Oct/Nov 2020  •   Fiction


by Elizabeth Wahmhoff

Public domain street art

Public domain street art

It's like this. If you crouch close to the ground and whisper, gravity will carry your words underneath where everything is connected by the tiny tunnels ants make. The queen ant can hear anything, and she tells the worker ants the message. The worker ants are so strong, they can carry your words anywhere, even to the other side of the planet, because some ants have wings. You can even talk to God this way.

My favorite game on the playground is Girls Chase Boys. My second favorite is Boys Chase Girls, which is okay but not as fun because I like to be the chaser. Today we have blacktop-only recess, and there isn't much room for running, so we're playing three square. Three square is the same as four square but for when you only have three people.

There's a girl by us sitting against the wall and reading. She's in my class, and she's new, from Massachusetts. Her name is Samantha, and she wears skinny jeans.

"Hey, what book are you reading?"

She holds it up so I can see the cover. It has a horse on it.

"Do you want to play four square?"

Samantha shakes her head.


I start to walk away, but then she says, "We could play House if you want."

"Okay," I say, "but I get to be the mom."

In class we are learning about the weather. Mrs. Wilson teaches us the three types of clouds. There's the big and fluffy cumulus, the stratus, layered close to the ground, and the thin cirrus, looking like feathers across the sky.

"Mrs. Wilson," I say, "aren't clouds made of cotton?"

"Not exactly, Kate." Mrs. Wilson smiles at me. "They do look like it, but they're actually made up of water droplets or ice particles. There's invisible water vapor all around you in the air, which condenses to make the clouds."

This is not what I thought, but Mrs. Wilson is nice, so I believe her. When we go outside for recess, I look up at the sky. If I squint hard enough, I can almost see the tiny droplets.

I'm at Samantha's house, and we're having a tea party, but instead of tea, it's chocolate milk. We can drink the teacups in one gulp.

"Excuse me," we say, "could we please have more tea?" Sam's mom refills our cups, and we gulp them again before she sets down the milk carton.

"Excuse me, could we please have more tea?"

Sam's mom sighs and stays standing by the table, pouring us cups until our stomachs are swollen.

"This is what the queen does all day in England," Sam says.

I nod my head.

"Yeah, she drinks so much tea, all she can do is lay down. She's the only person in the world whose only job is to drink tea, and even James Bond can't keep up with her. No one can."

"Except us," Sam says. Yes, except us. We hold our bellies and grin at each other. We are the most powerful girls in the world.

On Sundays I wear my church shoes. Mom puts my hair in a french braid and helps me pick out a dress. It's just me and her and my big sister Allison today because Dad doesn't come to church except when Mom is singing in the choir. On those days someone needs to sit with me in the pews, but also he likes to hear Mom sing. The choir sings up high in the back and their voices blend together, but Dad says he can hear her.

At Sunday School my teacher asks where a rainbow comes from. I know this one! We learned it in science class.

"It's the light reflecting on the water droplets in the air," I tell her.

"No, no no no," she says. "It's a sign of God's promise he will never again destroy the earth with flood."

I feel squirmy inside for getting it wrong. She gives us each a popsicle to suck on while she reads us the story from the Bible, and after she shows us how to glue together the sticks into the shape of Noah and his ark. My lips are stained blue.

For the science fair Allison helps me make an ant farm. I get to keep my pet ants in my room, which is surprising because my parents never let me have a hamster or a dog or a chicken. I've asked. I tried to name all my ants, but there's so many, I can't keep track. I just call them all Anty. They tunnel in the sand, and every night before bed I draw a picture of their pattern in my notebook to put on my poster board. Sam says she thinks my project is so cool, it's gonna win first prize, but I think she'll win for her dinosaur diorama.

On the morning of the fair, Allison is crying. She locks herself in the bathroom and won't come out, even when Mom and Dad are using their angry voices. We have to leave for school soon.

"Come on, let's get ready. You can take the bus today," Mom says. She lets me shower in her shower. I use her shampoo, and the whole day my hair smells like her.

On the bus I hold my ant farm in my lap. "Anty, if you can hear me, please tell Allison to feel better," I whisper to them. She needs to feel better because I need her to come to my science fair. She promised.

We set up tables in the gym. All the other grades get to come see our projects, and parents, too. A kindergartener is looking at my farm, tracing an ant's movement with her pointer finger.

"That one is named Anty," I tell her. She points to a different one.

"That one is called Anty, too." She points again.

"Yeah, that one, too." The girl tires of the game and moves on, but a group of people have gathered in front of my poster. Mrs. Wilson says when this happens, we have to speak up and tell them what we learned.

"Hello," I say, and they all turn to look at me. I take a deep breath and start reciting the facts Allison helped me memorize. Ants are the longest living insects. There is one species where the queen ant can live for 30 years. The ant is one of the world's strongest creatures. A single ant can carry 50 times its own bodyweight. Ants can be found on every single continent except Antarctica.

I glance around and see my parents come into the gym, but Allison isn't with them. I look back at my audience, but I've forgotten what fact is supposed to come next.

"Ants are not magical at all," I say. "If you try to talk to them, they won't hear you. Ants don't even have ears."

On the last day of fifth grade, Sam and I say goodbye to each piece of equipment on the playground. This is the last time we'll ever swing across these monkey bars. This is the last time we'll balance on this beam. We use a woodchip to carve our initials into the rubber on the bottom of our favorite swing, S&K BFFS 4EVR.

We climb to the top of the tallest slide. She pushes my back to make me go down, but I hold tight to the sides of the slide, teasing. She pushes again, harder, and this time my grip loosens, I'm slipping and the metal is burning my legs. I tumble onto the grass.

Allison has a boyfriend. His name is Jacques, and he's exchanging from France.

"Ah, très chic," she says when I come downstairs in my new sweater. "Chic means fashionable."

"Yeah," I say, "chic means that in English, too, dummy." She sticks out her tongue at me.

The middle school is the opposite direction of the high school, so Allison isn't driving me anymore. It's hot today, and my skin sticks to the bus seat. There's a hole in the gray fabric, and I stick my pinky finger through, pulling at it. I wish there was more of a breeze, but we get in trouble if we open the windows lower than the white line on the frame. Allison likes to roll the car windows all the way down, and I used to stick my hands out as we drove, feeling the wind on them.

When I get off the bus, all the sixth graders are standing in the lunchroom, waiting for orientation. I look around for Sam and eventually find her talking to a girl I don't recognize. She sees me and motions for me to come over.

"Hey, Kate! This is Michelle. She went to East. She's in my ballet class."

Michelle has shiny hair reaching her waist, and her denim shorts are bedazzled with pink gemstones. "Hi," she says, after looking me up and down. She's chewing bubblegum. She blows a bubble, pops it.

I have practice for the youth choir at the same time Allison has confirmation class. Today everyone knows the hymn well enough that we get done early. Instead of waiting for Allison, I walk down the road to the park. But Allison is there, at the park, not at confirmation. She's with Jacques and some other people I don't know from the high school. It smells like when my neighbor Gerry ran over a skunk with his car. The air is hazy when I get near them.

Allison sees me and pulls me back to the car, grabbing my arm so hard it hurts.

"Don't tattle-tale, okay, Katers?"

We're changing in the locker room after gym class and talking about boys. I have a crush on Tommy, and I think he knows it, I confess. Lizzy squeals.

"Ooooh, are you two gonna date?"

"Boys like it when you have curves," Michelle interrupts. She says curves in a way I know it's something she has and I don't. I look down at my body, and for the first time it isn't a body good for running and swimming but something ugly, like a string bean.

Mrs. Simmons puts an image of the female reproductive system up on the projector. It's strange to think that pink mess of tubes is what's inside of me. I tilt my head sideways to get a better look. A few weeks later, I pull down my underwear in the school bathroom at lunchtime and there is a rusty smear in the bottom. When I get home, I tell Mom I can't go to swim practice today, but Allison has the door to her room open, and when she overhears, she tells me not to be a wimp.

After dinner the three of us crowd into the half-bath. Mom explains slowly.

"You have to get into a position where you're comfortable. Maybe try sitting on the toilet and spreading your legs. Some women stand up. See this little tube? That's what you have to push up. The string hangs out so you can pull it out later. Does that make sense? If you do it right it, shouldn't hurt. You shouldn't feel anything at all."

Allison rolls her eyes and says in her bossy voice, "Jesus, just shove it up there!" Mom tells her not to use the Lord's name in vain.

At swim practice that night, I set a personal record for the 400-meter freestyle.

Today when I arrive at lunch, our seats are already taken. I get hot lunch, and Sam brings hers from home, so it's her job to save the table. I wonder if Sam is running late, or maybe she has a doctor's appointment, but I look across the lunch room and see the back of her head at a different table. She's squished in between Michelle and Lauren. Last year she used to say how much she hated Lauren.

There's an empty spot by some girls I recognize from gym class. I sit down and eat my pizza dippers quietly. After the lunch period ends, I run to catch up with Sam.

"Sorry! Michelle wanted to sit by some of her friends today," she says. "I'll make sure to save a seat for you next time."

But she doesn't.

On the day of her confirmation, Allison doesn't show up. My grandparents came all the way in from Dubuque, and Mom's best friend from college who is Allison's godmother is here. We turn to watch as the confirmands come into the church, but none of the faces are Allison's. Mom steps out into the hall and makes a phone call. She comes back, and the skin on her neck is blotchy, and she shushes me when I try to talk to her. We sit silently until the service is over. We don't even sing the hymns.

On the car ride home, my grandpa says it's my dad's fault. He's worried for Allison's soul. This is why we wanted you to marry a Christian, he tells Mom.

"I thought we were over this," she snaps. Dad's hands are tense on the steering wheel.

When Allison sneaks into the house that night, my parents are waiting for her in the kitchen. "Where have you been? What were you thinking?"

"I just couldn't do it, okay?" There's mascara smeared across Allison's cheeks.

"You're grounded," Mom says.

Allison glances at Dad, trying to find some support. He shakes his head. "If you didn't want to be confirmed, that's one thing, but you can't just run away without telling us."

"Fine," she yells, "you can't ground me forever, and I'm moving to France the second I turn eighteen!" She runs past where I'm sitting at the top of the stairs, stepping on my fingers. She goes into her room and slams the door.

I tiptoe over and knock.


"Go away, Kate."

There's a new seating chart in science class, and my new desk is next to Tommy. I start setting my alarm 30 minutes earlier, carefully picking out my favorite bracelets, using Allison's straightener to tame my frizzy hair.

When we take a quiz, Tommy is frowning at his paper, filling in one bubble on the scantron sheet only to erase it immediately. I shift my paper to the edge of my desk and nudge him with my foot. When the teacher isn't looking, he flashes a thumbs-up at me.

During passing time, I see Sam with Michelle by the drinking fountain, filling her water bottle. We don't have any classes together, and it feels like I haven't seen her in forever.

"I like your boots," I say. They're the real kind, not the knockoff pair my mom bought for me. Sam and Michelle glance at each other, almost wincing.

"Thanks," Sam says flatly.

"We gotta get to class," Michelle says, pulling her away.

The only makeup I'm allowed to wear is concealer over my acne, but this is a special occasion. Mom lets me use her lipstick, some blush, mascara. The makeup feels sticky. I scrunch up my face and move it around to get used to the feeling on my skin. When I look in the mirror, I feel beautiful. Better.

I have to be at the school dance for student council, but I don't have anyone to dance with, so buy all the junk food I can afford with the $10 bill Mom gave me and sit down at a table. My teeth have a sugary coating on them from all the candy I've eaten. Someone's coming over, but it's dark, and at first I can't see who. They sit down next to me. It's Tommy. His face is so close to mine, I can see a tiny freckle on his nose.

"Do you want to kiss me?"

"Sure," I say. He kisses me. I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do with my lips, but he pulls away before I can figure it out.

"You taste like jolly ranchers," he says.

I reach under the table to hold his hand. I tell him I've never kissed anybody before, so I hope it was okay. I tell him my sister doesn't believe in God anymore. I tell him when I was little, I used to imagine ants were full of magic. He leans over, and I think he's going to say something, but instead he kisses me again, this time with tongue.

Tommy grabs a jolly rancher from my bag and gets up to go back out on the dance floor. He disappears into a circle of friends who are laughing and giving him high fives.

The morning after the dance, Allison takes me to get ice cream.

"You know, the first time I went to a dance, someone spilled a soda on me and it looked like I peed my pants," she says. "Bad school dances happen to everyone, Kate."

My cheeks redden, knowing she must have heard me crying the night before, but I feel comforted all the same. A worker comes to our table, bringing a plain vanilla cone for Allison and a sundae with all the toppings for me. I dip my spoon in and take a bite. It tastes sweet.

In science class I am giving a powerpoint presentation about cell structure and cellular processes. Mr. Anderson calls my name, and I stand at the front of the room. I was nervous before, but with the whole class looking at me, the words come easily.

"The mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell," I explain. "The nucleus is the control center. There's golgi bodies that package and transmit cellular material. Ribosomes are responsible for making protein."

At the end of class, Mr. Anderson asks if he can talk to me for a moment. "I'm one of the advisors for the Science Quiz Bowl, and our team is headed to the finals in a couple of weeks. I really think we need someone like you on the team," he says.

I have science last period, and by the time Mr. Anderson has finished printing out Quiz Bowl registration forms, most of the students have already left the building. It's calm without the chatter of my classmates, the slamming of locker doors. I should be rushing to catch the bus, but I stop for a moment in the empty hallway and take a deep breath.

My body is made up of 37.2 trillion cells, and sometimes I think I can feel them all at once, humming inside of me.