The Zero Boss says:
For this month’s Blogging for Books contest, create an entry on one of the following themes:
- A tale of a Halloween past, either from your own childhood or from your experience as a parent;
- A “ghost story”, either real or sprung from your imagination;
- Any time in your life when you were frightened out of your skull.
So here's my entry and it's called Shadow of a Girl.
She’s been on the corner of Madison and LaSalle, slumped incongruously in front of the ornamental cornices of the bank for as long as I can remember. Even though I saw her everyday, I didn't really see her. I saw her the way you see the No Parking sign you walk by on the way to work. You don't take note of it or think about it. You just keep going where you're going.
Today I stopped and looked at her. I don't know why I did. There didn't appear to be anything different about her that made me take notice. The same ratty, brown coat was pulled up around her neck. Her head was bowed but her eyes were turned up, as if she was afraid she’d get punished for looking at other people. I pulled a few coins from my purse and tossed them in the old coffee cup forever gripped in her small hand. Despite the rush hour foot traffic, mine were the only coins in the cup. I stood, riveted. And then, without moving, she began to speak.
“I'm invisible,” she said, her voice surprisingly clear and light. “Sometimes I wonder if I'm real. Then someone puts a coin in my cup and I know I’m still here. Sometimes I want to shout, “Look at me!” but I don't. It’s not good to draw attention to yourself. Only the crazy ones do that and I'm not crazy. Mostly I just sit and watch people walk by.” I swallowed the guilt and fought the urge to walk away.
She continued to talk, still hunched over. “Sometimes I walk around. If I find a good fare card on the ground, I ride the bus. I just take the first bus that comes along and I ride it until they go back to the garage and chase me away. Or until I have to go to the bathroom, whichever comes first. I don’t like to ride the trains. I don't want to go underground. It's dark and it smells funny. It's not a good place for girls like me. The crazy ones ride the trains and I'm not crazy.”
She shifted slightly and lifted her head, just a bit, as if she was just realizing that I was still there but she didn’t want to scare me away. I nodded to let her know she could keep talking.
“The night I left my sister's house I rode the train. I had nowhere to go and it was cold so I just went down in the subway and got on a train. When I first got on, there were a lot of people. I rode for a long time. I don’t know how long.
“I fell asleep and woke up to the smell of piss and booze. This guy with a stringy beard was pushing on me and breathing heavy, grabbing at me. I could barely breathe; he was heavy and smelled like a toilet. I pushed him away and tried to run but there was nowhere to go and no one there to help me. I banged on the door to the next car. I screamed as loud as I could but no one paid attention. The train is real loud. He grabbed me and pulled me to the floor. I hit him as hard as I could, slapped him in the face. He was grunting and pulling on me trying to get on top of me. When the train finally stopped, I kicked him hard. He rolled off long enough for me to get to the open doors. I ran away, off the platform, down the stairs, through the gate and into the street. I ran as fast and as far as I could until I couldn’t breathe. I walked until I found a doorway to a store and I sat down.” She took a breath and looked away from me. “That's the first night I slept on the street.”
She continued to look away from me, breathing heavily, but I didn't move. After a minute, she looked back at me, unsure. “Go on,” I said. “I'm listening.”
“My older sister had an apartment uptown. I used to sleep there on her couch. She had a TV and I would watch cartoons with her kids. I like cartoons, especially Sponge Bob. He’s crazy, Sponge Bob.” She laughed quietly and I could make out the faint outline of the girl she used to be.
“But her boyfriend? He didn't like me much. Said I was mooching and I was trash. Hit me once right here on my face. Real hard. His ring cut me. See the scar?” She pushed the hair off of her face, turning her left check towards me. I had to squat down to get close enough. She smelled like the alleys she surely slept in and I fought back the wave of nausea that hit me. There was a two-inch raised scar running from her prominent cheek bone to the bottom of her jaw. I sat down next to her, trying not to notice the passersby looking at me, puzzled. It must have looked odd – a middle-aged woman in a pantsuit and heels sitting cross-legged next to a homeless girl. I felt conspicuous while I sat with someone who felt invisible.
“My sister didn't want to get in the middle of it, said she had enough problems of her own so I left. I didn’t go back anymore. I don’t want to cause trouble.” She studied my face for a moment before she went on.
“I lived with my Momma before I went to live at my sister's. We had an apartment and I had my own bedroom. It had pink walls. I had a lamp that was pink, too. I like pink. It's a happy color.” A small smile and then the shadow of the girl she was faded as quickly as it came.
“It was just me and Momma after my sister left. Daddy died when I was three. Shot by a guy robbing his store. Momma got the insurance money but it wasn't enough so she got work as a cashier at the grocery store. After my sister left, Momma got married. Momma said we needed someone to take care of us; she didn't want to work anymore. She married a mechanic who lived down the block from us. He was fat and smelled like grease and beer. He was always sweaty. His hands were dirty; he could never wash the grease off. Whenever I came home from school, he was sitting on the couch watching T.V. He made me nervous so I spent a lot of time in my room.
“I remember one night I woke up and he was touching me. I screamed for Momma and she made him get out of my room. But the next day she said she didn’t want me around anymore. Said I was trying to steal her husband. Said I was a slut and I should go live on the street with the other sluts. That’s when I went to my sister's. I was 15.” She turned to me, looking at my eyes.
“Thank you for listening,” she said softly.
“I can listen some more, if you'd like.”
She nodded, looking down again. “After I left my sister’s, I tried staying at the shelter but I didn’t like it. It was too crowded. I had to share a room with these people. They took my stuff all the time. No manners. They're all crazy. I'm not crazy and I don't want to live with crazy people. The workers at the shelter, they tried to get me to go back to Momma’s. Momma said she wanted me back but I figure she just said that ‘cause she would look bad if she didn’t. He was still there so I didn’t want to go back. I can’t go back. Anyway, it’s better to just stay out here. I’m no bother to anybody. I keep to myself mostly.”
“Where do you sleep?” The question popped into my head and out of my mouth before I could stop it.
“In the park, under a tree.”
“Where? Grant Park?” Why in the world was I asking?
“Yeah. Do you want to see? I’d like to show you.” She said this and looked at me, smiling for the first time. It was as if she was going to show me her pretty pink room with the pink lamp.
As we stood up and I brushed the dirt off my suit I wondered whether I had lost my mind. Why in the world was I about to follow a homeless girl into Grant Park in the middle of a work day morning? I wasn’t the least bit concerned about my safety which I knew was crazy. Somehow I was drawn to her and knew I needed to go.
We walked the three blocks to the entrance of the park in silence. I followed her off the sidewalk and onto the grass. We walked to a cluster of oak trees rising above a set of park benches just off a path down to the lake. She stopped in front of the benches and pointed beneath the trees. I walked past her, around the bench and looked at the pile of blankets and crumpled plastic bags. Suddenly I knew why I was there. I knew before I saw the fingers sticking out from under the pile. I turned to look at the girl and wasn’t surprised when she was nowhere in sight. I pulled back the blankets. She looked like she was sleeping. She would have looked peaceful but for the familiar, jagged scar on her left cheek. I lifted her small wrist and searched for a pulse I knew I wouldn’t find.