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Goodbye, First Love

Caroline M. Yoachim lives in Seattle and loves cold cloudy weather. She is the author of dozens of short stories, appearing in Lightspeed, Asimov's, and Clarkesworld, among other places. For more about Caroline, check out her website at carolineyoachim.com.
I fell in love with a boy from the playground.
Other boys dangled from the monkey bars and tried to make the swings loop all the way around, but he played alone in the wooden playhouse under the slides. I snuck up on him and watched him make a shimmering portal on the playhouse wall. I moved in for a closer look, but when he noticed me, the portal disappeared. He refused to speak to me no matter how many questions I asked.
"Just tell me your name," I said.
He shook his head.
We sat and stared at each other until it was time for me to leave. He didn't make any more portals. I waved goodbye, but he didn't wave back.
The other boys set up an obstacle course--up the slides and over the top of the monkey bars and down the chain of the tire swing. The oldest boy turned out not to be the fastest boy, which made him angry. I knew how dangerous that could be. Mom was like that after a bad day at work, and she took it out on Dad. The oldest boy needed somebody to take his anger out on, and he found an easy target in the playhouse.
I expected my friend to pull a vicious monster out of a portal and defeat the older boy, but instead he let the big bully hit him in the stomach.
"Hey!" I yelled. It drew his attention away. With no one but me looking, my friend disappeared in a shimmer of light. I turned and ran, all the way home. The bully was big, but he wasn't fast.
My friend didn't come to the playground for a few days. I worried that the bully had scared him away forever. I had almost given up hope, but then one gray stormy day he was back, sitting inside the playhouse as though nothing had happened. This time, when I came to watch, he didn't stop what he was doing.
The playground was empty because of the rain, but it was dry inside the playhouse. He made a portal on the ceiling that opened to a red-tinged sun and bathed us in soft warm light. Windows on the walls showed glimpses of turquoise trees and snow-capped mountains and a bustling city of rainbow-colored birds.
He never spoke. I think he had no voice to make the words.
I reached out to touch the nearest window, and my arm went through the portal. The air on the other side was icy cold, and my friend's hand felt wonderfully warm when he pulled me back into the playhouse.
I dreamed we would get married, even though I didn't understand what being married really meant. Back then I wanted to marry my sister because I loved her, and my favorite friend from school, so that we would always be friends. Marriage was a way to keep something forever, no matter what happened. If I could marry everything I loved, I could protect myself from change.
My mom went on a business trip to China and never came back. Dad said she'd met someone. He sounded more relieved than sad.
I went to the playground and asked my friend to take me away through one of his portals. He shook his head, unwilling to aid my escape. Instead he held my hand and let me cry on his shoulder.
He opened windows to a skyscraper made of pearls and a factory where tiny robots assembled themselves from piles of golden gears. He was trying to cheer me up, but all it did was make me want to jump through, to be in any world but this one. I reached for a golden robot, and it felt like my hands were pushing through a wall of water.
My friend grabbed me before I went all the way through and held me when I struggled to go back. The portals vanished, and tears streamed down his face.
I left. He waved goodbye, and this time it was me who didn't wave back.
I was angry that he wouldn't save me. I avoided the playground for two whole weeks. Mom sent me a t-shirt with dragons on it as an attempt to buy my forgiveness. I think she ordered it online. The tags were all in English. I stayed mad at her, but I decided to forgive my friend.
I went to the playground, but he wasn't there. I sat inside our playhouse while boys ran up the slides and stomped on the roof above my head. I tried to imagine the red glow of sunlight filling the playhouse, but all I saw was a line of ants crawling down the wood to carry off the crumbs of someone's spilled playground snack.
Eventually, a portal opened, a window to a world filled with everything I'd seen before--the tiny golden robots and the snowy mountains, the towering turquoise trees and the rainbow-colored birds. My friend stood on the other side of the portal, but he made no move to come through.
If he wouldn't come to me, I would go to him. I reached out, but the surface of the portal was solid, like a pane of glass, and cold as ice beneath my fingers. I remembered the sensation of pushing through water when I'd tried to grab a golden robot, and I pressed my hands against the portal as hard as I could. It did not yield.
My friend raised his hand to mine, his palm pressed against the invisible barrier between our worlds. We stood that way for a moment, and then the smoothness of the portal changed to the rough texture of the wooden playhouse.
I fell in love with a boy from the playground. Then I lost him, as I'd lost so many childhood things, and his world became a memory of a place I'll never go.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, April 14th, 2015

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