The Reform by Almondie Shampine
book 1 in The Modules Series
I arrived at the Fountain, the code name for the pond behind our house, and waited, knowing Charlie would come. I touched the C-shaped scar at my hairline in recalled memories of the first time I’d met him. It had been an unusually warm day for the third week of June. Kadrin and I had just graduated from second grade from a public school system that believed recess and a kid-being-a-kid was a healthy part of growing up. It was our last summer before the Reform. We were eight.
Kay had been doing her nails and wading her toes in the water while I pretended to be a fish, her toes the bait. Two boys had come across the Fountain and we’d instantly retaliated with war, throwing mud bombs at them to keep them away. They’d retaliated with gravel bullets, and Charlie had nailed me in the head with a rock, resulting in me getting stitches and my now C-shaped scar.
It had been my last and my best last summer ever. We’d battled it out over the Fountain the entire summer, and Charlie and I had gradually become friends as his and my parents became friends. We’d become best friends when we were told we couldn’t be friends anymore. See, my father once having been a conspiracy theorist, and his Dad being retired military, throughout our pretend war over the Fountain, they’d been the Military Scouts, which Kay and I referred to as the Military Brats, and we’d been the Conspiracy Renegades, trying to protect what was ours. All fun and games. But the changes in the system had resulted in disagreements between our parents of whose best interests the government had in mind.
Charlie and I had been meeting each other secretly since that summer four years ago.
After waiting ten minutes, I became impatient and blew the duck call like a rabid duck. I was just about to take a big risk at getting in trouble, and just run to his house where I wasn’t allowed, when I heard the duck call answering back.
Then, he was there. He stopped two feet in front of me. Both of us were sweating and out of breath from running. It was awkward standing there, looking at each other. I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to run into his arms and cry that I might not ever see him again, but I didn’t know that for sure. Plus, I didn’t know if he wanted me to run into his arms, if we were supposed to do that type of stuff, since I’d become a woman three months ago, which is what mom called it.
Before I became a woman, or began puberty, which is what we call it, there hadn’t been any awkwardness between Charles and me. I’d show him my affection by punching him in the shoulder, tripping him, or hitting him behind the knee with a stick. He’d show me his care for me by tousling my hair, giving me indian burns and purple nurples. The purple nurples stopped abruptly one day, once I’d begun developing, because it’d hurt so bad that I felt no remorse in kicking him in between the legs. He’d crumpled to the ground. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen him cry.
Except for now. He was crying now. I felt the heated trickling wetness on my own cheeks and didn’t know if I had started crying first or was crying because he was crying. He stepped toward me and reached out his hand. I stepped toward him. He put his hand down. I wiped my face. He lifted the bottom of his shirt and blew his nose into it, reminding me that I was becoming a woman faster than he was becoming a man, and he was older than me.
“God, you’re disgusting.”
“What?” he said. “You didn’t exactly offer me a tissue.”
“Your shirt? Really?”
“A lot better than wiping my snot on my arm like you did.”
I looked at my arm and saw the streaks of tears and what could have been snot. My face turned beat-red in humiliation. A woman would not have done that, but I did it, automatically, without thinking. Perhaps I wasn’t a woman yet, after all, like mom said. Excellent news!
All it took was me looking at him with a mischievous grin before he began running, knowing what I had in mind. I began chasing him, my arm outstretched, totally prepared to wipe my snot/tear arm all over his arm. I caught up with him easily, my legs longer than his and capable of running faster, and launched my body forward to tackle him to the ground. He surprised me by side-stepping last moment and I landed with a Hmmmph on the ground. He laughed, pointing his finger at me. I grabbed dirt in my hand and tossed it at him, then tried scrambling to my feet. He grabbed my foot and I was down again. This time on my back.
He fell on me, his knees on either side of my stomach, and began doing the king kong hitting-of-his-chest that I hated so much. I smeared my arm on his pants and yipped in joy. Then he looked down at his shirt, where he’d blown his nose, and smiled at me, at the same time he went to restrain my hands.
“No, no, don’t!” I screamed. “This is my favorite . . . Stop!” It’s hard sounding serious when you can’t stop laughing. I got my hug after all, as he crushed his belly and chest against mine, and wiped his snot-shirt on mine.
I screamed in such disgust and whipped my shirt off and stuffed it in his face. Then I went running toward the Fountain. He was still trying to take his shirt off, running at a full run, when I surfaced. Then screamed and went back under when he did his cannon ball routine and smacked into the water. I jumped on his back and pushed on his head, trying to get it to go under.
He flipped me over his shoulder and my back stung when it hit the water. When did he get so strong? I continued into a reverse somersault, grabbed mud from the bottom of the Fountain, then surfaced and squashed it on his chest. He grabbed me into a bear hug and crushed me into his chest, getting mud all over me. I was squirming and squealing for escape when I noticed his silence. He kept his arms around me. I stopped squirming and looked at him to see what was up. I followed his eyes and looked down at my chest, my white sports bra now looking like it got pooped on.
“I’m sure it’ll wash out,” I said, not quite understanding his silence. He then looked at me in the eyes, like he was studying me. My forehead, my nose, my cheeks, my mouth, back to my eyes.
“What’s wrong? Do I have a booger on my face?” I said, wiping my face with my arm again.
“You’re not a little girl anymore, Cat,” he said, his voice sounding strange, deeper even. He pushed my hair behind my ear and touched my c-shaped scar. Then he looked at my chest again, and just as the horrifying reminder was surfacing in my brain, he pointed out, “You’re getting boobs.”
I punched him, not remembering ever being so mad at him. Granted, Kay and I would pick on each other about it without getting embarrassed, and Charles had been my best friend for 4 ½ years, we knew everything there was to know about each other, and we were bluntly honest and talked about everything under the sun, but this was just one of those things that a boy does not talk to a girl about, best friends or not.
He fell in the water and I went to shore, not caring if he drowned. I grabbed my shirt and hurriedly put it back on, but of course it would get stuck on my head and I wouldn’t be able to find the arm holes. He was walking to shore, holding his bleeding nose, when I finally got it over my head and pulled down.
“Why’d you do that, Cat?” he groaned, his voice nasally from holding his nose.
“Don’t call me that. You can no longer call me Cat. My name is Catina and that is what you will call me. And you are not to get within six feet of me, so stay over there.”
He got closer and I scrambled backward like he was going to tackle me or hit me back or something. Instead, he grabbed his shirt and put it up against his nose.
“Okay, Catina, why did you hit me? That really hurt.”
“Because you were being a pervert and I’m going to hit you every time you start being a pervert.”
“How was I being a pervert? I simply pointed out the obvious.”
“Exactly, the obvious. I don’t need some stupid boy telling me what I already know.”
“Wo, stupid boy? Apparently you haven’t noticed, but I’m almost as smart as you, one, and two, I’m no boy.”
“Yes you are. You want to talk about boobs? You got so much baby fat still on you that you’ve had boobs since you were born. You’re 13 years old and you haven’t even started puberty yet. How messed up is that?”
“Stop it, Cat. You’re only being mean to me because I embarrassed you. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to embarrass you. If you hadn’t hauled off and hit me, I was going to tell you you’re beautiful.”
“Embarrassed? Me? I don’t get embarrassed. I get revenge, which is exactly what I – What did you say?”
“You’re not the only one going through changes. I am too. It started a few months ago. One day I was just this kid that did whatever I did, no matter how stupid it was, and the more stupid it was the funnier it was anyway. All of a sudden, I’m thinking about things I didn’t used to think about. I started not wanting to get dressed in front of the guys in gym class, but then I also started looking at the guys in gym class.”
“Oh my God, Charlie, you’re gay,” I said.
“Not like that, you idiot. What I mean is, I started noticing some of the changes in them, too, and I knew they’d be looking at me, trying to figure it out. The locker room went from smelling like regular boys to smelling like dirty sweaty socks that haven’t been washed in six months. Then I realized something.”
Charlie lifted his arm and showed me his armpit.
I immediately covered my nose. “Put that away, Charlie. It’s you. You smell like dirty socks.”
“Do I really have to?” I was almost whining. He really did stink.
“Yes, you have to look. It’s only fair, because I looked at your boobs.”
I clenched my hand into a fist.
“Just sayin’, Catina.”
So I looked, and what I found, besides the most horrible smell I’d almost ever encountered, was hair under his arm, like my dad, except a lot less of it.
Holy heck, this is what you get for being best friends with a boy. Everything that you’d rather not know. I looked at it like it was a spider at any moment ready to jump on me, but looking at his face, he was proud.
“Do you know what this means, Cat?”
“That you were less disgusting before?” I said, but I also knew he wasn’t the only one who had begun to stink and now had to carry around deodorant like I carried bug spray, and was sprouting hair in places not meant, but heck if I was going to admit that to him.
He sidled up closer to me. I moved away, just for him to follow.
“You can put your arm down now,” I said.
“Oh yeah,” he chuckled. Then he grabbed both of my hands in his. “We’re going to have a serious moment, Cat.”
“I hate having serious moments, Charlie.”
“I know you do, but we have to. It’s almost noon. Those guys are coming back to take us away and we have no idea where they’re taking us.”
That’s one of the other things I liked about Charlie. His logic always made sense. He didn’t use the same logic of other people, like, ‘Because I said so.’ And he didn’t sugar-coat anything. He just said it, plain and simple, even brutal at times, like he was missing some kind of filter. Like what had just happened a few moments ago. Where I wanted to not think about what was about to happen, I’d come here to talk about just that. Charlie was the person I wanted to face my reality with, not just play out fantasies like war.
“One of the Recruiters is a female, you know.”
“You’re kidding.” We laughed.
“Everything’s changing, Cat.”
“You don’t have to remind me.” I watched a butterfly move from one flower to the next.
“Will you look at me, please? I can’t do this if you’re not looking at me. We can’t be friends anymore, Cat.”
It was like the time he hit me in the stomach with the baseball bat, except instead of a baseball bat, it was a cannon ball.
“Fine, if that’s the way you want things to be, then that’s how it’ll be. I’ll probably never see you again anyway, and I really just don’t care.” My stupid voice cracked at the end, giving evidence to me getting emotional and that he’d hurt me. This angered me and I pushed him away from me.
“Stop it. Let me finish. Cat!”
“No!” I hollered and took off through the woods, nearly blinded by the tears. This was the absolute worst day of my life. Strangers showed up at our house telling us they’re taking us away from our home, and now my best friend was betraying me, just when I’d really started to like him, in a different way than I’d liked him before, when I was still trying to figure it all out.
“Goodbye, Charles,” I said, knowing he’d never be able to catch me, knowing I wouldn’t see him again, even if he changed his mind, but he did catch up to me, somehow suddenly being able to run faster than me when I’ve always run faster than him since I’ve known him. I was just beginning to scramble up the Tree (my fort), when he grabbed my arm and whipped me around. I threw my arm back to hit him. He crushed me against the tree. I began pummeling his back.
He kissed me. Not the little boy kiss he’d given me when we were ten, playing truth or dare with Kadrin and Willie, but a real kiss, like the movies. At first, I squealed and tried getting leverage to hit him harder or push him off me, because I didn’t understand and I didn’t like it. But then my face got really hot and his lips felt cool against mine. It was the whole body feeling of laying out in 98 degree heat, then jumping into cold water. Shocking, at first. Then relieving. My body relaxed and I let him kiss me, all thoughts, questions, and everything else always running around in my brain non-stop, taking a rest.
“Catina Salsbury, you are the most stubborn girl I know.”
Kiss me, then insult me. I pulled away, which wasn’t far, being as how I was crushed against a tree.
“Let go of me. Leave me be,” I said, but my voice didn’t sound strong. It sounded beaten.
“The reason I said we couldn’t be friends anymore is because you are becoming a woman and I am becoming a man.”
I opened my mouth to say something, so he clamped his hand over my mouth. He yelled over my muffled squeals, “So I was thinking we should be boyfriend and girlfriend instead.”
I stopped squealing at boyfriend, so girlfriend echoed throughout the woods. For once, I couldn’t say anything.
“Will you be my girlfriend, Catina?”
He opened his hand, and in his palm was a ring, made of twine, that he’d made himself.
“I have one too,” he said, and showed me his right hand, the twine wrapped around his middle finger.
I wanted to be excited and happy and thinking this was the best day of my life. Instead, I was thinking about 1200 hours, the guy with bulging eyes, the woman who peed standing up, Mom crying on the floor, Dad probably drooling in the kitchen over uneaten breakfast from this morning, Kadrin smiling like she was better than me and knew more than me about what was about to happen.
Being taken away from Mom and Dad, from home, from being Charles’ next door neighbor, from the Fountain, the Tree, the Hill, the Stone, the Graveyard, and from Charlie. Crying, I snatched the ring from his hand, kissed him hard on the lips, and took off toward what was no longer going to be my home and everything I’d ever known. About 100 feet away, I turned back only once, to see him still standing there, smiling at me, and I thought I saw what looked like the sun glinting off tears on his own left cheek. He blew me a kiss, and a gush of wind suddenly seized my hair and blew it back. I turned and ran the rest of the way to the house.
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