This story is by Katie Sauer and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
The car crunches along the gravel parking lot and rolls to a stop. I can hear music behind the windshield. Ick…Elvis. It’s a familiar croon about fevers and kissing. Dad used to sing that one to mom. Gross. I rock my heels in the divot beneath the swing and peek through my hair. I can see the driver’s hand keeping time. Why do all dads love lame-o Elvis?
With a dying wheeze, the engine quits and the day returns to languid silence. I scratch at my thighs, ridiculously covered in fuzzy red tights.
“Hey, that guy is waving at us.”
“What?’ I peer up through my shield of hair. Whispery tendrils stick to my cheek.
“Let’s go over there.”
“No way. Stranger Danger, doofus.” The tuna sandwich I ate for lunch starts a slow flip in my belly. “Just ignore him.”
“It’s the park. There are people everywhere. What’s he gonna do, throw us both in his car? It’s fine. He’s like somebody’s dad or something.” She blows her bangs up in the air, pumping her legs harder. I feel a slight breeze coming off her fast-swinging body. Her shadow flicks across the ground beneath us, her toes pointing the way to Neverland.
“You go then,” I challenge. The suns beat down on my neck. “My legs itch.”
“Because you’re wearing those stupid tights again. No wonder. C’mon, chicken shit.” She swings high and flies, skidding to stop in the long grass. Standing before me, I can see her snaggle-tooth where it rides over her lip.
I slide off the swing. “Fine, but if he says he has candy, don’t take it.”
“Duh,” Jenny throws back at me, flouncing over to the car and the guy standing in the open door. Jenny stops a few feet short of him. The guy pulls off his cap and runs a hand across sparsely grown hair, planting the hat back down over his eyes. He takes a look around, jangles keys in his pocket.
“Hey, girls. You live around here?”
“Yeah, down the block,” Jenny replies, “Are you looking for somebody?”
“I was hoping to get some help. I got this box of candy in my trunk. I gotta pass it out to all the houses around here.”
“Ha, candy. Told ya,” I mutter to Jenny. The guy looks past her at me.
“No, I’m not handing out candy to little kids,” the guy protests, “Nothing creepy like that. I work for a company that leaves samples for people to try. I got ‘em all bagged up, those bags you hang on doors. I’m supposed to do this whole neighborhood today, but I got a late start. No way I can do the whole neighborhood alone. You girls know some boys who might help?”
“Why do boys gotta do it?” Jenny asks.
“Well,” the guy says, his keys jingle-jangling, “I need it done fast. It’s too much work for little girls like you two.”
“No it’s not! Lizzie and I can do it!” Jenny jogs over, picks her bike up from the overgrown grass.
“I don’t know, Jenny, I’m already too hot. Let’s go back to the swings.” I turn away.
“I’ll give you each ten dollars and some free Starburst. That’s the candy, it’s new – have you heard of it?”
“Ten bucks! I’ll help you.” Jenny wheels her bike over to the back of his car. My legs feel damp.
Jenny likes to be the bravest in our neighborhood. At 8, we’re not the littlest, but we are among the crowd of kids without mommies around. Usually, I enjoy being brave, too. Catching snakes, jumping off the top of the jungle gym. Me and Jenny pride ourselves on our fearless tomboyishness.
“It’s okay, sweetie, look.” He walks over and unlocks the trunk. Jenny peers in then looks at me.
“It’s okay, Lizzie. It’s just bags of candy. Look!”
I grab my bike and wheel it over. I look in and see hundreds of bags of yellow rectangles, red lettering exclaiming Starburst along the side. Just like he said.
The guy smiles at me, “See? Just candy samples.” His eyes are bright blue and shaped like jack-o-lantern triangles.
“Okay,” I shrug. Jenny whoops.
“I have to do these blocks near this park and some near the park on the other end of the neighborhood. What’s that park called, you know?”
“That’s Osage Park,” Jenny offers, “my house is over there.” Why is she so dumb sometimes?
“Well, Lizzie,” he looks at me again, blue sparkle, “do you live over there, too?”
“Nah, she lives right down the street there,” Jenny points right down the block at my house.
“Jenny!” My teeth clench. Yep, and I should probably go home now. Can’t go in yet, though, Mom said to stay at the park til 4.
“Well then,” the guy chuckles, “that makes it easy. Jenny can drop off the bags near her house. Lizzie, you can stay around here.” He pulls a canvas bag out of the trunk, loads it with sample bags.
“Here, start at that house over there, Lizzie. You can ride your bike if you want to. Toss them on the porch. Don’t worry about hanging them on the doors – it’ll go faster that way.”
“Should I take a bag?” Jenny asks, reaching in.
“Um, yeah. But I wanna show you where to drop them off. How about you ride your bike over to Osage Park? I’ll meet you there.”
“Okay, race you!” Jenny jumps on her bike and pedals down the street.
“Get going, kiddo. I’ll go give Jenny her bags, then I’ll deliver between the parks. I’ll find you when I’m done.”
I watch his car drive down the street. I can see Jenny speeding along on her bike. Slowly, his car catches up. He stops. Jenny stops. Jenny waves her arms around while they speak. What are they doing? I watch the guy get out of the car and pop the trunk. Jenny wheels her bike over and he puts it in the trunk, the lid ajar. What? Bouncing ponytail, Jenny hops in the front. I watch the car continue toward Osage. Stupid.
Lifting my hair off the back of my neck, I try to alleviate the sticky pool at the base of my hair. I should go home. But, ten bucks would be great.
I climb on my bike and string the bag’s strap across my chest. I feel an urgency to just get this over with. I pedal fast and drop off the first sample.
Reaching the bottom of my bag, I stop my bike, curling my damp toes inside my Keds. Heat worms its way under my tank top and stabs through my shorts. I hear the engine rumbling and the guy has the radio on again, loud.
“Hey, Lizzie! You finished?” his car eases up to curb alongside my bike.
“Last one,” I shout over my shoulder, heading up to toss a bag onto the stoop. I turn back.
“Well, hey, get in. I’ll drive you back to the park.” I consider for a second. My legs are liquid fire and I realize how far from the park I’ve come.
“I’ll just meet you back at the park.”
“I gotta get going, kiddo. C’mon, it’ll only take a few minutes. Jenny is waiting there for you.”
“Yeah, okay.” He walks over and takes my bike as I climb off.
“Hop in. I got this.” I go around the car and get in the front seat.
He climbs in. His head turns, eyes flicking at me. Up, down. They look wrong. The ice blue is gone, swallowed by the blackness of his pupils. I hear his breathing over the noise of the radio. He reaches over and squeezes my thigh.
“Interesting choice for an 80-degree day. Aren’t you hot under there?”
I squirm, but he doesn’t move his hand. I can feel his fingertips pressing deeper into my thighs. I want to get out of the car, but I don’t move. Shit. Shit.
“Are we going now? Jenny’s waiting, right?”
Pulling his hand away, he yanks the gearshift down. A slow turn and we head toward the park. Another Elvis song comes on the radio and he cranks the volume.
“You like Elvis?”
“Yeah, sure,” I say, “My dad used to listen to him all the time.”
“Yeah, before he moved to California.”
“Ah. I know how that goes.” He puts his hand back on my leg, petting me. My muscles contract, like rubber bands about to snap. “This is his new song, Way Down. Heard it?”
“N-no.” I shiver, despite the heat. He pulls into the park and my stale breath bursts from my lips.
“I told Jenny we’d meet back here.” Swinging the car under a shady tree at the end of the lot, he grips my thigh again when we stop. “Wait a sec. I want to hear the rest of the song.” He dials the volume up. The tempo beats into my heart as his hand returns.
I gotta get out. I gotta go home. Suddenly, home seems so far away. I can see my house from where we sit. It’s a pinprick at the end of a tunnel. His grip travels up my thigh, fingers sliding under my shorts like snakes. Move. Move. Move. My body is lava wrapped in concrete.
The radio blares, I know, but my ears aren’t working right either. He doesn’t look at me, his eyes surveying the park. Suddenly, a startling baritone interrupts:
“WLUP listeners, we have shocking news. This just in…Singer Elvis Presley has died in a Memphis, Tennessee hospital. The 42-year-old entertainer apparently died of a respiratory ailment. No other details were given. Repeating, singer Elvis Presley has died…”
The hand comes off my leg, snaps the radio off.
“Holy shit,” his voice quivers. Leaning back, he pulls off his cap and scrapes his fingers through his limp hair. His fist pounds the radio, startling me.“Son of a bitch. What did he say? Son of a bitch. Elvis can’t be dead!” I still can’t move. Quietly, the guy begins to cry.
I twitch a little. He turns and stares at me as if I am an apparition. “Get out!” he screams, spit hitting my nose. “Get out of my car! Goddamit, get out!” My hands can’t grip the handle and I’m afraid my feet won’t feel the ground. He shoves past me, yanks the door handle and pushes me out of the car.
I run to the back and lift the lid. I grab my bike, twisted into the confines of his trunk. And then I see. Oh my God, Jenny. Jenny is under my bike on a bed of yellow rectangles. She’s dead. Oh my God, she’s dead. I struggle to pull the bike out. He’s going to drive away. As I release the bike, a scratch appears on her pallid cheek, instantly beading red. Her eyelids flutter. He’s going to drive away before I can get her! I yank and pull on Jenny’s leg and arm, managing to slide her half out of the trunk. I hear the guy shifting into drive and hold on to her as he pulls away. Her body thumps like a bag of laundry and dusty gravel sprays over each of us.
I bend over and shake her, “Jenny! Jenny, wake up!” Tiny slits of life appear between her lids. My legs give and I fall down hard, the sharp chips of stone digging through my tights to find my knees. The world comes rushing back. I feel sun piercing into my skin. I hear the boys, who are now on the swings Jenny and I abandoned hours ago. I watch his car race away.
I look at Jenny. She is staring up at me, confusion knitting her auburn brows.
I breathe in sticky August air.
“Hey, Jenny. You know what? Elvis is dead.”