Girl in Amber

Girl in Amber
by Melody Sage

Sparse houses that once belonged to farms lined the highway like knots on a rope indicating leagues at sea. Forests of thin white pines and silvery poplars engulfed the old fields. Wanderers had to be mindful of rusted barbwire hidden in the grass.

In the ditch, Amber and Billy picked fistfuls of weeds for their mothers: daisies, yarrow, and Queen Anne’s lace. Pale, frilly flowers that smelled medicinal.

They lived a mile apart and rode their bikes every afternoon to meet at the river. In actuality, it was a metal culvert with a trickling stream, but they called it a river. The water cascaded into the depths of a clear, glint-flecked, ale-colored pool. Like a diorama or a slide on a microscope, it was all the more captivating for its miniature scale, a kingdom of dappled light.

They had collected grayed wood and car parts to make a shelter. Inside, they kept supplies—bottles of iced tea and rain-swollen paperbacks. They harbored an elaborate fantasy, one they were almost too old for, that someday they would run away together and live there.

In the shade, they tended a menagerie in jars—crickets, twined garter snakes, painted turtles, toads, and an unidentified chrysalis. Amber tapped on the glass and added fresh beetles and leaves.

“Check me for ticks,” she said, lifting up her shirt. Billy felt embarrassed looking at her slender, freckled back, even though he had done it a hundred times before. When it was not wind-tangled and matted at the nape, her hair fell to her waist, sleek and flat, the dark blonde color of wildflower honey. She raised her eyebrows at him. Her eyes were blackest hazel, giving her an alien, animal look, all pupils.

Billy shrugged. “I have to go,” he said.

“Yeah, me too.” Amber never left first.

Now that it was summer, their habit was to rendezvous there at the same time each day, until school started. On the bus and the playground, they ignored one another by tacit consent. Billy ran with a crowd of boys, playing rough games he secretly found stupid and tiring. Amber sat alone under the maple tree, sometimes reading, staring off into space more often than not. She spent too much time looking up at the sky, studying the drifting intricacies of branches and clouds. The other children gave her a wide berth. Most of them were rural poor, but there was something especially unkempt and lost about her, a taint of tragedy.

Amber rode home from the river in the dusk. The infrequent cars and semi-trucks made parabolas to avoid her, or she would skid into the gravel shoulder instead. Mounted up on cinder blocks, the trailer listed to one side like a ship beached far inland. The insufficient windows and narrow interior gave it a claustrophobic, subterranean feeling. It had the crumbling smell of a temporary place used for too long.

Amber poured herself a bowl of cereal for dinner and went to check on her mom. She was asleep with the TV on, a science fiction novel splayed open on her chest, her down-turned mouth slack. Amber stared at the dragon on the slick cover in the dim, flickering light. She set the jar of flowers she had picked on the bedside table next to two other mold-blackened bouquets.

“I picked you flowers,” she whispered. Her mom did not like to be woken up.

Amber felt a lance of pain in her belly. She carefully crept into bed and curled up with her mom, who flinched and shifted away. Amber knew she still blamed her for the divorce. For telling.

The pain was worse now. She went to the bathroom and sat on the toilet. A butterfly of too-dark blood stained the crotch of her polka-dot underpants. She knew what it meant. It meant she was a woman now. She thought of all the naked women she had seen: her mom in the bathtub and her aunts at the Y, their pendulous breasts, their various moles and shiny scars, the bristled nests of hair slithering down their thighs, and the porno women with their empty, unfocused eyes.

Her mother especially frightened her. She insisted the two of them were exactly the same. No matter what, Amber would end up just like her, as if her youth, her distinct personhood, was merely a pretty illusion, a trick she was pulling.

No, Amber thought. She refused. She pulled up her pants and ran outside. The grass, wet with condensation, slapped her shins. She swung on her swing set, a bribe her father had left behind. The motion made a ghostly creaking music. She tilted back and gazed at the moon between her bare feet.

At the river the next day, she announced to Billy: “I’m never going to grow up.”

“Everyone grows up.”

“Not me.”

Billy glared at the ridiculous assertion. In the summer, Amber was the more powerful one, quietly imperious, inured to solitude. Her nose skewed to one side, broken by her father when she was four. It gave her face a knowing, wily expression that seemed wrong on a little girl.

Only moments before, they had been gathering green leaves to use as a bed, surrounded by the warm sun and the drone of bees. The whole idea seemed dumb to Billy now. The whole place seemed too small and dumb and childish. He kicked the pile of leaves. They swirled and eddied in the water. Next he knocked down the wrecked metal-and-sticks wall of the fort. Amber shouted after him as he pedaled away.

The next morning, he decided not to go back to the river, and the morning after that as well. He wasn’t sure if he would go again for the rest of the summer. His mother baked him rice crispy treats and bought him a new game, transparently pleased. She had never disapproved outright, but she pursed her lips whenever he mentioned Amber. Once, he overheard her on the phone talking in sugary, scandalized tones about how shocking, how sad it was what had happened to her, and thank God the man got no custody.

When they began middle school in the fall, Amber was unchanged. Only, the presence of crowds teeming in the hallways and classrooms made her aloofness seem more pronounced. Billy observed her from afar.

The distinction was subtle at first, for a year or two. Then everyone else in the class experienced a glandular bloom, gangly, furred, gorgeously oily and muscular. Amber alone remained a child. She was still waifish and slight, at least a foot shorter than the rest of them, her unblemished skin plump with baby fat. By junior year, her condition began to be seen as a rare deformity, a freak of nature, pitiful and disturbing in equal measure.

She dropped out, and Billy lost track of her. He went to college and got married and moved to Oregon. People called him Will instead of Billy. He only came home for funerals and major holidays. When his mother died, she left him the farm, and he and his wife decided to move back so their children would not have to grow up in the city.

He took long, meandering walks in the evening after work. On these walks, memories of childhood and Amber were as fresh and sharp in his mind as lemon on a paper cut. Her trailer was abandoned in waist-high grass, screen door torn off its hinges, glass punched out, a place where teenagers came to light fires.

On a whim, he went to see the river. The ditch to the culvert was steeper than he remembered, the location more concealed from the road. Like all revisited haunts, the place had less grandeur, less intrinsic magic, than he expected. Now he could easily step across the shallow, rippled pool.

Once, they had followed the river to see where it led, scratching their arms and legs with poison ivy and whipping branches, only to discover that it evaporated into hilly marsh and mud. The shelter was still there, the design larger and more enclosed, held together by actual nails. Amber must have continued working on it for years. He had not remembered the eerie, looping music of the wind rustling the treetops and the falling water echoing in the culvert. He peered inside the hole and wondered if the culvert had always been that deep and black.

“Hello,” he called.

“Hello,” a light voice answered him. He recoiled involuntarily.

A child crawled out of the culvert hole. It took him a moment to recognize her. She seemed different now, younger and more open, as if she had needed 30 years to regain her innocence, like a worm cut in two, or the detached arm of a starfish. Or perhaps she had always been thus, only he himself was older, less pure in comparison. With a start, he realized that she looked the same age as his daughter, trapped forever at 11 like a fly in amber.

“Who are you?” she asked.

“They call me Will.”

“You look like my friend Billy’s dad.”

“We’re related.”

She nodded and crouched down to float acorn caps on the water. Her long dreadlocks grazed the surface.

“Do you live out here alone? How long have you been here?”

He could not get over how tiny her hands were, could not believe he had ever been so small and defenseless himself. She still had freckles beneath the dirt, he noticed. He imagined taking her home with him, adopting her into the family. His wife would understand. As if she could read his mind, Amber turned a cold, reproachful eye on him. Before he could leap to grab her, she vanished into the woods.

He returned to the river every day, but he never saw her again. He considered calling the police or child protective services, but instead he left her a cache of food and supplies that disappeared overnight. Sometimes in the winter, he thought he glimpsed her footprints in the snow.

Copyright © 2015 Melody Sage