super 8. the problem with summer has always been that it only lasts a season. joe grows up, joe is seventeen, and maybe, joe gets brave. joe/alice. 3175 words.
notes: for stepliana for that first kiss prompt meme thing! this, er, got a little out of hand? idk, i started writing it and then found i could not stop, haha. so 3000 words later, here we are! that said: obviously spoilers for the movie here, consider ye warned, blah blah.
it’s a hollywood summer --
we belong in a movie
try to hold it together ‘til our friends are gone.
The funny thing about finding your courage and facing down real life demons is that in the immediate wake of this fearless confrontation you believe there is nothing in this world to ever be afraid of -- that there will never come a time when this bravery shrinks or hides from you again.
It’s funny because it’s not true.
It will be another four years before Joe Lamb kisses Alice Dainard for the first time.
Funny that it takes so long.
It’s just, he’s never seen a creature more terrifying.
Lillian goes back to normal faster than anyone might have imagined it would.
A different arm of the government swept into town the following day, Main Street still littered with broken glass and the remains of brand-new televisions and table lamps fresh from the factory to be sold.
They would rebuild the town for them.
The new soldiers were efficient, gruff and not exactly unkind, but Joe’s father wouldn’t trust them. He insisted they be allowed to return to their house, to whatever was left of it -- Joe expected the worst, but was pleasantly surprised to see that the walls still stood, the roof was still attached, save for a few shingles and the better part of the stalk of the brick chimney, the front windows smashed to pieces and a large gash taken out of their front door -- but they were ushered into the makeshift refugee camp along with everyone else.
He camped out with the boys. Martin slept through most of the first day, his leg bound and elevated (and despite his protests to the contrary, he would be fine, the scar left on his leg a conversation piece for the rest of his life -- a made-up story about his buddy Cary and how while shooting a scene for his friend Charles’s film, Cary ignited an explosion larger than expected and Martin got caught in the debris; “It’s funny,” he will say, his leading man status a footnote in his personal history, “I can’t even remember what the movie was about.”
It’s funny because that part -- he will be telling the truth).
They each were debriefed.
They each had to sign things that had a lot of official and scary words written large and in black. Words like CONFIDENTIAL. Words like CLASSIFIED. Words like CRIMINAL SANCTIONS. Joe signed all those papers in his cramped, shaky scrawl, and his dad signed those papers, too.
They weren’t allowed to talk about The Thing That Happened.
At the time, Joe resented it. The Thing That Happened had happened to him, and if he wanted to talk about it, he should be allowed to -- it was only fair. Besides, The Thing That Happened had happened to Alice, too. It was something they shared in common, something solid they both could point to and say, hey that happened to You and it happened to Me, which I guess means it happened to Us. Together. It was something as solid and shared as his hand holding hers, though apparently, just as fleeting.
Later he’d be grateful for the gag order, that their town, not a single one of them, earned national recognition, that their story was buried in a file somewhere in Washington, D.C. or somewhere even more secretive. Impossible to forget, it instead became something to live with, buried the same way that secret file was locked away. The rest of the summer still yawned in front of them, and they finished Charles’s movie, but it was as though a long shadow had been cast over the hot, humid days leading up to the start of the school year.
Alice spent a lot of time with her dad.
Joe spent a lot of time with his dad, too. He also spent a lot of time thinking about her, wondering what was so scary about knocking on her front door.
He never knocked, but then, neither did she.
He is seventeen when he kisses Alice Dainard. It is summer. Rather than riding their bikes up over the hill to shoot Charles’s movie and then spending the afternoon hopping parking meters while they waited for the developed product, this summer is comprised of smoky bonfires, the stench of the burnt leaves and damp wood sticking to their clothes and clinging to the wet red muscle of their throats.
That summer Cary poaches beer from his dad’s fridge, the beer lukewarm and bubbling over the lip of the can, spilling down their chins and clinging to the sweaty cotton and dip of skin just below the clavicle.
Joe is seventeen, and he still doesn’t know what it feels like to love a girl -- not really. He knows what it’s like to want one, but that part’s easy. That part’s physical. That part is Susan Landers, his first kiss ever, right behind the bleachers during football practice and Joe doesn’t even play football (much to his father’s unfaltering dismay).
“Oh, man, she make your dick hard?” Cary asked, the same interest and excitement usually reserved for dousing the family barbecue with lighter fluid or buying a fresh pack of sparklers and lighting them all at once. She had, but Joe felt like it was a weird betrayal to admit it, so he just blushed and tried to hide it. He shrugged his shoulders, thereby belying any attempt at discretion. He was fifteen, they all were, and that was the summer they spent more time at the local pool ogling Monica Branson and her new red bikini than they did shooting scenes or even talking about Charles’s next project.
Charles scowled and told Cary to shut the hell up, his interest in romantic liaisons still limited to the fictional rather than the familiar.
That summer was the last summer Charles enlisted their help.
This movie didn’t have any monsters, and Charles said Martin lacked the emotional depth to portray a man destroyed by drink and Vietnam and a woman who all but left him for dead.
No one ever mentioned the bigger problem facing his film:
There wasn’t a single girl in Lillian that Charles could convince to be his leading lady.
No one mentioned Alice either. Maybe she was just another thing not to talk about, though thinking of the reasons why that might be made Joe squirm a little. It made him feel the way he felt with Susan Landers under the bleachers, but somehow better.
That summer they were fifteen, Alice would show up at the community pool too, but she always wore a blue one-piece. She looked nothing like Monica, but Monica was nineteen, she was all baby-oil coated legs that stretched for miles and that red bikini that made her tits spill over the top.
Alice was still built like a plank, no waist and no hips, flat and angular like a boy. The sharp edges of her hipbones poked through her soaked swimsuit, her shoulder blades cutting like shifting seismic plates under her skin as she swam.
She was perfectly ordinary in that sense, her bright blonde hair darkened and almost dingy in the chlorinated water, her skin still so pale even in the burning sun -- the tip of her nose reddening, the thin skin under her eyes the same as she wiped the sunscreen away each time she rubbed at her face when she surfaced from under the water.
It’s not that Joe and Alice were unfriendly to each other. It’s just the social climate of a small town, the petty hierarchy of the lunch room, the school dance split down the middle between boys and girls. It’s just that maybe Alice was a summer thing, something that fit the time they found themselves in -- something associated exclusively with danger and the feeling like his heart might stop beating. Now all the danger they faced was Joe’s dad and Cary’s dad if he realized an entire six pack of beer was missing and Charles’s artistic mood swings, or most pressing: if Monica Branson would walk over to their side of the swimming pool and talk to one of them, but it’d be the wrong one of them, not themselves but one of their friends.
Alice would still sometimes say hi to him, something bravely specific in the way she would say, “Hi, Joe,” but refuse to look at him, instead letting her gaze fall just left of his ear or to the magazine Charles was poring over or Cary’s teeth, now free of braces.
Joe would mumble, “Hi, Alice,” back, staring just under her chin and at the water still dripping from her wet hair and her ears down onto her shoulders, the menacing cut of her collarbone, and lower. He wasn’t supposed to look lower. He wasn’t supposed to be able to see her bones like that.
(But he did, and he knew what her ribcage looked like, bones curving outward to cage her inside, her bathing suit too thin to disguise them, no meat to her, all bone).
One time that summer Alice asked if they were still making their movies.
She probably didn’t mean any disrespect, or maybe she did (Charles was convinced that women learned their wily ways straight out of the womb, but that was also the summer he adopted Mike Nichols as his favorite director and was working his way through his filmography). But Joe didn’t think so; Alice was sincere in a way that sometimes made it hard to look at her.
Either way, Charles had scowled, deeply offended and told her with the upmost gravitas that although he had moved on from zombies and things that go bump in the night, he still was making his movies, thank you very much.
Cary laughed. “You’re such a dick, dude.”
All Alice said was, “Oh, okay,” her mouth a flat red line. She was wearing green sunglasses and had a can of Coke in her hand, a straw bending from it towards that flat red line. The day was overcast, but the pool was crowded anyway -- a storm obvious on the horizon, the air thick and heavy with it, and the lifeguard on duty watched the approaching bulkhead of clouds warily.
Alice comes to the bonfires sometimes.
The first time that summer, both seventeen, she folded her arms just under her chest and if Joe’s gaze lingered, she didn’t say anything about it. It was late May and the night was cool, more like autumn than any other season.
She asked Joe how his dad was. He shrugged and he asked her the same question in return.
She shrugged and smiled small, and Joe didn’t think either of them really wanted to be talking about their fathers.
That was the first time, that chilly May night -- Alice in a school sweatshirt, the collar torn, ripped wide to hang off a pale bared shoulder --- that Joe thought that maybe Alice belonged to more than the summer That Thing Happened.
Charles wasn’t allowed to make a movie about The Thing That Happened. Charles said he didn’t want to anyway, but Joe made it a point to argue that Charles had to admit it was pretty great source material.
The following summer Charles developed an unshakable interest in David Lynch after seeing The Elephant Man. He snuck Joe in with him to see a showing of it that summer, something wildly exciting about tiptoeing into the dark theater, Charles as always just this side of too loud. The two boys settled low in their seats -- the matinee showing mostly empty.
It was a different kind of summer than the one that came before. Charles was making another movie, but it wasn’t the same. Nothing was really the same, and sometimes Joe thought it had nothing to do with that train that crashed or The Thing That Happened or even that his mother had died. It was simply that it was a different year. They were all a year older. Charles’s zombie film didn’t win him any prizes, and even though Charles kept making movies, Alice wasn’t asked back as a leading lady, and there was less for Joe to do with the monster make-up.
Charles said he wasn’t going to make movies like that anymore. Pretty sure he said it again that day at his house over their lunch of bologna and mustard sandwiches Charles's mom made before he leaned in and whispered that Joe just had to check out this Lynch movie.
(Charles’s interest in Lynch will persist over the years, reaching a climax during his time at NYU as a film student when Blue Velvet is released. He will take the film’s release and critical success personally, as a form of proof of his own admiration for the director. But that’s a long ways away off, that’s New York, that’s so far away from the recently rebuilt Lillian).
Joe stopped making train models after the summer That Thing Happened.
It wasn’t a conscious decision. Not really.
He just quit buying the kits. He didn’t even think about it, didn’t feel that same consuming desire to shrink the world around him down to the small manageable scale he could house in his own bedroom, create and call his own.
He picked up a baseball bat that spring, and he liked it more than he thought he would. He had a decent arm and was a quick runner. He’d toss a ball around with his dad on the weekends and sometimes they’d go and split a platter of french fries at the corner diner near the police station just as the sun was starting to dip under the horizon. His dad would say Joe was getting pretty good, or at least better, but most times he wouldn’t say much of anything at all.
It was the summer after that, the summer after his freshman year of high school, after playing on the JV baseball team, that he was lying in bed staring at the neighborhood shadows refracted on his walls that he spied the dusty train set he had painted just behind the globe perched precariously on his desk and the unopened three volume set on outer space he got for Christmas.
He didn’t give it much more thought than that.
Cary soaks a hollow log with lighter fluid and cackles when it goes up in a white-hot flame of blue and then evens out, the smoke making his eyes water.
The bonfires were his idea in the first place, and through him, they’ve attracted a rag-tag group of fellow high schoolers who tromp through the overgrown field to join them, powerlines stretching overhead.
“There’s nothing to do in Ohio,” Charles will say sometimes as they sit around the fire, the word Ohio stretched into a whine, the level of disdain marking it as interchangeable with any other four-letter word of disgust. The girls that join them will agree, the fact they are even present at this bonfire with them, sipping peach schnapps from a bottle stolen belonging to someone’s mother, making the sentiment implicit.
Charles is still the tallest and the largest of them all, his bulk formidable as he sits indian-style near the fire, dwarfing the small freckled girl Joe had geometry with last year as he explains in painful detail just why Ghostbusters was highly superior to her dog in this fight: Gremlins.
Martin never grew that much taller, and Cary never grew into his teeth, but the year Joe turned sixteen, Joe shot up six inches, his height reaching now over six feet tall. He is still all long, lanky muscle, more skinny than lean.
Alice grew tall too, but she also grew graceful. Joe watches the way her legs stretch out into the shadows outside the fire’s reach as she pokes a stick into the glowing embers.
She wears a green bikini at the pool now. She’s still all bones, and when she dives in she slices straight through the water.
The party disperses sometime around one, heat lightning flashing out in the distance. Cary takes the empty beer can from Joe’s hand and crushes it against his skull and then laughing throws it off into the treeline. He races off after Charles and Preston, babbling about creating a lightning rod.
Alice lingers, and so does Joe, both seemingly grounded by the other. Joe shuffles his feet, eyes trained on his feet and the dead grass, and then he looks up at Alice.
“Walk you home?” he asks, and Alice nods, but neither of them move.
“I waited for you. You know,” Alice tells him suddenly. She’s looking him in the face this time, nothing else to look to out here, nothing but the smoldering remnants of the bonfire behind him or the way the powerlines stretch out to the next town over. Or maybe it’s not that there’s nothing else worth looking at, but rather that this is Alice being brave. “I waited for you to come by. That summer. I thought you might,” she says.
“Why didn’t you come see me then?” Joe asks her, unclear if this is an exercise in bravery or stupidity.
Alice just shrugs. And what she says next, maybe that’s why he does what he does. Maybe that’s why he throws his lot in with courage instead of stupidity, because she says to him: “I guess I was afraid.”
He leans in and he kisses her.
Joe is seventeen and he doesn’t think he knows what it feels like to love a girl.
He will find that he is wrong.
Alice’s hair is smooth and soft under his hands, slipping through his fingers like he won’t ever be able to get a firm grip. She tastes a bit like the bonfire they both were sitting around, on opposite sides, and he watched her burn a marshmallow and let it fall into the flames. But more than the fire, more than the smoke, she doesn’t taste like anything he knows how to describe. He doesn’t know the words for it, doesn’t know if he even wants to know them, and maybe at seventeen you are as romantic as you can ever be, as stupidly brave and stupidly self-aware, because Joe doesn’t believe anyone has a word for her, for the warm, welcoming pink of her opened mouth against his.
Alice pressing her body against his makes kissing her feel like the most obvious choice he has ever made. The skin at the small of her back just under the hem of her t-shirt is hot to the touch, and Alice makes a small noise into his mouth when he presses his fingers there.
He thinks about staying out in that field with her for a long time.
And this -- the field, Alice, her mouth -- this is Something That Happens.