She led him out into the creosotes, away from fire and friends. She and he were not friends, but he followed anyway, lanky and long-haired and swinging a half drunk seven dollar bottle of vodka from one skull-ringed hand, seeing by starlight and moonlight and the firelight dwindling behind them. This longest night of the year was his birth night; this was not his first bottle since the sun went down. He stumbled, but kept his view fixed on the architectural grandeur of her ass. He did not know why she led him away, but at least he had a polestar to follow, and no physics could allow her stumpy legs to outstrip his. They walked in silence and for long enough that only the loudest shouts could be heard from the gathering behind them. She stopped walking; his loping drunk momentum carried him right into her. She put a hand on his chest, to steady him, to ward him off. He stepped back a pace and she started talking. She asked about that ending to their lunatic summer quest, of course. She asked about the terrible words that he and his friend had nearly driven her to madness with that bright last morning. She asked without accusation or hesitation, voice level, only a need to know. Why? she said, I played my part, I did my end. Why did you two turn on me like that? He couldn’t manage to look her in the face, though he stood six foot two in cracked surplus store boots, armored against the winter in a jacket that was a full fifteen pounds of leather and steel and insulation. She didn’t even reach his chin. This only now cut through the fog over his mind, but she only had on skate shoes and a tight, short sleeveless dress, the kind of thing the neighborhood girls might wear on a summer night sneaking into one of the GI bars. She and he were alone; none of the others back at the fire saw her grab his hand and pull him back into the darkness while he returned from a piss. He didn’t want to talk to her at all, much less about this, but even two bottles drunk he was cowed by her bravery. For that at least she was due something like truth. He slung his jacket around her shoulders, sat on a rock, lit a cigarette, handed it up to her, lit himself one. It’s nothing I’m proud of, he said, looking at the ground between her shoes, not wanting to meet her eyes, but we were psychotic by that morning and you showed weakness, that was it, one moment of normal human response in a room with two guys whose minds had turned all to snakes. For each other, for our pride, you see? You didn’t deserve that at all, he said. But honesty can only go so far and he didn’t say what else was in his head- thank the god he didn’t believe in, it had just been words. Quiet for a minute, a windless night, the coyotes hunting somewhere else for now. In the furnace of the day in a desert summer, the sun can be so bright you might swear you can hear it, but the stars are silent everywhere, always. Now, the clink of his rings against the glass, the gurgle of the vile liquor down his throat, the shifting of his boots in the sand as he passed the bottle up to her hand. She upended it, and did not grimace at the paint-thinner taste. I knew what was happening, she said, I just had to hear it from you. You were the nice one. Your friend was a different story. He scares me. He chuckled. He scares me too, that’s why I’m glad he’s my friend. She took another swig. I liked you you know, she said, even after that morning. You were always on and on about your girlfriend, so I didn’t say anything, but I liked you. Well, me and her, that’s over, he said. I know, she replied. He had not looked into her eyes in the five minutes since they walked out into the creosotes, but now she reached down, lifted his chin with one finger. An eternity of six heartbeats as the shame and anger in his eyes drowned in kohl-rimmed depths of hurt and need and the thoughtless daily humiliation of young girls who tried and were never enough. He shivered beneath her, but he could no more look away from those sunless seas than he could fly with a thought. She handed the bottle back to him and stepped back without releasing his gaze. The jacket dropped on the ground in a jangle of zippers. Then the dress, up and over her head and thrown into his lap. She had on nothing at all underneath. She was not a pretty girl; she knew that, everyone knew that. Hair too frizzy, nose too lumpy, stomach too soft. But this was a moment outside of time. The longest night of the year, and the cold light of the sky on her skin transformed her body into a bronze statue. Her arms were as strong as his, and she stretched them to the black sky, heavy breasts rising and falling as her breathing went a notch faster. He was as dumb and enthralled as an ox to a cart. She dropped her arms, crooked one finger, whispered come here. She lay back on his jacket, spread thighs thick as the columns of a megalithic circle, and he went to her.
They did not become friends, but spoke kindly enough to each other at a chance meeting here and there- never about that summer again, or that winter even once. Years passed, the millennium turned, more years passed. He left their sprawling city, that mountain-spined fortress of humanity marooned in a thousand miles of wasteland, then returned. He was a settler, so he settled. One of his oldest and dearest friends, though, was a nomad by nature and visiting home from one of his jaunts around the spinning world this nomad told the settler that purely by chance he had found himself briefly neighbor to her on a calm island in the sea, a place where neither summer nor winter are hateful. She lived by the beach with a smiling bearded giant of a man, and walked with their four children down to the ocean almost every day. She’s happy, the nomad said, and I’m glad for her. But the settler was unsure of the nomad’s observation. Not meeting new people, not seeing new places gave him space to endlessly run his mind over the old ones. She had taught him a thing he could not completely understand, about strength and weakness and how to strangle memories of pain with the demands of the body. He had never really grasped these lessons, but he kept trying despite half a lifetime of never peace, only struggle. He could only hope that his friend was right and he was wrong, that things had worked out better for her, and shake his head in a fruitless attempt to dislodge the memory of eons of despair in the eyes of a sixteen year old girl, and her body like an idol under the stars.