Once Lost, Gone Forever
Even before we try with a person, we know we can do it. We know in that blind way you trust how each day trudges after the next.
The bonfire flickers toward the summer constellations, and a battered CD player intones a lackluster Pink Floyd song. Something off Animals, not Dark Side or The Wall.
A half dozen people we pretend are our friends-the ones who on most days are close enough to count-prance around the flames, gleeful pagans armed with barley ambrosia.
"They'd probably stuff a wicker effigy if they could," I whisper to Melissa as we recline on the ground next to a few drunken corpses.
Like schoolchildren on a field trip, she and I hold hands, though we don't need the tether to make the magic work. But this moment tests us, and we want every advantage we can get.
We choose the tallest girl of the group, mostly because her form is so gangly. If we can grasp her, we can grasp any of them.
They practice their wannabe Kumbaya hippie dance as they circle the fire once. They circle twice. On the third orbit, the girl's place is vacant.
No one reacts. Melissa and I smile.
The calliope rotates again, and the girl returns.
Another revolution, and she's gone.
Back and forth. There and not there. Six figures around the bonfire, five figures around the bonfire, six figures, five figures. So long as we keep her in our mind-the facsimile of her gawky shape projected against a blank screen-the rest of the world spins on, unaware. Even she seems oblivious to where she goes, her voice chanting on, singing a verse, missing a verse, picking up the chorus again.
But if either Melissa or I lets go of the girl, go she will, and our would-be friends will see it too.
We hold on so tight our hands bleed.
I see Melissa for the first time on the playground. Day one kindergarten, and we're arrayed in our Sunday best on a Monday morning, both squirming in the tight seams and scratchy fabrics.
She with her flaxen hair and daisy white skin in a black velvet dress.
Me and my dark locks and caramel complexion clad in a white linen jumper.
The schoolyard line takes form, and we stand side by side, pint-sized photo negatives. That's the moment we know, even without saying a word to each other.
This is the girl I want for my friend.
Sixteen, and who we are crystallizes like sugar in a boiling kettle.
Other girls trade in giggles and gossip. Melissa and I deal in silence, one trinket at a time.
The first thing we make vanish-a piece of petrified potpourri that resembles a face-occurs by accident in April that year. So far, we can't do anything besides intuit the other's thoughts, and according to our parents, that doesn't make us so unique in the arena of adolescent estrogen.
But the potpourri we playfully accuse of watching us evaporates the moment we banish it in tandem. Our terror boomerangs it back to us, and we sit, examining the retrieved relic for hours.
It looks the same. Only we know the potpourri left at all, and only it knows where it went.
Melissa and I don't speak of the occurrence for weeks, mostly because neither of us can think of anything to say about it, other than the fact it happened.
Sophomore year ends, and I'm happy to see it disappear. By fall, the other students will forget the rumors about me and every member of the swim team.
When you're the only one in the hallways like you, it doesn't matter what you do and what you don't do. People say something often enough, and the echo makes it true.
Melissa laughs and tells me if I did sleep with them, whoever "they" are, she hopes I enjoyed it. She's the little singing bluebird to my surly condor, and I love her to pieces for it.
For our first weekend of freedom, we go to Niagara Falls with her parents. In one of the souvenir shops that swell with kitsch and refuse, we buy a gargantuan shot glass that's got five lines and a little saying to go with every gradation.
Shot one: Friendly Fire
Shot two: In the Trenches
Shot three: Bouncing Betty
Shot four: Blitzkrieg Blowup
Shot five: Atomic Blast
When we return home, I host a Saturday night party in the shot glass's honor. With our pagan friends cheering us on, I down eight ounces of Grey Goose on an empty stomach, and Melissa follows my exploit with an equal serving of Maker's Mark.
To our grand disappointment, my mom retrieves us before anything bad happens. "Do you want the neighbors to call the cops?" she asks.
"Let 'em," I slur and edge toward the window, eager to caterwaul anyone who's listening. Melissa giggles and crawls after me.
My mother hauls us toward her before we can holler. "So you want a weekend alone with those guards at the detention center?"
I collapse on my side. "No," I say and mean it.
Melissa frowns. "No, ma'am."
After several bouts of retching, we both land on the futon in the spare bedroom, but neither of us can sleep.
Melissa sighs. "Inali?"
I turn toward her.
"I want to do it again." She points at my mom's doll collection on the wall.
"Okay," I say, "but she'll kill us if something happens to those."
Starting on the top shelf, we send out and tow back each porcelain-faced monstrosity.
We're on the pig-tailed redhead with the plaid dress when stealthy as an assassin, my mom strolls into the room to check on us, and we lose our grip on the doll.
She examines us. "Why are you two girls still awake?"
"Go to sleep," she says and retreats to bed without glancing at the wall with a now vacant spot.
Melissa and I look at each other.
"Let's try to bring it back," she says.
In our minds, we return to a blank barrier and let the doll materialize in front of it. Then we lasso the image and yank it toward us. The doll crashes into the room with an arm through its heart, a leg missing, and the hair matted and tangled.
We send the thing away again.
"Once lost," I say, "it's gone forever."
Over a July 4th bonfire, Melissa and I practice for the first time on a person.
After the flames and Pink Floyd wane, she pairs off with some senior guy from the West End, and I leave with his seventeen-year-old friend named Bastien. He and I spend two days in his bedroom listening to Peter Frampton on vinyl and talking about how hard it is to buy parts for record players these days. I forget everything else except the sweet scent of sweat mingling with discount store cologne.
His parents never notice us, not even when we sneak into the kitchen after midnight like ravenous gremlins, gorging on neon orange cheese curls and a kaleidoscope of cheap candy.
But on the second day, his older brother Thad notices me. Notices me while I'm skulking around the refrigerator for scraps. I try to sidestep him, but his hulking figure broadens, and I'm trapped.
"Some friends of mine told me about you," he says and smiles. "They say you're a real good time."
I glare at him and his patchwork face and hope I'm not living with my parents when I'm his age and old enough to know better.
"Inali?" Bastien stands on the stairwell landing. "You all right?"
I wriggle around Thad, my shoulder stabbing into his chest as I pass.
"Nice work, little brother," Thad says and motions toward me. "You ought to share some time."
I wish him away the same way I vanquished the potpourri and the doll, but it does no good. Melissa's not there to help.
I walk home in the rain because my mom's car is in the shop again, so as always, she's pilfered my ride.
At the house, after finding nothing's moved or changed since I left, I call Melissa on her cell phone. I never admit I'm jealous she's got the latest Nokia, and my parents won't proffer me anything except a used pager I bury inside my dresser in protest. But on most days, I have a car, and Melissa doesn't, so between the two of us, we're the yin and yang of contented adolescence.
"This new guy's a total bore," she says and I imagine her blue eyes disappearing under her eyelids as she speaks. "And the only thing I can think about is all the good you and I could be doing."
"Like what?" I ask.
"Imagine the bad guys we could get," she says, practically panting. "We could clear every prison in America."
"Yeah, but what if somebody's wrongly convicted?" I shake my head, and I bet even over the phone, she can see it. "We need to catch someone in the act. Superheroes always do that."
Melissa hesitates. "Like a mugger?"
"Not a mugger," I say. "Something worse."
That night, my mom drops me at the bowling alley, and I tell her we'll walk back to Melissa's house for the night.
Inside, Melissa's already waiting at a table in the center of the room.
"Are you ready?" I ask.
She nods, just as a man who might be thirty or forty or fifty arrives at the table. He solicits our ages and seems excited when in unison, we say sixteen.
Ten minutes later, we're at the liquor store, and ten minutes after that, we're ratcheting toward the fake trees outside of town. Of course, they're not really fake trees. It's just the way the headlights reflect on the pine needles that makes them look one-dimensional like some exquisite Bob Ross painting you know you'll never duplicate.
We sit in the guy's pickup truck under the prickly branches, him in the driver's seat, me in the middle, and Melissa next to me.
"So," he says and squints at us with glee, "one at a time or tag team?"
"Neither," I say and adjust the radio, uncovering Blue Oyster Cult. "We're just here to drink."
He gapes at us. "That's all fine and good for starters, but you two aren't so naive to think that's all we're doing."
"We're not naive," I say. "We're just not interested."
"No," I say.
"No," Melissa repeats.
"What did you think we'd do out here? Talk philosophy?"
We give him a chance to say no again. But he grabs me by the hair and issues a nauseating command. Melissa and I smile, and in an instant, he vanishes. We keep smiling until we realize we're in the middle of a bucolic wasteland and the car's a stick shift and neither of us can drive it.
We walk home. It takes us three hours with heels and blisters, but we manage.
Along the way, I craft our alibis. "If somebody asks us, we tell them he pulled the old 'put out or get out'. What happened after that is none of our business."
"I wonder what did happen," she says. "Where did he go?"
I tell her if Mr. McMiller, our physics instructor, is right, energy's not created or destroyed. So our bowling shirt pal is someplace or another.
Melissa frowns. "Wherever he went, do you think he's nicer there?"
"I would hope so," I say. "Otherwise, our work's for nothing."
The Monday morning papers report a missing person, mostly because nothing else happens in our county, so a vanishing townie is major gossip. We're almost disappointed when no one questions us about him.
The next time, we use my car. My mom's station wagon is back from the mechanic, so Melissa and I cruise almost every Friday night.
Most of the time, the guys just buy us some booze and try to cajole us into sexual favors. We decline, and after a spew of profanity, they revoke the cheap whiskey or off-brand forty or whatever substandard aphrodisiac they procured for us. Then we drop them somewhere in town and crawling out of the car, they call us bitches or teases or whores and we laugh all the way home.
But sometimes they're not so polite.
The second guy rips my blouse before he disappears.
"And that was one of my favorites," I say and do my best to stitch the seams back together.
The third one's out on parole for what he did to a twenty-two-year-old three counties over. He served eighteen months. The girl'll serve life.
"Are there really this many awful people in the world?" Melissa asks as she climbs into the now vacant passenger seat.
"I guess so," I say, "but it also probably has to do with personality. Most guys willing to buy booze for underage girls aren't the most standup people."
We always pull over for the main event. If nothing else, it makes it more ceremonious.
"Plus, I wouldn't want to veer into oncoming traffic," I say.
"Or hit a deer," Melissa adds.
Cleanup takes care of itself, so afterwards, we don't worry about dropping spare quarters in the carwash vacuums to erase the crime scene. I do buy an extra air freshener since the guys we pick up always wear too much musk and I don't want Bastien thinking I'm cheating.
We take a break in early August, so Melissa can spend a weekend with her bore and I can raid Bastien's records.
Vinyl on the turntable, I descend into the lyrics about unreachable days while Bastien ensnares me in gasps and whispers.
"Thad got a job," he tells me after we finish, mostly because he's got nothing else to say. "He's working at the detention center."
Shuddering, I roll on my side and stare at the wall. "He'll fit right in with the other guards."
"Inali?" Bastien's voice sears through the gloom, and the lilt of my name gives me chills.
I look over my shoulder at him.
"I love you," he says and I wonder aloud if he means it.
It rains the second morning, and while Bastien and I forage leftovers in the refrigerator's haphazardly arranged plastic containers, Thad creeps into the room.
"I'm tired of this shitty weather," he says and looks at me. "Maybe Pocahontas here can do a reverse rain dance, and give us a sunny day."
Again, I wish him away, but nothing happens, so I just scowl.
"Doesn't it bother you to hear your brother talk like that?" I ask Bastien when we're alone again.
"Sure, it bothers me, but if I tell him, he won't stop." He shakes his head. "Besides, he compared you to a Disney princess. You should be flattered."
"No, I shouldn't," I say, certain at last how Bastien feels about me.
After a day and a half, Melissa and I tire of the boys and return to our evening drives.
At an ugly honky tonk at the state line, we find our fourth mark. Mullet. Dirty fingernails. The whole unkempt get-up. He clambers into the passenger's seat, though we don't invite him.
But he's not the same as the others. He doesn't want flesh. He wants blood. We don't realize it until we're on a dim stretch of county highway, looking for an alcove where we can stop.
"You two are awfully pretty," he says and I swear I see the saliva drip down his chin as he pulls out a knife.
Before I can warn her, he clocks Melissa, and she's out cold in the back seat, so I'm alone to fend him off. As the car swerves to the shoulder, he cuts my arms and goes at my throat and face, but I spit and flail and pull the keys from the ignition and jab his eyes. He curses and tells me how he's going to dice me into little pieces and they'll never find me, at least not all of me. I kick him with the edge of my heel, and then he's out too, and I get the knife and finish him.
There's blood everywhere and I drag Melissa out and when she wakes again, we dissolve the whole thing, tires and all, and walk home. Walk fifteen miles because we can't bring ourselves to use her cell phone and call our parents.
But my mom's awake when we get there, and she instantly wants to know what happened to us and where the car went.
"Some guy jumped us," I say. "Hit her. Cut me. He wanted the car, so we let him have it."
Closer to true than we expected.
My parents call her parents on the way to the hospital. They don't give us time to change, which is awful, since most of the red on my dress doesn't belong to me. But no one asks whose blood is whose, and after the nurses give us gowns, Melissa and I place our clothes in the corner and send the satin to live with the car. That forces our parents to bring us new outfits, even if they're baffled as to where our dresses went.
I need seventeen stitches, and Melissa's got a concussion, so they keep us overnight for observation.
We share a room and watch reruns of Baretta.
"Hopefully, they'll find the car," my mom says, and I think how someone will probably find it someday, maybe a million miles away on another planet where girls who can manipulate things aren't so rare at all.
"I don't want to do it anymore," Melissa says when we get out of the hospital. "It's too dangerous."
I nod, and that's the last we discuss it. I comfort myself and think how it's not so bad. We banished a quartet of piss and misogyny, and that accomplishment's enough to make anyone proud.
For the rest of the summer, Melissa and I have to walk everywhere since my parents won't buy me another car until they get the insurance money from the old one. The police ask us a lot of questions like where we were when it happened and what the guy looks like. Our answers are a sea of truths and half-truths and outright lies, but we keep it consistent and that's all that matters.
At the end of August, Melissa and I eschew all the farewell summer parties until Bastien begs us to come to his place. His parents are out of town, and Thad's working the midnight shift, so he's hosting half the high school in his basement.
My mom drops us off late. Melissa and I each have a drink, but we quit after one since we're both still on painkillers and neither of us wants the interaction.
At my side in the dated rec room, Melissa's mingling with her cad while I whisper to Bastien, something about a Motown record we should find. A squeak on the stairs, and Thad creeps against the paneling, a grin on his face like he just found a peephole into a nudie parlor.
His complexion suddenly wan, Bastien advances toward him. "I thought you were working late."
"They didn't need me tonight. But it looks like I'm needed here." A hand across his mouth, Thad feigns surprise. "I think you're drinking, little brother. And I think as a servant of Oakview Detention Center, I owe it to the authorities to report you."
No one moves since it's already too late to hide the bottles and bottles of booze.
"Please," Bastien says, one leg shaking like a nervous dog, "just let this one go."
"I might be persuaded to forget it," Thad says, "if I get something in exchange."
We wait as he calculates his price.
With a sinister smirk, he points at me. "I want twenty minutes alone with that one."
I laugh. "No way."
"Then you and your friends are all getting locked up," he says and surveys the room. "And I'll still have my pick over you ladies. I'll just be on the clock for it."
From his bulging pocket, he pulls out one of those giant '90s cell phones, the kind that would sink you straight to the bottom of the ocean if you didn't surrender it on the plunge.
Bastien mutters something like 'no' or 'don't' but his voice fades before he can commit either way.
The whole room goes quiet, and everyone stares at the floor, waiting for me to move.
"So it's now or later, girlie," Thad says, and I realize no one's going to do anything, no one's going to tell the creep where he should go.
No one except Melissa. We don't have time to think of what might happen, of what it might mean. On instinct, we grab the other's hand, and in less than a spark, he's gone. Though they have no reason, the pagans turn to us, and they know. His image in our mind is lost, so we don't try to bring him back again, even though our lives might be easier if we do.
Nobody calls the police, but some of the girls start to cry and like frightened gentlemen, a few guys usher them outside.
Our ride arrives at two in the morning. Melissa and I don't speak on the way home.
We have nothing left to say.
There's no trial because nobody--not our parents, not our friends, and certainly no magistrate--wants to put us in the same room again.
They do something worse instead.
Melissa's parents find jobs out of state. My mom doesn't tell me until they've already been gone a week. I sneak a call to Melissa's cell phone but it's disconnected.
So I do what I'm told, and I go to college. I get married. I get divorced.
But after almost ten years, that summer still swirls around me, a specter draped in chains to hold me back. At last, I track down Melissa and send a note. A week later, she mails me a card with a couple photos of her kids, all girls, who are the cutest little Aryans you ever did see. I write back and include a picture of my six-year-old daughter Shana who's not so blonde but cuter for it.
As I open a fresh batch of pictures, Shana crawls onto my lap and points at Melissa's daughter, Ashley. "I like her outfit."
I examine the photo. It's a hand-me-down dress. The same black velvet Melissa wore a quarter century ago on that playground.
"When am I going to meet her?" Shana asks as though the family lives next door and I should have already introduced them.
I glance at her. "How are you so sure you want to meet her?"
"How do you know Monday comes after Sunday?" she asks.
"You just know."
I think of what I know too.
I know I still have that white linen jumper from grade school, and I know Shana would fit into it.
I know from her letters that Melissa has an extra room where we can stay anytime.
I know it's been too long since I've seen my friend.
Shana blinks up at me. "So can I meet her, Mommy?"