This story by Gabrielle Poisson ’17 won 1st Place in the 2015 Writers Slate Fiction Contest sponsored by the Writing Conference, Inc.
The daylight was waning and the damp beach had descended into a cool lull. Over-sized men in beach towels hanging precariously around their hips strolled freely past the cramped shops; they clashed with the women from the suburbs returning home after their day at the beach, complicated wraps with bright tribal patterns clinging to their hips, gaudy jewelry bought in the overpriced boutiques hung from their ears, wrapped around their necks, hugging their bony fingers. An astonishing lack of children quieted the town. All had returned home from their days playing in the sand; the ice creams had melted and their hot pockets filled with damp dollar bills had been spent on fire crackers and corn dogs down at the pier. Nearly everyone had a place to go; there were few lingerers.
Those leaving the streets glanced sideways at Elizabeth. Her soft, almond-shaped face was contorted with rage, hands gripping her hair in fistfuls of straggly dirty blonde around her hips. Her legs were locked at the knees and her neck was stiff, like a rabid dog on the alert. Toes arched in broken flip flops, a faded image of Ariel in her purple bikini beneath her soles; her agitation was palpable. Glaring at her from waist-high was a round boy brimming in perspiration clutching a metal lock box filled with dollar bills, his cheeks bright red from the heat of the day and his palms burning from the heat of the metal.
Standing there, staring down at the probably helpless little boy Elizabeth felt a flush of embarrassment. She slowly relaxed her hands shoving them in her pockets. This was a little kid. “Look at him, he’s cute,” she thought. He flared his nostrils widely at her, giving a faint impression of someone with their face pressed against a sheet of cold glass. “Cute…” she whispered to herself.
“What was that?” he retorted.
“Well look at you, holding that little box like it’s all yours. You’re just adorable.” Elizabeth was taking slow deep breaths, beginning to enjoy herself. She bent down allowing her cool green eyes to meet his small ones. Coating her voice in honey she added, glancing at the damp HELLO MY NAME IS… sticker pressed defiantly on his t-shirt, “Hi James, my name’s Zaz. It’s great to meet you sweetie.”
“I don’t think that’s a real name.”
“Well I think you should mind your own business please.” Elizabeth relaxed her shoulders. She had this situation under control.
“That’s what I was doing, until you came by and spilled my lemonade.” His shifty eyes glanced accusingly on the incriminating yellow puddle pooling in the withering brown grass. Elizabeth chuckled. James knew how to play. She pulled at a gold chain around her neck twisting it around her fingers.
“Gee, I’m sorry about the lemonade, the thing is I can be really, really clumsy.”
“You didn’t look too clumsy when you stormed over here and slammed the it off the table.” He stuck out a thick finger and poked her in the stomach leaving a small round spot where his sticky finger had been covered in lemonade. Elizabeth untucked her ratty white tank top twisting the threads hanging down around her fingers so the edges unraveled slightly.
Elizabeth looked determinedly at the sky for a moment taking a deep breath. She fought for a moment to control her temper and then awkwardly tried to ruffle his hair, smiling weakly. James’s glare never wavered. Realizing it was time to leave she reached into her pocket and pulled out a shiny leather wallet, placing a new twenty dollar bill on the table.
“Bye James. I’m sorry about the pitcher.” She glanced one more time at the little boy before walking away, her flip flops making sucking noises on the pavement as she went. The sun was beginning to fall behind the clouds and the streetlamps were turning on. She glanced quickly behind her. James’s lemonade stand was slowly becoming a speck in the distance. She shook her head; this wasn’t her problem. Pulling a quarter out of her pocket, flipping it absentmindedly as she walked through the twilight. “Heads… you’ve got green eyes. They’re pretty, everyone thinks so.” She caught the coin again. “Heads… you’re a great cook. Mom used to rave about your fabulous jambalaya at the PTA meeting.” She chuckled to herself imagining her mother’s perfectly manicured hands sipping a martini as she stirred the jambalaya pot comparing those beautiful pink nails with her own stubby ones. She flipped the coin again. “Tails. You need to work on your sarcasm.” A flip. “Tails. You’re mean.” “Tails–” A hand reached out and grabbed the coin from the air. Elizabeth gasped as a thin man in a ratty jacket stepped out from the front stoop of the barber shop.
“Got anything else to spare?” Elizabeth looked directly on the ground and kept on walking, becoming increasingly aware of the noise she was making with each step and how grimy the town became when the sun went down. To her left she saw the neon lights of the bar flicker on. A throng of men loitering outside started shouldering their way inside making bets, laughing rowdily, some already drunk off their own flasks. There was a bulge in one of their pockets. It was a pistol or a cell phone. Elizabeth stood still in her tracks massaging her temples looking behind her. She strained her eyes but she could not see there was nothing and no one to see in the distance but the dark sky filled with yellow lights.
She was itching to continue on. She could imagine the sound of her mother’s voice when she walked in the door. She wouldn’t have called the police yet; she’d probably still be drinking. She might have called Dad again. If she had, she’d definitely be drunk. Elizabeth would have to cover her with a blanket on the couch and take off her shoes. The next day she would see the rip in Elizabeth’s shirt and would suggest they go shopping. Then she would get passive aggressive pointing out every flaw on her body: her mousey hair, her big feet, her thin lips, and broad shoulders, but still… What if she got home and her eyes were strung out with worry? What if she were waiting, sober on that couch… she might even give her daughter a hug?
Two young men with hairy beer bellies and unbuttoned Hawaiian shirts waddled by her. He leaned closer to Elizabeth. “Hello sweetheart.” The two men looked at each other and cracked up, continuing on. It was chilly outside and the cold made her skin feel raw. But all she could see was that chubby kid holding that big box of cash so defiantly. She couldn’t steal from a little boy but there were plenty of people who would. She took a step forwards and then froze.
A few minutes later she arrived breathless in front of the lemonade stand. She had lost one of her flip flops running back and there was a pebble stuck in her sole. She threw herself down into the grass massaging it out.
“What are you doing back here?” James sat in his plastic folding chair like he had since she had left nearly an hour ago. His glare had not faded.
Elizabeth opened her mouth to speak but then stopped. She glanced again at her bare foot and then composed herself.
“I think I left my shoe over here.”
“Well aren’t you clumsy.”
Before Elizabeth could react James burst into a fit of giggles. He fell from his chair onto the pavement so that he was hidden underneath the table. Elizabeth stared in a confused horror as he rolled about. She knelt down and let her hand hover above him, unsure of what to do. Should she shake him, or was that too rough?
“James?” Her voice was surprisingly timid now. She coughed. “James, where are your parents?”
He stopped laughing immediately and sat up rigidly straight on the grass.
“I told my mom I was going to sell lemonade all day today.”
“It’s almost 9 o’clock, who’s going to be buying lemonade this late?”
“I told my mom I was going to sell lemonade all day.”
“You take things pretty literally don’t you?”
“I told her I was going to sell lemonade all day.”
Elizabeth glanced at her watch. It was 8:57. If she left now, she could get home before her mom sobered up. “I guess we have three hours to kill then.” She settled herself on the grass next to James leaning into the slight hill. She was going to have to make herself comfortable.
James shifted over to join her. “Aren’t your parents worried about where you are?” Elizabeth looked with fascination at the pigeon in the distance trying to pick up a discarded hotdog bun. “Zaz?” He whispered. Elizabeth chuckled. She liked the way that sounded.
“I guess it’s like you James. I told my parents I was going to be out all day. I guess it’s a good thing I found you. I could’ve gotten into loads of trouble.” James smiled. This was a very manly thing he was doing, protecting a girl. Elizabeth looked at him. She could tell he liked her now. That was good. It was a nice feeling when someone liked you. She reached up to the table and grabbed one of the lemonade pitchers.
“So how much does this cost anyways?”
“I started with 3.50 but by noon I was charging seven dollars a cup.” James smiled proudly. He thought very highly of himself. Elizabeth stared in amazement. She took a cautious sip and smiled a little. Seconds later her expression turned sour and she spit the lemonade out in a choking spray. James wiped his glasses and starting giggling again.
“What’s wrong with the world where people pay seven dollars for a Dixie cup filled with this lukewarm lemon-scented… stuff?”
“I don’t know, but, if people are willing to give me seven bucks, I’ll take it.” He placed his glasses on his nose again. “I find if I look really excited when people come up to the stand they buy way more than they really want. This one lady with a huge beach hat with a fake pigeon comes up and buys like five cups. She says her kids are super thirsty and she has nothing to give them. She gives me thirty-five dollars and then walks around the corner and pours the stuff into that hydrangea bush.”
Elizabeth snorted into the pitcher. “Doesn’t that hurt your feelings at all? I mean you must of worked really hard to make all this.”
Like clockwork, James face morphed into a small glare again. “Don’t mess around with me Zaz. You don’t do nice very well. Even I know this tastes terrible. The guy at Quik-mart had some old lemons he needed to get rid of and he was selling them cheaper then the lemonade mix. It was a pretty good deal.”
“You’re a little conman you know that?”
He smiled sheepishly, “I’ve been told.” Elizabeth ruffled his hair fondly. He glared again.
“The way I see it Zaz, you happened to run into my lemonade pitcher at the right time and the right place. It was a perfect moment because if you had gone the other direction or somehow missed my table entirely, you wouldn’t be here right now and we would be spending this night together. I think if God puts two people like us together like this he’s gonna expect us to be entirely honest with each other and that means you can’t be nice like that. I don’t think it’s who you are.”
There was a brief moment of silence. Elizabeth seemed at a lack for words. “Well that was profound.” She raised her arms over her head and stretched back, her thin shirt pulling up slightly above her stomach. James poked her roughly on the hip.
“What’s this?” he asked with judgment dripping in his voice. Elizabeth glanced down at the tattoo on her side. She blushed bright crimson and yanked her shirt down as far as it would go. James pulled it up again just as fast.
“What is that?”
“It’s nothing James. Leave it.”
“Is it an animal?”
“Yes… I guess. Yea.”
“Is it a squirrel?”
“No James it’s a rabbit.”
“Why would you tattoo a rabbit on yourself? You do know that tattoos never go away ever and when you’re old and fat it’s gonna look more like some sort of droopy slug and–”
“I don’t know James, I guess I like the metaphor.”
“What sort of metaphor is a rabbit?” Elizabeth straightened up pulling her shirt down and tucking it into her shorts.
“Have you ever read that book where the little boy owns the stuffed rabbit and he loves it with all its heart but that’s all it is, something that the little boy loves? And then he gets sick and they have to take it away and burn it so he never gets sick from it again and this fairy comes and makes it real?”
“My big sister used to read that to me all the time. It’s just a fairytale though. Rabbits don’t become real. And fairies don’t exist. I think angels do, but they’re more like real people, they don’t have wands and stuff, they just tell stories.”
Elizabeth rubbed her eyes and controlled the shaking in her voice. She was staring straight at the wall in deep concentration. “Yea? I don’t know. I guess I’m just waiting for someone to make me real.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out another coin, flipping it over and over again her whole body going into an agitated stance. She muttered to herself quietly, “Heads, heads, tails, heads, tails, tails, tails.” James caught the quarter in midair.
“Zaz what are you doing?”
“James you can stop calling me that now. It isn’t my name. My name’s Elizabeth.”
James choked on a laugh. It was Elizabeth’s turn to glare.
“What’s so funny?”
“That’s my sister’s name. My sister’s name was Elizabeth.”
“What’s so funny about that? I have the same name as your sister. Big deal.”
“We used to call her Bunny.” Elizabeth let out a heave of laughter. Suddenly her eyes were burning and she lay her head in the grass. Her body was shaking and she heard James besides her joining in with the laughter. They were both lying there in the grass. James had had to pull himself up several feet to be eye level with Elizabeth. He pulled the quarter from his pocket and began to flip it.
“So how does this game work?”
Snatching the coin away from him, Elizabeth sat up straight again. “It’s not so much of a game as a habit.” She smoothed her hair behind her ears. “But I’ll show you.” She placed the coin on her thumbnail and flipped it into the air catching it in her palm and flipping it onto the back of her other hand. She glanced at it. “Heads. Now I say something nice about myself. So… I…”
“You have a nice smile.” James looked up at Elizabeth with admiration. “What happens when it’s tails?”
“Well, then I say what’s wrong about me. So I–”
“You’re awful clumsy,” James yelped through giggles. Elizabeth looked down at her feet: one flip flop and one bare. She flexed them up to the stars.
“I’m not actually that clumsy James. I used to dance in middle school. I was on a national team. I’m pretty good actually.”
“Maybe you’re a good dancer but you knocked over a pitcher of lemonade and walked an hour down the street without realizing you lost your shoe, I’d say you’re pretty clueless.” Elizabeth could just make out the turned over plastic pitcher in the grass a few feet away. She looked away from James. The kid was so trusting.
She lay flat on her back and looked up at the stars. Her eyes were starting to droop so she closed them, instead finding the constellations of the sky on the backs of her eyelids. She liked to do this sometimes, look at her head like it was a map, and navigate her way through memory. She saw herself leaving the house that morning locking the liquor cabinet, putting the key at the bottom of the cookie jar, knowing her mother would find it before long. She could see herself just a few hours ago sitting on a bench right across from a little boy’s lemonade stand. The kid was milking it, and people had been paying wads of cash and then throwing it away after two sips. She looked at him and at the squinty glint of his glasses. He was so sheepish, so cocky, and so full of his little self. He probably took his rich mommy and daddy for granted, buying whatever the hell he wanted. She wanted to hit him. He was evil. She was running at him and right before she got there she froze knocking the table to the ground. He squealed. She tried to calm herself down but still she was furious.
“Elizabeth?” She wrenched open her eyes and soon she realized that she had been shaking. She reached her hand out towards his and squeezed it.
“You’re a great friend James,” she whispered.
“Why are you crying?”
She squeezed her eyes shut. “I’m just so angry”
“That’s the thing. I just don’t know anymore. I’ve felt this way so long that now I’m looking for a reason to get angry. It gives me an excuse not to feel.”
He looked up at her softly squeezing her hand even tighter. “Don’t waste yourself on not feeling. It’s the best people that leave too soon.”
A faint beeping began to go off. Her watch read 12:00.
With a knot in her stomach she said, “It’s tomorrow James. Mom’s gonna be looking for you soon.” She got up and grabbed his hand. He squeezed it tight for a second before letting go and heading down the street. He walked ten feet in front of her before looking back expectantly.
“Aren’t you coming?” he retorted impatiently.
“Aren’t you forgetting your booth?”
“It’ll be there tomorrow, and if not, who cares? I was only selling lemonade for today anyways.” Elizabeth smiled in spite of herself. The kid was charming. She jogged to catch up with him wincing as her bare foot hit the gravel. James looked at her for a second and then sat on the floor, untying his sneakers and pulling off his socks. He rolled them in a neat ball before sticking his feet back in his trainers and standing up again. He handed the ratty gym socks to Elizabeth. “These are for you.” Elizabeth graciously pulled them on her feet, tossing the odd princess flip flop in the lemonade filled hydrangea bush.
They walked together in silence for twenty more minutes before turning onto a long bare street with several small white-washed houses with identical dusty brown lawns and rusting mailboxes. “Well this is my stop.” The two of them walked up to the doorstop James taking the key from under the mat and unlocking the metal door. Elizabeth watched him creep inside the small house and down the hall going into a room at the end of it. She could hear just hear him whispering. She followed him down the hall to the small room and peeked in. It looked like a girl’s bedroom. There were posters of bands on the walls and faded pink wallpaper beginning to peel just slightly. The bed looked like it hadn’t been slept in for years. Elizabeth watched as James emptied the wads of dollar bills into a shoe box under the dresser muttering what must have been a prayer. He began to turn and she snuck back over to the front of the house. She watched as he left the room and shut the door. Hanging from a hook on the top was a wooden rabbit with a small E carved into the side. James walked over to Elizabeth and she leaned down, hugged him tightly.
Elizabeth turned to go but stared at him for a second longer, their eyes meeting, each longing the other was more real.
“Bye Bunny. Thanks for coming to visit,” he whispered.
Elizabeth walked from the house and James closed the door, shutting him from her sight. She waited until she saw the lights flicker on and off in the upstairs window. She strained to picture what he looked like for in that moment she could not remember a thing. He was just a little shadow that had happened to align with hers on a humid summer night. Elizabeth walked briskly down the street flipping the quarter from her pocket up and down as she strolled away. Other than the click of the coin against her skin it was silent.