Salamander kneels in the mud puddle. Both knees caked now in the cold mess but he closes his eyes and smiles that big-ass smile. Master Jam’s yellow bat taps each of his shoulders and Salamander says, “I will never betray the trust of Black Ice; I will answer only to the name Salamander,” and he rises anew. Mud-water runs down his pale shins.
Master Jam looks at me. She’s got blue suns for eyes.
From up here, in Master Jam’s back yard, the wet hills unravel like dirty green carpet. Jam’s parents are who-knows-where, as usual. Across the hole-seven fairway, Bradley, his sister Jill, and the other Bridge Kids are dancing, country blasting from their back-deck speakers. They’re small like ants, and I squish them with my pinky finger.
We’re going into battle.
Jam looks left and right to make sure the fairway’s clear. She jumps up and down like a wild horse and waves her yellow bat, that tie-dye shirt flying up, showing her hard tummy. She wants to hit somebody. Then she hands me a green rake and I say, “Let’s chew their dainty asses like gum!” Calc and Salamander laugh. The boys like it when the girls cuss.
Jam runs across. Sparkling dew-grass blazes behind her. Calc follows, raising the blue shovel above his head. Salamander and I go next. Somebody yells out, “Down the hatch!” So we take turns hollering nonsense. “Chicken nuggets!” “Peace be with you!” Each out-nonsensing the rest. “Tuberculosis!” I yell between breaths into the candy-colored daylight. If we weren’t running so fast, we’d laugh.
We dodge the deep sandy bunker and run up the slant into Jill’s yard, where the Bridge Kids meet our weapons with theirs, guitar twangs raining down. Bradley’s goalie stick hits me square in the gut. I fall, roll. The ground is warm, wet, and when I stand I’m dripping brown water. I smash the green rake into his leg, and he returns the blow. We battle like gods on a mountain. The sun is raging and I feel like licking that bright ball like a lolly. My lungs burn. “Antarctica!” Thud of bat to bone. A warrior’s cry. When I hit him again, Bradley runs toward his shed. “Marshmallow cream!” Someone swings a tree branch, leaves still attached.
I run after Bradley to deliver my evil villain speech, but he’s already lifted his shed’s pull door. He rolls inside. Just before he closes himself in, I see it—the most beautiful, most shiny, most leather-trimmed golf cart I’ve ever seen.
I flip around, try to catch Master Jam’s attention with jumping-jacks. But she’s battling, her brown hair billowing in the breeze like she’s underwater, her yellow bat raised high above her head. Face speckled brown with mud.
A scream. Crying. “Stop!” someone yells. I look down. Lying there is Jill, eighth-grader. My nemesis’s older sister, which makes her my nemesis-once-removed. Nemesis by blood relation. As I step closer I see a web of blood trickling from a scrape in her cheek into her open mouth.
Someone pushes me. I shrug them off. “Jill’s messed up,” I say.
“Am I dead?” Jill says. I can’t tell if she’s serious.
I kick some mud in her face.
“Mr. and Mrs. Morris!” one of the Bridge Kids yells through the living room window which, as always, is wide open. “Mr. and Mrs. Morris!”
We run the hell away.
As we run, we wave hi to Mr. and Mrs. Brinkley, who are in their backyard listening to old-timey music on their record player while slow dancing, booze-filled glasses in their hands. I look at the orange tree’s shady spot, but the cubs aren’t out. My abs hurt from getting slammed in the gut.
“Kierkegaard!” Calc yells out.
Mr. and Mrs. Brinkley give us a look, but keep dancing.
I’ve got no clue what Kierkegaard is, and nobody asks. He wins, I guess.
An hour later we’re in our own homes, cleaned up, dry, wearing fresh Saturday clothes. In the living room, I guzzle lemon-lime soda while losing to Darcy in speed chess. Darcy’s the college babysitter who watches me when Dad’s on business trips in Hong Kong or Thailand or somewhere. She lives in the house for weeks at a time. I’m sure Dad pays her through the nose because she never complains. Plus, that’s like Dad, to pay someone through the nose.
After three straight checkmates I get bored and I call everybody up. We meet at Calc’s that night for a military summit. In the basement, Calc’s been building an official Black Ice headquarters made of blankets, chairs, tables, desks, and trashcans.
In lamplight under the dark red blanket, I tell them about the golf cart. Its racing stripe, its leather interior. They hoot with excitement. Calc hunches over paper, draws the Bradley house and shed, furiously calculates the best angles of attack.
“Were there cup holders?” Calc asks.
“Yeah, I think like a bunch,” I say.
“Sweet,” Calc says. He takes a hard suck from his juice box straw.
I picture the look on Bradley and Jill’s faces when they see the empty shed. Horror in their guts. Some nasty spankings from Mr. Morris. Darcy says the Morrises are Republicans and that Republicans do spanking instead of time out.
Later, Calc’s mom peers under the blanket and hands us more juice boxes and a tray of carrots and dip, which obviously no one eats. Calc’s mom doesn’t allow soda. Once, I tried to sneak in some lemon-lime, but she caught me, and I had to leave it on the porch, and by the time I left the bottle was hot as a rocket. “No soda in this house, young lady,” she said. Only she didn’t say “young lady”—she said my real name. But my real name’s not important. My Black Ice name’s Misty, like the misty night fog that hides slick roads in winter and causes deadly car accidents. Mrs. Engles, our science teacher, told us about this. She’s from Illinois, so she’s seen real-life black ice.
Why we’re at war: Every day of every year of fourth and fifth grade, the Summer Hills Middle kids—Bradley the Wad, his evil sister Jill, and friends—waited for us at the bridge over Pink Creek when we walked home from school. Mostly they’d glare at us, spit, call us names, push us, take gum from our backpacks. The usual. Then one day when Calc and Jam and I were walking together, I spat back. I didn’t aim my spit at anybody in particular, just a general kind of spit. They pushed us into the creek. Bradley rubbed my face in the muck until I was choking on it. I thought I might suffocate to death. It wasn’t until I started throwing my arms around that he finally let up. And once, Bradley pulled a cigarette from his pocket and said Calc had to smoke it to pass, so he did, and now Calc has nightmares where he’s being chased by his own charred lungs. And once, they pelted us with oranges from their parents’ orange trees, and Jam got a real bad one on her eye. And once, the bridge was completely gone because they’d torn it down, and after we fashioned a new one out of dead tree trunks and snapped-off branches, we came back the next day to find it busted, the pieces in the creek. Took weeks for a new bridge to appear, but at least the new one’s sturdier, metal.
Jam likes to say we’re in a gang. I like to say that too. She says a real gang takes over the neighborhood, squashes the other gangs. Says our job is to rid the whole golf course of the Bridge Kids so they can’t bully ever again.
She likes to say, “We’ll be benevolent leaders.”
She always winks when she says that, even if she thinks no one’s looking.
And I always wink back, even if she doesn’t see.
A few days later I’m shouting my new favorite word, “Tuberculosis!” through the trees in what will later be known as the Battle at Pink Creek, where the water shimmers pink because of flowers lining the banks. Bradley has a gigantic sling shot, and from the other side of the water he hits Jam square in the left boob with a cue-ball-sized rock. Jam goes down and moans. I worry she might have a medical emergency, her face is so flush with pain. I have a hatchet—a real one I found under an old tire in the woods by the seventeenth tee, rusty but solid—so I leap into Pink Creek and yell as loud as I can and climb up the bank and lift my heavy weapon like I’m gonna for-real kill somebody, which I’m not, but the point is to make a convincing picture. I come at Bradley and he raises his arm in defense, and his face gets all twisted, like he’s finding out that fire-breathing dragons do in fact exist, and I yell, “Give me your shed key or I’ll cut your prick off!” He takes off running, his signature move, and I chase him. After a few hundred feet he reaches into his pocket and throws a silver key into the air and keeps going, deep into the woods.
Takes me two minutes to track it down. Easy as sugar cookies.
When I get back, Jam’s standing and rubbing her sore boob. She says to me, “You’re crazy.” The others nod, and I take a deep-ass bow.
Darcy’s painting her toenails green at the kitchen bar. I’m headed out the door.
“Where you going?” she asks.
“See the cubs.”
“I’m coming too.” She puts her half-painted foot down and slips into her flip flops. I don’t want her to spoil my one-on-one time with Jam, but whenever I tell Darcy to screw off, she gets suspicious. I think she thinks I do drugs. So I don’t say anything. We head out into the heat. I’m wearing a tank but sweat gathers in my armpits even before I step off our lawn.
“Up to 105 today. I hate the South,” Darcy says from behind me. She’s lived here her whole 20-year-old life.
We walk down a few houses to get to Mr. and Mrs. Brinkley’s. They’re drinking juleps on their back deck, lounging in their lounge chairs, watching the golfers. Jam’s not here yet, but sometimes she’s late.
Little Hammer and Wrench—of all things to name a tiger and a lion—sit there in the shade of the Brinkley orange tree. They’re leashed to the trunk, like dogs.
“Took Wrench to the vet the other day,” Mrs. Brinkley says to Darcy. Another thing I don’t like about Darcy following me places—everyone talks to her instead of me.
“What’s wrong with him?” I say.
“Oh nothing,” Mrs. Brinkley says. “Checkup.”
Then why the hell’d you mention it? I think.
Finally Jam shows and she sits down next to Hammer, the lion cub, and pets him.
“How much these guys cost you?” Jam asks Mr. and Mrs. Brinkley.
Mrs. Brinkley scoffs like it’s a silly question. But Darcy and Jam and I all stare at her. Mrs. Brinkley has her feet up on the glass outdoor table. Her toenails are painted pink. Old wrinkly pink-painted feet.
“We don’t discuss finances,” Mr. Brinkley says. He sips his drink as Mrs. Brinkley nods to nobody in particular. “It’s not polite to ask financial questions.”
We pet the dangerous little babies some more, then I ask Mrs. Brinkley if we can use her swimming pool. She says yes, like always. She doesn’t like the pool “going to waste.” So we strip down to our bathing suits and leap in. The water’s nice. Some kids don’t like that the Brinkley pool’s heated. They say it’s not refreshing. But I love that hot-bath feeling. My sweat mixing with the warm water, the sun splintering the blue while we wade.
Jam puts me on her shoulders and walks me around the shallow end. She dumps me in the deep end when we get there, and I kick down to touch bottom. I open my eyes, look up. Jam’s long pale limbs kick out and contract. I swim to the surface next to her, flick water in her eyes. Darcy floats by us on her back without a word. Darcy didn’t bring a swimsuit, so she’s swimming in her shorts and sports bra. Her eyes are pinched shut in the sun.
“You kids be careful now,” Mr. Brinkley says.
“We should sneak here at night,” I whisper to Jam.
She nods, looks away.
The week rolls on. We battle, sleep, play, eat, swim. Pet the cubs. Wonder about our futures—is this the year Calc makes it to the International Science and Engineering Fair? Are Salamander’s parents gonna divorce, like mine?—but not often, and not for long.
“Maybe we shouldn’t do it,” Jam tells me. She’s talking about stealing the golf cart, which she keeps putting off. It’s three in the morning and the two of us are standing in the shallow end of the Brinkley pool, unbeknownst to the Brinkleys. Water’s all lit-up, glowing, beautiful. Jam ducks under the surface, does a tumble underwater. She comes back up and spits water on my face, and I spit back.
“Of course we should,” I say.
“It’s just the Bridge Kids aren’t as mean lately. They’re backing off. You notice?”
I had noticed. They acted wimpy the other day when we invaded their side of the woods armed with squirt guns full of motor oil. Wimpy and exhausted. At one point, Bradley even threw his hands up in surrender and took a big squirt of cold black sludge to the face. Just stood there.
“They’re cowards,” I say.
“Not really,” Jam says.
“Sure,” I say, and I wink.
So naturally she winks back, and I laugh, and she laughs, but then she stops, and she shakes her head, looking serious, like she’s about to say something important. She says, “We could get into major trouble. Plus, they’re kids, you know, like us.”
This makes me laugh, and I punch her in the arm. “Are you like a hippie now?” I say without a full understanding of the word hippie, but she doesn’t respond. She doesn’t laugh or punch or anything, so I punch her again, harder. Then she gets out of the pool and dries off.
“I gotta go,” she says.
A light in the pool wall flickers.
“Whatever,” I say.
When the morning of the Golf Cart Caper arrives, a summer storm crashes the neighborhood, closing the course. Even by nighttime, after the black clouds roll south, the ground’s still soaked. The moonlit grass grabs our shoes, sucks on them. It’s impossible to run, especially with these bags full of onions and PVC, so we trudge our muddy way to the cart path. Red flags wave slightly in the breeze. Cones of white light shine from porch lamps. Dead quiet except for cocktail parties on covered backyard balconies. The open grass is beautiful, dark.
At the Morris shed, I unlock and lift the door, and we stand in silence, marveling. I walk over and sit in the driver’s seat, feel up and down the leather-wrapped steering wheel. Adulthood is going to taste so sweet.
Takes me a few seconds to discover there’s no ignition key.
After a search around the shed and a harshly whispered argument about who is to blame for this oversight, we decide the key’s inside the house. Calc slumps his shoulders.
“I’ve got Doritos at my place,” Jam says.
But I pull down a rusty saw, this enormous thing wider and taller than my torso—looks like a dead shark’s mouth—and I carry it out to the Morris’s living room window, wide open like always. From behind me I hear Salamander whisper, “The hell is she doing?” and Calc whisper, “She’s not actually—”
I slice the screen and step inside, onto the hardwood, and wander the house until I find the key in the mudroom. It’s clearly labeled, hanging on a hook next to dozens of other keys. Above the keys is a wooden plaque that reads, Home Is Where the Heart Is.
As I tip-toe back across the hardwood to the window, I notice a wine rack. I pocket the key and grab as many bottles as I can carry. To celebrate.
Easy as sugar cookies.
Then I feel myself tumble—I’d left the shark-mouth saw in the middle of the living room like an idiot—and I crash onto a table. A potted plant falls and, along with one of my bottles, shatters on the floor.
I pick up a couple of the unbroken bottles and run out. They’ve pushed the cart out of the shed, and they’re staring at me like I set the house on fire. Jam’s hand is open to receive the key but I skip past her and take the driver’s seat. Jam jumps into the back with Salamander, who is pointing at the Morris house. I follow his finger—the living room light is on. Mr. and Mrs. Morris are standing behind the shredded window screen. Jill and Bradley are behind them. Mr. Morris is holding a bat. A real one, for actual baseball. He shouts: “Hey!”
Calc whispers, “What should we do?”
I start the cart and step on the pedal. As we pull away, I punch Calc in the arm, and from the passenger seat, he aims the PVC at the house.
Mr. Morris walks out the front door, bat raised, but hesitant, like he’s wondering if the thing on Calc’s shoulder fires grenades.
Calc says, “Wait, you guys.” But it’s too late—there’s fire in the corner of my eye. Salamander’s holding a lighter to the launcher’s back end. Calc shouts, “Onion in the hole!” Smoke bursts out the back, onion explodes out the front, and there’s a smack against the brick behind Mr. Morris. Onion paste everywhere.
We drop down a small hill and careen down the hole-seven fairway. A wine bottle falls from my lap onto the grass. “Again, again!” I say, even though we’re out of range. Mumbling to himself, Calc smashes another onion down the tube. Salamander flicks on another flame, draws it up past my ear. Another loud pop.
“Onion’s away!” I shout into the night. Smells of smoke and home cooking.
We dive down another steep slope and lose sight of the Morris house. I reach behind me with an open hand in Jam’s direction, hoping she’ll grab it. And she does—she grips my wrist and holds tight. Everyone can see, but it still feels like a secret. With my other hand I steer, and we fall into the endless dark, up and down perfectly-mowed hills of wet grass. The moving air gives me goose bumps. I feel that Jam has them too. I stick my head out, look around. Trees are black broccoli monsters. Navy purple sky. Stars and satellites. My stomach churns pleasantly with each drop from tee to fairway. These parts of the course I hardly ever see.
I ask who wants wine. When no one answers, I slow the cart to coasting speed, let go of Jam’s hand, smash a bottle top against the dashboard, and pour into my mouth from a few inches up. With Dad I used to catch snowflakes on my tongue like this. I hand the bottle to Jam. “It’s gross!” I say. “Drink some!” She takes it from me as I speed off again, and I watch her in the rearview as she raises the bottle, trying to catch the velvet stream in her mouth. She spills wine all over herself and the back seat. The cart bounces, and the broken bottle comes down onto her face. She calls out in pain and grabs her mouth.
I laugh to show I’m having a good time. Which I am, I think.
Salamander smashes the top off another bottle. We pass the wine around, guzzling and spilling as I drive. Already my head is tingling. My whole body is tingling.
Jam says, “Let’s see if the cats are out.”
Yellow house lights pierce the darkness like planets. We might as well be in outer space.
Calc fires onions across the grass for the groundskeepers to find in the morning.
We leave broken glass and onion skins in our wake.
Salamander’s hand is on my shoulder, but I’m still looking in the rearview at Jam, her sharp nose pointing down, her watery eyes laser-focused on something in her mind.
I park us at the first-hold pond.
“That was awesome,” I say. Red wine drips down our chins. We’re vampires.
“I’m gonna throw up,” Calc says.
“Me too,” Salamander says.
Jam and I pat the boys on the back as they spill their guts into the pond. I grab a bottle and drink. I feel woozy, but no way I’m chucking my guts.
“Let’s push it into the pond,” I say.
Calc and Salamander, on their hands and knees, look sideways at me. A long spit rope dangles from Salamander’s mouth, twinkles in the moonlight. Jam doesn’t say anything. “Come on,” I say, standing. I plug my hands under Jam’s armpits, pull her up. We each grab a corner of the cart, and we push until it’s got momentum to carry into the water.
A small, unspectacular splash. The pond’s only a couple feet deep, turns out.
I take my shoes off and sit on the edge, and Jam does the same, our feet in the water. My leg an inch from hers. I sense this is a profound moment—at the pond in the middle of the night, our too-young brains drenched in alcohol. A moment I’ll remember when I’m old and have my own giant house and job and rotten kids.
I try a wink—I know she sees it—and I wait for the dark glint of her eye to vanish, reappear. When it doesn’t, I reach under her shirt and tickle her stomach, and she laughs and does the same to me. We keep this up until we’re both lying on the ground with our faces millimeters apart, laughing so hard we can’t breathe. Her breath is wine-y and hot. Her cut lip’s wet with smudged blood.
And she kisses my cheek.
I punch her hard in the chest.
“Ow,” she says. She sits upright, so I do, too.
I look at the boys, see if they saw. But they’re on their hands and knees, hovering over their piles of vomit.
Now it’s quiet. We glare at the pond some more. The golf cart wreckage juts from the water like a dopey iceberg.
“Too bad the pond’s not deeper,” I say.
“Yeah,” Jam says. She’s pressing her hands against her sternum, where I hit her. I think about saying something, or tickling some more, or hugging. But thinking’s all I do.
We stumble home. Late enough that nobody’s awake to smell our breath, or ask us questions.
I wake up with a knife-in-my-head feeling.
Darcy makes coffee for herself every morning, so I ask if she’ll make me some too. She says I’m too young for coffee.
I invite Calc and Jam and Salamander over, but Calc’s in his French lesson, Salamander’s family is packing for a trip to their Cape Cod house, and Jam’s “got stuff.”
No big deal, I think. Except the next day when I ring Calc’s doorbell, his mom tells me he’s grounded. And no one answers my knock at Jam’s. And the next day it’s more of the same. And the next.
A week passes with no Black Ice meetings. It’s another lazy Saturday morning. I plop down in front of the TV and play video games and guzzle as much lemon-lime soda as I want, because that’s how we roll at Misty’s parentless abode. I hear Darcy get in the shower.
Then someone pounds on the door. Too loud to be anyone I know.
I pause the game and go to the door and open it. It’s Bradley and his dad Mr. Morris. Mr. Morris has his hand on Bradley’s shoulder. Bradley’s eyes are puffy. He’s been crying.
“What?” I say.
We sit at my dining table. Like a big happy family at Thanksgiving. Only instead of turkey and relish there’s a few glasses of store-bought lemonade poured by Darcy, still in her robe, hair in a towel. We’ve got a long, wooden dining table, like the kind you see in castles. Usually it’s gathering dust.
Mr. Morris looks at Darcy, tells her about the cart, Bradley’s leg, Jill’s face. The onions. “A friend of Harriet’s,” Mr. Morris says like I’m not even there, “told me she was the one who broke into our home last week. Destroyed a window screen. Stole wine and my brand new golf cart. Drove it off, ended up in a pond. Leather’s completely ruined.”
Darcy’s eyes get all astonished.
Bradley hangs his head over the table, pressing his thumbs into the wood. He mumbles, “And she chased me with a hatchet.”
When Mr. Morris is done, he says: “Rhonda convinced me not to press charges. But I asked Kenneth to pay for the cart. Says he’s good for it.”
“Wait a sec,” Darcy says. “Why’s Harriet’s dad footing the bill? The tall one, what’s her real name. They call her Jam. She’s like the ringleader. What she does, the rest of them do.”
“Not true,” Bradley and I say at the same time.
Mr. Morris waves his hands. “Kenneth already agreed.” He points a finger at Darcy and tucks his chin into his flabby red neck, “You keep an eye on her. Make sure she knows the difference between kid games and stealing people’s property.”
By “her,” I guess he means me.
“Nabbed some good wines, too. Ones I’d been saving. From France.”
Bradley snorts and shakes his head.
Mr. Morris turns his serious old-man eyes at me. And I stare right back.
“Harriet,” he says. He breathes out his nose.
I sit there.
Darcy says, “Maybe we should wait until Kenneth comes home to finish this.”
Mr. Morris ignores her.
“I want you to know that you could—if I was a different sort of person—you could be charged with assault with a deadly weapon. Forcible entry into a residence. Armed robbery. Theft of property.”
“I’m eleven,” I said.
Who would do this? Who would rat me out to the enemy like this? I stare at Mr. Morris and don’t look away, even as a stupid tear squeezes out of my stupid eye.
Mr. Morris coughs and stands up. His eyes are dark and heavy. “No one likes a bully,” he says.
So much for Never betray the trust of Black Ice.
Bradley and Mr. Morris leave.
Darcy shakes her towel-topped head at me, like she can’t think of what to say.
When Dad comes home a few days later he goes through the fatherly motions of a stern talking-to, but I don’t believe a word of it, and I know he doesn’t either.
Weeks later, in the fall, their faces are younger-looking than I remember. Huge dumb eyeballs. Fresh out of the candy wrapper.
Every afternoon, when the first few approach the bridge, I let them pass. I reward the early birds. I like to see the infighting, the race between them to be first. I don’t remember the Bridge Kids ever being so clever.
Salamander’s got a big red bat he uses to smash their knees. It’s plastic so it doesn’t hurt. Just scares them. He’s got that, and I’ve got my green rake. When I have Circus Peanuts on hand I flick Circus Peanuts at their little faces.
Without Calc we’re a little less sophisticated.
I collect their Fruit Roll-Ups, Gushers, Warheads, anything vintage. I don’t ask for lunch money anymore, because their parents really don’t like that. A mom stormed down here last week. We saw her just in time to escape. These parents are more obsessed with lunch money than with their kids’ knees getting smashed, which if you think about it makes no sense because everyone’s got million-dollar houses. I told Darcy this and she said actually it makes perfect sense.
One day I’m at Mr. and Mrs. Brinkley’s petting Wrench the tiger, who’s growing every day.
Mr. and Mrs. Brinkley are drinking champagne.
“What’s the celebration?” I ask.
“No celebration,” Mrs. Brinkley says, rocking in her new rocking chair. “Haddock?” She offers a plate covered with little strips of fish and crackers.
“No thanks,” I say.
I switch to pet Hammer the lion.
When Salamander shows, he stands several feet away. He doesn’t like the cats.
He’s the only one I keep up with these days. He swears he doesn’t know who called Mr. Morris. I don’t know if I believe him, but his desperation’s adorable. Plus, let’s face it, it’s not like I’ve got a variety pack of friends these days.
So I’m the new master. Master Misty. Sounds good.
I’m thinking I’ll enlist in the Armed Forces when I grow up. Or maybe CIA, where I’ll go dark for months, hide in the shadows.
Tonight I’m going to sneak into the Brinkley pool by myself. The sky’s prettier in solitude, anyway.
I watch Mrs. Brinkley rock back and forth in her chair. She guzzles her champagne. She grabs Mr. Brinkley’s hand and they rock like that together, in unison, eyes closed to the sky. They’re looking awfully pleased with themselves, like they know something I don’t.
Then Hammer bends his little head back to meet my hand. I rub behind his ears. He closes his eyes and opens his mouth in a sleepy yawn, shows me those teeth—yellow-white daggers just big enough to frighten me.