Marc slams the sliding door shut.
“You let more of them in,” she says.
Marc says, “They’re all over the damn place.”
Jen watches Marc swat wildly. Her knees are bent up to her chest and her toes tighten around the purple couch cushion. Kasey, sitting on the couch as well, turns her head back from Marc to raise an eyebrow to Jen. Jen watches the moths dart and dive around the light fixtures within the beach house. Since they arrived early that afternoon, every time they opened the sliding glass door to the deck, another moth entered. Now it seems that every light in the house has a small moth erratically flipping around the electric glow.
“Maybe we should just turn the lights out,” Guillermo says, thumbing his phone across from Jen. Marc slaps down all five light switch levers on the wall panel behind him, and the beach house goes dark. Jen’s eyes adjust to the dark, and stare out far beyond the glass door. The moon grows bright above the trembling waves and the house grows still.
* * *
“Do you think she’ll be fatter now?”
“I don’t care about that stuff,” Jen lied.
He tapped the steering wheel and looked at the car on his left, only slowly edging past him.
“What’s he do again?” Guillermo asked.
“Supply chain logistics. Don’t worry.”
Guillermo eased his ankle back and edged their car forward in traffic.
“I mean, you’ll be more interesting than him. Marc is just, Marc,” Jen said, sliding a few strands of brown hair back behind her ear.
“I don’t care about that stuff,” he lied.
Jen cracked her shoulders and slowly anchored her head upright. She clicked her phone closed.
“We’re still in traffic?” she said.
“I hate Atlanta. Once we’re through the city we’ll switch. Then it’s only another five hours,” Guillermo said. Jen nodded. She watched the city inch by her window. She thought about Kasey. And she thought about Marc. When she began to think about Kasey and Marc, she stopped.
She rolled her head to the left on the head rest and looked at Guillermo.
“Peachtree Publishing is in Atlanta. But they’re a bit small for me. Maybe my fifth or sixth book. Or maybe if I want to try kid’s stuff someday,” Guillermo said, making conversation.
“Mmhmm,” Jen said and eased into sleep.
* * *
“It’s gorgeous. Look how far the tide goes out.”
Jen and Kasey stand at the edge of the painted wooden deck facing the ocean. The air wraps around them tightly like a cool, sensuous blanket.
“This week is going to be amazing,” Kasey says. Her eyes grow and she looks like she really means it.
“We’re just glad we could make it,” Jen says. “We don’t get to travel much.”
A squadron of pelicans sail along in formation passing just above them. Kasey tilts her head back toward the birds. She closes her eyes and inhales deep, almost as though she is about to take off and join them.
“I would never come home if I could,” she says, opening her eyes and looking back out onto the horizon above the ocean.
Jen looks back through the sliding glass door. She can only see Marc’s right arm dangling over the loveseat from inside the house, but she stares at it. Stares at the bulky metal wedding band gleaming at her from the other side of the glass. “Why don’t you? Travel.”
“Afraid we’ll be too busy.” Kasey huffs, not quite sad, but not happy either. She curls her slender wrist around the top of her stomach like a snake and rests her arm there.
* * *
BBRRRRZZZZZZZ. The blender whirls wildly and Kasey slams a lid down too late on the escaping ice. Chips of broken ice crystals and red sugary margarita mix splash across the counter. They all laugh. Guillermo jumps the gun and takes a quick drag straight from the tequila bottle. Kasey playfully swipes it from him and cuddles the bottle in her arms. Marc lifts his eyebrows at her and smiles as he rips a wad of paper towels from a roll.
“Oh relax. I can still pour it, can’t I?” Kasey says.
“Oh come on, you’re not drinking?” Guillermo pleads unwittingly.
“Not for the next eight months, apparently,” she says.
Guillermo’s head swivels from Kasey, to Marc, back to Kasey’s belly, and back to Marc.
“Finally starting our little family,” Marc says as he wipes the counter clean, his forearm flexing.
“Congratulations.” Guillermo erupts, lifting off his kitchen stool to hug Kasey and then Marc. Jen smiles but her gaze fades off into the house around her. Into the same moment, but elsewhere. The house is so clean and modern, not like their own apartment.
* * *
“I thought you were my bitch,” Jen said.
“I am your bitch.” Kasey hunched her shoulders and pleaded with her face. “I just can’t tonight. I’ll go to Lunar’s after class with you tomorrow night.”
“Is tomorrow night Thursday?” Jen asked.
“No, tomorrow is Friday.” Kasey rolled her eyes back.
“And is Friday Ladies’ Night? Which means half-priced drinks? Which means twice as many loser dudes with half a chance, throwing us free drinks? Which means getting my ass twice as fucked up?”
Kasey laughed. “No.”
“Then come on, girl.”
Kasey looked like she might actually be thinking about it. Jen knew she didn’t really need Kasey there, but she had grown accustomed to her being with her on campus everywhere she went. She was like a breathing accessory for Jen. A bit shorter, a bit heavier, Kasey was a reminder that Jen was the better option.
“I’m meeting someone tonight. To study.” Kasey said it like it was a sin in a confession booth.
Jen slapped her palm into her own forehead.
“But he’s kind of cute though,” Kasey added as if to ease the indiscretion.
“Ugh, you’re so lame.” Jen opened her handbag and fluttered through it to make sure she had what she needed. ID. Phone. No money. “Whatever. He better be on the hockey team or some shit.”
“It’s that one guy on the third floor. He’s in my trig class.” Kasey said. “The elevator guy.”
Jen stopped fidgeting in her bag.
“Marc, right?” Jen said.
“Yeah. How’d you know?” Kasey said.
* * *
She holds Guillermo’s hand and vaguely watches where her footsteps land in the moonlit sand. Her skin, loosening as years pass, is now tight and warm, pulsing from the last few days of lying in the summer sun. She fights a shiver from the night breeze on her skin.
“I mean if MacMillan passes I’ll settle for Penguin or HarperCollins, but they’re definitely my first choice. Plus, I think my story will market itself, really.”
Jen lets Guillermo talk, only tossing in an agreeable “uh-huh” every few minutes. They stroll along the coast as the tide recedes far off the shore, beaten back by the luminous presence of the nearly full moon.
“Really, once I have an agent, they’ll do most of that kind of work but it’s important for me to square a lot of that away now. Get it all figured out, ya know?”
“Uh-huh,” Jen says. She catches sight of gently bouncing orbs of light up ahead. As she and Guillermo near, the frolicking orbs morph into wayward flashlights shifting back and forth along a path. They see half a dozen lights pointed down at the sand bobbing slowly toward the ocean.
“Whoa whoa whoa,” a flashlight says to them as they come closer. The talking flashlight lowers the beam of light away from Jen and Guillermo’s eyes and points down to the sand.
The beach below writhes and Jen pulls in her toes and leaps behind Guillermo.
“Sea turtle hatching.” The flashlight says. Jen’s eyes begin to make out the little shapes scuttling their bodies along the sand. “Just trying to get them to the ocean safely.”
“Why the flashlights? They can’t hear the giant ocean over there?” Guillermo asks.
“They evolved to use the moon to guide them. All it takes is a porchlight left on on one of these beach houses to send them in the wrong direction. Hard enough as it is to get where they’re going, sometimes they just need a little help.”
As they wait for the baby sea turtles to pass, Jen looks down the shore to their rental. The one with the porchlight still on.
* * *
Marc says, “That’s the last of the border pieces.”
Jen sits on the carpet, her legs tucked under her, her elbows hovering over the coffee table. It’s littered with a thousand little cardboard jigsaw pieces. Jen slots puzzle pieces together, forming the bottom half of a swallow-tailed gull. She only knows it’s a swallow-tailed gull because the front of the box says so.
Kasey is leaning back in the purple loveseat. Her eyes squint at the TV. She’s been pointing the remote control at the television as if she were going to change the channel for the last two episodes of House Hunters. A moth flutters across the screen. Guillermo reads book reviews of other people’s books on his phone.
“I think we can start filling in some of these exterior pieces now,” Marc says to a team of workers he seems to think is there. Jen rocks up onto her knees and begins to slide the section of the puzzle she’s been working on, the swallow-tailed gull, over to where Marc was just pointing. She shuffles on her knees across the carpet with her jigsaw bird. She can smell Marc as she leans over the table and slides her pieces into the corner. She inhales deeper and presses on the pieces harder and harder, but they won’t fit.
* * *
Kasey is still taking a nap when Marc walks back up the deck stairs from the beach. Jen’s sitting on the deck absorbing sun and pretending to read her book. Marc offers a friendly nod as he makes his way to the outdoor shower on the back of the house. Jen smiles but quickly looks back down to the same page she’s been on for the last twenty-three minutes.
The pipes creak beneath the porch as Marc twists the water on in the outdoor shower stall. Jen glances back into the house once before turning her eyes to Marc. The water slides down his back, rinsing the salt and sand from his body. His arms raise and flex, rubbing his hands through his dark brown hair. He twists the water off and wraps a towel around his dripping trunks. Marc pauses for a moment on the deck to look back out at the ocean. Before walking back into the house, he offers a smile to Jen and says nothing. She smiles back again, but this time does not look away, her eyes following his.
* * *
Guillermo fans his face, swiping at a moth fluttering across his phone.
“I hate these fucking moths.”
Jen says nothing. She gets up to go get another drink from the kitchen. She’s careful as she stands not to mess up the puzzle on the coffee table. The puzzle she and Marc put together.
As she returns with the last of the Riesling, Kasey and Marc’s room door opens. From the doorway, light pours into the dark hallway and Kasey paces out.
“Kasey.” Jen hears Marc say. “Kasey.” Again, louder.
Kasey grabs her bag off the table and slides her way through the glass door out onto the deck.
Jen looks down the hallway toward the light flooding out of the room. The room Kasey just left. The room Marc is still in. She wants to go to it. To follow the light into his room.
“Are you going to go after her?” Guillermo says from the couch.
“What?” Jen says.
“I think she was crying.”
She looks back down the hallway. At the light. Then turns for the glass sliding door and moonlight outside.
* * *
“The perfect family, you know?” Kasey says, holding the joint up, letting the smoke plume out from between her teeth.
The waves churn and collide on the darkened sand. The moon is full. Jen found Kasey on the beach watching the tide fade back along the Carolina coast.
“Look, don’t judge me. It’s just how I get through it. How I get through him.”
“No, Kase. No judgement,” she lies.
“He’s great. We’re great, you know? I just. Sometimes the perfect family freaks me out. I’m not done seeing the world. I wanna see what’s on the other side of this stupid, beautiful ocean.” Kasey looks out over the sea, tiny trembling particles of moonlight flickering on the water. “I don’t even like white picket fences.”
“Yeah, you’re more of a rod iron kinda bitch,” Jen says.
“Right?” Kasey takes another hit and passes the joint to Jen. “Plus this is the one thing that kills the morning sickness.”
Jen waves her hand at the joint and shakes her head. Kasey shrugs her round shoulders and holds onto the joint. Jen looks at Kasey’s little belly. Her little womb. Her little vacation house. She thinks about how that baby could have been living inside her. Marc’s baby. She thinks what it would be like. If the baby lived in her.
“Just please don’t tell Marc, okay? He’s so dead set on everything being just right. He’s not like me.”
Jen doesn’t say anything. She just stares across the water and tries to breathe and tries to avoid the smoke.
* * *
“Wanna fry?” Jen said, sliding the greasy bag between her thighs. Her college diet back then was almost entirely delivered to her through a drive-through window.
Marc, driving, smiled and shook his head no. He had a beard back then and his brown bristles lifted into his nose when he smirked at her.
He asked, “You guys party like this a lot?”
“Used to. Kase is my ride or die bitch.”
“Yeah, Kasey said you were a wild one.”
Jen looked over from the passenger seat at Marc, not sure how to absorb his words. She took it as a good thing. She took it as a great thing. Her head was light from the Seagram’s and hovered around her thoughts in the night. She slid the bag of after midnight fries and burgers down to the floor between her ankles and tossed her rolling head back and peered at Marc. She played with her own hair.
He was like a chivalrous knight, soberly riding his silver Chevy Cavalier out into the night for 2 am party food. She had never a seen a designated driver at 7 pm still be a designated driver at 2 am. When he said he’d leave the dorm to go grab food, Jen snuck down with him to his car. Kasey didn’t know. Marc didn’t care.
Jen watched him as he drove, one hand guiding the steering wheel, the car weaving through campus. He was handsome in a way Jen wasn’t used to at twenty-two. It was as if he wanted to be square or boring.
Jen liked boys. Eighteen-year-old boys, thirty-year-old boys, she’d even let boys in their sixties buy her drinks. She wasn’t used to being around a man.
“Hey, pull over here for a second,” Jen said, pointing to a sparse parking lot behind Tobin Hall. She unbuckled her seatbelt as he did. He eased the car into parking space beneath an old oak tree whose leaves shaded out the moon.
Marc said, “Do…Do you need to puke?”
In a nimble shift of her hips, Jen rose from her seat and thrust her right leg up and around Marc in the driver’s seat, settling her pelvis down into his lap, facing him. He lifted his palms up but she leaned into him before he could speak and opened her mouth around his furry lips. She pushed further and as her chest began to flood Marc stopped her. He gently pushed back against her.
“I think you’re drunk.” He looked at her and Jen could see in his face that he was embarrassed. Not because he didn’t know what to do. Not because he had made some mistake. He was embarrassed for her. It was pity that his eyes gifted her that night.
But she wasn’t too drunk. Well, she was, but she knew what she was doing. Jen knew Marc was what she wanted.
“I need to get back to Kasey,” Marc said as Jen slid back into the passenger seat. Marc shifted the car out from under the tree and the light of the moon poured in through the windows. Jen never apologized. Marc never told Kasey. Jen didn’t either.
* * *
“You smell like shit,” Guillermo says from over his Kindle. Jen slides into bed, the blanket wafting the smell of secondhand weed.
“I was helping Kasey,” Jen says.
“Do what, smoke out a family of skunks?”
“Just shut up, babe.”
Jen bends her legs underneath the blankets and turns away from him. Guillermo continues to read. Jen’s mind floats around the room. Around the beach house. Around the island. Her mind flutters along a sidewalk and through a white picket fence. Her mind bounces along a driveway and up to a brightly lit window. Pressing against the window, her mind glimpses a woman.
She’s setting a meal on the kitchen table. Marc sits at the head of the table. There are three boys at the table too. The woman kisses Marc on the cheek and sits down. As Jen tries to focus on the woman’s face, the light is blinding and she can’t see who she is. The light is blinding.
Something tickles her face and she opens her eyes. She’s back in the beach house in bed with Guillermo. A moth drops onto her arm and she swats it away.
“It’s my light. Sorry.” Guillermo says holding his Kindle on his stomach. “They think it’s the moon. The moths. They evolved like the sea turtles. I looked it up.” He shifts his head to look at her. “Amazing how dumb animals can be after so many years.” He uses the Kindle to swat a moth away.
Jen is crying but she’s not sure why.
“Can you turn that light off then?” Jen asks.
“I’m still reading reviews.”
Jen shuts her eyes tight and tries to drown out the light but she can’t.
“Have you even written one fucking word yet?” she asks from the other side of the bed. “Just one fucking word?”
“You know I’m still plotting.”
Jen slides the blanket up over her shoulders and tries to find the house in her mind again.
“You don’t have to be such a bitch,” Guillermo says, shuts the Kindle off and rolls over with a bounce.
The room goes dark. Jen’s mind can’t find the house with the white picket fence, and as Guillermo begins to snore, she cries alone in the dark.
* * *
It’s early morning, before sunup, when Jen gets up and wanders into the kitchen. She stops for a moment when she sees Marc at the sink rinsing late night glasses and loading the dishwasher. The light about the kitchen sink spreads over his shoulders and Jen inches closer. He doesn’t hear her at first and the thought comes to her to wrap her arms around him. Lean her head against his back and breathe him into her life. But she doesn’t.
As she gets nearer, her shadow creeps over Marc’s shoulder and he stops.
“Sorry if I woke you. Rental policy says you have to clean before you leave.” He taps the faucet handle and the water stops. He continues to speak over his shoulder to Jen. “We’re heading out early.”
“Oh.” Jen doesn’t know what else to say.
He says, “I knew this was a bad idea. Coming here.” Because you can’t control yourself around me, she thinks. Because you always knew Kasey was a mistake, she thinks. Because all you’ve ever wanted was to be with me, she thinks. He says, “You haven’t changed.” Jen’s heart lifts, but his words don’t fit the missing space in her chest.
Marc says, “Kasey told me about the weed.” Yes, she thinks. This is it. Marc is finally realizing. I’ll be whoever you want me to be. I’ll set the dining room table. I’ll serve dinner to you and our boys. “I can’t believe you could be so fucking reckless.”
Jen doesn’t say anything. Her ears hurt from the drumming in her chest. “How could you smoke that shit around her? Right now. My wife? My unborn child?” He dries his shaking hands in a stray dish towel but refuses to turn around. Refuses to look at her. “What’s fucking wrong with you?”
She opens her mouth but she’s afraid her heart will fall out, so she closes her lips tightly. In her mind, she drags Kasey in by the hair and pummels her under the kitchen light. In her mind, she tells Marc right there every detail Kasey confessed to her, that Kasey lies to him and that it wasn’t her. In her mind, Marc sees the light. The light that she sees. In her mind.
A moth flaps fitfully above the sink.
Jen looks to the floor. She wants all the things that flutter through her mind in this moment. But she closes her eyes and claims none of them.
“You’re right. I’m sorry,” she says, and flicks the kitchen light switch as she leaves. In the darkness, she finds her bearings and navigates her way back from whence she came.
Joe Miller writes from Missouri, where he lives on the banks of the Mighty Mo. His work has appeared in Drunk Monkeys, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, and Five on the Fifth. He always writes with his loyal companions: a pair of sleepy dogs, and a pessimistic cat.