The heat suppresses the class’s buzz, keeping our restlessness static. The backs of my thighs stick to the orange plastic chair and I imagine my flesh pooling in the pores: spilling into the cracks like caulking that foams and sets. Macy leans forward at the desk beside me to braid Lea’s sheet of white-blonde hair, letting the spare strands fall into the void where they sway and shimmer, so crystalline, I half expect them to refract the sunlight.
I pretend to gaze out the window past Macy’s head, at the spiny playground’s metal bones half exhumed, the red paint sunlit faded to dusty rose. But really I’m watching her: how her nimble fingers with nails painted metallic purple weave effortlessly, the perfect arch of her new eyebrows, and the tube top she wears in flagrant rebellion of the dress code.
My stomach cartwheeled when I saw the assigned seating on the first day. Quinn and Macy, Macy and Quinn. I glance down at my own three-finger abiding tank. My nails are bare and teeth-torn.
The bell induces metal scraping on linoleum and the applause of closing books. I take my time, in no rush to walk home. Macy slips gracefully out of her chair and hovers while I slide books into my backpack.
“Hey Q, we need an extra today. Come with.”
I stare blankly at her.
“We don’t have all day, Q.,” she sighs. “Let’s go.” Until now, it’s been Quinn: Quinn, what did you get for number five? Can I just copy off your last answer quick, Quinn?
She grabs my hand and pulls me around the desk. I glance over my shoulder and catch Evan staring curiously, his tawny freckles swirling tighter and tighter around his gaze, like his blue eyes are drains sucking them in. I shrug slightly and follow Macy outside, past the jungle gym straining under swinging bodies and behind the baseball diamond where white dust rises as steadily as steam off a bath.
I know where we’re headed: past the poison ivy warnings and into the brambles, through the forest that leads to the river, which we’re supposed to stay away from. The river widens and narrows, speeds and slows fickly, at the whims of the rain; as a kid I pictured it like a giant convulsing snake, waiting coyly in emaciation then swelling in roaring hunger.
We enter the thicket and Macy expertly parts low hanging leaves and ducks under branches. I try to follow her choreography. The twigs don’t make noise under her feet but snap angrily under mine. Finally, we reach a small clearing. I can’t see the river, but it sounds fast and panoramic, like we’re on an island.
They sit in a semi-circle: Dominic hugging his knees, Jamie beside him in a blue basketball jersey and flat-brimmed hat taming tufts of blonde, Patrick lying on his side, wearing the same holey black toque I’ve seen teachers confiscate. Lea’s plait has fallen loose except for a few stubborn weaves at the base of her neck. She sits pertly with her legs tucked underneath, fanning her paisley patterned skirt: a blooming flower in the shade.
Macy pulls me to the ground beside her to complete the circle. She shifts until she settles cross-legged into the patchy, dry grass. I do the same and notice blue veins spreading under my pale skin, like rivers on a map.
“Sara’s still sick,” she says, and the others nod. “What are we using? Ugh, Pat I can’t believe you broke our good stick.”
“He’s a moron,” Dominic says with a half smile. Patrick reaches over and punches him hard in the side.
“We found this,” Lea says and produces a foggy plastic coke bottle from behind her with the label still in tact.
“It’ll work, right?”
No one has even glanced my way. Have I dreamt myself into these woods?
Jamie grabs the bottle from Lea. “I’ll go first.”
He places it in the centre of our circle and spins it with a quick snap of his wrist. The bottle’s too light and it twirls wildly, nearly bouncing out of the circle, but Macy catches it.
“We need to weigh it down. Toss me some stones.” They lazily pick through the dirt and grass and lob pebbles at her feet. I scramble to contribute. Macy twists off the top and fills the bottle. Silently, she places it back in the centre and spins it with a push from her forefinger. It spirals quickly and slows to a wobble. The red cap squarely faces Dominic.
“God, Dom, I always get you.” They crawl to the middle. Macy balances on her knees and one hand, and grabs Dominic’s pimply cheek with the other. They kiss quickly before backing into their positions.
My face burns. I think of Evan, walking home alone, his hands in the pockets of his stained khaki shorts, trudging past the shrinking houses until he reaches our division, the only one with town houses. Townies. I’ve heard it in the halls.
He’ll leave his backpack by the door and go straight to the kitchen for chocolate chip cookies, the generic kind that crumble easily. Usually, he grabs a handful and leaves the bag on the table for me while I do my homework and he plays video games. Sometimes, if our moms come home early, we all eat dinner together, sniffing the contents of mismatched Tupperware and pooling what’s edible. When I was younger, I pretended we lived in one giant house instead of one split in two. When my alarm blares in the morning, before I even open my eyes, I reach back and knock on the wall to make sure Evan’s awake.
Dominic spins the bottle and I desperately dig my nails into my thighs. It stops at Jamie beside me. He closes his eyes and makes a kissy face in Dominic’s direction.
“You wish, shithead,” Dominic says before spinning the bottle again. It lands on Lea. She turns to him and brushes a wisp of hair out of her face. He smiles and leans in slowly. They kiss for a long time, locked together like they’re posing, waiting for the click of a shutter to break the spell.
“Get a room, you guys.” Macy leans in to pull Lea’s hair. The braid comes undone. They finally separate, smiling at each other.
My nails still dig, dig, dig into my flesh, drilling for water. Burrowing for blood. But I don’t feel it.
Lea spins and gets Pat, Pat spins and it lands on Macy. Am I saved? Finally, Dom spins and I look the cap in the eye.
“You know how to do this, don’t you Q?” Macy asks challengingly. Words crawl over each other in my throat, so I nod. Dominic looks at me curiously, like I’m a new species he’s discovered, and slowly crawls toward me. When do I close my eyes?
A branch cracks loudly in the thicket. We all swivel.
I see his eyes first, piercing the greenery.
“Townie! What the hell are you doing here?” Macy yells angrily.
“Man, what the fuck. Did you tell him to come?” Dom asks. I shake my head. Evan stands calmly at the edge of the clearing, half camouflaged by large green leaves flapping like waving hands. I catch Macy and Dom invoking a contingency plan with a single glance. She gives an almost imperceptible nod and he grabs the bottle.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” he says. “Come kiss your girlfriend, we don’t mind.”
Macy’s laugh is a bark and Lea giggles nervously. Evan doesn’t come forward or retreat. Dom slaps the bottle into his palm in a slow, heavy rhythm and I realize his plan as he winds up.
RUN, I yell. But I don’t, it’s only in my head.
Dom whips the bottle flatly. It doesn’t ascend, but somersaults quickly: end over cap, cap over end. I shut my eyes but hear the muffled thud, the howling around me.
“Yeah, you’d better run!” someone shouts.
When I open my eyes, he’s gone. The leaves are still and the bottle lies indifferently on the ground. My throat constricts and hot tears start to well, but through them I see a blurry figure looming. I don’t move.
“Now, where were we Q?”
His lips meet mine, hot and raw. Sound is amplified with my eyes shut. Layered and instrumental, I hear: the adagio of applauding leaves overhead, Macy’s whooping melody beside me, and beneath it all, the river’s bass thundering past. I wait for Dom to pull away so I can breathe. When he does, it’s quiet and I open my eyes to his smirking face retreating. Macy claps me too hard on the shoulder. I look down at my legs and focus on the crimson crescent-moons left by my nails, threatening to sever my river veins.