Enjoy an excerpt from Valerie Alexander’s “The Girls of Summer” featured in our newest anthology ON TIME.
After Nikki Drayton’s funeral, everyone gathered at her parents’ house with trays of lasagna and bowls of pasta salad and foil-wrapped pies. The other parents admired Nikki’s recent senior portrait and helped her mother to a chair when she dissolved into tears and agreed in low voices that the track coach should have forbidden the cross country team from running out by the ravine. Around sunset, the parents headed home, and the Pennsylvania summer night filled with stars and the faint diesel roar of the interstate. Around nine, their children drifted out of their houses and walked through the town to Bear Hill behind the water treatment plant.
That was where Taryn foresaw the tedium of her entire summer, standing at the fire with a cup of beer and the abrasive blare of a local band in her ears. It was only eleven, but she’d already heard her chemistry lab mate say Nikki had the purest heart she’d ever known. A junior saying Nikki could have been an Olympic athlete. Another girl claiming something was wrong with Nikki’s face when they found her, that her mouth was locked open, and the funeral home had to break her jaw to shut it. The flames crackled, and the smoke mingled with the pine needle smell of the forest as Taryn watched for the usual police flashlights to raid the party—and in a prescient flash, she saw her upcoming senior year as a long slog of Bear Hill keg parties just like this.
“I’ll be back,” she said to her friends, Holly and J.J., as if she was going into the trees to pee. She followed the dirt path that took her out to the field, the weeds bluish in the starlight, and down to Parbo Road.
She was a few blocks from her house when two girls stepped out from an elm tree and blocked her path.
“Hi,” Taryn said warily because her high school had just over three hundred students and she knew everyone by face if not name—and any new family would have been discussed avidly after Nikki’s funeral.
“We just moved here,” said the prettier of the two girls. She might have been sixteen, her friend fifteen. “I’m Nella.”
“I’m Daisy,” said the younger one. Her voice was strong and nasal, not as young as her face. Her curly blond hair was cut oddly, giving her a boyish quality that Taryn didn’t think was intentional.
“I’m Taryn. You moved here this week? We just had finals and graduation. What school were you at?”
“We’re home-schooled.” Nella’s gaze moved over her in a shrewd assessment. “Our mother is religious.”
“Oh.” Taryn had never met home-schooled kids before, so maybe this was how they were: confident yet awkwardly dressed in outdated clothes. Nella’s knowing eyes contradicted her mousy hair, and Daisy reminded her of a rabbit with her weak chin. Taryn couldn’t imagine them going to the party she had just left.
“Are you walking home from a date?” Daisy asked.
Taryn stifled a laugh. “No, I was at a party up there—” She pointed back at the woods. “—but it was lame. A girl broke her neck in the ravine. She was buried today actually, and it’s all anybody can talk about.”
Not wanting to sound callous, she added, “Nikki Drayton. She was nice.”
“We heard. It upset our mother.”
“It was just a weird accident.” As they moved in and out of the yellowed pools of streetlight, Taryn noticed the girls wore the same sandals her grandmother liked. “It’s not like there’s a murderer on the loose or something.”
“That’s good,” Daisy said.
Taryn couldn’t be friends with them. It was going to be hard for them in this small town with their terrible hair and stilted way of talking: two homeschooled girls who would never go to a Bear Hill party or drink down by the river, but that wasn’t her fault. Someone else could worry about them. She barely wanted to be friends with Holly and J.J. anymore, and she’d known them since kindergarten.
“We’ll walk home with you,” Nella said.
Daisy asked a lot of questions on the way to her house: if she’d been to prom, if she had a boyfriend, if she played a sport. “Our mother makes us work all the time. We never get to do anything.”
“But this summer, we’re going to have fun.” Nella stretched her arms in the streetlight. “We’ll go out on the town every night.”
“This town?” Taryn laughed. Her town didn’t even have a movie theatre. “This is the boonies. There’s nothing to do here.”
“You just went to a party.”
“A party that sucked. I’m leaving here the second I graduate.” On her street, the windows of her living room flickered with TV light. “Well, this is my house…”
“You should visit us tomorrow,” said Daisy.
“My parents don’t like me hanging out with people they don’t know.” She strove to indicate with her tone that she didn’t intend to see them again. “But thanks. Bye.”
Inside, she locked the front door behind her with relief. A ludicrous sense of escape descended on her, as if outside in the streetlight waited something ravenous.
Her mother looked up from the couch, her face sleepy. “How was the party? Nikki’s funeral was so sad today. I’m sorry, honey.”
For a few minutes, she’d forgotten about Nikki Drayton. “It was okay.”
“I know you weren’t great friends with her.” Her stepfather came in from the kitchen with a bowl of cereal. “But it always shakes you up when someone that young is taken.”
The damp summer morning woke Taryn early. The sheets still tangled around her legs, she lay in bed and mentally reviewed Nikki’s funeral yesterday, the party last night, the home-schooled girls who’d walked her home. She felt contaminated, as if something had gone wrong.
The slap of sandals down the driveway came through the window screen, and Daisy’s nasal voice floated up from the front door.
“Hi. Is Taryn here? We want her to go to the mall.”
After some murmuring, her mother yelled up the stairs. “Taryn, your friends are here.”
Taryn came to her bedroom door. “You said I had to clean today.”
“Honey, I’ll take care of that.” Her mother craned her neck over the banister, lowering her voice. “You should be with your friends today.”
Nella and Daisy waited outside while she changed—Taryn knew it was rude of her not to invite them in, but she resented feeling pressured, and she didn’t like the way they’d showed up—then they walked down to the girls’ house, a faded yellow ranch at the end of Parbo Road. Inside, it seemed a large family had just moved in. Suitcases and boxes of clothes covered the living room, with children’s snowsuits and slinky cocktail dresses strewn over the sofa, and cardigans folded on chairs. Dozens of shoes of all sizes were scattered across the floor. But the house was empty except for their mother, who was hunched behind an elaborate setup of laptops and monitors on successive card tables.
“This is Taryn.” Daisy guided her forward. “The girl we met last night.”
Their mother peered at her through thick glasses. “Hello, Taryn. I’m Ruth. Thanks for helping the girls with their shopping.”
“Oh…no problem,” Taryn said.
Their mother was old, grandmother-old, with long black hair that was turning silver in streaks. Possibly, Taryn speculated, Ruth was really their grandmother who’d adopted them after their mother ran off; that had happened to her friend Holly. She picked the top off a stack of framed photos on the kitchen counter. The first showed a slightly younger Nella hugging a college-age girl in a green ice skating costume and ballerina chignon. “You have another sister?”
“No, it’s just us,” Nella said.
Taryn looked at the next photo, a lean grayish-blonde in her fifties golfing with the same black-haired girl. Beneath that was a photo of a little brown-haired girl on a horse.
Ruth rapped her hands against the card table. “Well, it looks like you three are off for a day of fun. Me, I’ve got to get this website done. I don’t know if they told you about our business. Nella builds sites, I design them, and Daisy writes the copy.”
Taryn put the pictures down and turned to Nella. “You code?”
“I’m learning.” Nella shrugged. “So after we go to the mall, what is there to do? We want to meet all your friends.”
“There’s not much going on in the summer.” Taryn tried to think of a way to discourage them from coming over again. “Mostly everyone just hangs out by the river…”
“Sounds wonderful,” Daisy said.
Taryn reached for another framed photo, but Ruth got up and pushed them to the side. “You girls have fun.”
“Everything will be fine, Mom,” Daisy said. “Don’t wait up.”
It wasn’t really a party. Taryn’s friends habitually drifted to the river on summer afternoons—to swim sometimes, to sail out over the water on the tire swing, to pass a spliff, to lay back in the grass, stoned or hot or sleepy, and dream away the hours. It definitely wasn’t a party today, with only eleven of them there on this bright, moist afternoon, but Nella and Daisy pushed ahead with excited faces as Taryn led them down the river bank. Colton and Holly pushed each other around in the water, and J.J. lay in the grass with her tank top pulled up to tan her stomach. Jared and Brandon packed a pipe with the weak weed Brandon’s brother grew in their attic.
“They’re home-schooled,” Taryn said after introducing the girls.
Nella extended her hand to J.J.’s boyfriend, Asher, who looked confused before shaking it.
“Oh yeah?” That caught Brandon’s interest. He brandished the pipe. “You girls get high?”
They shook their heads. J.J. got up on her elbows, watching as Asher drew on the pipe and passed it to the girls. Daisy puffed inexpertly at it, making them giggle, but Nella sucked in hard.
“That’s my girl,” Asher said approvingly.
Later, he pushed Nella on the tire swing, her shrieks of feigned panic as she swung over the water sounding too practiced to Taryn. J.J. sulked from the grass, her eyes never leaving the two of them. “Where did you find them? These church girls.”
“God’s kingdom, I guess,” Taryn said, and they laughed loud enough to ensure everyone looked at them and wondered what they were laughing at.
And summer began. Which mostly was driving around at night, a repetitive loop of seeing who was drinking beer in the park, whose parents were gone on vacation, and who was parked behind the long-abandoned textiles factory. Reports were traded in the harsh yellow lights of the Dairy Queen parking lot: psychonaut Trey Mueller and his friends had taken DMT and jumped off the bridge into the river; a drunk junior had thrown up in someone’s pool. The county fair kicked off in mid-July, and Holly got second runner-up in the Patriot Queen pageant—an insult so profound that the boys yelled “dogface” at the winner riding in the parade, though Brandon was seen talking to her at the demolition derby that night.
Nella and Daisy were there for all of it.
“You’re so lucky,” Nella kept saying to Taryn. The girls came by her house almost every evening to try on her clothes, to play the songs on her laptop, to look through her Instagram. Their religious mother, Ruth, didn’t allow them on any social media, but they took dozens of pictures of each other modeling bikinis, dresses, their underwear. Taryn didn’t know what they did with the photos. But mostly, the girls seemed to always be eating, fried chicken, chili cheese fries, and triple scoop ice cream cones disappearing down their throats before Taryn finished her salad.
“We’re growing girls,” Daisy would say, and weirdly, it seemed to be true. Nella grew more voluptuous by the week, her breasts pushing out of her camisoles, while Daisy’s thin blond hair lengthened enough to soften her weak chin.
“There’s something odd about those girls,” Taryn’s mother said, watching Nella lay face down in the lawn and breathe in the smell of the grass. “You said they’re home-schooled?”
It was late July now. Her parents held a barbecue, and once again, the girls showed up uninvited, piling potato salad and barbecued chicken breasts onto paper plates and dancing around the backyard to classic rock as the moon rose.
“Yes, Mom, for the thousandth time.” So irritated with Daisy and Nella, Taryn couldn’t look at them. The clink of beer bottles retrieved from the cooler and the smell of the hamburgers and chicken wings on the grill, it plucked her nerves like guitar strings.
At some point, while the July sky burned white with heat and the days turned langorous, the church girls became the tanned and lissome girls of summer. Just yesterday, they’d worn bikini tops to the supermarket where the manager pointed to the no shirt no shoes no service sign with a red face. Down at the river, Daisy danced braless and barefoot in the grass, the boys turning up the song to make her dance faster, while Nella hung over Asher and Jared in a short summer dress, listening to their stories of last season’s basketball regional. She ran her finger along Asher’s deltoid, crushed the thickness of his hair in her fist. Later, J.J. and Asher argued until they broke up.
“Those are the new girls, right?” That was J.J.’s mother, sauntering across the grass in a tight white tank top and a lot of gold jewelry. Behind her, J.J. carried a layer cake, their contribution to the barbecue. “I’d know them anywhere. I rented their mom and aunts that house. The brunette is a dead ringer for one of them.”
What else did J.J.’s mother know about them as their realtor? “I didn’t know they had aunts.”
J.J.’s mother squinted. “Huh. I thought they were supposed to be in high school.”
A loud splash made everyone turn: Nella and Daisy diving into the neighbor’s pool. Nella rose up in the shallow end, her sodden cotton sundress almost transparent.
“Okay, now, that girl is twenty if she’s a day.” J.J.’s mother frowned in confusion. “Am I crazy?”
“The brown-haired one? I did notice she’s developed this summer,” said Taryn’s mother.
“Mom, don’t say ‘developed.’ It’s gross.” But Nella smoothed back her dripping hair, and Taryn saw how her face had changed over the last four weeks, the higher cheekbones and deep-set brown eyes.
J.J.’s lips pressed together in suppressed rage. “I don’t want to see that bitch. Let’s get out of here.”
Downtown, they ran into Trey Mueller, who got them high behind the supermarket. They walked home through the warm night, bats chasing moths chasing streetlights. They walked past the town park, the gazebo ghostly white on the grass, then the dentist’s office, the funeral home, and the post office. They had just reached the library when the revolving red lights bounced off the gray brick.
Police cruisers and an ambulance lined the narrow street, a small crowd watching the paramedics.
“It’s Homeless Bill.” Their middle school English teacher, Mr. Todd, stepped in front of them as if trying to block their sight. “You know, the guy who’s always panhandling at the gas station.”
The knot of paramedics separated, revealing Homeless Bill’s familiar sunburned face, his eyes open and his jaw locked into a slack, dumbstruck expression.
A rush of hot tears filled her eyes.
“I know he wasn’t that old, but this kind of thing happens,” Mr. Todd said hastily. “Gulf War vet, alcoholic, on the street—it’s not unexpected.”
J.J. pulled her away. “Come on. This is creepy.”
As they walked past the silent florist, Taryn wiped her eyes.
“Why are youcrying?” J.J. sounded testy.
“Something’s wrong here,” Taryn said. “This summer, it’s like everything is stained. Can’t you feel it?”
“This whole nowhere piece of shit town is wrong,” J.J. said. “Come on. You can sleep at my house.”
Valerie Alexander lives in Arizona. Her stories have been published in a number of sci-fi, horror and speculative anthologies and magazines. Visit her at @vaxder or valeriealexander.org.