A Stranger Like You
An excerpt of the novel by Elizabeth Brundage
   
    He came to an all-night coffee shop and went in and sat down at one of the tables. He didn’t know what he wanted. A girl was sitting alone in an adjacent booth having a hot fudge sundae. “I’ll take one of those,” he told the waitress. “And coffee.”

    “I’m making a fresh pot. It’ll be just a minute.”

    The girl in the booth looked over at him. She was maybe thirteen or fourteen, he didn’t know. Hugh and Marion didn’t have children. They had tried, of course—didn’t everyone? They’d been to specialists; they’d done all the tests. Finally they’d given up. The experience had changed his wife somehow. They did not discuss it. But there it was at the dinner table. There it was in the bowl of peas, the loaf of bread, the bottle of wine, the roasted chicken. There it was on the beige carpet as they climbed the stairs night after night. And there it was in the empty room beside their own, empty like an open mouth, screaming.

    The girl in the booth had a hard look. Her hair was blond, tied up in pigtails. She had a pencil case on the table; it had a picture of a unicorn on it. There was something moving around in her pocket, a disconcerting jumble, and then he saw the fl ash of a thin white tail.

    “You’ve got something in your pocket,” he said to her.

    “I know.”

    “What is it?”

    Frowning, she put her finger over her lips as if to shush him.

    His ice cream sundae came. It looked exactly like the picture on the menu. For a while he just studied it. It occurred to him that he didn’t want it now. The girl had already finished hers and was clanking the spoon against the parfait glass.

    “Do you want this?” he said. “I haven’t touched it.”

    “You don’t want it?”

    He handed it to her. “I want you to have it.”

    The girl didn’t hesitate. He watched her eat, sucking the chocolate off the spoon. The waitress brought his coffee and the check. The coffee tasted bitter. It did not taste like a fresh pot. Outside, it had begun to rain. The bell on the glass door jingled as stragglers came in to wait it out. He put his money out on the table.

    The girl touched his arm. “Hey, mister? You got a car?”

    The question caught him off guard. “What?”

    “You’re not a pervert, are you?”

    He blurted a laugh. “No, I’m not a pervert.”

    “I’m staying on Argyle. It’s not far.”

    They ran through the rain to the motel parking lot where he’d left his car. The girl wore only a light jacket; he thought she must be cold. In the car he noticed that her eyes were glassy and her nose was running. He turned on the heat and she put her wet hands up to the vent. Her fingernails were green with dirt. She took a white rat out of her pocket, shifting it from hand to hand like a ball of dough. “This is my friend.”

    Hugh was not fond of rodents. The rat was alarmingly fat.  He tried to concentrate on the road.

    “He keeps me company,” the girl said.

    “What’s his name?”

    “Snowball. Snowy for short. He looks like a snowball, doesn’t he?”

    “Yes, he does.” Hugh wondered where the girl had gotten it.

    “I’m not from around here,” she said, grimly.

    “No?”

    “South Dakota.”

    “Where do you live now?”

    She shrugged, playing with the rat. “Nowhere special.”

    Argyle Avenue wasn’t far and she pointed to a building on the corner that had a sign out front: Transients Welcome. The cement blocks of the building had been painted mint green. A single tube of florescent light hung over the door, attracting moths. A few people were hanging around out front, shielding their heads from the rain with newspapers.

    “What’s it like in there?” he asked her.

    “It stinks.” She sat there. She didn’t seem to want to get out.

    “Look, don’t take this the wrong way, but I’ve got a room you could stay in. It has two beds.”

    “You said you weren’t a pervert,” she said with a hint of provocation that seemed beyond her years. “Liar.”

    “It’s just an extra bed,” he explained. “It’s just a better place for you to stay.”

    She looked at him, sizing him up. “Okay, Mister Daddy.  If you say so.”

    He drove back to the parking lot of the motel and returned his car to the same space they’d left only minutes before. His stomach ached slightly; he’d been foolish not to eat. They walked over to the motel, up the stairs, down the long corridor to the room. He took out the key and opened the door. The room smelled like insecticide. The rain made a gentle sound against the window. “Help yourself.”

    She went into the bathroom and put the shower on. He heard the plastic curtain sliding across the rod. He sat on the bed, waiting. She took her time. Then she came out dressed in her clothes again and got into one of the beds.

    “Where did you put your little friend?” he asked.

    “In my sock.” She held it up for him to see. The rat’s little pink nose was sticking out, its whiskers twitching. “Don’t worry, he won’t bother you.”

    “What’s your name?”

    “Daisy.”

    “Like the flower.”

    She turned away from him. After a moment his cell phone rang. He knew it was his wife. He let the phone ring. He looked over at the girl and saw that she had fallen asleep. For a long while he sat on the edge of his bed, watching her. She made noises in her sleep, a wheezing sound rushing up her throat. It troubled him, and he worried that she might be sick. His stomach went tight as he watched her. She shouldn’t be living like this, he thought. It was wrong. It was an awful thing to see.

    He slept fitfully, and was awakened at dawn by the elephantine wail of a garbage truck. The girl was still in the bed, sleeping. She had turned on her side and was sucking her thumb. It alarmed him, seeing her like that, with her thumb in her mouth. It gave him a feeling inside. It made his eyes water.

    He dressed quietly, then left the room and drove to the beach. He parked and took off his shoes and socks and walked barefoot down to the shore. The sand was damp, cool. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen the ocean. As a boy, he’d gone to the Jersey shore in summertime, but this was the Pacific. There was something about this ocean. In the distance, the air looked brown, like an old-fashioned sepia print, the water copper in the sunlight. The sea was calm, the air smelled of fish. Savage birds dove and fought. He watched them for a while, then walked back up the beach to his car.



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