“Litter” by Sofia Lago

The day is so hot the sky itself might be melting when the girl and her father meet at the outdoor table of the tacky beachside restaurant three minutes off Greenwood Lake Turnpike. It’s a Tuesday, late in the evening but still a long way from sunset. She twists at the stem of the headless sunflower, the top of it left carelessly on the table beside the empty plastic vase. He fiddles with the corner of where the label meets on a bottle of Yuengling.

“So,” she says.

He waits. She adds nothing. The strap of her white sundress slides off her shoulder, and goes ignored.

“So,” he says. “It’s been a long time.”

From inside the restaurant, a bad cover of an 80’s rock song floats from the cracked open windows, rubbing raw against the still July air. It sounds stale.

Beneath her fingers, the stem frays. “We’ve gone longer.” Looking past his shoulder towards the door, she continues, “Did my brother say he was coming?”

“I assumed he told you.”

The bottle rolls between his hands, held close to his stomach as he leans back against the white plastic chair. She slouches, shoulders curled in and the bones of her back protruding past the thin straps of her dress. On the table lie their phones, flat, immobile, and glinting in the sun.

“We don’t text, Dad.” Green gets underneath her nails, and sweat catches around the cuffs of his button-down shirt. More sweat gathers beneath his hairline just beginning to recede, slipping down the side of his thin face. “I guess he’s not coming.”

He frowns, the pull of his lips elastic. “Maybe he doesn’t have cell phone service,” he says. “We haven’t seen each other in even longer.”

Her face is expressionless when she repeats, “He’s not coming.”

Somewhere inside, someone turns up the AC, and it rattles loud enough for them to hear over the music. A breeze sweeps by, disrupting the lake. They’re alone out here, though inside the restaurant is stuffed full as a slaughterhouse, and the tables surrounding them numerous.

“You look great,” he says. Under her nails are stained a dark, sickly color showing through like a bruise. “Though, I’m sure you get that all the time.”

“Yes, Dad. Actually, I do.”

The bluntness causes another beat of silence. She lets it sit. After a minute, her father asks, “How’s school going?”

Finally, the end of the stem snaps. “Fine,” she answers, and drops it to the dirt as she adds, “Laurel was salutatorian.”

“Did you still get into Rutgers?”

“No.” She shrugs. “I don’t care. I wanted to go to BC. I got into BC.”

Again, he frowns. “But that’s so far.”

“That’s the point.”

He changes from fiddling with the label to tapping his fingers against the glass. Her eyes narrow at the sight. “Oh, don’t be like that,” he says, and she digs into the stem again. “What happened to the flower? Did it break?”

Glancing down at the shredded green stick, she says, “No. I snapped it. It’s not like the whole thing fit into the vase. Did you know sunflowers can extract toxins from contaminated soil?”

His nails are loud against the bottle. “That’s interesting,” he says, and shifts his eyes to the door. There’s no server in sight.

“How’s the search for work going, Dad?” She gives the stem a particularly hard twist. Strings come up, stickier than celery.

The taps get faster. He looks away from the door to her, then out across the lake shimmering in the heat. “Not good.”

She makes a sound halfway between disbelief and exasperation. “Yeah, whatever,” she says. “I guess it won’t matter come September.”

“Don’t be like that,” he says again.

“Be like what?”

“I don’t know. Patronizing.”

As she laughs, another piece of the stem falls away, victim to her nimble fingers. “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings, Dad,” she tells him. “It won’t happen again. I promise.”

Though it’s close to tearing, he goes back to fiddling with the label. He says, “I already told you I was sorry for missing your graduation. The tickets were just too expensive.” The words come out chopped, strung together, jagged at the edges so they catch against the muffled notes of the electric guitar.

She rolls her eyes. “And I’ve told you. I don’t care,” she says. “All you missed were two ridiculously boring student speeches and even more boring teacher speeches. If you can nod off during a Broadway play, you definitely would’ve nodded off during this.”

A fleck of the label comes off, and joins the pieces of the stem on the ground. One’s litter. The other isn’t. “Are you sure your brother isn’t coming?” he asks.

“Positive,” she answers.

With a sigh, her father says, “You know, it doesn’t have to be like this.”

Another breeze goes by, fluttering her dark hair across her face. “Like what?”

“You know.”

A party of four emerges from the restaurant door, a man’s laugh coming out deep and clear as a third piece of stem falls. No host leads them, or follows. She says, “I’m not doing anything.”

Eyebrows drawing together, her father says, “That’s what I mean.” She meets this with another blank expression, blue eyes flat and depthless as the shallow lake. “Fine. How have you been, chiquita?”

“This is normally the conversation starter.”

“Just answer the question.”

Shrugging, she tells him, “It’s been a year, Dad. I’ve been everything.”

The sky is blue and bright and cloudless, and the two sit beneath it, watching the lake, as silent as the coming dusk.

Sofia Lago is a soon-to-be graduate student planning to study history with a focus in folklore. Her work has been previously published in Folio, Twisted Vine Literary Arts Journal, and Birds Piled Loosely Press’ “Who Want the World Like it Is?: A 2016 Election Anthology.”

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