It was the wrong time to smile.
She’s cool, Tom thought, and she smells like pine needles. He smiled to himself. He tried to picture Ellie’s smile, a lopsided grin framed by thin lips that, Tom imagined, would taste like springtime and picnics.
“My mom and dad are fighting,” Ellie was saying. “It started about my dad packing his suitcase and now it’s about their whole life.” She stopped. “Why are you smiling?”
“Sorry. Sorry.” Tom shook his head. “That sucks. Why are they fighting?”
Ellie was sitting on the counter of the MacMuffin General Store. Her father, Ernie MacMuffin, had inherited the store from his father and thereafter led an unhappy life catering to Millichville clientele like Tom’s parents, the quietly married Murrays. Ellie swung her feet so that they hit the display glass under her hard. “Why does anyone fight?”
Tom had been to MacMuffin’s with his parents many Sundays, so he had come prepared to lie. “Maybe they’re arguing about our Medieval history class.” For anyone but the MacMuffins this was in fact a plausible explanation, since many of the parents had considered the coverage of The Canterbury Tales to be rather tawdry for sixth graders.
Ellie stared at him. “Have you ever thought about why words like ‘scissors’ and ‘pants’ are plural?” she asked finally.
“Maybe it’s because they’re happier in pairs,” Tom volunteered without thinking. Ellie’s feet came down hard against the counter glass and it cracked like a spider’s web with a smack.
“Tom – oh, dear,” Tom’s mother gasped as she emerged from the end of an aisle with a jar of peanut butter. “Are you alright Ellie?”
“I’m fine, Mrs. Murray, thanks,” said Ellie. She slid off the counter. “Did you find everything you needed? I’ll go get someone to check you out.” She ran through the door to the back.
“What happened?” asked Mrs. Murray.
Tom stared at the glass. “I don’t know,” he said. “She was talking about scissors and then she got mad.”
Tom ran out of the cafeteria with the other kids, jostled by flying elbows, with whistles and laughs ringing in his ears. As sixth graders they had graduated to the middle school field for recess – a large, partially wooded knoll with swings and a jungle gym. Everyone stopped at the top, and Tom jogged over to A.J. A.J. was the kind of kid who roasted ants with a magnifying glass on a hot day and then put them in his friends’ lunches, not as a prank, but because he was secretly worried that they needed the protein. Tom ate them because he wanted the protein. They were best friends.
“Hey Tom,” A.J. said.
“Hey,” said Tom.
“What should we do today?”
“Let’s play Capture the Flag!” said Colin from beside them. Colin’s voice boomed out across the chatter to a murmur of approval.
“Alright,” said Tom, “Colin and I will be captains.” Colin nodded.
“Wait,” came a voice from the edge of the crowd. Ellie pushed her way to the center. “Why do two boys have to be captains? I want to be a captain too.”
The girls giggled. A.J. groaned. Colin and Tom looked at each other.
“I suppose we could have three teams,” Colin said.
“But Capture the Flag is a two-team game.”
“There’s no reason you couldn’t play it with three teams,” Colin said. “I mean, not that I want to. Boys are captains because they’re faster.”
“No, they’re not. Colin just said, we can play with three teams. So we’ll do that then.” Ellie crossed her arms.
Colin looked at Tom. Tom shrugged. “Okay,” Colin said. “I’ll pick first.” He considered. “A.J.”
Tom’s jaw dropped. He started to protest but Ellie quickly jumped in –
“Me next. Anna.”
Tom closed his mouth. If Ellie kept picking girls like Anna, this was going to be easy.
“And I want to name my team. We’ll be… we’ll be the Lions.”
Tom let out a strangled laugh. “The Lions?”
“Might as well be the Pony Princesses,” Colin chuckled.
“If she’s a pony, I’d be her stallion,” A.J. muttered. Tom elbowed him.
“Fine. But if Ellie gets to be the Pony Princesses, I want to be the Wizards.”
“Hey, we’re not—”
“Okay then,” Colin said, “if you’re the Wizards, we’ll be the High Priests.”
“Princesses, Wizards, and Priests,” Tom said. “One of these things is not like the others.”
“The Princesses should go back to their castle and we can rescue them,” A.J. said.
“Shut up A.J., their flag will be easy,” said Colin.
“Yeah! Shut up!” said Ellie. “We don’t need to be rescued.”
Tom liked the way Ellie’s lips pursed when she was mad. “Alright everyone. Let’s just pick teams.”
“It’s your turn,” said Colin.
“I wouldn’t want to be a Princess,” said A.J. Tom snickered.
Ellie glared at them. “There can be Princes too.”
Tom saw a flash of color rush past out of the corner of his eye. He pivoted and chased it, darting through the trees towards the jungle gym where the Wizards’ flag was draped. The flash let out a shriek.
“That’s not fair! You can’t put it there!”
The intruder was Ellie. Tom slowed as she clambered up the jungle gym and jumped off. He was throwing the game, he realized, but if it would make Ellie less mad at him…
Ellie darted to one side and ran smack into Anna. She fell flat on her face. Tom padded over and tagged her softly. “Flag recovered!” he yelled. Then, “give it back.”
“Oh! I’m so sorry!” Anna picked herself up off the ground and extended a hand to Ellie. “I didn’t mean for you to—I just—”
“You ruined everything!” Ellie shouted at her. She picked herself up off the ground, then turned to Tom, her voice shaking in anger. “And you!” she said, then stomped off to jail.
“But—” Tom and Anna stared after Ellie.
“You were fast,” Anna said.
“No. Um. I mean, how did you get past me?”
“I waited until you were chasing Ellie. What’s up with her?”
“Aren’t you going to send me to jail?”
“What? Oh.” Tom touched her lightly on the shoulder. Anna blushed and ran off in Ellie’s footsteps.
Tom looked down. The flag – actually his shirt – had caught on a stick when Ellie fell and a thread had come unraveled. He placed it back on the jungle gym, less high up this time.
Tom ran out of the cafeteria with the other kids. He couldn’t see Ellie so he slowed and looked back. Ellie and some of her lieutenants had cornered Anna just outside the door. Tom sighed and walked over.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“None of your business.” Ellie turned and glared at him. “Go on, we’ll come play in a minute.”
Tom hesitated. Anna looked forlorn, but she looked up at him and touched her shoulder. “We need you,” he said. “Otherwise the Princesses won’t have a captain.”
“We are not the Princesses!”
Tom held Ellie’s stare for a long moment. “Fine,” he said, and turned to Anna. “What kind of trick did you think you were pulling yesterday?”
Anna looked like she was about to cry. “I… I just… I thought you…”
“You thought wrong,” Ellie said, and stepped closer.
Anna let out a shriek and pushed hard off the wall, careening into Tom and sending him flying onto the pavement. She rebounded off and fled, face in her hands.
Ellie burst out laughing. “You got pushed over by a girl!”
Tom moaned. He looked down and noticed blood from his elbow seeping onto his shirt.
“Shut up,” he said. “It hurts.”
“You poor thing,” Ellie said. “I know it’s just so hard to stand on your feet sometimes.”
“I’m going to the nurse,” Tom said. He struggled to his feet. “It’s your fault. You have to take me there.”
Ellie screeched. “I am not going to the nurse with you!”
Tom sat on the table in the nurse’s office. She opened a drawer and pulled out items at random before finding cotton swabs and band-aids. A pair of scissors caught Tom’s eye.
“Ahh!” he gasped. The nurse turned. Tom slipped off the table and fell against the counter.
“What is it? Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. It just hurts a lot. Can you see if it’s bleeding here?”
The scissors were gone.
Tom and Ellie faced off, dancing along the boundaries between their territories. Their rivalry had spread to their teams, and as soon as the game had started most of the Wizards had advanced to the Princess base by the swing set. A growing contingent formed a raucous peanut gallery in the Princess jail.
Tom dashed to his right. Instead of following, Ellie ran forward. Tom pivoted and ran back to tag Ellie, and she turned back as well –
“Gotcha!” yelled Tom. “I got her!”
“Did not!” countered Ellie. “I’m still on my side here!”
“Am too. I got you out because you’re on my side.”
“No, the line is between these two trees.”
People stopped running and came over to watch the spectacle.
“She’s definitely on our side.”
“You guys have been cheating all along anyway.”
“Nuh-uh, you’re the one who didn’t go to jail when I tagged you.”
The Princesses swelled and started pushing towards the Wizards.
“Hah!” yelled a voice. “We win!” Colin waved a flag over his head but the rabble only grew. “It’s over guys! We got your flag!”
A.J. pushed his way in. “Tom!” he yelled in Tom’s ear, “this is getting out of hand.”
“A.J.’s right,” Colin said. “Everyone stop talking!”
The din died down. Colin sighed. “Okay. It seems to me that there’s only one way to mend the rift between warring nations.”
“What?” A.J. asked.
“Their leaders have to get married.”
Ooooohhh, said everyone collectively. The Princesses broke out in excited chatter. The boys started chanting, Tom and Ellie sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G…
“Stop! No! Ew!” Ellie screamed, her face burning. “I am not marrying him!”
“Yeah! No way!” Tom did his best horrified face. “That’s gross.”
“You’ll save our kingdoms,” someone said. “You have to.”
“But getting married doesn’t end the fighting!”
The hubbub quieted and Ellie stood, trembling. Tom lowered his head. “Ellie. It’s okay. We’ll just agree, no more fighting, okay?”
Ellie burst into tears and ran out of the circle.
“You’d better go chase her,” A.J. said after a moment. “Your future wife is not gonna be happy with you.”
“She’s not my future wife. And she’s already not happy with me. I don’t get it.”
“Girls are weird, dude.” Colin shrugged. “Let’s just play tag for awhile until she comes back.”
Tom found Ellie sitting by the gate to the Lower School playground. She turned away when he walked up.
“Ellie, I have a question for you.”
She was silent.
“Why do you think Anna keeps looking at me?”
Ellie looked at Tom and squinted. “You’re a captain. Of course she has to look for you.”
“Not for me. At me.”
“Well it’s not like the two of you could get married if you got in a fight.” Her eyes widened. “Right?”
They sat in silence for a moment.
“But Colin likes Anna.”
Tom turned. “What? How do you know that?”
“A.J. didn’t say that to me.”
“Yeah but you’re a wizard.”
“Maybe he and Colin are just trying to make us hate each other so they can win while we fight.”
“That’s so mean.”
“A.J. roasts ants.”
“You really think they’re just trying to win?”
“Maybe. I don’t know. But I don’t want you to be mad at me.”
They locked eyes. “Tom,” Ellie said, “promise me that if we get married we’ll be happy and not fight.”
“I promise,” Tom said with his best reassuring smile.
Tom thought about his parents’ quiet contentment when his father came back from an occasional day of fishing and they could finally have something other than peanut butter sandwiches and garden vegetables. “Really.”
“Then let’s go before recess is over.”
“My dear friends,” intoned Colin, “you have gathered here today so that the Lord may strengthen your love before the Church, the priest, and this congregation.”
“Amen!” shouted A.J. “Now kiss the bride!”
“Not yet,” said Colin. “Will you love each other as man and wife for the rest of your lives?”
“I guess so. Are you sure that’s how it goes?” said Ellie.
“Yes,” said Colin. “Tom?”
“The rest of our lives is a long time,” said Tom.
“Well, I can’t just say until the end of recess.”
“Fine,” said Tom. “Go on.” He kicked at the ground.
“Tom, do you take Ellie for your lawful wife, from this day forward, until death do you part?”
“I don’t know about that,” said Tom. “Does it have to be my death?”
“Tom!” said Ellie, “just say it.”
“I do,” said Tom.
“Stomp on a cup!” yelled A.J.
“Shut up A.J.,” said Anna. “This sucks.”
Tom felt a chill creeping up his spine but couldn’t place where the feeling was coming from.
“Ellie?” said Colin.
“Wait! Stop!” shouted Tom. “Colin’s a Priest! Those are real words! This is real!”
“Too late,” said A.J., “you just said your vows. Let’s eat!”
“You just had lunch,” said Anna. “Don’t be such a pig.”
“Speak for yourself,” said A.J. “Princess Pig.”
“Princess Pig!” someone shouted.
“Guys! We just got married!” Tom shouted in horror, but everyone cheered.
The bell rang. Recess was over.
An eerie quiet filled the air as the sixth graders shuffled through the lunch line. Tom didn’t even look at what was being plopped onto his plate. His new wife was nowhere to be seen.
He walked down the rows of tables and spotted Colin standing at the end of the room. “Colin,” he called out, “what did you think you were doing yesterday?”
“Yeah,” said a Wizard, standing up from a table next to Tom. “You messed it up.”
“I just did what you asked me to,” said Colin.
“It was your idea,” said Tom, “and you weren’t supposed to actually do it for real.”
“And you cheated,” said another Wizard, joining them. “We stopped playing yesterday and then you went and stole our flags.”
“Did not,” said a Priest. A crowd began to gather. “It’s your own fault you weren’t guarding your flags. No one ever said we stopped playing.”
Then the yelling began, all at once. Wizards and Priests pressed in and teachers came over to disperse the students. Someone got pushed, and suddenly there was spaghetti all over Colin. It looked like bloody, unraveled string from the Wizard flag, thought Tom.
Colin let out a war cry and then there was food flying through the air. The Princesses joined the fray. People were jumping over tables, scooping up rolls off the floor to collect as ammo. Coalitions formed and then broke up as people mutinied and dumped peas on their friends. A.J. sat in a corner and ate mashed potatoes off the floor with a knife. Ellie joined him. Teachers retreated to the hallway, unable to stop the crouton whirlwind.
Tom saw Colin duck under a table. He crouched down in what he imagined was a hunter’s stance. He felt the scissors in his pocket from the nurse’s office and pulled them out like a spear.
“Tom,” said the principal sternly. “Why are you covered in spaghetti sauce?”