J. T. Townley

Agent Orange

Key Lime Estates by Timothy F. Phillips

1.


Then comes a thud in the blackness. I slam on the brakes out of reflex. A shadow flies towards me, then slides off the hood to the ground. I glance around. Other cars blow through the intersection at high speed, drivers texting, completely oblivious. No one stops.

I step out into the eerie traffic-light glow. The asphalt is slick with dew, and the air stinks of exhaust, chemicals, and fog. A figure wearing a skeleton mask sprawls in the street, his wet black eyes empty as a dead deer’s.

“What the fog are you doing down there?” I say.

The man gives a little moan.

“There better not be any damage,” I say, inspecting my Beemer in the dance of colored light. “I just bought it last week.”

I follow the drift of fog in the headlights. As Skeleton Face struggles to the curb, I catch a whiff of rotten roadkill.

Now a bluish-white shimmer in the corner of my eye. When I glance that direction, I make out silver hair and white Velcro walking shoes. There must be a half a dozen of them, shuffling through the dawn light.

The skeleton sprawls against the curb, clutching his side.

Now rosy-fingered dawn brightens the Eastern horizon, the tramp. Those old biddies will make out my plates if I’m not careful.

I scamper around and clamber into the driver’s seat. In the rearview, the grannies wave canes and crutches, hollering, “Citizen’s arrest.”

I shift into drive and gun it. The stench of burned rubber’s so thick, I have to turn on the AC to clear the air.

2.

I’m not a mile down the road when all at once someone’s riding shotgun. I white-knuckle the steering wheel, swerving across two lanes of traffic into the parking lot of a Qwik-E-Mart. I almost take out a guy refilling gas tanks from a hazmat truck.

“Who the fog are you?” I say, breathless, fumbling for my pepper spray.

He puckers his little fish mouth. He’s seventy-five and a hundred pounds overweight, and he sports bright tangerine tights and cape. But it’s his dyed combover and fake-tanned orange face that really get me. Even in the slanted fluorescent light, you can see the fish-belly pale skin around his eyes from the tanning bed goggles.

“Bing bing bong,” he says. “A good phrase. A beautiful, perfect phrase.”

“How’d you get into my car, creeper?”

He tents his tiny hands, musing. He stinks of Aqua Net, vanilla hand cream, and rotten citrus. I have to lower my window to keep from gagging.

“I should know,” he says. “I invented it.”

I wait, pepper spray aimed at his bright orange face, holding my nose with the other hand. I take tiny slurps of air through my mouth. “You gonna tell me who the fog you are?”

He flashes his ill-fitting dentures and forces a disgusted laugh. “Oh, I’m yuge, trust me.”

I struggle not to gag. “Uh-huh.”

“Millions of people are saying I’m tremendous,” says Mr. Orange Face, then swallows hard. “Or was.”

“Did you just sob?”

He forces a smile. “Do I look like the sentimental type?”

“Well—”

“Don’t answer that.” The leather upholstery moans as he shifts his costume-clad bulk.

“So what do they call you? Jack O’Lantern? Mandarin Man? Mr. Orangina?”

“If you must know, it’s ‘Agent Orange.’” He uses finger quotes and draws out the syllables.

“Like the toxic chemical they used back in—”

“The good kind,” he says. “Amazing! The one that makes things grow and grow.” He steals a glance. “I used to have a different name. A perfect name, believe me. If only I could remember it.”

I fight from gagging on that orange-vanilla-hairspray miasma. After another slurp of air, I say, “This is where you get out.” I unlock the doors. “You’ll love this place. They’ve got Tropicana with your name on it.”

“That some kinda health drink?”

“Fanta and Orange Crush,” I say. “Little Debbie orange cream cakes.”

He licks his thin lips. “Of all the Debbies, she’s definitely my favorite.”

“I bet,” I say, fake-smiling.

He heaves himself up and totters toward the door, cape hanging limp behind him. When I catch the trucker staring, I mouth, “What the fog?” He just shakes his head and climbs up into his clattering rig.

3.

After a hard day of reorganizing company finances, I race to the twins’ parent-teacher conference. Their nanny Luisa takes them to school and picks them up most days, and I don’t see why she can’t attend these tiresome meetings, too, but the school insists on seeing a parent, not the help. Their fogging father Frank could do his part, except last I heard, he was four-thousand miles away, bronzing himself on the beaches of Bora Bora with endless tiki drinks and my best assistant Michelle. He’s dead to me.

I have to drive ninety on the highway and almost as fast on the surface streets, running three red lights, but I make it on time. Almost. Call it fashionably late. At least I manage to avoid any more run-ins with freaks in skeleton masks.

I park in the circle drive, then climb the steps and push through the grand front entrance. I love the thirty-foot ceilings and walls of glass, the airy space illuminated by a slanting column of evening sunlight. Still, it’s hard to ignore the stink of vomit and little feet, everything buried under a layer of non-toxic orange blossom disinfectant. I expect to be greeted by the director, as usual, but the front office is locked up tight. It’s only six-thirty. Where is everyone?

Muted voices echo through the emptiness, and I follow them toward the twins’ classroom. I find Luisa parked on a bench in the hall with the twins. They’re all wearing skeleton masks. Nobody gets up.

“What the fog’s going on?” I ask.

Luisa pulls off her mask and gives me a pinched expression. “Día de Muertos.”

“Día de what?” I say. Then: “Hi, girls.”

“Mommy fires people,” Xochi says.

Ixchel lifts her mask and gives me a pitying glance, then goes back to her book. Xochiquetzal won’t even look at me. Their names were Frank’s idea, and he had me on so much peyote in those days, I went right along.

“What’s going on, Señora?”

The hallways are empty, the classrooms dark. “Did Miss Honeydew stand us up?”

“Dr. Honeywell,” says the twins’ teacher, glaring. “Please come in, Mrs. Haine.”

“Katherine Lamour,” I say. “I’m back to my maiden name.”

“So I’ve heard.”

I don’t care for her tone. My phone pings. When they don’t even look up, I say, “Girls?”

“Mommy works all the time,” says Ixchel.

“Mommy fires people,” Xochi says.

“I’m a bankruptcy specialist,” I explain.

“Right this way, please. It’s getting late.”

We sit in tiny chairs around a tiny table. The twins look right at home, noses in their books. Miss Honeydew’s hair is a mess. She wears a severe, judgmental expression, glaring into her files. I’d be livid, too, if I’d spent five or six years on a Ph.D., only to wind up back in elementary school, earning a pittance. A cocktail of Play-Doh, dirt, and orange blossoms hangs in the air.

“So how are the twins doing?” I ask. “Oh, I already know, since they’re making straight-A’s. Excellent work, girls.”

They ignore me. They’re still sporting those skeleton masks. My phone pings again.

Miss Honeydew takes a deep breath. “That’s true, their academic results are impeccable.”

I fake a smile. “Perfect,” I say, sliding my tiny chair back as if to go. “Then we’ll see you next term.”

“That’s not,” she says too loudly, “the issue.”

“The only issue is that you keep dragging me to these pointless little powwows. They’re a waste of everyone’s time.”

“Yes,” she says over her glasses. “Especially when this one was scheduled to begin an hour and a half ago.”

It takes more effort than I expect to hoist myself from my chair. I reach for the girls’ hands. “We don’t all finish our day at 3:30,” I say.

“Look, Ms.—”

“Lamour.”

“There’s no doubt that Ixchel and Xochi are excellent students. How many children understand algebra in Second Grade? How many speak fluent Spanish, know history, literature, and astronomy?”

“I’ve invested in their education.”

“Knowledge, ability, intelligence,” she says. “These are not the problem.”

I shift my Chanel purse higher on my shoulder. “So now there’s a problem?”

“Please,” she says, gesturing again to the tiny chair. “This may take a while.”
My phone’s pinging every thirty seconds now. I open my purse and dig for it.

“They’re cutthroat, Ms. Lamour. They taunt their classmates with names like—”

“Ratsbane,” says Xochi.

“Quatch-buttock,” Ixchel says.

I feel a smile unfurl. “Baby Shakespeare.”

“They express zero empathy,” says Miss Honeydew. “None.” She waits. I wonder what her point is. “When I tried to talk to them about it, they kept repeating—”

“The ends,” says Ixchel.

“Justify the means,” Xochi says.

Miss Honeydew gives me a withering glance.

My phone’s pinging nonstop, so I have to mute it. It seems everyone I know has been texting me—including Luisa. Maybe she’s trying to earn her keep and get me out of here?

I fake another smile. “This has been, well, what can I say?” I usher the twins into the hall. Miss Honeydew doesn’t show us out.

Luisa stands next to the bench, clutching her phone. “Everything is okay?”

I nod, then tell the girls, “Go with Luisa, okay? Mommy needs to take a call.” I stand in the empty corridor, scrolling through my messages. They don’t make any sense, not even Luisa’s.

What the fog?

4.

Now a familiar voice echoes down the hall. “Some people believe I don’t remember my childhood.”

“Not you again,” I say.

“But I do, trust me. Amazing!”

As he strolls over, orange tights bunched up in weird places, I notice he has toilet paper stuck to his superhero boot.

“It was a perfect childhood. Tremendous! Nobody does childhood better than me.”

“What do you want with me?”

He totters up and smiles without showing his teeth. His rotten-citrus stink precedes him. Somehow, his face appears even more orange under fluorescent lighting. He’s a lot taller than me, but he’s so big and lumpy you’d never know it unless you were standing right next to him.

“I was a gifted boy. A brilliant, gifted genius. Still am.”

As he speaks, I marvel at his hair, a combover like I’ve never before witnessed. It’s an unnatural orange-blonde color and more a rat’s nest whirl than your conventional side-to-side job. It’s not fooling anyone.

“A tremendous baseball player,” says Agent Orange. “People said I should’ve gone to the Majors. Can you believe that?”

I snicker. “So what happened?”

His orange face goes blank. His little fish mouth opens and closes for a moment, but nothing comes out. Then he says, “I became a great, tremendous man. I was yuge! And powerful, lemme tell you. I had tremendous power, completely above the law. Nobody could stop me.”

“Is that so,” I say, locking my phone. “Listen, thanks for haunting or stalking or whatever you’re doing, Mr. Orange Face.”

“Agent Orange.”

“Feel free to cease and desist any time.” I march down the empty hallway toward the door. Before I’m out, he rasps:

“Total loser.”

I spin around. “Excuse me?”

He pulls a Superman pose, hands on hips. It’s not a good look. “He was a total loser.”

I backtrack to close the gap. “Who?”

“My driver never would’ve stopped. I wouldn’t have let him. We would’ve accelerated through that loser like a speed bump or squirrel.”

My palms get sweaty. “What are you talking about?”

He purses his lips and leers.

Now it starts to sink in. “You don’t mean—”

He nods, and his combover bounces, wafting the stench of old Aqua Net toward me. “You know, I know. By now everybody knows. Total disaster.”

“Oh, god,” I say. “Oh, no. Those fogging grannies.”

He chuckles. “In their prime they were hot. Tremendously hot. Now, not so. But their eyesight’s better than you’d expect. Not perfect, but very good.”

“I’m fogged.”

“I’ve been there, believe me. More than once.” He grins his ghoulish grin. “Nobody’s been more fogged than me.”

I chew the inside of my cheek. I just hope Skeleton Face didn’t die.

“The loser croaked,” says Agent Orange.

“What?”

“Forget him. He was a lightweight. He doesn’t matter.”

I don’t discern a hint of sarcasm. I study that broad orange face for a sign he’s joking, but I have to avert my eyes when they start to ache.

“You gotta look out for number one. No one does that better than me. No one. I’m the king.”

My face tightens into a fist. “What good does that do me? What kind of fogging superhero are you?”

“Superhero? Is that what you think I am?”

I gaze at his sorry costume, his bloated physique, his smug expression. “On second thought—”

“Sure, superhero, why not? Nothing to it. All they do is make spectacles of themselves and brag about their exploits.” His orange grin widens. “I’ve been a superhero my whole life.”

“Forget it,” I say, storming toward the door. “You’re useless.”

“Good, go,” he says. “You should definitely go.”

“Yeah? Where?”

“Doesn’t matter.”

“Thanks for nothing,” I say and flip him the bird.

“Just don’t get caught.”

5.

The twins are hungry, so we pick up Chinese on the way home. They won’t stop asking me who I was talking to inside, since they had a partial view through the glass walls.

“I didn’t see anyone,” says Xochi.

“She had to be talking to somebody,” Ixchel reasons.

“Just a janitor,” I lie.

Luisa balances the to-go containers on her lap and looks dour. My Beemer soon smells of lo mein and MSG.

“For that long?” asks Ixchel.

“Sorry, girls. He had lots of questions.”

“About what?” Xochi asks.

“I don’t know,” I say. “Just questions.”

As we pull through the gates, I wave at the security guard. We’re a block from home when Xochi says:

“Are you experiencing a psychotic break, Mommy?”

“Shut up,” says Ixchel.

“You shut up,” Xochi says. “I’m just worried about Mommy. She’s under a lot of stress. Daddy ran off with a younger woman, her company’s going down the tubes, and now—”

“¡Cállate!” hollers Luisa. “Silencio ahorita.”

The twins sit bolt upright, chins quivering beneath their skeleton masks. Luisa gives me an incriminating look.

I press the button, the door folds open, and I slide my Beemer into the garage.

6.

After we eat and put the twins to bed, Luisa corners me in the kitchen. I’m still worrying through the barrage of messages, most of them expressing sympathy that my Beemer was stolen. Which it obviously wasn’t. But maybe that’s the story I should go with?

They file back down the hall and into their room. They could each have their own, since there are plenty to spare, but they prefer to share—one of the many things about them I’ve never understood.

Señora?”

“Not now, Luisa.”

She shifts her weight, fussing with a button on her blouse. I hold out as long as I can, then say:

“Something on your mind?”

She bites her lip. “Is true, Señora?”

I feel my expression go blank. The dishwasher churns, though I never noticed Luisa turning it on. “Is what true?”

Her face ripples with disbelief. “They got your plates, Señora.”

I set my phone on the counter, then pretzel my arms across my chest. “That’s right. My Beemer was stolen, remember?” Now I chuckle. “We had to get an Uber home.”

No es la verdad.” Luisa wipes down the already spotless tabletop. “Everybody see us, SeñoraDoctora Honeywell, Diego at the gate. Todo el mundo.”

Heavy with fatigue, I force a smile. “I’m still not sure what we’re talking about.”

Luisa scuttles over and whips out her own phone. “Mira,” she says, then clicks play.

The footage is shaky. Still, it clearly shows Skeleton Face sitting on the curb, disoriented and bleeding, followed by a shot of my Beemer speeding away in the tangerine light. The video clip only lasts a few seconds. It finishes with the camera moving unsteadily toward that skeleton. The last thing you hear before it cuts off is, “Help, police!”

The clip replays automatically, once, twice, three times.

“Those fogging old crones.”

“Crones?” says Luisa.

“Hags who don’t know how to mind their own business.”

She looks confused. The dishwasher moans. Upstairs, the patter of little feet.

“I go check the niñas,” says Luisa, but she doesn’t budge.

“Those old busybodies need more to do.”

“Who you mean?”

“Who do you think?” I shout, then instantly regret it. “The blue hairs who took that footage.”

“So this was you, Señora?”

I study her expression. That strange scent of overheated water and dish soap turns my stomach. Above, more little feet pattering down the hall. The twins are supposed to be in bed asleep already.

“Luisa,” Ixchel calls.

“We’re thirsty,” says Xochi.

I take a few steps across the open-plan living room. The twins have their Day of the Dead masks on again, if they ever took them off. “Mommy’s right here, girls,” I say. If they notice me, they don’t let on.

Ya voy,” says Luisa. “Back to bed, queridas.”

They file back down the hall and into their room. They could each have their own, since there are plenty to spare, but they prefer to share—one of the many things about them I’ve never understood.

I watch as Luisa pours the girls matching Princessa cups of chilled, triple-purified water. She carries them across the room, and at the foot of the stairs, she glances back at me. “You got deep trouble, Señora.”

“Don’t worry, Luisa.” I shake my head, smiling with annoyance. “It’s not what it looks like.”

7.

I pour myself a glass of pinot grigio, followed by another. And then—why not?—another after that. It’s been a long day. I shunt the alarm so I can open a kitchen window without setting off the shrieking siren that would terrify the twins, give Luisa a heart attack, and bring the police to my doorstep. That’s the last thing I need right now.

I sneak a Gauloise from a pack I hide in the cabinet above the fridge. Frank and I used to drizzle them with hash oil back in our, or my, wild days. His never ended. I light it with a match, inhale, then blow the smoke out into the inky night. I’ll have rank breath, but who will even notice?

I pour myself a last baby splash of wine, then open another bottle. I’m swaying as I fill my glass to the rim, trying not to spill too much on the granite. When I look up, there’s another empty glass waiting.

“I prefer a nice crisp chardonnay,” says Agent Orange, “especially on a hot day at the links, but this’ll do.”

I fill his glass, though not as full. “A toast,” I say, a little slurry.

“To our wives and lovers,” says Agent Orange with a rakish grin that shows off his dentures. “May they never meet.”

I refuse to clink to that. His face knots in confusion. I guzzle my glass, then pour myself a fresh one.

Agent Orange snickers. “Rough day at the office?”

I teeter, but catch myself before I topple. Guess I’m getting tipsy.

“People are saying you should listen to me,” he says.

“What people?”

“Millions and millions.”

I squint this way and that around the kitchen. It’s just me and a lumpy fake-tanned codger in orange tights.

“Think about it. Where’s the first place they’ll look?”

“How should I know?”

“I know what you’re thinking before you do. No one reads minds better than me.”

“They may be on their way now.”

Upstairs, a toilet flushes. A sink runs. Luisa’s getting ready for bed.

I take a gulp of wine. “Doesn’t matter. I’m leaving.”

Agent Orange gives me another ghoulish grin. “Bing bing bong,” he says, winking.

“Hell is that anyway?” I say.

“A good phrase. A beautiful, perfect phrase. I invented it.”

I stare at his wide orange face for a long time. His leathery skin looks completely ruined. I’d be surprised if his fat head’s not one giant melanoma. Why’d he ever do that to himself? I blink and sway and stare some more. Then I lurch across the room and up the stairs.

8.

I push the twins’ door open slowly so the hinges won’t creak. The nightlight casts a soft blue glow over everything. I slide onto the edge of the bed. They each have their own, but they prefer to sleep together. Their slow breathing fills the silence.

“Bing bing bong,” rasps Agent Orange from the doorway.

“Shhh.”

He gives me his best smug, silver-spoon look.

“Go away.”

“You need me. I’m your only hope.”

“You’ll wake them up.”

“That’s what you came in here for anyway.” He wiggles his eyebrows. He’s such a creeper. “I know what you’re thinking before you do. No one reads minds better than me.”

Down the hall, Luisa’s bedroom light goes out.

“Don’t be like that lightweight husband of yours. A tremendous loser.” He muses. “Maybe a smart loser, in the islands with a hot babe and all that cash.” He sounds impressed, until he notices my scowl. “But still, a complete loser, since he’s dead. Not unlike me. Is that what you want?”

“He’s what?”

“Mommy?” says Ixchel. “Who’s that man?”

“Boating accident,” Agent Orange explains. “Dead as a doornail.”

Xochi rubs her eyes. “That’s a figment of Mommy’s imagination.”

“Omigawd,” I say, floored.

“Wrong again, little girl,” says Agent Orange.

“Don’t talk to her,” I say.

“Agent Orange,” he sing-songs, “is Miss Mommy’s salvation.”

“You smell funny, Mister.”

“Like an old lady.”

“In a casket.”

“Would you go away?” I say.

He leans against the doorframe, lacing his tiny fingers together before him. “I’ll be right here.”

I pet their soft, golden locks. First, Ixchel’s, then Xochi’s. Or the other way around: it’s difficult to tell them apart in the weird blue light. “Listen, girls,” I slur. “I need you to get up now, okay? We’re going on a little adventure.”

“Right now?” says Xochi.

“We’re sleeping, Mommy,” Ixchel says.

I don’t know what I’m saying until it comes out. “I’ve got a surprise for you. We’re going to the islands for the holidays.”

“To see Daddy?” they squeal.

I feel my face pucker.

“Daddy’s indisposed,” Agent Orange says. “Permanently.”

“We’ll play on the beach and swim in the swimming pool.”

“The Caymans are a good place. A great place. Amazing!” says Agent Orange. “Especially if you need to hide large sums from the tax man or have some of your funds laundered.”

“Would you butt out?” I say.

“But what you really need’s an upscale all-inclusive in a more discreet locale.”

“I’m thinking St. Barts.”

He puckers his little fish mouth and shakes his head. “Too gay Paree.”

The twins snicker. “Is he gay, Mommy?”

I study Agent Orange with a sneer. “No, just an old fart in a superhero costume.”

That cracks them up. I feel a drunken smile stretching my face. Unfortunately, the clamor rouses Luisa from her room.

Qué pasa?” she asks, hair in curlers, face covered in cold cream.

Agent Orange gives her a mocking leer.

“Where this man comes from?”

“That’s Agent Orange,” says Xochi. “A projection of Mommy’s subconscious.”

“He’s helping Mommy out,” Ixchel explains.

Luisa looks at me, then Agent Orange, then me again. “Que no, que no!” She wedges herself onto the bed between me and the twins. “Leave the niñas out of it, Señora.”

“St. Kitts and Nevis?” I say.

“Not bad,” says Agent Orange. “But I can do you one better. No one knows more places to hide out than me.”

“Don’t listen to this man, Señora. Es mala suerte. You gotta turn yourself in. Is the only way.”

Agent Orange chuckles, never a pretty sight. “Turks and Caicos,” he rasps. “Beautiful. Gorgeous. Tremendously luxurious. That’s the place.”

“Turks and Caicos Islands,” says Xochi, “lie southeast of The Bahamas—”

“Northeast of Cuba,” adds Ixchel.

“And north of the island of Hispaniola.”

“Very good, girls,” I say.

“I used to be a jetsetter, lemme tell you. Always flush. Dom Perignon and caviar. Limos, penthouse suites, diamonds and rubies galore.”

“You mean bling, yes?” Luisa offers.

Agent Orange points at her and nods. “Plus, golf. What a game. Don’t even get me started. I was good. Very good. Amazing! I had the opportunity to join the PGA tour. Can you believe that? That’s how good I was. I didn’t. I could’ve, but I didn’t. Maybe I should’ve. Might’ve saved me a lot of misery. But I had my fingers in too many pies. I was yuge!”

“But Mommy’s not a jetsetter,” says Xochi.

“She can barely afford to pay for this house,” Ixchel says.

“Or her new Beemer,” Xochi says.

“That’s enough, girls.”

“Her company’s going down the pooper.”

“What did I just say, Ixchel?”

“Excuse me, crapper.”

“Zip it.”

“Sorry, shitter.”

Luisa looks scandalized. Agent Orange chuckles, tonguing his cheek and grinning his ghoulish grin.

“My company’s doing great,” I say. “I’m not sure where they’re getting this.”

Agent Orange folds his arms and lifts his chin, radiating tangerine smugness. “We’ll go in style. Tremendous style. And opulence. Amazing! It’s risky. There’s a risk involved. But with great risks come great rewards.”

9.

We could just take my car, but Agent Orange insists on a limo. It’s almost midnight by the time we get to the airport, and I doubt any flights leave this late, not even international red-eyes, but Agent Orange sets me straight: “Commercial is for losers.”

We board a sleek Learjet at the private terminal. Luisa and I have to carry the twins, since they’re out cold. The seats are huge and comfortable and recline fully flat. Agent Orange asks the young blonde flight attendant for champagne and caviar before we’ve even started taxiing. Luisa won’t have any, but I sip a glass of bubbly, then another. Soon we’re off the ground and lancing through the starless night.

Exhausted, sloppy with wine, I drift off and don’t wake up until we’ve already begun our descent. I slide open a window shade: the most beautiful turquoise water I’ve ever laid eyes on. But what happened to Agent Orange? When I ask the flight attendant, she just ignores me.

We get set up in a five-star resort right on the beach. The twins love the enormous infinity pool built on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Caribbean. They splash and giggle and say, “Bing bing bong.” It’s adorably weird. I don’t mind the top-notch service, solicitous yet discreet. At first, Luisa’s resistant to the whole thing, but the plush bathrobes and free massages bring her around.

As for me, I’m enjoying the salt air and the slosh of waves on the sand. I even don a bikini for the first time in more than a decade. My ass looks “yuge” these days, but nobody pays the least attention, so I go with it.

I try to get the twins and Luisa to go snorkeling with me, but they’re having none of it. The twins rattle off a list of dangers: stingrays, jellyfish, sharks, drowning. Luisa just laughs nervously and shakes her head. Yet swimming out there with the grunts and trunkfish, blue tang and parrotfish is the only thing that takes my mind off Skeleton Face. It relaxes me.

When this giant orange fish swims up beside me, pops his head out of the water, and says, “Amazing!” I gasp and shriek and almost forget how to swim. I swallow a lot of water but somehow manage to flail back to shore, hacking the whole way.

Agent Orange trudges out of the water behind me, his tangerine outfit wet and saggy. He wrings out his cape. I strip off my mask and flippers, then stagger to a hammock. He follows. Breakers hammer the sand. Gulls shriek, and pelicans plunge headfirst into the surf. A breeze off the water chills my wet skin.

I gaze over at him. He seems even more retina-searing orange in this tropical sunlight. “What the fog? I could’ve drowned.”

“That’d be bad. Tremendously bad.”

“No kidding.”

“Think of those little girls with the weird names.”

“My daughters.”

“Unpronounceable.”

At the other end of the beach, soldiers in navy pants, white military jackets, and navy-and-crimson visor hats unload from a van and begin marching in formation across the sand.

“Is today a holiday?” I say. “The twins love parades.”

Agent Orange swings his lumpy legs out of his hammock, which almost flips him over backwards. “I called it,” he rasps, wrenching himself upright. “Nobody calls it better than me.”

I study his leathery orange expression. Then I glance back at the soldiers parading across the sand. “What’d you do?”

“Royal Police Force.”

“Tell me you didn’t.”

He heaves himself upright. Backlit like that, he looks like a minor sun, so orange and full of himself. “It’s for your own good, believe me.”

“But the twins,” I say.

“Better for them, too. Their mother’s a fugitive who perpetrated a hit-and-run that killed an innocent dirtbag loser. She also embezzled millions and millions from her own company.”

I feel my eyes saucer. “How do you—?”

“Not a tremendous role model. She can’t just get off scot-free.”

We watch the officers approach, still in step despite all that sand.

“I wish it’d happened sooner. For me, I mean.” Agent Orange shrugs, looking himself over. “I might not have wound up like this. I might’ve been a good person. Very good. The best.” He shrugs. “Too late now.”

“You low-down, backstabbing mother-fogger.”

“Just part of the contract I inked with You-Know-Who. I’ve been in breach, and that’s bad business.”

I watch the Royal Police Force make their way around the bay’s half-moon. I wonder if the twins are having fun in the pool. “But Día de Muertos is over now,” I say. “You can’t even be here, right?”

“That’s one thing you learn.” He lifts his chin in that arrogant, blueblood way of his. “Day of the Dead’s never over.”

The policemen are firm but polite, even when I try to run. They cuff me, then frog-march me back across the beach. The hot sand burns my feet. I think of lousy, cheating Frank. I think of Skeleton Face, wandering around in the fog. Both now dead and gone. I realize I don’t understand a thing.

Just before they stuff me into the van, over the roar of the surf, I hear, “Bing bing bong.” I squint back across the beach, but Agent Orange is gone.


J. T. Townley has published in Harvard Review, The Kenyon Review, The Threepenny Review, and many other magazines and journals. His stories have twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and an MPhil in English from the University of Oxford. To learn more, visit jttownley.com.

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