Schmidt a booger-eater.Two and three glared white, imprinting themselves on my corneas. Jump. I didn’t want to. Didn’t want to see what other horrible thing I’d done. Jump, jump, jump, jump. It pounded through my head, like an endless, bullying, life-ruining chant.“Fine.”I had the time to feel the relief at being supported by two feet before the light of the fires was replaced by the fluorescence of the street lamps.The playground equipment rose around me, I could see the concrete slab behind it. But that’s not where I was supposed to be looking. The jungle gym was the setting of this scene. I glanced at it, and wished I could just stare at the concrete slab. I remembered what happened here.Mini Me was older, almost to high school. She stood around the gym with miniature versions of my friends, each of them holding a water gun. They all stood on the outside, but inside behind the cold metal bars, Pamela Schmidt hung by her hands, her mouth gagged.They were all laughing, laughing so loud. And their teeth were so white and Pamela’s eyes were so big. And then the spraying started and her eyes closed, becoming tight, closed curtains.A sickly sweet smell drifted across the playground, twisted up with the wind. Bile rose up in the back of my throat. Relief washed over me when it started to rain.Mini Me and her minions ran, covering their heads, still laughing.Pamela hung there and I watched her shoulders shake.My tears evaporated before they even made it to my chin. I longed to fall on the ground, curl up, and sob. Jump. “Please.” Jump.I wobbled crazily when I landed, but I kept my arms close to my body. Maybe if I fell the game would be over. It would stop.No such luck.It was quiet. Rows of desks held rows of students, each bent over a test paper. One or two slept, drool making a spot on their work.Suddenly, the silence was shattered by Fat Bottomed Girls. Heads smacked back with an audible sound. The history teacher blushed and rushed out of the room. He could still be heard as he talked in the hallway.Conversations broke out across the room, but I paid no attention to the whispered rumors about Dean Evans and Susan Clark. My focus was on Mini Me who wasn’t so mini anymore.She dug in her purse, pulling out her new purple lip gloss with a look of triumph. She shook it and turned in her chair. Carefully, she twisted the lid off. Then she started to write on Pamela Schmidt’s newly shaved head. When she turned back around, dropping the lip gloss back into her bag, all capital letters glared back at me. STORK.I had developed a new strategy. The sooner I jumped, the sooner the game would be over and I could get on with my existence as a flaming torch. The voice must have been a mind-reader because all I got was, The point of the game is to avoid the marker.I glanced at the rock, lying right beside five like it did things like this every day. I took a deep breath though it didn’t do me much good and jumped.Hell was fading, possibly into a forest, when I put my other foot down, right on that little, grey pebble. It shot out from under my foot, causing that little instant of fear that happens when you think there’s another step and there isn’t. The scenery did an about face, the trees disappearing. Instead, buildings rose up around me.I was standing across the street from Me, who had just come out of McDonald’s, the same friends from two and three by my sides. In front of Me, stood Pamela, recognizable by her faded Transformers hoodie. Her head was covered, her eyes down on her iPod as she switched songs. She slid the iPod back into her pocket, but didn’t look up before stepping out into the road.A horrible screech caused everyone to stop. Everyone but Pamela. A car careened toward her, not slowing, not trying. Me had stepped forward. “Pamela. Pamela, stop.”Pamela didn’t hear, didn’t look up. And then, before anyone could grab her, Me ran forward, her hands out. The McDonald’s bag fell to the ground. Pamela’s small body seemed to fly across the street, landing at my feet.I squeezed my eyes closed, knowing, knowing and not wanting to see it. The horrible crunch forced a scream from my mouth. It went on forever.“Shhhh, shhh, child. It’s okay. It’s over.” The voice filled the space that wasn’t filled by my scream.My mouth was open but no more sound was coming out. It snapped shut, and my eyes open. White. White was everywhere.“Where am I? What’s going on? What happened to the fire?” My voice shook, but my legs were worse.“You are in heaven, Caroline.”I looked up, realizing the voice was no longer confined to my head. A throne stories high rested in front of me. A man filled it, his handsome features sporting quite the glow-tan.“But why? Why am I here?”He waved his hand and a projector appeared, shooting a clearly visible image into thin air. People, my family, my friends, those randoms who always show up to hometown funerals, sat in chairs facing a closed box. A picture of my smiling face stood on an easel beside it. And Pamela. Pamela stood there too, her mouth forming words I couldn’t see.“Because a troubled girl asked for you to be.”