It seemed like a mansion to them as kids, and it was the perfect place for spinning bottles and smoking their parents’ Chesterfields. Not packs or singles swiped from beneath lace underwear or panty hose but the snuffed-out stubs lying dead in the ashes of trays, waiting to be resurrected with matches struck against an inside wall. The boys fought over the ones stained red, each victor earning a taste of the future and the laughter of the girls at their sides.
But the Bacchanalia really roared when Rusty’s mom and pop headed up to Tallahassee on business or something else equally foreign and boring to her, an open invitation to take the boat for a spin at midnight and swim in the lake with beer in their bellies.
“Won’t we get sore stomachs?” came David’s cracked voice from the darkness.
“Only if you’re a sissy.” Jake had endless theories like this, but René let him stay in the group anyway. She knew he couldn’t help being a bully, that it wasn’t his fault; and although she hated the nickname, she let it stick because she figured it was the only way he knew how to show love.
He had come up with the moniker soon after they met, not because of her almond skin—that would have sent him running home, hands cupped around a broken nose—but because of the darker freckles that spotted her cheeks. She was the prettiest girl among them, and everyone saw it.
“Leave him alone,” said Rusty flatly, and Jake left David alone.
The lake was René’s, except when it wasn’t. Her neighbors rarely appeared, and she wondered if any of them ever glanced through their kitchen windows to see the stillness of a heron or the way the lilies bloomed in unison. When Independence Day rolled around, the whole town seemed to show up, decorating the field next to her house with lawn chairs and blankets, coolers and dancing children. It was the one day of the year when “The Clubhouse” was the last place she wanted to be, but her friends would insist their way into her heart and they’d all pile in with sandwiches, sun tea, and a deck of cards in case the main event was delayed or lackluster.
A hush would fall over everyone as the first streak of light shot up in the distance. If the fireworks were good, René would steal away when everyone was enraptured and sit alone in her yard, watching the reflections on the water or the crowd turning red to white to blue to green, the fire department-sanctioned bombs bursting in air. Twice she had even slipped into the lake, holding her breath while she listened to the muffled booms. She’d hurry to her bedroom before the end began, strip down, dry off, throw on new clothes, and slip back in with her friends without anyone realizing a thing. The ruse was her way of being alone without being alone.
The sky would fade to black and stars would begin to twinkle through the thinning clouds of smoke. The town would applaud, a dampened roar barely penetrating the private sanctuary of the room.
“Better than last year.” She wanted to be sure no one had caught on to her.
“No way,” said David, scarfing down the sandwich he had forgotten about during the show.
“Only the finale was better,” clarified Jalene, swinging open the door with her only arm and holding it for the others to pass through. René was the last to leave, with Jake just steps ahead and grabbing the door from Jalene. He waited until everyone had disappeared around the corner of the house.
“Where’d you go?” he asked, gazing at René as she turned her key in the lock.
“Come on, Rusty. Don’t lie.”
“What’s it to you?”
“I want to know.”
“I said nowhere.”
“You’re wearing different clothes.”
A leftover firework squealed toward the heavens but fizzled out. René marched toward her house, the stale July air or a slight fear of Jake drawing sweat to her neck and back. He was barking words she let fall short of her ears, and as she placed her hand on the knob she felt a hand at her belt.
The kick was swift and powerful. René’s leg rocketed behind her, a heel to manhood strike, sending Jake to the ground and gasping for air. He found his lungs a few minutes later but held his breath for the rest of the summer whenever he spotted his former friend.
The Clubhouse was quieter after that, and it only grew more so as the weeks went on. The violence had proved a tectonic shift, wiping out the world as everyone in the group knew it, and one by one the room emptied itself of bodies. René pressed her back against the floor and smiled as she stared at the ceiling’s hieroglyphs. Her history to that point was all there, mapping the years with the changes in handwriting and the thoughts that haunted her mind along the way. There were the quotes and drawn pictures and song lyrics, notes to self the others in the group had failed to discover. Her favorite: “A mirror or a lake, it never gets the illusion quite right.”
She tossed the butts and opened the windows. Cool breezes circled the room, and she inhaled the space around her. She welcomed the near silence and made friends with being alone. Sometimes a full moon would light up the entire place, now called The House, and she would close her eyes and try to tell when it became engulfed by clouds. Sometimes a knock would rattle the door, and she’d roll to a wall and lie absolutely still until the interrupter moved on. She’d wonder who it might have been, wonder what might have happened had she let them in. She didn’t worry about it ever being Jake. She knew he was gone, and she knew if he’d ever come back she would handle it.
When she had the house to herself for two December weeks, she dragged her mattress to The House and slept there every night, her eyes blinking to sleep as she looked up at the Christmas lights strung across the ceiling. She thought about the sky hanging above the lights and the lake and laughed at the notion of green and red and blue stars. There’d be no fireworks, and the field would be hers for watching a silent and never-changing explosion of color any night she wanted.