by Allison Long
We were at the playground off Decker Street, where I took Kinsley on days I couldn’t stand her. Days when Kinsley and her prefab house made me depressed. Well, more depressed. But all the April sun in the world couldn’t make me forget that I spent 40 hours a week with a three-year old who was not my kid.
I had all the makings of a mother. Wide hips that drew male attention far before I was ever ready for it. Lean but strong arms for carrying a toddler and one diaper bag, two water bottles, three baby dolls. A bachelor’s degree in psychology. Suburban women thought I knew kids. They mostly liked that I was 29. They cooed about it being great practice. “You know,” they said with a wink, “for your own someday.”
They didn’t know my own had arrived in my own toilet by surprise. Twice.
Kinsley was three but she was a misanthrope. She hated everyone who couldn’t breastfeed her, and liked to remind me of it. She’d bump my perfectly capable breastfeeding breasts and scream “Mommy milk, mommy milk!” until I squirted some Hershey’s syrup into a cup of 2% and plugged the sippy into her mouth. A Dollar Store solution. I guess that’s what I thought of the job when I took it, too.
Usually, the Decker park was empty, which was good for both of us. Kinsley liked other kids okay, but I hated moms. The moms in town had two modes: brag and complain, both of which I found intolerable. When we’d pulled into the gravel lot that morning, I sighed with relief at its emptiness. The playground was decrepit but functional––its woodchips were overgrown with weeds and rust ringed the hinges of the creaking swings, but Kinsley didn’t know the difference. I lifted her out of her car seat and let her run. We only ever went to Decker, though there was another park off of Hollow Hill Road just two streets over. It was brand new––and crowded.
I watched Kinsley go down the lone metal slide, the type that got boiling hot in the summer. As kids, my friends and I once cooked an egg on it. There was still a faint ring of brown where we’d cracked it and watched it simmer. I liked to think it was our mark. Kinsley slid down right over it, her wispy blonde hair standing on end with static, her nose turning pink and oozing green from the early spring breeze. When she scurried back to the top, she screamed, Ready! So I counted to three like a good babysitter, whooped as she went down, and wiped her nose. Counted, whooped, wiped. I figured ten more rounds would get us to lunchtime. But then I heard the rumble of gravel behind me, and two Suburbans rolled into the Decker lot, parked, and erupted with children and moms.
“Kinsley,” I hissed. “Come on, let’s––”
But the kids had already reached us and taken her hand, whisking her up to the highest platform of the playground, out of my reach and out of my earshot, if I wanted to seem respectable. I braced myself for conversation and contorted my face into a smile as the women approached. I noticed then that one of them, the blonde, was strapped with one of those baby björns that make grown adults look like kangaroos. As she neared, I could see the perfect roundness of the baby’s head, white and smooth as a pearl.
“Emma,” the blonde woman yelled at the gaggle of children. She wrapped her arms around her chest, as if shielding the infant from the harshness in her voice. “Be nice to your sister.” Emma ignored her.
“Did you come over from Hollow Hill too?” the brunette asked, as if we were continuing an old conversation.
“No,” I said. “We always come here.” The women raised their over-plucked eyebrows.
“What’s happening over there?
“Someone…defecated on the slide,” the blonde said, lowering enormous sunglasses.
“Oh,” I said. “Well, kids have accidents I guess.”
“No,” the brunette said. “It was adult-sized.”
I thought the urge to laugh was going to rip me in half. “Someone took a shit on the slide?”
The women stared at me as if I was the culprit.
“It must’ve happened overnight. It’s those old apartments down the street,” the brunette continued. “Eastbrook Gardens. They’re full of druggies. It’s not safe for the kids.”
I watched one of the girls, who I assumed was Emma, shove her little sister backwards down the slide. The toddler lurched and tumbled but landed on her bottom, then stood up and climbed back to the top for more torture.
“Your daughter is cute,” the blonde said, bouncing side to side as the baby cooed into her chest. “She has your curls.”
It was a curse. Though Kinsley’s was thin and fine, like puppy hair, we shared the same sort of blonde, untamed curls. I usually tucked mine under a baseball cap and let the other parents speculate about my relation to her. But I’d forgotten it that morning, presenting me with the perfect opportunity to enlighten these mothers about my part-time, paid, not-motherhood. I’d done it a million times––in Mommy and Me music classes, at the local library’s Story Time, at Little Picassos’ art studio. And they always said the same thing. Well, it’s good practice. A wink. Sometimes a sly smile, and once, a pointed nod to my midsection.
“Yes, she does,” I was saying before I could stop myself. “But she’s on track to have my husband’s pot belly.”
The women balked at me for a moment, then forced faux laughs.
“What does your husband do?” The brunette asked, taking a sip from an enormous thermos.
“He’s a carpenter,” I lied.
“Ugh! Imagine that. A man who’s good with his hands,” she sighed, turning to the blonde woman. “Can you imagine Marlon getting on a ladder? We have to call someone just to change the lightbulbs. Because, you know, vaulted ceilings.”
The blonde woman nodded her head as if she exactly knew. So I did too. Because I did exactly know, in a second-hand sort of way. That was the kind of house Kinsley lived in, too, which I cleaned while she napped in the afternoons. Then I thought of Sam, my boyfriend-not-husband, whose shift at Home Depot didn’t start until four. It was almost noon, so he was at the gym, cranking out push-ups in front of the mirror, making a strained face of concentration mixed with shock, the same one that he made during sex. He only ever did push-ups and crunches, but he apparently needed to go to the local gym to do them. Something about competition fueling the craze, he’d said.
I also thought of our ceiling, and its chronic leakage from the upstairs bathroom of our apartment in Eastbrook Gardens, where all the druggies live.
“Did you sign up for spring soccer yet?” the blonde woman asked both of us, but mainly the brunette.
“No,” she replied. “I’m letting Hunter pick between that and dance. I don’t want to pigeonhole him into something he’s not excited about.”
Hunter, the only boy in the group on the playground, was chasing Kinsley. He tripped on his shoelace, smacked his face into the greyed woodchips, then looked back at his feet in disbelief of their betrayal. Then he got up and ran after her again.
The sun slid out from behind a particularly grey cloud. I squinted into it, watching Kinsley scamper from platform to platform, her white puffer bobbing amongst the scraggle of other kids. I fell into a daydream, remembering the summer days I’d come here as a kid when it was the only park in town. I remembered our dangerous dares, how someone slipped off a high ladder and broke an arm. I remembered huddling under the shade of the slide, letting fruit popsicles drip down my arms. I remembered best getting up from the swing during the summer of my 11th birthday and hearing the shrieks of the other kids behind me. “Did you just pee blood?” a kid had asked. I twisted myself into a knot trying to get a good look at my backside. The seat of my blue shorts was purpled with blood. I ran beneath the slide and hid.
“We’re at the four-month sleep regression,” the blonde woman said. “She sleeps when she wants, not when I want.”
I’d zoned out. The mothers had continued the conversation without me.
“And then when she does sleep, I can’t sleep, because of, you know, all the things I should be doing,” the blonde slid her phone from the side-pocket of her leggings. The plumpness of the baby’s cheek smushed against her chest as it slept, head lolling like a doll’s.
This time it was Emma who caught my eye. As the blonde scrolled, Emma dangled from the monkey bars. Kinsley the misanthrope rightly informed her that she was being “silly.” She suddenly let go, landing face down in the woodchips. For a moment she was too still, but then she got to her feet and began climbing again.
The mothers were still talking. I didn’t bother to tell them. But it’d been too long since I’d spoken. “CBD,” I interjected suddenly, like it was something that I’d forgotten, and it had just popped into my mind. “You ever try the gummies to get them to sleep?”
The women blinked at me. “Oh,” the brunette said. “No. No I haven’t.” Then they went on talking about newborn sleep cycles as if I wasn’t there. It was a savvy style of exclusion, talking about something that they assumed I knew nothing about. Somehow they knew—Kinsley wasn’t mine.
“I haven’t tried them either,” I cut in. “The gummies. I mean, I’ve tried them, but I haven’t given them to––” I was starting to sound desperate. I could hear it in my own voice, which mean that the mothers had already heard it three sentences ago.
The women went quiet, looked to one another, then forced smiles at me. The blonde placed a hand on my shoulder. She had rings on every finger, and a small lotus tattoo blooming on her wrist. “We all have our things that take the edge off,” she said. Then she took a step to her left so that her back was toward me, cutting me out of our mom circle.
“Oh,” I said, stepping around her so that I was facing them, my back to the playground. It was a no-no, what I was doing. The first law of childcare: Thou Shall Not Take Your Eyes Off Of Them. But she wasn’t my kid, and I wasn’t her mother. I found it hard to apply the rules to myself without the title.
The women’s smiles had disintegrated into thin frowns. I didn’t know how they’d detected it, but they had. Their arms told me––folded, clutching the thermoses against their chests. Their bug-eye sunglasses hid their eyes, but I could feel them sliding over me, like big yellow yolks on a metal slide. They knew I wasn’t a mother, I was a babysitter, with all its one-night stand, teenaged connotations. And I was an old one. It was like being an old stripper. People thought, You shouldn’t be doing that anymore.
And then I heard it. We all did. The sound of responsibility: a skull splitting against metal, like a gong ringing from both inside your head and outside of it. Every kid was standing at the top of the slide except Kinsley, who was in a heap on the ground below. I could still hear the reverberations of her head catching the metal edge as the other mothers sprinted toward her. Their thermoses thumped against the ground where they’d stood, iced matcha spilling onto the woodchips. When they reached her, they whirled around, mouths gaping like fish, shocked that I hadn’t moved.
I could see the blood running down Kinsley’s cheek, bleeding into the white of her puffer coat. I could see the red gushing. Spreading. Staining.
“What are you doing?!” one of the mothers yelled. “Come here! Call 9-1-1!”
I couldn’t move. The women screamed to me, at me. Kinsley finally began to wail. I took a step forward, her cry unlatching something in my core. But then her cry got decipherable.
I stopped short. The women were still waiting for me to move. Even the other kids were waiting for me to move. The trees, the creaking swings, the egg-stain. The Suburbans, watching with their headlight eyes.
“I’m not her mommy!” I said. The women gaped. They cradled Kinsley, let her blood soak their sweaters and leggings. They shushed her and soothed her and pulled out their phones. They spoke calmly but hurriedly to the dispatcher, stripped off their half-zips, and wrapped them around Kinsley’s head until she looked like a fortune teller.
I tried to will myself to run to her. I tried to find the instinct. But I knew it had escaped me long ago.
About the Author
Allison Long is a New Jersey-based writer who is currently completing her MFA at Monmouth University. When she's not reading or writing, she's likely at the beach, out for a run, or snuggling with her very old Shih Tzu. She's currently working on her first novel.