We knew the things the Yale boys said about us, as if we were zombies. Still, we sold them our drugs.
I was going to be sick. Besides on the dogs, there was nowhere to sit. In the living room, three-legged chairs so ancient they’d come back in style stared at the TV on a cart. A lace napkin and picture frame tried to dress up a little table next to us in the entry hall. The dogs observed us examining the picture in the frame, black-and-white as Roman numerals. The host, his mother, brothers, and sister. Maybe one brother had killed the other brothers and now the host was just left here, protecting his mother with these dogs. I’d never seen her at their basketball games, fist-pumping from the bleachers, or selling Rice Krispy bars at half-time. I’d never seen the Yale boy there either.
Margarita with her hair crimped like sea waves looked just like the sister. The host would move on her like a bitch and I’d be in the clear.
—Call us a taxi, Margarita stomped and cursed in Spanish. I could see all the Cuban in her face.
—We don’t speak your Spanglish, Senorita. The hockey player backed against the front door, —And he’s Italian.
To me, they looked like heels of bread, Silly Putty. Around New Haven, everyone was Italian by default.
—Don’t listen to him, the Yale boy leaned in from the kitchen. —His father runs a circus.
—Carnival, the hockey player said, —only salt-and-pepper shaker in the state.
—Drive us home, I said. —Give us the keg money for a cab.
—We’re not driving anywhere. They giggled. —Wanna play cat’s cradle, Tweedledee and Tweedledum?
—Dicks, Crystal said, her mouth open as a dollhouse. She hated being dumb ever since she had to reapply to community.
The moldy wall phone rang in the kitchen. The Yale boy said hello and hung up.
—Was that RJ? Crystal said.
—Johnny Eminem? the hockey player said.
—Johnny bang bang? I said. I was trying to act brave and relaxed.
Now, the Yale boy looked old standing next to the pictures of babies magneted to the yellow fridge. The host dissolved Ovaltine into a glass of milk. The boy cracked an egg into a frying pan. —Any questions? he said.
—Hey, get in here, the hockey player had the TV going in the living room. They quickly gathered around it.
The dogs were now dozing on the staircase landing. I eyed the door and its bolt. There was no way to just walk out into the blizzard.
On the TV screen, a naked girl with ribbon hair was tethered to a bed, spread against some hole cut in chicken wire. Men on screen were zipping up flies while another entered with a chainsaw. At first, I hoped they were watching Rashomon. I never got why Crystal couldn’t stand that in a few years, I’d be studying Japanese film at some college billed to my parents. She’d still be running our town with Margarita and her family, clearing a net off every business.
I felt vaguely interested in what the men on screen would do to the thrashing girl. Her screams could have been saving her life. Then I was certain they had a girl gagged in the room upstairs, the room they’d earlier refused to hide the dogs in.
—Turn this shit off, the host struck the TV with a fireplace poker.
I jiggled the locked bathroom knob as hard as I could.
And this is when I noticed their facial hair, their tattooed fingers, that the other boys had evaporated, that there were just three of them and three of us left, and we could do many things with this number, like play poker, start a volleyball team. They peered back at us girls like we were insects too colorful to kill.
The bathroom opened and the host’s brother, in shaving cream, shuffled into us, holding his razor out like a badge. He picked open a sore on his lip, the size of a horsefly.
—Don’t pick, the host swatted him.
—What are you, his bitch, the Yale boy said to the brother.
—Hey, can you take us to the reservoir? I said. —It takes twenty minutes. We’ll pay you in drugs.
—Drugs? the brother said. —I’m looking for love.
—He’s babysitting, the host blew a kiss in Margarita’s ear. —Our little nieces are sleeping up there.
I could see his gold teeth when he said nieces.
The brother went back into the bathroom and locked the door. I pounded it again. My heart began to thump. I said, —Let us use the bathroom upstairs.
From there, there would have to be a window we could sneak out of onto a flat roof.
—My mother’s allergic to perfume, the host said.
—Didn’t you girls learn manners? the Yale boy said. —Didn’t you learn to walk with a book on your head?
—Por favor, Margarita said.
—Whatever. The host shrugged. —Go up. Flush.
He held the dogs back by their collars for us to ascend. I felt the eyes of all the boys tracing the outline of Margarita, up the rope swings in her hair.
Upstairs, I locked us in the bathroom. Cold air blew in through the propped-open window, cold air so deliberate and final I could remember every snow day at once. We were not far from the hospital where I was born. I curled over the toilet like I wanted to crawl back inside of my mother. Nothing would come up. I used my finger.
—Did she eat dinner? Crystal asked Margarita. —She never learns.
The stank of shit made dry heaving worse. Rust splattered the bowl and the pastel wall tiles. We watched each other drip-dry like we were in a diorama. Crystal tore the toilet slipcover into ruffles as she plunked in the toilet. I drank straight from the faucet cut from a pipe.
—Your microwave meals, I said.
—Give me baby wipes. She dug into my new bag and I noticed my watch on her wrist, over her cuts.
—What time is it? I said.
—Saturday, Margarita laughed. Her piss made all the noise we had to hide. She might have been praying to the Mother Mary scratched into the light switch. She always said she never skipped Sunday Mass because she hated towing around her sins in a wheelbarrow. —Wait, she peeled off her pasties, the birthmarks all over her chest black as pitch. —Those things were killing me, she said.
She dropped them in the toilet bowl. Flower-shaped Band-Aids, floating there like votives. I looked at her chapped, bare ankles the color of barber posts; she’d never make it through the snow in her ballet flats. I flushed, trying to cause a clog. Maybe a plumber would save us.
—Look alive, Blackout, Crystal snapped her fingers in my face.
—Psspt, psspt. It was the Yale boy. He’d changed into gym shorts. —Secrets, secrets.
The dogs were barking again. We filed out. We faced the dogs, now chained to the foot of the stairs. We’d have to cross through them like hoops of fire.
The Yale boy showed us to the mother’s bedroom, where the aunts and nieces had also been staying. Where were they tonight? We didn’t ask. A cot and a full. Paisley curtains and mismatched spreads. A hairbrush on the bureau. Jewelry box and a lamp.
—No pillow talk, he smirked. —Be good, girls. Night-night.
He shut the door behind him.
—Tsk, tsk, Heather, Crystal taunted, —Don’t be naughty.
Downstairs, the dogs barked like seals on a rock. They could be bloodhounds, sleigh dogs, reindeer. What did I care.
I removed my boots and made my preparations. I made the best of it. I felt all the rings in my cartilage, the moods in my mood rings, my nocturnal pimples creeping out. I floated my contacts like lazy river tubes in my beer cup. This coke was shit. I wasn’t high but wouldn’t sleep. I needed downers. I took the full. Crystal got in beside me. She was driving me nuts. Margarita sprawled on the cot. Out the window, snow blue as a silver cat hung like a flag in the streetlamps. I felt a magic, that I wasn’t gazing down, but straight into it.
Maybe I was more lit than I thought. Maybe I’d chugged my beer and contacts. Maybe I slept with my hands on my triangle. You were supposed to have adrenaline to lift a car off of a body, wasn’t that the story, but when I heard someone lock the door behind him, I couldn’t even sit up.
Margarita was not paralyzed like us. Samoa had conditioned her down to primal instincts. The door creaked open and she was radioactive. Off that cot. She was hurdling the minefield of dogs, or maybe they smelled her menstrual blood and let her by.
The deck door downstairs banged a few times. The dogs quit howling. I could almost hear her ballet shoes on the snow like ink on sand. She probably could’ve run back to Samoa off the radar in her eyes. It didn’t surprise me. I was more surprised she hadn’t run earlier.
Maybe she ran two miles to the gas station and called her mother, and slept on the bathroom floor and in the morning her parents brought her café con leche on their way to church.
But drawstring pants were so in style and came right off. The host, first. I listened to his bloodshot eyes. He slipped his cold fingers against my skin. It was only centimeters he wanted, smaller than a mitt, a mail slot, that goldfish in the freezer.
I pushed back. I pawed. I tried.
I wished I could curse at them in Spanish like Margarita. In Spanish class, we pretended we were living in Spain, taking messages for our roommate Esperanza. We were graded on our ability to transcribe messages in foreign terrain.
—Can you fucking stop it? I mumbled. But I might have merely been demonstrating what boys couldn’t resist in girls: agency.
I tried to stay awake but I drained into the funnel of a dream. I dreamt of a firefighter climbing a ladder to the window, breathing over me. I didn’t know his face, but I knew his voice, the Yale boy, instructing me to get out of the corner where I must’ve been hiding, to sleep on the bed.
Crystal, curled beside me like a muskrat. They were leaving her alone.
—Your girlfriend won’t forgive you, I tried to say, even though all the girls I knew would forgive boys for anything, for this.
—She’s hammering our whole team. The Yale boy seemed to give up. He lay on his back, pushing me off. —I suck at life.
—Give me room, I kneed him. I didn’t know why I whispered. In a way I felt flattered. It was hard to describe but in that second I could only pity him. He seemed lonely, one-dimensional. I had some sort of premonition that he wanted to spoon.
The host was in a plank position and my own arms couldn’t push him out of it because I was playing possum.
The host considered me like an ice cream sandwich, a chocolate bunny. He took the pause of an anesthesiologist. I wondered if he could smell the squirt in my thong down at my ankles, holding them together like a bungee. I tried to hear his thoughts. Maybe: One size fits all. Maybe: Would have gotten yourself home if you weren’t curious about a little something-something. Maybe: You like a risky thrill. Or maybe those were my thoughts.
In biology, we learned about thanatosis. A rabbit could freeze herself for fifteen minutes. Or until the coyote lost interest. Or smelled death. I wanted to get this over with.
Crystal could sleep through anything. Or fake anything.
This was nothing, not a tiger mauling, a burning alive, a starvation. This was not my lungs or my brain and they were only touching scar tissue.
Maybe I saw it this way in a movie. In a movie theater, the crowd would whisper: Girls, be smart.
—Isn’t this absurd, I tried to slur. I think that’s what I said. It would have made sense to have said that, to have said, —Crystal, help.
In AP Psych, we learned about the Rashomon effect. The ways of remembering ambiguous situations, how the differences in perspective arose from the absence of evidence.
I could stay awake. I could escape and throw myself through the dogs. I wore super plus tampons. I could let them do it.
I puked up and onto myself. Warm bile trickled around my neck and ran every which way.
—Can you get me something, I tried to mumble. I could smell my own barf. Chunks slid into my hair.
He dabbed the corner of a sheet against my neck and continued. I thought of the time I saw a dog vomit and gobble it up.
It felt so much better to get my puke out. My body respected nausea.
Crystal, tucked beside me. Crystal, shimmering in the moonlight. Crystal, listening. In AP Psych, we learned the phenomena of the observer’s paradox, how the presence of the observer sways the observation.
I waited for them to finish with me and move on to her. I might have been looking forward to it.
I pictured two boys walking as the legs inside a donkey costume—they couldn’t get the cadence in sync.
The boys would tell the other boys how spiky I was, how I discharged, how I smelled like tuna fish.
In English, we learned the villanelle. Repeat, repeat, and then the twist. We found that the endings were predictable, and in that way felt safe. —Count it out, the teacher said. The pattern reminded us of double-dutch jump rope, of swimming, yes, of doing the strokes. We went: side, side, front, front, and here it is, we know it by heart. The same old refrain.
I was praying to Jesus. I was promising him that I would never do anything with a boy again. Jesus, just make them stop.
Crystal turned over and snickered.
When the host stood to exit, the room was so quiet, I was not sure he left. The dogs had been still since Margarita broke free, as if resigned to the pound.
I imagined a children’s book in which girls attacked a cemetery of boys, except somehow the boys, even as corpses, were able to become turtles and retract their spongy necks into their shells.
I was usually too superstitious to picture like Hell-Hell, but this felt like the safe time to think of it. I pretended to be a miner with a bulb strapped to my forehead, taking the tour of Hell through pitchforks, tar campfires, sarcasm. I kept hearing the melody to “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” but not the words.
Then the host was back, tossing the boy a washcloth. They dried their cum off my stomach like they worked at a carwash. Their rags landed on the floor like paper airplanes.
—You missed a spot, I wanted to say.
Morning. Little creatures crept out of their holes for breakfast. I pulled my skidmark thong on. I needed water, to find my boots. I could get out of there without borrowing from my real life.
My head was sore and there was another body on the floor. The hockey player. I stepped over him, barefoot. It was better without my contacts, to not see this house in twenty-twenty.
In the light, Crystal’s black roots looked painted on like a zipper. —Ready? she whispered. —Do you have Certs? She flipped open the mother’s jewelry box and scooped a handful of its contents into her hiking boot. —What? she hissed, as we tiptoed out, —finders keepers.
—You owe me, I said.
I thought of change left on a bureau for a maid. I’d served my time in this house. It seemed just. It seemed warranted. Something that I’d deserved.
Outside, the sun on snow was blinding, watering the rafters of the deck, the bones of dead dogs. I felt the morning sitting down on us. The clouds were getting pushed forward by a child with a hoop and a stick. Crystal stumbled down the sidewalk toward Buck’s truck and slipped into a birdhouse on a pole. Seed cascaded onto the snow.
—That’s to feed the homeless, I said. —You spoiled their breakfast.
Driving home, we split lines on a Smashing Pumpkins CD, using the ticket Buck kept in the case. People were calling the radio to complain about their roofs sagging under the weight of the snow, but it felt like they were really calling in to complain about us.
The aftermath of the storm in our town unfolded before us. The tree canopies of icicles gleamed diamond and holy. Barns, one-story homes, near misses by downed telephone poles. Usually, we’d pull over and help Buck cut the copper wires.
—Do you know Eskimos have words for every type of snow? Buck drove on, unbuttoning the Henley beneath his vest. His windshield wipers worked like cleaning women behind his stolen handicap tag. —Like, snow in the air, snow on the ground, remembered snow, fried snow? Buck had not gone to sleep yet. Had we?
I felt my body preparing its materials to make it through the day. Cells, phlegm, blood assuming their stations and shifts. Somewhere, tractor-trailers were smashing into carloads of girls just like us, killing them in an instant. Somewhere, someone believed we were supposed to know what to do next.
—So, Buck grinned. —Did my girls get some action or did my girls get some action?
Crystal grinned. —Blackout took one for the team.
The next night we went back to the host’s to sell acid to more Yalies. I would have rather kept smoking at Buck’s or gone home where I could watch whatever I wanted on my own TV with whatever expression I wanted to put on my face, but it was easier to go with them than to concoct a story about why I’d stay in.
Nobody was out except the kids from our town, who could chain their own tires. I couldn’t remember if the host’s black eye was because I’d squeezed it like a blueberry. They thought by me coming back, right up to them, that I liked them.
I wanted them to promise that I hadn’t done anything wrong but I couldn’t help but see their eyes in the shape of bassinets, their mothers weeping in them. They didn’t know my last name and I was the girl they’d thought of least in their clothesline of romances.
I looked at the steps no one bothered to shovel. I wanted a break, to be waking up in a hospital room with amnesia, pastel villages preserved in frames around me, like a calendar stand at the mall. How relaxing it would be to stare at the tiles of a dropped ceiling, nodding when a nice person said something that sounded worth keeping. I would change my name to Penny. To Polly. The acid was kicking in.
In the corner, a boy was breaking up with a girl who’d already graduated, as if he were drinking her blood. She looked around as if about to be dragged into the woods by witches. Her nose was running. She didn’t have a tissue. They were both pleading with each other. She would become whomever he wanted, and he wished she would do it with him one more time before he had the freedom to do it with her friends.
What if I’d hurdled the dogs, ran in socks to the host’s car, sat in his dog hair-covered seats, but he’d found me, tap danced on the hood like in a cartoon when the character was hungry and saw all the other characters’ faces as big steaks? If maybe he was holding that baton, that fireplace poker?
I wanted to stomp all the boys like bugs, squirt them into fire.
—Hey, I said. —Can you tell me what happened last night? It seemed like a reasonable question.
—You’re lucky she took care of you, Honeygirl, the host said.
—Shouldn’t get so sloppy, the Yale boy said.
Then they loped back through the aisle of their party, like flower girls with their petals.
Crystal smirked. —Naughty, naughty, Blackout, she said. —You owe me.
But she seemed jealous that they hadn’t tagged her.
Entering our town limits on the way home, there were fewer cars on the road than sins being forgiven. The reservoir hid in the dark, holding in memories, waiting to be claimed. I imagined the city and the Yale campus shrinking away; our cemetery where students dug up the bodies for cadavers, our observatory where we threw bottles to shatter the professors’ telescopes, all of it, surrounding Yale like a moat.
Crystal and I slept on Buck’s basement floor.
—Want to watch a movie, she said.
I climbed my fingertips over my belly button. I did not pick below my waistline.
She asked me if I ate.
It was its own messy animal, with its own beating heart. I wanted to have it removed. I was still sore. I took Buck’s oxies. I dreamt of a black-and-white movie that would never come back to life. I dreamt that the girl at the party grew a serpent for a face, waiting under an awning inside me, with no one to wait for.
I woke with Crystal’s leg draped over me, my pills reaching their half life. I pushed her off. My jaw was locked and I was full of a kind of sadness that made me not want to be awake. But I also felt a flitter of something, a door opening. I couldn’t explain it but I felt the beginning of my life. As if the first snow was falling just for me. I had traveled to the center of the earth, I had suffered.
Crystal thrust her hand under my thong and circled my pink flesh with her finger. That’s all it was, a warm mass of flesh that I had to live in. I did not decide to have a body.
—My turn, she said. —Let me feel your mark.
I rolled away. I felt like a mammal, warm-blooded. I said, —Don’t.
She was double-jointed and could do things like windmill her arms. —How many boys, she said, —how many boys does it take to do this?
When we were little, we ran the deer trails in loincloths and coonskin hats, wanting to be the heroine in Island of the Blue Dolphins, taming packs of wild dogs. I dreamt of herds of dogs multiplying like zombies, chasing boys like bison jogging across a safari. Dogs got sicced on all the boys who did these things or didn’t do anything to stop them. Dogs bit marks into their ankles, branding them. How they howled like savages. How slow they strolled, with wood for legs, down their trail of pellets.
And the night at the host’s was nothing, nothing as I sleuthed around inside my skin, like a hag with coal for teeth, like a slug. It was a poke, a nibble, a swatch of calendar, a story growing mold, a movie I told myself to feel more comfortable with the truth.
But girls, you will know these boys when they are coming toward you. You will feel their pull from deep within: across the train, the bar, the pew, you will recognize them as they approach, for they will move, always, with a certain type of limp.
Emily Jace McLaughlin is a fiction writer and screenwriter. Her short stories have appeared in Catapult, Vice, Cutbank, and Fiction, among other places. She is a graduate of the Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan, where she won seven Hopwood awards for her novel, short stories, essays, and play. You can visit her at emilyjacemclaughlin.com