When I think of that day, I first remember the wind. It was hot and heavy with moisture. If you tilted your head out the window, it felt like you were face-first in a dryer vent. My second thought floats to the melted-creamsicle sky. My father used to tell me this rhyme every time we saw an orange-red sky. The saying stuck in my brain like the cheap adhesive on glass bottles that always leaves a papery film when you try to peel it off. Even when you wash it, you can still see it. And at some point, it’s just permanent, a part of the bottle.
I looked up toward the billowy clouds, and with the car moving, it looked like the clouds were racing one another, but I knew, we were just outrunning them. The words rolled in my mouth until I could visualize them, and then, in a hushed whisper, I repeated:
“Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in morning, sailor take warning.”
There are other references to red skies, though. You’ll find them in Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis and in the Bible, even. Although ominous, the red sky just indicates weather. Red sky at night, the air is stable, and the sun is shining through dust particles. Red sky in the morning, high water content and good weather has passed. Supposedly, of course. This isn’t exactly flawless science.
It was evening, so I closed my eyes, let the blanket of hot air fall over me like a veil, and I shifted my body toward the window of the car, so I could feel the fading sun tinge my shoulders with heat.
I heard movement from the driver’s seat, so I peeked open my left eye, and I saw Lauren shifting in her. When my eyes focused, I could see she was unsticking her bare legs from the seats, as she carefully toed the gas pedal.
“It’s a rainforest in here,” she said as she sucked in a breath. “We need to roll the windows down again.”
The AC in her car wasn’t working correctly. When I’d cranked it up early to dry the droplets of sweat from my neck, it made a throaty buzzing sound. She’d turned it off about 15 minutes into the drive, and now the sweat began to wrap around our legs, adhering them to the beige leather seats. Lauren had justified turning off the air with something like, “I can’t afford for this thing to break. It’s just too hot outside for it,” and she’d lovingly patted the car on the front console.
I thought about questioning her logic, but my mind was melting into the seats like my legs. Soon, I would just be a puddle, and when the boys would open the door and welcome us to the lakehouse, I would just pool out of the car in a clump of gooey blood and and chunks of organs still clinging to their shape.
“Watch your hair,” Lauren said and softly pushed my shoulder. I moved my body back toward the middle of my seat, pulling my waves of brown hair away from the window. I remember thinking I needed to get a haircut, and pushing my bangs off my face and feeling the soft wetness of sweat on my forehead.
The glass made a squeaky, grinding sound as it began to move down. The hot wind sucked into the new opening with a whoosh, and I laid my head toward the moving air, so I could feel its soft tendrils dance across my face.
Charlie hates when I roll the windows down. He says he hears a ‘THRUM THRUM THRUM” sound when we drive over 50 MPH. But Charlie was in the car ahead of us, so I reveled in the wind pressure entering and leaving the car. I always felt like I was in one of those “coming of age” movies where everything is shot in golden light and the girls always let their hands and arms dance in the air while their significant other drives down the empty highway toward possibility. They don’t have to worry about stray rocks being catapulted into their soft flesh and brittle bone by the car ahead of them. And you don’t ever hear the “THRUM THRUM THRUM” sound, instead, you heard a folksy mandolin or an upbeat acoustic guitar. Everything is golden and it sparkles. It isn’t red. The sky is never red in the movies.
“I can’t believe she rode with the boys,” Lauren said, turning toward me, but glimpsing back periodically at the road ahead. She’d said this same phrase at least five times in the last hour.
“I know,” I finally replied. “It’s weird.”
“It’s more than ‘weird,’” she said, emphasizing my word choice with air quotes. “It’s disrespectful.”
“She knows I’ve been talking to Jackson for months now,” she added. “She just wants to piss me off, I know it. I don’t know why she even agreed to come.”
“You invited her,” I said, softly chiding her into remembering.
“I was drunk, Caroline,” her voice turning tense. “I was like six cranberry vodkas to the wind when I said that.”
I shrugged and turned back toward the window.
“You’re not mad?” Lauren asked, punching me in the arm.“You’re not worried about her persuading Charlie with her biker sex getup and not-confirmed-but-almost-definitely BDSM tendencies?”
I laughed, and the vision of Riley dressed in a “Put Something Exciting Between Your Legs” crop top and holding a Corona flickered through my mind. I remembered her Halloween costume, and how her long blonde hair meshed perfectly into pigtails, and how she’d intentionally ripped the fishnet tights she wore under shredded jean shorts. I remember standing next to her, looking at my floor-length goddess attire in the streaky bar mirror, feeling like Karen, my 48-year-old alter ego who recently cropped her hair off into the “crockpot meals twice a week and no, this coupon is not expired” haircut. Riley had said something, like, “Cary, you look so cute.” She let the “y” in my nickname draw out and increase in pitch like child begging for sweets. I hadn’t cut my hair since then.
“I’m not mad,” I said. “I think it’s weird. Maybe she just feels uncomfortable in the car with you.”
“Oh my god, why?”
“Because you hate her,” I replied. “You know you do. You get all sickly sweet when you’re throwing back the vodka – you know the whole ‘Riley, I know we don’t always get along, but I love you girl, I fucking love you,” but 89% of the time you are an ice queen.”
She laughed, and I watched her knuckles squeeze the wheel.
“She doesn’t have to antagonize me though,” she added, peeking back at me.
“No, she doesn’t,” I said, and I was going to add something else, but I didn’t. I glanced at the Subaru ahead of us, and I swear I could see the metallic shine of her glossy hair in the backseat.
“Well, thank you for not being a conniving bitch,” Lauren said, watching my eyes on the car ahead.
“Solidarity, sister,” I said with a laugh, and I remember smiling.
We drove for about an hour longer, and then, we turned off the road into a small town. I remember seeing a brown road sign that indicated we were headed toward the lake. The boys’ car flipped its blinker on, pointing toward a small liquor store. I can’t recall the name of the store, but the sign was deep, wine red, and the flashing neon was a bright teal.
We stopped the car, and I carefully peeled my thighs from the seats, and as I lifted my back, I felt the wet line down my spine from the sweat. I caught a glimpse of myself in the side mirror, and my cheeks were flush with small rose blotches from the heat. I opened the door and swung my legs toward the opening, and the parts of my legs still attached to the seat stung with my movement. I pulled my dress down, as I stepped out, and I lifted my melted body out of the car.
Reaching my hands up to the sky, I stretched my back and felt the pleasant pop of bones readjusting. I looked up as Charlie walked over to me. He pulled his arms around my waist, but quickly reeled with fake disgust when he felt my moist skin.
“The air conditioning died,” I said, pointing to the car.
He laughed and reached for me again. He kissed me, and out of the left corner of my eye, I could see Riley watching us. I broke away, and once again lifted my hands into prayer form and stretched.
“Hope you all had a comfortable ride,” Lauren said, while wiping the sheath of sweat from her forehead. Her eyes magnificently leaped into an eye roll, so damning, I could feel the whiplash as her eyes swooped toward Riley.
Jackson crumpled his eyebrows and looked toward me.
“The air conditioning died,” I repeated, and I pointed to the car again.
“Damn, we had the air conditioning on full blast almost the entire trip,” Jackson added.
Lauren raised her eyebrow and walked toward the store. She dropped back for a moment, turned around and said, “Good for you.” Although it was seemingly directed at Jackson, her eyes were fixated on Riley. Riley looked down, breaking the tension and walked toward me.
“I’m sorry you had a rough trip,” she said.
“It’s okay,” I said with a shrug, and I pushed out a laugh to make her feel more at ease. “We survived.”
“You can totally ride with the boys the rest of the way,” she added.
“Thanks, but I’m good.”
I gave her a tight smile and strode toward Lauren, picking up my step, so I could distance myself.
Jackson jogged to catch up with us, and he laid a hand across Lauren’s shoulder. She abruptly stopped walking and turned toward him.
“I’m sorry about the AC,” he said, with a smile. The kind where your top lip perks up and your bottom lip turns into a “U.” “I can take a look at it tomorrow morning.”
Lauren softened immediately and smiled. Her green eyes flickered with delight, and she mouthed the word, “thanks” and kept walking.
Lauren was a great person to watch walk away. She had long, tan legs, shoulder-length hair that bounced when her stride increased and the perfectly flippant attitude for leaving boys behind. She was the type of girl who didn’t need a nickname, at least that’s what she told me when we were 13. She’d just called me “Cary” for the first time, and I suggested we find her a cute name as well. She refused with a smile, and I smiled back. At first I thought the nickname made me unique, but I began to wonder if the absence of one made you even more so. This is a concept I’ve spent many hours contemplating – girls with nicknames vs. those without. What differentiates us? When I was younger, I thought it was the smattering of freckles across the bridge of my nose or the glasses I was prescribed in 7th grade or maybe it was delicate features across my face, not strong, not pronounced, not striking. Delicate. Breakable. Cute. Cary. With a Y, always with a Y. I think people gravitated to the Y for its “eeeee” sound at the end of a name. It’s cute, it’s soft, it’s innocent, like baby.
We walked into the liquor store, and the first thing I noticed was the smell. All liquor stores smell the same to me. A musty, sweet scent. Maybe it’s the cardboard packaging? I’m not sure. I walked straight toward the aisles of wine, and picked out a white and red based on their labels. A shallow move, but I didn’t really care how they tasted. I ran my fingertips across the glass bottles, and I made my back to the group.
Riley was standing by the rum, pretending to look through the bottles; but I was almost certain she would choose Malibu. She would probably mix it with something provincial like Sprite. If I closed my eyes, I could perfectly picture Lauren’s reaction. She would stifle a laugh and dart her eyes back and forth toward me. She’d pull me into a corner of the store, and say something like, “Are you kidding me?”
Lauren was posed amongst the whiskey and bourbon with Charlie and Jackson. She already had a bottle of vodka in her arms, and she buckled over laughing when Jackson said something, presumably funny, into her ear. Charlie looked over at me and smiled, holding up a case a beer and a bottle of Jack Daniels.
Riley walked over toward me, carrying the Malibu, and she smiled. She was wearing a pair of athletic shorts and a tank top that was pushed up over the band of her shorts to reveal a tan line of stomach.
“What did you get?” she asked, showing me the bottle of Malibu.
I held up the bottles of wine and shrugged an answer.
“I’m boring,” I replied.
“Ready to go?” Charlie shouted as walked toward the cashier.
“Oh, let me grab one more thing,” Riley said as she moved toward the aisle of soda and tonic water. She lifted the 32oz bottle of sprite into her arms and looked up at me again. Bingo.
“We have to make slammers tonight!” she said as we walked toward the counter. I felt Lauren’s eyes on my back without having to turn around.
“Pardon?” I replied.
“Slammer, it’s like a shot. You pour a little bit of Sprite and alcohol into a shot glass, then you cover it with your hand, slam it on the table and shoot it,” she looked at me while she said. “The carbonation makes it fizz up, and you can barely taste the alcohol. It’s awesome.”
“Sounds like it,” I said dryly. I was trying to be pleasant, but she made it increasingly difficult.
“Promise you’ll take one with me?”
I held up my pinky and locked it with hers.
“Sure thing,” I replied.
When we reached the counter, Riley stepped ahead of me to check out. Lauren stepped toward me, and whispered into my ear, “What was that about?”
“Slammers,” I replied.
“I don’t know, it’s just some shot she wants me to take with her,” I hissed back.
Lauren rolled her eyes, and Riley stepped away from the counter. She smiled at Lauren as she walked by, and I elbowed Lauren in the ribs to reciprocate. She didn’t.
I stepped forward and placed the bottles of wine on the counter. I looked to the left, and there were small plastic cups, like the creamer you get with coffee at a cheap restaurant, with the words “Rumchata” etched into the aluminum top in gold lettering. I picked out 5 of the plastic shots and added them to my purchase.
Lauren laughed when she saw the creme liquor, and said, “What are we 50 years old and on a Carnival cruise?”
I laughed too, and I raised my hands in the sky and said, “Salude!”
I slid the cash across the counter, trying not to make eye contact with the cashier. My parents used to get angry at me for purposefully ignoring people. My therapist thought it was social anxiety. Everyone else probably just assumed I was a stuck up bitch. I’ll tell you why I didn’t make eye contact with people, and it isn’t because I think they are all plebeians or because I get anxious in public. It’s because I don’t like when people try to read what I’m thinking. It happens all the time. A barista at Starbucks will ask me if I’m okay. An old lady at the laundromat will tell me I’d be prettier if I smiled. I’m just a naturally pensive person. I have a lot of thoughts running through my head, and often, I’m just piecing them into the proper order. I’m organizing myself. I’m just thoughtful, and I don’t want other people to try to figure out those thoughts. They aren’t bad thoughts. They are just mine.
That’s why I like Charlie. He’s a shallow person, not in the sense that he bases all of his attraction on looks or something of that nature, he just doesn’t have a lot of depth. He talks about sports. He reads magazines. He can cook spaghetti. He’s majoring in engineering because he thinks he will make a lot of money. He’s kind, but he’s not intentional. He’s smart, but he’s not clever. And he assumes everyone else is flat like him. He doesn’t ever ask me what I’m thinking about because he just assumes I’m a “quiet” girl. He once told me he liked how I intently I listed to everyone else, but I’m hardly ever listening. It’s not that I don’t care. I’m just preoccupied.
I realize this makes me sound like a bad person, but it’s nice to date someone who fits into a very structured mold. I don’t care for surprises, and he rarely shocks me. Perhaps he might cheat on me one day, but I don’t think that would surprise me either.
I walked out of the store cradling my paper bag filled with wine bottles, and Charlie grabbed my hand, swinging it into the air. I smiled at him, and I pulled two of the rumchata shots out of the bag.
“Would you care to indulge with me?” I asked.
He laughed, and he pulled of the shiny tinfoil covering off both shots, handed me one and downed the milky liquid. The sweet and creamy taste tried to overshadow the alcohol, but I still felt that familiar burn as it fell down my throat.
“That shit is awful,” Charlie laughed.
“I know,” I replied. “It’s always good have perspective.”
He smiled at me, and he didn’t reply. I knew he wouldn’t.
He walked me to Lauren’s car, and I noted that he did not invite me to ride in his car. That burned a little bit, but not bad enough to warrant a conversation. I slid into the warm car, and he gave me an obligatory peck on the cheek and walked toward Jackson.
Lauren walked out of the liquor store holding the vodka bottle by its neck, flashed a slicing grin at the boys and skipped toward me.
“The cashier gave me his phone number,” she said, holding up the receipt.
“Yikes,” I replied, twisting my face into a grimace.
“He was actually kind of hot in that bad-boy farmer kind of way,” Lauren laughed.
“Can bad boys be farmers?” I replied with a smirk.
“You know what I mean!” Lauren said, her voice rising this time. “He’s got a country drawl and did you see those eyes?”
“Well, are you going to call him?”
“Yes, of course,” Lauren said. “I want to make Jackson forget about Riley completely. I want him so red hot with jealousy that his eyes fucking catch fire.”
Lauren laughed and simulated a fire by waving her hands up and down.
The boys’ car began to move forward, so Lauren turned on the engine and followed. The rest of the ride was quiet. I assumed Lauren was carefully calculating her revenge on Jackson while I was listening to the cicadas chirp and the hot wind rustle the tree branches.The winding neighborhood road was devoid of other cars, and the small houses on the left of the road were dark. It felt like the whole world, aside from the bugs and a few frogs, had died while were in the liquor store.
“I guess everyone goes to bed early here,” Lauren’s voice cut through the darkness.
I turned the knob on the radio up a few clicks, and the car filled with static. I wiggled the knob toward other channels and finally rested on a country station.
“Just preparing you for your night with the cowboy,” I said.
“The farmer, you mean,” Lauren laughed.
I laughed with her, and I laid back into my seat. The boys’ flipped their blinker left, and we turned into a driveway. The house was dark like the rest of the neighborhood, and it sat back, away from the road. Lauren turned off the engine and hopped out, grabbing her backpack and the bottle of vodka from the backseat. I did the same, slinging my messenger back over my shoulder and hoisting the paper bag back into the cradle of my arms. The boys and Riley had already reached the front door and flipped on the porch light. The house was a deep, dark red with blue shutters and a line of round hedges led up to the front door.
“Very patriotic,” Lauren said, motioning toward the color of the house.
Jackson laughed and fumbled with his keys to try and find the right one.
“It’s so dark out here,” Riley said.
“Right?” Charlie agreed. “Does anyone live out here?
“Eh, mostly old people in this part of the neighborhood,” Jackson replied without looking up. “The big party houses are across the lake. We can take the boat over there tomorrow.”
Jackson found the key and slid it into the lock with a scratchy metal sound. The tumblers unlocked with a click-click-click, and the door swung open with exhausted eee-ooowww sound. The house was dark, like the street, like the neighborhood. Jackson felt his hand around the corner of the door for a light, he found it, and the brass flush mount illuminated a deep hallway that led into a cavernous living room. An intricate kilim rug danced with color against the warm wooden floors. I could tell from the first five feet into the house that Jackson’s family had money. Lauren had often alluded to this, but I like to verify these types of assumptions for myself.
I was the first one to step inside. Jackson guided me by lightly touching my elbow each time I needed to step up the stone stairs into entryway. I brushed past him and walked into the house, my steps muffled by the rug beneath my feet. Dark houses have never scared me. I have never found anything creeping behind a corner or imprisoned at the end of a dark hallway. At the end of the hallway, there is always just another room. I walked into the darkened living room, and I ran my hand against the textured walls when the light from the entry began to dim with distance. I felt the smooth plastic of another light switch, so I flipped it, and a chandelier made of antlers sparkled yellow light across the row of windows facing me. The house appeared much smaller from the front road, but it was clear, the girth of the house was hiding in the back. I walked to the row of floor-length windows and watched the murky water slosh back and forth against the large cedar dock. The windows were flush with a massive top deck, covered in cushioned furniture and turquoise outdoor rugs that I bet felt wonderfully scratchy under bare feet. Jackson appeared next to me and lightly touched the small of my back. I didn’t look up at him, and I didn’t acknowledge the sensation that danced across my spine.
“Wow,” I said.
Charlie stepped up to my other side.
“Wow is fucking right,” Charlie said. “This place is ridiculous, Jax.”
Jackson didn’t reply, but I could see a tight smile pull at the edge of his lips through the reflection in the glass. He turned away and walked toward the kitchen, flipping on more lights as he walked through the room. He didn’t give us a tour of the house, instead he poured himself a shot of Jack Daniels, threw it back with a sigh and eventually collapsed into the large leather couch on the far side of the living room. Riley walked slowly into the house, and she set her bags tentatively onto the bar of the butcher-block island. Lauren was the last to come inside, and I could hear her sandals scuff against the wood as she walked into the living room.
“I guess this place will do,” she said with a laugh. She threw her bags onto the floor and walked to the kitchen. She lifted the whiskey into the air like she was baptizing it and took a swig from the bottle, slamming the glass onto the counter in triumph.
“Cary,” she exclaimed. “Come take a shot with me.”
“In a little bit,” I replied, but I lied. I hated the way whiskey made me feel warm after I drank it. It went straight to my brain, and it loosened me up too quickly. A glass of wine coaxed me into intoxication while hard liquor just threw me into the state before I was ready. I needed time to acclimate.
Lauren rolled her eyes and passed the bottle to Riley, who was still slowly eyeing the house and shifting uncomfortably against the cool granite of a kitchen counter. Riley took a swig from the bottle like Lauren but softly replaced the bottle to its place on the counter.
“Seeeeee…” Lauren’s voice rolled into a high drawl. “Riley will have fun with me.”
I didn’t respond, I just kept watching the water slosh back and forth, and I thought about floating in the darkness. I watched Lauren’s reflection walk toward the bedrooms, and Riley followed a few paces behind her.
I walked away from the window toward the kitchen. I ran my hand across the counter and pushed myself on top of it, feeling the chilled stone against my thighs. Charlie followed me into the kitchen and poured himself a shot. He threw it back like the rest of them and shook his head, laughing as the alcohol presumably burned the back of his throat.
“I’m going to go pick out our bedroom,” he smiled at me and lifted one eyebrow.
I smiled, winked at him for good measure, and leaned back onto my hands. When Charlie had disappeared like the rest, Jackson got up from the couch and walked toward me. I watched him saunter, his hands swinging lazily by his side. He slid the whiskey bottle against the wood island until it fell off the edge, and he caught it by the neck. He pulled himself on the counter next me and sucked in a tight breath.
“What are you thinking about?” he asked.
“I hate when you ask me that,” I replied.
“I know you do,” he said. “But it never stops me from asking.”
“I’m thinking about swimming” I said, staring at the bottle of amber liquid sloshing in his hand like the water against the dock.
“Nah,” replied and jumped off the counter. “You can’t swim at night.”
“Hm,” I replied and I pulled a finger to my lips like I was thinking. “I’m pretty sure I can.”
“It’s dangerous,” he said. “Especially if you’ve been drinking.”
“I haven’t,” I replied, raising my pitch to feign innocence.
“You took a shot in the parking lot,” he said while he walked away, still holding the whiskey bottle.
I didn’t roll my eyes, but I thought about it. Jackson disappeared into the hallway after Lauren and Riley. I walked over to my bag and fished through the layers of clothes for slick nylon. I felt the small straps of the top and pulled it out. I thrust my hand back into the bag and found the bottoms. I walked toward the small powder room off the entry and stepped inside. I paused before turning on the lights. I liked the darkness. I enjoyed the way it wrapped around me like a cloak. It was calming, thought-provoking, just the place I needed to take a break. I stood silent for a few passing moments, and then, I flipped on the light, shut the door and started undressing. The bikini was a golden, honey-like yellow. I looked at myself in the mirror and ran my hands down the side of my hips. I heard the group return to the living room, and I raked a hand through my hair and tried to slow my breath to a measured inhale. Without my dress, you could see the new tattoo that ran across the top of my thigh in a elegant curve. I hadn’t told any of them about it yet, not even Lauren. It was an impulsive moment last Tuesday afternoon. I ran my hand across the think black lines, they were still raised in spindly scabs. I heard music strike up from the stereo near the fireplace. The bass vibrated against the wood floors, and I ran my toes across the fluttering grain.
I gathered my strewn clothes into my arms and kicked open the door with my leg. I saw a shadow of someone dancing – their body elongated in the dusty, grey figure. Thin arms and hands were raised above their head, and they were spinning in circles. It was probably Lauren. She had a penchant for dancing when she drank, and it wasn’t an unpleasant sight. She had natural rhythm even when she began stumbling; she just became more endearing as she slipped deeper into chaos. I padded across the room in my bare feet, and crouched down to my bag, depositing clothes and shoes. I didn’t make eye contact with anyone; I just walked toward the back door and opened it. The warm wind danced across my face, and I picked up my pace as I ran down the stairs, taking them two at a time. I heard someone yell my name, but I was too far ahead for anyone to catch up.
I ran as fast as I could toward the end of the dock, and I heard the screaming get louder. I thought about pausing, looking back even, but I didn’t hesitate. My toes wrapped around the last edge of the wood dock, and I leaped into the endless black. My whole body went underwater, and I squeezed my eyes closed as the liquid overtook my top half. I let myself sink for a few moments, and I thought about the darkness. It was a warm darkness, like the powder room. The lake felt like a hot tub at a cheap motel, and it smelled faintly of sulphur and mildew. I thought about Jackson, and I secretly hoped he would be angry with me. I thought about Charlie, and I wondered if he would like this impulsive side of me. I thought of Lauren, and I wondered if she would be jealous that I jumped in first. I didn’t think about Riley. It wasn’t that she didn’t matter. I just honestly didn’t care what she thought.
When my chest began to ache from the lack of oxygen, I let myself rise to the surface, and I gulped in a shaky breath of torrid air. I laughed into the darkness before turning back to the dock. Charlie was sitting closest to me, his legs were dangling off the side. He was poised to jump in after me. His eyes were a little frantic, but he broke into a soft, toothy smile.
“Jesus, Cary,” he said. “You scared the shit out of me.” But he laughed; he always laughed when I scared him.
Jackson was digging into a white plastic chest near the edge of the dock. He pulled out a bright orange life jacket and threw it into the water near me. The plastic strap rapped against my face, and I lifted my hand to soothe the burning.
“Put that on,” he said without apologizing. “The last thing I need is one of you fools drowning out here.”
He turned and walked back toward the stairs to the deck. Lauren was leaning off of the top deck, and she was smiling. She lifted her hand into a “okay” sign and stuck out her tongue. Riley was standing near her but a few paces back. She sipped out of a red plastic cup nervously. I wrapped the lifejacket around my arms, and I swam further out into the lake.
“Cary,” Charlie called toward me. “Get out of there; we’re going inside.”
“I’ll be there in a sec,” I replied without looking back. Across the lake, I could hear the deep pounding of house music, and I could see twinkle lights dance across the hedges lining the shore.
I turned to the dock to swim back. Charlie, Lauren and Riley had gone inside. Jackson was watching me from the top deck. He propped his elbows up on the wood railing, and his light brown hair sparkled in the porch lights. He shook his head when he saw me turn around. He waited until I reached the stairs on the left side of the dock before turning around and going inside. I thought it would be funny if I drowned right now, but I grasped the top of the handle and hoisted myself up onto the first slimy stair. I hadn’t thought to bring a towel with me, so I sat down on the dock for a moment to dry off. I heard footsteps, and I turned slightly to see Riley walking down the steps holding another plastic cup.
“I opened your bottle of wine,” she replied, and she handled me the cup.
“Mm,” I said peering into the hazy clear liquid. “Good choice.”
“Yeah, it’s too hot for red wine,” she laughed.
I didn’t agree. I could drink any color wine at most any time of the year, but the white tasted soothingly tart, and it was a cool alternative to the murky lake water that slipped into my mouth.
We didn’t talk. We just sat on the warm wood and listened to the water slop against the dock beneath us. The dock swayed slightly in the current, and if I closed my eyes, It felt like I was back in the water again. When I finished the wine in my cup, I stood up. Riley followed. I smiled at her and showed her the bottom of my cup.
“Time for a refill,” I said, and it was a predictable thing to say, but my mind was getting soft with alcohol.
Riley didn’t respond; she just sort of half-smiled at me. We walked up the stairs, and my legs began to ache. It was definitely more trying to tromp up them than run down them. When we got to the top of the stairs, I could see Lauren was laying on the leather sofa, her head draped in Jackson’s lap. He didn’t look up at me as I came inside, but Lauren smiled and pulled herself up.
“There’s my little daredevil,” she cooed.
“Here I am,” I said, extending my arms like I was expecting a hug. Lauren didn’t get off the couch, so I dropped them and walked toward the open bottle of wine. I poured the liquid into the glass, and it made a glug, glug, glug sound, as it fell through the neck of the bottle.
I sat on the floor up against the windows. The glass was cool from the chilled air inside the house, and it made my back prickle in goosebumps.
“There are many chairs in this room,” Jackson pointed out from the couch. He wasn’t looking at me as he said it. His eyes were hooded, and he still grasped the whiskey bottle in his hand as it rested on the floor.
“So now what?” Lauren said. “Or are we just going to die here in this room.”
She stood up from the couch and stretched. The hem of her shirt rose up to her belly button, and I saw Charlie’s eyes snap up to where she was standing. Jackson remained motionless on the couch. Charlie must of felt my eyes on him because he sheepishly turned around toward me and smiled. He stood up and walked over to me. He slid down the glass and put his arm around me, to reassure me, I presume.
“You’re cold,” he said as he touched my bare skin.
“Yeah, go put some fucking clothes on,” Jackson said beneath a sigh from the couch. I stood up and grabbed my bag. A wave of embarrassment crashed over me, and I wasn’t sure if it was the wine or just my general feeling of inadequacy that was making me feel dizzy.
“Which room is ours?” I asked Charlie.
“Last one on the right,” he replied. “Do you need help changing?” He laughed as the words left his mouth, but it wasn’t very funny.
“I’m okay,” I said while I walked toward the hallway.
The hallway was dark again, and I moved slowly, feeling the side of the wall with my fingertips. I heard the group move toward the kitchen, and Lauren’s drunk giggle echoed through the high ceilings. When I reached the first door, I felt someone grab my hand from behind. I turned and in the darkness, I couldn’t tell who it was.
“What?” I hissed, mostly startled.
“I just wanted to make sure you found the way,” Charlie said.
I sighed, grasped his hand and let him lead me to the bedroom. He turned on the lights, and I noticed his bag resting on the floral comforter of the queen-sized bed.
He pushed me softly against the bed frame and kneeled down to look at my tattoo.
“When did you get this?” he asked.
“Last week,” I replied.
“What does it mean?” he asked.
“It means nothing,” I said. “I just liked the design.”
“Well hurry up,” he replied, as he walked out of the room, “I think we are going to play a game.”
“Sure,” I said, and I tried to force it to not come out as deadpan.
As soon as the door shut, I slipped off my swimsuit. A few minutes later I heard a light knock .
“Just a sec,” I called from the room. I grabbed a rose-colored towel from atop the dresser and wrapped it around my body. I opened the door, and Jackson was standing at the entrance, leaning against the adjacent wall.
“What?” I asked.
He looked up at me, and his face grimaced so slightly. He held up the bra that had slipped out of my bag. My cheeks flushed with warmth, and I grabbed it from his hands. Our fingers brushed, and my head began to spin again.
He looked down at my thigh briefly sucked in the corner of his lip. He look back up at me and his eyes softened for a moment. He reached out to touch the red mark on my face from where the lifejacket strap had scratched me, but his hand fell before it reached my skin. He turned and walked back down the hallway toward the rest of the group. My stomach tightened into a knot, and clicked the lock on the door and finished getting dressed. I exchanged my sundress for a pair of jean shorts and a tank top. I paused in the mirror to see my hair had dried into thick, crusty strands against my face. I raked a hand through my hair, but the battle was mostly lost. I pulled the half dried tendrils into a bun atop my head and unlocked the door. I had to take a breath to steady myself, and I moved around a few thoughts to clear my head.
When I came back to the living room, Riley had changed into a pair of shorts and a bikini top. Lauren walked toward me and pulled me back to the darkened hallway.
“Are you kidding me?” she said. “She’s going out like that. Like that is her outfit.”
I shook my head in feigned agreement, and I thought about how no one cared when I was in a bathing suit.
“Time to phone a friend,” Lauren said and mouthed the word f-a-r-m-e-r. I smiled and punched her softly in the arm.
“You’re awful,” I said as her phone lit up the hallway in blue light.
When she finished, we walked back into the kitchen, and Riley was laughing while lightly holding onto Jackson’s forearm. I felt Lauren bristle against me, and she walked toward the front door. The rest of the group noted her direction and began to follow. Jackson said my name, and I turned toward him. He threw me a flashlight, and I noticed everyone else was holding one too.
“You’re going to need this,” he said as the metal left his hands.
I missed the catch, and it fell with awful clattering against the wood floor. I knelt down to inspect the floor for scratches and picked up the light. I flipped the switch to see if it worked. It did. I looked up, but Jackson had walked away. Charlie knelt down next to me and patted me on the shoulder.
“He’s in some kinda mood tonight,” Charlie said.
I thought about replying, but I just shrugged my shoulders and let Charlie pull me up off the floor.
“Where are we going?” I asked when we had all reached the driveway.
“There’s a golf course about a half mile away from here,” Jackson replied.
“Are we night golfing?” I asked.
“Flashlight tag,” Lauren announced, turning on her light for emphasis. “Drunk flashlight tag,” she added.
We walked in relative silence, and I heard Jackson taking swigs from the bottle.
I slowed my pace, so I would fall into step with him.
“Trying to drown yourself?” I asked.
He didn’t respond right away, but I could tell he was smiling.
“I’m not the only one,” he said, turning toward me. I didn’t look back at him, so we just kept walking.
The golf course was dark like the rest of the neighborhood, but if you squinted past the darkness you could see the slight mound of hills and soft grass. Lauren ran ahead of us and when she reached the grass, she dropped her flashlight and did a cartwheel. She was still endearing as she tripped over her feet during the landing and fell with a soft thump into the grass. Jackson raced ahead of me to help her up, and she pulled him down into her, still laughing. I turned my flashlight on and looked at the terrain.
“Hey!” Jackson yelled from the ground. “Turn that off. You don’t want to give up the best hiding spots.” I flipped it off quickly and waited for instruction.
“Here’s the game,” he said, standing up and brushing off his pants. “Someone is it, they count to 100. The rest of you go and hide. If you get caught in the light, you’re out. Simple as that.”
“So who’s it?” Riley asked.
“I’ll start,” Jackson replied.
He turned his back on the course, and the rest of us began to run as he started counting slowly. I ran up the first hill and sunk into sand as I rounded the corner, not a great start. I tiptoed out of the sand and found a large oak tree off to the side of the course. I knelt down behind it and listened to the rest of the counting. My heart was beating quickly now, and I felt a surge of adrenaline prickle under my skin, when he screamed “Ready or not!”
I flattened myself against the tree, and I tried to slow my breath. I heard his footsteps start up the hill, and I heard a girlish scream and giggle as Jackson uncovered his first prey. The laughing continued, and I finally deduced he had found Riley. His footsteps fell away from me, and I sucked in another breath.
I was just starting to relax as the bright beam of light blinded me, and I let out a piercing scream. Jackson laughed behind the flashlight. He turned to look behind him, and when he was satisfied, he flipped off his flashlight and tackled me to the ground. I looked up at him, and I could barely see his face because the unexpected plunge of darkness made my vision crackle like static. I felt his breath against my neck, and my whole body tensed as if waiting for impact. He finally rolled off of me, and screamed, “You’re out!” I sighed and walked back toward the gates of the golf course. Riley was leaning up against the gate, her flashlight was swaying back and forth like a metronome, the bulb of light bouncing off trees and brush.
He found Lauren next, and finally, he found Charlie who was laying flat on his back against the far side of a hill.
“Hiding in plain sight,” Charlie began. “Is always the best strategy.”
“Alright Charlie, you’re up,” Jackson said. Charlie turned away from the course and yelled, “You better fucking run!”
We all nervously laughed and ran back into the course. This time I ran further, and I felt someone grab my hand. I looked to see Lauren running next to me. We slowed when we got to a hill and paused to hear how far he was in the counting.
“I actually hate this game,” she said.
I laughed and agreed. We split up and took two separate sides of the hill, lying flat like Charlie had in the previous game.
When I heard the first scream, I didn’t think much of it because we’d been screaming the whole time. It took me a minute to realize why it bothered me, why my ears had strained to hear more. The scream was from a man, but it wasn’t Jackson. I knew that scream. I whispered across to Lauren, “Was that Charlie?”
“I don’t know,” she whispered back. “He’s probably just trying to scare us.”
We didn’t move from our spots, but when we heard the scream again this time the phrase, “Help” came out in a throaty growl, followed by a thud on the ground. I peeked my head up, but I couldn’t see anything at first. The street lights were so far away, the space of grass between us and the gates was practically invisible.
I saw a figure begin to run towards the lump on the ground, and this time, I heard Jackson’s scream. It was guttural and terrified. He looked up toward the hill and, maybe he saw me peeking out because he started waving his hands and screaming for me to come down.
I started to rise, but I saw another figure walk out from behind a tree and head toward Jackson. I thought it might be Riley, but the figure was tall or maybe it was just the shadow. I couldn’t tell, but it caused me to pause again. I was trying to scream, but my throat was so tight, I couldn’t even squeeze out a whisper to Lauren. By now, she was looking at the scene too, and she started to run toward Jackson. She ran about halfway down the hill until she stopped, suddenly, and she began to scramble backwards. I strained my eyes to see what was happening, but I just saw Jackson’s body begin to crumble. And the other person was just standing there, over him. Lauren was running now, I could see her ahead of me as I laid flat against the grass, forcing my eyes to stay open. I heard footsteps coming up the hill, and I held my breath. The footsteps ran past me and toward Lauren. Lauren was fast, and she made it all the way to the far gate, but there was nowhere to go, she tried scaling the fence, but I watched as the body slammed her against the metal, and she fell onto the ground. The person stood over her for a moment, just watching her squirm, and then, they knelt down, and I couldn’t see anything else. I just heard the screams, and I closed my eyes.
When I opened my eyes, Riley was kneeling over me and pulling my arms toward her.
“Get up,” she hissed at me. “Get up.”
I pulled myself up, and my legs were shaking so bad I could barely stand. Riley’s hands were cool with wetness, and I immediately reeled away from her.
She put her hands up toward me and whispered, “I checked their pulses.” I didn’t know if i believed her, but I didn’t really have a choice. We started to run, and we kept running until we reached the lake house because we didn’t know if anyone else was home. And then, we called you and now… now I’m here.
“Thank you for that very detailed account,” the officer to the left of me said. Her hair was a dusty brown, and it was pulled into a tight bun. “I bet you’re happy Riley made it out alive.”
“I mean,” I began. “Of course, but the other three were my best friends. I barely know her.”
“I do have one other question,” she began.
The way she said the phrase made my skin prickle, and I pulled my arms closer to my waist, digging my fingernail into the side of my wrist.
“How long have you known Emmett?”
“Who?” I asked.
“Emmett Wilson,” she began again.
“I don’t know anyone by that name.”
“He works at the liquor store you stopped by tonight,” she said.
“Okay?” I replied. “I think Lauren got his number, but I don’t know him at all.”
“Oh?” she replied. “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” I said. “I’m sure.”
“Emmett stabbed and killed your friends this evening,” she said bluntly.
“Oh…” my voice fell off, and I didn’t know what else to say.
“You know what I find strange?” she asked. I didn’t respond.
“Jackson ran to see if Charlie was okay,” she began again. “Lauren ran toward Jackson when it was apparent he was in danger. Riley saved you before saving herself, but you just laid quietly on the grass, like you weren’t in danger.”
“I was scared,” I said softly.
“Maybe you were,” she replied.
“You know what else is strange,” she started again. I dug my fingernail further into my wrist and steadied my breath, closing my eyes for just a moment to reformat my thoughts. “Emmett didn’t say much, but he did say, ‘There were only supposed to be three.’”
I didn’t respond, and she kept looking me, and I could tell the other office was looking at me too. It made my cheeks go flush, and my whole chest felt warm with fire.
“I don’t know what that means,” I finally said.
“I believe it means he thought there were only three people to kill, aside from you,” she replied. “Riley mentioned she was invited ‘last-minute.’”
“I don’t know him,” I reaffirmed. This time pulling my arms away from my chest and sitting up straight.
“We’ll figure that out,” she said again, and she looked down at my bloody hands. “But this isn’t over.”
She stood up from the table and led me to the door of the room.
“Are you arresting me?” I asked.
“Not yet,” she replied.
She walked me toward the entrance of the police station. Riley was standing near the door pacing back and forth. Her shorts had blood stained hand prints down the side and her blonde hair was streaked in rust color.
The officer stopped me a few paces away from Riley and whispered, “So she’s the one that doesn’t matter?”
I looked up at the officer and gave her a confused look.
“Do you know what the largest cause of murder is in the United States?”
I looked up at her and blinked twice to indicate that I did not.
“Personal conflicts,” she replied dryly. “We kill the people who matter.”
I stepped away from the officer, and Riley spotted me.
“Oh my god Cary,” she said, and she started to cry.
I let her cry into my shoulder until I took in a sharp breath and whispered, “Call me Caroline,” into her ear. She stepped back and looked at me. “I’ve never liked Cary,” I finished.
Her eyes were glassy and wide, but she didn’t say anything right away.
“Why did you plan this trip?” she finally asked.
I looked out the window, and the sky was a brilliant, bloody orange.
“It’s going to rain,” I replied, not answering her question. I heard her step away from me, and I ran my fingertips across the scabbed sunrise on my thigh.