— 5 —
Tracey sat in the corner of the playground shaded by the line of trees that swarmed the hill, keeping the kids contained within the parameters of the school. This was her spot; this was where she went every lunch period to stay away from all the kids that wanted to make fun of her, or worse, hurt her. She ate her sandwich, slowly chewing each bite more than the twenty-two times she’d been told to do and carefully observed the other kids scream and run and enjoy themselves with great exuberance. They looked so carefree and happy — something she secretly longed to be a part of, yet didn’t know how to be. Introductions were foreign to her; she understood what was going on, understood the need for speech, but was unaware of how to contribute — or maybe feared what she had to contribute.
She had just finished the last piece of her sandwich when a couple of boys walked up to her and stared as if she were going to combust at any moment. At first she was afraid to look up at them, feeling their eyes graze into her head. But as her mother once said, “The only way to know for sure if you can trust someone is to give them the benefit of the doubt.”
Tracey finally looked up at their freckled faces. She didn’t want to, but deep down, Stacey was asking her to — for her. Immediately, she felt the urge to squeeze her way into one of the gopher holes surrounding her petrified body, if only to escape the bright, glaring red hair and evil smirk radiating off the boy that made the top of her most despised list. But for whatever reason, when the boy spoke, she couldn’t help but listen.
“Hey, Tracey. We just came up with this game, but we need a girl. Do you want to play with us?”
The thin jaw of the second boy (whose name may have been Robert, or Bobby, but whom Tracey always thought of as ‘Coal’ because of the rich black hair that grew down below his eyes) tightened, forcing back his laughter.
Give them the benefit of the doubt.
She would, only because she wanted so badly to fit in — to be one of them and to have fun. So even though trepidation haunted her gut and a spiritless gaze remained stamped on her face, she nodded.
“Cool,” the redhead said as Coal ran over to a group of kids who had been watching the whole time. Most of them she knew but there were a few fresh faces thrown in.
Tracey kept her eyes glued to them as the redhead grabbed her hand. “Let’s go.” He pulled her to the group and left her standing alone just in front of them. “Stand right there,” he said as he led the boys into a circle around her. They held hands and stood shoulder-to-shoulder, making the circle as small as possible.
Tracey looked around at the boys — ten in all and not all of them happy about having to stand so close to another boy. She pulled her arms across her chest, rounding her shoulders forward slightly as a screaming match broke out between two of the boys she didn’t know. Tracey feared it might have grown into a fist fight had the redhead been a few seconds later to break it up. After he whispered something to them (more than likely about Tracey, judging by the finger that kept pointing back at her), they finally agreed to stand next to each other but weren’t about to hold hands.
“Okay, guys,” the redhead said once he was back in position. “The first one to break the rhythm goes in the pot and becomes a target. Ready?”
All of the boys yelled out, “Ready!” in near unison.
“Here we go,” the redhead said with a delightfully menacing grin. “Mighty Mute.”
With that, the game had started. Each boy took a turn spouting an insult at Tracey, one right after the other:
“The black haired freak.”
“Cheese from the moon.”
“Planet Pluto’s long lost moon.”
None of the boys missed a beat in their little round-robin. Tracey stood still and quiet, her head tucked as close to her chest as possible. She ignored as many of the insults as she could as the dance made itself around the circle a second time, but when it reached the redhead to begin the third round, Tracey was unable to overlook the words that echoed deep and loud.
Tracey stared at the redhead as the boys continued their attacks, all of which fell on deaf ears. Her focus was pinned on the redhead, his laughter becoming more infuriating with each new name. The last laugh was on him, though, as the insult wheel returned — and he froze, unable to come up with a zinger. His laugh faded faster than an ice cube in an oven as his friends razzed him for his brain fart. He tried desperately to call out a name but it was too late. Coal pushed the redhead inside the circle and closed it back up by taking the next boy’s hand.
“I can’t believe this.” The redhead stood with his back to Tracey, his arms crossed in defiant disgust.
“Okay,” Coal called out, taking charge of the game. “Insults are fair game on both of ’em.” He then paused before addressing the redhead. “Hey, you know the rules.”
The redhead sneered and reached for Tracey’s hand, but she wasn’t having it. She took a step back and glared at the redhead with a hint of rage.
“Hey, freak. I hate this as much as you, but it’s part of the game. Now, come on.”
The redhead again tried to take Tracey’s hand, but she was quick to steal it away and shove him toward Coal.
“What the hell are you doing?” he asked. “Don’t push me!” The redhead shoved Tracey with more force than she did him. She stumbled backward to a couple of the boys, who whooped and hollered as they gleefully pushed her back toward the redhead. He inadvertently stopped her and held her for a brief, nervous moment as chants of, “Jason loves Tracey,” came spewing from the group.
“Get off me hamper-diver,” the redhead said, shoving Tracey to the ground. She instantly looked up at him with dark eyes, her breaths now highly erratic.
“What, are you gonna cry now?” The redhead looked back to his friends. “The big moon baby’s gonna cry.” He turned back to Tracey, his expression that of the devil. “Let’s see those tears, mother killer.”
It was those words that made Tracey’s glistening eyes blossom into a deep turquoise. The laughter from the group faded as a bright white outline formed around Tracey’s birthmark. The redhead stepped away in frightened confusion, unable to turn away from Tracey’s ever darkening eyes.
“What’s happening?” Coal said.
“What do you think?” the redhead said. “Moon baby’s letting her freak flag fly.”
Tracey suddenly let out a piercing screech. She leapt and clawed at the redhead as if he were her own personal cat tree.
After a quick moment of “What should we do?” stares, a few of the boys ran away as others remained petrified. Inching closer with an attempt at calming the situation, Coal touched Tracey’s shoulder with the tips of his fingers. “Tracey.”
Tracey swiped backward and sent Coal flying. He landed some forty feet away and rolled another few feet before coming to a stop. He lay still, unable to move — not wanting to move? Tracey couldn’t tell, but her first glimpse of the other kids on the playground confused her. Everyone had stopped what they were doing and were looking at her as if she were the newest attraction at the zoo. That’s when she realized what she had done. She turned back to the redhead. His face dripped with blood.
The glow around her eyes and birthmark softened as she stood away from him. She calmed her breaths and searched for any features of the redhead she could recognize. When she couldn’t take it any longer she turned around and instantly spotted Coal, now surrounded by his friends and a couple of teachers. Tracey’s knees gave out from under her and her head fell limp. With one last look at the redhead, Tracey collapsed.