Summer begins as a battlefield. Rogue preteens pummel one another with rubber warballs, the noxious fumes of the unwashed pubescent a toxic gas cloud in a gym without windows. A clump of camp counselors gossips in the middle of the basketball courts like a tumorous congregation of amoebae. Sputtering. Whispering. Wide, toothy smiles and slaps on the back that echo off the pipes along the ceiling.
The girl feigns interest in several campers playing a heated game of tag. Pete, the camp administrator, breaks off from the clump. He examines the girl. He studies her. The girl knows she is being studied. She smiles. Pete assigns her as a counselor to the fifth grade group. She meets the other counselors. Violet, five foot with snake dreads, a pierced lower lip, and fingernails sharp enough to cause significant puncture wounds. Joey, blazing on something strong that he doesn’t care to share with the rest. And Caleb, indecipherable. Uneven buzz cut. Fancy Rolex watch. Handsome green eyes. Small, infantile teeth. The kids are encouraged to jog around the asphalt track surrounding the field. Everything smells like sunscreen and grass trimmings. Violet approaches the girl.
“Go get the soccer balls from the closet,” Violet says.
The girl can hear Violet but suddenly she can’t see her. Her head has drifted up to the sky, settling in a groove between two cumulus clouds.
“Not the small ones. The large ones.”
A breeze pushes the clouds toward the west. And the girl’s head has no choice but to go along for the ride.
Although the girl’s vision is obscured by the vapor, she knows she’s looking into her house. Her house is the yellow one on the corner, the one with the morning glories climbing the trellis, a nice, quiet home tucked into the heart of West LA.
“Hey! Are you listening to me?”
A house where the brass knobs rip themselves from the doors and hide under the welcome mat, where the windows lock themselves during the day. A house where her mother is dying. A house that is nearly dead.
“I said, are you listening to me?”
“ . . . Yeah,” the girl says. “Soccer balls. Large ones, not small ones.”
“You know, I’m not your momma, and I’m not gonna coddle you. This is real life. This is a job,” Violet says.
The girl blinks big blue eyes. She’s back on the field. The fifth grade group divides into two teams for a scavenger hunt. They both want to be the Wizards. A vicious argument ensues (tears, name-calling, ponytail-mangling) until there is a gasp, a silence like breath being held underwater. The group peels apart to reveal a gangly boy in a T-shirt and sneakers. The boy glances around, his eyes wide. He touches his face. His chin has sprouted a long, wispy beard.
The boy’s team cheers. They will certainly get to be the Wizards. Nobody but the girl notices as the boy frowns. He raises his hand to his face again and feels the wrinkles now pinching at the corners of his eyes.
Several weeks later. The girl hikes through Malibu Canyon with her sister. They don’t talk at all. When they get to the place where the stream is, the girl’s sister turns to the girl and says, “Maybe I should just start doing drugs.”
The girl lowers herself onto the mossy rocks and takes a swig from her water bottle. Her neck is getting sunburned. “You already take drugs. Pharmaceuticals. The best.”
“But there’s a difference between taking drugs and doing drugs. I think I should start doing drugs.”
The girl’s sister is fourteen but when the girl looks at her, she seems small again. Her hair is in pigtails and she can still fit into the wooden wagon that’s rotting in the garage. She’s infatuated with Chinese jump rope and bubble gum is her favorite color.
“Well, don’t do meth or heroine. Cocaine’s probably not a good idea either,” the girl says.
The trees canopy over them. The girl’s sister sprawls out, dips her hand into the brackish water and then wipes it on her khaki shorts. “I was thinking maybe E. I know it’s expensive but it seems, you know, fun.” The sister raises her fingers in the air and watches the last few droplets of water dissipate.
A couple of hikers announce their arrival by kicking up a cloud of sand and gravel. They are an old woman with rotund breasts and an old man with too much zinc oxide on his nose. The hikers gaze into each other’s eyes, the kind of look that says they will most likely begin having explosive sex within the next few minutes.
The sister continues. “Do you think anyone’s ever committed suicide using E? I mean, you always hear about the person who downed a whole bottle of like Xanax or that sort of thing, but why doesn’t anyone ever use E? At least then you’d be really fucking happy right before you die.”
“We should leave now,” the girl says upon noticing the hikers, clipping her water bottle to her backpack. Then—“What would Mom think if she heard you talking like that?”
The girl’s sister looks down at her feet, embarrassed. Her pale cheeks radiate heat. The heat travels upward until several moments later her blonde hair erupts into flames, flames the color of overripe mangos licking at the sides of her head. Seconds after, the flames diminish and her hair is dull and gray from the ashes.
“You coming or what?” the girl says. The girl’s sister hesitates. When she looks back over her shoulder, she see that the old people are now dead, their clothes burned to a crisp.
“How do you think Violet became such a tool?” Caleb asks the girl one day. He rips apart his peanut butter sandwich. A hot day in July. The world is evaporating around them.
“Genetics. You?” the girl asks.
“Shit childhood. That’s how it always happens. Best college?”
“I don’t know, somewhere back East?”
“UCLA. Cheap. Practical. Much better weather. Are you wearing lipstick?”
“What do you think?”
“I think you are.”
“Maybe it’s just colored chapstick.” The girl grins.
“How old are you?” Caleb asks.
“Eighteen. What about you?”
The girl prods him in the belly. “And what do you believe in, Caleb?”
“Self-fulfilling prophecies,” Caleb says. He finishes off his sandwich. Crumples up his brown paper bag. Tosses it into the trash.
The next day the girl gets lunch with Alex in Downtown LA. She wears her sweaty gym clothes from camp. Alex is dressed in a pinstriped suit. His sunglasses are Versace. The girl wants to trim his blonde highlights with garden hedges. She gets it. He’s gay now.
The girl sits with Alex on the patio. The sky is cloudy but the air is warm, humid like it’s
about to rain. “I am so not going to miss anything about high school,” Alex says through a mouthful
of spinach. “Anne Creston’s pizza face. The details of Mrs. Thespo’s unlubricated sex life. My ninth
grade unibrow? Uh-uh, nothing could ever be as bad as high school. College is gonna be the best,
“Yeah“ . . . ” the girl says. She pushes the gray chicken breast to the edge of her plate. A bloodswelled vein runs down the center. The girl realizes she will never be able to eat chicken again. “How was the sandwich?”
“Um, delicious,” Alex says. “And the chicken?”
“I feel like my world is breaking apart,” the girl says. Alex doesn’t answer. The girl gazes out through the window. She notices a fissure slowly snaking up the side of the Walt Disney Concert Hall. The roof of the Downtown Public Library catches fire, portions of the upper floors caving in. Power lines unravel and sizzle along Grand Avenue. Car alarms howl into the wind. An old man lays sprawled beneath a fichus tree that has pinned him to the sidewalk.
“What’s up?” Alex replies.
The old man reaches for his metal walker. The leg of the walker touches the tip of a power line. The old man writhes for a moment, almost as if he’s dancing. Alex takes another bite of his sandwich.
An entire month of camp has passed. Everything has fallen into a routine, although it still feels unfamiliar to the girl. Today she walks back to the gym with a camper named Emma. Emma has just turned eight years old. She wears a pink bow in her long, glossy hair, and will grow up to be beautiful, flirtatious, and kind of a slut. Emma holds onto the girl’s right hand and Joey’s left. Joey gazes off into the distance. His expression says he’s seeing something that the girl cannot.
“Caleb likes you, you know,” Emma says.
“No, he doesn’t,” the girl responds.
“Yeah he totally does,” Emma says, and she flips back her hair.
“What are you talking about?”
“He always guards you during soccer. And you always jump on each other.”
“So you like him too.”
The girl feels herself flushing. She tries to stop. She’s afraid she’ll ignite Emma’s cute pink bow, causing Emma to have to chop off the majority of her hair while styling the rest into a postpunk updo. “No, I don’t,” the girl says.
Emma lowers her voice to a whisper. “Uh-huh. You and Caleb, sitting in a tree, K-I-SS-I-NG. First comes love, then comes marriage, then come mutants in a baby carriage!”
“Has anyone ever told you you’re growing up too fast?” the girl responds.
Caleb approaches carrying a box filled with Otter Pops. The girl grabs several and stuffs them into her mouth to keep from overheating. Emma smiles at the girl, a broad smile. One baby tooth falls out, then another. Blood trickles down over her bottom lip as several adult molars push through her gums.
“Hey,” Caleb says. He takes the girl’s hand in his. The molecules rearrange so that they merge with one another.
Back at the house, the girl’s father calls to her from the top of the stairs. Bring up a glass of ice cubes for your mother. She has a fever, she’s burning up. And turn on the fan. The living room smells like cinders and so does the hallway. The girl’s father leaves all the windows open to try to create a cross-breeze. It doesn’t do much. The girl’s mother lies curled in the fetal position, enveloped by blankets and cotton pillows. No goose feathers. She’s allergic. Not that it really matters anymore. Her toes have already been ground away into a fine charcoal dust, the nails, the skin, the flesh, the bone, all of it a grey dust that’s blown away by the wind. Soon her feet will disintegrate and the skin on her shins will dry into grit. Her thighs will dissolve into ash that gathers on the sheets and quilt. Pieces of her have been dying for years: pieces of her legs, her hands, her face. She sleeps and snores and grunts on the morphine, her skin still discolored from the radiation and chemotherapy.
The girl opens the door, sets the glass of ice cubes on the nightstand and sits down on the bed. The light is thick in the late afternoon. The girl puts her hand on her mother. She thinks about all the lies she used to tell when everything was fine, back in middle school and the beginning of high school, to garner sympathy, so that maybe somebody would care about her, pay attention . . . the girl had tried to take them back. She had done everything she could. But the lies had already caught in the breeze, mutating and multiplying until they could no longer be avoided.
“He’s not going to be able to pee in our backyard anymore,” the girl’s sister sighs. They sit cross-legged on the grass. The girl’s sister passes a joint. Her eyes sizzle through the haze.
“Who?” the girl asks.
“Jonah,” the girl’s sister replies.
“Jonah pees in our backyard?”
“Yeah, in the bushes, when he’s drunk.”
The girl’s sister pauses. “But I don’t want him to pee on her. Once we scatter—”
“Yeah, because I figured—”
“Yeah“ . . . ”
“I mean, it just seems like the logical—”
“Yeah. She always liked the roses best.”
“Sure,” the girl says. The sun cracks over them in the sky, a single burst of pink. The embers sink into the west as the sisters wait for the inevitable darkness.
Alex asked the girl three months ago. It was the end of their senior year. They were driving home from school. The girl shifted onto the 10. Alex opened a window so that his mess of kid curls was flopping around in the wind. Just as the girl was trying to merge into traffic, Alex tapped her on the shoulder and said, “I have something I kind of wanted to talk to you about. Since, you know, we’ve been friends for so long.”
A black Lexus cut the girl off, an older woman who looked like a corpse. The girl gave her the finger. “Yeah, of course, you can tell me anything.”
Fat raindrops began to fall from the sky. Alex cranked up the window. The storm was unusually intense for March. “Well, I was thinking that maybe we could go to prom together,” Alex said.
The girl slammed the brakes as a school bus filled with screaming children swerved in front of her. Their demon faces lingered in the exhaust fumes as the bus tumbled through the cinderblock guard wall, rolling down the ivy-covered slope by the side of the freeway and collapsing in a smoldering wreckage of smoke and human flesh. The girl couldn’t breathe. One of the dying children looked like somebody the girl used to know.
“Sure,” the girl eventually said, her lips tinged slightly blue. “That sounds good.”
On prom night the cheesecake was actually molding. Two ceiling tiles landed on students. The light in the photograph made the girl look like a spoiled tomato. Alex looked like petrified stone. But there was a moment, a moment in the hotel room when Sam’s tongue was literally inside of Jessica’s throat and Gus and Cathy had disappeared under the bed and Pat and Molly may as well have been having sex, they were that close, and then there were Freddy and Lola, and Steve and the other Jessica, and the girl was cold and the bathroom lights were yellow and saturated through the doorway and Alex was rubbing the goose bumps on her shoulder, up and down with his long fingers. The girl could have turned her head. She could have leaned into him. She wondered sometimes what would’ve happen if she had, if Alex had been her first kiss. Sometimes the girl wondered if“ . . . then maybe everything could’ve turned out differently.
The first night of August. Summer is almost over. The girl can feel Caleb’s naked breath against her neck. She hears the patter of rain flooding the drainpipe, a thunderstorm. The rain is so heavy that it blocks out the streetlights. Caleb reaches up, pulls the blinds closed. They’re lying parallel on the couch, their heads propped up against the cushions. An old movie plays on mute, two British women who have decided to go boating. The girl likes the movie until one of the women strangles the other and throws her into the harbor.
“How come you don’t have a boyfriend?” Caleb asks. The girl studies his lips. Violet says he looks like a platypus. It’s kind of true. But in an endearing way. Stubbly. Cute.
“How come you don’t have a girlfriend?” the girl asks.
“Maybe I’m a polygamist,” Caleb says. He flips out the lights. No matter how hard she tries, the girl can’t see Caleb anymore, even when her eyes adjust. Caleb is just blue jeans and a T-shirt with a face that’s been smudged like a Monet painting. It’s nice.
Two hours later, the girl is searching for a pearl earring between the couch cushions. Her stomach clenches and she feels nauseous. The earrings used to be her mother’s. Caleb gets up, wipes his lips, stretches like a bear and pulls on his underwear, charcoal grey boxer briefs singed around the edges by the heat of his body. He lumbers over toward the couch, like he’s going to help, but pauses, scratches at his wrist. The girl expects him to stop but he keeps itching and digging in with his long nails.
“Caleb, just help me find my earring, all right?” the girl says. Caleb doesn’t hear her. His eyes squinch up and the bump on his wrist becomes more and more inflamed. He groans. His nails carve at the skin. His forehead is covered with blotches of sweat. His thumbnail slices through the flesh as he bites his lip and grinds his teeth until suddenly he peels away the skin to reveal a cast-iron timepiece embedded in his wrist, a timepiece etched into the shape of a skull. Caleb lets out a satisfied sigh.
“You said an earring, right?” Caleb asks. He plunges under the couch cushions. His hand emerges. He brushes away the lint. A diamond earring, maybe cubic zirconium. Caleb places the earring in the girl’s palm.
Camp is deteriorating, imploding on itself, and the girl can’t help but feel somewhat responsible. Sewage water leaks from a spigot off the side of the gym, the grass has crinkled and died in the wind, and last week one of the basketball hoops tipped over on its own volition and decapitated Emma. Pete snorts cocaine off the sinks in the boys’ bathroom. Joey never returned from the Stop and Shop with the crushed ice. And Violet has developed a cultish following: snarling, sweat-drenched fourth graders roam the field in malignant herds. They corner the girl in the parking lot, circle around her while jabbing the air with spears fashioned from hockey sticks, their prepubescent voices chanting in some strange, ancient language that reverberates in the afternoon breeze. The parents don’t even bother coming back anymore. Everyone for themselves.
The girl doesn’t know where Caleb went. She conjures his image in her mind, his grizzly beard, his musky cologne. But then one of the campers stabs her in the shoulder and she cries out and sinks her knees into the gravel. She tries to get the image back, tries to put it back into her head. But it makes no difference. The image is dying. The image is dead.
Caleb and the girl sit on the couch. The timepiece watches them from the mantel. Caleb has cleaned off the blood and sinews so that it gleams in the moonlight.
Caleb turns to face the girl. “Look, where is this even going?” he says.
“You know what I mean—”
“But we have—”
“Because I’m no good at the long-distance thing and with you going away to college on the East Coast—”
“And things just went way too fast the other night, I’m more of a commitment kind of guy.”
“But Caleb, I love—”
“So if I have the chance to have a commitment with someone who’s not leaving, you know?”
“Is there another girl?”
“There’s another girl, isn’t there?”
Silence. They wait in unmoving, skeletal poses and the temperature in the living room drops until the girl’s breath comes out in hazy puffs. She can see what Violet was talking about now. She can see the prehistoric nature of Caleb’s platypus smile, the brown rot of his fossilized teeth.
“Are you leaving?” Caleb asks as the girl gathers her things, her purse, her sweater, the sandals that she pries up from the icy threads of the carpet. She pretends not to hear him. Gets up from the couch. Turns the doorknob.
“Wait,” he says, “I have something for you.” Caleb vanishes into the bedroom. He rummages through the drawers, the closet. The girl’s hand remains on the knob, holding her breath tight inside herself. Finally Caleb comes out with an envelope and gives it to the girl. There’s a crinkled paycheck inside for 72 dollars and 63 cents.
“You left early on Friday and I told Pete I might bump into you over the weekend. Also, Pete said you should get there around eight on Monday morning to set up the cones for Capture the Flag and that you’ll probably have to stay late to break down the soccer goals afterward.”
The girl stands there for a moment, blinks. A digital clock sits on the mantel. The temperature of the room is neither cold nor hot. And the moon outside is normal, average—yellow, round, drifting in and out from behind the clouds. And the girl realizes that this must be what Caleb sees. This must be what everybody else sees but her.
“Emily?” Caleb asks. The girl doesn’t react. Caleb reaches out to put an awkward hand on her shoulder. “Emily, are you okay?”
Emily slides away at hearing her name again. And suddenly she begins to cry, begins to cry for the first time in months.
Summer is ending. The girl lowers herself onto the front lawn and leans her knees up against her chest. She takes her knees in a big bear hug. She doesn’t know what else to do with herself. The grass around her is long like straw, dead in the last of the summer breeze. Her bare toes can feel the breeze on top of them. She tucks them underneath the dirt.
The sky is orange as if the sun is setting, even though it’s around midday. The streets are empty and the fichus trees burn silently. The flames climb down the trunks and then the grass begins to smolder. The breeze picks up. Grey ash swirls in the afternoon air. The ash sticks to the girl’s hair, to her eyelashes. But the girl doesn’t notice. Instead, she’s looking up at her house, through a small, dusty window on the second story wreathed with bougainvillea. She sees a silhouette that must be her mother, perched in a cocoon of quilts and blankets, and her father’s silhouette on the edge of the mattress, scalpel in hand, a surgeon’s mask over his mouth. The girl’s own hands are shaking but her father’s are perfectly steady. He slices away the last withered remains of the mother’s left arm, carefully carving slivers of desiccated flesh and placing each piece into a plastic basin on the nightstand. The girl can’t distinguish the details of her father’s face through the glass but she sees him put down the scalpel, look into the mother’s eyes. He wipes away a smudge of soot from the smooth dome of the mother’s forehead. He kisses her again and again.
And then the girl is in a memory, a bright sunny day on Pacific Coast Highway. The palm trees are swaying in the breeze and the roof of her father’s convertible is pulled all the way down. Her mother drives, usually it’s her father but today it’s her mother, her cheeks pink, sunburned from the beach. Her hair is so long, long black hair that flies in her face, beautiful long silky hair that will be shaved off the next day. Her father sits in the passenger seat, his hair wet and messy from the ocean, a pair of sunglasses propped on his nose, and he’s drumming away on the dashboard as the girl’s mother sings, first loudly and then softly, only to herself. The girl and her sister are sitting in the back, wrapped in towels and drinking strawberry lemonade. And their lips are lined with salt and sand, salt and sand and sugar from the lemonade until they lick away the very last of it.
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