The school year was born by a hot California Summer, and after a brief, parched Winter and a misty Spring, it threatened to die with the sweltering heat of its birth. Thankfully, the end-of-the-year field-trip had air conditioning. After an hour in the art museum Jillian’s sweat had dried from her forehead.
She studied the map in her brochure while Dan studied a painting. “Early 1300s. The Harrowing of Hell,” he said without reading the placard. “Jesus Christ enters the underworld to salvage the damned with such force he crushes a demon under a door.” He tugged at his shirt hem. Today his shirt featured Princess Lucia, a blue-haired space-robot-pilot in the year 2399. “My dad taught me about it.”
“Neat. You should use this painting for your final project.” Jillian folded the map. “The next hall has sculptures from around the world. Over Winter break my dad brought me on business abroad and while he had meetings, my mom and I checked out museums. Here, look at this.” She pointed to the brochure. “This museum has one of two decorative pillars. The other pillar is just like it but mirrored. We saw it in a museum in Spain. That’s a good final project topic, right?”
“Oh, sure.” Dan swallowed and put his hands in his pockets. “Let’s double-back and find another way to the sculptures.”
Jillian tilted her head. “Why don’t we finish this hall? I thought you enjoyed these religious paintings.”
“I do.” Dan turned his back to the rest of the hall. “But there’s a Bosch at the end and I can’t look at it. Torture makes me fidget.”
“You love Dante’s Inferno.”
“I can read about it. I can’t look at it.”
“That’s okay, we’ll look at the paintings on the other side of the hall.”
Dan shook his head. “You go on, I’ll take the long way around. Oh, no,” he said, mid-stride. Faith and Beatrice had entered the hallway. Beatrice sat across from a painting of the Virgin Mary while Faith tore paper from her notebook and folded it.
“What’s wrong?” asked Jillian. Dan stood silently gazing at Beatrice. “Hey, this is your big chance. You know all about that painting, right? Go impress her.”
Dan covered his mouth and looked at the floor. “I appreciate it, but that’s not an option.”
“I see the way you look at her, Dan. Say something like ‘the artist used so-and-so technique to bring out Mary’s eyes. Looking at your eyes, Ms. Baxter, you must have been painted the same way.’ But less corny than that, obviously. Then ask her out and get it over with.”
“It’s not really my place to ask her out,” said Dan.
Before Jillian could ask what he meant, Faith held two folded paper animals in front of Beatrice: a fox and a bird. Beatrice took the bird with a smile and they played with the animals together. The fox and bird touched snout to beak and Faith kissed Beatrice on the cheek.
“Oh,” said Jillian. “Never mind.”
As they spoke Faith spotted them down the hallway. She pointed them out to Beatrice and the couple walked to Dan and Jillian holding hands. “I thought we’d find you here, Dainty. Talking Jilli’s ear off?”
“Ha, yeah,” Dan managed. He smiled at Beatrice, but when she looked away pointedly, he turned back to Faith. “Enjoying the religious paintings?”
“Absolutely,” said Beatrice, “but we’re on our way to the sculptures, now.”
“Interested? Dainty, Jilli?” Faith pulled Beatrice behind her. “C’mon!” Jillian followed.
Dan stumbled after them. “Wait,” he said, “you’re skipping the best paintings!” The others stopped. Dan strode to an enormous painting cluttered with nude human figures. “Like this Bosch. He’s famous for his portrayals of Hell.”
Faith and Beatrice hesitantly approached the painting. Jillian cringed as Dan made himself look at the canvas.
“Devils hang a man upside-down and flay his flesh,” said Dan, biting his fingernail. “Demons throw a woman into boiling tar.” He bit the skin around the nail until it bled. “A crowd screams inside the mouth of a giant head. But even that head is in agony, obviously one of the damned.”
“Geez. That’s pretty metal,” said Faith. “Let’s go see the sculptures, BeatBax.” As they all walked away Faith released Beatrice’s hand and lingered to speak with Jillian. “Is Dainty okay?”
“He said he couldn’t even look at the Bosch,” said Jillian. “But I told him to impress you two by talking about a painting. And that’s the one he chose.”
“Huh.” Faith shrugged. “Who’s the girl on his shirt? She’s cute.”
“Oh, that’s Princess Lucia from LuLu’s Space-Time Acceleration. It’s an anime Dan and I watch. I should show you this Summer.”
Jillian inserted the last DVD. “Let’s skip to the last two episodes. You’ll miss some love-triangle filler, but all you need to know is Princess Lucia and Commander Bojack are together.”
“Aw, we’re skipping the romance?” On Jillian’s couch Faith bothered Django, the cat, as it tried to sleep. “And how could Lucia end up with Bojack? She’s the daughter of the Ruler of Earth, and he’s an ordinary space-robot-pilot!”
“Bojack trains Lucia to fire the Super Heart Beam and they bond over it.” Jillian selected episode 12. “Ready to go?”
“Wait.” Faith played with the pink pads on Django’s paws. “Your parents are at work, right? Jilli, do you remember after graduation, you and I shared a beer in secret?” She sighed and looked up from Django’s toe-beans. “That was fun, right? Could we try another vice?”
Jillian blinked. “What do you mean?”
Faith pulled a cricket from the pocket of her torn jeans. It had no limbs or antennae, its wings were wrapped around its body like mummy linens, and ten black eyes surrounded its head. “I got this from the guy in our homeroom who always wears dark sunglasses. He says it’s not dangerous at all. It’s centipedes we’ve got to worry about. Do you want to try a bug-stick with me?”
“Hm.” Jillian took the cricket and automatically, as if by muscle memory, brought it to her nose. It smelled like cooking spices. “How does this work? What’s it supposed to be like?”
“Well, we open a door so we don’t stink up the place, and then we light the eyes. Then we smoke it.” She sparked a purple lighter. “He said we’d see everything from a different perspective and couldn’t describe it any other way. He kept making sound effects and exploding motions with his hands.”
Jillian passed the cricket back. “How about you smoke it and I watch?”
“But Jilli, I’m scared!” Faith laughed and wiggled her shoulders. “I was hoping you could try it first.”
Jillian sighed. On the TV, paused during the LuLu’s theme song, four teenage space-robot-pilots folded their arms across their chests. Together they directed one giant robot to fold its arms across its chest, the sum of their confidence. “You open the back door and I’ll light it.”
“Really? You don’t have to if you don’t want to.”
“We’re high school graduates, Faith. We’re basically adults. Pass it over.” Jillian took the cricket and lighter. Faith pranced to the back door and Django followed her.
“Djingo, Django, wanna go outside?”
“Of course he does.” Jillian lit the cricket’s eyes on fire. She turned the cricket and watched the embers spread through the papery wings. “I just inhale, right?”
“Like you’re sucking a straw, just for a second.” Faith kicked the door open and Django hopped into the back yard. “Keep the smoke in your mouth until it cools. Then inhale as deep as you can, hold it, and exhale.”
Jillian sputtered a plume of white smoke and bent over coughing. “Oh. Oh my gosh. Wow.” She held her head. “I can feel it.”
“Here, let me try.” Faith puffed white fog out the open door. Smoke rose from the cricket’s tip as it cooled from cherry red to ash gray. “Oh, wow.”
“Faith, did I ever tell you…” Jillian rubbed her eyes. “I think I’m trans?”
Jillian took three more puffs. After coughing she clarified: “My first memory was a nightmare. I know I was a man because I was naked. I was in a desert near a mountain with a fox and a monster ate us. I’ve never told anyone before but I still feel male, through and through.”
“I’m glad you told me, then. That’s super interesting.” Faith’s last inhale burned the cricket red down to the stem between her lips. She blew smoke towards the door and the ash blew away in the breeze. She swayed back and forth, eyes unfocused. “Oh, I’m flying through time. Ha.” Both of them stared at the television screen. “Well, if you’re a man, what should I call you? Do you have a name lined up?”
“Jay,” said Jay.
“Jay Diaz-Jackson.” Faith collapsed into the couch and grinned. “Start the episode, JayJay.”