The Boiler

Debbie Vance

MARY ALICE & JUNE


It was a Tuesday in August, fifth period, and Mary Alice rested her chin on her open palm and gazed out the window as oily mirages drifted through the parking lot like floating water. The hem of her navy blue khaki skirt was torn; she’d have to ask her mother to sew it tonight or else tomorrow she’d receive a demerit. One more demerit meant detention. Sister Hilde was talking about some ancient heroine who burned on a pyre and was thus named a saint, and the sweaty boy in front of her smelled like overcooked cabbage. Pray for us sinners, Mary Alice recited to herself as she held her breath, now and at the hour of our death.

When the bell rang, instead of turning left down the wide, cool hall toward her sixth period pre-calculus class, Mary Alice turned right and walked outside through the tall glass doors. The sun was hot and dry. She got in her car, a gently used Buick, gold as wheat and big as a boat, and drove away. By the time Sister Francine realized she was absent, it would be too late. She would receive a demerit after all; she would go to detention and think about the sins she had committed, hopefully excising the root of evil from her carnal body, a subject lesson in purgatory.

The radio played commercials for cleaning services and prescription drugs, and after five minutes Mary Alice had three different telephone numbers memorized, though she would dial none of them, and could list in entirety the negative side effects of one antidepressant, unremarkable in its final warning: death. A rosewood rosary dangled from the rear view mirror, a confirmation gift from her mother, and Mary Alice touched the silver crucifix. The poor man hanging there grimaced.

“It’s a nice day out,” Mary Alice said to Jesus. “Don’t you know that?”

Mary Alice drove with the windows down and tried to enjoy the cool wind whipping through her hair, making her nipples hard, but always in the back of her mind she heard the Sisters’ grim warning: It is a sin to indulge in the desires of the flesh. Look at Our Lord upon the cross, they’d say, he gave his body unto death for the salvation of the world.

Mary Alice was no savior. She was just a sixteen-year-old girl, and she was beginning to think she was missing out on something.

She drove to the granite quarry, a big empty place full of echoes. There was a lake in the hollow, and sometimes kids swam there, though they weren’t supposed to. It was deep and cold, and there was the danger of falling rocks. Mary Alice sat on the edge of the cliff and leaned her arms on the metal guardrail that circled the quarry. She squeezed her legs beneath the safety bar and let her feet dangle over the stain blue water far below. She watched a cormorant soar through the gulley and imagined what it would feel like to be weightless in all that granite cool air. Construction equipment hummed across the quarry, punctuated by the loud crack of breaking rock. Mary Alice closed her eyes and thought how much better this was than math.

Then she heard the crunch of tires on the gravel behind her, an engine die, a car door slam. She kept her eyes half-closed, hoping whoever it was would leave her alone. But whoever it was sat down beside her and slid her long, tan legs beneath the guardrail easily. She didn’t wear shoes, and her toenails were dirty and ragged. Her legs were prickled with blond hair, and a silver bracelet of stars hung loose around her bony ankle. Mary Alice followed the girl’s legs up to her face; wild, unplucked eyebrows were all she saw.

“Hey,” the girl said. “You’re Mary Alice, right?”

“Yeah?” Mary Alice answered.

“I’m June. We went to middle school together?”

“Oh yeah, hey,” Mary Alice turned back to face the quarry and pretended to be terribly interested in the single cormorant that flew there.

“You go to St. Ignatius now, right?” June said.

“Yeah,” Mary Alice said. She hadn’t come here to have a conversation, wasn’t that obvious? People only came to the quarry to make out or smoke weed or be alone. Did she see a boy or weed anywhere? No.

“So you believe in God?” June asked.

“We learned today about a woman who was murdered because she believed in God,” Mary Alice said. She had begun to think the cormorant was trapped in the quarry, the way it circled round and round.

“I have an uncle Lenny who killed himself because he didn’t,” June said.

“Sorry for your loss,” Mary Alice said.

June shrugged. “I didn’t know him that well.” She trimmed her fingernails with her teeth and spit the torn pieces into the quarry. “I come here a lot. It’s not far from my house actually. It’s best at night because there are all these white lights? From the extraction sites? They leave them burning all the time for safety or something, and they sort of reflect off the water. At night it’s so black except for the reflected lights it feels like one giant hole to the center of the earth.”

“Uh huh,” Mary Alice said. She’d never been to the quarry at night, and the neighborhoods around here weren’t exactly safe; they were what her mother called “seedy.”

“Are you named after Alice in Wonderland?” June asked. “This place sort of reminds you of the tunnel she falls down, doesn’t it?”

“I’m named after my grandmother,” Mary Alice said. “Lewis Carroll was on acid when he wrote that.”

“Maybe,” June said. “That’s still cool though. I’m named after a month.” June laughed at herself, and Mary Alice bit her fingernail, taking a little pleasure in destroying the manicure her mother had given her. “You ever been swimming in there?”

“Are you kidding?” Mary Alice asked. She studied June’s face and saw she wasn’t. June had freckles all over and wore no make-up. Mary Alice thought she looked a little like one of those hippie models from the magazines, though her hair was dirtier. “No, I haven’t,” she said.

“Want to?” June asked. She swung her legs lazily, knocking her bare heels against the granite.

Mary Alice did not want to, but she didn’t say no.

“Sweet,” June said. “Follow me.”

Mary Alice followed June as she stepped over the guardrail. They had to scoot along the edge of the quarry a few yards until they reached flat ground, then they followed a wide path cut for trucks that wended down into the pit. Mary Alice felt her heart beat faster, and her fingers started to tingle. She worried about her car, whether she’d locked it. She’d left her phone in the cup holder.

“The water’s wonderfully cold,” June said as they walked. “There’s this little cove? We have to stay there so the workers don’t see us, else we’ll have to make a run for it. You can get fined a hundred dollars for swimming in the quarry.” June said a hundred dollars like it was a great sum of money.

“My mom says she saw a barracuda in here once,” June said.

“Barracuda are saltwater fish,” Mary Alice said.

June shrugged. “That’s what she said.” She had a tattoo of a squid wrapped around the earth on her shoulder.

“What’s that for?” Mary Alice asked, touching the tattoo.

“My mom and I have the same one,” June said. “It’s how the world will end.”

Mary Alice didn’t know what to say to that, so she said, “Oh.”

“You have any tattoos?” June asked.

Mary Alice laughed. “Me? No.” Just imagining her mother’s reaction made her mouth itch.

“You should get one while you’re still young,” June said. “But somewhere your skin won’t stretch too much. My mom has a friend who got this beautiful tattoo of a woman on her belly, but after she had a kid it got all stretched out. Now she looks like a fat whore.” Mary Alice didn’t say anything, and June added, “The tattoo, I mean, not my mom’s friend.”

“Right,” Mary Alice said, and tried to laugh.

“Anyway, it hurt like hell,” June said. The path they’d been walking on bottomed out and continued in a level circle around the quarry, but June stopped. “Here we are,” she said.

The water was still about twenty feet below them. Mary Alice peered over the edge and felt her stomach clench. She’d have to jump.

“How will we get out?” she asked.

“Climb.” June peeled her tank top off, and Mary Alice tried not to stare at her tiny breasts inside her pink cotton bra. Then she unbuttoned her shorts. “You won’t want to swim in that,” June said, indicating Mary Alice’s uniform. “It’ll drag you down.”

“Right,” Mary Alice said. The last thing she wanted to do today was drown, though to be honest, she thought, it might be better than revealing her under garments. She turned so her back was to June and pulled off her light blue polo. It got caught on her head and for a moment she was afraid of losing her balance and falling sideways into the water. She was wearing a thick white sports bra over her regular bra because her boobs were so big; they were painful and made her feel fat. She would’ve taped them down with athletic tape like she’d seen girls do in the movies, but the thought of adhesive on her nipples made her want to vomit. Beneath her skirt she wore nude Spanx her mother had given her for her last birthday. Every part of her burned pink in embarrassment. Standing beside skinny June in her pink cotton bra and teal cotton panties, she felt like a giant, naked seal.

Mary Alice snapped the edge of her Spanx and tried to laugh. It was better to acknowledge your shortcomings, that way other people couldn’t laugh behind your back. June didn’t even look; she was putting her hair in a ponytail.

“Ladies first,” June said, gesturing for Mary Alice to jump.

“You sure it’s deep enough?”

“I’ve done this a million times.”

“But you’re sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure, just jump.” June made a move like she was going to push Mary Alice over the edge, and, out of fear, Mary Alice jumped. Hitting the water stung her feet, and even though she had pinched her nose, water still went up. She plunged far beneath the surface, and it took longer than she thought it would to fight her way back up. When she broke free, she coughed and spluttered and blew her nose so hard that snot coated her lips.

“Okay?” June called from above. “You didn’t hit anything?”

“No,” Mary Alice called back. Was there something she could have hit? Mary Alice searched the water for rocks or barracuda. The water was cold and clear, and Mary Alice could see her own white legs treading beneath her.

“No, you’re not okay, or no, you didn’t hit anything?” June called again.

“I’m fine,” Mary Alice said.

June let out a little yelp and jumped, her arms glued to her side like a pencil. She came up laughing and floated on her back.

“God, that feels good,” she said.

Mary Alice didn’t like to float—she didn’t like to get water in her ears—so she stayed upright. They swam in their own worlds a while, not talking, and the whole time Mary Alice worried about fish. She kept feeling tentacles brush against her legs, or razor sharp fins. But every time she looked down, she saw only her own body. There are no fish in quarries, she told herself, not entirely sure if it was true. There are no fish in quarries.

“Come here, I want to show you something,” June said. She started swimming the breaststroke toward the quarry wall, and Mary Alice cursed under her breath. She was getting a cramp in her side and wanted more than anything to go home and hide her body safely beneath her lilac covers.

Instead, she followed. June stopped beside the rock wall and smiled.

“So? What are we looking for?” Mary Alice didn’t see anything.

June took a deep breath and dipped beneath the surface, and a moment later Mary Alice heard her voice echo from inside the granite wall.

“It’s a cave.” June’s voice sounded faint, though Mary Alice could tell she was shouting. “Just dive under.”

No, no, no, no, Mary Alice said inside her head. No, no, no, no, she said as she held her breath and went under. The water here felt extra cold, like it was full of ghosts. She kept her eyes shut and her arms outstretched. It took her three dives to find the opening, and when she finally did she swam a long time underwater for fear she’d come up too soon and bump her head.

It was cold and very dark, but once her eyes adjusted the ceiling seemed to sparkle. The water glowed with trapped light.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” June asked. She was holding on to the rock wall, her body lifted half way out of the water. “It’s my favorite place in the world.”

“My favorite place is IHOP,” Mary Alice said without thinking, and immediately she regretted her words. She swam to the wall beside June and held on. The cramp in her side worsened.

“Do you know any prayers?” June asked. “Every time I come here I wish I knew a prayer to say.”

“No,” Mary Alice lied. She knew lots of prayers.

“Too bad,” June said. “I thought you would, what with St. Ignatius and all.”

“Sorry,” Mary Alice said. She gripped her side, trying to ease the cramp, and closed her eyes.

All of a sudden, June started belting out Bob Dylan lyrics. Her voice filled the cave and sent little sound ripples across the still water.

“Not so different from praying, is it?” she said when she had finished, and a heavy silence surrounded them. Mary Alice slipped back into the water as though it might protect her.

It was different, Mary Alice thought. The silence after June finished singing was deafening, but when Mary Alice said Our Father at night, over and over, the words filled her body, and the silence she heard then was not empty like this, but full. The cold water touched her body everywhere and gave her shivers.

“It’s getting late,” June said.

“Yeah,” Mary Alice said.

They swam beneath the wall into the quarry and squinted in the too bright light. Mary Alice’s pupils burned. She studied June’s movements as she climbed the rock wall and did her best to copy them when her turn came. It took her a long while, but she made it. She pulled her uniform on over her wet skin and felt the vulnerability of being wet when she wasn’t supposed to be. The sun had moved low in the sky and slanted through the air like a fiery arrow. The single cormorant was gone, and they walked back to their cars in silence.

“See you around,” June said, standing beside her old yellow Volkswagen. Mary Alice could see her baby pink bra through her wet tank top and felt her own thick polo cling to her curves. Tomorrow, she decided, she would not wear the white sports bra over her regular one. If her nipples were hard, everyone would see. This did not make her feel ashamed.

The girls got in their separate cars and pulled away. The sun-baked air inside Mary Alice’s car was hot and thick and smelled like steamed carpet. She followed June until she turned down a residential street, then she kept driving. She kept the windows rolled up, letting the heat surround her body as she took the rosary from the rear view mirror and fingered each round, wooden bead.

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Debbie Vance lives in Denver with her husband and dreams of tall trees and rainstorms. Her short story, “Benediction,” was a finalist in the Alligator Juniper 2014 fiction contest.