I was always a barefoot kind of girl. I had shoes of course, I just preferred not to wear them. Whenever the weather was warm enough I liked to spend my time outside, wading through tall grass and poison ivy and scraping my heels on tree branches. I enjoyed many a day in which I could daydream and play and simply exist within my own world without uncertainties or anxiety or any of the other grown up evils that plague adult life. People weren’t figures to be feared, but rather subjects of great curiosity. In one way, these were my glory days. In many ways, I was free.
Growing up in an age of rapidly-advancing technology, kids like me were becoming a dying breed. I remember the Christmas morning when Santa had gifted my siblings and me with an internet box for the kid’s computer. This changed everything, as we began to spend less of our time outdoors and more and more of our time within the realm of computers and the World Wide Web. This hadn’t been my parents’ intention, however, and my siblings and I were often consequently kicked out after enjoying too much “screen time.” My mother and father didn’t care very much where we went, so long as we got outside, away from the computer, and we came back in one piece.
One day, during what must have been one of these enforced outdoor excursions, I encountered a few boys playing in the street in front of my house. I recognized the first boy to be Alex, one of the twins my age who lived in the house on the corner of my street. The other twin, Ellie, liked to draw, play house, bake, collect plush toys, and was afraid to come over to my house due to a desperate fear of my old, useless dog. Alex and his twin shared very few similarities other than age and appearance. I usually chose to spend my time with Ellie, but today in the street she didn’t appear to be around.
The second boy was one of Alex’s cousins. He was a little taller and a little older than the rest of us, but was in no way any less of a kid.
The third boy was my other neighbor, Sid. Sid lived only two houses down the street from me but might as well have lived on another planet entirely. His family’s small, lower class, one-story white house enjoyed no resemblance whatsoever to my own family’s cozy, two-story home. Indeed, his house was a shabby, secluded island in a sea of privileged, upper-middle class suburban houses. Nevertheless, Sid and I were quite familiar with each other, as both of us had lived in the same place for our whole lives. His two older brothers were once friends with my older siblings, and I had spent a lot of time uninvitedly tagging along whenever he came over to play with my brothers. As Sid’s big brothers grew up, stopped playing with sticks, and began playing with guns, young Sid was thankfully left behind, at least for the time being.
I began to advance towards the three boys who presently stood huddled suspiciously in the street. Although I was clearly outnumbered as the only female of the group, I approached them with confidence and ease.
“What are you guys doing?” asked the girl with the tangled hair and the naked feet.
“We’re about to play a fighting game,” Alex replied mysteriously, “But with real fighting and real weapons.”
Real fighting in gameplay was virtually unheard of. Real weapons of course referred to whatever loose sticks or tree branches we could pick up from the side of the road. This game sounded dangerous, stupid, rebellious, and of course, incredibly exhilarating for any average kid with even the slightest thirst for adventure.
“Can I play?” I asked.
“Sure,” a smirked must have flashed across Alex’s mischievous face, “But first you have to sign the Invisible Contract.”
The Invisible Contract. In order to play, each kid must first swear not to tell his or her parents about anything that might happen during our grisly little “game.” Whatever injuries were to be inflicted, whatever damage was to be done: no one was to tell his or her parents anything. I had never heard of anything like this before, and I was immediately enthralled. The imaginary document was passed from kid to kid, not one hesitating to sign away each’s individual safety and well-being. We each proceeded to choose our weapon; mine being a long, scraggly stick turned throwing spear that I had selected from the limited choice of weapons lying on the ground near my feet. Then we each took a few steps back from each other and it was time for the game to begin.
Naturally, being the audacious kid I was, I made the first move. Poised to strike with my spear raised above my shoulder, I selected my first victim on no other basis except that of proximity. Poor Sid was only a few feet away to my left. In the split second between drawback and release, I could see genuine fear in his young eyes, but I had chosen my target, and the swift attack had already been set in motion.
It was a terribly accurate throw. The point of the stick impacted with the forehead just above his right eye, simultaneously evoking a shriek of pain and a stream of blood. Contract or no contract, integrity or subsequent shame, Sid ran, tears streaming down his face, straight back home to tell his mama. His hasty getaway was more than enough to spook the remaining three street rats who quickly ran back to their homes as well. Invisible contracts, no matter how sacred in a world of young ruffians, unfortunately held no validation whatsoever in the world of parents and bedtimes and being careful not to track mud on the carpet. I ran with a frantic fear, a mixture of guilt and anger gushing rapidly through the blood in my veins.
Once home, I sat alone in my room with the door closed as dread began to creep coldly into my bones. All I could do was sit and wait for the imminent knock on the front door. They were coming, I knew they were coming. But what about the contract? Was there to be no order in this world?
Finally, a knock arrived at the door, and I timidly made my way to the source of my anxieties. Hello, how are you. Look at what your daughter did. She owes my son an apology. I’m sorry. Downcast eyes. My brief, fiery glance meets Sid’s shameful one. I don’t want your daughter playing with my son anymore. The door slams shut. A nervous gulp. A judgmental look delivered to me by my mother, accompanied by an eye roll. A silent sigh of relief. I had made it out unscathed.
At least one of us did.
As the years passed I’ve never been able to forget this one simple, youthful story. In one way, I suppose it perfectly characterizes my scruffy, barefoot childhood. In many ways, it remains just a silly story. Either way, we all grew up, we all moved on with our lives, and I’m probably the only one out of the four of us who remembers the story today. The supposed ban on my playing with Sid didn’t last very long; just long enough for the memory of the traumatic event to ebb away a bit from his mother’s memory. Sid eventually made his way back to my house to play with my brothers and life went back to normal, at least for the time being.
Sid’s cut eventually healed and he moved on with his life as well. I wish I could say he moved on to do “bigger and greater things,” but unfortunately, I cannot, as he instead grew up to follow in the staggered footsteps of his two older brothers. By age eighteen he had been in and out of juvenile court several times, had been involved with hard drugs and petty crimes, and had even fathered a baby girl. When I still lived in my childhood home I used to count the cop cars that parked on our street to check in at his house. The most I had ever counted in one night was nineteen.
As I hear more stories and become more aware of Sid’s unfortunate yet inevitable fate, the memory of that senseless game persistently grows stronger and stronger in my mind. There is a very good chance that Sid is residing in a county jail at present, but I’ll never forget the image of a pathetic, young boy running home to his mama after being struck in the face by a girl and breaking a sacred contract.