E is for Everett Park

© Can Stock Photo / Anna_Om

E is for Everett Park

It usually doesn’t take much to spark a memory, good or bad. After all, what has come before will always define who and what we are today. While we may have grown older, maybe even wiser in some cases, at times the past grows restless in its shadowy crypt and reaches out to remind us it’s still there, waiting. It could be the way the sun slants through our window, a sound we haven’t heard for years, or even a smell that has the power to transport us back to a time and place we thought long forgotten.

For me it was an article in the paper, a single paragraph tucked away back on the third page, between an ad for the end of summer sale at Randolph Galleries Furniture, and the tail end of a story continued from page one. Just a gathering of words on a piece of paper, nothing more threatening than soy ink on newsprint. It was what the words said that opened the door to a memory I thought I had successfully walled myself off from.

The story didn’t speak of that day in October when I was only twelve. There was no mention of chilly evenings at the tail end of hot afternoons that were getting cut shorter with every passing day. The heat of summer had yet to relinquish its grip entirely, the grass was still green, and the leaves had begun to turn, but had yet to fall. There was color on the ground. A vivid, red, the shade of freshly spilled blood, that was so bright against the dusty ground.

I saw it all with my minds eye as I held the paper in my shaking hands. The small heading above that solitary paragraph was a single line of type that read.


I didn’t need the story underneath the title. Just the name was enough to spark the memory and bring it back from where I thought I had securely locked it away. But none of our memories are ever really locked away are they? Especially our childhood memories. For they’re the most powerful, coming from a time when we are at out most impressionable. So strong in fact that as I stood there staring unseeing at the open paper in my hand, I could smell that day, and it smelled of death.

Everett Park was more a playground than a park. A dusty field at the end of South Water street. Tucked into the woods in such a way it was difficult for our parents to see what we were doing, unless they entered the playground, which they rarely did. I’d like to believe they trusted us to be good and do what was right. But later, as I’d lay awake in bed reliving that day, I sometimes wondered if maybe our parents stayed away because they were expected to.

Maybe what happened that day was like a rite of passage and our parents had done the same thing as children themselves.

The population on a playground rarely varied, there was always several distinct groups of children. Some might call it clichéd but wasn’t life the same way? We were born, we lived, and we died. The routine never varied. Our successes and failures in life were merely a by-product of our upbringing, and if one were to look a little closer they would find so many similarities that they only conclusion that they could draw was that life itself was clichéd.

On any playground you had the regulars, a tight knit group who had grown up together, who rarely, if ever, allowed new blood into their midst. They might let the new kid on the block hang out with them, but that new kid would never know the intimacy of the inner circle, forever banished to the periphery of the group, a satellite always orbiting the nucleus.

Then you had the new kids who bounced back and forth between the regulars and a loose knit coalition they formed to counter the regulars. There was the older kids in the neighborhood, the teens who would come to hang out on the swings and smoke, cracking jokes while sometimes drinking what they managed to swipe from their parents.

Usually in a small corner you would find the undesirables who always managed to gravitate to one another. As if they had some instinctive built in search ability that sought out others like themselves. These were the less popular kids, the overweight and the underachievers, the socially inept who would never be able to operate smoothly in a public setting.

Last but not least there were the predators, the bullies who roamed the playground at will, seeking their next victim. They usually operated alone or in pairs, sometimes in rare instances in they would appear in threes. These were the kids with a chip on their shoulder, and a desire to share the pain of their existence with anyone stupid enough to draw their attention.

That was Everett Park. Like any other playground one might wander into, whether you were from the east coast of the west, or anywhere in the world. It was the same clichéd setting occupied by the same clichéd groups. Predictable. Even the bullies were the same, to a point.

Jeremy and William, not Bill, don’t ever call him Bill. His dad’s name was Bill, and his dad, according to William, was a pussy. He wouldn’t stand up to anybody, not his wife, his kids, or even the neighbors who took every advantage of him. William wasn’t like that, he was strong, and mean, like his real dad who once played professional football.

William could never come up with his real dad’s name, and there weren’t many people with the guts to call him out on his story. But according to William his mom had dated a football player named William who had been sent to prison for killing a running back while tackling him during a game. After the football player was sent away his mom, alone and pregnant, had latched onto the first guy that would take her.

Together they made life miserable for those of us confined to the far corner of the playground. A rusting sliding board that no longer worked, and the merry-go-round that rocked back and forth with a loud squeak every time you turned it were the only pieces of equipment we could use. The merry go round had once been blue but rust had overwhelmed the paint to the point it was just a memory. The swings, monkey bars, and a massive steel robot we all called Gigantica was the domain of the more popular groups.

Jeremy and William were not restricted as we were, they had full access to the entire playground, and took every opportunity to make their presence known. More so with our little group than any other. They were mean but bearable, that is until Arnold joined them and the pair became a triad of terror.

Arnold had a look that told you to stay away. With red hair and freckles he was endlessly teased by the older kids who were large enough and mean enough to beat the crap out of him if he retaliated. With bright green eyes that carried an expression of abject cruelty, we had little idea exactly how far he would go, but we quickly learned. Unlike Jeremy and William, Arnold could not tolerate our presence and from day one set out upon the task of scaring us away for good.

Ever hear of the boiling frog syndrome? If you try to put a frog into a pan of boiling water it will jump out, but if you put the frog in a pan of tepid water, then turn the heat up under the pan, the frog will stay in the water until dies when it can no longer adjust its internal temperature to that of the boiling water.

That was us,  our little group, like a frog sitting contentedly in a pan of tepid water. It didn’t matter if Arnold was the water, or the flame applied to the pan, but he was the one responsible for what happened. At the time we assured one another that it would never reach the level of abuse it eventually did, laughing off his attacks as we would any other from Jeremy and William. But looking back, with the years between then and now to serve as a filter, it was pretty obvious to everyone that Arnold was going to seriously hurt one of us.

It began as they always do with Arnold’s first day on the playground. He just wandered in off the street one day, no one knew where he lived or even what school he went to. No one recognized him, but remember what I said about predators and prey? We knew even then as he climbed onto the monkey bars and surveyed the playground with his cruel green eyes.

“Hey, you can’t sit there,” Robert, one of the popular kids shouted as he crossed from the small group he’d been with to confront the new kid. Robert was the biggest kid there, though he was only in the sixth grade, it was whispered that he’d been held back twice so was in reality an eighth grader.

“Who said?” Arnold shot back, watching Robert with the bored expression of one who already knew what the outcome of this confrontation would be.

“I said dammit, get your ass down off there, and go play with the retards,” Roberts said as he waved a hand in our direction. By now a small crowd was following Robert as he neared the monkey bars, excited chatter coming from the group.

“Come up here and make me.”

“I’m gonna kick your ass from here to Belcher field.” The anger in Robert’s voice sent a wave of ohhs and ahhs through the crowd around him.

Someone yelled fight!

This was getting serious, Robert had never had to threaten anyone, his presence alone was enough to quell any argument. But Arnold was different, he was a predator of a different magnitude, as Robert was about to find out.

Arnold smiled as he climbed down to confront Robert who stood a head taller than him, and outweighed him by at least fifty pounds. We couldn’t see what happened next, but one moment they were facing one another, and the next Robert was curled up on the ground as Arnold danced around him, kicking him.

There was something strange about the way Arnold attacked Robert, there were no emotions with his actions, most people would have been yelling at their victim as they brutalized them. Not Arnold, he beat Robert down silently, emotionally detached from his actions.

When he was done, and the other kids moved in to help Robert, Arnold turned to gaze in our direction. We knew at that moment that we were next. He actually smiled at us before Jeremy and William led him over to Gigantica to celebrate his victory. It was his smile that awakened that slimy ball of dread in the pit of my stomach. There was no emotion, no merriment in the act, it was simply a smile that would have looked out of place on anyone else, a smile that failed to reach his eyes. 

It wasn’t long after Robert’s demise as the leader of the playground that we learned what was in store for us. I didn’t really want to go to the playground, but if I stayed home I’d have to explain myself and the last thing I wanted to do was have my mother show up at the playground. I wasn’t afraid of what the others might have said, I was more afraid of what Arnold might do to her.

When I got there Tina was sitting on the edge of the merry go round bawling her eyes out, the others in our little group gathered around her, trying their best to comfort her. I knelt down before her and asked what was wrong, between hitching breaths she told me Arnold had taken Sally, her baby doll, and wouldn’t give her back. I glanced over in their direction, spotting Arnold’s red hair among a group of other kids on the base of Gigantica. It was as if he knew I was watching because the moment I spotted him he turned his head in my direction, again smiling at me with that emotionless expression, his eyes devoid of anything that might have made him human.

This was no spoiled child confronting me across the playground, this was something else entirely I realized as he pushed through the group around him and made his way towards us. The others followed him silently, not sure of what was going to happen, someone shouted fight, but another disembodied voice hushed them. In his hand he carried Tina’s babydoll by one arm, the legs dangling above the hot pavement.

He stopped ten feet away.

“Why don’t you give it back to Tina, it’s not hurting anything,” I said, calling up every ounce of courage I could muster. Outwardly I might have looked calm, but inside I was a trembling mess. I knew I was going to get my ass beat, how bad remained to be seen.

“I don’t like any of yous,” Arnold said, “you need to leave, quit stinking up the place.”

“We have as much right to be here as you do,” Jimmy on my right said, surprising me, he’d never been one to stand up for himself, but this was different. This wasn’t about us, it was about Tina and her baby doll. She was our friend and we couldn’t remain quiet.

“Think you’re tough?” Arnold said with a smile as he held Tina’s baby doll in his hands before him.

“Don’t hurt her, please,” Tina wailed from my right, and it was then I felt it inside, the fear I had of Arnold turned in upon itself to become a cold rage that calmed me.

Tina’s cry became a heart wrenching wail of terror as Arnold folded the baby doll’s rubbery head into one hand, grasping the body with the other, his eyes never left mine as he slowly decapitated the baby doll. Tina dropped to her knees to retrieve the two pieces of her precious doll, holding them close to her chest as she whispered to them, comforting them in their moment of greatest pain.

Arnold’s gaze remained locked with mine, daring me to do something, anything. I felt it then, deep inside, deeper than where we lock away our most shameful secrets. Something primitive that stirred in response to the rage washing through me.

Tina had never done anything to Arnold, what right did he have to come in here and order us to leave. There was a moment when it felt like everything around me suddenly sped up for several seconds as that primal essence within roared to the surface. I’d did it before I even realized I was going to.

Arnold wasn’t expecting it, after all, he’d already beat down the toughest kid on the playground, he was secure in his belief that no one else would dare threaten him. It was a perfect left cross he didn’t see coming. One moment I was standing there, locked in a staring contest, the next he was turning to the right as my left arm snaked out of its own accord, my fist connecting with his jaw. His knees crumpled, and he dropped to the ground like a sack of potatoes carelessly tossed aside.

Jeremy and William, who had led a small group over to witness Arnold’s cruelty, were stunned by this sudden turn of events. I was expecting them to jump in an beat me down, but they stood stock still, Arnold lying at their feet, their position tenuous at best. The children of the playground had grown restless under the iron boot of their tyranny and the scent of revolt was in the air. Sadly the revolt only lasted for that one punch, no one else took up the call. Jeremy and William, though shaken by Arnold’s sudden demise, quickly reestablished their place over the others.

They helped Arnold to his feet as he started to come around, those cruel green eyes burned with a smoldering rage that was directed entirely at me, and those with me. My left cross had been the opening and closing shot of the revolution, the balance of power was still firmly in their grasp, but now I knew it was going to become even worse for those of us relegated to the unpopular corner.

We had two options left to us, leave the playground entirely, or stay and fight. I just wanted it all to go away. Never before in my life had I ever wanted to take back what I’d done so badly. The would be gunning for us now, that triad of terror, and they would not be happy until they had destroyed us completely.

For a day or two things were relatively quite, our three nemeses kept their distance, we kept to our corner of the playground. The others would occasionally glance our way, or theirs. I knew this peace would not last long, it was the calm before a storm that had been brewing for some time now. Had I known then what the outcome would be I would have stayed away. When it happened it would be fast, and furious, and one of us was going to get seriously hurt. 

“Why can’t they just leave us alone?” Tina said as she clutched Sally to her chest. Her father had been able to fix her baby doll, but the head was still loose on her neck, and had a tendency to spin around into an unnatural position any time Tina moved. More often than not Sally would be watching what was behind her with those unblinking blue eyes, her head having spun all the way around. The sight of it was unsettling, it was as if the baby doll knew what was coming, and was keeping an eye out for us.

“They won’t, not unless we do something,” Jimmy answered.

“But what can we do?” Tina said.

At this Jimmy shrugged. What could we do? But he had an odd expression on his face, and there was something in his eyes that disturbed me. I watched him as he watched our tormentors walk away. At the time I thought I didn’t know what that might be, but looking back, even then I knew Jimmy was going to do something.

It was the three of us against the cruelty of our tormentors. In the beginning we had been five, but once Arnold targeted us the other two members of our little group, Ray and Terrance, decided to stay away from the playground. Had I known what was to happen I would have done the same. Or would I?

I doubt it. I think even then I suspected how things were going to play out. It was curiosity that kept me coming back to the playground. The day before it happened was a Saturday. School had recently started again, our summer break coming to an end, soon winter would descend, and the playground would be deserted as our interests turned to indoor activities.

The days were still warm, but the nights were growing colder, the memory of their passage trapped in the frosted grass of our lawns that took on a white mantle until the sun’s warming rays released each blade from its prison. Surrounded by forest the sun’s warming rays never touched the playground until it was high overhead, so mornings were only for the hardiest of our little group.

I was surprised to find Jimmy and Tina in their usual spots that morning, it was early and the air still carried a chill from the night before. The stood face to face, heads down, as they looked at something in Jimmy’s hand. I couldn’t at first see what it was but I suspected he’d brought something to equalize the balance of power on the playground.

Jimmy had always been the quiet one, hovering at the fringes of our little group, a part of the group, yet at the same time a stranger to us all. We knew he lived two streets over, but none of us had actually seen his house. I knew he went to the same school we did as we shared english class. But he always sat towards the back of the room, not all the way, he wasn’t one of those types who came to class simply to put in an appearance. He participated when called upon, but rarely volunteered.

When they saw me coming Jimmy hurriedly put away whatever it was he had been showing Tina. Together they turned to face me as I approached. Jimmy’s his face was as sullen as always. Tina’s eyes sparkled with excitement.

“He’s gonna show them who’s the boss today,” Tina said with a hint of excitement, Baby Sally’s head slowly spinning around as Tina swung her shoulder back and forth in a rocking motion. “He’s gonna teach them not to mess with us.”

“How’s that?” I asked.

“Show him,” Tina said as she nodded in my direction.

“I don’t wanna,” Jimmy replied, seeming to shrink into himself as he stuffed his hands into his pockets.

“Go on, it’ll be all right,”

“Show me,” I said.

“Don’t tell my dad,” Jimmy said, looking up at me from beneath his brow, his head bowed as he pulled up the hem of his jacket, and withdrew a small black revolver. It seemed too big in Jimmy’s hand and I took a step back as Tina danced excitedly around Jimmy.

“We’re gonna show them, yep, we’re gonna show them, you better believe we’re gonna show them,” Tina chanted as baby Sally’s head swiveled back and forth as if to counter her statement. 

The sun was just starting to peek over the edge of the forest, the top half of Gigantica alight with its warming glow, but inside I felt a cold ball of fear form in the pit of my stomach. It had gone too far, too fast. Yet at the same time there was an electric anticipation coursing through my veins.

It was the first time I’d ever seen a real gun.

“Can I touch it?” I asked, both fascinated and repulsed at the same time. I’d never held a gun before, or even shot one, these things were just not allowed in my house.

Jimmy nodded his assent and  I reached out, my fingertips coming into contact with the oiled steel of that black barrel. As my flesh came into contact with it I was overcome by a feeling of uninhibited power. This thing, this object, this inert piece of metal contained a power I’d never known before.

“What kind is it?” I asked.

“My Dad said it’s a thirty eight special.”

“Have you shot it?”

“Once or twice.”

‘Where did you get it?”

“My dad keeps it in the glove box of his car, I swiped it this morning on my way over, I’m gonna scare Arnold with it.”

“Can I hold it?” I asked breathlessly as that sensation coursed through my body.

Again Jimmy nodded his assent and I wrapped my hand around the handle, the thatch work design of the grip coarse against the palm of my hand.

“He’s gonna show em,” Tina said but I didn’t hear her as I lifted the pistol from Jimmy’s hand, my finger naturally wrapping itself around the trigger.

“Don’t put your finger on the trigger, not yet, not until you’re ready to shoot,” Jimmy said and I shuddered at the thought that with a simple pull of the trigger, I could solve all of our problems on the playground.

The gun was heavier than I had anticipated, the weight dragging my hand towards the ground as I raised it to look closer at its black surface. The metal seemed to absorb the growing sunlight of the day, yet there was a faint reflection in the oiled side of the barrel, along with a smudged fingerprint. As I looked the pistol over my eyes kept getting drawn to that fingerprint, it was a shame to mar such a powerfully beautiful surface.

At the same time I felt the power of the gun, I sensed a dark force that hovered about it, a malignant air that came not from the object in my hand, but from somewhere deep within me. The presence of the gun touched something deep inside me, something I’d never faced before, a primitive thing that sought the power this object conveyed.

Voices from the other side of the playground drew out attention and I hurriedly passed the gun back to Jimmy and he tucked it into the waistband of his pants. Of course Tina knew about the gun, so there was no sense even hiding it as the first words out of her mouth when she saw Arnold and company, were of a specifically threatening nature.

“You better run home to Mommy, Arnold, Jimmy’s gonna fix you today.”

The power of the gun had even affected Tina whose comments were so out of place compared to the way she normally acted. The open threat only served to draw our three tormentors to us, and they crossed the playground with a small crowd around them.

“What’s the baby gonna do?” Arnold said as he stepped up to Jimmy who kept his eyes focused on the ground at his feet.

“Come on, do something, butt munch.” Arnold’s comment drew several laughs from the crowd around us.

“Show him, Jimmy, show him who’s the boss of the playground now,” Tina said, her comments like gasoline on a fire.

“Yeah, show me dick breath,” Arnold said, pushing Jimmy back with one hand, his other balled up into a fist ready to strike.

There was a moment, a brief second where I was sure Jimmy was about to turn and flee for good, it seemed like he was struggling with himself, and I was certain reason would reassert itself and everything would go back to normal, or as normal as one could expect at Everett Park.

“Show him Jimmy,” Tina said and Arnold lashed out at her with one hand, knocking baby Sally to the ground.

“Would you shut your cunt up.”

I honestly believe that had Tina kept her mouth shut Jimmy would have fled from the playground that day. As it was she didn’t and Jimmy responded, not to protect himself, but to protect her.

When Arnold spun back around to confront Jimmy, he’d pulled the gun from his waistband and was aiming it at Arnold’s head.

“You leave her alone,” Jimmy said, his voice low, full of menace as he stood in what I later learned was the classic two handed shooter’s stance. He’d obviously shot the pistol before, and knew what to expect.

Instead of turning to flee as we had expected Arnold raised his hands, palms out at shoulder level, as he sneered at Jimmy. “What are you gonna do with that?” Arnold said, taking a step closer, forcing Jimmy to take a step back.

I’d seen something in Arnold’s eye the moment he recognized the pistol, something that I didn’t understand until I was much older. There was no fear in his eyes, no anger either, just a mute acceptance of what he was confronting. There was a lot I learned later in life about what makes us who we are. But for the moment we had a standoff. I didn’t believe for one moment that Arnold was going to run, nor did I think Jimmy would pull the trigger.

I think Arnold knew this as well, just like a predator will know the difference between prey and other predators. He took another step closer to Jimmy, forcing him back to the edge of the pavement, and Jimmy was forced to look away, giving Arnold the opening he was looking for.

He snatched the pistol from Jimmy’s hand, pushing the younger boy down at the same time as he overwhelmed him with his bulk. Jimmy lay on the ground his hands up in a defensive manner as Arnold stood over him with the pistol.

“Let me show you how it’s done,” Arnold said as he pulled back the hammer with a loud click. Several of the others shouted for him not to do it, to let it go, but it appeared Arnold wasn’t hearing any of that. He looked like he was about ready to pull the trigger.

That was when I got involved. I couldn’t have lived with myself if I let him shoot Jimmy, yet even after my actions that day I’m still full of guilt. Had I not done what I did things would have maybe turned out different for everyone concerned. Before anyone could react I grabbed a ball bat from one of the spectators and pushed my way through the crowd.

Everyone’s attention was on Jimmy. Arnold’s back was to me so he didn’t see me raise the bat over my shoulder, or take the hardest swing of my life. But he felt it, maybe for a moment, or two, after the bat connected with the back of his head. For the second time in the time I’d known him, Arnold dropped to the ground like a sack of potatoes. He never go up again, thankfully he lived, but he never walked again. Spending his days confined to a wheel chair as he spoke in a child’s voice to things no one else could see.

I spent some time in juvenile detention and the crowd that once hung out at Everett Park grew up and went it’s different ways. Tina got married and raised a family of her own, the others scattered to the four winds, and I was left with my guilt. Since I was a juvenile when I was charged my records were sealed on my eighteenth birthday and I worked to rebuild my life.

Turning back to the front page I look again at the familiar face staring out at me from beneath the headline. He’s gotten older, as all of us have, yet I can still see the frightened child in his eyes. The same child who on a chilly morning showed me his father’s gun. Jimmy grew older as all of us did, but he never really grew up. Three days ago he walked into the place where he worked with a loaded gun.

I don’t need to explain the rest, but I will leave you with this.

Evil lives among us, we see it everyday as we go about the task of living, yet we don’t fully understand what we’re looking at. Evil is not some intangible force that comes and goes like the tides of the ocean, it lives in the heart of every man, woman, and child that draws a breath. Most of us can control those darker impulses that speak to us late at night as we struggle to fall asleep while reliving our day Pointing out our weaknesses, and sometimes cajoling us to seek revenge for slights real or imagined. There are those who listen to that inner voice, and it is they we need to watch out for.

The End

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