How To Look Your Age
A Short Story by Jeremy Benjamin
Written using the suggestion "Cookout"
Originally featured on 05-08-2009
As part of our series "Where the Wild Words Are (Words Gone Wild!)"

Mindi’s thumb might as well have been pinned under a stack of bricks. Its tip was still nestled against her curled fingers when she lifted her hand to just below hip level. For the past two miles, her arms had hung by her sides as she walked along the shoulder of Route Fourteen. She did not realize her thumb’s inertia until she intended to use it.

A gray Nissan with a cracked bumper slowed and swerved. Mindi’s whole torso jerked in response, hiding her right side from the car’s line of sight. Her thumb buried itself in her fist. The middle-aged couple in the car glanced at her. The gray Nissan honked and vanished around the next turn.

This would not work.

The miles behind her — what she took to be two, which in reality may have been less distance than four laps around the track at the high school, and may have been a continent’s width — pressed into her back. The further she walked, the more it hurt. There was one spot between her shoulder blades she could never reach with her hands, no matter how hard gymnastics instructors pushed her in stretching routines. In her mind she saw a tower turned on its side with a golden steeple tapering into a needle. Throughout the day — starting with the Mulberry Youth Group barbecue — gravity had pulled Mindi down from the roof of the tower one story at a time, and now it was sideways and stabbing her in that one spot on her back her hands had never touched.

Mindi was sixteen. Most people told her she looked more like fourteen. She couldn’t decide whom she hated more; the people who wrongly estimated her age when they looked at her chest, or the people who made that estimation looking at her face. She tried to make up for her youthful features by getting straight A’s and pretending it was easy.

She wore a purple fleece jacket with a busted zipper that contained about five more pockets than anybody should ever need. The frayed flap of fabric containing the dead zipper latch batted against her jeans in the wind. She felt the tap of metal on her hipbone only after what must have been the thousandth tap, and by the time she felt it, it already hurt. Her left arm hugged the jacket closed over her black tank top while her right hand forced itself in front of her body.

This would not work.

Mindi had been a member of the Mulberry Youth Group since the fifth grade. She had almost gotten kicked out during the summer of her first year. The barbecue at Leese Lake was an annual tradition that involved swimming, canoeing, hotdogs, burgers, pie-eating contests, games of tug-of-war, capture-the-flag and lots of laughing.

Mindi did not take part in any water recreation after the incident her first year. Too much sin was drifting plantlike at the surface where you couldn’t see it, and it could tangle you up at the ankles. Now that she was a counselor, she stayed close by the food and tended the charcoal. Fire was easier to control than water.

Wendy Sherman, the little slut. Wendy — the youngest daughter of Liz Sherman who taught sophomore English at the high school — was eleven years old and should have known better. Wendy Sherman should be the one hitchhiking on Route Fourteen with a defective jacket, thought Mindi as the wind burned her cheek. None of it was fair.

Mindi did not wear a watch, but judging by the color of the sky — a dry-cleaned shade of gray — the youth group was probably just wrapping up their competitive game of capture-the-flag, or maybe they were already into the pie-eating contest. Mindi loved pie.

“Get in, sweetie.”

Mindi was surprised, but not startled. People who jumped at unexpected noises had guilt, and guilt was a weakness. Or at least the appearance of it was. The fall of her last year of middle school, Mindi had made it her mission to save up several months’worth of allowance for her October spending spree, consisting of touring as many haunted house attractions as possible. At every haunt she visited, the first thing she did was go to the bathroom and stuff her bra with entire rolls toilet paper, and then she would shove her way to the front of the tour group and so as to make of herself a prime target for the monsters to jump out at. If a meth-addict in face-paint wielding a theatrical machete couldn’t agitate her anymore, then neither could Billy Kenny creeping up behind her in math class. Neither could the wrath of God.

“What’s the matter? You lost?”

A black pickup truck was idling on the shoulder. She had not noticed it pull up. She had not yet even made up her mind to lift her thumb higher than her waist.

Mindi shivered and twisted the thicker half of her jacket in tighter. The driver was a rugged man with a goatee, wearing a denim jacket with a row of leather sewn-on patches bearing obscure names and logos that were barely legible. His head was glisteningly bald; this much was evident beneath his cowboy hat. His face had about an extra face’s worth of flesh, mostly hanging down into his jaw. The cab smelled like mint.

Mindi took a few steps toward the large man in the large pickup truck that was idling in the dust. She felt as though she should be making decisions and calculations, but there were no decisions being made. The door opened wider to her. The man’s hands were massive but smooth and had no calluses.

The front wheel was hoisted higher from the ground than any truck Mindi had ever ridden in before. She had to use her arm strength to climb in. Flexing her arms felt good after all the walking she had done. It made her feel warmer for a moment.

“You’re a quiet one.” The man’s voice had a deep-fried lilt. Everything about him was deep-fried. They were already driving fifty miles per hour when she noticed it.

Mindi had never been apprehensive about hitchhiking, partially because she had never found herself at a loss for transportation. She had always scoffed at hitchhikers, especially the ones that looked close to her age — more so, now that she had earned her driver’s license. The idea of picking one up was not unlike swallowing a glob of snot discovered in the back of her throat upon waking up. She never considered it.

The man saw that she noticed it and his shoulders shifted, like a slight jerk on the handle of a frying pan to make sure the pancakes aren’t sticking. He turned on the radio.

“You’re an odd duck,” said Mindi, indicating the green, checkered kilt and yellow hooded raincoat draped neatly over the seat.

The man knew what she was looking at without looking at it himself. He said, “Put it on.” He waited for her to say something, in case she was stupid enough to say anything at this point. She said nothing. “You want a free ride? That’s the deal. Everyone has to wear the kilt and slicker. That’s how it works.”

Mindi stretched out the raincoat on her lap. “It’s been a shitty day.” Her hand sprung up from her lap to swat her mouth, but she restrained it in her lap. She reminded herself that cussing was only a sin at home, at church or in a bus. Shitty was perfectly acceptable verbiage for cruising on Route Fourteen at fourteen miles above the speed limit — the extant pre-contact-lenses dork in Mindi wondered if that was a coincidence — in a black pickup driven by an overweight burly man in a cowboy hat.

She held up her middle finger to the window and muttered Wendy Sherman’s name.

“As soon as you put on the duds, you can tell me all about it,” said Oscar. The leather patch at the top of his lapel read OSCAR in cursive. She had not seen it before. The handwriting matched his hands. No calluses. Smooth in a way they should not be.

Mindi had snatched half of a hamburger out of Wendy’s mouth because that was what girls like Wendy deserved. She had then grabbed Wendy’s greasy paper plate piled high with potato salad and dumped it onto the fire, producing two sprays of sparks in opposite directions and a heavy thud of silence spanning several picnic tables.

The raincoat was too large. Her hands could hide in the sleeves and make a home there. “My fucking youth group,” she said, muffling the word fucking with the seatbelt that she found she was chewing on.

Oscar pulled out the hood of the raincoat and gracefully placed it around her head.

“You Christian?” His voice got deeper, seemingly the faster he drove. They were now cruising at eighteen miles above the posted speed limit of forty-five.

“Duh.” The kilt was too big for her too. It traveled easily over her heels and calves like a hula-hoop. She slid it to the middle of her thighs so that it met the bottom of the raincoat. She folded the two together into a cinched clump of fabric and rubber. The Christian youth group expellee and the cowboy with smooth hands speeding on Route Fourteen — like green fabric and rubber joined in the fist of a sinner.

“I just wanted some blueberry pie, you know what I mean, Oscar?”

The rest of it emptied out of her mouth because it was heavy in her stomach and the oversized fisherman’s coat and bagpiper’s kilt somehow squeezed the story out of her. She could not tell at what point during her story the radio was turned off.

Wendy Sherman, the audacious little slut. Wendy had flashed her prepubescent chest to the boys at the table because, why, because it was funny? Because it was part of a game they were playing? What would have happened next had Mindi not intervened? Nobody played games like that when Mindi was that age. Wendy probably fancied herself immortalized on account of her mother being a high school teacher from whom all her little friends would be learning how to interpret Homer’s Odyssey and Lord Of The Flies in five years. The people in those books didn’t always act very civilized. Wendy Sherman was not a character in one of the books her mother taught. Wendy Sherman had no right to be eating that hamburger after what she did.

Precocious child, I like that, Oscar said. With the radio off, his voice sounded alien.

I should have yanked her up by the wrist and shoved her little hand into the charcoal, Mindi said, biting down on the seatbelt so hard she gagged. Her own voice was alien too, like it was a substitution for radio static. Now that they were talking about Wendy Sherman, the conversation was not native to the vehicle they were riding in.

What’s your hang-up?

I almost got kicked out when I was that little slut’s age, you know why? Because I fell out of a canoe, thought I was drowning, and when I came up for air my bathing suit was half off, but I didn’t even notice until I was back in the boat catching my breath, and they were all looking at me wide-eyed and disbelieving and I couldn’t figure out why they were looking at me like that, I wondered if I was dead and didn’t know it, I wondered a lot of things before I thought to look down at my body. It was an accident. I covered it up, but Counselor Gary said I could have been aware of myself and covered myself sooner, so I got to spend the rest of the day reciting prayers with my hand pressed against a tree and a blindfold on, until my parents came and picked me up.

That’s your sad story. What’s that got to do with poor little Wendy Sherman? You owe that girl a burger, you do know that. And why were you walking alone on-

Fuck you. Let me out right now. Fucking-

Sixty-six miles per hour. That was twenty-one above the posted limit.

“I’m sorry.” He was sorry. “Please accept my apology. It was none of my business.”

“Take me back there.”

“Back where?”

Mindi wiped her drool off the seatbelt with the sleeve of the raincoat. “Back to the picnic. They’ll let me back in. I’ll apologize to Wendy. I can still get back in time for pie. Turn around.”

Oscar laughed. He crumpled the raincoat’s hood in his massive, pretty hand until Mindi’s hair hurt and her head was close to the middle leather patch on Oscar’s jacket. The patch read PUSSY POLICE and it was in nobody’s handwriting.

“There’s only one kind of pie you’ll be eating tonight, bitch.” His voice was softer. With the folds of Oscar’s jacket enveloping her vision, she could not see outside the truck, and although the engine was louder than anything else, the sensation that the truck was standing still was entirely convincing. The only movement was in her hair follicles that screamed down at her face. Mindi wanted to scream, but if she opened her mouth she would taste Oscar’s jacket. Oscar’s jacket smelled like dirt that had been fried in enough bacon grease to make dirt start to taste good.

Mindi had contemplated, many nights while lying in bed, what she would do if she ever was violated by a stranger. She had taken a self-defense course in middle school — around the same time she had embarked on her haunted-house touring spree — and several options leapt to her head. There were at least five different things she could do with her hands to take control of the situation. The options sprang to her brain so fast that they could not find it. Her scalp was a writhing envelope that felt more like an extension of the flesh in Oscar’s fist and less like part of her head. The back of her neck was shrieking in a language heard only by an animal in her chest that was running fast enough to outrun nature’s fastest predator and not moving anywhere. The truck was stationary. Mindi’s arms were frozen by her sides. She could no more will her elbows into combat than she could make herself stick out her thumb when she was walking.

She heard a sound. Oscar was still grasping Mindi’s hair with one hand. She could not see his other hand, but heard what it was doing.

Below her left ear, the sound was of a zipper being unzipped.

The animal in her chest froze into a block of ice. Her ribs became teeth and bit its head off. Her elbows thrashed in a circle. Her knuckles plunged repeatedly into the blubbery cushion of Oscar’s stomach and side, knocking on the door of whatever was on the inside of the man. She did not hear herself scream, but she knew exactly what the soreness in her throat would feel like later.

Oscar squeezed his fist tighter around her hair and pushed her head more forcefully into his body. “Is that what you do in youth group? We’ll make our own youth group right here, no need to worry, sweetie. How old are you? Naw, don’t matter.”

The insane realization that he was driving with no hands on the wheel was what made her stop breathing. If the truck was moving when it did not seem to be, her body needed convincing that time was moving forward. She counted seconds.

One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six.

Her head was forced lower. Her hair was stretched so tight liquid pain squirted from her eyes. She was not breathing. Not breathing meant she could lose consciousness.

Seven. Eight. Nine.

The smell of Oscar’s jacket changed as her face skidded down the denim surface. Her fist struck wildly at what she thought was the underside of his chin. If she could murder him, it would not be a sin. Splotchy bursts of reddish orange suffused the edges of her vision. The pain was too wet to see anything. Her teeth were shaking. Her tongue was a field of tiny explosions.

Ten. Eleven.

The sirens and lights behind them crept up in the same way Oscar’s black pickup had crept up on her before asking for it with her body.

When she stepped out with the kilt and the rain slicker, the officer’s hand went to his belt. The passenger seat of the cruiser felt gigantic. Fourteen-year-olds had a different way of filling space than sixteen-year-olds. When Mindi was fourteen, or even fifteen, she had never fathomed a predicament that would occasion her to be riding in a police car. Looking in the rear-view, she could still see the round shape of Oscar in the back of the other police car in the right lane behind them. She had never seen a human being in a cage before — at least that she could remember — and it was not a natural thing to see.

The satisfaction was a vengeful type of satisfaction that she felt in a region of her stomach where Father Byren told her it was not good to feel things, and that meant that it was connected with guilt. The feeling was also inseparable from the thought of what Oscar had intended to do with her, and that thought lived deep in her throat where there was not enough room for both air to travel to her lungs and the image of Oscar’s act to take form. Instead she thought about the many varieties of pie, and what Jesus might have thought of contests of pastry consumption, and tried to think of little else.

Her eye needed something else to focus on, in order to erase the rear-view mirror from its periphery. It settled on the speedometer. The police officer was driving thirteen miles above the posted speed limit. Mindi shifted in her seat, looking for a comfortable position, and finding too many of them. Her back tingled, in the same spot where the phantom tower had been stabbing her. Her shoulder flexed and let go. She let it tingle.

Looking down at her purple fleece with the busted zipper, she made note of a fact: in the law, the official law, eleven-year-old sluts were probably not prohibited from flashing boys at youth-group picnics. Hitchhiking, on the other hand, was definitely illegal.

She waited for the question. It seemed only logical that the officer would inquire as to her age. She tried to think of the best answer.

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