Authors: Terra Elan McVoy
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To Meg, who asked if there was more about this Brynn character
GRIER AND I ARE FLOATING
in her glossy, turquoise pool, both of us in separate inner tubes, pushing each other around with our feet and staring at the dark, humid sky when she goes, “Dare me to do something.”
I raise my head to look at her. Sure, she had suck times at the meet today, and pizza with the team afterward is always a Michael Phelpsâpraising bore, but we haven't played Dare in a while. Mainly because at this point we can't think of anything we haven't already done that isn't completely disgusting, would require too much pain-in-the-ass planning or equipment, or would end up with one of us getting seriously hurt or arrested. That I got tired of her chickening out one too many times was part of it too, which is why I'm surprised now. And, I'm out of practice.
“UhâI dare you to pretend you're in love with Shyrah for a week.”
She groans. “Way too easy.”
Which is true. If one of the other girls in the club even looks at Shyrah for too long at practice, he's sneaking up to me later, asking me should he ask her out.
“Okay. I dare you toÂ .Â .Â .” I look around, trying to find something. We already climbed on top of the cabana once, to see if we could jump from there into the pool, but the distance really is too far. “I dare you to lick Peebo's butthole.”
She grins and starts whistling for her dog.
“Sick.” I splash her. “I was just kidding. He's inside, anyway.”
“Here,” she says, slipping free of her tube. I watch her slide underwater to the ladder, where she climbs out, tugging the edges of her bikini away from her narrow butt. I've seen Grier's body a thousand times, but it doesn't make her elfish perfectness any less obvious. Other girls on the team are jealous, I guess. Maybe I would be too if she weren't so slow in the water. She even looks good with her head shaved now, after I
ed her with a pair of clippers last month and took a huge hunk right out of her dark, glossy locks. Her mom was plenty pissed, but even Grier thought it was funny, and now she just looks sexier. More tough.
She moseys over to the cabana and starts rummaging behind
the bar. I don't really feel like drinking tonight, but at Grier's it's always around. Daring her to drink some kind of crazy mixed-up shot isn't much of a dare anymore either, but maybe this will make her less pissy or whatever it is she's been lately.
Not that Grier is that complicated. I met her when I left my high school team to join our more challenging private swim club at the end of ninth grade. Grier's a sprinter (I'm long-distance), and she'd already been a member of the club for two years, so she seemed dedicated, like me. Over time, though, she revealed herself to be the kind of girl I didn't think existed in real life. That gorgeous rich girl with an absent, globe-trotting father and a pill-addled, socialite mother; the girl who gets to spend three hundred dollars at Whole Foods on her parents' credit card over the weekend because that's easier than either of them having to figure out how to actually take care of her. She's that girl who vacations in Bali or the cliffs of Iceland or some other no-high-schooler-really-visits-there place. She goes to the best private school in Atlanta, and still her parents are constantly talking about sending her to London because they don't think she's getting an adequate education here. (Grier says they just want her out of their hair once and for all, but she'd still love to go.) She swims, mainly, so she can gorge on gourmet pizzas, organic hamburgers, bottomless margaritas, and expensive desserts. In middle school, whenever I read books that had characters like Grier in them, I'd say, “Nobody's life is really like that.”
But that was back when I actually read books. That was before I met Grier.
At first, when she started inviting me over, I thought she was just being nice. It took only two sleepovers though to understand that a rich, pretty girl like her doesn't have to be nice to a scrappy, Salvation Army latchkey kid like me. Instead Grier thought I was funny. Different. She told me once that I'm the only other person who hates people more than she does. And if it works for her, I'm not going to argue.
Now I spend pretty much every weekend over at her place. For me, Grier's the only one in the club who comes close to having a sense of humor or rebellion. Besides, being at her house means I don't have to hang out with Mom and my stepdad, Louis, either. Plus there's the cushy environs and excellent chow. Though Grier and I do the normal things that girls do togetherâcomplain, gossip, paint our toenailsâwe also spend a lot of time watching human stunt videos, which is where Dare came from. I thought I was the only one who was obsessed with “People Are Awesome,” and
, until I commented under my breath about it at practice, and Grier's eyes lit up like a Christmas tree on fire. We've filled a lot of our weekends with trying to invent stunts of our ownâI'm still working on the four-inch-nail-in-the-nose trickâbut for the last few weekends, because of what, I don't know exactly, we just watch the videos. And even then she seems bored.
Tonight though, we're apparently back to more than
watching. When Grier comes over to sit on the edge of the pool, she's holding a round container.
“Dare me to snort this salt.”
Meaning the margarita salt in her hand.
“That shit's hard little crystals. It'll hurt like hell.”
“Yeah, but don't you want to see what happens? There's a sugar rimmer in there too. I'll dare you to do that after.”
I don't much want to snort anything, since enough water goes up my nose on a daily basis, but Grier's going to do it whether I dare her or not, and then she'll just call me chicken all night for not making it official. I know. I've done it to her.
“Okay, fine. I dare you to snort that salt.”
She takes off the lid and stares into the plastic dish for a moment, and then puts a couple of pinches in a thin line on her wrist. I paddle closer, wanting to see what happens. She waits a beat, holds her wrist up to her nose, and then, whiff, the white line disappears.
“Shit,” she says, coughing.
When she looks up, there's blood pouring out her nose.
“Shit,” I say back. “Are you okay?”
She coughs again, slightly gagging. “Stings like a bastard.”
“Jesus. Let me get you a towel.”
I climb out of the water and grab a bath sheet that probably costs more than all the cheap, secondhand furniture in my room combined.
“Wait. Check it out.” She points into the pool. Drops of her blood are spiraling and unfurling in the water like devilish smoke. We stare at the blood for what feels like five minutes. Long enough so that the red forms more of a cloud than wisps.
“You need some ice on that.” I hand her the towel and stand up for the house.
“Hold up.” She leans back toward the lounge chair behind her, reaching for her shorts and her phone. “Take my picture first.”
Her chin, throat, and chest are now dripping blood.
“You're not going to post this.”
“Why not?” She grins. “At least then we'll have proof something happened, for once. Don't be so boring.”
That's a dumb thing to do out of boredom,
I almost say. But it'd sound defensive. I need to get her cleaned up anyway, because apparently I'm snorting that sugar next.
It's not like I can let Grier win.
SUNDAY'S ALWAYS THE LOWEST POINT
of my week. Though sleeping in is great, a day without practice feels a little unhinged, no matter what else is happening. Grier and I usually make breakfast, but once she drops me off at home, it's impossible to avoid Louis and Mom. I end up doing yard work, laundry, or washing the car. Regular-kid chore things. Sometimes we go on errands. Or else I just watch TV. Make myself stuff to eat. Go online, flip through a magazine, or do enough of my homework to keep up the club's required GPA, which you'd pretty much have to be in a coma not to get.
The second half of Sunday thoughâthat's when we go to the cemetery.
My real dad was a firefighter. But he got killed in an accident
when I was ten. Lightning hit this elementary school, and a fire started on the roof while some of the administrators were inside, having a work retreat to discuss plans for the new year. The fire spread fast because of the old insulation, plus all the papers in storage. Almost everyone got out, but there were two people in the library who got stuck by a fallen shelf. My dad and two of his friends rushed in. They got the people out, but then Dad went back for a final check. That's when part of the roof caved in.
They're pretty sure he died right away. That's what my mom told me, anyway. Otherwise he would've lain there, pinned and hurt, feeling the flames close in. I believed her then, and I guess I still do.
I don't remember a lot of the next year. Mom doesn't either, except that I had a lot of nightmares and had trouble getting to sleep at night. We had to move into an apartment. Not a nice one either. I came home from school and stayed there by myself for a few hours until Mom got off of work. Wives of the other guys at the station brought us food for months, which people do when someone dies, I guess, but eventually I realized we wouldn't have eaten at all if they hadn't. I'm not sure what I did with myself when I was on my own. Probably read a lot of books.
Then there was seventh grade, and I must've gotten better because I did have some friends. I got really into scribbling mean parodies of dramas that would happen at school for them, making us all laugh. I guess I was all right.
And then Mom and Louis met at one of their company Christmas parties. They don't work on the same floor or even in the same department, so they hadn't seen each other before, but they didn't waste a lot of time making up for that. We moved againâthis time into Louis's houseâand I was suddenly in a different school. There was a pool within walking distance. Mom told me I was starting swimming lessons, something we wouldn't have been able to afford even when Dad was alive. It'd get me out of the house, she said. Maybe I could make new friends.
We didn't start going to the cemetery every Sunday until about a year ago. Mom couldn't handle it before, I guess. Or didn't think I could. Maybe she thought Louis would feel strange about it. But on top of being gung ho about becoming the stepdad-slash-swim-cheerleader to the sullen, quiet daughter of a bloated, wrung-out widow, Louis was all on board for making special family time to go visit my dad's grave. I think the whole thing might've even been his idea.
Now my mom has gone gangbusters with it. It's like she needs to show off to Louis how much she cares. Nearly every week we bring something differentâfresh flowers or a replacement for the plastic ones she has there in pots. Photos of my dad in cheap frames. Letters she writes to him about me. Pumpkins at Halloween or poinsettias at Christmastime. I only go because they make me. I go because I don't have a choice. But I knew a
long time ago that my father wasn't in that hole. When he first died, it felt like maybe his energy was still hovering there, but now when we visit, there's nothing. Just his strong, handsome face in those old, fading photos. My father's not anywhere anymore. Except in whatever scraps that managed to stay distinct after his DNA got all mixed up with Mom's to make me.
TIMOTHY BURRELL POLONOWSKI. BELOVED SON, HUSBAND, AND FATHER. SEPT. 1973âAUG. 2008
the tombstone reads. It always bothers me that he never got to his thirty-fifth birthday. But mainly during our weekly visits I look around at the other graves, the paling flower arrangements. It's quiet here. That is, until another car moves down the long drive, and another family gets out to stand over a piece of grass and a chunk of stone.