By Lindsey Baker
When we didn’t go out into the new neighborhood at night, we spent hours on Tammy’s computer in her big room on the empty side of the house. We looked at pictures of people we knew and the people they knew, an expansive network of siloed events: proms, graduations, college dorms. Girls our age had pictures in packs of other girls, posed outside the Macaroni Grill or on the sloped, grey middle school lawn, ridges of panty lines between them.
Tammy controlled the mouse, sliding affably over when I asked. I was happy to let her pilot. The tell-tale way she lingered on certain pictures, taking notes on how to be.
More often, we video-chatted with strangers on one of the many websites for this purpose. We flipped through people like channels, sometimes stumbling across other girls like us who skipped quickly on to someone else. Our goal, to talk to men, although we never voiced it. A delicate habit.
The hours between when I went home in the morning to when I went back to Tammy’s in the late afternoon were silent, thrill-free affairs, the stillness of my own house closer to death than the constant ruckus of the neighborhood’s construction. During those hours I showered, washed and straightened my hair, tweezed. Dabbed Vaseline on my cheeks for some reason.
Since my mom worked days and couldn’t witness my well-being, I left her little signals of my survival. I finished the half gallon of milk, dipped my fingers into the smooth skin of peanut butter, left the bathroom cabinet open, changed the channel. But mostly when I was home I looked in the mirror. I tried to memorize my face like a string of numbers, what all those people online saw when they looked at me through Tammy’s webcam. I would forget as soon as I looked away. It didn’t matter, as long as they looked.
When we did go out into the neighborhood, we usually met Tyler at the clubhouse. He was going to a different high school than we were after eighth grade, a big Catholic school in the next city over. He told us it was because he was advanced, but I figured it was because he had ADHD and needed small classrooms and special attention. He once burned a hole in his arm with a cigarette he stole from his older brother.
A desperate lure for new families with little kids, the pool only went to five feet and was rarely visited by anyone but us. It was one of the first construction projects completed. We had visited once during the day to tan and came home wilted and exhausted, the harsh sun glow demanding more from us than the clean light of Tammy’s computer.
We sat on the furniture not yet caked with bird shit and looked into the lit-up water, watching for the occasional frog who jumped to his own death.
“See lots of dicks, I bet,” Tyler said when we told him about our newest site for video chatting. “Do they pay you?”
Tammy rolled her eyes. “No, of course not. It isn’t sex stuff. It’s just for fun.” She looked at me for approval and I nodded. We brought Hershey’s kisses from a stash Tammy’s housekeeper Michelle kept in the pantry, and the silver foil wrappers lay like cicada shells at our feet.
Tyler was skinny and short, but his voice had already dropped. He spoke proud.
“It doesn’t sound very fun,” he said, and then rode his skateboard around the pool.
Tammy video-chatted with the same guy every night before we went to bed. Lewis, who lived in Texas and told us he was 17. He said he lived in the “wild” part of the “hung” state, right in the middle. He seemed nice enough.
Sometimes I sat in the frame with Tammy and nodded along with what the two of them were saying, but mostly I sat just out of view and watched Tammy’s face in the little square on the screen like I was watching a movie. I was happy to be the audience. The predictable dialogue, the careful way Tammy held her face, checking herself captured in the bottom corner.
Michelle cleaned the house even when Tammy’s mom was home from work, which was every other week. Mrs. Finch traveled to hospitals around the country selling monitors to doctors. At the neighborhood Fourth of July party, a spattering of people and mustard-soaked hot dogs, I overheard her telling someone that money was tied up in the dead. Mrs. Finch was thin with large, fake breasts that I couldn’t help staring at every time she entered a room. She didn’t look anything like my mom with her round middle and slack shelf of breast, her natural plain brown hair. Mr. Finch was even more of an enigma, the way he waltzed around the house, lost in his own provisions, mumbling to himself like a genius might.
Michelle spent her days doing our laundry and cooking. She smelled like tea tree oil. On her bicep were tattoos of her children’s names, and they stretched and contorted as she used her arm.
“I don’t like you girls being online all the time,” she told us over a lunch of elbow macaroni and butter. She made peas for us as well, and I spooned a dozen. Tammy ignored them. Michelle ground fresh black pepper over her plate and offered it to me as well. I nodded, wanting to please her, and my pasta was covered in black specks. “You should be out with your friends. Go to the pool, go to the movies. Be young.”
“This is what kids do,” Tammy said. She looked at me and rolled her eyes. “Besides, we are with about hundreds of friends all the time.”
“Well,” Michelle said, drinking from her can of diet coke, “as long as your parents are okay with it.”
My mom left a note on the refrigerator saying she missed me, coffee cooled in the pot, and a flaccid toothpaste tube on her vanity. I appreciated the signs of her survival, too. I wondered why she didn’t tell me I had to stay home for at least one night. She had the authority. I wrote her a note back, told her that I loved her, x’s and o’s. I drew a flower with a dozen petals, a simple sun perving in the corner.
I got a text from Tammy. Cum over. Ul never guess wut happened!!!!
What happened was that Lewis told Tammy he wanted to visit her. He was going to drive all fifteen hours from Texas.
“Isn’t that romantic?” Tammy asked me, sprawled out on her bed. Her shorts were too tight and there were angry red marks on her thighs.
“Yeah,” I said, “That’s a big drive. What is he going to tell his parents? Where would you meet him?”
Tammy sat up. “Oh, I dunno. The clubhouse?”
“What if your parents find out?” Maybe we should be afraid of Lewis, I thought. I had trouble imagining the real fleshy person of him. His eagerness to see Tammy was a souring note to his coolness, something hidden under rosy perfume.
“When do they find out anything?”
The days leading up to Lewis’s visit were filled with primping and practice. Tammy asked Michelle to drive us out to beauty supply stores, to clothing stores, and to the mall to get our ears double pierced. Tammy’s period was scheduled to start the day after Lewis’s visit and she didn’t want to risk it starting early, so we posted on Yahoo Answers for options. She sucked on pomegranate seeds, the dark juice staining the skin around her mouth. She made cup after cup of strong peppermint tea. From the fridge, she took three leaves of basil and a clove of garlic and wrapped them up with string, sticking the bundle deep inside of herself and keeping it there for an hour.
“Are you going to have sex with him?” I asked her while we sat on her bed watching the ceiling fan, waiting for our lives to either begin or end.
“Maybe,” she said.
We met Tyler at the pool the night of Lewis’s visit. He wore his favorite skateboarding t-shirt and his big black skate shoes that made him look like a baby deer. A few hairs sprouted around his lips.
“When’s this guy showing up?” he asked me when Tammy went into the girl’s bathroom that always smelled like mold, despite being brand new.
“We told him nine,” I said.
“Is he normal?”
I thought for a minute. “Sure. He seems cool.”
It was full dark when we heard a car pull into the lot.
Tammy met Lewis, hand on the latch, but waited to open it until he was right behind the gate, like she held something inside that she didn’t want to spill.
Lewis looked mostly like he did on video. His eyes had the same calm squint like he was always stoned. His jeans were worn at the knees but normal, his sneakers casual and right. He had a gamer’s posture, stooped at the shoulders. I looked to Tammy.
“Hi,” she said, hand still on the latch.
“Hi,” Lewis said, his eyebrows twitching. “Can I join y’all?” He held up a case of Corona, like that was his ticket in. I tried to imagine how he got it, the mysterious workings of a fake ID.
Tammy nodded and unhooked the latch. Lewis’s voice was lighter than it was on video. He walked into the pool area, smiling at Tammy.
“Nice to meet you.” They hugged. I could tell Tammy was nervous because she didn’t say anything back.
“This is Tyler.” I gestured over to where Tyler was still sitting on a pool lounger, his giant shoes making his ankles look incredibly thin. I was relieved we brought him. It felt safer to have him here, a buffer against anything out of the ordinary.
“Hey man,” Lewis said, eyeing Tyler before coming over to give me a hug. His breath was harsh and sweet, like he just finished a Jolly Rancher. “Good to meet you, too. So weird to see you guys in real life. What a trip, right?”
Tammy nodded. Lewis hesitated before putting his arm over her shoulders. She smiled a taxidermy smile at him.
By the time we’d each had a beer, opened with the tab on Lewis’s keychain, Tammy began to loosen up. We all sat in a circle on the damp cement (damp because Tyler splashed water on me while I was mid-sip, making me inhale and cough forever). The beer was wheaty and still chilled from whatever gas station Lewis had conned. I liked it better than I thought I would, better than the patchwork sips Tammy and I ferreted from her father’s liquor cabinet. How it made the world go smooth.
Maybe Lewis was nervous, or tipsy, but he was much louder in person than he was on video chat. He made crude jokes and laughed until a vein pulsed in his forehead. Tammy was playing with Lewis’s hand, running her fingers up and down his length of palm. She looked happy and I tried to be happy for her. Lewis told us more about living in Texas, how they had to recite the pledge of allegiance and the pledge to Texas each morning before school.
“What’s the name of your high school?” Tyler asked.
Lewis didn’t hesitate. “Clayton High. It’s kind of a shithole but I have some good friends. Most of the people are just cunts who like, don’t think before they say things. They aren’t going to get very far after high school, I can tell you that.”
“Why don’t you have a girlfriend?” Tyler asked. “Aren’t there girls at your school?”
“Why don’t you have a girlfriend?” Tammy snapped. Lewis laughed.
“They’re all sluts there. Really, man, you wouldn’t believe what those girls do. For nothing.” He shook his head. “That’s why I like younger chicks. You’re much more pure and thoughtful.” He put his arm around Tammy. She beamed and I knew that no matter what happened the rest of the night, she would think it was worth it all for this moment. We’d replay it over and over.
She’d ask me for every detail from my perspective and I would give it to her, willingly, a news report on each expression and mite of dust. He reached his hand down until it rested gently on Tammy’s breast.
“How far have you gone, Tyler?” he asked.
Tyler finished off his beer and shrugged. He looked down at the burn scar on his arm as if to remember who he was, what he was doing. “Far enough.”
Lewis laughed. “So nowhere. Figures.” He nodded toward me. “What about you?”
“She hasn’t even kissed anyone yet,” Tammy said. I pushed my fingernails hard into my palm, waiting for Lewis to laugh at me. Tammy looked cervine, waiting for me to cry or yell or disappear. I didn’t know what I wanted.
“That’s cool,” Lewis said. “You’re young still.” He looked toward the clubhouse itself, a big, white building built to look like a miniature version of the neighborhood houses. “Can we go in there? Get a little shelter?”
“I’m not sure,” said Tammy. “I think you need a special key.”
“I think we can manage without it. Come on.” Lewis got to his feet, pulling Tammy up with him and righting her on her feet. He looked at me. “You want to come, too?”
“We’ll all go,” Tyler said. His hair had settled in the humidity, the swoop on his forehead prickled with childish curls.
Lewis tried all the windows, some still sealed in protective plastic, before finding one that wasn’t latched. He pushed it open and lifted Tammy and I inside, his hand lingering on my inner thigh.
It was dark. Although the lights were on in the pool, casting the inside of the clubhouse with an eerie blue light, every switch inside the clubhouse was dead.
“That’s cool. The dark is nice.” Lewis sat on the thick new carpet, patted the spot by his side.
“M’lady.” Tammy giggled and sat next to him. Tammy and I often played a game where we tried to read each other’s minds—guess the fruit the other person was thinking about—and I did that now, trying to meld myself to her inner monologue. Maybe it was impossible that anyone could ever be thinking the same thing.
“Tyler and I will check out the kitchen,” I said, cocking my hip and reaching for Tyler’s hand. It felt like the thing to do. He took it, not saying anything, and I pulled him away, hoping that I was doing the right thing, that Tammy wanted to be left alone with Lewis.
“Use a condom,” Lewis called out, snickering, and Tyler let go of my hand.
We sat on the hard tile with our backs against the cabinets and I tried not to listen for any sounds in the other room. I could feel Tyler looking at me even though the kitchen was way darker than the other room, a cave that much more removed from the pool lights. I thought about Michelle, how she was already home with her own kids. The ones she could control. I bet she was grateful that she had two normal kids who didn’t haunt the house like holograms, desperate to be seen but afraid to exist.
“Don’t worry about what he said.”
“He’s an asshole. You guys know that, right?” Tyler pulled some skin off his bottom lip and flicked it onto the floor.
“He’s not this bad on video chat. I think he’s just nervous.”
I was going to explain how we found him—alone on a Friday night, framed pale against his dark blue bedroom wall—when Tyler kissed me. It was awkward and small. He moved closer and put his hand on my back. I lifted my own hand like a dead thing at the end of my arm and pushed my fingers into his hair because that’s what girls are supposed to do. My other hand felt along his arm. His tongue arrived, an escalation that didn’t move any further. We stayed like that until I pulled away to swallow and wipe my mouth.
“Woah,” I said, and it was the wrong thing to say. “That was nice,” I tried again, still aware of how wrong it was. I wracked my brain for things a girl in the movies would say and came up empty.
“Yeah,” Tyler said. We sat there quietly.
“Should we check on Tammy?” I said eventually.
“Do you really want to?”
I didn’t say anything. I felt panicked at having left Tammy in the other room, like I had locked a part of myself away with someone who might decide to never give it back.
“Want to go back out to the pool?”
“Sure,” I said, both relieved and disappointed that this part was over.
By the time Tammy and Lewis appeared in the dark, just outside the ring of light from the pool, Tyler and I had grown awkward. I was startled by this new, low feeling I couldn’t pin down. Closest to disappointment. Kissing Tyler felt nothing like I thought it would, nothing like the easy jolt of locking eyes with a stranger, not at all dangerous. I wondered if I’d somehow ruined myself for all future excitement. How strange it was that it happened in the dark, when no one was watching.
Tammy waved at us as she walked Lewis to the gate.
“Later,” Lewis called to us, kissing Tammy quick on the mouth. She watched him get in his car and drive away before coming back to the pool, sighing next to us.
“Did you fuck?” Tyler asked. Tammy gave a disgusted scoff, but she couldn’t help the dreamy smile she was wearing, her chin rubbed red.
“He’s absolutely incredible. I can’t believe I found him.”
I wondered how things with Lewis could possibly end. He lived almost on the other side of the country, a 15-hour drive from Roswell. He was nothing but a nightly ghost she talked to before falling asleep beside me. When it was over and we were in the future—adults with real relationships, with any power at all—would she hate him?
“We should get back,” I said. “It’s late.”
Tammy nodded, standing with me. Tyler avoided my eye contact and I stared at him until he had no choice but to look back, to return my smile. It was enough.
Lindsey Baker lives in Atlanta. Her fiction has previously appeared in Bodega, The Citron Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, and Storychord, among others, and she won the 2019 Creative Loafing Fiction Contest in Atlanta. She is pursuing her MFA at Georgia State University where she is a Paul Bowles Fellow.
Art by Michelle Johnsen, art editor
Michelle Johnsen is a nature and portrait photographer in Lancaster, PA, as well as an amateur herbalist and naturalist. Her work has been featured by It’s Modern Art, Susquehanna Style magazine, Permaculture Activist magazine, EcoWatch.com, EarthFirst! Journal, Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative, and used as album art for Grandma Shake!, Anna & Elizabeth, and Liz Fulmer Music. Michelle’s photos have also been stolen by AP, weather.com, The Daily Mail, and Lancaster Newspapers. You can contact her at mjphoto717 [at] gmail.com.