The first time the girls conjured the devil, The Hillside Boys had just announced their fall ‘97 tour dates and Fresno was not on the list, half a dozen held-breath phone calls to The Hillside Boys Hotline confirming the news—Nadia holding the phone with both hands and turning away from the others like it was her own painful secret to bear, Leanne’s eyes blurring with tears as she listened from the phone in Nadia’s kitchen, Blanca and Mikka running to Nadia’s parents’ room to listen from the phone on the nightstand and look into each other’s dread-deep eyes. In the computer lab at lunch the next day, they typed in the Geocities URL for The Official Hillside Boys Fan Club and saw the dates and cities—10/16 San Francisco, 10/18 Los Angeles. Phoenix, Santa Fe, Austin.
Their parents would never take them all the way to San Francisco or Los Angeles.
Their parents took the bus. Leanne’s dad had a car, but it couldn’t drive uphill. Nadia was the only one whose family had a working car. (She was also the only one of them who had her own room—and three goddamn phones!) But her parents had a no-boys rule and would never let her go to a concert.
Their first conjuring was at midnight in the peach orchard behind Leanne’s apartment complex where Janet Roland went missing last summer while taking a shortcut home. They didn’t hang out with her, but she and Leanne lived in the same apartment complex, so she’d come to a few of Leanne’s birthday parties. Nadia had cried when she disappeared, but Leanne said, “She was kind of an asshole though, right?”
The fermented stink of rotting stone fruit stopped their throats and made them gag and breathe through their mouths so that they almost didn’t speak the words correctly because they weren’t pronouncing any Ns or Ms—“in nomine nostrum tedebris pater” becoming “id dobide dostrub tedebris pater.”
“In the name of our dark father, we call you forth to make a bargain: our souls for The Hillside Boys,” Leanne called to the night sky as they held hands in a circle around a single lit candle.
Mikka produced the X-Acto Knife, which they used to cut the thin skin on the inside of their elbows until the blood ran thick, and then took turns holding their arms over the candle to dribble blood into the flame. A cool breeze made the peach trees shake loose their fruit with gentle thuds, and then came the thud of Nadia hitting the soft earth because she’d fainted, and they knew she was out, that she was going to tell, so they agreed on their story as they ran out of the orchard before she could wake up: Nadia is mad that we went to the mall without her. Nadia still plays with her plastic toy horses and she hates us because we don’t want to do that anymore. Nadia is trying to get back at us because we made fun of her for not knowing what cyber sex is.
Nadia wasn’t at school the next day, but The Official Hillside Boys Fan Club announced a new tour date: 10/17 Fresno. The girls stared over Leanne’s shoulder at the computer monitor in breathless wonder for a full minute as a fat green fly buzzed in lazy circles above them, and then Leanne whispered, “No fucking way.”
She turned around in her chair to look at the other two. “Let’s do it again.” Batting the fly off her cheek.
Mikka and Blanca nodded. They didn’t have to ask. They knew what Leanne meant: The Hillside Boys were coming to Fresno, but what difference did that make if Leanne, Mikka, Nadia, and Blanca were just four girls in a crowd of thousands? They needed to be more specific about what they wanted.
There were five Hillside Boys: J.R., Shane, Brad, Nate, and Justin, and their first single was called “You Don’t Know I Love You.” They set themselves apart from other boy bands by playing actual instruments, and that was what Leanne, Blanca, Mikka, and Nadia told everyone at school who rolled their eyes at them.
“I like their music!” Blanca had shouted at her lab partner in the middle of science class.
“They play their own instruments!” Leanne had called from across the room even though she hadn’t been a part of their conversation.
The fact that there were five boys in the group made it easy for the girls to divvy up their crushes. Leanne liked Justin, a fan favorite with his floppy blonde hair and his large iceberg eyes. Blanca liked J.R. (whose name was actually also Justin but went by J.R.—presumably to avoid confusion). Mikka liked the drummer, Nate, who was also the only one in the group who sometimes rapped in their songs. Nadia liked Shane because his front teeth overlapped slightly which made him seem more approachable.
Throughout the summer of 1997 and into the beginning of 8th grade, the girls walked to 7-Eleven twice a week to buy every magazine that had an article, interview, or photo spread of The Hillside Boys, swapping magazines when they were done so they could read all the coverage without spending all of their birthday money—even though they did, even though they ended up stealing magazines or pretend-sneezing as they tore out posters to secret them out of the store under their shirts. They taped the magazine tear-outs on their walls and binders and PE lockers, brushing off the sluggish feedlot flies that clustered on everything and were often caught crawling across a cheek or a twinkling eye. They compared their astrology signs to find out who they were most compatible with. Justin was a Pisces and thus more compatible with Blanca, a Cancer (“we’re both sensitive and artistic!”), but Leanne, an Aries, said she was a rising Pisces, and no one knew what that meant or if it was true or not so they didn’t argue with her.
The night they decided to conjure the devil for the second time, they met at Leanne’s apartment for a sleepover. Her parents bought pizza and Mr. Pibb, and the girls studied Tiger Beat and Bop and Teen Beat at the kitchen table while they waited for Leanne’s little sister Tara to fall asleep so they could talk freely.
“What is Justin’s idea of a perfect date?” Leanne’s dad asked, coming in from the living room where he had been playing video games while Leanne’s mom worked the sewing machine at her crafting table in the corner. He leaned over Blanca to grab a piece of pizza and she could smell his Speed Stick deodorant and a faint exhale of the rendering plant where he worked. “What kinds of qualities does Justin like in a girl?”
“Oh my God, Dad, stop,” Leanne said, shaking her head quickly without taking her eyes off her magazine, trying to focus.
“Does Justin floss? Does Justin jaywalk?”
Leanne’s dad laughed on his way back to the living room. He was wearing a Giants T-shirt and a backwards baseball hat, and when he dropped into his beanbag chair, Blanca could see a piece of pepperoni fall from the pizza onto his shirt. He lifted the shirt and ate the pepperoni off of it.
Leanne’s dad was boyishly handsome, with large, clear, candy-green eyes and an open forehead as he smiled at the girls when they said things he found adorable. Blanca had had a crush on him since she was ten and she got hit in the face with an old tire swing chain hanging from a tree behind the apartment complex. The other girls had taken her back to Leanne’s apartment where her dad took Blanca’s face in his hands and tipped it up, using a finger that smelled like rust to delicately pull back her bleeding upper lip to check for chipped or missing teeth. His eyes were cinemascopic and Blanca was pulled in like a dust mote.
Mikka had had a crush on Leanne’s dad since seventh grade when she saw him come out of the bathroom shiny wet with a towel around his waist, and she saw the black hair on his chest and stomach. Men’s body hair repulsed her—chest hair made her gag. She once threw up a little bit into her younger sister’s white satin snap-purse at mass when a man in a tank top received the Eucharist and made the sign of the cross, lifting his arm just enough to reveal the damp, mousy tuft of hair underneath.
But when she saw Leanne’s dad, she wondered for a gasp of a second what the hair on his stomach felt like, if it was soft like kitten fluff or coarse like Labrador fur.
Blanca and Mikka didn’t have dads and they were both intrigued with Leanne’s dad as a man who lived with a teenage girl, who bought her pads and Clearasil, who saw her bras and the Victoria’s Secret thongs she bought herself, and didn’t tease when he dropped her off on the first day of school and she cried in front of everyone because all of her clothes looked weird on her now. They were drawn to the idea of a man who knew, understood, and accepted their monstrousness.
Finally, Leanne’s parents and sister went to bed and the girls slipped out at eleven and ran to the feedlot where Blanca’s uncle was the foreman. She had grown up on the feedlot and knew where they kept the newborn calves in isolation hutches so they wouldn’t get sick.
The baby was eager-wobbly, unused to her legs, unused to seeing people. She shivered and shook and cried as the girls lifted her into Tara’s wagon and pulled her through the night back to the peach orchard, where they had already arranged four candles in a square. As they laid the baby cow in the center, Mikka suddenly stood upright.
“Did you hear that?”
The other two listened. Wind shushing through leafless branches, a car backfiring on the freeway a few blocks west. And then they heard it: something growling in the shadows, something multiple, something impossible to locate because it seemed to be quietly everywhere.
“It’s him,” Leanne said. “He’s come for our offering. Give me the knife.”
Mikka pulled the X-Acto Knife out of her pocket and Leanne took it, switched it open, didn’t seem to hear Blanca or Mikka say “wait” before she brought the blade down fast.
Later, when they were lying in bed and watching the flies crawl up their bedroom windows and cast poxy shadows on the walls, Blanca and Mikka would replay the moment in their heads and marvel at the fluidity and economy of Leanne’s movements—the way she cut the calf’s throat like she’d done it hundreds of times, like she was tying her shoes or braiding her hair. The way she knew to hold the bucking baby down as she said the words. The way she looked up at both of them and wiped the hair out of her face with the hand still holding the X-Acto Knife so that she left an ellipsis of blood across her cheek, a dot-dot-dot as she handed Mikka the knife and said, “do it—for The Hillside Boys.”
When it was over, they left the dead calf in the orchard, but thought they heard something cracking through the branches behind them, thought they heard a growling as they climbed the stairs to Leanne’s second-floor apartment.
Nadia never came back to school. And then her picture was on the news: Missing Area Girl. Missing Central Valley Girl. Girl Feared Dead.
Last seen in her bed on Wednesday night.
Last seen in the rose-print nightgown her grandma made her.
Only Leanne, Blanca, and Mikka knew the truth: that Nadia was last seen in the orchard, where they left her.
That Nadia never made it out of the orchard.
By Monday morning, police officers were at the school talking to Nadia’s lab partner and the boy she tutored in math and the girl she walked with during the Friday Fun Run in PE, just as they did when Janet Roland went missing. Somehow, impossibly, improbably, miraculously, no one pointed at Leanne, Blanca, or Mikka. The principal made an announcement on the loudspeaker: Anyone with any knowledge of Nadia’s whereabouts…
There was a hotline on the news: anyone who might know…
Mikka dreamed that she was in the orchard and something was following her, snorting through wet nostrils. She looked back and saw the glitter of damp eyes and black, oil-slick fur. She saw the high gloss of horns. She heard the low droning of flies. She would never tell Leanne or Blanca that when it was her turn to stab the calf, she was thinking of Leanne’s dad and the pencil strokes of black fur on his chest and stomach.
When they walked home on Tuesday, Blanca turned onto Sixth Street and waved goodbye to Mikka and Leanne as they continued west on Almond Avenue to pick up their little sisters from the elementary school, and she thought she saw something large moving through the trees at the edge of the orchard. She smelled rust. She smelled sulfur. She smelled the rendering plant.
She would never tell Leanne or Mikka that when it was her turn to stab the baby cow, she was thinking of Leanne’s dad’s finger in her mouth.
As she backed into her apartment and saw the branches of a single peach tree rolling in the absence of a breeze, she realized they probably could’ve just asked Leanne’s dad to take them on the bus to the concert and he would’ve done it. He was nice like that.
When Blanca didn’t show up for school on Wednesday, Mikka remembered the moment at Leanne’s birthday party last year at the apartment complex pool, when her dad showed up with a stack of pizzas yelling “I bringa da pizza!” and Janet Roland had leaned over in her lounge chair to whisper to Mikka, Nadia, and Blanca, “Leanne’s dad is hot,” just as Leanne surfaced on the other side of the pool and looked at them. Mikka had thought she was too far away to hear them, too far away to hear Blanca and Nadia giggle as Mikka said, “Oh my God, right?” but now she wasn’t sure.
And on Thursday when the police questioned everyone but Leanne and Mikka about Blanca’s disappearance…
And when the principal announced on the loud speaker “if anyone has any information” and Leanne smiled at Mikka from across the classroom…
And when Mikka lay in bed that night and heard Janet and Nadia and Blanca calling to her, got up on her knees and looked out her window to see them glowing in their moonlit nightgowns at the edge of the orchard…
And when she put on her shoes and socks and ran to the peach trees with a flashlight and found Leanne standing alone and smiling over a single lit candle as a fat green fly crawled up the side of her face…
And when she saw the thing emerging from the shadows behind Leanne, impossibly tall and horned, snorting sulfur and glistening like oil in the darkness…
Then she knew that Leanne had heard her.
© Faith Merino
[This piece was selected by Heather Cripps. Read Faith’s interview]