I scuff through the woods waiting for hips that won’t come. Heel toe heel toe down the length of a fallen tree. Roll a rock—pill bugs, millipedes, the smell of earth.
My breasts finally made an appearance, large enough to make clothes look different. My best friend has big boobs, and a boyfriend who’s always trying to cop a feel.
Around a patch of stinging nettles. Way around because some things deserve space. Past an old oak with gnarled roots that remind me what it takes to grow that tall. Step step step along one root that serpents above ground and below to the fort constructed of saplings bent together into a teepee, tied at the top, leaves for walls. Sit on a tree stump across from the Henry twins—two years older, talking football, holding a deck of cards.
“You’re late,” they say. “Strip poker.”
“Whatever. Just deal.”
One manhandles the shuffle, squeezing half the deck in one hand, shoving with the other. Some cards bend. The ace of diamonds falls. He clamps a shoe on it. I shake my head, pick it up.
“Give me those.” I shuffle a perfect arch that ruffles like a clipped card against spokes of a fast moving bicycle wheel. Cut the deck one handed and deal. I am good at cards because I know I need to be better at boy things than boys are. I can pull cards from the bottom of the deck, place a card where I want it.
After thirty minutes, they’re sitting in white briefs. I’m short one shoe. Their underwear tight enough to show the outline of whatever they keep in there. Shifting, growing like some sort of animal.
“They’re your cards.” I reach for my shoe.
“Game’s not over yet.”
I bunny ear my laces and pull tight. “I’ve seen enough.”
“We haven’t seen any.”
“You should’ve been better at cards.”
They grab at me, but I roll under the leaf walls and run. They chase, but these are my woods and I’m fast as a deer, leaping, swerving, sprinting, and I’m gone. I don’t look back.
I learned everything about boys when I was five. My mother told me to play with the nice boy next door. He lured me into his garage, damp, smelling of oil and dust.
Julia Strayer has stories in or forthcoming at Glimmer Train, Kenyon Review Online, SmokeLong Quarterly, Atticus Review, and others, and is anthologized in The Best Small Fictions 2015. She teaches creative writing at New York University, and is completing a linked story collection. https://juliastrayer.com/
Steven John – Senior Fiction & Features Editor