Alice Elliott Dark
| Fiction


Kay leaned on the front porch railing on the north side of her grandparents’ house, flicking peeling paint to the driveway below. The afternoon wind had gone elsewhere, and strawberry and blueberry sherbet tinted the Western sky. A block away the ocean clattered when it drew clamshells back and boomed when the waves rolled over. The hour would usually find Kay down on the lawn playing with her brothers and the other kids from the block, but this evening she was on the lookout for her father. He came down on Fridays after his work week in Philadelphia. Tonight he was going to try to arrive by dinner. Kay and he were going to plan a trip to Gettysburg. His ancestors—and hers, too—had fought on both sides of the war.

Kay had assigned herself the role of sentinel, so the kids accepted her absence from the battlefield without comment. She’d thought of it earlier that afternoon while she was riding a wave, and wondered why it hadn’t occurred to her before to stand watch. Occasionally she crossed to the other end of the porch to shout a report, then quickly returned to her crucial post. Their machine gun fire and dying moans were the timeless sounds of distant battle. Behind their house at the northeast end of Cape May, the terrain was undeveloped, thick with trumpet vine, bayberry, pitch pine, vines, weeds, rabbits, snakes, birds, and bugs. At this time of day the mosquitos were at their fiercest. Sometimes her brother Jerome watched one pierce him and suck his blood until it was sated and flew away. The twins, Oscar and Richard, got bitten often and didn’t like Calamine lotion either. Cole was mysteriously immune—they let him be. Every year at mid-summer evening came on the same way. Rabbits appeared on the lawn, and Baltimore orioles lined up on the phone wire, daubing the graying Eastern sky with their orange chests. Kay slapped a mosquito on her shoulder. This was a mistake; her sunburn throbbed. When the pain subsided, she looked beneath the armhole of her dress and admired the line between the burn and her pale skin, and then slipped a foot out of her flip-flop to similarly approve of her callouses. She was becoming her summer self, lean and strong.

The front door opened behind her, and her grandfather’s loafers scraped across the gray porch boards. She didn’t turn around.

“Guess who?”

As if she hadn’t known the whole time. She wouldn’t be a very good sentinel if she couldn’t recognize people’s footsteps. “That’s who,” she said.

“Oh, you’re getting too old for my tricks, Kaydeekay.” He held a ginger ale in one hand and pretzels in the other. “Much better out here, right? Let’s see what we can see out on the water. That one,” he pointed. “Ketch or yawl?” He eased into a wicker chair.


“That one?”


Granddad offered her his glass. She walked sideways over to him so she could still see down the street and took a deep gulp. She leaned lightly against his knee. “What time is it?” she asked.

“A little after six.”

“He must be close.”

“I would think so.” He pointed next door. “I bet Mrs. Upton is primping to go out tonight.” He patted his hands on nonexistent hair.

“Or this.” Kay pretended to open a box of powder and pat her cheeks with a puff. She turned her face side to side in a pretend mirror, and spritzed pretend perfume at her neck.

“What about this?” Gran painted his fingernails.

“Maybe this.” She mimed tugging a stocking up over a knee.

“You’ll be doing it soon enough yourself. Your mother’s upstairs primping so hard she hasn’t even come down yet.”

Alice Elliott Dark is the author of the novel, Think of England, and two collections of short stories, In The Gloaming and Naked to the Waist. Her fiction and essays have appeared in, among others, The New Yorker, Harper’s, Best American Short Stories, Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, The New York Times, and many anthologies. She is an Assistant Professor at Rutgers-Newark.

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