Playground Infatuations

Two 300-word stories about school-kid love

For the 300th issue of Recommended Reading, which happens to fall on Valentine’s Day, we opened submissions to your 300-word stories of love and heartbreak. Every day this week, we’ll publish two of our favorites from the nearly 500 submissions we received, along with contributions from three greats of flash fiction, Lydia Davis, Amelia Gray, and Kathy Fish. We think of this special five-part issue as a love letter to the thousands of writers who have submitted to Recommended Reading, and the hundreds of thousands who have read our magazine over the past five and a half years. Thank you for sticking with us, and cheers to 300 more. — Halimah Marcus

Playground Infatuations

“Thumb Wars”

by Andrew Bales

It was sixth grade, and Mandy Winder texted in a way that made Thomas feel things. He didn’t know who she was texting during class, but he could sense by the way her thumbs jutted and poked that her words were kind.

At lunch, Mandy always sat with the Peterson sisters. The Petersons liked to talk, and Mandy would listen. The sisters were taken out of class one morning to get their teeth cleaned, leaving Mandy to sit alone. She rotated an oatmeal cookie in her hands, eating it carefully from the outside in.

“That’s cool,” Thomas said. “How you eat.”

Mandy set the cookie on her tray, and Thomas knew he’d spoiled things.

“Want to thumb war?” he said.

“Okay,” Mandy said. Thomas sat down, and Mandy stuck out her hand. They hooked their fingers together and tightened their hands into a big fist.

“One, two, three, four,” Mandy said, and Thomas joined her: “I declare a thumb war.”

Mandy didn’t waste time. She bobbed her thumb from side to side. It was long and smooth and seemed sophisticated somehow. Thomas tested forward and Mandy batted him away. They flicked their thumbs, sizing up each other’s moves.

It was developing into a kind of conversation. In fact, it was the best conversation they’d ever had. They lunged forward and smacked the soft pads of their thumbs. They swiped low blows that brought the bone of their knuckles together.

“Wow,” Thomas said. “Yeah,” said Mandy.

Mandy found leverage and clinched Thomas’ thumb near the base. She began to count out her victory.

“One,” she said, but Thomas could already tell it was over. Her grip was true.

“Two,” she said, and Thomas saw Mandy smiling right at him.

By the time Mandy Winder said “Three,” Thomas had stopped resisting altogether.

Love Has No Inertia

“The Boy on the Bus”

by Julia Ridley Smith

Every afternoon, the schoolbus would pass a bungalow whose porch sagged under a refrigerator that once had been white. I’d seen the people going in and out, the kind adults around me called white trash because they hadn’t managed to translate their one advantage into any kind of success.

One morning my mother read about a boy found dead inside another defunct refrigerator, and warned me never to get into anything I might not be able to escape. I scoffed: getting stuck inside an abandoned appliance struck me as a thing only a boy would be fool enough to do. A girl would be too smart to do that to herself; surely, it would have to be done to her, as in a romance I loved that told of a sexy, disobedient medieval lady, walled up and forgotten. I’d figured that kind of thing only happened in the old days, mostly to Catholics; now I knew that it had never stopped being possible that you could be buried alive.

That afternoon, as the bus rumbled past, I saw that things were doubtless bad in the bungalow. Any place to hide must have looked like a good idea. I put myself inside the once-white refrigerator, gulping and scratching in the airless dark. I imagined pulling my boy out into safety, his grateful smile as good as breath to me.

Riding day after day, I came to believe that he was there on the bus with me, a few seats up, where I might see if he was picked on, where I might kiss him if I found the nerve. I figured I never would. Each afternoon he sat at the smudged window, waving shyly to me as he rode on and I walked backwards up my driveway, still looking after him.

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