We didn’t believe Vivian when she said she was going to hide in the busted refrigerator, the one Mr. Wilson kept saying he was going to take to the dump. Even as she skipped toward it we fanned out, wedging ourselves under parked cars, knifing into rotted tool sheds, monkey climbing magnolia trees. We held perfectly still until olly, olly, oxen free and her little mutt Timmy was waiting at home base all by himself making this er, er, er crying sound and we were all oh my God. We found her curled on top of the vegetable drawers, her bug bites black, little polka dot reminders of her final, terrible minutes.
Our chins trembled as we pulled her out, her hair reeking of sour milk and the skin around her nose a crazy quilt of broken red veins. Without a word we grabbed one of Mr. Wilson’s shovels and a wheelbarrow, covered her with leaves, and made our way to the spot in the woods where we found her the day before smoking a long, brown cigarette, shirtless. We’d told her to put the cigarette out, that it was bad for her, and conscious of our own growing breasts told her to put her shirt back on. She took a deep drag of her cigarette, gestured toward the ground, and said this is where I want to be buried. We laughed and she blew smoke rings at us. Here, she said, stamping her little foot on the hard-baked clay. Don’t forget.
We didn’t forget. Using a shovel and our bare hands we tried digging a grave for our little charge. A late-in-life child, she’d lingered in her mother’s womb until the doctor finally disgorged her, a florid peach pit of a baby. When she came home from the hospital we ached for a glimpse of her terrible lazy eye which her mother claimed was due to her extended prenatal swim. We’d peer into her stroller, her wild eye tracking our every move, and when a salty bead of our sweat inevitably fell on her tiny face she blinked but never cried. Convinced its beam burned past our freckled skin directly into the tangled circuitry of our brains we decided we’d make her one of us. Her spent parents were terrified of her blazing eye and when she turned five they ceded her to us. She was more child than they’d bargained for, more child than anyone on earth ever bargained for, and they were only too happy to turn her over to a band of freshly minted kindergartners.
As we hacked away at the unyielding clay we talked about everything she predicted: who’d get their period first, who’d be asked to prom, who’d have sex first. We didn’t talk about the other stuff she said, dark things we didn’t necessarily want her to say out loud. Which of us had been felt up by that redneck Randy Whitehead. Everyone thinks you’re so pure and innocent but I know better, she’d say, and we thought about this as we finally ended up covering her with leaves and sticks, our throats tight, tight, tight. Timmy began whining again, this time much louder, and after some debate, we decided he might lead someone to her body so it would be best to kill him. With one stroke of the shovel he collapsed, his little legs crumbling beneath him, and we bolted, shocked at ourselves.
We got home and told our parents we’d lost her and of course, they became unglued, hugging us then threatening to bust our asses if we didn’t tell them what really happened. Two days later the police dogs found them in the woods, Timmy rotting and Vivian gone. Everyone, including the police, figured she’d been dragged away and eaten by the black bear seen foraging in Mrs. Peterson’s garden the week before. The entire town attended her memorial service and we had to sit in the balcony of the church, away from everyone else. We should’ve known then what was coming but we were young and stupid and didn’t know how quickly people could turn on you.
My senior year in college I was in a bathroom at a concert putting on mascara, and she walked up next to me, pulling her hair into an auburn ponytail. She was dressed in black head to toe and I didn’t recognize her until that crazy eye locked in on me. I never really bought into the bear story, but it was still a shock to see her upright and breathing, somehow whole. You were the one who killed Timmy she said, and it all flooded back, how a year after she disappeared one of us finally broke down and confessed what really happened, how all the parents and kids hated us for letting her out of our sight and especially for killing Timmy. How we started hating each other after that, how I hated myself the most. How Vivian’s parents moved away one night and their house stood vacant for years, her stroller abandoned on the back porch. How Mr. Wilson took the door off the refrigerator and drug it to the side of the road but it never got picked up and how my stomach boiled every time we passed it in our car.
The bathroom started spinning and I grabbed her shoulders, shoving her hard. Her eye flashed, surprised, and she almost fell, her face scarlet. The air between us turned white-hot in a sea of flushing toilets, flip-flops slapping the tile floor, garbage cans overflowing with wet brown paper towels. You’re right, I am the one who killed him, I said, my palms itchy. I didn’t tell her how after I smacked him with the shovel something cruel bloomed inside me and now it simmered in my veins. I didn’t tell her because I could see in her eye, in that terrible, flashing eye, she knew. Because it sat inside her, too.