Kickback

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The afternoon before the kickback, they were on their stomachs poolside at the Carmichaels’ drinking Nestequilas and strategizing. Liz was scrutinizing Riley’s playlist. “No one is going to dance to this emo crap,” she said, groaning as she scrolled through the list.

“What emo crap?” said Riley.

“Bright Eyes. The Cure. Fall Out Boy. We need sexy.”

Riley bristled, her hands forming into fists at her sides. When Liz spoke to her like this, she wanted to grab her by the shoulders and shake her.

“You’re not taking this seriously.” Liz sat up and stared down at Riley through mirrored aviators. “I need you to take this seriously. This is a big night for me and Frank.”

A little over a year ago, Frank had been a frail, sickly-looking drama nerd in ill-fitting polo shirts with an unrequited crush on Liz. AIDS, Liz would call him to her friends behind his back. He graduated and was forgotten, then Liz had seen him at a party, back from Tisch for the summer. He wore tight jeans and a threadbare tee with a scarf draped loosely around his neck. He had stubble. “AIDS changed,” she’d told Riley. “Do you think he still likes me?” Riley had no idea. “Just invite Frank over to use the pool,” Riley, who refused to use his nickname, had said practically a thousand times. She was leaving the Valley for NYU in the fall, and wouldn’t have minded meeting a familiar face. But no. Liz said that this would be too obvious. Plus, Frank’s parents, who lived in Woodland Hills, had a pool—why would he need to come over to swim? The kickback needed to happen; it was happening; it was happening that night.

Riley turned over on her back. The pool shimmered violently as gust of hot wind knocked over her mostly empty can of Nestea and tequila.

***

When Riley projected herself outside the situation, like her mother was always telling her to do, the kickback was an unwise decision. Riley was getting paid $90 a week to feed and clean the litterbox of Wheezy, their temperamental Siamese, for the new neighbors while they were vacationing in Costa Rica. Yes, she had pool privileges. Yes, she could have friends over. “Just no giant orgy parties,” Jake Carmichael had said in an email. It wasn’t a giant orgy party, though, it was just a bunch of people hanging out. A kickback, as Liz kept insisting. A kickback that two hundred people had been invited to, and 96 had RSVP’d.

And Liz, whom Riley had known since first grade when their families had moved in next door to each other in the gated community of Fairweather, had always been able to make people, particularly Riley, say yes to things they wouldn’t normally say yes to. Liz’s father was another victim of his daughter’s persuasive abilities: he’d agreed to let her defer her admission to Pepperdine and take a gap year, rendering her jobless for the summer until she started an internship at his entertainment law firm in September. 

Logistically, Liz had argued, a party at the Carmichaels made sense. The house was isolated, first off, since families on either side had moved out, and the Walshes, who lived across the street, were also on vacation—Liz was Facebook friends with Casey Walsh and was monitoring their trip closely. Basically all they had to worry about was Fairweather Neighborhood Safety driving by and it was doubtful they would drive up into that part of the neighborhood that late at night.

The workman returned from his lunch break and resumed power-sanding the new deck that the Carmichaels were having built, the roar eliminating any chance of conversation.

“Let’s get out of here. I cannot handle this noise.” Liz pulled on cut-offs and a Woodlake Prep Class of ’08 tee that she’d altered with scissors so that it revealed her tanned shoulder. With the glinting silver flask that she kept in her purse, she refilled both of their cans with tequila. Riley slid on her summer dress, a flouncy floral print once belonging to Liz that barely covered her swimsuit. Raising her arms, she felt the stiff heat on her shoulders and legs that would later bloom in to a sunburn. She followed Liz down the driveway.

The girls wandered through the Fairweather streets. It was hot, the kind of hot you felt through your flip-flops. The kind of hot that was meant for whipping down the freeway to the beach in the AC, which was what she would have been doing last summer, with Erin and Samantha. Liz was definitely not her first choice of spend-your-last-summer-before-college-with friend. They had drifted apart in high school. Liz started hanging out with the super-rich cokehead girls until all but Liz headed to rehab. They’d been in Drama together the second semester of senior year and both been in Chicago—Riley was a lighting tech and Liz played one of the Merry Murderesses (the “Pop” one, who also happened to be named Liz).

But Riley had no car, Erin and Samantha had jobs and boyfriends this summer and were really good at making excuses not to drive out to Fairweather to pick her up, and Liz had totaled her dad’s Infiniti back in April and had lost summer car privileges. So here they were, walking, sipping from their cans.

Green, green, brown, brown, green. The browns were the lawns of the abandoned houses. More and more families were leaving. Riley’s own home was filled with boxes. They would be moving next month to a condo in Tarzana where she’d have to share a room with her sister for a month before leaving for NYU at the end of August.

Liz lobbed her can over the decrepit wood fence of what used to be Danny Judson’s house. Then she paused. Riley already knew what Liz was going to say before she said it.

“Let’s check out Danny’s,” she whispered, grabbing Riley by the elbow.

“We can’t,” said Riley.

“Come on,” Liz said, her nails grabbing digging into Riley’s flesh, “You’re leaving in a month. When else are you going to be able to do this?”

Riley flinched and pulled her arm away. “It’s like a thousand degrees out and I have to feed Wheezy.”

“This is your last chance to see it,” said Liz. “By the time you get back for Thanksgiving Break, it could be leveled. You really never know.” Her face became stoic.

Riley stared at her own reflection in Liz’s glasses. She was not even sure they’d let her in to Fairweather after she and her family moved. Her own neighborhood. “Fine.”

With the exception of the dandelion and foxtail poking through dead leaves, Bea Judson’s old garden was a brown tangle of skeletal bushes and shriveled succulents. She would often be out front gardening in her giant straw sunhat—one of the few residents of Fairweather who opted to tend her own garden rather than hire landscapers—and wave to Riley as she walked by. She hoped Bea would never see her former front yard.

Riley helped Liz over the fence and then scrambled over herself, scraping her knee on the rough wood. The Judson backyard, once a lush green with vines and bushes that they used to play in as kids, was tan and dead-looking like the front, save for the flashy pink bougainvillea that had taken over part of the fence. The empty pool was filled with dried leaves and the carcass of a sparrow. A torn lawn chair sagged on the termite-eaten deck.

“Remember Danny Judson’s party?” Liz asked, twisting a cluster of bougainvillea blossoms from the vine and sticking them behind her ear.

A breeze swept the dust and leaves into tiny tornadoes. “I think, maybe.” Riley nudged a protruding rock from the dry dirt. The party had been in seventh grade. She let her mind wander back to the truth-or-dare circle in the back yard, Danny Judson’s chapped lips on her own. She told him he had bad breath, and he pulled a tin of Altoids out from his pocket, put a handful into his mouth, swished them around, and spit them out. He breathed into her face and asked if it was better.

“Oh man. That was the time Danny and I read your diary. So fucked up.”

Riley took a final sip of her Nestequila, now more tequila than Nestea, before throwing the can into the pool, where it clattered in the debris. Another gust of hot air tinkled distant wind chimes and rustled the sparrow’s feathers. “Yeah,” she said.

Liz continued, staring into the empty pool. “But you didn’t do anything. You just grabbed it away. I swear I thought you were going to sock me.”

That evening still made Riley wince. It was true. She hadn’t done anything. She’d been on her way back from the bathroom and heard voices from Danny’s room. Hoping to catch someone making out and report it back to the group, she opened the door. Liz and Danny were on the floor flipping through the pages. She’d snatched the cloth-bound notebook, a Christmas gift from her father which she brought with her everywhere, out of Liz’s hands, then told Danny’s mom she felt sick and asked if it was ok to walk home. In an act of kindness that humiliated Riley, Bea Judson had given her a ride for the six long blocks. That night Riley had thought of all the ways she could have gotten revenge on Liz, all the things she could have said.

Instead, she’d waited until her mother went to sleep, taken the emergency matches from the drawer in the kitchen, and set her diary aflame on the barbecue grill in the backyard. Sobbing over the open flame, she’d vowed never to speak to Liz again. Then Monday rolled around and Liz passed her a note in homeroom saying that Danny had a HUGE crush on her. Riley had written her back.

***

“I think the reason we’ve stayed friends so long is because I would always be such an asshole to you and you just pretended like nothing happened,” said Liz, pulling the bougainvillea blossom from behind her ear and tossing it into the dried-out pool.

Riley could feel Liz’s eyes move to her, gauging her response, like this was an improv exercise. Always say “yes, and,” Mrs. McKnight, the drama teacher, had told them. Yes, and, yes, and, yes, and. Riley reached down to pick up the rock, which was now dislodged from the dirt. She held the black stone, hot from the sun, in her hand. It was smooth, not native to the landscape, likely from the gardening department of Home Depot. She’d been pitcher on the softball team in middle school. Across the pool and the concrete patio stood Danny’s sliding glass door. It needed to shatter. But she tossed the black rock into the pool, next to the Nestea can and Liz’s pink blossom and the sparrow carcass.

“Okay, I really have to feed the cat now.”

“No way. We’re going in.”

What was the worst that could happen? An arrest? Would that jeopardize her NYU admission? Riley tried to remember the conditions, but couldn’t. The tequila was making her mind fuzzy.

“Liz…” she said. But Liz was already scouting the perimeter of the house.

“Look for an open window,” she shouted.

The dry weeds scraped Riley’s sunburned shins as she walked through the hot breeze to the side of the house, peering through the dusty windows. She saw Danny’s old room and felt herself begin to choke up—the slats of sunlight on the floor, the blank walls. What was a house without people? Without the peeling paint on the windowsill of your room that you distractedly chipped away at while on the phone with your friends? The stucco ceiling that rippled with shapes and figures like an ocean above your bed as you drifted to sleep? The secret place on the wall behind your bedframe where you’d written FUCK YOU in sharpie after your mother screamed at you for yelling at your sister? The smell of pancakes on hungry Sunday mornings? Without all this a house was just a container—walls, floorboards, windowsills, doorways. Riley began to weep, snot running down her face. She wiped it off.

“Riley?” she heard Liz say behind her, “are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” she said, hoping her sunglasses would conceal her tears.

“Did you find one?”

“What?” said Riley.

“An open window.”

“No,” she said.

“Me neither. But it looks boring inside anyway.”

***

Riley saw the neighborhood safety SUV driving up the block moments after she lofted herself over the Judsons’ fence and onto the sidewalk. It slowed to a stop.

“Fuck,” muttered Liz.

“Don’t you ladies have something better to do besides break into abandoned houses?” Raul called through the window.

“Namaste, Raul,” said Liz, her voice turning to syrup. Raul was young, newish, ex-military. Liz had seen him leaving a yoga class at the studio by the Walgreen’s a few months ago and had not shut up about it since. He squinted at her from under his ADT branded baseball cap.

“Elizabeth. Riley. You are both too old to be pulling this crap.”

“Sorry,” was all Riley could muster. She felt nauseous, dizzy. Liz elbowed her.

“Maybe I should give your parents a call.”

“We’re looking for the Carmichaels’ cat,” lied Liz. “Have you seen it? Siamese?”

Raul let out a sigh, and adjusted his cap. “No.”

Riley stared at his toned arm, where curls of inked script looped out from under the sleeve of his company-issued t-shirt. 

“Well, can you call us if you do? Riley here is going to be in deep shit if she loses the cat. Considering she’s cat-sitting for them and all.”

“Next time you need to get into one of the empty houses, you call me, okay?”

“Sure,” said Liz. “We’ll totally call. Stay cool, Raul.”

Raul rolled up his window, smirking, and drove away.

“I’d like to see him in downward dog,” said Liz.

“That gross. He’s like 30.”

“Who cares.”

***

When they returned to the Carmichaels’ the workman was gone and the house blissfully quiet and cool. Liz and Riley walked through the entryway into the kitchen.

“Ew!” Liz called out.

A stream of black ants trickled from the sliding glass door to the cat food and water bowl by the fridge.

What was it her mother had said about ants? Were you supposed to spray them with Windex, or did that just repel them and make them change their route? Liz was already looking it up on her phone.

“It says you’re supposed to mix together sugar water and baking soda into a paste and put it in in the lid of a jar and…oh this is gross.”

“What?”

“They’ll eat it and explode.”

After digging through the drawers and cabinets of the kitchen, the girls found baking soda and a bag of sugar. Liz mixed in in a glass and dumped it on the floor in the path of the ants. Most of the trail scattered over the tiles. Some investigated.

“That’s right, guys,” said Liz, “eat it up.”

 “So messed up,” said Riley.

“It’s the circle of life, or whatever,” Liz said, opening the fridge.

She sniffed a milk container and scrunched up her nose. She took out a bag of cold cuts and shoved one into her mouth.

“That stuff is so bad for you,” said Riley. Her mother was constantly preaching the dangers of processed meat.

“I haven’t eaten all day,” said Liz, “I’m allowed.”

Riley rinsed out the cat bowls and refilled them as Liz watched her, sipping from a tequila-less can of Nestea.

“They have so much freaking stuff and they don’t even have kids,” said Liz.

“When you don’t have kids you can afford more stuff.” Another thing her mother was always saying. Like she and her sister were nothing but numbers on a bank statement.

“That’s why,” said Liz, hefting herself onto the kitchen counter, “I’m never having kids. Who wants to bring up babies in this shit show?”

 “Use protection tonight,” said Riley. She left Liz and walked to the bathroom where the litter box was kept. 

After emptying the dirty litter into the trashcans under the deck, Riley surveyed the backyard. It was what she imagined a backyard looked like when she thought of a backyard. Actual living grass. Weathered clay pots overflowing with succulents. A leafless blue pool. Not her family’s sad little patch of dying sod with a defunct vegetable garden. Somewhere, something shattered, someone yelped.

***

Liz was in the living room, chunks of porcelain at her feet.

“Oops,” she said, trying to retain a giggle.

“What was it?” snapped Riley.

“One of those,” she said, gesturing to the mantle.

The mantle was cluttered with an assortment of bric-a-brac. A taxidermied alligator head. Shot glasses from various locales. Eighties action-figures. A model airplane. Photos of Jake and Jennifer grinning atop dromedaries, mountaintops, waterfalls. In one corner was a small cluster of porcelain figurines, each a different breed of cat.

“The Siamese,” Liz said. Do you think they’ll notice?”

“If they do, you’re paying for it,” said Riley. “How many people RSVP’d for tonight?”

The two of them plopped down on the sofa, ignoring the broken pieces.

Liz checked her phone. “We’re at one hundred and two.”

“But only half will show, right?”

Liz shrugged.

“I’ll get in so much trouble if they find out we threw a party.”

“How many times do I need to tell you that it’s not a party,” said Liz, typing something on her phone, “it’s a kickback. There’s a difference. Kickbacks are smaller.”

“I know,” said Riley.

“Then just chill, girl!”

Wheezy came into the room, jumped up on the sofa, and started purring.

“Hello!” Liz squealed. She tried to pull the cat onto her lap but it hissed and clawed at her before leaping off the couch and out of the living room. Liz put her hand to her wrist.

“Asshole!” she said, looking at Riley. “Can you believe that?”

Riley bit her tongue to keep from laughing. I like you, Wheezy, she thought. “You need to give it time to get to know you.”

Liz held out her wrist, where tiny beads of red were glistening. “I look like a fucking cutter. Frank is going to think I’m a cutter. I need some medicine.” She reached into her bag and pulled out a lighter, a glass pipe, and a bag of weed. She packed it.

“Greens?” she offered the pipe to Riley, who lit it, inhaled, and handed it back to Liz.

 Liz took a hit and collapsed on the couch. “Can I go over my game plan with you?”

“Sure.”

The one, if not the only subject on which Liz deferred to Riley was sex, because, according to what Riley had told Liz, Riley was not a virgin.

It was unlike Riley to lie, but when Liz had asked her about her paltry hookup history, it seemed like the right thing to do if she didn’t want to get teased mercilessly. So she’d told her about Vlad.

Vlad had been two years ahead of them at Woodlake Prep. He was tall, with long black curls that he was constantly sweeping out of his face. He went to college at UC Santa Barbara. Riley had chatted with him briefly at a party in Venice last winter break. They’d talked about bands, and told her how easy it was to have sex in college. That Riley shouldn’t worry. Then he opened up to her about his parents. His father was a drunk. His tyrant of a mother was a classically-trained pianist from Russia, and had forced him to take piano lessons until the age of eighteen. Now he played keyboard in an indie rock band. Riley had leaned in and kissed him, just like that. She’d been surprised at how easy it was. But then Vlad had gone to get a drink and disappeared. She hadn’t heard from him since.

But that wasn’t what she told Liz. Instead, she’d told her that he brought her into the master bedroom of the Venice house and they made out—he was a really good kisser. He’d told her, in Russian, that she was beautiful. He went down on her and she came and then he put on a condom and got on top of her and they’d done it and it only hurt a little bit. She didn’t bleed or anything. They cuddled and fell asleep and went to IHOP the next day. He’d gone back up to UCSB. He wrote her emails. Riley found herself fantasizing about him from time to time.

The problem was that Liz had invited him, and he had RSVP’d as attending. Riley’s only hope was that Liz would be too wrapped up in her own loss-of-virginity scheme to figure out that Riley and Vlad didn’t know each other as well as Riley claimed they did.

Liz began her game plan.

“So,” she said, “I’m going to wear the black pushup bra with the pink bows and the black lace see through panties, because thongs are gross. And I’m just going to wear skinny jeans and a tank top so that I don’t look desperate. But I’ll put my hair up and do my eyes all smoky.”

“Great,” said Riley, “hot.”

“Then I’ll start talking to him about NYU. I’ll tell him you’re going there, and ask if he has any pointers to pass along.”

Liz kept talking. Riley took another hit and projected herself into the future. Tomorrow, the kickback would be over and Liz would no longer be a virgin. In three weeks Riley would be living in Tarzana. In two months she’d be living in a dorm in New York City, on East 12th Street by Union Square. She’d get around with a Metrocard. She’d tell uptown from downtown by looking for the Empire State Building. Her mouth began to go dry and her heart beat faster. She realized that she’d been scratching at the wale of the corduroy sofa arm and had created a tiny tear. She wedged her nail in deeper, into the batting, as Liz kept going on about how they would dance, what they would do. The taxidermied alligator’s eye gleamed at her. Liz would not shut up.

“How does that sound?” said Liz.

Riley walked to the mantle and inspected the alligator head. “You’re right,” she said, “how can people just have all this crap?”

“I don’t know. It’s their stuff.”

“Like, why do you need this alligator head?” Liz looked puzzled, unsure whether or not she was being tricked.

“It’s their house.”

“But I mean why?”

“I don’t know!” said Liz. “Maybe it’s a souvenir from a trip or something.”

Liz was right — why did she care so much? Why was she about to cry?

She set the alligator head down next to the other artifacts on the mantle. The room was filled with the yellow light of magic hour, Riley’s favorite time to get high. She sat back down on the sofa, next to her tiny rip. The wind roared again, swaying the Japanese maple outside the window. “We should go to my place and start getting ready,” she said.

***

Devin Park and his skater friends were the first to show up, which was good, because Liz and Riley had given Devin $100 for his older brother to buy beer and liquor for the kickback. They shared a bowl with the girls out by the pool. Riley put on the playlist she’d created, which had gone unchanged by Liz. She sat on the couch, checking her phone, as Liz ranted to Devin and his friends about how fucked up it was that the Carmichaels were building a new deck when everyone else in Fairweather was practically broke. Then came Samantha and Erin, who hugged Riley before disappearing to smoke cigarettes by the pool. Then the rocker kids showed up and promptly unplugged her iPod, replacing it with their own un-danceable music. Riley pretended not to notice. She walked from room to room, trying to look busy, not knowing what to say to anyone, belly wrecked with nerves. Three girls in matching blue wigs walked in with another rack of beer, which everyone started popping open. Samantha finally broke away from Erin to talk to Riley, and shared some of her Bacardi. Riley drank more beer, shoved more chips into her mouth, the salt mingling with the bitterness of the beer on her tongue. She smoked cigarettes with Samantha and Erin on the deck. They ashed into an empty beer bottle and laughed about last summer, Erin talked about how she was going to give the long-distance relationship thing a shot with her boyfriend when she went off to college. Samantha said that she and her own boyfriend were going to have to break up at the end of the summer, because there was no way she was abstaining from hot college guys for him. Their conversation lulled as they watched Liz, in a circle of boys adjacent to them, stick her entire fist in her mouth. The boys hooted and cheered. Liz took a swig from one of their flasks, wiping her hand on her jeans.

“How can you stand her?” hissed Samantha.

“Honestly, that’s why I’ve been staying away all summer,” said Erin, “no offense. She’s way intense.”

“Yeah,” said Riley, “but, you know, we go way back.”

Erin and Samantha nodded solemnly in unison.

The wind kept knocking over the ash bottle, so Samantha threw it into the pool. Riley watched it bob and sink to the bottom, trying not to think about cleanup.

Back inside, people were grinding to some rap song Riley had never heard. Somehow an hour had disappeared. Danny and his public school friends were squished into the sofa, passing a blunt. Riley swooped in and took a hit, the stoners nodded at her, grinning stupidly. She was about to tell Danny about sneaking into his house when she felt a hand on her shoulder and turned around. It was Frank.

“Hey.” He was wearing black-framed glasses and had the beginnings of a moustache on his upper lip. She offered him the blunt, but he declined.

“Have you seen Liz?” shouted Riley, over the music.

“What?”

“Liz. She’s looking for you.”

“Let’s go somewhere quieter where I can hear you talk,” he shouted back.

Riley picked up her beer bottle and followed him out to the deck, where they stood and watched a couple ferociously make out on the grass by the pool.

“I hear you’re going to NYU,” said Frank.

“Yeah.” Riley picked at the label of her beer.

“You’ll like it. New York is a million times better than this shithole.”

Riley looked over her shoulder. Sure, she was bored in Fairweather, but she’d never thought of it as a shithole.

“So does Liz know you’re here?” She tried not to stare at Frank’s moustache. 

Frank lit a cigarette. “I’m not here to see Liz. I texted her saying I couldn’t come, actually. But then a buddy of mine told me I should check out the scene.”

“Oh. Well…” she trailed off, unsure of how to respond to his confession.

“She was a total bitch to me in Drama, you know.”

“I know,” said Riley. She’s a bitch to everyone, she wanted to say.

“She’s just another spoiled brat like most of the Woodlake girls.” He exhaled dramatically, emitting smoke from the side of his mouth to avoid blowing it in Riley’s face. When she was a junior, he’d smoked fake cigarettes on stage as Tony in a production of West Side Story. She’d followed him with her spotlight as he spoke his monologue in an Italian mobster accent. He was always screwing up his blocking, causing her to miss her cues.

“Why do you even hang out with her anyway? I thought you of all people would know better.”

Riley shrugged, peeled off the beer label entirely and dropped it on the deck.

“Hey,” He grabbed her hand and inspected her nails, which Liz had painted fuchsia with black flowers a few hours ago. “Nice mani.” He ran a finger up her arm, staring into her eyes. She looked down at her sandals and held her breath. She knew that if she looked up they would kiss and that would be that. She pulled her arm away.

“Sorry.”

“You’ll do just fine in New York,” he said. Then he laughed, chugged the rest of his cup, and tossed it over the deck railing. “Have fun with your psycho bitch friend. I’m out of here. This scene is lame.” He stubbed out his cigarette on the unfinished pine.

Riley watched him through the glass door as he wound his way around dancing couples to the front door. She should have kissed him. Should have done something. She walked into the kitchen where she stood, taking in the boom and sweat of the kickback, now its own animal. The baking soda and sugar mixture had been tracked all over the kitchen tiles.

She stumbled up the stairs to the Carmichaels’ bedroom. She at least needed to tell Liz what had happened. To see the look on her face.

It was quieter up there, away from the revelers. She knocked gently on the door, then opened it. Liz was on the bed, her back to her. She looked frail, vulnerable.

“He’s not coming,” said Liz.

Riley sat down next to her.

The eye makeup that Liz had labored over for three quarters of an hour was smeared in smoky streaks down her face.

“You’re so lucky you have Vlad.” She leaned her head on Riley’s shoulder. Her hair smelled like the almond oil they’d conditioned with before the party.

Riley squeezed Liz’s arm and turned to face her. “Frank was here.”

Her heart beat faster and she suppressed a smile as Liz’s makeup-stained face twisted into a horrified expression.

“What?”

“He stopped by. He was being a total dick. He’s gone now, though.” Riley was impressed by her own nonchalance.

Liz snatched her phone, scrolling through her messages.

“He lied to you,” Riley said in a soft whisper. “He hit on me, sort of.”

“He what?” Liz snapped her head around and looked at Riley, cheeks pink, nostrils flaring. Normally this behavior would have made Riley cower, but not tonight. Tonight was Riley’s night.

“He basically tried to kiss me. I’m sorry.” But Riley wasn’t. She wished she’d done more with Frank—second base, third base. She imagined Liz walking in on the two of them and screaming. The thought made her quiver with excitement.

“Oh!” Liz cried. Riley braced herself for a slap, a punch, a scream, but instead Liz threw herself face first onto the bed, heaving with sobs. Riley rubbed her back in small circles. Finally, Liz sat up, shaky and red-faced.

“Fuck it. Fuck him. Or, not. I’m not going to fuck him. I’ll never fuck anyone. No one will ever fuck me,” Liz sniffled and began to giggle at her own joke. “We should go downstairs and have shots or something, since I’m going to be a virgin for the rest of my life.”

“That’s not true,” Riley cooed. “You’ll find someone, eventually.”

“Thanks, Ri.” Liz wiped black streaks from her face with her hand. “God this bedroom is fucking ugly.” She tossed a frilled throw pillow at the window. Riley thought about picking it up but left it where it was. Liz was right. The bedroom was ugly, tidily devoid of personality. It looked like the bedrooms in the Pottery Barn catalogs her mother never read and Riley used for collages. She imagined slicing out objects from the Carmichaels’ house with her Exacto knife, taking them out of context. The corduroy sofa would get a human arm. The throw pillow would replace a child’s torso.

The living room smelled of pot, cigarettes, and vomit. The bassline from the music vibrated in the back of her throat. The hardcore punks in their creepers, all of whom Riley was irrationally intimidated by, had materialized, and were congregated in a corner, sharing god-knows-what substance. Riley felt a weightlessness, like she could float right down those stairs and hover above the dancers, inhaling the fumes of the party like a Delphic oracle. Then the lights went out with a snap and all anyone could hear was the whooshing of the wind.

The crowd’s faces were illuminated by the lights of cellphones. It was the wind, they were saying, that had knocked out a power line. Lights out in the whole neighborhood. Then they began to cheer, and Riley began to cheer with them. She jumped and swayed with the crowd, letting out wild yelps. There was shattering. The mantle was empty; Riley had emptied the mantle. Swept her arm across it, feeling the cold pokes of the ridiculous figurines against her bare wrist for a moment before they crashed to the bricks around the fireplace. The girl who’d been checking her phone next to her stopped and gasped. Riley didn’t fucking care, she decided, panting through her grimace. It was a shithole, all of it, a shithole with rent-a-cops, a shithole the Carmichaels didn’t deserve, a shithole she was leaving soon. All of a sudden Liz was there, laughing with her in the flashlights of the phones, her tongue black-purple from wine. She grabbed her by the wrist and the two of them started dancing together on the coffee table. Some of Danny’s friends jumped up and tried to grind on them, but the coffee table gave way with a crack, and everyone tumbled over, giggling and howling.

There were splashes outside and through the sliding glass door she saw shadows in in the pool. She was being shoved, then, and a sharp elbow jutted into her sternum. Two guys were wrestling on the floor. More and more joined, kicking and punching, the crowd shouting. Riley could see the whites of teeth and T-shirts, but not much else. 

She left the wrestlers and shoved her way into the kitchen, where a rail-thin boy with a pompadour was puking into the sink. He looked up, muttered “sorry,” and went back to heaving. She grabbed a can of beer from the fridge and slipped upstairs. The sounds of creaking bedsprings and giggling were coming from the master bedroom. She opened the door and saw a girl and a boy she did not know jumping on the bed, laughing, clutching their phones in flashlight mode.

The only thing Riley could do was get on there with them, so they jumped and jumped until a leg of the frame broke and the boy fell off, his entire body shaking with laughter. She and the girl kept jumping until all four legs were broken. The boy picked up a tube of lipstick from Jennifer Carmichael’s vanity and scrawled something on it before running away. She stopped to read it before following him:

FUCK YOU

In Jake Carmichael’s office across the hall the three of them began tearing books off the shelves, watching them flutter to the floor like dying birds. They flipped the desk over and began kicking it. Riley beat it with a lampstand. A locked cabinet swung open, revealing a stack of bills. The girl picked them up and, with a wink at Riley, pulled out a lighter and began lighting each one on fire. “Shit,” said the boy. He grinned at Riley and she realized that she did know him: Vlad. He’d cut his hair. She was about to say something but stopped when she saw the look of fascination on his face as he watched the money-burning girl. She left them there. There were moans of pleasure coming from the bedroom now, and with the door half open Riley saw the sheen of limbs in the darkness.

Downstairs, the punks were taking turns trying to kick holes in the drywall. More people kept pouring in. Liz was in the kitchen holding a bottle of wine, which she passed to Riley. Riley swallowed for a long time, then went to the cabinet and started smashing glasses on the floor and singing the chorus to “Cell Block Tango” at the top of her lungs. Liz joined her, pirouetting around the kitchen. He had it coming SMASH, He had it coming SMASH… With all the glasses shattered, the two girls went out onto the deck, which still smelled like fresh pine even though it was littered with cigarette butts.

They used the ladder that the workmen had left behind to climb onto the roof, where they sat, panting and cackling like witches. Riley ran a hand through Liz’s beer-slick hair, shaking out glass and drywall. “Ohmygod,” Liz kept saying. “Ohmygod.”

 The smoky wind licked at their faces. The burns and scrapes she’d incurred throughout the day began to nag her now—her sunburned legs and shoulders, her bruised tailbone, her scabbing knee. Underneath her were the rhythmic thuds of the punks and their kicks, a heartbeat. “Woah,” said Liz, pointing to the line where the blackout ended and the golden lights began again. The electricity was out in half the valley—a dark ocean below them. It was what Riley imagined the land must have looked like long ago back when it was all chaparral and orange groves.

The headlights of a neighborhood safety SUV illuminated the house. It parked, and Riley could just make out Raul’s outline. He was holding a squirming furry blob in his arms: Wheezy. He rang the doorbell once, twice. “Fuck,” muttered Liz, looking at Riley, “what do we do?”

Riley projected herself outside the situation.

“Nothing.” She lay back on the roof and stared into the hazy black sky. 

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Lena Valencia
Lena Valencia's writing has been published in Joyland, The Masters Review, 7x7 LA, Storychord, and elsewhere. She teaches at Catapult and the Sackett Street Writers' Workshop, and for three years hosted and curated the HiFi Reading Series in Manhattan. She is the managing editor of the literary magazine One Story, and received her MFA in Fiction from The New School.

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