by Mollie McNeil
I’m stuck in my babysitter’s broken-down Toyota at a stinky gas station, but I don’t really mind because I’m gliding Wanton Red across my lips. Mwah! I kiss the rearview mirror. Don’t you just love lipstick marks on a mirror? By the time you are almost twelve, you don’t really need a babysitter, but try telling that to my mom. She still thinks I’m a little kid; never lets me dress how I like or go where I want. At least this new sitter, Jolie, gets me. She’s different from the old sitters who read all the time or have back problems. Jolie is fun and lets me borrow her black spandex shorts and her cute white tank top. When I ask to use her makeup, she says, “Go for it, girl!”
I make my lips full and dramatic with Deep Chocolate lip liner and my eyes more mysterious by swiping on Smokey Indigo and Moonlight Glow. I rock this p.m. look with Tawny Temptress on my cheeks and Midnight Black lengthening my lashes. Hard to believe, two days ago I didn’t even know what this look was.
It is so roasting outside that my legs sweat and stick to the car seat. Jolie says that it is getting warmer everywhere and calls it global weirding. Maybe she’ll study more about it when she starts her first year of college. This summer she’s a lifeguard and likes all the sunny weather. We swam at the pool by her high school today and drove back fast with all the windows down, radio playing loud, wind flying through our hair. Then the engine went clunk. Lucky for us, the gas station was right at the end of the off-ramp.
I want to show my new p.m. look to Jolie, but she is busy with the mechanic. As she listens to him, she has one hip pushed toward him, and she is fingering her tank top strap. He talks, and she leans into him and nods; her ponytail bobs up and down. He seems eager to explain things to her, wiping his hands a lot on his blue rag. He is a skinny blond guy who bites his lip when he listens to Jolie. His shirt says “Dave” in red curly letters. He and Jolie look about the same age. Dave flips his hair back, sticks out his chest, and points out the collection of vintage hubcaps on the garage wall. He talks about his band.
Jolie swipes a wrench from the tool table and lightly taps out a beat on the hubcaps while swishing her hips around. Then she spins the wrench on her index finger, pitches it in the air, twirls herself around and catches it behind her back. Dave laughs. I giggle too. I wonder if she can use that wrench for real. Like on a car or sink or something.
As I dig through her makeup bag some more, her Juicy Fruit gum is suddenly perfuming the Toyota; she is leaning through the window and snapping it at me. Teeny diamond star studs wink from the tops of her ears. I’m dying for pierced ears, a butterfly tattoo, and pink highlights like Jolie’s. I beg Mom for these things, but she always says no. Mom is such a grump. Plus she has no style. All she cares about is work, checking her phone, and rushing around all the time. Her hair is turning gray, and she won’t even color her roots.
“Looks like we’re stuck here for a while, Lily. You bored? You could walk home if you want.” Jolie dangles the house key from her finger.
Walk through the city on my own? Mom would fall over dead, but I’m so ready to be free and easy like Jolie. What’s the big deal anyway?
“Sure,” I say, snatching the key and sliding out of the car.
“I should stay here with the vehicle.” Jolie glances over at Dave repositioning a hubcap on the wall, and then back at me. She presses her lips together like she might be rethinking things, so I grab the dog leash. I don’t want her to change her mind.
“I’ll take Pluto.” I clip the leash to his collar and tug him out of the car. “He could use the walk.” Jolie’s dog Pluto is large and friendly, but also old and slow. He lopes from the car, saliva dribbling from his mouth.
“He does look hot,” Jolie says. “You sure you know the way?”
“Up four blocks, then left.”
Mom is allergic to dogs, but she is working today, as usual, and will never know if I tie him up in the front yard. It’ll be fine as long as he doesn’t dig up the flowers. Mom gets really mad if anyone messes with her flowers. But what is the point of growing flowers if you can’t pick them? She is so lame.
“There’s a plastic bag for Pluto in my purse. Take the whole thing if you want.” Jolie said that accessories make or break the outfit, so I hand her wallet to her and slide her black purse onto my shoulder, and move from the garage out into the blue day. It feels great to be free, rolling along, warm breeze on my calves, leather bag soft against my thigh.
As I walk a few blocks away from the gas station, cars zoom by on the freeway beside me. The shade from the underpass looks inviting; but not the crumpled stash of cardboard, the rusty shopping carts piled with cans and the ragged blankets strung up haphazardly. I look down the street one last time for Jolie. She is kind of far away, and she is harder to see, but I can tell she is laughing with Dave. She then notices me and waves and smiles when she sees me. I’m about to wave back at her when a guy with tangled hair, a thick mustache, and a tank top like mine — I mean Jolie’s — comes over to me. I fiddle with my tank top strap like I saw Jolie do and smile at the man. The guy then holds out his soda cup.
“Want a sip?”
I’m not sure what to do.
Mom would say: Don’t talk to strangers. But she would also say: Speak when spoken to. All I can think is that I am really thirsty, so I drink from his cup but don’t say anything. The soda is watery and has a yucky alcohol taste too. I hand it back to him, embarrassed by the Wanton Red smudges I’ve left on the rim. He takes a swig from it anyway and wipes his mouth with the back of this hand.
“You sure are a pretty girl.”
Maybe I should introduce myself so we aren’t strangers anymore. “I’m Lily.”
I stick out my hand. He cocks his head to the side and looks at me, taking in my face, my shirt, my shorts. My armpits prickle in the heat.
“Pretty name too.” He says, taking my hand between his two dirty ones. His eyes rove my shoulders, my hips, my knees. I slide my hand out from between his, give him a little wave like Jolie might, and head up the street again. I picture the cool shower I’m going to take when I get home. But first I’m going to brush my teeth. That soda was gross and made me feel kind of dizzy too.
“Hey.” The man is breathing hard as he trots to catch up to me. “What’s your dog’s name?”
I don’t feel like talking to him anymore, so I keep walking and look mostly at the ground ahead of me. But when I peek at him, his eyes seem sad, and I change my mind. “Pluto.”
“Like that old cartoon?”
I shrug while he gives Jolie’s dog a pat.
“I used to have a dog, but he ran off.”
“Didn’t you feed him?”
“Do you miss him?”
“Only to sleep with.”
He lets out a dry laugh that turns into a cough. Dark splotches bloom under his eyes. He looks sort of hungry himself with his scrawny arms, all veiny with little scratches on them. I search Jolie’s bag for snacks, but there is only a can that says pepper spray and some Juicy Fruit.
“Want some gum?”
“Not hungry for that.” He laugh-coughs again and rubs his eyes.
I pop the stick of gum in my mouth instead and give Pluto a tug. We walk without talking for a while, but as we get nearer to my house, I consider walking around the block. I don’t want him to know where I live, and I’m not inviting him in. He stinks worse than Pluto. I don’t know where to go now. The neighbors are never home.
What can I say that will make him go back to where he came from? He leans into me and back out again, weaving a bit. When he is too close his breath shoots down hot on my neck. Below his mustache, his teeth are yellow. The sores on his neck make me queasy. He touches my arm.
I pull my arm away and move a little faster, jerking Pluto away from the bush he stops to lift his leg on. We are all three panting in the sun. My tennis shoes feel tight around my feet, and my house key bites into my palm. My forehead is slick with sweat. Then the man sticks his nose in my hair and sniffs it.
I yank my head away. “No, it doesn’t.” Tears leak from my eyes; mascara bleeds down my face. “It stinks of chlorine.” I swipe at my tears and smear Moonlight Glow and Tawny Temptress into a dark mess. I don’t want to be pretty anymore.
It is too quiet as we stand in front of my house. There are no people around and no moving cars. Pluto sits and scratches his fleas. Everybody is away at work. He looks at my house just like he was looking at me, slowly, taking in the red-tiled roof and the painted shutters, the white-curtained windows and my mother’s trellis of roses in full bloom spilling over the garden gate.
“Nice,” he says. “Nobody home, right?”
I want to say I have a lot of brothers inside with sharp knives and baseball bats, but I can’t. I’m no good at lying. Pluto should bite him, but he just thumps his tail on the concrete pavement like we are old pals. More tears stream down my face. I can’t stop them. It is too hot. A roaring sound like TV static grows in my ears, and a lump forms in my throat so big that it’s hard to swallow. Everything is becoming a huge black swirl spiraling in on me, and I can barely hear what the man is saying. A metallic roaring sound is growing in my ears.
“You never thanked me for the drink.” He unlatches the garden gate and tugs me through it. In the garden I drop Jolie’s purse and back away from him, hoping he will reach for it and I can skirt around him and run back to the gas station. His eyes are hard. He kicks the bag into the bushes and shoves me toward the garden fence. I stumble backwards into my mother’s marigolds and zinnias. He pushes me down, and I crush her violet pansies, blue lobelia, and forget-me-nots. He pins my shoulder with one hand and yanks down my shorts with the other. My head is mashed into the dirt, and it fills my ear. My mother’s trellis of roses hangs above me. Their white petals flutter in the warm breeze, but I cannot smell them. I smell B.O. and cigarettes and bad breath.
Brakes shriek on the other side of the fence, car doors slam, feet pound the sidewalk, the latch clicks, and the garden gate bangs open. I pray it is my mother. I hear Jolie scream. Hands grab the man by the shoulders and haul him off me. Then I see the man dive at Dave’s legs and knock him to the ground. Before Dave can squirm away, the man has him pinned to lawn by the neck.
“My bag!” Jolie searches the yard frantically for it, upending patio chairs and kicking over flowerpots. “Where’d it go?”
I tug my shorts up. I am floating above everything. Suspended, I point to the bushes but keep my eyes glued to the mechanic writhing on the grass, the man’s hands squeezing his neck, his thumbs pressing hard into Dave. Dave’s bucking and kicking and twisting around slow down. His face flames red. He sputters and gags. His eyes grow wide, bulge out, and roll back in his head.
Jolie thrashes around in the bushes. Suddenly, she sprints out the gate empty-handed. The car door creaks open, and then she runs back in the yard. She rushes the man from behind. There is a flash of silver, and I hear the crack of metal on bone. The man falls heavily on Dave, and she shoves him off onto the grass and comes over and kneels down next to me. She strokes my hair with shaky fingers as I clamp my arms around her waist and lay my head in her lap. I will never, ever let her go.
“It’s okay. It’s okay,” she says, rocking me, then cupping my head with her hands. I want to believe her. Her thighs are soft and smooth against my cheek. Pluto nuzzles into her side, but I hold on tight. No dog is going to shove me off her lap. Jolie is crying now, her chest shudders with each breathy gasp. Her tears rain in my hair. I feel here and not here.
Dave pushes himself to his elbows and coughs. Then he sits up and rubs his throat. “Fuck!” he says and spits some phlegm on the grass.
When he gets to his feet, he pulls the grimy blue rag from the gas station out of his pants and wipes his forehead. His cell phone slides from his pocket and slaps against a patio stone. “Shit!” he says, as he scoops it up and presses numbers into its shattered glass face. His voice is gravelly as he tells the police where my house is.