Playground Vigilante

Sarah Rodriguez

Featured Image: Photo by Robin McPherson from Pexels

Isabel was a primary witness to the incident at morning meeting, when Julie flew from her plastic yellow chair, landing on the floor tile with a slap. Ashton laughed, his palms still outstretched  after shoving her.

Isabel hurried to help her friend up. “Julie was there first!”

“She let me have it,” Ashton said, settling into his stolen seat and crossing his arms. A dare. They were in the back of the class, where the teacher could easily overlook any action.

“No, I didn’t!” Julie cried. “You pushed me.”

“Uh-uh. You tripped.”

“I saw you!” Isabel knew hitting was wrong, but her dad told her she should defend herself. If Ashton was ready to push kids early in the morning, Isabel could be next. So, she screwed her hand into a fist and raised it to knock him.

“Isabel Arriaga, what are you doing?” Miss Harris was usually too distracted, writing up the schedule, to see the daily squabble for seats. Isabel just happened to be unlucky that morning. Miss Harris snatched her arm and tugged her to the pastel carpet by the big, metal teacher’s desk. Julie followed behind with silent tears. “This is not a good way to start the day, ladies. Sit here. We’ll talk about this after morning meeting.”

Isabel dropped down, ready to give her statement. “Ashton pushed Julie! He needs to go to timeout.”

“After morning meeting, Isabel, please,” Miss Harris said. Her thin fingers massaged her temples, something she did whenever they argued. Isabel thought she should save that for Ashton instead, but kept her mouth shut. Maybe if she behaved, Miss Harris would listen to her for once.

Ashton sent the girls rude faces while Miss Harris announced the class schedule for the day. He managed to hide behind another student’s head or find a moment when the teacher was looking away. After dismissing the other kids to the cubbies, Miss Harris crouched down to speak to Ashton.

Isabel’s mom was a civil lawyer and she knew it was better to question a witness before a suspect. Miss Harris probably went to him first because he had the top score in spelling and math. Teachers always thought the smart kids knew best. He was extra nice to Miss Harris, too, like bringing her a big bouquet of flowers and candy before Christmas break.

Isabel could tell Ashton was acting around the teacher by his expression. He only looked that happy after knocking into someone or stealing their snack. Miss Harris laughed at something he said and sent him away with a pat on the head. She was still smiling when she sat down at her desk. Isabel clutched her Frozen backpack as she waited for the verdict. With any luck, Ashton would have to sit out for the end of the day craft, an easy sentence but better than nothing.

“I know exactly what’s going on here, Julie,” Miss Harris said. “Ashton was just teasing you because he likes you.”

“What?” Julie wiped her tears with a confused look.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Isabel said. “You don’t push people you wanna be friends with. It’s mean.”

“I’m talking about more than being friends.” Miss Harris winked. She always did that to cut her explanations short, as if her students were too young to understand her. Isabel wrinkled her nose. “It’s okay. You’ll see what I mean in a few years. Now, Ashton said he didn’t mean to push you off. I told him to be gentle with you girls. Why don’t we leave this behind us and start today’s lesson, okay?”

It sounded like a question, but she gestured them away with her palms. Isabel held Julie’s hand on the way to the cubbies. Ashton stuck his tongue out as they passed. She sent the expression back with double the force.

“Isabel! What do we say about ugly faces in the classroom?” Miss Harris already sounded tired. Isabel thought she could use a coffee. Her mom drank coffee to deal with bad guys all day. If Miss Harris needed some to handle first graders, Isabel wasn’t sure how she had lasted this long with their class.

The cubbies tucked the two friends away into a corner, away from Miss Harris and the curious eyes of their classmates.

“Are you okay?” Isabel asked, hanging her backpack. Julie nodded with a sniffle. Her forearms were still pink from where she’d collided with the floor. Isabel frowned.

“Hurry back to your desks, everyone,” Miss Harris called.

Isabel sighed and loaded her arms with her supplies. Julie shuffled through her Supergirl backpack in a daze. When her clients felt down, Isabel’s mom would call them and tell them everything would be fine. Isabel tried to do the same for her friend.

“It’s okay, Julie,” she said. “I’ll make him pay for this.”

She learned that last line from watching TV with her dad. They spent most of the summer at home while Mom worked. Dad said Isabel needed to toughen up for first grade, and introduced her to Don Corleone. He would cover her eyes for some scenes, but that was just to keep her mom happy. His fingers spread enough that she could watch if she wanted.

Isabel had playdates watching movies with one of Dad’s colleagues and his daughter, Bethany. Their dads taught film at the big college downtown, so Isabel figured their choices were the best. She and Bethany would sit on the couch, passing popcorn and candy to each other . When she found out Bethany would be in her class, Isabel was excited that at least one other person at school would understand Mafia mentality.

Mom missed a lot of movie days because of her schedule. Some nights, Isabel pretended to sleep, and snuck behind the kitchen counters to listen to her practice questioning witnesses or explaining evidence. She tried to remember everything when she held court with her dolls. Her favorite play was sending sneaky landlords like Fluffy the Bear to jail in her closet and celebrating with her Lego clients.

She liked to ask her mom questions about court, like why the Mafia didn’t just sue each other instead of starting a war. They were watching Lady and the Tramp when she asked that, Isabel sitting on the floor and her parents lounging on the couch. Her mom startled at her question.

“They’d be put in jail themselves. They do illegal things all the time, which is why I don’t think you should be watching those movies at all,” she said, with an elbow to Dad’s side. He laughed her off.

“I know they’re wrong,” Isabel rolled her eyes, “Killing is bad, but Dad says the movies aren’t real, anyway. But I think they should’ve taken Sollozzo to court after he tried to kill Don Corleone. That would’ve been safer, right?”

Mom told her she’d think about it. Her parents liked to be honest with her, though they said there were some things she wasn’t ready to learn yet. Isabel figured the answer to her question was one of those things. After the movie, Mom was slow tucking her in.

“The court isn’t always fair,” she said, speaking slowly, the way Isabel did while she tried to spell. Isabel kept her eyes wide open against her heavy eyelids. “Those movies are fiction, but some people don’t trust the law in real life either. They don’t take their grievances to court because they know the law can work against them.”

“But isn’t it supposed to keep everyone safe?”

Her mom nodded. “It is. There are some laws that let bad people get away with a lot of things, though. Some of my clients end up getting hurt more at the end of a trial.”

“That’s not good.”

“It’s not. That’s why—it’s important that you follow the rules, Isabel, but sometimes those rules don’t apply equally to everyone.”

“What do you do then?”

Mom started to run her fingers through Isabel’s hair, lulling her to sleep. Isabel tried her best to stay awake for the answer. “Then you go to the person who made the rules. If they don’t change them, you have to find a way to make a change yourself.”

Mom might have assumed she would forget the conversation after she fell asleep, but she didn’t. She thought about that night a lot at school. Miss Harris went over the rules every day the first week of class. She also taught the kids about Consequences. She said they were old enough to start to understand responsibility, which meant they had to do their homework and follow the rules. If they didn’t, they were given Consequences like sitting out at recess or having less free time.

When Miss Harris first explained Consequences, Isabel thought they would be for the bigger rules, like pushing or calling classmates names. Instead, she’d been sent to the pin, an isolated table next to Miss Harris’ desk, for forgetting to raise her hand or using her outside voice during free time. That last one wasn’t usually her fault. Sometimes the games she played were so fun she had to yell.

Everyone misbehaved a little. Allison, the only other girl in class, liked showing off flips she learned in gymnastics while still indoors. The boys broke rules all the time, holding wrestling tournaments during free time or ignoring Miss Harris’ call at the end of recess. Isabel didn’t think their class was too bad, but she had heard some of the older teachers complaining about the rowdy bunch in Miss Couldn’t-Find-A-Husband-So-She-Became-A-Teacher Harris’ class. Ashton was the worst and he was always let off. The other boys got Consequences every now and then, just not as much as Isabel and the girls.

Isabel was antsy during lessons that morning, trying to silently send the other girls her thoughts by widening her eyes every time they made eye contact. Bethany looked at her like she was crazy and motioned her to stop by swiping her hand across her neck.

She convened with her war council at lunch.

At Meet the Teacher, Miss Harris said she didn’t mind a classroom full of boys because she wanted a son someday. That worried Isabel’s mom for some reason, and she told Isabel to make sure she stuck close with the other girls. She bought their favor by giving them two bags of fruit snacks each.

They were a Mafia in their own way. Instead of dealing with “shipments,” like in the movies, the contents of which Dad never revealed to her, the girls shared their school supplies and snacks and organized plays during recess. As the Boss, Isabel could call war councils whenever they needed to make big choices. Their last meeting was before Valentine’s Day, when they’d coordinated which cards to give to who.

The loud chatter of the cafeteria covered their conversation from the teachers nearby, who were busy whispering about some school board. Isabel waited for her friends to eat a little before taking a drink of her grape juice to signal the start of the meeting. That was what bosses always did in movies. She wished she had a fancy glass instead of a juice box, though.

“We have to do something about Ashton,” Isabel said. “Everyone saw what happened at morning meeting, right?”

Allison raised her hand meekly. “I got here late, but Liam told me about it.”

“I saw you about to punch him,” Bethany said, pulling the plastic off her sandwich. She didn’t like gangster movies as much as Isabel, but when Isabel named her Consigliere, Bethany took the job seriously. She steered Isabel away from her more eccentric plans. Isabel was still annoyed Bethany that didn’t let her keep worms from the back field as class pets.

“I thought he was gonna push me next!” Isabel pouted. Bethany shook her head and turned to Julie.

“Are you sure he meant to push you?”

Julie gulped down her chocolate milk before speaking. “He said he liked my seat better than the one he had. I told him I got there first and then he pushed me.” Her nose twitched like she wanted to cry again.

Isabel patted her back. “He messes with all of us.”

“You told Miss Harris, right? If she didn’t get him in trouble, that’s it. She’s the teacher,” Allison said.

“That doesn’t mean she’s right,” Isabel said. “She doesn’t give the boys Consequences.”

“Sammy had to sit out for recess yesterday,” Bethany reminded her. “He was running in the hall like you always do.”

Allison hummed, turning an apple in her hands thoughtfully. “Wasn’t that his first time getting in trouble like that? I sat out two times last week.”

“Exactly!” Isabel slapped the table. The sound earned them a quick glance from one of the teachers patrolling the cafeteria. They ducked their heads and ate quietly until he drifted past.

“Exactly,” she repeated in more of an inside voice. “It’s not right. And Ashton does way worse than any of us, but Miss Harris hasn’t even made him do sentences.”

“That’s true. You had to take extra homework before, and you never break the rules,” Allison said to Bethany, who seemed to be eating to avoid the conversation.

“I only yelled that time because Isabel was tickling me!” Bethany said through a big bite of her sandwich.

“Ashton hits people, Bethany. Even the boys, and he nevergets in trouble. So, we need to—.”

“We need to tell another teacher,” Bethany snapped a carrot between her teeth, “That’s the only thing we can do.”

“Not the only thing,” Isabel muttered. Bethany stayed quiet to avoid asking the question she was looking for.

“What else is there?” Julie asked, leaning forward with interest. Her eyes were still puffy from crying that morning.

Remembering how hard Julie fell made Isabel’s cheeks warm up. “We send him sleeping with the fishes.”

“I don’t think you know what that means,” Bethany sighed.

Allison and Julie ignored her, watching Isabel expectantly. She puffed her chest out with a big smile, like a Boss should. Like she had all the answers, even if she wasn’t sure how right they were.

“My mom says you gotta change the rules yourself sometimes. I think that means we can teach other people the rules, too. We just have to teach Ashton in a way he understands.”

“You wanna push him back?” Allison looked unsure.

“That’s as bad as when he messes with us,” Bethany said.

Isabel knew that. Her stomach had felt nervous when she developed this plan earlier. Then, she remembered this statue she saw once. School was closed and Dad was out of town for a film festival, so Isabel spent the day at Mom’s office. The statue was a metal lady in a long dress. Isabel liked the sword she held, though she wondered how she could fight with a blindfold on. The object in her other hand caught her eye. The lady held it up like an old timey lantern, the two hanging bits at the same height. Mom explained the lady was like a guardian angel. She made sure everything in court stayed fair.

Isabel thought there should be a statue of the lady at school. Ashton’s attacks weren’t fair, and neither was the way Miss Harris gave out Consequences. She could talk to another teacher like Bethany suggested, but Miss Harris was the adult. Isabel was sure the other teachers would trust her over four little girls. And then Ashton would never stop. That only left one option: to organize a hit.

“Miss Harris isn’t gonna do anything. It’s up to us to fix it, or he’ll just hurt one of us again.” Isabel waited for Bethany to bring up another reason not to act, but she stared down at her plate, thinking. Lunch was almost over. She needed her friends to agree with her plan before they left.

“Like fighting fire with fire,” Allison supplied. “I heard them talking about that at church one time.”

Isabel wasn’t sure what that meant but it sounded cool. “Yeah, sure!”

Bethany readjusted herself in her seat and started to carefully gather her trash and leftovers. Isabel could tell she was at least interested in the plan, because she didn’t look at her when she asked, “What do you want us to do?”

“First we gotta agree not to snitch. We don’t talk until our lawyers show up,” Isabel said. Julie’s eyebrows shot up.

“Duh. That’s basic,” Bethany said. Isabel laughed. Her Consigliere was finally back on her side.

“Are we really gonna need lawyers?” Julie whispered to Allison, who shrugged and zipped her lunch bag closed.

“Okay.” Isabel dug into her pants pocket for the map of the school’s back field she’d drawn during free read instead of picking up her book. “I need all of you to run real, real fast.”

Isabel strolled over the hot plastic of the playground and kept watch on the group of teachers huddled on the shaded benches. When they  were released to the field, she overheard Miss Harris mention pay cuts and taking care of her parents in a wobbly voice. The older teachers sat around her, mumbling comforting words. Isabel wondered if Miss Harris knew what they called her behind her back. She wasn’t happy with her teacher, but there was something strange about seeing Miss Harris sad. Maybe her life wasn’t fair either.

There was still a plan to see through, though. So, Isabel ran past the benches to assume her position.

A large, metal jungle gym loomed in a near corner of the field. The teachers said it was archaic and most didn’t let their students anywhere near it. This was where Ashton liked to play. He swung and climbed around the metal  bars and yelled at anyone who tried to get close. Kids knew not to walk under the monkey bars that jutted out from one side. Ashton liked to kick at their heads when they did. He was tall for a first grader. Isabel suspected he might have been held back, but she never mentioned it. She wasn’t afraid of upsetting him or anything, she just was trying to not get hit.

She pushed past some of her classmates, shielding her eyes from the sun to keep track of Ashton. Her friends had scattered around the field to hide and wait for her signal. Isabel crept closer to the slide. The exit was near enough to the strip of grass between the playground and the jungle gym that she could slide down and make a run for the metal structure. She waited for one last piece to fall into place.

Dad might have been able to come up with a better plan. Isabel was tempted to wait until the end of the day to ask his opinion, then she remembered how hard Julie fell and how Miss Harris didn’t care. She’d been upset before, when she was tired or hungry. Today was different. Seeing Ashton get away with being a bad kid over and over made Isabel’s chest tighten and her head hurt. She wished Miss Harris hadn’t stopped her from punching him that morning. But now she was finally going to pay him back for every time he kicked her or her classmates, pulled at their hair, stole their pens, threw paper at them, spilled their drinks.

Miss Harris wiped her cheeks and stood up from the bench. Her usual announcement floated over to the playground, “I need to go to the ladies’ room. Can you watch my class?”

Isabel didn’t wait for the other teachers’ response. She launched herself down the slide and twirled her index finger high in the air. The signal.

Her friends moved quickly and quietly. Ashton hung from one of the monkey bars that stuck out the side , his back to her as she darted through the grass. Julie arrived first, right when Isabel began her climb up the other side, where Ashton couldn’t see her. She was squeezing between hot bars halfway to her target, the platform above the monkey bars, as Allison ran up. Allison and Julie circled Ashton’s feet, weaving and ducking out of his shoes’ reach. Bethany was last, completing the girls’ tightening circle, a barrier of glitter and sequins and tulle.

Isabel was panting as she tugged herself at level with the monkey bars. She’d taken her shoes and socks off to quicken the climb. Her feet and palms stung from the hot touch of the sunburnt metal. She had a short thought about falling and breaking a bone. Then Ashton landed a kick on Allison’s head with a cackle. Isabel’s mind cleared; her ears popped. Shoes in hand, she gripped the bars on either side of the platform and bear-crawled forward. Ashton was swinging wildly now, giggling at how close he was to hitting another girl.

Isabel ran through all her knowledge of mob movies for the perfect line as she reached the spot right above her target. Her vision slowed when Ashton’s head tilted up. Their eyes locked. Both of their gazes went to his pink, straining hands holding[5]  the bar. His mouth stretched into a surprised, angry “O.”

“The girls send their regards,” Isabel said.

Like she was smashing a bug, Isabel raised one of her shoes and slammed the heel down onto his knuckles.

It wasn’t far to drop, but he took it with a long screech. Isabel heard the confused, concerned calls of teachers who looked up from their phones and tried to decide whether the commotion was worth standing. Some of the kids on the playground had been watching since the ambush started. They now leaned over the railing, cheering. Ashton rolled over on the mulch below, looking more angry than hurt.

Julie and the others waited for her under the monkey bars, eyes down and watching Ashton, who started to whine as soon as the teachers showed up. Isabel crawled the rest of the way and took the ladder down. Her arm was caught for the second time that day by a bony hand just before her feet reached the ground. Miss Harris was silent at first, frantic eyes jumping from Isabel to her friends to the shoes in her hands to Ashton and the crowd of teachers and students.

“Come with me!” Her voice was a higher pitch than Isabel had ever heard it. “I’m calling your parents!”

Isabel shook her head when her friends started to follow. She needed to face her Consequence alone, like a proper Boss. She kept her head high over the jumble of different voices as she was dragged back into the school barefoot.

Isabel told everyone who asked her exactly why she decided to smash Ashton’s fingers. Dad looked serious when she was suspended for a week. He was quiet even after they left Miss Harris to have a conversation with the principal about the way she ran her classroom. At the car, he paused while buckling her up, his face still flat.

“Your mom isn’t going to be happy about this,” he said. Isabel gulped and nodded solemnly. Her mind filled with images of her toys being packed away or, worse, no TV time. Then Dad slapped the side of the car with a grin. “She’ll get over it.”

Isabel froze. He closed her door and slipped into the driver’s seat. “She will?” she asked.

“Sure, once I remind her that children of lawyers are more likely to get into law themselves,” he glanced back at her and laughed, “Although you took it in a totally different direction, didn’t you?”

“I guess.” She didn’t think the hit had anything to do with being a lawyer, but if Dad said so, maybe it was true.

“Don’t worry about it. A week isn’t very long. It’ll be worth it, anyway. That Ashton kid sounds like a real asshole,” he grinned. “Let’s go get some ice cream. I want to introduce you to Indiana Jones next.”

Sarah Rodriguez is a recent graduate of the University of Houston, where she earned a BA in English, Creative Writing. She writes short fiction with a focus on queer and Latinx narratives and volunteers for Consequence Magazine as Assistant Fiction Editor. When not writing, Sarah is working retail and listening to BTS. She lives in Houston with her family. “Playground Vigilante” is her first publication.