We’re sitting on the rusty garden swing in the backyard. Cigarette smoke comes from the kitchen window. Uncle Harry is a chain-smoker. I hear him laughing. He laughs quite often.
Melissa’s hair is touching my knee. She’s got her arms wrapped around her legs. We haven’t talked much. She says she’s tired from the trip and has to rest. Three hours in the car. And the heat. She hasn’t grown since last year. Still a head shorter than me.
She opens only one eye. „What’s going on with the fields?“
A fly lands on her thigh. On her pale skin, it looks like a mole.
„We don’t have a river at home“, she says.
„You got the woods.“
„Are those boys still here?“ Now she opens both eyes.
„You know exactly who.“
„I guess they’ve got nothing else to do.“
„One of them was cute.“
„The one with the blonde hair.“
„Moved into town.“
„Well, he’s not the only boy out there.“
Melissa looks at her chipped red fingernails. „But this one was really cute.“
Cows are standing on a field across the road. They look at us with dark eyes. My mother opens the back door. She holds on to the banister with both hands. „Everything all right?“
Melissa turns her head away.
„Yeah“, I say.
Cottonwood seeds fly by and vanish behind the hedges. She smiles and says: „Dinner will be ready in five.“
She goes inside but leaves the door open.
„Wasn’t she in a clinic last year?“, Melissa asks and puts her feet up on the plastic table.
I look at her toenails. They’re also painted red, but it’s a different shade, brighter. She shakes her head and wants to go on, but I stare at her until she pretends to be blinded by the sun.
„I’m not hungry“, I say after a while.
„We always eat the same thing every time we’re here.“ Melissa keeps her eyes shut while she speaks.
„I like chicken“, I say. „First thing I chew is the gristle.“
„Disgusting.“ She sticks her index finger in her mouth and makes a gagging sound. Then she opens her eyes and looks at me. „Well, you also swallowed.“
„No, I didn’t.“
„Yes, you did.“ She leans back.
„How would you know, anyway?“
„Because I saw you“, she says and clicks her tongue. „You two were lying down by the dock.“
Melissa. A head shorter than me. My mother calls: „Are you coming?“
I get up from the swing. When I reach the stairs, I turn around. Melissa’s still sitting there. One foot on the table, her hands on her thighs.
Inside, it’s warm and muggy. I go through the narrow hallway into the living room. The smell of roasted meat. My father’s leaning against the window frame. The curtains are slid open, the pale green hedge in the background. He takes a wine bottle off the sill and turns to my mother. „Do you need a hand?“
„Maybe with the crockpot?“ She stops in midstep and wipes her hands on a dishcloth. My father places the wine on the table. Her hand slides down his shoulder. She follows him into the kitchen.
Uncle Harry sits on the low leather armchair in front of the window. The glass pane reflects his face. A full ashtray is sitting on the armrest. I can smell stale smoke.
„She likes being out there.“
I nod. He grins and lights a cigarette.
„‚You going to the river?“
„We don’t have a river.“
„I’ve been to your place before.“
He takes a drag from his cigarette. „It’s your turn again next time.“
I say nothing.
„You’ve probably heard about Marion…but she’s okay now.“
We’re all sitting at the kitchen table. Melissa looks past me. There’s an untouched chicken wing on her plate. My mother’s drinking her second or third glass of wine. Uncle Harry points at the crockpot and says: „Industrial meat is abscess-ridden. You can’t see that in the usual inspection. They sit real deep in the bones, but the puss oozes out all the time.“
My father stops chewing. „You also worked for the big slaughterhouses.“
My mother looks at her last sip of wine. „Just like dad.“
„Dad was working a different job, though.“ Uncle Harry slides his index finger across his neck. „Had to wash the blood off his plastic apron with a hose.“
I peel the meat off the bone and slip it into my mouth. Melissa looks at me. She puts her fork down and says: „I’m not hungry anymore.“
Uncle Harry and my father are sitting in the living room. They`re drinking canned beer and listening to old records. My mother is lying on the couch. A pillow on her chest, her left arm across her eyes. Melissa and I go into my room and lock the door. I open the curtains. The sky is turning orange.
„Would you like me to paint your fingernails?“
„What colors do you have?“
„Red of course“,
„I’m not sure…“
„I’m so bored.“
„Start with the pinkie, okay?“
„I want to see if it suits me at all.“
She pushes some papers aside. „The light’s better over here.“
I sit down at the edge of my bed and she grabs my hand.
„Your hands are pretty“, she says. „Did you like the blonde guy?“
„Which blonde guy?“
She drops my hand. „Oh, come on!“
„I don’t know.“
Melissa places the little bottles of nail polish in a neat row. There’s that smile of hers again.
„Of course I remember.“ I lean forward and point at one of the bottles.
„This one?“, she asks.
I nod. It’s a dark shade of red. „What do you think of me?“
„Just give me your hand.“
My hand looks dirty on her thigh.
„Red is my favorite, too.“ Melissa opens the bottle. The polish becomes a glossy surface. „Are we gonna do all of them?“
„No, the pinkie will do for now.“
„You’re strange“, she says and leans her head against my shoulder.
„What’s going on with your mom?“ I can feel her breath on my arm.
„She’s living downtown now.“
„A few months.“
I run my fingers through her hair. „It’s all gonna be all right again.“
„She’s not coming back.“
„How do you know?“
The muffled sound of music and Uncle Harry’s laughter cut through the silence.
„Let’s go down to the river.“ I grab her wrists. She’s so skinny.
„But it’s late.“
„They won’t notice“.
Outside, a musty smell comes from the river. We continue along the gravel road that leads to the street. Shadows move across bare walls. I take Melissa’s hand and place it on my hip, then pull her towards me. Her chest is still flat.
„That blonde guy“, she says. Her voice is shaking. „What did he do to you?“
I let my hand slide down between her legs. She trembles but I can see her smiling. This time it’s a different smile. I’m about to withdraw my hand.
„Wait“, she says. I can feel her moist heat on my fingers. „Let’s go“, I say eventually.
Our footsteps in the gravel, the scent of her hair lingering in my nose.
The stairs are narrow. Down at the bottom, the sound of flowing water and the voices of old men, going for a walk along the river. Melissa stands behind me. I follow the voices. She follows me. The river reeks of oil and fuel. A trawler passes underneath the bridge, and the voices die away. The grass is yellow. I stop in the middle of the bridge and lean over the railing. The cold from below reaches my face. I open my eyes. Melissa is standing next to me. I start walking.
The boys are leaning against concrete poles. Their scooters are parked behind a row of white poplars. A girl is sitting on a dented helmet. Her hair covers her naked shoulders. It’s long, like Melissa’s. One of the boys hands her a beer. She takes a swig. The boys are laughing. Melissa touches my arm. „The blonde one’s here, too.“
„Yeah“, I say. The girl strokes his hair. I think she has dark eyes. Back on the bridge, I hear the impact.
„What was that?“, Melissa asks.
The rock is the size of my fist. „Nothing“, I say. „Keep walking.“ I pick up the rock and run my fingers over its sharp edges, then toss it in the water.
The room is dark and quiet. I sit at the desk and scratch off the rest of the nail polish. Melissa has been asleep for almost an hour. There’s still a light on outside. I leave the door ajar. The sky is starless. I see the glow of his cigarette. He’s sitting on the garden swing. I can feel the short grass underneath my bare feet. I sit down next to him. The plastic covers feel cold against my back.
„Still awake?“ He spits into the bush. I breathe in the smoke of his cigarette. My heart starts beating faster.