We sat quite lazily on short stumps on the edge of Rhonda's lake. About an hour before, some of us had dared each other to swim, but after Leo emerged covered in leeches the rest of us decided not to try it. We'd felt safe sending Leo first, though; he was always that guy to put his neck on the line for things like that. Critiquing bad stories and swimming in suspicious lakes? He's your man.
Scout and I were trying to make a fire in the center of the circle of stumps, to no avail.
"I just don't get it," Ru kept saying. "You have all the kindling you need!"
"Oh, shut up," Ria snapped finally. "The twigs are wet, can't you see? Paper isn't enough!"
"Thanks, Ru," I said, sort of to soften the blow, "but we're okay. Just, everyone, keep the paper coming."
No one looked up. All had several pieces of paper on their laps and were scribbling as fast as they could. As soon as they finished a side, they read over it, looking disgusted, crumpled it up, and threw it toward Scout and me. We had quite a pile going; we’d all been writing for several hours now.
"Writers," I said in excuse to Scout, shrugging comically. We all laughed.
Rhondalise stood after a minute and went to her small bright-yellow house and brought out lemonade. On her waist she had clipped a palm-sized discolored doll; Bert from Sesame Street. It bounced when she walked. So did her necklace made out of a bathplug. No one noticed these fun oddities any longer; we'd grown used to them.
There were fourteen of us: Amaya, Rhonda, Scout, Abies, Ru, Leo, Maya, Sia and Ria, Vayd, Avani, Deborah, Aerin, and myself. Zil. Code name: Xcylla. We sat in a circle scribbling. The papers cracked under the forceful weight of the pens, scratched hastily, broken through in tiny holes from panicky haste. A writer’s circle.
“Hey, Rhonda, wasn’t Celeste supposed to be here?” Sia asked after a few more minutes of loud scratching and rude slurping of lemonade.
“Yeah…” she said slowly, pushing her glasses up her nose. They'd slid down several inches without her noticing. “I wonder where she is? And Kendra was supposed to be here too.”
“I’m here!” we heard someone gasp.
"Speak of the devil," Maya said brightly.
It was Kendra, jogging halfheartedly up the grassy hill from the street, a bag slung over her shoulder. “I had so much homework! And my brother wouldn’t shut up when I said he couldn’t come.”
“Hi, Kenny,” Ria said.
“Don’t call me that.”
Ria stuck out her tongue and said, “Where’s Celeste?”
“Oh, you don’t know her,” I said knowledgeably.
Kendra shrugged and sat down on an empty stump. “Ah-h-h,” she sighed, letting out the air from her lungs. “How’s the fire coming?”
“Don’t ask,” Scout said darkly. “Here, use all mine. I hate them. All of them.”
“But they’re so good, Scout!” we all exclaimed.
“No-o!” she said dramatically. “They’re a disaster. Ruinous. Horrible. Only fire fodder. Burn them all!”
“Celeste’s missing,” Aerin reminded everyone loudly.
“I bet she’s kidnapped,” said Scout, who wrote mostly sad stories.
“I bet she’s dead,” said Abies, who had no mercy for her characters.
“I bet she’s eating cotton candy at the fair,” said Rhonda brightly, who loved her characters.
“I bet she’s sitting in traffic,” I said, who sometimes had no imagination.
"Who's this?" asked Deborah, who had so many characters she couldn't keep them, much less real people, straight.
“Probably fighting a dragon,” said Leo, who liked that kind of thing.
“Guys, I think she’s kidnapped,” said Ria, who was more practical so we looked up and listened when she said that.
“What makes you think that?” Rhonda and I said together.
“Remember she was getting those threats?” Aerin said excitedly, who had also gotten threats. We all had, actually.
“So…? We all have,” I said.
“She got more than even Kendra did. I bet she actually did get kidnapped.”
“Who’d do such a thing?” Avani asked.
“Anyone,” Vayd said darkly. He was a pessimist.
“They always signed their notes as “DV” -- as in DownVoter,” Aerin said, with the aura of someone revealing a great secret.
“I bet it’s B.W.,” said Emma, whom we didn’t know and who’d popped up from behind a stump.
“Go away, Emma!” we all shouted.
“B’s not even here! You’re mean,” Aerin said meanly.
“Okay then, sorry…” Emma said meekly, and left.
Aerin was right, though. B wasn’t there, and was much too sweet anyway to kidnap anyone. Besides, she got constant, tiny little death threats, more than anyone else.
“Yeah, guys, B's too nice," I said, searching in my pockets.
“I thought it was Batool at first,” someone offered.
“Well, I thought it was that girl Mira. Or May. Maxine?”
“Maggie,” I said dismissively. “And yeah, I did too. Then I thought it was someone named Autumn.”
“Who?” everyone said.
I shrugged. Then I pulled out my phone and old, tangled earbuds and put them in. “She’s probably just late, guys, and anyway, I think those threats are just a glitch.”
“How the heck is that a glitch?” Aerin shouted.
I shrugged and started moving my head up and down to 88 Lines About 44 Women. “I dunno. It just has to be.”
“I swear, guys, it’s B.W.,” said Tom, who’d popped up like Emma. “How else is she supposed to be so far up the leaderboard?”
“Up the what?” everyone said, bewildered.
“I mean, know so much about everyone’s notes? If she isn’t sending them how does she know what we’re getting?”
Vayd scowled and said, “Go back, kiddo.”
“Because we told her,” Abigail said baldly, looking up from the tenth four-page story she'd written that afternoon.
“Go away, moron,” Amaya said. When she stood menacingly, Tom scrabbled away.
“Guys,” I said, too loudly because of the earbuds. “Got a question for yah.” I stood and the cord yanked on a little knot on the stump I was sitting on, pulling the buds out of my ears. I cursed under my breath and said, “I swear, I am a walking advertisement for AirPods.”
“We need to go find Celeste,” Avani said firmly.
I hadn’t heard her. The music was too loud; I was probably half-deaf anyway. “Do I sound like this?” and pulled the cord out of the phone. The song blared:
“Zilla was an archetype,
The voodoo queen, the queen of wrath.”
“Nah,” Rhonda said.
“No way,” said Leo.
“Not really,” Sia said kindly.
“Nope,” said Deborah.
I sat down, disappointed. “I thought not.”
"Hi, guys," someone said. We looked up. An enormous crowd, several hundred strong, was walking slowly up the hillock from the road. We recognized a few people; Orenda, Haripriya, and B herself were leading the pack, but Vayd said quizzically:
"Who's all this?"
"It's the rest of the Reeders," Ria whispered to him, a little condescendingly.
"Yeah, hi," said the real DV, pushing forward through the crowd. "Didn't invite us, huh? Makes you uncomfortable?"
"Shut up," Haripriya said.
"Rude," B said.
"Oh, be quiet," Orenda said. They were like the three Graces, reprimanding the real DV. "We were just saying hi."
"How many of you are there?!" we all asked together, unbelievingly.
Haripriya shrugged. "About four or five hundred..."
"And that's not everyone," Leo said smartly.
"Come on, guys, let's go. They're writing," B said commandingly. Her voice was gentle but leader-like, and everyone followed her away from our group and down the road again. Some looked wistfully after our half-full glasses of lemonade.
"Bye!" Haripriya said over her shoulder.
“Next time,” Rhonda said, taking the lemonade glasses into her long skirt to go back to the house, “We’ll invite B.W. and Haripriya and Orenda and everyone else on the Afrassi ship.”
“Nice,” I said. “Good.”
“Guys!” Aerin shouted again. “Where is Celeste?”
“I think she’s just busy with Eye Are Ell,” I said.
“What?” three people said.
“IRL,” I repeated. “Real life? Like homework and work stuff and whatever?”
“Guys, I’m here!” came a small voice from down the hillock, close to the road. “I’m just here for a second.”
She walked up, gave us a little, half-sad smile, and said, “I’m alive, don’t worry.”
Then she turned and left.
She was like that sometimes.
"We love you, Celeste!" someone shouted.
"Come back! Write with us!"
“Bye,” I repeated loudly, 88 Lines About 44 Women still blaring. “Here, Scout, try putting a sheet there. In that corner. No, there. Maybe it’ll catch. Here, I'll do it.”
“Anyone else have matches?” Scout asked the circle.
“Here,” said Vayd, pulling a box from underneath his baseball hat. He was like that, too.
Nothing for a moment, just the swish of the lake water and the scratch of pens on paper.
“Hey, keep that paper coming, please,” I said, breaking the silence as Scout blew gently on what flame we had. They all grinned at me. We all knew they would. After all, they were writers.