Rick R. Reed © 2020
All Rights Reserved
She was only thirteen. It wasn’t fair she now lay, bound, waiting for death. Before, there had been struggling: clawing and fighting, scratching their faces, pulling at their hair, batting at whatever part she could reach. Her breath had come in choking spasms, adrenaline pumping, burning, anteing up the hysteria so much she thought her air would be blocked. Then had come the dread that made her lose most of her fight, when her terror-addled brain had begun to accept her fate was to die here, in this tiny, hot room, with the only witness to her demise the sparkling eyes of her killers and the maddening, crooked whirl of a ceiling fan long past its prime and wobbling, doing nothing more than blowing the overheated, moist air around the room. The dread had risen up, a nausea twisting her gut and making her afraid she would vomit. And then had come the numbness, a dull tingling throughout her body that precluded movement, stripping her of coherent thought.
They stood above her. Faces she had trusted, faces she had seen before, around her neighborhood. The man she and her friends had had a crush on. He used to drive by her little house on Ohio Street in his old red Mustang, looking the picture of youth, confidence, masculinity. His hair was dark, cut bristle-brush short, and his face always clean-shaven. Thin lips bordered rows of perfect white teeth, and when he had smiled at her, only hours ago, she had lit up. A tingling had started in her toes and had worked its way up until the color rose to her cheeks. At her young age, the interest of a man in his twenties was inconceivable, although it had been something she had hoped for since the first day she had seen him, back at the onset of summer, when the sun had turned white-hot, burning up the grass and making illusory waves rise from the hot, cracked sidewalks.
He had pulled to the curb and sat there, car idling. She sat in the front yard, sorting through Barbie clothes: ball gowns and swimming suits, miniskirts and stretch pants. He didn’t say anything, not right away. She had looked at him once, then looked away, certain his interest could never be in her. Suddenly she felt ridiculous with her metal trunk, her Barbie dolls, and all the outfits she had once been so proud to collect. Swiftly, she returned the clothes to their case and slammed it shut.
She leaned back, resting on her palms, and lifted her face to the sun. Its heat beat down relentlessly, making the skin on her face feel tight.
She felt his eyes on her still. She opened her own eyes a crack and regarded him peripherally. He really was looking at her! The adorable little smile that caused a dimple to rise in his right cheek deepened in the sun’s play of shadow and light. She leaned back more, left hand reaching out to surreptitiously move the Barbie trunk farther away. In this posture, here on the withered and brown grass, she felt that her breasts, little more than two tiny bumps an unkind boy at school had once referred to as her anthills, looked larger. She could be eighteen, couldn’t she? With the right makeup and her hair pulled up….
But now her long blonde hair was pulled back in a ponytail, clipped with a pink plastic barrette. She wore a pair of cutoff shorts and an oversized South Park T-shirt belonging to her older brother. He would have killed her had he known she was wearing it. But he was away at the Y’s summer camp and would never know the difference.
The idling of the car was like an animal purring.
And then the sun disappeared, and she sat in darkness. Beneath her closed lids, she sensed someone standing over her.
Why hadn’t she heard the slam of the car door? Her eyelids fluttered, but she did not open them. It would be just like her mother to come outside now and stand above her, hands on hips, and ask her what she thought she was doing.
Finally, she opened her eyes and blinked at the brightness of the August day. He was smiling. So unlike the other guys in Fawcettville, he was dressed in pressed black slacks and a collarless white shirt, buttoned to his neck.
“How did you know my name?”
“Oh, I make it my business to know the names of all the pretty young ladies around here.”
Lucy felt the heat rise to her face once more. She grinned and could not think of a single word to say.
She shoved the case farther away, until it was completely out of her grasp. The case lay in the white heat, glinting, looking, she hoped, as if it had nothing to do with her.
“What? Oh…no, no. These are my little sister’s. She always makes such a mess of things, and I was just organizing for her.”
“What a good sister.”
The two said nothing for a while, and Lucy began to grow uncomfortable under his gaze. She shifted her long, tanned legs in front of her, crossing them at the ankle.
“I was driving by and saw you sitting there, and I had to tell you”—he hunkered down beside her—“what a lovely sight you are. It made me stop just to have a better look.”
She laughed and thought she sounded way too much like the thirteen-year-old she was. “Thank you,” she whispered, wondering where her voice had gone.
“No, thank you, for being here, for making the heat of this day a little more pleasant.”
Oh, stop! she wanted to cry out but whispered again, “Thank you.”
He leaned closer, enough for her to feel his breath near her ear. In spite of the day’s heat, his nearness caused gooseflesh to rise on her arms, her spine to tingle.
“Listen.” He glanced around the empty street with eyes like none she had ever seen: green, ringed with thick black lashes. And in his gaze was a conspiracy that included only the two of them. “My car has air-conditioning. I know this is out of the blue and all, but I wondered if you’d like to go for a ride with me.”
Lucy glanced back at her house. She wished suddenly she lived in a bigger house, in a better neighborhood. Here on this modest residential street close to the river, her small white clapboard house was surrounded by other houses very much like it, some of them covered in rusting aluminum siding. She pictured her mother inside, on a vinyl-covered kitchen chair, watching All My Children on a thirteen-inch portable TV on the Formica-topped kitchen table. Her mother, she knew, would never approve of what was transpiring here, right in her front yard.
He stood suddenly. “Okay, okay. I get the message.”
“Wait.” She sat up straighter. A pickup rumbled by and left in its wake a smell of exhaust and a rush of hot air.
He turned. “What? Need to get your mom’s permission?”
“Of course not!” Her voice came out higher than she would have liked, the whiny protest of a child. She stood. “I’d like to come with you. But I can’t stay out too long.” She was about to say “My mom will be worried” but realized how immature that would sound. “I’ve got some people I have to meet in a little while.”
He smiled. And the smile erased any nervousness she had about going with him. After all, she had seen him around the neighborhood dozens of times. He wasn’t exactly a stranger, not really.
“That’s fine, Lucy. I’ll have you back within an hour. I promise. I certainly wouldn’t want to get off on the wrong foot with you.” He winked, and she followed him to the waiting car.
Lucy tripped getting into the car. Her head bumped against the chrome surrounding the upper doorframe, and her hand slid across the black vinyl seat. The laugh that followed came out high and flighty, a little bird. Lucy reddened once more, embarrassed by her klutziness.
He was grinning, already behind the steering wheel. “Don’t worry about it. We are all prey to tiny lapses in coordination.”
He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel while Lucy settled beside him, doing her best to recover her composure. With elaborate care, she positioned herself on the seat and crossed her legs. She admired her legs and hoped he did too: long and tan, smooth, the legs of a woman.
It was then she felt, more than noticed, the presence of someone else in the car. Lucy turned and saw her for the first time. In the back sat a young woman. Her hair, like Lucy’s, was blonde, but more of a brassy platinum shade. She wore a pair of dark glasses with cat-eye frames, bright-red lipstick, and a silk scarf tied around her neck. Her simple white shift contrasted sharply with her peach-colored skin. Lucy thought she was about the most glamorous thing she had ever seen in Fawcettville.
He noticed her looking. “This is my girlfriend, Myra. Sweetheart, say hello to Lucy.”
Did Lucy detect a very slight British accent in the gravelly voice? Whatever it was, this woman seemed so self-possessed and confident, Lucy’s dismay that this man had a girlfriend was almost overridden. Lucy was fascinated.
Lucy turned back to the man. “I don’t think you told me your name.”
He laughed, and Lucy forgot about Myra. His laugh was musical, setting her heart to thumping. She wondered what it would be like to slide closer, to rest her head on his shoulder.
“It’s Ian.” He slid a pair of Ray-Bans over his green eyes and shifted the car into drive. They sped away from the curb.
Lucy watched as her little white house grew smaller in the side-view mirror.
It wasn’t long before they were pulling up in front of a trailer on the outskirts of town. Lucy was disappointed; the dwelling didn’t seem to fit Ian’s character at all. She had expected something more romantic: a houseboat moored on the Ohio River, a high-rise apartment in nearby Pittsburgh, a mansion, a log cabin, anything but a trailer.
And it wasn’t even a nice one. Set up on cinder blocks, the trailer was a big box wrapped in harvest gold and dingy white aluminum. A piece of the skirting had torn loose at one end, and there was rust around the corners.
Ian shut the car off and draped his arm across the back of Lucy’s seat. “It isn’t much, love, but it’s all I’ve got. Care to come inside, or should we take you home?”
“Oh, just take her home, Ian. She’ll be late for supper,” Myra said from the backseat, where she hid behind a cloud of cigarette smoke.
“I’d love to come inside. This is where you live, right?”
Ian laughed. “Yes, for now. Are you sure you have time?”
Lucy glanced down at her watch, embarrassed suddenly by the pink vinyl strap and the Hello Kitty face on the dial. She would have to get a new watch soon, no matter what. Mom would probably be wondering, right about now, where she had gone off to. “I have a little time. Let’s go in. I want to see.”
Lucy followed the two of them toward the trailer. Ahead of her there was a copse of maple trees on a bluff. The Ohio River, looking brown and stagnant in the milky white light, curved as it made its way south.
Inside, the sudden change from the day’s withering brightness to the dark interior blinded Lucy, and she felt her first moment of panic. Neither of them said anything, and she suddenly felt helpless. For the first time that day, she questioned their interest in her and thought herself foolish for not having wondered why a young couple in their twenties would want to bring her home.
But she did look older, didn’t she?
Of course she did. Ian confirmed it. “We’re going to have a glass of wine, Lucy. Would you care for one?”
A flush of pleasure rushed through her. They did think she was older, a peer. Perhaps they were just trying to make friends. Before the onset of the summer, she couldn’t recall having seen either of them before. But what would Mom say if she came home with liquor on her breath? She groped in her pocket, thankful for the piece of Bazooka there.
“Well, maybe I could have just a small one.”
“Excellent!” Ian clapped his hands together and went toward the wall behind him, where a portable kitchen waited. He took a jug of white wine from the refrigerator and poured three glasses.
After they were settled in the living room and Lucy’s eyes had adjusted to the dim lighting, she said, “This is much nicer than I thought.”
The couple exchanged glances, laughing, and Lucy wondered why. The place was run-down. The carpeting, a beige-and-brown tweed, was threadbare, and the furniture was a hodgepodge of mismatched pieces, all of it looking secondhand. The scarred coffee table contained an odd assortment of items: a book called Crime and Punishment, a ceramic skull, and two black votive candles set on tin jar lids.
But the dimness and stale air bothered her more than anything else. Why were all the curtains drawn? “It’s kind of dark in here, isn’t it?”
That remark they found amusing as well; their laughter began to make her uncomfortable. She scratched her arm.
Ian said, “Lucy, haven’t you noticed? It’s hot outside. It keeps things a little cooler if I keep the drapes drawn.”
After they had finished their wine—well, after Ian and Myra had finished theirs; Lucy thought it tasted horrible—Ian disappeared for a moment. When he came back, he was carrying a video camera. It was one of those tiny ones you could almost palm in your hand, and the red light on it was blinking.
What was going on?
“Smile for the camera, Lucy.”
Lucy tried to smile, but things were getting too strange. She managed to turn up the corners of her lips in a grin. Suddenly, Myra was on the couch next to her, too close, really. Lucy smelled her perfume. It was too sweet, with a bitter undertone. It smelled like she had rubbed incense on herself. The scent of the perfume combined with cigarettes and wine caused Lucy to lean back, away from Myra. Suddenly, the woman didn’t seem as glamorous as she had in the car.
She put her arm around Lucy and mugged for the camera. “Come on, Lucy, smile!”
Lucy bit her lip, thinking of the Barbie trunk she had left on her front lawn. Kelsey Timmons, just down the street, wouldn’t be above taking the whole trunk home, especially with the golden opportunity Lucy was giving her. Kelsey had coveted Lucy’s Barbie collection since she had moved in down the street four years ago. “I think I’d like to go home now.” Lucy tried to look anywhere but into the lens of the camera. She wished he would turn it off.
“Nonsense!” Ian exclaimed.
“You just got here, dear,” Myra whispered to her. Her lips were too red, and Lucy suddenly felt sick.
“Please, I need to go home now.”
“Just a few more minutes.” Ian hunkered down in front of the two of them, moving the camera slowly up and down their bodies.
Lucy lifted the wine to her lips, just to have something to quell her mouth’s terrible dryness. She began to perspire, dampening at her armpits, her hairline. She whimpered, “You said no more than an hour.”
“Such a pretty girl,” Myra whispered, lifting Lucy’s ponytail and turning it in her hand. “Oh, to have such tresses. What I wouldn’t give to have hair this color.” She giggled. “Naturally, I mean.”
“Jealous?” Ian stood and aimed the camera down at the two of them.
Lucy shot up, heat and fear coalescing to make her sick. The walls of the trailer closed in. “I don’t feel so good. Can we go now?”
Ian set the camera down for a moment and gave her his most winning smile. “The answer to that question, my sweet, is no.”