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I finally figured out why my best friend Devin punched me in the face.
At first I thought it was because I saved his life, but that wasn’t it. For a while, I blamed my freezing, only it wasn’t that, either. It wasn’t even Twitter, the Velma Curse, that stupid dishwasher, or the Golden State Warriors.
It was the Double-Barreled Monkey Bar Backflip of Doom.
THE DOUBLE-BARRELED MONKEY BAR BACKFLIP OF DOOM
The playground at Bennet C. Riley Intermediary School in Los Angeles didn’t have much going for it. The soccer field got so dusty that kids spit brown after a good game. The basketball court did have two hoops, but the rims were bent and hadn’t had nets since October. I played every day anyway, and that’s where I was when Devin marched up, swiped the ball, and made his announcement.
“Game over!” he proclaimed, hugging the ball in his skinny arms. “I need Addison!”
“Me? For what?” I asked.
Before Devin could say, Gage Morris pointed. “Our ball back for Addi? Seems like a fair trade. Teams might actually be even.” He looked up at me. “At least, height-wise.”
I blushed, rubbing a hand at the back of my sweaty neck.
“Yeah, give it back, Devin,” Emil said. He lunged at the ball and knocked it out of Devin’s hands. As soon as it rolled into the pack of kids, they snatched it up and loped off like coyotes, leaving my best friend with his hands out wide. His eyebrows were all crooked above his glasses, and he was blinking a lot. I thought he was going to cry again. He’d been doing that almost every day for the past two weeks. Totally understandable, what with the stuff that had happened to his dad, but the Devin I knew didn’t mope. Snagging the ball and demanding attention? That was way more Devin.
“You okay?” I asked. “What do you need me for?”
Devin took a deep breath and rubbed his fingers under his nose. He shot the other guys a mean look and grumbled, but then faced me. I smiled. There in his eyes was that old Devin sparkle.
“Lookout…,” he whispered. “And cameraman.”
“You’ll see,” Devin said, and he reached up to grab me by the collar of my Klay Thompson jersey. “To the climber!”
The climber was one of those old wooden monsters with slides and tire swings and splinters. It sat in a patch of wood chips, chewing up space and daring kids to try playing on it without getting hurt. The slide closest to us was the butt-burner, a wide metal one that baked in the sun all day, just waiting to brand the backside of anyone dumb enough to try it while wearing shorts. When we arrived, Devin tested the butt-burner with his thumb, pressing it along the rail. It was January, but that didn’t mean much in L.A.; it was eighty degrees the day before.
Satisfied that it was worth the risk, Devin grabbed both railings, his sneakers squeaking as he shimmied up. I shrugged and climbed after him. My size elevens sounded like thunder as they beat against the metal. When we were at the top, tucked away in a sort-of-hidden corner of the tower, I asked again. “Now can you tell me what this is about?”
“You’re gonna record me as I do the Backflip of Doom.”
My jaw dropped.
“C’mon, Addi. If I can pull off the DBMBBD, it’ll be the perfect way to jump-start my plan!”
Just hanging there.
Kind of loose and wiggly.
“Addi, snap out of it. I need you to keep watch and let me know if Ms. Bazemore is coming.”
I scanned the playground. Ms. Bazemore, the recess duty teacher, was on her usual bench, hunched over a pile of papers. She looked to have a stack of about a hundred in her lap, and her red pen was flying across the pages. She didn’t glance up once, not even when a four-square ball rolled over and hit her in the shoe. She just kicked it away and kept grading.
The coast seemed clear enough. Still, I winced.
“If … if we’re caught, I’ll freeze.”
I wished I knew why everything seemed to shut down as soon as things got tense. It’s not like I wanted to feel trapped or anxious. If I could have pinpointed when it started, well, that might have helped, but I wasn’t even sure of that. The Great Goldfish Cracker Disaster of ’09? The First-Grade Garbageman Fiasco? Something broken from birth? I supposed it didn’t matter. What did was how I felt any time it happened.
It was as if my brain ripped in half.
Sometimes, I could actually hear it, like a piece of paper slowly being torn in two. One part of my brain kept talking, telling my voice to speak, my arms to move, my lungs to breathe. The other half just said, “Nope.”
Say something funny!
Say something kind!
The longer it went, the angrier the first half of my brain got, until it shut down, too. Then the whole thing was, well …
It happened any time I had to talk to people I didn’t know. Or when I was in front of crowds. Or if I had to explain myself to an adult. There were so many things that made me freeze that I couldn’t count them. Sometimes, even worrying about freezing would make me freeze.
And that worry? It was starting up now.
Devin poked me in the shoulder. “You do your job, and we won’t get caught. Besides, even if we do, think of it as an opportunity to practice. Your parents are always saying you need more … what is it?”
I shuddered. “Exposure.”
“Right! Exposure to stuff so you can get over it. Getting caught isn’t so bad.”
We’d have to agree to disagree on that one. A fresh bead of sweat had already trickled down my back, and it had nothing to do with the basketball game.
“And anyway,” Devin continued, “we can vouch for each other. As long as we get our stories straight, we’ll be fine. Remember how I talked us out of taking the blame for Gage’s last prank? When he switched the signs for the supply closet and the faculty bathroom?”
I almost smiled, but then Devin slipped his phone out of his pocket. He unlocked it, tapped his camera app, and started poking me in the chest with it.
“You’re not supposed to have that at school,” I whispered. “I’m not taking it.”
“Yes, you are.”
“And you’re not doing the Backflip of Doom.”
“Yes, I am.”
Devin swallowed, looking nervously at the edge of the climber. I couldn’t be sure what he said next, but I think it was something like, “To save my dad.”
I was about to ask what that meant, but then I looked, too.
The climber had two sets of monkey bars. One was for the little kids. It ran right alongside the higher set. I thought, like, maybe forty years ago, they were painted in bright colors, but now all that was left were little patches of red and yellow where kids’ hands and feet couldn’t reach so easily. The biggest of those patches sat on the side rail of the higher set of monkey bars. It looked like North America if you tried to wrap our continent around a Pepsi can. That patch was infamous at Bennet C. Riley, because that’s where you sat if you were going for it.
It was 1979, or so the story went. Maddie Prufrock, seventh-grade legend, was a gymnast. Eventually got a college scholarship for it and went to UCLA, or something. Anyway, Maddie climbed up there and sat in that exact spot. After licking the tip of her finger to test the wind, she closed her eyes, tucked her legs up to her chest, put her arms in the air, and fell backward. Without being able to see where she was going, she flipped upside down, dropped a few feet, and managed to grab on to two of the rungs of the lower monkey bars like she was doing a handstand on solid ground. She held that pose for a second, just because she could, both legs together and pointed skyward like the barrels of a shotgun raised in salute. Then she calmly completed the flip, bringing her legs over and down to shoot through the bars beneath her. Bang. Just like that, and she stuck the landing. The Double-Barreled Monkey Bar Backflip of Doom was born.
I had never even daydreamed about trying it. I was only twelve, but nearly six feet tall, and most of that was goofy arms and legs, good for grabbing rebounds above the other kids, terrible at fitting into tiny spaces. I looked back at Devin. At least he had a shot, what with how small he was. Of course, being smaller also meant he had that much farther to fall.
“Take your phone, Devin. If you’re gonna be stupid enough to try this, I have to be there to catch you.”
He pushed the phone back at me. “No way. It won’t count if you catch me. I’m pretty sure that’s where the ‘of Doom’ comes in. If there’s a big kid there to spot you, it isn’t nearly as doomful. It might not even be pitiful. Or fretful. Nobody talks about the Double-Barreled Monkey Bar Backflip of Fretting.”
“That’s because it doesn’t exist.”
Devin snapped his fingers and pointed at me. “Exactly!”
“And what if I just grab you and hold you down until the bell rings?”
“Then I punch you in the face.”
I wished I could say that was the end of the story—that I grabbed him, he walloped me good, and it was over with. That would have been so much easier than what actually happened. But how was I to know?
No, I took the phone again, like a good friend … like a moron … and hit record.
“You’re gonna tell me why we’re doing this afterward, right?” I asked as I focused in on the monkey bars.
“Probably from your hospital bed.”
Devin shivered once, kissed the cross around his neck for good luck, and started the climb.
Copyright © 2018 by Jake Burt