We enter the national park and the blacktop ends. Tom puts both hands on the steering wheel. The trees become a century taller, older, thicker. His gaze stays on the road. Through the open window the air smells of undergrowth and the earth getting cold with evening.
I dare myself to keep watching the side of his face. “The perfect place to murder someone, isn’t it?” I say.
He looks over at me and smiles. “If I said that to you, Beth, you’d be shitting yourself.”
“No, I wouldn’t. I know you.”
“After three weeks?”
“It’s enough to know you’re not a psychopath.”
His hand goes to the back of my neck, warm, moving slowly across my skin.
“Sweetheart,” he says. He whispers.
Before Tom, there was another man—I do not say his name, not ever. I call him asshole which is kind. Tom doesn’t call him anything. He wants me to go to the police and he only knows half of it. If he knew the other half, he’d be at the station house himself.
Tom parks the car near the ridge. We sit on the hood because it’s his brother’s car and we want to smoke. We share his cigarettes, big man Marlboro Red. They strip my throat.
“These are so not you,” I say.
Tom pulls a face, but he is wounded, a boy. He is eighteen, we both are, and he changes before me over and over—boy, man, boy, man. He is a man when, in his bed, he holds me to his chest and calls me little bird, as if he knows my heart beats double-speed, as if he feels it.
I draw a silver hipflask from my jacket.
He laughs and says, “I’ve never seen a girl do that before.”
The hipflask belonged to asshole and now it is mine. His initials Z.N. are inscribed on the base. Z.N. is here, howling, screaming right into my ear until I cannot hear him anymore.
Tom takes a sip of the bourbon with his cigarette hand. “Actually,” he murmurs and has another longer drink.
I smile. It is a new era. It is dancing down the street after the enemy has been annihilated and finally surrenders, waving his hopeless white flag.
I pull the hood of my sweatshirt up onto my head, the cigarette between my teeth. Tom takes it for himself and elbows me in the ribs.
“You cold?” he says.
“It makes you look like a thief.” He draws the hood back and pulls me against him. He holds my thigh which jitters up and down. “You are—”
“So tightly curled. Wound up.”
I laugh. Not beautiful. Not pretty. Not sexy. Not smart. Not the-best-fucking-girl-I-have-ever-met. So tightly curled. Wound up. It could have been worse—you are a lunatic.
“I might explode,” I say.
He stares at me.
“If you want some girl who—”
“Beth, baby. Stop. You know I don’t,” he says, and crushes the cigarette into the dust.
He steps into the V of my legs. His fingers walk up the inside of my thighs, closer and closer. Come on. Come on.
I drink from the hipflask and, even before the alcohol fills my mouth, it is delicious—the coldness of the metal against my lips, my teeth, the roundness of it, the O. There is a Celtic pattern engraved into the flask. I push my fingers over the braille. Z.N said the hipflask had been his great-grandfather’s, was taken to the Somme in the First World War. Not that I’d believe a fucking word he said.
Tom is smiling at me, like I am the love of his life. It throws me. We met in Walmart, me serving, him buying.
“You should be in school,” he said then, like he was a parent.
“I’m past all that,” I said, like some bitter barmaid.
I laughed because school felt like it was years ago, less than irrelevant.
Now, he says, “I almost didn’t meet you,” as if that would have been the world’s biggest tragedy.
In this minute, I kind of think it would have been, at least for me. His tongue pushes into my mouth. We both drink the bourbon and it courses through us, eighty proof, moving to our brains first, and then every organ until it comes to rest in our livers.
He pulls me down to the ground and lays me on my back. I smile. Here. Now. Let’s go. Not yet—he shows me the sky.
Tom is not Z.N. No one else is. Not even Z.N is Z.N.
I clutch the hipflask to my sternum and we kiss. He holds the back of my neck, calming my amygdala. It is dark and the sky wheels above us with its stars. It doesn’t stop. He is inside me now and I try to climb inside him. He kisses my throat and I want him to sink his teeth into my skin, tear me to pieces, come on, but he won’t, I know.
I hold his face. This here is love, only love.
Melissa Goode’s work has appeared in Best Australian Short Stories, New World Writing, Cleaver Magazine, Bartleby Snopes, Pithead Chapel, Gravel, and Jellyfish Review among others. One of her short stories has been made into a film by the production company, Jungle. She lives in Australia.