Hot Box

   Originally written on December 3, 2013
   Recently published in Voices Literary Magazine – Spring 2016

    My first kiss was in a fucking hot box. 

    I had this tree house as a kid that became an oven in the summers– the one time of year you’re supposed to use it. Anyway, Courtney Epson, the petite brunette from geometry class, who I’d had a crush on since the second grade, went to the movies with me on my thirteenth birthday as a “date.” As intimate as an eighth grade date can be…
    We had climbed up into my tree house for some alone time until her mom picked her up. Just as we pulled our legs into the hut, my mom walked out onto the back patio, ranting to my aunt Carol about sex. Her and my aunt’s conversations were always loud and often profane.
    “I’m not sure what to tell you, Carol. I guess that’s why Tom and I never tried it! I’d hate to be sore just sitting…”
    It’s even worse when these personal phone calls took place in Wal-Mart’s produce section.
    People would shuffle by with their food-packed grocery carts, muttering curses at my mother. She would park our cart in the middle of the aisle. I’d stand at the front of our cart, constantly trying to keep it moving.
    “Our junior-senior prom wasn’t that long ago, Carol. You swallowed back then, why not now? You’re the reason you and Ed are having problems. No one likes a spitter.”
    Old women would toss their oranges back into the heaps, scoffing in disgust. Mothers would tuck their children under their arms and hurry them to another aisle. A man passing by would ponder Mom’s statement then nod along.
    This was the type of dialogue that Courtney and I heard in the tree house.
    I was sure glad my dad had me clean it out the day before. There’d been a dead robin, half-eaten by maggots, baking in the shack for what I assumed to be at least two weeks. There was no ventilation in there. No air got in and no stench got out. Courtney gasped as the putrid stench entered her nostrils, sealing them shut with the back of her hand. I didn’t notice the smell as much as I noticed its sour aftertaste.
    “You sure there’s nowhere else?” Courtney asked.
    “Sorry, Tyler’s in our bedroom. He has the flu, and I doubt you’d want to be around that.”
    “Yes, because this is much better.”
    Courtney tucked her knees close to her. I reached forward to close the loose trapdoor.
    “I’m sorry, really. The smell goes away after a while, though.”
    I kicked the trapdoor shut, its hinges whistling as it fell. The door sat lower than the rest of the floorboards. I crouched against the creaking wall with the tiny window hovering over my shoulder. The window only let sunlight in. Sunlight that came through the panes in a solid beam and patiently waited for the floorboards to ignite. The calluses on my feet can attest to the heat.
    Courtney sat patiently across from me, wilting in the stink and the evaporating air. She picked at her dress’s skirt, rubbing the tiny blue flowers between her fingers, trying to scrub the smell away. Her bubbled pink nail polish chipped with the steady friction. While she fiddled with her dress, her eyes had a sweet glow to them as she looked at me. They shimmered, but that might have been the stench making them water. Nevertheless, she was gorgeous and my heart was in my throat. It pulsed and bounced inside the tight tube, making it difficult to breathe or speak. Courtney was the smartest girl in our class. She had known I’d liked her for a while before calling me out on it. After all, that’s how we ended up on a date.
    “I know you like me, Harry,” Courtney had said, twirling her cafeteria spaghetti around a plastic spork. Her eyes peeked up at me from beneath her bangs.
    I dropped my hamburger, missing my tray. She batted her lashes at me and I could only look at her. I tried to play it off like missing my tray was intentional, leaving me to grab about the table until my hand found the half-eaten patty.
    “I… uh… You know?”
    “Of course I know,” she teased. “I see you write those notes for me all the time, Harry. I wish you’d just give them to me already.”
    “How’d you-?”
    “Oh, please, Harry… I sit behind you in Mr. Kipp’s class every day, and you know, you’re not the tallest boy around. It’s pretty easy.”
    A smirk crossed her face. There was no denying it at that point, and yet I still struggled to find the words for my confession.
    “I… I like you, Courtney.”
    “‘bout time you told me! Harry, I’ve liked you since the day you said my braces made my teeth look nice. Wanna go to movies on Saturday? 1 o’ clock?”
    It all happened so fast.
    “Great! See you then!”
    I had waited years for the right moment to confess my adoration for Courtney, the girl of my dreams. And I turned into a baffled idiot when she called me out on liking her. I should have tried, “Why, yes, Courtney, I’ve loved you for many years. I think about you in gym class when I’m running. I think about you in biology when we dissect frogs and I accidentally get formaldehyde on my shirt. I think about you when I’m picking my seat for the bus ride home, hoping each day will be the day you sit next to me and not Lucas Henderson.” Instead, I flashed a dorky grin, making her giggle as she left.
    My awkwardness must’ve done something for her because she made it through two hours of zombie gore and my unbalanced body odor without calling it quits. Of all the days for my deodorant to run out, it had to be on the most important day of my life. It also had to run out after finishing only one armpit. And it sucks when your father’s cologne bottle looks practically identical to your mother’s perfume. So much for a smooth cover-up…
    Courtney rapped her fingers against her lap and looked about the tree house. She looked at the crude etchings Tyler and  I made on the walls with our dad’s pocketknife. There were a few stick figures with hearts above their heads. There was one of us somewhere.
    “These are nice. Past lovers, Harry?”
    She needed an explanation.
    “No… just drawings” I said, trying to play it cool.
    “Well,” she said, amused by my obvious lie. “You wouldn’t happen to have a drawing of us, would you, Harry?”
    My pit stains doubled in size when I spotted it. It was right beside her. I had messed up carving her triangle skirt, so Courtney’s stick figure had a circular body. If she saw it, she’d think I drew her fat. If she saw it, that’d be it for us. Thankfully, she never turned to see it. Instead, she stopped shuffling and focused on me.
    “Hey, my mom’s gonna be here in five minutes, so…”
    “So…” I added, mirroring her tone and scratching the back of my head.
    She wanted a kiss and I wanted nothing more than that, but my fear of disappointing her or embarrassing myself crushed any confidence I had.
    Sweat slipped down my ankle. I moved my leg, hoping it’d create a cooling breeze. Courtney saw it as an invitation over.
    She leaned towards me and I tried not to focus on the crack of cleavage staring up at me. I diverted my attention towards the floor. As soon as I did, I watched her hand press against the dead bird stain. Her fingers sat in a layer of bacteria and bits of decomposed flesh. I didn’t have the heart or the balls to tell her about it.
    Courtney ran her bird-fluid hands through her hair. The scent of death, strong and unforgiving, mixed with her Watermelon L’Oreal for Kids shampoo. She pulled her hair away from her face, though a few strands hung to the beads of sweat topping her brow. In a moment, her hair would be against my face and I wasn’t ready for the taste of rotten robin.
    She whipped her hair like a lioness tossing a kill to her cubs. Courtney crawled towards me, pounding the floor with her palms. I could see the determination in her eyes. A black seed of intent hung heavy in each of her dilated pupils. She thumped the drooping trapdoor and the hinges screeched, the metal clattering against itself. Then, like a snapping tree limb, the trapdoor gave way beneath her. A shrill scream erupted from Courtney as her body dipped towards the new opening. I pictured her back snapping, her body folding like a card table as gravity sucked her through the square hole. I was about to watch my love plummet eight feet to her death.
    In that same second, Courtney reached towards me with her diseased hand. I had to make a choice within a blink of an eye. I had to grab ahold of Courtney Epson’s bird-flu hand or watch her die after our first date. Our potentially one-and-only date.
    Adrenaline and bravery flooded my bloodstream and I lunged forward, catching her in mid-air. I avoided her tainted hand and hooked both of mine beneath Courtney’s armpits. My fingers became sticky from her sweat. Our foreheads collided, jarring our thoughts. Our lips might have touched, but for a second. And my hand cupped her boob. For a moment, I had a handful of Courtney Epson’s boob, and in the next moment, a boner.
    We fell against a wooden wall as I pulled her over the gaping hole. Her head fell into my lap. Her chin rested on my concealed erection. I had to glance down to make sure I hadn’t pissed myself on top of it. I guess I was even luckier I didn’t blow a load right then and there. But, no stain either way. Thank God.
    Courtney, being nudged by my excited hard-on, jerked her head from my lap and placed it against my vibrating chest. Neither of us wanted to openly acknowledge the activity in my shorts.
    “You saved me,” Courtney said, breaking the uncomfortable silence.
    She looked up at me. That glow was back in her eyes, replacing those black seeds I’d seen just moments before.
    “Thank you!”
    “You’re welcome,” I replied and the two of us searched each other’s faces for the next move.
    Courtney clutched onto my t-shirt, prying the damp material away from my sweaty torso. She shoved me against the wall again. A shower of dust fell onto us, coating our arms, turning them into sandpaper. Next thing I knew, she was against my face. Not just her lips, but her chin, her cheeks, even her forehead. All of her face caressed mine. I tasted a tongue that wasn’t mine. It was tart. It had an after taste that I had to warm up to, but I still didn’t care for. I had waited thirteen years for this and it had been preluded by a dead bird, a zombie movie, and sex gossip by my mother.
    “Lucky for you, you have that bun in the oven,” my mother’s voice chimed in; she was right under the tree house. “That’s the only yeast you should be worrying about…”
    Courtney snuck her arms around me and pulled me against her. Our clothes fused together in the heat and the passion. I contemplated when I should take out my retainer. I didn’t want to damper anything, of course. To keep the moment fueled, Mr. Robinson blared Aerosmith’s “Love in an Elevator” next door while he mowed. Love in an elevator. Livin’ it up when I’m goin’ down! It was my jam, and in the close confines of my tree house, it suited the situation perfectly.
    Then, a jolt of pain stiffened my body. Courtney’s braces had scraped the tip of my nose, taking a layer of skin with them. It’d eventually scar. I dabbed my nose with my finger, revealing more blood each time.
    “Uh, Courtney,” I mumbled, trying to pause the make-out session.
    Before I could stop her, she mushed my lips shut with the dead bird hand, her fingers tip-toeing inside my mouth as she shushed me. All I could think about was the rancid taste that dead bird and dust leaves in your mouth. It was earthy, tangy, and instantly brought vomit to the back of my throat. Courtney was sucking on my eyebrow at this point and tucking two corpse-stained fingers into my shorts pocket. Had it not been for the pain killing my boner, she would’ve been an inch away from setting me off with her fingers. But now, the moment was long-ruined and deflated.
    “Courtney, I’m bleeding.”
    Her body stiffened and lurched away from me. Her eyes shimmered as she studied my bloodied nose.
    “Really?” she asked, mocking me as she surveyed the damage. “You’re gonna call it quits over that?
    “That? Your braces made my nose bleed!”
    “Well, Lucas Henderson kept going even after my braces knocked out his tooth.”
    Oh, yeah. Lucas Henderson. Our school’s baseball star. Every girl gushed over him.
    “Well, I’m not Lucas Henderson.”
    “I know, Harry. That’s why I like you.”
    A car squeaked to a stop at the front of the house, accompanied by three quick horns to announce its arrival further.
    “Hold on, Carol… Courtney! Courtney, your mother’s here!” my mom called from beneath the tree then walked back to the patio. “I guess you were right, Carol. Yes, a girl. You were right! I shouldn’t have been so worried…”
    “I better go,” Courtney said. “Thanks for the afternoon, Harry.”
    “Bye,” I said, holding the back of my hand to my nose.
    She leaned in and kissed me once more, only this time on my arm. I’d covered my nose and mouth with it. The kiss was abrupt like the first one, but it was deliberate this time. There was a brief, apologetic tenderness to it, too. Courtney rarely showed her softer side. Heck, she still doesn’t.
    Her head bounced as she descended from the tree house. I peered down the open slot from the buckled trapdoor. She glanced up at me. A drop of crimson blood fell off the tip of my nose and landed her right between the eyes.
    “Ew! Harry!” Courtney cried, sweeping her hand across her forehead.
    “I didn’t mean it… I’m sorry!” I whispered, defeated.
    She swiftly shook her head and crossed the backyard to the side gate. Her pasty white skin turned gold in the sunlight.
    “Thanks, Mrs. Trenton,” Courtney said, both shameful and obligated, and tossed a wave to my mother.
    “Anytime, sweetheart! Stop by more often!” my mother said, giving Courtney a thumbs-up. Courtney’s immediately picked up her pace and kept her head low until she reached her mother’s car.
    My mother caught sight of me looking through the opening and gave me the same celebratory thumb.
    “Oh, God,” I grumbled and rolled over.
    I was heavy with embarrassment, and my cheek pressed against the heated wood. I became the bird. 

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