It was unbearably hot outside, even at night, and the heat followed them wherever they went. Extreme temperatures may not have been uncommon or unexpected – especially not in this part of the country at this time of the year – but they still took their toll on the energy levels of the campers, at least until the sun disappeared over the horizon, after which the moonlight and stars instilled in them a new, demonic kind of energy, crackling through the air with sinister purpose.
They hissed her name but she still took the time to close the cabin door as quietly as possible, lest she wake and incur the wrath of some counselor whose mind was so bogged down with scripture she had forgotten the fiery passion that burns in the bellies of youth. Hers burnt now, thinking about a smile and laugh that was waiting for her on the other end of the night.
“Alice!” Mona hissed again, her eyes flashing with mingled excitement and fear. “Come on! We’re already late.” Mona was right, of course, like when three years ago she had told them that they needed to quiet down unless they wanted to get caught, but the girls laughed and ignored her and continued their gossip by the light of flashlights and cell phones, and when Miss Patricia (never Pat) had come in she had screamed until her face had turned purple, and as if that wasn’t bad enough Mr. Bodett had talked to them the next day about obedience, with Patricia never Pat standing behind him with her arms crossed and her mouth a thin line, perfectly still. Still, she was Mona, and Alice’s step slowed almost on its own as she darted away from the door, smiling to herself.
Some of the girls were carrying flashlights, but the sky was clear and soon they had turned them off (all but Mona, of course) and they darted through the trees like wood nymphs in Shakespeare, off to cause mischief among the humans. A film of sweat formed on Alice’s face, she wiped her forehead nervously with the sleeve of her shirt, feeling with her other hand her hair, which had taken on a life of its own: she then, must be Medusa, and he would turn to stone as soon as they met the boys by the riverside.
“Alice,” and Helen’s arm was there in hers. “Come on. We’re already late.” She lowered her voice. “Sorry to be a Mona about it, but, you know, the sooner we get there…”
“Come on, Alice, Bobby’s waiting!” Audrey yelled, and there were squeals and giggles and tittering, and suddenly it seemed fifty degrees hotter. Alice tried to stop again, but Helen pulled her, and so she planted her feet and Helen nearly fell. The others faded away, seeming further and further as they left the trees and ran through the field, free and far enough away at last to scream and laugh as much as they liked without fear of yelling and shame and God only knew what else, and the woods became less Shakespeare and more Dante, with the entrance to hell waiting behind some tree or beneath some rock, and from there came the heat and the sweat. Neither of them would budge: they stared each other down.
“I changed my mind,” Alice said. “I don’t want to get in trouble.”
“You won’t,” Helen said. “Because we won’t get caught.”
“How do you know?”
“Have they ever been caught?”
They hadn’t, but Alice accepted this like a child accepts cough syrup.
Helen raised her eyebrows. “That’s right. Now stop pouting. They’re all going to be waiting for us. What’s Bobby going to think?”
“I don’t care.”
“Yes you do. Now let’s go.”
Alice relented, and they left the woods, following the sounds of merriment and the flicker of fire that pointed them to where the other girls had met the boys, just as every group of thirteen-year-old girls had met every group of thirteen-year-old boys at Jericho since, as far as they knew, it had first been. Watching her friend’s back, Alice wondered what Bobby would think when they walked up together, emerging from the dark and appearing in the firelight, where the rest of them were now, waiting.
“What are friends for? You might want to wait until tomorrow morning, though.”
“Wait for what?”
“To thank me.”
“What took you so long?” Audrey said, and Robin giggled beside her and whispered in her ear, but Alice wasn’t listening because sitting on the other side of the fire were the boys, and among them was Bobby, laughing, his face glowing red and flickering. She and Helen sat down.
The heat of the fire was worse than the heat in the air, but better, somehow, because it was under their control: they had made it, and, when the time came, they would kill it. The heat beyond them was wild and untamed, but their fire was like a family pet, a calm, docile and worthwhile companion. This, too, seemed beyond reality: a domestic phoenix, held to their discretion and at their mercy. Alice brushed the sweat off of her forehead again. The fire jumped and crackled with such energy it felt almost as if it was producing a small breeze.
“I told you you were going to be late,” Mona said.
“Shut up, Mona.”
“Hey, hey, it’s fine,” Glen said, holding up his hands. “We’re all here now, aren’t we?”
Glen, the peacemaker, was on one edge of the boys’ line, Toad was on the other, with Bobby in the middle and Jason and Scott sitting on either side. It made him unreachable somehow, forbidden, and Alice brushed down hair with her hand, gazing at Bobby but pretending that it was her shoes, or the dirt, or the fire.
Toad said, “Yeah, so cut the shit!” There was a general uproar: part shock at his daring, part moral reprehension, and Alice, unsure of where to fall between the two, appeared to do nothing at all, unsure if by that she hoped to be invisible or to be noticed. She thought about it, and smiled, then immediately stopped, as if just by thinking about it she was telling the world and Bobby, and if Bobby knew he might laugh, he might not want to, and what then? So she sat and tried not to think, or, at least, tried only to think of other things, things having nothing to do with that, which was difficult with Bobby sitting there, but she tried anyway, even with it on TV and in pictures and with Mom and Dad each morning before they went to work and other times besides. But Bobby couldn’t know, even if it was everywhere, and even if it was only a kiss, or at least that’s what Helen said: only a kiss, and Alice said are you joking, and Helen said no: it’s only a kiss. It may seem like a big deal now, but it isn’t. And Alice shook her head and threw up her hands, but there was no point in arguing with Helen because if she thought she was right then she would argue forever, and Helen always thought she was right, especially in matters of boys.
“So who’s going to tell the first story?” Mona said, and they jeered at her, but Glen again held up his hands and said that someone had to, and once Glen began saying it they began to agree and settle down. Mona glared out from under her bangs like a drawing of a Neanderthal woman in a science textbook, her victory bittersweet because it had been stolen from her, but she said nothing and Alice couldn’t feel sorry, not for Mona, who yelled and ordered and only stopped frowning to pout. She hadn’t even felt sorry for Mona when Helen and Robin had told her at one lunch two years ago that they had found Mona alone and crying in the bathroom because of something that Audrey had said that had made Jason laugh, and at the time she had liked Jason, though that stopped when he laughed at her, or so she said. She brings it on herself, Alice had said, and so she now thought. It was silent except for Audrey and Toad whispering and a general giddy atmosphere that acted like laughing gas, and Alice suddenly realized that though the fire had lit them all and made everything visible and even somewhat whimsical (the flames did dance, after all), it had also made the surrounding area darker, and that darkness hid God knows what. She wished she was sitting next to Bobby, then hurried the thought away and watched the fire.
“Bobby?” Jason said, looking at his friend.
“Weren’t you saying something earlier about having a good story?”
“Oh yeah, but I don’t want to be the first one to go. It will make you guys look bad.” His grin was mischievous and beautiful, and she was so lost for a moment she could not help but look right at him, only realizing after the fact that he was looking back.
“Come on, Bobby!” Toad said, and that was a match that set off another powder keg of jittering, until Bobby, laughing and looking from face to face, finally conceded to tell his story, but before he began to speak he looked again into Alice’s eyes, and for the moment he belonged to her. Then he began to tell his story and he belonged to all of them, to the world, and to heaven and hell.
“This is a true story. It happened in the eighties in New Orleans. It was all over the news, too – that’s how I found out about it, my uncle told me and my brother one night to scare us. But I looked it up on the Internet to check and it’s true, so if you don’t believe me you can look it up.
“There was this woman named Frankie Freed. She wasn’t anyone important, you know, just a poor black woman who lived in New Orleans. Nothing uncommon. She has a son, he’s just a kid, probably no older than us, though I don’t remember, and they live together in a tiny apartment that’s so run down that the city is getting ready to kick them all out and tear it down, on account of it not only being so unsanitary with all the rats and roaches and a magnet for crime, but also because it’s falling apart at the seams to the point where it’s dangerous to even set foot in there.
“It was just the two of them, which, you know, isn’t so uncommon with poor black people in places like New Orleans, but nobody had any idea who the father was. With most folks there was at least some idea, but, at least as far as her neighbors could figure out, there weren’t really any clues. Though she’d been living there when she got pregnant and the kid had grown up there, there didn’t ever seem to be any men that came around, and she didn’t really do much talking to anyone that lived around there: just left for work early every morning and came back late every night. The neighbors weren’t even sure what it was she did for a living. She had no friends.
“Of course, with her being the way she was and all of them being poor, they all wondered about her. Some tried to be friends with her, bring her food when they could and invite her to parties and whatnot, but she hardly ever even said a word: just said no and went back inside her apartment with her eyes down. She was a mystery, but when mysteries keep on being mysteries people tend to come to accept them, and the mystery itself becomes like an answer, until something happens that raises new questions and renders the mystery fresh.
“One night neighbors heard a noise like an explosion come from the apartment, and when the police showed up they found Frankie Freed sitting in a chair with her head in her hands and a shotgun in her lap, sitting perfectly still, and lying on the other side of the room was the boy with his head blown off, blood and brains painting the walls. They took her in but she wouldn’t talk, though, she just sat there, completely silent, staring off into nothing. There wouldn’t have been much fuss if it had stayed that way: detainment, a trial, and then prison for however long.
“Eventually, though, all the words that she hadn’t said for all those years began coming out, and she began talking, and her story began to take shape. She knew the boy’s father, but at the same time she didn’t – she had gotten pregnant with him after being raped when she was still a teenager and she’d had the baby, not because she wanted to, but because she had no other choice. So she watched him grow up, the rapist’s child: saw his face every day, heard his voice, and lived over and over again the worst nightmare of her life. One day, she said, she just couldn’t take her mind off of it, and she went out and bought a shotgun and killed the boy that night.
“Once that got into the news it exploded. It’s easy to see why. But suddenly what happened to Frankie Freed became a very real concern for a large number of people. There were groups fighting to send her to prison or even death row, and there were groups who were fighting to free her, saying that she was a victim of a corrupt system. The trial came quickly.
“The prosecution was pretty ruthless, but the reason that millions of people kept tuning in was because they wanted to see what Frankie would say. Most people, you know, they just can’t identify with someone who would do that, but they’re attracted anyway, both attracted and repulsed, and they want to either see them crucified or vilified.
“She got up on the stand and answered questions. She was dressed in an old dress, probably the nicest one she owned, and she answered the questions curtly. She didn’t try to fight. Her answers were honest, almost homely. The prosecutor asked her why she did it and she talked about the rape and about seeing the rapist’s face in the boy’s. He asked if she would do it again if she got the chance, and she sat silently for a moment, pressing her lips together, and said that she didn’t know.
“The prosecution won the trial and Frankie was given a life sentence, and she is still there today, rotting away in prison in New Orleans, forgotten by the world, just as much as the boy. In a way, she’s just as dead as he is. Trapped in prison for the remainder of her life, never able to go anywhere or do anything or be anything more than what she was, and to be forgotten forever except in the footnotes of old books and on the margins of the Internet. I guess, though, that’s more than most people can ask for. But maybe not. I guess there’s no way to know.”
Compared to Bobby’s, the other stories seemed childish, silly; the sort of thing that lives under your bed in the dark and can be banished by nothing more than your parents’ word. The breeze had stopped and the heat had settled in, taking its place all around them, and as the fire slowly burned itself out that wet feeling returned, settling in, and Alice wiped her forehead and tried patting down her hair again, briefly, but by then it was already too far gone and even she could see that, even with her mind dwelling on other things. It was getting dark when Mona suggested that they return, since it was getting late, and they all agreed once Glen repeated it with his hands held up like a traffic cop saying STOP.
Something inside Alice tore apart as she walked away from Bobby, and maybe it was for this reason – definitely it was partly for this reason – that when Mona approached her she frowned and tensed up, looking for Helen or Audrey so that she could have someone to talk to while she ignored Mona because ignoring was always easier when you were doing it with someone else. Mona, though, was used to being ignored, and as such she was able to ignore that she was being ignored as she approached Alice and quietly said her name. Her voice was an aberration, an intrusion on the natural order of things. Alice ignored her, so she spoke again, and a third time, until she was begrudgingly acknowledged.
“Alice, I know it’s not my business, but it’s better that you stay away from Bobby.”
What did she know? The story he had told… the story, he had told it with something like pleasure, his words rolling off his tongue with a relish that echoed like the incantation of a devil worshipper, which was scary, but exciting, too, because after a week of talking about Jesus in the daytime it was a relief to have Satan brought up at night. He was even more attractive to her now, somehow. She hadn’t known it was possible, but before she had only been smitten and not scared, and now the inkling of fear that she had had dripped into the well of passion and made it more potent, somehow, which had made the thing that tore inside of her when he went away tear that much harder and more completely.
“Shut up, Mona.”
“Alice…” Mona said, reaching for Alice’s shoulder as she entered the forest, but Alice jerked her shoulder away. “He’s dangerous, Alice! There’s something really wrong with him!”
Alice turned, leaning against a tree. “You know, Mona, I don’t think there is. I think you’re just jealous. Just because none of the boys like you and you have no friends, you think you can just ruin everyone else’s life. Leave me alone.”
Mona glowed palely in the moonlight, her head hanging as she said, “You’re my friend, Alice.”
“Fuck off,” Alice said, and she stormed into the woods, everything a rush, with trees standing solidly like ghosts in rows and rows that led everywhere, with beasts all around and bearing down and God in Heaven turning his head away because he could not bear to look at sin and so no one could save her: she was alone.
“Alice,” he whispered, and Bobby smiled at her and she couldn’t help herself, she smiled back. “I was hoping I could catch you alone.”
“Me too,” she said, of course, because she had no choice, and because she wanted to. When Bobby was there she could not think of monsters.
“I thought so.” His eye was on her, hooking, burrowing, and Alice felt as if she were a tree herself, transformed by his gaze, or would if not for the heat inside her, which dwarfed the oppressive humidity of the atmosphere and, she was positive, had never been generated by any tree. He moved toward her and she focused on the heat to remind her that she was human. A tree, she thought, would have burned up by now.
“I thought so,” he said again, this time in a whisper, and his face was so close to her that she could feel the cloud of his breath (humid, but in a different way from the air, in a pleasant way) on her cheek, a sensation that she savored with each exhalation and longed for with each inhalation. Her legs were rooted but if she could have moved them she would, so she was thankful for her roots, and when his lips pressed against hers she felt her humanity return in full force and her arms lifted, moving slowly until they wrapped around him and they stood still like a classical statue, perfectly formed, and there would be photos of them in magazines and websites and in history textbooks, which she could show to her grandchildren with him smiling and looking fondly on. Then it started to hurt, though, and when he shoved her it was rough and the back of her skull rapped against rough bark, but when she tried to cry out he silenced her with a kiss and when she looked down she saw that his hand was wrapped around something that stared at her menacingly and she screamed as loud as she could.
“Alice! Alice, stop,” Bobby said frantically, looking over his shoulder as he zipped himself up and put his empty hands on her shoulders. “Please. Please stop.”
He pleaded, but she broke free and ran as fast as she could through the forest, her mind replaying the kiss and the trees and the stare again and again, and her heart pounding so that she thought it would explode, which she would welcome, whatever it meant.
Helen wanted to talk, of course she did, but Alice kept her eyes down and packed her things in silence. She tried her best to be solitary and prayed that they would come to pick her up before she was able to talk to Helen – or that Helen’s would come to pick her up – but it was easier said than done and when Helen approached Alice looked away, tears in her eyes that she told herself were from the sunlight.
“So?” Helen said. She was smiling.
Alice shook her head. Helen, still smiling, pushed, naming by name, and finally Alice looked her in the eye, and with that Helen began to understand and she asked what he did, but Alice only looked back down at her feet and felt the sun frying the back of her neck as her hair hung down around her face, and she said, “Mona was right.”
“Mona. She warned me last night, about him, and I didn’t believe her.”
Helen tried to come up with some excuse, some line of reasoning that would exclude Mona from being right, but, silent, she hugged her friend instead, and Alice fell into the embrace as into a childhood bed, closing her eyes and resting her head on Helen’s shoulder and crying softly to herself.
“What happened?” Helen asked, and when Alice didn’t answer she allowed her that, for which Alice was thankful. For now she was a teddy bear, and Alice hugged her tighter, like she had when there were monsters under the bed that she was certain were there, though she had never seen them, not then. Now I’ve seen one, though, Sally. Now I’ve seen one and I miss you.
“I can’t,” she said.
“It’s okay, dear. It’s okay.”
But it couldn’t last forever. Helen emancipated herself, carefully but firmly, and when her parents came she vanished like a mist. The herd was thinning: she saw Toad but the other boys seemed to be gone, and she walked in a wasteland of superhero t-shirts and plastic hair clips and laughing in two variations of a single pitch because time and puberty had yet to work their magic.
She thought she was alone by the cliffs until she saw Mona, whose back was turned. She said her name and she turned, and Alice saw that her friend (and she knew that she was her friend now, in spite of everything that had been done and said to her, because only a friend would have looked out for her and taken care of her and warned her away, kept her safe and warm and the darkness at bay with a small but comforting halo of light) had been crying, her eyes swollen and red and her cheeks glistening.
“Mona,” she said. “You were right. I’m sorry.”
“What do you want? Haven’t you had enough? Haven’t you?” Her fingers were clutched in front of her, her back was hunched, and her nostrils flared like a rabbit’s. Alice took a step back and started to hold her hands up, saying, “Mona…”
“Go away! Go away! Leave me alone!” Her shrieking continued and Alice turned tail and ran, ran, not caring where she ended up, because she was surrounded by children and animals and monsters, and because they were all the same.