THE SHORT PART
That’s the way things come clear. All of a sudden.
And then you realize how obvious they’ve been all along.
— MADELEINE L’ENGLE , The Arm of the Starfish
NINE YEARS EARLIER
Three-hundred-year-old oaks were good for two things: hiding from playground fights and kingdom-watching. Billie McCaffrey climbed skyward and settled into a sprawling fork to observe her classmates. Over by the four square concrete slab, Janie Lee Miller sat cross-legged with her nose in a library copy of A Wrinkle in Time. Across the field, Woods Carrington was campaigning for a kickball game. Just below, two third-grade boys, Mash and Fifty, fought over a fourth-grade girl in blue bows and light-pink sunglasses. Other boys swung from the monkey bars while a herd of girls huddled, giggling and happy, around the adults. Their teacher, the center of the girls’ commotion, was dressed in a plain denim jumper and wore a bouquet of smiles. She produced from an ugly black handbag her newly awarded Corn Dolly. “Ooooh,” said the little girls. “Ahhhh,” said other teachers, who asked if they could hold the doll. They treated that decorated corn husk like Billie’s daddy treated a Bible.
Billie oooohed and ahhhhed like everyone else, her voice barely above a whisper. No one even glanced up.
Before the end of that school year, Billie had learned from her daddy that if she wanted friends, she couldn’t stay in tree forks. So she stopped climbing up, up and away, and befriended every boy in her grade by either brute force or voodoo charm. Woods, Billie’s new best friend, claimed it was her kickball skills. By God, that girl could kick a ball farther into Mr. Vilmer’s cornfield than anyone in the class. Even the most competitive boys loved her for it. The girls were a different story. They didn’t quite know what to do with her. And Billie didn’t know what to do with them.
Late summer brought water-gun fights, fishing at the quarry, and biking to and from the dam to skip rocks along the mirrored surface of Kentucky Lake. All this good fortune sparked a happy question from Woods.
“Hey, B, will you come to mine and Janie Lee’s wedding tomorrow?”
Billie chomped on an apple they’d smuggled from Tawny Jacobs’s orchard. Juice ringed her lips. “Do I have to wear a dress? ”
“Nah,” Woods said. “You’re my best man.”
After passing the last bite to Woods and wiping her mouth with her shirtsleeve, she considered his request. Seemed fair. Seemed important. “Sounds good to me,” she said, even though it sounded worse than awful.
“Promise? ” He looked concerned that she might go back to her tree-climbing, avoiding-everyone ways.
She made the mistake of spit shaking. That night she asked her dad, “Will I go to hell if I break a promise? ” He’d assured her that hell did not work that way. But she didn’t know which way hell worked yet, so she tore up all the notes she’d written asking Woods not to marry Janie Lee.
The next day, Woods Carrington stood behind one of those sprawling playground oaks and wed Janie Lee Miller with a grape Ring Pop and a peck on the lips.
Billie wore her cleanest jeans and stood by Woods’s side.
She looked up to her old perch and thought this friend thing was very hard.
HEXAGONS ARE TRIANGLES
First say to yourself what you would be;
and then do what you have to do.
I’m waffling on my tombstone inscription today. Elizabeth McCaffrey, born 1999—d. ? R.I.P.: She found trouble. Or. Elizabeth McCaffrey, born 1999—d. ? IN LOVING MEMORY: Trouble found her.
“This is a bad idea,” Janie Lee tells me. Which is her way of saying we’re going to get caught.
“We will not be contained by a grubby youth room and pointless rules,” I reply.
Janie Lee peers down the hallway. There’s no sign of my dad, but her expression indicates she’s voting for retreat. The dingy carpet beneath her feet is patterned with repeating arrows that all point the way back to our assigned sleeping room.
I tickle-poke her in the ribs. She giggles and leans into the tickle instead of away. “I’ll protect you,” I tell her.
That’s enough prompting for her to skitter down the hall with me—two handsome thieves on a wayward mission.
We stand in front of a door labeled Youth Suite 201. It’s 3:12a.m. Janie Lee is wearing a sweet pink sweatshirt, flannel pants, and UGGs, which always make me ugh. I am wearing a camo T-shirt, jeans I stole from Mash last weekend, and combat boots that I found at a local army surplus. Clothes I can sleep in. And, well, clothes I can live in.
Elizabeth McCaffrey, born 1999—d. ? IN LOVING MEMORY: She died in her boots.
I perform the prearranged triple knock.
Davey props open the door, and behind him the rest of our boys offer various greetings. He’s the newest of the gang and we’re all still learning him. There’s an awkward pause while we work out whether we’re supposed to fist-bump or shoulder punch or hug. I up-nod, and that seems to be acceptable enough for him to duplicate.
I turn my attention to the rest of the room. I’ve just noticed that Einstein the Whiteboard is leaning against the mini fridge when something hits me. It’s Woods, tackling me to the decades-old carpet.
“Hello to you, too,” I say from beneath him.
He licks my face like a Saint Bernard and then pretends to do an elaborate wrestling move that I don’t evade. (Even though I could.) Without warning, a two-person dog pile becomes a six-person dog pile. Davey hesitates, then lands near the top. He must be learning us a little. Boys really are such affectionate assholes. I am crushed at the bottom and Janie Lee is half-balanced on top of Davey’s back.
“Love sandwich,” she mouths at me.
It is. It’s not. It’s more. Labeling and limiting something as big as us feels somewhat impossible, but usually we call ourselves the Hexagon. On the account that sixsome sounds kinky and stupid.
“Up! We’re crushing Billie,” Woods says, because he’s always directing traffic.
Fifty farts in Davey’s face in a momentous fashion, and just like that, the jokes begin and the dog pile ends, boys sprawling onto the two couches as if it never happened. I digest the scene as I slouch against the door. Boys. My boys. I’ve been collecting them like baseball cards since third grade.
Woods. He’s not pretty, but he’s stark and golden and green like a cornfield under noon sunlight. Tennis shoes; low-cut, grass-stained socks; ropey calf muscles; blond leg hair; khaki shorts; aqua polo; and an unmatching St. Louis Cardinals hat tamping down floofy blondish-brown curls: he is these things. He is so much more. I know exactly what he’ll look like in thirty years when he’s sitting on our porch drinking peppermint tea.
Davey, elfin and punkish in smeared eyeliner, sits next to his cousin Mash, who looks nothing much like him. Fifty always appears a bit smarmy, and tonight is no exception. His dark hair is oily and he hasn’t shaved in a week. Janie Lee sits slightly apart, cross-legged and petite in a papasan chair. She takes up about as much room as a ghost. Then me. Knees up. Chin up. Happy. Taking their mischief like the gift that it is.
Some lock-ins are for staying up all night and playing shit-tastic games. This one is for parental convenience. The youth group is cleaning up Vilmer’s Barn tomorrow—early prep for the upcoming Harvest Festival—and Dad didn’t want to run a shuttle at six a.m. Tyson Vilmer, barn owner, patriarch of Otters Holt, grandfather of Mash and Davey, will be there waiting with his enormous smile and incredible enthusiasm. Despite the fact that we were supposed to be in separate rooms and asleep by two a.m., I am pretty damn excited to help. Two a.m. bedtime was wishful thinking on my father’s part. We are not true hellcats, but the Hexagon is particularly bad at supposed to when we’re all under one roof.
The other four can’t decide who will open the meeting: Woods or me.
I copy Dad’s southern drawl and say, “Let’s start with glads, sads, and sorries and then say a prayer.” They all laugh, except for Davey, who hasn’t been to enough Wednesday night Bible studies to get the joke. I gesture to the writing on Einstein the Whiteboard. “Dudes and Dudette, I predict this lock-in ends poorly.”
Woods will hear nothing of my prophecy. Einstein is among Woods’s favorite things on the planet—a medium-sized board that technically belongs to the youth group but practically belongs to him. Woods developed leadership skills in utero, and he thinks in dry-erase bullet points. Currently, Einstein says: THINGS TO DO WITH A CHURCH MICROWAVE. Five bullets follow, and most of them look like a one-way trip to a stark-raving Brother Scott McCaffrey, my father.
In the bottom corner, someone has drawn a sketch of a Corn Dolly being lifted on high by a stick figure. They’ve labeled the stick figure Billie McCaffrey, which makes me label them all idiots. The joke is so old it has wrinkles.
A Corn Dolly is only a corn husk that has been folded and tucked and tied into the shape of a doll. In the town of Otters Holt, the mayor handpicks this husk on the morning of the Harvest Festival, which is an annual event the town treats like Christmas-meets-the-Resurrection. The dolly is then assembled and bestowed during the middle of the Sadie Hawkins dance to the most deserving woman of the year.
Hence, the joke.
“Ha. Ha. Ha,” I say, slow clapping.
Woods is positive THINGS TO DO WITH A CHURCH MICROWAVE is suitable 3:15 a.m. material. “You say ends badly. I say ends brilliantly,” he says.
Fifty has an opinion on the matter. “The only thing farfetched is Billie actually winning a Corn Dolly.” He laughs at himself. Too hard. We are often forced to forgive this failing since his facial hair allows him a fake ID, which allows us the beer that comes along with that privilege.
I’m eye-rolling. “You asshole.” Just because it’s true doesn’t mean he needs to say it.
Fifty stands up as if to challenge me while Janie Lee buries her face in the nearest pillow and reminds us that teenagers don’t, won’t ever win the Corn Dolly—Gloria Nix, twenty-three, was the youngest.
I wave Fifty forward with both hands, ready to wrestle him down.
“Back to Einstein,” Woods announces before Fifty and I go for a real row. This may have happened a time or two in the past.
“Back to Einstein,” everyone, including Fifty, choruses. The merriment rises to previous levels.
“This microwave thing.” I point to the first bullet point: Cook Pineapple Bob. “I do like it.”
Woods is beaming proudly. “He’s had a good life.”
I agree. Pineapple Bob is, well, a pineapple. Frozen these three years in the youth fridge. Named by yours truly.
“We’ll burn down the youth room,” Davey replies. He doesn’t say it in a distressed way. It’s more of an FYI. Like he’s maybe done something like this before. I’ll light fire to that backstory eventually and smoke out some truth, but right now, it’s all Bob, all the time.
The youth room microwave is from the eighties, black as coal, and built like a tank. No doubt donated by some senior church member who moved to assisted living. Its smell is a mix of baked beans, ramen noodles, and burnt popcorn (with the door closed). So if we properly execute bullet point number three (Melt 50 Starlight Mints), its condition will drastically improve.
Janie Lee laughs nervously, her UGGs bouncing against the wicker of the papasan. She’s sipping hard on some vodka–wine cooler concoction Fifty has made. I give her a little fist-bump love for showing initiative. On both the rebellious drinking and the microwave. She doesn’t offer me a drink. I don’t need alcohol; I get drunk on schemes.
The first three steps are disappointing. Pineapple Bob pops pretty loudly, as does the handful of Monopoly houses and hotels we’ve stolen from the game closet. The Starlight Mints have to be scraped off the microwave walls. It’s more eventful when Mash pukes up wine cooler on a half-eaten bag of Twizzlers.
“Come on, man,” Fifty says. “I wasn’t done with those.”
“You okay?” Janie Lee comforts Mash, which is pointless. Every group has a hurler: he is our hurler. He is used to puking. She is used to babying him. They are a very good team.
“Shhhhh with the upchucking,” Woods orders.
Woods and I turn our attention to step four, which is seeing How Many Peeps Is Too Many Peeps? The answer: more than forty. It’s messy and delightful.
Woods and I clean, reload, and move on to bullet five. Fifty moves on to more vodka. Typical. Step five involves boiling a used sock—Woods’s, because he has the worst-smelling feet—in Dad’s newly purchased World’s Best Preacher mug. Two minutes in, we’ve got gym smell and no action. It’s a little anticlimactic to be bullet five.
As we watch the mug-and-sock do its nothing, Woods says, “In basically three hours we have to be in the barn.”
Fifty lifts his head from a plank position on the floor and says, “In three hours, we could be walking Vilmer’s Beam.” This makes Mash throw a blanket over his own head. Everyone is tired of hearing Fifty bellow about walking the loft beam in Vilmer’s Barn. It was a dumb dare in fifth grade. We’re seniors. We’re over it.
I say, “I hate mornin—” and the sock catches on fire.
“Heck, yeah!” Mash says, too loud, and then laughs.
Janie Lee says, “The other room!” Because there is a group of our fellow youth snoozing in Youth Suite 202.
The fire is small—barely more than a magnifying-glass-on-grass sort of spark—and entirely worth the four steps that came before it.
“Hot cup of sock, good sir?” I ask in a British accent.
“Don’t mind if I do,” Woods says, reaching for the microwave door.
Davey sits bolt upright. “Do not—!”
The moment Woods opens the door, the small fire becomes a larger one. The mug rockets out of the microwave and explodes on the carpet. The fire—well, most of the fire— lands on a fuzzy blanket. The flames poof. Woods snatches the other sock—the one whose mate is now ablaze—and beats at the fire. He only fans the flames.
We are all screaming. There is more fire. More sparks. Both shoot out of the microwave; the antique appliance dismounts the counter and lands on the carpet with an explosive bang.
I imagine my father sitting up down the hall, scratching his head, lifting his nose toward the ceiling, sniffing. A yell gathers in his throat.
“Give me something to beat it out!” I shout, and Mash laughs so hard that he vomits again.
“Puke on the fire, man,” Fifty says.
Davey shucks his jacket; Janie runs into the bathroom and returns with a damp towel. The jacket is working but not fast enough. Janie Lee throws the towel over the whole mess in a big Ta-da-I-will-fix-this fashion.
The fire is suddenly enormous.
“Was that the towel off the floor?” demands Woods as Davey rolls his eyes and says, “I’m calling 911.”
Janie Lee shrinks from Woods’s tone, nodding furiously. There’s commotion in the hallway. The counter, where the microwave previously sat, is also on fire. The alarm begins a high-pitched wail and the sprinklers descend from the ceiling as if they are Jesus in the second coming. We are all getting soaked as Woods yells, “We used that towel to mop up vodka!”
It’s hard to tell what is fire and what is smoke and what is microwave, but incredibly, I see the toe of the sock that started it all. Dad is going to kill me.
“Time to peace out,” Davey says, gesturing toward the exit.
The fire alarm continues to pierce our eardrums. Woods throws open the door to the hallway. “Abandon ship!” he shouts gallantly. Always directing traffic. He’s glistening with sweat. We all are, but he’s glorying in it.
Mash throws last week’s bulletin onto the fire before heading to the hallway. Fifty gives the wall a pound and yells, “Wakey, wakey. Church’s on fire.” Davey issues me a long look. He’s got some I told you so in those eyes. I’ve got some I know, I know in mine.
I grab Janie Lee in her sweet pink sweatshirt and UGGs and drag her behind me into the hall. She’s as soaked as the rest of us and not wearing a bra, and that’s gonna be a problem when we hit cool autumn air.
I think: I didn’t mean for all this to happen. I also think: I effing love Einstein the Whiteboard adventures. I have a moment of true fear when Woods plunges back inside the youth room. Before I even have time to process this, he reappears, coughing, and says, “Help me, Billie.” He darts into the smoky room again.
In I go to rescue Woods, who wants to save his precious whiteboard. Einstein is too near the fire. The edge is already melted, and I assume too hot to touch. “I’ll get you another one,” I promise him.
Not what he wants to hear. I drag Woods away and shove him toward the back stairs.
Around us, kids are evacuating. They’re carrying phones and sleeping bags and pillow pets. Two sixth graders are getting on the elevators while Fifty screams at them, “Take the stairs! Didn’t you learn anything in kindergarten?” A very familiar form is swimming upstream against the evacuees: Brother Scott McCaffrey. My tired and scared and angry father frantically counts everyone he sees. He flings opens doors, yells, moves to the next room. Precise words are impossible to hear over the fire alarm. But as I watch him check Youth Suite 201, I see he’s putting two and two together.
Likely conclusion: where there’s smoke, there’s Billie.
Janie Lee and I quick-walk toward the exit. She pulls me against her and says right in my ear, so I hear it over the noise, “Billie, I think maybe I’m in love with Woods!”
“Jesus,” I say, and hope it counts as a multipurpose prayer.