Daniel had always been different. Ever since he was old enough to talk he had refused to play on the playground with the other children, though he always refused to say why. For years his parents tried to convince him to join the other children on the playground, they begged him and pleaded with him, offered him extra snacks and rewards if he would just give it a try. Their efforts were in vain; Daniel refused to set foot on the playground.
Daniel was seven years old when he entered second grade, under a teacher named Susanna Matthews. Susanna was a prim woman, and very proper. She liked things to go a certain way all the time, and change was by far her greatest enemy. She disliked Daniel from the moment he entered her classroom.
He sat down in his little wooden desk, and laid his shiny Power Ranger pencil case at the head of it. He sat in the back, and for the most part he sat alone. Daniel had never had many friends, but he didnít really mind. He had books, he had cartoons, and he had his imagination to keep him company.
The first day passed rather uneventfully, until the afternoon arrived. The children ate their lunch in the schoolís large cafeteria, and upon their return to class Susanna led them outside to have their recess. As the other children spilled out onto the playground, Daniel sat down on the sidewalk and began to read. Susanna didnít understand, and wasnít very happy with his behavior at all. She sauntered over to him, smiled her prim, skin-deep smile, and asked him if he was going to join the other children on the playground. Daniel simply shook his head, never looking away from his book. This shocked his teacher, as in her twenty-five years of teaching elementary school she had never met a child who didnít want to play. Her curiosity won her over, and she asked him why he didnít want to go and play. He shook his head again. Susanna decided to let it go for now, confident that he would become bored and make his way out to the playground, just like all young children should.
Two months later Daniel still refused to even go near the playground, and Susanna had had enough of the boyís behavior. She finally decided that he would either have to come up with a very logical, very normal reason for his behavior, or she would just drag him out to the playground if she had to. So that afternoon she confronted Daniel on his way out of the door. He had his book in his hand, and looked up at her with slightly unsurprised eyes.
She demanded a reason for his behavior. As usual he refused to tell her, and she threatened to call the principle. She pressured and threatened until finally Daniel gave in, and for the first time ever, told someone his secret.
He told her that he refused to go onto the playground because he was afraid. He told her about the troll that lived behind the slide, waiting to munch on the children who dared to go down his slide. He told her about the ravens that sat perched above the swings, and how they swooped down in great huge packs to peck at the unfortunate souls that they found below. But mostly he talked about the manticore. The manticore beneath the monkey bars.
It was a ferocious creature, he told her. It laid in wait beneath the monkey bars, prowling around and waiting for the children to fall. When it did, he told her in a voice most serious, it slammed its mighty jaws around them, and ate them whole.
Susanna smiled at him, and kneeled down to be at his level. She explained, in a voice that she thought was comforting, that that couldnít be, because the children always come back to her class in one piece.
He said that the monsters didnít eat the outside of the children. They ate the inside. They chewed on their spirits and gnawed on their souls until nothing was left.
Susanna was shocked. She stood up straight again, and pushed him towards the door. She told him that this was just his imagination, that there were no such things as trolls and manticores. She said that he would play on the playground, that it would be good for him to join the other kids, and that she wouldnít here anymore about it.
She walked him out the door, and practically dragged him onto the playground. She looked down at him with a stern look, gazing into his terrified eyes with indifference. She told him to play and have fun, and that if he left the playground he could expect a fierce paddling. She walked back into her classroom, and watched from the window until she was sure he wouldnít run off.
Daniel had never been so scared. The manticore was staring at him. He was sure that it knew he could see it. The ravens stirred and cawed, and the troll grunted and looked out from behind the slide. The manticore licked its lips, and it strode slowly towards Daniel. He was distracted for a moment by a noise above him, and looked up to see three of the ravens perched above him, gazing down at him with hunger in their eyes. The manticore was starting to circle him. He stood frozen in place, staring at the beast that was now preparing to pounce. He heard the woodchips shift beneath its paws as it pushed itself off the ground. It landed on Daniel in a fury of teeth and claws, and he felt them rip at his spirit, felt them tear at all that he was. The ravens wear shrieking in the trees, and the troll slammed its mighty club into the ground as the last truly whole child was devoured. When the mightiest of them had had its fill of Danielís soul, the ravens landed around him and began to feast on the remnants of his small being.
He returned to class, empty and spiritless, absolutely destroyed in every way that mattered. He no longer saw the beasts that haunted the playground, and eventually they faded from his memory. He no longer had a problem playing on the playground like all the other children, and Susanna felt like she had been quite successful.
Years later Daniel had a son, and just like his father he refused to play on the playground. Daniel didnít know why, but he could never bring himself to make the boy venture onto the playground.
The manticore still lives there beneath the monkey bars, waiting for its next victim. It will always be there, whether or not we can see it. So think twice before you decide to play on the monkey bars, unless you want to meet the manticore thatís waiting beneath.