by Sarah McLaughlin ’23
We could usually all fit underneath the slide.
It was stuffy and we were squished against each other like sardines, but we had enough room to do what we had to do. There were only five of us, after all. Only five of us were brave enough. We called the rest of the kids names since they didn’t want to join us. The ones who told on us to the teacher were the worst, but Miss Sparks never stopped us because she didn’t believe them. I think some of the other kids didn’t believe us either.
Tommy was the one who got the frogs. I don’t know where he found them. He always said he had a lake in his backyard and he’d swim to the bottom, but I never believed him. I think he caught them on the side of the road, because I’ve seen them flattened and dried up in the sun in the school parking lot.
A lot of kids called us weird, but Tommy was the weirdest of us all. Every day, he came to school with a Tupperware container with a red lid. I always wondered if he stole it from his parents, and if they ever found out what he was doing. Mine never did. Leo stopped doing it with us because he said his mom got mad when he threw up and had to get picked up from school early. I heard he had to go to the hospital and get a needle stuck in his arm.
I’d never had a needle stuck in my arm, and I had done it twice now. Some kids’ names had been picked more often—Sally had done it four times. Tommy had done it three, but I think sometimes he secretly wrote his name down twice. I’d seen him put two pieces of paper into my baseball cap as I held it out in the middle of our circle.
As soon as the bell rang for recess, we headed for the playground. We used the slide in the back, because it was dark and damp and Sally said that’s what the frogs like. I thought she was right, because Miss Sparks taught us about frogs in science class. We didn’t pay much attention that day since we were all giggling at each other, but I remembered her talking about their life cycle—how they start off in the pond as tadpoles and then grow legs. I wondered if that’s how I grew legs, too, and I just didn’t remember it.
That day, it was raining. We all squished ourselves a little closer together than usual since we wanted to stay dry. It pelted the tin slide above us and sounded like a bin of LEGOs falling on somebody’s head. Our light blue uniform shirts were so damp already that they looked more like navy.
My hat was wet, and so was the paper. Harry was supposed to bring his pencil, but he forgot, so after I tore the paper into five wet pieces we dipped the tips of our fingers in the mud and used it to write our initials. My “N” looked more like an “H.” I decided I wasn’t going to say anything if it got picked and they thought it wasn’t mine. I had eaten a bologna sandwich for lunch and was feeling a little queasy.
Once the papers were in the hat, I took it back and shook it around. Some of the mud had dried a little and fell off, but I figured it was okay. Louis was the one who drew the name. He picked out the paper, opened it, and said it was Harry. I held my breath. Harry nodded, water dripping from his hair and running down his face. His skin looked white.
Then it was time for Tommy to take it out. He unzipped his Spiderman backpack and took out the container. Before he opened it, I could only see a black shadow of it pressed up against the side. It looked like a big one.
When he took off the lid, it jumped. It landed in my hat, thankfully, so I grabbed it with my other hand and squeezed it tight so it wouldn’t escape. We all laughed, except Harry.
It was starting to squirm in my hand, so I held it out to Harry. He put his hands out like how Miss Sparks told us to hold them for Communion in church. I told him he needed to hold on tight or it was going to hop away. He nodded really fast.
I placed it into his hand, still holding on for a second, and then let go. He put his other hand on top to squish it like a sandwich. I wondered, if you put bread around it, if it would taste anything like bologna.
“Count of three,” Tommy said. He was always the one who said it.
“Wait,” Harry said. “I’ve never done it before. Does it taste really bad?”
“Yeah,” Sally said, while Louis said, “No.”
“Just do it,” I said. I didn’t want them to discover that it was maybe supposed to be my turn. While they were watching Harry, I grabbed the rest of the paper scraps from the hat and crushed them in my fist.
“Okay,” Harry said. “Okay. Okay.” He said “okay” a few more times.
“Do it,” Tommy said. “If you start crying, we’re gonna get caught.”
I think it was that idea that finally spurred him on. He opened his mouth wide, tipped his head back, and held his hands up above it. One of the webbed feet was dangling down, already on its way to his throat. Then he opened his hand, and it made a plop sound.
As soon as he swallowed—I saw the bulge in his throat—he screamed. Tommy reached over and clamped his hand over his mouth, and he didn’t stop. I thought Miss Sparks was going to hear him. But then he stopped, and when Tommy pulled his hands away, his lips were blue.
“I think I’m gonna throw up,” he said. He was really quiet. “I need to call my mom.”
“No, you don’t,” Tommy said. “If you throw up, just do it right here. You’re gonna get us in trouble.”
“I’m gonna throw up,” Harry said again. “I’m gonna throw up.”
“Ew,” Sally said. “If he throws up, I’m gonna throw up, too.”
“Shut up,” Louis said. “Everybody shut up. Miss Sparks is gonna hear us.”
I didn’t think anyone would hear us talking, because the rain kept pounding on the slide. But if someone threw up, somebody else would definitely see us.
“I hope I get picked next week,” Tommy said. “I’ll show you guys how it’s done. You’re all scaredy-cats.”
“Here,” I said to Harry. I passed him my hat.