Stephanie King

Scrawled on the back of a placemat at Denny’s outside Pittston, PA

Dear Tammy,

Tell them this is the last time anyone saw me.

They’re looking for me in Indianapolis, with strawberry blonde hair, but one of the first things he made me do was dye it black. He even did my eyebrows with q-tips, to “make it more authentic,” and when he said that I knew he’d been thinking about doing this for a long time.

He lived in my neighborhood somewhere, but I never saw him. He saw me though. I grew three inches in the last year alone, all my dresses and shorts getting too short on me like I was wearing my little sister’s clothes.

He says we’re driving to his family’s cabin in the Poconos. He says he’s seen bears in his backyard, so if I run away, the bears will eat me. I’m old enough to know that’s probably not true. I’m still afraid of the woods, though.

In the mornings, I take hot showers, as hot as I can stand, raising the pink in my skin. Then I slather on the unfamiliar flower smells of hotel lotions, flowers I’ve never seen and only know from the labels: freesia in Columbus, hyacinth in Pittsburgh.

These pancakes are the sweetest thing I’ve ever eaten in my life. Where once my parents would have stopped me from pouring a sticky stream of syrup, he lets me eat as much as I want. I guess I won’t need to worry about cavities anymore.

He tells me if I try to run away, he will shoot me, and then he will go back and kill my entire family. I don’t think he would actually exert that much effort to go back, but I can never know. Maybe you didn’t see the bulge at the back of his waistband, or maybe a waitress at a roadside Denny’s sees a lot of things and you know better than to say anything. I don’t know why we don’t just eat at drive-thrus. I think he likes to take me out in public: he tells every waitress a different story. I’m not really his niece, you know. He told the waitress at the Olive Garden outside Altoona I was his stepdaughter.

I wanted to be a veterinarian when I grew up. One time when I was seven, a stray cat gave birth to kittens in our garage, on a pile of towels my dad used to polish his car. I watched in wonder, in spite of the goop, amazed at how she knew what to do with no one there to tell her. That was how he got me: he said he’d found an injured kitten, holding something in his hands in a wrapped-up t-shirt. I leaned in to look and that was the last thing I remember.

They’ll know what he looks like from your security cameras, I hope. He has a tattoo of a dragon on his back and a big scar on his thigh that he says he got in the Marines. On the cop shows my mom likes, they say things like that are “identifying characteristics.” We’re in a maroon Buick and the license plate starts with DAQ but he stole those plates in Ohio, so they’re not his. He says his name is Richard but I know that’s a lie.

The Poconos are big. I don’t know his family’s name or the name of the town, but I hope they can find me from these clues. You seem pretty smart so I know you will help.

Pray for me,
Marissa Talbot, age 14
Westside, Indianapolis


Stephanie King

Stephanie King is a past winner of the Quarterly West Novella Prize and the Lilith Short Fiction Prize, with stories also appearing in CutBank, Hobart and matchbook. She received her MFA from Bennington and serves on the board of the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference. You can find her online at or Twitter @stephstephking.