Little Girl Gone – Chapter 5

Reprinted with the permission of Grand Central Publishing.

Copyright © 2011 by Drusilla Campbell. All Rights Reserved.

Chapter 5

(Click here to read Chapter 1)

(Click here to read Chapter 2)

(Click here to read Chapter 3)

(Click here to read Chapter 4)


Little Girl Gone Cover

Willis left to deliver the baby to the attorney, and Madora walked across the dusty yard back to the trailer. On top of a plastic basket full of clean sheets, blankets, and towels, she carried a thermos of chicken noodle soup. At the curbside door of the trailer she put the basket down and returned to the house for soap and a bucket of warm water. Back and forth, Foo tagged along behind her, his stubby tail aquiver with interest. The curbside door was padlocked and Madora’s hands were sweaty with frustration before she got the combination right; it broke apart, and she opened the narrow door to a rush of close, unpleasant air. She jammed the door wide with a stick and brought everything in and set it on the table where Linda ate her meals. Foo watched outside, longing to be invited in, though he never had been.

Madora looked at the girl in the bed, at the mess of bloody sheets and towels Willis had left to be cleaned up. She had an impulse to turn around and walk out the door, lock up, and pretend there had never been a girl named Linda, no baby boy with deepwater blue eyes.

Madora had begged Willis to take Linda to the hospital, reminding him that she was only sixteen, a teenager with slim hips and a flat, boyish figure; but he had been confident, even cocky, about how easy it would be to deliver the baby in the trailer. To everything she said, he had the same reply: “Childbirth is easy. If it was hard, the human race would have died out by now.”

Perfectly still, Linda rested on her side facing the interior side of the trailer’s roll?up door. Her pale hair, darkened by sweat, lay against her neck and shoulders as if painted on. For a moment, Madora wondered if Willis had taken the baby and left her with a dead girl.

“Linda? You okay?” She was afraid to touch her.

Linda turned her head on the pillow. Purple shadows encircled her eyes, making her milk-?white face look almost clownish. A pulse ticked in one lid of her half-?shut eyes, rimmed red-?orange.

She tried to speak, but her words were barely discernable, a groggy, undifferentiated burr. It didn’t matter what she meant to say. Madora took the meaning. The girl’s pain and grief and fear, her shame, and even her rage came into Madora’s consciousness like the shock of a gunshot fired close to her head. She dropped to her knees beside the bed, trembling, and spoke without thinking.

“He’s beautiful.”

“A . . . boy?”

“Oh, God, Linda, I’m so sorry.” Willis had not even shown her the child. “He should have . . .”

Madora stopped herself from saying more. It felt dangerous to criticize Willis.

Linda gripped Madora’s wrist, digging her bitten nails between the tendons.

“It’s too late.” Madora shook her head. “He’s gone. Willis took him an hour ago.”

Linda’s eyes widened, as if it wasn’t enough to hear the words; she needed more light to see the truth on Madora’s face.

“I couldn’t stop him.” And she had not tried because she believed that the baby was better off with the lawyer’s clients than with Linda, a homeless girl, a panhandler.

Madora wouldn’t bother washing the sheets, just bundle them and put them in the trash; and if Willis said that was wasteful, he could try himself to get the blood out. She imagined how it would feel to speak so boldly to him. Then stopped herself. Even imagining was dangerous, for she might become so comfortable in her own opinions that one day she would forget and speak them aloud.

“I hurt . . .”

“You’ll be okay. When Willis gets back he’ll give you some more pain meds. And then you just have to heal.”

Linda dug into her wrist again. “Shower . . .”

Linda was never supposed to leave the trailer without Willis. He told Madora that a pregnant girl needed exercise, so he occasionally took Linda for walks up to the ridge overlooking Evers Canyon. Sometimes they even went for drives: Madora behind the wheel of the big Chevy Tahoe; and Linda, blindfolded for the first ten or fifteen miles, leaning against Willis in the backseat, her arm through his and her head on his shoulder. Willis toyed with Linda’s fair hair, twisting it around his index finger. Seeing them paired this way, Madora felt a stab of jealousy, though she knew there was nothing sexual between them. The single time she had let jealousy get the better of her good sense and mentioned sex, Willis was appalled and withdrew from her as if she had struck him. Later, when he could talk about his feelings, he told Madora that he was attached to Linda as a brother would be, and she believed him.

On the hikes and car trips that were Linda’s reward for being cooperative, she only once made trouble.

They had driven over the mountains into the Anza-?Borrego Desert to see the wildflowers that were bountiful after a wet winter and spring. Near the poppy preserve they had turned off the road and driven a few hundred feet to a roundabout where there were no other cars. Where a trail followed a wash, acres of orange-gold poppies bloomed on either side, interrupted here and there by pools of blue lupine. The air buzzed with the business of bees. Madora had thought for an instant of her father and the care with which he and Rachel had tended the gardens behind the house in Yuma, vegetables in the middle and flowers on all four sides. Lost for a moment in her memory, she had relaxed her grip on Linda’s hand; and when she did, the girl broke away from her and ran back toward the road, yelling for help, though the desert was as empty as a scoured pan. She was seven months pregnant then and unsteady on her feet, a toddler easy to catch; and Willis had laughed at her clumsy effort and let her get as far as the road before he ambled after her. But back in the car he was ominously silent as he bound her feet and hands with plastic zip ties.

“I’m not an unkind man, Linda.” In the rearview mirror Madora saw his dark eyes, drooping with grief. “I thought you’d like a little trip, a chance to see something beautiful. I guess I was wrong. I guess I don’t know you at all, Linda.”

Through the Tahoe’s tinted windows he stared out at the barren mountains as Madora drove up the Montezuma Grade.

“I took you off the streets. You were pregnant, hungry—”

Madora saw such pain and disappointment in his expression that she almost stopped the car. She wanted to slap Linda silly for making this good man unhappy, for being too stupid to realize that without him she would be lying dead somewhere.

Although it was against Willis’s rules, Madora knew it would be safe to take Linda into the house for a shower. She was too weak to run away. Willis had said he’d be working an extra shift at Shady Hills Retirement Home when he finished his business with the attorney and not to expect him before six or seven that night.

Madora handed her a clean sheet. “Wrap this around yourself and then stand next to me. I’ll help you walk.” She folded a cotton dish towel and tied it as a blindfold.

By the time they reached the house, Linda was bleeding. Maybe from inside, maybe the stitches. Madora didn’t know about such things. A trail of blood followed them into the bathroom.

“Stand in the shower, lean against the side, but don’t turn on the water.”

It might not be safe for her to shower if she was bleeding. Possibly she shouldn’t even be standing.

“You’re not going to pass out, are you? I can’t carry you back to the trailer, and if Willis—”

“I . . . can . . . Okay.”

Once upon a time in another life Madora had fallen out of a tree and torn a gash in her forearm. A doctor with a tiny anchor tattooed between his index and middle fingers had stitched it up and told her to keep it dry. That night her mother had covered it with a plastic bag so she could take a shower. A plastic bag didn’t seem feasible under the circumstances, but Linda had to be cleaned up; Madora knew that. And the stitches should probably be kept dry. She was in the realm of guesswork now, going on instinct enhanced by her desire—her need—to help Linda because she owed it to the baby to care for his mother. She felt connected to the girl now, as if through the boy they were related.

She ran back to the trailer and got one of the sanitary napkins Willis had left there. In the kitchen she tore a clean plastic bag from a roll and cut two long strips about ten inches wide, not an easy thing to do until she figured out a way to pull the plastic against the sharp edge of the scissors. In the bathroom Linda stood in the shower stall, resting her forehead against one metal side. Madora handed her the napkin.

“Put this between your legs,” she said and then helped Linda cover the pad with the plastic strip and tie it to another strip that went around her waist. “Now put your hand over the pad and don’t let it move. You gotta keep the stitches dry.”

Showering was a slow process, turning the water on and off, filling the bucket, gently soaping the girl’s long legs and rinsing away the blood and sweat and other fluids from her thighs, sponging beneath her arms and under her small breasts.

“Can you bend over a little? I’ll wash your hair.”

Linda was fair-?haired but her baby was dark. His hair might fall out and grow back blond. Somewhere Madora had learned this often happened. His new parents might not want a blond baby. They would be disappointed. Her stomach tightened. She could not bear that his new parents—Whoever they were—would be anything but thrilled by him. She wanted them to love him in the way she wanted to be loved herself. Completely, without qualifications, forever and ever.

She dried Linda carefully and gave her another napkin to stanch the blood and a pair of her own panties, which hung on the girl like bloomers. She hoped the stitches were still good, prayed the bleeding would not go on and on. She could clean up the blood on the floor and shower stall, but Willis would be suspicious if he saw torn stitches. He would guess that Linda had been out of the trailer. She hadn’t seen much, just the inside of the shower. Not enough to identify where she was being held.

That evening while Willis showered and changed, Madora stood at the stove stirring the Dennison’s chili, listening to the drum of water against the sides of the shower, dreading that Willis would see a drop of blood she’d missed or a long silver-?blond hair caught in the drain. The shower sounds stopped and she heard the whir of the hair dryer. A few minutes later Willis came into the kitchen wearing a pale blue shirt that looked beautiful against his olive skin. He wore his hair long and loose, held back by a bandana around his forehead. After five years, his beauty still struck her as hard as it had that first night. He was a buzz-?cut Marine back then, a Marine medic she mistook for her guardian angel. When he took her hand, she had asked him, “Did Daddy send you?” And he answered that he had, though later he said it didn’t happen that way.

“You were so out of it, Madora. You couldn’t put two words together.”

“I like that shirt,” she said, handing him a beer from the refrigerator. She waited for him to tell her where he’d bought it, but he didn’t want to talk, and as always, she took her cues from him. She laid a spoon and paper napkin on a plastic mat, a souvenir of Arizona with a photograph of a lightning storm over the Grand Canyon. He sat down and crumbled a handful of saltine crackers into the chili bowl.

“Some avocado or something’d be nice here. You got any cheese?”

“We’re out of everything. I can go to the market tonight.” There was a used-?book store in Arroyo that stayed open until ten. On the rare occasions when she went into town alone, she liked to stop there and browse through old magazines; but it had been many weeks since Willis let her use the car alone, and she was not sure how to approach the subject with him.

He said, “I’ll bring stuff home tomorrow. Make me a list but not too long. I’m running short.”

“Did the lawyer pay you?”

“You think I drove all the way to Carlsbad for my health?”

She ducked her head.

“I’m going to medical school. You forget that? It’s going to cost plenty. We need to save every penny.”

“I know that, Willis.”

“Sure you do. You’re a good girl, Madora.” He pushed his chair back and pulled her down onto his lap. “You took care of things for me. I knew I could trust you.”

She laid her head against his shoulder and inhaled the musky scent of his aftershave.

“I couldn’t get along without you, Madora. You know that, don’t you? You’re like the air I breathe.”

The scent and the caress of his voice spread a soft warmth through her.

“Let’s go in the other room, okay?” He lifted her into his arms. She waited for him to say something about the weight she’d gained, but he held her as easily as he would a child. “I don’t think I can go another minute without a piece of you, little girl.”

“What about—?”

“Her? Forget about her. That one’s not going anywhere.”

It was almost midnight when Madora slipped from bed and pulled on a cotton shift. Holding her sandals, she closed the bedroom door against the sound of Willis’s soft snores and went into the kitchen. As she passed through the living room, Foo jumped off the couch and romped toward her, one ear flopping lopsidedly, his backend twisting in anticipation of his delayed dinner. Madora poured kibble into his bowl and put it down for him. She turned on the carport light and went outside to check on the animals in the menagerie. When she reached in to give the hawk-?shocked rabbit a handful of pellets, the terrorized creature cringed against the far end of the cage.

She walked behind the house and let herself into the trailer. Foo obediently lay on the ground by the cinder-?block steps. The interior of the trailer was inky, and Madora used a flashlight to see her way to Linda’s bedside.

The girl lay on her back, her clean hair tangled on the pillow. Sleeping soundly thanks to the pills Willis had given her when he got home from work. Faint lines etched her forehead, and Madora was touched by a wistful sadness. A girl of sixteen should have a silky, unfurrowed brow. As she slept, she seemed to chew on something and dreams danced beneath her swollen eyelids. Imagining that she dreamed of pain and of the baby she had never seen, Madora’s sorrow grew to an ache that spread through her body.

Poor unlucky girl. Madora knew what it meant to be young and lost, frightened of everything and pretending to fear nothing.

She filled a plastic water bottle from the jug on the table and placed it where Linda could reach it. She locked the trailer again and walked back to the house, meaning to return to bed; but she was wide-?awake and taut with emotion. At such a time she would have liked to have a TV, but theirs had stopped working months ago; and though Willis said he would fix it or buy a new one, he did not like to be reminded. A radio would have been company, but reception at the head of Evers Canyon was all static.

The night was long, the day ahead even longer.

She looked in on Willis. He slept soundly, needing his sleep more than she did. He had another full day ahead of him, a few hours at Shady Hills Retirement and then visits to the private clients who doted on him and told him he had a healer’s touch and should be a doctor, not simply a home care provider.

The house smelled of the day’s heat and chili and dog. She couldn’t draw a full breath and went back outside. Overhead, the moon was only a sliver; but far from city lights, stars illuminated the landscape enough to see by. Madora walked around the front of the house and leaned against the Tahoe, thinking of nothing much. Her mind was empty, a bucket under a spigot waiting to be filled.

Red Rock Road came to a dead end marked by a pair of posts and a reflecting sign of a vehicle with a red line drawn through it. Starlight dusted the miles of wilderness that lay beyond, turning rock and soil and scrub to pewter. Madora made a soft kissing sound, and Foo followed her up the trail to the rock that water and erosion had carved a seat in. Standing on his hind legs, Foo pestered to be lifted, and she arranged herself so she could hold him on her lap.

Behind the trailer, an owl lifted out of a sycamore near the creek and cast a shadow along the trail as it flew silently into a scrub oak near Madora. The night was full of hunters.

Linda was sixteen, younger than Madora had been when Willis rescued her. She was seventeen when she left Yuma with him; and if he was sometimes strange, if there were parts of him as tightly padlocked as the trailer, she accepted these things because his quirks and eccentricities were the price she paid for being loved and for being sure that at the end of the day he would always come home to her. He needed her as much as she did him; he had made that clear on a day she tried not to remember but could not forget.

In a motel in Yreka, he sat on the edge of the bed and pressed a pistol against his ear, a pistol she did not know he owned. There had been a job he wanted, orderly in a hospital, good pay and more responsibility than an aide; but something went wrong and he got drunk and came home raving and crying. He made her swear she would never leave him, and she had done so willingly. How could he doubt her? He said he’d die without her; without her he wouldn’t want to live. And in response she said that she was nothing without him either. He had rescued her.

Since that night nothing had changed until today when she held Linda’s small boy, and they looked into each other’s eyes. She had seen all that he was meant to be and do, the wealth of opportunities that lay before him; and he had looked into her heart brimming with love and known her in a way no one else ever had, not even Willis. There had been a click of recognition between them; and because of it, she was different than she had been twenty-?four hours ago.

Chapter 6 of Little Girl Gone will be posted January 24!

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Reprinted with the permission of Grand Central Publishing.

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