written by Ciara Broderick. Ciara (She/Her) is a 24-year-old writer based in Dublin 8. Originally from a small village in east Co. Galway, she qualified in Social Care in Limerick, before relocating to Dublin to work in homeless services, where she began to pursue writing in her spare time.

TW: Implied child sexual abuse, prostitution.

It was hot as hell, same as always down here in the summertime. The kind of heat that hums, clicks, and catches wetly in the back of your throat when you try and breathe it in. Ali sat in one of the camp chairs in the shade of the Magnolia tree, legs stretched out on the makeshift table in front of her. Sweat clung to the hair at the base of her skull and pooled against the skin beneath her breasts.

Ali hated the heat, always had, since she was a little girl. She’d grown up five miles from here, on a trailer park east of Abbeville, where summer heat was something you knew well, but she’d just never gotten used to how it weighed on you. Sometimes, as she tried to sleep at night, she imagined going further north, to some state where rain came down cold and the wind blew. She’d like the cold, she thought, because you could have some say in what it did to your body. If it got too much you could always wrap up, stay indoors, bring an umbrella. She knew better than to hold out hope of one day heading north, but it was still a nice idea. More than likely she’d live out the rest of her days in this heat she couldn’t escape from, letting it do what it wanted with her.

The club she’d worked at before had at least run the AC during the day. They needed to, to appease the city men down from Lafayette on their bachelor parties or mid-life crisis hunting retreats. Those clean, well-shaven men couldn’t stand the heat either, apparently. The bunny ranch didn’t have the luxury of an AC. Hell, it didn’t even have a sign. Just a grubby, sun-bleached brassiere strung up by a nail to a branch along the roadside. Ali’d heard when she first moved out here that the bra had outlived the girl who donated it by what must’ve been a couple of years now, but still it hung there. It did the job just fine. If anything, it was an accurate advertisement for what lay at the top of the dirt track, that being a ring of battered trailers leaking rust and sprouting moss, stained mattresses under cheap sheets, the smell of musty, dried sweat as yellow as the wilting posters on the walls. Girls that were only there because they’d run out of road and didn’t much mind if you knew it.

The ranch didn’t get any city men. It was all just local fare. Hillbilly guys that thought they were too good for truck-stop girls but were too stoney-broke to pay more than $60 for a full service. You got cops showing up too, now and then. Asking questions about whatever girl had just jumped bail or been pulled out of a ditch somewhere. Some of the cops even stayed and paid, if they didn’t have anywhere more important to be afterwards. Ali’d noticed that the older, fatter and sweatier they were, the less chance they’d have anywhere else to be.

She knew the two that just pulled in were cops because they drove a sedan that wasn’t rusted. By the look of the ties they wore and the manila folders they carried, they were detectives. The girls who had been posing at the top of the driveway, advertising themselves, scattered into the trees beyond the trailers, but Ali stayed where she was. She was comfortable in the shade, or at least, as close to comfortable as she was going to get. She watched the detectives cross the dry-mud-flattened grass, heading for Julann, who sat on a beat-up sofa in the centre of the ranch. They didn’t acknowledge the rifle she pushed further under the sofa with the wedge of her sandals. That wasn’t what they were interested in today. Julann smoked her cigarette and re-crossed her legs, the sun-darkened skin of one thin thigh creasing against the other. She was somewhere north of forty, and, after so many years on the wrong end of cop questions, Ali knew she always answered in the negative, as a matter of principle. True to form, she simply shook her head at their photographs and flicked ash at their shoes.

The detectives soon got bored with Julann. As they turned to leave, the taller one spotted Ali. He tapped his partner’s arm and nodded in her direction. They approached. She saw them eye her exposed skin for tracks and scabs, the way she did with some of her rougher clientele. They wouldn’t find anything.

The shorter one pointed to the seats in front of Ali and raised his eyebrows. She gestured for them to sit down.

“You got a name?” he asked.

“Yeah,” she answered “Crystal.” This was her work name.

“What, your Mama name you after her favourite hobby or something?”

“That’s real funny sir,” Ali leaned forward and shook her finger at him playfully, “They teach you them jokes down at the Academy, or is that the kind of thing you have to pick up on the job?”

He smiled. Then the taller one said, “Listen, uh, Crystal, we were asking your boss over there ‘bout a girl that might have been up this way.”

He opened the folder in his hands. “She says she knows nothing, but we were wondering if you’d mind taking a look too?”

Ali reached up to take the photos he offered her. She’d seen plenty of mugshots, but this was not one. It was a high school yearbook photo, blown up. The girl was the usual, blond-haired, blue-eyed, but not in the way Ali was used to seeing. The girl’s eyes weren’t bloodshot or red rimmed, her hair was natural and smooth, not fluffed and broken by peroxide. But, she was also familiar. The slant of her lips brought to mind the smell of shared cherry lip gloss and sticky, whispered secrets. The glint in her eyes, dimmer in this photo than in Ali’s memory, conjured the image of a grinning face turned towards hers as they ran, clammy hands entwined. Ali felt her chest compress. The girl in the photo was Mary.

After a few too many seconds, Ali looked up at the taller detective and shook her head.

“No, she never came round here before.”

“You sure?”

“Damn certain.”

The detective looked at her, steadily. His partner glanced between them.

“That’s strange ‘cause it sure looked like you recognized her just then.”

When they were six, Mary had invited Ali on a sleepover for the first time. They played dress-up and watched Lady and the Tramp on VCR. Ali had never been in a house with stairs before.

“I do recognize her. I know her face from way back. When we were kids, like.”

At eight they’d lain in the grass at recess and braided Chicory flowers in each other’s hair, whispering to each other about which boys in their grade they planned to marry. Ali had made sure to take the flowers out before she got back to her trailer that night.

“That all? The look on your face I would’ve thought there was more to it than that.” The detective’s expression didn’t change, but there was a new gleam in his eyes. A hunter’s excitement.

At ten the girls had entered the schools’ quiz league and won the State Championships. Mary’s parents had taken lots of photographs. In each of them the girls posed with their arms wrapped tight around each other.

“I just didn’t realise she was running game is all.” Ali felt her pulse pound in her throat. She resisted the urge to raise a hand to it.

At twelve, on Mary’s birthday, her daddy took them to the coast. They stayed in a Super 8 and ate ice-cream that ran down their fingers and dried stiff and sticky on their hands.

“Well, we don’t know that for sure just yet. Would it surprise you that she was?”

At thirteen they’d stopped being friends. Neither of them ever talked about why. Ali hadn’t spoken to her since.

“A little bit, I guess,” Ali shrugged “but I ain’t seen her in a couple years so how the hell would I know anyway.”

She handed back the photograph, her fingers lingering for a second on the corner before letting go. The cops stood up and so did she. The taller one shook her hand and thanked her for her help. He had a nice firm handshake. The shorter one was staring at her, concern burrowing a crease between his brows.

“How old are you, anyway?” he asked.

“Eighteen, sir,” she lied “I just got a baby face.”

“You ever think about getting a different job? Away from… this?”

“Why? Y’all hiring?” Ali grinned at him.

He sighed and shook his head, twisting his wedding ring round on his finger. Ali wondered what kind of father he was.

The taller one said, “Thanks again.”

“No problem.”

She watched them walk away; heads bent towards each other to say something out of earshot. They were almost in the car when she called after them. “Hey.”

They turned around. Ali never asked cops this question when they did their rounds. It was easier not to know, but she couldn’t help herself. This was different. This was Mary.

“That girl in the photo, is she dead?”

The tall one adjusted his sunglasses, rested his arm on the car roof and said “Just missing for now. Gotta be hopeful.”

A pause, then; “Y’all talked to her daddy?”

The detectives looked at each other. The shorter one shifted, like he was about to say something. But his partner lifted his palm slightly, stopping him.

“Yeah, we talked to him.” the tall one answered, “But we can always go back and talk to him again.”

“You do that.”

The detectives tried to wait her out, but she didn’t say any more. Eventually they looked at each other and nodded. They got in their car, waving at her as they drove away. Ali waved back.

Sitting back in her chair she watched as the dust cloud they left behind slowly settled and the sound of their engine faded. She reclined her legs and picked absently at the few wildflowers that grew high enough to be caught between her fingers. She threaded a couple of them through her hair.

Some of the girls re-emerged from their trailers, positioning themselves once again at the top of the driveway. They arched their backs and bent their knees, pulling tank tops lower to reveal more of their breasts, pale flesh swelling from push-up bras whose straps dug purple welts into their shoulders. Heat shimmered over the ground.

They all listened, waiting for the next man to turn up the dirt road by the nailed-up brassiere, his $60 burning a hole in his pants pocket.

Image: Blue by Penny Stuart

Penny (she/her) is passionate about good writing and creating art in a group setting. She loves to experiment with words and art in weekly lifedrawing workshops. Currently she is making her own book of fine art prints with James Joyce words from ‘Dubliners’ short story ‘The Dead’ as inspiration.