I think I was still grounded for breaking the A.C. unit while climbing onto the roof last spring, but I might have been grounded for stealing Tanner’s jersey at soccer practice last week, or I might not even be grounded at all. I never knew my freedom status at any given time, seeing as Mom would always make it up on the spot anyway.
“Can I go to the pool?”
“No, you’re grounded.”
“Since you broke the dial on the radio, Emmalou.”
“You didn’t ground me for that!”
“Well, I did just now.”
And there you go.
Mom seemed to be in a good mood tonight— the old folks’ home let her go early, so she’d been in the kitchen chatting on the phone with her friend Trisha for the past hour.
“Trash!” She kept repeating. “He’s total trash, Trish!”
I could take the risk and ask now, though she could just as easily give one nod ‘yes’ as she could give one shake of the head ‘no.’ Then I could be extra-grounded— another week tacked onto my sentence for interrupting.
In terms of offenses in the household, interrupting Mom while she was on the phone was the most damaging. Kicking my big sister Misty was just below that, but my still-sore butt reminds me that hiding dirty dishes under my bed is probably above that one. Except that one 1 was made by her ex-boyfriend who left months ago, so it’s hard to say if that rule still stands.
I wasn’t always a bad kid. Things started breaking around me when Mom started dating that ex-boyfriend last year. Then when he left, Mom started grounding me for it.
“Oh my god. Are you serious?” Mom squealed from the kitchen. Before I could jump in, Misty turned the hallway corner. Misty and I used to always run around together on a Friday night. But when that ex moved in, she started going out by herself. She wasn’t around for the worst of him.
“Where are you going?” I hissed.
“Out.” She replied casually.
“I’m going ‘out’ too. We can’t both ask at the same time!”
“Aren’t you grounded?”
A valid question.
Misty continued toward the kitchen. I grabbed her little heart-shaped purse desperately.
“Don’t. Even.” She said right close in my face, ripping it back as she elbowed her way past me into the kitchen. God, did she deserve a double-kick in the shin.
I peered back onto the scene. Mom was lounging in a chair with the phone cord wrapped around her big toe, swinging it around like a jump rope. Misty was gesturing her plan to Mom— pointing to her stupid purse, then pointing to the cat clock on the wall with the swinging tail. Mom gave one smooth nod of her head and that coveted wave-away of approval.
The time was now. I darted in as Misty gleefully skipped to the back door. Mom’s mud-brown eyes— never too tired to sting the fear of Jesus Christ into me— caught mine.
Me too? I gestured, making the peace-sign for ‘two.’
Mom pointed to the back of Misty’s head, balanced the phone between her ear and shoulder so she could hold up all ten fingers to mark the hour I needed to be home, then nodded once more. Thank you Christ Lord Jesus above! I promise to bring you a dollar at church on Sunday and pray to you during the Moment of Silence instead of dreaming about Tanner.
I beat Misty outside, letting the screened-in door smack back at her behind me. She shouted something, but I was already flying a million miles away in my mind.
The cool southern night was mine— they were all mine, every night I was free to grab them by the fistfuls. I ran head-on into the unruly Georgia forest that overgrew my backyard, my sneakers snapping the aching sticks beneath me. Patrick was already waiting on the other side.
A long time ago, before I was born I think, the town allowed this big construction project to make a golf course over one of the trailer parks. A lot of people got kicked out of their homes in hopes that rich golfers would come and spend their money here. But it didn’t work. As long as I’ve known it, the old golf course behind my backyard was always overgrown with weeds and gofer-turtle holes, trashed by generations of older teenagers. It was still beautiful to me, but in the way that those beat-down older ladies that get all dolled up just to go to the grocery store look beautiful. I felt sad for the ravaged golf course, but it was all ours now.
I broke out of the tree line and scanned the near-darkness for Patrick. There, I saw the heads of two small black figures peaking over a hill. That’s where the sandpit was, a familiar meet-up spot.
“Emmalou! You made it out alive!” I heard Patrick cheer. As I ran closer, the black silhouette of a head morphed into Patrick’s shaggy blonde mop of hair. I rounded the hill and slid into the cold sandpit.
“Resurrected!” I said while pumping my fists in the air, not entirely sure what that word meant. Then I realized who the other figure was standing slightly behind Patrick. She was a kid from the neighborhood named Charlie-Girl, but we didn’t really know her too well. She invited me to her house two years ago when we were in the same fourth-grade class. Her dad was home in the middle of the day, windows blocked out, no lights on, watching a T.V. show where you see three fancy women and have to guess which one is a boy dressed-up. There was nothing to do but sit in the dark T.V. room with him and make guesses. After a while, I pretended like Mom wanted me back home and ran off. I remember glancing back at Charlie-Girl’s house and seeing her standing in the middle of the front doorway, watching me go. We hadn’t talked since.
“Hey,” I said to her.
“Hi.” She awkwardly waved back. Why had Patrick brought her here?
“What are we doing tonight?” I asked him.
“Samantha’s home from camp. She wanted me to get you guys and ‘escort’ you safely to the shed,” Patrick said.
Samantha was Patrick’s older sister, a year older than Misty. The shed was an old maintenance shed on the other side of the golf course. That was where the older kids usually hung out. We had staked out the sandpit as our own, so we never really went to their territory.
“She’s got a story she wants to tell.” He added.
Walking up to the shed, it sounded like a hive of bees trying to burst out. Inside, a collection of maybe six girls illuminated themselves with dashing flashlight beams and stomping light-up sneakers. I knew them all well enough, mainly from those rare occasions when all the neighborhood kids got together to play Capture-the-Flag. They all screamed joyously as we entered, but I was too consumed by the smell of wet rotten wood to cheer back. At the far end of the shed sat Samantha, chewing on the sleeve cuff of her camp sweater. Samantha had beautiful Seventeen-magazine hair and always wore white sneakers that never got dirty. She got up and walked toward us.
“Thanks, bubby,” she nodded to Patrick. “I’ll see you at home later, ok?”
Patrick looked gobsmacked. “What?”
“This is girls only tonight,” Samantha stated calmly, looking over fondly at Charlie-Girl and me.
“Samantha, no fucking way!” He began to protest.
“Go!” Samantha interjected.
I glanced over at Patrick and gave him an encouraging look as though to assure I’ll tell you everything at the sandpit later.
“Whatever. This is weird.” Patrick conceded, and returned my glance before running off.
“Shut the doors and take a seat.” Samantha motioned to us, and Charlie-Girl and I worked together to pull the shed doors closed. I sat down onto the wood floor, the slices of grass growing through the floorboards itching under my thighs. Charlie-Girl sat down next to me, a little too close. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, it was then that I noticed Misty was here too, sitting in the corner behind where Samantha was. I desperately tried to catch Misty’s eye, but she was glaring at the ground.
Samantha took her seat and brought out a match to light up a candle in her hand. The sight of the flame blew everyone into wilder screams.
“Samantha— how was camp? Did you do it?” Someone shouted.
Freshman Camp was a week-long camp all the graduated middle schoolers around the county got to go to as a way of meeting their future classmates before all going to the county’s high school a week later. It was a big deal— that was where you’d meet your future best friends, and hopefully get a boyfriend or girlfriend to start ninth grade off strong. Misty would get to go next summer.
“I’ll tell you when everyone shuts up.”
The chatter started to wane. She began.
“I called you guys here tonight because I have a story I want to tell you. About something that happened at Freshman Camp. And it’s really important that you all just… just listen. Ok? And you guys cannot tell a frickin’ soul.” Samantha brought the candle right up under her chin. She suddenly looked very old.
Everyone nodded. Except Misty.
“There’s a legend that goes around at Freshman Camp called The Lightning Monster. They tell it every year to the girls’ groups, and I’m going to tell it to you. The Lightning Monster was a boy at Freshman Camp about eight years ago. When he was really little, his parents locked him out of the house during a thunderstorm and he got struck by lightning. Somehow he survived, but he had this long twisted scar that went from the back of his neck and curled down his chest and stomach all the way down to his pants. Like a big lightning tattoo, except skin-colored. Anyway, so he grows up around here, but no one ever saw him around because his parents would always keep him locked inside. Guilt, I guess. But then, he finally gets to go to Freshman Camp with everybody else. And it’s Lake Day, where the counselors give you all these pool floaties and rowboats, and everyone takes off their clothes to go in the lake.”
Charlie-Girl grabbed my arm and I let her squeeze for a moment before taking it back. Other girls giggled.
“But like, you have your bathing suits and bikinis on. Relax. So, the little boy takes off his shirt for the first time in front of people and all the girls scream bloody murder at him and run away. The boy is so embarrassed by his long scar that he runs out into the lake and tries to drown himself. An adult counselor saw what happened and went out into the lake to save him. The adult drags the little boy out of the lake, does CPR, and he survives. The little boy’s mom came to pick him up, and no one ever saw him again.” Samantha let out a big exhale that nearly blew out the candle.
“But then that night—they say— a couple girls from different cabins woke up screaming at different times, all claiming that they had just been shocked. Like when you touch an electrical fence. It was him. So the counselors say that if we misbehave with the boys, The Lightning Monster will come back and shock us at night.” Samantha cut herself off with a dead silence.
After a moment, she continued.
“That’s the story they tell us, anyway. So that we don’t bully or be mean to the boys. The counselors make up all kinds of stuff to get you to do what they want. But it was actually true. He’s real. Only this time, he came back as one of the college counselors. The one with the long hair. Maybe he grew it to hide the lightning scar on his neck.”
Misty dipped her head down more. She was always quieter than I was, but this time I could feel her silence from across the shed. Samantha went on.
“There was this one night…it was the night after Lake Day. I guess I heard a noise because I woke up in the middle of the night. And… he was just already standing in my cabin, he just walked in without saying anything. Didn’t check to see if I were awake or asleep. He just came straight to the edge of my bunk and took down my blanket. And then he shocked me. First here.”
Samantha then set the candle down, and used her trembling hands to pull down on her sweater to reveal a small pink cut on her chest. I grabbed Charlie-Girl’s arm back as she gasped.
A girl reached out to touch it but Samantha smacked her hand away. I understood that smack instantly. The get away, don’t touch me, you don’t know me kind of smack. Samantha’s knees snapped up to her chest, and the scar disappeared from view.
“I didn’t say anything. I didn’t know how to say anything. And then he took off my leggings and shocked me there. Lots of really painful shocks. I squeezed my hands down to block him from me but nothing stopped it. And then…when he was done, he just got up and left. Never said anything. Never said anything to me that night, or the days after. But I think the aftershocks are still inside me. Like there’s a long lightning scar lining my insides there now. It still hurts… And I wanted you all to know. I thought you guys deserved to know ahead of time.”
The nine of us there stayed silent, waiting for more. But Samantha was done talking.
So someone else piped in. “Aw Samantha, that’s so dumb!”
And the release of tension broke them into laughter. More gleeful screams. More lights flashing.
“Why wouldn’t you just run away then? Or shout for help?” demanded one voice.
“Let us touch the scar!” Another girl taunted. “Show it again!”
“I bet it’s just makeup.”
“My uncle got struck by lightning, I think, and he doesn’t look all that weird!”
“My brother was there and he didn’t say anything about a lake monster!”
“Has anyone seen my headband?”
Samantha went back to chewing on her sleeve, her eyes lost and glossy. I kept silent with Charlie-Girl in the back watching the scene of screaming girls. Then, Samantha got up and barreled past us. The doors of the shed opened, blasting a charge of hot wind inside.
“You guys are so rude. You don’t get it.” Misty spoke up, then chased after Samantha.
“Somebody else tell a story!” Someone shouted.
Charlie-Girl leaned over and whispered to me. “Hey Emmalou, I need to go. But I don’t know the way back.”
“That’s ok. I’ll show you.” I replied, and we slipped away.
The golf course was usually so pretty at night, the moon catching the glints of that nighttime dew on the grass. Patrick and I would walk across the course for hours every weeknight this summer, the rough air in our lungs opening us up to try bigger cartwheels, to make silly baboon sounds, to share secrets and wishes. Walking with Charlie-Girl tonight though, it now felt empty of any magic. It was just a regular field. I couldn’t quite tell which way was the fastest route home, and I didn’t want to go back to the sandpit where Patrick would be waiting to hear what happened. I didn’t feel like telling that story tonight. Didn’t want to tell him about his sister’s scar on her chest. Or the other one inside her.
Then I saw a silhouette come toward us— it was Misty.
“Did you see where Samantha went?” She asked me, out of breath.
“No. You think she ran away?” I asked.
“I hope not,” Misty gasped for air.
“I knew it was a stupid idea. I wanted her to tell her parents. The real thing.” And with that, Misty ran off again.
“Are you afraid that she’ll get shocked?” Charlie-Girl asked, her voice like a far-away little owl.
“…No? Do you believe Samantha?”
“Yeah. Don’t you?”
I didn’t answer. I just kept walking. That was the same thing my Mom kept repeating to the police officers the night that ex-boyfriend left. Believe me. You guys have to believe me. My daughter–she can tell you what happened too. But I didn’t want to say that story out of my mouth.
We rounded out of the golf course, out of the woods, and onto the open street. CharlieGirl kept close behind me. Her house was to the left, mine would be back down the street to the right.
“Wait. What time is it?”
Charlie-Girl pressed her watch and the time lit up. “9:45.”
Shoot. I had to be home by 10. If I messed this up, Mom would never let me out with Misty again.
“Can you go the rest of the way by yourself?”
“Um…” Charlie-Girl looked down toward her street, then back at me. The green light from her watch reflected off big tears growing in her eyes. Jesus Christ. This was why I never wanted to hang out with her.
“Nevermind. I’ll go with you.”
We walked in silence, apart from a few gentle sniffles coming from Charlie-Girl. When we reached her house, I stopped at the driveway. The garage door was open and Charlie-Girl’s dad was sitting in a lawn chair staring out into the street. Staring at us. I couldn’t remember what his name was. Maybe it was Mr. Charlie.
Charlie-Girl started to walk up the driveway. I followed behind.
“What were you two girls up to tonight?” His deep voice echoed in the garage. He was drinking a beer, the same kind Mom’s ex used to drink. The same kind he’d empty and make me crush against my head.
“Nothing,” Charlie-Girl said, her voice cracking on the word.
Charlie-Girl’s shoulders winced, maybe trying to shrug.
“What happened to that boy that was with you? Aren’t you two a little young to be causin’ boys trouble?”
The sound of thunder in the distance made me realize an anger was rumbling inside me. I never caused a boy trouble in his life. Neither did poor Samantha. Neither could Charlie-Girl. All the trouble was caused onto us.
At some point, Charlie-Girl and I started holding hands again. And suddenly, I started speaking before I even knew what I was saying.
“My mom wants to know if Charlie-Girl can sleepover tonight?”
Charlie-Girl’s gaze caught mine. Her teary eyes almost immediately drained away and her pupils seemed to grow in shock. I glared back at Mr. Charlie, but I felt her eyes on me more.
“She already made dessert for us. And made a bed for Charlie-Girl. I think she wants us home soon.”
He began flicking the beer tab back and forth with his thumb, still quiet.
“Well, alrighty then. Tell your mom I say hello. Maybe we’ll have you over sometime then. Eh?”
A wave of relief came like I had been dropped into a dunk tank.
“Uh-huh!” I shouted, already dragging Charlie-Girl back down the driveway.
“Bye!” Charlie-Girl then shouted too, the loudest I’ve ever heard her. We ran, hand-in-hand, as fast as we possibly could together down the middle of the street, the sound of thunder under our feet and hot on our heels.
“Thanks,” Charlie-Girl said, and right away I knew how much it both freed and hurt her to say so.
“I’m gonna be so grounded,” I said back. This time that might not be the worst thing in the world. To be safe at home with Mom. Maybe that’s why she started grounding me so much after he left. I’d be safe, and she wouldn’t be alone.
We scurried around the house and gingerly slipped in the back door. Mom was still sitting in the kitchen on the phone. Her knees were huddled up against her chest, heaps of cigarette ash falling around.
“I know, Trish. I know. It’s all scum out there.” She was whispering into the phone, then peeked over her shoulder at us as we ran in. I gestured to a sheepish Charlie-Girl, then toward my bedroom. Surprisingly, she just nodded and waved, giving us a fond smile.
The night Samantha told us that story in the maintenance shed about The Lightning Monster, Charlie-Girl and I fell asleep together in my bed.
After midnight, I woke up with a shock.
Misty, rain-soaked, had curled up asleep with us at the foot of the bed, pulling my blanket closer to her in her sleep.