The fight had dissipated as fast as it exploded in a corner of the schoolyard, and no one was seriously injured. Really, no one was even moderately injured – it had been more a spontaneous act of boyish excitement when someone had said the wrong thing at the wrong time. It’s easy to say the wrong thing when you’re seven.
She’d wanted to be part of the fight, to say that she’d had that experience, but none of the boys really paid attention to her once they started letting fists fly without a clue as to where they ought to have been aiming. She did get hit, though, and when she’s older she’ll revisit that memory and wonder why. Why there of all places, but more importantly, why she reacted the way she did.
It was a kick, swift and sure, that landed between her legs. Was it supposed to hurt the same way that such a blow often hurt other boys? It stung like being kicked anywhere else, sure, but the look on her opponent’s face made it seem like he was expecting something more. When she didn’t crumple up like a tin can he turned and started focusing on more familiar targets, leaving her with the strange, dull, stinging sensation.
“Grandma,” Holly called out, running across the big orange tiles in the entryway to where the older woman sat in the dining room beyond.
“Abuela,” she corrected, looking up from a thin book that her granddaughter would later recognize as a collection of embroidery patterns. At this age, she was still trying to teach the girl Spanish, but most of it wouldn’t stick. Cecilia didn’t make a point of speaking it at home.
“Abuela, I got into a fight today!” the little girl says, tonguing the hole in her own smile. The tooth had come out barely a week before, and it still tasted funny.
“You did?” The woman clicks her tongue, but her disappointment is non-committal. She knows how her granddaughter is. “Eso no es propio de una dama, chica. Did you get hurt?”
The young Holly understands the Spanish but ignores it. “No,” she says, shaking her head. “Not even when David kicked me.” She’s beaming with pride.
Abuela Jesusita scowls, doubling the number of creases along her ochre brow. “Donde? Let me see what this David boy did.”
Holly’s pride dwindles for some reason that is currently beyond her, and she hems and haws for a long moment, fidgeting and looking away. Some part of her knows that what happened was wrong, but something about it is remarkable enough to confess to the woman that she trusts so completely. She grasps the back of one of the wooden chairs at the dining table, studying it.
“Umm… you can’t,” she says quietly. “He kicked my…”
Abuela’s eyes widen, but the child misjudges her grandmother’s reaction. She’s quick to appease her.
“It’s OK, though!” the young Holly blurts. “It didn’t really hurt. It sorta felt good.”
But that seems to make it worse. She grabs Holly’s hands and holds them tightly – a little too tight. “Holly.” Her voice is low in a way that the child has never heard before. “Don’t say that,” she hisses quietly. “That is wrong. What he did was wrong.”
The seven year old girl is paralyzed with fear, and nods.
“And do not tell your mother. Ay, cochina…”
The girl’s hair smells like sticky sweet perfume, and it irritates Holly’s nose. But she looked good in heels from across the room, the sinews of her legs strong and taught, something the tomboy always admired.
What’s her name? Sandra? Samantha? Cassandra?
“Czarina,” the young woman, proud and tall and elegant like a skyscraper, introduces herself.
“Holly,” says the 17 year-old, taking a swig from her rum and coke.
They get to talking about music – everything from Nirvana to Selena – and laugh when they discover each others’ collections are still in CD form. It’s 2004 and they’ve already seen the rise and fall of Napster. Neither one is sure they trust their music to digitization yet; it’s all still so new.
At some point, maybe an hour later, Holly finds her face buried in Czarina’s hair as they lay in someone’s bed. The sheets don’t seem to have been washed in a few weeks and she’s surrounded by the scent of people. Not soap or fabric softener or even musk, just the heavy odor of skin and hair and a living, breathing body. But Czarina’s perfume tickles, and not in an especially pleasant way.
Her hands are warm, though, and she’s deceptively strong. Even stronger than the tomboy in her arms. If this were a guy, Holly might have allowed herself to be put off by the smell. But she’s more lenient with other girls. They’re hard to come by.
“Who did your tattoo?” Holly traces the portrait of an infant on the young woman’s arm. Above her head is the name “Elena”, written in that Chola cursive that she hates so much. The portrait is well-done, though, and Holly wonders if the baby is a sister or a daughter. It’s best not to ask.
“One of my cousin’s friends,” she murmurs, tickling the nape of her neck. “I can give you his number.”
She’d like that, and for a few minutes she thinks about the ink she’d want to get. The body in her arms is distracting, though, and insistent. Lips kiss a faint trail up her neck, and Holly has to bite back a giggle.
“You know, you’re pretty timid for a butch,” Czarina laughs.
Holly laughs too. “A what?”
“No makeup, short hair, wifebeater… you sit with your legs open.”
“I do, don’t I?”
Czarina giggles. “You’re a baby butch.”
But Holly’s hardly a baby. “What does that make you, then?”
The two girls look at each other then burst into laughter together, alcohol still heavy on their breaths.
“It’s funny,” she goes on. “Normally, I like to be the one being chased. But there’s something about you that makes me wanna, I dunno…” She wraps her arms and legs around Holly and squeezes tight. For a brief moment she can’t move, and the air is crushed from her lungs, but Czarina quickly lets go. “Do that.”
Holly’s left momentarily breathless, and not from being so tightly embraced. There was something there, and it felt right. Really right. She wants her to do it again, but forever this time.
She never gets a very good definition of ‘butch’ out of her, but it doesn’t really matter all that much, because they only end up dating for a few months at any rate.
It lasts just long enough for Holly to get sucked into the world of casual sex and loud music, the world that Czarina knows like a fish knows water. It’s scary and colorful and exciting and strange – all things that a high school junior without a clue what she wants to do after school is looking for.
All things that a young woman with a burgeoning streak of sorts is looking for.
But when Holly asks if Czarina could try kicking her one night, the older girl laughs, and laughs hard. Holly frowns and quietly tells herself that its probably time to move on.
So maybe that’s what this is, ponders the woman on the couch with her hair in a short top-knot, faint scar above her eyebrow from an old piercing, and leg in a cast from a stupid mistake.
The past few days have been spent in thought, and occasionally indulging a nervous tic or two. It’s better than what she ought to be doing.
Holly’s beginning to get the distinct sense of transgression – a felt sense that she’s been drawn to for years now, but this time, it’s different. A part of her actually does want to just end it. It would be easier, safer. The repercussions here might mean more than just a black eye or a bad hangover.
“Several home-made bombs were set off at about 5 o’clock this morning at MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,” announces the voice-over of a journalist on the TV. Holly’s a few years out of high school and she’s almost out the door for a shift at the grocery store, but she pauses at the breaking story as a camera pans across a hideously broken building, blackened and littered with papers.
“Police believe that the attack is related to a threatening letter that the university’s department of electrical engineering received earlier this year, which implicated DARPA in a conspiracy to turn the United States into “another Third Reich”: Hitler’s Nazi Germany.
“Only four out of a total of nine home-made explosive devices succeeded in detonating, however, and there have been no reported fatalities. Only two people suffered mild –“
It took them three years and four attacks to figure out who did it. The news called him the new Ted Kaczynski, especially after an alleged manifesto surfaced, which claimed that the drone suits were America’s attempts at the fabled ubermensch. The media circus went nuts, and the trial almost surpassed the OJ Simpson ratings.
Holly isn’t super political, nor does she have many opinions on matters, but she does pay attention to the news, and she does pay attention to what the military is doing to the best of her ability. A long time ago Holly realized that it was generally a good idea to take the opposite stance as her brother in-law, and Scott, as it turned out, was quite the war hawk.
In the months after a heated debate that took place over one year’s Thanksgiving spread in which she got her ass rhetorically handed to her, she hunkered down and did her research. That’s when she learned to fear the drones that Scott spoke so highly of.
And she was far from alone, as it turned out.
That was about 5 years ago, and if you’d ever asked her if she thought she might run into one – a real one, not one of those recreational quadcopters – she’d have laughed.
“I hope not,” she’d have told you.
Holly ate the food that this mysterious operator had mysteriously heaped at her doorstep, confused but bizarrely thoughtful in its selection. Nothing happened, either; not even a stomach ache. It was just food – to be taken at face value.
It’s friday evenning, though, and she’s sitting in her car, with a 24-pack of toilet paper and her crutches in the back seat, and she’s out of breath as she looks out across the crowded parking lot. Carts full of beer and charcoal briquettes roll lazily past her, friends talking and laughing loudly as they load up their trunks.
This time she’d used one of the electric wheelchair things for the first time. It’d been a godsend, but it agitated her pride. One of the bag boys offered to help her back to the car too, which she almost declined out of habit. But not this time – no, she really did need the help. Even if it came from a pimply-faced nineteen year-old who was neither subtle nor appreciated in his flirting.
Still, the ordeal takes a while. And the brief moments of interaction with another person are already over.
Time to go back to the bleak, quiet apartment.
Holly knows her fridge is far from full, and she’s been critically low on everything since her parents up and left. She’ll have to do this again in a few days, and suddenly the thought of doing so crushes her like a weight. She can only take so much hobbling around in a still-new town before it takes its toll.
I could use a friend.
If you’d have asked her if she ever thought she’d hear that coming from a fuckboy with a joystick operating a giant killing machine, she’d have laughed in your face too.
But if you’d said that not only would she hear those words, but take them for the cry of help that they probably are, well…
She stares at his email again on her phone.
“Fourteen years,” she murmurs to herself, scowling. Fourteen years this man, maybe from Michigan, maybe not, has spent in isolation.
She hits a button on the screen and a keyboard appears.
That’s not how you make friends, she types.
Then again, that’s not how you’re supposed to live either, so I guess it’s time to throw out the rulebook.
Holly snorts, half out through her nose and half through her mouth, and shakes her head. “Rules,” she mutters. “God, since when have I given a damn about rules?”
For a while there, she didn’t even give a damn about common, let alone good, sense. She wiggles her toes a little, but the cast makes it difficult.
“Still don’t, apparently.”
You know what? Let’s do this. I’ve got nothing to lose.
We both could use somebody right now. You need purpose, and I need…
She thinks back to that crushing embrace more than ten years ago.
Well, we all need our kicks, right?
So let’s start over.
Hi, my name’s Holly Mendoza, and I guess I’m your new penpal. I won’t press for details, and I won’t ask for pictures. You can bitch and complain to me, you can tell me about your day, whatever. All I ask is for the chance to do the same thing to you. Sound like a deal?
The leg is… the same, really. Still a long ways to go before the cast comes off, and even longer before the pins come out. Until then, I’ll be bored out of my skull. Can’t go anywhere. Looks like the both of us have a captive audience!
What I don’t get (and you probably won’t be able to give an answer) is why you’re hooked up to the suit all day, every day. That’s gotta take its toll. I mean, it SOUNDS like it does, but… well, you know what I mean. The whole thing reeks of bullshit to me.
She originally bristled when she read that he was a combat vet. A not insignificant part of her wanted to distance herself at the mention of it, but… the rest of his story was too compelling. Besides, it only made sense. They wouldn’t hand such a delicate and psychologically intense position to just anyone, let alone some hothead right out of basic training. Back in high school she learned that the first generation of astronauts were all ex-ace fighter pilots. Maybe this is similar.
So, he wasn’t young after all. He probably wasn’t from Michigan either.
Can I ask how old you are? Where you’re from?
All the best,
With that, she pulls out of the lot and heads for home, not having any clue that this is the same store that Galen had gotten her groceries from.
How do you relate to someone in a situation like that? That’s what she’s been trying to figure out all week, and she’s still turning it over in her head as she pushes the huge pack of TP along the walkway with her crutches to get it to her front door. She fumbles for keys in her sweatpants pocket, jiggering the lock open just so, and with one last grunt, she shoves the whole mess inside.
Holly leaves the toilet paper by the door, too tired to get it to the bathroom, and busies herself with making a quesadilla before plopping onto the couch to check her phone.
This is kinda exciting, I gotta admit.
If this was Vegas, she’d have been rewarded for her bet: there’s a message there waiting, just for her.
It’s a deal, he says.
And… you’re right, it is bullshit. Never thought of it that way, but you’re spot on. I’ve got a contract, though, and it’s good for a long time, I’m sad to say.
Pins? The break was that bad? Damn, I’m sorry… It looked bad when I saw you, but not that bad. Let me know if you need any help when it comes time to deal with that.
“Really?” she blurts out loud. “Not sure what you can do for that, but… it’s the thought that counts?”
Speaking of help.
Uh oh, Holly thinks to herself.
Hypothetically speaking… if I wanted to do what I did again… would you hypothetically be alright with it?
The one thing she’s noticing about his emails is that they get her making all sorts of faces as she reads them. Eyebrows all over the place; mouth open, grinning, frowning, twisted to the side so she can chew on her cheek.
She wants to laugh, but the image of that gutted building at MIT flashes in her mind, and she’s not so sure. Yeah, free shit, but…
But that was Boston. This is flyover country: nowhere, USA.
Who the hell would possibly notice something amiss here?
There are only two reasons people come to Montana: to visit, or to fall off the map.
As for how old I am and where I’m from? Um, I’m in my late 30’s, and I’m from a little town in Nevada. You wouldn’t know it.
I don’t particularly miss the desert, though. Lots of dust out that way and not much to look at. (She deflates a little here – she’s been out that way a couple of times and loved it.) I prefer the trees and mountains. If bears live there, I probably like it. lmao.
“Luhmao?” She cocks an eyebrow. “Haven’t heard that one in a while.” What do you expect from a guy who’s almost forty?
Still, he goes on. I’d take a normal search and rescue position in Death Valley over this, any day.
Well, it seems like he’s loosening up? If he’s that guy nursing a vodka juice in a dark corner of a raucous party, then maybe he’s on his second or third drink, and the words are coming easier. Not stilted, but an organic kind of honesty. For some reason, the man she pictures him to be is out of time – like, he belongs in a black and white photograph, his collar neatly starched. He doesn’t belong at the party and no one knows who he is, but he’s there anyway and she’s talking to him because there’s something in his voice that tells her he’s seen some shit.
Holly gets up and hobbles over to the bathroom, making a detour for the stack of toilet paper along the way and grabbing as many as will fit under her arm.
She finds herself at the sink, studying her face. From the back she’s been told that she looks like a 16 year old boy, but from the front, she’s harder to place. Equally young from far away, but this close, her laugh lines start becoming apparent and the few whispering strands of silver kiss the crown of her head are unmistakable.
She did get that kick eventually.
His name was Nate, an aspiring DJ with a taste for expensive shoes and girls that didn’t have so many damn guy friends. Girls that didn’t enjoy going out every weekend to mountain bike with said friends. Girls that trusted their men enough to pull out in time.
She did trust Nate for some reason – and looking back, she still can’t pinpoint why – but what she hadn’t counted on was that he was just as prone to making mistakes as anyone else, even when he swore up and down that he’d pull out.
This time, though, pulling out is her job. No one else but her will make sure that she can come up for air.
Holly swallows, plopping her ass down on the toilet after a minute of staring at herself. She replaces the empty roll with the new one, doing her business with her chin resting on the heel of her palm.
She produces the phone from her pocket and opens a new email, beginning to type:
You know, you’re older than I thought…