by Winona León
On the last day of eighth grade, I itch to slide out of my skin. The air hits my throat like a match, and I scrape my nails underneath my desk, carving my name into the splintered wood so that I will be remembered. The last bell finally rings and we’re let loose like animals. I look for Cara. When I find her, we lock arms and break away from the other students.
Together, we walk to the swing set at the edge of the playground we share with the elementary to wait for her mom, who’s still supervising the special ed kids. No matter how hard we pump, the swing set is so tall we can’t get much momentum off the ground, so we twirl around in place instead.
I drag my feet while I try to think of something to say, and a cicada flies out from beneath the dirt. I watch its greenish tic-tac body longingly, recalling the years I spent as a kid catching bugs so I could hold them in my palms and pull off their small legs. I feel desperate. It’s only May but we’re already swallowed up by sunken afternoons and bloated nights. Behind the school, grass grazes the mountains like stained teeth. Wildfires up north frame the horizon in gold.
Everyone blames the drought on the comet that appeared six months earlier. They say it’s a sign of the end times. Last Sunday during worship service I found a stash of canned vegetables and bottled water stockpiled in our church’s basement. Pastor Dan caught me snooping when he went down to practice his sermon.
“You’re becoming a woman,” he said. “You have to start thinking more about your choices. About what people think when they see you.” He stared at my tangled hair. “Your soul is on the line. Out there is a battleground and you’re gonna have to decide pretty soon which side you’re on. Man’s or God’s?”
God’s, I had piped, but to be honest, I’m not sure where I fall anymore. Later, when I asked Cara the same question, she licked her lips, laughed, and said, Man’s, which isn’t that surprising. She’s lucky. She doesn’t have to think about these things.
Cara’s parents are nice, even-keeled Methodists. Her mom spends a lot of time with Cara’s youngest brother, Ricky, who has a learning disability, and her father is always out working on their ranch or chasing Cara’s other three brothers. Cara is smack dab in the middle, and therefore, in her opinion, entirely forgettable.
“Wanna come over for a bit after my mom gets done?” Cara asks.
“Sure,” I say.
Cara and I have been friends for as long as I can remember. Her family owns the subdivision my family lives on, a pallid sector of land dotted with trailers and doublewides. The Edward Ranch is just on the other side of the highway, but Cara knows things no one else does. She learned to shoot a gun before any of us could read and she can predict the weather by the way her horses shake their manes in the wind. When she saunters through the hallways at school, her long hair brushes against the tops of her thighs. I never look away.
I start at the sound of a car revving its engine. A black F-150 rises up from the road and slows down as it passes us. Cara flashes a coy smile. A man wearing a camouflage baseball cap raises his hand off the wheel and grins before he speeds away.
“Who was that?” I ask.
“Blake,” Cara says, not looking at me. She pauses and then continues. “We’ve been talking.”
What I know about Blake is from the time our fifth-grade class was invited to the high school pep rally. I can still remember his voice from the speech he gave for the big game that weekend, how rapidly it climbed up the bleachers and coiled around us. The rich, even tenor of it scared me. Just like Pastor Dan’s.
“Talking?” I say. “How did he get your number?”
“I gave it to him, duh.”
But what I mean is how does he know her name or that she even exists at all.
Cara grabs hold of my swing and pulls me toward her. “I think he wants to hang out soon,” she whispers. She winds our swings together, tangling them into a sorry bouquet of chains. As she passes me, her hair catches the light and shines the same color as the underside of a peach.
“When?” I ask.
Cara doesn’t answer. She grins wildly, baring all her teeth, and lets go of the chains. The swings unravel instantly. I crash forward. Cara swivels back.
At Cara’s house, we hang off her bed, our hair brushing the hardwood floor, as we flip through her brother’s high school yearbook.
“Look,” she says. “Look at our futures.”
I stare at last year’s freshmen in their paisley dresses and dipped Stetsons. Cara and I look nothing like them. We wear skinny jeans and line the insides of our bottom eyelids in kohl like Cleopatra, our shared idol. For Cara because she is forever young and beautiful, and for me, because she is forever young and tragic.
My eyes wander over to the makeup that’s scattered across Cara’s dresser. I stand up and grab a bottle of silver nail polish. Silver because it’s sophisticated, adult, the color of the cities I will one day visit.
Cara flips back to the spread of our class. She sticks her nail through Jessica Oliver’s photo. “Bitch,” she whispers under her breath. Her mouth ebbs into an angry line of red as she tears through the paper.
Satisfied by the rip, Cara flips to the senior headshots at the back. “Which one for Randy? Let’s see. Hm. Someone deep, that’s for sure.”
I lie back down and squint at the boys in their lettermans. “But they all look so old.”
“Think, then,” Cara says, “of what it will be like to make them want us.”
I flip through the yearbook again, this time going backward, but the faces blur together. A feeling I can’t name bucks against my chest. I want something else, something that doesn’t exist. I press my knuckles against my throat and imagine myself in another body, another life.
When I get home, the lights are all off and my mom is spread out on the couch watching TV even though the sound is half-broken. After I lock the door, she holds out her arms. I walk over and she pulls me in close. I breathe her in. Her hair smells faintly of ash and dishwater soap. These days, my mom is always on the couch. She’s waiting for my father to return. The church ladies told her he will, but I’m pretty sure at this point, he isn’t coming back.
I ease myself away and set my backpack on the kitchen table where I know it will lie for the rest of the summer. Through the kitchen window, I watch the sky begin to erase itself and boil myself some pasta for dinner. When it’s ready, I sit down on the arm of the couch and eat. The sauceless limp noodles slither down my throat like slick shoelaces. On the TV, Pat Sajak’s voice whirrs with the urgency of the wasp nest that hangs off my back porch.
I turn to my mom. “I’m a high schooler now.”
“My baby goose,” she coos and then mutters something indiscernible. She’s already out of it.
I pull an old knit blanket over her and then stand up and point the remote at the TV. “R-S-T-L-N-E,” I chant and turn it off.
Back in my room, I collapse on my bed and stare up at the world. I stole the giant atlas poster from the “Light the Fire” youth conference I attended last spring break. You’re supposed to put pushpins in the countries you feel God calling you toward, but I don’t believe in his voice anymore. I just want to leave one day and never come back.
Later that night, I creep outside and wait for the comet to rise. The news says the comet has always been there and that it always will be, that it will pass through our orbit and keep going. Enjoy it while you can, reporters say. So I watch. I do. I hear there will be a moment soon when it will be closest to the sun, and therefore, closest to us. It will be so bright you won’t be able to look at it straight on for more than a second. Less than that even. I know the moment is coming. Something about the comet makes the air buzz and pitter-patter. The comet is different from the wailing women in church or the line of semis that always rattle past our house at dawn. The land feels like it’s rippling out from underneath me. I wake up every day clutching at the air, whispering words I’ve hidden in the corner of my memory.
A few days later, I head over to Cara’s. I can tell right away she’s nervous. Her face is flushed and violet. She has the unbridled look of someone who’s just about seen the holy spirit.
“It’s happening,” she says. “It’s really happening.”
Later that night, she unearths a dark red lipstick from her pocket and asks me to put it on her. I trace her thin lips until she looks feral. The white eyelet dress she slips over her head is a relic from her mother. As we sneak out of her house, it floats around her like mist. I smell mothballs on the dress, but Cara is in a dream. She’s been in one her whole life.
She takes me by the shoulder as we tiptoe across her yard. “Listen,” she says. “Gabriel’s nice, and it’ll be quick. I promise. You don’t even have to stay the whole time.”
But I know that’s not true.
We walk to the highway and wait. It doesn’t take long to hear Blake’s truck. It sputters as it gets closer and then its headlights descend upon us.
The boys step out to open the doors for us. Their tall silhouettes are clad in greasy Wranglers and proud, shiny belt buckles they won years back at the local county livestock shows. I study Gabriel, my eyes flitting up and down his lean, muscular frame before landing to the patch of black hair above his top lip.
“What up, Cara?” Blake bows and scoops Cara up in his big arms.
“That you, Randy?” Gabriel whistles. “Well, goddammit, I’ll be. It’s Miranda Haney. You look good.” He enunciates my name in long, low syllables that glide over my bare arms. His wide smile shows how much he knows. Too much and still not enough to convince me of anything, I decide.
I try to ignore him. “Where’re we going?”
“Aw, you know. Just cruising,” Blake says.
“Are you sure about this?” I whisper to Cara, but she rolls her eyes and hops in the front seat. I squeeze myself next to Gabriel in the back and sit on my hands.
It’s funny the way the beginning of a night can open you up and make you feel shiny inside.
We drive through town and then past the high school, listening to country music on the only radio station. Gabriel tells me about round-up season at the ranch he works at. They’re running out of grazing rotations. Without any rain on the horizon, it looks bleak. “Twelve hundred cattle,” he says. “Now down to five hundred. Can you imagine?”
I can’t, but I don’t know how to tell him that either. I feel stuck in place. It’s like the time in algebra when Mr. McCoy called on me to explain the formula of slope, but the only slopes I could remember were from the only winter it had ever snowed when Cara and I tied trash can lids to her four wheeler and rode down the one-inch sloshy slopes at the landfill. “Hello? Earth to Miranda?” Mr. McCoy called, but I could only picture Cara’s blue face and our soaked windbreakers and how she got so cold, I had to wrap my arms around her and walk her the whole three miles back home.
“Look, there it is! Crazy shit!” Blake points out the window and I crane my neck to see past Gabriel. Between the long wispy clouds, the comet shimmers like a dull dime.
“I wonder if it will still be here when we graduate high school,” I say.
“Y’all so lucky y’all still in school.” Blake sighs and turns down the radio.
“You gotta be kidding me. I can’t wait to get out of this shithole,” Cara says.
“Remember those days?” I see Blake raise his eyebrows at Gabriel in the rearview mirror. “Fuck that. The whole world’s a shithole.”
Cara lets out a high hiccup of a laugh. “But New York. Think of New York. Or Paris. Would you take me to Paris? I wanna, like, dance under the Eiffel Tower one day.”
“Jesus, Cara. Marry a Democrat then, why don’t you?” Gabriel mutters.
Cara groans but straightens up when Blake wraps his arm around her neck.
“You guys ever been to the cemetery at night?” he asks.
“I don’t know if that’s a good idea,” I say, but my reply is caught by the night, and the truck makes an abrupt left toward the eroded Indian trails. We bump over a cattle guard and pull over near a barbed wire fence.
“Cara, come outside with me, will you?” Blake says, getting out of the car.
Cara turns around and offers me a lopsided smile. “He actually likes me, you know,” she whispers.
Blake opens the passenger door and Cara falls into his arms. His hand creeps past her lower back as he sets her down. Then together, they open the cemetery gates and walk away, laughing and falling into each other as if they’re both drunk. Gabriel pushes the seat forward and moves to the front. I stay put.
“You gonna join me up here?” he asks and starts the car up again.
I drag myself to where Cara was sitting. The seat is still warm. The cemetery stares at me in a hazy glow. It’s a quiet night for a quiet place. The back of the truck creaks and the trees rustle in the wind. I sneeze and try not to think.
Gabriel turns up the music. “This is my favorite song,” he says and sings along, his voice boyish against the pastoral guitar licks.
“I better check on Cara,” I say, trying to keep calm, but my voice splinters off.
Gabriel grabs my arm. “Cara’s a big girl, Randy. They’re just having a good time.”
“I think I better though. We can’t stay long. My mom…” I begin to lie but trail off. Before I went over to Cara’s, I watched my mom take four Benadryl and fall into a deep sleep. She doesn’t care where I am.
“Here,” Gabriel says, handing me a small metal flask. “You’re parched.”
I take the flask and Gabriel stares at me until I take a sip. The taste is like I’m drinking someone’s fever, sour and warm. I choke.
“What is that?” I say, passing him back the flask.
Gabriel takes a swig and laughs. “Tequila.”
He waits for me to recover, still smiling. “You’re a mystery, Randy,” he says. “Did you know that?”
I shy away when he tries to touch my face. He lets his hand linger on my cheek anyway.
“A real mystery,” he repeats.
“Yeah right.” I push his hand away.
“And humble,” he says. “That’s different. No girl from here knows how to shut up. They all think they’re hot shit.”
I choke up a laugh as his hand flattens against my thigh and squeezes. A string of goose bumps flare up, and Gabriel slips me another smile. I can tell now he smiles easily.
“Tell me a story, Randy,” he says. “Tell me something no one else knows.”
No one has ever asked me that. I pretend to mull over the question. “I’ve cut myself,” I say. I turn my arm over to show him the single red slash across my wrist. Maybe I want to scare him. Shock him. Prove to him there is something alive and struggling inside of me.
He laughs. “I did that too. Once.”
“You wanna see?”
I can’t help myself. “Okay.”
He takes off his Carhartt jacket and under his sleeve just below his bicep, he shows me a long, pale scar.
“You did that to yourself?” I search his eyes for a clue that we might be kindred spirits, but the silence grows a second too long.
“You’re lying! It wasn’t you who did that, was it?”
I turn away. “I’m gonna find Cara. We’re leaving.”
“Aw, Randy, you know I didn’t mean it!”
I step out of the truck, but Cara and Blake are nowhere to be seen.
“Where’d they go? Gabriel, tell me where they went.”
“Fuck if I know. Come on, don’t be like that. We’ll find them. We’ll look together.” Gabriel steps out beside me. “Let me give you a hand.”
“No,” I say. “No, thank you.” I stand up and back away but my legs wobble.
“What? You think I’m gonna hurt you or something?” Gabriel asks.
He frowns when I don’t reply. “Randy, for God’s sake, I like you!”
I think of his hands, of all those ancient bones laid out in the graveyard. Sometimes, I swear my mom wants the end to come, and that’s what she’s really waiting for. Our fingertips fizzling away into nothing as our souls are heaved into the sky. I’m not ready. I’m not ready for any of this.
Gabriel takes another step toward me. Up close, I see that the top of his shirt collar is covered in dried blood. A few of his buttons have come undone and a bruise blankets his collarbone, the stormy aftermath of something I’m afraid to figure out.
“What happened to you?”
He laughs. “I hurt myself too, Randy. Just not with a knife or a razor.”
I wonder what he sees in me, if he sees beyond my sweaty hair and fat face, my bangs plastered against my forehead. My mom and I are both cursed with the same wiry black hair, but unlike me, my mother was pretty when she was young. “I was a sinner once,” she used to tell me. “But then I was saved. Just like you.”
Gabriel holds out his hand again. This time, I don’t hesitate to take it.
“You think they’re still in the cemetery?” I ask.
“Maybe. I mean, you know what they’re doing. Tell me about your scar. Why’d you cut yourself?”
How do you explain something that was because of everything and nothing? How do you measure the feeling that lies in between? I think of the night my dad left last February. The sound of the front door slamming shut and then the headlights that flashed into my room through the blinds a few seconds later. When I ran outside, all I saw was my dad’s truck backing out of our driveway. It was the unfamiliar woman in the passenger seat I recall the most. She had looked spectral sitting there, her hands pressed flat against the window, hair fluorescent. Eyes as glassy as the marble-eyed deer that overlooked my parents’ bedroom.
I glance at the cemetery as I answer Gabriel’s question. “I don’t know. I was bored. Kind of. I know you’re supposed to be sad when you do it, but I wasn’t, I don’t think… I was just fed up with everything.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean.” Gabriel gulps. “Life sucks.”
I move closer and stare at his throat. “Seriously, who did that to you?”
His eyes look solemn and sad, his stringy figure stretched too thin, like life has worn him out and exhausted his chances for anything more than sin. He takes both of my hands and sighs. “Let’s—let’s just get out of here.”
“Wait, but where are they? I thought we were going to find them. Where’s Cara?”
Everything feels off, my steps small and unsure. I look back toward the direction of the town. It’s probably only a mile away, but all I can see are the faint outlines of the mountains in the distance.
“Gabriel, I don’t know. I think I should tell Cara if we’re leaving—”
Suddenly he leans over me, smiling again. I smell chewing tobacco on his breath. “Randy,” he says. He tilts his head and brings himself closer.
For a moment I think I can try, can pretend to feel that pulse, that sweet plum of desire. My mom and dad back when they still loved each other. Their vicious bedroom sounds. All breathless howling. My mom’s nails scraping ruthlessly against their cherry wood headboard. That is what it means to be wanted.
What I feel instead is distance, sharp edges, the waves of a ruthless sea I cannot swim.
“No,” I say, pushing Gabriel away, but he grabs my arm and pulls me down with him. We collide in a tangle of elbows and sneakers. Then his weight is on me, his arms around my waist, his head nestled in the crook of my neck, but he isn’t trying to maul me. He’s crying. His breathing shatters, a chasm breaking in his throat.
“Listen,” I protest. “Get off.”
But he pulls me in closer, heaving and now sobbing. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want to do this. I didn’t want it to be this way. I’m sorry.”
Moisture seeps into my skin. Is it his tears or more blood?
“Hey, you jerk, you’re getting blood on my shirt!” I fling my arms forward, but Gabriel tightens his grip.
I turn around and bite his shoulder, sinking my teeth into his skin deeper and deeper until he curses and lets me go. I get up and begin to run without looking back. I don’t stop until I’m too dizzy to go any further. My vision is a blur. I hear nothing except the hot summer wind trying to catch up.
I wake up slumped on the ground, unable, at first, to place where I am or what has happened. I try to get up and fail. My arms feel too heavy. My legs like broken pipes. The clouds have cleared out and the night is drenched in blue light. It’s nearly clear as day. I know the moment I’ve been waiting for has come. I crawl over to some overgrown catclaw and grab the thorny branches as I stand up.
“Cara?” I call out. “Where are you? Cara? Cara!”
But she’s gone. They’re all gone. There is just the comet, bright and glowing. It lights the way.
Winona León is a writer and artist originally from Far West Texas. Her work has appeared online in Joyland, of which she now serves as a West Editor. She is currently an MFA Candidate in Fiction at the University of Wyoming.
Photo: Kaleb Kendall/Unsplash