“Shut your eyes or you’ll go blind.”
Molly gave up trying half an hour ago. They did a unit in Health about how the sun destroys your retina, but every time she lowers her eyelids she imagines a boy sneaking up and pulling down the bottom of her new bikini.
“How could you tell they were open if yours were shut?”
“You keep poking me, so I looked at you. Quit playing with yourself.”
Molly feels her whole body flush. It is a moment before she can answer. “I am not.”
“Then what the hell are you doing?”
Up to this year Lena never cursed. Once she asked Molly if she ever “touched herself down there,” but that was late at night, after their blood-mixing ceremony, when they had sworn to be sisters and to share everything, forever.
Molly wonders if she can trust this new Lena with how scared she is. She knows she’s being silly, that boys aren’t lurking in the bushes like they did in kindergarten, waiting to pull down a girl’s pants, but she used to share her silly thoughts with Lena. She wonders if this means Lena isn’t her best friend anymore, if blood sisterhood can run out. She decides not to think about it now.
“This bathing suit isn’t comfortable,” she says.
“Nobody made you buy it.”
“We always get the same suit.”
“Always.” Lena’s eyes are shut but Molly can tell she’s rolling them. “At least put your sunglasses on.”
Molly puts them on. She doesn’t want to explain how she took them off after Lucius, one of the Fairlawn cats, bounced off of her stomach chasing after a squirrel. She has played with Lucius since he was a kitten, but today she lost her breath and thought she was having a heart attack.
Lucius wasn’t trying to sneak up on Molly; he’s just naturally quiet. Maybe even if Molly was listening, she wouldn’t hear a boy approach if he didn’t want her to. And now she can’t see and she’s not allowed to touch anything.
Molly decides to concentrate on smells. Lucius scavenges for mussels down by the docks and Molly thinks she would have been able to detect his rotten-fish funk if she’d been concentrating. She tries to think what a boy would smell like. Sweat, definitely, especially sneaker sweat. Cigarettes, if it’s one of the Averys.
Here is what Molly smells: Sunblock, 45 SPF, and sweat, her own, a sour odor that’s new to her. She used to sweat all over her body, and it never smelled like anything to her until after it dried, when it reminded her of peas that have been in the fridge too long. The new fabric of her bathing suit smells like ironing and the towel of fabric softener. Just past the towel, and underneath it, grass and dirt, the burnt odor of decaying leaves. Farther away, chlorine and wet cement from the kiddie pool.
There is no grown-up pool here. The kiddie pool used to be the reflecting pool of the mansion when the Averys lived here. Lena wouldn’t come here all summer; she called it “that baby place” and insisted on going to the municipal pool to swim. She never actually swam now anyway; ever since Lena got her period she made sure everyone heard that she couldn’t go in the water. She would exchange long looks with the other girls who had started, and say, “cramps,” or “the curse,” and they would nod, members of an exclusive club.
So, all summer Lena lay around on a deck chair in the bikini that was the twin of Molly’s, bought last spring, both of them giggling in the dressing room and daring each other to wear them in front of the boys. Molly swam in last year’s tank suit even though it was hard to squeeze into. Every day she told herself that tomorrow she would be brave enough for the bikini. Then school started last week and her mother gave the old suit to Goodwill, so when Lena called this morning to say her brother would drop them off at Fairlawn after lunch, Molly either had to take the plunge or be left behind.
Smells, she tells herself. The marina: Mussels, seaweed, gasoline, salt. And the concession stand inside the old mansion. Warm and yeasty, comforting if you didn’t know it came from hot pretzels that always turned out to be stale and reheated so many times they scratched the top of your mouth. She used to order them anyway, before she and Lena started spending their money on grape Popsicles instead.
Everyone calls the pops “grape,” although they taste exactly like all other the “fruit” pops at Fairlawn - water, sugar, and some tangy chemical that is supposed to make them fruity. Or to make you think of fruit. To stand for fruit, Molly decides, the way the two circles with dots in the middle someone - some boy - drew on Molly’s locker stand for breasts, for sex.
The color of the grape pops is not the color of any fruit, either. At least not any fruit in New York. It is bright turquoise, like tropical fish, but Molly guesses nobody would order Siamese Fighting Fish pops so they call it grape. The pops weren’t really for eating, anyway. Lena and Molly used them mostly for vampire blood, which they thought was blue based on sarcastic remarks Molly’s father made about “the goddamn blueblood Averys sucking the lifeblood out of this town.”
Last Thursday, the first day of high school, as Molly followed Lena into the crowded cafeteria, she saw Philip Avery come in through the other door. She made a mental note to tell her father. He would be pleased to know that at least one Avery had dropped or been kicked out of the snotty prep school the family had attended for generations. Philip caught Molly’s eye and made his way over. She hadn’t seen him in over a year, since the last time she and Lena had run from him, laughing and shrieking, at Fairlawn.
“Hey,” he said.
Molly automatically covered her chest with her notebook and averted her eyes. She had already been boobsed twice in the hallways. Lena thinks it’s a big joke, the boys banging into her chest and saying, “excuse me!” then ramming her again. Molly started holding her books up like a shield when they changed classes. One older boy saw her and said to his friend, “Would you look at her, she thinks you want to boobs her. She thinks you want to be her boyfriend.” They had doubled over laughing.
Philip Avery didn’t try to boobs her. He made straight for Lena, who said, “Philip, hi!” The two of them went through the line together, got their lunch, and sat together without once looking at Molly. She looked around the cafeteria for a familiar face but the only kids she saw from her old school were Joey Nordstrom and Mark Lerner, who were inhaling orange juice through straws they had stuck up their noses, so she tagged after Lena and Philip like a puppy, like a pesky little sister.
Lena sits up on her towel now.
“Let’s get a snack,” she says. Molly slips into her flip-flops and reaches for her T-shirt. “We’re just going to the concession stand,” Lena says.
Molly puts the shirt on anyway and follows her past the kiddie pool and into the mansion where they used to believe, or pretend to believe, the Averys lived, hanging upside down from the attic rafters, flying out to prey on the innocent working people of the town.
The Averys really did live here, not Philip’s family, but generations before. They donated the place to the county for a tax write-off, but still think they own everything, according to Molly’s father. They control the board of Fairlawn and the school board, even though their kids are too good for public school, or were.
“How come Philip Avery goes to Central now?” she asks Lena.
“How would I know?”
For a moment Molly feels relief. Maybe she had imagined being shut out by them last week. Maybe there are no secrets. But when they enter the house, there he is, working behind the counter. He smiles and salutes.
“Ladies, what can I get you?”
“What are you doing here?” Molly blurts.
“Summer job,” he says. “I told you. Doing penance. Don’t you listen to me, bay-bee?”
Lena laughs. “Meet my friend, the space cadet.”
“I didn’t - you weren’t talking to me,” Molly says.
“She needs an engraved invitation,” Lena says.
Philip removes his paper hat and makes a deep bow. “Excuse me, your majesty. Might I address a few words to you?"
Lena giggles again. Molly turns and walks through the carved wooden door into the fading sunlight. She sits down by the kiddie pool. Three children are chasing each other, splashing and screaming with laughter. Molly watches them, thinking they are trying too hard to have fun, to pretend their lips aren’t turning blue and summer isn’t over. Next to her, a mother is trying to coax a toddler into the water. He’s not having it. He shrieks in terror and clings to her leg.
“What’s the matter with you!” the mother says. “Can’t you see this is fun?”
Molly remembers when it was fun, when she was too old to be scared and too young to feel stupid hanging out with a bunch of kids with Barney tubes, the way she feels now. She stands up and makes her way down to the marina.
Molly’s grandfather, Lou, used to take care of the Averys’ boats. Pretty much the whole town worked for the Averys back then. Lou started working with his own father, Molly’s great-grandfather, when he was fourteen, the age Molly is now. She watches the powerboats zooming through the choppy gray waves. It was all sailboats back then, and the Averys’ heavy wooden yacht that was hell to keep clean and polished. Molly tries to picture her own grandchildren coming down here. She wonders who their grandfather will be. She can’t imagine how she will navigate from here to there.
Something soft brushes against her legs. She stiffens, then looks down to see Lucius. She picks him up and cradles him against her chest. He’s skinnier than he used to be. He tolerates her hug for a moment, then whines to be let down. She watches him as he picks through the mussel shells, still agile but with stiffened paws.
“You’re an old kitty,” she tells him.
The wind rises over the sound. It is too late to be out here. She walks up to the kiddie pool, deserted now, dead leaves floating on the surface of the still water. The door to the concession stand is chained.
She goes back to the grass, where her towel lies sprawled and deserted. When Lena started her period, Molly’s blood leaked out of her body, and they will never be sisters again.
“Never,” she says out loud. She folds up her towel and prepares to find her own way home.
Susan O'Doherty is a parent, writer, and psychologist. Her work has been featured in Northwest Review, Eureka Literary Magazine, Apalachee Review, Style & Sense, and on Pacifica Radio’s Peacewatch program. She has new work accepted by Soundings East , Phoebe, and the forthcoming anthologies Familiar (The People’s Press) and It’s a Boy! (Seal Press). Her story Passing was selected as the New York contribution to Ballyhoo Stories' "50 States" project. Her novel, Brooklyn Heights, is under consideration by several major publishers.
Photo of swimming girl courtesy of Freeimages.co.uk.
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