Chapter I from my fantasy novel, SUMMER, which is complete at 108,000 words.
Part I – June
God offers us yearly a necklace of twelve pearls; most men choose the fairest, label it June, and cast the rest away. ~Thomas Wentworth Higginson
Ernesto promised his Memorial Day Moose Bash and Squirrel Buffet would be a magical kick off to summer, so I drove two hours from Baltimore to have a good time. Ernesto didn’t disappoint, either. He placed a huge stuffed moose near the front gate and hung a squirrel piñata from the elm tree in his back yard.
Something felt odd and disjointed about the combination, though. Orange with apple, coal with snow, Memorial Day with moose. But if Ernesto kept the beer and brats flowing, he could label his parties whatever made him happy. Still, that should have been my first warning.
“Why moose?” I asked his husband, Rufus, as I walked up to the door. Rufus wore a pair of felt antlers. The brown band flattened down his dark hair.
“NBC canceled Rocky and Bullwinkle on this date in 1964,” he answered, handing me a beer. Then he patted me on the shoulder. I walked into the room and looked for my friends.
That’s when I noticed the woman. Curly, black hair cascading wildly down her shoulders, a cute nose beneath dark green eyes, a slender neck leading to a hint of cleavage. Her overall shape lithe. She wore a fashionable summer dress of red and white, appropriately short for the warm weather without being scandalously daring. An average girl, one of many in the room as I scanned past her. I’d seen her type hundreds of times and saw nothing remarkable about her.
Then she smiled at me.
I fell in love.
I didn’t realize it then. I was wedded to the theory that I could play it cool, take it slow, ease into any relationship, and bolt when I wanted. Even that one perfect smile with its girl-next-door charm didn’t change that thought process immediately. It took the rational side of me another month to catch up to the emotional side and remind it not to drag ass behind. Everyone falls in love at Ernesto’s. That’s where the magic happens.
Eddie and Melissa stood near the stereo, and I slid over to them, drawing a happy-friend nod from Eddie and a smile from his wife. I tipped my head toward the girl by the food table. “Who is she?”
“What, no preamble?” Melissa asked with a grin. “No pretext of conversation before you target another romantic conquest? You could at least pretend to care about us.”
“Maybe he could fall in the pool and nearly drown, that would get her attention,” Eddie said.
“I don’t swim,” I told him. “And I look terrible in chain mail.”
Melissa took Eddie’s hand and kissed him. “Best party ever. How the hell does Ernesto come up with the themes, though? Medieval Mariachi Madness, complete with shopping cart jousting?”
“How in the hell did I end up at the bottom of the pool in homemade armor strapped to one of those rolling death traps?” Eddie asked.
“Ernesto plans parties for a living,” I said, watching the girl, “and your driver sucked.”
“You were driving,” Eddie said, “and I would have won if not for your inability to steer a straight line.”
“Hey, you came in second,” Melissa said. “Well, you did after I revived you with some hot mouth to mouth action. Our first kiss saved your life.”
“My nightingale,” he said.
Charlie joined us, a plate of food in his hand. “Not as good as the Saint Patty’s Day Leprechaun Luau,” he said in that rich baritone that contradicted his bookish looks.
Melissa poked Charlie in the ribs. “That’s because you spent all night with Rosie.”
“And every night since.” He gave a shy smile, pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose, then took an experimental bite of a sandwich.
“Did they ever find the body of her previous boyfriend?” Eddie asked. “Man, I’ve never seen a Navy seal cry before.”
I’d witnessed the event myself, redheaded Rosie standing in front of the hulking form of a professional killer, his body wracked by sobs, her hands on her hips. I had to stifle my laughter at the scene he made when she dumped him.
“That’s why I love her; she’s badass,” Charlie said.
“Where is Rosie?” Melissa asked, looking around the room.
“She’ll be here later,” Charles said. “I dropped her off at the used bookstore on Maple street to see if they have any eighteenth-century poetry.”
Eddie grimaced. “Only you two could sit in the middle of a drunken luau and seduce each other with eighteenth-century Shakespearean jokes.”
“Shakespeare is late sixteenth and early seventeenth century,” Charles said. He popped the triangle of sandwich into his mouth and chewed.
“I’m going to go talk to her,” I said.
Melissa patted my shoulder. “Don’t break another heart, Romeo.”
I nodded at everyone and walked over to the food table near the girl. I poured myself a drink from the punch bowl as I worked up the nerve to approach her. The sign next to it read “Antler-aid.” It smelled like the cranberry-juice cocktails which kept my grandmother well lubricated after dinners. Gran handled her drink better than my father did. I thought of the evenings I spent listening to her stories of Gramps and the war, while she ignored my childish tales of the fantastic world I imagined.
“Did you know I was a Foley dancer back in those days?” Gran would ask, pausing to take a swig from her tall glass. “A wonderful job, so many handsome men. They called me the belle of the ball, Ham. It made your grandfather so jealous when he heard the stories. But he was off fighting the war and couldn’t take care of my needs. He liked that sort of thing anyway. Your grandfather was a pervy bastard, bless his soul.”
I hated being called Ham. I couldn’t get her to call me Hammond, but suspected that was due to her continual state of inebriation.
I stood awkwardly near the girl, drink in hand, trying to determine how to begin a conversation. A buzz of voices surrounded us, the stereo played “52 Girls” by the B-52’s, and my tongue twisted in knots.
She opened her mouth and spoke, and the word came out as smooth and dark as tinted glass. A cool tingle passed along my spine, and I stared at her incredibly white teeth as she smiled at me.
“What?” This turned out to be the extent of my conversational repertoire as I drowned in the liquid pools of her eyes.
“My name. It’s June. You want to ask my name.”
“Yes. What’s your name?”
“June,” she repeated, ignoring my reduced mental capacity, an oversight which made me grateful. “June July August.”
She laughed, and the room brightened, the sound of it like the sun raining its shine down as it peeked from behind a cloud. “That’s my name, stranger. First name June, last name August, middle name July. June July August.”
“I’m traditional summer, not calendar summer. I’m vacation, and hot dogs, and watermelons, and county fairs, and long, slow days under a hot sun broken by cool dips in the lake. I’m fireworks, and kissing in the dark as we lay on a blanket under the stars. I’m reading books in the cool of the library, and riding bikes out on a dirt road to find the best frog pond in the area. And you are?”
“Hammond Arlen River.”
“That’s a nice name. It makes me think of an organ, big and grand and majestic. Are you an organ, Hammond?”
I couldn’t tell if she was flirting or messing with me. Everything about her flustered and confused me while simultaneously making my head spin in that giddy, fucked up way of fresh attraction. No woman affected me like this before. It intoxicated me. I took a long, dubious look at the cup in my hand, accusing the punch for my altered emotional state. Bad punch, very bad punch.
“Well if you play me, I might make some noise, but I doubt it would be very melodic.” It sounded like a pick-up line, although, in my defense, nothing else came to mind. It wasn’t meant to be an attempt at a teenage seduction techniques.
She laughed again. “Melodic, excellent word choice. I love a man with a big vocabulary. Now, you want to ask me to go for a walk.”
“You’re cute when you’re flustered. You know . . . a walk? You and I putting one foot in front of the other, moving your body forward in a horizontal motion while balancing bipedally upon two legs, with or without a destination in mind. You want to ask me to go for a walk.”
“Do you want to go for a walk?”
“Yes, I’d be delighted. The lake is a short distance away, and since water is related to your surname, let’s go down to the bank for a bit and talk.”
She took my hand with her tiny fingers, sending a jolt through my body that made my heart lurch into my throat. She pulled me toward the exit with a strength that belied her slender frame. I caught the eyes of Eddie and Charlie as they stood talking, and when they looked at me with puzzled expressions I shrugged. She guided me through the double French doors and out into the back yard.
She wrapped her arm around mine as we wound our way around the pool and cut through the hedges onto Quigley Avenue. Her hip brushed against me, and the scent of her perfume mingled with the fragrance of the Magnolia trees as we passed by the park where summer concerts were held. She led me over a carpet of thick grass and down to the rocks near the water, where waves lapped musically against the shoreline.
“I love this spot,” she said, sitting down on a flat boulder. She took her shoes off, placed them behind her, and let her toes dip in the water. She glanced at me, and I could see the reflection of lights sparkling in her dark eyes as she smiled. “Why don’t you sit beside me, Hammond?”
Taking off my shoes and socks, I eased onto the rock next to her. We sat staring over the small lake. I looked at the lights of the homes on the far side that lined the shore. Summer houses, empty now, soon to fill as their owners returned to their vacation homes from far away to forget work, school, or anything that didn’t involve warm weather fun.
“Do you want to do the usual small talk?” she asked.
“You need to stop overusing that word. Say no comment instead. It’ll make people think you’re a politician.”
I looked at her, her body silvery in the glow from distant street lamps and porch lights. “Who are you?”
“June July August. But that’s not the question you mean to ask.”
Her eyes were magnetic, as though mine were a lodestone and couldn’t help but be pulled in the direction of her North Star. I stared at her for an eternity. “What question?”
“—Right, wait, let me try that again. No comment. Correct?”
She smiled that devastating smile. “Correct. So, the questions you mean to ask are: where I come from, what I do for work, what are my hobbies, and so on. Am I right? I know I am.”
“Actually, I wondered if you prefer roses or tulips.”
“An excellent decision, going with the unexpected question rather than the tried and true getting to know you stuff. I prefer daisies. And black-eyed Susans.” She took my arm in hers, pulled it against her waist, and tilted her head until it rested on my shoulder.
“The lake is so peaceful, especially at night. It’s dark and cool, and it’s deep, and you can’t see all the way to the bottom. Things lurk at rest beneath still waters, and one shouldn’t rush to stir the surface.”
I managed to grunt a non-committal “no comment” noise, but I got lost in the scent of her perfume. I had trouble concentrating on her words. Her touch was the only thing in the world at that moment. That, and the way her hair tickled the skin of my neck.
“I like waffles,” she said, in a manner that suggested I had asked a specific question.
“Would you like to get something to eat?”
“For breakfast, I mean. I like waffles for breakfast. Can you fix waffles?”
I scratched my head as I tried to remember where I’d left the waffle iron my mother had given me. I assumed it was under the stove in the kitchen, so I tested the word “Yes” to see what results cropped up.
“Wonderful. Let’s go back to your place now; you can fix me waffles for breakfast.”
We stood and she kissed me. I wish I could say the kiss was epic, full of sound and fury. The type of kiss that makes women cry when they see it in a movie. The type of kiss that your friends give you the customary bro’ nod for, a slight smile playing across their lips. Some lovely shit like that. But I honestly don’t remember the kiss at all. I remember that our lips met, the universe twisted in a pleasurable way, and then we were in my car, and then at my house, and then our clothing came off, and we tumbled into bed.
The best part of that night, though? She was still there the next morning. And I found the waffle iron.