Max didn’t look back for a while, too busy listening for sirens over the din of her thundering heartbeat. All she knew as she sprinted was that there were heavy footsteps and heavier breathing and none of the people they belonged to were wearing uniforms.
By the time they came to a stop in an alley, Max felt sober enough to take a breathalyser test. She’d still fail, but the shot of adrenaline that was the cops was enough to make her head clear.
She braced her hands on her knees and wheezed, trying to convince herself she wasn’t actually dying, and then looked up to check on the others.
Tulsi was pushing hair back from her forehead, Sun was trembling against a wall, and Clementine was – bending down to examine the garbage stuffed in the side of the alley.
After another gulp of air, Max asked if everyone was okay.
Tulsi made a noise like a dying whale.
‘You’re a cheerleader,’ Max pointed out between gasps. ‘You should be fitter than this.’
Tulsi threw up her middle-finger at her.
‘I’m fine,’ Sun said in a small voice, clutching at her sleeves.
Max looked towards Clementine. ‘Clem?’
No answer. There was a rustle as Clementine knocked a can aside.
What the hell, Tulsi mouthed at Max.
Max shrugged back and tried calling Clementine’s name again.
She moved forward to touch Clementine’s shoulder. As her fingers skimmed the air an inch away from it, Clementine jerked and whirled around to face her.
‘Hi,’ Max said. ‘You good?’
It took a second before Clementine shrugged.
‘Okay.’ Max cleared her throat. ‘What’re you looking for?’
Clementine’s lips thinned. For a moment Max thought she would just shrug again.
Instead Clementine said in a quiet, clunky voice: ‘My hearing aids fell off when I stopped.’
‘Oh.’ Max stared at her, wishing she’d paid attention to that one-day ASL tutorial last year.
Clementine’s eyebrows raised towards something on Max’s left. She turned towards it and saw Sun making slow movements with her fingers. From her expression, it seemed to take a lot of effort.
Max tried to remember if Sun had been at that tutorial last year.
Clementine nodded at Sun, who gave a hesitant smile.
‘I asked if we could help,’ Sun translated to the others when they gave her questioning looks. Then, at Clementine’s next sign: ‘They’re purple. The hearing aids.’
‘Purple,’ Max said. ‘Got it.’
She gave Clementine a thumbs up. Clementine’s mouth twitched in what might’ve been a smile before she turned around and started going through the trash again.
Max turned to the others and said, ‘Purple hearing aids.’
‘Yeah, we got it,’ Tulsi said snappishly. ‘We aren’t the deaf ones.’
Sun gave Tulsi a cross look and then hastily pretended she hadn’t when Tulsi glanced her way.
Huh, Max thought, tucking that away for later, and then bent down to start in on the garbage.
It took a few minutes of rummaging through varying levels of grossness before Tusli let out a triumphant whoop and stood.
‘Purple, motherfuckers,’ she yelled, brandishing two lumps of plastic. She waded through the trash to drop them in Clementine’s hand, which had come out after Sun motioned for her to look over at Tulsi.
Clementine fitted the devices back onto her ears. After adjusting the second one, some of the stiffness retreated from her body.
‘Thanks,’ she said. She looked towards Tulsi, and seemed to struggle for the next thing to say. ‘You kicked a cop back there.’
Tulsi barked a surprised laugh. ‘I did!’
‘Cool,’ Clementine said.
The four girls stood and traded looks, waiting. When Max realized that everyone’s gaze had settled on her, her throat clicked.
‘So,’ she said. ‘Food?’
They walked until they found a food truck miraculously still open. It didn’t take long for their fries to get dumped into pottles, and the four of them set off in search of a bench to sit on.
‘So what was with you beating up Olive?’ Tulsi asked as they walked, all of them halfway through the fries with no bench in sight.
Max kicked Tulsi in the ankle. From the looks of it, Sun seemed ready to do the same.
‘Ow, fuck, what?’ Tulsi said, glaring. When she aimed one back, Max dodged it and flashed an innocent smile.
‘You want to know, too,’ Tulsi said, and Max considered kicking her again, harder.
Clementine looked over at Max, who floundered.
‘I mean – yeah, I want to know. But that’s my thing, I know things.’ This is what Max had been telling herself ever since she started digging into the fight she’d seen. It was the latest gossip, and Max was always informed about the latest gossip. If there was an ever-growing desire to dig further than she needed to – well, Max always did her best to excel.
‘I was there, is all,’ Max said.
Clementine’s whole face moved like a flinch before settling back into blankness.
‘You looked like you were trained for it,’ Max heard herself say.
‘No training,’ Clementine said after a moment. ‘Just… a lot of experience.’
‘I don’t doubt it,’ Max said. ‘It looked like you were going to throw down with Cady back there.’ Although that wasn’t quite true – she’d looked something, definitely, but bloodthirsty wasn’t it. Max couldn’t name whatever had been lurking in Clementine’s face as Cady had gotten up in it, but it was definitely – something.
They came to a stop at a crossing. As Max looked around, she realised that they weren’t far from school.
Later, she would believe it was the streetlight light carving them all into art. Or maybe it was the gravel that pinpricked Clementine’s jeans from where she had been on her knees searching through the garbage. It was Tulsi, whip-mean with leftover sweat glistening across her upper lip. It was Sun, small Sun, eating her fries and hunching like she wouldn’t mind shrinking down into invisibility.
All Max could think of in that moment was watching an interview with a dancer. The interviewer had asked her about why she had gotten into dancing in the first place. The woman had laughed, told him about going with her aunt to see Swan Lake when she was five. From then on she was transfixed. She started dancing to Britney Spears alone in her room. She danced at the bus stop. She danced as she was washing her hands at the sink. Everything she did, she turned it into a dance.
What can I say, she told him. I caught the bug.
The moment she watched Clementine’s fist collide with their class president’s cheek, Max had caught the bug.
‘Hey,’ Max said. ‘You should fight me.’
Clementine’s head jerked towards her.
The light went green.
Isabelle McNeur has been published in journals such as Aotearotica, Flash Frontier, Starling, Headland, Ruru Reads and Wizards in Space. In 2018 she completed a mentorship at Hachette Publishing, working on her YA novel Fistfights.
Isabelle was a part of the LitCrawl x Starling 2018 micro-residency programme, where six young writers were hosted by Wellington galleries over the weekend of 10-11 November to work on a current creative project. Isabelle was in residence at at Enjoy Gallery, where she worked on her novel Fistfights, which revolves around a group of unlikely friends who start a fight club at their all-girls high school.