Stephanie Dickinson: “No Man’s Land” –A chapter from Love Highway, a Novel-in-progress


They’d taken Danielle barely breathing, and zipped her into a duffel bag and lugged her down the steps, stopping on the landing to rest, then dropping the bag like it was filled with rocks, not an injured girl. So little air left in her lungs they thought she’d died but she’d been a runner and knew how to pace herself. She could smell the dumpster’s metal sides, the rustiness mixing with the vegetable mulch of rinds and tomato skins and egg shells and sour cottage cheese and Tampax that had been inside another girl’s body. She was somewhere no one wanted to be zipped into a duffel bag, and heaved into a dumpster. They’d drawn her knees up to her chest; they’d done that after she’d blacked out, after he’d pressed down on her neck with his thumbs. What had she done that made him so angry?

The sun heated the dumpster; it felt like the sun truly was beating. Not much oxygen, but there were side panels made of mesh and Danielle could draw bits of air through them. All the garbage must be trying to breathe too. This must be what little Joey had felt. She’d met him at Farm Sanctuary during her internship. Joey, she said aloud. He wouldn’t leave her like Jon had. But that was okay. Once she enrolled in Rutgers, once she sat in her classes there would be people to meet. No reason to look back. She’d fallen in love with Joey, the lamb’s white fleece, spotted black on his legs and around his nose. Joey had been found alongside a highway, limping tiredly with a leg wound, unable to lift his head. A passerby stopped and brought him to Farm Sanctuary where Danielle assisted, with changing his bandages and feeding him from a milk bottle. There was so much light in Joey’s large eyes, and he always seemed to be smiling.

The garbage bags above shifted in the heat, and when she gulped air, it was as if she inhaled the plastic.   She has to bring her arm around and unzip the duffel bag, jimmy her finger into the corner where the zipper connected, loosen it. There was such  light in the lamb’s large eyes. She’d never forget holding his milk bottle. Joey, I love you.

She pressed her lips to the mesh and drew in more air. A truck door slammed, footsteps, another door banging, and men’s voices. She remembered Hawkins and the blond girl dragging her into a laundry bag, emptying the hotel towels, the panties, and stuffing her in. You wouldn’t want to look at a dead girl because the second the breath goes she’s no longer sexy, no longer a hot hooker body. No breath, no air, strangled, things broken in her head, forcing her eyeballs out. But she wasn’t dead. Not yet. They were using her cell phone to make a call, Danielle’s caller ID living without her. She’d get it back.

Joey stayed in the duffel bag with her. Here to lick her face, and wherever the lamb’s tongue touched she felt comforted. Joey had been rescued. She would be too.

Danielle heard the grinding sound of the men in the truck. They’ll be here to pick me up. They’ll know I’m here.


Sometimes you stayed with your body, sometimes your soul wouldn’t go. When did she change from being Danielle to the dead girl?  Earlier in the dumpster her head had been so hot, but now it felt cooler with the air conditioning, now that she’d arrived in the ER everything would be okay. She’d be up on her feet in a few days ready to jog with her father. Mornings they’d tie on their sneakers and run out to meet the dawn. The sunrise always felt brand new like the light had never happened before.

She must have slept because she couldn’t remember the garbage men or police or the ambulance coming, couldn’t remember how she got here. Not so long ago she was waking up in her room. Celestial had called and they made their plan to sneak to Manhattan and go clubbing. The house was almost in the woods and on a hill, the trees quaking aspen and red maple made her feel safe as if she could pull them around her like a shawl. And leaves shaded the deck where she watched first light pour like a cold glass of water and at night she could stare up into the spill of stars. How pretty it all was.

She lay on a gurney, and although they’d covered her with a paper sheet, it slipped off as they pushed her along on squeaking wheels past a Coke machine. She could hear it humming and wished someone would lend her a dollar. How she’d love an ice cold soda, her throat ached for those stinging safety pins of carbonation. The taste of the hot licorice drink from Clubland had long died in her mouth, along with the pineapple shooters and chocolate martinis. And she couldn’t remember where her purse was.

A fly buzzed on her forehead, but a hand came and brushed it away. She smelled formaldehyde. Not an unpleasant odor just one that seemed out of place. Soon her father would be here to take her home. Their neighborhood was so far into the trees the black bears came and went, foraging sometimes at night, their coats iced in moonlight. Mostly they liked the sunlight the same as people. When New Jersey announced open season on them, she’d posted signs in front of their house. BEAR PROTECTED HERE. Her father warned, “No one likes a zealot.”

Danielle saw the waiting area and a row of plastic chairs all of them bolted together. The gurney stopped and a black orderly dressed in a white uniform belted tightly at the waist walked over to address a big woman in overalls. “Can I help you?” he asked. It was the first Danielle had seen or heard the person pushing her. The orderly must truly come from Africa because his skin shone not coffee light or gingerbread like her own, but coffee-black, like you’d be able to see yourself reflected in the beautiful water of his skin.

The big woman stood up and seemed to reach the ceiling and her voice was just as tall so Danielle caught her every word. “I’m looking for my boy Robert,” she said. She’d heard on Eyewitness News that a young man had been stabbed, and when they showed his chest where the ambulance sheet didn’t cover, she recognized the blue sweatshirt with a white streak of paint her son had left the house in earlier. The woman hunched against the cold now seeping from the tile walls, hugging herself.

“You’re here to make an identification then?” the orderly asked.

The woman lifted her head, her brown eyes wide. “I want to see if it’s my boy.”

The scent of formaldehyde mixing with stainless steel reminded Danielle of biology class. The jars where the fetal pigs so pink and perfect curled into themselves, their tiny unlived lives floating for the ninth graders about to dissect them. There were lockers here too on either side of the hall, like graying high school ones only smaller and wider and stacked from floor to ceiling. Mineral odors. The sour sweetness of creeping vegetation.

“This way,” the orderly said like a traffic cop. He squeezed the big woman’s sausage fingers. “It might not be your son,” he half whispered into her broad shoulder.

“That stupid kid. I’m sure it’s him,” the mother huffed, wiping her cheek of a tear. “I yelled at him about getting paint on that shirt. He was in too big a hurry to hang out with his piece of shit friends.”  She made a fist with her right hand and hit it against her left.

Danielle tried to picture Robert, the stupid daredevil son, already tall and handsome.  Where was there for him to go if he wasn’t good in school but to the streets?  The Projects two blocks away. He was a white kid hanging with the brothers. He needed to prove his bad ass heart. Danielle listened, had always been a good listener and because she could give her full attention to someone’s words, people said she was a good conversationalist even when she didn’t say one word only nodded her head.

The two of them disappeared leaving her lying in the hall, listening to quarters being fed into the soda machine and the Cokes dropping. Someone knew how thirsty she was and soon her fingers would feel the icy skin of a can. It wasn’t long before the orderly returned with the mother who slumped against the wall with her open hands, making whimpered animal cries.

Danielle thought of the black bear hunt that seemed to last forever not weeks. In her wooded neighborhood sometimes she could hear shots. Another shot from the woods would raise the hairs on her neck, imagining  the pointed bullet’s velocity entering the bear’s body. The trees coming to an end. The sky dimming. A second bullet tumbling in its flight to where beetles purr and moss-fat logs talk.

Life was precious. All life. Every life.

“This way,” the attendant said, the same words he’d spoken earlier to Robert’s mother, again the traffic cop waving a gloved hand directing them to hurry into the 13 seconds before the yellow light changed to red. But at 3 a.m. there was no one on the morgue roadway but them. The cold bodies were dreaming their own icicles and snowdrifts.

Her mother squeezed her father’s arm. “It might not be Danielle.”

Her divorced parents had come separately, but now they were together and taking each other’s hand for comfort. The orderly didn’t open a drawer because Danielle wasn’t there and wasn’t going in there. The last time she’d seen her mother they’d gone shopping and Danielle helped her pick out expensive fleshy green palms and potted pampas grass so when you sat out on the deck of her mother’s new condominium you felt like you were taking a tropical vacation. Her mother who always smelled of cinnamon and gardenias.

“Are you ready?” the orderly asked them, his fingers inside opaque gloves pinching the white paper. The gloves pulled the sheet back, to show only the face and  shoulders. There was a silence. Such a long silence she could hear her father’s heart beating and her mother’s pulse jumping in her wrists. Finally, her handsome father, his smooth forehead knotting into an expression she’d never seen before, nodded. “Yes,” he managed to say, the word choking out of his mouth. “It’s her.”  Or a girl who resembled her, one shoulder higher than the other, one cheek swollen as if a truck had capsized there. The marks discolored like whoever clocked her had done it once, then again and again. Someone had kicked her body and made it reed sludge and ripped willows. Her father stared blankly, when he scooped her up off the gurney, hugged her to him, and tried to carry her away in his arms.  He wasn’t leaving his baby in this place. The morgue orderly had to intervene.

Don’t worry, Danielle tried to say. I’m okay now. In the dumpster it wasn’t okay. She’d have to tell them how awful it had been. Worse when her head had frozen into facing left while her body twisted right. A corkscrew. Her mother seemed afraid to look at her. Danielle like those fetal pigs already curling into eternal sleep. The attendant’s take out food sat still on his desk, almost dawn breakfast food. Half dissolved grits, wet yellow eggs, a limp looking English muffin. Morgue food.

“Will there be an autopsy?” her father asked.

The attendant nodded. “Yes, it is the law.”

“Be good to her,” he said, his voice low, like he had to force it out of his throat.


Then Danielle was walking along West Side Highway, when the taxi stopped and   Hawkins beckoned her inside. That taxi drove them to the room where he and his girlfriend lived. He took her hand, led her up metal stairs to that hole in the wall where the air conditioner had been taken out, the room breathing in gas fumes along with rotting fruit. Cantaloupe mixed with the smell of semen and infested the bed and walls. This couldn’t be the last air she would breathe. Not this room, the one with Hawkins’s cruel shaved head with the Fu Manchu mustache.

He squeezed Danielle’s hand until her knuckles cracked, beginning to rock her in a horrible slow dance, and she felt him against her, nudging her toward the bed. Then he tripped her. She hadn’t been purposefully tripped since her brother, Gregory stuck his foot out as she passed carrying a stack of birthday plates sticky with jellied strawberries and white frosting.  The plates went frisbeeing over the kitchen. Gregory and Danielle wrestled until her brother sat on her stomach and she couldn’t breathe for laughing. She’d been tripped again. Her head hit the wall. She saw stars. Blue stars with yellow eyes. Rips tore the sky there over flat tenement roofs.

How could she know when her Good Samaritan half-carried her up the stairs into this room that it would be the last door she’d go through? Yes, he’d charge her cell-phone. He had a charger.  Her mouth tasted of the blue licorice drink.

“Greyhound, we want to lie on you and grind a little,” Hawkins said softly. “Have you ever had a threesome?” He called out to the blonde girl. ‘Tabitha, get over here.”

The July room at dawn still held yesterday’s weather, yesterday’s sweat and heat, yesterday’s sex. No, Danielle kept saying. Hawkins called the girl again. The blonde with the oily hair and the far-off blue eyes, that girl neared the bed. She’d been wearing a shirt and now she wasn’t. A cloying unwashed odor followed her. Her breasts. Dirty, mealy peaches. Don’t touch me. Danielle raised her knee, her runner’s knee, and she scratched at whatever held her down. The forearm across her throat. Then a fist rock smashed her face. The moon was going out. Blood spurted from her nose but that didn’t stop the fist. A taxi floated by in the sky over the tenement roofs. It was just beginning to lighten outside, the bit of sun, to drink the darkness away. Her eyes swelled shut as she watched the light grow in the window.

“Why are you hitting her?” the blonde girl asked.

“I’m proving my love to you,” he answered.


But they wouldn’t be opening her body and dissecting organs, they wouldn’t be lifting her heart from her body and weighing it on a scale, or sawing her skull so they could take out her brain. No. Danielle was back in the city, getting out of the red Dodge.

“How do I look?” Celestial asked. “Yummy?”

Yes, her friend looked like what tiramisu tasted like.  You couldn’t be any cuter than tiramisu.


It was still Monday night.  Danielle danced three dances with three different guys and the songs all mentioned love. Clubland was cavernous. Three levels, three bars that ringed a crowded pulsating dance floor. The hot blue licorice drink made the walls ripple with gold and silver, bits and pieces of trickling light. The self-confident, dark-haired boy she danced with snaked his arm around her waist after the song ended, his finger finding the mole on her hipbone.

“I like that,” he said, his blue eyes were high beams aimed into her almond-shaped brown ones, flirting, sure that she’d let his finger dip past the waistband of her white mini to whatever flesh it wanted. “I like good-looking brown girls,” he went on, his voice pitched low. “They’re not as in love with themselves as white chicks.”

Chicks. She wondered about those Farm Sanctuary’s hens, the ones rescued from industrial farms, most of their feathers plucked from being cooped with four other hens in a wire cage, not enough room to lie down, jittery from drugs given to make them lay eggs faster. How had they stood it?  What kind of world is it, Jon? she’d asked. All that cruelty for a single egg. How grateful we should be to the  beneficent chicken.

“Come on,” the blue-eyed guy said, “I’ll buy you a shot.”

She’d smiled and thanked him for the dance and walked off in search of Celestial. I’ll never get over Jon, she thought. The boy she danced with knew he was good-looking. A backward glance showed her how quickly her dance partner found another, chatting up a bare-legged girl in mauve hot pants, the sides open to show a lacy black bra. Then she walked through bursts of perfume—musk rose shoulders and mango arms.  A door behind the bar opened and her nose curled up at the aroma of old spilled beer. A river smell.

The room began to die. There was her mother and father holding hands, together again. “Come on, Danielle. Don’t get lost.” They were a family, one of the few happy ones. Daddy held the door into the Greybar Building with his two favorite girls and his little man. The four of them. A perfect number. He shepherded them through Grand Central where the horoscope rode the ceiling, the Scorpion and the Virgin, a bedazzled gold in the turquoise of the heavens, peering down upon the marble floor swept by hurrying and dodging people, all in motion.

And then it was last call. Celestial elbowed her and Danielle agreed to a shot, because it was again the mysterious blue licorice drink, that smoke seemed to waft from. Sweet and smooth tasting, one sip and heat opened like a fan inside.  You’re beautiful and if Jon could see you right now he would fall back in love with you.

“Celestial, come on,” Danielle coaxed. “We’ve got to get going.”

Her friend’s pale eyes remembered they were supposed to be awake and tried to blink, opening wider.  “Okay,” Celestial slurred.

Already you could see the night spot in the first throes of shutting down, of turning itself off, the beating heart of Clubland expiring.

“Let’s get your Mom’s car home,” Danielle said, just as the chocolate martini came with its stick of cinnamon.

Her friend’s hair stuck prettily to the corner of her mouth, and then to the rim of the triangle glass. “You’re right we better go. I’m driving so you have to drink most of this.”

2:00 a.m.  Tuesday morning. The Jersey girls hadn’t left the night spot. Not yet.

How can I be dead? Danielle thought, laughing and licking at the stickiness of chocolate with such a kick.  I’m so alive.


Read Stephanie’s interview with WIPs about “No Man’s Land”