A Girl in the Dark

If I was a different kind of girl my face would be on every tabloid. Every evening news story, every investigative report, every feed people skim past on their way to their morning inbox. I would have a name; I would occupy space in the public imagination, if I was the right kind of girl. The child beauty queen. The vacationing co-ed. If I hit all the markers of that holy trinity. Young, white, beautiful.

But I’m brown and poor and ordinary and what pictures of me would they find to put up? The driver’s license mug shot? My high school yearbook picture, with badly attempted cat eyes, or that one from the staff party when I worked at Rubio’s?

Nobody gives a shit about a girl like you, he told me. And he was right. What words would they use to describe me? Alleged addict or former bartender or casual prostitute?

As opposed to a formal prostitute.

Nobody’s out looking for you, he tells me again. Nobody even knows you’re gone.

I don’t waste time answering back because I can read him, the hard lines around his mouth, the way his eyes come alive only when I scream. I look at the room instead. I’ve been looking at it so long I could describe every dusty inch of it, if someone asked me. Stone walls and dirt floor. One lightbulb screwed into a ceiling fixture with a metal pull chain. It throws a circle of dull yellow light. A 25-watt bulb. I know, because my old landlord, the cheapest man in the universe, had 25-watt bulbs in the hallways. I don’t even know where he bought them. Some cheap old man store. The kind of place where you could still buy flypaper and penny nails.

The man who took me shops in those same stores, I can see. Stained paintbrushes on rough plank shelves, old dried rollers, rusted cans of Red Devil gloss enamel, a little cartoon devil holding his pitchfork on the label. A dapper devil, with his neat triangle beard and jaunty tail. Not like the devil I know.

My devil slurps his canned soup, and what his shirt doesn’t catch, his beard does. Everything that man eats ends up in that scraggly-ass beard. One thing’s for sure: he’s got no woman cooking for him. He lives alone. And judging by how old this stuff looks, maybe he’s always lived here. Maybe it was his parents’ house, and he never left.

When he first took me—and don’t ask me how long ago it was, I wasn’t thinking of time then—I didn’t notice how the room looked. Didn’t care. Spent my days shivering and throwing up into a red plastic bucket. Each day the sickness got a little better and my mind got a little clearer.

In a fucked-up way, maybe I can thank him for that. I notice everything now. Stacks of old newspapers tied with twine. An old hacksaw that doesn’t look very sharp but might still work. Ant traps in the corners. A bottle of bleach with the top cut off.

The windows are high, the long, narrow kind that are too small for even the skinniest kid to climb out of, and they probably have bars, or grates. Anyway, they’re boarded. Between the boiler and the water heater is a mound of dirt. I like to look at it because it’s the only thing in the room that reminds me there’s still a world outside: loose dirt and small rocks and a withered, papery tree branch, or maybe it’s part of a root. Some kind of digging going on. So maybe he’s done this before. Have there been stories? Missing persons reports? But who would notice, if they were girls like me? Inserts in a coupon packet. BRING THEM BACK. 1-800-THE-LOST.

A girl like me, a girl nobody was looking for. A girl who had taken some wrong turns, or not enough right ones.

There should be a shovel, but I can’t see one. Couldn’t reach it if I did.

A girl who could slide away from the world with no fuss or notice. But did she pose for her first communion picture once, a bouquet of violets in her hands? Did she dress for her quinceañera, hours at the salon, her first updo, her first heels?

I can’t reach the shovel that might or might not be there, or the hacksaw, or the paint cans. I might be able to reach the lightbulb if I stand on my toes, lean as far out as the chain will let me. I take a deep breath first, because I know it’ll be hard to breathe if I stretch that far. I feel the curve of the bulb, hear the rusty scrape when I first start to turn it. It feels hot, but not that hot, because, like I said, 25-watt bulb.

I hear his footsteps overhead, hear him unlocking the cellar door. Clipping his keys back on his belt loop like he always does. I stand up slowly, leaning my cheek against the cool of the ceiling beam, wishing it could be wide enough to hide me.

The door bangs open. “Police! Is anyone down there?” a deep, Batman voice yells—then he laughs, his nasty laugh. “April fool!”

If he’s right about the date, I must have been here two weeks, or close to. It was after St. Patrick’s Day when he took me. He was right: nobody is looking for a girl like me. No frantic parents, no desperate husband, no crying children.

My life matters to nobody, except myself.

I hear him climbing down the stairs. I hold the lightbulb between my fingers, waiting for him to get close enough.

Kathryn Kulpa was a winner of the Vella Chapbook Contest for her flash chapbook Girls on Film, published by Paper Nautilus. She has work published and forthcoming in Jellyfish ReviewBending Genres, and Evansville Review, and she serves as flash fiction editor for Cleaver Magazine. Kathryn has been a visiting writer at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts. She was born in a small state, and she writes short stories.