Boys Chase Girls
David S. Atkinson received his MFA in writing from the program at the University of Nebraska. His stories, book reviews, and articles have appeared in (and/or are soon to be appearing in) Gray Sparrow Press, Children Churches and Daddies, C4: The Chamber Four Lit Mag, Fine Lines, Gently Read Literature, The Rumpus, The Nebraska Lawyer and 2600: The Hacker Quarterly. The web site dedicated to his writing can be found here. He currently serves as a reader for Gray Sparrow Press and in his non-literary time he works as a patent attorney in Denver.
I walked down the block past that little dork Nicky’s house. I was on my way up to the hill by the graveyard to my new fort. It was really cool. My friend Steven didn’t make this one. It was mine. Steven always got to make the forts. Then, when he was mad, he’d say I couldn’t go in them. He couldn’t do that with this one, though, because it wasn’t his.
I built it with all these foam boards I’d found in the trash after one of my neighbors put siding on their house. They were big and flat, like life-size sticks of baseball card gum. It wasn’t squishy foam either. It was stiff. The fronts and backs were coated in foil, with all this tiny black letters printed all over it, squishing the blue foam in between. Looked like ice cream sandwiches astronauts might eat. I took all of them. Trash meant nobody wanted them anyway.
Hidden way on the top of the hill by the chain link graveyard fence, on a high spot surrounded by a half circle of little trees, was where I built it. I jammed the foam boards between the trees and fence to make walls and a roof. Like a shiny metal box. It wasn’t that big, I had to crouch down inside, but even Steven’s forts didn’t have roofs. I made doors, too. A front one and a back one so I could escape to either side. It was the best fort. I even covered it with branches and leaves so nobody’d see it from the alley.
I walked across the broken up old asphalt of the alley to get to my fort, back on the part of the alley between my block and the next, but when I get there my fort’s all broken! There were little broken up bits of foam and foil all over the hill. Even down in the potholes in the alley. No piece bigger than a quarter. The half circle of little trees were all bent and mashed, too, leaves and branches ripped off. It looked bare. I saw everything from the alley. I didn’t even have to go up the hill to look. I just stared. Then I heard somebody whisper, “Shhh. Come on.”
I looked toward the noise. Three girls were tiptoeing away down the path on the hill, looking away like I wouldn’t see them if they did. I’d never seen them before. They all had the same brown hair, but different. The first girl, with long hair, was almost as tall as me. She had on a billowy green skirt and this weird slick red jacket, shiny like plastic. Looked more like a costume than clothes, but not like it was supposed to be anything. Costumes are supposed to be something. A shorter, chunkier, curly-haired girl was in the middle. The last was a real little kid with long, long hair. Down to her waist. They were sneaking away from my fort!
“Hey!” They looked down at me, watery eyes all big and staring. All three of them. Frozen like squirrels in the road right when they first see my dad’s car coming at them. Then the first girl twitched like she was going to keep running. “Hey!” I yelled again. “What’re you doing up there?”
They unfroze and ran away. All three of them in a line. Like Goldilocks, but backwards, and they were the bears. Tallest to shortest. They ran because they wrecked my fort! “Come back here!” I ran down the alley after them. “I’ll kill you!”
They ran faster away from me on the hill. They didn’t even look back. I ran faster, too. “I’ll catch you,” I kept yelling as I ran. “You’re going to be sorry!”
I ran really fast, but they were pretty far ahead. The alley was full of potholes so I couldn’t run straight. Big ones, rough and full of gross old water. Even dodging around I kept stepping in one and tripping. Twisted up my ankle. There were rocks all over the place I had to miss, too. The girls just got further away and I started getting tired. They didn’t seem to be slowing down at all, though. Then I stopped because my side started hurting real bad and I couldn’t run anymore.
“I’m going to find you!” I tried to shout, but it was hard to breathe. I had to hold my side to be able to talk. “You can’t hide!”
She couldn’t hide, the first girl I mean. Not for long. She started going to my school. Not in my class, but I saw her when they mixed the fifth grade classes for stuff. She must have just moved and changed schools so that was why I hadn’t seen her before. I didn’t even have to look for her. She was just there. Still, I couldn’t just get her. I had to wait for my chance.
“Come on,” I muttered, fidgeting impatiently next to a metal pole.
We were all at the football field. Not at school, my school didn’t have a football field. The school had taken all the fifth grade classes to UNO for track and field. Everybody had just gotten done eating lunch and were running around on the fake grass some before the teachers got everybody back on the buses. There was a black spongy track, all covered in painted lines and numbers, running all around the field. It looked like cork but was all rubbery and smelled like plastic. Joy was walking circles around the field on it, by herself.
That was her name, Joy. One of the girls in her class told me. The girl said nobody in class liked Joy because she was weird, told them her dad had these really old Crayola bears he kept in a secret room hidden in their basement. Supposedly all sorts of people wanted them so they were worth like ten thousand dollars each and Joy said her dad was going to give them to her when she grew up. Nobody believed her.
“Keep walking,” I whispered, gripping the metal pole so hard my arm twitched. I couldn’t get her when there were teachers around. Joy knew it and acted like I wasn’t even there. I outsmarted her, though.
There were these big metal bleachers at one end between the field and the track. Almost tall as my house. Rows of flat metal benches going from the top all the way down to the ground and flat metal bars crisscrossing all around and bolted to each other inside. Like they a giant erector set. I snuck behind them. The teachers were all in the middle of the field, jawing. When Joy walked around the bleachers on the track, they couldn’t see her anymore.
It seemed like I’d waited forever. I thought maybe she’d figured it out, but then she came walking around, looking at some stupid butterfly. She had on a white jean skirt, hair tied back in a ponytail for track and field, and canvas shoes. Not tennis shoes. They were like Keds, but not real ones. She wouldn’t run fast wearing that. Not faster than me with my new Pony shoes. They had square bumps on the bottoms for digging into dirt. I don’t know why she was wearing that stuff on track and field day.
I stayed put until she walked a little past. When I couldn’t make myself wait anymore, I jumped out. Joy heard me and spun around. She froze, arms out, crouched down a little. Feet spread apart like she was leading off to steal a base. Her eyes open wide. She looked like the squirrel in the road again. That made me my dad’s car. She turned and bolted right before I started running. Her ponytail bobbed around all over the place as she ran.
“I got you now! You’re going to get it,” I yelled as I chased her. She didn’t say anything back. She just ran. She ran faster than me when I yelled and ran at the same time so I stopped yelling. Then I started catching up.
Suddenly, right as I was about to grab her, she ducked under the bleachers and ran in and out of the metal poles. I followed and tried to keep running as fast while dodging around, but I smacked right into the pole. I’d ran on one side of a pole but didn’t pull my wrist around with me. Full speed. The bleachers sounded like they were about to fall, a big hollow metal noise. My arm was on fire. “Aaghh!”
I tried to keep running, but my arm throbbed so hard I couldn’t run right. It hurt from my shoulder all the way to my fingers, even though I’d only hit my wrist. I fell behind quick. I worried my arm was probably broke and I’d have to tell my parents how I did it. I’d have to think of something to tell them.
Joy didn’t stop at all, not even to look and laugh. She had to have heard it.
I kicked a hole in the dirt under the gravel on the playground. A couple of kids climbed around on the unpainted metal jungle gym next to me. A little ways off a bunch of black kids that got bussed to my school played basketball on the blacktop. The hoop was bent and didn’t have any net anymore.
They hadn’t let us out for recess for a while. There was no recess in winter, but they started letting us out a little after the track meet. Then it rained really hard for weeks. If it rained or was too muddy they sent us back to class after lunch and made us play board games and stuff. That wasn’t too bad. There was one game where we were police chasing a crook and there was this remote we got to push buttons on to see if we caught him where we landed. The rain had finally stopped, though, and the ground dried so they let us outside again.
I’d made a game of making Joy run all the time. The whole fifth grade had recess at the same time every day so we were always both there, when there was recess. The monitors didn’t pay much attention. She couldn’t just go where I wasn’t. She had to keep running.
“Joy!” I took off running suddenly, seeing her. She was wearing a baggy old gray sweatshirt, like it was big enough for an adult, with something about a fun run written on it. She also had on a long brown skirt, long enough to be a dress, and shiny black plastic shoes. “Get over here! You’re just making it worse!”
She ran, eyes bugging out for a second when she saw me. That was good. Keep her frightened and jumpy. Then she’d never enjoy recess. Actually getting her would end the fun.
“I’m catching up,” I called after her. I was careful not to slow down because I yelled so she didn’t get away. She didn’t look back, hopefully because she worried I was right behind her and she’d get it if she even turned around to look. I couldn’t be sure, though, since I couldn’t see her face.
“Go away,” she shouted back. She ran off to the side and kept running like that until I was chasing her back toward the jungle gym. There was only so much space for her to run. She couldn’t go outside the playground fence. If she didn’t double back like that I’d trap her.
“I’m going to get you today,” I taunted her when we got near the jungle gym.
“Stop!” She frantically circled around the jungle gym. I circled, too. A couple fourth-graders on top watched us run around them. They didn’t look like it was a big deal.
Joy wasn’t running fast enough. She looked like she was trying, but it was too easy to keep up with her. Those black plastic shoes were no good for running. I kept slowing myself down so she wouldn’t figure out I wasn’t really trying to grab her. Not right then at least. She had to think I was serious or she wouldn’t run and it wouldn’t be any fun.
For a couple minutes she just ran around and around the jungle gym. The fourth-graders weren’t even looking at us anymore. Suddenly, Joy broke away and ran off onto the blacktop.
“Don’t let him get me,” she cried, running right through the basketball game. She surprised a short black kid with a fade who had the ball. It flew off and rolled away. The black kids looked mad, but she ran through them too quick. A couple of them pushed me, though, when I ran through after her. I ignored it and kept running. They weren’t helping her. A couple of pushes was nothing.
That fat mean kid Rodney stepped right out between me and Joy. ” Hey,” he said. “What do you think you’re doing?” I almost ran into him because he jumped in there so quick. I stopped so I didn’t before I had a chance to think what I was doing. Joy stopped, too, looking back like she wanted to see what was going on.
“Getting her,” I said, moving quick to run around him at Joy. Joy squeaked and ran the other way so Rodney was still between us. Not that it was hard. Rodney was really fat. Everybody said his dad sent him to a fat camp last summer.
“Cut it out,” he said and pushed me hard in the chest. It stung. Rodney was fat, but he was big.
“She’s a girl.”
“She wrecked my fort!” I screamed more over him at her than at him.
“No I didn’t!” She hid behind Rodney, peeking over. “My little sister did. Nadine broke it playing karate. We didn’t even know it was anything, just some trash stuck in some trees. We didn’t think anybody would mind.”
Rodney crossed his arms over his blubber. “See? She didn’t even do anything.”
Rodney made me mad. He pretended he was nice and wanted to help her, but I knew he didn’t. He thought it was funny to do stuff like stick chewed gum in people’s hair or hit them for flinching. Even girls. All he had to do was be mean to me and Joy’d think he was nice. He probably hoped she’d like him, even though she wouldn’t because he was so fat. He got all that and still got to be a bully at the same time.
“She’s still going to pay,” I shouted, running around him at her again.
“No!” He grabbed my arm hard and twisted. Joy hid behind him, making sure he stayed between us. “I said you can’t touch her.” He really twisted hard. Hard like he wanted it to hurt, smiling, not like he wanted to protect Joy. He barely even let go when I stopped trying to get her and stomped off. My arm was all red.
“You okay?” I heard him ask her. I knew he was grinning, thinking how funny it was that he’d made me mad.
I walked a ways away and watched them from the green monkey bars. She talked to him for a bit, but Rodney was a dork. Sooner or later I knew she’d get sick of talking to him and wander off. Then I’d get her. I didn’t even really want to get her. That’s what was so stupid about Rodney. I just wanted to mess with her a little, make her run. He wasn’t saving her from anything.
Sure enough, I waited long enough and Joy started walking around on her own again. I sneaked closer. When I got as close as I could, I charged. She saw me and ran right for the center of the blacktop again, right behind Rodney! I didn’t really even get to chase her. I bet they’d planned the whole thing.
“I said to leave her alone!” He held up a big ham of a fist, getting ready to swing. He was really going to beat me up! I tried to think quick. I had to get myself out of this or Rodney was going to pound me.
“Wait,” I said, breathing hard. This wasn’t any good anyway. It wasn’t any fun pretending I was going to kill her if I couldn’t chase her around. She’d just always hide behind Rodney, never scared because she’d always be safe. “I’m not trying to get her.”
“No?” Rodney smiled all cross-eyed, like he was pretending to be stupid and believe me even though he didn’t.
“I want a truce,” I said. “If you won’t break my forts again I won’t get you and we can forget it. Be friends.”
“Really?” Joy peeked out from behind Rodney. Her eyes brightened and she smiled a little, pulling her long brown hair out of her face. It’d kind of gotten messed up from all the running.
“Sure,” I said, even though I’d just said the first thing I’d thought of. I suppose it was a pretty good idea, thinking about it. If I couldn’t chase her this was the next best thing. Someone else to hang out with. She was a girl and all, too.
© David Atkinson