by Heidi Hodges
August 2006 I growl, jump up, and rip the poster down. I rip another and another down, until my walls are almost bare. I dig into my closet and pull out all of my Thorned Zebra fan merch and throw it out the window. I chuck my CDs out the window next. I hear the jewel cases crack and shatter as they hit the patio below. My closet’s a wreck. I breath heavily as I look at my CD tower. There is a gaping hole. I play sick on the phone and call out of work. Instead, I drive past all the pizza places and summer homes and pay-lots. I head for the furthest end of the beach. I enter the state park, pass the bathing beaches, pass the midway fishing spot. I stop at the last beach entrance before the jetty. I grab my towel and walk the long, sandy path through the holly trees, switchgrass, and bayberry. I pass over the scrubby dunes — the sound of the crashing waves growing louder and louder — until I see the ocean, an amount of water I can't comprehend even while looking right at it. So much water. Enough to fill any hole I can imagine. * * * WMHA 261.2 Radio Top Ten June 2006 1. Hand Me Down My Automachine - Thorned Zebra 2. Summer Crush Rush - Orange Peel 3. Won’t You Baby? - Cassandra Jones 4. Drink Up You Lazy - Thorned Zebra 5. Ticket For The Ride - Gold Face 6. Don’t Die Rory - The Romans 7. Feel Free - A.Jay feat. Dirty Hip 8. Martha Washington - Almond Dust 9. Dirty Blond Bit** - Thorned Zebra 10. Let Me See That Smile - Justin Blake Chapter 1 I rarely dance naked, but sometimes the situation calls for it. I’m fresh out of the shower, a towel wrapped around my body and another around my head. I tiptoe from the bathroom to my bedroom, pick a jewel case from my CD tower, and bring it to my boombox. I carefully insert the disc, not touching the silver underside. I click the cover down, the disc spins, and I press the heavy play button when the display appears. "Track 1" starts with a dial tone before heavy bass drums and rapid guitar notes shove their way in. I crank it, nod my head, and dance around the room as I sing along to my favorite band, Thorned Zebra. Soon the towel on my head unwinds and falls. I fling the other to my desk chair, but it lands on the floor. I grab clothes from my dresser, slamming the wooden drawers shut to the beat. I shimmy to my closet. The hanger holding my graduation dress is hooked on the outside. It's navy blue with white swirling flowers. Fancier than what I normally wear, but today is not normal. Today is my high school graduation. Once dressed, I pad back to the bathroom to dry my hair. I crank the music louder so it can be heard over the blow-dryer. When my hair and makeup are done, the album is ending. Perfect timing. They are a perfect band. If my life had a soundtrack, at least half of it would be Thorned Zebra. I have every album on CD, every song in my iTunes. I don't have a lot of merch because it's stupid expensive — thirty-five dollars for a t-shirt? I don't think so. But I splurged on a tight, black zip-up hoodie last fall that I wore everyday until this summer. I still wear it hanging outside on chilly nights. My mom helped me pick this dress. She disapproves of my shoe choice, but I’m not giving in. I hate to wear pointy heels any time, but I refuse when I have to walk on grass, like today. My entire high school class will be marching on the football field as part of the procession and ceremony to receive our fake diplomas. We'll receive our real diplomas in the mail after a few weeks — after it’s confirmed that each student has properly fulfilled the requirements to graduate high school in the state of New Jersey. The album over, I put the CD away in the exact spot it came from. My CD tower is organized alphabetically by artist, then numerically by album release year. All my mix CDs are on the bottom shelf, ordered by when they were made. I slide my feet into my black platform sandals with the stretch-panel top. I grab my little backpack and my plasticky white graduation gown and blue hat with classic tassel. Then I head downstairs to wait for Claudia. "All set and ready?" My mom asks when I get to the bottom of the stairs, which land between the kitchen and front living room. Both parents are sitting on the couch, enjoying their empty Saturday morning. "Yup. All set," I hold up my gown. "Those shoes, huh?" My mom asks, looking me up and down. "Yup," I say with finality. She looks me in the eye. "You are beautiful." "All grown up," my dad says, proud. "Yup," I say again, this time with a squirm in my belly. "Let's go out back and take some pictures in the yard before Claudia comes,” my dad suggests. My dad would do everything outside if he could. "Ooh, yeah, the Japanese maple is still blooming. That'll look great," my mom says. The two usher me to stand and smile in front of various plants in the backyard. My shoes keep me on the comfortable side of the grass, above it. My parents take a lot of pride in our yard; there are lots of trees, flowers, and shrubs worthy of being a photo backdrop. At one point my cat, Zeb, comes to rub against my leg. I bend to pet him, one hand out in front of his nose, and my dad snaps a picture. When I see the photos on the digital camera, that one is my favorite. We hear the stereo before we see Claudia pull up in her convertible. She twists down the volume dial. “Hi, Mr. and Ms. Samson!" She calls with a wave. "Hey there," my dad says. "Hi, Claudia. And you can call us Sandy and Sam," my mom says, like she’s embarrassed of her age instead of proud of the respect she’s earned. "Okay," Claudia says, but I know she’ll continue to call them Mr. and Ms. Samson because she was raised that way. "Come over here and take some pictures with Sloane!" My dad gestures. I groan quietly. "I took a ton already." "Let's get some with those hats," my dad suggests. Claudia shrugs and reaches for her graduation hat in the backseat. “So grown up," my mom shakes her head. She’s snapping away with the camera now. "College, huh?" My dad says. “It’s getting late. We better get going,” I say. I can't count how many times we've endured “the college conversation” this past year. I am so over it. I finished high school, completed my applications, and have a flimsy plan in place for the next two years: go to Montclair University and study gen eds until I figure out what I want to major in. Can I please enjoy my summer now? "Okay, drive safe!" My mom calls as we head to Claudia's car. "We'll see you later!" My dad waves. I toss my bag into the backseat and climb into Claudia's car. She pulls out of the driveway and cruises slowly out of the neighborhood filled with similar-looking modular houses, mostly built in the '80s, with the music low. She turns it up after we hit the highway — a bumping hip-hop beat. Claudia loves hip-hop. I do, too, when I'm feeling good and want to dance. But I love rock when I'm feeling anything and want to live, which is always. Claudia likes rock, too, but it’s not a top favorite. "You keeping the top down?!" I yell over the music and wind, trying to hold my hair still. "I spend, like, a half-hour on my hair this morning!" "I'll close the front windows. That should help,” she presses the automatic buttons on her car door to close both front windows. Claudia has short dark hair she inherited from her Mexican mother. It is smooth, silky, straight, and immune to tangles. My hair is... wild. "It's a little better," I concede. "It's fine," she says. "I spent an hour and a half on my hair this morning." “That’s crazy!” I guess I'll have wild hair forever and always. "Oh, I love this song!" She turns the volume up even louder on a Sierra and Missy Elliott song. We forget about hair and spend the rest of the ride shimmying and shaking, rapping and singing. A bright blue beach ball adorned with “Class of 2006” and tiny white stars hits me, knocking off my graduation hat. What are they called again? Mortarboards. What a stupid name. Although, it’s a stupid hat so I guess it fits. I pick up my hat, put it back on my flattened hair, and punch the ball above the sea of classmates in folding chairs. It’s finally the last speech. Boring and predictable stuff about this wonderful education and these wonderful memories being the foundation for our wonderful futures. I'm all for an inspiring speech, these are just not. Soon, the marching band will start again and the hundreds of students will file past for a photo-op with the principal as she hands us a blank scroll. I wait and watch the students ahead of me, marching as practiced before the parents and spectators arrived. I watch the puffy clouds scoot across the blue sky. I squint against the sun (we weren’t allowed to wear sunglasses). I try not to sweat. This gown is polyester. I hate polyester. I'm not nervous. I am happy. It’s a good day, I'm part of this big thing. My parents are proud. “Sloane Samson,” my name is announced over the sound system, my cue to climb the rickety stairs of the temporary stage. I play my role, smile for the camera. I loop back around the field of chairs, and stand in front of my assigned seat. We are arranged by height, not alphabetically, so we’re only half way through this show. When all students return to my row, a teacher signals for us to sit, and the row behind to stand, simultaneously. I slide my sandals off and attempt to even out the tan on my feet. There is a short closing speech by the vice principal. On cue, we stand again and move our tassels from the right side to the left. The crowd cheers, the music swells. Then, despite administration forbidding us, we throw our hats in the air. I toss mine as high as I can. I won’t need it anymore. Once dismissed, I meet my parents and older brother, Soldier, in the crowd. We hug, they congratulate me, and I thank them. It’s a grand occasion, but it's weird. I know it's a big deal, but it doesn't feel like a big deal. I never doubted I was going to graduate high school. Never did I feel the four years of schoolwork culminating to this moment. I collected As and Bs easily and dutifully. Graduating is not a surprise, but I suppose it is an accomplishment, and we all like a reason to celebrate. Claudia and Mr. West find our huddle and our parents chat. Then my dad talks to some other parents he graduated high school with. My feet hurt and I want to get out of this silly robe. “Can I go with Claudia? We want to go for a drive, hang out.” “Sure,” my mom says. "Just be home in time to get ready for dinner. We've got reservations at The Italian House for six o’clock.” "Will do," I say. I give my parents hugs and a kisses, and Soldier a little side-squeeze. "See ya later!" Claudia says goodbye to her dad and aunt, too. We weave our way through the crowds and packed parking lot to her car. I toss my bag over and slide into the familiar passenger seat. Cars are already lining up to leave. “Floor it, will ya?” I shuffle the graduation robe over my head. Claudia does the same before strapping into the driver’s seat. She’s wearing a dress, too; why did we need to dress up when the robe hid everything anyway? I could’ve worn shorts and a t-shirt, no one would have known. “Where we going so fast?” Claudia backs out of the parking space. I extract the extra sunglasses I always leave in Claudia’s glove-box. “Away from here,” I say. "I am so over school." I plug in my iPod, select “School’s Out” by Alice Cooper, and make it loud. She squeezes into the line of cars. “Nice,” Claudia says and sings along. We inch along, then she cuts someone off to pull onto the main road. “I want to stop by my house first to change, okay?” “Sure,” I shout as she speeds up. I let my iPod play on random. While she changes clothes, I wait outside. I’ll wear this dress to dinner, but my hair-do is done. I pull an elastic off my wrist and twist it into a messy bun atop my head. Claudia’s back in a tank and shorts, carrying a mix CD on her finger. “Made it this morning,” she pushes it into the stereo deck. We listen to it twice as drive around for the two free hours before I need to be at dinner. We drive along the bay, down Route 37, out into the Pine Barrens, and back. We eat Swedish Fish that Claudia brought. When we stop for gas, I get cheesy snacks. We chat and sing. We just hang out. A perfect balance of doing nothing and enjoying life. Despite the snacks, I’m hungry when Claudia brings me home. My mom’s wearing trousers and a satin top, my dad’s in khakis with a button-up and tie. Soldier’s wearing jeans, but they don’t have rips. I appreciate the effort. The Italian House is a local pizzeria and restaurant that flies under the radar. It’s got great food, but is a bit lost in a mundane strip mall, a hidden gem. Their bread is the best, baked fresh for every table, served with a dish of olive oil and herbs for dipping. My family usually fills up on bread, taking most of the entrees home. Growing up, my mom was at home to raise Soldier and I. Once we were in middle school, she got her Real Estate license. She loves working her own hours. My dad has been a mail carrier for twenty years. He loves being outside all the time, even in rain and snow. Soldier is my older brother by almost two years. He’s in college. We get along pretty well. We’re a good family and I love them. "I'm so proud of you, Sloane," my mom says, slightly teary-eyed. "It was nothing, mom," I say. "To Sloane," my dad says loudly as he lifts his drink. "To Sloane!" my mom and brother join in. "For all your accomplishments," my mom adds. We clink glasses and I thank everyone. Pride swells in me, despite my nonchalance. Merrily, we drink and talk and eat too much bread. Chapter 2 Sunday I sleep late and eat Marshmallow Munchies cereal alone at the kitchen counter for breakfast. My mom is at an open house and my dad is probably fishing. I don’t know where Soldier is — maybe out, maybe in his room playing video games, maybe still sleeping. Back in my room, I boot up my computer while I pick out clothes. I take down my Away Message, "Catching some z z Z Z Z”, from Instant Messanger. Claudia’s message from ten minutes ago pops up. Heyyyyy. It's summmmmmmer! Wanna hang? I type a reply to see if she's still there. Hey Claudia. Morning sunshine! appears almost immediately. Not for long... I notice it is 11:49 am. We got all day. Wanna go to the boardwalk? It's the summer-y-est thing to do! Yeah, okay. Give me 1/2 hour to finish getting ready. I'll pick you up then SHARP. 🙂 Fifteen minutes later, I go downstairs. I'm dressed casually cute in tiny jean shorts and a loose yellow t-shirt with a graphic block sunset design. I leave a note for my parents. Soldier walks in with a girl I don’t know. “Hey, Sloane. Having fun?” He struts into the kitchen and grabs two glasses from the cabinet. "Er, yeah," I say. "Sloane, this is Savannah," he gestures to the girl — woman, I should say. She’s probably Soldier’s age. "Water?" He asks her. She nods. He fills the glasses with a pitcher from the refrigerator. “Hi. Nice to meet you,” I say. “Nice to meet you, too,” she says, with a small smile. Almost everything about her is small — short, thin, dainty features — but her blonde hair is long and her pale eyes big. She’s wearing a white tank top over faded jean cut-offs. "Savannah is in my summer psychology class," Soldier explains. "You're taking a summer class?" I ask. "Yeah, just trying to stay ahead. You know." He shrugs. I don’t know, really. "What? At OCC?" Ocean County College, that is. "Yeah," he says. During the school year, he attends Rutgers. I forget what he's studying, exactly. Business management or something. "Savannah goes there full-time. She works in the Planetarium." “Cool.” "I take classes all year because it's easier to afford them a little at a time," she explains. Her voice is so soft it almost sounds like she lost her voice. I want to ask if she’s sick but don't want to be rude. She doesn't look sick. Besides, the voice suits her. "Didn't you do psychology this past year?" I ask. "It's a different class." "Oh," I say. Seems weird to need two psychology classes for a business degree, but hey, what do I know about college requirements? "I was thinking of getting a job this summer, too." Soldier says. "And go to school at the same time?" That doesn’t seem like Soldier. "It's only one class. Savannah works and goes to school at the same time.” Soldier says. "All the time," she adds with a self-deprecating eye roll. I don't know why, but this makes me like her. Soldier beams, too. Oh yeah, something's happening there. “Did you all have homework or something?" I ask, subtly prying for more information. "Yeah, we're lab partners, actually. We already got our first assignment." Soldier says. "My place is really small so Soldier said we could work here," Savannah says. I nod. "So I guess I'll be seeing lots more of you. I'll try keep my music down." I smile and sneak Soldier a knowing look. He scowls in return. I excuse myself and head to the living room, pocketing the essentials — my wallet, cherry lip balm, and my cell phone. I slide my sunglasses on and sit on the stoop, the afternoon sun hot on my bare skin, until Claudia arrives. She’s right on time. Of course she has the top down. I have my own car, too, but with hers being a convertible, we both prefer Claudia’s to cruise around in. I always use the door. The first time I rode in this car, I tried jumping over the side like they do in the movies. It did not go well. Why jump over the side when there are perfectly good doors, anyway? "Let's do this," she announces. "To the boardwalk!" I point out the front windshield as she steers away from my neighborhood. We both live close to the beach — about seven miles driving, shorter as the gull flies — but traffic is always worse here in summer. The roads fill with out-of-towners, snow-birds, and day-trippers. Most roads are tight, only one or two lanes, except Route 37, which has three lanes in both directions. It’s packed with people on their way to the beach; the weekends are always worse. We cruise and stop, cruise and stop, along 37, past the bowling alley, its roof topped with a giant ball and pin, past the fast food joints, the strip malls, and the many car dealerships. As we approach the beach, the shops gets smaller and kitschier — a bait shop, a New York-style barber shop, a shop that sells only kites. We bridge the Barnegat Bay. The air is calm, the dark blue water only slightly choppy. Blinding reflections of the high June sun blink in and out, the horizon a blanket of sparkle. The barrier island is visible up ahead. Houses crowd the mainland shore as far as the eye can see. My sunglasses tint the scene olive green. There’s another, smaller bridge to cross on the other side of Pelican Island. The highway splits and twists. Claudia slows onto the town streets of Seaside Heights, one of the many boroughs situated on the barrier islands along Ocean County. The speed limit only twenty-five miles per hour, it matches the slow lifestyle. The businesses and homes are small. The color schemes are all beach-y or nautical — yellows and browns, or whites and blues. Stone storefronts and cute cottages are surrounded by yards of stone and scraggly shore trees; big, puff-topped grasses sway in the breeze. The narrow streets alternate one-way directions. Many houses are built up on pilings for a double advantage: getting above the flood zone and space for parking underneath. We drive to J Street and scout free parking. We stash Claudia's loose things and lock the doors, even though we leave the top down. The sidewalks are gritty with sand and loose landscape stones. We walk east to the beach, then north towards the boardwalk. We feel little sea-spray today, the wind blowing east. New Jersey has its fair share of surfers, but they've got to watch the waves like hawks for any worth catching, usually around dawn. Soon we reach the area crowded with shops, food stands, arcades, games, and rides. Claudia and I walk and chat and watch. We pop into a small clothes shop playing ska music. It sells surf-brand clothes for women. It's all stupidly overpriced, I rarely buy. Claudia debates over a rope bracelet for a while before we decide to move on. We go slow, dodging the crowds, darting kids, and litter. The sounds change constantly, depending on the building we pass. There is electric beeping from arcades, the tinging of air hockey, conversations in restaurants, kids shouting, the pound of joggers’ feet on the wood, and music. Rock or dance music from bars, surfer ska from shops, carnival diddies from the carousel and games, and street musicians with their instrument cases open for donations. We are debating getting pretzels or zeppole when someone calls our names. We look around to see Todd and James walking toward us. Todd is light-skinned with rosy red cheeks indicative of his friendliness. He’s got blond hair that’s already been bleached by the sun. He’d look like the exemplary surfer-dude if he grew it out, but he keeps it short, especially on the back and sides. He and I shared a few classes last school year — he’s cool. I don’t know James personally (except that he likes to play his music loud), but he has a reputation for being a bit of a player with the ladies. I'm not surprised — he is pretty hot. He’s got Puerto Rican parents, a massive amount of confidence, square diamond earrings in both ears, and a cheshire cat smile that'll make even the most standoffish person melt at least a little. Turns out they’re also just hanging so we decide to walk together. We get pretzels. When James gets bored with his, he throws little pieces to the gulls. Or maybe he's throwing them at the gulls. "I just got a job here," Todd tells us. "Oh yeah? Congratulations. Doing what?" Claudia asks. "Working some of the game booths. I'll probably be bouncing around between a couple different ones." "Oh that sounds like fun!" Claudia says. "I'm working the Rooftop Mini-Golf," James says, not to be outdone. "Oh that sounds like fun. I love Rooftop Mini-Golf," I say. James winks at me. Baffled by this, I look to Claudia, but she’s looking at Todd. I won’t be able to confirm what I saw as actual flirting (with me) or a trick of the light. Maybe he was blinking in the brightness. "We should get jobs here this summer," she says, nudging me with an elbow. “What about relaxing and enjoying our last carefree days?" I ask hopefully. Claudia shrugs. "Working on the boardwalk would be fun." We pass a bar playing an old Thorned Zebra song. “Oh, Sloane, you like Thorned Zebra, right?” Todd asks. I nod to the understatement. I love Thorned Zebra with a capital-L. They’ve been my top favorite band since I first heard them on a free compilation CD Soldier brought home from a Warped Tour concert a couple years ago. “Have you heard about their concert this summer? It’s gonna be here, on the beach,” Todd says. I stop dead in my tracks. “What? No. When? Where did you hear about this?” “They got a couple posters up. There’s one up at the Beach Bum Bar,” he nods to the end of the next building. “Show me!” I say. I must have a crazy look in my eye; Todd looks wary. “Relax, Sloane,” Claudia says, hooking her arm in mine. “The poster’s not going anywhere.” She calmly steers me behind Todd and James leading us to the bar window where the poster is hung amid family event flyers and beer advertisements. There it is, plain as a cloudless day. A Thorned Zebra concert right here in less than two months. My heart swells as I see the logo and read the details. Until I get to the price, when my heart nearly explodes. “Tickets are a hundred and five bucks?! What the fuck?!” I’ve been to punk rock shows before and tickets are usually forty to sixty dollars. “Sloane…” Claudia nudges. “There’re kids around.” “What? I bet they don't have that kind of money, either. That’s ridiculous. Why is it so expensive?” James and Claudia shrug. Todd says, “I think it’s expensive to put on an event like this on the beach. All the permits and zoning and maximum capacity and stuff. And I mean, a bonfire? And a full bar? They probably have to get insurance through the township. And police cooperation. And they need to set up a stage and everything…” “Okay, fine, I get it,” I put a hand up. “You asked,” Claudia snubs. Todd shrugs. “My dad tried to have a party on the beach with his fishing buddies one year, but it was such a hassle he gave up the idea.” “I mean…” I say, starting to cool down. “Whatever. I’m going anyway.” “Sounds like a sweet party,” James agrees. “Do you have a hundred and five dollars for a concert ticket?” Claudia raises her eyebrows. “And someone else with that kind of money to go with you?” “When is there going to be another opportunity like this?” I raise my arms like this concert is gifted from the gods. “And won’t you go with me, my besty, bestest friend?” I give Claudia puppy dog eyes. “That’s a lot of money…” She avoids. “James is going. Right? It’ll be sweet,” I use his own words to trap him. “I would like to go, honestly,” Claudia points out. “You were the one that was just saying we should get jobs.” Claudia's eyebrows go up. "So let's get jobs," I say breezily. Claudia smiles and I stare at the poster wistfully. Then I take a grainy selfie with it using the front-facing camera on my flip phone. Chapter 3 Claudia and I agree to go back to the boardwalk next day to solicit as many job applications as we can. To change things up, I drive. Claudia lives in a McMansion surrounded by other McMansions haphazardly added to the edge of a neighborhood first built with ranch houses in the 1970s. The house is too big for the two of them. Claudia’s mom left when Claudia was still in diapers. The baby, the language, being so far away from the rest of her family — it got to her. These days she probably would’ve been diagnosed with depression. Back then, Mr. West did the best he could alone. Mr. West works in the city, away for most of the day. His younger sister, Hilda, used to live with them to help take care of Claudia. Once Claudia was in 7th grade, her aunt moved out to start her own family. It’s been the two of them, Claudia and her father, ever since. It was after Mr. West got a promotion that he moved them into this bigger house. Maybe to leave the memories in the house he first bought with Claudia's mom. Maybe he was using nice, expensive things to make up for the time he wasn't there. Either way, Claudia seems happy. “So," Claudia climbs into my little car. "It's nice to have a destination for a change, instead of driving aimlessly.” I shrug. “I kind of want to get some ice cream first, though. It’s hot.” “We can get some on the boardwalk," Claudia suggests. “Good plan." Claudia shuffles through my copies of mix CDs and laughs. “This yours?” She holds up a CD with a picture of an old-timey crooner labeled as Matt Monroe. “I’ve never seen that before in my life,” I say. Then Claudia and I both say, “Gladys.” Gladys was the older woman who owned this car before me. I thought it was cleaned out when she sold it, but stuff like that always pops up, even now, almost a year later. “Shall we listen?” I suggest with a laugh. Claudia wrinkle her nose. “Maybe another time.” She picks another disc and slides it into the stereo. A Rhianna song plays, perfect for Claudia’s to bop to. I wonder what kind of jobs we'll land. I’ve worked two jobs so far. Last summer I worked as a server in a dining hall at a senior retirement village. The fixed menus were super easy — they hire 15-year-olds. When school reopened, the hours didn’t work so I had to quit, but I did an unpaid internship at a local radio station for school credit. I count that as a job. It was hard work. "So, you're getting this job for fun?" I ask. She opens her mouth in fabricated offense. She knows what I mean. Her father is loaded and always buys Claudia everything she needs or wants, including a convertible car on her 17th birthday. “I’m, like, an adult now, Sloane,” she says, sounding very teenager-y. “My father’s not going to support me forever. Besides, I don’t want him to. I need my own real-world experience. At least something before college in the fall." A light turns green and I half-shrug in agreement before we zoom off again. Lights are green the rest of the way. We sing to the music until we find a free parking spot a couple blocks from the beach. Only tourists, rich, or really lazy people pay for parking. So, okay, I guess Claudia isn’t that spoiled — she’s just got more than me. We pocket our wallets and phones and stow our bags in the trunk. Sunglasses on, we walk the sandy sidewalks, smelling the salty air, feeling it stick to our skin. We pass a bar, an arcade, a couple of games, and a pizza shop. We stop and ask for applications to all except the bar. “Ooh, ice cream!” I say, spotting the first Chell’s. There are about five of these little ice cream shops along the two miles of Seaside Boardwalk. They sell soft-serve only, with few toppings and extras. Each small stand is topped with their memorable logo: a giant orange and vanilla swirl stuck with a churro atop a cone next to “Chell’s” in classic cursive font. “Perfect,” Claudia changes course, aiming for the stand. I look at the hand-painted menu while Claudia asks the woman behind the counter for two job applications. “Oh, definitely,” the woman says eagerly between the squishy sound of gum chewing. She can’t be much older than us — college-aged, probably. “Here’s a couple of pens. You can fill them out now, over there, and then I’ll look them over right away.” She gestures to some brightly painted wooden picnic benches nearby. “Sure, thanks!” Claudia takes the pens and paper. “But ice cream…” I say hungrily as Claudia turns me towards the tables and shoves an application in my hand. “We get jobs here and you can have as much ice cream as you want,” she says. We fill out the applications quickly. They are one page, double-sided, and neither of us have much education or job experience to brag about. We’re done in ten minutes and bring them back to the blonde woman at the counter. “Excellent. Who wants to go first? Norman,” she turns to the older man working with her. “Can you handle on your own for a bit while I interview these girls?” “Yes, sure,” he nods. The woman looks to us expectantly. “You go,” I nudge Claudia. “Hi, I’m Claudia,” she says stepping forward, handing her the completed form. “Nice to meet you. Meet me at the side. I’m Krystal.” Claudia follows the woman’s gesture to a door at the side of the building. Krystal disappears through a door behind the counter draped in a brittle brown fishing net to presumably to meet Claudia in the back room. I turn to the man, Norman, and smile. “I’d like to order some ice cream, please.” He makes my order — a simple orange and vanilla twist in a cup, since I won’t have much time if the interview is anything like the application. I decide to make small talk with the guy while I wait. “So. How do you like working here?” I ask. At first he looks confused and looks around surreptitiously. I make eye contact to let him know, yes, I’m talking to you. “Well,” he starts, his eyes drifting up like he’s really thinking about it. “The ice cream’s good. I get to meet a lot of… interesting people. People watching, you know, that’s a lost hobby. The pay’s not great, but still better than what I was making back in ‘42. It can get hot, but we have the fan. And aren’t these uniforms the worst?” He plucks at his baby blue polo shirt with scripted Chell’s logo, looking back at me with a sparkle in his eye. “But, like I said, the ice cream’s good.” “I’m sorry, did you say ‘42? As in 1942?” I ask. “Yep, that’s when I had my first job as a paperboy. I didn’t mind waking up early. I had six brothers and sisters and they were whiny before breakfast.” “Wow,” I shake my head. I like this guy. The side door opens and Claudia steps out in front of Krystal, the manager. I can’t read her expression, but she seems relaxed. Krystal gestures for me to follow her in. My turn. “Can you hold this?” I ask Claudia, holding out my cup of ice cream. “Uh, I guess,” she says as she takes it. “And you must be Sloane,” Krystal holds the door open for me. I walk into a small room with a messy desk, file cabinet, and several wire shelves filled with cardboard boxes. The boxes are labeled, some with words, others with pictures — cups, cones, spoons, straws, sprinkles, toppings, soft ice cream mix, napkins, etc. “You can have a seat,” Krystal says, gesturing to the ragged office chair at the desk. She perches on the edge of the low filing cabinet. She holds a clipboard with my application, I assume. “So, let’s get started. Why do you want to work at Chell’s Soft Serve and Fried Confections?” she asks. Shit, I don’t know. It was the next business on the boardwalk we were old enough to apply at. But that’s not an answer fitting for a job interview. “Uh, well, I like to, um, interact with interesting people,” I say, thinking of what Norman had said. “And I like ice cream,” I add a charming smile. “Okay,” Krystal nods and marks something on her clipboard. I bumble through another ten minutes of questions. Some are kind of hard, like the first one, and I have to make stuff up. Others are easy, like if I have a car, if I’m available to work at any Chell’s boardwalk location, and if I would be available to cover other shifts. I do have a car, sure, and my summer schedule is pretty much wide open. The questioning done, Krystal stands up and shakes my hand as she thanks me for my time. She says she’ll be in touch. I thank her in return before she lets me out the door, back into the sunshine. “How’d it go?” Claudia asks as we turn to leave and continue walking the boards. I shrug. “Good, I guess. You?” “Meh,” she says. “Pretty simple. I mean, serving out ice cream isn’t exactly rocket science. I’m sure we’re qualified.” “Hey, where’s the rest of my ice cream?” I ask, noticing her empty hands. She avoids my eye and shrugs, “It was melting.” “So you threw it away?!” I balk. Then she looks at me like I’ve got two heads. “No. I ate it.” I stare at her, dumbfounded. On one hand, I'm pissed because that was my ice cream and I wanted to eat it. On the other hand, what she did makes sense. I probably would have ate it, too, if I were in her shoes. I shake my head and click my tongue and we continue along the boardwalk. We grab a few more job applications, but we're loosing steam. I need the bathroom and Claudia's new sandals are digging into her heels. She sits on a bench to rest her feet while I go into the little public bathroom cottage to pee. Inside is dark, the floors wet and covered in sand. I do my business in the stainless steel bowl, the flush echoing loud. I wash my hands, but there are no paper towels and the air-dryer is broken, so I do my best to shake them dry as I exit. I blink in the sun and slide my sunglasses back down over my eyes. I spot Claudia sitting up on a bench, tense and alert. “I just spotted, like, the hottest person on the planet,” Claudia jumps up when she sees me. “What,” I say. “have you just opened your eyes? We’ve been friends for years.” “Har har,” she says. “I’m serious. He is super gorgeous.” She looks dreamily out over the boardwalk like it isn’t littered with trash and cigarette butts and melted ice cream. “Uh, is it Todd? I thought you were into Todd?” I ask. “Shhh,” she says, looking around frantically like he might be near and overhear us. “What? I thought you would want him to know? So you can, you know...” I slowly wiggle my shoulders suggestively. “Yeah, but not like that... Why are we talking about me? This is not about me. But, yes, anyway, I am into Todd,” she leans in to whisper. “How did you know? Wait. No. This is not about me. It's about you.” She pokes me in the shoulder. "Because even though this guy is probably the hottest person on the planet, he’s not my type.” I snort. “He’s too... I don't know. Mysterious looking for me,” she says. “Sounds pretty good to me," I yield. “Exactly,” she waggles her eyebrows like crazy. I know what she’s getting at — I sigh and drop my arms. “You’re not even going to let me decide?” “He’s the hottest person on the planet, Sloane. Don’t be finicky.” Claudia likes romance. She thinks it's boring that I've never had a real boyfriend before. She says mutual crushes that don’t go anywhere before they fade out don’t count. She's already had two serious boyfriends and has been trying to set me up for the last couple years. I've always dodged, saying none of the guys in our school were for me. Now she's got a bigger pond to fish in. “That’s what you decided. I bet I’ll only think he’s the hottest guy in Seaside or whatever. What’s he like?” I ask. “I don’t know. I just saw him walk by. It’s not like I walked up to him and had him fill out an informative questionnaire.” She grabs our pile of applications and starts off gingerly along the boardwalk again. "Let’s try to find him,” Claudia says. “Right now.” “We’re going to try to find one glimpsed person on this entire boardwalk?” "Well, I couldn't have run off after him without you, could I?" “I s'pose not. But how am I supposed to help? I don’t even know what he looks like.” “He’s the hottest guy on the planet, Sloane. You’ll notice him. Trust me.” I shrug. “Hot like Travis Reddy or Shawn Carver?” “No, not like them Those guys are pale as ghosts.” “Like what then? Give me something.” “Not too tall, but not short either. Thin. Dark skin, but I wouldn’t say he’s black. Maybe multi-racial? Curly dark hair. Looks good in jeans. “I don’t know about this guy. He sounds average in every possible way. And who wears jeans on a day like today? He must be crazy.” Then I ask, “Would you even be able to recognize him?” She gives me a friendly glare. “Of course. He was wearing a boardwalk staff t-shirt — a red one — so we should be able to find him at one of the game stands,” she says then hurries ahead to continue her search. A little further along I see a familiar face. “Hey, it’s Todd,” I say, pointing to a wheel of chance. What are the odds? Hahahahaha. Claudia follows my finger and we converge as we head over to him. She looks surprisingly confident despite her whispering fit earlier. “Hey, Sloane. Hey, Claudia,” he nods. We say hi back. They both try to hide goofy smiles. Ah, young love. I wonder if they notice each other, or are too caught up in their own little worlds? “Wanna try your chances on the wheel?” He gestures to the huge wooden wheel behind him, divided up into no less than two hundred sections, alternating pale blue and white. “Only a dollar a square,” he knocks on one of the painted blue squares along the length of the booth’s counter. “Nah,” I say. “Not unless there’s any chance that wheel can find me someone,” Claudia jerks her head at it. “Uh… I’m not sure what you mean.” Todd looks to me for help. “She saw someone head up this end of the boardwalk about…” I count in my head, “oh, an hour or two ago. Have you seen him?” Todd looks between the two of us. “Maybe?” “It wasn't that long ago. Probably like twenty minutes. He’s really good-looking,” Claudia offers. “About this tall, brown hair? He works at a game stand?” “Apparently he’s got a really nice butt,” I add, hoping to help. “And we only think he works at a game stand.” “He was wearing a game stand t-shirt” Claudia says, looking at Todd with a winning smile. Todd shakes his head. “Sorry, I can’t really help you.” Claudia sighs, but not impatiently. “Well, let us know if you see anyone who looks like that.” “Sure…” Todd sounds unsure. I shake my head and twirl my finger by my ear behind Claudia’s back to ensure Todd he’s not the only one who thinks she’s crazy. “She wants me to meet this guy,” I explain. “Even though we don’t know anything about him.” “Ah, right,” Todd tilts his head back. He’s still confused, but looks relieved. Like he thought Claudia was looking for the guy for herself. She can be a little oblivious sometimes. “See you around, then?” I ask. “Yeah, cool. And I’ll let you know,” Todd waves, “if I see the… cute guy with brown hair.” “Thanks,” Claudia beams. We leave him to work and walk up and down that section of boardwalk a half dozen more times. “I don’t think he’s here,” I say to Claudia as she turns around for another loop. “I saw him heading towards one of these booths,” she shakes a finger around. “You saw him walk in the direction of these booths. He could have been going anywhere,” I sag a bit. She stops. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.” “It was a good try, though,” I say, giving her a side hug and squeezing her shoulder a bit. “It was good wing-woman-ing.” “Yeah, I guess.” Poor Claudia looks so defeated. “Thanks.” “We’ll catch him next time,” I say, more for her benefit than mine. “And look at all these applications. We’ll come back once we’ve filled ‘em all out to return them. And then we’ll get hired. We’ll be back on this boardwalk a bunch this summer. No worries.” When I get home, my parents are yelling at Soldier. Well, they aren't yelling technically. My parents rarely yell and only at each other, never at us kids. But I can tell that they are very disappointed in Soldier. "Why didn't you tell us?" I overhear my mom ask Soldier as I slowly creep farther into the house. They must be at the kitchen table. "I... I dunno. I didn't want you to worry,” Soldier's weak response. "Not worry? About you failing out of college?" My dad's voice booms louder than the others. I stop dead. Oh, crap. "I'm not failing out of college," Soldier says louder now too. "Oh, no? How many classes do you have to fail for that to happen?" My dad asks. "Sam, relax," my mom says. I hover between the living room and kitchen. I know eavesdropping is wrong, but I want to know what's going on. And it would be too awkward to make myself known now. "You're right. This isn't my problem. It's yours," dad says, talking to my mom and Soldier in turn. "I know it is. I'm tryin' to fix it," Soldier says. "That was a smart move to make, Soldier, signing up for this summer class..." my mom says. "Thanks..." "...but a smarter move would have been to pay attention and do the work and keep ahead of things during the school year, before you failed the class," my mom finishes. "I know." Soldier is quieter again. "I hope you do know now," my dad says, also quieter. "School isn't cheap. You'll be finding that out first hand as you pay for this class." "I know." Soldier again. "Don't count on us paying anything towards your school in the fall either." "What?” Soldier is loud with surprise. Shit. That’s rough. I immediately feel like I don’t want to be here anymore. Could I sneak upstairs? Go back outside and wait? "Now, now. Let us get through the summer first. Then we'll take another look at things," my mom says. "Not us. Him," my dad clarifies. "I want to see you taking this whole thing very seriously. Not just the money. Everything. I know I've already seen that girl around here a few times..." "Dad..." "...don't let yourself get distracted." My dad says meaningfully. Ew. "She's my lab partner," Soldier says. "We have to work together." "I'm sure Soldier can handle it." Mom, always positive. "Nothing but serious studying." Dad, always down to business. “Okay.” Soldier says reluctantly. Poor guy. The conversation has definitely wound down. I scoot back, further into the living room, and go for it. I call out, "I'm home!" "Oh, hi, Sloane!" my mom calls back. "We didn't hear you walk in." "Yeah, just got in. I'm pretty tired, though. I'm going to head right up to bed." "Okay, good night," my mom says. My dad says the same when I pop into the kitchen to hug them both. "I'm gonna go up, too," Soldier says. "Good night," both parents say. “Sleep well.” One after the other, Soldier and I climb the stairs. At the top, I expect Soldier to say something, but he doesn't. Maybe I should say something to him, but I don’t know what. So we both turn to our own rooms, across the hall from each other, and close the doors between us.
The full manuscript of ROCK GIRL is currently available for literary agents and publishers to review. Visit my contact page to reach me.
If you are not an agent or publisher and want to see more, subscribe to be updated on the status of ROCK GIRL and for more content such as articles, poetry, and short stories.