At noon, the highlight of May's day had been learning that she had somehow missed the release of an entire album from her favorite band. From then on, her world had been no bigger than thoughts of getting home, locking the door to her room and listening to their discography until she fell asleep.
It had not occurred to her that her life might become substantially different in the matter of a few minutes.
Her shoulder blades rang out in pain as she was shoved against the locker bank, her light blue backpack slipping from her fingers. She had been taken by surprise by two tall girls, girls she recognized as going to the same school as her, but she couldn't even begin to fathom their names.
"Annie would like a word," one sneered at May, the scent of her breath an unusually strong combination of mint and orange. The other held May's right arm up, turning her palm upwards.
"You a rightie?" she asked. May began to have an inkling of what was going on.
"Y-yeah," she stammered out, glancing around in hopes that someone would come to her rescue. A small crowd was forming; people leaned against walls, or even just stood beside May, watching the scene unfold, eager for the results.
The girl inspecting May's hand snorted, specifically holding her thumb out. "She's never won," she announced.
"Never lost, either," some boy from the crowd commented before slinking away as the nasty gazes of the two girls turned on him.
Redoubling her efforts, May tried to squirm out of their grip just as Annie arrived. She was unmistakable; with long blue hair tied into two braids going down her back, there was never any question who or where she was. She stood in front of May, looking the girl up and down. Compared to her own developed, toned, feminine body, May looked downright mannish.
"This is who I'm to beat?" Annie asked with a British accent that May was almost certain was fake. "She's nothing! Has she ever even won?"
"Nope, we checked. She's totally clean."
Annie smirked, looking May in the eyes for the first time that afternoon. "You know how to play, right?" This question drew a round of laughter from the crowd, as if laughing at an in-joke Annie had made. The cruel twist, of course, was that May knew the punchline.
"I don't want any trouble," May said, still trying her best to free her wrist from the taller girl's iron grip.
"Of course you don't. And, when you lose, if you prove that you can be obedient, there won't be any trouble." She was very carefully handed a small device. Deceptively small, for the impact it had had on society. Made of metal, it looked like two tubular triangles connected at their point, with the long, far ends for gripping. On the top of each end was a raised five-point star pattern in a series of dots. Annie's thumb, already bearing the mark of the dotted scar, slid comfortably into place, and the raised points found their home.
"You can do this willingly, or they can make you." Annie nodded toward her goons, then leaned forward and continued in a stage whisper, "Tip from a pro? You're gonna want to go willingly." She winked and grinned, straightening her back once more.
May took a deep breath. She had no idea what to expect; nobody who hadn't played did, and those who had weren't telling. There was nothing to do but take the plunge and hope for the best. She was sure, even if she managed to break free and escape, that Annie would come after her. The azure-haired girl was not accustomed to being snubbed, and society at large had shifted itself to accommodate such personalities.
"Okay," she said, exhaling. "Okay." She looked at the device, the Bow, so called because of its design, and doubling as an acronym for its purpose: a 'Battle of Wits.' Reaching out, she curled her fingers around the thick handle. It was noticeably warm, and May wondered if that was just the nature of the machine, or an indication that it was recently-used.
"Thumb goes there," Annie said with faux-helpfulness, pointing at the dotted star pattern resting just below May's thumb.
"Thanks," May said, staring down at it. This was it. Everything she had done had been her life; from here on out, it would be someone else's. With determination, she placed her thumb on the pattern.
Immediately she felt several things at once. An electric jolt shot through her body, coupled with the stinging pain of the Bow leaving its mark for the first time. Both girls cried out at once, and May crumpled to the floor, twitching. The experience had not been what she had expected. It was not random chance, as many who had not played believed. There was a pattern in what she'd seen, and she'd just barely begun to understand it when she collapsed.
She didn't want to open her eyes. For several seconds she lay on her side, willingly blind to the world, living out her last moments as a free girl. Perhaps someone would take pity on her and crush her now, putting her out of her misery. Perhaps Annie would think her so weak and pathetic as to be unworthy of licking her toes. Hell, maybe everyone would just leave and she could lay on her side until she starved to death. Any of these had to be preferable to what she knew she had to face.
Steeling herself, May opened her eyes and lifted her head, and was immediately startled by what she saw. Her classmates stood in a ring around her, towering above and looking down - only, not nearly as far down as they should have been. Her gaze fell to the ground, scanning it, and she saw the Bow laying on its side, still just as small and unassuming as it had ever been.
And across from the Bow, shrunken, naked, and brilliantly blue, was Annie.
May was in shock. She couldn't even begin to process the situation. It was only when someone goaded her into action that she was able to think straight.
"Go on," a boy said. "Take her. You won."
She shook her head. "No. No, I... I don't want her. I didn't want to play. I don't want this." Even to herself, what she was saying sounded alien, distant. It was unheard of to give up your prize, but May emphasized, "Really, I don't want her. Someone else take her. Do whatever."
Sensing her sincerity the crowd shifted, with several people stepping forward to scoop up the little Annie. The two tall girls who had pressed May into the lockers were now nowhere to be seen, and had she not still been stunned she might have chuckled at that. Vaguely, May registered a thick, pudgy hand wrapping around a screaming Annie, lifting her up to an equally-pudgy face.
As the shrunken contender was stuffed down the front of the boy's pants, May felt a small twinge of guilt. Perhaps she should have taken Annie, if only to give her some semblance of a good life. But with that would come the responsibility of keeping the girl alive, and the unwanted attention as the girl who had enslaved Annie. She didn't want any of that, she wanted her anonymity back. There was comfort in being invisible.
Picking herself and her backpack up, May rushed out the front door of the school and headed home, entirely unconcerned about the rest of her classes. There was music to listen to.
The smell of baking threw an unexpected detour in May's beeline to her room. Heading to the kitchen, she and her mother noticed one another at the same time. Margot smiled wide at her daughter, overtly glancing at the digital clock on the oven.
"You're home!" she announced, jogging forward to embrace her progeny. May kept her thumb tucked in her palm as she raised her own hands, accepting the hug. "And so early! Did something happen?"
"No," May said, shaking her head. Then, "Yeah."
"Do you want to talk about it?" Margot asked, leading May to the raised island in the kitchen. "Was someone mean to you?"
May shook her head. "No," she repeated, before once again rethinking what she'd said. "Well, I mean, I guess so, but... it's not important now."
"Why is that?" Margot seemed to busy herself with her cooking, though only a small fraction of her attention wasn't focused on her daughter.
"Uh." God, what to say? May wondered to herself. She drummed her fingernails on the marble countertop, still keeping her thumb cocked toward her palm. Out of the corner of her eye she noticed two of her mother's tiny servants kneading a wad of dough in which the both could be easily enveloped. "I guess I, uh... I won."
"Oh?" Her mother's voice raised an octave as she beamed. "That's great! What did you..." Realization then spread across her face, and her eyes opened wide. "You... won?" May didn't miss the glance down at her thumb.
"Yeah." Reluctantly turning her hand face-up, May struggled to keep tears out of her eyes. When her mother saw the dotted star, still fresh with blood, she yelled and clapped, rushing around the island to give her daughter another hug.
"Oh, my baby won! You won!" May was rocked back and forth with the force of Margot's celebration, feeling inversely worse as her mother's mood improved. "Against whom? Where are you keeping them? Did you squash them?"
"Annie. And no, I gave her away." At that, Margot took a step back, looking her daughter in the eyes. Before she could say anything, May continued, "I don't want her. I didn't even want to play, she just... made me. I couldn't back out, so I just did it and I won and now I want everyone to forget that I did."
"But... but honey, it's great news!" Margot insisted. "You have to claim your prize!"
"I don't want a prize, mom! I just want to be left alone!"
"May York Lancrest, you will be grateful for the gift you have been given. Think about the poor girl you beat, what did you say her name was?"
"Annie. Annie Ainsley."
Margot's mouth hung open, readied to continue her speech but now frozen in stunned silence. "Ainsley?" she repeated. "As in..."
"As in the daughter of Tom Ainsley, yeah," May muttered, feeling even worse. "I didn't want to-"
"Oh, this is rich!" Margot cackled, dancing back to the oven to turn it off just before the timer sounded. "Your father is going to have a field day when he hears about this." Withdrawing a large metal sheet from the oven, she set the tray of cookies down on the counter, just beside the kneading slaves. Margot didn't even glance in their direction. "But you need that girl. You've got to get her back."
"Mom, I... I can't. Even if I wanted to, someone else took her. I just said 'go nuts' and then she was gone."
Standing on her tip-toes, Margot reached high overhead. "Well then..." she began, stretching out the last syllable as she pulled down something from above a kitchen drawer. "You go get her back." Extending her hand, Margot offered a red stylized Bow to her daughter, whose eyes widened.
"No! I don't want to do that again! I... I don't even know how I won the first time! It didn't make any sense!"
The matron of the house chuckled, walking to her daughter's side and pressing it into her denim jeans. "Honey, that's the big secret: none of us know how the damn things work. You see that wall, the infinite design, and you just get a glimpse of it before it vanishes, and then the bitch on the other end is resized to fit her new role in life. So you go back to school - tomorrow," she added as an afterthought, glancing at the clock. "And you find who took her, and you make them give her back. Bonus points if you bring home two little prizes." Margot winked at her daughter.
"Mom, this is-"
"Ah-ah!" Margot said, holding a finger to her daughter's lips. "I won't take no for an answer. You get the Ainsley girl back. That is the most important thing in your life right now, do you understand me?"
"Augh!" May screamed, storming off to her room. The white, sparsely-decorated walls of her room did little to assuage her worries. Bowplay was for other people, people who needed to make their mark on the world and be recognized for how great they were, even if it was with some stupid device that apparently nobody even understood. If she was going to gain recognition, she wanted it fair, she wanted it from something she'd worked for and accomplished, not a victory from something that looked like a child's toy.
"Hey Jeeves," she said, throwing her backpack against the side of her bed. The miniature british man who stood on her desk just bowed. He hadn't always been Jeeves, but when he'd been given to her as a present on her eighth birthday, she'd given him the first (and only) British name she knew. All these years later and it may as well have been his name from birth.
"Are you upset, madam?" Jeeves asked, and May glanced down at him. The whole left side of his face was still a splotchy purple from where she'd flicked him after he'd spilled a bottle of nail polish a week or two back. If it was still there in another few weeks, she thought, she might have to get him checked out.
"'Course I'm upset," she said in a huff, falling onto her bed. "I won today. With a Bow."
"Congratulations, Madam." Though he was well-trained and had long been shrunken, May could still hear the pang of humiliation in his voice in reference to a Bow. "Surely this is cause for celebration?"
"I didn't want to win," she insisted. "It didn't even feel good, after. Seeing Annie there on the floor in a pile of her own crumpled clothes... I've heard it feels good to win. To dominate your opponent. But I didn't get that. She looked so scared, and I felt sick, like I'd done something wrong. And now everyone is congratulating me, telling me that I've done this great thing, and..." She trailed off, staying silent for a long time. "I don't know," she finally added.
Jeeves stared at her feet, as he'd been trained. "Madam, you are aware that I am a Loser, correct?" He said, hardly even tripping over the word anymore.
"Well, duh." May rolled her eyes. "So?"
"So, perhaps you should explore the dissonance between your feelings towards the Annie girl and myself, not to mention the countless other servants of this household."
With a wave of her hand, May dismissed the line of thinking. "Nah, that's different. You guys didn't lose to me, and besides, I don't really care about you guys. I knew Annie before I beat her. I mean, we weren't close or anything, but I still knew her. I never thought I'd be looking down on her like that."
Jeeves remained silent for the next few minutes, until May got a text that prompted her to rise and leave the room, flicking the light off before she closed the door. It was a point of pride of his that, in the many years he had served her, May had never seen his frequent sobbing.