Sabrina took a shortcut to the party through the field between the Manor House and the Gehry building. The field was supposed to have ticks but no one at Bard cared. People were scoring crack on trips to Brooklyn, sporting fluorescent sores at parties. If you whined about ticks, people would call you a pussy forever. Still, whenever the grass tickled her thigh, she feared it was the tickle of eight legs and a thumbtack body.
When she saw the skunk, she knelt in the grass. She didn’t consider her white dress and white tights, or the possibility that Bill, who’d just dumped her, would see her dirty later. She just fell into the heady vegetable scent of the shaved blades.
Sabrina had never seen a skunk, wasn’t sure they lived in her hometown in Southern Florida. This skunk’s tail was as substantial as his body, and he dragged it like laundry lint as he turned circles. His shiny eyes were so inviting that Sabrina almost spoke to him. She almost asked if he was disoriented, if a lawnmower felled a landmark toadstool or fern. If he didn’t know what the hell he was doing. If he didn’t want to go to Ray Mather’s party either, if later he wouldn’t feel like saying no to coke even though maybe was yes and yes was staying up all night talking to some boy with rosacea.
Sabrina was saved from conversation with the skunk by someone pushing through maples a dozen feet away.
“Hey,” called the someone, who sounded like a prepubescent boy.
“Be careful,” Sabrina said, but the person rested their shoe beside the skunk’s fragile skull anyway. The person was Jojo Myers. Jojo lived in Steinway and had a curled flip of bangs and a moustache she could’ve clipped it was so long. She was so bouncy and small and big-eyed that she looked like the first boys Sabrina had blown, years ago, in parking lots and house party bathrooms.
“You scared me,” Jojo said.
“Well, yeah.” Sabrina pointed to the colorless fur in the grass.
Jojo leapt back. “Oh my god. Are you serious?”
“He’s not doing anything. Yet.”
Jojo held out a cigarette but Sabrina shook her head. Jojo tucked it behind her ear. Sabrina had seen Jojo at parties and Maximum Queef Attack shows, but they’d never talked, because they were in separate departments. Sabrina studied zoology, though there wasn’t much of a program, the classes dependent on visiting researchers. Jojo was in art, with a specialty in “decorative archery,” which consisted of tying bright fl oss around sharpened dowels in ROYGBIV stripes. She stole tropical feathers from the Bronx zoo and sliced them into rhombuses. Her arrows were beautiful, but they weren’t even straight. Even if you had a bow, you couldn’t shoot them. Jojo lined them against the wall at student shows, waited for girls to touch them.
Sabrina had been to the shows with Bill, her sceney boyfriend who wore multicolored t-shirts rescued from the eighties and pants so tight they could’ve been stockings. Sabrina had gone to every event with Bill for all of Bard. This was the fi rst time she was showing up somewhere alone, and she wondered if people would recognize her without his freckled arm around her neck. She still didn’t know why Bill had dumped her. He must’ve fi nally realized she wasn’t cool. She certainly hadn’t been any kind of big deal in high school back in Florida. For Bard she’d tried something diff erent, dyed her ashy hair until the ends broke into Y’s and then Y’s on Y’s, dressed in stiff , formal kids’ clothes. Even though her skin was rough and run through with rivulets where she’d scratched out bug bites in the swamps back home, her eyes were as dark as the last sky of each day, and she knew how to touch a guy.
“Is he lost?” Jojo asked. “Or maybe he’s, like, retarded?”
“He’s circling. So I guess his inner ear could be shot.” Sabrina had never before used information from a course in a social situation.
“I guess that’s cool. Hey. Are you going to the party?”
Sabrina parted the grass with her shoe. “I guess.” Ray Mather’s house was one of the least appealing places she’d ever visited.
“Pretty epic parties,” Jojo said. “They could be memorialized in some kind of, like, party museum.”
Sabrina didn’t want to think about those boozy, feverish hours lined up one after another. The occasions—Keg Khristmas, Drag Week, FU Finals, Lizbeth Lung’s birthday, Crackuation—blurred together in a sea of rabid house music and sloppy public hookups. Halloween was most vivid, with its furries and sexy rotten zombies, and Bill in his rubber salmon suit, scaly flanks jiggling under the cop’s flashing signal lights.
“I was just thinking,” Jojo said. “If we have to go, why not go together?”
The skunk was turning circles so tight that his arrow nose was lost in his tail. Sabrina didn’t want to leave him. “Maybe.”
“Hey, aren’t you dating Bill Miles? Or is it that other girl, Agatha May or something?”
“Agatha Pray. Everyone thinks we’re the same person, even though she’s got that skin tag.” All over campus people called Sabrina Agatha Pray, tried to hug her, accused her of fucking their boyfriends, told her they’d had a fun night while pointing finger guns at her and smirking. She hated to think of what these guys put poor Agatha Pray through. Bill had never made Sabrina do athletic sex. Half the time, they just cuddled. He stroked her hair and sang her homemade lullabies.
“So Bill’s with Agatha Pray?” Jojo asked.
Sabrina shook her head. “I’m Bill’s. Or was. Until last night.”
“That’s raw,” said Jojo. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s probably for the best. I probably couldn’t eat any more ironically horrible fried chicken. I probably couldn’t stare at him staring at a synthesizer for one more hour.”
“Right,” said Jojo. “Maximum Queef Attack.”
“I have permanent ear damage. I live in a faulty smoke alarm.”
The skunk stopped circling and looked out between them, to the middle distance.
“I can’t believe he hasn’t started warning us yet,” Sabrina said.
“How would we know?”
Sabrina stuck her butt in the air, kicked her feet, and hissed. This wasn’t a fully accurate demonstration of aggression mode, since she didn’t have a tail to swat, but Jojo laughed anyway. Sabrina blushed. And then, because she’d wanted to since the moment she’d seen him, Sabrina reached under the skunk, cupping his belly, which felt full of water. She expected him to squirrel away, but he let her lift him.
“Are you serious?” Jojo was still talking in her affected teenage boy voice. Sabrina wondered when she’d relax.
The skunk’s eyes were bright and healthy, his pelt unbelievably soft. Softer than cotton balls, softer than fleece. She wanted to rub him against her cheek, but that would be too much. “Did you know skunks are more trainable than dogs?”
“We can get him to fetch the paper. That would be sweet.”
Sabrina pictured sitting in a breakfast nook with Jojo, eating oatmeal, waiting for the skunk. Her face heated.
They left the glade, crossing out of the overgrowth to where they could see the stars, at least the major constellations. The North Star was obvious, and they walked to the east of it. Sabrina held the skunk ahead of her like a figurehead, so his milk chocolate eyes could see first what was coming. The campus was lush, nature softening the drugs and body fluid art projects.
“You ever hear that thing about plays with guns?” Jojo asked, more tentative now.
“I took a class in dramaturgy or whatever. If you have a gun in the first act, it has to, like, shoot someone’s face off in the third. Or second, I forget.”
“You mean it’s only a matter of time?” Sabrina bounced the skunk in her hands.
“I guess the good news is, if it happens at Ray’s, no one will notice.”
Sabrina laughed, throwing her head back, disproportionately amused. She let go of one flank of the skunk, batted Jojo’s arm. She performed the gesture automatically, like she’d done to get Bill in the first place. Jojo smiled, so tight and nervous that you could almost believe she didn’t do this with everyone.
The party was crowded. There was a crust of vomit on a couch cushion beside a girl with her skirt above her bellybutton. The skunk relaxed against Sabrina’s hands. She felt the warmth of his blood, the pulse of his breath.
“I hear there’s decent heroin in the back bathroom,” Jojo said, winking.
The people who bothered to notice the skunk laughed at him, pointing out the soft flag of his tail and claiming it was a boner, which made no sense. No one was disturbed or surprised by his presence. Every girl at the party knew Jojo. They said, “Joey, Jo, come on, come here, talk to me.” They requested kisses, which Jojo delivered to their cheeks, even when they lurched at her lips. Sabrina wanted Jojo alone again. They couldn’t maintain a conversation here.
“You’re too popular,” she said. “Maybe ’cause I’m not hugging a skunk.”
But when Jojo took the skunk, girls shrieked, “Cute panda,” and stretched to stroke his fur.
In the eye of the storm, they found Agatha Pray. So many people had called Sabrina Agatha Pray so far that evening that Sabrina almost expected Agatha Pray to start applying makeup, assuming Sabrina was a mirror.
Instead, Agatha Pray lunged at Sabrina, carrying the heady smell of vanilla. “I’m so glad we don’t have to share anymore!”
“What do you mean?” Sabrina asked, wriggling free. Agatha Pray skipped into the encroaching wall of bodies. Sabrina turned to Jojo. “What was that?”
Jojo looked down, stroking the skunk. “Do you think he’s hungry?”
“Maybe.” Sabrina pressed a cheese curl to his lips.
They found a corner where they could talk. Jojo leaned on the wall over Sabrina and Sabrina examined her mustache, which was so perfectly lined that it could have been drawn with pencil. If it were on a boy, she’d hate it, but on Jojo, she liked that top flap of lip leaning closer in. Then closer. The skunk was still between them, so Jojo couldn’t get too close.
After discussing Jojo’s arrows and her theories of “non-practicing archery,” their past lives in Detroit and Belle Glade, Sabrina was interrupted by a shout of “Beans!” She cringed. Ever since the first week of classes, Bill had called Sabrina Beans.
Sabrina only had to look at Jojo to realize there was some kind of mess behind her. She steeled herself and whispered, “Get me through this.” Jojo nodded.
There were Bill and Agatha Pray. Agatha Pray’s eyes were shut in bliss, her skin tag straight and soft like a baby penis glued to her eyelid.
“How’s it hanging?” Bill asked. “Coming to the show later?”
His tone was so casual that Sabrina questioned what she thought she suddenly knew. Bill was leaning on Agatha, very lightly, but the pressure was certainly from his end. Sabrina didn’t like Bill’s freck-les in her eye line, spread out like splashes of chocolate milk. They were the one thing Bill hated about himself, and the one thing Sabrina could still love about him.
“What show?” Sabrina asked.
“MQA, duh. Come on. You’re always at our shows.”
Agatha Pray reached up and tapped one of Bill’s freckles, spotlighting it in red.
Sabrina filled her lungs. She always went along with whatever Bill wanted. She lifted her shoulders. “That’s just because we were in a relationship.”
Bill frowned, his shoulders falling. “I thought you liked our music.”
Sabrina grimaced. “It’s okay.”
That was the worst thing she could’ve said. Bill stared at her with giant, animal eyes, then stalked away, Agatha Pray following. They hadn’t even mentioned the skunk.
Sabrina turned to Jojo. “That was a nightmare.”
“Beans,” Jojo chirped.
“Shut up.” Jojo was trying to dissolve the scene and Sabrina appreciated that. But Bill was her only friend. She had to know. “They’re fucking, right?”
Jojo gauged Sabrina before she answered. “Looked like it.”
“You know what I mean.” The words came out like syrup. “Since before we broke up. Since forever. Everyone knows. Right?” In her head the revelation hadn’t sounded as bad as it sounded now, heavy in the air between them.
Jojo pulled her lip into her mouth so two chipmunk teeth sat forward. She nodded.
Sabrina looked at the puffy faces floating by. These strangers had known more about her relationship than she had, and no one had bothered to tell her. Jojo could drop the skunk and everyone would put their feet on his roadway stripe and not even care. The creature would be paper-flat, and they’d keep dancing.
“He’s a douche bag, right?” Jojo said. “You know that now.”
“Easy for you to say.” There was a pair of boys on the couch cinching their arms with a prep school tie and yelling that the needle tickled. Sabrina didn’t know how to do this without Bill. Yeah, he was a jerk, but she’d loved him. He’d made her laugh, had navigated her through Ray’s parties without her wanting to kill herself, like she did right now.
Behind all the red skin, there was a window. Outside, it was raining the kind of summer rain you can barely see, that you have to feel to know for sure it’s there.
“I need to get out,” Sabrina said.
“I’ll go with you.” Jojo held up the skunk. “We both will.”
Sabrina pushed through the sweaty forest of bodies, batted limbs, spilled drinks.
“Agatha Pray,” people called. “Watch out!”
But Sabrina kept going. The window was farther than she thought.
“Agatha Pray’s gone crazy,” people said. “Look at her go!”
Sabrina knocked over a boy barfing into a nut bowl. Almond soup splattered the floor. She jumped onto the windowsill. The party was on the first floor, but the fall looked high. Outside, the rain made the backyard murky. Sabrina didn’t see Jojo. Of course, Jojo had left the second she got the chance. She thought Sabrina was pathetic, too.
The whole party watched her now, more people than had ever looked at her before at once. When she jumped, they cheered.
Sabrina hadn’t thought about what would happen when she landed. Because one minute she was on the windowsill, with the yelling and the clapping and “Agatha Pray! Agatha Pray!” behind her, and the next minute she was on a carpet of grass, planted with sepia cigarette butts and bottle caps. She was nowhere magical. She was just in Ray Mather’s greasy backyard.
Then the ground vibrated and Jojo was beside her, carrying with her a smell that was chemical and sharp, and Sabrina realized she had smelled skunk before, somewhere in the Florida swamps, even if she’d never seen one. She remembered catching the scent on an open highway, and it felt comfortable, like she could lean into it. Actually rest on the meat of the odor. The smell made her think of places that weren’t here, and for the first time all night, she breathed.
Jojo approached with the bundle in her arms, half a grin under her moustache. Her face grew larger as the smell got stronger. Sabrina was impressed that Jojo hadn’t dropped the skunk when he sprayed, that she was still holding on.
From Hunger Mountain Issue 22: Everyday Chimeras, which you can purchase here.
Art by Maggie Nowinski.
Lydia Conklin has received two Pushcart Prizes, scholarships from Bread Loaf, and fellowships from Princeton, Emory, MacDowell, Yaddo, Djerassi, Hedgebrook, Jentel, Lighthouse Works, Millay, VCCA, Sitka, and Harvard University, among others. Her fiction is in a forthcoming compilation of the best of the last twenty-five years of the Pushcart Prize and has appeared in Tin House, The Southern Review, The Gettysburg Review, Narrative Magazine, and elsewhere. She has drawn graphic fiction for Lenny Letter, Drunken Boat, The Florida Review, and the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago.