On a cobalt-colored evening in February, Wesley Mitchell—buckled in the passenger seat of his mom’s car—stared out the window, struggling to internally capture the dusk-dreary essence of the passing countryside. Overcast—overcast was one of the words he settled on. He flipped through other words in his thirteen-year-old roll-a-dex: cloudy, gray, bleak. That last adjective was particularly fascinating to the boy. He enjoyed the starkly-sleek sound of bleak, enjoyed the feeling of hearing it drift through his mind. As he silently repeated the word over and over, he allowed it to turn into a whisper, and sent it out to gently quake the winter-bare tree limbs—to rustle the remains of fractured cornstalks and dead leaves lying in the snow-dusted furrows of farm fields. Overcast, he decided, sounded the most mature.
This was not an exercise that Wesley had acquired by some celestial instilment. He was an academically average student, even considered by some of his teachers to be quite a poor student. In elementary school, Wesley usually sat alone on a swingset at recess, perfectly content with watching the interaction on the playground. Now, as a seventh-grader, Wesley usually sat alone at lunch, perfectly content with watching the interaction in the cafeteria. Wesley’s salvation was that he was naturally curious and naturally honest.
Wesley paid special attention to the insights offered by his teachers, particularly his grammar teacher, Miss Shaw. Months before, she had been describing the relationship of words with ideas and emotions. Standing at the front of the classroom, Miss Shaw had appeared to struggle with explaining a thought; she rushed to her desk, withdrew a creased and crumpled paperback and returned to the front of the class, frantically flipping through the pages then brightening when she found what she was looking for.
“I spoke to her of style,” the young teacher had said, clearly savoring the passage and briefly scanning the faces of her class, as if tacitly letting them in on a small secret before continuing. “I spoke to her of style, of an army of words, an army in which every type of weapon is deployed.” Since then, Wesley had casually, privately, attempted to assemble his limited vocabulary into a battalion, into a seventh-grade brigade.
Wesley was being both curious and honest one day last November when he’d walked up to Miss Shaw’s desk to ask a question; as his teacher answered, Wesley glanced over cluttered stacks of papers, pausing on a photocopied poem—a stanza seized his attention. The boy cocked his head and read:
It was evening all afternoon
It was snowing.
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs
“…and when you finish the worksheet,” Miss Shaw was saying, “make sure you choose the President for which you’d like to do your essay. Do you like that poem?”
Wesley glanced at his teacher to make sure she wasn’t upset about his intrusiveness or lack of focus. Wesley saw her smile, returned it with one of his own and nodded easily.
“Yes? Well his name’s Wallace Stevens. We might talk about him next week, okay?”
Wesley returned to his seat and gazed out his classroom window. He occupied himself with thoughts of Miss Shaw. He thought about her a lot—not as his teacher, but as a girl-woman who knew all sorts of beautifully wise ways to unlock secrets. But the only time he felt it truly safe to think about her in that way was at night, in bed, before sleep.
Now, sitting in his mom’s car and scanning the passing countryside, Wesley again about the words in that poem. He thought about Miss Shaw. Wesley withdrew from inspecting the barren cornfields and turned toward his mom. “Do I have to go to Holly’s?” And by Holly he meant babysitter—the latter being a word he had, lately, grown to hate.
Wesley’s mom offered a pained yet wholly unsympathetic expression as she stroked her son’s hair. “I’m afraid so, sweetie.” Wesley, not unkindly, pulled away and adjusted the seatbelt, which was beginning to irritate his neck. “It’ll only be for a few hours,” she said.
Wesley’s grandma had been taken to the hospital earlier in the week, and things were—as the family had been saying lately—not good. Even through his parent’s whispers and silences and attempts to shelter him, Wesley knew it was one of the really bad cancers—the kind that people don’t recover from. There wouldn’t be any remission—that was the term he’d heard his father use. Wesley’s mom had insisted that the boy not be exposed to the agony and suffering his grandmother was going through; and Mrs. Mitchell had, at the last minute, arranged for one of the teenage girls from their church to babysit Wesley. “Besides,” she continued, “you’re almost old enough to stay by yourself.”
Wesley wanted to believe that.
Holly Vaughn lived with her mom in a small, no-style house near the county line. While the Vaughns had several neighbors, the home was situated in a vague area somewhere between the low-sloped stretches of farmland and the neighborhoods closer to town—not quite the country, not quite the suburbs. As the car pulled into the gravel driveway, Wesley noticed a single strand of Christmas lights hanging from the house’s rusty gutters. The faint notion that it was now February, and that he had helped his dad take down their own Christmas lights over a month ago, emerged in his mind but quickly disappeared.
Holly opened the screen door just as Wesley and his mom stepped up on the front porch, greeting both of them with a bright-boppy Hi. Wesley had, of course, seen Holly countless times at church; but now, with her teenage-girl clothes and accessories—the kind of outfit that’s supposed to appear spontaneous and mindless, but actually takes hours to arrange—Holly was different. For a sixteen-year-old girl, Holly’s casual confidence made her seem older somehow. And prettier. Wesley had a hard time making eye contact with Holly.
Wesley’s mom seemed surprised to discover that Holly’s mom was not home. “She called and said she had to work late,” Holly explained as Wesley and his mom entered the front room. “But she should be home in a little while.” He watched her do something with her hand, a dismissive it’s-no-big-deal gesture.
While his mother gave Holly instructions—and while the teenage girl chomped her gum, and repeated no problem with each kind reminder—Wesley examined the living room, noting, among other strange curios, a porcelain Elvis and a Betty Boop figurine on a bookcase. The boy paused on a dusty manger scene over on the mantle. Glimpsing these oddities filled Wesley with the tepid sourness of homesickness.
But the room itself was comfortable, and the carpet looked as if it’d been freshly vacuumed. Wesley saw a can of dusting spray, smelled its acrid-piney aroma. He suspected that Holly had been tidying up just before they arrived.
Eventually sounding satisfied, Wesley’s mom kissed her son on the forehead and reminded him again about his homework.
Holly held the screen door open and waved goodbye. The sounds of crunching gravel eventually faded as the car retreated down the driveway.
Holly closed the door. “Okay,” she exhaled, clapping her palms once and lacing her slender fingers together. “What do you want to do first?”
Wesley heard the internal echo of his mother’s instructions and hefted his backpack. “Well, I’ve got this history…”
“Cool, history it is.” Holly put her hands on her hips and swiveled slightly—a perky, half-swirling lighthouse, Wesley thought. She tilted her head and asked, “You want to do it in the kitchen or work on the couch?”
Without looking at her, Wesley said, “kitchen’s cool with me.”
Wesley slid onto a chair at the kitchen table and methodically withdrew his books and folders.
Holly opened the refrigerator. “Do you want something to drink? We’ve got fruit punch, root beer, milk, Pepsi…”
Wesley’s dad forbid sodas in the house. He’d always said they were just junk. “Sure, a Pepsi.”
Holly nodded and pulled a glass bottle from the fridge, twisted the cap and placed the drink in front of the boy. “You need anything else?”
“No,” Wesley tried to sound at ease. Part of Holly’s long brown hair was held with a colorful clip. Her skin was a warm peachy color, not winter-pale like most girls in Wesley’s class. He was, again, struck by how pretty she was. Pretty, he thought, like the girl from Flashdance. “I’m okay.”
Wesley watched Holly caper into the living room, sweep up the remote from the coffee table and sink into the sofa. “Let me know if you get hungry,” she said, turning on the TV. “There’s some ground chuck in the fridge, we can make hamburgers later if you want.”
Wesley opened his textbook and stared at the pages.
After several minutes Holly asked, “Do you like hamburgers?”
Wesley half-listened to the staccato clips of soap opera dialogue and commercials as Holly swiftly flipped from channel to channel. She eventually paused on what sounded like music. Wesley, scribbling through answers, attempted to appear intent; but between scribbling down answers, he’d sneak blink-glimpses into the living room where the teenage girl had her legs tucked up under her, staring at the television. She looks like drowsy cat. Wesley grinned internally at that thought—at the cleverness of what he thought Miss Shaw had called a simile.
Some time passed before Holly, again, called into the kitchen. “You need any help?”
Wesley swallowed. “No I’m okay.” A few seconds ticked by. “Thanks. It’s pretty easy. I’m writing about the Alamo.”
“Hey,” Holly raised her voice in an urgent rush over the music. “Hey, come in here.”
Wesley dropped his pencil and pushed back his chair—the legs briefly yelping on the linoleum. He walked into the family room. Holly was smiling at the TV.
“You have to see this,” she said, grinning. She patted her hand on the couch cushion next to her. “This video is so cool.”
Wesley sat down on the too-cushy couch, sinking in a little closer to Holly than he’d intended, brushing her elbow with his.
Wesley immediately recognized the melody, which he’d often heard on the radio. Wesley watched a lonely girl at a diner reading a pencil-sketch comic book. The comic book’s hero, a sort of—Wesley searched for the word—greaser, suddenly becomes animated and extends his chalky hand through the barrier, inviting the girl inside the book.
“It’s like real life and a drawing mixed up, you know?” Holly said.
Wesley nodded that he did. He could smell the strawberry scent coming from her gum, and something else like perfume or hairspray.
The video continued. Now the clandestine couple was being chased from frame to frame by a pair bad guys. The girl and the hero are eventually trapped at the dead end of a square cartoon panel. But the good-guy greaser peels back a small hatch in the wall, and—despite her silent pleas to stay with him—he ushers the girl through the panel and out of danger. After reawakening in the diner to find the comic book crinkled up in front of her, the girl runs home to her apartment, frantically smoothing the pages under a lamp. In the final frame, her comic book boyfriend lays beaten, dead. The girl sinks into a chair. Then, miraculously, the hero’s body disappears from the page and emerges in the girl’s apartment, in the real world. They embrace. A happy ending.
Holly talked through the entire video. Wesley agreed with whatever she’d said.
“I just love videos that tell a story,” she said. “This one’s like a metaphor, or something.”
Not wanting to either sound stupid or remain silent, Wesley gambled. “Maybe the video is about saving each other.”
Holly frowned a little bit, finally tugging her face from the television.
Wesley cleared his throat. “You know—the hero, in the comic world, saved the girl from the villains in the cartoon and from being lonely, in a way; and she saved him from being crushed by real life or the real world.” Holly was watching Wesley. “They both saved each other from the bad guys.” Wesley squinted back toward the TV. “It’s like a test of loyalty in different worlds, or something.”
"Hm,” she snorted, continuing to palm the remote. “Have you ever seen that video before?”
Wesley made a face as if trying to recall. “No, I don’t think so.” He paused for a second. “We don’t get cable out by my house.”
“Oh,” Holly said, drawing out the Oh. “Well do you have a radio?”
Wesley smirked. “Sure, I’ve got that. With a record player and tape deck too.”
Holly blinked and bobbed her head, as if in approval. “What bands do you like?” she asked, fiddling with her hair.
Wesley considered this, wanting to be honest but wanting to sound cool. “I like Duran Duran.”
Holly dropped her jaw and leaned in a bit toward Wesley. “Oh my God, John Taylor is so hot.”
Wesley chuckled, not really knowing how to respond to that.
“You know,” Holly’s voice adopted a thoughtful tone, “my teacher at school said that all these bands with guys wearing make-up and dressing up like girls are like modern day Dandies. Have you ever heard of a Dandy?”
Again, Wesley rolled the dice. “Maybe…I think so.” He was instantly grateful when, just as he answered, Holly appeared to have an idea.
“Ooh: I know,” she said, slipping off the couch and padding across the living room. “Come see my room.”
Wesley followed Holly toward the hall. She was talking but the quick cadence of her words didn’t sound as if they invited a response. There were several open doors lining the narrow corridor. Walking by, Wesley glimpsed what he thought was a darkened dining room. Holly, still talking, disappeared around an elbow of wall. A light clicked on around the corner.
“Check it out,” Holly said, raising her limp-wristed hands, gesturing around her bedroom at the wall-collages of movie posters and torn-out photos from music magazines—photos of celebrities and good-looking guys from pop groups. Holly proceeded to point out her favorites.
Wesley listened solemnly, as if submitting his attention to a museum curator.
Wesley recognized a few bands here and there. His eyes, momentarily, rested on her bed and jerked back to the wall. He pointed toward one of the posters—the one with the guy wearing a crinkled blond fright wig, his pastel-painted face was strained with a toothy leer. “Twisted Sister,” he said.
“For sure,” Holly purred.
Wesley dared not tell Holly why he knew who Twisted Sister was—he dared not admit, yeah, my mom says she doesn’t want me listening to them because they sound like the Devil. Wesley pored over other posters. Now and then he’d glance at Holly just as she was glancing away from him. In here, were the light was brighter, Wesley could see Holly’s eyes better. They were large and brown and warm—the color of syrup.
There were other rock stars on the wall. He saw a photo of Ozzy. He saw a KISS poster. “Hey,” he said. “Have you ever heard that KISS stands for Kids In Satan’s Service?”
Holly smiled and flipped a length of hair over her shoulder. “That’s so funny. Me and my friend were just talking about that today at lunch.” She crinkled her nose. “I don’t think so. What about you?” The sweatshirt Holly was wearing was too big for her slender frame and hung slightly askew near her neck, exposing the smooth curve of her collarbone.
“No,” Wesley said. “I think that’s stuff parent’s tell their kids to scare them.”
Holly smiled, rolled her eyes and nodded. She went on to show off some of her records and her softball trophies, which were lined up on a skinny shelf above her bed. Holly explained that she used to be really good. She said that, before he left, her dad had been her biggest fan. Eventually, Holly sounded bored. “Come on, I’ll give you a tour of the rest of the dump.” Holly gently pinched Wesley’s elbow as she walked past him.
She led him into the hallway, around another corner and opened a door. “This,” Holly said as she flipped on a light, “is my mom’s room.”
The comfort Wesley had felt in Holly’s room was extinguished as he surveyed the poorly-lit bedroom. Against the wall were several laundry baskets loaded with wrinkled clothes. Only one light bulb was working in a ceiling fan, the blades of which looked fluffy with dust. An ironing board—upon which were several glasses and an ashtray—was propped up next to the bed. A makeshift coffee table, Wesley thought. The room smelled stale, like a cellar.
Holly spoke without glancing at Wesley. “Sort of a troll’s den, don’t you think.” It wasn’t really a question. “She’d strangle me if she knew I showed this to you.”
There was silence for what seemed like a long time. Wesley fixed his eyes on the other side of the room, at the closet door, which was cracked open slightly, revealing nothing but darkness inside. A sickly-sour thought trickled into Wesley. He half-wondered if this were part of some sort of prank, as if Holly’s accomplice—some sort of pasty-faced hood boyfriend, or something—would suddenly explode from the closet, screaming with outstretched arms, hooked fingers, a livid expression. There’d be no escape from the ridicule which would surely follow.
“Come on,” Holly said. “Let’s get out of here.” And with that she clicked off the light and closed the bedroom door.
Next they came to what she said was her dad’s old office, which her mom had turned into a craft room. “This is where she does all her sewing and stuff.”
Wesley noted a few clusters of partially-constructed Christmas crafts. Not wanting to let on that he’d like to go back to the couch to watch more videos, he asked, “What does she do with all this?”
Holly made a smooth movement with her shoulders and arched her eyebrows as if to say, you tell me. “She tried to make vests for my Girl Scout troop one year. But that didn’t really work out.” She shut the door. “She’s tried selling stuff at church…I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s tried to sell a sequined vest to your mom or something.”
Wesley laughed out of sheer fear of impending silence; and he—at the brief mention of his mom, and flashing to the condition of Holly’s mom’s bedroom—felt the thin quiver of either homesickness or sympathy.
As they walked down the hall, Wesley could see the stuttery-blue flicker from the TV in the living room. Then Holly made a sharp turn. “And this is the dining room.”
The room which Wesley had glimpsed earlier, now in the bright light glowing from a crystal chandelier, was what he imagined someone would call immaculate. Several china cabinets lined the walls—walls which were papered with a pale-pink flower pattern. The table settings were arranged with silver-rimmed glasses and shiny plates. The room looked as if it had never been touched.
“Mom and I never eat in here,” Holly said. “Only on holidays or special occasions.” Still explaining, Holly slid her fingers along the arched back of one of the gloss-lacquered chairs as she continued on towards the opposite end of the room, where the dining room connected with the kitchen through a doorless threshold.
They were nearly out of the room when Holly stopped moving and stopped talking. Gasping softly, in mock surprise, she pointed up toward the door frame where, hanging from the top by a gold thread and a red pushpin, was a thistley bulb of mistletoe. Holly gently flicked the plastic decoration. “Surprise, surprise. Look what mom forgot to take down.”
Holly—as if in the preface of sharing a secret—frowned slightly, narrowed her eyes and smirked. “Do you know what people are supposed to do when they get stuck under the mistletoe?” Her tone sounded different to Wesley, as if she’d changed characters.
Sure, he thought: They’re supposed to kiss. We’re supposed to kiss. But saying this, even as he rehearsed the panicky responses to himself at impossible speeds and variations, sounded less like an answer and more like a request. “Yes,” he said, busying himself with the pink-flower pattern on the wall.
Hesitating, seeming to waver for a second, Holly made a face, as if on the precipice of giggling or saying something deadly serious. “Here,” she chirped suddenly, and tucked a silky-brown streamer of hair behind her ear. Holly rested her hands on Wesley’s shoulders, gently bracing the boy before leaning down and delivering one, nip-innocent kiss on his unflinching lips.
Holly pulled back and laughed. “See,” she made a fist and gave Wesley a good-natured bop on the arm. “Who cares if it’s February.”
Wesley thought he heard himself laugh—a laugh coming from the bottom of a well.
“Come on,” Holly said. “Let’s make some dinner.”
The kiss lasted less than a second. But everything had started slowing down before that, when Wesley understood what was about to happen. With each kid-rhythm throb of his drumming pulse, time seemed to be beat back, notch by notch.
Holly had said, here, which, to Wesley, somehow sounded both coarse and silky. He watched her bend down and tilt her chin slightly, her eyes half-hooded, drowsy. She closed her eyes completely and puckered her lips. An image appeared to Wesley: a cartoon picture from childhood—a nursery-rhyme depiction of a little Dutch girl, leaning forward, offering a coquettish kiss.
Wesley did not close his eyes when the soft pads of Holly’s lips pressed against his mouth—her lips touching and, for an instant, softly blossoming as they met the pressure of Wesley’s restraint.
All at once, Wesley felt as if a water balloon had gently ruptured in his abdomen, spilling its warm and confusing contents in two ways through his body. The sensation snaked up along his chest and neck and cheeks. The notion that he was in deadly trouble was tempered by the familiar feeling that he was getting away with something deliciously grievous.
But as the fluttery feeling trickled down the other way, toward his belly, Wesley had the wild urge to rattle a chain of laughter.
And then it was over.
Wesley, as if through cotton, heard Holly say, come on. He was struggling to catch up with the real world and follow his babysitter into the kitchen.
“So what do you like on your hamburger?” Holly asked.
Wesley continued to linger in the kiss, trying to clearly develop each sensory detail, like an over-eager photographer frantically fanning fresh Polaroids. But there was also a thin strip of the boy who was aware that a gorgeous sixteen-year-old was speaking to him now. His lips, tasting waxy and sweet like cherries, worked to form a response. “Whatever you put on yours.”
In the kitchen, Holly switched on the radio near the sink, placed a skillet on one of the electric burners, and pulled the ground beef from the refrigerator.
“Do you want to help me make the burgers?” Holly asked.
Wesley said yes.
The two shaped the beef into crooked discs and settled them down in a too-hot skillet—the sporadic hissing and popping nearly overwhelming the music on the radio. When the smoke alarm went off, Wesley helped fan the device with one of his folders. They laughed at their mini dinner crisis.
At the table, seated across from each other, Holly took a bite of her charred hamburger and said, “You know,” she swallowed before attempting to continue. “We’ve never talked at church before.”
Wesley nodded. That’s because I’m invisible. “Yeah, but the high schoolers always leave early and stuff.” Wesley paused, waiting for Holly to chew her food. “I’ve said hi to you in the hall a few times.”
Holly furrowed her brow. “Shut up. Really?” She dabbed her lips with a napkin and squinted. “Are you sure? I think I’d remember.”
Holly talked for a long time. Wesley listened. She told him about failing her driver’s ed class, and how she had to retake the test. She said she was going to be a camp counselor during summer break. At one point, Wesley almost suggested the possibility that they, someday, would maybe see each other at school, when he finished middle school and went on to high school. But after a quick, time-frame calculation, he decided to drop it—Holly’d be a senior and he’d be a freshman. Holly’d be a senior and he’d be a ghost.
They were talking about the Challenger explosion when the phone rang. Holly padded across the kitchen, turned down the radio, and picked up the phone mounted on the wall. After answering, she started speaking in giggly bursts.
Wesley wondered if it was a guy. He busied himself by peering through the sliding glass doors of the patio and absorbing the pigeon-colored evening. There, in the back yard, was an overturned kiddie pool, its pink sides poking through the thin layer of snow. He paused on a rusty, seatless swing set which, to Wesley, began to resemble the skeletal A-frame of a burnt-out tent.
Holly sighed. “You’re a freak, Sheila.”
A girl. Wesley blinked. He looked away from the window, took another bite of his hamburger, and began fiddling with a pencil.
Without glancing at Wesley, Holly cocked her head, adjusted the receiver to fit between her ear and shoulder, and began cleaning the kitchen counter. “God, that girl is just a whore,” Holly said, although Wesley didn’t think it sounded like a mean remark.
“What? He’s there right now?” Holly sounded genuinely astonished. “I thought your parents were home.”
Wesley caught a glimpse of her lifting the skillet from the stove and pouring the grease down the drain. A few times he glanced passed her, over towards the small dusty cluster hanging from the door frame near the dining room. “Shut up,” Holly sounded appalled. “He’s such a hood, Sheila.”
There was a long stretch where the other girl, Sheila, was talking. Wesley could barely hear the other girl’s voice—it was a whiny sort of buzz, like a fly faintly making sporadic movements from across the kitchen. Briefly, Holly stopped cleaning and stared out the window above the sink, her peach-warm face suddenly appearing pale, painted with the blue-bleak light of dusk. After a moment she turned toward Wesley, looking at him as if he’d just sat down. “No, I can’t.” Silence. “Because I’m babysitting.”
Babysitting. Wesley started to scrawl answers on his homework.
“No way. Mom’d kill me if she showed up and we were gone.”
This went on for a few minutes before Holly said something else. “His name’s Wesley. His parents go to our church.” She was back to work now, scrubbing grease from the skillet and recapping condiments. Wesley was back to work too, gazing at the worksheets but ignoring the words. “Yeah, sort of,” she said—another long pause, more buzzing. Holly made an exasperated noise. “Jesus, Sheila, no.”
She glanced over at the clock on the microwave. Holly now sounded more irritated than carefree.
“Me?” Holly, for the first time, said something muffled with her hand over the phone’s mouthpiece. She snickered. “Okay, I will. I’ll call you later.”
Holly hung up and exhaled dramatically. “God, that was my friend Sheila. She’s okay, but she can be such a pain in the ass.” She turned the radio back up and started wiping the counter. “Do you have friends like that?”
Wesley laughed. “Yeah,” he lied. “A few.”
Neither spoke for a long time. Wesley listened to Holly hum along with the radio as he tried to concentrate on his homework. Eventually she shut off the radio and bounced back into the living room, flipping on the TV and collapsing into the couch cushions.
It was almost dark outside, and Wesley, with increasing frequency, glanced at the clock on the microwave.
Once, between clicking through channels, Holly again asked Wesley if he needed help with his homework. The boy considered this offer. But before he could answer, his attention was seized by the slow grumble of popping gravel. A car was pulling up the driveway.
Twisting her upper body over the back of the couch, Holly parted the drapes and peeked out the window. “Mom’s home,” Holly said; but because of her tone, Wesley heard: hey, kid, I’ve got some bad news.
After some fidgeting with the lock and the deadbolt, Holly’s mom opened the front the door and stepped into the living room, letting some cold air in with her. Wesley had seen Mrs. Vaughn at church before, but the woman who walked in the front door momentarily looked like a man, before turning into a stranger, before finally turning back into Mrs. Vaughn. “Good God, Holly—turn on some lights in here.” Mrs. Vaughn proceeded to click on several lamps. Holly turned down the TV a little bit.
Holly’s mom had big, pale-blonde hair—an anemic lion’s mane with threads of gray near the scald. She was dressed in a black woman’s business suit, and beneath the jacket she wore a white ruffled blouse. Wesley was struck with the chilly notion that she resembled a severe-looking pilgrim or a witch-trial judge. The supreme court lady, he thought at last.
“Well hello, Wesley,” she said, her heels clicking over the linoleum as she entered the kitchen. “How are your studies coming?”
She laid her purse on the table and gripped the back of one of the wooden chairs with her red-lacquered fingernails. She smelled like Halloween make up, musky perfume, and something sour—the same smells in the bedroom, he realized. “Going good, Mrs. Vaughn.”
Her pink-tinted eyes were watery, and made furtive movements, as if to visually clutch hold of something out of place. She teetered slightly as she moved around the kitchen. Now, up close and without the Sunday morning politeness, the boy saw her as ominously bird-like.
“Has Holly been a good sitter?”
Wesley glanced over at Holly, who kept her face toward the television. “Yes,” Wesley said, and hated the silence that followed—hated it like it was something solid. “She helped me with my homework.”
Holly’s face was still angled at the TV, her expression hadn’t changed. But her eyes were fixed on Wesley.
“Is that so? Good, good,” Holly’s mom cooed. The heel-clicking started back up as she walked across the kitchen. She scowled, sniffing the air. More bird-jerky movements. “What was for dinner?” she asked.
“Hamburgers,” Holly called in from the living room.
Wesley smiled, tilted his head down and continued to write. He nearly said something about how good of a cook Holly was, and how much fun they had together.
The metallic thunderclap caused Wesley to make a jagged scratch across his homework as the boy, wide-eyed, jerked his head up and drew his shoulders up close to his neck. His heart began to beat a frantic tattoo under his sternum.
Mrs. Vaughn was standing over the kitchen sink, gripping the skillet she’d slammed down on the counter. “HOL-LY,” she screamed.
Her daughter, frowning, was already rounding the corner, and froze when she saw her mother.
“Goddamn it, Holly,” she said, flinging the pan back into the sink with another violent clatter that caused Wesley to flinch again. Mrs. Vaughn put one hand on her hip, one hand on the counter, and began tapping it with her lacquered nails.
She’s going to humiliate her in front of me, Wesley realized. His midsection began to wring itself like a small towel.
Mrs. Vaughn gestured toward the sink. “Now it’s going to clog the goddamn drain, Holly.”
Wesley swallowed hard and looked at Holly. She was blinking fast and breathing through her nose. The small curves under her sweatshirt rose and fell. She resembled someone prepared to break out into a sprint.
“I don’t have the time or the money to worry about this right now. And it’s always something isn’t it, young lady? It’s always something with school, it’s always something with Sheila, it’s always something with your father, it’s always something with these boys that come around here.” A music video was playing in the living room. “Well?” Mrs. Vaughn seemed to teeter a bit. “What the hell were you thinking, Holly? I thought you were old enough to be a babysitter.”
Wesley watched Holly inhale deeply. She began blinking quickly. “Mom, I...”
Wesley’s mouth moved faster than his mind. An army of words. “I accidentally poured the grease down the sink,” he said. And by the time he replayed what he’d said, he was already speaking again. “I was helping to clean—Holly tried to stop me but it was too late.”
Mrs. Vaughn didn’t bother looking over at her daughter. “No, no, no…” She was already shaking her head, her palm slapping the counter with each no. Her loose-fleshy cheeks quaked a bit as she turned her attention back to the sink. “Now I don’t believe that for one second, young man, not for one second,” she said all of it one breath.
“Holly,” Mrs. Vaughn said. “I’d like to speak with you in private. In your room, please.” The last word was a mock-kindly please.
Holly crossed her arms, shot Wesley a quick look, turned and strode out of sight. A door slammed a few seconds later.
“Wesley,” Mrs. Vaughn was using her nice voice and nice face again—the Sunday school face. “Why don’t you go watch some TV on the couch while I have a little chat with Holly.”
Without another word, Wesley slid from his chair at the kitchen table and walked into the brightly-lit living room. Without another word, Mrs. Vaughn disappeared down the hallway, her black business suit blending in with the darkness there. Wesley heard another door slam, and turned up the TV when the muffled shouting started.
When Wesley saw the swipe of headlights cut through the thin curtains, and heard the low-boil of crunching gravel, he quickly went back into the kitchen and began arranging his textbooks and folders next to his backpack. A few seconds later a door creaked open down the hallway. He was disappointed but unsurprised to see only Mrs. Vaughn emerge.
“That sounds like your mother,” she said. “Do you have all your things?”
Wesley nodded that he did.
Mrs. Vaughn clicked off the television. “I think I’ll go out and say hello to her—tell her about Holly’s little accident with the grease.”
Hearing that, Wesley paused for several seconds, chewing on something, before moving some of his books, haphazardly shoving a stack of things in his backpack and tugging on his coat.
Wesley slung the backpack over his shoulder, shoved open the front door and stepped onto the porch. Mrs. Vaughn followed. Wesley’s mom rolled down her window and the two women began greeting each other, their breath visible in vapory puffs.
As he rounded the front of the car, Wesley stopped suddenly, wincing against the brilliant headlights. “I forgot my book,” he shouted
Both women frowned, clearly straining to hear over the car’s engine. Mrs. Vaughn cupped her hand to her ear. “What?”
Wesley jabbed a thumb at his backpack as he leapt up onto the porch. “My book, I forgot my book,” Wesley said, reentered the house and closing the front door behind him.
Wesley wasted no time. He was moving quick, through the living room—he strode into the kitchen, over to the table and scooped up the textbook he’d deliberately left on the chair just moments before. He jammed the book in his backpack and was moving again, now toward the dining room, his eyes trained on the dusty bulb of mistletoe. With a small jump Wesley swiped at the tiny decoration, yanking it down from the doorframe, shoving in his coat pocket and swiftly weaving through the darkness. And then he was in the hallway, steering toward the end of the corridor, to her room. He could hear music now, playing softly inside. Wesley knocked on her door, which swung open almost straightaway. Holly’s eyes were puffy and her cheeks were flushed. Her vicious expression froze, flickered, and faded.
Holly exhaled, “Wha—” but stopped when Wesley strained upward and kissed her. It lasted as long as their previous kiss—less than a second in real time, and about an hour in Wesley’s mind.
Holly, unmoving, was still clutching the doorknob as Wesley grinned, turned, and dashed down the hallway.
Mrs. Vaughn, arms still crossed, was walking back toward the house when Wesley burst through the front door and sprang off the porch, nearly colliding with the woman as he ran past her.
“Did you find your book?”
“Yep,” Wesley said without turning.
“See you at church.”
Wesley ignored that as he opened the car door, flung his backpack on the floorboard and sank into the passenger seat.
The car rocked down the gravel driveway.
Intentionally neglecting to buckle himself in, Wesley waited until his mom noticed before strapping the seatbelt across his chest. Wesley smiled, slipped his hand into his coat pocket, and clutched the plastic bulb of mistletoe.
This story originally appeared in Paper Nautlilus.