It’s not Jenny who runs, or Elizabeth. Or me, though I am supposed to. It’s not the way it is when you throw things at each other, duck and cover, ditch, all scrambling, all brambles unexpected in our faces. It’s not unexpected. And it’s not all of us who run, who surround, who slip in or charge or surge. We don’t all move, though we are supposed to. We’re all in bathing suits, wearing shorts pulled up around the bottoms. It’s not until Chloe steps towards us, pulls at us as we’re standing in the grass, that we all go, and there’s pushing, but a ragged single file. It’s when Chloe says, “Look, this is where we’re going,” no question, no asking, that we go. Chloe stands straight. And Elizabeth pulls on my hair just a bit to let me know she’s there, and we walk into the crack at the back of the pool building, a hole that’s boarded up, tongued back, loosened, and flaps scrape into our backs as we walk in.
It’s green. And Chloe’s wearing an orange bathing suit, bright against the dark and blue and mold.
I’m in my bathing suit, my hair tied back behind me with a rubber band, and Elizabeth keeps yanking, just softly. I remember in our gym class, in our high-windowed shiny-floored and greenish gym class, in dance, she held on to me then too: lift up and spin. Steady, so we wouldn’t shake. All of us, we taught each other that, while our teacher tapped out rhythm, and read a magazine, tapping the pages.
Inside there are no lights. The streetlights are spinning fireworks, the diving board, the swimming pool. The strength of chlorine as we slither in, through the holes in walls, in boards; the streetlights spin through holes in walls and boards—we take off our shorts, our bathing suits bright, and then wait. We’re quiet. Chloe calls my name. Our names run sliding out ahead of us, telling her we’re there. We are a soft line, a long string, at the edges in the back, under the windows tall and dripping white.
When Lainey comes in we pounce. We move—it’s like a punch, a prickling, like jumping into the pool, that quick. She slips from us. And Chloe says, to us, “Run!”
There are trains and whistles just outside. The whistles twine into our hair. There are gravel sidewalks, gravel in our knees. Stoplights hang above the street on strings. The streetlights are flickery and full of bugs. We are supposed to trail. Attack. Our bicycles outside in clumps. Lights burn holes into our arms. We are supposed to pounce.
We ride bikes. But Elizabeth her skateboard and Jenny her shoes—she runs, runs. To get there we rode bikes. Around the pool, our flipflops, our bare feet flopflopflip slap and smack and slide around the wet, so we hold on, onto the walls, like we’re skating, children skating.
We pull Lainey along behind us. We pull, like she is rope and we are tugging, all in one direction. She skids a little bit, her feet on shiny floors, and we do too, the floors like they are grabbing on our ankles, and Elizabeth grabs for my hand.
There are purple marks from bike chains on our legs. There is a whistle right behind us. Chloe sits in corners, whispering, at lunchtime. Lainey draws on walls, on tables, in what looks like secret code. She sits on top of tables and she draws like she is spelling with what looks like letters stretched out, dancing. Chloe points them out. But they are just letters, dancing. I don’t say anything.
I remember that, that we were all each others’ partners, while the boys were taking weight lifting instead. We were wearing leotards and spinning each other around, cha-cha, swing. We were all shuffling along the floor and shoving our own hips, and on our tiptoes, the way we weren’t supposed to be, pretending we were dancing. Lainey went off doing splits. And back and forth we said your palms are sweaty, don’t twitch your hips like that. It was hot in the gym. The teacher wasn’t looking.
When we run, through the hallways, the pool behind us, chasing, it’s like riding bikes. All of us in a line, and Lainey, somehow, now, in front of us. She’s small, and tripping, and I can only see her edges.
There will be no boys, Chloe had said. We sat around a campfire made of newspapers and Coca Cola and all our faces looked watery and dark, and she plotted out things as if her arms were our directions. This is a plan. One arm flung out, and then another—she was an arrow. This way, that way. There. She was checking off things on her fingers, standing up and kicking. “There will be no boys, there will be no screaming.” There will be just us tied in a knot telling Lainey the way it is.
There are too many of us, older girls, the ones who squawk, slide shoving down the halls with lipgloss, who point out if your pants are wrinkly, who laugh behind their books behind their locker doors. There is Chloe. Chloe wraps a rope around them. Chloe pushes speeches through her hands all cupped around her lipgloss and her bubblegum, when she’s standing in the halls, through the light of all those cracking windows, spearmint tiles. Chloe standing high up on a step, so no one can get past. Chloe twisting her finger into my back, saying, “You’ll be there.”
She has marker-splotches on her fingers. Jenny thinks, if Chloe puts her fingers on your face, just pushes, only fingertips, there would be purple, blue, and yellow on your cheeks. Jenny’s afraid of colors; she says her mother taught her that. Elizabeth and I, we tell ourselves it’s our mothers’ meatloaf, we talk about the spiders in the showers, we say look!, then duck and hide under the bleachers, running from the Duncans’ dog. We were supposed to run, to follow; it skips and strangles and startles itself—we were supposed to run, to chase, and me, especially, supposed to, to catch.
The pool’s behind the traintracks, and rattling; the pool is rooms stacked-up and empty; the pool is closed, since outside it smells like fire. And Lainey’s scientific—she says that’s the way that autumn smells, like burning leaves, like old chlorine, trees in morning and the dirty roads and like houses right under the porches where the dogs are, and the rats.
Chloe calls me at night to tell me where to sit. Lainey calls me at night to talk about science class. We talk about stars, and refraction. We talk about light. I think about the streetlight at the corner by the bakery. It always fizzles out when you’re walking underneath it; I wonder why it does that. “Electromagnetics,” Lainey says. “Or ghosts? Or superheroes?” Lainey believes in superheroes. I believe in ghosts.
Behind the pool the rooms all bend at corners, and we grab onto Lainey, tear her struggling and scraping at the paint. She squirms; they kick; her hands tear out to reach around their ankles, grab for their shoes; they push her, push her back, back.
Chloe said to me, “Alice,” drinking Coke in bottles behind the Circle K, her pinky up, toe scratching at the dirt, “we have to get her back.” “We have to pull her back in,” Chloe said, like she is loose, like she is something running off, that we can capture, change, return, and Chloe looks like cages, sharp, her hand behind her smacking words into the wall. Lainey doesn’t run. I don’t say anything.
We bunch and threaten. Our fingernails are pink. We sat around in Chloe’s den, the coffee table pulled up to our knees and our knees all cracked and crunching under it, and painted all our fingernails, before we gathered up our bicycles, yanked on our shoes.
Sometimes we slipped into the water, watching our feet turn white, then green. “We could dissolve in here,” Lainey had said, seriously, and Chloe laughed. “No, think about it—what would happen?” I thought about our bones, turning clear at first, then dripping. Lainey watched her feet, and Chloe’s feet, and I saw her counting all the toes under her breath, making sure they stayed there. She was afraid, sincerely, then, wanting us to stay there.
They pull at her hair and they scream. Or maybe something else does—walls, chlorine. Chloe is tall, taller than us, and wide, and she has the movements of the slapping of a boat, the striking of a wide-reaching sail in sand.
The walls are soft, and they crumble under fingernails; red sneaks up Lainey’s face like scars.
Sometimes we sat on the pool steps and watched the fireflies, chlorine behind us, and long pool-waves on walls, all underwater, all dark. We kept the doors open just to sit there, just to be washed in cooler as we were sweating behind our knees.
Lainey said that she would run and mock the train. We sat there, in the pool doors, the tall high grass and the narrow winding tracks curving on and out and long. We were watching it, that line, and then the whistle. She said that she would chase it, or that it would chase her, that she would outrun it. We saw her leaping over traintracks, pink t-shirt, white shorts, before the arms came down and there were whistles.
She left us standing there, waiting waiting while the train rolled by slowly, and there were only wheels in front of us, and grease, and the empty holes in boxcars, bugs biting at our knees, surrounded by the grass. I listened. Chloe held me there. She kicked.
So it’s not me who runs, though I’m slammed into a wall by someone taller.
The pool is strong. Lainey is small, and pale. She has the imprint of a whole hand on her cheek. She is clawed and scratched and bitten.
Chloe watches; we are tangled; eyes in knots and lights are wrapping strings around our wrists and all our ankles, tight. She’s watching to see what tangles. I’m watching her to see if she’ll undo it, like a puzzle, like a knot in rope. “You’ll do it,” she said. “You will.” She could, and it would stop; it is an it, a something, dangerous.
In the back, there are little rooms that weave, in and out like gophers in a field, like lightning tangling through the trees. We didn’t have to draw a map, or know where all those doors led. Chloe talked about it like lost was all we wanted, lost and tumbling and pushing her into places we didn’t even know were there, leaving her tied up and wrinkling, leaving our breaths inside the rooms with the bathing suits and mops, and us wandering our way out, where the mold is, and the dark, where the flaps are loose in walls, to leave her there.
Lainey had told us she could fly. We watched her leap, lift her arms, and spin into a ball before she landed, and it was loud, when she was landing, like buzzing, like she had torn something in the air, and something was flooding through, and when she landed, arms spread wide. “We’ll just leave her there, that’s all,” Chloe said, when she was blowing on her fingernails.
I think: if you just sit still, if you just sit still, if you stay, we will go home and have a soda. Make marshmallows in Chloe’s fireplace when her dad comes in to light it. Elizabeth holds onto my hair, Elizabeth behind me. Chloe stays and stays and stays. She stands next to the wall. There is green and red and breaking, bright. It’s my sister that will call out from the door when I go home, it’s my dog and my parents in the back room watching television, and I’ll go in to sleep, just to sleep; we’ll ride bikes home. Lainey’s not afraid of Chloe; she will laugh.
Sometimes we sat on sticky seats in an empty car, the three of us. It was an empty lot, behind a house, and then another house, then a chicken yard. Chloe stretched across the front seats and Lainey huddled on the dashboard. Her knees were bent up towards her face. She was chewing on her fingernails, then looking at them. She spread them out in front of her, then leapt them back together, quickly, like a living thing that had been surprised. She was surprised when I told her what the plan was. She was surprised when I took her out next to the field behind the school, where no one else could see, and told her to be prepared, but I didn’t tell her everything.