Megan pulls the empty wine glass from her husband’s limp hand. His fingers brush the shag of the living room floor, sway to the sleepy sigh of his breath. Clocks tick in the kitchen and hallways, and when she places the glass on the coffee table, the clink against the wood shoots like a falling star through the silent house. Outside, in the neighborhood, the engine throbs and waits.
Backing away step by quiet step, Megan creeps into the kitchen, where she pulls a sealed envelope from a hiding place in her mother’s old roll-top desk. She props the card against the empty bottle, so Gary will see it when the drugs wear off. He’ll read the letter, see his daughter, scream; but he’ll move on, eventually. And he won’t look for her, because he’ll believe. They both know he’s not the one Megan’s wanted, for what seems like eternity. Although, she has him to thank for helping her through these sixteen years, his rough skin and questioning cock to thank, the press and push of his body over and into her, sloughing the lies of her life away to reveal repulsion and the aching void. A lifetime of enduring misplaced love? No, not anymore. After so many years, desire has eaten her hollow, and now it flows from her like burning oil. Megan walks down the hallway, and into her daughter’s bedroom.
I met a girl in the cul-de-sac last week, Sophie had said. Such a simple phrase, yet all Megan needed to know that the time had come. She picks knives off the sheets as she kisses Sophie’s damp face–the same drugs in the wine found their way into Sophie’s glass of milk. Just, more of them. Sophie’s cooling body settles in time to the distant machine, Megan notices, skin still flush with lust that once rose from her like spring mist. Megan runs her nose over her daughter’s skin, breathes the scent in deep. She smells the girl on Sophie, that sharp undertone of fuel mixed with lemons and cigarettes. And under that, the smell of the engine. Hot burning blood and smoking bone, dismembered limbs whirling in a gasoline gyre. Megan locks the door behind her, even though she doesn’t have to, the knob slipping in her sticky hands. Her daughter isn’t for the taking, not tonight or ever; it’s Megan’s turn, and won’t the girl in the cul-de-sac be surprised. Maybe she’ll be pleased.
Brass bells chime as Megan opens the front door, same as they’ve done for as long as she’s been alive. This little suburban rambler saw her grow up, marry, give birth; it’s led her through life like the faithful lover she never had. Mom and Dad willed it to her years after that summer Lisa disappeared: with both of them gone five years now, it’s been hers alone, her rookery, her watchtower. She stands on the stone porch, staring out at the purple glow of the setting sun. Ravens cluster on wires and cables, glide from the tips of evergreens to cedar-gabled rooftops. Driveway lights wink on and off, and wild dogs chant at fast-appearing stars. All the signs of life are here, but this neighborhood has long been dead. They’re the only family left, and even they’ve fallen apart, like rotting meat from the suburban bone. She walks down the driveway, her low pumps clacking against the blacktop. As she steps into the street, her heart races; and now she catches the faint whine, a sonorous metallic song calling out in reply. After all these lonely years, it’s returned.
From the far end of the cul-de-sac, a sixteen-year-old girl emerges from the tangled overhang of rhododendrons framing a long-abandoned house. She saunters into the street, tanned hips curving back and forth in waves as she moves. Though autumn hovers in the air, she brings perpetual summer, shimmering all around her in rippling waves. One hand touches a lock of black hair, then tugs at her striped tube-top–for a single sublime moment, a caramel-colored areola peers into the rising dark. Megan feels the decades burn away like ash in the girl’s heat.
“Hey, spaz,” Kelly says. “Got a light?”
“You didn’t change,” Megan murmurs. “Thirty years, and you’re just the same.”
“Yeah, I never change.”
“But I have changed. Can’t you hear?” Megan presses her hand against her heart. “It’s like it’s inside me now, like I’m the engine, too.”
“Oh really? You’re the engine?” Kelly slips a cigarette into her mouth. “Are you sure?”
“You’re not taking her. It’s my turn.”
Kelly runs a long tongue over wet lips. “She’s already taken–it’s what you made her for, right?”
Megan flinches, but the truth doesn’t stop her from sliding the lighter out of her pocket, the one she’s been carrying for years.
“Yeah, I guess,” Megan says. “But she’s gone.”
“It’s just us now. No one else.”
“No one else.” Kelly hooks a finger into the waistband of Megan’s skirt, drawing her near. Megan’s heart hitches as Kelly leans in. “If there’s no one else, you know what that means. I have to leave. I don’t come for nothing, you know.”
Megan raises the lighter, flicks it into life. The flame writhes in Kelly’s dark eyes. “Tonight you come for me.”
Kelly cups Megan’s hand she passes the cigarette tip through the flame, sucking her breath in as she coaxes it into life. Megan slides her other hand around Kelly’s warm waist, drawing her near. She drops the lighter, touches the cherry of Kelly’s smiling lips. Her fingers come away red.
“What did I do?” she asks one in particular. The crows, the evergreens, the stars.
“It’s not my blood, or yours. Who cares?”
“It’s ok,” Megan says. “It’ll burn away.” She clamps her fingers around Kelly’s neck, and the girl melts into her like water through parched ground. Their lips touch, dance in through hot gasps for air. Megan pulls at Kelly’s top, lowers her tongue. Soft warmth, and the hard press of trembling legs and jutting groins. Liquid fire rushes through her, and her bones bend like willows in a storm. She can bend Kelly as well, mold and rip through her like soft clay until nothing remains but desire, the exquisite pain of submission and defeat. She could feed off such things for eternity. Anyone could. Anything.
Kelly breaks off, flushed. “I have something to show you, in the empty house at the end of the street. Just the two of us.” Her long fingers cup Megan’s face. “Do you want to see?”
Reverberations bleed through the chilly air, relentless, exquisitely slow. Megan licks her lips, breaths deep. The air, her skin, all taste of Kelly, sea-salt sweet. What more will she taste of her, inside the engine of her desire–inside, under, below? Last time Kelly offered, she said no.
“Yes.” Megan breathes the word and Kelly inhales, as if catching it on her teeth. Megan kisses her again, to press the promise deep inside, so it will keep and never fade. Then, breaking away, she grabs Kelly’s hand and they run, run like they did when they were both just girls and her world was bright and new, run through the end of night into the house, into the endless arms of her burning soul, and down.
Megan stands in the center of the street, turning in a lazy circle under slate March skies. From here she sees one empty end of the street, then the other, and the ovarian rounds of the cul-de-sacs, dilapidated and worn after so many decades of pushing out their young. She sees the things she’s seen all her life–ranch homes and ramblers, cars and crows, and the thick stream of evergreens that seeps through suburbia like a leviathan’s blossoming bones. She sees Gary, her husband of five months, carrying boxes into the two-car garage. They met in the Food King up the road, as he rang up her groceries, pleasant and slow. She saw her future that day, and the way to get there.
She does not see her sister. She hasn’t seen her in fifteen years now: no one has. How many girls have been fished from the woods around Green River? And yet every time they show a new face on the news, her mother reaches for her heart medicine, and her father slips into the garden with his whiskey–as if Lisa had disappeared just yesterday, and the pain is still raw and new. They need to see her lifeless face, blue and speckled with gravel, to make it real. Without that, she wanders through their memories, a ship without moorings or berth, not dead or alive. If only they knew how very right they were…
Megan halts, dizzy, and looks at the house, that house, brooding under bushes and branches, still abandoned. All the kids in the neighborhood are gone now, grown up and off to college, other cities, other countries. The ones that escaped, that is. Most of them, like Lisa, went missing. The pretty ones, anyway, lush-lipped females all. She’s the last one. And she’s not a kid anymore.
It’s been years since she heard the engine’s rev. After Lisa, other girls disappeared–but soon there were none, and the engine faded. The neighborhood felt the loss, and soured. Families moved away, sometimes leaving overnight without a whisper. Her mom walked over to the Kerns, the Swensons, the Millers, for coffee or conversation–she came back every time, moving as if something wet and squalling had been ripped from her womb, and thrown far away. But still she won’t leave. Lisa might come home, she tells Megan, tells anyone left who still remembers that the Morgan’s had two girls, not one. She’s her mother, and she’ll never leave her daughter behind. Megan knows how that feels.
“Kelly.” Megan whispers the word, reverent. Kelly’s been missing, too, as long as the rest. Since that summer she and Megan snuck into the rambler–after that day, Megan never saw her again. There were moments, though. Out of the corner of her eye, as she walked home from school or sat reading in the backyard, as she opened or closed her bedroom curtains: a flash of girl-shaped movement, followed with a trace of lemon Jean Naté and cigarette-scented sweat. Sometimes she still wakes up at night, soaked in tears, Kelly’s smell dripping from her fingers. She’ll cry herself back to sleep, stifling the sobs so Gary won’t hear. But it’s not enough: her desire’s a drop in the cup. All the cream has been skimmed, youth and desire siphoned away, leaving only human husks. Not enough left for the engine to feed on, and so it’s gone, along with the mystery girl who charmed its prey and fed them bit by bit into its maw.
She can’t bear to live like this, feeding off the fumes of girlhood love, dying before her parent’s eyes while they mourn a better-loved daughter long gone. And yet, and yet…the engine sleeps, and this place is safe. No one to watch her do what she must do–a lengthy yet simple action, like the tick of a clock as it counts down the years before the alarm sounds out. Megan stares at the yellow and white eaves framing her old bedroom window as her fingers glide over her stomach, turgid and round. With her ailing father moving into the retirement home, and she and Gary moving in to take care of Mom, Megan can wipe her past clean, start over. Build a better web.
Gary waves at her as he heads back to the car for another load. She smiles and waves, a wan flap of her flesh. Megan goes through the motions with him, in all things. At night when he moves over her, she squeezes her eyes shut, pretends it’s Kelly transformed, spearing her into sticky oblivion. The things she does, the images she sees…Megan smiles as she walks back to the house, drumming her fingers over the mound of her unborn child–her third, though she took care of the other two before Gary and her parents ever knew. All the pain she endures will be worth it, in the end. They’ll turn Lisa’s old bedroom into the nursery, make a playground out of the weed-choked backyard. Maybe families will move into the houses again, the neighborhood will return to life once more, and the engine will return, Kelly swimming in its hot and fiery wake.
But if not, it doesn’t matter. Megan doesn’t need neighbors to do her work. She’ll make the engine and Kelly return. That’s why she’s having a girl.
Megan opens her lips, and a perfect ring of smoke floats out. It rises up, widens, disintegrates. Megan’s mouth stays open, her tongue slightly raised as if caught mid-question. She raises an eyebrow, knowing she’s being watched.
Across the street, Kelly flashes a cool smile: the Queen of the Cul-de-Sac has approved. Megan takes another puff, staring up at the telephone wires as she sits on the flat-topped rocks lining the yard. Inside, triumph clangs like church bells; and the distant engine pounds in time, sending sound rippling like heat waves through the August afternoon air. Megan has been nothing if not patient, knowing well the reward. Golden-haired Julie left not long after Lisa, to join a commune up in Okanogan County, it was whispered. A few girls disappeared the following summer, and a few more slipped away last year as well. Teenage growing pains, signs of our troubled times, wild youth and drugs–mothers and fathers gossiped the pain away as they filled prescriptions and drank to oblivion. Megan kept her head down and waited, always with Julie’s lighter in her pocket, resting low and hard on her hip. She’s sixteen now: and now her time has come.
“May I?” Kelly motions, and Megan nods, trying to control her trembling legs. Kelly walks across the street, working the end of a bright pink popsicle in and out of her mouth. She stops in front of Megan, her shadow laying directly across Megan’s body, matching her limb for limb.
“You still smoke?”
“Sometimes,” Kelly says. “Not as well as you.”
Megan parts her legs, slow and steady, as she leans back, resting each hand on the warm surface of the low rock wall.
“So.” Kelly stares into the distance, as if concentrating. Listening, perhaps, to some unseen machine? “Lisa ever come back from her hippie trip?”
“Nope.” Megan shakes her head hard, trying to act casual and cool. “You know, I was gonna go with her, but–you know. Parents.” The last word shoots out of her mouth along with her cigarette, and she winces.
“Uh-huh. Parents.” Kelly looks down at her, amused. Megan blushes. Kelly’s eyes are brown, with little flecks of gold that dart and swim like trapped fish. When Megan stares into them, she thinks of when she locked herself in the garage one rainy afternoon years ago, when she was nine and her cat Sandy had just died. She sat in a corner, watching the shadows coalesce and creep, while in the opposite corner the house furnace rumbled, flames darting and swimming behind the metal like trapped fish. She wanted to scream and run, but she also wanted to open the door and watch the fire. She wanted to crawl inside.
“Do you think she’ll come back?”
“I don’t know. Probably,” Megan lies.
“Your parents must be treating you like a princess, now that you’re their only girl.” Kelly reaches out, tugs at the end of Megan’s neat ponytail draped over her shoulder. Her fingers linger, then slide away, brushing her breast in their wake. The sensation aches so much, Megan can barely breathe.
“Not really,” she finally says. “They’re still pretty broken up about it. My mom barely talks to me. My dad treats me like crap. Besides, I’m not a kid.”
“No. You’re not. You’re all grown up like me.”
A drop of pink falls from the edge of the popsicle and lands on Kelly’s chest. Megan watches, mesmerized. Kelly drops the melting remains to the ground, then pushes her breast up as she lowers her head. The tip of her crimson tongue laps at the sticky droplet, following it all the way down to the elastic edge of her tube-top.
“Sorry about that,” Kelly says.
Kelly points, and Megan looks down. Between her legs, the popsicle pools on the driveway, little dots of pink decorating Megan’s pale legs where it splashed up. But that’s not where Kelly’s pointing. A single bright dot rests on the crotch of Megan’s white shorts, just below the zipper.
Kelly grins. “Want me to lick that off, too?”
Megan looks up, her face as hot as the sun.
“Come on.” Kelly’s accusing finger now becomes a hand, and Megan grasps it. With a quick tug, Megan’s on her feet. Kelly keeps pulling her, and Megan stumbles forward, her breast bumping against Kelly’s arm, her crotch against Kelly’s thigh. The older girl leans in, whispering. Megan catches a whiff of sugar and blood.
“I found something, in the empty house at the end of the street. It has to do with the missing girls, and your sister. I think I know where they are. Wanna see?”
This is the moment. This is it.
Mute with love, Megan nods.
They walk in unison down the road. Megan’s legs feel hot and heavy, and all the blood in her body sloshes around, spirals into a whirlpool of throbbing flesh and crackling nerves. Is the engine getting louder? No, just deeper, more intense, as though they are moving toward it. Overhead, birds wheel and cry in a contrail-laced sky of pure blue. Someone’s mowing their lawn, and radios crackle and sing. Yet, they are all alone. It’s just Megan and Kelly, and no other girl, the way it’s supposed to be. Megan sees none of their neighbors as they walk down the cracked driveway of the abandoned rambler, pine needles and dandelions carpeting their way to the faded green front door. Under eaves dripping with peeling paint and spider webs, Kelly grabs the brass handle and pulls. The door opens into cool darkness. Yet, further within the house, Megan sees light.
“Come on. It’s just us.” Kelly steps into the foyer, holding the door open. Megan stands outside, hesitant. Slight fear spikes her lust, dulling it.
“I don’t know. Is it safe? What’s inside?”
“You have to come in to find out.” Kelly reaches out again, and this time her fingers slide between Megan’s legs, cupping the space between. She squeezes, slow, and her thumb travels, presses down. “Come inside.”
Megan’s legs move, how she doesn’t know, as Kelly’s gentle hand leads her through the door. When it closes, she doesn’t know, she only knows that now they’re alone, and lips are pressed against hers, cold and bubblegum sweet. Her shaking hands move up, push the edges of the tube-top away. Kelly’s flesh pours into her hands, pliant as clay. Insects drone and thump against the windows. Megan’s fingers clutch at a diamond-hard nipple, and she moves her mouth down.
Kelly breaks away. “Not yet. I have to show you. Come on. Come on!” She smiles as she disappears into the living room and around the corner, almost dancing as she goes. Megan stands for a second, her body racked with blood-thick quakes. Underneath her feet, the engine purrs.
Megan finds Kelly in the room off the kitchen, a dusty den lined in fake wood and faded carpeting. She’s on her knees before the sliding glass door, legs parted and skirt gathered in folds around her waist. Megan hangs back, watching in awe as Kelly’s fingers dip and disappear into the thick black curls.
“Do you hear it,” she breathes, her body rocking back and forth in time to the metallic bass below. “Do you hear the machine?”
“I thought I was the only one,” Megan says.
“Help me up.” Kelly raises her hand, and Megan grabs it, pulling the girl to her feet. Kelly wraps one arm around her waist, and they stand, swaying slightly as her still warm finger crooks itself into Megan’s mouth and glides around her tongue, leaving behind a faint trace of salt.
“It’s here,” Kelly says, breaking away once more as she walks across the room and opens a door. Megan sighs in angry frustration.
“Why can’t we–can’t we stay here for a while? It’s nice in here.” Megan smiles, trying to look alluring as she fingers a button on her shirt, sliding it from its embroidered hole. What would her sister have done, or any of the other girls? At a loss, Megan unbuttons her blouse all the way to reveal small, freckled breasts, unsure if she’s doing any of this right at all. “Please?”
Kelly’s only reply is to reach down, and rip off the tube-top in one lightning-fast motion. Her breasts tumble out of the fabric and against her chest, tanned with wide areolas. Kelly drops the top onto the rug, then steps back: down. Megan starts. Kelly steps back down and down, until the darkness swallows her, and only her voice remains.
“It’s nicer down here.”
Megan rushes to the edge of the door, and peers down. A flight of rough wood stairs leads into a basement rec room. More shag carpeting and paneling. From one of the corners, pale red light pulses, casting strange shadows that undulate back and forth. Kelly’s skirt lays in a heap at the bottom of the stairs. Megan descends, one creaking step at a time.
At the bottom of the stairs, Megan sees the room in full, bunker-low concrete ceilings with thin windows looking onto the bushes surrounding the house. At the far end, Kelly leans, arms behind her back, against a set of folding utility closet doors that pulse and shake in time to the engine’s reverbs. Her tan skin glows almost white in the ruby light spilling from the wood slats, as if she’s melting into the house. She looks the same as the day Megan first saw her years and years ago, standing like sugar in the pouring rain, dripping smoke and secrets into her sister’s ears. The engine sounds so loud now, so heavy and hard that Megan can’t hear her own heart.
“Is this what you want?” Kelly thrusts her hips forward as she parts her legs. Red light spills from between them, as if whatever lies behind the doors cannot be contained.
“Yes,” says Megan, “but, what does this have to do with Lisa? What did you want to show me?”
Kelly steps away from the doors. Megan’s feet drag across the carpet, catching on nothing. Her fingertips touch the copper knobs, worn with age. Kelly presses against her from behind, pushing her blouse away as she cups Megan’s breasts, pulling at the skin as Megan pulls at the doors. They accordion to the side. Hot fumes hit her face, stinging her eyes as they rise in the cool air. Little bolts of pleasure run through her body as Kelly laps at her ear, her fingers still working, working. From within the closet, a writhing mass sounds out a painful howl.
“This is the engine,” Kelly whispers. “This is us.”
Megan sees nothing at first, only dark red glowing from smoke and shadows. Gradually, the malformed outlines of a squat black furnace appear, the largest she’s ever seen. Flames dart from crevices and tears, flick like tongues. Cables thick as her body pierce the furnace from below and erupt transformed from its pulsing sides, spiraling around the beast in ropes of liquid-boned flesh stripped of skin, like a bloody fist squeezing until the prey had squirted from its grip.
“What the–” Megan begins, but another blast of sound cuts her off, and the floor shakes. Bits of white spackle drift from the ceiling onto their hair and arms, stick in the crimson mist spraying the air as one of the cables suddenly splits down the middle. Kelly’s hands move faster, and down. Megan and the cables scream in unison–mouths open, tongues waggling in exquisite pain. The two halves of the cable crash together again, one thrusting inside of the other and fucking its way up until the faces appear together, two dismembered girls kissing themselves into one as they burrow back into the furnace, only to be eaten and extruded again. Another cable begins to split. Megan sees.
“Is it like looking in the mirror,” Kelly asks, “or falling into the sun?”
More faces appear in the coils, luscious-lipped, wide-eyed faces screaming in toothless ecstasy: neighborhood girls. Megan mimics them as she kicks back. Kelly holds her tight, pushes her forward. Her hand moves down, under Megan’s shorts, working the tender skin. Megan’s hands grasp for the doors, then grasp for nothing at all as the rising pleasure slows her down. All those girls, all those wet bone bits…a face stretches out from the mass, blistered tongue snaking along the naked length of Megan’s leg. Lisa. Her eyes are melted sockets, her nose pulp, her touch sublime.
“No–” Megan says, but the tongue lengthens, snakes up between fabric and flesh, taking over where Kelly’s touch recedes.
“Yes, that’s it” Kelly says. Megan grows limp in her arms, and she feels Kelly coaxing her forward, sliding her along the tongue into her place in the machine. “Just a few steps more, and we’ll be together, all of us, forever–”
“No, not all of us! Just us, JUST US!” Megan snaps her head back, hitting Kelly’s face with a sharp crack. Kelly cries out, a scream as full of pleasure as pain. Still, she loses her grip, and Megan falls free. Bits of shag come up in her hands, needle-hard like slivers of sawed-up bone. She sinks her hands into the putrid muck, clawing her way across the shifting carpet of rotting limbs and clothes back to the stairs.
“I waited for you,” she cries over the noise. “It’s only supposed to be us, no one else!”
Kelly looks puzzled. The tongue slithers around her leg, resting its tip in the soft black hair. Behind her, the engine of flesh and bone screams. “But it is only us, Megan. There’s no one else here, not really. It’s only ever been us.”
“Liar! They’re all here, all of them! Fucking cheater!”
“I can’t be here without them. Without them, I won’t come, and I won’t stay. You can’t have it both ways.”
“I want it my way!” Megan slaps a hand against her chest, leaving a print of dirty brown behind. “I waited for you, and now you have to stay!”
Kelly rolls her eyes. “God, Megan, Lisa was right. You’re such a spaz.”
Megan crawls up the stairs, back into the quiet den. She rushes through the house to the bathroom, and turns on the tap. She soaks her face and head in the water, picks dirt and flesh from her fingernails and fingernails from her knees. The water pours over her, and she closes her eyes, sleeps for a few peaceful minutes. The sounds of the engine recede. When she wakes up, Megan slicks back her hair and buttons her blouse. The girl in the mirror is clean. She’s calm. She’s good.
“It’s only supposed to be me,” she says. “Kelly and me, and no other girls at all.” Only after she leaves the house, though, does her reflection agree, nodding in time to the faint pulsing sounds of girls rotting under the house.
“She thinks she’s doing bad things,” the mirror whispers. The girl-shaped shadow in the basement wanders back and forth among the bits, smiling as it replies.
“That’s what I love about her.”
Megan hears the engine the night her older sister runs away from home, just a week after school was let out for the summer. She knows Lisa was angry because Mom and Dad wouldn’t let her ride with some hippie college boy in his Volkswagen camper all the way cross-country to the Woodstock concert, even though she’s seventeen and thinks she’s a woman. Lisa spent that whole week raging against the world, and every night Megan fell asleep to her sister crying in the next room. Like rain, Megan grew used to the sound, and it stopped bothering her. Lisa was mean to her, anyway, and still treated her like a stupid baby even though she’d be thirteen next month. Let her sob, Megan told her pillow. It was only fair–Lisa made her cry too many times to count.
And then, tonight: no crying at all. Megan wakes from a dead sleep, sits straight up, and listens. No rain, not even a wind rustling the trees in the yard. Megan reaches out in the dark, her fingers spreading as if gathering up the night–somehow she can feel her sister’s absence, as real and thick as the blanket against her legs. In the distance, the low rev of a car sounds out as it traverses the roads beyond their little Tacoma neighborhood. Megan waits for it to fade. She lays back on her bed and listens, one hand sliding under her t-shirt and cupping a small breast.
“Lisa’s gone,” Megan whispers. “I’m the woman now.”
The engine’s soft hum washes over the house, filling the space that had belonged to Lisa, like a girl-shaped bass and pistoned song of love. It isn’t a car engine, but it isn’t one of the freight trains running down the coast to the sea. It’s closer, deeper, and it doesn’t stop. Megan thinks of Kelly, Lisa’s best friend, and how angry she’ll be that Lisa ran off to Woodstock without her. Kelly’s sixteen, but she’ll still cry, and Megan will take her into the wooded far corner of the backyard and slip her arms around her, rubbing her hands up and down her soft shivering back until Kelly realizes that Megan is her new best friend. Kelly knew how to French kiss, and had taught all the older girls on their street. Maybe now that Lisa’s gone, Kelly will teach Megan, too–out of gratitude, under the evergreens, after the tears are gone and replaced with stars. Megan’s other hand creeps into her panties; like the engine, she throbs. She falls asleep that way, to the sounds of her contented sighs and the vibrations of that far-off mystery machine.
Over the following days and weeks, the metallic thrumming never quite goes away, even though no one else seems to hear it. The neighborhood hums with summer life: mowers battling overgrown lawns, basketballs pinging against concrete and wood, stereo music drifting through backyard parties. And yet, Megan still hears it, threading into the low conversations between the adults in the neighborhood, sniffing at everything and everyone. Every early evening after putting dinner in the oven, her mother pours a large glass of whiskey and step out into the front yard for a smoke–Megan watches from the porch as the red dot of Mom’s cigarette bobs over to the fence, where Mrs. Crabtree waits with more gossip, a red flame of her own at her Avon-orange lips. Teenage girls are running away from all of the neighborhoods in University Place. Lisa isn’t the first, and she won’t be the last. They speak the words to each other, and Megan can almost see the vibrations of that distant engine hovering around their lips, licking away at her mother’s desire to find her oldest girl. Her mother is cream, Megan decides. They’re all warm summer cream in this blacktopped bowl, and something is skimming them away.
Megan has her own routine. Every early evening, she wanders into the front yard, casual and limpid-limbed, and stands at the grassy edge, one hip jutting out as she surveys the small suburban kingdom. From there she sees clusters of boys and girls playing games, wheeling about on bikes, flirting and fighting. They converge and part like swarms of fireflies, fast and hot. Usually she doesn’t see what she’s seeking. Tonight, though, at the end of this burning day in July, Megan sees the girl who fires her taboo fantasies, haunts her waking dreams.
Kelly, Queen Kelly of the Cul-de-Sac, leans against the mail box of the empty rambler at the far end of the street. It’s the only house on the street that no one lives in, ever since the old woman died a few years back. The FOR SALE sign still dangles from a moldy post, as ignored as the building behind it. Kelly doesn’t ignore it, though, and tonight, for once, she doesn’t ignore Megan. She raises a hand, beckoning. Come here, she mouths, as she balances a cigarette on her wide red mouth. Megan’s heart beats faster, and ozone fills the air. The engine’s sounds lap at her lips, and everything turns faster, brighter.
“Me?” Megan chokes out as she takes a few stumbling steps toward the slender-hipped girl. Most of the older girls in the neighborhood smoke, stealing Virginia Slims from their mother’s purses and lighting up in secret along the sides of houses. Kelly smokes in full view of all the parents and kids. But her light brown skin burns with a smoky sheen all its own, and short black hair frames her face in a thunderstorm of curls, curls that caress sharp features as she nods. Yes. Megan’s stomach cramps in nervous anticipation. Her dream moment, just like she imagined. Maybe they’ll sneak into the house. Maybe they’ll be alone. Images of naked flesh wash over her, bodies filling the rambler’s rooms with wet little sighs and sounds, and her legs buckle. Megan pushes the thought away, hard. No one can know, not even the girl of her dreams.
“You stand at the edge of your yard every day,” Kelly says as Megan draws near. “Looking for something?”
“Yeah.” Megan stares up at the trees, nonchalant. “Maybe.”
“Looking for Lisa.”
Megan shrugs. “Maybe.”
“Maybe. Hmm.” Kelly leans forward, and Megan catches scents of Jean Naté and sweat. “Got a light, kid?”
“No. I don’t smoke.”
Kelly steps away from the mail box, and raises her hand. “Didn’t you see me, you freak? I said come here!”
Megan turns: further up the street, Julie Miller stands, flicking a lighter on and off, a curious smile at her lips. An ice water anger sieves through Megan’s chest. Kelly hadn’t been calling out to her. Julie struts forward, flicking the light in time to the engine’s heated throb, as if she hears it, too.
“That’s ok, kid,” Kelly says, as gold-haired Julie moves in, pliant supplicant to all of Kelly’s needs. “Someday you will.”
“Smoke. Hope I’m there to watch. Know what I mean?”
Julie raises the light, and Kelly breathes the flame in. She glances up at Megan, winks, and grins. Megan reels, sees: hot burning blood and smoking bone, dismembered limbs whirling in an oily gyre. Behind Kelly and Julie, the windows of the rambler catch the final burnt oranges of the day, throwing light across the tangled yard as though someone inside had set the rooms to flame. Blood pounds in Megan’s ears, and the engine reverberates in determined time. Under her naked feet, the pavement shivers. Not enough, Megan says to herself as she backs away. Watching Kelly, feeling what she feels–it isn’t enough. She will have this girl, somehow, someway, someday.
And for one wild moment, a delicious and horrible sense of déjà vu washes over Megan, heady as the scent of gasoline. She’s stood in front of this house, this girl, a million times before. No matter where she chases life to its lonely end, she’ll find this moment again, this fierce and glorious desire.