There is a war going on next door. My brother and I don't speak of it, though the war involves two children -- a boy who is older and a girl of approximately my same age. My brother has a sandbox in which he appears to be re-enacting the war sometimes -- he moves his little tanks around making brrrr and phhhht-phhhhht-phhhhht sounds while our dog, Molly, barks at the fence.
We know it is a real war because there are weapons. The girl shows me hers -- a very funny-looking, long-necked bottle she got from somewhere, long enough to be swung like a bat and assumedly, to break. "Because if he doesn't stop what he's doing," she says to me, "I'm going to crack his skull."
It is the tenuous, muggy silences that indicate a war more than any noises we hear -- they indicate espionage, or strategizing. She has a playhouse in the back yard, a corrugated metal shed, with one little curtained window, and we hear him knocking sometimes, saying, "Let me in," and when she doesn't, pushing the door open. We hear the scraping of whatever she has put behind the door and then the muffled voices and then the long, muggy silence. I always listen for the breaking of glass now, now that I've seen the weapon. I can't think of what he might be doing to make her that mad. When I see him come out alone I wonder if she is dead. I tell my mom I think she is dead and Mom says, "Children didn't have such thoughts before TV, believe me."
Once, the girl invited me in. Everything in her play shed was dollhouse small, except for a round table with two chairs and some pillows on the floor. She asked me what my favorite color was and I said pink then she said that's what every girl picked and couldn't I choose something else and then she stared me down until I said red. She said, "That's better," and sat down like she was tired. We pretended to drink tea but there was nothing in the little cups and no running water and it was hot and I was sweaty and thirsty. She told me a secret to keep me there -- that a girl down the street puts barrettes up her butt. She said she would never do something so gross and would I? and I said "No!" and she said "You can go now if you want." Then I left and she never asked me back.
I wanted to tell her about the ocean because I was sure she'd never been there and I lived there until just before. I was sure she knew nothing about waves, how kids get sucked under and pulled out by the undertow, and you don't know until you've been there how scary it feels when it could happen to you, when the surf grabs your ankles like soft hands.
Some days when he goes in there I can hardly stand it, the suspense. I wonder if she will kill him. I suppose I wouldn't have had such thoughts before TV but I really don't know, because everyone has always had a TV that I know of. On many of these days the air is so damp clothes hang on the line like limp bodies and never get dry even though the sun is shining. The sun itself makes the roads look sweaty, and the air. My brother explodes into shooting noises to break whatever silence is there. He's too young to care about the girl next door.
One day, when her brother leaves, I think I hear crying, the thin noise of waves that might be sobbing or might be imagination, like something in a conch shell. Then, I pick up my brother's plastic soldiers and shoot at him, really loud, and he looks glad to have something to fight with for a change. I think maybe I just heard crickets, or running water, or someone laughing in a sprinkler, and I'm not sure at all.
We don't watch much TV in the summer, but I dream about TV shows. I dream about being famous on TV and rich and powerful and getting to choose any husband I want. My mom says to me when I tell her this, "I hope you do have a choice but you might have to take what you can get, a girl your size."
The barrette girl is fat and so am I. When I see her walking by with her greasy hair I wonder if it is greasy from the butt-grease of her barrettes or just because she doesn't care. She is fatter than me -- nobody was in my last school so I hope she's in my class this year. Without even knowing her, I know she has no friends. But then I witness her in a strange transaction, and I think maybe I am wrong. One day, she knocks on the playhouse and the girl next door lets her in. The mumbled silence sets in for a long hour, and then the fat girl emerges, and rumbles home. The girl next door comes out seconds later, walks over to the fence and says to me, "Meet me in the alley in fifteen." She says it like a spy or a criminal. My heart begins to race. When I get to the spot where the violets and rhubarb grow wild, she is not there. There is a mosquito buzzing around my hair and I focus on slapping at it until she arrives.
"I have a present for you," she says majestically. "But you have to do me a favor and keep it a secret and then I'll be your friend."
I have no choice but to say yes and to promise, because I am now very far from the ocean, and shells, and my friends. Then she pulls it out of her pocket -- a red plastic barrette. I am sure that I know where it's been. But when she says, "Put it in your hair and wear it," I just grin and grab it in my sweaty palm.
Once I put in on she looks at me approvingly and says, "C'mere then."
She leads me behind her garage where some tall weeds grow, then pulls the weeds back and her special bottle is sitting right there. I did not notice before that it is of a particular red blown glass, and the neck is long and slender and curved like that of an ibis. It resembles a bird hiding in the grass -- hiding from, or looking for, prey.
"You are my best friend now," she says. "As of today. So your job now is to kill him."
I hear the car door slam: my dad getting home from work. I want to run to him. But in childhood you can only run once, and your chances are gone. I hear another someone gunning an engine down the block. It is the kind of thing older brothers do in this town -- driving fast down quiet blocks because they are bored and it takes forever to get dark. I think how girls are supposed to like things in miniature like little tea sets, and how I knew a girl who broke china doll heads once, because she thought it was fun, then glued their pinched red cheeks back on. I feel the bird of my heart turning dark like a crow. I know I will say yes to her, and then I will go home and want to hide under a stone, to be anchored. I have a seasick feeling in my bones.
"Tomorrow is the longest day of the year," my mother told me. On the longest day, there is more time for things to go wrong. On the longest day, the silence always wins at some point, pulls you away and out to sea.
"If you don't do it," the girl says to me. "I'll tell them where your barrettes come from, and where you come from, that you're from some stupid town somewhere."
"But if you do do it," she says. "I'll show you where we can lie down in the graveyard and watch the stars at night and the bugs don't bite your legs very much and it's so dark nobody will find us. Then I'll tell you the secret of what he did when he is completely and totally gone and dead.
"After that, if you want, I'll show you how to wear your hair here and you can take off that barrette, because it looks a lot like blood."