Here's a short story posted for Red Room's Scandalously Short Story blogging contest.
Enjoy! And go visit Red Room - Where the Writers Are
You don’t pick up strangers in this day and age. It’s stupid and suicidal. But--this was an exception. He was so small, and it was drizzling.
He couldn’t be more than eight or nine, and all alone. Just standing there on the side of the road, hands shoved stiffly into his pockets, bracing himself against the cold rain. Strangely calm, I thought. He showed no reaction as I slowed to approach him, just blinked at the rain dripping off his hair.
Questions assaulted me. Accident? Where were his parents? There was nothing but woods for another hour, till Durney, the next town. I wasn’t sure of the exact distance, but I knew that this dark deserted stretch was no place for a child to be alone.
I stopped and lowered the passenger window.
“Hey there, you okay?”
He didn’t answer. I leaned closer, trying to see him better in the dark. His expression was guarded, I noticed, but not scared. And oddly direct for a child his age, his gaze fixed and intense. He shoved his hands deeper into his pockets. I tried again.
“You okay? You alone out here?”
He nodded and looked away. Well, at least he could hear me.
“Where are your parents, bud? Do you need help?” I asked, talking louder as the rain pelted harder on the roof.
At that, he turned to meet my eyes again, and a chill went straight through me. I shook it off, and chalked it up to the circumstances.
“What’s your name?” I asked, trying a different approach.
He frowned and blinked away as the rain hit his face. Maybe he was trying not to talk to strangers. That was logical. But this didn’t feel very logical. I don’t know what compelled me to stay, but I was in no hurry. I picked up my cell phone to call for help, but it was dead. Hadn’t I just charged it?
“Was there an accident, bud? Did someone leave you out here?” A head shake. I blew out a frustrated breath. “Buddy, you can’t just stand there in the rain, you’ll die of pneumonia.”
To my surprise, this brought an amused smile to his lips. I couldn’t imagine what could possibly be amusing, but it was progress.
“Okay,” I said, rubbing my eyes wearily. “How did you get here, then? Are you lost?”
He stared at the ground, eyebrows furrowed. I remembered my umbrella in the back seat, and offered it to him. He took it hesitantly, and pushed it open over his head. I sat back and watched him, honestly at a loss.
“Do you live in Durney?” I asked, pointing in that direction.
At that, his head visibly jerked, staring at me wide-eyed. That was new. His eyes followed my hand and he stood drinking in the road with excitement.
“I can give you a ride.”
That earned me a bitter look that set my skin to crawling. It was eerie, and it was my turn to look away. Then slowly, he headed down the road. The new movement had me hurrying to put my car back in gear.
“Hey! You gonna walk all the way?” He ignored me. “I’ll--stay with you,” I offered.
He seemed to hesitate, and then nodded almost imperceptibly. Okay. I proceeded to idle alongside him. No more questions, there didn’t seem to be a point. He was on a mission, his stride steady, eyes straight ahead.
It felt like an eternity before the lights from town appeared. He saw them first, and broke into a trot. As the road temporarily became Main Street, he cut across a field, toward some old buildings. Just before he rounded the side of one, he stopped, illuminated in the glow of the streetlights. He smiled, raised one hand, then disappeared around the corner. I sat back, ran my hands through my hair and rubbed my eyes. What a night.
I found a little coffee shop, and stopped for a boost. I grabbed my steaming cup, glanced down at someone’s discarded newspaper, and my hand froze halfway to my mouth.
Staring up at me from a picture down at the bottom was a pair of intense, serious eyes. I broke out in a sweat. The adjoining article was titled One Year Anniversary of Local Tragedy.
The waitress tapped the paper with a long fingernail. “Yeah, I remember that. It was terrible. Nice family, too. Just awful, that was.”
My heart pounded in my ears, and the words swam before me.
Carl and Leighann Fisher and their nine-year old son, Mark . . . car found deserted outside of town . . . bodies in the woods . . . speculation that they flagged down help . . .
I stared up at the waitress, who nodded with a puffed up air.
“Scary, when it happens in your own town,” she said. “Especially the little boy. How anybody could do something like that--” She shook her red head in disdain as I sat unable to speak.
“And they evidently had some ritzy relatives up North somewhere because the kid’s body got sent up there, but not the parents. Who knows what that was about,” she added then with a conspiratorial nod. “Such a shame though. To separate them like that. Just awful.”
To separate them.
I felt numb as I left and drove back to where I saw him last. I pulled over and walked in that direction, the wet ground squishing under my shoes. Rounding the same corner he had, I saw it. Like many old cemeteries, the oldest section was at the back, with the newer ones toward the front. Nearby streetlights glowed softly on the stones, so I found it easily.
Carl and Leighann Fisher
Died: September 16, 2009
Loving parents, beloved friends
Perched against their grave, was my umbrella. It was open, shielding them from the rain. My skin tingled and my throat felt choked.
“Welcome home, Mark.”