Story by Amy Christine Parker
Friday, August 17, 2012
I need to save somebody.
I don’t mean this in some Biblical way and I’m not gunning to be Superman or anything. It’s just that I’ve been pretty lucky all my life and sometimes it’s disconcerting, a building chill in the meaty part of my bones. It feels like I’m racking up all of my good experiences now and all the bad ones are piling up on the back end of my life, an avalanche of crappy years I won’t be able to avoid.
You need to know this because my being out in the woods behind the local Winn Dixie looking for a girl who might be sick or crazy or both won’t make sense otherwise. I found out about her from the shelter where I work—part of my whole plan to save people and stuff. Anyway, she’s come around the shelter a couple of times. Alone. She can’t be more than fourteen, but she’s been rumored to be living full time in these woods, a pretty dangerous place for anyone to hang out, but especially a girl and one as fragile as she seems. Both times she came to the shelter she left before anyone could talk to her, but not before she made sure I was there. Mary at the shelter thinks she has a crush on me or something. Now I’m the cheese—bait–in their version of a “for her own good” kind of trap. I’m okay with my Velveeta status. If it helps get her into a home with parents that’ll take care of her, I’m more than okay. I’m ecstatic.
I spotted her wandering along the edge of the woods while I was parking my car beside the grocery store’s dumpster. She was wearing a man’s overcoat, striking a stick across a tree trunk as she walked, and wearing grocery bags on her feet instead of shoes. I eased my car door closed, but it still made a noise as it shut. She took one look at me, half-smiled, and bolted further into the trees.
I had to work pretty hard to catch her. It felt good. Different. Working hard isn’t exactly something I have to do. Ask anyone. I didn’t get the nickname SG (solid gold) for nothing. I’ve never been sick a day in my life. I have an allowance bigger than most people’s monthly paychecks. Heck, I could model if I wanted to…I’ve certainly been asked enough times.
Now I’m standing across from the girl at the edge of a small pool of water. It’s fed by a skinny stream. It seems deep. The water’s almost black. But I can’t focus on the water. I’m here for the girl. Her face looks mud-blushed, the dirtiest bits are the apples of her cheeks. It brings out the brown in her eyes. In a weird way it makes her beautiful. Imperfect. Wild. I stand very still, try not to spook her.
“Hi.” I let my mouth curve into my most endearing smile, the one that usually makes girls go all silly. “I won’t hurt you. I just want to find out who you are.”
She tilts her head and her forehead creases. I’m not sure she understands me, but then she opens her mouth.
“Why would you want to know who I am?” She asks.
Her voice is gravelly and low. Rough. If she weren’t standing right in front of me, I’d be convinced it came from an old woman who smoked all her life. She settles onto a rock beside the pool, skips a small stone across the surface. One, two, three times it bounces across the water before going under. She looks up at me and grins before offering me a spot on the rock beside her.
I’ve already won her over just by smiling at her.
I can’t help but feel a little disappointed.
See, I’m a walking cliché, but no one seems to care. Probably she doesn’t either. I’m not even the type of guy they write about in romance novels anymore. Those guys have to have flaws now.
Cry me a river.
The truth? I would if I even knew how.
“So I can help you.” I look behind her at the crude little tarp she’s fashioned out of garbage bags between two trees and the small stash of canned goods and junk food beneath it. “Find you a better home than this. A better life for sure.”
She skips another stone. The throw is weaker, less sure. It sinks after only two bounces. “Of the two of us, it’s me you think that’s in need of help. Not you.” She says slowly. She studies me, waits for me to answer.
I almost laugh. I’m so far from needing help that actually admitting it seems cruel. “Well, kind of, yeah,” I say as gently as I can. I skip a stone of my own. It bounces five times across the water and lands safely on the ground beyond the pool.
Ha! Even my stones don’t sink.
“You need to help me, don’t you?” Her hand brushes against mine.
Her touch loosens something inside of me. For the first time that I can remember, I actually feel like crying. You can’t cry. You haven’t earned the right. I tell myself. It makes sense for a person to cry when bad things happen to them, but if you cry when nothing but good happens to you, what does that say about you?
“Will helping me make you happy?” she asks, her eyes inches from mine.
“Why wouldn’t it?” I choke. What was she doing, turning this around so that it sounds like she’s doing me a favor? Did my helping her count if she saw it as helping me?
“Okay, then I will let you.” She smiles into my face and I can smell her breath. It smells like the wet ground around the water—dank, but somehow appealing. She cups her hand, scoops some of the pool’s water in her palm, and offers it to me. “Drink with me, a toast to your helping me.”
I feel light, unburdened for the first time in a long time. I’ll take her back to the shelter and maybe visit her at her foster home. I could be her friend. Help her make a real life for herself. She’ll have a better life because of me. Be happy. Maybe I can allow myself to be happy too. I won’t just receive good fortune, but make it.
I drink the water from her hand. It’s ice cold, so cold that it burns as it makes its way to my stomach. She drinks quickly after me and smiles. “Thank you,” she says and she leans over and kisses my cheek, hugs me tight. I close my eyes. I’m dizzy. I feel full of relief and hope, but it weighs nothing at all. It lifts me, makes me feel like I’m spinning.
When I open my eyes I can’t make sense of what I see at first because I see myself. Only I’m still in the woods and not in front of any mirror. “What?” I croak…the voice speaking these words is hers, not mine at all.
“You did what you came to do. You saved me,” I say to myself, but of course the boy standing across from me isn’t me at all now. Somehow it’s her. I look down at the hands at my sides. The nails are covered in dirt. What is now my right hand is still dripping river water. Somehow I am her and she is me. Only something is wrong with the body I’m now in. If feels weak, temporary. And suddenly I can’t breathe. I try but when I open my mouth the only thing that comes out is river water. It pours from my throat and nose. I start to fall forward, try to brace myself and fail. I don’t skip across the water like the stones. I sink.
The last thing I see before the water goes black and still around me is my body and whoever or whatever is in it leaning over the pool, watching me drown.