Brutes | Dizz Tate | Granta


Dizz Tate

The first time we really noticed Sammy Liu-Lou was one year ago. She started eighth grade when we started seventh. We did not know much about her then, only that she lived in one of the big white houses on the other side of the wall around Falls Landing. We knew her dad was a famous TV preacher who travelled the world doing revivals. Sometimes he spoke at our church on Sunday, and we noticed Sammy and her mother sitting in the front row, their long, dark hair hanging in sheets over their faces, their hands clasped tight. When Sammy’s dad preached, especially after we failed a school eye test or had diarrhoea, our mothers made us go up at the end to let him rest his big hands on either side of our heads, like he was trying to squeeze something out of us. We submitted to this, and sometimes Britney pretended to faint or talk in tongues, but we did not find it very interesting. We didn’t care about men, and we didn’t believe in miracles. We always thought Sammy was weird, but in a way we understood. She wore big sweaters and was always alone in the library, and once she’d yelled at a gang of girls at lunch for saying, ‘Oh my God.’ Her voice was high and squeaky as she told them to stop using God’s name in vain, taut with belief. We all thought she’d cry when everyone laughed at her but she didn’t. She stared at the girl who said it, and for a second the cafeteria was silent, almost afraid. We swore she seemed about to levitate. Then the bell rang, and she returned to being invisible, ignored. We forgot about her completely.

But then she had a birthday party.

She was turning fourteen, too old to invite her whole class to a birthday party, but Sammy invited every girl in the grade. She was indiscriminate. No one was left out for the fun of it. She spent a whole day handing out invitations, threw one down on every girl’s desk, scattered them like dollars in a music video, flung them across her table in the cafeteria. Later that night, we gathered on the apartments’ playground and listened to the eighth-grade girls as they sat around on the slide, throwing Sammy’s invitations in the air and shouting, ‘Girls only’ in an impression of her squeaky voice.

‘Who does she think she is, anyway?’

‘I don’t even wanna go if there’s no guys.’

Girls only!’

‘You know she’s got warts in her throat?’

‘Her vocal cords.’


‘She sounds like a freaking dog toy.’

‘She has to get them shaved off every three years with a laser.’

‘How do you know?’

‘I asked her!’

‘You just asked her?’

‘That’s so mean!’

‘You’re crazy.’

The girls laughed, but we liked Sammy’s voice, the crackle that made it sound like she was telling secrets no matter what she said.

We couldn’t wait any longer.

‘Let us see it! Let us see it!’ we pleaded.

The girls rolled their eyes and passed us their invitations. The paper in our palms was warm and thick, like cream cheese frosting. We unravelled the invitations and specks of paper confetti fell out. We caught them on the pads of our fingers. We squinted and saw they were in the shape of little birds.

‘Let’s burn them,’ said Kayla, Leila’s big sister. She loved to burn anything, especially beautiful things. She liked to watch cheap earrings curl on the sidewalk, pink bougainvillaea flowers from the pool shrink and blacken, the ends of her prettiest friend’s hair vanish. We immediately put the tiny perfect birds on our tongues to save them. They dissolved like sugar paper. They even tasted sweet. The big girls made a small fire of their invitations and dared each other to stamp it out with bare feet. Leila was the first one to try but she cried when the soles of her feet met the flames.


Still, on the day of the party they were all lined up. Every eighth-grade girl waited outside their block for Leila and Kayla’s mom. Her boyfriend worked at the used car dealership and had got her a deal on a Volvo, and she could fit five girls on the backseat if everyone half sat on the lap of the next. We all knew the measures of our thighs exactly, knew them at their best (when we sucked in and stood tall in front of the mirror until we saw a gap) and at their worst (when we sat on the school bus and our skin swamped out like boxed mashed potato when we added the water). All the eighth-grade girls were dressed up. They wore their best denim shorts, every plastic bracelet and bangle they owned on one wrist, t-shirts cut just below their bras or scalloped round the neck so the sleeves dropped off their shoulders. Their hair was braided or gelled or straightened, and their lips were all the same brown from removing and reapplying a dozen shades of colour. When they smiled, we saw scraps of tissue paper stuck between the bands of their braces, fluttering with their excited breath.

It was a Saturday and we had nothing to do like every other day of our lives. None of our usual routines seemed appealing. Normally, we spent our time making snacks. We were obsessed with the microwave. We warmed up pink milk, put whatever we could find in tortillas and blasted them until they were crisp and melted and delicious. We talked about boys and agreed to never like the same one. We wrote our phone numbers on scraps of paper and left them in cereal boxes at the grocery store. We waited for someone to call us. No one ever did. We played MASH over and over and never got bored, it never got less funny that one of us was going to have to marry our PE teacher, live in a trash bag and clean gas station bathrooms, even though some of our moms were cleaners so it wasn’t that funny.

But that day we were restless. Every time one of us suggested something to do, we shrieked, ‘Boring!’ until she hushed. The big girls were gone and we sensed something was being hidden from us. Far away we could see a storm, a creeping shadow interrupting the baby-blue sky. We could see the distant white forks of lightning spiking and shutting down the roller coasters in the distant parks. We loved storm time, loved to push it with our mothers by staying in the pool even when they shouted at us to get out. The rule was that when there were seven seconds between thunder and lightning, we had to move, because storms could move fast and if we were in the water when the lightning hit, well, we didn’t know anyone who it had happened to, but we could imagine it. We’d be sizzled like the tortillas in the microwave, crisp and dark and smoking. When we talked about our favourite way to die, we always chose this fate, better, we decided, than freezing or drowning or being shot. Leila had once plugged in her fridge and a blue flame snuck out of the socket. She said she felt the flame go through her whole body. ‘Like it licked me,’ she said, and she showed us her arm where the black hair grew in swirls. ‘These all stood up,’ she said, and our mouths watered. This was before we started waxing our arms.

‘Let’s follow the Volvo,’ said Leila.

We ran as fast as we could, down the apartment stairs, through the red bark chips on the playground, along the hot road between our blocks, squealing as the tarmac stung our bare feet, relieved when we reached the cool grass and sand of the construction site. We could see the Volvo pause ahead of us at the Falls Landing lights. We ducked round the show home, hopped the beams of the construction site, and we sprinted the final stretch, the white wall leering over us. It was so tall that it made the beautiful Falls Landing entrance look stupid and miniature, like the rides we disdained in the theme parks with no height restrictions. We crept around the corner to see the Volvo slide through the black-spiked gates. We snuck close to the glass gate house. There were two orange trees on either side of it, their fruit perfect and palm-sized. A fountain cascaded over the roof of the gate house and into two glittering pools at its sides. We knew that fat and gorgeous goldfish swam in the pools but we had never gotten close enough to see them before the gate man chased us away. We loved the gate man even though he hated us. We loved his uniform with the black and gold brocade trim, and we dreamed about living in his little glass house with a mini-TV and some pet fish.

The gate man saw us and ran out of his booth, clapping his hands at us. We growled and hissed and yowled back, playing our part. One of us darted forward, but when he got close, another of us would tap him on the shoulder and run when he whirled around. We shook our bangled wrists and swore like Isabel’s mamaie had taught us in Romanian. We didn’t know what it meant but later we learned it went something like, your mom made you on sunflower seeds.

We tortured the gate man until he said he would call the cops, and then we fled back to the construction site. We looked in the window of the show home but no one was ever there during the day. There was half of a cherry pie on the counter, shimmering with roaches. Maybe the day before we would have dared someone to stick a finger in and lick it, but that day we felt too old. We kicked at the rotting wood beams, watched the bugs run out and squashed a few, and then felt bad about it. We were in the mood where nothing was going to make us happy. Every happiness held its own ruin inside it, like a glass we were about to smash.

The construction site had been abandoned for so many years that in our minds it was a finished place. We couldn’t imagine anything else being built there. A few rooms were outlined with concrete, hole-pocked tarps flapping uselessly over them, the show home strange and tall in the centre. We remembered when the roof flew off in hurricane season. We’d watched it happen from Christian’s window, as our mothers partied by candlelight in the living room. We laughed when we saw chunks of the roof lift off and bounce over toward the highway, until there was a hole we could easily see through from our bedroom windows, right to the grassy ground. There was a billboard next to the show home, as tall as the white wall, showing the original vision for the site: a row of identical brown townhouses, the same squares of grass by the front doors, a blond couple blown up into giants in the foreground, clutching a large golden key. We couldn’t tell if they were happy or sad about their future, because their features had been drawn on by so many kids, adding moustaches and unibrows, that their faces were two black holes.

We listened. We could hear the noise of Sammy’s party beyond the wall.

We stared at the billboard faces for guidance. They seemed to give Leila an idea. We watched, enchanted, as she started to climb one of the flaking billboard legs. Only two of us could follow her, because the bottom of the billboard was too thin for us all to sit on. We clutched to the ropy wood legs, heads shoved up near each other’s asses, and Hazel had to stay on the ground, whining, ‘What do you see? What do you see?’

Leila stood up, clinging to one side of the board, and, swinging dangerously, one foot balanced, she stretched her neck to look over the wall. ‘I can see the yard,’ she said.

The girls were having water balloon fights. The sprinklers were switched on and the air was filled with rainbow shrapnel. The girls crouched together in Sammy’s yard, strategising, hiding behind the thin palms, collecting piles of grenades and assigning guards. When supplies had dwindled through waves of attack, Leila told us that one girl stuffed two balloons down the front of her bikini top, and soon all the girls were running around with large, wobbling breasts. Then they started body-slamming each other to explode them.

There was a clap of thunder. The lightning struck close. We saw it spike the highway and all the car headlights brightened obediently. The air around us felt tight.

Then the girls at the party went quiet.

‘What’s happening?’ we called to Leila. Our voices were scared and she was powerful. She was suddenly no longer a part of us, and we knew she held her secret a second longer because she could. When she did speak, her voice was lowered to a whisper.

‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘They’re all looking up at something.’

She stood on her tiptoes. Her eyes widened, her face glowed.

‘It’s Sammy,’ she said. ‘She’s cut off all her hair. Like, all of it.’

No one said anything. We did not know what to say. Isabel stood up on the other side of the billboard to look, wobbled, then immediately sat down again.

‘She’s on the balcony with some blonde girl,’ Isabel said.


‘How short?’

‘Shorter than short,’ said Leila. ‘It’s all gone.’

Then the rain began and we were afraid we’d fall off the billboard, and now we had something to live for, something to talk about. We were no longer bored. We slid down the billboard posts, cutting our palms on the rungs and the nails, and we ran screaming like we always did in the rain. When we got beneath the shelter of the first block, we shook ourselves free of the water like dogs. We raced up the stairs and lay on the hard concrete that split Christian’s and Britney’s apartments on the top floor. We dried ourselves and we thought.


No girl we knew had short hair. No one even had a bob. In summer, we all had the same hair, as long as we could coax it, half dead and raggedy by August from a combination of SunIn, pulling, and chlorine. We thought of our hair like our magic trick. At night, when we met up on the playground after dinner, we let our hair down like a show, sprung it out of our ponytails and buns, let our braids fall over our eyes like a beaded curtain we could coyly peek through. We hid our faces because we were certain that someday, someone else would reveal them back to us, tuck our hair behind our ears and tell us how beautiful we were, had been all along, in secret. None of us could believe Sammy had hacked off her curtain, revealed herself by choice.

We were smart girls. We read the bible and fairy tales and watched the news, and our mothers had raised us not to be stupid. We knew nothing in this world came easy. We knew love took practice and we vowed to put in the hours. We knew metamorphosis took danger and, most likely, pain.

We started to use the Internet more. We took photos of Leila with her hair tied back and a hoodie up so she looked like a beautiful boy. We made her a blog where we wrote poems about rain and the colour grey, and girls from all over America fell in love with her within a week. Then we took photos of Leila pretending to make out with Isabel. They didn’t really kiss, they just sucked each other’s thumbs. We wanted to break some soft girl hearts. Leila posted the photos and wrote, Stop telling me how much you love me! I’m taken! Then she deleted the blog. ‘They probably think you’re dead!’ We laughed, and then we pretended to cry like girls who weren’t like us, because they were alone and we didn’t love them.

We were scared of being alone. Sometimes we’d pick one of us and play a game. We taunted her, showed her how easily she could be left behind. We’d forget to invite her to the grocery store or to the mall or to the pool, and then we’d talk about it after, look at her and say, ‘Oops!’ If she cried, we left her. If she said, ‘Fuck you!’ we let her stay. And the crying ones we allowed back in after a while, too, because they were desperate and we could make them do anything. We’d make her steal nail polish, or we’d make her run across the highway to the median, or we’d get her to tell her mother she was a bitch. Then we’d all make up and stroke each other’s hair and tell each other we loved each other and that we would be friends forever. We stuck our thumbs with needles and held the bubble of blood to the light before we played thumb wars. We weren’t always mean. We weren’t always nice. We worked hard to surprise ourselves.

It was hard to love Sammy because we only saw her at school, always with the blonde girl. We watched them together at lunch time, caught glimpses of them in the hallways, their arms loosely linked. We crept close behind them as they ascended the school bus, before they disappeared to the back row, where we were not welcome. We risked some glances from time to time, saw their legs intertwined on the backseat like they were lying down across it. We copied and lay down, too. We looked at the shapes in the dirty roof and pretended we could see the future in them. Sometimes we were kind, maybe if Sammy smiled at us. We painted gorgeous futures for ourselves. Other times, ignored for days, we picked the weakest of us and said we saw her mother dying tomorrow. We were joking but then Leila’s mother almost did die, she had cancer, so we felt bad and only hurt the fathers after that. No one cared about them, we could practically have them drop dead without anyone crying, even after what happened with Britney’s dad.

Sometimes we almost forgot about Sammy. Isabel, the last one of us with a dad, learned that her parents were getting divorced. We hated the whole process. They held hands when they told her, there was no fighting, just a love gone listless, and they still all got together at Thanksgiving without a voice raised. It was only Isabel who screamed appropriately and tipped over the sweet potatoes. We refused to be cordial. We would not be born out of sweetness, we were born out of rage, we felt it in our bones. Then Hazel and Jody’s dog died. We all loved the dog. He was the size of a chihuahua but had the face of a wolf. Jody had found him stuffed in the trash chute, yapping to hell with his claws clamped to the door. We all wept at the funeral. We all said a few words. We collaged a coffin out of a shoebox, decorated it with snapshots, hearts, infinity signs, and when the time came, Jody let Hazel throw it into the cool dark of the lake. All our mothers teared up at our grace. The truth was, we were pretending, and later we stole Britney’s mom’s vodka, mixed it with orange juice and Jody told us the true story as we sipped. She told us how the dog’s kidneys had given out so he couldn’t stop shitting. Hazel sniffled, but we ignored her. Jody had demanded to be at the vet when the death shot was delivered. We were excited by this, because the vet said the dog could kick or moan as he passed over, but Jody sipped her vodka straight from the bottle and told us how the dog went limp, then let out a spiralling fart that made the vet smirk and the student nurse leave the room. It was disgusting to us, that a good dog should exhibit such an undignified death, and we tipped our plastic cups to each other and winced as the vodka whistled down our throats. We felt we understood things more, but we did not want to. Drinking helped. It loosened our laughs, toughened us, made us wild again. We were relieved by this trick and stole more liquor from our mothers. They noticed and hid the bottles, but we always found them again.

They tried to distract us with cheap hobbies, tempting us to make burnt brownies, copy their makeup tutorials, and paint their nails. But it was only when Britney’s mom got dumped by a committed bird watcher, leaving behind his weekend bag of tools as he snuck out of the house in a hurry, that we showed any interest in their suggestions.

‘Take it,’ said Britney’s mom. ‘Burn it. Just quit taking my tequila.’

We took the boyfriend’s bag down to the dock. We removed his books, his whistles, his camouflage shirts. The smell in the bag was sweaty and ancient. We took out a variety of curious tools. We sat around our pile in a cross-legged circle. Leila picked up a pair of binoculars and pointed them immediately toward Falls Landing. We took turns. We turned the lenses until all we could see was the blurry whiteness of the wall, a grainy bright screen, like we’d entered a cheap movie set of heaven.


Image © Mark Surman


This is an extract from Brutes by Dizz Tate, published by Faber in the UK and Catapult in the US.

Dizz Tate

Dizz Tate has been published in the Stinging Fly, the Tangerine and No Tokens Journal, among others. Her first novel, Brutes, will be published in early 2023.

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