It was a hazy, putrid morning, the day my sister disappeared. Summer days like that still make me stupid, even though it’s years later and I’m thousands of miles away. Just looking out at that flat light, or feeling the cloying wet warmth that’s almost like steam, or smelling the musty scent of grass clippings is enough to make my eyes itch and my skin crawl.
I was eight when it happened.
An Asian man stepped out of a red car and scooped her up. She hadn’t spoken a word yet, and she didn’t make a sound. Her cabbage patch doll dangled in her grasp as he hefted her to him. She looked unblinking over his shoulder at me.
He carried her away.
I stood in our front yard and watched them drive off, my new beagle puppy squirming in my arms. After ten minutes or an hour I realized the wetness I felt was the puppy letting out a stream of hot urine against my chest.
That was twelve years ago. We never saw her again.
Sometimes I think I see her by that mossy pond in Central Park, toddling along behind a beagle puppy, her hair black and cut so square that it comes to a point in front of her chin. But then I realize, no. She’d be fifteen. She’d be one of those girls in a blue school uniform, slouching against a red doorway on Fifth Avenue. Or that thin girl with the stringy hair you see in Harlem, selling her body on the street.
On days like that I hug my books to me and make my way to class. Or I clutch my purse and take the subway down to Wall Street. I bump from a skyscraper to a brick dormitory to the stone library. I move like a windup car that goes forward until it bangs against something, and then flips over and changes direction.
But other days I feel nothing. I forget all about her. I think I’m really doing something. I think I’m doing okay.
When I heard I’d won the summer internship on Wall Street I took the subway down and walked all around to get the feel of the place. I loved the way the streets angled, the way they closed in on you, forced you to look up. I loved the electronic tickers everywhere and the wild rumors that flew about like confetti in the wind: whispers of lawsuits, terrorism and rising interest rates, or bills that were going to be signed into law, or new regulations that were going to change the way we all did business. I knew fortunes were made and lost in the few seconds it took those rumors to evaporate like so many wisps of steam.
I stood with the tourists above the New York Stock Exchange and watched people screaming and arms flying and men in suits holding four phones and trying to write all at the same time.
I was far above, enveloped in silence. I felt like I was looking on from a place of supreme calm and that I could descend onto the floor and move through all those people, and absolutely nothing would touch me except the pulse I would absorb right through my skin.
There were twelve of us in a booth at this bar. And this guy kept staring at me.
I know this because I became uncomfortable and went up for a glass of beer, and when I turned, his eyes were following me. I’ve been stared at before but this felt different. He never seemed nervous when I looked back at him. He never looked away. He didn’t care if I knew he was staring.
He liked me knowing, I think.
I was suddenly conscious of how loud we were. How obscenely self-absorbed. We’d been sitting in that booth for hours. Glasses and ashtrays littered the table. Some of the girls were starting to look sloppy. The usual thing. Eye makeup smeared and their hair a mess.
My own dress was crumpled, and sweat dotted my upper lip. It was hot, but also, he was having that effect on me.
He was turning me on a little, if you want to know the truth.
I mean he sat back in the chair, an older guy, maybe twenty five or six, and his shirt was open at the collar and the sleeves rolled at the wrists. He was wearing a nice gold watch. The shirt was a pale blue oxford with a tiny monogram at the breast. JB. At first I thought it was the brand of the shirt, but then I realized it must be his initials. JB.
He had thick dark hair and nice blue eyes. He didn’t smile or talk to anyone except the waitress. He looked like he had just left work. He probably worked on Wall Street, and that meant he was probably an adrenaline junkie.
Like me. I had a feeling he was just like me.
Caroline was the first to notice the way the guy—JB—was staring at me.
“Hey Whitney,” she said, leaning over to stage-whisper in my ear. “Check out that guy. He’s been watching you all night.”
I looked over, and he met my eye. I smiled at him. He didn’t smile back.
“God, he’s gorgeous,” Caroline said. “Go over there.”
“I don’t think so,” I said. I took a sip of my beer. My hand shook a little. The beer was warm and flat.
“Aw, come on,” she said. She unrolled a tube of lipstick and applied a fresh coat to her lips. It was too red, like a gash on her face. “We’re celebrating. Go have some fun.”
I shook my head and looked away. “He’s not my type,” I said.
“Are you kidding?” She turned around and looked at him over her shoulder. She gave him a little wave. He nodded and gestured back. “How cute is that?” she asked. Then she looked back at me again, one eyebrow raised. “He’s everyone’s type.”
I shrugged. “I don’t feel like it.” She nudged me again, so I told her I needed to make a call. I went to the john and splashed water on my face. The mirror was smoked glass and wavy, and all over the bathroom so many pictures of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe reflected in the mirror that it gave me a headache. I brushed out my hair and pulled it back into a ponytail. I told myself it was just routine, but in truth I was thinking about the guy.
When I came out of the bathroom his table was empty except for a beer glass with foam still clinging to the inside. A few bills stuck out from underneath. I waited around a while, but it was obvious he’d gone.
My little sister came to live with us on my eighth birthday. My parents told me they were going to fly to China to get her. She was going to be my birthday present.
“How do you like that?” my mom asked. “Your very own baby sister.”
“And a puppy,” my dad said. “We’re also getting you a puppy.”
When I asked why they were going all the way to China to get her, they told me China had too many children and parents could only have one. “So they’re killing all the girl babies,” my mother said. “They leave them in the woods to die. That way, the parents can try again for a boy.”
It was the first time I realized that being a boy was better.
On the day she arrived, my parents carried her into the living room and set her down on the couch. She sat there with her tiny tennis shoes sticking straight out. Staring.
“Can’t she talk?” I asked. “Can’t she do anything but stare?”
My parents said to give her some time, that everything was strange to her, and I should help show her things. But I didn’t. I ignored her and played with my puppy.
I didn’t like her.
When the Asian man stepped from the red car and scooped her up, I knew right away he was her father. That he’d come to finish the job he’d started in China.
I thought: sooner or later, he’s coming back for me.
It was nearly ten when I slid back into the booth. Ten o’clock on a Friday night and the twelve of us were already looking limp. This one girl from the office, Doreen, had become engaged, and we were celebrating by making the rounds, buying her drinks. Everyone wanted to leave the Marilyn Monroe and James Dean bar and go to a place where we could dance. Since JB was gone anyway I said why not. I hate James Dean.
We had a company car. What I mean by that is a limousine. Usually they don’t let interns have the limousine on a Friday night. The old guys like to use it when their wives are on Cape Cod. They drive around and pick up hookers. But this was a special occasion and no one else was using it so they said okay.
Knock yourselves out, girls. Don’t leave any stains on the leather seats.
I knew exactly what they meant, even though I didn’t let on. The guys we work with are pigs. Every year they hire a bunch of student interns from Columbia and then spend the summer trying to get into our pants. They pay us well, and it looks good on our resume. Otherwise it’s a complete waste of time.
I don’t remember anything, until suddenly I do.
Like the other day. I was talking to my old friend, my new roommate, Randall, and he said he was taking a criminal law seminar and did I want to come?
I had nothing better to do. We were sitting in the grass, and he was studying his law books, and I was reading Catcher in the Rye.
“Yeah,” I said. “Why not?”
What I was thinking was, maybe that’s what I’d be. A lawyer. So on the way over to the class, while he chattered about some party, I was picturing myself in a court. I could see how serious I’d be in front of the judge. I could see how my advocacy on behalf of the downtrodden would carry the day. By the time we arrived at the law building, my heart swelled with pride for devoting myself so selflessly to a higher purpose.
We sat in the back row, and Randall handed me his law book. The pages were highlighted in yellow and green. “Try to follow along,” he said.
I skimmed the page. The case was about a little girl killed by her stepfather in California. She was five. The mother left them at home, and when she came back, he was sitting on the couch watching TV like nothing had happened. But there was a pool of blood on the floor, and tiny red footprints pointed a zigzag path to the little girl’s bedroom.
The mother followed the zigzag path to the girl’s bed, saw a lump under the covers. She pulled them back and saw the nude body of the little girl. She was covered in blood, and she was dead.
Randall nudged me. “Look at this clown,” he said.
I was feeling so sick I could barely see. I pushed away the book and staggered from the classroom. I splashed my face and hands in the drinking fountain.
Every time I closed my eyes, I saw them.
Tiny red footprints, zigzagging everywhere.
The limo bogged down in theater traffic on Broadway. We’d been out too long, and I was getting bored. There were these guys in the car next to us, and some of the girls were leaning out the windows talking to them in that high-pitched giggly way. I had a killer headache. I kept thinking about climbing out of the car and walking away from the whole scene.
I leaned over and said to Caroline, “I want to get out of here. I don’t feel like going to another theme bar with Doreen.”
“Let’s do it,” she said. She opened the limousine door and stepped out. I followed her while Doreen asked what the hell we were doing. All the girls were yelling behind us, but I slammed the door, cut off the sound.
Caroline grinned at me. I grinned back.
“So where to?” she asked.
No point in trying to catch a cab. The limo hadn’t budged for fifteen minutes. Nothing was going to move.
“Let’s go over there,” I said. I was pointing to that huge Hershey’s store where tourists go to buy Empire State Buildings and other stuff made out of chocolate. But she thought I meant a bar next door. She said okay and led us right past the store window without stopping. The store was closed anyway.
We slid into the dark bar and onto a pair of barstools. It was loud, and some people were dancing. We ordered gin and tonics. I started drinking gin and tonics in high school because no one ever cards you when you ask for one. Then I grew to love the taste. Good gin has a great bite. The tonic sputters and pops on your tongue.
I was sipping a third G&T and twirling around on the bar stool, round and round, when I spotted the guy in the blue shirt. JB. I couldn’t believe he was there. It was too weird.
He walked over and leaned against the bar next to me. I’d stopped spinning, but now I had the giggles.
“What’s so funny?” he asked.
“It’s too weird,” I said. “Seeing you again.”
He sat next to me and ordered a beer. I smiled at him while he took a long pull.
“Don’t you think it’s weird?” I asked.
“No,” he said.
“Maybe you don’t remember me,” I said. I spun around again on the stool. “I saw you before. At this other place. This bar with James Dean and Marilyn Monroe pictures everywhere.”
I took a sip of my drink. Then I chewed on the straw. “Well, it’s sort of strange.”
“Not really,” he said. He took the thin red straw out of my hand and laid it on the counter. It had bite marks in it.
“No?” I was still staring at the straw.
“No,” he said. “I followed you here.”
I gripped the bar with both hands and looked at him.
“Stop spinning,” he said. “Okay?”
“Okay,” I said. “Okay.”
Everywhere I go I hear footsteps. At Macy’s I once had to call a security guard because someone was following me. Every time I stopped, he stopped. Every time I turned around, he ducked behind a clothes rack or pillar, and all I could see was the sleeve of his coat.
Sometimes the coat looked black, and sometimes it looked green.
The security guard who came to take my report was a big, tired looking guy with red hair sticking out from underneath his cap. He told me I was right to be afraid. Quite a few women had been attacked in their store. “Can’t be too careful these days,” he said. I thanked him for waiting with me for a cab. “Lots of weirdoes out there.”
JB finished his beer, and I noticed Caroline heading to the dance floor with some guy. She didn’t even look back to see if I was all right. I felt a little thrill shoot through me. Anything could happen.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
I pretended I couldn’t hear him and shrugged. I was looking at his hands, anyway. They looked strong.
“I’m Jared,” he said, shouting in my hair.
“I think I’ve seen you before,” he said. “Do you work on Wall Street?”
I shrugged again. “I can’t hear anything.”
“It’s too loud in here.”
“I’ve got a car.” He gestured over his shoulder. “Want to go somewhere else?”
I reached for my crumpled cocktail napkin so I could tear it into strips. “You do?” I asked.
“Yeah.” He pulled out his wallet and dropped a few bills on the counter. “Let’s go.”
I jumped off the stool and like a lemming, followed him through the bar and out to the sidewalk.
“It’s just down the street,” he said.
I stood there, mute. Then I shook my head.
“No?” he asked. “We could just drive around or go somewhere quiet.”
“I can’t get into a car with some strange guy,” I said.
His lips stretched into a thin smile. “Let’s walk somewhere, then.”
“I don’t think so.”
He sighed. “I guess I misread your signals. Now you look like you’re afraid of me. Are you?”
“Yes.” I turned around and walked back in.
My friend Randall has always been good about everything. A few weeks ago he moved in with me because at night I hear the sound of someone tapping on my window.
“But you live on the fifth floor,” he said. “How would someone—”
“I don’t know,” I said, “but now you sound like campus security. They don’t believe me either.”
So he moved in. That way he’d be there, just in case. He’s sleeping on the couch. He keeps his things in little piles around the coffee table. I offered him space in my dresser, but he said no. He just pulls clothes out of a duffle bag until it’s empty and then restuffs the bag and takes it to the laundry.
A few days after he moved in, I called him at eleven on a Friday night and told him my date was scaring me. “He told me his high school girlfriend was dead,” I said, shouting into the phone over the loud bar noise. “This guy is huge, too. He’s big enough to crush me.”
“Stay there,” he said. “I’ll come get you.”
While I waited, I smoked a cigarette. I don’t smoke, but I needed something to do with my hands. My date—his name was Tom—turned fidgety and wanted to leave, and I kept stalling him.
“Look,” I said finally. “I’m not leaving with you. I’ve called a friend, and he’s coming to pick me up.”
At first Tom stared at me. Then he wanted to know why I would do that. Why? I sat there until he started screaming at me. I told him, “If you think this is going to make me change my mind, you’re wrong.”
When Randall arrived, I was sitting near the window, chain-smoking, watching Tom pace up and down the street in front of the bar.
“You were right to call me,” Randall said. “Let’s wait a minute and see if he leaves.”
“I can’t believe this,” I said.
“The guy’s a real creep. I’m glad you didn’t go home with him.”
I lit another cigarette. “He probably killed his girlfriend.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” he said.
Before I reached the door, J.B. grabbed my arm. “Wait,” he said. “Let’s go back in together. I’ll buy you a drink.”
“What happened?” he asked. “First you say you want to leave with me . . .”
“I never said that.”
He sighed. “Look, what’s your name?”
I crossed my arms. “Why were you following me?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I’ve seen you around. I wanted to meet you.”
“Okay,” I said. “Let me ask you this. How long have you been following me?”
He blinked. “Jesus. Tonight is all. I’m not stalking you.”
“Good,” I said. “Don’t.”
But I guess my face fell because he said, “Let’s go back in and dance. Lots of people around. Okay?”
I stared at him, blinking. I couldn’t decide whether to dance with him or not. He looked unbalanced, if you want to know the truth. It was like his clothing and smooth exterior were a thin veneer covering something seething and boiling underneath. He smiled pleasantly enough, but he was a weird guy. I knew it.
“All right,” I said. “I need to use the restroom, though.”
He nodded and held the door. We found a table in the crush. The place was packed, and the red and blue lights dancing on the wall made me dizzy. “Be right back,” I said.
JB nodded and signaled to a waitress.
I looked for Caroline and found her across the room. I tried to catch her eye, but she wouldn’t look at me. She was laughing her phony laugh with her head thrown back. A man with a tie knotted around his head nipped at her shoulder.
When I came out of the bathroom, JB had a gin and tonic in one hand and a Corona tilted to his mouth. I started thinking about this case I read in Randall’s law book about this girl whose friends kept calling and calling her house, but she never answered the phone. Some guy she’d met had chopped her up and stuffed her into a barrel.
I skirted along the wall in the opposite direction, away from JB.
When I was halfway across the bar, he checked his watch. His head swung around, scanning the crowd. Right before I ducked into the kitchen he turned.
He saw me. I felt it.
I only knew my baby sister for a few days before she disappeared.
I remember the funny way she walked, like she was trying to keep her balance in a helter-skelter world. Like the ground beneath her was shifting every which way, and she thought if she pinwheeled her arms enough, or looped her legs around in big enough circles, that she would be able to stay upright.
I remember the way she was too scared to cry when she fell. Her eyes would fill with tears, and she’d bite her lip and look around, like she hoped no one was coming.
I remember how she watched me play with that beagle puppy. I resented the thought that one day, she’d probably want to play with him too.
I remember my plans. I was never going to let her. I remember that.
Everything that’s happened I saw coming years before. I didn’t know when, or how. It’s been a curse, knowing. Awful to wait.
In the kitchen, waiters rushed around carrying trays of oily bar food. No one spoke to me. I had the sense that I was transparent, that even if I cursed or swung my arms the waiters would still veer and dodge around me, yelling at dishwashers, eating food off plates.
I thought of Randall, his dark head bent over a pile of books. He seemed so far away. All I wanted was to be home. If I made it, I’d scold him for studying so hard. I’d buy him a pillow, too. He’d been sleeping with his neck twisted against the arm of the couch.
I thought if I made it to my internship tomorrow, I’d tell that slick guy from GW to go fuck himself. I’d stop fooling around and really do some work. My desk was ready to collapse under a mound of unread prospectus materials and wire transfer receipts.
I liked making these plans. They relaxed me.
Then JB’s face appeared in one of the plastic circles in the kitchen door.
He squinted at me. He lifted my G&T to the window, like bait. I stood perfectly still, never blinked. He was talking to one of the waiters, pointing at me, and trying to walk in. The waiter stopped him. “No way, buddy,” he said. “You wait here.”
Then the waiter walked toward me. “Hey you,” he said. “Get outta the kitchen.”
I backed slowly, my eyes on the kitchen door. I knocked over a trashcan. Beer bottles and half-eaten chicken wings spilled on the floor.
“Lady . . .” the waiter said.
The red tile floor was so greasy, I almost fell making my way to the back door. I pushed it open and stepped outside into the alley. The pavement was lined with black trash bags. A fine, cool mist wet my face.
Then the kitchen door closed with a bang. It was so dark I lost my bearings. I felt along the wall, and after a minute, started walking.
I’d barely taken a dozen steps when I heard footsteps behind me. I moved faster, but the footsteps kept up with me. I didn’t look. I don’t believe I wanted to see his eyes. I didn’t want to know when he reached for me. I kept moving, thinking I could feel his hot breath on my neck.
“Hey wait up,” he said.
I hitched, fell. Split my chin on the pavement. I didn’t catch myself, didn’t scream. Didn’t even turn to see his face. Only waited to feel his fingers closing in on me.
Rain fell on my back, the side of my face. Footsteps faded into the traffic on Broadway. There was the familiar sound of girls, drunk and wild, screaming with laughter. A car alarm made me look over my shoulder, and I stood, wiping the blood from my chin.
There was no one there.
When I reached home, freezing and dripping wet, I stripped off my coat in the dark hall and draped it over a chair. Randall was asleep on the couch with his head on a book. A gooseneck lamp shone down on him like a spotlight. He was going bald.
I kicked off my shoes, peeled off my wet sweater and pants. My chin hurt like hell. I dabbed it with a paper towel, then padded over in my panties and bra and climbed on top of him. He was lying on his side so I had to drape myself across him to get warm. I was shivering, and the snakes of my hair wet his cheek and woke him up.
He blinked and threw an arm around me. “What time is it?”
“I don’t know.” I buried my nose in the soft spot in his armpit.
He made a little snorting sound and lifted my head up to see me. “What happened to your chin?”
I fingered the swelling but didn’t speak.
“Are you alright, Whitney?” he asked.
I dived back down, breathed in his scent. I liked having my nose right there.
He rubbed my hair.
I didn’t answer. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say. Now I was too hot to think. The apartment smelled musty. It would be horrible on the subway tomorrow, putrid as I made my way downtown, jostling through crowds of young girls and men with blank, dark eyes.
Randall kissed the top of my head. “Let’s get some shut eye. I have a big day tomorrow. Okay?”
“Okay,” I said. “Okay.”
§ § §
Reprinted from Ink Pot #6, available now
Pam Mosher's fiction has appeared in Ink Pot, Summerset Review, Pindeldyboz, edifice WRECKED, and other publications. One story placed second in the 2003 Paul Gillette Memorial Writing Contest, and a second story received honorable mention in the 2003 Literary Potpourri Celebration Writing Contest.