“And that’s not the only reason she’s strange either. She has the height and slightly rebellious posture of an eleven-year-old but wearing a trench coat made for a 50-year-old brooding detective with a high collar she’s keeping tightly wrapped around her neck, so it’s totally concealed. Though her position exposes her wrists–which are completely covered with bruises and tiny cuts. She’s also barefoot.”
The girl is silent. This is unusual. The driver should know. He picks hitchhikers up wherever he can, and there’s always a, “Thanks,” or a, “Where to?” or at least a, “Hey, can I ride shotgun?”
Not so with this one.
And that’s not the only reason she’s strange either. She has the height and slightly rebellious posture of an eleven-year-old but wearing a trench coat made for a 50-year-old brooding detective with a high collar she’s keeping tightly wrapped around her neck, so it’s totally concealed. Though her position exposes her wrists–which are completely covered with bruises and tiny cuts. She’s also barefoot.
The driver knows the look of an escaped prisoner. He’s picked them up a few times, as this area is notorious for its prisons and other secure facilities.. He knows the bruises on the wrists that indicate having worn handcuffs for a long time, the frantic look of their eyes, the tense, twitching way they hold themselves — as if they might have to bolt any second. Of course, the first three times he picked up escapees, he brought them to the nearest police station immediately. But there’s something about this girl…
Normally he would respect a hitchhiker’s privacy, but now he decides he needs to probe.
“So… ah, what’s your name, young lady?” He glances at her in the rearview mirror. A patch of something red is starting to spread over the collar of her coat. Her eyes flit nervously to him.
“Ahh… Ah… ” she stutters. Her voice is hoarse as if she hasn’t used it in a while. This worries him.
“Amelia? He prompts after hesitating. “Anna?”
“Ah…. ” her mouth presses into a firm line. “Aaaaa….. mnesia.”
“You… have amnesia?” Now he is truly worried.
He thinks for a moment. “So… you can’t remember?”
“Can’t remember,” she repeats triumphantly.
“Ah… do you have any idea… why you can’t remember?”
Her mouth goes into that line again. He realizes that’s all he’s going to get out of her on the matter. “Well, should I call your parents? Your guardians?”
“Do you…have any family?”
“Well… I have to call someone.” Keeping one hand on the wheel, the driver reaches for his phone, lying next to him, with his other hand. He is about to dial 911 when he catches the strange girl’s eye in the mirror. He suddenly finds he can’t look away. Then, it happens. Her pupils constrict– just a little. Then the feeling– as if something in his mind, just a bit off for years, has finally clunked into place.
His hand slowly moves away from his phone and comes to rest at two o’clock on the wheel.
“No family… that’s all right. I don’t have any either. They’re all gone, you see.” At that word, something seems to click in her mind as well.
“Gone… ” she says. “Gone… my family is gone.”
The girl scares him. She shouldn’t.
Granted, she is scary. But so was the 17-year-old with the blood-red mohawk who was dealing drugs. So was the bald 14-year-old girl with obscenities tattooed up and down both arms, twirling a pistol in her hand. And so was the teen before that, and the one before that, and the hundreds he’s seen over the years. Being stationed at one of New City’s busiest subway stations, you get freaks like that. All. The. Time.
But this freak is different. Usually they strut around looking for trouble or flaunting their disturbing tattoos. She keeps to herself, huddling in a corner formed by a dumpster and the wall. And the officer isn’t exactly up-to-date with the fashion scene at the moment, but he is pretty sure that a sweaty old ripped undershirt, long pink gloves, tight white shorts that barely cover her bottom, and a vibrant orange scarf are unusual even for a subway freak. Her undyed, shoulder-length, dirty-blonde hair sticks out everywhere in a very undignified way.
Then it strikes him that she’s not wearing any shoes. Something is very wrong here. He decides to move in. In this line of work, you learn to follow every lead.
She smiles pleasantly at him when he approaches. “Hello,” she says. Her voice is smooth — too smooth. Her tone is flawless.
“Hello,” he says, slowly and cautiously. Then he tells himself to man up. This scrawny 11-year-old shouldn’t scare him. He’s 42, in prime shape for his age, and has a gun. He needs to assert himself. “Ma’am,” he begins sternly, “I’m afraid shoes are mandatory in this station.”
“Is that so?” she asks sweetly.
“Yes, it is. Rule 307 of the Customer Service Policy states clearly on the New City Public Transportation website.”
“Oh.” She makes a little squeal. “Well, I didn’t know that – ” And then, it happens. The slight constricting of the pupils — and the strangest feeling, as though something in his mind, sunken to the bottom after years of forgetfulness, is sifted to the top.
“Officer Davis Davidson,” she finishes.
“I — I’m sorry.” Davis Davidson is stunned. Because that’s not his name.
She smiles again. Her full lips look red in the dim light. He doesn’t fully register it, because she takes one step sideways away from him.
Through his shock, he can hear dimly the roar that signals the arrival of a train. The girl cocks her head to one side playfully. “Well, I need to get going,” she grins, flashing yellow teeth. Then she is gone.
The officer stands there, frozen, for 15 more minutes before one of his co-workers finds him.
When he climbs into bed that night, he can’t stop thinking about what the girl called him.
The badge reads Officer McShirley — that’s the surname he took when he was married. And well before that, when he was 20, he had changed his last name to Johnson. All the records show either McShirley or Johnson. There’s no way she could have known.
But he was born Davis Davidson.
The girl is ugly. Normally, the cashier isn’t a judgmental person, but this is simply a fact. Her hopelessly tangled and muddy hair reaches down to the floor, her face is covered in nettles and scratches, and he’s pretty sure those are real cockroaches on her arms. To say nothing of her fashion sense. She looks like she just escaped from a jail — a low-budget jail. She’s wearing a ripped white undershirt and tight, white shorts that barely cover three inches, and no shoes. There are scars and bruises covering her wrists and neck. The cashier isn’t the brightest (it’s not part of the job description) so he doesn’t stop to think how she might have gotten them. He simply checks her items.
Bread, carrots, apples, frozen peas, frozen French Fries, a pint of mint ice cream, and two six-packs of water bottles. Not exactly typical shopping for a 12-year-old girl — they usually come in giggling with Haribos and sodas and lip gloss. This girl looks wise beyond her years, like a crazed sage living on a mountain eating worms. There’s a breathless expression on her face like she’s been through something horrible, and is simply glad to be alive. It troubles the cashier.
“Your total is $29.99,” he tells her. “Paper or plastic?”
“Nothing reusable?” Her voice is hoarse, but kind.
“No,” he tells her, looking at her defiantly.
She makes a tsking noise and makes eye contact with him. She looks almost regretful. Then it happens.
Her pupils constrict, and the cashier gets the strangest feeling — as though out of his clogged and overstuffed brain, off his burdened shoulders, something has been taken.
And then it’s as if he’s closed his eyes — just darkness and darkness and darkness. He tries to open his eyes, but they are open. He can hear the clamor of the supermarket, smell the cleaning products, taste the stale gum in the back of his mouth, feel the coarse fabric of his uniform against his hands — but he cannot see. He hears the girl giggle, hears the rustling and clunking of objects being dropped into a bag, and the pad of her feet running away.
The cashier slumps to his knees. His head droops and a few salty tears seep out of his blind eyes.
The girl shouldn’t be here. But the reporter seems to be the only one who’s noticed, as usual. She’s come to realize that, even though she’s only an intern at LINN (Leg International News Network), she’s really the only competent member of her team. Which is unfortunate, because they’ve been assigned the war-spurred chaos in B’leg.
The girl really shouldn’t be here, for her own safety. There are crazed gangs and resistance fighters with machine guns and hand grenades everywhere. Even wearing a bulletproof vest, the reporter doesn’t feel safe. And this girl looks only ten, wearing a shirt that says My Grandma went to Seaside States and all I got was this stupid T-Shirt, a ridiculous flamingo scarf, and jean shorts that clash horribly.
She is about to stride over to the girl to tell her to clear out when their team leader grabs her by the arm.
“Avery!” he says sharply. “We need you on set! We’re live in 30 seconds! Where have you been?” Five feet away, she thinks as he drags her away.
The camera is pointed at a dramatic landscape of burning buildings and half-naked, starving people running around and shrieking. It seems like something straight out of the pages of a dystopian novel.
The team leader shoves a microphone into Avery’s hands and gestures impatiently at the cameraman. He nods, and Avery puts on her professional face.
“Hello, Leg,” the leader announces pompously. “This is Alex Alexander, everyone’s favorite re – ”
“We are live from war-torn B’leg!” Avery shouts into her mic. It lets out a squeal of feedback in protest. Alex Alexander gives her a look, but she’s already decided to take matters into her own hands. “The half-starved screams of innocent citizens caught in the crossfire fill the air, and the sharp tang of gunpowder is inescapable. Mud, fire, and death pollute these streets. And after the merciless attack of the resistance fighters, it is sadly proven once again that innocence never lasts forever… ” She pulls a six-year-old boy clutching a teddy bear that’s half ashes into the camera frame. “Young man! What was your life like before the attack?”
“Uh… my name is Humphrey and I guess I liked watching cartoons. You know that one with the rabbit and the roach? That was my favorite. But then… I mean… ”
Avery makes a roll the clip motion with her hand. Across Leg, their viewers will see a recording of yesterday’s attack. Avery waits thirty seconds, then continues talking. “After this ruthless rampage of ruination – ” (audiences adore alliteration) “ – everyone in B’leg is changed. Now, Humphrey is lucky when the news turns on! I – ”
“True,” comes a loud voice.
Avery whirls around. A girl — the girl is standing there. In their frame. “Excuse me?”
The girl’s face, framed by hair that’s black at the top and white at the bottom, with only the barest shade of gray in between, twists into an expression of horror. “I — I’m so sorry – ”
“Hey!” shouts Alex Alexander stupidly. “That’s the girl I saw you with!”
Then the strangest thing happens — a flash of events in the space of a few seconds. The girl’s eyes constrict and something flashes in them — a truth, ancient and mystical and powerful. Then they glaze over, and she speaks.
“True,” she says.
“Wait, what?” Alexander asks slowly, befuddled.
Avery sighs. “She – ” then she stops, because she realizes she doesn’t actually know what the girl did. Or what she said.
“Ha!” Humphrey cries. “Polly, ya did it again!”
The girl –- Polly? — looks uncomfortable. “Humph.”
But the boy is suddenly talking animatedly to Avery. “I found ‘er a few weeks ago. Hid her in my basement. At first, I was just doing a good deed, but then I found out she has powers.”
Another member of the team, Julia, who used to work in the tabloids, jumps in. “Is this boy crazed? In shock? Who is the Girl from B’leg?! Some may call these questions mere conspiracy theories, but the truth-seekers among you should check your newsstands.” She stops, realizing she’s live on national television. “Sorry, old habits.”
Then it happens again. The constricting of the girl’s eyes, and she speaks, “True.”
“Told ya!” Humphrey practically shrieks. “Powers! See, she can tell the truth from a lie!”
“Watch: My name is Humphrey.”
“My name is Alex Alexander.”
“False. Humphrey, I really don’t want to do this, not on television.”
“Actually, we’re not rolling,” interrupts the cameraman. “Not since she – you appeared.”
“True. Oh. But still – ”
“The camera’s not rolling!”
“True – Humphrey, please – ”
“You sleep in my basement.”
“True.” Her face has the pained look of someone about to do something they know they’ll regret. “Humphrey, I’m sorry… ”
And before Avery can say “wait,” she has vanished into the burning city.
The girl is not there.
The girl must be a figment of the hiker’s imagination.
The girl cannot be real.
The girl is not there.
Besides, no girl is that strange. She’s a child — she looked 12 or 13. She was also completely bald, and had no eyebrows, eyelashes, or hair of any kind. She was dressed in a ripped white undershirt stained with red and green juices, tight white pants that stand out against her dark brown skin, and no shoes.
Besides, if she was real, how could she have gotten there? Sure, there was a hiking trail nearby, but nobody with half a brain went hiking barefoot. And there are no roads or highways within ten miles. If her car had broken down and she’d wandered into the woods, she wouldn’t have wandered this far.
Which only leaves the possibility that she’s completely insane. The hiker refuses that one. She doesn’t want to admit it, but insane people scare her.
So, the girl is not there.
But then she is.
She is there.
Behind a tree! A pine tree. The hiker knows, somehow, that this moment will be fixed in her memory till the end of her days — the moment when all her dreams and imaginings became real.
This time, the hiker doesn’t hesitate. She plunges through a bush and starts toward the bald girl.
The girl’s eyes widen, her mouth parts in shock, and she darts away.
The hiker chases after, determined now. She tumbles through dense patches, rushes through the brief clearing where the sun streaks through the ceiling of twisting branches. She never knew the woods could be like this — crowded, thorny, dark, mysterious. Like a fairy tale. Years of hiking have only taught her cleared, dusty paths. It’s a wonder to see the forest like this. But she doesn’t let it distract her. She stays focused on the prize — the girl.
She races through the forest, following the flashes of the girl she glimpses through the maze of trees for a good fifteen minutes, until they reach a clearing carpeted with pine needles painted gold by the setting sun. There, in that little alcove of the wild, she is surprised to find a small log cabin. There are no windows, but there is a smoking little chimney. The hiker grabs the knob of the door, but it’s locked.
“Hey… ” she calls apprehensively. Silence. “I – I know you’re in there. Please, just come out. I’m not going to hurt you. Unless you’re insane. Sorry. I didn’t mean that. But — unlock the door, please.”
“Look…. I don’t want to break this door down… ” Nothing. “I could if I wanted to… ” That is true. The door is made of rotting wood planks that look like they might decompose on the spot with one good kick. And the hiker’s legs are pretty strong from years of climbing mountains.
She waits another few seconds, debating. There is something wrong with this girl — that much was clear from the start. But what if she’s in danger? What if she thought the hiker was someone else? What if there was someone so horrible she felt the need to run barefoot through a forest and hide in a crumbling log cabin to get away from?
The door comes down on the third kick.
The cabin is damp and moldy inside. There is a smoking fireplace, a decaying table, and a single chair. The floor is leaves and dirt — one area is scuffed up where the girl might have been sleeping.
And huddling, knees to chest, her face to the wall, shaking, sobbing in a corner is the girl.
“Hey… ” the hiker says softly. “I’m not going to hurt you. Please… ”
Slowly, the girl gets to her feet, still facing the corner. The sobbing slows until it is mere sniffling.
Then she speaks in a low, shaking, tear-stained voice.
“I need you to leave,” she says slowly. Then she sniffles loudly. “I need you to leave… right now. Leave, and you can’t tell anyone what you saw… ” She puts her head in her hands and starts wailing again.
“I — I don’t understand – ”
“LEAVE!” she roars. “I don’t — I can’t – ” Then more sobbing.
“Look,” the hiker says hesitantly. “I’m sure that whatever it is – ”
“You need to go,” she repeats, controlling the shaking in her voice. There’s an unexpected fierceness. “Please. Now. I can’t – ”
“Look – ”
“You should have left.”
The girl keeps her head down, but drops her hands to her sides. Then she turns around.
There is a tense pause.
Then she picks up her head and their eyes meet —
And it happens — the constricting of those midnight-black pupils — the feeling — the emptiness — yawning before her —
The hiker collapses with a thump.
And when she is dead, when the girl is alone in the woods, no one can hear her scream.