The South |


by Delynn S. Willis

edited by JD Scott

On her and her sister’s thirteenth birthday, Alison locked herself in the bathroom and gave herself bangs. An hour later, her twin, Amber, sat her down in front of the full-length mirror in their bedroom and made her watch as she cut the rest. The dull, rhythmic press of scissors at the back of Alison’s neck was like the cool kiss of an executioner’s blade. She bowed her head and squeezed her eyes shut.

“Don’t be a baby,” Amber said. “You should thank me. Bangs are for nuns and virgins. I’m just negating your bad choices.”

Amber tugged at Alison’s hair, now boy-short, until she stood, then took her place in the chair. She handed her the scissors. “Remember, short but not too short.”

Alison didn’t answer. Instead, she focused on cutting her sister’s hair, glancing up at her own reflection from time to time to make sure she was getting it right. Amber kept up a steady stream of conversation about cute boys and lame teachers and the creepy neighbor who had just moved in down the street.

Alison comforted herself with idle daydreams of cutting her sister’s hair so short that her scalp showed, shoving her face into the mirror hard enough to break glass, jamming the scissors into her throat so she’d just shut up.

When Amber ran out of things to talk about, she said, “God, you’re taking for-freaking-ever. The least you could do is entertain me.”

Alison looked up at her in the mirror’s reflection and shrugged. Her sister rolled her eyes. “Hum a song,” Amber said. “Do a dance. Recite the periodic table, for all I care. Just pull something out of that freakazoid brain of yours.”

Alison had been reading a library book on marine biology, so she told her sister about the things living deep in the Mariana Trench, how just dragging them to the surface would kill them. How sperm whales could hold their breath for over two hours, and how some shark species would cannibalize one another in utero. “You know, kill and eat each other,” she explained. “In the womb, before they’re born.”

She ran her hands through Amber’s hair, crown to nape, when she was finished. They looked at themselves side-by-side in the mirror. Alison was in an oversized shirt and jeans, Amber just a tank top and underwear. Their hair was the same now, their faces and skin and the long angles of their limbs synchronous. Identical as the day they were born, Alison’s mistake corrected and everything back to how it should be.

In grade school, Amber and Alison had shared everything from pencil cases and clothing to crushes and strep throat. But somewhere in the dry hot stretch between sixth and seventh grade, the lush, secret sphere of their childhood had cracked open like the glass casing of a terrarium, and the world had come spilling in.

Amber became an enigma to her sister, the spaces between their flesh and thoughts as distant and formidable as the long stretch of water between continents. They had started menstruating on the same day, their bodies aligning even as their mannerisms and patterns of speech slid further out of sync. Worst of all, there were Others now; insufferable, alien, and, more often than not, male.

While their mother worked double shifts in the local ER, Alison and Amber spent their long summer days at the crumbling, neglected remains of Coldwell County’s public pool. It had been built on the edge of town nearly thirty years before, and with a three-tiered diving platform and a deep end measuring in at just over twenty feet, it had once been the cultural hub of the entire county.

But a decade-long drought and dwindling population had hollowed it out and closed it down three years before. Now, rusted steel ladders jutted out from the empty pool’s sides like exposed bone, and the colossal husk of the diving platform stood guard over a kingdom of cigarette cartons, beer cans, and sticker burs.

Now the pool belonged to Coldwell’s youth. Bored and horny and hungry for the world, they had transformed the abandoned wasteland into a thriving oasis. During the summer months, they made daily pilgrimages to the pool, carrying in offerings of cheap weed and alcohol. They rigged hastily stashed tarps into shelters from the sun and spread ratty yoga mats or bits of cardboard out in whatever shade they could scavenge. Lazing about in the decadent heat, they fumbled at adulthood, nosed along the unfamiliar pulp of their desires, fed the carnal cravings that nestled in their marrow.

Here, Amber was a gravitational force. Wearing nothing more than sunglasses, sweat, and shoplifted bikinis, she surrounded herself with admirers. Alison watched as Amber, cigarette in one hand and cola between her legs, drew boys in, scattered them out, arranged them into constellations of lust and flesh.

It wasn’t a bad way to spend the summer. The diving platform acted like the gnomon of a monstrous sundial, and Alison would pick up her things from time to time and move with the shade as the day progressed. As long as she stayed close to Amber’s side, she was largely overlooked, insubstantial as shadow.

Two weeks into the summer, Amber was already toffee-dark. The forecast had promised record-breaking heat. Most of the pool’s regulars had abandoned the baked, open expanse of concrete for air conditioning and daytime TV. Even so, three boys had strategically placed their threadbare beach towels in an arc around Amber.

Alison knew the group well enough. There was Clark Burnett, with his grey-morning eyes and cold intellect; weasel-faced Jeremy Wilkins, who was small and slim and always viciously fighting to make himself appear larger than he actually was; and Tyler Knoll, their ringleader, thick-necked and perpetually sunburned.

The boys laughed in unison at the things Amber said, grew louder and louder as they struggled to speak over one another, and shoved at each other in equal parts sport and violence.

Alison did her best to ignore them, but she couldn’t focus on her book. She kept thinking of Tyler pouring soda into her backpack between classes, throwing her end-of-year science project up on the school’s roof the period before it was due, holding her down and spitting in her hair as his cronies laughed and kicked clods of earth and grass in her face.

Amber said something in a low, lazy drawl, and the boys burst into a fit of laughter. Alison flinched, threw her book down, and stood.

She felt Amber’s eyes on her, a nagging, impossible itch at the back of her skull, as she stepped out of the shade of the diving tower. Alison didn’t stop to tell her where she was going. She started swiftly down a well-worn trail, scattered cigarette butts marking the way like breadcrumbs in a fairytale.

The nearest working bathroom was at the 7-Eleven more than a mile down the road, but the copse of trees out behind the pool offered relative privacy. Alison veered off the path and picked her way across yellowing weeds and thorny brush. She stopped beside the wide trunk of a towering cottonwood. It was a cicada summer, and the deafening drone that filled the clearing reminded her of her early childhood and the heavy press of water on her inner ear when she had dove beneath the surface of the pond behind her grandparent’s house, straining and reaching to curl her fingers into soft, silted mud.

She unbuckled her overalls and squatted, mind still wading through hazy sense-memories. As she urinated, she watched a beetle traipse across the cracked earth in front of her. Its black shell gleamed green and purple as it moved between shadow and sunlight. Alison nudged it with the edge of her shoe when it got too close. It paused, uncertain, then turned away and started off in the opposite direction.

Swaying in the heat and deaf from cicada drone, Alison could pretend that she was the last human on earth, sisterless and satisfied with dirt and beetles.

When she had finished, she stood and pulled up her overalls. She was still buckling the first clasp, her head bent to the task, when someone said, “Fancy meeting a girl like you in a place like this.”

Alison jumped and dropped one of the straps. Tyler Knoll stood less than a dozen feet away, grinning at her. He was poised, unnaturally still, like one of those large cats on the covers of nature magazines. His gaze slid along the hollow of her throat and the curve of her belly, darted to the wet patch of earth behind her, then traveled back up her body. His eyes finally settled, fixed and intent, on where her right hand was clenched in the denim at her chest.

Dread wound snake-coil tight in the space between Alison’s shoulder blades. She bowed her head and tried to ignore Tyler as she buckled the first clasp. She was working on the second when he reached forward and almost touched her.

She lurched back, but he followed her, step for step. “Hey, now,” Tyler said. “I was just trying to help.”

“What do you want?” she asked. Tendrils of hair clung to the sweat at her temples. She gave up on the second strap and let it drop. The front panel of her overalls gaped half-open.

Tyler dropped his hands and tucked them into his pockets. “I just wanted to talk. Friend to friend,” he said. “We are friends, aren’t we, Al?”

She didn’t answer. She looked for someone on the trail to their left, tried to calculate if anyone would hear her if she screamed. But the two of them were stranded in a sea of tall brush and cicada song.

“I was hoping you could help me out,” Tyler said. “Maybe talk to Amber for me. Get me an in.”

“An in,” Alison parroted, and then realized what he was asking. Tyler looked at the clench of her jaw and pulled his hands from his pockets. “No way, asshole,” she said. “I’d rather die than let you lay a hand on my sister.”

Something in Tyler’s face fell away, a layer of topsoil pushed out of place by the monstrous thing buried beneath. Alison tried to lunge past him, but Tyler pounced on her and gripped the front of her overalls. He pulled her violently towards him. The fastened clasp broke free, and the back of her overalls fell to her waist, the straps brushing her calves.

Tyler’s lips were pulled back in a snarl, his tongue caught between his front teeth. Alison made a noise, smothered into silence by shock and the cacophony of cicadas, at the same time that her sister spoke calm and clear behind her.

“How come I never get invited to the good parties, huh?”

Tyler shoved Alison away. She only just managed to reach down and stop her overalls from spilling past her hips and down to her ankles. Amber caught her by the elbow and steadied her.

“Hey, Amber,” Tyler said. “We were just, you know, talking.”

Amber curled her mouth into a careful smile. She neatly buckled both straps of Alison’s overalls, a smoothness to the curve of her lips, a plastic stillness to her expression that set Alison’s nerves on edge.

Amber turned and faced Tyler again. “Why are you talking to my sister when you should be talking to me?”

Tyler shrugged and scuffed his feet through the dirt in front of him. “We were talking about you, if that helps.”

Amber’s smile grew wide enough for the pink, wet line of her gums to show. “I guess talking about me is the next best thing to talking to me,” she said, then held out her hand. “But next time, you should just invite me to the party.”

Tyler bent over Amber’s outstretched hand. His eyes met Alison’s as he pressed his lips to her sister’s knuckles. He winked at her and tucked Amber’s fingers into the crook of his elbow.

Amber wrinkled her nose. “This place smells like piss. Let’s get out of here.”

“Thanks for all the help, Al,” Tyler said as they walked past.

Amber glanced over her shoulder. “Don’t forget we have to be back before Mom gets home from work.”

Alison watched them leave, then stumbled back into the curve of a cottonwood trunk. She stayed there, breathing slowly, until her legs felt steady enough to walk out to the heat-bubbled asphalt of the parking lot that bordered the pool. She sat at the curb, huddled and miserable, as her skin grew tight and red with too much sun.

Amber came to get her nearly an hour later. Tyler wasn’t with her. They didn’t say anything as they started the walk into town, but they veered away from each other and onto opposite sides of the small country road. They played a game of leapfrog with each shady oasis they came across, lingering just long enough to brace themselves for the next stretch of sunlight. A serpentine blanket of heat haze danced on the horizon.

“You know, you shouldn’t have moped around the parking lot for so long. You’re gonna have a wicked sunburn,” Amber called across bubbled asphalt as they passed the 7-Eleven. Alison stared straight ahead and Amber sighed. “Fine, be that way. See if I help slather your Dracu-ass with aloe when you come whining to me later tonight.”

Alison didn’t answer, but she crossed to her sister’s side of the street when they turned onto their cul-de-sac. She let Amber snarl their fingers together and swing their arms back and forth as they walked.

The trees lining the road leading up to their house had been planted in the 1940s, back when the neighborhood was still young. Pecan and apricot and oak, their branches now reached over the narrow road in an arc, leaves close enough to brush and whisper against one another in the breeze. Alison and Amber both sighed in unison as they stepped under the long stretch of shade.

Amber grinned at her, sudden and bright, and said, “Bet you’re glad I didn’t eat you up in the womb, huh?” It took a moment for Alison to connect her words with the conversation they had had nearly a week before. While she was distracted, Amber leaned over and set her teeth hard into her bare shoulder. Alison tried to twist away, but her sister wouldn’t let go of her hand. She only got as far as the combined length of their arms before she was pulled back in.

Alison wiped angrily at her face, then gave up struggling against Amber. “Tyler Knoll? Really?” she asked. “Do you have any idea how awful he is to me?”

Her sister closed her eyes, smiled, and dug her forehead into Alison’s collarbone. She looked up at her and laughed.

“That’s sort of the point,” she said. And when she pressed a chaste kiss into the outline of teeth on Alison’s shoulder, it felt like a promise.

Like a dog on a leash, Tyler never seemed to be more than a few feet from Amber’s side from that point on. Alison hated it, hated it even more when Amber used barbed comments and veiled threats to make it clear that Alison was to stay just as close, a brooding, bad-tempered chaperone. And that’s how she ended up spending the rest of her summer, watching her sister wind Tyler tighter and tighter with nothing more than light touches and closed-mouth kisses.

One night during the last week of break, Amber shook Alison awake in the vague, poised stretch of darkness between midnight and dawn, dropped a bundle of clothes in her lap, and said, “Get dressed.”

Their mother was working the graveyard shift, and Alison had fallen asleep in front of the TV to a soundtrack of 90’s laugh tracks and sitcom theme songs. But now, the television was on mute and an old movie was playing. The movement of the black-and-white images lit the room in lightning-strike bursts that soaked into the dark edges of Amber’s silhouette.

Alison pushed herself up against the cushions of the couch, blinking and off balance. Amber was already in jeans and an oversized t-shirt, her eyes wide and manic and lined in kohl. Even half awake, Alison felt the pull of her anticipation, a secret knowledge taking shape along the edges of the consciousness the two of them sometimes shared. She pushed herself off the couch and started to get dressed.

When she had finished, Alison followed her sister into the master bathroom. Amber spanned her fingers across the line of Alison’s jaw and held her in place as she painted her face with their mother’s makeup.

Amber stepped back when she had finished, and Alison turned to look at herself in the mirror. She was in her sister’s clothing: a pair of ripped shorts and a cropped tank top. The heavy sheen of eye shadow, the dark flush of color at her cheeks and lips, made her look both older and more vulnerable at the same time, a girl baring her throat to the woman she would become.

“Are you going to tell me what’s going on?” she asked.

Amber grinned in the reflection behind her. “Nah. It’s a surprise.”

Alison didn’t bother pushing her for more information. She already knew the answer, anyway.

They finished getting ready and stepped outside. The roads were empty. Leaving town was like slowly going blind, the streetlights stretching further and further apart until there was nothing but starlight and the occasional yellow glow of a lit billboard to see by. They leaned against one another and shared a cigarette on the long, unhurried walk.

Alison stopped short when they reached the edge of the parking lot in front of the Coldwell County pool. Tyler’s bike was leaning on its kickstand next to a handicap parking sign pitted with buckshot.

“I don’t think I can do this,” Alison whispered. “He’ll know. He’ll know as soon as he sees me.”

Amber stopped and turned towards her. She reached out and rested her right hand on the back of Alison’s neck, tangled her fingers in her hair, then twisted. Alison’s spine arched and she had to grip Amber’s waist to keep from overbalancing and falling backwards.

“Yes, you can,” Amber whispered. Her voice was both harsh and soothing, a frenzied lullaby rising out of the darkness. “We’re exactly the same. Exactly the same. If you wanted to, you would see that.”

Alison tried to nod, but Amber’s hold in her hair was too tight, so she said, “Okay. Okay. I’ll try.”

Amber let go and smiled at her. Her teeth gleamed wetly in the moonlight. “I’ll be right behind you,” she said. “Cross my heart.”

Alison followed a trail to the pool’s makeshift entrance, where a segment of chain link fence had been cut and peeled back. She ducked through and her shoulder brushed the rusted meshing. A hollow, metallic thrum sounded down the length of the fence then echoed back like the ping of sonar.

Alison stepped out onto the cracked concrete lining the pool. The moon cast just enough light for her to see the hulking shape of the diving pedestal and the depthless void at its base. She peered into the gloom.

A warm, yellow light flared up from the darkness, and Alison choked on a scream. Then she saw Tyler’s face, masked in flame and shadow. He was holding a lighter out in front of him.

“Christ, it took you long enough,” Tyler said. He was sitting on a ratty blanket spread across broken concrete and red dust. “I’ve been here all night. My phone died.”

“Yeah, well,” Amber said, voice shaking. “I had to wait for my sister to fall asleep.”

Tyler was too busy trying to light a large candle to notice the way her voice wavered and cracked on the word “sister.” A bucket of KFC and a case of Natty Lights, both more than half-finished, were on either side of him.

Tyler burnt his fingers, cursed, and tried again. “Next time, you should hire a babysitter,” he said without looking up. “Or just give her a book and ship her off to Antarctica. Nothing but ice, penguins, and scientists. She’d probably like that, the freak.”

Alison’s face heated. She pushed her hair back off her forehead, tried to stand up straighter, and smiled. “I’m just glad I’m here with you now.”

Tyler glanced up at her from where he was setting the lit candle at the edge of the blanket. His gaze caught on the curve of her lips. He leaned back on his elbows and said, “Come on, then.”

She stepped forward and sank carefully to her knees. She hesitated over him, unsure of what to do, until Tyler pulled her forcefully into his side. She lay stiffly, half on top of him, and listened as he talked. The vibrations of his voice resonated through his ribcage like the satisfied purring of a massive cat. He spoke in a slow, lazy drawl about how crazy the incessant crying of his infant brother made him, how he had just taught his dog, Lil’ Man, a new trick, and how he had plans to try out for the football team. She waited impatiently, and when he finally pressed her into the blanket and set his lips against hers, she shuddered in a mix of triumph and disgust.

His chest was firm under her hands, so different from the soft, muted curves of her mother and sister. He was wearing cologne, but under that lurked the intimate smells of sweat and skin and spit. He pressed his tongue between her teeth, cold and slick. In all the warm, hazy contours of her fantasies, Alison had never imagined that a kiss would have a taste. She wrenched her head away from his sour-beer and fried-chicken flavor and tried not to be sick. She saw the exact moment that Tyler registered the revulsion on her face and realized who she was.

There was a bright flash of light to their right and they both scrambled apart.

Amber stood at the edge of the empty pool, her face lit by the blue glow of her cellphone’s screen as she raised it higher. “Say cheese!”

The second flash from the phone’s camera broke Tyler from his stupor, and he rushed to his feet like a bull out of a pen.

“What the hell are you doing?!”

“I just want photographic evidence,” Amber said. “Proof so people don’t think I’m crazy when I tell them that you have the hots for my sister.”

Tyler wiped violently at his mouth and spit onto the concrete next to him. “You’re insane,” he said, looking back and forth between Amber and Alison, who was still sprawled out on the blanket behind him. “You’re both sick.”

“Hey, I wasn’t the one who made out with Al over there.”

Alison stood, but Tyler was already advancing on her sister. He said, “Give me the phone, Amber.”

“I don’t think so.”

He took three quick strides and clasped her arms. He tried to wrestle the phone away from her, the pool’s blue-tiled crater less than four feet away. “Give me the damn phone!”

“Don’t worry,” Amber said, breathless and laughing in his grip. “I’ll send you copies.”

“Stop it!” Alison shouted.

Tyler looked back at her, one of Amber’s wrists in his left hand and the curve of her shoulder in his right. “Shut up!” he yelled at Alison just as Amber twisted away and broke free.

Alison watched as Amber held the phone high over her head and took a step back. Her foot went over the edge of the pool. The look of triumph on her face slipped into surprise. Her arms pinwheeled at her sides. Then she fell into the liquid stretch of darkness behind her.

Alison didn’t realize that they were both screaming until Amber’s voice cut off abruptly and hers was the only one filling the air.

She choked the noise back into her throat. Tyler stood motionless at the rim of the pool, his hands still held out in front of him.

He shook his head and stepped up to the ledge. “Amber? Jeez, are you okay? Amber!” He glanced over his shoulder at Alison, then looked back down. “I can’t see her,” he said. “I’ll climb down. It’s not that far, right? But maybe… I don’t know, my phone’s dead, but maybe you should call for help.”

Alison didn’t move. She and Amber shared a phone, and now it was down in that hole with her sister.

She watched Tyler jog to the nearest ladder and lower himself down its rusted rungs. She swayed in place, waiting for her chest to loosen and her breaths to slow. She picked up the candle, still lit and only melted down a quarter of its length, and walked haltingly forward.

The candlelight barely penetrated the hollowed out pool. She could see the dimly illuminated topography of Tyler’s face when he looked up at her and, below him, the contours of another body, motionless and awkwardly tangled in its own limbs.

Tyler’s forehead was slick with sweat. “Hey, did you call for help?” Alison shook her head. Tyler cursed. “Fine. Just, get down here. Bring the candle.” He turned back to her sister.

Alison climbed down the ladder, one hand on the rungs and the other carefully holding the candle. The ladder’s moorings had eroded and come loose from the wall of the pool, and the whole thing kept shifting every time she took a step. Halfway down, one of the rungs broke off in her grip and she fell. She landed hard on her ass and dropped the candle. Still lit, it threw a frantic, flickering patchwork of light and shadow across the tiled walls as it spun away from her.

“You okay?” Tyler called out from the gloom.

“Yeah,” Alison said. She stared dumbly at the metal rod clutched in her fist. Then she struggled to her feet, bringing the rung with her, and rubbed her aching tailbone with her free hand. She retrieved the candle and followed the low, wordless rhythm of Tyler’s voice.

He was crouching next to her sister. Amber’s right arm was curled under her body. One of her sandals was missing, and the pale, vulnerable arch of her left foot was exposed.

“Give me the candle,” Tyler said. She handed it to him, careful not to let their fingers touch. He placed it on the ground next to him. “She’s breathing, but I can’t get her to wake up.”

He gripped one of Amber’s shoulders and slipped his other hand behind her head. Her mouth fell open and a shudder rolled up the length of her body. She moaned, low and grating, and Tyler gently lowered her back down.

“Amber?” he asked, hands open and hovering over her. “Hey, can you hear me?” Her eyes fluttered open and closed like Morse code. She made a small, wounded noise, tilted her head to the side, then went still and quiet once more.

Tyler twisted back around to face Alison. His cheeks were flushed and his eyes were wide and imploring. He looked like a little boy.

“I think she’s waking up,” he said. He tried to smile. “Alison, I think she’ll be okay.”

Alison swayed on her feet, and Tyler reached out to steady her.

There was blood on his palms, her sister’s blood. A miserable, helpless desperation welled up in her, the relics of a year spent trying to placate Tyler’s ravenous malice and outrun the cruelty of his bulk and influence. She felt like she was back in the clearing under the cottonwoods, ensnared by the cage of Tyler’s fist hooked into the cloth above her heart, bracing herself for his savagery, until her sister’s voice had curled around the nightmare and torn it asunder. Now, Amber’s blood was between the webbing of Tyler’s fingers, curling down the curves of his wrists, and clotting in the coarse blond hairs on his forearms.

The thunderous drone of cicada song filled Alison’s skull, blanketed her sight, and left a brutal taste in the back of her mouth. Teeth clenched around a high, wordless cry, she lifted the rung of the ladder above her head and brought it down into the side of Tyler’s neck.

Tyler clutched at his throat. She saw the white of his eyes, his gaping mouth and the curl of his tongue, before she let the metal rod fall again. It struck him across his face. One of his flailing legs hit the candle. It spun away and went out. Even in the sudden darkness, Alison could sense the geography of his body, prostrate and thrashing below her. She brought the rung down as hard as she could, knew she had struck true by the feel of flesh-muffled impacts, and kept hitting him.

It wasn’t until he made a high, whirring noise like the sound of broken machinery that she stopped.

Her legs gave out, and she sat huddled and exhausted for a vague, timeless stretch in which she knew nothing at all. Conscious thought returned to her in increments; the cold press of tile against her bare legs, the deep ache in her arms and shoulders, and the faint, repetitive noises that she sluggishly realized were the familiar vowels and consonants of her name.

Amber’s voice floated through the gloom, crippled and soft. “Alison. Alison. Alison.”

“Amber?” Alison asked. She crawled to her sister’s side and fumbled blindly until she found her shoulder. She traced the line of her arm down to her hand. She gripped it and leaned close. Amber fell silent below her.

“Hey,” Alison said. “I’m right here. Can you hear me?”

Amber shifted and moaned. “M’head. Fuck,” she slurred, her words tripping and pressing against one another.

Amber’s skin was clammy, and Alison could smell the rich, cloying scents of urine and blood in the air around her. Alison wanted desperately to be able to see her, to find out by sight how badly she was hurt rather than by touch and sound and smell alone.

Amber garbled something unintelligible and tried to sit up. She only made it halfway before she toppled into Alison’s side and threw up in her lap.

“It’s okay. It’s alright,” Alison murmured. She soothed her sister until she had stopped trembling and retching. Eventually, Amber stilled and panted shallowly into the night around them.

“Hey, stay awake,” Alison said. “Do you think you could stand?” Amber squeezed her hand and nodded drunkenly against her collarbone.

They stumbled to their feet, Alison struggling under the heavy, weaving weight of her sister. Amber kept angling herself away from her, and when Alison slipped her fingers down the length of her arm and over her wrist, she found their phone still gripped tightly in Amber’s right hand. She must have never let it go, Alison realized. She must have clung to her hard-won prize even as she fell and cracked her skull wide open against tile and grout.

Alison laughed. “God, you’re so pigheaded. Give it here.”

“What?” Amber slurred. When Alison tried to pry it out of her hands, Amber fought back. Alison found herself in the precarious position of trying to wrestle the phone away from her sister while simultaneously holding her up. They tripped and almost fell twice before she was able to wrench it out of Amber’s grip.

“Jeez,” Alison huffed, but Amber seemed to have forgotten all about the scuffle from one moment to the next. She settled heavy and placid once more against Alison’s side.

The phone came alive at Alison’s touch, and she sighed in relief when she saw that, despite the cracked screen, the touchpad still worked. It dimly lit the darkness around them in a blue halo of light.

Alison had forgotten all about Tyler, who had at some point gone blessedly and unnervingly quiet. Now, with the faint light from the phone, she was surprised to find that they were standing right over him. She watched Amber’s eyes track and catch on the distorted, motionless outlines of his body. She waited for a reaction, but there was nothing in Amber but a vague, trancelike fixation. Her face was pale, and the back of her head was dark and wet, black blood curling down the sides of her neck and dripping from the ends of her hair.

“I’m going to call for help,” Alison said quietly. Amber broke from her stupor and shook her head sharply. The movement made her stumble, and Alison steadied her with her free hand.

“No,” Amber said thickly. “Gotta get straight.”


“Our stories. Gotta get’em straight.”

Dread settled cold in Alison’s stomach. She let the phone’s screen go out again.

In the heavy, blind darkness, Amber asked, “What happened?”

“We came out to meet him,” Alison answered, voice high and breathless. “We tricked him. You fought over the phone. You fell, and I hit him.”

“No, no, no,” Amber mumbled. She leaned her head against Alison’s shoulder, exhaled long and slow against her neck, and then asked again, “What really happened?”

Alison inhaled her sister’s damp, steady breaths. She focused on the familiar curl of Amber’s fingers against her side. Then she struggled away from her fear, like a snake from its skin, and left it cold and dead behind her. “Tyler asked you to meet him at the pool,” she said, surprised by how easy it was to say his name when she had demolished him, knocked him down to foundations of blood and bone, left the ruins of his flesh spread out before them. “I was worried. I followed you and I hid. You got into a fight and he pushed you. When he came down here to kill you, I stopped him.”

“Yes,” Amber said on the breath of a sigh. “Yes, that’s right. I remember now.”

Alison deleted the pictures from the phone, the ones of her with Tyler, and called 911. When she had finished, she and Amber stumbled to the pool’s ladder and started to climb.

Amber went first. Drops of her blood kept falling onto Alison’s bare arms and upturned face. Alison desperately bore Amber’s weight each time she missed a step or curled her fingers around nothing but air. It took them nearly ten minutes to make it over the lip of the pool, and when they did, Alison collapsed onto the concrete and panted up at the gray-sky dawn. Amber sat and slipped her legs over the pool’s edge, swinging them back and forth.

“Be careful,” Alison said. She crawled to Amber’s side and followed her gaze. The sun was just starting to tip over the horizon, but its faint clean light didn’t penetrate the shadows lapping at Amber’s feet. The pool was like the black mouth of a tomb, a place for death and remembrance and things better left buried.

Alison laid her head in Amber’s lap. “I just kept hitting him,” she said quietly. “Over and over and over again.”

Amber hummed low in her throat. “Good job,” she murmured. “But why’d you stop?”

The distant sound of approaching sirens cut through the air and echoed off the tiles below. Alison pressed her forehead into Amber’s thigh and slipped into a half-dreaming state. She dangled one arm over the ledge of the pool and skimmed her fingers through the darkness there. Amber settled her hands into Alison’s hair. Their breaths slowed, aligned, fell into sync.

Together, they waited.