Sulfur Springs

Tommy left knowing he smelled terrible. It was his deep scalp-grease and armpit scent, woven into the only shirt he wore lately—the frayed giveaway from a 5k he’d run in high school three years ago. Tommy was generally frayed: unplanned dreads, flimsy sandals, no job after quitting his gig delivering organic pizzas to the parents of his more successful friends. He’d run out of clean underwear a week ago and had started going commando in his hemp pants. It was comfortable in an odd way and was a symbol of his recent freedom from Basil Roma. As he flapped down his parents’ flagstone path toward his old hatchback, the strap on his left sandal snapped.

“Fuck.”

Tommy turned to see his mother, looking prim and righteous in her yoga pants, waving coldly out the window. Tommy’s mother had cornered him in the kitchen to say that she and Tommy’s father (who was golfing with someone from City Council) felt it was time he got out of the pool house, went back to Junior College or got a job, and stopped smoking pot on the upstairs balcony. Tommy shifted his daypack on his shoulder. He’d just crash somewhere for a couple days, then figure it out. He did not wave back but threw his grimy sandals against the newly planted violets, destroying some petals.

•  •  •

Alice had been looking forward to Talia’s thirteenth birthday party for weeks. Their seventh grade class at Valley Oak Montessori was small, so there weren’t many chances for a good party. Most of the parents, Alice’s included, were no-cable-no-sugar types who insisted on early bedtimes and closed-toed shoes. But Talia’s mother was fun. She was a single mom and a real flip-flop-wearing hippie and had agreed to the impossible double party: beach trip and sleepover.

It had been sunny at home, but fog hovered over the ocean. Still, all five girls ran into the freezing ocean in their tankinis while Alice watched from the blanket. She’d said that she would make a sandcastle and warm up but she was just getting colder with her feet jammed in the damp sand. Talia’s mother sprawled on a sarong with her moley legs exposed as she paged through a book called Cleanse: Detoxify Your Mind and Body. In the water, Millie dove straight into the waves. She was in a tomboy phase and wore board shorts, but on top she had a real sports bra because she actually needed one. Alice’s friends divided pretty evenly into boobs and no-boobs; Alice was in the second group.

Three girls ran shivering from the water toward Alice.
“I can’t believe they’re still in there! My toes are freezing off.”

“Yeah, Alice, you’re smart.”

Alice squinted at the gray water where Talia’s round, sunburned face broke from a wave and Millie’s coppery hair disappeared under the foam. “I might go in later.”

•  •  •

“Seriously, thanks for letting me crash.” Tommy cranked down the window so the beach air blew in. Tommy had parked at Stephen’s and they were on the freeway to the coast in Stephen’s car.

“Yeah, mi casa … you know,” reassured Stephen. “Hope you don’t mind the beach. My mom needs me to drive my sister’s friends back. I guess the parents just dropped them off there.”

The old sedan coughed as Stephen pulled into the State Beach parking lot.

“How long are you in town?”

“Just a few days, then back to Oregon,” said Stephen. “It’s Spring break.”

“Oh shit! Spring break.”

Tommy looked down at his bare feet, dark with dirt and toe jam. He would have to find a new place to stay soon. As they walked, he shuffled in his pockets for his corked jar and rolling papers.

“Hang on, Teph, I’ll roll us a joint.” Tommy crouched by a rock to shield his papers from the wind.

“It’s cool, we don’t have to smoke.”

Looking up at Stephen, Tommy could see his long, flared nostrils and his blond hair flapping in the wind. “Come on, it’s a gift.”

“I’ll pass,” said Stephen. “I kinda stopped. I’ll get drug tested before EMT training, plus Caitlin’s not into it.”

“Oh, Caitlin.” Tommy had forgotten that Stephen had a girlfriend. Caitlin was always using SAT words and making people feel like idiots.

“Yeah, she’s at Lake Arrowhead with her mom. Did you and Jill—?”

“Fuck Jill. Jill’s a piece of shit,” Tommy blurted.

“Woah, sorry. Something’s up?”

“If by that you mean Jill’s fucking crazy, cause she is. I dumped her.”

Jill was not a pretentious Caitlin type, but Jill was nuts. She was bipolar and Tommy always said something wrong, then she’d go dye her hair purple or green and disappear into an Ayn Rand book for days. Two months ago, she had called Tommy from a windy roadside to say she’d had enough of his shit, enough of their hometown, and was moving to Arizona to live with her sister.

“I’ll meet you down there,” said Tommy.

Stephen jogged to the sand and Tommy crouched in the iceplant to light his joint. Stephen had a way of making one feel like shit, just by his effortless success. Waves crashed hard into pieces of driftwood and a girl with red hair sprinted out of the water shrieking. Tommy took a sharp breath and coughed until his forehead was slow and misty.

•  •  •

The girls were putting on sweatshirts while Alice added seaweed trim to her sandcastle’s doorway. Talia’s brother was reading, but his friend acted spastic. He would run to the water and get his bare feet and pant cuffs soaked, then eat handfuls of watermelon. He seemed about as tall as a high school boy, but his eyes were buggy and he looked like a male medusa with dreadlocks flailing.

“He’s so random,” said Millie. “Hey, Talia, wouldn’t it be funny to race with him?”

“Tommy? I bet we could beat him!”

They kicked up fountains of sand. Talia fell behind immediately and shuffled back to the blankets. Millie’s sweatshirt flapped like a cape and her long legs were fast, but Tommy was even faster. When they were many umbrellas away, they turned and walked back. Millie seemed to have struck up a topic. She was a fearless talker and she even knew how to steal boys’ hats to get their attention.

“Look,” yelled Millie, skidding onto the blanket and nearly crushing Alice’s sandcastle. Millie pulled a hemp necklace from her backpack; it looked just like Tommy’s with embedded shells.

“Cool,” nodded Tommy. “You seriously made that?”

“Yes,” Millie beamed.

As Millie began to show off her friendship bracelets, Talia’s mother rose in her billowing skirt and signaled that it was time to go. Everyone marched along the sand and Alice followed Millie and Talia into her brother’s car, glad for the musty warmth after the beach fog.

Millie’s voice rang over the classic rock station. “I don’t know why we had to leave
so early!”

“Whatever—there’s cake at my house. And we’re going to play ten fingers.”

“Hey,” Tommy interrupted, “have you guys been to Sulfur Springs? The water smells weird but they’re the best hot springs around here. They’re pretty far up Laurel Mountain.”

“No,” murmured Talia.

“Me neither,” said Millie. “Do you know the way?”

“I know a secret way,” said Tommy.

“We should all go!” gasped Millie. “Talia, your mom could drive the rest of the girls. Yay, hot springs!”

Stephen turned up the radio and the conversation stopped until the car pulled up to Talia’s house.

•  •  •

Tommy sat cross-legged on Stephen’s beanbag chair with a handful of carrot cake, popping sticky crumbs into his mouth. Stephen held a book open and asked questions every so often.

“Why the exodus from your parents’ place?”

Tommy chewed a chunk of pineapple.

“Are you finally taking your road trip?”

“Possibly,” mumbled Tommy.

“Are you still working at Basil Roma?”

“Nah, I’m done with that.”

The whole purpose of Tommy’s job at Basil Roma and living with his parents was to save money for a road trip through Nevada, Colorado, and Texas. He would write about his travels for a Lonely Planet guide or a blog or something. Jill was supposed to go with him, but she always seemed skeptical of the idea. He could go solo, but it was easier to do nothing; his parents were rarely home, so the pool house was basically a tiny, rent-free apartment. Tommy spent evenings reading Eiger Dreams and eating cold pizza and sometimes smoking on the upstairs balcony. Tommy tried to massage his tensing shoulders and thought about rolling another joint.

“Are you thinking school?” said Stephen. “There’s girls . . .”

“Yeah,” said Tommy in a fake low voice, “no lady wants to be with some guy who lives with his parents and delivers pizzas—I’m gonna be a real man now.” The little room began to feel stuffy and Stephen chuckled weakly. Tommy stretched his shoulders.

“Hey, do you want to go for a drive? Up to the hot springs? We could smoke a J, just kick it. I need some air.”

“I don’t know,” said Stephen, “I’m pretty tired; I went for a run this morning.”

Tommy rolled onto his back like a dying bug. He wanted to get away from Stephen’s house already. He’d only been spending money on weed and cereal, so he had enough to live on for months. The maps for Nevada and Colorado were already in his car—they’d been there for three years. He righted himself and fumbled for his weed jar.

“Better not do that in here. My mom will freak out.”

Tommy stood, pushing through Stephen’s sliding door to the backyard and leaned against the house, slowly rolling a joint under the neon streaks of sunset.

•  •  •

“Arrange them so our heads are in a circle,” suggested Talia.

It was a brilliant idea, solving the problem of separated gossip groups. Alice pushed her sleeping bag into place on the sparse lawn. She had already put her hair in braids so it wouldn’t tangle in the night. Millie’s hair was wild from ocean water. Alice and Millie used to have sleepovers all the time, but now Millie preferred Talia, probably because she was good at talking to boys and also needed a bra.

“Come on, let’s ask your mom about the hot springs.” Millie grabbed Talia’s arm, which was also decorated with friendship bracelets. Alice heard pleading whines and saw Talia’s mother raise her wrinkled hands in frustration.

When sun left its last magenta glow in the sky, the girls wriggled into their cocoons. Millie perched on top of her sleeping bag with a restless expression.

“So we can’t go to the hot springs,” said Talia with a fake sigh, “but whatever. We have important things to do. Fingers out!” The girls filled the circle with painted nails.

“Fine, I’ll start,” hissed Mille. “Never have I ever kissed Beau Stanholm!”

“That’s too specific,” said Talia. “You’re targeting me.”

“I’ve kissed Beau too,” whispered another girl. Everyone broke into giggles.

Next was a studious girl: “Never have I ever drank alcohol.”

Millie was the only one to pull a finger back. “I tried my dad’s beer. Like, more than a sip. It was good.”

Drugs-wise, the Montessori kids were pretty sheltered. A bag of pot had appeared in the boys’ bathroom at the big public middle school, but not at Valley Oak.

“Never have I ever played Spin the Flashlight,” announced Talia.

“I’ve played that,” smirked Millie. “On the middle school campout. Yeah, Talia, you were making s’mores or something. I got Robert Bane.”

“He has nice hair,” contributed Alice. She’d never kissed anyone, having missed the meager occurrences of Spin the Flashlight on class campouts.

“Your turn, Alice,” said Talia.

Alice’s silver ring glinted in the moonlight. All of her fingers were splayed out. Should she say she had never kissed anyone? No. Alice’s face grew hot and she didn’t want to stall.

“Never have I ever been to Sulfur Springs,” she said.

Nobody had been to Sulfur Springs, so no fingers moved.

•  •  •

Tommy pinched the ash end of the joint to save the rest for later. A cat leapt onto the fence and stared him in the face.

“What’s up,” Tommy said aloud.

Through the window, Stephen stared at a textbook under his desk lamp. Stephen seemed to be on track to become like Tommy’s parents, with their small-town politics and e-trading and cold egg white omelets. Tommy walked around the yard, feeling better. He was an adventurer, a discoverer of places. Back in high school, he brought groups of friends to Laurel Mountain and led them to the hot springs to smoke and look at the stars. He shimmied between the fence and the side of the house, following the giggles of the sister’s sleepover. In the front window, he could see Stephen’s mom asleep in her soggy armchair with a jam jar of wine in her hand. Tommy found himself standing above the girls with their sleeping bags in a weird crop circle.

“Hi,” he announced.

•  •  •

Alice turned to see the boy’s stringy arms outlined in the glow from the house.

“Tommy!” said Millie, crouching like a lion. “Talia’s mom said no hot springs.”

Talia’s face crinkled and she stared hard at Millie.

“Bummer, Stephen bailed too.” He looked up at the sky, then at the road. “But I could go. My car fits four.”

“I want to go,” gasped Millie. She stood on her knees, casting a shadow over Talia, and faced the group. “Talia, come on. You wanted to.”

“I don’t know. If we can’t all go—”

The other girls nodded and burrowed their chins. Tommy jingled his car keys.

“Anyone?” sighed Millie, looking from Talia to Alice.

Alice sat up higher. The air was minty and the stars were bright. She and Millie could have a rebellious story to tell together.

“Alice?”

“Okay.”

In a blur, Alice scooted out of her bag and found her sneakers. Talia’s eyes were wide and she shook her head, but Millie was already hopping into the car, so Alice shrugged and hurried forward. Millie sat in the front, leaving Alice in the backseat that smelled like lavender soap and something murky—maybe old sandwiches. Alice’s leg touched a moldy sweatshirt.

She watched familiar street signs pass then they turned onto the mountain road. Millie told her famous poison oak story as the car dipped in and out of pitch-black turns. Alice had forgotten her bathing suit, but she could go in the hot springs in her clothes. Talia’s eyes had been so wide the irises floated in the whites. Was Talia scared? Alice fidgeted with her silver ring, turning it faster and faster as the car rose like a roller coaster getting ready to barrel down too fast.

•  •  •

Tommy nodded when he found the right turnout. People always missed it, but if you counted five curves after the tunnel then saw the huge boulders, you were there.

“Sulfur Springs,” he declared. “Vamanos!”

The red-haired girl smiled and asked how far it was.

“Not super far. I’ll lead the way.”

His bare feet touched spiky rocks as he walked through the trees. He didn’t have a flashlight, only his lighter and weed things, but the moon was bright. Tommy pushed aside low branches and found the faded bandana he’d tied above the trail entrance when his crew partied at the hot springs for high school graduation. Everyone was stupid and just learning how to get drunk. He’d led them all down the path in their sandals with cases of cheap beer, the girls in their jean skirts, Jill clinging to his arm. A soak in the springs would be good for his soul.

•  •  •

The smell of sagebrush was suddenly overtaken by the stink of rotten eggs. Alice followed Millie and Tommy down a narrow path with dry shrubs clawing at her arms. The main pool was dark and separated from the creek by a wall of rocks scattered with candles.

“It smells funny,” Millie prodded the water with her finger.

“That’s the sulfur,” said Tommy. “Also, uh, you should know, it’s cool to go in in your birthday suit. All the hippies do. So just turn around for a sec?”

Birthday suit? Was that—naked? Were they supposed to go in naked with him?

“Just look away for a second? OK?”

Alice felt like guinea pig held high out of its cage, heart fluttering, but she did not look away. Then Tommy just untied his pants and they flopped down and there were no underpants or anything. There it was—an alarming collection of shapes topped with unexpected dark hair. She’d never even kissed a boy! But she only saw a flash of it, because he leapt into the dark water and then he might as well have been wearing trunks.

“Aren’t you getting in? It’s super nice.”

Millie’s face reddened. “I guess.”

She pulled off her shirt and stepped into the pool in her sports bra and shorts. She stayed at the far end, keeping a distance from Tommy. Alice didn’t want to be naked, but she didn’t want her pajamas to get soaked. A feeling rose in her throat like the strange nausea that comes after a bad dream. When Tommy seemed distracted, she slipped off her pajama bottoms and sat in the water before the white flash of her underwear could be seen. The pool felt like a bathtub that was cooling off too quickly and the rock under Alice’s legs was slimy. Scummy water soaked up her shirt and she felt something brush her toes underwater and gulped down a scream.

“Sorry,” mumbled Tommy.

It must have been his foot, but Alice could only think of his penis swimming toward her like a piranha. Wind shuddered the leaves above their heads and oak pollen fell into the pool, disturbing the water. Tommy took something out of his crumpled pants pocket that looked like a misshapen cigarette.

“Want to smoke some herb?” said Tommy.

He lit the cigarette and inhaled. The smoke came out of his mouth like car exhaust and smelled like the dog’s fur after getting skunked. Alice’s chest tightened. She looked at Mille, hoping to make a silent pact, but Millie’s eyes glittered in the moonlight.

“Is it pot?” asked Millie, putting on a brave voice.

“Yeah. You’ve never smoked before? Basically every teenager in . . .” Tommy’s voice wavered. “Here.”

“What does it do?” The baby fat showed in Millie’s cheeks.

“It makes things more interesting,” said Tommy. “Careful, hold the other end. Like you’re drinking from a straw . . . that’s it.”

Millie blew out a thin mist.

“Not bad for your first try,” said Tommy proudly. “How about you?” He offered the herb cigarette to Alice and ash fell into the pool. The nauseous feeling rippled through her stomach and she glanced at Millie, who was now pale with flared nostrils.

“No thanks, not right now,” whispered Alice.

“That’s chill,” sighed Tommy. “How old are you guys, sixteen?”

“Twelve,” said Mille. “Going on thirteen.”

“Oh.” Tommy’s bug eyes became very wide and he hunched his shoulders.

Alice wondered how old Tommy was. It hadn’t crossed her mind before. He seemed like a high schooler, but he was friends with Stephen, who was definitely old. Now Alice’s shoulders were chilled in the dry air. She had a vision of her and Millie being carried by naked Tommy into the shrubs in a haze of smoke, helpless and limp from the drugs. Across the stream, curtained by shivering trees, a drainpipe dripped from one of the nearby mountain houses.

Alice’s parents didn’t want to worry her with all that crap on the news—that’s why they didn’t have cable TV. But once, Alice heard them talking in hushed voices about Candace Winters, a sixth grader who had disappeared when she biked to Rite Aid to buy candy. She had been taken into the mountains by a strange man and the police found her skeleton two years later in a pipe. Nobody said how she died exactly. Maybe it was a rape. Alice knew what rape was, but no one really talked about it except boys saying, “I got raped by that math test” and teachers telling them not to joke about it. Candace Winters had a memorial fountain built for her in the park. That’s why Alice’s parents didn’t let her bike past the post office alone. Tommy didn’t seem like a kidnapper, but maybe that’s how kidnappers were: funny and nice, then they had you in the mountains.

“I’m sort of cold,” Alice managed to say. She wished there were lights other than the moon, which gave every shape a dusting of white. The pool smelled like a dead mouse hidden in the garage.

“We’ll go back soon,” said Tommy. “Just let me finish the joint.”

Even if he drove them back, what if the drugs made him swerve off the road? Maybe a car accident would be how they’d die. At least Millie wasn’t acting drugged. Alice waited what felt like an hour for Tommy to smoke the cigarette with a semi-guilty look on his face. Then he mashed it into a rock and stood. Alice looked at the sky and all the overlapping constellations as he put on his pants. When she put on her pajamas, her wet underwear immediately soaked through the cotton. As they walked, Alice saw the bandana, the boulder with lichen freckles, and the trees with smooth red trunks, all visible in moonlight.

Millie sat in the backseat with Alice this time. The car crawled down the mountain so slowly it felt like the tires were coated in glue. When they finally arrived at the house, only the porch light was on and Talia sat shivering in her tie-dye sleeping shirt, chewing on a strand
of hair.

“I couldn’t sleep,” sniffed Talia. “I think Tommy’s weird.”

•  •  •

Tommy curled into a fetal position on the beanbag but he knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep with this lead-like feeling in his stomach. Despite having been smoking all day, he felt alarmingly sober, like he was finally cracking the window of a hot-boxed car. The frightened face of the dark-haired girl stuck in his mind, white and floating against the night.

It hadn’t been until he was pretty far down the trail that he realized he didn’t have swimming trunks. It didn’t seem like that big of a deal; people always went in the hot springs in the nude. He had just wanted a dip in the water and the rest of the joint. The girls had wanted him to show them a new place without being monitored by their parents. Maybe they hadn’t asked to smoke in the mountains, but they were almost thirteen, the age at which Tommy smoked with Otis McPhee behind the amphitheater in the park. Otis was older and had chosen Tommy to share a bud. They’d used a bell pepper with holes poked in it. That first smoke had made him feel larger than himself, initiated into something. This could have been their initiation, but it wasn’t. No—they were fucking twelve. Twelve-year-olds. They sounded so much older and they were practically naked just inches away. He wouldn’t have done anything, but when he replayed it he was the gross older stoner, the weird first joint and first penis that two girls would remember. Tommy’s mouth felt chalky and he combed the floor for his water bottle and took a swig. The water tasted awful, like mold or sulfur.

•  •  •

“Dear, remind me about that parent meeting tomorrow.”

“Right.”

“They’re picking a theme for Arts Day.”

Through the half-closed door, Alice could see her parents move through the hallway. She pressed her face to the pillow and turned her ring. The silver had been tainted black since she dipped her hands in the sulfur water. It had been three days and she hadn’t said a word. In the car, Millie had whispered that Alice should be quiet. They’d never be allowed to have sleepovers—not with Talia, not with each other, ever—so don’t say anything. But the memory of the thick smoke and the slow drive stayed in her mind so vividly that she chewed her lips till they bled and was silent at dinnertime. That night when Alice’s mother had hovered by the bed’s edge to ask if anything was bothering her, Alice said she had a social studies test at school.

“Oh shoot, I was going to pack Alice an ants-on-the-log for snack.”

“Just do it in the morning.”

The voices faded and the hall light dimmed so that Alice could see the glowing constellation on her ceiling. She replayed the scene: Tommy untying his pants, herb cigarette in his hand. Alice standing up and holding her hands in fists. “No,” she says, growing very tall. “Take us home now.” In another version, she pulls Millie back to the sleepover before they even leave. “What are you thinking?” Alice yells and Millie reconsiders the whole thing. She would hide the blackened ring, claiming it had gotten too small, and not tell anyone about the hot springs. Alice curled her fingers in tight then stretched them out like stars.

•  •  •

The screen door to the pool house stuck when Tommy opened it. He smelled the funk of crusted plates, grimy blankets, socks under the futon. When he left for Stephen’s, he didn’t think he was really leaving. Now he stuffed his clean laundry pile into a backpack, put on sneakers, and grabbed a jar of peanut butter from the floor. Tommy snuck into the house and walked into his old bedroom—a home gym now—and almost tripped over the elliptical machine. The closet was a tiny museum: soccer uniforms hanging slack, a fake-looking trophy, textbooks and journals.

He heard the coffeemaker gurgle as he went down the stairs.

“Keith?”

“It’s me.”

His mother was in her bathrobe wearing little reading glasses. “Tommy! I thought you were your dad. What are you doing?”

“Taking a road trip.”

“Right now? Like a fugitive? I thought you were staying at Stephen’s.”

“I’ve just been in town too long.”

“Want to say goodbye to your dad?”

“Not really.”

“Okay.” She hugged Tommy stiffly. Pulling away, she squinted at his face. “Is everything okay?”

“Yeah.” Tommy laid his head on her shoulder for a second, letting his hair touch the fleecy fabric. Then he jerked away and hauled his backpack out the door. His sandals had already been removed from the flowerbed.

On the way out of town, Tommy drove by Stephen’s house. Stephen stood outside with a coffee mug, hair wet from a recent shower. His sister was on the tire swing in a tie-die shirt. Tommy didn’t stop the car and Stephen didn’t seem to see him, so he continued north as the morning fog burned off. He’d drive up I-5, over the mountains to Nevada, then to the crazy red rocks in Utah. Blood tingled in his legs; he’d never felt so antsy in his life.

Tommy was in Truckee when he felt his phone buzz in his pocket. He was sitting by the river before filling up on gas. Unknown number from town, but he picked up anyway.

“Is this Thomas Hoffman?”

“Yeah.”

“This is Officer Mike Schell.”

Tommy held his breath. He thought about hanging up, but a chill of shame paralyzed him and he listened.

“Now, you’ve accrued a number of parking tickets around town, none of them paid. I know your dad, so I thought I’d give you the old heads-up before we add late fees.”

Tommy grabbed a pinecone so hard it hurt his fingers. “Thanks,” he said, “I’m on my way out of town but I can mail a check.”

When the cop hung up, a wave of heat rose through Tommy’s face. He climbed back into the car and drove with the radio off so he could just hear the tires scrape the road. The gas dial fell to empty; he’d forgotten to fill the tank. He kept pressing forward, pushing past roadside towns until the dial dropped below empty and the warning light flashed orange. The steering stiffened and he veered into the next exit half-coasting. With careful turns he pulled into a gas station and ground to a stop, gripping the wheel tightly, holding it still.

First published in The Destroyer 3.1