“Mannequin” by Melissa Ragsly
Voice is often the key to a story narrated in the first-person point-of-view. If the voice is strong and clear and believable, a reader will follow that voice almost anywhere. One of the most difficult voices to do well, though, is that of a child or a teen. As (mostly) adult readers who have lived through childhood and the teenage years, we tend to be somewhat skeptical of a younger voice, unless it feels legitimate, unless the character is able to become fully alive on the page.
In “Mannequin,” Melissa Ragsly manages to do just that. Her first-person narrator, Jen, is believable and real, full of quirky insights and that mixture of adult and child sensibilities that capture the fragility of being a teen. She thinks in bursts of thought, one idea leading to the next, and Ragsly mimics this process on the textual level by using long sentences which link multiple thoughts and actions. The story also uses two story lines which run parallel to each other, coming together so successfully, and yet unexpectedly, at the end.
The very first week Tara got her license, the cassette in her car jammed and no matter how hard we pushed the eject button with the flat of our palms—praying it would gag itself out like Gene Simmons’ tongue—the tape just wouldn’t budge. We had all stopped listening to metal because only the burnouts in the smoke pit listened to it, but Appetite for Destruction was better than what we could find on the radio. Over and over it played, flipping from side to side while the tape stayed put.
Honking her hatchback at the mouth of my driveway, Tara picked me up when she finished her shift at the mall. She was the only way I could get out of my house. We lived too far from town and the paths were not lit at night.
I got in the car and let the heater warm the night off of me. I gave Tara a side-hug hello as the quivering chords of a song began. Our song. Tara and I admitted to ourselves and to no one else that “Rocket Queen” was our favorite track from the album. It wasn’t released as a single and there was no video. Not a lot of people knew about it. They didn’t know the whole story.
Tara said, “I think Patton’s coming tonight.” Patton managed Tara at the cafeteria where she worked. He would have been a senior but he’d dropped out of school to restore Volkswagen Beetles. Each day he drove into the employee parking lot at the mall with a different color Bug. I’d looked for a pattern, but I guessed it all depended on his mood that day.
Tara had flirted with him since the job interview, and she liked the attention. She did a good job of pretending, too. Since she was going to be traveling for Thanksgiving soon, she needed to make sure she would be one of the lucky ones to get the full week off. So, of course, she invited him to the woods. “I don’t know if we’ll be able to see his crater face in the moonlight, though.” She always made fun of his acne scars when he wasn’t around.
Tara still had her hair pulled back in a bun, tied with a yellow butterfly clip, neat, mandatory for the job. She ladled soup to old ladies who purchased bulks of yarn and packs of white underwear at McCrory’s. She told me, “We’ll be them one day. Knitting blankets with our panties up to our tits.” While she worked, I’d spend hours at the mall waiting for her to get off her shift. I would loiter at the back of Sam Goody’s at the magazine rack and read Rolling Stone interviews until the grease from my fingertips made the ink of the page swirl and disappear. I could see what was on the next page through the little window I’d made.
Tara was about to pull away from the curb when I saw a shadow in the backseat. I turned further. I didn’t know what it was I saw back there but it frightened me. I gasped. I was trying for a scream. It was a thing, a shape as big as me. A mannequin.
In the dark, it was lifelike, bald with shadowed eyes and dressed in a sporty Esprit sweatshirt dress. Her hands were posed, holding an invisible something above her lap. I only knew she was not real by her stillness.
“What the fuck, Tara?”
“She was going to be thrown away. She has a fault. I’m saving her.”
“You could have warned me.”
“I didn’t want her in the break room for anyone to mess with her. I thought she could be our mascot. For the clearing.”
“Wait, hold up, I’ll be right back.” I opened my door and jogged back to my garage, grabbed ropes from the metal shelves by the freezer and one of my brother’s flannels hanging from a wooden peg. Tara called out. It was getting late, and we needed to go pick up Wendy and Lisa and get to the woods before Patton got there. That was precisely why I got the rope. Wendy was tall. She’d take up too much space with our new friend in the back, and there was no way I was going to be demoted to the backseat stuffed up against Lisa and her refusal to wear deodorant because of some irrational fear of Alzheimer’s. The front seat was mine. Tara was mine. Wendy and Lisa sat in the back. We were all friends, but we knew our allegiances. If we were points on a compass, I always pictured Tara and I as the north and south.
I lifted the mannequin out of the backseat, heaving her up to standing. Guns N’ Roses piped out of the open doors. Rocket Queen’s bridge played, and Tara and I laughed when we heard the song’s porno whimpers while the mannequin was in my arms. In the streetlight, her skin looked pore-less. I searched for painted-on blackheads, a beauty mark, anything, but her complexion was smooth and perfect and her mouth was an orangey-red toothless half smile. Those noises—the oohs and ahhs—were getting louder than the crickets.
I’d read the story of the recording of “Rocket Queen” in the Rolling Stone with Axl Rose on the cover, his bony chest underneath a tweed blazer. It was one of those long Sundays at the end of the summer when the mall’s air conditioning was worshiped. I hadn’t minded waiting for Tara. I was happy not to sweat. In the article, I learned how the drummer’s girl had been mad that he wouldn’t use the words boyfriend and girlfriend so she went to the studio and let Axl lie his head in her lap and while she stroked his baby-fine red hair, he convinced her that she could be part of history. That he was serious and that she’s the one meant to do it with him and she agreed. They put a blanket down on the studio floor, miked up the room and the engineers recorded him fucking her. She would always be part of the song even if she wasn’t the drummer’s girlfriend. It was a manipulation, I thought, maybe the drummer was in on. Like they’d plotted it. Make your girl mad so she’ll go running off to hurt you and we’ll get it all on tape.
Tara and I sang along to the song’s orgasm, but I shushed us both, not wanting my parents to turn on their side lamps and peak out through the front windows. I was surprised it was the actual sounds of sex. It couldn’t be real. It sounded like how I used to tape my voice on a cassette recorder singing along to the Good Times theme and trying to make that run of notes at the end where it’s all moans and yeahs.
I got the mannequin on her back and planted her up on the roof. We needled my rope through the cranked-down windows. I knotted clover hitches across her torso, sailing knots I had learned from my older brothers. Tara, amazed that I could secure the mannequin so quickly, tilted her head when she looked at me with what I realized was pride.
Back in the car, we pulled away from my house, the pine tree air freshener—long dead of scent—dancing from its rearview mirror gallows. I turned the volume up as soon as we got to the first stop sign. Here’s the thing about the song, and Tara and I had talked about it, and it confused us as much as we loved it. It’s got this Sunset Strip cooing about sex where sharpened bodies can attack like weapons. It’s about how he’s gonna fuck them and do whatever he likes. It feels like an attack.
But the song turns. The music changes. Even the tone of his voice mellows. It becomes this ode to undying friendship. A confessional about love that isn’t about sex. We wondered if anyone noticed. We told each other that the song’s ending sounded like it could be about us. It’s all devotion and it’s all us. We thought maybe it was Axl singing to his drummer all along and not to some girl.
The song ended. Gears hissed the open air of blank tape. Side B clicked over to side A, and we were brought back to the beginning. “Welcome to the Jungle” as our headlights lit the way.
Everyone thought Mr. House was gay just because he was the art teacher. I had heard the rumors all freshman year, and they continued once sophomore year began. I think he wore his hair in a ponytail because of school policy. They couldn’t make him cut it, but they could make him hide it.
I’d been in his class for a few weeks when he told me about the first field trip of the year, to an art museum in the city. He met me at the train station on a Saturday morning, his hair down and wavy. He dressed the same as at school, though. Khaki pants. A fall-colored plaid shirt tucked in. A maroon tie.
“Filly,” he called to me, waving the tickets in the air. My name is Jen, but everyone except for Tara, Wendy and Lisa called me Filly because there were like twenty-three Jens in the whole school, and I couldn’t stand the way everyone turned their head when they heard your name.
He told me the train ride would take about an hour. “I’ll have plenty of time to bore you about Gregor Draganov before we hit Manhattan.”
“Do you know him?” I thought that since Mr. House taught art, he might know the artist who we were going to see. He laughed. “Draganov is world famous. His family escaped the iron curtain. He can never go back. They don’t like the art he makes.”
“What does he paint?”
“It’s not painting, Filly. It’s conceptual. We actually get to participate.”
“Well, you’ll see. It’ll be a surprise.”
We got on the train, sitting in a three-seater, our bags in the middle giving me an armrest on both sides. I thought it was strange that he had a backpack too. I expected adults to carry briefcases, like my parents. But his was an L.L. Bean sack, scuffed but in good condition. Mine was white with red and blue faux paint splatters, purchased with Tara’s discount.
The train started moving faster and faster. It felt like an airplane taking off. I looked out the window and all the trees looked like one big blurry fat tree from how we sped and shook on the tracks.
I wondered who else he’d asked to come on the field trip and why we were the only ones going. I wasn’t even the best artist in the class. That was Titus and then Beverley and then me. Titus was always busy with sports on the weekends. He was the captain of everything. Beverley was shy and was probably too afraid to come. Mr. House might have asked Robbie Ply to come, and Robbie probably would’ve said he wouldn’t spend the day alone with a faggot because he loved to call people names that made them feel ashamed. He’d called me a slut in middle school after he showed me the head of his penis in the hallway. I didn’t touch it or stare. I looked away and swatted my eyes shut with my hand. But he called me one anyway. In solidarity, his friends sometimes called out “Feely” when too many teachers were around to say something more obviously threatening. I would have preferred slut. Feely was so close to my name that it felt like they were all touching me with it, like it was a hand slapped down on my shoulder pushing me down.
Mr. House prepared me for the show. He told me how the artist would place certain objects on a table on one side of the room and then other objects across from them, and those somehow became subjects instead of objects. Just because you could use any objects on the table to manipulate any of the objects across the room, they stopped being objects. I was confused. He explained it again but I drifted, looking out at the trees. He pointed out to where I looked, “See, you are looking at the trees so instead of them being objects in and of themselves, they have become your subjects.” And that did make more sense but I said it didn’t really sound like art to me.
We picked up the others at Lisa’s house, and they both smelled like peach schnapps. Wendy was so tall she was sometimes mistaken for a college student. Lisa was dimpled and fair and felt stuck back in sixth grade. She still had horses on her notebooks.
Lisa accepted our mannequin into the group with a big cheery hug as she stood on the edge of the open car door. I could smell her when she lifted up her arms for the embrace.
“Let’s call her Kim, like in that movie,” she said.
Wendy added in her deep voice, “She comes to life!”
Those two threw off sparks of glee and high-pitched shrapnel declaring their love for that movie, and Tara just shot them down. “It was lame. Don’t ever watch it again.” I agreed. It was for middle-schoolers. It was for teen romance readers, and we stopped reading those books when we were twelve. On the drive, we started calling her Kim even though Tara continued to debate Wendy and Lisa, voicing her complaints, “Like some guy who falls in love with a mannequin would want her to come to life? He fell in love with her precisely because she couldn’t talk!” When we mentioned Kim, we all pointed up to the roof, to where she reclined over our heads, to where her useless eyes looked up to the blue ceiling of the sky.
Tara pulled up to the parking lot abutting the playground behind the elementary school. No one could figure out the puzzle of my knots, so I untied Kim. Tara told Wendy to let the mannequin ride on her back since she was the tallest and strongest but she struggled with the weight, only making it to the open mouth of the path. The rope was still laced around Kim’s stiff limbs like hogtied cattle. I grabbed the mannequin’s feet while Wendy and Lisa took hold under each shoulder. In this formation—under Tara’s flashlight beams—we snaked around the lot and followed the path that passed the shallow riverbed. It was a short hike until the clearing sprang up: a field encircled by maples and evergreens, patches of poison ivy in the undergrowth. Someone had rolled over hefty chalk-colored boulders and rocks to form a makeshift Stonehenge, just tall enough to rest your backside on when you’d chugged too many beers to stand up straight.
Lisa had given up. Wendy had Kim chained in her grip awkwardly, like Jesus lugging his cross up the mountain. I would never actually say that to her; she didn’t need to know she resembled a religious figure to me with her blousy shirts and auburn waves. Thank goodness, she bleached her moustache. She was so sensitive being tall with her alto voice and no boyfriend. We didn’t have boyfriends either but we had been asked out a lot.
Wendy delivered Kim to an uprooted tree stump which had fallen on its side, its roots burst like a starfish. Our mannequin looked like a queen on her forest throne. Even in the dim light—our eyes had adjusted—we could see our Kim watching over us, an earthen halo crowning her bald head.
In the clearing, we kept a stash of Bachman’s thin pretzel twists that our mothers had bought us for lunch, and we washed them down with the sour-tasting 40s Tara had convinced older men at the gas station to buy for her with her own money. We clicked on the battery-operated lanterns we’d stolen from our attics and garages. Wendy’s mother worked at the hospital and smuggled out boxes of temporary heating bags, which Wendy then stuffed in her jacket pockets. We each took a pouch, hit it between our palms and shook. The chemicals inside activated, and we were warm.
Under the glow of the lamps, it was evident what Kim’s flaw was, why Tara said she needed to be thrown away. Her dress had hiked itself up to her waist. There was a hole chipped through where her vagina would be. It was too strange. Perhaps, it could have been an accident, like it was dropped at just the right angle. I could see how it would have made the dressers too embarrassed to perform the task.
Lisa pointed. “Look at her privates!”
Wendy laughed, and I coughed out one too, but it was really at Lisa for saying ‘privates,’ and Tara didn’t laugh but smiled sympathetically at our mute guest. “Someone be a friend and pull her dress down for her.”
We heard the crackling of pebbles and brambles under tires. We stood up. I saw headlights but we were too deep in the woods to see the car.
“That must be Patton,” Tara said and wiped some malty foam from her top lip.
I untied my brother’s flannel from around my waist. My arms found the sleeves. I adjusted the collar, feeling the fleece, soft against my chin.
After the commuter train, Mr. House and I got on the subway. I had never been on one before, and I was terrified. My father had referred to them as metal tubes of death.
There was only enough room for one of us to sit so Mr. House gave the seat to me while he sort of surrounded me with his body. I looked up at him and he looked so tall. He didn’t even have to reach that much to hold onto the strap. I got dizzy looking up at him. I was going to just look straight ahead, but my view was of his belt buckle. The metal was plated, a dull gold wrap that was wrinkling off from wear. His fly was up, save for the last few teeth of the zipper that didn’t catch. I couldn’t keep looking there so I looked down at my feet.
In the Contemporary Hall, Mr. House gushed over Gregor Draganov’s exhibition. There was a live pink pig in a cage and boy did it smell like pig in the museum! I imagined the people that owned the museum weren’t happy about all that pig shit on the marble floors. Next to the pig was a large piece of paper. A patch of brown rag dolls were next to the paper, each the size of a child and stuffed with something soft. They reminded me of oversized voodoo dolls. There seemed to be about ten of them in a line.
I was surprised to see Mr. House so delighted at what this Russian guy put together. The pig was cute, almost puppyish in its expression. Most people gravitated to her just to hear her little squeals. I knew it was a girl because there was a sign on top of her cage in bubble gum pink that read, “girl pig.”
On the table across the way, the artist had left half-used crayons, the ignored ones at the bottom of a shoebox. There were tubes of paint pens. Clear spray bottles with a cloudy yellow liquid. There were stubby hunks of wood that looked like fire logs and an arrangement of knives, from dull butter to prickly dagger. Very little had been done to the items on the right. People seemed to hover, afraid that the guard might tell them to keep their hands off. Some boys, younger than me, had each taken a log and one brave or stupid boy, I couldn’t tell which, leveled the head of one of the brown dolls with a swing like a baseball bat. His friends sniggered. Others watched for the guard’s reaction but the guard was unmoved. Mr. House said, “See, they’re now part of it. What do you think we should do?” Another boy took a butter knife and stabbed a doll in the gut, but it wasn’t sharp enough to break through. Still, no one stopped him.
I looked at all the items, and I had no urge to handle any of them. I would much rather keep my eye on the sharper knives and the girl pig and see if anyone would dare.
Mr. House approached the table. He seemed confident about it because he was an artist too so he must have understood what we were supposed to do. Unimpressed with the paint tubes, he palmed the spray bottle and shook it. He sniffed it, and I saw a few of his nose hairs as his nostrils flared open. He closed his eyes and whatever he smelled had made him smile like he had a secret, and he stepped to me like he was going to share it.
“Just what I thought. It’s urine.”
I was grossed out. I took a step back, grunting, and the pig replied with one of her own.
“I wonder if there are some sort of mother’s hormones in this. I’m going to spray it at the pig.”
“No, don’t do that to her.” Lying on her side, the piglet scratched her nose on a bar of the cage. “It’s not nice.”
“The artist is counting on us.”
“He doesn’t care. You’re just using that as an excuse to hurt her.”
“I don’t want to hurt animals. I’m a pescatarian.”
“Eating meat is barbarianism.”
So many of my favorite singers had declared that meat was murder. I thought it was noble to give it up and so did Mr. House. It would make me sick sometimes to see my brothers eat takeout Chinese spare ribs while I sat across from them with my broccoli. By the time they’d finished eating, their mouths were stained pink.
Mr. House, with his mane of hair like Lisa’s favorite horses, gave me a conspiring look. “Let’s spray it and observe the pig’s emotional change.” He handed me the bottle so I could pull the trigger but I didn’t want to. Instead, I picked up a paint pen and wrote my initials on the paper, which made me feel like I was some part of the world because people like Mr. House talked about art and museums, and I was sure there were a lot of Mr. Houses out in the world. He sprayed, and I watched her snout try to read the mist.
Before we got on the train back home, Mr. House stopped at a deli inside the station and bought food for the ride back. We had to wait before we could get on the train so we sat in the waiting room. Mr. House said it would be a good idea for me to write down some notes for my paper. He said I could write my midterm about Draganov. I said I wasn’t sure if I really liked it, and he said that wasn’t the point.
As I fiddled with my lead pencil and tried to draw a schematic of how it was all laid out, Mr. House pulled out a bag of chips and a bottle of beer. He twisted off the cap and chugged, tilting his head back so I could see his Adam’s apple after each swallow. I’d never seen someone enjoy a beer so much.
Our track was called, and we got into a two seater, with me by the window. Once we were in the tunnel, Mr. House showed me that he had bought a second bottle of beer and said that if I wanted it, I could have it. “You worked really hard today. A perfect student of culture.” I took it and sipped it and once we were out of the tunnel, I watched the big green mess of trees fly by. When the train stopped, before I said goodbye, Mr. House slipped me his home telephone number. I only ever had his school extension. “In case you need any help with the paper,” he said.
I took the steps quickly down to Tara’s car and to Axl’s voice coming in through the speakers. She must have queued it so I could hear “Rocket Queen.” She saw Mr. House still on the platform and looked around for other people she recognized.
“Who else went with you guys?” she asked like she knew the answer.
“It was only me,” I said, and she just stared at me. “What?” I asked but I knew the answer because I heard the song, and the words were right in front of me.
I wasn’t naïve when I was crushed together in the hatchback with my best friend. I was a queen. So was Tara. We looked at our subjects through filmy windows.
But outside the car, we were just girls.
As Patton droned on, squeaks from a dray of squirrels or maybe a nest of abandoned birds punctuated his complaints. “We’re staying open only through the end of the year. One last Christmas blowout and then vamoose! They’re shutting most of the McCrory stores in New York. A hundred fucking years, you’d think something would be solid.”
“Oh man.” Lisa held her head in her hands. She looked like she might puke all over the dirt. “You sound like my grandpa.” Wendy came to Lisa’s side, rubbing her back and folding Lisa’s hair behind her ears.
“Patton was just mimicking the serenade of old men everywhere,” Tara said. “Fill in the blank isn’t as good as it used to be.” Tara joked around with guys. She had a way of putting them down just enough that they kind of enjoyed it, like a flippant insult was an invitation to some to tame her. But Patton grabbed the beer from Tara’s hand and told her she’d had enough. “Why? I’m losing my job too,” she said.
Tara went over to Lisa, who really had had too much to drink, and asked her how she was. Lisa was green: at least she looked that way in the lantern light. She got up, took a few zigzagged steps, and her foot caught a rock. She tripped into the lap of the mannequin almost bashing her head on the stump of Kim’s throne.
Patton laughed, and Tara glared at him, but he kept laughing, her look only fuel. I could see the muscles of his stomach roll, or maybe it was a little bit of flab. Whatever it was, it danced under the thin fabric of his tangerine t-shirt. It was the brightest part of him, picking up all the light so everything else was a dark corona around him. I told him to stop laughing. He stared at me as if I wasn’t worth getting mad at. I wasn’t Tara, but just her little friend that always seemed to be tagging along, like his girl’s third arm, but I thought it would be cool to have a third arm. Think of all the things you could carry, think of all the things you could touch. And, besides, Tara wasn’t his girl.
Patton lifted Tara from her crouch next to Lisa. He whispered in Tara’s ear, pulling her hair aside and getting his lips real close as he led her toward the path back into the woods. They weren’t in the light anymore, and I couldn’t see if he kept on talking or if he was even kissing her lobe, and I couldn’t see Tara’s face either. From the back, she looked like she was following him, being led by the words he spilled into her.
Wendy helped Lisa up. They wanted to go look for water in the car. I told Wendy to leave Lisa with me, that I’d watch her, but Wendy insisted Lisa stay on her feet to keep moving. Once they were out of the clearing, I didn’t think much about them, I just stared at the spot where Tara had stood, and it wasn’t empty of her as much as it was empty of everything. As if she had somehow eclipsed all the trees and grass that crossed her path. I even told the mannequin, “I wish I had a compass to see if it still works.” I talked to Kim for a while; I asked her if she had ever seen the movie. I tried to remember how it ended: “You were going to be destroyed right? But he grabbed your hand and you turned real. Saved by love.”
After I’d gone on the field trip with Mr. House, he seemed more interested in my artistic output. We did a unit of figure drawings, and he had these wooden figurines he could manipulate into any pose. There were springs and joints and metal wires inside the little bodies that acted like muscles and tendons. They were only about a foot tall, and he would put one on each table in the art room. We could all take an easel and a pad and circle ourselves around the figure and sketch. Mr. House called them all Baby. We’d have twenty-minutes to draw at the beginning of the class and no matter where I’d put my stool, whether I was close to a Baby or pulled back by the windows, Mr. House was always right over my shoulder. Not right up behind where I could hear him breathing or anything, but behind me so I could feel him looking at me, or looking at how I saw Baby, how I made her on my paper, how each movement of my hand gave her more width and depth. I wanted Baby to fill up the page.
One day, I gave her a third arm and when I got the sketch back from Mr. House he gave me a check in red with a big question mark next to it. He also wrote “nice” under my name and date. But what was really funny to me, or weird, was that the arm I added? I noticed it was a little darker than the rest of my drawing. So, I looked closer, I even got out the magnifying glass we kept in the kitchen drawer for when my grandmother visited, and I could see someone had traced over the arm.
I was alone in the circle for a few minutes, sitting at Kim’s feet. I had turned off the lanterns and my flashlight so we could see the moon better and whatever stars echoed around it. It was also better when I didn’t have to look right into her flaw. That’s when I heard Tara’s muffled yelp. It was Tara’s voice and it was distressed, but it wasn’t loud, and I was confused as to what it meant. I got up but knocked into Kim, and her arm hung loosely off her shoulder. Wendy and Lisa hadn’t returned, and I didn’t know what to do. I turned my flashlight back on, the beam noticeably weak. Trying to reattach her arm with clammy nervous fingers, I knocked it off its hinge completely. With the flashlight in my mouth, I reattached Kim’s limb. Still, I heard Tara.
I followed the sound into the woods. I saw only trees or the silhouettes of them. I heard Tara again but I was also hearing the pattering of leaves falling. There were birds and what I thought might be raccoons. I stood still and waited. The whine returned. Or was it a coo? She sounded so far away, but I kept walking. I was going too slowly for my liking but I was terrified of branches coming out and slapping me. I had one hand over my face, my vision striped by fingers. I saw something fly, the glide of a winged squirrel.
I heard leaves and saw a slash of orange with ripples of shadows rolling over the color. It was Patton’s stomach. It was like he’d dressed as a hunter so no one would shoot him. He was standing, that much I could tell, but there were too many twigs and foliage in the way to see anything more.
My flashlight flickered then died. I looked for the shape of Tara, her dark hair the color of the atmosphere all around me. My eyes slowly adjusted. I saw nothing else moving until I could make out his hands, barely the color of flesh. I could tell they were his hands. They were grayed with carburetor grease and motor oil from the cars he frankensteins together. They were holding something round and at first, I thought it was a bowling ball he was going to throw without using the finger holes. He was grabbing on to the sides of this ball and moving it around and then I saw Tara’s butterfly clip.
I heard another yelp. She was trying to call for help. But she couldn’t get the words out. Maybe I was mistaken, though. Maybe that’s how she sounded when she was with a guy. Maybe he asked her to pretend to fight him. Maybe those were her play-pretend rock and roll orgasmic moans. Maybe he’d told her she was going to be part of history and only she could be the one to do it. I stood there and watched for a second, afraid to be a participant in whatever was happening. But it was only a second.
I moved faster and I got up right behind him and he didn’t see me because his eyes were closed. I saw Tara and her face was soaked. She was kneeling. She had never looked so small to me. I knocked Patton in the back of the head with my flashlight, and he grabbed his hair and groaned something.
The flashlight careened out of my hands and flickered on again in dull light enough to see a scatter of branches near my feet. I took the thickest one, and I hit him again. I saw his eyes go mushy and wet and I hit him one more time and he fell down bringing a storm of leaves with him and then I couldn’t see his face, but I kicked him in the gut, but more like a nudge to see what he’d do. He didn’t move but I heard a sigh like a mutter. Next to his head were rocks the size of jawbreakers. I chose one and hurled it at his stomach, and he heaved a breath from his gut but his eyes stayed closed.
Tara held on to me and stopped crying and took a deep breath and kicked him in the gut too. Sometimes friends can’t help but copy each other. Patton was still as a tree stump. I imagined all the worms and slugs and beetles that must be making their way into his shoes and his pants and crawling up his legs. He was a playground all of a sudden, limp on the ground like an ant farm.
Tara tried to explain, and I told her I didn’t need any explanation and that it was pretty obvious what was happening. Something had just turned the wrong side of right and when that happens, things start moving too fast and it’s all one big blur so nothing looks clear.
She asked if he was breathing, and I said I didn’t know how to tell that. She was the one that had trained for lifeguard duty. She didn’t want to touch him so she guided me where to look for his pulse and to feel for his heart. He was alive, but his head was bleeding. She said we can’t leave him there and I asked why not and she said we just couldn’t.
His dead weight was too heavy for me but I could drag him if she helped me. She didn’t want to touch him, but she grabbed on to his skinny legs and pulled him and we got as far as the clearing. We got him sitting up and leaned him next to Kim. Something seemed to be crawling around inside of her, a field mouse or a baby squirrel. We yelped and cringed at little nails scratching away from her insides.
We turned on the lanterns to examine him more closely, and neither one of us knew if he was badly injured because we couldn’t remember if it was better to have wide open pupils or little pinpoint ones. But he was alive. He chest expanded like an orange balloon and deflated in turn. My brother’s flannel was dirty and peppered with leaves. I took it off and shook it clean and gave it to Tara in case she needed something soft.
We were standing there and we looked at him next to our mannequin with her naked bottom half and her slit between her legs where the creature must have come in and maybe would find its way out again, and I think Tara and I had the same thought at the same time and we laughed and said that Kim was probably Patton’s ideal woman, one that would never talk back, and if we were different people, we would have made him lie on top of her and stick his dick inside her and let him wake up like that and feel ashamed of himself, but we would never have done that to our friend Kim.
I went to get Wendy and Lisa who still hadn’t come back, and I found there was no car where we left it but there was a note on Patton’s windshield. Wendy took Lisa home and figured we would get a ride back from Patton. The Bug had a stick shift, and neither one of us had bothered to learn yet.
When I got back to the clearing, Tara was sitting next to Kim, and Patton was still passed out. Tara had a branch gripped in her hand just in case. I took the rope we had dragged Kim with and tied Patton up with my sailor knots. If we just left him, he might not even remember what happened but I wanted him to remember. I wanted him to feel trapped.
I hugged Tara so tight, she joked through her hiccups that I must be hugging with all three of my arms. And it was true, I would give her all the arms I could spare to make her feel like someone loved her.
I led her out of the woods and back to the parking lot and through the path to the street. We made a right and headed toward the school. There was a payphone mounted near the gym doors. In my wallet, I had Mr. House’s number. Tara had a quarter in her pocket, which was good since I had nothing but pennies. Mr. House answered and was happy to hear from me and of course he would come to the clearing. Yes, he knew about the clearing, he said. All the teachers did.
Car lights came up on me like reverse targets. Larger and larger they came until they stopped near my knees and blinked off. Mr. House, in his plaid shirt and trench coat came out of the car and quietly clicked his door closed. He looked around to see if there were any lights from the houses nearby, but there were so many trees, there wasn’t a clear view from anywhere. The only lights on at the school were the hallway fluorescents that never seemed to get turned off.
I led him into the clearing, and he touched my shoulder so I would turn around. He said he was so glad I had called. I hadn’t told him anything. I had just asked him to come and meet me, and now I think it was less a manipulation and just thoughtlessness. I wanted some help, and there’s no way we would have called our parents. I realized—as his thumb knitted into the seam on my shoulder, burrowing his finger into the fabric of my coat to get closer to my body underneath it—that he thought we were alone.
We were close to the clearing. I could see the lanterns lit on the boulders near Patton and Kim, and the one in Tara’s hands held up like a microphone. We entered, me in front and Mr. House behind. I stopped so he could come up to my side. I wanted him to look at the tableau in front of us that I had made. The three bodies in different states of consciousness and matter. Kim’s open legs, Patton’s open mouth, and Tara’s open eyes. Across the way it’s just me and Mr. House, and we had no table of objects to choose from. We were the only objects there. I turned to him and I asked, “So tell me, what do we do with them?” And I waited to see what he would do.
MELISSA RAGSLY’s work has appeared or forthcoming in Best American Nonrequired Reading 2017, Iowa Review, Epiphany, Hobart, Southern Humanities Review, Split Lip, Joyland, Cosmonauts Avenue and translated in Edizioni Black Coffee. She is an Associate Editor for A Public Space and lives in the Hudson Valley. More can be found at melissaragsly.com.