Short Fiction

Short Fiction

Costumes Required (Short Fiction)

(Author’s Note: this story is read and discussed on the current episode of Rough Draft Out Loud – check it out at http://www.roughdraftoutloud.com)

The invitation to Mark and Helen’s Halloween party was specific. No children. Costumes required. Mark was a borg. He set up a black hose that came up his arm and neck and could go in his mouth. When he put the little hose in his mouth he could sip from his cocktail just like a borg would. Helen was Helen Ramone, complete with a black wig and the seminal punk rock band’s iconic black leather jacket. They decorated with cotton spider webs and bowls full of plastic spiders and plastic fingers. Helen replaced several of the lights with black or red bulbs. They made Jello shots and put on a Halloween music mix that included Werewolves in London and at least seven covers of Monster Mash. Then they waited.

“Someone’s going to bring their fucking kid,” Helen told Mark as they sat on the couch and watched the front door to the house expectantly. The party flier said the party would start at 8 and it was five minutes til.

“Well,” Mark told her. “If someone brings a kid we just kill them both and use their insides for extra decoration.”

Helen smiled.

“DINK powers activate,” Mark said and put out his fist for a marital fist bump. Helen bumped his fist.

“No babies,” Helen said.

“No babies,” Mark agreed. “Hookers and blow instead.”

Helen nodded. “Or just vacations and grown-up parties.”

“Alcoholism for the win,” Mark said. He took a sip from his beer. He put out his fist for another bump.

“I’m not fist bumping alcoholism,” Helen told him.

“You and my parents,” Mark said and shook his head. “You never support me.”

Helen grabbed a candy from the dish on the table and unwrapped it but didn’t eat it.

Mark put his borg hose in his beer and sipped. “Mmm,” he said. “Tastes like plastic gloves and face paint.” He looked at his watch and sighed. He put his feet up on the coffee table.

“You know Adam is going to show up without a costume,” Helen informed her husband.

Mark turned to her. “I told him it was required.”

Adam,” Helen said Mark’s old college friend’s name like it was enough to end the discussion.

“Nah,” Mark replied. He sipped more beer. “This is really, really terrible,” he confessed.

“Stop drinking through the stupid tube then,” Helen suggested.

Mark shrugged. “It’s Halloween,” he said. “I don’t make the rules.” He pointed at the candy in her hand. “Are you going to eat that piece of chocolate or are you holding onto it for moral support?”

Helen threw the miniature chocolate bar at her husband. It bounced off his forehead and fell into his lap.

Mark looked down at the chocolate. “I see you went with option three.”

“I always go with option three,” Helen told him.

Mark picked up the chocolate and ate it. “What the fuck is nougat actually supposed to be?” he asked, smacking his lips as he finished the candy. “Does it come from a tree or a bean or something? Is there nougat fruit?”

“No,” Helen said. “There’s not.”

The doorbell rang and Helen jumped up to her feet.

“You don’t know there isn’t a nougat tree,” Mark told her.

Helen gave Mark the finger and opened the door to her friends Lisa and Corey. They were both dressed in sheer silver gowns with gossamer wings attached to the back and held matching silvery wands. They both had colorful makeup around their eyes and spikey moussed up hair. Corey had glitter in his beard and the chest hair that came up from the gown.

“You two look awesome!” Helen told the couple.

“I know, right?” Lisa said as they came inside. “If I knew Corey looked this good in drag we would have had some very different wedding photos.”

“I’m a sexy fucking fairy princess,” Corey agreed. He did a little twirl to show off the wings.

“Somehow, I’ve always known that about you,” Mark told Corey. He got up from the couch and walked toward the kitchen. “Beer?”

“I would not say no to seven or eight beers tonight,” Corey said. “Who’s got two thumbs and isn’t the designated driver?” he asked and pointed two thumbs at himself.

“I don’t remember agreeing to that,” Lisa told Corey.

Corey took a beer from Mark quickly and took a long drink. “What’s that?” he asked. “Sorry, I couldn’t hear you.”

“I was designated driver for nine months,” Lisa retorted and pointed at her no-longer pregnant belly. “Twice.”

Corey kept drinking his beer and staring back at his wife. He had no come back for this.

“We have Jello shots with little bits of fruit that look kind of like eyeballs,” Helen announced.

“Fuck it,” Lisa said. “We’re taking a cab home. Gimme an eyeball shot.”

Mark turned to Corey. “Did you take the girls out trick or treating in that?”

“God, no,” Corey replied. “Becks isn’t old enough to even register Halloween yet and Daddy playing princess dress up is not an expectation I need Libby to have. Besides my mother-in-law thinks it would irreparably damage their little brains if they see Daddy in a dress so she insisted that they stay with her for the weekend. I did not argue with that.”

Helen and Lisa both took eyeball Jello shots and struggled not to grimace.

“These taste like cough syrup mixed up with pixie sticks,” Helen told Mark.

Mark nodded. “Yeah. That sounds right.”

“So are you a Star Wars character or a Doctor Who character?” Corey asked Mark.

“Go fuck yourself,” Mark told Corey.

Corey cracked a big smile. “You want to tell me all about your costume, don’t you? You want to tell me about the Star Doctor and his adventures. You need to tell me about it.”

“Star Trek,” Mark replied.

“There it is,” Corey said. “Let the dork flow freely, my friend. Let it all out.”

The doorbell rang again and Helen went to open it. She opened it and then closed it immediately. “Mark,” she called out. “It’s Adam. I was right.”

“Dammit, Adam,” Mark cursed under his breath. “I got it.” He walked toward the door and picked up a box of spare Halloween masks. The box was dubbed the “Adam Box” by Helen. He opened the door to his friend, standing in jeans and a hoody. He thrust the box toward Adam. “Pick one,” he said.

“What?” Adam asked looking down at the box.

“This is a costume party, dude,” Mark told him. “Pick a mask or you’re not allowed to come inside.”

“Oh, I’m wearing a costume,” Adam informed Mark. Mark waited for the explanation. “I’m a guy that’s not buying into the whole bullshit Halloween industrial complex. I’m a free thinker.”

Mark nodded. “You’re dressed as a guy that can’t come to my Halloween party if you don’t pick a mask out of this box.”

Adam looked in the box and then back up at Mark. “Are there chips and alcohol in there?”

“So many chips,” Mark told him. “So much booze.”

“Fuck,” Adam sighed. He fished out a crazy zombie killer mask and put it on. “Happy now?”

 

***

 

Guests showed up over the next couple hours. Eventually there were people crowding the living room, dining room, and kitchen. Old friends, neighbors, work friends. Karen, the woman who sat in the cubicle next to Helen was there with her girlfriend, Mandy. They were dressed as old people. Two guys from Mark’s office were pirates and spent most of the night passive aggressively complimenting and insulting each other’s pirate choices when they met near the chips. Remy, the drug dealer that lived down the block was dressed as a bong and gave out joints and his contact information to anyone that asked. The party was going well. The Jello shots diminished and empty bottles and cans of beer covered many of the tables and counter spaces. Monster Mash played for the hundredth time and Mark ate a pound of bite sized candy.

“They were in one of the movies even,” Mark told Corey for the fifth or sixth time.

“I haven’t seen any of the new Star Wars movies,” Corey replied.

“Star Trek!” Mark repeated. “Star Trek! Star Trek! Star Trek motherfucker! You know it’s Star Trek! You’ve know it the whole time!

Corey laughed so hard he couldn’t catch his breath.

“He’s fucking with you, husband,” Helen breathed into Mark’s ear.

“I’m gonna assimilate his bearded ass!” Mark shouted loud enough it got everyone’s attention at the party.

“Maybe you should switch to water for a little bit?” Helen suggested.

Mark scowled at Helen and Corey and headed for the kitchen.

“I love the costume,” someone Mark didn’t recognize told him as he got into the refrigerator and fished out another beer. “Resistance is futile.”

Mark smiled and turned to the guest. He had a hood up from a black jacket. Beneath the hood Mark could see small horns and gray makeup. He was some kind of devil. “Thank you,” Mark told him. “I don’t think we’ve met…”

“Ah,” the devil said. “Sorry.” He put out his hand. “I’m Tim,” he said. “Helen’s friend.”

“Cool,” Mark said and shook his head. He looked down at Tim’s hand and saw he had gnarly yellow fingernails and gray almost scaly skin. “That’s commitment,” he commented.

Tim looked down at his hand. “Halloween comes but once a year,” he said. “I maybe go a little overboard.”

Mark nodded. He looked at the makeup detail under the hood. “It looks really, really good. Like professional good.”

Tim smiled. “I wish,” he said. “Sure would be less boring being a special effects guy than what I really do for a living.” He motioned to Mark’s costume. “I love the detail in the circuitry. You could have just done the face and worn all black but you put a lot of work into the costume.”

Mark nodded. “I’ve been working on this since the summer and I spent over a hundred dollars on it.” He looked around. “Don’t tell Helen.”

“My lips are sealed,” Tim told him.

“Beer?” Mark asked and opened the refrigerator again.

“I’m good,” Tim said and picked up a bottle next to him on the counter. “Thanks though.”

“Yeah,” Mark said. “Good to meet you.”

“Definitely,” Tim agreed. “And that bean dip is crazy good.”

“Homemade,” Mark told him.

Tim gave him a thumb’s up.

Mark nodded one last time and drifted back toward the living room. He walked over to Adam. “Mask down, dude,” he told Adam. The mask was propped up on his head.

“Come on,” Adam said. “How am I supposed to drink or eat anything with a mask covering my face? I can’t even really talk.”

“Should have come in costume,” Mark suggested. Then he pulled the black tubing off of his costume and handed it to Adam. “There you go. Perfect.”

“Dammit,” Adam said.

Mark pulled the mask down over his face.

“I thought we agreed you were going to slow down on the drinking,” Helen said when she found Mark again.

“I think you agreed to that. Separately,” Mark told her. “While I was getting another beer.”

“Don’t throw up on our things,” Helen said.

“I won’t throw up on anything,” Mark said and took a drink from his beer. “Hey, I met your coworker Tim.”

“Tim?” Helen repeated.

“Yeah,” Mark said. “In the demon costume. Really incredible makeup job.”

“I don’t have a coworker named Tim,” Helen replied.

“Maybe not a coworker,” Mark said. “A friend? I don’t know. He was in the kitchen. He knows about borg.”

“I didn’t invite anyone named Tim,” Helen insisted. “You must have gotten his name wrong.”

“I didn’t get his name wrong,” Mark told her.

“You’re drunk,” she said.

“I’m not drunk,” Mark said. Then he thought about it. “Okay, I’m a little drunk but that doesn’t mean my ears don’t work.”

“Where is he now?” Helen asked.

Mark looked around the party and spotted Tim over by the chips. “There,” he said. “He really likes the bean dip.”

“I have no idea who that is,” Helen said. “I assumed he was one of your dumb friends.”

“I don’t have dumb friends,” Mark protested.

Adam,” Helen said.

“Okay, I have one,” Mark agreed. “Everyone has one. Anyway, I don’t know him. He said he was your friend.”

“That’s weird,” Helen said. “Because I don’t know him.”

“The make-up is really good,” Mark told her.

“So?” Helen asked. “I know who I invited. I know who people are, drunky. He’s not someone I know.”

“Weird,” Mark said.

“Maybe he’s a friend of a friend,” Helen suggested. “A tagalong.”

“Yeah but he said he knew you specifically,” Mark remembered.

Helen thought about it. “Maybe he thought you’d be weird if you knew he was a tagalong?”

“Maybe,” Mark replied. “Or maybe he’s a party crasher.”

“Yeah,” Helen said. “That seems possible. He just picked our Halloween party to crash out of literally a million Halloween parties happening in the city right now because our bean dip is that rad.”

“There aren’t a million Halloween parties happening right now in Portland,” Mark said. “That’s a blatant exaggeration. There are maybe a hundred thousand.”

Helen turned to her husband. “I love you so much,” she told him. “You’re a very strange man.”

“I love me being a very strange man too,” Mark said.

Helen stared at Tim. “I am a little creeped out about this now though.”

“It’s a little odd,” Mark added.

“We should just talk to him,” Helen offered. “Sort it out.”

“Who are you and how did you get in our house?” Mark suggested. “What are your plans? Are you going to rape us and then kill us later or in the other order?”

“Um, third option,” Helen said.

“Yeah,” Mark said. “I took that to a dark place. I’m sorry.”

“We’re going,” Helen said and walked toward the dining room table loaded down with chips. She stopped in front of Tim. “Hi,” she said.

“Hi,” Tim replied. “Great party.”

Mark hurried after Helen and stood submissively behind her.

“Tim, is it?” Helen asked.

Tim nodded his head slowly. “Yeah,” he said.

“I’ve never met you before,” Helen said.

“You haven’t,” Tim said and kept nodding.

“Is that a question or an admission?” Mark asked in a strangely accusatory way.

“Excuse me?” Tim asked. “I don’t understand the question.”

“Did you tell my husband you were my friend?” Helen asked Tim.

Tim picked up a chip and got some more bean dip. He ate it quickly. He made a sound that sort of sounded like “mmmm hmmm,” and kept nodding.

“Was that a yes?” Mark asked him.

“Kinda,” Tim said.

“Kinda?” Helen repeated.

Mark stepped forward and closer to Tim. “Are you some kind of Halloween party crashing psychopath?”

“Fuck,” Helen said and shook her head.

“I don’t know how to answer that question,” Tim told Mark.

“Adam!” Mark called out.

“Yeah, Adam is going to totally make this less all better,” Helen said.

“It’s a yes or no fucking question,” Mark said angrily. “Do you know anyone at this party?”

“Yes,” Tim said. “I know people at this party.”

“Who do you know?” Helen asked him.

Tim pointed over at Lisa. “I know Lisa,” he said. “I know her husband, Corey. I know their two daughters Rebecca and Elizabeth.”

“Did they invite you?” Helen asked.

Adam pushed toward them. “What up?” he asked Mark. His mask was pushed up again.

“Put the fucking mask down!” Mark shouted at his friend.

Adam pulled the mask down. “I feel stupid in the mask,” he said.

“Good,” Mark told him. “You should.”

“Hey,” Helen said to Tim. “I asked you a question.”

“Who’s this?” Adam asked, looking at Tim.

“I’m Tim,” Tim replied.

“We don’t know who he is,” Mark told Adam.

Adam looked over at Mark. “He’s Tim. You’re not listening, dude.”

“Not exactly,” Tim said finally.

“Not exactly what?” Adam asked.

“You’re interrupting a conversation here, Adam,” Mark told him.

“You called me over here, dude,” Adam reminded Mark.

“How did you find out about our party, Tim?” Helen pressed Tim. “Did you just walk in here?”

Tim ate another chip with bean dip. “Facebook,” he said.

“Nope,” Helen said. “Nope you’re lying.”

“That was a lie,” Tim admitted. “Yeah.” He ate a chip. “I’m sorry.”

Corey walked over to join the group. “What the fuck is going on here?”

“This is Tim,” Adam told Corey.

“Shut the fuck up, Adam!” Mark growled.

“Sorry,” Adam said and looked down.

Helen pointed at Tim. “You really need to hurry up and explain some shit before I call the cops.”

“I know both of you,” Tim told Helen and Mark. “I’ve known you both for years.”

“Nah,” Mark replied.

Tim nodded. “I know that hadn’t completely broken up with Andrew before you went out with Mark for the first time,” he told Helen. “You didn’t break up with Andrew until after your fourth date with Mark.”

“Well, that’s bullshit,” Mark said.

Helen didn’t reply.

“And I know that you spent hours arguing with people on the internet about that celebrity photo leak and how awful and sexist and terrible it was and then that night you searched everywhere on the internet for leaked photos and downloaded them,” Tim told Mark. “And you keep arguing with people on the internet about it. You have those photos stored in a hidden folder on your computer.”

“Which ones did you get, dude?” Adam asked Mark. “We should compare.”

Mark stared at Tim. “What the fuck?”

“I know a lot about you,” Tim told them. “About all of you.”

“I think you need to find the curb, buddy,” Corey told Tim. He stepped closer and put his hand on Tim’s shoulder.

“I know you’re bisexual and you told Lisa and she said she was okay with it,” Tim said to Corey. “And I know she’s not okay with it. But she should be. They’re just fantasies, right, Corey?”

Corey stepped back. He was pale and quiet.

“Are you a stalker or something?” Helen asked Tim. “A computer hacker or…?”

Tim shook his head. “No,” he replied. He pulled the hood down. The make-up was really, really good. It was too good. There were cracks and seams in it in those cracks it looked like molten lava was glowing beneath. Tim had yellow eyes and yellow crooked teeth. His gums and his tongue were jet black. “This is pretty awkward,” he said and looked around. The whole party had gone quiet and everyone was staring at him.

“Are you the devil?” Adam asked. His voice sounded ridiculous coming through the crazy zombie killer mask.

“No,” Tim replied.

“That’s fucking crazy,” Mark said. “Obviously.”

“I’m just a devil,” Tim said. “A cog in the whole apparatus. Middle management.”

“Nope,” Helen said. “That’s a lie. You’re a liar. A crazy pants liar.”

Tim’s head burst into flames for a moment and then the flames disappeared. “I shouldn’t have stayed,” Tim said and shook his head. “I was just going to pop in, you know? Have a drink or and get some chips.” He grabbed and chip and dunked in the bean dip. “This is amazing bean dip. Seriously. Is there a recipe for this online somewhere?”

“Dude,” Adam said. “Your head was just on fire.”

“Who needs pot?” Remy asked the party.

Helen and Corey raised their hands.

“Are you here to kill us or drag us to hell or something?” Mark asked Tim.

“Is it because Corey thinks about dudes?” Adam asked.

“Fuck you, man,” Corey told Adam. “That’s private fucking information.” He fumed and shook his head and then looked up at everyone. “No, I’m not ashamed of it. It’s 2015. Gay marriage is legal. Sometimes I watch videos with guys. I’m bisexual. I still love my wife. I’m not ashamed of it. Fuck all of you guys.”

“Can I get some pot?” Lisa asked Remy.

Mark put up his fist for Corey to fist bump. Corey gave him the fist bump.

“I’m not here to punish anyone,” Tim said. “Come on. The devil doesn’t care about if you’re bisexual. We’re not in fucking Kentucky here.” He pointed at Mark. “But you shouldn’t download pirated comic books, Mark. Those creators barely make a living. That’s a little bit of a sin and it’s a real douche move.”

“…’kay,” Mark said and nodded uncomfortably.

Helen lit a joint and took a deep puff. She blew the smoke out and closed her eyes. “So, what exactly are you doing in my house?” she asked with her eyes still closed.

“I just wanted to hang out here for a little bit,” Tim said. He looked down at his feet. “I like Star Trek. I just rewatched Deep Space Nine. It’s a good show. We could talk about it, Mark. You know? We could just mingle. Have a couple beers and chill.”

“But you’re a devil,” Mark said.

“Yeah,” Tim said and shook his head. “This is why I don’t have any friends.” Tim looked down at his feet. “People judge me on appearance.”

Helen blinked her eyes open. “It’s a little bit more than appearance, Tim,” she said. “You’re a fallen angel or a demonic spirit or whatever the fuck a devil is. You eat souls and shit.”

“I don’t eat souls,” Tim said defensively. “That’s a fucked up stereotype. Some devils ate some souls in the middle ages and now we’re just all fucking soul eaters. I was a vegan for like nine or ten weeks over the summer. During barbecue season. I only eat ethical meat and organic produce. I’m not that different from the rest of you.” He make eye contact briefly with everyone at the party.

“You think you guys work with assholes?” Tim asked. “My coworkers are literally fucking demons. The guy in the desk next to me is a cloud of possessed flies. For lunch he takes rotten meat out of a plastic cooler. It’s disgusting.” Tim shook his head and gagged a little bit just thinking about it. “I can’t really meet normal people because they judge me and think I’m going to take them to hell. Try putting down on OKCupid that your day job is basically putting together spreadsheets and analyzing data for the Dark Lord and see how that works out.”

“Shit,” Adam said. “I mean, shit.”

“I don’t think I’m drunk enough for this right now,” Mark said. He quickly finished his beer. “Are there more Jello shots?”

“I took the last one,” Adam said.

“Fucker,” Mark told Adam.

“This raises a lot of questions,” Lisa said, handing Remy a wad of cash for a baggy of pot. “Does that mean God is real? Like the Judeo Christian man with a white beard God? Is there an afterlife? What about Jesus?”

“Fuck,” Remy said. He took a hit from a joint. “You guys throw an intense party.”

“I don’t know about God or the rest of it,” Tim told Lisa. “I just work in Hell. They don’t tell us everything. I don’t even know if there’s one Dark Lord. I think it’s a title. I think he’s just the CEO. The current Dark Lord is actually a guy from Texas with an MBA from Harvard. He’s not even a devil at all.”

“That… kind of makes sense,” Helen said and then chuckled.

“His name is Brad,” Tim told them. “The first thing he did was change the company insurance plan to a high deductible one. They say that it works out better if you get an HSA but I think that’s bullshit. I think they just don’t want to pay for better coverage.”

Helen continued to laugh. Lisa and Corey joined her.

“You’re all drug addicts,” Mark told them. “Tim is a devil, you guys. We need holy water and a fucking priest or something.”

“He seems okay,” Karen offered. She was sitting on the back of the couch next to Mandy.

Mandy nodded. “At least he’s not a Mormon or something.”

Mandy and Karen fist bumped.

“It’s okay,” Tim told Mark. “I can go. I don’t want to ruin your party. It’s just that there’s only one time a year I can hang out with people and they assume I’m just wearing a costume. And then we just chat and hangout without the whole devil thing getting in the way.”

“Don’t be an asshole, Mark,” Corey told him. “Let Tim stay.”

“How did I end up being the only person that’s uncomfortable with this?” Mark asked. He looked at the guests. He was hoping someone would chime in and say they were on his side. No one did. “Adam?” he looked over at Adam.

“Come on, dude,” Adam said. “It’s Halloween. Let the devil chill with us.”

Tim looked at Mark sheepishly.

“Wow,” Mark said. He shook his head. “Okay, whatever. You can stay.”

“Thanks, Mark!” Tim said. “Can I get you a beer?”

“Yeah,” Mark told him. “You better do that.”

Tim patted Mark on the shoulder and headed toward the kitchen.

“Hey!” Adam said excitedly. “I just realized something.”

Mark looked over at him.

“Tim isn’t wearing a fucking costume either!” Adam shouted. “Where’s that fucking box! You’re getting a mask dude!”

Mark looked at his wife. Helen just shrugged. “We wanted to have a crazy Halloween party in our 30s,” she told him. “This is just what happens now.”

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Short Fiction Repost

Here are links to short stories that have appeared on my site in recent months with helpful blurbs about them. I would love it if you read one or more of them and commented here!

 

Orlando is a darkly comic, cynical story about the last exit off an expressway into a life you don’t recognize.

They landed at Orlando International Airport as ravenous conquerors eager for their tribute like ancient barbarians after sacking Rome.  They came victorious, half-drunk on airline miniatures, armed with smart phones and armored in casual khakis and pastel knit polo shirts.

 

Resolutions is a story about loneliness, self-loathing and the terrible moments we share with the bathroom scale.

In the kitchen, Marshall hung a dry erase board on the refrigerator.  It had a calendar you could write the days and months in and a section at the top for notes and things.  He filled in the calendar.  January 1.

At the top, he wrote “Resolutions: lose fifty pounds.  Date more.  Don’t die alone.”

 

The Doorman is a story about New York City, bubblegum wedding rings and finding self respect and confidence in the aftermath of rejection.

Melody was first married at age nine in the Cincinnati airport. Her father smoked cigarettes and read the New York Times in the lounge, missing her vows then as he would again fifteen years later. Her husband, Tyler, was older (ten and a half) and traveling through to Miami with his grandmother. He made a ring for her out of bubble gum and they kissed on the lips with their eyes closed.

 

The New Kid is a story about telling lies, growing up and comic books in rural Southern Oregon in the early 1990s.

He woke up in his bedroom and could hear them arguing. He stayed in bed, perfectly still, trying to breathe quietly so they wouldn’t know and when his mom came to check on him, he pretended he was still asleep. She walked close to him and lingered for a moment without saying a word or doing anything until she finally turned around and left, closing the door behind her.

 

The New Kid

Ryan Wallace moved in to the house on Pine Grove during Christmas break. Zack watched the moving trucks head up the gravel driveway followed by an old Jeep from the living room window.

“Someone’s moving in,” he said and his dad nodded.

“They built a new house up there,” Zack’s dad told him. He looked up from the newspaper. “I saw a wooden jungle gym,” he said. “They’ve got kids. Maybe your age.”

Zack stood up and walked to the kitchen so he could keep watched the moving trucks. “They’ll probably be in school,” he said.

“Probably,” his dad agreed.

They didn’t drive down to Santa Rosa that year for Christmas like they usually did. Zack’s mom had to work at the hospital. His dad let him stay up late watching Star Wars video tapes until Zack fell asleep on the floor halfway through The Empire Strikes Back.

He woke up in his bedroom and could hear them arguing. He stayed in bed, perfectly still, trying to breathe quietly so they wouldn’t know and when his mom came to check on him, he pretended he was still asleep. She walked close to him and lingered for a moment without saying a word or doing anything until she finally turned around and left, closing the door behind her.

Zack saw Ryan for the first time riding his bike back and forth down the gravel driveway while Zack was walking through the yard looking for lost GI Joes. Zack eyed him skeptically and then crouched down, picking through a half-frozen mud clod. Ryan was wearing a new coat and big waterproof boots. He had short dark hair and a scar on his chin. They were about the same age.

Ryan rode his bike a little way out of the driveway and then back and repeated it again, getting closer and closer to Zack’s side of the street. Zack kicked at a tuft of grass and kept moving through the yard, pretending for some reason he hadn’t really noticed his new neighbor.

Ryan finally rode his bike over and stopped at the fence around Zack’s house. “What are you looking for?” He asked.

“Nothing,” Zack told him and then looked up at Ryan. “GI Joe men,” he amended.

“Oh,” Ryan said. “I have some. At my house.”

“I’m looking for mine,” Zack explained.

Ryan nodded and circled his bike around in the road in front of Zack’s house. Zack picked up a rock and threw it to the side. He frowned and wiped his hands off on his jeans.

“What’s your name?” Zack finally asked.

“Ryan. You?”

“Zack.”

Ryan nodded. He stood up on the pedals of his bike and tried to balance on the wheels, motionless. His feet slipped finally and he dropped his feet to the asphalt to catch himself.

“Do you go to school?” Zack asked Ryan.

“I will,” Ryan said.

“What grade?”

“4th,” Ryan said.

“Me too,” Zack said. “Do you know which teacher you have?”

“Uh uh.”

“Abromitis is better” Zack told him. “Darling is okay but Miss Abro is in the basement by the library and cafeteria.”

“Okay,” Ryan said.

Zack looked at Ryan’s bike. It still had stickers on it from the store. “Did you get it for Christmas?” He asked.

“No,” Ryan said and then shrugged. “Well, I guess so. I got it because we moved. It wasn’t wrapped or anything.”

Across the street, Ryan’s Mom, a thin woman with short hair came out of the front door. “Ryan!” She called out when she didn’t seem to see him.

“I’m not supposed to leave the driveway,” Ryan told Zack.

“Oh,” Zack said.

Ryan hesitated, then got up on his pedals and rode back to the driveway toward the house.

Zack jammed his hands in his pockets to warm them up and then tromped back inside.

A few days before school was going to start up again, Zack’s mom woke him up early in the morning. “Get dressed,” she told him.

It was still dark and it was barely six in the morning. “It’s early,” he said.

“Come on,” she said. “You can have a Pop-Tart in the car.”

Zack got dressed quickly and walked out into the living room. His dad was sitting on the couch smoking a cigarette. He looked tired, like he hadn’t slept in a few days.

“Put on your coat and gloves,” Zack’s mom told him. “We’re going to go see the caves.”

Zack took his coat and gloves from the hook. His Mom already had her jacket on. “Is Dad coming?” Zack asked.

“Just you and me, kiddo,” his mom said and offered a weary smile.

They went out to the car and got in. Zack’s mom gave him a Pop-Tart, hot and wrapped in a paper towel. The car started up and backed out the gravel driveway onto Pine Grove. They headed up the hill and turned left on West Evans.

“How come we’re going to caves?” Zack asked.

“I have the day off,” Zack’s mom said. “And you’ve been talking about going for months. You’re going back to school soon. Don’t you want to go?”

Zack shrugged. “How come Dad isn’t coming?”

“He’s not feeling well, sweetheart,” his mom told him.

“Can I turn on the radio?” Zack asked.

She nodded.

Zack turned it on and moved through the dial until he found a station that was still playing Christmas music. It was full of static and the signal got worse as they went through the curves but it got stronger the closer to town they got.

They drove out to Cave Junction without talking much. They stopped at a market just inside the city and Zack got a 7-Up from a clerk that looked surprised to see them.

When they got to the Oregon Caves, the parking lot was empty and it was barely daylight.

“I don’t think it’s open, Mom,” Zack said.

“We just beat the rush,” his mom told him.

They got out of the car and walked up to the visitor’s station.

“It says cave tours are closed for winter,” Zack told her.

“There are hiking trails,” his mom said. “Come on.”

There was snow on the ground and in the trees. It was quiet and Zack could see his breath hanging in the air. He had to rush to keep up with his mom.

They hiked through the snow along a trail he could barely see for what could have been hours. Zack’s Mom finally stopped in the trail and looked around.

“It’s beautiful,” she said.

“I guess,” Zack told her. He looked out at the trees and empty snowy forest. It just seemed lonely.

They went a little further on the trail and then turned around and headed back to the car. The parking lot was still empty.

“Are you hungry?” Zack’s mom asked him.

“Yeah,” Zack said.

They drove forty-five minutes to the city and to a Denny’s. Zack ordered a cheeseburger and hot chocolate. While they waited for the food, Zack’s mom told him that his dad was moving out.

“You’ll see him all the time,” Zack’s mom assured him.

“Are you getting a divorce?” Zack asked her.

“No, honey,” she said. “No. I don’t think so.”

On the ride back home, Zack didn’t turn on the radio.

“I heard that you met the boy across the street,” Zack’s mom said on the freeway.

“What do you mean?” Zack asked her.

“Ryan,” Zack’s mom said. “I met his mom, Jill.”

“Oh,” Zack said. “Yeah, I met him I guess.”

“He’s your age, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Jill is going to help us sometimes,” Zack’s mom told him. “When I have to work late. You’ll stay over there.”

“He’s weird,” Zack said.

“Ryan? Why would you say he’s weird?””

Zack shrugged. “He just is.”

“You’re neighbors, Zack.”

“So?” Zack asked.

“So, don’t call him weird.”

Zack looked out the window. He wondered what his dad’s apartment would look like. “I could stay with Dad instead,” Zack suggested. “When you have to work.”

“Sometimes,” his mom said.

“What did he do wrong?” Zack asked.

“What?” His mom looked over at him.

“Nothing,” Zack told her.

Ryan was waiting on the street the first day of school for the bus already when Zack came out. Zack walked over to Ryan with his head down.

“You’re early,” Zack told Ryan. “The bus doesn’t get here until 7:20.”

“I know,” Ryan said. “My mom didn’t want me to miss it.”

Zack looked at Ryan’s new backpack and clothes like it was the first day of fall. “Did you go to school before?”

“Yeah,” Ryan said.

The bus came down the hill slowly toward them.

“Don’t sit next to me on the bus,” Zack said.

“Why?”

“Because you’re weird,” Zack told him.

“Okay,” Ryan said.

The bus stopped and the doors opened with a hiss.

“See?” Zack said and shook his head. He got onto the bus first and walked to the first empty seat and immediately looked out the window.

Ryan followed onto the bus but sat in a seat across the aisle. That early, there were only a handful of other kids on the bus. They wouldn’t get to school for a half hour.

Bailey Tripp got in when the bus turned onto Minthorne and sat down next to Zack right away.

“I got new comics from my brother,” Bailey said with a smile. “X-Men and Punisher.” Bailey took off his black hand-me-down backpack with only one strap held on with Sharpee colored duct tape. Behind his math book and lunch box, Bailey pulled out a stack of comic books. “Check it out,” Bailey said. “Which one do you want to read?”

“X-Men,” Zack told him.

“You can read Punisher,” Bailey said and handed Zack Punisher: War Journal.

“I have that X-Men,” Ryan said from across the aisle. “I have a subscription to a lot of them actually.”

Bailey looked up from his comic at Ryan and then over at Zack questioningly.

“I just moved here,” Ryan said, answering the unasked question.

“Bring your comics tomorrow,” Bailey told him.

“Okay,” Ryan agreed.

Bailey looked over at Zack and shrugged. Zack pretended he hadn’t noticed any of it.

“Be careful!” Bailey told Zack as he turned the pages of the comic. “You’ll crease it and Todd will murder me.”

Ryan was in Miss Abromitis’s class. He was assigned the empty desk at the front of the class. When Miss Abro introduced him, Ryan told everyone he was from Montana.

“What do your parents do?” Bailey asked Ryan at recess while Zack punched the tether ball.

“My mom does taxes,” Ryan said. “Things like that.”

“What about your dad?”

“He’s in the Army,” Ryan said. “Not here. He’s in Japan.”

“That’s awesome,” Bailey said.

Zack was called to the office for a phone call during math that afternoon. It was his mom on the phone.

“I have to stay late at the hospital tonight, honey,” she told Zack. “I won’t be home until late.”

“How late?”

“Past your bedtime. I talked to Mrs. Wallace. You can have dinner over there and stay until I get home.”

“What about Dad?”

“We talked about this.”

“Did you even call him?”

“I need to go, Zack.”

“Fine,’’ Zack told her and hung up the phone.

He hardly spoke to anyone the rest of the afternoon. They were working in their fraction workbooks but Zack didn’t make any progress. He looked out the windows and wondered if it would snow. If it snowed real bad school would be canceled and maybe the roads would be too bad for his mom to make it to the hospital.

On the bus ride home that day Ryan showed Bailey and Corey Appleton his Timex while Zack read through Bailey’s brother’s X-Men. It had a space invaders game and he could set six alarms.

“What do you need six alarms for?” Corey asked.

“Lunch and stuff,” Bailey suggested.

“The school bells ring for lunch though.”

“Shut up, Corey,” Bailey told him.

In the comic Wolverine was running from these cyborgs in the Australian Outback. Jim Lee did the cover with Lady Deathstrike and cyborg wolves. Jim Lee was Zack’s all-time favorite.

“Bring your comics tomorrow!” Bailey told Ryan as he got off the bus.

“I will!” Ryan told him.

In the last few stops before they were home, Ryan came over and sat next to Zack.

“I have lots of comics,” Ryan told Zack. “I have GI Joe comics. Have you read the GI Joe ones?”

“Yeah,” Zack lied. He looked over at Ryan and glared. “I told you not to sit next to me.”

“Sorry,” Ryan said and moved to the other seat.

At their stop, Ryan’s mom was waiting for them. Ryan got up and went for the door with Zack staying back, reluctant.

“Are you coming?” Ryan asked.

“Yeah,” Zack said and got up and followed.

Ryan’s mom was younger than Zack’s or at least she looked young. She was thin and blonde and looked nothing like Ryan at all. She was pacing around at the stop when they got off the bus.

“It’s cold!” She said. “Let’s go!”

Ryan turned and looked back at Zack.

“Zack is having dinner with us tonight,” Ryan’s mom said. “Your mom called you, right? She said she was going to call.”

“She called, Mrs. Wallace,” Zack told her. The bus rumbled past behind them.

“Call me, Jill,” she said. “Do you need to stop by your house?”

“No,” Zack said. “I’m okay.”

Jill looked from Zack to Ryan. “Ryan has a Nintendo,” she said. “Did he tell you?”

“No,” Zack said.

“I have loads of games,” Ryan said.

“Do you have Contra?” Zack asked.

“I don’t think so,” Ryan told him.

Zack shrugged.

“Alright boys, I’m turning into an icicle,” Jill said. “Ondelay!”

They rushed across the street and to the driveway to Ryan’s house. Like all the houses on the road, this one was set back from the road quite a bit and mostly concealed from view by trees. Most people out here wanted privacy. Zack had noticed trucks when they were building it but hadn’t really paid much attention to it.

“There was another house here,” Zack told Ryan when they got to the front door. “Before.”

Ryan’s house looked like Ryan’s jacket; new and hardly worn. Zack imagined he could still smell the paint, a vibrant bluish gray that stood out in the washed out January day.

“No shoes on the new carpet!” Jill said and kicked off her shoes and rushed over to a heating vent. She danced in place and rubbed her hands together to warm up. She laughed at Zack and Ryan. “Aren’t your freezing?”

“Not really,” Zack said. “Isn’t it colder in Montana?”

Jill shrugged. “Probably,” she said. “An hour of Nintendo and then homework and dinner, okay?”

“Okay,” Ryan said. “Nintendo’s in my room,” he told Zack and led him through the house.

Ryan’s room was big and covered in different posters. Star Wars and dirt bikes and jet fighters.

“That one’s the SR-71,” Ryan said, pointing to one of the posters.

Ryan had bunk beds and two bean bag chairs. He walked over to a chest and opened it. It was full of GI Joes and vehicles. Some of the figures were still in the packaging. “Do you want to open one of them?” He asked.

“No,” Zack told him.

“Do you want to read comics?”

Zack ignored the question. “What games do you have?”

Ryan opened up a little cabinet beneath a TV in the corner of his room. There were a dozen games stacked on a shelf in their black plastic sleeves. “Mario is pretty good,” Ryan said. “”Do you want to play?”

“Okay,” Zack agreed.

They sat cross-legged in front of the television playing alternating games without talking to each other. Jill came in with two plates that had celery and peanut butter and sliced up apples.

“Thanks, Mrs. Wallace,” Zack said.

“Please call me, Jill, Zack,” she insisted.

“Sorry.”

“Do you like teriyaki?” She asked. “For dinner.”

“I don’t know what that is,” Zack told her.

“It’s really good,” Ryan said.

“I’ll try it,” Zack said.

“I think you’ll like it.” Jill grinned. “There’s pineapple.”

Zack nodded and Jill left the bedroom.

“Why do you think I’m weird?” Ryan asked Zack.

“Because you are,” Zack told him.

“No one else says so.”

Zack shrugged. “I guess they don’t notice.”

Before dinner another car pulled up to the house.

“Angela,” Ryan said simply.

Jill called them to the table.

Angela wore a heavy work jacket, muddy boots and glasses. She had long dark hair pulled back into a ponytail. She was much taller than Jill and almost twice her size. She was at the table when Ryan and Zack sat down.

“Zack, this is Ryan’s aunt Angela,” Jill introduced him and then turned to Angela. “Zack is the boy across the street I told you about.”

“Oh yeah,” Angela said. “Your mom is a nurse at the hospital in Medford, right?”

“Yeah,” Zack said.

“She’s working a little late tonight so I invited Zack to join us,” Jill explained.

“Are you two in the same class?” Angela asked.

“Yeah,” Ryan said.

“Well, that’s pretty cool,” Angela said. She took a bite of chicken and focused on Ryan. “How was your first day?”

“It was okay,” Zack said.

“Any crushes yet?” Angela asked and winked at him.

“No,” Ryan said and blushed. Zack smiled.

Zack ate politely and watched Jill. She had a glass of wine in a long stemmed glass with dinner and she kept smiling at Ryan for no reason.

“Can you do dishes, Zack?” Angela asked when dinner was finished.

“Yes,” Zack said.

“Clear the table, Ryan,” Angela told Ryan and motioned for Zack to come with her. “Zack will help me fill the dishwasher.”

Zack passed dirty dishes to Angela and she quickly scrubbed them and handed them back to Zack to load into the dishwasher.

“We’ve got a pretty good system,” Angela said after a few dishes.

“I guess so,” Zack replied.

“Are you from here? Originally?” Angela asked him.

Zack wasn’t used to adults talking to him like he was a grownup. It felt strange. “Um, I was born in California.”

“What part?”

“Placerville.”

“I’ve been there,” Angela said. “I grew up in Hawaii though. Have you ever been there?”

“No.”

“It’s pretty,” she said. “Beaches and palm trees. I moved there with my Mom after she split with my dad.”

Zack felt suddenly sick. She knew. Did everyone know? Did Ryan?

“It was tough,” Angela said. She looked down at Zack. His cheeks felt hot and numb. “Do you know what I mean?”

“No,” Zack said.

Ryan came in with a load of dishes and put them on the counter.

“Is that all of them?” Angela asked.

“Yep,” Ryan said.

“Okay,” Angela said. “I’ve got the rest of this.”

Zack dried his hands quickly on a towel and moved to leave the kitchen.

“Hey, Zack,” Angela said before he was out of the kitchen. “It’s good for Ryan to have friends over. You’re welcome here. Any time.”

Zack didn’t reply. He rushed after Ryan back to the bedroom.

“Did you two have any homework?” Jill asked after they’d played a few more silent rounds of Mario.

“No,” Zack said.

“A little,” Ryan told her.

“Finish up your game and then homework, okay?” Jill said.

“I have to use the bathroom,” Zack said and abruptly paused his game. He got up and went briskly past Jill and into the hall. He went into the bathroom and closed the door. He sat on the edge of the bathtub and watched a digital clock change numbers for a little while and then turned on the faucet and washed his hands.

Zack joined Ryan in doing homework after he came back from the bathroom.

“I picked out some of Ryan’s sweats and a shirt that should fit you, Zack,” Jill told him.

“Why?” Zack asked her.

“For when you go to bed.”

“I can wait for my mom,” Zack told her.

“I don’t think so,” Jill said. “The bed’s made up. When your mom comes by, we’ll wake you up.”’

“I won’t be able to sleep,” Zack insisted.

“Well, you can lie there and count sheep then,” Jill suggested.

“Fine,” Zack said, angrily.

After homework they read comics for a while and then Jill came through to tell them it was time for bed. Zack got changed in the bathroom and then came back and got into the top bunk.

“Good night, boys,” Jill told them. “I love you, Ryan.”

“I love you too,” Ryan said.

Jill turned the light out and left.

“Is your dad really in Japan?” Zack asked Ryan after Jill was gone.

“Yes,” Ryan said.

“You’re a liar,” Zack told him.

“Where’s your dad?” Ryan asked.

Angela came by and opened the door a crack to look in on them. “Goodnight,” Angela said. “We’ll come by and check that you’re not reading comics under the covers.”

“You’ll wake me when my mom gets here?” Zack asked.

“Yeah,” Angela said. “It will be a few more hours. Get some rest.”

Zack didn’t close his eyes. He stared at Ryan’s ceiling. He didn’t talk any more. He was awake when his mom got to the house and her headlights shone through Ryan’s windows. Zack was out of bed and dressed before she came to get him.

“Come on, kiddo,” Zack’s mom said and led him out of the bedroom to the front door. Angela and Jill were in the living room smiling. “You’re a lifesaver, Jill,” Zack’s mom told them.

“Not a problem, Mary,” Jill said. “Any time you need, just call me, okay?”

“Two boys aren’t much different than one,” Angela said. “They keep each other occupied at least.”

“Thank you so much,” Zack’s mom said. “Tell Ryan thank you too.”

“We will,” Jill said.

“See you around,” Angela told Zack.

Zack went out the front door to his mom’s car. He got in quickly. His mom followed.

“That was really rude, Zack,” his mom told him. “You should say goodnight at least.”

“Why?” Zack asked.

“Because I said you should.”

“Whatever.”

Zack’s mom started the car and drove down the driveway to their house. She parked. “I need your help right now, Zack. Can you help me?”

“I don’t want to go back over there,” Zack said.

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t like Ryan and I don’t like his house and I don’t like his mom.”

Zack’s mom shook her head. “Get in and go right to bed.”

Zack got out of the car and stormed inside. He got undressed and got right into bed. When his mom came to check on him, he rolled so he was facing away from the door.

Ryan brought his comics for Bailey and the next day he brought GI Joes. He swapped Nintendo games with Brett White. He never sat next to Zack again.

Zack went to the movies with his dad the second weekend after school started. They got ice cream afterward.

“You need to listen to your mom, Zack,” his dad told him.

“I do listen.”

“Don’t argue with me,” his dad told him.

Angela came to the school and talked to the kids during an assembly. She was in the Forest Service and talked about fighting fires and maintaining hiking trails. She said she gets to drive big off-road trucks that are like tanks.

“Your aunt is awesome,” Bailey told Ryan on the bus.

“I know,” Ryan agreed.

The same week that some of Bailey’s comics disappeared Ryan was sent to the principal’s office for fighting with Seth Blakesly and Danny Hansen. Ryan watched the whole thing from the tether ball court. Seth and Danny walked up to Ryan and Bailey at the picnic table where they were reading comics and said something to Ryan and Ryan stood up and socked Seth in the nose. Seth’s nose split and bled all over. Bailey protected the comics and the recess monitors ran over to break it up. Zack punched the tether ball over and over again until it wrapped around the poll.

Zack saw Jill’s Jeep pull up when she picked up Ryan. Ryan was crying as he walked out from the school.

On the bus trip home Zack sat next to Bailey. “What happened with Ryan and Seth?” He asked.

“Seth deserved it,” Bailey said. “He was talking about Ryan’s mom. He’s a jerk. I wish I hit him too.”

“What did he say?”

“Have you seen the New Mutants?” Bailey said, shuffling through his comics. “I can’t find it.”

“No,” Zack told him.

“Todd’s gonna kill me,” Bailey said.

That night at dinner Zack looked across the dinner table that seemed far too big at his mom. “Ryan got sent home for fighting today,” he told her.

“What happened?” Zack’s mom asked.

Zack shrugged. “He just hit Seth Blakesly. Gave him a bloody nose and everything. He was sent home.”

Zack’s mom didn’t seem to react to the news.

“So, I probably shouldn’t go over there for a while,” Zack suggested.

“Finish your dinner,” his mom told him. She was angry but Zack didn’t understand why. He shook his head and looked down at his plate.

“I’m not hungry,” Zack said.

“Finish what’s on your plate or go right to bed, Zack.”

Zack dropped his silverware onto the plate. “Ok,” he said and got up and walked to his bedroom.

“Lights out, Zack!” His mom called after him.

“I’ll turn them out!” Zack yelled back at her and dropped onto the bed. He clicked the light off and lied there, stubbornly with his arms crossed until he finally fell asleep.

Ryan wasn’t back at school the next day and Bailey was even more frantic about the New Mutants. “There’s a Fantastic Four I can’t find either,” Bailey told Zack on the bus. “Todd is super pissed.”

“Maybe Ryan took them home by accident,” Zack suggested.

“I called his house,” Bailey said. “He’s grounded and out of school for the rest of the week. Seth’s nose is fractured.”

During recess that day, Ryan was the most popular topic. Bailey wouldn’t tell anyone what Seth had said that made Ryan lose it. He just said that Seth was a jerk.

By the end of that day other kids noticed that they were missing things. Megan Rose was missing a pair of scissors and Andrew Dubner couldn’t find his favorite mechanical pencil. By the time they were lined up for buses to take them home the idea had taken hold: someone was stealing things. Danny was the first to suggest it was Ryan.

“Get out of here,” Bailey told him. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Think about it, genius,” Danny said. “Things just start to disappear when Ryan shows up? Come on.”

Bailey punched Danny in the shoulder. “It’s not Ryan,” he said but he didn’t sound convinced.

The next day on the way to school in the morning Bailey looked concerned. “I talked to Ryan last night.”

“Does he have the comics?” Zack asked him.

“He said he doesn’t. He said he checked.”

“So it’s the thief,” Zack said.

“What am I supposed to tell Todd?” Bailey asked. “He’ll seriously freak out.”

“I don’t know,” Zack said. “Maybe he won’t notice?”

“He’s already noticed.”

“Can you get new ones?”

Bailey shook his head. “Maybe if I got to a comic book store but the closest one is Medford. I can’t get there and get the comics before Todd finds out I lost them.”

“Do you think it’s Ryan?” Zack asked.

Bailey shook his head again but exhaled and didn’t seem certain at all. “Maybe,” he said. “I mean. Do you think it’s possible?”

“He’s the only new kid at school,” Zack offered. “Who else would it be?”

By lunchtime Bailey and the others talked to Miss Abromitis about the things that were missing and told them they thought it was Ryan. After lunch she made all of the students clean out their desks to make sure things were really missing (or weren’t in some other kid’s desk). Nothing turned up. Miss Abro went upstairs to the principal’s office that afternoon and the librarian, Mrs. James, watched the class while they worked on their fraction workbooks.

On the bus home Bailey told Zack what Seth had called Ryan’s mom. “He called her a fucking lezzie,” Bailey said in a whisper. “Seth says his older sister saw her.”

“That’s not true,” Zack said.

“That’s what Seth’s sister said,” Bailey said and shrugged. “I thought you hated Ryan.”

“I don’t hate him,” Zack insisted.

“Seemed like you do,” Bailey said. “Mr. Blue said he’s coming in tomorrow with his lezzie moms.”

“Don’t say that,” Zack told Bailey.

“He’s a thief, Zack.”

Zack got home that day and his mom was still at work. The car was gone and there was a note on the table. “Microwave burritos for dinner,” it said, “in bed by 9.” Zack crumpled up the note and tossed it into the trash. He went to the kitchen window and looked out at Ryan’s house. He started crying but then he wiped his eyes with the heels of his hands.

Zack put his coat back on and went across the street to Ryan’s house and knocked on the door. Jill answered and she looked thinner than before. She looked like Zack remembered his dad the morning before they went to the caves.

“Hi, Zack,” Jill said. “Ryan’s grounded. He can’t play.”

“My mom is working late,” Zack told her. “Could I come over for dinner?”

Jill bit her lower lip. “I don’t think so, Zack.”

“I didn’t tell anybody anything at school,” Zack told her.

Jill smiled weakly. “Do you want me to get Ryan for a few minutes?”

“No,” Zack said. “That’s okay.”

Jill smiled again. “You should get home before dark.”

Zack nodded and turned around. He was a few steps away before he turned back to Jill. “It wasn’t his fault,” Zack said. “The fight,” he explained. “Seth started it.”

Jill nodded.

Zack walked back toward the house. “Actually, could you give something to Ryan for me?” He asked her.

“Okay,” Jill said.

Zack reached into his coat pocket and took out Ryan’s watch. “He left this at school,” Zack told her.

Jill smiled and took it. “He’s been looking for it.”

“I thought he might be,” Zack said.

“Take care, Zack,” Jill told him.

Zack nodded. He ran home.

The next day Angela and Jill came to the school. Ryan wasn’t with them. Miss Abro cleared all of the last things from Ryan’s desk.

“Where’s Ryan going?” Zack asked.

“I don’t know,” Miss Abromitis said.

“He didn’t do it,” Zack said. “He didn’t steal anything.”

“His mom decided to take him out of school, Zack.”’

“But he didn’t do anything,” Zack insisted. His eyes filled with tears. “He didn’t do anything wrong. It’s not his fault. Seth’s sister is full of shit!”

“Zachary,” Miss Abro said sternly, her face flush with surprise. “Up the stairs to the office. Now.”

Zack wiped his eyes. “Fine,” he said and stomped out of the classroom. He went up the steps and right into the office. Mrs. Finch was on the phone when he walked in. He knew it was Miss Abro telling her what he said. Mrs. Finch pointed to the bench in the office. “Sit,” she told Zack and finished the call. “Mr. Blue will see you when he’s done, Zack,” she said.

Zack felt like throwing up. He felt like screaming. He cried and couldn’t stop it or wipe it away. He was angry and sad and he felt it shaking loose inside of him. He thought about the snow and trees by the Oregon Caves. How lonely it felt. He thought about his dad that morning. He thought about Ryan on his stupid bike and Bailey’s stupid comics and Jill dancing around above the heating vent, trying to get warm.

The door to Mr. Blue’s office finally opened and Jill and Angela came out. Zack stood up when he saw them. Jill had been crying. She wouldn’t look at anyone. Angela held her hand and looked right at Zack and through everything.

“I’m sorry,” he told her.

Angela nodded but didn’t say anything.

Zack watched Jill and Angela leave the office and cried. He dropped his head into his hands and cried. He didn’t say anything to Mr. Blue or Mrs. Finch. He didn’t say anything when they called his mother and when she had to leave work and drive home to get him. He didn’t say anything in the car.

When they got home Zack out of the car and walked toward the house but he stalled in the yard, halfway there. He looked over at his mom. She walked toward him and without saying a thing, wrapped her arms around him and hugged him. Zack closed his eyes and squeezed as tight as he could, balling his hands into fists clutching her winter coat while hot tears streamed down his cheeks.

The Doorman

             Melody was first married at age nine in the Cincinnati airport. Her father smoked cigarettes and read the New York Times in the lounge, missing her vows then as he would again fifteen years later. Her husband, Tyler, was older (ten and a half) and traveling through to Miami with his grandmother. He made a ring for her out of bubble gum and they kissed on the lips with their eyes closed.

            “What kind of house are you going to buy me?” Melody asked Tyler.

“What do you mean?”

Melody poked him just above the collar. “I’m your wife now,” she said. “You have to buy me a house.”

“Oh,” Tyler said and cast his gaze outward the departing planes for a moment and then back to her. “I don’t have any money,” he confessed.

Melody shrugged her shoulders. “It’s alright,” she said. “I guess you don’t have to.”

The marriage lasted just under three hours before Tyler’s grandmother came to tell him their flight was boarding.

“I’ll write you,” he said as she handed him back her address written in neat print on the envelope for his ticket just below his stapled baggage check receipt.

Melody watched his plane taxi down the runway, pick up speed and then fly away. She kept the bubblegum ring on her finger for another half hour before her father threw it in the trash and told her to wash her hands. Tyler never wrote her and she was always, even into adulthood, secretly disappointed.

 

* * *

 

In a reflection off the window in the subway Melody saw a smudge of cake flour in her hair. She frowned and spent the rest of the trip trying to get it out and then repositioning her blandly colored curls into something satisfactory. She strained to see herself clearly in the scratched and dirty window glass or in the metal pole that she held onto. She yawned and her head fell forward dramatically in surrender when the train reached her stop.

It was a cold Manhattan afternoon. The air was dry with a sharp winter wind that turned her ears and cheeks bright red. The sun was in a holding pattern above the dispersed gray clouds. A few minutes outside of the subway Melody’s cell phone chirped with a text message.

“on the train – c u soon,” it read.

Melody walked quickly to her building and once in the lobby directly to her mail box. She took out a stack of envelopes and glossy advertisements. She went through them all mechanically while walking toward the elevators.

“Good afternoon, ma’am,” the man behind the front desk told her as she passed. It was an unfamiliar voice. Melody looked up from her mail and stopped to see him. He was young, probably just under thirty or just over with clean cut dark hair and an easy smile. He wore a suit that seemed a size too big for him and his sideburns were cut just barely unevenly so that she doubted he’d ever notice.

“Afternoon,” she said and then continued to the elevators. She hit the button and waited, watching the numbers slowly count down from thirty-four. “You’re new aren’t you?” Melody asked the man at the desk.

“Yes,” he said. “This is my first week.”

“What happened to Alfonse?”

“I heard he moved to Jersey to work with his brother. I’m Ray.”

“Melody,” she told him.

“Nice to meet you, Melody.”

The elevator doors opened up. “You can call me, Mel.”

Ray smiled at her. “Okay. Nice to meet you, Mel.”

Melody waved, feeling that she needed to do something. When the elevator doors closed she could see a smudge of white on her cheek looking back at her from the brass surface. Melody wiped her cheek with the heel of her palm. “Great,” she said.

Back at her apartment, Melody took her recyclables to the trash room and changed the sheets on Jackie’s bed. She considered making something marinated with side dishes for dinner but then gave up on the idea. She put a stack of take out menus on the dining room table and sat down on her sofa. It was new. Jackie hadn’t seen it yet.

Melody drifted off to sleep without wanting to and dreamt that she slept for a hundred years. In the dream, when she woke her hair was a mile long and her finger nails were twice as long as her arms. Her hair was so heavy she couldn’t lift her head and as she tried to use her hands to lift her chin the nails cut scratches into the walls.

Another chirp from her cell phone roused her.

“pulling n 2 grand central.”

It was dark in her living room. Melody turned the lights on and took a half empty cup of coffee out from her refrigerator. She drank it quickly, cold and leaned, half up on the counter. Her cell phone rang and Mel looked down at the caller ID. Whitney.

“Hi, Whit,” Melody answered.

“How are you doing, Mel?” Whitney asked her but didn’t wait for a response. “Is Jackie there yet?”

“Just pulled into Grand Central.”

“Okay then.” Whitney paused awkwardly. “She’s gotten terrible about calling, you know? I just worry too much, I suppose.”

“Do you want me to have her call you?”

“No, no,” Whitney said. “I don’t want her to know I’m checking up on her.”

“Okay,” Melody said.

“You two have fun!”

“We will.”

“Any special plans?”

Melody looked over the take out menus. “I thought we’d do the displays at Macys.”

“Those are getting so complicated.”

“Yeah.”

“Okay, gotta run.”

“Bye.”

Melody ended the call. Whitney was Stuart’s new wife. No, she corrected herself. She wasn’t new any longer. They’d been married three years. Jackie told her just before she left for school that she’d accidentally slipped and called Whit “Mom.”

“I’m sorry,” Jackie told her.

“It’s okay,” Mel said. “You can call her that if you want.”

They shared custody and they got along very well. Everyone said that they got along very well. Melody even baked the cake for Stuart and Whit’s reception. Jackie was the flower girl, at a blushing twelve and Melody stood along with everyone when Whitney walked down the aisle.

Melody and Stuart never fought. The marriage didn’t end in fighting. She had imagined to herself that he was having an affair for years and at first the thought of it was terrifying but she became accustomed to it. When he told finally told her about Whitney, she saw that he was in his face and eyes before he said it out loud. She held his hands.

“It’s okay,” she said. “Whatever it is, it’s okay.”

            “I’m having an affair,” he told her.

Melody nodded. She smiled at him with reassurance. “I forgive you.”

Stuart turned away from her and pulled his hands free. His eyes got wet with tears. “I love her, Melody. I… I don’t love you anymore.”

Mel didn’t say a word. She didn’t move. In her silence Stuart packed his suitcase and left. They were divorced six weeks later and he got engaged to Whitney on their Jackie’s birthday.

Melody’s cell phone chirped. “im here.”

Mel crushed her coffee cup and tossed it into the trash. She scooped up her keys and headed out.

Jackie was just coming into the lobby when Mel’s elevator opened up. Ray was helping her with her bags.

“It has wheels,” Jackie told him like it was an original concept that he should know about.

“Hi there, kiddo,” Melody said and headed to intercept.

“Hey Mom!”

“Have you got everything?” Mel asked Ray.

“Sure thing,” he said and took the bags toward the elevators.

Jackie gave her mother a quick hug and kiss on the cheek. “I hafta call Isaac super quick, kay?”

“Home for the holidays?” Ray asked Melody as they waited for the elevator.

“Yeah. She goes away to school in Connecticut.”

“Isaac, I’m at my Mom’s. Call me,” Jackie said on the phone and then looked back at Mel with a frown. “Voicemail.”

“He’ll call you back,” Melody told her and kissed her on the forehead.

“Mom!”

“Are you hungry?”

Ravenous.”

            “Thanks,” Melody told Ray as he helped get the bags in the elevator.

Ray nodded and smiled at her and Mel self consciously blushed

“It’s cold out there,” Jackie said after the doors closed and pulled her gloves off. She looked over at her mother very seriously. “It’s excessive,” she said.

Melody took Jackie’s hand and rubbed it to warm her up. “Delivery for dinner. Anywhere you want.”

“Dumplings and soup,” Jackie said immediately. “Lucky Duck’s. I have dreams about the won tons, I swear. Clarice says I drool during them.”

“I’ll call when we get back upstairs,” Melody told her. “And you should call Whitney.”

“Did she call you looking for me?”

“No,” Mel lied. “It’s the right thing to do.”

“Uh huh,” Jackie said and turned toward her mother. “How do you know I haven’t already called?” Melody shrugged. “You suck at lying, Mom.”

“Well, you shouldn’t lie to people.”

The elevator stopped at their floor and Melody scooped up Jackie’s bags. “It’s not like I haven’t taken the train by myself a thousand times,” Jackie said.

“Call Whitney,” Melody told her daughter. Mel unlocked the door and took Jackie’s bags to her room.

“I texted her,” Jackie shouted from the kitchen. “Are you happy now?”

Melody walked back to the dining room and searched for the menu for Lucky Ducks’s.

“Cake,” Jackie said looking in Melody’s refrigerator. “Yum!” She took out a piece of a raspberry espresso chocolate sheet cake and tore off a chunk with her fingers. “I’m going to gain fifty pounds.”

“You don’t have to eat it, Jackie,” Melody said pulled the phone away from her mouth and then going back when the call was answered. “Yes, I’d like an order for delivery.”

“Isaac said I’d look sexy with a big belly,” Jackie told her mother and stuffed her hands under her shirt to create a fake paunch.

“Happy family dumpling soup for two,” Mel ordered and narrowed her eyes at her daughter. “Does he now?” She asked away from the phone receiver.

“Uh huh,” Jackie said. She sucked raspberry from her fingers. “And plus fat girls have bigger boobs.”

Melody hung up the phone. “Dinner will be here in forty minutes,” she said. “Don’t make yourself sick.” She walked over to Jackie and took the piece of cake away.  The frosting had been picked clean and chunks were missing from her daughter’s slender finger tips.  “You eat like a bird.”

Jackie laughed and covered her mouth to stop cake from coming out. She finally licked her lips clean and took a diet soda from the fridge. “New doorman?” She asked after washing the cake down with a swallow.

Melody took a fork from the drawer and took a bite from the cake. “Yep,” she said. She reached out and cleaned off a smudge of chocolate from Jackie’s wincing chin.

“What happened to Alfonse?”

“Jersey.”

“I hateJersey.”

“Uh huh.”

“He’s pretty cute though. The new one. Not Alfonse. Alfonse always smelled like baby powder.”

Melody blushed again, an involuntary reaction she was ashamed of, and gobbled up a mouthful of cake. “Is he?” She asked.

“Oh my God!” Jackie said. “You like him!”

“I don’t.”

“Liar!”

Mel put the cake down on the counter. “I just met him.”

“Ask him out.”

“Jackie.”

“I’ll go to Isaac’s if you want to have a night alone…”

Jackie.”

            Jackie took the cake front the counter and resumed picking at it. “He is cute. And you like him.”

“I don’t know anything about him.”

“What do you need to know?”

“He could be married.”

“He’s not!” Jackie announced with a bounce. “I checked the ring finger,” she pointed to her ring finger to demonstrate.

You checked the ring finger?”

“Yep,” Jackie said. “There’s no ring.”

Mel decided not to press about the ring ringer. “He could have a girlfriend.”

“You want to ask him out. You do. It’s been like a million years since your last date.”

“It has not been a million years since my last date.”

“It’s been forever.”

“How do you know I’m not dating while you’re away at school?”

“You haven’t been,” Jackie said confidently

“It’s not really any of your business, Jackie.”

“Uh huh. I think he likes you.”

Melody opened her mouth to respond but was interrupted by the ring tone of Jackie’s cell. “Isaac!” She said and hopped. She took the cake and ran into her bedroom.

Melody licked the last bit of cake from her fork and then held it under hot water in the sink.

 

* * *

 

Melody had been on dates while her daughter had been away at school. She’d created an account with an online dating website. She posted a blurry picture of herself (from Stuart and Whitney’s reception) and filled out questions.

The website asked her how important fidelity was in a relationship. There were five choices from Extremely Important to Extremely Unimportant. Mel skipped the question.

She met a man named Roger and they exchanged emails for a few weeks before meeting for dinner at a small Italian restaurant she’d suggested. His wife had recently died from cancer. It had taken years. He told Melody that it was his wife who had filled out the profile for him, that she’d made him promise to move on and meet someone new. When Roger talked about his wife at dinner his eyes welled up and he said he was sorry.

“There’s nothing to be sorry about,” Melody told him and took his hand.

They slept together twice, once that night after dinner at the Italian place and then on the following Wednesday while they were watching A River Runs Through It on DVD. In reality it was inaccurate to say they slept. The first time they began kissing in the elevator up to her apartment. He took her clothes off methodically one article at a time and became agitated if she tried to help. After they finished, an awkward, quick coupling, Roger sat on the edge of Melody’s bed and cried. She held him and told him that everything would be okay. He asked her if she would please put her clothes back on and then she held him while she was fully clothes until he fell asleep.

The second time Melody opened a bottle of wine to “lighten the mood.” She drank too much and he made love to her without eye contact, keeping his hand aggressively on her left breast throughout. Then he cleaned himself up in the bathroom and left. She got an email from him the next day saying that he thought he should just be alone for a while. Melody wrote back and said that she understood.

A month or so later she set up another date with a man named Walt after just a couple of emails and an hour of late night wine “lightened” instant messaging. Melody waited at a Starbucks for him and a half an hour late saw a man that resembled Walt’s picture look in the windows right at her and then walk away. She wondered what it was that he saw. Was she older than he expected? Was her face too plain? Walt sent her an Instant Message a few days later and apologized. He said he was busy and that they should reschedule. Mel didn’t call him on the lie and said that she’d be like to set up another time. He never contacted her again and for weeks when she saw the smiley face next to his name light up on her instant messenger buddy list she’d click to start a conversation and then just stare at the blinking cursor unsure what to say until he signed off again. Mel finally deleted her profile from the website.

She wasn’t supposed to be alone, she’d think to herself when she lied in bed unable to sleep. Promises had been made and she had believed them. She could have forgiven Stuart for anything. She’d practiced in her head. The thought that he’d ultimately fall in love with someone else or that he’d stop loving her, never entered her imagination. She had imagined Jackie in a horrible accident. What she’d say, how she’d feel if her daughter died suddenly. It would destroy her. She’d never recover. She had imagined if Stuart had lost his job or if she’d lost hers at the bakery and they couldn’t afford to make ends meet. She imagined the way she’d ask her father to borrow the money. On the subway at three in the morning on her way to the bakery while Stuart and Jackie still slept, she’d imagined everything that could possibly have happened except what finally did.

In high school she’d always had a boyfriend. She wasn’t the most beautiful girl at her school and knew that she wasn’t but she was average or above average and she was loyal and kind. She only turned a boy with a crush down once when she was a junior because she was already dating one of his friends. She’d felt horrible about it for years and even into college would sometimes feel phantom guilt, would picture the slow way that he walked away from her, his head hung low and the way he never talked to her again the same way. They’d stayed up late at parties talking about old episodes of Star Trek (she’d watched them all dozens of times with her father) and how much they wanted to move to the big city when they graduated. Then she broke his heart. It had probably hurt her more than him.

Over the next few days after Jackie arrived, Melody thought about Ray. She confirmed for herself the absence of a ring on his finger and made an effort to engage in small talk. The thought of him grew, her interest building upon itself.

“They just send more and more adverts every year,” she said meekly after checking her mail and then felt weird for using the word “advert.” It was not a normal word for her to use.

“That they do,” Ray agreed.

It took a week before she got up the nerve to ask him out for dinner.

“How late do they make you work?” She asked him.

“I get off at 11.”

“Oh,” she said. “How many days a week?”

“I do Wednesday through Sunday,” he told her. “On Mondays and Tuesdays I stay with my gramps on Long Island.”

“Oh,” she said.

“You work pretty kooky hours too, huh?”

“Yeah,” Mel said.

“When you come back sometimes I can smell like fresh bread still,” he told her. “Maybe I’m imagining.”

“I mostly make wedding cakes.”

“You were married once, right?”

“I was engaged one time.”

“Did you one of you get cold feet?” Melody asked him.

“No,” he said. She saw that the topic saddened him and felt terrible for bringing it up. “That’s not the way it happened at all.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Nah,” he said. “Don’t be. Ancient history.”

“Hey,” she said. “This is silly… Would you like to go for a walk or something after you get done some night? Maybe get a drink?”

“I would,” he told her with a smile. “I would like that.”

“Okay,” Mel said. She blushed and tried to turn away so he couldn’t see. Her face always betrayed her. She wore her heart in her cheeks and every lie was given away by one of a dozen tells. “What night?”

“I’m free tonight,” he said.

“I’m free too.”

Ray laughed. “So, tonight then.”

“Yeah.” She turned around and stepped into an elevator that opened to let people out. She nearly crashed into her neighbors. She waved at Ray but then turned away from him. She snuck a look back at him just before the doors closed and he was looking at her back her. Her cheeks must have been on fire.

 

* * *

 

“I need a new Metro card,” Jackie yelled to her mother when she walked in the door.

“Okay,” Melody said from her bedroom. “Take twenty from my wallet.”

“Forty?”

Twenty.” Mel was standing in front of the mirror at her vanity. She could never seem to smile authentically at herself in reflections. She became easily embarrassed.

“Are you wearing my lip gloss?” Jackie asked Mel from the doorway to her room.

“I’m sorry,” Mel said and offered Jackie’s make up kit back.

“You can use it whenever,” Jackie said. “We have like the same complexion. I could be your complexion clone. You want to use anything else?”

“I asked him,” Mel said abruptly.

“The doorman?”

“Yes.”

“I knew it. You do like him.”

“We’re going for a walk.”

“Way to go, Mom.” Jackie took the make up kit. “You shouldn’t wear too much though. You don’t want him to think you’re a prostitute.”

Excuse me?”

            “What are you going to wear?”

It was not a question that Melody was meant to answer. Jackie already knew what her mother was going to end up wearing.

“I thought about it before when we talked in the kitchen,” Jackie said holding up her navy blue top. “You want to go for casual but sexy. You know?”

“I have dressed myself before, Jackie,” Mel told her, feeling slightly like one of Jackie’s dolls long ago packed up in her grandmother’s attic.

“Do you have condoms?”

“What?”

“You can’t count on him to have them, Mom. You have to think ahead. Do you want me to stay at Aunt Peg’s tonight? Just in case?”

Mel’s phone rang. “We’re not finished with this conversation, young lady. Condoms…” she said.  “Hi Whit.”

“Hi Mel. How are things? Is Jackie being a brat? I can talk to her for you if you need.”

“That’s okay, Whitney. We’re getting along perfectly.”

Jackie took another twenty from her mother’s wallet. “I remembered I have to get Aunt Peg a present,” she whispered.

“So have you set your plans for Christmas?”

“Nothing spectacular,” Mel told Whitney. “I’ll make a ham and my sister and her family will come over.”

“My parents are flying in from Idaho this year. My Dad hates flying. He hasn’t been out since the wedding.”

“That’ll be nice.”

“I was thinking… I know that Jackie was with us last year but it would really mean a lot to my parents to see her. If it wouldn’t be the most horrible thing in the world for me to ask… Is it too horrible?”

Mel watched her daughter talk on the phone with Isaac, pacing in the kitchen. She’d taken her shoes off one at a time en route into the house so that they were staged five feet apart. She was scooping up frosting with reduced fat baked potato chips. They’d planned this in advance, Melody knew. They hadn’t told Jackie or asked Mel yet but they’d just expected that Mel would say it was okay. They organized the tickets for Whitney’s parents months in advance because Stuart thought that last minute air fare was unnecessarily expensive. It may have been setup before Thanksgiving even, while Mel was eating turkey and cranberry sauce with Peg and her flatulent husband that always told her to pull his finger with an uproarious laugh. Mel had taken the week off around Christmas. She’d gotten them tickets to the Nutcracker on Christmas Eve at a little theater just off Broadway.

“I’ll think about it,” Melody told Whitney.

“Thanks so much, Mel! It means the world to my folks!”

“I have to go, Whit.”

“Send my love to, Jackie!”

Mel ended the call.

 

* * *

 

“You look like a movie star,” Ray told Melody when she came down for their walk.

“I do not.”

“My lips to God’s ears,” Ray said. “I swear. Julia Roberts or something.”

“Thank for you saying that.”

“So do you have a particular walk you have you heart set on?” Ray asked, opening the door for her.

“I figured we’d just walk.”

“Okay,” Ray said. “I can walk. Can we talk too?”

Mel nodded. “I think so.”

“Tell me about being a wedding cake baker. Do you talk to all those young brides and grooms?”

“I talk to most of them face to face.”

“Is that weird?”

“Why would it be weird?”

“I don’t know,” Ray said. “It just seems like it could be weird. All those cakes, all those weddings, and well, it just seems like it could be weird. For you.”

The wind was especially harsh that night. Ray noticed her shivering and wrapped his arm around her. She’d imagined him as gentleman. Not just because he opened the door for her when she had groceries or helped Jackie with her bags. She imagined him sweeping her off her feet, finally being the one. She’d also imagined him hurting her in an infinite number of ways. She’d spent every moment since they talked that afternoon imagining what could happen.

They walked in roughly a circle, passing the building a couple of times, and each time venturing further away as if they were testing the limits of its gravity. They stepped over and around bags of garbage waiting for collection. They talked about Jackie and New York.

“What about you?” She asked him after a while. “How did you end up in my building? I mean… Shit.”

He laughed. “You mean, how come I’m a doorman? It’s a short time thing.”

“Oh.”

“I have a cousin that runs maintenance for the building. I was between jobs so he put in a word for me.”

“So this is not what you wanted to be your whole life?”

“Nah,” he said. “When spring comes I’m going to take over this ice cream truck from a friend of mine in Brooklyn.”

“Ice cream man, huh?”

“Yeah,” he said. “You know that song? The ice cream truck song? That’s how you know I’ll be coming.”

“I do have a soft spot for the Choco Taco.”

“Who doesn’t? I’ll always have one or two saved for you.”

“I think you’ll forget.”

“No way,” Ray told her. “I couldn’t forget you.”

She blushed and laughed.

“That was a pretty cheesy line,” he said a moment later.

“It was.”

“Good cheesy, though?”

“Yeah. I think so.”

“Alright, I can live with that.”

“And before being a doorman?”

“I was a fireman actually.” Ray told her. “Here,” he said. “Look at this.” He took off his gloves and showed her the back of his left hand, covered in a scar she hadn’t noticed before. “Car fire,” he said. “Those mothers burn real hot.”

“You were a fireman here in the city?”

“FDJC. Right across the river.”

“That’s quite a job.”

“Yeah. I did it ten years. My brother Mikey is still in, my Dad retired about seven, eight years back.”

“Why did you leave?”

He got sad again and Mel wanted to pull it back and swallow it up. She remembered every time her mother cried it was because she’d said something and her father just shook his head and tossed a cigarette down on the asphalt or out the window of the car or into an ashtray with disgust. “Nevermind,” she said.

“No,” Ray said. “No. You know, if I was still in FDJC I wouldn’t be here with you.” He squeezed her a little closer. “Too much cheesy?” He asked.

“No,” Mel said and kissed him impulsively.

“Your lips taste like cherries,” Ray told her.

Mel could feel her cheeks competing with stop signs. “My daughter’s lip gloss.”

“I like cherries,” Ray said and kissed her.

They were nice kisses. Tender and not too aggressive. They reminded her of the kind of kisses she’d shared with Stuart during the good years. A kiss that just wanted to be a kiss and not foreplay or an accomplice in her ex’s guilt and deception. He’d kiss her before saying hello. That’s how she knew he was being unfaithful.

Ray held her hand as they walked the rest of the way back to the building. He kissed her again at the steps.

“You have to get ready for the bakery right?”

Mel nodded. “I have to leave in an hour.”

“This was nice, right?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ll see you when you come home.”

“If you want we could go for a walk tomorrow night too.”

“I could walk any night with you.”

“You’re pushing your luck.”

“Don’t I know it.”

She kissed him again. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

He waved to her as she ran up the stairs and into the building, avoiding eye contact with Carlos, the night shift guy at the desk.

When she got back to her apartment Melody was disappointed that Jackie was asleep and wanted to wake her up. She considered calling Peg but knew she’d be asleep too. Instead she took a shower and got ready for work. She was ready early and sat on her new sofa for forty minutes before the alarm on her watch told her it was time to head to the subway.

 

* * *

 

“Where’s Ray?” Melody asked Carlos when she saw him at the desk after work.

“Didn’t come in today,” Carlos said with a shrug. “I been here for sixteen hours.”

“Oh,” Melody and rushed to the elevator. She hadn’t slept in over a day. She was crying before she got to her door. Jackie was on the phone with Isaac when she came in and Mel went directly to bed. She collapsed in a huff that was more fitting her teenage daughter. She kept crying until she felt numb. She’d imagined walking with Ray while she posed little plastic grooms and brides on three tier cakes. She didn’t know him much more than his cheesy lines and warm arms but she allowed herself briefly to cast her head into the future with him. She felt foolish and fell asleep, still smelling cherries somehow from Jackie’s lip gloss and with tears dried in her cake flour smudged hair.

Jackie woke her a few hours later. “Mom?”

“Yeah, Jackie.”

“Are we going to go to Macys tonight?”

“Yeah.”

“You okay?”

“Yeah. Give me a few minutes to get ready okay?”

Jackie stepped out her bedroom and Mel put on her shoes and walked to the bathroom to clean up. In her reflection she still looked like she was crying. Mel washed her face.

“Whitney says I’m going to be with Dad and her for Christmas,” Jackie said to her mother as Mel came out of the bathroom.

“We talked about it last night.”

‘           “You didn’t talk to me about it.”

“Get your coat. It’s cold.”

Jackie had either forgotten about Melody’s walk with Ray or just smartly chose not to broach the subject. They barely talked as they got their things together and headed for the elevator.

Down in the lobby Mel stopped in her tracks when she saw Ray talking to another man in a suit. It was Ray’s cousin, she realized immediately, recognizing the fit of the suit and one of the ties she’d seen Ray wear before. Ray’s right eye was blackened and his lips split. He had a splint on his wrist. He was wearing jeans and a black leather jacket. The sadness that Mel had seen in his face when she asked about leaving the fire department and his fiancée had settled into his whole body. His shoulders were sloped and he was nodding weakly at everything his cousin said. Ray’s cousin had the suit Ray had been wearing slung over his shoulder.

“No,” Mel heard Ray say. “No, I understand and I appreciate it Bobby.” Ray’s cousin handed him an envelope and Ray gave his cousin his security badge and ring of keys.

“Go on to the subway,” Melody told Jackie. “I’ll catch up.”

“It’s night, Mom. I’ll get raped.

Jackie.

“Yeah, yeah.” Jackie left but turned back to see Mel before going out of view. Melody realized Jackie hadn’t been difficult; she had been worried. Her daughter’s face, while more practiced at lies was just as transparent to her heart.

“Ray,” Melody said as Ray turned to leave.

“Hey there, movie star.”

“Want to walk?”

“I’m not sure that would be a good idea.”

“Just a couple blocks to the subway?”

“Yeah, okay.” He had turned into someone completely different. He was quieter, defeated.

They went out into the city and Ray reached out for her hand. He squeezed too hard. His eyes welled up. “You were expecting me to smile and welcome you home today, huh?”

“It’s okay.”

“No, it’s not.”

“Ray-“

“Melody- you got such a beautiful name. It’s like music,” he laughed a little at the line but sniffed back tears.

“Do you need anything? Money or…?”

Ray let her hand go. “No,” he said. “Fuck no. Jesus, what the fuck do you think of me?”

“I don’t know…”

“I’m not just the fucking doorman, lady. I’m a goddam person and I have fucking dignity, alright?”

“Ray?”

“Shit,” he said.

“What is it?”

“It’s that fire,” he said. “The same God damn fire.”

“The scar on your hand?”

“No,” he said. “Another fire.”

“You can talk to me.”

He shook his head. They weren’t walking toward the subway. Not really. “I don’t want to. I don’t want to say it. I’m disgusted with myself.”

“What happened to you, Ray?”

“I was feeling good last night and I went to a bar I used to go to and I got a drink, you know, to celebrate. We had a nice time right?”

“We did.”

“Some of the old guys from my firehouse showed up.”

“They did this to you? That doesn’t make any sense.”

“A man can’t always be good, Melody,” he told her. “He can’t always be a hero. Sometimes… Sometimes I get so scared.”

“I get scared too.”

“No,” he said. He shook his head. “No,” repeated. “No, no, no.” He stopped walking and boxed his ears.

“Ray, please, come on-“

He looked back up at her. “I quit the building.”

“I saw.”

“I’m going to go stay with a buddy in Pittsburgh, I think.”

“Are you coming back in spring for the ice cream truck?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think so. Look, Melody, I’m no kind of man.”

“I like you, Ray. I don’t really know you or everything that’s going on with you but I do like you.”

“It would be better if you didn’t. I’m a fucked up basket case. I’m no good for you. I’m no good for anyone right now. Do you understand what I’m saying to you?”

Mel leaned in and kissed him. It was different. She could tell from the kiss that there would never be another one.

“No more cherries,” he said.

“No.”

“Melody, I’m sorry.”

She didn’t make eye contact. She turned around and headed back to the apartment building. She didn’t look back at him until he was already gone. She walked past the front desk and took the stairs up so she wouldn’t have to stop.

She sat on her sofa and dragged her fingernails through her hair, down her scalp and down her neck.

“Mom,” Jackie said as she came in the door. Mel realized she’d completely forgotten about meeting her at the subway. “Are you okay?”

“Nope.”

Jackie got the frosting and potato chips and another piece of cake and sat down next to her mother on the couch. She hugged her mom and then scooped up a chip with lemon frosting. She handed it to Melody and she ate it.

“Sweet and salty,” Mel said.

“I know.”

“Don’t grow up and be like me, Jackie.”

“I love you, Mom.”

“I love you too.”

“There’s like a million fish in the sea.”

“I know.”

“Better fish. That go to the gym regularly.”

Mel looked over at her daughter. “What do you know about condoms?”

“Um, that I shouldn’t get pregnant or AIDS?”

“You’re fifteen.”

“You’re really pretty, Mom. That guy is a jerk.”

“You’re fifteen, Jackie.”

“Shush, Mom. We’re having a moment.”

Melody’s cell phone rang. “Whitney,” she said.

“I don’t want to spend Christmas with Whitney and her parents. Her dad grabbed my butt one time and the said he was goosing me but it felt like molestation.”

“Come here,” Mel said and hugged her daughter closer. She silenced the phone. “You’re doing Christmas with me and Aunt Peg like we talked about.”

“I’m going to see if Rodney will put raisins in his nose for quarters again,” Jackie said.

“You are not.” Jackie’s cell phone rang and Mel saw it was Isaac. “And you’re not allowed to be alone with Isaac, Jackie. Ever.”

Mom.”

            “You’re fifteen, Jackie.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Jackie silenced the phone and scooped up another chip with frosting on it and fed it to her mother.

Resolutions

Resolutions

Six days before his thirty-fifth birthday Marshall Boyd went to his doctor’s office.  His doctor was a tall and lean man with big glasses and short balding dark hair named Dr. Javitz.  He looked at a computer screen while Marshall sat, slouched, in underwear and socks on a crinkly white paper covered doctor’s table.  Dr. Javitz shook his head and sighed.

“You’re killing yourself,” Dr. Javitz told him.  “You know that, don’t you?”

Marshall didn’t answer.

“Blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar,” Dr. Javitz said.  “It’s a race, Marshall.  It’s a race to see what kills you.  Is that what you want?  Heart disease?  Diabetes?  Dead by fifty years old?”

“No,” Marshall said.

“You need to exercise,” Dr. Javitz told him.  “Eat better.”

“I know,” Marshall said.

“I mean it.”

“I know.”

Dr. Javitz nodded and typed something into the computer.  “Happy birthday,” he said.

 

On his birthday, Marshall let his alarm clock go off for fifteen minutes before he turned it off and got up.  He got out of bed and jogged in the doorway to the bathroom until he felt his heart pounding.

In the kitchen, Marshall hung a dry erase board on the refrigerator.  It had a calendar you could write the days and months in and a section at the top for notes and things.  He filled in the calendar.  January 1.

At the top, he wrote “Resolutions: lose fifty pounds.  Date more.  Don’t die alone.”

 

He went to dinner with his mother and her boyfriend Jerry.  Marshall ordered the salad.

“What you eating?”  His mother asked him.

“Arugula,” Marshall told her.

“I’ve never heard of it,” she said.  “Was it on the menu?”

“Yes,” Marshall said.

“I didn’t see it on the menu,” she said.  She looked over at Jerry.  “Did you see it on the menu?”

Jerry shrugged.

“Is it new?”  His mother asked him.

“I don’t think so,” Marshall said.

His mother shook her head and cut out a piece of her pork chop.  “It’s your birthday, Marshall,” she said.

“Yeah,” Marshall said.

She dropped her fork and stared at him.  “Are you high?”

“Oh,” Jerry said.  “I think I had it on a hamburger one time.  Ar-oooo-gah-lah,” he sounded it out.  “With goat cheese and raspberries.  On a hamburger.”  He shook his head.  “I didn’t like it.”

 

When Marshall was nine years old his parents got separated.  His Dad moved into a studio apartment and got a weight bench. He smoked joints on the front door stoop and told Marshall he was too young to get it.  But he would.  He would get it when he was older.

A few months after his dad moved out, Marshall woke up in the middle of the night from a noise out in the living room.  He got out of bed and walked down the hall.  The lights were on and he could hear someone saying something.  He came around the corner and saw his father on the couch with his pants and white underwear around his ankles and his mother giving him a blowjob.

“Yeah,” his dad said.  “Ok.  Mmm-hmmm.”

Marshall made eye contact with his dad for a moment and then looked away.  His dad didn’t say anything.  His mom didn’t notice him.  Marshall went back to his room and never told anyone about what he’d seen.

Two weeks later when they were in the parking lot at the supermarket his mother started crying and he didn’t know why.  She told him to get out of the car and wait for her inside.  He nodded and did as he was told.  He was waiting by the check out registers when he heard the crash outside.  Everyone in the supermarket froze.  Marshall walked to the automatic doors and looked out to see his mother’s car backing up and crashing into a red Jeep again and again.

“Whore!”  His mother screamed at the top of her lungs at a scrawny redhead wearing jeans and a denim jacket that was watching with mute horror.  “Home-wrecking whore!”

Marshall stayed at his dad’s studio apartment that night on a blue work out mat his dad said were for crunches.  The next day his Dad gave him two hundred dollars in twenties and tens and put him on a Greyhound bus.

“Your uncle will be waiting for you,” his dad told him.

Marshall nodded.  He was gripping the wad of money tightly because he didn’t know what else to do with it.

“Buy some hamburgers,” his dad said after a moment of awkward silence.  “If you get hungry.  Just buy some hamburgers.”

 

Marshall signed up for online dating the same day he signed up for a personal trainer at a gym.  The online profile asked him if he was a little heavy or husky.  He left the question blank.

At the gym, he was introduced to his trainer, a former army mechanic named Rodney.  Rodney was short.  He was like those kids Marshall remembered that could do pull-ups in middle school without a lot of effort because they barely weighed a hundred pounds.

Rodney had Marshall weigh in on the scale.  Most scales don’t go above 300 pounds.  If you get fat enough, you need a special scale.

“327 pounds,” Rodney said.  “How much do you want to lose?”

Marshall stared at the slide weight indicators on the scale.  He felt like crying.  He looked over at Rodney.  “All of it,” he said.

“Alright,” Rodney said and slapped Marshall on the back.  “Alright.”

They went to a small desk to the right of the weight machines.  Rodney gave Marshall a blank piece of paper and a pen.

“You’ve tried to lose weight before, right?”  Rodney asked him.

Marshall nodded.  He’d been on secret diets since he was fourteen.  He ran up and down the stairs in the basement until he threw up when he was seventeen.  “Yeah,” he told Rodney.

“I want you to write down the reasons it didn’t work,” Rodney said.  “Every reason.  Every excuse.  Whatever got in your way.  Write it on that piece of paper.”

Marshall looked down at the piece of paper.

“Go ahead,” Rodney said.  “Write it all down.”

Marshall wrote down that he was lazy.  He wrote down that he was a quitter.  He wrote that he got hungry in the middle of the night and he’d stand in the kitchen in bare feet and just eat slices of bread sometimes.  He wrote that he tried.  He wrote that he hated himself every time he ate pizza or fried chicken.  He wrote that he hated arugula.  He wrote that he wasn’t strong enough.  He wrote on that blank piece of paper for ten minutes.

“Are you done?”  Rodney asked when Marshall put the pen down.

Marshall nodded.

Rodney picked up the piece of paper and tore it to shreds.  He didn’t even look at it.  “No more excuses, fatty,” Rodney told him.  “Get your ass on the treadmill.”

 

The bus to Bakersfield took six hours.  Marshall ate five hamburgers.  His Uncle Gary met him at the bus station with Marshall’s twin cousins Eli and Dean.  Uncle Gary, his mom’s brother, had a pointed beard and wore small circular glasses.  He had balding straw colored hair and made computers in his garage that he sold by mail order.  He had ads in seven or eight computer magazines.

“Look at you,” Uncle Gary said when Marshall got off the bus.  He shook his head.

Eli pressed his nose up and made an oink oink sound.  Eli and Dean were two years younger than Marshall.

Marshall rode in the front seat on the way back to Gary’s house.  “How long am I going to be down here?”  He asked his uncle.

“Until your mom’s feeling better,” Gary said.

“Is she going to jail?”  Marshall asked.

“Don’t ask stupid questions,” Uncle Gary told him.

When they got to the house Marshall and the twins were told to play outside on the swing set.  Marshall sat on the swing, half drooping off of the rubber seat.  He kicked at the gravel beneath him half-heartedly.

“What’s wrong with your mother?”  Dean asked Marshall.

“She’s upset,” Marshall said.  He didn’t know how else to answer.

“I heard she’s crazy,” Eli said.  He was in the swing next to Marshall.  He rocked back and forth, going higher and higher with each swing.  “I heard she hears voices and they locked her up in the hospital.”

“Our mom died,” Dean told Marshall.  “Cancer,” he said.

“You’re probably going to go to an orphanage,” Eli said.

“Yeah,” Dean said.  “Probably.”

 

Marshall started sending winks and messages to a woman named Tracy online.  She was younger.  Twenty-six.  She seemed nice.

“I need to tell you something,” Tracy messaged him after a few days.  They’d been talking about their jobs and apartments and movies they’d seen so far.

“Ok,” Marshall replied.

“I’m fat,” she wrote.  Then she sent him a frown.  “I don’t know if you can tell from my picture.”

Marshall started crying.  “I’m fat too,” he messaged her.

 

Rodney had him going to the gym four days a week.  After two weeks he had Marshall get on the scale again.  The weight remained unchanged.  “What do you eat?”  Rodney asked him.

Marshall shrugged.  He told him what he had for breakfast and lunch and dinner the last few days.

“Don’t lie to me,” Rodney said.  “You’re just wasting time for both of us.  If you’re going to lie to me, you need to find another trainer.”

Marshall wasn’t lying.  “I’m sorry,” he said.

Rodney nodded.  “Treadmill, fatty,” he said.

 

At dinner, Uncle Gary and the twins always said grace.

“You don’t have to,” Gary said.

“I’ve never said grace before,” Marshall admitted.

“Do you want to learn?”  Gary asked him.

Marshall thought about it.  He shook his head.  “No,” he said.  “That’s okay.”

“Well,” Gary said.  “You can just stay quiet and lower your head.”

“Okay,” Marshall said.

Dean said grace.  “Dear God,” he said.  “Thank you for this dinner and thank you for Eli and for Daddy and for Marshall and thank you for making us and the world.  Amen.”

“See?”  Gary said.  “It’s not that hard.”

Marshall shrugged.

After dinner while they all worked on the dishes, Uncle Gary poured a couple of cups of dry food into the dog bowl and watched Lady, the black lab rapidly chomp it down.  “Why do you suppose Lady doesn’t say grace?”  He asked Eli and Dean.

Eli and Dean laughed.

Marshall’s face turned red with shame.  He ran to the bathroom and closed the door.  He turned the water on hot and put his hands under it.  He cried and shook and snot dripped down from his nose.  The hot water started to burn.  He felt like he was going to throw up.  He turned the water off and cleaned off his face.  He blew his nose.  He stared at himself in the mirror until he stopped crying and then opened the bathroom door.

“In this house we ask to be excused from our chores, Marshall,” Uncle Gary told him.  He leaned in.  “I can’t fix whatever your mother did to you but I will not have you setting a bad example for my sons.”

“I’m sorry,” Marshall told him.  “I’m sorry.”

“Go on up to bed,” Gary said.  “Get undressed for bed.  I’ll be up to check on you in fifteen minutes.  Your eyes better be closed.”

Marshall ran out of the bathroom and up the stairs to the bedrooms.  He stripped down to his white briefs and climbed into bed.  He was on a cot in Uncle Gary’s room.  He turned the lights out and stared out the windows at the lights in Bakersfield.  He repeated his dad’s number over and over again in his head.  He thought he could climb out the window and get to the street.  He thought he could get to a payphone.  He started to breathe fast and found himself gasping for air.  He closed his eyes and wept into the pillow.

He didn’t go the window or run for a payphone.  He didn’t move.  He was still crying when Uncle Gary came up to bed a few hours later.

 

Marshall met Tracy at a subway sandwich shop for the first time.  He waited for her inside, feeling nervous and sweaty.  He got a cup of water and sat, sipping it through a straw, by a window.

Tracy sent him a text message that said “outside,” ten minutes after she was supposed to be there.

Marshall looked around the sandwich shop and then got up and walked to the door.  He stepped out into the parking lot.  It was just before sunset and cold.  A car flashed its lights at him and Marshall walked over to it.  The window rolled down on the driver’s side and Marshall walked over toward it.

“Tracy?”  He asked, looking in at a familiar face from her online profile.  She was wearing bright red lipstick and too much eye makeup.

“Hi,” she said.

“Hi,” he said.  He looked back at the subway shop.  “Are you okay?”  He asked her.

“Yeah,” she said.  “Yeah, I’m fine.”

“Do you want to go inside or we could go somewhere else?”  Marshall asked her.

“Don’t watch me okay?”  Tracy said.

“Watch you?”  Marshall didn’t understand.

“Get out of the car,” she said.  “Don’t watch me.”

“Oh,” Marshall said.  “Okay.  I can turn around.”

“Okay,” Tracy told him.

He turned back to the subway shop.  With their lights on inside he could see the two teenagers chatting behind the counter.  There was no one else there.  Marshall could hear Tracy’s door open and heard her getting out of the car.  One of the teenagers threw olives at the other.

“Okay,” Tracy said.

Marshall forced on a smile and turned around to look at her.  She had her hair back in a butterfly clip and she was wearing a floral top and black leggings.  She was fat, like she’d said in her message. Her stomach seemed to droop, her breasts jutted out.  She had large arms and legs.  She was shorter than he was and heavier.

She shrugged when Marshall saw her.  Her eyes were shaking in her skull and she chewed her lower lip.  “Yep,” she said.  “This is me.”

“Do you want a sandwich?”  Marshall asked her.

“Okay,” she agreed.

 

On the phone Marshall’s mother asked him how his weight loss was going.

“Good,” he lied.

“You’re handsome,” she said.  “You’re a handsome man.”

“Okay,” Marshall said.

 

He stayed with Uncle Gary for two months and even though Gary gave him less food than the twins and never let him have seconds, he gained six pounds.  He talked to his mother on the phone from the state hospital.

“I miss you so much,” she told him.

“I want to go home,” he said.  “Can’t I stay with Dad?”

His mother was quiet on the phone.  “Your dad moved, Marshall,” she told him.  “He moved to Tacoma.  You can visit him.”

“I could go to Tacoma now,” Marshall suggested.

“No, baby,” his mother said.  “You’ll be home soon.”

“Are you okay, mom?”  Marshall asked her.

She cried into the receiver.  “Be good for your Uncle Gary,” she said.  “Okay?  Okay?  Bye.”

“Bye,” Marshall said.

That night Marshall got out of the cot and went down the stairs quietly.  He went to the kitchen and turned on the light.  The kitchen floor was cold on his bare feet.  He walked to the pantry and took out a box of cereal.  He took out a fistful of cereal and ate it quickly.  He took out a second handful.

“What the fuck is the matter with you?”  Uncle Gary asked from the dark on the edge of the kitchen light.

“I’m sorry,” Marshall managed.

Gary knocked the box of cereal out of Marshall’s hand.  The box hit the counter and cereal spread all over the floor.  Marshall shook and couldn’t breathe.  He started to hyperventilate.

“Are you crying?”  Gary asked him.  “Why are you crying?”

“I want to go home,” Marshall stuttered between panicked breathes.

“You can’t go home, Marshall,” Gary said.  “Your mother is sick.  Your father doesn’t want to deal with your shit.  I’m trying.”

Gary stepped forward and Marshall stepped backward.  Marshall winced and trembled.  He closed his eyes.  He’d never been more afraid in his life but he didn’t know why.  He didn’t know what was wrong.  It was all wrong.  Marshall back peddled.  He felt cereal crunch under his feet and Gary moved forward.

For years Marshall couldn’t be sure what happened next.  Uncle Gary told him that he tripped.  Marshall just remembered falling, his head clipped the edge of the counter, blood came out onto the linoleum red and sticky and Uncle Gary stood over him, looking monstrous in the overhead light.  He didn’t say anything.  He didn’t move.

When the blood didn’t stop, Gary had Marshall get dressed and drove him to the Emergency Room.  They gave him four stitches.

Marshall was on the bus to Tacoma that afternoon.  He never talked to Gary about what happened in the kitchen that night.  The twins ran away from home when they were thirteen and went to the police.  Dean took off his shirt and showed his chest and back covered in bruises.  The twins went into foster care until they were eighteen and Uncle Gary died from lung cancer a decade later.

 

“Have you ever been fat?”  Marshall asked Rodney after one of their training sessions.  Marshall rarely spoke when he was at the gym.  He just did what Rodney asked him to do.

Rodney looked surprised by the question.  “What?”  He asked.  “No,” he said.

“I’ve always been like this,” Marshall told him.  “Since I was a kid.”

“That’s a cop out,” Rodney said.  “That’s you accepting it.”

Marshall shrugged.  “Probably.”

“Do you have a girlfriend or something?”  Rodney asked him.

“I went on a date,” Marshall said.  “I’m trying.”

“Do you want her to see you naked with the lights on?”  Rodney asked him.

“No,” Marshall said.

“Remember that,” Rodney said.  “Remember that every time you put a piece of food in your fat mouth.”

 

For their second date Tracy invited Marshall over for dinner.  She lived in a small house in a new, cheap sub division.  She had three cats that all looked the same.  She made ravioli with meat sauce and garlic bread.  With every single bite, Marshall loathed himself.  Tracy opened a bottle of wine and they shared the bottle and second helpings of dinner.

“Do you want to go sit on the couch?”  Tracy asked and held up a second bottle.  Her cheeks were red and she smiled, big and flirty.

“I do,” Marshall said.

They had another glass of wine and then started kissing on the couch.  Marshall was careful not to touch Tracy when she kissed him though he didn’t know why.  She took his hand and pressed it against her big right breast.

“It’s alright,” she said.  “I like it.”

Marshall squeezed and kissed her more deeply. She moved her hand down onto his thigh and kissed his neck.  He could smell her deodorant and taste garlic in her mouth.

“I like you,” Tracy told him and poured them both another glass of wine.

“I like you too,” Marshall said.

Tracy drank the entire glass of wine and stood up.  She unbuttoned her shirt.  She took it off.  She was wearing a peach bra underneath.  Her skin was pale and smooth.  “Is this okay?”  She asked.

“Yes,” he told her.  “Yes.”

Tracy sat back down and Marshall kissed her more.  She was cold to the touch.  Everywhere he felt her, her skin was cold.  He felt her back.  He ran his fingers through her hair.  She sucked one of his earlobes and started to pull his shirt off.

“Wait,” Marshall told her.

She froze.  “What is it?”

Marshall looked around the room and looked at the lamp and looked at her three cats lounging around the room.  He felt his heart pounding in his chest and ears.  “Nothing,” he said finally.  “Let me,” he said and pulled off his shirt.  He handed it to Tracy and she tossed it onto a chair on top of one of her cats.

Marshall crossed his arms instinctively.  In the locker room in middle school they pointed at his chest and laughed.

“You have tits, Boyd,” the boys reminded him.

Tracy pulled his arms away from his chest and put them on her breasts.  “Here,” she told him.

She kissed him and he tentatively felt her through her bra.  He moved his hands around to her back and found the clasp.

“Do it,” she told him.

Marshall managed to get the clasp undone and she stopped kissing him long enough to take the bra off.  She had large nipples in the middle of big pink areola.  Tracy smiled at him and kissed his neck and shoulders.  She kissed down his chest and started to chew and suck on one of his nipples.

Marshall reached out for his glass of wine.  The cats watched him from the chair and from a carpeted cat play structure.  He could hear a cat purring under his shirt.

Tracy reached down and pried his legs farther apart.  She tugged at his zipper.  Marshall finished his wine.  She unbuttoned his trousers.

He wasn’t thinking about her.  He couldn’t think about her.  He was thinking about Rodney and the lamplight.  He was thinking about the broken pieces of cereal under his feet and arugula and the resolutions on his dry erase board.  He still felt lonely.  He still felt broken and fat and stupid and worthless.  He was that piece of paper Rodney shredded at the gym.

Tracy pulled his pants and underwear down to his ankles.  He felt her breath on his skin.

“Stop,” Marshall told her and squirmed to get away.

“What’s the matter?”  Tracy asked.  “What’s wrong?”

Marshall pulled his pants up and quickly wriggled away from her to stand up.  “I don’t know,” he told her.  “I don’t know.”  He shook his head.  “I’m going to be sick.”

He ran for the bathroom.  He started crying.  He felt sweat in his hair and beaded on his forehead.  He pulled up the toilet seat and stuck his fingers down into his throat.  He gagged and tasted acid.  He held his fingers firm.  He gagged again and then started to vomit.  He wretched up red wine and ravioli into the toilet.  He threw up until he hated himself a little bit less.  He went to the sink and washed his face and mouth.  He made a cup with his hands and drank some water.  He looked at himself in the mirror and shook his head.

When he came out of the bathroom Tracy was dressed.

“I think I should probably go,” he said.

“Okay,” Tracy said.

Marshall put on his shirt and got his coat.  He left without saying anything else and drove home.  He could still taste garlic and wine in his mouth.

 

He didn’t call or message Tracy.  She didn’t call or message him.  Later that week he went to the gym and Rodney put him on the stair machine.

“Come on,” Rodney said.  “Keep going.  Two more minutes.”

Marshall struggled for his breath.  His muscles burned.  He felt dizzy and tired.  He kept going.

“Pick those fat feet up, Marshall,” Rodney told him.  “Come on,” he said.  “Come on.”

That morning standing in his kitchen in his underwear, Marshall erased the dry erase board.

“Ninety seconds, fatty,” Rodney said.  “Just imagine there’s some French fries when you get to the top.”

Marshall couldn’t breathe.  He stopped.

“Why are you stopping?”  Rodney asked.  “You stop when I tell you to stop.  Is this what you want?  You want to quit?  Are you a quitter, fatty?”

Marshall tried to say he just needed a minute to get his breathe but couldn’t manage it.

“I can’t hear you, fatty,” Rodney said.  “Pick up your feet.  Move!”

“Fuck you,” Marshall stammered.

Rodney froze.  “What?”

“I said, fuck you,” Marshall repeated.  He stepped off of the stair machine.  “Go fuck yourself.”

“Are you done?”  Rodney asked him.  “Are you quitting again, Marshall?”

Marshall didn’t answer.  He walked away and didn’t make eye contact.  He got his things from the locker room and he walked out of the gym.  He walked past his car and out into the parking lot.  It was cold and windy.  He looked up at the empty, white sky.  He sobbed and he sweated and he panted.

He kept walking.

Orlando by Erik Grove

They landed at Orlando International Airport as ravenous conquerors eager for their tribute like ancient barbarians after sacking Rome.  They came victorious, half-drunk on airline miniatures, armed with smart phones and armored in casual khakis and pastel knit polo shirts.

“I’m taking panty scalps,” Sam Callahan said.  He had his teeth whitened before the trip.  They were magnificent.  “Five hundred for highest take,” he said and held out his money clip stuffed with doubled over hundreds and twenties.

Sam hit forty million in sales.  After commission, kickers and bonuses he had a very good year.  They all had good years.  Richie Hollister hit thirty-eight.  He bought himself a bright yellow sports car and got his wife a new chin.  Mark Dixon, the youngest salesman in the company, hit forty-four.  It was his first year in Orlando.

“I got that, I got that,” Richie called out to Sam.  “The party doesn’t stop until the panties drop.”  He looked to Mark for agreement.  “Am I right, Dixy?”  He punched Mark in the shoulder.  “I’m fucking right.  ABCs, boy.  A fucking BCs.”

“When you’re right, you’re right, Rich,” Mark told him.  “It doesn’t happen often but-“

“Fuck you, Dixy,” Richie said.  He grabbed Mark by the shoulder and humped his leg.  “Fuuuck yoooou!”

Mark pushed Richie off and Richie wagged his tongue at him.

“Gentlemen,” Sam said.  He stood on front of the glass automatic doors out of the airport.  “Florida,” he said and put on a pair of sunglasses.

“You’re going to fucking love this fucking place, Dixy,” Richie told Mark and slapped his ass.

Mark put on a pair of sunglasses and waited for Sam.  Sam stepped through the automatic doors and out into the bright sticky afternoon.  Mark and Richie followed.

“It’s like a sauna,” Mark said.

“You get used to it,” Sam told him.  He pointed to a blue van in the pickup lane.  “That’s us,” he said.

“Don’t worry about the humidity, Dix,” Richie said.  “The whole resort is climate controlled.  Like the biosphere, man.”

Before Mark was in the van Sam had the flask out of his suitcase.  He handed it to Mark as he was buckling into the seat.

“Self preservation, Dixon,” Sam told him.  “You don’t want to be sober this week.”

Mark took a drink from the flask, nodded to Sam and passed it to Richie.

“Is it far from the airport?”  Mark asked.

“No,” Sam told him.  “Ten, fifteen minutes.”

“You’re going to fucking love it, Dixy,” Richie said.  “I’m half-hard thinking about it.  Everything you can drink, everything you can eat, all on company plastic.  All the motherfucking senior leaders taking turns sucking us off and telling us how much fucking business we do.  We’re the fucking rainmakers, Dix.  The rest of the poor fuckers they’re just farmers looking up at the sky and they’re just praying.  But they’re not praying to God, Dixy, they’re praying to us.”

Sam held up the flask as if to toast Mark and took a drink.  He handed it back to Mark.

The resort looked like a castle from the road.  It was a decadent sprawl of new construction.  It looked like four or five hotels had joined forces, settled on a Spanish conquistador motif and doubled down on the water features.

“1500 rooms, Dixy,” Richie said.  “Ten floors.  Twenty swimming pools.  Bars at the end of every hallway and a fucking pirate ship restaurant in a lagoon right in the middle.  Have you ever seen anything so fucking sexy?”

“There’s a decent course by here,” Sam said.  “We could skip some of the bullshit tomorrow and get nine holes in easy.”

“Fuck golf,” Richie said.  “I came to get lit and get fucked.  Tequila and road pussy.  I’m taking your money, boys.”  Richie hopped out of the van with his suitcase and ran toward the front doors.

Mark reached up and felt beads of sweat on his forehead.  “Shit, back home it would be fifty degrees still,” he said.

“Good thing we’re not back home then,” Sam said and slapped Mark on the back.  He tipped the driver and walked with Mark to front doors.

The inside of the resort was a different climate entirely.  The double front doors were an airlock.  There was Florida outside, humid and hazy and Florida inside, pleasantly cool and serenaded with subliminal background music.

There was a line for the front desk.  Other company salesmen, support staff, managers, product assholes and a surly DBA.  Mark shook their hands but forgot their names quickly.   Everyone knew who he was though.

“We need to get drinks, Dixon,” someone named Larry said.  “I’ll ping you.”

Mark nodded.  “Sure,” he said.

“Don’t waste your time with that guy,” Sam whispered to Mark after Larry left.

“What does he do?”  Mark asked.

Sam shrugged.  “No one cares.”

“You’re playing catch up, boys!”  Richie called to them as he walked by with a drink already in his hand.

“We’ll meet you in the courtyard,” Sam said.

“There are a dozen fucking courtyards, Sammy!”  Rich told him.

“We’ll find you.”

Richie flipped them off and walked away.

“I’m going to hit my room and clean up a little,” Mark told Sam after they got their room keys and event lanyards.

“Don’t take too long,” Sam said.  “Richie’s buying you drinks and if you’re not there to drink them, they just stack up.”

“Sure,” Mark said and started to walk away with his suitcase on rollers.

“Dixon,” Sam said before Mark was out of earshot.  Mark turned back to him.  “This is your year.  Don’t forget that.”

It didn’t sound as celebratory as it should have.  Mark smiled and nodded.

The resort complex was big enough that they gave out a map with your room key.  Mark’s room was in the Key Largo building.  The carpet was colored to look like sand and the walls were faded ocean blue.  The ceilings were rounded stucco.  The fixtures were painted gold or made to look like distressed beach wood.  He waited for the elevator in front of doors painted in an undersea still life.

Mark got to his room and put the suitcase on the bed.  The room was like most hotel rooms.  Clean.  Organized.  Professional.  Hotel rooms are designed to fade away, Sam told him when they went on the road after Mark first started.  They’re supposed to be unexceptional but efficient.  They’re not supposed to feel like home.  Mark had lost track of the hotel rooms in the last year.  Only his Hilton Honors account knew for sure.

Mark took a bottle of water out of the mini fridge and opened it while standing in front of the windows.  He drank half the bottle and pulled the curtains back.  There was a small balcony off of the room.  He opened the doors out onto it and stepped out to the wrought iron rail.  He was still inside.  He looked up at the glass dome overhead, modulating the sunlight.  His room looked down at one of the massive atriums in the resort complex.  From five floors up he could see hundreds of people in lanyards with tropical drinks and a few families in Bermuda shorts on vacation.  He watched a family; the dad with sandy hair, white shorts, a Hawaiian shirt and sandals; the mom in a floral dress; the kids in swimsuits with wet hair.  They were back from a water park or the pool, Mark assumed, and they would go to Universal City or Disney World later.  He watched them until the family entered one of the other buildings and disappeared.

Mark finished his bottle of water and then left the room to meet Richie and Sam.  He weaved through crowds, smiling at colleagues he didn’t know politely and scanned the opened areas for them.  He took out his phone to call them.  It rang in his hand.  Richie.

“I’m looking for you guys,” Mark said when he answered.

“Well, you’re shit at it, Dixy,” Richie told him.  “How the fuck can you sell ice to the Eskimos but you can’t even find your own ass with both hands?”

Mark could hear Richie laughing through the phone and out in the crowd.  Mark found them and made eye contact with Richie across the courtyard.  Richie gave him the finger.

“Your shots are getting lonely, Dixy,” Richie told him.

Mark hung up the phone and walked briskly to join them.  The two of them were at a small table that had several empty glasses and four shots waiting for Mark.

“That’s good shit, Dixy,” Richie said as Mark picked up the first shot.  “None of that lime and salt bullshit.  It’s smooth.  Real smooth. Thirty-five dollars a shot.”

“This is a hundred and forty dollars worth of tequila?”  Mark asked him.

“We’re just getting warmed up, Dix,” Richie said.  “That’s a fucking appetizer.”

Mark drank the tequila quickly and smiled at them.  “Smooth,” he said.

Richie laughed and took a drink from his margarita.  He finished his drink with a long sip from the straw and then leaned forward to Mark.  “I’m three quarters of the way to panty numero uno,” he said.

“How can you be three quarters of the way?”  Mark asked him.

Richie nodded toward a woman in a lanyard.  “Elsie Gaynor from Atlanta.  Finance or something I think.”  He winked at her and held up his glass.  “I’m going to text her something fucking filthy,” he said with a grin.

“You’re going to get busted for sexual harassment, Richie,” Mark told him.

“I fucking better,” Richie said.

Mark drank the second shot.  He looked over at Sam.  “How’s the hunt, Sam?”  He asked.

“It’s a marathon not a sprint,” Sam answered.  He was drinking beer.

“Another pearl of wisdom from Confucius Callahan,” Richie said, looking at his phone.  He thumbed out the rest of his message then sent it.   He smiled.  “That’s fucking dirty,” he said.  “Real fucking dirty.”

Shit number three.  “She’s going to come over here and slap you,” Mark said.

Richie watched Elsie Gaynor from Atlanta.  “No,” Richie said.  “Not this girl.”  Elsie took out her phone.  “She got it,” Richie said, “yeah, she got it.” He clapped his hands together.

Elsie read the message and looked up at Richie.  She shook her head and smirked.  She flipped him off.  She said something to the women she was with, quickly finished her drink and walked away, blushing.

“You’re a class act, Richie,” Mark said.  He drank the fourth shot.  He’d been mostly drunk for hours.

“Shit,” Richie said.  “Fuck.”

“Better luck next time, ladykiller,” Sam told him.

“Another round, guys?”  Mark asked and waved over at a cocktail waitress.

“If you’re buying,” Richie said with a chuckle that turned into a cackling laugh.

“What?”  Mark asked.

“The drinks are on your room, Mark,” Sam explained.

“All the fucking drinks, Dixy,” Richie said.  “You’re the high roller diamond cup motherfucker.”

Mark smiled.  He felt the booze in his cheeks.  He felt it hot in his guts.  The cocktail waitress walked over.  She was impossibly young with dark hair, tan skin and eyes as sharp as diamonds.  “Shots all around,” Mark said, holding up his empty shot glass.  “Then two of whatever this loser is drinking.”  He pointed to Richie’s margarita and then turned to Sam.

“Another beer, please,” Sam told her.

“Got it,” the waitress said.

“Hey,” Richie said, catching her attention.  “Do you have a policy here about fraternization?”

“I have a personal policy against dealing with douche bags,” she told him.  “Does that count?”

Mark and Sam immediately laughed and Richie turned bright red.

“I’ll be back with your drinks, fellas,” she said and left.

Rich watched her walk away and poured some ice into his mouth, crunching it with his teeth.  “What kind of customer service is that?”  He asked.

“I like her,” Mark said.  “I’m gonna give her a big tip.”

“That was pretty much what I was thinking too, Dixy,” Richie said and punched Mark in the shoulder.

Mark shook his head.  “You’re drunk.”

“I’m working on it, Dix,” Richie replied.

“You’re a piece of shit sexual predator, Hollister,” Sam said with a half smile.

Richie showed a mouthful of crushed ice.  “I’m a lion, Sammy.  I’m the top of the food chain.”  He roared and shook his head.  He swallowed the last bits of broken ice.

“Where are you guys at?  What buildings?”  Mark asked Sam and Richie.

“I’m in the Everglades,” Sam said.  “Top floor.”

Richie looked down at his lanyard.  “Fuck if I know,” he said.  “I put my bag in storage with the front desk.  I’ll figure it out later.  When I’ve got someone to take back there with me.”

“You?”  Sam asked Mark.

“Key Largo,” Mark said.  “Fifth floor.  Room seems nice enough.”

“Forty-four mill ought to get you a fucking suite,” Richie told him.  “Shit, last year the top dog was what, thirty-six?”

“Thirty-seven,” Sam said.  Last year the top dog was Sam.  Sam was the top salesman the four of the last seven years.

“Forty-four million dollars is a lot of dollars,” Richie said.  “You make us look like fucking assholes with a first year like that.”

“You don’t need a lot of help for that, Richie,” Sam said.

Richie flipped him off.  “Go fuck yourself, Callahan.”

“It was a good year,” Mark agreed.

“It was a deal with the fucking devil year,” Richie said.  “It was a kill a man and leave him in a God damn swamp just because year.”

“Thirty-eight is pretty close,” Mark said. “Beat last year’s highest numbers.”

“Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades,” Sam said.

“Put them in a book!”  Richie boomed.  “Or at least knit that shit into some doilies, Sammy.  Don’t just waste your fortune cookie one-liners on us.”

Sam ignored Richie.  “Did Bob call you?”  He asked Mark.

Mark nodded.  “Yeah,” he said.  “Right after the final numbers on Pinnacle posted.”  Bob Castle the CEO.  Seeing his name on the caller ID was like getting a direct call from the president.  Mark had met him several times at different meetings and had been on conference calls with him but when Bob called, it was just them.  They talked for fifteen minutes.

“What does Bob talk to you about?”  Richie asked.

“Golf,” Sam said with a smile.

“Pretty much,” Mark said.

The waitress came back with their drinks.  “I hope you guys recover from five minutes of forced sobriety.”

“It was tough but we made it through,” Sam told her.

“Hey I’m sorry if I was out of line before,” Richie said.  “It’s the jet lag.”

“Sure,” she said.

“Yeah,” Richie said.  “Look, if you want you can spank me, you know?  Because I’ve been a bad, bad boy.”

Mark kicked Richie under the table.  “Stop it, Richie.  Just shut the fuck up.”

“No, Dixy, no,” Richie said.  He held up his hand to Mark.  He looked at the waitress.  “Theoretically, how many of these do you get paid per hour?”  Richie held up the tequila shot.  He smiled at her and took the shot quickly.  “I’m drinking more than you’re worth.”

The waitress picked up Richie’s margarita and poured it in his lap.

“Fucking bitch!”  Richie shouted and stood up.

“Get another server, shithead,” the waitress told him and started to walk away.

Richie started to move toward her and Mark and Sam got to their feet and intervened.

“What the fuck is the matter with you?!”  Mark shouted at Richie.

“Cunt!”  Richie shouted loud enough the whole courtyard stopped and stared at him.  “I’m going to get your ass fired!”

“Sit down!”  Sam shouted at Richie.

Richie was shaking furious, the veins in his neck bulged out, his muscles tensed and then all of a sudden he stopped.  He went right into laughing and sat down at the table.  “Orlando, Dixy,” he said.  “I love this fucking city.”

Mark didn’t know what to say or how to respond.  He wanted to bust Richie’s teeth out or take another shot.  He wanted to breathe real air.

“You should get cleaned up, Rich,” Sam told Richie.

Richie looked down at his pants.  “Yeah,” he said.  “You want to get some steaks later?”

“Yeah,” Sam said.  “We’ll catch up later.”

Richie stood up again and walked away without another word.

“There’s something wrong with him, Sam,” Mark said.

Sam shrugged.  “He’s blowing off steam,” he said.  “All year it’s hit those numbers.  Hit that target and go over the top.  Next Monday he’ll be in Tulsa.  Tuesday he’ll be in St. Paul.  ABCs, Mark.”  Sam took a swallow from his beer.  “We should move on,” he suggested.  “There’s another bar across the courtyard.”

Mark looked around the tables.  Everyone had just gone back to their drinks or appetizers like nothing had happened.

“Come on,” Sam said.  “They settle when you check out.”

Mark nodded.  He downed his shot and followed.

The next hotel bar was just like the first.  Sam got them drinks.  Mark sat at a table with a view of the pirate ship.

“It’s a full scale recreation,” Sam told him when he returned with the drinks.  “Someone told me it’s seaworthy.”

“That sounds like bullshit,” Mark said.

Sam smiled.  “Probably is.”

“I can’t drink like this for four days, Sam,” Mark told him.

“You’d be surprised,” Sam said.

Mark took sip from his drink. “What is this?”

“Fuck if I know,” Sam said and snickered.  “I think there’s rum in it.”  He laughed more.  “Just don’t throw up in the lagoon.”

“How many years is this for you?”  Mark asked.  “How many of these?”

Sam looked around.  “This is eleven,” he said.  “Before that it was some other asshole sales rah rah in some other asshole place though.  Twenty-seven years of living the dream.”

“You still like it?”  Mark asked him.

“What else am I going to do?  Tend bar?”

Mark took another swallow of his mystery rum drink.  He was pretty sure pineapple juice was involved.  “I worked in a bar in college.”

“Everybody did stupid worthless shit in college,” Sam said.  “You can’t let it mean anything.”

Mark looked around the bar at all of the company lanyards.  “But this means something, right?”

“Fuck them,” Sam said.  “The only things that matter are the numbers in your bank account and the shit eating grin on your face.”

“I feel like the homecoming queen,” Mark said.  “Or like a hero back from war.”

“What’s the first thing I told you about sales?”  Sam asked.

“I don’t remember,” Mark answered.  “You said a lot of things.”

“I said sales is about people,” Sam said.

“Right,” Mark said.  “People.”

“That’s bullshit though, Dixon,” Sam told him.  “Fuck people.  It isn’t about them at all.  People are fucking props.”

“I don’t remember this in the quarterly sales review calls, Sam,” Mark said cynically.

“Do you want to know what it’s really about?  I mean, I shouldn’t have to tell you.  You came out of the gate with a record breaking fucking year.”

“For argument’s sake,” Mark said.  “What’s sales all about?”

“It’s about you,” Sam said and poked Mark in the chest.  “It’s about knowing yourself, stretching yourself, fucking hating yourself.  Every morning you gotta ask yourself how far am I willing to go and if you want to keep up with the big boys you have to go farther every fucking day.  You have to put it all into the pot, Dixon.  Forget the wife and kids.  I’ve been divorced four times.  My kids have college tuition and six figure therapy bills.  You see what kind of husband Richie is. He’s an awful piece of shit human being and I feel sorry for any kids that end up with him as their dad.”

Sam took a big drink from his glass.   “You want to do this, you want to really do it, you have to ante it up,” he continued.  “You’re selling on your anniversary.  You’re selling instead of watching your retarded idiot kid play softball.  You’re selling in your sleep, Dixon and you’ll do anything you have to do to close that deal.  You have anything decent or worthwhile left in yourself you just scrape it out and throw it in.  We’re not good people, Mark.  We don’t get to be good.  We’re winners.”

“All so we can drink thirty-five dollar tequila shots?”  Mark asked.

“That’s right,” Sam said.  “But it’s more than just sales, Dixon,” Sam said.  “What I’m talking about is more than just selling.  It’s life.  That’s how it works.  You and me and Richie, we’re killers.  We go for blood.  There are two kinds of people.  Those who do what it takes to get what they want and the rest of them.”

“Richie’s right,” Mark said.  “You should put it in a book.”

Sam smiled at him.  He held up his drink for a toast.  “Salesman of the year,” he called out.  “Mark Dixon!  Forty-four million!”

Other people in the bar applauded.

“This is for you, buddy,” Sam said with his white teeth.  “You did it.”

Mark smiled and waved around the bar.  He downed the rest of his drink.

Sam’s phone buzzed and lit up on the table.  He picked it up and unlocked the screen.  He laughed and showed the phone to Mark.  It was a picture of lacy underwear under a dark skirt with smooth spread legs.  The pic was forwarded from Richie’s text messages.  “Elsie fucking Gaynor,” Sam said.  “That piece of shit, Hollister.  The game is fucking on.”

“I think this rum is turning on me,” Mark said and got up from the table.  “I’ll be right back.”

“Watch out for the lagoon, Dixon!”  Sam called after him.

Mark nodded and staggered away from the bar.

“You’re a fucking stud, Dixon!”  A lanyard told him with a slap on the back.

“Thank you,” Mark said.

“They were all bluebirds, you sonofabitch!”

“Thanks,” Mark said.

“Nice work, Dixon,” Bob Castle told him by the entrance to the steak house.  “Hope you can get to the stage for the winners circle tomorrow night.”  He shook Mark’s hand.

“Thank you,” Mark said.  “Excuse me.”

He kept moving.  He steadied himself on a palm tree.  He closed his eyes and tried to clear his head.  He opened his eyes and saw the water park family.  He saw them walking away.  What if he wanted that?  What if he didn’t want anything at all?  What would that take?

Mark looked for an exit.  He looked for something that went outside.  “How do I get out?”  He asked people.  “Where’s the fucking exit?  This place is a nightmare.”  He walked in circles.  He was in some new fake paradise and couldn’t find his way out of it.  He saw a black door marked “Emergency Exit.”  He went to the door and pushed it out and almost fell onto the asphalt of a parking lot.

Mark doubled over and felt like he was going to throw up but didn’t.  He felt the heat and the half boiled air.  He looked at the hazy darkening sky, at the smog orange and the last desperate yellow.

“You’re not supposed to be out here,” a woman told him from somewhere back by the resort wall.  “It’s a staff door.  Your room key won’t get you in.”

Mark straightened himself up and turned to see the cocktail waitress from the first bar.  She was smoking a cigarette.  “Fuck,” he said.

“I’m not in that business, creepo,” she said.  “Try the internet.”

“No,” Mark said.  “I’m sorry.  I’m really sorry.  I’m not trying to- …  I’m just not, okay?”

“You guys really know how to get wasted before sunset, huh?”

“It’s a special occasion,” Mark told her.  “I’m salesman of the year.”  She didn’t seem impressed.  He would be disappointed if she was.  “Look, did you get into trouble?”  Mark asked her.  “Because of my friend?”

“No,” she said.  “He’s not the first forty year old frat boy that thinks spring break follows my ass around and he’s not the first asshole that got a drink in his lap for it.  It happens around here.   I’ll get a shit tip.  Maybe get docked if he disputes the tab.”  She shrugged and flicked ash from the end of her cigarette.  “Really not the end of the world.”

“It’s my tab,” Mark said.  “On me, I mean.  I won’t dispute it.  I won’t give you a shit tip either.”

“Whatever,” she said.

“Do you live here?”  Mark asked her.  “Around here?”

She nodded.  “Poorlando,” she told him.  “Out that way,” she pointed, “past the highway.  About as far from Disney as you can get.”

Why do you work here?”  Mark asked.

“Because I can’t quit smoking,” she said.  She took a drag.  “Theoretically, I’m worth about a pack an hour.”

“I’m sorry,” Mark repeated.  “My friend was an asshole.  He is an asshole.”

“Sounds like a good friend,” she said.

“I can’t stand him actually,” Mark said.  “I can’t stand any of them really.”

“Go home salesman of the year, you’re drunk,” she said with a smile.

Mark laughed.  “I have a shitty fucking condo,” he told her.  “I have a shitty fucking girlfriend and a shitty fucking five thousand dollar television.”

“Sounds terrible,” she told him.  She looked at her phone.  She took a final drag from her cigarette and tossed it onto the blacktop.

“I was you before,” Mark said.  “I was you.  I was younger.  I was, I don’t know,different.  I used to think I wasn’t going to be like this.  I used to think I’d end up better than me.”

“My break’s over,” she said.  “I have to go back in.  I can let you through the door or else you’re going to have to walk around the outside to the front doors.”

“What?”  Mark asked her.

She stomped on the cigarette.  “Break’s over, man,” she said.

“Thanks,” Mark said.  “I’ll stay out a little while.  I can walk around.”

She crouched down and picked up the cigarette butt from the ground.  “Listen, I’m not supposed to smoke out here.”

“I won’t tell anyone,” Mark said.  He sat down on the asphalt.  It was hot enough that he felt it through his khakis.

“Okay,” she said and walked back to the door.  It beeped from her keycard and she went inside.

Mark looked out at the distance and listened to the highway.  He looked up and watched airplanes coming and going.