There was life
And it didn't seem fragile
I jumped and ran
And loved and thought I loved
And laughed and cried
And all the usual girl stuff.
When the waitress found The Girl - as everyone came to call her - it was shortly after the dinner rush had ended and the trash needed to be thrown out. She opened the gate to the dumpster and saw The Girl's shoe first. The shock made the woman unable to move for a few seconds and then she dropped the trash and ran back to the kitchen to grab the cook.
"Frank! Frank! There's a body out here!"
Frank was a large man, balding and grease-stained. In his forty-six years the only dead body he'd seen was his aunt Patsy's and that was at her viewing. He gently laid down the knife he had been using and followed the waitress.
He had a hard time sinking down to check The Girl's pulse, but he managed on his one good knee.
"She dead?" asked the waitress.
Frank nodded gravely. "Call the police, Tracy."
Tracy ran back to the diner, glad to be away from The Girl.
After the brief touch to her neck, Frank pulled away, but he couldn't help looking at The Girl. Her hair was the same mousy brown his ex-wife had always bleached-out and her open, staring eyes were a hazel-green, more green than brown. Her neck wore half of a 'best friends' necklace, purple finger marks and red scratches. The Girl's shirt was dirty, but there were blue-white patches that made Frank think somewhere there was a mom with a talent for laundry.
He felt like he had to stay with her, as if even her dead body needed protected. She was on her back, one arm outstretched to him. She had written her homework on her palm - "Read Ch12, st?'s" - the letters were bubbly, happy, and Frank felt tears struggling to surface. He wiped them quickly away, forgetting the onions he’d been cutting would sting and redden worse than the tears. He winced at the pain, but he couldn't look away from The Girl. Her shorts were red and white, the kind kids wore for gym class. There was a number four on the right leg. He pictured her alive, playing volleyball, running. The shoes looked pretty expensive. Pale blue and white...The toes were ferociously scuffed and he knew she had tried her best to get away.
The tears were stinging again, but Frank let them flow, sinking down against the dumpster gate, not caring about the bad knee.
The police were quick - the town only had two stoplights - and Frank tried to pull himself back together when he heard the siren. A quick prayer came to mind, surprising him. He used the chain link gate to haul his heavy body off the ground and he gave The Girl one last sad glance before the cops were standing there, uncomfortable, not sure what to do first.
"Paul," Frank nodded back. They'd gone to high school and played football together thirty years prior, but this was the first time they'd done more than wave since. Paul looked the other way when Frank drove home from the Stoplight Lounge after a few beers and Frank always made sure cops got free coffee when he was on shift. Sometimes he’d even throw in free day-old pie.
"Um," Paul started as his partner pulled out a digital camera, "Tracy told dispatch you checked The Girl's pulse and she's definitely dead?"
Frank nodded again, although her open, staring eyes made that pretty obvious.
"Was her, um, skin hard?" Paul fidgeted. He had never been this close to a dead human, but he knew about rigor mortis and knew, too, that a dead deer hardened up too quick to let sit too long after a hunt.
“Probably took her from somewhere a ways off and was heading up or down I-5 when he decided to dump her here.”
Frank thought Paul was stating the obvious, considering the town was so small and neither of them recognized The Girl, but he muttered, “mm-hmm,” in agreement.
A group was forming in the back lot and Paul called in for backup to keep them away.
"Do we even have a coroner?" Frank asked, using his TV knowledge to have something to say.
Paul shook his head, "One's coming from Redding."
They both stared at Paul's partner, a young guy named Timmy or Tommy (Frank couldn't remember) as he took a lot of photos of the area and The Girl.
"She's really young, huh?" Timmy or Tommy looked up at the cook. Frank just sighed and nodded, wondering why they needed so many shots of The Girl.
"How old do you think she is?" Timmy/Tommy asked, making his own odd version of small talk.
"Dunno," Frank muttered, looking after Paul who had wandered over to the growing crowd. He was waving his arms, trying to contain them.
"She look familiar?"
"No," Frank was getting more and more pissed.
"Hmmm." The camera kept clicking.
"Do you need that many pictures?"
Timmy/Tommy looked up, surprised. He looked at the camera and back at Frank. "I guess not."
"Good. Can't we cover her? At least until the coroner gets here?"
"I don’t think so…I think that might mess up the, um, crime scene or something."
Frank looked up at the cop again and realized he probably wasn't much older than The Girl and was looking younger by the minute. "Never mind then."
They stood there awkwardly, trying not to fidget. Another police car with its lights flashing showed up and parked between the people and the dumpster. Two more officers to wave their arms. Paul made his way back.
"Got the crowd somewhat controlled."
"Good, that's good," Timmy/Tommy said. Frank could only stare at a rock by Paul's shoe. The two cops continued to chat mindlessly about trivial things. To Frank it was like the static between radio stations. He found it hard to focus. He swayed a little, clutching at the chain link.
"You okay, Frank?" Paul put a hand out and grabbed Frank's elbow. It was the first time they'd touched in three decades and neither was comfortable with it.
"I think I'm going to go clock out and head home. You know where to find me."
Every step away from The Girl was heavy with effort. Frank still felt a need to protect her. Instead he forced himself through the gawking, questioning crowd and back into the restaurant. He saw the next shift’s cook was already behind the order counter and he waved. When he entered the break room to clock out, the two waitresses that had just clocked-in were talking about The Girl.
“Hey, Frank. Tracy said you touched her. Was that weird?” Frank looked at the server’s face and thought how much she looked like a small dog. Her cheeks were soft and stood out. Her nose poked up and flattened to her face. She wore her hair in two small pigtails at her neck. Funny, he’d once thought to ask her out and now he kept thinking about a Twilight Zone episode he’d seen as a kid, although it was blurry and he wasn’t sure if it was something he’d made up or had actually seen. She smiled at him and he wanted badly to punch her or shove her aside, anything to make her dog-face quit smiling. Then he thought of the bruises on The Girl and hated himself. But he was still pissed at the waitress’s smile.
Frank tried to hide his irritation. “Why don’t you two go to work, okay? There are a lot of people out there.” He turned his back to them, rifled through the timecards and clocked out without answering the question. He could feel their eyes boring a hole into his head, but didn’t care. He didn’t even glance their way as he left.
He hurried to his car, thinking how nice it would be to get home and drink. A lot. Maybe drink so much he’d pass out and forget The Girl’s eyes looking at him. A few miles down the road he felt sick and pulled over just in time to throw up. He drove a little faster, anxious to pull into his dirt drive, wanting to lay down with the TV on too loud. His trailer loomed ahead. A single wide he’d bought after his ex had left. The property was his parents’ – they lived half a mile away in the house he grew up in. Having no real lawn, Frank pulled up right in front of the trailer’s door and yanked the handle so hard the coiled spring inside pinged off, never to be found again. He swore at the broken door, although he knew it was his own fault. Inside, he figured out a way to hold it just right so he could secure it. Normally he wouldn’t care about locking it, but the world felt less safe.
A beer. First a beer and then the TV. He swallowed half the can in the first pull and pushed the power button on the remote. Thankfully he’d left it on ESPN, no chance of the news breaking in to talk about The Girl, although she was there in the room with him, anyway, her green-hazel eyes looking at him.
Another beer…no, something stronger. He checked the cupboard above the fridge. A half-empty bottle of Maker’s Mark. That would work. He grabbed an old bar glass and poured out half of what was left of the bottle. He didn’t even bother with a mixer. The first swallow burned, but it felt good. The second felt even better. He sat down and put his head back, staring at the ceiling.
The phone started ringing and he ignored it. There was no way the coroner had made it in from Redding yet and Frank knew Paul would probably make the drive out to get him. It wasn’t a secret in town that Frank drank under stress and Paul wouldn’t expect him to drive back into town. His first night after moving home he’d gotten so belligerent he’d had to spend the night in jail. He was surprised it wasn’t on the front page of the Siskiyou Daily News, the way everyone talked about it, pity heavy in their eyes and questions – “You gonna be okay, Frank?” “She was a piece of shit anyway, man, you’re better than that and you know it, right?” “Just let me know when you’re ready to start dating, okay?” Three years had passed and he knew he should be over her leaving, but he wasn’t. Now this.
He could have a kid about The Girl’s age, if his ex hadn’t of had the miscarriage. They tried again and again to have a baby after that, but it never happened. Frank had thought it worked out for the best, with the divorce and all. He thought again of The Girl’s mom, out there somewhere praying her daughter was still alive. He took another desperate gulp of whiskey, trying to put the mom out of his mind, but she kept returning. In his imagination, she looked a lot like his ex-wife, maybe a little more classy, but blonde and pretty in an average kind of way. He saw the dad in his mind as a quiet pacing man.
He drank down the rest of the glass and grabbed another beer. The room was starting to spin and he laid down on the sofa, watching SportsCenter and trying really hard to concentrate on the words coming from Robert Flores’ and Chris McKendry’s mouths. They laughed but he didn’t get the joke and then everything got fuzzy and dark…
Someone was banging on the door. It made the trailer shake and Frank clutched at the sofa before realizing what was going on.
“Frank? You in there?” Paul called out.
“Yeah, hold on.”
The bad knee ached and Frank had to half-roll off the sofa, something that nearly made him sick. He shuffled to the door and was confused when it wouldn’t open. Oh yeah, he thought, it’s broken. He managed to unlock it and opened it for Paul.
“Hey, man, I hate to do this to you, but can I get you to sign some stuff? I brought it so you wouldn’t have to come down to the station.”
Frank was grateful and motioned Paul in. He found a pen and his reading glasses and sat at the small table. Paul handed him a few sheets of paper and explained each one and pointed at the highlighted areas to sign in. Frank had a flashback to when he and his ex bought their house. He shook it off and signed wherever Paul directed. The day was weird with memories.
“We’re hoping fingerprints will i.d. her. There are quite a few missing girls along I-5 that fit her description and we’re not wanting all those parents coming in here getting their hopes up, you know?”
Frank did know and he nodded without looking Paul in the face. They sat in silence for a bit, both staring at the fake wood grain marks in the cheap dining table. Paul spoke first.
“Makes me glad I had boys. Not that I don’t worry about them getting into trouble, but I think it’d be worse having a girl.”
“Worst part is, they’ll probably never catch the bastard that did this to her. Might even be someone she knew.”
Frank just kept absentmindedly nodding along with the rhythm of Paul’s voice.
“I’ll keep you posted, okay, Frank?” Paul said as he stood to go. Frank was both afraid and glad that he was leaving. He didn’t want to be alone with his own thoughts but he didn’t want to talk, either.
He locked the door again, but wondered if he shouldn’t just drive over to his folks’ place and stay for a bit. His mom always loved him coming by for dinner and his dad was always happy for a game of Gin Rummy. He grabbed his keys and more of the beer and locked the door behind him. Minutes later he rolled up to his childhood home.
He peeked in the window and waved to his mom, who was busy in the kitchen. She smiled and waved back, yelling, “Frankie’s here, John!” He felt better already and was glad he had decided to pop in.
Knowing what the answer was, he asked, “Got room for your only son at the dinner table?”
“Always!” His mom grabbed the beer and went to put it in the fridge.
His dad looked up from his chair, smiling, “Up for a card game, Frankie?”
“It’s why I’m here, Dad.” He pulled a deck from the desk under the front window and started dealing.
“Sad about that girl they found, huh, son?”
Frank felt his shoulders weaken as he fanned out his cards. “Yeah, Dad, it is.”
Thankfully, that was the only time The Girl was mentioned that night. He played three games of Gin Rummy and ate two slices of his mother’s chocolate cake before drinking so many beers his parents insisted he stay the night in his old room. It was a sewing/guest room now, but it still felt comfortably familiar. Just what Frank needed. He slept a heavy dreamless sleep.