Another story I wrote years ago. Again, in all italics means it’s a story and not some strange recollection of childhood. True story: my first elementary school boyfriend was named Troy. I won him over by drawing pictures of Ninja Turtles. He would rip them up and pout, but that meant that he liked me. I use this same philosophy in all of my relationships now. Ok, back to fiction.
“There’s going to be a lot to do before dark.” Emma said.
Kyle looked around at the tools scattered around and wondered if they had enough. He didn’t know how big the task was, or how long it would take to finish, or if they’d planned for any of the worst things to happen.
“What do you think the people in China are like?”
Emma grabbed the long-handled shovel and began to dig, tossing the dirt over her shoulder. “Well,” she started, taking a break to pull her hair into a ponytail, “they don’t speak English.”
“Nope.” she said, pulling her hair tight and beginning to dig again. Kyle grabbed the plastic bucket and began to dig his own hole next to hers. After a while they’d meet in the middle, and at least this way they didn’t have to worry about getting in each other’s way.
“Are they nice?” Kyle asked, squinting as the sweat beaded around his eyes. “You don’t think they’ll try to hurt us?”
Emma jutted out her bottom lip in deep thought, focusing on the digging and tossing, timing it right, getting a rhythm. “Why would they want to hurt us?”
“I mean, aren’t we not supposed to be there? Aren’t we strangers?”
“It’s exploring!” she cried, incredulous. “Everything gets found by strangers. How do you think Columbus got here? Or other people? Huh?”
Kyle nodded his head. That was true.
They had decided the day before that the perfect place for digging would be behind Kyle’s grandmother’s house near the creek. The ground was softer and since she was old and didn’t like moving around, she wouldn’t peak outside to see what they were doing. Digging to the other side of the world had been Emma’s idea, but she needed a boy to help with the digging part, and Kyle lived down the street. They had class together and he was easily the tallest boy she knew. It had been their secret for a few weeks and they finally gathered the supplies for the trip: metal shovels from Emma’s dad’s garage, plastic bucket and shovel kits for the smaller work, a snow shovel, ropes, hammers, blankets and pillows, envelopes and paper for writing back home, boxes of cereal and chips, 3 gallons of water, and 2 changes of clothes each.
After an hour, the sun began to make them sluggish. The sweat had already soaked through Kyle’s shirt and Emma had pulled up her dress and secured the loose fabric behind her with a rubber band, creating a makeshift tail that wagged behind her. Kyle reached for one of the jugs of water.
“No!” Emma screamed, running and snatching it from him. “We have to save it for the trip!” She put the plastic cap back on and set it next to her hole, now a foot deep, and kept digging.
“But it’s hot.”
Emma stood up and pointed towards the house up the hill. “Go to your grandma’s and get it. She has enough water and we don’t.”
Kyle turned and made his way up the hill, his hands feeling raw and hot. On his palms small, white bumps were forming. He’d forgotten to grab his dad’s gloves.
Walking into the house he felt the coolness of his grandmother’s ceiling fan and smelled the faintness of something rotting in the fridge. On the counter were clean glasses sitting on a dish towel and a pair of yellow rubber gloves. Maybe he’d grab those.
“Ben?” his grandmother asked from the living room, “Is that you?”
Ben was Kyle’s uncle. He used to take care of her, but he didn’t anymore. “It’s Kyle! I’m here in the backyard!” he yelled.
“Hmmm,” his grandmother said, “yes.”
He opened the fridge and grabbed the milk from the top shelf. He drank from the jug and felt the cool thickness of it go down his throat and into his belly. He reached for a cup and poured some milk on the counter, useless now that his thirst was mostly satisfied. He put the glass in the sink when he was finished and went back outside.
Emma was lying on her back in the grass, one hand up to her face shielding it from the sun. There were dirty hand prints on her flowery dress and her feet had no shoes on them. Her pink nail polish shined.
“What are you doing?” Kyle asked. His mouth now felt sticky and dry, the sweetness of the milk now giving way to a heavy sourness that made his tongue feel like it wasn’t his. He clacked it against the roof of his mouth.
“I’m already tired.” Emma said, her voice lilting. It wasn’t yet noon.
“How big do you think the world is?”
“Oh,” she said, sitting up and pulling her hair tight again, “hundreds of miles. Maybe more.”
“More?!” he yelled.
They didn’t recognize the exact distance of something like that, only that things measured in miles were far, and things measured in feet were close. China was the farthest place they could think of, so there had to be many miles between them. Kyle put the yellow rubber gloves on his hands and pulled them up past his elbows. The tips of the gloves extended a couple of inches past his real fingers.
“What are those for?”
Kyle picked up a shovel and pushed it into the ground, pulled up a chunk of dirt, and tossed it casually behind him. “My hands hurt.”
By late afternoon their two small holes had become a wide hole that was as deep as they were tall. There was barely enough room for them to be in it, so Emma used the bucket to skim off the sides while Kyle continued to dig deeper on the farther side. The sun cast a shadow that obscured their lower halves.
“The ground is hard now.” Kyle said, his voice straining as he slammed his foot on the end of the shovel in an effort to drive it deeper. He abandoned the rubber gloves after his hands began to feel slimy. When he pulled them off, the skin on his fingertips had pruned and the blisters on his palms were puffy and misshapen like old balloons. His hands were now numb and heavy, pulsing with his heart.
Emma put her forearm up to her head to wipe the sweat away, leaving a large patch of dirt across her face. “We’re not even half way there!” she cried, her voice getting quivery with exhaustion. She slid down into the coolness of the shadow and put her knees to her chest.
“I don’t think we can do it.” Kyle said as leaned the shovel against the dirt wall and sat down beside her. The sun only revealed the top of her head, leaving the rest of her face in the dark.
“Is this why nobody’s done it?” Emma asked, her face still hidden from the light. “Is it too hard?”
“I don’t know why nobody’s done it.”
Kyle leaned his head back and looked up at the sky. It was turning colors.
“I wanted to be the first.” Emma said, her voice high and defeated, her head upturned and revealing her eyes. “I just wanted to see what it was like. We’d be famous.”
Kyle reached over and touched her shoulder. Against her warm skin, his hand felt like it was on fire. She put her hand up to his in the dark and left it there. It was a strange feeling that wasn’t bad, but not good either. He felt like he was too close to her, but why that didn’t feel right he didn’t know.
Kyle stood up and stretched, yawning loud, his chest poking through his shirt with the pitiful smallness of adolescence. “I’ll lift you out.” he said as he put his fingers together, forming a basket for her foot to fit into. She stood and put her foot in his hands and he hoisted her up to edge where she lifted her leg and shimmied along the grass on her belly before rolling over. She heard Kyle lift himself out and flop down next to her. His breathing was heavy.
“We should fill the hole up.”
“Tomorrow.” Emma said. Her voice was sad.
“Don’t worry, we’ll try again.”
She continued to look at the sky. Her thin, knobby limbs were perfectly still. The dress with all the flowers was a dull brown and completely ruined. Her mother was going to yell, she thought, but that wouldn’t be till later. She was in no hurry to get home.
They continued to lay there in silence, watching the clouds make their lazy path from one horizon to the other, catching their breath, feeling the weight of their bodies sinking into the ground, the prickly grass against their gritty skin. The smells and sounds of early Summer.
“What do you think 4th grade will be like?” Emma asked.
“Like 3rd grade.” Kyle said, his voice matter-of-fact and jaunty. “4th graders don’t look too old.”
“We’ll probably be in the same class since our last names start with the same letter. Maybe have the same lunchtime.”
“We’re friends, right?”
Emma paused. “Yeah.”
Kyle smiled. “That’s a good thing.”
“Am I your girlfriend?”
Kyle’s brow furrowed. “What’s a girlfriend?”
“I think it’s a girl that’s like your best girl to be friends with. The one you hang out with instead of other girls.”
“Huh,” Kyle said, “I guess that could be you then. I’m not friends with many girls.”
“So do a boyfriend and a girlfriend have to be the same person? If you’re my girlfriend, do I have to be your boyfriend?”
“I think so.”
“So can a boy and a girl be best friends but not boyfriends or girlfriends?”
Emma thought about this awhile. “I think a best friend can only be between two girls and two boys.”
“Ah,” Kyle said, as if he finally understood, “that makes sense.”
They continued to lay there until dark before finally going home. Emma’s mother scolded her for destroying a perfectly good dress. Kyle’s mother scolded him for taking his father’s tools without asking. And when they went to sleep they both dreamed of China.