Be nice. That’s the second rule. Even when they’re being assholes, or putting you down, or leering at some other girl—be nice. That’s Gospel, according to Janice, who hasn’t been a virgin for a year and a half now, because there’s nothing guys dislike more, she says, than a disagreeable girl.
But I looked at her in the back of that pick-up, a thumb-shaped bruise hidden by her hair, her eyes wide as moons as we bounced so hard along that country road that we were both holding on for dear life, and I wondered if she had ever broken Rule Number One.
Frank and Bigby had been drinking schnaaps first thing in the morning. When they showed up, Janice and I were sitting on her porch, and we could smell that sickening peppermint as soon as they stepped out of the truck. The guys’ eyes looked like roadmaps, and Frank, trying to make a grand entrance by hopping from the passenger side before Bigby had stopped completely, fell and skinned his elbows and knees on the driveway.
“Christ almighty,” he said. “I’m a goddamn wreck.”
Janice laughed, but not in a mean way, just this cute giggle as she walked over to help him brush the dust from his shirt. That’s her third rule: always laugh. Make them think they’re adorable—though she’d never use that word around Frank. Frank had a dab of blood on his palm, but he wiped it off on his hip, a pink streak on his tan shorts. He offered Janice a nonchalant Hey babe and a kiss on the cheek, both of which she accepted as if they were shining jewels.
Bigby leaned up against his truck, maybe to steady himself, and he looked at me slow, his gaze kind of moving around me rather than focusing. He wore a western shirt that was a tad tight on him, giving him a chance to show off his biceps, and the sun brought a blonde glimmer out in his sandy hair.
Bigby is, by far, the best looking guy who’s ever been interested in me. Come fall he’ll probably be the starting running back for our football team, and until Janice prodded him into asking me out, the only guys who called me were more likely science fair winners than lettermen. They’d get the jitters as soon as they heard my voice, as if speaking to a sophomore girl were as daunting as testifying before God and country. But it was cute. And underneath all their awkward goofiness, it was clear they really liked me, really wanted me to have a good time, even if the best date idea they could come up with was a round of miniature golf. Part of me misses that, the same part that knows the Bigbys and Franks of the world are nothing but bad news dressed up in rich boys’ clothing. But then, that day, I looked at Bigby and saw those muscles in his arms ripple as he scratched his chin—no sentimental science fair boy has that, I’m sorry to say.
Bigby took a few lumbering steps from the truck and threw his arm around my shoulder. “Don’t worry, Chelle bell—” he’s the only one who can call me that without sounding infuriating—“Frank’s a wreck, but you got nothing to worry about with me. I know the way to the quarry blindfolded.”
And just like that, we were off. Years of lectures and heart-felt talks from mother and stern warnings from father and alcohol awareness weeks from the time you’re in sixth grade: all out the window when Frank and Bigby roll up, buzzed on schnaaps but looking good.
I thought that Frank would hop into the truck-bed and let Janice and I squeeze into the cab with Bigby, but the most chivalrous offer Frank made was for Janice to sit on his lap. She laughed, then thanked him for the offer in this way that made me blush for her. “But,” she said, “Chelle and I have girl things to talk about. We’ll just ride in the back.”
“Girl things?” Bigby said.
“You really wouldn’t get it,” she said. She elbowed me as if I should say something else, something to at once enchant Bigby and make him back off.
“Yeah,” I said.
Bigby laughed knowingly. “Suit yourselves,” he said.
Into the back we climbed, kicking out space amid plastic cartons and coke cans and other debris, the metal hot even through my shorts. Bigby revved the engine and ripped from Janice’s driveway so fast we almost tumbled out of the truck bed, Janice laughing as she gripped the side with both hands. But after that the ride evened out a bit and Janice and I talked while, in the cab, Bigby and Frank passed the schnaaps like a pipe between them.
Some people think Bigby and Frank are country boys, and I can see where they get it—there’s the camouflage caps, the pick-up, their general rebelliousness—but anyone who thinks that has never met a real country boy. No, Frank and Bigby pretend down-home, play country, and there are times—like when they talk as if they’re big hunters, when the most either has fired is a water gun—when it grates.
But then I stop and take stock of all of us. Really, we’re all just trying on costume shop masks. That day, I was a wild girl, a don’t-give-a-goddamn-so-let’s-go girl, the one Janice wants me to be. Maybe that’s what I saw in Bigby, like the part he played made it easier for me to believe my own act. On our first date a week before, I sat with him in his front seat for half an hour, his hands going places nobody else’s have ever been allowed. Not that I went as far as Janice would, but it was a thrill to feel his heat rise, to feel him get more excited with every touch. In the end, I climbed out of his truck and walked back to my front door, gave a glance over my shoulder and saw him staring at me, a small hurt look on his face, and I have to admit seeing that frustrated gaze gave me a thrill. I did that; I made it happen. Until the next morning, when I was back to being Mom and Dad’s Chellie slopping cereal into her bowl, and I couldn’t believe what I’d done.
We ripped past pines, past long stretches of kudzu shimmering in the sun, past barren stretches where the red clay crept up toward the road like bared, bloody gums.
“You haven’t done it with Bigby yet, have you?” Janice said.
“What? One of the reasons for you to do it is so that we can talk about it,” she said. “It makes us even closer friends that way.”
Bigby took a sharp curve and the force slid Janice across the bed, slamming into me. There was no danger of us falling out, but she let out a shriek. She hollered for Bigby to be careful, a pathetic whine to her voice like she needed saving. I knew this one—Rule #4: Be weak so they can be strong.
Bigby gunned it and we shot down a straightaway so fast the live oaks looked the width of toothpicks as we passed them. Our hair whipped and tangled together, and the wind swirled over us so hard that for a few minutes we couldn’t even feel how hot the sun was beating down on us. I yelled, but the wind ripped the breath right out of me.
Once we slowed back down, Janice said, “He’s not the kind of guy to wait around forever, you know.”
You would think in our rural county, little bad would ever happen. You would think, from afar, that everyone here rises before dawn, picks okra and tends the livestock, then whiles away the afternoon on the porch, iced tea pitcher propped on a table by the rocking chair.
You’d be wrong. There’s murder, there’s prostitution, there’s enough meth to fill the quarry. But even then the stories of such behavior come to us as if from a foreign land. People like me and Janice just hear reports while our parents are watching the news, or pick up on tales trickling through the high school halls, and even though it happens so close to us, the people involved always seem far away, alien as a movie star on the big screen. In fact, high school here is so boring that whenever anything crazy happens, most people angle for some connection to the event, bragging in the hallway that the guy picked up in a rolling lab is a second cousin, or that gunfire opened up just a block away from where a really good party was going on. Maybe we do that because, for most of us, the only way to seem wild is to have a good story.
Which may be why Janice talks up sex so much. It gives her this authority over me. “I can’t believe you’re seventeen and still a virgin,” she said. “God, you’ve got to live, Chelle.” Even then, though, I could tell she wasn’t having fun—she smiled as always, but it seemed more like a grimace. “Isn’t this fantastic?” she said. “Man, Frank is so…” she paused here, grinning and shaking her head as if so in disbelief of his powers that words failed her. “God, he’s just so real. He makes it all real. Every other guy before him was, like, a cartoon, Chelle.”
We bounced along for twenty minutes, maybe more. Frank and Bigby could have been lost, but they never would have admitted that, and by the time we got to the quarry, I could feel a welt rising where my hip banged against Bigby’s dad’s toolbox, and my forearms were already glistening with the onset of sunburn. We came through a narrow passage where blackberry brambles stretched into the road, snagging us until we pulled our arms back in, folded our hands in our laps like we were sitting in church.
The quarry ranked high in local lore, the site—depending on whose story you were listening to—of a lover’s murder-suicide, of satanic rituals, of parties so raucous and decadent the revelers flashed back even still. In reality, though, it was merely another dead quarry filled with water.
Arriving at last, the boys spilled out of the front. Bigby sauntered around to lend a hand so Janice and I could climb from the bed. My legs were stiff from the ride, and I wobbled a bit so Bigby had to catch me, my chest pressed against his shoulder and his arms wrapped around my upper legs. The fall was perfect Rule Number Four for Janice, and she gave a wink, thinking I’d intended to do it. Frank, meanwhile walked toward the edge of the quarry with the now empty schnaaps bottle dangling between his fingers. With a snap of his wrist he sent it spinning across the water toward a nearby jut of rock, where it exploded like a tiny firework.
The three of them treaded water, their arms moving like tentacles around them and making ripples circle away from their bodies. Janice and I had stripped down to bathing suits, and the guys to their shorts, our discarded clothing in a small mound beside me. I had watched each of them jump, Bigby then Frank then Janice, in effortless arcs. About fifteen feet straight down, a jagged rock jutted from the side, and if you let your imagination get going you could see flecks of dried blood where previous divers met their doom, but my friends had all cleared it easily, splashing down safely a good twenty-five feet below. I didn’t want to seem like a child, but just looking at the drop made my chest grew tight.
I could hear them talking to each other, but I couldn’t make anything out, except for a wild laugh from Frank. At last I heard Janice calling to me: “Come on, Chelle! The water’s great.”
I knew I was breaking another rule—her follow-up to number four: Be weak, but not too weak. I edged within a few inches of the drop, then knelt down so I didn’t get dizzy. I thought again about all the stories about it—the radioactive waste, the corpses anchored to the bottom, the ghosts of old quarrymen abducting people after dark. Nonsense, I knew, but once one fear walks through the door, it’s there to stay.
“Chelle!” Bigby yelled. “Just jump. Just do it.”
“How are you guys even going to make it back up?”
“Easy path over there,” Frank said, pointing to a narrow passage in the quarry face. Loose rocks were wedged against each other on the path, and fast food bags and coke cans were trapped beneath broken branches. At one spot a ripped t-shirt clung to one of the rocks. It sure didn’t look “easy” to me.
“Nah, just stay up there if you’re so scared,” Frank yelled. “Wait for someone from that meth lab to come get you.”
“What?” I asked. It didn’t make any sense.
“That meth lab we passed a few miles back. You didn’t see it?” Frank laughed. “Ah, I bet those guys in there saw you. They’ll be down here any minute.” His voice seemed far away, not quite real.
“Stop it, Frank.”
“Or what, Janice?” I heard a violent splash and then heard Janice say Hey. “You want her to stay up there and get violated by a bunch of tweakers?”
“Come on, Frank, that’s enough.”
That last voice was Bigby’s, but I was already past paying attention. I wasn’t scared of Frank’s lies. I wasn’t scared of them thinking I was a baby. I wasn’t anything at all, really—I seemed outside of my body, my head a balloon floating several feet above me as I rose from my knees, took a step back and then two quick steps forward, leapt and went rushing through the air. I was only vaguely aware of all that until my legs whacked against the face of the water, snapping me back to reality. The impact pushed the air from my chest and I flailed back to the surface, where my three friends were waiting, grinning, proud.
Later, Bigby ushered me into the woods. He tripped as he stepped over a fallen tree and nearly pulled me down with him. I warned him to watch out for a patch of poison ivy but he pushed right on through. Janice and Frank had stayed behind, and after we’d walked for only a minute I could hear her laughing seductively.
Bigby found a small clearing under some pines where the earth was softer and cooler. He sat down and pulled off his shoes, then reached his hand up to me. There was an intense warmth in his fingers, and it sent my heart racing.
I knew what he wanted. I knew what had been expected of me in the very act of agreeing to go the quarry. I thought back to our first date, sitting in the cab of that truck, remembered exactly where his hands had touched as if his fingers had burned imprints, and the thought of doing more excited me—but until that moment, until he reached up and took my hand, I hadn’t thought really about what it meant. I mean, of course I’d thought about what it would feel like, how Bigby’s touch would be, who I’d feel like afterward, but all those things were just roles I might play—I’d even thought of what to say when I had to tell Janice about it later, piecing things together from good sex scenes I’ve watched or read.
“Come on down here with me, Chelle bell,” Bigby said.
The strange thing is, I thought of Janice—not the Janice I could hear through the trees laughing and teasing, but the Janice who showed me the bruise last week, who showed me how it matched the purpling marks on her ribs. Maybe thinking of that was just one more way to keep pretending I wasn’t there, flesh and blood, with Bigby in the woods by the quarry, mosquitoes swarming over our heads and birds rustling in nearby bushes. But that’s what I thought of: Janice, bruised, saying, “He’s only hit me the one time,” sounding just the way someone talks about smuggling wine coolers from the convenience store, a way of saying Look how dangerous I am. I’d reached out and touched the bruise closest to her hip. “Don’t!” she’d said. “That hurts.”
I yanked my hand away from Bigby’s. I stood.
“No,” I said.
“No what?” he asked. Then he laughed, a drunken burbling back in his throat, and he rolled around a bit on the pine straw, eyes lolling this way and that. “Hell with it,” he said, and then he fell silent and curled up like a baby. I hadn’t realized how drunk he was. I thought about how far away we were from anyone else, thought again about what Frank had said about that “meth lab.”
“You’re uptight Chelle bell, but I’m going to help you out with all that,” Bigby said, but he wasn’t talking to me now.
I stood with my arms crossed, a bit cold all of a sudden in just my bathing suit, the pines blocking out the sunshine. After a minute I pushed Bigby with my foot, felt my toe sink into the fat around his waist. Right then, he was ugly, passed out drunk with a smear of mud in his haircut, but I knew this wasn’t the end between us. Maybe I thought I had further to go with him, or—and I really hope this isn’t what I hoped for then, hope for still—that I could improve him, shape him into something just as attractive but more appropriate.
I sat down on a dead tree not far from Bigby, the moist bark giving a little beneath me. I’d broken one of Janice’s rules—which number I didn’t know and didn’t care—which was When in doubt, say yes, a rule she claimed to be almost as important as Rule #1. I felt sick again, the way I had standing on the quarry edge staring down at the water, and I realized that Janice and Frank had gone quiet.
Then Janice screamed.
I thought the worst. Anyone would have. She kept screaming while I ran toward her, Bigby left behind, dead to the world on a bed of pine needles. Only when I got closer did I hear Frank moaning.
I reached them, saw Frank by the quarry edge gripping his ankle. He was naked, but had pulled a shirt across his body to cover himself. Janice was still dressed, and turned to me with a look of panic. “What happened?” I asked.
Janice waved her hands in front of her like she was shaking them dry. “A snake,” she said. “A snake.”
I looked closer now and could see blood running from under Frank’s fingers, making rivulets on his foot.
“What kind?” I said.
Janice shook her right hand frenziedly. “It rattled. It was a rattlesnake.” She grew more frenetic as she spoke. “What do we do? What do people do when they get bit by a rattlesnake? What are we supposed to do?”
“Stay calm,” I said, not feeling very calm myself. Frank looked pale, and it worried me that he lay there almost fetal, looking like he barely had the strength to hold his hand to his ankle.
“This isn’t happening,” Janice said. “This can’t be happening!”
But it was. There we were; Frank snakebit and Bigby passed out drunk, the four of us miles from help. The sun beat down relentlessly on us, and the quarry’s still water stared up, flat and unrippled as a sheet of glass.
The next hour remains blurry. I was lucid the whole time, and there was a frenzy of activity, but it seems like we were simply there at the cliff, calculating Frank’s odds, and then there was a finger snap and we were waiting for him in the emergency room. I know Janice and I got Frank into the cab, managed to wake Bigby just long enough to help him into the truck bed. I know, too, that Frank got sick, vomiting three separate times in between giving us slurred directions back to town. All of that is fuzzy, though, except for the moments just as we pulled up to the hospital, when Janice asked Frank how he was feeling and he didn’t respond. His head was slumped against the window, and I remember Janice lifting her shaking fingers up to his neck, checking for his pulse in the same spot where, on her own neck, she was still bruised.
He didn’t die. His ankle swelled up to twice its size, but Frank didn’t die. It turns out you have to be even stupider and unluckier than Frank to die from a rattlesnake bite, and by Monday it was a great story for Frank to tell, with Janice adding in little embellishments while she clung to him. But right then, with her fingers on his neck, Janice started crying, breaking Rule Number One, which she claims is more important than all the others put together.
As far as me? As far as Bigby? We don’t really talk about it at all.