by Laura Herrin
Sue gripped the steering wheel, wringing its leather in anger, as the little brat swaggered up the sidewalk of the junior high school, the air about her swirling with cockiness. Sue fought the urge to roll down the window and yell, “Bad girl walking!” The mere sight of her caused heat to flash across Sue’s chest and the blood to pound against her temples. The girl’s shorts were too tight and her shirt too thin, and the entire ensemble was ridiculously inappropriate for the cool Fall weather. Sue would never let her own daughter leave the house that way.
“Tramp,” she muttered to herself.
Glancing into the rearview mirror, Sue checked to see if her own twelve year old had seen the girl. Her daughter Kate, dressed in neatly laundered jeans and polo, had scrunched herself into the deepest corner of the backseat. She had her head down intently picking at a loose thread on her sock, but as the girl sauntered by their van, Sue could see Kate’s eyes darted up nervously. Sue’s stomach churned over the memory of her poor Kate from the night before. It was not the first time Kate had been reduced to tears since the school year began and Bridgette materialized. Her darling Kate, she was such a good girl who would never hurt a soul. Sue couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to pick on her. Kate preferred to blend in and hated more than anything to be the center of attention. Bridgette zeroed in on Kate’s Achilles’ heel like a dog smelling fear, seizing on every opportunity to exploit Kate’s vulnerability.
Bridgette, of course, was not in any of Katie’s upper division academic classes, but Kate had ended up in the same physical education class with her. There on the gym floor Bridgette Calhoun was lined up right next to Kate Carlson. Kate came home and locked herself in her room for days in a row before finally collapsing in Sue’s lap and spilling the saga of Bridgette’s cruelty. It had started with little things. Bridgette would step on Kate’s shoe lace as they ran and Kate would sprawl across the floor in front of the class. Bridgette would wait until the dressing room was quiet and then loudly ask “Kate Carlson, is that a training bra? Why do you even bother? You have nothing to put in it!” Taunts about her mommy dressing her, her ears being too big and Kate making out with Tommy Weebleton (Markston Junior High’s smelliest eighth grader) followed Kate out the gym door.
Kate was not the kind of girl to retaliate. Too quiet to make a sharp comeback and too meek for any kind of physical confrontation, she was at Bridgette’s mercy and could only hope Bridgette would soon find a new mouse to play with. Sue tried to encourage Kate to stand up for herself. She suggested Kate laugh along with Bridgette and make a joke out of it. She told her to yell shut up at Bridgette and embarrass her. Sue said she should be the bigger person and turn the other cheek. She told her to smack Bridgette in the face. No matter what sage parenting advice she tried to give, Kate remained the object of Bridgette’s vile humor. Sue had offered, then threatened, to contact the school and Bridgette’s parents to put a stop to the bullying, but had held off at Kate’s insistence. Kate worried reporting Bridgette would only incite her. Remembering well the spite and vinegar of adolescence, Sue agreed to let Kate handle it her own way. For now.
“Go, Mommy, go!” Jack’s yells from the backseat came right before the horns of the other cars began to blare. Distracted by her fuming, Sue had failed to keep up with the carpool line. Damn. Now Kate was going to be angry with her.
“Great, Mom. As if your minivan isn’t embarrassing enough. I am getting out here.”
“Bye, sweetie! Hope you have a great day!” Sue called out to the slamming door.
She turned her attention to Jack, strapped in his carseat and coated in a layer of juice and cereal bar, and sighed, “It’s just you and me now, kid.”
Every part of Sue’s daily routine was punctuated by a nagging angst over Kate. Whatever happened yesterday had been too horrid for Kate to speak of aloud. She had only cried. Sue tortured herself with the thought that she was failing Kate as a mother because she was helpless to stop the intimidation. She pacified herself with visions of hunting the girl down and stapling her to the school bulletin board in her underwear. Sue imagined gathering with all the students and hurling insults and erasers at the little punk.
Sue arrived in the junior high carpool lane as early as she dared. She knew if she arrived too early and Jack’s Little Fish video ended before they made it home she and Kate would risk deafness from his high pitched wails. She hadn’t made it to the front of the line but was decently close. As the end of day bell pierced the air, the kids swarmed from the school in pulsing waves. Sue’s eyes scanned each mini-mob looking for either Kate or Bridgette, hoping to somehow ward off any trouble. Bridgette strutted out of the school, a force all unto herself.
Sue watched to see if Bridgette targeted any victims as she made her exit, but the girl seemed oblivious to the other students. Bridgette strode to the corner and darted across the street without waiting for the light. Cutting across the grass, she headed straight for the entrance of the elementary school. Sue kept her eyes on her as she made her way in between the busses being boarded by antsy children, and disappeared in the building. Why would Bridgette be allowed in the elementary school? Maybe she bullied second graders as an after school activity.
Bridgette emerged from the elementary school with a messy little boy beside her. Sue couldn’t make out his age from where she sat but she could see that he didn’t quite make it up to the girl’s elbow. It had to be her brother. Bridgette carried the boy’s book bag over her shoulder along with her own. As Sue watched, Bridgette brushed the hair out of the boy’s eyes. She tried to wipe the boy’s mouth with the side of her hand but the his neck became rubber and his head bobbed to thwart her attempt. Sue instantly thought of herself and Jack. “I don’t care if I dirty!” Jack would yell and Sue would answer, “I just want you to look like somebody loves you.”
“Mom!” The sharp wrap on the window and shrill of Kate’s voice jolted Sue out of her spying. She unlocked the van door and an annoyed Kate slid into the seat next to her.
Sue forced a smile. “Hey, baby. How was your day?”
Kate launched into a story about a loose sleeve and a misplaced bunsen burner in chemistry class and Sue allowed herself to exhale. If Kate was actually speaking instead of folding herself into a sulking mound that emitted only occasional huffs and grunts, then it had been an okay day. No major run-ins with Bridgette the Brute. Sue happily drove home to the soundtrack of her daughter’s chatter and Little Fish.
The evening was filled with homework and dinner and bedtime stories and, thankfully, no Bridgette drama. Sue had assigned the task of bathing Jack and putting him to bed to her husband. It got them both out of her hair and made her husband feel useful. Before tucking herself in for the night, Sue stood in the doorway of Kate’s room and was treated to a tale about the girl on a rival cross country team that might actually be a boy. The house felt normal. It felt pre-Bridgette.
Reality set in again the next morning as Bridgette sashayed past the minivan and Sue’s daughter attempted once again to shrink into the backseat upholstery. Kate eventually peeled herself out of the van, hanging back while Bridgette entered the school and simultaneously knocked the books out of a pimple-faced boy’s arms. Sue felt the simmering in the pit of her stomach and pictured her nails shooting off the ends of her fingers like mini daggers that would ricochet off the back of Bridgette’s head leaving a nasty and embarrassing bald spot.
Maddening thoughts of Bridgette tumbled about Sue’s head as she dropped Jack off for the Tuesday of his Tuesday/Thursday preschool, and were still badgering her when she picked him up at lunchtime. Sue had seen and heard enough to know that the girl was rotten to the core. She was probably teaching all her sinister ways to that poor little brother, too. Sue tried to muster some concern for all of their victims, but in truth she could think only of Kate. Sue pictured herself as a mother bear, her one job to protect her own. Standing over her kitchen sink with Jack’s plate of uneaten mashed-up macaroni, Sue hatched a plan. Kate stayed after school on Tuesdays for cross country practice. Sue would have an entire hour before she had to be back at the junior high to pick her up. A small bubble of excitement began to float above the steam in Sue’s gut.
Well before the final school bell sounded, Sue was in position. She had strategically parked the minivan in the parking lot catty-corner to the schools so she had a clear view of both the junior high and elementary schools. Her provisions included four juice boxes, two sleeves of crackers and three Little Fish DVDs. She had considered adding a pair of binoculars but resisted for fear of being a total nut job. Her partner sat buckled into his car seat carefully building a cracker tower on his head. When it reached four crackers high and began to slide, his fist became a wrecking ball smashing the structure to smithereens and showering crumbs over the mass of brown curls. Pleased with any toddler distraction, Sue gave Jack a quick smile before turning back to Juvenile Delinquent Patrol.
Sue’s strategy was to follow Bridgette and find out where she went in the afternoon. After that her plan was slightly less crystalized. Maybe she would catch the girl in some sort of nefarious activity. Sue could make an anonymous 911 call notifying law enforcement of the criminal in their midst and send Bridgette off to kiddie jail for the remainder of Kate’s academic career. Or maybe she would see the girl’s parents and discover these upstanding people had no idea the wickedness their little darling oozed. A few candid shots of their daughter slid under their office door would reveal that they had indeed spawned the devil incarnate and they would lock her away for ever. Perhaps Sue would discover the girl lived with an entire den of thieves. Sue’s revelation to authorities would have them all banished and Sue hailed the town hero. Or maybe she would find Bridgette alone and corner her in a dark alley. Sue could smack her with smelly gym socks until the girl promised to never bully her child again. However it played out, the plan seemed destined to succeed.
Sue spotted her target exiting the junior high. Bridgette’s whore attire for the day consisted of similar, or maybe the same, too-tight shorts from the day before, this time topped with a fitted turtle neck that showed off her high beams. Revolting. What twelve year old has nipples like that? As Sue watched, Bridgette again jay walked her way to the elementary school. When the girl disappeared inside its doors, Sue cranked the minivan and sat at the ready. Soon Bridgette came back out with the little rag tag boy scurrying at her side. The pair made their way behind the school yard and then continued across the intersection heading toward a small run down motel. Sue slowly edged her van to the end of the parking lot, not wanting to follow too closely and blow her cover. When they reached the motel, the kids picked up speed and scampered up to the fourth metal step clinging on the side of the decaying two story building. They sat on the step huddled together against the nip that had crept into the air.
Sue stared at the children. The motel looked abandoned other than a couple of old clunkers parked out back and a maid’s cart tilting in front of an open room door. Did the children live at the motel? Maybe their mom or dad was a manager or cleaning person and they met them here after school. Sue almost felt something akin to pity for Bridgette and her sidekick. It didn’t look like they were going home to gloat about their evil doings over milk and cookies.
The maid came out of a room and rumbled her cart along to the next. Using a card in her pocket, the slow moving woman let herself into the new room and carried in a stack of towels. As if a starter pistol had been fired, Bridgette and the boy flew off the steps and streaked to the maid’s cart. Their hands were a blur moving from the cart to Bridgette’s bag, and then just as fast they disappeared around the opposite corner of the building.
Sue’s chest puffed with vindication. “I knew they were thieves!” she cried out smacking the steering and forgetting her little copy cat with big ears sat right behind her.
“Who’s a thief, Mommy?” Jack’s brow twitched in concern. His mother was rarely animated enough to smack things.
“Some people on the radio, honey. It’s nothing. Mommy’s sorry I interrupted Little Fish.”
Sue whipped the minivan out into the road and drove past the motel, hoping to catch the two reappearing on the other side. For a moment she thought she had lost them, but then caught a glimpse of the boy’s green shirt through the shrubbery a block over. She made a sharp right at the intersection and pulled into a parking spot on the street, straining to see which way the kids would go.
Eyes trained on the shirt, Sue inwardly reprimanded herself for yelling out loud. The last thing she needed was for her partner to become a snitch and rat her out to Kate or her husband, neither of whom would think very highly of her new unpaid gig as a private investigator. Sue opened a juice box and handed it back to Jack along with another stack of crackers. Satisfied Jack was occupied, she focussed all her attention on the little criminals. They now walked slowly down the sidewalk, Bridgette’s bag slug heavy and low across her body.
Sue mused about their crime. What would be on a motel maid cart that would interest children? Soap? Lotion? Bridgette’s bag didn’t look big enough for towels, maybe a washcloth or two. Was it the thrill of taking something that didn’t belong to them? Were they members of some sort of underworld organization selling miniature shampoos on the black market? Sue didn’t think she had enough to call the police yet. An anonymous 911 call to report a roll of stolen toilet paper wouldn’t carry much weight. She felt she was on the right track, though. They were bad eggs, both of them, but she needed more proof.
Sue checked her watch. 3:18. She had a good thirty minutes before she had to head back and pick up Kate. Bridgette and the boy meandered along the street while Sue craned her neck to watch until the two heads disappeared over a small hill. Fearing she would be spotted, Sue forced herself to count to ten before pulling back out into traffic. She crested the hill heading into a more upscale area of town and saw Bridgette and the boy crossing a large parking lot. Mackey’s Groceries. Sue often passed up the two stores closer to her house to shop at Mackey’s because of the abundance of samples on every aisle. If she timed it right, Jack would make an entire meal off the samples and she did not have to feed him when they got home. Sue lingered at the edge of the lot until the kids reached the store doors, then pulled to the front of the building and parked in a front row spot reserved for new mothers. She guessed she was stretching the new mother thing by a few years but justified it as necessary for her mission. She had a good view of the windows covering the front of the store and could see the two troublemakers selecting a cart.
The pair paused at a display at the front of the store and chose a few things. Sue debated getting her own cart and trailing them inside the store. She wanted to know what items they had selected, whether they were name brand or generic, single servings or bulk. Her success could hinge on the details. The kids moved down to the deli section. They stopped again and were definitely putting something in their mouths. Sue guessed samples of cheese or meat.
“Mommy! I gotta go now.”
Aw man, Sue thought. Foiled again by the peepee call. Sue almost longed for the good ole diaper days when she could change him at her leisure, or when the smell became too overpowering. Now she had to be poised to respond at a moment’s notice to any potential potty emergency. Sue considered running into the grocery store but decided the risk of Jack causing a scene was too great. She cranked back up and headed across the street to a fast food burger joint.
Jack and Sue made it in and out the restroom with neither requiring a wardrobe change so Sue dubbed the potty run a success.
“Ice cream, Mommy! Ice cream!” Jack had spied pictures of cones on the menu board.
Sue again checked her watch. Only a few minutes until Kate’s practice ended.
“Ok. I guess you have earned a treat,” though for what she wasn’t sure. Watching a movie? Defecating?
Sue approached the counter and ordered a mini cup of vanilla for Jack and a chocolate shake for Kate. Kate would be tired and hot after her run and a sweet treat would be a great way to cool off. They took the snacks to the car and headed out to retrieve Kate.
Waiting in the school parking lot as Kate and her team finished up, Sue stewed over Bridgette. She bet anything the girl and her brother went around scarfing up the grocery store’s samples without even the courtesy of making a purchase. They probably pushed around the cart with food in it so they didn’t get hassled. Brats. Sue looked at Kate’s milkshake melting in the cup holder. She knew she should feel bad the kids had to scavenge for their own afternoon snacks, but the emotion would not come. Bridgette tormented every innocent child in her wake. Her tummy rumbling a little until dinner time didn’t come close to the suffering she had put Kate through. Bridgette was corrupt and a thief, and whatever hardships life threw at her, Sue was sure she deserved. She was equally sure Kate did not deserve the hurt Bridgette dished out. It must be stopped, Sue vowed.
Sue’s plotting was interrupted by Kate’s arrival at the minivan. She greeted her daughter with a smile and presented her with the shake.
“Really, Mom? Chocolate and sugar? I will be fat and covered with zits.”
Sue sighed and put the van in gear. Teenagers. “Well, you don’t have to drink it. I thought you might be hot.”
Kate sighed too, with an added eye roll. She managed a “Thanks, Mom” before drinking the entire shake on the way to their house.
Kate brought home no new Bridgette crises that day or the next and Sue’s attention was diverted for a time to an intense dispute brewing in the PTA social committee. In carpool line, however, she remained on the lookout for Bridgette, not that it took much effort to spot her. The girl’s gait and near tangible attitude announced her presence. Little slut already walks with her legs apart, thought Sue. No telling how many guys she would soon be spreading them for, if she wasn’t already.
The only time Sue ever experience a chink in her armor of disgust was watching Bridgette leave the elementary school with her brother. Bridgette kept a light hand on him, touching his hair, his shoulder. Thursday morning as Bridgette passed near her car, Sue leaned towards the window scrutinizing the girl’s face, trying to make out signs of compassion or need under the caked on layers of makeup goo and lumpy mascara. Nada, there were only the steely eyes and over-licked lips of a true menace.
Thursday afternoon carpool confirmed it. Sue could see it in Kate’s walk yards before her face came into focus. Kate slid in the van’s front seat with the rapid blinks of someone struggling to hold back tears.
“Do not speak to me, Mother,” Kate spat, then folded her arms and faced the window for the duration of the ride. Sue knew it was best to give Kate her space and remained silent.
The afternoon and dinner proceeded with Kate refusing speak. Sue babbled on to her oblivious husband and Jack trying to cover for her daughter’s mood. After the meal, the boys went on with their nightly routine and Sue made as many excuses as possible to walk past Kate’s cracked door before Kate finally spoke. Sue was carrying a towel down the hall to the linen closet when she heard the bark.
“Aren’t you even going to ask? I know you are dying to know every sordid detail of why I am never going back to school.”
Kate moved into the room and sat on the end of Kate’s bed. “What happened, baby?”
“I do not want to talk about it!” Kate shrieked putting her pillow over her face and pummeling the sheets with flailing feet.
“It might make you feel better to talk about it, honey,” Sue soothed.
Kate sat up and stared at her as if Sue had pudding for brains. “There is nothing that is ever going to make me feel better.”
Sue kept her voice low and even. “Okay, baby, I understand.”
Kate flew off her bed and slammed the bedroom door. “No, Mother. You do not understand. No one understands. The worst thing that has ever happened in the history of worst things happened to me. I can never go back to school and now everything is ruined.”
Kate flopped back down on the bed and Sue sat still with her hands in her lap, resisting the urge to comment.
“It was in Phys Ed and Todd Dickerson was there. I had to pick today to dress out in white shorts. We were running bleachers and I was on my last set when I felt it. I wasn’t due to start for a week. Caroline Black was a few steps behind me and she was so sweet. She grabbed a sweat shirt from someone’s bag for me to tie around my waist and then offered to help me get changed before anyone else saw. We almost made it, too. We were walking fast and I got ten feet from the girls’ locker room and then there she was. Before I could do anything Bridgette had snatched the sweatshirt and was swinging it over her head. Everyone was looking and she blurted out, ‘Look who’s having a tampax moment!’ Todd saw everything. I thought I was going to collapse and die right there. And now I wish I had.”
Sue’s words were soft and gentle as she stroked her daughter’s hair and reassured her that everything was going to be alright. Deep down, however, the fire was stoked and the flames leapt up the walls of her abdomen. Every muscle in Sue’s body tensed and her pulsed rapped against the sides of her head. Kate had never done a thing to that little witch. Sue chastised herself for the small drips of sympathy for Bridgette and her brother that she had allowed to seep into her brain. Maybe they didn’t have a Susie-homemaker mom preparing them after school snacks. It didn’t excuse stealing and abusing the innocent. Evil. The girl was evil and Sue wanted her punished. Vaporized.
Friday morning Sue let Kate sleep in. She knew the child has been up crying half the night and taking her in after carpool line would avoid at least one possible Bridgette encounter for the day. Kate was silent during the drive, her anger aimed at Sue for forcing her to go to school at all. Sue tried to reason with Kate that going back was going to be hard any time so she might as well get it over with. She told her that her true friends would be there for her. Kate stared at her like Sue was a monkey at the zoo throwing poo.
Heavy with guilt for leaving her daughter in what Kate referred to as a Fate Worse Than Hell, Sue tried to get through her errands and chores without letting Jack feel her frustration. Her skin bristled with an electric charge throughout the day and she felt poised to lash out at anything in her path. The overstuffed vacuum cleaner bag that refused to unclip was a shredded pile of paper and lint after it crossed Sue. A spilled glass of juice nearly sent her over the edge. And then, like manna from Heaven, a call came from a friend asking to take Jack to the zoo that afternoon. Kate would be at cross country practice. With Jack and his potty emergencies out of the picture, she could follow Bridgette again or, more accurately, hunt her down. Sue no longer wanted the girl to disappear. She wanted her to pay.
3:05 and the minivan was in place. Sue wore plain khakis with a white shirt. Her hair was tucked into a denim hat which she pulled low to meet her oversized sunglasses. Next to her lay an issue of Lady’s World. It was the largest magazine in the rack at the convenience store and could provide an impromptu hiding place if needed. In her purse were her husband’s camera with zoom lens and a notepad and pen. The little snot wasn’t getting by her with anything today.
Bridgette entered the school yard as the bell was sounding. She had managed to wear weather-appropriate long pants but they looked as if they had been spray painted
on her body to match her skin-hugging, toddler sized t-shirt. Sue eased her van down to the edge of the lot anticipating the sinister duo would make another run on the motel. Instead, Bridgette led her brother past the motel and around the corner. Sue waited until they were completely out of sight and then drove slowly to the intersection, careful not to squeak her brakes or gun the engine. For good measure, she turned off her radio and heat.
The two were half way down the next block as Sue rounded the corner. She pulled behind a construction dumpster positioned on the street, feeling cunning and stealth, as Bridgette and the boy made their way to the Goodwill Store. Sue was not surprised. Cheap resale was definitely Bridgette’s style. Sue left her van parked behind the dumpster and hurried up the sidewalk while the kids entered the store. Inside she spotted them among the maze of clothing racks. Sue moved in as close as she dared and pretended to shop for pants a few aisles over. She was having a hard time pulling off the genuine-shopper look, though, because she could not bring herself to touch the used clothing. Sue was relieved when the kids left the area, garments in hand, and headed toward the check out lines. They did not, however, go to the registers. Instead they stopped at a candle display nearby and became engrossed in smelling each one.
Sue observed from behind a shelf of trinkets a few yards away. She wished she had a candle or, even better, a gas mask to cover the stench of the large unwashed woman who found the need to check the price of every item within two feet of Sue. A crick developed in her neck from straining to face away and look at Bridgette at the same time. The longer the kids spent examining the used bits of wax the shorter Sue’s patience became. She was on the verge of stomping over and smashing a candle into Bridgette’s face (Can you smell the boysenberry now?) when the kids finally abandoned the display and approached a nicely dressed woman in line with a full cart.
Bridgette spoke first. “Excuse me. I am so embarrassed to ask you this, but I don’t know what else to do.”
Bridgette’s voice was soft and clear. Sue couldn’t recall when she had ever heard the girl speak, but remembered Bridgette’s voice as sharp and venomous. She moved up to the candle display so as not to miss a word.
The woman in line nodded kindly and Bridgette continued. “Our mom sent us here with ten dollars to get coats. It is supposed to turn colder soon and she hates for us to be chilly. We had the money in my brother’s pocket for safe keeping but when we got up here to pay it was gone.”
The little boy’s face crumpled as he reached into his frayed jeans and pulled out the pocket to reveal a hole in the bottom. “Mommy is going to be so sad that we lost the money she saved.”
Pathetic, thought Sue, miniature con artists playing on the sympathies of this poor woman who was having to buy second hand herself. Sue wondered how many times Bridgette had used her brother in this Hole-in-the-Pocket scheme. He had to be the one to show the pocket because Bridgette’s pants were too tight pull hers out.
Bridgette put an arm around her brother and he hung his head. “I feel terrible asking this, but is there any way you could lend us ten dollars so we could buy the coats today and our Mom wouldn’t have to know? I could pay you back on Friday when we get our allowance.”
The boy look up with big, wet eyes. “Oh, please. I don’t want Mommy to be upset. We promise to pay you back.”
The lady smiled, took the two coats from Bridgette’s arms and placed them on top of her own purchases on the counter. “Goodness knows I don’t want you to be cold either. I will get these for you today and you save your allowance to do something nice for your mother this weekend.”
Bridgette and her brother gushed with thank yous and gave both the woman and checkout girl adoring, head tilting smiles. As the woman paid for the items, the boy reached out and touched her arm with one finger. When she looked at him, he said quietly, “God bless you.” The woman gave them both a squeeze as she handed them their coats.
Sue thought she might actually vomit. How cheesy and fake could you get? She wanted to take the old lady who fell for their act and shake her by her blue hair. Who was stupid enough to believe their mom had to save up for ten dollars to buy coats and still managed to give them an allowance? Sue was ducking down an empty checkout line in route to fresh air and sanity, when Bridgette suddenly dropped her purse. An array of coins sprayed out onto the tile floor. As she bent to retrieve them, Bridgette’s arm knocked over a Humane Society collection jar from the counter, and its coins joined Bridgette’s on the tiles. The girl and her brother were quickly on top of the coins picking them up. Bridgette apologized profusely and loudly threw handfuls of coins back into the donation jar. From Sue’s vantage point at the next lane over she could see the boy was picking up only the quarters and those went quietly into Bridgette’s purse. The mess was gone as quickly as it was created and Bridgette replaced the jar with a final apology.
The clerk nodded her head towards the jar, “Honey, I think you put more in the jar than was in there to begin with. You sure none of them are yours?”
“It’s okay”, Bridgette smiled sweetly, “We love animals.”
Sue ducked down pretending to tie her shoe until the kids exited and disappeared around the side of the store, then she bolted for her van. Her revulsion for Bridgette boiled and expanded in her abdomen threatening to erupt from every pore. Saving their money to do something nice for their mom, my ass, thought Sue. Bet their mom is just happy those two hellions are out of the house and away from her. Hidden back in her minivan, Sue’s eyes scanned the area. The kids were no where in sight. The hairs on her arms arched upward with a cold tingle. There were no tall buildings in their little town. She could see for a block or two in each direction. Unless the kids had spotted her and were now hiding, she should be able to see them. Unease slithered onto her back as she wondered if she had now made herself Bridgette’s target. A terrifying thought shot through her mind, and she twisted around quickly to peer into the rear of her van. She fought to slow her breath. The children were not hiding in her back seat waiting to leap out and scare her to death. Sue returned her eyes to the street. She was about to ease the van out to circle the area when she caught some movement on the next block over behind the Goodwill Store. She looked in time to see Bridgette and the boy ducking into the weed jungle encasing the lot, and stared as they disappeared into the overgrowth.
Sue hadn’t thought about that place for years. The Woods, they had called it. In elementary school it had been haunted and all the kids knew there had once been a fifth grader who went into The Woods and had never been seen again. As teenagers they made its secrets their own. On paths the boys had tromped and stomped, they would sneak back into its depths to a clearing decorated a’la 1990’s teenager. Stolen milk crates served as stools around a rock fire pit. Cigarette butts accented the dirt floor and an American flag on a stick pole had been unceremoniously placed in a mountain of beer cans. Sue also remembered the little one room shed there. Dilapidated and listing the wooden structure had always looked on the verge of collapse. The Love Shack. A towel had been tacked up in place of the missing door and the quickest way for a girl to get a bad reputation was to be seen going in with one of the ever-ready boys at the clearing. Sue prided herself on not being one of those girls. She had only been in The Love Shack a handful of times and only because it was with Dan Simms who said he really loved her.
Sue was zapped out of her trip down memory lane by the emergence of Bridgette and her brother from The Woods. The boy carried a dirt covered soccer ball under his arm and Bridgette had a black plastic garbage bag thrown over her shoulder giving her the look of Santa Claus’s slutty niece. Sue wondered if they were using the clearing as a hideaway for all their stolen goods. The opening to the path wasn’t trampled and visible from the street like it had been when Sue and her friends used it as a hangout. Heaven knows what sordid activities Bridgette and her brother had going back there. Secreting stolen property, a covert den for torturing their classmates, sacrificing cats? The horrific possibilities were endless.
Sue needed to know what was in that bag. She pulled out and drove up to the corner, determined not to lose the kids again. Sue was a true detective on the prowl, moving stealthily among the city’s many dark alleys and streets, or at least its six square blocks. Praying no one would pull up behind her, she sat at the corner and watched. When Bridgette and her brother reached a string of stores and veered off the sidewalk, Sue thought they might head into the Coffee and More. Maybe, Sue thought, almost hoped, they were going to pull off some kind of donut heist. She would be right there to call 911 and the cops would catch the crooks in action.
Bridgette and her brother, however, did not stop but continued on to the next shop over and went inside the Wash Day laundromat. Sue edged her van to a spot closer down the street. She watched through the plate glass window as the pair opened a washing machine next to the only other person in the laundromat. Clothes rained out of the garbage bag as Bridgette shook it over the machine. Bridgette appeared to speak to the woman next to her and pointed to a poster on the opposite wall. The boy quickly grabbed a scoop of detergent from the woman’s box and dumped it in with their clothes. He was kicking his ball across the room by the time they turned back from the poster. Bridgette shut the machine, inserted her quarters and flipped a dial before following her brother and the ball out the door.
Sue watched their parking lot soccer match, complete with tree branch goals, until the alarm on her phone started chirping. She had to pick up Kate and get home before Jack was returned from his zoo outing. Before driving off, she watched Bridgette move to the side for her brother’s kick to slip in the goal behind her. The girl’s mouth crept into a sideways smile as the boy ran a victory lap around the lot, arms reaching for the sky.
At home, Sue declared it family movie night and ordered a pizza. She pulled Jack’s pajamas on him without a bath and ignored his zoo animal funk as he cuddled on her lap. Kate joined them on the sofa and managed to only mention the elephant dung aroma fifty or so times before the movie ended and she wandered off to her room. The snore from Sue’s husband in the recliner was welcomed white noise as Jack drifted off thankfully early. She carried him to his room and he barely moved as she transferred him from arms to bed. Heading back down the hall, she heard her husband’s snorts accented by the high pitched squeals of Kate on the phone. All heads accounted for and content, Sue poured herself a glass of wine and filled her large garden tub.
Sue sunk into piles of lavender foam and let the warmth of the wine slip down her throat. She must be doing something right. She wriggled her toes in the steaming water and tried to make her mind a blank, but behind her closed eyelids images of Bridgette invaded her peace. Bitch.
Okay, thought Sue, they are needy. Their parents are busy or super shitty or both and Bridgette is having to play baby sitter. She was sorry their mom didn’t take them shopping for new coats or wash all their clothes. It didn’t excuse plain old meanness and it didn’t make Bridgette’s persecution of the kids at school less cruel. In fact, one would think that Bridgette would empathize with the mistreated and be extra sensitive, but not that little tart. And why had she targeted Kate? Kate had never done anything to Bridgette. Kate served soup at the homeless shelter every third Saturday. Kate gave all her old clothes to Salvation Army. Kate wasn’t perfect, but she was a good girl who shouldn’t have to put up with Bridgette.
Sue sunk deeper into the water to squelch the chill creeping onto her shoulders. What was Bridgette’s deal? Images of the junior high’s queen bully would not gel in Sue’s mind with the girl who took care of her little brother. And why did Bridgette steal when there were so many places to go for help? The kids had walked within blocks of a mission center and a church food pantry. Decent people down on their luck got help instead of becoming criminals. Sue briefly wondered if their parent’s were too proud for charity. Maybe they told their kids not to take handouts. Doubtful, scoffed Sue. Bridgette and her brother had learned to steal from someone. Sue bet those apples hadn’t fallen far from the tree.
The weekend moved on with the typical errands and outings interspersed with arguments about where to eat and appropriate clothing for a twelve year old girl. Sue tried to slip a few questions about Bridgette into mealtime conversation. Who did she sit with at lunch? Was she polite to the teachers? She thought her comments were conversational but at Sunday dinner, Kate threw down her fork after Sue casually wondered whether or not Bridgette had a boyfriend. “Damn it, Mother, why don’t you date Bridgette if you are so interested in her.” Sue changed the subject without mentioning the cursing and did not utter Bridgette’s name again that night. In her mind though, the thoughts of her did not relent.
As soon as she dropped Kate at school on Monday morning and saw that she was safely inside with no Bridgette calamities, Sue headed back to her neighborhood to leave Jack at a friend’s house. Sue had fibbed to the mother about a doctor’s appointment and offered to take both boys to a jumpy house place in the afternoon if Jack could stay with her that morning. It was a small price to pay for being able to investigate alone.
Sue parked the minivan at the back of the Coffee and More, and crossing the street, wondered if she should have bought a donut to maintain her cover. As she made her way down the few blocks, she kept her eyes peeled for anyone who recognize her and tried to come up with a plausible explanation for her presence there should she need it. The opening to The Woods was dark and shaded but not foreboding. As she ducked under the vines, Sue felt as if she were moving back in time. Walking into the treeline, she could almost smell the burning pot and feel her breasts getting perkier. She breathed out. To be young with a future unknown, the nostalgia was inevitable.
The clearing came into view and was much the same as the picture in Sue’s memory. The fire pit was there, as well as the beer can mountain, albeit quite a bit more corroded and sans the flag. The shack still stood held together by a basket weave of vines and leaves. The towel door had been replaced by a large, leaning sheet of plywood, an upgrade. Sue felt no qualms about moving it aside to walk in. After all, this had been her place as much as anyone’s.
Sue stopped short in the doorway. A sense of betrayal circled as she absorbed that the shack, this snapshot preservation of her youth, had been infiltrated. The only similarity inside was the sleeping bags on the floor. In Sue’s day, the rest of the room had been empty. Now one wall was lined with milk crate shelves holding semi-folded clothes, a bowl and a couple of plates, soup and peanut butter. One held the dirty soccer ball. There was a milk crate table supporting a half finished checker game on the back wall. A couple of bulging garbage bags sat nearby but there was no smell of trash. One corner held a milk jug of water along side some towels and a scattering of little soaps and shampoos. Sue looked again at the sleeping bags. There were only two. A stuffed bear laid on top of one and a few books next to the other.
Sue felt the heaviness of realization move from her scalp to her throat and then settle in her chest. They lived here. They were runways or their parents had abandoned them. Or died. Maybe Bridgette and the boy did something horrible to their parents and then got away before they were found out. It didn’t even matter. Kids aren’t allowed to live alone. The State would take them and put them somewhere, hopefully far away from here. Sue would be doing her moral duty as a good citizen turning the little boogers in and, even better, she and Kate would be free of Bridgette for good.
Sue considered doing a happy dance right there in the woods but decided an immediate call to 911 would be even more fun. She whipped out her cellphone and saw the dreaded No Service message. No matter, she thought, I will poke around a little and then head home to make the call. There may be other evidence here that I need to report to the authorities anyway.
Sue moved around the sleeping bags and peered into the milk crates. Finding nothing of interest, she headed to the twist-closed garbage bags. She lifted the first and freed the secured top with a spin. She paused, savoring the moment as if the plastic bag were a present, before throwing back the edges and revealing the contents to the light. Some jeans, a tee shirt and a towel were crumpled at the top. Sue shimmied the top of the bag and kicked it from underneath trying to get a glimpse of the items towards the bottom without having to actually touch anything. A few tampons bounced to the top, those individually wrapped kind from restroom vending machines. A green sock and a hair elastic peaked out, but other than that, no amount of shaking revealed more than a few more pairs of jeans and dingy towels. Slightly deflated, Sue turned to the second, less full garbage bag. It seemed heavier upon lifting it and she found some promise in this. The search inside revealed papers and books. A few of the books she recognized from Kate’s school reading list. Little Women, Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm. Others were straight from the drug store, their covers graced by bare chested, long haired men. Gingerly, Sue reached in and pulled out a stack of papers. Most appeared to be school work. As Sue fanned through them she saw that the backs of many sheets were covered with pictures of footballs and dinosaurs. A few held lists written in neat, straight lines, much like Sue’s own shopping lists. Shampoo, peanut butter, pencils for school.
Sue tossed the papers back into the bag and pulled out one of the books. She opened it and looked inside the front and back covers, then slapped it shut and tossed it back into the bag. Folding her arms over her chest she grumbled to herself. What was she even looking for? Did she expect to find an account of all Bridgette’s illegal activities inside a copy of Little Women? As she bent to close the garbage bag, Sue saw the corner of a $20 bill sticking out from the book’s pages. She quickly grabbed the book back out and shook it upside down and then repeated the process with each book in the garbage bag. She hoped she might uncover the proceeds of a robbery or at least proof of some kind of pick pocketing scheme, but there was nothing else. Closing the garbage bag back, Sue wandered over and picked up the stuffed bear off the sleeping bag. Jack slept with a stuffed dog about the same size. She held it in her arms picturing the messy little boy cuddling it to sleep as Jack did his dog. Giving the bear a squeeze, Sue was treated to a puff of dirt and stale air prompting her to toss it back down and wipe her hands vigorously on her pants.
Maybe social services was the better way to go rather than the police. It didn’t appear that Bridgette and her brother were stealing furs and jewels or breaking into banks. Sue could place an anonymous call and have a social worker take the pair away to an appropriate home. But then Sue thought about Kate and shook her head. It wouldn’t work. What if Bridgette was put in a home nearby and remained at Kate’s school? All of this would be for nothing.
Sue paced the floor and weighed her options. She had seen Bridgette steal from the motel cart and the evidence was right here in the form of shampoo and towels. Maybe Bridgette could get shipped off to some kind of juvenile detention center and the boy would find his way to a foster mother who would wash his teddy bear. It could work. Kate would be protected from Bridgette. The detention center could straighten Bridgette out and the boy could be taken away from this life of nothing. No mom, no dad, no decent toys. All he had was Bridgette. Who wiped his face and let him win at soccer and was there for him every day as soon as school ended. She was all he had.
Damn it. Why couldn’t the little boy be a shit like his sister? It would be so much easier to save her own child if Sue hated both Bridgette and her brother. Sue circled the sleeping bags unable to stand still. She could feel the shed becoming physically smaller and the temperature rose in a cloud around her. The milk crates and stolen towels inched into her path. Sue wanted there to be evil in the shed that was hers to vanquish, but instead it felt only as if the air was not hers to breathe. Her head rang out that children should not live like this, but she squelched its clammer with the admonition that the children did not seem unhappy. Whatever the wrong here, Sue could summon no power against it.
Sue’s thoughts spun searching for an solution to latch onto and free her from the shack. She was Kate’s mother. She would protect Kate. She could time carpool lane better and figure out a medical excuse to get her out of PE with Bridgette. Schools rarely questioned some sort of feminine issue. She could talk in private with the school’s counselor and make sure the girls’ schedules would keep them separated from now on. Kate would be okay. Sue would make things okay.
Pacified with justification and determination, Sue made her way to the doorway to leave, then with a last rush of breath hurried back into the shack and tucked the bit of cash she had on her into one of the books. Back outside she moved slower, careful to cover the doorway as it had been before.
This was not her place.
Laura Herrin is a writer who forgot her calling for a time and accidentally became a lawyer. She has now remembered her place and emerged as a writer once again and lives with three small muses in the state of Georgia.