Daniel Loring Keating grew up in eastern Massachusetts, where the puritanism is persnickety and the weather tries to kill you every other week. His similarly-themed short fiction piece, "Post-Messiah," is forthcoming in the anthology A Kiss and a Promise from Smoking Pen Press. You can visit his small and unimpressive corner of the web at danielloringkeating.wordpress.com.
Only about a half hour to close. It's been a long week and I'm looking forward to getting away from ShopperMart, and school for that matter, for a weekend with some relaxation. The one thing my parents can be relied on for is keeping out of my way. Friday nights at the supermarket are usually pretty slow and this one's no exception. When you're a grocery bagger, you tend to watch the doors as a source of potential headache – you see an elderly couple come in then you might be stuck hauling their stuff to their car, you see a young mother looking harassed by her little crotch spawn, and you're likely to have to re-bag when the little monster knocks something over. The other thing you notice is volume: how much work am I going to have to do in the next twenty minutes, etc.
Some things you don't plan on. I'd missed him when he came in, but when he cruises by, checking out all the girls at the registers and selecting the one he likes the look of best (a selection which he’s always made from behind) I recognize him. Darren. Goddamn. It's been at least a year. Then he selects my line – Elsie's body is really nice, not that she's ever said five words to me – and I wonder if he'll remember me.
When Elsie thanks him for shopping at ShopperMart and asks if he found everything okay, he grins at her. Darren wears big aviator glasses everywhere that prevent you from seeing pretty much anything of his face from his nose up to his hairline, so whenever his expression changes it's like only half of his face is moving. The shades are so reflective they hurt my eyes a bit. “Absolutely, darling,” he says, leaning forward to rest his arms on the counter. “Especially now that I found you.”
Elsie blanches, apparently completely unprepared for this line of speaking. I take a second to study her while Darren stares at her, that quirky grin on his face. Her body is so nice, curvy in all the right places, very slim but not too skinny, with breasts that push against the fabric of her shirt and which seem to me to be just a little bit bigger than average, and this long, silky black hair. She wears the standard uniform, khaki slacks and a maroon polo shirt, with a similarly maroon sweatshirt over it. We work by the doors and it’s winter in New England, so management makes allowances for us to wear an extra layer so we don't freeze.
“I – um, thank you?” She brushes a strand of that glorious hair out her face, beginning to pick Darren's items up off the belt and scan them.
“No need to thank me.” Darren’s still leaning forward, his gaze focused one hundred percent on Elsie's face. “I should be thanking you. Not everyday you meet an angel. In a grocery store, of all places.”
I can't help it. I snort, a short, low sound. Darren looks around at me, the beginning of annoyance on his face. When he sees me, though, I can see recognition sweep across his features, and I figure I can take a chance. “You've always been a tacky son of a bitch.”
“Sebastian?” When I nod, he walks down and around the edge of the checkout counter, Elsie watching with an even more confused look on her face, and gives me a big hug. “Sebastian, you little cock-nut! How are you?”
“Good.” I awkwardly try to fend him off. “Working, in case you didn't notice.”
“Aww, right.” He backs off. “Dude, you little shitstorm,” he says, a little lower. I glance around and the floor manager is distracted by some old lady arguing about how many coupons she can use at one time. “How've you been?”
I shrug. “Same as ever. Work, school, the band. It's all pretty much the same. You remember.”
“I sure as hell do. Some of the best times of my life.” He turns back to Elsie, who has been ringing through the remainder of his items, a couple bottles of soda and a block of cheese, and pretending not to be too interested in what we're saying. “This little fuck-bit is the best jazz marimba player in the state of Massachusetts,” he says to her. “I played in the jazz band with him last year, before I graduated. He's like my fucking brother, man.”
Elsie nods. I feel her eyes on me and I can't help a slight warming in my face. Like I said, she's never said much to me, and I don't think she's really taken much notice of my existence before. And there I'd been, going over every line of her body. Really makes a guy wonder how he fares up under the same kind of scrutiny. Not well, I'd imagine. I don't figure I look bad – kinda tall, kinda medium build, not muscular or skinny but just plain.
“Ten twenty three,” she says to him. Darren makes a production of taking his wallet out of his jeans, complete with a chain attached to a loop on his belt, and withdraws a ten and a one. Elsie takes the bills, hits the register so it dings and pops open, and hands him back change.
“Thanks.” He stuffs the change in his pocket, elaborate wallet forgotten. He looks at me again. “Damn, it was good seeing you, Sebastian. You staying out of trouble? I know those parents of yours don’t exactly take an interest. You need authority figures in your life. Like me.”
“Mostly,” I say, before he can say any more. I hand him the bag of his groceries. “Not much trouble to get in around here.”
“Pfft,” Darren replies, waving a hand in my face. “There's always trouble to get in. Shit, when I was still in high school like you, I nearly got caught by the cops, plowing some chick in the backseat of my car in this very parking lot. If you're not getting in a little trouble you're not trying hard enough.”
I’m having trouble remembering why I’d thought this conversation was going to be a good idea. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
Darren shakes his head. “You're the baddest jazz man I know, and here you are, dry as a whistle. That isn't right, either. As your resident authority figure, I’m going to do something about it.” He turns to Elsie. “Now, honey,” he says, and I groan. This is going to be terrible. Embarrassing at least. Sexual harassment at worst. I think of stopping Darren but short of punching him in the head until he passes out I doubt I could, and that'd probably get me fired just as easy. “I was going to ask for your number and drop a few subtle hints about my extreme sexual prowess, but truth is I'm getting from you that you kinda have a thing for my man here. Now, if he's telling me the truth, he hasn't gotten up to anything even remotely fun in a long time, so I'm relying on you, on account of our mutual connection to the little cunt-trap, to take good care of him tonight. You on board?”
Elsie looks less confused (when Darren had first arrived in our aisle it'd seemed like she wasn't completely sure what was going on) but she still looks a little bewildered. Before she can answer I shoo Darren away. “Thanks, man.” I simultaneously want and don’t want to sound grateful. I glance around at the manager again. The old lady she's with must have a lot of coupons. I thank the circular's tendency to over-print silently as I push Darren toward the door. “Make sure to keep in touch. Yeah, it was good seeing you too. Bye.”
He gives me a cocky smile and turns to exit the store, leaving me standing about halfway between the aisle I share with Elsie and the door. I don't particularly want to go back and hear her tell me how she's going to get me fired. Or maybe I'll get lucky and she'll blame Darren for the whole mess and we can just forget about it. Everyone knows management doesn't do shit when customers hit on employees. It's only if there's any kind of unwanted touching that they step in. My mind scrambles as I try to recall if he touched her at any point when he was leaning over toward her.
All of these thoughts only delay me walking back to our aisle. Elsie is still looking at me and the look on her face is maddeningly unreadable. She's not smiling, but she's not grimacing either. She doesn't look particularly happy, but she doesn't look particularly upset or angry either. When she opens her mouth, thin lips colored like pale cherries, I can't help but notice, I expect a pronunciation of my doom.
Instead, she says, “I get off at seven. In like twenty minutes.”
I stop dead in my tracks. “Wait, what?” She smiles.
When we both get out of work, we decide to take my car to her place. She lives close and walks, to save money on gas, she says. I shrug at her and say that's fine, in my mind a little jealous that she can save the money on gas because it'd be really excellent if I could, too. Part of the reason I'd gotten a job was to pay for my car, a rusty old Toyota that rolled off the manufacturing line at roughly the same time I was being born, but the whole thing turns really circular when you realize that you've gotten a job to pay for your car, and your car costs more because you have to spend money on gas to get to work.
And then we'd pulled up in front of Elsie's house – she lives just a little further away than I'd have guessed, and she'd had to give me directions because I'd never been to her neighborhood before – and I'd looked at the place, a little stunned. “You live here?” I ask when I've recovered.
Elsie's pushing her door open. “Yeah.” When she goes to stand there's a brief moment where her pants are stretched particularly tight across her and I gulp. “Come on.”
I exit the car too and take a second look at Elsie's house. Except, the word 'house' doesn't really do it justice. It's more like a mansion. Okay, not Playboy Mansion 'mansion,' but it's still huge, at least five times the size of my own house, on a neatly trimmed road with six other houses of similar size. I'm distinctly aware that my car is the only one on the street more than ten years old, except for a disturbingly shiny red classic Mustang a couple of driveways down which twinkles in the moonlight.
Elsie is already walking up the steps toward the front door, a suitably massive oak construction, not painted but stained to look classy, and she produces a set of keys and, sure enough, they fit. She pushes the door open and I follow her inside, looking around. The house has an entrance hall. I've read about those but I never figured I'd be in a place that actually had one, they seemed like wastes of space, especially in the ratty suburban development I'd grown up in. The ceiling is at least two stories up. A staircase in the middle of the room leads up to the second level, where there's a landing with a bannister which leads to other hallways. There's even a chandelier. I can't even spell 'chandelier.'
I wonder if I'm supposed to take my shoes off. “Should I be taking my shoes off or something?”
Elsie shrugs. She drops her keys onto a table that runs along one wall of the entrance hall, underneath a series of paintings of landscapes and cityscapes, at least one of which is Vienna. Don't ask me how I know that. When you find yourself in completely random, weird places you tend to dredge up bits of information you never thought you'd retained in the first place. “If you'd be more comfortable. I don't care.”
I glance around again. There's a car in the driveway that I hadn’t gotten a particularly good look at; I’d figured it was Elise’s when we’d walked by a second ago, but now I wonder. “How about your parents?”
Elsie gives me a sardonic grin. “I could slaughter sheep in here and my parents wouldn't notice.” She stretches, her hands above her head. The action causes her shirts to rise up, uncovering a patch of skin between the top of her khakis and the bottoms of her shirts. I don't know if it's out of her preference or because she was just recently sitting in my car, but the khakis are riding extremely low, so low I can see her hipbones and the way her body seems to angle towards itself, like it's forming a triangle between her legs.
She catches me looking and I blush. She bites her bottom lip, her arms still extended over her head, and then reaches for the bottom of her sweatshirt. She peels it off over her head. The action again causes the maroon polo shirt underneath to rise up, this time far enough to uncover her belly button. I shiver. She's watching me the whole time, watching as my eyes inevitably, almost involuntarily, rove down around the exposed skin of her midriff.
She drops the sweatshirt and doesn't bother to smooth the polo shirt down. She turns. I shiver again. The khakis are low on her in the back too and there's a really good reason Darren picked our line back at ShopperMart. She heads toward the stairs. “Follow me.” I think I'd probably follow her about anywhere at this point.
She ascends the stairs quickly (when she moves like that she bounces slightly and I think I might be losing my mind) and she leads me to the right, down one of the halls that branch off from the second floor landing. I idly wonder where she's leading me. To her room, filled with all the things she keeps private from everyone else? To a guest room, neat and kind of sterile, where she can be, and do, whatever she wants without feeling like it changes her? To her parents' room, so we can destroy it utterly as revenge for, I don't know, whatever slight made her make the crack about slaughtering animals earlier? Maybe to a torture dungeon where she can reveal that the whole 'being-unbelievably-hot-and-inviting-me-back-to-her-house-suggestively' thing was just a trap so I could be sacrificed to a pagan god?
Nah, torture dungeons are never upstairs.
To my surprise, she reaches the end of the hall and opens a closet door. “Not exactly what I was expecting.”
She turns to me, placing her hands on her hips. “What were you expecting?”
I shake my head. “I have no clue,” I say, figuring that now wouldn't be a good idea to make jokes about torture dungeons. “But not a closet.”
“Relax, Animal House.” She turns back to the closet. She pulls a stool out, stands on it, and pulls a handle in the ceiling that I hadn't noticed was there. A door on the ceiling opens and a wooden ladder drops out. “This is where we're going.” She begins climbing the ladder and I circle around to climb up when she's done, trying to think of a way to compliment her taste in movies without sounding like a douche bag. She stops, halfway up the ladder, and looks down at me again. I'm pretty much directly underneath her. “Too bad I'm not wearing a skirt, huh?” Any chance I had at coming up with something clever to say is completely dashed. She giggles at the look on my face as I try to process the statement, and all the images it comes with, and finishes crawling up the ladder. I follow.
As soon as I'm in, she pulls the ladder up and closes the door. Unlike the rest of the house, which seems to have been decorated by someone going for the “Early American Nobility” aesthetic, the room we're in now is mostly unfinished. There is exposed, unstained and unpainted wood all along the walls and floors and ceiling, with beams extending from floor to ceiling every couple of feet. I'm no good at estimating the size of a place but it's at least as big as my own room.
There's a very odd collection of stuff in the little crawlspace. A desk, which looks hand-made of of untreated wood again, sits against the only wall with a window, a giant, round porthole. Against the opposite wall is a mattress. Not a bed frame or a box spring, just a mattress, covered over with shiny black sheets that were left quite rumpled. Everywhere, all over the crawlspace, little candles sit in glass containers. Elsie's already begun lighting them. There must be about six dozen of them, they're everywhere. I realize that the candles and the moonlight from that enormous window are the only light in the room. There aren't any light fixtures or lamps.
“What is this place?” I ask, still trying to take it in.
“It's kind of my sanctuary.” Elsie bends over to set the candle she'd just lit back down on the floor. She picks up one next to it and flicks her lighter again. “I know that sounds tacky. When my parents were around more when I was little, I’d sneak up here so I wouldn’t have to listen to them. I still come up here to read sometimes.”
I retrieve my own lighter from my pocket and begin helping her to light candles. I'm still curious about a few things and the way she's bending over to light each of them is way too distracting to let me keep talking, so I need something to do. She smiles at me appreciatively. “But what is this house? I mean, no offense, but you work at ShopperMart. You really live here?”
She sighs, setting a candle down on the desk. “Yeah. Beautiful, isn't it? My parents make absolutely certain that everything is the prettiest. You'd call it their top priority.”
“I still don't understand.”
She turns to face me. She's still grinning. Mostly. “My parents have a lot of money, obviously. This house probably cost more than the ShopperMart did. But you see, my parents don't really spend a lot of time here.”
“Where are they?” We're almost through the candles.
“Europe, right now. My father has an import-export business, so they're traveling all the time. Honestly, I don't even know how much of it's really for business and how much of it is just them not wanting to be here.”
“Is that legal?” I ask. “Them leaving you here alone all the time?”
She shrugs. “Used to have a live-in sitter until Mom found out she'd been stealing from them.”. She lights the last candle but refrains from putting it back down, holding it just under her face so that its flickering light dances across her chin. “When they fired her, I guess both of them just figured the other was handling hiring a new one. That was two years ago.”
“Geez.” My own parents are space-cadets too, I think the last time I heard either of them express actual affection for another human being was at my fifth birthday, but at least they're around. “That must be really hard.”
She shook her head. “I think I prefer having them not around. I can't mess with the house too much for fear that they might show up for an impromptu inspection – they don't have visits, they have inspections – so I spend most of my 'me' time up here. They don't know this space is here. It's mine.”
She sets the candle down, straightens up, and looks straight at me. “And now I'm here,” I say. “In your space.”
She nods and takes a step toward me and all those candles throw shadows all over her body and all over the walls and when I glance at the window I see it's started to snow, very lightly, tiny little white flakes falling by the window. “Your loud-mouthed friend was right about one thing,” she says. “I have been watching you. I heard the jazz band play about six months ago and it was incredible. You were incredible.”
“You've heard me play?” I sound like a complete moron, but I can't help it.
She nods again and takes another step toward me. “I have,” she says. “And I just wasn't sure what to say to you. You're, like, really talented. Like, you could probably go to college for that and they'd give you scholarships and everything. And I'm just a rich girl with shitty parents who isn't good at anything, really.”
Now or never. I take a step forward and take her hands in mine. Her skin is warm from handling all of the lit candles. “I'm a pretty awkward guy when you get to know me. I'm not all that great. And you – I bet there's plenty you're good at, you're just not thinking of it right now.”
She looks down at our linked hands and she is so gorgeous that I can't help but wonder how I didn't at least try to make this happen sooner. “I don't know.”
“I can think of one thing you're pretty good at.” She looks up at me and I could just about dive into her eyes. “You're doing a pretty good job of turning me on.”
She rolls her eyes at my stupid line, but she smiles too and pulls me down onto the mattress.
About an hour later we're both lying next to each other, naked, breathing heavily and sweating, the combination of the candles and the exertion giving us pause to catch our breath. “Where'd you learn to do all that?” she asks, through shuddering breaths.
I roll over to look at her, propping my head up with my hand. “Hang out with enough jazz musicians...” I say, and she laughs. “Seriously, when I joined up last year and they found out I was 'still a virgin,' a bunch of the guys made it like their mission in life to get me laid. Like being a virgin at fifteen is some Earth-shattering calamity, you know?”
“Did they?” Her entire body is glistening slightly with sweat and her hair is all tangled, stuck to her shoulders and chest and a little to her face, which she isn't bothering to wipe away.
“Get me laid?” I ask. She nods. “Yeah. A girl named Marcie at a competition late last school year. It was one of the ones we had to travel for, just a day trip, but the bus still had to stay at the place we were playing because it was too far to drive back and forth to pick us up again when the competition was over. The bus driver went looking for dinner while we were between our set and the announcement of who'd won, and Darren brought over Marcie who was from some other band, and he announced – real loud, I'm sure you can picture it after meeting him tonight – that she'd heard me play and it'd made her real wet and she wanted my dick.”
Elsie shakes her head. “You're right, I can picture it.”
I shrug. “So that was that. I lost my virginity with Marcie in the back of the bus while Darren and a couple of the other guys from the band watched and gave us tips. I think a couple of them were getting laid at the same time judging from the noises they were making, unless they were jerking off and they moan in really high-pitched voices.” Elsie laughs. The slight convulsion of the laughter makes her breasts shake. I feel myself twitch slightly, the motion arousing me again. “It wasn't bad,” I continue, ignoring for a moment the twinge between my legs. I'd love another round but we both need to relax for a minute first. “It just wasn't – I don't know. There was something missing.”
Elsie looks at me again, a curious look on her face. “Was there something missing tonight?”
I feel for a second like I could keep looking back at her for the next twenty years without a break. “No, there wasn't anything missing tonight. And tonight's not over yet, you know.”
“Oh, really?” Elsie fakes looking at a watch that isn't there. “What makes you think I'm going to let you monopolize my evening?”
“Maybe it was something you said earlier. I believe that something was, 'Oh God Sebastian, don't stop, don't stop.'”
She reaches across her body and punches me lightly on the shoulder. “I thought you hadn't picked up any of Darren's idiot bravado,” she says, smiling a little mischievously. “Guess I was wrong.”
I hold up my hands in mock surrender. “Hey, you benefited from a couple of Darren's tricks back there,” I say. “Least you can do is put up with a little of his attitude.”
She shakes her head. “But I didn't want to sleep with Darren.” She reaches over and strokes a little bit of my hair, and suddenly I'm not sure what's a joke and what isn't, but she's still smiling at me so instead of ruining things by talking I reach over and kiss her and feel the part of me that was concerned settle down when I feel her kissing me back, pressing her lips against me just as hungrily as she had just a few minutes previous.
Before things can build into a second coupling, though, she pulls back. “Uh.” My heart practically stops. “Do you know what the time is? I do actually have somewhere I need to be.”
I stare at her. “You're joking.”
She grins sheepishly. “No, I’m not.” When I still look bewildered she backs away. “Hey, it's not like I planned this tonight, you know?”
“Okay,” I say, rummaging around beside the bed for my pants. They'll have my phone inside, which will the only way I have to tell what time it is. “I know it’s not necessarily my business, but is there any chance you’d let me in on what you have goin on?”
She's rummaging through her own clothes, applying them back to her body. She loops the straps of her bra back onto her shoulders and reaches behind herself to clasp it back up, which is a little depressing by itself. It took more effort than I'd care to admit out loud to get it off in the first place. “Somewhere important.” I groan at the mysterious act. “You can come, if you'd like.”
I finally manage to untangle my pants from my shirt, with no idea how they got so wrapped up in each other, and start rooting around for my phone. “Would I like to?” I doubt she'll give me enough details for me to judge for myself.
She turns to face me again and doesn't respond until she catches my gaze. “I hope so,” she says, and there's a metric ton of vulnerability, both in her eyes and the way she says it. And not for the first time that night, I think to myself that this girl doesn't have anyone, to care about or to care about her, and I feel a slight ache in the back of my chest and I nod.
When I tell her that it's eight thirty she picks up the pace, announcing that we'll be late, and again demurring from telling me what it is we'll be late for. Once we're both dressed and all the candles are blown out, we descend the ladder and head for the door. She retrieves her keys and offers to drive, an offer which I accept. Her car turns out to be the one in the driveway after all – and it's nice. “Is this a 2018 Infiniti Q60?” I ask, a slight note of wonder in my voice.
She rolls her eyes. “Of course you'd be into cars.” She pushes the key fob and the car beeps. “Such a stereotypical boy thing.”
I pull open the passenger side door as she crosses to the driver-side door and gets in. “I'm not really that into cars, but this thing is – it must have cost about forty grand.”
“Right around that,” she says, dismissively. “It was a birthday present from my parents last year. It’s just like them. Blow forty thousand dollars on a car for me and then don't send money for gas.”
“Is that why you work at ShopperMart?” She starts the car, puts it into drive, and pulls down the driveway.
“My parents take care of a lot of the basics. Electricity, water, health insurance, all that. But the day-to-day stuff there's only a small 'allowance' for, smaller since the incident with the last live-in sitter. I've asked a couple of times for more money and they always tell me that I'm doing okay with what I've got and they can discuss trusting me with more money when I'm older and more responsible.”
“Ouch.” She pulls down the street and makes a turn and the very, very small car nerd part of me observes that the shocks are perfect, you can't feel a thing.
“Yeah.” Her grip on the steering wheel tightens. I notice that Elsie drives with both hands on the wheel, at the traditional 'ten' and 'two' positions, just like they teach in drivers ed. Very conservative. “Like they can talk to me about responsibility. You know my mother actually bought an entire hand-crafted kitchen set once on the Internet and then threw it out when it was delivered because she didn't like how it looked in person? There goes ten thousand dollars. Poof.”
“You can buy kitchen sets for ten thousand dollars?”
“In my parents' world, anything can be expensive,” she says. She takes another turn and I'm torn between watching her drive – I've come to the conclusion that she's hot no matter what she's doing, but each new activity is like a new kind of hot, and I'm greedy to discover more before she comes to her senses and realizes that I'm neither attractive nor interesting enough to warrant allowing me to ogle her like this – and watching out the car windows, trying to figure out our mystery destination. “When I was little,” she continues, “like, really little, I wanted a puppy. I told my parents that our class in school had taken a field trip to the pound and you could adopt puppies and they looked so lonely and I wanted one. A week later someone shows up with a purebred poodle and about eight tons of 'documents' proving its lineage and how it was related to a dog that won some competition in England. And my mother tells me how this dog is so much better because it's not just some mutt from the pound.”
“Yeah, that pretty much sucks. What happened to the dog?”
“They took it with them to Europe when I was eight and I never saw it again.” She takes another turn and I feel the car slowing. Are we almost there? “They probably forgot to feed it and it died. No loss, really. It was never nice. Always tried to bite me when I fed it or tried to pet it.”
She pulls the car to a stop. I look out the window. We're in front of the Arresh-Singh Primary Education and Recreation Center. I glance around at Elsie. She's looking at me with that same vulnerable, scared look from earlier. “This is where we're going?”
“Yeah.” She bites her lower lip like she did back in ShopperMart. Feels like that was about ten years ago. “We have to wait out here, they bring them out to us, don't want the doors unlocked at night for people to just come wandering in.”
I try laughing. “What, do you have a kid or something?” Before she can say anything I feel the blood drain from my face. “Oh God, you do, don't you? And now you think I'm the biggest judgmental asshole in the universe after everything we did earlier and now you're willing to introduce me to your kid and I'm acting like a jerk. Oh God, I'm sorry. I didn't mean - ”
“Cool it.” She lays a hand on my arm and just barely prevents me from hyperventilating. “Patty's not my kid. She's my kid sister.”
“Your kid sister,” I repeat, tasting the words. Elsie nods. “And she's here at nine o'clock at night?”
“They have a function thing on Friday nights,” Elsie says. “Like a dance for kids who aren't quite old enough for dances. Games, activities, that sort of thing. It's pretty cheap, and she always loves it, so I figure why not, right? They're good people here.”
The blood keeps on draining. “This is why you work at ShopperMart,” I say.
Elsie shrugs. “Amongst other things,” she says. “It's not like I could ask my parents for the extra money for this. Mother would flip if she knew that Patty was coming to a Rec games night that costs five dollars to get into. Hell, she'd flip if she heard people calling her 'Patty' instead of 'Patricia.'”
The doors to the center open. “Your name's not really 'Elsie,' is it?” I ask. “That's a nickname, right?”
“Elizabeth.” Elsie shudders. “I can barely stand hearing it.”
I grin at her. “I think 'Elsie' is cuter anyway.”
She pops open her door and I follow suit. Two people are approaching from the open door to the center, one adult, one child. Patty, on closer inspection, is a little older than I'd pictured. Like Elsie had said, she’s not old enough for dances yet, but not by a lot. They actually look kind of similar, same dark hair, very similar facial structure, and Patty is similarly slim. Probably going to break a few hearts herself one day. The joke initially occurs to me without irony, but then I glance sideways at Elsie. Is she going to break my heart? Is that something she's even in a position to do?
I push aside these confusing feelings and listen as the adult leading Patty to the car speaks to Elsie. “Ms. Carlisle, you're late.” Most notable thing about her is the extremely severe cut of her hair, a short bowl cut that hasn't been in style since I don't know when.
“Sorry,” Elsie replies. She scratches the back of her head. “Didn't mean to be. Guess I got caught up in a few things.”
The adult eyes me and I'm suddenly very uncomfortable. “Well, it's never happened before,” she says. “Just don't let it happen again.” She pats Patty on the shoulder. “Go ahead, Patty. We'll see you next week.”
“Bye, Mrs. Mavis!” Patty says, her voice at a much higher pitch than I was expecting. The adult turns to head back into the building and Patty skips the remaining steps over to her sister. “I made you a bracelet.” She holds out a little, brightly colored creation, made of string and gimp to Elsie.
Elsie takes it, examines it, and slips it onto her wrist. “How does it look?”
“Great!” Patty says. Then she looks around at me. “Who's this?”
Elsie blanches. Apparently she didn't think of how to explain me. For that matter, I don't know how to explain me, but up until about five minutes ago I didn't have any idea I'd need to. With a little sarcasm I think to thank Elsie for keeping me as in the dark as possible. But who am I, really, to this little girl? For that matter, who am I to Elsie? I'd been looking at her as the girl who had no one and here she is with a little sister who makes her gimp bracelets. “I'm her friend,” I settle on, giving Elsie a 'Help me out, she's your sister' look.
“Uh huh,” Patty says. I try to guess her age. Ten? Twelve maybe? “You were having sex, weren't you?”
“Patty!” Elsie’s face goes redder than a tomato in less time than it takes to sqeak out her little sister’s name. She looks around at the door the center. Closed, and no one appears to be listening. “That was inappropriate. You should apologize.”
“For what?” Patty asks. “Even if you didn't, is it insulting for him to think you might want to?”
“Patty,” Elsie moans, and I can't help but chuckle at the look of desperate embarrassment on Elsie's face. “Don't you go encouraging her, Sebastian.”
“Why not?” I ask. “Kid's got a point.” I look down at Patty and drop my voice to a conspiratorial level. “Unless the real reason is that she doesn't want to. She thinks I'm gross.”
Patty catches onto the game immediately and gasps. She points at her sister. “You're being mean to my new friend Sebastian!” she says. “And he's your new friend too and that's double bad.”
Elsie puts her hands on her hips. “Great, now I'm being double teamed.” She points to the car. “You get the backseat, runt.” She opens the passenger side door, pushes a release which moves the seat forward, and Patty climbs in. As soon as she's inside, and presumably out of earshot, she turns back to me and whispers, “And you know full well how I feel about - ” She cuts herself off, clearly afraid that someone, either her sister or someone from the center, is listening.
“Yeah, but it was funny making you sweat,” I say. “Uh, again.”
She rolls her eyes and crosses back around the car to the driver's side door as I slide into the passenger seat.
When we arrive back at the house, Patty goes into near palpitations of joy when she sees my car, calling it a 'shitbox.' When Elsie asks her, sternly, where she heard such a word, the little girl mentions that a classmate said it last week and she's been just dying to find something to say it about, too. Elsie threatens to not take her to ice cream tomorrow, to which Patty bounces in her seat and says that there's no way Elsie herself would pass up ice cream, but she does stop swearing.
By the time all three of us are back inside the house, some of Patty's bouncy energy has worn off and she yawns. Elsie glances at a clock in the entrance hall – nine thirty – and tells Patty that she can stay up for another half hour, but Patty shakes her head and says she's sleepy and wants to get to bed.
Her parting words, as she heads up the stairs, are directed at me. “Don't keep my sister up all night with all the kissing you're going to be doing,” she says. “We have a date with ice cream tomorrow.”
She disappears down the hall before Elsie can toss a rebuke at her. I laugh as the little girl scampers down the hall. “She's cute,” I say, turning back to Elsie, and there's that vulnerable look again, just when I wasn't expecting it. “What's wrong?”
“Nothing.” She turns and heads down a new hallway. When she pushes open the door I see marble countertops and one of those electric stoves. Kitchen. “Just – you two got along real well.”
I shrug. “Guess maybe I'm good with kids,” I say. “I don't know, I've never really been around them before. Why, are you jealous?”
“Of course not,” Elsie says. She walks over to the counter and drags a clay jar labeled 'Flour' closer to the edge. When she uncovers it, it's full of sugar cookies. She offers me one and I accept it, taking a bite out of it. ShopperMart store brand. Oh, yum. “I just – I don't know what I expected, introducing you to her like that.”
“I think I'm more curious about why you didn't just tell me about her from the start.” I nibble a little on the cookie. They're cheap, absolutely loaded with sugar, but they come with a kind of mechanical aftertaste, the sort of thing that screams ‘artificial’. You get less of the aftertaste if you take really small bites.
Elsie quirks an eyebrow at me, leaning back against the counter. She bends at the hips to do this and again her shirt rides up in the front and it seems kind of illogical that this would turn me on again. I've seen her completely naked already. But, well, there you go. “You mean, why didn't I tell you all about my little sister when I was bringing you back here to fuck you?”
It's my turn to roll my eyes, even as I blush a little. “No, not then. But you didn't have to be all mysterious about where we were going once we were in the car. I'm just curious is all, it's not that I mind. The kid's hysterical.”
She bites her bottom lip and I feel like maybe I'm detecting a pattern to that motion. “The kid is a lot more than hysterical. She gets into trouble sometimes, and scrapes her knees, and needs someone to sit by her bed during thunderstorms still. And she needs someone to make sure she eats. All that's on me.”
“No sitter,” I repeat, remembering our conversation from earlier. I feel like thwacking myself on the forehead for my insensitivity, but forgo the motion. Wouldn't really help. “Why not tell your parents to find a new one? It'd be a load off of you.”
Elsie shakes her head. “My parents invariably hire people who are as shitty as they are,” she says. “It just happened to work out that the last one was shitty in a way that even they could take offense at. I'd rather do all this, have all this on me, than put my sister through living with that. Even though she gets on my nerves sometimes.”
I shake my head, finishing the cookie. I'm a little blown away by this girl standing in front of me, looking at me like she's expecting me to erupt any second. “You were wrong earlier,” I say. She looks at me quizzically. “When you said you're not good at anything. I mean, we established one thing that you're really, really good at then, and then we established a couple other things you're even better at.” Here she blushes. “But aside from those things, I think you're the best sister in the world.”
The blush gets deeper. “Thanks,” she says, playing with the ends of her hair. She got little flakes of snow in them when we were still outside, but they've since melted, leaving her hair wet. Again. “I appreciate it. And I really don't mind doing this for Patty, nine days out of ten. And that last day, yeah, I feel like strangling myself, or her if she's getting on my nerves, but I always remember that it's all worth it. You saw how great she is. She went to bed early without a fuss. She may have given us a hard time, but she warmed right up to you, because I think it was pretty clear that I like you. She helps make all this easier in so many ways she doesn't have to. We're a team. I love her so much.”
I don't have any idea what to say. There isn't anything in my own life that I can even come close to comparing this to. “That's great,” I manage.
Elsie smiles at me, walks over to stand directly in front of me, and lays a hand on my chest. “I love her so much, but even she knows that sometimes I need something – else,” she says. I feel my face warm a little at this too. “I don't just mean the sex,” she says. “Although that was really good. I guess I need a partner. So to speak.”
I cover her hand with mine. “That's - ” I start, but then I stop. What do I think of this? “I don't really know what to say,” I admit. She's not like anything or anyone I've ever known. Except, that isn't quite true, it's just that she's not like anyone I've ever been close to. Except that's not true either, because I don't suppose I've ever really been close to anyone. “It's just that I've never really had someone to care about,” I say. “Or who's cared about me. My parents – they're around, but they don't really care about anything aside from themselves. They don't know where I am now. They probably wouldn't be bothered if I didn't come home at all tonight.”
I feel the pressure of her hand increase against my chest. Those eyes, that vulnerable look – for a second it's all I can even conceive of. “If you stayed here tonight,” she says, each word screaming 'I'm taking a huge risk please don't hurt me' at the top of its individual lungs, “you could teach me a few more of those tricks. And you could come with us for ice cream tomorrow.”
Her eyes are so enormous. I'm definitely good to go for more sex but it's more than that, too. I've been kind of vaguely discontent with my parents for years, and it's not like I have any other family, and the guys in the band were always great but never close. And here's a girl who really feels things, and maybe I can be a part of that, maybe she can feel for me, too, and maybe whatever I'm feeling for her has a chance to grow and be something bigger. Maybe there's a chance. “I think I'd like that,” I say, and the smile she gives me could last a thousand years.