The moon pulled us like the tide from our reedy beds, the wild ones, the damned. The grasses swayed in the settling dusk as we stretched across our field and scanned the distant beachhead for movement. There was only the surf grinding against the sand. We kicked at the dry earth, rolled cigarette smoke on our tongues, waited as the night thickened around us. Speech was halting, words rough in our mouths. We were Aaron, Demetrius, James, and I, but we were already forgetting our names. They fell from us like ash.
The air was heavy and wet. The ocean wind blew a film of sweat from our necks and combed our unwashed hair. Restless with aching hearts, we turned south as the moon climbed, the wild ones on the hunt again.
We carved our way through town, senses alive and straining into the night. A set of chain swings creaked in an empty playground behind the school. Some nights, school-aged boys and girls met there, tried the sticky sweet taste of smoke and each other. Some nights we interrupted them.
We shook the fence, each of us to a section, challenging the stillness of the grounds, trying to flush out anyone hidden in the dark. When nothing stirred we shook harder, heaving the chain link back and forth in a rippling wave—but nothing. Silence but for the creaking swings overtook the playground, and we unlaced our dirty fingers from the fence. If anyone was there, they were luckier than most. On another night we might have slipped in without a sound and plucked them up before they suspected anything, but tonight we had no patience for subtlety. Tonight we were drawn south.
Spilling into the streetlights, we walked the long row of cars, unnoticed in full view. Eyes shifted and faces turned away under our gaze. We were bathed in purple and gold, lit by the fronts and signs of the pulsing buildings—buildings filled with the bleary-eyed masses, convulsing and shouting, their ceremonies faithfully observed. Many of them were students, paying for the privilege of debasing themselves along this strip of road and elsewhere. They were not like us.
Just ahead, a boy in a wet shirt of red and white bands hoisted a girl into the air. Her kicking feet made the loose frills of her dress dance, and she shrieked, dropping her shoes into the gutter. He spun her, and her over-sown dress bunched at her waist so that everyone turning towards the spectacle saw her spotted white panties. They pulled faces and joked amongst themselves—her dirty secret, her secret shame. If she had kept her legs together, no one would have known.
She dug her nails into his arm, still shrieking to be put down, but the nails did nothing because she had gnawed them to nothing, even chewed at the skin of each stubby finger. She only made herself more of a spectacle, which, perhaps, was what she wanted in her heart all along. They are that way. The boy did put her down eventually, laughing at her distress.
“You stupid dick,” she cried, and stalked in our direction, but turned back as we approached. Covering her face with her gnawed hand, she padded inside a purple fronted bar with lighted pool tables and two dollar hot dog specials. The boy followed her into the bar, still laughing, but with dull lamentations on his lips.
One of us took the discarded heels from the gutter and tied them through his belt loop where they dangled like a cheap trophy. He drove his hips, testing the hold of the straps, and the shoes jumped against his thigh.
The crowd pushed in against itself as we passed through them, turning inward toward flashing cell phone screens or struck lighters—they always steel themselves with light. We brushed our hands past the backs of their heads, daring them to turn. You know we're here. You know we could take you.
Crossing the street, we stepped into the path of a car with piercing white headlights and a rigid blue body folded around it like a suit of armor. Other lights shone like a blue halo beneath it on the road. The car pulled up short of us and the horn sounded. The rabble looked on from a safe distance.
We slowed our pace.
A head of cropped blond hair emerged from the window of the car, and the driver shouted at us over his brassy, rumbling music. One of us marked him with a gesture, etching the lines lazily through the air. He blew his horn again as we cleared the street, then drove off, his engine ripping through the night over his music.
We passed from the hot disorder of the strip into the cool shadow of an alley, the crush of a dozen broken bottles underfoot. We would not find what we are looking for here either.
• • •
The highway was a redundant line of motels and gas station diners blemishing an otherwise unmarked road through the wilderness of the coast. We bickered amongst ourselves, and one of our noses was bloodied by the time we reached that lonely expanse that stretched forever inland and out to sea, leading nowhere in both directions. Suddenly the wind shifted, and we pulled up short, letting each other go.
That's when we saw her.
She was walking away from us toward the sea, looking frail against the harsh backdrop of the highway in her close-fitting jeans and cotton tee-shirt, her disheveled hair tied back. We overtook the few hundred yards between us, but didn't hurry. There was no hurry now. Heat filled our ears, but with it came that calm satisfaction that it was already too late. We had seen her.
She stared at the road as she walked, barefoot, holding a pair of flat shoes behind her back. She didn't notice us until we were there, and when she looked up she did not seem startled, maintaining her slow progression east.
We asked her, What are you doing out here all alone, miss?
She shrugged her narrow shoulders. “Walking.” Her voice creaked as if from too much shouting, or too long without use.
You should put your shoes on. No telling what might be out here along the road.
She held one of the shoes up to us, and we saw that the sole was split with a hole worn through at the ball of the foot. “Anyway,” she said, “the road is so warm.” The soles of her feet were blackened from the surface of the road in near perfect prints, heavy at the heel, ball, and the pads of her toes, with the small arch of her foot a clean white crescent.
What's your name?
“Emily,” she said, looking back down at her feet as she walked.
How old are you?
“How old do you think I am?” Her hair smelled like cigars and cheap berry shampoo. She had the distant manner of the mistreated, of someone who had been taught by rote that it was more painful to care too deeply for themselves.
At least about thirty.
The corners of her mouth turned up in a subdued smile. “I'll be eighteen soon.” She said it like she had been considering the number for some time, counting up to it again and again with each step she took down the long, dark road. Sixteen... seventeen... “Eighteen,” she said again, under her breath.
Where are you going, Emily?
She shrugged again.
Do you want to come with us, then? We were just going to meet some friends down by the sound. Get something to eat there. You can come if you're hungry.
She looked at us with large, clear eyes that shone in the high moonlight as she scanned our faces. “Alright,” she said.
Standing to either side of her, we continued some ways along the highway, then led her into the woods.
• • •
The doors were all open, flinging light onto the yard of the small house. The house was set apart from the water by the dunes and another home, an abandoned two-story kept from crumbling into the ocean only by the strained support of a series of posts. Condemned now that the tide had eaten away the sand beneath it, soon that house would be devoured and only the posts would be left, jutting up from the surf like the ribcage of a whale that ran itself aground.
From the yard we could see the salt-soaked, sun-baked, wave riders. One of them, blond hair hanging to his shoulders in beaded cords, came out to meet us as we crossed the yard with the girl in tow.
“Where the fuck have you crazy fuckers been?” he said, blue smoke rising from between his teeth as he shuffled across the porch in a heart-printed bath robe, the sash knotted loosely at his hips. He put his hand in ours as we passed into the house. “Who’s the babe?”
Just another lost little girl we picked up on the way.
She pulled her shoes off and kicked them aside on the porch. “Hey,” she said.
Inside, scattered throughout the open rooms, there were sofas and chairs and low tables, found amenities, scavenged from dumpsters and curbs. Clothes and crushed cans were piled at the corners. The low light fell down from glass bulb covers misshapen in the likeness of conk shells and clouded with age.
The house was a haze of sound that shimmered up the wall and through the floors around a stereo set up to one side. Except for a bronze-skinned boy stripped to the waist and a girl whose breasts stretched the thin fabric of her yellowed tank top, the music went unnoticed. The pair sat cross-legged in front of the speakers, heads bowed and nodding. They dreamed together even as we stepped around them and pulled a gaunt, slack form off the most comfortable of the couches, dumping him onto the floor.
We patted the cushions for our guest.
She sat amidst us, looking around at a group playing strip poker in the kitchen and at the pair on the floor.
Did you say you were hungry? we asked her.
She nodded, pulling her knees up to her chest, her toes sticking out over the edge of the cushion.
We looked to our host as he lifted a beer by the neck from one of the low tables and drank. Food, Sultan.
“Che, what do I look like?” he said, settling back into a comfortable slouch. “You know where it is.” He gestured with his beer, and a rush of foam spilled over the mouth onto the floor.
Wait right here, we told the girl in our softest tones, we'll get everything.
“Okay,” she said.
We filled a plastic bowl with chicken parts from an unattended grill out back and took enough beer from an ice chest by the door for all of us. Sultan produced a tightly rolled cigarette from a pocket of his robe and struck a match to it. He leaned over the counter dividing the kitchen from the main room to watch the card game. One of the riders in the game, fat and covered in curling hairs, removed his shirt. A girl beside him with rings in her nose and a bolt through her tongue dragged her finger across one of his wide nipples.
Gathering around her again, we placed the bowl at Emily's side, and she ate the first piece she laid her hands on. We passed a bottle opener between us, crisply prying open the beers one by one.
“Hey, man,” Sultan interrupted. “Show her the new trick.”
She looked from him to us, smearing grease across her lips with the back of her hand.
Would you like to see it?
“What is it?” she asked.
Setting the opener aside, one of us wrapped his hand around the metal cap of a bottle and twisted, the muscles in his forearm bulging, until the cap came free. Tossing the cap aside, he held up his palm and we smiled as a line of blood formed where his skin had torn. He sucked his palm.
“Crazy fuckers,” said our host.
We offered the girl the bottle. She reached for it automatically (how naturally they take what is given them), but then hesitated, and said, “Could I have some water, actually?”
“Water's no good,” Sultan answered.
“I don't mind.”
“No,” he said, “it's no good. You're better off sticking your head in the ocean.”
She glanced up at us, waiting patiently around her, then took the bottle. The beer was bitter in her mouth, but she didn't complain. She was used to not complaining.
We picked through the bowl of meat, and between belched gouts of blue smoke, Sultan complained about the diminished state of his house and his coffers, dragging along only by the steady trickle of his dead father's inheritance.
“You listening to me, freeloaders?” he said to his disrobing retainers. “Hmm,” he nudged the unconscious man's face with his slippered foot. The response from each was roughly the same.
“And you lot,” he addressed us. “When was your last show of fealty? Is my good will so easily mistaken for charity? Che,” he leaned back against the counter in frustration, toppling a box of silver rings and empty cans, and absently poured the rest of his beer out on the unconscious man's head. We let Sultan speak to us this way because he hardly knew what he said himself. The girl seemed to enjoy his ramblings, watching him intently while she pinched the meat from a wing.
“Nobody listens. I haven't a voice in my own fucking house. Surrounded by feckless wastrels. Deadbeats. Dregs, the worthless dregs of society—wake up!” he shouted down at the unconscious man. The girl jumped in her seat between us. The bronze skinned boy sitting in front of the stereo looked up briefly then sank back into his sonic delirium.
A cheer went up in the kitchen. A black pair of panties landed on the table.
Sultan grabbed a handful of the stringy mop of hair at his feet and hauled the man's head up, examining his slack face, his own expression fierce. For a moment we thought Sultan would bite him, but he sighed in contempt and dropped the head with a dull smack back to the floor. “Worthless,” he said, his robe hanging open against his sandy-haired torso.
“Is he alright?” our girl asked quietly.
Sultan shrugged. “Everything is fucked up, as usual.” He shuffled into the kitchen to lean over his retainers and blow smoke in their faces.
“What time is it?” Emily asked us, glancing around for a clock she wouldn't find as if she had something at stake in the time.
It's not late, we assured her, thinking that was her concern. Only ten-thirty.
We lay the bones of our meal aside and licked our fingers clean. Our girl wiped her hand on the seat of the sofa. We took a fine cigar box with the emblem of a horse on the lid from a low cabinet missing one of its doors. The box was filled with Sultan's tightly rolled cigarettes and an assortment of tiny bags filled with variously colored pills. We selected two of the cigarettes and lit them from one of the candles arranged throught the house. Hot wax ran over our knuckles.
Emily readily accepted the cigarette when we passed it to her, though she turned it over awkwardly in her hand, wary of the hot ash. We recognized a scar on her upper arm almost perfectly round and about the size of a penny or the end of a cigar. She drew from the cigarette slowly, pinching the paper too tight, and coughed when the smoke finally filled her. She held the cigarette out to us, but we eased her hand back. She took more, breathing deeper and holding it inside. Her eyes drifted closed and she slowly released the smoke, a long, curling snake rising from her lips.
We grew hot at the sight.
Her shoulders sagged and she sank back into the couch. She untied her red hair and it rolled down over her shoulders, the smell of cheap, berry shampoo wafting through the thin veil of smoke.
And then she looked at me. Her eyes, though reddened, shone brighter than they had on the road, brighter than I had ever seen. She smiled at me, seemingly because of me, and gradually I smiled back.
Aaron leaned over and bit the top of my ear. I slapped him away, feeling foolish and exposed.
The moment passed.
Sultan plucked a girl, naked from the waist down, from the table in the kitchen, sparking a chorus of unintelligible protests from the other riders. He slapped the girl's ass and pushed her towards a bedroom off the entryway.
“No complaints,” Sultan turned briefly to the rest, “I've solved all your worldly problems. You'll find you're paired off evenly now, two and two. Gentlemen,” he bid us adieu, and nodded to our guest. “Good night, Little Red.”
“I don't think you're up for it,” sang the girl from the bedroom.
“Devil woman,” Sultan bellowed and slammed the door behind him.
We returned to our guest. The riders sank begrudgingly back into their game.
Let's go down to the water and cool off. We nodded to one another. Do you want to, Emily? Do you want to come down to the water with us? we asked, standing and gathering her up with us.
“Alright,” she said.
Outside, the moon hung high and ripe, turning the ocean into an obsidian mass. On the crest of the last dune before the vast black expanse of it all, Emily looked back at me apprehensively, but gradually her face relaxed when she saw—I don't know.
One of us knelt beside her, unclasping the high-heeled shoes from his belt. See if these fit. He held one shoe out to receive her foot.
She brushed her foot off on the leg of her jeans, steadying herself with a hand on my shoulder, then pointed her toes into the open shoe. He slid the heel into place and propped it against his thigh, fastening the buckle around her ankle.
She gained two inches switching feet and tightened her hold on my shoulder. I took her arm. He blew the sand from her toes and fixed the other heel into place. There, he sat back, try that.
Emily took a few awkward steps.
I think we have a winner.
She held her hair back and looked down at herself. Her flat, torn shoes were probably the only things she had worn since before her feet stopped growing. Now, she was like all the women from the glossy magazines she had pored over in drug stores but never bought. All it took to elevate her to that sought-after and independent state was two inches of steel wrapped in false patent leather. Tonight was her night of transformation.
She turned, testing her foundation, and the mystique of the shoes seemed to waver with her balance. “They're tight,” she said.
One of us kicked sand on the other, and reached out for Emily. His large hand encased hers. I took her other hand as it floated out to me, looking for support, and we led her down to the beach. We caught her as she fell twice along the way.
• • •
Her hair coiled around my wrists as I pulled her through the water. She lay motionless, looking up at the sky. Her lip was split just off the center, and her face was flushed. The others lounged naked on the beach in the shadow of the condemned house, recovering themselves. I took her out deeper and turned, following the shoreline. The wind breathed in my ear, and I listened as the water rippled over her bare shoulders and breasts. The ocean was warm and still around us. Her face was set. She continued to stare at some distant point, higher up. Her gaze never shifted in my direction, not once.
I made two turns, stepping out farther each time, bearing her silently before me. Each time I sank deeper, until the water parted across the back of my neck, and all I could see was the top of her head and nose bobbing in front of me as she glided along the surface.
“You said you wouldn't hurt me.” Her voice was thin, but even.
“When did we say that?” My own voice sounded like a stranger's in my ears.
“You said it,” she said. “I saw you say it. I thought, maybe . . .”
I scraped a rough stone or shell with my heel, and the water went cold as I stepped into an undercurrent.
“What time is it?” she asked.
“Midnight.” It might have been later.
I felt a tiny tremor pass through her. “Then it's over,” she said, looking at the broad face of the moon, “and none of it matters, because none of it happened to me. I'm new.”
She didn't say anything else. I couldn't bring myself to say anything either.
• • •
“You were out a long time,” Aaron said.
“Never mind.” I took up my shirt and rolled it on. James threw my pants at me. He had the high heels dangling from his hip again.
“Just as well,” he said. “Now we're all washed out.”
Demetrius was already on the first dune smoking and looking inland. We filed up after him. I couldn't stop myself from looking down the beach where she lay, gently pale in the moonlight, her sopping hair spread out behind her like a shadow on the sand.
“What is it?” asked Aaron.
I took the cigarette from Demetrius to clear my head as he pointed to a blue and white bolt of light flickering as it passed behind a low line of houses.
“It can't be.” A note of glee rumbled in Aaron's voice. We could all feel it was him, could hear the distant racket of his anthem as the rigid blue car pulled up in front of one of the houses. We couldn't believe his rotten luck.
We swept across the barren ground towards the house, desperate not to lose him, past a bunch of low beach shrubs clutched together against the wind. We vaulted a flimsy wooden fence and slipped alongside the house crowded with its own celebration, all young and polished members like the sort from town. These cut-out houses were basins that collected them as they trickled east once the lights in town began to die and the doors were closed and barred.
We arrived in time to see our young friend with the cropped blond hair who had run afoul of us in the street touching chests with a scrawny, rat faced boy in a pressed shirt that hung from his sloped shoulders as from a wire hanger. They mumbled farewells, and our friend stuffed a wad of bills into the front pocket of his jeans as the dressed skeleton rattled a transparent medicine bottle at him in appreciation and said something that made both of them laugh, but neither of them smile.
James pinched the cigarette stub from between my lips and finished it. As our blond friend skipped down the concrete steps from the porch, we took the measure of his size for the first time. He was larger than Aaron, and the muscles of his thighs and shoulders pushed against his clothing. His strength intimidated and excited us, just as it filled us with envy. What a reward it would be to ruin something like him. These thoughts flickered through my head, but did not fill me as they had. The experience was interrupted, utterly frustrated.
I crossed the gritty yard with Aaron, and together we pulled the boy through the window of his car before he could start it again. He was heavy in our hands as we dragged him, shouting, into the center of the road, flanked on either side by the lines of parked cars. He drew a claspknife and slashed at us, chopping the blade across my arm. We threw him to the ground. Demetrius fell on him, pinning his arm, and Aaron stomped his wrist and hand, then we broke him apart. When Demetrius got off his chest he rolled into a ball and we had to stretch him back out again until we were done.
The street was a dead end. No cars came. No one heard or saw. No one came to stop us.
Everything was just as it always was.
We stripped his shirt to see the bruising spread across his body. We used the knife to cut his tires. We broke his mirrors off and kicked in his lights.
I tore a strip from his shirt and wound it around my arm.
“Would you look at this,” said James standing by the passenger side of the ruined car. He held up a large, dark plastic medicine bottle and shook it.
“Anything else?” asked Aaron as he and Demetrius dragged the blond boy to the car and heaped him half way inside the open door. James produced the roll of money and held it in front of a crooked grin. He tossed the roll across the roof of the car to Aaron, who snapped the rubber band off the money. “Give the candy to the Sultan,” he said, fanning the bills with his thumb.
“I'll do it.”
James rationed out a handful of pills, then threw me the bottle.
Aaron called out to me I turned away. He showed me the knife, then held up the blond boy's arm and dragged the knife across it, cutting through the meat. The athlete didn't stir, then, or as Aaron folded him into the car and slammed the door.
“Can't get enough?” James asked as I walked away from them, towards the beach. I barked something at him, and he howled and beat the roof of the car.
They faded into the night behind me.
I dragged my feet in the dry ground and the wind caught the dust and swept it inland. My arm throbbed and by the time I reached the last dune my fingers were sticky with blood.
I scanned the beach for her, but she had taken her clothes and gone. I saw her footprints, leading north along the beach, and when I'd looked long enough, I saw her faintly in the distance, making steady progress towards the beach’s eastern most point, three miles up, where the sun first touched the sand each day.
I sat down on the edge of the dune and turned the plastic bottle over in my hands, smearing it, like everything else, with bloody fingerprints. I wondered how many pills I could take before the pills took me. A well tread, solitary thought.
She had not struggled or cried out, just went dead beneath us and closed her eyes like she knew that it would be over when it was over, and not before. Maybe the mother had walked out and it was the father who smoked cigars and used her as an ashtray. Maybe that only happened once. It only takes once. Maybe mom wasn't gone, just looked the other way—looked that way so often it got to be that she didn’t see the girl at all anymore. Not like it mattered, though. Not like the girl was hers.
Some of us have never been wanted.
The tide was coming in. Soon it would fill her footprints and wash them away. Come morning, there wouldn't be any sign of her left. At daybreak, if she was right, the sun would split the ocean from the sky as if for the first time and rush across the water to meet her atop the eastern most dunes as she would be ever after —new.
If she was right. If a person could ever be anything except exactly what they are.
Why had she looked at me that way? Why did it have to be tonight that she was out on the road alone?
I watched the horizon and waited.