Runner-up for our 2022 flash fiction contest.

STARFISH by Luke Tennis

Nava had a knack for appearing, ducking in and out of the doorway of the school gym, watching him as he lofted jumper after jumper, shooting baskets on his own after the last bell. She wanted to sell him weed. Her curled hair, her Jew-fro she called it, bulked atop the shoulders of her jean jacket. She’d urged him to take a walk with her, promised him it was good weed. Leaving the gym one afternoon, he went with her, though he didn’t know why, only because it was Friday. She told him that she was seventeen but didn’t go to school, just hung out. Also, she didn’t go for boys.

“Go for? Like how?” he asked her.

They sat on a bench in a courtyard, a place where senior citizens lived. Run-down buildings of red brick and flat roofs surrounded them, a block behind Northwestern High. One summer he’d mowed lawns there, though all he could remember was getting stung by bees. But now a wind blew. It was 1981, a low October sky, dark coming.

“Never mind,” he told her, “I don’t want to know about it.”

“There’s nothing to know, Starfish.”

Why she called him that he had no idea. Her nails, all bitten down, had faded black polish. She had a pretty face, acne though, whiteheads clustered above her eyebrows.

“I’m not saying you couldn’t do anything you wanted with me,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“How much money you got on you?”

“You want money? I thought you had weed.”

“I’m giving you a better offer.”

He sniffed. Somewhere someone burning leaves, an acrid smell. His eyelid fluttered out a speck from the wind. “What better offer?” he said.

“What is it?” she asked. “You never done anything before?”

He rubbed up and down his knees, chilled. The offer hung in the air between them, like something he wanted to swat away. “How much?”

“How much you have?”

“Maybe five bucks.” He waited for her to scoff at five bucks but somehow knew she wouldn’t.

“There’s a place right over there,” she said.


The corners of her lips creased into a slight smile.


“Of course, Starfish.”

“Don’t call me that.”

He could’ve just walked away. He wondered how she could not be in school but didn’t bother to ask. He didn’t want further involvement with her, yet he didn’t feel ready to leave either. Her eyes, he saw, were blue and clear. Her thin lips reminded him of someone, he couldn’t think who.

“All right,” he said, folding five ones together from out of his wallet, reluctant over what he was getting himself into.

She jammed the money into her jacket pocket and leaned forward, her jeans tight, her fingertips pressing onto her thighs. “You coming?”

His pulse rose quick to steal a breath. “Sit here a minute.”

“What’s up? You got cold feet?”

“I guess I don’t understand,” he said. “If you don’t go for guys—”

She waved her hand, waving away what he said. “You want your money back now?”

“Keep it.” He didn’t want it back, not after he’d already given it to her. He’d have to return it to his wallet, a miser over five bucks.

She eased back into the bench. “You got a cigarette?”

The wind blowing curls into her eyes offset her toughness. He shifted his gaze away, glad he’d let her keep the money. It put him at ease, gave him back the advantage. A cotton-headed old man negotiated his trash under the lid of a nearby dumpster.

“Go if you want,” Nava said.

He shifted back toward her. She wore the collar of her jean jacket up, as though shielding herself inside it. He might have felt sorry for her, but more than anything he felt repulsed, not so much by her pasty skin, but because she always seemed to want something from him, even just a cigarette.

“Like, do you have a mother or a family or anything?”

“Sure. Why not?” She pulled a curl of her hair, twisting it. “My mother’s a skank, just like me.”

“You’re not a skank.”

She looked away, a sort of sick smile. “I wish I had a cigarette.”

“Why don’t you buy ‘em at the store. I just gave you five bucks.”

“You still want it back?” She reached into her pocket but kept her hand there.

“If you want to be a skank, I don’t know,” he said. “Don’t be.”

“If you say so, Starfish.”

It was the way she acted—so certain with him, though they’d barely ever spoken before now. Telling him he could go if he wanted, as if she had any say in it. Or those thin lips, clamped tight, like a clam shell. That was Nava, all hardness, her shoulders square in the jacket. And something kept hidden, safe inside.

“All right,” he said, blood rushing into his cheeks, “let’s go then.” He indicated the place she meant, a narrow slot connecting two of the buildings, fronted by flame-shaped bushes. “The place over there.”

The sick smile again.

“C’mon, like you said. Right over there.”

“Too late. I don’t feel like it anymore.”

He blushed, an instant of blindness for his pride to catch up. He tried coaxing her, saying she was all talk and so on. But nothing he said seemed to faze her. Her shoulders, square in the jacket, her hand in the pocket. He repeated that he wouldn’t take the money back.

“Suit yourself.” She inched forward to stand, to leave ahead of him. But first she touched his knee, about to tell him something. She changed her mind, said nothing.

Back at home, or sometimes in class, he pictured them still on the bench together and her telling him what she hadn’t told him, that she’d see him again sometime, they’d go back into those bushes. But she no longer appeared, it seemed, or at least he hadn’t seen her. He still went to the gym to shoot baskets on his own after the last bell. He worked up a sweat lofting his jumpers, fade-aways and lay-ups, his eyes forever darting toward the doorway.

Photo by Lisa Yarost, used and adapted under CC.