The Midwest |


by Maryse Meijer

Maryse Meijer's debut collection of fiction, Heartbreaker, is available from FSG Originals on July 12 and can be ordered here. Amelia Gray said that Heartbreaker has "the feeling of a sucker punch with the attendant knowledge that you deserved it."

The girl works nights. In the middle of nowhere. She drives an hour to get to her job, an hour back. She can stand through her entire shift in silence, the way she is standing now. Dim white light spills down over her. The dessert freezer builds up ice. She is allowed to help herself to some chips, or beef jerky, or a cold drink. She likes how quiet it is, how dark it is. It is the quiet that brought her here.

The boys are driving in the young one’s black car. They know all about girls like her, girls who are alone, girls not beautiful, but not unattractive, either. In her uniform like a mechanic, blue, no nametag: hair like thick silk. No makeup.

Did you know testosterone is a just, like, a drug, the tall one says.

Major drug, the youngest one says.

Turn the music down, the dark-haired one says. I can’t hear anything.

Shut your mouth, the young one replies, and turns the music up.

The storefront is humped concrete and plate glass; they can see the girl from the road, her ponytail in the window.

Hey, the tall one says, slapping the young one’s arm. Get off here.

What? the young one says, focused on a smear of road kill just beyond the steering wheel.

Don’t we need gas? the tall one asks, and when he points they all look.

Fuck yeah, the young one says, and pulls the car around. Three slow smiles stretch inside the car.

They pull in alongside the gas pumps. One of the overhead lamps is broken. They get out of the car in slow motion, like gangsters in a movie; in their heads music is playing. They hitch up their pants and push into the store. The air inside is cool, stale. They run their hands over everything: rows of gummy bears in plastic bags on pegboard, canned nuts settling in drifts of salt, bags of chips sagging on the shelves. In the beverage cases the energy drinks wink neon, lined two or three deep; cold shadows yawn behind them. The tall one spins a rack of maps and a postcard spills out of a broken pocket: Wish you were here! He kicks it under the ice cream freezer.

The girl watches them from behind the register, crowned by slots of cigarettes, her palms on the counter. The boys advance from different aisles; the youngest gets to her first, then the tall one. The dark-haired one, whose eyes are also dark, almost black, is last, his thumbnail raking across the face of the magazine display as he approaches.

Hey, the young one says, leaning over the counter, hip cocked.

Hi, the girl replies. She looks at each of them, in order, left to right. You need some gas? she asks.

Maybe, the young one says.

The dark-haired one slides a lotto ticket out of a stack near the girl’s fingers; digging a dime from his pocket he scratches the card, his tongue between his teeth. Beneath the silver foil he finds four clovers.

Shit, he says, rearing back with pleasure. What’d I win?

The girl reads the fine print. A dollar, she says.

The other boys laugh. She punches a button on the register; the drawer jumps open and the tall one leans to look inside.

How much you got in there?

I don’t know, she says. A few hundred I guess. She talks slow, kind of quiet, but not shy; she looks them in the eyes and smiles.

What if we made you give it to us?

She blows on her bangs. You got a gun?


Then I guess I’d have to give it to you.

The tall one slips a dollar from the tray.

Nah, he says, But we won this fair enough, right? Snapping the bill in her face. She flinches, giggling. He puts the bill in the take-a-penny-leave-a-penny tray.

You should get a tip jar, he says.

For real, the young one says. The tall one sucks his lips.

You smoke?

Sure, she replies.

You wanna smoke with us? It’s good shit, the dark-haired one says, his hips caressing the front of the counter. We promise.

Sounds great, she says, and if the boys were listening they could hear it—the wall clock telling them it is time to keep driving. But they aren’t listening. The blood roars in their ears.

I know a good place to do it, she says.

You’ve done this before? the tall one asks.

Sure, she says. Haven’t you?

The young one puts his hand next to hers, his pinkie dancing over the side of her palm. He looks at the others like, see? Easy.

Outside, moths swarm in flammable mass against the store windows. The empty parking lot glitters, a sea of spilled tar, and they cross it into the short strip of damp grass bordering the lot and the road. Dew licks their shoes; the tall boy dips his head to smoke but the young one puts his hand over the cigarette, folds it in his palm, drops it. The girl is in front, head down, ponytail swinging, as they walk beneath the concrete horizon of the overpass, where no cars move. The young one smiles and the tall one smiles too; the dark-haired one lifts his shoulders inside his track jacket, cold from the inside.

Beneath the pass the girl stops. They’re standing in a stretch of soft dirt and stone hooded by the road: beyond the girl the boys can’t see anything but the dim skeleton of a chain link fence. They stand, the girl facing the boys, and the young one rubs his toe in the dirt.

So is it good? she asks.

Is what good?

She blinks. Your trip, she says. You’re on a road trip, right?

The young one chuffs. We’re just driving.

Oh, she says. Cool.

What’s your name? the tall one asks. The girl cocks her head, small smile buzzing around her lips.

What’s yours? she replies.

You want us to guess? the dark-haired one asks, but the young one snorts, shakes his head.

We’re not playing games, man. She doesn’t want to say, then she doesn’t want to say.

Laura, the tall one says. She looks like a Laura.

The girl looks at him. What does a Laura look like?

Like you.

Is that good?

The tall one shrugs. It’s not bad, he says.

Are we just going to stand here or what, the dark-haired one says, pushing his fists in his jacket.

The young one pulls a joint out of his pocket and dances it in front of the girl. She reaches for it, but he lifts it away from her hand, whistling.

I thought we weren’t playing games, the girl says.

Maybe we are, maybe we aren’t, the young one says. You don’t have anything better to do, do you?

No, she agrees.

Then relax. Open your mouth he says, and the girl parts her thin lips. He sets the end of the joint next to her tongue.

The lighter’s in my back pocket, the young one says, looking down at her pale face.

The girl reaches around the young one’s waist. Her eyelid flutters when her hand bumps something cool and hard. She pulls it out.

Try again, the tall one says, taking the Swiss army knife from the girl and, peeling the scissors from the steel grip, starts cutting his nails.

The girl’s smile deepens. She reaches into the young one’s other pocket.

Here? she says.

You got it, he says, then plucks the joint from her mouth. But how about a kiss first?

She tilts her head up, her lips still parted.

You want to fuck? she whispers, before he can kiss her, and for a moment the boys are frozen.

Hey now, the young one says, giving the girl his smooth laugh. He grinds the lighter, flipping on its weak fire: smell of burning, of a good time. The young one takes a deep breath. The girl licks her lips.

The dark-haired one sees it happen first: the emergence of the girl’s real face. Her eyes seem to blacken; her mouth discards the dull smile. She is no Laura, it occurs to him; she is not an Allison or a Sarah or a Tiffany. There is no way this girl has a name like any name they know.

Hey—the dark-haired one says, trying to get the attention of the others, but they are still playing with the joint and their own anticipation; the dark-haired one might as well be a tree, or a block of night sky.

The young one exhales into the girl’s open mouth. That what you want? he says.

Ooh, she croons, running her finger down the young one’s chest. You’re gonna do it to me, I know it.

Their smiles flicker, fade. The girl turns to snatch the knife out of the tall one’s half-clipped hands.

You wanna screw me with this?

What the fuck, the young one breathes, dropping the joint. He takes a step back.

You, she says, You can choke me. That will feel good, won’t it? If you do that?

We’re not into that shit, he says, wincing, hands up.

It’s okay, she continues, pulling each tool from the red case, one by one. You can do it. I like it.

The tall one reaches for his knife but she whips it high above their heads, its splayed tools twinkling.

Maybe you should calm down, the dark-haired one says.

The girl sharpens her gaze on him.

You can watch, she says. And then you can have your turn.

What the fuck is wrong with you? the young one says.

Nothing, she says, blinking, eyes wider and wider. What’s wrong with you? Why isn’t your cock hard?

She nudges her knee against the inside of the young one’s thigh; he jerks away.

This better be a joke, he says.

Why? she says. You feel like laughing?

Seriously, what the fuck is your deal?

Don’t you like me? I thought you liked me, the girl says, pouting. She moves her head from side to side, like a leaking balloon, lips pushed out farther and farther while making the high-pitched whimper of a dog. The knife lands in the dirt; no one moves to touch it. Her shoulders start to shake and her frown melts down and she pretends to cry, boo-hoo, cartoon sobs slashing out between her teeth. Every hair on every piece of the boys’ skin stands up.

Let’s just go, the tall one says, but nobody moves.

You can’t go, you haven’t done it yet, the girl says.

Fuck man let’s just get—

The girl slaps herself, hard, so that her lip smashes against her teeth; blood darts down her chin. She staggers to the side.

No, she whispers.

The boys are stuck. The night is something that congeals around them, in them, between them. They don’t know how to move. She starts to undress: shoes, socks, polo, pants. The boys stare. The clothes lay like shed snakeskin at her feet. A jagged line runs from her navel down into the lip of her underwear, and from what they can see of her breasts those, too, are shiny with scars.

Fuck, the young one whispers.

You want to touch me? the girl asks.

We don’t want to do anything, the tall one says.

Oh no? Then who did this? Do you know who did this? she says, jabbing at the scar on her belly.

No, the boys say.

You did it, the girl hisses. Don’t you remember?

We should call someone, get someone, the cops—the dark-haired one says.

Who? she says, eyes narrowing. Call who? Then she laughs, a high bright sound punching the air.

Oh you bad boys, she says, her teeth pink. Such bad boys. Do you need your knife back? Is that why you haven’t done it yet?

She kicks the ground, making the knife jump.

Done what?

Killed me! the girl shrieks.

You’re crazy, the young one breathes.

The girl cocks her head, smiling hard. The dark-haired one puts his hands up to his head.

I don’t know what’s going on, he says. I don’t know why we don’t go.

Oh you can do whatever you want, she says. There are three of you and one of me. Isn’t that fair?

The boys open their mouths but the words that fall out lie in the dirt and never seem to reach the girl. In time they grow silent; they grow still as trees.

Do you know how many times there isn’t anyone? she says at last. No one at all? Once I counted just six cars. Six. In eight hours. And none of them stopped, even though I was screaming as loud as I could.