Finally alone, she dropped her suitcase and crossed the cold wooden floor to the unfamiliar bed. Dust curled around her feet in the dark.
She rolled onto the mattress and watched the ceiling. She dragged her fingertips along the quilt, and her mind filed away the texture. Simple thoughts. Registry of sensation. Nothing complicated, nothing complex. The darkness, the coolness, the bed.
After a while, the sounds of an uncle she barely knew faded and the whole house stilled. She didn’t unpack. She didn’t even change or move. She fell asleep in the clothes she’d worn to the funeral. Right down to the glossy black flats.
May boiled into June, and Lyla still spoke very little. Her uncle Clement–rust-iron beard and skin baked in the Arizona sun–remained equally somber. They sat across a crooked table from each other, a layout of fast food between them. Clement had his sister’s eyes. Glassy amber with a splash of viridian. Every time Lyla saw them, her stomach tightened, and she had to look away. Clement could barely look at her either. Lyla supposed she had her mother’s eyes as well.
She spent most of the blistering summer days alone in the room. Not her room. Just the room. Suitcase in the corner, the closet still empty. When she finished folding clothes, she slipped them back in the suitcase. Some still smelled like home, and Lyla would sometimes curl up in bed with an old shirt pressed to her face and spend an entire afternoon breathing.
He was the son of a power line repairman who lived up the street from Clement’s small, dusty house. Lyla sometimes saw him doing yard work or picking up the mail. The next time she noticed him mowing the lawn, she decided to take a walk.
He leaned on the black rail of the push mower to watch her approach. Sweat slicked his red face, and flecks of grass peppered his hair. His eyes were blue, a welcome change from the painfully familiar ones that haunted her uncle’s face and every mirror.
“Hey,” she said.
“Hey yourself,” said the boy. He smiled, and his teeth sparkled a clean white between his work-smudged cheeks.
She extended a hand. “Lyla,” she said.
He took it. Damp and calloused palms. “I know,” he told her. “Strangers don’t stay strange long around here. And I might have asked around. A little.”
“Well, we don’t grow girls as pretty as you out here in the desert.” He grinned and wiped his forehead. “Just moved here from Georgia, right?”
Lyla blushed and pulled away.
“Didn’t mean harm. I’m Jason,” he said. “Jason Dresdner.”
“It’s good to meet you, Jason. It’s good to meet anyone, to tell the truth.”
“So I’m your first, huh?”
“I guess I haven’t really gotten out of the house much.”
“You’re gonna be at Mesa High this fall, right?”
Her stomach clinched at the school’s name, but she tried to buckle it down. “Yes,” she told him. “I’ll be a junior.”
“So will I,” he said.
They stood in the beating sun, stumped. Lyla didn’t want the conversation to end. She didn’t want to go back into that horrible house with her distant uncle. She didn’t want to go back to being alone. But she didn’t know what to say next either; didn’t know how the discussion could possibly advance.
Finally, Jason smiled and leaned on his mower. “I’ll tell you what,” he said. “How would you like to have the best grilled cheese sandwich of your life?”
Her relief was of the caliber usually reserved for the sight of firefighters appearing through a wall of smoke. “That sounds good.”
“All right. Let me take a shower and change, and I’ll show you around town.”
“You can come in and wait if you want. I won’t be long.”
Lyla listened to the shower’s white noise as she inspected pictures arranged in Jason’s living room. The older keepsakes showed four of them. A man with Jason’s eyes and a woman with his freckled complexion. Two children: one a baby boy with bright eyes and the other a serious little girl with straight blonde hair. Lyla watched them grow older. The father’s hair thinned out, pulling away from his forehead. The children stretched and hardened. Then, suddenly, the mother vanished. Fewer pictures after that; none ever showing all three remaining family members at once. Here was Jason and his father fishing. There was Jason’s sister in a cap and gown.
Lyla picked up one of the older pictures and stared into the mother’s eyes.
“She ran off to Ohio with a banker,” Jason said, suddenly behind her.
Lyla jumped and fumbled with the picture, almost dropping it. She turned to see Jason in a towel and nearly dropped the picture again. “I… Oh–I didn’t hear…”
The boy smiled and gently took the picture from her hands.
“My mom’s gone too,” Lyla offered.
“Where’s your dad?” Jason asked.
“Left when I was little. I don’t even remember him.”
“No. I had an older brother, but he ran away. My mom thinks–thought–she thought he went to California.”
Lyla glanced at his towel and then looked away.
Jason laughed. “Sorry. Be right back.”
He went to his room, but before the door closed behind him, the towel slipped. Just a little.
Jason drove a rusted Ford with roll-down windows and a fickle air conditioner. It tore a wake of orange dust from the desert roads and rumbled and lurched at every divot and pothole.
Beyond the neighborhoods, there was nothing green in any direction. Grass here took root only through persistence and careful nurturing. The rest was rock and sand shimmering in the lizard-baking heat.
Georgia’s sky had almost certainly been blue, but the intensity of Arizona’s made her question her memory. Maybe it was just because no clouds ventured here, or maybe it was because the blue screamed so hard against all the red rocks. Maybe the faded mesas lining the horizon drew her eye farther up than she’d ever needed to look before. Whatever the case, Lyla found herself marveling under the view, silently smitten with its stark beauty.
She looked at Jason, whose body sported the colors of this place. Skin like the rocks, eyes like the sky.
As they drove to downtown Polacca, he pointed out locations and hangouts, briefly tagging them with memories and anecdotes. Lyla listened to each one, but most fell straight from her head as soon as he finished telling them. She didn’t know any of the people involved, so there was nothing for her mind to hold onto while the stories slipped by.
Eventually they reached a greasy spoon called Polacca Yesterday. American Indian artifacts–mostly fake, Lyla guessed–lined the walls and even hung from the ceiling. The bar looked like an old-fashioned malt shop from the sixties, however, and the strange mix of cultures gave the restaurant a bizarre aesthetic.
Jason ordered for both of them. Grilled cheese sandwiches and milkshakes. After biting into her sandwich, Lyla had to admit that it was, in fact, the best grilled cheese she’d ever tasted.
After eating, Jason took her to the park and pushed her on the swing. His hands seemed to work down her back with each arc, landing lower and lower on her body, but she didn’t mind. Not at all.
Jason took her back to Clement’s house that evening and kissed her briefly.
Dinner with Uncle Clement proved just as solemn as usual. Lyla picked at her KFC without real hunger. Her uncle watched television for a few hours, and Lyla retreated to the room. She stood at the window for a long time and watched the moon.
She brushed her teeth without looking into the mirror, and she fell asleep with a green shirt pressed to her face. She hadn’t washed this last one yet, and she kept it separate from the rest so it wouldn’t mingle.
The next day, Jason picked up Lyla after Clement left for work.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
He flashed her his perfect smile. “You’ll see.”
“Come on! Tell me.”
“Nope. It’s a surprise.”
They drove for half an hour until they came to a valley. Here, a small creek wound its way through the rocks and dust, but crisp, bright grass poked up from the water’s edge. Actual green. Lyla clinched her jaw against it.
Jason parked his truck and opened the door.
“What’s here?” Lyla asked.
“Follow me,” he said. He hopped out of the cab and Lyla did the same.
Jason hiked along the creek’s edge and Lyla tagged along behind, trying not to fall in. The water sparkled almost blindingly as it rippled by, and Lyla didn’t remember ever seeing water so pure and clear. Fish and tadpoles swam against the current, hardly distorted at all. She watched their black shadows play on the smooth rocks below them. Like they hovered instead of swam. Magical little things.
Jason stopped and pulled his shirt off.
“What are you doing?”
He motioned to an old rope dangling from a rocky overhang.
“I didn’t bring a swimsuit,” Lyla protested.
“Neither did I,” said Jason. He threw his shirt aside and kicked off his shoes.
Lyla bit her lip, and her stomach curled into a knot.
Jason unbuckled his belt and his pants fell to his ankles. He kicked them away and now stood on the smooth, sandy boulder wearing only his boxers.
“Come on!” he said. He smiled before he ran and jumped to the rope, swinging way out over the water before he let go and fell in with a splash.
Lyla chewed her lip. She looked back at the winding path to the truck. The desert all around, mesas binding the horizon like an arena. Jason threw his head back and ran a hand through his hair, pushing the water back, his arm all muscled. The only person she knew in Polacca, Arizona.
Lyla reached down and pulled off her shirt.
Two hours later, Lyla and Jason splashed out of the water and lay down on the far shore, which was sandy. They wore only their underwear, and they talked for a while about school, about Georgia, about chlorophyll. Jason caught a tiny turtle and Lyla played with it.
Before long, Jason’s stomach rumbled, so they both crossed the creek to put their clothes back on. Back in the truck, Jason kissed her on the cheek. She wanted to ask him not to do that, but she didn’t. She also wanted him to do it some more.
Jason took her to a local Mexican restaurant, and they both ate until they were full. That evening, they watched a movie at Cinema 3. Jason’s knuckles brushed the back of her hand, and in motions both pretended were incidental, their fingers gradually, wonderfully interlaced.
After the movie, they drove with the windows rolled down. The night air pushed through the cabin with a roar, filling Lyla’s hair and giving her gooseflesh in spite of its warmth. At traffic lights, they turned right, at stop signs, they turned left. They went wherever these rules took them.
Eventually, they found themselves at a park, engine and lights off.
Jason held her hand and looked into her eyes.
“What are you doing?” Lyla whispered. She tried to keep her voice even, but–not with fear–it shook. Her heart pounded as well. Again, not with fear.
Jason leaned forward and kissed her.
“Please,” Lyla said softly. Something felt heavy in her chest, but it wouldn’t come out.
He kissed her again. He unfastened his seatbelt, and he was on her. Lyla kissed him back, her heart beating wildly. His hand slipped up her shirt and under her bra, breath hot against her neck.
“Jason,” she said in a voice that sounded loud.
His fingers played with the button of her jeans. It came loose–almost an accident–and she gasped and laughed, drunk with the red taste of him. He ran his rough fingers just barely along the inside of her panties, tracing her hips between the elastic and skin. And then they found the zipper.
She kissed him back hard, pouring the heaviness into him.
But at the same time, her hands fumbled for the door handle. They found it, pulled, and the door fell open. Lyla went with it, her body tangled in the seatbelt. Her lips broke from his, and she breathed. Hands found the buckle, and she stepped out onto the gravel, heart beating so hard it hurt.
“Hey–” Jason started.
But Lyla was already walking. She zipped her jeans as she moved, and brushed her hair out of her face with shaking fingers.
“Are you all right?” Jason shouted after her. “Did I do something wrong?”
Lyla didn’t stop.
The walk to Clement’s house took almost two hours. Lyla thought she lost her way a couple of times. The roads looked different by starlight, and she knew few landmarks. Desert animals howled and scurried and fluttered, but she kept walking.
The moon stayed there the whole time, watching over her as she walked alone. She walked alone, but not one cloud veiled the moonlight. She walked alone through wild, electric beauty.
Clement’s house lay dark except for the living room window, which glowed a television blue. She opened the door and stepped inside. Clement said nothing, nor did he acknowledge her entrance. The room remained as bare as she left it, and Lyla sat on her bed for a long while. She ran her fingers across the rough quilt.
The television clicked off, and Clement went to bed. Lyla waited alone in the quiet house.
By the light of the moon, Lyla lifted first one blouse and then another from her suitcase and quietly hung them in her closet.
“Have a good day,” Lyla said as her uncle left the house the next morning.
Clement paused and looked back at her with a startled expression.
“You too,” he said.
His car left the driveway, and Lyla went to change out of her pajamas.
In her room, Lyla pulled on the last shirt in her suitcase–the green one. She sighed and smiled and looked at herself in the mirror.
The suitcase lay empty under the window, so she zipped it shut and pushed it under her bed.
Sunlight washed over her as she stepped out of her home and into the day.