Lynn watched the lovers canoodling together on the opposite side of the empty fire pit.
She let words propel themselves freely around in her mind. Each time she reached out to pluck one from the churning chasm, it wouldn’t be quite right for what she was feeling.
Not jealousy. Not sadness.
Lance and Amelia sat on a fallen log with their arms laced around one another. They pressed the bare skin of their cheeks together, circulating their body heat and doing their best to ward off the evening chill.
A year from now, Lance will be in the Marines, and Amelia will forget to send him letters. He’ll be discharged for being sad all the time. “Not a good trait to have in a soldier,” his commander will say, tapping his temple with an index finger. “Gotta be tough, right up here.”
But at that moment, the two were Gemini, the edges of their bodies melting together into a swirling pool of blood and bone marrow. Lynn watched as Amelia leaned into Lance’s shoulder and mumbled something warm and soft. He smiled and kissed her forehead. They sat in brief stillness, perfectly alone in each other’s company despite the other two teenagers at the fire pit. The couple didn’t seem to notice Lynn observing them, unblinking.
The lovers stitched themselves tighter together, and a breeze sent sea ripples chasing one another through the unkempt grass. Stars smattered the sky, shards of broken glass in lazy twilight. A coyote dashed through the nearby cornfield, and the stalks rustled in protest.
The lovers faded into one another like watercolors.
Lynn let her eyes drift away from the couple. She watched Jeffrey arrange scrawny branches in the fire pit. He tossed a few old tissues around the branches and coaxed the whole pile into a blaze. The flames crept higher into the air and sent shadows flickering across the hills and valleys of Jeffrey’s face. Lynn studied her boyfriend from across the fire, leaning in until her eyes burned.
Lynn scooted over on the old log to make room for him to sit, but Jeffrey plunked down next to Lance instead and stretched his feet toward the fire.
“Where’s June?” he griped to whomever was listening. “Thought she was going to bring us hot dogs and s’mores stuff. I’m starving.”
“She should be getting back right about now. It’s been about half an hour, at least,” Amelia said. She had to dodge Lance’s kisses to get the whole sentence out.
“Yeah, well, it feels like it’s been nine years.”
Lynn eyed Jeffrey’s belly and sneered inwardly. Her mind cranked out insults.
You couldn’t even go nine minutes without eating.
It would take you nine years of fasting to get you back down to a normal human size.
You tell me I’m fat all the time, but if worse comes to worst, we three could kill and eat you for nine years you’re so fat.
The insults laid thick and unused on her tongue.
“It’s my parents’ fault I’m not healthy,” Jeffrey had told her once. He and Lynn were down in his basement with a plate of chicken nuggets and a bowl of dipping sauce he had made by combining all the condiments he could find in the fridge.
“I was fat as a kid because my mom wouldn’t let me play any sports. So I just watched TV and played video games. And when I did go outside, I couldn’t leave the yard, and I couldn’t have anyone over, either. So I’d sit on the ground and play Hot Wheels cars with the neighbor kid on the other side of the chain link fence. But you,” Jeffrey said, reaching over her to grab the TV remote, “you don’t really have any excuse. Here, maybe just one more chicken nugget, but then you should probably stop.”
Lynn didn’t say anything. She just listened to Jeffrey’s cat kicking litter out of its litterbox, shhk shhk shhk.
Headlights stretched across the yard, elongating and distorting the shadows. June got out, her arms full of grocery bags fit to burst.
“Boys, come over here and help Mama June!”
Jeffrey rose, avoiding Lynn’s eyes, and jogged over to take two of the heavier bags from June’s hands. Lance disentangled himself from Amelia and followed suit. June awarded each of them with a moist kiss on the cheek, her lips parting from skin with a clammy smack. Lynn turned away and stared into the fire.
Lynn didn’t know for certain what she thought of June, and she knew even less about what June thought of her. She hadn’t said anything to Jeffrey about it, but she thought that June was creepy, a creepy, middle-aged woman who spent her free time hanging out with kids no older than her own son and daughter. This was the first time Lynn had been invited, grudgingly, to one of June’s camp outs or parties or get-togethers, and, it turns out, it would also be the last time.
At the end of the summer, Jeffrey will move two hours away for college, and Lynn will be left to finish up her last year of high school. They’ll try to do the long distance thing, talking on the phone for an hour every night, visiting each other once every two weeks. But Jeffrey will grow sullen at having to share his narrow twin bed with Lynn when she comes to visit, and he’ll fail to get and stay hard enough for sex because he’ll focus too intently on listening for his dorm mate coming home from work, twisting the key in the lock. Lynn will grow to dread seeing her boyfriend, and she’ll start making excuses for not making the drive up. After a while, they’ll just stop talking. She’ll hear from Jeffrey around Christmas sometimes, and she’ll see him one evening at the grocery store years later when she makes a last-minute run to pick up a pack of condoms and some toothpaste. When Lynn sees June out and about, June will pretend they have never met but will spread rumors about Lynn just the same.
“You boys are so sweet,” said June. “I wish my kids were like you.”
June glanced over at the farmhouse. The lights in both her children’s rooms were on, but neither of them showed any sign of coming outside.
Lance and Jeffrey followed her back to the fire, arms laden with snacks and drinks and paper plates.
“Girls, what are you doing wearing shorts? You’ll freeze your pretty legs right off!”
June opened up one of the grocery bags and took out a package of hot dogs, fat and pink and pressing against the plastic. She ripped open the corner with her teeth.
“I brought sweatpants, but I left them in the car,” replied Amelia. She rubbed her hands over her goose-pimply legs, long and white and delicate like cigarettes.
Amelia stayed thin because she never ate anything. It had started off as a way of keeping off the extra pounds that threatened to cling to her stomach and hips and thighs during cross country off season, but it had grown and shifted into a sort of methodical, restrictive self-cleansing.
Eating became a ritual, one she performed every Sunday alone in her room. Sunday, a spiritual day by default, was the only day where she’d eat. The food would be chosen the week before, jotted down in her journal, the stupid fuzzy one her aunt sent for her birthday several years ago, the kind that comes with a little silver padlock and set of keys. Amelia would spend the entire week writing page after page of fantasies about what it would be like to sit down in the peace and quiet of a Sunday afternoon and shovel down a whole family-size Stouffer’s lasagna or three Big Mac value meals or a tub of pistachio ice cream or whatever it was she had set her heart on.
The best and worst had been the blue licorice. Over a whole Sunday evening, she had eaten four enormous packets of bright blue licorice, purchased from the fancy, old-time candy shop downtown. She had gotten sick, of course, and spent the early hours of Monday morning throwing up in the bathroom. With each retch, her mouth filled with the juicy taste of the licorice. The toilet water swirled oily with beautiful chunks of blue, her own painting, poured forth viscerally from her stomach.
“Well, one of you run inside and grab some blankets,” June said to the girls. “There are clean ones in the linen closet right inside the front door.”
Lance held a long metal campfire fork tight between his knees, and June slipped a hot dog onto both prongs. The flesh split with a wet pop. Amelia snuggled her face into Lance’s shoulder.
“How about you go, Lynn?” Her voice, muffled, sounded like it was a million miles away, across all the cornfields and farmhouses of the world.
Lynn tried to catch Jeffrey’s eye, but he was absorbed with jabbing his fork into the campfire. One of the hot dogs caught fire. He brought it out of the blaze and blew it out.
“Jeffrey. Can you come with me?”
“What for?” he asked. He surveyed the cracked, blackened flesh of his hot dog and frowned.
June reached over with a slimy new hot dog.
“Here, sweetie,” she said, smiling up at Jeffrey through sparse yellow lashes. “Try this one.”
“I just,” Lynn began, “I just would like you to come with me. I want to talk to you.”
Jeffrey groaned, more for effect than anything, and handed Lance his fork.
“Don’t fuck up my hot dogs.”
Lance pretended like he was going to stab Jeffrey in the calf. Amelia giggled behind fragile, manicured fingertips.
When the two were out of earshot, Jeffrey asked, “Okay, so you couldn’t wait until tomorrow to start a fight? What do you want to talk about?”
“You idiot. I don’t want to fight. I want to show you something.”
“What is it?”
“Just come on.”
June’s elderly Corgi tottered over to the front door, whining, when he heard the teenagers climb up the creaking porch steps. His tail thumped against the wall, his whole back end wriggling.
“Get back, Felix,” Jeffrey said.
It was warm in the house. Lynn rubbed the red numbness from her cheeks. The ancient furnace in the basement kicked on with a thunk and a rattle. Scalding air tumbled from the vent above their heads.
A stereo upstairs pounded out the beat to a hip hop song.
Lynn went into the living room. The space was big and renovated, with brand new, shiny hardwood floors. A large flat-screen TV was wedged in the corner, various game consoles scattered around it, wires tangled.
The money wasn’t June’s as much as it was her husband’s.
“He never spends any time with me or the kids anymore,” she wept once to her best friend over the phone. “He’s always working on this or that case, staying late at the office. I’m just so lonely and so old, Susie. When we were kids, he’d drive forty-five minutes to hug and kiss me goodnight if I was feeling sad. I want to have that again. I want to be young.”
“Yeah, that’s what everyone our age wants, I think. Listen, June, I’ve got dinner on the stove, so I’m going to have to let you go.”
Without turning on a light, Lynn rummaged in her overnight bag she had stowed in the corner by the couch, sifting through her things by touch.
“Alright,” she called after a couple minutes. “You can come in here now.”
Lynn had squeezed herself into slim, black faux leather pants. They hugged her body all the way down from her hips to her ankles, the tapered tail of a mermaid. She spread her arms wide and did a twirl, immediately feeling stupid after the walls around her came to a stop. The burn returned to her cheeks.
“What do you think? Do you like them?”
“Where in the hell did you get those?” Jeffrey reached out and ran a fingertip along the seam that wriggled over the crest of Lynn’s hip.
“I found them in my mom’s closet.” She reached down to take his hand in hers, but he pulled away.
“Your mom’s closet? But she died.”
“She didn’t die while wearing them, dummy.” Lynn reached up and curled a lock of Jeffrey’s hair around her finger. The filaments felt soft and brittle around her knuckle. He pushed her hand away and ruffled his hair back into place.
“Still weird to wear your dead mom’s clothes.” He walked out of the living room, and Lynn could hear him rummaging around in the linen closet, pulling the thick woolen blankets off the shelves.
Lynn’s mother had been sad her whole life. She filled the gaps by buying things, always in threes: three pairs of high heels, each a different color; three packets of oat cakes; three small, electrically powered fountains to feng shui the bathroom, the bedroom, and the office.
A few days after they cut her down, Lynn helped her father sort through the piles of stuff, starting with the closet, where she found the pants.
There was a shoe box on the top shelf in the closet. Lynn pulled it down and looked inside. The box was stuffed full of glossy photos featuring her mother standing naked in a field of tall, wavering grass. She stood in a different pose in each picture. The one on top showed her standing with her legs slightly apart, face tilted up to the sky and eyes closed. Her left hand cupped her breast, and her right hand was woven through her thick pubic hair.
Lynn tipped the whole box into the To-Throw-Away bag.
“Take those off and let’s go back to the fire,” Jeffrey called from the hallway. “June’s probably wondering why we’re taking so long up here.”
“So what?” Lynn hollered back as she squirmed her way out of the pants. She rumpled them up into a ball and crammed them back into her overnight bag. “What does it matter what June thinks?”
Lynn met Jeffrey at the door and took half of the bundled up blankets in her arms. They smelled a bit like the nursing home where Jeffrey’s grandfather lived, or, rather, where his grandfather existed, where he wasted away in front of the tropical fish aquarium, applesauce gurgling from the corner of his mouth. Nurses and orderlies would walk by and pat his liver-spotted hand. “Catch the game last night, Marv?” they’d ask, knowing perfectly well that he hadn’t. “Haven’t seen a game like that in years!”
“I just don’t want her to think we’re up to something in her house. I don’t know. We’re guests. And she’s nice.” He pushed open the door and stepped outside. The door swung back and banged Lynn’s elbow.
“Get back, Felix,” she said. She nudged the whining Corgi back into the house with her foot.
Jeffrey walked with big strides back toward the fire so Lynn had to shuffle her feet double-time to keep up. Her shoes were soaked with the evening dew. She could feel slivers of cold digging far into her bones.
Jeffrey draped a blanket across Amelia and Lance and handed one to June.
“Thanks, sugarplum.” She reached out to pat his hip but missed, her hand landing on his left back pocket.
“Oops!” June said, covering her rubber-band mouth with stubby fingers. “I’d better be careful. Wouldn’t want to put the moves on him, right, Lynn?”
She winked a muddy brown eye, and Lynn worked her own scanty lips into a closed smile.
Lynn stretched her legs, edging her feet as close to the fire as possible. Her skin stung as the cold gave way to heat.
Underneath their blanket, Lance rubbed his hand up and down Amelia’s thigh. Lynn watched the lump that was Lance’s hand creep up to Amelia’s crotch. She shrieked and slapped his arm before falling into his shoulder again, laughing.
The campers ate their hot dogs and then moved on to the rustic ritual of toasting marshmallows until the gooey insides threatened to burst through the skin. Lance pulled away from Amelia long enough to challenge Jeffrey to Chubby Bunny and lose.
Lance spit his gob of marshmallow into the fire, and June howled with laughter. With her hands braced on her knees, she arched her back and tilted her head up to the sky. Opening her mouth, she let her voice careen up into the stars and rattle the night. The firelight danced across her snaggletooth grin.
Lynn looked away and into the flames.
If I keep staring long enough, I’ll see God.
In eight months, June will be divorced because her husband will catch her fellating a twenty-year-old in the basement of the Methodist church. She’ll try to duck behind the nativity scene that’s being stored down there, but she won’t be quick enough.
June will be hurt that her husband won’t make a scene, that he won’t run over to them and beat the boy’s face bloody, howling loud enough to wake the devil all the while. Instead, he’ll just turn right back around, walk up the steps, and call one of his partners at the firm and ask them to draw up the papers for him.
June slapped her thick thighs and stood up from the log, her knees cracking.
“Come with me, boys,” she said. “I have something to show you.”
Lance stood up and wrapped the blanket tight around Amelia, burying her in a woolen nest with only her head poking out.
“Where are you going?” Amelia’s head asked.
June smiled and shook her head. Her crooked canine tooth poked out from between her lips.
“This is just for the boys. We’ll be back in a bit.”
June walked to the edge of the cornfield and disappeared ghostly into the stalks. The boys followed, the ground crunching beneath their sneakers.
Amelia stuck her arm out of her nest and plucked a marshmallow from the bag. She speared it with a prong on the long metal fork and held it over the fire where the flames could just barely lick at it.
“What do you think of June?” Lynn asked. She looked away from the fire and into the dark of the cornfield. When she blinked, orange fireflies danced along her sightline.
“She’s nice,” Amelia replied, pulling the marshmallow out of the fire. “I mean, Lance and Jeffrey like her. Their moms are both friends with June, so she’s known them since they were little, I guess.” Amelia picked at the shriveled marshmallow. A glob of hot goo seeped in underneath her fingernail.
“Ouch!” Amelia put her finger in her mouth and sucked on it.
“Have you hung out with her before?” Lynn asked.
“Once. She had a surprise birthday party for him, so I was invited to that. I barely spoke to him the whole night. June pulled him around by the arm and kept pushing drinks into his hand and winking at him.” She shrugged. “But oh well. Lance had fun, so that’s all that matters, I guess.”
She looked at Lynn.
“Why,” Amelia asked, “what do you think of June?”
Lynn chewed her bottom lip for a moment.
“I don’t know.” She shook her head. “No, that’s not true. I just don’t like her. She nice to Jeffrey, but she kind of weirds me out. Did you know that she bought Jeffrey’s car for him?”
Amelia nodded. “Yeah, Lance told me that. And I know what you mean. Like, when Lance found out that his parents were getting a divorce, June took him on a walk to cheer him up. She held his hand, like they were dating or something, which is pretty creepy.”
Lynn stood up and laid her blanket on the log. She brushed bits of dry bark from the back of her shorts.
“Where are you going?”
Lynn nodded to the cornfield.
“I’m going to follow them,” she said.
“I’ll come with.”
“Here, go ahead and eat your marshmallow. I’ll wait.”
Amelia shook her head. Wisps of red hair brushed against her cheekbones.
“Nah, I wasn’t going to eat it anyway,” she said. “I’m not very hungry.”
Amelia unraveled herself from her cocoon and followed Lynn to the cornfield.
The two girls split the stalks apart and slipped in. They followed a row in the field, walking lightly to hide the soft snaps of husks beneath their feet, until they heard murmuring voices.
In a clearing cut into the cornfield, June and the boys lined up fireworks. June’s face was flushed, and her eyes were shimmering dark holes. She handed Jeffrey and Lance each a lighter.
“Alright, go!” she yelled.
The boys lit the fireworks one after another, the sparks zooming up into the heavens with mighty pops and bangs.
June saw the girls. She grinned at them, wolf-like.
And in that moment, the two girls willed the other to melt away, and each was standing alone, peering through the cornstalks, watching as the woman writhed with barbaric ferocity underneath the broken sky.
Jen Corrigan is an editorial intern at the North American Review. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Heather; Apocrypha and Abstractions; Yellow Chair Review; The Gambler; Cease, Cows; and elsewhere. Visit her at jencorrigan.wordpress.com.