“Go home. Turn off the lights. And kill yourself.”
Erin Alderman glowered at me, pure hatred in her beautiful honey brown eyes. She was spearheading a group of nine cheerleaders on the other side of a small, rectangular window. But the glass wasn’t the only thing that separated us.
Nine pairs of eyes danced between each other and me in my black apron splattered with chocolate milkshake and fudge sauce. They were enjoying the show, but not one of them looked directly at me.
Erin Masterson, Erin Alderman’s best friend and co-captain of the cheer squad, was holding the banana split Blast I’d just made for her, with vengeance in her eyes. She was as beautifully put together as her best friend, but instead of long, flowing golden hair like her friend, she had long, flowing chestnut hair. “I said with walnuts on top. You have a simple function: put ice cream in a bowl, cup, or cone, and mix ingredients. If you can’t perform a minimum wage job at a Dairy Queen at seventeen years old, how do you expect to operate in your daily adult life? You should give up now, Erin. Die with dignity.”
Erin Masterson wasn’t speaking to her best friend. She was speaking to me, Erin Easter, the third Erin in our senior class. They weren’t always my enemies. In kindergarten and first grade, we tried to spend every waking moment together; our teachers and parents came up with nicknames to eliminate confusion. Erin Alderman was known as Alder. Erin Masterson was Sonny. My name was simple: Easter. The three of us didn’t share only names, we also shared a birthday: September first. They went home with their parents, who were country club members and would eventually be heads of the Free Masons and the PTA, and I went home with my mother, who was barely twenty and had no one to help, not even my father.
Our friendship changed dramatically in fifth grade when, for reasons I’m still not sure of, I became the Erin’s favorite target. Now in our senior year of high school, I mostly tried to avoid them, but they loved to visit me at the Dairy Queen where I worked on weekends and almost every day after school.
I pulled up the sliding window and poked my hand through. “I’m sorry. Hand it to me and I’ll remake it.”
Frankie bumped me to the side with her hip, yanked the cup out of Sonny’s hand, scooped out the large chunk of brown ice cream with peanut chunks, and tossed it in the trash. She spooned in a half dozen walnuts, and handed it back. “I’m not wasting an entire cup of ice cream because your mama didn’t teach you how to deal with disappointment. Get the hell on,” she said, jerking her head to the side.
“I’ll let my mama know how you feel about her parenting, Frances.” Sonny spat out the words, making sure to call Frankie by her given name, the name she loathed. “I’m sure your litter makes you an expert.”
Frankie grinned politely. “That term is for dogs, Masterson. No one but your mother calls their kids that.”
The Erins glared at Frankie, and then all ten girls walked away as one unit.
“Sorry,” I said, watching the cheerleaders happily jog across the street, energized from their confrontation.
Frankie frowned and perched her hand on the curve of her hip. “Why are you apologizing? I’ve told you a hundred times, but I’ll tell you again. Stop taking crap from those harpies. It only makes them worse. Ignoring does not work with bullies like that. Believe me, I know.”
“Only three months left, though,” I said, washing the sticky milk and sugar from my hands.
Frankie sighed and looked at the ceiling with a sigh. “I remember graduation. One of the best nights of my life. All of that freedom, just waiting to be experienced. It was all ahead of me—summer, college, turning twenty-one.” The dreamy look in her eyes faded, and she cleaned the counter. “One night with Shane was all it took to make it disappear. Seven years later, I’m at the same job I had in high school.” She shook her head and laughed once, scrubbing a stubborn piece of dried chocolate off the counter. “I wouldn’t trade my babies for the world, though.”
One corner of my mouth turned up as I watched Frankie mull over the decisions that kept her at the Dairy Queen. She counted herself lucky to have a job. The oil company had moved, and all the decent paying jobs left with it, so a paycheck from the Dairy Queen was as good as anything in our struggling town.
The phone rang, and Frankie answered it. “No, Keaton, you can’t eat the peanut butter out of the jar. Because I said. If you’re starving, then eat a banana. Then you’re not starving! I said no, and that’s that. Put Nana on the phone. Hi, Mama. Okay. Same as always. How about you? Good. No, Kendra has dance at six. Kyle has T-ball at seven.” She smiled. “All right. Love you, too. Bye.”
She hung up and turned to me, mirroring the strange look on my face.
“Did you lose one?” I asked.
Frankie chuckled. “No. The baby’s asleep, thank the lord.”
She wiped the counters again, and I cleaned up the mess from making Sonny’s banana split Blast. Our Dairy Queen was housed in one of the smallest and oldest buildings in Blackwell, a tiny speck on the Oklahoma map. The owners, Cecil and Patty, were more than happy to let out-of-towners stop to take pictures of their unique fifties-style building. Patrons could order from one of the two sliding windows in the front, or the drive-thru on the south side. There was barely room for Frankie and me to move around, and we often bumped into each other when we had a rush of customers after baseball games or during fair week. A lone shaded bench was placed on the side of the building for customers who wanted to stick around to eat their dip cones or hot dogs, but it was usually empty.
“Oh, goody. Practice is over,” Frankie said, watching the various cars and trucks belonging to the baseball team back out of their spots in the gravel lot across the street. Several of them drove into the DQ and parked, a dozen sweaty boys hopped out and walked across the asphalt to my window. Frankie opened hers, and two lines formed.
Weston Gates had to lean down to look at me, his eyes meeting mine through shaggy, brown strands of hair, still wet with perspiration. His dark gray T-shirt read Blackwell Maroons. The maroon lettering crackled from numerous washes during his now fourth year of high school football, basketball, and baseball. His father was a jock at Blackwell high school, too, and his mother and older sister Whitney were both head cheerleaders. Whitney was now in her second year of college at Duke University, going for her law degree, and she rarely came home. I didn’t know her well, but she had beautiful, kind eyes, just like Weston.
“Just whatever, Erin. It’s all good,” he said with a shy smile.
“Did you just say she was good, Wes?” Brady Beck chided. “How would you know? I didn’t know you’ve been slumming it.”
The other guys chuckled and made stupid noises.
Weston’s cheeks were already flushed from practice, making them look like someone had brushed a light red paint brush across them and slapped him … twice. They turned two shades darker. The rosiness of his cheeks against his emerald eyes made them appear even brighter. I’d been trying not to stare at those eyes since grade school, and once Alder had set her sights on him in eighth grade, I tried even harder.
“Ignore them, Erin. They’re assholes.” He choked a bit when he spoke, then he turned to cough into the crook of his elbow.
I made him a simple strawberry dip cone—extra tall, because I knew that was his favorite—took his money, and watched him drop his change in my plastic tip jar.
“Thank you,” he said, taking a big bite off the top as he walked back to his truck.
The other guys weren’t as polite, and most of them didn’t even look me in the eye. I was used to that, though. Growing up with a mom who had seen the inside of a jail cell more than once, the other parents weren’t shy about keeping their children from being corrupted by Gina Easter’s daughter. My mother wasn’t always so messed up though. She was Blackwell’s homecoming queen in 1995. I knew that only because I’d come across the photos. She was beautiful, with her blonde bangs teased to one side and her full, healthy cheeks pushing up her big brown eyes into slits.
Like Frankie, Gina got pregnant young. Unlike Frankie, she let the resentment of trading her dreams for an unplanned baby become so unbearable, she turned to alcohol. And weed. And as the years added disappointments to the growing pile, any drug was good enough if it helped her forget what she could have been. I wouldn’t have minded so much if it did numb her anger, but most nights adding a case of Keystone Light to her rage just made it worse.
Every night when Frankie shut off the lights and said her favorite phrase, I cringed, knowing it was time to go home to Gina.
“Don’t forget I have a senior class meeting tomorrow after school, so I’ll be a little late.”
“I remember,” she said, grabbing her purse and keys. She held open the door for me. “Ride?”
I shook my head. Every night she asked me, and every night I said no, which is why she barely made a question of it. I lived only five blocks behind the DQ anyway, and the first day of spring was right around the corner.
The soles of my shoes crunched the loose gravel next to the curb as I walked along the dark street. Only random areas around town had sidewalks, and the shortest path to my house wasn’t one of them. A few cars drove by, but it was an otherwise quiet Thursday night. No church traffic, no game traffic. Thursdays were my favorite nights to walk home.
I climbed the concrete steps to the porch, and the screen door whined when it opened. I could hear Gina’s music from the other side of the door, and hesitated just long enough to psych myself up for whatever awaited me on the other side. When the door swung open, and I saw that the living room was empty, I hurried to my room and shut the door.
The music was coming from her bedroom, down the hall from mine. I could smell the weed as soon as I walked in, so she was probably smoking and relaxing in her bed, which was always preferable to a drunken rage.
The loose strings of my apron untied easily, and I peeled off the rest of my clothes, throwing them into a full hamper. Most nights I was too tired to do laundry, so it piled up until I hauled it to the Laundromat a few blocks south of the Dairy Queen. Being alone at the Suds & Duds was creepy at night, so I preferred to wait until early Saturday afternoon. Gina was awake then, and it was a good excuse to get out of the house before work.
I slipped on an oversized, faded black T-shirt that read Oakland Raiders. I’d assumed it was my dad’s, but I wasn’t sure. It could have been one of the random items Gina picked up from the secondhand store. But for some reason, I liked to think it was his—whoever he was—and wearing it made the roach-infested termite palace we lived in feel a little more like home.
I sat on the green carpet in my bedroom. It was once something similar to shag, but it had become matted over the years and looked more like the pelt of a very ugly animal. I had a page of Algebra II to finish; then I crept down the hall to the bathroom, washing my face and brushing my teeth to the muffled lyrics of Soul Asylum. Gina was definitely high. “Runaway Train” was her go-to song when she scored a dime bag of weed.
Back in my room, I sat on the edge of my bed and watched my reflection in the mirror atop my dresser. They were from the second hand store, like everything else in our house. The mirror wobbled when anyone walked across my floor, and most of the dresser drawers didn’t open right, but they completed their function, and that’s all I needed. I brushed my dark brown hair away from my face until the brush could pass every strand without catching then smoothed it back into a ponytail.
The aging springs of my bed complained when I crawled under the covers. The ceiling fan bobbed as it turned slowly, lulling me to sleep as whatever song Gina was listening to hummed through the walls. I took a deep breath. The next day would be long. The senior class meeting was mandatory, and I dreaded going. I generally avoided school functions, just to save myself the humiliation suffered at the hands of the other Erins. Middle school taught me that any attempt to socialize was not worth the inevitable teasing and sometimes bullying that ensued. At times, teachers intervened, but mostly they didn’t. The Erins, along with Brady Beck and a few of their friends, relished only one thing more than taunting me—making me cry. That always seemed to be the goal, and the more I resisted, the harder they tried. So for the last four years, I kept to school and work, and myself. I had won a scholarship, and between that and grants, I was getting the hell out of Blackwell, away from the Erins, Brady, and Gina.
I reached over and pulled the lamp string. As much as Sonny genuinely wanted me to, I wouldn’t turn out the light and kill myself. I was going to rest, save my strength for another grueling day. Tomorrow would bring me one day closer to the freedom that Frankie dreamed about.