NICOLE RIVAS / A BRIGHT AND PLEADING DAGGER
Jada didn’t show up to The Dixie Store today. I’ve got to bag groceries, make small talk with customers, and roam the parking lot, corralling the buggies all by myself. Someone dropped a bag of cake flour; there’s white powder all over aisle seven that I clean up with a broom and dustpan. Afterward, I find the one corner in the grocery store, right next to the Tastee Taters chip display, where the cameras can’t spot me. I text Jada, “Dixie sucks alone. Where are you?” Then my manager, Dennis, turns the corner and I slip my cellphone into my apron pocket and pretend to be fluffing up the chip bags like they were pillows.
Last night, Jada and I were walking home from the movies when we met two guys from South Carolina. They drove by us in a salt-caked blue truck, braked, and then reversed until we were eye-to-eye. One was thirty-years-old and didn’t say much as we drove, just thumbed the door and kept his eyes on the road’s yellow lines. The other was twenty-six and kept talking about his job at “the docks”. I didn’t understand most of it, but it didn’t matter then. They said they’d buy us beer, even give us a ride home after we’d spent some time.
I keep checking my phone for Jada’s reply. Dennis is onto me and rolls his eyes when I continually ask for restroom breaks. I sit in the restroom stall and stare at my inbox, waiting. When I return, Dennis makes a snarky remark about my absence and I tell him, “It’s that time of the month. Lots of blood.” His face turns nearly amber.
Eventually Jada texts back, “Hungover,” and four minutes later, “I’m home.” I know she’s safe now—that she made it back to her house after I was dropped off at mine— but somehow the idea of safety now seems unreal, implausible. Something for fairy tales.
We ended up with the men in a cotton field tens of miles east of Savannah. The twenty-six-year-old walked with Jada into the field, and the last part I saw of her in the head beams was her plastic, heart-shaped purse clanking around at her thigh. The thirty-year-old cut the headlights and we sat in silence, staring at the stars and the occasional airplane beeping across the sky. I wished one of the airplanes would land there, right in the cotton field, and offer me a seat.
My chest tightened and I wondered what Jada was doing. We didn’t know anything about these men. The one I was sitting in the car with was double my age. Jada had asked how old they were on the drive up and seemed excited when they told her. We had already popped open beers and felt good with the humid air running through our hair. It was how we imagined adulthood felt like. Almost like we were free. Now, sitting alone with the thirty-year-old in the truck, I didn’t feel so free anymore.
“Y’all went to the movies tonight?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“What’d you watch?” he asked.
“Some scary movie that Jada wanted to see,” I said. “It was kind of dumb.”
“Oh, you’re brave, then?” he asked. He drummed his knuckles on the steering wheel.
“It was a remake, and those are usually bad,” I said.
“Shoot, the original was probably made before you were even born,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Tell me what happened, the plot,” he said.
“Some kids get lost in the forest, something starts killing them,” I said.
“How many kids?” he asked.
“Five, no, six,” I said.
“What was killing ‘em?” he asked.
“Some kind of swamp monster, you know, it was one of those Hollywood horror movies set in the South, so everything was real campy,” I said.
“I like the campy ones, sometimes. How’d they die?” he asked.
I was thinking about the one young actress who was gored through the forehead with a paddling oar by a friend who mistook her for the swamp monster. It was the saddest part of the movie. I was set to talk about the gored girl when I noticed a gleam out of the corner of my eye. The thirty-year-old had undone his belt buckle, was tugging at himself. I saw the pale dome flailing around. It smelled fleshy and sour, like sweaty socks.
“Did I lose you?” he asked, continuing to tug.
“What?” I asked. I feigned interest in the stars above us. Some of them seemed to be huddled together for protection. Others spanned out to form bright daggers.
“How’d they die?” he repeated.
“Well, I don’t know,” I said.
“You don’t know?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“You’re nervous, please don’t be nervous,” he said. He sounded like he was pleading, like I had done something to hurt him. In a darkened cotton field, everything becomes confusing.
“Sorry,” I said.
“That’s okay,” he said.
The belt buckle moved faster. I could hear it tapping against the steering wheel, just like his knuckles had done before. While I knew knuckles belonged to a hand, the penis to a pelvis, it didn’t matter. In the truck, the penis had the presence of a closed fist.
“The first one to die was this girl, the popular girl at school,” I said.
“A prissy girl, of course,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“What was she wearing?” he asked.
“I don’t remember, jeans and a t-shirt, I guess,” I said.
“Not a cheerleading outfit?” he asked.
The stars were beginning to hurt my eyes. It was no wonder people looked to them for guidance; everything below them was pure chaos. But it didn’t matter. Star and earth were blinding.
“Maybe a cheerleading outfit,” I said.
“She was probably a slut,” he said.
“I’m not sure,” I said.
“Little prissy slut in a cheerleader skirt,” he said. The beating got faster, more frantic. Before I could react, he grabbed my hand and placed it over his penis. The warm goo lapped at my palm. I recoiled; he clucked and groaned, reached into his back pocket and procured a handkerchief.
In less than a week, Jada quits her job at The Dixie Store without giving any sort of notice—she won’t even return my texts. Dennis rolls his eyes, exclaiming that teenage girls can’t sustain menial jobs if their lives depended on it. I don’t think Dennis understands what girls’ lives do or do not depend on. I continue bagging groceries, sweeping and mopping floors, and making small talk with customers until I, too, quit a month later, before the new school year begins. Since I give a two-week notice, Dennis gives me a head nod when I turn in my apron. He says maybe I’m different from the other girls, after all.
The rest of the summer, I half-heartedly search for Jada. Maybe I want to know what she’s up to. Really, what I want to know is if she’s okay. I want to know if I’ll be okay, too. But sometimes all that’s in a chain of old text messages is silence, a mixture of cotton and dust that sticks to your sweaty skin and stays put.
Nicole Rivas is from Los Angeles and the Inland Empire. Her chapbook of flash, A Bright and Pleading Dagger, was the winner of Rose Metal Press's 12th Annual Short Short Chapbook Contest and will be published in August 2018. Other stories have appeared in The Journal, Passages North, The Adroit Journal, and elsewhere. Nicole Rivas teaches writing at Georgia Southern University in Savannah. For more information or to contact, visit www.nicolemrivas.com.