She knew Mr. Buddy’s silhouette, out in the early morning hours watering his lawn. As the sun came up, he stood at the flowerbed holding a hose on the roses. She passed him like this, walking down her driveway in the mornings to wait for the bus, and he waved to her, calling, “Good Morning, Val,” and her stomach fluttered. Her mother used to visit with him, but that was back in May. She didn’t mention him anymore.
So Val didn’t stop and chat with Mr. Buddy when her mother was out of town. Her mother had rules when Val stayed home alone: don’t have friends over; answer mom’s calls; avoid the neighbors. If anyone knew her mother left Val like she did, her mother could get in trouble. Being promoted to the airline’s Milan route meant better pay, but harder hours. Val should stay overnight with someone, like the Todd Family or her father, but the Todd Family had been in a car wreck at the end of the summer. They could have died, but they were in recovery. Val’s father lived in a trailer behind Our Lady of the Lake that stunk of cigarettes and finch cages. If her father knew, he could make her live with him and quit his spotty child support. Val preferred her mother’s nice house on Old Hickory Lake, and she didn’t like how the smell of his trailer stuck to her clothes long after she left.
She skipped school once, and her mother brought it up every time she went over the rules again.
“Tell no one I’m gone,” her mother said, shoving a bra into her carry-on for her next transatlantic flight. “And no more calls from the school office saying you didn’t show up. What if I hadn’t been able to answer the phone? Don’t you know what could have happened?”
“I know,” Val said, this being the third time she’d heard the lecture.
“You know, huh?” her mother asked, buttoning her flight attendant blouse. “You know how much I do for you?”
Val tucked in a lipstick that was poking out of an unzipped pocket. Besamé Red, her mother’s color.
She waved from the end of the driveway as her mother drove off to the airport. As Val waited for the bus, the neighbor, Mr. Buddy, bent over to get his newspaper from the bottom of his own driveway. He wore the same thing every morning: a white undershirt, athletic shorts, and house slippers. He was around fifty, and he was a widower, a word that Val liked to say, feeling it pucker her lips. Her mother didn’t share details, just that the wife had been beautiful and sick. Too close to my age, her mother said, every time.
Val thought Mr. Buddy seemed both young and old. His hair was grayer than black, but his arms filled the short sleeves of his t-shirt in a way that rushed blood to her face. He pointed at the paper on Val’s driveway.
“Your mom forgot her paper,” he said.
“That’s ok, Mr. Buddy,” Val said. “I’ll get it when I get home.”
He picked up his paper, straightened, used the paper to give a little wave, good day. As he walked back to his house, his calf muscles popped out on each leg, taking turns, so visible under his tough, tanned skin.
When the bus pulled up, Val plopped down in the same seat she had always shared with her best friend, Mamie Todd. But since the car accident, Mamie hadn’t been back to school yet. She’d missed all of August and a week into September. The middle school buzzed about the Todd family. Rumor had it, Mamie wasn’t hurt at all, but her older sister, Charlie, hit her head. Everybody wanted to talk about Charlie.
“I heard Charlie bruised her brain, and they had to take part of it out,” a guy on the bus said. Val swiveled around and stared at the back of his head.
“That’s not possible,” Val said.
The gossip turned to look at her, their faces close over the back of her seat.
“Of course it’s possible,” he said. His name was Brent. He was a popular kid, and his father dated Val’s mom sometimes. Val and Brent never talked about it.
“You don’t know anything,” Val said.
“Do you?” Brent asked.
Val knew only what her mother had told her—that Mamie was living with the neighbors, not her own mom and dad. Val’s mother had a theory about why, which involved twirling a finger around her temple and whistling.
Val got out her homework and started looking at the math, frowning every time she flipped to the back of the book for the answer. Val was Mamie’s best friend. She should know more than Brent. She should know everything.
Val made it to her locker and to homeroom before she heard that Mamie was back.
“She’s fat now,” Jenny said.
“I heard she doesn’t talk to her parents,” Brittany said.
“I heard she doesn’t talk at all,” Robin said. “Like, she’s on a strike until Charlie gets better, or something.”
“How do you know?” Val asked. “You’re not even friends with her.” She wanted to crawl over the desk and smother their faces.
“Everybody knows,” Jenny said.
These were the girls Val and Mamie gossiped about last year, who got their periods before everyone else and sprouted breasts. They ran to the bathroom with an embarrassed oval mouth every month. Val didn’t believe they were really surprised. A period couldn’t be that sneaky.
Between classes, Val scanned the halls for Mamie and walked by her locker more than once, but she couldn’t find her. At lunch, Val sat at their old seventh grade table, surrounded by stinky seventh graders. Mamie never showed.
Val got on the bus that afternoon and pressed against the window, watching the stream of car riders. There, she thought she saw Mamie, getting into a car, but it couldn’t be. The girl’s arms were thick and her middle pudgy. Not like Mamie. When Val’s mother told her about the accident, Val burst into tears. The Todd family’s car had hit another on the interstate. Her mother tried to calm her by saying that Mamie was ok, that she walked away, and Val would forever have the image of her friend getting out a crumpled car, slamming the door, and strolling off down the road.
Brent leaned down to Val’s ear from the seat behind her.
“So, did you and your best friend hang out today?”
“What do you think?” Val asked.
“I think she spent all day in the counselor’s office,” Brent said.
“Then why’d you ask?”
“I know a lot more than you think,” Brent said. “I know your mom isn’t home.”
This last part he whispered. Val whipped around to face him, her cheeks burning.
“Party at Val’s house,” he said, sliding back down into his own seat.
Val’s heartbeat filled her ears. When she unlocked the door to her empty house, the stillness unnerved her. Lamps and coffee tables lay in wait. She flipped on every light she passed at only four in the afternoon. Had her mother told Brent’s father she was going away? It was just like her mother to break her own rules, and Val hated her surprise. She heard the hum of the air conditioner churning back up. There was the whirr of an air filter and beneath that, the eerie buzz of the fridge.
The doorbell made her heart stop, and she feared it was Brent, with a mob behind him. Or worse, alone.
But there, on the front porch, was Mr. Buddy, holding their newspaper, dangling from his grip in its plastic bag.
“Something told me I should just bring it up to you,” he said.
Val took the paper, mumbling a thank you.
“Tell your mother I’ll give her some of my tulip bulbs if she wants ‘em. She’s got to plant them soon, though.”
“Ok," Val said, knowing her mother would never put her hands in dirt. When she wasn’t flying across the ocean, she was out on their dock with no boat, reclining in black silk pajamas, sipping vodka and waving to passing boaters who waved back sometimes.
“I need to show her what to do,” he said. “Is she home?”
“Not right now,” she said.
“When will she be back?”
Here it was. Val had avoided lying as best she could, but now it was either lie or break one of her mother’s rules. Two, actually.
She breathed out and lied, “Tonight.”
She started to close the door, but he pushed the newspaper to her. She had forgotten to take it. Her hand brushed over his as she grasped the plastic. He had dirt under his nails. He smelled like dirt.
“Are you scared of being in this big house by yourself?” he asked.
The icemaker clunked behind her.
“Kind of,” she admitted.
“I remember that feeling,” he said. “Like there was someone with you in the house, even though you knew you were alone.”
Val shrugged. That’s exactly how she felt.
“I have a confession,” he said, leaning down into her face so close, she thought he might kiss her, and her heart slammed against her sternum, but then he leaned a little to her left, his breath like a finger tracing her face. “I still get scared sometimes,” he said.
He straightened so quickly it startled her, and his handsome face contorted into a large, goofy grin with wrinkles all around his eyes.
“We never actually get older,” he said. “You feel the same on the inside.”
“You get older,” Val said. “You just don’t grow up.”
Mr. Buddy blinked and his grin relaxed.
“Good point,” he said. She couldn’t keep matching his stare, so she glanced at the paper in her hands. “You look so much like your mother,” he added.
Val had heard it before, over and over, from all kinds of people, though she couldn’t see it. When her mother was in full makeup, even she didn’t look like herself. And at night, when she had stripped her face, she slathered night cream that turned her skin an aggravated shade of pink. Her eyes, lined and dry, seemed to register Val as a chore she forgot to do.
“I don’t think so,” Val said.
“No, it’s true,” Mr. Buddy said. “You’ll be as pretty as she is one day.”
Val had heard this, too. She understood what it meant.
“Thanks, Mr. Buddy,” she said. “I’ll make sure to tell my mother you brought the paper up for us.”
“And the tulips bulbs?”
“I’ll tell her.”
“They can be a little tricky to plant. I’ll help her.”
Val saw his hope and wondered why her mother had quit visiting him. She barely talked to him, or about him.
“I’m surprised she wanted them,” Val said. “My mother doesn’t garden.”
“She complimented my tulips in the spring,” Mr. Buddy said. “I promised her some.”
“Ah,” Val said, understanding now. Her mother probably wanted his promise of cut tulips in a vase, desiring them like she desired anything, easy.
Val thanked him again, closed the door, and turned back toward an empty house and a night alone.
The sun was dropping on the other side of the lake. Val went to the kitchen window to look out at her mother’s empty lounge chair, so lonely on the dock, but she a person filled its space. The body was kicked back with her legs propped just so, and Val felt momentary joy that maybe her mother’s flight had been cancelled, and she’d simply been out on the dock this whole time. But the person in the chair didn’t have the same grace or silk pajamas.
Val walked down the sloped yard to the dock where she found the back of Mamie Todd’s head. Mamie craned her neck to see Val and waved.
“Where have you been?” Val asked. “Were you at school today?”
“Yeah,” Mamie said.
“What did you do all day?”
“Sat in the counselor’s office,” Mamie said. “They’re trying to help me transition, or some crap.”
“Are you coming back to school next week?” Val asked
A boat zoomed by. It was a weekend in September, the last chance for lake lovers to enjoy the summer. Val’s mother would soon lament the cold and how the lake sat so still in the winter and how it made her feel alone. Val waved at these September boaters who waved back, then she sat next to the lounge chair, her butt on the dock.
“Everybody’s saying things about you,” Val said.
Mamie pulled her legs in and hugged them. Her legs were thicker, bulging against the seam of her shorts. She was heavier than the last time Val saw her two months ago; her shirt stretched more tightly over a pair of breasts.
“I need silk pajamas like your mom’s,” Mamie said. “Where did she go anyway?”
“I don’t care,” Val said.
“Your mom is cool,” Mamie said. “Does she even care what people think about her?”
“No,” Val said. “Just as long as they think about her.”
A screen door slammed, and Mr. Buddy stood at the top of the stairs to his screened in porch, shading his eyes with one hand, peering down at them.
“Is that your mom, Val?” he called.
“No, Mr. Buddy,” Val called back. “She’ll be home later.”
“Remember the tulips!”
“I’ll remember, Mr. Buddy.”
He went back inside, the screen door banging behind him. Val could smell something cooking, meat on charcoal; he must be grilling. It made her hungry.
“Hey, let’s go inside and watch Days of Our Lives,” Val said, hopeful that maybe Mamie would stay, and she wouldn’t have to face the night after all. “We can open some peaches and eat them out of the can like we used to.”
“I don’t really feel like it,” Mamie said. She stared out at the lake as soft ripples thumped against the bank, the remnants of the wake from the boat that sailed by earlier. The lulling slush against the shore always made Val forget it came from violence. The sun, now deep, dark orange, was so low behind the tree line across the lake that it shot directly into Val’s eyes. She stared into her lap.
“People are saying things,” she said after a moment of listening to the ripples.
“Like what?” Mamie asked.
“Did your mom go crazy?”
Mamie switched her legs, draping her left over her right instead.
“A little,” she said.
Val’s phone rang in her lap. She looked down to see the name “Mom” lighting up the screen. Her mother must have landed, probably two drinks in at a hotel bar. Probably pausing her conversation with the pilot to call her daughter. Val declined it and set the phone on the dock, face down.
They sat and watched the sun slip out of view.
“Brent said they cut out part of Charlie’s brain,” Val went on. “But I told him to shut up.”
Mamie squinted at Val, the purple light around them making edges blur.
“They did,” she said.
Something plopped into the water nearby, and Val jumped. It could be a turtle, but the bank was in shadow. Then, another plop.
“Party at Val’s house,” a voice said. Val turned to find Brent there, with another rock in his hand that he tossed into the water. This one was bigger, more of a kerplunk.
“What are you doing here?” she asked, annoyed. She stood up to face him.
“Ouch,” Brent said, slapping a hand to his chest. “You really know how to hurt someone.” He brushed past Val and sat next to Mamie, who didn’t seem surprised at all but smiled at him and put a hand on his knee.
“You invited him?” Val asked, feeling sick. “How did you know to come here?”
They both looked at her as if searching for something to say.
“I thought you came to see me,” Val said to Mamie.
“You haven’t come to see me,” Mamie said.
“I don’t even know where you were.”
“I’m at my neighbors’ house,” Mamie said. “Everybody knows.”
Everybody . There didn’t used to be an everybody. There used to be Mamie and Val, and then there was an everybody else.
“Did your dad say something about my mom going away?” Val asked Brent. He shook his head, said no way, but he wasn’t convincing. He took his shoes off, went to the side of the dock and stuck his feet in. Mamie followed him. Val saw how she pressed against him with her shoulder touching his. “There’s snakes in there,” Val said.
“Agh, it got me!” Brent screamed, making both girls jump. Then he laughed, and Mamie laughed, too, in a way that Val didn’t recognize. It was throaty. Deep. Like a woman.
“He’s kidding,” Mamie said to Val. “Come on, put your feet in.”
“No way,” Val said. “My mom said snakes hang out by the shore.”
“Your mom is hot,” Brent said.
Mamie slapped his shoulder for Val, but laughed and said, “I want to be Val’s mom.”
“I don’t,” Val said.
“Come on, Val,” Mamie said. “Sit down with us.” Both Mamie and Brent started begging her to join them, though she could tell they were just being nice. Who knows if they were even going to tell her they were here. Maybe they wished she didn’t know. Her mother preferred to be out here alone, and Val let her.
As she turned to leave, Brent got her by the wrist. He must have leapt up right then, showing Mamie how he would include her friend.
“Come on, Val,” he said.
Val tugged back, saying no, let me go. They did a tug-o-war for a moment, but then Brent gave up. When he released her, she flew backwards, flopping into the water and doing a backward summersault just under the surface, her legs rolling over her head. She flailed to get back to the surface, sickened by the patches of warm and cold water. She opened her eyes but saw only dark green, murky. When she grabbed the dock, her legs floated under it, and she thought she felt something brush against her calf. Screaming, she hauled herself onto the dock, greeted by a duet of laughter.
“Oh my god, you got out of there so fast,” Brent said.
Mamie wiped at her eyes.
“Stop laughing at me,” Val said, but the two cleaved to each other, hands touching knees touching sides, pressed against each other, holding each other up.
With water streaming off her head, Val screamed one long, cathartic scream with no words, just rage. She was still in her sneakers, her socks squishy, tears slipping down the sides of her face, and her hands clenched into fists. Her phone buzzed on the dock. Brent and Mamie quit laughing, eyebrows raised, exchanging glances.
On the phone was a text from her mother: Answer my calls.
“I didn’t mean to,” Brent said.
“Go change your clothes and come back,” Mamie said. “We’ll hang out for a little while. I don’t want to go back to my neighbors’ house yet.”
“Why are you staying there?” Val asked, miserable about her wet, clinging clothes. Miserable that her friend seemed like somebody else. Miserable that something had changed. “Why aren’t you staying with me?”
The moon had appeared in the sky, but the light was gray, and Val could still see Mamie’s expression when she said, “My mom doesn’t trust your mom,” She said it like it was something Val already knew. And Val did.
“I’m going to go change,” Val said. She climbed up the hill toward her shining bright house. She could see the refrigerator in the kitchen, the couch in the living room. Everything vivid and exposed, and it looked like a place she had never seen before, a place she wanted to darken, to shut off every light now in her eyes.
She didn’t notice Mr. Buddy until he was almost next to her, appearing from the shadows.
“Val, is everything ok?”
He smelled like a mixture of clean soap, pepper, and char.
“What?” she asked.
“I heard screaming down there. Is everything ok?”
“No one was screaming,” Val said, too stunned to remember that there had been her own.
“You’re soaking wet,” he said. He wore a crisp blue t-shirt, jeans and dark leather boots. She’d never seen him cleaned up like that, no dirt on his shirt or hands. The skin on his face gleamed as if just shaved and moisturized. He looked younger, except for his salt and pepper hair glowing in the light. He put his hand on her shoulder and squeezed.
“I need to change my clothes,” Val said.
“Your mother loves sitting out there, doesn’t she?” he said, looking out at the dock. “She’s like the queen of the lake.”
Val stepped to the side, sliding out from under his hand. Her clothes clung, a layer of heavy slime.
“That’s not my mother,” Val said, “if you’re looking for her.”
“I’m not looking for her,” Mr. Buddy said. “I thought I would let you know I have some leftover hamburgers, if you’re hungry. I still forget sometimes and make too much food.” He gestured with his head toward Mamie and Brent. “You can invite your friends.”
Val frowned. “They’re not my friends.”
“Oh,” he said. “Oh.” She could smell the burger. She felt hungry and empty and wet.
“Ok then,” he said. “I’m right next door if you need anything.”
“I don’t need anything,” she said.
“In case you do,” he said then climbed the stairs to his screened-in porch and disappeared inside. Val looked back to the dock, to wave at Mamie and Brent in case they were wondering what was going on, but they had become one silhouette, a blob of shadowed body on the lounge chair. Elbows poked out and went back in. Heads moved from side to side.
The world stretched out around her, swallowing her.A terrible ringing rose in her ears, squealing so that she could hear nothing else. It sounded like it was coming from somewhere far away, filling the sky, yet it was all in her head, her skull now a fishbowl.Old Mamie was gone. Val backed away, then turned from the lake, climbing Mr. Buddy’s stairs. She looked back once more to see if the shadowed blob had noticed, but they were still lost in lips on necks. The moon’s light cast a runway on the surface of the water. Perhaps it was the same runway her mother could see in some other part of the world. Her phone rang again; it was her mother reaching out across the vastness between them. Val put her thumb on the power button and held it there, suffocating it until the screen turned black.
Through the screen door, she saw Mr. Buddy’s deck furniture, floral like a woman’s touch.
“Is that you?” Mr. Buddy called from inside his house, the door to the kitchen sitting open.
“Can I have a towel?” Val called back. “I’m cold.”
Mr. Buddy appeared in the doorway, looking at her through the screen. The light from the kitchen behind him cast him in shadow, but she could see that grin, folding the skin in the corners of his face.
“I can do that for you,” he said. “Come on in.”
Val put her hand on the screen and pushed, moving into the darkness of his porch, which she shouldn’t recognize, but somehow she did, as if she should have been here all along.