Point of No Return
by Andy Tu
The roses hide. In sunlight, they’d open their mouths and drink the warmth. But the sun does not shine on them directly; it reflects off the moon, which watches with a hand over the side of its face.
Alexis leads her friends up the path into the park, the bottom of their rubber soles scraping against the uneven grains of dirt and rocks, small and jagged. Many times has she come before, but she does not recognize any of the trees in the darkness of this night. Shrouded in shadows, looming tall and slanting with the warm, swirling, summer wind, their branches straggle toward the girls like the hair of witches.
At the gate, the five girls take turns prostrating themselves on the ground and sliding themselves beneath the metal bars. In the distance near the tennis court, a single lamp breaks the darkness.
Alexis, Bella, Natalie, and Caitlyn have made it to the other side of the fence and are patting the gravel out of their hair and off their clothes. Rachel is trying to squirm through, but her back is caught against the rusty bars that pull her back like barbed wire.
“Hurry up,” says Alexis, looking around even though it’s the middle of the night and no one is around.
“She’s too big,” Bella says, placing her hands on her hips.
As Rachel tries to squeeze through, the gravel scratches her chin and the bars scrape against her back, poking harder at her spine the more she pulls herself forward. She looks up at her friends. This must be how her dog feels among humans: at the whim of their power, helpless.
“Just pull her,” says Natalie, offering a hand. Rachel takes it and Alexis offers hers as well. They pull, and Rachel winces. For a moment she is stuck but then pops through like a ruptured pimple.
The girls trek up the dirt path that curves to the right until the wide expanse of the park comes into their view. They head for the jungle gym, the air as still as their breath and the late-night fog thick like a ghost with its arms around them.
Caitlyn clutches herself at the elbows. Rachel sticks her hands in her sweater. Only Alexis appears relaxed, swinging her arms freely at her side. It is her 12th birthday, a sleepover, and this is the height of their night, for they will share this secret and their parents will never know. She checks her cell phone to make sure no one has called.
At the jungle gym, Alexis kicks off her sandals and drags her feet through the sand, which feels softer than normal. Her friends take off their shoes and follow her to the monkey bars.
The moonlight spreads over them. Their eyes adjust so that they are no longer silhouettes, their skin reflecting soft glows. Running around the jungle gym, they hang on the bars and swing themselves forward, leaping off.
Rachel pushes Caitlyn on the swing. Higher, she shouts, higher! Rachel pushes harder and harder until Caitlyn jumps off into the sand, catching herself. They begin laughing, then screaming playfully as Alexis pulls down Bella’s sweatpants to her knees and runs away.
“You’re SO dead,” Bella shouts, pulling her pants up and chasing after Alexis, who is rushing up the slide.
From afar, they are phantoms, swirling around the poles and slipping down the slides with hands in the air. They are blurs and sounds that ring through the air and die into the silence of the warm night. This is what the boys see as they approach. This is what Rachel sees as the boys stop at the trees to watch.
Like a drilling woodpecker, Rachel taps on Caitlyn’s shoulder wildly. “Someone’s...” Rachel stutters, “someone’s... there.” She points.
Alexis runs by, Bella chasing closely behind and grabbing at her shorts.
“Lexi!” Caitlyn whispers loudly. “Someone’s there!”
Alexis halts and Bella crashes into her, bumping Alexis to the sand. Natalie swings off the monkey bars and runs over. The mirages approach. They become boys.
The girls remain frozen, except for Alexis, who steps out from their circle in front of her friends. She crosses her arms, trying to appear brave, but already she starts to wish they’d just stayed home.
Like a flock of birds the boys approach in a triangle, the one in front wearing a grey hat. The boy to his left has long hair that appears white. The last boy walks heavily with a short buzz cut.
“Hi,” says the boy in the front, their leader.
“Hi,” Alexis says.
The groups stare at each other. From the grass field come the sound of sprinklers, streams of water jutting.
“So,” says the boy, pivoting the toe of his shoe into the sand, “what are you guys doing here?”
“Nothing,” Alexis replies sharply. The boys look harmless. She can see it in the wide stares in their eyes, the absence of ill intent. The fear she felt upon their approach quickly vanishes.
“I’m JT,” says their leader. “That’s Avery” — he points to the white-haired kid whose face is fixed in a permanent half-smile — “and Terence.” Terence is the one with the shaved head.
Alexis introduces herself and her friends, her finger pointing at them. “Bella, Natalie, Caitlyn, and Rachel” in a rhythm like eeny, meeny, miney, moe.
“What are you guys doing here?” she says, angling her hands on her hips.
“We come here to smoke,” JT says as cool as he can.
The girls look at each other. JT pulls out from his pocket a pack of cigarettes.
“Where’d you get them?” asks Alexis.
“My dad has a box he keeps in his closet. I found them one day when I was looking for something.” His eyes dart away.
The words linger in Alexis: “looking for something.”
“We usually smoke them under the monkey bars.” He glances around at the girls. “Do you guys want to... try?”
Alexis feels her heartbeat accelerating.
Glancing at each of her friends, she announces, “I want to try it. It’ll be a birthday to remember.”
“Wait,” says JT. “We don’t have enough for everyone.”
Natalie and Bella look at each other. Rachel turns to Caitlyn and whispers something; Alexis squints at them, but they cannot see her glare of disapproval.
“We can share though.” JT nods at the girls behind Alexis. “You guys don’t have to if you don’t want to...”
Alexis grabs Bella’s hand. “Please,” she says. “It’s only this one time and I just want to see what it’s like.”
Bella sighs and closes her eyes.
“Okay. But just this one time,” she says. Bella looks at Natalie, who dips her head to show that she will join them.
Alexis turns to Caitlyn and Rachel. “You guys don’t have to,” she says.
They do not say anything but answer with silence that they will.
JT and Alexis lead their friends to the monkey bars, where the groups sit across facing each other
JT pulls out a cigarette and matches; he strikes it and lights the end, then takes a puff. As it burns, the skin of the cigarette pulls back, the embers like magic crystals, the smell trickling in and washing over them like burnt popcorn.
The smoke spirals from JT’s mouth toward the space between him and Alexis in a helix. He pulls out another cigarette and takes another puff, blowing a second wave of smoke out.
“Here,” he says, stifling a cough. He hands a new cigarette to Alexis. She sticks it in her mouth, off to the side the way she chews her pencil at school. JT leans in, touching the end of his cigarette to hers.
Alexis pinches the cigarette between her thumb and index finger, sucking as hard as she can, not knowing to gather the smoke into her mouth instead of straight down her throat. A sharp burn pours down her lungs; she topples over onto Bella, coughing. The cigarette falls to the sand.
“Are you okay?” Bella asks, her voice louder than she expected. “Lexy, Lexy!”
Alexis continues coughing, a high-pitched wheezing forcing itself out of her lungs, like something scratching its way out of her throat. Alexis grips Bella’s hands hard.
“Lexy.” Bella looks at Natalie, who shakes her head.
The girls wait for Alexis to speak and show she’s okay. They think they’ll be relieved to hear her voice, but they are terrified when they hear the chords in her throat rattling.
“My throat...” Alexis’ voice is like an old woman’s.
JT continues puffing his cigarette as if everything were normal.
“It’s okay,” he says. “She’ll be okay. That happened to me the first time.”
“It hurts...” Alexis’ voice is still raspy, but closer to normal. The girls breathe a sigh of relief.
“We don’t want to do this,” says Bella, glaring at JT. “Go away,” she says sharply.
“Hey, I didn’t force you guys to—”
“Just GO AWAY,” she yells.
“YEAH,” Natalie joins in. “GO AWAY.”
Rachel crosses her arms to show her support.
JT gets up. His friends follow.
“You girls are bitches,” he says, turning around to leave.
Bella jumps up and lunges at him, her fingers clenched, and with both fists smacks the back of his head. She sees his cigarette fall to the floor, a glitter of embers showering down like fireworks.
“What the HELL,” he yells. He turns around and punches Bella in the face, who turns and falls, her head smacking into the ground face-down, a sound like an eggshell cracking. Rachel runs over to her.
Avery grabs JT’s arm, as does Terrace.
“Come on,” Avery says. “Let’s get out of here.”
JT lingers for a moment longer and glares at the girls like a tower looming over smaller buildings, threatening to stomp on them. He turns around and they run, fading into the trees, their bodies becoming silhouettes.
Alexis crawls over to Bella.
“Those guys were jerks,” Alexis says, her voice back to normal. “Bella are you okay?”
Rachel shakes Bella’s elbow.
“Bella, are you okay?” Alexis repeats.
“Bella, wake up. Come on.” The burning in Alexis’ throat returns, as does the acceleration of her heartbeat. “We need to go, or my parents will find out.”
Alexis turns Bella around and sees the rock, its edges glinting with the moonlight. Bella’s lips are smudged with blood. Her jaw tilts crooked, and her eyes remain still and closed.
“Bella!” She yells, shaking Bella’s shoulders. She screams. The other girls join in, screaming her name. Except Caitlyn, who just screams. Only Rachel stays silent as she stops shaking Bella and lets go of her arm.
Bella’s eyes crack open, and close.
Alexis takes out her phone and dials 911, but right away her phone cuts off. She sees at the top of the menu screen the circle with the X. No signal.
“Caitlyn!” she yells. “Call 911!”
“I don’t... I don’t have my phone,” says Caitlyn, who’s hovering over Bella.
The other girls are holding their heads in their hands and pacing in circles on the sand, yelling for help and screaming, except Rachel, who remains silent and still.
Alexis runs around the park, holding her phone high into the air, searching for a signal, but it does not come. She runs back to the gate and crawls beneath the fence, the edges of the bars scratching into her back, drawing blood. She runs back down the trail, back toward her house, and as she does, the messages start streaming in. The voicemails. The texts from her parents demanding that she respond.
By the time the ambulance comes, Bella has stopped opening and closing her eyes, and her chest is no longer rising and falling.
The boys will be found and be taken to the police station, but they will lie and their families will lie for them, and the lack of evidence will release them. Alexis will forgive herself, eventually, but she will start smoking in secret and her habit will never stop until the smoke rushing into her lungs ceases to burns her throat, until she can no longer hear Bella’s laughter in the warm, night air.
Copyright © 2016 by Andy Tu