It was playground rhymes that broke the world.
It was the rhymes, waiting underneath the grass and the asphalt and sand.
* * *
“I had a weird dream,” Sara Beth was saying, that recess the day before it happened. “There was something under the asphalt.”
“That’s not a weird dream,” Lizzie Beth said, shaking her blonde ponytail. “I had a really weird dream. There was a thing under the asphalt, and it was under the woodchips around the slide and the swings and the wooden bridge. You couldn’t see it but it was really cool. It understood.”
“How did you know it was cool if you couldn’t see it?” Lucy asked, and we ignored her. Lucy was only our second-best friend.
“Well, I had my weird dream all week,” Sara Beth said, crossing her dark, skinny arms. “It laughed but I didn’t know why, and I thought it was funny but then my tummy started to hurt and there were clouds and it was dark and I was scared ’cause I just knew.”
“I had mine for a month,” Lizzie Beth said. She was lying; we both know this now, but Sara Beth only suspected then. “The laugh tasted like ice cream, like right before you eat too much ice cream when you think you could eat all the ice cream in the world. The best feeling.”
“In my dream, there’s a wall—” Lucy began, but then the bell rang, and we bolted for the classroom, leaving her behind like always because no one could run as fast as us, no one in the whole wide world.
* * *
First is the worst
Second is the best
Third is the one with the treasure chest
That was our favorite rhyme. Before the playground rhymes broke the world, sometimes Miss Cranton would have us stay inside during our recess and be her little helpers and we would yell it at the kids racing in, or sometimes we’d yell it racing in ourselves, faster then slower then faster, trying to get that second or third place.
“First is the worst!” and we slowed down so that Anthony Michaels went tripping through the door before us, and “Second is the best!” as we burst through like one body, triumphant, and “Third is the one with the treasure chest!” as Harry Esposito pushed Jenny Chen out of the way, and—
And then that perfect bang-it-out word-rhythm, the way it hit the floor and the walls and the smooth tops of the desks, would falter and fall apart.
“Fourth is the one—” Sara Beth would start, as Tommy Jankowski came skidding in.
“Is a dwarf!” Lizzie Beth would shout over her, Tommy crashing into his desk, Derek and Amy going too fast to keep from piling up against him too.
“In the wedding dress!” Sara Beth would insist, a few other kids chorusing weakly behind her.
Sara Beth would say that fourth is the one in the wedding dress was better because then girls could race for it like a good thing and if a boy got it then it was really funny. Lizzie Beth would say it was fourth is a dwarf, because the last line should rhyme the way the first line did, it sounded better. Also she’d seen that hobbit movie and dwarves were cool. Sara Beth would roll her eyes and say it wasn’t that kind of dwarf, it was a real person dwarf, the kind grown-ups got mad if you said dwarf or midget instead of little person, and so that rhyme was mean. Lizzie Beth would shoot back that Sara Beth was a baby.
Miss Cranston would give us her ‘Not This Again, Don’t You Dare’ look, so Lizzie Beth would glare like she could laser-beam melt Sara Beth’s brain into her way of thinking, and Sara Beth would look at everything besides Lizzie Beth, just waiting until Miss Cranston brought out the math book and Lizzie Beth needed her help with addition enough to stop caring about her stupid wrong version of the rhyme.
We fought over that rhyme worse than we ever fought over broken Barbies or unsent birthday invitations or favorite Baby-Sitters Club books or anything. We fought over it that stupid stabbing angry-spitting way you fight with your best friend when you realize you’re not the same person and never will be and it hurts like you’re being torn in half, like your heart is just going to ache and bleed forever and ever.
We can’t really fight over it anymore.
* * *
The playground rhymes were waiting that day, under the asphalt and under the wood chips, and we knew it even if we didn’t know it. We knew something was there, the thing from the dream, the whispers and the laughs and the wanting, the pounding against a cracking glass wall there under the dirt, there in the backs of our minds. We knew and we could taste it on our tongues, sweet like chocolate and salty like blood.
Lizzie Beth’s it, had a fit, kissed a German idiot!
It was a crackling buttery-hot fizzy feel, like popcorn and soda pop in our stomachs while we waited for the purple velvet curtain to rise. It made us run faster, breathe harder, rubber soles slapping against the wooden bridge, the blue plastic slide, skidding on the woodchips. We ran and we lunged, leapt, stomped, jumped, shoved—we burned our palms on the ropes and scraped our knees on the wood and banged our elbows against the plastic, and the burn and blood and the pain just made us grin, just made us feel like wolves with our teeth out, leaping up with our hearts pumping, rejoining the pack, bringing down the prey—
Sara Beth’s it, had a fit, kissed a German idiot!
Sara Beth loved the game and she loved playing it with Lizzie Beth, loved the flow of it like a back-and-forth river as you tagged a kid and a kid tagged you and you tagged your best friend in the whole wide world. Lizzie Beth loved the game, and she loved the words, the sparkle and flash and snap of them, the way her and Sara Beth’s and all the other kids’ voices blended together into one, the sizzle and soar and bigger-than-you sugar-salt words as you chanted them and felt them blast into you and out of you and stamp you on the world. She loved the hit of the tongue and lips and teeth as the air came up from your lungs, as a curl of something dark and secret-sweet curled up nice and neat in her heart—
Lucy’s it, had a fit, kissed a German idiot!
And we were fast, too fast for Lucy, too fast for the world. And everyone else was faster too, and we were wolves and cheetahs and our teeth were sharp and Lucy was prey, Lucy was always prey with her watery blue eyes and her soft pale skin and we laughed as we darted away from her pudgy pink hands, so slow, so soft and slow, and we could feel the thing under the asphalt and the woodchips and it was strong like us and so it reached up and pushed—
“Had a FIT—”
“Stop it, you guys—”
And we were laughing, Lizzie Beth was laughing and Sara Beth was laughing but she was thinking that maybe—
“Please, you guys—”
Lucy was twitching—
“KISSED A GER-MAN ID-EE-IT!”
And Lucy tripped on her untied shoelace, and she hit the ground, and the world broke open beneath her and the first part of the Thing broke through Lucy.
Her head shrank, and her left eye shrank inside her head, and she was clutching at her heart and we tasted blood and milk chocolate as the spots popped up all over her skin, yellow and red and black, and we laughed (and felt ice up our spines) and we laughed (hearts on a rollercoaster) and her lopsided eyes went misty far-away and she lurched up Not-Lucy, and Sara Beth started to say, “We’re sorry, but—” and Lizzie Beth started to say, “We didn’t do anyth—”
And the thing from under the asphalt and the woodchips and the dirt below, the thing in Not-Lucy, the rhyme that was part of some larger Rhyme, the Id-Ee-It, reached out inside us, long dark licorice-sweet tendrils.
Jamie and Jason, said the Idiot. Sitting in a tree
First comes love, then comes marriage
Then comes a baby in a baby carriage
And it was right. There stood Jamie and Jason, panting with effort from chasing, from being chased, hand in hand. Best friends like Sara Beth and Lizzie Beth, and who did they think they were, trying to be best friends like Sara Beth and Lizzie Beth? Didn’t they know how the world worked? Didn’t they know that Jason was a boy and Jamie was a girl? What did they think was going to happen?
“Jamie and Jason,” Lizzie snarled, and the rest of the kids took it up behind her, “sitting in a tree!”
And Jamie and Jason’s fingers started melting together, not quite disappearing into flesh, no, stretching, lengthening, pushing through it like tree roots through clay—
“Kay Aye Ess Ess Aye En Gee!”
—stretching out over and through each other’s skin like tree roots pushing, pushing, pushing until their whole bodies were fused together and there was a thing pushing out of them, a face, a soft puffy baby face with fat cheeks and little eyes and a little nose and a little mouth, and the little baby face waved its Jason and Jamie arms, and gurgled and laughed and it said:
Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these!
And like a pack of wolves we turned, swooped down on Jenny Chen.
No, thought Sara. No. She tried to remember why she was thinking this.
Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these!
Yes, Lizzie thought. Yes. Because the rhyme was right, because look at Jenny Chen, really look at her, just realizing something is happening to her. Look at that fat face with its quick-blushing cheeks disappearing her always-weeping eyes behind her glasses, look at that dumb book she hides behind. Listen to her name, Jenny Chen, Jenny Chen, Jenny Chen, she wants to rhyme, she wants to be broken into, she’s asking for it—
“Chinese, Japanese!” the words burst ripe and blood-full and true from Lizzie’s lips, leading the chorus.
“Dirty knees,” Sara whispered, and it was like holding back a wolf to make her voice whisper, the rhyme was curling her heart, saying it wasn’t so bad, not so bad, who did Jenny think she was, getting to be different. She bit her lip but the words pushed out, a strangled sound lost beneath the other children’s roar: “Look at these. . . .”
And on the last line some of the kids grabbed their crotches or their butts or their fronts where girls would get breasts someday, and some of the kids were still twisting the skin around their eyes. And where they grabbed they began to swell and bulge out like faulty balloons, and where they were twisting and pulling their fingers stuck, and they were still chanting, and Jenny Chen was shrinking—no, only parts of her were shrinking, her head and her torso and the tops of her legs, all her fat sliding down her body to lump around her grass-stained knees as the legs beneath her knees stretched, stork-like—
And worse than everything was the taste of guilt in Sara’s mouth, flat and metallic like tinfoil, and the weight of the guilt pressing down on her with all the ways she didn’t have words for it, and Sara was dizzy, and everywhere Sara looked were kids halfway-turning into things like the things she wasn’t ever supposed to look at, dark thrift store dolls with liver lips and too many teeth, oily-skinned plastic dolls out of the back pages of bad magazines, banana-skinned villains out of old comic books. And Lizzie was smiling and Lizzie was her friend, so it had to be all right, didn’t it? Didn’t Sara have to be wrong?
And all the other rhymes were still continuing, spiraling off in fractures and disputed areas, the K-I-S-S-I-N-G splitting into:
Bouncing off the walls, playin’ basketball, drinkin’ alcohol. . . .
And they were ringed all around us, the Idiot, the Dirty Knees, the K-I-S-S-I-N-G, herding us forward—though Lizzie needed no herding, Lizzie grabbed Sara’s hand and pulled her along with those others not yet fully changed—towards the popular girls with pigtails, jumping rope on the blacktop, and we heard the drumbeat machine-gun fire of their words in time with the jumping rope and the basketballs that no longer had hands bouncing them.
The Rhymes bowed to the jump-roping girls, to their coming Queen.
The eyes of the popular girls were panicked, the eyes of the popular girls sparkled with delight, their eyes were weeping with terror and joy, their mouths opening and closing like slapping shut automatons, their mouths savoring and slurping the rhyme as the thing behind the rhyme, the coming queen of all of the rhymes, the Rhyme itself, pushed through into the world and shattered all its laws forever:
Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack
All dressed in black, black, black
With silver buttons, buttons, buttons
All down her back, back, back
And the girls began to stretch as though their bones were lengthening but the rest of their bodies were not, the skin turning to black cloth and stretching over jagged spikes and their spines arching and glowing silver, their clothing ash-burning to black silk that draped them like governesses, and their mouths kept making the words pop out light and perfect and right—“Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack”—as their mouths stretched open like they were screaming, as they began to choke, to cough, and they retched black slime and quarters and silver buttons, buttons, buttons. . . .
Sara was lost, Sara was losing, Sara just wanted her parents to show up and make it stop, make the world make sense and go back in straight lines, but she could feel the Rhyme reaching for her, pushing rhymes up inside her, and she knew that it was feeding spreading sprawling fungus and there was nothing she could do.
The clinking sound as the buttons hit the blacktop was a light and silver laugh to Lizzie. She was dizzy, she was soaring, she was a bird of prey and she would strike and slash in service to her queen, and never have to say sorry again.
I will serve you forever, thought Lizzie. I will be your lady-in-waiting, your princess, your white knight. She began to kneel.
Sara saw her friend begin to kneel.
Sara Beth grabbed her shoulder.
“No,” said Sara Beth, and it was so hard to get past her lips it seemed like it was all she could ever say, but when it popped out more not-rhyme words were waiting, pushing behind it. “No. Don’t. Not that. Not ever that.”
The bodies straightened. The faces went still.
Miss Mary Mack in her seven bodies turned in one movement towards us, and we saw her eyes, and her necklaces.
Her fourteen eyes were silver buttons, and her seven necks were strung with ivory cameos, carved with the screaming faces of seven little girls.
“Run!” Sara Beth yelled at Lizzie Beth, and we ran towards the school, and the other kids followed us, and the rhymes were behind us, the servants of the High Court of Miss Mary Mack, they came on paws and tentacles and long legs and short legs and no legs, their claws cutting into the turf as they thundered behind us, their voices whispering, uncurling in our minds, stroking our thoughts for a handhold—
The steamboat went to HELLO operator, please give me number nine
And Lizzie Beth was running because Sara Beth was running but she didn’t know why Sara Beth was running, the rhymes were beautiful, the rhymes were true, but if Sara Beth was running then she must be right—
Spiders crawling up your back
And the arms and legs of the children around us split, extended, cracked twice in the middle and they waved them in the air—
And Sara Beth was slowing down because Lizzie Beth was slowing down, because she couldn’t leave her behind—
Crack an egg on your head, let the blood run down
And yolks dripped down heads next to us, and eyes dripped down, and the tops of heads slipped and slid and slurped down the faces like melting ice, skidding in dribbles and chunks down the fronts and backs, and the bodies lurching, lurching forward, and Sara Beth slipped in a puddle and a black-spotted hand reached out for her—
And Sara Beth’s eyes got so wide that Lizzie Beth knew it was a bad thing—
“No!” Lizzie Beth yelled, and stomped the hand, and pulled Sara Beth up, and pushed her into the school doorway. We were running for the principal, for the teacher, for people who we didn’t know couldn’t help us. We were almost to the classroom—
And our rhyme caught us.
It was like a dark tendril catching around the corners of our heart, a vine twining up our ribcage and around our lungs until it could slide the words up our throats and unfurl them past our lips.
First is the worst
“First is the worst!”
And Alex was rolling on the floor, boneless, tentacles twitching from his gelatinous form—
Second is the—
And Molly’s skin cracked and through the cracks gleamed such golden light that it hurt to look at her, it hurt to look as the golden claws ripped through her fingernails and golden wings ripped out of her shoulder blades and red blood ran down her face as mouths with little golden fangs ripped through her skin—
“—is the one with the treasure chest!”
And Theo’s back bent and snapped under the weight of his stomach, beams of wood bursting through his T-shirt and splintering as they spilled his guts to the ground—
And we could not stop the next line, our line, it pushed out of our mouths as we gripped each other’s hands:
“—the one in the wedding dress!”
Fourth is a dwarf/the one in the wedding dress!
And our voices broke apart, the way they always did, and our rhyme snagged—it screamed—the part of the Thing that was almost all the way into our heads meshed and tore and clanged and banged an off-key tune—Sara Beth stumbled and Lizzie Beth fell, and our worlds pressed together, tore apart, blurred, fractured, melted and melded together at uneven seams—
And when we could finally stand, the rhymes did not pursue us.
* * *
When playground rhymes broke into the world, other things came through.
After we ran from our school, we saw some families, grown-ups and toddlers, trying to defend themselves with nursery rhymes. The grown-ups chanted and the babies listened and the little kids’ belief hung life on the word-skeletons. But the things we saw them call up were soft and bloated, light pink and blue balloons of flesh, Disney cartoons of the sharp and scratching power that nursery rhymes might have been if third-graders like us had done the calling for them. Lizzie Beth said it was because the grown-ups weren’t mean enough, didn’t like being mean enough. Sara Beth said it was because the toddlers didn’t know enough words, couldn’t concentrate. We watched the nursery rhymes bumble back and forth, bumping into each other and the walls, their anime eyes blank and vacant. The nursery rhymes just stood there as the playground rhymes came for the families.
We just stood there too.
Lizzie Beth wanted to fight them, but Sara Beth was too afraid. What happened at school might have been a one-time miracle.
We stayed in the shadows. Stalked a group of slam poets for a week, tall teenagers slouching along in a pink pickup truck with a boom box blaring from the back, the poets rapping along with hard-hitting consonants and long low mournful vowels, pushing back the playground rhymes with the weapons they called up, words so raw and hard and rough that Sara Beth and Lizzie Beth couldn’t believe the poets’ throats didn’t rip as they roared out their own monsters, dark scuttling spidery things with eyes made of mirror shards, and razor blade legs that slashed and ripped the playground rhymes to shreds in seconds.
We had favorites, of course. Lizzie Beth loved Ty, all brooding dark eyes and copper-skinned muscles stretching the fit of the T-shirt that read BITCH I KNOW WHAT AN ANAPEST IS. Sara Beth loved Mariana, with her rainbow hair and cobra earrings and the way her voice stretched and broke on certain words, like she couldn’t believe how beautiful they were, like she’d opened up a dictionary and found a stained glass window.
We had favorites, but it was hard to argue anymore.
The poets were big, and brave, and beautiful, and we watched them like the good guys in a Saturday morning superhero show, waiting to see how they would save the world.
They were almost grown-ups. They must have had a plan to save the world.
But it only takes one crack to let in a rhyme.
A sailor went to the sea, sea, sea
To see what he could see, see, see
But all that he could see, see, see
Was the bottom of the deep blue sea, sea, sea!
And the See came into their circle and into their minds, its rippling blue gaze and its smell of brine, and it came to see what it could see and all that it could see was itself, and so the slam poets and their poems were blued, were salted, were drowned, were unseen into nothingness, were washed away and re-seen to become the bottom layer of the deep blue Sea, Sea, See.
But the See could not see us.
* * *
Months afterward, we saw a homeless man untaken, muttering under his breath as he walked, “And his eyes had all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming, that is dreaming, that is dreaming, and his eyes had all the seeming—” And his shadow stretching out behind him rippled in a parliament of ravens, and he kept walking.
He was the last real person we saw.
* * *
Why us, why playground rhymes? We asked ourselves those questions in all those months after everyone died, after the laws of reality took a holiday, after the world broke into a place where screams were music and loneliness was yellow and the taste of lemon flew through the air on the backs of nine-eyed camels and flesh was an accessory worn by rhymes from the place we had unlocked. The months when our hair grew long and nails went uncut and our stomachs growled and questions were all we had. The months that became years that we lost track of.
We used to go to libraries and read the books, to see if we could have answers too. But the books were written by grown-ups, and it seems that grown-ups did not want to remember the things they chanted in playgrounds so long ago.
But it was their fault too. The rhymes were underneath their playgrounds too, their grass and asphalt and sand. We couldn’t have done it all ourselves.
It couldn’t have just been us.
* * *
Who are we?
We’re Lizzie Beth and Sara Beth.
Just don’t ask who’s who.
We try to look but we can’t see. We know that Sara Beth and Lizzie Beth run together, we hear our footsteps side by side, but we cannot turn our heads to determine who is the other, and which one we are. Mirrors and shop windows and puddles blur before our eyes. We catch sideways glimpses—Sara Beth’s braids with the pink and purple beads, long grown out to slap against our knees; Lizzie Beth’s short-bitten nails scratching an itch (on whose nose?). We remember all that Sara Beth and Lizzie Beth were, and we are all that Lizzie Beth and Sara Beth could have been, and we wonder which one we are right now, where we could draw the line. On the bad days, which are less and less as we relearn the world, Sara Beth cries for her Mommy and her Mom and Mr. Whiskers and her big brother Ralph, and Lizzie Beth beats our fists against trees and wails for her Gramma and Grampa and Daddy and Orange the Dog. Together we mourn all the things that were ours, and all the things that might not have been. Which is which? Who is who? We do not, cannot know.
And neither can anyone else.
The thing that broke the world and was broken into Miss Mary Mack and her legion of courtiers cannot sense us. We were never broken into, only broken; cracked and half-mended and left fused together, not ourselves but something somewhere in between.
We catch hints, sometimes, of the rhyme that was meant for us. A wisp of the white Wedding Dress as it withdraws behind a window, sequins sparkling in the fading sunlight, or the rasp of its fine lace train as it wavers uncertainly behind us. We hear the quick clomp of the Dwarf’s iron-crusted boots, the scrape of its pickaxe along the street (and within us-ourself, Lizzie Beth is triumphant, because it was the hobbit movie kind of dwarf after all). But we don’t see them full on, because they never made it all the way here, never got to be one solid thing. We stopped them. They stumble on behind, uncertain of us, uncertain of theirself/themselves, whispering, Fourth is. . . .
But Sara Beth and Lizzie Beth are never quite there, so our Rhyme can never quite come through.
And so we run and run and run, until the rubber soles are flapping and the bottoms of our feet are bleeding and then we steal brand-new Nikes off the shelves at Walmart, and we cut holes in the ceilings of CVS Pharmacies and make fires in the middle of the aisles where we roast marshmallows and make them catch on fire on purpose and mash the carbon crust between chocolate and graham crackers and dare each-other-ourselves to climb the shelves and ride the bikes and crash all the jeeps in the parking lot into each other. Our teeth fall out black and our hands are smoke- and dirt-smeared and we burn down libraries because even if it makes her sick inside, Sara Beth hopes that losing the words that they’re made of will send all the rhymes back, and we burn down libraries because Lizzie Beth only feels right anymore when she looks at the fire. We look out for ourselves-each-other. We run and we’re wolves, we’re wild, we’re never going to grow up and leave each other behind.
We’ll be best friends forever.
Gabriela Santiago lives and works in St. Paul, Minnesota, where despite the fact that she writes stories like this one, two separate organizations have entrusted her with the minds of small children. She is a graduate of Macalester College and the Clarion 2013 writing workshop, as well as a proud member of Team Tiny Bonesaw. This is her first published story. She also has a story upcoming in the February 2015 surveillance-themed issue of Black Candies.