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September 18, 2023

The Button Girl

By Christopher Henckel

Part 1

The Button Girl arrived in Buckhannon, West Virginia, in the spring of 1962. No one knew her real name or where she came from. She simply appeared.

Standing between the town’s five-and-dime and Jerry’s Auto Repair on Main Street, The Button Girl held a jade button to her eye as she twirled around and around. When she stopped spinning, it was the Whistle Stop café she saw through one of the button's four holes.

It was The Button Girl’s great pleasure to unite her magical buttons with those who needed them most—noting it was the button who chose the owner, not the other way around. Now, satisfied with the directions the button had given her, The Button Girl pocketed the jade and skipped toward the café.

The bell above the café door rang. The waiter, Chase Lockland, looked up to see a girl, perhaps thirteen years old, frolicking in like a deer. She wore a denim jacket, every inch of which was covered with buttons—large and small, plastic and bone, and of every shape and color imaginable. Only an out-of-towner would wear such a jacket, he thought, as he turned down the volume of the AM transistor radio.

“What’ll you have?”

The Button Girl smiled at the young man across the counter, resisting the urge to giggle at his paper hat, which sat like a capsized canoe on his shaggy hair. Taking in the scent of coffee and warm pepperoni rolls, The Button Girl pushed the jade across the counter toward him.

There wasn't anyone else in the café; the morning rush ended a half hour earlier.

Chase shook his head. “That ain't mine. But what'll you have? We got cobbler if you like. It's peach.”

Apparently, the young man didn’t understand. It happened sometimes. So, The Button Girl persisted, stretching her arm across the counter as far as she could, flourishing the jade. “Buttons.”

Chase scoffed at The Button Girl’s guttural accent. If there was one thing he couldn’t stand, it was a foreigner. Four years ago, Davis and Elkins College had accepted Chase into their institution. But in his first year, a foreigner driving on the wrong side of the road crashed into Chase’s car. When the new school year began, Chase didn’t return to college. Nor did he return the year after that, never seeming to recapture the enthusiasm that once made his life so vibrant. Nowadays, he worked in the Whistle Stop café. Supported by his trusty cane, he brooded over the life that had been stolen from him by a careless foreigner and silently prayed for anything—magic or otherwise—that would bring back his youthful vigor again.

Chase stepped away from the girl and her outstretched hand. “I don't want your button. You going to order or not?”

“Buttons,” The Button Girl said again, nodding for the young man to take the jade, unsure why he wasn’t taking it. But as she leaned over the counter, she knocked over a pot of coffee. The glass pot shattered onto the floor, splashing hot coffee over Chase’s trousers.

Chase stumbled back then flung a stack of napkins at the girl. “Dang it. Get the heck out of here. Don’t you ever come back.”

The Button Girl fled the café having never touched the young man. Nor had she come within two feet of him the whole time she was there. And yet the jade button had miraculously made its way into the young man’s pocket.

* * *

The Button Girl spent an hour across the road from the Whistle Stop café, hiding behind the Dairy Queen. Traffic picked up, and the rise and fall of their engines cut through the noise of the East Main Street School, a few blocks down. The Button Girl didn’t mind waiting. Having delivered the button to its new owner, she expected to see the young man burst out the café door bubbling with joy.

At eleven o’clock, when the next shift arrived, the young man left the café. Supported by his cane, he slipped into a black Buick, slammed its door, and sped away.

Absently fingering the buttons on her jacket, The Button Girl wondered what had gone wrong. Had the jade chosen the wrong person? Surely not. But if the jade had chosen its new owner correctly, why did the young man still seem so unhappy?

The day waxed on and The Button Girl knew she had to move on. She pulled a rectangular wooden button free from the cuff of her jacket; its edges were jagged and gave the button the appearance of a postage-stamp. As before, The Button Girl held it to her eye and turned around and around. When she stopped, she could see the corner of a park a few blocks down the road.

With a fresh smile on her face, The Button Girl pocketed the wooden button. Then, giggling, she skipped down the sidewalk toward the park.

South African emigrant, Luan Smit, sat alone in Jawbone Park reading from a thick textbook entitled ‘Global Innovations for a Better Tomorrow.’ The pages of the book were brittle with age and stained along their margins from being read countless times. Luan knew the book well; he’d written it forty years earlier while living in Johannesburg. Pushing his wire framed spectacles back over the crook of his nose he sighed, imagining how the world might have looked today had people only listened to his advice.

As he read, a peculiar looking girl danced across the gutter, slid onto the bench beside him, and extended her hand. The girl couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen years old—far too young to be roaming town alone—and she volleyed for Luan’s attention. Luan ignored her, focusing on his textbook.

When the old man on the bench didn’t immediately notice The Button Girl, she moved closer to him—close enough to smell the sweet scent of pipe smoke on his tweed jacket. Placing her hand on the book to lever herself up she whispered, “Buttons.”

Luan ripped the book free before the careless girl could damage it. “This is a book,” he said in his thick South African accent. “It is not a video game. The arcade is down the road.”

Encouraged by the attention she now received, The Button Girl stepped over the gutter and offered the old man her wooden button. “Buttons.”

Luan scooted further away. An academic by profession, Luan valued intellect above all else. It was the achievements of the great intellectual minds of the world which moved mountains, and the plague of the unintelligent who stood in the way of progress. Luan had no time for the unintelligent, ignorant, and naïve.

“Leave me alone,” he said, and returned to his reading.

Clearly something had gone wrong; the old man hadn’t taken the button. Pausing to consider, The Button Girl remembered how other people spoke to the elderly. Maybe that’s what she was doing wrong.

Circling behind the park bench, The Button Girl approached the old man again, stopping a few inches from the back of his head. Then in the loudest, most vibrant voice she could muster, she yelled, “Buttons!”

Luan leaped from the park bench with the agility of a younger man, cursing, and fighting to steady himself on his cane. At the same time, his textbook—the symbol of his professional intellectual achievement—slipped from his lap, fell between the grates of the gutter, and splashed in a puddle of filth far, far from his reach.

Luan cracked his cane down onto the bench. “Get out of here. Shoo.”

Frightened by the old man’s outburst and by the crack of his cane, The Button Girl darted back down the road. As for the wooden button, it was now deep within the old man’s pocket, where it properly belonged.

* * *

Hiding behind the corner of the corner of the Piggly Wiggly supermarket, The Button Girl looked back at the old man. He’d sat back down on the bench, propped his elbows on his spindly knees, and looked as if he were crying.

The Button Girl didn’t understand. As with the young man in the paper hat, the button didn’t appear to be working. Clearly, something was wrong. Running the tips of her fingers down her sleeve and around the buttons sewn there, she realized the buttons were never wrong. Therefore, the problem must be her. And that realization led her to wonder why.

The Button Girl removed an iridescent glass button from the lapel of her denim jacket. In the light, the button sparked a mist of swirling navy and crimson. “Buttons,” she said, if for no other reason than to ease her own worry. Then she began to turn around and around—one last time.

This time, the glass button indicated a location farther down the road, though The Button Girl couldn’t discern exactly where. Still, a direction was better than nothing at all, so she pocketed the glass, turned, and saw a giant black man laying sprawled across the sidewalk as if dead.


* * *

Moments before, Otis Jackson—known since he was a child as ‘Slow Oats’—stepped from the Piggly Wiggly nestling a paper bag as if it were a teddy bear. Slow Oats had lived in Buckhannon all his life. In fact, he’d not so much as set foot beyond the city limits since he was a baby. “But back then, it was just a town and the city came later and ate it up,” he told people. This was easier than telling people the truth: that he was scared the trees would eat him if he tried to leave.

As he left the supermarket, he said “g’morning” to the librarian and his old Sunday school teacher, but he said nothing to the girl peeking from behind the supermarket.

The girl wore a fancy looking jacket with more buttons than Slow Oats had seen in his life. While the buttons looked good enough to eat—some reminded Slow Oats of sticky rock candy and gumdrops—no one around here would be caught dead wearing all them buttons. And this meant the girl must have been from out of town.

People in these parts dressed more conservatively. Slow Oats, for example, always wore the same pair of bibbed overalls. They were stained from ketchup—hot dogs with ketchup were his favorite—and they had gaping holes in their knees from weeding his garden. His one concession was not wearing shoes; but that was because his feet were so big that non fit him.

As Slow Oats made his way down the sidewalk a tin of peaches rolled from his bag. It clattered down the sidewalk, nearly missing his toes, then tumbled into a tuft of rouge grass at the corner of the parking lot. Bending to pick it up, he noticed a black-eyed Susan sprouting from the concrete.

Abandoning the peaches, Slow Oats leaned down and smelled the flower. Nostrils flaring and contracting, he breathed in the memory of this town and how it had been thirty years ago—before the town had been swallowed by the city.

Minutes passed and Slow Oats lay flat on the sidewalk with his nose pressed against the black-eyed Susan’s petals, breathing in his favorite memories.

Behind him, The Button Girl screamed, “Buttons!”

The Button Girl rushed to help the giant. At the same time, a black Buick pulled from the Piggly Wiggly and accelerated.

Brakes screeched. Tires skidded. The Button Girl lay sprawled across the pavement.

Part 2

Chase hobbled from his car, his mind refusing to accept the scene before him. It was like before: another accident caused by another foreigner. Except this time, it was his fault and it was the foreigner who was hurt.

The girl lay unmoving on the pavement, a small pool of crimson gathering beneath her head and seeping into the cracks in the asphalt. Chase had to get the girl to the hospital—fast. But the nearest hospital was in Elkins, a thirty-minute drive over a road he’d not traveled since his accident.

Chase looked at Slow Oats, who rocked on the sidewalk with his knees drawn to his chest. While they’d never spoken, they’d lived a half mile from each other for twenty years and Chase had come to think of Slow Oats as a gentle giant.

“Put her in my car,” Chase said. “And you get in too. Hold her. Try to stop the bleeding.”

Slow Oats had never been so scared in his life. He’d never seen a person hurt like this before. And now the young man who lived down the road, Chase Lockland, was telling him to get into a car. While cars in themselves were frightening, it was the thought of leaving Buckhannon—through the trees—that terrified Slow Oats.

“I can’t,” Slow Oats said. “Please don’t make me get in your car. I’ll do anything. Please. Please.”

Chase whacked Slow Oats with his cane—not too hard, but hard enough to get his attention. “Listen to me, Slow Oats. You can do this. You see that blood? Once it all drains out, she’s gonna die. You don’t want that do you?”

Slow Oats closed his eyes, blotting the images of gnarled tree branches reaching through his mind. He covered his ears with his hands and shook his head. “I can’t. You’re wrong. I don’t like cars.”

“Hey. Hey. Do you want this girl to die?”

Slow Oats opened his eyes and looked up at Chase. “No, you know I don’t.”

“Yeah. Well, I don’t reckon I do either,” Chase said. “Now, I can drive her to Elkins' Hospital. But that ain’t going to save her unless you ride with her and put pressure on the wound to stop the bleeding. You understand?”

Slow Oats lowered his hands. “But I don’t know how.”

“That’s okay,” Chase said as calmly as he could. “Cause all you got to do is try. That’s all.”

“That’s all?”

“That’s all.”

There were two routes between Buckhannon and Elkins. The new highway first traveled north to Grafton before veering east to Elkins. This route would take far too long. But the only other option was the old dirt road, which was half the distance, but Chase hadn’t driven it since his accident.

Chase wiped the sweat from palms onto his trousers. While he understood the girl’s life depended on him getting her to the Elkins Hospital as quickly as possible, he couldn’t bring himself to travel the old road. That’s when he realized what had been keeping him from returning to University and finishing his degree. Fear. While the foreigner had driven Chase off the road, it was the road itself that frightened him.

Knowing this didn’t bring solace. Once Slow Oats had lifted the girl into the back seat and climbed in beside her, Chase whipped his car around toward the highway, and pushed the pedal down.

* * *

Luan could see his book through the storm grate, but he couldn’t reach it. He considered using two sticks like a pair of chopsticks, but the book’s hard cover would probably be too slippery; besides, he didn’t have two sticks. Shifting around the grate, he studied the problem from another angle. Perhaps if he—

A car appeared out of nowhere, tearing up the road. Luan didn’t have time to move and was powerless but to stand there, petrified, as the car locked up its brakes and skidded to a stop inches from ploughing him over.

The kid behind the wheel—of course it was a kid, who else would drive so carelessly—laid on the horn and shouted, “Get out of the road, old man.”

Luan knew the young man. Chase Lockland was the idiot kid who’d given up a good scholarship—a grand opportunity where he could have made something of himself—to work in a café. Idiot. Idiot. IDIOT. Raising his cane, Luan stepped forward and whacked it against the hood of Chase’s car.

There was another person in the car with Chase. Not in the front seat, as would have made sense, but in the back. Slow Oats. Luan had never seen him in a car before; he thought the simpleton was frightened of them. But there he was, crouched in the back seat of Chase’s Buick holding—

“Get out of the dang road,” Chase said. “The girl's hurt.”

Ignoring Chase, Luan poked his head through the car’s window. The girl he’d yelled at a half-hour ago was unconscious and bleeding. Luan wasn’t sure if the girl was alive or dead.

“I don’t know what to do,” Slow Oats said. “I want to help, but don’t know how to keep the blood inside.”

Luan’s gaze shifted to Chase. Of all the idiot kids in this town, he was the worst. In Luan’s opinion, Chase ‘the privileged and ungrateful’ Lockland, represented everything Luan despised.

“You’re going the wrong way,” he said to Chase. Then, turning to Slow Oats he said, “And you. You need to compress the wound. Stop the bleeding. Do you know how to do that?”

Chase could feel his face flush hot. “He don’t know how.”

“Doesn’t know how,” Luan said.

“Whatever,” Chase said, conscious that the warble in his voice sounded dangerously close to crying. “If you can help, get in. If not, get out of my way.”

Luan shifted his attention to Slow Oats and then to the girl. He tried to imagine a scenario where the girl would survive the journey without her wounds being compressed. But no such scenario existed. By his calculations, the girl would bleed to death long before they got to the hospital, especially if Chase took the new highway.

While Luan accepted that he’d frightened the girl away, he’d not been the one to run into her. This was not his problem. Chase and Slow Oats stared at him, and Luan shoved his hands into his pockets as he backed away from the Buick.

But something in Luan’s pocket made him pause. He pulled it out then turned the wooden button over in his hand, unsure when or how the girl had put it there. A gift?

Luan climbed into the back seat beside Slow Oats and the injured girl. “You must take the route down the dirt road. Otherwise, there is no point in going anywhere.”

Chase knew Luan was right. But somehow, having the elderly man vocalize this fact made its implications all the more real. This girl was going to die in the backseat of Chase’s car—unless he turned around right now and faced his greatest fear.

Days later, the police calculated that Chase must have driven eighty-three miles per hour down the old dirt road between Buckhannon and Elkins. Their calculation was based on the time Chase’s car was seen leaving Buckhannon and the estimated time of the crash where they found his car.

* * *

Chase never left off the throttle, his car sweeping over giant potholes and sliding around loose-gravel turns that he’d not taken in three years but remembered as if he’d driven them yesterday. The fear of crashing weighed heavily on his mind and shoulders, but greater still was the fear that this nameless girl would die.

“How’s she doing?” he said, glancing into his rearview mirror.

Luan didn’t bother wearing a seatbelt, rationalizing that if they crashed at this speed he’d not walk away from it anyway. Instead, he braced his back against the passenger seat and pressed hard against the girl’s wound to stop the bleeding.

“Her bleeding has slowed,” Luan said over the roar of the engine and constant shower of rocks spraying the car’s undercarriage. “But not stopped.”

Slow Oats hadn’t spoken a word since they’d left Buckhannon, focusing instead on the instructions cranky ol' Luan gave him. When Luan said, “Hold her tightly,” Slow Oats held the girl just so. And when Luan said, “Press hard here,” he ignored all the blood matting the girl’s hair flat and pressed exactly where Luan said.

Five miles outside of Elkins, Slow Oats saw something darting out from the woods ahead of the car. “Look out!”

Chase saw the deer too, and for a third time that day he locked up the Buick’s brakes. The car fishtailed across the loose gravel, skidded broadside, then crashed into the bank.

Moments passed and a cloud of dust caught up with the Buick. “Y’all okay?” Chase said.

Luan took inventory of wellbeing before proclaiming, “You are an idiot. The deer would have moved,” which Chase took to mean the cranky old man was fine.

“Slow Oats?”

Slow Oats didn’t answer, but Chase could see the big man’s reflection in the rear-view mirror as he nodded his head.

“The girl is the same,” Luan said. "Drive.” But when Chase turned the key, the car didn’t start. Nor did it start the second and third time he tried.

The hospital was still another five miles down the road. Without the car the girl was as good as dead. Luan was eighty-two years old—even on his best day he couldn’t walk the five miles, and certainly not carrying the girl. Likewise, Chase’s injuries from three years ago prevented him from helping.

That left Slow Oats, the gentle giant who’d never been this far from Buckhannon in his life, who’d not set foot in a car until today, who was petrified of the trees, and whose feet were bare before a five-mile stretch of jagged gravel.

The Buick squeaked and rose on its suspension as Slow Oats stepped out and looked up at the canopy. He knew these trees as ash and elm, sycamore and locust. “I ain’t never cut down one of you trees in my life,” he said. “And if it’s alright with yous, I’d like to pass so I can help this girl. She’s hurt real bad.”

Slow Oats waited for the trees to reply but heard nothing but the chattering squirrels and rustling of leaves. No promise from the trees of safe passage, but no warning either.

“Alright then. Here I come,” he said, gathering the girl into his arms.

Chase looked ready to protest, but Luan placed his hand on Chase’s arm and shook his head. Then, turning to Slow Oats, Luan said, “Today, you are not Slow Oats. You are Fast Oats, the kind that go very quickly. Yes?”

Chase nodded in agreement. “Once you get her to the hospital, you can be Slow Oats again. Alright? Just like … like magic.”

Nestling The Button Girl snugly in his embrace and ignoring the pain from the gravel cutting int his feet, Fast Oats broke into a run.

* * *

Fast Oats, who’d not run five miles in his life, arrived at the hospital fifteen minutes later. Panting and staggering from exhaustion, he handed the girl to the team of doctors who rushed around him. Then the doctors disappeared, taking the little girl with them. That’s when Fast Oats disappeared—just like Chase had said—making way for Slow Oat’s lumbering return. Magic.

The hospital smelled of disinfectant and was as clean as the supermarket aisle except for the splotches of crimson that led from the hospital’s glass double doors and ended where Slow Oats knelt doubled over.

Slow Oats fell asleep on the hallway floor. He slept for four hours, by which time Chase and Luan arrived at the hospital, having been given a lift by another traveler on the old dirt road. They were sitting at the end of the hall when Slow Oats woke, blinked his bloodshot eyes, and said, “Did I get her here in time?”

Luan exchanged glances with Chase, who shrugged, and together they explained medically induced comas to Slow Oats.

* * *

In the week that followed, Luan spent hours at The Button Girl’s side. On the few occasions that he stepped away it was to visit the library two blocks from the hospital.

The librarian, Nancy Ingleton, a thin woman in her sixties who didn’t look a day over fifty-five, struck up a conversation with Luan as she checked his books out for him. “You know, I’ve got a button just like that,” she said nodding toward the wooden button pinned to Luan’s lapel. “Where'd you get yours?”

Luan blushed—something he hadn’t done in so long that it caused him to blush even more. “A gift from a friend.”

“Mine too,” Nancy said. “In fact, it was the same friend who inspired me to teach night classes. It’s hard to believe there’s so many people in Elkins that don’t have their high school diplomas. And I just think of all the good they could do if they knew how—and had the opportunity. Of course, no one would ever give them the opportunity without their diplomas. So, I thought to myself, that’s what I ought to do. I should help these people get their diplomas. And well, that’s what I did.”

The conversation rolled on and Luan let slip that, in fact, he was an academic—or at least he had been, when he was younger—and he’d be pleased to assist Nancy if she’d like.

“Oh, I could just kiss you,” Nancy said.

“Well I'm not getting any younger,” Luan said, and he winked.

* * *

After a week of pacing the halls, the sounds of his cane tapping across the hospital’s floor, Chase found himself sitting with Doctor Maria Sanchez. Originally from Peru, Maria came to the United States to study medicine. Her English was patchy, but she had a wicked sense of humor that transcended any language barrier. By the end of her lunch break, Chase clutched that button and went out on a limb. He asked Maria out to go dancing.

“Are you sure you can keep up?” she said, nodding toward his cane. “I’m a very good dancer.”

Chase smiled. “I’m just making it easier for you to sweep me off my feet.”

Moments passed before Maria got the joke, which admittedly was a poor one, but nevertheless smiled back.

Marie looked back at Chase as she left the cafeteria, flicking her long chestnut hair over one shoulder and flashing a secretive smile. “Sí, guapo. Me encantaría bailar.”

Chase didn’t need magic or to speak Spanish to know this meant yes.

* * *

On first of May 1962, The Button Girl roused from her bed. She didn’t know this place, had never seen it before. But there were many people all around her. All of them were smiling and looked happy to see her. And for the first time in her life, the whole world was made of buttons … just like magic.

This story was first published by Academy Of The Heart And Mind on 24 April 2022.

Article © Christopher Henckel. All rights reserved.
Published on 2023-03-27
Image(s) are public domain.
1 Reader Comments
Rebecca Murphy
09:07:01 PM
This story “ the button girl” captures the heart of the little girl wanting to make other people happy but when her buttons didn’t work, something else did. No one could explain it… unless they owned one of her buttons.
Very challenging to read not knowing which way the story would go but still keeps the reader curious enough to find out what happened next…

Very well put together Chris. And to know you wrote this for your sister must warm her heart to know how the button story is going to go
Your sister can see she is portrayed as a loving caring little girl as she was growing up.

Just like your story, you don’t know how in real life the direction this story will take its course.

Very well written. God in heaven must have inspired you to write this !

With love from your mother
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