Maddie kicked up loose gravel. She and her best friend Jake walked down the dirt road. They lived next to each other in identical, small, white houses that shared overgrown grass as a combined lot. They had been making rock formations in their backyard when they heard Jake’s mom curse repeatedly from inside of the house. The repetitive ‘fuck’, ‘god damn’, ‘stupid bitch’, was her drunken ritual. They knew if they didn’t leave quickly, they would become the focus of her indiscriminate rage. Maddie had looked to Jake. Without comment they’d both gotten up and began down the road.
The low hanging sun cast orange and pink hues across the sky. Still, the August heat hung in the air and clung to their bodies. The heat had become unbearable for Maddie as they walked. She removed her protective flannel. The white tank-top she wore underneath was wet with sweat and stuck to her body. Maddie was preoccupied with enjoying the breeze on her skin when Jake slammed his fist into her chest. She stumbled back a few steps.
“Ow! What the hell? Why did you just hit me there?” Maddie placed her hand on her chest to soothe the burn. The corners of her eyes began to sting. She dug her nails into herself to focus on another pain.
“I heard girls get hurt worse there,” Jake said. “Is it true? I was curious, but didn’t think you’d let me if I asked.” Jake was a tall, thin boy with unmanaged auburn curls that fell around his face speckled with acne.
“Of course I wouldn’t, idiot! And I wouldn’t know ‘cause you gotta have boobs first, anyways.” Maddie punched Jake’s shoulder. He rubbed it as he laughed.
Maddie and Jake were both in seventh grade at the same school and went through the same sex education program the previous year. They were taught the anatomy of their respective bodies and to not have sex outside of marriage. Outside of that they received most of their knowledge from stories the older kids at school passed around. Stories of how girls get bigger chests and become more promiscuous. Boys get stronger and become more desired. Maddie was trapped in the all-girl classroom looking at black and white illustrations of fallopian tubes. The girls talked among themselves about what changes their bodies were already going through. Maddie sat in the corner and tapped her pencil against the desk. She read and reread a poster that hung on the wall that encouraged the kids to Always Be Your Truest Self until the class was dismissed for lunch.
The road took them down past homes you’d think a small storm would have done away with. They stood doubly as testaments and grave markers to the dying town of Malakoff in East Texas. They reached the spot where the road faded into stalks of crabgrass. A forgotten home with layers of yellow paint curling away from the wood, sat at the end. It was Maddie and Jake’s other home when the real ones were full of drunk, angry adults they’d both rather avoid. The sky was now burning orange. Jake’s pace slowed as they walked in front of the yellow house.
“Do you wanna look like a boy?” Jake said. He turned to face Maddie who was directly behind him. She stumbled around him but kept walking.
“What are you askin that for?” Maddie said. She entered the house through the empty doorframe. Rats scattered under their feet, greeting their usual guests with squeaks and hisses.
“I’ve just been noticing,” Jake said. “You wear those baggy pants, and your brother’s old shirt. You cut your hair real short last month.”
Maddie’s face started to warm. Jake’s gaze felt like cigarettes burning holes into her skin. She undid the knot around her waist and put her brother’s shirt back on unbuttoned. Maddie and Jake stood in the living room now.
“What’s it matter to you that I look this way?” she said. “You never cared when we was kids and I wore my brother’s hand-me-downs.” The setting sun beamed through the dusty windows, through holes in the wall. Starry patterns lit up their bodies. Their silhouettes projected behind them looked like ghosts. Jake scraped peeling paint away from the wall with his shoe.
“It’s just weird is all,” he said. “I’ve heard other girls talk about you.”
“Yeah? What about me?” Maddie stuck her finger into one of the holes the sun came through. She moved her finger along the edge, slowly widening it. A spinning crescent of light grew on her chest.
“I dunno,” he said. “They were saying how you ain’t a normal girl. That you try too hard to be one of the boys.”
“Oh, whatever. They’re all dumb girls anyways.”
“They ain’t really wrong though.” Jake kicked off a long piece of white paint. The wood underneath looked fresh.
“I don’t want to hear it anymore.” Maddie kicked the wall. Displaced dust fell around her. She took a step back and turned to Jake.
“It’s just weird is all,” Jake said. “Other girls-“
"Stop. I don't want to talk about other girls."
"Why? You are one."
"You are, aren't you?"
“I said shut up!” Maddie lunged a punch towards him. He caught her by the wrist and held her there next to him. Maddie knew Jake always got into fights with his brothers. She knew he didn’t lose, either. She didn’t think he would hurt her, but for a second, when looking into his eyes, she wasn’t sure. Once her anger dissipated her wrist went slack. Jake let her go and stepped away.
“What’s your problem, Maddie?” Jake looked out the dusted windows. The sun’s light was now a thin line over the horizon.
Maddie slumped down against the wall to the floor and felt the rats move away from her. The light was fading out of the living room.
“I don’t know,” she said. She rubbed her thumb in the cradle of her fingers. “I’m afraid. I don’t feel… right. Like I’m missing the most important part of myself, but I couldn’t tell you what that is.”
Her eyes had adjusted to the dark. She could make out Jake’s face. His eyebrows were jumbled together. He sucked his bottom lip under the top one.
“I wish I had been given a different body every day, Jake. I don’t wanna see myself when I get older. It won’t be me when I start changing. Start looking like the other girls in school.” Her voice cracked into silence.
Jake stood kicking his heel against the fresh wood he uncovered. Maddie watched him. She wanted him to say something. Make a gesture. At least turn around to look at her. Jake had always treated her like a brother. He never threw easy punches. He never questioned how much she wanted to do exactly what Jake and his brothers did. Maddie wanted to know, why now? Tears formed in her eyes as silence took over their conversation. Jake’s voice made noises that sounded like the beginning of thoughts forming but they all evaporated in the hot air before they could be spoken.
“Forget it, I’m dumb for bringing it up.” Maddie said. She scrubbed her face clean of tears with the back of her hands. She stood up and dusted the dirt off of her. “Do you think your mom’s gone to her boyfriend’s yet?”
“I dunno. Probably.” Jake shooed rats away from his feet.
“Let’s go home.”
Maddie and Jake walked in silence back up the street. The sun had fallen out of view. The sky was shifting into indigo. The moon was creeping up behind the horizon. They could see their house lights on in the distance. Jake stopped without provocation. Maddie stopped too. She wanted to walk away from him and what she shared with him moments ago. As close as she was with Jake she didn’t know how to share those feelings. She didn’t understand herself enough to explain them. She was afraid that she was too strange—the way the girls at school thought.
“Don’t change,” Jake said. “I like you as a girl.” Maddie jolted. Jake reached out for Maddie’s hand and squeezed so hard she had to hold back a cry. He walked off to his house without looking back. Maddie held her throbbing hand to her chest. She rubbed her callused fingers together. She could feel her bones, the strength of them under her rough skin. But she knew also that their inherent structure betrayed her—she wanted to rip herself apart only to see what she really was underneath.
The full moon lit up the sky. The wind blew on her neck, brushing its way through her short, fiery hair. The coyotes yipped in the distance at some jack rabbit they caught. The diesel that had long seeped into the ground impressed it’s stench in the air. Maddie stood there for a moment, took a heave of new air, and straightened her face as she buttoned up her flannel to hide from her mother how dirty she had gotten that day.
Fiction piece by Cassady Keener