As soon as she escapes the house, she is aware of how the world moves. Her legs carry her forward across the narrow stone stoop in one stride. Her chest is thrust forward, shoulders back, an arm stretched behind her with fingers curled around the lip of the screen door. She holds onto it as her body moves forward, the tips of her fingers burn as the flimsy door swings wide behind her. She feels every ounce of eighty-two pounds resting on the strength in her fingertips. There is a moment of hesitation. In it she rests in the sensation, feeling the weight of herself as it pools in her fingertips and begins to splinter up her wrist before she lets go. When she does, the resistance of the previous moment is dissolved into weightlessness as she swans, graceful into the open.
She lands a foot past the last slanted step. The fine hairs on her arms and legs stand to attention beneath the shock of light and heat that bathe her naked limbs while needles shoot through her ankles and toes upon impact. She pauses to look down the narrow length of her body and wiggles her toes through the dingy canvas of dollar store Keds. The fourth toe on her left foot finds a piece of gravel through a hole in the bottom. Already there’s a thin sheen of sweat kissing the skin beneath her purple shorts. She notices the contrast of their white piping against her red-brown skin. She notices how the nipples of her tiny breasts strain against the ribbing of her white tank. Again, the contrast of white against the tenor of her skin grabs her attention. She seems to glow.
The world is like a doorless room to her; bright, wide and something she might escape too if she could only find a window. She pivots, squeezes the fifty-cent piece she stole from her mother between her fingers and her palm, and moves down Moriches Avenue – a footnote of Mastic Beach. The season is her only companion. She does her best to understand it, but its revelations are transient and vague. Its constant presence, its breath at her back, and its hand that holds her as she moves is enough. Some days she would lie on a blanket in the backyard and open her legs. There while the tall grass whispered its dreams the Summer would press down on her and touch the places she ached to discover. She always wondered if it loved her. She seemed to think that love was a feeling, but she hadn’t decided. What always confused her was that the feeling left. In its wake was something she couldn’t exactly call emptiness. It was more like the absence of feeling. It was a void she didn’t want to remember as she moved along the sidewalk. Those blank days were like being dead in her body. She shivers for a split second before Summer steps in with a warm kiss to comfort her.
Her destination is two blocks away. She turns around and walks backwards a few steps. When she does her braided ponytail whips round and slaps at the hollow of her neck. Eyes shaded with her hand; she watches the old storefront her family is renting as a home get smaller. She turns back in the direction of what lies ahead, holds her breath, and sprints fifty yards past the stinky house with all the cats that stare out of the windows. On the school bus, the kids speculate about the old lady that lives there; say the cats have eaten her and if you get too close they’ll make you disappear too. She hates the hunger in their eyes and wills herself not to look as she runs by. Once past the smell, she can’t help but look back. For a second she imagines herself walking up the path and letting the cats consume her. She imagines that they wouldn’t bite, that instead of tearing through her, a thousand sandpaper tongues would gently lick away her skin. When she was reduced to bones and sinew maybe the old lady would appear and make something of her remains. She files it away as an option.
The avenue, a main thoroughfare, is mostly deserted on this and any Saturday morning. Each time a car drips past she’s aware of her size relative to her surroundings. On the other side of the street she notices a man of the neighborhood. He notices her too and crosses over. As he approaches, she walks a little more briskly, but resists the urge to run. She takes the fifty-cent piece and presses it against her wrist. The coin spans the width and as the man gets closer she imagines turning into a stack of coins. If he tries to touch her, her glistening coin-body will break apart and clink into a million pieces on the ground.
“Hey Pretty,” he says. She keeps walking as he falls in step with her. She wonders who Pretty is as she looks up through her eyelashes. They always call her pretty but her name is Dean. His smile is chilly and inviting at the same time. As she feels a bead of sweat drip down her back she notices that he seems cool.
“Where you headed in such a rush?” he asks. It’s strange how he’s slightly out of breath but doesn’t sweat. She doesn’t answer but slows her pace. She’s offended by the fear she feels and flustered by the attention. He’s handsome. Past her lashes she notices that his eyes are the color of Caramelos. They seem as sweet and she stops to gaze at them. He stops too and she notices the way his chest rises against the cotton of his white T-shirt. His tanned skin nearly matches the shade of hers, but lacks the luster that makes halos of warmth all around her. He doesn’t speak either; just stares back at her – waiting. She wonders how old he is and decides he’s too old to be friends with her seventeen-year-old sister but too young to be completely grown.
He’s patient while she sizes him up and while she does he appraises her. He can tell she’s confused by what she feels. Her fear is a tangible thing that punches up an interest he knows he shouldn’t have. She might just be the prettiest little thing he’s ever seen though. He sees her nearly every day, during school walking from the bus stop, and now to and from the store. She’s always alone and he reasons that everyone should have a friend.
“I’m Jake,” he says finally and extends his hand. His voice now even when he speaks begins to embody Summer. “I’ve seen you around here a lot.” He’d noticed her, but was it because she’d noticed him? She looks down and crosses her legs as she places the hand with the fifty-cent piece in it behind her back and the other reaches out for his. For a moment it feels as if Summer draws back, in anticipation of the feeling, and in want to be given a voice again.
She still doesn’t speak as her tiny hand lands in his. He’s startled by its softness and can’t resist taking his other and sandwiching hers between. When he does her eyes widen and with this a current of electric sensation snakes through his body attempting to swallow his guts. He absently strokes the top of her hand while he waits for the music pooled just between her lips. “One of those old cats got your tongue, Pretty?”
She feels like all the breath is being squeezed from her body. She hasn’t morphed into a stack of coins in the shape of a girl. The moment continues absent the clinking of metallic appendages finding the ground. But the air catches in sharp ticks when she tries to make the words come. His hands swallow hers with their size and warmth and a callus scratches the place he strokes. It reminds her of a cat’s tongue minus the wetness. She feels as if he wants to coax something from her but she’s not sure what. She notices now that his eyes, too, make her think of the cats; like he’s staring through the window wanting her to look back. Maybe he’s hungry too. She can’t know how long they stand there holding hands while Summer waits and an occasional car bleeds by reminding her again that’s she’s small and that the world is a room she can get lost in.
When he releases her hand she manages, “I’m Dean.” He doesn’t know what he expected, but her voice hits him like a stone between the eyes and he’s toppled by the sound of warm honey wrapped in silk. It’s not at all the voice of a girl but the sound of woman pressing out of her from the inside. “Say something else sweet, Dean,” he whispers. “What?” she asks. “Just that, that’s fine.”
He looks around while she waits and reaches a hand up to wipe the back of his neck, but still he doesn’t sweat. She can feel the sweat from her own body pooling at the waist of her shorts and in the seams of her panties. “Where you goin’, love?” “Store,” she points, and when she does, the sound of bells cuts the stillness and Mr. Papadopoulos, the old man who owns it, emerges with his broom. He stands still for a moment looking in the direction of her and the man. He lifts his hand to cover his eyes as they both watch him strain to recognize them. When he does, he motions for her to come with an exaggerated wave.
“I have to go,” she says. This time the man named Jake is the one who doesn’t speak. He reaches out and takes her braid between his fingers for a moment before he carefully places it back where it was – grazing the nape it rests in as he does. He nods and takes a step back. Neither of them say goodbye as she waves to Mr. P and continues on. She counts eleven steps then looks back to see the man named Jake still standing there; hands now in his pockets. She throws him a smile. He smiles back, shakes his head as if laughing, and goes on.
As Dean nears the store Mr. P greets her with a “Hey Pretty Pretty, what you doing around talking to that man?” She shrugs her shoulders and goes inside. The old man follows behind. Whenever she comes in he says the same things. “Where’s you daddy? If you were my girl I wouldn’t let you out!” He always seems to be half-shouting at her. She doesn’t mind it though because he always gives her extra.
“Okay, Sweettooth, what it gonna be today,” he says from behind the counter now. She shrugs her shoulders again and walks slowly up and down the aisles trying to decide. Ice-cream would be nice, but it goes too quickly she reasons, then crouches in front of the penny candy bins. She pulls a paper sack, scoops out twenty-five Swedish fish, moves down and grabs two Blow Pops, and adds one chocolate-covered cherry.
When she returns to the counter Mr. P says, “Okay, what we got?” before assessing the contents of her sack. She places the fifty-cent piece on the counter. The old man scratches his chin, feigning consideration, “Okay, okay, how ’bout dis,” he places a Neapolitan ice-cream sandwich on the counter and looks around as if he’s lost something before placing a Yoo-hoo on the counter as well. “Okay?” She just smiles and nods in response. “You ever talk?” he asks per usual and again she just nods as she takes possession of her purchases and his offerings before turning to go. Mr. P hurries around the counter and says, “Hey Pretty, you forgot dis. You mamma may want back.” He tosses her the fifty-cent piece and she wonders how he could have known she’d taken it. He stands in the doorway and watches her go. “You don’t talk to nobody now, Pretty. Go home.”
As Dean looks back at the old man she wishes that she could be born again into his family or even just a real one. Walking back home she looks for the man but he’s gone. She doesn’t think she’ll see him again, as if talking to him had some magical effect that would make him disappear from the neighborhood. As she eats the ice-cream she remembers how it felt when he held her hands in his, how a warm feeling swelled up inside her like the tides then gently receded. Thinking about it replicates the feeling to some degree but not entirely. She wonders if that was the way a girl felt when she held her father’s hand, but she couldn’t know. She had never had a father and no man had ever held her hand.
This time when she passes the stinky house she doesn’t sprint by. She holds her breath and looks at the cats staring out at her. She doesn’t want to hate their eyes or be afraid of them anymore so she stops and tries to look deeper. She realizes she doesn’t hate the hunger in their eyes, she just knows that she can never satisfy it. She couldn’t have said why she felt like she should.
When she returns the house is empty. She goes to her mother’s room and returns the fifty-cent piece before going to her room and grabbing her favorite teddy bear and a blanket. In the backyard she walks back toward the fence line where the grass is highest and spreads it out. She drops her sack, the Yoo-hoo and the teddy bear on it before heading back into the house. She returns with two half-smoked cigarettes, a lighter, some paper, a marker, and a spade.
She lights one of the cigarettes, drawing the smoke deeply into her lungs. As she looks around she imagines that this place is abandoned and she’s the only person left. Summer, again voiceless, sways against her and the grass whispers at her shins. She grabs the bear and the spade and looks for a patch of soft dirt. She finds one beside the path leading to the back door and begins to dig. It doesn’t take long to excavate a two-foot hole. In it she places the bear and cries a little as she covers it up and it disappears beneath the dirt. She punches a twig through the paper before writing R.I.P. on it and sticking it in the dirt to mark the grave. She stands over it for a moment before wiping her tears and finding her blanket. She opens the Yoo-hoo and takes a long swig before she lights the other cigarette and lies down. She opens her legs. As Summer presses in, she wonders if it loves her.
Claudine Cain is the editor of Black Elephant and the author of the chapbook In The Scarlet Opening,forthcoming from Saucepot Publishing. She is also a visual artist whose work has been featured by Clooch Magazine and others. She lives creatively with her two children in a state, whose recent hate policies, are not reflective of her personal views.