Short Fiction by Micaela Maftei and Laura Tansley
Chloe wouldn’t talk to someone if Katie said not to and Katie’d say not to because this was Katie’s job, to get the texts, to take the dares, to live the life that spawned a hundred stories she’d dispense carefully, when she thought they were ready, when they were straining at the leash and she needed some tug. When Katie had a boyfriend it was alright for the rest of them to have one, and when Katie had period cramps everyone had better shut up. Katie hated Trisha, hated Jeremy Kyle and Jerry Springer. It was why she didn’t date school boys; too much drama.
“I’ve got something better,” she’d say, and mean a man, straight up and down, honest to goodness, who knew she was different.
So Chloe had gone out and found one of her own. Except really Sam had gone out of his way to find her. And it lit something in her.
They were coming back from town having seen some terrible hand-held-camera horror, number four in the series so the frights were really obvious, and Erica had seen her brother smoking outside a bar with his pals. Erica was cool that night, didn’t make a fuss, but as soon as she saw her brother was with his mates she swept up her hair to the top of her head in a messy swirl and stood tall, back flat, to let them see the way her neck flowed in to sharp shoulders, the wave of her going out to clavicle tips then back to the centre dip in her soft brown throat. Katie couldn’t stand it, stood off to one side on her phone the whole time. Chloe kind of hovered in between, marvelling at the energy people could make when they knew how.
Then Sam had said to her, “you should just be yourself”, like he could read her mind.
He’d just come straight up to her, said that, and suddenly she was special too.
There was a time when Sam had been operating at the height of his powers. Not realizing it at the time made it sharper and more uncomfortable to sense it was over now, that what used to be some kind of expanse had closed down into a tight pen. He’d rushed to try and get out, get beyond his neighbourhood, his friends, his family, higher and further, even gone to Mexico for a month, but really that’d been as good as it got. This was the back-door entry, the other side of the rope, the half-as-good. In the year of school before he’d left they’d read a long rambling story about an idiot crushing things to death: a mouse, a rabbit, a woman. It kept coming back to him in store-window reflections and late-night texting. Sudden movements that still seemed tentative. Something frighteningly delicate that still somehow wanted to be crushed, should be crushed. It was there when he held Chloe’s little bird-boned ankles, her pulse gulping under skin, and the near-invisible down at the small of her back that stood on end when he touched her; all of it told him so. Sam loved making her cry because it was so easy. Just a little tease, a fingernail scratch, and her eyes would get all deep, magnified like she was underwater, and that big bottom lip would ripen red and smooth like the skin from a piece of fruit. It was a flicker of power and energy, a silverfish darting across the bathroom floor into somewhere dark and damp and close. It made his chest surge broad for a second, and he’d hold this inhale for as long as he dared, till she turned away and he’d reach out and grab her. It was like the moment after a joke when everyone stopped laughing, when people just breathed or looked around or took a swig of their drink. He loved it, that silent space.
Chloe was that kind of buzz, she was the third cheap tallboy, the exhilarating poor decision, and it made him bone-tired, but even that was good, a tiredness that felt earned or at least reminded him of earning the rest of creaking joints on his spongey mattress, the fall of unclean sheets over skin and flesh that had worked. For now the muscle-ache she gave him was like his body was back under control.
He was careful though; Pete had got his girlfriend pregnant and it was all down to the fact he wouldn’t wear a rubber.
Because he thought it was gross, because what was the point if you couldn’t, because he was in charge, because “if you had to wear a condom you were fucking a dirty girl”, but when it happened he swore blind she’d been pin-pricking his packets.
They all laughed it off, bought him drinks till he relaxed into fantasies of creating a small version of himself. But each one of them went home and hid their stashes after that; crazy bitches came in all shapes and sizes.
“Re-sale value is important, Chloe,” he’d say, and she felt stupid for not knowing about the depreciating cost of a car; she loved it when he tried to teach her things.
His car was the only thing he owned that was worth anything, so they never messed around in it even though Chloe wanted to so much. His spaces, what he owned, drove her wild. But he liked to keep the car clean, just so, had the passenger seat under a blue polyester cover which she hated because it made the backs of her legs sweat. She’d try to turn him on each time he dropped her off, kissing him hard and running her fingers around the waist of his jeans; thinking he was so easy to wind up.
But he’d grab her hand, instruct her to “say goodnight now” and she’d do as she was told.
Chloe would make a real show of getting picked up from work, taking her time, rolling down the windows to talk to her colleagues and then turning up the music while he waited for the car park to clear, putting her sticky coke fingers all over his stereo face. She’d start undressing before they got to his flat because she was sure it drove him crazy to see the bra he’d bought her. The knickers in the set rode up, and the bra had cheap stitching that had given way, so that the sharp metal underwire scratched at her ribs. She’d seen them on offer when she went with her mum to buy Christmas decorations at the mall; he’d gotten her the turquoise one, which was cheaper than the red set, but she was convinced he’d been thinking of her green eyes. After gym class everyone could see the proof.
“What the fuck is this?” Katie demanded, yanking one strap violently.
“My cousin’s, she’s visiting” she’d lied, because she wasn’t ready to confess.
“Looks like you need to stuff it,” Katie said, staying close, running the lace on the straps through her fingers.
Some mornings she’d text him to ask what he’d like her to wear to school that day, what layers he’d want to peel for later. He’d text her things like, that skirt with the split and the tight top, things she had, things she didn’t. So sometimes she’d skip the lesson before lunch and go up town to run her hands across racks to find the right feel or seam for him, tearing the fabric, starting a rip for him to further.
More magazine said that French couples did it three times a week; she aimed for four because she wanted him to know that she was not ordinary. Chloe’s fantasy was to stay overnight one time, to wake up and put on his shirt and make coffee, which she didn’t really know how to make, serve it to him in bed. And when she told him this, because she told him everything, he groaned, which made her feel good.
Chloe listened more carefully when Katie gave out her own answers.
When she got asked how long they’d been together Katie’d say, “we don’t count because it feels like we’ve been together forever”.
The others thought it was about numbers. How many boys you’d. How many drinks you’d. And when you finally found the one how many months you’d. But Chloe didn’t need that now; the only thing she really kept track of anymore was a circle of seven repeating letters, M T W T F S S, and the tiny dots of sugar melting on the back of her tongue every day for a week, month after month.
When it just didn’t stop after months and months, Sam’s friends were incredulous, “Is that still going on? Mate. Get it sorted.”
Some of them called him a cradle-snatcher. To that he would nod and smile or, if he’d had a few beers, he’d make an OK sign, curling his index finger to make the tightest of peep holes that he’d work his tongue into. That’d make everyone laugh and they’d forget about the realness of it for a while. He’d always regret it in the morning, but not because it was crass. He didn’t want it getting back to her, didn’t need her to know that he loved it.
One night at his place when it was growing late they argued, something stupid about the worth of film critics.
“I don’t need someone to tell me what to think,” he’d said. “Reviews are for stupid people who just want to follow the crowd.”
She liked to read the reviews; they were only part of the newspaper her mum and dad bought that she bothered with. According to him only reading the sports pages was totally different.
“That’s the same thing!” she bellowed.
He said simply, “I don’t care”, and got up to put his t-shirt on, which meant he was driving her home.She felt, maybe for the first time, how inexpressibly young she was, and how the words she wanted she’d have to wait for. He’d always be a reminder of that, of what was out of reach, and in the meantime he patiently patronized. Called her spoilt when she pouted, pretty when she cried. The indefinite gap swallowed her up, sank down in to her. It fizzed around her so that when she slept with him the following Friday night (he’d been to the pub and texted her at 11:30 pm), it was with a kind of furious determination, to heighten it, to deepen it. As if she could prove herself like rising dough under his covers.
The day that Briony got her braces off, and her newly formed flat white teeth were revealed, big and bright, Katie neighed at her whenever she spoke. But Briony was unperturbed, not part of their clique or under Katie’s spell.
She yanked her ponytail tight, one half in each fist, and went right up to Katie, grabbed her wrist and in front of everyone in form said, “I know what you’re doing. I know what you are.”
She threw Katie’s hand away from her in a wide arc, as if she was spitting out a stale hunk of gum. Katie tried to laugh but couldn’t muster her mouth so she just snorted like it was all impossible, but they all saw it. The green flag to start it. It was like a change in the wind, a sudden chill.
“Does your boyfriend love your blowjobs Katie? Is it because he gets five minutes peace?”
“Is your boyfriend really real Katie? Cause we never see him.”
“Is your boyfriend battery operated? Does he live under your bed with a copy of Playboy?”
“Is he like totally made up, like your dad?”
Chloe kept quiet but started tensing up her muscles there and then because she knew what they were in for later. Katie would return to the safety of the group and take it all out on them.
She’d been playing a game with herself – when Katie finds out. Katie found out everything, and trying to hide something from her just meant extending your crushing punishment when you got found out. Katie’d burst right into the middle of it, with her tight tube tops that she wore under her uniform shirt, and her cheap hip tattoo that rolled out of her waistbands, quivering on her pottery-glazed skin. Do you screw? she’d ask, does he make you suck his dick? Did he ever put it in your ass? She knew Katie would be furious when she found out, would wrench every little cringe from her, from all of them, smacking their faces with her flat harsh words, puffing out little clouds of smoke from the fags she stole from her brother. When Katie finds out. When Katie found out she had a real man, with a car, with a life, with a place to take her home to. With needs. When Katie found out that there was something different about her, even without a sparkly tongue stud or a family that let her do whatever she liked, that she was the one who had the spark that someone’d found. So she totted up little lists of all the things Katie’d make her pay for, and sometimes it felt like she went searching for them, chasing after them, to get that chest-breaking jolt of giving her one more thing to find out.
One evening in June Sam saw Pete’s old girlfriend in the shops; she avoided eye contact and they both looked down and went into aisles where they didn’t need to be. He bought the wrong flavour of crisps and got the fuck out. He’d no idea but he imagined that sticking-out belly as being rubbery, resistant, strangely hot. That night he felt an outline next to him in the bed, a bigger weight pressing down the mattress, the low-level whine of constant need, and his stomach clenched. Pete’d snipped himself out neatly: an accusation or two darting out like a viper and a few weeks purposely pacing around the wrong pubs and streets and people had made his girlfriend leave him amid clouds of tearful accusations and desperate questions. The scent still trailed off him but it didn’t feel permanent; every time one of them clapped him on the shoulder they dusted it out of him like a cushion being beaten clean.
That weekend Sam ignored Chloe’s texts. He knew where not to be, and he went out on the Sunday and drank six pints, tried to fuck some friend of a friend and slept in his car outside the pub when it didn’t work, waking to slate grey dawn and drizzle, a kink in his neck and a throat like baking gravel. His phone pulsed with her missed calls till he shut it in the glove box and let it vibrate its way to the back of his mind.
They pried it out of her because she couldn’t help crying when by Monday lunchtime he still hadn’t been in touch.
“It’s not you he’s after, Micheline, just your new tight pussy.”
Her name was one of few things she’d ever told Katie in confidence, before she knew what Katie was capable of. In primary school she’d been dumpy and some shorn-headed dunce had called her Michelin Man for a whole year. When school broke up for summer she’d gone to camp, finally learned to swim and swear and grew two inches so she’d evened out and couldn’t wait to get back to class and call that kid a dumb fuck to his face. But when September came he wasn’t there; someone said his mum had died and he’d had to go live with his dad in the city. It took her months to calm down; the frustration of not being able to finally shut him up had possessed her so completely that when she wasn’t able to release it, it clung around her like a swarm, making her edges fuzz. They’d started testing her for ADD but then Christian Rowlz had called on her one night, taken her out for a walk, kissed her in front of Tesco’s, told her she was pretty, and the feeling vanished. Chloe was supposed to be her middle name, her aunt’s name, but she’d swapped it out the minute she’d started high school.
She told the story to Katie when they’d first met, dozing and drunk after sneaking one of her mum’s wine coolers at a sleepover. Katie had obviously been holding on to that one.
“What man is ever going to want your worn-out cunt, Katie?” Chloe said it fast before she could take it back.
Katie slapped her square across the face. It didn’t hurt, it was just what she was supposed to do. Chloe didn’t blame her, but Katie’d jumped the gun, gone too far too soon and wasted the opportunity to weed out every last detail by blowing her load all at once. And what Chloe had said didn’t even really make sense or mean anything. She suspected that maybe Katie’s cunt was the one with the price sticker still on, with someone yet to break the seal.
Katie stomped away towards the sports field, but they’d seen her weak wrist, her doubtful eyes, and so they hovered, trying to figure out how to switch sides. Eventually they opted for pity and Briony, who had been watching from the science block, ran up to Chloe, took her hand and asked if she wanted to go to the nurse, which allowed everyone else to join in.
“She’s such a bitch, isn’t she.”
“She won’t get away with this.”
Chloe could feel that it wouldn’t take long before she could tell this story, Sam’s story that was actually really her story. She could see now that having the memory could be better than anything new that might come: the story and the memory meant you already knew, you’d already been on the inside, and could dish it out how and when you wanted.