When Ashby’s older brother came to live with her again after being kicked out of the army, we were star-struck. He was hot, and, according to Ashby, he’d been kicked out of the army for not following the rules. We were the types that smoked cigarettes on our porches when our parents weren’t home, so Ashby’s older brother appealed to us. We learned later which rule he wouldn’t follow: he wasn’t able to shoot when commanded—civilians, children, children who weren’t civilians. We fell in love.
Ashby’s brother came home in the middle of summer, when our palms were tender from gripping hot steering wheels as we drove to the pool, the backs of our bare legs sweaty from sitting on the plastic slats of lounge chairs at that pool, and the tops of our ears perpetually burned. That summer, we always had sunscreen under our painted fingernails, around the tiny false jewels we’d applied to the nails of our ring fingers. We wanted to smoke our cigarettes inside; fuck it if we were grounded.
Ashby’s brother went to the pool every day. We followed him, cigarette smoke in the bangs we cut ourselves, wearing orange and pink and red bikinis. We straightened our bangs to attempt to get the smoke out, and immediately regretted it—the heat unbearable on our foreheads; we wore sticky pink lip gloss and sunglasses with the darkest lenses. We sat on lounge chairs, our smooth legs stretched out in front of us. We watched Ashby’s brother swim.
He was strong in the water, and we watched the muscles in his arms and shoulders contract with each stroke. We looked away from each other when we felt ourselves grow warm from watching him move.
He didn’t acknowledge us. He’s adjusting, we said, he’ll be sniffing around soon. We watched him play with the kids in the pool while their moms sat on chairs on the opposite side of the pool from us, and we saw our tired, modest-bathing-suit-wearing future selves. We saw the moms watching him and thought, Back off, bitches. Go rub lotion into your stretchmarks.
When Ashby’s brother walked on water, we put our phones down. His feet, long-toed, hovered just above the surface—on second look, we corrected ourselves. It was like the surface of the pool was ice, and Ashby’s brother was walking across it.
We whispered to each other: Wait, what? Did you see that? Is he magic? Fuck me.
We scrambled to be the first to catch it for Instagram. We thought it would be a nice break from what we normally did on Insta, tell each other how beautiful we were and then deny it when we received the compliments, in order to seem like nice people.
Ashby yelled out to her brother, and we watched her and wondered why we hadn’t thought of that. She rushed into the pool and started walking across it too, until they were standing in the middle, hanging onto each other. We’d never seen Ashby’s face like that—open and trusting. She was normally the first of us to make a snarky remark, or to raise her eyebrows at some other girl’s poorly plucked set. We were a little embarrassed—we prided ourselves, for real, on not getting too involved, on keeping a safe distance from people, one that we shored up by our comments and jibes and burns.
We were afraid of getting hurt, so we hurt first.
The kids in the pool started to cry when they saw Ashby and her brother standing on the water. The kids floated there in their swim diapers and orange inflatable water wings. When their mothers scooped them out of the pool, we swore they were almost clucking, and one of them had two wet spots on the boobs of her striped tankini.
All summer we watched Ashby’s brother for signs of miracles. He emptied his pockets at lemonade stands on our street, he cured Fat Tammy’s sunburn by putting his hands on her shoulders. We snickered that that was the most action she’d ever gotten. We weren’t surprised that Ashby worshipped him. When someone started throwing around the word “holy,” we felt gross for being attracted to him, for watching him swim laps in the pool while pretending to scroll through Pinterest.
At a party once, one of us, Bridget, asked him to reveal how he’d walked on the water in the pool and Ashby’s brother refused to tell her.
“You’ll betray me,” he said. He had to tell her three times, because she was tipsy and kept asking. She refused, promised she wouldn’t betray him each of the three times he asked. She leaned close enough to kiss him and we cheered on the inside when he turned his mouth away.
Three days later, the story about the pool walking was all over Facebook, and we shunned Bridget.
Ashby’s brother, unfortunately, seemed really into the sluttiest girl we knew, Martina, whose mom was a huge 90s country music fan. We think it started because he told her to be less slutty, that she shouldn’t go down on some guy just because he asked her to. Martina took this to mean that Ashby’s brother was in love with her. Maybe he was. We hoped he wasn’t. Maybe he was a feminist.
Martina started hanging out at Ashby’s every night. When we prodded, Ashby said Martina spent the night in her brother’s room, but that nothing happened, that they lay together fully clothed in his bed.
We weren’t sure. We spied, hanging out in the tree outside Ashby’s brother’s window, crouched above the air vent that connected Ashby’s room to her brother’s, trying to hear their voices. From what we could tell, Ashby’s brother told Martina about the army—how it felt to be expected to kill people, children. We didn’t think the army supported killing children, but we believed Ashby’s brother because he’d been there. Martina told Ashby’s brother about how it felt to have guys assume she was DTF because she’d slept with a couple of people a couple of times. Ashby’s brother and Martina cuddled—we saw them through the window: her back against his chest, his face in her hair. We wondered if they were in love.
In the fall, we got scared. Ashby said her brother, at dinner one night, had yelled at their father that he wasn’t his father.
“He started yelling about the kingdom,” Ashby said as we gathered around her at the lunch table, pretending to eat our Greek yogurts but really just moving our spoons around. “He plays video games too much.”
We were nervous, but we kept it from each other. We went to school because we had to, but we were too distracted to pay attention. Some of us watched eyebrow-tweezing tutorials in class. Others slept. Others of us tried to get as much out of Martina as we could. We asked who Ashby’s brother’s father really was, if it wasn’t Ashby’s father. Had Ashby’s mom had an affair? Was there a secret family somewhere?
“His father forsake him,” Martina said. We Googled forsake. We walked away, confused.
In winter, Martina got involved with people our mothers said belonged to the wrong crowd. Maybe she stopped trying to correct people’s assumption that she was DTF. She started smoking more weed, partying, giving more blow jobs, and we wondered if she enjoyed it, or if she would rather be whispering secrets with Ashby’s brother in his bed. Martina started coming to school exhausted, or hung over, or high. We could smell pot in her hair and we helped her try to brush it out in the bathroom. We glared at guys who eyed her in the hallway.
Ashby’s brother still believed that Martina was a good person, even if, according to Ashby, Martina hated herself, and had told Ashby’s brother that she wanted out of the DTF circle.
One day in February, Martina came to school with her head shaved. There was a rumor—we didn’t start it—that some asshole had jizzed in her hair. At lunch, she sat alone until we invited her to sit with us. Ashby Facetimed her brother during lunch, and he asked to speak to Martina. We couldn’t hear what he said because some jerks at the next table were yelling and throwing Cheetos at each other, but we were able to watch Martina’s face. After she got off the phone, she closed her eyes like she was meditating. When she opened them, the fear was gone.
We followed Martina out to the parking lot after school that day because we knew Ashby’s brother was picking her up. We watched her wait for him—hopeful and almost radiant, like one of the girls in those stock photos above online articles about how to be your happiest self, except she wasn’t staring heavenward from the middle of a field of dandelions. She was watching the cars turn into the parking lot from the street, waiting for Ashby’s brother’s beat-up Camry to cut tracks through the snow. We were jealous.
Ashby’s brother pulled up at the same time that this guy we all knew Martina’d gone down on walked up to her. Ashby’s brother stopped the car and rolled down the window. It seemed like he was giving Martina space to solve her own problems, but it didn’t seem like a boyfriend move, and, as we stomped our feet and stuck our hands up under our armpits, we were relieved. We sighed into our mittens and blamed the ruddiness of our cheeks on the cold.
We watched the guy proposition Martina. He touched her hands, her waist. We watched Ashby’s brother’s eyes narrow. Martina didn’t make eye contact with the guy who was propositioning her. She refused him quietly, like she was embarrassed to be doing this in front of Ashby’s brother. The other guy wouldn’t let up.
“You used to be wild,” he said, his hands brushing the snow off the hat covering her shaved head. She glanced up at him and he smiled, putting his fingers through the belt loops of her jeans.
“Not anymore,” she said. She stepped back and his grip on her belt loops tightened slightly.
“Hey!” Ashby’s brother got out of the car. We got our phones out, set to record.
We thought we heard the guy say something sleazy to Ashby’s brother about sharing the wealth, but we couldn’t be sure because the noise of the guy’s nose breaking was louder than we expected. We hadn’t seen Ashby’s brother punch anyone before. We thought he was above that. We wished we had portable chargers for our phones, because recording this was taking a lot of battery.
Martina ran inside the school, and Ashby’s brother watched her go. Some of us followed her, for Twitter footage. Against our better judgement, but almost involuntarily, we came up with hashtags for this story to put online:
Even then, some of us competed for him—his attention, his smile, his protection. We wanted to be in his bed hearing about the children he hadn’t killed. We thought we could watch Martina fall apart and be ready to step in, make him truly happy.
The ones who stayed outside, the ones who maybe, maybe, had started to see that Ashby’s brother and Martina had something real, we saw the sleazy guy retaliate—Ashby’s brother’s blood on the snow, somehow, we felt, for us, too.
Allison Pinkerton is the 2017 Kathy Fish Fellow at SmokeLong Quarterly. Her work is forthcoming in Image, and has been published online at The Pinch, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter at @allisonpink28.