SOMETHING STRANGE HAPPENED to Dani Bloom the spring of her sophomore year at Keys High. She became popular. Not popular in the general sense, like Katie MacAvoy (who decided to be Kate MacAvoy freshman year), or like Peter Button (who modeled designer jeans for the Burdines catalog), or like Dani’s pretty sister (who now attended the U of M on a swimming scholarship) had been popular. Dani, instead, gained credibility, which seemed to be what popularity was all about, amongst one of the smaller cliques. Its loose organizing principle, as far as she could determine, involved an aversion to athletic endeavor, aquatic or otherwise, and a predilection for long-sleeved and -panted clothing, plaid patterned and dark hued, totally ill-suited to the subtropics.
Dani hadn’t intended to fall in with this group. She was content enough in her lazy orbit at the periphery of the band-kid galaxy. But then one day in the caf she overheard a boy’s voice from the long-sleeved and -panted table across the narrow aisle behind her. If we only knew how to get out there it’d be so frickin’ gnarly. Which made her perk up her ears as she devoured her second bite of the bean and cheese burrito that everyone said was grody, but that Dani secretly savored. She recognized the voice. Roger Siefert, leader of the long-sleeved and -panted. A junior. Dani didn’t really know him. Just knew him in the sense that she knew everyone who’d grown up here. Knew him well enough to know that he combed his straight sandy hair over his left eye, because a fishhook punctured the pupil a while back and turned the black circle into a strange square. Fuckin’ way I’m going out there middle of the woods those mosquitoes, a girl’s voice chimed in, leaving out an awful lot of words. Pam Mohlief. Dani thought she knew the place they were talking about—there weren’t so many places of solid ground necklaced between bay and ocean in the nation’s southernmost county—but waited and listened as she sipped chocolate milk straight from the carton, wiped the dark foam from her upper lip. But it would be so frickin’ gnarly, Roger said. Whole building’s empty. Just sittin’ out there.
Yes, Dani knew where they were talking about, the abandoned five-story apartment building in the hardwood hammock north end of the island. When most locals thought about the finger of woods between the ocean and the highway, they thought about the drug-runners and their square-grouper cargoes, the “illegals” from Haiti and Cuba and wherever. So a lot of their neighbors didn’t mind the idea of a fancy housing development and a bunch of fancy new people on the scruffy site. But her mother had fought hard years ago to keep all construction away, had gone to court up in Miami and everything. Nina Bloom, leader of Concerned Citizens, owner of Native Blooms, the nursery bordering the proposed development. They had lost the case against the “concrete coalition,” as her mother called the greedy jerks—another thing she called them. Only reason Hibiscus Bay never materialized was that the developer went bankrupt after bulldozing a swath of hardwoods for a single construction road and putting up that one structure in the building plan. It had been years since Dani trekked out there with her mother to see the spooky building, years since she spent much time outdoors. Yet she found herself curious once again about the hammock and the abandoned building, perhaps only because Roger was curious about it, so maybe she was mostly curious about Roger.
“I know how to get there,” Dani heard herself say across the aisle. Roger swiveled on his bench and trained his good eye on her, the eyebrow above squinching like a caterpillar, as if he had just heard a miraculous thing he couldn’t quite believe, a dolphin or bear speaking rather than just a pudgy girl a year younger than him.
“Who are you again?” Roger asked. She could smell the spice riding along his breath from the clove cigarettes he wasn’t supposed to smoke.
Surely he knew who she was, just as Dani knew who he was.
“I’m Dani Bloom.”
THEY DITCHED SCHOOL the next day after lunch, Joey and Carrie and Kevin and Pam squeezed into the open bed of Roger’s Subaru Brat while Dani rode in the cab to tell Roger where to turn off the highway into the hammock. The hammock trees either side of the road lashed the asphalt with their darker shadows once they reached the north end of the island. She kept one eye on the opposing traffic in case her mom was driving down from the nursery, in which case she’d duck beneath the dashboard. Music without a discernible melody thumped from the speakers, featured violent guitars and wounded vocals. Dani didn’t mind the music as it took pressure off having to think of what to say to Roger. He tapped the inside knuckle of his thumb against the stick to what Dani supposed was the beat. He seemed to have bitten his nails right down to the nub, leaving angry red crescents where more nail should have been.
“You like the song!?” Roger shouted to be heard.
“Sure!” She could only pick up isolated words and phrases above the instruments—I just don’t care no more . . . midnight sun . . . drinking whiskey baby . . . I don’t care no more—but sensed that the actual words weren’t really so important.
“It’s Cat Butt!”
Dani nodded to hint that she knew the band without having to lie outright that she knew the band.
“Yo! Put my Screaming Trees tape in!” Kevin shouted bossy-like over the wind and music through the cab’s small rear window, slid open. This was another organizing principle of the clique, Dani soon learned: an appreciation for obscure rock bands featuring violent instrumentals and wounded vocals, and a principled aversion toward any music that a DJ might actually play across the staticky FM airwaves from Miami.
She told Roger to turn when they got to Loquat rather than stop earlier beside the narrow asphalt road carved directly into the hammock, the road laid by the developers for their heavy construction equipment and already halfway greened over, hardly visible from the highway. She had Roger drive down Loquat pretty far before parking on the scruffy berm. It would be a long trek from there through the hammock to get to the abandoned building. This way, though, Sheriff Hansen or the DEA or Border Security police or whatever wouldn’t spot the suspicious pickup parked alongside the main highway, and this way the hike to the abandoned building would seem more impressive.
“Follow me,” she said after her new friends spilled down the sides of the truck bed. (The tailgate latch was frozen shut.) She blazed a trail between the stopper and gumbo limbo and pigeon plum and ironwood and strangler fig and the other trees she once knew but wasn’t sure of anymore. The trees were tall, but spindly on the whole, competing for space and light. The air was still inside the hammock, the thicket cutting whatever sea breeze there might have been. There wasn’t much birdsong, hot as it was middle of the day, just the sizzle of cicadas and stuff. The bugs and the quiet sounded a lot better to Dani than the Cat Butt or Screaming Trees music.
“Rad,” Joey said just a few minutes into their walk, as if he’d never been outside before. Joey dyed his hair black, which made his pale skin seem even paler, made Joey seem even stranger for a Keys kid. Roger seemed to be saving his breath. She could hear him sort of huffing behind her.
It was actually easier to blaze a trail through the hammock than most people figured, the few people, anyway, who thought about the hammock at all. There wasn’t too much undergrowth since there wasn’t too much soil, Dani’s mother had once explained. Just a thin crust of limestone and marl and sand beneath the leaf litter, which crunched beneath their feet. She knew there must be white stopper around someplace, because she could smell its skunky smell, a smell she liked and didn’t realize she missed until now. When did her mother stop pestering her about joining her at the nursery on weekends, about joining her on her scouts through the hammock for seeds and cuttings? She waited for Roger or one of the others to ask about the skunk smell, because it sort of smelled like pot, but no one did. Then she heard from somewhere high in the canopy the loopy sentence of a vireo, like it was beer-buzzed. She remembered what vireos sounded like. Cool.
“Anyone bring the frickin Cutter?” Kevin asked, just a moment after Dani heard the smack against his neck.
“Shit, no, forgot.” Joey.
“Fuckin Joey.” Kevin again, as if bringing bug spray was assigned special to Joey. “You suck.”
Kevin was a dick-weed, Dani decided. It seemed like lots of people with red hair were dick-weeds, which couldn’t be true as a general thing, which was why she didn’t let herself believe that Kevin was actually a dick-weed until just now.
“Here, hold up a sec.” Dani strayed off her northeast line to tear off a few broad leaves from a beauty berry shrub, trotted back to hand them out to everyone. “Scrunch up the leaf a bit and rub its juices up and down your arms and stuff. Works almost as good as DEET.” Her friends obeyed, even if they were a bit slow about it.
“Stinks like cat piss,” Kevin said.
“You watch, like, Mutual of Omaha or something?” Which might have been a compliment, but not the way Carrie said it. Her lip curled to flash her dog-tooth. Pink blotches with erratic outlines had erupted across Carrie’s neck right up to her cheeks, as if she was allergic to the outdoors. Carrie must have dyed her stringy hair to make it darker, too, like Joey, because the dappled sunlight brought out the brown in her eyebrows below her overgrown, side-swipe bangs.
“Shut your face, Carrie,” Roger defended Dani as he stirred up froth on his arm from the rising sweat and the beauty berry goo. She could see the veins bulging from his forearm, either from being strong or just skinny. He flashed a smile at her below his sandy mop of hair thrown over his bad eye. Some of the hair was darker now from his sweat and stuck to his skin.
They blazed on. It took only a matter of minutes tromping through the foliage for Dani to solve the social calculus of the clique. Joey liked Pam (because he walked just in front of her along the path Dani blazed and held the branches rather than let them snap in her face), but Pam liked Roger (because she never said thank you to Joey and only seemed to call up ahead to Roger), and Carrie liked Roger too (because Pam liked Roger), which was interesting because dick-weed Kevin liked Carrie (he’d been scoping out her butt ever since they started walking and used the mosquitoes as an excuse to smack her thighs and calves now and again through her ratty 501s). Dani couldn’t tell who Roger liked. She heard the loopy sentence of a vireo again, wondered if it was the same bird following them.
Then she heard a human noise that startled her, a thwacking through foliage up ahead. They all crouched in catcher’s stances. Roger’s furry calf (he wore shorts today and a normal-looking T-shirt on account of their hike) brushed up against Dani’s smoother thigh. Along with his beauty berry smell, she could smell his soap or deodorant or whatever mixed up with his natural Roger smells, which reminded her of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup, which wasn’t such a bad thing for your B.O. to smell like, she decided.
“Is it the cops?” Pam sort of shout-whispered, crouched behind Kevin.
“Shh . . . no,” Roger shout-whispered back, peering toward the old woman wearing binoculars and a ridiculous straw hat. Dani could see the lady through the thin understory. She had stopped in her tracks, scanned the canopy.
“It’s just an old bag,” Kevin said, sort of below his normal voice but not in a whisper, as if he didn’t know how to whisper. “A frickin old bag with binoculars. What the fuck she got binoculars for?”
“Shh, she’s bird-watching,” Dani whispered. It was Mrs. Holtkamp. Joy Holtkamp. She’d been the secretary for her father back when he lived at home and worked at the community college. She lived with a homosexual nephew down on Big Pine, because she never had any children and her husband had pitched his car over the Seven-Mile Bridge a long time ago. Her father never liked Mrs. Holtkamp much—the students called her Joyless, he told Dani—but she was always nice to Dani the few times she had to go to her dad’s work, rifled through her desk for butterscotch candies Dani didn’t much like. Mrs. Holtkamp couldn’t have been much more than thirty yards up ahead. She seemed to be looking up into an enormous strangler fig, in particular, lifted her binoculars to her eyes now and again. The binoculars had strange straps that went around her neck and shoulders and back.
Some leaves and sand crunched behind Dani. “For fuck’s sake, Carrie,” Kevin said in his strange low voice that wasn’t a whisper. Mrs. Holtkamp heard the crunch, or maybe heard Kevin’s stupid voice, or saw his stupid red hair, because she lowered the binoculars and swiveled her head toward them. “We’re screwed,” Kevin said. Dani could see Mrs. Holtkamp gazing toward them, though it was tough to know exactly what she could see through the branches and stuff. Then Mrs. Holtkamp did a funny thing. Rather than walk toward them and find out their names or something, she turned back around and walked away, veered westward sort of back toward the highway.
“Lucky,” Pam said in her normal voice as they all rose, Mrs. Holtkamp having vanished into the woods.
For reasons not altogether clear to her, Dani wouldn’t reveal Mrs. Holtkamp’s identity. She led them onward. Before long, the hardwoods gave way to shorter thickets of mangrove and buttonwood, discernible trails of hard sand and limestone between. The sun seared Dani’s flesh on her face and forearms, no longer protected by the mottled shade of the canopy. Dani and the others swatted the air in front of them as they walked to shoo the chaos of sand flies, which danced whirligig all about. Instead of stopper-spice, the thick air smelled mostly of sulfur now from the mangroves.
“Who cut the cheese?” Kevin.
Roger still didn’t say much of anything, seemed to concentrate extra special on his steps as if he was worried about fire-ant holes. He wore black canvas Chuck Taylors below his shorts, the laces all shredded.
“I like the smell,” Joey said, which made Kevin rag on Joey with a series of all-purpose, nasally ragging phrases. Dani wouldn’t tell them that she liked the mangrove smell, too, which smelled like rotten eggs, and which she wouldn’t have liked if it was actually rotten eggs and not the mangroves. Which was weird, maybe.
It seemed to Dani that they ought to have reached the building by now. She was just starting to worry that they were lost when the cinderblock peeked out from around the mangroves, blotting out the sky, freezing them all in their tracks. The builders hadn’t gotten around to covering the concrete siding with stucco or whatever before they went bankrupt, which made the ugly building middle of the mangroves look even stranger. Her mother and most everyone wanted the eyesore demolished and removed, but who was going to pay for that?
“Dani, you’re amazing!” Roger said, speaking finally through his huffing breath. His words made something shift inside her. When was the last time someone had paid her an actual compliment?
Plywood sealed all the first floor openings—KEEP OUT! DANGER! painted orange across most of the sheets—but it didn’t take long for them to find a way inside. Someone had torn a seam out of one of the coverings with what might have been an axe or crowbar. It was dim but not dark inside on account of the light streaming in from the torn-open plywood and from other gaps in the openings that Dani hadn’t noticed from the outside, twinkling like stars. It was oddly cool and damp and smelled bad. They gazed about, silent, at the large space they had entered, accented by metal piping and spindly planks of wood that might have framed discrete rooms. The builders hadn’t completed as much of the inside as Dani thought. They surveyed the entire level between the maze of wood and metal, the smooth concrete floor accented by archipelagoes of dented beer cans, ash from whatever it was that other intruders had smoked, and dark turds from whatever animals had sought refuge inside, which sort of explained the bad smell. Rats and raccoons, mostly, Dani guessed from the scat. Bats, maybe.
“Who wants to check out the upstairs?” Kevin asked once they reached the concrete stairwell near the center.
“I’ll go,” Pam said, and Kevin said cool, so maybe she’d been wrong about Kevin liking Carrie and Pam liking Roger. Dani wondered whether they’d make out up there, or even go all the way, because what else was there to do all alone up there? Carrie and Joey wondered too, because that’s what they ragged Kevin and Pam about once they were gone, lighting up their clove cigarettes as they sat against a wall in one of the cleaner corners.
Joey called kissing sucking face.
Carrie called it Frenching, which was sort of a prude thing to say. Roger just called it kissing.
“You want one?” Roger asked, holding open his pack of cloves before Dani.
“Sure,” she answered, plucking one of the dark cigarettes from the pouch more awkwardly than she had planned.
“You don’t have to smoke, Dani, if you don’t want to.”
DANI NOW SAT at the long-sleeved and -panted lunch table in the caf instead of at one of the band tables, unsurprised that none of the other clarinets, or any of the woodwinds for that matter, asked her what her deal was. During the too-short lunches, she quietly chewed her burrito or shepherd’s pie or chicken a la king and listened as her new friends nattered on about this or that. Every once in a while, she located a small space to merge onto the traffic, but mostly she just listened, like the rag-tag other sophomores and freshmen at the table, who seemed like wannabes to Dani. They occupied positions of lesser credibility than Dani, it was somehow clear, even though they wore long-sleeves and pants, plaid-patterned and dark hued, while she still wore short-sleeve T-shirts and shorts—mostly solids—in brighter hues. Roger frequently sat next to her and spoke to her (so maybe this was why she ranked above the wannabes), and she learned a few things about him. He packed his own lunches, because he hated the food in the caf and his mom left for work really early. She worked behind the lobby desk at the Lodge in Islamorada. He liked mayonnaise on his roast beef, which was sort of gross. It was his father who cast back his line at the Seven-Mile Bridge and caught Roger’s eye with his baited hook when Roger was eight. Roger’s father lived in Miami now, like Dani’s father. Roger was allergic to strawberries. He could still see out of his bad eye. He and Joey were re-taking Composition this year with Mrs. Pavich, because they turned in the exact same final paper on Lord of the Flies last year. Joey had been the one who actually wrote the paper. Roger’s favorite TV show was Beavis and Butt-Head. Roger, Dani learned, wasn’t very smart. But that was okay.
His favorite band was Gruntruck. And Cat Butt.
Pam liked 7 Year Bitch and Hole.
Kevin liked Screaming Trees, and ragged on Dani when she called them The Screaming Trees. Because he was a dick-weed.
Carrie liked Dickless.
Joey didn’t seem to have a favorite band.
WHEN THEY DECIDED to ditch school next to hang out in the abandoned building, Roger carried his boom box with him, and Pam and Carrie toted a few beach towels over their shoulders so they wouldn’t have to sit right on the damp and dirty concrete, and Kevin somehow got his hands on two six-packs of Pabst Blue Ribbon, which was a really good beer, he said, and Joey remembered the Cutter so the mosquitoes and sand flies didn’t bother them so much in the hammock. She was glad when Roger sat next to her on a towel against the wall after clicking down the PLAY button on the boom box.
“Cool, Dickless,” Carrie said, sitting cross-legged near Joey, squinting her eyes funny as she inhaled her clove. Dani couldn’t understand one word of whatever song it was, couldn’t really tell if it was a boy or a girl screaming the lyrics, but guessed it was a girl-band, because what sort of boys would call themselves Dickless? She didn’t really like the taste of the too-warm beer, its harsh fizz against her tongue and throat, but she liked the way it felt to hold the sweaty can and the lit clove in the same hand, the cigarette jutting from between her fingers, her pinkie tapping the sweaty can to the beat of the music. It occurred to Dani that even though she couldn’t understand any of the words, she liked the violent rhythm of the guitars and drums, which might have been because of the beer. As she sipped her Pabst and smoked her clove (you had to inhale pretty hard), she gazed over at Pam, folded inside the nest of Kevin’s arm (he wasn’t such a dick-weed to Pam), watched as Pam reached across Kevin’s plaid belly to scratch the fur of his other arm with her black nails while Kevin sipped his beer. The gesture struck Dani as so tender that it made her throat thick, but that might have been the beer too, which was starting to fuzz up her eyes. They were definitely doing it, Dani decided, even before they picked up their beach towel and walked off upstairs.
Then, Joey and Carrie rose silently from their towel and walked off into the shadows, as well. Next thing Dani knew Roger was kissing her and she was kissing him back. She could taste the cloves and beer stronger on their tongues as they kissed. Which was weird. He sort of lowered her down onto the towel, his face looming over her face. It felt good to rest her neck on the hard floor. Perched over her, Roger’s sandy hair floated away from his funny eye, which didn’t look any different to Dani than his good eye, maybe because both eyes were so black with his pupils in the near-dark. Then he did some things to Dani that she hadn’t let anyone do before, and she did some things to him that she also hadn’t done before, and then she had to tell him that she wasn’t ready yet to do the next thing he had in mind, which didn’t seem to disappoint him very much. Maybe because he wasn’t a dick-weed like Kevin. And maybe because she’d said “yet.”
IT FELT GOOD to walk off her buzz when they finally headed back to Roger’s pickup. Egrets or herons gossiped invisibly from the mangroves, squawking and making stranger clacking noises—spoonbills?—rousing her further. The sun painted her lips with its hot brush, the lips raw from Roger’s grown-up bristles, which was probably why she felt the sun so strong on them. The hammock air when they reached the hardwood canopy felt thinner and lighter in her chest. She walked at a steady pace, sort of zoned-out, or maybe she was zoned-in—“wait the fuck up,” she heard Kevin’s voice from the rear—savored the spicy air in her nostrils filling up her lungs, the rising warmth in the muscles of her thighs and calves, which she decided were strong and not so chubby, after all. It was sort of a game she played with herself to see if she could blaze a path through the spindly trees without breaking her stride. She watched out for poisonwoods and machineel trees and snakes, although she didn’t think there should be cottonmouths so far away from the water. And then a human voice from up ahead startled her.
“Danielle? Is that you?”
Her friends skidded their sneakers across the leaf litter to hold up behind her. Carrie, or maybe it was Pam, let out a little yelp, as if they’d just been confronted by a skunk ape.
“Yeah. It’s me,” Dani replied. Her eyes trained arms-length to part the dense foliage, she only now noticed the person farther off attached to the voice. It was Mrs. Holtkamp again, wearing that same stupid straw hat and the binoculars with the complicated straps. There seemed to be some sort of paste smeared across her nose too that wasn’t rubbed in all the way. Mrs. Holtkamp asked if she might have a word with Danielle alone so Dani told her friends to walk the rest of the way to Loquat without her. She’d meet them at the pickup. Mrs. Holtkamp waited until the others were well clear before saying anything.
“I thought I recognized you, Danielle.” Dani nodded. “The other day, too.”
“Oh.” So Mrs. Holtkamp had seen them. “Yeah. I guess.” Dani didn’t see any point in lying about it. She glanced at the old woman’s eyes, then glanced away. She wasn’t sure where she ought to look, settled on a millipede creeping across the leaf litter, crossed her arms beneath her chest.
“So . . .” Mrs. Holtkamp let the so hang up in the air between them for an awfully long time, inflated her lungs with a gulp of spiced hammock air and exhaled loud before her next words . . . “this is what you’re doing with yourself these days?”
Something about the way Mrs. Holtkamp spoke the words told Dani that she wasn’t trying to be all judgy or anything, that she was asking an actual question. She truly wanted to know if this was what Dani was doing with herself these days, ditching school and tromping through the hammock to smoke cloves and drink beer (both of which Mrs. Holtkamp could surely smell on her) and fool around with boys (which Mrs. Holtkamp could probably guess).
“I don’t know,” Dani answered, uncrossing her arms, but keeping her eyes mostly on the leaf litter. “Maybe . . . . It’s not, like, every day or anything.” A gnatcatcher wheezed from up in the canopy, as if to scold them for trespassing.
“So you’re okay then?” the old woman asked. “Those are your friends?” Dani lifted her eyes and told her yes, that she was fine, that they were her friends, while the gnatcatcher continued to wheeze, above. She lowered her eyes again to the leaf litter, but could see Mrs. Holtkamp’s straw hat bobbing as she nodded, weighing Dani’s words.
“You have to be careful, you know,” Mrs. Holtkamp stated more than asked, waved a thin hand before her pasted nose to shoo away an insect. She was talking about sex, Dani knew.
“I know,” Dani answered.
This seemed to satisfy Mrs. Holtkamp, because she looked up into the canopy for the gnatcatcher and asked in a brighter voice how her father was doing in Miami. Dani told Mrs. Holtkamp that her father was fine. “I wonder about him sometimes,” the old woman continued, looking through her binoculars now, so Dani told her this time that he was doing good, upgrading his status.
“And your mother?”
Dani told her that her that her mom was good too. Busy. Then Mrs. Holtkamp lowered her binoculars, told her that she saw her mother time to time at the nursery, which might have been a threat, but sounded more like it was just something to say. Even so.
“You gonna tell her you saw me out here?” Dani folded her arms again beneath her chest, looked into Mrs. Holtkamp’s eyes to see what she could see.
“No, Danielle.” Mrs. Holtkamp sighed. “I don’t think so.”
FOR SUPPER THAT NIGHT, Dani and her mother sifted through the layers of Stouffer’s lasagna, Dani collecting as much ground meat on her fork as she could and shedding the flavorless, pasty cheese. The table didn’t seem so big back when Dani’s father and sister lived at home.
Her mom still smelled like plants and dirt from the nursery, redolent above the supper odors. She smelled just like the hammock, it occurred to Dani. Between bites, her mother asked “how was school?” because that’s what she always asked, and Dani told her it was “fine,” because that’s how she always answered. Then her mom asked if Dani would be okay doing homework on her own later for a couple hours so she could “go out” and Dani said “sure,” and then asked where her mom had to go, and her mom said “just out,” flipping through one of her nature-y magazines, and then Dani knew it wasn’t a Concerned Citizens meeting so asked “with who?” and her mom said, “just a friend.” Which meant it wasn’t Mr. Conrad, anyway. Then her mom told her to eat some of her salad, too, not just the lasagna, maybe because she didn’t want Dani to get any chubbier, or maybe just to keep her from asking any more questions.
Dani was glad that her mom wasn’t seeing Mr. Conrad anymore because he’d been Dani’s sixth grade teacher, which made it totally creepy, and there was no way she was ever going to call him Bruce, like he suggested. But Dani’s mom was seeing someone new now. Because she was going out on a weeknight, which she hardly ever did, and she’d gone out the last two Friday nights with “just a friend,” too. (Saturday nights her mother still took her bowling.) Her mom had dated at least three men now since the divorce who Dani knew about, the first two of whom had been “just a friend” for an awful long time before Dani had met them and learned their names. Dani didn’t really hate them, but didn’t like them, either, because they acted too nice to her, which wasn’t really the same as being nice.
Dani speared three crescents of celery onto her fork and swished them around in the Ranch dressing on the bottom of the plate, lifted the morsel to her mouth. Sometimes her mom got angry at her for dousing her salad with too much Ranch dressing, but she didn’t seem to notice tonight, even though she’d stopped reading her nature-y magazine. Her mind was probably on her date. Dani tried not to think about it, but sometimes she wondered about her mom and her men and the sex stuff. The logistics. Like, did grownups even bother with second base? That sort of thing.
Pam called sex bumping hairs, which was disgusting.
Roger called sex the bone dance, which was also disgusting. But funny.
Kevin called sex screwing, like most everyone.
Joey called sex the horizontal lambada, which he must have picked up from that stupid movie.
Carrie called sex sex, which was boring. Sort of like Carrie.
Dani’s mom cleared her plate and started rinsing it in the sink and scrubbing it with the sponge all brisk-like, brisker than usual, probably because Dani had said it was okay for her to go see her “just a friend” and she needed to shower off all her plant and dirt smells, maybe spray on her Vanilla Fields or Sunflowers perfume.
“We’re still bowling Saturday night, right?” Dani asked.
“Of course, Dani.” Her mother turned from the sink to answer, twisted off the fizzy stream from the faucet. “You sure you’re okay, sweetie?” she asked, parentheses rising between her eyebrows.
Which sounded sort of strange, because Dani didn’t remember her mother asking if she was okay the first time, not exactly, but Dani told her yes, she was okay, because that’s how she always answered when her mother did ask her if she was okay, and because she was okay. Mostly.
THE NEXT TIME DANI DITCHED SCHOOL and blazed a trail through the hammock with her new friends, she found herself scanning the foliage for Mrs. Holtkamp’s goofy straw hat. Not because she was hoping to avoid her, but because she hoped she might see her again, which was sort of a surprising feeling to feel. It bummed her out when they got to the abandoned building without spotting her. She didn’t want to smoke cloves today (no one had brought any beer or anything), maybe because she was bummed about not seeing Mrs. Holtkamp, and maybe because she found herself having less and less to say to Roger and the others at lunch in the caf the last couple of weeks.
She let Roger kiss her and stuff today, but she wasn’t too into it. Roger could tell, because he stopped sort of in the middle of feeling her up and said, “You’re not too into it, I can tell,” and so she explained that she was just distracted over stuff (not mentioning Mrs. Holtkamp, which he’d find totally lame), and then she started saying a bunch of stuff to make him feel better, stuff she’d never had to say to anyone before. Roger just lifted his palm and said, “It’s chill,” leaned back up against the damp cinderblock wall, turned up the volume on the Gruntruck song—It’s alright I’m doing fine, as long as you’re above me, it’s okay I’m doing fine, as long as I’m below you—and felt around on the concrete floor for the clove cigarette he’d left somewhere. She leaned over and started kissing him again, because it was nice of him to be chill about it instead of sulk or whine or, worse, whip out his boner and pressure her to finish what they started, like dick-weed Kevin would probably do. The more they kissed the better it felt, even down there, but not really because she was so into Roger, anymore, which sort of bummed her out. She wondered, as his breath got all panty between his kissing and pawing at her, whether she ought to just let him go all the way and get it over with, realized the next instant that this was probably a stupid reason to do it even before it occurred to her that Roger probably didn’t have any rubbers with him, anyway.
It’s alright I’m doing fine, as long as you’re above me, it’s okay I’m doing fine, as long as I’m below you.
DANI SORT OF HAD A FEELING Roger had brought along rubbers the next time they ditched school for the hammock, because he’d worked in rubbers as a general topic of conversation three times that week at the caf, and because the third time he made sure to mention that he carried “at least” one rubber in his wallet, to which Dani replied, “Noted,” which was a pretty killer response—and which made Joey and the wannabes laugh—but which might have been a bit too encouraging to Roger.
So it was probably a good thing that Dani spotted Mrs. Holtkamp’s straw hat a good distance away before they made it to the mangroves and the building. Dani told the others to go on up ahead, that if she didn’t meet up with them not to worry. She’d get a ride. Roger sort of made a farting noise through his lips. She didn’t quite know how to read the farting noise, but it didn’t sound very nice, didn’t sound very Roger, and only stiffened her resolve.
“You all know the way now,” she said. “You don’t need me anymore.”
Roger and the others shuffled off across the leaf litter, parting the thin hardwoods more violently than necessary. Watching after them, she was relieved that she could stay outside in the hammock today rather than go inside the dank building to make out with Roger. The hammock, she realized, was where she wanted to be.
Mrs. Holtkamp lowered her binoculars upon Dani’s approach, didn’t seem the least bit surprised to see her, maybe because she’d already spotted Dani from a ways off, even though she’d been mostly gazing up into the trees. Or maybe because when you got so old nothing really surprised you anymore. Which was sort of sad.
“Hey,” Dani said, lifting her palm, her voice piercing the sizzle of the cicadas and the sweeter Morse code chips of the little birds up there in the canopy.
“Hello, Danielle,” Mrs. Holtkamp flashed mossy teeth, then covered them up just as quickly with her thin lips, trained her binoculars back up into the foliage blocking most of the direct sunlight. Every once in a while, Dani heard a raspy zheep that interrupted the sizzle of the cicadas and the sweeter Morse code chips of the warblers or whatever. Some sort of flycatcher, Dani knew enough to know.
“What do you see up there?” she asked.
Mrs. Holtkamp lowered her binoculars again, rubbed the back of her thin neck with her hand. “Great-crested Flycatcher. Some yellow-rumped warblers. Don’t you have to catch up with your friends?” It hurt Dani’s feelings that Mrs. Holtkamp seemed to be shooing her off, that she wasn’t more interested in Dani than she might have been. That’s what the students at college and even Dani’s father didn’t like about Mrs. Holtkamp, she remembered. She wasn’t very friendly or nice. Joyless. Yet her frostiness somehow made Dani more interested in the old woman. She asked if she might tag along with her for a while—“I like birds too”—decided she’d wait till later before asking Mrs. Holtkamp for a ride to the end of her block along the highway.
“Of course,” Mrs. Holtkamp replied, more friendly than unfriendly, and so Dani followed the old woman as they ambled through the hammock, the two of them glancing up from time to time, but mostly walking. Mrs. Holtkamp didn’t say anything for a while. She seemed sort of out of it, actually. New bugs—or frogs, maybe—burped from the trees, joining the cicada sizzle. She was about to ask Mrs. Holtkamp about the new noise, but swallowed her words. Maybe because Mrs. Holtkamp didn’t seem like she felt like talking, and maybe because Dani didn’t want to admit that she didn’t know the animal to attach to those burping sounds.
“I have a backcountry permit with me,” Mrs. Holtkamp finally uttered over her shoulder, “just in case we get stopped.”
“Oh,” Dani said. “Good.”
Dani felt her sweat pearling on her forehead and upper lip as they walked, felt the warmth in her thighs and even in her lungs as she worked to keep Mrs. Holtkamp’s modest pace. Along with the burping sounds, there was an awful lot of birdsong up there in the canopy that the old woman seemed not to hear, because she didn’t stop and look for them with her binoculars.
“So why do you come out here, Mrs. Holtkamp?”
“Yeah, but why else?”
Here, the old woman halted in her tracks, turned toward Dani and flashed her teeth, which weren’t so mossy after all, Dani decided. “You were always a smart girl, weren’t you Danielle?”
Dani sort of half-nodded and licked the sweat of her lip rather than tell Mrs. Holtkamp that she wasn’t the smart one, that Lisa was the smart one. Dani was the one who didn’t like to do her homework and had to take Algebra twice and made her parents yell at her, and at each other, an awful lot.
“I suppose I come out here to think,” Mrs. Holtkamp continued. “Hammock’s a good place to be for that sort of thing.” Dani wondered what it was that Mrs. Holtkamp had to think about—her homosexual nephew? her husband who drove his car off the Seven-Mile Bridge a long time ago?—but before she could ask they were interrupted by the unignorable call of a new bird sounding several times from up in the pigeon plum foliage. Queep . . . queep . . . queep . . . queep. Mrs. Holtkamp raised her binoculars to her eyes and scanned the canopy. Queep . . . queep. The raspy notes sounded flycatchery to Dani, but higher and clearer than the flycatcher they had just heard.
“That’s a flycatcher, right?”
“Yes, Danielle. A La Sagra’s, I think. Rare. From the tropics somewhere. There! I see it. I’m fairly certain that’s what it is. Must be lost, poor thing.” Mrs. Holtkamp lowered her binoculars and unclipped them somehow from the complicated strap. She handed them to Dani, who looked up at the bird, which looked mostly plain and gray and not very special at all.
Then the flycatcher got real quiet all of a sudden, which seemed strange, the all-of-a-suddenness. Which made Dani lower her binoculars, and that’s when she saw something more interesting than the plain and gray bird. Four coal-black figures clad in colorless clothing, who walked steadily, if not quite fast, northward across the hammock leaf litter just twenty yards or so east of them, the two in the middle shorter than the ones in front and behind. One of the shorter people glanced Dani’s way, slowed her stride. Dani only knew she looked her way because she glimpsed the whites of her eyes flashing between the leaves and branches and stuff. And she only guessed that she was a girl, a child, who might have been younger than Dani. The girl was jostled from behind, it seemed, by her taller companion (her father?), redirected her gaze as her party continued through the hammock.
“Uh . . .” Mrs. Holtkamp uttered, as if she felt that words were required, yet had no idea what to say. “Um . . .”
So it was something of a relief when the rare flycatcher from the tropics picked up its queeping call once again, as the human migrants from the tropics slipped out of view, as Mrs. Holtkamp finally gathered her wits enough to say, “Well, Danielle, let’s keep moving,” as they trekked onward through the hammock away from the rare flycatcher in its pigeon plum, away from the coal-black family—yes, Dani decided that they were a family, having decided earlier that they must have been human migrants from the tropics—as Mrs. Holtkamp probably started thinking again about her thoughts, as Roger and the others smoked and screwed around in the creepy building not very far away that might have housed all sorts of fancy people had things turned out just a little bit different. Dani wondered what would happen to the family, who walked with such purpose, as zillions of unheard, unseen bugs, birds, mammals, and reptiles went about their own hammock business. She wondered whether the family would be okay, whether she and Mrs. Holtkamp ought to have pursued them and helped them in some way, whether someone was meeting them with a car on the highway up near the Card Sound Bridge to the mainland. Although new creatures sounded now from the trees closer by, Dani found herself listening hard after the rare flycatcher, who queeped more faintly from behind each step they took. She wondered who or what the poor bird was queeping for so deep in the hammock, so high in the pigeon plum foliage, so alone and so far from home.