The most romantic song I knew, “Sara Smile” started playing. Girls laced their hands behind guys’ necks; the boys rested hands on the girls’ hips or snugged them into their back pockets. If I were brave enough, I’d walk over to someone in my league like Ron or John and ask for a dance. But I wasn’t brave.
I watched Jared Nichols hold Amber close, nuzzle her neck and whisper in her ear as they swayed. Nothing as romantic as that would happen to me tonight, maybe not ever. I wasn’t the kind of girl to have a guy swooning over me. The closest I’d come was in third grade when Greg Coppinger gave me a plastic ring from a vending machine and said we should go together. By recess the following day, he chased some other girl on the playground.
I felt groggy and a little sick from whatever the punch was spiked with. I didn’t want to be all alone in that crowded room any more. I nudged Vickie. “Hey. I think I’m going to go now. I’ve got to get home.”
She frowned. “We’ve only been here like two minutes. What’s the big rush?”
“I’m afraid Mom’s going to find out I’m not in my room. I can’t stop worrying about it so I might as well go.”
“Okay. I’ll talk to you later.” Vickie turned back to Becky before I walked away.
As I reached the door, some girl said in a loud, slurred voice, “Who’s that kid?”
“Nobody. Just some freshman,” a guy answered.
I melted into a puddle of embarrassment and rushed for my bike. It looked ridiculous, like a child’s toy beside the cars parked in the driveway and on the street. I pedaled away as fast as I could back toward my country mouse hole where I belonged. Part of me hated Vickie for not leaving with me. We were supposed to stick together no matter what, but she’d let me go off alone. It didn’t matter that my anger wasn’t fair, it fueled me all the way down County Route 3 to the pitted road that passed Porters’ woods. The sharp breeze stung my eyes and made my hair stream behind me as I bumped over potholes. Suddenly the wheels froze, the bike stopped dead and I catapulted half over the handlebars. I crashed to the ground tangled with metal.
Pain shot from my knee, hip and elbow which slammed into the asphalt I tried to scramble away from the fallen bike but the hem of my jeans was caught in the chain. I had to drag myself and the bike off the road while I worked the denim free.
Tall grass at the edge of a deep ditch surrounded me. Frogs trilled in the muck at the bottom, while the leaves of the woods beyond rustled menacingly. Far down the road, two white lights flickered. A car. The driver was probably a neighbor who’d stop and ask what I was doing out so late at night. They might insist on driving me home. At the very least, my parents would get a tattling phone call.
Frantic to hide before the car reached me, I ripped the hem of my jeans from under the greasy chain and dragged my bike halfway down into the ditch
I held my breath and waited for the car to pass, but it rolled to a stop only a few yards ahead of where I hid. The driver shut off the lights but the engine continued to purr as he got out. From the size of the dark figure, it was a man. He must have spotted me and would call out any moment, demanding to know what I was doing.
I’m fine, thanks. Don’t worry about me.
But the man moved around to the back of the car, opened the trunk and leaned over. So he hadn’t seen me or he’d have said something. I scrunched down even deeper into the weeds, praying the rustling wouldn’t give me away.
He lifted something out of the trunk, a long lumpy thing wrapped in something that crinkled like plastic—a tarp, and carried it to the edge of the road. He grunted as he tossed the heavy bundle into the ditch. It crashed through weeds and hit the standing water at the bottom with a small splash. The frogs stopped croaking and in the silence that followed, I feared my breathing was louder than the car’s engine.
More than scared, I was terrified enough that I wet my pants a little. From the size and shape of the thing, I couldn’t think of anything else besides a body wrapped in it. Maybe the family dog had died and this guy was too lazy to dig a grave. Maybe he’d hit a deer and was getting rid of the carcass. Or it could be trash he didn’t want to pay the dump to take, like a stained roll of carpet or something. As I continued to hug the earth and pray no light reflected off the bike’s chrome handlebars, reasonable excuses shot through my mind like pellets from a B.B. gun. But the hair on my neck prickled and the instinct to flee from danger clawed inside me. This was wrong. This was bad. Every cell in my body seemed to shrink smaller as if I could make myself invisible here in my burrow in the weeds.
The man remained staring at the spot where he’d tossed the package then glanced up and down the deserted road before slamming the trunk closed. He climbed back in the car and drove away. All this took probably less than a minute, but I felt like I’d been there for an eternity. Snapshots were burned forever in my mind; the dark four-door sedan, the shadowy, faceless figure of the man, the bundle and how it dropped from his arms to land in the ditch. I remained rabbit-still until I couldn’t hear the car’s engine anymore, my muscles locked in place and so cold I didn’t think I could move them.
My knee and elbow ached from hitting the ground and the skin felt flayed from the asphalt. I cautiously climbed up the bank. There was no car in the distance. I was alone, except not, because the tarp-wrapped Thing was just down the slope a little ways.
Bad things didn’t happen in a place like Cutter’s Bend. I’d watched too many horror movies. Only deer guts and bones were in that tarp. I rubbed my aching knee and took a step down the steep side of the ditch. I’d take a look at the thing and then I’d know. But the ground was slippery from the recent rain. I pictured myself tumbling the rest of the way down to land on whatever was at the bottom. Even if it was only a dirty old carpet it would be gross, and what if it was something worse?
I backed up the slope and onto the road. I’d come back tomorrow and check. It was doo dark to see right now anyhow.
I dragged my bike back onto the road and climbed on. It wobbled a little as I rode so probably one of the rims was bent. I’d have to try to fix it myself. Didn’t want to explain to dad how I’d fallen off. He’d laugh and tease me about bell bottom jeans, which he thought were a dumb fashion, and I’d feel horrible keeping the secret of exactly where and when I’d had my accident.
I glided into my own yard, put my bike in the garage and let myself into the dark house without a sound. My parents didn’t stir.
As I collapsed across my bed with a whimper, I wished I’d never left my room that night. I didn’t want to keep replaying the moment when the man heaved his burden into the ditch. I didn’t want to wonder if somebody was missing or if I should be calling the police. Guilt weighed on me like a too-heavy quilt. Guilt and fear. What if I went back there tomorrow and the man was watching from a distance? Nothing seemed safe any longer. All sorts of terrible things were possible in my world now.