Brigitte watches her mother swat at a mosquito, sending ashes from her cigarette into her coarse gray hair. She’s smoked it past the filter, an orange nub in her fingers the size of a peanut. She’s always been this way, siphoning the last dab of nicotine out of every inch of a cigarette. Brigitte has never understood this.
“Tell me again,” her mother says. “Who threw the first punch?”
“I did,” Brigitte says.
“Not the truth,” her mother says, shaking her head. “What you’ll say to the principal.”
“He did,” Brigitte says. It’s not completely a lie. Stephen Miller threw a fist last week. Just not a literal one. And not at her.
Her mother nods, the tip of her cigarette lighting like a firefly in the fading September heat. “That’s what to say,” she says. Her voice creaks, drags on like the scuff of a shoe on hardwood. “You know how not to get caught up in stuff like this.”
The mosquito, buzzing between them, descends onto Brigitte’s kneecap, casting a delicate shadow from the light above the door. This apartment is new. Her mother found it on a housing site after the last one shut off their water. It’s cheaper, farther out, suburban with more space for less money. Just a stopgap, her mother says, until she finds a better job, or gets a pay raise. She’s always talking about better jobs. She’s worked at Hobby Lobby since Brigitte was in first grade.
The mosquito crawls up her kneecap, so small that Brigitte cannot feel it. She thinks about smacking it, watching the burst of blood erupt on her leg, but she waits for the tiny head to dip down toward her skin. Amazing, she thinks, the proboscis so narrow that it can reach down through layers of her skin and never once feel like a needle. She did a research project on mosquitoes in middle school, where she learned that it’s not the mosquito’s bite that people react to, but the saliva that mosquitoes use to lubricate the opening. The binding process of saliva to skin causes the irritation.
“Anyway,” her mother says, “whatever’s going on, he probably likes you. You know how boys act when they like a girl.”
She wants to tell her mom that this is not true, that boys get away with this excuse all the time, but Brigitte can tell she’s no longer part of the conversation. Her mother is in another one of her phases—new boyfriend, this time is different, he’s as nice as he seems. Now his name is Dale, or Dane, or Dave, or some other four-letter name that begins with a D, the sort of guy who still thinks wrinkled suits and jeans will make him look professorial. They’ve only been dating a month, but he is all over their new two-bedroom like he’s never lived anywhere else, leaving his shoes in the tray by the door, his tie over the back of the chair, his toothbrush carelessly in the cup where it sometimes rolls into Brigitte’s. She’s ticking the days until he’s gone, no less than two months but rarely more than six. The math on her mother is predictable.
“I hate him,” Brigitte says instead.
“You think you hate him,” her mother says. She scratches her head, the sound like a rustling paper bag, sending cigarette ash to the porch. “Whatever is happening between you and these boys will pass.”
You and Dale will pass too, Brigitte says. Except she doesn’t. She leans back in the patio chair, staring at the fading sunlight. A single cicada chirps, cyclical and grinding like a car motor. Others will start soon.
“Just leave it alone, okay?” she says. The mosquito takes off. She’ll have a red welt in the morning.
Her mother pats the cigarette carton on the railing and pulls out a fresh one, the old nub throwing up a thin sheen of smoke. She flicks the lighter three times before the flame catches, swaying softly. “Don’t make me come pick you up from school early again,” she says, taking a deep breath, exhaling it up toward the stars. “Handle yourself better than that.”
Natalie sits next to Brigitte in homeroom. They’ve sat next to each other since kindergarten, their last names side by side in the alphabet, Smith and Smalley. Brigitte is already there, her books open, staring at her AP Biology handout. There’s a quiz today, so she copies down the definition of zygote: a fertilized egg. The stage after that is an embryo, although she can’t find any information about when that next phase occurs. She flips back and forth through the biology textbook, frustrated.
Natalie sits at the table next to her. They’re in the art room with their homeroom teacher Mr. Henderson, whose hair is slick and gelled. Brigitte’s mom dated a guy like that four months ago. Now every time Mr. Henderson looks at her, she feels her hair prickle. She and Natalie are sitting on uncomfortable stools, grey metal with wooden circles screwed on top. She has nowhere to lean back, and the tables are black and cold on her forearms.
Natalie turns her head to look at her cheeks in her pocket mirror. She’s been carrying it since school started, checking her reflection every day in homeroom because she just has to get Mike Harvey to ask her to prom. Brigitte ignored it at first, but sometimes when Natalie swings her head around, she hits Brigitte with her ponytail.
“You know prom isn’t for another six months,” Brigitte says, but Natalie shakes her head and laughs in a high flutter, pulling back her lips and running her tongue over her teeth to check for flecks of food or lipstick. She holds up the mirror and scrubs her index finger along a thin line of makeup caught in a crease. If Brigitte had been asked back in kindergarten who Natalie would grow up to be, she would not have predicted this version. Natalie was skinny and hyperactive, their elementary school years spent digging in dirt and building cities of mud, brushing sandbox grains from their hair and smelling of sun-bleached sweat. Their friendship is one of memories and proximity.
“I heard what happened Friday,” Natalie says. She strokes her eyelashes with mascara, her mouth hanging open.
“Who told you about last Friday?” Brigitte asks, though she’s only half listening.
“I don’t know,” Natalie says, blinking fast. “Everyone is talking about it. Stephen, huh? I thought you were done after that fight with Jared.”
Brigitte turns a page of her notebook and recopies the definition on a clean sheet of paper.
“I mean, I don’t blame you,” Natalie says. “Stephen is also—” But she stops, lightly tugging a clump of mascara from the edge of her eye, pinching it with surgical nails.
The loudspeaker pages Brigitte to the main office. Brigitte stands up before Natalie can hit her with her ponytail, leaving her notes about eggs and zygotes and embryos behind.
In the same research project, Brigitte learned that male mosquitoes only mate when they reach adulthood, while females are ready to mate immediately. The male will take his pincers and latch onto the female, extending himself out until he inseminates. A geometry problem, a shape in midair until the male solves it with aggression. Female mosquitoes often mate only once in their lives, but the males will move on, finding dozens of females, over and over until they die. Brigitte thinks this is wildly unfair.
Principal Emerson is a stern woman with short hair bleached a stinging bright blond. She wears an Easter egg pink shirt and suit jacket, the button straining at her waist. The kids call her Ole Ralph whenever she comes on the loudspeaker. Ralph, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, though there’s no meaning beyond the delight at giving their cropped-haired principal a nickname. She looks up when Brigitte walks in, her hands clasped on her desk like a child who has just captured a toad. Brigitte crosses her arms over her chest immediately.
“You know why you’re here,” Ole Ralph says.
Brigitte says nothing. She sits and stares at an American flag button on Ole Ralph’s lapel.
“You want to tell me about what happened last period on Friday?”
“Nothing happened,” Brigitte says. “He punched me, so I punched him back.”
Before last year, she only had one dealing with Ole Ralph. It was her first year of high school, when she came to school out of dress code, wearing shorts on a Wednesday in January. Brigitte was sent home, told to change and come back. She’d only been wearing the shorts because her mother had borrowed her last clean pair of khaki pants and not returned them. But now she’s been in Ole Ralph’s office twice since the school year started, and once the spring before.
“Okay,” Ole Ralph says. She pulls a yellow pad toward her, clicks a pen from the cup on her desk. “Why don’t you start at the beginning?”
“There is no beginning,” Brigitte says. “That’s the whole story.”
Ole Ralph taps her pen on the desk, waiting. Brigitte looks around Ole Ralph’s office. The entire room is decorated in mahogany furniture, from the chair Ole Ralph sits on, to the desk, to the bookcase. Behind Ole Ralph, resting on the window sill, is a tiny statue of Mother Theresa, her arms open, extending toward Brigitte. The bookshelf has a few hardback covers, all varying shades of red with gold lettering along the spines. She can make out some of the words, including an author named Dale. She takes this as an omen, thinking of the Dale that’s been slumping around her apartment for the last couple of weeks, snores reaching all the way into the living room. There’s also a clock, a small plant, two plaques displaying Ole Ralph’s degrees, and a photograph of her with her arms around two children. Brigitte imagines her running through a backyard somewhere, chasing them in circles. She imagines Ole Ralph bandaging scraped knees and reading picture books for them to fall asleep. It’s surprisingly easy to picture the woman before her as a mother, the sharp tone gone, the kids snuggled warmly on her lap.
“Okay, Brigitte, listen,” Ole Ralph says, clicking her pen again, leaning forward like she’s sharing a secret. “Something went down between you and Jared last month—”
“Still nope,” Brigitte says, sitting back.
“— and there was another boy last spring. Now there are students saying you walked up to Stephen and punched him in the jaw, unprovoked, and just walked away.”
“Who’s saying that?” Brigitte asks. “Stephen’s friends?”
“Are you telling me you have a different story?”
“What if my friends say he punched me first?”
“Were any of your friends there?”
“Were any of Stephen’s?”
Ole Ralph leans back in her chair and drops the pen on the legal pad, folding her arms to mirror Brigitte. They sit for a moment, glaring.
“Listen,” Ole Ralph says, her voice softening. “Brigitte, I don’t know the full story with any of these things. But—”
The bell rings for first period. Ole Ralph stops, sighing. She taps an index finger along her arm and looks up at the ceiling.
“I’ve been an administrator for a long time,” she says finally. She meets Brigitte’s gaze, holding it steady. “I know it’s never simple. If you want to tell your side of the story, I’m listening, okay?”
Brigitte feels small suddenly, her eyes stinging like she might cry. “Can I go?” she asks, and her voice quakes, suddenly a child. If her tears were intentional, it would be a brilliant move to really convince Ole Ralph of her innocence. But she is not in control. She feels like she’s in trouble for leaving her biology book behind in the art room. She feels like Ole Ralph has just yelled at her, even though the principal has not raised her voice, and the meeting is not about biology at all.
“So?” Natalie asks at lunch. Brigitte pulls the cheese off her pizza, clumping it in the corner of her paper plate. “Are you in trouble?”
Brigitte wipes the sauce off next. She’s nauseous from that morning, but she likes the bread, the soft undercooked pizza dough that looks like skin after a long shower.
“No, I’m not in trouble,” she says.
“How?” Natalie asks, but when Brigitte shakes her head, she laughs. “You’re amazing.”
Brigitte chews the pizza until it feels like stale gum on her tongue.
“If I can ask, though,” Natalie says, lowering her voice, holding a hand up to her mouth. “What did Stephen do?”
It’s a performative gesture, as if Brigitte is about to reveal some huge secret and Natalie wants everyone to notice. She looks around the room, but Natalie’s prom-date-project Mike Harvey isn’t anywhere in the cafeteria.
“He was just being gross,” Brigitte says, poking at the folded cheese on her plate with a plastic fork. What she really wants is some water, but the cafeteria only has apple juice in plastic half-cup cartons. “Saying pervy stuff, you know? About that freshman cheerleader. Talking about her body. So I thought he needed to get punched.”
“Which cheerleader?” Natalie asks. “I didn’t know you were friends with anyone in cheerleading.”
Brigitte shrugs. She pulls the foil lid off the juice. A line of stringy adhesive clings to the lip, and she puts it back down. “I’m not.”
Natalie nods seriously, folding her hands, gazing at the window. Brigitte can already imagine her talking to her field hockey team after school, telling them how Brigitte managed to get away with punching another boy and Ole Ralph still couldn’t pin it on her. By tomorrow, the story will have grown beyond recognition. She can’t remember how long Natalie has been like this, breathing air into stories until they puff up like balloons, soaring high overhead.
On the school camping trip last spring, Natalie showed Brigitte her left arm, inflamed, hot, bumpy beneath her spray tan. She poked it with her nails, watching the skin bleach and darken again, and delightedly declared she had “at least poison ivy, unless I’ve contracted some sort of fungal infection.”
“Those are bug bites,” Brigitte said. Toothpaste dripped from her mouth and onto the leafy floor.
“Poison oak?” Natalie asked hopefully.
“Something got inside your sleeping bag,” Brigitte said. She rinsed her teeth from her water bottle. “Probably a mosquito. Sorry, Nat, it’s boring this time.”
Natalie looked down at her arm, disappointed. “Why do they even eat blood,” she said, her lip pouting.
“They don’t,” Brigitte said. “They eat nectar.”
Only female mosquitoes bite. They need the blood to successfully incubate and lay their eggs, their zygotes. Even though the males can mate as many times as they want, they never need to bite humans. They just fly from one female mosquito to the next, impregnating each one and leaving the female mosquito to search for blood for the zygote. Every mosquito swatted while biting a leg, arm, finger, foot—is a female. As far as Brigitte is concerned, every female mosquito death is a male mosquito's fault.
Mom is already home when Brigitte drops her backpack by the kitchen table. She sits in the recliner next to the balcony, smoke fogging the overhead lights. All the curtains are drawn.
“How was school?”
Brigitte brushes ash off the table, scratching at a light ring in the surface. She’s never seen a single coaster around the apartment. “It’s not dark yet,” Brigitte says, pointing at the blue slice through the drawn blinds.
“How about that,” Mom says. “Listen, Dale and I are headed out for dinner tonight, but I thought you could order yourself a pizza? I’ve left some cash on the table.”
Brigitte nods, taking the change over to her room. She shuts the door, opens all the blinds to let the light finger in, and splays herself across her bed, face down, her arms holding her chest. The walls of her room are bare. She has artwork to hang, posters and sketches and even a painting, but the lease doesn’t allow her to nail anything to the walls.
Brigitte only heard second-hand that Stephen Miller had made sexual comments about a freshman cheerleader from the table behind her at lunch last Friday. She leaned back, expecting more from the gossiping girls, but they already shifted topics, the harassment a cliffnote, a consequence.
She closes her eyes, pressing her palms to her face until stars erupt, remembering instead the flick of her mother’s lighter and a man’s cologne between them. And Brigitte remembers her mother smoking the cigarette down to a nub, four or five or maybe seven boyfriends ago, as the cushions deflated under his weight, and she watched his hands reach for her mother’s body like it was an object he already owned.
She will punch these men, every last one of them. She wants to draw blood.