My favorite game has always been ours. The one with the unspoken rules.
We used to play it every day. And I still remember it perfectly. I still think back on it, and smile.
“Oh, hello, Martha!” my mother called cheerfully, waving. I looked up from the pile of dirt I was inspecting, groaning when I realized that Martha had brought along her daughter. Annie was seven years old, like me, but she was a girl. “Annie,” my mother said sweetly, “Zach’s over there if you want to play.”
She came running towards me.
I jutted my chin out defiantly. What do I need her here for? I’m more than capable of playing by myself, thank you!
“Hi Zach!” she chirped happily as she skidded to a stop next to me, her dress flapping along behind her.
“What do you want?” I muttered irritably. If she moved even a step forward, she would ruin my dirt pile with her stupid bare feet. And I needed that dirt for…experiments. And dirt bombs. I began to separate the dirt bombs from the rest of the dirt, putting them in their own little pile.
“You’re going to step in my dirt pile!” I said angrily. This girl was such a pain. She was worse than useless.
“Oh! Sorry!” she quipped, jumping back a few steps. I ignored her, focusing on organizing my dirt bombs instead. After a few minutes, Annie timidly kneeled down next to me. “I like that one!” she informed me, pointing to the smallest dirt bomb.
I picked it up. “This one?” I asked. She nodded eagerly. “Hmph,” I boasted, crushing it between my fingers. “Why? You can’t do anything with it, anyway.”
Annie’s face fell. “Why’d you do that? That was the cutest one!”
“That’s the stupidest thing I‘ve ever heard!”
“Well, then, let’s go look at those pretty white flowers over there then! C’mon!” She jumped up, grabbing my hand and dragging me along behind her.
“I don’t want to go look at some stupid girly flowers!” I whined.
But she laughed.
“They’re so pretty!” She squealed, stopping suddenly in front of the flower patch.
“No, they’re not,” I snapped, kicking the petals off of the green stems.
They were so green…why did they need to compete with the flowers, anyway?
The days passed, weeks, months. We kept playing our game. And then the rules changed.
“Zach! Zach!” Annie wasn’t even in my yard yet, but she was still screaming to me as she crossed the street.
“Mommy! We have to hurry so I can show Zach!” She was beaming. Was it excitement? Or was it hope? My seven-year-old brain didn’t notice. Or it didn’t care.
“AHHH!” I screamed, running to hide behind my mother. “Mommy! Why does she have to come here every day? And now she’s going to poison me, Mommy! AHHH!”
My mother shook her head and clucked at me, embarrassment coloring her cheeks. “Don’t be so rude, Zach! She’s not going to poison you! Now, come out from behind me, and go see what Annie has to show you!” With a final nudge from my mother and a kind smile from Martha, the two women left us on the front lawn and walked away towards the patio, chattering.
“Do you want to see, Zach?” Annie bounced up to me, her mouse brown hair framing her face in waves.
“Ugh, let’s just get it over with,” I grumbled. She smiled, reaching into the folds of her dress.
I never understood the purpose of a dress. It looked like all it did was get in the way. Pants seemed so much easier to wear. I asked Annie about it once, but she said that boys weren’t allowed to know. I guess that was just another rule.
“I want you to keep it, Zach.” She held out her cupped hands, and I peered inside. Was that…blue? I reached in and pulled out a small, clay heart. I turned it in my fingers and realized only part of it was blue; it was all different colors, combined to make one...thing. “What is it?” I held it carefully, as if I were holding a life in my hands.
“It’s my heart,” she said simply. “Mrs. Cedy helped us make them at school. It took us a week! She told us to give them to someone important to us to hold onto. So I did.”
I smiled, clutching the heart tighter in my fingers. “Girls do the weirdest, stupidest things!”
But she smiled.
I turned it over in my fingers again and again. Thinking back to that day so many years ago, barely aware of the wild grin rapidly spreading across my face. Of course I had kept that little clay heart.
“Zach! Martha and Annie are here for dinner!” My mother called up the stairs.
“Coming!” I called back, carefully locking her little clay heart in my desk drawer. I slipped the key and its chain around my neck and clomped down the stairs.
I wonder if she knows she has mine.