No One Owns This Moment But You
A log tumbles into the bonfire’s pulsing heart. Sparks fly, an orange swarm released. Shelli’s gaze remains heavenward until the last ember dies. She imagines the scene from above, the shine of an earthbound star. Cold tonight. The harvest come and gone. Ahead, the cabin-fever months. Blizzards and drifts. The whine of snowmobiles over the frozen lake. Gutters teethed with icicles.
Shelli’s teeth chatter behind her smile. Her bare legs numb beyond pain. The bass drums thud, a second heartbeat in her chest. Firelight on the tubas’ golden horns. The park surrounded by forty-foot oaks, and snared in their skeleton branches, wind-teased ribbons of red and white. The breeze shifts. The smoke swirls over Shelli, the grit in her eyes as she and the other cheerleaders pump their fists. “Roar, Wildcats, ROAR!”
The flames crackle. The heat warps the faces around the fire. The football team with their game jerseys over their sweatshirts. The band in their spangles and fringe. The flag-wavers and baton-twirlers. Beyond them, a crowd double what Shelli had expected, everyone high on football, football, football. Shelli spots Jimmy Neiland, star quarterback of the 2004 squad, slick in his Marine blues, an empty cuff pinned back against his sleeve, his golden arm left mangled in the sand half a world away. Jimmy cups a hand beside his mouth and yells. Never mind the rust on the mill’s padlocked gates. Never mind the strip mall’s empty stores. There are still heroes to be found.
Shelli and the other cheerleaders pony-step into the space before the bonfire. The blood returns to her wooden legs. Her clapping hands little more than dulled slabs of flesh. She catches sight of her boyfriend through the cheerleaders’ choreographed swirl. He stands at the front of the players’ pack, his gaze on her alone. The girls shift from a three-deep set into a long line. Shelli’s shadow stretches before her. On her command, the group kicks into the Wildcat fight cheer. The words tick from her mouth as thoughtlessly as her steam-puffed breath. A whole, wide swatch of her life has led to this moment, a journey started as a little girl turning cartwheels on soft, summer grass.
The cheer ends, Shelli’s body at stiff attention, her head bowed. The crowd answers with a bloody cry. The band kicks in, a cacophony of brass and percussion. The squad huddles for its finale. They speak in voices only they can hear, counting down as Shelli—the squad’s smallest girl, its pixie flower—climbs into stirrups of cradled hands.
Up she goes, the earth-abandoning sensation of summer carnival rides. So much is beyond her now. The drumline launches into a furious rat-a-tat-tat. Shelli’s thighs quiver until she finds the certainty of balance. With a final lift, the girls raise Shelli high above their heads.
The drumline snaps to a halt. The alma mater’s first stanza is hers alone. Her voice rings out, proud, melodic, a ripple she imagines radiating through the park’s sudden silence, traveling across town and into the surrounding sea of cut corn. The other cheerleaders join her for the chorus, then the rest of the crowd, but all eyes belong to Shelli. Here, with the fire roaring behind her, she finds another type of balance, her body the fulcrum between light and dark. Cold and warmth. Earth and sky.
Below, her boyfriend, and in the fire-reflecting wetness of his eyes, a look of pain and pride. An ambush in Shelli’s heart. After the bonfire, she’ll tell him she doesn’t have to go straight home. She’ll ask him to drive down to the old boathouse, and when he reaches beneath her skirt, she won’t push his hands away. The backseat will be dark, moonglow on the river.
Shelli sucks in the air, cool and smoky, a last dizzying heartbeat here atop the world. A count of three, a dip and a push, and up she goes, a seated tuck, spread legs parallel to the earth. At her flight’s highest point, she touches her toes, a flash of white panties before she begins her fall.
She’s practiced this a thousand times, a high diver’s discipline, head back, legs straight, toes pointed, her rear gently angled toward the fast approaching earth. She lies back, accepting it all. She has done her part, and what happens next is out of her hands. She keeps her eyes opened, wanting to remember this night.