The Islands Between Us – Anthony Statham

Adrian creased his brow in a slight grimace, and yet he didn’t turn away but rather continued to watch his niece pluck the pink underwear from the crack of her butt. Jessica had just enjoyed the spoils of a banana split, the brunch item of choice for a young girl that was blood related and yet he knew almost zero about, assuming that all children liked ice cream. Adrian had eaten the banana. Jessica’s fingers were sticky and brown with chocolate slime. She inquired about a bathroom, Adrian making the assumption it was to clean her fingers, never taking into account a child’s need to expel their bladder perhaps more frequently than full grown adult types. He tried the bathroom door but it was locked and by then the line was picking up and he was not one to push or shove his way forward to ask for the key. He told her they’d find a bathroom later, to which she put up no arguments. Remnants of the chocolate syrup smudged in the crevice and outer little mounds of her butt, and he couldn’t help but notice, as any reasonable man, the association the visual provided, what with brown smears on a pair of underpants, and fought back a slight gag, the crease in his brow deepening. Her body was at a slanted angle, contorted into something only youthful bodies can attain, her dress halfway up her bent back, one tiny hand scratching at her ankle, the other extension doing the rear business. And besides, the dog was barking and pulling mightily on the leash, choking itself half to death in an earnest, yet pitiful attempt to drag Adrian toward a tree it had serious intentions of desecrating with its signature marking. Adrian laughed, moved on to bewilderment – and then further to annoyance – and then grating irritation – as the dog had spilled its bladder several times already and was now pretty much spitting dust, more or less, with each stop, never giving up the futile struggle. He gave the dog a tug of the leash and they continued forth.

Adrian’s sister, Ashley, Jessica’s mother, had at the last moment requested the services of her brother in the care of the young girl, age 5, when under dire circumstances her immediate presence was required at work. The usual babysitter had the day off and the daddy was out of the picture, last word of him coming out of Washington state, something about picking up a job transporting Vets to and from different insurance supported clinics where they needed observation for things like whatever it is that afflicts those that served in our wars and then were left to their own devices, missing limbs and night terrors and all. Ashley was what people refer to as a hard-worker and it was not rare that her attentions were deviated from the young girl and applied dutifully to projects involving large sums of her employer’s monetary interests.

Adrian, try as he might, couldn’t think of a good excuse to avoid being the babysitter for the day – mild hangover wasn’t going to cut it – and Ashley probably would have given him sisterly shit if he refused, so he climbed onto his roommate’s ten-speed and rode without helmet, cursing God the entire way for making him answer the phone, to his sister’s home on the other side of town, where she lived with her daughter in a nice ranch style home they shared with the dog, a Fox Terrier mix named gerbil, after the animal species Gerbillinae, which originally had been the desired roommate of Jessica, but after three failed attempts in which there were slant eyed glances passed around, and quiet adult-voice whispers involving the true causes of death, Ashley came to her senses and figured if any more animals were going to mysteriously die under her daughter’s care it should at least be an animal that throughout history has yanked the heartstrings of man, so if, Lord forbid, anything else perished it would cause significant but not over-reaching trauma to young Jessica, and give her pause the next time a new pet arrived, pushing her toward a higher level of respect and care for all the earth’s little critters.

They’d been walking for a while, Adrian saying very little, never sure of how to communicate with a five-year-old girl, related or not. Ashley’s home was in an ever-expanding, newly ‘gentrified’ neighborhood, the kind where most of the blacks and Hispanics had been pushed out of to make way for transplants from the east coast, places like Vermont and Massachusetts, new families, young adults with trust-funds, above average earning single white mothers like Ashley, and the like – so they passed a lot of shops and there was plenty of window watching to do in lieu of the awkward uncle and niece silence.

Jessica took hold of Adrian’s hand, surprising him. Her little fingers were stubby and sticky and Adrian was not accustomed to the touch of smallish hands and regretfully yanked his free and took hold of the dog leash with both arms. His eyes were bouncing around a poster of extremely attractive women of diverse ethnicity on a poster in a window display so he missed the flash of distress and abandonment in Jessica’s eyes – yet something chemical flickered inside him and without thought he returned his hand to the free air at his side where it was again taken in the tiny sticky chocolate covered fingers and there it stayed. They walked on like this for some time, the dog pulling and then stopping at a constant clip, to puff his dry yellow dust, the two humans silent.

Since Adrian arrived at Ashley’s house and saw Jessica sitting at the kitchen counter, feet swinging freely back and forth, working on a miserable rendition of a famous Disney princess with blunted crayons, he’d been reminded of his ex Rose, mostly to his chagrin. It wasn’t a sexual reminder, though he did feel a slight pang of something like guilt knowing Rose’s breasts weren’t much bigger than his niece’s, and assumed he only felt that way because he had been the dumped instead of the one who kicked the other to the curb. In truth he loved Rose’s breasts and missed suckling them like a baby, though he guessed in a pornographic way of measurement, not that he viewed the world that way, they were smallish. It was nothing more than his disgruntled lingering animosity that claimed any association between the undeveloped breasts of his niece and the breasts of his ex, which is a disconcerting connection, period. In short, he was struggling internally with the mix of emotions and the situation of reminiscence in which he found himself. No matter, as he hasn’t spoken to Rose in months and really, that was why the sudden thoughts to his ex as caused by his niece had probably removed his vocal chords for the last while, as he was somewhat perplexed by the sudden reminder having been brought on by his own flesh and blood. He blamed the straggling effects of his hangover and rewound the morning in his memory, pretty sure that his last spoken aloud words had been, “Are banana splits okay for kids?” at the ice cream place he thought would be a good late breakfast/ early lunch for his niece, all the while his mind trapped in paradoxical swirls of longing and regret and rage concerning the aforementioned Rose.

Jessica put a little more pressure on Adrian’s hand.He looked down at the top of his niece’s head, appreciated the nice and straight part in the hair his sister had applied before she rushed out the door to work. He couldn’t imagine Jessica as an adult. Did he ever think about what it would be like to grow up when he was five? He wasn’t sure. High school was a long lost memory and that was only six years ago. What had changed since high school? He went to college and got a degree and drank a lot and did drugs and had sex with eleven girls. What were their names? Rose, obviously. His first real girlfriend was when he was eighteen and her name was Lauren. They had had sex the summer following graduation and then she went to some out of state school and eventually they forgot about each other. So that was two. Gretchen, Olivia, and? He couldn’t remember the others right now, as they were mostly one night stands in college and then a couple others after the Rose thing imploded, when he was staying out way too late and going home with anyone that was willing, usually waking up with mind-crushing hangovers in some random apartment in a part of town he didn’t usually frequent and then sneaking out before the other awoke and figuring out which bus to take home, almost always jetting into the first McDonalds along the way to spend the last wadded up cash in his pocket on greasy eggs and cheese and potatoes, something to slop up the hangover.

Adrian almost tripped over Jessica when she stopped abruptly and pointed to the ground. He drifted back to the moment and watched as she bent down and picked up a folded piece of paper, turned her face up to Adrian and said, “I want to show this to everyone in the world.” She handed the folded paper to her uncle. Adrian unfolded it, made curious by his niece’s cryptic choice of words upon finding a random piece of paper on the ground. Written on the paper were an assortment of unholy activities, merchandise and the prices of each. From sex with women with disabilities to sex with certain animals; various types of pleasures given by an assortment of odd extremities, scat and golden showers, to intricately labeled and tabled pricelists of methamphetamine, crack cocaine, powder cocaine, bath salts, crank, whippets, marijuana, mescaline, ketamine, LSD, and more, all clearly measured in grams. The bottom most line was killer for hire: up to two persons – weapon of choice non-negotiable. Adrian was disappointed at the shockingly low price. He had to assume the ‘Killer for hire’ was either pathetic at his occupation or had incredibly low self-esteem and was maybe starting out and wanted to get a decent client base before he hiked up the price. In any case the listed items were truly that awful in nature, the kind of list of things one shouldn’t find anywhere outside of a Bangkok side street or in some skewed vision of Hell.

Jessica looked at him, her small sticky hand shielding her eyes from the sun. She repeated, “I want to show everyone in the world.” Adrian laughed vigorously, unable to contain it, and wondered how to respond. She was five so he supposed a lie wouldn’t hurt her. “He said, “It doesn’t say anything. It’s not English.”

Jessica was crestfallen but said nothing. Adrian was relieved he didn’t have to answer any more questions. The last thing he wanted to do was explain what a ‘golden shower’ was to his niece. Jessica seemed to be okay in the adult world of silent walking, which struck him as both odd and endearing. He had no idea how to talk to kids. Her grip on his hand loosened and they marched on. Adrian’s mind drifted to back to Rose and he tried to rack his brain as to whether she was still dating that piece of shit he saw her with that one time at the place he couldn’t recall. The asshole had a mustache for Christ’s sake. Adrian could understand the vegan agenda freaks and the climate change nuts, she seemed drawn to those idiots like a moth to light, but a fucking mustache? Come on, Rose.

After a little longer they turned onto a populated street full of hipsters and whatnot, people visiting from out of town, sitting and drinking micro brews and eating grass fed burgers and arugula salads, all annoyingly placed at tables that took up half the sidewalk. Adrian spied out several dogs underfoot of owners. He wasn’t sure about Gerbil’s temperament around other canines and so wasn’t sure of the protocol.

“I have to go potty.”Jessica was back to the squeezing of Adrian’s hand, and there was a little added urgency of gentle tugging, a child’s physical cue that things were suddenly dire whereas a moment earlier maybe not so much.

“Okay.” His voice was a demented croak. He cleared his throat and tried again, “What kind of bathroom do you use?” He felt he should have left it at okay.

“My mommy goes with me. The seat is too high up.”

Inventory of the street revealed a bookstore, an independent nonetheless, and it occurred to him he might grab a new book while they were out, and so the day wouldn’t be a complete waste. He pushed Gerbil toward the street side of the sidewalk to keep from any dogfights and nudged Jessica toward the pedestrian side. If anyone wondered why this guy in his mid twenties was walking hand in hand with a little girl and a smallish dog he hoped any apparent cuteness on Jessica’s behalf might distract their curiosity, as he knew from television and female friends that some adults like to give nice smiles to cute young girls, a weird, silent reward for being attractive in a not-yet-sexual way. After a few paces Adrian was disappointed no serious looks of Lolita-esque judgments passed his way. And then a staggering notion hit him: these sons of bitches assumed Jessica was his daughter and they were out for a stroll, maybe headed to get some ice cream, it was a nice day afterall – and then he was almost taken to his knees by the reality that he had in fact already taken the girl for ice cream.

Did he really look like he could be a father? Beads of sweat prickled on his scalp.

Jessica stopped moving. Her eyes were wet, tears ready to break through. She pointed to the ground at her feet where a steady stream of urine was flowing and pooling around her dainty ankles. She whispered, “I’m sorry,” and the floodgates burst. At first it was streaming tears, par for the course, but in a matter of seconds the poor girl was howling. Adrian was paralyzed, the suddenness catching him way off guard. Gerbil was trying to piss on an empty dog dish near some kind of mix breed that was beginning to show its hackles, a growl growing in the back of its throat.

In a panic Adrian lifted the girl and placed her on his shoulder. If someone had photographed the moment they would have thought he was a kidnapper or reenacting some scene from WWII, a hero taking a fallen comrade through a hail of dirt and shrapnel to safety –he did a quick jerk/yank of the leash, temporarily choking the shit out of Gerbil, but only very briefly, as he swung the dog up into his free arm, and then made a mad dash away from what he knew had to be every eyeball within sight turned upon the scene, merciless scrutiny’s abound.His heart smashed inside his ribcage, as the humility of it all was too much for him to take, causing hiccups and secretive farts to escape haphazard. As he ran – jumping dogs harnessed to the outdoor dining tables, spinning around punk rock couples and other assorted teenage dirt-bags, ducking under and scrambling over good looking women with expensive leather handbags, clacking heels, incessant chatter into iPhones, rampant overuse of ‘like’ in conversation, dodging the ruined street musicians who set up on the ground with cheap keyboards on their laps, legs flopped out like they own the fucking place – his mind returned to Rose and the mustached dickhead she might or might not be dating.

He paused to assess the situation after finally after rounding a corner and seeing the coast was mostly clear, only a few people heading this way and that but paying no mind to the strange sight of man in Atlas pose with pee soaked girl and strangled dog over shoulder. He set Jessica down and bent onto one knee, her way-in-over-his-head-knight-in-shining-armor. He didn’t know the right words so stayed silent, didn’t want to overwhelm her. Her legs were drenched in pee and her socks were yellow. She choked a few more sobs and then resigned to mostly shallow breaths.

God bless his heart, Gerbil was trying to urinate on a rosebush.

Jessica wiped blotched tears from her face. Adrian was glad she was too young for make-up, as the resemblance to Rose was uncanny. All too many times he had given Rose reasons to break apart into barely comprehensible anguish, and now like then, the face before him was red with sorrow and embarrassment, glistening green eyes sizzling with emerald brightness. He felt a powerful compulsion to kiss her, not in any sexual way of course, she’s his niece, but the situation and her aura were so shattered it was wearing down any armor he had and his inability to undue what had already been done was grinding on him. He asked, “Can you walk? Just a little bit.” Jessica nodded. He swiped a lock of her hair from her face and smiled at her. He took off his shirt and placed it around his niece’s waist to hide her pee soaked dress from the world. They took each other’s hands and with Gerbil in tow headed down the street.

Adrian’s plan was simple: find a store where he could buy a pair of little girl underwear and tiny person socks if they had them. He knew the area they were in and was mostly positive that a store that probably had such items in stock was a few blocks away. Jessica seemed to be doing okay, her crying done for now, and he found the temperature to be agreeable to his shirtlessness; even Gerbil seemed resigned to the fact that his bladder was empty, and trotted along beside the man and his niece, occasionally snapping his wee jaws at flying insects and unexpected gusts of wind.

Once back on a main strip, Adrian gripped tighter to his niece’s hand. He held his chin up proudly, hoping to inspire Jessica to carry the visage of great purpose, not giving a damn. If they received odd looks, they went unnoticed.

When they got to the store, Adrian was relieved to see it was the same place he remembered. The automatic doors slid out of their way. They walked inside and were immediately accosted by a security guard.

“Yo, what do you think you’re doing?” He was a heavyset black guy with a crinkly goatee and yellow eyes like a harvest moons bulging from small sockets.

“I’m here to buy some stuff. Like a normal customer.”

“Sign states clearly.”

“States what?”

“You don’t have a shirt on.”

Adrian, in his purposeful walk to the store had forgotten he was shirtless. “Oh, yeah.” He thought a moment. “Well, can you make an exception? I have an emergency of sorts.”

“And the dog has to stay outside, too.”

Adrian looked down at his niece. She was staring at the ground, her feet cocked in a pigeon-toe stance. “Dude, listen. My niece, this is my niece – she had an… (whispering) accident. I just want to get her some underwear and socks and I’ll be out. It’ll be three minutes tops.”

“Can’t do it. I’m not putting my ass on the line for you or her.” He adjusted the belt under his large gut.

“Are you serious?”

“Deadly.”

“Christ. Fine.” Adrian bent down so he was face to face with Jessica, “We have to tie up Gerbil outside but he’ll be okay. I promise. He’s tough so nobody will mess with him.”

The security guard watched them until they exited the automatic doors and were out on the concrete again.Adrian undid Gerbil’s leash and fastened it onto a bike rack and made sure it was good and secure. Gerbil looked up at him with the sad maniacal eyes only dogs possess.

“Ok, Jess. (calling her Jess as opposed to Jessica felt very strange and gave him immediate cause for regret) I have to put my shirt back on. Is that okay? Only for a few minutes okay, and I’ll give it right back. Does that sound alright?”

Jessica, being a human, and naturally smarter than her adult counterparts gave her credit for, nodded. She pulled the wet shirt off and handed it to Adrian. He concentrated on not dry-heaving. The scent of urine was powerful in the warm spring air. Adrian wanted to give no reason for Jessica to feel any more self-conscious than she already did and braved the shirt over his head and let it cling soggily to his torso.

“Ready. Gerbil is going to stay here and you and me are going to get you some cool new clothes. That sounds awesome, right?”

Jessica nodded slowly.

Adrian wanted more of a commitment from his niece, wanted her to be excited at the prospect of new digs, even if it were pretend. “Come one, smile for me. New clothes. That’s every little kids dream, isn’t it?” He doubted that it was.

She smiled and said, “Thanks, Uncle Adrian.”

They walked past the security guard, making sure to go a little closer than necessary in hopes he sucked up some of the piss stench. They found the aisle with kid’s clothes and Adrian let Jessica pick the underwear and socks she wanted. While she did that he stood at the end of the aisle and pondered texting Rose. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to say, or even why he would text her at all, but still the draw toward doing something stupid was strong.

Jessica showed him her selections. He looked around to make sure nobody thought he was a creep and then nodded and told her they looked great and he probably would have chose the same ones if he were a little girl.

They waited behind a huge woman and her heavyset son and daughter at the only open register. They were buying a wide variety of high fat, high carbohydrate, and high sugar foods. That was not surprising but Adrian did a double take when they walked out, each with a giant bundle of packaged foods in their doughy arms instead of using a bag, like they couldn’t wait to start eating and the idea of a bag was a terrible burden keeping them from the foods they loved so much. They walked with an ever-tilting waddle, like all fat people, Adrian thought.

The total for the socks and underwear was $13.98 including tax. Adrian reached for his wallet and found that there was no wallet where there was always a wallet. He siphoned all his pockets and came up empty.

“I seem to have misplaced my wallet.”

The girl at the register, like a character from a movie, popped her gum and shrugged, couldn’t even muster words.

Desperate, Adrian asked the inane question, “Can I take this stuff and come back later to pay?”

The girl shook her head.

He wanted to punch her in the face. “I’ll put this stuff back.”

The girl behind the register gave no indication she heard him.

Adrian took Jessica’s hand once again and they walked back into the guts of the store, hurried into an empty aisle.He cast an eye behind him and noticed the coast was clear, and in a hurry he shoved the underwear and socks into the waist of his jeans. His eyes scurried all around and he saw no one. He felt good about it, not the stealing in itself, but the overall chances of walking out of the store a successful thief.

There was one more piece to the plan, something he came up with at the last moment, a distraction, as the socks brushed the tip of his penis on their way into his left pant leg. “Jessica, can you do me a favor?”

She said, “What?”

“I need you to act upset, like you’re really mad at me that I didn’t buy that stuff for you.” He caught a whiff of himself, almost puked onto his niece’s face. He also felt a little chilly from the pee soaked shirt.

”But I’m not upset.”

“I know. But you can pretend, okay?”

“I want to go home.”

“We are. I promise. We’re going home right now. I just need you to do this one thing. It’ll be fun.”

“Okay.”

“Great.”

They walked down the aisle toward the front of the store and Jessica hadn’t started the waterworks yet. Adrian surprised himself and pinched her arm, in the meat of a tiny twiggish bicep, apparently much harder than he had anticipated. There was a red welt where he had pinched her flesh. She lifted her head slowly to Adrian’s and in her eyes he saw the hurt of all the universe, the betrayal of all existence scaled down to two irises in a five year old girls head. She screamed. Thick tears streamed down her face. The whole thing was strikingly horrifying.

The security guard appeared from the opposite end and approached in a waddle typical of the obese.

“What’s going on?”

Adrian pivoted Jessica by the shoulders to hide his legs and any unseemly bulges where the girl’s underwear and socks were hiding.

“Nothing.”

Jessica screamed, loud enough to silence Adrian and the security guard.

“He stole.”

Adrian’s jaw dropped. He couldn’t believe it. His own flesh and blood sold him out.

“He stole from the store.”

The security guard looked at Adrian. “What’s she talking about?”

Adrian tried to laugh it off, “She’s a kid. They say crazy things, right.”

Jessica stomped her feet. “He put it in his pants.”

“You better come with me.” The security guard’s hand hovered over something on his belt. There was no gun, but Adrian didn’t no what other kind of medieval shit these kinds of guys had at their disposal. He submitted to the twist of fate and followed the security guard down the hall toward the back of the store. He hadn’t shoplifted since he was thirteen, and thinking back, he’d been caught then as well.

A while later he found himself alone in a small square office on a stiff chair. There was a desk with nothing on it, some kind of pathetic attempt at an interrogation room, he thought. Opposite him on the wall was a poster of a tropical island – a beach with palm trees and an endless expanse of ocean. It made him think of the futility of life. So many people and really, what did anyone know about anyone else? Nothing, really. His niece was an abstraction as far as he was concerned, and the security guard? He couldn’t even invent a life for him outside the store in his imagination. He barely spoke to his sister and after this it would probably get worse. And then there was Rose, a person he’d told “I love you,” on hundreds of occasions, and may have even meant. Now they were strangers, like all the time together was just wiped out, lovers’ amnesia, and all that was left was the wispy fragments of memory he clung onto. What was the point?

For an hour no one said anything to him, didn’t bring him water or offer him a snack. The fat security guard appeared to be the highest standing figure of authority and he more or less ignored Adrian. Were the police coming, was someone going to sit across from him and open a file with his name on it? What was the procedural response to misdemeanor adult theft of items totaling less than three packs of cigarettes? He sat in silence and stared at the poster. Every few minutes an imaginary wave crashed on the beach of his mind. He wasn’t nervous, but he was tired and hungry, and he smelled awful. The urine was mostly dry now, excreting the ammonia out and up into the air all around his face and nose. From his seat he could see into a different office, one with a lot more chairs and pictures on the walls and a woman being overtly nice to his niece, the narc. He was being a stubborn petulant brat, trying as he might to avoid glancing over toward her too often. She was in new clothes and Gerbil was sleeping on the floor beside her. The staff had sympathy after all and gave her the clothes he tried to steal so she could sit comfortably while she waited for her mom. On the table in front of Jessica was a can of Coca Cola, a small stack of candy bars, a bag of chips, and some gummy worms. A regular diabetic feast. His niece looked over at him and smiled a smile that said she’d forgotten she betrayed him and had forgotten she peed her pants in the street. Adrian pouted and returned his attention to the poster of the beach.

He decided to text Rose after all, figured the absurdity of the situation warranted or at least allowed contact. He typed out a message, pressed send. It was too long, he knew, but he thought she might think the whole thing was funny and figured extensive context was necessary.

Someone had contacted his sister and she messaged him a rather unhappy text. He didn’t respond. He assumed whoever called told her everything, painted him a villain, and all that talking to her would do was wear him out and make her more livid.

He rummaged through his pockets and pulled out the folded piece of paper. He read the list again and couldn’t help but crack a smile. Everything was sickening and depressing, and yet intriguing. Humans are an exceptionally bizarre species, ingenuity even in depravity. We have strange needs and desires, naturally and go to head-turning extremes to live out our fantasies and yearnings, often at the expense of others.

A woman of unknown reputation will come to your home with a bag of cockroaches, and in nothing but stilettos, walk to and fro in the room of your choice stomping on said cockroaches, for your arousal, presumably while you masturbate. For a little extra cash she’ll bring rats.

The final listed item was the Killer for Hire. Adrian thought it was ridiculous that someone could actually expect to sell themselves as a killer on a random little slip of paper next to “Girl with pigtails to shit on your chest while insulting you in German, Dutch, or Romanian.” He laughed. Jessica was looking at him and so was the security guard.

Rose responded about forty minutes after he sent the text. She wrote, “I didn’t know you had a sister,” a less than gratifying response. He decided to curse the mustache fucker and try to forget about her once and for all.

As he looked at the poster of the island, wondering where it was, his sister messaged him again.He put the phone in his pocket without reading the text and wondered where he left his wallet – and then he wondered if the “Killer for hire” was accepting applications.

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