I Seek You

I Seek You by Katherine Zlabek

Carrie and Steva met the boys online. This was after another long basketball practice where Pam could not stop talking, this time about something on the internet called ICQ. Because she could not stop talking about it, Pam missed all of her free throws—and caused others to miss theirs in the grand manner—air balls, hard banks, no rim, not even the embarrassing swoosh of bottom netting—and the team had paid for each missed shot with sprints, killers, rat races. The coach switched to sit-ups out of fear, he said, that they would faint and crack their heads open, that they would try to drive home and pass out. He made clear this was Pam’s fault.

Pam smiled. Her face deepened from red to maroon and still she was without sweat. It was rumored she felt no pain, due to some drug her older brothers sold. In the locker room, she insisted Carrie and Steva get on ICQ. It was unclear what “getting on” meant. Steva’s family had bought a computer last year, and Carrie would come by to use PrintShop when someone in her family had a birthday. Carrie thought of the computer as a cardmaker, a bizarre investment, and wondered how many cards Steva’s family would have to print before it paid for itself.

Pam persisted. She stood in the doorway and blocked their way out. The light overhead flickered fluorescent in its steel casing, and her hands, blue-veined and cracked along the knuckles, gripped streamers from the leftover homecoming posters that covered the walls, as though she were about to bring the locker room down around them unless they agreed.

They did not consider themselves close friends with Pam. The girls often had conversations about how their team would do better if Pam would stop being anorexic. But the girl was tall and prone to wild mood swings, which was why she started. When she had the energy, Pam found ways of elbowing girls’ teeth bloody without drawing a foul. She could sprint down the court, leap, and block a lazy layup, fisting the ball into the bleachers. In her free time she rode four-wheelers, trespassing through acres of pasture with the boys who chewed and spit. Because Pam was frustrating and frightening and in their way, Carrie asked what ICQ was.

“It’s a life changer,” she said, then turned on her heel and fled the locker room. Pam was peeling out of the parking lot in her rust-bottomed Caprice Classic by the time the girls made it outside. The snow banks were mottled and pocked from grade-school kids in dirty boots. Steva’s hair stood, freezing into deviled ringlets at her temples. Carrie’s bare legs steamed and prickled. At the school entrance, the coach stood in a parka, saying his goodnights. Their coach was a short, bald man who seemed to have worked very hard throughout his thirty-some years to get to a place where he could coach girls’ high school basketball. Her whole life, Carrie would never understand what motivated that sort of person. He was also the sort of person to whom she would watch Steva endear herself repeatedly. Even after they’d grown and lived on separate coasts, Carrie would see Steva posing online with people who had niche, not necessarily desirable, expertise, like the second George Bush.

The coach told Carrie and Steva to eat three eggs for supper, which he always did, and they would always report back to him that they had, and the town seemed to think this attitude, the girls’ attitude, would get them far.


The two girls were not flirtatious, and their friendship was built on the suggestion that the other was serious about life. Here was a friend, they thought, who will not lead me to ruin. Both families had ingrained in their daughters that life wasn’t exactly for living, that they should be intelligent enough not to believe that line. Their parents had planted their homes far out of town to manage any spur-of-the-moment rapes or accidental drug use. Out there, everything was executed with intention, patience: farming, stalking. The two friends exchanged few intimacies and admitted to no extreme psychological states. They would be good company to one another until each became a doctor or a lawyer or learned Greek. They plotted and weighed while they drove back and forth, to and from advanced classes at the nearby university: what to do next. Because all they were doing right now was eating eggs over medium and going to basketball practice after Spanish club, and then doing calculus.

That Friday night, the girls connected to the internet and sat in front of the computer—Steva on a folding chair and Carrie on a footstool. They took turns checking email and neither had anything except for a group message sent from a teammate during Monday’s study hall, saying they were going to slaughter the Bloomington Muskrats at their Wednesday night game. They’d done exactly that. The two logged out of their accounts and disconnected from the dialup and drank diet sodas and ate a full package of cookies. They read fitness magazines. Sometimes they would rent a video from the gas station and watch it on repeat, sleeping on the couches as it played, until it was due back.

The phone rang, and it was Pam. “I knew it,” she said, “you’re not even connected to the internet.” Then she threatened them with her brothers in the same way she had since kindergarten.

“Hang up and we’ll get on. Okay?” Steva whined when she was annoyed. Her voice broke. She sounded like a child barkeep from Yonkers.

In a few minutes, they were back online. It took a half hour to download the program, and the girls watched the screen for the entire time that the percentage-done bar filled and fluctuated on the screen. The program asked for a user name, and Steva decided on StevaandCarrie—they both thought it was better than SweetCheeks1999, which the prompt suggested. Then a bar popped up on the right hand side of the screen with a green daisy at the top and a message box appeared in the center of the screen, welcoming them. With each new box came the sound of a single drop of water falling into a clogged sink. That sound always reminded Carrie of adolescence—peering into the mirror while sitting on the vanity top, a pink disposable razor and some six-week miracle potion at hand. The sound was desperate to be happy.

Then three more boxes appeared: one from PamelaPummelya, one from Rooster81, and one from Hartburn2000.


hey babes, one box read.

is it really both of you??? lol, read the other.

What was lol? Neither girl knew. A typo, then, or a new way of existing—lolling around on Friday night. They asked one another what to write. Steva squealed and gurgled as though she were being strangled. She cleared her throat. They wrote Who are you? twice. They wrote Yes once. They had never been called babes before—neither separately nor together—and a tight panic pulled them to the screen. Carrie clicked the mouse around the pad when the two agreed it was time, when they’d calmed enough to make a decision.

You’re welcome, Pam wrote. Then her green flower switched to gray. She was offline.


Neither girl knew either boy. Brent and Caleb attended high school in another scattershot farm town a few miles down the highway. They shopped at the same Wal-Mart, and their teams played in the same division. The girls couldn’t consider them strangers. Pam knew both boys. Her father’s back forty ran alongside the alfalfa and soybeans Caleb’s family grew. She and Caleb had been raised in that atmosphere of neighborly bickering, of cattle getting out, the trampling of crops, hunting violations. It didn’t need to be said: at some point, Pam had kissed Caleb, and maybe more, and maybe Brent, too. That was the meaning of proximity, and the girls thought only that Pam had offered the boys, and could now offer Steva and Carrie, an education. Pam became friendly. She began to stalk the girls’ lockers and call them bitches in the hallway. The girls blushed at the attention. During warm-ups and stretches, the three twisted, elbow over knee, and Pam told them how the boys had been asking about them for months. Now that the girls had names to listen for—Brent, Caleb— they heard them while people passed in the hallway, talking about the past weekend. Kids in their high school called this other town Assville, and spread rumors about the inevitability of getting crabs from sitting on toilet seats in that school. Steva and Carrie discussed with passion how this seemed unfair. The attitude tainted their newfound joys.

The boys had congratulated the two on the recent victory against their own girls’ basketball team. It took, the girls decided, the proper amount of time for the boys to compliment their looks. And then they talked about other things that were popular at the time: whether or not the boys boosted their engines with NOS (one did, one used to), how loud they could blast their car speakers at the gas station after installing a system, which songs to download from Napster. The boys made recommendations—depressive, adrenaline-thumped bands the girls knew from weightlifting class. The girls would listen to those bands until they left town, and then drop them like some dialect they could no longer imagine speaking. Carrie would go through a phase a few years down the line where she disliked bands, the radio, noise altogether. She read poetry in absolute silence and spoke to no one from that earlier period of life, including Steva, who was then learning Flamenco.

The boys were both familiar and strange, and the girls felt comforted by the messages of encouragement they would leave when the girls were not online. Caleb and Brent sent lines of roses made from the @ sign and strings of hyphens and apostrophes. It was sweet, they agreed. Neither girl knew who the flowers were addressed to, which boy had sent to which girl. The boys were college-bound, and the girls focused on how the boys seemed safe and thoughtful compared to those in their town.

Now the girls would not need to flirt in their own hallways, would not need to show a thin ribbon of panty above their jeans. There was no need to cry in the bathroom, or let their grades slip, or suck face at their lockers while the widowed history teacher watched. No one had to know about the boys, their conversations. Neither girl would be stripped of her day-to-day practicality, her sexless stoicism, the polo shirts and cardigans Steva had taught Carrie to wear.

New, private lives opened all around them. Girls from other schools, boys they had never spoken to in Chemistry, added StevaandCarrie to their contact list, and conversations blossomed. The green flower swirled, and they waited, logging on. Nothing in high school changed. During the day, the students in Carrie and Steva’s school walked the halls between classes as if they hadn’t spent their lives growing up with one another. As if they didn’t care, until one threw a punch during lunch hour, or the boys tossed a ketchuped hotdog toward the girl’s table. The internet was a secret cave they explored at night, a cult into which they’d been initiated at no shameful cost. It was another world. The Spanish teacher had taught the girls that, in Spain, walking around after supper in your best clothes was something done: people chatted, they spoke about politics and fell in love. With ICQ, they were claiming part of that, as neither of them, for years, had done a thing that truly interested them. Their lives were a string of ways to keep busy.

Perhaps that was why it was easy for Brent and Caleb to amuse them. The girls had just gotten their drivers licenses, and still. What was there to do? There was a thrill in playing the music the boys had recommended from a burned CD. They played it loudly while they drove to school, to the university, and back. It felt like a connection they could sustain.


Three days a week, the girls checked in with the high school office at eight, and then left for their university classes—calculus and composition. Steva drove them in a black F150—a hand-me-down from her father. During the twenty-minute drive there and then back, the girls discussed the unlikelihood that kissing would be enjoyable. The nonsensical act, the uncouth inclination to lick the inside of another’s mouth.

Carrie and Steva spent the week’s other two mornings in the cafeteria, where they overheard the lunch ladies cussing the administration and dropping pans and telling stories about acquiring and treating back pain. The lunch ladies closed the doors on the girls and made jokes about their being the principal’s spies. The girls grew nauseous from the smells of goulash, whispered over their textbooks, and said nothing about kissing. They did not mention the name of either boy. The lunch ladies were gossips, and when the two finished their chemistry worksheets, they sat side-by-side to read and translate sections from Love in the Time of Cholera for Spanish. They swooned over their Spanish-to-English dictionaries. Each became certain their Spanish teacher was able to keep her job only because no one could understand the intimacies they discussed with abandon each afternoon. The advanced class had five students, all girls, and it felt like the instructions for life they couldn’t receive elsewhere.

Each Friday, after practice, the girls took showers and positioned themselves in front of Steva’s computer. Their wet hair dripped over the keyboard, and they chastised one another out of fear the system would be shorted. Steva clicked to connect and the long, protracted honks and beeps of dialing on followed.

It was never discussed, but it became clear to Carrie that Steva logged on during the week. Carrie sat on the footstool beside her friend and watched the conversations grow disjointed, the alliances shift. Dialogues addressed Steva, mentioned Carrie. In the hallways, friends they saw daily but hadn’t spoken to since they were children began to mutter to Steva, and she would laugh. Carrie had not known Steva possessed the power to make anyone nervous, but her laughter was like a dispensation, like a balm that eased the tension among the cliques that Carrie had not understood existed. A relief began to travel throughout Carrie, an idea that she could float above life without interacting with it, that things could settle into place without the weight of her placing them. She observed and understood that Caleb was someone she would soon date. It had been arranged in the way that water finds the lowest valley to flood. She felt the distance between herself and Steva. It was not a growing distance, not a change in feeling, but the distance she’d known throughout childhood and kept in the service of something on which she couldn’t quite place a finger. It could be put like this: It was easier to have Steva, than not to have Steva, in the same way that it was easier to playact caring about basketball than it was to be told she should be playing basketball.

One Saturday, the girls drove out of town for a matinee. The county road was clear, and banks of stale, sullied snow outlined divots in the hills and rock cuts. It was February, and because it seemed they had talked about everything else, Carrie said, “It’s hard to even imagine the act of kissing.” Their old, common sentiment. She returned to it the way another person might return to the weather. She yawned.

“I know,” Steva said. But she had said it wrong, without energy. She said, “Actually—” There was a squeal in her voice. It was the voice she used when she called plays on the court. She used it now when she told Carrie she’d spent last night giving Brent a long, drawn-out, directed blowjob. “It lasted three hours. He kept telling me how to do it. It didn’t even work.”

For a long time, Carrie was quiet, trying to account for the skipped steps. The math seemed off: an endeavor like that, she presumed, required intention and the forethought of how to make a boy comfortable enough to lead things to that point. How, for instance, had she approached Brent to unzip his pants? Had she asked him whether she could? Eventually, Carrie would learn that, when a woman is with a man, there’s not time to think about whether or not she should, or how she feels about the tongue in her mouth because the mouth is already being moved from one place to the other. It was like a waterpark slide: a long line, suffering under boredom and fear and anticipation, and then—no control over the body and no time to notice something as subtle as a feeling. A person was thrown into a pool where others were thrashing, whiplashed, in bandaids and vomit. There were no decisions, there was only getting out of the way for the next person.

“Huh,” Carrie said. She was still marveling about the distance between meeting a boy and blowing him. “So you met him last night?”

Steva told Carrie that her parents had instructed her to take her own truck as a safety measure. She had met his parents, ate brownies, and then he had walked her to her truck. They had spoken outside of it for a while, and then they were inside the truck, to keep warm, and then she was topless.

“His parents were really nice,” Steva said, and the girls bought their tickets and settled into their seats. The movie was about a terminally ill woman who periodically seduced men into becoming better people. It was a disappointment, and Carrie forgot about it for many years, until she realized that this was the role she perpetually failed to play. Her relationships ended, both parties in a state of frustration, where no one could point to exactly what she’d done wrong.


It was four when the movie ended, and a halfhearted snow was falling against the day’s dim light. The girls made short, silent work of the salted parking lot and climbed into the truck. Steva turned the engine, and cold air roared through the vents. Behind them, a car honked once. Then the driver laid on the horn for a full ten seconds. Steva looked in her rearview mirror, and shrieked. Carrie turned and saw a LeSabre painted watered-down blue with an orange V pasted on the hood. It reminded Carrie of a beak, or some piece of industrial equipment geared toward destruction. It was a car that wanted to peck and pry, a car that wanted to cleave. In the front seat were two teenage boys.

Steva ducked into the fold of her seat. Carrie stared at the boys until she asked her friend, “Are we in their way?” The parking lot wasn’t half full.

Her friend groaned. Steva stayed bent over and opened the truck door and fell to her feet. Carrie watched Steva hold her face in her hands as she walked to the Buick. The driver got out and opened his arms. His corduroy jacket was stuffed with fleece and his bare wrists and forearms stuck from its sleeves. He wrapped himself around Steva and kissed her head. Even then, Carrie was denying that these two boys were Brent and Caleb. Each cell in her body registered disappointment. Brent’s jawline was enflamed, as if he had been picking at scabs while they waited, and every move he made jittered with some energy Carrie didn’t trust. Caleb’s face was round and clear, a handsome blur with a goatee. Carrie couldn’t reconcile his looks with the squeezed pit of her stomach. He got out of the car and asked Steva, “She doesn’t like us?”

These were not the boys she’d been talking to. The boys outside were the same vulnerable, angry boys she would see hanging outside the gas station dressed in leather when she was young, and who she was afraid she might offend by looking at them, or by wearing a skirt that was too pink. The absurdity, she thought then, even as a child, of donning a shirt decaled with a mermaid on a rock, thrusting her breasts at the world. The leather was more appropriate, a thick, hostile layer. She would run an errand—buy some bread, pay for gas, while her mother stayed in the car—and expect these boys to threaten her. They only went so far as to jump and stop themselves short. In middle age, her dog would do the same thing on her leash while running away from large animals.

Now she had offended Caleb and Brent by not getting out of the car quickly enough, and the majority of her self felt she could easily sit there on through the night, under the heat’s blast, and not care. It was clear the boys did not have anything she needed or wanted.

But she would get out. Carrie sensed this was important to Steva. Important in the same way that Steva liked to please the basketball coach and ask adults whether she was doing anything at all correctly—eating shrimp, parting her hair. It was patient work, being her friend. Carrie looked in the rearview at the boys, who were now gesturing for her to come out of the car by pounding their chests with both hands and wiggling their fingers as though they wanted to fight. Steva laughed. Carrie wondered if these boys were only a means, tools toward some greater end of which only Steva was aware. She was certain they were not worth snapping out of the dreamy assumptions that allowed her to drift through the world.

Carrie smiled as she approached them. Brent made a comment about Carrie being shy. “But that’s why you like her,” Brent said. “She’s a kitten.” Caleb rolled his neck, dropped his posture. “Hey, Care,” he said. He ran his tongue over his teeth, and then smiled with those now-glistening teeth. She imagined he must have been looking at her like this for months, imagining away layers as she ran up and down the court, as she pushed her butt into other girls, boxing them out. It made her want to quit the team, to imagine the bleachers full of men who looked at them in the same way while shouting that they do or should have done, this or the other thing. But Steva looked from Carrie to Caleb affectionately, and pushed out a protracted aw. That was all she communicated to Carrie, and it was enough.

The boys insisted they get into the Buick. They had to pick up some floor mats with tread at K-Mart. Carrie had never thought to expect anything more from a date. She knew from stories that this was what they were, that boys no longer asked girls out and girls didn’t inquire as to what might happen next. The car had vinyl seats and the wells had been recently washed, vacuumed. There was a soup can in the cup holder with the meatless rind of a hamburger bun floating in a slurry of spit and chew. The girls felt around for seat belts but didn’t make a show of it. At one point their hands glanced one another, and they both pulled back quickly, like the victim who jumps at the ringing phone while expecting an axe murderer. Brent backed out of the parking spot and floored a long S out of the lot, down the highway, and into the store lot, without slowing for traffic. There were no stoplights in town. Before Steva and Carrie were allowed to drive one another around, Carrie’s mother had sat them down and told them they were both precious cargo.

In the store, the girls went one way and the boys went another. Carrie needed to buy pads and thought she might be able to buy them unnoticed. She would hide the pack in her jacket pocket. But Steva did not let them walk down that aisle. She hissed, with her head down, and led them to the rows of CDs. There they had time to convene, to try to discuss what was happening. They didn’t. They hadn’t operated at that depth before. Carrie felt the hard tank of their friendship, its sinking, and couldn’t yet consider it a loss. There was a section of motion sensor lights a row in front of them, and Carrie watched how the many-colored bulbs switched on and off with the turn of her head, as though she faced a brigade of over-eager policemen. On a TV screen to their side, the girls were being filmed, monitored, broadcast to the store. Carrie watched as the boys came up behind them. They laid their floor mats across the video racks, and leaned to chat to one another, pointing at each girl in turn. Carrie tried to understand her own anguish. The boys were not what she expected, but no more imperfect than anyone else walking around. She sensed, because they had stalked the girls for so long and from such a distance, because the girls had so little experience, because the boys had required Pam’s introduction, that they had struck out with many girls in many places. There was something wrong with the boys. There was something off, she thought, about their breath, the smell of Caleb’s beard, the way Brent’s eyes moved side to side, that could never have been detected online. She wondered whether these were traits that would fade with age—if, in four years, the boys would grow comfortable, calm, gain weight and thoughtfulness and insight. She had heard of this happening. Carrie studied the boys as they came up behind her and Steva, slowly, and then poked their fingers into the girls’ sides. Carrie’s back arched and her shirt climbed her belly. Caleb’s fingers were forceful through her unzipped coat, and let up only to move from outside her coat to inside, the tops of her now-bared hipbones to the depth of her wet armpit. She squealed. There was nothing else to do. Both girls did. It was humiliating, for the body to be forced into a role. Carrie could hear her mother telling her she was acting like an animal. She knew the boys would think this was flirting.

At the burger joint, Carrie told them she didn’t want anything, and excused herself to go to the bathroom, where she folded toilet paper and wadded it into her underpants. She lifted her jacket, and looked at the back of her jeans in the mirror and tried to tell whether this was obvious. Then she remembered Steva’s blowjob, its suddenness. She was a sophomore, and she calculated that she could handle two and a half years of isolation if Caleb stuck his hand down her pants when she wasn’t looking, and if Pam became a mouth about it, and if Steva ran amok in her new life of sudden decisions.

She joined the three at the booth. Steva had bought Brent a pack of fries, and kept insisting he eat them. She talked about his weight, as though she were now his mother. Caleb ate a sundae. Carrie watched him and tried to feel affection for this boy enjoying a simple thing. He looked up at her, and she held his gaze. She forgot, for a moment, that he could recognize she was staring, that he wasn’t an actor in a movie she was watching. He dropped ice cream into his goatee—a white gob of it. The caramel held to the twisted hairs. “Motherfucker,” he said, and began to squeeze the goatee out, as though it were a teet.

Outside, it was dark and snow was accumulating over the windshield wipers of the cars parked in the lot. A couple wearing thick jackets and stocking caps shuffled to their sedan, and Carrie couldn’t tell whether they were young or old until the man helped the woman into the car, and the interior lights flashed on a face pinched with age and then an identical face—mother and son. The two had survived his adolescence somehow.

There was talk at the table of going to Pam’s house after this. People were meeting—her parents were gone. Carrie had planned, with Steva, to be successful in life, but they had not made plans for what they would do after the movie. That was where the boys had caught them. Carrie thought she might get Steva’s truck keys from her knapsack and hike the quarter mile down the highway back to the movie theater without getting hit by a drunk driver. It was Saturday, a night that would not recover. It would only get worse if they went to Pam’s. It was useless to try to pull the night out from the mud with these boys. Carrie had seen her father pull cattle from the mud or from briars with the tractor. It was rare, and sometimes he shot them dead so as to save them the pain of pulling.

Later in life, Carrie would make a point that the company she kept at that time thought was tasteless, a joke. She would say that, in Wisconsin, your choices are either to drive home drunk or get pregnant. It was difficult to convey, to the more refined, the rough methodology flirtation took in the area. For instance, that night, the boys started a running gag at the table about how they were worried, for the months they’d followed and chatted with the girls, that the girls were lesbos, dykes. When Carrie stood from the booth, she began to say that she didn’t feel well, she was about to say that she was going to skip Pam’s, but she was stopped from saying anything. Caleb lifted her by her armpit and crotch and threw her over his shoulder—the shoulder hit like a punch to her gut. Brent bent to pick up Steva, but she sat on the tabletop and rode him piggyback. There was mustard on the back pocket of her jeans that would leave a stain, and Carrie would see it nearly every day they were together for the next three years. “Whoa,” Steva said, and held her hands to the ceiling tile. “Whoop.” She ducked the hanging bathroom sign. The manager, a man in a blue polo with sunglasses pushed into his spiked hair, emptied a tray into the garbage bin. He had tossed his yellow tie over his shoulder, and Carrie watched him scrape the tray with a plastic fork long after it was clean. He wanted not to see them. The place was near-empty and though she was being spun and shaken, Carrie understood the manager. She knew the fear the boys commanded. Caleb kicked open the double set of glass doors—two kicks, the propping of the leg and butt, the knocking of Carrie against the glass—and fought the wind, which was whipping sleet. Caleb tossed her into the backseat of the Buick that shifted into gear before Carrie could see straight. Her head had been delivered into Steva’s lap. The cold vinyl squeaked with the girls’ rush to arrange themselves away from one another. Carrie had stayed quiet throughout the lifting. It was bad enough to be associated with these boys. She did not want to make any more of a spectacle out of it.

Brent kept the car at just under 100 mph on the few straight stretches and slowed to 80 around the rock-cut curves. He had coated his windshield with Rain-X, and used no wipers. Slush struck the glass and flew across it. It looked like they were rocketing into space. The speakers vibrated with the screamy metal they’d recommended to the girls. At the time, the music had felt playful, like trying on a Halloween mask. Now Carrie felt the music was their soul, pounding from the speakers, wanting to escape. The singer raged about being forsaken, about committing suicide, drugs and obliterating women. Carrie tried to parse the lyrics the way she did Love in the Time of Cholera, in the cafeteria of her other life. She did not think they would die in that car that night, though she knew people who had died in exactly this way, and she believed the boys would not have minded it if they had. She felt the song through the seat, felt the way it moved through the parts of her ear and knew Caleb and Brent wanted the girls to feel they might die. It was a kind of revenge both boys needed to exact on the two for every time they’d been rejected or told to hold off, for weeks of chaste internet flirting.

When they skidded into Pam’s driveway, they saw two police cars that cupped the house. Lights flashed across the windows, all the way up to the attic, where Carrie saw a face looking down from a small square of glass. Teens wandered—stumbling, drunk—through the pasture that ran along both sides of the gravel. Cattle stamped their way across the field and would break the fence down on the other side, as always happened when they startled. A girl puked behind a tree stump, and there were many flattened bodies crawling through the short-cropped corn stalks. Brent backed into the ditch and threw the car out of reverse, and that’s when they heard something smash itself against the Buick. Carrie turned and saw Pam. She held onto the trunk’s luggage rack, and slapped the rear window. She was wearing a tube top and a puffy vest. “Go, go, go,” she yelled, and her voice drifted, muffled, through the glass, past the thumping left from the quieted music. Brent floored it and they cascaded back through the hills.

This became one of the stories they told themselves about themselves. There were years to tell it. Carrie dated Caleb throughout the rest of high school, and Steva did the same with Brent. Both boys cheated on the girls multiple times. Friends, Caleb’s close relatives, talked to Carrie through all of his infidelities with a level of gravity she could not comprehend. These people believed there was a lot on the line. Carrie would nod through these talks. She thought only of how much easier it would be to end it, when it was time. She would sometimes say things like this to Steva. Carrie meant to comfort her, and would ask why Steva was crying at all.

At their prom, Pam wore white, summoned a somber drunkenness, and counted herself as successful in all her endeavors. She took the girls to get their navels pierced with her when they turned eighteen. Caleb loved the novelty until their last night together, when Caleb hooked his finger through the hoop and threatened to rip it out and asked her who she’d got it for if not him. For Carrie’s graduation, Caleb’s mom bought her a small ceramic bowl with a blue eye on the bottom. Carrie left that bowl in her parents’ farmhouse and kept a one-dollar bill over the eye.

In college, Carrie shed Caleb as she shed herself. Steva went to the same local school Brent sometimes attended, and Carrie lost track of her for a long span of time. No one she met in college had heard of ICQ. Someone invented Facebook. Carrie kept offline and built a reputation for being an intellectual. Having no other option, boys knocked on her door and introduced themselves. One, she dated. He bought her a DVD that he said was perfect for her. In the DVD, a woman wearing a loose white dress walked into a field with a guitar. The camera kept its distance. The woman was a fidgety sliver among trees. She sang a song for forty-five minutes and then walked away. Carrie told him he was right, it was perfect for her, and set the case out whenever he came to her dorm.

Carrie would have three stalkers before the age of thirty, and she reported none of them. They were slick fish—impossible to pin down, darting to some new angle, a fresh method, before she could understand the thing they’d already done. When they came to her door, she would say, “Why did you leave that headless chicken on the doormat? Why did you write that note? What did you mean by ‘hurt you where it counts’? Yes. I know you would never do that. How did you know where my car was parked? Do you feel all right? Are you okay? Did you take the drugs? You should get some help. Stay here and I will call for some help.” They were only boys in the midst of their dramas. She couldn’t blame them for their tantrums. They had invented everything, from the plans to the feelings, and none of it had gone as anticipated.

Katherine Zlabek, a native of rural Wisconsin, earned her MFA from Western Michigan University, and her PhD from the University of Cincinnati, where she was a Taft Dissertation Fellow and a recipient of an AWP Intro Journals Award. Her story collection, WHEN, winner of The Journal’s 2018 Non/Fiction Collection Prize, is forthcoming from the OSU Press in Fall 2019. Her stories and essays have appeared in Boulevard, The Kenyon Review, Ninth Letter, and other journals. Ricochet Editions published her chapbook, LET THE RIVERS CLAP THEIR HANDS, in 2015. She currently teaches writing and literature in Washington, DC.