Kira D. McCullough is a Southern writer, who draws many of her stories from the raw experiences and wild expanses of her beloved Texas. “Bikini Summer Girl” captures another moment in her life—a place where Kira lived, as a young girl, with her family in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains. When the snow melted, and the hot summers came, they would escape to vacation near Lake Erie in northern Ohio. Though the story is fictional, the places are real. She dedicates “Bikini Summer Girl” to her daughter, Joy, whose keen literary eye removed all the beams. Find out more about this new Southern author at https://kiradmccullough.org/
Bikini Summer Girl
My mother demanded that I call them my brothers. I called them brats. Sam and Kent were two red-headed boys who shot stray cats with their BB guns and bragged about torturing wild animals they had caught in their traps in the woods. They were fourteen and twelve, and my stepdad, Gordon, got them every other weekend when his ex-wife dropped them off. Once, his boys had dismembered my favorite doll, burying her parts all over the backyard. They called me names like Airhead and Four Eyes, and when they came over there was always lots of pushing, shoving, and teasing. It was my real dad who saved me from their torment, the summer of my thirteenth birthday.
It was August in the small town of Asheville, Ohio, and there wasn’t much to do except sleep late. After getting up around noon, I toasted Pop-Tarts and watched reruns of Gilligan’s Island and I Dream of Jeannie. On hot days I rode my bike to the city pool. Today was Saturday, and sizzling temperatures were predicted. Brookside would be packed, so I decided to stay home from the pool and work on my tan. Besides, I had cramps and didn’t feel like doing anything but laying in the sun.
After struggling to pull on my swimsuit, I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror. I winced. In the store, it had fit perfectly. Now, it was too tight. My hips were widening to accentuate a concave tummy, and my growing breasts had puffed out the upper part of the two-piece. I adjusted the bikini bottom so that it covered my sanitary belt. Wrapping my beach towel self-consciously around my waist, I carried a tattered paperback and a transistor radio downstairs on my way to the outdoor patio. Gordon was sitting in the lounge chair in the den, reading the paper. When I passed by, he whistled.
“Gin-Gin, hoochie coochie!”
He stared at me with one eyebrow lifted and the corner of his mouth tilted up in that sardonic fashion he sometimes had when he looked at my mother in her nightgown.
“I’ve never seen you wear that, before. The boys are going to drool,” he said. His lips were stretched thin and I could see his teeth. “You know Sam and Kent are coming over later.”
Quickly, I pivoted towards the patio door, pulling it open and sprinting outside. I ran down the hill to the back of the house, where nobody could see me laying on my belly in my bikini. I dropped down on my towel, feeling unusually dizzy, like when I was the tail end in a game of Crack the Whip. I thought about how they would tease me if they saw me in my stupid bikini. Why, I wondered, had I convinced my mother to let me buy it?
It had been early July, and we were at Woolworths. My mother was picking through a bin of ash trays for Gordon, while I stared out the large front windows at the stores across the street. Featured in the window of Lisa’s Duds was a display of new swimwear. A shimmering, lime-green bikini caught my attention.
“Mom, can we go over there?” I said, pointing to the boutique.
“Why?” she mumbled, turning over a heavy red ash try to see the price tag.
“I need a new swimsuit,” I said.
“You’ve already got one.”
I panicked. How could I let her know that the blue and white one-piece she had bought last year was too small? There wasn’t much money in our house. After paying the bills, Gordon and mom argued over his spending the rest on cigarettes and beer.
Ignoring me, she took a yellow ash tray from the bin and headed for the cash register. When she finished paying, we walked out the double doors towards our car.
“Please, can I go over to Lisa’s?” I pleaded.
She stopped on the sidewalk. Her eyes scanned me up and down. “Maybe you do need a new one. But it better be on sale.”
Excitedly, I walked across the street with my mother lagging behind me. Inside the store, a cool breeze blew from the circulating fans on the counter and the fragrance of warm Jasmine incense wafted through the air. My mother asked the clerk for the suit in the window. The woman rummaged around the racks in the back of the store until she found one in my size. She handed it to me and said, “Be sure to keep on your underwear.”
In the dressing room, I quickly threw off my clothes and put on the suit. I gazed at myself through the three-way mirror. Usually, I concentrated on my nose—large in proportion to my face—and felt embarrassed by my acne. Today, was different. I was a mermaid. The bikini shone like iridescent seaweed, glowing against the dark brown of my skin. Thin straps went up and tied elegantly behind my neck, with little scallops of shirred fabric snugly covering my slight breasts. The bottom was comfortable at the thigh, and not too low at the waist, just barely showing my belly button. It felt silky and light.
“Hurry up,” my mother yelled from the other side of the curtain.
I ripped off the bikini and hurriedly put on my shorts and shirt.
“Does it fit?” she asked.
“Yes, mom,” I called.
“Good,” she said. “It’s thirty-percent off.”
Now, my body had changed, the bikini didn’t fit, and Sam and Kent were coming over. I decided to stay outside where they wouldn’t see me. I laid down and stretched out on the towel, taking my glasses off and closing my eyes. I dutifully turned from front to back every few minutes. Finally, when the sun’s intensity caused bright white spots to dance behind my eyelids and the warmth made my skin pulse, I got up and gathered my things. Before I could sneak through the basement door, the boys had found me. They ran down the hill yelling, “Hey, Four Eyes!”
“Where’s Dork Girl?” screamed Sam. He dropped breathlessly on the grass by my feet.
“Looky, here she is, practically naked!”
Kent, red-faced and giggling, fell on his knees next to Sam. They tore out clumps of grass and tossed them at me.
“Foxy Mama!” Kent said.
Sam jumped up and grabbed the towel from around my waist.
“Hey, Goofball, take this!” He whipped it in the air, striking my legs.
“Buzz off!” I yelled, grabbing for it.
Sam circled around me, flipping it, while I danced back and forth like a boxer dodging blows. Tearing a branch from a nearby tree, Kent poked me with it over and over, making thin red scratch marks on my bare skin.
Spazzin’ Idiots!” I shrieked.
Turning, I raced up the small hill between a row of Olive bushes on the south side of the house. Sam and Kent followed right behind me. Rounding the corner, I tripped over the metal sprinkler in the front yard, sprawling headlong on the grass. My glasses flew across the lawn. Kent jumped on top of me, grabbing my arms and pinning me down. None of us saw Mr. Darnek come out on his front porch with a glass of lemonade.
“Say Uncle!” Kent yelled, digging his fingernails into my wrists.
I kneed him in the crotch. Howling, he fell over, hugging his legs to his chin.
“Take that, Dufus,” I hissed.
Sam had picked up my glasses and stuck them on his face, upside down. “I’m Super Dork,” he said laughing.
I rose up from the ground. My chest heaved, and my eyes blazed. I faced Sam with my fists clenched. He gawked at me with the same wry expression that Gordon had when he saw me in my bikini. Sam held up his arms in mock surrender. My beach towel still swung from one hand.
“Truce?” he asked in a squeaky voice. I nodded, relaxing my shoulders. Suddenly, Sam rushed at me and flung the towel over my head. He seized the corners of my bikini bottom. With one swift and harsh tug, he had ripped them all the way down to my ankles. The boys went into an uproar.
“Gag me with a spoon!” Kent shouted. He poked one finger in and out of his mouth.
Sam stepped backwards in shock.
I looked down. There, strapped around my waist, was my sanitary belt. It stretched around my hips. From its two dangling bands, a soiled, red Kotex menstrual pad hung between my legs like a limp piece of raw meat.
“Ugly, ugly, ugly!” Kent yelled, still flailing on the lawn.
My face blushed. From across the street, I heard a low whistle from Mr. Darnek, who had absentmindedly spilled his lemonade all over his pants.
“You’re ugly!” I cried.
Pulling up my bikini, I turned and dashed into the house, hearing the boys chant from the front yard, “Bikini Summer Girl, bloody rags make me hurl….”
I ran up to the second floor and into the bathroom. My shoulders shook, and tears splattered on my hands as I rinsed my hot skin and changed my pad. The mirror showed my thin face puffy from sunburn, with patches of bright red acne raging across my cheeks and forehead. Embarrassed and ashamed, I slipped through the hallway and into my bedroom. Shutting the door, I crawled into bed without taking off my swimsuit.
At dinnertime, I was awakened by a loud knocking. “Ginger, are you coming downstairs? I made some spaghetti,” my mom said, opening the door.
“No,” I answered.
“Are you sick?”
“Are you getting along with Sam and Kent?” she asked.
“No,” I said.
“Well, cut them some slack. They’re your brothers. Boys will be boys, you know.”
She shut the door, leaving me alone in the expanding darkness. From far away I could hear the boys yelling at each other, fighting over the Parmesan Cheese. I knew they would eventually trudge to the basement, where they slept on the old couches and watched TV until the stations signed off. I stayed awake, my body stiff and tense, listening. As the moon appeared in the sky, the arguments began downstairs with the shrill voice of my mother rising and the husky, drunken voice of Gordon outshouting her. Finally, the noise subsided, and I heard them clomping up the stairs and into their room. My mother would take her sleeping pill, and Gordon would probably start snoring as soon as he got in the bed. I don’t know when I fell asleep, but I do remember waking up.
My curtains were open, and the window was, too. The moon glowed brightly, and the sweetness of sun-warmed honeysuckle floated in with the smell of the freshly-cut grass from the neighbor’s lawn. I got up to lean against the windowsill and breathe it in. That’s when I saw him, across the street from my house.
He sat on an aluminum lawn chair, under the outdoor light on his front porch. In its weak glow, I saw him lean forward. Even without my glasses, I could see a strange, leering expression on his face. The slightest whisper carried through the air.
“Bikini Summer Girl….”
Trembling, I drew the curtains and closed the window. I jumped into my bed, pulling the sheets over my head.
I woke the next morning in a sweat. The sun was full in the sky, and my sheets clung to my wet skin. I got up and changed into clean clothes. I could smell the aroma of Swanson’s hamburger patties and mixed vegetables heating up in the oven downstairs, so I tiptoed into the kitchen, hoping to avoid Sam and Kent. My mom was alone, mixing a salad at the counter.
“Your dad is picking you up tomorrow morning,” she said in a bored voice. “Something about a cabin on Lake Erie.”
Inside, I felt like a million fireflies were flitting around, making happy somersaults. I loved Lake Erie. My dad had taken the three of us there, just before the divorce. I had only been five. I fondly remembered eating tangy red licorice from a paper bag while we walked together at sunset along the beach. I relished the feeling of swimming against the current, pushing off the slick rocks covered with algae, laughing as I doggy-paddled through the cold water and into the waiting arms of my father.
“Oh, and by the way,” my mother added, “me and Gordon are taking the boys on a trip up to the Lake, too. We’ll be staying at the hotel in town.”
The buzz of happiness went flat.
The next day, the boys were playing Cowboys and Indians in the front yard when my dad pulled up. Sam still wore my glasses, upside down. I watched the boys cautiously from behind the trellis on the porch.
“It’s the sheriff!” cried Kent, as my dad opened the car door.
“Better throw her in jail,” Sam yelled, pointing at me. “She’s a criminal with blood on her pants!”
The boys laughed uncontrollably. Then Sam aimed his slingshot at my dad’s windshield. His rock flew fast and clinked against the glass, making it crack.
“Get out of here!” my dad roared.
Sam and Kent sprinted down the street, whooping, “Bikini Summer Girl, bloody rags make me hurl…”
I stood awkwardly behind the trellis. My dad walked over and picked up my suitcase. “Where are your glasses?” he asked. I pointed to the boys disappearing down the road. He frowned. Then he bent down to kiss my forehead, his hand brushing against my hair. I breathed in the familiar scent of Old Spice aftershave, and the clean, masculine smell of his warm skin.
We drove the 150 miles from Asheville to Lakeside, mostly in silence, lost in our separate thoughts. In the afternoon, we stopped for lunch at a Dog and Suds drive-in. My dad had to read the menu for me. We rolled down our windows and sat in the car, eating juicy hot dogs and salty fries dipped in catsup. We pressed the frosty glass mugs against our faces in between long draughts of ice-cold root beer. When he had finished eating, my dad wiped his mouth with a napkin and glanced at me.
“You’ve been pretty quiet, Ginger,” he said.
“Those boys,” he asked, “do they bother you?”
I ignored him, turning my face towards the window. I knew he would have something to say, even if I said nothing. My dad was a philosopher. His apartment overflowed with hundreds of books, lovingly stacked on tables and shelves, or left lying open. From these he memorized the wisdom of great minds, and used their quotes sparingly, which often had the effect of a sharp dagger upon the soul.
“They follow their instincts, like animals,” he said. My dad started the car and backed out of the drive-in, heading towards the highway.
“Somebody needs to give them a taste of their own medicine,” he said. His voice grew in strength. “Justice cannot sleep forever.”
We drove the rest of the way without talking, but my mind rolled his words round and round, examining their meaning.
The cabin was situated on Cherry Street, a tree-lined road leading from the town of Lakeside to the shoreline of Lake Erie. From there, the tourists came, walking or biking, passing by our cabin on their way to the rocky beach.
We lugged our suitcases inside. The narrow staircase led to two small bedrooms, where my dad left me to unpack while he went to the grocery store. When he returned, we emptied the brown paper bags, putting the boxes and canned goods in the pantry, the eggs and milk in the fridge.
“Want to go swimming before we eat?” he asked.
I shook my head. “Maybe tomorrow.”
For supper, we ate a quiet meal of hamburger patties and potato chips at the kitchen table. Finally, while washing dishes at the sink while I dried them, my dad said, “I saw those boys at the store today.”
“Sam and Kent?” I asked.
"Yes. They were hanging around in the aisles opening the cereal boxes and eating it. When I told them to stop, they ran away.”
He began scrubbing the plate in his hands vigorously.
“The children have become tyrants,” he said. Noticing my curious expression, he added, “Socrates.”
That night, my dreams were troubled. Sam and Kent had turned into wild wolves with enormous fangs. They chased me until I couldn’t breathe, pushing me to the ground, slashing into my flesh and tearing me open like a box of cereal…
I must have been yelling in my sleep because the next thing I knew, my bedroom light was on and my dad was leaning over me.
I threw myself against his strong chest, sobbing.
“They took my glasses, and they pushed me down and, and….”
“Slow down,” my dad whispered. “Start at the beginning and tell me everything.”
The next morning when I got up, my dad was gone. I poured a bowl of Captain Crunch and a glass of orange juice. After eating breakfast, I watched TV, until I heard the front door open. My dad walked into the living room and threw a bag in the trash.
“I took a walk along the lake this morning, picking up litter,” he said, sitting down in the armchair beside me. “Funny thing I saw there,” he said, picking up the newspaper. “Two little hellions swimming in the water. Naked.”
My throat tightened.
“Really?” I asked.
“Yes. And they had left all their clothes lying on the beach.”
Later, after eating dinner, we heard a distant wailing, like a train sounding its mournful whistle from afar. It was coming up from the lake. As the noise grew closer, my dad and I went to the porch and looked through the darkened screen. In the early evening shadows, we saw them, plodding up the street like two little old men hunched over.
It was Sam and Kent.
They trudged up the road, past strolling tourists with shocked faces. A group of boys on bikes roared past them, circling back around to jeer at them. A mother pushing a baby carriage screamed and turned the other way. Sniffling and crying, they danced on bare feet over the gravel road, screeching “Ouch, ouch, ouch!” as they cupped their hands between their legs. Once, they fell into a bramble of rose bushes, bellowing with pain as its thorns pierced their bare skin.
As we watched, my dad gently tapped his hand on my shoulder. Pulling from his pocket my glasses, he handed them to me. The frames were loose, and one lens was cracked.
“Justice doesn’t sleep,” he said. “Nor is it blind.”
I put them on and looked at the scene unfolding in front of our cabin.
Horrified, I saw that their bright red, naked bodies had broken out in blisters, and their faces were swollen with sunburn. We watched them limping along until they had disappeared up the road, their bent bodies swallowed in the blackening twilight of a starless August night.