the destroyer > text > Anna Reeser
Tommy left knowing he smelled terrible. It was his deep scalp-grease and armpit scent, woven into the only shirt that made sense to wear lately—the giveaway from a 5k he’d run a few years back. It was frayed at the sleeves. Tommy was generally frayed: the thrift store hemp pants, the unplanned dreads, the breaking sandals, the lack of a job after quitting his gig delivering organic pizzas to parents of his more successful friends in their stucco hillside mansions. He had run out of clean underwear a week ago, and had started going commando in his hemp pants. It was comfortable in an odd way and was a symbol of his recent freedom from Basil Roma. As he flapped down his parents’ flagstone path toward his old hatchback, the second strap on his left sandal snapped.
Tommy turned around to see his mother, looking prim and righteous in her yoga pants, staring out the narrow window beside the closed door. She waved coldly. Tommy’s mother had approached him in the kitchen to say that she and Tommy’s father (who was out golfing with someone from city council) felt it was time he got out of the house to get himself together, to start thinking about going back to City College, and to stop smoking pot on the upstairs balcony. Tommy shifted his daypack on his shoulder. He’d just crash somewhere for a couple days, then figure his shit out. He did not wave back but took off his grimy sandals and threw them against the newly planted violets, destroying some petals.
Alice had been looking forward to Talia’s party for weeks. Her seventh grade class at Bay Laurel Montessori was small, so there weren’t many chances for a good birthday party. Most of the parents, Alice’s included, were no-cable-no-sugar types who insisted on early bedtimes and closed-toed shoes. But Talia’s mother was fun. She was a single mom and a real flip-flop wearing hippie, and although there was no TV or candy in their house, Talia could choose her own bedtime. Talia’s mother had also agreed to the impossible double party: beach trip and sleepover.
It had been sunny in the valley, but fog hovered over the ocean. Still, the six girls ran into the freezing ocean in their tankinis. Alice watched from a blanket. She told her friends she wasn’t ready to go in, that she would make a sandcastle and warm up. Stupid. She wasn’t warming up at all, just growing colder with her feet jammed in the damp sand and her shoulders shivery and bare. There was a Tupperware of watermelon cubes nearby and an empty bag of Sunchips. She took a few cubes but they were mealy and warm in her mouth. Talia’s mother sprawled on a sarong, her white moley legs exposed. She was buried between a giant sun hat and a big paperback with the title “Cleanse: Detoxify Your Mind and Body.” In the water, Millie yelled loudly and her red hair rose above the waves. She was in a tomboy phase and wore board shorts, but on top she had a real sports bra, stretchy and blue, because she actually needed one. Alice’s friends divided pretty evenly into boobs and no-boobs. Alice was in the second group, as were the two skinny girls who ran shivering out of the water.
“I can’t believe they’re still in there! My toes are freezing off.”
“Yeah, Alice, you’re smart.”
Alice squinted at the water where Talia’s round, sunburned face broke from a wave and Millie’s coppery hair disappeared under the foam.
“I might go in later,” said Alice.
“Seriously, thanks for letting me crash,” said Tommy, cranking down the window so the beach air blew in. Tommy had parked his car at Stephen’s and they were on their way to the coast.
“Dude,” reassured Stephen. “Mi casa… you know. I hope you don’t mind this beach trip. It’s just my mom needs me to drive a few of Talia’s friends back to the house for the sleepover.”
The old sedan coughed as Stephen pulled into the State Beach parking lot. A few sage leaves dangled from the rear view mirror and Stephen was wearing a U of Oregon sweatshirt.
“How long are you in town?”
“Just till next Wednesday, then back up north,” said Stephen. “It’s Spring break.”
“Oh shit! Spring break,” Tommy crooned.
They got out of the car and Tommy looked down at his bare feet, dark with dirt and toe jam. He would have to find a new place to stay soon. As they walked he shuffled in his pockets for his tiny corked jar and rolling papers.
“Hang on, Teph, I’m gonna roll us a joint.”
Tommy crouched on a rock and tried to shield his papers from the wind.
“It’s cool, we don’t have to smoke.”
“Come on, it’s a gift. Me to you.”
“I’ll pass,” said Stephen. “I kinda stopped. I’ll get drug tested when I start EMT training. Plus Caitlin’s not into it.”
Looking up at Stephen, Tommy could see into his long, flared nostrils and his blond hair flapping around in the wind.
“Caitlin.” Tommy had forgotten that Stephen had a real relationship. Caitlin was smart, always using SAT words and making people feel like idiots.
“Yeah, she’s on vacation with her mom. Did you and Jill—?”
“Fuck Jill. Jill’s a piece of shit,” Tommy blurted.
“Woah, sorry. Hit a nerve?”
“If by that you mean Jill’s fucking crazy, cause she is. I dumped her.”
They started walking down the staircase to the beach. Tommy narrowly avoided stepping on a cluster of glass shards. Jill was not a pretentious Caitlin type, but Jill was nuts. She was bipolar and Tommy always said something that set her off, then she’d go dye her hair purple or dark green and disappear into an Ayn Rand book for days. Two months ago she had called Tommy abruptly, from a windy roadside, to say she’d had enough of his shit, enough of their hometown, and was moving to Albuquerque to live with her sister.
“I’ll meet you down there,” said Tommy.
“Ok.” Stephen jogged down to the sand.
Tommy crouched in the iceplant and lit his joint. The grey waves crashed hard into pieces of driftwood. Stephen had a way of making one feel like shit, just by his effortless success. A girl with bright red hair sprinted out of the water shrieking. Tommy took a sharp breath and coughed until his forehead was slow and misty.
All of the girls were drying off and putting on sweatshirts. Alice made a sand castle and was adding seaweed trim to the doorway. Talia’s brother was reading, but his friend acted spastic. He would run towards the water and get his bare feet and pant cuffs soaked, then eat big handfuls of watermelon. His eyes were buggy and he looked like a male medusa with his dreadlocks and hemp necklace flailing. He was about as tall as a high school boy.
“He’s so random,” said Millie, who watched him intently from her hood. “Hey, Talia, wouldn’t it be funny to race with him?”
“With Tommy? I bet we could beat him!”
Millie and Talia dashed toward him, he grinned, and they all ran along the sand. Talia fell behind immediately and shuffled back to the blankets giggling. Millie’s unzipped sweatshirt flapped like a cape and her long legs carried her fast but Tommy was even faster. When they were several umbrellas away, they slowed down and turned back. Millie seemed to have struck up a topic. She was fearless and a good talker. She even knew how to steal a boy’s hat in a flirtatious way.
“Hey,” said Millie. “Want to see my necklaces?”
Skidding onto the blanket, Millie pulled a handful of intricate hemp necklaces from her bag. They were just like Tommy’s, with embedded shells. Alice wished more people would notice her handmade beaded choker, but she was too shy to bring it up.
“That’s really cool. Wait, you seriously made that?”
“Yes!” Millie beamed.
The other girls had started another castle and Alice went to join them. Their architectural feat didn’t get too far because Talia’s mother rose in her billowing skirt and signaled that it was time to go.
“There’s a casserole in the Crockpot and I made carrot cake,” she assured. Millie protested that it wouldn’t be dark for hours. Talia sighed. Alice and the other girls quickly gathered their towels and the sleeping bags they’d brought. The group started up the stairs and their many legs shed gusts of sand.
“Three of you have to ride in my car,” said Stephen.
Girls piled into Talia’s mom’s green van. Talia and Millie went for Stephen’s car. Alice saw the empty seat and didn’t want to stall everyone, so she slid in. She was glad to be in the hot car to recover from the chill of beach fog. Millie’s voice rang over the grumble of the classic rock station.
“I don’t know why we had to leave so early. We have hours of daylight left. When my mother took us to the Laurel Mountain swimming hole, we stayed till eight o’clock.”
“Whatever,” defended Talia, “there’s cake at my house. And we’re going to play ten fingers.”
“Hey,” Tommy broke in, “have any of you been to Sulfur Springs? They smell weird but they’re the best hot springs around here. They’re up Laurel Mountain but pretty far from the road.”
“No,” said Talia. “Sounds cool though.”
“I’ve never been,” said Millie. “Do you know the way?”
“I know a secret way,” said Tommy.
“WE SHOULD ALL GO,” gasped Millie. “Talia, your mom could drive the other girls and we’ll take this car. Yay, hot springs!”
Stephen turned up the radio because “Going to California” was playing, and the conversation stopped until the car rounded a few curves and pulled up to Talia’s house.
Tommy sat cross-legged on Stephen’s beanbag chair with a handful of extra cake. He popped sticky crumbs into his mouth. Stephen was organizing some papers in a file cabinet and asking questions every so often.
“So why the exodus from your parents’ place?”
Tommy said nothing and chewed a chunk of carrot-crusted pineapple.
“Are you finally taking the road trip?”
“Possibly,” mumbled Tommy.
“Are you still working at Basil Roma?”
“Naw, I’m done with that.”
The whole purpose of Tommy’s job at Basil Roma and living with his parents was to save money for a road trip through Nevada, Colorado, and Texas. He would write about his travels for a Lonely Planet guide. Jill would have gone with him, but she always seemed skeptical. And now Jill was gone, so it would be a solo trip. He could go, but it was easier to stay. His parents were hard-asses but were rarely home. The pool house was like a tiny, rent-free apartment and the economy was shit anyways. Tommy spent evenings reading Eiger Dreams and eating cold Basil Roma pizza and sometimes smoking on the upstairs balcony. He still got up to the mountains every weekend but he’d run out of new trails. Tommy tried to massage his tensing shoulders and thought about rolling another joint.
“It’s good you’re getting out of that house. Are you thinking school? There’s girls . . .” Stephen trailed off.
“Yeah,” said Tommy in a fake low voice, “no lady wants to be with some kid who lives with his parents and delivers pizzas—I’m gonna be a real man now.” The little room began to feel stuffy and Stephen chuckled weakly. Tommy stretched his shoulders.
“Hey, do you want to go for a drive? Up to the hot springs? We could smoke a J, just kick it. I need some air.”
“I don’t know,” said Stephen, “I’m pretty tired; I went for a run this morning. Plus, it kind of makes me paranoid.”
Tommy rolled onto his back like a dying bug. He wanted to get away from Stephen’s house already. He’d been saving paychecks and only spending money on weed and grilled cheese ingredients, so he had enough to live on for a few months. The maps for Nevada and Colorado were already in his car. They’d been there for the past three years. He righted himself and fumbled for his weed jar.
“Better not do that in here. My mom will smell it and freak out.”
Tommy groaned and stood with irritable soreness throughout his body. Stephen’s room had a screen door to the backyard, so he let himself out and rolled a joint in the light of the last streaks of sunset.
After cake plates had been stacked on the coffee table, Talia’s mother laid a tarp on the sparse lawn. The girls unfurled their foam pads and sleeping bags.
“Arrange them so our heads are in a circle,” suggested Talia. “Then we can talk.”
It was a brilliant idea, solving the problem of separated gossip groups. Alice pushed her sleepover bag into place. She had already changed into her lavender pajama pants and put her long hair in braids so it wouldn’t tangle in the night. Millie’s hair was wild from ocean water and she wore plaid boxer shorts for pajamas. Alice and Millie used to have sleepovers all the time and do kid things like pretending the bunk bed was a ship. Lately, Millie preferred Talia as an after-school companion, probably because she was good at riding bikes, talking to boys, and could tie-dye tee shirts. Millie grabbed Talia’s arm, which was decorated with friendship bracelets.
“Let’s ask your mom,” Millie whispered.
“The hot springs! We should go now.”
Talia nodded and they cornered her mother by the oak tree. Alice couldn’t quite hear them but could make out squeaky pleading voices and could see Talia’s mother shake her head and raise her wrinkled hands in frustration.
When sun left its last magenta glow in the sky, all of the girls wriggled into their cocoons. Millie sat on top of her sleeping bag with a restless expression.
“So we can’t go to the hot springs,” said Talia, “but whatever. Fingers out!”
The girls filled the circle with painted nails.
“I’ll start,” continued Talia. “Never have I ever kissed Beau Stanholm!”
“That’s too specific,” hissed Millie. “You’re targeting me.” She retracted a finger.
“Wait, I’ve kissed Beau too,” whispered another girl, red-cheeked and smiling. Everyone gasped then broke into a fit of giggles.
“He gets around!”
The next statement was from a studious girl: “Never have I ever drank alcohol.”
Millie was the only one to pull a finger in.
“My dad let me try his beer,” she boasted. “I thought it was good.”
“If that counts, then me too!”
“I’ve had wine at church!”
Four girls proudly bent their fingers. Drugs-wise, the Montessori kids were pretty sheltered. A bag of pot had appeared in the boys’ bathroom at the larger public middle school, but not at Montessori.
“Never have I ever played Seven Minutes in Heaven,” admitted Talia.
“I’ve played that,” smirked Millie. “On the 7th–8th grade campout. I got Robert Bane.”
“Is he a good kisser?”
“He has nice hair,” contributed Alice. She had never kissed anyone. She’d missed the sparse occurrences of Seven Minutes in Heaven and Spin the Flashlight that had been played amongst her classmates.
“Your turn Alice,” reminded Talia.
Alice’s silver ring glinted in the moonlight. All of her fingers were splayed out. Should she say she had never kissed anyone? No. Everyone else would get a finger. Alice’s face grew hot. She didn’t want to stall.
“Never have I ever been to Sulfur Springs,” she said.
“Me neither!” scoffed Millie.
Nobody had ever been to Sulfur Springs, so no fingers moved.
Tommy pinched the ash end of the joint to save the rest for later. An orange cat leapt onto the fence and stared him in the face. Its tongue poked out of its mouth a little bit.
“What’s up,” Tommy said aloud.
The cat spooked and jumped into the neighbor’s yard. Stephen seemed to be on track to become like Tommy’s parents, with their small-town politics and e-trading and cold egg white omelets. Tommy stretched and walked quickly around the yard, feeling better. He was an adventurer, a discoverer of places. Back in high school, he brought groups of friends to camp in Sulfur Canyon and led them to the hot springs to smoke and look at the stars. He shimmied between the fence and the side of the house, following the giggles of Stephen’s sister’s sleepover. Through the window, he could see Stephen’s mom asleep in her soggy armchair with a jam jar of wine in her hand. Tommy chuckled to himself. He took a few more steps on the dry dirt and found himself standing by the tarp of girls with their sleeping bags in a weird crop circle.
“Hi,” he announced.
Alice turned to see the tall boy’s stringy arms outlined in the warm glow from the house.
“Tommy!” said Millie, crouching like a lion. “Guess what? Talia’s mom said no hot springs.”
“Bummer. Stephen bailed too.” Tommy put his hands in the pockets of his floppy pants. He looked up at the sky for a few moments, then at the road. “But I could go,” he said. “I have my car right there. Yeah, I have my car but it’s kind of small, so I could take two or three people. I’ve been there a million times. It’s a really cool place.”
“I want to go,” said Millie. She stood on her knees and faced the group. Alice was mostly in her sleeping bag, but poked her shoulders out. The other girls huddled with their hands in the circle, still playing the game. “Talia, come on. You wanted to.”
“I don’t know,” Talia’s brow tightened. “Let’s stay here.”
The other girls nodded and burrowed their chins. Tommy jingled his car keys.
“Anyone?” sighed Millie.
Alice sat up higher. The air was minty and the stars were bright. Maybe she should try to be daring for once.
In a blur, Alice scooted out of her bag and found her sneakers. She followed Tommy and when she turned back, Talia stared at her with frightened eyes. She thought she saw Talia mouth the words “don’t go,” but it was dark and Millie was already hopping into the front seat of the little car, so Alice kept going forward.
Tommy’s radio played the classic rock station, just like Stephen’s. The car had a smell of lavender soap and something murky— maybe old sandwiches. Alice’s leg touched a moldy, balled-up sweatshirt. She watched familiar street signs pass until the car turned onto the mountain road. Millie told her famous poison oak story as the car dipped in and out of pitch-black turns. It felt like they were going up a roller-coaster, getting ready to barrel down too fast, and Alice’s stomach turned. Alice had forgotten to bring a bathing suit, but she could go in the water in her clothes. She wondered how far the pools were from the road and was glad the moon looked bright. Now she and Millie would have a rebellious story to tell together: a nighttime adventure to the secret hot springs. She turned her ring on her finger, turning it faster as the car rose into the night, then pulled off the road with a dusty squeal.
Tommy nodded to himself, glad to have found the right turnout. People always missed it, but if you counted five curves after the tunnel then saw the big boulder, you were good.
“Sulfur Springs,” he declared. “The adventure begins. Vamanos!”
Millie, the redhead, smiled and asked how far it was.
“Not super far. I’ll lead the way.”
His rough feet touched spiky rocks as he walked toward the trees. He didn’t have a flashlight, only his lighter and weed things, but the moon was extremely bright. He pushed through low branches and found the path, which wove between big white boulders. He spotted the faded bandana he’d tied there when the crew partied at the hot springs for high school graduation. Everyone was stupid and just learning how to get drunk. He’d led them all down the path in their sandals with forties, the girls in their jean skirts, Jill prancing around. A good soak in the springs would be good for his soul. He turned to make sure the girls were doing okay, and they were climbing over the rocks just fine.
The smell of sage was suddenly overtaken by the stink of rotten eggs. Alice and Millie followed Tommy down a narrow path through low shrubs. The main pool was dark and still. It was separated from the creek by a wall of rocks where old pieces of candles were scattered. It was the perfect secret place.
“It smells funny,” remarked Millie. She prodded the hot water with her finger.
“That’s the sulfur,” said Tommy. “Also, you should know, it’s cool to go in in your birthday suit. All the hippies do,” he said. “So just turn around for a sec, okay?”
Birthday suit? Was that what Alice thought it meant, naked? Were they supposed to go in naked with him?
“Just look away for a second? K?”
Alice felt like guinea pig held high out of its cage, heart fluttering. In a mix of curiosity and fear, she did not look away. Then Tommy just untied his pants and they flopped down and there were no underpants or anything. There it was—an alarming collection of shapes topped with unexpected dark hair. She’d never even kissed a boy! But she only saw a flash of it, because he leapt into the dark water and then he might as well have been wearing trunks.
“Don’t you want to get in? It’s super nice.”
Millie’s face reddened. “I guess.” She pulled off her tee shirt and stepped into the pool in her sports bra and pajama shorts. She stayed at the far end of the pool, keeping a distance from Tommy.
Alice didn’t want to be a naked hippie, but she didn’t want her pajamas to get soaked. Obviously they had driven all this way; she had to try the water. The air was getting cold. A feeling rose in her throat, half-formed, the strange nausea that comes after a bad dream where you steal candy from the shelf by the grocery checkout. Alice’s feet touched slimy moss and when Tommy seemed distracted she slipped off her pajama bottoms and descended into the water before the white flash of her underwear could be seen. The pool felt like a bathtub that was cooling off too quickly and the rock under Alice’s thighs was slimy. Scummy water soaked up her shirt. She felt something brush her toes underwater and she gulped down a scream.
“Sorry,” mumbled Tommy.
It must have been his foot, but Alice could only think of his penis under the water swimming toward her like a piranha. Wind shuddered the leaves above their heads. The sound was ghostly. Some oak pollen fell into the pool, disturbing the water. Tommy searched for something in his crumpled pants pocket. It looked like a small, misshapen cigarette.
“Want to smoke some herb?” said Tommy.
He lit the cigarette and inhaled. The smoke came out of his mouth like car exhaust and smelled like the dog’s fur after getting skunked. Alice’s chest tightened. She hoped nothing would happen to her if she breathed some of the smoke in. She looked at Mille, hoping to make a silent pact, but Millie’s eyes glittered in the moonlight.
“Is it pot?” asked Millie, putting on a brave voice.
“Yeah. You’ve never smoked it before? Basically every teenager in . . .” Tommy’s voice wavered. “Here.” He handed the cigarette to Millie.
“Okay, I’ll try. What does it do?” The baby fat showed in Millie’s cheeks.
“It just makes things seem more interesting,” said Tommy. “Careful, hold the other end. Now act like you’re drinking soda from a straw . . . That’s it, now blow out.”
Millie’s face reddened. She barely blew out any smoke, just a thin mist. She sniffed and thrust the cigarette back at Tommy. Her eyes teared up, either from the strong smell or because she was scared.
“Not bad for your first try,” said Tommy proudly. “How about you?” He offered the herb cigarette to Alice and ash fell into the pool. The nauseous feeling rippled through her abdomen and she glanced at Millie’s face, which was now pale, with flared nostrils.
“No thanks, not right now,” whispered Alice.
“That’s chill,” sighed Tommy. “How old are you guys, sixteen?”
“Twelve,” said Mille. “Going on thirteen.”
“Oh.” Tommy’s bug eyes became very wide then he hunched his shoulders.
Alice wondered how old Tommy was. It hadn’t crossed her mind before. He seemed like a high schooler, but he was friends with Stephen, who was definitely old. Millie looked unaffected by the smoking and was tying her hair in a bun.
Alice felt very uncomfortable now. Her shoulders and nose were chilled in the dry air. She had a sudden vision of her and Millie being carried into the dark shrubs by the naked Tommy in a haze of smoke, helpless and stupefied by its drugging effects. Across the stream, a rusty drainpipe dripped from one of the nearby mountain houses. Quivering trees created drapery around the pipe at the water’s edge. The scene seemed familiar and scary.
She remembered bits of a news story her parents had talked about in hushed voices, trying not to scare her. Alice was sensitive and her parents didn’t want to worry her with all that crap on the news, which was why they didn’t have TV. But once, she heard them talking about Candace Winters, who had disappeared when she went to the Arco Station to buy candy. She had been taken to the mountains by a strange man and the police found her skeleton two years later in a pipe. Nobody ever told Alice how she died exactly. Maybe it was a rape. Alice knew what rape was, but no one really talked about it except boys who said, “I got raped by that math test” and teachers told them not to joke about it. Candace Winters had a memorial fountain made for her in the park. That’s why her parents always said vaguely, “don’t talk to strangers, even if they’re asking for directions.” That’s why her parents still didn’t let her ride her bike past the post office alone. Alice gulped hard, like at the beginning of crying, but her eyes were dry. Tommy didn’t seem like a kidnapper, but maybe that’s how kidnappers were. Funny and nice seeming, then they had you—stupid girls—in the mountains.
Alice’s face must have twisted into a worried expression, because Tommy was saying, “Are you okay? You’re being really quiet. Hey, is she okay?”
Alice hated when people accused her of being quiet; it always made her quieter.
“Hey Alice,” hissed Millie, “What’s wrong? You look sad.”
Alice held her elbows. She felt tears press under her lids like teakettle steam.
“I’m sort of cold,” she managed to say. Alice wished she could see lights other than the moon, which outlined every shape in white. The pool smelled rotten, like a dead mouse hidden in the garage.
“We’ll go back soon,” said Tommy. “Just let me finish the joint.”
Alice held her hands in fists and wanted to demand they leave now, but she said nothing. Tommy sounded honest, but who knew? He could be a liar and a kidnapper. Even if he got in the car, what if the herb smoke made him swerve off the road? Maybe a car accident would be how they’d die. At least Millie wasn’t acting drugged. Maybe she hadn’t breathed much into her lungs. Alice waited what felt like an hour for Tommy to smoke the cigarette with a semi-guilty look on his face. Then he mashed it into a rock and stood. Alice looked at the sky as he put on his pants. The stars were flecks of broken glass. She pushed out of the water and found her pajamas as quickly as possible. Her wet underwear immediately soaked through the cotton pants.
Finally Millie stood up too. “Let’s to go back to Talia’s.” She grabbed Alice’s hand, which made Alice feel like the dumb kid, but was also comforting. Alice realized that her fingers felt freezing against Millie’s. Alice followed Millie and Tommy back to the car. She remembered the bandana, the boulder with lichen freckles, the trees with smooth red trunks, all visible in moonlight. When the trees opened up to the road, she strode toward the car.
“Straight back to the party,” said Millie. She sat in the back with Alice this time.
Alice closed her eyes as the car crawled down the mountain. Each curve made her stomach clench. They went so slowly it felt like the road was coated in molasses.
“I’m glad we’re going back,” Millie whispered under the hum of the radio.
When they finally arrived at Talia’s house, only the porch light was on. They crept through the gate and Tommy said nothing then snuck to Stephen’s room. The girls were asleep in their bags, some with their snoring faces out and some buried all the way inside. Talia was the only one sitting up, shivering in her tie-dye sleeping shirt, chewing on a strand of her hair. She smiled but it looked like she had been crying. Alice and Millie knelt on the tarp.
“I was scared, I couldn’t sleep,” sniffed Talia. “I think Tommy is weird.”
“I know,” said Alice. “But we’re okay.”
Tommy opened the screen door carefully because Stephen’s room was dark. He curled into a semi-fetal position on the beanbag but he knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep with this lead-like feeling in his stomach. Despite having been smoking all day, he felt alarmingly sober, like he was finally cracking the window of the hot-boxed car he’d been stalling in. The frightened face of the dark-haired girl stuck in his mind, white and floating against the night.
It hadn’t been until he saw the purple bandana and was pretty far down the trail that he realized he didn’t have swimming trunks. Somehow it didn’t seem like that big of a deal. People always went to the hot springs in the nude. He had just wanted a dip in the water and the rest of the joint. He had figured the girls would like the hot springs. They asked him to drive there, to show them a new place without being monitored by their oppressive parents. Maybe they hadn’t asked to smoke in the mountains. But they were almost thirteen, the age at which Tommy smoked with Otis McPhee behind the amphitheater in the park. Otis was older and had chosen Tommy to share a bud. They’d used a bell pepper with holes poked in it. That first smoke had made him feel larger than himself. An initiation into—not adulthood—but something. This could have been their initiation, but it wasn’t. They didn’t want it. No, they were fucking twelve. Twelve-year-olds. They sounded so much older, they acted sort of intelligent. But now that he thought of it, the dark-haired girl had that scrawny kid look. They were practically naked just a few feet away! Tommy felt like worms crawled up his legs. He wouldn’t have done anything weird. But if he replayed it like a movie in his mind, it was disgusting. He was the gross older stoner, the shitty hometown pervert, the weird first joint and first penis that two girls would remember. Tommy decided not to tell Stephen what had happened. He rubbed his face with his hands and his mouth felt dry. He rummaged on the dark floor for his water bottle and took a swig. The water tasted awful, like mold or sulfur.
“Dear, remind me to go to that parent meeting tomorrow.”
“They’re deciding the theme for International Arts and Crafts day.”
Through the half-closed door, Alice could see her parents move through the hallway. She pressed her hot face to the pillow and turned her ring. The silver had been tainted black since she dipped her hands in the sulfur water. She had gone three full days without telling. Before the mothers had arrived after the sleepover, Millie had whispered that Alice shouldn’t tell anyone about Tommy because they’d get in trouble for going off with a stranger, especially a stranger with drugs. They’d never be able to do sleepovers again and Talia would get yelled at and it would be horrible—so don’t say anything. But the memory of the thick smoke and the slow drive stayed in her mind so vividly that she chewed her lips till they bled and was silent at dinnertime. That night when Alice’s mother came in and turned off Alice’s light, she asked if anything was bothering her. Alice had said that she had a test at school that she was worried about.
“Oh, shoot, I was going to pack Alice an ants-on-the-log for snack tomorrow.”
“Just do it in the morning.”
The voices faded into the bedroom where Alice could no longer hear. The hall light went out so that all Alice could see were the glowing stars on her ceiling. She imagined being back at Sulfur Springs, replaying the scene. Tommy untying his pants, herb cigarette in his hand. Alice standing up and holding her hands in fists. “No,” she says, growing very tall. “This is too weird and we’ve had enough. Take us home now.” In another version, she pulls Millie down to the sleeping bag circle before they even leave. “What are you thinking?” Alice yells sharply, and Millie reconsiders the whole thing. It was a bad thing, a weird thing, but at least it was over. She resolved to hide the blackened ring, claiming it had gotten too small, and not tell anyone about Tommy. Alice curled her fingers in tight then stretched them out like stars.
Tommy parked at his parents’ house and pushed through landscaped ferns to the back gate. The pool water rippled in fake, glossy blue. The pool house’s screen door stuck when Tommy opened it. He smelled the funk of the room, the grimy blankets, the moldy socks rolling in dust under the futon. When he left the day before, he didn’t think he was really leaving town. He had only brought an extra sweatshirt and water bottle and his weed jar. There was an old gym bag in the sports equipment closet and he stuffed this with the cleaner clothes in the laundry hamper. He put on a pair of sneakers and grabbed a jar of peanut butter from the kitchenette. He left his video games, his shitty Dell laptop, and a few piles of dirty clothes.
He crept through the open back door of the house and walked up the carpeted stairs, feeling like a thief, and entered his old bedroom. It was a home gym now, and he almost tripped over an elliptical machine. The walk-in closet was like a tiny museum. Uniforms from baseball and hockey phases hung slack. A VIP trophy from Little League. Binders and textbooks, travel guides. Tommy grabbed his barely-used journal and shut the door.
He could hear the coffeemaker gurgle as he went down the stairs.
“Keith?” yelled Tommy’s mother.
“It’s me,” said Tommy, entering the kitchen with the gym bag. His mother was in her bathrobe and wearing little reading glasses.
“Oh, Tommy. I thought you were your dad. He’s supposed to be at a meeting now. What are you doing?”
“Just packing some stuff. I’m taking a road trip.”
“Right now? Like a fugitive? I thought you were staying at Stephen’s.”
“I don’t know, I’ve been in town for too long,” said Tommy.
“Do you want to say goodbye to your dad?”
“Okay.” She hugged Tommy stiffly. Pulling away, she squinted at his face. “Is everything okay?”
“Yeah.” Tommy laid his head on her shoulder for a second, letting the dreadlocks touch the fleecy fabric. Then he jerked away and hauled the gym bag to the door. As he walked down the path he noticed that his sandals had been removed from the flowerbed.
On the way out of town, Tommy stopped at Rite-Aid to buy energy bars, a disposable camera, a pack of Hanes briefs, and new white socks. Without thinking, he drove by Stephen’s house. Stephen stood outside with a steaming coffee mug. His hair was wet from a recent shower, probably after a run. His sister was on the tire swing in a tie-die shirt. Tommy didn’t stop the car and Stephen didn’t seem to see him. He continued toward 80 East as the morning fog burned off. Maybe he’d stop in Truckee before heading to Nevada. Then Utah, Colorado, and ending up in Austin, Texas, which seemed like a decent place. Blood tingled in his legs. He had never felt so antsy in his life.
Tommy was already in Truckee when he felt his cell phone buzz in his pocket. He was sitting by the river underneath a pine tree before filling up on gas and heading to Nevada. Tommy didn’t recognize the number but he answered anyway.
“That’s me,” mumbled Tommy.
“This is Officer Mike Schell.”
Tommy inhaled sharply. He thought about hanging up, or throwing the phone in the river, but a chill of shame paralyzed him, and he listened.
“Now, Thomas, you have accrued a fair number of parking tickets around town, none of them paid. I know your dad, so I thought I’d give you the old heads-up before we add late fees.”
Tommy crossed his legs, feeling the sides of his sneakers dig into his calves. With his free hand, he grabbed a pinecone so hard it hurt his fingers. He had been half-ready to hear offenses like possession, drugs to minors, sexual harassment, pedophilia. Tommy threw the pinecone across the river and it rolled up the bank a little before plopping into the water, then rushing down white rapids.
“Thanks,” he said, “I’m on my way out of town but I can mail a check, I guess.”
He jotted down the details in his journal and when the cop hung up, a wave of heat rose through Tommy’s face. With slow movements, he climbed back into his car. As he merged onto the highway, he turned off the radio so he could just hear the grinding sound of the tires on the road and the wind whipping by. He saw the gas dial slowly fall to empty, then below empty. He had forgotten to fill the tank. The warning light flashed orange. Tommy nodded to his windshield.
“Yep,” he said aloud, and veered right to the next exit.
With careful turns he pulled into an Arco station and stopped, gripping the wheel tightly, holding it still.