Ye Gods. Not another one.
I wanted to take her phone and chuck it into the river next to us. I wanted it so badly my fingers twitched. The desire must have reached my face, as her selfie smile dropped and a frown was aimed in my direction.
“What?” The word came out flat. Lifeless. Her face only animated for that camera.
“Nothing.” I sighed. My phone beeped, and I retrieved it from my pocket.
‘Hannah posted a new picture!’ A social media blurb blurbled. I swiped it away with an agitated finger, but managed to open it instead of dismiss it.
There she was, flowing blonde hair and glittering blue eyes, in all her pixelated glory. ‘Lakeside with the babe!’ the title of the picture.
“It’s a river.”
“This is a river, not a lake.”
A cloud passed over her face, dulling her features. “Whatever.”
The dismissal of the proper terminology of a body of water vexed me.
“It’s clearly a river behind you in the picture. People are going to think you’re stupid.”
Her eyes narrowed – the effervescent blue in the photo now a muted gray.
“I’m tired,” she proclaimed, effectively ending the argument. She flopped down on the blanket I had dragged along and closed her eyes.
I took a hard look at her face; skin that seemed pink and fresh two weeks ago when we started dating now looked ashy and worn. Her smooth, corn-silk hair now a brittle yellow.
Slipping the phone from her hand, I entered the passcode; the birthday of some tedious pop singer, and scrolled through the photos.
Pictures of cats, photos of a pizza we ate last week, and a host of images that were a testament to her youth and beauty. I looked at the last, comparing it to the girl before me.
I switched over to the camera, and took a shot. The sleeping girl on the phone was a vision, but the sleeping girl on the ground took on a harder look. I took another. Lines formed around her mouth, and her eyes sunk behind once perfect eyelids. I snapped away, witnessing the corruption of youth with every shot. The woman in the pictures becoming ever more lovely, the figure before me becoming a withered husk. I raised the phone to snap the last photo. Something had taken over; I knew the last picture would be the end of her, and I couldn’t stop. Her head lifted lethargically and her eyes creaked open. With a rasping, wheezing breath, her last words:
“Get. My. Good. Side.” The effort of speech was too much. She lay prone on the blanket once more.
My thumb found the button of its own accord – click.
The picture in front of me was of a goddess – a more perfect creature had never walked the earth. The figure on the blanket became dust. Strands of grayed hair wafted away.
The phone hardly made a sound as the river claimed it.
Cherry poked the gun barrel in Tony’s ear.
“Move,” Cherry snapped, “and no more Tony.”
He opened his eyes. “You smell like gin.”
“Put down the gun.”
“No!” Cherry sneered.
Tony grabbed at the barrel, then heard the click of the hammer.
“Okay,” Tony said and let go.
Cherry stepped away and switched on the bedside lamp.
Tony squinted. “You’re getting ballsy.”
“Here,” she said, “handcuff yourself around the headboard spindles…like you used to make me.”
“Kitten, this isn’t like you—”
Cherry jabbed the gun at his face. “Put’m on.”
Tony clicked the handcuffs. “Now what?”
“You gotta stop…or else.”
Tony laughed. “Or else what?”
“You prick! Because of you, I can’t look’m in the face.”
“Kitten, told you not to testify at the grand jury. Now the Feds got me up for racketeering. Corruption, too.”
“No more. No more sending my old selfies to my parents.”
“Got plenty more,” said Tony. “Just tell the Feds you made a mistake.” He gave her a half-smile. “Come on. Move back. It’ll be like old times.”
“I’d lick the toilets in your crummy pizza shops first.”
Tony smirked. “Still got a real nice selfie. Remember doing the dog?”
Her face contorted. “You mother! You got me high when we took that.” She pulled the trigger.
Cherry grinned. “No bullets,” and threw down the gun.
Tony exhaled, then winked. “Come on baby. I missed you.”
“Yeah. Really did. Nobody cleans the bathroom and does the laundry like you.”
Cherry’s face reddened. She yanked off his bed sheets and eyed the bulge in Tony’s boxers. “You still got that sharp butcher’s knife?”
She ran from the room.
Tony yelled, “I’ll kill you.”
Cherry turned on the kitchen light. She sniffed, then covered her nose. Food-crusted dishes and crushed beer cans littered the counters. So did half-empty takeout containers. Her eyebrows raised, and her mouth curved into a smile.
After a few minutes, she strolled into Tony’s bedroom empty handed.
“Knew you were gutless,” Tony grinned. “Now let me go.”
Cherry smiled. “After.”
She lifted her skirt and straddled him.
“Oh! So you want to play.”
Cherry clamped Tony’s head with her hands and kissed him long and twirled her tongue deep into his mouth. She pulled back, inhaled then waited.
Tony’s eyes narrowed. His lips swelled. His tongue curled in his mouth. Tony gasped for air. He yanked at the handcuffs and motioned to his side table.
Cherry rolled off Tony. “I can’t understand you. Cat got your tongue, Baby?” She straightened her skirt. “What’s that? You asking if I ate shellfish? You wanna know if I ate that crab cake from the carryout box in my car?” Cherry slid a fingernail between her teeth. “Maybe.” She licked a piece of crab from her finger.
After Tony stopped breathing, Cherry removed the handcuffs and pocketed his EpiPen from the side table. She sneered. “No more Tony.”
“What’s the first thing you’re going to do?”
The kid is new. It’s been two days.
“I can’t wait to drive again, you know?” He says. “I miss driving. That freedom. You know?”
He does push-ups every hour. Four reps of 25. I’m not sure if that’s impressive or not. I’m not sure if he’s trying to impress me.
“I’ve got a Mustang,” he says. “’82. 3.3 inline 6 cylinder. GT. My brother has it. For now.”
He’s pacing back and forth across the cell. Sometimes he swings his arms wide. He’s taller than me and takes up a lot of space when his wingspan is full.
“Used to take it to local shows, with my dad. Got a lot of attention. Won a few.”
He’s got his sleeves rolled up to the elbow and his forearms are covered in tattoos. Fresh colour, new ink. I can’t quite make them out, but I think I see a koi fish. Maybe a tiger. They blur as he swings, back and forth.
“It was his car. Gave it to me for my 18th birthday.”
He was impressed with the gym facilities. Complained about the TV in the communal room, but only to me. I’ve seen him eat. He’s curious, but polite. He looks like he’s waiting for someone to take his rice pudding. He looks like he would be happy not to put up a fight.
“I drove it here. With my mom and my brother. Parked it out front. Took a selfie. Got to try to keep it light, you know?”
The very first night he shook my hand, told me his name and said it was armed robbery, 18 months. He would’ve shared the details, if I’d asked. I wondered if he’d googled ‘how to introduce yourself’.
“They’re upset. We tried to fight it. My lawyer was convinced they’d do an appeal. Took ages. Corruption and stuff. The system, a joke. But you already know that, I don’t need to tell you.”
He’s moving his head from side to side, stretching his neck. I try to imagine him in a hoodie, with his hands in his pockets, storming off the sidewalk towards fluorescent lights. Shouting something, shocked faces: is this really happening right now?
“Won’t be too bad though. Get some time to study, maybe finish my diploma. Silver lining, my mom said that. They said something about early parole if I can do it, I don’t know if they’ll follow through. Always liked history, though. Maybe I’ll finish it.”
He catches my eye, over the top of my book. He stops pacing, stretches, wanders towards the window.
“Sorry, shouldn’t pace. Bad habit. Drive yourself crazy in here. Walls closing in an stuff. Better to keep busy, keep your mind busy,” he nods towards the books on the desk. “Reading.”
“Pizza,” I say. “When I get out. First thing I’ll do. Order a pizza.”
The ’shrooms kick in as I sit on the edge of the tub talking to Trish. I know her face keeps changing because I’m high, but then I forget and it freaks me out.
She looks like a monster. Her mouth moves, but instead of words, worms come out. I tell her to stop it, but she doesn’t, so I go back out to the party to get away from her.
In the living room, a crowd jumps around to the pulse of colored lights. The song is the same one that played on Don’s car stereo when we were out in the Mitchell’s cow pasture earlier. The music pushes against my face and tries to choke me, so I hurry through it to the kitchen.
I need something to get rid of the nasty taste in my mouth. Trish and Dan told me ’shrooms taste like regular mushrooms, but that’s a lie. They taste like dirt and Styrofoam.
There’s pizza on the counter, so I grab a slice, get a beer, and take them outside. I sit on the porch step with my beer beside me and use my knees as a plate. Pizza grease stains my tights, directly above the grass stains on my knees, but I don’t care. I’m in trouble anyway.
My parents found pot in my jewelry box. They grounded me for the whole summer and, starting tonight, we’re supposed to see our pastor for counseling twice a week. They’ve been angry since my grades dropped and I started hanging out with ‘Godless kids’. They don’t know ‘what’s gotten into me’.
Nothing yet, but I’m working up to it.
My phone buzzes. I pull it out of the pocket of my jeans skirt and see my mother’s text: Where are you?
I tap the camera icon, take a selfie with the beer at my mouth, and hit send. When the phone rings, I reject the call, but I read the text that follows: Melissa Ann, come home immediately.
It’s too hard to text. The touch pad keeps licking my fingers with its sandpaper tongue, so I use the voice recognition software.
“The grass stains on my tights won’t come clean. I think you’ll have to throw them out. Dirty things don’t belong in your house, do they?”
Fireflies switch on and off around me. Their lights leave trails and I lose myself in the messages they spell: SLUT. WHORE. TRAMP.
Minutes, maybe hours, later I finish my text. “When you discovered John was stained, you threw him out. In four years, when I’m an adult, you can throw me out, too. By then I’ll have caused enough scandal it should eclipse the fact you have a gay son. Then you and Dad can hold your heads up in church, proud you purged your house of all its corruption.”
I hit send.
The phone rings. I toss it into the grass, gulp my beer, then go back inside to look for Dan.
First day of junior high, and they’ve got no record of me. I’ve been in this district since I was nine, but today I don’t exist. (Did your mom register you? Oh, foster mom? What’s her number? What about your caseworker? For heaven’s sake. Not your fault. Wait here.)
It’s supposed to hit 103 degrees today. My legs are freezing because I’m under a vent but sweat is beading up under my hair where the sun shines on me.
Sometimes I think my identity is like sweat. It’s in me, what I smell like and how I react when I’m upset. It’s what the world turns into as it filters through my skin. But it’s not something I can hand over and say, “Here, see? This is who I am.”
I do hand over my city library card, because that’s the kind of ID that’s helpful. Anything with numbers is good. Soon I’ll have a school ID. That’s better than sweat, too.
This morning I passed behind two girls snapping a selfie. I’m probably in their picture. It’s gonna be really sad if that’s the most interaction I have today. There are kids here I know. Maybe if I ask they’ll let me wander around and find some of them.
Maybe I’ll just slip out…
It feels weird to be in the empty hallways, but I won’t get in serious trouble on the first day. I’m still “transitioning to the independence and responsibility of junior high.” Obviously.
I trail my hand over the empty red lockers outside the cafeteria. Smells like there’ll be pizza for lunch today. One locker has an extra splotch of paint on it. I heard a rumor that they won’t let anybody use lockers this year because of drug problems. Or maybe it was gun problems.
Maybe they’re already full of blank paper and extra textbooks and toilet paper. Or teachers’ drugs. Academic corruption is a thing, apparently.
I run my finger down a crack between two lockers. I don’t know why, but I really want to know if these are empty or not. Is one of them waiting to be assigned to me? Am I surrounded by clean, empty spaces, with unique combinations? Or have they all been keyed with a master code for the janitors to store stuff in?
I bet they have old air in them. If you opened them up, they’d smell like 2015. The inside might still be hot from the summer months with no AC.
“There you are, Ivy. We’ve put together a schedule for you.”
“Can you open these?” I blurt. “Do they all have the same combination?”
She eyed me. “I have a key.”
“Can I see the inside? Please?”
She shrugged and unlocked one. “You’ll get one next week.”
I take a deep breath of the warm, metallic air – empty and waiting – and slowly let it out my nose. “Thanks.”
A locker combination – three more numbers I can claim as mine.