The morning Mom tells me my skirt is too short, I find the lawn full of dead fledglings. I’m not sure how they got there—Mom tells me they were all babies pushed from the nest too soon, but there are so many. At least a hundred. I have to shovel them to the garbage before my father gets home on his lunch break. I miss the school bus, but at least Mom approves of the cardigan I switch into.
It’s Friday, which means this evening all my parents’ friends collect on the back patio and get drunk off rosé. I always take advantage of this. Suburban housewives have this thing about keeping their vices to themselves, so I dig through their purses in the kitchen to snag a few cigarettes. Just one or two from each box, enough so they won’t notice.
When the clock strikes two a.m., I tiptoe down the staircase and sneak through the front door. I always have to be on high alert in case the dog barks. Plus there’s this godforsaken portrait of me in the hallway—decked out in my homecoming queen garb, donning my tiara and smiling that beauty pageant grin—that makes me gag, so I keep the lights off.
This is a nightly routine. I started it when I was a freshman. Every house in this neighborhood is modeled the same: the same two stories, the same triangle roof, the same green grass lawn, white picket fence, tin mailbox, brick chimney. Down the road a bit, if you cross through the Hollands’ backyard, is a tiny creek that leads into a drainage system. I like to sit on the concrete above, dangle my feet over the plastic pipe, and puff away.
Nighttime is me time. I can lose myself in the black sky and pretend I’m dead. I can draw constellations in the stars that aren’t even there. I can cry; I can write in my diary; I can finally be alone with my thoughts. I love to be alone. Sometimes I think that my own company is more suitable for me than if I were around others. Because of the person that I am.
I’m halfway through my first cig, tossing a twig into the water, when I hear whistling. When I peer over, all I can see is a flock of crows, collected like a school of fish or a swarm of gnats. Loud and omnipresent, it approaches me like a thunderclap, altering shape from a cloud to a V, and finally into something humanoid, morphing into a teenage boy. He has slicked-back, jet black hair, parted in the middle, and a John Travolta leather jacket. He has olive skin and slurs some Buddy Holly tune. There’s a flask in his hand. He winks at me. I can’t place it, but I swear he looks like someone I know.
I toss the cigarette and pace away, fingering the pocket knife tucked in my jacket. I’ve had it since I was a little girl, stole it from some kid on the playground. I needed it more than him, anyway.
“Where do you think you’re going, Abby?” he hollers.
I stop and stare him down. “Who are you?” My fist grips the blade.
“Think of me as an admirer.” He proffers me the flask.
“I don’t drink,” I lie.
“You’re good at wearing masks, huh?”
I can’t think of a comeback. I ease my guard, rip the drink from his hand, and gulp. It’s straight vodka. I swallow hard and wince at the sharpness. It shoots down my throat—I like it.
“I haven’t seen you around the halls,” I mutter, hesitant to return the flask.
“High school nooses my goose,” he tells me.
“Then how do you know my name?”
“Who doesn’t?” He takes a switchblade from his pocket and flicks it out. Flicks it in. Out. In. Out.
I study my surroundings. Spot a rock nearby that I could smash this kid’s skull with if need be. Cement I could cave his head into. I could gouge his eyes out if he pins me down. I could flee into the drainage pipe, but who knows where that leads.
“Who the hell are you?” I question.
“Well Mikey, thanks for the booze and all, but—”
“Did you like my present this morning?” he interrupts.
I can feel the blood in my body freeze.
“They were robins,” he smirks. “I picked them out for you. Like a bouquet of flowers.”
“I need to leave,” I tell him. My hand magnetizes back to the knife, but I’m shaking now, trembling.
“Abby, Abby,” he snickers, “Don’t you know? I never forget a face!”
I watch as he disintegrates into the ground, transmuting into a shadow and fading into the black night.
I get the hell out of there.
The next few nights I evade the hiding spot. I think of how a lousy greaser ruined the one nice thing in my life. Anyway, I have cheer practice this whole week, plus volunteer work at the church. I head there straight after school to work on the sanctuary garden. My car broke down a month ago, so I ride my bike. I have to take the long route through the graveyard. I’d do anything to avoid the 7-Eleven in town. Sometimes you have to stuff certain memories so far in your back pocket that you forget they exist. And nothing that happens will cause you to pull it out. It’s the only way I can keep my head on straight.
One afternoon I’m weeding, digging holes for petunia plants. I don’t have a green thumb, but I feel obligated to do it. I feel like I have to do good, and a lot of it, just to make up for how bad I can be at times. Though I don’t think I’m a bad person—I’ve just done bad things. Sometimes I wonder if my life would be different had certain things never happened. I try to be a good person. Despite my past. I’m trying.
I’m about to drop in seeds when my shovel hits something. I go in with my glove, prod around until I have it in grasp. It feels like rotten fruit. Then I find it’s a robin. A dead robin, bent like a contortionist, its intestines pouring out and its neck snapped. I peer around, looking for invisible nests, trees that aren’t there—the possibility of a lurking Ponyboy.
I tell the youth pastor I have to leave immediately.
When nighttime comes around, I know where to go. The message was clear, and I want him to leave me alone. There’s a trellis by my window that I can climb down. I have to be very quiet in case nosy Mrs. Willis is awake and peeping out her window. Suburbanites have no clue how to keep to themselves.
It’s an eerie night, the type where you realize the reason for sleep: so humans can’t experience this time of day. Everything is shrouded by a purple tint, with fog tickling the ground and a wetness stuck to the air. I forgot a pack of cigarettes in my other jacket, so I’m completely empty-handed save my trusty knife.
I spot a silhouette illuminated under a lamppost nearby. It moves swiftly, like a current. I follow its lead all the way to the creek. The shadow darts out of vision, into the creek and to the base of the drainage pipe. When I lean over the concrete, Mikey fills its place. He’s leaning on a motorcycle, smoke drifting from his mouth. The night holds onto him and doesn’t let go. It’s as if the air is alive and reaching its grimy paws out at him, gripping and gripping like he’s one of the same.
“Told you I never forget a face,” he hisses.
Quietly, I reach in my jacket and pick my knife from the pocket. I grip so hard my knuckles turn white, yet I stabilize myself enough to aim it his way.
He eyes the blade and guffaws. “Put it away, Abby.”
“What do you want from me?”
He leaps at me, so I jump back. Grabbing a hold of the concrete, he pulls himself up beside me. He assumes the position I’ve perfected, dangling his legs and puffing at a joint.
“You ever try cocaine?” he asks.
I lie and say no, so he extends a finger with a silver powder dazzling the tip. My flesh tingles looking at it. I haven’t had blow in a few weeks. Almost unwillingly I’m gravitated towards him, and I snort the bit, dust the white off my nostril.
“That’s a nice ride you have,” I say, eyeing his motorcycle.
“It’s my pet hog. My baby. Come sit, I have a handle of Captain Morgan and it’s not going to drink itself.”
I take the place next to him, and we spend the next few minutes passing the bottle back and forth, taking swigs. The blow begins to kick in. I start to feel confident, sexy, euphoric. Like I’m invincible and unstoppable and standing on top of the Earth. Mix that with the rum and I’m a giggling mess, tugging at Mikey’s jacket and twirling locks of his hair in my fingers. I even peck him on the lips, just for the hell of it.
The moon disappears behind a grey cloud. It was full—now there’s nothing but leaking light. Some stars are visible, but not as many as usual. They’ve all gone away. When I was younger, my dad used to get me to sleep by telling me every star was a guardian angel. I wonder where they all are now.
“Mikey, Mikey,” I poke his ear and titter, “Where’re you from?”
He puts an arm around me and pulls me closer. He smells like bathroom cologne and tobacco, but somehow I can’t get enough. “Baby, I’m from your dreams,” he says. “Let’s play a game. Question for a question.” Drunken me couldn’t be more excited. He reminds me to be truthful.
“Tell me,” Mikey says, “What brings you here every night?”
I wasn’t suspecting something along the lines of that. Most boys, they want to know if you’re a virgin or not, if they can lead you back to their room, what your tits look like. Not this. Men never want to get to know a girl.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I reckon I get lonely, just like anybody else.”
“Why is that?”
I tsk at him. “No, no. One question per round. It’s my turn. I want you to tell me where you’re from.”
“I told you already,” he answers. “You wasted your turn.”
“That’s unfair!” I nudge at him, clench my face together and pucker my lips. “Dreams aren’t real, Mikey.”
He licks his lips, and I notice his tongue is slightly forked. “There are places beyond your wildest dreams,” he says, “To which even you haven’t been.”
I’m not sure if the coke is wearing off, or if that comment sobers me, but I’m put on high alert. I stare into his eyes and swear they fade into yellow.
“Who are you?” I ask.
He puts his finger to my lips. “Shh. My turn…How long have you been drinking?”
“I told you,” I say, “I don’t drink.”
“And I suppose you never snorted blow either.” He passes me the joint. “Do you know what this is?” Laughs.
“If you have to know, I started drinking when I was thirteen. That doesn’t sound real, does it? I guess I’ve been this way as long as I can remember. At that time I liked being bad. I liked having secrets, because so many people thought they knew me. Now it’s just a habit. I like being able to do those things and leave my thoughts at the door.”
I did it because I had no other option, but I can’t tell Mikey that. When I was thirteen it was the only way I could keep from crumbling from everything that had happened to me. To this day I can still feel it on my skin.
“What do you do, when you come here?” Mikey questions.
“One question per round, sir.”
He folds his leg over the other. There’s a patch on the knee losing its stitching, peeling off so it reveals his skin just a tad. “Fine…What do you want to know?”
“Why me?” I ask. “Why’d you pick me?”
I can’t tell who I’m addressing when I say that. A whole multitude of things.
Mikey leans back and yawns. “Because you knew me long before you saw me.”
“I thought you were familiar…”
“Now answer my question.”
“Okay…What I do here—I do this. I like my alone time. Well, I used to be alone until you ruined that. It was a way to get out of my house.”
“Not close with your folks?”
“You could say that. You want to know why I attend Catholic school? One afternoon when I was fifteen, my mother found pills in my underwear drawer. They were from Planned Parenthood. She liked to snoop. You see, she thought I was depressed, thought I was going to kill myself. But even worse, her little angel was sleeping around. But I knew what sex was long before she could have dreamt.”
Maybe it’s the cocaine that has me oversharing, or the liquor. Or maybe it’s nice to finally get this off my chest. I feel like Mikey gets me. I feel like he understands what I’m trying to say.
Suddenly I start to cry. I can’t place why. I never cry—it’s not in my character. But Mikey’s reminding me of how alone I feel. There must be other people out there who feel just as unloved and lonely as I do. It’s more comforting to believe that. Because I don’t like knowing I don’t belong anywhere. Life is hard enough for a teenage girl. I guess…I just want someone to love me and to take me for who I am. I collapse onto Mikey’s lap and lay there, watching insects cause ripples in the water below. Mikey pets my hair. I try to count how many houses I can see through the trees but they all blend together. There’s so much I could tell this boy, so much I want to. I could tell him about the drugs, the sex, the alcohol. I could tell him about 7-Eleven man, but I won’t. Something tells me that Mikey knows all this, though. Maybe he does. He whispers in my ear to shut my eyes, he has a surprise…
When I open my eyes I see him, and scream a blood-curdling, body-trembling scream. Robed, he stands in the creek, the water coming to his knees. His skin is tinted purple, and bags form under his eyes. He watches me. Studies me. Eyes me up and down.
I know it’s him. I could recall his face in a pitch black room. The same crow’s feet, the unruly stubble and balding head, the beer belly protruding from his tank top. The same stupid smirk on his face. I could almost slap it off.
“Mikey,” I beg, “Why are you doing this? I want to go home.”
I want to run, but I’m paralyzed. Everything is caving in on me like demons punching at my skull, squeezing it tighter and tighter until I’m suffocated. I grab Mikey by the collar and yank him close. We’re nose to nose, eye to eye. “How did you know?” I scream at him. “Who are you?”
He reaches in his pocket, takes my other hand and lays something in it. It’s a pistol. “Ever shoot a gun before?”
“My dad used to take me to the range, but…Take it back. I don’t like guns. Make him go away.”
I’m sobbing now. Mikey kisses me hard, cocking the gun in my hand. Says I better get to it. I press my eyes shut so tightly they could shatter. I can’t turn my head. I’m shaking like I’ve lost control of my body. I can’t turn my head and look at the 7-Eleven man again. If I do I’ll scream, and I don’t know if I’ll stop.
Mikey forces my body to move, positioning me to the creek and lifting the gun in front of my face. He barks for me to open my eyes.
When I do, the 7-Eleven man is staring me down. He doesn’t say anything, doesn’t move. Smirks, licks his teeth. Rubs his crotch. I don’t let go of my shriek.
“He’s breathing,” I yell. “Is he alive?”
“He’s only as alive as you let him be,” Mikey tells me.
I want to drop the gun and run, but I keep it pointed at him. Something about it exhilarates me. I have the power here. I’m the one with the gun.
“Do it!” Mikey commands.
I take one last look at the 7-Eleven man. He hasn’t budged. I realize I wish he were dead. He makes me wish I were dead.
I was twelve. I barely had my first period. I was twelve. I walked down the road to buy a chocolate bar. Twelve, and he told me he went fishing with my dad. Twelve.
To this day I can feel his body. They say it goes away, but it never does. His touch, the way I bled. The smell of the stall in the restroom. The urine left boiling in the toilet. The rusting pipes…Now there’s the woods. The sound of the creek. The breeze. You have to focus on the little things to completely dissociate.
I don’t breathe. I close my eyes. I pull the trigger. Feel the shot course through my body.
After some seconds, I reopen my eyes and look for what’s left of the 7-Eleven man. But he’s not there. No corpse, but in its place is Mikey. He laughs his head off and kicks around the water. “You can’t get rid of me!” he shouts. Crows swarm him.
My eyes widen. “I know what you are!” I scream, and that’s all I can utter before the words are gutted out of me and I’m left speechless. My mind shuts down. I’m left victim to my body, and I sneak down to the water to grab hold of Mikey’s extended hand. He’s on his motorcycle, revving it up. Unconsciously I hop on the back, throw my arms around his stomach. He drives us into the drainage pipe, and the light behind us dims until there’s nothing left but darkness.