A shuffle of rocks, “No one!”

“I heard that. You know jumping doesn’t count as off the ground.”

I look down at the two of them arguing. From my point on top of the slide, I can see everyone. The kid who’s “it” has his eyes closed, his body turned in the direction he thinks he heard the rocks. Of course, the cheater is long gone, having already climbed up and out of the way. That hasn’t stopped them from arguing though.

I watch all this from a most peculiar position, my body draped on the small overhang that covers the entrance of the slide. My left arm is jammed into the space between the railing, desperately trying to keep myself from careening into the pebbled ground below. Eventually, Andrew, the “it” kid, gives in and continues the game. He steps down on to the ground, and as he opens his eyes, he spots me. In that moment, we both realise something.

I’m stuck.

He charges up the stairs, and I scramble to find footing on the thin, slippery railings. His hand is a hair’s breadth away from my arm when, mercifully, a familiar girl’s voice calls his name.

“Andrew! It’s dinner time, come on.” Jennifer’s voice carries across the park in a way my child’s voice cannot yet do.

I study her. Her hair is frizzy and wild. Her teeth caged by bright green braces. Wire frame glasses perched on her nose. She doesn’t quite look as adult as my mom, and I wonder when she will. I wonder if I will.

I spent the rest of my eighth summer in a similar fashion. Every evening I went to play Grounders with the kids at the park. And every evening Jennifer would pick up Andrew. Each time I would study her, scrutinising her for any changes. And each time I didn’t find any, I would be relieved. Why though, I didn’t yet know.

Sometimes, at the park, we would try other games. But they never ended well. Some, like Marco Polo simply never ended. So it was always Grounders. Each time we would become more daring. Jumping gaps that weren’t meant to be jumped and climbing up railings meant to keep us in.  For a single hour every evening, we became just children. Free from the tendrils of responsibility that’d just begun to grow. Even then, I think some part of us felt it. The creeping of time. The slow, dawning realisation that we were growing up. But in that moment at least, we just had to close our eyes and count to ten for it to all go away.

When I turned eleven, the first kid left. There was no indication, no goodbyes. One day, he was there, and the next, he wasn’t. The worst was that no one knew his name. No one knew how to find him. We were never that close, us Grounders kids. But we still felt his loss acutely. We were always a cohesive, one-minded thing, nameless or not, and nobody was prepared to lose a limb.

It wasn’t long after that I began to bring my sister with me. She was still young then, too young to play Grounders. So instead, I’d walk her up the stairs, down the slide, over the climbing wall. All the while, we’d be dodging the laughing, nameless children as they scrambled around the railings. Then one day, my mother sent me and my sister off alone and told me to be home by 7.  So at 7pm sharp, I walked up to the park, and called my sister.

“ Lily! It’s dinner time, come on.”

My voice echoed through the yard, I hadn’t realised at the time how much it had changed. The game of Grounders paused as people glanced over to see who had shouted. And there I stood, with my bright pink braces caging my teeth, my still unbleached hair finally long enough to tie back. The Grounders kids and I looked at each other, and we realised then, that they’d lost me too.

In seventh grade, I went back to China to visit my family. Years and years I’d spent, staring at their disembodied faces in video calls. Then, all quite suddenly, I was being wrapped into my aunt’s arms, my hair tousled by my cousin. There stood my uncle with his dumb sign and messy mandarin I couldn’t read. There were my grandparents, and oh my god there were my grandparents.

When had they gotten so old?

As I stood in the vast, empty expanse of the Beijing airport, the thought struck a paralysing fear in me, and for the first time in my life, my twelve year old self experienced the acute pain of losing time. Why did they look so frail? How did they look so frail? My grandmother, who always fed me fresh, hot dumplings she spent all day making. My grandfather, who taught me flute over wechat video calls at midnight. I’d believed that they would always be there to do that. I would always have fresh dumplings from my grandmother. I’d never have to learn a piece by myself. Right?

Wrong, so very wrong. Losing time, I was constantly losing time. I would be constantly losing time for the rest of my life.

I returned from my trip only to find that half the Grounders kids had grown up and out. Andrew now only came to play basketball. Jennifer straightened her hair and wore contacts. She looked truly grown up.

Losing time.

“Smile for the picture.”

My sister and I scrambled into position. Since when had she reached my stomach?

Losing time.

“Hold the trophy higher!”

I smiled larger than I had in a very long time. This had been ten years of hard work. Ten years? That many?

Losing time. Always, endlessly, inevitably losing time.

I’m seventeen now. I don’t go to the park anymore. When I do, it’s just to pick up my sister. I haven’t seen the Grounders kids in years. We all live in the same neighbourhood, only a few hundred metres apart. But it’s a few hundred too far. In my mind, all the nameless children never grow up. And maybe that’s better. If I think hard enough, it will always be child- sized Andrew barreling up the stairs. That one girl will always wear pigtails that get caught in the ladders. In my mind, they are forever a single moment in time.

At some point, they replaced the pebbles with wood chips. But every once in a while, you’ll see some leftover, spilling out onto the field. In the trees where kids used it to make beds. Trapped in the gaps between railings. Remnants of a generation’s childhood. Now, as my sister begs for five more minutes, I once again climb up on that overhang. I barely fit anymore. The ground seems so much farther than before. I close my eyes, and I can almost hear our voices again. But I know that if I were to shout Grounders now, there would truly be no one.

Photo: Erik Mclean on Pexels.com