I saw the girl. I paid her no mind but heard the scuff of her tennis shoes on the pavement. I turned around and idled between a cigarette and a deck of cards. I imagined friends at the table, and the streetlight cast a yellow hue on their flushed faces. We would pass the cigarette around, and I would deal the cards. Someone with a baseball cap on backwards would cheat, and later in the night, we would drink.
Can I get one, she said, confident.
How old are you, I asked, peering at her over my shoulder before turning back around. My friends were waiting for me— my thoughts.
Almost fourteen, I’ll be in high school once the school year is over, she campaigned. She sat where my childhood best friend was and smeared from my imagination the ruddy face of a brunette.
If you can’t buy them, you shouldn’t have them, I educated her, but her eyes were locked on the box.
No one should smoke, don’t you know? It kills like a million people per year.
I put a hand to my temple. Is that supposed to convince me?
The girl had pleading eyes, as if there was something else she wanted to say. I pushed the box of cigarettes over to her cautiously, and she petitioned me for a light.
I didn’t like the idea of providing both.
I nodded at the red lighter on the table, and she grabbed it eagerly. She lit the cigarette as if it paid and blew the smoke into my face.
Is that any way to thank me, I wafted the air and cleared the smoke from my eyes.
This, she motioned to the thing between her fingers, is no gift.
I had seen the girl before that night. She was a mess of curly hair, bloated stomach and bare feet more often than not. She walked everywhere and argued with her mother often. She reminded me of myself at that age. She reminded me of myself even that day.
What are you doing out this late, I asked her after a period of silence.
She smugly repeated me.
I’m allowed to be outside this late. There’s no one sitting at home worried about me.
She smiled, exhaled and redirected the smoke to a place other than my face. Same.
She talked about her mother unprompted. A single woman, often between jobs, who’d had children out of wedlock early. The girl mused about the woman, she called her unfit. She spoke about sex, social workers and drugs with a frankness that should never know a child.
When she lunged for the box of cigarettes, I didn’t feel the need to stop her. After all, I was only a bystander of what had already begun.
I like these, she said, examining the green and black box.
You can have them.
From there on, the girl hung to me like a shadow. I had only seen her a few times beforehand, it became that if I was outside, she was there alongside me. I watched her idle at her door’s threshold as she waited for me to put my car into park and step outside. She would stroll over to me, in the teenage, unassuming way and pretend as though she had only happened upon me by coincidence.
You come back here to give more underage kids cigarettes, she would say, as if it were a part of a special language. As if only she and I knew the good that had come out of that mischievous interaction.
Kids say the darndest things.
Her mother lauded me, gave me kisses and left dollar store snacks in my mailbox. She was happy for the child, of course, but happier to have one less thing to be mindful of during the day. I understood. After working, I didn’t want to be pulled into the antics of the young and myopic, but I knew if she weren’t under my influence, something much more annihilating would take its place.
In school, I played soccer. I was only good enough to fool children, but I always enjoyed the feeling I got when the ball went exactly where I wanted it. Children were always impressed with my precision— they didn’t understand that you had to have control of the ball before you kicked it anywhere. Whenever playing with an impulsive kid, I would say: Stop the ball before you kick it. Look at the ball, look where you want it to go and take a breath.
It was a life lesson, if they really listened and stopped kicking with their toes. Whatever life sends you, you can control it.
Take a breath.
She was eager to be taught. If I had an interest, she adopted it. If I had been interested in adventure cliff diving, she would have followed me blindly. That type of feeling is inimitable. She would have followed me anywhere.
We practiced soccer in my backyard, and I knew she would go on to be better than me. She wasn’t as quick as me, but she was more determined. We would practice until the sun went down, and she would hound me the next day to practice again.
We should practice on an actual field, I suggested, my hands on my waist, my chest heaving.
Don’t you mean pitch?
If you say soccer pitch to anyone but me, you’ll embarrass yourself, I grabbed a water bottle.
She dribbled the ball between her feet and refused to take a break. We can’t play at a school field, can we?
I don’t know. I wasn’t interested in being on any questionable property, even if it were closer than other options. There’s a park here. It’s close enough that we could bike.
She frowned and stopped the ball. I don’t have a bike.
What thirteen year old doesn’t have a bike?
Her eyebrows furrowed, she crossed her arms. A thirteen year old who has a mom who would rather sell her daughter’s bike than get a good paying job.
I tossed her the water bottle as a consolation prize. We all have it hard, friend. You just realized it too early.
I wasn’t her parent, I kept reminding myself of that.
The week after was her birthday. She embedded that in my mind. Each time I saw her, she made sure to mention it, as if she didn’t keep saying it, it wasn’t true. If she didn’t keep reminding someone that she was born, maybe it hadn’t happened. I knew from the moment the word had come from her mouth that I would buy her a bicycle. I asked a friend at work whether that was too much, whether I was overstepping— the last thing I wanted was for her mother to think I wanted to take her place.
The bike was red with tassels. I picked it out because I knew it would embarrass her. She would blush hot when she saw the silver, glitter tassels and run to get scissors before she ever stepped foot on the pedals. It would be a laugh, and she wouldn’t stop to thank me— she would rush into her house, cursing me, laughing, and perhaps, her mother, in a fit of giggles as well, wouldn’t see the gift as an insult to whatever she had or hadn’t done.
I rolled the bike to her front door and smiled wearily. What do you think?
It’s cute, she said honestly. Her hair was straightened. It’s too small for you.
It’s for you.
Her eyes widened, but she was mute. She took a small step forward, as if the bike would bite, but allowed herself to touch the handles. Her mother stood behind her, arms crossed and eyes darting between each thing worth focusing on.
Do you like it?
Even the tassels, I prodded.
I love it.
I had forgotten that she was, after all, still a child. She was gone with the bike in her arms and her brother at her curtails before I could say anything else. Her mother, before me, had tears in her eyes. She enveloped me in a hug and thanked me over and over.
I wasn’t able to get her anything this year. Money is so tight, she lamented.
She kept telling me that she didn’t know if you were going to remember her birthday. She said she hoped you would play with her today, you know? For her birthday. I said to her, I said: that girl plays with you everyday. What makes your birthday so special? And she just shrugged, said she liked you. She really likes you.
I watched her ride off on the bike, the tassels catching in the wind. Her brother followed her closely, trying to grab the wheels as they spun. I saw her much less from that day. She would wave at me from the bike as we passed each other near the neighborhood, but the days of talking together about everything metaphorical were behind us. School began, and I imagined that boys were beginning to come of interest, as well as driving and talking on the phone at ungodly hours. I wondered if she would try out for soccer in the spring.
I found myself hesitating around my car after work, hoping I would catch her riding her bike down our road. I pictured her asking me, flustered, what I was waiting on.
I’ve smoked all the cigarettes I could ever hope for, you’ve got to offer me something new. I think I like tequila. It’s the most fun one to say.
I would pretend I wouldn’t help her on her road to debauchery, and maybe, I really wouldn’t. I couldn’t draw myself to picture a brown paper bag sitting in the woven basket between the handles and those silver tassels. I could hardly picture the bike at all.
An afternoon that December, it had to have been the solstice— the moon climbed so early, there was knocking at my door. The loud, clear knocking of someone that had never knocked there before. I opened the door hesitantly and saw her mother with frenetic eyes.
Have you seen her?
My heart sank. Not for some time now. We don’t see each other anymore.
Why didn’t you tell me that, she yelled. Why did no one tell me that?
What’s going on?
Two days, she held up two fingers. I haven’t seen my baby in two days, and no one can tell me where she is.
I backed away from the threshold and allowed her in. I made tea and left the front door open, as if to say: come in.
I poured two cups and considered where the girl could be. I knew nothing of her whereabouts, I knew that she could only be as far as a two day’s bike ride. I entertained that thought more than what was lurking on the outskirts of my mind.
Have you contacted the police?
She gave me a scornful look and reached for sugar. She’s run away before. She used to run away at least once a month. She would come back. I wanted to give it some time. She’s getting older, I thought maybe she was with a boy.
Have you looked for her?
No, she began quickly. Defiantly. I need to stay here, if she comes here, she needs to know I was here waiting for her.
The air in the room hung. I stared at the woman for minutes and hoped my anger would subside.
My brother and cousins are looking for her, she finally spat. She wore guilt like a glove.
I knew I couldn't convince the woman to leave. She didn’t want to find her daughter (in all interpretations). I finished the tea and waited for her to finish her own before suggesting we move to the porch.
We’ll be able to see her when she rides her bike down the road, I suggested.
It was more that I couldn’t breathe in the house. It was becoming that I couldn’t see either.
We sat on the corduroy couch. I’d thrifted it when I still couldn’t afford furniture for the inside of my place much less for the outside. I had a perfect view of the sunset from my balcony. It would have gone to waste had I not sat even a stool behind the rusted, iron bars of the bannister. The chair was cheap and water damaged.
We sat, motionless, watching our breath in the air as each minute trudged along. I don’t know what she felt, I don’t know what I was feeling. I must’ve been scared, but I know that I wouldn’t have allowed myself to think of anything bad— or anything real.
After what must have been an hour, I watched an unfamiliar car pull towards the dead end of our street. She stood, and I knew it must’ve been her brother or one of her cousins. She gripped the railing, as if to bend it, and we watched as a tall man stepped out of the driver’s seat. He saw us, and the street light cast a long, dark shadow in his wake as he moved away from the open driver’s door.
You need to call ‘em, he said before he reached us.
She was inconsolable. Why?
The man wouldn’t speak. He stopped walking, and I knew he couldn’t move either.
Why, she roared, almost lunging over the balcony.
Found her bike.
No, she covered her mouth and shook her head. No. It just means she’s walking.
Come here, he pleaded, but neither would move.
Please, she begged. Why are you acting like that?
The street light flickered, and I could see the tears in his eyes. Where was the bike, I asked.
The dried out retention pond, he replied. I kept looking at the girl’s mother. I couldn’t understand why everyone was frozen— if she were out there, somewhere, why were we here?
So someone stole the bike, I deduced. They put it somewhere no one could find it until they pawned it off.
Yeah, the girl’s mother defended. She spoke through tears. You want us to call the police for a stolen bike?
He hung his head. You need to come down here.
What, she screamed painfully.
With cotton in his mouth, he said what he thought he couldn’t. There was blood all about the bike. On the handles, the tassels. Even on the pedals. Like someone dragged her, like she almost got away. There was a struggle.
I felt all the air go out of my lungs, and I felt her hands around my throat. Her mother had me pinned against the wall and had begun slamming my head, bringing me back to what was real.
You bitch, why did you have to go and buy her that bike, she roared fiercely, jerking me from the wall and holding me over the balcony. I was frozen. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t defend myself. The only warmth I felt was from the writhing her hands were doing around my neck, and in glimpses I saw two men running up the stairs to subdue her.
I thought she should do what was fair.
Why weren’t you with her, she yelled. Why weren’t you watching her?
I saw the woman. Short, blonde hair cut into a bob. She took a sip of a margarita and raised her eyebrows when she saw me.
Nice of you to show up, she quipped, handing me a menu.
You want an excuse, I asked.
No, just glad you’re here.
We ordered an appetizer and a few rounds of shots. I stared at the plated nachos, the template varying through every shade of color. The liquor washed over me, and I wondered if I would be able to drive home.
I think I’m going to buy my neighbor’s kid a bike. Doesn’t have one. Said her mom sold it, like, for drugs or something. I don’t know.
You think that’s a good idea, she asked.
You think I’m overstepping?
Her hair shook more than her head. I think you should be careful.
I shrugged. It’s not a bad idea. She just hangs out around the house, hangs around me. If I get her a bike, maybe I can get her off my back a little bit. She can go see her friends.
If you don’t like the kid, just tell her to scram.
She’s fine, I cleared up. The kid is fine enough. I just can’t get her out of my sight. She’s obsessed with me.
You could set some boundaries.
I sighed and picked at a nacho. No. No, the bike.
The blonde squinted her eyes. Kid has got a junkie mom, and her only friend doesn’t want to play anymore, she scoffed. What do you think happens to kids like that?
I looked at an empty beer glass before sighing. I don’t know. I’m giving her the bike, so she can ride away from all of it.
I wondered how they saw the blood on the bike. It was so monstrously red— and how had she gotten caught? She was so fast.
My spine was bent well past its limit, and her nails had broken the skin of my neck. I could still hear her yelling.
This would have never happened if it weren’t for you.
I imagined her biking down the road, a flurry of dust kicking up behind her. She looked over her shoulder at me as I had done when we’d first met. At the end of the road, she made a quick turn and began to bike away again. She watched me begin to fade away as her mother choked me, too busy to see her daughter riding right before us.
She knew everything, and had to get away, but she yelled at me smugly.
Take a breath!