“I love how you just sit there and take it.”
Danny rubs my thigh when we’re finished. I pick my panties off the console between us and stare out the car’s passenger window. Carrico Lane isn’t as creepy as I imagined at night. It’s actually beautiful and serene. The opening of the road is long and mangled, like a crooked mouth in the middle of a silent, endless scream. Its winding middle snakes between trees, debris, and roadkill. Towards its end, the street narrows and spits out a patch of weeds before the infamous Bubblehead barn house.
Wet warmth enters my ear. I gasp and push Danny back against the drivers seat. His tongue still wags aimlessly out of his mouth.
“You’re such a pig.”
“I can live with that,” he says.
“Yeah? Can Mia?”
“Don’t worry about Mia. You didn’t a few minutes ago.”
Danny takes a swig from his bagged bottle. The new Mustang he bought with funds from his collision with a tractor trailer already smells like garlic, booze and ass. I wonder how many hoes he’s poked in here before me. Surely, Mia Bryant didn’t land on that list.
Loveable, smart, self-sacrificing Mia Bryant. Sunshine wrapped in flesh. One of the truest best friends anyone could have. I know because we were basically joined at the hip for over a decade before she went off to some well-to-do college on the east coast last summer.
Mia Bryant and I have always been from two different galaxies, which is what makes us work, more often than not. I didn’t talk until I was five, and Mia Bryant was the only kid out of our daycare who played with me anyway. A couple years later, when I had a baby tooth knocked out for showing a social worker the dollhouse I built out of my foster mom’s old beer cans, Mia Bryant split her own tooth fairy money with me. At fourteen, I lost my virginity to a bouncer in back of the nightclub he worked at, after Mia Bryant was dumped by a youth pastor because she wouldn’t let him finger her.
During our freshman year in high school, a noted clan member’s grandson was caught putting a noose on the property of Mia Bryant’s family. When I was nearly expelled for shoving the kid’s face into a locker door, Mia Bryant was starting a GoFundMe account for a deaf kid in our PE class.
Last year, I celebrated being rejected from every college I’d applied to by devouring green jello in a hospital bed. Mia Bryant missed half of her first-choice college admission party feeding me that green jello since my slit wrists hadn’t healed yet. For my 21st birthday, I got my nipples pierced and flew to Amsterdam with a married Meth dealer.
And right now Mia Bryant is off doing some corny Mia Bryant shit, like studying, in her dorm room for her own landmark birthday, while I’m here fucking her boyfriend, Danny.
“You’re a malicious person. You know that, right?” Danny glances at me, waiting for a response, while he licks a freshly rolled blunt. His long fingers tremble in the moonlight, a stark reminder of the nerve damage he suffered after his accident. There’s lint from the inside of my sweater stuck on the ends of his dreads.
“So, the high school dropout knows big words. Mia teach you that while you were cuddling against her with blue balls?”
“All I know is you better get me her ring back,” Danny says.
“Or, what?” I toss my underwear in Danny’s direction. When he doesn’t react, I pretend like I’m going to stick an index finger down my throat but give him the middle finger instead. Seriousness and a glint of desperation shades Danny’s face. He grabs my wrist and tightens his grip when I try to pull away. His thumbnail nearly punctures my scar.
“Quit bullshitting, Tangela.”
The quiver in Danny’s voice sounds almost identical to the dread I heard in him this afternoon. He was already drunk by the time I arrived at his apartment. He looked so pathetic, petting his little black ring box and complaining about all things Mia Bryant. Why didn’t she make enough time to visit anymore? Could college really be that rigorous during freshman year? Was she seeing someone else behind his back? Did she realize he loved her, and how much money from his settlement he’d used to plan a future for them?
I half-listened to Danny vent like I always did, while thinking of the call I’d received from Mia earlier. She told me that as much as she missed me and enjoyed Danny’s company, she wouldn’t be home from school this Thanksgiving because New Jersey, for all its blizzards and rude people, doesn’t have red state cowards who leave nooses on her mother’s doorstep.
Before I could mention my insanely humdrum existence working the concierge desk at a massage parlor in South City, she was on to talking about her dorm roommate who consumed a 6-pack of Mountain Dew every day, the local social justice lessons given to her from the NAACP college chapter she’d joined, and the marijuana brownies that outdid everything we’d tried in Missouri.
Hearing her new experiences made me nauseated. When we hung up, I couldn’t see straight and had an urge to crawl into my bathtub, fill it with scorching hot water, and never come out. I wanted to wash myself clean of Mia Bryant. To know what it felt like again not to know her. But then, the thought of her ever being a stranger hurt more than I could handle.
From Danny’s tiny living room where I sat, taking in his childish rant, I glimpsed a piece of Mia Bryant’s red ‘3-1-4’ t-shirt hanging from the hamper in his bedroom down the hall. The one he let me wear every time I slept over. It was too small for me since Mia was only 4’9 with half of my hips. But, Danny liked me to wear it when I lay beside him at night. Sometimes, when he thought I was still sleep in the early morning hours, I’d feel him bury his nose into my shoulder. He’d sniff hard and long, until I could I almost hear him willing me to turn into Mia Bryant and fill the space between his arms.
Before the tears could come, I rose, snatched Mia Bryant’s engagement ring from Danny, and swallowed it.
“You two done playing house?”
Shay hops in the Mustang’s backseat with her annoying zebra laugh, the one that makes me want to strangle her with her own tongue. Her hair, cold and firm from the wind, brushes across my face as she sits forward between us, a devilish hope in her eyes.
“Thought you said this place was scary,” I say to her. “It’s just a boarded up barn.”
Shay starts blabbing about the big deal with the Bubblehead family. How Florissant’s favorite urban legends were cannibals whose psychedelic drug use and incestuous relations in the 1960’s led to excess water on their brains. The abnormality caused their heads to grossly swell, and now, they crave the taste of human blood.
“Their only kryptonite is real gold,” Shay tells me. “Kills them like a wooden stake in Dracula’s heart.”
“Oh come on.” I throw my hands up. “You guys are so fucking gullible. No wonder Mia’s left us for a bunch of college assholes.”
The headlights behind us flicker. The truck belongs to Lawrence, Shay’s beau.
“He’s gonna start honking if we don’t hurry up,” Shay says.
“Maybe he should,” I tell her. “This is so boring.”
“Let’s give the night some action, shall we?” She pulls a small square wrapped in aluminum foil from her purse and drops it into my lap. “I know how much you hate hitting the blunt—I made this just for you, in memory of Mia.”
My head hurts from not eating all day. I check my cell phone. It’s just five past eight o’clock, but it’s darker than death. I have two missed calls from other men I should’ve fucked this evening. After downing Mia Bryant’s ring, there’s no doubt my adventures with Danny are nearing its end. I can’t believe I let him and his ratchet squad talk me into coming out to this site tonight—a shitty urban legend, at best.
Why did I ever want Danny anyway? Just to say I stole him? That I could be better than Mia Bryant at something?
“This tastes funny.” I make a face at Shay but keep nibbling at the brownie in the foil.
“It’s supposed to,” she tells me. “That’s how you know the shit’s got that fiyah.”
We listen to Migos on Spotify while I wait for my high to kick in. Danny and Shay are on their second blunt together when Lawrence flicks his lights behind us again.
“Let’s get going. I have to use the John.” My stomach feels funny, like a volcano that’s been dormant for too long. I wipe sweat from my forehead with the sleeve of my jacket.
“You can’t be serious,” Danny says. “There’s not a rest stop around for a few miles. Just grab a leaf and go near the car.”
“No, you’re not serious. I need a toilet. This was such a fucking bad idea. Get me out of here!”
“Sounds like you got the shits.” Shay points a finger at me and giggles. “Trust me, it’s every bitch’s nightmare to be caught in the wilderness with bubble guts.”
There’s no time to put my boots back on. I ball up my underwear in one hand and, before I know it, I’m counting the snap of branches breaking under me and the number of twigs tugging at my socks—any kind of distraction to help me stay in control of my bowels. The wind pricks at my bare crotch underneath my mini skirt. I block out Shay and Danny’s voices and laughter against my back.
The closer I get, the more I can see the particulars of the Bubblehead barn house. The place that was once an un-lit shabby residence in the distance turns into a two-story flat with flaky white siding and missing shutters surrounded by a sea of weeds. Its broken windows are jagged teeth against the house’s black interior. I hobble into the outhouse beside it, ignoring the rancid odor inside, lift my skirt without looking down at the rundown latrine, and let loose.
Afterward, I use my undies for toilet paper, careful not to make any sudden moves. The sweet relief turns into a numbing panic as I hear twigs snapping and whispers on the other side of the door. Something hits one of the outhouse’s walls hard. Again and again, until the worn door looks ready to collapse.
In my head, I hear Shay’s words about gold being the Bubbleheads’ worst enemy. Instantly, my hands are in the dilapidated port-a-potty, pulling apart the soft squishy mess inside, its stench harassing my senses. For as long as I can, I hold my breath and breathe out my mouth, praying I don’t fuck up and pass out. The pounds against the door grow louder but are less frequent, like the pounder’s losing energy or interest. Finally, my fingers collide into something firm inside the smelly feces. I pull my hands out, trying to steady my shaky fingers that clutch Mia Bryant’s ring.
The door caves in. A blinding flash hits me. I hear screaming and don’t realize it’s coming from me until my throat raws.
“This is epic,” I hear Shay say. The light from her cell phone dims as she cackles next to Danny in the doorway. She steps inside the outhouse and thrusts out her camera phone.
“See for yourself.”
My eyes adjust to the device she holds in front of me, but hot tears blur the image as my body tries to move against the shock of terror, the rotten smell, clumps of cold, brown shit on my skin, fresh piss dampening my legs.
“Give it here, hoe.”
Danny snatches the gold band out of my trembling hands. Unable to move, I watch him and Shay jog back from where they came. The taste of acid warms my throat. I vomit in the yard beside the outhouse, listening to footsteps fade. In the distance, branches stop snapping and engines rumble awake over howling and laughter, a bottle breaking, and wheels crunching the gravel, The red glare of taillights disappears.
Everything turns white. Again, I can’t control the screaming. A memory of Mia Bryant peaks its way through my fury. She’s leaning against my hospital bed and scooping another chunk of green jello into a spoon. Smiling, she serves it to me. When I fail to get all of the jello into my mouth, she wipes the piece that fell from my chin with her pinky and pops it into her own mouth.
My throat threatens to tear itself open. Behind me, a light inside one of the barn house’s broken windows flicks on. Then another, upstairs. Another, on the other side of the flat. Another, and another. Somewhere, in one of the trees, I hear an owl hooting its sympathy.
Lyndsey Ellis is a St. Louis-based fiction writer and essayist. Her writing appears in The Offing, Joyland, Entropy, Shondaland, and elsewhere.