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The girl in the bikini pirouetted on the wet sand.
She was a hundred yards away, and all Mark Bradley could see was the sheen of her bare skin in the moonlight. She danced like a water sprite, with her head thrown back so that her hair swept behind her. She had her arms extended like wings. The dark water of the Gulf was as calm as glass, barely lapping at the beach. The girl splashed and kicked at the surf, sometimes running deeper into the warm water until it rose to her knees.
He could hear her singing to herself. She had a sweet voice, but it wasn't perfectly in tune. He recognized the song, which he could remember playing on his Walkman while jogging through Grant Park in downtown Chicago as a teenager. To the girl on the beach, the song must have been an oldie, something from her mother's generation. He heard her chanting the chorus over and over.
It was Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire."
As he got closer to the girl on the beach, Mark couldn't help but admire her. Her body was mature, and the flimsy strings of the red bikini showed it off, but she still had the gangly gait of an adolescent, all arms and legs. She was more girl than woman, with an innocence about her near nakedness in public. He was still too far away to see her face, but he wondered if his wife, Hilary, knew her. He assumed she was one of the girls who had competed in the dance tournament at the resort, and now that the competition was over, she was enjoying a few sleepless moments on the beach before going home.
Mark couldn't sleep either. He dreaded the return to Wisconsin. The vacation in Florida had been an escape for a week, and now he would have to face the reality of his situation at home. Shunned. Jobless. Angry. He and Hilary had avoided the subject for most of the past year, but they couldn't avoid it much longer. Money was tight. They would have to decide: stay or go. He didn't want to give up on their dream, but he had no idea how to put the pieces of their lives back together.
That wasn't how it was supposed to be. They'd left Chicago for rural Door County because they had wanted a quieter life in a place where they could join a community and raise a family. Instead, it had become a nightmare for Mark. Suspicion now followed him everywhere. He was marked with a scarlet letter. P for Predator. All because of Tresa Fischer.
He pounded a fist against his palm. Sometimes his fury overwhelmed him. He didn't blame Tresa; she was just a girl in love. The others, though—the teachers, the parents, the police, the school board—they had ignored his denials and picked apart his life, leaving him with his career destroyed. He wanted revenge for the injustice. He wanted to hurt someone. He wasn't a violent man, but sometimes he wondered what he would do if he met the principal of the school in a deserted county park, where no one would see them and where no one would ever know what he'd done.
Mark stopped on the beach. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply until his anger washed away. The waves came and went, and he felt the sand eroding beneath his feet. The peace of the water calmed him, which was why he was here. He smelled the briny, fishy aroma of the Gulf. The mild, damp March air was like a tonic compared to the cold weather back home, where temperatures were still in the thirties.
He could have stayed here forever, but nothing lasted. He knew it was time to go back to the hotel. Hilary was alone, and she'd wonder where he was if she awakened. He'd slipped silently out of bed when he couldn't sleep. He'd shrugged on a swimsuit and a yellow tank top and walked out their patio door, which led directly down the flat stretch of sand past the palm trees to the water. The sea had helped clear his head, but the relief was temporary, as it always was. Things never changed. They only got worse.
Mark heard the voice again. "We didn't start the fire."
The teenaged girl in the bikini wandered closer to him. She had a wine bottle in her hand, and he watched her drink from it like a runner downing Gatorade. Watching her swaying motions on the beach, he realized she was drunk. She was only thirty yards away now, her skin bronzed and damp. She tugged at the bottom of her swimsuit and adjusted it without self-consciousness. Her wet hair had fallen across her face, and when she pushed it away, their eyes met. Hers were wild and unfocused.
He knew who she was.
"Oh, son of a bitch," he murmured under his breath.
It was Glory Fischer. Tresa's sister.
Instinctively, Mark looked up and down the beach. The two of them were alone. It was almost three in the morning. He eyed the tower of the hotel, and in the handful of rooms where he saw lights, he didn't see the silhouette of anyone looking out. Even in the moonlight, it was dark enough that no one could see them here. He hated the idea that his first thought was self-protection, but he felt guilty and exposed being this close to a young girl. Especially this girl.
She took a long time to realize who he was, but then she offered him a teasing smile as she recognized him. "You," she said.
"Hello, Glory. Are you okay?"
The girl ignored the question and hummed to herself. "Did you follow me here?" she asked.
"Follow you? No."
"I bet you followed me. That's okay."
"Where'd you get the wine?" he asked.
"You want some?" She looked at the bottle and realized it was empty. She overturned it, and a few red drops sprinkled onto the sand. "Shit. Sorry."
"You shouldn't be out here," he said. "Let me take you back to the hotel."
Glory wagged a finger at him, and her torso swayed unsteadily. "Tresa wouldn't like that, would she? Seeing you and me together. Troy wouldn't like it either. He gets so jealous. If you want to do it with me, we should do it right here. Do you want to do it with me?"
Mark's body tightened with anxiety. He knew he shouldn't be here. He had to get away before this got worse, before anyone saw them together.
"Come on, let's go," he told Glory. "I don't want you on the beach alone. It's not safe. You've been drinking."
"What's the problem? You'll keep me safe, won't you? You're big and strong. No one's going to mess with you."
He reached for her arm, but she spun out of his grasp. He ran a hand back across his short hair in frustration. "I'm not going to leave you out here by yourself," he said.
"So don't leave. Stay. I like being here with you."
"It's late. You should be in bed."
Glory grinned and stuck out her tongue at him. "See, I knew that's what you wanted."
"You're drunk. I don't want you hurting yourself."
She hummed again. The same Billy Joel song. "Tresa saw you on Friday, you know."
"She saw you and Hilary in the auditorium. That's why she choked. She was really upset. She couldn't concentrate knowing you were there."
"Not winning isn't the end of the world."
"Yeah. I know." Glory didn't look distressed by Tresa's failure. Her face had a drunken brightness to it, as if she were drowning her sorrows. "Hey, I read a poem once that said the world would end in fire."
"Robert Frost," he said.
"You know it? Oh, yeah, duh, English teacher." She looked at him like a broken toy. "I mean, you used to be. Tresa felt bad about what happened."
"Let's go, Glory."
"Tresa never thought they would do anything like that."
"We should get back to the hotel." He put his hand out.
Glory took his hand in hers, but then she slid a damp arm around his waist. Her face came up to his neck. She tilted her chin toward him. Her breath smelled of alcohol, and her white teeth were stained darker by the wine. "Kiss me."
He reached around his back to disentangle himself. He looked over his shoulder toward the hotel again and felt an uncomfortable sensation, as if he were being watched from the darkness. Or maybe someone was testing him.
"Tresa says your lips are soft," Glory whispered.
Mark pried her hands away from his body. He took an urgent, awkward step backward in the sand to separate himself. When Glory reached out to hold him, she was too far away, and she stumbled and sank to her knees. Her stringy brown hair fell across her face. Her skin was pale, and he saw disorientation in her eyes.
"Are you okay?" he asked.
Glory didn't say anything.
He squatted in front of her. "Glory?"
She looked up at him. Tears streaked down her face. She wiped her nose with the back of her hand. On her knees, crying, she looked like a pretty, lost girl again. A typical teenager with blemishes on her forehead. A kid pretending to be an adult. He reached to touch her shoulder but pulled his hand back, as if her skin would be on fire.
"What's wrong?" he asked. "Why are you out here by yourself?"
"I don't want to go home," she said.
She shook her head. "I don't know what to do."
Mark started to press her for details, but he realized he was letting himself get sucked into this girl's life and problems. That had always been his weakness. He was a fixer.
"I'll take you back to the hotel," he murmured. He took her elbow and helped her to her feet. Her legs were rubbery, and she grabbed him for balance, clinging to his neck so tightly that her nails dug into his skin. He guided her into the dry sand with an arm around her waist, but she yanked free and skipped unsteadily back into the water. Trails of sand clung to her knees and thighs. She held her arms out to him.
"Let's swim," she said.
"I don't think so."
"One quick swim, then we'll go."
"Oh, come on." She was a coquette again. Her moods changed like clouds passing over the moon. "I won't bite. Unless you're into that."
"Get out of the water," he told her sternly. "You're drunk. You could hurt yourself."
"I think you're afraid of me," she said. "You want me."
"Stop playing games, Glory."
"You think I'm too young, but I'm not."
"What are you, sixteen?"
"So what? All the parts work."
Mark didn't feel vulnerable to her, but he remembered what Hilary had told him about teaching teenaged girls. You think they're kids. They're not. He wanted this encounter to be over. He wished he had never gotten out of bed and never taken a walk on the beach. Nothing good could come from being here with Glory.
"It's okay to play with fire," the girl said.
Glory scrambled out of the water. She sprinted up to him and stood, dripping, in front of him. Her voice was young now. "Don't go."
"We're both going inside."
"Why don't you want to have sex with me?" she asked. "Is it Tresa? I won't tell her."
"Oh, for God's sake, Glory," he muttered in exasperation.
"I'm not a virgin," she went on. "Troy wasn't even the first. You know what the boys call me at school? My nickname? It's Glory Glory Hallelujah."
"You shouldn't brag about that," he said, before he could stop himself. He didn't want to lecture her or be drawn into a discussion of her sexuality. He just wanted to turn around and go. Things were getting out of control.
He saw her eyes focused on the palm trees over his shoulder, and he flinched. He turned, expecting to see someone watching the two of them together. He knew it would be the same as last year if they were discovered. Suspicions. Accusations. You're a predator, they would say. Instinctively, he thought of ways to explain his behavior, to defend himself, even when he'd done nothing wrong.
Instead, he saw no one. They were alone. Weren't they?
"I'm leaving, Glory," he insisted.
"If you go, I'll just tell everybody we had sex anyway," she said. "Who do you think they'll believe? If you stay, it can be our secret."
Glory reached behind her back. He didn't realize what she was doing, but when her hands came forward, they held the strings to her bikini top, which dangled at her hips. She tugged the ties at her neck, undoing the knot, and shrugged her torso, letting the red top peel away and fall to her feet. Her eyes were serious and confident as she cupped her naked breasts.
"No one will ever know," she whispered.
Copyright © 2011 by Brian Freeman