Fiction · 04/24/2019

Proving Ground

“Look, guys,” Phoebe’s dad called from the front seat.

She and her brothers lay in a row of sleeping bags in the way back of the station wagon.

“There’s Salt Lake City.”

Phoebe sat up to look. Four days of driving across the country, warm air blowing in the windows, had weaved the hair on the back of her head into a ball. White and yellow lights dotted the darkness on her mom’s side of the car.

“What do you think, Nance? Isn’t it beautiful?”

Phoebe’s mom, Nancy, made a humming sound that Phoebe knew meant she was trying to agree.

They spent the night in a motel outside of Salt Lake City, and in the morning drove another eighty miles across a desert called Skull Valley to the army base called a proving ground.

+

In front of their new house Phoebe felt like her family was alone on the base, maybe alone even in all the parched land around them. Theirs was the third in a line of identical mud-colored homes facing a beige field that separated the living quarters from the buildings where the military personnel worked. They were always called personnel.

On the second day, Cynthia showed up in their driveway, standing still, as if she’d always been there, and smiling. Her teeth were stained blue from candy. Phoebe smiled back. The desert air dried her teeth.

“Where’d you come from?” Phoebe asked.

Cynthia pointed next door.

“What’s a proving ground?” Phoebe asked.

Cynthia shrugged.

+

Phoebe’s mom took the kids to the PX to buy sheets to hang on the walls.

“Like wallpaper, but we can take them down when it’s time to move,” she said.

They met the general’s wife, who introduced herself as if the PX were her home.

“Welcome,” she said with extra breath and a big smile. “How are you finding life on base?”

Phoebe told her about the sheets.

“Isn’t that cute?” she said, tilting her head and studying Nancy’s sandals. “I always say, part of the charm of life on base is having to live to a higher standard.”

“Guess I blew that,” Nancy said as they walked away.

+

Cynthia walked Phoebe and her brothers to school on the first day. She showed them where the friendly dogs lived and were the mean old people lived. Both girls were in fifth grade but had different teachers. Cynthia had Mr. Knudsen, who pronounced the K and had a thick blond beard. Phoebe’s teacher, Mr. Stevens, drew a bathtub on the chalkboard the first day.

“This is to show who’s in hot water,” he said.

Phoebe looked around the room, tried to guess whose name would go in the tub.

“I wish I were an only child too,” Phoebe said to Cynthia at recess. Her brother hogged the television the night before, when she wanted to watch Little House on the Prairie. Her parents told them to work it out. Phoebe went to her room to read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

“I want a brother. Or sister. I wish we could change places,” Cynthia said.

They could change coats, Phoebe said. They put the hoods over their heads and went to each other’s classroom. Mr. Stevens didn’t notice.

Mr. Knudsen wondered what was wrong. He knelt by Cynthia’s desk. He flipped the hood off Phoebe’s head. “Not a funny joke,” he said. He marched Phoebe back to her classroom.

+

Her name went into the tub.

At dinner Phoebe didn’t talk. She waited for her parents to say the school called.

Her dad said, “How’d you do on the spelling quiz?”

She said she’d aced it.

Her mom tucked Phoebe into bed and told her Cynthia’s family was moving over winter break.

+

The kids were excited for the winter assembly. The school planned to perform all the songs from Free to Be… You and Me. The number her class was doing, about parents being people, was her least favorite. She sat at her desk at the front of the class, where Mr. Stevens could make sure it was really her, wishing they could do Ladies First, about the tender sweet young thing who got eaten by a pack of hungry tigers. It was the funniest skit. She pulled part of her gum out of her mouth and above her face.

The smack of the yardstick on her desk startled her.

“You know you can’t chew gum in here,” Mr. Stevens said.

Her name went in the tub. Again.

+

Students in hot water couldn’t perform in the assembly. A boy named Simon spit at recess and also had to stay back in the classroom, even though his dad was a colonel and rank extended to kids.

Mr. Stevens gave them each a dictionary and told them to copy a page from the dictionary onto a sheet of looseleaf.

Phoebe had to do a P page; Simon an S page.
Simon stood over her and asked questions.

“Where did you live before you came here?”

“Can you hold your breath for one minute?”

Phoebe went to the coat closet for her sweatshirt so she could pull the hood over her head. Simon followed. The door squeaked as she opened it. He pushed her from behind. She lost her balance and folded on the floor. Coat hooks covered with sweatshirts and sweaters loomed above like an audience. She tried to stand but Simon dove onto to her.

“Have you ever kissed a boy?” he asked. His breath smelled like a zoo.

She turned her face to the carpet.

He pushed his lips against the back of her head.

She rocked back and forth, trying to shake him off. Finally he got up.

+

“I hate Simon,” Phoebe said on the walk home from school.

“Let’s run like Atalanta,” Cynthia said, referring to another skit from Free to Be about a girl racer. They sprinted past the one-story homes where families of enlisted personnel lived to the larger officers’ homes. Simon was in front of his house tossing a ball against the garage door.

They stood at the foot of his driveway trying to catch their breath. Simon missed the ball and it rolled toward the girls. Phoebe picked it up and considered running again.

“Give it here,” Simon yelled.

She took a few steps toward him, so she was close enough to throw the ball at him. She remembered to snap her wrist, like her dad taught her. The ball hit Simon’s ear.

The impact was like a buckle loosening. Phoebe felt bigger. She and Cynthia ran away laughing.

+

Simon’s mom called. Phoebe answered the phone.

“Is you mother at home?” Simon’s mom asked. Phoebe handed the receiver to her mom.

She sat down at the kitchen table and watched her mom listen and occasionally nod.

“Mmmhhmm,” her mom hummed into the phone. She wrapped the curly cord around her finger.

“Want to tell me what happened?” her mom said after she hung up.

“Simon pushed me down and tried to kiss me.”

Her mom nodded in slow motion.

“Am I in trouble?”

“I wish I’d known that when I answered the phone. I’d have defended you. Daddy and I will talk about it later.”

+

At dinner, her dad asked what happened.

Phoebe pushed her soggy green beans around on her plate and explained again.

“Do you understand why your response was wrong?” he asked.

“Not really,” she said.

He sent her to her room. No TV for the rest of the week.

+

In her room she wrote her dad a letter. She included a word she’d copied from the dictionary earlier that day. Penalty. A disadvantage. Girls had a rank, even if they weren’t military personnel, she explained.

+

On Cynthia’s last night on base, Phoebe slept over. They shared Cynthia’s bed. It wasn’t crowded at the pillow, but it was at their feet. They whisper-sang the song about having joy and fun and seasons in the sun.

They made plans to meet, when they were twenty-two. In New York City, where That Girl lived, the woman who wrote Free to Be… You and Me. Phoebe pictured herself turning a corner, rushing like That Girl and seeing Cynthia, standing still and smiling.

+++

Lori Barrett is a writer living in Chicago. Her nonfiction has appeared in Salon, Barrelhouse, BrooklynQuarterly, and Entropy magazine. Her fiction has appeared in Paper Darts and New Horizons, a journal from the British Fantasy Society. She volunteers as an assistant fiction editor at Pithead Chapel, and as a writing tutor at a local public high school.