by Michelle Thomas
Madison was a new student in the Detroit Waldorf school’s second grade, a class spoiled by three bad girls. Nikola! Emily! Beth! Teachers usually hollered their names. But the bad girls kept right on balancing on the log-fence that surrounded the playground, deaf as cats. Or tipping slinkies down the stairs two seconds before recess. Or chewing lemon Now and Later taffy—one of the many desk-destroying snacks parents were told not to provide—and smacking wetly during story time. Even if they’d been on their best behavior, Madison would have known they were bad just by looking at them. Their hair was dyed—blond to green; chestnut to red; black to blue—and each had one small braid wrapped with chunky embroidery thread hanging behind the left ear. Shiny temporary rose tattoos wrinkled on their flexed biceps.
Madison was not a part of the group. She hovered on its edge, sharing her chocolate Jell-o pudding cups with Emily, sharpening Nikola’s crayons, and French braiding Beth’s curly black hair. She was a smarty pants goody two shoes with fuzzy cornrows and sloppy acid-washed jeans, which were so over, according to Beth’s older sister Leah. Plus, she didn’t do anything after school—didn’t dance ballet or jazz, didn’t swim at the Yacht Club, didn’t ride horses. Perhaps the girls would have liked her if she wasn’t also a big fraidy cat. When Madison came over to spend the night for Emily’s birthday, she picked ‘Truth’ instead of ‘Dare’, like a chicken. She left the room when they asked about her first kiss. Mr. Carter, Emily’s dad, had to drive Madison home along with Danielle, the only other second grader who would cry when it was time to go to sleep. “She’s boring”, Emily told Nikola and Beth who snuggled deeply into their pink cotton sleeping bags. When the bad girls saw Madison at school on Monday, they all sniggled.
Still, Madison preferred the bad girls to her neighborhood friends. She had joined the class that fall and moved into a new house on the east side of Detroit at the same time. Since then, she had knocked on each bar-protected front door between her house on the corner and the oak tree six houses down and found only two kids—Chelsea and Faith, sisters born one year apart. And how could she have fun with those two? They went to the neighborhood school where the playground was a fenced-in square of concrete with a decrepit basketball hoop and a rickety swing set. They played Barbie and My Little Pony at recess, stretching the unyielding limbs of their plastic toys into jumps and flips. Madison tried once to teach them her school games—Pick-Up-Sticks and Mancala – but they snapped the painted sticks in half and threw the colored glass beads across her lawn and into the street where they bounded like skipping stones on the blacktop then plopped, forever out of reach, into the sewer drains. When she told them about her school, its classrooms full of pink gauze curtains and wooden trestles, they laughed. The school festivals sounded made up—kids holding paper lanterns with real candles inside? Placing their glowing lanterns along the trail like fallen stars?
“Do you go to school with a bunch of white kids?” they asked.
It was a mistake to tell them yes. They snickered. Then Chelsea called her “Oreo”. The name hurt. She felt like her skin was a black shell which lodged a creamy, colorless trespasser.
Most days after school, she shut herself in her room and read books about girls that spoke to dragons. She also liked to read practical books, like Where did I come from?, gifted from her mother so she wouldn’t have nonsense ideas about sex. Madison’s mother didn’t believe in that “vajayjay” and “wee-wee” business. Girls should know the proper names for their privates. After reading that book, she stripped her Ken doll, but all she found was an uninformative lump of plastic below his belly. Madison hated to read books about girls like herself, fatherless girls who struggled to fit in at school, shy girls with only one good sweater. But even those books were a better option than playing with Chelsea and Faith.
The last time she agreed to play with them, she was squished into the backseat of a car and driven by adults she did not know ten minutes past the boundary marked by the oak tree. Chelsea said the adults were cousins, and Faith said, come on Oreo. If she’d had someone to tell later, she would have said—this is why I went. She was driven to a house with brown velour drapes drowning out the afternoon light. The cousins pushed her shoulders and said to go on, to not act so scary, which made her want to reply that she was scared, not scary, but it was useless to talk to strange grownups about where fear came from—to them it was all monsters under the bed. Madison peeked into the playroom—a boy stood there, barricaded among two toy houses, scattered Legos, a barrel of monkeys, Tonka trucks still secured in their blue boxes by bubbling plastic, a tub of gak, a marble-less set of Hungry Hungry Hippos, G.I. Joe Action figures marching towards a small box TV playing Tiny Toons, an empty box of Trix with the white rabbit grabbing lustily at a bowl of fruit-dyed corn puffs, and a red plastic play table. Chelsea and Faith piled in on either side of him, teetering among the rubble. From the kitchen, Madison could hear the slap of cards on a metal folding table and smell the sweet smoke of Black & Mild cigars. Madison did not want to go into the room and close the door, which was behind the closed front door, which was too many turns down streets full of identical white siding houses for her to remember the way home. But she was more afraid to let the cousins find her still in the hallway.
It went like this: the boy suggested playing ‘truth or dare’. The game did not go the way Madison expected. The little boy dared Chelsea to kiss him. They threw their bodies together, mashing mouths, the muscles in their faces wrestling and straining—it looked about as much fun as trying to bite an oversized jawbreaker. Even though Madison said she wasn’t playing, the boy threw her onto his table without warning and shoved his tongue into her mouth, using the weight of his body to keep her from rising. His hands pinned her wrists. Hi muscly tongue licked her cheeks and behind her teeth, tasting of grape candy. She tried to stop him. She did. Her jaw closed on his tongue, but he pried her mouth back open with his lips. By the time she raised her knee to his crotch, he was done with her. He jumped off her and laughed. Faith cried. And Madison never agreed to come out and play with them again.
There was no escaping the game. At school, Madison she huddled with the bad girls in their favorite spot on the playground, a triangle house made of plywood panels tipped together to form a shelter. Nikola, Emily, and Beth disdained the fertile micro-climates on the school grounds—the willow tree oasis shaded by silver leaves, the woodchip hills, the sandpit, the swings. Instead, they hunted dark places to huddle. Beth started a game of Truth or Dare as soon as they sat cross-legged on the wooden floor. Madison felt sick when she was asked again if she’d ever kissed a boy. She wanted to say no, but she felt queasy at the idea of lying outright. Instead, she told the story with all the directions reversed.
“I pulled him down on top of me. It was like we were doing it.” She whispered the word and hovered over all of them. The girls shivered. They did not even breath. Madison loved this moment. It felt so good to linger in the glow of their attention. And so, she told them something she should have kept to herself.
“You know, when you do it,” she said, “the penis goes into the vagina.” The bad girls’ mouths popped open like corks—they were still saying pee-pee. They had not even heard the word vagina.
Beth pointed between her legs. “The vajayjay? Where you pee?” she said.
Madison shook her head at them, like they were slow, silly children.
“Then where?” Emily crossed her arms. Madison’s smile irritated like poison ivy. Emily hated to be the last to know a thing. Despite herself she leaned in when Madison crooked a short finger at the three of them.
“There’s a second hole,” Madison whispered.
Emily gaped. “Nuh-uh,” she replied but she couldn’t stop herself, she tried to feel, reaching with mental fingers down the belly and deep inside, searching for a space believed to be solid that was actually just air. How could it be there, unfelt? “I want to see,” she said. She stared between Madison’s legs—all of them did.
It made Madison remember the boy, whose name she had already forgotten. She shook her head.
“I dare you,” Emily said. “I dare you to show me.” The bell rang and relief washed down Madison’s spine. The bad girls slumped forward with disappointment. As they ran for the door, Madison prayed they would forget the whole thing.
They did not forget. At lunch recess, the bad girls selected a new girl to join them. Madison felt surprised by who they chose. Jackie was a fancy child, always dressed like a department store Christmas mannequin at the black mall—her pleated taffeta skirts stood at a stiff angle from her body and rustled when she moved. Her hair was tied into two braids pulled immaculately to each half of her head. The braids were tied together with a ribbon tied into an enormous bow that fluttered in wind like butterfly wings. Even her feet were encased in hard patent leather shoes that tapped the ground smartly as she walked. To unwrap her would be like chipping fruitlessly at a block of amber to get at a petrified fly. Huddling shoulder to shoulder under the sloping walls, everyone struggled to find space to stand upright around her. Jackie looked like she had stage fright—her eyes shifted round from one face to the next, looking for an out.
“If you wanna be in our club…” Emily’s tone was stern as a teacher’s.
“Yeah,” said Nikola, “you have to show us.”
“Your vaGIna,” said Beth in a sing-song voice, leaning heavily into the middle syllable, jutting her unripe hip to one side and her not-there-yet breasts foreword. Jackie slowly lifted her skirt up.
“Beauty and the Beast,” said Beth appreciatively, eyes on Jackie’s underwear, “I asked my dad for those.”
Nikola whined, “I can’t see.”
“It’s just panties,” said Emily, peeking under Jackie’s the ruffled slip. Madison could not move her eyes down to check. She kept her eyes on Jackie’s blank face. She should say something. But her stomach felt queasy, her palms hot. Her tongue was too thick for words. Could she make this stop without being called a chicken? She could lower Jackie’s skirt, take her hand and walk her to the swings, forget these girls. “Skip you!” she could say. But her hands and tongue stayed still.
Jackie leaked fear. Her lips pressed together and squeezed up towards her eyes, like she was pinching off the neck of balloon—from her throat came a high-pitched squeak.
Emily was disgusted. “Are you gonna cry?”
Nikola rubbed the air in front of her eyes with small fists, “Wah, wah,” she cried like a plastic baby doll, “I’m Jackie and I’m a fraidy cat.”
Jackie remained as she was, skirt up, eyes closed. When she refused to move further, Emily reached towards Jackie’s panties and hooked her fingers into the sides. Beth and Nikola swung their heads back and forth and heads ticking left to right like a metronome, chanting—vaGIna! vaGIna! vaGIna! Emily slid the panties down an inch. Jackie’s face was crunching inward. Madison felt nauseous.
Emily’s whipped back to Madison. “Where’s the hole?” she said. “How far down is it”
“Stop,” said Madison, “she’s crying.”
Emily kept pulling. The fabric began to bunch and sag. The bell rang and ended it. They didn’t say sorry.
Madison didn’t tell on them. Neither did Jackie. The only thing worse than being a crybaby and a fraidy cat is being a tattle tale. They didn’t talk to anyone about what happened. But the next recess, Madison asked Jackie if she wanted to play on the swings and Jackie accepted.
The bad girls did not miss them. The next recess they brought three more second graders to the club. The new kids formed a nervous half circle, nudging each other’s elbows. Madison and Jackie watched from across the playground, under the willow tree.
“They won’t find it,” Jackie said. “I checked in the bathtub last night, with a mirror. I’m waterproof.”
Madison didn’t correct her. She felt that if she and Jackie were to be real friends, there would have to be give and take – she couldn’t always be right. Instead, she said, “Let’s play on the slide.” Each girl in the triangle house held their belt loops as if clutching the edge of a cliff. They took a deep breath before the plunge and rushed a skirt up or pants down. Madison and Jackie threw themselves down the slide as many times as they could before the bell rang.
The club grew larger. Madison hoped her involvement was forgotten. More second grade girls pushed inside the triangle house each recess, but the teachers didn’t notice; its sloped, inch-thick walls, with narrow openings facing away from the school, could conceal half of the second-grade girls if they stood elbow to elbow. Madison felt second-hand shame. If Jackie did too, she didn’t say. It was soon impossible to hold all the children inside of the house at once, and somehow, they stopped caring about being unseen, huddling next to the house instead, always one child in the center.
Finally, they asked Danielle to join the club. Danielle, the “fraidy cat”. What were they thinking? Danielle was not easily mesmerized by bonds of friendship. Jackie was gone by then – her mother had removed her from the school. And Madison only saw the end – Danielle screamed. The sound ripped the veil away from the moment. Danielle tore out of the circle, pumping her short arms and howling. Madison watched from under the shade of the willow tree across the playground, saying nothing.
As the teachers rounded up the bad girls, Madison mounted the roots of the willow tree and gripped the cracked bark to haul her body up its curved trunk. It was just before 12:30 when the teachers would ring the bell and call them back to afternoon class. She crawled out onto a thick arm of the tree and lay down, adjusting her back along the hard curve of the branch. Children were not allowed to climb so high. But the teacher, yelling furiously at the trembling huddle of second grade girls, didn’t see her. Madison lay, feeling upside down in the world, gripping the tree so she wouldn’t slip down through the leaves and fall into the waves of the clouds. As her eyes swanned through swirls of air, she waited to hear to name called, to be summoned to the logs. But the strange thing about grownups, Madison would remember, is that they assume that trouble is immediate—as if children were goldfish swimming along in loops of thirty second action, no before, no cause.
Michelle Thomas is a fiction writer and essayist. After receiving her MFA from Colorado State University in 2020, she returned to Michigan to continue to work on her novel. Her previous fiction won a full scholarship to the Skidmore’s Summer Writers Institute, and a place in the University of Iowa’s International Writers Program. This is her first publication.