Girl on the Screen

In the summer of 2012, in my hometown in south Louisiana, I rolled burritos while waiting for college to begin. Just as my restaurant job neatly framed those three summer months, so did the search for Mickey Shunick, the big sister who never showed up to her brother’s high school graduation. Our restaurant boasted three large flat screens where, nightly, the local (and soon, national) news looped its story of her, pairing the flyer-photo of her face with the newest evidence or suspect to surface: her bike, a white truck, the last friend to see her, to watch her pedal out of his driveway and into the night. But always, that photo of her face: smooth, pale skin as young as mine, and a full-lipped smile framed by a head of hair so white you could imagine it, like a reflector, glowing small against that dark.

Late May, investigators, still pouring over surveillance videos, came forward with scratchy footage caught by cameras across from an empty Circle K gas station, its time stamp nearing 2 am. The clip begins in still darkness. Across the street, the awning above the gas pumps sends down tunnels of light, illuminating nothing but the concrete immediately below them. Then: in the four most startling frames I’ve ever seen, a woman on a bicycle moves across the screen, disappears. I inspected this scene of her perhaps ten times more before realizing what tightened my chest: it took this shoddy, passive camera to give the lost girl on the screen, who I’d come to know so well—a body.  And one in motion: her hair behind her shoulders, her legs pumping forward on what was to be a four mile bike ride home. In seconds, those frames, projected about as fast as a heartbeat, gave her life.

Seconds more pass, and a large white pickup glides into frame, switching lanes into the path Mickey had just made. Police decided this truck was the key to her story, and that day, the search for Mickey became the search for this truck.

One afternoon the following week, I arrived at work to three coworkers talking with an energy uncharacteristic for anyone at the end of a shift. One of them told me a strange man with a large white truck had just come in, and when she’d tried to write down the man’s license plate, he became aggressive and left before getting his food.

“Should we call the police?” one asked.

“No, we didn’t get the plate. Besides, there are so many white trucks that it probably wouldn’t be helpful,” another decided.

Two of them clocked out soon after, the staff thinning to three for the night shift: me, a man named Damien, and a manager, who often took off early.

I could not keep still.

The next hour, my mind reeled, spinning improbable scenarios: What if he comes back? What if he’s the guy and he suspects we’re onto him? I kept my eye on the front door. Then the back. Picked up my keys from the back room and slid them into my pocket. I felt scared and I felt ridiculous. Eventually, I couldn’t help it. In the kitchen with Damien, an incredibly tall man, probably in his early thirties, I hung back a few extra minutes, cleaning a shelf I’d just cleaned, when I mentioned in a tone I hoped sounded blasé that I was wondering what would happen if that guy came back. Damien stopped preparing the chicken and turned to me, tilting his head down to meet my eyes. A sudden fear of him shot up my spine. He wasn’t just tall, but wide, his shoulders impossibly far apart.

He pointed to the entrance, his hand as large as my face.

“Do you really think,” he began, just above a whisper, “I’d let anyone from out there come and mess with anyone in here?” 

Maybe I shrugged, but I know I smiled and I know I said nothing. He went back to his work, replacing the knife he was holding with a longer one. The rack of knives in front of his grill wavered, for a moment, catching and releasing fluorescent light in that mostly vacant restaurant.