It’s not important how long I’d been hitchhiking, where from, or even why I ran away. The point is that I stopped somewhere and what happened then. It was Georgia, which was pretty far from where I’d started. I was proud of myself and spent my last $20 to rent a room for the week. The hotel was the kind of place where people were murdered in the night, their bodies dragged to car trunks under the shadow of darkness. It had a low flat roof, a Vacancy sign hissing orange, room after room with identical twin beds. There was a swimming pool with cigarettes and the occasional waterlogged rat floating there, and then nothing else but farms and the Ma Poule Dairy Factory for miles. All I cared about was my new life and that this was somewhere I’d never been. I even put on my bikini and dipped my toes in the pool water, pretending it was glamorous, which in a way it was. Some people like things to stay the same. They like when they are in a place they recognize, the same items in the same isle at the grocery store, the same echo of the same television shows in their dimly lit living rooms. I was the opposite. I looked for that one unfamiliar thing and that’s what I wanted.
While the hotel itself was shabby and untended, the sky above it was something else entirely. I mean there’s nothing quite like a southern sky. With every hitched ride I made it further south. New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia. I sat in the passenger seat, pressed my eyes straight ahead, and hoped for something unexpected. Unexpected is far too vague and ungenerous of a word. I was seventeen and I wanted everything to mean something. I knew it might.
The men who picked me up all looked the same, though some wore gray woolen suits, and others work pants with loops for their tools. All their faces had that same way about them. The life-is-sad way, an unfocused haze pulled over their eyes. I didn’t want to look that way ever, even if life was sad. I probably looked young and stupid to them. None of them tried to kill me, as my friends had predicted when I said I was really leaving. A few men tried in their own awkward or entitled ways to reach for me, their slurping mouths and pale arms no match for how fast I darted from their cars, sometimes yelling thank-you after the door was already slammed. Only two men didn’t take this as an acceptable answer. One followed me in his car yelling half-heartedly from the window about how surely I owed him something. Finally I lost him by turning down a one-way street. The second man actually got out of the car, but I guess decided it wasn’t worth it to race me. We stood on opposite sides and I tried to convey to him with my eyes how fast I was, how clever, how he might as well just give up now. I took off for the wooden farm signs, the carefully hand-painted peaches and ears of corn rendered in alluringly juicy oranges and yellows. The air was puffed full of an unfamiliar humidity that made moving fast difficult, and there wasn’t much around. My ride drove off in a silent cloud of clay colored dust, and then I was alone.
Lucian was the first person I saw. I told him I was eighteen, which was only a lie by one year. Seventeen and he’d be asking why I wasn’t in school and where I lived exactly and my answers wouldn’t make sense. Even if they did, he would send me on my way instead of hiring me at the Ma Poule Dairy Factory, which is what I wanted him to do. If he knew I ran away he’d expect some kind of horrible tragedy I ran away from. Boredom can be a tragedy if it gets far enough inside you. It might transform to drudgery, then hopelessness. It might rot you away till you were unrecognizable, but I wouldn’t be finding out about that. My parents were fine people, very nice and proper. My dad might yell up the stairs if he wanted something, but not too loud. My brother and I answered most of the time. My parents might yell at each other, but no more than any other parents. The time my dad slammed her hand in the cabinet was an accident. There was a semblance of peace and we all took each other for granted, in the quietly resentful way families do, claiming family is the most important thing, while secretly hoping everything else is instead. Who knows, though, maybe after I left they missed me fiercely and set my place at dinner and believed in God again.
My mom stopped believing in God at some point for reasons she wouldn’t disclose and although I’d hated church myself I felt her loss as though it were my own. It’s the beautiful sky, probably, that got into her head. Fucked up things happen underneath the beautiful sky constantly: despair, war, poverty, events deemed unfair, the earth and sky themselves dying. At least that’s what I thought about on the days my mom guilt tripped me into sitting beside her on those long shiny pews. It wasn’t even like we were Catholics, whose splendor and ritual I could at least understand the draw of. Instead we sat in a little gray box of a church with small square windows of clear glass. We listened to fathers and sons sing duets to piped in music, we listened to all the many, many ways we might end up burning in hell after all was said and done. No one became possessed or spoke in tongues, no sun glinted in through the precision of the stained glass depiction of martyrs and saints. Long before I was born my mom wore fancy dresses at canopied garden parties and discussed art with rich men who paid a lot for it. But then she had babies. Everyone says your body is stronger than your brain, and they’re probably right, all those instincts and animal feelings no match for the sentences and arguments of your mind. She wanted me more than she wanted to sit in front of the wheel, her hands in the clay. But I’m sure at some point she saw the mistake that was.
My hope was that in a week I’d make enough money to keep going without having to hitchhike anymore. At some point the country ended, but that didn’t have to mean anything. There was Key West or a place I’d read about called Tulum. I wasn’t searching for myself; I was searching for the thing outside myself that would make everything else click into stunning place.
Lucian gave me the job at Ma Poule over all the men who were already there cause I could read, and he wanted me to start that day. He said Ma Poule meant chicken or rooster in French, and then laughed. I was called a forewoman, which of course no one called me. I read where the shipments were coming from and going to, and instructions for how certain things needed to be stored, giant boxes of milk cartons or huge chunks of generic cheese, pre-branding. I just walked around with a clipboard and made sure that everything was right which was easy enough. The men hated me. They could’ve been my father, or even my grandfather, but they sure didn’t act like it. I tried to be nice, and they didn’t bother me much, but they didn’t talk to me either. When shipments went bad they got thrown into a pile. “This has gone bad,” I’d say, pointing at a date already gone by. Usually they hadn’t noticed or didn’t care, but they listened to me.
“The pig girl comes on Friday for all the expired goods,” was all Lucian said by way of explanation and I nodded like I understood. I imagined a beautiful girl with some kind of pig-faced curse. If things went my way I wouldn’t even be there by Friday. Lucian didn’t give me much further instruction, except advising me to wear my hair up, and not dress too sexy. He said he wasn’t telling me what to do, but it was just a good idea. Lucian had inherited the factory from his dad when his older brother left for Miami. He said he got letters from time to time about clubs with purple lights and sketchy but lucrative jobs meeting motorboats at docks. It sounded like a movie to me, the lies of a person who wanted to convince someone else life was better than it really was. I didn’t say that out loud though. I didn’t get the impression Lucian wished for the fate of his brother instead. His unhappiness was more opaque. His baseball hat brim was well handled, worn into the worried curve of a man who pressed and pressed on it. He looked at me with both confusion and kindness. I couldn’t tell much else about him, and he said not to bother him when his door was closed, which was every day after I started.
I worked double-shifts, waking up while it was still dark, and returning to the hotel long after its other inhabitants were asleep behind the drawn mustard colored curtains. Sometimes I sat at the pool in the dark and it looked sort of beautiful then, transformed into a remote black-watered lake. I barely knew what time it was or what day of the week. I kept my money on me at all times and ate my lunch alone. This was a chance to get strong. Each time I lifted something heavy I bent my knees and thought of the long muscles in my arms growing taut and gleaming like robot arms, or the arms of a man. I was play-acting a life I never would’ve accidentally stumbled into. It was a surprising version of power, this realization that I could be anyone. I liked the idea of my friends and family seeing me in this place. It was wooden, decrepit, full of sun. It smelled sour and rank. But I was capable; I was forewoman. I made things happen, and grown men listened to me, albeit begrudgingly.
After my solitary lunch on the third day I walked by the men to start work again and heard them talking about Friday and the pig girl. I couldn’t get anything specific from their conversation. Just the same thing. She’d be here Friday. The Pig Girl. I started to grow mildly interested. They spoke about her with such reverence, while they barely looked at me. I’d taken Lucian’s advice, wearing a long men’s button down shirt, but I still expected some attention, which I didn’t get. If they looked at me accidentally it was because I happened to stand right in their line of vision and I always turned around to see what was behind me. I was translucent; they saw everything but me. They saw shipments, and walls, and sky, and work, and food, but not me. I should’ve been grateful. It could’ve been worse. They could’ve been trying to rape me behind the outhouses or something. But they left me alone, like a little boy, some easily ignorable nuisance. I wasn’t grateful exactly, not wishing for their attention exactly either, but I wanted something from these gruff men that I was certainly not getting.
At home I was considered hot. I was generally thought of as the hottest girl in my neighborhood, and occasionally the hottest in high school. It wasn’t so much the saying of it as the reactions I got and how those reactions felt. Or that Jennings Cormichael, with his dark, dirty hair and t-shirts emblazoned in magic marker messages, once wrote my name across his chest. I wasn’t used to being upstaged, much less by some invisible fantasy girl called Pig Girl. I tried to not let it bother me too much. It wasn’t the point really, and besides, if she was half-girl, half-pig it wasn’t like I could envy her. Though something similar to envy was what I felt day after day as her name was mentioned with increasing fervor. I even let myself fall into my own daydreams where she ran away with me after I made enough money. She’d know things I didn’t, and the other way around. I’d need some sort of alias as well. Pig Girl and Ma Poule Girl. I needed an accomplice, and I began to anticipate Pig Girl along with the men, my ideas of her filling every empty moment, which was most.
It was the third or fourth day maybe when I saw Dale. He couldn’t have been much older than me. Maybe he was lying too, with his own stories that brought him here, his own hitchhiking routes. I closed my eyes and imagined him grabbing my breasts, or pushing himself on top of me in the bed of the factory pick-up. We might walk to a waterfall and sit in the still pools at the bottom in only some of our clothes. Or we might explore some of this stupid, rural Georgia countryside and happen upon things that were miraculous or scary. He’d drive the pick-up, his elbow crooked out the window, and I would feel the heat of the cab on my knees, and the unfamiliar rising and falling of the landscape. I’d tell him I ran away, and he’d think I was terribly daring. He’d take my hand as a source of comfort, and it would be, but later I’d forget how it felt, the exact sensation of our skin pressed together. He was like the others, though, barely acknowledging me. None of them knew my name. If they momentarily remembered it they forced themselves to forget, muttering, “Hey, lady,” if they needed my attention. Lady instead of girl was the respect that I got. But Dale didn’t hate me, I could tell. Sometimes he brought me some expired thing and stood in front of me for a minute before saying something about it, his faced scrunched and serious with concentration.
“I guess Pig Girl will get it on Friday,” I’d tell him each time, my heart doing something much more complicated than simply racing. It slurped greedily at my blood, then slowed, and then lurched forward with a bang that felt like dying.
He secretly smiled like the other men. “Yeah, the Pig Girl,” he said. Nothing more. I wanted to ask him about her, but the other men were always looking and listening. Once Dale added, “You’re not from around here, are you?” I liked that and told him no, I sure wasn’t. I wanted to always be in places where, for one reason or another, it was clear I was from somewhere else. For some reason, this seemed like a way to always be protected.
There wasn’t much to do at night in my hotel room. The TV only got one religious station and one Spanish station. The bed was too old to jump on with any sort of satisfaction. I painted my toenails. Some nights I added a flourish, a snowflake carefully embossed with White-Out. I turned the tissue paper thin pages of the bedside table Bible letting words un-blur lazily from the long columns. I thought about the boys at my old school, the ones who kissed me and then ignored me, the ones who wanted to cheat on my Chemistry labs, the ones who threatened me in the hallway, the ones who shoved me hard against the other ones, the ones who wanted to love me and cried when I wasn’t nice to them. I wondered if they noticed I was gone. I hoped that life wasn’t the same everywhere, a repetition of desire, disappointment, stupidity, desire, disappointment, stupidity. I continued to read the soft-papered Bible and, despite myself, sort of liked the idea of a voice from the sky, the sky itself perhaps even splitting open. I took baths until the water got cold. Southern storms rolled in at night, hot and right overhead. Some nights I thought about breaking into a neighboring room, taking some valuable thing, and fuck the stupid job, and those ungrateful men, and Dale with his blue, blue eyes, and even the Pig Girl. None of it was supposed to matter, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it did.
If Dale was one of the boys in school he’d be some combination of the ones who pushed me and the ones who loved me. But I couldn’t be sure. He had one of those stupid tribal tattoos on his arm that was a bad design but looked sexy from far away. I practiced the right distance to stand from him. Sometimes it didn’t make any sense for me to be standing where I was and I needed to go somewhere else to make sure that everything was going where it needed to be. It usually was, and then I’d return to watch him. He lived in his body in that effortless way that some boys do, their knees and elbows and rib cages all making sense to them.
Then it was Friday, and I wasn’t gone, after all. It was a hot, dusty, momentous day. Our pile of expired dairy goods sat waiting. The sky was blue over it, empty of the distinction of birds, clouds, or storms. Come to think of it, there were never birds. There were possums, raccoons and rats. At night there were fireflies, lightning bugs Dale called them and his hands darted out to capture one between his palms. I tried not to think about how their blood was fluorescent green. Often Dale and I were the last to leave at the end of our shifts. On Thursday night, last night, he’d transferred the lightning bug over to my hands and I felt it flicker angrily against my skin. It seemed he’d given me some glimmering insect trace of himself and when I opened my hands the small light there seemed miraculous. But despite our good timing, the way I lingered longer than necessary, Dale left pretty unceremoniously.
It was Friday and up pulled Pig Girl, which I guess just couldn’t have been everything it was built up to be. The first person I saw was the driver, an old man, and I thought the whole thing was some sort of ridiculous Ma Poule legend. It was a story meant to wile away the days, something half-fairy tale, half-pornography. The old man had a shock of white hair on his head like a mad scientist, and his cheek puffed out with dip held there. He jerked his pointer and middle finger out the half-opened window in some acknowledgement of the men who were surreptitiously gathering closer, pretending to focus on their various tasks. Then, out popped a girl from the passenger seat. She was my age or younger. We looked each other right in the eye, a recognition about something deeper than just the moment, and then she hopped on over to the pile and just started flinging it in the back of the truck, no gloves or anything. She was wearing tiny jean shorts like some country-girl cartoon, and a red and white-checkered shirt tied at her belly button. She was pretty, worthy of whispers and nicknames, her thick blonde hair piled messily on top of her head, her eyes a dart of lagoon green. As she worked she pursed her lips and hummed something absently. If she knew people were looking, she didn’t care, an insouciance that made her all the more alluring. She would be a good runaway partner, probably had her own million reasons for wanting to leave. It wouldn’t be hard to convince her.
It was Dale who went up to her and leaned against the truck with his stupid tribal tattooed arm propped on the cab, and his quizzically handsome face tilted intently. She tucked loose strands of her hair back behind her ears and nodded at whatever question he’d asked her. Then, the most horrible thing, she laughed. She turned her face towards him and she laughed. It was like some surface part of the sun had exploded, some searing liquid light. I hurried away, leaving the spectacle there.
“Forewoman,” Lucian barked from where he was propped in his office doorway. “Tell those lazy good-for-nothings to get back to work. Leave Pig Girl alone.” Even Lucian when he said Pig Girl got some small stir of emotion that crossed his face.
“Who is she?” I dared ask him. I don’t know what sort of answer I expected from him. Some real truth that might explain me to myself as well. It occurred to me I could stay here forever, get stuck, marry one of these men and grow dimmer and dimmer until I disappeared entirely. Maybe Dale ignoring me was a gift, his attentions would only get me stuck. I shook my arms, wringing them out as if they were asleep.
“She’s a local girl whose grandpa keeps her out of school on Fridays to pick up this shit,” Lucian said, his romantic inclinations long gone.
It seemed Dale had asked Pig Girl on some kind of date because he asked to leave work early and Lucian said OK and the other men congratulated him on some unspoken understanding, which I guess was that they all thought he was gonna get some from Pig Girl. And I didn’t know if it was jealousy I felt, which was a very one-dimensional feeling. I felt something more complicated. I felt like I wished I was Pig Girl, obviously, but also that I wished I was Dale, and maybe even that I was me, but different. Or that I’d gotten to Pig Girl first, been like, Let’s go. I have the route all planned out. We don’t need this shit. I’m sure there is more to it. This being alive business.
The afternoon got too hot and my legs hurt from standing up all day, and I hadn’t made as much money as I thought I would, so I’d have to stay a whole extra week probably. An anxious ache settled in at the thought of this but it had to be OK. I’d made Lucian think I’d stay forever, after all, not that I was just passing through. It helps with one’s psychology about everything if you always feel like you’re just passing through. When nothing is permanent, nothing can be so bad.
I went home and I thought about Dale on his date with Pig Girl. She probably changed out of her jean shorts and into some effortless sundress, with her shoulders tan from the work unloading all that junk into the pigpens or wherever it went. Why did she live with her grandfather? Maybe her mother ran away and left her, or maybe her mother died. I wondered if Pig Girl was happy there with her grandfather. Maybe she didn’t know anything about the outside world. Maybe she thought the world was very small and flat. Honestly, it might as well have been. No matter how far you went, even if you traveled to the end of the universe, you ended up back where you started. That was a real thing I read somewhere. I knew that proved that everything was actually round and we were spinning in circles. But to me, I don’t know, it made me believe in flat. Just one long dusty ass road and you could do whatever you liked but you never got away.
At every hour of the night I thought about what phase of the date they must be on. I was too distracted to go to the pool, to re-paint my toenail snowflakes, or to read the Bible. And when it got late I grew antsy, thinking of the romance and what variety and intensity it might be between the two of them. Pig Girl was probably bored out of her mind. Or maybe she was slutty. Either way, all signs pointed towards Dale’s successful conquest and me having to be regaled, by default, with the details. Why it was she couldn’t resist him. As if anyone could resist anything. It was small comfort that she was probably settling for him, her own dreams of escape gasping for air, his lovely face a suitable alternative.
But on Monday, Dale was silent. And the men didn’t ask, and I sure didn’t ask. I wondered if Pig Girl had rebuffed him, or if Dale was startled into propriety by how much he liked her after all. Some men even discussed Friday and her weekly arrival as if there had been no date, as if there was no way to get classified information anyway, and the myth of her could remain intact. Everyone probably liked it that way. I could’ve told them right then about Pig Girl if they really wanted to know. She danced around her bedroom, cut pictures out of bridal magazines, and wanted a rich boy. She was secretly angry in a way that would bubble up when they least expected it, maybe even after a long, happy life together. That was true about girls. They were never satisfied. Nothing ever filled them up. And they were secretive, and could plot for years. Their patience was selfish, silent, and unyielding. I knew these things, obviously.
On Wednesday the most unexpected thing happened. Two of the men asked me to have lunch with them. I guess I should’ve been suspicious, because why were they suddenly taking a liking to me, anyway? We drove for a long time in their pick-up truck and I started to think it was a bad idea, after all, and this was some sort of hazing, or worse. I was picturing all sorts of horrible things when we finally got to the center of a big meadow. It wasn’t farmland like most of the fields, but all overgrown like a real meadow. Tall grasses and Queen Ann’s Lace and Joe Pye Weed and things that looked like giant dandelions but couldn’t have been all grew crowded together. I kept my cool and it was a good thing because all we did was eat our sandwiches, there in the pick-up truck. We didn’t talk about anything, just ate in silence.
For the first time it occurred to me that this was also a beautiful place in its own way. Maybe the men thought I was going to stick around and that I wasn’t so bad. I liked how it felt, different from the claustrophobic affections of the boys in high school, different from even what it would’ve meant if Dale just pressed his mouth hard onto mine. This afternoon marked an implicit acceptance without caveat, something I’d never really had. Their silence and the wild meadow outside the pick-up truck, and how it felt to sit there, was something I’d always remember.
“Let’s race,” one of the men suggested. I screwed on my thermos top and didn’t know what he meant but figured we were probably going to race and was glad that they’d decided, in some small way, that I was OK after all. I wasn’t going to ask anything or protest this suggestion.
The man driving started the truck up and just took off like a bat out of hell. I didn’t know who we were racing, since we were the only ones there. But if we hadn’t been alone, we certainly would’ve won. I didn’t even know a truck could go that fast in such tall grass, off-road, and with no destination. We bounced over patches of grass, bottomed out in weird holes, but kept flying. I was OK with it, it was better than what other things I’d imagined might’ve happened. The hot summer wind came in the open windows hot and unromantic. The men whooped and cursed happily as the truck rattled and swayed in loops around the meadow. But just like that we flew to a stop and so did I. I flew forward I mean. My face smashed somewhere on the dashboard. I couldn’t tell you where. People don’t remember things like that. But the rear view mirror did fly off and a bunch of stuff that was in the back flew out too. So the impact must have been something.
I got a black eye. Not that second, but in the kind of way where you know what’s coming. My eye was all red and pre-puffy, and by the time we got back to work it was doing that almost purple thing. I think the men were impressed, clapping me on the back and grinning broadly. Anyway, it seemed that they’d forgotten I could read and stopped holding that against me. They were just proud of the way I took the accident, the way I declined ice and just looked straight ahead. It came naturally to me, I wasn’t trying to impress them. I couldn’t explain it to them, that I welcomed the ache of it, so concentrated, and with such a clear source of the pain.
By the end of the day it was a full-on black eye and all the men, not even just the ones who’d been there during lunch, were all smiling at me, and saying, “Hey there, Black-Eye,” and other things meant to show that they felt affectionately towards me. Despite myself I enjoyed their attention, which were only partly sexual. There was respect mixed in. I was tough, and they didn’t quite know what to make of me now. I liked that.
“Goodnight, Black-Eye,” the men said and drove off in their trucks and the sun starting its setting all pink and hard. Some men honked their horns and laughed and honked again before their pick-up trucks disappeared.
“Black-Eye, huh?” Dale said. I hadn’t seen him earlier, disappointed he was gone, and not around to be impressed by my promotion in the Ma Poule ranks.
“Oh, it’s silly,” I said.
“Guess you got a nickname now too,” he said. I wasn’t sure what he meant, bristling slightly at the comparison. It wasn’t as if Pig Girl was anymore flattering than Black-Eye. My eye suddenly hurt pretty bad and I cupped my hand loosely around it, looking at his shadowed-self with one eye and feeling a little melty. I didn’t like what he made me feel right then. He made me feel like I was a little kid, and he might take care of me, let me rest my head on his lap and hold something cold to my stupid, puffy face. He didn’t do that, of course. Any specific thing I’d ever thought about Dale was just a thing I’d made up, I knew no facts about him. He could’ve been from anywhere, been anyone.
“Yeah. It’s kind of sexy too. You look fierce.” He did this half-smile thing then and took one step in my direction. I dropped my hand and tried to lure him further. “Hey,” he said, “Guess what? I have another date with Pig Girl.” He laughed then, a sort of ugly, masculine laugh, meant for a conversation with a man, not me. It was crazy how sad it made me, but mad too. I felt this turn in my stomach and put my hand back up to my eye. I thought of the Pig Girl getting ready, spritzing perfume from the drug store behind her knees, and I thought of Dale’s head there, his tongue licking her knee-cap, her thigh, and further. Then, unwelcomed and unexpected, a rage of homesickness swept over me.
“Oh, well have fun,” I said.
“I plan to,” he said. Then, as if remembering it was me and not one of the men, he laughed again. “You gonna be OK?”
I wanted to say no. I wanted to yell no, but it didn’t come out. Like those nightmares where you can’t scream. I wanted to ask him to just take me to the closest bus station, buy a ticket back, let my parents be mad or relieved or whatever they were going to be, go back to school. “Yeah, totally,” I said. Just like that, the homesickness had swept over and away.
“OK, good night then, Black-Eye,” Dale said, reaching around me for his jacket and loping off to his truck. My arm felt cold where his had brushed against it.
I stayed back until it was only me there. Even Lucian went home and said something about seeing me tomorrow. The sun finally dropped all the way down and the night set in, storm-less, and cool. What a relief it was. I was sunburnt, and my eye was throbbing. I sat down in the grass near the parking lot, feeling sort of proud of myself, but also remembering the flatness of the world. If it was easy to leave, more people would do it, probably. They wouldn’t just stay in these sad, sticky places. Maybe it was that when you left you still had to take yourself with you. I thought I might even call my parents after all. I called from Lucian’s phone in the office and the phone just rang and rang and then there was my brother’s voice announcing that no one was in right now. I imagined my recorded voice echoing through my empty house, or even the three of them standing around and listening as I explained something to them. Explained what? So I hung up. The night before I’d run away my dad had been angry about something and his yelling filled up the house. My mother sat behind the closed bedroom door. I wondered about what she did there, maybe she just sat and sat. Something about that still image of her, hands folded in her lap, something about it just catalyzed me, all electrical spark and impulse. I’d slipped out the back screen door with my duffle bag before I could think about it enough to turn around.
And maybe I should’ve turned around. At the door, at the sidewalk, at the Mini-Mart where I got my first ride. But I didn’t. There’s what we remember and there’s what happens. I was only seventeen but I knew all I’d remember about that summer was Pig Girl and my black eye and the feeling that Dale stirred up in me, a whirring as if the center of me was tornado-like. Georgia in the summertime. And, of course, what happened next.
By the time I left Lucian’s office it was full-on night time. The moon was a flat, perfect circle and the sky around it pink. Lightning bugs were everywhere and I felt sad for them in the daytime, for how unremarkable their small, black bodies must seem to themselves. But I also felt that maybe I knew some people better now than I did before. Lucian, and the men who’d taken me for lunch, and even Dale. And then I knew that my own heart, with each beat, gave off the same kind of patterned lightning bug glow. Now and now and now and now. If someone was in the distance they’d see my light flickering on and off even though when I walked through daylight I seemed just like any girl.
Since no one was around I decided to drive the factory pick-up truck back to my hotel instead of walking like I normally did. I was tired and my eye hurt. Even reaching up to touch it I could tell it was swollen and monstrous, I didn’t even need to see it. If I just kept driving, no one would notice the truck missing for hours, the keys always left trustingly inside. I could be all the way to some other state by the time they knew what happened. I thought about that as I drove, distracted, scanning the side of the road for deer anxious to dart in front of me. When I saw them it was like when you see all things out of the ordinary. You look right at it and the shapes and colors mean nothing to your eyes. You look and look and finally you see what is there and your body just begins to move, your brain flapping all around like some useless fish.
It was Dale and the Pig Girl and his truck. The truck was wrapped around a tree, a perfect smoking U-shape. And Dale was in the middle of the road on his hands and knees, his face swollen and bruised everywhere. He didn’t recognize me when I knelt beside him, his eyes tilting back and forth across my face.
“Dale,” I shouted. The bones in my chest went light as I looked at him, right at the handsome, sneering face I’d longed for earlier, and all the previous week. Dale wasn’t in his body and I needed to yell his name to remind him of himself, of the word that was his name, and the world, in case he was thinking about leaving it. He looked at me in this way that I could tell he was thinking about leaving. “Dale,” I shouted again. I felt very calm and like there was no way in hell I was going to cry. The version of him who’d stood in front of me just an hour before seemed like someone else, a very different person, very far away. I was a very different person too, it seemed. Dale fell gently from his hands and knees onto the road and let out a ragged breath.
Pig Girl was still in the truck leaned over like she was sleeping, which obviously she wasn’t. I put my emergency lights on and kept the truck in the middle of the road to warn anyone who might be coming. But no one else was coming down that road. They might have been there all night. Dale like that in the middle of the road and Pig Girl just sleeping. I ran over to her and pulled the door open and there she was just as pretty as I remembered her. All I could think of was all the men I worked with and their dirty minds. Why was I the one who found Dale and Pig Girl? Any one of those men would have known exactly what to do. They would have lifted the Pig Girl up with ease and put her on the grass and pressed down on that bone over her heart. She’d grow up and see that man around and say, “Hey, remember that time you saved my life?”
I pulled her by her thin, tan arms and she fell out of the car, much more cumbersome than it seemed she should’ve been. With more difficulty I rolled her away from the car and into the grass. I remembered some thing about cars maybe exploding, although now the whole scene was so quiet, tranquil almost, that I had a hard time imagining that. I remembered also that you weren’t supposed to move people who might have more wrong with them than you could even see. The night seemed unfathomably beautiful, just still and dark and uncaring.
It didn’t seem right to say Pig Girl to her, to address her that way. But I didn’t know her name, even Dale hadn’t said it to me before he left for his date with her. I imagined different names. Annabelle. Mary Beth. Samantha. I didn’t want to say the wrong name, say something she wouldn’t recognize. I was more aware of each passing second than I’d ever been of any seconds of my life. Suddenly every day seemed like only a day that had led to this moment, simply preparation for what to do now that I was leaning over this girl, this strange girl who was my age with no name. The fact that I might have been asleep in bed five states north was more than impossible, rather a direct defiance of faith and destiny.
I shook her shoulders gently, picturing the delicate ladder of her spine that flowered into her brain and whatever things she might have thought inside it. They were there now, suspended like snowflakes on string, each thing she’d ever thought. I could feel them all hanging still and waiting for her decision.
“Pig Girl,” I whispered but she didn’t answer me. “Pig Girl.”
There was only one of me and I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t leave them there. I didn’t have a phone. I couldn’t stay. The closest house was miles back and unfriendly, dark on top of the hill. I returned to Dale who was on his back now, but his eyes were still open and blinking. I didn’t know anything about medicine or dying but that seemed like a good thing, the blinking. He was awake and I wanted him to talk to me.
“Dale, I don’t know what to do,” I said. “I think you guys are pretty hurt. Should I leave you here? Can you get to the side of the road?”
He was either thinking about this question or wasn’t ever going to tell me.
“Dale, I love you,” I might have said, but didn’t, though I did love him more now than I ever had before. But it was some dark sort of love, an awareness of my own death, and his.
“Dale, can you get to the side of the road?” Instead of asking him again I rolled him. That was the closest I’d ever been to him and his body seemed very precious to me in a way that was awful. I hadn’t felt that sort of tenderness before, an awareness of how he’d once been young, with the same ribcage, the same hands.
I had them side-by-side now and if I left my truck there with the lights flashing then if people drove by they would slow down and maybe be able to do something while I was gone to the house on the hill to get help. So I ran. It was a different thing to run that night than any other running, say the kind around and around on a track, or even races in the yard, convinced your brain can will things physically if you want it enough. Please, please, please. I think I said that word out loud the whole time I ran.
I was seventeen and the only things I’d remember about that summer were Pig Girl, and Dale, and my black eye, and the feeling Dale stirred up in me like the center of me was tornado-like. The only thing I’d remember was the night they both died while I ran as fast as I could to that house, banged on the door, woke up the people inside, who ended up being very kind and quick-moving. The whole thing happened silently, even the siren lights, rotating red, matching the sky I drove away under once it turned to morning. The only thing I remembered about my whole young life was that summer when I was seventeen and I ran away. I don’t remember any other summers. Not the summer I was sixteen or eighteen, only that they happened, but nothing specific within them.
The one thing I knew as I drove fast from Georgia, the thing I still know, was that it all might have turned out a lot differently if I’d known Pig Girl’s name. If I’d known who to call back into this world from wherever she and Dale already were together. If I’d been able to say, “Annabelle, come back. There is this enormous world. Imagine a perfect round marble with swirling color. Imagine it times a billion. Imagine traveling for your whole life and never coming to the end of it. Come back to the giant, endless world. Come back.”