While he was slurping down Panamanian prison gruel in year six of his detainment, Sam never thought he'd be in a Mexican standoff with a glassy-eyed T-rex, yellowed paint chipping off the blunt curve of its tooth.
He taps his putter against prickly astroturf, says, “So this is your guys’ idea of a good time, huh?” The green dino is open-mouthed and hunched over, its concrete jaw digging into the ground. Sam bends down to try and get a better angle on the distance between its mouth and the little red golf ball sitting idle in front of his club.
“Hey,” Nathan says, taking on that indignant, spluttery tone of his when there’s sarcasm and the tiniest hint of truth all rolled up in his chest. “Jurassic Jungle has 18 unique holes and a go-kart track with a water feature. Don’t hate.”
“Not hatin’, just—” Sam straightens up. His back cracks. It relaxes his muscles, makes him feel jelly-like after spending fifteen holes trying to putt with a club sized for a ten-year-old. “Just wonderin’ if you ever made it to puberty, is all.”
Elena huffs out a few breathy giggles while Nathan stumbles over a response. She’s leaning against a tree right outside the green, a yard away, putter hanging loose in her hand. Sam flashes her a toothy grin. She whips her club up and uses it to point at him.
“No lip, old man,” she says, eyebrow quirked. “We’re in the negatives and you’re plus-seven. You have a lot of catching up to do.”
“Old man,” Sam gasps, making a show of slapping a hand over his heart, leaning on his heels like she’s bowled him. “What’s with all this ‘old man’ talk lately, huh? Words hurt y’know, sweetheart.”
“Oh, I know.” She hops three steps over to Nathan, drops her putter on the ground with a muted clank, and smooshes her husband’s cheeks between her hands. “Don’t worry,” she stage-whisperes, loudly. “I’ll protect your honor.”
Nathan slaps her hands away, laughing, fingers slotting easily around her shoulders, and pulls her in for a kiss. Head dipped down, their mouths still open because they’re giddy and fluttering around each other like lovesick butterflies. Sam has to look away for how good they are, how right they are for each other. He bends back over his club and tries a few easy tests swings before whacking the ball with enough force to send it flying. It smacks into a deteriorating tooth and bounces back.
“Nice,” Nathan tells him, still breathy from the kiss.
“Shut up,” Sam says, rubbing the back of his neck. He glances over his shoulder to see they’ve separated. Elena bends over to pick up her club. Nathan drops his green ball at the starting point.
“Watch and learn.”
Sam steps out of the way while Nathan lines up his shot. One quick hit, not too much force, and the golf ball rolls easily up the fairway and straight through the dinosaur’s yawning mouth. He pats Sam’s shoulder, smugly.
“See? Just needs a little finesse.”
“Oh, is that right?” Sam instinctively pats the front pocket of his Levi’s for a pack of cigarettes, but he’d left them in the car. “Take me to a shooting range and I’ll show you finesse.”
Nathan tsks, lets his hand fall, but there’s a tiny little crease dimpling the corner of his mouth. “Not everything can be solved with violence, you know.”
“I can name a few things,” Sam says, and there’s strain to his voice, and he’s not sure why, but he thinks about the easy affection that blooms between Elena and his little brother, and he thinks it’s been a good hour or so since he’s felt nicotine flood his lungs.
Nathan’s hand returns, this time pressing a circle through a knot of tension in Sam’s back. “Sore loser is not a good look on you,” he says, but in a kind way, in a Nathan sort of way, so it’s nice. But Sam feels like a hole has opened up beneath his feet, suddenly and with no warning, and it’s swallowing him slow, full of quicksand, so he has just enough sense not to struggle, but it’s a close thing. Lonely. He’s playing mini golf with the only two people in the world who matter, and there he is feeling sorry for himself.
Sam rakes fingernails through his hair and steps away from Nathan’s hand. He laughs, quietly, gives a little grin. “Ah, you know me. Always tryin’ on new styles to see what looks best.”
“New styles?” Nathan shakes his head, but he’s smiling and that’s all that matters. “You look like the 80s chewed you up and spat you out, Mr. Jean Jacket.”
“Hey, don’t go knockin’ the sex appeal of vintage denim.”
“Vintage? Now you’re just trying to sell me snake oil.”
“It’ll double— no, triple your chances with any girl. Ain’t that right?” Sam turns to Elena with a wink, seeking backup.
She drops her head, rubs her temples. “Oh, yes, definitely,” she says, bland. “If Nate comes to bed in a denim onesie, I’m done for.”
Sam waves a hand in her direction, as if to showcase this new-found empirical evidence.
Nathan groans. “Now I’m just imagining what it would feel like to wear a denim onesie. The chafing.”
“What?” Sam asks. “You plannin’ to go commando?”
“I thought you weren’t supposed to wear underwear with those things?”
“Why wouldn’t you?”
“I don’t know! Aren’t there little flaps or something so you can go to the bathroom without getting naked? That would be pointless with underwear.”
“Your wellspring of knowledge about onesies is startin’ to frighten me here, Nathan.”
“Hey, you’re the one who started this conversation!”
“Actually, your wife is the one who started this conversation. And from the sound of it, you two are harborin’ some kinky denim-clad fantasies.”
A woman walks by in that moment, holding the hand of a young boy, maybe eight years old. She shoots Sam a look, and he gives her a wave, a lazy grin. She shakes her head and scuttles past.
They move on after that. Shoot the final holes. Nathan wins with a score of minus-two, Elena close behind with plus-one. Sam fails miserably with plus-ten, and blames hole eighteen’s stegosaurus with its curved tail and mocking grin. In the car, he cracks a window and lights a cigarette. Leans his head against the cool glass, and zones out in the backseat, watching Nathan and Elena bob their heads in animated conversation up front.
He can’t place why he feels farther away than he actually is. Like the car stretches into a limousine, the space between them growing.