She has a bad, bad mystery to her. I can feel it deep in the hollow of my spook bone, the one my dad broke when I was a kid. My arm is never wrong.
I poke her with the toe of my boot like I would any animal I thought was dead. An eye flutters open and closes. Not dead. Maybe half-dead. The heat’s so bad out here the crickets are screaming for grace.
I don’t have time for this shit, God.
Damn it to hell. Why isn’t she a dog? She looked like a hurt dog out of the rearview mirror. That’s why I jerked my rig around. Well, first I heard God say, “Stop.” Then I looked in the rearview and saw the lump just over the fence.
I had a whole scenario figured out by the time I pulled over. I’d get the dog fixed up. He’d take over the bare spot on the passenger seat where Chance panted and grinned at me until he got that big knot in his neck three months ago.
Now this. A mystery girl spread still, off the highway, her head sparkling like some kind of desert angel with her wings clipped. She’s twelve, maybe thirteen. Ten. Hell, I can’t tell. Girls these days look fifteen when they’re eleven to men like me.
She’s lying barefoot on the baked ground about three feet behind a barbed wire fence, trucks blasting by hot and heavy on the other side. Lips as red as Snow White. A scarf with gold sequins is tied tight over one of her eyes like she’s been bandaged by a princess. Or maybe she’s the princess. Or maybe she’s just a normal girl without a lot of Band-Aid options.
I shouldn’t have drunk that third beer at lunch.
Behind her, nothing but sunburnt pasture. No fresh blood on her I can see. She sure didn’t come from the highway and go over that barbed wire. I’m an able-bodied man who did, and I’m still sucking the blood off my thumb. No, she came out of that field, out of nowhere, courtesy of my good friend God.
He’s put her flat-out at my mercy. Her little white dress is soaked with sweat. Arms are splat out in a V over her head. A few bruises mark her cheek and the shoulder where her dress is torn. And she’s skinny. Her knees and elbows wouldn’t put a dent in my muscle if she were to put up a fight.
Her chest is suddenly rising and falling like a spent deer. More alive than dead, I’m thinking now. Her eye, the one not covered, flashes open for a second. Now it’s back closed tight as a tick. Big life questions are going on in the pitch dark of that head. Which is a better way to die? The sun frying you into bacon for a bird’s breakfast? Or at the hands of a highway stranger?
My hairs are pricking up all over. I’m not a fool. I know plenty of cons. Girls set out like bait traps. That said, this stretch of Texas road is all blue sky and endless pancake. I just listened to a couple of truckers at a diner down the road concur that this piece of Texas countertop proved the earth was flat, and that Donald Trump’s wall was thought up secretly to protect us from falling off.
I spin a quick 360. The girl and me are alone.
I step closer. My body lingers in full shadow over hers.
That’s when she moves. Pushes herself up with what energy she can muster.
She’s got the full picture now, even with that glittery scarf tied over one eye.
Big guy. Big truck with lots of hidey-holes. And you can’t wash off a stint behind bars, however short.
Sanity and happiness are an impossible combination. That’s what the piece of paper my sister, Trumanell, taped on my steering wheel says. Trumanell’s into Mark Twain right now. She is forever taping life-affirming self-help shit all over my truck to cheer me up on the road.
Not a word from the girl. No begging for water. Nothing. The sun is flicking off the sparkles on her damn scarf, making it hard to see her straight.
I reach over and yank it down. The girl makes a sound then, her mouth opening like a hole in the ground. A passing eighteen-wheeler takes her scream with it. And I see what she’s hiding.
One of her eyes gleams like an emerald. The other is three-fourths shut, sunken, nothing to hold it open. I know what that means.
My daddy lost an eye when he was a kid. Depending on his mood, he wore a patch or a bad fake. The fake looked like he ripped it off a brown-eyed teddy bear minding his own business. Nothing was safe from Daddy, especially if it was minding its own business. Daddy overheard a joke I made about this when I was eight, which was a mistake on my part.
He liked to remind Trumanell and me that most pirates didn’t wear an eye patch because they had a missing eye—they wore it to condition themselves for fighting on ships and killing people in pitch-black night. This was his way of telling us he was good in the dark.
The girl’s missing eye makes me full aware she’s another of God’s tests, some kind of omen.
I focus on the other side of her nose, on the eye that is shiny and full of terror.
“Our daddy was missing an eye,” I say conversationally. “People all around here have lost bits and pieces. Arms. Thumbs. Legs. Toes. Farm equipment, war, firecrackers—they bite off stuff and you go on about your business. Out here, nobody cares. My daddy said one eye made him stronger.”
What my daddy really said was that his teddy-bear eye could blind me if I looked straight at it.
All the while I talk, I hear Trumanell in my head. Don’t touch. Don’t touch. You’ll catch it. We both know the rules of bad luck by heart, and bad luck burns off this girl like a terrible flu. She caught it from someone else. That’s how bad luck works, a germ that travels as fast as it can from one of us to the next, hoping for a mortal wound, but happy with whatever it can get.
I could still walk away.
That good eye of hers is a flickering green jewel, powerful. It says she’s already made her choice. She’ll take her chances with a big guy like me in a truck rather than alone out here on this land with the gang of rattlesnakes and buzzards that run it.
“My name is Wyatt,” I say. “Until you tell me otherwise, I’m going to call you Angel because that’s what you look like. Your head sparkling. Your arms spread out like you were doing snow angels in the dust. Were you?” I’m joking with her, trying to set her at ease so I can throw her in the truck without a scene. Getting nothing back, not even the curve of a smile. Hell, she might not have ever seen a fleck of snow. Some kids in West Texas don’t feel rain on their face until they’re five.
She grabs the water bottle I offer and pours it down her throat way too fast. When she settles down from choking, I hand her the scrap of beef jerky, what I intended to use to coax my new damn dog out of the field.
That’s when I get a fresh spook down my bone. I steady my arm to stop the quivering. I see what I should have seen in the grass right off.
I’m not afraid of dandelions. It’s just that I have a history with them. The girl has carefully laid them out in a circle around her like a fairy tale ring of protection. That, or somebody decorated a grave for her before they dumped her off.
A pile at her feet have their heads blown off, already shriveling in the sun. I kneel down and count stems. Seventeen wishes. The most I got to in our field, on my worst day, was fifty-three, and it wasn’t fifty-three separate wishes, just one desperate wish over and over.
Who knows what this girl’s thinking? What she’s wishing? All I know is that I have one foot in and one foot out of her dandelion grave, and I don’t like the feeling.
Trumanell used to play games with wildflowers when we hid out in the field behind our house. She’d tell stories to keep me from running back with my pocketknife to kill our dad, who bragged every other day that he had the right to snuff us out like a candle flame.
Trumanell would say bluebonnets were pretty pieces of broken sky. She’d tickle me with Indian paintbrush and tell me that Indian ghost boys painted their petals orange and yellow at sunset. The cornstalks turned into soldiers at night, watching out for us so we could hide. Dumb things like that.
I’ve known since I was ten that fairy tale shit don’t work.
Those pieces of falling blue sky? They aren’t made of pretty flowers. They’re made of glass.
But I have a healthy respect for whatever my arm says. It’s saying, Walk away. Don’t go to prison even though that’s where you probably belong.
This girl, she reminds me of Trumanell. She’d felt things she should never have to feel. I can see it in that big green eye, which has to hold double. She’s still hoping for her little piece of blue sky. Believing in magic circles, just in case it really works.
I stop wavering. This one’s on you, God. I step full into her circle and pick her up.