Original story by Christine Emming
“No!” Gemma shrieked, yanking her arm away and rubbing at the pinched spot.
Tansy’s eyes were narrow and watchful. It was a test.
Mom’s slippers padded into the hallway and she peered her smiling face around the corner of Gemma’s door. “Everything okay in here, girls?”
Gemma smiled tightly, and nodded. If Gemma told her mom now, Tansy’s story would be different, brighter than Gemma’s. Tansy would tilt her head just so and her brown eyes would flare wide with innocence. Listening to Tansy always made Gemma worry that her own story wasn’t true, that she had misremembered.
After Gemma’s mom left with a skeptical look, the act dropped. Gemma worried, listening to her mother’s footsteps drift downstairs.
Tansy glared at her, “You want us to still be friends, right?”
Gemma nodded slowly.
“Okay,” Tansy punched Gemma’s stomach hard, once with each fist. “Now we’re friends again.”
Gemma felt stunned by Tansy’s meanness. It reared out of nowhere, and the heavy feeling in her stomach would sink deep in her gut. They were friends, weren’t they?
The two girls played together frequently and most of the time their play ranged happily from mud kitchen to fort building to being different animals. As long as Gemma watched Tansy, she could usually catch the shift in her behavior before it resulted in being hurt. But sometimes she didn’t want to do something Tansy asked, like actually try their mud soup – gross! – and she said, “No!”
Today she hadn’t wanted to play the game anymore, and she’d craftily suggested they go outside to climb the pine tree like snakes. Tansy’s eyes turned to slits. Gemma put her hands up, “It’s okay, we can finish the game,” she shrugged, like she didn’t care, rolling the dice for her turn. She counted her pawn down the board and Tansy had reached across to pinch her arm.
Today’s fight could have been avoided, she decided. Gemma had let down her guard.
She shook off the lingering pain of the pinch, and now her stomach. The pang in her heart hurt more. Why did Tansy hurt her? None of Gemma’s other friends treated her this way. When Tansy’s mom picked her up, Gemma waved from the doorway, thinking.
When Gemma knew Tansy was coming to play, she felt a twinge of worry. She had to read Tansy’s face to see what type of day this one would be. Mostly she saw open, cheery eyes and felt relief wash over her. Some days the brewing storm pinched at Tansy’s eyes, or lowered her brows to half-mast. Those days Gemma grew extra careful. It wasn’t a matter of whether Tansy would blow, it was how badly. No matter her initial read, however, Gemma always watched.
Now Gemma’s mother watched, too.
Gemma had told on Tansy too many times, and now her mom didn’t want them spending much time together. Especially not alone. They’d agreed Gemma would shout if Tansy hurt her, and Gemma despised it even though she knew it worked. When Gemma shouted, Tansy immediately shrank back. It took a minute for her to reset, and then she’d offer Gemma choices and let her direct their play for awhile.
But Gemma loved Tansy’s enthusiasm and her many ideas for exciting play. She couldn’t play dogsharks at war with Chloe or Evie, or settle into a fort with mud soup and stone dishes. And Tansy could be flexible and allow Gemma’s ideas. But other times, if the play didn’t unfold exactly as Tansy wished or if Gemma had too many conflicting ideas, Tansy grew moody. Then the story in their play get darker. Tansy ordered Gemma around, pretended to be a mean prince and told Gemma she was ugly or fat, directed her to clean the toilet. Tansy forced Gemma to do things by threatening that she “won’t play anymore.” And Gemma had to decide if she wanted to resist and maybe get hurt or go along with Tansy’s game, which delayed physical pain but made her burn with shame.
Today she wondered all of this about Tansy, thinking for a long time after she left and moving the critters around their house alone.
“Mom,” Gemma walked into the kitchen, ready to talk.
Her mom hugged her in the usual, welcoming way. “I’ve barely seen you this afternoon. Everything okay?”
Gemma relaxed against her mom. “I was wondering something.”
Her mom nodded, still holding Gemma, so she didn’t have to see her mom’s face.
“Do you think Tansy likes me?”
“Oh honey,” her mom breathed one deep, long breath. “What do you think?”
“I’m not sure.” Gemma pulled back. Her mom sat on the floor, leaning against the cupboard, and patted the ground beside her.
“It sounds like you’re worried she doesn’t,” her mom said finally.
Gemma blurted, “Why does she hurt me if she likes me?”
“That I don’t know,” mom said. They sat together for a long time while Gemma thought.
If Gemma had to remain guarded, were she and Tansy actually friends? How come Tansy would hurt her? Why did only Gemma need to suffer for their friendship?
“Should we make a plan for the next time you see her?” mom asked.
“Like we used to plan how you could get me, or find someone else to play with. Shouting helped, but I know you didn’t like to do it. We could practice?” Mom suggested.
“I’m tired of watching her,” Gemma sighed. “I want a friend I can just play with.”
“One who doesn’t hurt you,” her mom nodded.
Gemma nodded, tears leaking out the sides of her eyes. “I like Tansy, but I don’t think she likes me. When Laura plays with us, Tansy only hurts me. When Violet plays with us, Tansy still only hurts me.””
“What would you like to do?” Mom asked.
“Not play with her for a while, maybe a long time?” Gemma flopped into her mom’s shoulder and cried.
Saying no to Tansy’s requests to play felt awful. Mom held Gemma’s hand at the door. Tansy would narrow her eyes into slits, sneer and stalk away with her heels thunk thunk thunk across the sidewalk. Gemma felt lonely then. After a few days of this, Violet knocked on her door.
“Um, do you want to play, Gemma?” Violet asked.
Yes! Gemma’s heart sang.
“Can I mom?” she asked. Mom nodded. Gemma ran outside.
She and Violet drew a chalk zoo across Violet’s entire driveway, then plunked their stuffies into the colorful cages and played zoologists until dark.
© 2020 Christine Emming. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.