“Are they coming?” Jeanie whisper-shouted from her spot crouched beneath a stripped car. The wind blew through Dune’s hair like hot breath.
“They always come this time of night.” She called back softly. “And they never think to protect themselves.”
Behind an abandoned building too burnt out for squatters or drug deals the girls sat in wait. Dune cracked her neck; Knox tightened her hold on the short lead pipe in her large, callused hands; Brenda held her breath. Soon they heard several rowdy voices, then sneakers squeaking on the asphalt. Dune held a fist aloft, the brass knuckles upon it shining briefly in the streetlights. The other girls kept their eyes on her, awaiting her signal.
She brought her fist down, and everyone was running. One of the men yelped as Jeanie brought a bottle down over his head. One turned in attempt to flee and Brenda tackled him to the ground. Dune punched one clear across the jaw, another in the gut. She heard a winded groan from some other guy and knew Knox was putting that pipe to good use. Within moments they were all down, and the girls wasted no time knowing they could get up quickly. Dune shoved her closest victim to the wall and fished his wallet out as the other girls did the same.
“Ooh, someone’s packing!” Brenda called out in her too-loud, dramatic way. Dune glanced over to see her pocket the gun of the extremely irate man she was sitting on. Blood was pouring freely from his nose, and she guessed that if this guy was the leader they were about to be this little gang’s next big target.
“Let’s move!” She ordered, and they rushed over to the empty hull that was once a stolen car. The boys began to shuffle to their feet behind them, and they all grabbed their skateboards lightening fast and flew off. A few ran behind for about a block, but they didn’t have the speed or endurance to catch up, and soon the beating of heavy feet fell away. Brenda was the first to cheer, and Jeanie followed it up with a whoop of her own. When Dune finally felt the adrenaline fade she beamed at all of them, even Knox with her steady, confident look.
They sailed down streets lined with garbage, the sour smell of chemicals — paint thinner, maybe, but gasoline at least — lingering in the air. They passed the club they’d left earlier, if a bunch of trespassing kids with bad moods and guitars counted as a club. It was too rowdy that night, and they really were the only girls there, so Dune had decided they might as well act on those plans she’d been saving for a rainy day. She pulled a wad of cash out and tossed the wallet behind her; it was probably less than twenty bucks, but that was a couple of meals and some cigarettes, so she couldn’t be too upset.
After a few minutes they slowed down in front of their latest temporary living space, an old school that was shut down for health concerns and left sitting for some poor squatters to breathe in whatever the middle class didn’t want in their kids’ lungs. They all grabbed their skateboards and walked in the front entrance. Even though it was a warm night a couple guys right by the door had a space heater going as they sat around sharing a smoke. With a nod of acknowledgement they walked on, deeper into the building. There were more and more squatters of late, and not in the condition they used to be. Not so friendly, not so familial, all hopped up on one thing or another. They reached the stairs and passed a guy half dozing with paint on the edge of his lip and Knox paused to pick up the jacket he’d left next to him and roll it into a pillow.
When they ascended the stairs they began to hear a familiar racket, the boys on the third floor practicing their music. Not that a lot of people would call it that: some of those kids were fifteen, maybe, and could barely play guitar. They would pluck clumsily and make the tune sound garbled, but playing well held second place to playing loud, playing with rage, playing something different. As they reached the second floor a group of guys passed groaning.
“God, they sound bad. Don’t they know punk is dead?” One moaned, and Jeanie pulled a face.
“Punk is dead!” Another jeered in their direction, aimed purposefully at the patches on Knox’ denim vest, at Brenda’s combat boots and unkempt hair.
“Long live punk!” She yelled back, setting off a bunch of hooting and hawing from the departing boys. They were that newer breed, with shaved heads and metal chains on their hips. Dune sighed as she lead the girls back to an empty classroom where she’d established her territory enough so none of their things were touched. She had a duffel bag full of shit to her name, and she pulled a pack of smokes from it as Jeanie collapsed onto her sleeping bag and Brenda kicked at her legs.
“New kids.” She rolled her eyes and fumbled with her lighter. “I hate ‘em. Punk is dead.”
“It’s evolving.” Brenda shrugged. “These hardcore kids are doing the same shit we are, just to a slightly different tune.”
“Punk goes against the man.” Jeanie said, and with her soft voice it was odd to hear. “They’re fighting the same rat-race we are.”
“That doesn’t mean the scene isn’t changing.” Knox said, then pulled out her lighter as Dune’s failed to catch. She held it up to the cigarette between her lips until the end glowed orange. “Maybe that’s what the eighties are bringing us.”
“A whole new world.” Dune said slowly, then shook her head. “You staying around, Knox?”
“No, work in the morning.” She looked just thrilled. “Car parts aren’t going to manufacture themselves.”
“Miss Responsible with the job.” Jeanie teased, and Brenda laughed. “She’s got a house to live in and everything.”
“If my nana didn’t fall over like it was her hobby I wouldn’t even have that.” She grumbled. “Your local dyke would be stuck squatting with the rest of you for all the love I get from her kids.”
“On top of the world and she still complains.” Jeanie said, and Knox burst into laughter. “Selfish. Just terrible.”
“I’m leaving now.”
“Won’t even spend time with us.” Brenda said in an absolutely languished tone, and threw herself across Knox to roaring laughter. Knox went red as she fought to control the hysterics.
“Goodbye, motherfucker.” She pushed Brenda away and she laughed this time. Without further ado she went for the door, and Dune felt compelled to call out to her.
“You’re coming tomorrow, right?” She asked, and Knox looked back with nothing but warm confidence.
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world.” She said, and departed without another word. There was a moment of silence before Dune was acutely aware of the looks Brenda and Jeanie were giving her.
“Shut up.” She said, her face warm.
“You could’ve said a little more than that.” Brenda grinned. “Thrown in a wink or something.”
“Blown a kiss.” Jeanie suggested, and Dune hid her face in her hands. “We’re just trying to be helpful. She’s going to get snatched up if you don’t ever make a move.”
“I will!” She said indignantly to her palms. “I will. I just — she’s so cool—”
“You’re cool!” Brenda yelled, and Jeanie yelped in surprise. “You’re the coolest bitch I know! You’re fucking rad!”
“Ew. I hate that new slang.” Jeanie wrinkled her nose. “The preppy girls at school used to say it about everything. So annoying.”
“And you’re not some prep! You’re a punk princess! A total purist!” Brenda yelled.
“I think we both politely disagree with your ideals.” Jeanie said.
“But Knox doesn’t! So strike up a conversation while we’re jamming out!” Brenda continued.
“Well obviously!” Dune snapped, but she didn’t think it would be that easy. For all her clever words she somehow came short when flirting was on the table, especially with Knox. Something about her made her throat dry up and her palms sweat and gave her an impending sense of doom that told her ‘yes it’s fine, just live with this painful crush forever that’s the perfect solution.’ But she liked Knox. She wanted her. And since she’d never really gotten anything she wanted before she figured this was a good place to start.
Daytime was the worst for her. After a night of dicking around with Brenda and Jeanie she slept awhile in the morning, then spent the afternoon restless and jittery, smoking cigarettes and kicking at the gravel outside the school. In a big old world full of insanity it seemed there was never anything for her to do, and it drew out her days and made her anxious for her evenings, for clubs and bars that as of late were giving her less and less satisfaction. But she’d usually been guaranteed a good time at the Freezer, so when night finally fell she threw on a jacket and smudged on some eyeliner to lead the girls over.
Knox was waiting for them outside — there was a crowd tonight, enough that Dune wondered if there was sufficient space inside. She greeted them casually, obliviously, and stomped out her cigarette.
“They haven’t started yet.” She said as Jeanie peered around, owl-eyed, at the crowd.
“Degenerates.” Dune answered as she lead them to the door. The bouncer nodded at them and they all went in without a complaint, even Jeanie who was obviously not eighteen yet. Once inside Dune quickly saw why: again, they were the only girls in the building, and heads turned upon their arrival. She lowered her gaze as she moved to the bar at the back of the stuffy room. A group of guys took the stage to an eruption of cheers and applause. They nodded and waved their thanks as the audience upfront — all male and mostly white, with the air like they’d driven up from suburban Toledo — went crazy, screaming and hollering and stomping around like they threatened to flatten each other.
In the back Dune asked for a beer and looked around at familiar faces, all less enthusiastic than the ones up front. All guys who’d been in punk bands before their friends went on to college or got a promotion at the plant or overdosed. Old news. The band began to play, the bass harsh but steady, then explosive in the way the pace advanced. The frontman screamed his lyrics and the audience screamed along. Dune got her beer and snuck Jeanie a sip.
“These new thrasher kids just care about the drugs.” One of the guys at the bar grumbled. “Drugs and glory, just like the mainstream. Just like all these L.A, New York guys.”
“It’s just noise.” Another guy said, then stood and threw a few bills on the bar. He left shaking his head. “It’s just noise.”
“That’s your clone, Dune.” Brenda called to her above the din. “Just gender-swapped.”
“The music’s fine. I like a lot of it, when I can decipher the lyrics.” Dune said, and Knox nodded as she eyed the stage and the spit streaming from the frontman’s wide-open mouth. “It’s just the atmosphere.”
They fell silent and watched the boys play. On stage where they screamed and threw a glass ashtray and thumped along to what could loosely be described as a rhythm, and on the floor where they yelled garbled lyrics, drinking, smoking and pushing each other around as though that was somehow fun. Dune felt the same itch usually reserved for daylight, the same boredom and restlessness. She wanted more out of her life, and clubs like this used to give her that. She looked over to mild-mannered Jeanie, who seemed silently amused and nonplussed by the antics of the band and crowd, then to Brenda, who cheered when the song ended. Knox looked understanding, and moved closer to her to speak.
“And the worst thing is that this is what’ll be huge.” She bent her head to the stage, and Dune felt a tightness in her chest. “And the art our people made will be nothing. Punk is dead.”
“This is punk now.” Someone called to them from the crowd — a man with a shaved head whose eyes narrowed when he saw them. “Hey!”
“Time to go.” Knox said, and only from the urgency in her tone did Dune suddenly recognize the man: they’d robbed him and his gang just last night. “Run!”
Dune turned and bolted, right on Brenda and Jeanie’s heels. She heard a stool get knocked over, some glass smash, and people yell and swear as they were shoved out of the way. Knox had a hand on her shoulder and kept pushing until by some miracle they reached the door, then the cool night air. There wasn’t a second to breathe in the relief — Brenda and Jeanie had taken a hard left and were running back towards the school, and Dune and Knox nearly tripped over themselves chasing after them.
“Don’t lead him home!” Dune yelled in a strangled voice with every ounce of her might. She glanced over her shoulder to find the man still in hot pursuit, his furious gang now joining him. Brenda and Jeanie just kept running, though Dune couldn’t say where. Knox didn’t have a pipe in her hands this time, and none of them were on skateboards. The only thing they could do now was run, run and hope that they’d been at the bar awhile and had drank too much to sustain a jog much longer.
Brenda eventually lead the pack, with little Jeanie falling behind. Knox pushed at her back and Dune ignored the pain in her feet, but the pounding of footsteps behind them hadn’t abated. When Brenda looked over her shoulder there was fear and panic on her face that landed a sucker punch to Dune’s gut. In a second she lurched quickly to the left and they all turned a corner, but as soon as Dune got around the bend she nearly slammed into Brenda, who’d come to a halt and whipped around. She hadn’t understood what was happening, but suddenly Knox’s firm hand was on her shoulder again, this time pushing her down to the pavement. And then gunshots sounded out seemingly loud enough to deafen her, so she screamed and clasped her ears and waited for it to be over.
In a moment it was. Jeanie was tapping on her shoulder, though she didn’t want to get off the ground. She only rose when Knox prodded her, and even then she felt like looking around would mean an instant death. It didn’t: it didn’t mean anything but finding six bodies where there were once six gang members, it didn’t mean anything but seeing Brenda still pointing the gun she’d swiped off the leader. She didn’t look so scared and desperate now, but Dune wasn’t sure what she would call the look on her face. They all got to their feet, shaky, and Brenda slowly lowered the gun with realization dawning in her eyes.
“Brenda.” Knox spoke first, but not in the tone Dune expected — she sounded surprised, relieved, grateful when a dull horror was screaming in the back of her own brain. “You — you did it! You saved all of us!”
And she ran over and pulled Brenda into a kiss. Dune’s shock was nothing compared to the grief that rocked her: she wanted to lie on the street with these gang members, to blend in with them and become one of the dead. She wanted to spontaneously combust. She wanted Brenda to stop looking at her, until Knox pulled away and she actually did, and then she wanted Brenda to stop looking at the girl she knew she liked. Knox lit up, her cheeks rosy, and then seemed to remember herself and laughed awkwardly. When she looked Dune and Jeanie’s way Dune was suddenly very invested with examining the bodies.
“I — uh — we should—” Brenda tried to say, then took a breath. Dune didn’t look up but guessed Knox was growing redder by the minute.
“You doing okay, Brenda?” Jeanie questioned softly, then reached over and gently pulled the empty gun from her grip.
“Yeah.” She said, obviously distracted. “Yeah, I’m fine. I mean, I must be a sociopath, but I’m fine.”
“No, no you’re not. You did what you had to do.” Knox said. “Dune, tell her.”
Dune nodded stiffly and fought to keep the tears from her eyes. She failed miserably and Knox took a concerned step towards her.
“Dune? They were just some gang members. They were nobodies.”
“I know.” She said, suddenly embarrassed by how choked up she sounded. “I just—”
“It’s a lot. Seeing a bunch of dead bodies.” Jeanie broke in, shifting on her feet. “We should probably get out of here.”
“Yeah.” Dune said, her voice still strangled, and turned to leave.
“Wait!” Brenda blurted. “They’ve probably restocked their wallets by now.”
She went over and fished through the leader’s jeans, and Knox helped her gather everyone’s wallets and loose bills. She had been right to think of it, and Dune didn’t blame herself for not, but suddenly when she looked at their little group the whole dynamic seemed different. After they collected the wallets Jeanie began to walk away, and Dune stepped in line with her in silence. Brenda and Knox followed, and if they shared some quiet words together Dune didn’t hear them. She really didn’t want to question what exactly they’d be discussing either, what kind of looks they’d give each other, if they’d mention her at all.
For all the time their little group had existed she’d always considered her their de facto leader, but now she wondered if everyone else had seen it that way. Brenda was strong and confident, wily and decisive. Where she was sly Brenda was bold, where she would lie in wait Brenda was brash. Not to an extreme, not in a way that had ever put them at odds, but she had to question who Knox looked at as head of command.
She thought the sun would rise by the time they’d returned to the school, but hardly any time had passed. The band was probably just wrapping up. When they got close to the door Dune stopped for a smoke, and Knox didn’t offer her her lighter. Brenda let her know she’d split the money up even and hide it in her bag, and Dune nodded distantly. The three girls disappeared, and she was alone for two cigarettes until Jeanie returned, a soft pity in her expression. Dune caught her glance once and decided not to look at her the rest of the month lest she burst into tears on the spot.
“They wanted a minute.” She said by way of explanation, and held out her hand for a cigarette.
“I’m not letting you suck this shit into your lungs.” Dune stomped out her third and leaned against the brick. “Fuck.”
“She wanted to grab burgers or something.” Jeanie said, which Dune took to mean they were all meant to smooth things over with a family dinner. “You hungry?”
“I’m weirdly starving.” She answered, even if she kept thinking of Knox kissing her friend, of the six dead men they left in the street. “Remember the first time we mugged someone?”
“You wanted a guitar.” Jeanie recalled. “We never got you one.”
“What was the point? Learning to play so we could form another shit band. We were already good at beating the crap out of people, so why not keep doing that?” She mused. “I didn’t really care about the band. I was just bored.”
“I know.” Jeanie said softly. “So was I.”
It wasn’t cold out and there was hardly a breeze, but she went and stood close enough to Dune to warm her, then rested her head on her shoulder. In a lifetime together Dune couldn’t begin to tell her how greatly she appreciated the gesture. They stood like that for a minute before she heard a light footstep, then met eyes with Brenda, her expression apologetic, but not too much. Then Knox bounded over with a smile Dune at first found unlike her, then reconsidered and found fitting. She had that bowled-over lovey-dovey look on her face you could only get from a make-out session, and Dune had to look away swiftly.
“We’re gonna get burgers.” She announced as she hooked an arm around Brenda’s. “You up for it?”
“I’m starving.” Dune said again, and stood straight. Jeanie did the same and the group walked down the street, opposite to where they’d left bodies that hadn’t even attracted sirens yet. Brenda tried to shoot her a look, but whatever it meant Dune didn’t know, and Brenda probably didn’t either. What did she want, forgiveness? Or to establish dominance? She wasn’t sure she cared. Her whole world just got flipped upside down, and even though she was sure Brenda didn’t want or intend it, she’d just won a battle that Dune never could.
“I thought the band was good.” Jeanie said after they walked in silence for a few minutes. “Except when they were breaking glass and stuff. It’s new though, isn’t it?”
“It’s inevitable.” Knox said. “But they’ll never be as good as the guys in the ole days.”
“The ole days are insignificant.” Dune found herself saying. “An interesting story with no real impact. These are the days that matter.”
“And what’s your take? On these days?” Brenda asked her, and though Dune couldn’t bear look her way she understood Brenda was testing the waters, seeing how much she could get away with. She thought a moment.
“I’ll live through them.” She finally said, and Brenda nodded. “Let’s get some fucking burgers.”
“Let’s.” Knox pulled Brenda closer to her and smiled, and Dune had nothing more to say.