I was being squeezed into the plastic wall of the streetcar as people packed in. We’re nothing but sardines squished into a tin can hurtling down the city street. People shuffled in and out, wafting in the sour scent of cold air and B.O. I noticed a girl with a blue backpack and orange hair glue herself onto a pole beside me. I knew her from class. Molly? Mary? M-Something. The top of her frizzy head reached my shoulder. If I leaned over a little I’d be able to sniff her hair. I saw a pen fall out of her bag. I lunged to retrieve it, but by the time I looked up, she was gone. I looked down at the pen now gripped in my fist. Pink, plastic, cheap. The ink was running and it speckled the sides. I wondered if the girl with orange hair would miss this pen, if she would really notice its absence. Like when you run your tongue over a missing tooth. I pocketed the pink pen. Tomorrow, I would return it to her.
Tomorrow came and I sat in class wringing my hands. I scanned the room for her. Two hundred students but no orange hair. I stuck my hand in my pocket and felt the pen. I put it back — took it out — wrote my name, J-A-M-E-S, — in pink. Will I see her again on the streetcar?
She wasn’t on the streetcar. Only more sardine and less deodorant. I thought I’d see her for sure on Tuesday and finally be able to return this thing. We’ll have a nice conversation and laugh. She’ll thank me for being so gallant and she’ll hold my pink-stained hand even if it’s sweaty.
I didn’t see her again until Friday. She was standing by the classroom exit with a group of friends, her blue backpack bobbing with the hitch of her laughs.
“Melanie, that kid keeps staring at you,” her friend, the one with the big breasts, whispered. M-E-L-A-N-I-E. Melanie. Melodic.
She peered over her shoulder at me. I couldn’t move and my mouth tasted inky and acrid like when you suck on a battery. I hoped that she had a kink for Xbox and pale boys.
“Let’s leave,” she said as she turned back to her friends. They giggled all the way out.
The pen was still in my pocket. The ink bled into my jeans.
That night on the streetcar, I got off when she got off.
I followed her, obviously at a distance so I wouldn’t freak her out. But she was a fast walker — I couldn’t keep up.
Days later, she sat behind me in class. My leg pumped under the desk, jittering like a jackhammer. I twisted to face her. She was writing notes. Who’s pen was she using if I still had hers?
“Can I help you?” That pen paused as she arched her brow at me.
I wiped the dampness away from the hair on my lip.
“Time?” A projectile of a word, like vomit.
She pointedly looked at the clock above us, “5:45.”
After my failed attempt to talk to her in class, I tried following her a few more times. I enjoyed our walks. Her curls were the colour of the trees and they lead me through the city streets, like a map to treasure. She walked at a brisk pace, basically sprinting at times. She whipped her head around a lot. When she did, I did too. Was there something behind us?
Eventually, after many of our nighttime strolls, I got the layout of her neighbourhood. I even made it to her house once or twice. It had a jack-0-lantern on the porch.
“She doesn’t say much to me. Should I just finally do it?” I asked.
She’s just shy. The jack-o-lantern’s glowing grin answered.
Shy? Imagine that! After all our time together.
One night, I finally had the courage to give the pen back. I watched from the street as she darted into her home. Her clementine hair snapped like a banner behind her, then disappeared behind her door. The door that was always locked.
I realized that I should have dressed better. My hoodie now matched my pants from moving the pen between my pockets. I was speckled all over, up and down my sides, not unlike the pen itself. I giggled.
A heavy hand landed on my shoulder.
“Are you James Aeron?” It was a police officer. He had a dark, thick moustache. It twitched as he spoke. I wish I had a moustache like that.
“Yes.” Perhaps he had learned of my mission and came to aid me.
“This is a restraining order. You must stay at least 300 feet away from Melanie Myer at all times,” said the moustache man as he handed me papers. He talked a bunch more but I didn’t listen.
The ink on my fingers left imprints on the paper. Pink prints. I could taste it, pink like bubblegum. I could feel it seeping into my skin, slippery and wet, pink like a tongue. Maybe her tongue. Pink to match her orange. I had found what she had lost and why did they not just see that.
I put the pen back in my pocket.