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2018 Short Stories

Highly Commended

Highly Commended

The Flow
Margaret Linley

Geelong, VIC

Their legs swing in unison. Sneakers make a small thwack when they hit the retaining wall her father spent last summer constructing. The boy and girl know each other from school of course, but never this – just the two of them.

Already the girl is halfway to bewitched. Captivated by him, by her, by them; on this wall, legs warm from the sun and the stones.

Her period came yesterday, and she nurses that secret, her flow tying her to the earth. For the first time, it makes her feel womanly, simultaneously grounded and mystical. This secretive difference could be a siren call for boys, she thinks as she sneaks a look at him.

He knows something has shifted too, but he doesn’t know what it is exactly, but he can’t shake the thought he should kiss her.

His parents come out of her house now. Hers follow. There’s a feeling of fragile peace, as though the decision the two men have nutted out is equally as pleasing or equally as distasteful to both. Each of them is confident they will be able to talk their wives into seeing them as the victor in the dispute which has stalled for the last week but seems to be resolved.

The girl looks at her father, as he turns and notices the boy and her on the wall. The set of his jaw is at odds with the convivial tone of cheerios shared between the four adults.

The boy touches her hand. He’ll see her at school tomorrow. There’s not a question in there, more a sense that they have also reached an agreement.

The boy and his parents leave, and the girl and her parents go back into the house.

The next day, the boy is waiting at her locker. He asks her to come with him and she does, following him across the sports oval, down the steep side, scuddering over the small rocks and loose dirt, and into the scrub of straggly trees.

He dives into his jeans pocket, uncurls his hand and presents her with a silver heart necklace. It’s small and heavy, a solid heart.  She looks at it, not at him. Turn around, he says, and he fastens it at the back of her neck, kissing the spot where the clasp lies on her skin. She feels a tiny rivulet of blood leave her uterus and hopes everything is in place, down there. But even so, she thinks, if blood did spill onto her school dress maybe it wouldn’t be the worst thing to happen.

Now you have my heart, he tells her. Wear it every day. He’s not asking, he’s telling her. How does she feel about that, she wonders? Where has this heart come from in the space of only a few hours? Niggling thoughts worry at the girl.

The bell rings, signalling the end of the break and they head back, holding hands until they are on the sports oval and in view of others. She takes her cue from him. They don’t speak.

At lunchtime he is at her locker again and they go back down to the trees and spend the hour kissing. When they are doing that, she again feels the power return to her. The boy is younger, by a year, but a year is a long time when you’ve only had 14 of them. He wonders if he should undo her bra. If he could undo her bra. Would she let him? Is she expecting him to try? How long should he wait? He doesn’t know.

The girl’s happy not to be batting his hand away from her body. She’s not sure when it was they decided they were a thing, an item. Was it at her place? Did she unwittingly agree to something there? Or was it when he put the silver heart around her neck? She’s never had a boy give her jewellery and doesn’t know how loaded with intention and meaning it might be.

The bell rings and her bra remains done up. The boy goes to the dingy grey toilet block on the way to class. The air is tainted by the tough kids’ cigarettes. He checks beneath the cubicle doors, and when he is satisfied he is alone, he chooses the end cubicle, locks the door and jerks off. It’s the first time he’s done this at school and he sees it as a portent of things to come. He considers telling his mates but decides it might be best to keep it to himself.

The girl’s mother notices the heart just before dinner and her questions begin. It surprises the girl to realise she hadn’t thought what she might tell her parents. The last time she had a boyfriend they weren’t pleased. He was 17, to her 13, and they told her it was impossible for them to imagine what a boy that age might see in a girl her age. They told her this many times, and somewhere between the first telling and the rest, it had abbreviated into they found it impossible to imagine what he might see in her.

She tells the mother that the boy had given her the necklace. The mother’s lips ratchett into a thin hard line and when the father comes to the table, she points to the heart and says, tell your father who gave you that.

The father is even more unhappy than the mother and they take turns to explain that the boy is feigning interest in her to serve them right. To smite them. To pay them back. That they – the boy and his parents – will be laughing now that the girl has fallen for their ruse. Mocking her, mocking them. Because yes, don’t you see, it’s their plan. We negotiate a reduced rate for their less than perfect plumbing job and then this - the father spreads his hands out, taking in the girl, the silver heart. It is a fait accompli – a lay down mesere – an open and shut case. The girl is exhibit A, the necklace exhibit B, in the laughing stock case of the year.

You will give that back to him tomorrow, the father says. And never speak to him again, the mother hammers the father’s nail in. It’s over, says one. It’s ridiculous, says the other. You’ve been played, they both agree. And they give the girl a look that might be pity, could be disappointment, perhaps is a tired kind of anger.

The girl sees the boy at the lockers next morning. She takes his hand, leads him across the sports oval, down the side and into the scrub. She is a hostage taker, not waiting for the boy to unpack his bag, unlock his locker, respond to his friends.

She feels the blood move in her uterus, as though her endometrium has collapsed. She is powered by the knowledge that a big clotty lump of the brightest blood is working its way through her body.

The boy can’t know this. Would be terrified to think about the blood, loose and migrating.

He talked about the girl at dinner time. How he liked her. His parents swooped in and told him it must stop. That she was trying to make a fool of him.  That she’d ensnare him. They said that. Ensnare him. What did that even mean? What would it be like to be ensnared? He couldn’t ask. He thought about masturbating in the toilets, tried to hold onto that image of himself being vigorous and manly, but ensnare kept coming back to him.

The boy wants to say something at the trees. She stops him, kisses him, pushes him away from her. He steps back, watches her hands as they work the three white buttons open on the front of her school dress. Watches her lift one breast and then the other out of her bra, notices the paleness of that skin against her sandy freckled arm, against the checked cotton of her school dress.

They stand there, the boy and the girl, the sounds of the playground, a whistle blowing, kids yelling. He steps towards her, takes both her hands and lays his head sideways on her breasts.

I’m ensnared, he thinks, they were right. And then his face – warm on one side, a breeze tickling the other -  behaves like a face might if it had been a week in the desert, chapped and sunburnt and utterly desperate and then, against the odds, finds itself an oasis. He is an infant who has been squawking for a week, rigid with longing, frantic, red-faced and now focused and at ease.

The boy realises he is happy to be ensnared.

The clot moves and a wild tsunami surges through the girl.

If she is being played, she’s happy to be played.

The silver heart glints as a thin ray of sun works its way through the trees.

 

 

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