Saturday, September 18, 2010

Dead Teenagers

The countdown to the second edition is on, so I am posting a sample story. Just to give everybody a feel for the book. There is no favorite story in my collection (*sniff* that's like asking me to pick my favorite child!). This one, however, is undeniably the most personal.


A lot of people I know were what you would call "hip-hop kids" growing up. Kids who got into the music and embraced the culture. Rap, graffiti, breakdancing, etc. I was pretty much the opposite. I was a metal kid. I was one of those kids with the black nail polish and the wallet chains, lamenting the fact that my naturally dark hair was resistant to Manic Panic hair dye. I came up in the late 1990s, so it was all about Korn, Disturbed, Incubus (who I genuinely believe will be the Grateful Dead in 20 years) and, yes, Limp Bizkit. Nu metal, they called it: a rather unfairly maligned mix of hip-hop sonic bombast and post-grunge male vulnerability. From there, I went back and listened to Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Slayer. I went further back: AC/DC, Zeppelin, Sabbath with both Ozzy and Dio. I got into Norwegian black metal and the melodies of power metal.


There's much to like about heavy metal. First of all, the instrumentation. Metal musicians take great pride in being able to play their instruments, pretty much the opposite of a punk band. A guitarist who can't play solos will get shit on by metal veterans.


More important, heavy metal is music without metaphor. Sure, there are some great poets in the genre, but the subject matter is always blunt. They are talking about real life, and there is no buffer between you and those issues. There is nothing to shield you from the terror of your own mortality. There is nothing to protect a child from the abuse of their parents. Heavy metal is about the hate you feel for those who have wronged you. Its about the desire to just end it all. It is about the urge to hurt and destroy others. The power of metal is in confronting these horrors head-on, and coming through a stronger person. My own childhood was not the happiest. The music got me through it. That's what its there for.


This philosophy has stuck with me. To risk sounding like Nathan Explosion, I want all my stories to be metal.


How does this relate to "Dead Teenagers"? Yeah, the characters listen to metal, but that's not it. One of my goals in writing this story (though not the only one) was to do a teen angst story in the language of teen angst. Everything is more profound when you're a teenager. The despair is soul-destroying. Every new experience helps define you. And when you love, it is the love of a thousand suns, which you heap in great waves upon your boyfriend, or a subculture you identify with, or some pop star in Teen Beat who you'll never meet. Its a time when you can pretty much get away with anything, you have no responsibilities, but you're so stressed about relatively small issues you can't fully enjoy it. Too many stories talk of teen angst in hushed, looking-back-from-an-adult-perspective terms. I wanted to do such a story from a teenager's perspective, with all the requisite verbosity (I think Mindy would like that word), and give those feelings the respect they deserve.


Okay, now I'm done with the craft essay. I've read this story a few times at shows, though not enough. Its a blast to read. Bill Kirchner and Maddy Barnes did a killer joint reading of it at the release party a few months ago. And every time somebody comes to me, and says, "Yeah, that's how it was" or "I'm glad I'm not that age anymore." And what's the point of writing, if not to capture universal experience?
Oh, yeah. WARNING: Sexual Content.






Dead Teenagers (from The Jack Daniels Sessions EP)



 
“Like, somebody always dies on Devil’s Night,” Tracy said. They stood on the steps of the Covington Library, which had closed for the night. Skateboarder kids did tricks off the handicap ramp. In the distance, Mindy saw the lights of Cincinnati glowing across the Ohio River. She slid a hand under Tracy’s shirt and stroked his back, unable to shake a sense of foreboding. Whispers, bits of gossip she knew she shouldn’t care about, but they lingered in her mind like a slow poison.

Mindy wore her Marilyn Manson shirt and bluejeans. Band names covered every inch of her black jacket: The Smiths, the Cure, Nine Inch Nails, Green Day, Depeche Mode, Siouxsie and the Banshees. She twirled a lock of hair around her finger, hair that she’d teased and buttered and hot-ironed until it was long and straight like a white girl’s. She listened to a Korn song on her Discman.

Tracy wore his Halloween costume. Black pants and trenchcoat, a long black wig over his afro, white facepaint, black makeup around his eyes and mouth, a paper mache crow safety pinned to his shoulder. He continued with his morbid topic. “Suicide, car crashes, OD’s. Somebody always dies. And, like, the ghosts of kids who die come to kill other kids. If you’re walking alone on Devil’s Night, the ghosts will come get you.”

“How do they kill you?”


“Fucking, I think. Like a succubus.”

“I don’t know what I’d do if I met a ghost,” Mindy said. “I’d probably just be like, ‘Hey, what’s up, ghost? How ya doin’?’ I’d probably scare him away.”

“You scare everybody away.” He chuckled, then turned serious. “A succubus is the worst kind of ghost. They spend eternity just feeding off people’s life force. Since they have no feelings, they can’t even enjoy the feeding. And they’re, like, haunted by the stuff they did in life. Or if they die young, they’re haunted by the things they didn’t do. They take disguises to lure people in, and sometimes forget they’re actually dead. But they always remember, and it’s like dying all over again.”

Mindy shivered at the thought. “That sounds terrible.”

Tracy shook his head. “When I die, I hope I’m just dead. Anything else…” He let the sentence trail off. “You still haven’t told me what you’re going as for Halloween.” He gave her that charmingly crooked grin. “Halloween. Also known as: Mindy Day.” They both laughed. “C’mon, what’s your costume?”

“Okay, but don’t tell anybody. For Mindy Day, I’m going as Dracula!”

“Are you a sexy Dracula?” Tracy asked, hopefully. 

“Oh no. So many girls do the sexy thing. Sexy vampire. Sexy angel. Sexy devil. Sexy insurance salesman. Sexy lunch lady. Andrea can pull off the sexy thing. I’m afraid I’d damage people’s retinas.”

“No,” Mindy continued, “I’m doing total old school fucking Transylvania Count Dracula. I love vampire movies! I can do all the Draculas. Max Shreck.” She skulked with feral shiftiness. “Bela Legosi.” She regarded him with cold aristocratic arrogance. “Jack Palance.” She bared her teeth with the promise of ultra-violence. “Christopher Lee.” She gave him a leer of sexual menace. “Gary Oldman.” She dropped to her knees and wailed melodramatically.

Tracy pulled her to her feet. “What’re you listening to on your heaphones? Korn? Why do you like them? Can’t you listen to Children of Bodom, or Cradle of Filth?”

“I like Cradle of Filth,” Mindy insisted. “Look, I know Korn’s too mainstream for you, but, I dunno, I just like ‘em. I think this song’s about, like, strangling his wife.” She did the Macarena dance, singing along. “Your throat, I take grasp/And your eyes roll back/Love racing through my veins/Your heart stops beating…”

Tracy held her against him. His trenchcoat felt warm as a blanket and his peachfuzz tickled her lips. Their tongues drew closer like magnets. Mindy slid hers along his, tasting his hot breath, touching the familiar parts of his body. Jutting hipbones. Arching back. Sharp shoulders. Wiry arms.

“You’re so cute!” she gushed, putting her head on his chest, feeling his heartbeat flutter against her cheek. Mindy had gone further with him than with any other boy. It wasn’t so bad, the fleshy taste of his cock as it fattened in her lips. She tried her best to make it sexy and fun, though his scraggly pubic hairs caught in her teeth and he came on her cheek. Mindy just licked the salty pearl off her face and smiled. The thought of losing him knotted her stomach, making her clutch him tighter. They made out for ten minutes. She caressed his upper leg, dangerously close to the crotch.

“Man, you big pimpin’ already, Tracy?” said a nasal voice. “Aww fuck!” Mindy cringed. Her oldest memories of Zack Epstein involved him yelling at her in sixth grade tech crew about how she had no idea how to make a styrofoam star. A scrawny boy with a scraggly goatee and a shirt that said “I killed Kenny,” spiky hair, acne like a topographical map on his face. Tracy only hung out with him because he had weed.

Two kids followed him, one of them Andrea. She had always been pretty, with billowy blond hair and pouty lips, but Mindy wasn’t prepared for the knockout before her. Andrea had traded sweatshirts and ripped jeans for a black tank top and short skirt that fit like saran wrap over her deep cleavage and Barbie doll legs. Mindy felt like they existed in two different dimensions: her own body flat as a coin, Andrea exploding from her dress in full 3-D.

Swallowing her unease, Mindy embraced Andrea. “Oh, look at you! You’re so hot!” Mindy wrinkled her nose at the smell of Andrea’s perfume. She reeked of white roses.

Andrea smiled shyly, braces shining on her teeth. “It’s the dress for my witch costume. You know, sometimes you want to wear something girly and cute.” She had a musical Southern accent; a soft, purring quality to her cynical deadpan.

“I’ll have your cape done by tomorrow,” said Mindy. “I’m still sewing.” She turned to the other kid, a new boy. Small, blond and pretty as a girl, he carried a red plastic double-sided lightsaber. “Are you gay?”

“No,” he said, smiling.

“Can I tell people you’re gay?”

The boy blushed red as a candy apple.

“I know I’m really forward. Trust me, you’ll get used to it. You’re so cute! You should dress as a schoolgirl for Halloween. What’re you going as? Darth Maul? Fuck that Star Wars shit. You’re going as a cute goth schoolgirl. Oh, hi, by the way! I’m Mindy.”

“I apologize for her behavior,” said Tracy. “She’s always like this.” He turned to Andrea, desire all over his face. “You’re so sexy!” He grabbed her ass and kissed her deep.

For a month, Mindy and Andrea had shared Tracy. Spitting in the face of normal relationships, they both went on dates with him, both made out with him in the hallways. Andrea had been shocked when Mindy told her about the blowjob. After all, she hadn’t really done anything with Tracy yet. Looking at Tracy making out with his sexy witch, Mindy wondered how long that would last.

“I need a hug,” Mindy said. She embraced Epstein, then the blond boy.

Tracy broke the kiss, kept his arms around Andrea’s waist. “I was just telling Mindy about the ghosts that come out on Devil’s Night. Like, dead kids come and steal people’s life force. Like a succubus.”

“A what?” said Epstein. “A suck-my-dick?”

“That’s not a succubus,” said Andrea. “You’re thinking about an incubus.”

“I like Incubus,” said Mindy, referring to the band. 

“Nobody died last year,” Andrea pointed out. 

“Maybe this year somebody’ll pull a Columbine,” said Epstein. “Just walk up to where the preps hang out and mow down those motherfuckers.” He glanced at Tracy as if looking for approval. Mindy wanted to point out that those kids were Nazis, and why would anybody want to be like them, but it didn’t seem like the right time.

“God, Columbine was so dumb,” Andrea said. “Everybody got all weepy, like it was the first time anybody ever died. Those kids would…have…died…anyway. It’s not fucking important, people.”

Mindy didn’t like it when Andrea said things like that. A part of her envied the Columbine kids she saw on TV, laying wreaths and giving eulogies for dead friends. Caught up in Important Things. Matters of Life and Death. But then she  started thinking about death, and felt small, the world shrinking until it swallowed her. It woke her up at night, screaming in horror.

“I’m bored,” said Tracy. “Let’s go.” Mindy took his one hand, Andrea the other, and they set off down the cracked sidewalk. Past the auto shops and bars of their lifeless town. Just as they started crossing the street, a pickup truck with a Confederate flag on the antenna sped toward them. Tracy yanked both girls back on the curb. A shaggy dog and a shaggy man glared out the window.

“Fucking Columbine kids!” the man yelled as he passed. Tracy gave him the finger.

“Fucking redneck!” he yelled. “I feel sorry for your dog!”

Mindy felt so brave when she was around Tracy. He responded to Columbine by fighting back, becoming more goth than ever. In the middle of lunch period, he argued with the vice-principal over his right to wear a studded collar. He had a witty retort for every prep who asked if he was in the Trenchcoat Mafia. Holding hands, the three of them flaunted their relationship to the Covington residents.

***

“I’m Andrea,” Andrea said in a husky, seductive voice.

“And Iiiiiiiii’m Mindy!”

“And we are the Mistresses of Death.” Her arm around Mindy, Andrea fixed Tracy’s disposable camera with a gaze of nocturnal despair. Mindy licked the plastic scythe. Tracy took the picture. With a quick motion, Andrea drew the scythe across Mindy’s throat.

Mindy grabbed her neck, rolled on the ground. “Ack! Ack! I’m dying!”

Andrea nudged her with her foot. “You know you ruin it when you do that.” Mindy smiled.

They posed in front of a tombstone: “Alma Jane Heder. 1870-1883.” The kids sat around the ancient stones, smoking Camels and swigging from a bottle of gin Epstein swiped from his dad. The blond boy busily prepared their eggs and toilet paper.

Andrea licked imaginary blood off her fingertips. “Tastes delicious.”

“Your mom tastes delicious,” said Tracy.

My mom’s a fucking bitch.”

“I love your mom,” said Mindy, standing up. “She has Lego hair. Do you know how Lego people have, like, that really square hair? Her mom has hair like that. This one time I was sleeping over Andrea's without permission, Misses Rukk comes downstairs and I hide under the bed. And she’s got that green goo on her face and her brown roots are showing and she’s like, ‘Andiiiie! Is anybody with you, Andiiiie?’”

“God, you sound just like her,” Andrea groaned. Mindy munched a bag of candy corn, let her friends take handfuls. Standing on her toes, Andrea kissed Tracy. Her shirt slid up, revealing a crescent of white stomach.

Epstein knelt in front of the tombstone. “Eighteen seventy to Eighteen eighty-three? This kid died, like, a hundred years ago.”

“Can you not be all on the graves?” said Tracy. “It’s, like, disrespectful and shit.”

“Who cares?” said Andrea. “It’s not like they’re gonna be any less dead.”

“I just don’t want them to come back as a succubus and fuck us to death,” said Tracy. Mindy heard the anxiety under his laughter.

Epstein humped the tombstone. “Oh, yeah! Oh, baby! Necrophilia!”

“Fucking stop that!” They all backed away at Tracy’s yell. An awkward silence followed, so tense Mindy just had to break it with a song and dance:

One day I ran
Into a man
And I asked, ‘Why are you all made of bones?’
He said, ‘It’s easy to see!
I live in the cemetery!
That…is…my…home!’

“You have fucking ADD,” said Epstein. “Not the first girl with ADD you’ve dated, huh, Trace?” Why in the hell did Epstein care so much about another boy’s love life? Mindy wanted to push him in a mausoleum and lock it.

“Ta-da!” Tracy opened his trenchcoat and Mindy’s breath caught in her throat. He had enough fireworks in his pockets to make the front page of every newspaper in the country. Another Columbine? they would cryptically say.

“We’re gonna fuck shit up,” Tracy said. “I’m gonna fuckin’ dive in, throw fuckin’ eggs and dive out like fuckin’ Batman.”

“Batman’s a comic book,” said Andrea. “It’s not real.” 

“It would be so weird if real life was like Batman,” Mindy mused, twirling her hair like she always did when nervous. “I mean, if there was, like, an evil clown killing people. And some dude whose face is all messed up, and one half of him’s good and the other half’s bad. If I saw that in real life, I’d be like, ‘What the fuck? This is crazy!’ Like, if you walked in your living room and there’s a little guy wobbling around, like, ‘Wobble wobble wobble! I’m the Penguin!’ It’d be crazy. Then some dude dressed as a bat…”

Tracy gripped her shoulders. “Mindy, it’s okay. Chill out.” She pressed her forehead against his, closed her eyes. He kissed her, left her standing there while he went with Andrea.

“ARE...YOU...READY?” Epstein screamed in Mindy’s ear. “Awwww fuck!” He shoved two pumpkins in her arms. She followed close behind Tracy and Andrea. They whispered to one another. Private jokes that made Andrea crack a smile. Mindy thought about all the things Tracy and Andrea could do when alone.

***

First, the teenagers walked to their high school and attacked it with zeal, flinging eggs at the double doors and the hated classroom windows. From there, they went back to Covington’s main drag and lobbed pumpkins on the street, laughing as they exploded. They hid in an alley to watch the cars swerve around the orange pulp.

Tracy led them to an area of town filled with trailer homes. Children’s toys and rusted car parts lay in the overgrown lawns. The goths stayed on each street just long enough to find a deserted-looking house, splatter every window, smash every pumpkin, drape every tree in TP, then run to the next street. The blond boy wore a huge grin the whole time. Mindy egged houses right alongside Tracy, but he didn’t seem to notice. Andrea stood back, smoking a cigarette and tapping her feet. After every barrage, Tracy went back to her for his “power-up” kiss.

“Aww fuck!” crowed Epstein, wearing a Bill Clinton mask. Mindy looked in a car window at her hair falling in unruly tangles like a Medusa. Desperately, she tried to straighten it with her hands.

“Here,” said Andrea, coming up behind her, pulling her hair in a ponytail and wrapping it with a tie. “There you go. You look great, Mindy.” Mindy saw Andrea’s face reflected in the window. Her friend smiled, showing two rows of small teeth usually caged behind her scowl.

They came to a quiet, dark trailer home. An electric sign in the window read JESUS SAVES in neon-blue like a porn shop sign. A Confederate flag hung off the antenna of the pickup parked outside. “That’s the fucker who almost ran us over,” sneered Tracy. “Fucking redneck and his stupid fucking redneck flag. Hold on. I need a re-charge.” He kissed Andrea. Quickly, Mindy gave him a kiss, too. Reaching in his coat, Tracy pulled out a firecracker, lit it. “Let’s see how he likes not having a mailbox.”

The hissing fuse rained sparks on the gravel. “Tracy!” Mindy cried. “Please stop!”

“This isn’t funny!” said Andrea.

“Blow that shit up!” said Epstein.

“Shut up, Epstein!” they both said.

Tracy lit three more firecrackers, dashed for the mailbox. Mindy held her breath. Just as he prepared to toss them in, a woman in curlers appeared on the front porch.

“Hey! What’re y’all doin’?”

“OH SHIT!” yelled Tracy. Hauling his arm back like a soldier in the trenches, he hurled the firecrackers right at the woman. They burst on the stoop, spraying sparks around her feet. Screaming, she flung herself to the ground. Tracy stared dumbfounded, like he couldn’t believe what he just did. From inside the house, they heard the unmistakable sound of a shotgun cock.

“Run, you fuckers!” Tracy grabbed both the girls’ hands. All five kids ran far and fast, and didn’t stop running until they reached the cemetery. Covered in sweat, Tracy dropped against a tombstone. His black wig frayed; his makeup streaked, creating brown stripes down his white face. He reminded Mindy of Neo from The Matrix. Heroic techno music played in her head as he stood up, disheveled and sexy. She reminded herself she was mad at him.

“Tracy!” roared Epstein. “The pimpinest kid in Covington!”

Tracy grinned at Mindy, sweat dripping into his teeth. “Let me have some candy corn,” he panted.

Mindy dumped it on the ground. “Go get it.”

“I need some weed after that,” Epstein said, like he’d actually done something. He pulled a bag out his pocket.

“Let me roll it,” Andrea offered.

“Yeah right, like you know how. Back off!”

“Can I at least look at it? I want to make sure it’s good.”

“My penis is good.”

Tracy took Mindy’s hand. Her anger forgotten, she followed him under the overhanging branches, into the woods. “Are you two gonna have sex?” she heard Epstein say. “Bowchicka-wow-wow, chicka-wow-wow!”

Moonlight filtered through the branches. Tracy looked like a fairy boy, the shadows of leaves playing across his face. He took one of the Budweisers from his coat pocket, took a long sip and passed it to Mindy. She took an even longer sip, belched. Tracy lay down in the orange leaves, giving her an expectant smile. Lifting his shirt, she kissed the sunken curve of his belly, licked the navel. His stomach tensed beneath her tongue. “You like that, baby?” she asked.

“Yeah.” Mindy lay across him like they did in the halls before first period. His fingers raked her back. She kissed his lips. Suddenly, Tracy shifted, gently pushed Mindy back, and a blond head filled the space hers once occupied. She stared at Tracy and Andrea as they sucked each other’s tongues, making slobbery noises. Mindy continued kissing down his belly, reaching the pubic hairs peeking over his silver skull-and-crossbones belt buckle. For a moment, she considered unbuckling it. No, the kinky things could only be between them. She nestled her cheek against his denim-clad erection.

***

Tired from all the Devil’s Night mayhem, Mindy and her friends went to eat at the truck stop where Mindy worked. They sat at a table by the rack of discount CDs by bands like Cheap Trick and Kiss, bands with more greatest hits albums than real ones. Outside, drunk teenage rednecks smoked cigarettes and danced to Ted Nugent. A kid in a camo hat ran around the lot, screaming maniacally.

“Tyler needs to go home,” yelled the night manager, a pinch-faced woman. “I don’t care who he’s dating who works here. I don’t care if he becomes some Devil’s Night casualty. Get his ass out!”

“I’ll tell him,” sighed a plump girl at the cash register, her piercings and black lipstick clashing with her puke-green uniform. Mindy exchanged smiles with her co-worker as she passed. Sylvia and Mindy were given a choice of who would work Devil’s Night and who would work Halloween. Feeling the burning need to be with Tracy, Mindy took the earlier night.

Tracy watched the kids outside. “Yee-haw,” he said sarcastically. Andrea sat in his lap.

“Is it hard to talk?” asked Epstein.

“Why?”

“ ‘Cause you got that big cock in your mouth, faggot!” He threw his head back triumphantly. “Awwwwww fuuuuuck!”

“Screw you, you dirty Jew!” Tracy did his best Cartman impression. Mindy wanted to fling her Pepsi in Epstein’s face.

“So, Mindy,” Epstein leaned forward, “keep telling us about the fingers.”

“There’s six fingers,” she said in a ditzy voice. “Kiss. French kiss. Handjob. Blowjob. Finger-fuck. Sex.”

“You’re a slut,” said Epstein.

“I’ve only gotten to four fingers!” she said with fake indignation. “I’ve only gone a little. Not all the way.”

“What was it like, Tracy?” Epstein asked.

“Why do you care?” asked Tracy.

“I like giving head,” said Mindy. “You never get the same reaction twice.” Seeing Tracy wince, she tried another tactic. “I’m so glad I’m bi. Isn’t it fun, Andrea?”

“I guess,” said Andrea, as if she herself hadn’t made that same claim a million times. As if they hadn’t made out for Tracy a million times.

“Mindy,” said Epstein, “dick is much better than pussy. I’ll show you mine later. You’ll love it.”

Tracy kissed Andrea’s cheek. Mindy leaned across the table and kissed the little blond boy, with tongue. His eyes went wide. His kisses were small and polite, kind of like himself. Holding her breath, she pretended to like it when Epstein shoved his abnormally long tongue down her throat. He squeezed a boob; she didn’t bother brushing his hand off.

“Aw fuck!” Epstein punched the air. He tossed a dollar on the table.

“What’s that for?” she asked.

“If we give you money will you do number four on us?” The blond boy chuckled at that. “Come on. Let’s contribute to the dick-sucking fund.” Coins and dollars fell in front of her. “Two bucks and sixty cents. That should be enough for her.”

“I don’t think that’s enough.” Mindy still did her ditzy voice, trying not to cry.

“Is she really like this all the time?” asked Epstein.

“No,” said Tracy, giving her a deadpan look. “She’s faking it."

Mindy stared into her Pepsi bottle, feeling sick. "Drink it," said Epstein. "Just pretend its cum." Tracy sighed. No rage. Not even annoyance this asshole insulted his girlfriend. Something inside Mindy withered and died.

***

Sylvia and Tyler kissed outside the truck stop. Cartoon jack-o’-lanterns hung over them like mistletoe. Mindy stood with Tracy, staring at the sidewalk. Holding a Budweiser with both hands, she sipped the watery beer. “Hey,” she said.

“Hey.”

“Do you want to just date Andrea?”

Tracy sighed, ran a hand through his hair. “I don’t know. We’ve been getting really close lately, hanging out and shit. I mean, I like you, obviously…But, you know, to be honest, I’d rather just try the monogamy thing.”

Mindy nodded. “I’d like to make things work, Tracy.”

“Really? I mean, you let Epstein grope you!”

She hung her head, feeling like a waste of life. Like a joke. Tracy gave her hand a totally platonic squeeze. “You’re not mad or anything?”

“Why would I be mad?” she said, her voice cracking. “You two are my best friends. It’s cool.” Her love for him swelled to a flood, carrying her with it. “Tracy, I…Fuck, like…I mean…” Her clumsy tongue couldn’t express what she wanted to say. “I have to go.”

“Why?”

“It’s almost curfew, and I gotta take the bus home. I’ll be okay.”

“Are you sure?”

Grinning, Mindy gave him two big thumbs up. A rusty chainsaw coated in poison ripped through her innards.

“The little Marilyn Manson kids are having a heart-to-heart!” yelled Tyler. “The beautiful people, the beautiful people!” This earned him a glare from Tracy. “Oh no, he’s looking at me! Calm down, dude! Don’t shoot the school!”

Tracy hugged Mindy. She almost let it all out on his shoulder. Almost. Biting her lip, she hurried away. Looking back, she saw Epstein say something to Tracy, jokingly. Tracy pushed him to the ground. Mindy ran past the bus stop, into the nearest McDonald’s, went in a restroom stall and cried.

***

Mindy gave herself up to the night. And the night found her.

A black hole of loneliness filled her. Cocooned in her jacket, she walked along a muddy backroad. Stupid. Worthless. Unloved and unlovely. Any number of maniacs could be hiding in the dark woods, but she didn’t care. Sipping the beer, she listened to her Korn CD, her eyes heavy with tears. “Your throat, I take grasp/And your eyes roll back/Love racing through my veins/Your heart stops beating...” The throat being grasped was hers. So were the eyes rolling back, the heart that stopped beating because it was broken. She blamed herself for not having a perfect body. For being a stupid little girl who fucking kissed Zach Epstein in front of him. She couldn't stop the pain, it was so deep inside her. The world grew smaller, swallowing her.

Over the trees she saw the John Roebling Bridge, a brick expanse across the Ohio that would look welcome over a castle moat. Tracy once told her a kid committed suicide off that bridge. She imagined the water filling her lungs. The veins bursting in her eyes, the world fading into blissful oblivion.

A pair of highbeams bathed her in light. Shielding her eyes with her arm, she watched a blue 1960s-type car in near perfect condition slow down beside her, a pennant that said "#14 Pete Rose" blowing from the antenna. The window rolled down. A handsome black boy with a perfectly round afro grinned at her. "You need a ride?" he asked.

Take me anywhere. “Hold up.” The beer made her dizzy, slurred her words. “Get out the car.”

“Okay.” He got out. Six feet tall, dressed in bellbottom jeans and an ugly beige shirt that looked like something from a rodeo. Mindy sniffed him as he got closer.

“Are youuuuu good to drive? Because you smell like beer.”

“I have been partying, but only a little. You seem like you’ve been partying, too.”

“Shut up. I only had two beers. I need…I mean, youuuu need a sobriety test before I get in a car with youuuuu. Walk a straight line to me.”

He did so.

“Okay. How many fingers am I holding up?”

“Three.”

“Wrong, party boy! It’s four!”

“No, actually it’s three.”

Mindy looked closely at her fingers. “Oh. Fuck.” She giggled, embarrassed. “This sucks. I only had two beers.” She hiccupped. “Sorry.”

Taking her hand, he helped her in the car. His cold skin felt smooth like a child’s. His car had an 8-track player. A pair of fuzzy dice hung from the rearview. It began to rain outside. “You want to listen to the radio?” he asked.

Mindy turned the knob from the Fifth Dimension to Foghat to the Commodores, finally landed on a Joe Cocker song she liked. The car bounced down the bumpy road, its brakes squeaking. “Where are you from?” the boy asked.

“Covington.”

“Me, too.”

She hiccupped again. “Sorry. Do you go to U-Cinn or something?”

He laughed softly. He was a skinny boy, his belt cinched around his narrow waist. “I look that old? No, I’m a senior. What’re you? A freshman?”

“Yeah. Do I really look that young?”

“Kinda. How do you like school so far?”

“It’s alright. I can’t wait to get out, though. I bet being a senior is soooo much cooler.”

“Not really. Like, I just got accepted to Northwestern so it’s like, ‘Why am I even here?’ Just wasting a whole year of my life in Cinci-fucking-natti.”

“Northwestern?” Chicago sounded so exciting. “What’re you studying?”

“International politics. I’d like to work for the UN, maybe do aid work in Africa.”

“Wow. That’s really cool. God, you’re so lucky you’re graduating!”

“So…what are you into?” he asked.

“Theatre,” she said. “I don’t know where I want to go to college, but I’m definitely gonna do acting. I did Bye-bye Birdie at school last month, and it was sooo fun.”

“I thought the fall play was…” He shook his head. “Whatever. I’m glad you had fun.”

Mindy felt a sad pang, remembering the roses Tracy gave her after the first performance. “It’s kinda funny. Like, everybody expects me to be this mopey girl like some of my friends, and when I get onstage I’m all verbose. Well, I’m verbose offstage, too, I guess.”

“I can tell.”

She hiccupped. “I’m sorry. I keep hiccupping.”

“That’s cool. I think it’s cute.” Mindy’s face felt warm. “So what were you up to tonight?”

“I broke up with my boyfriend.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. He broke up with me ‘cause he wanted to be with another girl. I mean, I did make out with another boy in front of him. Okay, two other boys. God, I’m so stupid!”

“Everybody makes mistakes.”

“That’s right. And I’m cool with it. Really. Besides, being single works better for my flirtatious ways.” Guys liked it when girls acted flirty. Still, Mindy hated lying. “Okay, I’m not really cool with it. Usually I don’t let things get me down like this. I mean, like…I know I’m just a drunk girl and I’m probably not making any sense…”

“No, you’re making a lot of sense. It hurts, but it’ll all get better. And there’ll be other guys. I know I only just met you, but you seem pretty cool to me.”

They fell silent. She glanced at him shyly as they turned a corner. He drove expertly along the sharp curves, seeming to stare past the road. He met her eyes, glanced away. “So, um, where’s your place?” he asked. “Where am I taking you?”

On his dusty dashboard, she wrote with her finger: “Mindy Alexis Snyder. July 10, 1984-Oct. 30, 1999.”

“Why don’t we go back to your place?” she said. The boy started sweating.

***

Through the rain-blurred windshield, she saw a shopping plaza. A dollar store, a laundromat, a Michael’s craft store. As the car drew closer, they all rippled like images in a disturbed pond. A new image appeared overtop of them, as if quick-drawn by some cosmic artist: a bungalow on a quiet suburban street. A porch swing, a doghouse, a single light on in a window. Parking by a curb that appeared from nowhere, the boy opened her door for her. The rain felt cool on her skin. Mist rose off the asphalt. The two teenagers didn’t even make it to the front door. Smiling the cutest smile in the world, he kissed her. Mindy slid her arms under his shirt. His body felt brittle as bird bone, like she could crush him if she squeezed too hard. Brittle and cold. No matter how long she held him, he didn’t get warmer. Mindy let the cold spread through her. “Let’s get inside,” she said. “Not out here.”

“We’ll have to go in through the window. Be real quiet; it’s past my curfew.” The boy grabbed the rusty latch, pulled on it with a grunt. It didn’t budge. Gripping with both hands, he leaned back until sweat beaded his forehead. “Fuck!” Mindy took the other end and, together, they forced it up with a shrill, parent-alerting screech. The boy froze, nervous. After a minute of silence from inside, he sighed in relief.

Mindy gave him a high-five. “Go teamwork!” she said. The boy slid his gangly body through the window one leg at a time, landing awkwardly on the shag carpet. Taking her hand, he helped her in. They immediately started making out. “You’re so pretty,” said Mindy, caressing his sharp cheekbones. “You’re so sexy.”

“Shhh. My folks sleep on this floor.” Carefully, she followed him past his parents’ room, the door ominously ajar. Through the crack, she saw two shadowy figures snuggled in bed, in the light of a rabbit-ear TV playing “Happy Days.” Only when they reached the end of the hall did Mindy let herself breathe easy. She looked back and saw only darkness, like the hallway had been erased. Or it had never been there at all.

Indeed, it seemed the boy carried an invisible lamp, lighting the house as he passed. Everywhere they walked, she saw the rooms in clear detail: the kitchen with paisley-print wallpaper, suede furniture in the living room, sepia-tone photos hanging in the hallway. It all receded into darkness as soon as she had her back to it. He led her through a bead curtain into his basement room. He had a mattress on the floor, Sly & the Family Stone posters on the wall, a lava lamp. A vinyl record player sat atop a cassette player. Records from bands like Earth, Wind & Fire and Parliament-Funkadelic littered the carpet.

Mindy held up one of the albums, gave him a wry look. “Really? Wings?”

The boy shrugged. “I’ve always been a big Paul McCartney fan. I can’t deny it; sometimes I listen to white people music.”

“It’s cool. I do, too. Yay, white people music!”

“You’re so cute,” the boy gushed with a smile.

Holding her from behind, he kissed her neck. Hard, bruising kisses that made her gasp. She winced at the sting of his Arctic breath. Tilting her neck, Mindy opened her mouth and accepted his tongue.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked. “I mean, are you sober? I don’t want to do this if you’re drunk.”

“You’re such a sweetie,” she cooed, wrapping her arms around his slender neck. “I’m one hundred percent sober now, and I do want to do this.” His fingers roamed over her stomach, brushing her studded belt. She sensed the anxiety in his shaking hands. “You can take my pants off, baby.”

Getting on his knees, he undid her belt with some difficulty. Next came her pants, which bunched up at her knees. Together, the two of them absolutely failed to pull them down.

“Oh, God!” Mindy laughed. “This is so retarded!” Kneeling down, she pulled at them until she fell on the mattress, knocked the back of her head on the wall.

The boy rushed to her side, placed icy fingers behind her head. “Are you okay?”

“I’m sorry,” she gasped inbetween laughs. “I’m sorry. I’m so fucking sorry.” Stretching out her legs, she helped him finally pull the pants off. Mindy kissed his eyes. “You have such pretty lashes.” With as much sultriness as she could muster, she said, “You can put it in, baby.”

He pulled down his underwear. His dick was half-hard, a sleepy garden snake in a tangled black forest. She touched it. Immediately, she had yellow gunk webbed between her fingers. Groaning in misery, the boy put his face in his hands.

“I’m sorry,” he moaned. “I suck so much.”

“No, it’s okay. Look.” Licking her hand clean, Mindy put her lips on his dick and sucked all the way to the end. Fleshy taste. Hairs in her teeth.

“I love you,” he told her afterwards.

“I love you, too,” she said.

“Hold on.” He opened his nightstand drawer, dug deep and, with a “Eureka!” look, pulled out a condom in a plain plastic wrapper. Mindy chuckled.

“You’ve probably had that since you were twelve,” she said. “Try to make sure it doesn’t crumble up.” Hungrily, fiercely, they made out. The blood in Mindy’s veins boiled. Her heart pounded fast as a speed metal drumbeat. The heat inside her body froze to ice. Moving her hands all over him, she shivered at the touch. It felt so good. The cold made her kiss him faster. The boy’s breathing grew fitful. Her breath frosted. Both of them moaned with fear and longing, anticipating the moment he put it in. Locked together in a chain of exploration.

She felt numb. She felt light as mist, but Mindy only cared about the beautiful boy who would take her virginity, the way the gold crucifix around his neck caught the lamplight, the blizzard tearing through her. You’re beautiful, a voice soothed in her mind. You’re sexy. I want you. She wanted this. She wanted to disappear inside him. He ran his hands through her hair, started to undo the tie to let it fall free…

Mindy started as if she’d been shocked. Andrea had put the tie in her hair. Seeing Mindy’s hair troubles, she’d helped her friend out. It had always been that way with them, ever since elementary school. Sharing clothes, CDs, magazines. Good times and bad times. Boys. A flood of memories came back to her, times she wouldn’t trade for anything in the world. Times she didn’t want to let go just yet. Breaking the kiss, Mindy looked into the boy’s eyes: no longer hazel, but milky, glazed, unmoving. Screaming, Mindy pushed him away.

The rush of weight back to her body struck her so hard she fell on the floor. The boy put his arm around her. “I didn’t hurt you, did I?” he asked.

“I can’t do it,” she said, taking deep breaths to calm herself.

“That’s cool,” he replied, putting a blanket over her. “We don’t have to do it.”

“I left my friends. I should probably go call them. At home. Not that you aren’t a sweetie—”

“No, don’t worry about it.” He tried to sound happy, all the while holding out his arms, his hazel eyes pitiful with longing. Mindy’s fear faded and she felt like hugging him. She didn’t know why. Embracing his thin body, not for too long, she asked him for a ride back.

***

The boy drove her to the end of the backroad where he found her. She kissed him softly. 

“Thanks,” she said. He smiled, squeezed her hand. After walking a little, Mindy looked back. The windshield obscured his face so that she only saw disembodied features floating in the dark: thick lips, broad nose, mournful eyes staring at her. Finally, the boy turned his car around and rumbled back down the road.

“Mindy!”

A pair of pick-up truck headlights blinded her. Tracy jumped out, grabbed her hands. “Are you okay? We were looking all over for you!”

“Why? What happened?”

Andrea came to stand by Tracy’s side. “We called your mom and she said you weren’t home, so we went out looking for you. Sylvia gave us a lift.”

Mindy’s co-worker Sylvia waved to her from the driver’s seat. Her drunk boyfriend slept peacefully in the back.

“Are you okay?” Tracy asked again.

Mindy looked at Tracy and Andrea. Her best friends. “Yeah,” she said, smiling. “I’m okay.”

The blond boy sat in the back of the truck, moved over to make room for Mindy. Everyone she hung out with that night was there, except one. “What happened to Epstein?” she asked.

“Epstein was being a douche,” Tracy sneered, “saying a bunch of inappropriate shit. I told him he was a fucking poser and made him go away.”

“Good. Fuck Epstein. Fuck Zack Epstein up the ass with a plastic fork.”

Sylvia turned the radio to a rock station. “And now, the song you’ve all been requesting,” said the DJ. “Ever since we debuted this, it’s all anybody ever asks for. This is the new Korn track, called ‘Falling Away From Me,’ only on W.O.X.Y., the future of rock and roll!” Mindy and Andrea hugged each other, squealing in excitement. The churning guitar blasted from the stereo. Everybody started headbanging, filling the car with flailing hair.

Hey, I’m feeling tired.
My time is gone today.
You flirt with suicide.
Sometimes, that’s ok.

Sylvia pulled off the road. Spilling onto the grass, the kids danced under the full moon. Mindy, Andrea and Tracy headbanged until they felt dizzy. Mindy broke out the tango, tap dance and Irish jig. She danced with Tracy. She danced with Andrea. Tracy danced with Andrea. Laughing, the three of them collapsed in the wet leaves.

Beating me down.
Beating me, beating me
Down, down.
Into the ground.

They found Zack Epstein’s body the next day. Lying in the mud along the backroads, not a mark on him. They called it a suicide. Drugs, probably. His parents suspected foul play, saying some rednecks must have killed him. For awhile, Mindy’s life became consumed in Important Things. Matters of Life and Death. His death struck her harder than anything ever had. She felt horrible, because she’d hated Epstein, even felt glad that he’d died. Mindy spent a year in counseling, trying to deal with the guilt.

Tracy took it the worst of anybody. His moods grew darker, his obsession with death stronger. Andrea wanted to make things work, went so far as to sleep with him, but confided to Mindy that she couldn’t take his constant gloom. She dumped him, joined the pom squad sophomore year and started dating some guy on varsity. She and Mindy talked a little after that, then only waved to each other as they passed in the halls, until one day they walked by each other as strangers. To the day they graduated, Tracy called Andrea “sell-out.”


Most of Mindy’s friendships didn’t last past high school. Some kids started liking guns and NASCAR and quickly became people she didn’t want to be around. Drama, distance and disinterest killed the other friendships. She stayed friends with Tracy until college, when he sent her an email saying she was the only woman for him, how he loved her enough to take her with him to the grave. Mindy never replied.


Sometimes she went back home, visited her parents, talked to some old teachers. Inevitably, she drove down the Covington backroads; bouncing along the potholes, the branches clawing and scraping at her car. She would look out the window and see the blue Buick Skylark that crashed years ago, now a moss-covered home for rats and squirrels. When she came to the street heading back to town, she could always see the ghosts of herself, Tracy and Andrea dancing in the grass.

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