First They Chose the Bait

by Amy Miller

They massaged gel into your hair until it crunched. They smeared globs of glitter paste onto your cheeks and eyelids until every part of you was stiff. Chunky platform shoes gave you some height and a sparkly halter top boosted your sex appeal. They wadded tissues into your training bra, weighed you down with giant gold hoop earrings, like a cow branded and ready for sale. You had not even started your period yet, but damn if you didn’t look like a woman.

You snuck out the bedroom window just in case someone’s mom happened to be home early from work. Together you rode the city bus to the Park n Ride. The other girls were slouched in their hoodies, but you strutted the dirty bus aisles like a runway—shoulders back, fake tits forward. The bus wailed to a halt as they passed you the cash and the feeling of the tattered sweaty bills made your stomach turn.

Out in the parking lot they scanned the scene. How about that guy? Nah, too yuppie. What about her? No way, she looks like somebody’s mom. It was taking too long; the high of the heist was fading. But wait, there on the outskirts where the woods met the parking lot stood a circle of men. You wove through the moving buses, the black exhaust and oil stains, to get a closer look.

Go, they said. I don’t know, you hesitated. Come on, don’t be a pussy! They pushed. You took little shallow breaths the way a fish might attempt to breathe outside of water. You had seen it once on your uncle’s old boat—the herring’s black beady eyes staring into yours, pleading. His normally strong tail, useless on the dry deck, tapping, tapping like the beat of a slow drum.

Stumbling forward, your fingers twirled the crispy tips of your hair while the girls hung back, whispering. The men were smoking cigarettes under the shadows of their hoods, but you could still make out their faces—pink and blotchy like baby rats. Most of them were rail thin, like tall streetlamps someone had tied shoes and baggy pants on to. Some of them clutched plastic liquor bottles in their gnarled dirty paws. They were laughing and yelling through broken brown teeth and intermittently spitting into the middle of the circle. You could not tell if they were ecstatic or heartbroken or just plain crazy.

Their heads rose in unison as you approached. Hey beautiful! One of them said to you. You stared back without speaking, just stood there blinking your big saucer eyes entangled in goopy mascara. Hey man, you croaked, can you help us out? We’re trying to score some booze. They laughed at you—throaty, coughing, spitting laughter. The man who thought you were beautiful came closer until his face was right next to yours. His bloodshot eyes were green with flecks of brown, his red stubble blended into a rash. On his upper right cheek was a faded tattoo of an Asian symbol that looked like it had been drawn on with a ballpoint pen, probably in prison, you thought.

He wrapped his spindly long fingers around your face. Somehow they were sweaty and cold at the same time. The nails were bitten down to splinters leaving rounded nubs that dug into your baby fat cheekbones while his sickly sour breath puffed on your round freckled face. You had never felt such intimacy, to be so close to a man, his lips an inch from yours, like a romantic movie or a nature documentary where the big cat holds his captured prey in his jaw while they both gently writhe, one of them dying. Would he give you your first kiss? Or press a cold knife to your throat?

Breaking the silence, he said, Sure honey, I can do that for you, and patted your cheek like the good dog that you were.

You turned to face the girls, breaking into a heroic smile.

The streetlamp of a man came back from the liquor store with two six packs of Mike’s Hard Lemonade in double plastic bags. He tilted back an airplane shooter of vodka, said, I bought a little something for myself. You stared with disgust, watching him drown your hard-earned babysitting money. Asshole, you said to each other as you walked away, your heads tilted back, flinging your hair over your shoulders and lovingly calling each other you little slut.

After chugging a couple Mike’s in the woods behind the library, your pack shrieked and stumbled their way over the railroad tracks to Chad’s house in the nice suburbs. The light from the setting sun was glowing amber in the spaces between the beige houses and dewy lawns, casting shadows of apple trees and mailboxes that passed under your feet. You rang the doorbell, giggling uncontrollably. The boys stood in the doorway looking bored, annoyed even, that you interrupted their video games.

A pine staircase rose behind them, leading to spacious rooms with pearly white carpet. You had been inside a few times before and deeply wanted to be invited in again. Warm air and cinnamon potpourri hung in the air, permanently smelling of Christmas. Someday as a grown man Chad would return to this home, set his bags down, and take a deep breath of that soothing smell he’d come to miss so deeply. Or so you had imagined, so many nights under a pile of blankets, walking through the rooms of his house in your mind, touching his mother’s porcelain bunny collection, smelling the stack of freshly folded laundry, listening to the hum of the lawn mower. Reliving the sight of your own dirty socks on his white carpet.

Come play with us, you begged, but Chad’s mom was already calling them in for dinner. You’re no fun, you chastised, before he abruptly closed the door. The banter ceased, leaving you and your silence and the daytime birds saying to their young, Cheep cheep back to the nest, come eat your worms.

Through the large bay window in the front room, you could see them sitting down to the dinner table. You realized that even outside you could smell the garlic and onions steaming from the casserole. Were those rolls? They looked homemade. Without talking, you turned to walk down the street away from their house. As you proceeded down the sidewalk you could see all the houses on the street were turning their outside lights on too, calling their kids in for dinner. Bikes with tassels were left on the neighbor’s lawn, a basketball rolling around a driveway, still warm from play.

The temperature dropped as twilight approached. Your face felt stiff from all the makeup. Your stomach was full of squirming hungry worms, swimming and sloshing around in a pool of sugary alcohol. If only you could walk into one of these houses and lie down, you fantasized. Shivering, you imagined the quilt in your dead grandmother’s house with frayed patches worn from fingers groping the stitches. How good it would feel to have her weathered hands wrap you up again, saying Go to sleep in your cocoon my little butterfly.

It was a long way home, but you didn’t go that way. Instead, you headed toward the dark woods looming with uncertain creatures. Your arms heavy with plastic grocery bags, you barely spoke to the other girls. Onward you walked, into the forest like a watch of nightingales fluttering around in search of a nest.

Amy Miller lives in Asheville, North Carolina, with her husband and their two young boys. She enjoys hiking tall mountains, traveling, and writing short stories from the solitude of her laundry room.