In fourth grade, Jill stole five matchbooks from her father’s auto shop, one for each of us. That meant friendship. She said: We all have one. We’re all equals.
Then there was that first time, some weeks later, when Jill fell on her ass cartwheeling by the Dalton’s house, in the empty lot where we terrorized insects, picking them out of their spittle nests, imprisoning katydids in jars, smashing yellow jackets against fenceposts with our shoes. When we laughed at Jill’s flop, she looked up from the weeds, peculiar, intimate, freckle-faced, clear-eyed, and said, Now you, and we knew what she meant, and then we each cartwheeled, those of us who could and also those of us who couldn’t, and we all flopped as hard as she had, rote, dutiful, as if this task were handed down from before we were born. Our parents didn’t question it then, the identical grass stains on our shorts.
The matchbooks we only used once and afterward kept in jewelry boxes or little wooden cabinets or bedside drawers along with tubes of lip gloss, mix CDs, stolen cigarettes, jewel-colored condoms we kept as jokes, river rocks and keyrings and shot glasses from the grubby, littered places our families vacationed. The matchbooks shined there, little lighthouses blinking. In fifth grade, when Jill lost the key to her rec center locker, we tossed ours into a storm drain on St. Andrews Street. When a hurricane felled her old treehouse, we wrenched up our porch steps with hammers, took crowbars and pliers to our gates and fences. True, we didn’t equally acquire or lose our admirers and crushes, but in the summer before high school, when Jill’s boyfriend gave her an Indian burn, we demanded the same of ours, and if we didn’t have a boyfriend (only one of us, besides Jill, had a boyfriend), we administered the burns to each other.
Our parents, by then, had noticed and become worried about the synchronicity of scabbed elbows and sliced fingers and flowering bruises, the green stain of cheap mall rings on every index finger, the pearly pink bubbling of hogweed blisters on every foot. They thought Jill was doing this to us. They thought she was a tyrant. That’s the word my own mother used: That girl is a tyrant. But we didn’t feel that way. We knew they didn’t see. They weren’t there when we gathered in the woods behind the old shoe factory and brought things to burn, girly things, childhood things, school photos of bullies, stuffed bunnies, ticket stubs for kids’ movies we no longer loved, pages of fanfiction, the brown husks of summer cicadas. Nobody said it was a magic fire, but in our blood and skin and in the heat of our mouths we felt it to be so. Jill held out her hands, small hands, softer than any of ours but precisely scarred, and we could feel that we were not five girls but one girl of fiveness.
It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t like what happened in the next county over, when that high school boy convinced those two dumber boys to break into that house and tie up that woman with her own pantyhose. No, it wasn’t like that. We weren’t breaking into houses, and we weren’t dumb or easily persuaded. We were friends, and that was that. The woods agreed. The shoe factory agreed, the broken glass of its dark windows winking. We winked back.
Jen Julian’s recent work has appeared or is upcoming in Third Coast Magazine, Bourbon Penn, wigleaf, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among other places. Her first short story collection, Earthly Delights and Other Apocalypses, was awarded Press 53’s Short Fiction Prize and was released in 2018. Currently, she lives in the North Georgia mountains with her enormous ginger cat and teaches creative writing at Young Harris College.