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And we have to admit that with tennis season over, we did lose interest in hanging out, all of us together, with Carter Vaughn. The things he’d done that initially made us laugh now seemed odd and even cruel. He practiced burping each one of our names. His blond hair always needed brushing. In woodshop, he built a bird feeder that he hung from the red maple tree in his backyard and then showed us how he could pick off the hungry snowbirds with a pellet gun. “That’s not funny, Carter,” we said.
“Oh, yeah?” he said, and he pointed the gun at us and laughed. “You’re all tools anyway.”
* * *
A scream is a funny sound, isn’t it? Like an invisible knife, it cuts open the night sky.
We all became even closer over a scream, suddenly and unexpectedly. Our senior year, one of us—who’s to say which one started it?—had just gone all the way and afterwards ran into her backyard—even though it was mid-winter—wearing nothing but underwear and pink pig slippers, shivering cold, and let out a scream. It seemed to hang there in the night air and continue to pulse. But then a second scream came from a different part of town, and then another, and we realized, later, all of us, that we had been the ones calling out, reaching over yards and darkness to find one another.
Now it seems as if that moment had always been a part of who we were, girls in the middle of their backyards, screaming into the night. We carried it with us that first semester at college, crossing the snowy quad, pressed into corners of Pi Kappa Epsilon houses by boys twice our size, turning from hairy-knuckled janitors cleaning up in a bio lab after hours, and through it we could always find each other, no matter how far apart we were. It was the promise we made, to always be there for one another. Read what we wrote in each other’s yearbook and you’ll see.
We thought things would finally get better for Carter Vaughn when Kennedy left for Dartmouth and we left for satellite branches of the state university the next fall. But not long after we were gone, we heard from our mothers that they’d seen Carter pulled over at the side of the road by the regional police on more than one occasion. For speeding, drunk driving, maybe even drugs (Carter’s eyes often seemed bloodshot), they didn’t know what exactly, but they’d seen him pulled over by police definitely more than one time. Mrs. Vaughn was there to pick up the pieces. Our mothers said to see that woman opening the front door of the Vaughns’ house on the hill when Carter was escorted home, Mrs. Vaughn looking around more from embarrassment than genuine concern for her child, showed the type of person she really was. “What did she know about education?” our mothers laughed.
And somehow being apart our first college semester allowed us to see what we couldn’t see up close or had seen but were afraid to say: Carter Vaughn had been with us all. It was something that slowly made its way to the surface of our knowing, then burst like a flood: Kennedy Vaughn had rejected us and Carter Vaughn had gone all the way with every one. On basement couches, on sleeping bags thrown onto garage floors. In a child’s tree house, mid-winter, on patio chairs by the Vaughns’ backyard pool. Why had we kept this a secret from one another? Who were we protecting?
Several of us broke down in tears, the things Carter Vaughn had done to us, and where, and with what.
It had been a very cold New Year’s Eve, just home for our first Christmas break, leading up to the night in question. We were there again at The Pit Stop, and that’s when we heard Carter Vaughn say it, “I’m going to kill that son of a bitch.” I doubt we were the only ones who’d heard him say it, too. For a few days after, everything was quiet. And then suddenly not.
It was dead-winter after all, and the Vaughns had drained their in-ground pool, so when Mrs. Vaughn—returning home with Mr. Vaughn after a traveling company’s performance of The Producers—heard the sound of water running, she followed the green garden hose snaking from her back patio down to the previously drained pool now three-feet deep with water. We can see her there, pulling back the blue heating tarp. It was close to midnight when she screamed, and we wonder if she ever heard us as we heard her, all of us screaming up at the same sky, feeling the same icy clawing inside our lungs. Did the same sleepless animals from the surrounding fields ever peer at her and us both, in amazement or amusement?
Someone had been refilling the pool, poor Carter Vaughn’s body cold and submerged beneath the blue tarp to wash all evidence clean. After her scream, Mrs. Vaughn backpedaled, falling into an iron lounge chair, and remained there, strangely so, for thirty seconds, looking almost as if she were enjoying a quiet time, perhaps a younger vision of Carter Vaughn yelling, “Look at me, Mom!” and firing off cannon balls with unrefined splashes from their old D.C. pool. Or were we seeing that behind Mrs. Vaughn’s eyes she was piecing together a story of her own, just in case?
Then, getting up, she walked unhurriedly back to the house, poured herself a glass of scotch with ice, and alerted Mr. Vaughn who’d already switched from his show clothes to pajama bottoms. “Oh no oh no oh no,” he was saying, such a sad and strange sound, as Mrs. Vaughn pointed towards the deep end of the pool.
When the police swarmed the Vaughns’ house, we have to admit it was strange and it was beautiful, the red flashing lights in their front yard that early Thursday morning. Probably because we’ve heard the story so many times, we imagine sometimes it was us who were there, unwrapping that blue tarp around Carter Vaughn, revealing him like a caterpillar that had died in its cocoon, Carter’s blond head shaved close, nearly hairless like a baby waiting to be born. We’re sure he would have made a beautiful butterfly someday, but maybe that’s the tragedy of life: not everyone gets to complete the transformation.
The red wound on the back of Carter’s head was caused by a very strong forehand or perhaps Carter had slipped, cracking his skull on the side of the pool. We had our own ideas about what else could have happened that night, even though Kennedy Vaughn, who was first taken into custody, was released just hours later after a visit from the Vaughns’ Washington attorney. For a while, people wondered if Mr. and Mrs. Vaughn had really attended The Producers as they claimed. Had they themselves finally tired of their middle child’s antics? Or had it all been—as we suggested to our brave local police at our own interrogations—an unfortunate accident, a stupid stunt gone wrong by Carter Vaughn, who was prone to dangerous behavior anyway?
Who ever really knows what goes on in other people’s houses? You can get your nose right next to the window, you can see inside, but you can never really know, for sure, what happens unless someone has stupidly left the side door unlocked and you go in. You can never know that Kennedy Vaughn was in his room helping himself to internet porn and playing Vampire Weekend too loud to hear a disagreement out back or that Eleanor had fallen asleep on the living room sofa as if drugged, chocolate syrup smearing her hands and her mouth, but with no Hershey’s bottle in sight.
The Vaughns moved back to the nation’s capital after Carter’s death, his body taken with them to a cemetery near the Washington Monument. Then the Vaughns’ house on the hill was quickly overrun by brown mice, the surrounding fields reclaiming the yard as always belonging to them.
This is all we can honestly tell you.
And in case you’re wondering, we did win eight out of twelve matches that last year. Thanks to Carter Vaughn, our losing streak ended.