Lost Girls of Kato
© Quinn Avery
Jackie - 1986
Standing on the pedals of my pink Schwinn bike, I pant in the scent of freshly cut grass, pumping my legs like my life depends on it—or rather, like the devil is chasing me, as my grandma Anna would’ve said. My life really does depend on how quickly I can go since I’m not supposed to be riding this far from home on my own. If my mom finds out I went as far as Minneopa State Park by myself, she might ground me from going to Becky Myers’s sleepover next week, which I guess wouldn’t be all bad. I’ve been looking for an excuse not to go without hurting Becky’s feelings.
It’s not my fault that my older sister by four and a half years ditched me to hang out at the arcade with Karrie Schaumberg, her best friend from the trailer park. They told me I couldn’t come along, which was fine by me. I don’t have any money, and Kato Arcade only has a bunch of old games like Q*bert and Dig Dug.
As I push my bike even harder across the bumpy field, my waist-length braid begins to stick to the back of my damp neck. Spiderwebs catch on the tips of my jelly shoes as a cardinal tells his story in one of the trees overhead. When my dry tongue drags across the roof of my mouth, I’m all at once mad I didn’t grab my sister’s last can of Jolt from the fridge.
I’ve always hated the hot and sticky weather of mid-August in Minnesota. Mosquitoes swarm my head, biting a little harder than usual, and my legs itch from the long grass. Then there’s the never-ending, annoying chirp of stupid crickets and the trill of cicadas. I imagine my tires squishing the life from every last one, finally shutting them up for good.
Worst of all, it’s the time of year when most kids’ parents take them on shopping sprees at the malls in The Cities for new clothes and school supplies.
It’s not fair. I’ll never be like them. My clothes fit funny and the patterns are faded because they’re old and once belonged to other girls. Our pencils, paper, and folders come from a donation box at the Lutheran church. If I’m lucky, maybe someone will donate a Trapper Keeper with puppies or hearts like every other girl at Roosevelt Elementary had last year.
My mom is always reminding my sister and me how lucky we are to have a roof over our heads since our daddies both split long ago. It’s hard to believe that we’re any kind of lucky when the older boys have always teased me for being “trailer trash” and “having a whore mom.” When I was younger, I asked my sister what they meant about our mom, and it only made her mad at me for an entire afternoon. By the time I understood the cruel intentions behind their words, it made me want to punch every one of those boys in their dumb faces.
The golden glow from the sun slipping beneath the evergreens lining the park causes my heart to rise into my throat. If I’m not home for my mom’s break between her shifts at the paper factory in North Mankato and Happy Dan’s convenience store down the road, I’ll surely be grounded for life. The trailer park is still at least half an hour away, and my calves already burn.
With a tight band across my chest, I glance over to my left where the Minnesota River runs along the edge of the park. My mom told Diane and me we weren’t allowed to cross through that area as it’s rumored to be the spot where Shannon Bentzen was last seen a month ago. But all the local kids say the 10th grader ran away from her grandma’s place with a carny rat she met at the county fair, so I don’t understand why my mom makes a big deal out of it.
Swerving in that direction, I soon hear water rushing over tree roots and rocks. A cool breeze skims over my bare shoulders, rustling the loose strands of hair framing my face and blowing the mosquitos away. At least I would finally cool down if I took a dip in the river.
I slide off my bike’s long seat and begin to walk, stopping dead in my tracks once I realize I’m not alone. At the edge of the river bank sits a lanky brunette boy in a white t-shirt and ripped jean shorts, his back curved like a question mark. Facing the rushing water, he wears a set of headphones plugged into a Walkman clipped to his shorts pocket. At first I think he must be fishing until I see a stream of smoke drift over his head. Worried he’s one of the older boys always teasing me, I begin to steer my bike back in the other direction. Being late for taking the long way is better than being bullied.
“Hey!” he calls out, his voice a confusing combination of rough and high like he’s stuck between being a boy and man. “Where’re you goin’?”
I peer back at him over my shoulder. He’s twisted around to look at me, headphones slung around his neck. His hairstyle reminds me of Johnny in The Outsiders. Thick, sandy brown locks curl around his neck and above his ears, feathering across his forehead. His nose and bottom lip are both a little bigger than the rest of his features, and his cheeks are as round as balloons. Dark eyes beneath thick eyebrows catch the golden hue of the setting sun, making my heart drum a little faster.
Although he’s definitely a grade or two older, I’m pretty certain he’s not one of last year’s sixth graders who loves teasing me. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him around.
“Pretty sure that’s none of your business,” I finally answer.
He holds up a funny-looking little cigarette and flashes a dimpled grin. “Want a drag?”
Butterfly wings flutter through my stomach. With that grin, he’s the most beautiful boy to ever come into my life. Before I think it through too hard, I’m already guiding my bike back in his direction. It’s as if he’s holding a giant magnet, drawing me in. “I’m…trying to quit,” I say smartly, lifting my chin a little higher.
He laughs, his voice crackling with the gruff sound. “It’s not that good anyway. I think the guy sold me ditch weed.”
I lean my bike against a tree and shuffle over to him. “Aren’t you a little young to be smoking weed?”
Taking another drag of the strange cigarette, he shrugs. “I’m almost fourteen.” His brown eyes are warm and friendly when they meet mine. “How old are you?”
“Twelve and a half,” I lie, standing a little taller. Although I just turned 12 a few weeks ago, my chest is flat as a board and I have a chubby baby face, so most people assume I’m a year or two younger.
“Nice bike,” he tells me.
I can’t decide if he’s being mean or not. My mom gave it to me on my eighth birthday. It was already old and worn, its pink and white plastic basket cracked, the tassels on the handlebars torn. I removed them, thinking the pink flowers on the white seat made it pretty enough. Looking at it now, I realize it looks like something only an 8-year-old would ride.
The boy pats the greenish blue soil at his side. “Come sit with me. If you aren’t going to take a toke, you can at least keep me company.”
My gaze travels from his narrow fingers splayed on the earth up to his tanned arm and neck, slipping past his thick bottom lip the color of pale raspberries before settling on his eyes the same warm hue as the bark of the hickory tree behind him. My stomach tightens with an unfamiliar sensation. I can’t seem to make myself walk away from this beautiful boy even though my mom will be super mad that I’m late.
Pressing my lips together, I lower down at his side and cross my legs, willing my throat not to tighten any more. I already feel as if I’ll choke to death. Beyond the faint odor of sweat and something that reminds me of one of those scratch-and-sniff skunk stickers, his skin has a spicy scent. When I sniff him again, my stomach does a funny little dance.
“What’s your name?” he asks.
“Jackie. What’s yours?”
“Everyone calls me J.R.—it’s short for Junior.”
“What are you doing here by yourself?” I ask, pulling my legs against my chest and glancing at him over my knees.
“Don’t you have any friends?”
“Don’t you?” J.R. fires back, one sandy brown eyebrow raised.
Eyeing the chipped orange polish on my toes, I think of Becky Myers. She was the oldest one in her grade before she was held back a year, so she’s two years older than most sixth graders. We sometimes played together at recess in 5th grade. Even though she only lives four trailers down from ours, I haven’t seen her around all summer. I was surprised when the pretty little invite to her sleepover appeared in our mailbox a couple of weeks after the start of summer break. The yellowed paper was folded in half with my name written among hand-drawn stars and rainbows. I have a feeling I might be the only person she invited since none of the other kids at school ever want anything to do with her. She’s really pretty, but she wears dirty clothes and talks a little funny, like she isn’t very smart. She also has a mean dad who drinks a lot and throws crushed beer cans at anyone who steps on his lawn. He’s the only reason I really don’t want to go to her party.
From behind my knees, I shrug as a blush spreads across my cheeks. I’m not about to admit I’m a loner.
“I’m just yanking your chain,” J.R. says, finally letting me off the hook. “I don’t have any friends here. I just moved to town with my old man.” With another dazzling grin, he reaches out to gently tug my braid over my shoulder. “I guess I could become friends with a twelve-year-old girl.”
“I’m not a girly girl,” I declare, all at once wishing I hadn’t let my sister braid my hair before we left home, and that I hadn’t worn a pink and white striped tank top, or rode my pink bike. I nudge my braid back behind my shoulder. “I like riding bike…and listening to music.”
“Oh yeah? What kind of music?”
Panic zaps down my spine. I only listen to whatever’s playing on the K-Dog radio station while my mom’s at work, and I really don’t know the different “kinds.” Some are fast paced with a lot of drums and a lot of yelling. Some are slow and dreamy with a gentle voice and softer music in the background. “Whatever,” I say. “I like all kinds.”
“My old man has a ton of electropop vinyls. I kind of dig it.”
What the heck is electropop? I wonder. “I like electropop too,” I say anyway.
“Cool.” Head tilted to one side, J.R. studies my face, as if waiting to catch me in the lie. “What’s your favorite song?”
Sweat pricks beneath my hairline. I don’t know the name of a single song or band. I only remember our elementary music teacher, Mrs. Lewinsky, introducing us to certain melodies she enjoyed.
I say, “I really like that song that goes, ‘you may be right, I may be crazy, but it just may be a lunatic you’re looking for.’”
He looks as if he’s on the verge of laughter when his eyebrows squiggle up and down. “Never heard of it.”
“I think it’s new.” I point to his Walkman. “What are you listening to?”
“Gary Numan. Some of the songs on this tape are crap, but I really dig ‘Cars.’ Have you heard it?”
“I love that one,” I lie once again.
“I guess it wouldn’t be so bad having a girl as a friend,” he decides. With a chuckle, he reaches over to tug my braid a little harder. “Why are you out here by yourself, anyway? Don’t you know it isn’t safe for girls like you? My old man said there’s a curfew coming soon.”
Irritated that he’s so focused on my braid, I nudge his fingers away. “How would he know that?”
“He’s a police detective. We only came back here because of the girls that have gone missing in the area.” He looks annoyed when he adds, “He’s good at solving murder cases and shit.”
A trickling cold spreads over my face, sending painful chills down my back. More than one girl from Mankato is missing? Was my mom right about Shannon? Has she been murdered?
“What girls?” I whisper.
“My old man isn’t supposed to talk about details of his cases with me, but I overheard him mention some names in a conversation with someone on the phone—Shannon Bentzen and Rebecca something or other. He’s out now with the cops, leading a search party.” He glances up at the sky, tapping his chin. “Wait…I know the other last name because it was the same as one of those slasher movie guys that kills everyone.” He takes another drag of the strange cigarette. “Not Krueger…not Voorhees…” He glances back at me, his eyes wide as smoke curls out from his nostrils. “I know! It was Myers! You know, like Michael!”
A massive sob lodges in my throat. “Becky Myers?”
“Yep, that’s it.” He notices the tears in my eyes and frowns. “Oh shit. You know her?”
When my stomach folds over itself the same way it does when I get the flu, I scramble to my feet. My legs don’t feel strong enough to hold me up when I stand. “I have to go,” I tell him, turning away right as fat tears freely flow down my face.
Who would want to hurt someone as innocent as Becky? I’ve never heard her say a mean thing to anyone, even to defend herself. Could she really be dead? Everyone knows her dad is mean, but would he kill his own daughter?
J.R.’s sandaled feet crunch on the sticks behind me as I wrestle my bike away from the tree. “Hold on, Jackie.” He touches the back of my arm, waiting for me to turn back to him. “Are you okay?”
Swiping my arm over my wet face, I close my eyes and slowly shake my head. “Becky’s my friend.”
His warm fingers encircle my wrist. “I shouldn’t have said that thing about my old man and murder cases. Just because they can’t find her doesn’t mean she’s dead. Sometimes missing kids like her are found and brought back home. Maybe she just ran away.”
My stomach hurts too much to say anything in reply.
“Why don’t I go with you?” he offers, his voice gentle. “I’ll stand on the pedals and you can ride behind me on the seat. I give my little cousin a ride that way all the time. I promise it’s safe—you just have to hold onto me, and tell me where to turn.”
I allow the new boy with eyes the color of warm hickory to guide me onto the seat of my bike and wrap my arms around his waist when he climbs on in front of me.
As I direct him to my house, the little knots in my stomach keep churning over and over. What if he’s wrong, and Becky is dead?