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I wanted to go to the park. It was only a few blocks away, but it was past the busiest intersection I knew, across Cedar Street along Blackwell Drive. I certainly wasn’t allowed to walk there by myself, and I wouldn’t be for several more years. My dad didn’t work on Wednesdays back then, so I made him take me. I only had to ask once. We’d have some alone time, like we almost never had. Normally, my crybaby sister was always around to hog his attention, but today she’d gone to the zoo with her friend.
We stopped at the corner, looking both ways, the wind blowing my long blonde hair into my mouth. He grabbed my hand and rushed across the street, even though there were no cars in sight from either direction. I lagged behind him and it felt like he would pull my arm out of its socket if he tugged any harder. We entered the park and disregarded its curvy roads and walking paths, instead choosing to take the direct route to the middle playground.
There were three playgrounds in the park, which now seems like a lot for such a little park. The first playground was the closest to my house, but it was for babies, with a caterpillar shaped set of monkey bars that were too low to the ground for six-year-old me to swing from. The red and blue paint was peeling in chunks off of the bars. My mom didn’t like us to play there anyway, because she was always scared that it was lead paint, but my dad didn’t worry too much about stuff like that. The baby playground also had those swings made out of a thick X of leather, folded to leave room for two infants or toddlers to sit back to back. The far playground had boogey boards and teeter-totters, but both of those were only fun with another friend, and definitely not with my dad. The middle one had a merry go round and real swings. I always started with the swings. I always ended with the swings too. They were my favourite.
Summers in Nebraska are that awful kind of sticky heat and the wind only ever tangled my air, it never cooled me off. When I was swinging, I’d at least get a little relief. The wind up high was stronger than down below and it would keep my hair off my neck and back and fly under my shirt and keep me cool. I swung for a while, getting about as high as I could, then I jumped off into the mud below. It had rained the night before and I had to use my hands to break my fall and keep from staining my jean shorts. They smarted for a few seconds.
Next I moved on to the merry go round. This was the best thing to have a parent around for. It was really the only reason I needed my dad, except for crossing the street. My dad would push and push and push until the thing was flying so fast I couldn’t believe it. The only real problem was that he got motion sick really easy. When we went to Disney World, he’d even made my six-months-pregnant mom ride on the teacups with me because they made him so sick. He had to close his eyes once I really got moving so he wouldn’t barf all over me.
This day he was pushing as well as he could. I was spinning and screaming and secretly closing my eyes when it went too fast. Sometimes I get a little motion sick too but I don’t want to admit it. I don’t want to be a baby. I want to be tough. My hands were a little sore from my fall. I’d wiped most of the mud off on the side of the merry go round but a little bit of it clung to my hands, dried an ugly gray in the creases of my fingers and palm.
They must have been weak or slippery or something because the next thing I knew, I was sliding across the merry go round, out of the center, and towards the edges. My dad, with his eyes closed, didn’t notice and I didn’t think to yell stop until it was too late.
I was underneath the merry go round, soaked in mud, the merry go round spinning still, as fast as possible, into the side of my face, my arm and my leg. I finally realized I should do something. Stop! I screamed.
I’m sure my dad opened his eyes now as he held tight to the handles.
The thing stopped and I tried to drag myself out from underneath it, not yet crying. Underneath was that thick goopy mud. I was wedged under tight, but slowly I wriggled free. Blood was oozing down my face and I never felt so much pain in my arm. I saw my dad’s face and then I remembered to cry. I pressed my free hand over the cut on my cheek and tears ran through my fingers, pooling into the creases of my elbows.
He didn’t hug me, maybe because the mud was everywhere. It had squished underneath my shirt and down my shorts and had matted into my hair. He just grabbed my hand again and started walking quickly. He whispered to me to be quiet. Don’t cry, he said. Everyone will look at you. Everyone will see. Everyone will know you’re a baby.