By Ariele Taylor-McManus, TIWP Women’s Writing Program
Twelve rides her bike into town, as she does sometimes on Saturdays when her mom is working. Normally, she and Lida would go together, but today Lida has a softball game. When Twelve was younger, even as recently as a year ago, she used to stop for a mint chip cone at the ice cream shop, then wheel her bike across the street to the bookstore, where she would slowly twirl the rotating Nancy Drew display case until she found the book she wanted. Book in hand, she would slide herself into the nook between the display case and the wall, and, thus wedged, could read for a good hour or so at a time. When, at sixteen, she got pulled over at the stop sign downtown for doing a “California stop”, her gaze wandered behind the cop, as he pompously wrote out the ticket, to the front windows of the now-defunct bookstore, and she remembered the hours she had spent cocooned in the exciting, enviable life of brave Nancy, who took action and solved all the mysteries that were constantly unfolding around her.
Today, though, Twelve glides past the ice cream shop. She makes it halfway down the block before doubling back and parking outside for her obligatory mint chip. Because she always gets it in a cup, and can’t eat it while she’s riding, she balances the cup on her handlebar while she crosses the bridge over the creek into the park, and leans her bike against a bench. She eats slowly. She can hear the cars on the street, but can’t see them, sheltered here behind the willow trees that line the creek. She sees a flash of blue, and then a man emerges from the trees and is walking smoothly towards her across the grass, a slight man with light brown hair and dirty white tennis shoes. He is older than her, but not her mom or dad’s age either. “Hey.” He slides onto the bench next to her and tells her his name, Brian. His sky-blue eyes hold hers, even when she tries to look away. Instinctively, she lies when he asks her name, and when he asks her how old she is and what school she goes to, she lies about that, too, telling him she is thirteen (since she will be in a month) and goes to the local middle school, even though she goes to private school a couple of towns over. He tells her she is pretty and asks if she has a boyfriend. Caught off guard, she giggles. “Not really,” she says. He asks for her phone number, and to meet him at the park the next day. She carefully writes a fake phone number on the rumpled scrap of paper he pulls from his pocket. Her mind is working fast and her heart feels tight in her chest. An old man comes into view, shuffling slowly across the bridge, preceded by a small dog on a leash. When the dog sees them, it begins to yap, and Twelve quickly says she has to go. He offers to walk her home and she says that’s OK, she has to meet her mom in the grocery store parking lot at 4:00. She lets him walk her there, though, then pushes her bike between the pay phone and the flower planter. She calls out airily “see you tomorrow!” over her shoulder and walks hurriedly behind the line of cashiers to the bathroom. She locks the door, slides down to the floor with her back to the door, and stays there a long time, until a lady starts rattling the doorknob and calling, “is anyone in there”?
Back at the main sliding doors, she peers out. There is her bike. She doesn’t see him. She rides home, riding hard, sweating, lungs aching, her long blond hair whipping her back. She cuts through the elementary school parking lot, through the kindergarten playground, around the storage sheds and across the street, where she checks warily around her before riding up the street to her house. She throws the bike against the side of the house even though her mom will be mad that she left it there, then fishes the key from her shoe where she always keeps it. Once inside, she locks the door and picks up the cat with one hand and the phone with the other. In the hallway, she props the cat on her legs and dials the number to her mom’s store, and her mom’s voice, when she answers, feels how the earth smells after rain, like a gentle river washing over her face. She scratches the cat between his chin and his torn ear and he purrs loudly. Twelve says she had fun downtown and her mom suggests going out for dinner because she thinks she will close early; there’s barely been any customers today. Later, at The Good Earth, her mom thinly slices her prime rib and eats exactly half, and Twelve gets chicken lemon soup and eats all the bread in the basket like she always does, and finally, over the Mud Pie with 2 spoons they take their time eating, she tells her mom about the man. As she retells the story her cheeks flush, shame red, and she puts her hands up to cool them. But her mom grabs her hands down, looks straight at Twelve and tells her it was not her fault and she did the right thing and she is proud of her. She pauses, and in that moment Twelve hovers on the edge of childhood; she sees the whole world in her mom’s eyes, things she knows and things she’s only just begun to sense. “What a…gross….shitty CREEP, her mom finally says, fiercely, and of all things Twelve starts to giggle, and then her mom does too.
That night, Twelve walks down the hallway to her mom’s room. “Mom” she whispers, and touches her shoulder. When her mom sleepily pulls open the covers, warm air balloons out and puffs over Twelve’s face. Her mom pushes a pillow over, and Twelve eases her back into her mom’s side. In the dark, her mom smooths the hair from her forehead like she used to do when Twelve was a little girl, and Twelve falls asleep.