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The Firefly Dream
The day ended with sinking into the enveloping folds of the old leather couch in the living room for Karli, silently clenching and unclenching her frozen fingers and imagining the fleshy skin of her stepfather’s neck within her grasp. The satisfying give of breaking skin and soft trickles of oozing blood filled her mind. She reached up and absently stroked her slightly swollen face where he had hit her, burning like a fresh brand.
She didn’t cry. All that did for you was give you puffy eyelids that had to be covered up later.
Her cell phone buzzed insistently against her thigh, notifying her of a dozen new text messages. The thing was ancient, scratched with battle scars and spontaneously shutting off. She didn’t need to look at the screen; it was always the same number that paraded across in serious black digits. Sometimes it sucked to have best friends that gave a damn.
So she sighed, and pocketed the phone, threw on her rattiest purple sweatshirt and fought the rusting hinges of the front door, and then Karli Matthews escaped into the cool embrace of the night.
He was christened Anthony William “Bill” Peterson, but nobody would answer to that name. To Karli, the hunched muddle of a boy crouching in the corner of the playground was Al-with-the-perpetually-broken-glasses who drew her messy-fantastic crayon pictures when she had been sick with the stomach flu in third grade and once attempted to serenade her with a whistle he’d carved from a papaya.
In other words, he one of her favorite people in the world, and her best friend if you wanted to get official about it.
“Well, look who finally decided to show up,” Al called by way of greeting, rubbing haze from his lenses.
A loud, hollow bang echoed through the air and then a tired cry of pain, and Karli’s other favorite person in the world catapulted out of the playground’s twisty slide and into the rocky sand.
Nobody remembered the Joker’s name, although Al swore that it was tattooed across the boy’s buttocks. (Whether this theory had any fact behind it was completely up for debate). He wore all black, except for where the fabric wore through; then he patched it up with Technicolor scraps of fabric. He always had a pack of cards. In addition to these oddities, the Joker communicated only through sign language, although he was neither deaf nor mute.
Al spread his arms wide and Karli sank gratefully into them, knees curled underneath her on the sand. She loved the way her head fit perfectly into the groove of his neck, even where his skinny collarbone protruded from the skin; the feeling of safety that poured out of his body. “Did he…”
Karli nodded and took a shuddering breath. “Yeah. Twice.”
Al made an angry sound, a hybrid between a hiss and a swear. “I’d like to get my hands on the b******.”
The Joker was drawing lines in the sand, playing tic-tac-toe with himself. He looked up at this news, the pale moon of his face unreadable. He made a few quick gestures with his hands, and then patted Karli on the shoulder. She smiled through the sudden outpour of prickly tears across her face, leaking into her ears and onto Al’s shirt.
“What did he say?” she asked Al quietly. His chest shook when he gave a bark of a laugh.
“Nothing I can repeat.”
Karli laughed too, and then the Joker was smiling and the three of them chuckled together there in the cold darkness.
“How’s your mom doing?” she asked after a while. “Is she…?”
Al sobered up immediately. “Still drinking like a fish. Tried to quit smoking yesterday, again, but I saw her sneak one before breakfast. And it’s not like my dad’s any help. I spend all my time trying to keep Tyler from finding out too much about how his parents are wrecks.”
The Joker scooted cautiously closer to the two of them; pulled out the Ace of Spades from his deck of cards. Each of the 52 cards represented a different basic meaning, more efficient than sign language. The Joker was offering to take Al’s five-year-old little brother Tyler off his hands for a while.
“Thanks, buddy,” Al said, his voice shaking. “Appreciate it.”
Karli wondered to herself where somebody like the Joker would possibly take a confused five-year-old, but she trusted the mysterious boy more than her own flesh and blood. Much more than her family.
She leaned forward from Al’s comforting embrace and dragged her finger in long sweeping motions into the sand. When she pulled back, there was a crude picture of spade, a pair of glasses, and a firefly side by side in the sand.
“I don’t get it, how come you’re a firefly?” Al asked.
Karli shrugged. “I don’t know. They burn in the dark.”
The Joker motioned rapidly with his hands. “He’s asking if you’re going to go into melodramatic s*** about hoping your way out of dark situations,” Al translated, “because we clearly know that doesn’t happen.”
“It doesn’t,” Karli agreed quietly. “But hey, at least we’ve got each other until things get better, huh? We can run away together and get a flat, somewhere bright and famous. Maybe New York. New York is full of opportunities. We can lose ourselves in a city like that. Make a whole new world for ourselves.”
Al smiled. Karli felt a rush of gratitude that he wasn’t looking at her like she was crazy. “That sounds good, Karls, it really does. How about it, Joker?”
The Joker, by way of answer, scooted closer to Al and Karli. The three of them sat there like that in the sand well into the night, leaning their heads up to stare at the wide expanse of the starry sky and tasting the sweetness of the moment, eager to avoid the coming dawn.