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Paper Dolls By C.W. Blackwell

First place winner of Bookshop's annual short story contest, 2022.
This story will also be published in our 2022 Summer Newsletter.

"Paper Dolls" By C.W. Blackwell

            The roar of hail on the pump canopy startles her, reminds her of an earthquake or a jet plane taking off. She watches the gutters turn white on Ocean Street, late-night cars slowing with wipers at full tilt, ice building on the windshield cowls. Hailstones blanket the gas station parking lot, but it all melts quickly. There’s a neon ATM sign in the minimart window and it paints a red-orange sheen on her evening gown. Her makeup leaves black streaks along the curve of her jaw.

            When the hail passes, an old man appears at the end of the lot. He’s pushing a shopping cart filled with garbage bags and old cookware. The castors skirl and rattle over the uneven blacktop. When he spots the girl sitting under the minimart window, he gives a long, ponderous stare and rubs the back of his neck.

            “I thought you was dead for a minute,” he says.

            She stands and straightens her dress.

            “Not dead,” she says. “Just waiting.”

            “I guess that could be said for us all,” he jokes.

            She tries to smile. “I guess.”

            “The station don’t open till five.” He looks skyward as if he can somehow tell the hour in the gray night clouds. “You got a few hours yet.”

            “I know someone who works here.” She gestures with her phone and steps into the open. “I just need to charge up so I can call somebody for a ride.”

            “There’s an outlet behind the donut shop.” He points his chin toward the building next door, yellow booths in the dark windows. She can see empty donut cases and coffee pots waiting to be filled. A ‘ HELP WANTED’ sign hangs on the glass door. “They block the outlet with the dumpster, but it don’t take much to get to it.”

            He digs through the cart and opens one of the garbage bags. Inside is a neatly folded wool blanket. She begins to weep, so he sets it on the ground and backs away slowly. He doesn’t know if she’s crying because of something he did, or just crying.

            “It’s clean,” he says, reassuringly. “Just used it once or twice.”

###

            She shoulders the dumpster until it drifts away from the building. Her handbag is a menagerie of small items, and it takes a while to find the charging cable. When the phone powers up and the cell service connects, she finds no texts or voicemails. No DMs.

            She hammers out a message.

            Why didn’t you come back for me?

            The words lay in the text field with the cursor blinking, but she doesn’t send it. She doesn’t want him to know she had nowhere else to go—that his place was already a last resort.  But that’s not all. She doesn’t want him to know she’s cut too many classes to graduate, and while everyone else was taking the SATs, she was taking an open palm from her gin-soaked mother.

            She swipes through the posts about the winter ball.

            The corsages and boutonnieres, the motel room keg parties.

            All she wants is to be like them.

            The wool blanket cocoons her shoulders, smells vaguely of dust and campfire smoke. She scrolls until her phone gets hot. The heat feels good in her hands. She cinches tight beneath a warm exhaust duct and cradles the phone to her chest.

###

            She wakes to a pair of crows grousing atop the dumpster. They tilt their soot-black heads and search for food scraps. The sky is a dim gray, sea fog heavy in the crowns of the redwood trees. She can smell the bay, it’s musky brine. There’s an old Ford Econoline in the corner of the lot and she tilts the van’s side mirrors and cleans her face with towelettes from her handbag. She pulls her hair into a ponytail and puts the mirror back how she found it.

            A five-gallon bucket filled with concrete and cigarette butts sits in front of the donut shop, propping open the front door. Inside, there's a line about six or seven customers deep. Some stand with their arms folded, while others paw their phones with inside-out stares like they’re somewhere else. When she reaches the register, an older woman with short, curly hair looks at her expectantly. She wears a grease-stained apron and a name tag that says GINNY.

            “Just a cup of coffee,” says the girl. “And a key to the restroom.”

            “The restroom’s for employees only,” says Ginny. She flicks her eyes at the line of customers, now trailing out the door. “Two dollars for the coffee.”

            “I was hoping to fill out an application. I saw the sign on the door.”

            The woman looks her up and down.

            “How old?”

            “I’m eighteen.”

            “Drugs?”

            “No ma’am.”

            “Why you all dressed up?”

            “This old thing?” says the girl.

            The young man standing behind her groans.

            “Come around back,” she says, nodding toward the counter partition. “Wash your hands. There’s an apron hanging by the sink. Bag and box the orders and I’ll ring them up.”

            The girl washes her hands and slips the apron over her head. There’s a name tag pinned into the fabric that says CYNDI. She likes how the “Y” and the “I” are switched around, like it’s some kind of inside joke. She takes orders, bags and boxes them. Everyone wants donut holes, and they run out quickly. She brews enough fresh coffee to fill three large carafes.

            At noon, Ginny gives her three twenties and tells her to come back tomorrow at five o’clock. The girl wanders out behind the building with a chocolate donut and a cup of coffee and plugs her phone into the outlet behind the dumpster. She thumbs through all of her apps and imagines her classmates writing their college essays, maybe worrying about leaving home for the first time. Instead, all the posts seem frivolous, like they have all the time in the world—like the universe will come to them, wait for them.

            Ginny comes around the corner with an unlit cigarette in her hand. She stops when she sees the girl, raises the smoke to her lips, lights it. She leans against the building and lets the smoke out through her nose.

            “What you up to, sweetheart?” says Ginny.

            “Just waiting,” says the girl.

            “Waiting, huh?”

            The girl tries not to cry.

            “I got a friend that runs a shelter on Chestnut,” says Ginny, puffing on her cigarette. “Bet I can get you a bed for a few days, maybe longer. Want a ride?”

            The girl watches a metro bus turn onto Ocean Street, big tires hissing on wet blacktop, silhouettes fixed in the windows like paper dolls. There’s a man kicking a plastic laundry basket down the sidewalk, filled with junk. Barren maple trees up and down the block. It could hail again, cold as it is.

            She clicks her phone to black, follows Ginny to the car.

            “It’s not far?” she asks.

            “No, not far at all.”