I watch Ava peel down her panties. Her ass a kicked apple: Brown. Purple. Blue. She tucks wads of newspaper inside her jeans, zips up, and smiles. “Ready.”
At lunch she sticks with me. This is good—with her I get more attention. From the opposite corner of the school, Mike and Dominic look to where we lean against the rough pebbled wall. My stomach feels funny—scared and excited mixed together. We run as soon as we see the boys make a move. Dom catches Ava first. Whack—his closed fist meets her newspapered rear. From different parts of the field, Mike and I watch Dom and Ava. Everyone always watches Ava. Dom lingers after hitting her, close to her, saying things that Ava likes but pretends not to. I scan the playing field. Mike is after me. He nears, and I know what is coming, suck my breath in as his arm draws back and then—slug—pain on pain. The New York Yankees logo on the back of his jacket bounces as he speeds off, in search of the next girl.
In the washroom, Ava, Jill, and I compare bruises. Jill doesn’t have many. She is taller than all the boys and a bit pigeon-toed. Ava straightens her hair in the mirror. “I saw Mike chasing you today.” She meets my eyes, impressed. She is proud when I get attention from boys. Her approval feels like warm buttered toast on a cold day.
“This is kind of sick, you guys.” Jill’s back is to the mirror as she nibbles on a fingernail, cutting it down.
“This. It’s stupid. And sick.”
Jill is jealous. We know that the more popular you are, the more bruises you have, and the more the boys like you. The popular boys—the boys who talk about doing it, and who call girls raisins, grapefruits, or melons based on the size of their boobs. The boys who love Ava because she wears teeny tiny cutoffs none of the other girls can fit into. Ava, who already wears a 36B bra and she is only 12. Ava, who has brown skin and we are all pale and freckly. Ava.
Ava is carefully smearing on ruby lipstick, her face almost touching the mirror. I don’t wear any because I don’t like the taste. Besides, my mom would shoot me. I dig strawberry lip gloss out of my pocket. Ava catches my eye. I know what she is thinking. We have to appease Jill. Jill is the kind of girl to fink if she feels it is for our own good, the kind of girl who writes everything in her diary. Dangerous.
“It’s just a game, Jill,” I begin.
“We’re just having a little fun,” Ava adds, peering over her shoulder and bending to make the denim stretch tight over her rump.
“Ever heard of assault?” Jill crosses her arms in front of her chest.
“Jesus, Jill. Relax,” I say, as Ava spins from the mirror, faces Jill.
“You have to promise you won’t tell.”
“I don’t need to promise.” Jill is even taller in her blue striped sweater.
“You have to promise, Jill.” Ava is really serious. A trickle of sweat drips under my arm. I focus on some graffiti behind Jill’s head, Wanda is a cow, say nothing, avoid their eyes.
“All right, all right. But I think you’re sick.” Jill marches out of the bathroom in a huff, and Ava and I laugh, hands on blue-jeaned knees, heads close together, until we say, “Stop! Stop! I’ll pee my pants!” These are the times with Ava I love the most. No boys. No other girls. Just us.
That night I have a bath. I carefully lock the bathroom door before peeling off my jeans. I look at my ass in the mirror: yellow, blue, and purple with thin red stripes where blood vessels have broken. For a moment I think of quitting the game. I touch my butt gently and wince. Do those guys have to hit so hard? I turn to face the mirror and sigh. Will my boobs never grow? I don’t even need a bra yet. Ava and Jill are both huge already. I take my pointless bra off and throw it at the wall just as I hear Mom outside the door.
I lurch to the door to check the lock. “Can’t I ever get any privacy?” Mom grunts and leaves. I slide into the scalding tub, gasping.
The next morning, Jill and I walk to school. Jill and I have a different friendship to the one I have with Ava. Jill and I talk about big things. We have plans for our lives. We want to move far away from these suburbs where there isn’t even a movie theatre. We want to see the world, shop in Manhattan, sail down the Nile. Ava wants to get married and have babies. That is in the plans for Jill and me too, but near the middle of the list, not the beginning. Jill is smart. I am smart too. Ava is smart if she tries, but she doesn’t usually try. Still, Ava is really my heart friend while Jill is my head friend.
“Mr. Jameson is taking the enrichment group to Vancouver.” Jill shifts her flute case to her other hand, adds, “My mother is worried, of course.” She pauses, grins. “She is sure we’ll be accosted by weirdos or something. The big city freaks her out.” Snide giggles as I hoist my Adidas bag over my shoulder. “Everyone in THIS town is just soooo normal, right?”
We are on the school grounds now. Up ahead I see Dom and Mike, both in jean jackets, huddling against the wall of the school. I feel every freckle on my skin, every movement of my arms and legs.
“You playing today?” Mike asks. I nod, noticing that he has spoken only to me and not to Jill, and we keep moving into the beehive of the school, dodging tiny kids with massive Star Wars lunch kits.
“K, about the game,” Jill begins, pulling on my sleeve, long-faced, but then we see Ava running toward us, and she says no more.
“Hi, guys, ready for the big game?” Ava spins around and touches her butt, eyebrows arching. I laugh softly, notice that Jill is slouching a bit, her neck bending to our height.
“I think I’ll do something else at lunch,” Jill says, and walks down the hallway, flute case gripped tight to belly.
Ava snickers, says, “It’s just that she doesn’t get any attention. She’s jealous.”
Saturday night my parents go out and Ava sleeps over. By 8:00 we are in our nighties watching Nightmare on Elm Street and eating chips. At about 9:00 we hear low-pitched giggles, and someone calls out, “Show us your tits!” We run to the sliding window and open it, wondering if the light from outside makes our nighties see-through.
“You pigs!” Ava yells.
“Come on,” Dom says softly, “You know you want to.”
“Don’t be disgusting,” I say. “Let’s go, Ava.” I move to close the door, but she shakes her head no.
“Anyway,” Dom says to me, “you don’t have any tits.” Dom and Mike burst into laughter. Ava runs outside and pushes Dom hard.
“Don’t be an asshole!”
“I was only kidding.” Dom wraps his arms around Ava, cups her boobs with both hands and then holds her arms behind her back so Mike can get a feel as well. Ava’s laugh sounds unreal, canned laughter, but I know it comes from deep inside. She finally pushes them away and comes to sit beside me in the doorway, eyes sparkling. I sit with my knees drawn up and my arms crossed tightly around them, my nightie wrapping my feet, listening to Dom and Mike flirt with Ava. My butt is sore in this position. Soon, Dom grabs Ava’s foot and tries to pull her outside again so he can get a peek up her nightie. I go inside.
When Ava comes inside I am already in my sleeping bag on the floor. Her nipples poke through her nightie.
“Why didn’t you tell them to leave?” I swallow the lump in my throat.
“What’s the big deal?” Her cheeks are flushed bright.
“They were mean, Ava.”
“It was only a joke.” Ava is fussing with her sleeping bag and fluffing her pillow. I can feel the cold of her skin in the distance between us. She lies down, pulls the covers up.
After a while, I say, “You can’t understand what it’s like.”
“What do you mean?”
“All the boys love you. You have a perfect body and that is what they’re after.”
“But everyone likes you too, Kim. Mike likes you. Look how much he chases you.” Ava tries to touch my arm, but I pull away, turn my back.
“Nobody wants to touch me.” Ava says nothing, but reaches out a hand and strokes my arm as I go to sleep.
I choose my clothes carefully. First, three pairs of underwear, and I line the outermost pair in mini pads. This is my newest trick, and it seems to help. Jeans must be tight, but not too tight that I can’t run. Top doesn’t matter too much because outside I’ll be wearing my jacket. Hair is washed and brushed shiny. A little lip gloss is the final touch—watermelon. Mike talked to me yesterday. It wasn’t much—he asked if I was ready for the game. I said I was. He said he was gonna get me good.
We rush to eat our sandwiches, head outside. Jill has joined some club at lunch now, so she doesn’t come. There are only a few other girls who still play besides Ava and me, but Dom and Mike spend most of their time on us. We are the targets of choice. In this game, I matter.
We see them. Their faces have that wind-bitten look that boys get from being outside in not enough clothing. I remember that Mike’s lips, although I can’t see them from here, are very chapped. I find this revolting, but put it out of my mind for now. They lean against the side of the school and pretend not to notice us. We do the same on the other end of the building. They begin walking toward us. I feel squirrelly. Their walk is determined and fast. Ava is doing a strange hopping thing, and her eyes are shining and bright. When we can stand it no longer, we run, together for a time, and then Ava moves toward the swing set while I head to the soccer field. I run fast, ears cold in the wind, weaving in and out of a soccer game in process. I can hear Mike’s breathing behind me. I see him reaching out to grab me, but I dodge. I laugh and run across the field, nose dripping in the cold. I sneak another look behind me, but trip and fall, my knees and hands skidding along the pebbles of the field. Mike is right behind me, breathing heavy. The gravel presses into my knees as I lift one hand to see how bad the cuts are. Staring at my bloody palm, I feel the blow of Mike’s runner hard against my ass, so hard I fall again, flat on my stomach. Mike’s runners make a scratching noise in the gravel as he laughs, heads toward the swings.
A red-haired grade one girl in braids and purple tights asks if I am all right, and I nod, stand up, and try not to cry. Across the field, Ava is running from the boys, dark hair swimming over the red of her coat. I hear her laughing as both Dom and Mike near her, grab at her, clumsy and strong. Her hair covers her face and her hands reach out as she falls. My jeans stick to the blood on my knees as I limp toward the school. I find some balledup Kleenex in my pocket, use it to dab my hands while I pick gravel out of my palms. The girl in the purple tights has joined the skipping girls on the blacktop. Cinderella, dressed in yella, went upstairs to kiss a fella. By mistake she kissed a snake. How many doctors did it take? One, two, three, four … The skipping rope clicks each time it hits the blacktop, alternating with the sound of the girls’ feet slapping down. In the distance, Ava shrieks again and I see her on the ground near the monkey bars, Dom and Mike trying to unzip her coat, get a feel.
I lean into the pebbled wall of the school, gently smooth my hair with aching fingers, reach into my pocket, smear cherry lip gloss across my lips, and wait.
Taryn Thomson’s “The Game” was long-listed for the 2010 CBC Literary Prize, and shortlisted for the Writer’s Guild of Canada Short Prose Competition for Developing Writers. A past participant of the Banff Centre’s Wired Writing program, Taryn lives with her children in East Vancouver where she teaches and writes.