Amanda Hart Miller
(Previously published in Apeiron Review)
Little girls can be stolen, especially a little girl with sad, heavy-lidded eyes and a too-small jacket, a girl who carries a stuffed unicorn in the crook of her arm and rubs it against her lips again and again. She waits all alone at a bus stop by a patch of winter-gray woods. The few houses on the street have cardboard taped to the windows and junk on the porches. To put a bus stop here, Johnny feels, someone must have been asleep at the wheel.
Johnny has been watching her now for 41 school days. He marks off the days in his notebook, which he then tucks away. Johnny’s head doesn’t work as well as it used to, so he can’t remember these things unless he writes them down. He writes other things about her, too:
Girlie has ribbons in her hair today but they fall out she keep putting them back in. Girlies hair don’t cover that bruze. Girlie got candy bar today. Girlie stares and stares at the moon this morning I want to be there too Girlie.
On his most daring of days, he trills a bird call and she turns around to see nothing because he’s behind the trunk of a big tree. He rests his cheek against the bark and listens to his heart scurrying back down his throat.
He wears trash bags and rides his bike along the main drag in what is a small town. People say it’s because his wife got burned up in a house fire and he went crazy. He’s written this down. He doesn’t remember that happening, but he does remember lying with Bea after love, her skin silky and scented like almonds and sex, don’t ever leave me but he doesn’t know where she is now. And sometimes he remembers the men under the overpass tying him up and lighting him on fire Ooh-wee… he’s lit up like a Christmas tree but usually this stays deeper inside him in someplace that can’t be remembered but eats him up just the same.
Girlie sometimes tries to trick him, he thinks. She brings chalk and draws pictures on the sidewalk, and she works on them so hard that she has to press her lips together tight so she can think, but suddenly she’ll look up quickly, at his tree. The mornings are getting darker, though. It will soon be the longest night of the year.
After the bus comes and takes Girlie away, he copies her chalk drawings into his notebook. She mostly draws hearts and flowers, and he likes to pretend she draws them for him. When he copies them into his notebook, they are for her.
On January 20th, the sky is much more gray than white. A van pulls up to the bus stop. When the man inside puts down the window and says something to Girlie, she stands up from her drawing and cocks her head. She takes three steps back from the van, and Johnny feels like he’s one of the tiny hairs on her skin—just as bristled and scared. She takes another step back and then looks toward Johnny. He forgets to hide because he falls into her eyes for years before she looks back to The BadMan, who is opening the van door until he, too, sees Johnny.
The man shakes his head and mutters something angry that Johnny can’t hear. The van purrs as it rolls away.
Girlie is smiling at Johnny, thin lips closed and dimples showing. Now there’s this thing linking them, hurtling him through a rabbit hole of jittery nerves so he comes out the other end pumped and fretting at the same time.
The bus comes then and Girlie gets on. He can see her through the window, through her clothes to her skin and even deeper, to her heart sending all that blood around, and even deeper than that, to what it all means. The world has always been just the three of them: Girlie and The BadMan and this block of flesh that is Johnny’s to place between them. With trembling hands, he pulls out his notebook.