Chapter 13. On the Playground

Just before dismissal, the loudspeaker announced that Samantha Mendíval had to go down to the office. What now? thought Samantha, descending the stairs.
In the office, the bossy secretary said Samantha’s grandmother had called to say she would be late coming home from work, and that Samantha should go home with Kathrin. “Go back up and tell Kathrin right now, and after reading club you go with her straight to her house,” the secretary said, as if Samantha needed every little thing explained. Samantha turned and went upstairs to get her book bag. She said nothing to Kathrin or to anyone else.
Samantha was stumped. Before, it had been the coolest thing to go home with Kathrin, who had a silly little sausage dog, two younger sisters, and a baby brother. And a small house stuffed with aunts and cousins and furniture and toys and a big TV. And a dusty yard with a shed and an old car to hide in and a bunch of tricycles and other beat-up riding toys. And a grandmother who cooked things in big pots in the little kitchen and scolded the babies and slapped tortillas and read the bible out loud in Spanish.
But now things were different. She couldn’t imagine anything worse than being at Kathrin’s. Well, of course she could imagine worse things—green-snot flu, alien invaders, land mines—things like that. But in the daily life of now, things were so uncomfortable with Kathrin that she would rather do anything else.
When afterschool reading club was dismissed, without glancing at Kathrin Samantha slipped into the thickest thicket of children pouring out of the building. She hunched her head low, so her backpack made a big hump behind her head, and hurried close on the heels of one of the bulkiest sixth graders, making a sort of moving shield around herself. Soon she was past the corner and out of the eye of anyone who might know she was supposed to go home with Kathrin.
But where should she go? She had no idea how late her Abue was going to be. It must be more than a few minutes, because when her Abue was only slightly delayed Samantha was just supposed to wait on the porch until she arrived. Her Abue said that when Samantha was ten she’d be old enough to have her own key, but that was months away. She could have gone to Suresh’s house, but hadn’t thought of it in time. He had been picked up by his older sister many minutes ago. She didn’t think she could find his house by herself. Anyway, he lived on the other side of Rhode Island Avenue, which she didn’t dare cross alone because of the possible consequence of getting in huge trouble, or getting run over, or both. Everyone else she knew well enough to go home with left at regular dismissal instead of staying to reading club (which Samantha only attended to make time until her Abue got home). Or else they remained at aftercare until parents came to get them.
Maybe she could go back and ask to stay at aftercare this once. Samantha did an about-face and walked quickly back toward school. But when she got as far as the parking lot, she paused. What if the bossy secretary saw her and got mad because she hadn’t gone home with Kathrin? Doing something different than what you had been told to do at dismissal was considered very serious. The adults ran around squawking on their cell phones. Everyone was really mad when they found you, even though you were just trying to keep yourself off the streets.
Samantha kicked at some wood chips that the rain had washed out of the playground. Her chest felt like it was stuffed full of them. Samantha pondered whether to sit down by the three scraggly pine trees near the gate and cry. Her Abue said that crying was good. It cleaned out the system and unclogged the bad feelings.
She did sit down, but felt self-conscious. Thinking about crying had bottled the feelings up inside her, so she decided to leave them in there for now. Instead, she went over to the play equipment. Usually she went up the chain ladder, or the spiral pole the kids called “the Toilet,” or the twisty red slide. But today she went straight up the regular steps to the monkey rings, which hung like a display of giants’ earrings on a yellow pole that snaked across the whole length of the play equipment. Samantha reached for the first two rings, swung her legs out, and grimly went hand over hand from one end to the other. Thirty-nine rings in all. She did this up and back, up and back, about a million times.
Finally, when her arms felt so sore she couldn’t think anymore, Samantha jumped down and walked home. She hoped time had gone by fast so that her Abue would be finished with whatever she was doing and be home when she arrived. At the same time, she hoped it had flowed slowly, so she wouldn’t have been AWOL—as the principal called it—for too long. Her brow furrowed as she jumped over the cracks in the sidewalk. There she was, wrestling with time again, like it was a wild bronco.
Half a block from home she stopped and gazed at her Rainwood House. It was true; its dark, steeply-angled roof planes did recall bat wings flapping. And the top of the tower could be a tall, pointy, black hat. So, okay, maybe it did look like a witch house. But that wasn’t bad. Witches were wise women, her Abue said. They knew about plants and curing people. Sometimes, in the olden days, men got jealous of all the things they knew. Sometimes they punished the witches for that.
But her Rainwood House wasn’t scary. You could tell she was a friendly place, if you really listened to her. Samantha opened the creaky gate, skipped down the cracked concrete walk and up the porch steps. She shucked off her knapsack with the bouncing eyes beside her porch reading column, which her Abue had made lead-safe by nailing a piece of red carpet over the peeling paint so she could lean against it. The carpet was long enough so that the leftover part of it lay on the porch floor, making a lead-safe sitting place. Sliding her back down the soft carpet, she landed in a squat and pulled a book out of her bag. She found her page and lost herself in the story.

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