One day it was summer, and the next it wasn’t. That’s how Ariel Joffrey knew she wasn’t a kid anymore. Once she started asking herself, “Where did the time go?” it became a hard fact: her childhood was history. Everything else suggesting the contrary—her cherubic face, her short stature, her enduring occupation of her parents’ spare bedroom—was just a matter of opinion. Things had gotten so adult for her, in fact, that she couldn’t even remember the last time she injured herself. The jacarandas had been in bloom, so she had to have bitten off the tip of her index finger sometime in April. That was seven months ago. Her accidents were getting fewer and farther between. Life governed by congenital insensitivity to pain seemed to be behind her.
Though never too far behind.
“How’s your tummy?”
Ariel switched the phone to her other ear and fell back onto her bed. “It’s fine, Mom.”
“No fever, no screaming shits, no nausea. Therefore no appendicitis.”
“Ugh, I wish you wouldn’t talk like that. Are you sure you’re okay there all by yourself?”
“I’m literally down the hall. If I need anything, all I have to do is sneeze.” She smiled as she said it, but her grin didn’t translate into words and she immediately regretted the insolent tone.
“You’re right, hun. Sorry.”
Mom meant well, but her stifling concern only served to tighten the lid on the glass jar that had held Ariel captive for most her life. Sooner or later she was going to have to wake up and smell the coffee: Ariel was growing up in this big, bad world full of hot plates and toothpicks and staircases and doing a damn good job of it considering she couldn’t feel the difference between a pinch on the ass and a poke in the eye.
“You have work in the morning?” Mom asked.
“Bright and early.”
“What time do you want me to wake you?”
This time the smile did trickle through to her words. “I have my own alarm, thank you very much!”
Mom laughed. “Well, you could’ve used some backup yesterday morning. Don’t think I didn’t see you peel outta here by the seat of your pants, missy.” She was right; Ariel had binge-watched Breaking Bad until three in the morning. Again. “But you know what, I think you could be late every day and Charlene wouldn’t care. She just thinks the world of you.” If anyone knew what someone else was thinking, it was Mom. It wasn’t that she was psychic—though Ariel sometimes wondered—as much as she was so interested in other people’s lives that she’d become an intuitive genius. No facial expression was secret; no shrug or tick stood a chance. And certainly no lies got past those eyes. Dad didn’t stand a chance when he came home from a night with the boys (or the girls, though that only happened once, and Mom and Dad since reconciled).
“According to you, everyone thinks the world of me.”
Mom’s voice was smiling. “Everyone that matters, anyway. Goodnight my dear.”
It was true; people thought Ariel was amazing (though they stood back a ways from her when they said so, as if her affliction were catchy). And as they air-kissed her and well-wished her and asked her if she had an Instagram account they could follow because her story was just so unbelievable, she took it all in with a grain of salt because nothing ever came of these acquaintances. It had always been that way; people coming and going into and out of her life, meeting her and discovering her disorder with a mixture of wonder and revulsion. Sooner or later they all ended up hitting the road after the novelty wore off. Truth be told, it was no skin off her nose. If people liked her for who she was, great. Otherwise, they could blow it out their poop shoot.
She hadn’t started out so empowered. Life was rough—especially for Mom and Dad, who had been blindsided with a bizarre diagnosis when their teething infant didn’t even cry after biting off the tip of her tongue—but for Ariel, the real trouble started in sixth grade. That was when kids stopped asking her if she was superhuman and started asking if she was human at all. Instead of puberty and cliques, sixth grade was punches and kicks meant to test the rumors that she couldn’t feel pain. It was the kind of crap one would expect from 11-year-old boys with a crush, only the other girls didn’t get kicked in the shins until their tibias broke; they got asked to the spring fling dance.
Despite the bullying, Ariel had managed to swing a pretty normal existence at Luneta Beach Middle School. She would never have dreamed of running away from home if it hadn’t been for that damn toothpick. If she had the chance to do it over again, she wouldn’t have gone to school that day at all. As a matter of fact, there had been talk of a medical leave for the week after her hospital stay. Ariel’s ears had pricked up at the idea of lounging on the couch while her bullies scrambled for another victim, but Dad wouldn’t have it. “You see these stars on my uniform, kiddo?” he asked. “I didn’t get to be chief of police by running away from the bad guys.” So even though they had called her “Mummy Girl” and thrown sand in her face the last time she came to school wrapped in bandages, even though on that June morning she still sported a bandage around the fresh scar where the swallowed toothpick had abscessed her windpipe, Dad still all but shoved her out of the house, lunchbox and all, because “those little shits don’t own you, do they?” And because she couldn’t argue with him (it would have meant no video games for at least a week), Ariel did as she was told and went to school.
For the most part, she survived.
That gloomy Monday in June, in the year America elected its first Black president, Big Bully Sean Ziegler was out sick, and his cronies were not nearly as antagonistic in his absence. As the school day sans bullying progressed, people came up to Ariel—cool people, even—to ask about her surgery. It didn’t take long for a crowd to gather at recess to ask questions that had probably been on their minds for weeks:
“You swallowed a toothpick?”
“Didn’t you realize it?”
She shrugged. “I guess I’m just kinda stupid.” When everyone laughed and stuck around to hear how the toothpick found its way back out of her throat, it suddenly clicked for her that stupid girls made friends a hell of a lot easier than sick girls. So she gave them more of what they wanted. “If you think that’s dumb, I also swallowed a shark tooth once.”
“Oh my God, really?” Tara Barnett asked. “That’s, like, super retarded, but also kinda awesome.” It was a little insulting, but as long as Tara and her friends were still entertained, Ariel wasn’t complaining. It wasn’t her proudest moment, but it ended with an invitation to hang out with the cool girls after school, and to a lonely sixth grader, that was worth all the tea in China. Tara and the rest of the Monkey Bar Mafia monopolized the jungle gym for hours after school, and Ariel had had her eye on those horizontal bars ever since Mom told her they were off limits. Words couldn’t describe how it felt to finally sit up on the jungle gym, seven feet above the sandbox, white knuckling the bar under her butt. The sky was bluer up there. The air was cleaner, and if she wasn’t mistaken, she detected a faint scent of cotton candy on the breeze. Everything hunky-dory until Tara started practicing her back flips. And because Tara Barnett never did anything alone, her entourage quickly followed suit.
(monkey see, monkey do)
Her consigliere had a little trouble on the dismount, but everyone still applauded Cassie Calhoun’s effort.
“Sucks you couldn’t go to practice yesterday. We covered dismount again,” Tara said.
Cassie rolled her eyes. “She made me clean the toilet instead.”
“I’m sorry, but your step mom is a total bitch.”
The Dotson twins flipped down in unison from their shared bar and landed in a perfect 10 that Tara appeared to purposefully, if not contemptuously, ignore. Instead, she turned to Ariel. “You can do it, can’t you? I mean you’re allowed to?”
“Pfft, of course I’m allowed.” She didn’t know which was scarier: telling Mom she’d done it, or telling Tara Barnett she didn’t know how.
“If I had your problem, my mom would probably cover me in bubble wrap and never let me out of the house,” Cassie the consigliere said.
“You wouldn’t need to go outside to get hurt. There’s a shitload of things inside the house that could kill you.”
“Nice to know.” Cassie’s words said so, but it didn’t seem like she appreciated the heads up.
“Mostly I have to worry about getting infections, cause I don’t feel fever or pain that goes with being sick.”
“Bor-ing,” Tara said. “We didn’t come out here for a science lesson, Mummy Girl.” Ariel’s heart fell into her stomach at the sound of that name again. She felt like she might fall onto the sand. Hoped she’d fall. Head first into that soft, deep sand. How deep was it, anyway? Maybe it would bury her deep enough for nobody to ever find her. So deep that—
“Sorry, I meant Ariel. Force of habit.”
“I said sorry,” Tara said. “Are you deaf, too?”
“No, I just can’t feel—”
The taller Dotson twin—the one that would go on to get her headgear caught in her sister’s boyfriend’s fly—pointed across the soccer field. “Hey, there’s Jordi Simpson. I heard he smokes.”
Tara rolled her eyes. “Duh, he has since like, fifth grade.”
“Did you want to try?”
“I dunno. What do you think, Mummy—I mean—Ariel?”
She’d never smoked a cigarette before. It couldn’t hurt. She laughed inwardly at the irony and when she was done, turned to her new friends, who were staring at her with the same look you give a maniac who laughs for no reason. So much for inward laughter. “Sure, okay.”
The girls on the ground took up their backpacks and Tara waved Ariel down. “Come on, then!”
So she did, falling backward as the other four girls had done, gripping the bar under her butt as the other girls had done, and then losing her grip as her legs came over the horizontal bar. She felt nothing but a violent tug of her arm in the wrong direction and a gooey pop rattling up her arm through her left shoulder, so what really got her attention was the unanimous gasp from the Monkey Bar Mafia as she landed in the sand. Their mouths were contorted into big appalled O’s and their saucer eyes all stared at one spot. So she too looked down at her left arm, which lay limply at her side, but there was something horribly wrong with it. It was longer than the other one, and the bones—oh, God, the bones—they were still there, still possibly intact, but out of place so that the arm just hung there. She used her right hand to lift up the flaccid left appendage—the one that seemed eerily longer than it should have been, like a piece of taffy that had been pulled thin—and one of the girls screamed.
“Oh my God! Gross!” That was Tara, who looked a strange mixture of disgusted and angry, and she was turning away, kicking sand in Ariel’s face as she pivoted, yelling “Run!”
Instinct told Ariel to run, too. From that sandbox that was probably full of cat poop, from those monkey bars that Mom had forbade her to play on, from that June gloom that seemed only to be getting gloomier she sprinted, as fast as she could, toward normalcy. Toward smoking cigarettes or joints or whatever Jordi Simpson had to offer behind the school. That’s when Tara turned around and shoved her backward. “No, get away!”
And then Ariel snapped, just like that toothpick in her throat had done. Maybe it was the toothpick that put things in motion that day, but Ariel’s right hook to Tara Barnett’s chin was what sealed her fate. After that, she was a girl on the run. And bad things happened around outlaws.
Tara went down like a sack of potatoes and Ariel didn’t stick around to see if she was okay. She assumed from the twins’ dual shrieks that it was bad, which was why she hightailed it out of there without a look behind. She hid in an overgrown bramble on the defunct railroad tracks until the sun began to die into the ocean. For hours, she heard people coming and going along the path, walking their dogs, getting their evening run in before the Friday night food fest. Some passers-by murmured about the local missing girl. They called out her name. She tensed and hugged the thorny bramble.
She thought she heard her Aunt Jada out there somewhere, too, maybe at the park across the street. Nevertheless, she didn’t come out, but instead melted further into the twilight shadows growing against the trees lining the path of the old Pacific Electric Railway and headed south out of Luneta Beach. She didn’t run into anyone until after dark, when a Rottweiler threatened to dislocate her other arm as she slinked past the heap of scrap metal he was guarding in the light industrial complex just past the City Yard.
“Leave it, Bruiser!” the dog’s master came hurrying around the corner and stopped dead in his tracks when he saw Ariel. He flipped up his welding helmet. “Shit, you’re that girl everyone’s looking for.”
She started to bolt and—
“Wait a minute, kid!” He grabbed her left wrist and immediately drew his hand away (“Ew, Christ, your arm!”). She shook him off and ran like the dickens. The man called after her, and last she looked he had the phone to his ear, probably on line with the police, but she didn’t stop. She just kept running (how far was Mexico, anyway?). By ten o’clock she had made it up the hill to the ritzy part of town, where the fog settles in after dusk and it’s impossible to find your mailbox let alone a kid darting in and out of bushes. Nobody would come looking for her in Vista Azul Estates. It hit her then, perhaps with a little too much certainty: nobody would come looking for her in Vista Azul Estates.
She sat on the curb and hugged herself as the dark thoughts rolled in on the evening fog. She had no money. No food, no way to—
What was that noise? The shriek seemed to come from behind her. There were coyotes up on the hill. Makayla Johnson’s cousin’s friend said her neighbor’s Chihuahua got snatched right off her leash. Coyotes hunted at dusk, didn’t they? Or was it dawn? Maybe it was—
There it was, standing erect by the topiary near the front door of 254 Buckskin Way. Needles of panic shot down Ariel’s back as it shrieked again, stepping through the fog curtain, spreading out its tail feathers. The peacock
(just a peacock, you dumbass!)
pecked at the garbage can and went on its way. This whole running away thing was a mistake. It was time to go home.
There was another shriek—another male bird calling for his harem—and in any other situation, Ariel might have laughed at the silly sound that came out of that big dumb bird. But that night her stomach tightened around that shrill call. She cringed at the rattle of the wind through the hedgerows. Jumped at the sound of the car backfire down the street. This dark place wasn’t the Vista Azul Estates she knew. She’d been up this way tons of times for Mathletics competitions, but never at night. Never alone. The way the fog crept in that night, the place couldn’t have looked and felt more wrong. Whatever punishment awaited her in Luneta Beach for what she’d done to Tara Barnett couldn’t be worse than seeing those shadows in the fog (sure, just peacocks this time, but what about next time?). So she headed back down Gelding Road toward the Mobil station she’d passed on the main road. She just about died as she turned the corner into the parking lot and spotted Makayla Johnson’s dad bent over the gas tank of his sedan. She broke into a jog and waved, her heart still soaring, still swollen with relief that she wouldn’t have to call her parents collect. “Mr. John—”
She came to a stop then, because the guy had turned to look at her, and though he could have passed for Makayla’s dad 20 years ago (Mr. Johnson had his share of wrinkles due to what Mom called a “non-existent” work-life balance), it was decidedly not him now. “Oops, sorry.”
“Everything okay?” Not-Makayla’s-dad asked, and she confessed that she needed to call her parents. He handed her his cell phone and she accepted it, but only because it wasn’t a piece of candy (a big no-no with strangers) and because the clean-cut guy didn’t give her that “pedophile vibe,” as Dad would say. Alas, the phone was useless without any signal reception. “That’s Vista Azul for you,” he said, handing her 50 cents for the payphone back near the toilets. It took her forever to find it
(so that’s what one of those things looks like)
and much to her chagrin, it was out of order. She hoped to find a phone inside, but the convenience store was closed. “No attendants after sundown,” the man’s voice startled her as she turned the corner back out to the parking lot. He screwed the gas cap back into his shiny black sedan and opened the driver side door. “There’s been some robberies around here. Did you call your folks?”
“The phone’s broken.”
“Where are you headed?”
“That’s just down the hill. I can take you if you’d like.”
There was a BABY ON BOARD sticker on the back window of the car. Aunt Jada said guys like that were just the right amount of harmless to not be worth a date. Whatever that meant. “Where are you going?”
“I was on my way home. But first, looks like I’m swinging by Luneta Beach again. Hop in.”
She was going to hop in
(baby on board means safe)
but something about his response made her stall. “Again?”
He took a sip from his Thermos and returned it to the cup holder. It was a gesture she’d seen Dad do a hundred times, usually when trying to avoid answering one of Mom’s questions. “Hmm?”
“You said, ‘again.’ Were you just in Luneta Beach?” He knew she was missing, didn’t he? He was going to turn her in to the cops! She hadn’t meant to punch Tara (well, she had, but she deserved it)! This was a bad idea. She should leave—
“No. Buckle up.”
At some point, Ariel had climbed into the passenger seat. It didn’t dawn on her what she was actually doing until the man behind the wheel turned the ignition key and started pulling out of the gas station.
Once they got rolling, they didn’t talk. He didn’t ask her name, she didn’t ask his. She took the quiet time to decompress as they passed the sprawling horse properties studding the dark rolling hills that comprised inland Vista Azul. It wasn’t until they looped back around the coast that Ariel noticed the necklace dangling from the man’s rearview mirror. The three (human?) teeth hung on a length of black twine and swung around as the sedan bounced along the uneven pavement where Caltrans had repaired a landslide the previous winter. It was decidedly Creepsville, but Ariel had her own tooth necklace, didn’t she, so welcome to Creepsville. Population: 2.
Thinking about her shark tooth necklace made her smile. It hadn’t started out as a necklace. Aunt Jada had given her the tooth when she was six, right before she’d gone off to Hawaii with that businessman. Jada had said that guy was the big cheese of some corporation and at the time Ariel couldn’t understand why her aunt would want to go somewhere with a guy made of cheese, especially to a tropical place where the cheese would get sweaty and stinky right away. She had told Jada to trade in the cheese man for a shave ice when she got to the beach. Jada had laughed and kissed Ariel goodbye and when she returned a week later, it turned out she had dumped the big cheese on the Big Island and met a big wig at the airport. Whatever that meant, the important thing was that Jada had come home bearing gifts. A jar of macadamia nuts for Mom (who instead of thanking her little sister for the present, scolded her for “pissing her life away”); a shirt with a bunch of flowers on it for Dad; and for Ariel, a shark’s tooth. Ariel got right down to business pretending to be a shark by putting it into her mouth, picturing herself with a full set of pointy chompers (she’d heard once that sharks had whole rows of teeth, but that just couldn’t be true). Something must have happened—maybe the dog bumped into her—because her fingers just slipped and the tooth slid right down her throat. Of course, if it had just slid down and out, there wouldn't have been a problem. Alas, on its way out, it perforated her intestine. Two surgeries and a month-long hospital stay ensued, and after much conniption (and disinfectant), Mom allowed Ariel to keep the tooth. Mom rooted for the sealed specimen jar, but Dad got creative and made a necklace. Jada’s gift was the first of several lessons on the dangers of swallowing foreign objects without a pain reflex.
Sure, it was weird having something like that hanging from your rearview mirror. But it was just as weird, Ariel concluded, to wear it around your neck as she’d done for the last five years. “I like your necklace,” she finally said to the man driving, pointing to his necklace. “I have one, too.” She pulled down her shirt collar to show him but—ohmygodwhereisit.
“What’s wrong?” she heard him ask, but she didn’t respond. She was too busy feeling under the seat for her necklace. “What are you doing?” His voice sounded irritated now, but she didn’t care. She fingered through the trash under her seat—coins, a ribbon–no, rope–a marble, a roll of tape, a hair clip—but it wasn’t there. She must have lost it on the hill somewhere, or on the old train tracks—
Suddenly the car screeched to a halt and her head slammed into the dashboard. “We’re here.”
They were on Belle Isle Drive. Her house was on the next street over, but she wasn’t about to tell a stranger her address, even if he had just driven her all the way home without kidnapping and murdering her. That was one thing she’d make sure to leave out of her story when she walked in the front door. The chief of police’s daughter didn’t take rides from strangers, even if they did have a BABY ON BOARD sticker. She knew better than that. She also knew better than to not say thank you for said ride. But as she turned back to the stranger and his shiny black car, it was gone. Tail lights flashed red at the end of the street only briefly to mark the stop, and then the sedan turned south on Whaleport.
There was a police cruiser in the driveway when she finally made it to 1012 Mainsail Road and for a split second she considered taking off again. Dad wasn’t the spanking type—why strike a child who couldn’t feel it, anyway?—but he still managed to mete out some pretty cruel punishments, like the time he gave away all her toys to Goodwill after she kept putting off cleaning her room. Nevertheless, it was time to face the music (and well past dinner), and as she walked up the driveway and heard the sound of Mom’s voice through the open door, she knew she’d made the right choice.
“She was wearing a white tank top—no, not a wife beater!” Mom was talking to Officer Tate. That was the cop who had responded to the call when they had that raccoon in the attic that Mom thought was a burglar. But that June night, he was standing in the middle of the living room writing in his field notebook. Mom was looking over his shoulder at what he wrote, like she did whenever Ariel sat down to start her homework. “Yes, that’s right. And she had her hair up in a metal hair clip.”
“Ma’am, I thought your daughter was wearing overalls and a pink t-shirt?”
“Not my daughter; my sister!”
Officer Tate looked confused. Dad put an arm around Mom. “We’re looking for my sister-in-law too now, Bill.”
“Aunt Jada’s missing?” Ariel asked from the front door. It all happened in slow motion as everyone turned and swarmed her. Even the dog got in on the homecoming excitement. There were questions and crying and yelling and suddenly it all seemed foreign to her. Mom and Dad’s reaching arms might as well have been tentacles. The pain in their bloodshot eyes meant nothing to her because this was all a dream, had to be, because she knew what missing meant, and Aunt Jada couldn’t be missing, so Mom and Dad and Officer Tate and that weird looking dog that looked an awful lot like Bandit (but just couldn’t be) must all be a figment of her imagination. All she had to do was wake up from this nightmare and there would be Aunt Jada, sneaking in through the back door in last night’s tousled clothes. Carrying the scent of fresh donuts
down the hallway past Ariel’s bedroom. Footsteps giving way to the click of the door closing behind her. The change from Mom’s $20 rattling onto her nightstand. Then silence, but the kind you hear when you know someone is there. Home. Safe.
As the questions piled up and the voices rose around her, Ariel fought the urge to run out and come back in again, but there were no do-overs allowed. This was real life, and she’d gone and screwed it up. This was all her fault. She had run away. She’d lost her shark necklace, and now they couldn’t find Aunt Jada—“She went out looking for you. She won’t answer her phone. Something’s wrong!”—and Mom looked so worried, more worried even than when the shark tooth had ripped open Ariel’s bowels and laid her up in the hospital for a month. Mom was so worried, in fact, that she didn’t even notice the blood trickling down Ariel’s forehead. Dad hurried over with a wet towel and sponged it off. “What the hell did you get into, kiddo?”
The weeks spent waiting for Aunt Jada to come through the front door were some of the longest Ariel had ever experienced. In the meantime, seasons changed. Jada’s on/off boyfriend reconciled with his wife. Mom and Dad skipped their anniversary.
Ten years later, Ariel still waited for Aunt Jada to come home. Still sometimes woke to the sound of keys jingling in the back door and the smell of fresh donuts through the hallway, but time moved faster now. Her parents were graying before her eyes, it seemed. Christmas was coming sooner and sooner every year. The girl who wasn’t supposed to live to see her 2nd birthday was turning 21 at the end of the month. She sat in her bedroom now on that November night after saying goodnight to her mother and stared at the box on the bookshelf above her bed. That was where she kept her trophies: the layer of scalded skin from the palm of her hand that Mom had managed to scrape off the hot plate; the rusty nail that impaled her foot; her subsequently amputated toe; the infamous toothpick; and the tip of her index finger that her overzealous teeth had unfortunately mistaken for a baby carrot. The things in that box empowered her. Those trophies (“Morbid!” Mom called the collection) did better at getting Ariel through rough days than Mom’s chicken soup or the best Dad-joke. They spoke to her in a language only she knew, at a frequency only she could hear. She never ran away from her condition again after Aunt Jada disappeared. From that night on, she owned it.