MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
For Maddie Pencott LaRosa, newly sweet sixteen, the East Avalon fair, first of the season, was a coming-out party.
She strode down the fairway in Bitsy Smith’s pack, doubling her steps to keep up with the other girls. Bitsy, Vanessa, Gabrielle, and the newest recruits: Maddie and her best friend, Penny. Five pairs of angular hips bumping and bronzed shoulders rubbing, their long sun-lightened hair flowing behind in one stream of fiery light.
Maddie knew it was a coming-out for everyone on the eastern tip of Avalon Island, a chance to celebrate the end of a long, hard winter. The young mothers had painted their fingernails and tried out a new lip color; convinced their husbands to wear madras shorts, a Christmas gift ordered from a catalogue. Children raced down the fairway, candy apple in one hand, and in the other, a goldfish sloshing in a water-filled baggie. But Maddie felt all eyes pinned on her and the girls trailing Bitsy—the strands of her ringleader’s hair like golden threads of honey tying worker bees to their queen.
Everyone at East High knew Bitsy was the queen. Of the sassy head tilt, condescending eye roll, the who-the-fuck-do-you-think-you-are stance, one hip jutting as Bitsy’s sea-gray eyes slow-mo scanned Maddie up and down so it was crystal clear she judged every flawed bit. The new breasts Maddie had tried to hide under a sweatshirt all spring. The acne peppering her forehead, poorly concealed by uneven bangs she’d trimmed herself. Too impatient and broke—too stupid, she thought—to make an appointment at the salon in town.
Like the other girls, she’d worn white (a denim skirt and eyelet top), just as Bitsy had instructed over the phone the night before. Maddie caught her reflection in the window of the food truck selling fried chicken wings. She liked the way her tanned skin vibrated in contrast, and as the flashing bulbs of the Tilt-A-Whirl painted her uniform red-orange-blue-red-orange-blue it was like looking through a gem-filled kaleidoscope. Proof the night was as magical as she’d hoped it would be—dreams that had carried her through the winter of ’91 with its blizzards and the nor’easter turned perfect storm that had flooded the causeway, the island’s only exit. As she’d trudged through the snow toward the school bus stop, Tic Tac boxes filled with hot water tucked in the pockets of her peacoat, she’d imagined the fairway stretched like a green carpet across the town square. The carnival lights burning against an inky sky. She had tasted cotton candy melting on her tongue and heard the old-timey carousel tunes. The fair had been a present waiting to be unwrapped, held under her bulky sweaters all winter long, keeping her warm.
Now the air was sweet with the pastel cotton-candy clouds of her dreams. Caramel apples sweated in the new heat. Scents mingled—Love’s Baby Soft and Petite Naté for the girls and, for the ladies, perfumes with names that made virginal Maddie blush. Eternity. Obsession. Trésor.
The girls passed the dunking booth, where a toothy, smiling Tina Meyer sat. Tina was captain of the cheerleading team and president of SADD (Students Against Drunk Driving), and, Maddie had heard from bigmouth Vanessa, infamous for giving Troy Mayhew a blowjob in the back of the football bus on the drive home from an away game. A crowd of teenage boys (a few Maddie recognized) in blue-and-white varsity jackets—felted wildcats lunging across the white leather, teeth bared, claws sprung—circled the tank, their energy fanning out like the ripples in the pond behind St. John’s Church.
“Soak the slut!” a boy yelled.
The buzzer brayed and Tina Meyer dropped into the water. A few cold drops hit Maddie’s cheek and she wiped them away, careful not to smear her makeup. She watched as the dripping girl pulled herself from the black water streaked with colored light and back onto her perch—every curve outlined under her soaked Wildcats T-shirt. She was shivering, her lips gone purplish. Maddie barely knew Tina but wished someone would rescue her.
“For fucksake,” Bitsy said so everyone could hear, including Tina, “cover the girl so we don’t have to look at her mutant nipples!”
“Tsss, burn,” Vanessa hissed, nodding in approval. “The girl is cuttin’ glass!”
Gabrielle threw an I-told-you-so smirk over her shoulder, her long blond waves slicing through the air. “That twat better pray she don’t get gang raped in the parking lot.”
The girls giggled and Maddie felt like she was wading through a shower of shattered glass. She knew they loved nothing more than a good laugh, especially if it was the punch line to humiliating someone. Self-righteousness buoyed them so they walked on air, and Maddie felt their stride accelerate, as powerful as the engines of the Grudder Wildcats that flew in formation over the island every Fourth of July.
She tried to imagine what people saw. Girls? Women? Young ladies? Wasn’t that what her grandmother’s friends at the club called her? What a fine young lady. But there’d been rumors flying around the corridors of East High that spring—Bitsy Smith and her clique were wild girls. Fun girls. Up for a good time.
Maddie watched Bitsy prance ahead, her flawlessly straight hair swinging in time with her swiveling hips. Swish, swish, swish. Like the mane of Smith’s Farragut, the champion horse Bitsy rode in shows, named for the first admiral in the navy, whose life story Maddie and all the island kids had memorized in grade school. Gabrielle, second in command, was the curviest, and Maddie was sure she saw Gabrielle’s lacy underwear through her snug white shorts. Vanessa, Bitsy’s unofficial bodyguard, was sporting newly filled-out breasts aided by a push-up bra she’d bragged about lifting from Victoria’s Secret. And finally, there was Penny, Maddie’s best friend, who, Maddie thought, desperately needed a bra to shape the two mounds hanging loose under her Izod button-down.
Their bodies were no longer childish. Still, Maddie needed to think of them as girls. She wasn’t ready for what came next, whatever it was, but there was a fever in the air, hovering above the rattle of the popcorn machine and the shudder of the Zipper careening over old rails. She heard the sizzle of a sparkler; then a balloon popped with a crack and the crowd whooped and a child gasped; and, suddenly, Maddie believed in hearts leaping and swelling, breaking and exploding. Scenarios she’d come to long for after watching videos on MTV and listening to love ballads DJ Spinbad played on Z100.3. When Whitney Houston hit those yearning-filled high notes in “I Will Always Love You” (every other hour it seemed), Maddie turned up the radio, rolled her car windows down, lit a Kent King 100 she’d stolen from her grandmother’s pantry, put the pedal to the metal, and sang along, free from the fear that she might embarrass herself.
As the pulsing bass of the fair’s most popular ride, the Gravitron, soaked into the soles of her sandals, slithered up her calves, her thighs, and reached inside her, she believed something was on its way. How could she not? She was young and beautiful—or, at least, pretty enough, she thought—at a time in life when being young and beautiful seemed like the answer to everything.
The girls passed game after game—ringtoss and Whac-A-Mole and darts and, Maddie’s favorite, the one where you shot water from a plastic pistol into a balloon that stretched and stretched, then burst with a splash. But there was no stopping without Bitsy’s permission, and who wanted any of those junky prizes anyway—the sad-eyed stuffed panda bears as big as golden retrievers Maddie had longed for as a child, or the lethargic goldfish scooped from a tank. The fish never lasted more than a day.
She’d prepared for the fair. Ironed her jean skirt, double-shaved her legs, used Nair to remove the downy fur on her upper lip. She cleaned out the bottom drawer in the fridge, took the lemons her dad stuffed in his roast chicken, and, man, would he be pissed when he found out. She’d squeezed one after another over her long brown hair and lay out to tan on a faded bath towel spread over the hard asphalt of the driveway, praying the juice turned her hair buttery with highlights. Who cared that it wasn’t technically summer? Or that her skin prickled in the wind gusting in from the Sound? Bitsy, miraculously, had been tan for weeks, her hair striped blond, so she glowed like the sunset that burned along shore each night.
Maddie had been tempted to buy a bottle of Sun In at Genovese Drug Store but feared the peroxide spray could turn her hair a garish copper. Last week, Bitsy had ripped Penny a new one when she showed up on the last day of school a freakish bronze from one of those tan-in-a-bottle creams. The skin between her fingers as brown as mud. Vanessa had teased Penny all week, using the few words of Spanish she knew. Hola, Miss Penelope! Her fake accent and rolling r’s making Maddie glance around to see if anyone had heard.
“Patience is a virtue,” Bitsy had said to Penny in a motherly tone, then added, “Think before you fucking do, dumdum, ’kay?”
Gliding through life as a member of Bitsy’s pack was like riding a roller coaster for the first time—every dip and swerve thrilling but also gut-flipping, so Maddie didn’t know if the girls might praise her one minute (Oh my God, Maddie, how’d you get your hair to shine like that?) and knock her down the next (Too bad your dad, like, gave you his Eye-talian skin—have you tried Clearasil?).
At least, Maddie thought, she didn’t worship Bitsy blindly like Penny did. As they strode past the Captain’s Ship, the screams of its passengers rising as the ride arced into the night sky, she spotted Penny biting into a fried zeppole ball—her mouth a smear of frosted lip gloss and powdered sugar; the thin white-blond hair Maddie had straightened before the fair already crimping.
“Quit messing with your hair, Pen,” Maddie whispered as they paraded past food carts selling slick pizza slices and heroes spilling ribbons of beef.
“What?” Penny lifted her greasy fingers to her hair.
Penny stuck her tongue out at Maddie before taking another bite of the sugary dough.
That night, Penny’s parents, Major and Mrs. Whittemore, had been out of the house, knocking back martinis and manhattans at the Oyster Cove Country Club cocktail hour—their Saturday-night ritual. So Maddie and Penny had blasted “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the major’s stereo, screaming the chorus until the nonsensical lyrics had felt like a prayer. A command sent out to the world to listen the fuck up. Here we are now, entertain us/ A mulatto/ An albino/ A mosquito/ My libido/ Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!
They had chased shots of Absolut stolen from Penny’s older sisters’ stash with pink cans of Mrs. Whittemore’s Tab, and Penny, who pretended not to give one shit about her looks, let Maddie rub blush into her ruddy cheeks and dab shadow on her lids, so she looked more like a girl who belonged in Bitsy Smith’s crew and less like the ugly duckling of the five Whittemore girls—all blond, blue-eyed, and Ivy League–bound beauties, a living ad for Avalon Island.
As she had combed through Penny’s thinning hair, her Twin Turbo blow-dryer filling the room with the scent of singed scalp, strands came loose until the oriental carpet was coated in fine gold threads. She knew it was only a matter of time before Penny would have to wear a wig.
Penny had been far beyond the margins of Bitsy’s clique when a seizure in sixth-period chemistry led doctors to the tumor in her brain. A status that had scored Penny overnight popularity, and an invitation to join Bitsy’s crew—penned in Bitsy’s own bubbly script on her personalized stationery. Good for one official membership in the FRESHEST DOPEST gang of bitches at East High! When Maddie had opened her own locker, the same rainbow-print envelope had fallen to the floor. She’d been sure it was a prank. Like in that TV after-school special where the fat girl is invited into the sorority only to be humiliated half-naked in front of their brother fraternity. She knew she had Penny and her cancer to thank for her place in Bitsy’s clique, and reminded herself of this when Penny’s klutzy jokes fell flat and Maddie felt the urge to shush her, or, worse, tell her to shut it for once.
Penny insisted her doctors were optimistic she’d be plowing across the lacrosse field in no time, carrying the East High Wildcats to another county championship. And how serious could it be, Maddie thought, when there were other sick kids, especially on the west side, where her father’s side of the family—the LaRosas—lived, near the factory and commercial streets crowded with gas stations and car washes and shops like her uncle Carmine’s garage, Panther Autobody?
The fairway was packed. No surprise, she thought, the east islanders turning out big only days after graffiti—black, dripping, three-foot-tall letters—scarred the steps of City Hall, and, more shocking, the tall stone obelisk (Bitsy had a bunch of nicknames for it—“The Shaft,” “Dick Tower,” “Needle Dick”) in the center of Town Square, a memorial to pilots killed in battle flying Grudder planes.
GRUDDER IS CANCER
Maddie had seen the words herself, only a few hours before the factory sent men to blast the memorial with a power washer, drape Needle Dick with wreaths of red, white, and blue carnations, and plant like a hundred flags around the monument. A little much, she thought. Like they were asking to get tagged a second time. She guessed she wasn’t alone in hoping the graffiti bandit (that’s what the kids were calling him) would strike again. On Avalon, rules were rarely broken, and the thrill of such a blatant up yours to Grudder felt like a jump-start to the summer. Like anything was possible.
Even the old men who ran Grudder, some of them navy men like her grandfather, made an appearance that night. Sure enough, she saw they were trying extra hard—navy blues knife-edge creased, clusters of medals polished so high they flashed under the carnival lights. An FU back at the graffiti bandit shitting on Old Ironsides in her own backyard.
Bitsy led them past a group of moms Maddie recognized from the PTA, their blond helmets varnished with Aqua Net. Maddie tasted the metallic tang. A wall of humidity had rolled in from the Sound that morning and the ladies of East Avalon, Maddie included, had blown out their hair, and, in some cases, like mouthy Vanessa, who had natural corkscrew curls, used a hot iron.
Bitsy had lectured new recruits Maddie and Penny on the kind of beauty that made East girls. Curls are too ethnic. Leave the kinks to the Hispanic girls in Avalon Point near the ferry landing and the Jews in Rosedale on the mainland where Maddie’s family ordered Chinese takeout.
Do not go ape shit with the makeup, Bitsy had preached. God forbid they look like the big-haired, gum-snapping West Avalon girls, who lined their lips with brown pencil, caked on the foundation, and hung out at the Walt Whitman shopping center on the mainland because they had nothing better to do. Mall maggots, Bitsy called them. Now an official East girl, Maddie learned she had a duty to mock the West High kids. Even if her cousins, the twins Vinny and Enzo, went to West High. Even if her uncle Carmine owned the busiest auto body shop on the west side.
She knew some might say she’d always been an East girl, having lived on the east side her whole life, and behind the gates of one of its grandest estates, but she felt her otherness, knew she wasn’t east or west but caught between. Every month, she watched her mother sit at the kitchen table and write out a check for a single dollar in her shaky cursive—to Colonel and Mrs. Robert Pencott—and stuff it in an envelope addressed to her grandparents’ condo in Florida. A reminder that, although, like her mother, Maddie had never known another home, they were temporary tenants in the cramped groundskeeper’s cottage squatting like a forest mushroom in the shadow of her grandparents’ nine-bedroom limestone Tudor, White Eagle.
She watched Penny take T. rex–size steps in her high-heeled sandals, reassurance that at least she wasn’t most out of place in Bitsy’s crew. While Penny’s horsey teeth and woman-wide hips threw their herd symmetry off-kilter—she didn’t even pop her zits!—it guaranteed Maddie was the good recruit, Bitsy’s star pupil. But as they passed the panicked squeals of the pig race, she felt the jagged half-heart charm under her shirt and felt a prick of guilt. For her sixteenth birthday, Penny had given her one of those Best Friends Forever necklaces from Piercing Pagoda at the mall, and together they’d cracked the charm in two.
They found their brother pack at the Hoop Shoot game. The cluster of East boys Bitsy and her girls took turns dating and dumping gathered around Gerritt Driscoll, the boys’ version of Bitsy, as he shot basket after basket. Yellow paper coupons spilled onto the torn grass. Enough, Maddie guessed, for a dozen sad-eyed pandas. Gerritt scored and the boys let out a roar, snapping their fingers against the canisters of mint-flavored Kodiak tobacco dip they packed between their lower lips and gums.
The boys were also in uniform—khaki shorts and striped rugby tees; sun-lightened hair buzzed military short like their fathers and grandfathers, many retired navy men turned factory suits. Soccer star/weed dealer Ricky Bell; smooth-talking Austin Drake; chubby, Grateful Dead–obsessed Cameron Rollins (Rolo); and John Anderson, who was tall and thick, a die-hard Beastie Boys fan Maddie had seen eat a live earthworm in a middle school dare a few years back.
Spencer Fox, Gerritt’s second in command, nodded at Maddie before tossing his head back to clear feathered bangs. She made herself return the smile. They were supposed to be going together, although she had no clue how that had come about. Only that he’d slipped her a note in third-period social studies during a pop quiz on the Magna Carta, asking her to be his date to the Fourth of July Oyster Cove Country Club party, now less than a month away. The note said he wanted to ditch the dance and sneak out to the tennis courts behind the pool cabanas, where I’m going to finger you till you cum. The words in sloppy boy-scrawl had made her stomach flip, but Bitsy only laughed and said, “What are you bugging about? Chill, Virgin Mary. You’ll be totally dope together. Unicorns and rainbows and all that shit.”
Spencer walked toward her in that bowlegged saunter all the soccer-team guys had. She knew he was going to touch her and that she’d let him. She knew all the cues by now and smiled when she was supposed to; laughed along; spoke up when it was her turn, shut up when it wasn’t; took a drag, a swig; let Spencer feel her up even though it made her gut clench like she was getting her period.
His hand was on her back, his fingers low. When they slipped under her skirt waistband, she let them stay. She counted one, two, three. She’d wait until ten to shift away, not wanting to look like a prude.
“You’re looking superfly,” he said.
“What up, Spence?” Maddie said. “You’re looking pretty fine yourself.”
She knew she didn’t sound like herself. Feared she was trying too hard. A prickly heat spread across her chest and she prayed it wouldn’t rise above her collar.
Four, five, six.
Spencer spat a stream of brown tobacco juice into the grass.
“We’re chilling at Gerritt’s later,” he said. “Pulling bong hits. He scored some choice nugs. Believe me, you want to be there.”
His pupils were two black marbles. He was already stoned. Or rolling on E. Or maybe he’d eaten some of the shrooms Gerritt and his boys had been taste-testing all week—according to Gabrielle, who was anxious to get her hands on some.
As “Pop Goes the Weasel” warbled over the carousel speakers, Spencer’s damp fingers slipped under her underwear elastic—seven, eight—
The caterpillar inched across the top of her hand. It wore a coat of fine black bristles. She’d seen a few on the silvery birch trees edging the woods around her family’s cottage, and that spring, everyone had been obsessed with the hatching of the gypsy moth eggs that had lain in wait all winter long in the woods—from Mr. Skolnick, her science teacher (Repeat after me, he’d said, Lymantria dispar dispar) to the newscasters on Channel 12 Island News, and even her younger brother, Dominic. They used words like “plague” and “infestation,” and soon the kids talked about the caterpillars as if it were an impending war. Or, Maddie thought, a horror film scheduled to roll at the Avalon Cinema. The caterpillars are coming. They’re coming. As they passed a blunt rolled with marijuana shake around the bonfire, filled plastic cups with beer from a keg in the back of John Anderson’s Bronco, snuck cigarettes at the red doors that led to the make-out woods behind school. As they waited on line at the cafeteria for pizza and Tater Tots, warmed up during choral practice, and changed for gym in the locker room. Until Maddie felt something titanic rushing toward the island, gathering steam like a nor’easter barreling toward shore, and the waiting filled with a tingling urgency she knew they all felt. She felt it. Car engines revved harder, highs soared higher, buzzes and crushes burned brighter.
“Look.” She lifted her palm as the insect inched across. The two lines of blue and red dots on its back glimmered like spots of blood rising after a pinprick. “They’re here.”
Spencer moved closer, his hand sliding up so it rested over the plastic latch of her bra.
“Killer,” he said. She smelled the minty tobacco packed so thick his lower lip bulged, slurring his words. “The motherfucking caterpillar apocalypse is upon us.”
“So cute!” Penny gushed.
Spencer looked at Penny with glassy-eyed disgust and Maddie knew he’d punish her enthusiasm.
“Fuck cute.” He blew into Maddie’s palm.
“No.” She stopped, knowing she was being a baby, feeling a beat of despair for a bug.
As it floated away on an invisible thread (She got away, Maddie thought defiantly) and up into the oak branches stretched black against the plum sky, she heard Bitsy, a flame edging her voice, “Those west-side scumbags are over there.”
Vanessa bounced on her toes like she did when there were fights at school, and like the time she hid a pair of panties, the crotch coated in ketchup, in Karen Lipschultz’s school locker.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “So not cool, them showing up at our fair.”
There were Maddie’s cousins, Vinny and Enzo, trying to look all gangster in cowboy hats on the photo stage, a platform set up next to the bouncy house where Ms. Murphy, the mustachioed East High gym teacher, squatted, snapping Polaroid shots.
The West girls were draped two at a time on her cousins’ laps and wrapped in feather boas and fringed shawls like old-fashioned saloon whores. If not for the tense silence around her, Maddie would’ve laughed. Vinny and Enzo were obsessed with keeping it cool, and here they were playing dress-up.
She slipped an arm around Spencer’s waist. Tickled the fuzz of his earlobe with her lips, hoping it would convince him to take her faraway, fast.
“Can we go now? To Gerritt’s?”
If she and Bitsy and the rest of the East crew were girls, Maddie thought, then the West girls were grown women. In padded bras and tight jeans—the cuffs pegged to show off every curve. She saw how they’d cropped their neon-orange and -pink tees, knotting the cotton above their navels. To show off their piercings. The cubic zirconia gems dangling from their belly buttons glimmered each time the camera flashed. She wondered if they’d done the piercing themselves. She’d heard all you needed was an ice cube, a safety pin, and a lighter, but had been too much of a wimp to try.
She recognized the girl standing at the stage edge—too cool to smile cheese for the camera. Carla. A sometimes girlfriend of Maddie’s cousin Enzo. Her dark hair was pulled back in a dozen scalp-tight braids, and from the end of each hung a rainbow of plastic beads. When she turned to look at Bitsy’s crew, the braids swayed click-clack like a beaded curtain. The girl puffed on a hand-rolled cigarette. As if, Maddie thought, Ms. Murphy, infamous at East High for doling out detention, wasn’t a few feet away, her cheeks pressed to the camera.
She knew these were the girls her cousins bragged about after family dinners at Nonna LaRosa’s house on the west side, when the boys played poker with the men and Maddie helped her aunts clear the table for pastries and espresso. Her cousins took these girls to the bowling alley on the mainland and the Avalon Cinema downtown, groped them in the backseat of the red Cougar the boys shared. Vinny had tinted the windows himself at the auto shop. Windows so dark, she’d heard Enzo boast, a girl could suck him off in broad daylight.
It wasn’t the girls she feared, although the way Carla stared—her eyes feline with black liquid liner—was enough to make anyone bug. And Maddie knew she’d catch serious shit from her cousins for hanging out with the elite East girls (rich bitches, Enzo might say). But that wasn’t it either. It was her dad. Vinny had a big mouth. If he ratted on her, she’d come home one night, tomorrow, the next week, who knew, to her dad sitting at the kitchen table. Waiting. The chair would topple back, his belt buckle jangling, the belt slithering out of his pant loops like a leather snake. And she’d get it bad.
Bitsy groaned. “Who invited these hoes to our party?”
More laughter from the East girls. An all-out guffaw from Vanessa, who always had to outdo everyone.
“Like, all of a sudden,” Gabrielle said, “it smells straight-up rank.” Ending with a back-of-the-throat uck like she was hocking a loogie.
Then, for some reason even Penny wouldn’t be able to explain later when Maddie asked what the hell she’d been thinking, Penny shouted, her voice ringing above the loudspeaker announcing the start of the sack races, “All that cotton candy’s gonna make your fat asses even fatter!”
The West girls came to, climbing off Maddie’s cousins’ laps. Straightening, stretching. Like she-lions waking in the afternoon sun. They shifted their hands to their hips and their rhinestone-studded nails flashed.
“What. The. Fuck.” Gabrielle rolled her eyes hard at Penny. “You so just asked to get our asses kicked.”
They turned to Bitsy. She was rattled. Maddie spotted the muscle in her jaw twitching. But Bitsy shifted into leader-of-the-pack mode, lifted her arm, and gave the West girls a ballsy middle finger.
Vanessa joined in, “Get lost, skanks!”
Gabrielle, her chin jutting back and forth chickenlike, imitated the West accent—the vowels stretched and doubled, as if words were saltwater taffy: “Ava-LAWN-EYE-land!”
When Penny joined in, Vanessa gave her an approving up-nod. Maddie felt a hiccup of panic. How was Penny fitting in when she wasn’t?
The West girls were like a troupe of exotic dancers—rolling necks, swiveling hips, arms lifting out and up like the swans in the bay before takeoff.
Who you talking to?
Step on up and get some of this!
Gerritt and his boys turned from the basketball game to watch. Laughing at East or West girls, Maddie couldn’t tell, but she heard John Anderson say, “Crazy bitches.”
She knew she should pitch in, and words like “sluts” and “trash” moved through her head, but when the carousel music started up again—this time playing “It’s a Small World”—she froze. She, and Bitsy—all the East girls—no longer seemed like untouchable beauties but more like deer emerging after hibernation. Knob-kneed and awkward-footed, their noses sniffing the air for danger.
Carla stepped to the edge of the stage so the toes of her black lace-up Doc Martens hung over. She pinched her cigarette and flicked it. Maddie watched the cherry-red ember arc through the air. The butt landed with a sizzle as it bounced off Bitsy’s white T-shirt.
“Shit!” Gabrielle pawed at Bitsy’s chest.
Bitsy shoved her away. “I’m fine! Can everyone just shut the fuck up for a minute?”
It was the first time Maddie had seen Bitsy lose her cool.
Vanessa spoke through clamped teeth, “She did not just do that.”
She lunged toward the stage with the same powerful advance Maddie had seen her use on the lacrosse field.
“V!” Bitsy shouted. “Take a chill pill, girl.”
Vanessa did an about-face pivot. “Catch you losers later!” she sang.
Bitsy smiled. “I’m not gonna let these butt uglies kill my buzz.”
She raised her hands in a W, thumbs touching, palms open. As in whatever. Like it was no big deal, Maddie thought.
“Let’s bounce,” Bitsy said, pulling at the back of Gerritt’s cuffed white tee so his chest muscles stood out in relief. “I’ll buy you some cheese fries at the Golden Dolphin.”
When Bitsy released his shirt, he sprang toward the photo stage.
Bitsy called after him, “Don’t let those welfare rats get to you, baby.”
Maddie saw her lurking smile. Bitsy wanted him to avenge her.
Gerritt jogged toward the photo stage. His boys, including Spencer, followed him—a loping chain of boy-man bodies.
Her cousin Enzo—what a show-off—leapt off the stage and swaggered toward Gerritt, one arm slack behind, as if winding up to throw one of the strikes he was famous for as West High’s champion pitcher. He still wore the black cowboy hat and she spotted a leather holster on his hip, the silver butt of a toy gun glinting. Her brother, Dom, had one like it when they were kids. Bang-bang! You’re dead, Maddie!
The boys met between the photo stage and the bouncy house. The hiss of the air pump and rattle of the roller coaster made it impossible to hear but she saw Gerritt’s lips moving. His boys stood at his elbows in V formation, collars turned up, chins cocked. One, two, three West boys showed up in black jean cutoffs and faded heavy-metal tees. Metallica, Def Leppard, Nine Inch Nails. A pack of panthers, Maddie thought. Haunches flexed and ready to lunge. East boys were wiry soccer and lacrosse players. The Wildcats football team sucked for a reason. She doubted any had thrown a real punch, one meant to bloody. But she knew the West boys had—they’d pummeled one another, drunk fathers, pervert uncles, PCP-wrecked older brothers, and God knows who else.
Gerritt and Enzo were doing the dance—bobbing foot to foot, so close their chests brushed and the cowboy hat tumbled off her cousin’s head. His spiky gelled hair gleamed like black ice.
Her cugini had been Maddie’s holiday pals all her life. Every New Year’s Eve at midnight, they beat pots and pans in front of Nonna’s house, and every Christmas Eve, the twins’ parents, Maddie’s uncle Carmine and aunt Mariana, hosted the Feast of the Seven Fishes. Four courses of sardines, squid, and octopus; and long pieces of dried baccala soaking in salty water—cod caught by her father and uncle far out in frigid sea. But her cousins were boys then. Stick-thin, squeaky-voiced, and terrified of their father’s backhanded slaps. Now they’d earned muscles working at the garage—their forearms roped with green and blue veins as thick as the wires under the hoods of the cars they repaired. They smelled like cigarettes and engine grease and sex, and dared to step up to their father, who she’d seen back away.
Vinny was still onstage, glaring at the throng of boys, making a big show of tucking his cigarette pack into his shirtsleeve, rolled up to reveal the panther, eyes like emeralds, tattooed on his shoulder.
Like he was badass Dallas from The Outsiders, Maddie thought, and almost smiled.
“What’s happening?” Penny asked.
“Nothing. They’re just being meatheads.”
“I don’t feel so good.”
Penny’s pupils were even bigger than Spencer’s. Black globes swimming against icy blue.
“Did you take something?”
“A little something-something,” Penny slurred. “Ricky had these pills.”
Penny leaned into her and Maddie felt the cold clamminess of her friend’s skin.
She tried to convince herself there was no point in thinking about what came next. A fight? Penny puking all over the wedged espadrilles Maddie had begged her mother to buy? And next week, after her father heard she’d been at the fair with Bitsy Smith’s crew. Or later that summer in the soupy August heat of the West Avalon fair, where her cousins expected Maddie at their side as they cruised that other fairway in the parking lot of the fire station, surrounded by families who worked down on the Grudder assembly line, not in the upper-floor offices. She knew that, by August, her white jeans would be grass-stained, her tan turned to freckle, the seat of her bikini bottoms pilled after too many swims in the salty ocean. The promise she felt tonight spent, swept away with the tide.
Enzo bumped Gerritt’s chest with his own and a gasp rose from Bitsy and the girls.
“There’s a smack-down coming.” Vanessa jumped up and down, her breasts heaving.
Maddie felt it too. Shit was going off. Like a boxful of fireworks. She wished she had stayed at home, played her younger brother Dominic’s make-believe games in the cool dark woods. She was still young enough, wasn’t she?
Bitsy, Vanessa, and Gabrielle, maybe even Penny, wanted the boys to fight. Didn’t they know it wasn’t like in the movies where an orchestra played in the background as the camera slow-moed the punches so it looked like a ballet? Maddie had felt her dad’s clumsy swings land on her back, her boobs, her butt. She’d fought back. A spastic flailing. Her chin doubling ugly. Fighting was snot and tears and breathless grunts, and once, when her dad had come after her with the broom, she’d peed herself.
Then all heads turned. The boys froze. As if a spell had been cast, Maddie thought. They looked beyond the stage to the main fairway strung with round glass bulbs.
“Cool.” Penny giggled. “Black people.”
“Shut up,” Gabrielle hissed. “Haven’t you seen The Cosby Show?”
As if Gabrielle had ever talked to a black person, Maddie thought. As if any of them had. The only nonwhite residents of the island were the Korean American Park family who owned Cougar Cleaners.
“Who the fuck are they?” Bitsy said.
All of East Avalon stared at the pretty blond woman, fair and freckled, strolling arm in arm with a light-skinned teenage boy so handsome he could’ve been in one of the Benetton ads Maddie had seen on the sides of buses in the city. Beautiful and happy (she’d never seen smiles so big) white-, black-, brown-, and yellow-skinned children posing in bright sweaters, arms slung around one another’s shoulders.
He looked her age. Sixteen. Maybe seventeen. The apple in his throat bobbed as he spoke to the woman, who, Maddie guessed, must be his mother. But the way they strolled down the fairway, elbows linked, foreheads touching as they shared a private joke—she’d never seen a teenage boy enchanted by his own mom.
His skin was all those sugary words she’d heard East Avalon ladies, her grandmother Veronica included, call the Hispanic girls who cleaned their houses. Cocoa. Cinnamon. Café au lait. Like they were Easter bunnies sold in the windows of Bon Bon Chocolatier downtown. And here she was, she thought, a hypocrite, imagining the warmth of his skin as a spiraling heat sparked in her belly.
A black man walked behind the white woman and brown boy, carrying a pigtailed little girl the same shade as the handsome boy-man. Maddie saw Principal Haskell staring at the man, and his wife, Gloria, who sang in the St. John’s choir; and Suzie Schumacher and Joy Linden and the rest of the PTA mothers who speed-walked in a pack around the East High track each morning, rain or shine. Even the ancient uniformed navy vets and their corsage-pinned wives paused to look.
The man was as dark as the Africans she’d seen in the stack of National Geographic magazines at the school library. His skin was almost a purplish black. She understood, with a queasy jolt, why her father, uncle, even Vinny and Enzo, called Troy and Mike—the two blacks who worked at the garage and lived on the mainland—“moolies.” Behind their backs. It was Neapolitan dialect for “eggplant.” That’s racist, she thought numbly. Then: Am I?
The man was striking, tall and lean like one of her mom’s favorite actors—Sidney Poitier. He smiled politely at the people his wife greeted, shifting the little girl in his arms so he could shake hands with a line of Grudder men. Then Maddie saw the pits of his shirt were stained with sweat; the smile he gave the old uniformed men forced; and, suddenly, she felt like a tool having yearned for this night all winter. She saw it clearly now—the pig races and fried dough and clueless shivering Tina Meyer and her giant nipples.
“Oh fuck,” Gabrielle said from behind.
Bitsy and the girls had formed a circle, their glossy heads tilted toward the ground. There lay Penny, back impossibly arched, lips pulled back, pink gums bared, trembling as if the earth beneath her was quaking.
Maddie knelt over her, tried to catch her head pitching side to side.
“Shhh,” she cooed, pressing her hands into Penny’s thinning hair. “You’re okay. You’re okay!”
She looked up for help and saw them. One, two, three—too many to count. An army of caterpillars floated overhead on gossamer thread. She couldn’t tell if they were rising or falling.
Copyright © 2017 by Julia Fierro