Venus tugged nervously on the lace hem of her sleeve and watched Cherokee’s pigtails bounce across the room. “Lots of guys cross-dress on Halloween,” he’d told her. “I’ll do it too so you don’t look out of place.” He’d bought her a flouncy summer thing, too cold for the season, goose pimples raised on her arms with every draft. He was in a cheerleader outfit and high heels, all the boys swarming around him and pulling at his extensions.
There was a hand on Venus’ shoulder. “You look beautiful,” someone said in her ear, a voice soft like a snake rustling through tall grass.
“These are just sacks of flour, you know,” Venus replied, poking at her fake breasts. She glanced sideways at her admirer: dusty skin and darker eyes, with a disarming smile full of straight white teeth. There was a whip coiled at his side, and a hat she recognized from some old film Nelson had made her watch. Someone had made her watch, she corrected herself. “That stupid grin’s not going to work on me,” she continued, “try hitting on some other boy in a dress.”
“You’re beautiful,” the young man said again, tilting his hat back in a fashion he seemed to think rakish and charming. Venus wondered if perhaps he didn’t speak any other English. His hand on her shoulder was shaking. Venus remembered Nelson explaining to her what ‘beautiful’ meant, his face beet red and his hands trembling, and she laughed aloud without thinking.
The boy got a pouty little frown on his face. “What’s so funny?” he asked.
Venus shook her head and brushed the young man’s hand off her shoulder. “You just reminded me of something.”
“You know, you’re-“
“Come up with something a little more original,” Venus said, “I had my fill of that word a long time ago.”
“Ravishing,” the young man suggested.
Venus made her way to the drink table, her admirer close behind. “Try again.”
“Stunning, radiant, breathtaking,” the young man tried as Venus handed him a glass of punch. “Gorgeous, heart-stopping, a knock-out.”
Venus sighed. “I really don’t want to hear anything else about my appearance, thanks,” she said. “What do you want?”
The boy bit his lip and clutched his drink white-knuckled. “I just…” he furrowed his brow, “I’d just really like to dance with you really a lot is all,” he finished in a breath.
Venus laughed aloud again. It was the first time she’d laughed so much in months, and the thought made her chest tight.
“What this time?” the young man whined. “You asked so I told you. Is it that funny?”
“A little, it’s a little funny.”
The boy frowned again. “You’re not very demure, are you? I’m a man, you know.”
Venus smiled and pulled a plastic balloon stuffed with flour from beneath her dress. “Join the club. Us men, no one orders us around, huh?”
The boy stood there, his mouth open slightly, like he had something he wanted to say but no words to use.
Cherokee ran up, his cheeks flushed and his curly pigtails in disarray. “We’re going to the beach,” he said, taking Venus’ hand. “Teddy says the beach patrol has a bonfire going. Signed. You know what I mean.”
Venus set her drink down on the table. “Another time then, Dr. Jones.” Cherokee tugged insistently at her wrist, excited and a little drunk, and she followed.
When Venus glanced back, she saw the young man still standing at the drink table, his ridiculous costume hat tilted to the side. Her abandoned glass was raised to his lips, and he stared.
“What a creeper,” Venus muttered under her breath, stuffing her fake breast back down her top with her free hand.