She passed the bowl and scrolled through her phone before settling on Eminem. “You aren’t mad?” I said.
“Not at you.”
I could feel the girl I cheated with, Amy Blake, in the truck, imagined her
crouched behind the headrest, haunting us with a judgemental stare. I wasn’t over her. She was brainy, belonged to clubs like Latin and Physics. Blond, she wore tiny fishbone braids tight at her temples, had a tattoo of an Osprey with bloodtipped wings. Her fraternal twin served a sentence in juvie for something small, selling pot. She said, “It’s hard when your best friend is missing,” Amy had said. Lately, I’d been thinking how important it was to get close to someone. Still, Amy shouldn’t have tried to get close to a cheater. I had spilled her secrets to Zoe and felt like shit about it. I lit the bowl.
“We’re frenemies now,” said Zoe.
Zoe had smashed my Pathfinder window with a yardpaver after she got the snapchatted dickpic from Amy. I had it coming. Friends at school said Zoe was abusive. But, I’d recently had an epiphany, while debeaking chickens, clipping them cold because Dad wouldn’t pay for electric cauterizing. While I was forced to sit on that stool, Dad cursed his debts and low subsidies. I listened to his speeches about being fair, being “rocksolid” loyal. When they deserve it, I thought, and began to set down the hens without clipping them.
Zoe put her foot on my chest and gently pushed, forcing my head against the glass. “You ruined my whole senior year, buddy.” She reached over for the Gatorade, because the Pathfinder was now sauna hot. “And, so did that cherub-faced bitch. You make me lose faith in the whole human race. I’m not exaggerating.”
No. She never exaggerated. Zoe felt if people bothered to argue, it always graduated to physical consequences. For Zoe, words bloated when they hit daylight or Twitter. She was sensitive to being called rich. “People say it when they mean loser,” she said. She threatened to kill herself when someone wrote CLUELESS on her locker. Most of my friends were on the disintegrating end of middle class and moved in tight groups. The mass of so many strained faces was more intense than Brick or Elephant or Heathers.
“We can still have a good time senior year,” I said.
“Maybe. You’d have to make it right.”
“Amy’s not out to get you. It was just a stupid mistake,” I said.
“Just know. If someone’s against me, like she is, I wish the worst on them,” said Zoe. “I think of their deepest fear, and wish it so hard my head aches. Like when Coach Janice outed me about being in therapy, I wished a miscarriage on her.”
“Jesus Christ. Not everyone is out to get you. Sometimes they’re just doing their job. You don’t have to think that dark shit. It’s not good for you.” It disgusted me, and started that push and pull in my brain, the stuff of insomnia.
“It’s just wishes.” Zoe looked surprised. “It’s private.”
“Zoe,” I said. “Some people deserve judgment and some don’t. You have to come up with a personal code. Be judicious, for fucksake.” It felt wise to give her advice, but also pompous.
Zoe snuggled into me, and I thought it would be okay. She swung her arm around and punched my chest. I could feel a pineconesized bruise blooming on my sternum.
When I was a kid, I stuck Highglo solar system decals to the ceiling and a S tar Wars poster on the office wall. It hadn’t been Dad’s farm for years, but no one got rid of them, even though the stars were dingy and missing points.
Dad didn’t notice my growing disgust with poultry farming, so he didn’t complain when I hid in the trailer while they electrocuted “spent” hens. I answered the phone for auditors and fielded unscheduled animal welfare checks. I’d learned Quickbooks to avoid the battery cages. Dad thought it meant I would go into business with him. When it came up, he grinned in a way that made me uncomfortable.
My earbuds in, I thought of Amy, her bustedup family, and her absent brother, how they even laughed the same. I thought of how we killed all the male chicks, stuffing them in trash bags on day one. She said her brother shared the same moles, which didn’t make genetic sense. Her belief they could entirely match freaked me.
Maybe Amy slept with guys to numb out over Kurt’s absence. I couldn’t fault her. But, why couldn’t I get over her? I had this recurring, intrusive image of her naked across her bed, in her parents’ empty trailer, still wearing her Toms. A truck rumbled past with crates of birds, and I wanted to crawl from my skin, beat the shit out of the driver.
Dad walked in the office carrying a Miller High Life. Lately, he practically lived at the Showtime Lounge. He’d been wearing the same green flannel, and it was stained with coffee and something yellow. I’d worried he was sick, but he selfdiagnosed: Seasonal Affective Disorder. It didn’t mean he was going to do anything about it.
“You’re going to have to help me move my stuff out this weekend,” said Dad. “Your mom and I are getting divorced.” Just like that, he sipped his Miller.
I zoned out as he talked, his voice mingled with the buzzing of a maintenance guy weed whacking. He was moving to Harkins Inn in Chauncey, just off the highway. He didn’t have a lot, but he couldn’t do it himself. The whites of Dad’s eyes were polluted with broken blood vessels, and his deep voice cracked when he said Mom’s name. He began using it formally at that moment. “Maureen.” Dad took a long gulp of beer. I realized I wasn’t surprised.
“Get your friend Tony to help too,” Dad said.
“Tony’s not my friend.”
“Just get him. Don’t give me a hard time.”
Tony lived ten minutes from our house and could easily come by. But, I wasn’t
going to tell Tony Sayers my parents were fucking divorcing. Tony was a scrub. I only called him for weed. He didn’t even go to Wallerton because he’d been expelled for punching Zoe in the darkroom, when she wouldn’t give him head. That’s how Zoe and I met in Photography 1.
When I asked why, Tony said he liked to show people “how dangerous it was to be weak.” What did Tony know about people’s weaknesses? He barely left the house, played Xbox all day. Believing Tony knew something about life was like pretending an avatar had feelings.
The day Tony was expelled, I knew I would end up at his house. I waited at the door and tackled him when he answered. He fell back and hit his head on the cheap wooden arm of his parents’ old couch. He got a concussion.
Surprisingly, Mom had been proud, calling me a knight to Tony’s parents. “He defends people. It’s what he does,” she said. “Blindly sometimes.”
To me, she’d sincerely called me Batman. To my face. No irony or anything. I wasn’t a kid in pajamas watching B atman Beyond, wishing I could be powerful. So manipulative. They’d both been on my nerves for awhile. Maybe being apart would force them to embrace reality.
Tony helped me move Dad in exchange for twenty bucks. I wanted to tell him about Zoe and Amy, but didn’t. Dude would think I was bragging. Maybe I would be, if I said it aloud.
Tony made fun of Dad for looking like Skelator, because Dad was haggard that day, and he cried carrying the Uhaul boxes. At the end of the night, Dad was so upset he just threw me his own truck keys, told me to drive it home. He’d use the worktruck for as long as he could. I sat in the driver’s seat, outside Harkins Inn, and paid Tony. I punched the steering wheel and the truck let out a sharp bleat.
Tony lit a joint. “You seem pretty fucked up, dude.”
“I am,” I said. “But, I’d feel better if you’d help me with something.”
Dad had forgotten a box of records in his truckold Fogerty, and Steely Dan,
music Dad listened to while woodworking. I said, “Let’s soak them in drain cleaner. Return them to their sleeves. Act like we don’t know what happened.” I didn’t even know if that would do anything.
Tony laughed. “Mind fuck. Right on,” he said. He buckled his seatbelt. “Your dad needs to leave that shit behind anyway. That’s probably stuff he listened to with your mom.”
“Probably,” I said. I squeezed the steering wheel til it was painful.
Feeling guilty, I sat in my parents’ mudroom, still wearing my Muck Boots speckled with white shit and swirled with down. I smoke a joint right there, and scrolled
with one thumb through the naked pictures Zoe sent, but every so often I thought of Amy.
On the way to school, I was close to telling Zoe about Dad. She was manic, popping ProCentra from a blister pack and downing it with Dr. Pepper.
“I’m upset,” She snaked her arms around her messenger bag. “My mom and dad backed out on getting me a car. And, we haven’t solved the Amy issue. I seriously think you hate me.”
“I don’t hate you, baby. I love you,” I said.
“See, I know that. I just get crazy when that bitch texts me nonstop asking why we can’t fix things. Because you fucked my boyfriend. And, you’re going to get it!” she shouted.
“She’s a bitch,” I said. I didn’t mean it. As punishment, I bit my lip, tasted blood.
Zoe looked at me like I was nuts. “Are you kidding? You don’t mean that,” she said. “And, don’t pull around by the gym, I don’t want to walk that far. I have these fucktard shoes on,” she said. I stopped at the cafeteria.
“You know I’m just going to lose it one of these days,” she said. “It would be nice if my boyfriend could actually make up for things.” She slammed the door.
I felt hammered by the time I walked to homeroom, like raw meat. But, then what did meat feel like, cooked or raw? No one listened. And, look at all these people. So unhappy, but not doing shit.
In the crowd, there was Amy— white halter top, tight jeans. She waved. “Brett!” she said, “It’s all okay, dude.”
What kind of wonderland was she living in? I wanted to push her to a locker, pin her on the metal door, squeeze her soft neck until the blood burst from her eyes. Hands quivering, I struggled with my locker combination. I punched my locker, and Mr. Wainscott, standing nearby, began The Approach something our teachers did when they wanted to encourage us to articulate our feelings.
“It’s okay,” I said. “I’m okay, Mr. Wainscott.” My voice cracked, thin and reedy.
A few days later, in the gym parking lot, I faced a banner that read “18 Days Until Homecoming”. It was both foreboding and celebratory, the cheap plastic 18 barely hanging on, flapping. Zoe was in the office, and I was supposed to wait.
Of course, I had told her this would happen. During English IV, Ms. Sanders put Zoe in a group to “explore motifs” in Catcher In The Rye using Facebook posts. Amy was in her group. Zoe bullied her, calling her “fucktard” her favorite, totally offensive word. Twice I told her to stop using it.
Amy texted Zoe – ugly slut. It escalated.
In front of Amy, Zoe set up a Facebook page that read – SOMEONE BASH IN AMY BLAKE’S HEAD. She posted about Amy’s “fat ass” and her secret desire to fuck her twin during conjugal visits. Everyone around them laughed, probably because it was a distraction from their otherwise depressing day.
Now Zoe was in the office, burning my phone up with texts I didn’t answer. When she came out, she unloaded. The principle was concerned about her “social media attitude”. Zoe’s Twitter feed was populated with – Y ay! Fucking Chipotle! But also, I can’t wait to kill all the disloyal bitches! “There’s a disconnect,” said the principle.
The guidance counselor and Zoe’s choir teacher, Jill Blevins, took her to the “Wallper”, Wallerton High School’s concession booth for froyo. They said “Girls argue all the time”. They suggested Zoe process her anger in healthy ways, like personal training or team sports.
“No offense Ms. Blevins, but my life isn’t M ean Girls, ” Zoe had said.
They told her to be nice. “Your digital face, should match your reallife face. You’re better than this.”
But, they still gave Zoe inschool suspension. She would miss a midterm knocking her to a C in Algebra II. Her face grew a deep red, a swollen grape. Her parents would pay for college, and she nursed hope for the decent schools, maybe Oberlin.
Parked behind the factory, she said, “I’m going to bash Amy’s face in for real,” She clutched her messenger bag.
I was too tired to argue. I needed to get my own life together. How much could I do for everyone? Something inside me burned, like a lit scrap of paper curls into itself.
“You got to do whatever you feel comfortable with,” I said. “I want you to help me,” she said.
“No fucking way.” I stared at the flood lamp watching it waver and become unfocused.
Amy showed up at the farm after hours one night. Dad was waiting for me to finish cutting checks, so I ground my teeth as they both stood at the desk. She asked why Zoe “wouldn’t just let it go.” I wanted her to leave, but silently fed checks in the tray, my back to her.
Dad told me to hurry “it’s getting late, bud.”. I acted dickish, the way guys do when they’re demanding space. Or at least, they seem to in movies. I gave short answers, and Amy left confused. “Whatever, dude,” she said. But, I got the feeling she needed anything, even a “Fuckoff”.
Of course, I didn’t tell Zoe about it at dinner at Texas Roadhouse. She’d pumped herself up to a boil talking about C SI, how sinew and cartilage required physical and emotional strength to sever. She didn’t have it in her, really. Yet, her thoughts disgusted me, and her monologues were repetitive. They sent me into this fog, like I listened to an album on repeat and then got up and didn’t know where I was.
“I’m going to gut her like a deer,” she said.
I dropped my fork. She didn’t know what she was saying. She grew larger and larger, filling the room with her frustration and negative energy.
I changed the subject, pulled the Homecoming card. Isn’t that what all those teen flicks advise? A party would distract her, make frustration evaporate, replace it with glittercovered euphoria.
“Sure,” she said.
She went on about a documentary on a high school revenge where two girls planned to murder someone and created a fake timeline to throw off police. They got gas receipts from the drive to an alibi’s house, wristbands from a concert taking place during the murder, photos of them in the crowd, posted to Facebook and scrubbed of metadata so the time was unclear.
“That’s so crazy,” I said.
She finally changed the subject. But, I kept thinking about what she said.
A week later she’d gone to Ace. She opened her BMW’s trunk to a box cutter, a Gator knife, two claw hammers, and a shovel, a roll of plastic, like the kind housepainters used, an industrialsized container of bleach, and a cellophanewrapped bundle of utility towels. She’d paid in cash, burned the receipt. She’d seen the boys’ basketball coach, Mr. Pulaski, but he’d “been more interested in looking at my tits.” I stood there staring into the trunk feeling chilled.
“Do not back out on me,” she said.
“I’ve never been in this.” I considered calling the cops. “You love me. That means you’re with me.”
She pushed me to invite Amy to Homecoming. All my attention was diverted to dealing with Dad, who was acting out emotionally. At the time, Dad told me not to visit his new apartment. A working relationship is all we have, bud. I just sat there, phone in hand, his last text unanswered.
“If I invite her,” I said. “Will you shut up about this?” I knew she wouldn’t but I wanted to be clear where I stood. I was thinking about my dad.
“Yeah. Duh,” said Zoe.
Zoe pretended to befriend Amy again. She said if there was court testimony, she’d be off the hook. People at school would clamor to get on TV. “God no. They were all friends,” they’d say.
I invited Amy to Homecoming with Zoe, and she said, “Cool”. I did not get it.
They both got ready at the Blake’s trailer. I waited in the living room staring at the antlermount gun rack, a squawking tube TV, and ugly floral furniture. Mrs. Blake sat on the sofa, her lips pursed, hands curled around the Bible in her lap.
Above the sofa hung framed Sears photos of both Amy and Kurt. Kurt wore his Eagle Scout uniform. His body looked photoshopped on a version of Amy’s head. So genetically similar. Balloons and a banner that read “Happy Birthday, Kurt” still stretched over the kitchen doorway, forgotten. Amy had said they celebrated his birthday via Jpay Video Visit. Thirty people crowded into the living room to yell into the computer’s tiny camera, during Kurt’s ten minutes of Internet time. “Juvie is so weird,” Amy told us.
Zoe mocked her comment for two days.
Waiting for the girls, I attempted conversation with Mrs. Blake. “How are you doing?”
“I thought you two broke up,” said Mrs. Blake.
“We’re all good friends now.” I smiled.
“Doesn’t make sense, taking two girls to Homecoming.”
“Well. Things are different these days. Everyone’s friends now.” But, I was
confused too, and my voice sounded thin.
Both girls emerged from a nearby bedroom in Homecoming dresses, their hair
done in matching chignons. Amy still wore glasses, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Zoe’s bandeau dress resembled the preliminary outfit of a ‘80s swimsuit model on photo shoot. It was a dickmove assigning them fantasy roles, and fighting the images started a cluster headache. Yet, I felt nailed to the floral chair, my eyes bugging like Kevin Spacey’s in American Beauty.
Both girls twirled, groping each other for loose strings and errant straps. I pictured them together later, all hands, limbs, and swollen lips. I imagined being in the middle, obeying their demands. I made fists, squeezing my ragged nails into my palms. Yet, I was responsible for the image. I entertained it.
When they stopped twirling, they stood silently as the TV swelled with applause.
“Wait a second,” said Amy. She got a traintrack of worry above her glasses. She walked over and turned off A merican Idol. My palms were slick with sweat.
“Mommy, take a video of me for Kurt.”
“Mommy?” whispered Zoe. But, Amy and Mrs. Blake hadn’t heard. They were wrapped up in arranging the room, presumably with Kurt’s favorite items: his rifle, a ceramic dog, a stack of his DVDs.
“Put his photo in the shot,” said Mrs. Blake as she grabbed her iPad from the coffee table. She fussed with it and raised to record. “Go on.”
Amy began stiffly lifting her arms as she danced, then spun. She stopped, put a foot on the coffee table. She looked confused. She giggled.
“Oh, he’ll like that,” said Mrs. Blake. “Twirl around a little more.”
“Amy, we should probably get going,” I said. End it, I thought. End it now. She seemed unaware we were still there.
“Oh,” she said. Like they caught her coming out of the shower. She went for her coat. “Be home in a while.” She walked out the door first, head down.
In the Pathfinder, Zoe told Amy some story about a private afterHomecoming party at Tony’s grandparents’ lake house. “Baller” was the word she actually used. Zoe had gone over to Tony’s without me. I wasn’t for sure what Tony said, but I’d picked up Zoe’s phone the night before and seen the text C an’t wait to go all D exter. Eye roll.
“Why at Tony’s? He doesn’t go here,” said Amy.
“It’s a secret party,” said Zoe.
“At Tony’s lake house? Have you been there? It’s scary as shit,” said Amy. “He’s got it set up nice.”
“Right.” Amy smirked, unzipped her jacket and went into the gym. She didn’t believe a thing. I thought that would be the end of it.
During Homecoming, we took pulls off a stolen bottle of Beefeater in the bathroom with dudes from the basketball team. On the dancefloor, everyone seemed to pull a onehitter from a tux jacket or a tiny sequined purse.
By the time we loaded in the truck, I was neardrunk and nauseated. The yellow lines on the highway, and the faint outline of wooded expanse of Hocking Hills felt dreamy, like those A.A. Milne books Dad read when I was a kid, all footprints and paths lost over muted green. The girls had climbed in the back to get drinks, pausing for selfies, laughing, arms wrapped around each other. They snapped pics, tipping a new bottle of JD, and I thought how much better it was just to get drunk.
“Let’s go to the pond,” said Zoe. Her mouth was pursed, a hard line in the rearview mirror, her expression meaningful. I tried to focus on the highway to avoid locking eyes.
Amy suddenly straightened. She’d been reaching into my cooler for something other than hard liquor, a PBR. Up to that point she’d been giddy, explosive with joy. But now she assumed the pragmatic smirk she used in describing her tattoo or defending her brother. “You guys can go, maybe swing by my mom’s and drop me. It’s all cool.”
“No,” said Zoe. She punched Amy’s shoulder. “It’s like ten o’clock. Early. Don’t be such a pussy.”
Amy said, “No. I mean, I’m not into it. Maybe take me home.”
Zoe turned it up real fast. “Don’t be like that. You’ve been a bitch all year. Let’s bury the hatchet, have something good to remember.” Zoe pulled her knees to her chest and picked polish from a fingernail.
Why had I thought I could make everybody have fun? Wasn’t I owed something without strings, something outside clipping beaks in a cloud of iodine disinfectant? We could get drunk, at least. In the rearview, I could see Amy was halfway hazy, her thigh bare, bird tattoo flying up her calf. It was so purposely stylized and beautiful on her. I told myself to stop staring, gripped the steering wheel.
The pond was a couple miles up the highway. If I asked, she’d go. “I feel like swimming,” I said.
“All right,” said Amy. “If everyone’s going to be cool about it.”
Zoe lay her head on Amy’s shoulder.
Maybe it would be alright. They could “bury the hatchet”.
I turned off the highway, the truck pitching over the rutted dirt road. A new sign at
the pond read “The Ozer’s. Be respectful”. One of the Ozers had left a trashcan to encourage tresspassers to recycle. Moonlight glinted from the painted surface of a pontoon bobbing in the middle of the pond, wind ruffled the dark water.
Determined to smooth things, I acted irritated, told them to “do some swimming already”. I thought my anger might create space, distract them. The girls ignored me, pulled off their dresses. Amy laid her glasses on a picnic table. “Watch those,” she said. The frames looked bent and beaten.
They splashed into the pond.
I was unbuttoning my shirt, but they told me to stay so they could talk. I sat on the dock, watched as they swam toward the middle with strong strokes, as if chasing each other. I laid back, looked at the stars.
I thought about growing up in Wayne National Forest, how the woods, river, and lakes held specific memories. The undulating hills carried my childhood of hiking and camping in open fields, harriers swooping overhead. Nearby I’d hunted with Dad, a mile from the dairy farm and the Anderson’s land. Zoe may not have done all that, but Amy definitely did.
I thought of the unmanageable sledge of waste water. Dad spent hours drinking beer at the storage barn with his employees, but he never wanted to hike the river basin or fish or hunt anymore. At night he parked the work truck at the lagoon which had lately filled with algae blooms. I didn’t know what he did there. Maybe an unscheduled inspection would unhinge Dad, force him to remember something better. Someone just had to call. I already felt the phone’s weight. Shitty as it was, it could be anonymous.
The splashing had stopped, and I heard only crickets. I sat up. At the far end of the pond, there was only one head above water. The head disappeared, reemerged, disappeared again.
I jumped in still wearing half my tux. The freezing water stung. My lungs expanded, arms pumping, as I swam quick strokes. I met Amy bobbing above the surface, her chin skimming the water, clearly working to keep from sinking. She labored for breath. She said, “Zoe went under. She hasn’t come up. We were just playing around.” She uttered it without inflection.
I dove down. Past a few feet, it was all silt and black water. Toward the bottom, I skimmed soft weeds. I came up, dove again, swimming fast, spreading my arms. I collided with Zoe, my lungs burning, and ferried her towards the moonlight. It had only been seconds, but felt longer. I kicked and pulled, her hair spreading over the surface, her limbs like plastic. She’d grown cold, but it might have been the chilled air.