Tag Archives: Sarah Hopkins

Sarah Hopkins


I swipe my gas card through the machine, and it makes an awful crunching sound, displaying a “DOES–NOT–SCAN” screen. I don’t want to go inside. I want to get to work and get the day all over with already. I turn around, leaning my arms over the bed of my pickup truck. Standing on the tip-toes of my oily work boots, I can squint into the smeared windows of the little shop connected to the gasbar.

“Mornin’ Miss,” the woman behind the counter says as I come inside. I nod at her, and I go over to lean my elbows against the counter, my ragged card in hand. There’s a circular, fish-eyed mirror in the corner of the ceiling, stretching out my body and making me look even stranger than I already feel, bending me sideways into a swirl, distorting my oversized coat, my muddy freckles and my long brown braids like tangled ropes. I look away from it.

“Heya,” I say, “My gas card isn’t reading. So, I came in here to see if you could just punch in the numbers or something.”

“Oh yeah, we can do that for you,” the woman replies, “Where’re you parked?”

I point out toward the window behind her.

“I’m in the pickup by eleven.” My truck is tough and red and beautiful, even though it’s filthy and is stuck with a bright orange buggy-whip on top. That’s just to make sure none of the big tankers or dump trucks flatten me by mistake. A work friend of mine, Johnny Angle, got one for me almost as soon as I moved here. He’s lived up here all his life, and he knows too many people who’ve been run down on the highway like accordioned safety cones.

“Aw, eleven’s been having some troubles with the cards,” the woman says. “Dunno why. You work in the tar sands? Over at PetroCorps?”

“Oh yeah,” I say, putting my hands in the front pockets of my jeans so that my wrists are leaning out of them.

“It’s kinda a boys club over there, isn’t it?”

I shrug my shoulders and reply, “Guess so. I mean, I work in an office mostly now. That’s where a lotta the girls wind up. You know how it is.” I used to work in an outpost of the Equipment House with Johnny, but I transferred out of it after he did. I didn’t like the way the new guys tried to look down my flannel shirts.

“Sure do. Those’re some tough wheels you got, though.”

“They’re good for driving in the snow, when winter really sets in. Not yet, though.”

“No, not just yet,” she says, ringing me up. “You have a good day, now.”

“Okay, then. You too.”

It’s a long drive from my hotel to the sands, almost forty minutes, but I keep the radio up, even though the music gets grainy and warbly after a while. It’s newly winter and everything looks dead. Everything at PetroCorps always looks dead, but everything everywhere else looks dead, too. The trees are reaching their spindly black fingers toward the murky white-gray sky. There’s frost on all the empty fields. I see a dark smudge on the horizon, and that’s how I know I’m going the right way. I follow that smog like it’s the North Star.

I drive straight through the front camps, made of shiny aluminum trailers, and I pull up to a gate to have my ID scanned. It’s on a lanyard around my neck, and I have to lean out of my pickup slightly so that the man behind the wicket can see who I am.

“Okay, then. Have a nice day, Miss Saunders,” he says.

“Will do.”

I park my truck outside a squat, lopsided building and I climb out. My hand jiggles a little bit as my wrist tries to balance the tray of coffee I bought on the way in. The naked piece of wooden pulp-board that ramps up to the door creaks as I walk over it. The office space is tight, with two metallic desks cramped into the receiving area, smashed between the wall and the windows.

“Morning, Peg,” says a woman behind the first desk.

“Morning, Donna,” I reply. Donna isn’t paying attention. She’s squinting at some sort of spreadsheet on her dusty, beige computer monitor.

“Come on now, finish up with that. I got Timmies,” I say, and I put a cup of coffee on her desk.

“Aw, thanks, Peggy,” she replies, “What would I ever do without you?”

I laugh politely. “Dunno.”

I circle to my own desk, which is backed up against the white plastic Venetian blinds. My fingers sweep over the surface, making clean furrows through the fine, black dust. The stuff is always on everything.

“Did you open the windows before I got here?” I ask, even though I know that she didn’t. The dust is always there, waiting for me whenever I return to the office. No matter how many Windex wipes I use, my desk never stays clean for longer than an hour. The dust comes in through the door, I’m pretty sure, with the people coming in and out. It was the same at the Equipment House. Those dark particles that Donna and I and everyone else swim in and swallow and breathe all day. Donna shakes her head no.

Before I can sit down, Harry Crain opens his adjoining office door, banging it against the shredder bin. He’s ten years older than Donna, and maybe twenty years older than I am. He must be in his early forties, with the salt-and-pepper stubble on his head and his face. He’s one of the Health and Safety Coordinators for the site.

“Health, Safety,” he says, pointing at each of us in turn. “Who wants to come with me to get some fresh air?” He bit those words and chewed them like a steak or a good joke. “I need someone to take notes on my walkabout today.”

“I’ll go,” I say, and I shrug my big, blue winter coat on. “I gotcha some coffee if you want, Crain.” I take a hardhat and an orange safety vest from the coat hooks near the door. “Where’re we headed?”

“Gonna take one of the golf carts up to the north side,” Crain replies, “Take a lookit some of the rigs, some of the tailings ponds. Wednesday stuff. You sure you don’t wanna come along, Don?”

Donna smiles from behind her computer monitor and says, “Thanks, but I’ve got some work to get done on my end. You need at least one secretary to hold the fort. Collect complaints.”

“Hah! That I do.”

Crain and I go back out the door, down the creaky wooden ramp again.

“Nice day out,” Crain says, putting his plastic safety goggles on even before we’ve taken ten steps. “Cold, but nice. Not gonna be very many nice days left no more.”


“But you’re headed home soon, aren’t you? For your two weeks?”

“Sure am,” I reply. It’s about four hours to the airport in Edmonton, but soon afterward I’ll be sitting in my childhood home in Thunder Bay, eating peanut butter and jelly and staring out over Lake Superior. That’s the way it is at PetroCorps. Four weeks on the job, two weeks off. Over and over again. I told some people back home about it, and they acted like I got some big holiday every month. It’s not like that, though. It’s a shit way to spend two years of your life.

“It’s a good thing,” I say, “Because I’m getting sick of driving all the way out here every morning.”

“Aw, please, won’t you move to the camps?” Crain says, “It’ll make your life so much easier. I mean, not those trailers on the way in, but a nice camp. There’s a new one now. Looks like a brand new motel, sitting out there on the edge of the pine woods. Got a cinema and a bar and everything. Even an indoor pool.”

“It’d just be me and three hundred smelly guys,” I reply. “And I don’t wanna live right next to the sands. It’d depress me too much.”

“Don’t depress me,” Crain says.

I laugh. “Well, you’re morbid already.”

Crain grins, and he says, “Besides, it’s a good break from the wife. And the money I’m saving don’t depress her neither.”

“PetroCorps gives me a stipend to pay for some of the hotel,” I point out.

“And they pay for your gas as well,” he replies. “They’re just throwing cash out the window, can’t spend it fast enough. Dunno what to do with it.”

“I like the gas card.”

“I like the money.”

Riding a golf cart through the PetroCorps oil sands is like riding on the back of a white mouse around the feet of a massive, metallic Rube Goldberg machine. It’s a gigantic, sprawling jungle gym of bars and barbs and pipes and tar. At night, it looks like a city, with all the yellow and green safety lights turned on. The Cronenbergian contraptions and industrial machines are suddenly skyscrapers, and the dump trucks and construction vehicles become rush hour traffic, buzzing around at the bottom. When it gets dark, I can squint and pretend that I’m in New York City, or Los Angeles, or Toronto. Or at least home in Thunder Bay. But it’s only midmorning now, and there’s not much fantasy that I can bring to cold sunlight and the grinding of dirt and black sand.

“It smells like shit,” I grumble as though that’s news, and I hold up one of my braids to my nose, trying to cover up the smell.

Crain spins the wheel on the buzzy, little golf cart, maneuvering it so that we narrowly miss a passing bulldozer. I clutch my empty Styrofoam coffee cup as though it’s my heart.

Uff-da, that was a close one,” he laughs. I try to laugh along with him as best I can.

We zip through the central processing facilities, which look like big, round silos, but are stuck through with pipes and cranes and workers in blue coveralls and coats, shouting instructions to one another. Crain catches me staring at a man who is wriggling through two different pipes near the top of one of the contraptions. Looking at him is like having that dream where you’re suddenly falling, over and over again.

“Had a man take a fall from there, few nights ago. Maybe you saw the paperwork?” Crain asks, his voice gentler than usual.

I’m not sure what to say for a moment, but I force a shrug and reply, “Didn’t read much. I glanced at it while I was handing it on. A First Nations guy, right?” Lots of Aboriginals work at the plant, since they’re about the only people who actually live in the area. PetroCorps loves to put them on the covers of their diversity pamphlets.

“He was,” Crain says. “I knew him. His son works here too. You ever met John Angle?”

My stomach twists, and I turn to look at Crain once more. “Yeah, I know him. He’s my age. I used to work in the Equipment House with him. Jesus H. He never said that his dad worked here, I don’t think. Should I…? I dunno what to do. Do you get him flowers or something?”

Crain shrugs. “Depends on how long it’s been since you last talked. Dunno if it’ll give him any comfort. Old Mr. Angle was stabbed. Impaled right through the chest. Wasn’t any sort of clean death, neither.”

Men in gray jumpsuits are shouting out to each other. I imagine their bodies being stuck through, skewered. I blink my eyes. “I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”

Crain nods as we go around a bend, and I hold the legal pad tight in my lap so that it won’t fall out.

“I’m sure John Angle doesn’t want to talk about it neither. Best to let him get on with his work, I think.”

Crain knows that it’s a slippery slope. I look down at the legal pad. You talk about one accident enough, and suddenly you’re talking about all the others.

We arrive near the northern open-pit mines. The open-pit mines at the oil sands look like the Earth, but turned inside-out. The north pit is massive, spreading like a dry ocean all the way to the grim horizon. It’s black and rocky, filled with construction vehicles grinding their gears and scratching at the gooey, dark scabs on the ground.

“This used to be all forests and lakes and stuff,” Johnny Angle used to say. I can remember it so well. The two of us in that little shack; him leaning his chair back at a dangerous angle to stare dreamlike at the pockmarked ceiling. “Not when I was a kid, but when my parents were kids.” He was wrong. It’s been like this forever. For longer than I’ve been alive. For longer than Crain’s been alive, even. The pits just yawn wider and grow older.

“We’re reclaiming them, though,” says Maxon Rhodes, the Sustainability Manager. Crain and I are standing on the edge of a pit, in the rocky ridge between the mine and its tailings pond. The tailings pond is a swamp full of poison, a wide lake of waste and ooze. Lumps of sand and tar residue float in the black water, and there are scaffolds built out over one of the banks from some halted construction project. The golf cart is parked far off, and I miss it. Every time I pull a foot up, the earth tries to suck it back down.

“Reclaiming the pits?” I ask. My face must have looked quizzical. Rhodes points over my shoulder.

“No, the tailings ponds. Not these ones, of course, but the ponds to the south and east, they’re about thirty, thirty-five years old. And they’re ready to be…you know, natural land again.”

“That’s nice,” I say, sticking the legal pad under my armpit and stuffing my hands into the pockets of my coat. “Are they gonna be, like, parks or forests?”

“I think the company wants to put more camps on them, actually,” Rhodes replies. Crain laughs.

Rhodes nods over his shoulder, and he says, “Come and walk to the other side of the pond with me. I wanna show you the new radar machine. Keeps the birds away. I think it’ll work this time. And it won’t be annoying, like when we had those cannons.”

“Hated those cannons,” Crain replies. “Safety nightmare.”

The cannons always gave me nightmares. I would imagine these big, white birds being shot out of the sky, landing and sinking in the sludge. Even as we walk around the lip of the tailings pond, I’m winding one of my braids around my hand, trying to distract myself.

Rhodes takes us to a lopsided gray structure on the edge of the pond. I suppress a smile. It looks like it’s sending out a signal to any intelligent life forms floating above us in outer space. Rhodes points to the spinning blades on top, and then to the three flat, circular speakers. They’re quiet right now.

“But when a bird pops up on the radar, this speaker starts up and it makes the sound of an enemy bird. Like a falcon, or an eagle. If the bird doesn’t go away, it makes the sounds of a shotgun or the cannons or something. Then, if the bird still doesn’t go away, our third speaker plays a distress call from a similar bird, so that it thinks there’s something really dangerous here.”

That doesn’t sound entirely correct to me. I lean forward and say, “But if it hears another bird in trouble, wouldn’t it just try to find the bird and help it?”

Rhodes and Crain pause, staring at me, until Rhodes says, “Birds aren’t like people.”


We jump as the radar machine starts grinding out a cawing sound. Crain puts his hands over his ears. Rhodes lifts his head to the sky, looking for birds. He wants to show us how the machine can work. When I look up, I don’t see a bird. I see a man, standing on the edge of the four-story scaffold, right on the other side of the tailings pond. I see him hanging onto the bars. I see his arms shaking. It’s John Angle.

“Jesus Christ!” Crain says.

I drop the legal pad in the mud, but Rhodes scrambles to pick it up.

“What do we do?” he asks, looking at my scrawly notes as though they have the answer. “You’re Health and Safety, you two. What do we do?”

I am certainly not Health, nor Safety, but I turn away from Johnny for a moment to look at the two other men. “I gotta go get him,” I say, and the words feel like vomit as they come out of my mouth.

“What?” Crain says.

“I’m, I’m, I know him, you know. There’s no time…”

Crain looks out over my head and shouts out, “Don’t do it just yet, Johnny boy! Don’t you dare move a muscle!”

“You know him?” Rhodes says.

I wish we still had the golf cart. I hear Crain hiss out a curse as I start sprinting through the dirt. My hard hat is jostled from my skull and it falls into the tailings pond, getting sucked into the greasy slime below.

“Shit! Shit!

The automated, grainy falcon noise is screaming behind me, as I run in my puffy coat, the cold slapping my face. I close my eyes against the freezing wind, but all I see is the white bird, being slammed through by the warning cannon. I reach the bottom of the scaffold, and John Angle is looking down at me, confused. The falcon has morphed into the sound of gunshots. Soon it will be the wailing, injured distress call.


“Yes…Hello!” I have to shout at him over the sound effects. “Can I come up?”

He pauses for a moment, then says, “No. Of course not.”

“I’m sorry. I have to.”

“…Okay, then.”

I reach into the pockets of my coat, and I put my leather gloves on. I don’t want to touch the metal scaffold with my bare hands in the rough cold. Johnny’s hands are uncovered, and they look almost blue. I think about his dad, squeezing through the two pipes flights above the ground, as I shimmy through the shaky scaffolding toward him. What is it like to fall from that far? To be the bird plunging into the grimy pond?

“Don’t come any closer,” Johnny says as I reach the platform below him. “I don’t want you to grab for me and fall. Get outta here, Peg. Come on.”

“Which is it? Get out or come on?” I ask. “This is…this is my job. I work for Health and Safety now.” He’s not an idiot. He knows that this is definitely not in my skill set, let alone an aspect of my job. I do paperwork more than anything else. And I’ve never seen any paperwork about an attempted suicide at the sands.

“If you work there, you’re shit at your job, then,” he says, and he kicks some splinters down at me.

“Look, I didn’t want to bring this up, but I read about your dad—”

“This isn’t about that! Even if he hadn’ta got killed here, this place still woulda ate his life up. It’s eating mine up too. I want to go home. I want to go home.”

I don’t know what to say. This is his home. Johnny never lived at the camps. He only ever lived a half hour away, in a little house with his girlfriend and his mom. I wonder where they are right now. I remember a picture of them, stuck through with a thumbtack on the old corkboard.

“You can go home,” I say eventually. “It’s close. You can quit your job.” But where else could he get a new one? I could go home to Thunder Bay. Crain could go home to Edmonton. Johnny lives in PetroCorps’s backyard. “Please calm down, Johnny.”

He looks away from me, and he sets his jaw, saying, “No.”

I think I scream before he even jumps, and then he’s tumbling down into the tailings pond. Crain jumps in after him. By the time I’ve raced down to the bottom of the scaffold, Crain and Rhodes have pulled Johnny out of the pond. They’re all filthy with tar and mud, up to their shoulders. Johnny is screaming and writhing as Crain tries to hold him still. I see a part of his bone sticking out of his shin, and I feel even more nauseous than I was already.

“He broke his leg!” Rhodes says as though I can’t tell. “That’s okay. That’s okay, the emergency responders are already coming. I called them while you were running over, Miss Saunders.” His hands are shaking almost as much as mine are.

After the EMTs show up, and pull John Angle in a stretcher into their little PetroCorps ambulance, Crain and I stagger back to the golf cart. Crain takes his hard hat off and puts it on my head.

“You did a good job,” he says.

“Don’t,” I reply. “I coulda killed him. You’re the one who saved his life. I didn’t stop him from jumping. I didn’t know what to say. I’m not used to…talking about feelings here. You know? You spend so much time trying to bury stuff that—”

“Gonna be a hell of a lot of paperwork. And a hell of a long shower.”

I am quiet for what feels like a long time, before I give him what I know he’s looking for, and I force a strained, weak laugh. “Yeah. Listen. I think I’m going to take the rest of the day off. Early Release? Is that okay?”

He nods. “That’s okay.”

Crain tries to hug me when we get back to the bungalow, but it’s awkward and weird. I give him the hardhat and my orange safety vest to hang up inside.

“I’ll see you,” we say at the same time, before I turn and get back into my truck.

When I shut the door, I look into my rearview mirror and claw my hooked, dirty fingers through my two braids, unplaiting them and pulling them apart. They were giving me a headache anyway. I try to turn the radio on, but it’s all static by now. The gates open right up for me to drive out onto the long, wide highway back to the hotel. I steer around the trucks and bucket-wheel excavators like they are mountains, like I am the only one who’s moving in the whole world. After a half hour, I see the gas bar again, and I remember the chilly-looking beers in the freezer. Gotta be better than raiding the minibar in my hotel room.

“Oh, you’re back, Miss…” the woman behind the counter closes her eyes, like she’s trying to read my card from memory. “Margaret!”

“Call me Peggy, thanks,” I reply, putting a two-four box of Molson Dry between us.

“Rough day? I feel like I only saw you a few hours ago,” she says.

As I am nodding, I feel my head dip down, and I lean all of my weight on my elbows and the saggy two-four. It feels as though I am standing in the middle of a carousel, and the gas bar lady is spinning and spinning around me. She reaches out to touch me, and her hand is as cold as a brass ring.

“Kinda. Kinda rough,” I say. I pull out my tatty wallet and dig my fingers around in it. Johnny’s words are going around in circles too, spinning around me and spinning inside of me.

“I want to…I’m going home.”

“Time for your two weeks, then? That’s exciting.”

“No, I’m just…going home.”

She looks at me sideways, but she still smiles, and she even offers to help me carry the case to my truck.

“No need,” I say, “Strong arms.”

“See you!” she calls after me.

“See you,” I echo before I even realize I’m doing it.

I had intended on stopping back at the hotel, on getting the rest of my clothes and things, but it passes on by and I don’t even pause to look at it. I imagine the bottles of beer clinking in the bed of my truck as I speed along, away from the smog-stain in the sky. I’ve got twenty-four hours ahead of me, and nothing at all behind.

Flickering >>

Sarah Hopkins is a senior English (literature) major at SUNY Geneseo. Sarah served as the fiction editor for Gandy Dancer issues 3.1 and 4.1, and her work appears in issue 3.2. In her spare time she loves to read, write, and rock out to podcasts. If she could be best friends with any fictional character, it would be Jean Valjean, bread thief.

Comments Off on Sarah Hopkins

Filed under Fiction

Sarah Hopkins

Galatea in Blue

Elsie, on the beach, in a plastic yellow raincoat, soaked in salt water. Arms spread out, face turned toward the pale sun. I can see myself writing it. Sitting with my computer in bed, at work, or in the coffee shop down the street. Her paper skin. Her inky blood. Her curling, adolescent blue hair, bluer than the dreary sky, bluer than the slate gray ocean before her.

“Else!” I call out to her. I’m leaning against the hood of my car, arms crossed, eyes narrowed. “We should get back—I can see lightning!”

And I can. When she turns around and looks at me, I can see it in the space behind her eyes. She kicks up wet sand around her.

“Well, I don’t hear anything,” she teases as her hair blows out in front of her, her wet ponytail tangling and whipping around in the salt breeze. The front of her white dress is soaked through and I can see her neon green bra, her soft stomach.

It is all a mistake, really. It is always a mistake to do what Elsie wants. Things like that get people like me in trouble. When I woke up to a text message from her begging me to pull her out of class, I should not have listened. After all, I had been Elsie-free for a month and change. I should not have called in sick to work. I should not have gone to pick her up at her high school, if only to see her run out the front doors looking almost like she’s happy to see me. I should have deleted her name from my phone and rolled over and gone back to sleep and never thought of her again.

But I am too much of an idiot for that. And by ‘that,’ of course, I mean ‘Elsie.’

“I should take you back to school,” I say as we climb back in the car. Rain pounds down on the windshield like a drum. “Don’t you have SATs to study for or something? They must be coming up for you.”

Elsie pinches the front of her wet dress with both hands, looking down through it, and she shakes her head. “I think this violates the dress code. Come on, let’s do something fun! You never want to do anything fun with me.”

“I should just take you home,” I admit, turning the key in the ignition. The engine stutters for a moment before the beat-up minivan comes back to life.

“My mom’ll kill me if I come home early looking like this,” Elsie whines, hugging her knees to her chest. “She’ll scream her head off, David, doesn’t that make you sad for me?”

In truth, I’m happy that she’s putting up such a fight. I hate to be apart from Elsie, but I also hate having to initiate any interaction with her. It always seems wrong, like seeing a raccoon in the daytime. Fortunately, Elsie is the type who will often show up at one’s doorstep unbidden. She’s so bright-eyed and innocent. I shouldn’t interrupt that.

“Well,” I say, chewing my lip for a moment. I don’t want to let her go. I have gotten into the habit of milking everything I can out of an Elsie day. “I guess we could just go get something to eat.”

Her smile is twisty and young. Her teeth are crooked with a little gap up front, but white and charming. Her wet hair sticks to the back of her neck, brown roots growing long through the blue, down to her ears. The windows match the drapes. Her eyes are brown too. Her spindly fingers with their chipped black nail polish button up the front of her raincoat to conceal her wet dress.

I pull up to a diner and she tumbles out of the car before I can go to open the door for her. I hope the other patrons will think that I’m her older brother. Or, I don’t know, her dad’s friend or something. It’s always hard to go out with Elsie, to feel so many eyes boring into the back of my neck.

“We should go to the mall later,” she says over pickles and coleslaw. “Some of the guys want to meet you. And then maybe we can do something else after that. And I need you to buy me a new bowl.”

“What happened to your old one?” I ask, wanting to know what had become of my previous investment.

She laughs and goes on to tell a story about some person named “Bones.” I can’t remember who Bones is, really, but I know he’s a member of Elsie’s ever-increasing cast of characters. She’s behaving as though I know him. She’s probably introduced me to him once, pulled poor Bones to the side of a party or a concert or a rave to meet her famous friend. He might be tall, with black hair and even blacker lipstick. Or he could be the one with the bike leathers and the crossed-out tattoo of his ex’s face on his shoulder blade. They both seem like they could maybe be called “Bones.”

“They love your book,” Elsie says. A lot of people love my book. It doesn’t mean they understand it.

“Who? Bones?”

She laughs and replies, “No, the guys we’re meeting at the mall. Seth and Rainbow and Tyler and all them. They think you’re like William fucking Burroughs or something. It’s kind of hilarious.”

I grin at my waffles and demur, saying, “Well, that’s flattering. I’d rather be Jack fucking Kerouac though.”

“Rainbow wants to get you to sign her arm. Then she’s gonna tattoo it. She’s got a collection. She’s got all sorts of people.”




Elsie laughs again, putting her tongue between her teeth. “She like, jizzed herself when I told her I knew you.”

I want to ask her if that was why she had called me this morning, after nearly a month and a half of silence. So that her friends could get my autograph. I don’t say anything. I just tip the waitress a little less. It doesn’t make me feel any better, but I suppose it was worth a try. Sometimes you have to communicate frustration. But other times, in my opinion, it is more helpful to simply punish the universe around you for the crime of being unhelpful. Unentertaining. Unfulfilling. Get the sunlight to bend toward you instead of having to twist yourself toward it.

The fat waitress waves us off as we head back to my car. Elsie gets in front of me, walking backwards over the cracked asphalt of the parking lot. She squints at my stormy expression.

“What’s wrong with you?” she asks.

I skirt around her to unlock my door. “Your friends won’t like me,” I say. I know I’m falling back on my bad habit of self-pity, but I can’t help myself. “I’m not who they think I am. I haven’t written anything good since I was like, twenty. I’m a one-hit wonder.” If I actually put out what was in my head, they wouldn’t even understand it. My mind is a labyrinth, a puzzle box that not even I have the power to solve. No one could even imagine the complexity I possess.

“Oh my God, suck it up,” she says, laughing at my expense. “You sound like such a pussy.”

“I am a pussy,” I reply, and I smile in spite of myself.

We don’t talk much on the way to the mall. She puts her feet up on my dashboard, and I see that she has drawn all over her faded red sneakers with a ballpoint pen.

She’s just a kid.

“What a gross day,” Elsie says. “It was so sunny this morning, too, that’s why I wanted to go down to the shore. Augh, look at the sky.”

I simply nod in response. I don’t look at the sky. I look at the road ahead. It’s getting congested—a mixture of bad weather and the prelude to rush hour. I wish I had stayed in bed for a moment, but Elsie’s presence beside me is comforting. Even though I could never reach across to hold her hand, the physical possibility of interaction with her is good enough.

Elsie’s friends are waiting for us in front of the mall’s movie theatre, right near where we first met each other. The memory makes me smile.

A movie theatre is a temple. It is where we all gather to hold hands and examine our place in the universe. And it is where I go to sleep. My whole life, I’ve never been able to sleep without the television on, and for a long time after they turned my magnum opus into some god-awful romantic comedy, I found myself falling asleep in the back of movie theatres as well. It was like being hypnotized out of hysteria, it was like crying on the subway, it was sleep-catharsis. To say the least, it was a bad habit.

And a gateway drug to Elsie.

I had fallen asleep during an anniversary screening of Pretty Woman. I remember her thin, pale hand reaching down to my shoulder and shaking me.

Hey, wake up.

I wondered why she was alone too. Why she was like me. Like a teenaged version of myself that was somehow not horribly depressing. Or horribly embarrassing. I stammered out an apology and she said I could repay her by giving her a ride home. Her father was a cop and he was dead and her mother was a bitch and she was still at work.

I decided to repay her off-putting honesty with a truth of my own. I told her who I was, and she wrote my number on her arm with a pen that she borrowed from me. I hate those numbers. I hate that pen. I love that arm.

One of Elsie’s friends—the short one—scratches his own arm and throws his cigarette to the ground. The girl with red hair grinds it under her toes. The tall one is holding an umbrella.

Elsie introduces us.

The tall one is Seth. The girl is Rainbow. The short one is Tyler. I am David Fallow.

Nice to meet me.

“I can’t believe this!” Rainbow says as we get inside. The mall, a relic from the eighties, is mostly empty of people, even though it’s a stormy day. It’s made of concrete and dirt and linoleum, and it smells like perfume and sweat. “I’ve wanted to meet you like my whole life. I thought you would be older, I don’t know why. Maybe ’cause you wrote a whole book.”

I am old. Too old, that is.

Rainbow is much fatter than I anticipated, not as alluring as the girl that my mind had conjured up: the rainbow spirit who was lithe-limbed and rosy, with a sleeve of names on her arm. The kind of girl I imagined hung out with Elsie.

“I’m, uh, twenty-seven. I wrote the book when I was just a little older than you, actually. That’s probably why I’ve retained my, er, youthful glow.”

Rainbow laughs. Elsie doesn’t. She’s heard this joke before. And she’s never even read my book. I wouldn’t want her to, anyway.

Elsie is someone to be written about, not someone who should read.

“So what are you working on right now?” Seth asks eagerly. “Is it another book?”

Yes and no. I tend to think of all my interactions with Elsie as “working on another book.” But I haven’t managed to get much on paper.

“I’m a staff writer for Ace Crime Bot. On NBC.”

I can see the excitement fade from Rainbow’s eyes. I’m not some Aspergian hipster god. I sold out. I’m just like all the rest of them. Fuck, I’m not even the show runner. I’m just a guy who sits with twelve other guys around a table, saying, “Maybe there should be more crimes.”

“Do you work in the city?” Tyler asks.

“…Long Island City, actually.”

It goes on that way for some hours, with them gradually becoming less and less interested in me until I fade into the background. At one point, Rainbow pulls up her sleeve to show off all the names written all over her arm like spider webs.

“Oh,” I say, looking at an autograph on her fat upper arm, pink and bumpy like chicken skin. “I like Zach Braff.”

“Yeah,” she says, the timbre of her voice becoming bored and far away. All right. I guess she’s bored with me. I’m bored with her too.

“So, uh, did you want me to sign it?” I ask, unsure of how she wanted to go about the situation.

She shrugs, which is not very flattering, and says, “Yeah, whatever. Probably later.”

Elsie tries on a dress made of blue lace, like her hair. We all admire how it hugs to her slim, perfect body. The sheer sleeves, the gold zipper. One of her red tennis shoes turns in toward the other as she grins at her reflection in the mirror. I watch her soft white hands smooth down her front. She’s probably imagining herself older, at a grown-up party, with a glass of wine in hand. She’s being hugged to the side of someone smart and attractive. Laughing at his stories. Smiling and listening to what he has to say. Turning her head intimately toward his ear. Everyone else looking at him and envying the smartly-dressed young woman on his arm. Oh, this is Elsie Pierglass. Isn’t she charming? Even more charming behind closed doors.

“It’s too bad that it’s so much money,” Rainbow says. “This is why you can’t try on shit that’s over a hundred.”

Elsie nods, saying, “I know,” before biting her bottom lip and retreating back into the dressing room. I stand by a display of half-off tees and watch the gap between the door and the carpet. Her small socked feet slip out of her shoes and the dress slides down her body and then her legs before she has to bend and reach a slender, bare arm toward the ground to pick it up again. I set my teeth.

“Shit,” I say as we are leaving the store a few minutes later. “I left my keys in there. You guys go ahead, I’ll catch up with you in a second.”

Elsie waves me off as Tyler and Seth collectively shrug. They don’t even notice that I have another shopping bag with me when I catch up with them fifteen minutes later.

I go back and forth over when the best time to give her the dress would be, but I figure that I should do it when we are alone.

That’s more special.

“All right,” Elsie says, patting my arm and disturbing my train of thought. “Well, I’ll see you around, David!”

“Wait, you’re going off with them?” I say, and I take a half step toward her. I realize that I’m leaning over her slightly, but that’s probably just because of our height difference. “You don’t want me to give you a ride?”

Rainbow frowns. I realize that she has never actually asked me to sign her arm.

“I’m fine,” Elsie says. She reaches forward to pat my arm, like she’s calming down a wild animal. “Seth has a car. So I’m gonna go.”

“I, uh, wanted to drive you home, that’s all. I just…’cause I have a surprise for you.”

“Well, what is it?” Elsie asks, grinning.

Rainbow rolls her eyes and says, “We’ll just meet you in the car, Else.” She and the two boys make a quick exit. Elsie turns to me, her eyebrows raised.

I hold the bag out to her and she takes the paper loops in both her hands, looking inside.

“…Oh,” she says. I had expected her to pull out the dress and twirl around with it hugging the front of her body. Instead she closes the bag and looks up with the sort of sad smile that goes right through me. “Oh, David. You didn’t have to…you really didn’t have to do this. Um, why did you do this?”

“You just, I saw that you liked it so much, but you couldn’t, um, afford it. So I bought it for you. It’s not a big deal for me, or anything. It’s yours. That dress belongs to you, it really does. I didn’t want anyone else to, er, to have it.”

“Oh, cool. That’s…that’s very nice of you. I’ll, uh, see you around, Dave.”

I say goodbye to the back of her head.

1 2 >

<< The Ballad of Summer '72  Mr. Davey, President of the World >>

Comments Off on Sarah Hopkins

Filed under Fiction