At the center, Thomas leads the boy in and right up to Coach Jules, who’s at the group table, printing the names of kids under team headings that symbolize exotic animals: civets, zebras, gibbons, animals none of the kids have heard of, so they’ll have go to the encyclopedias to look up the animals. In the past, Thomas had been a wallaroo and capybara, and he smiles at the memory of the sketchy pictures of the animals that he’d run his finger over as if petting them.
“Hey, Thomas,” Coach Jules says. “What have you got there?”
“Found him outside the cemetery. No one around,” Thomas says. He can’t help glancing around for Glo-Glo. She’s not in her usual spot in the corner. Today, she’s on the sofa, a book tucked into the crook of her arm, her head sagging off her neck like backpack from a hook as she reads, reads, reads. What’s so galldang interesting to that girl?
“I think he fell,” Thomas says, giving Little Man’s hand a shake.
Coach Jules pauses with his purple marker in the air. “That true, little man?” Coach Jules says in his black-coffee voice. The boy nods and shows the injured palm of his other hand, obviously awed by Coach Jules’s wide shoulders and direct gaze, just as Thomas has always been. “All right,” Coach Jules sighs. “Let’s get you cleaned up. But first you thank Thomas here for rescuing you.”
They wait a moment to see if he will. Eventually, Little Man grunts out a “Thanks,” and Thomas and Coach Jules exchange smiles. Then Coach Jules nods a respectful good work at Thomas, who feels the chest puff that had abandoned him lately filling him up again. He shifts his feet, adjusting himself to his straighter spine.
Coach Jules leads Little Man off toward the bathroom, leaving Thomas at the table, with Glo-Glo sitting only feet away, her head drooping into her book. At the sight of her, his chest crumples. Flamingo, he thinks as he gazes at her. That’s another of Coach’s animals. Graceful runners, the encyclopedia had said. His tongue goes dry. Hopeless. He’s about to leave and find another fire to set when he sees the title of the book Glo-Glo is reading is one he’s read himself, Magic Moon Shot, by Trudy B. Hawkins.
He loved that book, had loved Gary Longlegs and Winona Sotall so much that he’d made up conversations between them for weeks as he’d fallen asleep. “Hey,” he calls, the sudden sound of his voice in the air between them startling him. “You like that book?”
“It’s okay,” she says, her gaze still a little dazed with her reading.
“Uh huh,” he says, knowing it’s a foolish thing to say. “Yeah.” A nothing thing to say.
“I’m not done,” she says, looking at him.
She’s looking at him. Actually seeing him. All at once, he feels the narrowness of his shoulders, the emptiness in his lungs. He’s deflated. He can barely breathe. How could he have wanted her to see him, to see the thinness not just of his body but of his very self? She looks and blinks and looks, and he feels himself disappearing into the air like a black and noxious wisp of smoke. He shoves his hand into his pocket and rubs the matches he’d used to set the fire earlier. He should go, steal some more clothes, step into the flames himself.
His face has already begun to burn when Glo-Glo cocks her head at him.
“It’s cool what you did, helping that kid,” she says.
“Yeah?” he manages.
“Anything can happen out there.” She tosses her gaze toward the door, purses her lips, and nods. In her movements, Thomas sees she’s been a dog on the loose herself. “You rescued that kid, and maybe now he’ll be okay.” She returns her gaze to him before shifting it to some dreamy outside world that has entered her head. “Be okay for a while anyway.”
She keeps her gaze in that dreamy place, and he can’t stand that he’s not inside of it.
“You’ll like it,” he says after a moment, calling her back. Look, look. He wants it now, her gaze, wants in a way he hadn’t understood before. Her gaze is the sun, hot and dangerous. He lets go of the matches to point at the book. “Ending’s good. You tell me how you like it when you finish, okay.”
“Okay,” she says, gazing at him again, stretching her lips into the smallest of smiles before dropping her attention back to the page she’d been reading earlier. He exhales the breath he didn’t realize he was holding as he stumbles toward her and collapses on the far end of the couch, waiting for her to finish, waiting for her gaze to ignite him one more time.
Karen Lee Boren’s novel, Girls in Peril was published by Tin House Books (2006) and was selected for the Barnes and Noble Discover program. Her stories have appeared in journals such as The Florida Review, Night Train, Karamu, Hawai’i Pacific Review, Dominion Review, Yemassee, and Epoch. Her nonfiction has appeared in Fourth Genre, Cream City Review, Best of Lonely Planet, Travel Writing, and BookForum. She teaches writing at Rhode Island College.