Soft breaths of cinnamon and vanilla wafted down into the basement from Anna’s kitchen. Laughter chorused over our heads as Sven and I busily fortified our Lego castle with rubber animals: his were the dogs, mine the cats. We worked together to fend off a motley invasion of snakes, hyenas and whatever other ugly miscreants we could dig from the toy bin. Pirates were only ever united by a common love of money. Bare light bulbs hung glaring over our heads, but we ignored them. Tiring of the siege, we took refuge under the stairs and ripped open a bag of butter cookies. Chessmen. We spared no cavalry or foot soldier in the cookie massacre. We were eight years old.
Sneaking upstairs to spy on the adults, we found Anna and my mother amidst a throng of women we didn’t know. Each of them held a new gadget for the kitchen. Pampered Chef catalogues lay scattered on every countertop, and boxes were stacked in the corners. My mother beckoned, and I was allowed to turn the crank on the apple peeler-corer-slicer, leaving a long trail of green apple skin coiled on the counter. Sven and I gathered up all the apple peels we could and retreated from the noise of the kitchen with our spoils. We each grabbed an end and slowly gnawed our way through until the peel snapped between us, leaving someone with a longer piece, like a wishbone. Remembering the spaghetti scene from my mother’s favorite movie, Lady and the Tramp, I blushed and bit off my end early every time, leaving Sven to gloat over winning the contest.
Days like this were the Indian summer of our friendship. I didn’t know what trouble brewed overhead, but I began to sense Anna’s frown on the back of my skull whenever we met for trips to the zoo or play dates. I noticed a dazed and hurt expression on my mother’s face. Then I noticed that Sven all but vanished from my life.
In our encounters at church, he ran off to play with the boys, shooting me a look of apology as he joined in the derision of the pastor’s sons. They stood at the edge of the little patch of pine trees, glaring and brandishing sticks. ‘You’re a girl,’ they yelled at me. ‘Get out of our fort! Go play with the babies!’
‘They’re not your woods.’ I countered, furious. I had every right to climb those trees, and they knew it. But when I did, the boys retreated to the margins as though I were infected with the plague, making perturbed noises about how I’d ruined all their fun. I doggedly climbed to the height of the pine trees, blessing the leggings that kept my skirts from revealing anything. But after a while, it just wasn’t worth the fight.
Irate, I resorted to the company of the girls, and learned by fire about the gender war. ‘Boys are disgusting,’ one would remark. Another nodded. I just smiled sheepishly and sat silent, confused. Sven and I were only children. I didn’t understand what was the big deal about boys. Weren’t they just other kids? Why couldn’t we just play together? It didn’t make sense.
The girls liked to sit together in the family vans, legs swinging out the open doors, talking and doodling in their notebooks. They swapped stories about their friends and took turns cooing over one another’s youngest siblings. I stifled my boredom and went to get some fruit snacks from the vending machine, and cast a longing look at the boys playing high in the trees. It wasn’t fair. I looked at Sara, the pastor’s daughter. I wondered if she’d ever run around outdoors in her life.
When I came back outside the YMCA, fruit snacks in hand, I faced an Old West showdown. The girls crowded around me, eager to share in the snacks, and I obliged, happy to be, for once, in the midst of the circle rather than the fringes. I doled out candies one by one, feeling like a monarch bestowing largess on an adoring populace. A stray piece of candy fell on the ground, but I kicked it aside and kept walking.
Sven’s voice stopped me in my tracks. ‘Hey Sierra,’ he said brightly. ‘Can I have one?’ The boys had descended from the trees, and he had broken apart from the pack.
I stared at his outstretched hand, feeling the eyes of all the girls on me as they stood in a ring on the pavement. If anyone spoke, I heard nothing. I was frozen. As I opened my mouth, I felt I might as well be swallowing daggers.
‘You can have that one,’ came the haughty words of some strange ghost who suddenly possessed my body. My foot indicated the fallen candy. ‘It fell in the dirt,’ spat my derisive lips. The girls closed around me in a wall of ribbons, skirts and ponytails, giggling. I had triumphed, somehow.
My best friend’s crestfallen face burned into the back of my eyelids.
Later that night, my mother told me why we hadn’t gone to see Anna or Sven in weeks. ‘Anna doesn’t want you and Sven playing together anymore. She doesn’t think girls and boys should be best friends. I don’t agree with it, but we have to respect her wishes.’
I went to my room with a stone lodged in my throat. As I stared at the ceiling where little glowing plastic stars shone green in the dark, I could hear my father’s voice over the buzz of the television as they spoke, assuming I was asleep.
‘They’re only eight years old!’ he was protesting. ‘How can she possibly be worried about that already?’
‘I don’t know.’ My mother’s voice was weary. ‘She’s going to put ideas into their heads. They’re just kids. They aren’t thinking about each other that way at all.’
They both sighed. ‘What is wrong with that woman?’
Sierra is a PhD student living in the Midwest. She was raised in a “Message of the Hour” congregation that followed the ministry of William Branham. She left the Message in 2006 and is the author of the blog The Unspoken Words: A Non-Prophet Message.