by Valorie Clark
I met Bronwyn James at the intersection of King Street and Maple, in a grocery store we both worked at. She was unsure of herself back then, young and angry and ready for more than what our town could give her. A few weeks before her senior prom she disappeared with no note and no leads. Rumors flew.
She’s run off with that good-for-nothing boyfriend from Eggleville, was what all the old ladies in Junction always said behind their hands. But I and everyone our age wanted to believe something else. We were sure Bronwyn had done something legendary, and at every large gathering by the river for years people eventually sat around a fire and exchanged rumors. The stories of what Bronwyn was up to got taller the further we got from the day the town realized she was missing.
Each time everyone started swapping stories about where Bronwyn went, I stood off to the side of the fire and sipped my can of beer. I’d laugh at the appropriate moments, but never offered a theory of my own. I never told anyone that I was the last one to see Bronwyn before she disappeared.
If you saw us standing next to one another as teens, Bronwyn and I didn’t really make sense as a pair. My family took us to church every Wednesday evening and Sunday morning; She was raised by a single father too busy recovering from the workweek to bother with church. She smoked cigarettes and wore tattered shorts; My mom insisted on slacks for school and plastered my dishwater blond hair to my head every morning until I stole my father’s clippers and shaved it off. All in all, people would have looked twice if they saw Bronwyn and I walking down the street together. But we were friendly.
We worked the same days at Mae’s Grocery. Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. We took our breaks at the same time; We’d go out behind the store and split a sandwich or try to make each other laugh until soda came out of someone’s nose. There Bronwyn convinced me to try my first cigarette and I convinced her to go to Homecoming. Not with me, but she went.
In some ways she seemed like a movie character to me, our interactions staged and details forgotten when we went home at night. She was nice if a little stand-offish, and even though we got along well at work we never hung out after because she was always with her boyfriend.
Which was why I was surprised when she knocked on my window late one night.
“Bronwyn?” I asked groggily. I wasn’t awake enough to be self-conscious about not wearing a shirt in front of her. “How do you know where I live?”
“The school directory.”
A couple beats of silence hung in the air. My bedroom was on the ground floor, so I was raised only an inch or two above her; as it was we stood almost eye-to-eye. She was tall for her age and I short for mine. “So, what’s up? Is everything okay?” Through the fuzzy exhaustion slowing my brain a part of me felt thrilled—Bronwyn James was here! Outside my window! In the middle of the night, no less!
“I need you to hold onto something for me,” she shifted back and forth on her feet, glancing around.
“What is it?” I asked. I knew her boyfriend was into drugs and didn’t want to get caught up in anything with him. She passed me a backpack through the window.
“Just some stuff of mine. My dad wants to move, but I’m not going with him, but I can’t take this with me right now.” She whispered hurriedly, still glancing around her. She had another bulging backpack already on.
“What? What are you talking about?”
“My dad is moving to Dallas. Got a better job. But I don’t want to go, so I’m going to LA.”
“Oh. Why are you going to Los Angeles?” Even I could hear how stupid my voice sounded.
“That’s where my mother lives.”
“What, really?” Bronwyn’s mother had run off too, when I was too young to remember it. Bronwyn had never talked about her to me, and her father never remarried. I had sort of forgotten she’d existed, but I realized then that Bronwyn had probably never gone a day without noticing her absence.
She shrugged. “Think so. That’s what my grandmother let slip once when she was drunk.”
“You’re going to go live with her?”
“Have to find her first.”
“Don’t you need money to get to LA?” I don’t know why I asked; I didn’t have any money to offer her and Bronwyn was never the type to let details stop her.
“I have some. What do you think I’ve been working so much at that stupid grocery store for?”
“You saved up enough from the grocery story to get to LA?” I never saved a penny but always turned around and spent my paycheck at the comic book store, the one indulgence my parents allowed.
“From that and other things,” she muttered.
“Aren’t you mad she left?” I asked.
I’ll never forget the way Bronwyn stared at me. It was a clear night, and the little light that made it to that part of the house from the streetlights reflected sharply as she narrowed them. Her voice was low and threatening when she responded, “Just hold onto that bag, okay?”
Before I could say anything else—to ask why she was giving this to me, how she’d get to LA—she slipped away into the night.
I stored her backpack on the top shelf of my closet, where my mom never bothered to look or clean. As I got back into bed, I decided I’d ask her about it the next day at work. In the morning, the whole exchange felt like a dream.
Bronwyn didn’t come into work the next day and by Thursday everyone was saying she was missing.
I didn’t ask Bronwyn the other way she made money, but looking back I don’t have to wonder. It doesn’t take much imagination.
Her mother, who had been living in LA, turned up dead about six months after Bronwyn left Junction. Cocaine overdose. The news made it back to us in the typical trickle of a rumor—slow at first before it was everywhere. When I looked through official reports years later it seemed suspicious. No one thought she had ever used cocaine before. The detectives had dismissed that as normal addict’s secrecy, but I had a creeping feeling that Bronwyn had something to do with it.
Bronwyn’s father put off moving to Dallas for a while but eventually had to for work. I guess he figured Bronwyn knew where to find him if she decided to return.
About a year after her appearance at my window I got a postcard from Florida. Just my address and the message “Thanks.” I had never seen her handwriting, but I knew it was from Bronwyn. For the first time I dug her backpack out of my closet. In it was a few books and some photos from her early childhood. Bronwyn smiled in all of them. I frowned and wondered why she’d needed me to hide them. I remembered the backpack she’d carried—was it just an issue of space?
Four more years passed. One day when I was home alone, the phone rang.
“Still got my stuff?” Her voice was deeper, smokier somehow. “I’ll come by. Same time as before.”
I didn’t sleep. A little past midnight, my ears pricked to the sound of an engine. I leaned out my bedroom window but couldn’t make out much more than shadows. Someone got out of the passenger side and started walking up the side of the house, toward me.
“Bronwyn?” I whispered into the night.
“Christopher.” It did not sound like a question.
She came into the small patch of light the lamp in my bedroom spilled out. She reached through the window and hugged me.
Her hair was longer but still blonde. She was only twenty but looked like a real adult already, while I still looked like a gangly teen. I caught a glimpse of a long, thin scar on her neck that hadn’t been there in high school.
“What happened?” I asked, pointing to it.
She shrugged. I thought of her mother’s death and tried not to imagine a needle being dragged over her skin in a fight.
“Uhm. Here’s your bag,” I said, thinking I sounded just as stupid then as I had at fifteen.
“Thanks.” We looked at each other for a moment, then she nodded as if to say goodbye.
“Did you ever find your mom… Before?” I asked. I had to know.
She looked at me hard. “Yeah. I found her.” The smile she flashed was full of teeth, then she vanished.