I take a picture of the sky with my phone. It’s an explosion of color, purple and pink and orange bleeding into each other, the sun retreating behind a sheet of darkening clouds. To me it looks wrong, offensive, grotesque. I lower my Maui Jims to get a better look. I take another picture.
Dan, wearing a light gray tank top and turquois shorts, a backwards hat, hears the shutter of my camera and looks up from his phone.
“It’s so, like … infinite,” he says. “Deep.”
I note for the second or third time that my glass is empty and decide to rectify it. As I get up Carrie emerges slowly from the shallow end of the pool, her bronzed skin contrasting with the white of her bikini. There’s a pale spot in the shape of a cross on her lower abdomen—it seems almost to glow in the half-light. She asks Harper if her phone is with her clothes.
“Yeah, it’s in your sandal,” Harper tells her.
“One of the pool lights is out,” Carry says, wringing water from her hair, which looks black when it’s wet.
“I know. My dad was supposed to fix it before they left.”
I move to the bar and open a new bottle of tequila. “In God’s House” by Bat for Lashes is playing from an iPod hooked up to a speaker dock. Nobody answers when I ask if anyone wants a drink. I pour the liquor over a scoop of crushed ice and mix in some lime juice. There’s a bowl of salt on the counter but I don’t use it.
“Can you make me another one?” Michael asks from a raft in the pool.
I turn around and look at him.
“Since you’re over there,” he says.
I mix the drink and walk to the pool and he floats over and I hand him the glass.
“You make the best margaritas, bro.”
It’s late August, the twenty-second, and the air is warm and heavy. There’s no breeze at all. I can’t remember things ever being so still back here, so listless. The ennui is palpable—it feels like I have something tied around my chest. Three weeks ago Harper had more than sixty people over for her grad party. Now there’s five of us, and it’s like we’ve overstayed our welcome. Going through the motions. Clinging to something that doesn’t exist. Maybe after this drink I’ll go for a swim, I think, sitting back down next to Dan.
“How many is that for you?” he asks.
I shrug and take a sip, getting some ice and crunching it between my teeth. “Not counting,” I say.
“You all packed and shit?”
“More or less.” Another sip, more ice. “You?”
He shakes his head and relights a joint and takes a long drag. Exhaling: “Not really.”
The pictures I took of the sunset don’t look how I thought they would so I delete them. I drop my phone in my lap and take off my sunglasses and hang them from the collar of my shirt and lean back in my chair and study the sky. No stars out tonight. Carrie, her face illuminated by the light of her phone, says something about Samantha’s Tumblr and ties it into news that Jess broke it off with Shawn which everyone already knew about. Dan passes me his joint and I take a drag and give it back to him, drink from my margarita, get a spasm of nausea that passes after a few seconds. Michael asks Harper why doesn’t she light the Tiki Torches. Harper tells him they’re out of fuel and Michael says that’s lame and tries to splash her but she’s too far away. It’s quiet as the last traces of daylight fade out.
“I can’t believe how fast the summer went by,” Harper says at length. “It feels like we just graduated.”
“We did just graduate,” Michael says mockingly. He’s out of the pool now, drying his shoulder-length hair with a beach towel, diamond studs glimmering in his ears. He left his margarita in the raft’s cup holder.
“Ass. You know what I mean.” She reflects for a few seconds, staring trance-like into the pool, then adds, “I’m not ready to go away.”
“Speak for yourself,” Michael pushes back, tying his hair into a bun. “I can’t wait to get out of here. Place is a drag.”
Harper looks at him and the expression on her face, in her eyes, conveys real sadness.
“Babe,” he backtracks, “come on. You know I didn’t mean it like that. It just feels so fucking dead around here lately.”
Harper says nothing, just looks into the water again, maybe because her voice will crack.
Michael turns to Carrie. “What do you think?”
“I don’t know,” Carrie says with hesitation. “I mean, I’m definitely looking forward to college. But I know what you’re saying—like, everything just feels different now.” She pauses. “Especially after the whole thing with Amanda.”
I wait for my heart to sink but it stays in place.
“Oh God,” Dan groans. “I don’t want to talk about this again.”
“We haven’t even talked about it,” Harper says. And she’s right—we haven’t.
“That’s because there’s nothing to talk about,” Michael says firmly.
“Why not?” Harper demands.
“Because it is what it is.”
“Yeah,” Dan says. “Like, what’s done is done.”
“Hey,” I interject weakly. “Take it easy. You don’t have to be so … cold about it.”
Dan looks at Michael, who looks at me.
“I know, dude,” Michael says, the edge out of his voice. “It’s not that I don’t care. It’s just—it seems pointless to talk about it, y’know? We’re all dealing with it in our own ways.”
“I just wish we knew,” Carrie says. “Looking back, there were signs.”
“There’s always signs,” Dan argues. “But even if we knew, like, so what? It’s not like we could’ve done anything.”
“You don’t know that,” Harper says. “Sometimes talking to other people helps. If we—”
“Look,” Michael cuts in with force, “you can blame yourself if you want, but it won’t help anything. It’s in the past, so why dwell on it? She made a choice. We have to respect it and move on.”
“Speak for yourself,” Harper mimics, knocking her glass to the ground as she stands up. “You’re an asshole.” She fulminates under her breath as she collects her things and walks up the pathway into the house, slamming the door hard enough to activate the wind chimes, though only for a moment.
Dan turns to Michael. “No head for you tonight.”
“She’ll get over it,” Michael says. “Let her cool off a while.”
There’s silence for what feels like a long time. I try to think about Amanda, her smile or her voice or something, but all I can see is the body. They put her in a collared shirt but the bruises on her neck were still visible. Her face had a gray tinge in spite of the makeup. It looked like a mask. It didn’t look like Amanda at all.
“I don’t think there’s anything we could’ve done,” Carrie says to no one, as though trying to convince herself.
When I’m finished with my drink I get up and go inside to use the bathroom. The air-conditioned house is dark and empty and silent, Harper’s parents away on their annual vacation to Europe. A fan spins languidly on the ceiling. The ceramic tiles feel cold under my feet. When I come out of the bathroom I see Harper sitting on a stool in the kitchen with her legs crossed, looking straight ahead. I don’t think she’s crying but I can’t tell. I move to the back door and I’m reaching for the handle to pull it open when she says:
“He doesn’t care about me at all.”
I stop but I don’t turn around. I say dumbly, “Michael?”
“I know how he talks with you and Dan. He can’t wait to get away from me. You can admit it. Everything he tells me is a lie.”
“He’s never said anything about it to me.” I walk a few paces toward the kitchen and lean on the wall. She’s still sitting in the same position.
“I don’t understand why he’s so cruel with me. What did I ever do besides admire him?”
It’s quiet for a while. I can’t think of anything to say.
“The thing is,” she continues, “I would do literally anything to make him stay with me. I don’t care if he feels the same way. Really. I know about the other girls. I know everything. I just want him to let me love him. That’s it.”
“You know he loves you,” I intone. “He’d be a wreck without you.”
“Everyone says I have my whole life ahead of me,” she says. “But how do they know? A month ago they were telling Amanda the same thing. Now she’s gone forever. And it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t affect anything. There’ll be one less person at Cal State. That just seems so unfair to me.” She pauses. “Sorry. I know I’m not making sense.”
Without conviction I tell her not to worry, that everything will work out fine, and she stands up and turns around to face me, says she’s glad we’re friends and knows we’ll stay in touch no matter what happens. She walks over and gives me a hug. I kiss her on the forehead because it seems like the right thing to do. She says I’m the best, thanks me for being such a good listener, and my eyes follow her as she climbs the stairs and disappears into the shadows.
Back outside Carrie is sliding her fingertip around on the screen of her phone and Dan is rolling another joint, both of them the image of concentration. From the speakers on the bar bleed the closing lines of “Let It Happen” by Tame Impala. As I take off my shirt and hang it on the chair next to the one Carrie is sitting in, Michael comes and nudges me gently on the arm.
“Told you, dude,” he says, showing me his phone. On the screen is a text message from Harper: Come upstairs…
I say, “Nice.”
“I’ll give it twenty minutes. Keep her on what do you call it. Tenterhooks.”
I set my phone on the ground next to my sunglasses and walk to the edge of the pool, stretch the backs of my legs, close my eyes and touch the cool cement with my fingertips, imagine I’m somewhere else, something else, open my eyes.
“That’s probably a good call,” I tell him, and everything suspends as I lean forward and crash into the glowing water.
Michael Howard is a freelance writer from Buffalo, NY. His fiction/creative nonfiction has appeared in Hypertext Magazine, The Opiate, The Forge, Crab Fat Magazine and District Lit, and has been nominated for Best of the Net. He contributes political and cultural commentary to a number of internet publications.