Scotty’s got a hard-on for Fatass. It’s fucked and we know it, but we don’t ride him about it too hard. He hasn’t been himself since his mom found a lump in her tit and her hair fell out. He don’t know what end is up or down these days, and we get it. We’ve all had our shit.
Fatass lives in the trailer park out near DuBrey’s store and tonight we’re going to see if we can break in with a key Dean swiped. As for the trailer park, you’d have to pay me to go there. All day long, there’s howling kids running around, like no mother ever told them to stitch their lips and sit down or else. Fatass lives in the middle of that mess with her dad and her brother and all them dogs she collects. The brother has a face like a junkyard, with acne pits from ear to ear.
The dad is on the road most of the time. He was locked up for a while but now he drives truck. Word was, he shot a guy in the face but had good reason. A lot of people wagged their heads when it happened, but as far as I’m concerned you got a right to protect yourself if someone tries to hurt what’s yours. Anyway, if you saw him on the street you’d have a hard time picturing him pulling a pistol or some of the other things I’ve heard. He’s small like a woman, shoulders no wider than a ruler. He’s real polite and don’t talk hardly at all. They say he can shoot the nuts off a squirrel, but I haven’t seen it myself.
The mother lives downstate somewhere with a new husband and new kids. Nobody sees them drive into town. Aunt Faye says it’s a shame there’s no mother to tend to them two while the dad is gone, no one to teach that girl how to be a proper woman. I say if I was that mother, I’d want to leave them, too. Aunt Faye says I’ve got darkness in me, and if I don’t get it cleared out, there’ll be consequences I can’t imagine. She asks what kind of man do I want to be, anyway? Do I even want to be a good man? When she says that, I just shrug but I know what she means. She worries I’m going to end up like my older brothers, fried in the brain from drugs, or too poor to get their teeth fixed, or drowned at the bottom of a lake.
But she don’t know me, not really. No one does. If there’s one thing sure it’s that I won’t end up like them, and I won’t end up like my dad. Pissed at the whole world. Crying in his truck by himself. I see Aunt Faye look from him to me and back again, and someday before I move out I’m just going to tell her, Look, you did okay with me. I won’t be the kind of man anyone has to hide from or pray for.
Dean says you’re a man when you play life by your own rules. He says people will try to cut your balls off every chance they get. He reminds us of that when we get our backs up about some of his schemes. He says look. Whose rules we playing by, theirs or ours?
Lately I wonder if he knows what he’s talking about, but the way he says things takes the air out of your lungs. He tells us guys which way to go, and like fools, we do.
* * *
Most nights, the four of us hang at Dean’s and smoke a bowl. Dean’s brother works graveyard, so we run the house and do what we want. We get hungry when we smoke. A lot of the time it’s just cereal and microwave burritos, but sometimes Romie gets creative, cuts up potatoes and pulls out a pack of venison, cooks it up in butter and salt. The weed gets each of us different. Romie talks about ideas he’s had stored up in his head or plays chords on the guitar. Scotty wanders around like he’s lost. Dean gets paranoid, convinced he’s going to get caught for all the shit he’s done in his life. Usually I lay on the floor by the glass doors, watch squirrels or raccoons, whatever’s going by. Sometimes it feels like somebody’s standing over me, got their boot on my chest, pressing harder and harder till I can’t breathe easy. It don’t got a name, whatever this is, it’s the dull kind of hurt you just shut up and live with. Dean’ll snap me out of it usually. He’ll say quit laying there like a fuckin’ stroke victim. Or, You really think you got such a right to be miserable, asshole? Romie thinks Dean’s a riot. I do too, some of the time. Either way, we laugh.
After we come down a little, we get flashlights and walk into town to see what’s up. There’s not much there but sometimes we get lucky and see something worth our while. A lot of people in this town don’t lock their doors, don’t lower their shades. Most nights, you can see Mr. LeTourneau ironing his uniform in front of the TV, and the Akeys screwing with the lights on. We used to stand on their lawn and watch, Scotty’s mouth hanging open like he was trying to catch flies, but after a while Dean said he was bored, they always did the same position.
Then we cross the bridge. Scotty drifts at the side, a long tall shadow. Dean climbs the guardrail beside him. He teeters and shows off. Below us, the river is dark and deep. Depending on his mood, Dean waves or flips the bird when a car goes by. Sometimes he blows a kiss or flicks his tongue through his fingers.
Romie and me creep the yellow lines, and he tells me about things. His uncle is a medicine man up at the reservation, and he’s seen things most people never dreamed of. He’s healed people squalling and dying and he’s ripped demons out of men’s chests. There’s good weed up there too, and Romie gets it cheap. Sometimes he meditates and sees the future. One time when he was trancing, he saw an old man appear outside the window, looking in at him. He said when he saw the old man’s wise brown face, he knew it was his own self in sixty years, traveled back to now to give him messages. Said from that moment on, he knew he was going to have a good life. I said am I going to have a good life? Romie said probably not. After a while he laughed, and told me not to take things so serious.
* * *
Tonight we’re going to see if we can break in to DuBrey’s with a key Dean swiped. When Dean shows us the key, dangles it in front of my face with his curled up grin, Romie says okay to it, because it all evens out in the end. Scotty doesn’t want to. He says what if we get caught and sent to juvie this time, what about his mom—but then his mouth goes slack and he shoves his hands in his pockets and says okay, he’ll go. Dean says good, and him and Romie get talking about a car Dean’s been checking out. I watch Scotty’s fool face. I see him thinking. DuBrey’s sits on an empty piece of road not five minutes from the trailer park where Fatass lives. Scotty thinks we don’t see him jizzing his pants over that girl, but me, I see everything, and I know Scotty better than he knows himself.
I see her too, but I don’t look at her if I can help it. She’s got these eyes that stare a hole through you. Reminds me of the antique dolls Aunt Faye gets at swap meets, the ones with the paintbrush eyelashes and big glass eyes that roll open and closed. Her whole face looks like one of them dolls, the bloated white cheeks and sharp little teeth, tiny red gash for a mouth. She’s so fat, she makes the other fat girls look normal. She wears old shirts loose as parachutes, and sweaters down to her knees.
She don’t talk to much of anybody at school. Sometimes she has lunch with the theater fags and other times with the pregnant girls, but she don’t really belong to any of them. Teachers don’t notice her all that much but they should, because people cheat off her tests. She finishes and looks ahead at the board, acting like she don’t notice or care that people steal her answers. She acts like their existence is none of her concern. What kind of girl thinks other people are none of her concern?
In study hall, she sits in the back corner against the wall, staring out the window, peeling her nail polish. She slouches low and reads them thick books on werewolves and vampires.
Outside school, you can see her walking through town any time of the day or night, catching dogs nobody wants. She gives them raw burger and coaxes them back to her trailer. Last I heard, she had five of them wandering in and out. Me, I think somebody ought to tell her that nobody wants to see sickly dogs, or hear their whining and barking, and nobody wanted them strays in the first place, so why does she? It’s like the social workers you hear about, going in the houses of fucked up families to rescue kids the parents don’t feed, or beat with brooms, or lock up in closets. I always wonder what makes some people want to take those ruined kids into their own homes, and figure it’s got to be the cash they get, or Jesus. People are always doing things because of Jesus.
Anyway, if it was just the dogs I’d say OK. And if she was just ugly I’d say OK. But her eyes, they’re not right. She looked at me one day on the bus and did something to me with those eyes. Made me feel like I got jackknifed in the gut. She looked me in my face till she had her fill, and I couldn’t do anything but sit there and take it. Since then, I stay as far away from her as I can. If the only seat left on the bus is next to her, I walk home. When the guys ask me what the hell, I say she don’t clean herself and I can’t stand the stench. They’d never understand if I told the truth. If I said she wrecked me for a minute, wrecked me without saying a thing.
* * *
Dean says he can’t goddamn believe it, he can’t believe our luck, the key to the store fits perfect, they’re not gonna have a friggin clue we were here. We keep the lights off and use flashlights. Scotty peels a beef jerky. Dean looks at a magazine. Romie’s in front of a hanger of wind chimes, touching them with the tips of his fingers. He moves his hand like a wave, gets two, three, then four of the chimes going in an arc.
We’re just starting to get into it when Dean says will you look at this shit? He gawks at something outside the window.
Scotty wanders over. Dean says, JE-sus Christ. We look outside. Fatass is there, not ten feet away, hunched down under a lamp post with one of her dogs. She’s wearing men’s work boots and a long nightgown. Dean says louder, JE-sus Christ. We watch her squat, get the dog in her arms and hoist it up. It’s one of them mangy strays, not small or huge either, but long-legged, and it looks wrong in the head even from here. Dean cusses and steps back into the dark. He says nobody move, just wait for her to go away. Scotty, turn off your flashlight, for Chrissake.
Scotty’s eyes bulge. He sits down on a stool and presses his knees together like a girl who has to take a piss.
Dean says he can’t believe some people. He says what the hell kind of girl is that, anyway. He’d screw a hole in the wall before he’d screw that girl.
Romie keeps at the wind chimes like he’s trying to make music.
I take a step and bump Scotty’s arm. He jumps and knocks into a rack of potato chips. It tilts and bangs the window and Scotty is scrambling, saying oh shit, oh shit. I look out the window and Fatass is looking in our direction. Dean starts cussing, but worry don’t reach me like it should. For some reason, it’s like time’s slowed down for a minute, and a big mirror got swiveled in front of my face. I see us like Fatass must see us, three scarecrows in a window.
Scotty is putting the rack back in place, cramming it with bags of chips. Dean gets Scotty’s shoulder and says just set down and set still, for Chrissake.
But Scotty’s pulling away, heading to the door. Dean says, The hell?
Scotty says she saw us.
Dean says to just sit tight and she’ll go away.
Scotty makes like he don’t hear and opens the door. He steps onto the sidewalk and tucks in his shirt. He goes toward her, his legs wobbly as a colt’s. Romie comes up beside me at the window and we three stay in the dark. Dean raps his knuckles once on the glass and snarls, but Scotty don’t turn his head. Dean is breathing fast. I can smell his pits. He sweats when he’s mad. Sweats when he’s scared.
I watch Scotty approach her. She struggles to hold on to that dog, she puffs under the weight of it, but she don’t have the sense to just drop it. That’s when Scotty does something that makes my breath stop. He puts out his arms. We watch Fatass shake her head hard, we watch her mouth say, Leave me alone. LEAVE ME ALONE.
Scotty has a look on his face I never saw on him in my life, not once in the sixteen years since we were born. Right this minute, he is no one I know. I watch his lips move under that goatee he’s been trying to grow since winter. Last week, Dean told him he looked like a cunt on legs, did he need a tampon?
I watch Fatass sway back, buckling under the weight of that squirming dog. Scotty goes forward, gets his arms under its bony back and hauls it against his chest. Dean lets loose a string of words.
We watch Scotty take careful steps, carrying that stray like it’s somebody’s child. The stray bucks its head and knocks Scotty under the chin, opens its mouth and lets out a screech we can hear inside the store.
Fatass follows Scotty. Her face is pulled tight like a fist. Scotty kicks at the door to the store and Romie goes to let them in.
Fatass looks at Dean. She says, to all of us I guess, You touch my dog, I’ll make you sorry.
Scotty goes past me and Dean. He says turn on a light and get one of them blankets from that shelf. Romie does it, and Dean’s face gets red, he starts cussing, he says if we get caught, it’s all on Scotty this time.
Scotty lays the dog on the floor. It flattens its ears, growls low in its throat, and I think it’s going to take a lunge at Scotty, but Scotty backs away slow. Dean gets louder, asks him how his sick Ma is going to like it when she gets a call from the cops because some bitch caught us broken in to DuBrey’s.
I don’t know what to do but look at Scotty, search his face for something—I don’t know what—and wonder who’s this guy I see every day, but all of a sudden don’t know.
I feel Fatass drilling me with them eyes, but I won’t look at her. Move, she says, and pushes in front of me. She squats by the dog and holds out her fingers. It growls, bares its teeth, and I think it’s going to snap its teeth around one of her fat white hands.
But then it don’t, instead it gives her a look that runs a chill through me. I’ve never seen such a look on an animal’s face. A real strange trust. It lays its snout by her foot.
* * *
She tells us a kid from one of the trailers was playing around with a BB gun, firing shots in the air, and the dog got scared and bolted out of her trailer, got tangled in a barbed wire fence at the edge of the park. She went after the dog and pulled it out. I look down at the cuts on its face and shoulders, the flesh and pulp where fur should be.
Dean says, Jesus. You don’t touch a hurt dog, especially a stray. Could have rabies.
You don’t know, she says.
Don’t know what?
Anything that matters.
Dean answers by looking down at her chest and curling his lips. Her tits are smaller than they should be, little twinkies that don’t match her body. She crosses one arm in front of them like a shield. Her face goes red, but she stares him down. For a second I feel a prick of something I don’t feel too often in this life. Respect, I guess. If that’s what it is.
Scotty’s gawking at the dog, looking over the cuts like a doctor on a rescue mission. Dean says he can’t believe this little show, can’t fuckin’ believe it. He makes a laugh like a hiss. He says to Scotty, All of a sudden, you grow some balls? For this girl?
He points at me with his finger like he’s my dad all of a sudden, mad and drunk. He says come on and heads to the door. Romie and me follow him.
We stand in the doorway. Dean watches Scotty and flicks the light switch off and on, off and on, off and on. He’s even madder now, still sweating, stretching a smile tight over his teeth.
Scotty pushes himself up off the floor and flicks a glance in our direction. Then he turns away, and when he turns, it feels like he’s saying something big. He tells Fatass they should get out of the store before someone sees. He asks if she has stuff at home to clean out the wounds. She doesn’t say anything and I can’t read her face.
She bends to pick up the dog. Scotty squats down and tries to get his arms under its back. Fatass says she can do it. He backs off quick. She takes small steps, the work boots unlaced and flapping on her feet, the nightgown tangling between her legs, thick as tree trunks. The dog slips a little and she struggles to get a good grip. It gets its voice back for a second, lets out a screech that could split my eardrums, thrashes its head and legs. Her face is as patient as I’ve ever seen on anyone. She puts her mouth by one of its ripped ears, and whispers, Please be good, baby, please be good. The dog shuts up, and she labors to the door.
Dean stands in front, blocking her way, looking down again at the top of her tits where the buttons of her nightgown have come undone. He opens his mouth to say something, then shakes his head, real exaggerated. He sniffs and turns, does the walk he does in school when someone wants to fight him but he thinks they’re trash, and he won’t fight trash. He looks up and down the road to make sure it’s clear, ducks out, and jerks his head for Romie and me to follow. Romie tells Scotty good luck, and I don’t know what I expect, but I expect something else from Romie, something better, something smart. But there he is, following Dean like it’s the only thing to do.
Me, I stand there like a fool, then I stagger out and watch Dean and Romie move quick. They creep around to the side of the store, their shadows growing big like trees. They’ll trip down behind the building and into the woods. They’ll walk one of the hunters’ paths, and it’ll spit them out near Dean’s house, and no one will blame them for anything. Tomorrow, Romie will still be Romie, and Dean will be more Dean than ever. If I had any sense, I’d make it easy, I’d go with them, but something has tied my feet to the ground.
I turn and see that Scotty has picked up the blanket from the floor. He’s pulling the door closed, quiet as can be, locking the store. No cars anywhere, no one in sight.
I watch Fatass make her way down the side of the road slow and steady. She don’t look so troubled anymore, don’t look like her knees are going to give out. She’s carrying that dog like she was made to do it. Like she was made big to carry it to safety.
I hear Dean shouting my name from somewhere in the trees. Scotty is glancing at me so fast he almost isn’t, balling the blanket under one arm and going after her. I watch his long legs take him down the road, the two of them getting farther away, and it’s like watching a wreck, or a memory you can’t stop.
Scotty catches up to her and paces his walk to match hers. She presses on like a soldier. Far off, I hear Dean shouting my name one more time, and then silence.
I got a choice to make, so I close my eyes and tell my body to go, just go where you got to go, you dumb fuck. Then I’m running, closing the gap between me and them.
* * *
The trailer park isn’t as bad as I remembered. Grass still don’t grow here, never has, but a few of the trailers got flowerpots and welcome mats out front. Mr. Maicus is the same as he’s always been, sitting outside his trailer in a fold-up chair, don’t matter that it’s well after midnight. He’s older than anyone I know, and I’ve never spotted him without a cigarette. He’s got a portable tank that feeds oxygen into his nose.
He taps his free hand on one knee, works his dried-up fingers like he’s playing scales on a piano. I stand in his smoke cloud and watch Scotty help Fatass get the dog through the trailer door. Mr. Maicus don’t seem to notice them. He nods and says don’t you worry. I’m ready, and I believe.
Ready for what?
Them, he says. He points up, at the stars I guess.
That’s good, I say, it’s good to be ready.
He hands me a cigarette, and we two go quiet. I watch lamps come on in Fatass’s trailer, lighting it up like a firefly. I try to picture what they’re doing in there.
Mr. Maicus talks for a few minutes about Them. He says They got a plan too advanced for us humans to understand. He says They’re going to fix a lot of things. They’re waiting for the right time. He gets up and wobbles to his trailer. He hands me his lighter and a fist full of cigarettes, says don’t worry about a thing, kid. Not a thing.
I listen to the noise of a TV show coming through somebody’s open window. I listen to a baby squalling. I lean against the side of Fatass’s trailer and smoke another one of Mr. Maicus’s cigarettes. My lungs aren’t used to it, they burn and ache. A dog comes out of the bushes. It sniffs my shoes and flops in front of me. It grinds its snout into the dirt.
The trailer door opens, and it’s Fatass. She locks them eyes on me. She says there’s no smoking on her property. She hands me an empty soda can and I drop the butt into the hole. She don’t say anything for a minute, just looks at me. Finally she says, It’s in or out.
I glance up as far as her shoulder. I say, You got anything to drink?
For a second I think she’s going to tell me to get the hell out of here, and I’m relieved.
She says she’s got stuff to drink, but don’t pull any shit. She’s got a phone and she knows how to call 911 to say some asshole’s in her place. When I don’t say anything, she says she’s also got a pistol, and she feels no compunction about using it. She says, You know who my dad is?
I say yeah. She says it wasn’t an accident that he shot that guy in the face.
She says okay then.
I follow her inside.
* * *
Scotty’s on the sofa. The dog looks like it’s been through a meat grinder and glued back together, but it don’t seem like it’s hurting too bad now. It holds one of its paws in its mouth like a pacifier and starts to doze off. Scotty says he thinks it’s going to be okay, he thinks the cuts will heal up fine. He looks nervous and glad to see me. He yanks on that fool goatee, then folds his hands in his lap. I want to ask him if he thinks he’s on a goddamn date, but I bite the inside of my cheek.
Fatass hands us Cokes. I see she’s pulled her hair in a ponytail and changed out of the nightgown. She’s put on a bra that holds her tits tight to her chest, a long hooded sweatshirt, and sweats. She sits on the arm of a chair and looks at the wall by Scotty’s head like she’s trying to get it memorized. She swings her foot slow, back and forth. I look at the hole in her sock and wonder what she would do if I slid my finger inside and tickled her till she cried. If I held her down and tickled her in the neck and at the sides of her fat hips, would she scream or would she like it?
Scotty says, Did you hear about that fire down in Smithville last week?
She says no. He says, Yeah, a husband and wife burned up and died inside their house—gas fire, I guess—but the two dogs, they got out. Nobody knows how.
That’s good, she says. She clears her throat and puts a pillow over her lap. I lean against the wall and stay quiet as a ghost.
After a minute, Scotty breaks the silence and asks where her brother is. He says Andy, like him and Andy are friends. He never did laugh when Dean started calling him Fuckface. I’ve got to hand it to Scotty, he’s a gentleman if ever I saw one.
She says Andy sleeps at his girlfriend’s house now, because they think they’re in love.
I say, They think they are? But they ain’t?
She looks over at me and shrugs deep, and I wonder if she’s doing an impression of me, mocking my shrug I do thousands of times. Teachers ask me questions and I shrug, people talk shit and I shrug, people think they’re funny and I shrug. She’s looking at me like she knows who I am, like she knows things I don’t. Makes me feel crowded. Makes me feel like she slid her fingers down the bare skin of my back without asking.
Scotty clears his throat. I say I got to take a leak. She points to a dark hallway and says the bathroom is down that way. Outside the bathroom door I wait to see if they’ll talk with me gone. Scotty starts, chattering sudden like he does. He manages to get her talking about the strays and I move quiet over the carpet. I open a door and look in at a bedroom that must belong to her father. It’s empty in a way that lets you know it belongs to a man.
I try another door. There’s a lamp turned on at the desk. A mirror covered with handwriting I can’t make out, and a marker wrapped in yarn, dangling from a nail. A purple curtain hanging from the window, a foot too long and bunched on the carpet. A box full of books on the floor. I feel an urge to go through them, but don’t. I read too sometimes, when I’m alone. Crime books and mysteries, usually. Westerns, if there’s nothing else. I’m a good reader, and I’ve always pretended I’m not. Figured that out in second grade. Saves me some trouble.
Out in the living room, Scotty must have said something funny, because them two are laughing a little. I go inside her room and close the door.
I go to the dresser, careful not to get the floor creaking under me. I pick up her hairbrush. A few of her long hairs are snarled in the bristles, and I run my thumb over them hard back and forth. I squint into the mirror. She’s got so much marker filling it up, I only see snatches of myself, my thin cheeks, my toughed up chin. Aunt Faye says I got eyes like I was born at a funeral.
Then I go to her bed, because it’s her bed I got to really know, don’t know why, but I got to leave here knowing it. There’s a stuffed monkey made out of socks, and a paperback sticking out from under her pillow. I take it out and look at the cover. There’s a man with no shirt and biceps you don’t see in real life. He’s towering over a woman in a dress. Her eyes are closed and her mouth is open. I sit on the edge of the bed.
I open to the page where she’s got a bookmark. It tells about the woman’s face tossing back and forth. A man’s got her on the grass, he has her dress up to her hips. She moans and moans. He fucks her until she comes, and cries out. The words are stupid, the kind invented for girls, but they make me picture things anyway. I don’t mean to, but in my mind, I’m seeing Fatass laying in this little bed, reading this book. I think about what it would be like if things were different. I wonder what her tits and her belly feel like, and if you do things another way with a girl built like her. If you got to position her different or move in her different. I’ve done it a bunch of times with a girl from school, and I thought we should keep doing it and she should be my girlfriend, but she said she changed her mind, she wanted to hold out for someone more her style. I said, What’s your style? She said, Well, you know, just, more my style, and put her bra back on. I said, Not much style to speak of, if you ask me. She said, Huh? And I realized it didn’t matter to her what I thought, so I left, and didn’t say another word. I told the guys she was a lousy lay, that I broke up with her. I didn’t tell them it made me sick inside for a long while after. Didn’t tell them how it felt to know for sure that I was garbage.
I think about what it would be like if I lived here and had a car and a job. What it would be like if I was her man. As crazy as that is. But it’s what I’m picturing, me and her living in this trailer like two people do. It don’t seem dirty or low the way I’m picturing it. We could talk about the day. We could teach the dogs how to do dumb things we could laugh at. I wouldn’t tell her she’s bad. I’d get cakes at the Gallo’s bakery, and we’d fill up our mouths. I’d come home from work and she’d look happy in the eyes. I’ve never seen her look happy in the eyes.
I hear Scotty do a nervous cough out in the living room, and I shove the book back under the pillow. I leave her room and slip into the bathroom, flush the toilet and try to make noise washing my hands. When I come back out to the living room, the dog is sleeping and Scotty is standing. He gives me a funny look and says I was gone so long, they wondered if I fell in the toilet and drowned.
Ha, I say.
She is looking at me almost like she’s heard my thoughts. I want so bad to ask her why she looks at me all the time, and what she sees when she does.
Scotty’s saying we got to get home. I shove out the door and into the dark, root in my pockets for the last few cigarettes Mr. Maicus gave me. I got the smell of her room on me now, staining me.
I listen to her mumble a thanks to Scotty for helping, she thinks the dog is going to be okay. Scotty rambles, and she listens, or pretends to.
I smoke and watch. It’s hate spreading through me, I think, hate is what I feel when I watch them.
Scotty says all right then, and steps out. She stays in the doorway, light from inside coming around her shoulders. I can look at her all I want, because she’s looking at him and not me.
Scotty says to her, You know, if anything happens—
He looks at me for help. But I can’t help him.
He stammers, Well, I mean, you can call me. On the phone if you want. If anything happens. Or you just. You know. If you want.
She doesn’t say anything for a second, and I don’t mean to, but I’m holding my breath. I watch the look on her face saying no to Scotty, No, I’m sorry, I’m not going to be your girl. Then the look is changing and saying maybe. But all she says out loud is, See you at school.
Scotty’s face peels open like she’s just agreed to something. He floats toward Mr. Maicus’s trailer like nothing in this world can stop him now. He stops under the porch light, flickering on and off and swarmed with bugs. He says to me, You coming?
I take a last drag off the cigarette, then bend to crush it out on the toe of my shoe. I feel her watching me. I straighten up, touch the butt to my tongue, and slip it in my pocket. I turn away from her. I know that she watches me go.
Scotty and me make our way out of the park, but I stop, put my hands on my pockets. I dig inside them and look around. I make a good show. Scotty says what is it. I tell him it’s my lighter, I must have left it behind.
Scotty says he didn’t see any lighter.
I say yeah, well it was new, it was expensive. Better run back for it. Listen, I’ll just be a minute. You just stay. I’ll just be a minute.
Scotty’s giving me a weird look, but I’m turned around and running. I’m back at the trailer so fast, I barely remember my legs taking me there.
I jiggle the doorknob to see if she makes sure to lock it. I’m relieved when it don’t budge. Then I take a breath, and I rap my knuckles fast on the door, one two three. I listen for the floor inside to creak. It’s me, I shout. I left something.
She opens the door. She says, What do you want? She’s got doubt in every corner of her face. She crosses her arms and shivers.
Things come in my head at once. For a second I picture myself driving the car I’m going to get, maybe by August, if I can save up enough. I picture driving down a back road at night, and her walking in the dark, and me slowing up and offering her a ride. I imagine us driving miles into other towns. I see her resting her head on my shoulder while I drive, and talking to me as loving as she talks to them strays. Stopping after a while to find a hotel. Talking like I never talked to anybody, till there’s no secrets between us.
She is frowning. I want to say I know it don’t make sense, but don’t worry.
She says, It’s late. She says it cool, like the tough girl she was back in DuBrey’s, telling Dean he didn’t know shit. Okay, she says, her mouth tight. Goodnight. She turns to go inside.
Like a madman, I say wait, and I’m lunging at her. Her eyes grow huge, and my hand is tangling with her hand. I spread my fingers through hers, and hold on, and breathe. Inside me, I feel something break apart.
I’ve had my dick in a girl, and I’ve had my dick in girls’ hands, but I haven’t had my hand wrapped tight with someone.
She’s staring at me like I hit her, but she don’t pull away. She lets me stand there with my fingers wound up with hers, so close to her body I can smell the sweet inside of her mouth.
I don’t know what makes me let go, what makes me step back. I can’t say anything, so I nod and back away, step by step until there’s safe enough distance between us. I catch my breath and watch her face, confused but bright like a candle. The way she looks at me, it’s a way I won’t forget, not in my whole life. And then I’m turning around and I’m off to where Scotty waits.
We walk the empty road and take the bridge.
Scotty says, Listen. Thanks for hanging back instead of going with the guys. That was decent.
I listen to him trail off and struggle, trying to find his words, like I’ve done hundreds of times before. Like he’s defending himself, and like he owes it to me, he says, I know you think she ain’t much, but I do.
I slow down and say let’s just stop for a smoke. I feel grey all of a sudden, old in my bones.
Scotty asks when I started smoking so much, and shuffles around. I know he’s going to talk before he does, and when he starts, he’s off on a streak like he hasn’t in a long time. He talks about his mom and how he’s worried as hell. He says Dean is a cocksucker and we both know it, we both know he’d throw us under the bus if it suited him. He says he thinks he knows where we can get summer jobs working construction. Make a lot of money and get our cars.
I nod, and picture her in her room, climbing back into bed. I think about her hand in mine.
Scotty interrupts himself and asks why my hands are shaking. He says, Jesus, what’s wrong with you tonight? Is it stuff at home again? Is it real bad? You can stay at my place if you want.
I say nah, it’s nothing, must be all the nicotine and shit they pack in these cigarettes. I glance up at him to see if he believes me, and like a bad habit, he does.
Scotty swallows and his Adam’s apple bobs. He looks like a little boy, the man he was a minute ago, gone already. He says, You think she likes me?
My chest clenches tight. I think about how much he listens to the shit I say, and always has—God knows why. I think of how I could spoil her for him. I could say things I don’t mean: she reeks, she’s trash, she’ll be a welfare whore someday, squeezing out kids from different fathers. I think of ways to beat it down until there’s nothing left. But what kind of man would that make me?
Top of the hill, and we’re at Scotty’s. We stand in the driveway with our hands in our pockets. His voice cracks. He says, So you think she likes me? At all?
I look up at his hopeful fool face. I take a breath. I say yeah. I do.
Aunt Faye says this rotten town is a lot like love—it’ll spare you and kill you both.
Lindsay Reid Fitzgerald’s stories have been published in The Sun, The Santa Monica Review, The Alaska Review, and the anthology Women on the Edge: Writing from Los Angeles. She has an MFA in creative writing from the University of California, Irvine and an MA in counseling psychology from Goddard College. She enjoys dour British TV series, her students’ antics, her best friend’s baby, and purses made out of seatbelts. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.