The air smelled like pine, and on the edges of that scent lapped the fishy tidepools of the Atlantic. Eyes closed practically all the way from the Commodore Barry Bridge, she felt her stepfather Bill—Bill the Pill, Kill Bill—guide the Buick into the campsite, tires crunching down on pine cones and needles, killing zillions of insects in the process. Killer Bill. When she opened her eyes, and the first thing she saw was the plaque, cocked a little to the left and nailed to a tree in front of the camper.
Barbara, Bill & Todd
Like a child, she sat in the backseat with her little half-brother Todd, but Gabrielle Ashe, at 16, was not a member of that tribe. Not that she wanted to be. What? The tribe of fatso lopso and totally screwed up queer? Queer as in bizzaro, but maybe gay, too, if she thought about it, which she didn’t care to do for too long. Absolutely uncool, unhot. Schneider, a German name, Bill was probably Hitler’s grandson.
Her mother was certainly responsible for the plaque. She gleefully purchased objects endowed with the owners’ names—pens, cheap necklaces, toothbrushes. When Gabrielle was younger, when her mother bought her things, her name had probably been a challenge to the mentally challenged. The plaque looked artsy fartsy, bought at some craft show on the boardwalk at Sea Isle or Ocean City, probably costing $50, and Gabrielle didn’t even have a cell phone. Not to mention she had to “share” an Ipod with her brother. Half-brother, Todd, the Odd.
The Schneider’s names were etched and burned into the wood. Gabrielle saw once how that was done. Years before Big Butt and Bill the Dill Pickle and their both-begotten son, Todd the Toad, decided to set up their hideous camper in the Pine Barrens, miles away from the shore and any decent boardwalk, they had all belonged to the community pool. One of the lifeguards, Jason, burned a G into a board during his lunch break. He hunched over a picnic table at the grassy spot near the deep end, summer blonde and bronzed, with 13-year-old Gabrielle looking on. She watched him tilt the lens of the magnifying glass at an angle to focus the sun’s light onto a small point on the wood. Two big clouds danced the tango across the floor of the sky, and it took him nearly an hour, long enough for Gabrielle to fall in love, with her name and with Jason.
“What do you think? he asked when the G was done. “It’s for you?”
She did and felt her heart plunge right into the deep end.
“It’s G for God,” he grinned and then gave it to her, saying “Maybe God, maybe you.” He got up to go lifeguard again, leaving her drowning on land, her eyes focused on the vicinity of her unfortunately thick ankles. She understood that perhaps he hadn’t liked her because she was too young for him, but then again, maybe her thick ankles were to blame. She didn’t think about him anymore, Jason, an empty basin.
But the thick ankles of a short girl were still there, even though she’d lost five pounds and gained two inches since then. She was five feet tall now, two inches taller than Midget Mom. Gabrielle cut M&M’s and chocolate everything from her diet and did stretching and lengthening exercises in addition to power walking. She weighed 103 pounds, but she could see where the fatty flesh by her heel bone might be scraped away by some famous plastic surgeon’s knife, and at night in her nursery, the little room with the white baby furniture tattooed with fat lambs and giraffes, she shaped plans to save her babysitting money for the surgery and then a pair of Jimmy Choo shoes.
Here in the camper, she stretched out on the bottom bunk. Todd was marching through the camper, his hand shoved into a bag of cheesy corn chips.
“Don’t snore tonight,” she told him and pinched his squirrelly, squinchy cheeks. It wasn’t his fault he was seven and the son of Mama Pajama and Bathrobe Bill.
“Don’t fart,” he shot back at her and made disgusting noises with his hand and armpit.
“Both of you, bring a bag in from the car,” Barbara, the Harbringer of all bad things, yelled in her kitchen voice.
Thank all the gods of the universe—Bahama Momma was a born again-- Melissa was coming later, her parents due to drop her off at the campsite for the weekend while they visited relatives. The kitchen table unfolded to make a double bed, and the girls would sleep there.
Gabrielle didn’t usually go camping with the fighting Schneiders. She was old enough to stay home alone, which she preferred, and Barbara the Barge and Bill the Bald didn’t mind, seeing as Gabrielle was the source of all troubles in the world. But Melissa had asked to come. Two hot boys from the community pool, cousins, would also be staying at the campground. Reason enough to endure the Schneiders for a few hours.
Gabrielle set a bag of groceries on the table.
“What time’s Melissa coming?” Mother of No Gods pulled out a gigantic bag of chips, the greasiest and cheapest of all brands, in her plump little hand. Todd’s favorites stocked their shelves. Gabrielle liked soda, Coke-- ergo, it was invisible.
“How should I know? Twoish.”
“She like spaghetti and meatballs?”
“How should I know? We’re going to the boardwalk anyway. Better food.”
“You better stop that sassing right now, I’m warning you! I’m not going to listen to it. This is my vacation, and don’t think you’re going to be going off on me, and going out—“ She’d turned on the spigot to the kitchen sink, but no water came out. She pulled back the curtain and knocked at the closed half of the little window over the sink. “You turn on the water yet?”
Outside, Bill’s bald head bobbed up and down as he ducked low-hanging pine branches.
“Give me a goshdamn minute will you, Barbara?”
“I get absolutely no help around here, with anything,” Barbara huffed and smacked the curtain back into place. Some household item clanked into the sink, and Gabrielle darted out the door as if to bring in another bag from the car.
She bypassed the Buick and headed down the sandy dirt road to the little dipshit of a lake. Gabrielle sassed, she said horrible things to the Schneiders, she didn’t speak to them, and then she lied. She was an ingrate, a drinker. She got caught with weed and birth control pills in her purse. Not that she needed the latter yet, but she wouldn’t confess that to Big Butt. For her crimes, they moved her to the baby’s room with the white, decaled furniture. Todd’s nursery. He got her bigger room in their three-bedroom rowhouse. The nursery faced the street. They probably hoped she’d get shot by a stray bullet, like the girl a couple of streets down. After Big Butt and Bizarro Bill got married, before Todd, they let her pick out furniture for her room, and instead of the usual pink and white, she’d chosen a honey wood, Scandinavian set from IKEA. Her mistake, since the décor was unisex.
“Because you’re never home, and Todd is,” Big Bum Mum, who could hardly fit in the nursery room, had explained, smiling, but with the hatred in her heart almost tangible, a rotten tomato. “Todd starts school next year, and boys need space.” Her pride and boy, product of a barbarian and a hillbilly.
The lake’s swimming part, man-made, was about as big as her room and contained no boys, just a few little kids splashing around with their parents. Gabrielle sat down under a tree and smoked the half-cigarette she’d stashed in her jeans’ pocket that morning. On the deep side of the lake, a few men and young boys fished along the banks, and a lone man loped along the edge. He was old, at least 35, with longish light brown hair. As he came closer, she thought he looked something like Johnny Depp, who she thought handsome but a little old. He was nice to look at in the movies, but she figured even Depp would have that tang to his breath, old skin and aging organs, like everyone over about 32. Thinking of kissing someone that old disgusted her, like when she wanted to throw up at the wedding when she had to kiss a Dill Pickle. This one looked something like her real father, in addition to Johnny Depp, thin and angular, longish hair, at least from a few photographs she had of him. He’d left when Gabrielle was four. He’d loaded baggage on to planes at the airport then, and who knew what he did in Alaska now. He never even sent cards.
The lone man was coming up on her. He nodded and smiled a little but never broke his stride.
She didn’t smile or say “Hi.” She’d been taught at an early age by teachers and maybe even Mama Pajama before Gabrielle became hated, not to talk to strangers, especially lone men. This one might even be looking for a child to kill. She eyed him to make sure he didn’t lure any gullible little girl or boy into the woods with stories of lost dogs and such. His trailer squatted at the south end of the lake, a slightly bigger model than the Shitty Schneider’s, and she watched him enter with her keen brown eyes. Of course, it was possible he already had some child in there, chained to bunk beds or the Chem-potty.
She would tell Melissa about him, maybe add a few details for interest, like she heard a kid crying. Maybe she and Melissa could investigate, like they used to. She could feel the flutter in her gut just thinking about how they would sneak around their streets of row houses and alleyways, making up stories about people, leaving ersatz love letters on doorsteps. Now, it was about finding boys, and that wasn’t always so fun, since Melissa usually got the best boy.
Melissa knew Gabrielle’s father wasn’t really a pilot, like Gabrielle had told the other school kids. When the Schneiders married, they moved to a new school district, so who would know any better? He was always on an overnight when anyone asked why she wasn’t with her father every other weekend like all the other divorced kids. Melissa got suspicious, so Gabrielle confessed the truth. “People are going to find out, Gab,” Melissa warned.
So, with Melissa’s help, Gabrielle found the perfect solution on 9/11. Her father had piloted one of the downed planes, and if some kid or parent questioned her about her last name or wondered why no one from the street knew anything of Gabrielle’s new status, she admitted that pre-Hillbilly Bill, Barbara the Barbarian, whose butt was smaller then, had partnered up with a married man who just could not leave his sick wife. She told the lie with such panache that she sometimes felt personally stricken by the tragedy.
Melissa arrived in the fury of a July heat wave.
“Tres cool,” Gabrielle said, referring to Melissa’s new tattoo of a spider on the small of her back.
“Justin got a humongous one on his neck.” Melissa plopped down on the picnic bench outside the camper and slid off her high-heeled sandals.
Justin was Melissa’s sometime boyfriend. Blonde, long-legged, and thin-ankled, Melissa was prettier than Paris, and ten times as smart. Gabrielle knew she suffered in contrast. Her nose was too small, her lips too thin, and those ankles!
“Check out the sign,” Gabrielle pointed at the Schneider sign with her middle finger.
Melissa shook her head. “What imbeciles. We should carve “The Imbeciles” underneath.
“I wouldn’t give them the satisfaction.” Gabrielle knew she could count on Melissa to share her sense of outrage. Melissa wasn’t like some friends who, when confronted with your travesty, would immediately start pushing yours aside for their own. She let you wallow in your misery.
“Oprah and Dr. Phil would both condemn them,” Melissa said.
“Twenty years of therapy for Big Butt and Imbecile Bill. I doubt it would have any impact, though.”
After a spaghetti and meatball dinner, which the Imbeciles insist they eat with them, the girls met up with the boys Melissa knew from the campground. Rob had the car and dibs on Melissa, Gabrielle clearly understood. They strolled along the boards of Wildwood, Melissa and Rob, Gabrielle with Ian at her side. Nevertheless, Ian was still vying for Melissa, answering Gabrielle’s questions hastily while he lingered over Melissa’s as if she were a philosopher.
The four of them rode the Hell Hole and the Salt and Pepper Shakers, ate frozen custard and French fries, and then at sunset, Rob, who wanted to be a marine, suggested the dunes. Ian, who wanted to install kitchen cabinets for his father’s company, wasn’t as enamored, and Melissa pretended she didn’t want to go, but she did, and they went. After smoking a joint as a foursome, they paired off, Ian with Gabrielle behind a small dune by default. Rob captured for Melissa a bigger dune, but they weren’t far away. Above the bluster of the surf, Gabrielle heard Melissa giggling.
“Amazing genes,” Ian said, and Gabrielle knew he wasn’t referring to hers. He lay with his sandy head cradled in the crook of his arm. Ian the peon. She guessed he might, if given the chance, lie on top of her and even do more if she let him. He was still getting used to the sting of losing Melissa. She didn’t think she would let him. “She fucks good, too,” she told him and watched the loss harden his face. Sometimes she wished she had a scar to show people, but nothing too ghastly. A crescent moon near her eyelid would do.
“Guess what?” she blurted, before she even knew what she was going to say.
“How am I supposed to guess what? I just met you.”
She stifled the urge to throw sand in his face. “I think there’s a child molester at the campground.”
“Yeah?” He looked vaguely interested, poking a stem of dune grass through his teeth as if he were alone.
“I think he’s got a child in his trailer. Near the lake.”
“What makes you think that?”
“The way he looked at me. And I heard a child and him trying to shush it. I was there an hour and no mother ever came out.”
Ian dropped his grass stem into the sand. “So what? Doesn’t mean nothing.”
“Wait. So, I went around the back of the trailer near the woods to catch a smoke. I could hardly see the windows because of the pine trees, but I saw the words HELP printed on one, like with spit, in childish letters. I think we should investigate.” She could see the letters form in her mind, the whorls in the fingerprints.
Ian the Creon looked thoughtful, then doubtful. “Probably just a trick of your imagination, the sun and shadows.”
“Think about it. A man alone at a campground. As much as I hate my family, this is a family campground. When someone asks for help, we should help them. Imagine if we don’t do anything and then find out--.”
She saw she’d finally hooked him with the chance to be a hero. Fat chance for him.
The four of them drove back to the campground in Ian’s mother’s van. He parked it at his site, and they took off for the camper by the lake, Rob and Melissa trailing behind, holding hands and whispering. Melissa was all about the game. She had been happy to leave the dune.
“Look, there’s a light on,” Gabrielle said, after Melissa and Rob had caught up. “And his car’s here.”
“What are we supposed to do, just bang to his door and accuse him?” Rob the Slob sidled over to his cousin.
Rob had had to be practically dragged from his dune. Gabrielle didn’t think he would make a good Marine. “This is stupid,” he said.
“We’ll knock on his door and ask him if he’s seen our lost dog.” Gabrielle knew she would be the one knocking.
“What kind of dog?” Melissa the Loved laughed. She was looking up at Rob, though, the only presence in her world now. Gabrielle knew she couldn’t care less about the child.
“A chihuahua’s easy to lose,” Gabrielle shrugged and walked up to the door alone.
She rapped hard on the screened door. The others stood around the man’s Jetta.
He answered the door in just a few seconds, as if he’d noticed them. He was wearing the same clothes as earlier—jeans and a white tee with no logo.
“We were wondering if you’d seen our lost chihuahua. Honey.” It was the name of the cocker spaniel they’d had before Behemoth Barb and Bald Bill Hiccup had him put down for being too old.
“Sorry, no chihuahua, no Honey, in sight.” He held the door open with one hand and scanned the kids by his silver Jetta. Gabrielle peered into a kitchenette table and a sofa on which a book lay open. “Has he been gone long?”
He had a kind voice that registered concern, but then child molesters often did. Even Bill—Kill Bill-could sound kind unless you had to live with him.
“Well, he’ll probably come back soon. Where’s your trailer?”
Gabrielle pointed behind her, at her friends, at the trail, at the cabal of pines.
They stood there for a few moments longer, him propping the door open with his foot, her on the step trying to see more deeply into his trailer. All around them the cicada screeched and her companions giggled, not even pretending to call the lost dog.
“Do you have any soda?” she asked. I’ve been walking around so long I’m thirsty.”
He hesitated, like a guilty man, and scratched above his right eyebrow. “Uh, sure. Coke OK?”
“Perfect.” When he let go of the door, she took it and followed him in. The kitchenette was similar to the Schneider’s but reversed, to the right of the door instead of to the left. It looked more natural this way.
“Would your friends like some, too? He was rooting around, his head in the fridge. He asked too loudly, as if she were still back on the step.
“No. Maybe. I don’t know.” They were still standing around. Melissa had her hand over her mouth.
“You guys want some Coke?” Gabrielle called through the screen door.
There was discussion, laughter, and then Melissa took a few steps forward.
“Come on, Gab, let’s go. Let’s go look for Honey down at the lake.” She winked, but Gabrielle didn’t understand her winks anymore.
“You go on. I’ll catch up.”
Melissa shrugged, and Gabrielle could see she belonged entirely to the others now. Two, even one year ago, they would have known the other’s intent with just a glance. Given this scenario, they would have been swept up in a rip tide of hilarity at their audacity.
“Ice?” He was pulling red plastic cups from a stack next to the sink.
“Yes, please. They don’t want any.”
“I heard.” He handed her a cup into which he’d put four cubes. Big Butt always yelled about ice, how no one but she ever filled the trays.
“Could I sit down in there for a minute?” She pointed into the living room and went in without waiting for an answer. There was no sign of a real child, but two photos of a boy and a girl in silvery frames hung from the paneled walls. The girl’s picture was higher than the boy’s. She looked about 14, he 12.
“Who are they?” The lone man stood near the door, one hand on the kitchen counter, palm down as if he were ready to push off and bolt out his own front door.
“My kids, Andrea and Josh.”
“Where are they?”
“Home, with their mother.”
“How come they’re not here with you?”
“Well, um. Listen, what’s your name?”
“Angelina. I’m Michael, and I’d like to know what—Do you know Andrea?” She saw his eyes for a moment rest on her chest—she was wearing her summer-skimpy v-neck—and then quickly shift into the depths of his Coke.
“Look, Angelina, I don’t think it’s a good idea, you’re being here now.”
“Why? Who’s back there?” She pointed at the blue denim curtain that blocked the sleeping area. Had she seen it flutter? Had she heard the soft moan of a child?
“No one. I’m alone. My wife and I, we’re separated. The kids come here some weekends during the summer. They went to a wedding this weekend.”
“Who got married?”
“Sister. My ex’s sister. Now what is it you want?”
Gabrielle took a long drink. “I don’t believe you.”
“What? That my ex’s sister got married?” He laughed but not happily.
“No. That there’s no one behind the curtain. A child. Maybe you kidnapped one for your pleasure.” There, she said it. It had to be said, though she didn’t quite believe it herself anymore.
“Why do you think?” He left his spot and strode across the room, pulled open the curtain.
“See? No one.”
She peered in at sets of bunk beds like those in the Schneider’s and further back a rumpled double bed. Empty of child or adult.
“Closets? Our trailer has a closet back there.”
“Go. Look. Search for yourself. I’ll be outside.”
She set her Coke on an end table. The book that lay open on the sofa beside her was some sort of self-help book about divorce. Big Butt had read those too, though they hadn’t done her much good. Gabrielle got up and took a look in the cubbyhole of a closet, almost too small to hold a child and much too cluttered with sand pails, shovels, and linens. She felt for a moment she might want to stay in there, hide among the junk. When she was little, there had been a pantry she played in, a potato bin on the floor. She had just learned to count. One potato, two potato, three, all the way up to 14. She liked the taste of raw potatoes. There was no money, her mother said so. Fourteen days she could live, one potato for each day.
There were no potatoes in this closet, but she’d seen food in the fridge.
She found him sitting outside at the picnic table with a bottle of beer.
“Satisfied?” He brushed some pine needles off the table with the bottom of his bottle.
“Maybe.” She sat across from him at the table, her legs stretched lengthwise across the bench.
Finally the humidity of late July had lifted, and the mosquitoes roamed for blood less persistently, although Gabrielle slapped one lingerer bloody across her knee and then felt bad she killed something.
“So, what’s up with you?” He sounded calmer now, his beer almost gone.
“Nothing. What’s your name again?”
“Michael, again. Mr. McKenna. When I was a kid, we used to address adults by their last names, and we didn’t normally accuse them of hiding kids, either.”
“Well that dog’s long gone, now isn’t it, Mr. Michael?”
“Speaking of dogs—but you’re right, you know. I must let go of the past, as they advise.”
He took another drink—the last of it. “You remind me of my wife a little when she was younger.”
“The way I look or the way I act? What did you do, marry a child, Michael?”
“Ha ha. More the way you act. She left, saying she already had two kids and didn’t want a third, meaning me. I felt, well, aborted. And you, here, looking for a kid. Christ, the synchronicity.”
Synchronicity. She liked the word and knew what it meant, though she didn’t remember learning it. She saw he’d stashed a six-pack under the table, and he pulled out another bottle.
“Don’t even ask.”
“Who asked you? I don’t like drinking that much anyway. You are a little childish, not to mention paranoid.”
“He laughed. “Oh, right, a good one. I’ve just been accused of being a pervert and a child in one night.”
“A child molester.”
“Right, but why me?”
“You just can’t explain all events, Michael. Like, I could ask why I had to be born into a family of fat and bald retards who loathe me, but I don’t. I don’t ask, Michael, I don’t.”
“Fat, bald, and retarded child-haters. That explains a lot, Angelina.” He wasn’t making fun, she guessed.
“For not saying something that sounds adult but isn’t really, like ‘Now, you know your parents don’t loathe you.’ My name isn’t Angelina, by the way. It’s Gabrielle.”
“Gabrielle? And there’s no chihuahua?”
“I don’t think it’s a given that all parents love their kids.”
“What? You hate yours, too? Or just one of them?”
“I don’t hate either one of them. But I’m not sure I love them enough—or anyone. If I did I would—I wouldn’t behave like a child.”
“Give me an example.”
“For example, right. For one, I got in fights with my wife, called her names in front of the kids, pushed her out, didn’t meet her needs.”
“No. I want an example, like what you did one night, one day.”
“OK. One day. My wife was pregnant with our second, Josh. She’d made dinner with fancy plates and the like, and later she snuggled up to me on the couch, telling me she loved me, how happy she was being a wife and a mother, and I, I just could not stand the sight of her or the baby or anything about my life. All I wanted was to make her unhappy. All her preparations and her words seemed like such a lie, such a pretense, and I took my arm from around her and told her to leave me alone, that she smelled like garlic, like some fat Italian housewife, and that if that’s all she was capable of doing all day—grating cheeses and putting them in little pretty-colored bowls—she could go out and waitress again and bring home money for filling salt and pepper shakers, not leaving me killing myself at the shop all day. I sell auto parts at a dealership. I had expected more of myself.” He twirled the cap of his bottle and then flicked it off the table. “But at least I’m not a child molester, and I can’t believe I’m telling you this.”
“That’s really lame, Michael. I can see why she left you.”
“You wanted details.”
“I bet there’s more things you did, too, aren’t there? Like to your kids.”
“Yes, Gabrielle. There are more things, but I’m not going to tell you anymore. You should be getting home. Regardless of their hatred of you, your parents probably wouldn’t like you sitting here at night talking to me.”
“Yeah, but they’d blame me, don’t worry.” She stood up. Melissa and the others would be waiting for her. It was reassuring to think that. “I’ll come talk to you again. Maybe after my friend goes home.”
“Yeah, some weekend when my kids are here. Maybe you could babysit the youngest, while I get out with the guys.”
“There are no guys, are there, Michael?” Adults, as far as she could tell, didn’t get together much unless there were kids around. “If you had any real guy friends, why wouldn’t you be with them now? See, I know you. I’ll come to talk again, don’t worry.” She smiled at him, satisfied, worried just a little about the insects she was crushing beneath her feet as she headed towards the trail.
“Bye, Michael.” She turned and waved at him.
Michael, Michael, Michael McKenna. The pine trees sang, and she could think of no other name for him.
Pamela Main is the Writing Center Coordinator at Penn State Brandywine, where she teaches creative writing and composition. Her work has appeared in The Greensboro Review, Puerto del Sol, Southern California Anthology, Louisiana Literature, and Iowa Woman, and she was a finalist in Glimmer Train’s 2003 fiction contest. She is working on a novel, set on an imaginary island off of New Jersey. Pamela lives in Wilmington, DE.