Something to Live For

Kim Weldin

It’s the late nineties but we’re listening to music from the late seventies. Snarls from Joan Jett and Cherie Currie seep through the speakers of Sally’s 1970s Plymouth Duster. They’re singing something about justice. We can relate. Like we don’t discern any in our own lower-middle-class teenage lives. We’re restless and agitated. We can’t wait to break out of here. 

I clutch my wig tightly with my left hand, ash my cigarette out the passenger side window with my right. My wig is cut in a French Bob. It’s bright magenta and looks like someone soaked it in a bucket of pink Lisa Frank puke. When I wear it I call myself Natasha and demand my friends do the same. I attempt a Russian accent and try to blow smoke rings. I bought the wig from a store down in Savannah that sells true crime books and vinyl and does body piercings in a questionably sterile back room. I wanted to dye my hair black but Dad said no, so I saved up my babysitting money and bought the wig instead. I feel different when I put it on. Like I belong in a movie. Like I’m better than this place. 

There’s nothing to do in Beaufort. We’re bored all the time so we have to get really creative to find fun things to do. Weed helps. Like that time Sean and Mikey got high and started stealing baby Jesuses. One night they’d showed up at the fire pit behind Amber’s house waving a baby Jesus in the air like a trophy. All night they passed the baby back and forth while we sat around the fire and watched them make it pretend to smoke a joint and say things like, Yo quiero Taco Bell. I thought that was cool as hell. So, one night after me and my girlfriends smoked pot from a plastic Cheerwine bottle bong, I said: Let’s go steal a baby Jesus! I convinced Sally to drive around our neighborhood until we found a nativity scene. It had rained earlier that night and when I tugged the plastic baby Jesus toward me, a sharp sting of electricity pierced my fingers, sending shockwaves up my arms. I dropped it real quick and ran back to Sally’s car. I screamed: GO GO GO! I took the electrocution as a sign—I never touched another baby Jesus.

Tonight we’re picking up Sally’s girlfriend, Brandi, and our friends Amber and Heather. We’re going to see Land’s End Light. 

We saw The Blair Witch Project movie a couple of weekends ago at The Plaza movie theater. The theater used to have one of those animatronic Zoltar Fortune Teller machines inside but I never had enough quarters to buy my fortune. The one time I did have enough the machine wasn’t working. The machine never got repaired, so Zoltar remained frozen, refusing to dispense our fortunes, taunting us teenagers like our dreams of getting out of here weren’t ever gonna come true. The only way out of Beaufort was a ticket to college—good grades were a necessity— but sometimes I felt like the only one of my friends who saw it that way. I existed in a perpetual daydream, mentally consumed with mapping a way out. We liked Blair Witch so much that after we left the theater, we cruised around the streets downtown, slowly, with the headlights off. Something about stalking the quiet streets at night, implanting ourselves in front of historic, haunted-looking mansions and under moody old oak trees felt sinister and dangerous. We got ourselves really spooked. Our pulses pumped hard and fast in our throats and chests and that was fun because we felt alive. 

We know The Blair Witch Project isn’t a true story. Not like the Lands End Light, anyway. Sean and Mikey said they had seen the light before and we believed them. Most of us, anyway. When they told us about it, a weird look washed over both of their faces like they’d seen a ghost. I don’t think you can fake that look. Like, we could tell the people in Blair Witch were acting before the media broke the news. We’d suspected the story was all a ruse to sell movie tickets. We’re teens from a small southern military town—we’ve seen some real shit. It’s hard to get us scared. We get scared for fun. 

I get out of the passenger side of the Duster and Brandi slides down the long slippery seat inserting herself between me and Sally. I’m annoyed Sally picked her up first just because she’s her girlfriend—they’ll make inside jokes and giggle and kiss and I’ll be a third wheel. I wish she’d picked up Amber or Heather first. 

I flip my The Runaways cassette over and “Cherry Bomb” crunches on the car stereo. The thick power chords make me feel tough and mean and sexy all at the same time and I like it, but since this is their biggest hit I act like I like it less than really I do—it’s not cool to like a band’s most famous song. All of us are extremely concerned about being labeled as a poser. It would be a major insult—a kiss of death, a scarlet letter—for a high school kid. We’d prefer to be labeled as punks. Authentic. Against mainstream culture for the masses. I refuse to watch Friends

I loop my hair in a low bun and pull my wig over my head. I pull down the passenger mirror and tuck all my stray auburn hairs in tight so it looks like the magenta wig is my real hair. Brandi eyes me up and down, then looks at my sister.

“She’s Natasha tonight,” Sally explains. 

“Cool,” Brandi says.

Brandi’s hair is chopped short and colored seafoam green and she’s wearing a diamond-studded cat collar from the pet store around her neck. Her alchy mom and boyfriend are going through a breakup, so I guess Brandi can get away with dying her hair because they’re not paying her much attention. Less than usual, anyway. Since she died her hair, other teens have hurled unwanted remarks at Brandi like stones in the halls of our high school like freak and weirdo. Beaufort is a small town full of small-minded people. We don’t care too much about those kinds of comments. Those kids are boring, unoriginal. They’ll probably live in this town forever. We want bigger things—cityscapes, diversity. In middle school, we’d put our fingers on our foreheads like Ls and call them losers behind their backs. Sometimes we’d over-enunciate it like la-hoos-a-her like in Ace Ventura for a laugh. 

Brandi pokes Sally repeatedly in her fleshy, freckly upper arm and makes a pouty face until my sister reveals a wrinkled pack of Camel Lights. I light another cigarette, too, and roll my window back down. 

When we show up at Amber’s house, Heather is already there. We amble toward the backyard and circle the perpetually lit fire pit and pass around a joint—seeing the light will be more fun if we’re stoned. Amber doesn’t think we’re gonna see any light, though. In her mind, the legend is bullshit. She’s the only one in our group who doesn’t believe in ghosts. Sally and I believe, though. One night in our bedroom, tucked in our twin beds with the dusty floral comforters pulled up to our chins, we heard our Nana say something to us. But she wasn’t there, she was far away in a nursing home, lying alone in that hospital bed, like always. We didn’t find out until a few days later that she’d died.

We wait until dark, which is late because it’s summer, and then pile into Sally’s Duster and barrel down Lands End Road. It’s pitch-black under an archway of old oak trees dripping with clusters of Spanish moss. My skin itches imagining the red chiggers crawling in the curly gray pubes dangling above our heads. We drive past the ruins of the Chapel of Ease, where the Fripp Mausoleum remains gutted and gaping like a mouth—a scream pointed toward anyone brave enough to approach it. When we finally see The Hanging Tree, the giant oak that serves as the landmark for witnessing the light, Sally slowly veers her car off the road and parks in front of it. She turns off her headlights and we’re enveloped by a black shroud. 

“Now what?” Heather asks from the backseat, teetering on the edge of nervous laughter. 

“Now we wait,” I direct in a Russian accent. I roll down the passenger window and the tinny, electric buzzing of cicadas enters the car. I light another Camel Light—Natasha is a chain smoker. 

“We wait until we see the light,” Sally reiterates. “Doy.” 

“We have to be patient, be open to… the spirits,” I say in Natasha’s husky voice.

Sally and I are always together. We’re like the leaders of the group. We stick to each other for safety, scan each other’s faces for similarity, for clues to the future. We search for signs that there’s more than this. Sally is gay but Dad doesn’t know. She’s not out yet. Only our closest friends know. Some kids at school started a rumor that we’re lesbian sisters who do weird, gay things to each other and our friends. Let them think that, I think. I like the idea of people being afraid of us, of being mysterious. We are the weirdos, mister.  

In the backseat, Amber pulls out a glass bowl and holds a lighter over it until it glows red. She exhales a big PFFFFFF of smoke and then hands it to Heather. We pass the bowl around and when it comes back to me a second time it’s mostly ash. The weed gives me a warm feeling of pressure like someone is hugging my head. It makes my anger feel pointless and wrong. It’s a direct contrast to the oppressive southern summer heat and humidity sticking to our skin in the thick black night like the unwanted, unrelenting embrace of an older man. Relax. I just really want to be inside you.  

“It smells like farts,” Brandi points out, alluding to the smell of pluff mud wafting into the car from the marsh beyond the trees. 

Our collective, uproarious laughter settles back into a quiet, restless energy.  

“Once there was a Confederate soldier,” I start in a hushed, serious tone, discarding the accent, “who was stationed right around here during the Civil War. Legend has it he was decapitated. Now his headless ghost wanders up and down this road at night, shining his lantern. They say if you see the light, that’s him, searching for… HIS HEAD!”

“Stop!” Heather cry-screams from the backseat. 

“Not scared,” Amber says and exhales another cloud of smoke from the bowl she’d surreptitiously repacked. 

A few times our hearts swell and patter in double time when we see the headlights of another car approaching from the opposite direction. They appear initially as a single yellow beam, but when the light gets closer it splits in two. Our exhales of disappointment are palpable. 

Then: two fat yellow lights approach us from behind. They pull up and park behind Sally’s car, and after a few seconds, there are flickering blue lights. From outside we hear a heavy metal car door slam. Voices from a walkie-talkie grow louder. Three knocks from heavy knuckle bones strike the driver’s side window authoritatively. The sound pulls us out from the slow-motion underwater scene we’re floating in, dragging us back to the surface of reality. My sister cranks her window down. 

“What are you kids doing?” a mustachioed cop asks. He folds at the hip and wedges his head through the window. He darts his eyes around the car, examining us one by one.

“Good evening, sir,” Sally says using the respectful voice reserved for adults that Dad forced into our toolbox of expected social behavior. 

Amber snickers from the backseat at Sally’s use of the word sir. I’m sure the cop can smell the weed radiating off our clothes.

“We’re here to see the Lands End Light,” Sally says. 

“It’s not safe for you girls to be here this late. Do your parents know where you are?” I picture Dad asleep in his old Lazy-Boy chair, shoe squeaks and whistles blaring from a basketball game on the TV. Empty brown bottles on a TV tray next to his chair.  

“Yes sir,” Sally says.

The cop pulls a flashlight from his belt and shines a bright white circle onto our faces. We squint at the light. Our red-rimmed eyes are heavy, hardly open.   

“I need to see some license and registration,” the cop says and threads his flashlight back through a belt loop. We hear him say something muffled into his walkie-talkie and watch as he pulls out a pen and pad as if about to take our order at a diner. My stomach is thinking about the possibility of scattered, smothered, and covered hashbrowns. Sally reaches over our sweat-sticky thighs to retrieve her registration from the glove compartment. 

The high-pitched squeal of tires and a loud bomb-like crash causes all five of us, and the cop, to jerk our heads toward the other side of the road. An eerie silence follows—except for the tinkling sounds of broken glass and gravel settling on the road, and the hiss of thick white smoke from the hood of the car curling up into the night sky. The cop says something louder into his walkie-talkie, then pokes his head back in through the driver-side window.

“You girls go on, get out of here now. Go home.”

My sister says yes sir for a third time, thanks the officer, and cranks the engine on. The unwanted electric squeal of Lita Ford’s guitar solo comes alive on the radio, and I lurch forward instinctively and eject the cassette. Sally flips on a blinker, which click-clacks like an anxious metronome while she performs a three-point turn so poorly that it comes across comically. I try not to laugh in the stiff silence. She maneuvers the car carefully onto the opposite lane and points the Duster in the direction of home. We are momentarily parallel with the crashed car. It’s blowing smoke against the trunk of a thick tree. The charred smell seeps into Sally’s car through the air vents. Her headlights reflect off the sharp silver edges of the car, some kind of white four-door sedan, and illuminate the head of a blonde woman, faceplanted into the soft, white marshmallow of an airbag. I catch a red mist sprayed on the driver’s side window. 

We drive back down the pitch-black road flickering with yellow dashes without talking, without having seen the light. It’s not fair that Sean and Mikey saw it. It feels like we’ve failed another initiation ritual. I pull at the fray on my jean cutoffs, twisting the blue and white cotton strands between my fingers, tossing them on the floor of the car like discarded petals. I don’t want to be Natasha now. I yank off my wig. I want to throw it out the window. The car ride is quiet except for Heather’s random sniffles and the light brush of Sally’s right hand rubbing Brandi’s thighs. 

I stab the silence: “Let’s go to the chapel.” 

“YESSSSSS!” Amber says enthusiastically. 

Sally smiles inquisitively at Brandi. 

Heather is the only one with any hesitation after our close encounter with the cop. “No, you guys,” she complains. “I want to go home.” 

“We can go back to my house,” Amber offers. 

“Boring,” I scoff. 

“Guys,” Heather says, pinching the hairs on her arm and looking out the passenger window. “What if someone died in that accident?” 

“I think they did,” Brandi says. 

“What? No way,” Sally says excitedly. I picture a true crime book she showed me before, black and white photos of real death scenes. 

“I saw blood on the window,”  Brandi says.

“Me too,” says Amber. 

We hold the silence for a few seconds. 

“I SEE DEAD PEOPLE,” I whisper loudly. 

We erupt in anxious laughter. All of us except for Heather, who is still staring out the window, her arms folded across her chest.   

Sally pulls onto the shoulder in front of the Chapel of Ease. Her tires crush the gravel and shell underneath like tiny, brittle bones. We have to pull Heather out of the backseat by her limp, noodly arms. Brandi offers to stay in the car with her but there’s an uneasy, agitated energy inside of me now, and I won’t agree to it. I have ideas. I want witnesses. 

I put my wig back on. 

“Come on, Heather. Don’t be a square,” I draw the shape in the air. 

We enter the open chapel ruins. The pale white moon hangs high above the oak leaves like a spotlight. There isn’t much to see but it’s dark and eerie and that feels like something. I need to feel something or I’ll implode. 

“I dare someone to go in there,” I say, pointing to the mausoleum. “Whoever stays in longest wins.”

“Wins what?” Amber asks, unimpressed.

I shrug my shoulders. 

We walk through the ruins, passing worn white headstones. I’m the first to reach the tomb. The others are lagging behind; their legs are skinny bags of wet sand. 

Brandi is standing next to Heather and rubbing her back. I can guess Heather is going to remind us about her anxiety medication any minute now. Her parents, the only ones in our group who are still married, made her start seeing a shrink and taking antidepressants after they thought she was gay and suicidal. Prozac, I think. 

In the daylight, the mausoleum looks brown like the wet clay we used to build ashtrays in elementary school, but in the moonlight, it glows ghost white. I stick my head into the black rectangle where a door used to be. 

“Who’s going first?” I ask.

“It was your idea,” Amber says. 

“Yeah,” adds Brandi, still rubbing Heather the Martyr’s back. I wonder if Sally is jealous that she’s touching Heather like that. I’ll probably hear about it later.

“Fine,” I say and step in. 

I kick an empty glass bottle of Boones Farms Strawberry Hill with my Converse and it 

rolls across the floor of the tomb and lands next to a plastic Piggly Wiggly bag. I close my eyes—I don’t want to see spiders or other creepy bugs crawling around in the dark. Outside of the tomb, I hear the collective counting of my friends: 1, 2, 3, 4… My heart pumps hard and fast. Then, the wind blows and branches scratch the top of the mausoleum like long fingernails on a chalkboard. I scream and dash out of the tomb. 

Our limbs are flailing and our feet are drumming the dirt as we run frantically towards Sally’s car. Sally can’t get her keys out of her pockets fast enough to unlock the car, so Heather starts whining like a baby which makes Amber and me start cackling maniacally, which makes Brandi even more protective, which makes Sally even more jealous. 

We drive back down the dark road away from the graveyard, gravitating towards some other light we’ve yet to find. I can feel it all in my stomach and my heart, this invisible feeling. It feels like it wants to be found. It won’t just reveal itself, though. It takes work. We have to look for it, to dig it up. We’ll find it—we’ll find all the light in the world once we claw our way out of here. The endless searching gives us something to live for. 

I look at Heather in the backseat. She’s staring blankly, pulling anxiously on thin strands of her honey-blonde hair. I take off my wig and pass it back to her.