“Are you sure my mother knows you?”
Patrice Avila stood at the street-edge of the sidewalk that ran down the right side of Periwinkle Drive. Her backpack rested, like a sandbag holding down a road construction sign, on top of her sandaled feet. It was the last day of school, the bag wasn’t anywhere near as heavy as it had been during the school year; nevertheless, it felt good to not have the weight on her shoulders. Patrice knew that she shouldn’t stop, certainly not actually talk to the man in the black car. Like her decision an hour earlier to get on the bus and go home instead of going with her friends to the beach, it just happened. The car slowed a little ahead of her as she walked alone, the window slid down and a voice slid out, “Excuse me, young lady, could I ask you something?” She stopped and turned towards the car. Simple as that. But she felt more grown-up, like Alice in the old Resident Evil movies. She reminded herself that no adult could be trusted, unless they were a teacher or a policeman, or, like, someone she knew’s uncle. Movies still in mind, she stepped back to the center of the sidewalk, thinking, ‘ready to move in any direction’; the image in her mind was of Alice vaulting over the car and getting away from the monsters. She bent forward, so she could see the man behind the wheel.
‘Sure, I know her! Not real well, it’s not like I’m a long-lost uncle or anything.” The man was wearing a suit, had dark hair, and when he laughed, Patrice felt like laughing with him. It was almost like he was laughing at himself.
“No, I only met her once, a couple of weeks ago. But I took a picture of us. See?” Leaning across to the passenger window, he held out a phone. A photo of her mother and him on the screen. Her mother’s face had a look somewhere between scared and annoyed. The man in the car was in the photo, but mostly the side of his face. Patrice noticed the man’s fingernails as he held the phone, she was pretty sure they were manicured, and his watch looked very expensive.
“I took this when I talked to her. I like to take pictures when I’m working, even though my boss sometimes gets mad at me. Thing is, I kinda like having pictures to remember people, you know?” His voice, which sounded at first like an adult, a doctor or lawyer, sounded younger now and, it seemed, embarrassed. Patrice nodded her head in unconscious agreement.
“So, I dropped off some papers with her, but since they’re important papers, I’m supposed to get them initialed by her. She wasn’t home just now but I saw you walking from the bus stop and thought, ‘Oh man! Maybe Patrice will help me out and I won’t get in trouble back at the office!'”
The ‘almost twelve-year-old’ girl felt the hair on the back of her neck tickle, slightly. Being as young as she was, her instincts were very sensitive. Being as young as she was, her life experiences limited the practical usefulness of those instincts. Straightening up, she looked down the street, two contradictory feelings growing, one in her mind and one in her heart. She was afraid that one of the neighbors would see her and tell her mother that she was talking to someone she didn’t know and, at the same time, she was hoping to see a neighbor so she would know that there was someone nearby, just in case. Unfortunately, despite her measured intelligence, she did not yet have the maturity or sophistication to separate the two conflicting emotions. Or take the lesson they offered. One of the most fundamental definitions of ‘intelligence’, is ‘the capacity to solve problems with limited resources’.
Patrice wondered if her friends were already at the beach. Her best friend, Emma Cavenaugh’s mother was parked in her minivan, in front of the school after last bell, the plan was to go to the beach rather than take the bus. She now wished she’d gone with them, rather than take the school bus home. Not counting the monitor, she was the only person on the bus when it stopped at the end of Periwinkle Drive.
“You don’t do that, do you?” Patrice remembered going to Confession the week before; it was the same tone that Father Morgan used, a voice you couldn’t see but didn’t dare ignore. Before she could say anything, the man continued, “Talk to strangers? You mustn’t ever do that. Like they say in those assemblies at school, ‘If you don’t know, don’t go'”.
There was a note of sadness in his voice that she was sure wasn’t there before. Patrice leaned towards the open window, her response as fervent as only the innocent can be, “I would never do that! I promise!”
She felt better knowing that this man, who had a picture of himself and her mother, reminded her of the safety lectures at school. Her smile faltered at how, even though it was a sunny June afternoon, really dark the inside of the car seemed. A show on TV she watched just last week came to mind. It was TMZ or one of those Hollywood news shows, they had a story about the limousines that some singers and a lot of movie stars rode around in, they all had either reflective glass or all darkened-out windows.
Patrice was glad that school was over for the year. Fifth grade at St. Dominique’s hadn’t been all that bad. At least the first part of the year. She was smart, enjoyed most of her studies, had a head for math and did her homework.
The second half of the year was different. She started having the dreams. Always the same, always bad and she always woke up scared and embarrassed. She thought about telling her mother, but she and her father were arguing more. There never was a time that seemed right. Her grades started to slide, but she didn’t seem to care. Her teacher, Sister Catherine, who all the kids were scared of, asked her a couple of times if everything was alright. She didn’t seem scary when she did, and Patrice thought about telling her about the dreams, but never did. She had friends and they didn’t mind if she was quiet and just went along with what everyone was doing.
Then her father died.
Despite doing what she knew was a bad, or at least, dangerous thing, Patrice didn’t want to go home. The whole time she’d been standing there, not a single car passed along the street. It was just her and the very black car. The man’s voice interrupted her daydreams of fashion models, limousines, and, for some reason, Taylor Swift. Without remembering when, Patrice realized that she was walking along the sidewalk towards her house.
“Yeah. Your mom knows me very well. We go back quite a ways. But mostly we have business to attend to with your house. You like living in Crisfield, don’t you Patrice?” Unconsciously, she brushed her long blonde hair back from her ear, the man’s voice sounded very close. But, he was driving the car, just fast enough to keep the open window right next to her. Looking up the street, Patrice saw the empty driveway at her house and her heart skipped a beat.
“Like I said, I left some papers for your mom. If you wouldn’t mine helping me out, I totally need them back. If I can’t get them back before tomorrow, I’m gonna be in so much trouble. I might even lose my job, ya know?” The voice faded back into the interior of the car as it slowed to a stop.
She felt her phone vibrate and knew it must be her mother checking up on her, like she was a little kid. The excitement of doing what she knew everyone would disapprove of burst within her and instead of reading the message, she ran up the steps, across the porch and in through the front door.
The screen door banged shut as she crossed the living room, headed towards her bedroom. Just as she got to the hallway, she heard the man’s voice outside on the porch,
“Hey! I’m in luck! I see the papers on the fireplace, from when I gave them to your mom!”
Patrice, now halfway down the hall, hesitated. Being in the house alone changed her mood. Talking to a total stranger, even if he knew her mother, seemed less of an adventure. As much as she wanted to impress her friends when she told them about how she made him laugh, it didn’t seem as much of a sure thing. Looking at her bedroom door, with the ‘Keep Out’ sign she’d taped to the outside, her stomach dropped just little, a reminder that her dreams of being a bad-ass woman like Alice or even Lara Croft, were all in her head. The man was actually at the front door and that didn’t make her feel so certain of herself. She wished he’d go away.
“I can get them and be outta your way before you know it. If it’s alright with you for me to come in, I’ll grab them off the mantle and be on my way.”
The man’s voice sounded closer than it should have, like a random sound in the middle of the night. Patrice decided that once he got what he came for, he’d leave and then everything would go back to normal. Leaning out of her bedroom doorway, in unknowing imitation of her mother’s meeting with this very same man, she kept one hand on the half-opened door and called out, “Whatever.”
“So it’s ok with you that I come in?”
“I said yeah, whatever.”
Frowning in concentration, Patrice Avila strained to hear the screen door open. It always squeaked, and most of the time, banged shut, but there was no sound or noise or anything. Desperately trying to re-kindle the daydream about being the girl in the action movies, she tried to imagine what Alice would do in this situation. She laughed at the image of wearing a red cocktail dress and knee-high Pradas. After what seemed like minutes, but was probably only seconds, she heard a car start. By the time she got to the living room window, all she saw was the rear end of the car, the license plate ‘Hereafter’. She looked at the fireplace, the mantel was bare except for two waxy candle holders and a crucifix that was laying, face down on the white-painted wood.
‘Almost twelve-years-old’ Patrice Avila smiled, she thought she’d done alright for not hiding in her room. Her phone buzzed.
She swiped past the text from her mother and saw the new text. In big letters it said, ‘Thanks’. There was a link that brought up a cartoon wolf who smiled out from the display. He, she was sure it was a guy from the way he winked, had really big teeth, but being a cartoon it made sense. As soon as the wolf winked, a little girl dressed up like Little Red Riding Hood appeared next to the wolf. He held out his hand in a ‘high five’. The girl, much smaller than the wolf, managed to jump up enough to slap his hand.
Patrice laughed and thought about how she was glad she decided to take the bus home alone and not go the beach with her friends. It was kind of a little kid thing to do anyway. As she walked back to her bedroom, she hoped her mother wouldn’t be too mad at her for not texting her back. Patrice decided to wait and not say anything about the man in the black car.