Authors: Peggy Kern
For the missing
This is reality, whether you like it or not. All those frivolities of summer, the light and shadow, the living mask of green that trembled over everything, they were lies, and this is what was underneath.
This is the truth.
Coney Island, New York
You ask me to tell you the truth, but I’m not sure you’ll believe me, even though I’ve practically killed myself to find you.
“It’s okay,” you promise, and a small laugh slips out of me despite my broken teeth. You watch me, then smile softly and sit down at the edge of the hospital bed.
My eyes are so swollen, I can only see pieces of you at a time: your grayish-brown hair pulled back into a sloppy ponytail, your dark round eyes, your white coat
with a plastic card clipped to the pocket. I can’t read your name, but I know it’s you. I remember your face. You gave me your card two days ago when I came into the emergency room with Kat.
Daniela Cespedes, CSW. You’re the one I came to find. You’re the one I’ve bet my life on.
My eyes are huge and my front teeth are cracked and there’s a gash on the right side of my leg. You probably don’t recognize me. Maybe you don’t remember me at all: the girl in the red shorts who ran in here two days ago, screaming like crazy with my crazy bleeding friend.
But you talked to me that day. You saw my tattoo and said,
Maybe I can help
, and Kat started crying and told you to shut the hell up.
Kat’s gone now. And here I am, bleeding just like her. I got nothing left but your card and the clothes they cut off me in the ambulance.
A nurse walks in and pushes a needle into the tube that sticks out of the back of my hand. I can’t stop shaking. Bone shaking. She adjusts the bed and I groan as it moves. Then she covers me with another thin blanket.
“Five minutes, okay?” she says to you. “We need to get that leg cleaned up.”
The doctor said my leg’s pretty bad. They can’t fix it unless they operate. I’ll be here for a few days—inside, and safe—with enough time to tell you what happened.
“What’s your name?” you ask.
It’s not an easy question.
I won’t tell you everything. Some things I won’t talk about. But I gotta start somewhere, so I take a deep breath and open my mouth.
“Michelle,” I whisper. The name squeezes off my swollen tongue.
“Hi, Michelle,” you say gently. “I’m Daniela.”
“I’m with the crisis team here. It’s my job to help you, okay? So I’m going to ask you a few questions. How old are you, sweetie?”
I can tell from your face that you’re worried. I must look pretty bad.
Your eyes go soft and you let out a deep sigh. The way you look at me makes me feel like a little kid. I pull up the blanket to my chin. Suddenly, I just want to sleep.
I’d give anything to freeze this moment—before you know the truth. Right now you think I’m a nice girl who
got jumped or robbed or worse. I must seem like a good kid. Like I got a worried mom somewhere.
Then you start to ask questions I can’t answer.
“What’s your address?”
“Your phone number?”
“Who do you live with?”
I shake my head no each time and try to keep my eyes open. I feel myself sinking. A deep warm sea of clean and quiet so familiar that I almost say
Tonight, after it was over and the ambulance came, I kept thinking about Grandpa. All these people fussing over me, rushing around, telling me it would be all right even though it probably won’t. Grandpa would have liked that.
I thought about Mom too. For a second I pictured her here, at the hospital waiting for me, which is crazy, of course, ’cause she’s got no idea where I am and couldn’t care less anyhow.
Chuck’s the closest thing I have to family anymore. He thinks I should trust you. He says there’s gotta be somebody somewhere who knows what to do. What he means is, somebody smarter than him. Someone who went to school and doesn’t drink too much.
But I know what Kat would say. She’s probably right, too.
Ain’t nobody comin’ to save you, girl. You wanna survive? You better start thinking for yourself. And if I was you, I wouldn’t tell nobody nothing. Just fuckin’ run
Trouble is, I got nowhere else to go. This is it. My big idea. My last chance before I’m back outside and he finds me. He knows what I did. If he finds me, he’ll go crazy. Crazy enough to kill me, maybe, and then I can finally sleep.
“Michelle?” Your voice pulls me back into the room. “Try to stay with me, okay?”
I got no way to prove who I am. I got no ID, no Social Security card. I grew up in Philly on North 26th Street, but I know nobody’s there anymore, so there’s no point telling you that. All I got is this busted-up face and the stupid hope that maybe Chuck’s right. Somebody’s gotta know what to do. And if you don’t, at least you’ll know my name. My real name. You’ll know I was here before he got me, and that I wasn’t always like this.
You lean forward and reach for my face. At first I flinch, waiting for a punch or a push or something else that hurts. Then you brush a tattered braid from my
eyes and rest your hand on mine.
“Who did this to you, Michelle?”
I close my eyes and pretend your hand is his.
Two months ago, something incredible happened. I got rescued by a guy. He found me in the middle of the bus station on the day I prayed for a miracle. He had long, strong arms and a clean black car and new clothes that smelled like soap.
And he took my face in his hands and looked right into me and said, “I’m gonna take care of you, ’Chelle. I swear.”
“Michelle?” you say, a bit louder. “Do you know who did this?”
The door opens. Two nurses stand over me.
“I’m sorry,” one of them says in a voice with sharp edges. “We need to get her upstairs.”
I reach out, handing you the crumpled card with your name on it.
“Please,” the nurse insists. “We need to get moving.”
You stare at the card, then search my face. “Have we met before? Wait, please. Just a minute. Michelle? Who did this to you?”
“My daddy,” I whisper, trying to keep my voice steady.
I shake my head no and I lock my eyes with yours. Then I pull down my gown and point to my tattoo, his name sunk deep into my chest, the orange peach above it.
I keep pointing until your eyes widen and you finally nod and sigh and say, “Okay.” I sigh too because I think you remember who I am. And I think maybe you understand what I mean.
I am five years old. The TV glows all soft and bluish in my toasty-warm living room. It’s winter. My house smells like meat loaf and corn. The windows are shut tight, but I can hear the noises outside. Cars and voices and music going by. Chuck and Little John laughing in their lawn chairs outside Boo’s.
Grandpa’s on our brown smushy couch. That’s where he sleeps. His clothes are folded in a pile in the corner. Dirty clothes go in the plastic bag. Clean
clothes get folded in the pile.
Grandpa grins and pats the couch. “C’mere, Punky.”
I run over and climb into his lap. I pull red bear blanket over my head so it’s all dark and warm and I can’t see anything. I am in a cave. A secret cave. Grandpa’s heart goes
thump, thump, thump
. Like he’s a big, friendly bear that lets me share his secret hideout. I close my eyes and curl up my legs and smush myself all tight inside.
Grandpa strokes my head and watches the newsman on TV. It’s gonna snow tomorrow. Snow in Philadelphia! Outside music bangs from a car passing by. Quiet again, then a siren whistles a few blocks away. Grandpa turns up the volume a little, hums, and puts his chin on my head.
My belly is full. Meat loaf and corn! My pajama pants are red stripes, and Grandpa’s big gray T-shirt that he sometimes lets me sleep in.
“Ready for bed?” Grandpa’s voice is big. His giant chest rumbles when he talks.
Thump thump. Hum. Hum. Hummm
“One more minute.” I shove my thumb into my mouth.
I can feel his face smile on my head.
. The TV’s off and he pats my arm. “School tomorrow. Remember.”
“One more minute.”
Grandpa grabs my waist and lifts me over his shoulder. “Off to bed, little girl!” he growls. I laugh and kick and
bounce bounce bounce
we go up the stairs.
He takes my hand and we walk down the hall to my bedroom, past Mama’s door. It’s open. Her bed is messy. Clothes on the floor. A strange smell, like fire and plastic. She’s not home.
“Where’s Mama?” I ask. Grandpa sits on the floor next to my mattress and pulls my blanket up around my neck.
“Just out,” he says. “Close your eyes. Time to sleep.”
He kisses my forehead. His hair is short and black with little bits of white mixed in. His skin is brown. He has lines in his forehead and six black dots under his eye. They look like chocolate chips. Like a giant cookie face with white hair sprinkles.
“She’ll be back. Time to sleep, Punky. Wanna read a book?”
I shrug and smush my face into the pillow.
Grandpa finds yellow bunny in the corner. I hold her tight and put my thumb in my mouth.
“Let’s read George. George and the Dump Truck.”
George is a monkey. He gets into trouble a lot, but he doesn’t mean to and nobody ever gets mad at him.
Grandpa opens the book. I close my eyes and feel my thumb all warm and soft. Bunny under red bear blanket. Meat loaf and corn. Outside I hear Chuck and Little John. They laugh. Tomorrow it will snow.
This is George. He was a good little monkey and always very curious.
I’m seven years old.
It’s cold, but my house smells warm. Chicken and green beans. I can cook the cutlets by myself now. Dip the chicken in eggs. Then bread crumbs. Put them in the pan with butter. Don’t leave them too long or they’ll get dry. Save the extra eggs for breakfast.
Chuck and Little John wave to me from their chairs outside Boo’s Lounge. I open the window and cold air nibbles at my face.
“You bein’ good, Michelle?” Chuck shouts. “Santa
ain’t comin’ if you bad. You better do your homework, little girl.”