Written by: Meghan Beaudry
Somehow, I always end up at the construction site where they found the girl’s body. I rarely left my apartment before this week, with its broken TV and dishes crusting over in the sink. But since I read the news article, something outside seems to pull me, dry heat and all. I throw on some sweatpants and a shirt that sort of passes for clean. I go to the convenience store for cigarettes first, even though it zaps my energy to walk outside in the heat.
At first, the construction workers eyed me with suspicion, but they’ve grown used to me. It’s only five blocks from my apartment—a distance I used to be able to run without breaking a sweat. I watch from inside the café across the street—a dump of a place with greasy counters that serves weak-ass bilge water with coffee grounds in the bottom of the cup. Camila, the barista scribbles on the outside of my cup without me having to tell her.
I keep the news article in my pocket. It’s squeezed between a column on suburban expansion and an ad for Rudy’s Fried Chicken. The dead girl didn’t even make the front page. I read it again.
BODY DISCOVERED DURING CONSTRUCTION OF NEW OFFICE BUILDING.
July 21, 2018—Construction workers have discovered decades-old human remains while laying the foundation for a new office building downtown on the corner of Main Street and Jana Road. Believed to be a woman in her early twenties who died sometime between 1990 and 1994, the body has yet to be identified. Forensic experts have identified the cause of death as blunt force trauma to the head. The Winslow Police Department is treating this as a cold case.
Pain shoots through my arms all the way to my fingertips, pulsing along to my heartbeat. It used to freak me out, especially if the pain was in my legs. When the pain happens when I’m driving, I imagine losing control of my car, watching from outside my body as it careens off the road and over a cliff. A fitting tribute to the year I’m having.
After an hour, I stand up to leave. Another doctor’s appointment. A different doctor this time. The usual dread pools in my stomach.
I head to my car, stopping to glance across the street. At the construction site, there are no crosses like you see when someone is killed by a drunk driver. No crowds. No grieving family. Just police tape wrapped around some wires. And everyone going on about their lives as if she never mattered.
My car shudders to a stop near a squat, brown building. The parking lot stretches in front of me, the heat tricking my eyes into seeing puddles that aren’t really there. “It’s a dry heat,” people like to say around here, as if that makes it any easier to tolerate. By the time I reach the door, my left foot is dragging and tremors rocket through my arms.
I sign in, then balance the clipboard full of new patient papers in my lap. After more than ten new appointments with different doctors, the forms all look the same. Like there’s a website floating around in the ether where doctors download these twenty-page packets, then cackle, power-drunk, as they picture sick and exhausted patients answering the same questions over and over.
Kidney disease? No.
Family history of glaucoma? No.
Muscle weakness? Yes.
Fatigue? Holy shit yes.
I turn in the clipboard, then return to my seat.
Glossy magazines are strewn over every tabletop in the waiting room. All several years out of date, all full of bullshit about what famous person is screwing what other famous person or asinine advice about painting your cabinets white for that farmhouse aesthetic. I pull the news article out of my pocket again.
I jump at the sound of my name.
The nurse raises an eyebrow as I walk toward her, my leg still dragging slightly. She’s middle aged, a bit thick around the middle. Once through the door, she motions toward the scale.
I step on and look away. People seem to think you lose weight when you’re sick, but that’s crap. Instead, your body expands like a bloated bug, as if it’s not taking up enough of your attention already. The muscles I used to have started dissolving under my skin in the months after I quit the team.
Once inside the exam room, I sit on the table covered in crinkly paper.
The nurse takes a seat on the black stool in front of the computer. “Smoker?” Her fingers hover above the keys.
“Yes.” There’s no point in lying when I smell like a fucking ashtray. I’d bought my first pack the week I’d lost my cross country scholarship. It’s been a pack a week ever since.
“Probably a reservation girl,” the nurse says.
“I’m Mexican,” I correct her.
“No, her,” she gestures toward the article I’d forgotten I was holding. “From the reservation down the road. They go missing all the time.” She says it as casually as if she’s remarking on the weather. “The doctor will be in soon,” she adds before walking out the door.
Dr. Stentson enters a moment later. After a perfunctory nod, he takes a seat on the stool and squints at my chart. “It looks like you’ve been to quite a few doctors lately,” he says, a hint of skepticism in his voice.
I’m glad that for once the brain fog has cleared, allowing me to summon the level of sarcasm this situation requires. “Yes. I come to doctors because I, a broke college student, have time and money to spend.”
“It says you’re not in school anymore.”
I say nothing.
“So why are you here?” he asks.
I take a deep breath. “Headaches, brain fog. Lots of hair loss. God-awful fatigue every day. Sometimes in the heat my arms shake and my feet feel weird. My old doctor tested for Lyme and it was positive, so he put me on antibiotics. Things got better for a while, and then I got sick again. He won’t prescribe more, even though they helped me.”
Dr. Stentson nodded. “So you’ve also been tested for . . . ?”
“Hypothyroidism, lupus, MS, rhabdo . . . oh, and pregnancy.”
Dr. Stentson sets the chart aside. He rubs his temples as if he’s tired. “You live away from home and your family, right?”
I think I know where this is going. “I’m not depressed. There’s something physically wrong with me.”
“I see this all the time with college kids who come in here. Depression can often trick us into thinking there really is something physically wrong with us. It’s normal to experience fatigue, loss of appetite—”
I stand up. Dr. Stentson blinks in surprise, as if he’s just now seeing me.
“Thank you for your time,” I say. Then I open the door and walk out.
Instead of driving straight back to my apartment, I take the long route through town. I park next to the construction site, my car dwarfed by a nearby bulldozer. I prop the seat back and just sit, trying to take my mind off yet another indifferent face above the stethoscope. Another lost girl no one gives a shit about.
The next morning is a bitch. I stumble out of bed, nauseous as hell. Flashes of last night’s dreams jostle around in my mind. My legs, pumping as they carried me effortlessly down the trail, until the trail morphed into the neighborhood I grew up in. The bodega on the corner, Mr. Ramos leaning out to yell, “Vamos, correcaminas!” Roadrunner. That’s what the whole neighborhood called me, not to mention all my tías and tíos.
I groan as I lurch forward, my head full of cotton. “She’s going places, and she’s going there fast,” Mama used to beam with pride. I liked the wind in my hair, the lightness of my body as I zipped past. As if I was flying. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t also like the attention winning earned me—the announcements of my times at school assemblies or the calls from college recruiters.
When I left for college out of state on a running scholarship, the whole neighborhood threw me a party in the park. Papa took off work at the construction site, something he never does. Mama picked up a tres leches cake half the size of a picnic table. “La correcaminas flies the coop,” Mama smiled, blinking back tears.
On the way to the bathroom, I trip over a new pair of running shoes, still naively waiting to be broken in. I walk-fall into the bathroom, then hunch over the toilet. Right now, the mere thought of a tres leches cake sends waves of nausea through my stomach.
What I didn’t know then was that when I left for college, I brought more than just my running shoes, boxes of clothes, and dreams for the future. Somewhere, on a wooded trail or a patch of tall grass, a tiny deadly creature had burrowed under my skin, not even giving me the warning of a bullseye rash. At the first signs of fatigue during my junior year, my coach urged me to push through. At my best, I’d run the 5K in 20:11, breaking a ten-year school record. But suddenly I could barely finish a half mile. As pushing my body became impossible, so did other things. Like concentrating during lectures, taking tests, or staying up past 8:00 p.m. When I walked to the bathroom in the morning, my muscles screamed in a way they never had on the trail. My coach became angry, then distant. When I went on medical leave, he walked past as I cleaned out my locker—as if I were already a ghost. The school contacted me to rescind my scholarship the following month. Six months later and I’m still here, living on the last of the student loan I took out for living expenses.
Sickness sloshes in my gut. I heave, and chunks of last night’s dinner splash into the toilet. Two-day-old pizza. I stopped following my nutrition plan when I stopped being able to run. You don’t put premium gas in a lemon.
That girl who loved to run, who was good at it? The correcaminas? I may see traces of her when I look in the mirror: the curve of her cheek, her dark hair and thick eyebrows. But she’s gone, and I don’t know if she’ll ever come back.
With the café’s free Wi-Fi, I search for news on the murdered girl, which leads to missing-person sites. I find myself writing a list of missing native women on a scrap of paper. I keep track of them the way I used to keep a ledger of my symptoms. Dates and times on the left, hair loss or fatigue or facial paralysis on the right. I’d show it to doctors until I realized it only solidified their belief that I wasn’t actually sick—just crazy.
Kelli Keifer—last seen leaving her best friend’s house after a sleepover
Melissa Charging Crow—pregnant mother of two, vanished on her way home from work
Anita Thick Horse—straight A student whose body was found in a ditch the month before her high school graduation
Sarah Bluejay—nine years old; loved Nancy Drew, according to her mother
Anna Rodriguez—failed to come home after her first semester of college
Amber Watt—found strangled in a field a mile from her house two weeks before her twenty-first birthday
Nicole Wagon—thirty-four-year-old who loved horseback riding
Fawna Smith—grandmother of five, pillar of her community
By 2016, the National Crime Information Center had reported 5,712 cases of missing or murdered native women. As I scrolled through websites after a Google search, I wondered why these missing women aren’t all over the news, even though I think I already know the answer. Their faces aren’t plastered on billboards across the country. There’s no media frenzy like there is for missing blond-haired white girls. Thousands of women, violently ripped from the Earth without anyone caring.
I think of the nurse at Dr. Stentson’s office. Probably a reservation girl. They go missing all the time. A parade of faces drifts through my mind. All the doctors who decided it was easier to tell me I was depressed than it was to just run some damn tests. I see this all the time with college kids who come in here . . .
When you’re a brown girl, you learn that “all the time” is code for, “no one cares you’re dying.”
I fold the paper with the names carefully and tuck it in my wallet next to the newspaper article. Their names are written down. The women who once were remembered, even though that will never be enough.
Just as I’m leaving the café, Mama calls, as if I’d sent her a message in my dream last night. When I first got sick, Mama called every day. My Tía Sofia prayed to the Jesus and Mary printed on her prayer candles. My second cousin texted me every week with a new panacea, usually involving gag-worthy dirt-flavored tea.
They made so many sacrifices, my parents. Papa spent six or seven days a week working in construction, carrying bags of cement or rebar on his back like an ant. I got into St. Anne’s Catholic School when I was twelve with a scholarship—but only a partial one. Mama started cleaning houses on the weekends after her shift at the restaurant ended. Cracks sprouted on her hands from the harsh chemicals, as if she was an old marble statue that had begun to crumble. When I saw her knuckles bleeding after she washed the dishes one night, I stared at her as tears filled my eyes. Mama just shrugged. “It’s what you do for your children,” she said with a smile that smoothed the wrinkles on her face.
My first day at St. Anne’s, I skipped to the cafeteria after math class with my new plaid skirt swishing against my legs. My stomach growled. Mama had packed me my favorite homemade Menudo in my Sailor Moon thermos. I sat in the middle of one of the long tables, inhaling the scent of garlic and onion and savory pork. That first spoonful sent a wave of warmth into my stomach. It wasn’t until a few bites later that I noticed the silence.
My entire class of fifteen girls gaped at me. Their lunches rested in neat rows on the table in front of them, like the cookie-cutter houses with white picket fences in the part of town where Mama cleaned. Baggies of grapes or baby carrots. Chocolate chip cookies. Perfectly cut crustless sandwiches with white, white bread. One of the girls made a gagging sound, and the others dissolved into giggles. A wave of heat traveled from my forehead to my stomach. After that I begged my mother for Wonder Bread and Kraft cheese at the grocery store. At school, I learned to flatten my vowels and squeeze my voice into a tone that felt unnatural until it didn’t. It was the first of many tiny deaths, as if pieces of myself were slowly disappearing.
My phone buzzes again in my hand, jerking my attention away from St. Anne’s. When Mama and Papa started to worry about me, I downplayed my symptoms over the phone, downplayed the amount of doctors I’ve been to. They still don’t know I lost my scholarship. The phone vibrates, insistent. I swipe to decline the call. I don’t want my family to know their correcaminas had turned out to be nothing more than a common pigeon.
By 7:00 p.m. I’m wiped out. A year ago, I could go for an eight-mile run in the morning, attend a couple classes, then work out with my team in the afternoon. Now, I’m exhausted after waking up at 1:00 p.m., driving to the coffee shop and then back to my apartment. The beeping of the oven shatters the silence. The usual crusty dishes cover every inch of the counter, their stench like rotten fruit in the back of my throat. It’s a bad brain fog day, and I don’t even remember turning the oven on, let alone what’s in there. Without thinking, I jerk the oven open and reach inside, then yank my arm out when heat sears my fingers. The pizza tumbles to the kitchen floor, sauce side down of course. Forgot the oven mitt. Typical.
I run my blistered fingers under cold tap water, ignoring my growling stomach. “If you’re that dumb, you don’t deserve to eat,” I mutter to myself. With the brain fog filling my head, I probably shouldn’t be using the oven at all. I imagine leaving for the café then returning to find my apartment engulfed in flames. The second-hand table with the coffee rings: gone. The cracked TV that replaces any image left of center with lines in primary colors: gone. The old running shoes under the bed next to the new ones: gone. For a moment, I feel light, as if destroying this disaster of an apartment would destroy the person I’d become. Then reality cuts through the brain fog. Even if the world burned down around me, I’d still be stuck in this useless body that can’t run.
I skip the construction site and drive by the reservation the next day. It doesn’t look that much different than the neighborhood I grew up in. Squat houses with ill-fitting roofs that look like a gust of wind could turn them into debris. A dirt path winds through the houses. A log cabin, maybe some kind of meeting house, sits in the center of town. You wouldn’t know it was a reservation except for the few tepees set up for show on public lawns and the little shops selling turquoise and silver jewelry. Maybe she walked down this trail. Maybe she ate at this café.
In my head, she has a name and a face. She has thick, dark hair and soulful brown eyes. I call her Robin because I hope her soul is free, flying over the place she once called home.
Before I leave the reservation, I stop by a convenience store for smokes. A bulletin board plastered with faces stares back at me from beside the register. The photos are grainy, printed off of Facebook or from phones. Most of them are women. Under each is a name, a phone number, a plea for help.
My hand shakes as I hand a fistful of change to the cashier. She’s my age. Long black hair, dark skin.
“Take care,” I say as she passes me a carton of Marlboros. Her eyes meet mine. We both know it’s more than just a saying.
I wonder if Robin could sense the attack coming. A body knows instinctively when it is dying. When I first got sick, I could feel my body shutting down. Once I didn’t eat for a day and a half because my legs locked and I couldn’t make it to the dining hall. The fucking dining hall, a five-minute walk away. I gave away most of my clothes. I wrote down my computer and bank passwords in a sealed envelope for my family. After months of crushing fatigue, struggling to walk, struggling to think, I slowly realized I wasn’t going to die. At least not right away. The human body could, shockingly, shuffle through life in a suspended state of dying for years at a time.
We all expect the world to stop for our death, or almost death, because our own world is stopping. As the lone brown girl on scholarship at a primarily white Catholic school growing up, I expected even less. I expected the doctors to run tests when I asked them to. To listen to my pain. To do their fucking jobs. I expected my teammates to commiserate, not slink away like I was contagious. I expected my coach to see me as an actual person. What is it about me that’s not worth saving?
My heart not actually stopping didn’t mean a part of me didn’t die, and it didn’t mean I didn’t grieve. I grieved every practice I missed because my legs refused to cooperate. I grieved every time my mind went blank when I used to know the answers.
I grieved for the girl I once was.
I try to push the grief to the back of my mind, the way a child hides a mess under a blanket. But every time I take a peek under that blanket, the pain feels like it will rip me apart like a paper doll.
When I think of Robin and the other girls, I know it’s not only my pain under that blanket.
The local police precinct looks like an overturned cardboard box. Squat. Unimaginative. Brown. I step inside and shiver at the blast of ice-cold air-conditioning. Why is it in the South that you most need a jacket when it’s hot outside? The man in uniform behind the front desk glances up at me but says nothing.
“Hi,” I say, throwing together a story on the fly. “I’m a reporter with the University Gazette. I’m working on an article about the girl whose body was found at the construction site.”
The officer looks at me like I just sprouted a second head. “Who?”
“Rob—I mean, the girl whose body was found. You know, on the corner of Jana and Main where they’re building a new strip mall.”
The officer frowned. A flicker of understanding crossed his face. “Oh, yeah. I think I remember now. It’s a cold case. Not exactly top priority.”
A wave of energy shoots through me like electricity. “Why not?” I snap, louder than I mean to.
The officer shrugs, ignoring my tone. “We have to focus on the crime that’s happening now. It’s unfortunate, but people disappear all the time.”
All the time.
I don’t remember the precinct door shutting behind me or the rush of hot air. I don’t remember slamming the door of my car behind me. When I come back to my body, I’m in my piece-of-crap car pounding the steering wheel with my fists, sobbing until my body shakes with hiccups.
I wake up the next afternoon with a buzzing in the top of my head. At first I think it’s another stupid symptom. It takes me a moment to recognize it for what it truly is: rage. I stalk to the kitchen, my footsteps pounding on the floorboards. I punch the button on the cheap coffee machine I picked up from Goodwill, waiting impatiently for the brown liquid to trickle into my mug. I survey my apartment.
Dirty dishes jockey for space on the kitchen counter. Pieces of food coat the inside of the sink. Piles of mail and newspapers obscure every inch of the card table. The outline of the couch peeks out from under months of dirty clothes.
This place is a fucking mess. No one deserves to have to live like this.
I grab a trash bag from under the sink. I stuff the old junk mail into it, then empty the trash cans. I rinse out the sink, then start washing dishes. Even though I know I’m going to pay for it tomorrow with increased fatigue and stiff joints, I don’t stop until the counters are free of crumbs and the floor is clean in a way even Mama would approve.
Maybe it’s a stupid idea. Probably no one will care. Still, I spend all day making flyers on my laptop. I print them at the college library with my old student ID, which still works—unlike the rest of me. 8:00 p.m. at the construction site on Main Street and Jana Road, the last line reads. I drive around town, fighting fatigue to post them on as many light poles and store windows as I can, until entire streets are plastered with papers screaming about Robin, the girl who was forgotten.
The following night, I dig my dusty running shoes out from under my bed. Once they’re on my feet, I feel a rush of my old energy, although I’m smart enough by now to know it won’t last. I drive to the one bodega in town, where I pick up a pack of matches and a candle with the Virgen de Guadalupe printed on the glass. Then I head to the construction site.
The vigil doesn’t start for another fifteen minutes. I wonder if anyone will show. I lower myself to the ground near where Robin was found. The ground, scorching during the day, is cool to the touch. I scoop up a handful of dirt, letting it sift through my fingers and fall back to the earth. I flick my lighter, then carefully ignite the candle. The flickering flames illuminate the ground.
The correcaminas? She’s gone, maybe for good. I don’t know if I’ll ever again feel the wind in my hair as I sprint toward a finish line. I don’t know if I’ll ever again roll out of bed refreshed after a good night’s sleep, then move effortlessly through my day. I do know the pain will never truly go away. Over time, grief hardens like the bark of a tree, leaving scars in the rings that last forever.
“I see you,” I whisper to Robin, because I want her to know this. That she mattered, that whoever she was, good or bad, she was a person. Because having your pain acknowledged by others is a panacea every forgotten human deserves.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Meghan Beaudry began writing as part of her rehabilitation from brain trauma in 2014 and simply never stopped. Her work has been published in Hippocampus, Ravishly, TODAY, Al Jazeera, and the Huffington Post. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2017. In 2020, she was selected as winner of the Pen 2 Paper Creative Writing Contest in fiction. Meghan blogs for Lupus.net
From Belmont Story Review Volume 7: Witness