Lauren Spinabelli: The Vest

By Lauren Spinabelli

 The Girl Scout had wanted to make a card. She had planned it out in her head. She would start with purple construction paper and draw a border of stars around the edges in blue magic marker. Then she would write I’M SORRY I PUKED AND GOT GYM CANCELLED in silver glitter gel pen. She had even practiced the cursive on a scrap piece of paper. But her mother explained to her that sometimes you can apologize without actually writing I’M SORRY I PUKED AND GOT GYM CANCELLED on purple construction paper. In fact, it’s best to leave the word ‘puke’ out of most, if not all, of apologies. So that morning the Girl Scout and her mother had woken up early to bake a batch of apology cookies. The Girl Scout was wearing her green Girl Scout vest because the Girl Scout’s Girl Scout troop met on Wednesdays. The Girl Scout and her mother finished baking cookies while the school bus whizzed past the Girl Scout’s bus stop. The Girl Scout’s mother was not as much of an expert in time management as she was in apologies. Her ex-husband would probably agree.

So the Girl Scout walked to school, and with each step she brought herself closer to the worst part of the first-worst day of the week. Her lip was slightly swollen from the previous day, but she smiled as the April breeze sent her green vest flapping against her waist. There was a white smudge of flour where her mother had patted her shoulder. She ambled along the sidewalk, clutching the homemade cookies, their warmth radiating through the foil to her palms. I’m sorry I puked and got gym cancelled, the cookies said without saying anything. She pictured the boys thanking her with chocolate-stained lips, the girls waving at her with crumb-covered fingers. She’d packed a lunch today, a triangle-cut sandwich and carrot sticks. She thought for certain today would be better than yesterday.

A bony, chalk-colored hand smacked the plate of cookies onto the concrete. The Girl Scout gasped, her throat still raw from the previous day’s disaster. The bony hand was attached to an equally bony girl. She stomped on a pair of fallen cookies with her dirty sneaker, streaking the sidewalk with chocolate, the brown-red of dried blood. Two more bony girls appeared at the Girl Scout’s side. All three of them loomed over her, cigarettes clenched between their matching yellow teeth. Two of them had green vests hanging off their frames—the one with the dirty sneakers, and one with a sizeable birthmark on her neck. The Girl Scout stood frozen, her palms still clenching at the air where the cookies had once been. She felt her forehead begin to sweat despite the morning cool. The cigarette smoke danced towards her from all sides, lingering in her hair and weaving its stench into the fabric of her green vest.

The green vest represented her Girl Scout rank. She had climbed her way up from daisies to brownies to juniors. Blue to brown to green. There was a certain pomp and circumstance that came with receiving her green vest. It was called a bridging ceremony, and it was the first of two ceremonies, the second being her wedding day, in which the Girl Scout would see her two parents together since their divorce. On one end of the bridge, she was a brownie—sweet but rather simple. As she crossed to the other side, she was a junior— small but tough. Wiser, more worldly. As a junior she would learn how to use a compass, how to pitch a real tent, the principles of starting a fire—concepts a mere brownie couldn’t even fathom. Plus, no more ugly, dirt-colored brown vest. The Girl Scout swelled with pride the day she walked across the bridge towards the green vest. She didn’t even mind that it didn’t fit her quite as snug as the old brown one. In fact, her mother told her the extra room meant she would grow into it. But on this day, on the Girl Scout’s first-worst day, the vest still flapped with extra fabric, mocking her with the space she would never grow into.

“We need your vest.”

It was the girl with the dirty sneakers, the chalk-colored hands that robbed the Girl Scout of her apology cookies. The Girl Scout felt her breakfast crawling up her throat. The girl with the birthmark began to peel the Girl Scout’s backpack off of her shoulders. The Girl Scout jerked away, stumbling into the third girl. A chalk-colored hand dug yellow nails into the Girl Scout’s left elbow, restraining her while the girl with the birthmark wrenched the 9-year-old's backpack off and onto the cookie-covered sidewalk. The third, vest-less girl picked it back up and held it close to her chest. The Girl Scout fought tears while she fought to get away from the chalky grip of the girl with the dirty sneakers. She could feel the blood springing up at the scratches on her elbow. She clamped her free arm around her vest, trying to keep it from being pulled off of her body.

The birthmarked girl pried at the Girl Scout’s right arm, the Girl Scout doubled over to escape her reach. The yellow nails dug deeper into her left elbow, violently begging her to surrender. The birthmarked girl continued to twist and clutch at the Girl Scout’s right arm, stooping down towards her, trying to unfold her. She kicked at the Girl Scout’s shins, pulling the cigarette from her mouth and biting the Girl Scout’s shoulder with yellow teeth. The Girl Scout shrieked in pain but did not uncurl from her position, trying desperately to keep her precious green vest on her body. Her eyes were clenched shut, her swollen lips moving in a silent prayer: I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry I puked and got gym cancelled, I’m sorry. At last it felt like the terror ripping into her had ceased—the yellow nails no longer dug into her elbows, the kicking and thrashing subsided. She opened her eyes and relaxed her clenched muscles.

We need your vest.”

A blaze of pain blossomed on the Girl Scout’s upper arm. The girl with the dirty sneakers pushed her red-hot cigarette tip into the Girl Scout’s skin, hard. The Girl Scout trembled and bit her lip, yesterday’s wound bursting forth with newfound vigor. She slowly uncurled her battered body, her bruised shins throbbing. I’m sorry, she apologized to herself. She closed her eyes as the green vest was lifted away from her trembling shoulders and arms. It was gently replaced by her backpack, the triangle-cut sandwich and carrot sticks nestled safely inside.

*                                  *                                  *

The bony girls wore green Girl Scout vests, though they were not Girl Scouts. In fact, they were not even girls, but young women. They looked like girls because they stunted their growth with a balanced diet of coffee and cigarettes. They were part of a group of girls that was not quite a cult and not quite a gang, but was certainly something in the neighborhood of such concepts. The girl with the dirty sneakers had been around the longest, and was therefore the most hardened and ruthless—the other girls called her the scout leader. The scout leader knew the Girl Scout had meetings on Wednesdays, knew her vest would be draped over her tiny frame. She didn’t know, however, that the Girl Scout would be baking apology cookies and miss the bus, so the attack had been somewhat improvised. Usually they used a bit less force and a bit more tact.

The third girl, who was vest-less up until this very morning, was the newest member of this pseudo girl-gang. The group was composed of mostly runaways, though some had more to run away from than others. They sat up late most nights, their ghostly faces illuminated by the flickering light of a campfire, their green vests strung up in the trees. During the day they went to work roaming through posh housing developments. They called it work. They would wake when the sunlight made their polyester tents unbearable, or when it blasted through their eyelids as they rocked from their hammocks. They would crawl from their corners of the thicket towards the smoldering pit of ash from the previous night. They fried up corn cakes and cooked gray oatmeal, brewed a bubbling pot of sludge they called coffee. The girls pulled their green vests from the tree limbs and set off for work.

The formerly vest-less girl, the new girl, went to work for the first time on Thursday. She finally had her work uniform, the stolen green vest with the floury handprint. She picked at the flecks of dried blood from the Girl Scout’s elbow wound. She gagged over her coffee-sludge, which was earthy and bitter and as thick as chocolate pudding. The new girl followed her companions out of the wooded clearing, pulling her burn-speckled arms through the wide holes of her vest. The scout leader handed her a lighter. The new girl slid a cigarette from her jean pocket, stumbling over brambles and twigs as she struggled to light it. She coughed her way to work, her brown eyes watering.

“Braid your hair.”

The scout leader handed her two grimy rubber bands.

“You’re a little tall so you need to slouch. Try to pull your vest over your chest.”

The scout leader hadn’t wanted the new girl to join. The new girl wasn’t cute. There were no youthful freckles sprinkling her skin. She had no rosy glow, no traces of baby fat sitting like dollops of cream on her cheeks or arms. Her teeth were big and straight and white, for now.

They strolled down the sidewalk of the mansion-lined street. The manicured lawns matched their stolen vests. The scout leader led the new girl up a steep driveway, past a midnight blue sports car. They stood facing the door, a brass knocker glinting with a family crest. The new girl smoothed the vest over her chest, slumping her shoulders and bending her knees. The scout leader gave her a once over and stabbed at the doorbell with her chalky finger.

“Good morning! Our scout troop is collecting donations for the food bank. Would you like to make a contribution today? If you don’t have any canned products to spare we will gladly take cash or checks.”

The scout leader spoke brightly, a few octaves higher than her natural speaking voice. The new girl stared at the concrete shyly. She could feel the cool waves of air conditioning wafting from the open door, her pilfered green vest flapped under her arms. The sham Girl Scouts waited in the open doorway while a pocketbook was fetched and a handful of crisp bills were handed over.

*                                  *                                  *

The real Girl Scout spent her Friday evening mourning the loss of her precious green vest. Her troop flocked around the campfire in their identical uniforms, roasting sausages over the orange flames. The Girl Scout watched the grease drip from the roasting sticks, hissing and sizzling against the firewood. She wore her old brownie vest, her mother had convinced her it was better than no vest at all. But now the Girl Scout disagreed. She missed the way the green vest hung off of her shoulders, the extra fabric that promised growth—a future of reading compasses and building fires. She felt as if she was bursting out of her brown vest. Her dumb, childish, dirt-colored vest. She felt all at once too big and too small. The Girl Scout stared into the flames, ignoring the happy chatter of her peers. She hated them for their pretty green vests and their unscathed shins and their burn-less arms. How they could eat a school lunch without it reappearing on the gymnasium floor. 

The Girl Scout’s leader ripped open a bag of marshmallows and began distributing them to the troop.  When she reached the Girl Scout, she dropped two into her little palm. The Girl Scout wondered if they were apology marshmallows, wondered what they said without saying. Sorry you lost your green vest. Sorry you feel so left out. Sorry you don’t quite belong. She knew her sensitive stomach wasn’t particularly fond of marshmallows. When the leader turned her back, the Girl Scout tossed the two sugary puffs into the crackling fire. She watched them melt and twist and burn against the blazing firewood. She sat entranced by the flickering light, the warmth causing her forehead to sweat. All at once she was overcome with the strangest sensation, like she had been here before and would be here again. The campfire popped and snarled, sending sparks and smoke up beyond the trees. The smoke mingled into her hair and weaved its scent into her brown vest. The strange sensation passed in a fleeting whisper, leaving a melancholy aftertaste. She thought that this was the saddest she had ever felt, but knew it was light years away from the saddest she would ever feel. This was simply the knowledge of sadness to come.

The smoke from the Girl Scouts’ campfire swirled up and up towards the summer stars. It blended and collided with the smoke from the new girl’s fire. The fire was ringed with fake Girl Scouts, warming tin cans of baked beans and roasted corn. Donations they received at work. The new girl admired the way the green vests swayed from the creaking tree limbs, how the campfire smoke passed through them and soaked them in its scent. She spotted her own vest among them, the patch of flour from a loving mother’s hand gone, scattered into the night. Looking at the smudge made a lump swell in her throat and she was overcome with the strange feeling. She was not alone but she felt lonely, but she knew this was not the loneliest she would ever feel. Not by a long shot.

Lauren Spinabelli is a writer from Pittsburgh currently living in Brooklyn.