"A young girl... say, eight or nine years old, is lovely like flowers," Walter said to his friend Chad over drinks in the hotel bar. "You can look at her and think, 'How pretty,' and feel nothing but admiration for the universe that produced her, and joy at her colors."
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Chad raised an eyebrow. He wasn't sure where this was going, but Walter, though he often took his time, usually ended up somewhere interesting.
"A full grown woman, now," Walter continued, "is like food. You look at her... maybe smell her as you pass by... and become appropriately hungry. It is a natural hunger. You may end up starved, never having had the opportunity to dine, but the hunger itself is clean."
Chad nodded, still waiting for the third thing. There was always a third thing. Walter had been tested, some years ago, and had been certified a "near genius." Which amused Walter to no end. "A 'certified near genius,' he had said, 'is like a cure for hypochondria." Chad hadn't known what that meant then, and still didn't. But it was typical Walter.
Chad waited. Walter shifted in his chair and, as he spoke, looked over Chad's shoulder at the bar entrance.
"A beautiful girl of an uncertain age, however, is like a strange plant. She is clearly lovely, and may arouse hunger. But the fruit may be poison. Until you are sure, it is... unwise... to treat her as anything but a flower."
He grinned wickedly. "Even in the face of starvation."
Chad turned in his chair a bit and saw that Walter was looking at a girl of "uncertain age" who had entered the room. Lovely, of course. Wearing a black tank-top and cut-off denim shorts and sandals. Shoulder-length hair, of a color that mixed honey and brown sugar. Bright blue eyes that, even in the low light of the bar, seemed to glow.
The tank-top stopped about six inches below her breasts. The shorts started about an inch below her hips. The expanse of pale, smooth flesh between looked like a sash of milk, wound around her body and fastened by invisible wires.
"Don't," said Chad simply.
Walter grinned. "She could be eighteen or nineteen. Maybe even twenty."
Chad shook his head. "You will embarrass yourself. Or at least me."
"Go sit at the bar, Walter. Order some nachos or something."
Knowing that an argument would do no good, Chad slid his chair back and went to sit on a stool at the bar, less than five feet behind Walter. He knew that his friend would enjoy... whatever... much less if he didn't have an audience.
The girl was already ordering food. The hotel restaurant, and room service, stopped serving at eight, and so the bar was the only place to get anything to eat after that. Chad heard her finish the order for a club sandwich and Coke just as he sat on one of the faux-brass and faux-leather stools.
Up close, he was no more certain about her age than when she'd walked in. She was certainly no older than twenty-one, and no younger than fifteen. But that, as Walter had so adeptly pointed out, was an age where beauty and poison went hand-in-hand.
She had an older girl's eye and movement, he thought. Those, however, often came to girls who had had a hard or challenging path. The small, tired lines at the sides of her eyes. The way she sat, very still, as she waited for her change. The slowness of her breathing. All these things spoke of "woman" rather than "child." There was none of the quicksilver flightiness of a young girl. None of the darting glance or uncertain shifting.
But, as he and his friend both knew, these things were sometimes clues, but never proof.
After a few minutes, her food arrived and she turned to survey the room. There were several tables, but all had at least one person at them. She was about to rotate her stool back and eat at the bar, when Walter spoke up.
"You can sit here, if you like. It's a table for four. Plenty of room."
He was so natural, so easygoing, Chad thought. If you didn't know him, you'd think he was the perfect gentleman.
The girl eyed Walter a bit. Not suspiciously, quite. There were too many people around to really ring any serious warning bells. And Walter did look, well... clean. And smart. Maybe even funny. He had that look that promised a good ear and maybe a joke. She shrugged and moved her food to his table.
"I'm Walter," he said, almost bowing a little in his chair.
"Daisy," she replied, sitting down across from him.
Chad could hear them both perfectly, even over the minor, constant thrum of the bar and hotel lobby.
Walter smiled hugely. "Daisy," he repeated. "That's a lovely name."
"Thanks," she said, popping a french fry in her mouth. "Walter," she said with her mouth full, "is an old name."
Looking a bit surprised, Walter asked, "What do you mean?"
"I mean that you don't get a lot of people named 'Walter' any more, do you? Like, there's Walter Cronkite and Walt Disney and... Walt Whitman, I guess. I can't think of anyone named Walter that isn't dead."
She chewed, and Walter admired her face and form. She was really quite pretty. Some features lovely and small like those of a girl, some lovely, round and soft like a woman... some angular... like either.
"I hadn't ever thought of that," Walter said.
She nodded. "I like names. I like words. People forget that names are words and mean something, besides just being a label for a person, you know? And I think you probably can't help being affected by what your name means. Unless you don't know what it means, which says something about you, too."
"I agree," Walter said. "The name 'Walter' comes from old German. It combines the words for 'rule' and 'soldier.' So it could be said to mean a leader of warriors."
Daisy grinned around a mouthful of sandwich. "Or dictator."
Walter laughed. "Yes. True. I hadn't thought of that, either. I'd always assumed... well... the more benevolent interpretation."
She smiled back at him and shrugged again. The gesture did lovely things, he thought, for the curve of her neck and the skin across her collarbone.
"With a name like 'Daisy,'" she said, "You don't get a lot of interpretation. It's just a flower."
He sat up a bit straighter and thought... my turn, lovely girl.
"But the flower got its name from somewhere, too, of course. Daisy is a shortening of 'day's eve,' in Middle English. That is, sunset."
She stopped chewing. "Really?" she said, around her food, unconscious and natural and lovely.
"Of course. You can even here it. 'Day's eve.' Unlike 'Walter,' which buries its meaning."
She nodded, wiping a bit of mayonnaise from the corner of her mouth with her middle finger.
"You know a lot about names," she said, looking at him rather directly.
He smiled. Confident and cool. "I know a lot about a lot of things."
She scowled at him a bit, assessing... something.
"Are you here with your family?" he asked, before she could qualify the look with a question.
She shook her head. "No. I'm here for a school thing. Debate team. Sharing a room with three other girls. Which is why I'm down here. They wanted to watch hotel porn on the cable."
Daisy made a face and rolled her eyes. "Like it's a big deal, you know? And who wants to watch porn with two or three friends hanging out with you. Weird."
Walter smiled slightly, agreeing without nodding or saying anything.
"What did you want to do, Daisy?" he asked quietly, sipping his drink.
She put the rest of her sandwich down and wiped her hands on the tablecloth. "I wanted to watch a documentary about the Civil War on HBO."
Walter made a kind of, "Oh, really?" face.
She smiled again. Half true-smile and half smarm. "I'm fascinated by the Civil War. The first war with photos, really. And with modern weapons and transportation and communication. All those people living, and dying, in ways that nobody had thought of before."
Walter put down his drink.
Chad could feel him inhaling before making his move.
"You could come up to my room and watch it, if you like," he said. Totally bland. Totally up front and vanilla. No hint of anything other than friendliness.
Daisy raised both eyebrows. "Your room? Really. Don't you think *your* family would object."
He shook his head. "I'm here alone."
You're here with me, you prick, thought Chad. But if Daisy went back to the room with his friend, Chad would work something out.
A repetition of, "Really?" from Daisy.
She seemed to think about it for a few seconds. Then she shook her head, took a last swallow of Coke, and stood up.
"It's nice of you to offer," she said. "But I don't think it would be... appropriate."
Walter's turn to shrug. "Why not? You're an adult, aren't you? You can do what you want."
She laughed a bit. An adult laugh. But she said, "Walter, I'm sixteen."
Pretty, pretty poison, thought Chad.
Walter's eyebrows went up now. "Really? I assumed you were at least twenty. My mistake."
She laughed again, this time like a girl. Dimples and all, hair shook back in a brown, gold wave.
"Oh, Walter... you are... bad. Aren't you?"
Conceding defeat gracefully, Walter gave her the little bow again. "Maybe I am. And maybe I'm just lonely."
For a moment, Chad thought, it seemed as if the hotel became ghostly and still. Like one of those pictures that's all black-and-white, except for the focus of the scene. Though he was turned around, looking at the rack of bottles behind the bar, Chad imagined that the rest of the world froze for a moment, as Daisy paused.
Chad knew, of course, that it was a line. But she didn't.
The moment broke. Daisy said, softly and not without feeling, "Everybody's lonely, Walter. That doesn't mean the rules don't apply."
She left, then, and touched him on the shoulder on her way by.
Chad turned on his stool just in time to see her silhouetted in the bar doorway, light poured around her from the too-bright hotel lobby. Really lovely, he thought, getting up to go sit with his friend.
"Shot down," muttered Walter into his glass.
"No, Walter. It's just... you know. The age thing does matter."
Walter smiled. Chad thought it was the saddest thing he'd ever seen.
"Maybe in a few years," Walter muttered. "Maybe then it wouldn't matter so much." He grinned. "For me and Daisy."
"Maybe not," he agreed. "In four years she'll be twenty and you'll be seventeen. You've skipped two grades, so maybe she'd be a junior or senior when you're a freshman at college."
Walter nodded. "Funny, I guess. It's all relative, isn't it?"
Chad nodded. "And remember, Walter... girls don't want to be poisoned any more than we do, eh?"
At that, Walter laughed and put a five-dollar bill on the table. It was a big tip for a two-dollar Sprite, but he could afford it.
Lonely little rich kid, he thought to himself. Oh well, there was always tomorrow.
Or the day after.
I blog irregularly at TinkerX. I'm also on Twitter. @andyhavens, go figure.