Castaways

Prairie Fire - - ROWAN SMITH- MCCANDLESS -

MR. PAPADAKIS TELLS US TO SMILE. He says, “Girls, here at Castaways, we’re not just sell­ing Sin­ga­pore Slings and Crab Ran­goon. We’re sell­ing fan­tasy. We’re giv­ing a bunch of poor saps who’ve never been any­where spe­cial a taste of tropical paradise right here on the Prairie. And you, young ladies, are key to the il­lu­sion. You’re the dusky jew­els in Castaways’ crown ... Yes, Tina. Even you. So you can stop rolling your eyes. Now, where was I?”

“Dusky jew­els,” I say, duct-tap­ing my co­conut bra into place.

“Oh yes, dusky jew­els. Thank you, Am­ber.”

“Uh huh. What­ever.”

I fid­dle with my bikini top. I gotta make sure “the girls” stay in place so there’s no more un­for­tu­nate wardrobe mal­func­tions like what hap­pened last month in front of the Ro­tary Club.

“You’re the dusky jew­els in Castaways’ crown,” Mr. Papadakis says. I test the duct tape by jump­ing up and down. Tina joins in. So does Ja­nine, and my best friend, Enza. We bounce up and down, wig­gle and jig­gle like crazy, cuz be­ing charged with pub­lic nu­dity ain’t as much fun as you’d think.

Mr. Papadakis turns beet red. He mops his fore­head. “You ...you are ...you’re—”

“Del­i­cate or­chids,” we say. “The ex­otic blooms in Castaways’ flo­ral lei.”

Talk about your to­tal bull-crap. I mean, there’s noth­ing au­then­tic or na­tive about our South Seas Poly­ne­sian Re­vue. Like, Tina’s na­tive, but you know not that kinda na­tive. Ja­nine’s fresh off the boat from some coun­try that no longer ex­ists. Enza’s frickin’ Ital­ian. And me? I’m a Heinz 57. A lit­tle bit of ev­ery­thing and a whole lotta wasted po­ten­tial, ac­cord­ing to Mom.

Ja­nine spritzes her hair with Sexi Hold Hair­spray. Sexi Hold Hair­spray prom­ises to hold your hair like no­body’s busi­ness. So does Enza, as she bull­dozes over a chair and puts Ja­nine in a head­lock.

“Bitch,” Enza says. “I told you to keep your hands off my shit.” “Whatchu talkin’ ‘bout, Wil­lis?” Ja­nine says.

Ja­nine’s still learn­ing English. Picks a lot of it up watch­ing tele­vi­sion. Tina’s all WWF, pac­ing the linoleum, to­tally psyched to get tagged. “Ow. Ow. Ow!” Ja­nine says. “Please don’t squeeze the Charmin!” Ja­nine drops the can.

I el­bow Mr. Papadakis. Point at the clock.

He looks at the time, then claps his hands.

“Girls,” he says. “Places.”

Our grass skirts rus­tle on our race to the exit. Ja­nine shoves right in front of me and I wind up last in line and the first girl Mr. Papadakis pinches on the ass tonight. FYI, we don’t call him Papa Dick be­hind his back for noth­ing. So thanks, Ja­nine. Thanks a frickin’ lot.

At least the tips are good. Es­pe­cially around this time of year. ‘Tis the sea­son. Ho. Ho. Ho. And it beats pluck­ing chick­ens at the Cas­tle Brand pro­cess­ing plant, which is where most peo­ple wind up in this piece-ofcrap town. So when Papa Dick says, now get out there, girls, and shake what your ma­mas gave you, we do.

We shake it across the wooden bridge sur­rounded by koi ponds, ar­ti­fi­cial tropical plants and flam­ing bam­boo torches. We shimmy be­neath the night sky painted on the ceil­ing. Hula past the re­cir­cu­lat­ing wa­ter­fall, the gi­nor­mous tiki stat­ues belch­ing smoke, and all the losers get­ting sloshed on Rum Rick­ies and Mai Tais.

We do the dance of the mys­te­ri­ous vol­cano god, the mys­te­ri­ous sea tur­tle, the mys­te­ri­ous co­conut that just landed on our heads—and ya, you’re right, we just make shit up as we go along.

Half­way through our per­for­mance, Papa Dick takes cen­tre stage. “And now,” he says, “Castaways’ ex­otic beau­ties would love to share some of their is­land, ehem, magic with a few lucky pa­trons.”

Cus­tomers laugh. There’s wolf-whistling. Man, I frickin’ hate au­di­ence par­tic­i­pa­tion time.

Me and the girls pass out cheap flo­ral gar­lands made outta plas­tic. Some bald­ing, mid­dle-age jerk with bad breath grabs me around the waist and asks how much I charge for a lei— nudge nudge wink wink, like I haven’t heard that line like a bazil­lion times be­fore. I pry loose, think­ing if I hadda dol­lar for ev­ery drunk d-bag that tried that line on me, I’d be so loaded I wouldn’t have to work in this dump.

The girls start pulling peo­ple up from the au­di­ence. Ja­nine ze­roes in on some sales­man, in town for the night, from Win­nipeg. Tina and Enza duke it out over a stud-muf­fin cel­e­brat­ing a birth­day. Me? I’m at­tached. My boyfriend’s name is Kyle. So I drag up this el­derly cou­ple, try and con­vince them that do­ing the hula is ac­tu­ally pretty doable af­ter hip re­place­ment surgery.

I gotta say they’re a sad and sorry sight. Not even three hours of drink spe­cials dur­ing Happy Hour’s enough to loosen them up. When my gran was alive, she’d say, white folks wouldn’t know rhythm if it

came and slapped them right up­side the head. Said they’re all stiff and rigid cuz of that rod shoved up their ass. I loved Gran to bits, but she was like soooo prej­u­diced. Made me won­der, did she think the same about me, or at least about the half of me that’s white?

When the show’s over, we pose for pho­to­graphs with cus­tomers. Split the prof­its 50-50 with Papa Dick, who acts as the pho­tog­ra­pher. You’d be sur­prised how many guys are will­ing to spend ten bucks just to have a photo taken with a cou­ple of half-naked girls in hula out­fits—or maybe not.

At the end of my shift, I punch out with $65 in tips and two phone numbers. The money I stuff in my purse. The phone numbers I give to Enza. They’ll wind up writ­ten in Sharpie on a half-dozen bath­room stalls around town. Added to Enza’s “great wall of douchebag­gery.” Call Nico. Fred. Ted. Et cetera. Loves to cheat on wife. Girl­friend. Taxes...you get the picture.

“How many didja get tonight?” I say.

“Four d-bags for the wall,” Enza says. “And one for me. The hot­tie from ta­ble seven.”

“Bull-crap,” says Tina.

“Bitch, I know you ain’t call­ing me a liar,” says Enza.

“Bitch, I know you ain’t call­ing me a bitch,” Tina replies.

“I’d like to teach the world to sing in per­fect har­mony,” Ja­nine says. Tina glares. “Shut up, Ja­nine.”

So does Enza. “Ya, Ja­nine. Zip it.”

Ja­nine tears up. Grabs a bag of Cheezie Puffs from outta her knap­sack. “Don’t hate me be­cause I’m beau­ti­ful,” she says.

I dab on some of Enza’s patchouli oil and fetch my coat from the locker.

“Don’t for­get,” I say to Enza. “The babysit­ter will have given Sam­myJo sup­per. So it’s just bath time and—”

“Snack, then a cou­ple of books be­fore bed­time,” Enza says.

Tina nods, tells me not to worry.

“You’re in good hands with All­state,” Ja­nine says. She gives me a thumbs-up. Her fin­ger­tips are Day-Glo or­ange.

Enza sighs. “You and Kyle are so rheumatic.”

“No kid­ding,” Tina says. “You’re like Romeo and Juliet. Cross-eyed lovers and shit.”

My fam­ily can’t stand Kyle. They think he’s a to­tal loser. And I’m a lit­tle too tan for Kyle’s par­ents’ taste—if you catch my drift. They also think I’m a slut. That I got preg­nant just to trap him. Which I most def­i­nitely did not.

I grab my things, tip­toe down the hall.

Papa Dick steps out of his of­fice. “Mele Ka­liki­maka,” he says, and points at the plas­tic mistle­toe tacked above his door.

“Merry Christ­mas,” I say, mak­ing a run for it.

Castaways is lo­cated in a strip­mall across the street from a Petro-Can and a Mo­tel 6. I wade through snow­drifts in the park­ing lot. The sound of snow­plows echo in the dis­tance like the last gasps of di­nosaurs. Kyle’s waiting for me in his van. His van kicks ass. Has an air-brushed mu­ral of Smaug wrapped around the sides.

The door’s locked.

“Open up,” I say. “It’s frickin’ freez­ing out­side.”

Smaug lets loose a cloud of smoke as the pas­sen­ger door opens. The van reeks of pot. Kyle’s eyes are blood­shot. Al­most as red as Smaug’s. I climb in. Slam the door.

“You’re bl­itzed,” I say. “Again.”

“No shit,” Kyle says with a laugh.

I shake my head. “At this rate, we’ll never save up enough money to get a place of our own.”

“Aw, you know you love me.”

He’s right. I do. Re­gard­less. In spite of. Which Mom says is proof pos­i­tive that I don’t have the brains God gave a ger­bil.

We play ton­sil hockey for a lit­tle while and then head over to his place. Well, ac­tu­ally his par­ents’ place. They’re gone for the week­end. Went to visit the KKKs—Kyle’s sis­ter, Kim­berly, her hus­band Kevin and their six-month-old daugh­ter, Kelly, over in the next town. No shit. That’s what they call them­selves…the frickin’ KKKs, which I think, at a min­i­mum, is kinda in­sen­si­tive. Kyle says I’m tak­ing things the wrong way. That his fam­ily’s not like that, that peo­ple aren’t like that here in the Great White North. I think, easy for him to say, cuz for peo­ple like me, un­like peo­ple like him, liv­ing in the Great White North ain’t al­ways so great.

We have a cou­ple of beers in the kitchen. Make out a lit­tle, then head up­stairs. There’s this huge gallery wall next to the stair­case. Kyle and his fam­ily on va­ca­tion. At Christ­mas. Cel­e­brat­ing birth­days and grad­u­a­tions. Man, I’ve never seen so many pic­tures of peo­ple wear­ing cardi­gans in all my life. There’s not a hair out of place, not a sin­gle zit. They look like the model fam­ily pho­to­graph that comes in the frame when you buy it at the store. The one you pull out and re­place with your own crappy snap­shot from your own crappy life. There’s like a ton of pic­tures of the KKKs. Guess how many pho­tos there are of me and Sammy-Jo? Zero. Nada. Squat.

Kyle’s room looks like a bomb went off.

I’m ly­ing in bed, wear­ing my grass skirt from Castaways and noth­ing else.

Kyle’s naked, ex­cept for the Po­laroid cam­era draped around his neck. He’s jump­ing on the mat­tress. His thing bobs up and down, like one of those dash­board or­na­ments. My tits are bounc­ing like crazy.

“Stop jump­ing,” I say.

Kyle strad­dles me. He points the cam­era in my di­rec­tion. His youknow-what’s point­ing too.

“Smile,” he says.

I do. I don’t mean it. I can’t stop think­ing about that frickin’ gallery wall. How it’s like some stupid shrine to Kim­berly’s baby.

There’s a whirr. A click. A chem­i­cal smell. The cam­era flash hurts my eyes. Kyle’s cov­ered in spots. He dives into bed be­side me. The com­forter makes a whoosh­ing sound as he lands. He watches the Po­laroid de­velop. I watch his spots dis­ap­pear.

“God, Am­ber,” Kyle says. “You’ve got great tits.”

I grab the pho­to­graph. The im­age is kinda grainy. I’m over­ex­posed and the colour’s off. Story of my frickin’ life.

Kyle leans back. “Smile.”

I make a face at him in­stead.

He takes a picture any­ways.

“You’re gonna get rid of them?” I say.

“Sure…at some point.”

“Whadda you mean, ‘at some point’?”

Kyle grabs the Po­laroid. Takes one last look. “Babe, a guy’s got needs. It’s just a lit­tle some­thing to re­mem­ber you by when we’re apart.” He places the pho­to­graphs in the drawer of his night­stand. He nes­tles against my side. Starts feel­ing me up.

“No glove. No love,” I tell him.

“But—”

“But noth­ing.”

Kyle bitches. Grabs a rub­ber.

Too bad. So sad. But af­ter hav­ing a kid at six­teen, I’d like to think that I’ve learned my les­son. So now he’s got to wear a rain­coat or for­get it. “You’re my Tahiti sweetie,” he says.

I turn away. “I told you to stop call­ing me that.”

“Tahiti sweetie.”

He starts nib­bling on my ear.

I can feel his hard-on pressed against my thigh.

“I swear to God, Kyle. Keep that frickin’ thing away from me.” “Fuck’s sake, Am­ber. What’s your prob­lem?”

“I’m not in the mood.”

“Since when?”

“Since right now.”

“You’re al­ways in the mood.”

Not al­ways. I’m not like a nympho or any­thing.

Kyle frowns. Lights a joint. “We fi­nally get some alone time and this is how you want to spend it?”

Can’t help it. His par­ents want noth­ing to do with me? Fine. See if I care. But Sammy-Jo’s a dif­fer­ent story. She’s three, and still hasn’t met them. Kyle says they need time to ad­just. I gotta say they’re sure tak­ing their sweet time about it.

We stare at the ceil­ing, the walls and each other for what feels like for­ever—and then go back to do­ing it.

Be­fore I can get the key in the lock, Enza swings the door wide open. In the back­ground there’s wail­ing, like some­one’s killing a cat.

“I thought you’d be gone the whole week­end,” Enza says.

“What’s wrong?” I say. “Is Sammy-Jo okay?”

“Sammy-Jo’s fine. It’s you know who that’s the prob­lem.”

“No way.”

“Way,” Enza says.

I take off my coat and boots.

Sammy-Jo wad­dles up, drag­ging my old doll. Poor Dar­ling Dol­lyWalks-A-Lot has re­ally taken a beat­ing over the years. What’s left of her blond hair is all chopped to shit. There’s per­ma­nent marker all over her face.

I pick Sammy-Jo up. Give her a hug. She’s the one thing me and Kyle got right.

“She’s baaack,” Sammy-Jo whis­pers in my ear.

“Ya, I’m not deal­ing with it,” Enza says. “You deal with it.”

“Good luck!” Tina shouts from the liv­ing-room. “You’re gonna need it!”

Tina’s veg­ging on the couch with Ja­nine, who’s half­way through a con­tainer of ice cream. They’re both in pjs, watch­ing Sesame Street.

“It’s not easy be­ing green,” Ja­nine says.

I fol­low the sound of wail­ing down the hall­way. Sammy-Jo trails be­hind. I knock on the bath­room door, tell my sis­ter I’m com­ing in.

Donna’s cross-legged on the floor. She’s bawl­ing. Got mas­cara and blue kohl eye shadow run­ning down her face. She looks a whole lot worse than poor Dar­ling Dolly-Walks-A-Lot.

“I...hate...them,” Donna says through tears. “I’m not...go­ing back. You...can’t...make me.”

I nudge Sammy-Jo. “Aun­tie needs a hug.”

Sammy-Jo looks at Donna, lets out a scream and takes off. There’s this kathunk kathunk kathunk from Dolly’s head bang­ing on the floor. “What’re you...do­ing home?” Donna says.

“Change of plans.”

“What hap­pened?”

I tell Donna his par­ents came home early. I don’t men­tion how Kyle frickin’ kicked me out of bed and snuck me out the win­dow. I hand Donna a tis­sue. She blows her nose, gives me some ad­vice.

“Am­ber, you’re not do­ing your­self any favours. You gotta dump that loser.”

Like she should talk. Donna’s got a thing for trou­ble. Me? I got a thing for Kyle. Her so­cial worker says it’s cuz we both suf­fer from low

self-es­teem, which Mom says is garbage. She fig­ures the only thing we’re suf­fer­ing from is a se­vere case of stupid.

The phone rings.

Enza shouts my name.

Donna lights a smoke. “If that’s Mom, you tell that bitch I’m not talk­ing to her.”

Ya, well you’re not the only one—not that it mat­ters. I head for the kitchen and the wall-mounted tele­phone, next to the re­frig­er­a­tor.

Enza holds out the re­ceiver. Rolls her eyes.

There’s this squawk on the line.

“Mom?”

More squawk­ing.

My mom can’t stand Enza. Thinks she’s a bad in­flu­ence, as if ju­ve­nile delin­quency was catchy like a case of in­fluenza.

When me and Kyle met, a few years back, it was at a wed­ding so­cial for one of Enza’s cousins. I was sit­ting at a ta­ble with a fake ID and Enza. Kyle was there with friends. He was star­ing at me real hard. I thought he was cute. He thought I was Ital­ian. “Take a picture,” I said. “It’ll last longer.” Kyle pre­tended to do just that. The rest, as they say, is his­tory—or my down­ward slide into damna­tion, de­pend­ing on who you ask. “Mom...Mom!”

I wrap the phone cord around my neck, pre­tend to stran­gle my­self. “Am­ber? Is that you?”

I un­tan­gle the cord.

“Yup.”

“You tell that Enza she’s go­ing straight to Hell.”

I shake my head. Mom’s been this way ever since she found re­li­gion through Rev­erend Ray.

“Mom.”

“What?”

“Donna’s bawl­ing her eyes out in my bath­room. What’s go­ing on?” I hear my step­dad preach­ing in the back­ground.

Dad took off when we were lit­tle and we haven’t seen him since. Mom was at a loss, rais­ing two kids on her own. Un­til the Rev­erend Ray showed up and mar­ried her, and took us un­der his wing. Mom calls him her “per­sonal Ray of sun­shine.” He calls her naïve for hav­ing mar­ried out­side her race, calls us un­grate­ful brats, a cou­ple of coloured Whores of Baby­lon.

“Mom, tell Ray to shut the fuck up.”

“Lan­guage,” she says. “You know the Rev­erend doesn’t mean any­thing by it. He only has your best in­ter­ests at heart.”

“Sure...what­ever you say.”

“The Rev­erend says he’s pray­ing for both you girls.”

“Mom?”

“What?”

“When you com­ing by to pick up Donna...Hello? Hello?”

Waikiki Wed­nes­days suck. Se­ri­ously, they blow. But rent­ing a cute lit­tle bun­ga­low won’t come cheap, so it doesn’t mat­ter if Waikiki Wed­nes­days suck, which they to­tally do, or that I’m un­der the weather with a se­vere case of stupid, which may or may not be ac­cu­rate. “The show,” as they say, “must go on.”

At least that’s what Papa Dick said right af­ter fir­ing Ja­nine. The show must go on, which is how I got the ex­tra hours. Poor Ja­nine. She was get­ting kinda chunky around the mid­dle. And Papa Dick says we cater to a cer­tain clien­tele. Re­spectable busi­ness­men who work hard for their money and don’t want to be star­ing at jelly bel­lies while they’re eat­ing their poi poi plat­ters and drink­ing Hawai­ian Sun­sets. If jelly bel­lies is what they wanted they’d go home to their wives af­ter work.

I feel like a traitor but Ja­nine un­der­stands. Mom and Ray gave Donna the boot. So now, on top of ev­ery­thing, my fif­teen-year-old sis­ter’s my re­spon­si­bil­ity.

The host­ess stand is too close to the door. I got goose­bumps in places I oughta not have them. I think my lips are turn­ing blue. Have they turned blue? I pucker up. Change my mind, cuz the guys from Cas­tle Brand’s head of­fice are pil­ing in, and I don’t want to give the wrong im­pres­sion.

I’m freez­ing. Se­ri­ously, like in or out. But close the frickin’ door al­ready. I wish I had a parka, or a sweater. Man, I’d even set­tle for a scarf and a pair of garbage gloves. But rules are rules. Gotta fol­low the script.

“Wel­come to Castaways. We’d love to get you lei’d.”

There are two malls in town. The good mall and the bad mall. The good mall’s shiny and clean. Harte’s Por­trait Stu­dio’s lo­cated in the good mall. The good mall’s in the bet­ter part of town, un­like the bad mall, which’s in the worst. Guess where you’ll find Castaways? If you picked the good mall, you might wanna guess again.

Kyle was sup­posed to drive us, but some­thing came up. So, he’s go­ing to meet us at Harte’s. The good mall’s packed. Christ­mas carols play over the loud­speak­ers. Ev­ery­one’s in a shopping frenzy.

“You bet­ter stick to me like glue,” I tell Donna.

“But I wanna look at stuff,” she says.

“Like glue.”

“What good’s com­ing to the mall if I can’t even buy stuff?”

“You got any money?”

“No.”

“Then end of dis­cus­sion.”

I gotta get Sammy-Jo outta her snow­suit without her tak­ing a hissy­fit. Donna wan­ders off. So does Sammy-Jo.

“Get back here,” I say, and they both start whin­ing.

I un­zip zip­pers, un­buckle buck­les, stuff Sammy-Jo’s toque and scarf into the sleeves of her snow­suit. She’s got hat head. And what the frick

hap­pened to her green bar­rettes? The ones match­ing her vel­vet dress that cost me a week in tips.

In the mid­dle of the mall is Santa’s Vil­lage. There’s an over­sized rock­ing chair in front of a fake log cabin cov­ered in polyester rolls of ar­ti­fi­cial snow and mini-lights.

“I wanna see Santa,” Sammy-Jo says.

There’s a wind­ing lineup of par­ents and kids, be­ing herded like cat­tle.

“Later,” I tell her.

By the time we get to the por­trait stu­dio, Sammy-Jo’s in tears cuz she hasn’t seen Santa, Donna’s pock­ets are crammed with five-fin­ger dis­counts, I’ve got a frickin’ headache and Kyle’s nowhere in sight.

Harte’s is real pro­fes­sional-look­ing. Lots of pic­tures of happy fam­i­lies.

Sammy-Jo drops to the floor, starts kick­ing and scream­ing for Santa and a candy cane and a uni­corn and what­ever else pops into her head.

“Ev­ery mo­ment is pre­cious,” some guy named Franklin says from be­hind the counter. “Shouldn’t your por­traits be too?”

I’m wear­ing a lit­tle black dress. I think I look hot. And I told Kyle, to make up for sneak­ing me outta the win­dow, he’d bet­ter show up in a suit and tie. Which re­minds me. Where the frick is he? I say we have an ap­point­ment. Tell Sammy-Jo, enough al­ready. Search my purse for the Harte’s Hol­i­daze Coupon I cut outta the flyer.

Franklin hauls out a bin­der. “You have a choice of pho­to­graphic back­grounds.”

Mom tried for years to get a de­cent fam­ily por­trait of us. But it never worked out. One year me and Donna got chicken pox. The next year it was the mumps. Year af­ter that, Mom shipped us back to Truro to live with Gran. And so it went. It wasn’t in­ten­tional or any­thing. Just like me get­ting knocked up at fif­teen. No way was I hav­ing my picture taken. I wound up look­ing like a frickin’ beached whale. Be­sides, Mom and Ray kicked me out once they found out I was preg­nant, so get­ting a fam­ily por­trait was kinda moot.

I find my coupon, but can’t de­cide on the back­drop. I ask Donna what she thinks, but she couldn’t care less. Sammy-Jo’s busy with her tantrum. And Kyle’s still not here to of­fer an opin­ion.

I nix the tropical beach. De­cide on a win­ter scene with a sled.

“Good choice,” Franklin says, and leaves to set things up.

Donna bribes Sammy-Jo off the floor with lip gloss.

“Don’t put that crap on her face.”

“Take a chill pill,” Donna says. “Pucker up, But­ter­cup.”

She pre­tends to add lip gloss. Sammy-Jo smacks her lips. “Ev­ery­thing’s ready,” Franklin says. “If you’ll please come this way.”

“We can’t. My boyfriend’s not here yet.”

“Kyle’s not here,” Donna says. “Sur­prise. Sur­prise.”

“Kyle’s a dick,” Sammy-Jo says.

Donna laughs.

My kid starts run­ning in cir­cles. “Kyle’s a dick. Kyle’s a dick.” Donna’s in tears, she’s laugh­ing so hard.

“Stop en­cour­ag­ing her. Sammy-Jo, don’t talk like that about your fa­ther.”

“Maybe he should act like one,” Donna says.

“Maybe you shouldn’t be teach­ing Sammy-Jo to call her fa­ther a dick.”

Franklin clears his throat. “Ev­ery mo­ment is pre­cious. But I re­ally don’t have time for this.”

“He’ll be here any minute,” I say.

“Re­ally,” Franklin says. “I’d like to ac­com­mo­date you but—”

“Any minute.” And I flop into a chair.

Donna reads to Sammy-Jo. I watch the clock, flip through mag­a­zines. I catch up on celebrity gos­sip. Pick up tips on how to get the most kiss­able lips. Although, it’s not like Kyle’s gonna ben­e­fit cuz by now I’m to­tally pissed. I check out flyers. Give Sammy-Jo a juice box.

Donna yawns. “Ten bucks Kyle’s a no show.”

“He’ll be here,” I say.

I give Donna an evil look. And a half-hour later, ten one-dol­lar bills.

On Fri­day, two women from the Ladies’Aux­il­iary of the Im­mac­u­late De­cep­tion show up at our door. One’s sprouted green felt antlers with bells and a flash­ing red nose. The other’s wear­ing Spock ears and is dressed like Mrs. Claus. Both are car­ry­ing bas­kets filled to the brim with Chris­tian char­ity.

“Merry Christ­mas,” says Mrs. Claus.

“Joyeux Noël,” says Ru­dolph.

“Who’s there?” Tina shouts from the kitchen.

“It’s freaks bear­ing gifts!”

Mrs. Claus gives me this look. Uh oh. I think I just got put on the naughty list.

Ru­dolph frowns, whis­pers to Mrs. Claus, “I thought this would be a lot more fun.”

Tina rushes to the door. She looks for­ward to their visit ev­ery year. Gives her a chance to talk about re­li­gion, now that the Je­ho­vah’s Wit­nesses stay clear of our place.

“Come in,” Tina says. “Please ex­cuse the mess.”

Mess. What mess? We’ve been scrub­bing the place for days, used so much liq­uid dis­in­fec­tant that the house reeks of pine and we don’t even have a tree up yet.

I step aside to let them in.

The Ladies’Aux­il­iary of the Im­mac­u­late De­cep­tion show up ev­ery year around this time. They come bring­ing frozen tur­keys, boxes of in­stant mashed pota­toes, ex­pired pud­ding pie mix and the prom­ise of sal­va­tion. Ev­ery year, it’s like the Is­land of Mis­fit Toys un­der the Christ­mas tree.

“There’s more out in the car,” Ru­dolph says.

I grab my coat, slip on boots. I hate hav­ing to rely on the kind­ness of strangers. I wish Kyle would step up, frickin’ show up for a change. I don’t want Sammy-Jo grow­ing up with slunkys in­stead of slinkys un­der the Christ­mas tree, pam­phlets about fire and brim­stone stuffed in her stock­ing.

The drive­way’s slip­pery. I wipe out be­side their car.

“You okay?”

“I’ll sur­vive.”

The voice be­longs to a sexy elf with bleached-blonde hair. She’s hold­ing a turkey. There’s some­thing vaguely fa­mil­iar. Not about the turkey but the elf. Oh shit. It’s you know frickin’ who. I stand and brush my­self off. I grab a box from the trunk, hop­ing she doesn’t rec­og­nize me.

“You sure you’re al­right?”

“Pos­i­tive.”

We head to­wards the house.

“Don’t we know one another?” she says.

“I don’t think so.”

We drop off the turkey and a box of hand-me-downs. Enza and Ja­nine are singing carols with Mrs. Claus. Tina’s de­bat­ing with Ru­dolph the like­li­hood of some vir­gin giv­ing birth in a manger. We head back to the car.

“I’ve got it. You went to JHC. I never for­get a face. Or a name. It’s Amethyst, right?”

“Wrong.”

“Quartz?”

Quartz? Bitch, se­ri­ously?

“It’s Am­ber.”

“Am­ber... That’s it. I knew it was some­thing dif­fer­ent. It’s me. Karen Rus­sell. Don’t you re­mem­ber? We had a cou­ple of Grade Ten classes to­gether. I mean, we did, un­til you dis­ap­peared sec­ond se­mes­ter. Weren’t you go­ing out with Kyle Reimer back then?”

“I was. I still am.”

“Huh... You don’t say.”

I do say. Like fuck off, bitch.

“Say what?” Donna asks.

Donna’s hold­ing a saw in one hand, the trunk of a Christ­mas tree in the other. She’s cov­ered in pine nee­dles. So’s the side­walk.

“Karen made fun of me in high school.”

Karen shakes her head. Bells jin­gle. “I don’t think so.”

“Ya, you did. You used to call me hal­fro, wa­ter­melon bum.”

“Is she the one?” Donna asks.

I nod.

“You’re mis­taken,” Karen says.

“Whoreo Cookie,” me and Donna say to­gether.

“Look...I’m just in town for the hol­i­days. I’m only try­ing to help my mother spread a lit­tle Christ­mas cheer.”

“Is that what they’re call­ing the clap nowa­days?” Donna says. I laugh.

Karen glares, starts us­ing words no re­spectable elf would say. “Where’s the beef?” Ja­nine shouts from the stoop.

Karen stomps to­wards the front door.

“Where’d the tree come from?” I say to Donna.

“Do you re­ally want to know?” she says.

My mom’s such a know-it-all. Tells me Kyle’s never gonna buy the cow when he can get the milk for free. So not only am I a slut but I’m a stupid slut. Which is why Donna’s the mas­ter­mind, Ja­nine’s the driver, Enza and Tina are on look­out, and I’m on the fence. We’re parked a few houses down from Kyle’s place. It’s late at night. The lights are off at the house and there’s no ve­hi­cles in the drive­way.

“I dunno. I still think this is a bad idea.”

Donna shakes her head.

“Oh my God,” she says. “Will you grow a pair al­ready?”

“What if we get caught?”

“We’re not go­ing to get caught.”

“We’re on a mis­sion,” Ja­nine says. “A mis­sion from God.”

Enza nods. “Ain’t that the mother-fuck­ing truth.”

Tina high-fives Ja­nine, and she smiles. It’s good to see Ja­nine smile again. She’s been kinda de­pressed lately, thanks to her new job ex­e­cut­ing chick­ens for Cas­tle Brand, and the veg­e­tar­ian diet she’s gone on to get her job back at Castaways.

“He’s gonna know it was me,” I say. “What if he goes to the cops?” “Go to the cops?” Enza says. “And what’s he gonna tell ’em?”

“No kid­ding,” Tina says. “Ex­cuse me, of­fi­cer, but my ex stole the stash of nudie pics I took of her.”

Donna’s get­ting rest­less in the front seat. “We do­ing this or what?” “Maybe he got rid of them like he promised.”

“Sure,” Donna says. “Cuz, if there’s one thing we know about Kyle, is he’s the kinda guy who keeps his word.”

“No­body puts baby in the cor­ner,” Ja­nine says.

Kyle was sup­posed to go with me to my staff Christ­mas party. In­stead, he can­celled and went on a ski trip with his fam­ily. Said he needed a break cuz I’m too de­mand­ing. I told him to fuck off. That the only thing I needed from him were the Po­laroids back.

“Keep the en­gine run­ning,” I say.

Me and Donna get out of the car. I’m wear­ing a low-cut sparkly cock­tail dress un­der my coat. I can’t stop shiv­er­ing. It’s cold. Plus, I’m frickin’ ner­vous about this whole B and E sit­u­a­tion.

Donna weaves her way to­wards the house. I try and keep up but I’m kinda at a dis­ad­van­tage. I’m wear­ing four-inch heels and I downed way more B-52s than she did.

Donna falls into a snow­bank.

I stum­ble over.

“Holy crap. Are you okay?”

My sis­ter laughs. “Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.”

She starts mak­ing a snow an­gel.

I yank her to her feet.

“What about foot­prints?” I say, point­ing at the trail be­hind us.

“I’ve got an idea,” Donna says, and we walk sin­gle file, back­wards, into the yard.

The spare key’s right where it al­ways is, in the gazebo above the door­jamb. I got but­ter­flies in my stom­ach. I un­lock the door. Feel like I’m gonna barf a lit­tle. We step in­side. Donna turns on a flash­light. I turn off the alarm.

“Lead the way,” Donna says, shin­ing the flash­light. We head down the hall. Half­way up the wind­ing stair­case, she comes to a halt.

“Man,” Donna says. “Now, that’s what I call a crime scene.” “Moth­er­fucker,” I say.

There’s a gi­nor­mous new por­trait hang­ing on the wall. Kyle and his fam­ily wear­ing iden­ti­cal hol­i­day sweaters.

“It looks like Christ­mas fuck­ing threw up all over them,” Donna says.

We get to the top of the stairs.

“Which way?”

“Fol­low me.”

We head for Kyle’s bedroom. Step in­side.

Donna sits on the edge of the bed. “So this is where the magic hap­pens,” she says, drop­ping a pair of Kyle’s box­ers onto the floor.

“Ha,” I say. “Very funny.”

I head for the night­stand. Open the drawer. In­side, there’s a pile of mis­matched socks, a stash of rub­bers and some rolling pa­pers.

“They’re not here,” I say. “What am I do­ing? This is stupid. What if he got rid of them like he promised?”

“This is Kyle we’re talk­ing about. Re­mem­ber?”

She gets up, starts ri­fling through his dresser.

I trade places and lie down.

“Any­thing?”

“Nope,” Donna says.

I get bed spins. Turn on my side.

Donna searches Kyle’s closet, toss­ing clothes onto the floor. It re­minds me of when we were lit­tle. Mom started drink­ing af­ter Dad left. Like, a lot. Af­ter she’d pass out, me and Donna would comb the house for hid­den bot­tles. Dump the con­tents of what­ever we found down the sink. Mom was good at hid­ing her booze, but my sis­ter was bet­ter at find­ing it. “Up,” Donna says.

I get off the bed. Lean against the wall cuz I’m feel­ing a lit­tle woozy. Donna gropes along the mat­tress edge, looks un­der the bed. Finds noth­ing but dust bun­nies and clothes way over­due for laun­dry.

“Give me a hand.”

I help lift the mat­tress.

“Hurry up,” I say. “This thing weighs a ton.”

“Jack­pot,” Donna says.

She grabs an en­ve­lope from be­tween the mat­tress and box-spring. I drop the mat­tress and take the en­ve­lope from Donna. “Moth­er­fucker,” I say. “Kyle frickin’ swore he got rid of them.”

The en­ve­lope’s worn around the edges and wrapped with an elas­tic. I re­move the rub­ber band. Donna shines the flash­light and I peek in­side. “I’m gonna be sick,” I say.

I run to the can. Puke in the toi­let.

“You okay?” Donna says, as I rinse my mouth with wa­ter from the tap.

“No. Not re­ally.”

I give her the en­ve­lope. Seems I’m not the only one Kyle’s been play­ing dress-up with.

Donna starts flipping through snap­shots.

“What a Grade A douche-bag,” Donna says. “Isn’t that?”

“Yup.”

Looks like Karen Rus­sell still fits her cheer­lead­ing out­fit from JHC. “I wanna go home.”

“Not yet,” Donna says, and drags me back to Kyle’s bedroom. I watch her poke holes in Kyle’s con­doms. Pocket his hash pipe and rolling pa­pers. She starts trash­ing the bedroom.

“Come on,” Donna says. “It’ll make you feel bet­ter.”

I do. But it doesn’t.

Kyle’s cam­era’s on the floor, next to the bed. Donna picks it up.

“Say cheese,” she says.

I do. I also dou­ble-flip the bird.

There’s a whir. A click. A chem­i­cal smell.

Once the photo’s de­vel­oped, I tuck it un­der Kyle’s mat­tress.

“Merry Christ­mas,” I say, mak­ing a run for it.

I’m al­most outta tears and the gas tank’s close to empty. So we stop at a fill­ing sta­tion on the way home.

Ja­nine gets out to pump gas.

It’s snow­ing. Looks pretty against the street­lights. It’s like we’re trapped in­side a snow globe that’s been turned up­side down and shaken. “I’m gonna be sick.”

I stum­ble outta the back seat. Stag­ger to­wards the can.

“Wait up,” Tina says.

Enza and Donna chase af­ter me. Tina’s close be­hind.

In­side the fill­ing sta­tion, it smells like rub­ber tires and old hot dogs. “Merry Christ­mas, Enza,” the clerk says from be­hind the counter. “Merry Christ­mas, Jimmy,” Enza says.

The can’s dis­gust­ing. But beg­gars can’t be choosers. Enza holds my hair while I woof my cookies into the toi­let.

“She okay?” Donna asks.

“She will be,” Tina says.

When I’m done, Enza flushes the toi­let and helps me clean up in front of the sink.

The mir­ror’s got this crack down the mid­dle. Throws off my re­flec­tion.

“I’m soooo frickin’ stupid.”

“Fuck him,” Enza says.

“Ya, to Hell with him,” Tina says, lean­ing against sink. “It’s his loss. Not yours.”

Enza pulls out a Sharpie. She writes the letter K on the bath­room wall as Donna pulls a pack of Ex­port As from outta her purse.

Donna lights a smoke. Takes a drag.

Enza adds the rest of Kyle’s name to the graf­fiti-cov­ered wall.

“Can I bor­row your Bic?” I say.

My sis­ter passes me her lighter. I grab the Po­laroids from my coat pocket. Toss them into the sink as Ja­nine walks into the can.

“This mes­sage will self-de­struct in thirty-seven sec­onds,” Ja­nine says.

I set the Po­laroids on fire. And un­der harsh flu­o­res­cent lights, we huddle to­gether and watch them burn.

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