Cover image for Capture the flag : a novel
Capture the flag : a novel
Chace, Rebecca.
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Publication Information:
New York : Simon & Schuster, [1999]

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280 pages ; 25 cm
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FICTION Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Shedding light on the traditions particular to elite society--and depicting the tumultuous 1970s with keen sensibility, "Capture the Flag" is a portrait of the children of sophisticated New Yorkers on their journey to adulthood.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Chace has painted a bleak portrait of a young girl's struggle for spiritual survival during the politically and socially turbulent 1970s. A casualty of benign parental indifference and neglect, young Annie Edwards finds her world spinning out of control when her parents decide to divorce. Attempting to make sense of her life, Annie exaggerates the significance of the one remnant of her childhood that she still values: the annual game of "capture the flag," pitting the insular Edward's clan against the sprawling Shanlick family. Though these two families eventually implode, Annie and the blended Shanlick children cling desperately to one another, forging unhealthy yet ironically life-sustaining, sexual, and psychological bonds within their own dysfunctional group. The author does a superb job of evoking the type of rampant self-absorption responsible for spawning an entire generation of misguided, confused, and depressed adolescents. A disquieting coming-of-age novel distinguished by an empathetic narrative voice. --Margaret Flanagan

Publisher's Weekly Review

Adolescence forms a shaky bridge between childhood and the adult world in this tender coming-of-age novel, though Annie Edward's chaotic journey is more perilous than usual. Beginning in the late 1960s, Annie's socially elite parents leave their Manhattan home and take their annual family summer vacation at an upstate New York country house owned by their friends the Shanlicks. The Shanlicks are like the Brady Bunch on acid: Peter and Janis have both been married before, and all five of their precocious, tough children come from their previous unions. Justin, the oldest, brutally introduced Annie to sex when she was 11, and she's craved his approval ever since; through drunken, drugged summers the kids' alliances and liaisons with each other shift as dramatically and frequently as their relationships with their many parents and stepparents. In 1975, when she is 14, Annie's parents are newly divorced, and her father, Luke, brings his new girlfriend on their family vacation for the first time. The game of the book's title is a summer ritual for the families, and Annie clings with fierce devotion to the enterprise as if victory will somehow clarify her place in the world, especially with her father. Decked out in black clothes and camouflage face paint, Annie sets out to capture the flag, and one by one stumbles across dark family secretsÄstepsiblings making love, marital infidelityÄwhich reverberate through the rest of the novel. When one of the girls becomes pregnant and Annie and another girl fall in love, the fierce loyalties and bitter betrayals come to the heartbreaking and resonant resolution. This is Chace's debut novel, after a successful memoir (Chautauqua Summer) and a play (Colette), and despite a slow pace at first, it swells with the openhearted fearlessness and perpetual confusion of adolescence, piercing nostalgic moments with the earthy, sorrowful taste of a young girl learning, the hard way, about love and family. Agent, Jennifer Rudolph Walsh. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Playwright, actress, and author Chace (Chautauqua Summer: Adventures of a Late-Twentieth-Century Vaudevillian) here turns from memoir to fiction. Each year, two families summering in upstate New York play an emblematic game of "capture the flag." As the novel opens, 11-year-old Annie Edwards is being allowed to participate on the offensive team's quest for the flag. The victory goes instead to the Shanlick-Mason family team, but it is an empty one as this sixth annual game marks the beginning of the end of both the tradition and the families involved. During that game, Annie's mother, who has grappled with depression for many years, again leaves the family to go into treatment and soon also leaves her marriage. While the very foundations of the two families shift, Annie and the five Shanlick-Mason children drift through every possible experience of adolescent angst, experimenting with alcohol, drugs, and sexuality. Inevitably, this leads to a pregnancy that, stretching credulity, is concealed from all the parents as two sisters aged 14 and 16 are allowed to move back to the country on their own. Chace's writing style is merely serviceable, and her characters seem somewhat stiltedÄthey're not the fiercely independent warriors one would expect to capture the flag and the reader's imagination. Recommended only for larger fiction collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 4/15/99.]ÄCaroline M. Hallsworth, Cambrian Coll. Lib., Ont. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Excerpt From Part One: The Game 1972 Annie's eyelids and cheeks were black with grease-paint camouflage. Her mother had cut her hair into a pixie cut that summer, and Annie liked it because sometimes strangers thought she was a boy. She gauged the height of the barbed wire stretched between the fence posts in front of her -- and jumped. Before the game began, she had run up the dirt driveway and cut out into the fields where her father and Justin always shot at woodchucks. Throwing herself hard on the ground, she had crawled on her belly, practicing combat moves for the game, willing herself invisible. I am a snake, she thought, a snake, a lizard, a gila monster. I am the thing no one can see. Then back down the road the screen door to the kitchen had slammed shut, and she heard them before she could see them: Peter Shanlick's rattling laugh and her father Luke's soft reply as the two captains walked up the long dirt driveway to see who would get the better field this year. This was the sixth year their families had met for Capture the Flag. Peter was Justin's stepfather and captain of the other team. His first novel, published when he was just out of college, had been a best-seller. Now, at thirty-seven, he hadn't published anything since. He held his anger close to his body like a charm, and his menace always pulled women to him. Luke hurried to keep up, stoop-shouldered and wiry. Next to Peter, he looked like a boy. Everyone said that Luke was the smarter of the two; though he had left his college novel unfinished and had become an editor of historical biographies instead. That night Annie caught the first firefly in her fist. She thought it was a good omen and took care not to hurt it as she crouched down and peeked between her fingers to watch it blink. Then, when she looked up, the sky had already got darker and she opened her hands to let the firefly loose, marking its slow, winking progress above the grass. "Annie...Annie." Her father's voice rolled across the road and the field to her. She wanted the sound to go on and on, north to Canada where they made the ale that he drank on weekends. "Annie...Annie..." She pushed off the ground, and her new sneakers sent her higher and higher as she ran down the field and landed in Luke's arms. His scratchy wool sweater pushed into her nose. The smell of him was familiar and satisfying as he spun her around and whispered, "O.K., kid, ready for your mission?" Then her mother had come over and pulled the strings of Annie's sweatshirt together. Annie had shrugged her away, but Ellen had pretended not to notice, whispering, "Are you warm enough?" Her mother always formed each vowel perfectly, with the odd, nonregional accent of the northeastern upper class. Annie's father said that the only way you could sound like you came from nowhere was if you came from somewhere in particular. Ellen had grown up in the family home outside of Boston and in a string of Connecticut boarding schools. She tucked a stray hair under Annie's hood. Annie loved the smell of her mother's hands. She used a special lilac soap from France. "And look at your makeup," Ellen had said. "Is that so nobody sees you in the dark?" "Yeah -- it's camouflage, Mom, not makeup." Too ashamed of Ellen's ignorance to stand with her, Annie had walked over to Justin, who was switching his new stopwatch on and off. "Cool," Annie said, trying to peek over his shoulder on tiptoes. Justin ignored her. When she looked back at Ellen, her mother had gone back down the road to talk to Justin's mother. "Jesus, Annie. Let me see your hands." Annie stared at Justin for a moment, then out at the pasture where a herd of cows was milling about. She had cut her hands on the barbed wire as she jumped the fence. It's already been a long time since the game started, she thought to herself. Justin reached for Annie's hands gently, turning them over so that the palms faced up. Annie was a city kid, and her hands were not callused, even though it was the end of summer. The skin had pulled away from the soft center of her hands in jagged X's that seeped blood. "Oh, Annie," Justin said, stroking the outsides of her hands softly. It had been all right until he did that. Now she started to cry, and she couldn't stop. She tried to wipe her face with her hand, but that hurt too much, then she started to laugh as she tried to use the back of her hands like an animal's paws. Justin smiled and wiped her face with his shirttail. At least she was laughing. Justin had to admit she was tough. "We gotta wrap these up. Get your bandanna." They each had one around their necks, along with black hooded sweatshirts, black jeans, and black Converse high-top sneakers. Justin was fourteen, three years older than Annie, and he had insisted that Annie wear exactly what he did if she was going to join him on a mission. This was the first year her father had allowed Annie to be on the offensive team with Justin, who had been going for the flag alone ever since he was twelve. The games had begun five years ago when Peter Shanlick had married Janis, Justin's mother. It was a second marriage for both of them, and in the first year Janis had inherited the country house in upstate New York where the annual game was played. Justin always played against his stepfather, leading the offense on Luke's team. Justin and Peter were equally uneasy with each other. Justin was old enough to remember what it had been like before his mother had married Peter, and though he hardly ever saw his real father, he would never let Peter get too close. Justin didn't let any adult get really close except for Luke. Luke talked history with Justin, who was obsessed with the military campaigns of Western civilization, from the Holy Roman Empire to D-Day. Luke educated, tested, and joked with Justin, treating him like his son -- a privilege that Peter was never allowed. Annie had always been jealous of Justin and her father, but she didn't know whether it was the attention that Luke paid to Justin, or the attention Justin paid to Luke that she longed for more. The game was played on the two big fields above the house, with the driveway for the borderline. The flags were actually two large white T-shirts, hidden early in the day. Each team was allowed to hide its flag without being spied on; Luke and Peter were very strict about that. Then the captains would secretly divide their own teams into offense and defense. To win, the flag had to be found, captured, and brought back over the border to home territory. Since the game never began before dark, it sometimes went on until two or three in the morning. Every year Luke and Justin synchronized their watches so they could coordinate the reconnaissance teams they sent out from the creek and the ridges that ringed the property. Justin was Luke's second-in-command and the acknowledged leader of the "Hard Core Youth Corps," as Luke liked to call the children. Annie's and Justin's families had been meeting once a year to play Capture the Flag ever since Annie was six years old, which was as far back as she could remember. The first six years of her life were gone, as if a gray metal wall had come down in her mind in 1967. That was how she thought of it: a clean, smooth metal wall. When her parents talked about the apartment they had lived in, or the nursery school she had attended, there were no pictures in her mind to go along with the words. The earliest moment that she could actually remember was sitting with Luke on the edge of her parents' big bed inside an apartment with long hallways and high windows that faced north. Luke was telling her that her mother, Ellen -- everyone called their parents by their first names then -- had gone away during the night. She was sick, but she hadn't gone to the hospital. She would be fine. She would call soon from wherever they had sent her. Annie had wondered who "they" were, and if her mother and father were part of "them" or not. Annie and Luke were going to be on their own for a while, but Ellen would send for Annie when she could. After that morning, Annie could remember everything. The farm where she visited her mother that summer. The day Ellen moved back into New York with Annie and Luke, school, summers, chicken pox, a broken wrist, a dog -- everything that had been filling up the last five years of her life was there for her with absolute clarity, so she decided not to worry about the first six years and only half-believed her parents when they told stories of the things they had done when she was little. She often humored them by nodding her head, as if she knew what they were talking about when they made references to that time. Now Justin wrapped her hands in the bandannas. They felt better wrapped up tight, and Annie thought they looked dramatic. She knew that when the game was over, she could show them to Ellen, who would wash them in hydrogen peroxide until they fizzed, and to Luke, who would be proud that she would do anything for the game. These hands might make her a hero. Justin checked his watch. "Forty-five minutes until the charge," he said. He took off his glasses and wiped them reflexively. "We've still got time, but we gotta get to the flag." The clouds had thinned just enough to give them some light, and Annie could see the closest tree line running north and south just beyond them. "But you said that we were too far north, that we weren't even supposed to be in the cow pasture." "Just hold on a minute, Annie." Justin refused to be wrong, ever. He squatted down on the ground and handed her his flashlight. "Here, hold this steady." It hurt Annie's hands to grip the flashlight as Justin drew a map in the dirt. This year Justin had made a relief map at school of the fields around the country house, and he and Luke had met in the city for weeks before the game, setting up two-front wars and four-pronged attacks. Phalanxes of cousins spread out in his dreams. Now he drew a large square with one curved line down the center. He had a nervous way of pushing his fine, light brown hair back from his face, now that it was long and it was always slipping out from behind his ears. He refused to tie it back in a ponytail because he thought that looked too feminine. Justin was almost always in motion, even if it was just moving his hands to his face for perpetual nail-biting and hair adjustment. Annie's hair was rough and curly. She envied everything about Justin, his perfect hair, his sureness. She watched him finish drawing the map, and he poked at it with a stick as Annie began to shiver and the small white circle of light from the flashlight trembled at the edges of the map. Justin ignored her shaking; this was war. "That line is the driveway to the house," he said, pointing with his stick, "and the borderline between the two territories." "Justin, I already know -- " "Listen, dipshit, I just want to check our bearings, O.K.?" Annie kept quiet. "If this is our side -- " Justin pointed to one half, "and this is Peter's, then they've probably got their prison closer to the house, here at the bottom of the driveway. If Peter's team hid their flag up near the tree line -- " "Like they do every year," Annie said. Justin gave her a look. "No shit, Sherlock -- then the flag is on the northern edge of their field. We put our flag in the center of our field, where it can be guarded from all sides." "Which is smarter," Annie said. "Which is smarter, according to traditional warfare. But depending on who is guarding the flag -- in this case your mother -- it may or may not be well defended from the enemy. Luke always puts too many people guarding the prison and not enough people guarding the flag." "But they always come over and tag the prisoners free as soon as we capture them," Annie said. "All they have to do is sneak up and touch one of them, then they all tag each other, and they're free. It's not fair." "I know how it's done, Annie. It's not fair -- it's the rules of the game. Hey, all we have to do is sneak up, grab their flag, and then run back over the border to our side without getting tagged. If it's so easy -- " "I didn't say it was easy, Justin." She hated it when he was sarcastic. He had learned it from her father. Luke was the kind of man who frightened people at cocktail parties. "Good. Because it's not." Justin was cold, triumphant. Annie wanted to walk away, to change the scene in front of her by turning on the television or reading a book. That's what she did at home, but here there was nowhere to walk away to. She held the flashlight and kept quiet. Before morning this will be over, she thought, and I won't remember anything but how I got the scars on my hands. Her mother would want to know. "Look at the map," Justin was saying, his face close to the dirt circle. "I think that we're in this cow pasture here -- north of the enemy's field -- so if we keep heading east, we'll come to the tree line, and then we can find the creek behind their field, and we're home free." "Which way is east?" Annie turned off the flashlight. She wanted to be on the way to the flag so that they wouldn't have to talk anymore. "Is that the tree line you mean?" She pointed with the flashlight. "Which way is east, Justin?" "I don't know." Justin looked past her. "What?" He wouldn't look at her. Annie waved an arm in front of his face. "Justin? Let's go." Justin turned on her fast, and Annie pulled back. He looked as if he were going to hit her, but when he spoke, his voice was quiet. "I don't know which way is east. I've never known which way anything is when I leave Manhattan. Uptown, downtown; east, west. It's so easy there. But out here...Who the fuck knows, Annie. I never know." "But all these years you've been out here alone." "I get lost every year." He grabbed her wrist suddenly and pulled her up against him. She could feel his rib cage pound against her. "Annie, you're on this mission with me because Luke made me take you, remember? Don't you dare tell. Don't you ever tell." "I won't, Justin, I promise I won't." "Don't tell Luke." "No." Justin pulled her closer and covered her mouth with his, pushing his tongue inside of her mouth. Annie couldn't breathe, and she pulled back from him. She had never been kissed like that before, never had any boy kiss her at all. Justin kissed her again, and this time Annie let him have her mouth as if it was part of a dare she couldn't refuse, then she let him have the inside of her shirt, her barely beginning breasts. Each new part of her that he grabbed froze her into shock. I am not my body, she thought, as he pushed her onto the ground. He pulled his pants down and pulled her sweatshirt up, leaving the snap of her jeans fastened as he rubbed himself against her naked stomach. She had never even seen a man's sex before except in pictures, and she was surprised by how solid it felt against her skin. She was afraid to look down and see it, and she hoped he wouldn't make her touch it. Almost in response he grabbed her wrists and pinned her down. His breathing got stronger, and she felt disgust for the first time. She hated his desperate pushing over and over again. Each time he pushed himself along the space between her navel and her chest he erased her more and more. She began to fight him, twisting her hips to try to get out from under him, but that was when he made a sound that made her realize that he wanted her, really wanted her. Annie liked that. Her hips lifted up harder against him of their own accord, and she felt her body betray her by its response to him. This body is not mine, she thought, and hated him for being able to do that to her. Annie was surprised that he lay so still afterwards, trembling just slightly, with his thin chest pounding against hers and his breath clouding the cold air next to her face. Annie was afraid to move. He had stopped very suddenly. Every part of her felt pounded and filthy. Her mouth had a metallic taste, and she ran her hands along the outside of her own hips roughly, ashamed at their betrayal. She had no desire to cry, and this surprised her. It felt as if a block of ice had been placed just inside her sacrum, and a new cold hardness ran from her breastbone to her pelvis. Justin rolled off of her, and she glanced quickly at his body. His sex lay there as if nothing had happened, as if nothing could ever happen there again. "Now we've both done something we can't tell," Justin said. So he knew; he had felt her hips lifting into him, and she hated him for that more than for grabbing her wrists or using his weight as a weapon. He knew that for a second she had liked it. Annie pulled her sweatshirt down and used it to wipe off her stomach. Her belly felt sticky and foreign, and she wished that she had soap and water to rub off the spot where he had been. As soon as the game is over, I'm going to take a shower, she thought; I'll tell them I'm cold. Below her navel Annie was still hairless. There were girls at school who had hair there, but not Annie, not yet. Rubbing hard at the place on her stomach where he had been, she felt a wave of nausea, and she leaned over and vomited violently. Justin reached over and touched her back. "Are you O.K.?" He sounded different to Annie, not so sure of everything anymore. His face looked younger. "No." Annie said. He reached for her again. "Don't touch me," she said softly. She watched his face harden back into the old Justin. "Are you gonna tell," he asked, "about getting lost?" "I'm not gonna tell." Justin got up and walked over to the fence, hitching his pants up as he walked. The wind was picking up, breaking the clouds apart into great gray chunks, and the sky opened just long enough for Annie to watch him reach the barbed wire and clasp his hands hard around it. He came back to her and held out his bloodied hands. "Swear?" he asked. "Blood brothers." Annie held out her hands, and he unwrapped the bandannas. The bleeding had stopped, but it started up again when he pulled the cloth away. Annie grabbed his hands and held them tight, so that their palms were pressed hard against each other and she could see Justin wince behind his glasses. Then she let go. "Blood brothers," she said quietly. He helped her wrap up her hands again but said that he didn't need to wrap his, he could suck the blood off as he walked. Annie started walking. "This way," she said. "How do you know?" asked Justin. "Just because I know. It feels right." "It feels right? This isn't Central Park, Annie." Annie sped up. Justin followed her without saying anything. She had something on him for the first time in her life. But she knew that he had something on her, too, and she wasn't exactly sure what it was. All she knew was that she wasn't going to tell. They ran across the field without bothering to hide. If they were going in the right direction, they would hit the creek. If not, there wouldn't be time to backtrack. In fifteen minutes Luke was supposed to lead the charge up the hill to Peter's flag as a tactical diversion for Justin and Annie. If they didn't get to their positions behind the flag, ready to run for it before Luke began the charge, the entire mission would fail. When they got into the tree line, they moved under the branches, crouching and running. Justin held back the big pine branches for her so that they wouldn't snap in her face. The sound of the creek kept getting louder, so they knew that they were going the right way. Annie slid down the bank and grabbed a tree that bent over with her into the water. The creek came up to her knees and the current sucked on her sneakers and jeans. Justin was already heading downstream. She slipped over the rocks and grabbed at the banks. Justin stopped and pulled down a branch that hung over the water, bending it back and forth until it broke. He stripped off the smaller branches with his knife and handed it to her. "Here, use it for a walking stick as long as we're in the creek. No one will hear us down here, and we can get as far as the flag before we hit the woods again." "Thanks." They started moving again. At every sound, they crouched and froze, not moving until Justin gave the signal. The enemy could be patrolling the banks; the creek was the back border of their territory. "Just stick close to the shore and they won't see us," Justin said, pulling himself up over a log. "What if Peter's team is doing the same thing?" "No way. They'd never think of walking the creek, it's too far away from our side. Too cold." The bottom kept changing. The rocks were covered with scum that scraped off onto their sneakers, and the mud pulled on their heels. It was all about balance. Justin jumped from one gravel bar to another, and Annie felt the water come up to her belly button in the dark. She had to pee and secretly let herself go, wishing the warmth would stay in her crotch. When they got to the pasture where they thought Peter's flag was hidden they heard the shouting begin, and Justin and Annie ran for the tree line, their sneakers breaking out from the water loud and clumsy. They ran almost all the way up the hill before they stopped. Annie's jeans were heavy as she squatted beside him. Justin checked his watch. "We're late." Then the music broke out over everything. Blasting up from the garage next to the farmhouse, the 1812 Overture, top volume. A bare bulb flicked on down below, and they saw someone waving his arms in the light. "It's the charge!" Justin ran from the trees. "Go for the flag, Annie!" She tried to follow him as he cut across and up the hill but he could run faster than she could, and her wet jeans slowed her down. She didn't know where Peter's flag was hidden, and everyone was running away from them, down the hill toward Luke's side. At that moment she realized it was Peter's team that was charging. She spun around and saw the enemy, moving up on her from behind. Annie stopped running and started to walk, real slow, in the other direction. She was still supposed to find Peter's flag, and where was Justin? "Liz?" It was Tessa, Justin's stepsister. Annie mumbled and kept moving. "Annie!" Tessa turned and ran at her. Annie took off down the hill. Now her only hope was to make it back over to Luke's side without getting captured herself. "They've got the flag! They've got it!" Annie heard someone yelling, and then, when they were almost to the driveway/borderline, Tessa tackled her. She pulled the hood of Annie's sweatshirt down. Annie's whole wet body was pounded into the ground. "Annie! Got you!" Peter Shanlick stumbled past them down the driveway, the white flag slung around his body. "We won!" Tessa let her go and ran after her father. "We got it!" Peter was yelling, "Got it from you again, Luke. Come out and give yourself up!" Justin's voice came from behind Annie, harsh and breaking as it always did these days. "Fuck you, Shanlick! Fuck you!" Listening to his voice Annie wanted Justin to win even more than she wanted to be the hero. Even more than she wanted Luke to win, she wanted Justin to win. She stayed where she was and watched Peter Shanlick dance down the driveway as he laughed back at Justin. The other kids leapt and reached for the flag. Down at the house someone started the bonfire that had been prepared hours earlier, and everyone began to come out of the fields. Annie walked to the edge of the driveway. She was going to wait until she saw Luke. She knew that Justin wouldn't want to see her, that he might not even come down to the fire for a long time. If they had won, everything would be different. Then she saw the car. She knew it was her parents' car because of the sound of the engine; it was a VW bug. The headlights swerved as it went around the people who came down the driveway and headed for the house. Peter Shanlick stopped in front of the car and held out his arms. The flag flapped behind him, and the headlights shone through the cloth, making a warped white face in the dark. Annie waited for the window to roll down to find out where her mother was going, maybe to the store to get cigarettes. But the window stayed up, and Peter finally sidestepped out of the way and hit the hood, then the roof of the car, as he walked past. Annie could see them both inside. Her mother was at the wheel, and she couldn't see her father's face. She ran after them. Her last chance was to catch them at the top of the hill where they always stopped to look both ways. The car stopped, and Annie could see them talking, heads close together, silhouetted in the windshield. She stopped to watch them, and she saw her mother's hand reach up to her father's face and then drift back down slowly, as if underwater. Luke got out of the car. "Mom! Wait! I want a chocolate bar!" The car pulled out onto the road. "What are you doing here?" Luke asked her, as if she shouldn't have been there. "I want Mom to bring me back a Hershey bar from the store." He walked past her down toward the house. She ran to keep up. "She's going back to the city early, Annie." "Is it because we lost the game?" Luke slowed down a minute and let her catch up. He took her hand. "No. We'll see her tomorrow, Annie, when we get home." Annie wondered how they would get home now that her mother had taken the car. But she didn't ask her father anything else as they walked the rest of the way down the driveway to Peter and Janis's house. Now she won't see my hands, thought Annie. If she had seen Annie's hands she would have washed them with her special soap from France, and they would have become soft and gentle like hers. Annie hated her own hands. They were ragged looking, with bitten nails and cuticles. "Dad, look." Annie showed him her bandaged hands. He stopped walking and tried to examine them in the dark. "What is it, what did you do?" he asked. The bandannas she and Justin had wrapped them in were wet from the stream, and he squeezed water from them as he grabbed her hands. "Ouch! Stop it!" Annie cried. "I cut them going over a barbed wire fence. Justin and I were late and then -- " Annie stopped, remembering she couldn't tell about getting lost. "I'd better wash them in hydrogen peroxide," she murmured. Luke put her hands down and looked back at the road, distracted, then started walking again. "I'm sure Peter and Janis have some. Ask Janis." He paused and looked down at the house. "Goddamn Shanlick, winning again. I just want to win the game again, Annie, you know? It's been three years since we won." He stabbed the air with his hands as he spoke. Luke always spoke very quickly, his mind forever outpacing his mouth, and he had a graceful way of moving. Her mother always agreed with him when he boasted of being a marvelous dancer. "I know." Annie half-jogged alongside him to keep up. He usually wanted a full report from Annie on how the game had been; he always wanted to discuss the game. "Dad, Justin and I started out just like you said, heading north along the borderline, but then -- " "Three years..." Luke wasn't listening anymore. "Goddamn Shanlick." "Yeah." Annie slowed down; they were almost at the bonfire. She let him walk ahead of her into the circle of people at the fire. "Yeah," she said. "Goddamn Shanlick." Peter Shanlick had been Luke's best friend at college. When Peter married Janis, she had brought with her her two sons: Justin and his younger brother, Nick, who now spent the summers and weekends with Peter's three girls: Tessa, Liz, and Sam. The kids' names would be spun off, in order of age, whenever anybody talked about them, but everyone usually called them "the Boys" and "the Girls"; they even called each other that. All five of them were always there for the game, with Janis and the girls playing on their father's team and both boys playing against Peter on Luke's team. Tessa was the oldest girl, one year older than Annie, with long straight black hair and a gap between her two front teeth. Everyone said that she was the prettiest of the three. Hitting puberty seemed effortless for her, and she had a subtle sexuality that made her seem older than twelve. Sam was the youngest, a ten-year-old who was still considered the baby. She had brown eyes so big, with lashes so long and thick, that they outsized her face and added to her waiflike demeanor. She was a pistol, who never tired of teasing her stepbrothers, and she was almost strong enough to wrestle Nick to the ground. Liz was in the middle, exactly Annie's age. She had the reputation of being the smartest of the sisters, and the plain one, but Annie thought she was the real beauty. Of the three, Liz most closely resembled their father, with Peter's square jaw and dark Germanic eyes. Her hair was chopped short above her shoulders in a thick dark mane that Annie envied. Two years ago, at Capture the Flag, Annie and Liz had cut themselves with a razor and sucked hard on the tips of each other's fingers, trying to get at more than just the little globe of blood that came out first. Liz had wanted to cut deeper, but Annie said that it didn't matter how much blood you got as long as you got some. For the girls the summers peaked the weekend of the game. They exulted in the Shanlick victories and prepared for hours with Annie, outfitting themselves in dark clothes. The next day they led Annie to the secret places they had discovered that summer: a climbing rock or a hidden meadow. They lay there watching the sky and retelling their journeys through the night before. As soon as Annie and Luke got to the fire he went into the house to get a drink. Nick was throwing firecrackers into the bonfire. Nick had never been committed to the game the way Justin was. What he liked was the party afterwards. Nick was a charmer. He was as quick as Justin without the mean streak, and he liked to make the girls laugh. It had been Nick who had turned on the music at the moment of the charge, glad of an excuse to leave the field and get warm in the house. Annie crouched next to Liz and Tessa, who were ripping open a bag of marshmallows. "Beat you again, Annie." Liz grinned at her. "Wait till next year," Annie said, narrowing her eyes at Liz and trying to look tough. Liz and Tessa laughed. "You're never going to beat us," said Tessa. "Your plans are too complicated. Dad just waits until everybody gets drunk enough and then charges up the hill to your flag. It's easy." "You haven't won every year," Annie said, but they knew from her voice that she was giving up. "Where's your mom?" asked Tessa. "She went home." "How come?" "I don't know. I think she was feeling sick or something." It sounded lame, and Annie knew it, but the girls weren't really that interested and they let it pass. Ellen had always kept to the periphery of Capture the Flag weekend. "How was scouting with Justin?" asked Liz. "You couldn't pay me to scout with Justin," Tessa said. "What a bully." "That's just because you're not his favorite anymore, Tessa." Liz surveyed her marshmallow, blowing out the flames on its blackened head. "Last year you were singing a different tune." Nobody could get away with anything around Liz; she forgot nothing and seemed unaware of the consequences of her bluntness. To Annie, who measured and questioned every word before speaking, she seemed fearless. "Justin's favorite! He makes me sick," said Tessa. "Go get some more sticks, Annie," she said, cramming a graham cracker into her mouth. "I lost my knife." Annie ran out to the edge of the woods, glad to get away. She didn't want to talk about Justin. He still hadn't come down to the fire, and Annie wondered if he was going to stay away all night, go back up to the cow pasture with his stick and draw maps on the ground for next year's game. The air away from the fire felt like the water did when you swam into a cold spot in the pond. Annie shivered and pulled up her sweatshirt to see if there was any mark on her stomach from where he had been; it already seemed like a long time ago. Her stomach was covered with little translucent flakes that she rubbed off with her hands. She brought her fingers up to her mouth to taste them: They were sour and sweaty. She touched her tongue to her palm again and didn't know if that taste was her or Justin since she had been sweating so much going up the stream. If their sweat had mingled, did that mean anything? And what he had done to her, or with her, would it change everything too? She pulled at a pile of wood that was waiting to go into the fire, picking four small sticks, just for the girls to roast with. Running back to the fire she passed them out to Tessa and Liz -- Sam didn't want to move from Janis's lap, where she sat wrapped in an army blanket. Every time a firecracker went off she cheered. Annie hated marshmallows, but she loved to play with candles and matches -- anything to do with fire -- so she roasted them for everybody else. She made them perfect, so that they burned her fingers as she pulled them off the stick, and then she put them on top of the chocolate bar and graham cracker balanced on her knee. Justin walked into the circle quietly, from the same direction she had just come from, and Annie felt a line of nerves go from the base of her spine to her skull in one clean shot. He squatted near the fire without looking at her, and she worried that he had been spying on her at the woodpile. Now she watched him talking to Nick, poking the fire, and was surprised that he still acted exactly like Justin. She felt as if her skin had been exchanged for someone else's, and was almost surprised that no one had noticed. She put another graham cracker on top of a stratification of burned marshmallow and chocolate and passed it to Justin, who was squatting next to Liz. He took it as if it was his by right, without looking at her. Annie hated him for that, even though it wasn't unusual -- Justin had a way of making people want to do things for him; of all the kids he had made himself the arbiter of cool. Each of his stepsisters had had a crush on Justin more than once. The only person who had never worshipped him was Nick. The graham cracker snapped in Justin's mouth and crumbled down the front of his sweatshirt. "Why can't you make them like this, Tessa?" "Shut up, Justin." Tessa only made them for herself. Nick sat next to her, and they talked quietly, giggles rising occasionally. Nick was small for twelve, with bright green eyes and clear, almost transparent skin. Janis said that Nick looked like his father and Justin looked like her, but Annie had never met their father and the boys didn't talk about him. She only knew that he lived somewhere out West, farther from New York than Annie had ever been. The brothers' alliances with their stepsisters seemed to change every year: This summer it was Tessa and Nick. Annie and Liz both hated their little tent of conversation, as if there was nobody else around. "You want another?" Annie asked Justin. "I'll make you another." "You're gonna make me throw up," Justin said, finishing it off. He smiled at her for the first time, and Annie realized that she had been holding her breath. Sam was asleep on Janis's lap; her thumb had snuck inside of her mouth, and her breath made little clouds of white in the air. Janis was leaning back and talking to somebody Annie didn't know, a neighbor with straight brown hair that was cut like a man's; she constantly blew the smoke from her cigarette into her drink. Janis was a rangy woman whose hair was dyed auburn. Her fingers were covered with gaudy rings that Annie loved. They clicked against each other in the dark, and Annie watched her as she threw her head back and laughed hard and loud; her laugh was always recognizable. Janis didn't care about being loud, and she was one of Annie's favorite grown-ups. She never seemed to care whose kid it was that she was kissing and hugging, or whose face she was cleaning with a spit-moistened Kleenex. She flipped the sleeping Sam easily from one side of her body to another as she got more comfortable and leaned in to talk more intimately with her neighbor. Peter Shanlick threw an empty bottle onto the rock pile behind the bonfire. Everybody turned to watch, and Peter threw another, then another, stepping farther back each time and sending the bottle spinning in a perfect arc. Nick left the bonfire circle, ran over to the garage, and came out with the football. He threw it to Peter. Peter was in a good mood after winning the game, and he grabbed the ball and ran off into the dark. Nick flipped on the light outside the kitchen door and the bugs swarmed where the grass lit up. "Girls against boys!" Peter shouted. "Janis, you be captain!" Janis laughed at him, but Justin jumped up and ran over to Nick and Peter, hitting each of the three girls lightly on the head as he ran by. Standing just outside the fire circle Justin jutted his skinny hips to one side and stuck out his lower lip at them. "Chickens..." he drawled, then turned and shook his butt in their direction. Luke was already up, and he grabbed Justin by the shoulder, whispering something in his ear that Annie couldn't catch, but they laughed together like equals. Annie and Liz looked at each other, then Janis sighed dramatically and passed the still sleeping Sam over to the woman with the man's haircut. Janis put out her cigarette and walked slowly over to the lawn, the three girls following behind. Janis looked at Peter, Luke, and the boys yelling and tossing the ball back and forth, and she laughed once, very loudly, then pulled Annie, Tessa, and Liz into a huddle. She grinned at all of them, heads pulled together so that the light leaked in around their cheekbones and over the tops of their heads like a diffused electric halo. "Anyone have a plan?" Janis asked. "Get the ball and run," said Tessa. "Then go back to the fire and make more marshmallows." Janis nodded so seriously that they all broke up laughing, clapped their hands just like the boys always did, and split up. Liz passed the ball off to Tessa just before Nick tackled her and sent her screaming into the wet grass. Luke tried to intercept it and slipped. Annie was behind him and went for the ball but fumbled. It bounced off her bandaged fingers, bending them back, and rolled into the fire. "Get it, Annie! Get it!" Luke yelled at her from the lawn. Annie grabbed a stick, but the fire was too hot, and Annie only managed to push the ball farther and farther into the fire. It hurt her hands to hold the stick, and the fire was burning the edges of her bandanna wrappings. "Get it, Annie! Just get it!" Luke yelled. Luke's arm reached right past her into the fire, knocking her down onto the old ash gray rocks that made the bonfire circle. She heard the crack of her skull on the rocks inside of her own ears and saw his fingers grab the football, not slipping, and scoop it out of the hot center. She felt for her head with her hand and then her wrist, since she couldn't feel anything with her hands. When she brought her wrist down from her head it was wet with blood, and she started to cry. "Oh, Christ." Luke picked her up, kissed her, and she felt the football pressing into her back. It was hot from the fire and there was the smell of burnt leather. "Where does it hurt?" "My head." He tried to put her down and look into her face. She didn't want him to let go of her and buried her head in the sheepskin collar of his coat, making Luke kneel down with her on the ground. She couldn't stop crying, and the wind was blowing smoke from the bonfire right at them, making her father's features look blurred, underwater. Luke had to let go of her and rub his eyes to be able to see her, and this suddenly terrified Annie. "I'm here, Daddy. I'm here," she yelled, as if she were a little child. Luke stared at her. "What?" Annie felt herself starting to blush, every part of her neck and face flushed bright red, and she couldn't answer, so she hid her head in the warm lapel of Luke's jacket again. He held her silently, and she knew that he really didn't need an answer anymore; he was letting her hide. The football game had stopped as soon as she fumbled the ball into the fire, and she slowly became aware that everyone had gathered around her father and her. "What a baby," she heard Justin say, from far away. "Is she all right?" Liz asked. Then Janis came up and took her hand. "She'll be O.K." Janis stopped and looked down. "Jesus, Annie, what is this on your hands?" "I climbed a barbed wire fence." "Well, let's go into the house and wash up. You're all right, aren't you, Annie?" "I guess so." Annie took in huge gulps of wood smoke between each word. She blinked and panted. Janis picked her up and carried her toward the house. Looking over the top of Janis's shoulder, Annie watched her father slowly sit down in the dirt and pull the football into his stomach, not bothering to move out of the way of the smoke. He stayed that way, rocking the football back and forth in the cup of his body, until Janis carried her through the screen door to the kitchen and she couldn't see him anymore. The water from the sink ran warm over her head, and she watched it go from red to pink. "Not so bad," Janis said, tucking a towel around Annie's neck, "not so bad." Copyright © 1999 Rebecca Chace. All rights reserved.