The Girl with the Bowed Back

Submitted into Contest #102 in response to: Write about a mysterious figure in one’s neighborhood.... view prompt

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Contemporary Mystery Teens & Young Adult

She was only noticeable for how normal she was. 

She smiled too much. She laughed at all the right jokes. She kept up with the witty banter. 

But the one thing she never did was talk about herself. 

After all, she was a listener. A giver. 

She was a tree that gave shade and never received it. She was a lover, never a fighter. She was a walker, not much of a talker. 

I followed her one day. Just the way kids do, when they’re curious about someone. She was in my sister’s grade, and my sister had referred to her once, saying, “She’s chill. Likes movies. Talkative, but knows when to shut up. She’s, you know, fine.” 

Those words surprised me. Usually, my sister was the exact opposite of this mystery girl: all fire, all anger, no fuss. She had an opinion on everything and everyone. But Mystery Girl barely rated a mention in my sister's burn book. 

So when Mystery Girl slipped out artfully through the high school door and down the chalk-covered steps, I decided to follow, ducking down behind a big bush with sharp leaves so she wouldn't see me as I tracked her movements.

She walked in the direction of the county store, and I followed, always fifteen paces behind, my head hidden under a baseball cap. Although she kept a brisk pace, she nodded and waved at everyone she passed, making eye contact and smiling. 

“Hi, Mr. Willabee!” she said as she passed by the gas station, her eyes crinkling at the corners. 

“Why, hello there, ole Scout.”

“Hi, Mrs. Dubose,” she called, walking past the old woman who always stood outside the post office. 

“Why, hello there, ole Scout.” 

“See you later, Mr. Jenski,” she said, stepping around the half-open door of the county store, leaning her head in the door for scarcely a second. 

“Why, hello there, ole Scout.” 

“Ole Scout” walked past the cracked black basketball courts, the green leafy park, the orange tennis courts, the white-walled hospital, and the dusty golf course. She walked past the train tracks and the elementary school house. She walked so far and so fast that I felt my whole town was on a roll of film like a movie, zipping past my eyes in double-time.

She walked past the neon-lit sign boasting the wares of the only jewelry store in town and the flashing red sign of the steakhouse boasting about its low prices and thick juicy beef. 

She walked and walked and walked and I got tired. I considered turning back. Going home, settling down, and answering my mama when she asked me about my day with a cautious "Nothin'".

But then I’d never know, so I kept walking. 

Finally, her steps began to slow, and I sighed in relief. She released the grip her hands had on her backpack straps and put her fingers to her lower back, gripping the muscles there tightly. Finally, she dropped her smile, and she groaned.

“Oh, god. How much more of this do I have to do?” she cried.

I flinched, my feet frozen in place for the first time all evening. My food back home was probably still warm on the table, I thought to myself. No harm in leaving here. In giving up.

But then I’d never know, so I kept walking. 

She stopped walking, and I caught up. Without saying a word, I took her backpack and braced it against my left shoulder, next to my own, which hung from my right. Her backpack was heavier than mine, which was correct because I was in middle school and she in high school. 

But she didn’t say a word to me, just smiled half-heartedly. Smiled in a way that showed the tiredness behind her eyes, the lie that she had just been barely holding up all these months I’d known her. 

She started walking again, and I followed. We walked up to a picket white-fenced house, almost in the countryside outside of town, and here we stopped. 

She swayed on her feet, as if she could barely stand. 

I broke the silence. “How long?” I asked, tone flat. “How long?” 

She sighed. 

“Willa Jean,” she said, a bit reproachfully, her shoulders hunching up as if to defend herself from my scrutiny. 

“How long, Scout?” I pushed, dropping both our backpacks on the sidewalk in front of the fence. 

“A while,” she said. “I’ve been in pain for…a while.” 

“And you didn’t tell nobody?” I replied. This town told everyone everything. I knew who had diabetes, who had heart disease. But that was all old people. I didn’t know that much about the illnesses of the kids, I realized. There was the one kid in the neighboring town who’d had cancer and died. Someone Somebody’s grandma’s stepson’s dog’s co-owner’s son. I hadn’t gone to his funeral, only knew a couple people who had.

Scout was different. She was only a kid, and she had back trouble. But she would live. She wouldn't die a dramatic death from a famous killer. Instead, she would die as barely a blip on the radar.

Scout sighed again, this sigh longer than the last, as if she was an accordion and she was getting tired of always making music. “I used to tell,” she said. “At my old place, back in Hartford. I told everyone I could find. Tried to get special treatment, tried to explain all the procedures, all the heartache, all the falls, all the not-walking, all the back-and-forth to the emergency room, to the hospital.” 

She paused, but I wanted to hear more. “But then?” I encouraged. 

“But it wasn’t a linear process. Recovery never is, Willa Jean. So no one wanted to hear it, and I didn’t want to tell it no more. Everyone got bored and moved on and figured I must be fine by now. No one wanted to keep up with the story.” 

I winced. “And then?” 

“And then I started…smiling more.”

“Because you were happy?” 

She laughed, but her laughter was hard. It had an edge. “Because I wanted to. Because I got tired of not smiling and always feeling sad and I guessed that I had to go make what I wanted, because nobody would help me. So I had to fake it till I made it.” 

“And did you?” 

“Yeah, I did okay at faking it. But I guess I didn’t fool you so well ‘cause you followed me, huh, Willa?” She gave me another smile, but this one with her trademark sparkling eyes.

I ignored it and shook my head. “No, I meant…did you make it? To happiness?” 

She looked directly at me for the first time. I’d never realized how well she could look at you without looking at your eyes, how she looked at your lips and forehead instead. But now that she looked into my eyes and I was forced to look into hers, I understood why she refrained. Her gaze was piercing hazel, and I couldn’t look away. For the first time in her presence, I felt uncomfortable. 

“What do you think? Do you think I made it?” she asked. 

I hesitated, and looked down at my shoes, which were next to hers. Her feet were positioned oddly, with one leg taking more weight than the other. My eyes migrated up. Her hips were angled to one side, one knee pointed in a different direction than the other. Her blouse and skirt were both button-up, and I realized that it would prevent her from having to pull the clothing over her head or down her legs, allowing her to remain upright in her preferred position. Her neck and head were level, the only normal things about her posture. 

“No,” I said finally. “But how did we never notice?” 

“People see what they want,” she said, not questioning my interpretation of her potential answer. “And it’s not so hard to convince them.” 

I opened my mouth to say something, anything, but she cut me off and held out her hand expectantly. “Well,” she began. “Thanks for the lift, Willa Jean, but I wouldn’t suggest coming by here again. I’m not one for pity. It’s much easier to just forget.” 

“But then you won’t solve your problem,” I burst out, my hand still firmly on her backpack strap, even as I offered it to her. “You won’t get anywhere without talking about it.” 

“Who says I got a problem?” she said. “Not me, no siree.” She winked, yanked the backpack from my grip, and limped through her gate. I closed it for her after she passed through, but then she gave me a look that made me shrink back and remove my hand from its white posts.

And then she was gone. 

After that, I turned back to walk home. My feet dragged, just like hers had. My head felt heavy, just like hers had looked. 

Yesterday, the doctor had told me that the only other person in the valley who had my condition was Willa Jean. “Go talk to her and ask, honey. She’s real sweet, she helps everybody.” 

I wanted to laugh, then cry. 

Everyone pretends to be a mystery, but in the end, you can’t live your whole life that way. 

I didn’t want to be the mystery girl. 

I didn’t want to be the person who had to help everybody so that she’d stop trying to help herself. 

July 14, 2021 01:34

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