There’s something wrong with him, the girl thought. Her mother had told her to never go near him, that he wasn’t all there. Her mother didn’t elaborate, but the girl knew. They were neighbors, and the boy lived with his mother, a woman who drove an old car. The woman didn’t work – there was something wrong with her, too, and she didn’t work. Sometimes the woman yelled at children on the sidewalk, calling them terrible names. The words coming from her mouth were shocking. The children would scream at her, taunting her, calling her old and fat. The woman once threw a mop at one of the children, a boy, but she missed.
He had a very light mustache that was trying hard not to grow, more a suggestion. There was sweat caught between the fuzz on his upper lip, he looked nervous.
Your mama’s hurt real bad and she needs you at the hospital, he said, her name twisting in his mouth. The girls around her parted, calling her name, waving, telling her they hoped her mother was alright.
You gotta come with me – your mama asked me to bring you with me, to the hospital. His words didn’t sound right, sounded like he wasn’t comfortable with them.
Dark thoughts filled her mind – was her mother seriously hurt? Would she be alone? Where was her sister, why didn’t her sister come? The high school was just a few blocks away, certainly they would have allowed her sister to leave at a time like this? The girl thought of her mother, was sad they had argued this morning, argued about her not wanting to go to school, about not having a cell phone of her own – all my friends have cell phones – Well you are not your friends, her mother said, I can’t afford a cell phone, and you’re too young.
He was older than her but not by much, it was hard to tell, his face was a white blank, a smeared red slit where his mouth should have been – maybe sixteen, eighteen? She didn’t think in higher numbers like that. People in grades beyond sixth grade seemed unreal to her, just tall shadows ignoring her in lines at the movies, people who seemed so much cooler than her, people with cars and mobiles. She was in fourth grade, a nothing year, a year of waiting. He had light blond hair on his face, his cheeks were red from the cold, he was thin and fidgety. What hospital is she at, the girl asked. The main one, the boy said. Give me your phone and I’ll dial it for you, he said. I don’t have a phone, the girl said. His grip on her hand tightened, pulling her closer to him, his body. She felt a kneecap through his pants and it shocked her, she’d never been this close to a grown boy.
He was wearing an orange bubble coat … everyone seemed to wear them but the girl thought they were silly, ugly. Her friends at school wore them, one girl she liked best had a pink one. I don’t like them, the girl said, they make you look like a space man. Her friend laughed – you’re so dumb, she said. I’m not dumb! the girl laughed, they’re silly! I like my coat. Your coat is ugly, her friend said, but the girl knew it wasn’t true.
What’s wrong with her, the girl asked. The boy didn’t answer. What’s wrong with her, the girl asked again. I don’t know, they don’t tell us anything like that, that’s why you have to go with me to the hospital. The girl had learned about singulars and plurals in class – you’re saying it wrong, she said. The boy ignored her. His hand was sweaty and red. She kept looking for the hospital building but by now it was dark and the only things she could see were trees. It got so dark here, so early. She didn’t like where she lived, but her friends were here, her sister was here, everything she knew was here. Somewhere beyond the expressway was her father, a man she didn’t know. She had trouble with time, didn’t wear a watch, and had no phone. Her friends at school didn’t need to tell time, their phones did it for them, but she had to work harder at everything because her mother claimed poor. Some days were more difficult than others, but she liked her room, liked her sister. Her older sister had her own room and she had hers, though sometimes she would creep into her sister’s room to talk to her. She didn’t like being alone. Sometimes her sister liked her, and sometimes she didn’t. She didn’t understand older people, they always whispered secrets that didn’t make sense.
She recognized where she was. He pulled her deeper into the woods behind their neighborhood, trees so tall and close together night closed around them even though her body told her it was still daytime. Why didn’t she scream? She didn’t want to embarrass herself, she was nine years old and the other girls in her class didn’t scream when they were in trouble, didn’t cry.
The boy pushed her so hard against a tree it knocked the breath from her. She had trouble breathing, couldn’t scream, was crying now. Shut up! he told her. She was surprised at his rudeness. He removed a roll of silvery wire from his bubble coat pocket. He tightened the wire around her head, cutting her thoughts in two. He shoved a sock in her mouth. She bit down on his finger and he slapped her so forcefully she felt weak, the world spinning under her, too fast to catch up.
He was breathing heavily when he removed his bubble coat. He was much thinner than she imagined. I want your peach, he said, ripping at her jeans, her panties. His voice was horrible, his breath wet concrete, the burn of a public pool in summer. But this wasn’t summer, it was very cold outside. She thought of her mother, how dumb her mother had been not to let her have a phone.
No! she screamed through the sock, but it was no use, the woods were dark, and swallowed her cries. People in houses with warm yellow windows seemed very far away, washing dishes at kitchen windows, the trees gathering closer together, hiding her shame, broadcasting her cries to a god she had never met.