At the team’s first practice, the new coach says, “Can I see you in my office?”
“I don’t know,” Amber says. “Can you?”
He has a room waiting for them at the Red Carpet Inn under a fake name. At the front desk, she will tell them she’s his daughter, there to pick up the room key her dad has left for her. “Don’t expect candles or rose petals,” he says. “We don’t have the budget for romance. I’m on a teacher’s salary.”
The carpet isn’t so much red. More the color of blush, as if the room is a little embarrassed by the depravity unfolding inside of it.
After, Coach Darling lets her lie on his soft belly. He says, “I should lose weight.”
“Don’t. It’s like a pillow.”
“I don’t know why they have me coaching volleyball. I don’t know the first thing about it.”
“You’re doing a good job, baby. If you weren’t, those girls couldn’t tell the difference, anyway.”
He says, “I wasn’t sure about this.”
“Was it the age difference? I thought about that, too.”
“Age doesn’t bother me. I was worried the seduction would be sweeter than, uh—”
“There was seduction?”
He bites her ear so hard he leaves an impression of his teeth.
They drive across the river to the state where nobody knows them. She brings a baggie of pills with all the air vacuum-sucked out. Coach Darling tells her to wait in the car while he goes into the Liquor Locker. They drive through QuikBurger and park by the riverfront, where he drags each French fry through the ketchup, feeds it to her inch by inch.
She says, “Is this, like, a schoolgirl thing?”
“Only you,” he says.
They pour Fireball into their sodas and suck them down to slurping. When they sober up, it’s light out, it’s morning, and they are lost in the woods with dead phones and no clothes. The deer grazing in the clearing stares at them like they’re nymphs in a Renaissance painting.
Bobby texts Amber: where were u last nite???
Amber texts Bobby: asleep. dreaming.
Cathy texts Amber: Bobbys really mad at you…
Amber texts Bobby: i didn’t realize we were seeing a counselor.
Amber texts Cathy: sorry, who is this?
Amber has no curfew. Amber’s mother has better things to do than police Amber’s comings and goings.
Coach Darling still lives with Mrs. Darling, but they don’t talk anymore. That’s done. At home, he uses the guest bathroom and sleeps on the couch. He’s working on starting to hunt for a place of his own. He’ll have a condo soon, he promises. Until then, they’ll have to be more careful about when and where. Amber needs to be patient. Doesn’t she have a boyfriend, anyway?
“Bobby,” she says. “Yeah, we’re high school sweethearts.” But the name she writes over and over in her diary is: Amber Darling Amber Darling Amber Darling.
On the first day of the volleyball trip, Coach Darling hisses at her to find a different seat on the bus when she chooses the row behind his. “Sit with the other girls,” he says. “Act like you’re one of them.” He won’t eat with her when the team stops off at a Waffle House; he won’t help her with her bags when the team unloads at the Red Carpet Inn.
She tells the girls in her room she is off to check out the vending machines. “I just wanted to let you know where I’m going,” she says, searching her bag for loose change.
“I’m not your mom,” Tina says.
“Go wherever you want,” Joy says. “Go far, far away.”
Coach Darling is down to his briefs, a crime show flickering darkly on the little square T.V. The room is identical to the one where they first made love. Thick, discolored carpet. Next to the window hangs a painting of a better, brighter view. “Close the door,” Coach Darling says. “Quickly. Lights off, please.”
“I’m not feeling valued today.”
“There are thirteen other girls here. Mrs. Nelson is sleeping right across the hall.”
“You think she can tell?”
“I think talking to you in public is complicated.”
“But my love language is words of affirmation,” she says.
“This is a school trip, Amber. I’m trying to be professional.”
The girls don’t bother looking up from their phones when she shuts the door. She says, “I decided I didn’t want anything sweet this close to bedtime.”
“Thank you,” Joy says.
“We were on the edge of our seats,” Tina says.
On the second day of the volleyball trip, Amber spends the morning in front of the toilet, vomiting. None of the girls in her room offer to hold her hair back.
“What did you eat yesterday?” Mrs. Nelson says.
“What didn’t she eat?” Tina says, heading out the door.
“You’re sitting this one out,” Mrs. Nelson says. “We need to find you an urgent care. I read an article about this. It could be meningitis.”
The waiting room is humid and crowded with tropical plants. “Welcome to the jungle,” Mrs. Nelson says. Amber sticks to every surface. She peels herself off her chair when the doctor calls her name.
The doctor asks Amber to rate her pain on a scale of Frowny Face to Skull. Does Amber consider herself sexually active? Mrs. Nelson says, “I’m not listening. Be candid. I know all about the pressures and the urges you’re going through, believe me.” The doctor asks how many sexual partners Amber has had in the last six months. When did Amber have her last period? Mrs. Nelson says, “She’s a good girl, no matter how many boys have seen her naked. I know she’s a good girl.”
Amber doesn’t trust the doctors in Florida. She pees on every brand of pregnancy test Mrs. Nelson can find at the pharmacy across from the Red Carpet Inn. Each stick gives her the same result: +. “You’ll be a wonderful mother,” Mrs. Nelson says. “You don’t drink, do you? Smoke? Of course you don’t. You’re not that kind of girl. Have you told Bobby yet?”
On the third day of the volleyball trip, the girls have FastTrak passes to HappyHappyLand. Amber just wants a picture with Peppermint Kitty. That’s all she wants today. She rode a Peppermint Kitty tricycle not so long ago, red and white stripes with cat ears on the handlebars. Her bedroom, still, is a museum of Peppermint Kitty memorabilia: the posters, the holographic trading cards, the twelve-inch doll with catchphrases in four different languages. At the turnstile, she asks the park official in the neon reflector vest where Peppermint Kitty is stationed, but HappyHappyLand, she learns, doesn’t do characters with foam heads anymore, and the Photo Huts where their characters are now generated via green screen technology are currently, and for the foreseeable, non-operational.
Mrs. Nelson offers to buy Amber a souvenir cup with Peppermint Kitty’s face on it. “It’s better than a photo,” she says. “You can sip out of it!”
“A sippy cup,” Tina says, “for the little baby.”
“No,” Mrs. Nelson says, “for Amber. Which baby are you talking about?” She volunteers to be Amber’s buddy. Amber shouldn’t have to be alone all day just because she can’t ride the roller coasters.
“Can’t?” Tina says. “Why can’t she?”
“I bet she’s too scared,” Joy says. “She’ll wet her pants.”
“That’s it,” Mrs. Nelson says. “She’s scared. Poor thing, isn’t she?”
Coach Darling says, “Why don’t you go have some fun, Mrs. Nelson? You’ve been such a big help. I’ll take her for a while.”
He says, “That woman cannot keep a secret. What were you thinking?”
He says, “Have you told Bobby yet? The kid’s going to be Bobby’s, right?”
He buys her a jumbo cotton candy, watches the fluff dissolve on her tongue. He says, “That’s a lot of sugar you’re eating. You’re going to make yourself sick.”
He says he will ride the gentle, low-trauma rides with her—the lazy river, the teacups—but then an elegant voice comes over the loudspeaker to announce that there is presently no line for Death Spiral. Coach Darling reads the news; he knows the story from two weeks ago, when a slight malfunction in Death Spiral resulted in the complete severing of a pair of women’s feet. He knows the left foot remains missing. He rushes off down the glittering road to ride it, anyway.
Amber waits for him on the carousel. She rides the same horse, the horse with the golden mane, for hours and hours. Until the sun sets behind the watercolor castle. Until the operator says, “Miss, where is your parent or guardian?” When she steps off the platform, everything spins.
She says, “Have you looked at condos yet?”
Coach Darling says, “I’m on a teacher’s salary. Get back to your seat.”
She says, “No, thank you. I don’t drink anymore.”
Bobby says, “You used to be fun.”
Coach Darling’s office is all glass. He says, “Come back once I’ve lowered the blinds. How many times do I have to tell you I can’t lower the blinds with you in here?”
He is browsing the pamphlet for a cult outside Minneapolis. They can be together this way, Amber and Coach Darling and the little vegetable. “There’s a number we can call to set up a tour of the compound,” he says. “We’re already pre-approved. If the living conditions are workable, I say we sign a lease right then and there.”
RUN AWAY FROM YOUR PROBLEMS, the pamphlet says, AND NEVER GO BACK!
“Maybe we should sleep on it,” she says.
She finds something wrong with every quiet two-bedroom bungalow the real estate agent shows them. At the first place, the ceilings are too high. Does nobody else hear the echo? She hates the thought of Coach Darling paying higher rent for all that empty space. At the second place, the ceilings are too low. Coach Darling is, what? Six-foot-four? He’ll bonk his head. She has him stand on his toes to demonstrate. The third place, the last one available, is quiet, yes, but too quiet. Unsettling, kind of? Does the real estate agent know the history of this third place, whether it was built on some sort of burial ground? There’s bad energy here. Limited cabinet space, too.
“I’ll cover the security deposit,” Coach Darling says. He’s come prepared with his checkbook. “Down payment on our future,” he says to Amber, tearing on the perforated line.
“Babe, no. Why don’t we keep looking?”
“There are no more places left to see,” Coach Darling says. “Didn’t you hear? This is it. It has to be. This is our future home.” He clicks his pen. He is ready to sign anything.
“Let’s get drunk tonight,” Bobby says. “It’s more fun when we’re drunk.”
“What’s more fun?” she says.
“I’m just trying to have a good time,” he says.
“Then why don’t you call Cathy?” she says.
“Aw, don’t be like that,” he says.
“Please,” she says, “tell me how to be.”
Her mother goes out of town for the weekend to gamble away her paycheck and pretend Amber doesn’t exist. She leaves Amber thirty dollars.
Coach Darling won’t come over until after dark. He says he doesn’t want a neighbor to see him come through her front door. She is seventeen years old, and he doesn’t want to end up on some list. Inside, she has dinner waiting for him, the utensil placement proof of her table manners. Coach Darling is two hours late, and the hamburger patties are cold. The sweet potato fries won’t taste the same reheated, but she guesses she’ll microwave them, anyway.
“Still good,” Coach Darling says.
“You didn’t taste them before,” Amber says.
For dessert, there is strawberry rhubarb pie. “Try this,” Amber says. “We learned how to make it in Home Ec.”
“Home Ec. That’s Ms. Pettus, right?”
“No. It’s Ms. Dove. Ms. Pettus is U.S. history.”
He swallows. “It’s good,” he says. “Good for a first try.”
“Third try,” she says.
He bought rubber costumes at the party store, as requested. “It’s normal to have to spice things up,” she says. When they rub against each other, their costumes squeal like tennis shoes on gymnasium flooring. Their arms and legs can only move in one direction. She says, “Is this good for you?”
He says, “Is it not good for you?”
The walls of Amber’s bedroom are coated in Peppermint Kitty posters. Peppermint Kitty surfs on a rainbow; she plays the violin
at a sold-out concert; she holds hands with her HappyHappyLand friends, the eggplant with fangs and the mushroom with the flop nose. Here on Amber’s dresser in a glass collector’s case is her first-edition Talking Peppermint Kitty doll, the one that was recalled for saying a word that sounded suspiciously like an expletive every fourth time you squeezed her. This Peppermint Kitty is still in her original packaging. Amber never got to open her up and play with her—she was supposed to be worth something if kept in mint condition.
“Maybe it’s time to break open your piggy bank,” Coach Darling says. He checks eBay to find out how much money Amber could make. The highest bid on a doll like this one—undirtied white fur, mouth of a sailor, made in Taiwan and filled with PVC—
“Fourteen dollars,” he says. He reaches for the light and pulls the wrong pull-chain. The ceiling fan spins lazily, shakes off the dust. Peppermint Kitty’s store price, according to the packaging, was $39.99. She’s worth less now than she was the day Amber’s mother bought her.
“She could still be worth something someday,” Amber says. “She’s going to be worth thousands.”
The girls ask Coach Darling to sign their yearbooks.
He writes in Tina’s: To a star athlete with nothing but potential.
He writes in Joy’s: Thank you for always coming to practice with a smile.
He writes in Amber’s: Have a great summer. Stay cool out there.
He already has a booth at QuikBurger. He says, “Marriage counseling, and we’re really seeing results.” He says, “Age of consent, you understand. Don’t tell me I didn’t try to make it work.” He knows the trick for getting the ketchup out of the glass bottle. He slaps the neck gently against his wrist. He says, “This thing between us, whatever it was. It burned bright and hot, but it burned out.”
She says, “I totally agree,” while she claws her nails into the orange vinyl.
“We should probably split the check since, well, you know. Am I making myself clear? I’m proud of you for being so adult about this.”
“Crystal,” she says.
He stops in the slick black parking lot to loom over his star player. “We’ve missed you at practice,” he says. “The team.”
A car rounds the corner in the QuikBurger drive-thru, headlights gleaming. The sign out by the highway says _ _IKBU_GER. Amber wonders how many more letters will have to burn out before they’ll address that.
“Tell the team,” she says, “I haven’t missed them at all.”
When they hear Coach Darling is going away at the end of summer, the girls pool their money to buy their favorite teacher a fruit basket. Pears. Blackberries. Figs. They have never seen a fig outside of its Newton before. They can’t tell if the figs are too ripe or not ripe enough. They take turns signing the thank-you card.
Tina writes: Ugh Florida was amazing.
Joy writes: Great season, we will miss you next year!!!
Amber writes: Best wishes. She sits with it for a moment before signing her name, then she blacks it all out and passes the card on to the next girl.
Bobby is already drunk when he picks her up for the dance.
“Should you be driving?” Amber says.
“I know how to drive,” he says. Everybody at school calls his red Mustang the stunt car, because no matter how badly he bangs it up, his parents pay to fix it. He says, “You coming?”
“I guess,” she says.
“Get in,” he says.
She almost hopes they crash—she has been skirting disaster for so long.
Bobby brakes for stop signs. “I know how to drive,” he repeats to her at every one.
“Of course you do,” she says. “Silly me.”
He rests his hand on her thigh at red lights like she is his, but he will never possess her. Amber has the glow now. At the dance, her dress is so bright, so brilliant, Bobby can only look at her for a few seconds before he has to look away. His blue suit is the wrong size. He wants to slow dance, but she has to search for his shoulders first. He is just a boy, she thinks, a little boy in his father’s closet. In the coming months, he’ll have some growing up to do. “What a big, strong man you are,” she says, and she kisses him forcefully, pushes him through the crowd, until they are standing under the disco light where Coach Darling, dance chaperone, can see them. Tonight he is sporting an unfortunate new haircut twenty years too young for him. On a man his age, a haircut like that doesn’t flatter the face shape. “Look at him,” she says. “Have you ever seen anybody more tragic?”
“Who?” Bobby says, like he can’t see anyone standing there at all.
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