The girls were feral, hard-edged and dirty in the late afternoon sunshine, fierce and fleeting under the midnight streetlamps. They came and went, shrieking or whispering, in large packs or small knots, but always together in some configuration. From what I could gather, they were all around eleven or twelve years old, but it was hard to tell from looking what their true ages were; they sported the ragged jeans and matted hair of younger children, right along with the lipstick and dark fingernails of older girls, of teenagers trying to seem older still. The only living things they got along with were the stray cats that lived between the neighborhood’s buildings, and each other. Grown men avoided them. The ice cream truck, out of fear, never came down our street, so when the girls wanted ice cream, they went to the corner convenience store to get it, staring the cashier dead in the eye while they stuffed candy in their pockets, watching as he cowered with his finger on the police button, never daring to push it.
I didn’t find out about the girl gangs until after I’d moved into the house. The realtor had been oddly tight-lipped when we came to this property. He probably wanted to get the place off his hands as quickly as possible, or maybe he just didn’t like hanging around in this part of town. I introduced myself to the neighbors before signing the paperwork, and they all seemed perfectly pleasant, though a bit reserved. “What do you think of the neighborhood?” I asked one after another. And one after another, they would tell me Oh, yes, it’s very nice, but they all seemed anxious to shut their front doors, sounding a symphony of deadbolts after they did. I suppose I should have known, shouldn’t have rushed into buying it, but the house was too perfect: an intricate old Victorian, immaculately preserved, on a gorgeous lot on the corner of Pacific and Grange, with a wrought-iron fence surrounding a yard full of lilacs and irises. It was more house than I needed, really, now that I was on my own, but I had enough money from my portion of the sale of Dell’s and my old place. And something in me had to have this house, needed it like oxygen. I couldn’t explain it. All I could do was sign my name and move in.
I was out in the front garden weeding between the about-to-bloom tiger lilies the first time I saw them. Four girls in bathing suits and flip-flops, their mouths popsicle red and Italian-ice blue. They carried long jagged sticks and whacked them against fence posts and fire hydrants as they strolled down the sidewalk, and then, without warning or discussion, they all dropped the sticks and broke out into a sprint. Somewhere in the distance, a door slammed. The girls tore off and disappeared around the corner, and a moment later, I heard some kind of crash and a shriek. I ran over to see if someone had been hurt and needed help, but when I got around the corner, I saw nothing, no hint of any trouble, or of the girls.
“Watch your back,” said a young man who was peering through the crack of his chain-locked front door as I passed on the way back to my yard. He was maybe twenty-five or thirty, tall and slouched with suspicious eyes.
I paused. “What’s that?”
“Those girls are wild. More like animals,” said the man.
I approached the door to ask what he meant, but he shut it before I could get to him. I stood there for a moment, bewildered, before going back to my own yard. The sounds of birds and distant traffic swirled through the air, and occasionally, a brief shout or screech from a neighboring block. There was an eerieness surrounding this neighborhood, maybe the whole small city we lived in. For all I knew, that eerieness permeated the entire world and I had simply never noticed it before.
The truth was, I regretted the house almost as soon as I moved into it. It felt selfish to have a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house plus a finished attic, and no one to live in it except me. I had wanted it so badly after all those years of living in the modern loft apartment downtown, the one that Dell had wanted and I had agreed to. I had vague memories from early in our marriage of Dell saying we didn’t need to move out of the city until we had children, but each time I asked about having any, Dell kept putting it off. After the holidays, next year, after my promotion goes through. There was always an excuse, and eventually, I stopped asking. Now, when I thought back to how easily I had given in to everything, I felt embarrassed. I could almost understand why he would leave me: the me he had married had eroded away to nothing.
When I saw the old Victorian on Pacific Avenue, it was like a flashback, like suddenly remembering where you put that sweater you lost years ago, or getting a whiff of your long-dead grandmother’s peach pie. It was the house I had wanted when I was a little girl, the one I’d gradually forgotten about through the decades of my marriage to Dell, the one with window seats and a turret and stained glass accents. And yet, when I came home each night after work, I wandered through the empty rooms, running my hands along the woodwork and scolding myself for the wastefulness of it. All that space just for one person. All the childish whimsies of window seats and towers that I should have grown out of long ago.
School was out—did the girls even go to school?—and the gangs roamed the neighborhood looking for things to do, looking for trouble, looking for something. Two smaller packs would meet up and join into one mega-gang, or small clusters would splinter off from the larger group to wreak havoc separately. They played jacks and jump rope, and when they got bored, they winged the jacks at people’s windows and tied smaller children to trees with the jump ropes. Once, I saw three girls cruise by in a stolen Ford Taurus, two in the front and one sprawled in the back with her dirty bare feet pressed up against the side window. The one in the front passenger seat, a scrappy little thing wearing a dandelion crown, threw rocks at mailboxes as they passed. According to the police report, the car wound up smashed into a Walk/Don’t Walk sign pole with a cinderblock on the gas pedal. None of the girls were injured, and no charges were pressed. I began to wish my house had a garage for my little Toyota.
It did have the tall iron fence, which locked at the gate, though that didn’t stop the girls from climbing over it and sunbathing in my yard. I caught them doing it once and was about to go out and say something when the phone rang. It was Tanya, a friend of Dell’s and mine, probably a little more his than mine. “Did you hear?” she said. “Dell and Laura had a baby. Little girl. You doing okay?” Tanya’s tone was salacious, hungry for drama.
Laura was Dell’s new wife, young enough to have been the child Dell never wanted to have with me. Now he had changed his mind, I supposed, set himself up with a nice little replacement family while I stared down the barrel of menopause and wondered, dizzy, what had happened. The cliché of it all was nauseating. And Tanya, oh, she was just digging for dirt, trying to stir up trouble. Maybe it was okay she was more Dell’s friend than mine. Maybe he could have her.
Before I could reply, I noticed movement out in the yard. The two sunbathing girls had gotten up from the grass and were picking my beautiful tiger lilies, breaking them off at the stem and gathering them all up. “I have to go,” I said into the phone, hanging up before Tanya could react and dashing out into the yard. “Hey,” I said at the girls, but they paid no attention. “Hey. Hey!”
With their hands full of flowers, they somehow managed to scale the fence and scramble over the top. They put the blossoms in the baskets of their bikes, which had been toppled on the sidewalk in front of my house and were now upright and ready to become getaway vehicles.
“Those are my flowers!” I shouted, but the girls continued to ignore me. “Hey!” I screamed, but off they rode. What could they have done at that point, anyway? Given them back? Replanted them in the ground? The damage was already done. I turned and surveyed the flower bed, and every last bright orange bloom was gone. I sunk onto my knees in the grass and sobbed. I knew it was silly to cry about flowers, but I couldn’t help it. My house, my beautiful home. Had I really ever wanted so much?
The phone rang inside the house—probably Tanya again—and I realized how foolish I must look: a middle-aged woman crying in a heap in the middle of her front yard. Pull yourself together, I thought, sniffling back my tears and straightening myself out. I stood up and looked around to check if anyone had seen me. The street was empty. But just as I was turning to go back in the house, I saw a curtain draw back from the front window of the house across the street. It was a little cottage that could have been lovely if it weren’t so run-down and overgrown with vines and unkempt shrubs. The curtain fluttered shut, and a moment later, the front door swung open. In the doorway stood an old woman, her wild white hair as overgrown as her yard. She stared at me, watched me like an owl, and didn’t speak until I turned away in retreat. “The brown-haired one lives at number 73,” she said. She must have seen the whole thing. I started walking toward her to talk, though I didn’t know about what, but as soon as I reached the sidewalk, she slammed her door shut again, disappearing inside.
I stared at her house for a minute, half expecting the door to reopen, and then I looked down the block toward number 73. I decided that I wasn’t going to take it anymore. If everyone else on the street wanted to live in fear, that was their problem. I went to the house and rang the doorbell. A man a little younger than me answered the door. “Is that your daughter, the little girl with the brown hair?” I asked.
The man, whose face was pale to begin with, blanched a shade further. Dark bags hung beneath his eyes, and he trembled slightly as he nodded.
“Well, she was cutting down the flowers in my yard,” I told him. “The gate was locked. She shouldn’t have been in there. Could you please talk to her and ask her not to hurt my property?”
“Oh,” said the father, his voice faint and vague. He ran a hand through his already ruffled hair. His eyes were focused somewhere past me, off in the distance.
I stepped in front of him to try and get into his line of sight. “Excuse me, did you hear what I said?”
“Sorry,” he said vaguely. But he didn’t look sorry so much as he looked like he was about to cry from exhaustion.
Guilt seized me. “Are you okay?” I asked.
The father seemed to snap awake just then, his eyes darting up and down the street, alarm spreading across his face. “I have to go,” he said, and he slammed the door shut.
What was happening in this neighborhood? I wandered home in a daze. Later that night, I saw light flickering through the window and looked out to find a dozen girls burning a bonfire right in the middle of the street. They were throwing things into it: magazines, articles of clothing, electronics. Whose things were they? What had those people done to deserve this? Someone held up a large football jersey and said something I couldn’t hear, and then she threw it in the fire and all the girls let out a loud whoop. I watched through the window, hypnotized by the flames. I could almost feel the heat on my skin, burning like righteous indignation.
I was sitting up in my window seat late one Saturday morning, trying to focus on a book. Outside at the old woman’s house, a pair of girls were taking turns swinging a baby doll like a baseball bat, thwacking it into a large rhododendron bush and stirring up the bees. The larger of the two girls was an elfin blonde wearing a red tank top with a black skull and crossbones drawn on it in marker. The smaller one had a pink tutu and a pair of scuffed kneepads on. They were caught up in swinging the doll when a man approached the larger of the two, who crossed her arms over her chest and stepped away from him. He was talking to her like he knew her, but she kept ignoring him. I thought that was just what they did, those girls, ignored everyone but each other. But then the man began grabbing at the girl’s arm, pulling at the hem of her tank top, right there, right in front of the other girl and the entire neighborhood. He shoved the elfin girl to the ground and I jumped up, ready to run out there or call the police, I wasn’t sure which. I could hardly breathe. The smaller girl was screaming, but the man kept grabbing, climbing on top of the first girl, filling my throat with bile.
There was a sound in the distance, growing louder. Caught up as he was in the struggle, the man didn’t see them right away when they came around the corner: five girls brandishing kitchen knives and screaming like eagles. They ran at him. He laughed when he saw them. Who could be afraid of a bunch of girls? He must not have been from nearby. He was still laughing, almost falling over from hilarity, when the first knife hit him in the thigh. It took a second blade to the shoulder before his face went serious, and by then, the girls were all over him. It all looked wild at first, a tornado of whipping hair and gleaming steel, yet when I looked more closely, it seemed like an orchestra, each girl playing her part, as if this weren’t the first time they had done it. The first two girls kept stabbing at his thighs and a third at his upper arms. A fourth one grabbed his hair, slicing off uneven bits of it. The smallest girl in the bunch had a little paring knife, which she jabbed at his hands each time he tried to push a girl away or grab one of them and fight back.
When they decided he had had enough, they all rose in unison, forming a circle around him as he lay bleeding on the ground. The elfin girl, who had been watching the entire affair from the side, walked into the center of the circle. One of the others handed her a large serrated knife. She leaned down and grabbed him by the shirt. He scrambled to get to his feet, but the other girls closed in, wielding their weapons, and he quickly got back down and stayed there. The girl took the knife and held it to his throat for a minute. She leaned down and whispered something into his ear. And then she sliced through his shirt and pulled it off of him, throwing it onto the grass.
The man shivered. The girl in the tutu came over and pulled the shoes off of his feet. She took his socks, too, pummeling him about the face with them for a moment before running off and jamming the shoes and socks down the storm drain. The elfin girl crouched down with her knife again and sliced the man’s pants off, snick snick snick. He was talking now, gesturing to her, the movements of please, no, stop, just let me go and I’ll leave you alone. But she leaned in, her knife to his crotch, and did not pull back. The man was squirming now, trying to get up again, but all the other girls knelt on the ground and held down his arms and legs. The girl in the red tank top sliced off his underwear and threw it into the street. She spit on him, kicked him once, hard, in the ribs, and then the entire group of them scattered, leaving him stranded, naked, and bloody on a stranger’s lawn.
My mouth was hanging open, I realized, having watched the entire scene so frozen with attention that I hadn’t even dropped my book. I looked around, trying to absorb what had just happened. Should I call the police? And if I did, would I be calling them to help him or the girl he had accosted? The man stumbled to his feet, picking up the tattered remnants of his clothing and trying, with little success, to cover himself. He had only limped a few steps toward the sidewalk when a cop car pulled up, bleeping the siren at him once. While he didn’t seem like a man who, under normal circumstances, would go with the police willingly, he put up no fight when they handcuffed him, wrapped him in a scratchy-looking blanket, and shoved him in the backseat.
I stood staring out the window for I don’t even know how long. The only evidence of what had just happened was the battered baby doll lying near the rhododendron, and I simultaneously wondered if I had imagined it all and knew that I hadn’t. I stayed frozen there until the curtain at the old woman’s house cracked open, and I could feel her questioning eyes on me. I stepped away from the window and walked through the rest of the day in a daze. I ate cookies and popcorn for dinner. I lay on the floor and listened over and over to an old record I had loved as a teenager. I got in front of the bathroom mirror and put on all the makeup I owned, trying to make myself look like someone familiar.
That night, I lay in bed, unable to sleep despite the perfect cool breeze drifting in through the window screen. A memory was unearthing itself: of being twelve, of being part of my own girl gang. We wandered the streets of our neighborhood wearing superhero capes we fashioned out of our mothers’ silk scarves. We walked into strangers’ houses and stole cookies and glasses of milk. After rescuing a stray cat from a boy who was throwing rocks at it, we waged a summer-long campaign of torture against the boy, beating on him mercilessly, mocking him, and setting up elaborate hoaxes to convince him his house was haunted. We drove him so far over the edge that his family had to move away. How had I forgotten I had been one of those girls, too? How had I forgotten what the world was?
I drifted off sometime after midnight, but woke again just a few hours later. There was a sound coming from outside, a prolonged scream that sounded like it could tear the sky apart. I got up and looked out the window, saw girls lining up along the street, screaming into the night. Just standing there, all of them, faces toward the stars, shrieking. I went downstairs and out the front door, left the gate open, joined them on the sidewalk. Across the street, the old woman who lived in the overgrown cottage was coming out, too. All around, women were walking out their front doors and coming to the sidewalk, young mothers and old widows and those of us somewhere in the middle, something else. I lifted my face and howled. We all did. All the girls and women in the neighborhood, we all screamed for what we had and lost, and what we had brought upon ourselves, and what we would never have.