Barefoot Battle Scars

Imagine a snapshot of sixth grader me was standing barefoot next to a turtle pond, wondering whether to push past the anxiety and run or give in and stay. A couple acres away, leaning up against a rake-like machine was a line of farm workers: a couple of well-built young men, one short woman with a blond pixie-cut, and my best friend Ashley. I could go hangout with her. I didn’t have to wait until she was done work. I could say hi now. Yeah, but there were people over there. New people. Nervous bubbles formed and popped in my gut.

“The turtle will show up eventually,” I heard her little brother Andy. He was crouched behind me. “I know he will, just wait.”

“Hey, you think I can go over and talk to them?” I asked him without turning around. I shifted from foot to foot, the summer grass peeking out from between my toes and tickling the pads of my feet. Okay. Stop this, you. Just do it. Yeah. If Andy gives you the okay, then go. Just go.

“Uh, yeah?” Andy stood up and walked over to me. “They’re just eating.”

There it was. “Okay. I’ll be back soon,” I said before bolting off towards the machines.

“Hey, you shouldn’t––” but I didn’t hear the rest. I was already gone.

The first field I jumped in was grassy. There had been barley, there before, but the plants had shriveled, falling to the ground and morphing into the mud. Patches of tall weeds scattered the field, and scraggly lines of damp dirt rushed by as I trumped along. My feet pounded on the compact earth, and my messy bunch of hair bounced back and forth as I hoped over that weed and stomped in another.

The whole time I ran I looked towards the machinery. The workers hadn’t noticed me yet. They hadn’t noticed the short, barefoot girl in long shorts and an over-sized T-shirt, flopping around as she pushed off the ground with each slap from her feet. I took in breath after breath as I grew aware of my heartbeat, the light pounding in my ears.

Okay, cool. They haven’t noticed me yet. They’re not staring at me. I’ve got time to think of something to say. How to introduce myself. How to fake a greeting smile. How to––

        A sudden pricking sensation in my feet made me gasp and flail for my footing. I stumbled as I tried to slow my momentum to a stop, but step after step there was a pinch here and a jab there. The feeling was more painful than stepping barefoot on a floor of legos. After coming to a stop, I found myself arms out for balance, both feet tenderly balanced on their own lines of dirt.

        I was in a new field now. The field that the workers were eating at a couple hundred feet away, but this field was different. It was some sort of grain, half cut, half grown. The grown section was far off past the workers, bushy and shifting in the breeze. Light hit the stalks and sent an overlay of golden sun, a halo overtop each shaft, but I was standing in the cut part. The part coated in two/three inch stubs, jutting out of the dusty earth menacingly, only a few scattered lines of dried dirt ran along the field.

        I had one small moment to wince before I heard the noise. Looking over towards the machine, I noticed a heavier, scruffy man, maybe late twenties sitting on one of the tires. He had let out the half laugh half yell, the weird mixture of a surprise and humor. He was pointing at me.

        Start running you idiot! Before the others notice. You don’t want to be some creepy girl standing in the field.

        So I started up again. I ran towards them through the field of prickly hell. I watched and waited as I picked up my pace, but time passed slower than before. I could see everyone more clearly now, and I watched them turn their heads. The tall, built one with a buzz cut and an arched nose. The short woman wearing a dusked orange hat, tuffs of golden blond hair swishing out from underneath. The disheveled, sore-eyed man with stubble and a glazed look. They all noticed me, their plates left balancing on the stubs as they watched and waited. My heart went from a beat to a pound.

        No no no. Stop it! I yelled at my heart. Stop scaring me!

        I turned my gaze from the stirring workers to the blurred stubs as I zipped past them. I sped up, running faster and faster as the laughing grew louder and louder. I heard someone clapping. I didn’t understand why. Why was I so funny? Was it my height? Was it how scrawny I was? My baggy clothes? Bad hair? The way I ran? My lack of footwear?

No, stop! You’ve got this. Just act normal. Think of something to say.

Ask about the machine. Was that a tractor? It seemed really big. There were a lot of claw-like contraptions sticking out of the sides. Maybe it was some sort of rake. Wait. Maybe they expected me to know what it was. Maybe they’d think I was an idiot. No, don’t ask about that. Try the fields. What were the tan plants? What were the green plants? Are these just summer crops? How much rain do they need? Wait. No. They could think those were stupid questions too. Liking the weather? You guys tired? How’s work going? When you going to finish? How’s the food?

“Hi.”

A stop, thirty so feet away from the workers, sucking in breaths, and that’s what I managed to spit out. Dusty legs, windblown hair, and all I could breathe out was that one word. The scruffy one, the one that pointed at me, snorted. My stomach dropped and bubbles rose up my throat, but I mustered up enough courage to lift my arm and twitch my hand, an attempt at a wave.

I waited for someone to say something. Someone to wave back. But no one did. The scruffy one bent over, shaking his head while the one with the buzz cut leaned on the guy’s shoulder, body shaking with laughter. The woman tilted back and clapped as she laughed up a storm, and the tired one looked, well, tired. Sitting on another tire he stared at me, a blank expression.

But Ashley’s what got me. She was next to the woman, staring at me with flat eyebrows, bold eyes, and a slightly open mouth. Was she angry at me? Was I embarrassing her? She just stared. And then she laughed. Her gaze softened, eyebrows tilted, lips curled in. She was stifling a laugh, but she was still laughing. I felt a burning wave rush over the roof of my mouth. The tears were coming.

Why are you laughing?

“I’m Gabrielle,” I mumbled, trying my best to even out my voice. “I’m Ashley’s friend.”

The scruffy man calmed his laughing enough to sit up, but he didn’t talk to me. He turned to Buzzcut and asked what I said.

“What’d you say?” the woman called to me, not unkindly. “We can’t hear you.”

“I’m Ashley’s friend,” I raised my voice, turning to Ashley who had a hand over her mouth, and said nothing. Help me. The woman nudged Ashley on the arm with her elbow and smiled while the tired man just glanced over at my friend halfheartedly.

“Why are you barefoot Ashley’s friend?” Buzzcut’s voice wavered on friend when he choked up a snort.

“Um,” I looked down at the ground, trying to hide my face. “I didn’t really want to put on shoes?”

“What?”

“I didn’t want to put on shoes,” I repeated louder.

        For some reason this made Scruffy, Buzzcut, and the woman laugh again. What was so funny? I just stood there, waiting, not watching. Arms at my sides, fumbling with the edges of my shirt, toes digging into the dirt, focusing on the ground, fighting off the tears. Mistake. Such a mistake. You’re so so stupid.

        “I,” Buzzcut choked out, causing me to look up. “I, um, think your ride’s calling you.” I followed the direction of his finger to my right. Half the field away, a couple hundred feet, I saw the blue van. Standing in front of it was Mrs. Rook, waving to me. Andy’s platinum head popped out from inside the van.

        Get out of here.

        “Well, I’ll, uh, see you guys later then,” I paused to take in a breath and even my voice again. Run. “Bye Ashley.”

        And then I was gone. I didn’t wait for a reply. I just bolted off. I didn’t hear one. Just more laughing. I ran and ran, trying to step between the stubble at first, but I gave up. I was going fast, but I wanted to go faster. I wanted to go back to the house, get away from there, but I wasn’t going fast enough.

        I held my head low when I got to the van. I reached for the open door handle to pull myself in, but an old voice, a voice both gruff and high-pitched stopped me.

        “Woah, there, kid.”

        I turned to find a short legged, tanned older man standing to my left. He wore a green and white hat with some sort of tractor logo. Some brownish gray hairs spiked in sweaty clumps from the back, and with a closer look I saw the dirt caked in the small folds of his wrinkles.

        “Are you out of your mind?” he reached out to me but didn’t touch me.

        “What?” I sounded harsher than I meant to.

        “You’re feet!”

        I looked down at them. They were coated in dirt, darker smears there and lighter specks there. There were lines of black under my nails where dirt crusted, and some were cracked or broken from my run. There were fine cuts scratched across my ankles and heels. I expected this.

        “Yeah?”

        “The bottoms! Check the bottoms!”

        I grabbed the door of the van for support and reached down to hold up my foot.

        Oh.

        That tingling sensation I felt from the stubble wasn’t just pricks from legos. They weren’t just jabs at sensitive skin. As I ran across the cut field, the stubble stabbed the pads of my feet. There was crusty blood smeared with dirt, and stray tan specks smudged between my toes and across my skin. Fresh blood gushed from four or so gaping holes and dripped off my heel. I looked down at my other foot still on the blacktop. I watched a small blotch of red travel from under my arch along the cracks of the pavement. That’s when I started feeling the pain.

        “I didn’t notice.” I watched the blood drip off my heel and listened to the pounding in my head.

        “Good God, you didn’t feel that?” The older man leaned closer and gave me a weird look. I felt bubbles in my stomach and a fire in my chest, and I glared at him even though I didn’t mean to. I wanted to get away.

        “No. Not until now,” I snapped at him. I finished weaker. “I guess.” I looked back at my feet and started rubbing at them roughly. I felt the sting when I first touched the holes, but I just rubbed and rubbed and smeared the dirt and blood into globby messes.

        “Hey, hey! What are you doing?” The gruff voice raised in pitch, somehow squeaky. Each breath of air itched the burning on the roof of my mouth, but I needed mouthfuls of air to battle the pressure in my chest. Fresh blood kept bulging out with pumps I heard in my head, and I didn’t care. Just kept rubbing all the red into my palm as I balanced in a miniature puddle of red. These were definitely going to scar.

        “Here.” There was a fistful of crinkled napkins shoved in my face. I stumbled but caught myself, wincing when I placed my raw foot on the gravel. I looked at Andy, the boy with the platinum hair and Harry Potter glasses, climbing over the van seats and shaking the napkins at me. “You can wipe your feet.”

        I breathed in and snatched the crumbled paper, spitting into it. Balancing again, I rubbed at the feet, but carefully this time, working between my toes, picking under my nails, and dabbing at the wounds. When I finished the one foot, I slipped past the man and pulled myself in the van. I hopped to the immediate seat Andy left for me and dropped myself into the chair without a word. Just more dabbing at my feet.

        “Ready?” I ignored the look from Mrs. Rook. I knew she saw my wet eyes, and I knew she knew I couldn’t talk right now. I just nodded and focused on the red blotch expanding and staining the white of the napkins.

        Before the car door slide closed, the older man said something, but I didn’t hear it. I heard the slam of the door though. And Andy. “You ok?”

        “Yeah,” I managed to hiss. Again, harsher than I meant to. I shifted away from him, feeling guilty.

        “You must have really hardcore feet. Like, you didn’t even feel it. And all that blood. It’s so cool.” I glanced at him out of the corner of my eye, trying not to let him notice my eyes. “You’re gonna have, like, scars and stuff. I mean, no one will see them I guess, but that’s still cool. You can tell people about it and all and say you have tough feet and they shouldn’t mess with you.”

        “That doesn’t make any sense,” I sniffed and rubbed at my face. I squeezed my nose and sneaked a brush of my eye as I squashed upwards. I hoped Andy took it as toughness or allergies or anything but what I was feeling.

        “Yeah, well, scars are cool. They’re like battle wounds, even if you weren’t in a battle.”

        We sat for a moment. Andy watched me holding the napkin to my feet for a bit before he started kicking his feet in and out. He turned and looked out the window. I noticed Mrs. Rook glance in the rear-view mirror a few times, but I just swayed with the bumps of the van as it traveled over gravel and road. I listened to the rumble of the engine and let it slow my heart.

        “Sorry about running off,” I said after the bubbles dissolved into the walls of my stomach. Andy just shrugged.

        “Meh.”

        I started biting at the inside of my lips, that guilty feeling dragging its teeth across the inside of my ribs. “Did the turtle come?”

        “No. I think it’s too cold. Maybe too hot. I don’t know. Maybe he’s just tired or scared or something.” He shrugged again. “It’s whatever. You wanna play NASCAR Thunder when we get back?”

        His face lit up again with a vibrant eagerness. Big, round blue eyes shining at me through big round clear glasses. I’d known this kid for a while now, but I didn’t really know him. Not like I knew Ashley. He was a new person, but really how much did I know Ashley? It was just NASCAR Thunder, but I felt anxious bubbles nonetheless. He was just a kid, a familiar one at that, but I was heating up with some primeval, defensive instinct that hindered me too often. It was such an easy thing to agree to, but really it was hard for me to even consider saying.

        “That’d be cool. Yeah.”

Image credit via Flickr, sophie.emma.roberts

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