I woke to voices outside my window, and I pushed aside my curtains to look out. The sun had almost finished rising. My parents stood in the front yard wearing pajamas and frowns, and a police officer took notes and nodded while the three of them gestured towards me—my window. When they spotted me inside, looking out at them, my mother shooed me away with the same frantic waving-of-hands she used to stop the cat clawing the furniture.
Summer break had just started, so I made a habit of forcing myself to sleep late. I woke up for the second time that morning around eleven, my parents long since gone to work. A note on the fridge from my father: “Chris (short for Christy), keep all doors and windows shut and locked AT ALL TIMES! Call Mom when you wake up.” I walked straight out the front door to the place where they’d stood in the yard talking. We lived in a cul-de-sac at the end of a long, straight street, and if you squinted real hard, from this spot you could see for nearly a mile down the road, a mile framed by identical trash bins sitting in front of pretty-much identical brick homes. You could also see from this angle where someone had tried to break into our house. Metal frame mangled and scratched, my window had held tight.
Almost a week passed before we started seeing Amber alerts on the news. We all knew she was gone by dinner the night after the break-in—word traveled fast—but, you know, when a teenager’s involved they have to wait a few days and make sure she hadn’t run away to Nashville or New York or done some other stupid thing.
That summer ended up the first and only summer I lifeguarded. I’d expected to be saving fat little four-year-olds from drowning in the neighborhood pool on a daily basis—looking forward to it, actually—tucking my arm underneath chubby bellies, dragging them by the water-wings, kicking, screaming, and splashing. But we had low turnout that summer. No rescues; no grateful parents hugging me and thanking me for saving precious little Schuyler, for pulling Brooklyn out of the deep end. The whole summer turned into just me and couple kids whose parents were still brave enough to use me as a cheap babysitter. We’d lay around and eat candy and get brown together—some days no one even got in the pool.
I wouldn’t be caught dead at the pool when I wasn’t working. Erin (my best friend) and me would sit together in my attic and smoke pot and talk. We’d pop popcorn to satisfy the munchies and cover the shit smell of dirt weed. Sitting up in a cloud of butter-tastin’ smoke, sweating in the summer heat, we’d rummage through all the junk my folks kept boxed up in the attic: a bunch of trophies from my summers doing youth soccer; the pile of hand-tied friendship bracelets kids gave me the year hand-tied friendship bracelets were cool; my first report card—all Ss and one U.
“Unsatisfactory,” I said. “I thought it meant I’d go to jail or something. I was convinced I was a very bad girl. I criiiiiiiiiiiied.”
“If only you’d known,” Erin said, “how well you’d turn out.”
“If I had a time machine,” I told her, “I’d take these trophies with me and the friendship bracelets and I’d go back and tell myself, ‘Look. Look at all these things you’re going to do. Stop crying. You’re going to be, like, not a failure.’”
“Yeah,” Erin said. “You could bring back some weed, and get yourself high and tell yourself to chill the fuck out.”
The cops first suspected the girl’s parents. That’s how we all found out about the bank foreclosing their house. Her parents were nice enough people, the pair of them, with their matching blond hair and smiles. Surely, they couldn’t have murdered her? Not with those perfect white teeth. But they were hard up for money, weren’t they? What if they sold her to a Nigerian prince or something? You couldn’t say that stuff out loud.
About halfway through the summer, Craig started showing up at the pool. He’d bring his little brother to swim, so it wouldn’t seem like he’d come to see me. But, he’d stand, flipping his hair out of his eyes, squinting up at me from the time the landscapers left in the morning until the vending machine guy showed up right before dark.
The whole situation was weird, though, because he had dated her. Not right when it happened, but in the past, like last summer. Recently enough that when you saw Craig you thought of her. The police had talked to him, he said. I told him not to worry. By that point, the whole subdivision had already agreed on another suspect: that fat weirdo at the end of the block.
He’d never said a word to me, only looked, but a look told you more than enough. I’d be out riding my bike (I hadn’t gotten my learner’s permit yet) and he’d be out in the yard in his crocs and shorts, cutting grass or getting the mail, just staring—at my legs or chest or something. You’d say hello really nice just to try and put him on the spot, and he’d waddle back inside. He didn’t have a wife or kids or anything, and he disappeared right after she did. House for sale. Furniture gone. Of course, the police wouldn’t say when you asked about suspects, but you just knew.
I was his first choice, I think. Or maybe he already had her when he came after me—maybe he was trying to build a harem or something, grabbing as many of us as he could. His suburban harem—a gaggle of teenage girls locked in his basement, sex slaves or something.
“You know,” Erin said, when I told her what I thought, “that girl’s probably dead.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Probably.”
So then you just stopped hearing about it for a while. The occasional news update would show her picture—the one of her in the letterman jacket, smiling real big, those same white teeth as her parents.
Her dad moved out of the house. I sat on the curb at the end of the cul-de-sac and watched him load boxes into the back of his truck—he didn’t have many boxes. When he pulled away from the house, I waved goodbye. He didn’t wave back.
Craig started hanging out with Erin and me. His contribution to the attic was a Magic 8 Ball someone had left at a table at Denny’s as a tip. Craig always said if he had to work at Denny’s one more day, he’d burn the place down. He still works there, I think. The Magic 8 Ball always said “Yes” no matter what you asked, so you had to ask the right questions.
“Am I awesome?”
“Is my brother the dumbest person alive?”
Then one day when it was just Erin and me in the attic, I told her.
“He kissed me,” I said.
“Who did?” Erin said.
“Craig, stupid. Who d’you think?”
“I dunno. That creeper from down the street.”
“Shut up,” I said. “Craig kissed me.”
“You really are obsessed. Her boyfriend?”
“So? It’s not like they were dating when she disappeared. And so what if they were? He can’t date anyone else, ever?”
“First you’re, like, so proud that some Chester Molester kept checking you out and now you’re dating a dead girl’s ex? It’s just…gross.”
“Real mature, Chris. Call me when you stop being weird.” Erin climbed down out of the attic.
“You’re just jealous,” I called after her. My mom told me that when other girls say mean things to you it just means they’re jealous—that they think you’re prettier or smarter or something. Anyway, we didn’t talk for a couple weeks and after that everything was fine.
Around my birthday, they found the guy—the fat creeper from down the street. Craig and I had just broken up (turned out we didn’t have anything in common), and I’d started going with Erin to hang out by this creek in the woods. At night, it’s where seniors went to fuck. But during the day, Erin and me would lay on the ground and stare up at the trees, talking over the buzz of mating insects, staring up at the little bits of sky you could see forcing their way through the trees.
“Do you really think I’m weird?” I said. Because girls have this way of saying things and fighting and then making up but never really taking back or apologizing for anything we said in the fight because whatever we said was probably true.
“Kind of,” Erin said. “Not that weird’s a bad thing… Before, you were just Glee weird—like showtunes and stuff. But now you’re all Law and Order: SVU. I’m not sure how much more Crime Scene Investigator Chris I can take.”
“They found him,” I said. “That guy from down the street. Living in a subdivision outside Atlanta. Can you believe that?”
“So was she, like, in a freezer in his basement?”
“No,” I said. “She wasn’t. They didn’t even arrest him. Only questioned him.”
“But, he did it right?”
“Innocent until proven guilty.”
“He was a freak, Chris. You said that yourself. You said he peeped at you.”
“I never said he peeped. I said he stared.”
“Whatever. He’s a grown man looking at a teenage girl. Weird city.”
Right at the end of summer, on the hottest days, Erin and me started wading around in the creek to cool off. We’d sit and float for hours in inner tubes tied to trees on the shore. At the end of one really hot day, that’s when Erin told me I was right.
“I was jealous,” she said. “It’s totally creepy of me. But you got all this attention after that guy tried to break in or whatever. ‘That girl. The one who didn’t get kidnapped.’ Like, you were special. Like you did something. I thought, like, you were just lucky, that’s all. I know, lame. Who’s the weirdo, now?”
“Shut up,” I said. Code for ‘I forgive you.’ “Let’s get out. I’m getting all pruny.”
We pulled our inner tubes to shore and untied them from the trees. Erin’s slipped away and floated down stream. We waded out after it. It was almost full night now. The knee-deep water had cooled down and a little breeze made goose bumps come up on your neck. The inner tube made its way into a gap in the bank and was stuck in a tangle of low branches. Erin pulled at it, but couldn’t get it free, then slipped on a rock and scraped her leg. While she nursed her cut, I yanked on the inner tube. I pulled with my whole body and finally it came loose, and that’s when I saw it, inside the drainpipe, covered in mud and leaves, and naked. Her.
On my birthday, my mom took me to get my learner’s permit and after, she started teaching me how to drive in her white sedan. Lesson #1: Always stop for funerals.
The hearse passed first—slow and dark gray with a white curlicue on the side. Next came the limo, matching gray with blacked out windows. As the other cars passed—SUVs, pickup trucks, vans—I tried not to think about what had happened to my window and what we’d found stuffed in the drainpipe where kids threw used condoms and the roach ends of joints, like another piece of teenage waste.
By the time last car passed, the light had turned red, and I still couldn’t go.
Nadria Tucker holds an MA in creative writing from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her fiction has been published in THE2NDHAND (winner, 2007 & 2008 fiction competitions); New Southerner (honorable mention, 2010 fiction competition); and the fiction anthology All Hands On: THE2NDHAND After 10. She is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).
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