This story is by Emily Coit and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Momma stands in the doorway, her eyes narrowed, watching me apply lip gloss in the mirror.
“Not too much” she cautions, “or strange men will think you’re easy.” We only have one bathroom in our apartment, so privacy is a luxury reserved for my imagination. And Momma, cigarette poking from the corner of her mouth, has made it a hobby to hover in the doorway, watching me get ready.
On weekdays I am permitted to walk across Central Park to school, so long as Jenny Wilder, a classmate who lives in our building, walks with me. And so long as we avoid The Ramble. “That place is cesspool of pedophiles.” Momma says around her cigarette when I ask her why we have to walk way up to 79th to avoid it.
It’s been a cold spring, but walking in the cold is much better than riding the M15 with all those strange men, even if I have to do it with Jenny, who wears mascara and runs ahead and never checks her peripheral vision to ensure we aren’t being followed. Yes, walking is better, especially now that the tulips on Park Avenue are starting to bloom.
In school we learn that a long time ago in Holland tulips were worth more than gold. That night we eat baked potatoes and I tell Momma about the Holland tulips because I find it so strange and charming that something so fragile could be worth so much. Momma grunts and turns up the volume on the TV. She is watching a news story about a missing girl from Harlem.
In the morning, from her perch in the bathroom doorway, Momma tells me my uniform skirt was getting too short. “Be careful,” she says, pulling her pink terry cloth bathrobe tighter around herself, “there are a lot of bad guys out there who might see all that leg as an invitation.”
I look down at my pale legs, veined with cold and then back up at Momma, who takes a drag of her cigarette and nods her head. She does this so I know she is not messing around, but I already knew that, because if there is one thing Momma does not do, its mess around.
Jenny is running late so I wait on the sidewalk under the big green awning. Al, the night doorman, is finishing his shift, and he walks over to me. Al has only been working at our building for a few months, but I like him because he hums show tunes and at Christmas he gave me a miniature candy cane in a tiny cellophane wrapper. When I said thank you he smiled so big I saw all the way back to his molars, which were gold. Now, he looks up and down the block before talking, “how you doin’ Slim Jim?” he asks, which makes me laugh because I am neither slim, nor named Jim. Al smiles and walks away with his cap in his hand. When Jenny finally comes out, she has her hair in a high ponytail. When I tell her what Momma has told me – that you shouldn’t wear your hair in a high ponytail because it makes it easier for strange men to grab you and drag you into an alley or The Ramble – she just stares at me, blinking.
The April sunshine is so bright that I almost don’t see the poster for the missing Harlem girl taped to a pole a block from school. I stop to look and Jenny runs ahead. The poster says the girl was last seen nine days ago. In big red letters above her photo it says her name is Melanie Rinner. She has clear eyes and dimples. The poster says Melanie is my age, but she looks much older, and when I look closer I see she is wearing crayon-thick eyeliner and lipstick the color of spaghetti sauce. My heart sinks for her because she obviously met some strange man, probably a pedophile, who saw her make-up and thought she was easy, just like Momma said. Poor thing, I think as I tug the hem of my skirt and hurry down the block to school.
On the walk home from school I see Al the doorman sitting on a bench a block from our apartment. “Hey Slim Jim” he calls.
I walk over to him and he leans toward me. He reaches his hand into his pocket and withdraws a blue marble. He smiles at me when I take it, winks, and says, “our little secret, okay?”
I drop my backpack in my bedroom and see Momma has let out the hems on all my skirts and I breathe a quiet sigh of relief. In the kitchen, Momma is wearing jeans instead of her pink terry cloth bathrobe. The apartment smells like the can of Vanilla Breeze she keeps under the bathroom sink.
“Why don’t you do your homework in your room. Ms. Rex from 4B is coming over for wine.” Ms. Rex has a big chin and a loud voice and likes to complain to Momma about the other tenants.
This evening, though, Momma and Ms. Rex are quiet. I tiptoe down the hall to the edge of the living room where I sit, listening.
“Well, no one has seen her for nine days.” Ms. Rex says.
“The poor thing. I heard she just vanished.” Momma said. I hear the click of the lighter as she lights a cigarette. They are talking about Melanie.
“I just hope someone isn’t keeping her somewhere, you know, in some – some horrible dungeon or something.” Ms. Rex says.
Momma coughs, “A fate worse than death.” she says.
The next morning Momma has an early appointment and without her standing in the bathroom doorway, I lose track of time. When I get down to the sidewalk, I am late and Jenny is gone.
“She left about five minutes ago.” The voice is quiet, but there is a smile in it. I turn and see Al standing with his cap in his hand. I breathe out and try to think what to do. The M15 won’t be here for another 15 minutes. I don’t have money for a cab, and even if I did, I’m not supposed to take one without Momma.
“You alright Slim Jim?” Al asks, grinning so big I see glints of gold in the corner of his smile.
“I’m not supposed to walk to school alone.”
“Hell, why don’t I walk you to school?” Al says, his smile crinkling the skin around his eyes.
I glance around, hoping for an adult to tell me what to do, but the only person there is Tony, the daytime doorman, and he is bumping his head along to whatever is playing through his earbuds.
“C’mon, I could use the exercise.” Al laughs and slaps a hand on his belly. I laugh too because Al is rail thin and not in need of any extra exercise.
While we walk Al tells me he can’t believe Jenny left without me. “I’d never leave you, Slim Jim.” He says and smiles wide. That makes me blush. Al puts his hand on my back when we cross the street and lets it linger there for a while once we are on the other side. He tells me about his car and a special place upstate that only he knows about. “Bet you’d like to go up there with me, wouldn’t you Slim Jim?” I shrug and say yeah maybe I would.
Al stops a block before school and turns to me in the bright sunshine. He bends down so we are eye level.
“If you want, I can pick you up right here after school?”
“Maybe I’ll pick you up in my car? We could go for a little ride, huh? I bet you’d like that?”
Al smiles, but it is not the same warm smile that shows off his gold teeth. It is a hungry smile, the way a starving wolf might smile at a fat rabbit.
“But you can’t tell anyone I’m picking you up. The other kids might get jealous. Then I’d have to give them rides in my car.” He says.
Then he reaches up and takes a piece of my hair and twists it slowly around his fingers. His face is very close to mine and something big and loud and red flares inside me and tells me to RUN.
I take a breath and remind myself that this is Al, the night doorman who hums show tunes. Momma says danger is from strange men in The Ramble. This is not a strange man. We are standing on West 71st, not in The Ramble. Besides my skirt hem is to my knee and I am only wearing a little bit of lip gloss. I must be safe then.
“So what do you say Slim Jim, wanna go for a ride with me?”