It was no religious expedition, I’ll tell you that. We’d seen the cross lit up on the side of Mount Lindo every night since birth, so when Randy said after school one day, “Let’s go climb it,” the rest of us agreed. This was after The Denver Post discovered that the man who’d commissioned the cross, some dead rich city council guy—community leader and philanthropist—had molested two of his long-haired daughters. But the giant white cross brought enough comfort that most in the city chose to overlook that.
That included most, but not all, of us. Sally thought up close the cross might resemble a string of Christmas lights: unscrew one bulb, and the whole apparatus could go dark. That’s what she hoped. “Serve him right,” she said from the driver’s seat, “bastard.” She sported a duckling yellow sweater and that purple metallic eye shadow we all wore then, even Randy when we got him drunk enough.
Sally picked us up after practice—Jolene and I were in the Fiddler chorus, pretending we could sing—and drove to the park outside Columbine to wait out rush hour. Jolene adjusted the square burger leaking through her Wendy’s bag. We’d taken off our sad shawls and bonnets, leaving drab ancient Russia for familiar suburbia again. Here, people had more money. And ketchup.
“Shouldn’t we do this late at night?” Jolene said.
“That’s why we’re in a park,” I told her, “and not on the mountain yet.” Besides, we had to wait for Randy’s shift to end. He worked in a K-Mart knock-off selling tube socks and Sheila E. cassettes. We didn’t ask if they gave him a discount, because everything was discounted.
We sat in the grass by the pond, wind rippling its surface. Sally stared at the last slant of sun. “We’ll get up there. We’ll see clear across the state.”
“All the way to Kansas,” Jolene said, slipping off her pink moccasins and exposing her toes to the cold.
“Except it will be dark,” I said through a mouthful of fries.
The philanthropist who put the cross on Mount Lindo had married into the Olinger Mortuary dynasty back in the ‘30s. His youngest daughter became Miss America and, decades later, a champion for incest survivors, directly implicating him.
This was the early nineties. A chilly September and teachers hadn’t piled on the homework yet. I felt carefree in the park. Those days I still planned to do everything right and grow up and move to Chicago to do improv theater because it sounded glamorous.
“Hurry up already,” Randy called across the lawn in his work vest. The park officially closed at sundown, but nobody patrolled yet, aside from geese eying us with suspicion. Randy patted Sally on the head and palmed a handful of fries from each of us. “Anyone think to get me a Frosty?”
By the time rush hour has passed, and we’re driving 285, headed into the foothills, that’s when a cold sleet arrives. Our wipers don’t want to keep up and the tires get weird and rigid. We start sliding on curves—and anyone who knows this road, knows it’s all curves. Sally gets nervous, so we pull to the roadside and then to a gas station parking lot with its warbling pale-orange light, and before we know it a youngish guy comes out in a jean jacket, fleece-lined. He leans against the car asking about our trouble, suggests Sally consult a map with him inside the station.
“We don’t need a map,” Randy says, but she leaves with him. We see their two figures inside through the wide glass window, like a movie on silent. He stands behind her, leaning against her shoulders as she thumbs through an atlas. She’s lived in Colorado as long as I have, her entire life, so what she’s doing is deliberate: humoring him. But she’s also laughing and letting him lead. There’s an air of her knowing she’s being watched and enjoying it.
“Should we go get her?” Randy says—which breaks the spell inside.
Sally holds the atlas over her head against the rain as they dash outside. She’s quick inside the car but doesn’t close the door yet, like she’s betting on something: his reaction. He tells Sally at the steering wheel, “Scoot over.” She smiles like she’s won, sliding to the middle of the bench seat, crushing Jolene against the window.
“Are you sure about this?” I say.
Sally nods. “He knows how to get there.”
“Ahoy,” says the gas station guy in the driver’s seat.
“We know how to get there,” Jolene says.
He pulls us back into traffic on that dark night.
We weren’t long on the highway when he started skidding, too, on curves, and the wipers didn’t work any better for him than they did for us, but he didn’t seem too concerned and hovered his face close to Sally’s even as he drove.
Jolene came right out with it. “Have you guys met before?”
Sally said, “Don’t worry. He’s fine.”
Randy wasn’t having any of this, or he wouldn’t have been if he weren’t so carsick. He sat in the back next to me, head sunk into Jolene’s Wendy’s bag, trying not to throw up. But his eyes hung over the bag, alert, black, and skittering. Sally was his pet and it seemed she had forgotten him.
We turned on Turkey Creek Road, near Tiny Town. Finally reached the dirt parking lot near the cross, not far from the mountaintop. Pine and blue spruce surrounded us with biting chill air, the city glowing faint beyond the mountains. We got out and our shoes sunk into the mud. A cemetery was down one path, the cross down another. “I don’t even see it,” Jolene said, but I knew we were close. All the green and white road signs had pointed us here.
The gas station dude, in jean jacket and high-tops, his honey-brown hair maybe gelled or unwashed, said, “You gotta hike to it, but somebody should stay with the car.”
Jolene turned. “Why?”
“Cops,” he said. “It’s not safe.” He leaned against the car with Sally.
“I can’t get towed,” she said.
“But this was your idea,” I said.
Sally pulled her sweater tight, accepted his fleece-lined arm at her waist. “Technically, it was Randy’s.”
Poor Randy in the parking lot, in his work vest with no sleeves or hood, wanted to stay with Sally—if anyone needed to—but instead marched across the lot to the rocky path, pretending not to stumble, but anyone could see how woozy the ride made him. Jolene went on ahead; she’d had a pause to consider, to weigh possible dangers, and must have decided suit yourself. Randy’s Doc Martens were scuffed and smudged with mud. Sleet bounced off his legs. He shivered. Any minute he might grab his stomach and double over.
Sally leaned into the gas station guy exuding weird contentment. He must have been five years older. Her brown eyes glittered until it seemed she’d grown into another, nighttime version of herself, a bolder, glossier version with redder cheeks and blonder hair and so little need for her friends.
“You won’t leave us here?” I joked. The guy laughed, but Sally looked hurt.
“Of course not,” she said.
But when Randy and Jolene and I got a hundred yards down the path, we heard the car engine rattle. I thought I saw two stripes of headlights. Randy turned to run back. “She wouldn’t do that,” I said and led him to the cross. The big stupid cross.
The philanthropist originally hoisted the cross for his father, buried in the cemetery below, so the philanthropist’s mother could see it from her kitchen window across town before bed. For me, as a kid, the cross had marked the direction home, as solid and immovable as the front range, a white pulse on the black mountain, riding back from downtown into our western suburbs. But I didn’t know the story behind it then.
It was larger than I’d imagined, several hundred feet wide and several hundred feet tall, when it had seemed so tiny up on the mountain. The Jesus it could hold up would be mammoth, unheard of, with dull booming voice and hopeful proclamations; you’d see him all the way from Colorado Springs or Santa Fe, wind billowing his stick-straight hair behind him.
Jolene said, “Each bulb’s the size of a baby head.”
“It has to shine on the whole dumb city,” Randy said. His heart wasn’t there with us, but I wanted it to be. He needed to feel the white light, too, the muted warmth it gave out. It felt like watching stars on the ground, as if they’d fallen and arranged themselves along a clean geometry.
Then beyond us spread the wider view. “Look at the city,” I told Randy. From here, you saw the expanse of it, orange, white, and green dots patterned into lines. It seemed to have design and direction to it. I guessed at black rectangles and untangled paths of streets, scoping out our subdivision, our school blacktop. Randy hugged himself against the cold. We found Jolene staring at the great metal fence around the cross, ignoring the rain, flexing her feet to climb.
“What if it’s electric?” Randy stumbled and tackled her to the wet dirt.
She sat up, brushing gravel and mud from her elbows. “It’s not.”
Randy found a flat rock to sit on. “Who picks up a bunch of teenagers at a gas station?”
Jolene zipped her jacket and sat next to him. “Why did we let him in, is what I want to know?”
“She was driving,” I said.
The thing was Jolene and I had become used to this with Sally. The behavior had first cropped up that summer, a few months before. She’d meet guys at King Soopers or the back of Safeway, delivery boys in brown trucks or produce men or sometimes clerks for the butcher who’d just washed their hands. We’d go to Denny’s and she’d stay out later—there’s this waiter, or this bus boy, see, this guy who pierced ears at the mall. She could drive and we couldn’t. She’d drop us off and talk about it later, the next day, when heading to a movie. “I don’t let them touch me everywhere,” she said, “but sometimes…”
“Sometimes what?” we asked her, Jolene and me plain, round-faced, still hovering on the side of girlhood that felt neutral, almost asexual, although we were fifteen. I’d never had somebody’s lips on my ear. I hadn’t yet found a good haircut and hacked at my bangs myself. Jolene still wore side ponytails. My long phone conversations were usually with boys from math club about homework and winter vacations, nothing seductive, nothing charged, not yet. Nobody looked at us that way is what I tried to tell Sally.
“You just don’t notice it yet,” she said. “But they do. Look around you and they do.” She smiled. “And they’ll keep looking if you let them.”
These conversations happened when Randy was at work; we made sure of that. We, who nursed small crushes on him ourselves—black-haired, sweet-lipped, sketchbook-carrying Randy.
“Shouldn’t we keep an eye on her?” he asked us on the mountain.
“You want to see them make out?” Jolene said. I caught Jolene’s eye, both smarting that Jolene had drawn pictures we didn’t want him to see: Sally with the gas station guy, Sally with anyone else.
“We could break light bulbs,” I said.
“Why would we do that?”
“Like a protest… against the pervert who made this.” I read the Rocky Mountain News every day before Mom came home. The philanthropist news broke in May. His daughter appeared on Sally Jessy and Oprah, so poised and forthcoming: you can survive this, too.
We hurled rocks at bulbs. I heard a ping as the rock hit metal, or a thud as it touched ground and rolled off the cliff-side. “Sally’s okay with him, isn’t she?” Randy said.
Jolene launched a stone and missed. “We would’ve felt it if he’d been a killer.”
“But how can you know?” he said.
“There’s something hollow in psychopaths,” I told him.
“Something doesn’t connect,” Jolene said.
“Like a terrible reptile.”
“Black eyes like a shark,” Jolene said.
Randy said, “You’re making this up.” His rock bounced off the fence, and he followed it. The cross seemed to teeter along the cliff, and if you went to the fence’s far end, you were on a steep incline. With enough sleet in your eye or wooziness from the ride, you might just roll off the mountain—which is what Randy started to do. We grabbed at his flailing arms, dragging him up the slope. “It’s too cold for anything to make sense,” Randy said, chomping his teeth too hard.
“It is pretty cold,” Jolene said, which sent us back to the parking lot, where we found that indeed Sally’s car had left us.
“This isn’t another dead girl story, is it?” says a student in my undergrad writing workshop, some twenty years later.
This week I’m trying to talk about point-of-view and narrative momentum. I realize I’d left my fiction handouts on the copier, so I improvise by telling them my own story in pieces, except it isn’t my own, not really. I also find in my bag copies of a Sharon Olds poem about a car crash, which will have to do. As a group we see—in lines streaming all over the page—a progression of body parts from a dead woman, a passenger mangled in the accident. In the poem, the speaker’s mother cups the speaker’s face, holds the cheek hard against her breast, shielding her.
“How cliché,” the student says. “We’ve seen that gesture a hundred million times.”
“You don’t see anything poignant in it?” I say.
“It’s so overdone,” he says, and mentions an animated movie that might have been The Lion King.
I stare down at the poem. Despite the mother trying to shield the speaker from the crash, she still watches and details the red aftermath, that day when the driving woman’s time just stopped. It seems the speaker can’t stop seeing it. The poem takes on an obsessive quality.
“She’s haunted by the loss,” I say.
“There are other things to write about,” the student says.
“So you don’t want to hear what happened to Sally then?” I ask him.
He says, “Oh, I don’t know.” He looks at his notebook, peeks around at the class. “Well, you might as well,” he says. “Yes, please go ahead. Okay, yes, go on.”
That week in September my mom was out of town at a conference. She did physical therapy until she retired last year. Maybe it sounds too convenient, but it’s true. She was away then. Our elderly neighbor Martha checked in on me in our condo, but apparently not that often, or I wouldn’t have chanced being out so late that night. Jolene’s parents worked graveyard at St. Anthony’s, alternating so one would be home with her constantly, which really meant one exhausted person at home half-asleep at all times. So she didn’t want to call them either. This was before cell phones anyway.
The truth is I don’t remember how we got to a phone on the mountain that night. Maybe my memory warps as I age. Maybe that wasn’t the important part. We might have hitchhiked, but it seems unlikely, that late in the dark. Somehow Randy got ahold of his brother Ted, who picked us up in his maroon Jeep. Randy made him drive back to the gas station where the gas station guy originated, then up through the valleys and canyon roads, anywhere near the cross’s radiance. We expected Sally’s car parked by an Evergreen lake, and we looked at reservoirs and creeks. Randy’s brother drove us on this methodical yet haphazard search, covering so much territory beyond the foothills, but also giving in to whims—“She liked that hotdog place in Conifer,” andon to the hotdog parking lot, or “What about the dollar movies in Bear Valley?” It didn’t take long to realize we’d lost her. We kept looking anyway. She remained lost. And somewhere in the stream of it all, we called the police, and KBCO ran a bulletin between songs, and Channel Nine News broadcasted her blonde picture with her brown questioning eyes for several weeks on end. My mom came home from her conference, and I wasn’t allowed to go out on school nights after practice again. My mom didn’t want me alone.
Jolene and I still sang in Fiddler practice, wrapped in kerchiefs and peasant skirts, brown makeup smudged on our chins for dirt. This time when I twirled counterclockwise during “Tradition” and everyone else went clockwise, the student director didn’t shout but asked afterwards how I was. “You were with Sally that night, right?” she said. Did Jolene and I need a ride home?
For several weeks, all sorts of musical theater people wanted to drive us home after practice, to lay out their theories like picnic blankets in the ride down Kipling and Quincy. I appreciated the effort sometimes, the attention. I’d never seen the interiors of so many cars.
But one afternoon Tevye’s middle daughter agreed to drive us in her Subaru. She led us across the senior parking lot but stopped before letting us in. “I’ve gotta show you something.” She opened her hatchback to reveal a large blue duffel. Inside: stacks of gray t-shirts she and others had printed with Sally’s face on them. Gray shirt, thick white ink, sort of a caricature, though you could tell it was Sally from her last yearbook photo. She’d been elevated to a personality, a mascot.
“We’ve taken up the cause,” Tevye’s middle daughter said. “We’re raising money.”
“For what?” I said. “Her parents? Her funeral arrangements?”
“Don’t be so dark. We don’t know that she’s dead.” She closed the hatchback.
On the drive, I sat in front, Jolene in back. Tevye’s middle daughter unzipped her purple hoodie to show the same shirt: Sally’s face staring at us.
“Like a milk carton,” she tried again. “Like raising awareness. Have you seen me?”
“You don’t know her,” Jolene said from the back seat.
“But I’d like to, when Sally comes back. When we bring her back.”
We were making a left-hand turn onto Cole Court. Traffic facing us stretched on forever, so we sat there with the blinker on, not saying anything, just this blinker’s steady click. Tevye’s middle daughter would let us both out at Jolene’s. As the car pulled to the curb, Jolene said, “That doesn’t even look like her,” slamming the door for both of us.
I had flashes of us at Skate City for a sixth grade skating party. Sally with a broken ankle sitting on the carpeted bench watching us. She wore red-framed mirrored sunglasses and a giant white bow that sat like a ship atop of her head. Jolene and I pulled on it each time we circled. Sally seemed a little mysterious even then, like she was okay existing just on our periphery, in her own orbit. I’m surprised our friendship survived intact into high school. Sally could have catapulted herself into the sportier, less arty cliques, but for some reason she held onto us.
Randy was offended when we mentioned the t-shirts. “As though a bake sale will bring her back.”
“Or a lemonade stand,” I said.
“Let’s just sell drugs.” Jolene tried to summon a laugh.
What else could we do?
“Do you think she’s alive?” Randy said.
We let the question hang, not daring to answer. I thought Sally’s remains would be found before winter. We’d have a burial with her family, dedicate a cement bench to her in an aspen-filled park near Bear Creek. I thought the Mount Lindo cross, towering up there across the city, would mark not an abusive leader’s transgressions, but the night Sally left us—until decades passed and it would be a flash of white lights again to stare at offhandedly while driving west on 285. In this way it would cease to be significant.
There’s a reason our memories don’t stay sharp.
You may not believe me, but Sally appeared at school a few weeks later. Her cheek was still bruised, and a pink scar extended across her forehead. She wore a sleek short haircut that made her seem modern; the skin of her neck looked private and vulnerable.
She didn’t want to talk to us, didn’t even want to say hi. Jolene and I cornered her outside the cafeteria, after Sally had sat with a gang from AP Psych rather than our usual table. We’d watched her try to eat soggy mac and cheese, using a white plastic fork and dabbing lips primly. She pulled all the crust off a piece of bread. We saw her gather up her bag and shapeless jacket, eyes steady and avoidant, probably noting the surreptitious looks all around her. She was halfway to the parking lot when we caught up.
“Sal,” Jolene called. “Aren’t you going to class?”
Sally shook her head, trying to shrug us off, keep walking. I saw her car parked in the corner, under a juniper dropping berries on the windshield.
“How are you?” I said. “We miss you.”
Sally talked with forced politeness, holding tight to her Pepsi bottle. I don’t think she’d even opened it. The words that came out weren’t her own. “Dr. Brown said not to talk about it,” she said. “Dr. Brown said I need to heal.” She started to back away from us. “Thanks, guys.”
“But what happened?” Jolene and I asked her. “Where did he take you?” We’d been questioned by police ourselves, were almost featured on 9 KUSA until our moms intervened. Did she forget we were part of the story?
Randy saw us from the sidewalk near the band room—his eyes jumped. We’d heard she had beenfound. The police told us that much. We’d heard she was found near Lake Dillon but the gas station guy wasn’t, and because of that she’d always feel haunted. “But what happened?” Randy asked her, hand on her shoulder. “It’s us. You can talk.” He tried to pull her close, but she resisted. “It’s us,” he said again.
“You left me,” she said. “Why did you leave me with him?”
“You wanted us to,” we said, all three of us, separately and together, that day and later, again trying to reach her, from the front porch of Sally’s house, where her mother and stepfather barred us from crossing the screen-door threshold; from the slick linoleum hallways bearing their mop-streaks and caution signs; from the parking lot behind the soccer fields, where we stood at Sally’s driver’s side window again and again while she let the seatbelt cradle her head, only wanting to drive far away from us.
Randy took it harder than anyone. He wrote songs for her and bad poetry he carried in his backpack but didn’t give her.
“So there you have it,” says my undergrad student. “You let her live but she’s miserable. And so is everyone around her. Oh, great.”
Jolene and I invited Sally to our Fiddler dress rehearsal, played for a handful of familiars simulating an audience. They’d give a rambunctious ovation just as sure as actors would embellish some lines. We wanted Sally to see us, to be a part of us, to wave from the scratchy brown chairs in the audience, like she had before. But she couldn’t make it.
“She’s left us behind,” Randy said driving for ice cream after. He’d borrowed his brother’s jeep. “We have to admit that.”
“I don’t want to admit that,” I said from the backseat.
“There’s a lot we have to admit about her.” He didn’t elaborate.
“We don’t have to get into this,” Jolene said.
Randy turned right on a red light. It felt like the air had been swept out and an unknown awkwardness had replaced it. He said, “Do you think I don’t know? Do you think I wouldn’t have noticed all the other guys?” He was quiet until we reached the next intersection, when his voice came out low. “That’s no excuse for what happened.”
Jolene said, “I never said that it was.”
He shook his head, staring out the black windshield. “It isn’t,” he said.
We still wore production makeup, heavy pancake foundation, over-rouged cheeks, plum-stained lips, with mysterious under-eye hollows. Our village starved, we were desperate, poor, tired, and cold—no love but arranged marriages. It was disconcerting, and every time I saw myself in the rearview, I wondered who it was that stared back.
Even more disconcerting was Randy drove us right past Baskin Robbins. He drove past and took a left and a right and a series of curves, and soon we were on 285 heading back into the mountains. “We’re not going to see that stupid cross again,” Jolene said.
“I’m not going to the cross,” he said. He searched my eyes in the rearview, seemed not to recognize me at first either. “I hope that cross falls off the mountain.”
I yeah’ed in solidarity.
“And doesn’t hurt anybody,” Jolene said.
“But ends up in the bottom of a ravine.”
“Amen,” said Jolene.
“So where are we going?” I said, but I already knew. It wasn’t sleeting this time. Guardrail reflectors stared back like stunned deer. We were near the gas station that supplied us the gas station man. Maybe a whole storeroom of gas station men lived in the back, lined up and waiting to be activated.
“Is this legal?” Jolene said.
“Legal?” Randy said. “We’re in a car. We need gas.”
“You know what I mean. Because of the case?”
“We need gas,” he said.
The parking lot looked grim and empty. The light this time had a lime green tint, and oil pooled near the pumps. A Lotto sign hung from the window. Cigarettes were on sale. I saw at least two people inside the store but couldn’t get a good look at either.
“What are you going to do if he’s here working?”
Randy didn’t know. “But watch me. Be ready to drive.”
Jolene scooted into the driver’s seat.
“We can go with you,” I said.
“It’s dangerous,” he said.
We didn’t want him to go in. I would’ve been more comfortable circling the parking lot. But he swung the glass door open anyway.
“This is stupid.” Jolene turned to face me, looking like an over-rouged, desperate peasant too. “I thought we were going to get ice cream.”
“Does anybody think that they’ll find him?” I ask my undergrad workshop. “Will gas station guy even be there?”
“No,” says the vocal student from his side of the rectangle. “Because that would make it a plot-driven story, and only character-driven stories matter to you.”
“That’s not true.” I adjust the notes in my red folder. “Thinking about narrative momentum, what could you do with this then?”
“The guy would be in there,” he says, “waiting for them. He’d have whiskey and a gun. Maybe a bandana. There’d be a car chase. Maybe a crossbow, something unexpected.”
“A magic spell,” a short girl across the room volunteers. “Gas station guy gets trapped in an invisible net and then they feed him to lions.”
“Where do they get a lion?” I ask her.
“Doesn’t the Denver Zoo have lions?” she says. “Can’t they airlift him?”
Sally didn’t want to drop her friends. Loyalty meant more to her than that, didn’t it? Closeness, intimacy, whatever else comes with friendship. Humor? She wasn’t acting alone. There was her severe blonde mother with arched eyebrows and a beehive who’d never liked Sally’s friends. And Sally’s stepfather, a patrolman who moonlighted as a guard at the 24-hour grocery off Simms. Sally said he encouraged her dolling up, called her his beauty queen, had expectations that felt old-fashioned to us. We ran into him occasionally, buying Shasta or towering sacks of corn chips.
That night—after the Fiddler dress rehearsal, the non-ice cream, the fruitless trip to a dismal sad gas station where the men inside didn’t even know who Randy was talking about when he asked—that night Randy sidled up to Sally’s stepdad at the grocery store service desk. The stepfather wore a cheap silver watch, heavy and distracting. He looked up at us over a small plastic radio.
“She won’t talk to us,” Randy said. “But you know that already.” Had this been the Old West, Randy would’ve demanded a duel. But it was the Newer West, and we were aware of our overall powerlessness as teenagers—though eventually Randy would learn the power to impregnate a girlfriend and Jolene the power of moving to Sacramento.
“She needs time,” her stepdad said, hand grazing the stubble on his cheek.
He had a hard, military air, yet I wanted to feel sorry for him. “You must be so relieved she’s home.” Randy glared at me.
The stepdad seemed disconnected from his chiseled features, like his mind was someplace else. “I still miss her, too,” he said.
Randy said, “What do you miss about her?” His tone snide and accusing and something else.
“What?” the stepfather said. But a shrill announcement called him to the dairy case. His keys clanged with his strides.
Randy walked us through aisles. Then he decided he’d had enough and started getting ridiculous, rolling cans of stewed tomatoes across the floor, then jam jars that went lopsided.
“Stop it,” Jolene said. “Let’s go.”
“I shouldn’t even be out now,” I said.
He let loose a jar of black olives that opened and leaked, until the tiles were flooded with olives. Sally’s stepdad found us. We heard his keys before his voice. “Go home,” he said.
“This is your fault,” Randy said. But I didn’t ask what he meant, not then.
Later Randy told us Sally’s stepdad sometimes watched her dress. One morning he cracked open the bathroom door after her shower and looked at her toweling off. She’d pretended not to notice and told Randy not to tell anyone, which was why he was telling us now. One summer she’d asked for a lock on her bedroom door, but her mother had laughed her off. “Nobody needs that much privacy.”
I just wish I’d been paying attention.
“I’m not sure this is satisfying to me as a reader,” says my student. “I don’t see what this meant to the narrator.”
I wave my pen, beginning to stammer. “How does anybody feel safe?”
He looks across the rectangle and back to me. “But you’ve taken all the joy out of it.”
“The joy? Of what?”
“Of storytelling,” he says. “Tell us a story.”
“Fine,” I tell him.
Once upon a time I journeyed with my three youthful friends to see a bright shining cross on the mountainside. Citizens traveled from all over the land to bask in this alpine beacon’s light, ignoring that the cross had been posted by a terrible ogre who hurt his four daughters. Those days I had blonde shimmering locks and brown twinkling eyes and the conviction that the bonds of friendship held forever. It was night and white stars looked upon us. But the rain started, and we pulled into a gas station. It was there that a tall man joined us. A tall, rugged man with large jowls and wide eyes and the sharp, hidden tail of a fox. He drove us deep into the woods, near the top of the mountain.
“I’m cold,” he said, “Aren’t you cold?” He and I huddled in the car while my three best friends walked the path to the bright shining cross. I knew they would tell me about their journey, and their reports would be vivid and detailed and fine. I looked forward to hearing them.
But this man’s sharp foxtail came out, as did his clawed feet and fangs. By then my shorts were near my ankles, my legs bare and cold. The fox turned the ignition and drove us deeper into the woods, farther away, where the spruce loomed darker, more needles lined the ground, and an icky green moss crawled up on our feet and our shoulders. Neither deer nor young starlings dwelled here. The only sound was the car heater breathing.
This fox found a way to tie my wrists to each other. He kissed me with his whiskery muzzle and sharp orange teeth. His breath, much too warm, dried out my tongue, blistering the insides of my mouth. I called out for my friends, but nobody heard. I looked for the cross on the mountainside, but he’d blindfolded me. The rag he used smelled like gasoline. I tried not to inhale it too much.
Then one morning several days later, while he slumbered, my moment dawned. I started clambering away, so quietly, stealing my body back for myself, walking barefoot in the forest. I hid in stumps and thickets and he followed. I heard him calling my name like a dog’s, but he wasn’t a very clever fox, for eventually he lost the scent.
I found a small campground and a lady sorceress there with her jeans-wearing boyfriend. She had a striking ponytail and an arrogant, decisive manner. The round tops of her cleavage showed like the most natural thing, and her boyfriend seemed quite in awe of her. She helped me find my way home. “But on one condition,” she said. I could never say a word to my friends about where my fortunes had taken me. This was a knowledge I couldn’t pass on. I had to ignore their pleas although they would try to convince me with their warmth and good natures. I had to swear it. I had been changed. If I betrayed this oath, the penalty was imprisonment by a strong wizard or rueful faun.
“Okay,” I agreed finally. I smelled the fox in the forest behind me. Just to smell him was enough. “Okay, take me home.”
My dearest friends, two sweet peasant girls and a poor jester with his poetry, were left to circle the tall, massive cross on the mountainside. Forevermore, they’d live in the glow of the city and all that’s left open to them, free and untouched, without me.
Sometimes I can hear them there still.
“Nice try,” says my student. “I’m not sure I buy it.”
But our class is ending for the day. He pulls on his silver backpack straps, wielding his phone like a sword. “Wait, I’ve got it,” he says. “What if none of this ever happened?”
“How do you mean?” I say.
“None of it happened. They went to see the cross. The girl never came back. And they never found out what happened to her.”
I gather up my papers, pocketing stray pens and paper clips.
“The girl never came back,” he says again.
I say, “You mean another dead girl story?”
He ignores this. “What if that was the whole story?”
“What if?” I say.
He tugs on his backpack straps. “That would be enough to haunt somebody,” he says, “thinking of point-of-view and all.”
“It would,” I say. “Wouldn’t it?”
He steps halfway out the door.
“Or what if it happened and she lived?” I say.
He stops and hovers in the doorway.
“But now she has no one to tell it to?” I say.
And so she tells it to you.