Bored to dust, Bryan clicked off the buzzing TV and picked up the newspaper. The weather report on the bottom of the front page featured a smiling cartoon sun and HIGH 108, LOW 90. The evaporative cooler hummed and clanked erratically, made the air swampy. Bryan sighed, and dug his bare feet into the bristly couch cushions. He adjusted the pillow under his head and began to read an article about a former airline pilot who now worked at Auto Zone.
Bryan’s older brother, sporting blue patent-leather mules and a cottony, shapeless housedress, sauntered in and turned on the TV. He sat on Bryan’s legs.
“Ow,” Bryan said, tossing the newspaper, trying to squirm free. His brother’s makeup was smeared. Thick false eyelashes adorned only one of his lids. “Get off.”
“Get off, what?” his brother said.
“Get off my legs, Fat Ass.”
“Say my name.”
“Get off, Daniel.”
“Nina Levin,” Daniel corrected. “The Queen of Homeland Security.” He reached under and pinched Bryan’s butt, hard, with his polished nails. “Orange alert!”
“Get off, Nina,” Bryan said. “Nina Levin.”
Nina stood and smoothed her dress. Bryan pulled his knees to his chest, and Nina sat back down.
With the remote, Nina flipped through the channels. “You, boy,” she said, “simply must get off your tired ass and do something before you disappear.”
“As if you do anything.”
“The opposite of disappearing is being seen,” Nina said. She stopped on an old music video. “I am seen!” She jumped up and twirled to the song, singing along with it: “…Hey, Mickey, you’re so fine…” Her mules slapped her heels, and her single clump of eyelashes spun to the floor like a dead moth.
The perky singer on TV wore a cheerleading outfit. Huskier cheerleaders leaped behind her and turned cartwheels. “Now that bitch on the screen,” Nina said, “she disappeared.”
Bryan hopped on his bicycle and rode for three blocks to the mini-mart. He spent just over six dollars on a travel-sized box of Pampers and a four-pack of canned pudding. Aiming his bike at the mammoth mall, he rode again. The straps of his backpack dug into his bony shoulders.
After locking his bike to a rack near an algae-laden fountain, he ducked behind a greasy oleander, and smeared a Pamper with two flavors of pudding: chocolate and butterscotch. He folded the diaper, stuffed it back into his pack, and pushed open the tinted glass door into the thickly artificial environment. The air-conditioning felt like a substance, like he could grab it by the handful and mash its coldness into his face, rub it on his sunburned arms.
He snagged a plastic spoon from an ice cream stand, and sat mid-mall on a cool cement bench in front of a store called EVERYTHING UNICORN. Happy, twinkling music poured from the store and washed over him like magic.
He ate the pudding from the Pamper, spooning it into his mouth and mmming dramatically at passersby.
No one said anything. Not the makeup-counter glamour gals, not the rent-a-cops. The tragic teens with their pierced faces and primary-colored hair, the mothers pushing their screeching kids in strollers, the mall-walking senior citizens wearing patriotic sweatshirts—none of them flinched or gawked or commented or paused.
Bryan finished the pudding and tossed the sullied diaper into a cement trashcan.
In the scorching parking lot, a pregnant woman approached Bryan before he hopped on his bicycle again. “Can I have the extras?” she asked. Her abdomen was swollen, almost looked fake, like she had tucked a punch-balloon under her shirt.
“The diapers. I saw you in there.”
“Sure,” Bryan said, and he dug into his pack. “Here you go.”
“Thanks,” she said. “They’re expensive.” She walked off, following her stomach, squeezing between parked cars.
Bryan squinted as he watched her fade into the ball of white, afternoon sun. “Hey!” he yelled. “Want the pudding?”
The woman just pushed further into the glow.
Bryan pedaled harder. His right leg burned. Sweat coursed down his forehead and stung his eyes.
He rolled towards his house where Nina, done up in her fluffy, blond wig and tropical-print gauchos, was loading her fatness into an unfamiliar black sedan. “Hey!” Brian yelled at her.
“I’m history, boy,” she said.
Bryan kept pedaling. He didn’t stop. He couldn’t. The waves of heat pumping up from the asphalt made him feel alive, like a survivor. He checked his stretched shadow zooming along the street to make sure.
Mark Jude Poirier is the author of two novels, two collections of stories, and many screenplays. His last produced screenplay, “Hateship Loveship,” was an adaptation of an Alice Munro story and starred Kristin Wiig in her first dramatic role. In September, Scribner will publish Intro to Alien Invasion, a graphic novel illustrated by Nancy Ahn that he wrote with Owen King. He’s currently a Briggs-Copeland Lecturer at Harvard, where he teaches screenwriting.