HUNGRY GIRL

The girl was skinny, skinny like one of them you see on teevee. Not the pretty ones, the starving ones – though my momma says sometimes you can’t always tell which is which, these days.

She was just standing in the corner of the lower field, her back to the empty Interstate. I let the big green John Deere we drove on the farm in them days grumble and splutter to a halt a little way away.

She was skinny and her clothes were too big. The green jacket she wore, one that looked like maybe it once belonged to a soldier, hung off her shoulders and reached down to her ankles. She seemed to bend under it, like it was too heavy for her. Her collar bones were sharp ridges and you could see every thread of muscle in her neck. I could count her ribs through the dirty white vest she had on under that jacket.

She pulled her coat closed. She didn’t want me looking at her, counting her ribs or nothing. Her shoes were worn to scraps, she’d walked a long ways and her feet were black and bloody.

“Ain’t you hawt?” I says. It was early in the afternoon, the sun was high and I don’t reckon there was a cloud between here and the Pacific.

She shook her head.

“I bet you is thirsty, though.” I pulled a bottle of my momma’s icy lemonade from the cool box that was by my feet in the tractor cab.

The girl was pale, with straw hair and dark eyes that followed every tiny movement that bottle made. She didn’t move though.

I just shrugged, and rolled down the window on the tractor’s cab, feeling the heat roll in. I reached out and set the lemonade on the wheel arch of the John Deere then slid the window back up, letting the air-conditioning roll back over me.

The girl’s eyes flicked from side-to-side, nervous like. Then she moved, real quick, flitting forward and then back almost faster than I could follow.

She cradled the bottle of lemonade in her hands then raised it to her forehead, rubbing the cold bottle across her temple.

“You come from the city?” I asked.

She nodded.
“You got it bad?”

She just stared at me.

Bad enough, I thought.

She raised the bottle to her lips and drank half the lemonade in one long gulp. She gasped.

“Too cold?”
She shook her head, but her hungry eyes never left mine.

“Good, aint it?”

She raised the bottle again and swallowed the rest. She wiped at her mouth, sucking the last drops of the lemonade from her fingers.

She smiled and revealed a mouthful of sharp-edged teeth.

Yep. She had it real, real bad.

She took a step forward. Her dark eyes seemed to sink back further into her head. Her black tongue ran along her bottom lip.

She was coming for me.

I grabbed for my gun, but before I could draw it level she was at the cab’s window, clawing at the glass, her mouth open so that I could count her teeth and see the black sores on her tongue and down her throat.

I got the gun level, then stopped.

She dragged at the door, but it was locked tight. She punched at the glass, but it was reinforced, better than bullet proof.

She screeched, a sound like I once heard a dog make after it had been shot.

We stared at each other, stalemated.

And her eyes widened.

She gripped at her gut, then her whole body spasmed violent enough to throw her right off that John Deere. She tried to scream, but the muscles in her throat slammed shut like some giant hand had gotten a hold of her by the neck.

There was a second then, when she looked at me and I could see she was just a girl, furious, desperate and confused.

I pointed at the empty lemonade bottle lying on the ground where she’d dropped it a moment before.

“Poison,” I said as the light went out of her eyes.

That was the first of the sick we had around these parts, folks say. The first I remember, for sure, but not nearly the last. Still, I never met one that could resist my momma’s lemonade on a hot day.

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