Once upon a time

in a faraway land called “childhood,” there lived a girl who never knew where she’d sleep at night. Though her days were often filled with games and play and sunshine, a streak of slate-like darkness lay at her center, ever mindful of the uncertainty of evening.

There were nights when she slept on girlish, patterned sheets, a clock radio playing in the background: “She ran calling ‘Wild……..fire……….,” and there were nights when she slept in the backseat of the big, cranberry colored car, on the vaguely royal patterned upholstery. Her blanket was a lightning patterned afghan knit by one of the women. It was ugly, but it had a familiar smell. Sometimes fireflies fluttered in through the open windows, sparkling in the dark. Though the car was her least favorite choice, she knew that at least she couldn’t be forgotten while she lay there.

The motel was almost as bad. Though the man left quarters for her and the boy to buy soda or set the beds in motion, the nearby sound of traffic reminded them both of what awaited them in the morning. In the South it was the L’il General stores. In the North it was White Hen or Open Pantry. In the South it was cutoffs and tired pink stretch tops that drooped on her flat chest. In the North it was her old Brownie uniform.

The best part was the sleeping. Or the times when she seemed to be sleeping. She didn’t know how they found her but they always did, and she was glad, very glad, they did. Just one soft bleat from outside the window roused her, and out she went, into their soft, wooly midst. While they grazed she frolicked with the lambs, or dozed within the folds of pelt on the big ram. When it rained they collected closely beneath a large tree, entangling themselves comfortably for heat and protection from the lightning.

A nuzzle woke her in time every morning. Afterward, she wondered why she obeyed the need to return to her flat, uncertain days with the man and the boy. At first she quickly forgot her nights with the flock, but as time went by, the peace of the night lingered longer and longer into the morning, stealing into her consciousness like a lengthening shadow. She sat with her legs dangling in the kidney-shaped pool, cool water lapping against her freckled skin in tiny, sucking waves. What was their smell? Musk and something raw and stale in a good way. Rough and soft, both at once. “Merody!” the man called. He was looking for the boy. The pool would be her babysitter. They were going to see “The Godfather.” He jangled the coins in the pockets of his seersucker trousers while he waited for the boy to find his shoes. “Here,” he said. “Here’s money. Call the desk if you want pizza.”

When dusk fell, the girl climbed the outside stairs to their room, using the key on the big green diamond shaped ring. The beds were made, and there was a fresh belt of paper across the toilet seat. Even the towels were clean, the brown shag carpet combed like unruly hair. She lay down and waited, listening to the night birds, the slamming doors, the sounds of sitcoms from the rooms around her. The big beige phone rang once but she ignored it. The man wouldn’t mind. He forgot her when she was out of sight, but was reminded by the boy. She didn’t know why. Mostly the boy liked to get her in trouble. He had a sweet smile and stomach problems and everyone thought he was an angel. “Like Lucifer,” the girl thought.

She was dozing when the first soft cry reached her ears. The sky was dark, and she was still alone. “I can do it this time,” she knew. “There’s no hold.” She left her clogs by the bed and slipped out the door, forgetting her change, her key, her books about Narnia and the hippo people from Finland.  At once she was safe in the thick of the flock. “I’m not going back,” she told the ram. “I know that, Dear,” he answered, plodding along.

The night passed as usual: play and then rest. As the hours passed, a dream began within the girl, a real-seeming dream that should have scared her but didn’t. There was water, and as the flock bent its head to drink, so did the girl. Her tongue tangled as she tried to lap, and she laughed, reminding herself, “I am not a lamb! I am not a ewe!” When the dream abated she fell into a still deeper sleep, her breath slowing in the darkest hours of the night.

Just after dawn, the man and the boy and the desk clerk stood by the pool, watching the girl’s body revolve in the water. “She never came by,” said the clerk. He looked very nervous; almost tearful.  The man lit a cigarette, then sat down heavily on the edge of a striped vinyl lounge chair.

“She must have fallen asleep then fallen in,” the man said. His life would be easier now. What would he do with her things? Amvets? Goodwill? “You can’t throw away a book,” he thought.

“She was stupid,” said the boy. “She would fall in.”

“Don’t call your sister stupid,” the man said. “You can’t speak ill of the dead.”

The sirens drew closer. The man stood up, retucked his shirt. “I wish I had a godamned tie,” he mumbled. He heard the slam of a car door.

“Tell us what happened,” said the cop, drawing out a small notebook. Nearby, the girl’s body spun like a starfish in the blue and gold sparkling water.

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