Moondance [Blinking Star]
Breaking Nature

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Joseph Levens
    [Blinking Star]
Playful Spirits
"Playful Spirits"
By Elizabeth Lyle

I'm starting to think the flowers are not such a hot idea. What's the father going to say if I give them to him? Wouldn't that be a bit too forward? Maybe I can be real inconspicuous about it and just put them on the picnic table when no one is looking. They're so pretty. If I give them to anybody, maybe it should be Lori - the girl. But then, wouldn't that be unfair to the two boys? It really would be best, I guess, to just take the flowers and put them right there on the table like I said, for everyone. That's it. That's what I'll do. I sometimes wonder about putting flowers in my hair. You don't see girls or grown women doing this very often. Hardly ever. I think it would be nice - a hollyhock over an ear or the stem of a daisy tying a long, dark, wavy ponytail. What's wrong with that? My hair would be perfect for it. The only times I ever see women with flowers in their hair are at weddings, and I wonder if it is a custom reserved for only this occasion. If so, somebody should do something about this.

I guess I'm starting to sound cynical. I feel a bit edgy. It could be because I'm having a pretty weird day. I went swimming in the lake earlier while the family - minus the mother, she's working overseas on a business trip - went hiking. There was no one around and the lake was secluded, way at the far end of the campground woods, so I skinny-dipped. What's the big deal, right? A girl swimming in a lake by herself. Shoot me. I'm seventeen now, a full-grown woman. No more pigtails and saddle shoes and red dresses with little white polka dots. Sorry Mom, I know you meant well. Anyway, I didn't think anything of my swimming until I heard some shuffling behind the trees. I couldn't spot anybody, but I had this feeling a person was there. I got out of the water and put on my clothes, thinking as I walked back up the hill to the campsite that I would be approached, or that my little exhibition would be reported in tomorrow's local newspaper. Maybe I would make the top headline. A picture of me - with those censored black boxes covering up my private parts as I came out of the lake - right there on the front page. I'll be at the general store buying groceries and an old man will point his finger in my face and shout, 'There she is! She's the one in the photo!' Several old women will gasp in terror and call for the store manager to remove me.

Well, no more adventures for me today. I'll settle in and have a nice dinner with the family I sit for. The father was so nice, having invited me to join them on vacation camping. I figured I go. Hell, beats staying home with no kids to watch and no money to make. Over hot dogs we'll talk about hiking and canoeing and fishing, about bazaars back home and rollerblades and Frisbee- throwing. I'm sure the father is going to ask what I did today. I don't know what I'm going to say. It thrills me to think I'll tell him exactly what happened. I mean, I doubt he'd lock me up if he found out. He might even get a thrill out of it. And I sure wouldn't mind that. Not one bit. So I put the flowers on the table inside an empty bottle of spring water, arranging them beautifully, but now as I look at them they seem to say something, something more than just 'Hello. How are you? Don't we make the table look all nice?'

"Call me Ken," the father says. He gives a big smile. His teeth are perfect. I look at him sometimes through my long hair, my brown eyes peering through secretively, unable to be seen. Having returned from the hike, the children appear exhausted but happy to see me again. The food is almost ready to be served. I can cook more elaborate dishes than hot dogs and beans, but I guess if that's what they want, that's what they'll get. And just for the record, I'm not a cook, I'm a sitter.

Technically you could say, at least on this vacation, I'm a nanny. I've always wanted to be a nanny. At least for a time. This afternoon I learned Lori found a lizard outside its tank at the Nature Center. The ranger who was stationed there thanked her for noticing it. "It's good you spotted it," I say to her. She's got these two braids in her hair that just kill me. When I was young I thought braids were the ticket to meeting the man of my dreams. I haven't worn braids in ten years, but I'm thinking maybe it's in my best interest now to put the theory to the test.

"It was nothing," Lori says. "That's my job."

"How so?" I ask.

Bobby speaks, the older boy.

"She thinks she's a policewoman or something. She's always on the lookout for trouble."

I look at Bobby and wonder if he told his father about the cave he and I explored yesterday. We did it quickly, while everyone else was busy. He said he found it while riding his bike. He desperately wanted to show it to me. I let him. Bobby is nine, Lori is six, Eric is five. They're great together, and they're great with me. Someday I'm going to have kids just like these. I've been their sitter for a year now, mostly after school. It's about the only structured thing I do.

While we eat, Ken goes and starts a campfire. "For marshmallows later," he explains, looking at me. Hot dogs are delicious when you're camping. So are hamburgers. We had hamburgers yesterday. Sometimes I think it's unfair the way I can eat mammoth proportions of food and still not get fat. Some girls I know have to watch every calorie, and I feel sorry for them. It doesn't seem fair. I've been the same weight since I stopped growing three years ago. It doesn't matter how much I eat. I think if I cut down my intake I would lose pounds quickly. This will never happen, though, because there's no way I can just stop eating. They say if you starve yourself, you'll die in sixty days. With me it's probably around ten. Fifteen the most. I'm sure my body wouldn't know how to handle it.

Drinking is another thing. Whatever my body does with water, it does very well because I don't need that much. I take small sips. I rarely chug down a pint or more. Sometimes I do after sports, but that's about it. I don't sweat much. This might be why I don't need a lot of liquids. One thing my body has a tough time handling is alcohol. One sip and I'm hyper. Two sips and I'm silly. Three and I'm tired. Four and I'm drunk. Any more than that and I'm out cold, as if I was hit with a sleep dart from the gun of Courageous Cat. And these sips could be anything: beer, wine, whiskey, you name it. I used to sneak alcohol from my father's liquor cabinet. I remember the first time I put a bottle of sour mash whiskey to my lips. I said to myself, "What are you, kidding?" I experimented quietly and carefully in my bedroom, taking notes when necessary. Whiskey is so strong. It tastes like poison. But I can drink it without getting sick, just drunk.

I used to drink with friends but I don't think I'm going to do that anymore. I've done some stupid things out in public. Usually what happens is I end up kissing. After I've had a few sips I get all giddy, and before you know it, I'm kissing somebody. Once I even kissed a girl. I'd rather not talk about it. A few months ago, I remember, the father walked in on us in the basement and saw Bobby holding a bottle of beer. He must have taken it out of the downstairs cooler. Then little Eric knocked over a can of nails that was on the workshop bench, and I was on the floor busy picking them all up when Ken came down the stairs and said, "What's going on down here?" He saw Bobby holding the beer and me with my knees on the ground and all the nails between my legs, and he just smiled. He's cool.

Now Ken stirs the fire to make it all cozy and warm and fascinating to watch. He's having a beer. I'm tempted to drink too - he's offered me one twice, but I've refused. So he's drinking by himself as we kids tell scary stories. "Go ahead," Ken says to me, "tell a story about monsters," after I advise the kind of story the kids want to hear might not be appropriate. This campground can be spooky with all the trees and all the darkness at night. But if Ken says it's all right, it's all right I guess. I tell Bobby, Lori, and Eric about two monsters that used to live in this campground, one in the woods and one in the lake. They were cousins, but they only got together on holidays. They would stalk campers who roamed far away from their campsites in the wee hours. They could gobble up a full-grown person if they wanted to, and swallow a little boy or girl whole, without even chewing.

The kids' mouths are gaping. I think if I continue they're going to have nightmares. I change the subject to marshmallows. These kids, all they can do is sit and listen to me. They can't talk on their own for a while or make up their own stories. I have to be the one leading the meeting, and that's what it feels like - a meeting. Perhaps I would make a good school teacher. Ken watches me the whole time. Is he admiring me for what I'm doing, or is he in love with me? Does he know where I was this afternoon?

Does he know that I find him attractive, innocent, and having everything a girl wants in a man (except for being married, of course)? I'm going to ask him for a beer. If not now, later. What the hell. "I showed Quinn something yesterday," Bobby says to his father. Kids are so unpredictable.

"Oh yeah?" his father answers. His eyebrows rise.

"Yeah," Bobby says. "We went in a spooky cave."

"Is that right?" he asks both of us, alternating looks between the boy and me.

"He's right," I say. "I should have stopped him. I'm sorry."

The father doesn't make a big deal about it. God, even his voice appeals to me. I remember when I was younger I used to do all sorts of stuff. I don't think I ever walked into an eerie cave before, but I remember boys and all, and the parties I used to go to, playing games like Spin the Bottle and Seven Minutes in Heaven. I used to play with classmates from my Catholic school.

Spin the Bottle was kind of dumb. The thing I didn't like about it was - you were at the mercy of the bottle, and so you were always relying on luck, and the luck never seemed to go my way. When I spun it, the bottle never stopped and pointed to a boy I wanted to kiss. Never. And it always stopped and pointed to me when some ugly boy spun it. How disappointing. I used to kiss the boy and get it over with as fast as I could, and then I'd turn my face the other way, fighting a grimace. Yuck. Seven Minutes in Heaven was fun because you could get creative. You had to do as the boy directed when you were in the closet, but I always found a way to innovate, and that's what made it fun. After all, what's the boy going to do if you don't listen to everything he says? Slap you around? Open the door and tell everybody? He'd look like such a baby. Once I was with this dopey boy who probably never even had a clue what a girl looked like. He said, 'Da, like, take off your clothes.' I answered really loud, 'What did you say?' Everybody heard, I'm sure, and he freaked and ran out of the closet.

Another time a boy who I thought was quiet and reserved asked me to unzip him as soon as we got in the closet. So I opened the zipper of his jacket pocket. He said, 'No, no, no. Pull it out.' So I stuck my hand in the pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. I didn't know what the paper was; it was dark. I think it was something important, though, because he quickly grabbed it out of my hand. He said, 'Give me that. Are you going to do this or what?' So I got serious and said, 'O.K. I'll do it,' and I reached down to his pants, and before I even got the zipper started I was able to feel him. I began laughing uncontrollably, maybe because I was getting nervous. I couldn't do anything, I was laughing too much, and then the next thing I knew the door was open and he was out of the closet.

Then there was the time when a boy I had this huge crush on got me down to my bra and panties. He probably would have gotten those off me too if he didn't find out I unscrewed the light bulb. He kept asking me if I really had only my bra and panties left, like he had a hard time believing I was following his instructions. I guess he just had to see me right then, I don't know. He tried the light switch but it didn't work. (I had the light bulb out even before I removed my sneakers.) I told him what I did and started laughing. I couldn't help but laugh when I played these games. He said, 'Well, put it back in.' So I gave him the bulb, and he tried like hell to get that sucker screwed in but he just couldn't do it. He gave up and then did something completely mortifying: he opened the door. Sure enough, he saw me in exactly what I claimed I was wearing, and so did about a dozen other people. I screamed and got up, pushed him out, and closed the door. I don't know what he told everyone while I was fumbling to get my clothes back on in the closet, but when I finally got out I received a round of applause.

If you're wondering about boyfriends, I suppose I could tell you I have had a few. Not many compared to some other girls I know. I don't think I'm any bit of a prude, but kissing in the hallway in school between classes just isn't for me. I kissed boys behind billboard signs, at the beach, on basement sofas. There's a Polaroid out there I am dying to retrieve and destroy. The only boyfriend I was ever really head-over-heels for talked me into opening by blouse and unhooking my bra once while he held a camera to me. I was on a swing at a school playground. I like swings. I don't know what else to say.

Anyway, later on, with Ken on his third or fourth beer and me sipping mine as slowly as I possibly could, the kids tucked away in their tents, I tell him I'm tired of school and don't know what I want to do. He says it can be hot in August, no matter where you are. I tell him that if you veer off the trail to the falls when you get to the big rock, you will find another trail that leads up the mountain. The view is astounding. He says the campground is beautiful, the falls are breathtaking, and he's sure the view at the top of the mountain is gorgeous. I tell him I'd like to know what it's like to really love someone.

He says, "Quinn, save yourself for that special man and you will find out." I have some more of my beer. I can't look at him. I try to read the label on the bottle I'm holding. It's blurry. I look at the fire. It's huge - one giant fireball. If it could talk, it would probably tell us a story - it has that much of our attention. I say 'our' because he's right here sitting next to me. It's almost like he's watching out for me or something as I get drunk; like he's my guardian angel.

The next thing I know, I'm waking up. I must have just crashed right here in the chair. The world is moving around me. I feel like I just got off a Tilt-A- Whirl at a Byzantine festival. I feel like I've blown up too many balloons, like I'm at the dentist and having several cavities filled. I see this man here - a father, husband - as I look around. He's staring at my body, as if mesmerized by it, limp and lying in a chair by the campfire. He can see my ankles and feet, my neck, and down to the 'v' of my sweater. No reason for alarm - he's simply been watching me in the chair, I tell myself, trying to calm myself. Watching over me. Keeping vigil. How long was I sleeping?

"I thought something might have happened," I say to him, and he looks in my eyes as if I just brought him back down from a pleasant daydream. "What might have happened?" he asks, straightening himself.

"I don't know." I'm squinting and I'm sure my hair is all over the place. I feel like I've been sleeping for days.

"Quinn, you must be tired," he says.

"No. It's all right." I'm trying hard to focus on everything. I know where I am, I'm coming around, but it all seems so blurry and my head feels heavy.

"You're sleepy and you look sweaty," the father says.

"I know."

He tries to convince me the best thing to do is go to bed. He would put out the fire and the kids would see me in the morning. I'm beginning to acknowledge having had too much to drink, possibly more than I ever had before. I feel helpless and call out to the husband. "I've got to lay down."

I'm dropping back into sleep. My head falls forward off my shoulder, down so that my chin almost hits hard on the base of my throat, but I startle and pull it back up. My eyes are open. Now they're closed. Now they're open and I see the bleary vision of a man standing over me. He kneels down beside me. He is the man I dreamed about when I was younger.

"Quinn, let me help you," he says quietly.

Bending forward, he puts his forearms under me like a forklift and I am out of my chair. He has me in his arms. He is my lover. I am his mistress. "I'm drunk," I say in a daze.

My arms dangle down as if they're attached to a dead body. I must look hideous. I'm comfortable and safe in his arms as I feel myself being transported somewhere. I'm like a princess being led out of an evil castle. I may have sustained injury or been put under a sorcerer's spell. I'm so out of it I can't even bring my arms up to put around his neck, to help him carry me. I desperately want to but I just can't. I'm falling back into sleep, asleep in his arms. What will ever become of me?

"Stay with me," I try to say, but it comes out in a whisper.

It's completely dark. I see nothing. I hear nothing. My head is pounding. It throbs like a heart, but instead of pumping blood it administers pain. My mouth is dry. I need water. I sit up. I still can't see anything. You know how it is when you first find yourself in the dark - you can't see a thing but as you continue to look around you begin to make out parts of objects? Well, I still can't see anything. That's how dark it is. I remember what happened. I was telling stories to the kids. I started drinking beer. The kids went to bed and I talked with the father. Ken. Then I fell asleep, so he picked me up and laid me down somewhere. I feel for my clothes. I still have everything on. I feel for my necklace. It's here. This thing below me smells like my sleeping bag. I move it and feel a blanket underneath - my knit blanket from home. I'm in my tent.

I fall back down and wish my head would stop hurting. I'm still a little bit drunk and don't have all of my senses. I hope I didn't say anything stupid earlier, although I'm pretty sure I did. I think I remember telling him that he was good-looking and that if he wanted to fool around with me I'd let him. It's beginning to bother me some because I can't remember if I said it or not. If I did I hope the kids didn't hear me. God, if they heard they'll tell their mother when they get home. She'll come after me with a musket she was keeping in the basement specifically for this purpose. Her husband cheated on her. She must track down the wicked witch and shoot to kill. Two things I rarely do are throw up and get a bloody nose. I don't think either of these things will happen to me now; I just thought I'd tell you in case you were concerned. But I do feel awful. It must be about three o'clock in the morning. I bet even the night prowlers have called it quits. If they haven't found a good bite by now they're not going to.

I get up slowly and carefully and peer out my tent window. The blaze that was in the stone pit a few hours ago is smoldering. There is not a single light on in the campground. I can't stop wondering what exactly happened with me and the husband married to the woman with the musket.

Turning back I bump into him, a man asleep in my tent. I startle a little, pulling my arms back, but I remain quiet and do not move. I'm frozen in the space next to him and don't know what to do, but it doesn't take very long for me to decide. I creep low and carefully, like a snake, sliding along the tent floor to lay next to him. He hasn't moved and he faces away from me and I can smell his hair and the dampness of his clothes.

"Quinn," he says softly.

My hand is on the top of his waist, now running along his chest, now tucked under him with my arm around his body. I want to hold him like this forever, for tonight, tomorrow night, next month, and centuries beyond. I don't ever want the two of us to move again. "Quinn," he turns.

His breath surrounds me and fills me like a drug. I cannot see his face but I know he is right here. His mouth hovers an inch from my nose and I live the longest second of my life. He leaves his kiss on my forehead and gets up, and as he opens the tent and walks back to his kids I'm left unable to even see his shadow. It is silent and a slight breeze blows, even in the deep woods of the campground. My flashlight guides me. It lights up the rust-colored pine bristles fallen from the past winter. I feel like I am walking on a carpet.

I'm out of my tent now, headed for the bathhouse. I have to pee. The air out here feels refreshing. It's so peaceful I feel like I'm breaking some sort of rule walking through, like I'm breaking nature somehow, like I shouldn't be doing this. Four more days of vacation, and it is a vacation for me even though I'm making money. Don't ask me where my life is going - I couldn't answer you even if I wanted to. It doesn't matter, really. There are a hundred thousand million lives other people are living right now that I'm sure glad I'm not. The bathhouse is all lit up. There are so many trees in the campground you can't see it until you get up close, and when you do, you find the lights come right at you, cutting through like beacons.

Ahead of me I see a white line on the ground, and it is moving. A skunk. The animals own the night in the campground. I stop to watch for a moment. It walks slowly and steadily away, so gradually and definitively, as if drawing a path I should notice and follow. I look out in the direction it is heading but cannot see anything beyond the first few trees. It is night. It is too dark. I'll trust the animal knows what it's doing.

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Joseph Levens lives in Smithtown, NY and has had stories published in several online literary publications this past year, including Southern Ocean Review and The Bridge. On "Breaking Nature," he writes: The idea for the story was first put on paper in 1977 while camping in the Berkshires. Since then, through countless revisions, insatiateness, and frustration, virtually the only thing that has remained unchanged is Quinn, her voice, her manner, her ability to experience, reasoning and placing things in her own perspective. I feel she has been with me these many years. joseph.levens@reuters.com




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