Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for violence and mature content.
When Desdemona played, it was like the whole world stopped.
Dessie was the same age as me, and in the same homeroom at school. She was also my next-door neighbor, had been since we were both born. She had bright gray eyes and deep brown hair and a chipped-tooth grin from falling out of a tree when we were seven. She always wore her hair in a pony-tail, and at night, after we’d finished all our games and the sun had gone down, she’d go home with a rat’s nest in her hair for her mom to yank a brush through. She was always skinny and small, wearing long shorts and messy shirts, all bones.
We played every day after school, all the neighborhood children. I can’t remember a time when it was only boys, but I know Dessie was the only girl. We played tag after school, chasing each other through our yards. We lived on a busy street, so we couldn’t play in it, but sometimes we’d race across on a dare. Felix had a driveway that wrapped around and connected to his backyard both ways, and sometimes, Dessie would hide back there, holding back giggles as she peered around the corners to see if anyone would find her to tag her. The only reason I know she did that is because I was always right beside her, peering the other way. We’d stand back to back, on constant alert, like soldiers surrounded. It was like it was us against the world.
There were five or six of us that played nearly every day. Sometimes, more would join. Sometimes less. Nox, Orlando, and Robin made it outside most days. I was outside the moment my backpack hit the floor. Felix was outside all the time— Dessie was outside more. She’d climb the tree that sat in-between our houses and shout daring insults interspersed with laughter. If I didn’t come outside, she’d knock on the front door and talk to my parents and when she heard I was sick, she’d say she hoped I got better. I don’t know how she could get outside that fast— we were in the same class but she always seemed to have been waiting for hours by the time I got home, her face impatiently resting in her hands as she sat on the roots of the tree and leaned against its truck. She’d groan, “It took you forever,” and I’d go, “I’ll be out in a minute! I have to put my backpack up first!”
When we played, everyone seemed to forget about everything. It didn’t matter if Dessie was smaller. It didn’t matter if Dessie was a girl. It did matter that Dessie beat us at everything and climbed trees faster and outran us all while grinning ear to ear, but since none of us could do anything about it, we couldn’t really complain. Sometimes, we’d play infection tag just to see how many of us it took to catch her. Sometimes, we’d play freeze tag and see how long we could hold our breath.
One day, when I was eight, Robin came home from school with a big grin on his face. He was seven, a year younger, but carried himself like he held all the secrets of the universe. He said he had a new game that one of the older kids had taught him at recess— he said it was called chicken.
We all sat in a circle in Felix’s backyard, the sounds of cars speeding by on our road loud and constant. It was always busy during rush hour. Nox drew with a stick in the dirt and Orlando and Felix kicked a ball around as we all waited for Robin to start his explanation. He seemed determined to draw the suspension out as long as possible, but finally, as Dessie yet again made a comment on how bored she was, he couldn’t hold it in anymore and he caved
“Alright, alright, pay attention!” Robin said excitedly, an impish grin on his face. Nox looked up from his stick-man drawing in the dirt and Felix and Orlando paused their game of soccer. “First, everyone has to stand on the sidewalk. Then, one person has to go out into the middle of the road, and they try to stay there as long as they can while a car is coming at them without moving out of the way. And the longer they stay there, the more brave they are. But if they jump out of the way too fast, then they’re a chicken.”
“That’s so boring,” Nox complained and rested his chin on his hand, looking back down at his drawing and absent-mindedly drawing an ‘x’ through the stick figure.
“Yeah…” Orlando said distractedly, kicking the ball back to Felix, “it doesn’t sound very fun.”
“Come on!” Robin groaned, “You haven’t even tried it yet!”
“My mom says not to go in the road,” Felix chimed in, kicking the ball back to Orlando and laughing as it hit him in the stomach. Nox looked up and laughed too, while Orlando kicked the ball back hard. Felix ducked to stop it from hitting him in the face and it bounced off the fence with a loud thud.
“My parents told me not to go near the street,” I agreed.
Robin crossed his arms and stomped his foot, frustrated at being ignored. “Oh come on, you’re acting like a bunch of girls! Quit being chickens,” he complained.
“Hey!” Dessie piped up indignantly from beside me, standing up suddenly with her small hands clenched into fists. “Girls aren’t chickens!”
“Then why don’t you do it?” Robin dared. “Unless you’re too chicken.”
Dessie seemed to hesitate before a look of determination overcame her. She frowned, then stuck out her tongue and said, “Fine, I will!” She stomped off up the driveway towards the front yard, and everyone paused what they were doing to watch her. I shot up from where I was sitting and followed her up the driveway, hearing the other boys run along too.
Robin ran to the front of the group so he could be on the sidewalk first, before turning back to everyone. “Okay, the rules of the game— if it takes the car more than five seconds to get to where you were when you jumped, you’re a chicken.”
“Five seconds seems like a long time,” Orlando said, seeming to become more interested now that someone had volunteered. “Maybe we should do four instead.”
“Or three,” suggested Nox.
“Three’s too short,” I finally said, “you can’t jump out when there’s only three seconds.”
Dessie stayed silent, chewing on her bottom lip as she frowned deeply and stared at the road. She seemed to be lost in thought as we watched the cars whiz by.
“You know, you don’t have to if you don’t want—” Felix began quietly.
“Three seconds!” Dessie announced suddenly, cutting him off as she turned away from the road and back towards the group. “You guys better be counting. And don’t do any stupid stuff either.”
With that, she marched with determination into the road. A van came speeding around the corner, old and rusted. It honked loudly at her, and she jumped out of the way. We counted six seconds before the van zoomed past us.
“Scaredy-cat!” Orlando gloated and Nox laughed beside him.
“I thought girls weren’t chickens,” Robin taunted.
Dessie pulled back her pony-tail and tightened it. “They aren’t,” she seethed. “I just wasn’t ready yet.”
“Right, right,” Nox laughed. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Felix go back to the edge of his driveway and sit down, looking bored.
The second time, Dessie walked into the road and a truck rounded the corner. The driver blared their horn and Dessie seemed to hesitate.
“Chicken!” Robin called out, laughing as Dessie jumped out of the way. This time, it was only four seconds.
“You cut off two seconds that time!” Nox said encouragingly.
“Still over time though,” I said, a little hint of a smile finally beginning to show. Dessie shot me an irritated look and I smiled fully. She rolled her eyes at me, placing her hands on her bony hips.
“This is so stupid,” she complained, “it isn’t fun at all!”
“Are you trying to chicken out?” I teased, and she huffed.
“Fine. One. More. Time. And this time, I will make it under time. And then, we can stop playing this stupid game and do something else instead, okay?”
“Fine with me,” Orlando shrugged.
“No, we all have to do it,” Robin began to argue. “We all gotta make it in three seconds or it doesn’t count!”
Dessie ignored the argument and walked into the road. A red SUV sped towards her, and I watched Dessie take in a deep breath, ready to spring out of the way. The driver laid on their horn, a constant blare that seemed to go on forever. At the last second, the driver swerved and Dessie jumped, a relieved and successful grin spread across her face— it was over. There was no way for her to know she’d be jumping into its path. Her feet didn’t even touch the ground before her body was sent flying backwards down the pavement. Tires squealed and skidded. A scream ripped through the air. Time stood still. Sudden, deafening silence.
I don’t mean there wasn’t any noise, because I know there was plenty— boys cried, people were on the phone to 911, sirens bloomed in the distance like blood branching out into water. I mean I couldn’t hear any of it. One moment I was there, and the next moment I wasn’t. I think my mind blocked it out, because even now, after all these years, I can’t remember how I got inside my house.
I missed a week of school. Dessie never came back. The ambulance took her away, and then she was gone— forever. My parents sat me down and told me that Dessie and her parents had moved away to a different state, one far away, to be near their family.
I asked what happened to Dessie. My mom said, “Clayton, do you know what paralyzed means?” I asked if Dessie would ever get better. My dad said, “Clayton, you can’t play outside for a while.”
I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to step foot outside. The sun was too bright, and it hurt my eyes, burning into my skull. The tree connecting our yards was too empty, too barren. Dessie wasn’t sitting in its branches, waiting for me to come outside. She wasn’t knocking me over and squealing, “Clay!” She wasn’t doing anything anymore. The neighborhood fell silent. The kids all stayed indoors. There were no chases or soccer games. There was no giggling and hiding— there were no games of chicken.
When Desdemona played, it was like the whole world stopped. But when she left, I think it actually did.
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