The Range Rover is cherry-red, so shiny it almost looks wet. The Harper kids are strapped into their car seats, the suitcases are stacked in the trunk. The sweating water bottles have been retrieved from the fridge in the garage, the garage door has been closed with a mechanical creak. The radio is probably tuned to the staticky jazz station Dave loves. Seven seconds after the Harpers pull out of the driveway, they pull right back in, and Cynthia rushes back into the house, slamming doors and cabinets, flinging piles of clothes. Dave gets out of the car to help her find whatever she is looking for and the kids start whining, Mom, when are we leaving? Dave kisses Cynthia’s forehead, We’ll get you a new pair, the car doors slam shut again and the Range Rover pulls out, one more time, into the dull heat of Palm Canyon Drive.
Iris has been crouching in the gravel behind the giant agave plant on the corner of the Harpers’ property for what feels like hours. Her skin prickles. She thinks of Jewel, his sweet face, the way the color drained out of it this morning in the power plant. She fingers the cool dark tortoiseshell. Slides Cynthia’s sunglasses onto the bridge of her nose. They slide back down. Too big. She will wait here, in the shade of the agave, for another fifteen minutes, maybe twenty, just to be sure. By now, she knows how often families forget important things and have to return home to retrieve them. She counts the seconds, thinks about the swimming pool in the backyard. She imagines the look of it quaking blue and steady after a cannonball, what the water will feel like on her grimed skin. How the stink of her will rinse away, how the itch will dissolve and the cramps will work their way out of her calves.
The Hide-A-Key, which is meant to resemble a small rock, is kept in an obvious spot: next to a terracotta flowerpot, just to the left of the front door. Iris knows this because she found it there, right where it has probably always been, three days ago, when she came here with Jewel. That was when she took Cynthia’s sunglasses, swiped them off the kitchen counter, just to see if she could. It was almost laughable, how easy it had been. Lots of things were like that, if you paid attention.
Iris knows she is a family’s worst fear. She knows how her hair hangs lank, how the bones ripple in her sternum. She is all sinew, no meat. Jagged purple splinter of a scar snaking down her forehead, along the side of her nose, across her lips and down her chin. Eyes like two holes. Hands quick and small, sticky with something, always. She’s the reason people lock their car doors at intersections, the reason mothers look away: Iris and Jewel doped up slow and sludgy, moving like they’re underwater. Iris cradling Jewel’s matted head in her lap like something precious, bruised legs draped across the metal of the bus station bench.
It was Jewel who had shown her how to cook the drug on a piece of tinfoil, how to suck the curl of white smoke with the sawed-off end of a milkshake straw. One rule, he’d told her. Never shoot.
They met under the bleachers on the football field at her high school. Iris had taken to eating her lunch there. It was quiet and there was shade and she liked the feel of the dry grass bristling under her, etching patterns into the backs of her thighs. Sometimes it was too hot, but anything was better than the cafeteria, its stink of heating lamps and tinfoil, its bright cruel sea of faces and voices. She had never been a pretty girl, not even before the accident, but the scar seemed to give the others too much fuel. She liked it better out here, alone, nothing but stripes of shadow and light, dirt, crushed soda cans, a wobbly trail of ants that she watched as she chewed. She always forgot about ants until this time of year, when they emerged from nowhere to feed on any stray trickle of moisture. A scene from years ago: her mother soaking paper towels in boiling water, mopping up the ants that plagued their kitchen each September.
I’ve seen you before. The dark shape of him appearing suddenly there under the silver slats, where before there had been nothing. A mouth crowded with teeth, eyes like chips of sea glass. He wore a dark green army jacket—all wrong for this weather, Santa Ana season, a blur of heat rippling the edge of the football field.
I’ve seen you, too, she said, and she had: leaning up against an old white Volvo in the parking lot at lunch, after school. Handshakes with the fast crowd. There and then gone. A dealer. He had his own apartment, a job at the 7-Eleven. She’d heard them talk about him, too. Got some treats from Jewel.
Do you even go here? It came out bitchier than she meant it, and something flickered across his face; a smear of cloud passing briefly over the sun. She remembered the way the sky looked on the morning her father left: a heady, roiling blue-gray. A car idling in the drive and her mother standing wordless in the doorframe. Most of all she remembered how quiet it was. No cabinets clattering, no shouts. Just her father, leaving.
I’m saving up to leave town, Jewel said. Everything dies here, he said. Just look at this grass.
Then: Just look at our parents.
This made her smile. He was going to be a musician, he told her. Right there, under the bleachers, with a voice like velvet, he sang her a song he’d written himself.
I like your scar, he said. Makes you look tough.
The bell rang across the quad. I have to go to class, Iris said.
Why? He said, and grinned. He ripped a piece of paper out of his notebook, scribbled an address down, crumpled it into her hand.
I’m there most nights. Come by sometime. We can sing a duet.
Three cheerleaders bounced on the other side of the bleachers, ponytails whirring, white sneakers flashing. Iris and Jewel watched through the slats, an electricity growing between them. The bell rang across the quad, shrill and violent.
I have to go to class, Iris said, again, but she didn’t move to get up. She looked back at the squat gray high school. The cheerleaders, skirts flapping in hot wind. Already these things looked like relics from sometime long ago, a time she could barely remember.
The first time she tried it, she threw up in the sink, insides shuddering. Pale wisp of a girl, lungs burning, mouth raw, ribs quaking, there in that dingy bathroom in Jewel’s ground-floor apartment. Above her, a ceiling fan hummed. She watched her face in the toothpaste-splattered mirror: a hint of father in the chin, in the curve of lower lip. Inside of her, something unfurled. A woozy calm, slinking slow and honeyed up the backs of her legs.
You’re feeling it. Jewel’s voice spooled out from the bathtub behind her, though it sounded like it was coming from another universe. She smiled and closed her eyes, sitting down on the edge of the tub. He reached for her and she let herself fall back into him.
It felt like the sun beating down on closed eyelids. Like watching a yellow leaf fall in slow motion, like digging your bare feet into warm sand, like falling asleep at night in the backseat of a car driving home—feeling the familiar curves of the road beneath you and the air spilling in through an open window and the low push of voices in the front seat—no distinct words, just sounds. Smooth-edged, blunt. Perfect. Nothing else existed but the warm, safe pocket of this moment.
She had felt a version of this feeling before. Four years ago, when she was twelve, her mother’s boyfriend, Hank, had pushed her through a glass table. She’d split her face open. He drove her to the clinic, swearing and swerving. She had a towel pressed up to her face, the pain throbbing quick through her skull. It had been cold in the clinic, everything clean and white. The hushed voices of the doctors like snowfall.
I fell, is what she told them, what red-faced Hank had instructed her to tell them. Slipped and fell. A nurse in morosely cheerful pink-and-purple flowered scrubs had asked her a million questions, gazed down at her with mild concern. Thirty-two stitches and a blue plastic bottle full of pills. She’d liked the dizzy tranquil swell of the pills as they kicked in, the way they made the corners of the world go soft. But this was something else entirely. There was nothing like it and Iris had nothing else, all scarred-up the way she was, no one in the world who would miss her, a dead father and a checked-out mother and Hank who smacked her around when he’d had too much to drink and then apologized for it later, I’m sorry, Iris, I’m so sorry, and then did it again, and so she decided she would follow this feeling.
Following the feeling meant following Jewel, and she had. First into the cramped box of his apartment, in the next town over, one freeway exit away from everything she had ever known. Desert Dream, the complex was called—those were the words scrawled on its lavender stucco façade in looping white script. A converted motel. Stained carpets and walls so thin you could hear the neighbors breathing, smell their cigarette smoke and whatever they might be cooking for dinner. Tumbleweeds rasping across the parking lot out front. Freight trains in faded primary colors hurtled past across the highway every hour. Somebody’s dog always barking in the distance, all day and half the night. Still, it was a home and it was theirs.
They smoked their stuff in the morning and lay there on the mattress most of the day, legs braided together, floating in warm velvet. Sometimes Jewel would play his guitar and Iris would tap her bare feet against the wall in time to his playing. She’d sing along, sometimes. They fell in love like that. The rest of the world disappeared. The scar-faced girl in the lunchroom was gone. There was only this: the flicker of a blue flame in a dark room. The smell of the drug as it burned—sweet and smoky, like a barbecue. How the room swayed and fluttered, how she could feel the weight of each organ inside of her. Jewel’s body glinting like a dull blade under the moon. The way it felt when he entered her the first time, the pain more straightforward than she’d expected. A bruise blooming within her.
A new feeling crept in. It gripped her ankles like strands of seaweed, threaded itself cold through her veins. Without the drug, her skin began to crawl and her legs begin to ache, cramping up and down like she’d been swimming laps in a freezing lake. Her cough was a new language. She begged Jewel not to go to work. She needed the heat of his body next to hers.
Rent is a waste of money, anyway, he’d said, and they’d packed up what they could, which was not much, and hit the road.
Iris and Jewel knew what to do at night: you smoked your dope and shut your eyes. You tried to stay warm. You covered yourself with everything you owned, with each other’s bodies. You tried not to move. The days were what worried them, now that they had no roof over their heads. How best to fill the space, the long blank sun-bleached hours that stretched out in front of them. Where to go, what to do. How to avoid being burned alive, shriveling up, letting the desert take you.
The power plant had not been used in years. Inside, it stayed cool, even on the hottest days. The concrete floors felt damp to the touch. A shaft of light slicing from ceiling to floor all day long, like a portal waiting to beam them up. The dripping of pipes and a distant mechanical hum that had lulled Iris to sleep. She and Jewel had picked a corner, where they’d spread their sleeping bags, blankets, all the clothes they owned. They’d lined up their gallons of water, cases of beer, bags of white bread from which they would tear the moldy parts. It had begun to feel like a home.
Three men died in here, Jewel told Iris, one morning in the plant. They were lying on top of his sleeping bag, watching the tube of light as it ignited. He was always trying to scare her. An explosion, he said.
How would you know that, Iris said.
Someone outside of Charlene’s, he said. Asked where we stayed, and told me there had been an explosion here.
Don’t tell people where we stay. She bit his neck, not hard, just enough. You need a shower, she said.
Something cold flashed through her, thinking of the men who’d maybe died in the plant. She wondered if their ghosts were still in here, somewhere, watching them now.
Charlene’s was a saloon half a mile down from the plant. Christmas lights strung from the ceiling every which way and old posters of pin-up girls, their edges curling on dark wood. There were pool tables, sometimes country bands crooning softly under dim lights on a creaking stage. The place was full of truckers, the occasional young couple on a road trip, looking around with wide fearful eyes. Iris and Jewel moved through the place like sharks cutting water. Sometimes together, sometimes one at a time. There were only a handful of men in the world who’d want kids like them, but these were the kind you’d find at Charlene’s, and the dull glow of the Christmas lights could make anyone lovely. Iris had never been beautiful, but Jewel was another story.
Iris could read a man in a few seconds. The places where he ached, whose photo he kept in his wallet. Mostly, Charlene’s was a way to spend a night on a real bed, to feel the hot steady pressure of a shower on the knobs of her spine. It didn’t hurt to have a little extra cash or a handful of poppers or a baggie of clean dope to get them through the next few days. The men would take them to the same three motels. The Stardust Lodge. The Thunderbird Inn. The Tropicana. Quilted antiseptic-smelling coverlets on the beds, patterned lampshades. Neon signs blinking hard outside. Those were the things she would focus on while it was happening. She had learned to go to another place inside her mind. That was the only way.
The men were savage or sometimes tender. Sometimes a man wanted Iris and Jewel both. Iris preferred this—that way they were in it together. That way they could be sure the other one was safe. Sometimes they got lucky and the man only wanted to watch them together. Those times, she could almost forget where she was. Once, a man had only wanted Iris to hold him while he sobbed. Afterwards, he had smoked a cigarette in the yellow light, unable to meet her eyes. At dawn, he had given her his red flannel shirt to wrap around her, then asked her to leave. Please, he had said, still without looking up at her. She had walked the half-mile back to the plant alone, shivering, the wad of cash clutched tight in her palm, sand stinging the backs of her legs.
But that life is over for Iris. She is going to turn things around. The Harpers are long gone by now. She pounds the pins and needles from her legs, darts from behind the agave. She retrieves the key from its obvious hiding spot, jiggles it into the door. Welcome, says the mat under her feet. The latch clicks and releases. The sound of a house with no one home. She runs her fingers over cool smooth walls, granite countertops. She touches every surface. Opens every cabinet. Lays her hands on the spines of books, the curves of glass figurines. Everything in its right place, tucked in neatly, folded and pressed. Framed photographs on the walls, above the mantle: the blue-eyed Harper children, scrubbed clean, smiling. Cynthia lipsticked and laughing in a white gown.
The first thing she goes for is water. Gallons of it, cold, filtered fresh from the fridge into a real glass, surging through her. A bowl of sliced melon, pale green, so sweet she could cry. Blue Gatorade staining her mouth. A handful of rubbery pasta in red sauce, sips of soda that bite the insides of her cheeks. Slices of turkey that she rips apart with her fingers. Orange juice straight from the carton, like drinking sunshine. She eats so quickly she hurts herself: lips stinging, tongue raw. The hardened knot of her stomach swells. She can feel her veins expanding.
The stairs feel endless, but she climbs them anyway. The master bathroom, its marble and brass. She could spend forever in here. She turns the knobs, lets the steam fog up the mirrors. She leaves her clothes on the shining floor like shed skin. She does not know how long she spends in that shower, only that its warmth beating down on her feels like something holy. She scrubs herself so hard she bleeds. Lathers her hair with Cynthia’s expensive shampoo. Her scalp cringes. The stink of her peels off, floats down the drain. She does not want to leave the shower. But she does, wraps herself in a plush white towel, twists another around her hair like a turban—the way they always do in the movies.
She makes sure not to look in the mirror. She knows what she will see there: Jewel’s blank eyes, the hollows of his cheeks, the sharp beautiful nose, the stiff grimace of his mouth, the strange whitish-yellow color that spread out across his face and up from his fingertips this morning in the power plant. She can still feel the way his skin felt when she found him. Rough and cold: like raw chicken, like the skin of an elephant. She’d grasped at the back of his neck, had felt the heat of the blood pooling there. And then something had fallen—something small—clattering faintly on the cement floor. It had sounded like a bottle cap. Like a thimble. Like nothing.
He had broken his own rule. The needle looked so flimsy—so insignificant. The scream caught in Iris’s throat. The scream had edges.
She did not allow herself to run. She moved slowly, as slowly as she could. Outside the plant, she concentrated on the feel of sun on her skin. One foot in front of the other. On the highway, a man in a gold Cadillac pulled over for her. Where to, sweetness? He asked, grinning. She let him touch her in the backseat in exchange for a ride all the way to Palm Canyon Drive, bright clouds of bougainvillea and rows of adobe homes and Hockney swimming pools exhaling chlorine.
Her skin begins to prickle again. It is too silent in this house. She turns the television on, volume down low but loud enough so she can just hear it: staccato voices, shrill and nasal, faces caked with makeup, stretched out bright, grotesque. It is a reality show, women with glossy hair and gleaming fingernails and legs folded neatly on a white couch, sipping white wine. The camera flits from one perfect woman to the next in a way that makes Iris feel seasick. Their conversation lurches in a similar way. She climbs onto the bed, crawls into the exact middle of it, spreads her limbs, sinks down. She does not know if she sleeps. Closing her eyes and keeping them open feel almost the same. Waking and dreaming feel almost the same. The blood beats behind her eyelids. Her stomach heaves and her head spins and she talks to Jewel, to the body she left there in the plant this morning. Forgive me, she says, and I miss you. She talks to the Harpers, sweet clean blue-eyed family. I just wanted to wash it off me, she says, and I’m sorry. She imagines them coming home, finding her there, wrapped up in their white towels, the wound of her there in the middle of their quiet home. In the morning she will tell them all what Jewel had been like, how beautiful he had been, where to find him. The afternoon passes, and then the night, the desert baking hot outside the windows, on the other side of the blinds, and the television drones on, its glow reflecting off the dark shape of her, a little girl in a big white bed.
Rumpus original art by Lisa Lee Herrick.