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It was winter, and we flocked to the shops after school. Arms interlinked, we strode down the aisles, picking up clothes and discarding them, chattering at the top of our lungs while we pocketed what we could. Lacy bras and wadded-up tops went into our bags, thongs that we’d have to hide from our mothers, nail polish that rattled as we walked past the register. We were starlings, leaving empty shelves in our wake.
At the vintage shop, we tried on dresses that hung low off our shoulders and T-shirts advertising bands that had long since split up. Claire reached for the green leather jacket on the sales rack.
I was thinking, Claire said. She ran her fingers over the leather, the give of the folds. I’m going to fall in love.
Claire was the only one who had spending money. She lived in a house outside of town. We knew her parents as ghosts in an idling car, pale in the light from the dashboard, waiting for her to say goodbye and dash across the road.
What do you mean? Kerri said.
It’s going to be Paul. Claire held the jacket up to her chest.
The green leather jacket had been on the sales rack as long as we could remember. Nobody wanted it, other than kids on a dare. The leather was too soft, the zipper too long, the red stitching giving those who tried it on a prickle down the back. It was rumoured to be made from human skin. Rattenbourg, the label read. Like the famous artist. A posthumous performance.
We kept silent.
Paul? Laura said, still shivering from the cold.
Paul was on the rugby team. He had careless hands and blushed easily. When he’d had a few pints, he turned sloppy and mean, his hero tales taking on a sharp edge. He was destined to become a middle-aged man yelling at the TV in a corner of the pub, stomach bulging.
He has lovely eyes. Claire slid her arms into the Rattenbourg’s sleeves. It had wide lapels, kneaded into submission by many hands over time.
Claire looked at herself in the mirror as we gathered behind her. She popped the collar.
It’s been decided.
She slid off the jacket like a snake shedding its skin and folded it, its bulk pressed against her side.
I’m doing it tonight.
We hiked up the hill to the churchyard, knees shivering. Snow fell around us and settled on the ground like ash. Kerri brought out a soda bottle full of vodka. We passed it between ourselves, lips blue.
Claire put her bag down between the headstones and stripped off her coat. She unbuttoned her blouse to her sternum, snow dusting her skin like freckles. The Rattenbourg was big on her, the sleeves falling past her fingertips, the hem level with her school skirt. The zipper flashed silver in the dark.
We could hear noise coming up the path. The boys did not care if they were loud.
Claire pulled out a packet of cigarettes and handed them out to us like communion wafers. She licked her lips.
Oi, what are you doing in the dark?
They had brought beer, six-packs of cans swinging between them like weapons.
Lying in wait, Claire said. She put her hands in the pockets of her jacket, but up close, we saw her mouth tremble.
They laughed, smacked their lips. Toby pulled out his phone and propped it on a headstone, music beating in our stomachs. Paul cracked beers, handed them out. We drank, watching Claire, our minds humming.
Nice jacket, Paul said. He leaned in, touched the leather at her waist.
She sucked on her cigarette, exhaled, rose onto her toes. She whispered in his ear, the Rattenbourg’s zipper poking his chest.
It snowed. The beer fizzed in our stomachs as we bobbed to the music. Toby chased Kerri around the headstones until she shrieked. Laura plucked flowers from a wreath, the shrivelled petals clinging to her fingers. Dan and Alex stood at the precipice behind the church, hurling stones into the dark. We sipped vodka while the snow whispered.
Claire and Paul stood together, sharing secrets. Paul’s face turned red from drinking. He shrugged off his coat and tried on the green Rattenbourg, zipping it up as far as he could. He turned for Claire, arms stretched out to the sides, his grin uneven. He caught her round the middle and folded her against him, her blouse untucked and turning damp with snow. She looked translucent, something beating under her skin like a second pulse.
We tried to catch her eye.
Claire, Kerri said.
They kissed, Paul balancing his beer against Claire’s back. The Rattenbourg tangled between them like a jealous lover.
The boys howled. The snow picked up.
Paul took Claire’s hand and lead her into the flurry. We saw her sway, unsteady. Snow caught in her hair. Her blouse was missing a button. She looked at us, teeth chattering, as if she could not remember her plan.
We called her name.
The beer had lulled us, the night swirling around us in pieces. We had lost our hats and gloves. Our fingernails turned blue. The boys tugged on our hair, the dark full of hands.
Claire was gone, whisked halfway down the hill. She waved in a flash of green under the streetlights. By the time we made it down the path, there was no trace of her.
We clung together, shaking, the vodka roiling in our stomachs.
Claire wouldn’t talk about it. Not the next day on the phone, not a week later at school.
What happened? Laura asked. Did you fall in love?
Claire shook her head. She always looked cold now, her hands trembling. She stayed quiet, pressing her lips into a thin line. The boys had taken to whispering when she walked past, half sentences under their breath, capped by laughter.
Claire’s silence made us twitchy. We gathered around her, staring across the field, where the boys were kicking a football through the mud.
Did you go back to his house? Laura drew closer.
Kerri gave her a look and Laura slapped a hand over her mouth, forcing the words back inside.
Claire cinched the Rattenbourg around herself, folding the sides over each other. The snow had melted into mud, leaving a chill in the air that made our knees shake. Across the field, her eyes caught Paul mid-kick.
He raised his chin, stared back, his skin pink. He winked. Claire took a step backward, her feet stumbling over each other. Her breath rose from her mouth like smoke.
We tried to console her. At the shops, we pocketed lipstick and blush, painting our mouths in the alley outside.
He’s scum, we said as we congregated around Claire.
We took it in turns to wear the Rattenbourg, draping it across each other’s shoulders, sharing the weight, the softness of the green skin against ours. Claire ran the zipper up and down, up and down, a silver line from her hem to her neck. Her eyes stared off into the sky, where clouds gave way to clouds. We could hear her bones rattling against each other like reeds.
I thought he was different, she said.
She doesn’t wear anything underneath, said the boys at school. Stage whispers, echoing off the walls. Not even knickers.
They left drawings on her desk. Body parts, held together by string, big mouths whispering her name. We collected them in our notebooks, pressing them between the pages like flowers, guessing at the artist. After school, we stood in the field and lit them on fire. We held onto the edges until our fingertips burned.
She does it with anyone, they said, jostling each other with their elbows, a chorus of wolf whistles from between sharp teeth. She’s done your dad.
No, yours! Maybe she’ll take pity on you, too.
Oi, Claire! Give us a twirl! A smacking of lips, a hiss following her around the halls.
The Rattenbourg turned Claire’s wrists green where the leather touched her skin. It rubbed onto the nape of her neck, fading into her hair like mould.
It’s the clap, the boys whispered. My mate’s cousin had it. Same thing.
We filled their lockers with snow and drowned their assignments and books. We stole the apples out of their bags and returned them with bites missing.
It never goes away again, they whispered. They huddled together between periods, daring each other to go and shake Claire’s hand, ask her for a kiss. It’ll make her bits fall off, they said.
We took turns putting makeup on Claire, rubbing foundation into her neck with careful fingers, trapping wishes with setting powder. We walked with her, smiling lipstick grins and flicking the straps of our stolen bras at the boys until blood rose to the surface and turned our shoulders red.
Claire ran her zipper up and down. At lunch, she stood outside the gates and smoked, a catch inside her chest. The Lewis boy, Marcus, ran up and tore her jacket open. The Rattenbourg parted like a clearing in a forest.
The boys howled. We slapped him, tried to grab him as the boys closed ranks. Claire flipped her cigarette to the ground, squashed it under her heel.
I’ll have your hide, she said.
School let out for Christmas. We hiked up to the churchyard, where music thumped between the graves. The path was iced over, and we clung to Claire, clutching the edge of the Rattenbourg with blue nails. She zipped it up to her throat.
The boys were drunk, huffing with laughter when we arrived. Paul held out his beer in a salute.
There she is, my green lady.
He reached for her. Claire leaned away. We passed the vodka around, our stomachs puckering.
The sky was full of clouds hanging low in the dark, the ground frozen. Claire turned to the music, her feet unsteady on the ice. We saw her shiver, her bones creaking.
You cold? Paul opened his arms, winked at her.
Claire swigged from the vodka.
Girls don’t get cold, she said. Our skins are tough.
She unzipped the Rattenbourg and slipped it off. Her eyes were on Paul. We crowded around, laughing, throats sore from the cold.
Paul licked his lips and accepted the dare. He took off his coat. He shifted his beer from one hand to the other, lifted it in a toast. His jumper rode up to show a strip of his stomach, pale like the underside of a slug. A vein jumped on his hip, counting out his pulse.
The boys chuckled.
Kerri slipped her arm around Toby and unzipped his coat. Dan turned up the music. Alex grabbed for us as we wrestled off his jacket, pulling the sleeves from his arms. Laura danced away with his hat.
Claire passed around the vodka. The boys pressed their mouths to the lipstick on the bottle, teeth rattling. Kerri and Laura stood at the precipice behind the church, sending coats flying into the dark like herons, one by one, sleeves flapping. Paul picked up the Rattenbourg. His face was red, his feet were slipping. He held the Rattenbourg close. The sky filled with snow, white arms reaching for us like they were drowned men.
Claire plucked Paul’s coat from the ground between the headstones. Her lips were blue. We helped her put it on, hugged it around her, did up her buttons with numb fingers. She slipped her cigarettes into the pocket, halfway down her thigh. The coat encased her like a cocoon.
That’s mine, Paul said. He tried to kiss Claire’s ear, but missed. His knees wobbled. His breath was sour. You’re stealing my coat.
Claire stepped away, swigging the last of the vodka, a smile carving up her face.
The boys laughed and shivered, laughed more. Their grins were red where their teeth cut their lips.
Paul held the Rattenbourg’s sleeves, spinning it to the beat of the music. His beer dropped out of his hand and rolled between the headstones.
Claire popped her collar. Her knuckles were white. Our breath burned in our lungs, limbs swinging in the shadows.
Alex spit blood onto the snow.
The boys’ hands were cold, tangling in our hair. Their mouths tasted bitter, the bread scent of beer mixing with bile. Snow was soaking through their jumpers, their jackets lost, hats gone, skin split open in the cold, steaming.
Come with us, we whispered.