Sea Rocket

Fall not in love, therefore; it will stick to your face.

-National Lampoon

Even though it was my seventeenth summer, and my eighth summer heading over to my aunt's beach house, I still found myself seated on the stiff leather seats of the greyhound. It had probably never occurred to my mom that I was perfectly capable of driving over there now, but the newness of my shiny license still terrified her a little. Typical.

"Next summer," she'd promised as she hustled me into the bus, her cheeks flushed from trying to beat the traffic in the 99-degree weather heat, and I narrowed my eyes at her. The simple truth was, I didn't know if she'd be ready by next summer, either. Or any other summer, as long as the greyhound was still in service.

She'd never told me, but I figured it out just the same. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe I was right. But in her head, giving me my own set of wheels would be giving me too much freedom – as if she'd be giving me permission to cut out my roots and live elsewhere, in the parking lot of a Taco Bell two cities away. I saw it in her eyes sometimes, this unfocused fear she tried to hide behind these "new rules" she would make up as she went along.

The moment I stepped out of the air-conditioned interior of the bus, followed by a drowsy 20-year-old college student with a Starbucks cup filled with used tissues and candy wrappers and a frayed backpack, I felt the intense summer heat hit me in one fell swoop. I wove my way through the crowds of people, all dressed in colorful tanktops and shorts with their trendy bug-eyed sunglasses, and by the time I had reached the bench I'd sat at every summer since I was nine, the inevitable stickiness of summer had enveloped me fully. I dropped my bags at my feet, swearing and quickly wiping my face with my sleeve, and I waited. I looked around for anyone I recognized, while silently grumbling at whoever's bright idea it was to put this bench in the searing sun instead of within a cool shade. The hot cement was burning through the fabric of my jeans.

The heavy musk of summer made the air thick, the merciless sun beating down hard. There were children running around in sleeveless shirts, annoyed by the heat, their faces and shirts stained with the colorful slushies they sold across the street at the Tiki Hut. And every year, as I looked across the way, I would see the Tiki Hut's special summer drinks drawn in extra curly and bright neon letters on their chalkboard right beside the window. It would be decorated by drawings of little suns with sunglasses and umbrella drinks – which varied in style annually, depending on which employee had the job.

I read the specials, even though I already knew them by heart. Mango Mania. Watermelon Wave. Berry-Banana Bonanza.

I had turned my focus to a group of tourists crossing the street to the Tiki Hut when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around, squinting from the sun, and found myself looking up at the lazy smile of Samson Bell, the boy who'd lived in the house next to my aunt's for as long as I could remember.

To understand my somewhat hostile demeanor towards Sam Bell would be to understand our history. I had a – you could say – living vendetta against him. Year after year it was seaweed down my shorts, or hard rocks of sand in my sandwiches, dead jellyfish on my towel. It was childish, but his consistency was scary; I was even convinced this year would be no different.

Wearing a pair of aviator sunglasses and a plain white T-shirt stained blue from an apparent slushie incident, he poised his empty slushie cup above the trashcan before noisily dumping it in.

"I didn't know this was your new spot to hit on unsuspecting females," I mused aloud, eyeing a group of tourists that passed by. They wore the usual tourist get-up: tacky Hawaiian shirts, fannypacks, and the occasional camera case and tourist brochure. I shifted my bags closer to me. "What? Did Caesar's Pizza close down?"

He chuckled quietly, running a thin hand through his hair. He had a beige band-aid wrapped around the tip of his pinkie finger, and his nose was an alarming shade of pink. "As a matter of fact, they were relocated to 15th Street, and are deeply missed." He smiled, slightly baring his teeth. They were blue. Then he grabbed the strap of my bag. "Now, let's go."

"Whoa." I reflexively grabbed my bag back. "What?"

He looked at me. "Your aunt asked me to pick you up. Her car's in the shop. Now, let's go. We're gonna have a hell of a time driving out of here."

I hesitated for a long minute before handing him my bag, which he snatched back, anyway, with a slight frown. I looked around, skeptical, waiting for my aunt to spring out from behind the trashcan and tackle me in a fierce Southern hug – unlikely, but you never could tell with her. But as the seconds ticked by, there was nothing: just the sizzling and excruciating heat, and Samson Bell in front of me, always restlessly fidgeting in some way. The heat made my patience short, and I was eager, if anything, to get out of here.

"Fine, fine," I said, under my breath. "Let's go. But I swear, if you try anything—"

"Relax," he said, glancing behind me. I caught a fleeting glimpse of the lopsided smirk he was wearing, the one that always sent a red siren blaring inside my head. "My trunk's full. There's no room left in it for you."

His car, a beat-up Volkswagen in terrible need of a new paint-job, was parked on a curb. I pointed this out to him as he threw my bags in the backseat, which I saw was peppered with band fliers and numerous Burger King wrappers.

"Jesus," I muttered. "Do you live in here?"

"Re-lax," I heard him say, stretching the two syllables as long as they could possibly go as he unlocked my door from inside. The languid way he moved, it almost seemed like the heat didn't faze him one bit. "We're leaving, aren't we? Be grateful I offered to take on this noble deed in picking you up from the station – nothing could have brought me out in this heat." He started messing with his radio. We heard station after station with varying static. "With exception, of course, of the impeccable lure of the famous Tiki Hut slushies."

I rolled my eyes and got in the car. The stifling heat burned against the already crisp skin of my arms.

"Roll down your window," he simply said, as he put the key in and started to the engine. He began to slowly back up, his hand resting behind my headrest. "The AC's broken."

Sighing, yet not surprised, I rolled down the window as fast as I could, even though I knew the outside was not any better. Steamy, sticky heat. I tucked my chin closer to my chest, my body tense and recoiling from the stuffy heat that had been concealed inside his car. The rough cotton of the seat was hot and scratchy against the bare skin of my arms. In an effort to take my mind off of the uncomfortable heat, I noticed the stickers he had on his dashboard, nearly covering the black plastic. I counted five small Chiquita banana stickers with the blue lady with the fruit hat, and a whole slur of Postal Service stickers, all with varying handwritten messages.

He looked at me for a quick second before stopping at a stoplight. "I'd apologize for the humble appearance of my steed," he said, his voice diluting the song playing on the radio – a song I knew from back home. Catchy, summery and light, a perfect hit. "But it's what makes her all the more charming." I saw them again, his grinning blue teeth, and I looked away, folding my arms across my chest.

"It's always charming before you find roaches," I muttered.

It was a fifteen-minute drive from the greyhound station to my aunt's place on the beach, and once I saw the ocean line in the distance and the pale, smooth sand, I couldn't help but feel my anticipation rising, even though the heat had thoroughly constricted me, and I was in the car of the boy who had made it a summertime tradition to shove wet seaweed down my shorts.

It was nothing to be exaggerated. It looked exactly like the postcards I used to buy at the local Walgreens every summer to write to my mom or a couple of my friends. Far from the hustle-bustle of the tourist attractions, the vacant white sand and the blue, blue sea with the occasional white sailboat in the distance, it was a sight I had always looked forward to. I inched my face to the open window, inhaling the breeze coming from the ocean. As I breathed, long and deep, I could almost taste the salt on my tongue.

Once we were finally there, we began unloading my bags. It technically wasn't shabby, but had a rustic appearance to it; weathered, but tough. Its white paint was peeling, its blue shutters were faded, and the windows were covered in thick grime that had accumulated over the years due to my aunt's obliviousness to a certain product called Windex. But it had personality. Its dangling wind chimes, art sculptures made of sea glass that looked magnificent and breathtaking in the sun, potted marigolds that could (according to my own personal theory) survive even a nuclear Holocaust. Aunt Thelma had never been one for tending plants or animals. She had probably watered them once or twice before she left them alone to face their doomed fate: to wither alone. Not intentionally, of course, but she was an artist; she never had any time for tending to other living things.

He walked me to the door, holding two of my bags. Once we'd gotten to the fourth step, the second groan of the tired old house, the door was suddenly flung open.

"Well! I almost done feel like I've just seen the second coming of Jesus Christ," beamed my Aunt Thelma, her arms outstretched. She was wearing a man's long-sleeve shirt, splattered with paint, and a pair of leggings. Her thin blond hair was covered by a colorful, groovy scarf and her smile, again, was brilliantly outlined by her cherry-red lipstick. And just like every summer, I found myself stepping into her arms and breathing her in – she smelled different, every year, but somehow also always the same. This year she smelled like spices and sand, an exotic blend. Last year it'd been lilies and oranges.

"Thank you for taking care of my girl," she winked at Samson, who dropped my bags down to the floor. "I believe a handsome payment is due." She reached into her breast pocket with her long slender fingers and took out a wad of bills.

"Aw, shucks, ma'am," said Sam, modestly shaking his head and waving his hands. "No, not at all. No payment at all." His boyish lopsided smile was quirked on one side of his face, tinted blue.

"Oh, come on now. A boy like you – you must have some expenses for this summer. How about I help with that new fund to get you a new AC for your miserable little car?"

But Sam was already backing away, still shaking his head. "No need, Thelma. Have a nice day."

He turned, heading back to his car. He gave one last wave as he climbed into his ratty vehicle, and Thelma vigorously waved back.

"What a nice boy," my aunt sighed, a hint of her sweet, honey-like Southern drawl slipping out. "I'll give the money to his mother. Now, come on. You must be starving."

Once we were inside, I looked around the house and its little whirligigs, the antique furniture, the seashells and the art. On a shelf I saw the little jar of sand I'd given to her the very first summer I'd come – Magic Sand, I'd called it. It'd been the year that she'd broken her leg from slipping in the tub, and I told her that it'd help her get better. Beside it stood the assortments of things that I'd made her when I was younger: crafts, seashells with feathers and sticks glued onto it, picture frames decorated with painted macaroni.

There was a life-size sculpture of a mermaid, some stuffed badgers and weasels that loomed over the fireplace and the couches. She also had a few of her own paintings hung up – her trademark: naked flapper girls. There was one I remembered staring at for at least ten minutes the first time I'd seen it. I was nine, and it had been my first time coming to her beach house in the summer. The brashness and boldness of it was captivating, and even a little embarrassing. It was a woman sitting behind a bar, completely bare-assed, with her cropped flapper hair and a drink in her hand.

Aunt Thelma had silently snuck up behind me as I stood there, gawking, and said, "That was my first. A lot of painters dabble in different subjects, but when I painted her, I knew she'd be my Mona Lisa."

And I remembered always wondering what that meant, knowing you'd found your Mona Lisa.

"I made lasagna," I heard her call from the kitchen. "But the Lord Jesus knows it resembles nothing like lasagna, so we'll just call it a mystery meal."

"Sounds good," I said.

"Oh, that's what you say now," she laughed. "Child, you know nothing of what you speak of." I heard the clatter of silverware. "Put your things in your room and come eat. It'll taste even worse if it's cold."

I grabbed my bags and dragged them to my room. Sea-blue walls with seagulls painted at the top (she'd done them herself), a wicker chair, and decoration jars filled with shells and sand dollars I'd collected over the years. I touched the starfish paperweight I'd found one summer: prickly, rigid and rough. For a minute I sat on the bed, looking at the impeccable painted details of the gulls, wondering why it seemed like this place never changed, when everything else around it was different every time I came back.

"So, tell me," she said, as she handed me my plate once I went back into the kitchen. I looked at it – she was right. It bore no resemblance to lasagna whatsoever. "Did your mom give you a car yet?"

"Negative," I said, carefully stabbing through it with my fork.

"Typical," she said, chewing. Then she paused, and made a face. "Oh, the Lord in Heaven." She snatched my plate and fork away before I could even begin to take a bite.

She tossed it in the trash, then ordered some pizza.

"I am fifty-six years old," she said exasperatedly, as she put the phone down to the receiver. "All it said was to put it in the oven and bake, and still I manage to mess it up." She sighed, painting a smile on again, leaning on her elbows. "Is your mother making you save up for a ride?"

I nodded, remembering the conversation I'd had with my mom. "She seems pretty set on the whole 'Get a job and buy your own car' thing."

She looked at me for a couple of seconds, saying nothing. Her thin, red lips were pursed. I could tell she was thinking hard.

"Not surprised," she finally said, after a while of silence. "But you know what it is? She's scared. Scared as a naked possum in the winter. She's always been easily terrified of little things, even when we were young." She blinked, then shrugged. "I hope you don't mind me saying that." But her tone was anything but apologetic. "You're a nice girl. A little boring, but nice. I don't see why she shouldn't let you have a car."

"Thanks," I said dryly.

When I looked up at her she was grinning, before winking at me playfully. "You know," she said, picking up a piece of chocolate from the painted bowl in between us. It had colorful depictions of flapper girls with no clothes on. I had a feeling this was the bowl she handed Halloween candy out from, too. "My eighteenth summer was the best summer of my life."

I picked up a chocolate myself. Dark. I put it back and rummaged through for a milk chocolate. "How so?"

"It was the sixties, darlin'," she sighed wistfully, and I nodded my hand in instant comprehension. Of course. The sixties. Of course. "It was the most I'd ever felt alive. We'd go to protests with flowers in our hair and… those drugs were really somethin', you know," she laughed quietly. "But the summers after that never could live up to it. There was a certain innocence to it."

"Innocence?" I echoed, furrowing my brows, severely confused at her choice of words. "LSD, burning bras…"

"Yeah, well, we didn't go around grinding our asses against each other to obscene music," she countered, though not entirely defensive. "We were flower children."

Again, she'd acquired that dreamy quality in her voice, twiddling her spindly fingers. I looked up as I finally found some milk chocolate. I slowly unwrapped its metallic foil, but not before brushing off the little specks of sand on it. I swear, there was sand everywhere in this house.

"And what are we?"

"Horribly, horribly misguided," she said, shaking her head and letting out a disgusted scoff from her throat, balling up the wrapper with her long artist fingers. They were speckled with paint.

I shrugged. "They called you that, too."

She smiled in nostalgia. It was obvious to me that she was still walking down Flower Children lane. "Yeah. Yeah, they did, didn't they?" She put the wrapper aside. "Your momma, however… she was always a different story. Always reading a book. Always inside. I used to blame it on the fact that our parents had gotten her those hideous, buggy glasses when she was so young, and that kind of just… robbed her of self-esteem and integrity." She was grinning too widely to seem remorseful, though.

"I remember," I said, thinking back to the pictures I'd seen of her. Always hiding away in the corner, hiding her face with a book.

"What an unfortunate childhood," she sighed. "Really thick lenses, too. Wasn't a day in school that she wasn't teased or socially avoided altogether."

I felt pity for my mother, I really did. I recognized the mortification of her more awkward stages – she still had scars from it that I'd have been blind not to see, or, at least, socially ignorant. Even though she didn't talk about her childhood much, I had the right mind (and the right resources: Aunt Thelma, and Aunt Thelma's knack for getting awfully nostalgic every summer and blabbing about it) to know that it hadn't exactly been the peachiest of years for her. There was a time when I'd first entered middle school that she'd taken me shopping, and considering that neither of us really knew anything about fashion back then (I was still too engrossed in things like Judy Blume books to really care), she'd ended up almost maxing out her credit card for a hoard of glittery, sequin-y, incredibly over-the-top clothes. We ended up returning most of it the next day when we both had looked at the things we'd bought, all gathered up on my bed, and realized that I couldn't wear any of it. Mostly because I had no integrity that I knew of and I wasn't willing to forfeit it already walking in on the first day blinding everyone with my overly-glittery ensemble, and also because it looked incredibly wrong to wear the tops without breasts – a significant facet in buying clothes, we later realized. But I'd realized that day why she'd taken me shopping for the latest fads and fashions in the department stores: if anything, she wanted me to avoid the miserable, humiliating years of adolescence she'd had – hopefully by having all of the coolest clothes. I'd read enough Judy Blume to know that.

My mother's sensitivity when it came to being a misfit in school was exactly why I spent most of those years lying to her. I'd tell her I'd be sleeping over at Georgie Simms' house, the most popular girl in school, when really, I'd been sleeping over at my friend Janet's; she was the daughter of the librarian and had an epic collection of books at her house. Upon my return the next day, Janet and I would concoct stories about the slumber party that I'd tell my mother over a bowl of popcorn – a guilty pleasure. If you couldn't really join in on the fun, then why not at least pretend?

"I remember," my Aunt Thelma said, her voice soft, as if she was deep in thought, too. Not in thought, but in memory. "Whenever I heard someone say something mean about her, I'd write something horrible about the person who said it on the bathroom wall."

I laughed. "No way."

She nodded enthusiastically, but there was a far-away look in her eyes. "I did. I could never stick up for her in the way she wanted me to, though. Maybe that was why. We fought a lot about that. She got angry that people didn't know I was her twin sister because I never told anyone. She thought I was ashamed of her."

"And were you?"

She sighed. "A little."

I popped the chocolate in my mouth, not surprised at how quickly it melted on my tongue. "That's terrible," I said, my voice muffled.

"I was young. Young and stupid." She looked at me. "I got suspended, you know. Someone caught me writing those things on the bathroom wall, and I got suspended. I got grounded for a month. I never told her, though."

"Why not?"

"Didn't seem fair. She got bullied. I wrote mean things about her bullies on the bathroom wall. It wouldn't cover up the wounds one bit. Not even nearly."

I shrugged, looking down at the wooden grains of the counter. My sympathy for my mother was gurgling in my stomach now, and it had an acidic effect in my throat. "Maybe it would have made her feel less alone."

To my surprise, she laughed. "Alone. Yeah. Maybe."

"Sometimes people read because they're alone," I offered.

"Sometimes people read to be alone," she stated blandly. "You can't talk to someone who's got their nose stuck in a book." Then she breezily changed the subject. "Anyway, I noticed you got your glasses off," she said, peering at me. "Contacts?"


"That's too bad. I miss your four-eyes. You had this certain innocence about you."

"You and your innocence," I mumbled.

She grinned widely. "You'll start to miss it, you know," she said matter-of-factly, brushing little bits of sand off of the counter. "When you get older. You'll start to wish you never grew up, or watched the news. That damn CNN gets me even more miserable each and every day."


After dinner, I went to my room to unpack my things while Thelma went off to see how her latest painting was doing. It didn't surprise me now when I didn't see my aunt for long periods of time – sometimes I wouldn't see her for two straight days, maybe catching a glimpse of her only once or twice when she'd grab something to eat and drink – because she was painting. Artists were intense that way. Once they got started on something, their flow, or train of thought – whatever it was artists called it – just couldn't be stopped. They'd go at it for as long as they needed to, until it was finished. It was admirable, at least, to me. Besides, all that time she spent in her studio was never wasted; she had some incredibly big fans of her paintings that paid top price for her stuff.

After I'd gotten my things into my closet and drawers and had changed into more comfortable clothes, I settled down on my bed and looked through the newspaper I'd picked up at the station. I didn't regularly read the newspaper, but I was hoping to maybe get a job while I was here, to earn some extra money. To get my car.

Of course.

I started going through the want ads. Lifeguard Needed. Pet Groomer. Lawn Mower. Temp. There was nothing that interested me. The last job I'd had was last summer, which was one memory I was all too keen on blocking out. I'd worked as a Weiner in a Bun girl.

Obviously, I didn't last very long. I was horrible at it in every possible way you could be horrible at a job. I gave people the wrong change, or I charged them too much, or I burned the hot dogs, or I forgot their orders, or spilled their cokes. When they fired me, I'd actually been relieved. I'd lost a lot of my dignity working there, and not because of the outfit, either: an orange striped jumper complete with a yellow scrunchie for our ponytails. But because even Ling, my fifteen-year-old coworker that read Japanese mangas upside down on her lunch break and had her little anime friends come over every Thursday to up her sales, was better at it than I was. Absurdly better.

But just as I was casually skimming through the paper, my eyes landed on an ad on the bottom of the page. It had a picture of a white building on it, with a big oak tree on the side. My eyes were drawn to its square-cut windows, then to its name, printed boldly across the page. I swallowed hard, my tongue sticking to the roof of my mouth. Then, without thinking, I folded the page, ripping out the ad. I looked at it, bringing it closer to my face, memorizing the numbers. Then I tucked it away underneath my pillow, trying to get rid of the suddenly clammy feeling in my chest.

I still smelt like the greyhound bus, like air-conditioning and stiff rayon seating, but somehow that didn't phase me too much. I'd left my window a crack open and I could hear the sea breeze, and I already felt like I was a million miles away from home.

- - - - - - - -

When I woke up, there were crease marks on the right side of my face, and a puddle of drool staining the newspaper. I balled up the newspaper, groaning in disgust, knowing that there was no use looking through it anymore. Kissing the Get Liz a Car Fund goodbye seemed like a pretty realistic idea right now.

I walked out to the kitchen with the newspaper, tossing it into the wastebasket. Aunt Thelma was already there, wearing a green scarf on her hair, looking through a catalogue and eating a cantaloupe with pancakes.

"Mornin', sunshine," she said, not looking up. "I walked in last night to say goodnight. I was planning to read the newspaper, too, but I saw that you'd gotten attached to it." She tossed the skins in the trash. "With your face."

"I was looking through the want ads," I said, grabbing a plate and spearing a few pancakes from the pan.

"For what?"

"For a job."

"What do you need a job for?"

"Oh you know," I quipped, sitting down in front of her, "to sustain a comfortable life."

She looked at me, looking indecisive. "I heard they're looking for a new lifeguard. The last girl they hired didn't really know how to swim. Figured she wouldn't need to save anyone anyway, so she lied on her resume. It was a pretty big deal, but she works at some retail store now, so…"

"I can't swim," I said, my mouth full. Her pancakes tasted a little too salty, but I didn't say a word. We both knew her cooking skills were highly unpopular around the house.

"D'you reckon you're gonna need to save anyone? You could just lie and say you can," she said, winking. "Liz Appleton. Exceptional swimmer – born a mermaid, in fact, but had her tail surgically removed. Oh, and can talk to sea animals."

"I'd rather not."

"Delivering pizza?"

"No car."


"No bike."


"Can't ride."

She smiled. "I don't know how you could possibly get a job here, Liz. You're too fragile."

I frowned. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"I mean you don't even know how to ride a bike."

I was silent. "You're right," I said solemnly. "I should just give up. The absent facets of my childhood are finally catching up to me."

"No, that's not what I meant. I know," she said, suddenly brightening up. I knew this look. She had an idea. "You could work for me."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, I've got clients who always ask if I deliver. And I always say No, because I don't, so they've got to come over and pick it up, and they always make this big fuss about my house, wanting to know the story about everything… it's a large waste of time, when I could be painting. So I'm thinking I'd lend you the car, and you would drop off the paintings at their houses, and I'd pay you."

I chewed my pancake slowly. This one wasn't cooked all the way, but she was watching me intently, so I had no choice but to swallow it. "Uh huh," I said slowly.

"Good idea, huh?"

"Yeah," I said, reaching for my water. I took a sip. "Yeah."

"So? What about it?"

"Yeah. Okay. I'll do it."

"All right!" She slapped her hand down on the counter. "You're hired. When can you start?"

I shrugged, thinking about my agenda. Which was pitifully empty. "Anytime."

"Good, 'cause you've already got a backlog. I've got five paintings waiting to be delivered."

My stomach gurgled uncomfortably. "Christ."

"I know. They're very busy people, I guess," she said, waving her hand in the air. "Socialites. You know the type."

"No, I mean, your pancakes are really…"

"Oh. Yeah." She was calm. "I should've warned you. Or, better yet, you should have known."

"How about from now on I cook," I suggested, deciding to lay off the rest of my pancakes and just eat the cantaloupe.

"I can pay for that, sure."

"No need to pay. Just… stop cooking."

She nodded. "Agreed."

She put all the pancakes together on a plate. "Here. Go feed this to Napoleon."

Napoleon was the Bells' dog next door. I looked up at her, shocked. "He's not supposed to be fed this stuff. You know that."

"Yeah, but he likes it," she said, winking at me. She handed me the plate. "Now, go on. Just go. Make sure no one sees you."

I didn't move.

She sighed exasperatedly. "Fine. Here's three bucks. Okay, here's five. Just go feed Napoleon."

"Let me get this straight: you're paying me to poison your neighbor's dog? You're on neighborhood watch with these people, Thelma."

"For heaven's sake, Liz. Poor thing gets fed vegetable gruel."

"Because he gets really bad diarrhea! Doctor's orders!" I knew this because it'd been for so long as I could remember. Vegetable, vitamin stuff for Napoleon Bell, Samson's dog. Suddenly, something dawned on me. "You're the one who's giving him diarrhea." I snorted. "God, imagine the town scandal: Thelma Appleton feeding her failed cooking experiments to her neighbor's dog."

"Now, you can't prove that, can you? All I know is, every time I walk by with food, the poor thing whines at me and cries, you know I can't help it when he does that."

I sighed. I knew she wouldn't drop it – she was a sucker for animals. Too bad she could never keep them alive when she owned them herself. She'd had a cat once, Jim Morrison, and when Mom and I had come to visit her during spring break we'd found the poor thing malnourished. Her excuse was that she'd been working on this epic painting and she'd completely forgotten she had a cat, so she forgot to put out cat food. Mom and I convinced her to give it away; Aunt Thelma was no woman to take care of an animal so dependent on a human. She could only take care of herself. And me, I'd always known how to take care of myself, so when I came here for the summer, it was always implied that she was only supposed to give me a place to stay and someone to talk to (food to eat, however, given her atrocious cooking skills, was always a questionable thing). My mom believed it was good therapy, being with my aunt, bonding.

"Fine," I relented. "Keep your money."

She beamed, her red lipstick making her smile too vivid for morning. "Thanks, toots."

"But if their dog dies—"

"You're an accomplice, nothing more. I was the master genius," she said, nodding. "Got it."

"They're going to find out someday," I called out to her as I walked to the door.

I walked out in my flip-flops and pajamas, looking around first to see if anyone was around. I had to walk through the sand; my aunt's backyard, as well as the Bells', was the shoreline. I stared out to the sea, spotting the endless royal blue sky stretched out above me, feeling the little bits of dry stray grass tickle my bare ankles.

"Pssssst. Napoleon. Come here, boy." They didn't have a fence, which made it easier for me, but also could prove disastrous – nothing to conceal me if I were to be caught. And trying to run in sand wasn't something I didn't think I'd fare well in. Napoleon was lying on the sand, his newly trimmed fur curiously sand-free. I knelt beside him, petting him. "Hey boy. Remember me?"

Once he saw the pancakes, he sat up eagerly. I watched (and heard) as he ate the pancakes, down to the last one which he gobbled up with a flourish, until he was left slopping all over the plate. I had a slight frown on my face as I stood back up, his ink-black bulldog eyes staring up at me.

He panted for more, his pink tongue hanging out.

I thought I heard a voice from inside their house, so I quickly turned away and power walked back to Aunt Thelma's, afraid to look back but looking anyway. I thought I saw a glimpse of Samson Bell's red curls poking out of his back door just as I'd rushed back into the house.