Three Adventures of Simon Says, the Elder
By Daniel Ausema
Illustration by John Welsh
When the first balloon fell, Simon was climbing a piece of asphalt that jutted up from the ground. He scrambled over and dropped into the lee of the jumbled ruin as the balloons fell harder. Some splashed acid as they popped, some turned into a rain of razor-sharp jacks, but most floated down intact. One last look and he still couldn’t see a way across to his home before the rain of balloons came too thick for visibility. Simon Says the Elder hunkered down in the shelter of the broken asphalt and waited for the nightly rain of balloons to end.
Simon Says, to most people these days, is the name of that great early philosopher who first began the tentative theories to explain the world, After Playground. Every school child knows of his meditations on the catastrophe and on the world that gave birth to our own. That, however, is Simon Says the Younger. The philosopher’s uncle was a less contemplative man, and at the moment all he thought of was shelter and just how far away from home he was, how little he’d earned in barter on this dangerous trip. So little of the lands of the Playground were understood in those days, and as his bartered goods failed to earn him enough, he’d found himself far beyond his usual routes.
The balloons rolled down the slopes past his shelter. Their fall let up while some sunlight remained, and Simon Says the Elder made his way through the streams of balloons rolling along the ground. The clear air revealed the tarnished metal of an immense structure just beyond the broken asphalt. The Slide. He’d never intended to come this far, but he’d heard of it, knew something of the people who lived nearby.
The slope of metal cut through the balloons. Jagged edges popped those that struck them while rolling down from the Slide’s top. Simon Says waded through a depression filled with the damp carcasses of old balloons — and perhaps other carcasses as well. Simon didn’t look closely. At the Slide bottom, he rapped on the edge of the lip. A young boy stuck his head out.
“What do you want?” The boy had the wild hair typical of clans on this edge of the Playground, as if here the parents didn’t concern themselves with their children’s grooming.
Simon leaned forward so his eyes met the boy’s and gestured at the bag on his back. “Is this the Tag clan?”
The boy nodded. “Down here it is.” He gestured for Simon to follow. “You’re a trader? You’ll have to meet with our leader before you bring out your goods.”
Simon followed, glancing up at the heights of the Slide against the darkening sky and wondering, before it disappeared from sight, what other clans lived up there in the colossal metal structure.
Soon he was seated before a middle-aged woman with a ceremonial sash across her chest. A threadbare ceiling hid the metal overhead, dampening the sounds from outside.
“I don’t see much here that we’d need.” The woman, who called herself Spider in the Web, dismissed the contents of Simon’s pack.
“Tell me what you do need, then. Next time I come around, I can bring it.” If he ever bothered coming so far again, which seemed unlikely.
Spider in the Web stroked her cheek with the back of one finger. “There isn’t much we need you to bring. But we do need someone to get rid of something for us. An exterminator. We’ll pay you well.” She poured a handful of marbles from one hand to the other.
Simon Says wasn’t sure he wanted to know what would be burrowing under the Slide, but he’d done much he wouldn’t have expected on this trip and was prepared to do anything to get himself home.
“I can help you there.” He gathered up the items in his pack to give his hands something to do. “For payment… jacks and marbles get pretty heavy for someone like me. Story is, though, your clan has a map.” If he could see the map, he might at least figure out how to get out of this pea-gravel swamp, get home with what little he’d managed to earn.
Spider in the Web let his statement linger for a moment before giving a brief nod. “A map of the Playground-that-was, yes.”
“A precious relic, that. I’d like to see it, have a chance to copy what I can onto my own paper.”
Early the next morning, having slept in the common room with the Tag clan, he was deep into their burrowed cellars, crouched beneath the bare metal of the Slide’s lip. He held a small metal box in one hand with half a dozen more over his back. They should be easy to catch, Spider in the Web had told him. The Tag clan had done so many times, but hadn’t been able to rid themselves of the pests. Simon tapped on the Slide and saw a scuttle of movement. He snatched at it and felt the segmented leg pulling away from his fingers. Quietly clicking his tongue, Simon examined the dark corners of the cellar.
He squeezed himself to the side, brought the cage forward, then tapped the Slide again. A robot scuttled from the shadows, and he scooped it into the cage. The robots were an ancient pest, dating from the pre-cataclysmic Playground, and this one showed that age. Its shell, or whatever the word was, was dented. Probably from the Tags trying to destroy it last time they caught the thing. Simon carefully latched the cover and took out another cage.
The sun was not yet halfway to noon when Simon Says emerged with rattling traps full. He stopped at the edge of the cellar and poked inside one of the traps. He’d learned a few things about these old robots, after spending time with the Ring Rosie clan. To the right people, they were far more than pests to be disposed of. He might make a nice profit on this trip after all.
First he needed to find his way home.
Spider in the Web, it seemed, had second thoughts about their deal. She met him with a muscular member of the Tag clan at her back, as if afraid he might turn on their matriarch.
“Those are nice robots. Bet you can sell them for a good price someplace.”
“Maybe.” He kept his voice noncommittal.
“Then take them as your payment. No need to bother getting out our old map.”
“Robots won’t do me much good if I can’t find my way from here.”
“Is that all you want?” Spider in the Web laughed. “I can send someone to guide you, at least far enough that you’ll know where to go.”
Then why so concerned about the map? he wondered, but instead he said, “I would certainly be grateful, and yet we made a deal. I follow a strict code when it comes to dealings, and I have your pests to prove my end.” He rattled the cages that hung from his shoulder.
“Be careful with those,” she said, gesturing with her lips. “They always seem to find a way out eventually.” She turned to whisper something to the man behind her. It went on so long that Simon grew increasingly aware of how awkward the traps felt. Might the robots work their way out now, cut through metal — and if so, through cloth and skin as well?
Spider in the Web gave him a slow smile, as if the discomfort was intended, and said, “This is It.” She gestured at the man. “He’ll show you the map and how to get on your way.”
It frowned by way of greeting and walked away. Simon scrambled after. They climbed through the Tag clan’s chambers, keeping close to the roof of metal. The steps from one room to the next were haphazard, at times only two or three and other times a complete flight. Rooms branched off just as unpredictably. These rooms ranged from rickety things that seemed on the verge of falling, to ponderous rooms of great age, as if the mysterious Slide above had been added after the structures that hung from it.
It led Simon Says up a narrow stairway onto the Slide itself. “This is high enough,” It said, and pointed at the land around them.
The broken asphalt Simon had come through was off to the right and back. He panned across the broken Playground for any sight of his home. The twisting line of pea gravel that had repeatedly halted his progress surrounded much of the Slide. The pyramid that made one side of the Swings was visible far to the left, the other side lost in mists. Cement tunnels dotted the landscape, home to coyotes and feral humans. The rust-frozen Merry-Go-Round dominated the view straight ahead, across a stretch of pea gravel. No sight of his Jungle Gym home, but at least what was visible gave him some bearings. Most vitally, he could see where a gap in the pea gravel would allow him through and away from here.
“Thank you,” Simon Says said to It, looking away from the distant views. “Now, this ancient map…”
“Right. The map’s here.” Without warning, It swung his fist into Simon’s side. Simon doubled up, but not before It landed two more painful jabs. Simon fell to the landing, which tilted in his vision, threatened to spill him down the steep Slide.
“I wish you hadn’t squirmed so much. That messes up the pattern.” It’s voice could have been that of a friend, gently regretting a minor bad habit. “If I still landed them right, the bruises should form a fair map. If not… well, you’ll just have to hope it’s close enough that it doesn’t lead you into a mud hole.”
It climbed down the stairs and paused at the bottom. “I’m sure you’ll understand,” he said, his voice now with a more mocking undertone, “when I say that the door back inside is shut. Wouldn’t want you snooping around for treasure. But don’t worry, the easy way down is obvious.”
Simon Says the Elder crawled to the edge and looked down. Debris had formed into jams here and there along the chute, but still the prospect wasn’t encouraging. Should’ve taken the directions and been on my way, he told himself silently. Curiosity isn’t rewarded in the Playground. He scrambled around for the traps — all still intact. At least that was something, a small sigh of relief. He picked out a pile of debris on the opposite side of the Slide, colored by many old, broken balloons, and began his descent. The nightly balloon shower began just as he reached the bottom edge.
We’ll leave Simon there, huddled out of the balloons but still far too close to the Tag clan for his liking. And if the balloons don’t pop in the coyote’s ears and scare him into howling, waking up the napping children, then I’ll tell you next how Simon Says met the greatest of all guides to the wilds of the Playground, Mother May I.
Simon Says’s side still ached the next morning. Once the balloons had stopped, he’d made some progress away from the Slide and camped beside a pea gravel pool. Now he held his side as he walked along the route he’d seen from up high, skirting the western edge of the pool where a path led through a break in the pea gravel.
A smell of rot rose from the small stones. Perhaps the putrefying bodies of people who had decided to cross directly now hid beneath their deceptive surface. Simon hurried toward the distant Monkey Bars, their heights hidden by factory smoke.
He’d scarcely left the pea gravel behind, moving into a region of broken chain-link fences and tall grass, when he heard frantic voices. Still hidden by grass in case the noise turned out to involve anyone from the Tag clan, Simon looked out at a scene of confused running and pointing. He couldn’t make out exactly how many people there were because of their constant movement, but the scene had its focal point on a knot of them, leaning over one spot on the ground, pointing and gesturing and shouting at each other.
These were certainly not Tags. Simon had a code of how to approach strangers. Some he avoided completely, some he greeted openly as he passed by, and some he stopped so they could share what news and knowledge they had. These people fell into a fourth category, those who needed help. And who might return the favor in the future. He pushed his way out to meet them.
“Quiet down,” he shouted. “You want to attract a terror bird?”
That quieted those who heard him, and they hushed the rest, looking over the grass for any hint of the giant stalking birds.
“What’s the chaos? You lose something?”
A young-looking man nodded. “Medicine.” His voice was ragged from shouting. “We’ve been to see Doctor Doctor, and she gave us the medicine.” He pointed downwards.
Simon came closer and saw that a large piece of chain-link lay across the ground. A wiry plant of some sort grew in the gaps and anchored the metal. He gave it a tug, but it might as well have been welded to the ground. Looking where the man pointed, he found the packet of medicine, fallen through the chain links and into a depression in the ground, too deep to reach.
“You’ve tried cutting in?” Simon asked, tugging again at the links.
“With what we have. We were just debating sending half our clan on, to come back with cutters from home.” The young man pointed through the factory smoke. “A day each way, if we’re lucky.”
“And coyotes and terror birds for those who stay behind, I imagine. Maybe I can help.” Simon tapped his chin and studied the fence.
“The medicine, it’s for…”
“No,” Simon interrupted. “Pity will win you nothing. It has no place on the Playground.” He got down on his hands and knees and examined the metal.
“We’re the Keepaways,” the man said. “Just, well, thought you should know our names. If you’re going to help us.” He crouched beside Simon. “Which… you are helping us, right?”
“If I can. Now keep quiet a moment.” He might have decided to help them, but that didn’t mean he had to be patient with their foolishness.
The Keepaways held their tongues, and Simon Says pulled out one of his traps with the robot inside. His time with the Ring Rosies had taught him a bit about controlling these robots. Not much, not enough to let them free and trust they’d do what he wanted. But he should be able to get one robot to do a simple task and scoop it up before it did anything unexpected.
Simon flipped a robot onto its back. The ancients must have had better eyes and finer tools to program the robots as they did. But already some generations prior to Simon’s, enterprising clans like the Ring Rosies had discovered ways to force a limited set of instructions with nothing more than a screwdriver. Simon applied that knowledge to the robot, twisting and tapping things he couldn’t quite see, things whose existence he could only accept on faith. He set it upright and let go.
At first, the robot did nothing. Then it turned in circles, and Simon feared he might have lamed the thing. But it recovered, and crawled to the chain link fence near the medicine.
A shrill whine sounded, and sparks jumped from beneath the robot. After a moment it stopped, and the robot moved to another metal link.
“Don’t touch it!” Simon said, as one of the Keepaways reached toward the severed metal. “It’s still very hot.” The woman jumped back and waited in a line with the rest of her clan.
The robot kept at its cutting. He watched closely to make sure it didn’t veer away from him. After a dozen cuts, he snatched the robot up, careful to avoid its spinning blade. Then, using the screwdriver, he stilled it and stuffed it back into the cage.
“Now,” he said, nodding to the line of Keepaways. “You can pull the fence back carefully and get the medicine.”
“Thank you, thank you so much,” their spokesman said a moment later, bobbing his head toward Simon as if only a crumbling sense of decorum kept him from bowing outright. “What can we, I mean how shall we repay you?”
“No need now,” said Simon. “Remember my name and greet it kindly when I visit your clan in trade.” Then Simon Says took his leave, continuing on his way through the ruins of the wild, aiming for the distant, towering Teeter-Totter.
It’s been said that this promise and others like it from these travels did much in later years to advance his nephew, Simon Says the Younger, in the early days of his quest for understanding. Whether or not he ever saw the fabled map of the Tag clan, he certainly was shown other maps and told many things that the clans had previously hoarded to themselves: The way to cross pea gravel with wide shoes, the hidden places that opened beneath the hedges, the path through the stinking mud surrounding the Swings, the way to tame a pitcher plant so it would guard you in your sleep. Much that he learned that fed into his eventual philosophies about the ways of the Playground and the world that had come before it, came from the secrets of tribes not his own, perhaps because those people remembered his uncle’s name fondly.
Simon Says the Elder neared the Teeter-Totter. That giant, precarious structure had been visible from his home. It felt good to see it coming closer day after day. Before he could reach it — and pass by, into the maze of plants and strange cylinders of cement — he came to a vast space of sand.
He’d crossed a Sandbox before, and thinking this the same one, he set out without bothering to scout a way around. Vultures haunted sandy parts of the Playground, so it was no surprise to see them circling. He dug himself into the sand when the balloons fell and pressed on to another makeshift bunker by nightfall.
In the morning, though, Simon found he’d lost his bearings. The Teeter-Totter and all other landmarks had disappeared, even from the highest ridges. A haze, perhaps created from the factory smoke of that distant and unknown hulk beyond the edge of the Playground, reflected and magnified the sunlight, stripping the distance of reliable signposts. Simon walked, as best he could, in the direction he’d been going, but the Sandbox never changed. Whether it was a different sandbox than the one he’d passed through before or simply a different angle across it, he couldn’t find an edge.
Ridge bled into ridge, and the evening balloon shower forced him to dig another shallow shelter. After the balloons, he had a glimmer of hope that he could follow them down whatever path they took and find a way out. The balloons rolled downhill, and he ran with them, desperate to not be left behind. Streams of balloons came from all sides, forming an ever-widening river. He must surely be near an edge now.
But the balloons sped up as they rolled down a steep incline, and by the time Simon stumbled out of an arroyo into a barren flat of sand, the last balloons had disappeared, except for a few caught here and there against debris. He picked one up and let it go, hoping it would follow the rest, but having lost momentum, it bounced without direction.
Simon scrambled across the sand flat, his steps slowing. Night was falling when he saw the sand castle. He approached cautiously, but no clan could live out there in the sand. The walls had a melted quality, as if wet sand had dribbled down on them after they were made. He circled around the front, staring up at the towers. A smoothed-out rectangle of sand marked the open drawbridge, across a dry moat.
Simon walked up to it and stopped. The ground was solid — it wasn’t a real drawbridge, though the illusion was strong. The gate was open and appeared to lead into real rooms and hallways. Before he went in, Simon knelt at the edge of the bridge to look into the moat. It was deep, and the sides very steep. Even without water it would make a formidable barrier for anyone trying to enter. Or leave.
“You don’t want to go in there.”
Simon jumped at the voice. Standing behind him on the sand flat was a woman. Not young, but old didn’t seem the right word either. Aged by the sand, perhaps, or by the Playground in general. Her clothes were the sturdy green fabric favored by travelers, and her skin a brown that was one of many shades common across clans. Any other details were lost in the dusk.
“Don’t I?” Simon answered and took an exaggerated step toward the castle, but the truth was that he didn’t. Not that the woman struck him as safe either.
She ignored his question. “I can lead you to safety.”
“Out of the Sandbox?”
She nodded and lit a small lamp that hung from her waist. The light drew his attention to the solid walking stick in her left arm and the lines that scored it, up and down. They had the look of a coded map.
Simon took a step toward her, hoping to see the marks better, but they meant nothing to him in that light. “Well, that would be welcome.”
“It is my work,” she said, holding out her hand in the peculiar greeting of the clans who lived near the Swings. “I am Mother May I, a guide.”
A guide. He’d heard of them, not a clan exactly, but an association or guild. Women for the most part, they claimed to know the Playground better than anyone, and likely it was true. They had an honest reputation, though some notoriety for their bargaining, especially with travelers they found stranded.
“I’m Simon Says. I… don’t have much to offer. A few jacks, maybe, if I scrounge around in my pack a bit.”
“You have robots,” she said, as if it were common knowledge. He glanced back to see if the cages were so obvious. “I’ll take one as payment.”
“I, ummm, how…” Simon stuttered, trying to find an answer. The robot was worth a lot, assuming the guides knew where to bring them, but he was losing faith in his ability to get himself free from the Sandbox. “Guide me, not just out but set me on my path home, and it’s a deal.”
“And your home is?”
Home. The strong hands of his husband, the steady strength of his wife, the quick wits of his nieces and nephews. “Jungle Gym, the big one out beyond the Mud Pits.”
Mother May I closed her eyes a moment, as if picturing a map to that part of the Playground. Her hand slid along the lines on her walking stick, and Simon could see her tongue moving back and forth. “As far as the Mud Pits. The near edge of them. I assume you can find your way from there?”
“Then I can do that. I’d like the same one you used for the Keepaway clan. I know that one works.”
Simon reached behind his shoulder for the cage, but Mother May I stopped him. “Once we’re out of the Sandbox we’ll have time. I want to get away from here before it’s full dark.”
Simon Says looked back once as she led him across the sand flat. Something moved in a tower window. It had the look of a spider, but the legs must have been as long as he was tall. He shuddered and sped up to keep pace with Mother May I.
And if the terror bird trips over my jingle wire, waking me up so I can escape before it has a chance to turn me into its midnight snack, then I’ll tell you next how Simon Says out-dueled the Jump-Rope Rhymer and made his way home at last.
Mother May I was true to her word. Once they’d left the Sandbox — through a slot canyon Simon never would have thought to enter, leading to a tunnel under the Sandbox’s thick wooden frame — she led him through many hidden paths, skirting the edges of cement tunnels and cylinders. He jumped at any sound that might be a coyote sneaking out to give chase, but she seemed to know the right way to pass without attracting their notice.
When she led him straight to a tunnel, though, he balked. “Not in there,” he said, peering into the darkness for coyote eyes or signs of rough camps. This wasn’t as tall as some of the scattered cement structures, only half again his own height — many were taller than that, even when half of their circumference was buried — but it was also much longer. The other side, wherever it came out, wasn’t visible.
“Don’t worry,” Mother May I said, “there are no coyotes here, and no camps of wild people.”
“I’m not sure I’m comforted by that.” The image of the spider’s legs sticking out from the sand castle’s tower flashed through his mind. “What keeps them out?”
“Me. Would that make you feel better?”
“I…” Unsure whether she meant it seriously, Simon didn’t know what to answer.
Before he could think of anything, she gestured for him to follow and scrambled up the side of the cement. At first Simon slid back down, but then he got used to finding purchase on the well-pocked cement, and climbing became easy. From the top Simon saw that the tube sloped downward, entering a muddy bank some fifty skips ahead. Beyond that bank was a swamp.
“It’s an extra day’s walking to get around this and back toward the Mud Pits. You want that, you can give me two robots.” She pointed out the meandering line of water they’d have to circumvent and then back to the dry land straight across from them, covered in something like thick moss. “Or you follow me through here, and you’ll be home that much sooner.”
Simon tapped the cement with his foot. To be under there, and not for a short distance, either… “You’ll have light?”
“A torch,” said Mother May I.
“Lead on, then.”
Even with the decision made, he hesitated at the tunnel mouth. Mother May I’s torch lit up such a small space. Even if it didn’t reveal gleaming eyes or reflect off a monstrous insect’s carapace, what might be further in? He swallowed twice and forced himself in. It was supposed to get easier. A single plunge, and then he could follow without thinking. Instead, the second step needed to be forced also, and the fifth was worse than the first.
The tunnel grew colder as they left the entrance. They came across a few leaves blown in and other small debris, but he saw no sign that animals made it a home. Gradually, his steps came without such effort, even though his shoulders remained tense. The light behind them shrunk into a point and vanished when the tunnel sloped downward.
“We’re going under the water here, then?” Simon asked.
“Somewhere around here. I’d guess we already went under a bit already, but you can’t really tell without taking exact measurements.”
Simon touched the tunnel overhead, but it felt no different. No dripping leaks, and the cement had already felt damp as soon as they’d entered.
“It’s really quite an ingenious tunnel,” Mother May I went on. “So perfectly placed. Any steeper, and it’d be a one-way tunnel we’d have to slide down. Move it a hop and a jump either way, and you run into rocky ground or deeper water.”
Mother May I struck the wall affectionately. Simon cringed at the muffled sound, ready for it to crack beneath her blow, but nothing happened.
“Shows you that for all the chaos of the Playground, here and there are hints of order, bringing it all into a strange unity.”
Simon Says the Younger would have disagreed with Mother May I on this. The chaos above, the more he explored and explained, was too great, the order too easily dismissed as fluke. To him, the tunnel was proof of one of two things. Either earlier clans had possessed the knowledge and skills to build it just there, or the Playground was big enough that simple chance dictated a tunnel just like that one. The words “strange unity” certainly never appeared in his writings.
Simon Says the Elder, though, was unconcerned with such deep questions. He trudged behind Mother May I and longed for the sunlight ahead that would announce their escape from the ground.
At last they came out on the far side of the swamp, and judging by the sun, the day’s balloon shower hadn’t yet arrived.
“This can be a tricky part,” Mother May I said, pointing at the plants ahead. Moss it had appeared from a distance, but Simon hadn’t realized that moss could be so thick, its leafy stems reaching his shoulders and beyond. “Through here are the Mud Pits.”
They were in the middle of the moss field when the balloons fell. Simon dropped down for what protection he could find within the thick moss, but Mother May I stayed standing and calmly popped falling balloons with the sharp tip of her walking stick.
“What are you doing? Get into shelter.”
Mother May I casually pushed one balloon away from herself and said, “I avoid the yellow ones. Most of those are safe too, but just in case.” She popped another dozen, studiously guiding the yellow ones away from them. “We’re too frightened of things in the Playground. How will we understand what we can do and where we can go if we’re always ducking our heads and letting things happen?”
She didn’t say anything else or force Simon to come out, and once the balloons had stopped falling, they continued walking. Their path was a dry streambed, so the balloons piled around their legs, flowing back to the swamp behind them.
“Here we reach the end of our path together,” Mother May I said as the moss opened up to bubbling mud and large, leafy plants.
Simon Says the Elder thanked her and took the robot he’d promised her from his back, handing it to her. “I could never have come so far so fast without your expertise. Your sisterhood truly earns its reputation. If you’ve ever need of anything, come and ask me.”
Here, as they parted, was another request that would come into play in the life work of Simon’s nephew. The many collaborations and rivalries between the philosopher and Mother May I — whether the same one or a successor by the same name is unknown — could be said to have begun at this moment. Certainly, the guild of guides suffered no harm from either its association or its arguments with Simon Says the Younger.
Simon Says the Elder made his way along the Mud Pits. The stink of them made it an unpleasant journey, but there was little danger, as long as he didn’t leave the established path. The sweet smell of pitcher plants might tempt unwary travelers, but Simon knew the smell and avoided their large flowers.
As the path twisted through tight gaps between mud pits, Simon did have to watch his step. The mud’s colors shifted from dark to light and back, with hints of yellow here, red there. The bice green of the leaves that hung over the path seemed the primary constant over the hours it took him, that evening and the following morning, to cross.
When he did look up, as the mud became dry ground, he was surprised to see how close the Jungle Gym had become. Not even the blowing smoke could hide its great height. Only a wide stretch of grass separated him from the familiar metal bars and the grape-vine covered sides of the Jungle Gym. Strange things were said of that lawn of grass. He’d always avoided it in the past, skirting wide around though it added ten thousand steps to his journey. The closeness now, after so long away, taunted him.
Five hundred skips. A thousand hops. He could be there in an hour, answering the guards’ shibboleth to let him enter, climbing to the parts his clan claimed, walking the metal beam to his family’s nest-like home. So close.
What was it Mother May I had said? We’re too frightened. Perhaps she was right.
Simon stepped onto the grass, cringing in expectation of an attack. Nothing happened. It was just grass after all. Very short grass, for someplace wild. His steps slowed. How did it keep so short? He’d already begun, so he might as well continue. He sped up but was still looking down at the grass when he stepped over the first line of chalk.
Grass poked through the loose chalk, where it hadn’t been laid thick enough, but the line as a whole was clear, running straight as far as Simon could see. It was another border, he supposed, another line already crossed, too late to un-cross.
The next chalk line made a circle, seven hops across. Simon skirted it. The lines followed in rapid succession, diagonals and parabolas, squares and hatch marks and running lanes that petered out after a few strides.
Simon Says had just reached a chalked hopscotch court, the lines solid at the earth-side and fading into nothing before it reached heaven, when he heard a shriek. It was a noise from childhood stories, a noise all those in the Playground learned to fear. Shrill and loud.
Simon ran. He didn’t look at the lines he crossed. He stepped on chalk somewhere in that first flight, and he knew he was leaving a trail of chalk-prints. But what did that matter to a terror bird? The giant, flightless birds were hunters, not trackers.
He spared a glance back and saw it, its legs pumping, its long neck strained forward, its sharp beak reflecting sunlight. It opened that beak and gave another shriek, and Simon stopped looking back so he could focus on running. He crossed chalked warning lines, swinging his arms as fast as he could. The terror bird’s footsteps sounded loud, even on grass.
An earthwork lay across his path, and Simon dived over it, sprawling down the other side, which was steeper and longer than he’d expected. He lay there, momentarily stunned, and braced himself for the terror bird’s beak.
Instead he heard a voice.
“Simple Simon.” The voice was deep, but not threatening. A man leaned down toward Simon. He wore a floppy hat with a brim so wide it hid his eyes. His clothes were of patchwork.
“That’s not my name.”
“Oh ho, be careful telling strangers what your name isn’t. A thousand more times, and I might narrow it down.”
Simon’s lips flapped like a fish’s, but he couldn’t find any words to give them. Finally he simply asked, “Who are you?”
“No names, not here.” He helped Simon to his feet. “What matters is you’re safe from that bird. We can stay behind this wall all the way across the field.”
From this angle, a single strut filled the mouth of the pathway, and the rest of the Jungle Gym rose above it, only its base hidden by the mounds on either side of the path.
“At last.” Tired as he was, he started running toward his home.
The strange man pulled out a jump rope and skipped beside him, but after a moment he sped in front of Simon and stopped. Simon crashed into him, but the man kept them both upright.
“I forgot,” he said, as if they hadn’t just collided, “there is the toll to use my path.”
Still catching his breath, Simon said, “I don’t have…”
“Otherwise, you could go back over the mound, negotiate a price with the birdy.”
There went another of his robots, he supposed, but instead the man said, “Give me a rhyme. A rhyme I’ve never heard before, and this path is free to you, now and always.”
“A rhyme, oh. All right.” Simon was silent, thinking of what rhymes he knew. The stranger indicated he should walk as he thought, so Simon was in no hurry to come up with something.
“How about ‘Miss Susie had a sand-boat…”
A sharp pain in his shin made Simon stop both talking and walking. He hopped on the other foot. It took him a moment to notice the stranger pulling his jump-rope back to himself and recognize the pain for the sting of a whip.
“A rhyme I don’t know yet. For each one I already know, I whip you once.”
The terror bird shrieked from the other side of the mound. “Again, you could choose to speak with the bird. Chances are she knows fewer rhymes.”
Simon blew out his cheeks but didn’t respond, except to continue limping along the path. After a moment of silence, the rhymer said, “You will have to try again. I can wrap my whip around you and sling you off the path as a gift to the terror birds, if you test my patience.”
“Of course.” Simon threw out a strange one he’d heard in his travels, but halfway through, the rhymer whipped him again, and Simon collapsed.
“I thought it might be new until you got to that point,” the rhymer said while Simon climbed back to his feet. “Then I realized it was just a slight variation in the opening. The rest is old.”
“The opening is new, then. That should count as payment.”
The rhymer shook his head. “Not enough. Try again.”
Rhyme followed rhyme, and whip followed whip, and Simon’s progress slowed, became of trudge of pain. Perhaps he might have over-powered the man when he’d first come onto his path. Simon doubted it, but the possibility didn’t matter now. He was far too weak from whipping.
“Flea,” he said at last, a dim memory of a nonsense chant bubbling into his mind.
Simon got halfway through, and the rhymer made him repeat it so he could get the jump-rope rhythm and the words just right. When he continued with the rhyme, speeding through the bewildering syllables of the chant’s central section, he realized how close they’d come to the end.
The rhymer repeated slowly, “With a bee-billy…” and Simon Says ran.
The jump rope cut the air behind him, snapping with a loud crack, but sore as he was, he’d caught the rhymer by enough of a surprise that it missed his back.
“Hey! You haven’t finished telling me the rest!” But Simon could see his home, and nothing could hold him back.
And if the sun keeps heating the Slide so we can cook our meals right on its surface and still run before the Tag clan can catch us, then we’ll leave Simon Says there for a time, enjoying a welcome rest. We’ll save the tales of his long-enduring rivalry with the Jump-Rope Rhymer, his travels to the distant Monkey Bars, and even the time he spent a captive of the coyotes for another time.