When I was nine, I spent most of my summer days exploring our farm. I played in the old apple orchard on the hill, splashed around in Black Creek, and searched for new kittens in the barn, hoping to save them from being drowned in a sack. Sometimes, I played with friends. That summer, my most available friend was my neighbor, Tracy Hall, who lived in a brown-and-white trailer plopped onto a sliver of land at one end of our 200 acres. She was three years older than me, with waist length hair so blond that, by August, the sun turned it white. She wore a pair of large pink plastic-framed glasses that reflected both sunshine and cloudy fingerprints.
The Halls’ refrigerator was always stocked with an enormous jug full of Kool-Aid, and they ate a lot of Hamburger Helper and tuna casserole. I loved being invited to dinner at their house because I knew my mother would be horrified when she found out I was eating mashed potatoes from a box. She only liked us to eat healthy food. Like, if I wanted a crunchy snack, she’d say, “Go pick some green beans from the garden. They’re crunchy.” The Halls had Cheese Doodles. Mrs. Hall, who had big blond hair like Dolly Parton’s, never told her kids to go outside and eat raw green beans.
Right now, I was supposed to meet Tracy for a walk to the Bedlam Corners General Store to stock up on candy, maybe even some Cheese Doodles, but I only found twenty-eight cents in my bedroom. Twenty-eight cents wasn’t going to cut it. Thinking about Mommy, I remembered the pottery piggy bank sitting on the dresser in her bedroom. She’d probably be mad if she found me picking quarters out of her pig, but what she didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her. Plus, buying a bag of Cheese Doodles with her money was good revenge for suggesting raw green beans as a snack.
I ran across the hallway into Mommy and Daddy’s room and lifted the heavy, brightly painted pig off the dresser. I crouched down, turned it on its side, and winced at the metallic ring of coins shifting inside. The rubber plug in the pig’s belly came away with pop and a shining stream of coins poured onto the floor. Taking too much would be greedy and Mommy might notice if the pig was lighter. I wondered if she kept count of the money inside. To be safe, I only took fifty cents before scooping up the rest and dumping it back into the pig. I made sure the plug was tight, then took a moment to arrange the pig exactly as he’d been. Leaving evidence of theft was a bad idea.
My blue nylon Nikes scuffed along the side of the road, kicking up dust as I stopped to say hello to our horses. My fingers stroked the velvet nose of Tank, who nodded his head up and down before trotting off to follow me along the fence-line. For a quarter mile, he stopped for an occasional nibble, pretending he wasn’t interested, before entering a quick trot to catch up. His playful whickers made me giggle. Eventually, he was stopped by the fence at the end of the field, where he stood and watched me walk away. He was in the same spot every time I looked back. It seemed like he didn’t want me to go, and something about his insistent stare made me nervous. I’d never seen him act that way before.
When I couldn’t see Tank anymore, I could see Tracy up ahead, waiting for me along-side the road next to her trailer. She pushed her glasses back up her nose, and then waved at me. I jogged to close the distance between us. Then, together, we walked and happily chatted along the way. As we strolled, the houses moved closer together. The fields shrank into the distance and were replaced by neatly mowed lawns and marble walkways. We passed the big gray house with the widow’s walk on the roof, and Tracy said it was haunted.
We passed the Grange Hall on the right and, moments later, the Methodist church with its spire that stretched toward the sky. My eyes followed it to its point, above the old maples shading the road. I loved the way the spire topped the bright white building like a giant dunce cap, like the ones those kids had to wear in reruns of The Little Rascals. Spanky was my favorite.
Ahead of us, the road gently curved at the big brick Presbyterian church and wound up the hill toward the store. Between the Grange Hall and the churches, there were a few big white houses with black shutters that mommy called Greek Revivals, but most were small, painted a simple clean white and lined up neatly along both sides of the road. The little cluster of buildings reminded me of how lonely I sometimes felt living on the farm, and I wondered how it was to live in those pretty white houses with neighbors always near.
I noticed an old lady with hair that matched the white color of her house watching us from the shadows of her front porch. She raised her hand to wave at us, and I watched the skin dangling from her arm swing back and forth. “Hello, girls,” she called.
“Hi, Mrs. Fowler,” Tracy replied. Tracy knew everyone in town. Her family had been living here for hundreds of years. She had said so one day a few months earlier after explaining that my family was “new,” plus we were from The City. “Are not,” I’d said. “We didn’t live in The City, just downstate.”
“Same thing,” Tracy shrugged. “Everyone thinks you’re from New York City…and that you’re rich.”
At supper, the night after our conversation, I’d waited until it was quiet enough to speak without being interrupted. “Are we rich?” I asked. Mommy and Daddy laughed and asked why I was interested. “Tracy says everyone thinks we’re rich because we’re from The City,” I explained. Daddy made sort of a snort and laughed again. “People certainly like to spread rumors,” Mommy said, shaking her head. Then Billy started talking about wrestling practice and my question was forgotten.
“Having a nice walk?” the lady called Mrs. Fowler asked.
“We’re going to buy candy,” Tracy called back. I waved, a little worried that Mrs. Fowler had figured out I was new, then quickly stuffed my hand into my jeans pocket to touch my stolen coins. If we were rich, I thought, I bet I wouldn’t need to steal quarters from Mommy’s pig and she wouldn’t need to work all summer long at Dr. Leach’s office. Or I’d have a nanny to watch me so I wouldn’t be home alone.
We walked past Mrs. Fowler and her porch, crossing the bridge over Black Creek, following the road’s curve to the left and uphill. Now the trees were too far away from the road to offer us shade. I was hot and thirsty. Our steps slowed, and my body began to feel floppy from the long walk. If we were rich, I thought, we’d have a swimming pool or we’d still go to the lake for the summer and Mommy would stay home to drive us to the store. The toe of my sneaker hit a crack in the pavement, making me trip. “Oh, shit!” I said, making Tracy giggle. I looked over my shoulder, worried that Mrs. Fowler heard me swear. Nothing would confirm that I was new and from The City faster than swearing. Bad city kid types swore in public.
At the top of the hill, the yellow painted General Store held the promise of sweets and a cold drink. I hoped I had enough money for both. A faded red tractor was parked outside, spewing black smoke from a long pipe behind its seat. It belonged to an old farmer who lived in a house that sagged in the middle. Where his nose was supposed to be there were only raw looking scabs and mottled brown skin. Mommy said he probably had cancer and I believed her because she’s a nurse. Each time I saw him, it seemed like he had a little less nose. I imagined him riding his tractor to the store with a skeleton’s face, stinking of cow manure. He always smelled of cow manure. Whenever he passed by, I stopped breathing through my nose and counted to twenty, waiting for the smell to go away.
I tried hard to look at him, to say hello, because I imagined that most people were too scared of his nose to talk to him. He never looked at me though, or at anyone for that matter. He rarely spoke.
“Will he die?” I’d asked Mommy. She’d paused for second before answering. “Eventually, if he doesn’t get treatment,” she said. I thought about him in his falling-down farmhouse and wondered who loved him. “Doesn’t he have a wife?” I’d asked. “I have no idea,” Mommy answered, “Where do all these questions come from?” From her tone, I’d sensed she wasn’t as worried about him as I was.
When Tracy and I finally climbed the steps of the General Store and pulled the door open, I was thankful for the darkness inside. It was cool; the hum of the glass-front refrigerators vibrated faintly through the worn pine plank floor. “Hello, girls,” a disembodied voice called. Though my eyes hadn’t fully adjusted, I recognized Fred’s voice.
Fred and his wife owned the store, and I liked them. They never got too grumpy with kids, or overly suspicious about us stealing, so we never did. “Hi Fred,” Tracy and I called out in unison. In the back, near the refrigerators, I could see the old farmer grabbing a gallon of milk then quickly held my breath as he turned to walk toward the cash register. Standing under a red sweater that had been for sale since we had moved to West Hebron four years earlier, I watched him pass and tried to make eye contact. He gave me a wide berth, wordlessly paid Fred and left. Outside, his tractor grumbled, then slowly faded into the distance.
The General Store’s counter was lined with glass jars full of penny candy. My personal favorite was the jar of Swedish Fish. I filled a small brown paper bag with the appropriate amount of fish in exchange for my stolen change.
Tracy and I stepped from the darkened interior of the store into the warm late-afternoon sunshine and began our walk toward home. We were moving slowly, talking about the counselors at Hebron Camp.
“Larry’s the best. He gives out candy if you can tread water for five minutes,” I said through gummy mouthfuls of sweet, chewy candy when a blue van approached. The woman in the passenger seat stared at us as the van crept past.
“Let’s go look at the water,” I said, wanting to move along. Something about that woman’s stare made me feel scared.
Tracy and I crossed the road to look at the water that flowed under the bridge at the bottom of the hill. The willow branches swayed gently; their rustling leaves were all that we heard. The tiny village was quiet. As we pushed ourselves away from the railing of the bridge and resumed our walk, the blue van was back. It lurched to a stop beside us. I was closest to the road and startled by its sudden reappearance. It must have turned around.
I saw the face of the woman in the passenger seat as she twisted herself to yell at someone in the rear of the van. Her brown hair was limp and stringy. Her eyes were wide, and she kept moving her head around, quickly scanning the houses around us. She looked rushed and panicky. In the seconds it took for me to absorb her and her actions, the side door of the van slid open and then jerked to a stop when it reached the end of its track.
Inside, a man with dark greasy hair and a gaunt face hung onto a handle with one hand as he moved to the very edge of the van and lunged at me with his free arm. I could barely make out a third person, the driver of the van, when the man hanging from the handle grabbed my left arm along with a portion of my long, brown hair. I was being pulled toward the open door of that van and thinking, simply, they look so dirty. Their hair is greasy and I don’t know them. In the seconds that this was happening, I searched the faces of three strangers who were glaring at me with an odd hunger in their eyes. At once, I knew that they were taking me. I attempted to pull away. He didn’t have a firm hold on my arm. He floundered, unable to get close enough to pull me in. “She’s too far away!” he yelled.
The woman was still twisted in the passenger seat and screaming at the man holding my arm, “Hurry the fuck up! Get her!”
Vaguely, I felt both of Tracy’s hands firmly wrap around my right arm. She pulled with all of her might. For a few moments in time, I hovered between the gaping hole in the side of a rusted blue van and the firm grasp of my thirteen-year-old neighbor.
As if in slow motion, I turned my head in her direction. Her eyes were fixed on the man pulling my other arm, and her eyebrows had drawn dangerously close together. Her white-blonde hair was illuminated by the sun, lone strands lightly riding the breeze. My head jerked to a stop mid-turn because his hand, the one that was gripping my arm, was also tangled in my hair. In that frozen moment, I looked behind Tracy’s head and watched the sunlight playing through the long, wispy leaves of the willow trees. I watched the long graceful branches paint ripples into the water of the stream and worried that would be the last beautiful moment I’d ever see. Even though I had no idea what these people wanted with me, some instinct told me what they wanted was ugly.
Tracy’s sneakers dragged through the sand and pebbles on the roadside and found purchase on the grass behind her, enabling her to pull with more force than the man in the van could muster from his awkward position. As Tracy tugged my arm, Mrs. Henry’s screen door slammed closed. The banging sound caught my attention and I watched her hurry to the edge of her porch yelling, “Leave those girls alone!” I saw another woman exit the house and lean across the railing to get a better view.
I turned then to face the man in the van, and felt his fingers loosening. I looked down at his hand as Tracy pulled me from his reach and saw his dirty fingers, first wrapped and tangled in my hair then slowly receding back into the van. As suddenly as it had appeared, the van accelerated and sped away from us. As it did, the man holding the handle was thrown backwards into the depths of the van, and the sliding door slammed shut.
I couldn’t move. I didn’t know if I was supposed to run or simply sit down right there on the side of the road. Tracy tugged on my arm then and began pulling me forward.
I sat on Mrs. Henry’s porch, and she gave me a glass of iced tea that I didn’t want. She smoothed my hair and asked if she could call my parents for me. I declined, knowing that they weren’t home.
Only later did I realize that I had lost my bag of Swedish Fish.
Carefully extracting myself from under the weight of an unconscious 19-year-old, I rolled to my side and pushed myself from the heap of dirty laundry on the bathroom floor. I wanted to pee, but I couldn’t with him there.
I wondered how long I’d been gone, not knowing if it was minutes or hours. No one had knocked to use the bathroom. If they had, I didn’t hear it. I wondered if I’d blacked out. My head was cloudy from second-hand cigarette smoke and bottles of Bartles & Jaymes. I adjusted my damp underwear which had been stretched to the side, smoothed my skirt, and wondered what to do. He didn’t hurt me, I’m okay, I told myself...