In the Shadow of Elizabeth Smart

Three years ago, when I was fourteen, I waited for my mother to pick me up from a department store downtown. Katie Rennert and I spent Saturday afternoon shopping, but she had to leave early. Her mom called while we were in Women’s Shoes saying she had to go out to dinner with her grandmother—or maybe it was her aunt—I can’t remember anymore. The point is, I waited for my mom by myself at the department store between two sets of doors. One set led outside, where my mother didn’t want me waiting alone, and the other led into the store. The space in between, the space where I waited, is called a vestibule. It’s a nothing space. Like being nowhere, like being fourteen.

Vestibule. The word was on second semester’s Student-Created Challenge Vocabulary List. Colton Grubb put it there. Actually, it was more like he kept me from keeping it off. I’d already defined caprice, profligate, and verdure for my group, prompting Colton to say, loudly, in front of everybody, “What are you, Delicious, a walking dictionary?” When no one in our group knew what vestibule meant I didn’t define it. My plan for second semester was to stay out of Colton Grubb’s group entirely. Sometimes things don’t go according to plan.

On day one of the semester, our language arts teacher told us we’d examine The Nature of Human Desire as depicted in one of three novels. The Highland Middle School Curriculum Committee had selected them. The Curriculum Committee was tasked with pleasing the Parent Oversight Committee. Oh, and who was on that committee the whole time I was at Highland? My mom. Anyway, the Parent Oversight Committee believed that children navigated middle school best by reading material that avoided the big three: profanity, drugs and sex.

After we chose one of the books determined by the school’s committees to address non-carnal human desire, we would spend the next two months working with classmates who chose the same book. I wanted to read “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley, but it became the territory of baseball-playing boys and volleyball-playing girls. I didn’t want to work with a bunch of jocks. They were loud and didn’t do their own homework. Colton Grubb was the worst offender. I had him in my homeroom and social studies and language arts.

A typical Colton Grubb homeroom exchange went something like this: “Yo, Delicious.” (Colton never called me by my name and he laughed at his own joke every time, “Ha ha!” as though he’d never heard himself say it before.) Me: “It’s Elisha.” Colton: “Wha’d’u get for number five in Timpano’s class?” Me: “By foot.” Colton: “Shit.” (Yank paper from notebook. Erase.) “I put covered wagons. Guess it makes sense they’d walk if all those wagons were full of all their shit, right?” Me: “The chapter said most people walked.” Colton: “You’re such a brainiac, Delicious.” Colton Grubb talked to me as though I had all the appeal of a pair of knee-hi socks. When he and the jocks went down for “Frankenstein.” I passed.

The Dungeons and Dragons kids went en masse for “The Time Machine” by H.G. Wells. D&D kids argued over unanswerable questions all the time. Questions like, if a gryphon is half-bird and half-lion, does it give birth live or lay eggs? Eight weeks of that? Pass. I went with Jane Austen. Girls-only reading.

Hailey Baskin was my “Pride and Prejudice” miscalculation. Hailey could drive a boy like Colton Grubb to switch groups and read a girl book. She wasn’t snobby about how cute she was. She talked to everyone the same, like a friend even if she wasn’t. When our group worked on a character analysis worksheet for Mr. Darcy, we agreed he was pretentious, judgmental, and overly-concerned about appearances. Hailey whispered to me, “Darcy’s such an indie kid.” Colton Grubb wanted to know why we were laughing. Hailey said, “Girl talk, Colton,” making Colton look frustrated and me feel like a bestie. She floated through middle school seemingly unaware of the way boys like Colton Grubb watched her.

 


 

On the Saturday we went shopping, Katie and I hopped the #36 at noon for downtown. Both our moms instructed us to ride close to the front where the bus driver could see us, in case something happened. Something meant being kidnapped from the back of the bus.

When I was a second grader, a fourteen year old girl named Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped from her home in Utah. A delusional man held her captive in the Wasatch Mountains for months. The world’s press followed the story and it saturated our moms with fear. Katie Rennert and I lived in the shadow of Elizabeth Smart.

It’s tough to go “Explore!” or “Discover!” the way those PSAs between Saturday morning cartoons said we should, when Mom programmed my cell phone to track my every move. Throughout Mom’s workday, my phone sent text messages to her phone. Elisha left home. Elisha arrived at school. Elisha is at her violin lesson. Kidnapping began to seem inevitable. It was only a matter of waiting for the creeper who would slither into my life through an open bedroom window and cart me into the wilderness.

A baby up front smelling like the porta potties on day three of one of my brother’s soccer tournaments forced us to ignore our mothers’ instructions. We ventured into the foreign world of the back of the bus. Katie snagged a seat next to a mom-aged woman thumbing a free weekly from the bus stop—the kind that have more personal ads than anything else.

I approached a guy sitting alone. His unshaved chin bobbed unevenly to the beat of whatever pulsed through the ear buds snaking their way from a black duster. The duster was too much coat for the weather. It made him look like he might have a shotgun buried under there. I perched as little of myself as possible on the seat joining his and watched him struggle to keep his eyes open wide enough to read his phone’s screen. He was exactly what my mom told me to avoid downtown, but during the whole of the bus ride, he never looked up from his phone.

After Katie’s mom picked her up from the store later that afternoon, I waited for my mom in the vestibule between Handbags and Women’s Shoes. I stood between the closed sets of doors, babysitting money depleted, a pair of lattice-cut ankle boots tissue-wrapped, boxed and bagged at my side. People walked past on the sidewalk outside. I imagined my new boots paired with the skirt I bought with last month’s babysitting savings. The shopping bag dangled from my hand, bumping the leg of my Juniors department jeans.

Image of krispie treat with Cinnamon Toast Crunch courtesy of number657 (flickr.com)

I was no Hailey Baskin. It took me until the summer before eighth grade to hit the rider height requirement for jeans that didn’t sport rainbows arcing across the back pocket, but Hailey wore Juniors starting in fifth grade. Juniors by fifth grade. How does that happen? Her waist shared elevation with my shoulders. I was the box of Malt-O-Meal at the supermarket beneath Hailey’s Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Nobody notices Malt-O-Meal, it’s shelved too low. I mean, it tastes all right and Christ, it’s even good for you, but the Cinnamon Toast Crunch is at eye level. The sight alone of its brightly colored box starts the dopamine drip. After a bowlful of that stuff it doesn’t matter how hard the sugar headache slams the male frontal lobe, guys wake up in the morning wanting Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Nobody wakes up craving Malt-O-Meal.

The Juniors department may have been my fourteen-year-old mountaintop, but for almost everyone else it was high school. We were oppressed, we believed, by the Republik of Highland Middle School. Complaining about it filled lulls in conversation. The citations we got were meaningless—improper language in the halls, wearing spaghetti straps, physical contact of any kind. The only contact violation I ever committed was hugging Katie Rennert because she sent me an ASB birthday balloon. If the balloon had come from Ethan Long, like I wished it had, I’d never have worked up the nerve to get a citation afterward.

The school administration was like the Sudanese Army, we said, and we were, our logic implied, repressed Nubans. If the worst punishment Nubans faced for the crime of being Nubans was exclusion from a class trip to Wild Waters instead of beatings and rape at the hands of their oppressors, our analogy might have worked.

But honestly, high school was Mecca? Dropping f-bombs in the hallway was as high a mountaintop as we could imagine? Visible thongs marked the apex of our fourteen-year-old dreams?

Even back in eighth grade, I knew better. I’d seen my brother and his besties leave the house on Friday nights, zealots on a mission to discover the whereabouts of various girls they were crushing on. I’d seen them return defeated, failures in the art of female intelligence gathering. I’d seen them pour Mom’s Grey Goose into a carton of Tropicana, steal Dad’s Cinemax password and disappear in our basement. High school—free at last.

I waited in the vestibule because my mom was late. She was always late, but if I wandered from our agreed upon rendezvous point my phone would send her a text. Mom was probably at home pulling one last, peaceful nicotine fix before I ruined it for her. Her cigarette smoke, the sway of our SUV, and the stale coffee odor that infused the car’s re-circulating air all worked in concert on my gag reflex. I’d thrown up across the leather upholstery more than a few times. When I was little, Mom pumped me with Dramamine before any car trips that might last longer than twenty minutes. I slept through her smoking and it worked great until I got tired of not knowing where I was when I arrived places. I bugged her to quit. What started as pleas for her health evolved into rants about smoke burning my lungs, making me cough, stinking my clothes, turning my eyes red…“Enough!” she said. “I’ll smoke outside.” Except she didn’t. She quit smoking in the car, but she smoked indoors while I wasn’t home. If I had a stronger stomach, I might not have had to wait in the vestibule that day. Mom might have picked me up on time.

I kept close to the wall, out of the way of Saturday night’s light foot traffic. People walked by outside, unaware of me or that I was watching them. People came into the store. People went out. They passed me without looking, except for this one man. He was my dad’s age but thin and with a full head of hair. He dressed like my dad, too, in belted slacks and a dark button-down.  Pock scars creased his cheekbones. He stared at me. He stared like maybe I’d spilled something on myself.

As I examined the unstained t-shirt hugging my stomach, weathered hands clamped down on my eighth grade breasts, squeezing and pulling. I lost my footing. His body behind me kept me from falling. The ridge of his belt buckle pushed into the small of my back. I couldn’t get my feet beneath me. He pulled with his hands and pushed at me with the belt buckle. I screamed. It didn’t feel loud but I guess he thought it was because the next thing I knew the hands and the belt buckle were gone. I stumbled into the wall, kicking the shopping bag I’d dropped. My boots box slid across the muddy floor mat. Belted slacks, a button-down shirt, and pock scars strode between Handbags and Women’s Shoes. The inner glass door of the vestibule exhaled to a close.

People passed on the sidewalk. The same way they never saw me watching them, they never saw what had happened in the vestibule. Inside the store, a lady studied the heel of a shoe. No one had noticed anything. The slacks strode down the center aisle toward the escalator. I re-bagged my shoes with shaking hands, swallowed the lump forming in my throat, and went into the store.

The Handbags clerk was all the way over in Hosiery. The woman with the perfume samples had wandered back to Cosmetics. Plenty of attentive clerks monitored Women’s Shoes. Why did so many men work in Women’s Shoes? Why couldn’t they be upstairs in Coats, fitting lumpy parkas over sweater-clad shoppers? One woman stood behind the shoe counter; she’d helped me with my boots. She held a finger in the air, signaling me to wait while she listened to the lady in front of me prattling on about how silly she was buying shoes before going to San Francisco when she could wait and buy them in Union Square but she wasn’t sure when she’d have time to shop and…

“Todd,” the clerk wagged her finger at me, “could you…?”

“Of course!” Todd squatted to my eye level and put his hands on pinstriped knees. “And what can we do for you, young lady?”

Young lady. I was Children’s Wear. “Someone just…”

His chin shifted right, giving me a little more ear, telling me to speak up.

“There was a –” My phone blatted in my bag. “- over there.” I looked at the doors, wondering why I ever came back inside.

His smile thinned. “Excuse me?”

A dark sleeve rode the escalator out of sight.

“Nevermind.”

Dad’s car waited at the curb outside the store. “You didn’t answer your phone.”

I fastened my seat belt.

“Your mother said five-thirty. It’s five-forty.”

My voice caught on the lump re-formed in my throat. “She said five.”

“She did? She told me five-thirty. Or maybe I heard wrong. Are you catching a cold?”

“Where’s Mom?”

“Migraine. It’s fend-for-ourselves night for dinner.”

A muscle began to twitch along my ribs. I wanted to say something about dinner.  I rolled my knuckles into the muscle, trying to make it stop.  I knew how to make scrambled eggs or spaghetti or beef stir-fry from those frozen kits Mom bought. I started crying.

Image courtesy of Rachel Ford James (flickr.com)

“Elisha?” Dad almost ran a red light. “What’s this about?”

The words lined up obediently in my head. All I had to do was open my mouth. I dropped the waiting words onto puffs air and batted them from my lungs. “A – man – ”

My father looked like he guessed I was crying about the store running out of my size or something. “A man what?”

“- grabbed – me -”

“Grabbed you?” Dad rolled too close to a car in front of us. He smacked his brake forcing the safety belts to pin us to our seats. “What does that mean, he grabbed you?”

“- from – behind – ”

“He robbed you?”

“He – grabbed –” I couldn’t say ‘breasts,’ not to my dad. Besides, I wasn’t sure they met the definition yet. My hands drifted north, pausing below my shoulders.

My father’s face snapped to the road. He accelerated, looked straight ahead, worked his jaw. “He grabbed…did you report it?”

I didn’t answer until I had enough control not to make noise as I cried. “He was gone.”

“You didn’t tell anyone?”

“I went in but he was gone.”

“Are you hurt?”

I shook my head.

“He didn’t hurt you? He just… then he left?”

“When I screamed. That’s when he left.”

Dad didn’t say anything else. He didn’t pick up his cell to call the police or turn the car around and go back to the store. He worked his jaw and drove. At home, Dad worked his jaw some more, studying me where I stood in our kitchen, holding my shopping bag with the boots that would go with my skirt. He studied me the way he’d studied my sister last summer while she was home from the U. All summer she left her diaphragm in plain view on the bathroom counter. All summer long he said nothing about it, but whenever she left the house he wandered back to the bathroom, checking to see whether the diaphragm had left with her. Dad spent all summer working his jaw.

He faced me in the kitchen, studying the snug t-shirt that defined my breasts as breasts to that man in the vestibule, and apparently to my dad as well, if not to Todd in Shoes. He studied me the way he would a cloud-covered sky, trying to predict whether the few drops that fell would pass, or if he was about to get caught in a storm. Dad told me not to bother Mom; he’d tell her. He said he’d fix me something to eat, and that I should go change my clothes.

My mom asked me later if I was alright. She cupped my cheeks in her hands and told me how sensible I’d been, staying indoors so that man couldn’t pull me into a waiting car. She got teary. I could have been kidnapped, she said, like Elizabeth Smart. I was lucky all that man had done was grab me.

I was lucky. It was like this one time when my brother and I raced our bikes between the chestnut trees at the park. A little kid we hadn’t noticed—there was no way we could have noticed him—jumped from behind the thick summer leaves on a low branch he was climbing. I rode toward him fast. He lay motionless on the ground, stunned from the impact of his landing. There wasn’t distance enough for me to stop. I swerved, because hitting him meant 9-1-1. It meant internal bleeding, an ambulance. My bike skidded from underneath me. Jagged pebbles from the trail tore bloody streaks in my arm and thigh but it didn’t matter. I hadn’t hit the kid. It didn’t matter that my handle bars twisted out of alignment with the bike’s frame and I had to walk it home, or that my bike never steered straight again, or that the kid’s terrified mother screamed at my brother and me. We were lucky that little boy wasn’t hurt.

My mother squeezed the tops of my arms and wiped her eyes. A horrible thing almost happened but it didn’t. Nothing else mattered.

 


 

“You going, Delicious?”

“Of course she’s going, Colton. Everyone’s going. Right, Elisha?”

I shrugged at Hailey. “We’ve got the test Monday.”

The buzzer sounded. Hailey collected her things and left. Colton stuffed stray papers into his copy of “Pride and Prejudice.” I tried to move slower than he did but I mistimed it. Colton and I ended up walking out the door together.

“You’re not seriously going to study Darcy and Elizabeth on a Friday afternoon, are you Delicious?” I didn’t answer. “Didn’t think so. See you there.”

I stood in the dimly lit gym with Katie Rennert and a cluster of girls. We watched established couples dance under circles of flashing colored lights. Uncoupled girls stood at the south end of the closed bleachers, and the boys staked out the north. Hailey Baskin twirled a section of long hair slowly around her index finger, bewitching (Student-Created Challenge Vocabulary List word) the north end of the bleachers. Katie nudged me.

“Colton Grubb is watching you.” I curled my tongue over my front teeth checking for stray bits of food. She shoved my shoulder. “Not like that, like watching.” I turned around and looked at the boys but saw only dress-shirted backs. “Don’t look.

“He was looking at Hailey.”

“He was definitely not looking at Hailey.”

“He’s definitely hot for Hailey. Since the start of semester. You should see him in class. He hangs on everything she says.” Katie smiled an I-told-you-so smile. I started to ask her what that was about when I felt a tap on my shoulder.

“Hi Elisha.”

“Hi…” wait, Elisha? “…Colton.”

“Do you want to dance?” He wiped a hand on his khakis.

“Uh…”  I looked at Hailey, still twirling her hair. Definitely not dancing. Definitely available if he wanted to ask her.  He changed book groups for her. Didn’t he? “I’m not a good dancer.”

“The line is, ‘Not if I can help it.’”

He actually read the book.

Image courtesy of alanapost (flickr.com)

“Hey! You hear that song? Re-mixed for Zumba moms and middle-schoolers alike  – no effing swear words. We gotta get out there for that.” He picked up my hand and led me, tripping to keep up, to the center of the dance floor. He was a worse dancer than I was. His butt bounced around like a basketball while he pumped his fists, shouting the R-rated lyrics over the DJ’s G-rated version. Seriously obnoxious but he made me laugh, until the school counselor came over and told him to stop it. As soon as she was gone we were laughing again.

When the song ended, the DJ said it was time to slow down. I told Colton thanks and started edging out of the crowd. He kept my hand. “Let’s do one more.” I glanced around at my classmates wrapping their arms around each other. I wasn’t too sure about slow dancing with Colton, but the way my name sounded when he said, “Come on, one more Elisha,” made me feel like the exact opposite of knee-hi socks.

He put his hands on my waist. I touched the back of his neck. It was sweaty. He bent low enough to put his head on my shoulder and I put my head on his. I stepped on his foot, adjusted, then synchronized with him into a slow shuffle. His cheek wobbled on the wide, citation-proof strap of my sundress, like he was chewing something. It took me a minute, but I figured it out. I reached around and pulled my hair out of his way. He looked at me with the edges of his mouth turned up, then rested on my shoulder again.

We moved together, Colton and I, his hands inching over my back, my hands tightening across his shoulders. As we swayed to the music, I thought, maybe if I asked him, he’d stop calling me a brainiac, and maybe Delicious wasn’t such an insulting nickname, even though I liked hearing him say Elisha a lot more. Maybe he was nice, in a loud sort of way.

And as we swayed together I began to feel something, something like a belt buckle, only it wasn’t a belt buckle. My vague understanding of the mechanics of male anatomy crystallized on the Highland Middle School gym floor. More quickly than I realized Colton did not change book groups for Hailey Baskin, I realized what I felt pushing into my back in the vestibule was not a belt buckle either. As I danced with Colton, the tingle beneath the surface of my skin turned prickly. In the middle of the Spring Fling, something that hadn’t mattered enough for my father to report or my mother to discuss began to paralyze me.

I wanted to keep dancing.  Maybe if I’d understood anything at all of The Nature of Human Desire in men with unhealthy appetites or in boys with healthy ones, not merely in the English gentry or eccentric scientists, I could have. But I stopped dancing. Then Colton stopped. We stood still as the music faded. His hands fell to his sides, his face red. He pushed past me off the floor.

 


I never think about that vestibule anymore. It’s been three years after all. It’s gone from my head. Well, except for this thing the other day. I forgot my statistics book so I excused myself from class to go get it. The halls were deserted. I went to my locker and began working the combination when hands clamped around my waist. I screamed. Loud. Mrs. Sheckel and Senora Reyes came from their classrooms. It was Ethan Long. Coach Madison stormed out of the computer lab. Ethan was only goofing around, sneaking up on me like that, but Coach saw the two of us in the empty hall and looked for all the world like he was going to sack him. I said it was my fault, I overreacted. I started babbling about not getting enough sleep and drinking too much coffee. I said I was sorry. If my dad and Colton Grubb mashed their faces together, that’s how Ethan looked standing in the hall—full of disgust and humiliation. I felt like a freak but what was I supposed to say? I can’t go around explaining things like that. Besides, the incident was isolated. I never think about that vestibule anymore.

What I do think about is Colton. If I could erase from my memory the look on his face before he left me on the gym floor, I would. But I can’t. He never spoke to me after the Spring Fling. There were a couple of times I wanted to pull him aside and talk to him, tell him why I stopped dancing. At a basketball game freshman year he sat two rows in front of me. He’d quit paying attention because we were getting trounced. He was just sitting there, BSing with people. I could have stepped down, it was only two rows, but that lump came back in my throat.

The summer before sophomore year we were at the same party. I was on the patio and he spent all his time in the kitchen. I kept trying to think of a reason to go inside. Of course the reason was, “Colton, I’d like to talk to you.” The problem was, when I imagined talking to him, I couldn’t imagine what I’d say. I stayed on the patio. Colton moved away near the end of sophomore year.

Every once in a while I check his Facebook page. He lives in Arizona now. He’s got a tan and he still plays baseball. Varsity shortstop. He gets tagged in a lot of pictures by girls wearing tops that would definitely earn them citations. I hit the message icon one night. I figured, so what? I’ll do it. And even if he never replies at least, you know, I told him. Maybe then I won’t think about what happened anymore. Hey Colton, it’s me, Delicious (haha!) Too long, right? Remember the Highland MS Spring Fling? There’s something about that dance I’d like you to… 

I knew what to say and I typed in every word. But then I re-read it and, I don’t know, it sounded lame somehow. Maybe he didn’t remember anyway. Maybe I made a bigger deal of it in my head than it was. Maybe he didn’t even care. I deleted my message. Colton Grubb wouldn’t want to hear from me. We were fourteen. It really doesn’t matter.

 

M. Hunt has lived in various cities up and down both coasts, but calls Spokane, Washington, home. Her fiction and essays have appeared in a number of newspapers and magazines, she was a finalist for the 2012 Katherine Paterson prize, and a winner of the 2011 Pacific Northwest Inlander short fiction award. Find her on Twitter: @MHuntWrites.

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7 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Beth says:

    Love this story! It really gets at the confusion of first attractions and creepy, uninvited encounters and the terrifying, destructive intersection between the two.

  2. Mary says:

    Wow! Great story. When will parents get it?

  3. Congratulations, M Hunt on a well crafted story. And thank you to the staff at YA Review Network for publishing this piece and for establishing this new forum for YA Lit.

  4. Maureen McQuerry says:

    Such a great story coming of age story. I love the description of the vestibule as a no where space, like fourteen. Thanks for reminding me what it was like to be in that in between space.

  5. Kirstin says:

    So many great intersections here–echoes, too, and no-spaces (like the vestibule). Shivery and vivid. A wonderful story!

  6. Claire Rudolf Murphy says:

    Wow – you had me from the title. The narrator has such a strong voice with an undercurrent of pain and a longing for love, to be seen and heard by her parents, to figure out how to navigate the big, scary world our there. It uses time so effectively and that’s difficult in a short story. I am happy to learn about this online magazine, too.

  7. NicElizabeth says:

    Love this! The message is there, but it’s not too “message-y.” Accurate and effective.

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