Ackerman / THE BRITTANYS
• ONE •
Brittany Rosenberg’s lost her purse. She’s laughing, though, not crying, even though her pink Coach bag could be floating around the fairgrounds, where teenagers are paid to dress up like zombies and pop out from behind maze walls. This is the ticket. We want to be scared. We begged our parents to let us go. We’ve paid for this, folded-up twenty-dollar bills in our little plush wallets. This is the kind of occasion we wear jeans to, tight Brazilian jeans decorated with holes and embroidery that lace all the way up the thigh, with a nice top, our hair straightened by our regulation flat irons. We can never get the back straight, and there’s always one lumpy wave from the crown of our heads to the base of our necks. In pictures, it appears as though we are wearing hats made of our own hair.
There are five Brittanys in the group: Brittany Rosenberg, Brittany Jensen, Brittany Gottlieb, Brittany Tomassi, and me. There is also a Mackenzie Bedner, aka Kenzie, and a Leigh Cotner, but we just call her Leigh. The seven of us: linked together, traversing the darkness of the fairgrounds filled with haunted houses for the month of October. It’s eighty degrees in Florida, even though it’s fall. Winds are strong, the telltale sign of a storm approaching, but we persist. Brittany Jensen’s parents lead us around, chaperones, and tell us to hold on to our things. Our hair blows into our lip gloss, and our bare arms dampen in the ever-present humidity. I’m the only one who brought a zip-up hoodie, and I’ve loaned it to Jensen, who wears it unzipped and loose around her shoulders, pointless.
When Brittany Rosenberg screams, “My Coach purse! Where is it?” Jensen’s parents immediately identify the nearest attendant, a ponytailed teen in bloody face paint sporting a straw hat and wielding a flashlight. He looks for the purse on his hands and knees while we all laugh, because he’s kind of cute.
“What color is it?” he asks.
“What’s your name?” Kenzie, the slutty one, asks back. She was the first of us to get felt up: in the seventh grade, at Adam Leibowitz’s bar mitzvah. She’s also the only one who doesn’t stuff or wear a padded bra, because she actually has boobs somehow.
The ponytailed attendant shoots Kenzie a smile, and Brittany Gottlieb, the know-it-all, wants to know, “What was in the bag, anyway?” To which Rosenberg replies, “My permit! I just got it two weeks ago! And some tampons and my Hard Candy lip gloss. Oh, and fifty dollars for tonight.”
Brittany Tomassi gets on all fours, too, says, “We’ll find it, don’t worry!” Leigh twirls Rosenberg’s long black hair into one big knot, then lets it loose on her baby-blue tank top, an attempt to comfort her, I guess.
Brittany Jensen, my best friend out of all the best friends, butt-bumps me and turns me around to the Ferris wheel. When we were twelve, we rode one together at her church’s annual fair. Without speaking, we grabbed each other’s arms and thought to ourselves, I hope we stop at the top, I hope we stop at the top. We closed our eyes and hoped so hard, and when we felt the car shudder to a halt we opened our eyes and saw we were right smack-dab at the apex. It was then we knew we were magic—witches, fairies, whatever you want to call it—and we could do it, make things happen just by thinking.”
For the last two years, we’ve used this power at school to get the fire alarm to go off or to get hundreds on our social studies tests. Now we are fourteen, it’s two weeks before the real Halloween, and we know we can find Brittany Rosenberg’s purse if we use the magic. We turn away from the group, and I grab Jensen’s arm as she grabs mine. We think, we hope, we drown out the loud music and flashing lights. We concentrate on that pink purse. We focus on Brittany Rosenberg’s face, her blue eyes, her black hair frizzing up in the humidity, her pale, flat tummy showing from underneath her top, her wedged sandals, her shiny, glossy lips.
“I found it!” the ponytailed guy calls to our group. We run and see he’s actually found her bag, the pink Coach purse with interlocking Cs all over it.
Kenzie writes her phone number on a used gum wrapper, using Leigh’s bony back as a flat surface to compose the note. She hands it to him, and he asks, “How old are you, anyway?” and she says, “Sixteen,” and he walks away, laughing at the obvious lie. He ended up calling her the next weekend, and she gave him a blow job in his truck. I remember how she didn’t want any of us to know except Leigh, but then Leigh ended up telling everyone during an eating-disorder-themed assembly. It’s ironic, because Jensen always thought Kenzie might really have an eating disorder since she always went to the bathroom right after lunch and her teeth were kind of yellow. But I remember Leigh, how she kept giggling while some blonde teenage girl who must have weighed all of eighty pounds told us about how she’d overcome her friend ED, which stood for “eating disorder,” and how ED would always be in her life, like a true friend, but how he could never hurt her again like he had in middle school. Leigh kept laughing until Rosenberg made her say what was so funny. Finally, Kenzie told us. She said his “thing” tasted like nothing but his “stuff” tasted like crushed-up SweeTarts. SweeTarts—that’s why Leigh couldn’t keep it together. For the rest of the year, whenever someone brought them up, we all lost it.
Rosenberg reunites with her purse and checks inside for all her belongings. She reapplies her lip gloss, and it makes her mouth bright pink.
“You smell like a cinnamon bun,” Jensen tells her.
“It’s Creamsicle,” Rosenberg says, and I remember debating between that shade and one called Confection, which I ended up getting.
Our group migrates to the snack stand, and Brittany Jensen and I split a blooming onion, dipping the fried strips into the ranch in the middle. Brittany Gottlieb wants to share, but we’re adamant that no one gets involved except us. Jensen’s parents also buy us two Cokes, and we feel like we own the place because we’re the ones with the big cups of Coke, the snack and refreshments, the matching Guess watches. She has a lime-green Kate Spade, and I have a small, classic Burberry bag. My mom gave me the twenty-dollar bill that I folded and ended up not needing because Jensen’s parents paid for me.
We look forward to Fright Nights every year. Usually, the fairgrounds are home to the Expo Center, which hosts concerts and conventions, but it is mainly known for the South Florida Fair. You can eat a burrito made out of cotton candy, you can pet an emu and have it nip at your fingers, you can win a stuffed bear the size of an armchair. But we much prefer the place at night, when the moonlight makes us appear older than we actually are and we become unafraid of the things that are supposed to scare us.
We do a few haunted houses, scream and laugh so hard our voices will be gone tomorrow. Tomassi and Gottlieb sit these out: they don’t like the fake chain saws and the way a guy dressed as a psychotic clown gets too close to their legs. The rest of us move through the houses, pushing Rosenberg up front, watching her buckle in fear, take every corner with a squeal, and eventually fall down onto the hay that covers the ground. Tomassi gets a Diet Coke and drinks it out of the bottle like a model. Rosenberg takes a sip and snorts so hard it comes out her nose. We take a group picture on Jensen’s digital camera. Kenzie keeps asking me for gum, but it’s my last piece. I break it in half, and Jensen slips her half into the pocket of her jeans.
At the end of the night, everyone is having a sleepover at Kenzie’s house, but I have to be somewhere in the morning, so it’s been arranged that Brittany Jensen’s parents will take me back to their place, where my parents will pick me up. No matter how late it is, I’ll call and they’ll come. I say bye to all my friends when Kenzie’s mom arrives in her Range Rover and all the girls pile in. Brittany Jensen is laughing at something that Brittany Tomassi said, and I worry I’m missing out. I feel good in the car, though. Jensen’s parents drive a white Mercedes-Benz, “Old Mercy.” Ironic, because the car is brand-new, but I think Jensen gets embarrassed by the money her parents have.
The back is spacious, and I put my purse on the open seat where Jensen sat before, earlier today, when her dad picked us up from school. He brought us Subway sandwiches with extra pickles and two half Sprite–half Cokes. Up front, her mom calls my mom, and I hear them talking. Jensen’s mom says it’ll be forty-five minutes or so, that it got a little crazy with all the girls around and then the whole mess about the bag, and something about how they’ll never do it again, they’ll never volunteer to be the chaperones.
I drift off while they drive, and I’m out by the time we get to the highway. I don’t think about the girls in Kenzie’s room teaching one another how to use eyeliner on the inside of their eyelids. I don’t think about how Brittany Gottlieb has her period and a boyfriend and I don’t even know what a “thing” looks like yet. All I’ve ever done is kiss a boy, and it’s only been for truth or dare, nothing real, nothing out of love.
The first time happened when I was at my friend Anika’s house for a birthday party in fifth grade. Her older cousin, whose name I don’t even remember, something boyish and proud like Nate or Jonah, was dared to kiss me on the trampoline. It was about to rain, and I heard the beginning of a drizzle drumming on the tight canvas below us. His lips were so big, like gummy worms, and he smelled like the inside of a tree. If my name comes up tonight, I hope Jensen will recall this story for everyone, because she was there that night and saw it all go down. I miss her. I smell her cucumber-melon perfume on my arm. Maybe I could grab my own arm and hope, but she isn’t here with me to make the magic happen.
When we pull into the driveway, I wake up and see my parents’ car already waiting. I take the stick of gum out of my purse, the one I broke in half for Jensen because we only had one. This way, we each got a piece. This way, we could share what we had.
Copyright © 2021 by Brittany Ackerman. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.