A/N: I wrote this short story on October 24th and 25th of 2009. Hopefully I've gotten a little better at writing since then.
The first time I saw her, she was dressed as though she was going to a funeral. She was wearing enough black to wreath a mausoleum. The sight was so unusual that I couldn't help but stare. I guess she realized she was being watched, because she turned to look directly at me. Somewhat embarrassed, I gave her a small, self-conscious smile and walked away.
A few days later I saw her once again. This time it was in front of the chapel near the park on Sixth Street. She had just come out of the chapel, and was headed towards the park. I was standing by the fountain, digging through my purse to find a penny to throw in. A small, pale hand tapped me on the arm. I turned and saw her standing beside me, a penny in her outstretched hand. I smiled.
"Thanks." I took the penny from her and performed the ritual necessary for a wish on a penny tossed into this particular fountain to come true. I spun around in a circle, stood only on my right foot, closed my eyes, and gently tossed my penny into the fountain. I opened my eyes and turned to see if she was still there. She was in the middle of the same ritual I had just done.
"What did you wish for?" I asked when she had finished. She just shrugged. "I know what you mean. I always wish for the same thing." She didn't make any reply, but just watched me as though what I was saying was extremely interesting.
"I don't know, it might seem kind of dumb, but I always wish for a fairy tale ending. You know, for some Prince Charming to come and sweep me off my feet."
"Yeah." It was the first word she had said to me, and I was a little surprised. I had started to wonder if she could speak. But hearing her soft, clear voice had answered that question. And I felt better anyway. The tone of her reply made it seem like my wish was the most logical thing in the world.
And so I started to talk. I told her about how I always came to this park on Tuesday because my school got out early on Tuesdays, and how I went to St. Mary's Private School over on Westchester Boulevard, and how my dad had joined the Navy when I was seven, and how I never got to see my dad anymore because of the war, and how my mom was going to have to get a second job so I could stay at St. Mary's. There was something about her that made me feel like I could tell her anything.
We sat there in front of the fountain, with me talking and her listening, for almost two hours. I broke off in the middle of telling her about my cat's new kittens that I had to give away, and looked down at my watch. It was almost six o'clock.
"I have to go. My mom will worry if I'm not there when she gets home." We both stood up, and she gave me a hug.
"Good night, Anna." She turned and headed towards the chapel, as I walked away in the opposite direction.
The rest of the week passed by just as it always did, but every Tuesday we would meet in the park and talk. While I was the one doing most of the talking, she would occasionally volunteer information or answer one of my questions. Over the course of several weeks I began to learn more about her.
For starters, she was sixteen, just two years older than me. She went to the public school in Hamilton Hills, a nearby suburb. She was Catholic, but the only time she ever went to church anymore was when she went to the chapel by the park. She used to be right handed, but she broke her right hand once and had to learn to write with her left hand so now she was left handed. She was allergic to peanuts. She had a boyfriend named Isaac somewhere out in Nevada, and although she didn't say it, I had the feeling she hadn't seen him in a while. I never did learn why she wore all black, though. I asked once, but she simply shrugged her shoulders, so I left it at that.
I learned all of this from what she said, but I learned much more from her actions. Every Tuesday she gave me a hug before I went home. Oftentimes when I got to the park I would find her picking up litter. Once, shortly after our first talk, she came to the park with a stack of papers in her hands. She had made flyers to help me give away my kittens. The rest of the afternoon we wandered around the neighborhood putting up flyers. And the Tuesday after my grandmother died, she sat there with me and held my hand as I told her about my grandmother.
She had become one of my best friends, even though we only ever hung out at the park. More than once, I invited her to come over to my house, but she always declined. And despite the fact that she seemed to trust me, it always felt like there was some secret she was keeping. In fact, she had never told me her name. I didn't really realize this until the Tuesday that she wasn't at the park.
It was early December, and it had snowed two days ago so that there was now mostly just slush left along the edges of sidewalks and streets. When I got to the park, she wasn't there. This was strange because she was always there before I was. I sat shivering by the fountain for about ten minutes, waiting. Then I decided to see if she was in the chapel, because I knew she liked to go there a lot.
There was no one in the chapel, but I could tell that people had been there because someone had lit a bunch of candles in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary. Feeling slightly awkward, I slid into a pew in the back. I had only been in this chapel once or twice, mostly out of curiosity. My family had never gone to church, and all I knew about churches and chapels was what I had learned at St. Mary's.
I had been sitting in the pew for a long time because it was so warm inside the chapel, and I was just about to go back out to the park, when the back door opened and a woman in a brightly colored outfit came in. She stopped when she saw me.
"I'm sorry; I didn't mean to disturb you." She had a soft voice, but she was talking so quickly I had a hard time understanding what she said. The woman paused for a moment, and I could see that despite the bright red coat and cheerfully colored clothes she had a look of deep sadness about her, especially in her eyes. "Maybe you could help me. I'm looking for my daughter. I know she usually comes here on Tuesdays, and I thought…" Her voice trailed off, and she made a helpless sort of gesture with her hands. I suddenly noticed that she was holding a rosary.
"I come here every Tuesday, maybe I know her." A thought struck me that this could be her mother.
"If you've seen Stefanie before, you probably remember her. She always wears all black." The woman sounded hopeful.
"And she's really pale, and she hardly ever talks?" The woman nodded. "Yeah, I know Stefanie." Stefanie. It seemed so odd to say.
"Oh, thank God." Stefanie's mother made the sign of the cross and sank down into the pew behind me. "Have you seen her today?"
"No, I haven't." The relieved smile disappeared from her face. "Actually, that's why I came in here. Usually we hang out at the park but she wasn't there today, so I thought she might be here in the chapel."
"Oh, no." She shook her head and mumbled something that sounded like a prayer.
"I'm sure she's all right," I said. "Knowing Stefanie, she's probably rescuing a cat from a tree or helping an old lady cross the street."
Her mother smiled sadly; she had tears in her eyes. "Normally I wouldn't worry about her being gone, but today I got a call from her school saying she wasn't there, and when I got home she wasn't there either. But nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Her room looked like it usually does, and nothing was missing. So I tried calling her cell phone, but she wouldn't answer. She didn't even leave any note or anything to tell me where she was. So I thought I'd come see if she was at the chapel. And now that she's not here, I really don't know what to do." As she had begun to talk, the tears had started to spill out of her eyes and down her face. She didn't bother to wipe them away until after she had finished speaking.
I sat there silently for a moment, thinking. When I began to speak, the words came slowly. "There is a slight chance that she could be at my house. She's never been there before, but I did tell her how to get there. I could go home and see if she's there, and then call you and tell you if she is or not."
"Oh, thank you so much," she said. She began to rummage through her purse. "I'll just get you my number and then…" She stopped what she was doing and looked up at me. "Um, what is your name again?"
"Anna. Okay. Could I have your number, Anna, in case I need to call you?"
"Sure." After we exchanged numbers, I promised to call her the minute I saw Stefanie.
As I left the chapel, Stefanie's mother was lighting a candle in front of the statue of Mary.
I hurried home. Since I'd been in the chapel, it had gotten colder outside. I began to feel kind of guilty as I turned onto Delaford Avenue. Although it was true that I had told Stefanie how to get to my house, I had misled her mother by suggesting that Stefanie might be there. And she wasn't. In fact, no one was home. I still had to call Stefanie's mother though, and tell her the bad news. She thanked me for being so helpful, then told me that she and her husband had decided the best thing to do would be to talk to the police. I didn't say so, but I felt pretty sure that Stefanie was all right and would come home eventually.
I didn't hear anything more that night or the next morning. I didn't find out anything until that afternoon. It was a warm, sunny day, and what was left of the snow had already begun to melt. I went to school as usual, and nothing strange happened until after lunch. My next class was chemistry, and we had barely gotten five minutes into the lesson when I got called to the office. My mother was waiting there to take me to the police station because they had some questions they wanted to ask me about Stefanie.
I didn't have much to tell them that they didn't already know, but I told them that I wished I could be more helpful. Stefanie's mother asked me if I would mind taking the rest of the day off from school, and help her look through some notebooks Stefanie had to see if there were any clues that might tell us where she was. My mother okayed it, so I went with Stefanie's parents to their house. I wasn't very hopeful about finding any clues. To me, Stefanie didn't seem like the kind of person who liked words that much.
On the drive out to Hamilton Hills, I had been unsure of what kind of house to expect. But when we pulled up to a gray, three-story house, I felt that I should have known it all along. Stefanie's bedroom was on the second floor. I guess I had just assumed from the way that she dressed that Stefanie's room would also be draped in black. But it wasn't. Her room was small and light pink. A twin bed was tucked in the corner, a giant wooden dresser was right by the door, and a small black chair was beside the window. However, the most striking thing about her room was that the walls were covered in pictures. Most of them were black and white, but here and there were splashes of color.
Stefanie's mother walked past me to an enormous trunk that I had somehow overlooked.
"Most of her notebooks are in here, but I think there are some in the bottom drawer of her dresser, too." She opened the trunk, which was completely full of notebooks. She sighed. "I guess the best thing to do would be to just grab a notebook and start reading. It might take forever, but I don't really know what else to do right now."
I picked up a notebook with a light green cover, sat down on the chair by the window, and began to read. Stefanie had filled up every bit of space in the notebook with her tiny handwriting. At first the words were written very neatly, but then they began to get messy. It was as if she had so many things to write that she couldn't get the words out fast enough. I had been wrong; words were everything to Stefanie. And she had so many of them!
I began to skim through the pages but I stopped when I saw my name. I began to read.
"Anna (the girl I met at the park by my chapel) said her cat just had 11 kittens! I really wish I could have one, but Dad's allergic. She has to get rid of them anyway, because they can't keep that many. Maybe if we put up some flyers, we could get people to take them."
A couple pages later, she mentioned me again.
"I'm so glad Anna doesn't ask a lot of questions. I've been asked too many questions for the past 3 years. Mom, Dad, teachers, people at school…they know about it and yet they still ask. Anna has no clue, and she hardly asks anything. She did ask why I wear black all the time, though. Of course, I expected her to ask because everyone asks. I think the only people who wouldn't ask would be blind people and goths. Anyway, all I did was shrug, like it was something I hadn't ever thought about."
The next passage I found I had to read twice.
"Today was one of the saddest days I've had in a while. I kept thinking about him all day, and then when I got to the park Anna was upset because her grandmother had just died. I felt so bad. I just sat there and let her talk because I knew that's what she needed, but the whole time I wanted to tell her about Ethan. I wanted to tell her that I understood how she felt. But I couldn't. I just can't talk about him, not even to my parents. I'm glad I can write about him at least. Without writing I think I would go insane."
After I read the passage twice, I began to wonder. Who exactly was Ethan? I forgot that I was supposed to be looking for clues, and I began to skim through the notebook, looking for anything that might give me some idea who this mysterious person was.
About two hours and several notebooks later, I had discovered that Ethan had been Stefanie's little brother. Apparently he had died when she was thirteen, and she had been wearing nothing but black ever since. I guessed that he had been two or three when he died, because she had written recently that if he was still alive, he would have started kindergarten this year. She didn't say how he died, but it seemed like she felt that she was responsible. Stefanie also mentioned that they didn't go to church anymore because her parents had lost their faith in God after Ethan had died.
It seemed like Ethan could be a clue to her whereabouts. And this was proven true in the next notebook that I picked up. She mentioned a place that she had been planning to take her brother when he was old enough. I decided I would go and see if she was there. But first I had one more question to ask.
Stefanie's mother was sitting on the end of the bed, reading one of the notebooks.
"Excuse me," I said.
She jumped. "Yes, Anna? Have you found anything yet?"
"Not really. It's just that she keeps mentioning Ethan, and I wondered…"
Suddenly she looked very tired. "Ethan was our son," she said quietly. "He died three years ago; he wasn't quite three years old." She swallowed. "Stefanie had been playing with Ethan by the garage. And then my husband came home and was backing the car into the driveway…and Ethan ran out into the driveway, and he got…hit." She bit her lip. "We took him to the hospital right away, but the doctors couldn't do anything. He was already gone."
"I'm so sorry. I just…"
"That's okay. You didn't know."
I stood there silently for a moment. "I should probably go."
"Yes, well, thank you for your help. I'll just keep reading. And please call if you hear anything."
I went downstairs and got my coat, declined Stefanie's dad's offer to drive me home, and left. I wasn't going home; I was going to find Stefanie.
I walked down Benedict Street, across the railroad tracks, and turned onto Ash Road. This was the older part of town. Hamilton Hills had once been a city of its own, named Fremont. Now it was just a suburb, and the only part of Fremont left was the old post office and Fremont Avenue. And the old cemetery.
I took the shortcut behind the old post office and through someone's yard to Edging Road. It was a dead end, the road stopping at a thick line of trees. The cemetery lay on a small hill just beyond the row of trees.
Being careful to make as little noise as possible, I crept through the small forest of evergreens until I came to the base of the hill. There was a tree on the side of the hill, and I quietly ran over to stand behind it. I peeked out between the naked branches.
And there she was. She looked like an angel, dressed in all white and glowing in the light of the sun. She stood in front of a crumbling marble tomb, her fingers tracing the letters chiseled on the front.
And as I watched, it seemed that the ghost of a little boy was standing beside her. She must have seen him too, because she looked down and smiled.
Unconsciously I took a step forward, about to call out to her. She turned to look at me, and I froze.
Then she smiled and beckoned for me to come.