I didn’t live in Mis­sis­sauga but ev­ery­one thought I did. I was the only kid in the whole school who rode the 504 all the way to the end of the line, to the land of pri­vate school uni­forms and houses with back­yards big enough for pools.

I was only go­ing for gym­nas­tics prac­tice—I would be back in this same block of apart­ment build­ings by the time it got dark. But I liked that peo­ple thought I lived in a four-bed­room house made of new bricks, with a green lawn to play bad­minton on and lit­tle stone lions at the end of the drive­way. I thought that if you lived in a lion house you must al­ways feel like your hair had just been blown dry by a hair­dresser: bouncy and weight­less and ex­pen­sive.

Across the aisle from me, two girls were play­ing a clap­ping game. It was one I used to play a lot. You went:

Tic tac toe

Hit me high

Hit me low

Hit me three in a row Johnny got hit by a UFO

At that point you and your part­ner played rock pa­per scis­sors. The win­ner got to grab the loser’s arm and punch them up and down to the beat, singing:

I win, you lose

Now you get a big bruise

At the end when you sang bruise, you’d give them the big­gest punch of all. I played it with the gym­nas­tics girls. Gym­nasts are brave and like to brag about how much pain they can take. Girls who couldn’t han­dle it were pulled out of class and en­rolled in bal­let. They were go­ing to be dis­ap­pointed when they learned the truth about that one, too.

When I got to the gym I was the first one at prac­tice, as usual. I kind of liked be­ing at the gym alone so I could walk slow and breathe in the smells of chalk and foot sweat. I liked ev­ery­thing about the gym, even the gross parts. There was a huge blue spring­board floor that looked like a fleece mit­ten a dog licked. There was a wooden high bar stained pink with blood. There was a leather vault that looked like a tongue on a pedestal.

I walked bare­foot into the gym and started stretch­ing while I waited for my best friend Shay. We’d been in the same class since we were six years old, but now Shay was get­ting bored with gym­nas­tics. She wanted to quit but she couldn’t: her older sis­ter had been a level ten pro­vin­cial champ, and sit­ting in the bleach­ers had be­come their mother’s favourite hobby.

One by one the girls on my team came over to join me. Shay was last: she col­lapsed in the mid­dle of the cir­cle and pre­tended to be dead. Ev­ery­one laughed and poked her with their toes, try­ing to get her to come alive again.

The girls at gym­nas­tics all looked and acted about three years younger than they were. They acted like I was older than them, even though I wasn’t, not by more than a cou­ple of months. This was mostly be­cause I brought them ex­cit­ing news from the city, where peo­ple did dirty stuff. It was the only thing I ever got spe­cial at­ten­tion for, and it wasn’t for any­thing I did my­self. I waited un­til ev­ery­body was there and told them I saw some­thing they would never be­lieve.

“This morn­ing, on the way to school, An­gel­ica Perri gave Vince Lam a blow job.”

Ev­ery­one went stiff. The other girls didn’t know An­gel­ica Perri or Vince Lam but it didn’t mat­ter. We had been talk­ing about this for months. None of them be­lieved me that girls our age were giv­ing blow jobs. Ap­par­ently, no one in their schools did any­thing but French each other.

Coach Me­gan said gym­nasts stayed younger longer than ev­ery­body else, so maybe that’s why. Coach Me­gan was twenty-six and she still didn’t have breasts. I guess at twenty-six she was never go­ing to get them, but this was some­thing we de­bated all the time.

We were all flat but Shay wore a bra any­way. She wore a sports bra un­der her leo­tard for prac­tice, and af­ter­wards changed into lacy ones with stiff tri­an­gle cups. She got all the way dressed, ex­cept for her top, as soon as we got in the change room, and walked around in her jeans and her bra un­til we had to go. When

she bent over, her bra gaped away from her ch­est like it was lean­ing away from a stranger on a bus.

Most of the girls at my school were wear­ing bras al­ready. All the girls who had given blow jobs wore them for sure. I knew all the girls who had given a blow job in our grade be­cause there was a Face­book page about it. Some­body told the prin­ci­pal and he got it taken down, but it al­ways popped back up. Some­times it was just names but some­times there were pic­tures. Once I had a dream where I was on it, and be­side my name was a pic­ture of me butt-naked ex­cept for one of Shay’s bras—a red lacy one.

In el­e­men­tary school, be­ing a com­pet­i­tive gym­nast was the coolest thing about me. It prob­a­bly still is the coolest thing about me but it isn’t con­sid­ered cool any­more. In grade three, gym­nas­tics was the coolest sport any­one could think of. Dur­ing re­cess the field was full of girls cartwheel­ing and do­ing hand­stands un­til they fell over onto their backs. If there were a bunch of you, you could do stunts: if two girls stood fac­ing each other and held hands with their arms crossed, they could flip a girl stand­ing in be­tween them. It’s amaz­ing how easy it is to move a small body.

By grade seven, gym­nas­tics aren’t cool any­more. Hockey is cool. Foot­ball is cool. Boy sports are cool. All the girls who knew how to cart­wheel joined cheer­lead­ing or took up watch­ing boys play hockey from the bleach­ers.

My gramma wanted me to be a hockey player, be­cause hockey was tele­vised and you could make a lot of money. No one walked around with Kerri Strug on a jer­sey, she pointed out. My mom said hockey was way too ex­pen­sive, but my gramma ar­gued that at least it was a ca­reer with longevity. All the play­ers in the NHL are old, by gym­nast stan­dards any­ways. When Na­dia Comăneci got her per­fect ten she was four­teen years old and weighed eighty-six pounds. If you are a gym­nast, you know these two facts. No ex­cep­tions. We are all train­ing fu­ri­ously against time.

When prac­tice was over, we all hud­dled over the big bench in the change room like a coven. I was start­ing to get a feel­ing like fall­ing in my stom­ach be­cause prac­tice was com­ing to an end. I was bad at the ends of things. When I was lit­tle I cried at the end of ev­ery birth­day party I was ever in­vited to. I was al­ways try­ing to make prac­tice last longer so I said:

“Do you guys want to go to Wendy’s?”

Ev­ery­one sucked in their breath.

This was the prob­lem: none of the girls were al­lowed to walk the kilo­me­tre and a half to the Wendy’s near the gas sta­tion. The gym was in an in­dus­trial park with lots of long, shad­owy build­ings. There were a lot of street lights but there were no stores or restau­rants and no big houses with stone lions, so all the moms thought it was a rough part of town. If the girls wanted to walk to Wendy’s they’d had to lie to their moms, and only Shay had the guts to lie. It pissed me off that the other girls were so sen­si­tive about their moth­ers. Once I made a joke about Pey­ton’s mom’s tummy tuck and she cried. Only ba­bies still loved their moms out loud like that.

“I have a lot of home­work,” Pey­ton said au­to­mat­i­cally, which made me re­mem­ber all over again what a cry­baby she was, which made me hate her so much that my skin felt hot.

“My mom is al­ready on her way,” said Alayna, a lit­tle slower. Alayna hated be­ing left out, but she was also ter­ri­fied of be­ing raped, and I knew she was sure we were ask­ing for it, walk­ing a kilo­me­tre and a half alone in the dark. She was al­ways read­ing those true-life sto­ries in Cos­moGirl about girls who have sur­vived ter­ri­ble or­deals. I wasn’t as mad at Alayna as I was at Pey­ton, but I still thought she was an id­iot. I turned to Shay, who had no ex­cuse and liked us to know that she was up for any­thing. “Sure,” she said. “I’ll go with you.”

Shay and I walked out­side to­gether. The wind felt like pool wa­ter on my face—I un­did my pony­tail and shook out my sweaty hair. The sun was al­most all the way down and the sky was navy and or­ange.

Our gym was the last in a line of long ware­house-type build­ings with flat roofs and walls like school porta­bles. We walked past a party bal­loon em­po­rium and a scrap­book­ing store and a hard cider com­pany’s event head­quar­ters.

Shay was walk­ing fast, which made me walk fast, which meant we were both rac­ing along through the park­ing lot and out of breath by the time we got on to the shoul­der of the main road. We both started to laugh for no rea­son. Lit­tle rocks clat­tered down into the ditch as we walked.

When the sun dipped all the way down below the build­ings, all the street lights came on at once. Shay was right un­der one, and see­ing her lit up like that all of a sud­den made me jump and scat­ter rocks ev­ery­where, which made us laugh again.

“It’s al­most creepier with the lights,” Shay said. “Like, hi, hey, we’re alone, come rape us!”

That was an­other thing about the Oakville girls. They couldn’t go five sec­onds free of adult su­per­vi­sion with­out dis­cussing the like­li­hood of be­ing raped. Alayna was the worst, but they all did it.

This is my prob­lem with it: pretty much the one thing we had go­ing for us was be­ing re­ally, re­ally strong. We were even stronger than most of the boys at our schools. To make the girls feel bet­ter I tried to re­mind them of how many tri­ceps dips we did a day.

Alayna was in­con­solable though. She al­ways thought she was about to be pulled into the back of a white van. She was sure one day hunters would find the re­mains of her body in a shal­low grave in the woods. All the male coaches at the gym freaked her out.

“Who gives hugs to twelve-year-olds?” she would scowl. “It’s im­moral to ask a twelve-year-old to give you a hug.”

We only had to walk on the shoul­der of the road for a few min­utes be­fore we got to a side­walk that took us across a high­way over­pass. When we were in the mid­dle of the bridge we heard a cough of thun­der, and by the time we were on the other side, the rain was com­ing down hard and soak­ing our hair. We raced the rain all the way to Wendy’s and stood be­tween the doors, fog­ging up the glass in the vestibule.

As we stood in line to order, left­over rain dripped down my fore­head. Shay had a twenty-dol­lar al­lowance each week so she al­ways bought stuff for me. I or­dered chicken nuggets and a Coke, and Shay got fries, a milk­shake, and a ba­con cheese­burger. Her mom would be pissed if she found out. She was ter­ri­fied of Shay gain­ing weight, even though she was stick skinny. The weird thing was that Shay’s mom wasn’t even fat her­self. No one in their fam­ily was. I guess she was just scared of it in the ab­stract.

We sat and ate in a booth by the door. I was able to re­fill my Coke at the ma­chine three times be­fore the man­ager came out and told me to quit it. Then way too soon, Shay said her mom was on her way.

It had stopped rain­ing, but you could tell it hadn’t stopped for good. Wa­ter still clung to the long woolly hairs on Shay’s sweater. It looked like the rain­drops were frozen in place, like she had a wet float­ing aura. My tongue was fuzzy from the soda and I wanted to lick the clean drops of rain off the wool on Shay’s shoul­der.

“My mom’s go­ing to pick me up here. I bet she’ll drive you home if you ask.”

“No, that’s OK.” I was start­ing to get ner­vous about her mom’s big, beige SUV. I’d rid­den in it be­fore but now I felt shy and soggy. But Shay said I had to at least wait with her, so I stood there thinking about the wet legs of my jeans. I al­ways seemed to get the ends of my jeans wet­ter than any­body else. Dur­ing win­ter, I got salt stains all the way up to the backs of my knees.

When her mom pulled up she was lis­ten­ing to talk ra­dio. I tried to walk away but Shay pulled me to­ward the car, her arm hooked through my el­bow.

“Mom, can we give her a ride home?”

“No it’s al­right, I live re­ally far away,” I said, even though Shay’s mom knew per­fectly well where I lived. When she picked me up for com­pe­ti­tions, she usu­ally spent the drive ask­ing me if I was sure I wasn’t up­set that my own mother wasn’t com­ing to sup­port me.

Shay’s mom pursed her lips and made a big show of look­ing at her watch, even though the time was on the dash­board in huge green let­ters.

“Ohh-kay,” she said, like it was against her bet­ter judg­ment. What else did she have to do, any­ways? She was a stay-at-home mom but her youngest kid was thir­teen. I de­cided right then that there was noth­ing she could do to make me get inside her big, stupid car.

“It stopped rain­ing,” I said. “I’m just go­ing to walk to the stop.”

“It’s fine, re­ally, get in the car,” she said, like I was be­ing in­cred­i­bly dra­matic. “No THANKS!” I prac­ti­cally shouted, and be­fore she could say any­thing else I turned around and stormed down a foot­path where the car couldn’t fol­low. Shay’s mom prob­a­bly thought I was in­sane but I didn’t care. Adults think they can be such dicks to kids.

It took less than five min­utes to get to the street­car stop any­ways. I waited un­der the glass shel­ter with my hood up, watch­ing the street for a big, beige SUV and thinking about how much I hated Shay’s mom. I took out my phone to see if Shay had texted me about it, but it was dead.

When the street­car came it was al­most empty. There was only one other pas­sen­ger, a man wear­ing a crinkly wind­breaker. The sleeves had green and pur­ple tri­an­gles that went up and down like al­li­ga­tor teeth. I sat near the back and lay down on the seats, mak­ing a pil­low with my back­pack. The ride was long, and some­times I fell asleep, but this time I just stared at the seat in front of me un­til the driver yelled out my stop.

My apart­ment build­ing was only ten min­utes from King Street if you took a short­cut through the park­ing lot be­hind a gro­cery store. The store closed early and the lot was pretty much empty. I could hear my foot­steps echo­ing off the brick walls.

I started kick­ing a soda can. It was per­fectly round with no dents, so I kicked it gen­tly with the inside of my foot. It kept me com­pany through the park­ing lot like a dog I was walk­ing, but when I got to the in­ter­sec­tion the can rolled into the street and got crushed by a car. I guess it was a good thing I never had a dog.

When­ever I have a can of soda, I al­ways worry how much of it is left. You can pick it up and shake it and feel for the weight and lis­ten to the slosh­ing but that never re­ally tells you how much is in there. The only real way to know is to take a sip and feel with your tongue how much is left. But then, once you’ve taken a sip and put it back down, the prob­lem starts all over again. You don’t know how much soda is re­ally left be­cause you don’t know how much you drank. And the last time you checked, the sit­u­a­tion was en­tirely dif­fer­ent. And so, you have to take an­other sip. And then, with­out hav­ing re­ally wanted to, you’ve wasted your whole can of soda just check­ing how much soda you had left for later. Lately I’ve been thinking about soda cans when­ever I get ner­vous.

On the side streets near my build­ing, the cars had to park on the curb. In the dark, they looked like giant cats ly­ing on the road. The sun was all the way down now; the sky was as dark and cloudy as a crys­tal ball.

I thought about my beam rou­tine. I thought about An­gel­ica Perri giv­ing Vince Lam a blow job on the bus. I thought about play­ing on the swings at a park not far from where I was walk­ing, about try­ing to get the swing to go all the way over the top and back around. If you were able to do that you would be leg­endary. One sum­mer I tried ev­ery sin­gle day.

I didn’t stop at the swings when I passed them. Most evenings teenagers smoked pot on the play struc­ture, but tonight there was just one guy in a wind­breaker lean­ing against the mon­key bars. It was dark and the wind was push­ing me home, hiss­ing faster, faster, faster.

But then, I was al­ways rac­ing ev­ery­thing. My gramma said I was like a thor­ough­bred. She said if I was at the track she’d bet on me. When she said this, I would neigh and pedal my arms like I was rear­ing, my fists balled up into hooves. I had

never seen a horse in real life but I could draw one al­most per­fectly in me­chan­i­cal pen­cil. Shay and I spent a whole night draw­ing horses once. She drew them anime style, with round eyes and Pe­ga­sus wings, but I drew re­al­is­tic ones, jump­ing over fences or run­ning through fields.

I felt like I could gal­lop down the street just thinking about it. My heart was beat­ing like hoof beats. I could hear them in my ears like sneak­ers on the street be­hind me.

It was dark but I wasn’t scared of the dark. Wind whis­tled through the trees like the sleeves of a wind­breaker. I could see my apart­ment build­ing, less than a hun­dred yards away. The lights in the win­dow glowed like birth­day can­dles.

In hind­sight, I never stood a chance.

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