By Sophie Nagelberg
Picture this: two pale-skinned, freckle-faced fifteen-year-olds, barefoot, holding cans of Schlitz and chucking handfuls of raw beef scraps and rolls of toilet paper onto Mrs. Pickering’s lawn, her driveway, and on the windshield of her semi-absent husband’s four-door Ford pickup. It’s the middle of the night, locust season, and big, brown moths pound the streetlights buzzing with electricity on an otherwise quiet stretch of road. Mariella, the blond one—the prettier one—with her muscular legs, leads the whole operation with full force, squealing at Wren where to aim and how to throw.
“To the right—no, to the left. On the windshield. Yes, yes, yes,” she orders, but not too loudly because inside is the Pickering family, asleep, in five separate beds in five separate bedrooms.
“I got it,” whispers Wren. “Okay!” She tucks her red hair behind her ears and gives Mariella an I’m-not-an-idiot-I-know-how-to-throw type of look.
Mariella’s squeezing the meat and feeling the juices run down her wrist, the irony not lost on her: the time she tried to commit suicide to The Cure’s Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, last winter in her tiled bathroom upstairs, with its farm-themed wallpaper, unchanged since she was a kid. She lay there, barely bleeding, staring at the dancing pigs and cows, but nothing ever happened. Nothing happened and then her father knocked on the door, demanding to be let in. And though Wren is “one-hundred per cent on board” (she keeps saying), she’s tossing toilet paper like a quarterback at a homecoming game, it’s Mariella who’s got a deeply rooted seed of hatred planted somewhere in her sternum and it’s Mariella who feels it sprouting through her lungs and growing into her heart and her throat. The girls took Mariella’s car to Kroger’s and it was Mariella who made the purchase with a check she’d cashed from her grandmother. Eight small oozing beef scrap packages wrapped in cellophane from the meat counter (on sale, $3.39/lb.) and an economy-sized package of Charmin Ultra Soft with a smiling brown bear on the front.
It all starts with a quarter-mile bend in the road in a nothing town full of something people. The bend in the road is near the high school, in a residential neighborhood full of big houses, their yards green with St. Augustine, where kids play with garden hoses and pets bake in the sun within the bounds of electrical fences. The high school students who cut through the residential route do this to avoid traffic, but also to experience the sensation of control, shifting gears, gassing and gunning it from one stop sign to the next, swirling through the curves and bends, while their overstuffed backpacks shift in the trunks, squishing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and dime bags full of weed crumbs. Teenagers speed around this particular bend in the road because that’s what teenagers do: they speed to impress the pretty girls who smell like fabric softener in their cars, or the freshmen in the back seat who don’t yet have their shiny licenses from the DMV. They don’t think much about this speeding because they are young and free and invincible.
The gothic-brick house located directly in the middle of this particularly large bend in the road was for sale, and on one or two occasions (probably more) some of the high school kids would sneak around the back, climb down the ladder into the vacant outline of a pool, light up a joint, and pretend they were swimming through glorious blue, chlorinated water. They didn’t try jumping into the empty pool or anything foolish as that. They only sprawled out on their backs or bellies on the hot cement, taking long and thoughtful hits from the joint, and feeling the sun pelting their invincible faces and imagined it—the swimming. It was all pretty innocent.
What happened next was this: the For Sale sign disappeared and Mrs. Pickering moved into this house with her three small children. Dewey, 10; Rafael, 7; and the little girl who did not speak. Her name was Velvetier, 5. Mrs. Pickering had a husband—a doctor—but where he spent his time outside of the hospital, she did not know. And she didn’t really ask. She used to ask, but he’d shrug his hairy shoulder and say, “On call,” as though it were an answer to anything and everything.
“Why don’t we make love anymore?” Mrs. Pickering asked.
“On call,” said her husband.
Mrs. Pickering was always alone: at soccer games and at class plays, at the picnics, and so forth. And this wasn’t all that surprising because she was a rigid lady, with a sharp beak-like nose, and long, stringy hair that tangled at the bottoms and near the nape of her neck. There was something scaly about her. Was it her skin? Too much time in the sun, perhaps? She drove an Escalade. The teenagers stopped using the vacant pool, which was no longer vacant. Now it was filled with that gleaming blue, chlorinated water the teenagers had dreamed of, and a small robotic mouse roamed the bottom, sucking in remnants of dead leaves and pine straw.
Here’s where things get complicated.
Across town, there was a boy—Dewey’s age. This boy, Lucian, went to school with Dewey, and though they were not exactly friends, so-to-speak, they weren’t not friends, either. But once Lucian was diagnosed with some aggressive illness which began eating him from the inside out, all the boys considered Lucian a friend. You can’t not be friends with the sick kid. The dying kid who had this hungry caterpillar gnawing its way through his intestines and into his stomach. Everything Lucian ate fed the caterpillar and then he could not eat. But how would the caterpillar eat? It did not matter. Poor Lucian, everyone said.
The brave little boys at school shaved their heads to demonstrate their solidarity, but it was only Lucian who had the ever-hungry caterpillar called cancer marching around and around his insides and munching the lining of his stomach as though it were fleshy greenery. Dewey shaved his head, too, and Mrs. Pickering thought this to be divine. How courageous her son was. Mrs. Pickering hadn’t ever met the boy, Lucian, but any mother could imagine. The horror.
Back to Mariella.
Mariella was a freshman at the high school, reaping the benefits of having an older brother in the senior class. The brother was not of the football-playing jock type of cool, but the artistic type with a keen sense of humor and none of that gangly awkwardness that plagued so many of the boys. The brother’s name was Bryce and he got on well with most everyone. He didn’t use the words bro or dude, but he’d often say what’s up, man, even to address the girls. Bryce usually had bits of dried paint on his forehead, crusting into his hairline, and on his hands and arms. Bryce was a painter. When the bits of paint began to dot his clothing, it sort of became part of his uniform—dark clothing dotted by vibrant hues of hardened paint. The girls found this endearing, and the boys admired him because the girls slept with him—or at least two had that anyone knew about, so there were probably more, for all they knew. Bryce was also one of the kids that used to sneak into Mrs. Pickering’s vacant pool, before it was Mrs. Pickering’s non-vacant pool.
Anyway, after Mrs. Pickering moved into the new house—the gothic-brick one—she began to notice how the teenagers sped around the bend and past her property. She heard their blaring music—those damn teenagers, they didn’t even look where they were going—and she told the women in her mahjong league about this. It wasn’t really much of a league, but rather six housewives seated around a circular table, flipping tiles and drinking Chardonnay. The women at mahjong sympathized, but they couldn’t get emotionally invested, unless they had a second glass of Chardonnay. It was then they could grow weepy, especially the menopausal ones. But mostly they shrugged, the same shrug as Mr. Pickering’s, only their shoulders weren’t hairy and they spoke in clichés. Boys will be boys, they said, which didn’t even make that much sense. It was the teenagers, not just the boys. The girls did it, too. They were just plowing through the neighborhood and this wasn’t acceptable because Mrs. Pickering’s kids (Dewey, Rafael, Velvetier) played out in the yard and in the street, though they weren’t supposed to go in the street, but often they went running after a baseball, and what was Mrs. Pickering to do? She wrote down license numbers, often incorrectly, and reported them to the police. She put up a hand-painted sign that read “SLOW DOWN KIDS AT PLAY,” because the city’s sign was a good one hundred yards too late, depending on which way the teenager was coming from. And Mrs. Pickering even stood out on her lawn just after three o’clock, when school was letting out and yelled at the speeding teenagers, which made her think it wasn’t happening every day, and maybe it wasn’t so bad, and she’d go back inside feeling sort of at ease but also kind of defeated, but eventually she’d hear those teenagers flooring through again and she’d think enough is enough. What could she do?
It only took six months for the ever-hungry caterpillar, which turned out to be some form of stomach cancer, to destroy Lucian’s insides. With his family at his side, he died in his parents' home, in the living room where sunlight shined through the blinds and a display of greeting cards was arranged on the fireplace. One of the cards was from the Pickering family. It was months old at this point and lacked a personal message, save for the cursive scribble that read, “Get Well Soon, Love, The Pickering Family.” It had balloons on the front. But really, thought Lucian’s mother, balloons? But who’s to judge? Everything just seemed so wrong. But of course it did; her only son was dying. He was already dead.
On a cool evening, some weeks after Lucian’s death, Bryce and his girlfriend, Tatum, drove out to the beach. It was summer. The days were long and the roads were longer. There wasn’t all that much to do besides sneak beers from their parents’ fridge and sit on porches, counting the days until they went off to college. They took four bottles of Coors Light and crammed them into Tatum’s purse. Not enough to get them drunk, between the two of them, but Tatum could get a little buzz if she didn’t eat dinner. Soon, they would go off to college, and leave this little town behind. Bryce wanted to go with Tatum, but he wouldn’t tell her this. Tatum would go to UNC and Bryce would go to community college—or not.
On this night, they shared the beers and made out, Tatum getting sand in her shorts and between her painted toes. On the way home, it was late and dark, and at exactly the wrong moment, a large opossum with flashing eyes came dashing into the road. The opossum was a mother-opossum, and it had baby opossums inside its belly, stacked like the bottles of beer in Tatum’s purse. Bryce gasped, braked, and swerved. Tatum hit her head. Bryce overcompensated, swerved the other way. “Shitfuck!” was his last word, merged together like that, with no breath in between. The car flipped once, then stopped. Bryce was dead.
It just so happened that one of the ladies in Mrs. Pickering’s mahjong group knew Bryce and Mariella’s mother well enough. This woman, Mrs. Compton, was quite devastated over the sudden death of Bryce. So young, so full of ambition. Well, maybe not so much ambition, but, oh, his paintings. Had the others seen his paintings? There was so much depth, so much heart. A painting of a dove was on his funeral brochure. It was as if he knew, as if he’d painted it just for the occasion.
Bitter Mrs. Pickering didn’t know about Mrs. Compton’s relationship with the mother of Bryce and Mariella because Mrs. Compton tended to mind her own business—most of the time. But sometimes, people get pushed past their limits. It was a Tuesday morning, foggy, and so humid, the women had to roll their hair twice. Chardonnay sat on ice and the glasses sweated. Mrs. Pickering took small, dainty, stupid little sips, and let it out. “Those good for nothing speeding teenagers.” She flipped a bamboo tile. “All the speeding. You know, it’s a shame—it really is a shame that a good kid has to suffer a true real illness and die that way. A child with cancer, Jesus help us. The suffering.” This was her talking about Lucian. But she didn’t stop there. “Maybe that Bryce Goodman got what he deserved. Hmph.” She flipped a blue wind tile.
The thing about small towns is that word spreads like wildfire. While Tatum, grief-stricken and withdrawn from her first semester at the college, recapped her version of the accident (the opossum, there was an opossum), no one wanted to hear the opossum story. They wanted reckless abandonment—the drinking, the speeding, teenagers in love. Was it suicide? But, no, they were both in the car. The town speculated about young love and fast death and wondered about the morals of the next generation. What will become of our children? Mrs. Compton wasted no time at all. That Tuesday night, she phoned Mrs. Goodman, the mother of Bryce and Mariella, and she said, “Now, I just want you to know what Mrs. Pickering said about your son so that you can treat her accordingly.” Mrs. Compton, the savior, the hero, with lipstick on her teeth. “Mrs. Pickering said your son deserved it. That Bryce deserved to die.”
And Mariella. Poor Mariella, heart-broken over the loss of her older brother. Her only brother. If only she’d picked another conversation to eavesdrop on.
If only Mrs. Compton had kept it to herself.
If only Mrs. Pickering wasn’t an old witch with tar in her heart, maybe Mariella could just be left alone to grieve. But, then where would she direct her anger?
A light came on in Mrs. Pickering’s house. “Go, go, go.” Wren drew her arm and threw the last of the toilet paper into the tallest tree and the girls watched the trail of whiteness shimmer in the moonlight like a flag of double-ply surrender. They left the plastic wrapping crumbled on the curb. Mariella started the car, and the two drove off with blood on their hands.
Sophie is a graduate student at Columbia College Chicago. Her writing has appeared in Specter, Black Heart Magazine, Blinking Cursor, YVYNYL, and Threshold. She is currently working on her first novel, a work of historical fiction. Follow her at @SophieLeighN and @videotapenoise.