Happy Birthday Lydia Carter

Holden wright  


Krystal Meth and I were the only girls in our entire twenty-seven person class who weren’t invited to Lydia Carter’s co-ed birthday party. This was when Krystal and I were still friends, before she dropped out of school, and way before she started killing people.

Krystal and Lydia stood on opposite sides of the eighth grade popularity spectrum. The difference between Krystal and Lydia was clear; Lydia and her crew wore crimped hair and crop tops just long enough to appease the dress code. Krystal wore a “rat’s nest” (Lydia’s words) of hair, and stained, second-hand clothes. She was also, damningly, my only friend.

The difference between Krystal and myself is less clear. We both had missing parents, my father having been gunned down on his third tour to Iraq, and her mother doing time in County. For this, kids called her Krystal Meth, though I think her mother had actually been put away for crack.  At the D.A.R.E. assembly that year, Officer Bean showed us mugshots of people on drugs, pointing to rotten teeth, arms scratched until blood seeped out. I felt Krystal tense in the seat next to me, but it wasn’t until 6th period that she told me, “They showed my mom up there.”

            “Which one?” I asked.

            “She had the real big eyes,” Krystal whispered, “and her hair was like—” she motioned a certain messiness around her scalp.

            “Oh, yeah,” I said, although I couldn’t recall the specific image—every mug shot had had wide eyes and wild hair. For weeks I would be haunted by night terrors of gum-gnashing half-feral women, gibbering nonsense like John-O who slept behind the Conoco in army fatigues and spent afternoons at the traffic light, shouting at semi-trucks. In the dreams, each of these women was Krystal’s mom.

My father’s death inspired a crisis in my mother, who moved us back to her tiny Idaho hometown. The move did Mother no good; she slept through days and spent nights at The Suds Bucket, a laundromat that moonlighted as the town’s lone bar. While she was out, I warmed pizzas, and stared at the folded flag above the fireplace, trying to reconstruct my father’s face from memory. I could never conjure more than the sharp, piney scent of his aftershave.

The first weeks of eighth grade I tried to wish myself invisible. I was destined for unpopularity—my wardrobe consisted of cargo shorts and hoodies from the men’s rack at Goodwill, and my DIY pageboy looked more Ringo Starr than Princess Di. Still, Lydia Carter didn’t bother to paint a target on my back until Krystal took me under her wing.

“Justine?” Lydia Carter’s glossy lips formed a smirk. “That’s like Justin with an E.” Her sidekicks tittered, and my middle school persona was born.

It was a stupid name, but even now my face flushes thinking of it. Lydia’s contempt was the whole world’s round rejection. She was the image Krystal and I would have taped up in our locker if we thought we could get away with it, the thing we most aspired to and feared. On judgment day, I could think of no more damning prospect than seeing Lydia Carter lean in toward God’s ear, enumerating my many faults behind a cupped hand.


On Lydia Carter’s birthday Krystal and I robbed the Conoco. We’d planned a sleepover to assuage the sting of missing Lydia’s party. That morning I stuffed an extra set of clothes in my backpack and asked my mother’s permission. She acquiesced, curled up in bed, and flicking her long, green nails at me to go away and shut the goddamn door.

            Krystal lived on Barnwood street, a dirt road on the north edge of town where nobody ever went on purpose. After school, we set up a picnic blanket in the street and laid back to see how long it took before a car forced us off the road. We gave up after three hours. It seems impossible either of us could have sat in one place that long with only the sky and the cottonwoods for entertainment, but we did. Krystal told me about who in our class had done “the dirty,” and about the time John-O stole a semi-truck and ran over a girl, who he then healed with his demonic powers. “When the priest prayed over the girl,” she said, “the devil left her, and her leg broke all over again.”

            “Is he that dangerous?” I asked.

            “He’s pretty nice if you give him the time of day.”

We asked each other questions: How well had I known my dad? How well had she known her mom? I described my dad’s aftershave. Krystal showed me her mother’s pearl earrings which she hoped to wear once she got her ears pierced.

            “What’s the worst name you were ever called?” she asked. I hadn’t been called much before the “Justin with an ‘e’” crowd got hold of me, but Krystal knew all about that. I made something up.

            “I got called a slop-slinging fat ass pig by this guy at my last school.” I made a piggy noise and shook my butt. She laughed at that.

            Later she could be called a crack whore, unworthy of life or love, and America’s ugliest serial murderer, but that afternoon, on the blanket under a lazy autumn sky, Krystal lowered her eyes in shame and told me, “Lydia Carter called me a dyke once.” Her brown irises softened like bruises. I tried to change the subject.

            “What’s the worst thing you ever did?” I asked, thinking of childhood pranks, of sideways glances during school tests.

            “I killed a bird once,” Krystal said, and her face grew pale and still. “A baby bird, without feathers even. It must have fallen from its nest. I found it on the ground.” She pointed to the place in her front yard. “It had ants on one wing, the kind that eat dead things. The bird wasn’t dead yet, but they were already eating it. It made this little cheep.” Her voice settled into a whisper. “I wanted to put it back in its nest, but I heard that mama birds kill their babies that’ve been touched by people. They can smell it on them. So, I stomped its head in.” Her eyes threatened tears, and I wondered how I had managed to steer the conversation toward something even more upsetting.

            “Hey, do you want to go to the Conoco?” I asked.

            She sprang up like a Pop-Tart. “Yeah,” she said. “Just let me get my irrigation boots!”


            Years later, when Krystal’s face lit up Buzzfeed and Yahoo News with sensational headlines like “Frat Massacre at Virginia,” and “Devil-Whore Slays Five,” I couldn’t help but think that her mug shot looked exactly like the women from my seventh-grade nightmares.

            Krystal claimed the frat boys hired her for a party, gang-raped her, and only paid a third of her fee because she wasn’t “pretty enough.” Ten days later she stormed the fraternity, shot four boys, and when she ran out of bullets, stabbed a fifth in the neck. Before long, Krystal had been connected to a similar incident at Georgetown and was branded a serial killer.

            The prosecutor said it wasn’t rape because she’d been paid, called the fact that she did not get the promised amount an “unfortunate misunderstanding.” Her Twitter account, on which she posted years-old photos in order to attract clients, he cited as false advertising. The jury found her guilty. The judge gave her death.


            “The trick to robbing the Conoco is you’ve got to buy something,” Krystal told me. “If you buy something, they won’t think you’re trying to steal from them.” Her irrigation boots (which were really her father’s, and several sizes too large) flailed and flopped as we walked to the gas station.

            We ambled past land razed and rowed for crops, wheeled sprinklers crawling across the fields like centipedes. This was potato country, a far cry from the Idaho panhandle where I’d been born with its pine scruffed mountains angling dramatically over lapis lazuli waters. All we had for scenery was a lone butte, no more majestic than a pimple.

            We pooled our pocket change in the Conoco lot. I had my three lucky nickels, a lucky dime, and two lucky quarters. “What makes them lucky?” Krystal asked.

            “They were minted in my birth year,” I said. “I don’t want to spend them.”

            “You might just have to,” said Krystal. She carried all of seven cents.

            A greasy hand mashed itself into Krystal’s brown curls. “Hey mophead,” John-O said. “Who’s the girl?”

            John-O wore the same stained army camo every day. Up close I could see his twisted smile, one canine tooth brown and rotting. He smelled like decay, a sack of vegetables gone slick with rot.

Krystal swatted at his hand. “Knock it off, bozo. This is Justine. We’re friends.” John-O gripped my hand in his and bent to give it a sloppy smooch. His kiss left a bead of viscous spit, which I wiped onto my jeans.

“Hey John-O, you want to do us a favor?” Krystal asked.

He stood at attention, suddenly soldierly. “Sir, yes sir!” he shouted.

“Good. When you see me walk up to checkout, I need you to cause a distraction, got it?” He nodded.

“Just act like you’re going to buy something,” she said to me. “I’ll be getting the goods in the candy aisle.”

            I stood in front of the cheap rack of candy at checkout and squinted as if I couldn’t quite make up my mind. The cashier had a large white bandage taped to his balding scalp. It shone like a little patch of snow in the LED lights. Behind me, I heard Krystal clomp through the aisles, secretly dropping candy bars into her boots.

            I grabbed an orange Tootsie Pop, and the cashier sighed with the wheeze of a deflating balloon. “Twenty-six cents.”

            Krystal stepped up next to me. “Hey!” she said, gripping the sucker. “This one has a star on the wrapper! We ought to get another free.”

            The cashier’s scowl deepened, in the adult way that preceded a lecture. “That’s a wife’s tale, miss,” he began.

            John-O rammed through the door, clutching a flaming bundle of branches. “Fire!” he yelled. “Fire! Help!” Smoke rose obscenely from the makeshift torch, and the fire alarms barked in unison.

            “Out!” the cashier shrieked, pounding the counter. “Out! Right now!” John-O winked, wielded the sticks like a sword, threatening to incinerate the rack of newspapers by the door.

            Krystal snatched a few Tootsie Pops in her fist and whispered to me, “Run.”

            We didn’t run, we flew.


            High school changed things. Sophomore year I joined the soccer team where Lydia Carter gave me—and half the team—mono when we passed around a water bottle one day after practice. She told people we’d had a lesbian orgy, and when she said it, it came off as funny, not weird.

Somehow the shared illness united us, and returning to school I found myself in Lydia’s circle. My wardrobe changed; each day I hoped Lydia would notice my outfit and offer a compliment. When she did, I reprised the look three times in two weeks, until Lydia asked, “Isn’t that the same blouse?”

I counted carbs, got the bangs Lydia pointed out in a magazine. I even went with Lydia to the Mormon church most of my classmates attended, and sang along to hymns about “Kolob” and “Joseph Smith.” If there was a limit to what I would have done for Lydia Carter, I never found it.

Krystal seemed a small sacrifice for Lydia’s approval. At first, I ignored her at school but grudgingly took her calls after class. Eventually, I stopped answering the phone. I told myself I had never really liked Krystal, I just hadn’t had options before. I didn’t realize she’d dropped out until Lydia told me. “Probably preggers,” Lydia said. “I hear her dad kicked her out and everything.” Then we talked about eye shadow.

The last time I really talked with Krystal was the tail end of Sophomore year. She approached me on the edge of campus after school let out one day. I couldn’t tell if she hid a baby bump underneath her oversized coat. “Hey Justine,” she said. “I want to show you my cabin in the woods.” Krystal’s hair was matted terribly; a layer of grime lay under her fingernails. I was mortified to be seen with her.

“Let’s make this quick,” I said.

I softened when she showed me no animosity, asking sincerely after my soccer games and grades. I softened more to see her cabin was a simple lean-to made of branches and a ratty tarp, banked by the creek that jogged along the South side of town. We crawled inside so she could prove to me it kept her warm. A fetid pile of blankets lay in one corner, and she had what looked like a stack of men’s clothing in another. Her father really had kicked her out. “You got money?” I asked. The girls at school said she was turning tricks.

            “I get by,” she said. “Sometimes John-O comes out here and sleeps with me.”

            “Crazy John-O from behind the gas station?”

            “Yeah,” she said. She nudged the ground with a tattered shoe. “Hey, what’s it like being friends with Lydia?”

“It’s fine,” I said. After practice on Tuesday Lydia had told me, You know, you’re pretty fast for your size. “John-O doesn’t pay you, does he?”

“No, it’s not like that. It’s just nice to have a warm body sometimes, you know?” She lit a cigarette. “He brings me things, too.” She showed me a stone with a perfect, thumb-sized indentation, a crown of woven asters, a bird’s nest with half a speckled eggshell in its center.

“Isn’t John-O like forty?” I asked. We would have both been about sixteen. I don’t know why I didn’t call somebody. At the time I don’t think I even knew what CPS was except that my mother always threatened to “go off” on anyone who dared call them on her.

            Krystal exhaled a string of smoke. A smile cracked her face in half. “I don’t know,” she said laughing, and suddenly I was too. “I’ve got no fucking idea how old he is!” We kicked our feet up and fell back. The world seemed horrible, a joke. We clutched our ribs, and then each other, our bright faces inches away, screaming our hilarity back and forth like a miserable game of ping pong.


I teach third grade now. The boys tumble through the school year collecting stink bugs and scraped knees. At this age they seem mostly harmless, though I can’t help but project twisted futures in which they become terrible frat boys or sleep behind gas stations or strike out for war glory and come home in a box. Still, the girls scare me more.

            In my classes there are already budding Lydia Carters, aspiring influencers, applying makeup via Snapchat filters, whispering Taylor Swift lyrics like an incantation. They form a small, impenetrable ring of rightness, and the girls outside that circle seem lost and wounded. So many of these lost girls remind me of Krystal. Though our paths ran parallel for a time, I don’t know how she clicked into a track that took her all the way to death row, and I managed a life for myself.

            I give my students awards at the end of the school year, meaningless things made to look like diplomas: Great Smile! Tidy Desk! Math Whiz! Kids grow up sooner these days. At nine years old, the Lydia Carters roll their eyes at the ceremony. This kindness is not meant for them, but even the lost girls glower with embarrassment. Nobody claps when I hand an award (Sparkly Eyes!) to Missy, one of my lost girls. The other girls eye each other, holding in conspiratorial giggles, and my heart plummets. Missy shoves the sheet deep into her backpack.

            I keep Missy after class. She stands at my desk and picks a little red scab on her arm. I am suddenly at a loss for words. What would Krystal need at this age? What would I have needed? My memory of third grade is murky. Specific events and images slip from my fingers like wriggling fish, but coloring it all is a yawning, paternal want; my dad was on his first tour that year.

            “Everything okay at home?” I ask. She nods refusing to meet my eyes.

            “I got to catch my bus Ms. Sherman,” she says. When Missy clicks the door shut, I stare at the scab she’s left behind, a patch of blighted skin on the linoleum, and know I’ve missed my chance.


            By the time we got back to Krystal’s place after the Conoco, my stomach was growling. Krystal dumped the boot’s contents onto the kitchen table. “I didn’t know what you like,” she said, “So I got a bit of everything.” The multicolored packages winked up at us. We split a bag of Skittles, and then a Snickers bar.

            “This is great, but what’s for dinner?” I asked. She squinted as if I’d offered an impossible riddle. I tried again: “You have any leftovers or anything?”

            She opened the fridge to reveal its contents: a shelf full of beer bottles, half a gallon of milk, a stale chuck of cheese, hopelessly limp celery. “What do you normally have for dinner?” I asked. Krystal shrugged and pulled out a beer. “Won’t your dad notice if it’s missing?”

            She grinned. “You’re crazy if you think he can count past five,” she said. She worked the lid off with a butter knife, and we sat on the grimy linoleum and passed the bottle between us. It was my first beer, and I grimaced through it, taking deep draws to prove that I could. By the bottom of the bottle I felt warm and loose, my joints butter-soft. I couldn’t imagine what another might do.

            We had another.

            “I’m still hungry,” I told her. My mouth felt like a petri dish, upholstered in yeasty mold.

            “How about some hot chocolate?” she asked.

            Krystal filled two mugs with milk and placed a Three Musketeers bar in each. She put the whole thing in the microwave until the chocolate melted.

            “Oh my God,” I said. “This is the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had in my life.”

            “I know,” she giggled.

            By then it was dark. My blood was warm and thick in my veins. I felt it running up my neck and to pour over my brain like hot fudge.

There was no overhead lighting in Krystal’s house, and we shuffled through the rooms groping for lamps. I battered my shins on furniture, stepped into piles of trash and discarded clothing. “Here,” Krystal said, thrusting her hand in mine. After that we made it to her room all right.

            We hadn’t thought about sleeping arrangements, but seeing her skinny bed wedged into one corner of the room, the orange sheets tangled in the lamplight, I knew there was no way we would both comfortably fit in it. And I hadn’t brought pajamas. I’d imagined, naively, that Krystal might have provided matching sets for the both of us, something we could photograph ourselves in and prove we had had a good time without Lydia Carter. Krystal slipped out of her clothes and into a holey, oversized t-shirt that read “The Man, The Legend” with one arrow pointing up and another pointing down. “I have another old shirt if you want,” she said.

            “I sleep in my underwear,” I lied.

            We tumbled into bed, too lazy to shut off the lamp in the opposite corner. It was missing its shade, and the naked bulb glared yellow. Krystal snagged a tape player from the floor. “I like music to fall asleep to,” she explained.

            A cloying harmonica announced the start of “Rainy Days and Mondays” by the Carpenters. I groaned; this was my mother’s music. Krystal proved a sweet drunk. She nuzzled my collar bone, her downy hair falling across my shoulder. “This is the saddest song I know,” she said.

“Are you kidding?” I’d always found Karen Carpenter’s voice syrupy sweet. I couldn’t take her sorrow seriously. Krystal looked dangerously close to tears. “Hey,” I said, “haven’t we had fun? Without them?”

“What do you think they’re doing now?” Krystal asked, “At Lydia’s party?”

            I suspected that party had ended hours ago. “They’re necking,” I said. “They’ve shut off the lights and everyone’s found a corner to kiss.”

            “Who’d you choose,” asked Krystal, sitting up, her eyebrows launching onto her forehead. “if you could kiss anyone in our class?”

            I thought about it. “Todd Murphy.”

            Krystal thew her shoulders back. With one fist she pulled her dark hair up and away from her face. “Hey, it’s me, Todd,” she said, her voice exaggeratedly low. “You enjoying the party?” She failed to suppress her smirk. In her normal voice she urged, “You be Lydia, okay?”

            I shook my head wildly, tossing my hair into a frenzy, shedding any sign of Justin-with-an-e. “Oh Todd,” I said throwing my chest out to accentuate my non-existent breasts in their training bra. “This has been the best birthday of my life.”

            “So, this is kind of awkward, but,” Krystal-Todd looked down in mock embarrassment. “They shut out the lights, and I think we’re supposed to kiss.” She looked luminous in the lamplight, eager and apprehensive, waiting to take my cue.

            “A birthday kiss,” I hissed as sensually as I could. I imagined glossed lips, bleached blonde hair, a new organdy dress. I leaned in close enough to see each blackhead on Krystal’s nose. “How wonderful!”

            She held my face in her hands and whispered, back in her normal voice, “Happy Birthday, Lydia Carter.”

            As we kissed to the Carpenters, I thought Todd, Todd, Todd, but these were not Todd’s lips sliding against mine, this was not his tongue darting slick and agile into my mouth, and still I kissed back.

            We kissed harder and our teeth clinked. Krystal’s hand moved from my head to my back and shoulders, our mouths clumsy and frantic. My fingers slid under her Man/Legend t-shirt, hungry, scrambling over her body, searching for some unnamable thing I didn’t yet know I wanted, hoping I would recognize it when I found it.


            Krystal Meth had been the first girl I ever kissed. I didn’t kiss another until college brought a montage of one-night girls who left butts in my ashtrays and ghostly perfume on my pillow. That was about the time Krystal was arrested.

            I explain all this to my partner Sasha on the night of Krystal’s execution, after ten years of appeals, retrials, and media slander. Sasha’s catering leftovers fill the coffee table: mashed potatoes, brisket off the bone, coleslaw just this side of bad, which we’d followed with a bottle of red.

We sit on the couch now, as the clock creeps toward midnight, toward Krystal’s death. I have told as much of the story as I know, and the wine has run out. “Were you her first kiss?” Sasha asks. Her fingers trace my lips.

            I shake my head. I don’t know. “We never talked about it,” I say.

            In the past few days, we’ve listened to true crime podcasts about Krystal, watched a YouTube documentary, saw clips of protests to end the death penalty. “Half of the information they have on her just isn’t true,” I’d told Sasha. “They should reach out to me. I knew her.”

The hardest was watching Krystal’s girlfriend testify. “Those boys were so cruel to her,” she said in a bruised Boston accent, “That’s about the worst thing that can happen to a person, and you want to do her even worse.” I gripped Sasha’s hand until she wrenched it from me,  complaining that it hurt her.

Now we have nearly a half hour till midnight. I take Sasha’s wine glass, head to the kitchen, and warm some milk on the stove, dropping in 3 Musketeers bars leftover from Halloween until the color is right. “What’s this?” she asks when I give her a mug.

            “Try it”.

            She does, and I smile at her wide-eyed reaction. I haven’t had Krystal’s hot chocolate since she first showed it to me. I find it too sweet now.

            The cocoa reminds me of that Carpenters song, and I pull it up on my phone. The harmonica croons mournfully. Karen’s voice tiptoes out from the mix, sweet and low.

“What happened to Lydia Carter?” Sasha asks.

            “She has a family,” I say. “Two beautiful girls.” Sasha’s palm roots into my shoulder, a small, warm animal. I don’t know why some people are given the kind of lives you can show off on Instagram and others have their mug shots used to scare kids. I don’t understand it at all. Karen sings on, climbing through the chorus, clutching the high notes the way a girl clings to her dolly. Krystal was right. The song is really sad.


Author Bio 

Holden Tyler Wright is a queer writer whose prose has been featured in Ninth Letter, X-R-A-Y Lit, The Hunger, and more.