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Fiction Issue - Second place

Slow Burn""

Sam Miller lives, works and writes in Atlanta. His fiction previously has appeared in AGNI and McSweeney's.

There was a shower upstairs in Manny Roza's house, right next to his bedroom, but he tended to use the downstairs one instead, even though his auntie never failed to lose her mind about him leaving water on the floor. He could not see any way around it, though: The towel rack was just out of arm's reach from behind the shower curtain, so he was forced to step out of the tub with one wet foot, bathwater rivulets streaming onto the cold tile. He could, he supposed, get down on bended knee to dry up every drop when he was done, but in honest fact he preferred to endure his auntie's scolding. This is the guest bathroom, Manny, guest! — as if she expected some unannounced dignitary to gasp in horror. But there were three boys in the house, Manny argued, and no guests. And there never will be any guests, either, Manny, if we don't keep a decent home. Tonight, though, his auntie had gone out to dinner with Ramon, and they wouldn't be home until after the basketball game, until after Manny's date with Linda — when he thought of it that way, it seemed an almost impossible ways away.

Steam billowed out behind him as he opened the door, and he left damp footprints on the steps. His brother Victor was banging on the upstairs bathroom door and saw Manny come up.

"Will you tell Christopher to quit messing around in there?" Victor said, feigning despair, but also cracking a smile. His face was flushed, and he was panting a little.

Manny shook his head. "I can't help you, Victor. Sorry, man." He closed his bedroom door behind him. He was not getting in the middle of those two, not tonight. He stood before his dresser and surveyed the neat array of cologne, deodorant, hair paste and combs like an artist choosing a brush, or a pigment. This very moment, Linda was getting ready, too, same as him. Manny felt like he was going to look good tonight; his hair was just the right length and behaving, and it was finally chilly enough outside to wear the gray jacket that made him look a little bad. There was a commotion in the bathroom, and Victor screamed. Let those two fight over whatever stupid thing occurred to them, Manny thought; tonight, he had bigger concerns.

Christopher shoved the bedroom door open just as Manny pulled on his boxers. Manny ignored him; Christopher just stood there and stared, his chest ruddy from the shower, and idly scratched his balls. Manny put on deodorant and cologne, then pulled on a white undershirt.

"Hey, Manny," Christopher said. "What you need to do is put a spray of that smelly-smelly under your scrotums. This, my friend, is the sign of a true gentleman." He raised an eyebrow and pursed his lips.

Victor came down the hallway at a sprint, naked feet slapping the hardwoods. He swatted Christopher's rear and cackled as he flew by, then slammed the door to the room he and Christopher shared.

Christopher shook his head. "Ooh, that mother ... he is gonna get it now." He turned to face his bedroom and squeezed the base of his genitalia into one hand so that it jutted out and turned purple. "Ooh, he is gonna get the big one now. I got to go, Manny, my friend. Good luck making it with your ugly girlfriend tonight." He swaggered off, and Manny heard him force the door open against Victor's hysterical shrieks. Victor almost seemed to enjoy getting Christopher so worked up. It was hard to figure out; sometimes Chris treated Victor with perfect disgust, handing out beatings for nothing. But other times it was like Victor was his best friend – they would spend hours in the bedroom with the door closed, playing card games or horsing around. Once, Manny had looked in the rearview mirror of their auntie's station wagon on the way to the mall and seen Christopher massaging Victor in the back seat. Manny had blurted out something like, Don't, he's too young. Christopher and Victor both had looked at him like what was his problem, and Manny had stayed out of it after that.

He put on his pressed khakis and a short-sleeve button-down his auntie had bought him at the mall, and he threw on his jacket. He grabbed his wallet and lip balm, and then, on impulse, grabbed his bottle of cologne, pulled out his waistband, sucked in his stomach, and gave himself a spritz. It was stupid, he thought, and Christopher was an idiot, but what could it hurt? He clambered downstairs to the front door, took a spare house key off the owl-eye key rack and went outside. His cheeks, still warm from the shower, tightened up in the cold. A warm feeling began to spread around below the belt – the cologne – and itched a little. This was why it was never a good idea to listen to anything Christopher had to say: He never had your best interests at heart, ever.

He locked the door behind him and trotted down the street, hands in his pockets. It was cold, but not too cold, and the sky was clear enough between the trees lining the street that he could see some of the constellations. He smelled smoke from somewhere nearby. All of it made him suddenly happy and nervous, and a thought crossed his mind that maybe he and Linda would fall in love on this very night. Anyway, if it was going to happen, it was a good night for it, looking so right as he did, the right words already on the tip of his tongue.

A block away, he saw Linda get dropped off in front of the gym. She waited until the car drove off, then jammed her hands into her big, puffy coat pockets and crossed the street to the gas station where they were meeting up, her hair a frizzy halo of streetlight. As her car drove past, Manny saw Linda's mother through the windshield, driving with both hands, leaning forward and squinting. He remembered her big glasses and how they reflected the light so much you hardly saw her eyes. He hadn't seen her since he was a kid, and only that one time, when he'd sat across from her in his bedroom, but he would have recognized her anywhere. He turned to watch the car veer onto an uptown ramp, then jogged across the street. Linda was standing under the white lights of the gas pump island. He smiled at her and slowed his pace so he wouldn't look like he was in a hurry. She glanced over her shoulder like she thought someone better might come along first.

"Hey," he said. "Sorry if I'm running a little late."

She nuzzled her nose into the wispy feather lining of her coat. "It's freezing."

"Yeah," Manny said, zipping up his jacket. "You want a cocoa or something?"

She looked at the food mart. "I don't like cocoa."

"For real?" Manny let go of his zipper and shrugged. "OK. Hey, you know the guy who works here? My brother said he got arrested for messing with animals at a petting zoo."

Linda tucked her face into her collar. "I don't really want to hear about that."

Manny laughed. "He told the cops, 'From behind, they look just like real women.' He told the judge he couldn't help himself."

"That's really gross, Manny."

"Yeah, I know," Manny said, and just then saw she actually was not amused. This, Manny thought, is not the kind of thing you talk about with girls, not ones you like. "Yeah, it really is. Hey, your mom got a new car, right? She just passed me a second ago. I always thought she had a hatchback."

"She did. How do you know that?"

He turned red. "Because. I just know things." He raised an eyebrow mysteriously. She looked like she was trying to read him for a second, but then she seemed to lose interest. "So can we go inside or what?" she said. "I'm freezing."

"You want my jacket?" He started to unzip it.

"No," she said, then headed out into the street. "But thanks."

"What? I stink or something?"

She whirled around, smirking, and stepped in close to smell him. Something leapt in his pants. "Maybe a little. Come on, let's go."

He let her walk ahead so he could scratch himself. It was really beginning to burn, and he found he suddenly had to will himself against arousal – her breath on his neck, her scent in his nose, the proximity of her body – somehow the burning heightened all of this. He resigned himself to the rush of blood, concealing it as best he could and hoping it would pass.

He shoved open the gymnasium door. The first quarter was just underway, and the squeaking of sneakers echoed up into the ceiling beams. Manny spotted his auntie and Ramon in the front row, but he didn't see his brothers anywhere. His auntie was messing with her phone; Ramon was watching the high school boys lope down the court, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees and an intense look on his face.

"Let me go tell my auntie I'm here," Manny said. Linda followed, and he got nervous about her meeting them up close – at least they looked decent from going out; his auntie wore a bright blue skirt speckled with little mirrors and a tan blouse instead of the typical stretch pants and tee, and Ramon sported a black polo and slacks – almost respectable.

As they walked up, Ramon eyeballed Linda up and down in an obvious way, grinning. "Hey Manito," he said.

His auntie looked up from her phone, her eyes a little red. "Hi, Manny," she said.

"Auntie, this is my friend Linda."

"It's very nice to meet you, Linda. I'm Manny's aunt Rebecca, and this is my boyfriend, Ramon."

Linda smiled, glancing at Manny. "It's nice to meet both of you, too."

People cheered and they all looked at the court. Manny put his hand in his pocket to sneak in some scratching. Ramon caught him – Manny saw Ramon look up from his pants and meet his eyes full-on. Ramon turned red and got that distracted look that he sometimes did. "Anyway," Manny said, taking his hand out of his pocket to smooth back a piece of hair. "We'll be walking around."

"Be careful," his auntie said.

Linda gave them a fingertip wave and a nice smile. "They seem nice," she said.

"You think so?" Manny tried to imagine how they might look to someone who'd never met them.

"Your uncle's handsome."

"Ramon? That's not my uncle. That's just my auntie's boyfriend. He lives with us, but they never got married or anything." Linda looked back toward the bleachers. "Want to go to the atrium?" Manny said. "It's kind of loud in here."

"Sure," Linda said. They left the gym and walked down a dim hallway lined on either side with chalky, powder-blue lockers. "It's weird, it's like my brain wants to hear all the usual sounds – locker doors slamming and kids yelling and stuff."

"I know what you mean," Manny said. "It's kind of creepy. It's like when my dog died – I kept thinking I heard her bark when the doorbell rang. I thought it was her ghost at first, but then maybe, I thought, that's how people start believing in ghosts, you know, when a memory jumps up out of place like that and fools you."

"Do you miss her?"

"She was my auntie's dog. Hey, I wasn't trying to get all heavy on you or anything."

They rounded a corner into the atrium. Orange light came softly through the glass panels all the way up where the arches met, tinting the leaves of climbing vines that clung to tall columns. They sat on a concrete bench and listened to the sound of water trickling into the fish pond. There were fish in it earlier that year, big red fish with bands of white – fighting fish – which Manny thought was a bad idea from the beginning: You couldn't expect something like that to survive long in a place like this, fighter or not.

"So," Linda said.

Oh, man, he thought. What happened? That feeling he'd had when he left the house – how could he have started off so tight and still fallen apart?

"How come you live with your aunt?" Linda said out of nowhere.

"Geez," he said, laughing.

Linda sighed and looked at the vines, following them up with her eyes. "Maybe I just want to get to know you, Manny." She looked at him, smirking again the same way as before. "Maybe I'm interested. Take a hint, Manito."

His face heated up. "OK, OK," he said. "OK, so how come I live with my aunt?" Linda shrugged. She looked him full in the face, only she kept her lips concealed behind the feathers on her collar. "I guess my mom was too young to handle us, and I think she had some other problems, too. She asked my auntie, and that's about it. We hear from her sometimes, but not much."

"How come you don't live with your dad?"

"Victor knows his dad, but me and Christopher don't."

Linda thought it over. "Well, at least you have your aunt and Ramon, right?"

"We don't even like Ramon, though – when he first moved in, he tried to convince everyone I had some kind of mental problem." Manny remembered something, and laughed. "When I was 5 or 6, I got real mad at him, I don't know why. He was in the bathroom, and I dragged the dirty-diaper hamper outside, all the way to the driveway, and tossed dirty diapers into an open window, one by one. He was so pissed."

Linda wasn't laughing. He wondered if the dirty diapers thing was too much. If it was, if she took offense to that, he didn't see how he was going to be able to hang out with her. Maybe he was just too rough around the edges.

She looked up and took a breath. "How did you know my mom had a hatchback? Because my dad always picks me up from school. It's part of his visitation."

All at once Manny felt winded; done. The atrium brightened and dimmed – maybe an electrical surge; it reminded him of how sometimes clouds broke on rainy days, giving way to shafts of sun for a few seconds before graying out.

He grinned. "Well, like I said, maybe I just know things."

Linda sat up. "But the thing is, I remember my mom telling a story about a kid who did that same thing with the diapers. And I'm just trying to figure out why you would lie about talking to her. She's talked to lots of kids at her job. It wouldn't make me think anything about you."

Best jacket or not, good hair or not, good night or not, he was not strong with this sort of thing, thinking on his feet, talking his way out of things. If she knew that much, she probably knew the rest of the story, too: that Manny, at the age of 5 or 6, had told a teacher he didn't want to be alive anymore. That afternoon Linda's mom had come out to Manny's house. She'd sat everyone down and tried to find out why Manny would say something like that. She talked to Manny alone in his room and asked him what was going on. He'd wanted to tell her about it, but by the time he ran it all through his head, the best he could come up with for an answer was, he's causing it. She asked him what he meant, but at that age he simply didn't have the right vocabulary to explain it. When Linda's mom talked to his auntie afterward, she tried to convince her not to leave Manny with Ramon when she was at work. But she wouldn't say exactly why, and Ramon was like free day care.

Linda knew some of it, at least; maybe all of it. Maybe Linda's mother had freely discussed the goings-on of Manny's personal life over family dinner. Maybe if he confirmed that yes, he was that kid, then she would know everything. It was too frightening to let this thing out of its cage; it could tear up the whole world once it was out.

Linda stood up. "We should probably go back, I guess."

Manny got up, too. His groin burned like it was trying to get back at him for something. He watched Linda go halfway down the hall before she said something, didn't get an answer, and looked back. It was the same hallway they'd come down before, only on this side, at this angle, the glossy paint trapped yellow light from the ceiling in watery pools. The whole place seemed to shift as if an undercurrent tugged at it from somewhere. Linda eventually shrugged and went back toward the gym. Manny tried to think of what to say to his brothers when they asked about his date, but he couldn't think of anything that sounded like the truth.




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