“They’re finally tearing down the old junior high school,” I told her, pointing to its wrecked and hollow corpse in the distance. Lonnie was lounging in the grass and couldn’t be bothered to look. She grunted and blew a wispy stream of smoke from her pink lips. A few yards away, near the park’s busy playground, a young mother glared at us. We ignored her.
“Do you think I’m burning?” Lonnie asked. I looked down at her. She was wearing a grey, paint-stained tank-top that exposed her pale chest and shoulders. Her skin was getting a red tinge, and her cheeks were splashed with a pink glow that made her look like she was blushing.
“No,” I said, though she actually was burning. She wouldn’t do anything about it anyway. There were no trees here to shelter under, and she wouldn’t put on sunscreen. That stuff’s for babies, she’d say, smiling a crooked, dimpled smile, eyes shining with defiance.
I picked my nail polish. “Aren’t you sad they’re tearing it down?” I asked. They had moved students out of the old junior high a few years ago, when Lonnie and I were still in high school. The building was totally abandoned now, but it was a familiar presence on the hilltop: a large, vigilant monolith overlooking the ocean.
Lonnie glanced at me and sneered. “Nah,” she said. “I don’t care.”
I looked again at the school and wondered if Mrs. Rice’s classroom still looked the same. I bet it did. Right down to the putrid yellow filing cabinet where she stored her test answers. I imagined the whole school just as we left it, a slice of the past immortalized in amber.
“Yeah, I don’t care either,” I said. “I just think it’s sad. We sat for a moment, the late August breeze rolling in from the ocean and ruffling our hair. I looked down at Lonnie and she lifted her arm, making room for me. Lying back, I nestled into her shoulder, and she wrapped her arm around my waist. We breathed and listened to the creaking of the swing-set, the joyous screams of children rolling away in the wind. Eventually, the young mother herded up her children and led them home.
As the afternoon grew old, Lonnie grew antsy, tapping her feet in the grass and drumming her fingers on my side in a beat like she used to do on her desk in class. I used to smack her hand and tell her to pay attention. Now I just let her beat out the rhythm.
When the setting sun turned the sky a burning red-orange, Lonnie dislodged her arm from my body and sat up. I gripped her like a sloth, trying to push her back down, but she was stronger than me.
“Let’s stay here,” I said, pouting my lip.
She smiled and kissed me, but then she stood, pulling me up with her. “I want milkshakes,” she said, shoving her hands in her pockets. “How many more times will we get to have milkshakes together?”
I frowned. The milkshakes at the burger shack we went to hadn’t been good since they changed their recipe six months ago. They were clumpy now, and the strawberry ones tasted like cough syrup. The managers told their employees to skimp on the whipped cream too. I didn’t want milkshakes, but Lonnie was already walking, her long chestnut hair swinging on her back.
“Are you coming or what?” she called.
I sighed dramatically, but followed. I had to run to catch up. Without turning her head, Lonnie reached her slender hand to her side and took mine. We walked into town, our cheap flip-flops slapping the sidewalk and snapping against our heels. The closer we got, the more it smelled of salt. A few cars zipped by on the wide roads, and seagulls glided overhead on their own highways.
The streetlamps were attracting bugs in the shake place’s parking lot. At the window, Lonnie ordered herself a cherry shake. She started to order one for me too, but I grabbed her arm.
“Sorry. What do you want, babe?” she asked.
I shook my head. She squinted. “Nothing,” I said. With a shrug, Lonnie slid the guy a five dollar bill. He gave her change, and then, a few minutes later, he handed her a large paper cup and a straw. Lonnie thanked him, tore open the straw, and let the wind take the wrapper.
“Don’t litter,” I scolded her, imagining the lifeless eyes of a choked sea turtle—there were signs all over town reminding people to protect the local marine wildlife. Not that Lonnie ever let anyone tell her what to do.
“Sorry,” she said through a mouthful of shake.
With a sigh, I chased down the loose wrapper and shoved it in a trash can.
“Beach?” she asked. She was already walking.
We waited by the side of the road as cars whirred past, headlights glaring. The black pavement was crumbling now. I remembered crossing the street with Lonnie back in middle school, back when we were little girls and the milkshakes weren’t shit. Back then, the road felt so wide, like an ocean in itself. When a break in the traffic arrived, we would sprint across hand in hand, pushing and pulling each other, laughing, and finally crashing together at the other side, stumbling and sliding down the sandy, shrub-coated hill leading down to the shore. Tonight we crossed slowly, careful to dodge the pockets of sea-turtle eggs that always littered the beach at this time of year.
Finally, we neared the ocean. Now that the sun was setting, it was starting to get chilly. I shivered slightly. Lonnie sipped her milkshake quietly and glanced at me. She looked older than I had ever seen her. She was, in fact, older than she had ever been. Suddenly, she stepped out of her flip-flops, set her milkshake in the sand, and started stripping off her clothes.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“What do you think I’m doing? We’re going swimming!”
“Are you crazy!? It’s freezing!” Did I always have to be the mature one?
“Boo. Don’t be a baby.” She shimmied out of her jeans, tossed them on the ground, and began bouncing back toward the water. “Come on!”
I looked down at my fully-clothed body and back up at Lonnie who was now knee-deep in the dark water. In the distance, I heard the sound of a truck blasting by on the road as if it were right next to me. The churning water lapping at Lonnie’s thighs made my stomach turn. I took a step back, crossing my arms over my flat chest.
“Come here, Georgia,” Lonnie said, reaching out her hands to beckon me forward.
I stayed put, but I smiled as she wiggled her hips and did a little dance in the water.
Lonnie stood there in her underwear, arms outstretched and welcoming, for what felt like forever. I blushed and smiled but shook my head no. I didn’t want to go in the water. Not tonight. When it at last became apparent that I wasn’t going to join her, a shadow came over Lonnie’s face. She turned to look at the open ocean, and then she trudged slowly back to the shore. I watched as she pulled on her jeans and slung her shirt over her bare shoulder. She grabbed her milkshake cup off the ground and tossed it in a nearby bin.
“I love you,” I said as we started back toward the street. I let her put a cold, damp arm around me.
Barely audible, she sighed, “I love you too.”
That night, as I often do, I dreamt of the ocean: a wave rising above me and sucking me under, a heavy force pushing me down, dark water over me in every direction.
When I woke, the room was dark, the shades pulled over the windows. The house was quiet. I lay on my back and tried to breathe calmly. My chest ached. The bed, swamping me in blankets, made me feel far too small. Finally, I sat up, placed my bare feet on the carpet, and picked my phone up off the nightstand. The screen emitted a soft blue glow: a text from Lonnie.
Went to pick up breakfast. Make coffee.
I got up and opened the shades to let in the morning light. Things would be better, I thought, when Lonnie got there. I thought this every morning. I was usually right.
In the kitchen, I found hints of my mother’s presence—an unwashed cereal bowl, a glass half-full of orange juice, a dampened dish towel. Mom would be home for dinner, but for now, I had the house to myself. I shambled slowly around the kitchen, clearing used dishes from the scratched dining table and starting the coffee maker with shaky hands. Then, I sat at the table and waited. Finally, Lonnie burst through the front door carrying two brown paper bags and grinning wide.
“The breakfast of kings,” she announced, setting the bags on the table.
I smiled tiredly back at her and got up to pour us cups of coffee. Lonnie took hers black, but I liked mine sweet. I filled my cup to the brim with cream while Lonnie started unpacking the bags.
“What’s the occasion?” I asked, bringing our coffee to the table and sitting down.
“It’s a celebration!” she said as she bit into a hashbrown.
“What of?” I knew it wasn’t her birthday, and I was pretty sure it wasn’t mine.
“I got my scholarship!”
“Oh.” She hadn’t brought it up in weeks.
Lonnie could sense my disappointment. “I was going no matter what,” she said.
“No, that’s great,” I said, staring into my coffee.
Setting down her hashbrown, Lonnie reached for her own coffee and took a long drink. She ritualistically ruffled her hair and took a deep breath, blinking slowly. Lonnie was good at calming herself down. “Nothing’s going to change, Georgia,” she said.
Of course things were going to change. What was she thinking? Things were always changing. The whole world was changing constantly. She was changing. I was the only one, it seemed, who always stayed the same.
“I’ll only be a few hours away,” she said. “I’ll come back as often as I can.” Her eyes were pleading, and she leaned on the table and got real close. “I need to do this.”
“I know, I know.”
“Nothing’s going to change.”
“I know,” I said, though I wasn’t sure. I wished she would just stop talking about it. I gave her a smile, and that seemed to satisfy her because she sat back in her chair again.
We finished our breakfast, Lonnie munching on hashbrowns and rattling on about art and a new idea she had for a comic book. I listened quietly and tried to enjoy my pancakes. The thing about fast food is that it always tastes exactly the same, no matter where or when you are.
After we ate, I got dressed and Lonnie sat on the bed. She was unusually quiet. When I glanced out at her from the bathroom, I saw her frown, submerged in thought. When I emerged from the bathroom and she saw me, she sprung quickly back into her energetic self.
“I’ve been thinking about what you said yesterday,” she said.
“Oh yeah?” Had I said something important?
Lonnie smiled mischievously and drummed her knees.
“What?” I asked cautiously.
“I have an idea.”
I squinted. I had learned to be wary of her ideas. “What is it?”
She jumped up, giddy and grinning wide. Suddenly, she looked like herself again, young and small with endless energy and no sense of good judgment. She grabbed my face and kissed me before hurrying out of the room. “Meet me at the park tonight at ten!” I heard her shout. And then she slammed the door.
Sighing, I sunk back on the bed and watched her through the window—watched her run down the driveway, climb into her truck, and drive away. What was I supposed to do all day without her? The sun was blaring into the room now, making me sweat. I moved to the living room to avoid it. A pile of brochures sat on the coffee table, gathering dust. Mom had asked me to sort through them months ago, but there they were, rotting. I considered tossing them in the trash, dusting off the table, doing the dishes or folding the laundry. For a while, I wandered around, picking up stray dishes here or there and returning them to the kitchen. Finally, though, I sat back in the couch’s blue cushions and let the room’s cool shade envelop me. I didn’t eat lunch. I didn’t watch television or read or do really anything. I only got up when I had to get ready.
Around nine, Mom came into my room, still wearing the blue polo shirt she wore to work at the diner. She wore her brown hair pulled away from her face in a loose ponytail. The creases under her eyes made her look tired.
“You in there, Georgia?” she called. She knocked on the doorframe, though she could clearly see that I was inside. I was pulling my old track sweatshirt over my head.
“Hi Mama. How’s work?”
Ignoring my question, she stepped inside and leant against the wall, her tan arms folded softly. “You going out?” she asked, voice hopeful. “You going to see friends?”
“Oh,” she said. “How’s she doing?”
“She’s good,” I said.
“She get that scholarship she was wanting?”
I paused. This was a trap. “Yes.”
“Oh good!” Mom said, clapping her hands together with far too much enthusiasm. She was good at this. She was trying so hard. I almost felt bad. Pulling down the hem of my sweatshirt, I turned away.
“She’s such a talented young lady. You are so lucky to have her,” Mom said. She looked at me and smiled with her eyes. “You two are both so talented.”
“I don’t know about that,” I said, pulling on socks.
“You are,” she said with finality. She leaned her head in that motherly way, ponytail lolled over her shoulder. She was beautiful. She looked almost nothing like me.
“You and Lonnie have fun tonight, all right,” she said. Then, without pausing, “You think any more about—”
“Nope,” I cut her off. Sitting down on the bed, I started putting on my sneakers.
“Are you sure? You’d do so well, honey. I’m sure—”
“Maybe next year,” I said through clenched teeth. I fumbled with my shoelaces, but I managed to tie them.
“I’m not going to tell you what to do,” she sighed. “But those brochures are still on the table if you want to give them a second look.”
“I’ve got to go,” I said. I gave her a quick peck on the cheek as I left.
I walked to the park across from the junior high school in a daze. It was getting dark, but the moon was up there, taunting me. The streets were quiet. I didn’t pass anyone. The little vacation town felt vacant. No tourists came to visit anymore, and their absence after the oil spill hit the businesses so hard that there was practically nothing left to visit anyway. Our high school friends too were absent. Most had moved on to college already. A few were off on gap years in Spain or Los Angeles or wherever. Most of them would probably never come back here. So it was just me.
When I got to the park, I sat down in the grass, put my hands in my lap, and picked at my cuticles. The junior high loomed across the street. A sheet of plastic over a second floor window shuddered in the breeze. The construction workers had gone home for the night, their machines left alone in the empty parking lot. Did they think they would be alone forever? I felt a sort of kinship with those machines.
Lonnie was late. I waited by myself until she showed up and waved to me from the street. She was carrying a backpack and swinging a flashlight around.
I didn’t ask what she was planning. She just told me. “We’re going in there,” she said.
“In there?” I asked, looking across the street to the school’s form rising from the hillside. “Why?”
“You’ll see.” Lonnie turned and started walking so fast that I had no choice but to follow.
I trailed behind her as she patrolled around the first floor of the building. Finally, she stopped and handed me the flashlight. I pointed it while she wrenched open a window and crawled through.
“Pass me my backpack,” she said, reaching her arms to the window.
Her bag was heavy and something metallic rattled inside. Reluctantly, I passed it to her.
“I don’t think this is a good idea,” I said, looking down at her through the window. Her face was illuminated by sharp moonlight.
“Come on,” she said. “Just climb through. It’ll be worth it, I promise.”
I swung one leg and then the other over the windowsill, jumping down into the darkness where Lonnie caught me. Taking the flashlight back, she cast its beam around the classroom.
“Woah,” she said. There were no longer any desks, just empty space. The whiteboards were still up on the walls, though, and in places, clumps of wiring hung down from the ceiling like vines. “Spooky.”
There was certainly something spooky about the place, all emptied out like that. I hadn’t expected it to look so empty.
“What are we doing here, Lonnie?” I asked, suddenly feeling horribly out of place.
“You’re the one who wanted to come back here,” she said.
“I didn’t say that.”
“You kind of did.”
“Okay, whatever. Why did you want to come here?”
Lonnie offered up her backpack as explanation. Snatching it from her, I unzipped it to find cans of spray paint. “Vandalism?”
“When you put it that way it sounds illegal.”
“It is illegal!” I whispered harshly. Couldn’t she see I hated this? “Why can’t you just let things be!?”
“I’m letting myself be,” she said slowly. “And what I want to be is painting right now.” She reached for her backpack, but I kept it clutched to my chest, out of her reach.
“Don’t be so uptight, Georgia. This is supposed to be fun.”
“I’m not having fun.”
“You haven’t even given me a chance!”
I shrunk back when she raised her voice. In the shadow behind the flashlight, I saw her take a slow breath, ruffle her hair. “Please,” she said. “For once just give me a chance.”
Slowly, I handed her the backpack. She couldn’t know how hard it was for me to do that simple thing. To let her do whatever it was she was going to do. Hoisting the backpack over her shoulder, Lonnie reached for my hand and took it, squeezing it firmly. She led me over to the classroom’s door and peered out, her flashlight beam piercing the darkness. With no windows to light it, the hall was really nothing more than a vast blackness. It was so quiet it made my ears ring.
“Where are we going?” I asked her.
She thought for a moment before answering. “The foyer,” she said, swinging her flashlight beam to the right. “I think it’s this way.”
Our steps echoing in the emptiness, Lonnie and I ventured out into the hallway. Lonnie walked with purpose, and I generally let her pull me along. But every once in a while, I would make her stop so I could look at something, some artifact covered in dust. First it was our old lockers, then the classroom where we snuck our first kiss, then the empty case that used to house our track-team trophies. Lonnie humored me at first, but I could tell she was getting frustrated. She had finally convinced me to continue walking when I noticed our old biology classroom. I recognized it by its gaping double doors.
“Let’s go look in there,” I pleaded.
Lonnie looked unenthusiastic.
“Please?” I asked.
With a sigh, she turned and took us into the classroom. Inside, there wasn’t much to look at. Like the other classrooms we had seen, it had no desks. The lab equipment too had been stripped out, but I wondered if in their rush they had remembered to clear out the cabinets. The lock was busted, so I opened up the cabinet doors, and sure enough, they hadn’t. Lined up inside were jars upon jars of little animals suspended in liquid preservative like aliens—lizards, fish, even turtles—all dead of course. The jars were coated in a thick layer of beige dust, but the forms of the creatures were just visible inside. When Lonnie’s flashlight exposed the outline of a large, bloated rat, we both startled. I closed the cabinets as quickly as I could.
I took a deep breath and stood up.
“We should go,” Lonnie said.
Nodding, I allowed her to lead me out of the classroom and through the halls. When we emerged in the moonlit foyer, Lonnie handed me the flashlight but didn’t say anything. Releasing my hand, she walked toward the far wall. She knotted her checkered flannel around her waist and tied back her hair. With her back turned, she unzipped her backpack and started to paint.
I looked around the empty room for a moment, unsure of what to do. Aside from the soft aerosol whisper of Lonnie’s spray paint, the room was silent. My hands felt cold, but I was sweating. Finally, I sat down on the hard linoleum floor and pulled my knees up to my chest. From across the room, I watched Lonnie as she worked. Her bare arms glowed in the moonlight. Every movement of her forearm and wrist was calm, perfectly executed, flowing like water.
After a long moment, I fumbled for the flashlight beside me and clicked it off. Lonnie didn’t need it. Lonnie was a great artist, and the world would notice her. There wasn’t a trace of mediocrity in her entire body. While the world picked off the weak, she would soar. I felt tears start to stream down my cheeks. She was amazing and I loved her. I loved her and I was nothing. My chest constricted and I began to cry softly, sure that no one would hear me. Not even Lonnie, though she was just across the room. She didn’t live here anymore. I understood now.
After a while, I couldn’t watch Lonnie paint anymore. I buried my head in my knees and sobbed. I thought I would sit there forever, surrounded by the dangling electrical wires, crumbling sheetrock, and the metallic creak of a locker door swinging back and forth. I would sit there on the floor and cry until I flooded the foyer with my tears and died of dehydration. My body, I imagined, would sit tucked up in a ball, frozen in time forever as my skin rotted off my bones and a family of rats came to nest in my ribcage. In a single moment, I felt myself die. And then I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“Georgia,” Lonnie was shaking my shoulder gently. Her paint cans were abandoned on the floor. “What’s wrong?” She crouched down and held me.
For a long time, I didn’t speak. Lonnie too was silent, unsure of what to say. “I’m sorry,” she said finally.
I shrugged. What was there to say? I directed my gaze to the mural on the wall, completed now. She had painted two faces there—mine and hers—next to each other.
“This way we can stay here forever,” she said.
It was a nice romantic gesture, but I felt that I had ruined it somehow. Lonnie stared at me with her dark, wide eyes, waiting for me to say something.
“It’s really good,” I finally said. It was true. “I’m glad you’re doing art school.”
“Really?” she sounded genuinely shocked.
She smiled for a moment, but it quickly faded. “What about you?”
“What do you mean?”
“What are you going to do when I’m gone?”
“Oh,” I looked at my knees. I had planned to stay here in town with the empty businesses and the sleepy families and my mother. Wait for Lonnie. But now the thought of staying made my mouth sour. How long would I wait? “I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe try school again?” My voice was trembling.
“That sounds pretty good.”
I nodded and Lonnie smiled. She wrapped her arms around me, pressing her face into my neck, and we sat there in the darkness for just a moment, just breathing.
“Nothing’s going to change, you know,” Lonnie said again.
“Yeah, I know.” And I did know.
After she packed her bag, we left the school and started walking toward the beach like we always did, the breeze playing with our hair. Lonnie wanted milkshakes, but the place was closed, the streetlamps dark in the parking lot. So instead, we crossed the street and walked down to the water. That night there were no tourists. No doomsday criers. No cars hurtling down the wide roads. Everything was still but the waves and the sand. Beneath the beach’s surface, a million somethings were hatching, pushing their way out of their soft, white shells. The sand bubbled with life.
“Careful,” I told Lonnie, grabbing her hand.
“They’re strong,” Lonnie said. Still, she treaded carefully.
Fingers intertwined, we made our way to the water’s edge. Behind us, the first of the turtles emerged from their nests and began to crawl toward the water. Lonnie squeezed my hand and I smiled. Slowly, fully-clothed, we waded out into the ocean, the moon full and round above us like a pearl, smooth-shelled creatures brushing our ankles, gentle waves lapping us up and carrying us out to sea.
Kimberly Smith is pursuing a B.A. in Professional and Creative Writing from Central Washington University. She currently lives in Ellensburg, WA with a roommate she rarely sees but often wonders about. Her work has appeared previously in Nota Bene, an anthology of writing by two-year college students.