The school year was born by a 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. An hour in the art museum dried Jillian’s sweat from her forehead.
She studied the map in her brochure while Dan studied a painting. “Early 1300s, the Harrowing of Hell,” he recited without reading the placard. “Christ enters the underworld with such force he crushes a demon under a door.” He tugged 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.” Jillian folded the map. “The next hall has a bunch of sculptures. Over Winter break my dad brought me on business abroad, and I saw lots of museums. Look here.” She pointed to the brochure. “This museum exhibits one of two decorative pillars. The other pillar is just like it but mirrored. I saw it in Spain.”
“Oh, neat.” Dan swallowed and put his hands in his pockets. “Let’s double-back and find another way to the sculptures.”
Jillian cocked an eyebrow. “Why not finish this hall? I thought you liked religious paintings.”
“I do.” Dan turned away from 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 just look at 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 staring 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 stare at her, Dan. Say something like ‘the artist used so-and-so technique to highlight 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 my place to ask her out,” said Dan.
Before Jillian could ask what he meant, Faith held two folded paper animals to Beatrice: a fox and a bird. Beatrice took the bird and they played with the animals together. The fox and bird touched muzzle to beak and Faith kissed Beatrice on the cheek.
“Oh,” said Jillian. “Well, just move on, then.”
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?”
“We’re headed to the sculptures, now,” said Beatrice.
“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!” Dan strode to an enormous painting cluttered with nudes. “Like this Bosch. He’s famous for painting Hell.”
Faith and Beatrice hesitantly approached. Jillian cringed as Dan made himself look at the canvas.
“Devils flay a man’s flesh,” said Dan, biting his fingernail. “Demons drop a woman in 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 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 like. Wanna watch it over the summer?”
Jillian inserted the last DVD. “Let’s skip to the last two episodes of the season. 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?” Faith bothered Django, the cat, as it tried to sleep on the couch. “How does 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 away, right, Jilli?” She sighed and looked up from Django’s toe-beans. “Do you want to try something naughty?”
Jillian blinked and paused the DVD. “What do you mean?”
Faith pulled a cricket from the pocket of her torn jeans. Its wings were wrapped like mummy linens. “I got this from the guy in our homeroom who always wears dark sunglasses. He says he smokes them all the time, they’re not dangerous at all. Shall we share a bug-stick?”
“Hm.” Jillian took the cricket and, as if by muscle memory, held it to her nose. It smelled like spices. “How does this work? What’s it supposed to be like?”
“First we open a door so we don’t stink up the place, and then we light the eyes.” She sparked a purple lighter. “He said we’d see everything from a new 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 hoped you could start it.”
Jillian sighed. On the TV, paused during the LuLu’s theme, four teenage space-robot-pilots folded their arms across their chests. Together they directed their 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 watched embers spread through the papery wings. “Now what?”
“Pretend you’re sucking a straw, just for a second.” Faith kicked the door open and Django hopped into the yard. “Keep the smoke in your open mouth until it cools. Then inhale, hold it deep, and exhale.”
Jillian sputtered smoke and bent over coughing. “Oh. Oh my gosh.” She held her head. “I feel it already.”
“Here, let me try.” Faith puffed smoke out the door. The cricket’s tip 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 another puff. After coughing she clarified: “My first memory was a nightmare. In the nightmare I was a man; I know because I was nude. I was in a desert near a mountain with a fox and a monster ate me. I’ve never talked about it, but I still feel male, through and through.”
“I’m glad you told me, then. That’s super interesting.” Faith’s last puff burned the cricket to its stem. She swayed, eyes unfocused. “Oh, I’m flying through time. Ha.” They both stared at the TV. “Do you have a new name lined up?”
“Jay,” said Jay.
“Jay Diaz-Jackson.” Faith grinned. “Start the episode, JayJay.”