by Ben Gwin
I met Nancy Farmer on a muggy night in August when she caught me spying on her mom. Back then, the Farmers’ lived in a three-story house with wide front windows and no blinds, and Mrs. Farmer made a habit of walking around naked. Some days she wore a towel wrapped around her hair or her waist, others she was stark nude watering the plants or dusting right there in the living room. I hid between the trees and the fence on the edge of their lawn and watched for as long as I could stand it. Then I’d cross the Route 26, head to the river and collect rocks until dark. For weeks this went on without a hassle until one evening I was watching Mrs. Farmer redecorate, and Nancy came bounding down the front steps. I laid flat on my back and covered myself with sticks and grass clippings, thinking she might pass by if I kept still and closed my eyes.
Nancy dug her foot into my ribs. “Quit creeping on my mom.” She wore cutoffs over a red bathing suit. Her hair was wet. A piece of red ribbon shot through one of her braids. “Don’t encourage her,” she said.
I stood and brushed myself off, picked up my bucket.
Nancy ran her thumb under her bathing suit strap. The dark around her eyes was so deep it looked like she hadn’t slept the night through in her whole life. “What’s your deal?”
“I’m Roy. Just moved down the street. I’m on my way to the river.” I backpedaled a few steps and stopped when I felt the wind from passing cars on 26.
“You always carry a bucket?”
“It’s for rocks.”
“Well, Roy, I’m going to the river,” Nancy said. “If you want to meet some people.”
I tried to spin the bucket between my palms, but it pinched my skin and I dropped it.
She reached out and brushed a leaf from my hair. “Maybe if you make some friends you’ll stop jerking off in my lawn.”
We walked to the road and stood in the shoulder, waiting for a break in traffic. Before we crossed, I looked back at the house and saw only empty windows.
The path along the river was slanted and narrow and the air smelled like mold. I took deliberate steps, following Nancy while she filled me in on how things worked—laid it out as if she were telling me how to balance the register or record my tips. Nancy and her older brother, Mitch, ran with the crowd you thought had it made in high school. Kids with new cars and fake IDs. Blue jeans you could pay rent with. If the world was right I’d have been just another seventh grader trying to stay out of their way. But that summer nothing seemed to work with any kind of logic. Whatever I was going to find that night with Nancy, I needed it. Even now I see how I needed it.
Farther along we came to a spot where the river ate into the path. Low hanging branches reached out over the water and broke the moon into pieces. We hopped from rock to slick rock and found the trail again. The woods split open around a clearing all the way down across from the tire factory. There were maybe six kids, all older and bigger than me, pulling beers from a trashcan full of ice. A torn up couch held a pile of shoes.
“Look what I found.” Nancy presented me like a prize on a game show.
Overhead a girl’s legs dangled from the mouth of a three-sided tree house. A fire cracked in a circle of cinder blocks while Nancy rattled off a list of names I had trouble keeping straight.
Erin was the girl hanging off Mitch. “What are you into?” she asked. A piece of hard candy clunked in her mouth.
“Rocks and comic books,” I said, and she laughed.
“Don’t be a bitch.” Nancy undid her braids, pulled the ribbon out of her hair and twisted it between her fingers. “He’s with me,” she said.
“He’s adorable,” Erin said.
Mitch lifted Erin’s arm off his neck. He smiled, and his teeth were blinding, so white they looked fake—like you could wind them up and watch them chatter. “Cool shirt, Roy,” Mitch said.
It was my best t-shirt. On the front was the cover of Iron Man #149 where he fights Dr. Doom. I drew a circle in the dirt with my foot. “Thanks,” I said.
“Relax.” Mitch tossed me a beer.
They made a big deal of getting me to drink. A boy and a girl who looked like twins showed up with a bottle of vodka, and I was about to hit it when Nancy pulled me away.
We sat on a big flat rock jutting into the river.
“I don’t want them to get you all pukey,” Nancy said. She opened the two beers she brought out and gave one to me.
“I bet the factory runoff and the widening of the canal for the old barges created some awesome mineral deposits,” I said. “There could be crystals.”
Nancy dipped her hand in the river and made a palm print between us on the rock. “Do you have cigarettes?” she asked.
One of the twins flew off the rope swing into the water.
“Watch this,” Nancy said, and with a snap of her fingers expertly flicked a bottle cap into the fire.
“How’d you do that?” I asked.
She said, “I’ll show you,” and we spent that night collecting bottle caps and flicking them at the fire pit while the lights on the far side of the valley popped on and poured their reflection over the water. It got so you couldn’t tell where the hill stopped and the river began.
The last weeks of summer dragged on in days made heavy by sweat and unpacked boxes. The air conditioner broke and drought sucked all the green from our lawn. Silk worms infested the trees out front. Dad was gone for work before I woke up and didn’t come home until after dark. Mom put our stuff away in strange places, so I went from room to room reordering what I could. I pulled a vase from the freezer and set it on the mantle, lugged Dad’s tools from the dining room into the shed out back. I hunted stereo system components floating between four different rooms on two different floors. When I was younger, and we lived in the city, Mom and I spent summers painting together. While I made a swirly gray mess on my paper and the kitchen table, she painted pictures of photographs she’d taken of abandoned factories and crumbling row houses, train track trestles that stopped halfway between mountains. People who shot dope under highway overpasses. She clipped the pictures to her easel with a clothespin. Sunlight through the windows turned her hair the color of pennies. Those times are tough to think about, after the move, watching Mom talk to herself while she stuffed winter coats into the cabinets. Every day I ran away to the river. Nobody ever came looking.
I didn’t make it back to Nancy’s house until October. Mr. and Mrs. Farmer invited my family to their Halloween party. “They have kids around your age,” Dad said. “It’ll be fun.” He sucked ice cubes from his glass, while I cleared the table. Mom was on the porch, pulling the phone cord through the crack in the screen door.
“Dad, it’s like my last chance to go trick-or-treating,” I said, and was about to further support my position when Mom ripped the phone from the wall and fired it into the lawn. She stumbled and knocked over the table. Dad went to help her up. I took my plates to the sink.
The Farmers’ kitchen smelled like caramel and bleach. My homemade costume itched around my neck. I carried my shield, a garbage can lid painted red-white-and-blue, to the dining room table. They had the big candy bars. So I stuffed my face and tried to see how long I could stare at the chandelier without blinking, while the adults mingled by the piano in the living room. The whole town was there and then some. Dad was the only one who didn’t dress up.
Mitch was David Bowie—full Ziggy Stardust makeup and everything. He stood by the front door. As guests arrived, he took their coats.
My vision was almost blurred when Nancy came down stairs all in red. “My Roy,” she said, “what big ears you have.”
I tore open a Kit Kat and watched the run in her stockings stretch as she walked. “What’s in the basket?” I asked.
“The Big Bad Wolf,” she said.
She opened the basket. Inside was a wolf’s head that looked so real, I gagged and spit chocolate down the front of my shirt. I tried to wipe it off and smeared it everywhere.
Mitch crept up behind Nancy and rested his chin on top of her head. His fingers draped over her shoulders. “Poor wolf,” Mitch said, “didn’t stand a chance.”
Nancy snapped shut the basket. “Let me get you some soda water for that,” she told me and ducked into the kitchen.
Mitch grabbed a handful of candy corn and shook them like dice. “That costume is boss.”
“Yeah, I was gonna go as Iron Man, but I already had these awesome blue sweatpants so I was like, ‘fuck it, I’m going as Captain America.’”
“Oh,” Mitch said. “You need anything? Want a real drink?”
I dipped my finger in the syrupy red stuff pooling under Nancy’s basket and licked it. “No thank you,” I said.
One-at-a-time Mitch tossed candy corn into his mouth, and we bullshitted about comics until Mr. Farmer came in from the living room, waving a drink and wearing a loin cloth. “Mitch, we’re ready for you, buddy,” he said.
“Come on, Dad. Really?”
Mr. Farmer set his glass on the banister and took a step towards us. He said, “Mitchel,” in a way that ended the discussion.
After a lengthy introduction and some clapping, Mitch sat at the piano and flubbed a couple notes, started and stopped the same tune over and again. Then he closed his eyes and ripped into a song I knew from a movie set in the sixties full of big American cars and kids with slick hair. I picked dead leaves off a plant by the window and watched Mitch go at it under the glow of jack-o-lanterns and plastic ghosts. A nurse and a demon started dancing. Soon the whole room full of movie stars and monsters swarmed around Mitch. Even Mom and Dad joined in.
Nancy pulled up my shirt and rolled a cold soda can over my back. She whispered, “Dance with me.”
I said, “I don’t know how,” and she said, “I’ll show you.” And I turned and reached for her but she backed away towards the stairs.
Up in Nancy’s room she led me around in small circles between the dresser and the window. Notes from the piano rose through the floor. Her makeup ran and it looked like the black in her eyes was crawling across her face. When she pulled me close I pressed into her hard. Her hair smelled like the flowers Mom used to grow on the roof of our old apartment.
“You dance fine,” she said.
“I’m dizzy,” I said and stood on my tiptoes. Nancy ducked under my arm and whirled across the room. She took a big drink from the soda can, shook it by her ear and gave me the last sip. I tasted metal and vodka and cherry lip gloss. I pulled the tab off the can and put it in my pocket.
From her desk Nancy grabbed a battered pack of Winston’s. She opened the window and climbed out onto the roof. “Coming?” she asked.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “It’s Halloween. Tonight you’re someone else and so am I.”
On the roof we got stoned and made plans to meet later at the spot by the river.
“The air feels good,” I said, “feels like cold water tastes. Like I could swallow it.”
Nancy ripped off a piece of shingle and flung it into the yard. “How’d it feel in the city?”
“Some other way.”
The stars started to wobble. They glowed so bright it hurt my eyes.
Back inside Nancy hung up her hoodie and sat on the bed. “These things usually go pretty late.” She rubbed the edge of her comforter between her forefinger and thumb.
"I'm hungry," I said.
“You’re such a boy.”
“I’m Captain America.”
Nancy took off her shirt. She tied back her hair and patted the spot next to her on the bed. “Well come sit with me, Captain America,” she said.
So I sat with her.
The party ended around midnight. At home my patents dove into a deep sleep, anchored down by the blue pills they kept in their bathroom and didn’t think I knew about. I snuck out still in costume. Cold air sobered me up. When I got to the clearing, the fire was burning but no one was there. From where I stood the tire factory looked like the skyline of an exotic city way off in the distance. But I knew better. I lit one of Mom’s cigarettes and heard a muffled noise up in the tree house. I climbed inside to see what it was.
Inside Nancy was tied up and hanging by her wrists, stripped to her underwear. She banged her feet against the back wall, her toes barely sweeping the floor. A blood-stained pillowcase covered her face; I pulled it off, and her nose was split open and dripping. She screamed when I took the gag from her mouth.
“Keep your hands off me.”
“Quit kicking. I’m trying to help.”
“Don’t fucking touch me.”
I tried to wipe the blood and snot off her face but she turned away.
“If you’re gonna help, then help.”
“Hurry up,” Nancy said. “They’re coming back.”
“I can’t reach.”
She clenched and unclenched her fists. Her hands were blue.
“Fucking do something,” she said.
Her hair got in my mouth, her sweat on my cheek. I couldn’t get my fingers to work the knots.
“Lift up your feet,” I said.
I got on my hands and knees, and Nancy stepped on my back. She lifted her hands up and over the hook, stumbled to the floor and flattened me. My chin bounced off the plywood. Nancy slid down the rope swing and took off up river without looking back. I lay flat, breathing hard. Below me I heard footsteps getting closer. Voices rising. Blood poured from my chin. I hung over the edge and dropped. I landed on my stomach in the mud. When I got up I tasted blood and dirt and wasn’t alone.
Still dressed like Bowie, Mitch swung a bottle of vodka by its neck, his other hand held Erin’s hip. Walking around the fire came Drake and Vern and then the twins; they filled the trashcan with bags of ice and cans of beer.
“Thank God, you guys are here,” I said, cupping my chin. “Nancy is all fucked up.”
“Jesus, you look like shit,” Mitch said and passed me the bottle. “Erin, help him with that cut.”
I took a drink and passed the bottle to Erin. “Nancy’s fucked up bad,” I said. “Her nose.”
Erin pulled a bandanna from her pocket, soaked it in vodka and wiped my face with it. “Hold this to your chin,” she said.
I nodded thanks and did like she told me.
“Where’s Nancy?” Mitch asked.
“I untied her. She ran,” I said.
Mitch took the cigarette from Erin’s mouth, dragged on it and put it back between her lips. “I wish you hadn’t done that, Roy,” he said.
“Done what?” I said.
“That’s not how it works, Roy,” Erin said. “It was her turn.”
I could hear the river running past as they surrounded me and pulled my arms behind my back.
“Quit fucking around,” I said.
“Nothing personal,” Mitch said.
“This isn’t funny,” I said.
“No, it’s not,” said Erin.
Someone tied my hands. Mitch pulled a pillowcase over my head. They dragged me to the river, hit me in the ribs till I quit struggling. I pictured Erin smoking those stupid long cigarettes while someone dunked my head under and held it. Six sets of hands on my head one after another and each time I went under longer, the time to breathe between got shorter. Everyone took a turn, tried to see how close to drowned they could get me.
When they were done, they dumped me under the tree house and pulled off my clothes. Erin tied the rope swing around my neck. “If you misbehave,” she said, “you get the hood again.”
Mitch cracked a beer.
Tied up like a dog, I sat shivering in my boxers and watched them drink by the river late into the night.
I came to at the sound of Nancy’s voice, certain I was dead and had fucked up so bad my afterlife was forever a view of the tire factory.
“Roy, get dressed. Hurry.”
“I can’t. I’m dead.”
She put her forehead to my ear. “No, you’re not,” she said. “Let’s go.”
Under first light we walked along 26 back to my house. We sat on the porch and watched the sun rise over the moth-gutted trees at the end of the lawn. From the ashtray on the table I pulled a half-smoked cigarette and tried to light it with the fireplace lighter by the grill. The lighter clicked and clicked.
The following spring the river flooded and tore out chunks off the shore before it subsided, giving way to another brutally hot summer. That summer the water level sank so low, you could see the bottom of the river from up on the bridge. In some spots you could walk right across it. Mitch graduated along with the rest of his friends, and in the fall they all left for colleges in New England or California where their families had donated money. Once Mitch was out of the house, Nancy never brought him up and I never asked.
When Nancy and I had the chance to leave ourselves, neither of us managed to get very far or stay gone for very long, and it was impossible to stay away from each other. I was still in high school when she and I shared a warm six pack and smoked half a joint while we walked across the bridge on the far side of the tire factory so we could watch the fireworks from the top of the hill. We saw smoke in the distance. A kid flew into the water off the rope swing.
“It’ll never stop,” Nancy said, and she scrunched up her nose and asked for a cigarette.
After the fireworks display, we walked along on the riverbank and tried to count the lights on the hill. Our blood buzzing in the July heat, we got a room for the night and collapsed on the bed. I kissed her belly while the TV’s glow washed over us like chlorine in a swimming pool, and I wondered if that was the kind of water you could drown in.
Ben Gwin is the Fiction Editor at Burrow Press Review. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Normal School, Mary: A Journal of New Writing, Dark Sky Magazine and others. His novel manuscript Clean Time: The True Story of Ronald Reagan Middleton was shortlisted for Butler University’s 2014 Pressgang Prize. Ben lives in Pittsburgh with his daughter.