Ana's Opening

Third place

Ana was shivering in the last row of the church, next to the confession box.

Out of the corner of his eye, Roy saw her hugging herself and fidgeting.

"My cold girl," he said bringing down a calloused hand crazy with freckles. He rubbed her knee. "You don't dress appropriate for the weather."

Ana squirmed as the blue wool skirt scratched into her skin.

The preacher tapped the mike.

Roy leaned close enough to get one of Ana's short brown curls caught between his lips. "Your mom thinks it's because you want to give all them boys a show," he whispered. Ana watched the piles of hair on his hand flicker golden red.

The preacher asked if anyone knew of David, the Israelite boy who was bursting at the seams to prove himself, who alleged he'd battled a lion and was ready for a human foe. He asked if anyone knew of Goliath, the warrior Philistine who stood more than three meters tall.

No one said answered.

Ana leaned into Roy. "I know this one," she whispered. She'd been reading up hoping to come on Roy's mysterious Sunday outings.

Ana was a good reader, and fast.

"A quick study," Roy had called her at dinner, just before he'd asked her to come, just before he chomped down on a juicy cut of beef and slid the fork tines slowly out from between his yellowing tightly packed teeth.

"A quick study, sure," Ana's mother repeated, all of her concentration going into slashing Roy's steak into bite-sized pieces. "Ain't like me." She stabbed a charred hunk with her fork and lifted it to Roy's freckly lips; he grimaced. She waved the chunk at Ana. "Best quick study your way to an after school job and learn how to fend for yourself. Collect them bucks for your college scholarship, miss."

Ana watched the fork disappeared deep into her mother's maw. Soon enough, both fork and knife were hitting the plate and she was standing up, her arms reaching down and across the gray Formica table and yanking Ana's tee-shirt down where it had been riding up. "And get yourself a shirt that fits proper, girl. Might as well just take the thing off the way you wear it."

Ana hunched her shoulders forward. She attacked a hangnail on her thumb. She chewed and kept her eyes on her plate. Her mother put a hand on Roy and her eyes on Ana. Ana knew her eyebrows and her lips were bunched up like a fist.

"A quick study," Ana repeated into her cracked dresser mirror long after the sun had given up for the day. She pulled her mother's dirt-dark high heels out of her closet and, like a pigeon in a parking lot, staggered around her violet bedroom. "I am a quick study," she said. She closed in on the mirror. She lowered her voice. "Kiss me," she said. "Who, me?" she answered. She pressed her lips to the mirror, hard.

His hand on her knee was warm, just like she remembered from that first time, a few months ago, when the heat was rolling through hill country, pushing bright flowers though the tips of prickly pears; when his fiery beard climbed high up his cheeks and his auburn hair sprouted dirty in all directions on his head. Ana had never seen so many freckles. They were everywhere, even on his eyelids and earlobes. Even on his thin red lips.

That time the clouds matched his lips. That time she'd been slouching on the picnic bench he'd built. She'd been pulling her hair out of its pixie stage with one hand and flicking her mother's lighter off and on with the other. She was watching a loose strand curl up tight as it burned.

"Thirteen, world on a tasty little string," Roy'd said. Ana started under the red roof of the sky. She wasn't used to his sneaking up. He straddled the bench next to her. "Then what?"

"Sunset's like fire," she said pointing up. She rolled her thumb over the wheel and pressed the fuel lever. "Then," she lifted her thumb, "gone."

"I like your mom and you, Ana," he'd said. The lighter flicked on. "I hope you like me, too." The light stayed on, unwavering. He got up, pressing his hand, all of his weight, into her thigh. It was warm, really warm. "Hey–" he was walking away. "You can both be my girls." She let up on the gas. Out it went.

A few dinners, a few smokes and a few sunsets later, her mother had tossed the bouquet right to Ana. In the small chapel with its cross hanging crooked on the wall, the wad of flowers sailed in a red and yellow arc right over the judge and his two employee witnesses. Her mother never even turned her back for the toss; she looked Ana in the eye and lobbed it like they were playing catch. Ana stuck her face in the yellow daisies and red roses and sniffed deep. Nothing. They were fake. Ana looked closer. They were dusty too. And when the rickety air conditioner in the window kicked on, Ana shuddered inside her beat-up brown clogs, and her mother's pretty white camisole and lacy dress that she was beginning to fill up.

Back then, like now, Ana was mesmerized by the million peaks of her chicken skin rising up. Back then, her step-father's whisper cut in her ear. His ginger beard got caught in her hair and tickled the side of her neck. His hand gripped her exposed upper arm. White lace kissed his knuckles: "Remember, Ana, I'm a full-time working furnace – always on." The squeeze burned deep then let go. In another two strides he was across the room grabbing her mother around her waist with both arms and whirling her around the room. He let out a hallelujah! The judge, his secretary and the uniformed officer oh'd and skipped backward, out of the way of Ana's mother's threshing legs. Ana felt the heat. She stared at the place where his fingers had left their tattoo. She covered the place with her other hand, kept it covered until she thought it and the flush of her cheeks faded. She heard her mother from the other side of the room.

"Enough, enough," she'd squawked.

Ana had watched her mother bat at her husband and throw her head back laughing like the girls who smoked outside the gym doors at school. And she kept checking the arm. The marks didn't go away. Not all day, and not that night either. She flicked on the flashlight under her blanket and there they were. They faded to pink the next day. In two days they were barely there.


Now, in the church light, there were no marks at all. Ana looked at her step-father. He winked at her and turned back to the preacher. His hair was combed fresh into its recently trained pompadour. His eyes were clear and his freckles bright. That muscle in his cheek barely twitched. Ana tried not to focus on her knee. She sat extra tall and stared up at the dais, at the young preacher who was throwing himself around up there.

"And do you think David was scared of that Goliath?" he called out. "Imagine. Young David. Barely a teenager against the nearly nine-foot tall Philistine who ate kids like him for breakfast."

Their legs were touching, his right to her left. He coughed into his hand and settled it again, a snitch higher, on the field of blue. It was extra warm. Ana thought it was big enough to make a circle around her thigh. And she wasn't even the smallest girl in her class.

Roy leaned over to Ana. "Sure wish we could get your mother to come once in a while."

Ana shrugged.

The preacher was still warming up. "And that Goliath saw David, and what did he do?"

Ana wriggled in her chair. Six rows of chairs sat empty in front of them.

Roy leaned down to her. "You want some warming? I can go get your jacket – or you want a hug?"

The preacher tried a new tack: "What did he do when he saw small and confident David?" he said. "Who had a slingshot – a slingshot, people – and five measly stones. What do you think he did?"

"Mm-mm, wolf at the door," a voice way in front braved.

"Yes. Indeed," said the preacher, wagging his head in the affirmative. "The wolf."

Ana kept her eyes down. "Hug." She swallowed. "A hug."

He lifted her easily onto his lap. She sat sideways facing the confession box. She was close enough to kick it. Her legs in knee socks and tennis shoes dangled off the side of their chair. With her arms pinned in a tight little ex by his arms, they made a cockeyed spider: four legs, two arms. He hugged. He smoothed her skirt.

"My friends," said the preacher half-coaxing, half losing his patience. "Was, Little, Red, Riding, Hood, afraid, of, the, wolf?

"I think he's new," Roy said into Ana's hair.

Ana wasn't listening. His right hand was covering her knees. It was his writing hand, his sawing hand, his unmarried hand. His nails were yellow and curving. "Horny-corny," her mom called them.

Ana dropped one leg between his so she could touch the floor.

"Was, David, afraid, of, Goliath?" The preacher's arms whipped the air above his head. The congregation watched.

"People?" he said.

Nothing.

Ana imagined David with his five smooth rocks the shape of walnuts maybe, the color of almonds–his tight grip, his slingshot pulled tight.

Roy's hand moved up as his head bowed. His pompadour leaned a bit, caved in on one side. He did not look at Ana. He did not look at his hand. It was moving on its own, sneaky, under her skirt.

Ana felt her head shrink and grow. Her hearing went in and out. In her head David dropped everything. Trees sprang up around him, then in the guts of the trees a dark house, then inside Little Red Riding Hood sitting on the belly of her grandmother, pointing at the yellow teeth and smelling the wolf's gamy smell.

The preacher paced up front. "And David was too small to wear King Saul's armor. So he wore none."

Ana did not move. The hand was quick silver mercury. She got it like falling off the monkey bar: Her mother's shadowy "be careful" eyebrows. Like that one time behind the garage with Mikey Goodall times a million. Mikey Goodall who tastes like cocoa puffs.

She tracked the pinky. It touched the stretchy band of her underwear, hooked itself inside. Ana's eyes unfastened. Her pupils spread. Forget the cavity that ate up her two back teeth and put lightning rods in her head. He mouth gaped open to the most impossible thing she'd ever heard of in her life.

"And Goliath is laughing," yelled the preacher. "Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! Come on, you people, show me how Goliath laughs." His hands threw up air.

And the congregation responded stiffly. A "ha-ha" here and another over there. They were uncomfortable.

The dark pressed in. Ana endured her heart feeling, that heavy pounding, like when she was about to "find trouble," according to her mom. Her breath skimmed the air. David was very afraid. Little Red Riding Hood was very afraid. And they were never going back. No matter what.

Ana needed the bathroom.

"Again," yelled the preacher.

"Ha-ha-ha!" called the robot crowd.

"Again," yelled the preacher.

"HA-HA-HA-HA-HA!" forced the crowd.

"And what did David do with that first rock?" the preacher wanted to know. He took off his sweater and he couldn't find the chair that was supposed to be behind him so he just threw it on the floor.

One of Roy's fingers, then another, stuttered and pressed in. Then out. And in again. The hand was not gripping anything now. Now it was Ana, everything inside Ana, gripping the hand.

"Jeez oh man," said Roy. He was watching Ana's face.

Like magic or something awful strange, she was inside out. There was nothing but his fingers flicking hot levers in her brain. Flick. Her head was popping off and flying across the room. Flick. Her mouth and eyes did weird things. She formed the biggest "HA-HA!" face in the whole place. Nothing came in or out, nothing except the fingers, the hand, the arm, him. She was stuck.

And the preacher kept on, loud. "'They send me a measly boy,' that Goliath yelled at David. And do you know what happened next?"

The crowd was dumb.

"Do you know what happened next? I'll tell you what happened next." The preacher was hopping up and down. "That measly boy smote that giant with one pebble right between the eyes." Change was falling out of his pockets and chinging off the floor.

"Yeah," someone shouted.

It sounded vaguely to Ana in her faraway place like a pep rally or a touchdown. But she was sparklers in the front yard. She was racing barefoot through David's desert. She was hiding naked in leafy mud in that forest.

"It didn't ricochet," said the preacher. "No way, Jose." It buried itself right inside the brain of that Goliath."

Ana snapped her mouth closed. She squeezed her eyes shut until the white electric specks hurt. Something screwy was working its way up her throat.

The preacher was done yelling now. "David slew that Goliath," he said hanging his proud, sweaty head.

Ana's whimper hit the air.

"Roy," she said, her eyes squeezed shut. She pushed at the arm. "Bathroom. Something's broke."

A white-haired lady up ahead turned back and smiled with empathy at Ana.

"Little muppet," said the lady, loud, to her husband. "Looks a bit touched." His hearing aid buzzed.

"I bet that's what David said," said the preacher. A scatter of laughter hit the crowd.

Ana bowed low, bent herself in half on Roy's lap.

"Some measly boy, that David," said the preacher.

Roy moved his freckled arm away from Ana.

"Ow-ow," she said.

"Let us pray," said the preacher. "And let little girls go to the bathroom before there's an accident."

Ana heard Roy whispering into his hands. She got up, slow. She moved past him. Now that muscle in his cheek was at it. His fingers were knuckley. They jammed at his eyes. They bulldozed his hair. They folded inside each other against his lips, under his nose. They made the shape of the church and the steeple before you open the doors and look at all the people.

Ana was cold again. She never dressed appropriate for the weather. Her jacket was in the car. There were peanut M&Ms in the right pocket. Peanut were better than regular. And not the red or orange or green. Those were before. Now, she decided, brown. Just plain brown. end story

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