Chapter no 10

A Flicker in the Dark

Lena wasn’t a nice girl, but she was nice to me. I won’t make excuses for her; I won’t sugarcoat the facts. She was a troublemaker, a perpetual pain in the ass who seemed to get off on making other people uncomfortable, watching them squirm. Why else would a fifteen-year-old wear a push-up bra to school, twirling her French braid around a bitten-down fingernail as she chewed on the side of her pillowy lip? She was a woman in a girl’s body, or a girl in a woman’s body; both seemed to make sense. Simultaneously too old and too young—a figure and mind beyond her years. But there were parts of her, somewhere, hidden beneath the depths of her slathered-on makeup and the cloud of cigarette smoke that seemed to envelope her each day after the ring of the high school bell that reminded you that she was just a girl. Just a lost, lonely girl.

Of course, I didn’t see that side of her when I was twelve. She always seemed like an adult to me, despite the fact that she was the same age as my brother. Cooper never seemed like an adult with his burping and his Game Boy and his stash of dirty magazines he kept hidden under the loose floorboard beneath his bed. I’ll never forget the day I found those, snooping through his room in search of a stash of cash. I had wanted to buy myself an eye shadow pallet, a nice pale pink I had seen Lena wear. My mother refused to buy me makeup before high school, but I had wanted it. I wanted it badly enough to steal for it. So I crept into Cooper’s room, lifted up that creaky plank, and was slapped in the face with a pair of cartoon tits that sent me reeling back so fast I whacked the back of my head on his box spring. Then I immediately told my dad.

The Crawfish Festival had been in early May that year, the prologue of summer. It was hot, but not too hot. Hot by the majority of the United States’ fragile standards, but not Louisiana hot. That wouldn’t come until August, when the damp breath of the bogs wafted through the city streets each morning like a rain cloud searching for drought.

Also in August, three of the six girls would be gone.

I joke about Breaux Bridge—the Crawfish Capital of the World—but the Crawfish Festival really is something to brag about. My last festival had been in 1999, but it had also been my favorite. I remember wandering by myself through the fairgrounds, the sounds and smells of Louisiana permeating my skin. Swamp pop leaking from the speakers on the main stage, the scent of crawfish being prepared in every possible way: fried, boiled, bisque, boudin. I had drifted over to the crawfish race, my head snapping to the right when I noticed Cooper’s moppy brown hair peeking out from inside a crowd of other kids leaning against my father’s car. He always seemed to be surrounded by people back then—we were opposites in that way. They swarmed to him, trailing him around like a cloud of gnats on a muggy day. He never seemed to mind, though. Eventually, they just became a part of him: the crowd. Occasionally he would swat at them, annoyed. And they would obey, scatter. Find somebody else to stick to. But they never left for long; they always found their way back.

My brother seemed to sense me looking, because before long, I saw

his eyes peek above the heads of the others, zeroing in on mine. I waved, smiled meekly. I didn’t mind being alone—really, I didn’t—but I hated the way it made others see me. Cooper, especially. I watched him push his way through his friends, dismissing some scrawny kid with a wrist-flick when he tried to follow. Then he made his way over to me and slung his arm around my shoulder.

“Bet you a bag of popcorn on number seven?”

I smiled, grateful for the company—and for the way he never acknowledged that I spent the majority of my life alone.


I looked over at the race, about to begin. I remember the commissioner’s scream—Ils sont partis!—the cheering crowds, those little red mudbugs clicking their way across the target spray-painted on a ten-foot wooden board. Within seconds, I had lost and Cooper had won, so we made our way to the concession stand so he could collect his bounty.

Standing in line, I had never been happier. Those early days of summer brought so much promise, it was like the red carpet of freedom was being rolled out beneath my feet, stretching so far into the distance it felt

like it couldn’t possibly end. Cooper grabbed the bag of popcorn and pushed a kernel into his mouth, sucking off the salt, as I handed over the cash. Then we turned around, and Lena was there.

“Hey, Coop.” She smiled at him before fixing her gaze on me. She was holding a bottle of Sprite, twisting the cap on and off between her fingers. “Hey, Chloe.”

“Hey, Lena.”

My brother was a popular kid, a jock, wrestling for Breaux Bridge High School. People knew his name and it always confused me, watching him make friends as naturally as I kept to myself. He didn’t discriminate when it came to company—he’d hang out with his wrestling buddies one day, make small talk with some stoners the next. Mostly, his attention just seemed to make you feel important, like you were somehow worthy of something valuable and rare.

Lena was popular, too, but for the wrong reasons. “Y’all want a sip?”

I eyed her carefully, her flat stomach sticking out from beneath a skintight henley that looked two sizes too small, pushing her cleavage up through the buttons. I caught a glint of something sparkly on her stomach— a belly-button ring—and I immediately snapped my head back up, trying not to stare. She smiled at me, lifting the bottle to her lips. I watched a bead of liquid dribble down her chin before she wiped it with her middle finger.

“Do you like it?” She pulled her shirt up, rolled the diamond between her fingers. There was a charm dangling beneath it, some kind of bug.

“It’s a firefly,” she said, reading my mind. “They’re my favorite. It glows in the dark.”

She cupped her hands around her stomach and motioned for me to peek through; I did, my forehead pressed against the edges of her hands. Inside, the bug had turned a bright, neon green.

“I like to catch them,” she said, looking down at her stomach. “Put them in a jar.”

“I do, too,” I said, still peeking through the hole in her hands. It reminded me of the fireflies that emerged in our trees at night, the way I

would run through the darkness, swatting at them like I was swimming through stars.

“And then I take them out and squish them between my fingers. Did you know you can write your name on the sidewalk with their glow?”

I winced; I couldn’t imagine squishing a bug with my bare hands, listening to it pop. But that did seem kind of cool, getting to rub its liquid between my fingers, watching it radiate up close.

“Somebody’s staring,” she said, dropping her hands. I snapped my head up and looked in the direction of her gaze, directly at my father. He was across the crowd, staring at us. Staring at Lena, with her shirt pulled up to her bra. She smiled at him, waved with her free hand. He ducked his head down and kept walking.

“So,” she said, pushing the Sprite bottle in Cooper’s direction and wiggling it in the air. “Do you want a sip?”

He glanced over to where my dad once stood, finding a gap instead of his watchful eye, then back at the bottle, snatching it from her hand and taking a fast swig.

“I’ll take some,” I said, grabbing it from him. “I’m so thirsty.” “No, Chloe—”

But my brother’s warning came too late; the bottle was on my lips then, the liquid pouring into my mouth and down my throat. I didn’t just take a sip, I took a gulp. A gulp of what tasted like battery acid burning my esophagus the whole way down. I yanked the bottle from my mouth and heaved, the feeling of vomit rising up my throat. My cheeks inflated, and I started to gag, but instead of puking, I forced the liquid down so I could finally breathe.

“Ugh,” I choked, wiping my mouth on the back of my hand. My throat was on fire; my tongue was on fire. For a second, I started to panic that maybe I had been poisoned. “What was that?”

Lena giggled, taking the bottle from my hand and finishing it off. She drank it like water; it amazed me.

“It’s vodka, silly. You’ve never had vodka before?”

Cooper looked around, his hands shoved deep in his pockets. I couldn’t talk, so he talked for me.

“No, she’s never had vodka before. She’s twelve.” Lena shrugged, unfazed. “Gotta start somewhere.”

Cooper thrust the popcorn in my direction and I shoved a handful deep into my mouth, trying to chew away that awful taste. I felt the fire traveling from my throat down to my stomach, blazing in the pit of my belly. My head was starting to spin just slightly; it was weird, but kinda funny. I smiled.

“See, she likes it,” Lena said, looking at me. Smiling back. “That was an impressive swig. And not just for a twelve-year-old.”

She pulled her shirt down then, covering her skin, her firefly. She tossed her braids behind her shoulders and turned on her heel, a ballerina-type twirl that sent her whole body into motion. When she started to walk away, I couldn’t stop watching her, the way her hips swayed in unison with her hair, the way her legs were skinny but toned in all the right places.

“You should pick me up in that car of yours sometime,” she yelled back, raising the bottle into the air.

I was drunk for the rest of the day. Cooper seemed annoyed at first, annoyed at me. At my stupidity, my naivety. At my slurring words and random giggles and running into light poles. He had left his friends for me, and now he was stuck babysitting me—drunk me—but how was I supposed to know that was alcohol? I didn’t know alcohol came in Sprite bottles.

“You need to loosen up,” I had said, tripping over myself.

I looked up at him, registered the shocked expression on his face as he stared down at me. At first I thought he was mad; I started to regret it. But then his shoulders loosened, his hard expression melted into a smile, then a laugh. He rubbed his hand through my hair and shook his head, and my chest swelled with something that felt like pride. He bought me a crawdog after that and watched in amusement as I gobbled it down in two bites.

“This was fun,” I said as we walked back to the car together, hand-in-hand. I didn’t feel drunk anymore; I felt droopy. It was getting darker then; our parents had left hours before, leaving us with a twenty-dollar bill for dinner, a kiss on my forehead, and instructions to be home by eight. Cooper had just gotten his driver’s license and had ordered me not to talk when he saw them walking toward us, cautious of my heavy tongue and slurring

words. So I didn’t. Instead, I watched. I watched the way my mother chattered incessantly about another successful year and goodness my feet are aching and C’mon, Richard, let’s leave these kids to it. I watched the way her cheeks flushed with red and the edges of her dress rippled when the wind blew. I felt my chest swelling again, but it wasn’t pride that time. It was contentment, love. Love for my mother, my brother.

Then I glanced over to my dad and almost immediately, the swelling died down. He seemed … off. Preoccupied. Distracted, somehow, but not by anything going on around us. Distracted in his mind. I tried to get a whiff of my breath, worried that he could smell the vodka on me. I wondered if he saw Lena hand us that bottle—after all, I saw him watching. Watching her.

“I bet it was,” Cooper said, smiling down at me. “But don’t get in the habit of that, okay?”

“Habit of what?” “You know what.”

I furrowed my eyebrows. “But you did it.” “Yeah, I’m older. It’s different.”

“Lena said you gotta start somewhere.”

Cooper shook his head. “Don’t listen to her. You don’t want to be like Lena.”

But I did. I did want to be like Lena. I wanted her confidence, her radiance, her spirit. She was like that Sprite bottle; from the outside, she seemed one way, but on the inside, she was something completely different. Dangerous, like poison. But also addicting, freeing. I had had my taste and she left me wanting more. I remember getting home that night and seeing the lightning bugs in our driveway, twinkling like constellations in the sky, the way they always did. But that night, it felt different. They felt different. I remember catching one in my palm, feeling it flutter between my fingers as I brought it in, placing it delicately inside a water glass, covering the lip in plastic. Poking little air holes and watching it flicker in the dark for hours, trapped, as I lay beneath the sheets in my bedroom, breathing slowly, thinking of her.

I memorized everything about Lena that day—the way her hair got frizzy around the edges, leaving her with a kind of blonde halo when the air turned moist. The way she teased people with her wiggling bottle and wiggling hips and wiggling fingers as she waved in the direction of my dad. The way she wore her hair and her clothes and especially that little firefly dangling from her belly button, the way it glowed in the dark when she cupped her hands around her stomach and pulled me in.

And that’s why I remembered it so vividly when I saw it again, four months later, hidden in the back of my father’s closet.

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