No question what her favourite flavour was. Black cherry. The Food City store brand. Julietta would always remember that nearly nondescript, primer-grey can with the maroon letters that spelled out BLACK CHERRY SODA, the words set at a forty-five-degree angle.
She only ever drank the stuff in the summertime. She used to steal them out of the refrigerator in the office at the neighbourhood pool. Never stole money from the army green metal box that was always kept right there on the desk, unlatched and filled with crinkled up singles and fives. Never stole the donuts and cupcakes they kept in the refrigerator for the swim team. Never stole the cans of cola (grey can, black letters), root beer (grey can, brown letters) or lemon-lime soda (grey can, electric green letters). Only black cherry. The generic store brand kind. The kind that stained her mouth so bad, her mother would think she’d put on lipstick.
It’s what she was drinking the morning Missy attacked her. One of the lifeguards was on duty, and the other one was skimming the pool with one of those long aluminium poles with a blue net at the end, collecting beetles and dead bees and pine needles then shaking them off into the strip of dirt and weeds between the tan concrete pool deck and the tall wooden fence, which blocked the view – but not the sounds – of Livingston Avenue. The office was completely unattended. And to make it even easier, the door to it – which was always open – wasn’t even visible from the pool itself because it was obscured by a long row of evergreen bushes. Julietta dipped into the office, which was attached to a much larger cinderblock room with all the mechanicals in it. It reeked of chlorine, and the hum of machinery was so loud it was almost frightening. No wonder the lifeguards only ever spent enough time in the office to make change from the cashbox or grab their lunch from the fridge.
She pulled open the refrigerator door and felt the cold air pour out. Who’d ever stocked it last had done so in an orderly way. The lemon-lime was all the way to the left, and then cream soda, and then root beer, and then cola, and then black cherry. Sometimes they were all mixed up, so it took that much longer to find what she wanted. But that morning, it was a cinch. She nabbed the black cherry soda, closed the door, and then ducked out of there.
She couldn’t very well take it back to the pool deck where she’d risk the lifeguards seeing her with the soda. So she headed in the opposite direction, where there was a grassy area with a jungle gym for the little kids and a volleyball net for the high school kids and some of the younger, more spirited parents. Those parents did not include Julietta’s, who were on the cusp of separating. Her father, who had begrudgingly agreed to move to the suburbs when his wife – Julietta’s mother – landed a much higher paying job as an occupational therapist than she’d had in the City, hated the neighbourhood with all its yuppies driving their VW Rabbits to tennis or golf or racquetball or whatever ridiculous sports it was these people played, which seemed to always involve them dressing in white. Her mother, on the other hand, loved it. She bitterly resented her husband, who kept them on the outside, away from the many social events. Showing up at cocktail parties alone, being asked dozens of times where her husband was, making excuses for him over and over and over – it was worse than simply not going to the gatherings in the first place.
It wasn’t even 10.30am yet, and it must have been close to one hundred degrees. The can was slick with cold condensation. Through the constant buzz of unseen crickets and the mechanical hum of the pool pumps and heaters and filtration system, Julietta heard girls’ voices. It was hard not to feel disappointed. Julietta quite preferred being alone. Especially because her mother had been putting so much pressure on her to make friends with the neighbourhood girls, seeing it as a backdoor into making friends with the other neighbourhood parents without the awkwardness of showing up to parties as if she were single.
‘Where is she?’ someone asked.
‘She’s not here,’ someone else answered. Sounded like Missy.
‘Of course she is, stupid – that’s her bike on the rack.’
‘Don’t call me stupid.’
‘Then don’t say stupid things, Missy.’
Missy was the only girl in the neighbourhood who she’d managed to make friends with in the year and a half she lived there. They’d been in the same 8th grade class together, where they quickly bonded over British books (Jane Eyre) and British music (The Cure) and came up with elaborate plans for how, after they graduated college, they would leave the US together and go to England. There, they’d share a London flat filled with Victorian novels and towers of CDs, goth and new wave. Missy would be a sculptor, Julietta a novelist.
But the dream ended with middle school. Once high school started, she saw less and less of Missy. They were in different classes, for one thing. For another, it seemed she was being recruited by a clique of girls who called themselves the Ninety-Eight Great Girls – ’98 being the year they were scheduled to graduate.
‘Check the yard,’ a girl said.
‘God, where is that weirdo?’ another one asked.
‘Probably stealing soda. What is it you said she likes so much?’
‘Black cherry,’ Missy said, as if she were embarrassed for Julietta.
‘God, she’s so ghetto.’
‘Forget it, she’s not here. She probably just left her bike here overnight,’ Missy said.
‘Oh right, she left her bike here. God! You keep saying stupid things, I’m going to keep calling you stupid. See how that works, stupid?’
At this point, it was clear to Julietta that they were looking for her. And that wasn’t good, considering that Julietta’s only interactions with The Ninety-Eight Great Girls involved being the recipient of their dirty looks and the subject of their whispered jokes and rumours that would cause them all to burst into laughter or recoil in disgust. But, still, at no point had they ever sought out Julietta. It was only a byproduct of being in the same school, where they were forced to be in the same cafeteria or in the atrium before homeroom. Yet, here they were in this early August morning looking for her.
Julietta looked for a way to slip out of the yard and out into the rough asphalt parking lot, the surface of which would surely scald her bare feet; she’d much rather feel the soles of her feet scorched than deal with Missy’s new friends.
Seeing no escape, she heard Missy call her name and she turned. Before she even felt the punch, her vision went black for an instant. Then she felt the dull throb in her cheek and heard the cruel laughter of the girls. Her mouth filled with a nauseatingly salty liquid that she quickly realised was blood. She spat it into the grass next to the can of black cherry soda, which she must have dropped when she was punched. The blood slipped into a growing pool of dark red soda, which was glugging lazily from the mouth of the can. Despite her fear and confusion, Julietta couldn’t help marvelling for a moment at how the blood and black cherry were indistinguishable from one another.
Julietta spat a little more blood then turned to Missy. ‘Why? Why did you do that to me?’ she asked her, though it seemed entirely obvious she was put up to it.
Missy pretended like she didn’t hear her. Instead she half-turned her head toward delightfully surprised girls standing in a half-circle behind her. ‘Told you I’d do it. Can we go now, please?’
Julietta noticed that her voice sounded bitter, but also scared. It was almost enough to feel bad for Missy. She lacked the loyalty to stand up for Julietta, and she didn’t have the guts or confidence to tell them to get lost. Meanwhile, Julietta’s face barely hurt from the blow. All things considered, Julietta decided it was better to be the suckerpunched than the suckerpuncher.
‘Hit her again,’ said Tracy, a girl with black hair, blue eyes, and freckled milk-white skin.
‘Doesn’t count unless she cries or she’s knocked out,’ Amber, a rail-thin blonde, said.
‘She is crying.’
‘No she’s not,’ another blonde named Crystal said.
‘Come on, stupid. Punch her again.’
‘Yeah, punch her again, stupid.’
‘One more time.’
Missy groaned, took a deep breath, and then she clenched and relaxed her fist. She took a step toward Julietta and for a fraction of a second, their eyes met, and when they did, Julietta could read the word sorry in them.
Julietta was hardly a fighter. But she had no desire to be punched, either. So her first instinct was to run, but that simply wasn’t an option. She was pretty much cornered – blocked off by the scrum of girls and the pool equipment shed. So, without even thinking about it – strictly out of self-preservation, Julietta grabbed whatever she could to defend herself. In this case, it happened to be a broken fence picket almost completely hidden in the unmown high grass along the base of the shed.
She held it up in front of her face right as Missy took a swing at her with a right hook.
Julietta heard a slightly hollow knock as Missy’s fist connected with the fence picket instead of her face. A cheer went up from the girls, as if this were all good entertainment. Missy’s face was surprised, like she never expected Julietta would get the wood up there in time. But then she looked down at her fist and her surprise turned to real fear, as she cradled her hurt hand in the other. She stepped backward, started gasping. Then Julietta saw the blood pouring from between the fingers of Missy’s left hand. Blood like black cherry soda running in droves down her forearm, dripping off her elbow and onto her heather grey t-shirt and stonewashed denim cut-off shorts.
‘Shit,’ Amber said. And in an instant, they all bolted, leaving the two girls behind.
Julietta looked at the fence picket still in her hand to see how it could have done such damage, and immediately got her answer. There was a long, thick, dull silver nail driven through it—the nail that would have held it securely onto the upper fence rail.
Missy was going pale, and it looked like maybe she was trying to say something, but she couldn’t quite make the sounds.
‘You all right, Missy?’ Julietta asked.
As if by response, she crumpled to the ground, her eyes rolling back in her head. Her hands separated, and now Julietta could see just how bad Missy’s hand was. The nail had punctured her directly between the knuckles of her index and ring finger. Blood was issuing from the deep-red wound, which was surrounded by fishbelly-white ragged skin.
Julietta called for help, and moments later, a tall, muscular seventeen-year-old off-duty lifeguard sprinted over, holding the skimmer net in his hand, like a knight charging into battle with a lance.
‘Now, I don’t want you to be too upset, honey, but you’re going to hear about it no matter what, and we’d rather you hear it from us,’ Julietta’s mother said, pouring two glasses of powder-made iced tea from a beige plastic pitcher.
‘Upset? Why would she be upset? She oughta be proud. Shit, I’m proud,’ he father said and then took another long drink from his bottle of High Life.
‘What? What am I going to be upset or proud about?’ Julietta asked.
‘Well,’ her mother started to say as she set the glass of iced tea down in front of her. But Julietta’s father cut her off.
‘They had to amputate. Know what that means? Amputate?’
Julietta sat back in her seat and her eyes fell on the surface of the old wooden table, which they’d brought with them from their old apartment in the City. She could make out ghostly remnants of letters and numerals and drawings imprinted into the wood from all the times she and her older brother had used the table to draw and do their homework, despite however many thousands of times their parents had told them to put something underneath their papers. ‘Yes, I know what it means,’ Julietta said, astonished. ‘What was amputated?’
‘Well, I don’t know all the details, of course. But my understanding from Joyce Meyers is that it’s her middle finger.’
Julietta sat bolt upright. ‘Her whole finger was amputated?’
‘Well, like I said, I don’t know the whole story, and the important thing is that this is not your fault. But that’s what I heard.’
‘I know it’s not my fault—’ Julietta started to say.
‘Attagirl,’ her father said.
‘But why did they have to cut her finger off?’ Julietta asked.
‘They tried to stitch her up at the hospital, but there was a lot of damage and they were worried about infections. So, I guess it’s what they had to do to make sure it didn’t get any worse.’ Here, Julietta’s mother paused and looked pityingly into her daughter’s eyes. ‘That’s why I’m saying it wasn’t your fault. If it was just a normal cut, it probably wouldn’t have been much more than some stitches. But I think there was some nerve and tend—’ Julietta’s mother stopped herself either for Julietta’s sake or for her own.
Julietta slouched back down in her chair. Then she leaned forward beneath the glow of the overhead light fixture. She held her face in her hands. Her two perfectly healthy hands.
‘You okay, honey?’ her mother asked after a bit.
‘I don’t know,’ she said.
‘Serves her right. Girl punches my daughter in the face? It’s justice she loses a finger! You ask me, they should all lose their entire fucking hands. Each and every one of those girls who caused this.’ He’d been punctuating every sentence by poking his finger down into the table, a little harder each time. Now he took the last sip of the High Life and he used his finger not to poke the table but to point it accusingly at his wife. ‘Goddamnit, Maria, I don’t know why the fuck we had to move out here to the suburbs!’
‘Like bad things don’t happen in the city, Manny?’ she cried out. ‘You’re not helping!’
He stood up, and his chair slid backward with a screech. Before he left the room, he circled the table until he was standing over his daughter. He cradled her head in his hand and bent down and kissed her long, straight, black hair, which was reflecting the light of the bulbs above like a mirror. ‘You don’t feel bad. Not for a second. They got everything they deserve and no one will ever mess with you again. So don’t you dare feel bad. You understand?’
Julietta couldn’t stand how her father treated her mother these days. But in this moment, despite her best efforts and even though it made her feel a little sick, she took comfort in his words and his righteousness.
Her father slipped into the shadow of their formal dining room, which they’d only used on holidays. Otherwise, it was like some kind of museum installation. American dining room, circa 1994. A moment later, they listened to his heavy steps on the stairs, ascending. Then, finally, the slam of a bedroom door.
One door-slam closer to divorce, Julietta thought.
‘Thank God the pool had insurance. You know, they really should not have just had boards with nails laying around. So their insurance is covering all of Missy’s medical bills plus, I’m sure, other things. She’s going to be fine. She is.’
Julietta tried picturing her friend without one of her fingers. The Ninety-Eight Great Girls would never accept her now. And despite how terrible she felt for Missy, she didn’t want to be her friend, either. All at once, Missy no longer seemed like acquaintance or enemy. Just a stranger.
‘I think it’s best you don’t go back to the pool here. There’s another one, just a short drive away. I hear it’s great. Three diving boards and even a waterslide! I’m happy to take you whenever you’d like,’ her mother said, stroking the back of Julietta’s hand.
Julietta forced a small smile. ‘Thanks,’ she said. She tried picturing this new pool and all of its diving boards. But she simply couldn’t conjure an image. All she could wonder was if they had black cherry soda. The generic kind. The kind that looked like blood.
For more short stories, subscribe to our fortnightly newsletter.