One Page Stories – Third Web

 Just Passing Through

The man stood outside the front window of the little house; he had come here almost without thought, guided instead by the whispered voice of the dagger he carried in a satchel over his shoulder. He had left behind his work and his home, hopping a train for a different town at the silent request of something he had never seen before yesterday.

What was it the little girl had said after giving him the satchel? She had called it the Calahuolca. He had never heard the word before, and he had no idea what it meant, but he knew that it was in fact the name of the dagger … or perhaps the name of whatever resided inside the dagger, whatever controlled the dagger.

Don’t I control it? he asked himself, then shook his head. No, he decided. It controls me. He didn’t know how he felt about that.

He stood as close to the window as he could, hiding between the pane of glass and the bushes that surrounded the house. He could see a family inside, a mother and father, and a boy and girl. The children looked frightened – the little girl was crying – and the mother and father were consoling them. The boy was gesturing to the other room and shouting.

*   *    *

“What are you talking about, Tom?” Selena asked her son. “What happened?” She glanced at Madeline, who was clearly scared out of her wits. “What did you do to your sister?”

“Nothing!” Tom cried. He was pale, and trying not to cry himself. “We pulled Grandma’s mirror out of the box in the closet, because it’s supposed to be magic, and we wanted to see …” He paused, the irony of his situation striking him. “We wanted to see the magic,” he finished. “And we did!”

“What magic?” Don asked. His wife had told him about the mirror, and about the letter his mother-in-law had left with the mirror – that it was connected to something vaguely referred to as its “mate”. “I’m sure Grandma – Great-Grandma, I mean – was just being … creative … when she wrote that letter.”

“Mom said it’s been in her family forever!” Tom protested. “And that it needed to be protected.” He looked like he was starting to panic. “And now I know why!”

“Somebody’s in it, Mommy!” Madeline finally managed to croak out between sobs. “I can see her in the mirror! She was talking!”

“What are you talking about?” Selena said again. She went into the playroom, where the kids had been a moment before; she peered with a mix of trepidation and skepticism into the mirror that the kids had laid on the daybed.

It wasn’t reflecting anything.

What’s going on? she wondered, squinting at the grey surface of the large mirror. It wasn’t showing her anything of her own face or of the room behind her. It was filled with a dusky cloud, as though it were a window obscured by a thick fog on the other side. “What?” she murmured, her fingers reaching out tentatively to touch the glass.

Then she saw the woman.

Deep within the swirling grey fog was a woman’s face – not her own looking back at her, but the face of a stranger. The woman’s eyes were wide and staring, her mouth open in a silent shout; her arms were waving.

“Help!” Selena thought she heard the woman calling, but the voice was so small and distant that she wasn’t quite sure. Clearly, though, the woman’s lips were saying “help me”, over and over.

Selena struggled to process what she was seeing. Terror welled up in her chest and took her breath away, and she could do nothing for a few seconds except goggle at the image of the woman in the mirror. A scream was building in her throat, but before she had gasped in enough air to let it out, she was violently startled by the sound of shattering glass in the living room, and the noises and shouts of a scuffle between her husband and another man.

Selena spun around to face the door, only to be shoved aside by a man in a business suit. Don was behind him and trying to drag him back out to the living room, but the man in the suit was determined to come into the playroom, and to get to the mirror. He held a dagger in one hand, and Selena was finally able to scream, long and shrill, with every ounce of her strength and her fear.

“Mom!” Tom yelled, trying to get into the playroom behind his father. “Don’t hurt my mom!”

Madeline, despite her dread, was close on her brother’s heels. “No-o-o-o!” she kept shrieking, her hands gripping frantically at her brother’s shoulders. “Get away from us!”

Don was stuck trying to pull on the intruder while simultaneously keeping the children out of the room. “Selena!” he barked. “Call the police!”

Selena was already digging into her pocket for her phone. “Tom!” she shouted. “Get your sister out of here!” She punched 9-1-1 into the phone and backed away from the intruder, her free arm pushing the children out into the hall.

Suddenly the man in the suit stopped in his tracks, and the hand that held the dagger began to shake. Don, too, let go of the man, and stared open-mouthed at the mirror. “What the hell?” he said, frowning in absolute confusion. Selena followed his gaze to the mirror, and what she saw caused her to drop the phone on the floor.

Fingers had appeared at the edges of the mirror – fingers that emanated from the cloudy-grey glass and latched onto the sturdy gilt frame with a white-knuckled death grip.

Tom and Madeline saw the fingers too, and both stood now gaping at the mirror. A head emerged from the mirror, followed by an arm that struggled out and then propped itself on the edge. “Help me!” the head pleaded, but didn’t wait for help or response before pushing a second arm out of the mirror.

Against all sensible possibility, the woman that had hovered deep in the mirror-fog slid herself up through the glass and braced her arms on the frame. “Help me!” she said again, and one of her hands reached out and grabbed the man in the suit.

He struggled against her, but she hung on in desperation; her fingernails dug into the skin of his hand. She pulled herself toward the man, until finally her hips cleared the mirror-frame and she was able to climb free of it. Because her fingers still clutched the man’s wrist, she yanked him off-balance when she collapsed forward onto the daybed. He tumbled over the top of the mirror, and the dagger he held fell onto the glass.

The glass didn’t break, but instead rippled like water. The dagger fell into these ripples and disappeared into whatever strange pit the woman had just escaped; after it vanished, the glass became rigid again, and the grey fog dissipated.

“No!” the man cried, and banged his fist on the glass. It broke, cutting his hand and shattering into more pieces than seemed likely from such a minor impact. “No,” he repeated more quietly. He lay then hunched over the broken mirror. He said nothing, and offered no explanation for his presence there, for the dagger, or for his sudden sadness. “The Calahuolca,” he murmured. “I was supposed to protect it.”

Selena recognized the word from her grandmother’s note about the mirror – that this Calahuolca was bonded to the mirror, and that the mirror was supposed to get rid of the Calahuolca. “Good God,” she breathed, not sure how to get her head around what had just occurred. “Good God.”

“The lady,” Madeline whispered. She was watching the woman who had clambered out of the mirror and now lay sobbing on the daybed. The woman must have heard her, because she raised her head and spoke to Madeline.

“Tanya,” she said, trying to smile. “I’m Tanya.” She began crying again. “Thank you so much,” she said. “Thank you so much.” She looked at the man, and the mirror, and the other people in the playroom. “Where am I?” she asked, then went on quickly, “It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. As long as I’m here and not there.” She laughed then, and went on laughing in joy and relief. “As long as I’m here and not there.”

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One Page Stories – Third Web

A Bigger Window

Tanya had been in the strange, grey world for what seemed like days. She had no way to track time – the pool of light in the center of total blackness never changed – but her bladder and stomach told her it had been at least three days.

At first she had felt … awkward … peeing on the floor, but finally she accepted that she had no choice. The grey featureless floor didn’t seem to mind particularly, and it wasn’t like anyone could see her. There was no one here. She knew because she kept shouting for them – for anyone – and was greeted by the same dead silence that had followed her since she had arrived here.

She remembered better now; she had heard something in the trunk of her car, and had pulled over to see what it was. But when she opened the trunk, something had grabbed her and dragged her inside – dragged her down through the suddenly bottomless trunk and into a pitch-dark void. Somewhere during this abrupt and airless journey, she had passed out … only to wake up in this empty twilight world.

She had walked and walked for hours; she had called out until she was hoarse. She had found the one little window, hovering in the center of the air like an optical illusion, but the girl on the other side was too scared to help her – if the girl could even hear her. She had realized after the girl ran away that the “window” was a mirror, the passenger mirror of a car parked on a quiet street. It was only a few inches across, so Tanya would never have been able to fit through it, but when she saw the girl she had hoped that at least someone would know she was stuck here.

But the girl was terrified at the talking image in the mirror, and didn’t wait to listen or lend aid. She ran quickly away from the parked car, leaving Tanya alone. Tanya had spent a long time crying about this, and staring out the little window at the night sky; it was hours before she could summon the courage to leave the little window behind, but it was too small to crawl through anyway, and anyone walking by would be as frightened as the girl had been.

What would they do anyway? If she walked by a car, and the passenger mirror started talking to her, she would scream and run away; she certainly wouldn’t know how to get that mirror-person out.

She walked and walked some more, her stomach growling. She needed food, but more particularly water, but even more particularly she needed to find a way out. If one mirror was a window into this weird place, then another might be – one that was big enough for her to climb through. She walked, and walked, and walked.

Nothing showed up.

She sat for a while and cried, struggling with everything in her not to panic. It was getting harder not to panic. But if she freaked out, or started running, she would need water sooner. Finally she stood again and went on, hoping that she was going in a straight line. It was impossible to tell in here.

She decided that she couldn’t go any further, and that she would need to lie down on the cold floor and sleep, but just as she thought this, she saw something glinting in the distance. It wasn’t much, and it didn’t immediately repeat itself, but she knew she had seen it – a gleam of reflected light.

She sprinted toward it, and was rewarded by another floating window. This one was much bigger than the first – it was big enough, she thought, for her to fit through. “Thank God!” she said, panting heavily. She could get out of here. She didn’t even care what was waiting on the other side of the floating window, as long as it wasn’t this place. She had always found so much wrong with the world … but now all she wanted was to be back in it, enjoying every single thing about it.

She stood directly under the window, looking up through it at a bright light fixture hanging from a white ceiling. White, she thought, surprised how delightful the colour white had become after being surrounded by so much grey. She could see children on the other side too – a boy and a girl, who were playing with toys she couldn’t see.

“Tom,” the girl said plaintively. “I don’t think we should have taken it out without asking Mom.”

“I just wanted to look,” the boy said. “We’re not hurting it. Besides, I wanted to see what it would do.”

“It doesn’t do anything!” the girl protested. “It’s been sitting here for half an hour!” She folded her arms across her chest. “I want to go play video games!”

“Help!” Tanya shouted, waving her arms over her head. She stretched up as high as she could, but her fingers were several inches from the window. “Help me!”

Tom’s head spun around to look at her – he had heard her! “Help!” she shouted again, waving with bigger gestures. “Help! I’m down here!”

The girl had heard her too. She and Tom stared wide-eyed down at Tanya, and then the girl gave a blood-curdling scream. Tom didn’t scream, but his face had turned completely pale, and he grabbed frantically for the little girl’s hand. “Come on!” he shouted, and pulled the little girl away from the window.

“No!” Tanya shrieked in despair. The panic she had been trying so hard to quell rushed over her now in waves. “Come back! Come back!” She yelled until her voice was hoarse; she yelled until her energy drained, and she sank down to her knees underneath the window. “Why?” she asked. “Why is this happening to me?” She looked up at the window, at the white ceiling on the other side of it, and at the light fixture that shed yellow light onto her face. “Please come back,” she whispered.

This time, she vowed, she would not move from this spot. She would stay right here until someone came to help her, or until she figured out a way to help herself. She wouldn’t get up, or go anywhere, or even go to sleep.

She would wait forever if she had to.

One Page Stories – Third Web

Almost Home

The little girl had been carrying the dagger for what seemed like forever. She didn’t know where she was going, really; she was just going where it seemed she ought to go. Where the dagger seemed to be telling her to go.

She had been listening to the dagger since the moment she had come near it. Even though it didn’t speak in words, she could tell what it wanted her to do, what it needed her to do. It had asked her to do things she couldn’t even think about now … it would make her feel bad. She felt bad anyway, about her father. She hadn’t meant to kill him.

But the dagger had said it was necessary, and it had made so much sense at the time.

She made her way to the train station, wondering how she was going to get on the train when she didn’t have any money. But the dagger’s whisper told her everything would be okay, and that she should go here to this place. Some of the grownups looked at her strangely, no doubt at the blood sprayed all over her clothes, but no one stopped her or asked her if she was alone or needed help. She walked past everyone, and came to stand near the ticket window.

I don’t have any money, she thought, but the dagger told her it would be okay.

A man appeared beside her. “Are you here by yourself?” he asked. She looked up at him. He was smiling, but his smile didn’t seem like a real smile. He looked like a businessman, in a suit and tie, and he carried a briefcase. He was friendly, but he was confused too, as though he were thinking about something that made no sense to him at all.

She had felt that way since she picked up the dagger.

The man glanced at the satchel on her shoulder. “What have you got there?” he asked. “It’s a little too big for you, isn’t it?”

The little girl shrugged, and clutched the satchel closer to her. “I’m fine,” she said. But inside she could hear what the businessman was probably hearing – the dagger wanted the man to take the satchel.

Her heart started beating faster. She thought about her father, and about the lady she had taken the dagger from – they were both dead now. “I don’t want to die,” she whimpered, so quietly that the businessman didn’t hear her.

He reached out and grabbed at the satchel. The little girl grabbed it back, reflexively trying to keep the dagger with her – it called to her, after all, all the time. But her desire to be alive outweighed the dagger’s voice.

She let the businessman take the satchel.

He seemed surprised at how easy it had been to do what the dagger wanted. He stared for a moment at the satchel that dangled from his hand. “I,” he said, his brow furrowed in puzzlement. “I guess I’ll go to Lansing,” he said, turning toward the ticket window.

The little girl didn’t know where Lansing was, but she had heard the dagger whisper it. “Okay,” she said. She watched the man approach the ticket window and ask for a ticket to Lansing.

Her heart still wanted the dagger, but part of her was so happy to let it go that she almost cried. “It’s the Calahuolca,” she said to him, and walked out of the train station into the sunshine.

 

One Page Stories – Third Web

Women

Trina sat with the police officer who had come to the gas station; she had called the police after escaping the group of women on the road.

“They surrounded the car?” the police officer asked, her pen poised over the notepad on the counter. “Did they hurt you?”

“No,” Trina assured her. “They were just all … standing there. They didn’t move, or say anything, or blink. They just stood there, until I drove away, and then I saw behind me that they had all made a circle around the cop.”

“Did you see the officer’s name badge?” the officer asked. “Or the number on the car?”

Trina shook her head. “No,” she said. “He had just gotten out of the car to come to my window. And then all the women showed up, out of nowhere. And he told me to come here and get help.”

The officer had sent a separate car down the road where Trina had been pulled over, where she had left the poor policeman behind at the mercy of the strange group of identically dressed, long-haired women. Why would they all dress the same? she wondered. Why would they all look alike? It seemed, in the dark, as though it was the same woman, copied seven or eight times. Suddenly she felt a little less spooked – maybe it was some kind of projector, some kind of elaborate hoax. Maybe the policeman would be okay, and everyone would have a good laugh about it.

A panic-stricken voice crackled over the officer’s radio. “Jordan!” the voice shouted. “Tony’s out here! He’s … he’s dead. He – it looks like he was strangled.”

The officer’s eyes had opened wide. “What do you mean, dead?” she barked into the radio. “Did you see anybody else?”

“No,” the voice replied. “But there are lots of footprints here – mud prints, or … or maybe blood. It’s hard to tell in the dark.”

The officer started issuing urgent instructions into the radio, about back-up, and keeping people clear of the crime-scene, and scouring the area for the women Trina had reported. She glanced piercingly at Trina. “You’ll need to stay with me,” she commanded, obviously considering Trina a suspect in the death of the other officer.

“O-okay,” Trina agreed. She thought about the officer who had pulled her over, about how she had left him there – at his instruction! – to be killed by those women. I’m sorry, she thought, tears in her eyes. She sat quietly for a long while, until the officer was ready to escort her to the police station for questioning.

*   *    *

Officer Tony Prescott’s dash-cam recording exonerated Trina, but she was required to spend some hours answering endless questions. All around her, the police station was frantic with unusual activity; it was a small town, after all, and crimes like this just didn’t happen. The dash-cam recording had captured the women, a total of nine women all wearing the same floral dress and the same dark hair swept down over their faces. But at the point when the women had surrounded Officer Prescott, the recording had cut out, showing only static for a few moments and clearing up only after the women had vanished.

“Do you recognize the women?” Jordan asked. “From before tonight, I mean.”

“No,” Trina said, shaking her head.

“I do,” a voice said behind her. “That looks like Madeleine Jackson.” The owner of the voice was one of the detectives; he sat down at the table next to Trina and peered at the dash-cam footage.

“Who?” Jordan asked. “That name isn’t familiar to me.”

“She disappeared about a year ago,” the detective explained. “She had been driving over here from Silton to see a friend, and she never showed up.”

“Silton?” Jordan repeated. “She probably would have been on that same road.” She shook her head, frowning. “But if she’s been missing for a year, then how did she end up there tonight? And who are the other women?”

“Maybe it’s some kind of projector,” Trina offered. “Some kind of trick.”

“But why?” Jordan wanted to know. “Why would anyone want to kill Tony?”

More time went by, and Trina felt like she had answered every question at least three times. It was now after sunrise, and even though the detective had given her all the coffee she could ask for, it wasn’t really helping her stay awake at this point. But even though she was increasingly exhausted, she also wanted to be here, following everything the police were finding out about what had happened to Officer Prescott. Surely someone, especially now that the darkness was fading, had found some trace besides muddy footprints of the women. Despite her best efforts, though, she found herself starting to doze off.

“Jordan!” the detective called loudly, startling Trina awake. “I got something!”

“So do I,” Jordan said, coming over to the detective’s desk. “They found another body in the ravine, about half a mile from the road where Tony died. It’s been there a while.”

“A while?” the detective asked. “How long is a ‘while’?”

“It’s almost just bones,” Jordan said. She scowled. “These women who killed Tony,” she said. “They’re dressed like a woman who’s been in the ravine forever. Why? If they knew about the woman in the ravine, why didn’t they report it? Unless they killed her too.” She squinted at the detective. “Do you think it’s your Madeleine Jackson?”

“It could be,” he answered. “I got a call a few weeks ago about a body found under a tree twenty miles up the highway; we thought it might be Madeleine, but it turned out to be a girl from Colorado Springs who was driving through on her way to college – a girl named Tamara Lengle.” He gestured toward his phone. “Tamara had a tuft of hair clutched in her hand; they just let me know they found a match for the hair.” He paused as though he didn’t particularly want to say what he had learned. “It was Tony,” he said finally.

“What was Tony?” Jordan asked. “You – you don’t mean Tony’s hair was on this Tamara girl?”

The detective nodded. “They matched the DNA,” he said. “Tony’s was on file.” He sighed, glanced at Trina who still sat quietly on a nearby bench, and leaned closer to Jordan. “What if he killed Madeleine, too?” he asked in a low voice. “What if that’s why whoever killed him tried to look like Madeleine? Like … revenge?”

Jordan didn’t waste any time being shocked at what she was hearing. “Why not just turn him in?” she asked. “If they thought he had killed these women?”

“Maybe it was Madeleine,” Trina said softly. Her eyes were swimming with tears. “Maybe she … maybe she saved my life tonight.” The woman – all the women – had come out of nowhere. The video had gone to static – wasn’t that one of those things that meant it was a ghost? Wouldn’t that explain why there were so many copies of the same woman?

She looked at Jordan and the detective. They were looking back at her with a mixture of disbelief and nervousness, as though they shared the thoughts she had spoken aloud but didn’t want to acknowledge it. “I think you need to get some sleep,” Jordan said after a moment. She rubbed her forehead. “I think I do too.”

The detective nodded. “We do,” he said. He glanced again at his phone. “But the whole thing just got a lot more complicated. And I’m not sure how to feel about Tony.”

“Yeah,” Jordan agreed. “Me either.” She sighed. “We investigate Tony’s involvement with this Tamara girl,” she decided. “We investigate these remains from the ravine. We investigate Tony’s murder. We do all those things. And you,” she added, giving a small half-smile to Trina. “Can go home and get some rest, and if we have more questions, we’ll get in touch with you.”

Trina blinked away her tears. “Okay,” she said, climbing stiffly to her feet. “But … but I really do think Madeleine saved me tonight.” She drained the cup of coffee the detective had given her, pulled her purse strap over her shoulder, and made her way silently out of the police station.

She thought about the policeman – Tony – and how he had pulled her over on such a deserted road, so late at night. How he had leaned so close into her car window. How frightened he was, even though he had a gun, when he saw the woman in front of the car. He must have recognized her – recognized Madeleine, that he had left dead in a ravine.

Thank you, Madeleine, Trina thought. I’m pretty sure you saved my life last night.

One Page Stories – Third Web

Not This Time

The van hadn’t gone very far; after the little boy had tumbled out and run off, it had taken nearly a full minute to get the girl back into the van, and another minute to careen out of the neighbourhood. By then, the boy’s screams had attracted more attention than the three men had wanted or anticipated, and they sped conspicuously when before they had tried to blend in with regular traffic.

Several minutes went by, and the driver of the van began to think they had gotten away; the girl was still struggling, but the other two men were holding her down – she couldn’t kick her way out again, and her mouth was still taped up. The driver started to relax.

But suddenly a police car appeared behind the van, and then another, and another. Their lights were flashing; their sirens wailed. The driver of the van panicked, flinging the van recklessly from one lane to the next, but the police cars kept pace. Soon six cars had surrounded the van and forced it to the side of the road.

The three men jumped out of the van and fled on foot, pursued by half a dozen police officers with guns drawn. The other officers cautiously approached the van, opening the back doors to find a girl tied up and wrapped in duct tape. “You’re okay!” they shouted, climbing in and kneeling down beside her. “You’re okay!” The girl looked scared and relieved at the same time; as soon as the tape was removed from her mouth, she croaked, “Where’s the little boy?”

One of the officers put a hand on her shoulder. “Jacob?” he said. “He’s how we found you. He’s okay.”

The girl slumped down and began to cry. “Thank God,” she sobbed. “Thank God.”

Two of the officers helped her down out of the van and led her to one of the squad cars. The officers left in the van began looking at piles of items collected in the corners amidst the tangle of ropes and blankets. There were articles of clothing, odds and ends of jewelry, and a few handbags. “Collect all these,” one officer said to another. “It looks like this girl and Jacob aren’t the first ones thrown into this van.”

“Look at this,” a third officer interjected, tipping up a wooden shadow box. “It’s a jersey,” she noted, angling the box so that the others could see inside it. “It’s been signed by Stan Lee.”

“There’s a receipt taped to it,” the first officer said. “It might tell us who owned that jersey.” He stepped out of the van. “Stop collecting,” he decided. “Let’s seal it up and take the whole van in for processing.”

The officer holding up the shadow box laid it gently back where she had found it. “I think Jacob and this girl are really lucky,” she commented as she climbed out of the van. “It looks like a lot of people didn’t get away.”

“Yeah,” the first officer said. He closed the doors to the van. “Yeah.” He went over to the car where the girl sat sobbing into her hands and shaking. She had saved little Jacob’s life, and could easily have lost her own. “But you’re safe,” the officer whispered to himself. He shook his head, and glanced back at the van. “You’re safe.” He wondered about the owners of all those items they had found, wondered how many of them were dead. “What the hell’s wrong with people?” he asked no one in particular, and got into the squad car.

One Page Stories – Third Web

Full Circle

Laney sat down at the little table by the window and looked out over the sunny courtyard. She felt safe for a change; she felt … happy.

The old man who always sat on the bench in the courtyard finally arrived, and took up his customary seat at the north end of the wooden bench. He carried a bag of bread crumbs that he would spend the morning feeding to the pigeons. He always fed them, all morning, and read the newspaper, and talked with some of the others who always came to the courtyard. Sometimes he had a thermos of coffee, but today he had a paper cup with a little tag hanging out of it – tea.

Today I’ll go talk to him, Laney decided. She got up from the table and called out to the nice girl who always brought her coffee and biscuits. “Janetta, would it be okay if you brought it out there?”

The nice girl smiled at her the way she always did. “Sure, Laney,” she said. “Are you finally going to talk to Mr. Steinman?” Her eyes twinkled, and Laney blushed.

“I am,” she announced, her voice wavering between bravery and nervousness. She had been wanting to talk to Mr. Steinman for a long time, because he seemed so friendly and smiley and yet just a little sad. He seemed like he had a story to tell.

He seemed like the sort of man who might understand that she had a story to tell.

She made her way tentatively to the bench, and leaned down toward the old man. “Mr. Steinman?” she said, her voice barely above a whisper.

He looked up at her with kind eyes and a gentle, inquisitive smile. “Yes?” he said.

Laney glanced at the empty end of the bench. “Could – could I sit here with you?”

“Of course!” he said, smiling broadly. He gestured to the seat right beside him. “Please; please!”

Laney sat down, smiling too. “I – I hope it’s not too forward,” she said shyly. “But Janetta said you were someone who might be able to help me.”

Mr. Steinman looked at her in surprise. “Why, of course!” he said. “But what is it I can do for you?”

“I …” She paused, and looked down for a moment at her hands folded in her lap. “I came in on one of the transports from Ritika. And … and I’m trying to settle in.” She looked around at the bright courtyard, with its fountain and flowers and statuary. “It’s very beautiful here,” she said. “But sometimes I worry.”

At the mention of the Ritika transports, Mr. Steinman’s pleasant expression had suffused with absolute compassion. “I see,” he said softly. He reached out one wrinkled hand and patted Laney’s. “You should call me Victor,” he said. “What is it,” he asked her, “that you worry about?”

“A lot of things,” Laney said. His hand on hers was very comforting, even though she had never spoken to him before today. “I worry that Cal is still alive and will find me. I worry that I shouldn’t have escaped from Ritika, even though it’s so much more beautiful here, and so quiet and good. I – I worry that I don’t deserve all this kindness.” She stopped, tears in her eyes that she hoped he didn’t see. Why on earth was she telling him this? What on earth was he supposed to do about any of it? Why did Janetta think he could help me with any of this?

But Mr. Steinman – Victor – didn’t seem bothered by her words, or by the notion that he was supposed to offer her something helpful. He seemed instead to know exactly what she was talking about, and to feel entirely sympathetic toward her. He patted her hands again, and then reached into the bag of bread crumbs and tossed a handful at the collection of pigeons in front of the bench.

“When I was a little boy,” he said, tossing a second handful. “My father and brother disappeared – I learned much later that they were arrested by the Nazis, and killed. My mother and I decided to leave our village, but the Nazis intercepted us, and my mother forced me to run away without her.” He gazed at Laney, who was staring back at him with wide eyes – she had heard of the Nazis, even in Ritika. “I never saw her again,” he went on. “I did as she said, and ran to the west, and I didn’t stop until I got to a city where the Allies were in charge.” He tossed a third handful of crumbs. “It was a long time – looking back, I think it must have been nearly a month. I ate what I could find in the woods, and got sick on that more than a few times; I was always so cold, even when the sun was shining. By the time I found the Allies, I didn’t know who to trust or what to do. I missed my mother, and I didn’t know she had been killed until twelve years later. I just kept hoping and hoping, and relying on the kindness of strangers, and wishing I could go back in time and bring my mother with me out of our village.” He sighed. “It was years before I really landed anywhere, and years more before I had made peace with the fact that I was the last member of our little family.”

Laney was weeping now, unabashedly. “I’ve been so selfish!” she cried. “I – I had no idea!”

Victor laughed, an incongruous sound in the wake of such an emotional story. “It was many long years ago,” he told her. “I lived my life, and made a new family. I have children now, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.” He put his hand on hers again. “My Sonya’s heart gave out seven months ago, and so I’ve been a little sad, but I know I’ll see her again, and my mother and father, and my brother.” He put his arm around Laney’s shoulders. “And I know – because it is what I would have wanted if our places were reversed – that they want me to be happy. My mother sent me into the woods that day so that I could grow up and be happy; it was all she had left.” He leaned close to Laney, and gazed into her eyes. “I have to be happy, for my mother,” he explained. “And you have to be happy, for all the people who wanted that for you.”

Laney blinked tears away. “I left Cal to die,” she said, so quietly that Victor could hardly hear her. “But he wasn’t going to let me go. He was going to pretend to let me go, but then he was going to make me go back to another place like Ritika. I had to leave him. I had to escape.”

Victor understood all too well the feelings she had not put into words. “Yes, you did,” he said. “You did.” He hugged her closer. “And now you have a good life.” He handed her the bag of crumbs. “Cal didn’t have to choose what he chose.”

“Neither did I,” Laney protested. “I could have gone with him, and escaped from him later, somehow.” She sobbed. “But I think – I think – Cal wasn’t a very good person. He wanted to keep everything the way it was, and … I didn’t like the way it was. I don’t think it was very good at all, and people died all the time.” She shook her head forlornly. “But maybe that wasn’t for me to decide.”

“It was yours as much as anyone’s,” Victor told her. “You chose what you chose because you thought it was good. And that’s …” He chuckled, and hugged her tighter. “That’s all we get sometimes. That’s the best we can do.”

She wanted to argue the point – to convince him that she should be sad – but deep down she wanted to believe him. She wanted to be happy, and to have the life that she had found outside of Ritika.

Deep down she knew that Cal would have killed a lot of people if he had been given the chance.

“I am a person?” she asked Victor, terrified of his answer, but needing it all the same.

Victor raised his eyebrows. “Of course you are, my dear,” he assured her. “Of course you are.”

Laney took the bag of breadcrumbs and pulled out a handful. “I want to be okay,” she said, and tossed the crumbs to the eager birds. Even though she didn’t really know Mr. Steinman – Victor – very well, and even though she felt that she had brought up unhappy memories for him, she felt closer to him than to anyone else she had met since she left Ritika. She laid her head down on his shoulder and threw another clump of crumbs.

“I know,” Victor said, patting her shoulder. “You will be.”

They sat for a long time on the bench, feeding the birds, drinking tea and the coffee Janetta eventually brought out to her, and soaking up the sunshine.

The sunshine felt good.