We never thought it’d happen to us. We knew to watch for omens. Swore we’d stay inside if birds dropped. And it couldn’t happen here. No, it happened in the big cities with buildings tall enough to stab skies. Not in college towns like Knoxville. Worse, it was Halloween, when the lunacy happens most. But we were bored. And horny.
Before we left, Plymouth swiped through Tinder. Her mama named her that on account of how much gin her mama drank to make her. She waved her glowing phone screen and predictable as sunrise: her new match, a man with skin dark as sleeping hours! “Chile, he is fine.” Her white ass knew I hated when she talked like that. But she wore black with me in middle school, more social mourning on her part, when the girls in American Eagle threatened to lynch me. I kept my mouth coin-purse clasped.
“Why you swiping anyway? We got meat tonight,” I said.
We were meeting our matches at Clouds of Damascus, the hookah place on UT campus. Mine, a philosophy major. Hers, Africana studies. “Remember Memphis?” A month before, we drove to Memphis to have a threesome with a man who said he was a famous dancer. When we got there, we saw his lies, smelled his tobacco-dried breath, but stayed and did it anyway because it was a long drive back. “We got to have backups from now on.”
We began the ritual of preparing our bodies. Legs propped on the edge of the tub, puffed with shaving cream. Plucked chin hairs. Eyes glittered. Skin smoothed and scented with cocoa butter. I slid in the traditional crop-top and high-waisted shorts. Plymouth wore the same, then covered with a cloak. Dressed as Mary, mother of Jesus, shrouded in white and blue. “Are you sure?” I asked. She said, “Guys like virgins.”
She helped sketch a cat nose and whiskers onto my face. We smoked a bowl of my Baba’s weed. “Be careful,” he and Mamaw said. Then we were in my sputtering car, down winding backroads, to the long stretch of pike that would deliver us from the sticks to Knoxville. The land dipped deep enough in night to send late-summer music through rolled down windows: crickets, cicadas, bullfrogs. The moon, full with a dreamy glow that reached me, gave me a heated throb.
“Don’t the moon look like an Adam’s apple?” Plymouth asked. We’d known each other so long. Like trees who been growing near each other, tangled roots. We often plucked thoughts from the other’s mind without meaning to.
“Who you think would hunch over the earth like that?”
“God,” she said.
In that harmony we slipped into with every conversation, we said, “But God don’t fuck.”
That got us into the belly-holding laughter, the laughter that makes time trickle. The laughter that squeezes out tears. I fixed my streaked eyeliner, swerved.
“Mimosa, the road,” Plymouth hollered. She called me that on account of how much I liked sipping them and pretending to be important.
I corrected course. “I think I smoked too much.”
“Oh, God, remember Philly?” Philly was some advertising dude who matched with us both, and after learning we were friends, invited us over to smoke. When we got there, we were greeted by not-meant daps from a circle of men sitting in his living room. A fat blunt passed around. By the time they brought out the bong, I was too high to function. I held the cold, swirled patterns in my hand, so scared I’d break the pretty glass. They showed me how, urged me with eye rolls, but I couldn’t make my fingers move. I just sat, saucer-eyed, them all waiting for me to be cool, be chill, smoke and pass.
“At least tonight won’t be like that,” she said.
Clicking blinker, tires hit the interstate, city lights twinkled in the distance. We turned up the radio, bass booming, Chris Brown singing. 60 MPH, 70. The trash in my backseat fluttered with speed. Candy bar wrappers, Taco Bell bags, cheese-crusted napkins tried to fly out the windows. We sang along, never quite matching the pitch. And then we were on campus, costumed students stumbled on sidewalks in hordes, groaning for dancing, more dancing.
Radio still bumping, we parked in the garage beneath the pasta place we both worked at. We smeared more lip gloss and checked our pits, then our phones to see if our men were here. Not yet. The smell of mint mouthwash drank by people who slept among cars, mingled with stale urine and old grease, leaked into my car. I sprayed perfume.
Over the song, Plymouth yelled, “How’s my makeup?” “Good. How’s mine?”
A stranger’s yell, echoed by the closed-in walls: “Hey!”
I turned down the radio, locked the doors, scanned the garage for the voice. A man lounged in the corner on broken concrete, head propped on his fist. Our beats had yanked him from his dreams. I rolled up my windows, and before they were all the way up, shouted, “Sorry.”
When we got out the car, the man sat up and leaned against the slimed wall. He mumbled something. Plymouth, always eager for that mystery held by men who were strangers, said, “Huh?”
“Eat my ass,” he said. Then louder, louder, he described in detail how we could go about doing that. “And I want you to wiggle your tongue—”
Plymouth gripped my hand and we ran, sandals slapping our heels, out that little garage, onto the sidewalk. When we heard he’d stopped, we doubled over with throat-scratching cackles.
“He got that lunacy,” I said. And that made us shake and howl even more.
Our heads were still light and swimming with Indica, so we waited outside longer than we should have. Our phone screens lit with the same text: “Inside Damascus, where u at?”
We stepped into the foggy dimness stinking of fruit, slammed into slow RnB and a man with a trimmed beard asking for our IDs. While he studied the dates of our birth, Plymouth
leaned into my ear. “Am I tripping? Or is he…” My eyes dropped with the volume of her sentence, right to the swollen bulge in his pants. We bottled our snickers until he handed us our cards and walked away.
Our dates waited for us in a booth, enough space between them to indicate they were strangers. The hookah centered on the table, untouched, coals pulsing red. We shimmied onto the leather seats, next to our dates. I hated the wooden separation between me and Plymouth. I would have preferred one of those sunken couches that came with a bowl of pink soap and bubble wands to blow smoke through. But since the men ordered without us, that meant they were paying.
My date squeezed my love-handles, beckoned me to scoot closer. He wore a loose white beard, and I knew he was meant to be one of those capital-p Philosophers. He went by Ghost. He was just a shade lighter than me, and two shades lighter than Plymouth’s date, which meant she wouldn’t try to switch guys tonight. Plymouth’s date, Christian, a chubby man in a hoodie.
“What are you supposed to be?” I asked him.
Christian draped his hood over his head. “Sister, what’s scarier than being Black in America?”
Plymouth lowered her eyelids, that try-too-hard sultry look that meant she thought his response was sexy as hell.
Ghost squeezed my love-handles again. “What color was your day?” he asked.
Talk like that annoyed me, but that night I thought it was cute. I sucked down the hookah.
My words floated through a fat cloud of blueberry. “A good violet.”
“My days are always orange. A bright orange.” He took the hose and hovered the mouthpiece over his smile. “Almost a fake orange. The way banana-flavored candy never tastes like the real stuff.”
Plymouth and her date leaned into each other, swapped whispers like spit. Their secrets ate up by Usher’s voice.
Ghost blew a rolling cumulus past my face. “Let’s share hues.”
I leaned like Plymouth, made sure my breath feathered his ear. “How?”
Before he could answer, Plymouth was tapping on my shoulder, Christian next to her with one foot pointed at the door. I tossed her the keys. As they exited, Plymouth looked back, fingered the edge of her garb, mouthed, “Told you.” I thought of them rocking my car, the sleepy man watching and yelling instructions. Laughter knotted with the smoke in my throat, came out as coughs.
Ghost slipped a hand beneath his tunic and produced a pearled blunt. We told the boner- worker we’d be right back, sorry, had to push coins in the meter, then rushed into the night. In his car, we veiled the air with each hit.
“Orange and violet,” I said.
He put the roach in a bottle of water. “Like melted crayons.”
I tugged on my zipper—that metal whine—and a car drove by. Washed us in light. In that moment, brief as a twitch, his eyes had a frenzy. Images of wolves gnawing on flesh strobed through my mind. And then I was out of the car. “I have to pee.” We went back inside.
Plymouth and Christian were in the booth. A soft stillness had settled in their faces.
Ghost whispered as we approached them. “You see that. Your friend, not a drop of eudaimonia.” I agreed. “Yeah, she never really gets sick.”
At the booth, I bunched my lips. Plymouth stood, knew that meant to follow me to the bathroom. I turned the knob. Locked. Fast grunts muffled on the other side. “We need to leave,” I said. I tried the men’s room. Locked.
“He was small?” she asked.
The men’s door opened: out walked a man, hands still dripping with water. He walked by us, said, “Y’all are plump,” and licked his lips real slow.
I yanked her in the bathroom, shut the door. “It’s happening tonight.”
She squinted and tilted toward my face. “You’re bugging.”
I pressed the lock and pulled on the handle to be sure. “The guy in the garage, and that boner-worker, the people fucking in the bathroom—”
“And that guy! He didn’t say we were thick. Or that we had fat asses, no.” My breathing fast, vision blurred, a too-fast ceiling fan in my head. “Plump. Like a cut of meat.”
“What are you saying?” she asked.
“New York City, last month, they ate that girl.”
Realization: her worried face relaxed. “There haven’t been any dead birds.”
My legs worked me in a wide arch of pacing, shoes almost sticking to spilled liquor and piss. “Last year, Miami, the birds died after.” My muscles were stiff as old brooms. “Just fell from the sky on top of all that ash.” The news never got it quite right. Stories dropped months after with corrections. I shook, like I was fixing to speak in tongues. “I saw it in Ghost. If you would’ve seen the way he looked at me—”
“You mean he looked horny.” Plymouth steadied me, spread palms on my shoulders. She spoke in a cool voice meant for lullabies and prayers. “You smoked too much. You always do this.” She dabbed my eyes with rough toilet paper. “Think people act one way, meanwhile they got something underneath they’re trying to tell you. Chill.”
I fixed my makeup in the mirror while she slipped out of her cloak, crop-top and shorts beneath. My eyes caught the small bloat in her belly. Before I could offer Midol, she saw my face and fished a white tablet out her pocket, swallowed.
“The bread of heaven,” I said. “The week of salvation.”
Our giggles carried us back to the music, to the booth. Ghost and Christian gone, our hookah cleared. Plymouth sighed disappointment from the bottom of her lungs.
“Sorry,” I said.
We found the men outside, kicking it against the building, a blunt passed between them. Plymouth took a hit. When Ghost tried passing to me, Plymouth shot me a strict look. I declined. Sirens wailed far away, past campus, near the hospital. The streetlight’s glow fell on the mounds of Plymouth’s tits. PMS always filled them out. A flicker of hate. I was thankful when a group of French maids passed, perfumed with strawberry vodka and puke. The men’s gaze followed.
When the blunt was down to a spit-heavy splinter, Christian yawned. “Early class tomorrow,” he said. The next day was Sunday. “Text me,” Plymouth said after his turned back.
“Let’s get food,” I said.
Ghost grinned, like he knew a joke neither of us were in on. “We don’t lack the same things.” He kissed my cheek—dry, kind, more like a handshake—then sauntered on to his car.
Plymouth, eyes rosy and lids heavy, said, “Cookout?”
Driving would have meant no catcalls, so we walked. Down that gradient of The Strip where campus became party. “My back is killing me,” she said. We pushed past a line of people waiting outside the club.
I lost Plymouth in the crowd. Slurred words thrown in the air like used tissues: spread and wet and bent and O! God, O! God. I found her on the other side of the line where all that noise tapered into memory. Her belly now round, hard. “I think I have a cyst,” she said.
“Maybe you need to—”
“Well, I have been constipated,” she said.
We shared a history of PCOS. Our bodies mossy in all the wrong places. Occasional boil- like acne, stubborn pockets of fat that only responded to the kidnapping of calories and hard running. Since she felt sick, I figured we could do the drive-thru instead. Then stuff our faces at my grandparents’ apartment with another bowl in our lungs. Secrets traded until dreams took us. “We could—”
“Chill. I’m fine,” she said.
Pounding footsteps neared. We turned to see two white dudes running, stripped bare, aside from the raspberry-colored berets on their heads. That primal glaze in their eyes. Except it wasn’t a glaze at all. More like the glaze had sloughed off, and the core of themselves had been pushed forward, right to the center of their pupils. They ran past us, into the crowd outside the club. Three shrieks of agreement. Then a couple of frat boys on the balcony started throwing knuckles. A bloodied nose. A broken tooth.
“Let’s get the car,” Plymouth said.
We crossed to the other side of the street. There, the only people: a drunk schoolgirl, a drunk nurse. The schoolgirl sloppy-cried, “I have to call him.”
“It’s finished,” the nurse said, “Let’s go back to dancing.”
This side of The Strip, no clubs. Only restaurants that closed too early. A good patch of concrete to cry about exes and vomit.
Plymouth stopped near the women, backed against a shadowed storefront. “I can’t walk that far.” Her stomach ballooned. The skin stretched like taffy. Faint purple tendrils reached up to her navel.
“How bad is it?” I asked.
We passed looks that meant she would wait there while I ran to the car. Past the crying schoolgirl, by the pharmacy. I stayed on that side of the street until I had to cross. On the white lines of crosswalk, a dropped wren, stinking in bloat. The smell pushed me along. When my feet hit the sidewalk leading to the garage, I passed a student dressed as Reagan. Or maybe it was Bush.
He reeked of cheap whiskey. “Hey,” he said and slapped my ass. I ran faster, left him and his liquor-numbed pride standing in the street.
In the garage, most of the cars had cleared. Somewhere in the darkness, water dripped. Sounded like pointed fingernails tapping, tapping. I knew fear. In the halls of middle school, waiting for all those white hands to swipe me and string me up. One girl’s daddy was in our county’s chapter of the Klan. Looking back, those year-round flip flops they wore told me they probably couldn’t tie their shoes. Let alone a noose. But I felt the same fear in the garage that night.
On the hood of my car, sleeping: the man with demands for an eager tongue.
I tiptoed real quiet and stopped at the trunk. Knew I wouldn’t have made it to the driver’s seat. By the time I opened the door, he would have had enough time to sink his jaundiced teeth in my neck. Would have gobbled me up like a good burger. Instead, I inched to the backseat. He didn’t stir. I pressed unlock on the key fob, jumped in and slammed the door, pushed lock again. He still didn’t move. Maybe his need for rest outweighed the lunacy. It mostly seeped into men, churned their thoughts rabid. Sometimes women. Just depended on whatever was inside you already.
I crawled to the front seat and stabbed the key in the ignition. Before I could twist, the sleeping man woke. Pressed his eyes against the windshield. Gave me a delirious smile leaking drool. We stayed that way for a while, my body stuck frosted in his sight. Then, a hum in his chest, almost muted by the thick glass between us. His nostrils flared as if to make more exit room for the sound brewing in his throat. He lifted his head to the ceiling and howled. A warning. That loosened the mental rope wrapped tight around my muscles, helped me start the car. I shifted to reverse and slammed on the gas. His body rolled to the floor. A thud that sounded like greedy-eating a peach, teeth suddenly chomping the pit. In the rearview, my brake lights bathed him in red. He staggered on his feet. A grin that reached his eyes. A hand tucked in his pants. I sped out the garage, to The Strip.
Outside the club: brown shards of glass, ripped costumes. No people. My foot pressed on the brake when I neared our agreed pickup spot. My car crept down the street.
In that pocket absent of light, right where I left Plymouth, blood dyed the sidewalk. They got her, I thought, they got her. Then, I saw movement at the opening of a nearby alley. Brakes slammed—no traffic to block. The engine I left running, the passenger door wide open in case I needed to leap in. The usual party chatter that busied the night: gone. Replaced with far-away screaming and wailing. A funeral song with notes of fun times.
I shined my phone’s flashlight in the alley. The schoolgirl and nurse locked in a hug.
Shivered and shook like their bodies were possessed with fever. Snot dripped from their noses. Their eyes wide in disbelief. A reaction to a diagnosis: terminal.
“I’m just looking for my friend,” I said.
The women’s arms linked, tighter, eyes fixed on me in all their trembling. Ready to collapse, to say: okay, fine, we’ll die.
“I’m sane,” I said, “My friend, she had a stomachache.”
That sent them both into a rocking sob. “Oh, God,” the schoolgirl said. “God, no,” said the nurse.
I ran back to my car and sat with the doors locked. Tried not to panic in the idle. But those nerves, both icy and scalding, settled in my gut. I couldn’t call the cops. Common knowledge that the cops always got the lunacy, too. Popping bullets in the streets like firecrackers. No, I decided, that blood wasn’t hers. She walked to Cookout and took a shit. After, she felt better and decided to eat. She never did have problems using public bathrooms. The Strip was emptied, aside from the shocked women in the alley. Most of the moans and groans echoed from the hills on campus. She was fine. Chill.
I drove to Cookout.
The parking lot was too full. Didn’t even try pulling in. I left my car running on a side street, pushed against the curb. Walked up the small slope of grass, into the parking lot. A line of shirtless men reached from the register out the door. Draped in quiet. That calmed me until I heard Plymouth’s full-bodied screams. I shoved my way through slack-bodied men, slumped in wonder.
On the counter, sandwiched between two registers, Plymouth sat, her lower half blocked and shielded by a row of white men. Behind the counter stood the two bereted dudes. They finger-combed milk through her hair.
“Plymouth,” I shouted.
At once, the men turned to me. Another scream erupted from Plymouth and swept away their attention. Her face red as dawn. The veins in her neck and face bulged, thick as oak root torn from earth. She bent beyond my line of sight, before the men, and tugged. A slapping sound. A gasping breath. A cry of revelation. She rose cradling a baby, slick and writhing, to her chest. Her stomach deflated. The way she soaked in the image of that impossible downy child. Her eyes mirrored Ghost’s brief frenzy. More images of wolves gnawing flesh.
As I fought my way through stuck bodies to the door, the men hummed. Flared nostrils.
Outside, my eyes kept on the crowd as I backed away, down the slope. The humming: risen. Plymouth’s body lifted and seated on the bereted men’s hands. She tried nursing—the baby wouldn’t latch on. I met her gaze. And that look told me this won’t do, baby needs to eat. She aimed a finger in my direction. Her point: a quill wet with threats. I was in my car by the time the men caught on to what she wanted. Sped away just as they reached the curb.
My knowing of Plymouth was meant to be forever. Even if we’d gone a month too busy to see each other, we’d dip back into our ways of relating. It was always easy as Saturday sleeping. Rumor has it that everyone in that Cookout burned with the city. Stayed in the fire because the flames excited. And there’s nothing more the lunacy wants than excitement. But even if she had made it, I couldn’t have faced her. Witnessing her on her throne—the palms of red-capped men—that wrongful conception. A nourishment cupped in her chest that had no time to fully form. All those memories with her, a single cavity. I feel it still, just like I felt it that night. Driving away from naked chaos. Bodies near the road, twisting into each other, kissing or punching. To make and to end. The wrens and pigeons dying midflight. Steering and weaving around all those fallen winged things. Black tar, moonlit, guiding me home.