My cousin Lola is coming to stay with us. She's from Mississippi and draws out words in the most ridiculous way. The last time I saw her was eight years ago when she was nine and I was ten. In all the years since, I've talked to her only at Christmas, during the obligatory pass-the-receiver-around telephone call. Now I'm expected to entertain her.
Lola arrives tomorrow so I'm spending my last night of freedom with friends. We're doing the usual, but this time we're going to Pete's brand new fort. He and I wait outside the 7-Eleven on Spring Street, sitting on a concrete slab covered in black splotches. That these used to be bright pink or white or blue wads of gum both amazes and disgusts me. He chucks rocks and bottle caps toward the metal dumpster parked at the edge of the parking lot.
I draw the collar of my jean jacket tighter around my neck. "I thought the wind died down when it got dark."
Pete pauses with his arm cocked, gives me a pointed look, then lets a rock fly. He takes a hit off his cigarette and two thick columns of smoke stream from his nose. "You and your assumptions," he says.
A hardness tightens the corners of my mouth. Pete and I tried the couple thing, but we had different ideas on what that meant. On our second date, he fucked me even though I'd said no. "Oh, right. My fault for assuming sex is a give and take situation."
"It's not that complicated, Claire," he says.
"Sure. As long as you get yours." My friends told me to let it go because that's what happens when you get hot and heavy with a guy. I'm having trouble accepting their point of view.
Pete exaggerates his arm movement so that his elbow comes within two inches of my nose before he tosses the rock. A sharp plink echoes back to us. He flashes a satisfied smile, then offers me a sip from the forty-ouncer. We're old enough to vote but not to drink—how stupid is that? He worked himself into a frenzy before buying it, talking shit about robbing the place if they wouldn't sell it to him. I laughed it off like he was joking and told myself not to worry: his swagger exudes confidence. Pete wrestles on the varsity team. He looks older than he is.
The bottle's cold, the beer's cold as it slides down my throat, and my hands are cold. I set the bottle on the pavement next to his feet, wishing I'd worn my corduroy coat. "Are you sure you told them Spring Street and not State?"
"How long are we going to wait?" There are four of us tonight. We're waiting on Carol—she and I do everything together—and Travis, her boyfriend.
"What time is it?" Pete asks.
"The battery's dead on my phone, and I don't have a watch."
"Isn't it un-American not to wear a watch?" He flicks his cigarette butt off into the blackness.
"Well, since you asked me, guess that makes us even."
He fishes a new pack of smokes from an inside pocket of his jacket, then taps one end of the pack against his leg. "We'll give 'em another ten minutes."
I consider scooting closer to him for body warmth but decide to stay put. Sometimes, when it's just the two of us, I wonder what I could've done differently; other times I wonder if he still thinks about me.
"Let's go," Pete says abruptly. It doesn't feel like it's been ten minutes but the idea of heat blasting from his truck keeps me from pointing this out. We climb in and I hold my fingers in front of the vent until they're toasty. Just as we pull out of the parking lot, Carol's white Skylark barrels around the corner behind us, horn blaring. Travis is driving—he always drives. Pete rolls his window down, sticks his arm out and motions for them to follow us.
I watch the Skylark in the side mirror as it swerves and changes speed. "Jesus, he drives like a maniac."
Pete flicks his eyes at the rearview. "Maybe she's blowing him."
We bounce along in silence for a while. The city slowly fades away as the space between the houses lengthens. Pete turns off the main road onto a side street, though I think street might be too ambitious a label. It's barely wide enough for the truck to pass through without getting scraped by encroaching tree branches. He parks, and when I get out I see the rutted dirt tracks.
I want to walk with Carol but Pete drags me along, jerking harder when I hesitate. He's thick, like a tree trunk, wrestles at the 167 weight class. My chicken arms are no match for him. We trudge through the undergrowth and I feel like a marionette, like someone's tugging on my strings making me take high, overstated steps. Just when I'm ready to demand that I be allowed to go at my own pace, we enter a clearing of sorts. The ground is free of brush, and towering trees line the outer perimeter.
"There it is," Pete says. I can't tell if it's awe or satisfaction I hear in his voice. From down here, the fort looks palatial. Sheets of plywood lie atop massive oak limbs and stretch between corners framed with two-by-fours. The roof is pitched in some places, flat in others.
Carol and Travis stumble into the clearing. Her newly dyed bangs seem to glow in the twilight. They are a bright pink, and though the color doesn't mesh with her fair skin, it's better than the chartreuse shade from last month. Her perfume wraps around me: spicy sweet, like licorice.
We climb a series of blocks made from chunks of uneven wood nailed to the tree. Inside, we're greeted with wall-to-wall carpeting, pillows, and logs that serve as seats. It's not as big inside as it looked from the outside, but I'm still impressed. I explore the nooks and crannies and return to the main area to find Pete and Travis opening cans of beer.
"Grab the candles and matches," Pete says. "They're over there." He points to the left with his head.
I light three big, round candles and place them on the floor around us. "This is really cool," I say.
"You haven't seen cool till you've tried this." Pete pulls a baggie and pipe from his coat pocket and packs the bowl. He takes the first hit and passes the pipe to me.
Four hits later, the walls seem to bulge and recede, and my scalp tingles. A gulp of beer doesn't come close to cutting through the crop of cotton that's sprouted in my mouth. I wave away the next several hits. I need air, need to find a way to stop the floor from rolling beneath me. I down half my beer, then hold the can to my forehead.
After twenty minutes or so, I'm able to focus again. Pete and Travis are leaning against the far wall, necks craned out the window. I catch snippets: satellites; alien mother ships; rocket missiles. To my left, Carol is sprawled on the floor. I inch my way over and lie down beside her, draping my arm across her midsection. She's too skinny to give off much heat, but, still, the warmth feels good.
"Well, well," Pete says, turning away from the window. "What do we have here? A little girl-on-girl action?" He grins and rubs his hands together.
Carol pushes herself up onto her elbows. "Fuck off, Pete. You couldn't handle it anyway."
"You wish," I say. Actually, Carol and I sometimes fool around. Usually when we're stoned or after we've been drinking. For being so thin, her lips are unusually full and soft. The first time she kissed me I was blown away. And hooked. We were in my bedroom and had just smoked a bong. She asked me to teach her how to give a blowjob, so I retrieved my mother's dildo from its hiding place in her dresser drawer and demonstrated the finer points to her. She was so turned on she threw her arms around my neck and kissed me on the lips. When her tongue worked its way into my mouth, my toes curled while a smoky heat fluttered through me. Afterward, she practiced on the dildo but had a problem with her gag reflex. I don't think she's gotten past that yet.
Travis grabs more beer and Pete gets the pipe going again. "We're all meeting here tomorrow night, right?" Pete says. His voice is squeaky and tight with his inhaled smoke.
"Yeah," Travis says. "I'm supposed to get some kick-ass hash." He slams his beer and crushes the can against his knee. "We can celebrate Columbus Day."
I take the pipe from Carol. "I can't. My cousin's coming for a visit." I light the bowl and the second I take another hit I know it's a mistake. "This is some strong shit," I say although I'm not entirely sure I vocalized the words. Suddenly everything feels very far away and I wonder if I've somehow shrunk. Then I start barfing.
My mother and I are in the entryway, gathered around the open door. Lola stands on the front porch, her black quilted jacket zipped to her chin. Her parents are trying to make things work between them and apparently shipping their responsibility to far-away relatives is going to help. "Come right in," my mother says. She takes Lola's suitcase and sets it on the floor. "My goodness, you're all grown up!"
"It's nice to see you again," Lola says, offering a shy smile. She moves into the room and I get a better look at her. Her boobs are the size of small mountains, and a splattering of freckles dance across the bridge of her nose. She's got thick, luxurious hair parted on the side, and a narrow braid runs along the crown of her head and down her cheek, secured at the end with a shiny, red bead.
"Close the door for chrissakes," my father yells from the family room where he's been stationed since the Packers - Vikings game came on. "You're letting flies in." His tone tells me the Packers are losing.
A frown flickers across my mother's face and is gone. She shuts the front door and turns back to us. "Claire," she says, "why don't you take Lola to your room? But don't be long—dinner's almost ready."
In my room, I show Lola where she can hang her clothes. She unpacks some stuff, then disappears into the bathroom. When she reemerges, her face is scrubbed clean and she's wearing three layers.
"It's freezing up here in Wisconsin," she says. She rubs her hands together—fast and hard like she's trying to start a fire—and joins me on the edge of the bed, a bed I now have to share until my mother can secure a rollaway from a neighbor.
I retrieve a scarf from the chair at my desk and offer it to her. "So what do you do at home?"
She double wraps the scarf around her neck and shrugs. "Not much to do in Amory." She pronounces it aim-ree. "Go to school. Work at the Dairy Cream."
"You have a job?" My parents have been after me to get one. I tell them I'd rather spend my last year of high school making memories with my friends instead of working. The truth is I'm lazy.
She looks me square in the eye. "Until my mama made me come here." After a beat she lowers her eyes and her shoulders seem to sag. She slides off the bed, heads back to the bathroom. "Are we fixin' to eat? I'm real hungry."
I wonder what I'd do if my folks sent me away like yesterday's news. I imagine, just for a second, that it's hard for Lola, but then she reappears, standing with her hand cocked on her hip, and I'm reminded that she's my problem now.
At the dinner table, my mother makes awkward attempts at conversation, but Lola doesn't seem to notice as she responds with eye contact and buttery smiles, oozing solicitousness. It's both amusing and annoying to watch.
Later, when it's time to go to bed, Lola scampers into the bathroom to change into her pajamas. I don't know what the big deal is: we're both girls; we know what girl parts look like. When she comes back she's wearing a sweat suit and socks.
"You're dressed like it's full-on winter," I say.
"Can't help it. I'm cold."
We get into bed and I position my pillow over the middle line, marking the space. "Hope you know how to stay on your side," I say.
She turns away from me and scoots closer to the edge of the bed. I flip the lamp off and lie there, wondering how long I will have to put up with this. Her breathing deepens almost immediately. I stare at the slatted moonlight blotting the walls, the dresser. After a while, the heat from Lola's body reaches me and, at first, I imagine it's Carol lying next to me, imagine her fingers rolling and squeezing my nipples, her tongue probing my mouth. A spark of need blossoms in my stomach and I twist onto my side, away from Lola's soft snores. The vision changes: Pete's pressed against me, hard; I feel his lips on my neck, his coarse hands on my hips. I slip my fingers underneath my panties and rub myself, alternating long and short strokes, imagining Pete's warm, wet tongue flicking me. I'm close, almost at the tipping point. Then Lola rolls over and kicks me.
Trying to get ready with someone hogging all the counter space is not my idea of fun. Lola dumps three quart-sized Ziploc bags of makeup onto the vanity and shit goes everywhere. I watch her ring her eyes with purple and coffee-colored eyeliner pencils. It's a weird combination and makes her look like she's been punched in the eyes. They must not have any how-to magazines down in Mississippi.
I'm putting mascara on when my mother's voice sails upstairs. "Claire! Lola! Breakfast is ready."
Her words surprise me. I head downstairs with Lola at my heels and find a spread fit for a king on the table: pancakes, eggs, French toast, juice.
"Holy cow," I say. "What's this?"
"We can't have Lola start her first day of school here on an empty stomach," my mother says. She's wearing her Sunday apron over jeans and a bright red sweater.
"What's wrong with the usual bowl of Lucky Charms?"
She gives me the Devil Look: pursed lips; narrowed eyes; hand on hip. "Sit down and eat before it gets cold."
My father enters the kitchen and stops, his eyes on the table. "Your niece visits and you pull out all the stops?" He looks at my mother, his jaw set. "At least someone around here gets the royal treatment." He raises his hands as if to say, I give up.
My mother stiffens her back. "If you'd put as much effort into your home life as you do your work life, things might be different." Her eyes flash and she points a spoon at him. "Look at you. All dressed up and smelling nice. What does it take to get you to do that for me?"
My father grabs a banana off the counter and leaves, slamming the back door behind him. My mother drops the spoon into the eggs and marches out of the room.
I wonder what to say to Lola, how to explain what just happened, but she seems unperturbed. She grabs a stack of pancakes as high as her fist and pours a third of the bottled syrup over them. My teeth ache just watching her.
On Friday, Carol calls, says everyone's meeting at the lake. Unfortunately, Lola overhears my conversation and expresses interest, which my mother sees and shushes us both out the door.
Lola and I pile into Carol's Skylark. The inside is littered with crumpled bags from Hardee's, empty Diet Coke cans, and various articles of clothing. On the ceiling, above the driver's seat, are fifteen or so photos held in place with pushpins. It's a little weird, this living, rolling collage thing she's got going, but who am I to complain? I pick up Carol's chemistry textbook and lob it at Lola in the backseat. "You can do schoolwork if you get bored." Turns out my southern cousin is smart, smart enough that she's going to be in some of my Advanced Placement classes.
Lola places the book on the seat beside her, then pulls her sweatshirt hood up over her head and crosses her arms over her chest.
Carol leans up and looks at her in the rearview. "Cold?"
"I don't know how ya'll stand this weather," Lola says.
"This is nothing," Carol says and laughs. "I heard next week we're supposed to get our Indian summer. It'll be warm then."
"I think your idea of warm is different than mine."
"You get used to it," I say. Or you could go back home, but I don't say this, of course.
Carol turns onto Washington Avenue and heads downtown. Every stoplight catches us as we pass through Uptown where hordes of shoppers move in and out of stores.
"There sure are a lot of people," Lola says. "How many live here?"
"All of them," I say and laugh.
Carol floats me a look: be nice. She turns so her voice carries to the backseat while her eyes stay on the road. "Just under 90,000. How many live in your city?"
"Shoot, I don't know," Lola says, "maybe five or six thousand." She says shoot like it's got two syllables: shee-oot. "Seems we got more animals than people."
Several minutes later we turn onto Pershing Drive. We continue north until we spot Pete's truck pulled over onto the wide strip of gravel running along the lake. The guys are standing alongside the road playing a twisted version of chicken, pushing each other into oncoming traffic. Carol pulls in next to Pete's truck and we get out.
Lola gets out of her car, takes a step toward the lake and stops. "Holy smokes," she says. "Is that the ocean?" Her eyes are as big as Coke cans.
"Jesus, no," I say. "It's the lake." I wait for recognition, but it doesn't come. "Lake Michigan. It borders Wisconsin."
"Oh." Her eyes return to normal for a second, but then seem to inch bigger again as she scans the horizon. Nothing but water as far as the eye can see.
"C'mon." I grab the hood of her sweatshirt and tug her with me over to where everybody else is. "Everyone," I say, sweeping my hand in Vanna White fashion, "this is my cousin Lola." I then introduce Pete and Travis. They jump into the back of Pete's truck, nod at Lola and lift their beer cans.
Carol retrieves three beers from the white Styrofoam cooler for us, but Lola waves hers away with a quiet, "No, thank you."
"What's the matter?" I say. "Don't you drink?" I pop my can open and down a mouthful. Behind me, two seagulls fight over a discarded burger wrapper.
"I just don't want any, is all."
Pete leans over from inside the bed of the truck and slaps his can down on the ledge. "Where you from, Lola?"
She flicks her eyes at him, then looks down at the ground. "Mississippi," she says, though it comes out Missippi.
"Isn't that where good ole Brett Favre is from?" he says. "Do you live by him?"
"Naw, he's from Kiln. That's way down at the bottom of the state, at the edge of the water." She looks over her shoulder toward the lake. "I've never seen so much water in one place." I can hear the wonder in her voice.
Travis stands up and stretches. He's wearing his usual Brewers regalia: sweatshirt; ball cap; wristband. I don't have to see it to know he's got a Brewers t-shirt on underneath the sweatshirt. He's a baseball fanatic—lives and breathes it all season long, and then some. He pops the tab on a beer and bends over the ledge of the truck bed, holding it out to Lola. "Welcome to Wisconsin," he says.
Lola shakes her head.
"C'mon," Travis says, "it's just a beer. Everyone drinks; it helps keep us warm." He laughs and lifts the can higher at her. "Unless it's against your religion." His words tick up at the end making it sound like a question. He snaps his fingers. "That's it! You're religious, aren't you?"
Lola shuffles her weight from one foot to the other while the waves slap against the rocks. "I go to church," she says, finally. She straightens her shoulders and adds, "I believe in God."
"Woo-hoo," Travis says. "We got us a real live religious nut." He retracts the offered can and takes several long swallows, wiping his mouth afterward with the sleeve of his sweatshirt.
"It seems to me," Pete says, "that God wants you to drink. There's wine in the Bible, right?" He looks to Travis for confirmation.
"Goddamn right," Travis agrees.
"So, really, beer's no different than wine," Pete continues, "because they're both made with alcohol." He's being litigious and it makes me smile to see Lola squirm. He lifts his can, angles it at Lola, and I see the focus in his eyes, the shift in his shoulders. He looks ready to pounce. "Or maybe you got something against the Miller Brewing Company? Maybe you prefer a different brand?"
Lola's eyes travel from the can to Pete's face and back again before settling on the ground somewhere around her feet. "Can't say as I do." She shrugs. "Just don't want any. Thank you, though."
I look at Lola with what I'm sure is a scowl on my face. "Well, this ought to be real fun when we play our drinking games," I say. "You wanted to hang out with us. This is what we do."
Carol moves behind me so she's standing next to Lola. "C'mon," she says, nudging Lola's arm, "let's go look at the lake."
"Quit babying her," I say. I finish my beer and reach for another.
Wednesday night, Lola heads off to church for Bible study. She wants me to go with her but I tell her it's a ridiculous waste of time, that church is the last place you'll ever find me. I stop short of saying only losers go to church. Instead, I go to Carol's house. Her mom lets me in, and I find Carol in her room studying for a history test like the good little straight-A student that she is. I plop down into her lime green chair.
She shoves her book and notebook away and stretches out on the bed. "I needed a break," she says.
"If I'd known you were studying, I would've brought my calculus over. I can't get shit done with Twiddle Dee up my ass all the time. Every time I sit down for some serious SAT studying, she's right there, looking like a lost puppy."
Carol laughs. "She's not that bad. I think she's kind of cute."
"Oh, please." I roll my eyes. "I've had it with her fixin' and ya'll and yes ma'am and no sir. My folks, of course, think her politeness is adorable and keep looking at me to follow her example." I lay my head back on the top edge of the chair. "It's pathetic."
Carol jumps up, sweeps her books onto the floor and pulls her comforter from her bed. "C'mon," she says and grabs hold of my arm. "I know just what you need."
In the hallway outside her room, Carol removes a blanket from the linen closet and we head out to their deck off the family room. She picks a spot in the far corner, well away from the house, spreads the blanket out on the deck floor, then folds one half onto the other. She smoothes the wrinkles out, sits down, and pats the space next to her. "Sit," she says.
I comply and she extends the comforter over the both of us. We lie down and tuck the covering around our shoulders. The night sky is clear. After a few minutes, my eyes begin to adjust and I can make out the stars.
"It's peaceful, isn't it?" Carol says, her voice low. "Sometimes when I can't sleep, I come out here. I like being in the open space." After a minute she adds, "I've seen lots of shooting stars."
"Really? That would be cool. I've never seen one." I tilt my head back, searching the sky. "I know what I'd wish for if I saw one, though."
"Bet I know, too," she says. I can feel her smile in the dark.
"The thing is, I don't see her leaving any time soon. It's been three weeks and her parents apparently haven't made any progress."
"How about we take your mind off your troubles?" Carol says with a mischievous grin. She lifts her hip, fumbles around and produces a joint. Reaching behind her, she retrieves a lighter from beneath a pot of mums and lights the stick. The flame frames her face in a small oval of gold.
I take a hit and the sweetness fills me. Another one and my shoulders begin to loosen. With a big sigh, I lace my fingers beneath my head. "This is nice," I say. I focus on the moon, watching as it seems to pulse in time with my heartbeat, and think how marvelous it'd be to fly there, to escape. I recall other planetary bodies from the unit on astronomy last year—Saturn, Jupiter—and wonder what life there would be like. An image of Pete flickers and I feel a magnetic draw. Maybe his force-fucking me was my fault after all. Maybe if I embraced it I could make sense of his hold over me.
Carol pokes me on the arm and my thoughts dissolve. I turn to find her holding the glowing joint nub out to me. "What are you going to be for the Halloween party?" she says.
"Juliet." I finish the roach and rub it out on the deck floor. "Pete can be my Romeo," I add and giggle. I don't mean to giggle but the weed makes me feel wickedly good.
She jabs me in the ribs, which makes me giggle more. "You need to get over Pete," she says.
"I know." I turn on my side to face her and add, "But I don't know how."
"I can help," she says and pulls me to her. "I'll be your Romeo, and I'll make sure we don't die." Her voice is throaty, and I can see, even in the darkness, her face is flushed. Her body radiates so much heat I consider kicking off the comforter. She kisses me, her lips soft and plump and forceful all at the same time.
I pull away. "I don't feel like."
"I can make you feel good." She unzips my sweatshirt, teases my nipples.
Her fingers are magic and she begins working me like a maestro. My insides turn rubbery and my heart pounds. Memories surface, fleeting: hunky Pete sweeping me up in a hug and smothering me with kisses; the startling pain of his knees driving my thighs apart. I force them away by pushing myself against Carol and wonder why I'm so fucked up.
When I wake on Saturday morning, the house is quiet. The silence is eerie and a welcome change from the constant moronic bickering between my parents. They must be out, I decide. I get dressed and head to the kitchen where I assemble the ingredients for pancakes. My mother won't buy boxed pancake mix, says conveyer-belt flapjacks don't taste as good as real ones.
I retrieve an egg from the fridge and when I turn around, Lola's standing there.
"Holy shit," I say. "You scared me." I crack the egg on the side of the bowl, and a fat stream of egg white runs down, following the outside curve. I plug in the electric mixer, pop the beaters into place, and push the lever to medium. Creamy white specks of batter fly everywhere.
"You're supposed to use a whisk," Lola says.
I let the beaters do their thing for another minute, then pour six circles of batter into the electric skillet. "Where is everybody?"
"I was outside," Lola says in her slow drawl. "Your mama went to the grocery and your daddy's at the hardware store.
When the bubbles appear, I flip the circles over and, after another minute, remove them to a plate. "You want some?"
"Naw," Lola says. "I'm not hungry."
I eat until I'm full, then push back from the table and survey the damage. Dried drips of pancake batter dot the counters, the cabinets; wider strips coat the outsides of the bowl and the skillet. Bottles and canisters sit open, their caps and lids pushed off to the side. Soiled utensils lie atop crumpled paper towels. I add my dirty dishes to the counter, return the milk to the fridge, and head to my room.
"What about your mess?" Lola says.
"I'll get it later," I say. "But if you're so worried about it, you can take care of it."
I'm upstairs, tackling the monumental issue of Halloween costumes, when I hear my father yell. I go downstairs and find him standing in the kitchen with his hands at his hips. He's wearing a red flannel shirt and his Wisconsin baseball hat.
He extends his arm toward the counters. "Do we live in a hotel? Is there a maid service I'm not aware of?"
I brace myself. Lola seems to shrink down into the chair.
"Do we not know how to pick up after ourselves?" my father continues, his voice rising. "It looks like a couple of animals got loose in here." He cocks his head my way and bores his eyes into mine. "Whose mess is this?"
Before I can open my mouth, Lola speaks. "It's mine. I'm sorry." She leaps from her chair, slides past my father and over to the sink. She gathers lids and screws on caps, tosses used paper towels, returns pantry items.
My father seems to deflate like a pricked balloon. "Well, alright." He adjusts his baseball hat and slips past me.
I stand, watching Lola rinse and load dishes into the dishwasher, trying to figure out what just happened. It occurs to me that I should take over. But I don't.
The Halloween party starts in an hour and Lola and I are squared off in my room. I helped her with her makeup, but now she's throwing a fit. She thinks going dressed as hookers is trashy and undignified; I think it's funny. Besides, who puts dignified and costume in the same sentence? The outfits include fishnet thigh-high stockings, super short skirts—plaid for me, jean for her—and three-inch stiletto heels. Truth be told, I'm not sure I can actually walk in three-inch heels, but I figure that's part of the fun. I go into the bathroom to make sure my halter top is as form-fitting as I want, and when I return to the bedroom, Lola's got gray, baggy-ass sweatpants on underneath her skirt.
"What the hell are those?"
She looks startled for a second, then something like defiance settles across her cheeks. "It's too cold to go out dressed like a tramp!"
"A tramp? We're hookers, call girls, ladies of the evening," I say. I'm trying to lighten the mood, get her to relax. We've been at this for over an hour and, really, her modesty is just plain tiresome. "Tramp is so fifth grade."
"I don't feel right," she says, pronouncing it riiite, with a three-second vowel hold, "going somewhere with my backend hanging out."
"Girl, you need to get over yourself," I say with more than a drop of annoyance in my tone. "There's nothing wrong with a little booty tease. It's strictly all see and no touch." It's clear I need to save her from herself.
She crosses her arms under her chest, and the movement enhances her overflowing cleavage. She seems embarrassed and grabs one of her ratty cardigans from the bed and throws it on.
I watch her pull the material across her midsection and review her reflection in the dresser mirror. I feel a spike of anger, feel it race through my veins and before I can check myself, I open my mouth. "It's just a costume, for chrissakes. It doesn't change who you are. It's pretend; it's fun. It lets you live a little." I pause, my eyes narrowed and focused on her face. "You're so freakin' uptight, it's a wonder you can walk without breaking something." I slap my hands on my hips. "Here's the deal: I'm leaving in ten minutes. If you're coming with me, you have to wear the outfit as planned. Not the shit you have on covering it up." I roll my eyes down her body. There's nothing remotely inviting about her. "You look like a frumpy old maid."
I snatch my coat and purse and leave the room. Downstairs in the kitchen, I throw chips and dip into a plastic grocery bag and rummage through the pantry for other goodies. Twizzlers and a package of Oreos round out my haul. I sling a "Bye, Mom" toward the family room and walk past the stairs without stopping or calling out to Lola. She can stay home and sulk for all I care.
I make my way down the sloped driveway, aware that one false move and I'll break an ankle. I'm beginning to think three-inch heels are overrated. It's dark outside so I don't see her until I open the door of my mom's Impala. Lola's sitting in the passenger seat, still wearing the sweatpants and sweater. I open my mouth, but she stops me.
"It's just for the ride over," she says, her hand held up like a stop sign.
We drive in silence. Lola stares out the window; I refer to Pete's handwritten directions. It was Pete's idea to christen the fort with an official party.
When we get there, I park behind Pete's truck and we follow the narrow path. The ground is soft and the skinny heels of our shoes sink partially into the earth. When we break into the clearing, the fort is all lit up and vintage Led Zeppelin is blasting from the open-hole windows.
I twitch my head at Lola. "Drop 'em."
Panic skates across her face. "Here?"
"Yes, here. Now. Sweatpants spoil the look, don't you think?" I'm about three seconds from ripping the goddamn things off her myself.
She removes and meticulously folds the sweatpants into a square. I count to ten to keep myself from smacking her. She takes each sleeve of the cardigan and folds in back onto itself. When she bends over and begins looping the buttonholes over the buttons, I jerk the sweater out of her hands.
"Jesus Christ. It's just a fucking sweater." I bunch it into a ball and drop it on top of the sweatpants at the base of the tree. I slide off my shoes, slip the heel straps over my fingers, and motion for Lola to start climbing.
When we finally get inside, the party is in full swing. Travis is dressed as a baseball player—no surprise there—and Carol is a cheerleader with sparkly pom-poms. Pete looks like a cross between the Incredible Hulk and a macho gladiator: his bare chest is painted a dull green and he has a silver sword strapped to his waist.
I plop my snacks on the card table set up in the corner, then find a beer. Lola drifts away and I pop a Cheeto in my mouth and mingle. As the empty beer cans pile up against the wall, Travis gets looser with his baseball glove, cupping various female body parts, insisting he's looking for his lost ball.
Pete changes the music and the space throbs with a hard, driving beat. I feel the booze singing in my veins and soon I'm moving my hips along with everyone else. A baggie of pills appears—white rounds, blue capsules. A bong is passed and sweet smoke swirls through the air. I kick off my heels and flex my toes on the carpet. Carol grabs hold of my arm and twirls me around, pulls me back into the middle of the dancing. She snuggles in close and runs her hands along my back, up and over my shoulders, then uses her fingers to trace the swell of my breasts against my pushup bra. She straddles my thigh, and we shimmy down to the floor and back up. The music bounces all around us, and the lyrics—"I know you want me; You know I want ya"—scorch my brain.
To our right, Travis jerks and jumps, creating a weird dance that only he knows. In the corner, Pete is trying to engage Lola in true he-man fashion with his arm slung over her head and propped against the wall, but she appears disinterested. Carol's warm tongue in my ear brings my attention back.
"You look so hot," she says and nibbles on my earlobe.
Before I can reply, Travis twists Carol out of my arms, spinning her to him like a retracting yo-yo. She giggles and slaps up against his chest. My wet ear feels suddenly empty and cold. I tug my thigh-highs up and make sure my skirt is down over my ass. A Black Eyed Peas song comes on and everyone starts humping and stomping the floor in exaggerated moves. The bong makes the rounds again and after two hits my head feels bloated. I stumble over to the window and lean out. Looking down makes me dizzy so I focus on the sky beyond the fringe of orange-red leaves, a sky so black it seems blue. The stars shimmer and I contemplate the possibilities of creating a meteor shower through sheer will power.
Behind me, Lola's voice pierces my reverie. I duck back inside and find Pete mauling her in the corner. His hands are cupped around Lola's ass cheeks, holding her against him, and he's marauding her breasts with his mouth. I watch and feel myself getting turned on. Lola thrashes her head back and forth, and I wonder at her beauty, wonder why I didn't see it before. She continues to writhe and buck and when that doesn't seem to do any good, she screams.
Pete slaps his hand over her mouth. "Shut up," he says.
Travis moves in, like a minion, and pins Lola's hands to the wall. A nugget of alarm pulses. I flick my eyes across the space and spot Carol passed out under the card table, a bag of pretzels in her hand.
Lola grunts and kicks her legs, but Pete blocks her effort with his hip. He tears Lola's shirt open and wrenches her boobs out of her bra. He manhandles them, leaving harsh red prints on her milky-white flesh.
Travis leans in close, licks his lips. "Yeah," he says, "own those tits, man!"
Eminem explodes through the speakers with a rhythm that's intense and relentless, beating its way around and through me. I watch Lola's skin turn blotchy from the pressure and think, This isn't really happening. Pete lowers his head and trails his tongue up Lola's stomach, around each nipple, along her neck, and into her mouth. Her eyes are wild as she swivels her head away but Travis holds her, facing Pete, with a vice-like grip on her forehead. I watch, transfixed, as Pete grinds against Lola's leg, kneads her breasts with his hands.
Disbelief morphs into dread; an understanding blooms. I step forward just as Travis lets loose with a howl. Startled, I stop and watch as he rips Lola's stockings off and grabs hold of her thigh. He runs his rough hands up and down her flesh, pulling her leg wider with each pass. Stretched open, Lola is naked except for a thin, five-inch band of jean skirt.
The air pulses with a sedulous drumbeat, hypnotizing me. My drugged limbs are heavy, immobile. Travis bends at the waist, touches his tongue to Lola's inner thigh. She strains to bring her knees together, her face contorting with the exertion, and the skin where Travis restrains her turns purple-red.
Pete reaches beneath Lola's skirt and yanks her panties down. He gives another jerk and the fabric splits. He jams his fingers inside her, grunting with each thrust. When he pulls his fingers out, he shoves them in her mouth. "Go on," he says. "Taste yourself."
Pete holds Lola in place with his forearm while he unzips his pants. He flashes Travis a wicked smile and, in that second, Lola brings her foot up and kicks Pete in the balls. He doubles over. Lola pulls free and covers herself with her arms; her disheveled hair hides her face. She keeps her head down as she steps over Pete, stumbles past me and out the door. The candles flicker with all the movement.
Pete's low moans fill the space. I feel my feet against the floor, feel the rage take root in my toes and shoot upward. Three long strides bring me to where Pete lies on the floor. I kick him in the gut. He yells, but I ignore him as I kick him again and again. White-hot fury fills me, and with each strike of my foot against his muscled body, I feel a crack opening inside.
Someone grabs me from behind and drags me away. I turn and find Carol, her eyes wide with confusion. She releases me and I grab my purse and run out.
At home, I draw a warm bath for Lola. I fill it with lots of bubbles, then find three of the fluffiest towels we have and stack them next to the tub. An hour passes before she emerges. I go to her, hug her, and tell her how sorry I am. She doesn't hug me back.
Lola doesn't talk to me for days. When I close my eyes at night, I see only a mess of twisted images, all dark and foreboding. I wait for the lashing from my mother, but it doesn't come.
On Wednesday, Lola asks me to pass the salt. It's a start.
On Saturday, I wake from a nap to find Lola standing next to me. She's dressed in jeans, a black turtleneck sweater, and boots with heels. Slowly she lifts her hand and holds it out to me, palm side up. "There's a Coats for Kids drive going on at church. Come with me."
I look at her face, see the openness in it, and consider her offer. Will the priest be there, the elders or deacons, ready to condemn me for what I allowed to happen? Is that her plan? I check her eyes, but they remain pure and clear. I think about calling Carol: how can I step onto holy grounds without some support? Outside, a truck rumbles by. My eyes drift to my thigh-highs and plaid skirt heaped on the floor.
"Come on," Lola says, pronouncing it own. "It'll be good."
I look at the grayness beyond the window and feel a twinge of irritation at having my nap interrupted. The warm blankets and plump pillows beckon, and I consider slipping back into the oblivion of sleep. Instead, I expel a rush of air from my lungs, place my hand into Lola's, and pull myself out of bed.
Title graphic: "Trouble" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2014.