It’s thirty degrees out and the Fourty-four sweats a gleaming trail of gas along the dusty streets. Ellie and Mike are going downtown. They sit in the back of the bus, as usual, where Ellie swings her feet in idle figure-eights, plastic soles of her flip-flops dangling. Mike has his arm slung around her shoulder even though there are sweat stains blooming across the armpits of his t-shirt. Ellie can’t imagine not noticing this. Her own arms are pinned to her sides, just in case. She feels his moist armpit, the wiry brush of hair poking out from his sleeve, and looks at his pale legs spread wide and big flat feet in their canoe shoes. She shifts a little, fiddles with her bra strap, closes her eyes. She opens them at the scratchy voice from the driver’s radio:
Attention, all eastbound on Higgins…
The rest is unintelligible, but everyone wakes up when the bus lurches off-course, away from the Louise Bridge. The air’s gone thick and smoky all of a sudden. It’s a rare smell for the city, kind of wholesome. Ellie’s imagining marshmallows and wiener roasts when Mike lets out a slow, impressed ‘Jeee-sus’ and a murmur crescendos from him to the front of the bus. She leans across him to peer out the window and there it is – she breathes a responding ‘fuck’ – black sky and dense flames the colour of egg yolk, fat ugly fire on the other side of the river.
“Where’s it coming from?” she says, still leaning over him.
“One of the factories, I guess,” says Mike. “Smells kinda woody, doesn’t it?”
The woman squished into the seat ahead cackles softly, shooting them a conspiratorial grin.
“Here’s an adventure, eh?”
They’re curving beneath Disraeli now but traffic’s backed up enough to leave them stuck in the shadowed underpass. A pair of toddlers at the front of the bus starts banging against the windows in a steady rhythm with fat little fists, thump, thump, thump, fire, fire, fire! ‘Shut up,’ their mother is saying as she drops her head back. ‘You guys, c’mon, shut up.’ Sirens wail in the distance and the woman ahead of them flips her cell phone open – ‘Christ, Rickie, it’s a fuckin’ madhouse in here, you shoulda come!’
“Let’s get off,” Ellie says. She shrugs Mike’s arm away, already on her feet. ‘Fire, fire, fire!’ “Mike, come on, let’s get off.”
Normally he’d make a dirty joke at this, but he’s lazy in the heat. They hop onto the sidewalk one after the other. Ellie is amazed they’re the only ones. Then again, they weren’t going anywhere in particular – just downtown, just wherever the bus took them. Maybe the mall – Mike needs new basketball shoes. There would’ve been air conditioning there, at least.
Soon enough they’re on the bridge, where they lean over the railing and observe the chaos in the distance.
“Jeee-sus,” Mike says again. “Hope no one’s hurt. So we catching an eleven, or what?”
“No more buses. It’s so hot, Mike.”
And then they’re darting past the stagnant cars and down the grassy hill that slopes off the overpass until they’re in a little park in North Point Douglas.
Her real name is Elena, actually. Elena Christina Ferrera, like a nursery rhyme or something. She likes Elena. But when she was little her brother couldn’t pronounce the three syllables, and instead of something like Lena her mother decided to teach him Ellie, which is a name that rhymes with jiggly things like belly and jelly. She’s yelled at her mother about this before, who always laughs and tells her to be grateful for what she’s got. She could be like the Perez girl and be called Pear – really, what kind of person names their child after a fruit, would a boy have been Banana? – and besides, at least she gets to sign her real name. She has never once introduced herself as Ellie, but somehow it always gets clipped the same way, they all hear it somewhere. Mike called her the right name for a whole two months until he came over for the first time, where he flashed those big chipped teeth in delight when he heard it – ‘Ellie, that’s so cute, how come you never told me?’
Ellie doesn’t want cute. She wants glamorous – she wants smouldering, grown-up, sexy. She wants him to breathe her name at night before he falls asleep – that smooth, voluptuous triplet. Elena. But she’ll take what she can get. Mike’s sweet, and tall, and kind of stupid but he plays guitar so well. She’s always getting him to play. And it’s not stupid music, either, not Metallica covers or anything – classical stuff, Mozart, or old jazz by that guy with the three fingers. Most of his music is just instrumental, but he sang for her once, the first time they tried having sex. He went all out that night – tealights all over the bedroom leaking vanilla-scented wax, a heart-shaped box of chocolates about a week expired, even a tiny bottle of champagne that she knew had been sitting in his basement fridge for almost two years, though she’d never had champagne before so she didn’t mind too much. He sang Hero by Enrique Iglesias and his voice quivered at just the right parts, and by the time he put the guitar down she was half naked under the covers. Things went pretty well from there until he started putting the condom on, at which point he softened and retreated, like a turtle. He went all shaky after that, kissing her with stiff lips and a flailing tongue, grinding her nipples like marbles and dry-humping her until finally she pushed him away, very gently, and stroked his hair while he blushed and fought back tears. A few weeks later they got drunk at Trisha Marten’s grad party and managed it in the bathroom. He observed the tiny pink stain on her panties afterward and laughed with just a hint of hysteria – ‘Thank god, I thought…’ She knows what he thought: bloody bedsheets, brave silence. Well, it does happen like that sometimes. She’s heard horror stories. But overall she’s been very lucky.
She probably wouldn’t be with Mike if it wasn’t for the guitar. Sometimes she feels guilty about this. But other times, watching her parents fight about toilet paper or hydro bills, she wonders if anyone ever really loves more than bits and pieces, scraps of personalities, body parts. Calloused fingers on guitar strings, chipped teeth. A shaky voice promising to be a hero, terribly hopeful, so kind, so earnest.
Point Douglas is like a bratty kid at his grandparents’ place. The houses are stately and dilapidated and painted flowery colours to cover their age – red, green, purple – and there’s a huge brick church dotted with spots where they’ve had to paint over graffiti. If you cross your eyes a bit you might think it’s a nice neighborhood, since it’s certainly bright enough on a summer day like this one. August is when they always take photos for real estate magazines. But if you look a little closer you’ll see its some of its brattiness – a broken bike, a dog with a torn ear, beer bottle shards glittering in the sun.
Ellie finds it hard to believe that only two blocks over you’ll find dingy hotels circled by police cars, since the park looks so nice today – barely any trash, and the grass is freshly cut. Still, she checks the ground for needles before lowering herself. Mike dives down and sprawls out with a satisfied grin. He’s gonna be sunburnt by the end of the day, he burns so easily and they always forget sunscreen. With her head on Mike’s chest and the cool soil beneath her, she can’t bring herself to care about skin cancer anyway. They’ll probably have cured all the cancers by the time she’s old.
Still, Ellie is never completely free of worry. She can’t help but prop herself up on her elbows every once in a while to give the park a suspicious glance, expecting the worst – a gang looking for easy prey, some bum strung out on meth and seeing things. Mike laughs at her for her cautious streak – well, more than a streak, really. Being Mike, he doesn’t laugh to be mean. She knows he finds her perplexing and adorable. But then it’s different for boys, epecially boys like Mike – tall boys, not that bright but fast runners, broad-shouldered boys with normal looks and mall clothes. What would it be like to live in his body? Would she feel invincible? When they’re naked she likes to lie behind him sometimes and line her arms up with his, warm skin of his back against her front, and half-circle his wrists with her little hands, and jostle him like a puppet. ‘You are mine,’ she’ll murmur, in a Dracula voice, trying not to giggle. ‘All mine.’
“I’m yours,” he’ll say, smiling, complacent.
There’s a strong south wind today and it’s pretty hazy in the park, but the faint wood smoke smell is better than cigarettes, at least. Mike used to smoke, but Ellie talked him out of it pretty quick. He only did it out of boredom anyway, and because it pissed off his parents. She made him quit because of the smell, and the cost, and those oily black lungs they showed them in health class. Here’s a secret: she thought it was sexy. She knew this was wrong of her, but that didn’t take the feeling away. He was smoking the first time she met him, actually, around the back doors at school which made it that much better. She remembers the way he held the cigarette so casually between those big fingers of his, exhaling slowly, flicking off the ash only once or twice the whole time. She’d had a few cigarettes before, but she’d been so worried that the wind would blow that ash against her and set her shirt on fire or something that she flicked the thing violently about every five seconds.
When she gets up to check for danger a fourth time Mike finally shakes his head and pulls her back down with a wet kiss. He’s still not a talented kisser, but other things make up for it – his hair, which is getting just long enough to tickle her face, or his nails stroking her back slowly, which he knows she loves.
“Cut it out,” she says, smiling.
“If you quit the prairie dog thing,” he says. He kisses her again. She sinks her head into his shoulder, ignoring the wet armpits. Another secret: she doesn’t mind the smell of his sweat, not with the wind and grass and smoke mixing with it. A ladybug is crawling along her finger. She looks at the little round body, placid in its domestic dress. She lowers it to the grass, where its glossy wings flap absurdly.
“Calming down yet?” Mike whispers in her ear. The next second he’s got his fingers under her knees, where her nerves are practically above the skin, and she feels the jolt and screeches, rolling away. He rolls after her, it’s like they’re seven or something, she’s probably getting grass stains all over her shirt, and soon enough they’re breathless and laughing and hidden in some bushes, where it’s shaded and it hums with bugs. Ellie tries tickling him, but that’s never worked on Mike – he knows how to ignore it, he says. Still, she keeps trying – she’ll find his spot someday, she’s sure of it. After about ten seconds of this he’s a little hard. Ellie grins wickedly, starts kissing his neck, then stops – she heard something in the distance – and then he’s got his tongue in her ear and his hand in her shorts and she stops thinking about much in particular.
They’re waking up and it’s pitch black.
“Holy shit, the power’s out!” Mike mumbles, and then, “What time is it?”
It’s pitch black and they’re alone in Point Douglas, and normally this would have Ellie scared out of her head, but… well, they do have some shelter. There’s the bush, after all. She has about twelve million mosquito bites – “Mike, feel them.”
“Oh man, me too, feel –”
“Oh my god, what is that, like, fifty?”
“Hundreds – we’re gonna die of West Nile. It’s probably already working on us,”
“Darling, hold me!”
Wild giggles. But the darkness really is disturbing. She’s not dying to see the mosquito bites any time soon, but she would like to see his face, to at least make sure she won’t swallow a moth if she leans in for a kiss. “Mike, do you –”
“Yeah, sorry. Here.”
He might have quit smoking, but Mike always has a lighter on him. He flicks it open and the tiny flame shoots up. Thankfully the wind has died down by now. There’s only the faintest smell of smoke still lingering. Ellie wonders how long the fire’s been out by now, if it’s out at all.
Mike holds the lighter between them and the little flame dances, furtive, whispering light across them. Ellie sinks her fingers into the grass and leans in to watch – bridge of his peeling nose, his small upper lip, his lower lip cast in shadow, a hint of those eyebrows of his tilted up so he always looks just a little sad. A gleaming eye, the softest brown.