The bus charged along a solitary stretch of cracking asphalt that cut through the buff Nebraska plain. It was almost winter, the wind whipping and dry, and still no snow. Kylie looked out the window at the barren landscape, watching the bluster strafe the flats while a cold clump of anxiety lodged in her chest. The bus was overflowing with chatter and the chatter was all the same: the new girl had disappeared. No one could remember the new girl’s name, but everyone knew she had been their neighbor at the Horseshoe Haven mobile home court for just a few short weeks.
“Her mother waited twenty-four hours before contacting the police,” said a girl with a tight nose ring that glinted in the biting light. There was silence. Finally a boy with a thick-tongued drawl spoke up. “We’ve got seven registered sex offenders inside of, like, five miles,” he said. The chatter notched up. Did you know her mother works nights at the convenience store in Buford? And that her mother’s boyfriend hangs out in the parking lot all night with a shotgun in his lap?
Kylie examined the narrow margins of seat space on either side of her, too narrow for another student to join her. With her fingertip, she drew repetitive circles on the vinyl seat, each circle a physical manifestation of the endless thought process she’d been battling all day. She had been considering befriending the new girl, maybe inviting her out to a movie on a Saturday, though when she told her mother of her plans her mother had scrunched her features into an ugly frown. “She’s not very well liked, and she’s lived here how long, Kylie?” But Kylie was silent, having already begun inoculating herself against her mother’s certain disapproval. She would have liked to have said, “Just a few days, so I don’t know what you’ve got against her.” But she found herself swallowing excessively, digesting her annihilated hopes, the rejection slogging through her body like a clump of bitter food.
The November wind drove corrugated clouds across the sky as the bus sidled up to the entrance of the mobile home court and disgorged its noisy clutch of students. Kylie lingered near the road while everyone else straggled on. In seventeen hours at exactly this spot they would all be mounting the same bus again. Maybe even the new girl, because she was bound to turn up. Just yesterday the new girl had waited for the bus wearing a chenille jacket for warmth, a jacket patterned with pink script that read “Fancy Girl.” Kylie had considered using this as an opening for conversation. “Well, fancy that,” she planned to say. She’d speak in a voice monitored for just the right measure of friendliness, because although she wanted the girl to like her she didn’t want to appear overeager. Betraying how desperate you were was never a good choice.
A wild gust boxed Kylie’s shoulders as she idled below the giant cowboy and horseshoe sign in the same place where the girl had waited for the bus the day before. It had appeared to Kylie that the cowboy had been looking at the new girl with fatherly concern. The girl had translucent skin that looked as if it might pierce on receipt of a stern look. She wore a shorter dress than the other girls, and no tights to protect her legs from the gripping cold. Kylie thought the girl looked like a pretty turtle because the girl’s alert head was slightly jutted, and she had unblinking eyes that were softer than a quick glance would have had anyone believe.
Kylie looked once more at the cowboy, but his grin seemed indeterminate and so she bunched her scarf around her neck and bolted for home. As she passed the mobile home where the girl lived, a commotion of voices jarred her to attention. The girl’s mother was talking to two policemen. Kylie could not hear what was being said, but something must have bothered the girl’s mother, because she dashed into the house and slammed the door, though being a thin trailer door its weak thud was like putting a period where an exclamation point ought to be. A moment later the woman returned, accompanied this time by a frowning man with a pony tail and a deep crease between his eyes. He was not wearing a coat, and his fat, heavy arm was slung around the woman’s frail shoulder like a python on a branch.
Kylie’s home was at the apex of the horseshoe curve. She banged through the door, ignoring the package of macaroni perched conspicuously on the edge of the kitchen counter. Within moments she had eaten two Zingers and a snack package of Oreos. Guiltily, she stuffed the wrappers in the trash and aimed a gaze out the window, expecting to see her mother’s car sprinting down their curved lane—her mother was always in a hurry. Though it was getting dark, she spied movement in the grove of leafless trees west of Horseshoe Haven. Immediately, her heart began drumming. The flickering of many flashlights zipped through the crackling trees like strokes of abbreviated lightening. She understood their meaning at once.
Darkness fell. Kylie knuckled the light switch. The florescent tubes pinned to the ceiling smeared alabaster beams on the walls, which in turn made the windows appear blackly opaque. In Kylie’s imagination, the mobile home was a train that made sudden, perilous stops in the middle of nowhere, a sinister conveyance subject to invasion by men in dark clothing with the power to order her off the train and into the frightening unknown. When she endeavored to think of something else, it was the new girl who slid back into her thoughts. Soon she had managed to conjure up entire scenarios involving the girl. One scene in particular spurred an inner detonation of nascent happiness: she and the new girl were waiting for the bus under the cowboy’s benevolent glance, their faces lowered against the November wind. It would have been too cold to talk, too impossibly frigid to carry on a conversation, but it wouldn’t have mattered because they would already be friends, friends who stood shoulder to shoulder shivering in unison. And then the spark of flashlights amidst the denuded trees reentered her circle of vision and her thoughts froze like sheep in an ice storm. To bury her fear, she scampered to the fridge for something to swallow. She was pouring herself a glass of milk when her mother burst through the door. Her mother’s face was a battleground of anger and worry. Kylie felt as though a cinch were being tightened around her lungs.
“What kind of mother doesn’t report her daughter missing until a day later?” her mother snapped, aiming her disastrous face at Kylie. “It’s a load of crap, if you ask me.” As if she suddenly realized who she was speaking to, she kissed Kylie on the forehead, and then commenced digging in her handbag until a jumble of creased bills sprouted from her hand. “You didn’t eat the macaroni? Come, let’s get groceries, there’s not enough food in this house.”
“Go yourself, I’ve got homework.”
A look of disbelief crossed her mother’s face. “You’ll do it later. You can’t stay here by yourself. I won’t allow it.”
“But I’ve been by myself,” whined Kylie, though the thought of leaving the kitchen’s gray shadows for the brightly-lit supermarket presented a welcome escape from the ominous hive of flashlights threading through the November trees.
At the store, Kylie made casual mention of fudge ice cream. She usually accompanied her mother along the aisles, making subtle remarks in favor of items she wanted. Tonight she chose to roam by herself. She ached to see the new girl along one of the aisles, selecting items as she herself did, the girl’s mother saying yes to this, no to that. Her need was so great she set out to find the girl, all the while pretending she was just wandering aimlessly, aware of the pretense yet unwilling to defy it, the bloom of hope driving her forward. Up and down the aisles she surged, eyes thirsting around every corner. Yet her mother soon found her and kept her busy with questions about what to put in their cart, which Kylie noted was filled higher than usual, a carton of fudge ice cream crowning the many packages of food stuffs. The sight of it stabbed Kylie with a desperate, insatiable hunger, an inner void so bitterly urgent she momentarily forgot about the new girl, forgot everything except her prickly, aching stomach. But the intensity of her hunger gradually eased against the blazoning lights and jovial commotion of the store. She was glad she had come along. It beat staying home alone penciling the wrong answers on her homework page and being too terrified to care.
The car’s headlights whitened the darkness as Kylie and her mother headed back to Horseshoe Haven. The weight of the grocery bags banged and butted Kylie’s legs as the car took the turns. As always, her mother drove in a mad rush. Since leaving the store’s glaring lights, Kylie’s heartbeat had been racing inside a dazzling cloak of fantastical possibility, and before she could stop herself she was thinking aloud. “Maybe when they find her I could give her a call? She hasn’t anyone to sit with on the bus. Maybe I could help search for her? Like tomorrow, when it’s daylight?”
Her mother’s lips were moving as though she were talking to herself, which she sometimes did. Kylie thought maybe her mother hadn’t heard her, and started to repeat the question. But now her mother was jerking the car onto the shoulder and braking to a fierce, springing halt. Kylie’s heart dropped like an anvil in a sinkhole. Even as she tried to pull away, her mother’s grip on her shoulder held her captive, and she was forced to blink into her mother’s face, her entire scope of vision monopolized by two furious, anxiety-fueled eyes. “Don’t…you even…think about it, you understand? What do you think’s going to happen, you go wandering around where any criminal can nab you?” The face inched closer; Kylie could smell spearmint and lipstick and the raw scent of terror. “Listen. You can’t help that little girl. We can’t worry about everyone else’s problems, we can’t do anything to help them, we just go along and we mind our own business. You understand?” The violence in her mother’s eyes, the twist of the mouth, the moment’s undercarriage of fear, reminded Kylie of what she must never tell anyone. Her mother was HIV-positive. She had known this most of her life, just as she had known what her mother said would happen if people knew their secret-her mother had pounded it into her head often enough. They’d be abandoned by everyone, her mother might lose her job, schoolmates would be merciless, and before long they might even be homeless and penniless. She had to be careful what she said and to whom she said it, or they would never make it. Yet Kylie knew this scenario was a blissful dream compared to the one she feared more than anything else in the entire world, the one in which her mother took ill and was no longer there to care for her.
Kylie slunk back in her seat, drained, staring into the darkness the rest of the way home. Without a word spoken, she and her mother carried in the groceries. Dinner was chili with fries and broccoli in cheese sauce. For dessert, ice cream was offered, but Kylie shook her head. She stayed at the table to work a few math problems while her mother took a shower, but her mind would not focus and her grip on the pencil soon slackened. Outside, an exceptionally long black car, like an oversized station wagon, skirted the bend and eased down the lane until only the tail end of it could be seen outside the park manager’s office. Kylie’s throat felt stiff as the pencil that had fallen from her fingers. “What kind of car is that?” she asked when her mother returned to the kitchen.
Her mother was wearing a gray chenille robe and a towel around her head that tilted forward like the crest of an exotic bird as she leaned forward to peer out the window. An instant later her mother’s mouth fell open, revealing a line of crowded teeth. “I don’t know,” she said hoarsely as her fingers did battle with the curtains, wrestling them closed.
Something was sticking in Kylie’s throat. Even as she tried to breathe, the something clung to the walls of her throat, and her lungs tightened, rejecting the small sips of air she tried to introduce into the hollow cave of her body.
“It’s after ten. Kylie? Time for bed.” Her mother’s face was wrecked, but she nevertheless stood guard beside the front door as though Kylie were a wild animal that might try to escape.
Kylie sat on her bed in a pink nightshirt printed with hummingbirds, staring at her feet, her wide, swollen feet, until her eyes began to close. A gray gash across the window startled her into alertness, but on second glance it turned out to be her own reflection, a blurry echo of the person she knew to be herself. As she reached to draw the curtains, employing the same desperate yank her mother had earlier demonstrated, she went cold in her stomach. The new girl was standing outside the window, just lingering, her plaintive expression ignorant of the fact that curtains were about to be closed in her face. The girl’s supplicating eyes were red-rimmed, as though she’d been crying for a while, and her brow was wracked by a deep yearning. Even in darkness, Kylie could see that the girl’s delicate translucence was suffused with the need for hope and the sadness of loss.
Dropping the curtains, Kylie flung backwards onto her bed and drew her arms about herself, her heart lurching, her breath rasping. For a long while she held herself in a dense, tight package, twisting her night shirt with nervous fingers until whole sections of the fabric were puckered. When she could summon the courage, she stole another glance at the window, her heart leaping now with a rushing tide of anticipation. But once again, the ghost of her own silent face, expressionless as the moon, gazed back at her. She grabbed at the curtain, succeeding in dragging it halfway across the window before tumbling backwards into bed and burrowing beneath the covers with the blanket jammed up to her ears. Her eyelids closed in a brief facsimile of sleep. Minutes passed. And then, ever so slowly, she opened her eyes, drew the covers away from her face, and turned toward the window. She might be a coward, she told herself, but she was a determined one at that. And yes, it was possible to love and hate yourself, to pity and chastise yourself, to comfort and crush yourself, all in the space of a single breath. And then you’d curl up in a ball until your breathing nearly stopped. She knew that and probably the new girl had known it, too. They were alike that way.
Kylie inched toward the window. A breath of cold air wavering over the glass rose up to caress her face as she slowly inclined her head. She closed her fingers around the curtain and proceeded to draw it aside. It stuck, but this time she tugged at it with a great surge of defiance, a singular flood of purpose and resolve. With the curtain scrunched aside, a burdensome obedience uncoiled from deep inside her, releasing itself, pushing up and out from the core of her gut, rising, growing weightless. She was not a coward, she was not! She had a good heart and a good mind and she could prove it. Prove it to herself and to anyone who wished to know. Pressing her avid brow to the pane, she blinked and peered out. But the darkness outside the window rebuffed her with its depthless black, its willingness to reveal nothing she needed, not a whisper, not a sound, not even the swimming shadow of a girl in a pink chenille jacket pulled close for warmth.