The kids started the night at Singing Beach. Gerritt andSpencer and the boys found a bunch of seaweed-stringy lobster traps washed up on shore, and Maddie and the girls watched them stomp on the weathered wood so it splintered with pops and cracks that echoed off the pink clay cliffs. The boys' faces grew sweat-slick from the effort and Maddie saw how the destruction made them buzz like it was a drug. Boys always got to do the fun stuff, it seemed, while the girls watched. Or, she thought, cheered the boys on, which is exactly what Bitsy and Vanessa and Gabrielle were doing. Hooting and applauding while lit Parliament Lights dangled from lips glossed with Kissing Potion roll-on in Orange Squeeze.
The boys stacked the wood in a towering pyramid and soon a bonfire blazed so tall and hot Maddie was sure it would keep the caterpillars away.
John Anderson drove his Bronco into the dunes and blasted Beastie Boys. "Brass Monkey" came on and everyone sang along, Rolo the loudest (and, Maddie saw, the drunkest), dancing like a spastic robot when the honking horn bleated between refrains so the rolls of fat under his snug tie-dyed Grateful Dead tee jiggled.
Brass Monkey,that funky monkey/ Brass Monkey junkie/ That funky monkey.
Penny joined in, playing the goofball, bumping hips with Rolo until the whole crew of kids were laughing—bitchy Vanessa the hardest, clutching her belly and yelling, "Stop! I'm gonna pee!"
Maddie had avoided Penny since the fair and was still pissed at her for taking some random pills when she knew she shouldn't, especially not with the chemo. Maddie had held back from shout- ing What the hell were you thinking? on the long ride from the
fair to the ER in the back of the ambulance that had rolled onto the fairway—its flashing red-and-blue strobe and the carnival lights all mixed up so Penny's pale face seemed painted. At the ER, once the blood had returned to Penny's acne-rough cheeks, a tube pushing saline into her already bruised veins, the doctor had taken Maddie aside and asked if she'd seen Penny take anything. She had lied, knowing that was what Penny wanted. While they'd waited for Penny's more-than-tipsy parents to show up, Penny was already cracking jokes. Good thing those black people showed up when they did—that'll give everyone something to talk about, other than me looking like a dumbass.
Penny's MO, Maddie knew, was to laugh even the most serious fuck-ups away, but Maddie didn't laugh along this time, and made Penny promise she'd stop with the drinking, smoking, and gobbling every pill Bitsy and crew handed her. Just until she was done with her treatments.
Penny had answered, in a new, bitter tone Maddie didn't recognize, "Thanks for looking out for me, Mom. Uck, you're such a worrywart."
That was the last thing Maddie needed—her so-called best friend making her feel more uncool than she already felt, and so, the last few days, Maddie hadn't returned Penny's phone calls. What could she say to Penny, who insisted on pretending her seizure was "no big whoop"? Who called Maddie a nag, smiled a goofy, tooth-filled smile, and sang that damn Indigo Girls line, And the best thing you ever done for me/ Is to help me take my life less seriously/ It's only life after all, yeah.
Gerritt and Spencer dropped the ice-packed cooler into the sand. Maddie watched as Gerritt flipped the lid open with a flourish—Tada!
Bitsy squealed, "Baby, my favorite!"
She kissed Gerritt, a bottle of Bartles & Jaymes kiwi- strawberry-flavored wine cooler dripping in each of her hands. When their lips parted, Maddie saw Gerritt's were shiny with gloss. He slipped a bleached rope bracelet, a prize he'd won at the fair, over Bitsy's wrist. Maddie knew the braided rope would live on Bitsy's arm all summer, shrinking with each shower, each swim at the country-club pool and in the salty ocean, each dip into a steaming hot tub at the parties the richest kids threw when their parents were off-island. The rope would tighten until it had to be cut away.
Maddie spotted Spencer through the wind-tossed flames. His lower lip bulged with Kodiak dip and she knew if she kissed him now he'd taste awful, like tobacco and beer, but he'd done something to his hair that night, blown it out maybe, and the feathery waves caught the setting sun so the red-blond burned bright. She wanted someone to slip a rope around her wrist. Tag her. mine. Like the message stamped on tiny heart candies for Valentine's Day. But was Spencer Fox the yours to her mine? She wasn't so sure.
It was the kind of summer night that made falling in love feel possible, more than just the plot for one of the chick flicks she and Penny had watched weekend nights before their induction into Bitsy's crew.
Ricky Bell rolled a blunt, sealing the cigar wrapping with the pointy tip of his tongue.
Gerritt yelled, "You detonating a fucking bomb, or what? Let's get this session rolling!"
The blunt made its way around the fire.
The hit Maddie took was both spicy and sweet, and a purring heat grew from a tiny speck inside her until she felt like she was made from the same stuff as the simmering gold stripe the setting sun painted from shore to horizon.
She lay on her back in the sand, not caring if it messed up her hair, and listened to Penny and Vanessa splash in the water, braving the cold June waves.
The boys raced up the wind-brushed sand dunes that had always seemed to Maddie like a mirror image of the ocean waves. Sand spit out behind their heels and they left a trail of cascading twilight-lit tracks. She and Bitsy counted the fireflies dotting the black woods as they dug their toes into the cool sand, smoked cigarettes, and sucked on the Jolly Ranchers they'd dropped into their wine coolers so the clear malt liquor turned bright pink. She felt safe with Bitsy when they were drinking and smoking, the girl's rough edges softened.
They cheered the boys doing keg stands, the muscles in their forearms twitching as they clutched the metal barrel's sides, sucking beer from a long plastic tube, white foam bubbling at the corners of their mouths. The boys chanted nicknames they'd made for one another years back—Rolo, Deuce, Snake—some in elementary school. When it was Spencer's turn his shirt fell down exposing a trail of red-blond fuzz leading from his navel to down there and Maddie felt as if the bonfire's flames had licked her face.
When the blunt came back around, Bitsy was standing next to her in the circle. Bitsy said, "Open wide, sweetie."
Maddie did as she was told and Bitsy's soft lips were on hers, smoke filling her mouth and nose so it streamed from her nostrils and she coughed until her sight blurred with tears. The boys around the fire nodded and mm-mm-ed like they'd tasted something delicious. Gabrielle clapped and said, "Atta girl."
It was the kind of summer night that made falling in love feel possible, more than just the plot for one of the chick flicks she and Penny had watched weekend nights before their induction into Bitsy's crew. A breeze set off the fluty song that had given the beach its name back when the Shinnecock Indians canoed its waters, harvesting oysters, before the boots of white men touched Avalon's pebbled sand. The whistling call of the wind squeezing through gaps in the craggy cliffs reminded Maddie of the stories her mother had told her and Dom, before Mom had chosen her pills, about the wailing sirens, mermaids so beautiful no sailor could resist their call. That was how Maddie wanted to feel about Spencer. A need that left no room for doubt. Impossible to pull away.
As she watched him through the flickering flames, she thought she could like him. Enough to let him do the things boys did to the girl they were "going with." His hair had a cute cowlick that made it stick up in front in a moody I-don't-give-a-shit way, like River Phoenix, her movie-star crush and the only teen heartthrob poster she'd hung on her bedroom closet door. And Spencer could be funny, and sort of sweet, especially when Gerritt wasn't around to be impressed.
He wasn't as handsome as the boy at the fair, she thought. Almost a week had gone by and all the kids talked about was they and them, meaning Leslie Day Marshall and family. While they stood on line for chicken-cutlet sandwiches at the deli and passed a joint down by the dirt parking lot near the docks, as they burned bonfires and tapped kegs, drank cases of beer on their fathers' boats in the harbor and rollerbladed to town to get more beer, and definitely, she imagined, as they whispered to one another over the phone after curfew. They/Them was a topic even hotter than the almost fight with the West kids, which Gerritt and Spencer and the boys had reenacted again and again until, Maddie thought, it was pure fantasy.
They and them were all anyone on the island talked about and Maddie had heard Sandra Weller at the bakery, Donna Rich at the Stop & Shop, and even her own parents claim that it was Leslie Day Marshall and family who had caused Penny's seizure.
It wasn't just the kids. She knew the gossip mill had ground its way across the island via summer-camp carpools and chit- chat in the supermarket produce aisle. Through the housewives' call trees, their manicured fingers fiddling with plastic phone cords as that night's roast marinated. Did you hear they...? Did you see them? So and so said they . . .
They and them were all anyone on the island talked about and Maddie had heard Sandra Weller at the bakery, Donna Rich at the Stop & Shop, and even her own parents claim that it was Leslie Day Marshall and family who had caused Penny's seizure; that it was they who had carried the gypsy moths to Avalon Island in unimaginable numbers. Them, them, them. Whispers slipping in and out of screen doors, joining until they formed a hue and cry thick enough to strangle the island. As loud as the drone of the caterpillars feeding on the forest. Until it seemed even the caterpillars chanted: Them, them, them.
Of course, Maddie knew the caterpillars (Lymantriadispar dispar, repeat after me) had been lying in wait all winter, cozy in their furred egg sacs tucked in the crooks of trees all over the island. Waiting patiently for their turn. But, as Dom had told her once while they played Gods versus Mortals in the woods, coincidence was kind of boring. And she too wanted to believe in a sense of order, divine providence or whatever—a sign—linking the arrival of Leslie Day Marshall's family and the metamorphosis of the island, overnight, into a nest of ravenous pests.
It wasn't like she'd never seen black people. There was the annual school trip to the city to see a musical—plenty of black people walking the crowded streets. She'd watched countless hours of hip-hop videos on MTV, and episodes of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and reruns of The Jeffersons and Fat Albert, and she'd seen Do the Right Thing twice when the movie came to town. Just last week, she'd climbed into Gerritt's Jeep, so crammed with kids she'd had to sit on Spencer's lap and feel his boner digging into her thigh. They had driven to the railroad station on the mainland, where double-decker trains shuttled people, mostly men in suits, to the city and back. There were liquor stores there that didn't card for cases of beer and the cashiers were always black or Hispanic.
But they were here in East Avalon. They would go to their schools; play on their teams; dance at their prom; and suck on the ends of joints passed at their parties. Leslie Marshall and family would share the domed dining room at the Oyster Cove Country Club, where the only blacks were valets and cleaning women and busboys. It was, after all, Maddie had heard, Admiral and Mrs. Marshall who had founded the club.
Bitsy wouldn't quit talking about what she kept calling the fight.
"Like," Bitsy said, "I'm going to let some lowlife from Loserville . . ."
"Screw those skanks!" Penny shouted over the popping and spitting bonfire. Maddie saw she was already drunk—her words slurring, strands of lank hair stuck to her sweaty forehead.
"Don't shoot your load yet, Penelope dear. You almost got us beat back there," Bitsy said.
Maddie was relieved to see Penny back in her place. The awkward duckling.
Then Bitsy laughed, shook her head, and said, "Damn, girl. You got some serious balls."
"Serious balls." Vanessa snorted. When had Maddie ever heard Vanessa give someone a compliment?
It made her feel like a monster, envying her sick friend. Her best friend. Penny was the girl she had slept head-to-toe with on sleepover nights when they filled black-and-white composition books—slam books—with their first names followed by the last names of their crushes. Curlicued script and every i dotted with a bubble. Even better, a heart. She had watched Penny carve the initials of her first kiss into the fleshy part of her own thigh (RB, Ricky Bell, behind the maintenance shed at school), rubbing Penny's back when the X-Acto knife broke through skin and blood and tears rose. She and Penny had shared plenty of firsts that year—first cigarette, first joint, and their first leg shave, passing the can of strawberry-scented foam back and forth on the deck of Penny's parents' kidney-shaped pool.
She trusted Penny, who'd been in the backseat of Maddie's father's station wagon that rainy afternoon a few months back when he'd slapped Maddie across the face. He'd caught them at the Shore Multiplex on the mainland with two Jewish boys Penny had met at a bar mitzvah in Rosedale. Penny had sworn cross my heart, hope to die she wouldn't tell, especially not her parents, who might get that pervy school social worker Mr. Frederick involved. Maddie's mother had warned her, and Dom, of what might happen if either told someone, anyone, about their father. That they—the school, the police . . . who exactly they were, Maddie didn't know—would take them away. Penny had kept her promise and Maddie owed her for that.
Pink Floyd blasted from the Bronco's subwoofers and even then the new sound, the ca-cacking of the caterpillars' pincers sinking into the new leaves in the forest behind the dunes, threatened to overpower the music.
"Get them off!" Bitsy screamed. "Get them off me!"
Gerritt peeled the bristled bugs from Bitsy's Wildcats sweatshirt and tossed them into the bonfire, where each one burst with a spark and a sizzle. Maddie couldn't tell if Bitsy wanted an excuse for Gerritt to lay his hands on her as his boys looked on hungrily, or if their fearless leader was truly scared of a few caterpillars. Maddie tried not to flinch each time she found one squirming on her but the rest of the girls, even Penny, seemed to relish the role of damsel in distress. The tiny monsters gave the girls a chance to play screeching victim. The boys, hero.
After a dozen bonfire-fried caterpillars, Gerritt announced it was time to bounce. Spencer volunteered his house—his parents, like most of the east islanders, were at the dinner party. "Getting shitfaced and eating too many pigs in a blanket," Spencer said. There was that sense of humor, Maddie thought. He walked past her, slipped a long finger into a belt loop on her jean shorts, and tugged so she twirled, her bare feet swiveling in the cool sand.
"You're the hottest girl here," he said.
"Shut up," she said, then realized she sounded like one of those dumb girls who couldn't take a compliment. "I mean, thanks, Spence."
"Psyched to show you my place," he said, linking his fingers in hers.
She was grateful for the dying bonfire and the dusk settling, because she knew a spotty blush was spreading across her collarbone.
"And my bedroom," he added.
The beach had felt safe. Even with the caterpillars. She thought of all the dark, empty rooms in the Foxes' huge colonial on Horseshoe Lane. How many times had her mother warned her? Bad things happen to girls in the dark.
From The Gypsy Moth Summer: A Novel by Julia Fierro. Copyright © 2017 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
Julia Fierro is the author of the novels The Gypsy Moth Summer, to be released on June 6th, and Cutting Teeth. A graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop, Julia founded The Sackett Street Writers' Workshop in 2002 and it has grown into a creative home to 4,000 writers in NYC, Los Angeles, and Online.