Half Pipe

Now that strangers have seen me naked, I can move on to worrying about getting into college or my inevitable death.

Zoe Whittall’s third literary novel, The Best Kind of People, was shortlisted...


Friday night, Chevron station bathroom. Boots flat against the poured concrete wall, ass in the sink. I rub a thumb up and down the sweating neck of a bottle of fifty. Asher hid two in the ice freezer out back for us. He let us feel around in the candy bins first, eat until our lips stung in sour pouts.

Hair up or down, I ask. A first drink question.

Sandy says up. She’s still peeing. Strong stream, no hesitation. Twist it. No, not like that. She pulls her miniskirt down, kicks the flusher. Sandy knows how to be a girl. She grabs my hair, turning it around in her fingers, elastic in her front teeth as she tames it into a top bun. It pinches. I wince, take another long sip.

There, she says. That’s perfect.

She pulls a half-empty Diet Coke bottle from her bag and nudges my knees apart. I squeeze it between my thighs. She tips a mickey of Stoli against the open spout. Lip to lip, a smooth pour, not one drop wasted. The sound of the vodka trickle makes me have to pee.

I can’t piss in front of you, I say. Go outside.

You’re too shy. You’ll get eaten alive if you don’t cut that shit out. She lights a smoke, leaning against the door with her arms crossed. Just pee.

I’m not going to win this stand-off. I pull down my jeans. One hand on the wall to steady a low crouch. It won’t come.

Stop looking.

I’m not looking. God.

Okay, then sing a fucking song to distract me.

She sings the national anthem. By true north strong and free! a trickle comes, but it runs down my leg, soaking my sock. I try to stop it by sitting down.

Sandy laughs. You’re a mess, girl.

I prop an elbow on my right knee and stare at her as I finish peeing. My legs in an open V. Two can play this game. I can feel a soft rush of warm air from the heating vent against my exposed skin. I pretend not to care. She blows a smoke ring up and ignores me, like she didn’t look away first.

I can’t believe you sat on that filthy toilet seat.

What, it’s just other people’s pee on my butt.

The skate park is not that far and I’d rather walk, but Sandy is impatient once we reach the road, thumbs out. A forest green pick-up truck with Hartley’s Sparkling Clean-Up Service painted on the side pulls up. I give him a once-over, but Sandy just hops in. She tells the driver we are runaways.

Don’t tell me that, he says. I’ll have to tell the cops.

No, don’t. We’re escaping a cult. Morgan here is a child brideImagine the bad karma.

He pops open the glove compartment and offers us Nutri-Grain cereal bars. I don’t like the red ones, my wife keeps buying ’em.

Sandy takes two. I say nothing. While Sandy is distracted, I drink most of the pop bottle. I hold eye contact with the collie sitting behind us, whisper You’re a good dog, yeah, you’re a good dog.

She can’t hear you, the driver says. She’s deaf, but she sure is loyal.


In the morning, my father pulls the covers off me. Get up. It’s 12:30. You’re late for work and it’s tart bake day. Pearl needs you.

I can’t.

Why did you sleep in your clothes? What happened to your jeans?

I look down to see both knees are ripped. I cover them as though legs are meant to be private. He gives me a look like he caught me sleeping in a pile of rotting bones. When I open my mouth to respond, my teeth are tiny moths. I’m all mouth.

Sorry, I whisper.

He’d bought me the jeans last weekend. He told me not to tell Mom. He’d paid on two different credit cards.

After he leaves, I get up and look in the mirror. I’m wearing a shirt I’ve never seen before. A Vans skateboard logo across the chest. The cotton is soft. I look around for the shirt I left the house in. It’s nowhere.

By 2 p.m. I am behind the cash register at my aunt Pearl’s Pie Shop. It’s a slow day. I suck on a ginger hard candy, drink cups of cold mint tea. I’ve showered but I can still smell the alcohol on my skin. Thank god Pearl is baking in the back. I crack my knuckles. I check myself for bruises. I turn the music up to drown out the ringing in my ears.

I keep getting text messages from TYLER WITH THE COOL HAIR. I don’t know who he is, but his texts swiftly progress from Hi, you must be hungover! to your pussy was so tight. I can’t stop thinking about you. I type: I think you have the wrong number but don’t send it.

There’s no one in the store, so I put a hand down my pants and feel around for evidence. I know as soon as my finger meets the shoreline. A deep ache. A disconcerting heat. I scan my brain for a final memory. I see myself trying to ollie on someone’s skateboard. Falling. Then my dad waking me up.

When I go to the bathroom to pee, I put my head to my lap, pucker my mouth around my right knee, scream-cry into the impressive scab.

Later Pearl finds me kneeling in front of the bulk coffee, pretending to re-fill the canisters, but really I’m half-sleeping, forehead to a cold bag of medium Ethiopian fair-trade.

She asks, are you heart-sick? Is it a boy?

I guess.

I don’t tell Pearl about my life. She says there’s something about my face that tells her I’m always in love. She frowns when Sandy appears, because Sandy eats all the free samples.

They’re broken cookies, Pearl. Why does it matter if I eat them? She eats the face of the one that looks like a bunny.

When Pearl tells Sandy that it looks like I’m always in love, Sandy spit-laughs the last cookie.

I don’t think Morgan’s ever texted a boy back. There’s something wrong with her. Speaking of, Tyler says you’re ghosting him but we’ll all hang later, right? At the park?

I’m not sure.

I don’t want to admit I don’t know who Tyler is in front of Pearl. Sandy’s my best friend, but I often feel like she’s waiting for a better option, so I’m surprised she wants to go out two nights in a row. Usually we just stay in and watch movies on Saturdays.

Come on, Tyler’s friend Sketch is going to come. It was your idea last night!

That explains it. Sketch is in college. He’s the guy all the girls stare at from the top of the half pipe ramp. Sandy said he once grabbed her ass in a mosh pit, then smiled at her. I felt like prey, she said, it paralyzed me.

I’ve never heard Sketch speak a word that has more than one syllable.

When I get home my uncle is sitting on the back porch. Sometimes he sleeps on our couch when Pearl has long hours. He has special needs from the Gulf War, which is how my mother puts it. They tried to send him to Afghanistan but he had a breakdown before he left. He tries not to drink anymore, but he’s off the wagon. When I was little they told me that and I pictured him literally falling off of a wagon.

I join him. He’s got a can of beer hiding in one of his cowboy boots. He reaches behind the cedar bush, pulls out another can and gives it to me. I empty out my water bottle and fill it with beer. We cheers to our little secret party.

I know you’re fifteen so you feel old, but believe me girl, don’t be in any hurry.

It’s the first coherent sentence I’ve heard him say in a while.

Thanks, Uncle Marty.

Because all men are awful.

You’re not. I take a long swig of beer.

Be careful, drinking runs in our family. Up and down both sides.

There’s barely a pause before he starts in on 9/11 and how it was perpetuated by the Americans. I tune out. He talks himself into a soft, slow sleep on the lawn chair. I finish all his beer.


My eyes pop open, but all I see is a clear sky, fluttering stars. I’m frightened, until I hear Sandy’s voice reaching through the confusing blur, her nervous giggle, the tone she uses when she’s showing off, yeah girl, you get yours, bitch.

She only calls me bitch affectionately when she wants someone else to overhear.

Am I falling through the sky? I look down, feel him pushing into me. It hurts so much I have to close my eyes.

I wake again, his face so close to mine, still inside me. Who are you?

He laughs. What do you mean? This was your idea.

He goes harder, holds my hands down.

Do you like that? You liked it this way last night, remember?

I don’t know what to answer, so I turn my head, try to force my eyes to stay open though they are so heavy, so dry. We are on top of one side of the half pipe. There’s no one else around, except Sandy and Sketch on the other flat side of the ramp. The skateboards lay at the bottom of the half pipe, swaying in a slow roll. I wonder if the aging wood will crack, if we’ll stay together when we fall.

Sandy’s quiet now, because she’s giving a blow-job. His hands are on her head, but he’s looking up at the sky. It’s red and pink on the horizon. The park is deserted.

I squeeze my eyes shut. All I hear is their tandem moaning, then the sound of a car peeling down the nearby highway.

This is the best night of my life, Tyler yells, before he comes.

I curl my knees to my chest. A voice inside my head yells at me to sit up, to not go under again. I’m stunned. The night air swirls when I finally get up. He pulls off the condom, throws it off the ramp. A sound like a rubber band snapping.

Oh man.

I climb down the ladder to the ground, throw up in the grass. I stay there, digging my shaking fingers into the dirt. He comes up behind me, runs a hand through my hair. Are you ok babe? You feel cold. Here, have my hoodie.

He covers me in his sweatshirt. It smells like a campfire. We hear Sketch’s final moans, then the sound of Sandy laughing.

Will you be my girlfriend? Tyler asks, almost shyly.

I don’t tell him this is the only conversation I can remember having with him.

I murmur an okay, and then dry heave some more.


Sketch knows how to drive. It’s 5 a.m.

Why didn’t we go home earlier, I ask Sandy, we’re going to be in so much trouble.

She hugs me close in the back seat of a really old compact car. She smells like pineapple perfume and cigarettes. I guess the car belongs to Sketch’s mom because a Jewel CD starts playing as soon as he turns the key in the ignition. He pulls it from the player and throws it out the window.

You didn’t want to go home, remember? We texted to say we’d be at each other’s places.

I check my phone for evidence. I’d sent my Dad four lines of heart emojis after I told him I was staying at Sandy’s.

Who was this effusive blackout girl?

So where are we going now?

Sandy shrugs. Sketch pulls up in front of a squat apartment building across from the gas station. The guys get out, but I don’t move.

I want my bed, I say. Or your house. Let’s just go to your house, watch some Netflix.

Coming down with Sandy is always the best part of the night.

You’re no fun, she says. This is a big deal. This is his house. He only brings girls he really likes back to his place. Don’t fuck this up for me.

Sketch’s apartment smells like garbage. I sit on a ripped ottoman with my arms crossed and stare at the TV. Planet Earth is on mute.

Tyler rinses out a coffee mug, fills it with a thick liquor that tastes like black licorice and hands it to me. I keep two sips down. The room swirls in and out. I go the bathroom and pour it down the sink, fill it with tap water. Only the hot water tap works. There is one white towel dangling from a rack, wet and graying like a detached eyelash. A cake of blue soap with a black vein through the middle, flecks of abandoned beard hairs in the sink.

Sandy sits on Sketch’s lap. They kiss a lot. I pull my legs up onto the ottoman. I remember being a kid and pretending the floor was made of lava. Tyler tries to lean into me from the armchair.

You know what would be cool? says Sketch. If you girls kissed.

No way, I say.

Sure, Sandy says. I love Morgan.

She walks over to me, a fake sexy walk, a bumbling baby deer.

Nah, I say. This is stupid.

You homophobic? Tyler asks. Cause my brother’s a fag.

No. Sandy and I are just friends is all.

Sandy’s already straddling me, locking her ankles around my back.

Aw yeah, I hear one of the boys say. In my periphery I see Sketch rubbing the front of his jeans.

I keep my mouth closed, but she pushes my lips open with hers. Our front teeth clank like drawn swords. Her mouth tastes of peppermint and smoke and my stomach lurches. I pull away. I just want to fall asleep against her chest. I want to be watching Drag Race in her basement.

I pull back, so Sandy grabs at my tits. Her legs hold me in place. She pushes my breasts around like sand at the beach.

Enough. I said this is fucking stupid. I stand up so fast that Sandy falls over. I leave without my purse or my phone, run down the long hallway and out the front door.

Sandy yells You’re such a cunt out the window.


I beg my way onto a late night bus without fare, telling the driver my purse was stolen. He says, you should be more careful. You’re so young. He drives the bus off the regular route, right down my residential street, stopping in front of my house. I’m so thankful I start to cry. He gives me an avuncular smile.

You shouldn’t be drinking so much, young lady.

I get off the bus, stumble a bit up my driveway. As he drives away, even though I love his kind face with everything I have, I give him the finger.

I sneak in the house quietly. In the living room, a glow rises like bonfire from the TV. I try to be quiet but my uncle sits up, alert.

It’s just me, Uncle Marty. It’s just Morgan. You’re okay.

He stares at me, cranes his neck to peer around me.

No one else?

No one else.

I turn on the bright overhead light to prove it.

He reaches for his bag.

I think I heard someone outside, he says. I’ll go do my rounds.

Just go back to bed, Marty.

He takes a rifle from his overnight bag. As soon as I see the gun, I’m sober.

Marty, is that loaded?

Of course it’s fucking loaded.

It scares me.

He takes that information in. I stand very still, try to speak in a calm, even tone. That’s what we’re supposed to do when he has episodes.

Stay here, he barks. I mean it, don’t move.

He goes out onto the back porch, holding the rifle like he’s walking in a military drill. He circles our house and all the sensor lights go on, one by one, like he’s in a play and he’s stepping into the spotlight for a monologue.

When I guess that he’s in the front of the house and can’t see me through the windows, I run to wake up my mom, who gets up and stays with me in the living room, waiting for him to return. He slides open the patio door.

Everything safe out there? she asks him gently.

He puts the gun back in the bag. Yup.

I wish you wouldn’t do that, Marty. You might scare the neighbours. Some of them get up to jog early in the morning.

I know an enemy from a jogger, he says, like it’s preposterous to suggest he’d accidently shoot someone. She hands him a glass of water. He smells it, then takes a small sip.

She turns and looks at me for a moment. That’s a boy’s sweater.

I have a boyfriend now, I say. His name is Tyler.

She looks pleased.

That’s good. You hang around Sandy too much. You should meet new people.

Tyler is a shithead’s name, says Uncle Marty.


I sleep almost all day Sunday. I reach for my phone and then realize it’s not there, that I left it at Sketch’s house. I don’t even know Sandy’s number by heart to try to get it back from her.

I feel briefly untethered, like I may float up and away from the ground. My thumbs scroll the air like a dog who runs in place while he’s dreaming. I wait it out and it recedes, replaced by a film of calm. My skin has never felt more porous. I pick up the softest sounds.

I ride my bike to the river in a white cotton dress and I wade up to my waist, trying to cool the burning ache.

I don’t think about not partying, but I do write myself a note to put in my pocket for next time.

It reads: Remember not to let anyone inside you, you dumb slut.


I’m eating a green apple in the schoolyard on Monday when Sandy approaches, at our usual spot.

You left me there, alone with them.

So? You’re the one who wanted to be there in the first place. You’re the one who wanted to make out with me, like some perv.

She looks hurt. I’ve never seen Sandy hurt. I am so angry, remembering her hands pawing at me, her cackling laugh, that it does not occur to me that she may be angry with me.

You don’t do that. You don’t leave someone.

She throws my phone at me. It hits me in the chest.

She walks away, towards Sketch’s car waiting for her in the parking lot.

Forty minutes left of lunch and without Sandy, I just lay down in the grass, reunited with my phone. So many texts from TYLER WITH THE COOL HAIR. I delete them all without reading. I know it will only be a few days until Sketch breaks her heart and I’ll get her back.

I take a series of selfies. Bambie eyes. A filter that peaches my lips.

I scroll back further. An unfamiliar video.

The camera moves like the hand that holds it is shaking. Sandy’s laugh, the sound of Sketch saying whoa, whoa, a swirl like they don’t realize the camera is on.

Then my own face is in the frame, monstrously close. I’m heavy lidded, trying to drink from a bottle of beer, but I keep missing my mouth. Tyler grabs the beer, puts it down and kisses me. We make out like we’re eating each other’s faces.

Then a few seconds of blackness, and a shot from above: Tyler spreading my legs, my skirt lifted. Sketch’s low laugh. Sandy’s in the background, like she’s standing on the ground under the ramp. Come on Sketch, leave them alone. Let’s go have our own fun.

Wait a sec.

He focuses the close-up on me.

Just do it.

Nah, don’t film it.

Come on.

I watch as Tyler’s cock goes in me. They both laugh. Tyler looks into the camera and gives a thumbs-up. The camera moves up to my face. My eyes are closed. My mouth is open.

Sketch, Sandy calls from below, come on.

Sketch whispers, Wake that bitch up.

Tyler shoves me a bit.


He shoves me harder. I blink. My mouth moves into a smile, like I’m dreaming about something really funny.

Yeah, she likes it.


Calm the fuck down.

There’s a few seconds with the camera still on, as Sketch climbs down to the ground.

You okay, girl? Morgan?

She’s fine.

The video stops. The noise of the schoolyard returns. I throw the apple core to the ground. I delete the video.

I skip the rest of the day, peddle up the tallest hill, flying down. I bike so long my hands go numb, my legs have leopard spots of bike grease. Eventually, I end up on the winding tree-lined road towards Tyler’s school.

He’s easy to spot, even in the stupid jacket and tie all the private school kids wear. He takes the tie off his neck really fast when he sees me. Pretends it’s a lasso. His blond hair falls, asymmetrical, to cover his right eye. In the daylight his face is more freckle than skin.

I’m surprised, he says, rolling back and forth on his skateboard. You didn’t answer one text. You made me feel like a chick.

I press my hands to his chest the way I’ve seen women do in the movies. I kiss him on the mouth with everything I’ve got. He’s a bad kisser but maybe malleable. When I pull away he says wow. He holds my hand. I like the way it feels, to be somebody’s girlfriend. The private school girls all look at me and whisper, like I stole their property.

We ride down the winding hill. I take him to the bench by the river that runs beside the Chevron station. It’s heavy tourist season, families picnic in the park.

I have nothing at all to say to Tyler. He doesn’t notice. He says, I feel like you’re the first girl I can really talk to, you know? You’re not all caught up in girl stuff.

My emotions are a magic eight ball, like you could shake me and the answer to how are you feeling could change on a dime. I want to ask him what he thinks girl stuff is.

How drunk were you Saturday night? I ask him.

Oh man, pretty fucked up. You know.

Do you remember everything?

Of course, babe.

I want to ask about the video, but we are interrupted by the sound of someone hollering our names. We look up and see Sandy and Sketch skateboarding towards us.

Sandy pretends we’re best friends, hugs me like I’m a child she lost in the park. She hands me a wine cooler from her backpack.

For a moment, it feels good, to have a crew. It feels like enough. I put the bottle to my lips but the smell makes me gag. I hand it back.

I don’t feel like drinking today, I say.

She shrugs, takes a long pull, then sits down next to me. You punishing me?

For what?

She doesn’t answer. Two hours later, every second feels interminable. I discover that sober kissing is boring. The expectation that kissing will be fun when it is not feels almost insulting. Where are my exceptional feelings? Where is the sparkle?

Later he has my shirt undone in the backseat of Sketch’s car, and I still feel nothing. The closest I get to having a feeling is a low-level hum of anger. I’m not certain why. An excuse comes to me. I have homework, I say. Big project.

I jump out of the car. By the time I get home, I’ve salvaged some resolve, some dignity.

I will find new friends.

But then Sandy crawls in through my window in the middle of the night. I am startled to see her legs dangling from the window, landing clumsily in a pile of my dirty clothes.

You know my uncle is crazy, I say, you shouldn’t sneak around out there!

Sandy doesn’t respond, just curls up around me.

Take off your dirty boots, I say, but she is fast asleep already. I untie each one, line them up against the wall, stare at the glowing sticker stars on my ceiling.


Late morning. Sandy and I walk into the kitchen. My parents are both at the table. They appear to be sweating, even though it isn’t hot.

Hey Mrs. Stockall, Sandy says, so sweet. It works on everyone. Not my mom.

Sandy, you need to go home. Now.

Later I will learn my mother blames Sandy. Her voice on the video. That’s the one she won’t forgive or understand.


It’s nothing. It was nothing. It was stupid. I drank a whole bottle. I don’t remember anything. No, no, no. Not like that. He says it was my idea. Don’t overreact. My god. Just chill. I’m sorry but it wasn’t like I was a virgin or something. Stop acting like this is the end of the world. If you act like this is the end of the world, that’s what it becomes.


I am pulled out of school for a week. For my own good. I am not allowed to see Sandy. My father wants to call the police. What kind of name is Sketch anyway? The name of someone who should be in jail.

Don’t, please don’t. Everyone has a camera now. This just happens. It’s no one’s fault.

My mother rubs my back, says she is sorry it happened, tells me she has made an appointment with a professional.

Later I hear, how can she think it’s no one’s fault? I hear glass smashing. A hole in the pantry wall the size of her hand. How much more clear can it be?

I just want everyone to drop it. It’s over. It was a hundred years ago. 
I say this to Sandy at Shoppers, where I pretended to bump into her.

We try on lip gloss. I read the name on the tube: Cathedral. Her pinkie finger dabs my top lip to mark a cupid’s bow.

Yeah. Plus, Sketch is so worried. He went tree-planting to avoid it. He’s going to write me letters. This is so hard on him.

How did it get out anyway? It was on my phone. I deleted it.

You saw it?


Sandy puckers, looks at whether Ladylike suits her lips in the cheap slice of mirror. It doesn’t.

I didn’t know that. I didn’t even know about it. You weren’t mad?

I don’t know what I felt. I just wanted it gone.

I saw you kiss him first, you know. You seemed really into him.

Maybe I was.

I don’t know why everyone is freaking out about it.

Yeah. Well, it was a shitty thing of Sketch to do, to make a video.

Sandy’s face doesn’t change as she applies another layer, so I press: It was a totally asshole thing to do in the first place.

Sandy wipes her lips with the back of her hand. Well, we were all pretty drunk. Everybody does stupid stuff when they’re drunk. And it was Tyler’s girlfriend who leaked it. Tyler must have sent the video to himself.

Tyler doesn’t have a girlfriend. I’m his girlfriend.

This is the first time I experience a flicker of feelings for Tyler.

I guess he just hadn’t broken up with her yet? He said he was going to. Apparently she’s just so dramatic, he didn’t want to make a big deal of it. Then she went through his phone, so.


You have lipstick on your teeth. Here’s a trick. She puts her index finger in her mouth like she’s sucking it, then pops it out. Won’t happen again if you do this every time.


Tyler’s texts are relentless and complimentary. I’ve never loved anyone like youYou’re so beautifulI’m sorry. She’s crazy, my ex. So crazy.

I don’t respond, but he’s used to that. It doesn’t dissuade him from sending song lyrics, declarations, endless emojis.

Eventually he writes: Just say one thing. Just one thing so I know you’ve read this. I need to know you’ve forgiven me.

I send him a bullseye emoji.

What’s that mean!?!

I flash on all the people who may have seen the video, my heavy pebble eyes, face like a slow blur. Somehow that’s worse than the porn shots. If only they’d left my face out of it. I could have just been any girl, no girl; detached, meaningless.

I text: Tyler, I think you’re boring.

After an initial blurt of question marks, lines of awkward LOLs, eventually he replies: you just can’t forgive me yet. Let me make it up to you.

I delete the texts.

My mom takes my phone at every opportunity, reading every new text or email while I stand, arms crossed.

It’s for your own good. Some day you’ll thank me.

I wear my shortest skirt and my smallest crop top to school. She doesn’t say anything about it anymore. I spend the weekend working at the Pearl’s and watching documentaries with Uncle Marty. He’s not drinking, so he barely speaks.

He spears honeydew chunks and cocktail onions with a toothpick, both swimming in a sweet and sour liquid sliding around in the toaster oven tray he eats off of. He’s wearing my mom’s old bathrobe.

We’re watching Gilmore GirlsNow that’s the perfect woman, he says suddenly, pausing the screen and pointing to Lorelai Gilmore. We’d just watched two episodes in silence. Are you going to tell me what’s wrong with you these days, Morgan?

I shake my head.

He shrugs. It never really helps to do that anyway. People will tell you it does, but it doesn’t. It makes the person listening feel good that they listened.

So what does help?

Marty offers me an onion.


He un-pauses the show.

Once strangers have seen you naked, it kind of breaks you open, frees something up. Everyone else is having nightmares about walking into class with no clothes. That’s already happened to me. I can move on to worrying about getting in to college or my inevitable death.

Whenever a girl gives me side-eye, I think about saying, you have a pussy. I have one. Get over it.

No one says anything about Tyler’s cock, his slits for eyes, his exuberant grin, or his high-five with Sketch.


TYLER WITH THE COOL HAIR sends seventeen texts, all mostly invitations to come out. I’m at the half-pipe and I’m so sad here without you.

Finally I write, I don’t want to go out. I don’t want to see you.

But I love you, he writes, I have to see you.

I don’t answer while Uncle Marty and I make our way through several episodes, wordless again, finishing every pickle in the fridge. My tongue is cold and hurts by the time I fall asleep in front of the TV.

I wake with a start to a vibration from my phone.

I’m outside your window. Come out.

Go home, Tyler, I text. I begin to snuggle back under the flannel couch throw when the motion lights flicker outside, and I note the sliding patio door askew, the absence of a deep snore from Uncle Marty on the adjacent couch.

I’m up, running, trying to stop what I know could happen, and it sounds like a crack of lightning in the sky when it does.


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