Hot Fear

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Finally, following all that week’s ruckus, Fat Kay was gone, her arm in a sling, picked up in the middle of the night — by whom they didn’t know. They just huddled around the roughhewn cabin window and watched her trudge, suitcase in hand, into and out of the headlights’ beams, the car shuddering and sending exhaust smoke into the lances of light.

   Instead of snickering, they mashed their young bodies together, and were silent, breathing as one. They were breathing fast, hearts bumping. They believed they’d finally rid themselves of trouble.

But both the staff and the girls forgot an important and unchangeable fact: THERE MUST ALWAYS BE A SCAPEGOAT. Now that Fat Kay was gone, someone else had to bow down and take her place — or there would be no harmony. This litter needed a runt.

   Besides that rude truth, the outside world was about to come
calling. It’s amazing he waited through the early summer to pay his visit, because
if you stow away seven girls — seven virgin opalescent souls — in
the dark woods, thirty miles from any town, you set a primal stage. Yes, there
and freedom and joy. A sorority of spirits. But there will also be danger. You
lay those eggs there in that lonely place — the snake’s bound to come hunting.

The morning after Fat Kay’s departure, Maggie scampered into the cabin with bloody knees and a wet nightgown. The gauzy dress clung to her chubby body, liquid threads of red running down her pale legs. Fist between teeth, blue tears running down cheeks. Strawberry-blonde hair matted to her head. The fabric was transparent — but her undeveloped body made no declarations. No fire between her thighs yet.

   "Maggie!" the other girls cried, as the wet stocky child collapsed.

   They pulled out a first aid box and pushed her lace hem away from the wounds. Maggie lay there heaving, crying. Finally she settled down in the arms of Vanessa. They thought she was asleep until she started to moan.

   "I saw him," she groaned in a strange despair. "I was in the outdoor shower. I saw him!"

   Bret, the tomboy, left her Hardy Boys book on her bunk bed, and now stood sternly over Maggie. "Who

wore mirrored sunglasses," Maggie said. "I saw my body in his
mirrors. He was watching me."

was it, Mag? You need to think."

   "I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know—"

   The girls caressed her cheeks, rubbing her arms. Now Yvette asked in her soothing accent who it was.

   "He wore mirrored sunglasses," Maggie said with her eyes closed, sinking deeper into Vanessa’s lap. "I saw them through the cracks of the shower. I saw my body in his mirrors. I put on my gown, I ran, I screamed, I fell. He was watching me."

So it began. The full moon that lasted a fortnight. The fever that wouldn’t break. It wasn’t just the voyeur. It wasn’t just the battle for dominance in the group. It was something beyond, but the girls didn’t know what the something was yet.

   They sensed the menace without seeing or hearing or smelling it. It swooped by their faces in the dark, like a bat, as they walked to the dining hall. Their little hands were clutching each other’s, and the girls stepped united, footstepless on the damp pine needles.

Morning. Light roared over the water — pure heat, wild gold. Shimmer, like the thighs of the sweaty girls in the cabin, lolling about in sweaty sheets, sucking thumbs, clutching rag dolls. The girls awoke, a few of them knotted together like vines, having been afraid of the night. The tattered ends of dreams vanished with the shadows as the sun burned them all into consciousness. Sheets hung from the top bunks like torn petticoats.

   Another mishap occurred during the sailing lesson. Bret, Renee and Shawn were tacking across the lake — lazy, sweet. Renee trailed her hand in the cold water, enjoying the discrepancy between her fingers in that icy blue and her feet in the sun-warmed, leaf-studded water trapped in the cockpit. She was alive, she felt her whole body alive. She closed her eyes.

   They came about but Renee was in la-la land. The boom hit her pretty head, and her body tumbled over. She gasped in the freezing liquid, shrieking, splashing. The other girls pulled her body into the boat, smacked her cheeks, then pressed her rosebud mouth open to blow into it. Shawn, heaving with fear, knelt over Renee, her mouth on Renee’s, forcing air. Finally Renee sat up, spilling water from her lips.

   They let the sails luff, shivered in the sun, tried to regain themselves. A fish jumped in the middle of the lake.

All the girls ate lunch at a picnic table in the yard. Blue sky pulsed through the pines. Bees hovered over their tin cups of rhubarb lemonade.

   "I just feel clumsy," said Marisol. "Like I never felt before. I just feel like something’s wrong, like I’m about to trip, or fall…"

   The other girls nodded in the noontime heat, and then twigs crackled in the near distance. Bret went running after the noise, but stopped when she got far enough into the woods. She stood there, twisting the white string tied around her wrist, wildflowers glowing in the darkness at her feet. "Who goes there?" she tried to say with courage.

   She came back, scowling.

   The girls tried to catalog the peeping-tom suspects.

   There was Mister Rector, with his swank car and seersucker suits and his wide-brimmed hat. Their patron. They all imagined that if it was him, he’d want to take them each on his knees like a daddy does, feed her a sweet, or let her lick the sweet in his hand, and then do something else.

   There was the cook, whom they called Popeye for his cap. He sat on the back steps leading out of the kitchen, smoked his brown cigarillos and spat on the pine-needled ground. His eyes runny as yogurt. Once they’d seen him wandering the forest, drunk, ghostly, stumbling to one tree trunk and then to another. And Maggie, the crybaby, had found a magazine by the kitchen stairs. Ladies and men doing strange things to each other, wrestling, taking off each other’s undergarments, ganging up on each other. Maggie didn’t talk for three days.

   There was Nick. He was half American Indian, and wore a necklace of feathers and pine cones and seashells around his neck. He mowed the lawn without a shirt on, his torso slick and shining, his tattoos gleaming and scars burning red. He seemed to have lived a million more years than the girls had lived, but he might have been a teenager. He bundled up trash, made fires in the main house on cold nights, repaired the old camp car when it broke down, a bandanna around his long black hair, his face square and wet as he leaned over the engine.

   Most of the girls thought they had crushes on him, but what they wanted to do with him was vague, hazy in their little minds. They wanted to sit in a dark movie theatre with him, they wanted to feel his enormous hand on their tiny knee, they wanted to kiss, share a soda, hear how much he loved them. Beyond that, sex was just a big long kiss. That’s as far as their imaginations had gotten. Just the way they thought death was a long sleep.

   Lastly: the stranger in white. He sailed on the other side of the lake, tacking with magical precision, and perfect style. He wore white, his sails were white, and from his boat a kind of white light shined to where the girls stood on the opposite shore, making daisy chains.

   But it could always be a stranger, someone they’d never seen, never heard of, someone with no name. Whoever he was, he was watching.

Maggie should have become the scapegoat, but she always gave her packages away to everyone, dividing up ginger cookies or lavender sachets or storybooks. Vanessa and Shawn were the alphas, and didn’t have to worry for a moment. Marisol was different from the rest, certainly, the only daughter of her Papi, with no mother, but she had a warmth that made her strong. She sang her Spanish lullabies, and danced flamenco through the tall grass. Yvette was so rich she could have owned the other girls, and made sure they knew that. She let them try on her party dress and her gold locket. Bret, with her rope bracelet and detective books, balanced the group out with a winning smile and can-do attitude. In fact, all those girls were capable of something. They provided for the others.


   It was Renee — who grew up in a house that wasn’t near any other houses, who grew up with a black cat for a best friend — that felt endangered as the week wore on. Renee, who could stare at the stars for so long she sometimes forgot where she was and who she was, and would wake up on the sandy shore as if she had been washed there from a shipwreck. Renee, who didn’t have secrets or heritage or toys or tricks. Renee, whose head was black-and-blue from the sailboat accident: she felt she’d already been marked as the one. At first she fought against it.

   This struggle created tension, and combined with the mounting panic over increasing incidents of being watched: the group started to get wild.

Skeet shooting. The sky was gray, which made the clay pigeons easy to spot. The girls, in their tight little khaki shorts, moved from station to station. Everyone shot with a 20 gauge, except Bret, who shot with a 12 gauge over-and-under that her daddy had given her. It was Bret’s turn, and she stood with the gun crammed into her shoulder, and she sighted down the barrel.

   "Pull!" she yelled, and Vanessa sprung the machine.

   She pulled the trigger, but her eye had been drawn to something else. Instead of shooting the clay pigeon, she somehow killed a starling. Its black body twisted fiercely as it dropped. Bret slowly lowered her barrels, broke the gun to release the spent shell, and removed the hot live shell as sour smoke leaked out.

   A smudge of blood left on the sky.

Shawn and Vanessa lay out in bathing suits on the rock to dry their hair, which they fanned out in the sun. Their feet dangled in the water. Vanessa’s skin blacker than the wet black stone. Shawn’s hair whiter than her snow-white skin. Yin

Bret pointed out the window with trembling hand. A mirage, almost. The distorted head of a man.

and yang, they nestled against each other, goose-pimpled thighs just touching. They could feel it coming before they saw it. They opened their eyes.

   A hawk was diving at them. They didn’t even move, there was no time. At the last moment, he pulled up, and with a dark rustle took off into the white sun. They held each other close, Shawn’s neck buried in Vanessa’s hair, Vanessa’s thigh pushed between Shawn’s legs.

   The bird had wanted meat. They knew that. They didn’t know why he had turned away at the end, but they knew he didn’t have to. He could have had what he wanted.

   They told no one. Later that night they tried to play a duet on the dining hall piano after dinner. The candles made all the girls’ faces even more serious as they listened. Miss K and Miss T glanced at each other, worried, in the golden night, as Shawn and Vanessa played one wrong note after another. They had never made mistakes before.

   That night, walking in the still, black midnight back to the cabin, Maggie screamed as they all rounded the kitchen steps. She thought she saw blonde hair strewn all over the ground. But it was cornsilks; Popeye had husked the ears here for their corn pudding that night.

   The girls all went to sleep in their own beds, but ended up in each other’s arms. They let a candle burn down to the nub in the middle of the floor because they were afraid. They holed up in there like a den of foxes, curled around each other, spooning, sucking each other’s thumbs, moaning in sleepy anxiety and disquiet.

Marisol crept back into the cabin at dawn; she’d been to the outhouse. Her face was pale. Her leg was wet. She lay down like a zombie on her bed.

   "He was watching. The mirrors. Through the cracks."

It rained all day. The girls sat around on their beds, listening to rock-and-roll on the radio, playing cards for pennies. The rain ran down their windows in sheets of water. Marisol painted her toes a baby pink, sang as she worked.

   Shawn and Maggie were both finally changing out of their pajamas, even though it was almost noon, when Bret threw down her cards, pointed out the window with trembling hand.

   A mirage, almost. The distorted head of a man wearing mirrored glasses. Through the rain, through their fear, they couldn’t see his face. He was gone.

One afternoon, while the rest of the girls were playing tennis, Yvette stayed in the cabin. She’d claimed a headache, but she wanted to examine treasures she’d just received. She unlocked her monogrammed trunk with a tiny key she hid in her underpants.

   From the trunk, she pulled out a package covered in Air Mail stamps. From its tissue, she unpacked a bar of white chocolate. She took a bite, rolling it in her mouth, letting it melt in her hot mouth. She’d also gotten a baby-blue nightie, and she rubbed her face with it, rubbed her thighs. With the nightie thrown around her neck like a scarf, and her throat still thick with chocolate, she withdrew the prize: a bottle of perfume. Daintily, she pulled out the crystal stopper, dabbed her small wrist, and almost swooned.

   "Mmmmmnhhh," she said, eyes closed.

   Then she heard a noise in the closet. She dropped the bottle, which shattered on the floor, splinters of glass spearing her ankle and foot. She ran from the cabin, slipping in blood, leaving her chocolate and nightgown behind.

It couldn’t go on. The girls all knew this. But they couldn’t tell Miss K or Miss T because the camp would then be closed, and the girls would be sent home. So they all started to go crazy with this sense of being seen, and with their battles over group order. They were getting tired.

   Renee knew this, and she knew that something was about to happen.

   That evening, they were practicing fly-fishing on the lawn, since they liked to practice in the yard the day before they went fishing on the lake. They flicked their wrists to send the flies in figure-8s above their heads. Shawn counted for them: "Forward 1, back 1, forward 2, back 2."

   Fireflies danced with the dark barbs as the girls casted in tandem.

   Suddenly Vanessa cried out, dropped to the ground, holding her shoulder. The girls lay down their poles, and gathered to see blood stand in a line on her arm. A hook had deeply grazed her flesh.

   No one knew exactly what happened next, but a fight broke out in the twilight. Someone blamed someone, someone was slapped, someone was crying.

   They were all put to bed without dinner.

They lay in the early darkness, fidgeting, turning over, barely whispering. Cicadas and crickets made their nighttime sounds, buzzing and clicking. Wind knocked branches around in the woods, but it was a hot night despite the breeze, lush with the scent of pine and lake water. The girls were hungry but they weren’t about to try to steal bread or peaches from the kitchen. It seemed a hundred miles away.

   And it was in this state — of unquiet quiet, of after-fight despair, of starving half-sleep — that Renee finally understood why they had all been afraid. Yes, to be watched is frightening to some. Yes, to be made the runt, the lowest girl on the ladder, would terrify some. But that’s because they were young, and foolish. They didn’t know that there was something that lay beyond the fear.

   As if in a trance, Renee rose from her bed. She walked, barefoot, out of the cabin. The other girls tossed heavily in their own bunks, unaware that she was up since the idea of venturing outside was too preposterous to believe. She walked under the stars. She knew where he would be, somehow, she knew who it was, and what she would do.

   Nick was standing in the woods, holding his bare stomach as if hungry himself, trembling like a man who hadn’t eaten in days. They looked at each other with moonlit eyes, and saw each other’s pain. Renee nodded at him, and the pain in his face eased. He cupped her chin with his huge hand, tender, and he looked at her with care.

   She knelt in the pine needles. Getting his zipper down, she struggled, her fingers young and clumsy — but her eyes were fiery. She sucked him like an ice cream cone, licking him as if he were melting, seeming to get more pleasure from it than he was getting, although that wasn’t possible.

   He could feel her moaning, the sound translated as a sensation through his pelvic bones, reverberating in his heart like a bell. Her small greedy hands clutched and stroked his wet cock like little raccoon hands on a fat corn cob. Her nightie strap slipped off one shoulder, and a moonlit breast was revealed, pale and plump, a child’s tit with a rock-hard nipple. He rubbed that little red bud, and with his other hand he rubbed her silky head. He was almost seeing stars — in and out of her little mouth — stars — every few strokes the nick of a small tooth — his hamstrings on fire — his whole soul going dark as the darkest night sky and in his mind — the emblem of those ruby rosebud lips — him thrusting into them — stars — and then he opened his eyes to see her eyes closed, and he winced when he slid out of her wet mouth.

   Her hand was in her panties. She pulled out glistening fingers, wiped them on her nightgown like a mechanic rubbing his Levis to get grease off his hand. She coughed like an overfed baby, choking on milk. Nick doubled over, winded, wrecked, taken, empty.

   When she finally stood up, he held her, and their hearts eventually became regular. They pulled apart. She got a fearsome look on her face as she brushed needles from her knees.

   "Now you listen here," she said. "When you need something, you come to me. Do you understand?"

   "I’m sorry, I’ve been snooping, I just can’t take it—"

   "You are not to blame. But don’t bother them anymore because
they can’t handle it." And here she pounded her chest and put a sergeant’s
emphasis on each word: "You Come To Me."

They’d all been afraid of being transformed. But Renee wasn’t scared. Sometimes the one who seems the runt is the queen. Renee walked back, weaving a bit, drunk on him, on what they’d done. She walked back to all those mewling kittens she called sisters, back to that room of girls, yes girls, not women, little girls who knew almost everything about almost everything, but nothing about one thing.

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