Staying at Chloë’s house meant heat, the sister’s voice like a buzzsaw, her stepdad’s friends’ comments, roaches flying in the bathroom, yellow American grilled cheese. I took the bottom bunk because I was afraid I’d roll out of the top and kill myself falling. I had violent dreams, and, according to Chloë, “snored like a dude.”
Our time was spent hiding from the sun. As the light lengthened and mellowed from white to gold, we would go out into the yard, down to the canal. Split for 7-Eleven once it got too dark to see snakes. On the walk to 7-Eleven we’d rush from one yellow puddle of streetlight to the next, pretending monsters and pedophiles lurked in the darkness between.
I said monsters.
Chloë said pedophiles.
On a good night we’d only have five dollars between us. Candy bars and cans of soda. We’d read through the magazines so we wouldn’t have to go back right away and the counter guy would kill us with his eyes. Sometimes Chloë would talk about him, call him a perv, get louder and louder like she wanted him to hear her.
She got mouthy with the cops too when they’d catch us walking home late. They knew we weren’t prostitutes, but they thought they’d scare us. But Chloë feared nothing. Every time they pulled away she’d say, “I thought they were gonna make us blow them.” The first time she suggested this I said “Ewww” really loud. Each time after I’d just say, “Uh-huh…” while she litanied the ways she’d stop them: bite their dicks off, kick them in the balls, tell her stepdad about it, since he knew all the cops in the county. They never did anything, though—just told us to go home.
When Chloë’s stepdad had paid the cable bill we’d all sit in front of HBO, her mom shushing the sister during sex scenes, nursing the baby right out in the open. I’d try to look over a little, but if Chloë caught me she’d call me a lez. It’s not like I was into her mom, it was more the whole thing of Cody’s tiny little rosebud mouth and her mom’s boob around it.
But I couldn’t explain that, so I’d just say “I am not” and roll my eyes.
If there was no money and no cable we’d listen to her CDs—music I couldn’t have in my house.
Twisted thoughts that spin around my head. How quick the sun can drop away.
Jane says she’s done with Sergio.
What I’ve felt, what I’ve shown, never shine through in what I’ve shown.
It’s OK to eat fish cause they don’t have any feelings.
Her mother never told us to turn it down. Sometimes she even sang along, when the stepdad wasn’t around.
Or Chloë would read me her stories. Her stories were violent and sexy and I hated them. I wanted to ask her why she couldn’t write more optimistically, but I didn’t want her to call me a pussy.
I didn’t want to be a pussy.
She laughed at how careful I was to lock the bathroom door, how afraid I was of being seen.
Her 13th birthday was a picnic, except I had to have lettuce and potato chip sandwiches because they forgot I was vegetarian, and literally everything else had meat in it. At first it was just us two, and the sister and the sister’s friend and a couple of younger cousins we didn’t like and some of the stepdad’s friends.
The other girls came later.
All morning they didn’t show, and I allowed myself to hope, and then there they were: the two metal girls, Misti and Lubya. Misti’s mom was American—there wasn’t a dad—but Lubya’s parents had defected from Russia. Lubya’s name made her life a hell at school. They were a year ahead of us and were starting high school in the fall. Stolen silver rings on every finger, black shredded tank tops. Lubya changed out of her nice clothes in the bathroom at school. They smelled like hairspray and cigarettes until you got close enough to smell their sweat.
They came bearing gifts. When Misti handed Chloë a choker she put it on right away, and then screamed when Lubya handed her a CD. It was new. Ministry’s Psalm 69. I’d gotten her five paperbacks—one dollar each—two Dean Koontz, two Kings, and a Clive Barker. She already had both the Kings.
Chloë held the CD as we walked away from the adults and colonized the swings.
“I cannot believe you actually got these,” she said to Misti and Lubya. I pushed my shoe into the dirt. They both laughed low in their throats.
When I laugh I sound like a chipmunk. With asthma.
“De nada,” Misti said.
“But if we had got pinched, you would have to bail us out,” Lubya added.
“What?” I said. Lubya was hard to understand.
“Pinched. Caught. By the cops.”
“You stole the CD?” I squeaked.
Misti and Lubya shared a look and a laugh.
“Jesus. Why don’t you scream even louder so my mom hears,” Chloë said. When she looked over at Lubya she was blushing, and she looked up through her eyelashes.
“I can’t believe you got the CD, though. How’d you hide it?”
“Backpack. Then I bought a cassette single and booked it through the alarm. They did not chase me.”
“You are a goddess.”
Who’s the lez now? , I wanted to ask.
Lubya laughed again. “Next time you steal your own shit though.”
Chloë put two fingers to her forehead and saluted.
It occurred to me then that the CD theft had been at Chloë’s request. Which meant that Chloë was talking to these two girls when I wasn’t around. Possibly even hanging out with them. They lived all the way over on the mainland, but there was no reason she couldn’t walk over the bridge to one of their neighborhoods and hang out without inviting me.
The rest of the afternoon was them talking in circles about bands I didn’t like and older boys I didn’t know. They were going to Orlando for Lollapalooza. I tried to imagine a scenario in which my parents would allow me to go to an all-day festival where I’d be surrounded by older men, and concluded that such a scenario did not exist. Would Chloë go? Her mother might let her. Hell, her mother might go with her. Even if they invited me, I’d never be able to get permission, and I couldn’t lie about being gone for an entire day, in a different city. That would be a whole day for the three of them to dance and sing together, and Chloë’s mom might even let them sneak a drink, and I’d be at my house doing my homework or reading or something. Helping my mother with chores.
Today, though, I outlasted them. I stayed and stayed, and finally Misti’s mom came. We all hung back while the two moms talked, but when Misti’s mom waved to them, Lubya said: “Sunday.” Just to Chloë.
I hadn’t been invited to anything on Sunday.
After we got back to Chloë’s house I called my parents and made it sound like it was a real sleepover with more girls. My mother made me promise to be back before noon.
“What, they won’t let you stay if it’s just us? They figured out you’re a big lez?”
I couldn’t tell her that my parents hated her, and had tried, repeatedly, to ban me from coming over.
How do you tell a person that?
On their birthday? Tell them they’re hated?
For dinner they made mac and cheese for me, and they had the rest of the burgers and hotdogs themselves, and we all had more cake. I was still hungry, but also too full, but I didn’t want to have to go to the bathroom. I hated doing that away from my house anyway, and especially at Chloë’s since the longer I was in there the more I increased my odds of being dive-bombed by a roach.
Chloë got in a giant fight with her stepdad, so we sat out in the front yard until he left for his shift. We laid on the driveway and stared up at the stars. We tried to notice the exact moment all the warmth left the concrete. The stars were fat and fuzzy and looked close enough to grab out of the sky. Away from the others, Chloë talked about fear, God, all the things the sister was given, all the things she was denied herself, her worries for her mother, her intense love for Cody. Sometimes she’d tell me something dark and vague about her early childhood. Sometimes she’d ask about my life and listen while I talked.
Her mother was feeding Cody when we came in. She glared at Chloë and said good night to me.
I woke up just at dawn, and I really needed to go to the bathroom. After a few minutes of negotiation with myself, I gave up and crept down the hall. It was better than I expected—only one roach, and it crouched on the floor by the shower the whole time. I watched it from the corner of my eye. I was afraid that if I looked straight at it that would seem like a threat, and it would fly at me. It charged me when I left, but I got out. I shivered all the way down the hall.
When I got back into bed I kicked Chloë before I realized she was in there. I yelped, and she kicked me back.
“Shh!” she said.
“Should I get in the top?” I whispered, but she pulled me in and started kissing me.
I’d never been kissed before. I didn’t think she had, either, but she pushed her tongue in like it was just a thing we always did. We did that for a long time, I think. We got better at it. Her mouth tasted like the morning, and at first I wanted to retch, but I got used to it. And then my hands were under her shirt and on her chest, which was flat mostly. I could feel her nipple poking into my right palm. I tried moving my hand, but she said “Owwww,” so I pulled my hand back.
And then before I lost my nerve I put my hand on her thigh.
She jumped, but this time I didn’t back off. I figured I had to do this. This was why she kept calling me a lez, right? I had only put my fingers inside myself a couple times, and it didn’t feel like anything, but now I wanted to put myself inside of Chloë more than I’d ever wanted anything.
She moved under me again, so I put my fingers against her underwear before she could push me away again. I put one leg over her leg to hold her still. I pushed my fingers forward and she wiggled under me. I could feel heat, and hair.
But then she clamped her legs together and trapped my hand. And then she shoved me, really shoved me, and I slid off the edge of the bed and felt my hand wrench.
Then I was sitting on the floor.
I looked up at her, but she was rolled over with her face to the wall, her back to me.
I opened my mouth to say her name, and when the door opened I jumped.
“He’s not breathing right,” Chloë’s mom said.
She was holding the baby in front of her. She pushed him toward me.
“Chloë, he’s not breathing right.”
I heard Chloë say “What,” but by then I was looking at Cody. He was blue. His face was pulled together like a drawstring pouch.
I was the closest, so I stood up and took him from her. His head rolled back, and I said, “Hold his head!” to both of them, and Chloë was the one who grabbed his head. Her mom had backed up against the wall. I could hear her crying, but it was like she was in a different room. Then the sister was in the doorway asking what was wrong.
I pushed Cody’s mouth open and worked my finger over his tongue. I thought, What if his jaw closes on my finger? What if I scratch his throat? What if I make him puke, and he chokes on the puke?, but I didn’t know what else to do so I pushed my finger further in. His throat felt tight and warm. Endless. My hand was huge in his mouth. I watched his face for any flicker of movement. What if there’s food caught and I push it in more and make it worse?
I didn’t think the word “death” until much later.
His eyes opened. It was like a doll in a horror movie. I heard a choking noise and his tongue buckled against my finger, and I couldn’t pull my hand out fast enough—he started screaming around my hand, his eyes locked on mine. My finger came out with a long rope of spit, and his scream uncorked. He looked furious. I shoved him back at Chloë’s mom, and she backed out into the hall. She said “Oh God” over and over. Her face was almost as blue as Cody’s had been, her mouth stretched around “God” and choking.
The sister called 911.
Her mom held Cody so tight he wouldn’t stop crying. As long as he was crying he was breathing, right?
Chloë and I sat on the edge of her bed. I looked over at her, and her face was a candle, melting. The flame flickering out. When I said her name, she kept her eyes on her knees. Her hands were tight together in her lap. I reached and put my hand on top, and stared at the spit on my finger, shining as the sunlight poked through the window.