How to Play

Hardik knows the trees by name. He knows which tree is maple and which is oak and which is evergreen and which is dogwood. I know he is right about the maple once I study the leaf because it’s three-pronged and jagged and reminds me of last fall when my third-grade teacher, Ms. Kent, handed out white sheets with thick black outlines of maple leaves and asked us to write our names inside in marker. Then we colored around our names and cut out the leaves and taped them to the classroom door. The leaves stayed there until October, when we did the same thing with pumpkins, followed by turkeys in November, ornaments in December, snowflakes in January, hearts in February, shamrocks in March, eggs in April, flowers in May, and suns in June. I’m in fifth grade now, elementary school is ending, and in fifth grade we don’t do that kind of thing anymore.

I find it incredible that Hardik knows the names of so many trees. I don’t think he’s that much smarter than me. We are both in Mrs. Giordano’s class, and we sit beside each other, and I peeked at his desk when she was returning our math test and our geography test, and I know I’m doing better in those subjects. The only reason they held me back last year is because the principal said my English wasn’t so good when I first arrived, so he thought I needed to be in third grade when I should’ve been in fourth grade, especially because I knew the times table up to fifteen, which even the middle schoolers don’t know. But my English got better so they skipped me a grade and put me back where I belong, except that Hardik knows the names of all these trees and I wonder if that’s something he learned in fourth grade, the year I missed.

Before Christmas, Mrs. Giordano said she’d give extra credit to any student who could name all fifty states and their capitals, so every day over the holiday, I read aloud the names of the states and capitals from our textbook until I had memorized them by sound. After two weeks, I made my mother check the textbook while I repeated the names from memory, and whenever I missed a capital or a state or if I matched the capital and state wrong, I could tell before she said a word, because I felt like I had skipped a note in a song, and it sounded ugly in my mouth.

When we returned to school in the new year, Mrs. Giordano asked anyone who wanted to give it a try to line up outside the classroom door. Then she called us in one by one and we spoke in front of the whole class. Hardik was after me in line, so I was back in my seat when he went up. He messed up Texas, said Houston when he should’ve said Austin, then he said Bismarck was the capital of North Carolina when it’s really the capital of North Dakota. He was the only competition I cared about, and I beat him, and Mrs. Giordano said that I was a true American citizen even though I wasn’t. Hardik just sat there, trying hard to look bored.

It’s not that I always have to beat Hardik, just that there are enough times I do beat him that I am confused he knows something I don’t know at all. This wouldn’t have even come up if he hadn’t pointed to some pinecones and said he needed to collect them for his sister who was doing an art thing with pinecones, and if I hadn’t said, “Aren’t those acorns?” and if he hadn’t looked at me like I was an idiot.

The only reason I’m walking with him is because Mrs. Giordano is making us partner up to design a board game for Math, and this time she chose the partners because she wants us to work with new people. That’s how Hardik and I got put together, or he’d never have chosen me. He’d have chosen one of his T-ball buddies, and I would’ve chosen Dmitri, who actually is the smartest kid in class, but no one else knows because his teeth are all crooked and yellow and he never opens his mouth to speak.

Hardik, it turns out, doesn’t live far from me. There’s a cemetery behind his house, and on the other side of the cemetery is a fence that he and I figure out borders the woods behind my apartment complex. There’s a big sign in the woods that says no entry. video on premises, but me and a few other kids from the complex have crossed into the woods and no one’s come out to stop us. If I was friends with Hardik, I could cut through the woods, find a way through the fence, cross the cemetery, and enter his backyard through a gate that only has a latch. It would take me ten minutes by bike, twenty minutes on foot, the same time it would take a car. But we aren’t friends, so we don’t plan anything like that, we just figure out that we live close enough that we can get this project over with quickly. Plus, once we get to middle school, which is only a few months away, we won’t have to see each other anymore because probably our schedules won’t match and we’ll lose each other in the crowd.

Hardik’s mother is home, and I recognize her from the time I met her in the principal’s office. “Nice to see you, Nihar,” she says, then offers me a plate of cut-up vegetables: carrot slices, celery sticks, and bell peppers in three colors. Hardik doesn’t take anything from the plate. His eyes rove around the kitchen like the plate doesn’t even exist, and I figure this isn’t what he usually eats when he comes home. He probably eats baloney like the kids in the books I’m reading to make my English better than someone who grew up speaking it, but I don’t blame Hardik—raw, cut-up vegetables aren’t what I eat either when I come home. I eat fried things like pakoras and tikkis and papri, or I eat missi ki roti with strawberry jam and butter. I used to think Hardik and I were the same, and sometimes people even mixed us up, still do, call me Hardik and call him Nihar, which Hardik hates more because he talks like an American and I don’t.

Hardik puts the pinecones away, and his mother brings out a plastic box with a broken lid that’s filled with blunted crayons and colored pencils and markers and construction paper and child scissors and paint and tape and glue and glitter. The supplies are old and worn, but the box has everything that’s in art class at school, and I say, “Whoa,” and Hardik sighs. The kitchen opens to the living room, and his mother sits on the couch with a magazine. She isn’t looking at us, but I know she’s watching, and Hardik knows she’s watching, and he makes faces at her that she doesn’t see. He pulls out construction paper and felt and tape and scissors and asks me what we should do. I’m surprised he’s letting me decide because he’s the one who said we had to work at his house. When I told him where I lived, he said he didn’t know the area—this was before we realized how close we lived—and he wasn’t sure he was allowed.

I ask him if he has cardboard, and his mother says there’s some flat boxes in the garage.

“Mom,” Hardik says, and she says, “Sorry, sorry, I’m not here.”

If I spoke like that to my parents, I’d get smacked, but I think because Hardik’s mother is his stepmother and not his real mother, she just moves farther down the couch, like she’s the one who’s done something wrong.

While Hardik’s in the garage, his mom stares at me, and I pretend to play with the felt.

“I’m so glad you are trying to be friends,” she says, and I don’t correct her, I don’t say, “The teacher made us do it.” I don’t know if Mrs. Giordano knows about Hardik and me and what happened back when I was in third grade, and I think Mrs. Giordano probably doesn’t know, but I don’t know why I think that.

Hardik comes back, and we cover a cardboard flap with all the colors of the felt, and we don’t arrange it properly, so the board ends up an uneven patchwork of seven colors—green and yellow and red and purple and orange and white and blue.

I’m hungry so I start eating the cut-up vegetables even though I don’t want to eat vegetables. Hardik asks, “Can I have some fish crackers, Mom?” and she says, “Okay, but don’t ruin your dinner, and share with Nihar.” I try to speak while I’m swallowing, and I start coughing. His mom says, “Hardy, don’t just stand there, get him some water.” Hardik passes me a glass, and I drink it all.

“Are you okay, honey?” his mom asks, and I say, “I’m okay, ma’am. It’s just that I don’t eat fish.”

Hardik’s face goes all red and his mom’s face goes all red and then Hardik mumbles, “There’s no fish in them,” and his mother removes the box from the cupboard and shows me the ingredients at the back. “They are just shaped like fish. See?” Then she draws the box back and says, “But you don’t have to eat them. I didn’t think about the shape…”

Hardik covers his head like something’s about to fall on him, his mother keeps turning the box of fish crackers, and I wonder what to do because now I really don’t want to eat the fish crackers. Hardik’s mom brings out cheese crackers instead, and crumbs rain down on our felt board as we chew on them quietly. Finally, I ask, “What are the rules?”

Hardik says we should make players try to escape the board by solving math problems every time they land on a colored patch—green for addition, yellow for subtraction, red for division, purple for multiplication, orange for fractions, white for factors, and blue for player’s choice. We pull out index cards and markers and start making up the equations, green and purple and white for me, yellow and red and orange for him.

Math’s the reason I got in trouble back in third grade. Hardik was in the fourth grade then, and Dmitri told me kids used to call him Hard Dick before I got here, but they stopped once he became friends with Ricky and Jovan. I don’t see him with them anymore, not even during lunch, maybe because those two got placed in Mr. Andrew’s class. Everyone knows the smart kids end up with Mrs. Giordano, the average kids with Mrs. Wabash, and the kids who aren’t smart at all with Mr. Andrew. I don’t know about Jovan, but Ricky got put where he belongs.

In recess, back in third grade, I used to play kickball with the third and second graders, except one time I twisted my foot running so I decided to watch the game from the yellow line. Then I heard a boy talking behind me, Ricky, with his chubby face and hair that looked like it had been chopped by a knife.

“Okay, next one,” he was saying. “Six and four…”

Hardik checked the book on his lap. “Twenty-four,” he said, holding a ball-point pen mid-air like he was about to stab his hand. “But I don’t know, maybe I should—”

“Don’t be such a dothead. You wanna pass or what?”

Jovan was walking in circles around the other two, who were sitting against a tree. “Bet two dollars Hard Dork doesn’t have the balls for it,” he said.

Hardik’s eyes became tight as pins and his lips disappeared into his mouth. He scribbled something on his hand with the pen and said, “Shut up, all right. The bell’s gonna ring.”

The bell did ring just then. Ricky snorted. “Time’s up!” he said. “We’ll finish in the bathroom.”

The three of them raced toward the main doors while I trailed behind, making as if my foot was worse off than it was.

Back at my school in Delhi, I used to be a class monitor, and like all class monitors, I made sure the other kids followed the rules. I reported any wrongdoing to the teacher, and I never lied about it, and I didn’t try to hide anything because I knew if I did and the teacher caught me, the teacher would beat the backs of my hands with a ruler in front of the class and make me squat and hold my ears through my legs for the rest of the day. Then I wouldn’t be class monitor, my father would beat my backside with his belt, and I’d embarrass my brother, who’d been class monitor all the way to sixth standard. It was nothing us students got angry at one another about because that’s just the way it was, and what was the point getting the class monitors into trouble when it would’ve been better if the wrongdoer hadn’t got caught in the first place.

Once the boys were inside, I found the teacher who was covering recess and told her what I had seen and what the boys were talking about. She listened without asking any questions and then when she did say something, she asked me my name. I told her, then she said, “Are you sure that’s what you heard, Nihar? Because if you are, I’m going to have to make a report to the principal, and he might want to speak to you. Are you sure you want that to happen?”

I didn’t know how to answer that, but I answered the part I understood and told her I was sure I’d heard correctly.

“Come on, then.” She sounded annoyed, and for a moment I thought I was in trouble, but she just took me to the fourth-grade corridor and had me look through the window in the doors to each classroom. I found Ricky first, bent over a desk in a ratty white T-shirt, his mussed hair exposed, but she wasn’t interested in him. She waited until I pointed out Hardik.

“You’re sure?” she asked me again. “Yes, miss teacher, it was him, I’m sure.”

She went inside and spoke into Hardik’s teacher’s ear. Then his teacher went to Hardik’s desk and turned over first one hand then the other. She pulled him out of his seat and marched him out the door and down the hall. His eyes never left the floor.

The recess teacher never came out. She parked herself behind Hardik’s teacher’s desk, and I didn’t know what to do, so I went inside to ask for a note because I was late to class. She shook her head as she wrote me one, while I tried to ignore Ricky. I could tell he was confused, wondering what a third grader was doing in a fourth-grade classroom, because he kept staring. Even Ricky wasn’t that stupid. I willed my legs not to shake, then I left.

Hardik’s kitchen’s getting too warm, and I squirm in my chair. He asks if I am done with my index cards, and I show him the problems I’ve come up with. Then he says what about the answers, so he gives me his cards, and I give him my cards, and we work out the solutions on scrap paper, then write the answers in small at the bottom of the cards. He pulls out rubber bands and ties the cards together according to their color, and I ask him if I can use his bathroom, and his mother pipes up, “Of course, honey, it’s just down the hall to your right.”

“Stop calling him that,” Hardik says, and she answers, “Don’t be rude.”

I skulk down the hallway. The bathroom’s one of those kinds that has a toilet and a sink but no shower, which according to my father is a waste: “These gorey can blow their money on five bathrooms, but they could have the brains to make it so a man can wash the shit off his ass in all of them.”

My pee jets out loudly, and it takes a while to get it all out because I keep stopping to hear over it. Bathrooms don’t spook me, but that’s where Ricky found me, or at least I came out of the stall and he was standing outside of it like he was waiting for me. He knocked me against the sink and turned on the faucet so my pants got wet all the way down the back, and then he pushed his face into mine and sprayed me with his tuna breath and said, “You are dead meat, you shit-faced dothead. You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us.” He raised a fist, and I thought he was going to hit me, but his fist was clutching something pinkish-brown. He brought that thing toward my face. “Come on, Hardy, I’ve got him.” I turned my head to the side and the hot dog pressed up against my cheek, breaking in half, and I saw that we weren’t alone. Hardik was lurking by the bathroom door, clutching his own hot dog and hissing, “Ricky.”

The hot dog, in two pieces, slid toward my lips, and I swung my head again, but Ricky bent me backwards over the sink until my head was jammed against the mirror. Then he pushed the pieces of hot dog into my mouth and he covered my mouth with his palm so I couldn’t spit.

“Eat it,” he said. “Come on.”

The hot dog was too big to chew all at once and the big pieces hit the back of my throat so I gagged and my eyes started watering. Hardik appeared next to Ricky and he was saying, “Holy shit, is he choking?” and he pulled at Ricky until I was no longer pressed against the sink or the mirror, but Ricky still didn’t take his hand off my mouth. “Holy shit, holy shit, he’s gonna die,” Hardik kept saying because he didn’t know I was just gagging, and he started punching Ricky’s arm.

“You’re such a chicken shit,” Ricky said, this time to Hardik. The hot dog became mush in my mouth, and I swallowed it a bit at a time until my mouth stopped moving and Ricky said, “Now we’re even, all right?” Ricky freed my mouth, then smiled and shook my right hand.

Hardik’s bathroom’s got a mirror too, but over the toilet, which is weird, because I can see the faces I make while peeing. I finish up and wash myself and tuck in my shirt and perk up the collar. The school doesn’t give us uniforms or guidelines about how to dress, so I wear the collared shirts and creased pants I’m used to from my old school.

The bathroom is opposite Hardik’s sister’s room, his stepsister, not his real sister, and everything’s butter yellow and stuffed with soft animals. The pinecones Hardik collected are piled on a pink desk, the kind that has a mirror, and I enter the room and pick one up. The scales are sharp and bite when I squeeze.

Hardik’s mother’s not around when I return to the living room, and the box of arts and crafts supplies is gone too. The game’s the only thing on the kitchen table, and Hardik’s drinking from a small carton of chocolate milk.

“I think we’re done,” he says, and I answer, “What about the rules?”

“I’ll write them.”

Hardik’s mom returns to the kitchen in boots with chunky heels and a thin jacket.

“Can I give you a ride home, Nihar? I’m on my way out to pick up Lily from dance class.” Before I can speak, she says, “Lily is Hardy’s sister.”

Hardik rolls his eyes, and it gives me the crawlies, that I’m in his house, eating his food, and his mother’s calling me “honey” and talking too much. “His mom’s coming to pick him up,” Hardik says. “She’s already on her way.”

“Oh.” She sounds disappointed, like she really wanted to keep hanging out with me, or like she can tell Hardik is lying. “I guess I’ll get going then.” But she doesn’t move, and her face gives all her thoughts away.

“Mom,” Hardik says, low and snarling like a threat.

Once she leaves, I sling my backpack over my shoulder, and we leave the board game, which we still need to name, on the kitchen table. I don’t want to walk with him, but I don’t know any other way to go home, so I follow him through the backyard and across the road that circles the cemetery. The grounds look like a golf course sprayed with gravestones.

There’s no one around but us.

Hardik doesn’t seem bothered walking next to dead people, and I wouldn’t mind except I think he wants me to be scared and that’s why he made me come with him. We walk down a paved path that’s lined with trees, then the gravestones and the houses are hidden from view and so are we. The path hills up to a small gazebo, and after that there’s no more gravestones, just the grass sinking toward the fence. I’m almost home and nothing’s happened yet and maybe nothing will.

Then Hardik’s saying something about Ricky, how he’s stupid sometimes because of his dad, and then he asks, “Why’d you do it?” and I don’t know what he’s talking about, so I say, “Why’d I do what?” and he says, “Why’d you rat us out?”

I don’t know how to answer because I don’t know if he’s asking about the time he cheated on his exam or the time he and Ricky cornered me in the bathroom. I shrug, and Hardik’s got the same expression he had on when I asked him, “Aren’t those acorns?”

“Whatever,” he says, and it sounds like he’s saying, “Dothead, dothead, dothead.”

We are at the fence now and we walk along the length of it searching for an opening, but we don’t find one, so Hardik gets on all fours. I know what he wants me to do, but I don’t want to, like I’d be giving something up if I took his help, even though he’s the one on the ground like a donkey.

“Come on,” he says, and I don’t think about it, I climb up and pull myself over. The ground on the other side is thorny and something catches on my pantleg and scratches my calf.

“Quit calling me Hardik, okay?” he says, and I say, “Okay,” and then we don’t say anything else. I watch him turn and walk back to the gazebo and to the path in between the trees. It’s only when I lose sight of him as he drops down the other side of the hill that I head home.

My mother has a plate of food ready for me, but I drop off my school bag and tell her I need to visit the library before it closes. That isn’t what I planned to say, but as soon as the words are out, going to the library feels as urgent as taking a pee. She says no because soon it will be dark, but it’s only a fifteen-minute walk down the main road, and I am gone before she can stop me. Maybe I’ll get the belt for it later, but I don’t mind. The streets I pass have names like Elmhurst Avenue, Cherry Street, Pine Street, Forrest Street, and Walnut Avenue. The city is loud with the names of trees, and how did I miss that, but I still don’t know what a walnut tree looks like. Hardik probably knows. The librarian tells me the Dewey Decimal number for trees is 580. I pick a desk, pile up the books, and start reading, but I can’t concentrate on the words, I don’t want to learn the words—I want to remember the feeling of picking up the pinecones in the yellow room, crushing each one underfoot, repeating “Hardik Hardik Hardik,” and rubbing the pinecone dust with spit until the yellow carpet turned brown.

Mahak Jain’s fiction has appeared in Gulf Coast, Bellevue Literary Review, The Journey Prize Stories 28: The Best of Canada’s New Writers, and elsewhere. She also writes children’s books, most recently Bharatanatyam in Ballet Shoes, illustrated by Anu Chouhan.