Jess bets she can land a front flip off the Rite-Aid roof. She shimmies up a gutter and stands tall at the edge. We all stop whatever we’re doing and watch. She takes a running start, manages half a spin in the air before hitting the parking lot asphalt face-first. Her body crumples, folds, legs bending like a scorpion tail towards the back of her head. She bounces slightly as her limbs spring into place and she lands on her back near the cluster of us, looking up at the dusk sky. We laugh. She sits, brushes small rocks from her elbows. There’s a new hole in the side of her shirt, and she sticks a thumb through it. “Shit,” she says. “My mom just bought this.” She hops to her feet, unharmed, and climbs back up.
As Jess keeps trying, landing horribly, and rising unscathed, the rest of us carry on. Marnie lights M-80s with a Zippo and lets them go off in her hand, wiping black powder onto her jean shorts. We take turns playing the knife game, the blade bouncing off our skin whenever we miss. We’d play Russian roulette if we could get our hands on a gun.
The group of us realized it was our summer when Tanisha got hit by a semi on Route 9. Not even a week after finishing eighth grade and already we were restless, irritable, sweating strangely. We rode our bikes to the quarry every day, lying around on large smooth rocks in last summer’s swimsuits, shocked at how quickly our bodies change. On the way back one evening, Tanisha took the last turn into town too sharply and skidded under a downshifting truck. Its tires turned her bike into a twisted knot of pipe, but Tanisha crawled out from beneath and stood looking herself over, smiling. We scattered and rode away, Tanisha sitting triumphant on Jess’ handlebars, laughing her ass off.
That night we started small. Shoved needles then knives into each others arms and guts, watched them bend against our skin. We ran face-first into brick walls, filled bathtubs and held each other under. Threw ourselves down staircases. Not a scratch.
August, now, and boredom has set in again. Each day we loiter around the main intersection uptown. Traffic slows as it passes, the drivers eyeing us nervously, knowing we’re prone to running out in front of moving cars when we get antsy. Michelle’s mom works at the insurance agency on Main Street and says our group is a menace, the worst in years. The men who work at the auto body shop appreciate the work we’ve made for them, whistle as we bike past, smiling and staring.
Our followers keep their distance. Young boys, gathered on the other side of the parking lot, watching us. They show up the same time we do, whispering amongst themselves. Once in a while one of them shouts something at us or makes his way over to our group, the others making encouraging, animal sounds. We pick up handfuls of rocks and rain down fury, laughing, chasing them off. We’re proud of the bruises we’ve bloomed on their skin. If they know our names, they’ve never used them. We’ve heard you don’t know when your summer’s ended until you try something one day and it hurts again. You bite the inside of your cheek and taste blood, or scrape a knee, or dive into the dark quarry water and don’t come back up.
Across the street, in the Burger King parking lot, the high school girls sit on the hoods of cars, shaking their heads at us. Cigarettes pinched between the fingers they’ve still got left. Limping in and out the door with refills of soda. Boyfriends run fingers along places on the girls’ bodies where things didn’t heal right.
Jess still can’t land on her feet. Marnie lights an M-80, but it’s a dud. She throws it in the direction of the boys, who scatter, afraid of an explosion. The air cools; streetlights hum alive. The clock in front of the bank says the sun’s setting a few minutes earlier today. Soon we’ll each pedal home for dinner. We’ll sit at tables with our mothers and feel the thick air between us. Looking at their scars, we’ll eat in silence.
Andrew Cothren’s work has appeared in Drunken Boat, Redivider, The Atlas Review, and fields magazine. He received his MFA from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and currently lives in Brooklyn, New York