Warning: This work has been rated 18+ for language and mature content.
Mattias stood with his feet poised on the deck’s edge, looking ready to pounce at any moment. Mattias was tall for the age of fourteen, with a smattering of freckles that ran up and down his veined forearms. He clutched a flat Dr. Pepper close to his chest as he watched Olivia, his sunshine and coincidentally, a fourteen-year-old girl, flounce her skirt as she dug a corkscrew path around the trampoline bed, her hair shimmering with the vibrancy of golden tinsel.
Olivia frolicked on the trampoline without caring that the sun crept beneath the horizon and onward, to a point of excess Mattias was forced to acknowledge as he caught a whiff of food smells inside. The sound of his father’s beckoning whistle, nor the spanking rhythms of cutlery against dishes worked to rouse him.
He looked at the crabgrass folding beneath the platform deck in sad curlicues. Olivia was seated on the trampoline bed now, doing nothing of interest besides looking pretty. He thought he saw her glance over at him once before he tore away from his vantage point to look at his frustratingly red hammer toe. “Fuck, ouch!” He muttered, kneeling down stealthily to study his diseased foot, which was at current affected by hammer toe, a fungal nail, and even a particularly bad case of the ringworm.
A thought pounded in Mattias’s brain as he hopped around on one foot, looking for signs of further irritation on the sole: Boys with deformed feet don’t get girls like Olivia to go steady with. He considered the thought some more, imagined her hair with his eyes closed, and decided he would bury it.
Nathan Brecker was standing barefoot too, in the kitchen. He had a plantar’s wart but otherwise unaffected feet. He looked like Mattias, if Mattias were older and more handsome. Nathan used a girlish oven mitt to grip the edges of a hot pan coated with grease. A fat, robust chicken sizzled on it as he buried a knife into its wings, flaying the sides with strange paternal care.
Mattias was sure Olivia could hear his father calling at this point; consequently, she looked around with impertinence until her eyes finally settled on the anemic rope swing perched over their little cobblestone walkway. A shadow crested her face as she swung her legs over the lip of the trampoline and dropped down silently. Mattias waited for her. He wasn’t sure whether this time she’d be compliant or unpredictable. His father didn’t do unpredictability. Still, there were ways that Mattias could intervene; after all, he’d done it before. And he stiffened up his shoulder pretty good to bear it.
Watching Olivia emerge and feeling momentarily distracted by the bareness of her legs, Mattias flocked to her: “Did you have a good time?”
Olivia regarded Mattias without really looking at him. Her eyebrows cut lines into her forehead, and her skin sprung back into resolution like a knife lifting from cake. “I always have fun by myself,” she said.
Mattias shifted from foot to bad foot. He moved his gaze from his own toes to her dainty ones, painted with a singular nail polish that Nathan permitted her to wear due to his fondness for the color red. They were chipping badly but somehow the half-done look suited Olivia.
“Well, you know, dinner.” Mattias stammered, guiding Olivia up the stairs. He appreciated the fact that his back now faced her, for he could feel a maddening heat rising in his cheeks. As Mattias clamped down on the door handle with his sweaty fist, he thought he saw his father wave through the window. Beyond the mottled sliding-glass door, a round, plump chicken sat piping on the table underneath a hot plate, indistinguishable from a centerpiece.
Mattias was not disappointed, except for one stipulation. He sensed Olivia wasn’t keen on meat. His suspicions were confirmed when he witnessed all color drain from her face as she skulked into the living room. Perhaps his father didn’t know— but Mattias did, because she was the one who would squeal during dissection labs in eighth-grade and break out into frivolous tears. Today though, her face did not flinch as she pulled out a chair robotic-ally and sat down.
Allowing some time for Olivia to get adjusted, Nathan drifted over to his father. Nathan had adopted the persona of a mad scientist while leveling passion fruit liquid in each of their cups. In his mind, food needed to be perfect at the very least on the Fourth of July. Dusk seeped into their living room, painting wide horizontal slats of blue-grey shadow across the hardwood.
As Nathan sat down, his eyes bored into Olivia’s soft green ones. He never took his stare off Olivia, even when Mattias spoke up: “Dad, what do you think about natural gas?”
Nathan replied with benign disinterest. “I think we need to make the practical switch, Matty. Which is why I’m thankful to work for a company with good sense. ” Nathan held a gleaming knife in his hand like a raised mast. Mattias saw Olivia look over it’s ridges as though she were memorizing each notch of it. Or, that’s at least what he supposed she was doing. He was a bit preoccupied between trying to understand Olivia’s thoughts and licking individual strands of green bean slick with gravy.
In the middle of chewing, “Good point dad. Yanno, I used to think laying and evaluating pipes was pretty boring work. But seeing what you do, I mean, how can you not be appreciative? Imagine a house with no natural gas. We would turn into popsicles.”
Nathan let out a laugh that sounded like a sputtering engine. “You crack me up, Matty.” His face flashed with some imperceptible emotion and in an instant he returned to his normal stoicism.
Olivia had been sitting quietly at the dining table with no utensils nor a plate. Mattias thought of this as strange because normally, Nathan would ensure that Olivia was served the first, most fresh helpings of food. Still, Mattias didn’t like the way Olivia’s mouth curled up into an odd shape as her eyes flitted from the hot plate to Nathan and then back down to her ankles.
“Something wrong, sweet girl?” Nathan asked, placing a hand tenderly on Olivia’s shoulder. Olivia shook Nathan’s raw fingernails off her body as though reacting to a shock of static. Her eyes bulged only after she realized the gravity of her insult. Nathan reeled his hand back, his face stricken. Then another emotion took root, one of a much heavier consequence. Uh-oh, Mattias thought to himself. Green beans hung from his mouth. He shoveled them down his throat and nearly choked on a rough swig of tap water.
“You get your own plate, bitch.” Nathan snapped at her. “And don’t even think of sulking. Today’s a holiday and I don’t want to discipline.” Olivia stood up and, in pushing in her chair, struck her hip against the table corner. Her pupils swelled as the sudden, accidental sound attracted Nathan’s attention. He had just resumed some light conversation with Matty when suddenly his whole body careened around to face Olivia, puncture lines appearing on his forehead.
Olivia hurried over to the right-hand cabinet above the sink. She rattled the door handles, to no avail. Looking up she saw the cabinet was padlocked.
Horrible laughter snaked from Nathan’s rumbling throat. “It’s locked, you dumb bitch.” He exchanged an concentrated glance with Mattias, who had made quick work of his plate and now sat with his hands folded, taking in the ensuing trouble.
Olivia gave Mattias a frantic look, which signaled Mattias’s return to the rescue. “Just tell her where you hid it, dad.”
Heading back to school after a long, drawn-out summer was no easy feat for Mattias. In the haze of warm-weather drafts and card games with Olivia, blissful hours spent studying her hands fly over the necks of beer bottles (a habit she had soon acquired in cohabiting with Nathan) , he couldn’t envision kicking off the seventh-grade without her. Of course, he knew Olivia wasn’t really leaving— she was just out of his life for a temporary six hours each day.
Mattias quickly developed a pattern of charging home after his last course of the day, backpack flapping against the nape of his skinny neck, in his efforts to not waste much more than an hour missing her.
She used to be just a girl with the blue streaks in her hair and equally blue scuffed sneakers, who sat so near him in first-period homeroom that the hair on the back of his neck was perpetually raised.
Olivia was one thing now: a sure bet. His friend group was a whole 'nother dilemma to tackle.
On that first day in mid-August, Mattias approached his group of friends with some caution. To his knowledge, they spent the majority of their summer either hanging out or taking family vacations together. He was keenly aware of the fact that he couldn’t relate, had their friendship not been already sealed by a shared passion for collecting cheap plastic figurines and shooting them down stairwells. His footsteps worked in succession with the pounding of his head as he caught up to them.
“Durst. Holmes!” He exclaimed a bit more chirpily than intended, clapping his two best friends hard on the shoulder. “Long time no see. How’s it feel to be kings of this stinking dump?”
John Durst, a scrappy kid of thirteen with scaly blue, permanently scabbed-up knees eyed his friend with conscious disinterest. Max “Magnum” Holmes blew Mattias an ironic kiss. “We missed you.” He crooned, then made a “sock you in the gut” gesture with his pale fists. “No really, we had so much fun without you. Wake boarding was the fuddin shit.”
“I had my own fun.”“Yeah right.” John rolled his eyes. “What have you got to do in your creeper dad’s place?” He wrenched his forehead up in disgust. Judging by the way Mattias’s face fell in response, he re-articulated: “Sorry. I mean, last time I came over it was weird. There are no pictures hanging anywhere. My mom calls it a personal touch and says it’s very important in a house. ”
Mattias ignored John’s commentary. He assumed his house was as good as any kid’s on the block. “Summer was better than you think. Believe me.” he said, flicking a blood bead on his elbow. His thoughts shot back to Olivia whose hands he could almost feel in his own— hands that smelled like Shea butter, complete with magically long nails that could scratch, long and deep and painfully. Mattias loved nails that scratched. He secretly fantasized about her digging them into his forearm whenever she got passionate about something, like card games or the outdoors.
Were those the only two things she felt passionate about? Mattias wanted to know. He wanted to know everything, including why his forty-seven-year-old father had taken such an interest in homeschooling her. Or where her real family had fudged off to.
Did they miss her? Did they ever think about her?
Angelina Underwood clamped a piece of singed hair into her hot iron and twisted, eyes on the bird’s egg cracks in her mirror. She counted silently to ten and loosened the strand from her grasp. It hung flat against her neck, looking a lot sadder than before. She cursed to herself, to all of it: the purple curtains underneath her eyes, the unexpected payments of child support she had endured the past couple of years, the monumental strain paired along with refinancing her house.
Bobby pins clenched between her teeth, she piled more hair on top of her head and secured it. Wisps of heat-creased hair sprouted from the peak of her messy bun. It was when she lowered the curl iron once again to another vulnerable section of hair that she received the phone call.
She let go of the hot iron, cursing again as it thwacked hard against the porcelain sink. She sucked on her fingers which radiated an alarming red and used her other hand to pick up the phone.
The voice of Angelina’s ex-husband came through on the other end of the line. “Ang, are you there?” He spoke breathlessly, his husky voice lacking its normal self-assured cadence.
“I’m here. Present,” Angelina said, a bit sarcastically. She didn’t like the way her ex’s voice had picked up as though carried by an undercurrent; it racked her ruler-thin body with nervous tremors. She slipped her beet red forefingers back into her mouth and coated them with a generous layer of saliva.
“I wouldn’t call if it wasn’t important.” Hesitation on the other end. Angelina would never admit it, but she savored his voice. The smooth, strong undertones of his pitch sometimes licked the walls of her thighs. But not now. Not with the way he sounded.
“Tell me what’s going on, Rich.” Her fingers flattened against the phone’s touch pad.
“Olivia. I was supposed to pick her up on her first day back. ” He was having difficulty keeping up with the rush of his words. “Today, I pulled up to the pick-up zone and she wasn’t there.”
What kinds of gifts do you buy for the lonely, the angry? Mattias didn’t know. So on the week of August 22nd, he gravitated towards some girls who might possibly have an idea.
“Heya, Char. Hey Amber.” He stood over the adjacent desks of two girls dressed in their lacrosse gear. From where they were sitting, they couldn’t see that his knees were trembling.
“What do you need?” Amber spoke curtly, rolling her eyes. “You only come over to these desks when you need something.” Charlene Davis didn’t even respond. She was too busy clacking away at her Chromebook. The classroom had been allotted work time for their social studies projects on state legislatures, and Charlene wasted no time in designing a law that would be sure to please at least two-thirds of the entire class: a 25 minute-long recess and more fresh food selections available at the food hut.
“I need your advice.” Mattias spoke in such a plain, direct voice that even Charlene couldn’t ignore it. After all, she had heard a line like that before: her mom had a habit of saying it to her after making a particularly nasty, contemptuous jab at Charlene’s father.
“Please. Shoot.” Charlene frowned, putting away the Chromebook. Any attempts Charlene made to disguise her aversion to him failed as he flirted with her personal space, draping a freckled forearm over her desk.
“It’s this girl. She’s upset, and I don’t know what to do to fix it.” His thumb twitched over her desk and Charlene made a face, not being able to help it.
Although Amber hadn’t been noticed for quite some time at this point in the conversation, she thought she would voice her opinion anyway. Charlene knew nothing about keeping seventh-grade boys in line; and besides, Amber had three older brothers. “Ok, first of all: how did you screw up?” Amber drew her eyebrows together, forming a bushy peak. Charlene cast her a look that said: why don’t you stay out of this. Amber didn’t pick up on the cue because she kept talking, “Get real with us, Matty.”
Mattias lifted his hand from Charlene’s desk momentarily to scratch his neck. He spotted their teacher careening around a row of unoccupied desks and all the blood seemed to leave his face. “I didn’t do anything. She’s upset…” His skin took on a waxen look, “...For reasons, which are kind of outside my control.”
Amber piped up. “What do you mean, outside your control?” She snorted. “Why do you care so much then, doofus?”
“Because I’m pretty sure I love her.” He fidgeted with the sleeves of his plaid over shirt.
“God, you’re so naive.” Charlene took on a blank look that signified the end of their conversation and opened a blank document up on her computer.
Mattias walked away from Amber and Char feeling unresolved. Had what they said impacted him in any meaningful way? He shut his eyes to unveil a wall of black with wide purple chasms opening at random.
As a little kid, he always had problems with floaters. He used to think it meant going blind; now he knew better. In his early grade school years, he remembered mashing his head to one side of the desk to double his vision. He felt it was a cool superpower; being able to see copies of the text like that. All it really did though, was make him confused: much like his confusion now. He returned to his desk and sat down heavily, hoping to be inconspicuous as the teacher made her rounds.
Bursting through those wide school gates after a sizzling, late-summer afternoon felt undeniably good to Matty. Its power over him he couldn’t deny as he piled himself and his book-bag into his father’s car.
While he knew his father’s windows were heavily tinted, he was nonetheless surprised to see Olivia in the backseat. She sat with her tawny legs folded and he could plainly see they were mottled with bruises. Questions boiled at the back of his mind. Was his father choosing to make a statement? Perhaps bringing her here, in front of all these school kids, was a veiled threat?
“Hi, dad.” He said, half-expecting Olivia to dip out of the car with her arms raised in a vain attempt to reach the nearest passerby. Instead she sat back, her lips drawn into a tight line.
Matty himself was yet again invisible to her.
“Hi son,” Nathan said, his words thick and enunciated. “Look who’s here.” He seemed to be communicating something to Olivia in another language, one Mattias could not understand.
“Hi, Olivia. Your hair looks nice.” Mattias began to sweat. A film formed on his upper lip which he hoped she wouldn’t notice, but Olivia was surprisingly astute. Her eyes grazed him, lighting his body on fire. He thought he saw some old, foreign emotion stir in her before her eyes took on that cloudy, faraway look he’d grown so accustomed to.
“Matt.” Her fingernails steadied the car seat belt over her abdomen.
Why did she have to act so afraid? It was written all over her face. I’ll protect her. The most painful thing she’ll deal with today, will be putting aloe on a sunburn. But he couldn’t very well say that in front of Nathan. No, Nathan loved Matty, but by the same token, he wouldn’t let Matty get in his way. He enjoyed far too much baking brownies with Olivia and letting her lick off the spoon, he enjoyed nights spent together tuning in to Family Jeopardy, he enjoyed picking out nice neat jumpers for Olivia to wear.
But perhaps even more Nathan liked asserting himself. A black eye or two meant nothing as long as it preserved the family unit. He didn’t strike Olivia with impunity; he liked to preserve the soft sweetness of her face, her apple cheekbones. But Matty couldn’t lie; he was getting right sick of fat caterpillar welts stretching interminably over his back. For love, for love, for love, he told himself, to bear it. The words ricocheted in his brain, shot around like Minnie balls exploding from a musket.
Nathan, meanwhile, readjusted the rear view mirror in a way that allowed him to monitor the two in the backseat. He sensed that his son was attracted to her, a feeling that would often pulse in his stomach with a worm-like quality. Olivia’s round eyes and skinny body were divine, absolute. She sealed the deal; he would never look at stiff-necked, forty-year-old women in their giant football padded blazers with the same hunger.
Divorce has a way of making you jaded. No stakes, no consequences. Nathan’s ego was impenetrable, his faith unshaken.
“Today’s a park day, I’m thinking. We’ll swing by the house first to pick up the mitts and baseballs.” His eyes were trained on the peak of Olivia’s chest. Her coconut lotion floated pleasantly to his nose. He felt his disembodied head floating, and with no sense of space or time, he imagined the way fading daylight struck her dimples in the summertime.