Subterranean Press Magazine: Fall 2011
White Lines on a Green Field by Catherynne M. Valente
For Seanan McGuire. And Coyote.
Let me tell you about the year Coyote took the Devils to the State Championship.
Coyote walked tall down the halls of West Centerville High and where he walked lunch money, copies of last semester’s math tests, and unlit joints blossomed in his footsteps. When he ran laps out on the field our lockers would fill up with Snickers bars, condoms, and ecstasy tabs in all the colors of Skittles. He was our QB, and he looked like an invitation to the greatest rave of all time. I mean, yeah, he had black hair and copper skin and muscles like a commercial for the life you’re never going to have. But it was the way he looked at you, with those dark eyes that knew the answer to every question a teacher could ask, but he wouldn’t give them the satisfaction, you know? Didn’t matter anyway. Coyote never did his homework, but boyfriend rocked a 4.2 all the same.
When tryouts rolled around that fall, Coyote went out for everything. Cross-country, baseball, even lacrosse. But I think football appealed to his friendly nature, his need to have a pack around him, bright-eyed boys with six-pack abs and a seven minute mile and a gift for him every day. They didn’t even know why, but they brought them all the same. Playing cards, skateboards, vinyl records (Coyote had no truck with mp3s). The defensive line even baked cookies for their boy. Chocolate chip peanut butter oatmeal walnut iced snickerdoodle, piling up on the bench like a king’s tribute. And oh, the girls brought flowers. Poor girls gave him dandelions and rich girls gave him roses and he kissed them all like they were each of them specifically the key to the fulfillment of all his dreams. Maybe they were. Coyote didn’t play favorites. He had enough for everyone.
By the time we went to State, all the cheerleaders were pregnant.
The Devils used to be a shitty team, no lie. Bottom of our division and even the coach was thinking he ought to get more serious about his geometry classes. Before Coyote transferred our booster club was the tight end’s Dad, Mr. Bollard, who painted his face Devil gold-and-red and wore big plastic light-up horns for every game. At Homecoming one year, the Devil’s Court had two princesses and a queen who were actually girls from the softball team filling in on a volunteer basis, because no one cared enough to vote. They all wore jeans and bet heavily on the East Centerville Knights, who won 34-3.
First game of his senior year, Coyote ran 82 yards for the first of 74 touchdowns that season. He passed and caught and ran like he was all eleven of them in one body. Nobody could catch him. Nobody even complained. He ran like he’d stolen that ball and the whole world was chasing him to get it back. Where’d he been all this time? The boys hoisted him up on their shoulders afterward, and Coyote just laughed and laughed. We all found our midterm papers under our pillows the next morning, finished and bibliographied, and damn if they weren’t the best essays we’d never written.
I’m not gonna lie. I lost my virginity to Coyote in the back of my blue pick-up out by the lake right before playoffs. He stroked my hair and kissed me like they kiss in the movies. Just the perfect kisses, no bonked noses, no knocking teeth. He tasted like stolen sunshine. Bunny, he whispered to me with his narrow hips working away, I will love you forever and ever. You’re the only one for me.
Liar, I whispered back, and when I came it was like the long flying fall of a roller coaster, right into his arms. Liar, liar, liar.
I think he liked that I knew the score, because after that Coyote made sure I was at all his games, even though I don’t care about sports. Nobody didn’t care about sports that year. Overnight the stands went from a ghost town to kids ride free day at the carnival. And when Coyote danced in the endzone he looked like everything you ever wanted. Every son, every boyfriend.
“Come on, Bunny,” he’d say. “I’ll score a touchdown for you.”
“You’ll score a touchdown either way.”
“I’ll point at you in the stands if you’re there. Everyone will know I love you.”
“Just make sure I’m sitting with Sarah Jane and Jessica and Ashley, too, so you don’t get in trouble.”
“That’s my Bunny, always looking out for me,” he’d laugh, and take me in his mouth like he’d die if he didn’t.
You could use birth control with Coyote. It wouldn’t matter much.
But he did point at me when he crossed that line, grinning and dancing and moving his hips like Elvis had just been copying his moves all along, and Sarah Jane and Jessica and Ashley got so excited they choked on their Cokes. They all knew about the others. I think they liked it that way—most of what mattered to Sarah Jane and Jessica and Ashley was Sarah Jane and Jessica and Ashley, and Coyote gave them permission to spend all their time together. Coyote gave us all permission, that was his thing. Cheat, fuck, drink, dance—just do it like you mean it!
I think the safety had that tattooed on his calf.
After we won four games in a row (after a decade of no love) things started to get really out of control. You couldn’t buy tickets. Mr. Bollard was in hog heaven—suddenly the boosters were every guy in town who was somebody, or used to be somebody, or who wanted to be somebody some impossible day in the future. We were gonna beat the Thunderbirds. They started saying it, right out in public. Six-time state champs, and no chance they wouldn’t be the team in our way this year like every year. But every year was behind us, and ahead was only our boy running like he’d got the whole of heaven at his back. Mr. Bollard got them new uniforms, new helmets, new goal posts—all the deepest red you ever saw. But nobody wore the light-up horns Mr. Bollard had rocked for years. They all wore little furry coyote ears, and who knows where they bought them, but they were everywhere one Friday, and every Friday after. When Coyote scored, everyone would howl like the moon had come out just for them. Some of the cheerleaders started wearing faux-fur tails, spinning them around by bumping and grinding on the sidelines, their corn-yellow skirts fluttering up to the heavens.
One time, after we stomped the Greenville Bulldogs 42-0, I saw Coyote under the stands, in that secret place the boards and steel poles and shadows and candy wrappers make. Mike Halloran (kicker, #14) and Justin Oster (wide receiver, #11) were down there too, helmets off, the filtered stadium lights turning their uniforms to pure gold. Coyote leaned against a pole, smoking a cigarette, shirt off—and what a thing that was to see.
“Come on, QB,” Justin whined. “I never hit a guy before. I got no beef here. And I never fucked Jessie, either, Mike, I was just mouthing off. She let me see her boob once in 9th grade and there wasn’t that much to see back then. I never had a drink except one time a beer and I never smoked ‘cause my daddy got emphysema.” Coyote just grinned his friendly, hey-dude-no-worries grin.
“Never know unless you try,” he said, very reasonably. “It’ll make you feel good, I promise.”
“Fuck you, Oster” shot back Halloran. “I’m going first. You’re bigger, it’s not fair.”
Halloran got his punch in before he had to hear any more about what Justin Oster had never done and the two of them went at it, fists and blood and meat-slapping sounds and pretty soon they were down on the ground in the spilled-Coke and week-old-rain mud, pulling hair and biting and rolling around and after awhile it didn’t look that much like fighting anymore. I watched for awhile. Coyote looked up at me over their grappling and dragged on his smoke.
Just look at them go, little sister, I heard Coyote whisper, but his mouth didn’t move. His eyes flashed in the dark like a dog’s.
LaGrange almost ruined it all at Homecoming. The LaGrange Cowboys, and wasn’t their QB a picture, all wholesome white-blonde square-jaw aw-shucks muscle with an arm so perfect you’d have thought someone had mounted a rifle sight on it. #9 Bobby Zhao, of the 300 bench and the Miss Butter Festival 19whatever mother, the seven-restaurant-chain owning father (Dumpling King of the Southland!) and the surprising talent for soulful bluegrass guitar. All the colleges lined up for that boy with carnations and chocolates. We hated him like hate was something we’d invented in lab that week and had been saving up for something special. Bobby Zhao and his bullshit hipster-crooner straw hat. Coyote didn’t pay him mind. Tell us what you’re gonna do to him, they’d pant, and he’d just spit onto the parking lot asphalt and say: I got a history with Cowboys. Where he’d spat the offensive line watched as weird crystals formed—the kind Jimmy Moser (safety, #17) ought to have recognized from his uncle’s trailer out off of Route 40, but you know me, I don’t say a word. They didn’t look at it too long. Instead they scratched their cheeks and performed their tribal ask-and-answer. We going down by the lake tonight? Yeah. Yeah.
“Let’s invite Bobby Zhao,” Coyote said suddenly. His eyes got big and loose and happy. His come-on look. His it’ll-be-great look.
“Um, why?” Jimmy frowned. “Not to put too fine a point on it, but fuck that guy. He’s the enemy.”
Coyote flipped up the collar of his leather jacket and picked a stray maple leaf the color of anger out of Jimmy’s hair. He did it tenderly. You’re my boy and I’ll pick you clean, I’ll lick you clean, I’ll keep everything red off of your perfect head, his fingers said. But what his mouth said was:
“Son, what you don’t know about enemies could just about feed the team til their dying day.” And when Coyote called you Son you knew to be ashamed. “Only babies think enemies are for beating. Can’t beat ‘em, not ever. Not the ones that come out of nowhere in the 4th quarter to take what’s yours and hold your face in the mud til you drown, not the ones you always knew you’d have to face because that’s what you were made for. Not the lizard guarding the Sun, not the man who won’t let you teach him how to plant corn. Enemies are for grabbing by the ears and fucking them til they’re so sticky-knotted bound to you they call their wives by your name. Enemies are for absorbing, Jimmy. Best thing you can do to an enemy is pull up a chair to his fire, eat his dinner, rut in his bed and go to his job in the morning, and do it all so much better he just gives it up to you—but fuck him, you never wanted it anyway. You just wanted to mess around in his house for a little while. Scare his kids. Leave a little something behind to let the next guy know you’re never far away. That’s how you do him. Or else—” Coyote pulled Cindy Gerard (bottom of the pyramid and arms like birch trunks) close and took the raspberry pop out of her hand, sipping on it long and sweet, all that pink slipping into him. “Or else you just make him love you til he cries. Either way.”
Jimmy fidgeted. He looked at Oster and Halloran, who still had bruises, fading on their cheekbones like blue flowers. After awhile he laughed horsily and said: “Whaddaya think the point spread’ll be?”
Coyote just punched him in the arm, convivial like, and kissed Cindy Gerard and I could smell the raspberry of their kiss from across the circle of boys. The September wind brought their kiss to all of us like a bag of promises. And just like that, Bobby Zhao showed up at the lake that night, driving his freshly waxed Cowboy silver-and-black double-cab truck with the lights on top like a couple of frog’s eyes. He took off that stupid straw hat and started hauling a keg out of the cream leather passenger seat—and once they saw that big silver moon riding shotgun with the Dumpling Prince of the Southland, Henry Dillard (linebacker, #33) and Josh Vick (linebacker, #34) hurried over to help him with it and Bobby Zhao was welcome. Offering accepted. Just lay it up here on the altar and we’ll cut open that shiny belly and drink what she’s got for us. And what she had was golden and sweet and just as foamy as the sea.
Coyote laid back with me in the bed of my much shittier pick-up, some wool blanket with a horse-and-cactus print on it under us and another one with a wolf-and-moon design over us, so he could slip his hands under my bra in that secret, warm space that gets born under some hippie mom’s awful rugs when no one else can see you. Everyone was hollering over the beer and I could hear Sarah Jane laughing in that way that says: just keep pouring and maybe I’ll show you something worth seeing.
“Come on, Bunny Rabbit,” Coyote whispered, “it’s nothing we haven’t done before.” And it was a dumb thing to say, a boy thing, but when Coyote said it I felt it humming in my bones, everything we’d done before, over and over, and I couldn’t even remember a world before Coyote, only the one he made of us, down by the lake, under the wolf and the moon, his hands on my breasts like they were the saving of him. I knew him like nobody else—and they’ll all say that now, Sarah Jane and Jessica and Ashley and Cindy Gerard and Justin Oster and Jimmy Moser, but I knew him. Knew the shape of him. After all, it’s nothing we hadn’t done before.
“It’s different every time,” I said in the truck-dark. “Or there’s no point. You gotta ask me nice every time. You gotta make me think I’m special. You gotta put on your ears and your tail and make the rain come for me or I’ll run off with some Thunderbird QB and leave you eating my dust.”
“I’m asking nice. Oh, my Bunny, my rabbit-girl with the fastest feet, just slow you down and let me do what I want.”
“And what do you want?”
“I want to dance on this town til it breaks. I want to burrow in it until it belongs to me. I want high school to last forever. I want to eat everything, and fuck everything, and snort everything, and win everything. I want my Bunny Rabbit on my lap while I drive down the world with my headlights off.”
“I don’t want to be tricked,” I said, but he was already inside me and I was glad. Fucking him felt like running in a long field, with no end in sight. “Not into a baby, not into a boyfriend, not into anything.”
“Don’t worry,” he panted. “You always get yours. Just like me, always like me.”
I felt us together, speeding up towards something, running faster, and he brushed my hair out of my face and it wasn’t hair but long black ears, as soft as memory, and then it was hair again, tangled and damp with our sweat, and I bit him as our stride broke. I whispered: “And Coyote gets his.”
“Why not? It’s nothing we haven’t done before.”
When I got up off of the horse blanket, marigold blossoms spilled out of me like Coyote’s seed.
Later that night I fished a smoke out of my glove box and sat on top of the dented salt-rusted cab of my truck. Coyote stood down by the lakeshore, aways off from the crowd, where the water came up in little foamy splashes and the willow trees whipped around like they were looking for someone to hold on to. Bobby Zhao was down there, too, his hands in his jean pockets, hip jutting out like a pouty lip, his hat on again and his face all in shadow. They were talking but I couldn’t hear over everyone else hooting and laughing like a pack of owls. The moon came out as big as a beer keg; it made Coyote’s face look lean and angelic, so young and victorious and humble enough to make you think the choice was yours all along. He took Bobby Zhao’s hand and they just stood there in the light, their fingers moving together. The wind blew off that straw hat like it didn’t like the thing much either, and Bobby let it lie. He was looking at Coyote, his hair all blue in the night, and Coyote kissed him as hard as hurting, and Bobby kissed him back like he’d been waiting for it since he was born. Coyote got his hands under his shirt and oh, Coyote is good at that, getting under, getting around, and the boys smiled whenever their lips parted.
I watched. I’m always watching. Who doesn’t like to watch? It feels like being God, seeing everything happen far away, and you could stop it if you wanted, but then you couldn’t watch anymore.
A storm started rumbling up across the meadows, spattering their kisses with autumn rain.
Suddenly everyone cared about who was going to make the Devil’s Court this year. Even me. The mall was cleared out of formal sparkle-and-slit dresses by August, and somehow they just couldn’t get any more in, like we were an island mysteriously sundered from the land of sequins and sweetheart necklines. Most of us were just going to have to go with one of our mom’s prom dresses, though you can be damn sure we’d be ripping off that poofy shoulder chiffon and taking up the hems as far as we could. Jenny Kilroy (drama club, Young Businesswomen’s Association) had done all the costumes for The Music Man in junior year, and for $50 she’d take that cherry cupcake dress and turn it into an apocalyptic punkslut wedding gown, but girlfriend worked slow. Whoever took the Homecoming crown had about a 60/40 chance of being up there in something they’d worn to their grandmother’s funeral.
The smart money was on Sarah Jane for the win. She was already pregnant by then, and Jessica too, but I don’t think even they knew it yet. Bellies still flat as a plains state, cotton candy lipstick as perfect as a Rembrandt. Nobody got morning sickness, nobody’s feet swelled. Sarah shone in the center of her ring of girls like a pink diamond in a nouveaux riche ring. 4.0, equestrian club, head cheerleader, softball pitcher, jazz choir lead soprano, played Juliet in both freshman and senior years, even joined the chess club. She didn’t care about chess, but it looked good on her applications and she turned out to be terrifyingly good at it—first place at the spring speed chess invitational in Freemont, even seven months along. You couldn’t even hate Sarah. You could see her whole perfect life rolling on ahead of her like a yellow brick road but you knew she’d include you, if you wanted. If you stuck around this town like she meant to, and let her rule it like she aimed to.
Jessica and Ashley flanked her down every hall and every parade—a girl like Sarah just naturally grows girls like Jessica and Ashley to be her adjutants, her bridesmaids, the baby’s breath to make her rose look redder. All three of them knew the score and all three of them made sure nothing would ever change, like Macbeth’s witches, if they wore daisy-print coats and their mothers’ Chanel and tearproof mascara and only foretold their own love, continuing forever and the world moving aside to let it pass. So that was the obvious lineup—Queen Sarah and her Viziers. Of course there were three slots, so I figured Jenny Kilroy would slide in on account of her charitable work to keep us all in the shimmer.
And then Friday morning arrived, the dawn before the dance and a week before the showdown game with Bobby Zhao and his Cowboys. Coyote howled up 7 am and we woke up and opened our closets and there they hung—a hundred perfect dresses. Whatever we might have chosen after hours of turning on the rack of the mall with nothing in our size or our color or modest enough for daddy or bare enough for us, well, it was hanging in our closets with a corsage on the hip. Coyote took us all to Homecoming that year. And there in my room hung something that glittered and threw prisms on the wall, something the color of the ripest pumpkin you ever saw, something cut so low and slit so high it invited the world to love me best. I put it on and my head filled up with champagne like I’d already been sipping flutes for an hour, as if silk could make skin drunk. I slid the corsage on my wrist—cornflowers, and tiny green ears not yet open.
Coyote danced with all the girls and when the music sped up he threw back his head and howled and we all howled with him. When it slowed down he draped himself all over some lonesome thing who never thought she had a chance. The rest of us threw out our arms and danced with what our hands caught—Jessica spent half the night with mathletes kissing her neck and teaching her mnemonics. Everything was dizzy; everything spun. The music came from everywhere at once and the floor shook with our stomping. We were so strong that night, we were full of the year and no one drank the punch because no one needed it, we just moved with Coyote and Coyote moved, too. I flung out my arms and spun away from David Horowitz (pep squad, 100-meter dash), my corn-bound hand finding a new body to carry me into the next song. Guitar strings plinked in some other, distant world beyond the gymnasium and I opened my eyes to see Sarah Jane in my arms, her dress a perfect, icy white spill of froth and jewels, her eyes made up black and severe, to contrast, her lips a generous rose-colored smile. She smelled like musk and honeysuckle. She smelled like Coyote. I danced with her and she put her head on my breast; I felt her waist in my grasp, the slight weight of her, the chess queen, the queen of horses and jazz and grade point averages and pyramids and backflips, Juliet twice, thrice, a hundred times over. She ran her hand idly up and down my back just as if I were a boy. My vision blurred and the Christmas lights hanging everywhere swam into a soup of Devil red and Devil gold. The queen of the softball team lifted her sunny blonde head and kissed me. Her mouth tasted like cherry gum and whiskey. She put her hands in my hair to show me she meant it, and I pulled her in tight—but the song ended and she pulled away, looking surprised and confused, her lipstick dulled, her bright brown eyes wounded, like a deer with sudden shot in her side. She ran to Jessica and Ashley and the three of them to Coyote, hands over their stomachs as though something fluttered there, something as yet unknown and unnamed.
The principal got up to call out the Devil’s Court. My man was shaken by all the heavy grinding and spinning and howling that had become the senior class, but he got out his index cards all the same. He adjusted his striped tie and tapped the mic, just like every principal has ever done. And he said a name. And it was mine. A roar picked up around me and hands were shoving me forward and I didn’t understand, it was Sarah Jane, it would always be Sarah Jane. But I stood there while Mr. Whitmore, the football coach, put a crown on my head, and I looked out into the throng. Coyote stood there in his tuxedo, the bowtie all undone like a brief black river around his neck, and he winked at me with his flashing hound-eye, and the principal called three more names and they were Jessica and Ashley and Sarah Jane. They stood around me like three fates and Mr. Whitmore put little spangly tiaras on their heads and they looked at me like I had caught a pass in the end-zone, Hail Mary and three seconds left on the clock. I stared back and their tiaras were suddenly rings of wheat and appleblossoms and big, heavy oranges like suns, and I could see in their eyes mine wasn’t rhinestones any more than it was ice cream. I lifted it down off my head and held it out like a thing alive: a crown of corn, not the Iowa yellow stuff but blue and black, primal corn from before the sun thought fit to rise, with tufts of silver fur sprouting from their tips, and all knotted together with crow feathers and marigolds.
And then it was pink rhinestones in my hands again, and blue zirconium on my Princesses’ heads, and the Devil’s Court took its place, and if you have to ask who was King, you haven’t been listening.
After that, the game skipped by like a movie of itself. Bobby just couldn’t keep that ball in his hands. You could see it on his face, how the ball had betrayed him, gone over to a bad boy with a leather jacket and no truck at all. You could see him re-sorting colleges in his head. It just about broke your heart. But we won 24-7, and Coyote led Bobby Zhao off the field with a sorry-buddy and a one-game-don’t-mean-a-thing, and before I drove off to the afterparty I saw them under the bleachers, foreheads pressed together, each clutching at the other’s skin like they wanted to climb inside, and they were beautiful like that, down there underneath the world, their helmets lying at their feet like old crowns.
Nothing could stop us then. The Westbrook Ravens, the Bella Vista Possums, the Ashland Gators. Line them up and watch them fall. It wasn’t even a question.
I suppose we learned trig, or Melville, or earth science. I suppose we took exams. I suppose we had parents, too, but I’ll be damned if any of that seemed to make the tiniest impression on any one of us that year. We lived in an unbreakable bubble where nothing mattered. We lived in a snowglobe, only the sun was always shining and we were always winning and yeah, you could get grounded for faceplanting your biology midterm or pulled over for speeding or worse for snorting whatever green fairy dust Coyote found for you, but nothing really happened. You came down to the lake like always the next night. After the Ravens game, Greg Knight (running back, #46) and Johnny Thompson (cornerback, #22) crashed their cars into each other after drinking half a sip of something Coyote whipped up in an acorn cap, yelling chicken out the window the whole time like it was 1950 and some girl would be waving her handkerchief at the finish line. But instead there was a squeal of engine humping up on engine and the dead crunch of the front ends smacking together and the long blare of Greg’s face leaning on his horn.
But even then, they just got up and walked away, arm in arm and Coyote suddenly between them, oh-my-godding and let’s-do-that-againing. The next day their Camrys pulled up to the parking lot like it was no big deal. Nothing could touch us.
All eyes were on the Thunderbirds.
Now, the Thunderbirds didn’t have a Bobby Zhao. No star player to come back and play celebrity alumnus in ten years with a Super Bowl ring on his finger. A Thunderbird was part of a machine, a part that could be swapped out for a hot new freshman no problem, no resentment. They moved as one, thought as one, they were a flock, always pointed in the same direction. That was how they’d won six state championships; that was how they’d sent three quarterbacks to the NFL in the last decade. There was no one to hate—just a single massive Thunderbird darkening our little sky.
Coyote’s girls began to show by Christmas.
Sarah Jane, whatever the crown might have said at Homecoming, was queen of the unwed mothers, too. Her belly swelled just slightly bigger than the others—but then none of them got very big. None of them slowed down. Sarah Jane was turning a flip-into somersault off the pyramid in her sixth month with no trouble. They would all lay around the sidelines together painting their stomachs (Devil red and Devil gold) and trying on names for size. No point in getting angry; no point in fighting for position. The tribe was the tribe and the tribe was all of us and a tribe has to look after its young. The defensive line had a whole rotating system for bringing them chocolate milk in the middle of the night.
They were strong and tan and lean and I had even money on them all giving birth to puppies.
I didn’t get pregnant. But then, I wouldn’t. I told him, and he listened. Rabbit and Coyote, they do each other favors, when they can.
A plan hatched itself: steal their mascot. An old fashioned sort of thing, like playing chicken with cars. Coyote plays it old school. Into Springfield High in the middle of the night, out with Marmalade, a stuffed, motheaten African Grey parrot from some old biology teacher’s collection that a bright soul had long ago decided could stand in for a Thunderbird.
We drove out to Springfield, two hours and change, me and Coyote and Jimmy Moser and Mike Halloran and Josh Vick and Sarah Jane and Jessica and Ashley, all crammed into my truck, front and back. Coyote put something with a beat on the radio and slugged back some off-brand crap that probably turned to Scotland’s peaty finest when it hit his tongue. Jimmy was trying to talk Ashley into making out with him in the back while the night wind whipped through their hair and fireflies flashed by, even though it was January. Ashley didn’t mind too much, even less when everyone wanted to touch her stomach and feel the baby move. She blushed like a primrose and even her belly button went pink.
Nobody’s very quiet when sneaking into a gym. Your feet squeak on the basketball court and everyone giggles like a joke got told even when none did and we had Coyote’s hissing drink up drink up and squeezing my hand like he can’t hold the excitement in. We saw Marmalade center court on a parade float, all ready to ship over to the big designated-neutral-ground stadium for halftime. Big yellow and white crepe flowers drooped everywhere, around the shore of a bright blue construction paper sea. Marmalade’s green wings spread out majestically, and in his talons he held a huge orange papier-mâché ball ringed with aluminum foil rays dipped in gold glitter. Thunderbird made this world, and Thunderbird gets to rule it.
Coyote got this look on his face and the moment I saw it I knew I wouldn’t let him get there first. I took off running, my sneakers screeching, everyone hollering Bunny! after me and Coyote scrappling up behind me, closing the distance, racing to the sun. I’m faster, I’m always faster. Sometimes he gets it and sometimes I get it but it’s nothing we haven’t done before and this time it’s mine.
And I leapt onto the float without disturbing the paper sea and reached up, straining, and finally just going for it. I’m a tall girl, see how high I jump. The sun came down in my arms, still warm from the gym lights and the after-hours HVAC. The Thunderbird came with it, all red cheeks and Crayola green wingspan and I looked down to see Coyote grinning up at me. He’d let me take it, if I wanted it. He’d let me wear it like a crown. But after a second of enjoying its weight, the deliciousness of its theft, I passed it down to him. It was his year. He’d earned it.
We drove home through the January stars with the sun in the bed of my truck and three pregnant girls touching it with one hand each, holding it down, holding it still, holding it together.
On game day we stabbed it with the Devil’s pitchfork and paraded our float around the stadium like conquering heroes. Like cowboys. Marmalade looked vaguely sad. By then Coyote was cleaning off blood in the locker room, getting ready for the second half, shaken, no girls around him and no steroid needles blossoming up from his friendly palm like a bouquet of peonies.
The first half of the championship game hit us like a boulder falling from the sky. The Thunderbirds didn’t play for flash, but for short, sharp gains and an inexorable progression toward the end-zone. They didn’t cheer when they scored. They nodded to their coach and regrouped. They caught the flawless, seraphic passes Coyote fired off; they engulfed him when he tried to run as he’d always done. Our stands started out raucous and screaming and jumping up and down, cheering on our visibly pregnant cheerleading squad despite horrified protests form the Springfield side. Don’t you listen, Sarah Jane baby! yelled Mr. Bollard. You look perfect! And she did, fists in the air, ponytail swinging.
Halftime stood 14-7 Thunderbirds.
I slipped into the locker room—by that time the place had become Devil central, girls and boys and players and cheerleaders and second chair marching band kids who weren’t needed til post-game all piled in together. Some of them giving pep talks which I did not listen to, some of them bandaging knees, some of them—well. Doing what always needs doing when Coyote’s around. Rome never saw a party like a Devil locker room.
I walked right over to my boy and the blood vanished from his face just as soon as he saw me.
“Don’t you try to look pretty for me,” I said.
“Aw, Bunny, but you always look so nice for me.”
I sat in his lap. He tucked his fingers between my thighs—where I clamped them, safe and still. “What’s going on out there?”
Coyote drank his water down. “Don’t you worry, Bunny Rabbit. It has to go like this, or they won’t feel like they really won. Ain’t no good game since the first game that didn’t look lost at half time. It’s how the story goes. Can’t hold a game without it. The old fire just won’t come. If I just let that old Bird lose like it has to, well, everyone would get happy after, but they’d think it was pre-destined all along, no work went into it. You gotta make the story for them, so that when the game is done they’ll just…” Coyote smiled and his teeth gleamed. “Well, they’ll lose their minds I won it so good.”
Coyote kissed me and bit my lip with those gleaming teeth. Blood came up and in our mouths it turned to fire. We drank it down and he ran out on that field, Devil red and Devil gold, and he ran like if he kept running he could escape the last thousand years. He ran like the field was his country. He ran like his bride was on the other end of all that grass and I guess she was. I guess we all were. Coyote gave the cherry to Justin Oster, who caught this pass that looked for all the world like the ball might have made it all the way to the Pacific if nobody stood in its way. But Justin did, and he caught it tight and perfect and the stadium shook with Devil pride.
34-14. Rings all around, as if they’d all married the state herself.
That night, we had a big bonfire down by the lake. Neutral ground was barely 45 minutes out of town, and no one got home tired and ready to sleep a good night and rise to a work ethic in the morning.
I remember we used to say down-by-the-lake like it was a city, like it was an address. I guess it was, the way all those cars would gather like crows, pick-ups and Camaros and Jeeps, noses pointing in, a metal wall against the world. The willows snapped their green whips at the moon and the flames licked up Devil red and Devil gold. We built the night without thinking about it, without telling anyone it was going to happen, without making plans. Everyone knew to be there; no one was late.
Get any group of high school kids together and you pretty much have the building blocks of civilization. The Eagle Scout boys made an architecturally perfect bonfire. 4-H-ers threw in grub, chips and burgers and dogs and Twix and Starburst. The drama kids came bearing tunes, their tooth-white iPods stuffed into speaker cradles like black mouths. The rich kids brought booze from a dozen walnut cabinets—and Coyote taught them how to spot the good stuff. Meat and fire and music and liquor—that’s all it’s ever been. Sarah Jane started dancing up to the flames with a bottle of 100 year old cognac in her hand, holding by the neck, moving her hips, her gorgeously round belly, her long corn-colored hair brushing faces as she spun by, the smell of her expensive and hot. Jessica and Ashley ran up to her and the three of them swayed and sang and stamped, their arms slung low around each other, their heads pressed together like three graces. Sarah Jane poured her daddy’s cognac over Ashley’s breasts and caught the golden stuff spilling off in her sparkly pink mouth and Ashley laughed so high and sweet and that was it—everyone started dancing and howling and jumping and Coyote was there in the middle of it all, arching his back and keeping the beat, slapping his big thighs, throwing the game ball from boy to girl to boy to girl, like it was magic, like it was just ours, the sun of our world arcing from hand to hand to hand.
I caught it and Coyote kissed me. I threw it to Haley Collins from English class and Nick Dristol (left tackle, #19) caught me up in his arms. I don’t even know what song was playing. The night was so loud in my ears. I could see it happening and it scared me but I couldn’t stop it and didn’t want to. Everything was falling apart and coming together and we’d won the game, Bunny no less than Coyote, and boyfriend never fooled me for a minute, never could.
I could hear Sarah Jane laughing and I saw Jessica kissing her and Greg Knight both, one to the other like she was counting the kisses to make it all fair. She tipped up that caramel-colored bottle and Nick started to say something but I shushed him. Coyote’s cognac’s never gonna hurt that baby. Every tailgate hung open, no bottle ever seemed to empty and even though it was January the air was so warm, the crisp red and yellow leaves drifting over us all, no one sorry, no one ashamed, no one chess club or physics club or cheer squad or baseball team, just tangled up together inside our barricade of cars.
Sarah danced up to me and took a swallow without taking her eyes from mine. She grabbed me roughly by the neck and into a kiss, passing the cognac to me and oh, it tasted like a pass thrown all the way to the sea, and she wrapped me up in her arms like she was trying to make up Homecoming to me, to say: I’m better now, I’m braver now, doesn’t this feel like the end of everything and we have to get it while we can? I could feel her stomach pressing on mine, big and insistent and hard, and as she ripped my shirt open I felt her child move inside her. We broke and her breasts shone naked in the bonfire-light—mine too, I suppose. Between us a cornstalk grew fast and sure, shooting up out of the ground like it had an appointment with the sky, then a second and a third. That same old blue corn, midnight corn, first corn. All around the fire the earth was bellowing out pumpkins and blackberries and state fair tomatoes and big blousy squash flowers, wheat and watermelons and apple trees already broken with the weight of fruit. The dead winter trees exploded into green, the graduating class fell into the rows of vegetables and fruit and thrashed together like wolves, like bears, like devils. Fireflies turned the air into an emerald necklace and Sarah Jane grabbed Coyote’s hand which was a paw which was a hand and screamed. Didn’t matter—everyone was screaming, and the music quivered the darkness and Sarah’s baby beat at the drum of her belly, demanding to be let out into the pumpkins and the blue, blue corn, demanding to meets its daddy.
All the girls screamed. Even the ones only a month or two gone, clutching their stomachs and crying, all of them except me, Bunny Rabbit, the watcher, the queen of coming home. The melons split open in an eruption of pale green and pink pulp; the squashes cracked so loud I put my hands (which were paws which were hands) over my ears, and the babies came like harvest, like forty-five souls running after a bright ball in the sky.
Some of us, after a long night of vodka tonics and retro music and pretending there was anything else to talk about, huddle together around a table at the 10 year and get into it. How Mr. Bollard was never the same and ended up hanging himself in a hotel room after almost a decade of straight losses. How they all dragged themselves home and suddenly had parents again, the furious kind, and failed SATs and livers like punching bags. How no one went down to the lake anymore and Bobby Zhao went to college out of state and isn’t he on some team out east now? Yeah. Yeah. But his father lost the restaurants and now the southland has no king. But the gym ceiling caved in after the rains and killed a kid. But most of them could just never understand why their essays used to just be perfect and they never had hangovers and they looked amazing all the time and sex was so easy that year but never since, no matter how much shit went up their nose or how they cheated and fought and drank because they didn’t mean it like they had back when, no matter how many people they brought home hoping just for a second it would be like it was then, when Coyote made their world. They had this feeling, just for a minute—didn’t I feel it too? That everything could be different. And then it was the same forever, the corn stayed yellow and they stayed a bunch of white kids with scars where their cars crashed and fists struck and babies were born. The lake went dry and the scoreboard went dark.
Coyote leaves a hole when he goes. He danced on this town til it broke. That’s the trick, and everyone falls for it.
But they all had kids, didn’t they? Are they remembering that wrong? What happened to them all?
Memory is funny—only Sarah Jane (real estate, Rotary, Wednesday night book club) can really remember her baby. Everyone just remembers the corn and the feeling of running, running so fast, the whole pack of us, against the rural Devil gold sunset. I call that a kindness. (Why me? Sarah asks her gin. You were the queen, I say. That was you. Only for a minute.) It was good, wasn’t it, they all want to say. When we were all together. When we were a country, and Coyote taught us how to grow such strange things.
Why did I stick around, they all want to know. When he took off, why didn’t I go, too? Weren’t we two of a kind? Weren’t we always conspiring?
Coyote wins the big game, I say. I get the afterparty.
This is what I don’t tell them.
I woke up before anyone the morning after the championships. Everyone had passed out where they stood, laying everywhere like a bomb had gone off. No corn, no pumpkins, no watermelons. Just that cold lake morning fog. I woke up because my pick-up’s engine fired off in the gloam, and I know that sound like my mama’s crying. I jogged over to my car but it was already going, bouncing slowly down the dirt road with nobody driving. In the back, Coyote sat laughing, surrounded by kids, maybe eight or ten years old, all of them looking just like him, all of them in leather jackets and hangdog grins, their black hair blowing back in the breeze. Coyote looked at me and raised a hand. See you again. After all, it’s nothing we haven’t done before.
Coyote handed a football to one of his daughters. She lifted it into the air, her form perfect, trying out her new strength. She didn’t throw it. She held it tight, like it was her heart.