We each had a set of knuckles. Most of the girls had small plastic shiny ones in rainbow colors that flashed in the sunlight. My own set were ugly and gray and unwieldy, smudged with black at the edges. They looked like real animal bones. Occasionally I fancied I could detect a whiff of the slaughterhouse on them. When I first produced the knuckles some of the girls protested that they conferred an unfair advantage: because of their size I would have a better chance of catching them on the upturned back of my hand. The small ones were more fickle, prone to go flying off in all directions, whereas my ugly bones were stolid and heavy and stoically obeyed the laws of gravity. I didn’t tell anyone that sometimes the fake knuckles hurt when they hit my real ones, that after an intense day of playing jacks I would find bruises blossoming on my flesh. I begged my mother for a new set but she just gave me that look. I pretended not to know what it meant that I wore hand-me-downs, that dinner was often cans of soup or sandwiches. Sometimes my parents would make a game of it, like it was fun to assemble dinner out of slices of white bread and slimy ham and glossy squares of orange cheese.
Caroline was the only one whose knuckles were expensive. She claimed they were ivory. Her father, who worked as an executive for an oil company, had brought them back from Africa. Of course he didn’t even know what jacks were, he just liked the look of the polished white stones laid on someone’s table in a market. Caroline kept them in a drawstring black velvet pouch.
We invented thrilling diseases for ourselves. Irene claimed to suffer from fluid pressing on her brain, something she’d read about in one of her mother’s medical journals. Pippa had a condition that felt like ants were crawling beneath her skin. I showed the girls my toes, the smallest of which curved inward like a crooked finger. They were going to keep getting more and more malformed until I would probably have to have them amputated, I explained. Caroline suffered from what she called “Tender Head Syndrome”. That was when the crown of your head didn’t ever harden but stayed soft and pliable, like calamari before you cooked it. We would ask to feel the crown of her head to prove it was true, but she wouldn’t let us touch it.
The thing with Caroline was that she suffered from a real disease, which is why we let her get away with her preposterous tender head claims. She was all skin and bones, her flesh almost transparent in parts, and she had fine down covering her arms like the pelt of a baby animal. Behind her back we sometimes called her Anna, as in anorexia, but we meant no harm. We felt sorry for her and we tried to protect her from damage. She seemed so fragile and breakable, like her limbs were twigs that might snap in the slightest breeze, so we showered her with compliments, about her hair, her clothes, her belongings. We marveled in an exaggerated way about how she kept her schoolbooks so pristine, when the rest of us carried tattered volumes whose leaves fluttered beneath our beds and crumpled in our backpacks. I overheard my older sister Jasmine talking about Caroline once, about how she stopped eating because her dad ran off with some slut in his office and didn’t come back to see his family anymore.
We always blamed the women. We had been taught, or at least had gleaned by osmosis, that men couldn’t be expected to help themselves. That women were temptations like beer or cigarettes or video games. It was our job to be alluring and sexy, but once we had been in bed with a guy then we were spoiled. We had seen it happen to older girls. We knew it was coming for us too. We slumped inside our oversized shirts and sweaters so the boys couldn’t see our tits, assuming we even had them.
Jacks kept us sane. We would gather at recess to play on the hot tar playground. Our teacher once said the surface was called bitumen, so we called it The Bitch. Meet you out on The Bitch at eleven. Our bones were so young they didn’t even complain when we sat cross-legged for an hour on that brutal surface, grainy and hot on our thighs beneath the rucked skirts of our uniforms.
Irene and I were walking out to the bus stop together when we heard the screaming of tires. We dropped our books and ran to what looked like a giant doll lying in the gutter. Caroline, at a strange angle but still and calm, her face turned to the curb like she was sleeping. The bus had only clipped her, that was what the man was screaming, she came out of nowhere.
Her backpack must have split open at the impact, her things were scattered all around. Irene and I started to pick them up — books, an uneaten sandwich swaddled in cling wrap, silver strips of individually wrapped gum. Then I saw it: one of her ivory jacks, peeking out of the grass. I didn’t even look around, just pocketed it smoothly. There were adults there and they held us back so we couldn’t see Caroline so well when the ambulance came to load her onto the gurney. But I saw, when they turned her onto her back. Her right leg had been neatly opened from ankle to thigh, like when Mom would fillet a piece of meat, and inside the red glistening a bone protruded, white and pure. My stomach lurched and I turned away, thinking I would be sick but I wasn’t in the end.
Two days after the funeral we came back to school and started playing skipping rope.
Emma Sloley is a travel journalist and fiction writer whose work has appeared in Catapult, the Tishman Review, Lunch Ticket, Structo, Travel + Leisure and New York magazine, among many others. She is a MacDowell fellow and has just completed her debut novel, Disaster’s Children. Born in Australia, Emma now divides her time between the US, Mexico, and various airport lounges. You can find her on Twitter @Emma_Sloley
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Image (derived from): The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis