Here is the beginning of a story that I wrote on Sunday afternoon.
Wendy was sitting behind the gym, crying. She wasn’t a very pretty girl at the best of times, mostly because of her perpetually dissatisfied expression, but tears didn’t help matters at all. She was crying because the other kids had called her names—one particular name, in fact. Crying was an almost daily occurrence for her, especially on school days, so her most common nickname—and their favorite—was Wet-Faced Wendy. It was a shame because the more they yelled that at her in their horrible sing-songy voices, the most she cried, and the more she cried, the more they felt she deserved it.
Wendy gave a few hiccupy gasps and tried to stop crying. There was no one else behind the gym, so she felt her tears were unnecessary and rather irritating. A voice—a grown-up voice—drifted around the corner of the gym.
“What happened to Wendy?” That must be the playground monitor. No doubt she was questioning the other children.
“You mean Wet-Face?” Yep, that was Surly Jake (a label of Wendy’s own creation).
“She’s probably crying someplace.” Francie. That whiny, gum-chewing, finger-up-her-nose voice was unmistakable. Wendy hadn’t come up with a good nickname for her yet.
The monitor tried to get a helpful answer out of the pack, but they weren’t interested in helping. The monitor’s name was Rachel, by the way, but only Wendy knew that.
“C’mon, guys,” said Surly. “She’s probably behind the gym again.”
“Jake Williams, stop right there,” said the monitor. “Don’t you leave while I’m asking you a question.”
“What’re you going to do, blow your whistle at me?” Guffawing as only sixth-graders can, the herd turned their backs on the monitor and tromped towards Wendy’s hiding place. Wendy jumped up, panicked. How did they know about her secret crying-spot? They were coming closer, shrieking like baboons. What could she do?
Without giving herself time to think, she lifted the lid of the rusty blue dumpster and scrambled onto the edge. The thick, bloated smell of wet garbage filled her nose and mouth, and for a second, she reconsidered. But Surly and his band were almost on top of her, so she took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and tumbled into the dumpster head first. The lid banged shut.
For a minute, Wendy lay in the darkness, breathing through her mouth. She was a little worried that some germ or other might fly down her throat, but anything was better than the smell. It was far, far worse down here in the dark than it had been from the lip of the dumpster. It smelled like a week’s worth of dirty socks had been left out in the rain for a couple hours. She was afraid to move, since any exploratory motion into the darkness might end with her touching a dead body on the forehead or grabbing its foot. Outside, she had never believed the stories she had heard—mostly from Ted Grackle—about finding dead bodies, or parts of dead bodies, in dumpsters, but now that she was actually inside one… She shuddered.
The gang was probably still outside, searching, but Wendy couldn’t hear them at all. Even after listening for a full minute, she didn’t hear a single cackle or insult. No one yelled, “Where are you, Wet-Faced Wendy?” It might be safe to leave. She got to her knees and lifted her arms to the lid of the dumpster, just to lift it an inch or so and see if the Surly boys were still out there. But the lid didn’t budge. It was heavier than she thought. She pushed harder. Maybe it was stuck.
By this point, Wendy was starting to feel a little afraid. The darkness, the smell, and the metal walls of the dumpster all started to suffocate her. She pushed on the lid with all her strength, her feet slipping around in what felt like cardboard boxes and half-empty McDonald’s cups. She starting pounding the lid with the heels of both her hands. “I’m not going to call for help,” she said to herself. “I won’t ask any of them for help.” She kicked the wall of the dumpster, which made a loud thra-ang like a Chinese gong, and yelled as loud as she could, “Hey! If anyone’s sitting on this lid, you better get off right now!”
There was no answer. So she yelled again, “Hey! I’m not going to ask for help you know!”
Again, no answer, but she thought she heard a slight snicker. She twisted around onto her back and bent her legs, planning to kick the lid of the dumpster into kingdom come. At that moment, two things happened.
First, the terrible smell got stronger, from week-old garbage status to open sewer. And second, the cardboard box that she was resting her left fist on moved.
Wendy instantly scrambled to the other side of the dumpster, away from the cardboard box. She didn’t have enough breath to scream. Besides, as she often told the other children at school, she was too old to scream. Screaming was what little girls did when they got scared. Wendy usually just cried, or punched people.
Her fists were clenched now as she stared into the darkness, trying to see what had moved. Maybe she had imagined it. She wiped away a tear with her right fist. Wet-face.
“Okay,” she said, her voice a little shakier than she would have liked. “Who’s there?”
Nobody replied and she was just starting to convince herself that it had just been her imagination when she her a quiet scraping noise, like something dragging their arm across a cardboard box. Her tongue tried to crawl down her throat.
She was going to cuss the thing out, whatever it was, using all the best words she had learned from the eighth-graders, but her mouth was so dry she couldn’t speak. The scraping went on for a second, then stopped. Then a strange, soft, croaking voice came out of the darkness, “Are you… Wet-Faced Wendy?”
Wendy didn’t know what to say. It was her least favorite nickname, but it seemed kind of rude to pummel someone that you hadn’t officially met yet. And she wasn’t going to let him (it) hear her cry. So she said, “Actually, I’m Wendy Kensington.”
The voice’s curiosity wasn’t satisfied, apparently. “Are you Wet-Faced Wendy?” it asked again.
“Surly Jake calls me that,” said Wendy peevishly. “It’s not my name.”
“I’ve heard about you,” said the voice. “You push the little boys.”
Wendy felt a flush coming into her face. She was grateful for the darkness. About a week ago, the playground monitor had caught Wendy bullying a boy from fourth grade, Gavin Crumbly, or Crumbs, as everyone called him. Wendy had needed a quarter to buy Snapple from the vending machine and Crumbs had a quarter. It was as simple as that. The playground monitor had seen her pushing Crumbs against the wall of the gym, so she had given Wendy a talking-to. I’d like to say that Wendy was sorry, but really, she was just angry that she didn’t get a Snapple.
“What are you doing in my house?” The voice was a little closer now.
“You better stay away,” said Wendy, raising her fists. She knew that it couldn’t see them, but it made her feel better.
“You are hiding?” it asked.
“I’m hiding from Surly Jake and the rest of those meanies!” Wendy didn’t mean to start crying, but it was so frustrating that she had to sit in the dark and talk to a voice just to get away from the other kids. She was embarrassed at having been so scared. Tears pooled in her eyes and before she knew it, she was really blubbering.
“There…” said the voice. It seemed fascinated. “You are Wet-Faced Wendy.” It was even closer now. Wendy grabbed what felt like a coat hanger and swung it in the voice’s direction.
“Be careful,” said the voice, now on her other side. “You are disturbing my nest.”
“I don’t care about your nest! Let me out!” She was really crying now.
The voice was silent for a moment. “If I let you out,” it croaked, “your Surly Jake will find both of us.”
Wendy sniffled and wiped her nose with her hand. “He’s gone.”
“Actually, he’s standing right next to my house.”
“If he was here, we would be able to hear him. Those kids aren’t very quiet.”
There was the sound of rustling cardboard, and the tiniest pinprick of light appeared to Wendy’s right. She hesitated, then crawled carefully towards it. It was a hole in the metal side of the dumpster. By putting her eye right up next to it, she could see out. The back wall of the gym was still there, the puddles from last night’s rain storm… and three feet away, with his back to the dumpster, Surly Jake. The other members of the gang were slapping the wet bushes and poking them with long sticks. None of them made a sound.
“What are they doing? Why aren’t they saying anything?”
“In answer to the first question…” The voice was right by her ear. She jumped away. The dumpster seemed even blacker than before.
“I’m sorry,” said the voice. There was a pause.
Finally, Wendy decided she should probably apologize, too. “I’m sorry for freaking out.”
“It’s understandable. I forget that you cannot see me. It must be disconcerting to have a conversation with someone you cannot see.”
“I don’t know what that word means,” said Wendy, “but it is kinda freaky.” She didn’t want to be rude, but she couldn’t stand it any longer. “Are you… are you a person?”
“That depends,” said the voice. “On what you mean by ‘person.’ If you mean am I a human being, then no, I am not. I am a Leech.”
“Oh,” said Wendy. If you’ve ever been in absolute darkness with a complete stranger, you will have some idea of how she felt. But imagine that that stranger turned to you and whispered through the darkness, “I am no human. I am a talking leech.” As an adult, you would wonder about the stranger’s sanity. As a child, you would do the sensible thing and wonder whether talking leeches eat little girls. Wendy had seen a picture of a leech on a warning sign near the creek at the park and she knew they were like worms with teeth.
“You’re going to eat me, aren’t you?” she said, beginning to cry again.
“No, gracious, no,” said the Leech. “Why would I eat a human when I have such delicious food brought to me every day?” Wendy could hear it crunching and snorting. She realized with a grimace of disgust that it was eating the garbage.
“That is the most disgusting thing I’ve ever heard,” she said, rudely.
The Leech went on munching, unfased. “Milk is disgusting,” it said around a mouthful of garbage. “And eggs.”
“I don’t like eggs,” said Wendy. “But milk isn’t disgusting. It’s fortified.”
The Leech snorted, a very wet sound. “Cow milk is for baby cows. Why would you give it to baby humans? Now, excuse me please. I think you’re sitting on my lunch.”
Wendy crawled over to another side of the dumpster and leaned against the wall sulkily. “I’m not a baby,” she said under her breath. The Leech paid no attention. Wendy didn’t particularly like being ignored, but she wasn’t sure what to say to a talking Leech.
Finally, she thought of a question. “Leech…” she began. “Wait a minute, I don’t know your name.”
The sounds of chewing stopped. The garbage rustled and Wendy had the feeling the Leech had turned to look at her.
“Hello..?” she said. “I’m sorry if I made you mad…”
“No,” the Leech said. It sounded very sad. “I… We… Leeches, that is. We don’t have names. I mean, no one gives them to us.”
Wendy laughed. It was terrible, to laugh at someone who sounded so sad, but the situation was so ridiculous. “What do you call each other? How do you tell each other apart?”
The Leech made a noise that was probably a sigh. “We don’t need to. You see, all Leeches live alone.”
“What about your parents? Didn’t they name you?”
“Name all one hundred and sixty-three of us? As soon as we hatched, our parents left us. Not that I blame them. It’s a lot of mouths to feed.” To illustrate his point, it noisily shoved a greasy paper bag into its mouth.
Wendy thought hard about this. No parents sounded sort of nice, but if they didn’t even have time to name you… How were you supposed to know who you were?
“That’s ridiculous,” she snapped. “Leech, would you like a name? I’ll give you one.”
There was a long silence, so long, in fact, that Wendy started to wonder if it had heard her. Then finally, it said, in a very small voice, “Yes, please.”