I would run to Alice Milton’s house after school every day—my sneakers skidding down the gravelly hill, my lungs filling with the odor of petrol as I’d turn past the old gas station, my mouth twitching with joy, knowing I was almost there. Her little white house with the peeling green trim would come into view, casting a silky mist of shadows across pavement before me.
Zack would never give me a ride. No matter how many times Mom told him it would “only take a minute”. He would brush her off with a drag of his cigarette, bits of ash sprinkling his grizzled chin. Each time, I would find myself swearing bitterly that I’d never grow a beard. Perhaps my face would look as ugly and cruel.
I hated his smelly car anyway. The sticky sent of Aurora’s perfume had sunk into the foam bulging out of the cheap leather seats, and I could never decide if the vanilla stench made me feel like throwing up or putting my fist through the glass. Running, I could smell nothing but my own sweat and the asphalt beneath my feet. As I got closer to that little white house, the whole-wide-world would buzz in my chest like a sun kissed balloon—ready to burst in the balmy air.
Today, Alice was waiting by the side of the pool. Well, it wasn’t really a pool. Not like the spoiled kids had across town. That was just what we liked to call the little moss covered pond in her backyard. Alice sat barefoot, tossing pebbles she had gathered in a withered straw sunhat into the muddy green water.
“It won’t fit your head now,” I said collapsing on the grass next to her. She smiled in reply, wiping mud on the corner of her dress. Her mother made her lots of frilly sundresses with wavy floral patterns that rippled along her thin little body. Mom had called Mrs. Milton “a stay at home mom” the way girls at school called each other fat.
“Like you.” I had said to her. I remember the octave of my voice rising uncomfortably.
“No. Not like me.” She had mumbled as though I couldn’t hear, chopping an onion for diner, her heavy strokes making grooves on the damp wooden surface.
The dress Alice wore today was purple with twirling magenta roses on it, but one of the roses was now smudged with drying mud. I picked away at it absent-mindedly.
“I thought I saw an orange fish earlier,” she said, breath wheezing through the gap in her teeth, “but Dad said it was just a piece of trash.”
I peered into the water, looking past the patches of dark algae that divided the surface like a green and brown chessboard.
“Of course, the water’s dead.”
She twisted my pinky finger, giggling with disdain.
“Stop. It is not.”
I twisted her wrist in response and she gave a cry and started tickling my ribs with her free hand. I shrieked with painful laughter and pushed her off.
Water sprinkled my face.
I opened my eyes to see Alice had become a mess of purple fabric and yellow hair flailing in the muddy pool. I laughed even harder.
“Sorry,” I said, my chest vibrating with the word. She continued to splash about in the water and the longer she did, the more my laughter faded.
And then she did. Her body went limp in the water, the algae making an outline around her.
Every nerve in my body twitched with fear. I dove head first into the pool, my jeans and sweater weighing me down with soppy moisture. I pulled her slime-covered body unto the grass. She flopped like a wet rag doll, bloated and listless. I cleared her hair away from her face. Her lips were blue, as if she’d eaten a fruit pop, but all the blood had drained from her russet skin.
I was the fastest kid in school. All I did was run. Yet it seemed an eternity had passed as I ran from the pool’s edge to the back door of the house, screaming for her mother. No matter how hot my legs pumped with effort, the little screen door, with its peeling green paint and rusty gold handle only seemed to inch closer.
My hands rammed against the screen, and I could feel a scream vibrate through my throat, though I had no idea if it made words. The taunting buzz of the television rang in my ears like a siren, but no one but me could hear it. The room beyond the screen was empty. Suddenly, I remembered seeing no car in the driveway. We were alone.
I ran back, my wet feet slipping across the grass. I fell on her stomach and pressed my mouth to hers. She tasted of bubblegum flavored toothpaste. The scent permeated the linens in her bedroom. I always teased her for sleeping with her mouth open and letting tiny puddles of drool stain the sheets.
“Let’s run away.” I had said once across her pillow, that same smell filling my lungs.
“Why?” She had asked, her soft voice like brass wind chimes in the autumn air.
“Cause I like the woods better than inside.”
“Will we live in the woods?”
“Well, yeah.” My face had gone pink. I hadn’t really thought of anywhere else. The world beyond the trees that smothered the edge of town was nothing more than a shapeless blur to me.
“What about the circus?”
“I can’t do tricks or anything—and camels spit.” I added, so she would think I had truly analyzed the prospect.
“I think my Dad would be mad.”
“Mine wouldn’t. If he can leave, so can I.”
She had turned to look out her bedroom window. The leaves had been dyed a thousand shades of red and gold in the shimmering autumn sunlight. I watched it dance in her eyes, as she imagined our lives beyond the trees.
“Alright. I’ll go if I can be the fairy queen.”
“There are no fairies.”
“You don’t know that. They could be invisible—like ghosts.”
“There are no ghosts.”
“Maybe they are friends in the forest,” she continued, ignoring me. “Perhaps there is a ghost king and fairy queen, Peter!” She added excitedly.
No one said my name like Alice. Other people called me Pete to make me feel squat, and stupid. But Peter was a name like a knight or an astronaut. Pete was some jerk that I didn’t even like, but Peter could do anything.
“Do you think they are friends?” She persisted, coming to lie back down across from me.
“Maybe…” I had lied.
I watched my tears fall onto her pale face, as I frantically beat her chest, so fragile I feared I might break it. Each time I lifted my head up to breathe, I caught sight of my face, distorted in the muddy pool. There was Peter. He was with Alice in the pool. I should not have lied. She was going to live with the fairies and the ghosts, leaving me behind…just Pete.
Still, I pounded her chest.
I kept thinking of Alice’s room upstairs in the house. How it must have looked at that moment. The cold light pouring in across her bed, sunken in the shape of her body…
My fists beat against her chest with new fever. Something inside of me would not stop. A flame that I always had flickered somewhere in the folds of my mind, the grooves of my joints ignited, the pockets of my flesh ignited. They could not have her!
Suddenly my mouth was filled with a gush of saliva, algae, and mud, as a cough wisped through her teeth. I let the warm liquid drip down my face as I watched her eyes flutter open. She blinked up at me through my own tears.
“Peter?” She gurgled, bringing her finger up to brush the slime across my chin. “You have a beard.”