Mercedes Lucero

Hardened Girls

Cat and I were the kinds of girls who dyed strands of our hair using Kool-Aid packets because we read on the internet that you could totally dye your hair using Kool-Aid packets. We rolled our jean shorts up, so our thighs plumped out and walked around the mall because that’s where the high school boys were. We were fourteen and weren’t interested in listening or holding hands. We wore too many bracelets and glossed our lips every ten minutes, felt the straps of thongs dig into our hips and tasted the salt on boys in darkened movie theaters. We believed we were hardened girls. It was the beginning of summer, and we wanted eternity and felt the pulsating electricity of youth in our fingernails, which we painted Electric Orange.

“I don’t want you hanging around that girl, Margaret,” my mom said.

How many times had I told her to call me Mae? Mae wasn’t boring. It wasn’t Margaret. Because Mae and Cat were how we went around. Because girls like us had to have the kind of names you hear and don’t forget and ever since Cat sat next to me on the school field trip to the planetarium, I wanted her to like me. I didn’t want to be Margaret anymore. I threw my stuffed animals out. I liked the way Cat cussed and wore thick eyeliner. She’d gotten in trouble in fifth grade for bringing a tongue ring to school for show-and-tell. I ripped my horse wallpaper off in little strips until my fingers were sore. I was tired of the girls I hung out with. I wanted the boys to look at me the way they looked at Cat.

My mom went on, “That girl’s mother lets her do whatever she pleases.”

The kitchen ceiling fan above us swung so fast the pull chain kept hitting the light. I could see the dust built up around the edges. It was my job to clean the dust in the kitchen, but no one said anything. My mom had started working two jobs, and my dad spent longer days at the library. I knew it had something to do with the house and something to do with the math tutors I had the year before. I walked to the mall with Cat instead, putting make-up on in the bathrooms near the food court and made sure to arrive home before my parents.

“What about horse camp this summer?”

Cat called it whores camp.

“I’m not going,” I said.

My mom looked at me. She didn’t like Cat for three reasons. One because when she picked me up at the mall, Cat was wearing a white shirt and you could totally see a purple bra underneath. Two because the first and last time Cat was allowed over for dinner, she used the word, “douche.” Three because Cat lived on the other side of the river near the casino.

“You’ve gone for the past four summers.”

“I’m not going this summer.”

“You need something to do.”

“I’ll start crocheting,” I said.

Cat and I already had plans for the summer, but I wasn’t about to tell my mom about any of them. Cat found an extra set of keys to her stepdad’s truck. He was a drunk and wouldn’t know it was gone. We planned to drive around town, up and down the one stretch of highway that cut through town because Cat knew how to drive. Neither of us had our permits, but that didn’t matter. We wanted to drive with the windows down. Cat wanted to beat up some girl who called her a slut. We wanted to meet boys at the mall and wear skimpy bathing suits at the pool. Cat was the only girl in our eighth grade who’d had sex. At least, that’s what she said. But when I asked her what it was like, she never wanted to talk about it. She said she knew older boys because her brother was twenty and had friends and she wanted to hang out in basements at their parties and sip beers. And when she asked if I was into that, I said, “f*ck yes” as if I’d been saying “f*ck yes” my entire life and I could just imagine my mom doing the sign of the cross if she’d heard.

“If I find out you’re hanging out with her, you’re grounded.”

I said fine and walked straight to my room, past the cheap fake plants sitting in the dining room. Outside, the neighbor kids ran around a sprinkler. I could hear my dad playing classical music in the basement below because we lived in one of those old midwestern houses where you could hear entire conversations through the vents. We only listened to Christian and classical music in my house. It wasn’t the kind of music hardened girls were supposed to listen to.

Then, my cell phone lit up. It was Cat.

“You coming,” she said, “Or not?”

I asked where and kept my voice down.

“Don’t matter.

I heard the wooden floorboards outside in the hallway creak. It was probably my dad. My mom was upstairs taking a bath. Earlier that evening, my dad asked me if I wanted to watch an Alfred Hitchcock marathon with him and I wanted to say yes, but I knew my parents were trying too hard to find ways to spend time with me. It was getting annoying. My mom kept offering to take me to get our nails done. They both said I’d been acting differently. A couple of the girls from horse camp called, and I said I was sick and couldn’t talk.

“They’ll ground me,” I said.

“So then what else could they do to you?”

“I can’t.”

“Don’t be lame,” she said, and I heard the floorboards move again.

Then we both sat in silence, and I could hear our breaths fused with the same strawberry lipgloss. Hardened girls didn’t go to horse camp, and they didn’t have sleepovers, and they certainly didn’t let a thing like being grounded keep them from having fun.

I made it look like I was taking a shower. The bathroom was right next to my bedroom. I locked the door and turned on the hot water and let it run while I sat on the toilet until my skin shone with sweat. I pulled out the eyeliner and mascara I’d hidden in my shoes where my mom wouldn’t think to look.

I lifted the stained glass window and pulled myself out. My clothes were damp, but I didn’t care. I could feel the sides of the window pane scrape against me, rip off little pieces of skin on my thighs and then, I landed in the grass.

I waited for Cat to pick me up on the corner by the park.

She said she was house-sitting for some neighbors and wanted to check on things before we went around looking for where the high-schoolers were at which was usually the movie theater parking lot or the Sonic. I said fine even though Cat didn’t look like the house-sitting type. We drove with the windows down, and the beads around the truck’s rear view mirror kept dangling. The air was warm, and I could hear my blood pulsing in my ears. The truck smelled like old cigarettes, salty and stale.

She drove to the poor side of town. The houses were run down with old front porches falling apart. I knew Cat lived around there. She told me she lived near the casino in the neighborhoods with no sidewalks and no grass. If you kept going farther down the highway, you’d run into the pig plant. My mom told me not to go down there. I’d never been there, but my dad said he’d once seen a man punch another man right on the front lawn when he’d been driving around that part. It made me start thinking about how different Cat and I were.

I studied her. She wore a white camisole top with pink cotton shorts and pink flip-flops, the kind you get at the dollar store. She had on about a dozen necklaces too that kept glittering under the orange streetlights. White trash. That’s what some of the girls at school called her. Did I care? There was something about her, about the way she let the strands of her bra show and flipped off guys who hollered at her in the 7-Eleven. I wanted to be the kind of girl who did those things. The summer night hung over us.

The streets were quiet, and Cat slowed down in front of a small blue house, right on the corner of an intersection. It was dark and all I could see was a row of small houses with barred-up windows.

“This is where you’re house-sitting?” I asked her.

The truck’s door squealed when I opened it, and I thought for sure someone would come outside. It felt ghostly as if we were the only two people on the street.

She didn’t even look at me and said, “C’mon.”

I followed her up the small hill of dried-up grass which crinkled underneath my sandals.

“Whose house is it?” I asked.

I wondered if my parents were starting to realize how long the shower had been running. I checked my phone. No missed calls. She hopped over the chain link fence, and I followed her to the back of the house.

“Do you even know whose house it is?”

“Of course, I know whose house it is.”

“Whose is it?’

“What are we playing, twenty-one questions?”

I was curious, but I stopped asking questions and followed her shadow into the darkness as we moved through the backyard. There were a clothesline and a colorful plastic tricycle near the back door. The house was small, one-story with dirty windows. Somewhere a dog barked.

I watched as she went to one of the dried-up looking plants in the backyard.

“My brother told me where the key was at,” she said.

“One of your brother’s friends?” I asked.

“If you’re scared,” she said, opening the back door, “wait in the truck.”

“I’m not scared.”

I followed her into the house. We entered into the kitchen. I could feel the linoleum smooth under my sandals. There were dishes in the sink. There were magnets from different states on the fridge. My bones felt warm. Something smelled deep and musky.

“Are you sure he’s not home?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“But what if he’s home?”

“He’s not.”

“What if we get caught?”

“Then, I guess we’ll both go to jail, and you’ll probably get taken advantage of by some lesbian with cornrows because they’ll see how much of a pussy you are.”

“I’m not a pussy,” I whispered, but she didn’t hear me.

Cat turned a corner and walked down a hallway with red flowered wallpaper. Pictures hung across the wall with faces I couldn’t see, but I knew there were eyes looking at me.

“Take what you want,” she said.

I was starting to feel like someone was going to find us. As if the entire world knew what we were doing at that moment. I thought of the shower running, warm and steady in the bathroom. By now, my parents were probably knocking, and my mom was probably trying to find something to open the locked door with.

“Sure,” I said, and it sounded weak and small and hung in the air between us.

“Start looking in the drawers,” Cat said.

I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t. I went straight to the drawers against the wall and opened the bottom one. I was on my knees. Inside were shirts, and socks. I lifted them out, one by one, trying not to think that they belonged to someone. I could smell the detergent. Maybe it was the same one my mom used at home. It reminded me of how she kept a sweater draped over a dining room chair and how the sweater always seemed to be infused with her perfume. A light floral scent. I kept feeling a sort of tug to look up at the pictures framed against the walls. An American flag clock on the nightstand ticked. I laughed and said, “I can’t believe we’re doing this.”

I didn’t know what I was looking for. I kept opening the drawers up. I kept pressing my hands into the clothes. Cat was looking underneath the mattress, inside of the closet. My parents, I was sure, had realized I was gone. I didn’t want to check my phone. Had they called the police? Were they driving across town? I dragged my hands around each of the drawers.

I found the bullets in the top drawer. They were hidden in small folded-up underwear. They were cold and small in my hands. There were only three, and I could feel the weight of them press into my palms. They were a sort of bronze and shimmered in the darkness. I didn’t even know what they were at first. I’d never seen bullets. My heart sort of jumped a little, and I felt a warm kind of electricity run through me.

“Holy crap,” Cat said when she saw.

My skin shivered. I felt strangely thrilled like I had discovered something. There had to be a gun. Why wouldn’t there be? I found the bullets.

I imagined starting school in the fall, the way people would be impressed when I told them that I found a gun, that I held it in my hands. I started looking for the gun, flipping off blankets and pulling out handfuls of clothes from the closet.

Cat stood in the corner, rolling the bullets around in her hand.

“We actually found them,” she said.

I pulled out more clothes from the closet and felt the way my breath came out in hot puffs.

“Did you know they were here?”

“I thought they were rumors.”

I felt handfuls of cold shirts and blankets in my hands.

“Whose house is this, Cat?”

“It’s just a guy.”

“What guy?”

I started thinking how my mom’s face sort of scrunched up when she cried. How a little dimple below her lip formed. I thought of my mom crying now, wondering where I was. I wanted to care.

“The guy that raped me,”

She said it softly, so softly I wondered if she wanted me to hear her at all.

Her words hung over us, filled up the room. The guy that raped me. I wondered if that’s why some girls called her a slut. I wondered if I was the only one who knew. If I should say something. Where was this guy? Would he be coming home soon? Would he find us? Maybe he would find us and shoot us with the gun we found. Or maybe he would rape us both, one right after the other. My skin grew warm. I realized how dangerous things felt at that moment.

I was thinking all of these things, standing on top of the dresser, reaching for the top shelf when I found the gun, wrapped in a dishcloth in a suitcase. I pretended I didn’t hear her.

I stepped down to the floor and stood in front of Cat. The streetlight made our skin look different. Altered our faces.

I held it out for her. Neither of us had seen a real gun before. She wouldn’t take it. Cat put the bullets on the dresser, and we both sat on the edge of the bed looking at the gun. I held it in my hands, felt the weight of it. It was brown and small and heavy. I kept dragging my fingers across the smooth metal of it.

Then, I lifted my arm and held the gun straight out. My bracelets moved against my wrist.

“Let’s leave,” she said and stood up.

I stood up too and straightened my arm and pointed the gun at Cat. She turned around. We both knew there were no bullets, but I watched as she looked down into the barrel.We stayed like that for a long time, me pointing the gun at her and then I made the sound as if I’d fired it. The warm summer air blew wind chimes outside. There was a kind of shift in the air. It was midnight by now. The night seemed darker. We left through the back door.

We both sat in the truck without saying anything. The gun sat in a plastic bag between us. The bullets were in my front jean pocket. Cat started the truck, and we drove off down the street into the quiet of summer. If anyone saw us, they didn’t say anything. Maybe because we looked like the kind of girls you didn’t say anything to.

We kept driving down off the highway ramp away from the river into town. Old brick buildings rose up around us. We were down by a closed gas station. There were no cars. There were no streetlights or intersections. There were a bunch of abandoned buildings with boarded up windows. Ever since they built the new shopping plaza on the other side of town, this side became run down. I knew there were a bunch of homeless people who liked to sleep there.

“You’re scared to touch it,” I said. The truck rolled over a pothole.

“I’m not scared,” she said.

“You’re the pussy, not me.”

It was out of my mouth before I realized, and we both sat silent. It was the wrong thing to say, I knew.

Then she stopped the truck.

“What are you doing?” I asked her.

She pulled up to the side of a curb and opened the door.

“I’m not a pussy,” she said.

She grabbed the gun from the plastic bag and walked around in front of the truck, her footsteps echoing off the brick walls. There was a big heap of something in front of one of the buildings and she walked up to it. I imagined my mom and dad looking for me.

I looked at my phone. I had twelve missed calls. Cat walked over to a heap of blankets on the sidewalk. She looked back at me and nudged it.

“Wake up,” I heard her say.

I could see the dirty black blankets move on the sidewalk. There were white tattered tennis shoes poking out from underneath. I could hear a deep sort of mumbling.

Cat pulled the blanket off.

A man shriveled underneath, a body with dirty black pants and a red shirt ripped right down the center. When he rolled over you could see his chest. I looked away and then looked back. There were bottles and blankets strewn about him. I could hear him mumbling with the window down. They weren’t words I could hear. He seemed drunk. He was laughing now. Cat nudged him with her foot again.

I opened the door and stood on the truck’s foot ledge.

“Point it at his head,” I said.

She looked at me, and our eyes met in the soft darkness.

“Point it at his head,” I said again.

The homeless man mumbled. She looked down at the gun and back at me again.

“Pretend it’s him,” I said.

She looked back at me, stood there for a moment and then, slowly, she raised her arm up with the gun in her hand. I couldn’t tell if she was shaking. She did exactly what I said and brought it to his head. The man shriveled, trembled and brought his hands up to his face. He was whimpering now.

She held it there, just staring at the man, with the gun pointed to his head and then I saw her finger move the trigger, heard a click, both of us knowing there were no bullets.

She walked back to the truck, and we sat there in silence. Then, she put the keys in the ignition, started the truck and began driving.

“I’m ready to go home,” she said.

I pulled the bullets out from my pocket and put them on the dashboard. They began to roll back and forth, rhythmically.

“I don’t want to go home yet,” I said.

I picked up the gun. It was still warm from when she’d held it. I nudged it to her side, pressing the barrel into the hardness of her ribs.

“Go straight,” I said.

She looked confused, and I could feel her looking at me. I looked at the gun.

She kept going straight, driving toward a lonely stretch of highway where shadows of trees hovered over us like black clouds. I didn’t know where we were going. Neither of us did, but she kept driving. Our headlights were our only light, shining a few feet ahead of us as we moved toward the dark road just beyond, to the part I couldn’t see.

***

Mercedes LuceroMercedes Lucero is a writer whose prose and poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Curbside Splendor, Printers Row Journal, Whitefish Review, Kalyani Magazine, Burner Magazine and many other journals. She has also been awarded “Best Piece of Prose” in Canvas, a literary journal, and her short story, “Memories I Cannot Recall,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in English at the University of Kansas. Her first chapbook of fiction, Six Possible Reasons Amy Becomes a Whore, is forthcoming from Medulla Press Publishing in August. You can find her at http://www.mercedeslucero.com.

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