by Erica Ruppert
Laurie looked over her shoulder as she changed lanes, force of habit even though she was alone on the road. The highway behind her was swallowed in blackness. As she turned back she caught the quick flash of a figure on the side of the highway, a single frame in the headlights then gone. She thought it was a little girl, thought she had seen a white dress.
Startled, she braked hard and pulled onto the shoulder. She was tired, but she did not think she was sleepy enough to have imagined it. What would a child be doing standing on a highway? Far behind her the headlights of another vehicle cut the dark, grew into a long sweep of light as they cruised toward her. She looked into her rear-view mirror, waiting for the light to show her what she thought she had seen.
There. Far back, a silhouette stood out briefly on the side of the road before once again disappearing into darkness. Laurie backed up slowly until her taillights flushed a small figure red. The child turned to look at her car as it rolled closer, but did not move out of the way. It was wearing a nightgown that fell to mid-shin, and its hair was bobbed at chin length. Laurie was sure it was a girl. In the scroll of shadows and light its face looked off balance. Laurie blinked the image away and put the car in park.
She fumbled through her purse and pockets for her phone, then remembered it clearly on her nightstand. She chided herself for forgetting it, again. She got out and walked cautiously to where the child waited for her. It was a girl. Laurie was right. The girl looked no more than seven or eight, with dark hair and big eyes, barefooted. Her white dress was all that had made her stand out against the enormous night. It was November, too cold for her to be out without a coat. Laurie looked around, aware of how vulnerable she was on the edge of the highway. The bordering trees, barely visible, were only a few yards away. Someone could be there, watching. She knelt down to the child’s level, felt the vast black unknown looming at her back.
“What happened? What are you doing here? Where are your parents?”
“Mama’s gone.” The child’s eyes were like holes in her face, empty but for darkness.
“Gone? Did she leave you here?”
The girl nodded slowly, as if she were not entirely certain. “Left me. Gone.”
Laurie imagined sad scenarios. “What’s your name, honey?”
The girl did not respond. Instead she shoved her fingers into her mouth and looked steadily at Laurie. Her eyes were flat in the red light.
Laurie did not like the way the child stared. There was something too appraising in it. She ignored her reaction and leaned in closer, pushing the discomfort away as a foolish response to a difficult situation.
“Do you know your address? What is your mom’s name?”
“Gone,” said the girl, and nothing more.
Laurie felt the cold creeping from the pavement through the soles of her shoes. Another car went by, the wash of light blinding and then gone. Shapes changed under its passing glare. She could not be sure of what she saw by it. The girl’s face twisted, as if ready to cry. Laurie fought the urge to look behind her.
“Okay,” she said. “It’s alright. Let’s get in the car, okay? It will be warm, and we’ll get you something to eat.”
She took the child’s chilly hand and led her to the safety of the enclosed metal space. She settled the girl in the passenger seat, belted her in, took her coat off and wrapped it around the small body. As Laurie slid into her own seat she relaxed, the weight of the sky off her. She felt a surge of importance wash over her, replacing the anxiety of exposure. She had assumed this responsibility. She was saving the child. Beyond that, she was not certain what to do. With a deep breath she pulled back onto the highway.
As she settled into the right lane she glanced over at the girl. Her profile was just visible in the ambient light of the dashboard. She looked older than she had when Laurie had stopped for her, her face suddenly composed of new angles. Laurie blinked again, weary, and looked back at the road. Her exit was coming up.
The ramp from the highway was lit, but nothing after. This was the country, tiny towns scattered widely through dark farmland, everything shut up tightly this time of night. There was no police station to which she could easily take the girl; these towns were served by the state police and the nearest barracks was twenty miles away in the dark. The hospital was as far, as well. Laurie watched the sides of the road for any deer that might leap out, willing herself alert. She liked living this far out, but hated the long last miles off the interstate before she was home. She did not want to drive for another half hour. Laurie looked at the child huddled deep in the seat. She whimpered, sucked her fingers. The police could come to her.
“It will be okay,” she said, as much to herself as to the girl. “We’ll go to my house.”
She was relieved to pull into her own driveway, to be back on familiar ground. The child had been unresponsive during the drive. Laurie still did not know her name. She would call the police later, after she had gotten the girl fed and warmed up, after she had gotten her to talk. Someone would appreciate what she was doing.
As she led the child up to her darkened house Laurie could hear her dog barking sharply behind the heavy wood door. She pushed the door open and the small brown terrier cowered and snarled just inside, barring their way in. The girl clung to her leg with sharp, digging fingers.
“Fritzy! Down!” Laurie said. The agitated dog barked frantically at them and danced forward. Laurie smacked his nose with the flat of her hand. Startled, he slunk away to hide behind the sofa where he continued to rumble and growl.
“I’m sorry about Fritzy.” Laurie said, almost a sing-song, to calm the girl with an adult’s reassurance. “He’s usually very nice.”
Laurie tried to steer the child inside and through the living room, but the girl stiffened and stared unblinking at where the dog had hidden. His growling slowly rose in pitch. He knew he was watched. The uneven noise pricked at her.
“Fritzy, shut up!” she said. The dog quieted but did not stop.
“It’s okay,” she said, nudging the girl gently in front of her to end the confrontation. “I’ll get you something to eat. We’ll see if we can find your mom.”
The girl craned around Laurie, looking for the dog whose soft frightened whine followed them out of the room. Laurie, impatient with the resistance, gave the girl a firm push forward and pulled shut the door between the kitchen and living room. The girl tried to slip behind her but Laurie, surprised, grabbed her nightgown and steered her with it into a seat at the table.
“Enough of that. Leave Fritzy alone.”
She realized with a sting of annoyance that she had been mistaken to think the girl was scared of her dog. No wonder she had been calm about being left on the side of the road. It would serve her to get bitten, teach her to be afraid. At least the girl stayed in her chair.
Laurie opened a can of soup she pulled down from the cabinet, chicken noodle, innocuous. She heated a bowl of it in the microwave and placed it in front of the girl. The child looked up at Laurie with wide black eyes. Under the kitchen lights the girl looked different than she had in the car, skewed and vague, as though something in her face were slipping. Laurie shook her head, dispelling the sight. She was worn out. She did not trust her eyes, but she was unsettled by the afterimage.
“Okay,” she said, taking action. “I’ll be right back. Here’s a spoon. Eat your soup, and leave the dog alone.”
Laurie left the girl sitting there, to eat or not. She checked on Fritzy, thought to keep him with her in case the girl didn’t listen. He was still behind the couch, and he snapped at her when she reached down to scratch his ears. Enough. He was terrified. She was beginning to be afraid of him, herself. She mumbled to him with false comfort and went upstairs to get her phone.
It lay where she had forgotten it, dark and silent. No one had called. She knew few people who would. She picked it up, pressed it to her lips. Taking care of this girl was not going as she had thought it would. She sat down on the edge of her bed for a moment, turning the phone over in her hands. She would call the police when she went back downstairs, try again to get some useful information from the girl before she did, maybe even let the girl speak to them herself. With a deep breath, she rose.
As she walked back across her bedroom she realized that the house was completely still around her, as if she were the only thing alive in it. She held her breath. Outside, the trees murmured in a rising wind. She was alone, she was sure of it. The atmosphere weighed on her, pressure rising behind her grainy eyes. She could not think of what had changed.
Laurie clutched the phone like a weapon in her fist as she descended the stairs into what felt like dead air.
The kitchen was empty. The soup sat untouched where she had placed it, the spoon clean beside it. The chair was pushed in neatly. “Kid?” she said.
The living room was empty as well.
She looked under the furniture for the dog. He was gone. Laurie rubbed at her eyes. The house was small. He had to be somewhere. Maybe the girl had gone outside with him. She hadn’t heard the squeak of the front door. Maybe they were hiding from her. Before she could stand up again she froze at a slithering behind her, like something being dragged. She pivoted on her knees. There was nothing there.
Sweat beaded at her hairline. Laurie rose slowly and went back to the kitchen.
The back door was locked. The windows were locked. Laurie closed the kitchen door and began to shake.
She retreated upstairs again. The steps creaked under her. The house felt huge. At the top of the stairs Fritzy huddled in the dim corner of the hallway.
“Oh, thank God,” Laurie said. “Come here, boy.”
Fritzy growled softly and pushed further back against the walls. Laurie blinked. He looked too big. Lumpy. She could see his teeth. She skirted him and closed the door of her room between them. She wished it had a lock. She wedged a chair underneath the handle and lay down in her clothes. Her mind spun, and she was reluctant to close her eyes. She still held the phone, but without the girl here she had no reason to call the police. There was no-one else she would call this late. She did not want to consider that she had imagined the girl tonight. She was so tired. She looked into the darkness over her head and wondered if Fritzy was scared of her, or what she couldn’t see. Eventually, she drifted.
The ugly sound of a heavy body tumbling down the stairs startled Laurie awake from her thin sleep. She sat up and froze. Nails scrabbled on wood. Fritzy. Laurie clambered out of her room and ran down the stairs in the dark.
She called out from the bottom step, feeling her voice tighten into a strangled rasp. She stopped. She could see the living room. Everything was in its place. She walked through the room, turning on the lamp beside the sofa for reassurance. Past it she saw the kitchen door pushed open, and a spray of red on the yellow vinyl floor. She hoped she was dreaming.
She walked stiffly to the kitchen and peered in around the door-frame.
The red ribs and wet fur had been Fritzy. Animals did not live with that much meat missing. The blood was already congealed. Her mind processed what she saw with hazy detachment. How long ago had she seen him?
She turned toward a scraping under the kitchen table.
“Oh, you’re here,” she said. She spoke before she was aware that she had. She felt as if she were floating. Her stomach lurched. She pressed her lips together against the bile.
The girl emerged from between the kitchen chairs like a crab from its hole, nails clicking on tile. It crouched on all fours, a cobby, hybrid thing, with its neck twisted at an awkward angle. Laurie realized distantly how mistaken she had been. She had not been imagining at all. She fell back to the living room as the girl-shaped creature scuttled toward her.
Laurie looked down at the thing she had brought into her home. It paused, slouched like a pile of rags in the doorway, and turned its waxy moon face up to her. Its eyes were lidless, round, and thickly veined, flat as a shark’s. There was blood in its long teeth when it grinned at her. Carnivore. Scavenger. In the cold moment before terror set in, Laurie stepped back and stumbled, stopped. The thing lurched forward at the chance.
When it reached up for Laurie with its strong, knotted paws, scratched and held tight to the leg of her jeans, she was too shocked to try to run. How had she ever thought it was a child? In a voice that was almost a dog’s snarl the thing said “Gone”. Then it pulled Laurie down, held her close and began to eat.
©2016 Erica Ruppert — Published electronically at DigitalFictionPub.com: February 22, 2016. You may link to or share this post with full and proper attribution; however, the author retains the complete and unrestricted copyright to this work. Commercial use or distribution of any kind is prohibited without the express written permission of the author.
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