Loved or Feared

by Lily Wood

I received my first death threat at age 4 and ⅙.

I was what you would call the “Godfather” of Westside Montessori Preschool. I knew the kindergarteners who shared our playground. I was on good terms with the teachers. I even smuggled in my stuffed penguin, “Penguinian,” three days a week. Everyone wanted to be my friend, just to avoid the dismal conversation. And what is a mob boss without her most trusted comrade?

My favorite minion: Gianna. She was the perfect ally. She was small with auburn hair,freckles, and the chubby cheeks that adults cannot help but trust. She lived across the street from the basement that confined my realm. She had a VCR and a DVD player. Best of all, beneath her sweet demeanor, she was evil. She never actually slept at naptime. She stole extra goldfish at snack. The Block Corner was full? “Mrs. Judy, the boys are throwing blocks at us!” Needless to say, she was my best friend. She was my henchman, my wingman. Together, we were inseparable and unstoppable.

Or so I thought.

Then Gianna met Max.

It was a hot summer day. Gianna and I had, for once, been caught. We were drawing dresses on all of the characters in Where the Wild Things Are. Beauty is pain. We were sentenced to sit inside for recess. We resigned ourselves to this fact in that we would at least have each other in this dismal half hour to play indoors. Sadly, however, we soon learned we were not alone.

Technically, we had always known Max. Max was in our class. He was five. He would start kindergarten a year late, so he was the biggest boy in class. He wore a blue baseball cap over his mousy brown hair every day. To most kids, he was the quintessential bully. To Gianna, he was love at first sight.

I tried my best to accept him. I really did. Yes, it would be a new dynamic – not only would we shift from a duo to a trio, but we would add a male element to our friendship that just wasn’t there before. And yes, Max wasn’t at our level of cunning – this was hardly his first, or even fifth time missing recess. He always got caught. But even right-hand men needed support sometimes, so for Gianna, I did my best. If he made her happy, he couldn’t make me unhappy, right? Not that unhappy. I didn’t complain when he was added to our playdates at her house. I listened to his rants about the intricacies of Teen Titans. I even allowed him to be the only boy invited to my Barbie-themed 4th birthday party. It was fine.

And I’ll admit, he was not entirely a terrible addition to the posse. He certainly did contribute something to our image. He spoke little, most of his sentences involving grammar mistakes that I, even at age 4, noticed. His intimidating demeanor proved all too real, resulting in his quite literal stealing of candy from younger kids. His blue baseball cap became the chilling symbol of our now daunting trinity. Did I want this new image? It wasn’t necessarily what I was vying for, no, though I concede I had few complaints. More importantly, though, Max was threatening my power. I didn’t let Gianna know this insecurity, and she never caught on. However, I would soon find out that Max, in all his monosyllabic wit, did pick up on my hostility.

It is mid-October. The leaves have begun their eerie color transition. The nights, extending to the later hours of afternoon, have cut our playground outings short. The Halloween fever has already set in, which meant we had begun our month-long homage in our costumes. I am obviously Belle from Beauty and the Beast; Gianna, with her reddish hair, is a less-convincing Ariel of the Little Mermaid. Max is Superman. One fateful Friday night, arrayed in our respective gowns, we run from Max in our traditional game of tag, graciously unisex. But today Max is not content with this plan. He stops next to the swings. “Let’s play superheroes.” After a few brief moments of disagreement, Gianna takes his side. “Maybe we can play it just this once.”

That does it. I rip his shiny red cape off his back and tear it.

He looks at me. His eyes are expressionless. I drop his now shredded cape on the ground in front of us and stare back at him. He opens his mouth. I wonder if he is about to cry. I mentally prepare myself to hold back what would be subsequent laughter.

“I want to cut off your head so I can roll it into the street and watch the cars roll over it.”

I blink. Gianna looks down at the red cape. My hands rise to my face. Max stares blankly at me. Still pressing my fingers to my jaw, and glancing behind me every few seconds, I walk away in silence.

To the best of my knowledge, despite the video evidence, Max got away unscathed. As with all the most illustrious triumvirates, ours had met its inevitably tragic end. I never saw Gianna’s Hello Kitty collection again. Max would not come to my Polly Pocket 5th birthday. Never again would we chase each other through the yellow-painted playground until our babysitters threatened us with earlier bedtimes if we didn’t go home.

The loss of these two resulted in an abundance of new potential playmates, though. By November, I’d found myself frequenting the Sumerian section of the Natural History Museum – my favorite spot – with my new best friend Grace, discussing the latest Dragon Tales episode. To a stranger, a nearly identical scene had happened just a few weeks before. The main difference: instead of showcasing a single blue baseball cap, our entire group flaunted hair adorned with Easter-colored butterfly clips; in fact, we identified any kid wearing butterfly clips as a new friend. By January, I was with a completely new set of girls. And by the time kindergarten rolled around, I didn’t speak to a single one of my pre-school friends.

It’s February 2014. From the newly cleaned bleachers, I cheer Cyprian on as she loses her final volleyball game, just as I’d rooted for her from the sidelines after I’d been struck out in our kindergarten dodgeball matches.

“Lily! Long time no see!”

I examine the copper-haired stranger, clad in a green and white pinny of the opposing team. “Hey, Gianna!”

“How’ve you been?” 

“I’m swell! Great job, by the way; you’re a lot better at volleyball than tag.” 

[Awkward laughter.] 

“Thanks; I guess it helps not playing against you and Max. [Pause.] Do you guys still talk?” 

“No… you?” 

“No… he was so weird… [Conversational chuckle.] Didn’t he threaten to kill you once…” 

“[Smile.] Yeah, something like that…” 

“Oh man, so strange… did I do anything?” 

“I can’t remember… I don’t think so.” 

“[Laughter.] Gosh, Lily, I’m sorry.” 

“That’s okay.”

And it is.