Elsewhere Next Time

horrorhouse

They came down the road together, Authelet, Donovan, and Corinne, passing the house with a hundred cats, and carrying their books under their arms. None of them dressed appropriately for the cold. I watched them approaching from the bus stop, the boys grinning, Authelet slashing at the weeds in the drainage ditch with a stick, Corinne smoking, her hair still limp and wet from a morning shower.
We shivered in our denim jackets as we studied the graveyard situated across from the bus stop in the growing morning light. On our return home yesterday we discovered a new grave had been dug in our little historical cemetery, an unprecedented event. We contemplated that mound of fresh earth covered in morning frost. Corinne dropped her cigarette and mashed it under her heel.

“Hey! Let’s throw Corinne in the grave!” Authelet said, and all but Corinne could not imagine a better idea. Her large blue eyes widened, exaggerated by heavy application of eye-liner.

“No!” she howled as we seized her twisting wrists and pulled her toward the graveyard.
Three of us pulling one girl. Her plump ass hit the ground, her heels dug in against us. We dragged her through the sand, which was piled up on the edges of Maple Valley Road, her dragging behind plowing a wake. She screamed, and yanked at our wrist-bruising holds. Her feet kicked out from under her butt as we hauled her like a sled, bumping her off the road and into the weeds. She twisted and her arms crossed and she became much easier to drag as we backed toward the cemetery steps.

“Please! No! No! No!” she cried pathetically her voice loudly ricocheting around the early morning snooze. No house lights flicked on in the twilight, no grown-ups yelled from their porches to rescue her.
Her struggle made me warm. I didn’t want the game to end. But as we got her to the first of the granite steps of the little cemetery, Corinne wriggled her right arm free. The boys gave up, and so I reluctantly let her go as well. Her eyes met mine for a searching second. I shrugged.

“Baby,” someone said.
She reached up to me for a hand up, making it obvious with her expression that I owed her that, and I pulled her to her feet. Her momentary desperation shed like flicking away a sudden spider.

“No gettin’ her dumpy ass up these steps anyway,” Donovan muttered, chuckling.

“Fuck you, Donovan!” Corinne snarled. Boys were never addressed by their given names.

Authelet joined him, guffawing, “wudda baby!”

“Ow,” Corinne moaned, rubbing her wrists and slapping at the seat of her jeans with a pout, again aimed at me. I was the oldest. Without me the others wouldn’t have been able to move her.

“Let’s check it out!” Donovan yelled.

We scrambled up the steps into the unkempt graveyard, raised four feet from street level with granite blocks. To the back of it was a frozen swamp that burped and gurgled with the sounds of banjo frogs in the springtime. Some of the huge stone blocks had slid out of place. The little cemetery was slowly merging into the swamp and bull briers protected parts of it like natural barbed wire. We enjoyed imagining we could see coffins poking out back there.

The graves closest to the wetland were eighteenth century, and the gravestones—some of them sheets of slate covered in pale green lichens—aimed at unusual angles and were weather worn to unreadable. Some of them fell over long ago. People buried and forgotten. But now, at the front, this new grave gawped at us. We took turns spitting into the squared pit.

“Wicked,” Donovan said.

The headstone, which was already in place, was one of those dual headstones with the dead husband already cataloged in the hole next door. It had yet to be dedicated for the arrival of the wife.
Corinne stood boldly by us as we looked into the dark depth of the thing, the steep sides, the slick muck at the bottom, plant roots and fallen crickets.

“Wooo!” Authelet howled into the hole.

As the bus arrived we scrambled off the graveyard and rushed to board, hoping to secure coveted back seats.
We used Ouija boards, ate hot dogs and mac and cheese, and on Saturdays could watch the Creature Double Feature in the afternoons.

Back in the summer, Corinne had ridden her horse, bareback, to my house, rather surprising me as I poked at nothing in the front yard.

“What are you doing?” she asked from her perch, holding a handful of mane.

“Nothin’,” I replied honestly.

She slid off in her frayed cut-offs and dirty bare feet. We stood awkwardly while I stroked the big beast’s neck and he snuffled disinterestedly around, chewing the weeds. Corinne rode him without any of the usual horse-riding tack, no bridle, not even a halter. What caused him to behave for her?

“His name is Gold,” she said.

I nodded, noting that his overall, light brown coloration could be interpreted so.

She leaned close, “He’s named for my favorite kind of pot.” Her eyes were on mine, watching for my reaction to this revelation.

“Oh,” I replied, focusing on Gold’s weed-eating, trying not to look too carefully at Corinne’s pert cleavage
under her white, peasant blouse. A set of love-beads dangling on her chest teased.

I knew nothing of pot. My father had warned me that dope pushers got the death penalty in New York City. When I told kids this it seemed to embolden them. I didn’t tell this to Corinne, wanted her to imagine I was at least a little bit savvy. She stood near me, measured her height against me with her hand, seemed displeased.

“Colombian Gold,” She added with gravity, nodding, her feathered brown hair slipping down round her foundation-smoothed cheeks. Further actual feathers of blue and green dangled from her earrings.

Gold grabbed a thistle and seemed to relish it, minding not at all its needles, shaking it up and down as he chewed it absently.

I found Corinne stunning. She seemed untouched by nature or man. My legs were covered in bites and scratches from running through blackberry. I had a poison ivy rash on my ankle I’d scratched bloody. Her legs were perfect smoothness, her rubbery round thighs mesmerized me. My face burned as I studied her. I didn’t look directly at her big blue eyes which never seemed to blink or avert. I felt her waiting for me to meet them. I sweated in the sun, kept petting Gold, smelled that pleasant horse scent. Everywhere I patted him dust rose. Gold continued yanking on asters and deer grass and plantain. It was fascinating to watch him browse, his dexterous upper lip rolling about.

“How old are you?”

“Thirteen and three quarters,” I specified.

She pouted, “You’ll get your license before me.”

“That’s my car,” I bragged, pointing at Dad’s 72 VW Beetle. “Well, it will be when I get my license.”

“Lucky!” she said.

Some minutes passed as she watched me devoting to the horse.

“Well, I gotta go,” Corinne said finally, “help me up.”

“How’d you get on him?”

“I brought him over to the fence. You don’t have a fence. Help me up, OK?”

She pressed her toes onto my cupped hands, and I accidentally managed to get a good hold of her left butt cheek in the process of pushing her up. Then our eyes met for a moment. She didn’t say anything, didn’t even smile, just rode away, a serious hippy Indian.

Maple Valley, where our bus stop was central, was famous for ancient gunfighters, and tuberculosis inspired vampire legends. The Donovans said they had a ghost that went through the wall, where later it was revealed the original plans for the house showed there had been a door. I supposed the ghost was still living in the old house. The ghost had a ghost house.
Up the road a dirt trail that ran directly into the Audubon preserve was called Biscuit Hill Road and the story went that a revolutionary war wagon loaded down with vittles overturned there. I always pictured biscuits rolling down the hill. In the other direction, an old cracker-box shaped home had once been an inn and had housed American Revolutionary war hero General Lafayette for a time. We were told there was a gouge in the stone fireplace mantle where he had struck it with his sword in a fit of rage. It seemed a bad thing to do to a sword.

“If ya eat right before ya go ta bed you’ll have a nightmare of a demon sittin’ on ya chest,” said Authelet one morning as we sat on the graveyard revetment.

I didn’t believe it, though I didn’t test his theory, nor the theory that the black and metallic green, elongate insects we called “sewing needles”, that always fluttered near the streams, could, and more weirdly, would sew your lips shut.

We also believed that Teddy Wolfe, an older kid who lived up by the Kershaws, had been to Sockanosset training school and was shooting drugs. Donovan had led us to Wolfe’s tree fort one afternoon, and we had peeked in and it sure did look like there were syringes in there, a mess of them.

“I’ve put fifteen kids in the hospital,” Wolfe grinned, having met us on the road one day, and to make the point more stridently, pulled out his pocket knife and opened it up. It wasn’t a very special pocket knife, wasn’t a flip-knife, nor did it even have a particularly impressive blade.

“How old are you?” my brother asked him.

“Fifteen,” he said proudly.

“One kid for each year,” Donovan chirped brightly.

“Only fifteen?” I said, surprised. Why did we think he was so much older? No way he’d been to Sockanosset.
Then he put the point of the knife against my chest as we walked. I didn’t look at him, kept walking, pushed into it. I felt my face burn, why did he need to show off for me?

“Walk into it why don’t cha?” Wolfe laughed. “Not my fault if ya get stabbed!”
He added some pressure, I could feel the point through my jacket. I kept walking forward, and he suddenly gave up.

“I’ll be sixteen in two months!” he added happily.

Then a woman’s voice called, “Teddy!” He folded the knife and with a strange hopping motion, ran off in the direction of her voice.

We returned to our game of pulling up mare’s tails and hurling them, roots and all, like spears. Enjoying their
thud and the splash of dirt as they hit the road. It reminded us of the ape attack scene from Planet of the Apes.

“Ah-woo gah!” we cried, imitating the alarm from the movie and hurling our make-shift spears. Behind us the road was littered with dirt and elongate weeds.

Sometimes, in the summer, my younger brother and I would coax the Divine sisters, Chrissy and Kendra, into the rowboat with us. The Divine sisters matched our ages but went to Catholic school and we mostly only saw them during the summer, mostly at the stream.

“You’re not gonna sink it, right?” Chrissie asked earnestly. “I just wanna boat ride.”

“Naw, just a boat ride,” I said with a smile, lying directly into her striking dark eyes from my seat in the stern, Patrick grinning from the prow.

The fact that there were no oars in the boat didn’t seem to bother her. We waited while she stepped daintily into the boat and took the middle seat in her green one-piece. We pushed off shore with our victim, and once out in the middle of the stream we started rocking.

“No!” Chrissie screamed, her slender legs kicking at me.

“Woah, rough water!” we laughed and rocked harder with a kind of synchronized log-rolling exercise.
Waves of water began lapping the shore where Chrissie’s sister Kendra stood swatting at mosquitoes. Authelet and Donovan watched passively, their arms folded over their pale rib cages, this was old hat.

“Stop! Stop!” she cried.

“It’s outta control! We’re goin’ down!”

Water began sloshing over one side, then the other, and the rocking slowed as the boat got heavier, finally slicing sideways like an ice cream scoop and filling up at once like a bucket. Our weight pushed it against the crunchy gravel bottom. Chrissie sputtered in the water, and then swam to shore frog-style, thrilling me with her pretty, willing vulnerability.

Patrick and I raised the boat, rolling it bottom up, the stream being shallow enough to stand. We’d lift a side and let the air gasp into the overturned wooden hull. You could then go under it and talk, making a darkened little echo chamber where the sunlight played on the inside of the dome as it was reflected off the stream bed. Then we’d push the rowboat up onto the sand, flipping it and emptying out the water.

“OK who’s next?” I said as we readied the boat for a relaunch.

Kendra stepped up, “You guys won’t sink it, right?”

That same stream flowed all around the neighborhood and I occasionally followed it with a fly rod throughout its snaky meandering. It, in fact, once you by-passed the swamp behind the graveyard—where it vanished for a few acres—took you right behind Corinne’s house, where I never managed to spot her. Gold was in a small paddock there, swishing his tail, chewing on hay. I would mind my own business flicking around a dry fly version of a Muddler Minnow pattern (my dad’s favorite), generally catching creek chubs or fingerling brook trout, all the while doing my best to perceive any sign of Corinne. I had no lure for her, no special bait.

When we returned from school that day the grave had been filled, a pile of flowers in front of the stone and on the fresh dirt. We climbed the steps and stood around it. There’s a new dead person here, I thought, right here.

“Constance Mercy Barnett,” Donovan read.

“Born eighteen ninety-four, died nineteen seventy-six,” Authelet read.

“Eighty-two years,” I said in wonder. Was she “Connie” to her friends?
We were quiet a moment. A breeze kicked up and moved the last of the dead leaves on the trees.

“Wanna wrestle?” Corinne asked me, bumping her hip against me.

We trotted back down the cemetery steps and laid our books carefully aside. I grabbed her around the hips and pulled her down. She thrashed about wildly, her shoes flying off. The boys stood around us grinning as sand was kicked about and grass stained our jeans. Corinne wasn’t playing nice, pinched hard, tried to dig her nails in. I pushed her hands back, pinned them behind her on her side.

“Ow!” she cried.

“Say uncle!” I panted.

She refused, her lips pursed tightly as she breathed hard through her nose, her perfectly smooth nostrils flaring. I was aware of my boner pressing into her thigh, and her eyes were locked on mine, a little flicker of something in them. She knew. I got off her.

“Again!” she said, jumping to her stocking feet, her hands at the ready, crouching, hair mussed, her face pure, wide-open, pink.

I was done, my boner was impinging on me–a sturdy kid hard-on. “We can go again tomorrow, I gotta go.”

“Chicken!” she yelled as she picked up her shoes. And she kept yelling “Balsam’s chicken!” as she walked up Maple Valley, causing Donovan and Authelet to laugh heartily. I was going the other direction wondering if I could get my hands elsewhere next time.

One day Corinne and her friend Michelle came to the bus stop together dressed as mice. They wore remarkably short skirts, dark stockings, mouse ears and painted on whiskers. It was a display I could not fathom nor could I take my eyes off of them. Everything else about our lives was exactly the same except Corinne and her friend Michelle were suddenly provocative mice. There were no school spirit days that called for dressing as mice. There were no mascot mice for sporting events. I was unaware of any drama club production that required teenage beauties looking like Minnie Mouse. No one else seemed to much care about the girls as mice, but they inhabited my imaginings for months afterwards. What I would have given to be their cat.

Eventually, Corinne stopped coming to the bus stop, and soon quit school. We’d occasionally see her, hanging around with a high-schooler named Hargraves, riding around in his Duster, her eyes always reddened, a dumb grin filling her wide face. Colombian Gold.

“Hi, buuurn-ooouts!” Donovan waved, laughing as they went by.

“She’s pregnant,” he told us.

“She can’t hide it no more,” Authelet laughed.

And then she was gone. It was as if we’d tossed her into a bottomless grave or she’d passed through that wall where a door had once been.

One day, sinking the rowboat by myself, rolling it over and burping the air into it. I slid under to enjoy the small, private, sun-dappled space. After a few moments of floating like this, clinging to the overturned seat, Chrissie Divine suddenly popped up, causing me to bang my head in surprise. She sputtered, wiped her black hair out of her gleaming eyes and smiled. She waved her slender limbs, glowing under the water as though she’d been painted with radium.

“Neat!” she said, looking at the dancing light effects on the dome of the overturned hull.

“Uh huh,” I nodded.

And then, after a moment, “Do you like me?” I could hear her every breath, each consonant perfectly enunciated. I could hear the flick of her eyelashes. The way she said “me” warmed my abdomen and face.

I chuckled, huffing a bit, “Um.” I wanted to grab her, kiss her, swallow her whole, but I did nothing.

She frog-kicked herself closer, and I heard a cheer from outside our cozy space and something clunking solidly against the overturned hull. I touched the stream bed and raised the edge and saw Donovan and Authelet in their swimsuits laughing as they prepared to hurl another waterlogged branch, breaking the spell.

GLORY [Accepted for publication by Seven Circle Press for Dec 2016]

scatecase

Glory! Look what I caught!” Pepe yelled as he ran up the small hillock, hopping about, scattering the gulls. When he reached Glory he began kissing the gasping face of a truly ugly black fish he’d just pulled up onto the rock he was fishing from.
Glory stumbled back, making distance from the monstrosity being shoved at her, back from her collecting of beach-rose hips, which they all called “apples”.
“Monkey?!” she cried out in surprise, spitting out half of a chewed rose hip. The fish was the size of a child, weirdly flattened, and had too many teeth in its wide mouth. Glory held her breath, she didn’t want to know what the hideous monster Pepe was so excited about was, and was shocked with his kissing it.
“Frog?” she sputtered like a sneeze, and then she clapped a jittery mitten-clad hand—mittens worn to protect from the rose prickers—over her round mouth again as Pepe turned the fish to look—so it seemed to Glory—directly at her. Its shining goggle eyes, and vast mouth seemed to want to swallow her, she screamed.
“Get it away!”
Pepe stopped his excited fidgeting and gave Glory a grave look. “‘at look like a monkey? . . . You kids, you don’t know nothin’.” He hooked his hand in the gill and let the ample fish dangle from his arm. It twisted awfully, slimy black tail curling in the sunlight.
“Oh, no!” Glory fled the hillock, leaving the apples behind. Pepe watched her gangly run down the dune with the deflated look of a serially losing coach. She was getting big.
“Ya don’t know nothin’ . . . ” He started yelling after her, “you’ll never amount to nuthin, not scientists, not engineers, not artists! Nuthin! . . .”
As she reached the beach, Glory began twisting one of her ears and pretending it was a tremendous pain to have her ear used in such a way by Pepe. She wrinkled her nose and cried in a kind of pantomime of despair. The rant in her ear. Please, no more.
Pepe was red-faced from shouting after her, but wasn’t quite finished, “Frog, you say? You think I’m out here catching frogs? . . . Frogs and monkeys? C’mon, think a minute!”
Finally, Glory out of range, he trudged back to his sticks and string, back to smashing those nasty blue-black mussels with a rock, putting them on a hook, lowering them into the surf. No one gave a good-goddamned about what Pepe was doing—except the gulls who patiently observed him from a respectable distance.

When Pepe was in a better mood, he often told them about the “olden days” he remembered. The days when they grew the food: watermelons, tomatoes, cabbages, something called basil, and lots of other things Glory could not remember the names of. He said he could remember turning over the soil, planting the seeds. He told them about the smell of fertilizer. He was often showing the kids the soil. “This is good soil!” he’d say, pointing at it. The kids would nod, look around, kick at the ground a bit. What he hell does “good soil” mean? He also reminisced about catching fish, his eyes shining as they sat around the campfire, but those fish had been different, sleeker, taller, silvery-sided, man-sized—Pepe would stretch his arms completely out. These were the fish his father knew how to find. The mysterious personage of a father-of-Pepe boggled Glory’s mind. It was often the last thought she had before falling asleep, picturing Pepe’s father, some sort mythic ancient creature. Pepe told them something else too, about dogs and cats, and how in those olden days, sometimes a dog or cat would get lost and people would look for it. They’d hang pictures of the lost pet, ask if anyone had seen it, and sometimes, these lost dogs and cats would find their families again.

Glory could no longer remember when she had first seen Pepe, could no longer remember where she had been when he found her, picked her up, carried her. It seemed to her that Pepe and Nolan and now even most of the others had always been around her. If she concentrated really hard she could almost see something she couldn’t quite recall, from before, but it was too hard to focus. There may have been a kitchen she sat in, a mother she had cried to, but remembering was like trying to count the eels in a bucket when Pepe would scoop them with his net. They moved so fast, so wiggly, so alike. And there had been fire. Fire was her clearest and oldest memory.
Pepe taught her rules. Most importantly, do not talk to strangers, strangers made people disappear, especially soldiers. So they would run and hide from strangers. He also taught her to not let the boys sleep with her.
Pepe tried to teach some of the bigger kids to fight a bit, taught them to swing sticks, and how to use the pocket knives they’d found, but Glory was not allowed to take part in that.
The strangers, of course, had guns.
Mounds of runny slum-bullion were dished out of a bucket onto makeshift plates—hubcaps and shingles. No one asked what was in it, all hoped it wasn’t those terrible mussels. It seemed tremendously unfair that the easily collected animals were always the worst slime imaginable. But there was fish in the stew today. Glory sat with the others and watched the darkening horizon. The light show was spectacular, some nights better than others. Tonight there were lots of flashes and smoke plumes. It was a powerfully mesmerizing effect, holding all their shining faces until they slept.
“Why come we can’t hear it?” Glory asked, slipping into her most comfortable voice.
“Cause it’s too far away,” Nolan answered.
“So why come we can we see it?” she asked, rubbing her nose.
“Because it’s not far enough away.”
Glory nodded, imagining understanding. She knew she’d be smart like Nolan one day. She’d know stuff, too. Sometimes she tried to imitate Nolan’s brow. His was always knotted, and Glory supposed this meant something.

Later that night, as it cooled down, Glory pushed into Nolan’s tent, a bit of cloth stretched over a branch wedged into the beach sand. She worked herself feet-first into his blanket, and wrapped herself around Nolan from behind. She knew he didn’t like this, and that Pepe would be mad, but she couldn’t help it. She didn’t like to be alone at night, even after the horizon calmed down, after the flashes and muffled thunder stopped, and even after the whimpering of the littlest ones.
Glory practiced saying the new knowledge Nolan taught her. Too far to hear, but not too far to see. We can see farther than we can hear. She hoped someone—one of the younger kids perhaps—would ask her so she could say it.
“Oh, not again, Monkey,” Nolan hissed at her as she woke him, using the name for her she did not like.
“Do you think they sing songs?” Glory asked, resting her head on his bare shoulder, once he calmed down, accepted her there under his sandy blanket, and pressing her cold feet against his calves.
“No, they are damned bad people, they don’t have songs, just guns,” he muttered sleepily, “Monkey.”
Glory smiled, perfect eyebrows arching over her large dark eyes. Her dark curly hair needed brushing out. She burped softly and was sure the stew meat was that horrible thing Pepe had pulled from the sea. That horrible face gripped her, its bug eyes staring at her, its things flaring like wings. Had they eaten that? It was too horrible to accept. She had had a flash in her head, she had decided that it would eat her, the same way the sea with all its limitless creatures would, if she were not careful. And Pepe kissed it, like he expected it to turn into something better, just like in that story. Where had that story come from?

The next day there was a lot of mess on the beach, the new moon tides had distributed much of the previous night’s battle and deposited some of it near the little camp of refugees.
Here and there were bodies. Flies and small green crabs had already found them. The bodies were always in the most uncomfortable positions, always half buried in the sand, arms and legs oddly arranged. The kids studied them carefully, the tougher ones got much closer. Pepe had told them that the dead don’t miss comfort, but the stares he got from the kids stopped him explaining it further. Gulls flapped overhead waiting their turn, having been chased off by the older boys.
“More soldiers?” Glory leaned close to Pepe, this was the first time she’d come so close.
“Of course they are, you fool, or, leastwise, . . . were.” But there were times when it had been civilians on the beach as well, but Pepe didn’t want to reminisce about that, didn’t see the point in it.
“Are they ours?” asked another young boy who was called Dimple.
Pepe chuckled mirthlessly, he could have said, “There’s no such thing as ours.” He’d said that before, but instead he just said “Yeah,” with a sigh. He dropped to his knees and closing the corpse’s eyes with a little prayer and gesticulation, began rummaging the pockets. Objects were passed around the group, the little ones collected the coins, and fought over the best ones. “That’s a lighter, hang on to that.”
Glory held on to a picture, already passed around the small hands. A picture of a pretty woman, very pale, blue eyes. The woman smiled a sad smile. Glory stacked it with a growing package of paper also handed to her from Pepe’s rifling, his hands moving almost frantically. Then up and on to the next one.
Glory studied the pile of papers as they moved, it was a pile of letters tied up, all indecipherable and smudged, but fascinating nonetheless, the stamps, the hand-writing, the little hearts, kid’s drawings, maps, clippings from color magazines, cards and so on. She maintained a collection.
“Are they good guys?” Nolan asked Pepe.
“Yeah, these were good guys,” Pepe said with another sigh.
“How can you tell?” Nolan asked.
Pepe stared at Nolan, a growth spurt on this kid. Pepe’s authority no longer enough, Nolan wants knowledge. Pepe grinned, pointed at a star sewn into the shoulder of the man’s uniform, “You see that star? That means he’s a good guy.” Pepe spat on the sand.
Glory also had a revelation this morning, it was the first time she’d understood clearly that her conduit to another world was coming from the pockets of these soldiers. As she studied the package a small picture of three children, all as white as the gulls with hair the color of the sun found its way to her hand. They had children too. “Look!” she shoved the picture at Nolan who was busy in the dead soldier’s pockets.
“What?” Nolan was used to Glory never having anything of interest in her hands.
“Look, kids!” Glory smiled, her discovery somehow expanded, “they’re beautiful!”
Pepe looked up as he pocketed soldier’s doses of amphetamines, his favorite find next to cigarettes, “Lemme see that.”
Glory pushed to the other side of the group avoiding the pile of seaweed unwound from the body, pushed the picture into Pepe’s scrunched face.
“Hmm.” He said.
“They’re beautiful,” Glory said again reverently.
“They’re kids, just kids,” Pepe felt uncomfortable about Glory’s sudden discovery, this job was much easier when the children could be convinced that these were just things—junk on a beach, but it wasn’t possible anymore. They were getting older, smarter. He chided himself for not keeping Glory out of it, for not filtering the photographs out of the paper she liked to collect. “Ah me,” he sighed. I’m doing my best, Poppa.
Glory was having an unusual morning of discovery as she squeezed the letters and studied the pictures, and now she could not help noticing how dirty her nails were, and how brown her skin compared to the bodies. She folded all the materials up and later established them with her collection rolled in her blanket.
“They’re just kids, Glory, there’s kids everywhere.”
“Is this their daddy?” she pointed at the drowned man, a touch of something rising in her voice.
Pepe didn’t know how to disentangle this, all the boys were looking at him now too. Was this a daddy?
“Yes. Probably. I don’t know!” he stammered and then groaned to his feet, “c’mon!” The good thing was nearly everyone had canteens after this round of scavenging.
“Goddamnit,” Pepe said after crumpling a third sodden package of cigarettes he’d studied carefully. Though there were a few he managed to scavenge. He lined the pickled cigarettes on a log near his tent in the sun. He waited intently for those smokes all day. He also longed for pain-killers, even aspirin, but, of course, he hadn’t seen any aside from what he could scavenge off the occasional dead in years.

That night there was a scare. A patrol swung to their beach on a large machine. They played their powerful search light over the debris. The roar of the motors guttural and chugging. Everyone had to stay very quiet and not look. Pepe said they could see their eyes with the light. Glory tried to imagine this, imagined something like the shiny shards of mirror the boys collected to flash at one another. Then the machine stuffed itself up onto the beach and men jumped off, nervous men with a lot of gear, and guns. There were always plenty of guns sticking out everywhere. The men kicked at things, and dragged the bodies around. They laughed as they searched the weed wrapped debris. Again Glory was surprised and she turned to Nolan, “What are they laughing about?”
“Shut up!” He hushed her, and pushed her head roughly down into the sand.
“Ow!” she cried as Nolan did his best to silence her. He kept her head down a few seconds until she began sobbing softly into the sand and spitting.
After what seemed an interminable amount of time—even the little ones made barely a peep—the men appeared satisfied with their looking over the beach. The machine was shoved back off the sand and the men clambered aboard, fired the engines and turned the boat around. Again the men could be heard joking and laughing. The children watched the craft motor far into the darkness before Pepe let them move again.
Just more kids, Pepe thought to himself, afraid of the dark.
When the sun rose, a few hours later, Pepe rounded up all the kids and made them pack everything, which for most of them meant rolling everything into the blankets. It was time to move.
Glory was disappointed as she was finally getting used to chewing on the beach-rose “apples”.
“Will there be apples where we are going?” She asked Pepe.
Pepe stared at her for a moment, “What?”
“Will there be any apples where we are going? The little kids—,” she looked around them, taking in the small ones, “they love apples.”
Pepe softened, Glory had never before distinguished the little ones, never before seemed to realize she wasn’t one of them. “I don’t know—I don’t know.” He moved a small bit of grass in his mouth, which he chewed compulsively. Only two of the cigarettes had burned at all well and he’d chain smoked them despondently.
Finally, the entire group was ready. With the sun fully above the horizon and not a cloud in the sky, they began to find their way down the beach.
First, the older kids surged forward, exploring and claiming everything they found, then, they waited for the rest of the group to arrive, and then, they surged forward again, competing with one another for speed and items. The entire party moving like a worm down the coast.
Pepe had already split up two fights that morning. It was going to be a long day. Glory watched him as he shepherded, making sure the smallest ones were attached to bigger ones. Glory kept her hand in his, and noticed he was staring at her feet, bare, dirty and sunburned.
“I hoped ta find ya some shoes by now,” he said with a strange pained look on his face.
Glory smiled at him, why did he seem so sad? Hardly anyone had shoes. Glory could not remember ever having shoes. Pepe had tried to make her some from a tire, but they weren’t any good.
“I don’t need any shoes,” she chirped at him with a wan smile and a shrug.
“I’m gonna get you some shoes. You’re a girl, girls have shoes. You’re not a baby anymore,” Pepe said matter-of-factly, and squeezed her bony hand a bit too tightly. He fought a lump of shame for not being able to find enough for these kids, especially Glory, to eat. “You don’t understand, you kids don’t understand nuthin’.”
Glory looked down at her feet marching in the sand, her face a frown. She suddenly wanted to run, to jump on Nolan, to do anything but be here with sad Pepe telling her about shoes and girls.
“We’re going to do more, I’m going to teach you how to read them letters,” Pepe smiled at Glory.
“Read the words?”
His shame rose. He’d been an impatient and terribly inconsistent teacher, there were selfish times when he’d fantasized ditching all these little charges, leaving them for the soldiers to find, and who was to say that that would be worse? Who put him in charge anyway? Pepe sucked at his grass stem. Ah me. Poppa? What would you do?
“Yeah, read the words,” he said finally, and this cheered both of them up. But they had to keep moving, and it was a long time before they could rest.

Smirkie Smirkenheimer

pine cones needles snow

Jodie Lang didn’t have many friends, and those acquaintances who did tolerate her often referred to her behind her back as Smirkie Smirk Smirker, or occasionally Smirkie Smirkenheimer. It seemed to them that Jodie was only interested in smirking. They warned that she only wanted to know your heartfelt loves, favorite books, or warmest memories expressly for the purpose of smirking at them. She loved, as far as anyone could tell, only smirking, and of course, found anything you loved eminently worthy of her smirking. If you made the mistake of telling her about your favorite music, perhaps sharing a CD with her, she’d smirk. Your enjoyment of a particular movie, regardless of what it was, made her gleeful with smirking spunk. If you imagined her interested in your goals, or your hopes and dreams, you’d be mistaken, she definitely only wanted to smirk at you. Her acquaintances would tell you this, as mentioned, and warn you, but you’d have to see anyway, because Smirkie Smirk Smirker was stunningly beautiful: tall, and loaded with the kind of bone structure that made other women feel like over-ripe figs or bowls of jello.

Every morning Smirkie rose from her bed and turned on her computer, beginning her morning ritual of smirking over a coffee. One of Smirkie’s acquaintances had invited her to a baby shower—smirk. On the social media an acquaintance had recommended a crochet book—smirk! Smirkie could see that a fellow she once dated and smirked at a whole lot—oh my God! He was just the most smirk-worthy—was now dating another friend of hers, and she about injured herself smirking. She had had to break-up with him finally after he invited her to his belt test in Aikido. Once she saw him in his black, skirt-like hakama she was done. She reached up and rubbed her cheeks while taking deep breaths. Ah, that’s some good smirking right there.

A little garden near the front door of her apartment had some lovely irises in it. Her landlord expressly tried to keep the grounds looking tended, he felt—so he had told her in a long-winded oratory one day—that the tenants were happier if they could see some care. Of course, this made Smirkie smirk deeply. Gardening! Flowers! That making people satisfied about the care.

At the gas station she slid her card into the pump and noticed that there was a special being advertised, a two for one deal on soft drinks. It was not a particularly smirk-worthy advert, but then she thought about it a bit, as the gas was flowing into her tank, and she realized that this was half the problem: the idiots can’t figure out how to keep the sugar out of their diets and they get fat, and then they cry about being fat, and that made her smirk. Fat idiots. This problem was often compounded by poverty. Poor fat idiots would buy this cheap sugar, consume it, get fat and cry.
Smirkie knew that she wasn’t in particularly admirable athletic condition herself, but she was certainly not a complaining fat idiot. As she glanced around she could see some folks jogging, in ridiculously neon-colored running shoes, and another on a bicycle risking the traffic. Smirking at them, she shook her pretty head—idiots wasting their precious time to extend their horrible lives.
She replaced the gas hose and continued on to the university, where she felt safe in assuming her choice of work was beyond reproach, was, in fact, truly above any derision. For alas, it terrified Smirkie to imagine that someone might be able to smirk at her. And so Smirkie spent inordinate amounts of time reviewing her choices, paralyzed by the fear that even someone she had no connection to might be able to find a reason to look smugly down upon her.

Smirkie was annoyed with the other research assistant working on the poverty distribution project for Professor Ham. And while Smirkie found this other research assistant a disappointment, Claire Jeager was good at pinpointing problems with Smirkie’s numbers. Claire didn’t say so, but some of these problems seemed to point toward a sloppiness issue stemming from laziness.

“I didn’t say you were lazy, Jodie,” Claire said soothingly, “we all make mistakes.”

Smirkie had enjoyed the research for a little while, as it had afforded her a neat indignation. So much going on in Washington after all, where kids were suffering some of the nation’s worst poverty. She had created a great PowerPoint slide about that: the Washington Monument and the sad-faced black kid as background to the graph. Smirkie dismissed Claire’s criticism, even while possibly legitimate, because Claire was someone Smirkie simply did not respect. The professor had not asked Claire to do the graphs for this study, and so Smirkie expected Claire was at least somewhat jealous. Plus Claire was dumpy, had no love life and wore too much, cheap, terrible-smelling perfume.
Claire bear . . . smirk.

Today Claire seemed to be in excellent spirits and this kind of set Smirkie off. Smirkie looked over her desk, studied her neat stacks of notes and reports.

“Good morning, Jodie!” Claire said, and offered her a donut from an open box of Krispy Kremes. Claire seemed pleasantly wound up, she about wriggled with happiness. Smirkie smirked and looked Claire up and down. What ridiculousness was this?

“I’m celebrating my third year on the project with Professor Ham! Three years, can you imagine?”

“No, thank you,” Smirkie waved off the donuts. Three years?! Yeah, by this time next year I’ll be out of here, she thought. I am not spending three years crawling along doing this crap. While the work–she constantly reassured herself–was important, and had meaningful connections, Smirkie felt, that it had already become awfully dull and limited. Only Claire would celebrate something so positively smacking of lack of fortune or ambition.

“Suit yourself!” Claire smiled, closing up the donuts and went back to her desk, leaving the goods on the brightly lit center table.

Was that skipping? Smirkie narrowed her eyes as Claire seemed to spring across the room and settle at her desk, swinging her plump, short legs back and forth in a self-satisfied manner. She seemed so pleased with herself that it made Smirkie queasy. Smirkie wondered if there was anything she could do to bring Claire to her senses. Just for her own good, mind you.

“You know, we have a lot of work to do today, you can’t just be buying donuts and having celebrations,” Smirkie fired at her.

Claire looked up abruptly, her eyes wide, “Oh, I didn’t buy them, Dr. Ham did.”

“Oh, whatever,” Smirkie spun her back to Claire. Ham bought her donuts! The woman is barely able to accomplish anything, she’s barely an adult. It killed Smirkie the way Ham would fawn on that ignorant cow.

“They’re for everyone,” Claire continued, correctly assessing Smirkie’s jealousy, but missing her reason.

“That’s fine,” Smirkie said, trying in vain to regain some face as Dr. Ham sauntered in wearing a big smile.

“Can you believe it’s been three years?” he celebrated with Claire again for Smirkie’s sake this time, “Three years! Time flies!”

“I believe it,” Smirkie said sourly.

“And you’re coming up on year two, Jodie! Don’t worry I know when all my assistants started!” Ham said, waving his arms around and chuckling like a variety show host.

“Great,” Smirkie’s cloudy mood intensified. Almost two years already and for what? But, she bolstered herself, it was research. Though most of it wasn’t actual in-the-field research, she checked herself, it was mostly data mining–hunting down and compiling the results of published work. Still it was important stuff, even if she couldn’t really feel satisfied by it. At least it wasn’t some bullshit waitressing gig, just passing the time for a paycheck, like her friend Deedee did at the Grand Grill. How did she stand that place? Each weekend loaded with old men away from their wives, drunk, rich-wads who grabbed her ass and gave her immense tips if she didn’t complain about it. Nor was it like that godawful massage therapy bullshit that Mindy occupied herself with—fucking Mindy and all her goddamned health-food recommendations, the woman was downright silly with it. Mindy had invited her out this weekend, Smirkie sighed, but was looking forward to escaping the city a bit. There was also her friend Chrissy Clements, and her big fake boobs, and her stupid-ass receptionist job at the hotel with that jackass husband of hers and his f’ing mustache. Even if Chrissy was an artist of some fair skill, and even if she’d had a show and—shockingly—sold some work, she was surrounded by incredibly smirk-worthy artistic goons. Think about that guy with the grease stain art, splattered portraits made from burger grease and decorated with M&Ms! Fer fuck’s sake!

Smirkie idly punched holes in a 3×5 card with a pen for most of the first hour of the morning while pretending to work. Then she searched for new shoes on Zappos, and got lost in their denim selection for ages.
Soon it was lunch and Smirkie breezed out of the office promptly at noon. She crunched on the gravel paths across the quaint little university gardens, where they were trying to grow some ragged-looking cherry trees, and came out on the quadrangle.

On the quad a group of young students were singing together, standing in a circle, one of them awkwardly down-stroked an acoustic guitar, while a dark, short-legged, and pug-nosed girl shook her booty, tapping a tambourine against her hip. She danced passably well, Smirkie noted with some irritation as the girl shook her hips around the little group of singers. “What is that?” she said to herself with a voice that made one think she was spotting a skunk crossing her path. That guy is not a guitarist, Smirkie smirked. Ah, as she approached she could see, it was some kind of cockamamie “spirit” day at the university, just some youthful, enthusiastic bullshit for the kidsies to involve themselves in. Good! Habitat for Humanity or a blood drive, or something, that’s good for them, Smirkie thought. Open their eyes to some reality, get them out of their little Disney-worlds. And then she thought it’d be fun to observe these young undergraduates as they saw their dreams smothered and destroyed. She longed to be there when their child-like optimism was ground to dull, lusterless resignation. That would make a great reality show! She eyeballed the dancing girl’s somewhat large but rhythmic behind, chick needs to go on a diet. I mean she’s not fat, but she better be careful, it’s a slippery slope! Smirkie chuckled to herself mirthlessly. The song ended and a small crowd applauded them. Smirkie snorted.

Up past the university library that had recently been up-fitted with a huge selection of giant screen televisions and state-of-the-art gaming stations to entice students to use the library, Smirkie crossed the street and found herself at the Mediterranean cafe. She held up the line a bit deciding between a grilled vegetable plate and a grilled vegetable sandwich wrap. Smirkie had just heard that olive oil, . . . well, you know, she’d heard it from Mindy, that olive oil, . . . and while she had no use for Mindy’s recommendations, . . . she accepted right now that olive oil might be good for her—a so-called superfood after all. And superfood sounded pretty good since she was about to stuff herself on this Greek vegetable platter. Superfood.
She sat alone at the smallest table, and stared out the window at the young people traipsing about. She was only about a decade older than most of the students, but imagined herself a wise sage in comparison to them. Smirkie was especially damning of any young couples she saw, especially if they showed even a hint of affection, and especially if they held hands. Right now a pair of kids were hand in hand, swinging their hands as they walked. Smirkie almost choked on her fatoush. The fellow was one of these sports team identifying dip-shits with his hair all standing up in the middle, with an expression on his face like someone just opened the door to his toilet stall, and the girl, . . . where to even begin . . . too much eye make-up, asinine shoes for her pudgy ankles, which were proudly on display, a skirt too short for her childbearing hips. Her thick cheeks wobbled with each step as she not so much walked as much as she fell forward and then slammed her meaty-foot to the concrete to catch herself. Such elegance! Look at them, would you? Daft. The city air blowing between their ears as each bus roared by. She looked a bit like a piglet that maybe he was planning to roast for dinner, apple in her mouth. Smirkie smirked happily at this idea, the little piglet thinking it was love, but she was really just dinner!

Smirkie did not go so far as to smirk entirely at love. She just didn’t believe most people had found it, or were ever going to. They weren’t exactly promisingly bright. Look at them all, Smirkie continued her assessment, they just took whatever was nearby, swallowed it whole, labeled it love, considered it fated, and carved it into beech tree trunks in the park. Obviously this was foolishness, making do. It was nothing more than a resigned lowering of expectations. Drop a bunch of random people into a box and they find “love”! Smirkie believed in maintaining high expectations, getting what you wanted out of life, never settling for less, no compromises. And then she flashed back to Patrick.

“Camus?” Patrick, her man-friend (Smirkie wouldn’t say “boyfriend”), had chuckled when she’d foisted The Stranger on him, thinking it a perfectly good measuring stick for his seriousness.

“Yes, he’ll teach you to be serious, not to let people push you around. The problems with apathy,” she had nodded sternly at Patrick.

He maintained a grin, and thanked her for the book. But she sensed he was approaching it with the wrong attitude. She pursed her lips, concerned that he would not invest. And while he did read it, complaining about the style and Camus’s simplistic prose (probably better in French), he had found gaping holes in it. Smirkie felt, however, that he’d entirely missed the point.

“It’s a funny book,” he’d chuckled when she asked him what he thought, “I laughed a lot.”

“It’s not funny, it’s about caring, taking a lead in your life,” she had said energetically.

“I don’t know, I mean there were some pretty bad people around him, maybe he didn’t really have much of a choice.”

Smirkie had frowned, felt cornered, she snipped at Patrick, “You don’t understand, life is about being deliberate, not just drifting!”

“Look I’m not saying you’re wrong, but it’s kind of extreme. Don’t you think? It’s silly, I mean, in the end, he’s in as much trouble for putting his mom in a nursing home as he is for murdering that Arab, and really nearly everyone puts their folks away!”

Smirkie had sighed heavily, angrily, but then she hadn’t really thought about that part, the very end of the book hadn’t meant as much to her as the story of a man unconcerned about the path of his life. It had seemed to her a warning about apathy.

“This is just so ham-fisted, so obvious. The scene where he flips out on the priest in the end, I mean, really?” Patrick chuckled.

Smirkie was being oversensitive to this derision and she carefully registered the disagreement as critical. It only took a couple of these moments, where Patrick did not wholly abide her teaching, for her to see that he wasn’t really a serious mate. And “mate” only in that sense really of sharing the operations of living together. After all if he couldn’t agree with her on such primary cornerstones as a man’s need to take charge . . . well, what then?

She had deliberately made him cry when she broke up with him, going directly after the misery he’d endured when he had to close his customizing shop. She’d nursed him a bit through that failure, having met him just as he was enduring the bitter end of it. The economic downturn coupled with crippling loans he’d taken out to get the business running—all that risk everyone always says to take (YOLO!)—had turned out to be too much for the young entrepreneur to absorb. Pushing those buttons had made her feel powerful, it was a tough thing to do, but love was like that. And because people need a good cry. Catharsis is good for us. Smirkie had read in one of her magazines that it’s actually healthy. Plus, and she wasn’t wholly proud of this, not even really capable of admitting it clearly, but she found herself wanting to bask in his sorrow. She managed to multiply her self-worth in his disappointment.

“I just don’t know if I can count on you, you know, your track record isn’t great,” she said, smiling sweetly as if this were just an observation that any normal girlfriend would make. It was just a sort of pragmatic decision. And her little pats on his hand, well, those were affectionate.

There was only one problem in the now several years since Patrick was no longer directly part of her life: that had been the last good sex she’d had. She struggled to get feminine hygiene products into herself these days. She had not met a man who had given her any of the thrills that Patrick, at least initially, had provided her. At one time she had been fully in love with him, like head-over-heels obsessed with him. She had embarrassingly stalked him for a few weeks, savoring each illicit detail she learned about him. He hadn’t even been aware of her for the first few months, and this had astonished her. How could she have been going through so much longing and he barely knew about it? He had laughed about this and said that it wasn’t fair that she was so far along in the relationship, that she’d be done with it long before he was. Had he been right?
What was more amusing now—though not to Smirkie herself—was that she had sort of converged on Patrick’s outlook about Camus. Though she did not think of it this way. She realized she hadn’t really fully comprehended Camus’ absurdism, and when she’d read an article explaining more about the meaninglessness of life that we desperately seek meaning in, she felt unusually rudderless. Not very long after that she’d read The Fall and been bewildered by Camus’s attempt to rather equalize all judgment. It made her feel a little woozy to consider no one really had the right to judge, in the story’s case, even the actual judge. This was obviously not the direction Smirkie meant to go. What she liked best was being able to justify her outlook, not have her outlook roundly torpedoed. And so Smirkie had let go of her French philosophy interest. Truth was that it had only been a big deal at the time because she’d really worked at reading Camus. The investment seemed of stupendous import, but several years later and with other books under her belt, these efforts faded. Smirkie reworked her break-up with Patrick, to be more about his inappropriate and immature focus on surfing, muscle cars, and boring rock-a-billy guitar. She decided she’d never really been judging him based on his intellectual choices, but more that she was offended by his being a kind of loafing, tattooed, grease-monkey who wasn’t ambitious enough. Eventually, however, she entirely forgot what it was they argued about and she simply maintained an indistinct idea of them having been a bad match.

At the end of the day Claire tried to give Smirkie the remaining donuts one more time. But Smirkie had refused them, behaving as if this rejection of the celebration reinforced her integrity.

“My friends,” she had once told Claire with dramatic flair when she first started this salaried affair, “are all incredible people with huge souls as big as the whole world.”

“Wow,” Claire had smiled at her, “it must be great to be your friend! I can’t imagine anyone thinking that of me!”

Smirkie had been a bit taken aback by this reaction. She actually had no one in mind, was rather just bragging and trying to get across a lesson about a well-lived life, which at thirty-three years old she had felt equipped to slather all over a twenty-something, despite Claire having been already in the job, and being technically senior to Smirkie.

“Oh, you’ll get there someday,” she had smirked.

“Aw, that’s so nice of you to say, Jodie!” Claire had beamed, oblivious to the raw sewage that seeped from Smirkie’s attitude. “Sometimes it sure doesn’t feel like we get far, you know, the daily grind! But I hope so! I hope so!”
Smirk.

As the week wore on, Smirkie did even less work than usual. Professor Ham had her checking a long list of statistical calculations that she already felt should be correct, even if Claire had found a sprinkling of mistakes. And even if, in a obscure way, she worried were not correct. She could not help feeling like she’d done that job, put that effort behind her. So, she avoided looking at the numbers. Instead she spent most of her time reading a sex forum and smirking. When she ran out of that she located a Firefly fan fiction site and thoroughly enjoyed the many terrible and revealing tales fans invented, having various characters becoming complicated smutty involvements. Finally, having exhausted that by the weekend before the big meeting Dr. Ham was scheduled to participate in, Smirkie was down to the “missed connections” section of the local independent newspaper:

“Me: in white dress, sitting near the buffet at the China Queen. You: in jeans and band t-shirt. As you walked by you smiled at me, was there something there?” Oh my! These were low-hanging fruit, but Smirkie popped them like anti-depressants.

“How are those calculations coming,” Ham said, sneaking up on her work-station.

“Just about done,” Smirkie smiled that impressive smile of hers that always made everything go her way.

“Excellent! Thanks, Jodie, you know I count on you!” he did a goofball thumbs up. He was packing for the meeting and Smirkie figured she’d deliver the list around two or three, calling it clean and neat. This was Ham’s term for anything in good shape, clean and neat.

She didn’t know why she did it, guilt possibly, but she reached over and lifted the stack of figures and let her eyes run down it. They looked familiar, and filled her with angst. These were real cost calculations for distribution maps sourced from the internet for everything from sticks of butter to house furnishings. Thousands of products were tracked and shown in their rise and fall over the decades, but since the seventies their rates rose steadily, and in some areas, especially those most hard hit by poverty, their rise against salary was meteoric. Something wasn’t right, however, and the sensation went right to the nagging pit of her belly. When she had presented these figures nearly a year ago for a departmental meeting, she’d summarized that the rates had been rising highest in certain areas that she now could not see justification for. Her controversial, and therefore very exciting, results didn’t seem to say what she wanted as she skimmed the figures, flipping pages. Had that been her conclusion or was she misremembering it? What had been her final conclusions, her most obvious trends? She remembered she’d made a lot of noise about the worst being in the D.C. area, but now as she looked over the list casually, and then blinking, and then staring into it, the worst of the figures did not fall in D.C. at all, they fell, as expected by previous authors, in Mississippi and Louisiana. But the numbers seemed to crawl like ants on the pages. Smirkie hated looking at it. It had been something of a major find to show that the real-cost inflation rate was worse in some East Coast cities than it was in the traditional heart of southern poverty, but now Smirkie was doubtful. There wasn’t time to really fix it, discuss it, or anything really except sense the agony of having been wrong and possibly sending her boss off to be even more wrong at a major conference. Had she been wrong? She squeezed her eyeballs to focus on the figures again. Did I really fuck this up? she asked herself, feeling more and more certain of the dread of being wrong. She did not wish to admit that she may have been in a competitive rush to present something she could be passionate about. She’d received a lot of praise about that passion. It was after two P.M. already.

“Clean and neat,” Smirkie said, handing over the report in the mid-afternoon.

“Thank you, Jodie!” Ham smiled at her as he accepted the pages back. “These are some great findings! This is going to be a heavily cited work!” And then he about shouted, “Boom! I love these numbers!”
Oh my God, he is so excited, Smirkie thought, wearing one of her award-winning smiles. Smirkie could sure knock birds out of the sky with her bright smiles. She went back to her work-station feeling somehow lighter. Ham loved the numbers and so maybe they were OK after all.

Smirkie thought her choice of research ultimately unimpeachable because she believed she was helping children. While she had none of her own, nor planned any of her own, she often argued that children were the most important national resource. Who could disagree? It had seemed to her a mountain she could stand on and defend with impunity. No other research, save medical research, could begin to approach guiding those in need to a wellspring of hope and real help in the form of cash (the only help that really matters. Well, aside from medical). No matter what, funding was going to be directed at helping kids. Did it matter if those kids were in Baltimore as opposed to Baton Rouge? Smirkie did not think so.

Normally Smirkie did anything she could to avoid spending any time around actual children. She never felt her time more wasted than when she was expected to interact with really young kids. She often lamented that men could get away with this disinterest and avoidance, but women were more than expected to fawn over the kiddies and she struggled in disgust with their runny noses, stinky diapers, sticky little hands and savage behavior. They are happy farting on one another, hitting each other with Nerf bats, and screaming as loudly as humanly possible, who needs to be involved in that? She often thought. Didn’t Kurt Vonnegut once write that it was difficult to understand why people loved their kids so much?

On Saturday morning Smirkie Smirkberger (which her friends sometimes referred to her as) made her way to the beach. There she was to meet up with her friend Mindy, the massage therapist, and they would enjoy a dinner at the Dockside, but first they’d cruise around Wrightsville Beach and maybe have some ice cream at Boombalatti’s.
Mindy recently met a fellow called Carl who had a friend called Mike who Mindy hoped that Smirkie would like. It was something of a date. Smirkie was just glad he had a normal name to begin with. She desperately hoped he wasn’t a kid, didn’t smoke, didn’t say “aw’ite?” too often, wore his pants over his ass, which she hoped wasn’t completely covered in tattoos, wasn’t wearing a backwards ball cap, and wasn’t too into sports. I’m not asking for all that much, not really, she thought.
All the way down I-40 Smirkie tried to put hope out of her mind. She listened to a public radio show about home remedies that Mindy loved, and smirked at the husband-wife team hosts. They sounded as though they were on the last threads of their relationship. Joe, you ignorant jackass, Smirkie was sure she could hear in the tone of the woman’s voice.

“Hi Jodie!” Mindy waved from the lawn. She’d been lounging on an oversize towel round and colored like a tortilla, wearing a dark bathing suit. She got up and slipped her feet into flowery flip-flops. Mindy made her way down to the driveway. The ladies embraced. It annoyed Smirkie just a touch that Mindy looked great, in fact, flawless. She’d not seen her friend in a while and somehow had imagined her plumper and less goddamned gorgeous. It was easier to smirk at her health recommendations when she wasn’t quite so utterly stunning.
“How was the drive? Do you wanna get changed?” Mindy asked her, looking at her loose-fitting dress as Smirke emerged from her car.

“Nah, I got my bathing suit on under this,” Smirkie grinned at Mindy’s Elton John sunglasses. Flawless save for the sunglasses, she corrected herself. If the lawn had had a pink flamingo it would have looked like a shot from the fifties replete with Mindy’s wide faced, big-eyed Carmen Miranda features. Mindy only rented the place though, and in the rednecky section of town. This was the part of town that had carnival rides set up on the beach.

“The boys will meet us at the ice cream place, they’re fishing or diving or something this morning,” Mindy smiled, “You want a drink? I got mimosas!” Smirkie accepted a mimosa and joined Mindy on the unusual tortilla towel, watching the neighborhood kids yelling about farts and spraying one another with a garden hose.

“How’s work?” Mindy asked innocently.

“Oh, fine, the boss is presenting my findings in a meeting today,” she bragged though felt no pleasure in it.
“Oh that’s great!” Mindy reached her glass out for Smirkie to clink against as a success toast. They sipped and laughed.

Smirkie wanted to know how much the house cost her, how she could afford it, how she managed to seem to have the whole summer off, but she didn’t ask any of that, she just complained about Claire instead.

“She’s so annoying! I can’t begin to tell you,” and this was truthful as Smirkie actually couldn’t think of anything that was annoying enough about Claire to warrant a bitchy rant. Skipping in the office and offering donuts were not the occupations of despicable people.

“Oh, forget her, she’s probably a sad insecure bitch,” Mindy laughed.

It occurred to Smirkie that Mindy could be thinking that this actually kind of described herself, but, pushed it out of her mind.

“We’re having fun today!” Mindy added with the enthusiasm of an elementary school teacher attempting to get children excited about spelling.

The ladies finished their drinks and fussed about with Mindy’s lime green VW beetle. They pushed some huge magazines into their beach bags along with large bottles of sunscreen, and donning immense, floppy, straw hats they set out. Everything Mindy did seemed to be specifically designed to prick at Smirkie’s nerves. She had her CDs strewn all over her car’s interior. This ruined CDs, it was unacceptable. Mindy kept a half full and hot-as-ass, bottle of water in the cup holder. Smirkie could not understand why people did this. Why didn’t they bring a fresh bottle? Or at least put the half used one in the fridge? Mindy took a route that seemed far out of the way and Smirkie clenched her jaw.
Despite the mess of CDs sliding around in the car, Mindy plugged her phone into the stereo and inflicted her “beach mix”, made specially for today, on Smirkie. Every song was one she was able to predict. It opened with White Stripes, doing something childishly inept, and then Bruce Sringsteen with another of his incomprehensible jumbles of mundane crap in song form, and then the Beach Boys with something cliche, and then some hip hop about big booties . . .

The boys were waiting for them at Boombalatti’s and were already licking at some cones. They were indeed both wearing backwards ball caps and both sporting upper arm tattoos of things Smirkie refused to acknowledge, she kept her eyes off them.

“This is Carlitos,” Mindy said, “and this is Jodie.”

“Carl,” Carl corrected, shaking Smirkie’s hand, “and this is my best friend in the world, Mike!”

“Raaa! Ha ha ha!” they suddenly hugged like muscular Greek athletes, slapping one another on the back their patterned grandpa shorts fluttering in their exuberance.

Were they drunk? Smirkie felt herself flush with smirk and excitement. The fellows were tanned and strong, but not too big, and not too small, and not too young, and not too covered in tattoos. Mike seemed a little older, Smirkie thought she could see some gray on his overlong, country sideburns.

The boys bought the ladies some ice cream and then, as if on some kind of schedule, Carl and Mindy disappeared down the sidewalk and left Mike and Smirkie to politely attempt to be friends.

“I like your dress,” Mike said pleasantly, “it’s really frilly.”

“Oh, thanks, yeah, well, it’s just to throw on over the bathing suit, you know, keeping things simple,” she smiled her award-winning smile.

“Oh yeah! Keep it simple stupid! KISS!” he chuckled clumsily.

“So, you guys were fishing?” Smirkie hoped to keep from smirk overload.

“Yeah, I caught a couple of stripers, but Carl caught a shark!”

“A shark! You don’t say!” Smirkie was actually well aware that lots of sharks were caught in the intercoastal and only pretended to be impressed.

“It was good sized,” Mike pulled out his phone and started flipping through some pictures, lots of them were pictures of the boys themselves, “yeah, here it is!”

The boys were gathered around a fair-sized hooded shark, grinning like demons. As Mike leaned close to Smirkie she smelled him, and liked it. She felt herself ratchet up like a winding spring. She looked at his arms again, big strong arms, she’d easily be folded into those, and suddenly wanted that.

“That’s a good sized one!” she agreed.

When Mindy and Carl returned, Mindy was a bit disappointed as it didn’t seem to her like Mike and Jodie were hitting it off. But it was only because Smirkie was so pleasantly inspired on the seat she didn’t dare make a move. She was rather terrified of herself, she wanted Mike in the worst way to just jump her. She hardly recognized herself.

“Shall we hit the beach?” Mindy cheered. Agreement!
Mike helped Smirkie to her smiling feet. Smirkie no longer smirked, she smiled her brilliant award-winning smile and found herself sweating.

“Do you like him?” Mindy asked as the boys ran down to the water and crashed into the waves.

“I think so!” Smirkie said, her voice quivering.

Mindy nodded, staring into smirkie’s eyes, “Good!”

Later, after rinsing off in Mindy’s shower, and lounging on the sofa with a book about French beauty tips, Mindy made some excuse about needing something at the store and took Carl with her. Mike sat on the sofa with Smirkie and made a little small talk, looking down at her big feet.

“Hey, you got big feet,” he chuckled.

“Yeah,” Smirkie shook her head. She extended her big feet out in front of her, examined her scarlet nail polish, which she only used at the end of summer as it had a tendency to stain her nails. She flexed her toes.
Mike reached down and pulled her feet up to his lap, and made to study them, “Look at these big toes!” he stroked them. But then he just tickled her. Smirkie hated tickling, but she could not control her sudden pleasurable helplessness and wiggling. Mike easily held her in place, and she decided not to fight too hard. Suddenly he kissed her instep, and moved his strong hands up her pale legs.

“I love a tall girl, such nice long legs,” he grumbled, his voice suddenly choking a bit on his own racing heart.

To the short girls he says he loves short, curvy legs, she flashed but was too fascinated with his touch to maintain it.

It was all fast and clumsy, her top wrenched up, her shorts pulled down, his shorts around his ankles, they made love hard and fast on the flower patterned sofa, his gruff face in her neck panting, his hands shoving her rump toward his hips that slammed down into her indelicately. They both Ooh-ooh-oohing.
To her great astonishment she orgasmed as he did, he arching his back like a wolf howling at the moon.

“You’re like the most beautiful woman I’ve ever . . . ” he grumbled roughly in her ear, leaving the statement unfinished.

“Thank you,” she gasped.

He pulled her to his lap, nuzzled her boobs, which had been sprung out under her still clasped bra, which had become very uncomfortable. His hands never stopped kneading her.

“Hey, we should probably straighten up, they’ll be back any moment,” she patted him.

“Oh right!” his ball cap had fallen off.

All through dinner Mindy grinned at Smirkie and she blushed furiously. Mike and Carl were telling mountain biking stories, and dive stories, and base-jumping stories, and about how they both wanted to try those flying-squirrel suits, and how they both wanted to go to Mars if that ever happened. Did you know that the window is every twenty-six months? they asked excitedly. That’s when the Earth lines up, catches up with Mars, they explained loudly. And so it went on and on without taking a breath.

It seemed to Smirkie that Carl was in love with Mike, but Smirkie was positively the most satisfied and relaxed she had felt in a long time and she knew Mindy could see that. Smirkie had collapsed into her seat, her eyes were bright, but only on Mike.

“How was it?” Mindy had asked her quietly.

“Perfect,” Smirkie had replied and surprised herself with her enthusiasm.

They closed the restaurant and the fellows wanted the ladies to go to the bar with them, but Smirkie shook her head. She was genuinely bushed, had been ready to sleep since the couch play. Truthfully, she felt some remorse, she’d been too easy, been too sexy too soon, and so she avoided bedding down with Mike on the first day to gain some distance and control.
They shook hands, hugged awkwardly, said goodnight

Smirkie slept like a forgotten can of soup in a pantry. She rose late in Mindy’s spare bedroom and Mindy took them out for Bloody Mary’s. Smirkie just stared and sighed. Mindy looked around and located a jackass for Smirkie to smirk at.

“Look at that idiot over there,” she pointed with her chin.

Smirkie looked in the direction Mindy indicated, her glittering eyes taking in the scene, a youngish man, walking down the street covered in tattoos, backwards ball cap, swinging his arms excessively and bobbing his head like a duck.

“Is that a mullet?” Mindy encouraged.

Smirkie turned back to her without seeming to register a thing.

“Is he wearing a hair-band t-shirt?”

Smirkie looked again, but again she wasn’t interested, shook her head.

“Holy shit, Jodie, you’re lovestruck!”

Jodie let her face split into her famous smile, “Really?”

“I’ve never seen you like this, never,” Mindy enthused.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever . . .” but she stopped herself, and just smiled. She didn’t know what was going on. Her heart fluttered, and as far as she could tell it hadn’t been anything but his hands, his smell, and his gruff observation that she was beautiful. It wasn’t like Smirkie didn’t know she was pretty, but in the life of a pretty woman it is an endless of comparison to potentially prettier women—being the most at anything was special.

Smirkie reviewed the intimacy. Mike had started with what seemed like an immature game, tickling her, and for about two seconds Smirkie was sure she wasn’t going to be happy about it, but then it all changed. She had been won over in the span of a few heartbeats and it scared her a bit that it had been so easy.

Mindy told her, they would have dinner with the boys again in the evening, and Mindy checked her phone a few times throughout the day getting text updates from Carl. They were fishing again.

The ladies went to Airlie Gardens and marveled at the Spanish moss hanging in the immense old oaks. They toured the old cemetery and wondered about the “mystery grave”, marked “JH”. Apparently the grave of the mysterious children’s tutor who may or may not have been one of Napoleon’s generals (unlikely). But Smirkie was only partly engaged, she floated about on her big feet, feet that had been kissed by Mike, a kind of hero that she was now processing being feverishly in love with.

“Does he live near here?” Smirkie asked Mindy out of the blue as Mindy was reading a plaque about some durable-looking metal art in the garden.

“What? Mike?”

“Yeah, maybe I can relocate down here,” she said listlessly.

“Quit your job you mean?”

“Oh, I don’t know what I’m talking about, I just . . . I thought it might be nice to be here,” she laughed, but it was a worrisome laugh. “I like the ocean.”

“Hey, take it easy, sweetie, let’s just have some fun and we’ll see where it goes.” Mindy put her hand on her friend’s elegantly exposed shoulder.

“Yeah, of course!” she smiled again, and Mindy’s look of concern faded.

Smirkie was suffering from a kind of intense elation and had become rapidly aware that it could not be sustained. Her recent panoleptic state was fast dissolving—Pan because he was the god of exultant spirits. She wanted to be back on the sofa with Mike and as soon as possible, but all she could see happening, at this rate, was a lonely drive home, and back to the fucking office where she would be forced to face up to her recent weeks of inattention to her work, and the disappointment of having to force herself through endless hours of Claire. She felt like she would soon become one of those poor mining mules lowered into the depths of the Earth, treated like a tool, never to see the sun again.

What Smirkie wanted was for Mike—whoever he was—to sweep her off her feet, take her away, kidnap her, give her a sparkling new life, a life so satisfying and unpredictable she could flip the bird to everything she’d had to struggle with for so long. She patted Mindy’s hand on her shoulder.

“What does Carl do?” Smirkie asked.

“Oh no! Are you sure you really want to know?” Mindy chuckled.

Smirkie groaned inwardly, “Sure, of course.”

“Well, Carl’s a personal trainer, a weightlifter, a fitness guru at Paramount Fitness, you know that huge gym? That’s how I met him. I was doing yoga over there, and we started talking about smoothies. He was reading some asinine article that suggested that nutrition was lost in the blender, ha ha ha! Imagine that, like as soon as you stir things they lose their stuff,” she chuckled some more. She frowned and tried to explain it again as Smirkie seemed unable to grasp the point. “They’re fine as you put them in the blender, the ingredients, you know? but as soon as you mix them up—ha ha ha!” She twirled her finger around.

Smirkie worked herself toward a smile, it was a mildly amusing story.

“I don’t know what Mike does, except that Carl freakin’ idolizes him, and that could mean good or bad, some boys idolize bums, you know?”

“Yeah.”

Smirkie’s phone blinged and she fumbled around retrieving it from her bag, it was Ham, “Oh shit.”

“Wassamatter?” Mindy looked up from photographing a turtle.

As soon as the message opened, Smirkie was filled with relief. Ham was praising her, thanking her for her work, telling her they’d just been invited to publish in a special journal issue alongside some of the top workers.

“Oh my god.”

“Everything OK?” Mindy looked stricken.

“Better than OK our work was just invited, I mean, work I did . . . we’ve been invited to publish in a big journal of the meeting. Ham’s thrilled with me.” Smirkie felt a pang of guilt, but told herself she had time to fix things now, that she could get right back to work and fix those numbers. Maybe slowly reveal the mistakes, maybe they would not be so bad.

“That’s great!” Mindy celebrated.

“I think I could use a drink,” Smirkie chuckled.

“Let’s do it!”

They headed over to a popular Mexican restaurant and ordered a pitcher of margarita fresca. Smirkie helped herself to three stemmed fishbowls of the terrific icy treat and was feeling plenty buzzed. Almost everything she was concerned with seemed to be far away. The boys arrived soon after, slapping one another and chuckling, their ball caps offset, making faces at the ladies.

“There they are! Our lovely maidens!” Carl burst out over-loudly.

Mike tripped over himself and smooched Smirkie on the cheek while bashing into her shoulder.

“Oh! Sorry!” he about shouted. They were sun-drunk and had also had about a six-pack each, so they claimed.

“Hey guys, Jodie just had some great news, she’s been asked to publish her work in a major journal!”
Mike was already tipping the pitcher of margaritas into a water glass and was topping the ladies off.

“That is awesome! Carl held up his hand for a high five.”

Smirkie smirked and raised her hand, and Carl stung her with the exuberance. “Ow!” she cried.

“Carl! What the hell?! That’s a lady you just did that to!” Mindy snapped at him.

“Oh man, sorry!” Carl guffawed, “don’t know my own strength!”

“More margarita over here!” Mike yelled across the mostly empty restaurant at the waiter, as if he were some high roller in a movie. The waiter nodded darkly at them from across the bar.

Smirkie started to notice some tattoos she had not seen before on Mike’s partially exposed torso. There was something like a shark under his arm and maybe a quotation in ropy lettering that she couldn’t make out just below it.

“How was the fishing?” Smirkie attempted, and Mike fixed her with a bleary gaze that caused her such pain that she almost excused herself from the table. It was now clear that he was seriously impaired.

“It was great!” Carl pitched in, and the boys started giggling together like Ron Wood and Rod Stewart on a late night talk show. All at once the ladies understood they had not been fishing, and instead had spent the day in a bar probably watching sports.

Mindy did her best to smooth the meal over, but drunk boys and Mexican corn were plenty messy, even when napkins were tucked into their droopy, sleeveless t-shirts. This is where Smirkie began to notice more and more tattoos she hadn’t seen earlier, on the exposed drooping sides where the shirts fashionably did not cover. Mike also seemed to be sporting some kind of dragon, or demon, plastered around his ribcage and some more text that was apparently a bible quote.

“Naw, it’s from Gladiator!” he displayed the lettering on his trunk: On my command unleash hell.

“I see,” she nodded feeling worn out.

Smirkie was beginning to feel like herself again. Everything was beginning to resemble a world she recognized. These bozos were mock men. She could not understand how her little moment on the sofa had meant so much to her all goddamned day. Mike and Carl were harmless buffoons at best, at worst they were obnoxious frat boys, spitting corn kernels at each other and pretending they were sexually desirable to the ladies they were with.

“Welp, I gotta start heading back up to Raleigh,” Smirkie said with a huge smirk.

“Awww, nooo!” the fellows moaned, and Mike pawed at Smirkie as if he meant to press her into her seat.
Mindy looked sternly across at them and for a brief moment they both sat still with their tired, glazed eyes straight ahead, before falling into each other again, giggling.

“I’m so sorry, Jodie, I had no idea they were going to do that,” Mindy said as they climbed into Mindy’s VW. They had walked away from the meal, rather snubbing the fellows with a curt goodnight.

“Are you kidding? That’s not your fault,” Smirkie smirked.

Mindy started the engine and puttered out onto the road, joining lines of speeding traffic on College Road and suddenly began crying.

“What are you crying for? Oh, Mindy!” Smirkie chuckled and stroked her friend’s hair. She popped open her bag and got a package of tissues out, and patted Mindy’s caramel face. Mindy took the tissues and resumed weeping.

“You were so happy!” she cried.

“What?”

“You were happy all day! I’ve never seen you happy like that!” the that had several syllables as she sobbed.

“No! Oh, shit, I got laid is all,” Smirkie attempted to be blasé, let her hand go limp prettily at the wrist.

“No goddamnit, you were in love—for a day, you were in love!”

“No! That’s not it at all, he’s a boy, I just—”

“For fuck’s sake Jodie, you were happy! I’ve never seen you so happy, and I was so happy for you!” Mindy cried hard now, and Smirkie worried about her driving.

“Should I drive?” Smirkie said seriously, “C’mon I’ll drive.”

“No! I got it,” Mindy sniffed and straightened up. “I’ll find you a better one.”

“You don’t have to do anything, Mindy, you’re great!” and here Smirkie felt some disconnect with herself, and
she now understood that Mindy was a great friend. Not just someone she could be smug about, but someone who was trying to make her happy. How could she? Smirkie wondered to herself with astonishment. She convinced herself that maybe she too could have been so thoughtful about Mindy, but she harbored serious doubts.

“I wanted to help you be happy!” Mindy moaned a bit as they cruised down the busy main drag.

“I’m OK, Mindy , really, you were great, this was great!”

“You’re not OK, you’re a smug bitch! You hate everything, you hate everyone!” Mindy was now pounding the steering wheel with her small brown fist.

Smirkie was taken aback, “What are you talking about? That’s not fair. That’s not fair at all.”

“Today was the first time, the first time since Patrick, that you looked like a woman. I was connecting with you. It was the first time in years!” Mindy shook her head, “I know what you think of me! And I don’t care! I care about you!”

Smirkie was aghast, but spoke calmly, “Stop it. Mindy, stop it.”

“No, we have to do this! I can’t take it anymore, I love you. I care about you! And you don’t give a fuck.” she had a terrific way of saying fuck, it was very clearly enunciated.

“That’s not fair!” but Smirkie worried Mindy was right.

“And I’m not talking about the health food shit, Jodie, that’s not important, I’m talking about everything! I’m your best friend, Jodie, me! And you barely maintain a thing!”
Was this true? Smirkie searched herself. She didn’t feel excited in the same ways, didn’t feel this overwhelming love, didn’t feel a need to join in this emotionalism. She didn’t understand what Mindy was doing. Mindy got quiet, and they drove for a while without a sound. Smirkie watched the CDs sliding around on the floor near her feet. Smirkie tried to pat Mindy’s tears, but Mindy brushed it away with a bit of annoyance, and then a small smile, “I’m OK.”

Mindy pulled the car into the driveway next to Smirkie’s box on wheels.

“I’m sorry!” Mindy threw her arms around Smirkie after pulling the parking break into position. She buried her face into Smirkie’s shoulder. Smirkie felt the heat of Mindy’s face on her cheek and neck. And Mindy kissed her bare shoulder. She kissed a few more times on Smirkie’s shoulder and once on her neck before she separated.

“You are so beautiful.”

“Stop,” Smirkie said, feeling entirely confused. “They were just boys, they were just boys. I mistook him for a man.”

For a few seconds, the ladies stared at one another in the dark, the music had been lowered, the VW still chugged. Mindy held onto Smirkie’s hands.

“Let’s die together tonight! Let’s commit suicide together,” Mindy’s eyes gleamed wetly, she held Smirkie’s hands to her lips. “Please! Die with me. I want to just relax with you. I want to just hold you and kiss you and die together, not have to face up to anything tomorrow. Fuck it all!”

“What are you talking about?” Smirkie shook her head and her voice became shrill, she pulled her hands free, “I don’t wanna die!”

“It’ll be so beautiful! Fuck! I can put a hose in the exhaust, we can just hold each other . . . I’ll run the car, and we’ll sleep! I’ll just kiss you goodnight.”

Smirkie twisted in her seat and reached behind her. The alcohol was definitely noticeable as her handed fumbled around trying to find the door latch, finally getting the door popped open, “I gotta go. I gotta go, Mindy!”

“I’m sorry, honey, I’m so sorry,” Mindy started crying again and fell forward into Smirkie’s lap. Embracing her hips, holding her so that she wasn’t able to easily move.

Smirkie stroked her pretty friend’s hair, and Mindy moved Smirkie’s dress up her thighs and started kissing her legs, rubbing her soft cheeks against Smirkie’s pale skin.

“What are you doing?” Smirkie said with some minor alarm.

“I love you. I want you to be happy,” Mindy said breathlessly, panting on Smirkie’s thighs.

“I’m OK, you don’t have to . . . we’re friends, OK?”

Mindy nuzzled deeper, and Smirkie felt herself spinning in a kind of vortex of terror and pleasure, at least this was better than that suicide crap she was just talking about.

“Say you love me,” Mindy whispered plaintively from Smirkie’s lap, “please.”

“Woah ho!” A man called out, and suddenly Carl and Mike were around the car, having decided to go to Mindy’s and attempt some making-up.

“Don’t let us get in the way!” Carl laughed.

Mindy propped herself up and wiped her face, simultaneously smoothing Smirkie’s dress down over her tear-moistened thighs, “Get out of here you assholes!”

Mike kind of cradled Smirkie as she leaned back out of the open door of the car and wobbled to her feet. She accepted a huge kiss from Mike as he breathed hotly all over her face. Another level of the vortex Smirkie spun into, swallowed up by Mike.

Twenty minutes later, after some extended apologies and pleas, the ladies were in bed with their respective beaus. Ten minutes of clumsy love-making later and everyone slept like bags of winter-stored potting soil.

Smirkie woke early and moved away from Mike’s ridiculous snoring. She carefully extricated herself from the sheet, packed her small bag and quietly tip-toed out. She dressed in the living room by the sofa and, smoothing down her hair, stepped outside, pulling the door gently shut behind her. The sunrise filled her with a kind of unexpected delight. It was mild, not too hot, not too humid. The VW, still sitting with the passenger door open the CDs strewn all over the floor, seemed from ages ago like something she saw in a photograph. Carl’s Mustang gleamed on the roadside, parked at a drunken angle. Everything seemed extra vibrant and color saturated.

Smirkie dropped her bag, and sat on the stoop. Just for a moment, she thought, I’ll just take a moment. She meant just to settle her heels into her flats, and breathe a few last breaths of the salt air before bombing back to the “real” world, but found herself lost in a sort of directionless contemplation.
Soon a triplet of pelicans glided over, and Smirkie loved them. Pelicans! Look at them! She concentrated, eyes closed, cocking her head a bit and circling her hair behind her ear with a finger, as if trying to remember a song, and thought she could hear the ocean a few blocks away. The eternal rhythm touched her, a woman and the sea, two old old friends. Slowly, as if evaporating into a shapeless cloud—like those drifting overhead—her desire to flee vanished. What am I worried about? she wondered, squinting in the morning sun.
A little while later some children appeared, started screaming and running about. They sprayed one another with a hose, and she laughed. She got up, dusted off the seat of her capri pants and carried her bag back into the house, into the sunlit kitchen, and started some coffee for her friends.