Janelle Brown

Kim had an abortion in June. She told Cassie about it as they stood by the marsh on the edge of the lake, cadging cigarettes behind the rushes and blowing the smoke away from the sunbathers sitting on the beach.

“I bled for three days,” Kim said, flicking the end of her menthol cigarette with a long fluorescent pink fingernail. The nail polish was called Passionfruit, and they’d stolen it from Walgreens the day before, Kim slipping the bottle into her pocket while Cassie watched up and down the aisle for security guards. The girls had painted their nails on the beach as the sun set, waiting patiently for the lacquer to dry before they walked home across the sand.

Cassie took a drag of her cigarette and held the foul smoke for the count of three, exhaling the plume of smoke back over her shoulder. She eyed Kim’s stomach, which was flat and flawless below the black triangles of her bikini top. “Do you have a scar?”

Kim winced and placed a hand over her belly. “They don’t cut you open, stupid. They suck it out of you with a vacuum.”

“Oh,” Cassie said. She imagined Kim splayed on a surgery table, with a vacuum cleaner hose stuck up inside her. “Did it hurt?”


“What did your boyfriend say?”

“I haven’t told him,” Kim said. “He’s stationed in Florida right now.”

Kim’s boyfriend, Randy, was in the army, and he was also six years older than her. He had an enormous penis, and liked to do it from behind, and had taught Kim how to fashion a bong out of a used beer can. Cassie had learned these fascinating facts, and many more, during the eight days she’d been acquainted with Kim.

Cassie had been watching Kim from across the beach since the day Kim arrived at Lake Tahoe. Kim had long bottle-blonde hair with visible roots, and the men on the beach stared at her even though she had smaller breasts than Cassie. Her eyelids drooped under a bruise of eyeshadow colors, ranging from pale blue by the lashes to a vivid shade of purple up at the brow. Her parents must have been around somewhere, but Cassie never figured out who they were. Instead, Kim planted herself in the middle of the sand and listened to heavy metal on a tinny ghettoblaster and smeared herself with coconut oil once an hour. Coconut oil: “Skin cancer in a bottle,” Cassie’s mom called it. Cassie’s mom would only buy factor-30 sunblock in the economy-size tub.

Cassie had been surprised when Kim came up to her on the pier, and even more surprised when Kim invited her to share a can of beer that she’d stolen from her parents’ fridge. It was still early in the summer, though, so there weren’t many people around the lake and Cassie guessed that pickings were slim for Kim, too. Besides Kim and Cassie, there were only two other teenagers who showed up at the beach every day. One was a pale fat girl who lay limply under an umbrella with her parents, reading young adult romance novels; the other was the son of the owner of the bar on the pier, a surly local named Gino with wavy black hair and pouty lips who Cassie had worshipped from afar for three summers in a row.

Kim spent most of the first week of July regaling Cassie with stories of her exploits with Randy, as the girls hid from Cassie’s parents in the marsh or took walks into town to buy candy bars and cigarettes. Randy had taken Kim camping in the desert, once, and they’d slept on a mattress in the back of his flatbed truck after he’d taught her how to hold his shotgun. Maybe they could all go camping together next fall; Cassie could come visit Kim in Fresno and Randy could teach her to shoot a gun, too. Cassie thrilled at the idea, imagined a wild, parent-free weekend, Kim and Cassie behind the wheel of a convertible under the desert sun, very Thelma & Louise. Her mother would never let her go.

Talking with Kim, Cassie discovered that she, herself, had talent for little white lies. Although her capacity for untruths had previously been limited to pretending to her friends in the Girl Scout troop that she didn’t really have a crush on her geometry teacher, now Cassie felt compelled to expand her own imagined universe far beyond its usual limits. She couldn’t stand for Kim to know how small and safe her own life was. So she let a few misleading comments belie the pathetic truth: that she herself had kissed a mere three boys, only one of whom had the guts to actually feel her up. She marveled at the surprising heft of a .410 caliber shotgun as if she, like Kim, had held one in her own hands, not merely seen one on “Dukes of Hazzard.” But at night, she would toss in her bunk bed in the cabin and think about the little lies she had told Kim that day, worrying Kim would somehow discover that she didn’t know what a pearl necklace was after all, and shun her for being not merely naïve but a faker, too.

Cassie’s mother was not pleased with Cassie’s new friend.

“She wears too much makeup,” she complained to Cassie one morning, as they drove in the Volvo to pick up fresh bagels in town. “Why don’t you make friends with the O’Connell girl?” But she hadn’t forbidden Cassie from hanging out with Kim; Cassie figured that her mom felt guilty for dragging her up to the vacation cabin again, instead of letting her go on the European tour planned by the sophomore history teacher. “I hear it’s just an excuse for the kids to run wild,” she told Cassie, and refused to sign the permission slip, and Cassie, pouting, had silently concurred that this was, indeed, the point. She’d punished her mother by refusing to speak to her during the entire drive to Tahoe, even when they stopped in Auburn for peach milkshakes.

“Have you ever thought you were pregnant?” Kim now asked, as they finished their cigarettes.

“Once. But it was just my period was late,” Cassie lied, and for a moment she swelled with a vivid memory of this alternate reality, recalled nervous glances at the calendar and the heart-stopping secret of spotless white panties day after telling day.

“I hate it when that happens,” Kim said, and nodded knowingly.

This was the summer Cassie bought her first bikini, with her own babysitting money. It was a purple polka-dotted two-piece with a halter neck, and she liked how it gave her real cleavage, although she was self-conscious about the way the bottoms rode up as she jogged across the hot sand. She examined Kim from behind as Kim bent over to stub out the cigarette in the mud. Her ass was flat and firm, and the tiny suit exposed the crescents of skin where her smooth brown butt joined up with her thighs. Cassie imagined Kim’s boyfriend watching it move back and forth as he screwed her.

The lake was a dark, frosty blue, and the late-afternoon breeze whipped the water into whitecaps that slapped against the swimming floats and rocked the ski boats docked against the pier. Across the lake, the mountains still had an icing of snow on their peaks, and the water in the lake was cold enough to take your breath away.

Kim and Cassie laid out their towels on the edge of the beach farthest from Cassie’s mother, who’d established a fiefdom of blankets and umbrellas and coolers and lawn chairs near the pier. Kim’s parents had stayed up at their cabin again today, Kim said. “Fighting like pit bulls,” she explained, and Cassie had wondered briefly what a pit bull looked like. Most everyone she knew owned a golden retriever or a collie dog.

The two girls smeared themselves with Kim’s coconut oil, spread themselves out in the sun, facedown on the towels, and unfastened the straps of their bikini tops to avoid tan lines. Guns N’ Roses was in the tape player again, Axl Rose singing “Sweet Child of Mine” in a crackling falsetto, and Cassie sang along with Kim, humming when she got to the parts she hadn’t learned yet. She felt the hot sand pressing up through the terry-cloth towel, the radiant warmth of the sun on the other side of her face. They’d shared a beer with the cigarette, and it made her sleepy and happy and soft on the inside. She dozed off with the sour fuzz of liquor and cigarettes on her tongue and the whine of boat engines as a lullaby.

She woke with a start when someone kicked sand on her legs. Pressing her suit close against her chest, Cassie rolled over and looked up. Gino sat on the edge of Kim’s towel, with his skateboard turned upside-down beside him, and they were giggling in a high-pitched, self-conscious manner.

Cassie sat upright and refastened her straps.

“Hey,” Gino said, jerking his chin up and to the left. His bangs were long and greasy and fell in his eyes, and he pushed his hair off his forehead with the back of a hand. He had a phone number written in ball-point on the skin of his palm.

“Do you guys know each other?” Kim asked Gino, her plucked eyebrows arched into question marks.

“I’m Cassie,” she said to Gino. “I’ve seen you around.”

“Yeah, you come up for the summers, right?”

Cassie nodded and a giddy warmth spread out through her chest. But she noticed that Gino’s knee was pressed against Kim’s thigh, and that Kim was throwing Cassie some kind of inscrutable look over Gino’s shoulder. Blood rushed to her head, and instead of meeting Kim’s eyes she lowered herself back down on her elbows and tossed her hair over her shoulders so the ends dangled in the sand.

“Gino’s going to take me down the river tomorrow,” Kim announced. “Gino, is it cool if Cassie comes, too?”

Gino shrugged. “Sure. I’ll see if any of my friends can make it.” He stood up and shook the sand from the wheels of the skateboard.

“Catcha later,” Kim said, lying back down.

“See ya,” Cassie said.

Gino instructed them to bring some booze, and walked off down the beach in the direction of the pier. Watching him circumvent her parents, Cassie accidentally made eye contact with her mother, who was surveilling her from behind a Redbook magazine. Cassie’s mom waved; Cassie pretended she didn’t see her and looked away.

Kim sighed. “He makes me horny.”

“You mean Gino?”

“Totally,” Kim said.

“I thought you didn’t think he was cute,” Cassie objected. She’d pointed Gino out to Kim earlier in the week, and confessed she thought he was hot. At the time Kim had just nodded and said that her Randy was cuter, and plus he had a really big dick and Gino looked kind of baggy in the front of his shorts.

“Nah,” said Kim. “You were right.”

Cassie picked up a handful of sand, and watched as it seeped through her fingers. Was this, she thought, as her life was meant to be? A flat nothingness, like an eternity comprised of those mornings when she didn’t have the guts to get in the frigid lakewater to water-ski, and no one bothered to push her in, either, just to see her scream with shock and delight? Why would she never have what the Kims of life could so easily seize? She felt a flash of anger and then, to her surprise, a sense of determination. She kept her voice flat and quiet. “What about Randy?” she asked, and jabbed a hole in the sand with a pink fingernail.

Kim lay back on her towel and closed her eyes. The late-afternoon sun threw shadows across her face, making her purple eyelids look ghoulish. “Whatever. Randy’s probably cheating on me anyway.”

Cassie nodded without speaking, and nodded some more. She couldn’t think of anything else to say, so she kept nodding in defeat as she examined the way her pale thighs spread out over the towel like vanilla ice cream softening in the sun. She imagined herself melting into the sand and disappearing, and Kim not even noticing that she had vanished.

Kim’s parents had threatened to ground her if she took any more beer, so Cassie woke up early the next morning and stole a bottle of vodka from her parents’ liquor cabinet. She held her breath until she was dizzy as she pulled a bottle from the back, lifting it out slowly to avoid the telltale clink of glass on glass. She’d never taken anything from her parents in her life, not even the quarters her father left in a glass jar in his closet: if she was caught, she would be grounded forever. She felt a rush of excitement. Could she? Would she? She did. It felt momentous, bigger than the thrill of her first cigarette, bigger even than the shot of adrenaline shed experienced in Walgreens when they shot out the door, the bottle of nail polish tucked in the pocket of Kim’s cutoffs.

She wrapped the bottle in a towel and shoved it in the bottom of her backpack, where it was joined by an extra T-shirt and a brown paper bag filled with food. Cassie had told her mother that she was going on a picnic with Kim, so her mother wrapped salami sandwiches and brownies in tin foil and insisted on smearing Cassie’s back with mosquito repellant.

They met Gino and his friend Mike in the parking lot of Walgreens, lurking between the dusty station wagons and sport utility vehicles. Kim walked up to Gino and hugged him, wrapping her arms around his neck; he pushed his face into her hair and put his hands around her waist, resting them on the bare skin of her back between her cutoffs and her bikini top. Mike and Cassie stood there awkwardly, watching them. Mike stuck out his hand for Cassie to shake. He was a redhead, with short curly hair and a sprinkle of freckles across his face; his forearms were sunburned and peeling, with pale shreds of skin flaking up. He looked young, younger than even her. Thirteen, maybe fourteen. She found herself thinking that he should have used SPF 30.

“You’re Cassie?” he asked.

Cassie searched her brain for an flirtatious response. She smiled and flipped her hair back over her shoulder. “If you want me to be,” she said, and then thought it sounded kind of silly, not as sexy as it would have if Kim had said it.

But Mike grinned. He had a gap between his front teeth. “Sure. Why not?”

Cassie pulled the bottle of vodka from her backpack and presented it to Gino. “I stole it,” she said, waiting to be asked to elaborate on how she had performed such a wild feat. But Gino didn’t seem particularly curious about her exploits; he muttered a thanks and stuck the bottle in his bag.

Gino had brought an inflatable rubber raft, and they pushed it into the river behind the Walgreens. The water was shallow and clear but freezing. Cassie could see minnows darting just under the surface. The raft was barely big enough for the four of them, so they dangled their legs over the edge and kicked along with their feet. There was almost no current at all, and they lay back with their faces to the sun and took turns taking swigs from the bottle of vodka, idly chatting as the boat spun in slow circles.

The river floated them down from town, behind the lumberyard and the auto shop, past the restaurants with decks where customers paid twelve dollars for a burger to have the privilege of a river view. For a while the raft drifted near the highway, and they smelled the exhaust of the cars whirring by on the banks up above them, but soon the river cut away into the pines. Every so often they passed a vacation home with windows onto the river, or a rusted Winnebago parked alongside the shore, but mostly they were alone with the skeet bugs and the mosquitoes and the occasional silver flash of a trout swimming below. When they finished the vodka, they opened a six-pack of tropical berry wine coolers that Gino had brought.

Mike pulled a brand-new pack of Camels from his backpack with a flourish, and lit one. He coughed, a quick truncated hack, glanced at Cassie, and tried unsuccessfully to blow a smoke ring. Flush with a sudden alcoholic confidence, Cassie leaned over and started to take it from his hand with damp fingers. And then she panicked, and stopped cold, her hand hovering just over his.

“You want?” he asked.

“You don’t mind?” she asked. He shook his head, and she tried not to choke as she inhaled the acrid smoke; it was even worse than the icy menthol cigarettes that Kim had been giving her all week, and combined with the alcohol it made her feel slightly woozy. Mike was studying her, she could feel his eyes on her face, and he reached out and gently grasped her wrist with one hand, taking the cigarette back with the other.

“Thanks,” she said.

“No problem. You can share them, if you want,” he replied. He was sitting so close that she felt the movement of his breath, and she found herself wondering about the temperature of his skin. She let herself graze his shoulder with the back of her hand, shocked by her own boldness. He was sunburned across his chest, too, and his skin felt like it was steaming. She moved her hand away quickly.

Cassie glanced over at Gino to see if he’d noticed, but he was splayed over the edge of the boat, trying to catch the bugs skittering across the water. Kim was leaning against his bare brown shoulder, and she suddenly rolled over the edge of the raft into the river, squealing from the cold. She grabbed at Gino with wet hands and he jumped in after her and held her under the water. They stood up in the waist-deep river, splashing each other with the flat part of their forearms, laughing hysterically as the boat slipped farther down the river and around a bend. The sound of their laughter grew fainter and fainter as Mike and Cassie drifted away, leaving them behind.

“Should we stop and wait?” Cassie asked.

“Fuck it,” Mike said. “They’ll catch up with us eventually.”

They floated in silence, handing a cigarette back and forth and looking up at the canopy of pine needles overhead. Cassie took a swig from her wine cooler; Mike opened another one. A mother duck with a half-dozen furry gray ducklings swam up to the raft and paddled alongside. Cassie opened one of the salami sandwiches and pulled it apart and threw pieces at the ducks. The mother scrambled to eat the soggy bread, while the ducklings drifted in line behind her and pecked at the crumbs drifting by.

“Check it out,” Cassie said. “They like salami.”

“Maybe they like wine coolers, too,” Mike said, and flung the remnants of his bottle into the water, splashing the ducks with burgundy liquid.

“Hey!” Cassie said, laughing. “Ducks don’t drink.” This seemed very funny to her, so she tried it again. “Don’t drink the duck.” She giggled.

Mike leaned over and kissed her. His tongue tasted like cherries, and it felt thick and wet in her mouth. She slipped backward until she was lying in the bottom of the raft, and he rolled in on top of her, their legs sticking over the edge. The water in the bottom of the raft was warm and pink from spilled wine coolers, and it lapped over them as they gouged with boozy tongues at each other’s faces. The sloppy kisses were both revolting and exciting, and Cassie felt suffused with an enormous sense of possibility—the secrets to come lined up ahead of her, like a chain of paper dolls unfolding.

They pulled the boat over to the edge of the river, and dragged it up onto the dirt so it wouldn’t float away. Cassie pulled the towel out of her backpack and they pushed back behind the tall grass at the river’s edge, and laid the towel out on the ground. It smelled like pine needles and damp dirt. Cassie lay down and pulled Mike on top of her and he slid his hand up underneath her bikini top.

“You’ve got great tits,” he said.

“Thanks,” she said, and flushed with embarrassment and pride. She thought of Kim’s small breasts and Gino’s hands on them, and kissed Mike again with her eyes closed so that she wouldn’t have to look at his face. She pushed her hands under the elastic waistband of his swim trunks and felt the delicate papery flakes of peeling skin on his back. Her hands seemed to know of their own accord what must come next—touch here, touch here, just like the sex scenes she had read in her mother’s Danielle Steel novels.

He worked her bikini bottoms off, and she panicked for a moment as she thought about getting pregnant or a disease and what would she tell her mother if that happened, and then her mother vanished, and Mike was grinding away inside her and gasping and then it was over just like that. There weren’t any angels singing down from heaven and she didn’t feel like a woman or like a whore either. Mostly, she felt sticky and sore. And yet, instead of being opened up, it was as if a hole within her had closed, like an alternate Cassie had alighted in her chest and settled into some hidden groove so that her body now contained not one person but two, mirror images of each other. She thought she might burst her own skin.

Mike rolled onto his back and pulled up his shorts and lit another cigarette for them to share. “That was really nice,” he said. He paused, visibly searching for something to add. “Thanks.”

“That’s cool,” she said, and squirmed up to rest her head on his shoulder. He held the cigarette between her lips so that she could take a drag. The sky was thin and blue through the trees; it was cool in the shade, and her skin was pimpling up into gooseflesh.

“Are you here all summer?” he asked.

“Until August,” she said.

“Maybe we should hang out, then.”

“Totally,” she said, though she didn’t know if she meant it or not.

They lay there until the cigarette was almost gone, and they could hear Gino and Kim splashing through the river and stopping at the raft. Their voices were low and burbling, like the sound of the water against the shore. Mike and Cassie stood and picked up the towel, and walked back through the grass to the river.

“There you are,” Kim said, annoyed. “You could have waited for us.” She stood at the edge of the shore with her hands on her waist. Kim’s hair was dark from the water and her face was pink from the cold; the soaked bikini top clung to her breasts so that her nipples were visible through the thin triangles of fabric. Her mascara had melted into black crescents under her eyes.

“It was your fault for stopping,” Cassie replied, and let a small sharp fury wash into her voice. As they faced each other accusingly, Cassie realized that in a few weeks they would both go home and never speak again, and that she wouldn’t be sad. That Kim was, as her mother had pointed out, tacky. That Cassie wouldn’t like Randy if she ever did meet him, anyway.

Kim’s gaze slid from Cassie to Mike and back, registering Cassie’s defiant face and Mike’s undisguised smirk. She shrugged. “Sorry. We were busy.”

“Whatever. It’s no big deal,” Gino said, and slid behind Kim to put his arms around her waist, resting his chin on her shoulder. Cassie could feel Mike standing close behind her but not touching, the heat from his body faintly warming her back. She looked down at her feet in the river, and saw the lurid pink on her toes wink through the water, like a child’s toy half buried in the sand. The color was ugly, she thought, and decided to take it off when she got home.

“I’m cold,” Kim complained.

“Let’s get out of here,” said Cassie.

Mike and Gino heaved at the raft and lifted it back into the water, and as they grappled with the boat Cassie leaned over and gripped Kim tightly by the elbow and pulled her in close.

“Guess what,” she whispered in Kim’s ear. “I did it with Mike. It was totally amazing.” And she stopped, as she enjoyed the way this sounded, and then added, deliciously: “I, like, totally got off.” And at that moment, as they stood there on the edge of the slow-moving river, it almost felt true.


Janelle Brown is a writer living in Los Angeles. Her journalism has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Salon, Rolling Stone, and Self, among other publications. Visit her Web site at


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