The kids were chatting and chatting, chatting and chattering, slapping, hopping, humming, and shrieking behind the low wire fence (plenty high for them) as they waited for the number five van to roll into the school parking lot. Oh, they were shrieking. At what, Maddy didn’t know. There were six of them, seven including Maddy, the Infamous Seven: those who waited, those wanderers and fools that watched the rest of Elk Grove Elementary queue into yellow beluga busses and spaceship minivans to be shuttled home. Home, or wherever kids shrieked when they were not shrieking near Maddy.
The straps of her blue backpack were fall-fresh. Their nylon scent loitered by her nose. Her hands gripped the soft straps like prison bars. She squeezed.
Aaron Wesner, Mike Rizzo, and Jon M. (nobody could pronounce his long last name, and nobody remembered it) traded anecdotes about the football game they’d seen the previous evening on television:
“Palachewski is a total scrub. Every play, every play he runs the ball. He’s scared to get hit, I think.”
“Otunga hits really hard.”
“Otunga hits people the hardest I think. He has the highest defense rating in Madden, I think. I was playing one time and I was the Steelers, and I ran him at Fusco and sacked him, and I knocked his helmet off. I didn’t even know you can do that.”
“I once did that too.”
“I didn’t even know. My brother wouldn’t believe me, but I showed him the video after.”
“Did you get a fumble?”
“Yeah,” and so on.
Maddy tried to imagine what a fumble was. The name “Palachewski” sounded terrifying and archaic.
To the left of the boys, Jessica Klein and Jess Silver huddled over a pink paper fortune teller:
“Pick a fruit.”
“S-T-R-A-W,” Jess expanded and collapsed the head of the diamond with her fingers, and Maddy saw the paper muppet gape and gab at the sky with each letter. “B-E-R-R-Y. Pick a prince.”
“Ew. S-I-M-B-A. Pick a number.”
A pause. Pick eight, thought Maddy. Her nose wrinkled.
“..Eight,” said Jessica.
Jess removed her fingers from the bottom of the device and peeled a quadrant up and back. “Eight,” she said. Her eyes flitted up as she prepared to read, and caught Maddy observing from a few feet away. They shared an anxious instant, locked on the precipice of revelation. Maddy knew that fortune telling wasn’t real, at least not this kind, not in all likelihood. She knew that Jess had constructed the paper fortune teller in arts and crafts that day, and had written each fortune in tandem with her best friend Nancy. And yet, she couldn’t deny the possibility of dumb magic, the useless foresight that compelled her dog Jonesy to bark before summer storms, or alerted her when a TV was turned on in another room, even on mute.
Jess turned her back to Maddy and moved closer to Jessica, blocking the fortune teller from view. Maddy stared at Jess’s stupid (pretty) brown hair and tried to decipher the shreds of whispered words that reached her. Whatever fate crashed into Jessica, Maddy couldn’t imagine she’d be involved in any case.
Away from the girls, Ankur sat cross-legged against the fence and played a game on his tablet. His tablet had a program on it that could make calls, he once explained to her during lunch. So, he didn’t need a phone or a computer because this could do both. Maddy liked to eat lunch with Ankur sometimes. He usually shared his bread with her, golden, greasy, spicy bread that his mom made for him. She couldn’t remember its name (this also being difficult to pronounce), so she just called it “spicy bread”. She glanced at him, absorbed in the screen, but couldn’t think of anything to say, and so she went back to listening to the boys argue in their blocky dialect.
The rest of Elk Grove Elementary had been extracted. The Infamous Seven (she had learned the word “infamous” in a Calvin and Hobbes strip) would depart an empty playground. Maddy pictured the slide collapsing in with a sigh and a fart, exhausted; it survived another day. The swing set swayed, depleted; it couldn’t wait to sleep. And finally, the number five van crawled out from under the green underpass, turned right into the parking lot, rolled to a creaky stop, and loaded them aboard.
Escape was impossible. Even so, Maddy searched the back of the number five van for a hopeful path. A seat belt, tan and frayed, hugged her to the window seat. That, of course, would be easy enough to detach. From there the complications multiplied. Mike Rizzo and Jon M. shared the row with her, each straining against their own belts, bounding left, and right, and forward, bumping into Maddy’s left arm (without acknowledgement), craning their necks over the middle seat to continue their conference with Aaron. Their debate over whether TV shows could show butts had moved into deliberations over how much butt could be shown. For some reason Aaron kept using the word “moon” instead of “butt”. If she were to make an exit through the van’s sliding door, she’d have to tunnel her way past two boys. Their incessant convulsions and clammy skin made her squeamish on several counts; no, that route was blocked.
She inspected the window beside her head. Warm sunlight streamed through the glass and highlighted the oily outline of a hand. Near the bottom of the window, someone’s fingers had smudged out a pair of wan smiley faces, followed by the letters “F-U-K.” The meaning was not lost on her, nor did it intrigue her. Instead, it confirmed her suspicion: she was not the first prisoner on this alien transport. She could hardly blame her ghostwriter for its brainless scrawl. Unless a kid was vigilant against all manners of civilization’s assault, boredom chief among them, her brain was likely to leak through her ears like fudge. For exhibits A and B: observe the squawking baboons to her left.
The van’s window revealed little else in their way of escape. There was no mechanism to slide the window down; instead, thin black wire snaked through the pane. Her captors were onto her: if she were not a prisoner, then why would there be wire in the window? She sat back into the itchy seat cushion and chewed on the side of her bottom lip.
The green planet blurred beyond the window as the van sped along its winding route, an alien surface, a curiosity. Thin brown branches reached down into the van’s path and were brushed aside like beggars. Forest Lane to Redding, left on Redding. Down the hill, cross over Route 21. Continue on Redding, left on Summit Drive. Right on Topsfield Road, to Church Street, then left on Grand. There they would meet their destination.
She had the passage baked into her mind. Past houses that stood tall like boxy butlers, waiting to receive their occupants with a lockjaw smile. Past perpetually sprinklered lawns, with tan men mowing their margins. Every weekday for the past two years. Every weekday for the next. She tried to picture her life as a teenager, eight years ahead, double her age. Squinting through the bog, she saw herself walk down a city block (she’d never been to a city), laughing and chatting with two friends (whom she’d never met), as they tossed an apple back and forth between them (she didn’t enjoy apples). She concluded that life as a teenager tasted distant and irrelevant. Her older self held no clues to her present circumstance. Her older self laughed and kept walking. Also, Maddy decided, she probably had pierced ears.
Teenagers. Always walking and honking. Lumbering and chuckling. Teenagers, in Maddy’s mind, didn’t smile, but they did smirk. Her friend Rhea had a brother, a “senior” (Rhea called him), who once drove them to Burger King. He stopped too suddenly at red lights. His music sounded like two different songs playing on top of each other. Sometimes the singer yelled, and sometimes the singer whispered, and in neither case could she follow the words.
Snickering and pickering, teens. On a different day, Rhea and Maddy went rollerskating on their own, wobbling their way down the hill from Rhea’s house to the Shoprite on James Street. Maddy had taken rollerblading lessons for the past few months, but found that the blocky, borrowed-from-Rhea rollerskates latched to her feet didn’t glide and turn with the same elegance as in-lines. The grooves and chips in the sidewalk gripped her wheels, and so she clopped slowly behind Rhea, who managed to roll along with little effort. She paused at a stop sign to adjust her helmet. At the same time, a copper sedan pulled alongside her, slowed to a crawl. She lifted her eyes and briefly met the stares of three teenage boys, pastyfaced and amused. “You’d be faster riding a horse,” yelled the boy in the passenger’s seat. Maddy stood still, unsure of how to respond. The boy then stuck his middle finger in the air. Maddy’s nose twitched. She felt a sharp tap in her chest. The boys cackled and sped off.
Maddy watched the car peel away past Rhea, who was across the street and almost to the next block. She didn’t think Rhea had seen or heard any of it. Maddy’s cheeks felt warm. Her armpits tingled, as they sometimes did when her mom would ask her whether she had started her homework (she hadn’t). She looked down at her borrowed rollerskates. Another five blocks to Shoprite.
She knew what middle fingers meant. She clopped across the street (heavier now, these skates). Her ears turned the boy’s comment over and around. His dog-bark voice. The chugging churning rhythm of his remark: “You’d-be-FAST er-RIDE-ing a-HORSE.”
Obviously. Obviously a horse would be faster. He didn’t call her a horse-face. He just said she’d be faster riding a horse.
Kids called each other stupid.
Teenagers, though. Gangly, gawky, mangly, balky. Casual and cruel. Insults in a foreign language.
Teenagers wouldn’t call you stupid; instead, they’d say something obvious and laugh, as if you didn’t know.
The number five van, that grandpa of a vehicle, pitched to the right and chugged into the narrow red backlot of the Redding YMCA. The captives had reached their camp. The Redding YMCA hosted a daily afterschool program, half-populated by kiddoes whose parents worked late into the evening, and half-populated by kidlings whose parents didn’t need to work at all. The quarterly payments of the former (let’s say, Maddy) were subsidized by the latter.
Maddy’s mother split her time, as unequally as she could, between cold-calling Massachusetts residents to administer political surveys, sitting through evening lectures in dental school, memorizing the clinical procedures to implement periodontal debridement and scaling, and hugging, hugging, hugging Maddy until one or both of them fell asleep (somehow both too soon and too late into the night). Maddy’s mom didn’t see the use in lying about why she bit her nails when bills came in the mail. Maddy knew the score. Plainly: some families had more points. It didn’t seem like a big deal to her, despite the low anger she sometimes heard in her mother’s voice when she talked about (say) Rhea’s parents. Maddy rather enjoyed Rhea’s house: they watched Gravity on the wall projector in her carpeted basement. They made strawberry-coconut frozen yogurt with a polished silver cylinder in Rhea’s kitchen. She had a pool that had a robot in it. The robot cleaned the pool, Rhea told her, and they tricked it into following them around the water by crumbling up clods of cereal in its path. Still, Rhea’s house had a few too many rules for Maddy’s taste. Her freezer didn’t have pizza bagels, for one. They could only eat those at Maddy’s place (and they did). Rhea’s parents once asked her to say “That stinks” instead of “That sucks.” Things like that. So Maddy felt that her circumstances and Rhea’s were pretty equal, on the whole.
As she jumped down from the high ledge of the old van (“one small step for!”), she remembered that Rhea had been sick in bed over the weekend and had messaged her that she wouldn’t be at the Y today. On her ownsome, as yoozh. It was a Monday, which meant she had forty minutes of swimming, forty minutes of “team sports”, and thirty minutes of TV time before the number five van was roused from its afternoon nap and convinced to carry her back to the empty Elk Grove Elementary parking lot for Mom pickup.
The seven kids frittered and simmered before the wide, yellow entrance door as they waited for their counselor to meet them and escort them up the stairs. Aaron and Mike and Jon flung and spun themselves, trying to slap the back of each others’ elbows. Barb, their driver, had told them to cut it out in the van, but adult directives stuck as well as refrigerator magnets at a distance. Maddy spied on Ankur’s tablet. He was watching Legend of Korra, an episode she had already seen. From over his shoulder, and without the sound (Ankur’s headphones dwarfed his head in an aggressive gunmetal sheen, completely at odds with his bowlcut), the cartoon seemed to move twice as fast, as if, unburdened by dialogue and soundtrack, the characters could move in double-time. It seemed to work the opposite with kids: the louder they played, the faster they spun.
The yellow door clacked, shunked, and opened. Chistine, their counselor, peeked her head out from behind the door. Her face was pinched like a jack-o-lantern, and her grin was, as always, cinnamon-bun sweet. “C’mon, I’ve been waiting for you ALL DAY, COME ON!” Her thick arm waved them inside. Jon and Jessica giggled at her enthusiasm.
“How have you been waiting all day, we only always get here at three,” said Mike.
“Three-twenty,” said Aaron.
The children stepped through the door held open by Christine.
“Ankur, can you put your tablet away for me-thank-you,” Christine said as Ankur plodded past her. Maddy was the last through the door. Christine followed them up the stairs, floor one, floor two, floor the third. The children’s chatter bounced off the smooth, white brick of the corridor, washing out into a tinny, indecipherable drone. Today, Maddy counted fifty two stairs. Sometimes it was fifty one. At the top of the stairs, the kidders packed in and waited for Christine to push open the double doors, behind which the afterschoolers assembled before their first activity. To Maddy, this always felt like an unveiling. Behold: your kidling jungle. Some will prowl, and some will shrink. Go, you beasts, and mingle.
The entrance hall carpet was Barney-pelt purple. Photos hung from the otherwise-bare white walls: two children mid-karate kick, three girls chasing a soccer ball, ponytails horizontal, the gymnastics class stretching into absurd poses, contorting their faces. The photos were hung high enough that the schoolerers couldn’t reach them, though Maddy once had a jump contest with Hollis, Rhea, and Wes, and Hollis tapped the center of soccer photo with ease, right where the ball stood suspended in time.
What counted to Maddy like fifty kids squirmed and huddled, bounced, stumbled, shook, shooked, and shrieked (holy yes, they shrieked) from wall to framed wall. The kid cloud condensed before the double doors, however, into an impatient knot, at the end of which was The Box.
For some kids, there was nothing but The Box. Maddy understood. Upon arrival, before first activity, each YMCA kid was allowed to take one cookie (contingent upon waiting in The Line). The type of cookie varied from day to day. If there was a pattern to the cookie choice, Maddy couldn’t figure it out.
Chocolate chip were the best, obviously. Chocolate chips were the ones kids crossed their fingers for, flipped their socks inside out for. A chocolate chip cookie didn’t need to change fortune - it was fortune. On those afternoons Maddy knew, no matter how sucky the day had been, at least she had a chocolate chip cookie. That was something everlasting, at least until the next day.
The evil-mustache version of chocolate chips were the oatmeal raisin cookies. Violent, terroristic oatmeal raisins. Maddy shuddered to imagine the sticky dweebs in lab coats that thunk up the brilliant brain-fart of making a cookie out of oatmeal. Maddy had once pulled a box of instant apple-cinnamon Quaker down from the shelf at Shoprite, intrigued by the Last Airbender graphics commanding the front of the box (and the stick-on tattoos claimed within). When her mom plunked down the goopy, steaming bowl at breakfast, she realized that curiosity was not always its own reward. She nibbled at the sludge attached to her plastic spoon. She swiftly dealt with the stabbing oddness of sweet and slimy on her tongue, dealt with it right into a napkin.
Oatmeal cookies were wolves in wolves clothing. The raisins a cruel, almost psychotic mockery, tiny black beartraps snapping shut on the poor kid who thought they were chocolate chips. Not whatever raisins were (allegedly grapes, she’d read in a Scholastic Monthly, but she knew enough to not take that at face value).
Maddy waited up to the front of The Line, where Counselor Omar kneeled by The Box and dealt out the cookies. She peered past the edge of the cardboard. Aha.
Sugar cookies were exactly as advertised: yellow, crisp, starch discs with a dust of large sugar crystals coating the top. Sugar cookies, to Maddy, felt like the most cynical of cookies; artless exploitation, devoid of pretense: here, kids, stuff these visibly sweetened pellets into your yappers and accept your lot in life. Sugar cookies laid bare the essential compromise: take the cookie and Stand Single File; take the cookie and You Can Only Sign Your Name In Cursive; take the cookie or We’ll Wait. Maddy wanted to flip The Box up and over (beige discs scattering along the carpet), stand atop The Box, turn to her skittering compatriots and declare: “Fellow kids! We are better than this! Do not debase yourselves - together we can build our own art, and our art will build us too!”
Counselor Omar pressed a sugar cookie into Maddy’s outstretched palm. She scuttled away from The Line, still buzzing with hungry, hawing kids. Broke the cookie into two halves, watched the pale crumbs float down like dandruff. Stuffed a half between her teeth and crunched, crunched, crunched, crunched. Maddy crunched: At some point or another, she sighed, we’ve all taken the sugar cookie.
From the white plastic bleachers, the YMCA pool looked jewel-polished blue. It was an optical illusion. Maddy had learned about illusions during science section last year, right before the summer, when her second grade teacher Ms. Karpovsky started showing documentaries on a boxy television that she wheeled in on a black cart. Illusions were when you saw something impossible, but up close the impossible thing was very normal, very natural, and your eyes were just confused. In this case, Maddy knew the water was clear, it was just that the walls of the pool were lined with bright blue paint. From up close, clear, from far back, blue. Maddy took a certain pride in divining this without anybody telling her. Kenneth, another swimmer in her group, once told her (and anybody that would listen) that the water was blue because of a special chemical they put in the water that turned it blue. The chemical was made out of stingray blood, which was also blue. And, (listen,) that was the same reason oceans were blue: stingrays had died there. Maddy wondered how long Kenneth would continue to spread that story. Some kids just had harebrained ideas, the same way some kids always had a runny nose.
Eight kids pushed off the edge of the pool and darted toward the center, dunking themselves under the water, kicking, heads bobbing above and below the surface. The kick-spray misted Maddy’s cheeks up in the second bleacher. Even though she told Counselor Ty, their swim instructor, that she had a stomachache and didn’t want to swim, she still had to change into a bathing suit and cap and sit up in the bleachers. The plastic seating looked white enough from far away (another optical illusion). Up close, the butt ridges, what else could you call them, were gunked up with something dark and brown. It was probably mold, and convinced Maddy to fold her Elsa towel into a thick square and wedge it underneath her butt as a protective barrier.
Her stomach was fine. Had been fine, at least. The cookie of the day felt a little gummy on the inside, but that wasn’t unusual, especially before swimming. She came up with the stomachache story on the way down to the pool area. Counselor Ty, when she told him, nodded slowly: “Oh no! Sorry buddy! Do you need to see the nurse?” She didn’t. “Okay, you sure?” She was sure. “Well, suit up and you can hang out on the bleachers.” And now that she was here, her stomach was actually feeling strange in a nameless way. Not painful or queasy, but off, unfamiliar, like a friend with a new haircut. Perhaps she had imagined her way into this sensation, the same way she could, lying awake at night, imagine her mind floating up and out of her brain, up over the flat brown roof of her building, high enough to see the whole of the silent, twinkling neighborhood, until a wave of astonishment swelled in her, until she felt certain (at night, feeling was stronger than knowing) that real-life-right-now Maddy was telepathically connecting with all the other kids who had this secret gift, wiring together like shoelaces and sending up a midnight communique:
DAY NOMINAL, STILL HOPEFUL.
GRANDMA MADE WASH ELBOWS. ELBOWS PINK NOW.
HEARD UNIVERSE IS INFINITE. KNOW TRUE?
DAY SUBNOMINAL. REPEAT.
YES, HEARD. HAPPENS DOWN THERE.
MINECRAFT AT MY SCHOOL.
And so on.
The nightwiring (she had started to call it), it was sort of like a chorus. Once a month, Mr. Albini (“Mister Al-bald-i”) joined Maddy’s class and led a music section. He spent his meager time most months attempting to teach the recorder, a plastic pipe that doot-ed out the Lego version of whatever windy note Maddy tried to blow. There was a moment, however, just a grain of a moment really, on the day he taught the class to sing My Country Tis Of Thee. As a warmup, he split the students into four groups. He had the first group, all boys, start by saying the letter ‘O’ in a low pitch. “Just keep saying ‘O’, and if you need a breath, take a quick gulp and keep at it,” he told Group One. He told the second group, mostly-but-not-all boys, to sing ‘O’ a little higher. The third group, of which Maddy was a part, sang ‘O’ a little higher than that, and the fourth group, all girls, highest of all.
“Shout it out,” said Mr. Albini, “Bellies big, mouths big!”
As Maddy oh-ed, the class oh-ed, and the sound in the room swelled. The air around her started to feel lumpy, boiling in the blaring voices. Mr. Albini rushed to Group Four, eyebrows arched. He pumped his upturned palms in the air, (higher!) (higher!) clasped his fists (stop-there!).
The floor dropped out of the room. She fell without falling. Out of twenty eight voices (twenty nine with Maddy), a single voice condensed, a tactile thing: a sharp, fragile, flawless, crystalline harmony. She tried to raise her voice, to discern the tone of her lungs from the other children, but she had been swallowed completely. She floated on their sea, and then she was the sea.
From her Angry Birds bed sheets, Maddy could fall up into the night sky and find herself floating in those waters again, where the streams of her memories, her moods, her impressions, her questions, where Maddy-in-real-life left herself and met and swirled with her formless, essential kidling peers. Kids in beds, unite.
Escapery impossible, impossible in this hollow orange gymnasium, forested in squeakers, flailers, and fizzers dancing in dizzy circles like bubbles in chicken soup. A kid could get lost in this jungle. Maddy stuck to the perimeter. Above the wide entrance, a blue clock marked four-fifteen in carrot hands. Jess Silver taught Maryam and Jessica Klein some sort of dance she had found on her phone: bounce, bounce, hop (hand up), step, step, lean. Maddy spotted Jon M. and a boy she knew only as the The Kid With Sideburns playing rock-paper-scissors before an audience of four. The boys whooped with revelation at the conclusion of each round. Finally, Jon collapsed to his knees, slapped his forehead, and moaned in comic agony. Sideburns Kid pumped his elbows back and his hips forward. The sharp, ragged trill of a plastic whistle woke the boys from their exchange of honor gestures.
Counselor Omar stood in the center of the gym with one hand raised above his head. Three short whistle-blasts issued from his lips. Around him, little hands went up, slowly spreading from child to child like a chain of cracks in an ice pond. The kid-quacking slowed and the room deflated to silence. Near silence. A dual thread of furtive whispers snuck along the corner of the room. Counselor Omar, long-legged, long-armed, turned to face the pocket of resistance. A handful of kids close to the whisperers, smoldering in Counselor Omar’s attention, shushed them out like campfire. Smart to the routine, several other children forcefully shushed the shushers. A scattering of giggles bubbled to the ceiling, a last bit of subversive carbonation.
Second activity was beginning.
Counselor Omar hugged a large red rubber ball under the crack of his long left arm. A weapon, Maddy told herself. He had brought a weapon to second activity.
Counselor Omar said, “How y’all doing today?”
A confetti of replies sent back:
“Y’all have a good time at first activity?” said Omar.
A reply, in unison: “Yeah!”
“If you’re ready for second activity say yeah!”
“Say,” he paused. “Applesauce!”
Applesauce came back, along with a gaggle of laughter.
“Say,” Omar paused and kneeled down, made eye contact with Hendrick, a squat boy in a Crayola-blue John Cena t-shirt. “What should they say,” asked Omar.
Hendrick’s eyes darted to the surrounding kids, briefly stunned by the moment thrust upon him. History awaited his response: “Big, hairy bellybuttons!” said Hendrick, to history.
“Big, hairy bellybuttons!” the kids shouted back. Laughter overfloweth. The kids were ready. Counselor Omar pushed to his feet and raised his hand again to quell the giddy commentary sprung by Hendrick’s rallying cry. He then moved the red ball from under his arm to between his hands.
“Who thinks they know what the game is today-raise-your-hand!”
Maddy knew. She knew.
“If you know, shout it out on three. One, two, two-and-a-half, two-and-three-quarters.”
“Bombardment!” shouted the crowd.
Omar straightened his right arm out in front and took a few steps back. “This half of the room,” he said, pushing his hand to the left, “you’re on Team Christine.” Counselor Christine waved from the side of the room. “This half of the room,” he pushed to his right, indicating the side of the room that included Maddy, “is on Team Omar.” A pair of righteous cheers popped from Team Omar’s side. “Team Omar, go get your pinnies from the box over there.”
Maddy followed the wriggling procession over to the cardboard box at the back of the room. Pinnies. Bombardment. Words sounded weirder in the late afternoon, she reflected. Or maybe bizarre things just flourished in the post-lunch, pre-dinner, non-naptime netherrealm of the dopey afternoon and the weird words that represented them followed along like ducklings. A pinny (she now knew) was the dumpy, brightly colored netting a kid was required to wear over her shirt to signal her allegiance to a team. Why it was called a “pinny”, she had no clue. Rhea had once suggested that it was because they were supposed to pin them to their shirts, but she’d never seen anyone actually do that. It was just one of those little mysteries, like what coffee tasted like or why nobody used two-dollar bills anymore.
Bombardment, at least, sounded like what it was: Bombs. Hard. Meant to be that way. Bombardment meant big boys chucking tight orbs at her knees. Bombardment meant the confusion of taking a breath and the air not fitting, because Jeff Zarcovsky flung weaponized rubber at her chest while she wasn’t looking. Bombardment meant stinging elbows, near misses, barked orders, disappointing trajectories, puffed chests, disputed calls, yelping, yipping, crouching, whizzing, and waiting. Waiting above all. Waiting for the red ball (or the purple, or the green one) to smash into her. Waiting for Counselor Omar to blow the final whistle. Waiting for the knowledge that these kidder critters and their blasted games didn’t matter to scrape out the simmering sensation that they did.
Maddy would not resign herself to fate. A careful kid could last in this game with a measure of caution. As long as she kept her feet moving, weaved between the lines of dodgers and chuckers, and made no effort to approach the balls that rolled their way toward her toes, she could enjoy obscurity. Aaron Wesner darted into her path, scooped up an orange kickball, and launched it across the line, pegging Wesley in the hip. Sideburns Kid, tall for his age (and with some sort of budding, bobbing nib in his throat), held two rubber balls, one in each hand. He stalked the the field and surveyed the weak links in her team. He threw himself backward to avoid an incoming volley, picked out the attacker (Brenna, a square-shouldered blonde from swim class), and struck. Brenna gasped and kicked the air. Sideburns Kid then spotted a second target. It was Ankur, who held a big green ball between his hands, looking at noone in particular, an easy grin on his face. Sideburns nailed him in the shoulder and knocked the ball from his hands. Ankur turned his head and laughed.
Maddy’s side held its own, but the triangle of Sideburns Kid, Jon M., and Mike Rizzo commanded the center of the court and prevented Maddy’s teammates from reaching any of the straggling balls that had rolled near the dividing boundary. Somehow, Jessica Klein and Jess Silver had been drafted onto separate teams. Maddy shadowed Jessica, hoping to remain unnoticed behind her taller, ever-vocal classmate. Jessica narrated her fleeting conquests and mounting grievances: “That’s right, what, no that hit you, yup. Yup. Bye. That got you in the sock. Bye. Ack! Ah you missed! Ah ha ha ha. What, no! No! That bounced off the ground first. Wait, Finn caught that. I saw that. Finn did. He caught it. He should have. It doesn’t matter. Stop. Why are you throwing at me. I don’t even have a ball. Why are you throwing at me. Ha, you missed,” until they didn’t miss, and two balls hit Jessica Klein at the same time, knocking her into a wobbly quarter-spin. She crumpled. Maddy covered her mouth and grinned until she realized that Jessica’s fall left her exposed on the open floor. A purple orb nudged her ankle like a puppy: fling me, Maddy.
Save this game.
A manic vision coursed behind her eyes. The spell brought her to one knee. She grabbed the ball between her hands as her eyes narrowed and locked onto the triplet of marauding boys near the front. “Just try it,” her mind blasted at them, a dragon furnace. Eight players remained on her side, maybe a handful more than that on the opposition. She took a deliberate step forward. Lightning arced from the ground. Another. Wind swept her hair into a curly black crown. She feared no attack. She would bat them away like Thor. She glanced to the teammates on her left: Aaron and Hendrick shared with her a knowing look: on three, we all attack.
She picked out her target. Down with Sideburns.
Three, two, one.
Maddy took two quick skips, lowered her shoulder, and launched her ball. She heard the terse snap of rubber on flesh. She looked up.
Sideburns Kid (what was he, six feet tall already?) cupped the ball in his chest. Payload secure. “Ha,” he said. “You’re out.”
Another ball hit her as she walked to jail, right in the rib.
Maddy sat back-to-wall, knees-to-chest. Ankur sat next to her and watched the twisted, tangled remainder of the game unwind itself. Sideburns’s catch didn’t just send her to jail, it also sprang all of his teammates out of jail. The renewed opposition pressed forward. Her team retreated to the back of the gym, forcing their attackers to lob slow, long balls. Seven teammates remained. Now six. Jon M. called out from the across the floor: “Fee-Fie-Fo-Fum. I smell the end of this game has come.”
Maddy had really mucked it all up. Her chest tightened. A tingling pooled behind her eyes. The day had no need for her; the game played itself. The kidlings would be here every day, tossing their fists up in victory, stomping and grumbling in defeat. Leaning into each other and sharing secrets. Gabbing, laughing wide, covering their mouths. Stealing fruit snacks from each others’ palms and chasing each other to the end of the hall. She was as essential to their howling, happy play as sand in a shoe. She pressed her lips tight and rested her forehead on her knees.
“You okay?” said Ankur, to her right.
“Just tired,” said Maddy. She raised her head. “Can’t wait to go home.”
“What are you doing at home?”
“I don’t know,” said Maddy. “Real life.”
Ankur rubbed his nose. “I watched two episodes of Buffy last night,” he said.
“Did you like it?”
“I liked the vampire fights. They were funny. The vampire faces were scary though. How many have you seen?”
“Oh, plenty,” said Maddy. “They’re all on Netflix.” Aaron Wesner leapt headfirst to avoid a rubber missile. The ball slammed into the floor, sailed up, and ricocheted off a basketball hoop. Kids hollered from both jails, impressed and incensed.
“How did you get out,” Ankur asked.
“Someone caught my ball,” said Maddy.
“Oh,” said Ankur. “I got hit in the arm.”
“Did it hurt?”
“No, it was funny,” said Ankur.
“Why funny,” said Maddy. She traced a wild-haired vampire queen with her finger on the gummy gym floor.
“Well I wondered what it would be like to be a bender, like in Avatar, and I was controlling the balls in the air. And none of the balls could hit me. And then balls were hitting people on our own team, and I had to come up with a reason why I would bend the balls into them. Like, that’s what you get for drinking at the water fountain for so long today. That’s what you get for burping during a marshmallow eating contest. And then I got hit, and so I laughed. Because I had to figure out a reason why I would hit myself.”
Maddy smiled. “Why is that,” she asked. With the heel of her hand, she smudged out the faint nubs of hands she had grafted to her vampire queen. Drew some claws. Ankur pushed himself up to a squat.
“We’re back in,” he said.
“Hm?” Maddy lifted her head. Her teammates jogged back to the floor.
“Somebody caught it,” said Ankur. “Come on, we’re back in.”
The kickballs hurtled harder than before, as if the rejuvenation of her team had also stripped the air of its thickness. Balls curved and snapped into the ground, scarring the floor’s plastic sheen. Kiddo cries erupted at a quickening pace. Maddy hugged the back of the gym. She had learned the price of effort in her previous go-round. The anonymity of failure. The inevitability. Better to allow the main characters in this show play their part:
Aaron Wesner struck fear into the opposing side, his earlier gymnastics creating a haze of invincibility around him. He knocked off two boys standing and picking their nose near the window.
Brenna zipped a ball past Mike Rizzo and hit Jon M. in the thigh. Jon kicked the ball he was holding. The ball nearly glided through the basketball hoop that Maddy huddled beneath. Counselor Christine fingered Jon over for a follow-up conversation.
Sideburns eliminated Hendrick with a hard, well-placed shot that Hendrick couldn’t hold onto.
The herd thinned.
Maddy watched and hid.
Maryam knocked Brenna out of the game, and Aaron beaned her in retaliation. Maddy wondered if Aaron liked Brenna. It seemed possible: they were both good at sports, and sports kids liked to pretend they were already teenagers.
Sideburns pegged Ankur again. This time, Ankur shrugged and walked back to jail.
Maddy turned her head to find Aaron with his arms at his sides. Two globes, one orange, one green rolled away from his feet. He sighed, chuckled, and jogged to jail. Mike Rizzo and Sideburns bumped fists.
The creaking, the squeaking, the shouting, they dwindled. Maddy’s face flushed. She scanned the field from the back of the room and found only Jessica Klein remained alive on her team. (And,) (yes,) Maddy also. Across the gym, Sideburns, Rizzo, and Jess Silver drew hungry smiles.
A turn: Jess Silver cracked Jessica Klein with the red kickball. Jessica huffed and threw her arms down. “What the hell, Jess,” she said, and stormed to the side.
Down to Maddy.
Maddy glanced at her team’s jail: cubbies, kidders, standers, sitters, and squatters stared back. Runny-nosed goblins. Future queen eggheads. Leading boys. Girls that knew the new dances. The jig was up.
Mike Rizzo launched a ball that swooshed above her head and clapped the wall.
“Go-Maddy-go, go-Maddy-go,” said a voice from the sidelines. Someone knew her name? A second volley, from Sideburns, danced in the air and bent toward her feet, bouncing off the hardwood with a rattlesnake snap.
There was only one end to this game.
She’d been hit with a dodgeball plenty of times before. Whichever part the ball hit would ring like a bell, and she’d feel a static numbness. The numbness would condense into a hot burn, which would cool to a dull ache. Her teammates would make a sound like a balloon squealing off a cliff. They’d wonder what spectacular pirouette Aaron would have demonstrated if he were in her place, or whether Brenna could have caught a Sideburns pelt, the way nobody else could. The hands of the carrot clock would snail crawl to four fifty-five. She could give herself to the future. The present, with its three jagged teeth across the orange-coned boundary, the present wasn’t for her.
She stepped forward. Sideburns took the shot.
Maddy sat down. She stared at a red lump growing from her chest; a ruby sprouted from a fallen titan. She held it in her arms, her beating heart. The cries lapped upon her. The cheers. Legs and bodies rushed past her, a hopping, hurdling, shrieking (yes, shrieking) tide. She receded into the waves. She would live here, in her kingdom. When they pulled her up, what they retrieved from the waters was an unknown thing.