The downtown kids were running about the streets, creating sandstorms with their kicking and shoving. They were panting, sweating, kicking about a flattened can of coca cola. This game of football was held twice a week and the losers were to abide to whatever dare the winning team gave them. Sometimes they’d split themselves girls against boys and sometimes they’d have team leaders picking out members by a survival of the fittest strategy.
I was nowhere close to being fit, so I usually stuck to sitting on the curbs, keeping tally. I loved watching the patterned thump thump thump of feet as they ran past me. It made no sense to me that humans and animals instinctively knew how to walk, with one foot in front of another at whatever speed they pleased. I would sit there, musing over little trivial details.
One of the team members would eventually come shuffling towards me and slumping down on the curb. This time it was Nada. She lay down breathing for a while, then quickly sat up and grabbed the pack of cigarettes from my side. She pulled one out and peered into the box.
“We need to buy another pack,” she said as she fumbled with the lighter. She cupped her left hand over the cigarette until it finally gave a spark.
I fished out the last cigarette and lit it up.
“We’ll tell Zee to get us another one right after the game,” I said.
“Hey, Zee!” Nada yelled out, ignoring my last remark. She stood up and strutted towards him. Zee was the oldest looking of us, thus the only one able to buy us any. We were all too young for the habits we acquired, but we were also too young to be exposed to so much poverty-stricken misery.
I watched as Nada and Zee were chatting under the flickering streetlight. It was quite the shady scene. The rest of the downtown kids were still running after the flattened coca cola can, stampeding from one side to the other. It reminded me of the elephant stampedes that would leave a wave of silence behind them as they all scram together towards one direction.
I remained seated, not wanting to take part of the match that was taking place, or the side conversations that were being held. I would be centre of the spotlight soon anyway, when the teams would break up and come towards me asking me as their witness to declare that they were the winning team.
I stood at the curb with everyone around me interacting in loud voices, happily fighting. Everyone wanted to win, although they secretly preferred losing because of the consequences that would cause so much adrenaline. Everyone was in for the ride anyway, because we all made sure that the others would be home safe by the time it was for us to sleep.
I turned towards the team that stood on my right side.
“Sorry guys, you lost.”
They all erupted into loud groans and feigned anger by stomping their feet on the floor.
The dare was then quickly decided between all of us. I led the two crowds behind me towards the local high school field. We were never granted entry into any of these schools due to our underprivileged status, so we would always wait until the dead of night when we wouldn’t get caught.
The losing team had to break into the school. They were required to rob the cafeteria and bring us our midnight meal.
The downtown kids all walked through the field huddled together. We huddled behind the entrance doors of the school as the losing team climbed over the school fence. Amir got his shirt sleeve caught in the fence and nearly fell over. We all laughed nervously as he caught his balance and softly landed on his feet on the other side.
“Good luck, guys!” Tanya whispered from where she was crouching.
I was sitting on the ledge, scanning the setting behind me and making sure that no stranger was creeping about. That was my job, to make sure that the dares went uninterrupted.
We all sat in silence for a while. Some of us lit cigarettes, growing bored and sleepy with the warm summer night air suffocating our tired brains.
And then all of a sudden we heard gunshots and a distant scream. We all stood up, alert, dropping our cigarettes to the floor. The night was suddenly full of the sound of gunshots and children screaming. Fourteen year old boys came running out of the school building, some of them staggering.
Everyone started to climb over the fence in a hurry, wanting to save their friends, their teammates. I sat rooted to my spot, scared. I didn’t know how to climb fences. I didn’t know how to run. I stood in frenzy, not wanting to look like a coward. But by then everyone was already on the other side of the fence fetching the injured ones and rescuing the missing ones.
I heard more gunshots and took two steps back.
I wasn’t made for this battle.
I thought of wild life where lions would chase and the prey would hide. Why then were the downtown kids chasing their predator? An adult with a gun.
I staggered back towards the fence, daring myself. I put my foot on a rock as leverage. I squinted in the dark and noticed Tanya dragging a body towards the fence. The moonlight shone on her dampened face, sweat and tears. She continued to drag the body, glanced behind her, and spotted me still standing where they all left me.
Her eyes for a moment flashed with contempt at my cowardliness, then she held my gaze. She would have been pleading me to help her if she wasn’t out of breath.
I couldn’t, though. Instinctively, I knew what I should do.
I turned around and ran the other direction. My feet were thumping on the pavement, my forehead and t-shirt dripping with sweat. I felt my lungs tighten as I was gasping for air, but I was persistent.
I continued running, deciding that I should never turn around. I was too unconditioned for their games of valour.
I did however beat them in their own game of survival of the fittest.