excerpted from einstein's beach house: stories. Indianapolis: Pressgang, 2014

For Rosalie

That year Lizzie's kid sister kept a list of things that were funny when they happened to other people: tarring and feathering, Peeping Toms, mad cow disease. The rare encephalopathy from which their father suffered didn't actually come from eating infected cattle, it turned out, but from a spontaneous somatic mutation—what Bill Sucram's neurologist described as "losing the genetic lottery"—yet the ailment was enough like mad cow that Lizzie's mother swore off animal products. Overnight, Myra Sucram stopped fricasseeing duck and took to ordering exotic soy dishes from a newly opened kosher-vegan deli on Walloon Street. Her family's health consumed her: She spent mornings arguing with Bill's insurance carrier, afternoons researching manganese contamination and do-it-yourself dioxin tests at the public library, and evenings promising her husband and daughters that medical breakthroughs can happen overnight. She wore her smile like a shroud.

Lizzie's father resigned himself to his diagnosis. He informed the Pontefract Board of Education that he had six months to live and that he did not intend to spend them at the office. Then he composed a list of people who harbored him ill will—a shady plumber he'd sued in small-claims court, his estranged step-brother in Las Vegas—and he telephoned each one to apologize. One night, the 38-year-old agnostic middle-school principal summoned his daughters to hot cocoa at the kitchen table and announced: "I fear I've taught you girls too much grammar and not enough forgiveness." So Lizzie was mortified, yet not unprepared, when their father insisted on taking them to meet the sex offender.

The sex offender's name was Rex Benbow. He'd been staying inside his grandmother's modest bungalow at the end of their block for nearly two weeks, the subject of protests and countless flyers, but Lizzie had been far too concerned with her father's wellbeing and her own hopeless crush on her best friend, Julia Sand, to give the parolee a second thought—until Julia confessed to a fascination with the man. Suddenly, he acquired the allure of an outlaw.

"My brother has been spying on the place. He says the cops aren't protecting his house anymore," said Julia.

"So the coast is clear."

"Clear for what?"

"Clear for us."

The girls sat side by side on the swing set on the playground of their former elementary school. At 13, their long legs now reached the muddy earth below—Lizzie in acid-wash jeans, Julia in a denim skirt over tights. The pair had been meeting after school like this all autumn, a coven of two, sometimes sipping liqueurs in miniature bottles pinched from Dr. Sand's study. Today, they were sober. It was the first week since the clocks had fallen back, and slender shadows darkened the nearby playing fields.

"Have you gone totally crazy?" demanded Lizzie.