Earworm: Part 24 — The One Thing

EarwormContinued from: Earworm: Part 23 — Finding Hope 

William Knight

Hope stood on the castle’s balcony, overlooking a gray sea and sky. It was the moment before dawn, when the world—William Knight’s world—welcomed the coming sun—William Knight’s sun—with silent serenity. A gleam caught Hope’s eye. She looked down to see the moon—William Knight’s moon—hanging from a thread of stars. She lifted the jewel from her breast, its energy tingling her fingertips.

“Wait until you see this,” William said, seeming to materialize beside her.

“William,” Hope gasped. Her face broke into a grin. “You surprised me.”

One edge of William’s mouth twitched in a semi-smile, and he said, “Seriously,” nodding toward the distant sky, “you don’t want to miss this.”

Like the heating coils of an electric range, the horizon began to glow orange-red. The few, thin clouds in the sky radiated a soft gold. Then the scarlet sliver of the sun’s crown broke the sea’s surface and a ribbon of crimson cut the lavender sea like a wound. The clouds erupted into brilliant silver, the sky exploding into countless shades of violet and pink and orange and yellow. The sun continued its ascent above the horizon, shifting from scarlet to gold. The ocean drained of its lavender color and deepened to a dark blue, millions of white flames dancing and swimming across its surface like flaming fish.

“Like it?” William said, reminding Hope of a child holding out a finger-painting.

Hope looked at him, still holding the moon in her tingling fingers, and the bright beaming smile—the one she offered her closest friends, the one she offered Joel Fitch—stole her face. “It’s amazing,” she said.

“I can give you something better,” William said, offering his hand with a sly grin.

“Better, huh?”

“Oh yeah. Trust me.” William’s grin became an all-out smile.

“You’ve said that before,” Hope said.

“Have I disappointed you yet?”

“No, I guess not.”

“Okay, then. Close your eyes.”

“William, I…”

“C’mon,” William said, “Close your eyes.”

“Fine.” Hope closed her eyes.

William stepped behind her. “All right,” he whispered into her ear—Hope felt the firmness of his hands on her shoulders and his warm breath tickling her earlobe—“Think about the one thing you want, the one thing you want more than anything else.”

Hope shifted her hips and scrunched her nose.

What’s the one thing I want? Of course, that’s easy, she thought.

Again, Hope felt the sensation of thoughts taking flight from her head. She closed her eyes tighter. “Well,” she said, “the one thing in the world I want, I can’t have because…”

“Hello, My Hope,” a voice said.

Hope’s fists clenched, her fingernails digging into her palms. “Open your eyes,” William whispered into her ear. “He’s really there.”

Hope opened her eyes. Her father stood before her, regarding her with his soft, brown eyes. He spoke to her with a voice that tickled her memory, using the same term of endearment he had always used for her. My Hope. “Daddy?” Hope said, barely able to summon air to work her voice. Her father spread his arms to receive her and Hope lunged into his embrace. Her body went limp, tears inundating her eyes. “I missed you so much,” she said, her voice catching on sobs.

“I know, My Hope,” her father said. “But I’m back now, and I’ll never leave you again.”

Hope sobbed harder as her father gave a series of, soft hushes. Something he’d always done when comforting her. “Shh-shh-shh. It’s all right,” he said.

She felt the rise and fall of each of his breaths, and she felt each soft knock of his heart.

He held her at arm’s length. “Now let me get a good look at you.” He wiped tears from below her eyes as if brushing dust from an heirloom.

She observed each of his mannerisms with a salient, nostalgic sense of déjà vu, and she felt a little lightheaded—memories fluttering off as if stolen—as she swam in the shock of the moment.

“You’ve grown to become so beautiful,” he said. “Now you’ve got to tell me, how is your mother?”

Hope sniffled, replacing a sob with a laugh. She wiped tears with the palm of her hand. “She’s good,” she said. “She remarried a guy named Ron. He’s good to us, but… we miss you so much.” Tears overflowed from her again.

“I know. It’s okay. I’m here,” her father said. “And how’s school? Meet anyone new and interesting? Any beaus for my belle?”

Hope’s tears faded. What about Karen? she thought, Why wouldn’t he ask about Karen? Hope looked into her father’s blue eyes.

Her heart took a stutter step. Are his eyes blue? She squinted, focusing on her father’s irises. His face distorted like a ripple through a pond, but then reassembled. Hope shut her eyes. Again, she felt woozy, something in her mind fluttering away. When she opened her eyes, she saw her father’s eyes were the same soft brown they’d always been.

“And Karen? How’s my beautiful Karen?” her father said.

“She’s great,” Hope said with a strange sense of relief. “But…” But, what? What does one ask one’s father who has been dead for six years? “How did you get here?”

“I’ve always been here. Remember? It was William that brought you to me.” He directed a proud smile toward William.

Hope turned to face William. “But, why?”

“I wanted to give you something special.”

“But how?”

“Does it matter?” William said.

Hope took William’s face in her hands and she drew his face close to hers. “I don’t know how to thank you,” she said. She kissed him tenderly on the lips.

After initially blinking, dazed from the shock of the kiss, William’s gaze leveled onto her. “You…” he began to say, but the grating sound of her distant alarm clock interrupted him.

“No,” Hope said.

“Hope,” a man’s voice called into the dream like the voice of God in a Cecil B. Demille film.

“No. Please. William, please, not now.”

“I’m sorry,” William said, a helpless look filling his eyes.

Hope looked to her father. “But, Daddy, I don’t want to go.”

“It’s okay,” her father said. “I’ll still be here for when you come back.”

The screeching continued. Hope lunged for her father, but passed through him as he faded into nothingness. The castle shook as the hall they stood in faded until there was only darkness. And the screeching alarm. And the voice. “Hope?”

Hope opened her eyes. Her alarm clock screamed. Ron stood over her, rocking her awake.

“Hope?” Ron said, “Are you okay?”

She looked at him for a long unflinching moment, and then she burst into tears.

Continued in: Earworm: Part 25 — Belonging

Beneath the Weeping Tree: Part 14 — In the Evening

The ApartmentsContinued from: Beneath the Weeping Tree: Part 13 — Here’s Looking at You, Kid

The evening temperature had cooled, but not as quickly as the dinner conversation between Ellen and Cooper before he left the apartment. He never asked her why she wasn’t out there looking for a job, so it came as a bit of a surprise when she brought up the issue with him. “It would give you a chance to get some of the things you’re always talking about that other kids have and we can’t afford,” she said.

He stared into the compartmental frozen dinner—some of the peas were burned while others were still crusted with ice. He was just beginning high school and she wanted him to get a job already? What was that all about? Must have seen something on TV about kids with jobs excelling in other areas of life, or helping to supplement the family income. He thought about all of the romanticized visions of the thirties he’d seen in movies, the years of the Great Depression that commanded an “all for one, and one for all” attitude. Boys quitting school to work in factories and girls never bothering with education in the first place, opting instead to stay home and help take care of younger siblings, or mend clothes and cook what little food the men could muster with their meager earnings. But these weren’t the 1930’s. The economy was still booming, and while the job market was very good, Cooper had no interest in joining the work force. He wasn’t a character in The Grapes of Wrath, and as far as he could tell, the women back in that time worked just as hard as the men. You’re not exactly Ma Fuckin’ Joad, he wanted to say, but didn’t. Such a comment wasn’t worth the aftermath.

He slithered out of the conversation and away from the apartment without acknowledging her suggestion that he think about getting a job.

A thin arc of moonlight bled into the sky as dusk crept steadily forth. Narrow clouds smudged the sunset, brushing the horizon in red streaks. A slight wind picked up, whispering through the treetops. He sat on the curb, eyes closed, listening to the shaking leaves, and he imagined the breeze translated into some other language—a connection between his thoughts and nature. Like the vapory line between consciousness and dream.

Cooper had spent many nights on the curb waiting for darkness to claim the day. He drew from a cigarette most times, just after dinner, purging the residual tastes of frozen dinners and processed desserts. Usually it was Little Debbie cakes or ring dings that followed the main course. Home economics class had taught him the reality of the diet his mother subsided on, and he tried to sneak in a healthy thing or two every now and then to avoid further punishment to his body. Unlike most kids his age, he usually passed over the twizzlers and slush puppies in the school cafeteria in favor of an apple and a spring water. He wasn’t thinking about nutrition, though, as he sat there and sucked on a cigarette and watched its tip glow. The spent match book lay crumpled to his side and he regretted not grabbing more before he left the apartment.

A tangle of voices emerged from the distance. Cooper knew it would be some of the other teenaged residents of The Villas. Although there were plenty of them, he got along with only a few. Most were slackers whose idea of a good time included lighting fires on the run-down tennis courts and throwing rocks at street lights. Monday mornings usually displayed the remnants of those bulbs sprinkled along the edge of the pavement. Many of the teens hung around the parking lot where he now sat, kicking a hacky sack or lighting firecrackers—sometimes sneaking off in pairs to smoke a joint in the shrubs. He steered clear of them for the most part, avoiding their glares or the occasional hazing they offered, their telling him to take his skirt off and join them for a smoke. He had nothing against people who smoked pot, but those kids were loud and obnoxious, hooting into the late night hours and leaving broken glass and candy wrappers strewn in their wake.

He stubbed out his cigarette on the curb but remained seated when they came into view. A fleeting sense of regret passed and he wished he’d retreated to the woods before they’d arrived. The tree-top perch in the woods was a sanctuary, though, and he was cautious to hide it from other people in the days since he built it. The last thing in the world he wanted was for those douche bags to discover his spot and claim it as their own. So he waited out the darkness, considering that he could sit and watch them. It was way better than television.

Three figures approached, one taller than the others. Cooper guessed it was Danny Spade, a three-time high school freshman. Triple crown. It was a wonder that nobody seemed to pick up on the fact that he was a lot older than most of the kds in his grade—that he’d be able to drive them to school if he had enough brains to pass the licensure test. His loud mouth was attached to a pimply face and Cooper heard him called ‘pincushion’ by more than a few of his dead-beat upperclass friends while they gunned the engines of their late model cars and gawked at pretty girls in the high school parking lot. Pincushion Danny always tried to give it right back to them, but usually failed in this endeavor as his mind lacked the creativity to fashion good comebacks. It was usually the old standard “yeah sure, just like your mom”, but occasionally he spouted some gibberish like “whatever sizzle-face. That’s what the mushroom said.” Sadly, the supposed insults were out of context and rarely made any sense—words that sounded like curses but were nothing more than garbled nonsense.

But Danny did have one area of expertise that was amusing. Cooper had seen him in action from a distance one afternoon and it wasn’t clear, at first, just what Pincushion’s intentions were. The main road that led from the island’s center to The Villas had an uptick in traffic most afternoons, so it didn’t seem like a smart thing he was witnessing when he watched Danny run out in the middle of the road, squat down, and then run back toward the spot he came from. Pincushion had done this twice before Cooper got close enough to understand what was going on. The embarrassment flushed on the face of the first guy who stopped, a bread truck driver, squeezed into a uniform that was a bit too small, foretold the fun that could be had. Pincushion Danny left an opened porn magazine in the middle of the road, and then hid behind a bench on the side of the road. When the bread driver pulled to the side of the road, Cooper posted himself against a telephone pole a few hundred feet away. The poor guy waddled out into traffic, an awkward gait that could be paralleled only by the fattest of fat kids on the first day of gym class, and bent to pull the magazine from the pavement. At that point, Pincushion Danny Spade came bolting from behind the bench bellowing, “Pervert. We have a slip-dashin’ pervert, folkie folks.” It was almost the nyuck-nyuck voice of the Three Stooges, only a hell of lot more annoying. “A dissa-disappointed pervert, at that.” He’d brushed the nudie magazine with tar before affixing it to the concrete, preventing the guy from capitalizing on his discovery.

Cooper felt bad for the guy, but reasoned that it was a pretty pathetic maneuver, on his part, to fall into that trap. It also reinforced his opinion that Danny Spade was nobody he would ever call a friend.

When the voices came closer, it appeared that Pincushion Danny was accompanied by Rod Sullivan, a bullish boy with wide shoulders who lived with his grandmother in the building next to Cooper’s. Rod was more well spoken than Pincushion, but he had a few issues of his own which most people probably didn’t know about. In seventh grade, he’d been in math class with Cooper, and when he acquired the chicken pox, Cooper spent a week delivering his assignments from the school. On one of those visits, the kid’s grandmother confided to Cooper that Rod’s spirits were especially down because not only was he sequestered from the world with chicken pox, but also his mother hadn’t made parole at her recent hearing. “Oh, well that’s too bad,” Cooper said, not quite realizing what parole meant. But his own mom filled him in rather quickly on those details that evening. If there was one good thing about his mom it was her vault of television related information. At the time, he figured he owed his knowledge of parole to NYPD Blue or Matlock, two of his mom’s absolute favorites. Rod treated Cooper cooly from that point on, probably figuring that if he avoided giving Cooper a reason to talk with him, then maybe he’d be less apt to talk about him.

Molly Shanahan bobbed like a puppet between her not-so-highly-pedigreed companions. Her giggle sliced through the evening like a bus chortling across a garden on a spring morning. “Nooooo Daaanny,” she squealed before coiling away from him in a pitch of laughter. She latched onto Rod’s arm and Cooper imagined him blushing, a real live girl actually touching him. He wondered if there were scars left on that arm from the outbreak of chicken pox. That sort of thing probably wouldn’t bother Molly though, as her reputation attested to being very comfortable touching people. As an eighth grader she’d been banned from riding the school bus for lifting up her shirt and selling views of her naked boobs for a quarter apiece. She’d become notorious from that point on, referred to as Molly Mounds.

More recently, though, Cooper had been tramping through the woods on the way to his then-unfinished tree perch when he heard that familiar squeal erupting from a thicket of undergrowth. He approached with caution, moving each branch with care, and was rewarded with quite a show. There she was, Molly with her eyes closed, chin dipped toward the sky, and clothes scattered. Cooper didn’t recognize the guy who was fucking her that afternoon, but he didn’t really care. Probably some trashy utility man she lured off a pole or a random pedestrian she passed on her way home from school—he often saw her walking alone as the school bus lumbered past. After a moment of watching from behind a tree, Cooper put a hand in his pocket and was disappointed to feel himself stiffening. He retraced his steps through the undergrowth and found the path toward his tree, climbing it, and, before he even reached his perch, he had his dick in his hands and rubbed one out.

The three of them stopped a few dozen yards from Cooper, Molly sitting down on the paved parking lot while the two boys paced half-circles around her. Pincushion Danny cast a blade-like shadow as the fluorescent parking lot lights illuminated with a hum. Rod lowered to a knee and Cooper watched, waiting to see what he was doing. Was he into plastering the world with dirty pictures like his buddy? Soon it was clear that he was chalking some sort of design into the parking lot. His hands worked busily, one propping his chubby frame while the other worked the chalk back and forth.

“What’ch ya drawing, dickweed?” Pincushion leered.

Rod was not baited by the comment and continued to work. Molly lazed back on her elbows staring up toward the sky, closely resembling her position on the forest floor on that lustful afternoon. Cooper watched her intently, the head swaying back and forth, cut-off jeans riding steep on her thighs. He wondered if he’d ever consider chasing after her or if her reputation would prevent him from allowing himself to get mixed up with her. He imagined kissing her and concluded that it’d be like going out for ice cream with your mother after accidentally seeing her naked. He pulled a fresh cigarette from his breast pocket and stood up and kicked aside the spent match book. A stone fell from the curb where he’d been sitting, inviting all three of them to look up at him.

Pincushion rocked back and forth on his heels and Rod stopped drawing. The two of them looked startled, frozen, and Cooper stared at them—like Danny and Rod were a giraffe and a bear cub awaiting a new visitor in their wild kingdom. Molly pulled her knees toward her chest and when Cooper drew near he noticed the cleavage that spilled over her tank top. She offered him a bubbly smile when he stopped.

“Well, look who came out to play,” Pincushion jeered.

“Hey Cooper. What’s up?” Again, Rod ignored his gawky friend and played the situation cool. Cooper found himself searching for the scars of chicken pox and decided that the lights in the lot were not bright enough.

“What’s happening guys? Molly?” They were all staring at him and he suddenly wished that he hadn’t come over to join them in the first place. But, then again, he needed that light.

“Just chillin’” Rod said. He stared bashfully at the image he’d chalked into the parking lot: a bluish eye with a star shaped iris. A stick figure hunched beneath the eye as if trying to carry it on his back.

“Charles Atlas with a twist,” Cooper said.

“Yeah. Maybe something like that. I need to stick to the chalk for a while since I got busted for tagging a wall down at school. Had to scrub those fucking bricks with a wire brush for three Saturdays in a row.”

Cooper vaguely remembered Rod as an artist but had no idea he was into graffiti. He thought of all the images he’d seen painted in public places around town and wondered if Rod was responsible—the library, the tunnels near the public train, cinder block walls behind the mall, even the sidewalk in front of a church. His favorite had been at the school bus stop: airbrushed people dancing around a campfire, images of psychedelia swirling upward in the flames, beautiful blends of vivid purples and oranges accented with lime green symbols.

“Not bad,” Cooper said. “Sure beats hanging around this place doing nothing,” he finished, glaring at Pincushion. Molly laughed.

“Do you have one for me to smoke, Cooper?” she asked.

Sexual innuendoes sped through his mind but he crunched them away before saying, “Sure thing. As long as you’ve got a light.” He shook one from the soft package and handed it over. She produced a salmon-colored Bic from her pocket and lit him up before lighting herself. He nodded his thanks and stepped away from them. “I’ll be seeing you guys around. Stay outta trouble tonight,” he called over his shoulder.

Dusk had slipped into total darkness and he tightened the straps of his backpack. He still had a few hours before his mom would start worrying.

To Be Continued

With Drawn: Part 27 — Just Wait

Jacob's HouseContinued from: With Drawn: Part 26 — Fight Night

Jacob was sitting on his bed. He was staring down at the drawing of his father, tracing with his eyes the lines and shadings that his pencil had made. He then stared at the drawing in his focused-unfocused way, and the drawing of David Grist shifted slightly, the portrait’s sharp eyes falling onto Jacob. But they were interrupted when Dennis burst in through Jacob’s bedroom door. Jacob turned the drawing of his father over on his bed so that Dennis would not see it, and he stood up to face his stepfather, not sure if another backhand was coming.

No backhand came, but his stepfather’s glare hurt almost just as much. Jacob avoided the man’s hateful glare. He focused on the turned-over sketchpad on his bed.

Dennis said, “Listen, I didn’t mean to hit you so hard.”

“Yes you did,” Jacob said.

“Look, you little brat, no I didn’t. You were talking weird shit about your mother. About your mother.” Dennis raised his voice emphatically for this last sentence.

Jacob said, “No, I was saying that you…”

Dennis interrupted Jacob, saying, “We both know what you said. And we should just keep this whole thing between us. We don’t need your mother hearing about how you called her a cheap whore.”

“I didn’t. I called you…”

“Jesus. You never shut up, do you?” Dennis hollered at Jacob. “Just wait until you turn eighteen, you little fag. Because the day you do turn eighteen, I’m gonna take you into an alley and I’m gonna beat the ever-living shit out of you.”

Dennis said he was going to wait until Jacob was eighteen because then it would not be considered child abuse if he beat up Jacob when he was legally an adult, which happens when someone turns eighteen.

Dennis didn’t seem to be worried about Jacob’s minor status when he struck him in the kitchen a few moments prior, however.

Jacob glared at Dennis.

Dennis continued to say, “You really are gonna be a little pussy about this, aren’t you? Fine. Ruin your mom’s happiness, you selfish little prick. Do it. Make your mom unhappy, and see if I wait until you’re eighteen before I beat the shit out of you.” And then Dennis stormed out of Jacob’s room.

Continued in: With Drawn: Part 28 — Suspicious Activity 

Earworm: Part 23 — Finding Hope

EarwormContinued from: Earworm: Part 22 — Bats

Hope sat up in her bed, her brain doing a loop-de-loop in her skull. She fought through a brief moment of nausea as she recalled the party, and the too many beers she’d had. She remembered Joel and her friends hanging out, watching the Beer Pong game, the conversation with Katie Adams about Joel and Tara, and she remembered something else, something seemingly important. A voice she didn’t quite recognize speaking in her memories. Scolding her.

Have you been drinking?

Did her parents catch her drunk last night?

She took a moment to piece together the evening. She remembered hanging out at Katie Adams’s party, finding herself drinking more beers than she intended to, and then Joel had dropped her off at home. She had let herself in through the front door—the house quiet, hall light on—and she ascended the stairs to her room, going to bed without incident, right? Yes, because she remembered lying in bed, floating on her buzz, thinking of Joel and Tara, and what Katie had told her about them. Then why did she feel as if she was scolded for drinking?

She regarded her bedroom, gathering her thoughts and clearing the cobwebs from her tired mind. Her eyes fell on the poster of the castle on her wall, and that’s when the missing pieces of her night fell into place. The scolding

Have you been drinking?

was, not from her mother or stepfather, but from William Knight, his eyes filled with parent-like disapproval.

But where had she seen William? Was he waiting in her house, arms crossed, foot tapping, Where have you been? No, that wasn’t it. He was waiting for her in her dream, arms crossed, foot tapping, Where have you been? Did she really dream that a classmate reprimanded her for coming home drunk? She tried to recall the entire dream, but all she remembered was William’s disapproval of her state. And when she looked at the parent-like disappointment on William’s face, she couldn’t help herself, she broke into laughter. William shook his head, saying that there was something important he wanted to give her—“But forget it now,” he said.

Aw, c’mon,” Hope said in the dream, still laughing and stumbling a little. She actually felt drunk in the dream.

We can try again tomorrow night,” William said. And then Hope woke up, looking around her dark bedroom for a moment before dropping back to sleep.

Now, sitting up on her mattress, the morning sunlight peeking through her blinds, Hope shook off the thoughts of her dream and she climbed from her bed, shuffling off to the bathroom to start her day.

As Hope shuffled off to the bathroom to start her day, William Knight was lying in his bed. He rolled over, pulling the blankets close to his chin and glancing at the digital readout of his clock. The clock’s fading, battery-powered, digital readout was framed by the sprawling figure of Spiderman about to fire his webbing from his wrist. The clock was the only relic from his former life here on the island. Apparently, when the police officer took him from his crib, the officer took the clock from the bureau and handed it to the screaming toddler to calm him. And the clock had done the trick—or so Greta told him—and Spidey had adorned his bedroom ever since. The readout on Spidey’s chest read: 9:06am, and a few miles away, Hope climbed into the shower. But William wouldn’t know that. He couldn’t find her when she was awake, which was why he didn’t find her until late last night. And when he did finally find her… well, what a disaster that was. She had been drunk, and he didn’t want to show her what he had for her if she was drunk. But, no matter, there were other people to visit.

William figured it was time he got up to start the day. But the coming hours were a long, flat, empty highway to his desired destination. Sleep. And dreams. Just like Spidey, stopped mid-web-shoot, William felt as if time was frozen for him, too. It was over twenty-four hours since he last “saw” Hope. Not, of course, considering their brief encounter last night. And he longed to see her again. Where was she at that moment? Was she thinking about him? Did she want to enter her castle again? He glanced at his clock. Spidey still insisting it was only 9:06.

By the afternoon, Hope figured she’d give her English homework a shot. But Shakespeare’s words, which she found impossible enough to read, were washed away by the distraction of Joel and Tara—Joel and Tara—Joel and Tara—“Farewell the tranquil mind! Farewell content!” she read, but—Joel and Tara—Joel and Tara—Joel and Tara—ran through her mind like a locomotive’s rhythm. Her phone rang. She looked at the Caller I.D. Joel. She answered it.

As Hope answered her phone, William was kicking at the drifting, dying leaves in the woods behind his neighborhood. He heard the sounds of a role-playing preteen’s voice in the distance and a slight smile slipped across his face. William found David dashing about with his stick. And judging from the humming sounds David made, it was obvious he’d traded Tolkein for Lucas. The boy was in the midst of an epic battle, deflecting laser blasts and swinging his light saber. David’s imagined foe knocked his weapon from David’s hand, the stick dropping to the ground. David rolled across the ground, popping up onto one knee and flinging out his hand as if trying to recall his weapon by using the Force. A stick landed beside him. David stared at the stick with comical wonder, as if believing for a moment he’d actually harnessed the Force.

William laughed at David’s expression. “Howdy, Frodo Baggins,” William said. “Or, today is it Obi-won?”

David’s eyes were enormous, his mouth hung open.

“Sorry,” William said, cutting short his laughter. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“I almost had a h-h-heart attack,” David said, his eyes returning to their normal size, his body relaxing.

“Yeah, I said I was sorry,” William said, looking around the woods. “You come out here every day or something?”

“No, I was j-j-just bored.”

“Yeah, me too,” William said. He picked up a stick and made his own buzzing, humming sounds, waving the stick back and forth.

David looked on with a blank expression.

William made a quick motion with the stick and then groaned as if grabbing hold of a hot iron.

David furrowed his brow.

William held up his arm, his hand tucked into his sleeve. “Uh-oh,” he said, looking into the cuff as if searching for his missing hand.

David laughed.

William looked at the stick as if inspecting it. “They should put warnings on these light-sabers,” he said. “Caution: may cause appendage removal. Please do not use if you are tired, drunk, or if you are a clumsy Wookie.”

David laughed harder. He picked up a stick of his own. “Aargg-aaarh,” he growled in his best Wookie voice. Then, pretending to sever his own hand, he growled, “Rrrutt-rrroe,” in a voice more Scooby-doo than Chewbacca.

William dropped the stick and held up his other hand tucked into his other sleeve. “Oops. Please do not use light-saber if distracted by Princess Leia in a slave-girl bikini.”

David bent over, holding his stomach, and said, his voice cut by both his stutter and his laughter, “Or Queen Amadalla’s c-c-c-clown m-m-makeup.”

William joined David’s laughter, the two of them laughing in the empty woods.

As William and David laughed, Hope hung up the phone. Her mind was none the less distracted. She had asked Joel about hooking up with Tara. His response was little comfort. “What?” he said, the surprise she had somehow found out betraying his voice, “Where did you hear that?”

“Katie.”

“Oh,” he said, as if he meant to mount an argument, maybe even deny the accusation, but when he heard the source, he knew denial was futile.

“So it’s true?”

“Kind of, I guess.”

“Kind of, you guess? What does that mean?”

“It means, yeah, Tara and I hooked up, but nothing really happened.”

“Why didn’t either of you tell me?”

“There was nothing to tell.”

Hope had no response to that. After all, it happened before she and Joel began dating. It was none of her business. Or was it? No, it’s not. So she decided to drop it. But when she hung up the phone, her train of thought still ran along the tracks of Joel and Tara—Joel and Tara—Joel and Tara—

As Hope fought to focus on her homework, David asked William, “What’s h-h-high sc-school like?”

“It’s all right,” William said, tapping his stick on the tree trunks he passed like a prison guard running his baton along bars.

“Are you p-p-popular?” David tapped his own stick, mimicking William.

William paused a moment. “Yeah. I mean, I’ve got a lot of friends.”

“I don’t h-h-have any f-f-f-friends,” David stammered with his eyes lowered in shame. He paused a moment, as if allowing William to respond.

William didn’t say anything.

“I get m-m-m-made fun of for my st-st-stutt-sstutt—my voice.”

A cloud passed over William’s face, and not looking up from his own feet, he said, “Yeah, well, some kids can be assholes.”

For about a hundred feet, the only sound was the tap-tap-tap of their sticks against the tree trunks. David then asked, “Do y-y-you have a g-g-girlfriend?”

“Kind of.”

“Is she p-pr-pr-pretty?”

“Of course she is. She’s beautiful.”

“What do y-y-you two do?”

“All kinds of stuff.”

“Have y-y-y-you had s-s-s-sex?” David said with vicarious hope in his eyes.

William swung his stick, striking David on the shin.

“Ow,” David said, rubbing his shin and walking in a galloping, lunging motion.

“That’s my woman you’re talking about. She’s not like that.”

Later that night, Hope typed the final paragraph of her essay:

Now, as I head into the eve of my childhood, I reflect on the past 16 years. I reflect on a family’s support and love, the companionship of friends, the dedication of teachers, but most of all, I reflect on how much I’ve grown and what I’ve accomplished. I can’t pick one moment that changed my life. I can only reflect on the many moments that shaped it.

Hope reread the paragraph, and thought, It may be bull shit, but it’s gonna have to do. She hit the print icon on her computer screen. The paper ran through the printer.

The paper slid out of the printer with its jerky, robotic stutter. William picked it up and proofread his heading. “The Moment That Most Shaped My Life.” He then read the one sentence centered below it—which was not about the island’s most famous murder-suicide, or the time his stepfather tried to murder him. Instead, the sentence read: “The moment that most changed my life was the day I found Hope.”

Continued in: Earworm: Part 24 — The One Thing 

With Drawn: Part 26 — Fight Night

Jacob's HouseContinued from: With Drawn: Part 25 — The Man of theHouse

Jacob ran around the back of the Hamptons’ house and he trotted past the front porch as Harriet Berring stepped in through the house’s front door with umbrella at the ready. Jacob darted across the street to the back of the Walsh’s house, slipping in through the Walsh’s kitchen door. He crept toward the living room, hoping that maybe Dennis had passed out on the couch, or maybe Jacob could quickly dart past his stepfather and up the stairs before Dennis could say anything about where Jacob had been or what he’d been doing. But Jacob stopped his creeping when he heard Dennis’s hawking laugh coming from the living room. Jacob stood still in the kitchen, listening for what he knew would come next. And then it came, Rod Rogers’s high-pitched squeal of laughter. Jacob then remembered that it was UFC night. Rod came over to watch the fights.

UFC stood for Ultimate Fighting Championship. It is very similar to the cock-fights that Timothy Wilcox was gambling on in Afghanistan—only it was two humans fighting instead of roosters. Dennis often called Jacob a fag for not liking sports. “Fag” is a derogatory term for a homosexual. So Dennis was implying that Jacob was homosexual for not enjoying the UFC—a sport where two seminude men role around on a mat together. Go figure.

Anyway, another thing that Dennis and Rod liked to do while watching the UFC, was to drink a lot of beers and tell crude stories, and even cruder jokes.

Jacob began creeping toward the living room again, but stopped when he heard another burst of laughter. Jacob wasn’t quite sure what to do next. He didn’t want to face the two men in the living room, who were drunk and high on the bloodlust of the fighting. But he also didn’t want to spend the night in the kitchen.

The two men in the living room were in their joke-telling mode. Rod was saying this to Dennis: “All right, here’s a good one for ya. Four gay guys walk into a bar, but there’s a problem, there’s only one stool left. What do they do?”

Dennis said, “What? Flip the stool over?”

Rod said, “Sounds like you’ve been in a situation like this.”

“No,” Dennis said, “I just remember when you told me about when it happened to you. But I got that beat. Ready?”

“You ain’t got nothing beat, but your meat.”

By the way, the story about the stool was a joke about sodomy. And Rod saying that Dennis beats his meat is a joke about his friend masturbating. And still, they liked to imply that it was Jacob that was a homosexual.

Denis told this Joke to Rod: “A married couple down on their luck needs to make some extra cash, so the husband decides to have his wife work the corner. So the bitch comes home that night with two hundred dollars and fifty cents. The husband says to his wife, what asshole gave you fifty cents? And she says, all of them.”

The two men laugh hysterically. Dennis with his loud guffaw. Rod like a squealing pig.

Jacob thought about the story, not quite getting the joke. Jacob calculated that the wife, acting as a prostitute, would have had to have had sexual intercourse with four hundred and one men. Jacob figured that the joke had to do with the number of men the wife had sexual intercourse with, and that it was being derogatory toward her. But Jacob figured it was more derogatory toward the husband, who was fine with the fact that his wife had sexual intercourse with four hundred and one men. And he figured it was derogatory toward the men who were so desperate that they had to pay fifty cents to have sexual intercourse with a woman. So he wondered: who exactly was the butt of the joke? He figured it must have been the husband.

“I’ll grab us some beers,” Dennis said to Rod in the other room.

In the kitchen, Jacob tensed, looking like a deer about to get its fucking head blown off. Jacob wanted to run, but he didn’t, he just stood there as Dennis came into the kitchen.

Dennis almost tumbled over Jacob, Dennis not expecting anyone to be standing in the middle of the kitchen like that. Dennis said, “Jesus, what the fuck you doing?”

Jacob didn’t answer. He just stood and stared at Dennis as Dennis plodded to the refrigerator, Dennis grumbling to himself as if Jacob could not hear him, or as if Jacob wasn’t even there. Dennis saying, “Weird little shit.”

Rod called this from the living room: “Hey, here’s one for you. If your dog is barking at the backdoor, and your wife is yelling at the front door, which one do you let in?”

Dennis stopped for a moment as if giving this serious consideration, then he called over his shoulder, “I don’t know. Neither of them?” Dennis grabbed two beers, kicked the refrigerator door shut, and started back toward the living room.

Jacob still looked like a deer about to get its fucking head blown off.

Rod called this from the living room: “Nah, you let in the dog. At least the dog will shut up when he gets in the house.”

Jacob looked at the floor, hoping that maybe Dennis would disappear, but his stepfather was staring at him. Dennis said to Jacob, “You want something, you little retard?”

Jacob hated being called a retard, and he wanted to snap back at Dennis with an insult even worse than retard, so Jacob said the first insult that came to mind.

Even though the insult was fully formed in his mind, it was not fully formed in his mouth. Jacob said, “Is that what you have to pay, fifty cents?”

Dennis stood in the middle of the kitchen for a moment. Now he was the one that looked somewhat like a deer about to get its fucking head blown off as he worked his stepson’s comment around in his mind. Then a dawning expression washed across Dennis’s face, like he had a sudden understanding of a puzzle. And then anger washed across his face. Dennis said to Jacob, “What did you just say? What are… Are you talking about your mother?”

“No, I’m talking about you.”

“And your mother?”

“No. I’m saying that you…”

Dennis backhanded Jacob, which means that he struck Jacob with the back of his hand, and Jacob fell, losing his footing and stumbling across the room. He tumbled into the kitchen table and knocked over the table’s chairs with a loud crash.

Rod ran into the kitchen from the living room. Rod stood silently for a moment, trying to make sense of the scene before him. The scene before him was this: Jacob sprawled on the floor with Dennis standing over him like one of those UFC fighters knocking down his opponent.

Rod said, “Jesus.”

Jacob climbed from the floor and he ran from the kitchen. He ran into the living room and up the stairs to his bedroom.

Continued in: With Drawn: Part 27 — Just Wait

Earworm: Part 22 — Bats

EarwormContinued from: Earworm: Part 21—Girlfriend 

Hope and Joel stepped into the house. Drunken banter charged the air as teenagers, gripping beer cans—like grenades missing pins—crowded the living room. Some of the teenagers nodded their heads to music. Others nodded their heads as their conversation partners shouted over pounding bass-rifts with slurred words.

“Hope. Joel. Hiii. How are youuu?” Katie Adams squealed.

“Hi, Katie,” Hope said.

Joel rolled his eyes.

“Oh my God. I’m sooo glad that you both caaame,” Katie said, elongating the letters of her words with painfully phony exuberance.

Guard was standing in the dining room. He glanced through the doorway leading into the living room, spotting Joel. “Hey, Fitchy,” Guard called.

“I’ll be right back,” Joel said to Hope.

Katie held her drink before her lips, regarding Joel’s hand on Hope’s arm.

“Okay,”Hope smiled.

Joel swaggered from the living room to the dining. Katie watched Hope’s gaze lingering on him. “So, Hoooope, are you and Joel together now?” Katie said.

“It looks that way,” Hope said.

“Wow, it’s been like soooooo long that everyone was waiting for you two to get together. We were beginning to wonder if he was gayyy.”

“Anyone that kisses like he does can’t be gay,” Hope said.

“Well, of course there was Tara.” Katie regarded Hope over her drink again.

“Huh?”Hope said. “Tara?”

“Yeah, you know, Tara Larson. Joel and she… oops, I don’t think anyone’s supposed to know about that.”

A crash of glass came from the kitchen. “Katie?” someone called.

Katie rolled her eyes. “Looks like someone broke another glass. The perils of throwing a party,” she said before disappearing into the kitchen. Hope watched her go. She then regarded the people wandering about the party, trying to make sense of what Katie had just told her. What was this about Joel and Tara?

“Hey, I got you a beer… What’s wrong?” Joel said, handing Hope a beer.

“Nothing,”Hope said.

“You sure?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.”

“Hey, they’re playing Beer Pong in the other room. Wanna go watch?”

“Okay,”Hope said, following Joel into Katie’s dining room. They worked their way into a small crowd gathered around the dining room table. At the ends of the table were players tossing ping pong balls into plastic cups with hollow splashes.“Drink, Brad.” “Drink, Suzanne.” “Drink, Guard.” The word drink was a mantra. Splash. The ball launching form a hand, floating, and settling into a cup. Splash. “Drink.” “Drink.” Each person did what they were told, in turn, tossing the ball and chugging beers. The gathered crowd nodded approval. Some sat on countertops and leaned against cabinets. They talked in confused banter like color-commentators of the mundane. Girls waited in line for the bathroom. Boys signed their names with urine on the backyard fence.

“Did anyone see that new kid at the game today?” Brad Stanley said, focusing on the cup on the other side of the table and tossing a ball. He missed. The others standing around the room nodded and snorted as Brad groaned over his miss. He then said,“What’s that kid’s name?”

“William-something,”Guard said. “He’s in my gym class.”

“Jimmy Ringwald spit Coke in his face,” Steven Ward said. The people around the room snickered. Hope paused from her sip of beer, her stomach twisting.

“What was he even doing at the game?” Suzanne Myers said.

“Watching football, maybe?” Guard said, sticking his tongue between his teeth and aiming the ping pong ball at a cup.

“Geeks don’t watch football,” Steve said.

“Then what were you doing there?” Guard said.

“Bite me.”

“You can drink for that,” Guard said, shooting the ball into a cup.

“I hate when losers try to fit in,” Suzanne scoffed.

Hope tugged on Joel’s sleeve. Joel turned to her. “Hey. You need another beer?”

“No. I think I’m just going to hang out in the other room.”

“You sure you’re all right?”

Someone said, “I heard that William kid got kicked out of his last school for jerkin off in the girl’s room.”

“I’m fine,” Hope said.

“All right, then. You want me to come with you?”

“You hang out with Guard, I’ll be fine.” Hope wandered from the table. Joel watched her go.

Later that night, as Jimmy Ringwald’s sleeping body twisted, his eyes fluttering in REM, a name spoke into his mind.

William Knight

He knew that name.

William Knight

It was that new kid, the loser he spit Coke at while at the football game. He pictured the incident in his mind—the kid wiping soda from his cheek, the laughter of other kids around him.

The dream Jimmy was twisted and broke apart as an odd sensation crept into his thoughts—his brain feeling like a balloon filling with air. Next thing he knew, he was in the school gymnasium. The gym was empty. Empty and oddly dark. The wood floor was a sea of shadows, the walls a distant horizon.

“Hello?” Jimmy called, but the only answer to his echoing voice was a sound like shuffling cards.

He looked up to the ceiling, the apparent source of the sound, but he saw only shadows.

“Hello?” he called.

Again, the only answer was the shuffling sound above him. But this time, a shadow rippled across the ceiling.

“What the…?”

Something dropped to the floor in front of him. Jimmy stepped toward what looked like a baseball glove.

It moved.

“What the…?” he repeated.

Upon closer inspection, Jimmy found it was a bat—the dirty, rabies-carrying creatures that frightened him as a kid. He hated the way they swooped unnaturally above him in the summer sky, and now his skin crawled as the thing on the gym’s floor looked up at him with its beady eyes and pig nose. Jimmy stepped away from it, unable to take his eyes from the foul creature.

The card shuffling echoed above him, and looking up, he saw that the rippling movement in the shadows was the shifting of thousands of bats. Jimmy screamed and, trying to back away, he stumbled to the floor.

The bats dropped from the ceiling and swarmed upon him. He scrambled to his feet, wings beating at him, the creatures squeaking in his ears. He waved his arms, making his way to the gym’s entrance. He fought through the door, pushing it shut, sealing the horror within the gym. He let out a deep breath and turned around.

William Knight was standing there.

“Jesus Christ,” Jimmy said to William, “Don’t go in there, it’s full of bats.”

“It’s better than what I’ve got for you,” William said. He held up a cup. It was the same type of wax cups they sold sodas in at the football game. Only, printed on this cup, instead of a Coka-Cola insignia cutting through a field of red, there were these words: “Enjoy HCl.” Jimmy recognized the letters from his chemistry class, as only a few days ago his teacher explained what the chemical did to human flesh, and Jimmy thought about just how horrible a fate that would be, to…

“Wait, don’t…” Jimmy said as William took the straw from the cup’s lid.

“Payback’s a bitch.” William said. He put one end of the straw in his mouth and spurt something into Jimmy’s face.

The burn was immediate. Jimmy smelled the chemical stench and heard the hissing of his skin peeling from his face. He screamed, stumbling backward, groping through the blindness of his melting eyes. He found a door’s handle and, pulling it open, a wave of squeals and beating leather wings was upon him.

Jimmy Ringwald sat up in his bed, waving at the phantom creatures in the dark and screaming from his seemingly burning face.

Continued in: Earworm: Part 23 — Finding Hope 

Beneath the Weeping Tree: Part 13 — Here’s Looking at You, Kid

Map of Mystic IslandContinued from: Beneath the Weeping Tree: Part 12— A Little Privacy 

“You did a hell of a job out there today. You’re really getting good, Kid.”

“Dad, do you have to smoke in the car? It makes all my clothes stink. And, will you stop calling me Kid? I’m sixteen now, you know.”

“I mean it. Those girls on the other team were probably shaking in fear.”

“At least roll the window down. My eyes are starting to water.”

“You know any of those other girls? What town was that anyway?”

“Dad. Please. Will you roll down your window?”

Bender rolled his eyes a bit, but hoped she didn’t see him. She seemed just like her mother sometimes, as if nagging was a genetic trait like brown eyes or diabetes. He imagined some doctor slinking into a wating room and saying under his breath, We’re sorry, sir, but she seems to carry the genes for constant whining and extreme bitchiness. Each is untreatable at the present time.

Bender cranked the window down and began laughing. He found it difficult to stop. The image soon expanded, adopting cartoon-like characteristics that aligned Jesse and her mother, each with oversized heads, in an old laboratory. Guys in black smocks raced around monitoring their behavior and then punched numbers into a computer. Mother and daughter sat and stared at the geeky lab techs with bitchy disdane.

“What’s so funny?” Jesse asked, apparently eased by the freshened air.

“Oh nothing, honey. I was just thinking about something that happened at work today.”

“I don’t know what could happen in a guidance office that could be funny,” she sneered.

The word guidance fell from her mouth with distaste. It was the way that he imagined the lawn chair mothers would have spoken, and he wondered if Jesse would grow up to be just like them—scrambling eggs for some prick of a husband before he goes off to his office job and then sitting around scoping through gardening magazines before the afternoon soaps, whipping some sort of dinner-in-a-box together and then after the sit-coms, kissing the kids good night and shuffling off to bed with Mr. Wonderful. What a pitiful fucking existence.

“What was that all about, Jess?”

He was struggling to remain calm.

“What is what all about?”

“Guidance. You say it like I shovel shit for a living. Or sell used cars.”

“Missy Stapleton’s father sells used cars and they have two houses,” she said.

“Missy Stapleton is a little cunt.”

She recoiled, and he instantly regretted speaking the word to his daughter.

He then said, “And who needs two houses? He probably bought two of them so he could live in one and his wife and daughter can live in the other.”

“Is that what you want? To live in a different place, away from me and mommy?”

“No, that’s not what I want. I’m just making a point.”

He threw his cigarette out the window and watched in the side mirror as it bounced in the road, ashes sputtering each time it hit the pavement.

“Why are we even talking about this?” he continued. “And don’t call her mommy. Don’t you think you’re getting a little old for that? Hell, you just told me not to call you kid.”

“Oh, I could think of a few things I’d like to call you.”

The car screeched to a halt. A van traveling behind them swerved and its horn trailed as it sped past them. Bender maneuvered the car slowly to the side of the road and turned off the ignition. Jesse was staring out the passenger side window. The shoulder sloped down into a field that was sewn with potato chip wrappers and crinkled plastic bags. A rusty shopping cart peaked out of the tall weeds a few yards away like a small child playing hide-and-seek. She didn’t look like she was going to budge, but he figured he had all day to wait for her to turn toward him.

He dragged on the butt and exhaled through his nose. It seemed to tame the instinct to strike out at her, the child he had loved, the young woman that was forming and betraying him simultaneously.

“Jess, there are some things that we need to…”

“Let’s just go home,” she said. “I’m not interested in talking about this right now.”

“Not interested,” he whispered.

The cigarette tasted good, like a morsel of grilled meat to a starving man. Heat surged into his fingertips, bucked his knees with tension. His cheeks and forehead flushed the color of fresh brick. Bender flicked the cigarette out the window and then watched the cherry simmer atop the pavement. Gum wrappers and other spent butts adorned the road side and he reasoned that his cigarette would be able to mingle with other butts. Maybe catch up on old times with a friend who got shuffled off to a different carton down at the plant in Winston-Salem. Then he leaned out the window, the wind passing through his hair in invisible ribbons.

“She isn’t interestred in talking about it,” he screamed.

A station wagon passed and the little boy wedged against the backseat window smiled and flipped him the bird. Bender returned the gesture and was pleased by the kid’s scared look.

“Dad, get in the car,” she yelled. “Stop acting like such a retard. Start the car.”

He composed himself and settled back into the driver’s seat. His arms stretched forward, fingers webbed together and he waited for the knuckles to crack.

“I’ve got a better idea, Little Miss Jessica. Little Miss Replica of her mommy. Why don’t you get out of the car? Go ahead,” he whisked the air in front of her with his hand. “I’d hate to have anyone see you riding around with a low life guidance counselor.”

Her arms folded squarely beneath her freshly-formed breasts and she pouted toward the windshield.

“Get out, Kid. You can walk your smart ass right on home.”

She wasn’t budging. Her eyes were closed, her breathing steady.

“Okay,” he said. “Like Bogart said: ‘Here’s looking at you, Kid.’”

Bender yanked the keys from the ignition and stepped out of the Jeep. He lit another cigarette before walking away, wondering if she even knew who the hell Humphrey Bogart was.

If he’d looked back at the Jeep he would have seen the concerned eyes of his daughter watching him retreat from her. He would have seen his Jeep parked on the roadside choked with litter. He would have seen her wanting him to take her with him, or wanting him to come back to drive her home as planned.

But he kept on walking and didn’t look back.

Continued in: Beneath the Weeping Tree: Part 14 — In the Evening

Earworm: Part 21—The Girlfriend Experience

EarwormContinued from: Earworm: Part 20 — Not So Sweet Remembrances

Sunlight skipped across the water. Emily saw it glinting between the tree branches as she carried William through a path in the woods. She came out of the path to an incline of sloping rock and a small, crescent beach of coarse sand. Here and there, scattered families gathered in small groups. A burly, young man’s voice cut the quiet like revelry, “Geronimo,” he called, swinging on a rope swing hanging from the bridge. The man released the rope and dropped into the water with a crash. On the water’s edge, two men and a woman cheered and whooped. Sun glinted off their sunglasses and the tops of beer cans. Emily heard a sharp, forceful laugh, and she realized it was Starling standing there with the men. The rope swinger popped his head out of the lake and squirted water in a spout from his lips. “Yeah,” he called, “that was pretty cool.”

“You get a two from the Special Olympics judge,” one of the men called.

“Ha,” Starling laughed. Emily watched them for a moment, bouncing William on her hip. It was nice of Starling to invite her down to the beach again—for like the fifth time—but Starling, although only a few years younger, was definitely at a different place in life than Emily. The child bouncing on Emily’s hip being proof. Emily turned to start back up the sloping rock as Starling called, “Emily.” Emily stopped. Starling trotted along the crescent beach, holding an oversized towel wrapped around her waist. “Hey,” Starling said. “How long have you been here?”

“Oh, I just got here,” Emily said, surveying the beach with eyes hidden behind a pair of Glenn’s aviator sunglasses. She bounced her baby boy.

“What’s up? You leaving?” Starling said.

“Um, well… no,” Emily said. “I just wasn’t sure if that was you.”

“Well, it’s me,” Starling said. “C’mon. You need a hand?” She took the canvas bag hanging from Emily’s shoulder, Starling’s body shifting violently as if one side was connected to a counterweight. “Jesus, this thing weighs a ton.”

“You don’t have to carry…”

“Nonsense, you got the kid.” Starling said. She then nodded for Emily to follow. “C’mon.”

Emily stepped onto the beach, coarse grains of sand becoming trapped between heels and flip-flops as she walked. The rope swinger now stood with the other two men on the shoreline. “Hey, guys,” Starling said to them, “this is Emily, my neighbor.”

“Hi, Emily,” they mumbled in unison like an AA meeting welcoming a member.

“And that’s William,” Starling said, making a goofy face at Emily’s son.

“Hi, William,” they mumbled.

“And this is the Moron Squad,” Starling said, motioning to the three men. “This is Danno,” Starling motioned to the rope swinger, who stood with his arms across his body, trying to conceal his spare tire. “And this is Ernie and Bert,” Starling said, gesturing to the other two men. One was very tall and thin, the other had the small frame of a boy barely out of his teens. “That’s really their names too,” Starling said, motioning to Ernie and Bert with her beer can.

Danno said, “And after meeting these two idiots, your kid’ll never be able to watch Sesame Street again.”

“Ha,” Starling laughed.

Bert, the taller of the Ernie and Bert duo, charged Danno, driving him into the water. Ernie followed, the three men splashing like frolicking dogs.

“We’ll let those bozos burn off some testosterone,” Starling said. She placed her hand on the small of Emily’s back and guided her to a disheveled site—beach towels, cooler, a trash bag filled with empty beer cans. “I’m glad you came to hang out.”

“Yeah, well, like you said, I really should get out more,” Emily said. “I mean, there’s all these beaches here and I never even go to any of them.”

“It sounds like Glenn’s got his friends, why should you just sit around?” Starling said, dropping the canvas bag on the sand. “I mean, you need yourself a girlfriend.”

Continued in: Earworm: Part 22 — Bats