At twelve he was already taller than some boys in high school, with his stringy arms and long hair that made him look older until you saw his freckles and his bangs. He was so thin his shoulder blades poked under his t‑shirt like dinosaur wings. He usually walked home with his friends, but this morning he was jumped in the bathroom by some kids who kicked him in the balls, repeatedly, until he puked. He waited until they left then washed out his mouth and splashed water on his face, and since this was the days when a boy could leave school anytime he wanted, he went out the front gate.
He loped around a parking lot and an alley near the school, wasting time until he could go home without his mother asking questions. When he thought it was noon, he ate his lunch on a bench under an oak outside a head shop. He could hear a pinball machine getting slapped and banged inside. He looked through the the screen door and recognized a kid his own age with no shirt playing the table and smoking a cigarette. He stepped away and headed home through the yucca and stucco and cicadas.
The orchard was too dangerous to cut across alone. Full of creosote and poison oak and an old man with a gun. He’d have to climb Mulberry. At the bottom, there was a girl with a red mouth sitting on a cinderblock wall. She twirled a mustard flower in her hand, and crushed mustard and ice plant lay around her feet.
“Hey, can you carry me?”
“I can’t walk so good today. I need a ride.” He walked toward her without knowing why. Her lips were open like a robe. She was wasn’t a girl. She was a woman, and when she told him her name, he didn’t believe her. He’d never met anyone else with it.
“That’s my mother’s name.”
“She’s got taste.” When she hopped off the wall he saw her spine was curved and her back twisted into a large hump. She took half steps toward him. “Usually I can get up okay, but the sun’s too hot or something.”
“That’s why it’s called Sunland.” “No shit. Bend down.” He did as she said, and she climbed on his back. He teetered in a fog of perfume and warm breath. Her breasts heaved against his back.
“You wanna job ? I can’t pay you, but I can sing.”
She didn’t sing. There was no sound on Mulberry Drive. It was hard enough to climb alone, and it got steeper as it went. He stumbled and squeezed her thighs to keep her from slipping. She clamped her hands around his neck. He couldn’t breathe, but he didn’t didn’t want her to fall. He wanted her not to fall. Already a few houses up the hill and he could feel sweat run down his sides. He wanted her to not fall.
Mulberry was a wall. Above it only sky. His Achilles’ felt like they might snap. He stepped off the sidewalk to walk in the street. Her voice vibrated in his jaw.
“Smart move. I knew I picked the right guy.”
It didn’t feel like they were getting any closer to the top. Her weight shifted, and she started to slide out of his hands. He leaned over, his head a few inches from the road, to keep her on his back, and when he saw their reflection in the chrome wheel of a VW, it looked like her body had swallowed him whole.