Short Story Contest Top Finalist: Swamp Girl

by ScreenCraft on April 24, 2019


by Ruth Knafo Setton

When a cynical half-Mexican teen girl with a closely guarded secret meets Rubberman, the bitter headliner of a county fair freak show, sparks and... yes, secrets explode.

Top Finalist of the 2018 ScreenCraft Cinematic Short Story Contest


Some old guy paid me twenty bucks for a kiss. Amazing, right? Just one kiss, no tongue, nothing. At the entrance to the fair, where the red and gold sign is so faded you can hardly see the name: GREAT ROSARIO FAIR. Someone scratched off letters so now it reads: EAT ROSA FAR. This is something the stupid farm kids here find funny. They are so immature. I’m still a virgin at fourteen but it’s not because I want to stay pure. That’s Mom-language. It’s because of my birthmark. I have a huge purple-red stain shaped like Italy drooping between my breasts. Last year when Mom caught sight of me without a bra and realized it hadn’t gone away, she freaked and phoned her sister, my Tia Clara. We were still in Houston at the time, and I could tell Tia was giving Mom ingredients for a spell, or whatever, cause she was sitting on the floor, phone pressed between ear and shoulder, and writing like crazy. Mom started feeding me weird green milkshakes—puke shakes, I call them. And all kinds of pills in the morning. And juices with extracts poured in that she thought I wouldn’t notice. And grainy brown vitamins, bigger than the ones we give Wolf, and he’s a German Shepherd, weighs over seventy pounds. I weigh about one hundred myself. I hope I’ll grow this year. In height I mean. I’m about 5’3”, too short.

As soon as we arrived in Rosario last month, Tia took me aside and insisted on seeing the birthmark with her own eyes. She looked at it for a long time, and I wished I could cover myself. I felt it vibrate and get hot. Then she smiled—not like Mom, whose smile didn’t reach her eyes. A big beaming smile, as if seeing goddamn Italy on her niece’s chest was the greatest thing she’d ever seen. You’ve been touched by the hand of God, she told me in her high, clear voice. She touched the gold chain she always wears, a small gold star with turquoise points dangling between her breasts. She said, because you’re so special, it means you need a spell to protect you. She unfastened the chain and clasped it around my throat. Now you are safe, she said.

I love Tia Clara, more than anyone in the world. Her wild garden of herbs where her two parrots chatter and sing to her and she chatters and sings back. I love her strong freckled hands and sweaty face under a large straw hat and the way she smells of cinnamon. Mom comes a far second, and Dad an even farther third. But I still want to get rid of this ugly thing. Mom is sure it will fade by the time I’m twenty or so. She took me to a doctor who said it would be dangerous to try to remove it, and since it’s not affecting my health, I should just live with it. Well, screw that. I want a normal body.

Mom told Dad about Italy, and now he does this thing with his eyes, looks at me without seeing me. Or sees me without looking at me. Hard to explain, but he does it. Mom says he’s the kind of man who’s always peering into a mirror, whether or not there’s one in front of him. I bet if he ran into me now, walking past the hot dog and French fries stand, he’d pass right by and not recognize me. I hate him. He’s trying to be young, the stupid diamond stud in his ear, tight jeans. He’s going bald and pulling what he’s got left in this tiny ball of frizz. He went off to a rock concert with his favorite graduate student, Tiffany. Big boobs and hips. Big blonde hair and big pink lips. Big blue eyes. A Barbie doll. They’re supposed to be doing research on today’s teenagers. Yeah, right. I hate Mom even more for letting him go without putting up a fight. For being so tired-ass. At least now we’re staying at Tia’s. There’s food in the house, not like with Mom. Dad gets lost in his work and Mom gets lost in the darkroom, and they both forget people need to eat. Mom lost her job, didn’t get tenure this year at the University of Houston, where Dad teaches too.

This fair sucks. The Great Rosario Fair. Rinky-dink and hokey. Country women selling rounds of pale farm cheese and twisted pretzels, and guys scratching their bellies and drinking foaming beer. Strutting bikers in sleeveless black leather. Farmers with Swiss-cheese mottled skin and large yellow teeth. There are some people from a local sect. Tia says they moved in last year and are copying the Amish and Mennonites. They don’t believe in cars or TV or sex. The woman are tight-lipped, hair, eyes, mouths pulled back. The men wear black coats and hats, and grow long beards without mustaches.

The only good thing here is the food. I love the smells of the fair: burnt sugar, funnel cakes dipped in powdered sugar, dark molasses bread, fried sugared pecans, large peach and apple pies bursting with fruit, hot corn tamales, fried beans and tomatoes. Even the thick pork sausage. Mom says we shouldn’t eat meat cause it’s unhealthy. According to Mom, there’s a lot of shit you can’t do, and look where it got her. I got me twenty bucks: I’m going to have fun. I eat French fries from a paper cone, drink Coke, and walk around. The field to my right is lit up with spotlights. Through the crowd, I see an enormous green chair rising at least ten feet in the air, held up on long stilt legs. A guy and girl mount the stepladder to the chair. They turn and smile down at the crowd. That’s Cody Griffith up there, with his red blazing ear. He’s saying something, but the wind carries his words away. I stare from his scuffed work boots to the round black hat tilted back on his head. The girl with him is tall, blonde Mandy, one of the most popular girls around here. She’s wearing a bonnet and white apron over an ankle-length gingham dress, dirty sneakers peeking out from under the hem. They’re both dressed like the people in the religious sect. She yells: I, Rebecca, promise to honor and obey you, Reuben! I promise to work for you! To keep your house clean, to cook for you and raise your children! To mend your clothes when they’re torn! To be true to you and to God! Not to think wicked thoughts about other men and to be satisfied with my life with you! For as long as I shall live!

People clap, and Cody grins and pushes the hat back on his head, revealing strands of sun-bleached hair. He sees me and stops smiling, just stares the way he does whenever he sees me. He’s only thirteen. That means if Mom and I end up staying here past the summer, without Dad, he’ll be a year younger than me in school. Like I’m going to hang out with a younger guy. Even if he’s hot, really hot. I don’t like how his eyes see through me. Yesterday I got bored and hitched a ride to the highway and got caught lifting a bottle of blue nail polish from K-mart’s. That jerk, Matt Oxley, was there, watching, and he must of come back and told everybody because when I went down to the hangout by the old drive-in movie, Cody was there, with his older brother Mike who I hate, and Dave and a couple other guys, and Jenny and Jodie, the Johnson twins. Cody came up to me the way he always does, and he said, I heard what happened, and I said, yeah what? And he said, you were caught shoplifting. No I wasn’t, I said, thinking it’s Matt’s word against mine.

The cop didn’t even call home after I cried in his office and told him it was my first time and swore I’d never do it again. He didn’t know I’d been caught in Houston the week before we came out here. The cop in Houston called Mom, and she had to pick me up from the Palais Royal, and drive me home. That’s when she cracked, right in front of me, yelling, that’s it, I can’t anymore, I just can’t! So we came to Tia’s, and Dad took off with Tiffany, and now here we are in limbo, and school starts in like two weeks and I don’t know if we’re going to be here, or there. I don’t mind being here, even though Rosario is so straight-edge and farmer-heaven it sucks. But Houston sucks in different ways. I don’t have any more friends there, no one I trust, and I hate my school, everyone knows me there, and I feel trapped like I can’t breathe.

Cody just looked at me, real hard, the way nobody else does. His eyes are green and brown, like a tree. He’s only a kid but he’s solid. Dad’s old but he’s flimsy. Mom said it once: he’s not here, he’s not present. Cody is present, too present, too much here. I stepped back and said, what’s the matter, don’t you believe me? He moved closer again until he was in my face, he’s got guts for a kid, and he said, I wish it was true. I was sputtering. You wish I was caught? Why?

Not that you were caught, but that you did something like stealing. It would make you more real. Like someone I could …

He stopped, and that red ear of his was blazing, and he blinked, and I said, could what? He didn’t answer, just reached towards me and put his hand on my shoulder, a light touch, that’s all, but the craziest thing happened: I started shivering like a leaf in the wind.

I don’t want to think about it now, watching him marry Mandy in some weird cult wedding. This sucks. The whole fair, this town, my life. I leave the fake wedding couple behind, as they climb down the ladder to ride away in a black horse and buggy, and cop a smoke from a kid I know, Derek Wheeler. He asks if I want to hang around with his friends, but I say no. It’s weird, but I just feel like being alone tonight, pretending I’m in a strange city or an airport all by myself and no one knows me and I can be whoever I want to be.

I walk past a row of games that are impossible to beat: a basketball you have to squeeze into a tiny hoop, pennies to drop into Coke bottles, darts to puncture the exact center of a painted balloon. I like the betting games more. Last year I put a quarter on my favorite number: 7, and won three large Nestle’s Crunch bars. And the year before, at the birthday wheel game, I put two quarters on my birthday: November 18th, and I won a stuffed raccoon.

I’m way over on the uncool end of the fair, where the craftsmen show their work. No kids here, only old geezers and fat women with hair cut so short it shows the backs of their flabby red necks. I’ve been thinking lately about becoming a beautician. Maybe dropping out of school and going to Beauty School. I suck at school anyway. Mom is such a snob. Just because she’s got a Ph.D. She says because I’m half-Mexican I’m going to have to work harder and study more than everyone else if I want to make it. What for? I bet if I become a good beautician I can make more money than she does. I’m good with my hands. She’s not. I wish she’d let me dye her hair. Gray tufts are popping out from the black, and she’s stopped wearing mascara and lipstick. She needs a complete makeover. I could see doing that as a job. Giving people makeovers. Turning them new, into someone else. Giving them a new start.

I glance in the tent and see a long table filled with old glassware, painted signs and faded postcards, like a garage sale. A tall skinny man wearing a netted helmet, goggles and a Safari suit shows off his swarm of bees and offers spoonfuls of honey. A blonde woman, braids wound around her head, weaves a basket. A couple of kerchiefed women give free samples of jams and jellies and relishes, even pig intestines. I walk over to the attractions and shows. It’s dark now, stars dancing above.

When I was a kid, I believed Mom when she told me that one star was mine and that it hovered over my head every night (invisible by day), watching over me and making sure I was okay. I don’t believe in any of that crap anymore. I’m a Scorpio, and the day Sydney Omarr told me I’d be in the right place at the right time is the day I got caught stealing in Houston.

I pass Sister Nina, a black woman in a toppling turban and torn gauze, who looks like she was born under a bad sign. If she read my palm, would she see Italy stubbing its toe against the mound of crisscrossing roads and dead-ends? Pass the Haunted House and the Hall of Mirrors. The Strip Show: Busty-Ann and Sugar Cane in shiny gold satin, shaking their boobs in front of a crowd of gaping men. Bobo, the sadistic clown who makes fun of everyone, infuriating them enough to pay for the chance to knock him into a vat of water. “I’m gonna kill that somonabitch!” one man shouts while his friends hold him back. The Farm Show with its manure smell and mooing, braying, shouts, the shimmering Ferris Wheel and the Kiddie Cars. A small trailer with a poster advertising The Insane Drug Addict. Don’t worry! cries the guy who takes tickets. We’ve got him in a straitjacket, behind bars.

I stop in front of the Freak Show. A large tent with a painted mural of the attractions inside. Half-Rabbit Half-Armadillo … Mummified Boy with Shrunken Head … Pig with Elephant Trunk … Snake-Tongue Man … Alligator Boy … Long-Necked Lady (a dozen gold rings around her throat) ... Siamese Twins (“Never Separated,” it says under their picture)….

A man points to a real-life dwarf with a rough, stubbled face and barks through a megaphone: Look at Tiny Joe! He’s one of the original Munchkins in the movie, The Wizard of Oz. Show the people what you like to eat, Joe.

Joe strikes a match and sets the long stick he’s holding on fire. He pokes the stick into his mouth and swallows the flame.

The barker gasps loudly into the mike and says, Oh my Lord above, can we believe our eyes? Yes, it’s Jack Frost’s Show of Freaks back in town, fresh from its Triumphant Tour of America and the World. Come and see the wonders of the known and the unknown universe! Marvels you’ve never dared dream of! Are you ready to be amazed? Stupefied?

Come closer, my curious friends. See the two-headed Egyptian princess. And each head, a beauty. Would Jack Frost lie? And the Fattest Man in the World. Seven hundred twenty-nine pounds of pulsating pulchritude. You’ve never seen a jollier, happier man than our Henry. When he shakes his rump, the earth trembles. He’s all meat, no potatoes. If his dancing doesn’t make you laugh, then you need a doctor. And the star of our show, the Amazing, the One and Only Rubberman. I guarantee you’ve never seen anything like him.

He lowers his voice: Yes, my friends, other shows promise wonders but offer only pictures and photos. Not us. That’s why we have the largest tent in the fair. You go in, and you’ll see people, living people, and genuine oddities. Now who’s ready to pay two dollars to see the wonders of God’s creation on earth? Two measly dollars! I follow the crowd, pay my two bucks, and enter the tent. Two long tables are spread with exhibits like the Science Fair projects at school. Blue babies in jars. The Siamese twins are floating in a jar: tiny, curved bodies attached by flowing black hair. Next to the twins is a grinning skeleton about a foot long, with a man’s chest and arms, but instead of legs, a fin that curves beneath him. A sign at his side reads: MERMAN found by Ray Otto, Fisherman, off the Gulf Coast of Galveston, Texas, August 12, 1999. On another table are cat intestines, a pygmy skull, a bleached brain. The Egyptian princess turns out to be the skeleton of a unicorn. The horn tilts at a jaunty angle, as if the glue is wearing off.

We pay another fifty cents and are herded into a back section of the tent where a circle, like a boxing ring, is marked by a fraying green velvet rope. The tinny music starts, and the World’s Fattest Man twists his way through a blue curtain, gulping down a sandwich while dancing. Everyone laughs, but he gives me the creeps.

Next is Leopard Lady. Her spots look like they were made with Maybelline eyeliner.

Alligator Boy marches out, looking pissed. His skin bubbles and crusts, like a bad case of sunburn.

Giraffe Woman and Bear Boy do a weird dance, clapping their hands over their heads and circling each other.

Bearded Lady appears in a white nurse’s uniform. A coarse brown beard sprouts from the center of her throat, like the one growing from the religious sect farmers’ chins. Her face is pockmarked, her eyes seamed like a ragdoll’s. She jerks like a robot to the same music. I’m ready to blow this joint when she holds out both arms and shouts: And now, the star of the show! Rubberman!

Rubberman leaps into the center of the ring, somersaults a few times, and lands almost on top of the bearded blonde, who scurries away like a mouse. The tinny music moves faster, as if someone’s turning an old-fashioned gramophone, the kind Tia has in her living room. Rubberman has long, wavy red-gold hair, and he’s slim and not much taller than I am. Still, he’s hot in a short, older guy way. He’s wearing only black tights. He looks like an alien. And it’s not just the way he moves, double-jointed and twisting and leaping in every direction at once. It’s his eyes: white-blue ice. Like Dad, they look through us and don’t see us.

He pulls out his chest, and it stays out like silly putty. Bends over backwards and touches his feet from behind. He does a split, lifts his legs around his neck. The freckles on his shoulders, chest and back stand out as he ties himself into a knot. He rolls into a ball, a goddamn rubber ball, before our eyes. He pulls himself to his feet like a rubber band, snaps and stretches, closes himself and opens again. His nipples are the color of chocolate milk, pale brown, they point like little guns aiming at us. Shoot, shoot, kill, kill. Kill us all, Rubberman. I won’t mind. Go ahead and kill us off!

His eyes lock on mine. He nods, then flips over backwards and writhes like a snake on the ground, twisting and teasing his body as if he has no muscles, joints, bones, nothing to define him as human. A reptile. Mom told me about a tribe she studied who worshipped a reptile god, and all the women of that tribe dreamed of a snake lover who entered them at night in their dreams. Is that what doing it with you would be like, Rubberman? Not like a human guy with a red ear and sad hazel eyes, but like a lizard, a snake winding around you, fastening onto you, cutting off all means of escape, and then plunging inside you.

Glittering eyes sweep the crowd. The tinny music stops. The clapping is loud, but it doesn’t fool me. Everyone here is scared to death. He’s too far over the edge. Too different. He’s turning himself inside out for us while we’re burping up funnel cake and sausage, and the two girls next to me are talking about going on the roller coaster when the show is over, and the bikers on my other side want to see female mud wrestling in the next stand. I feel sick. Is there a way to get out of this circus? To go to sleep and wake up and find yourself in a different skin, with a new fresh body—no careless artist who got lazy and slapped red paint over a pair of boobs.

The announcer informs us that for one buck, a single Father of Our Country, we get to see the ultimate wonder: Rubberman squeezed into a shoebox. While he speaks, Rubberman disappears behind the curtain. No bow, nothing. He hates us. At this very moment, says the announcer, Rubberman is entering a box so small no human being can even contemplate...

Don’t do it, Rubberman. Don’t let them lock you in a box. I don’t want to see this. More than half the crowd moves out of the tent as fast they can. Back to wonders we can control: roller coasters and women wrestling in mud and 4-H pig shows and sweet funnel cake sprinkled with sugar. I let the crowd sweep me to the entrance of the tent. Purple-blue sky, full blood moon, the smells and sounds of the fair leaning me outside. I hear the sick-sweet song of the merry-go-round, voices shivering past me. There’s this deal I make with myself. The kind everyone does I guess. If I don’t get caught this time, I swear I’ll never steal again. If I stay and see Rubberman squashed into a box, do you promise it won’t change me? That I’ll come out okay, and the fair will still be here as I left it, and when I get home, Mom and Tia will be sitting in their rockers on the porch, smoking and talking?

The red moon is silent.

No answer, no promises. You will be in the right place at the right time. Yeah.

I’m the last one in line. I watch people disappear behind the curtain, one by one. No one comes back out. Maybe this is a trap. Aliens sucking us into a UFO, and we’ll never be seen again. Or we’ll all turn into Rubbermen and women. Come out of the tent doing somersaults and back flips, turning ourselves into human pretzels, mounds of bread dough, to pound and knead like Tia does, with knuckles and fingers, into whatever shape you dream of.

The line moves too fast for me. I guess people don’t want to linger over a dude in a box. Not that I blame them.

My turn. I give a freckled, pimply kid my dollar bill and enter the dark space. For a second my heart pounds the way it did yesterday when the security guard came up to me and I knew it was too late, I was caught. I take a deep breath. It stinks. Sour, rotting eggs. Old and tired smell. A wood box about as large as a boot box sits on a low stand. I come closer, heart so loud it’s crashing in my ears.

A nasty voice rises like smoke from the box: Anyone there?

Yeah. I sound like a thread about to snap.

Then show your face, damn it. Get over here.

I bend over the box. Wood slats cover it. Between the slats, I glimpse ice-blue eyes, dark gold curls, a red face. A man squashed like an egg. Flattened with a spatula. I forget to breathe. He’s sweating like crazy. Drops glittering on his lashes, cheeks, in the curled space between nose and mouth. His eyes fascinate me. Pale blue splinters set in the red sweating face.

You, he says in the same nasty voice. I knew you’d come.

I almost didn’t, I tell him. I like his nastiness. A cold shower.

What a cute little hiphop girl, he says. I like your nose ring. How many holes do you have pierced in your ears?

Fifteen. Or so.

Well. Is that it? Are we done? Can I go have my dinner now?

I grin. I like this guy. He grins back and says: What a way to make a living, huh?

Why do you do it?

Why not?

You could be a dancer or …

Or what?

I don’t know what to say. Something better than this.

His face changes again. The curled upper lip sneers. What could be better than the freak show of a second-rate traveling fair? And what’s your goal in life, Hiphop? My goal? My voice is mocking, the way it is when Mom and Dad tell me I can’t live without goals. I tell them: I’m going to marry a rich man and do nothing the rest of my life. I tell him: maybe a beautician.

He reminds me of Elvis, the pictures I see of him, upper lip curled almost up to his nose. I didn’t know girls dreamed of that, he says.

This one does.

Spend your life with your hands in people’s filthy hair. Sounds like heaven. The lip curls again.

Better than being squashed like a bug in a box.

Sweat is gushing out of him. Don’t you have a towel or something? I ask him. I can wipe your face.

Shut up. As soon as you leave, I can get out of here. Dig? So leave.

I don’t move. My “perverse spirit” as Dad calls it. I tell him: I could be in this show too. He rolls his eyes. I lean closer: I’m a freak too. It’s just that no one knows it.

You can’t see it just by looking at me. At least not with my clothes on.

I take a step back. What the hell am I saying? My dead-dark secret, and I’m here blabbing it to a guy in a box.

What’s wrong with you? he asks.

I can’t tell you.

Who am I going to tell? The Fat Man? Pygmy Boy? Our worlds don’t touch,


They’re touching now.

We collided. By accident. Tomorrow we’re off again. On the road. To the next town. The next …

Girl like me? I hold my breath, praying he’ll say the right thing.

The ice in his eyes warms and he plays to my cue: There’s no one else like you.

No one else like me. So what makes you a freak? You can trust Uncle Rubberman.

I’m hot and cold, dying for a cigarette. I can’t tell him. How can I trust this guy?

He won’t always be in a box. He’ll look at me differently when he knows. The way everyone else looks at him.

Forget it, he says. It doesn’t matter.

I want to tell you. I just can’t. I never told anyone. Only my mom and my aunt. And they already knew.

Then how bad can it be?

Pretty bad. I picture Cody’s warm hand on my shoulder. Imagine it dipping to my breasts. He looks down at the throbbing red-purple stain and jumps as if a snake bit him. Screaming oh my God, he runs to the river to wash himself clean.

I look down at the pale, blinking eyes, the man impossibly locked into this container. I guess it’s not that bad, I say quickly, because it doesn’t really show.

The worst way to be a freak, he says, is when it doesn’t show. No, the worst is to be like me: a freak on the outside and the inside.

How are you a freak inside?

I get a feeling about you, he says. Do you have some kind of psychic powers? I shake my head. My neck is starting to hurt, peering down at him. He must be dying in there. I clear my throat and tell him about my grandma who called herself a healer, and how when she died, her daughter, my Tia Clara, took over with her herbs and spells. The so-called gift is supposed to pass down through the women in my family. But my mom can’t do a damn thing, and neither can I. As far as I’m concerned, it’s all crap. A healer, he says in a dreamy voice. A little healer with a nose ring.

I told you. I’m not a healer.

Touch me.

I’m already leaning so far into the box my nose almost touches the slats. I breathe in his sweat, the raw smell of him. Man, sex, something else. I think of his chocolate nipples shooting at me. I mumble that I better go so he can get out of the box and stretch. Inside, I feel every part of me arch like the striped cat that haunts Tia’s garden. Heal me, he whispers, ice eyes melting blue, so hot suddenly they’re burning through the slats, burning through me. Now, baby. Touch me.

I shoot a guilty glance behind me. We are alone in the tent—with the fetuses, brains, and skulls. I stick my index finger through the slats and touch his mouth. His lips are thin, dark. I don’t want to touch his face. It’s too wet and flushed. He opens his mouth and sucks my finger. Sucks and sucks it deeper and deeper. I’m stopping up a hole, the hole in the dam that Hans Brinker stopped with his finger. If I pull out my finger, water will burst from the box, his sweat explode like an oil gusher. Rich, thick, powerful enough to blast like a rocket to the sky. His mouth closes around my finger, lips clamp, and he sucks it up and down, moves it in and out. My back has a crick from leaning over so long. My knee is bent awkwardly. I think my right foot fell asleep. His eyes are closed, his face peaceful, except for the sweat covering it like a layer of oil slick. Deep inside I feel wet too, a deep dark wet.

Sometimes when I wake up—alarm jangling, Mom shouting at me to get ready for school—I feel like Swamp Girl, wet monstrous creature sloshing through the jungle to earth. Knowing that I’ll have to go through a whole process to turn myself into a human again. Shower, underwear, makeup, the whole works. But it won’t be easy. Swamp Girl roots inside me. She’s wet, black, fierce. I feel her in me now, down there, as if I’m getting my period again even though it was only two weeks ago, but I’m so wet I feel myself melting like his eyes. I want to suck his finger too, to take it down my throat and suck it hard. No, not hard. Just tight. So he can’t pull out.

His eyes open, and he parts his lips. I pull up my finger and press it against my mouth. It’s wet, hot. He says in a scratchy voice, I need to get out of this box.

Do you need help?

No. And you don’t want to watch. It’s not a pretty sight. Meet me at the blue trailer, behind the tent. Ten minutes. Okay Hiphop?

What for?

What for, he repeats. For companionship. Two freaks. I won’t do anything you don’t want me to. We’ll just talk. Have a beer, and I’ll tell you how I became Rubberman.

The blue trailer is surrounded by a circle of large stones, like the sacred spaces Mom photographs. Inside, it is tiny, clothes strewn everywhere. I smell coffee and cigarettes. As soon as I enter and he closes the door behind me, he says, I showed you mine, Hiphop. Now you show me yours.

I want to leave, but his eyes hold me still. Desperate and wary, pleading yet trying not to.

A moment of truth. Like being caught stealing at K-mart’s. Or Tia’s hand touching my chest and smiling that rare, wonderful smile of complete acceptance. Tia is an angel: I see it suddenly.

I pull up my tee-shirt, all the way off, and let it drop to the floor. Meet his eyes. Sad light blue eyes. Maybe the saddest I’ve ever seen. Even sadder than Mom’s. I reach behind to unhook my bra, wishing I’d worn the black one I stole, and not this old white one. The white is faded but it’s my favorite bra, the one that covers the most. The hook is caught. My fingers stumble over it, and then just like that, it opens. I take off the bra, let it dangle from my fingers. In the small silent trailer, his breathing sounds loud, almost scary it’s so fast. As if he’s been running a race. He doesn’t say anything, just breathes louder and faster, while I stare at the torn blue rug. Why am I standing here with no bra on in front of a stranger? What if he rapes me? What if he’s a serial killer?

Glancing from under my lashes, I watch him approach, still breathing hard and fast, scaring me with his silent intensity. Blue shadows surround his nipples, graze his upper lip and chin, underline his eyes. A low voice: I think you’re the bravest girl I’ve ever seen. Can I touch?

I nod jerkily once, twice. He reaches towards me, and lightly touches the stain with his fingertips. He goes all the way around, moving from the top of the boot down the calf to the heel and toe. I start to feel warm, almost giddy, as if his hand is the only thing holding me up. He explores Italy with lazy, gentle strokes as if he has all the time in the world. Slowly I relax. Even look down to see what his hand is doing. He spreads a freckled hand – like Tia’s – over the calf of Italy, and I can’t see it anymore. My tongue is dry but I can’t swallow. The heat has spread everywhere: toes, fingers, cheeks, even eyes. My eyes are on fire.

You are beautiful, he says finally. But by then his hand has told me so, and I laugh. He laughs too and lowers his face and kisses me hard on the mouth. Twenty bucks, I think dizzily, a guy paid me twenty bucks – When he pulls back, smiling an inscrutable smile, I giggle again, feeling I’ve known him forever.

What’s this? he asks, fingering the small gold and turquoise star at the end of the chain.

It’s a blessing. Tia gave it to me. It’s got spells to protect me.

Why do you need protection? Because of this? He indicates Italy with his chin. Tia thinks I’m special because I’m different. But most people don’t see that. So I need more protection.

He’s still smiling that inscrutable smile, that I see now is as sad as his eyes. I think I’m falling in love, he says. You’d better leave before I decide to take you with me. Or move in with you and Tia.

For once, basking under the heat of his eyes and smile, I know the right thing to do, at the exact right moment. It takes a few seconds to unclasp the gold chain. Less than that to pull his silky red-gold head down and fasten it around his neck.

So this is life, I think later, striding back through the brilliant red and gold fair.

The sky is so deep blue it’s almost black. Bra stuffed in my jeans pocket, Italy defiantly humming and burning against my tee-shirt, I walk home in the star-heavy summer night.

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