If you had been there, you would have squinted to try and determine what it was. Sliding on its belly across the ground, it emerged from the shadows, yellow, green and blue, with black words printed on it. It was lit up by the false daylight of storey-wide screens as it rustled past a homeless veteran’s foot and he looked up suspiciously. Not a rat, only a balled-up advertisement.
The girl wanted chicken McNuggets. Worse than she’d ever wanted anything in her life. She wasn’t just hungry, she was ravenous. Like the eyes of the men she passed.
“I can take care of you sweetheart. I know what you need,” one murmured.
What she needed was nuggets. Desperately. Nine of them, golden brown and dipped in sweet and sour sauce. They would be soft enough to feel like they could melt; golden retriever puppies tumbling in her stomach. She averted her gaze, in case the men misinterpreted the desire on her face.
Once she was a safe distance from them, the girl craned her neck around, looking for a McDonalds. The yellow arches gleamed invitingly and a dotted diagonal line stretched from her to their salty-sweet tenderness. Ahead of her there was a stream of yellow taxis that emerged in spurts from behind the traffic light, her first obstacle.
Times Square at 2am is not like Times Square at other times. The sky becomes a black dome suspended over the scene by a single precarious thread. If you watch closely, it shifts and shudders in the galactic winds. Daylight streams on you, despite the dome, as if a neon sun was born there, exploding and bouncing from giant screen to screen, with nowhere to escape. The crowd thins suddenly to a trickle the minute that the clock strikes 2. There, you will only find people who don’t belong in other places, or people who have lost their way.
The girl darted out into oncoming traffic and the taxis didn’t slow but she wasn’t afraid; she weaved across the road like a silver needle. The girl stood on the island in the middle of the square, where the garbage was starting to chatter and move its hips to the beating bass. A woman in a tight, leopard-print dress was having her picture taken. She lifted her chin so that the lights bathed her face in a neon mask. A beggar shook a cup of coins in the girl’s face impatiently, not waiting for a response as he turned to the next person. The girl’s stomach rumbled.
In the middle of the island, invisible to most, there was a black pool. A pigeon pecked too close to it, and the pool stretched suddenly, enveloping the bird. For a moment it stood there, suspended on top of the liquid, and then it sunk in with the easy plop of a heavy stone. People were asleep nearby with their mouths open on diagonal planks of wood, unaware of the pool inching closer. You probably wouldn’t have noticed it either.
The girl did, and she was careful to stay far away. As she walked, the garbage ripped and split into little origami figures that scuttled closer, lunging for her ankles. She shook them off, already tasting the nuggets. She used to eat chicken nuggets at 2am with her Aunt. A palm-reader whose shop the girl had frequented. Her Aunt wasn’t the sibling of either of her parents, in fact neither parent had ever met her, but the girl called her an Aunt anyways. On the nights when the sounds in the girl’s house were unbearable and sick climbed its way under the crack of her door and up her walls, she climbed down the fire escape and rapped on her Aunt’s window.
The first night that the girl escaped, the Aunt was asleep. It was 1am and she had put ear plugs in to drown out the sounds her upstairs neighbours were making. She had reached that twilight dream moment, when flitting images form a narrative, blinking. In the dream, she heard a fast and solid tapping sound. She tried to push it away. Then her dragon started yapping and snarling. She woke up with her feet already on the floor and the word ‘robbers’ seizing her around the neck. She came face to face with a ten-year-old girl at her window, the source of the tapping. The girl had lank hair and sneakers with neon laces.
The Aunt opened the window, “Do you live upstairs?”
The girl nodded. The Aunt didn’t need to ask why the girl had come down, she would never have guessed that a child lived there. She helped the girl to clamber inside, with a hand grasping her thin wrist.
“Are you hungry?”
The girl nodded. The woman stepped carefully over plants with waving tentacles and ushered away the stars that were floating in the air around the kitchen. They zoomed away huffily. What would a child want to eat? She glanced over her shoulder. The girl was standing incredibly still, her eyes wandering from the still-barking dragon to the tarot cards that had slid off the night table and onto the floor. The fridge had butter, asparagus and a case of beer inside.
“Be quiet dragon!” the Aunt snapped. The dragon shuffled away to its nest in the fireplace. “I don’t have any food you’d like here. And, I’m pretty hungry myself.” The Aunt folded a McDonalds menu into an origami soldier. “Two Mcnugget meals with coke” she told it. The soldier saluted her as she placed him on the open window ledge.
A little while later, the Aunt and the girl were devouring nuggets. Inhaling them. The girl did it from hunger, the Aunt did it from nerves. She didn’t know how to act around a child. The girl left when the sounds from upstairs had subsided. Late into the night, the Aunt wondered what she should have said. She consulted the stars floating around her apartment, but the girl and her fate remained obscured.
The next time it happened, the girl clambered in with more confidence, and the Aunt started to teach her to read tarot. By the time the noises subsided, the dragon was curled in the girl’s lap and the stars nudged their affectionate goodbyes as she left, trying to tuck themselves into her pockets.
When she was ready and older, the Aunt brought the girl to Times Square at 2am. She showed her the black pool, the dancing garbage, and most importantly she taught her how to hold her head up and still avoid the jeers that those men threw at them as they walked by.
If you had been there, you would have noticed the Aunt. Her bedazzled combat boots and her comradery with the homeless people. Her hair seemed to change colour along with the shifting screens and bouncing light. She was sexy and ageless. You might not have noticed the girl, back then, and you probably wouldn’t notice her on that night either, on her hurried way to McDonalds.
The girl was desperate. She had waited, hoped, consulted the stars and tried to follow the tarot. Her Aunt was missing. Stolen. The girl needed to eat, and to think in this place that her Aunt had known so well and visited so frequently. Someone must have seen her. The girl bought two McNugget meals and stepped outside, looking for The Veteran. He wore his story around his neck, written on a piece of cardboard on a string. They didn’t greet each other, but she wordlessly handed him the brown bag with his nuggets, and sat beside him on the sidewalk. A couple holding hands passed them, glancing from The Veteran to the girl with gentle concern.
“She’s been gone for two months,” she told him.
“Have you been feeding the dragon?”
The Veteran shifted the stub of his leg to be more comfortable, “What about rent?”
“I live there. I pay it. I take care of everything.”
He nodded stiffly.
“Can you help me?” she asked.
He nodded again, slicing the nugget in half with his front teeth.
Above them a Broadway advertisement shifted into a smiling photo of women in matching bras.
“Does the landlord know you’re fifteen and living alone?”
The girl shook her head, “No but I’m not worried about me. I need to find her, I need to get her back.”
“People go missing all the time,” he said.
The Veteran was reminded of an Afghan girl he’d seen. The girl’s mother was dead, sprawled in the next room, riddled with holes. The Afghan girl had been looking for her, and her face had that same obstinate expression.
“People die too. All the time,” he said.
“You could die if you go looking.”
The girl considered this. She shrugged. It didn’t seem important.
The Veteran saw that there was no point in trying to dissuade her. So, even though it wasn’t what the Aunt would want him to do, he wrote down the name of a tattoo parlour. It was in one of the buildings nearby.
“She told me she was getting something done here, something for protection—”
The girl snatched the paper from his hand and stood up. She took a different paper from her pocket and quickly folded it into an origami soldier, like the one her Aunt had folded the first night they met. She passed it to The Veteran, it would help him stay fed and warm for a couple weeks. Across the street a man was dancing behind a group of women who were trying to take pictures of each other.
“Any of you girls want to dance?”
The women scuttled away from him, and the girl picked up a styrofoam cup from the ground and whispered directions to it. The cup grew legs and ran towards the man, attacking and chewing his laces so that he couldn’t walk. The girl sank into a shadowy street before he could notice her.
The tattoo parlour was closed, but the girl had ways of getting into places she wasn’t supposed to be. The sign said “quality tattoos” and there were tattoo flash sheets pinned across every surface. She flicked on the lights. At the computer, she typed a spell for unlocking into the password engine. She searched through the database for her Aunt’s name, and found the design. It wasn’t just for protection, it was for invisibility, for slipping away. She checked the appointment log for the day her Aunt been booked to get it done. The artist had written no-show.
“She didn’t get it in time,” the artist said, and the girl jumped.
The artist was wearing a blank tank top that hung so loosely it seemed that a breeze could wipe it away. Her hair was in long braids adorned with silver rings, and her wrists clattered with gold bangles. Her arms and legs were covered in black and grey tattoos that swirled and moved as you watched them.
“She wanted to disappear?” the girl asked.
“Yeah, she was terrified. I hope he didn’t get her.”
“The only reason a woman gets a tattoo like that is to hide from a man who wants to kill her”.
The girl chewed on this information, “Are you going to call the cops on me?”
“Did you steal anything?” The artist asked.
“Then no, I won’t.”
The girl walked back out into the false light. A group of tourists were chatting in Portuguese as they passed her. She decided she would return to McDonalds, fold as many origami soldiers as she could, and go around with boxes of nuggets in exchange for information. Someone knew something. His name, at least. She just hoped she hadn’t waited too long.
Waiting in line for her nuggets, the girl noticed a sign that said nobody was allowed to stay and eat for longer than 30 minutes. Behind her the Brazilian group had come in, and a man dipped his girlfriend, kissing her in the McDonalds like it was the most natural thing in the world. The server asked for her order with a glazed expression. In the corner of the room, a man in a lumpy letterman jacket watched her carefully. Another man stood so close behind her that the fabrics of their clothes touched and snagged. Then she noticed that the watch her Aunt had given her had stopped. Time was standing still, in this place you weren’t supposed to be in for longer than 30 minutes. Exactly the kind of place her Aunt would hide. Outside of time.
On the corner of a shadowy table stacked with brown bags and food containers, an origami dragon twitched its claws. The girl slipped into the women’s bathroom, holding the door so the dragon could follow her.
The two men waited a beat. Then they followed her, hoping to surprise her in the stall.
What they didn’t know was that the girl had lived most of her life with a man who doled out pain. She knew when she was being hunted.