In the beginning, I placed messages in RC Cola cans and left them on bus benches or in the corner of a stair at the Hood Museum. A girl is in the tower, they said. A girl is standing by the shrunken head. A girl is waiting on the flagstone steps of the cathedral. Although it is dark, although it is night, although March is a cold, cold month, she waits.
No one stopped. No one noticed the cans, or if they did, they probably clucked with disgust, went all good Samaritan, stuffed the can in a knapsack, and marched it to their trash at home. My message remained tucked inside, stained by leftover drops of soda. Ants and yellow jackets crawled over the letters while the Samaritan drank self-celebrating chamomile tea.
It is possible I only ever left one note. It is possible I picked up the can myself after watching for an hour. No one noticed. No one stopped me. I wanted to be stopped. I wanted to have a plan that needed stopping.
Mornings I walked to school and stood hangdog in the halls until someone took pity, said I could stay at their house. Maybe their parents played bridge that night over to the club. Maybe their mother didn’t notice an extra someone at dinner. Maybe I could slip in, sleep on the floor between my friend’s bed and her sister’s, camouflaged under sweaters piled on me for warmth. The parents did not see me, even if they ventured up the stairs.
Only after I knew where I would sleep, did I go to class: concentrate on the chemicals of combustion, the fiery words of the Bard. Warmth intrigued me, no matter what subject.
I waited after school in stores, in libraries, in the lobby of the theater. Marie said I could stay with her. She would meet me at the Hop. Late. After basketball. She had an away game out to Franklin’s Notch. Only it snowed and delayed her return. When the Hop closed, I walked on icy sidewalks, up squeaky banks of snow, and climbed four hundred steps.
I spent a fortnight in the tower. My teeth chattered; my bones grew so cold that my elbows and knees rattled audibly. In all likelihood I spent only a few hours of a single night waiting to be found. Or maybe I was there only one afternoon. Maybe I leaned over the rail at the top and looked out at the leafless trees, my long hair blowing backwards into the face of any boy who came with me.
I slept with a boy who gave me a bed. I slept with him without pleasure. I slept where I could find a bed. Wind crashed against the house.
Incorrigible. My mother branded me. In her mirror, I shrugged; my form distorted. I curled inside myself, said nothing. My mother searched so the town could see her looking. My mother did not want to find me anymore than I wanted to be found.
They caught me slinking down to use the pay phones at the inn.
“Lock her up,” she said.
We had our parts to play.
I lived in the minister’s house with its polished kitchen, souvenir photos dotting the walls, white dusty canisters, as old as marriage, stood — flour, sugar, coffee, tea — in descending order. A ceramic cat beckoned by the door, or maybe a bear, or an owl, or a house like a shoe. Oreos stacked inside. The minister’s wife told me, her voice hushed and sharp, that I was to keep to my room, away from her babies. Except, of course, on Sundays I was to attend church, sit with the family in the front pew, the grateful foster.
I practiced the art of obfuscation, learned to tell a story incomplete. For the neighbors. For appearances. I would stay until I could not stay. My toes tapped inside my boots.
My mother called to tell me her misery remained my fault. My pillow never dried.
I hung signs from the middle of the bridge. Thirty-seven paces from one state, thirty-eight from the other; the river didn’t bother to distinguish. I rolled my pant leg up above my knee, plaited my hair over one shoulder. I balanced on the curb, one toe hanging off into the street, two toes, three, then half my foot. Cars tossed gravel as they passed, peppered my shins.
Women made warnings of my peasant blouse and pouting thumb to children grown past frightened, but not yet ripened with rebellion. Men offered me rides. Maybe I took the rides. Maybe I left before they offered, tripped on a stone and tended to my bleeding knee.
A grandmother stopped to tell a story. She hoboed once across a plain, over a mountain, around a lake. Home is when you make it, she said.
I walked to school. Crossing Occom Field, I smoked a joint and made my face opaque.
Geese flew: a thin gray line honked past the moon.
I walked home, smoking a joint. It’s what kids do, kids who run.
So they sent me away.
On the courthouse steps, a man bent to tie his wayward shoelace, ends frayed and muddy from dragging on the street. A woman sat on the bench beside me, whispered to a child on her lap. Her consonants hissed, bent like circling wind. Her t’s landed with a pinprick on the back of my neck, punctured my ear. The judge droned sorrow. Questions begged.
I sat static, watched the world through dusty glass. Outside, leaves resisted the push of breeze thrown off the wheels of a passing car, its engine, I imagined, old and chugging. Across the street a boy raised his hand to catch. The ball flew past. Bounced.
Maybe I grunted. Maybe I shrugged. The robed man waited. I watched the window and the bouncing ball.
I was past catching.
I extinguished cigarettes on my arm; the blisters scarred like tattoos. Or maybe I lit a house on fire, watched the blaze and watched the mixture of horror and sorrow ruin faces of a family. Maybe I only singed a strand of hair blown about my face as I lit a cigarette. Maybe I dropped a flaming match, sighed as it extinguished on its way to the ground, watched as icicles dripped in the sun.
Uniforms drove me from the swimming-pool-colored holding cell to this house with a faded kitchen and donation furniture. I might have bounced against walls padded with failure, or kicked backwards driving spikes from my heels into sheetrock. Or maybe the walls were hollow and my shoes no more than flip-flops.p=. +
I sat in a room with the unmatched chairs.
I heard the melancholy surge of angry voices rumbling against the walls. Muted tones vibrated against the cool plaster as if looking for a way out. Or in. Listening, I experienced the ripening of sound that comes before sleep; I sank between foreboding tones of women’s voices, staccato, high pitched like the chatter of squirrels, and men’s, distant and ineffective as heat lightning.
I wanted to throw another message at the street; stop a car; beg a ride.
I sat in a chair with upholstered red petals and dust rose into the cold beam of sunlight from the window. A boy walked through the room. He asked. I gave him a cigarette. He sat across from me, hunched. His shoulders rounded over Cat’s Cradle; Ice Nine poured from his pages, chilled me and I smoked. Chain smoked. I had no matches and feared that unless I consumed fire, my temperature would plummet and I would shake apart fragments of my skin landing tither and yon – altering the pattern of the upholstery, exposing bone and vein like the flayed salamander I caught and cut apart in the name of science. I shuddered, remembering the blue vein that ran across the hairy back of Mr. Girard’s hand as he injected a numbing agent, handed me a blade.
The boy laughed and I raised my eyes. He was like me, but darker, softer of face. I lit another cigarette. The smoke from our breath mingled in the middle of the room then settled in the air, lowering the ceiling. The boy’s lips moved and I knew I should answer. The voices fell and rose. A crack descended the wall behind the boy.
I stood quickly and left the room, walked onto the rotting porch where I sat on a cobwebbed milk crate. Occasional pick-up trucks coasted down the street. Behind the house, raspberries dangled inviting the foolish into their thorny thicket. A spider lay dead and drying beside my foot.
I heard the thump of approaching feet. I stiffened my lip. I expected the uniform to demand my return, slap my cigarette away. I expected my mother who I imagined would be crying. I wanted the boy who I imagined would be worried. The woman who appeared stood chinless and clucking. I stared at the street, breathed through my cigarette until the length of it scorched, ready to combust, all the way to the filter.
I stepped from the porch. I carried the fingers on my hand. I stepped like a phantom. I carried my tongue inside a jar.