You can hear me read this story on episode #64 of R.B. Wood’s Word Count Podcast.
The prompts for this episode were “March”, and this awesome photo by Ms. Becca B. Jenkins (check out her website: Hunt, Gather, Brew).
Something about that photo had my thoughts heading in a very particular genre-direction right away. I won’t say more, but you can of course read the result below.
He’s been searching for four hours when he finally finds the girl. Four hours on the steep trail up to the lake. Four hours of cursing his glitchy sat-phone, cursing that all the search-teams were already too far away to join him when he set off to follow this hunch. But in the end it’s worth it, because there she is: perched on one of the boulders near the lake, where he figured she would be.
What he didn’t expect is that she’d be naked, legs knee-deep in the water.
It makes him shiver just to watch her. There’s no sign of the expensive red and green parka her dad described, or the fleece sweater and hiking boots she was supposedly wearing when she took off while her parents slept in the family’s tent last night. Just a naked eight-year old girl, alone in the wilderness, not half a mile from where he found a dead bear.
It looked untouched, a murder of crows waiting silently in the stunted trees to pick it clean.
She doesn’t raise her eyes, doesn’t move.
The March air is so cold it bites his cheeks and makes his nose run. He approaches cautiously, so as not to scare her, so as not to slip on the smooth granite.
“Your parents are looking for you. Are you OK?”
Still no answer.
He crouches down and puts his hand in the water. It’s so cold his fingers go numb.
“Like I told the others, I don’t know why she’d wander off,” the mother told him, eyes red from all the crying. “We saw all those shooting stars last night. And I told her…” A pause. A shiver. “I told her the stars look amazing at the lake.” She looked up at him, almost pleadingly: “She couldn’t have gone there, could she?”
But she knew, and so did he.
His feet slip on the rocks and he wobbles precariously, swearing. This time the girl looks up: her face pale and expressionless.
Too many gut-wrenching scenarios rush through his head. But as far as he can tell, she’s unharmed.
He steadies himself, tries to activate his sat-phone again, but it’s still acting up. Could be solar flares, the tech guys said, shrugging, when he asked them about it this morning. Or maybe you need to upgrade. Keep trying.
“Annie. Are you hurt?”
She slides forward on the rock, submerging her legs halfway up the thighs.
“Please, Annie. You’ll get hypothermia. Do you know what that is?”
Two more steps and he’s next to her. He’d grab her, if he wasn’t worried about her slipping into the water.
He’s close enough now to see that she’s not shivering, no blue tinge to her skin, no goosebumps, either.
“Did you come here to look at the stars? Is that what you did here all night? Quite the show, right?”
She smiles. A smile so wide, so stretched and unexpected, that it seems almost feral. Then her face closes up tight again, and she looks back into the water. He follows her gaze. Maybe there’s something there, deep below the surface, but it’s hard to see with the wind rippling across the lake.
To hell with the meteor shower, he thinks, viciously. And to hell with every amateur stargazer it brings out here.
He’s out of options. Even with the daylight available, there’s not enough time to hike down safely before dark. Without his sat phone he can’t let the team know where he is. And the helicopter won’t be back, either. It made several passes earlier, but saw nothing. Maybe she was hiding, or maybe they couldn’t see clearly: the weather at this altitude is ever-changing.
“I’ll make a fire,” he says and wraps his jacket around her. He even tries to pick her up. She doesn’t struggle, but she feels strangely heavy, and the rocks are too slippery beneath his feet.
She watches intently as he kindles a fire by the shore using the small supply of firewood he brought along. There are bear tracks in the mud at the edge of the lake. They go to the edge of the water, then stop.
“Annie, did you see a bear?”
He thinks of the dead bear in the bushes, the silent crows waiting for him to leave. He’s never seen crows so silent.
Dusk falls as the fire takes hold. The girl comes over. She stretches out her hands, almost close enough to touch the flames.
“Where are your clothes, Annie?”
She looks back at the lake. He thinks of the water’s rippled surface, the glimmer of something maybe red, maybe green, below.
“Did your clothes end up in the water?”
No reply. Shadows and flames flicker over her face, hollowing out her eyes and cheeks, turning her eyes into pools of fire.
He grabs his flashlight and goes back to the boulder where she sat. In the gathering dark, the light shines through the water like crystal, but whatever’s down there is hard to reach. He plunges one arm into the cold and feels soft, soggy fabric. He grabs hold, feels a sleeve. Then, feels an arm inside the sleeve.
Maybe he cries out.
He pulls harder, and there it is: a parka, red and green, a hand, a girl’s face. Eyes open to the sky.
It’s not even a whisper.
He feels a small hand on his neck, feels his life somehow pinned between those fingers.
Twisting around, he sees the girl’s face shift from Annie to bear, to something other, something he cannot even describe in words, before shifting to his own face: a mirror held above him while the stars begin to fall, thick and numerous. He could swear, even as his life fades away, that some of those stars do not burn out, that some of them shimmer like metal in the starlight.
© Maria Haskins 2017.
This story is included in my flash fiction collection “Dark Flash 2”: