Once we were the two of us, Alice and Jane. We inked matching moons onto our knuckles with marker.
When we roved the streets of our town one summer, we ferreted for something into which to burrow our fangs. We wore old sneakers that were too tight. Our bodies at six years old were already shape-shifting into the unreliable shells we’d be trying to cast off for the remainder of our lives. The hard plastic tips of our shoelaces made cracking noises against the pavement that sounded like gunshots.
“Boom,” Alice said.
“Pow,” Jane said.
We wanted to know what it was like to have the weight of a gun in our palms, to have our muscles strain in lifting the gun high, to squint and aim at something that soon wouldn’t exist anymore because we had gotten there first. We settled for the sound instead.
There was a constant echo in our heads from the other people in our lives. Our parents said we were not girly enough because we wore scraped, dirty knees instead of dresses. Our teachers said we were not smart enough because we didn’t keep our voices down and because we drew the sky bright green. Our classmates said we weren’t strong enough because we held onto the monkey bars until our palms began to blister and burn on the metal, but still we slipped off and tumbled down to the ground. All we heard was that we were not enough, and so we gripped that unwelcome white noise with both fists and tore it to scraps, till there was nothing left.
The sun turned our skin into reddened, tough hides. When we kicked rocks into sewer grates, we crouched into the dark below to catch a glimpse of where they landed and shuddered at what it would be like to get trapped down there.
Alice was taller by three inches, but Jane’s legs were longer. At night we thundered into the walkie talkies Alice had gotten for her birthday. In the daylight, we made our voices rebound off the asphalt and back up into the waiting air. We climbed twisted trees and the bark got caught on our palms and we licked off the blood. We had that sharp iron tang in our mouths all summer.
Our two sets of parents shook their heads and asked us what kind of girls we were. They said they couldn’t think for all the howling we cried out in answer.
There was another summer when we looked at the faces of those around us and we saw frowns and wrinkles, eyes turned downwards and skin flimsy and thin like paper.
We were seven and didn’t understand what Alice’s mother meant when she shouted “philanderer” and “narcissist” at Alice’s father across the dinner table, the milk in our cups shaking with her noise. But we understood the rage that transformed her face into something ferocious, her eyes black, her teeth bared.
Later, we would agree that we should spend more time at Jane’s house, just next door, where there was a seemingly endless supply of tater-tots.
In the morning, we were not girls but beasts and we were hunting for something to make us feel significant, to make us feel all-mighty, like the kind of god that Jane’s mother wouldn’t shut up about. Jane’s mother would have spanked her for that kind of thinking, but we didn’t care. Alice barked in the quiet of the dawn and Jane followed close behind. We picked up broken bottles of different shades of clear. The edges were jagged. We held out our fingertips and after we mashed all our red together, our bodies seemed darker, thicker than before.
“There’s a little bit of my wild in you now,” Jane said. She brushed out her black curls until the strands radiated from her skull like bugs sieging a light. Neither of us laughed.
Alice pulled out her ponytail holder and loosened her long light hair around her shoulders. We both felt important. We threw the bottles against empty doorways and ran until our knees trembled.
Earth seeped into the rough flesh on our elbows. Jane’s mother wanted us to wash up before dinner, but we didn’t because we needed to feel in our mouths the crunch of the dirt underneath our fingernails.
Almost every night the next summer, we slept on the floor of Jane’s room. Alice said that she sometimes hated everyone. Jane said that she sometimes thought there was something mean and dark fixed inside her heart.
Alice stared at the ceiling and whispered that she was worried about her parents splitting up. Jane felt for Alice’s hand in the dark and whispered that she was worried about her butt getting bigger and bigger by the second. When we laughed we seemed to make the cracks in the ceiling even larger.
There were jagged cuts and scabs speckled all over us that transformed into constellations if we held our bodies side by side. We knew the same songs, lived in the same places, shared the same breath. The same words wound their way to the points of our tongues.
One summer Jane showed Alice the hair growing under her arms and Alice talked about running away.
We sat in Jane’s bedroom and painted our nails with ink from ballpoint pens. After the ink had only barely dried, we braided each other’s hair, Alice’s long light locks and Jane’s curly blackness, ink melting into hair.
We talked about all the little injustices our parents committed against us.
Alice’s father had not been sleeping at home lately. Alice woke to get ready for school and found the house still. When she creaked open the door to her parents’ bedroom, she found her mother with the covers pulled to her chin, her eyes red and blank, staring at the ceiling. The harsh need in her mother’s eyes made Alice feel like she was burning.
And Jane’s mother, with her stiff, iron-pressed blouses, the top button never unbuttoned; and the way her mouth seemed permanently pursed in a disappearing line; and those post-it notes she pasted all over Jane’s bedroom mirror, bible verses scrawled neatly on each. There were so many post-it notes on the mirror that Jane couldn’t see her body widening, growing dimpled with unexpected lumps and curves, and so was unable to claim herself as her own, which was perhaps the point of those post-its all along.
One night, we sat on Alice’s bed and pierced our ears with cold needles. Our lobes were pale and raw, and we wanted to cry when the needles passed through the skin to the other side, but somehow the sight of our blood, staining the cotton balls pressed to our ears a watery red, stilled our tears. Our parents grounded us once they caught sight of the makeshift paperclip earrings, but we raced out of our houses, the front doors clanging behind us, and met on the street to roam together like always.
We wanted to feel the world gnashed between our teeth. So we caught lightning bugs in our palms. They tickled our flesh with their fluttering wings. Their bodies were harder, weightier than we’d imagined, and when we crunched them into bits of pulpy glow, we struggled to keep our eyes dry. We whispered our thanks for their sacrifices as we painted our faces. We grew frightened of what we saw in one another and then frightened of what we couldn’t see, but we kept our eyes open to the glow anyway.
We raced on Alice’s bike one summer, Jane sitting on the handlebars. The air was thick like a wall around us because of the heat, but we crashed through it anyway, ignoring our stinging faces.
We rested in rusty swings at the park, the chains creaking in unison with our breathing. We’d visited this park with our parents when we were little, but we were eleven now, and neither of us had done that in a long while.
In the woods next to the park, we found small animal bones and cleaned them with our bare hands until they were gleaming. We tried putting them back together to understand what they had once been. We dug a dozen separate holes for each bone and covered them with dust.
We sat in a pile of dead leaves. The sun was an unyielding throb of heat.
We looked at each other, solemn at first, but then gripped each other’s arms and pinched hard, till our nails turned white and we couldn’t stop laughing. The roots of the two of us were seeded deep within our stomachs, an unending well of the wildness that we only found in each other.
We scurried up the half-walls lining the park.
“There’s going to be a full moon tonight,” Jane said.
Alice began to bay.
We tried to push each other off the wall and soon Alice fell, one blue shoe popping off. She tumbled down to the sidewalk below and lay slumped on the ground, eyes gently shut and her face pale, and she only rose up, grinning, when Jane shrieked in panic.
After, we whacked each other’s hands till we could both feel our hearts thudding at our wrists.
Then there was the summer when we chased the boys away because we felt like they were stealing our steps from us. We weren’t yet teenagers, but already they hunted us, and faced with their dogged pursuit, we grew feral. One tried to pull Jane’s hair, but we shoved him away and Alice gave him a wallop that made his ear swell. We laughed when his eyes grew wet and another one spat at our feet and asked us just what kind of girls we were.
“We are the wild kind,” we told them. “We are fierce, we are beasts. Look at these teeth,” we said, pulling our lips down. They saw the blood dripping from our canines. We showed them our claws and made like we were going to slash them. When they ran, we yowled till our voices left our bodies and went with the boys, where they became their own things lost from us for a good long time.
One summer we wanted to be better, to feel different than what we were. We ached for things we couldn’t name and smelled blood in the air.
We locked ourselves in Jane’s bathroom and shaved her legs, the spiky black hairs on her goose-pimpled skin standing upright. Jane’s mother had forbidden her to shave; she said Jane was too young, she’d give people the wrong idea. So we smuggled a two-dollar pink razor out of her mother’s medicine cabinet and soaped up her legs with shaving cream, drawing faces on her skin.
“Like this?” Alice said. She ran the razor over Jane’s knee down to the knot of her ankle in one straight swoop.
Jane nodded. She grabbed the razor from Alice and finished the leg herself.
When Jane was done, we made circles on her smooth skin with our fingers.
We left the other leg as it was and dumped the razor back into the medicine cabinet, shaving cream still crusted around the edges.
One summer we tried on dresses and cried when we saw how much we looked like our mothers.
Then there was the summer when he came along. He nearly tore us in two, but we didn’t even mind, because of his eyes, which Alice thought were the color of a clear, rushing brook, and Jane thought were more like the way the sky looks when it’s overridden with white puffs of clouds. He asked Alice where she had gotten her bike because it was one of the fastest in the neighborhood. After, Jane cried, but Alice’s heart pumped with abandon and a thing a little like triumph. But the next week there was a kickball game in the street and he helped Jane to her feet when she fell flat on her butt after missing the ball completely during her kick. She gushed to Alice that he had held onto her hand a beat too long, had actually squeezed it, and that meant something had happened between the two of them. We were quiet around each other. Once we screamed, but it wasn’t words, only sounds, and our voices were like two separate and fully-formed bodies struggling to consume the other whole. Then we didn’t talk and we did talk and we didn’t and we did and when we did talk, we talked about the way the sunlight had bleached his hair so a few strands in front were blonde. We figured for sure he was the smartest and the kindest and the fastest kid in school. We heard he had a girlfriend in the town next to ours, that she was beautiful and sweet and played the violin. We never saw her, so it probably wasn’t true. But we held each other and we wiped the tears from each other’s faces and we wondered how he could ever love us. We cried in shame together because finally we had heard it, that little whisper that had been there all along, the one that said we were not enough, and at long last, we were beginning to wonder if it just might be true.
Jane had forgotten about him by the next summer, but Alice had not. One day Jane said to her, “You’re acting just like your mom.”
We had stopped speaking about our parents, about our homes, about the places we went when we weren’t together, about the people we were when we were by ourselves. Jane’s mother was like a brick, something you could barely hammer a crack into, no matter how hard you tried. Alice’s mother was something else entirely.
When Alice began to cry, Jane didn’t know what to do and so she laughed. We looked at each other like we never had before. Alice ran away and Jane told her to keep running.
But she came back. We started to push each other again, though not as hard as before.
We held our foreheads together, beads of sweat pooling in the space between us.
As the days wore on, our heels blistered and our shoulders burned. The night seemed to come on faster. Soon, we couldn’t both fit on Alice’s bike at the same time. Jane’s legs were getting too thick and the tire treads were worn and thin.
We ran after birds in the street, but they didn’t fly away. We shouted, but our voices were hoarse.
Then there was the summer when we were the two of us, Alice and Jane, but we were our own at the same time, sitting next to each other but not touching, etching lines in the soil with our toes and snapping rubber bands on our wrists until our skin became splotched with red. The sound of that summer was the song of our bodies dragging themselves away to rest at opposite ends of the same patch of dirt.
That last summer we became who we were without us noticing. Flies swam in the air around us and we swatted them back. Alice collected branches and Jane stole matches from her mother’s dresser drawer. We went to the park where the old rusty swing-set rotted and we made a fire. The flames reached the end of the sky. We gathered paper bags and broken-off bits of cardboard boxes and unraveling shoelaces and threw them in the fire until it puffed in hot bursts, until the flames hissed low, until our faces were scorched and searing, until we couldn’t see anything through the smoke.
Soon, we stood straighter. We kept our nails clean. We brushed our heads with our fingers until our hair lay flat.
When the night came on, we stayed inside our houses.
After that summer, we were on our own, but there were times when I would remember when we’d owned the dark. High school was about to end and we were moving on to other things, but still I remembered it all. I would walk over to my bedroom window and find her lights on, blinking. I knew then that we would use our lights to say the things we couldn’t say.
Our lights left me blinded, but still I clicked the switch on and off, my ears throbbing like they had just been pierced clean through, although the scar from that paperclip earring was faded to nothing now. I remembered when we had felt the grass between our fingers, sharp like knives, and the way the sun thrashed down on our shoulders. I remembered when we had laughed until our ribs felt like they were kindling.
And hey, did you see that one light, waning to black in the melting darkness that was the vacant gap between our two bedrooms, our houses, our new and singular lives? That light was the two of us talking about when we had felt the world clinched between our maws and had shown people the proof of our conquest in our dripping fangs, back in those days when we knew exactly what kind of girls we were.