Dusty, peeling eucalyptus trees lined the dirt walkway that led from the library back to my grandma’s house. I carried four books, all I was allowed to check out, close to my chest. I walked quickly, eyes cast to the ground. The smell of the trees reminded me of being sick.
I didn’t see the boys approach. Suddenly, they were just there, some of them on bikes.
Keep walking. Don’t look at them, I thought. Just keep walking. But they blocked my path.
“She’s cute,” one of the boys said. It was Little Pudgy. No wonder there were so many. Where he went, others appeared.
Keeping my head down, I peeked up. Was he smiling? Maybe that meant they wouldn’t be mean to me.
His dark curls hung to his shoulders and down onto his forehead. His coffee-brown eyes looked like they’d heard a joke.
I felt my cheeks pulsing. I heard cars passing on the street, on the other side of the trees. No one would see me trapped inside the circle of boys.
“Where you going?” Little Pudgy asked.
Gesturing at the load in my arms, “Been to the library?”
I tilted the pictures of Nancy Drew closer to my chest.
The short blond boy, Ray, grabbed one of the books, causing me to drop the others.
I froze. The jagged circle tightened around me. I knew if I did anything wrong, something would happen. I didn’t know what, but something.
Little Pudgy said “Dude” and bent over to pick up the books. He handed them back to me and said, “Let’s go.”
And just like that, we all started moving. Little Pudgy walked slightly in front, the Emperor leading his people. There was no choice but to follow. Any argument would force them to respond. I knew better.
“What time you have to be home?” Little Pudgy asked. He didn’t turn to look at me.
“Soon,” I said.
“Let’s go hang out. Ray’s house is near yours, and his mom’s cool.”
I knew what he meant. We all heard the sirens and saw the lights of the County Sheriff cars that regularly visited that house. My grandma told me not to walk on that end of the street because “a lot goes on there.” But I walked on with the group.
A boy from my block whispered to one of the others, and they laughed. Little Pudgy looked back. The expression on his face was like the lizard in Mr. Cox’s sixth grade classroom. All the boys wanted to get assigned to Mr. Cox’s class because then they could feed live crickets to the lizard.
We cut through the parking lot of the liquor store. I looked toward my own street, just one corner farther, but the boys were so close and they had bikes. I’d never make it. I squeezed the books so hard that my hands hurt, and I kept walking.
Every street in our neighborhood could be every other street, dirt for sidewalks, rows of short stucco houses all tinged brown from the dust of the dry river bottom. Some houses had wire fences around them, but most didn’t. Ray’s didn’t, and we filed across the dry grass and through the screen door.
At first, I couldn’t see anything. Coming in from the bright sun and the room’s dark wood paneling, it was like being in a cave. By the time I got my bearings, Ray had the refrigerator door opened, and boys sprawled on the brown floral couch and on the giant tan cushions on the floor. Ashtrays the size of my grandma’s dinner plates overflowed onto every surface.
“Anyone going to the football game tomorrow?” said the boy everyone called Giant.
“No, man, I ain’t going to no junior high game,” one boy said, as if it would be beneath him.
Boys laughed, so I smiled, even though I knew we all longed for the day when we moved up to junior high. Maybe everything would be okay, I thought. Maybe we’d hang out for a while, and then I could go home. But my heart throbbed in my ears.
“You can put your books down,” Little Pudgy said, pointing to a table. “Come on,” he added. “Ray has fish.”
A few boys laughed.
Little Pudgy had already headed down a narrow hallway even darker than the living room. I followed. I didn’t want him to leave me with the others. They wouldn’t do anything to me as long as I was with him.
Stepping over dirty clothes and a skateboard with three wheels, I entered a bedroom. Gray sheets were balled in the middle of a stained mattress, and a fish tank bubbled and glowed sick green from the corner of the room.
At first, his hand slamming into the center of my chest didn’t hurt. The ache started in some moment between contact and my head landing on the sheets that smelled like pee. He was heavy, one hand pressing on my chest, one knee crushing my thigh. His hair fell across my face, like black spiderwebs.
Everything happened so fast and not fast at all. My free knee rose. It seemed so slow, barely moving, like in a nightmare. Then his yell. The lurching of the mattress as he rolled off. More yelling. Running. The bang of the screen door behind me. Running. My chest burning. Tears on my face.
I turned onto my street and slowed. They wouldn’t come for me this close to my house. Right now, I had to think of what I’d tell my grandma about why I didn’t have my library books. She was gonna be mad, but the payback for snitching was worse than what she’d do and for sure worse than what they were probably already planning. My knee throbbed from when I smashed it into Little Pudgy. I pictured his cheeks getting all blotchy.
I did that, I thought. Nancy Drew would be proud.
Kait Leonard loves characters, real or imagined. Her features and profiles have been published in The Messenger Mountain News and The Canyon Chronicle, community newspapers serving parts of Los Angeles County. Her short fiction has been published in Flash Fiction Magazine, Fewer Than 500, and P.S. I Love You. She lives and writes in Los Angeles with five parrots and her gigantic American bulldog, Seeger.