Coming of Age
It’s weird seeing her cut off at the waist in a glass box. A mannequin in an upright coffin disguised as an arcade game is always going to be strange, even if there is a crystal ball by her hand. It costs one dollar to hear my fortune. I never play.
We’re not even supposed to be in here — Christina and I, not alone anyway. My older sister Elise is supposed to be watching us, but all she wants to do is sunbathe on a beach towel until she smells like peanut butter. She tells us we can do whatever we want as long as we stay together. We lick cotton candy off our fingers, or rig a dollar on some line to fish for rednecks on the pier. When we overheat we hide out in the arcade.
The arcade is one of the few places where there are only other kids, usually all boys, sometimes high schoolers. We’re not old enough to be noticed by boys yet. Elise saunters in and every eye is on her. Christina and I walk in and nobody cares, which is great. I’d be happy avoiding all that for the rest of my life.
Christina doesn’t understand. This summer she started plucking her eyebrows into thin lines and dutifully applying watermelon lip gloss in store windows. She sees our inability to get noticed as failure, so she tries harder.
I’m staring at the fortune teller game as she showily struggles with pinball when a boy about two years older appears. “Not having any luck?” he asks.
Christina pouts and sticks her chest out. “None.”
“Let me show you,” he says but doesn’t wait for permission. He snakes his arms around her as she blushes and glances at me, looking for outside confirmation that it’s actually happening.
I cross my arms and watch them play a tired game. Everything he says or does is wonderful, and she’s so grateful to learn from such a master. She’s never played this game before, but she’s seen enough movies to know her lines. When he’s imparted all of his wisdom, he steps back. She takes a half-step toward him, so he can see down her spaghetti strap tank top.
“Nice tits,” he says.
Her eyes turn down for the full effect of her falsies as her shoulder spasms into a shrug. “Thanks.”
He leers at me and says, “You’d probably have nice tits, too, if you didn’t hide ’em.”
My arms tighten over my sweatshirt. She’s betrayed me for some boy we met three minutes ago because he makes her feel pretty. “We should go,” I say, yanking her toward the exit.
“Wait,” she says to me, and simpers back at him.
He trails us outside. There’s a group of boys in a circle. They shout at the boy, who flips them off. “Hey, I’ve got an idea,” he says. “Let’s go watch the sunset. I know a place.”
Christina rips her hand from mine and scratches my palms with her homemade French manicure. My hand falls limply to my side. She’s talked about moments like this. She pictures her first kiss in the most romantic setting imaginable — a sunset.
She pats the tube of lip gloss in the back pocket of her short-shorts but knows she can’t re-apply without him seeing, and he has to know her lips are naturally sticky sweet. “Great!”
He seizes her hand and they start off. I numbly follow. “Sonya, you can’t come,” Christina chastises.
I stop moving. Stranger danger doesn’t disappear when you start wearing a push-up bra. “We’re not supposed to go anywhere alone.”
He glances at Christina critically for the first time. Her perfect kiss begins to slip away. “She’s just kidding,” Christina says. “I can go wherever I want.”
“Well you’re not alone if you’re with me,” he says.
It’s the smoothest line Christina’s ever heard. She hits the side of her breast against him and gazes up at him like he’s a god.
“Keep an eye on her!” he calls to the group of boys, who perk up and come over.
I’m suddenly aware that there aren’t any other people near us and that no one knows where we are. My blood soars through my veins. “Christina!” I plead.
“Come on, it’ll be fun,” she calls back. “You get your pick.”
The Axe body spray masking B.O. announces the presence of the five boys as they swarm me. Being so outnumbered, I don’t like my odds. I know what happens next. I’ve seen movies, too. I can hear their lewd thoughts and sense their sticky fingers. I don’t wait to learn more.
I run until my lungs ache. I run until I taste iron on my tongue and my thighs are stiff. I swerve into the dunes and onto the populated beach. It’s the safest place I can think of. I don’t glance behind until I splash into the water. The coolness drifts over my flip flops and the sand slurps them up. Bending over, I press my sweaty, scratched palms onto my knees and suck air into my mouth like a dying fish.
The boys are gone but so is Christina.
Chelsea Stickle lives in Annapolis, MD. Her short story “The Cannibalism Hypothesis” is on The Fem.
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