The Oregon skies are sleek, transparent silver and the trees and grass are rich, wet green. It rains almost every other day of the school year. A boy at your school has shorn blond hair like a sheep. Every recess, he chases one of the girls in Mrs. B’s second-grade class. One day he chooses you as his victim—and for the next few weeks your life gets more exciting.
You wait for the recess bell to ring with secret joy. The game is to run and not get caught. If you get caught, and everyone, inevitably, gets caught, the boy grabs you by the sleeve or hood of your slicker, pushes you to the ground, and climbs on top of you. You never speak together, but sometimes to start the chase he howls I loooove you or You’re dead meat!
You always run through the field edged by trees toward the chain link fence. A dead end. But you have to avoid running in the playground gravel. When you fall on the gravel you skin one knee or both and get little stones in the palms of your hands. Grass doesn’t hurt. You may stain your jeans or corduroys. Depending on the battle, you may get mud on your shirt, your hands, or in your nails. But those are consequences you’re willing to accept.
There is a snap you can almost hear when he is about to catch you. A whistle through the trees before you begin to shriek.
He shoves you from the back. The moment you fall, he’s on you. His wet breath on your neck. He smells like the milk he drank this morning, musty and warm. He shoves an elbow or knee into your back not too hard, just hard enough, as you flail, stomach to the ground. You squeal, scream, writhe, trying to shake him off. In his throat he gathers a large gob of phlegm and spits. Or he presses a finger to one of his nostrils and blows a stream of snot out the other, spraying whatever he can touch with it. Sometimes, if you don’t kick him fast enough, he smacks a wet kiss on whatever part of the body escapes your clothes. A flash of uncovered skin—a neck or an ear. But he never pins you long before you manage to turn over and smack him, hard.
One day, coming back to class, another girl points out a long string of snot on the back of your sweater, Ewww! Boogers! You missed it. Usually you wipe yourself down in the bathroom before returning to Mrs. B’s.
His victim before you spends recess in the library. This seems like the only sane choice. If you still venture out to play in the field, doesn’t that mean you like the game? And won’t kids start to talk? No one likes being wrestled to the ground by a boy.
You worry your reputation in Mrs. B’s class is in danger. But you can’t stop. Every day you open the door running as soon as the bell rings, before your captor even puts on his other rubber boot. As you run, liquid giggles fill and burst in your guts until you want to scream.
You never tell your mother about the chase. Which is significant because later, when Michelle E. from the fifth grade waits daily for you by the fence to call you fat and ugly, you ask your mother for advice. This bully is different. Maybe he isn’t a bully at all. You’re laughing together, aren’t you?
Now you don’t remember how or when the chase stops. Whether sheep boy moves onto a new victim or you finally join the boring girl in the library. Perhaps kickball season starts. Sometimes, it’s as simple as that. One day, you’re dying of shame from missing the ball and falling in the mud, the next, you’re throwing a clod of dirt at someone’s face.
How does it end? Sprawled on the grass, panting. The wind knocked out of you. Your ponytail in the mud. Red-faced, heart pounding, blood still rushing to your cheeks. A new bruise blooming somewhere.
Notes from Guest Reader E.A. Aymar
Cameron Conover’s story ‘Recess’ is the kind of story full of disquieting moments you can’t help but remember. Not only that, but it’s a tender reflection of hazy youth, filled with the kind of memories you vaguely recall throughout your life. In that sense, I was markedly impressed with her daringness to approach such a harsh theme, and her willingness to reach into the recesses of the past.