Playground at the end of the world

Lily pads rose from the placid water holes that punctuated the playground. Rusted iron fences flaking with light blue paint surrounded them. To the east, an artificial lake of deep maroon seemed to be shrinking in the sun. The concrete walls ran down to the silt beaches below, as the water’s edge seemed to retreat further and further each passing day, revealing dark sediment, weathered bottles, crumbled bricks, and the occasional carcass.

The lake exuded abundant smells of burning rubber and phosphorous. After the thunderstorms –and the wail of the curfew siren- the lake gave off a bitter metallic smell that irritated the nostrils and burned the eyes.

On the edge of the lake, partially banked by the retreating water, a rusting red boat sat, emblazoned with thick plastic letters in yellow that read “COFFEEHOUSE ON THE LAKE”. Once in a while, the boys would drop down the concrete sides of the lake and –using a wooden board as a ramp- climb up onto the boat, careful to avoid the rusted-out holes in the deck.

On the western side of the lake sat a large waterpark, dominating the skyline with crumbling stone walls, a large Ferris wheel that creaked and rocked in the wind, and an array of dry twisting tubes that had once been water slides. An archway above the boarded-up wooden gate at the entrance read “The Brazen Bull Water Park”. It was here they used to play hide-and-seek amongst the dry waterslides and upon the Ferris wheel itself.

The Phalari had decorated the interior of the waterpark with monuments to the lost; bizarrely shaped stones that seemed almost Non-Euclidean in shape, with small brass urns beneath them. János had ventured so far as to touch one of these stones once, before scurrying away like a mouse that had put their nose too close to a candle flame.

Beneath the Ferris wheel stood a large metal bull with open nostrils; what remained of the paint had begun to flake away to the iron beneath, and soot surrounded the belly of the beast. A ladder had once existed, leading up inside the bull.

The boy looked up at the metal bull, remembering Perillos as he’d ascended the ladder on an autumn evening, looking for a hiding place. The Phalari had sealed him inside and broke away the ladder. After that, they’d poured buckets of live rats in through the nostrils and built a pyre underneath the belly of the bull before lighting it up; a smouldering tower of dry wood.

The Phalari had stood in a circle around the metal bull, dressed in dark robes, stoking the embers as the flames rose in their intensity, heating the metal to a deep orange. Deep exudations of pain echoed from the nostrils of the bull, as though it bellowed with Perillos’ anguished screams, and the squeaking of roasting rats. The boys took cover behind the gate, but they couldn’t stop watching. Afterwards, the Phalari had taken his bones and polished them up so they shone like pearls, bound them together and strung them around the neck of the metal bull like jewellery. They’d stopped playing in the waterpark after that.

János was the second to go. After they stopped playing in the waterpark, he’d fallen into one of the water holes. Underneath the lily pads, the smothering algae had swarmed him, covering his skin from head to toe in dark green, and dragging him down to the bottom of the water. Sometimes –when the thunder claps through the sky and the algae retreats to the corners of the water hole- you can see his bloodless, bloated body drifting across the bottom, his neck twisted up as though looking up at the lily pads above.

In the shadow of the great creaking Ferris wheel, beside the shrinking lake, in the spot where the grass grew thick and wild, between two watering holes, sat the playground at the end of the world. The boys –there were only two of them now- came here before the droning wail of the curfew siren and the rolling smog.

The slides were riddled with puncture holes which had begun to rust and warp in the heat of the sun. Swings creaked in the whistling wind, their rubbery seats mostly melted or broken, hanging on rusted chains that groaned in protest when they were used. Beside the swings sat an uneven see-saw; this too groaned whenever it was used. At some point, the bolt holding it all together would snap under the pressure of use, and the see-saw would collapse.

A wooden sandbox had once existed, though the sand had long since been blackened with soot and sludge. Besides the remains of the sandbox, there sat a merry-go-round. Strangely, the merry-go-round stood out above everything else. It seemed almost anomalous, in that it still bore thick red paint which had not begun to peel away. When the merry go-round spun, it seemed let out a joyful whistle which changed in pitch and volume with the speed of rotation.

The boys walked forwards, climbing onto the merry-go-round at opposite sides in order to optimise weight distribution. A metallic smoke scent hung on the wind. The boys put one foot down, and began to spin the merry-go-round, listening to the whistle as it rose in pitch. Their heads lolled back as the centrifugal forced them to grip the handles tighter and pull themselves in closer, feeling the rush of the G-force as it spun their stomachs and pushed laughter from their lungs. The whistling rose into a squeal, which quickly collapsed into a droning wail.

At once, the boys were flung from the merry-go-round, unable to hold on any longer. The droning wail continued, screeching through their dizziness, as they rolled about on the floor. As their vision began to steady, the crack of thunder roared across the sky, and the rolling smog could be seen advancing, illuminated by forks of purple lightning.

The droning wail of the curfew siren continued to ring out, as robed figures emerged from the waterpark. Dizziness and nausea forced the boys to their hands and knees. A hot stream of reddish vomit erupted from the mouth of one of the boys, closely followed by the other. Pain gripped their stomachs like hot ash, and a deep, paralyzing ache spread through their limbs, forcing them to hold their rigid positions.

The rolling smog swept over the playground like a shroud, until nothing more could be seen.

(c) JC Axe 2019.

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