Christopher’s fists strangled the wheel, and on his tightened right forearm a tattoo of a WWII pinup girl tightened also. Our adopted daughter, Shirley, was flipped around in the back seat the way she always rode in the 20-year-old Volvo: knees in the cushions, hunched spine, elbows spread across the faded, dusty carpet surrounding the speakers.
I couldn’t fathom how we hadn’t noticed Shirley repeatedly snatching jewelry from the neck mannequins on the display counters and stuffing it down her pants, which the store manager pointed out on the black and white monitor. She glared at the security camera, her mouth puckered like a girl who’d just sucked venom from a snakebite, while Christopher and I plodded ahead with bags of her school clothes crinkling off our shins. Why in the hell would Shirley shoplift, I wondered, when we gave her everything she ever asked for?
Each night Christopher and I posted silently at the window, staring at the trampoline we’d bought her, which instead of jumping on to lose the weight, to alleviate her depression, Shirley clothespinned old sheets around, ran an orange extension cord beneath, and watched the horror films she’d picked up at the neighbor’s garage sale on the DVD player she dragged out of her bedroom.
The idea crept into my mind, and festered, that maybe Shirley wasn’t even a child at all, that our “daughter” was actually an underdeveloped twenty-something escaping the kind of barbed poverty that forces people to prey upon the good intentions of others in order to survive. A former sex slave, an exhausted farmer, a dutiful mother of seven promising to ship home when and what she could filch, squeezed into the clothing of a child, having been processed and adopted, having worked her way into our home, into our automobile. The thought haunted me. Truly, what if this 130-pound 12-year-old was no child at all? I glanced back at the bottoms of Shirley’s overpriced sneakers and fought the chill erupting at the thought of her slashing our throats.
“It’s going to be okay,” said Christopher. “We’ll figure this out.”
“Let’s push her out of the car and just keep driving.”
“Let’s push her out and just drive until we can’t drive any longer.”
There was a long silence, and I heard Shirley turn slightly in anticipation before Christopher and I burst into laughter.
WILLIAM WALKER delivered boxes in Manhattan high-rises long enough to qualify for a pension from FedEx. He currently teaches at Rutgers University-Newark, and his work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Subtropics, Fiction Southeast, and Storyscape Journal. Follow him on Twitter: @_wbwalker