The Tiger

Submitted into Contest #135 in response to: Write about a casual act of bravery.... view prompt

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Coming of Age Friendship High School

     Part of Alyssa’s brain knew she was being unreasonable, but wasn’t that her right as a fifteen-year-old girl? Wasn’t that what teenage girls for known for? She was otherwise quite mature; she simply couldn’t get past this one little thing that sometimes ended up being a big thing. Times like this coming weekend.

         “For real though, you have to come. You get straight As in all of your smart girl classes and play three varsity sports, your parents have to trust you. And it’s just for the day! What do they think we’re going to do at the beach that we can’t do in their basements?” Cassie whispered angrily, making her case before Coach Delaney tried to get the locker room full of chattering girls to quiet one last time. It was an unseasonably warm Monday afternoon and they had just finished their last softball practice of the season after losing the regional semifinal the previous Friday night. Because the season was over, practice had consisted only of running a lap around the field for every game they won and doing ten pushups for every game they lost, but Alyssa was sweating into the extra layer under her t-shirt and eager to go home and shower. 

          Alyssa replied with fake exasperation. “I know, I told them that, they just suck.” She didn’t like lying, especially after the incident with Cassie freshman year and how she had kept her word since then. Alyssa just didn’t want to get into it at that moment, almost as much as she didn’t want to join the traditional post-junior-prom trip to the beach that coming Saturday. By junior year she would convince herself to go, but they were only sophomores, it wasn’t even really their trip. The only reason she was even going to prom was because she was friends with Tom from cross country and felt bad that his girlfriend had dumped him the weekend before prom. 

         Just as Cassie was about to launch a counterargument, they were interrupted by Coach’s piercing whistle. Cassie was awarded “best outfielder”, much to the chagrin of the seniors in center and left field, and the celebration of this took up the time in the car after practice before Cassie dropped Alyssa off at home.  Now she just had to deal with Nicole.

***

         As much as she enjoyed sports, the freedom of not having practice after school was incredible. Thursday afternoon Alyssa was lying on a lounge chair next to Nicole’s perfect cerulean pool, eating a popsicle and soaking up the bliss of having nowhere to be for a few hours. The week had remained warmer than usual for the northeast in early June. Despite knowing her family since they moved to the most expensive house in town in third grade, Alyssa had no idea who kept the kitchen stocked with such perfect snacks. Did housekeepers grocery shop? The logistics of Nicole’s home life made no sense, but Alyssa had long ago learned not to ask about these things.

         “So ok we covered dresses and limo, and obviously we’re getting ready together here.” For as flakey as she could be with school assignments, Nicole was a social coordination genius. “Nate’s brother can drive us to Seaside on Saturday – does Tom want to come too? We’d have to squish in the back but there’s room for him.”

         “Um Nicole, I’m not going on Saturday,” Alyssa braced herself, trying in vain to add a deflection, “but I’ll ask Tom if he wants to ride with you guys!”

         Nicole pulled her sunglasses down. “What? Of course you’re coming.”

         Alyssa knew it was futile but tried the same excuse she had used with Cassie. “My, um, my parents said I can’t go.”

         “Nope, don’t believe you. In fact, my mom said last night that she ran into your mom Coffee Cup and your mom said she was happy you were going, that she worried you’d been too focused on softball this spring.” 

         Since when did her mother hang out at Coffee Cup? Parents were such a mystery sometimes, but Alyssa didn’t doubt that her mother had said something like that, she was always concerned about sports preventing her from having a normal teenage social life. Alyssa’s mother had been a highly recruited pole vaulter, but anorexia fully took over during the increased freedom of freshman year, and by spring track season she was on a leave of absence, in an inpatient rehab. Her mother eventually developed a relatively normal relationship with food, but worried about Alyssa so much she sometimes saw warning signs that weren’t real. Alyssa just liked how running, and basketball, and softball made her feel, enough that it was worth the awkward moments that came along with them. She was hoping to play basketball in college, at least at a division three school, but hadn’t broken this news to her mother yet.

         “Okay fine yeah it’s not that,” Alyssa replied. “It’s… you know… I just can’t”. Nicole looked at Alyssa in her white ribbed tank top and hot pink bikini bottom and understood. 

         “Girl, say no more. I got you. But you’re still coming. I’ll wear the same thing, except I won’t look half as good as you do in it,” Nicole said.

         “No, it’s ok, it’s weird anyway-“ Alyssa started to protest.

         “Nope, you’re coming. You’re not leaving me alone with the juniors,” Nicole retorted, conveniently ignoring that Cassie would be there too.

         “Fine, I’ll come. But you promise?” Alyssa couldn’t believe she was getting talked into this trip.

         “Promise,” Nicole said. “Pinky swear even,” as if they were still in elementary school together.

***

         After two hours of recapping prom antics on the drive down, they had staked claim to a huge area of the beach. The boys were unrolling a volleyball net, and the girls were laying out towels and preening, stripping down to tiny bikinis and fixing their hair. This was the moment Alyssa had been dreading all week. Instead of being nervous about prom, she had spent Friday afternoon debating the best strategy for this aspect of the trip – wear a wetsuit and bring her surfboard? Except she wasn’t sure if Nate’s brother’s car had roof racks, and she didn’t want to stay encased in a wetsuit all day. Wear a swim shirt and claim a history of melanoma? Implausible at her age, although a real risk for the future given her complexion. She had settled on what she thought would draw the least attention – stick to the thin white tank top over her bikini and hope it looked model-sexy and no one questioned her.

         Two years ago, Alyssa had almost died. Unbeknownst to anyone, she had been born with a condition called malrotation, which caused her abnormal organs to be in the wrong positions. Most people born with this had mild symptoms as infants and had surgery to correct it before it caused serious problems, but Alyssa had made it to age thirteen feeling fine, until the middle of the night two Junes ago when she awoke feeling decidedly not fine. Her stomach felt like the was being repeated stabbed with a bayonet (they had been studying civil war history that year). When her mother suggested she try to poop, and take some Pepto-Bismol, and go back to bed so she wasn’t tired for the last day of school, Alyssa responded with, “If you don’t take me to the emergency room right now, I’m going to call 911,” an unusually forceful statement from a generally agreeable young teen daughter. To the hospital they went.

         Because of the unusual position of her internal organs, a large portion of her small intestine had rotated around the stalk of tissue containing its blood supply, and the intestine had started to die. After a quick CT scan in the emergency room, and tearful kisses from her parents, she was rushed into emergency surgery. The surgery was a success – her intestine was unrotated and “pinked right up again” according to the surgeon – however she was left with a scar from her lower sternum to the top of her wispy pubic hair. To make things worse, she may have started running again a little soon after surgery, making the scar raised and even more hideous. She put vitamin E on it constantly and used silicone scar tape, which helped flatten it a little bit, but it was still a huge ugly blemish on her tight stomach.

         Alyssa was afraid to let anyone see it, remembering how cruel her classmates had been to the boy who needed skin grafting on his forearm after a burn, the teacher with the port-wine stain on his face, and the girl with the lazy eye. Nicole and Cassie were her only two friends who knew about it. Nicole had visited her in the hospital, bringing flowers and chocolate before she was supposed to be eating solid foods, and lay in the bed with her flipping through trashy magazines and watching reruns on TV while Alyssa dozed off. They had been keeping each other’s secrets for years, the scar was just one more to add to the list. 

         Cassie found out by accident after walking in on her toweling off from a shower in the unlocked bathroom of the hotel room they were during the softball preseason weekend away freshman year. They only talked about it that night, lying on itchy sheets in the dark. Alyssa asked her to keep it a secret and Cassie agreed, before confessing that part of what excited her about starting high school and joining students from two other middle schools was that it meant hopefully only a third of her class would know about the time her father was arrested for soliciting a prostitute in New York City while serving on town council, instead of her whole class knowing. 

         Alyssa just wore an extra tank top under her school clothes and kept it on when she changed for gym and sports. Alyssa never brought up Cassie’s father, and Cassie deflected any other attention from Alyssa’s covered stomach if they were in the locker room together. Beyond someone occasionally asking if she was hot, the other girls were usually too focused on their own developing bodies to notice anyway. The beach was different though, the beach was about being almost naked and showing off for the boys.

         As she settled on her towel and rummaged in her bag for sunscreen, Alyssa heard one of the junior boys yell to another one, “Yo man what happened to you?”

         She looked up and saw Paul, arguably the leader of the pack that Nate and Brad, Cassie’s boyfriend, belonged to and Tom aspired to join, peeling his shirt off to reveal a huge, deep red scar wrapping from his shoulder blade to below his pec muscle. 

         “I got mauled by a tiger,” Paul responded without hesitation, throwing his shirt down on the sand and bounding over to finish setting up the volleyball net.

         While Cassie sipped Diet Coke spiked with rum from a plastic bottle, Alyssa and Nicole wandered down to the water to put their toes in. The ocean was still frigid at that time of year, and they didn’t mean to get wet, but had turned to try to hear something Nate was saying and got slammed by a wave, completely soaking them from the shoulders down. Nicole squealed at the cold, and they ran back to their towels, both keeping their shirts on.

         As Nicole wrung the freezing salt water out of the bottom of her wide neck t-shirt, suddenly Alyssa was tired of it. Tired of being hot all day at school, tired of worrying about the tank top riding up, tired of wondering what would happen when a boy eventually took her shirt off. Tired enough to not sit for hours in a damp shirt when she could dry off in the sun. If these stupid boys could have scars, so could she. Before she could think about it too long, she lifted the soggy fabric over her head just as Brad, Nate, and the other boys headed back over to them.

         “Whoa, what happened-“ Brad started before being cut off by a death stare from Cassie.

         Nicole who opened her mouth to speak as Alyssa replied with a wink, “I got mauled by a tiger too.”

         Brad laughed, “Damn I better watch out for this tiger I guess. Okay who wants to play volleyball?”

         “Alyssa’s on my team!” Nate called out, as Cassie gave Alyssa a hand up, throwing her arm around her shoulders as they walked over to the net together.

February 28, 2022 21:55

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3 comments

18:56 Mar 15, 2022

This is such a touching story! I like how you capture the distinctly teenage fear of being different. I think you can develop the overall mood of discomfort further so that Alyssa's decision feels more inevitable, it works well, but felt a little too sudden to me.

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Maria Avisal
01:07 Mar 17, 2022

Thank you for the suggestion and for reading!

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Francis Daisy
01:53 Mar 02, 2022

I love your voice!

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