POOF! 02: PRINCESS
A story by
“And your name is Princess? Your real name? Really?"
The social worker doubted that. But she figured, in an age when there are parents who try to name their kid Hitler, anything is possible.
The little girl's head bobbed up and down enthusiastically, her grin dimpling her cheeks. She had bluer-than-blue eyes, a mop of curly blonde hair, and offered a handshake to each and every person she met, her tiny hand disappearing into theirs, melting hearts instantly.
Who knew what she'd had been through, when her whole family and every resident of an entire city had disappeared — along with their homes, their streets, buses, schools and playgrounds, skyscrapers, hospitals, and every single Starbucks — erased from existence by ... what? No one knew for sure, but even when the word wasn't formed on people's lips, you could see it in the eyes of many of them: TERRORISTS. In decades past, the assumption would have been that our then-enemy, The Soviet Union, had developed a new atomic bomb that silently obliterated huge areas. Silently, because absolutely no one beyond the city had known anything was wrong until the very moment that every city block just up and disappeared. Along with a smallish town nearby, which had apparently gone first. A trial run?
There were dozens and dozens of witnesses, but all were found wandering aimlessly, soaking wet, their eyes dull with shock. The explanation for their being wet? None. Their identities? Unknown, at first. Only those with a wallet in their pocket had a name, but one that was unfamiliar to them. Then, purses and shoulder bags and backpacks were found strewn about, just beyond the edges of the city, and more IDs were made.
The only communicative witness the police had come across was this little bitty girl, found wandering through the vast empty space that had once been a city, crying inconsolably about her lost doll stroller. A precarious position, given all the deep cavities throughout those miles and miles of dirt. Most buildings had had basements, now holes in the ground, and the huge highrises? Basements, sub-basements, underground parking, going down amazingly deep. That the child hadn't fallen into one of them as she wandered along with tears blurring her vision was nothing short of a miracle.
She couldn't tell arriving officers anything about her family other than, “Gone, gone, gone.” When asked what she'd seen, she had no response. Shock, probably. What was she, three years old? Four? How could she possibly process something that intense?
The social worker thought back to when she was that little herself, and her obsession with her dollies, which she'd protected as if they were real babies. And here was this little snip of a girl, whose last contact with anyone or anything she knew was her baby doll. Had she left it somewhere, walked off in shock, and lost it? Or was the stroller ripped from her hands when the ... blast? ... melting-away? ... blinking out? ... of street after street occurred? They might never know. At least she'd gotten past being distraught. Surprisingly fast, in fact. Once she was checked out by paramedics, then brought into the police station here in the suburbs of what was now a non-existent city, she'd turned calm, curious, and seemingly content.
The State Police, the F.B.I., Homeland Security, the military — all were represented, and all equally clueless. Given the utter destruction (no, vaporization, because there wasn't the tiniest bit of debris left), there was a growing portion of the population with a different theory, consisting of little silver men, a gigantic mothership, and super-duper beams, or photon torpedoes, or whatever-the-hell. And not all of these people were the type to wear a tinfoil hat, or insist that every light in the sky was a “visitor.” No, some were ordinary, hard-working straight-arrows. Others, highly-educated professionals. And even a few cops. Of course, there were also other “out there” explanations being passed around: ours and a parallel universe had somehow “bumped” together ... a space storm of some kind had swept through, taking the town and city with it (apparently, someone had read Jules Verne's Off On A Comet) ... or the one that was popular with a certain segment of society: God smote these two places with a swipe of His mighty hand, as a warning that society was headed in the wrong direction and we'd better get our shit together.
Overworked and underpaid, the social worker had no time to explore these theories or any others. Her caseload would likely multiply quickly as families separated by this bizarre tragedy came to grips with their new reality. Some would handle it, some wouldn't.
At this moment, the only case on her radar was this child, so vulnerable and alone.
The little girl looked up at her and batted those baby blue eyes, with a shy, I-like-you-THIS-much smile. She was aware that she already had the question lady wrapped around her little finger, but she liked to tie things up with a pretty little bow.
Now she covered her smile with both hands, holding in a secret she'd just discovered.
The social worker didn't see (nor would she have understood the significance of it, if she had) the tiny blips of golden light on the computer screen behind her.
The little girl, on the other hand, recognized it for what it was — the awesome power behind the disappearance of the city and the small town and a few other things no one had noticed yet. She called it the globby glob, and it was hers. She'd found it last night. And then, just as fast, lost it today, letting it get swallowed up by a big ol' hole in the ground when she got careless, tripping over the way-too-big grownup's t-shirt she was wearing. She'd thought that for sure it must be in China by now. Her brother Bryson once told her that if you dug hard enough with your sand shovel, that's where you'd end up, on the other side of the world. A place where you could have as many fortune cookies as you wanted, and eat your food with two skinny sticks instead of a fork.
Back when she'd first come into possession of it, the object of mass destruction had been a foot-long, jelly bean shape with peculiar-looking wires and coils and such inside. It weighed maybe five pounds, which she could easily push around in her toy stroller. Once it found itself unexpectedly trapped below ground level, it reached out and began traveling in its most basic form, pure energy, as it had been at the very moment the little girl had first seen it, as it slashed down through the night sky, all lightning-like and impressive. In her view, very possibly a gift from the Man in the Moon. She did, after all, wave at him and say goodnight whenever the Moon hung there all bright and shiny, over the trees way, way beyond her backyard.
Across from her now, was that a conspiratorial wink from within the computer? Quick little blobs of light appeared onscreen, then blinked out, then reappeared, a version of Morse Code only the little girl would understand.
It had found her.
Her globby, her protector, her entertainer. What fun it could be. So exciting. Okay, maybe a little show-offy, but that made it even more fun.
And now it was here.
The little girl asked the social worker, “Hug, hug?”
How sweet, the woman thought. She was glad to see that the day's events hadn't damaged the child's capacity for affection and her ability to verbalize her needs. What a strong little bugger she is, she thought. Thank God she survived. The world needs more huggers.
She reached out her arms and the little girl smiled and fell into them. The woman gave her a squeeze.
The little girl peeked up over the woman's shoulder. There was a tiny flash down in the corner of the computer screen, which grew into a larger blob for a few seconds — gold, then red, then gold again. And the little girl smiled a different kind of smile, against the perfume-scented blouse, unseen by anyone but, she knew, sensed by her globby-blobby friend who now lived in the 'puter-thingy.
The little girl squirmed out of the social worker's arms, giggled, and reached over to touch her tiny palm to the center of the computer screen.
“Bye-bye,” she whispered, and leaned back.
Instantly, light — or something vaguely resembling light — reached out from the screen. Literally reached, because it was in the shape of a hand; a four-fingered hand not unlike a cartoon character's, but a hand nevertheless. The little girl could feel a subtle buzz from it, and apparently so did the social worker, who turned just in time to see stubby, glowing fingers surge forward, wrapping themselves around her throat.
Panicked, the woman tried to scream, but no sounds came forth. She tried to pull away, but for a limb that was not corporeal, it's grip was shockingly powerful, inescapable.
There was a tug; gentle at first, then forceful, and the social worker was pulled head-first to the computer screen, her face pressing against it, melting into it, as a silent scream formed on lips that pixelated just before her entire head, and indeed all of her, was sucked into the computer like chocolate milk through a straw. She was 5'7”, her body lithe and well-toned, the result of many trips to the gym and much self-control; consistently resisting the temptation to snack on cheesecake, chocolate-chip cookies, or her very favorite, Dove Ice Cream Bars. She might as well have indulged, and enjoyed herself. Because now, in the blink of an eye, that body was gone, with no evidence left behind that it had ever existed.
“Poof!” the little girl whispered.
The computer screen looked perfectly ordinary now, the entire room — which housed the Detectives Unit — looked perfectly ordinary, and nothing looked quite as perfectly, perfectly ordinary as the little girl who sat there happily humming, looking so tiny on a chair designed for grown-ups. Her feet, which came nowhere near to touching the floor, swung back and forth.
A minute or two later, the detective whose desk the social worker had borrowed came in the door and over to the little girl, asking, “Hey sweetie, where's the nice lady?”
The little girl shrugged, then smiled.
“Sit with me?” she asked.
“Sure, you bet,” he answered. “I have a report to work on anyway. You want some M&M's? I have some in a drawer somewhere.”
At a long table over by a window, two detectives were deep in conversation with a woman from Homeland Security. At a couple desks, others were inputting information into their computers. Another left the room holding a cell phone to his ear. This was basically what it had been like since the little girl arrived here. Somehow, either coincidentally or by design, all had been turned away just as the dramatic event occurred, a moment ago.
“Mmmmmm,” the little girl said, eagerly reaching out when the detective handed a crinkly bag to her. Pouring some M&M's into her palm, she picked out a pretty blue one and popped it into her mouth.
The detective swiveled his chair around so he could borrow a stapler from the desk behind his, then neatened some papers.
To his left, the little girl saw a tiny flash at the bottom of the computer screen.
As the detective slapped the stapler, she reached around him to the screen and tapped her fingers on it.
“Poof!” she said.
And she giggled.
“So where's Torrance? And Linley? They wanted Benny's Chicken-and-Cheese Tamales, I got Chicken-and-Cheese Tamales, so where the hell are they? I walked over to get them — the traffic is unbelievable. The way people are evacuating, I don't think there's gonna be anybody left by midnight. Benny's gonna stay open until the last nickel leaves town, though,” Detective Bill Corcoran said, dropping the bags on a desk.
“I know, I was watching from the roof. People are going by with SUVs so crammed full of stuff, it looks like there's been a looting festival,” Det. Ryan Lee replied. “I saw a huge flat screen TV sticking out the back of a Durango. You know that guy's gonna whack it on something before he gets where he's going.”
The two thirty-something detectives looked enough alike — short-cropped dark hair, light brown eyes, nice-looking-but-not-quite-handsome, with the same horrendous taste in ties — that they could have been brothers, though of course they weren't. Corcoran looked like his British mom rather than his leprechaun-faced Irish-American dad, and Lee resembled his Chinese-American father not even the tiniest bit. The “separated at birth” jokes that occasionally went around were as crude and politically-incorrect as one might expect in a police precinct.
“Yeah, well, 'looting' is the operative word there. In case the town doesn't dematerialize or whatever, who wants to come home and find out your giant flat screen has been snatched by some junkie who jogged down the street balancing it on his head?”
Both detectives laughed. But as the laughter petered out, they went back to looking just a little bit edgy. Hardly anyone in the building mentioned the possibility of the whole town, or any of the others in the area, disappearing into thin air, but they all thought about it. Never stopped thinking about it, in fact. That something so devastating, so final, could happen and they'd have no way to fight back was a concept they'd never before encountered, or even considered. There was always a way. Maybe not for civilians, but for cops, with their training, their mindset, their weapons.
Yet, where were the thousands of city officers and dozens of small town officers who had disappeared right along with the buildings and streets and pretty much everything but the air? Their training hadn't done them any good.
And thus even the cops in this town, and the next one over, and the one after that, would have preferred to get the hell out of here. But they had a job to do, and they would do it. They'd all, every last one of them, phoned their relatives and friends and convinced them to get as far away from here as possible. That would have to do.
"Hey, what's she still doing here?” Lee said.
“The little munchkin over by the soda machine. She and that social worker should be long gone by now.”
“They were here at Tor's desk when I left to get dinner.”
“The social worker wouldn't have just dumped her on us, right? I mean, they're all dedicated to kids and shit, right?"
“I don't know, people can get weird when the end of the world approacheth.”
“Man, that shit ain't funny.”
Corcoran laughed. “Don't worry. God or Fate or space monkeys or Satan himself wouldn't be cruel enough to end the world just before we find out who'll be in the Stanley Cup Finals.”
“Well, somebody should take that kid somewhere.”
“Yeah, I'll see if Joely knows where the social worker is. Maybe she's just in the restroom or something. But you're right, they need to get the hell to an evacuation center. A kid that young, it's got to be past her bedtime, anyway.”
Hours later, a uniformed officer came up to the third floor looking for Det. Joely Lynne Fisher.
A few minutes later, Lee started wondering where Corcoran was.
Also unavailable was a detective with Vice, up on the fourth floor. And two uniforms who'd come up to use the soda machine because the one downstairs had stopped working.
Beneath a desk in the far corner, in that little cubbyhole where the chair would be if it hadn't been pushed out toward the wall a bit, sat the little girl, cross-legged and content, whispering into the fuzzy ear of the stuffed bear nice Det. Joely had given her.
A little after 11:00 p.m., still wondering where Corcoran was, Det. Lee stuck his head in the door of the Detectives Unit and glanced around. There were far fewer people in the building now. Most cops were going door-to-door to make sure each neighborhood was completely emptied of residents. The room was empty.
Turning to leave, Lee froze. He'd heard something, though he wasn't sure what, exactly.
There it was again. A whisper.
Walking between the desks, he scanned left and right, and reached the far wall. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a chair move, just the slightest.
Pulling it out, he said, “Holy shit!”
The little girl looked up at him, cuddling her bear.
Minutes later, she was in a police sergeant's vehicle, along with three others who needed a ride, heading for a transport area two towns over, where they'd all be transferred even farther west. The sergeant had worked his ass off for hours, but now he wanted out. He had a wife he loved, three daughters he lived for, and four grandkids for whom he'd gladly throw himself in front of a truck, if necessary. It was time to join them, far from this stressed-out, will-this-next-breath-be-my-last situation.
Midnight came and went. So did 3 a.m. And 7:30 in the morning, as well. And the towns and truck stops and farmers' markets and lumberyards (and occasional chop shop or meth lab) surrounding the vanished city were still there. Not a single street or house or fire hydrant had disappeared. The same could not be said of a few residents, but there had been such chaos during evacuation that it was understandable that few people noticed. And even for those who did, there was the knowledge that evacuees had driven on their own or been shipped all over the state. Their loved one/friend/coworker could very well be in a motel or an evacuation camp somewhere, too embarrassed to admit that they'd been frightened enough to skedaddle out of town without so much as a goodbye.
Yet, Detective Lee wondered. And asked around. And made phone calls. And no one could remember having seen any of the missing police personnel — including fellow detective Bill Corcoran — leave, or even express a desire to do so.
Lee was more curious than anything. It wasn't like he and Corcoran were best buds joined at the hip or anything, but he was fairly sure Corcoran would have informed him of a plan to leave the building, let alone leave town.
And the two young cops from the first floor ... they were ambitious and enthusiastic, and more excited about recent events than afraid. They wouldn't have taken off, not without signing out. That much, he knew for sure.
So where were they, all of them?
A head of platinum blonde curls moved about through a sea of moppets who were busy digging in sandboxes, playing on swings and seesaws, and creating masterpieces at fingerpaints easels, in Evac Camp #17. She stood out, as much because of her solitary pursuits as the fact that most of the tots had darker hair, and many were of races other than Caucasian. She didn't show disdain for the others, or shyness, or sadness, just complete disinterest. Her teddy bear was her close companion, accompanying her whenever she slipped into the more grownup sections of the camp. She'd already been shooed back to the younger children's area multiple times. But she returned again and again, to observe the TVs set up to keep check on the cable news stations and their coverage of the strange crisis; to peep into the tent that resembled a video arcade, with game systems to keep the teens and 'tweens occupied; and most especially the larger, bright orange tent nicknamed The Disaster Cafe, where coffee urns and a buffet filled one side, with round tables on the other, each one complete with a place to charge laptops & cell phones. The whole camp had free wifi and satellite.
She was more than merely interested in those locations. She longed for her friend, her protector, her electronic awesomeness-producer. And he was in there, she was sure of it. Somewhere. In one of those gadgets. She knew he was no longer in the plastic Radio Shack pocket radio the police sergeant had let her hold, saying, “Here ya go, sweetheart, fiddle around with this. It'll give you something to do during the ride.” She'd fiddled with it, all right, and felt a familiar buzz, and when the car coasted to a stop, she was the only passenger left. But now the radio was an empty vessel, she could tell. She wasn't sure exactly when that had happened. She carried it with her still, just in case.
“Come on, globby-glob, where are youuuuuu?” she whispered to her fuzzy bear, who now had the inexplicable name of Herbert. She was eyeing the ice machine and wondering if that was 'lectrical enough for her globby to hide in. She had watched someone connecting wires, attaching it and other things to a generator. She didn't understand the details, but she knew you never touched wires or the places they plugged in, or you'd get zapped and very bad things would happen. Her Daddy had told her that long ago, and she had no reason not to believe him. So, she put two and two together and figured, stick a cord thingy in anything and it was connected to everything else, like her hamster's Habitrail back home — those tunnels he could travel through.
“I miss you oodles and boodles, globby,” she whispered. Hours had passed since she'd been found wandering along the side of the road, by three forty-something women in a silver SUV, and brought to the camp.
Now the little girl who called herself Princess had her own cot in a pale yellow tent with cartoon characters on it, alongside several other children who weren't sure where they belonged anymore. She went there and sat, waiting for her globby's return. Surely it wouldn't be long now?
The three women had been soccer mom types, who handmade Halloween costumes and ran Girl Scout cookie drives and arranged play dates for their kids. But the last of those kids had gone off to college last fall, and the silence of the empty nests had been deafening. So these three long-time friends decided on a little adventure, and one day a week, they drove and drove, and went antiquing, checked out inviting little libraries in small towns, had lunch somewhere nice, and in general had a hell of a cozy, relaxing day. It was cheaper than therapy and much more effective. And although half the state looked like there had been an overnight military coup, with personnel carriers full of armed troops trundling along the highways and National Guard helicopters overhead, they refused to let that ruin their weekly jaunt. They weren't idiots about it — they went nowhere near towns that were even remotely close to the supposed danger zone. The thought of disappearing into nothingness just about scared the capri pants off of them. Yet, the fact that anyone could be gone in the blink of an eye wasn't new. You could get hit by a bus and be just as gone. So, they left a little later than usual this morning — watching the news first, then having a quick discussion — but they left, feeling bad for the people who'd disappeared, but determined to enjoy life while they were still here.
And then, there she was. An adorable little girl with big blue eyes, standing all alone by the side of the road, one hand clutching a teddy bear, and a small, silent, portable radio in the other.
At Evacuation Camp #17, they told themselves they weren't deserting her, just handing her over to people who would be able to figure out who she was and find her relatives. But each felt a twinge of guilt, and had a flash of memory that took them back to their own daughters when they were that small and helpless. Consequently, they were too distracted to notice a low crackling sound coming from the child's radio, or the tiny spears of light escaping around the edges of the lid on the battery compartment. And they were too far away from the SUV to see the corresponding flashes of golden light escaping from under the cover of the iPad one of them had left on the front seat. But as they walked toward the vehicle, one of them — the redhead with the short, pixie-like cut, who loved crime shows, had a minor crush on character Patrick Jane in The Mentalist, and tipped waitresses more generously than the others because she'd been there, done that — did glance back, and saw the little girl wrap both hands around the radio, with a playful, “I know something you don't know” look on her face.
They drove away.
The man outside the 1950s-style diner felt flattered that three such classy, nice-looking ladies had stopped to talk with him. He was a bit of an odd duck; tall and skinny, with huge, sad, dark eyes, and a preference for unique clothing that might have been called steampunk if they'd been worn by someone infinitely cooler. But he certainly looked harmless. It was his metal detector that had caught their attention, along with the mesh bag hanging from his shoulder, half full of trinkets he'd found here and there, after a bit of digging.
After satisfying their curiosity regarding his gadget, and oohing and ahhing over some of the items he'd collected, they smiled, thanked him, and shook his hand. An interesting experience for him. He'd never shaken a woman's hand before, felt such smooth skin on his, had the scent of peach lotion cling to his fingers, his palm. It was quite lovely.
Therefore, he felt like a bit of a scoundrel a while later, when he made his way through the crowded diner aisle and slipped the iPad out of the bag one of the women had hung from her chair, covering it with the newspaper he'd just bought from the box by the cashier, and exiting the building. The laughing, chitchatting trio never even noticed his presence. He'd seen the tablet sticking partway up out of the bag while he'd conversed with the women earlier, his eyes scanning their possessions with subtle professionalism. He lived on the fringes of society, felt that the term “scrounger” had a certain dignity to it, and didn't quite see it as theft. They were very nice ladies, but they had so much, they didn't really need this one item, and he could trade it to Bingo Betty for many things he did need. Betty sure did love high-tech stuff.
A couple hours later, sitting in his tent under an overpass, the man stared intently at the iPad screen. All thoughts of Bingo Betty were gone, and had been since the moment he took the device out of his bag, opened the cover, and it came on, all by itself. What little experience he had with anything computerized was limited to sending emails at the library (his most recent was to Frito-Lay, suggesting they invent potato chip bags that disintegrate once empty, thus preventing litter before it even began). There was so much more here. An animated female avatar appeared on the iPad screen, in the distance but walking toward him. Then she was close enough to fill the screen, head-to-toe, and she was quite the gorgeous warrior chick: raven-haired, pouty-lipped, big-boobed, skin-tight black shiny outfit, long legs in thigh-high black boots, carrying a huge, strangely-shaped blade that any Klingon would covet. Perfect to entice a teenage boy ... or a slightly peculiar kleptomaniac who hadn't had a date since his sophomore year in high school.
The little girl's globby had its new host.
The child had had her advantages, not the least of which was the trust she evoked from adults, but her inability to travel where and when she pleased (or where and when her globby did) was a limitation.
And thus the skinny guy with the big, dark eyes — who projected an odd innocence of his own — stared at his new, beautiful companion and knew he would do anything she asked. Knew it without even thinking it. Felt it, soul-deep.
More than two weeks had passed since the strangest disappearance in the history of disappearances, and although the missing city and town were off limits to anyone but government personnel, you just knew it wouldn't keep out the curious forever. There were roadblocks and there was yellow crime scene tape (yes, officially it was a crime scene, since hundreds of thousands of people had somehow been kidnapped or flat-out obliterated, and their possessions right along with them) and wooden sawhorses, with a combination of State Police and National Guard personnel stationed around the perimeter. But that was one big-ass perimeter. And so there were also helicopter fly-overs and vehicle patrols.
Although at this point there wasn't any logical reason to be leery of more disappearances — after all, what was left, dirt? — there was still danger. Deep cavities meant death to anyone foolish enough to get too close to the edge. And so the plan was to eventually put up a high fence. But the funding for that extensive project — and not only who would pay for it, but who would have jurisdiction — was still being discussed.
The sexy avatar never spoke, but whenever she stared intently at the man, her eyes the color of jade, her Angelina Jolie lips pursing to the point where he thought (hoped) she might mimic a kiss, he could always sense what she wanted. He'd set the iPad down on the ground and back away, and someone would have a very bad day. Their last day in this world, in fact. He never let himself wonder where they went. The swirling thing in the air that scooped them up and swallowed them whole was just too disconcerting, too imposing, too ... scary as hell. And so he just watched it like a TV show, something that wasn't really real, couldn't be real, it just looked that way.
There were only a handful of incidents. Nothing newsworthy. And all benefited him in some way.
Right now, a police motorcycle was propped up by the side of the road, and would remain that way. Its rider — he of the snazzy uniform and cool shades and authoritative air — would not be returning to it.
It had started with a terrifying moment. The man was sweeping his metal detector back and forth along the grass at the side of the road (he'd found a perfectly good Zippo lighter that way the day before) when an 18-wheeler came zooming around the curve, and a little red sports car beside it, jostling for position. Maybe they were racing, or maybe the driver of the semi had always yearned to emulate the psychotic trucker in the old Stephen Spielberg movie, Duel, who knows? Either way, the car missed the metal detector by less than a foot, and the man himself by mere inches.
Bad luck for both drivers, though, because the motorcycle cop was approaching in the opposite lane, turned on his siren, and pulled them both over. He'd not had a good day, and he was all attitude. The more they insisted they were in a hurry and just give them the damn ticket, the more he dragged it out, lecturing, smirking, and taking his good ol' time.
Finally, he let the trucker go.
The driver of the sports car was not so lucky. The guy had to be almost thirty years old, and you'd think he'd have outgrown the my-father's-a-state-legislator-he'll-have-your-job routine, but he hadn't. And that did not go over well with this cop whose beloved boat had just been repossessed at the same time his ex-girlfriend said she'd peed on a stick and the plus sign spelled trouble.
Seconds later, sports car guy — who'd had the audacity to very nearly wipe out someone who seemed as vulnerable as a bunny rabbit but in reality was the most powerful man on Earth — and the cop who was unfortunate enough to be standing beside him, were gone. Both of them, as well as the bright red vehicle, were whisked away, the car elongating as it was drawn inward, then snapping into the swirling opening with a peculiar smacking sound.
Down the highway, the trucker caught this in his rear view mirror. He thought, No, that can't be. Then realized, Holy shit, it is. And finally decided, Well, that's what you get for being a couple douches. And he kept on going.
He wasn't the only one. The man picked up the iPad, then the metal detector, and continued on his way, sweeping the ground for treasures. He was heading in a particular direction, for an important purpose, though he was unaware of the specifics. Headed for a jellybean-shaped object that he would be required to recover from the deep hole in which it found itself trapped. This would be his third attempt. Twice now, he'd made it to the vanished city, ducked under police tape, and homed in on a beacon he could not hear, but which drew him to it nonetheless. Both times, he got caught, was deemed to be both harmless and homeless, and transported to an evac center many miles away. But, as they say, third time's the charm.
The white seagull was a comical moocher nicknamed the Artful Dodger by locals who were no longer here to enjoy his antics. He still came back almost daily, up the river from the bay, to non-existent docks that had vanished weeks earlier, arriving at the precise spot as if he had birdie GPS. He hovered, squawked, dove down, squawked some more, baffled by the absence of tourists whose pockets he used to pick and hats he would snatch while they laughed and ran, pretending to panic as he swooped down after them. And where were the grandpas and grandkids with fishing lines dangling in the water, who'd toss him bits of sandwich? It might be considered an anthropomorphism to call him a “people person,” but it was closest to the truth. He enjoyed the play as much as the food. He missed it.
Today he had ventured inland a bit, flying in big, lazy circles high up in the air, then letting the currents carry him. Down below him there was dirt, dirt, and more dirt.
Plus, at this moment, a big, noisy military vehicle approaching from the north. The bird hovered over it, hoping it would stop and humans would pile out of it, delighted to see him, eager to play, and carrying FOOD. But the vehicle kept moving until it was just a speck in the distance. The gull squawked his disappointment; possibly a four-letter-word in seagull-speak.
He flew on for a bit, then his sharp eyes spied something off to his left. It was bright pink, how could he miss it? He quickly closed the distance and circled above it.
The stroller hung from a sharp piece of shale that stuck out about 25 feet down inside a huge pit, which had once housed a pharmaceutical company building with several levels of labs beneath it. On that fateful day when every concrete basement wall in the city had been unceremoniously sucked into the largest unnatural vortex in this little corner of the galaxy, there had been some inevitable crumbling of dirt which was no longer supported. Probably a lucky thing for the globby contraption tucked into the stroller, having caught on a protruding rock, because it was a very long way down, and although the strange ovoid was well-constructed, it wasn't indestructible.
The portion of canvas that was strung across the back of the stroller, forming a pocket in which a certain little girl had kept her traveling treasures — a Spongebob Squarepants juice bottle, a box of colorful chalk for those moments when an artistic mood struck, and a sandwich bag full of peanut butter crackers — faced outward. The stroller had tumbled end over end, the girl's globby little friend somehow managing to maintain its position inside, and the front was now up against the dirt at the side of the pit. The canvas top, which had not only kept the sun off the ovoid inside, but kept people's eyes off of it, too, was caught on the shale, the pointy end of which had torn a hole, the rock sticking up through it.
But that's not what interested the gull. The pocket was the width of the stroller, loose-fitting and now wide open. The gull had spied the crackers inside. A free meal!
The bird swooped down, pecked at the plastic bag and missed, then tried again. The dark grey tip of one wing scraped against the dirt, dislodging bits as fine as powder. On the fourth try, he was about to give up when at last his long beak caught a piece of cracker. Tossing it back and swallowing, the gull was delighted. This was not his first experience with peanut butter. He wanted more.
Landing on top of the stroller, the canvas bowed a bit under his weight and he flew off again, then circled and came back down. With much flapping of wings, he landed again, one webbed foot gripping the wire frame under the edge of the canvas as best it could. He stuck his beak in the pocket and rooted around for more goodies, quickly found a whole one, gobbled it up, and searched for more. The stroller shifted a bit, but he was obsessed with the cache of food, and not about to give up on it.
Gravity was not to be denied, however. Take a five pound alien contraption in an aluminum & canvas stroller, add a nearly 4-lb. seagull to it, and something's going to give.
The piece of shale holding everything in place cracked, split, and came loose. The stroller dropped straight down. The seagull screeched its surprise and displeasure, flapped its wings to gain height, and watched it's meal disappear from sight.
The wheels hit first, slamming into the rocky bottom of the pit, the two left-side wheels popping off. One axle bent, the other went flying. Had the ovoid inside not popped free, the soft pink blanket wrapped around it might have prevented any damage at all. But the stroller had hit at an angle, and the little girl's globby friend flew out, striking the rocks with a sharp sound. A crack instantly formed in the outer shell, from top to bottom.
The red coils inside stopped glowing. Stopped rotating. A slight hiss, as something — steam? gas? — escaped.
And then silence.
A couple miles away, the little beam of golden light zipping around the edges of metal detector guy's stolen iPad blinked out. Gone. Clarity returned to his eyes, and he blinked, as if waking from a pleasant dream.
Miles west of him, the little girl's big blue eyes widened. She burst into tears. Deep, wracking sobs.
In Evac Camp #17, a little girl's anguished cries, her tears, her emotional isolation as she pushed adults away, echoed through the audio & video input of dozens and dozens of devices. Of the evacuees who had yet to find placement elsewhere, very few ever turned off their connection to the outside world, to distant friends & family, to online acquaintances. There were young women who paused in their Skype sessions and Twitter conversations, feeling a tug of mothering instinct and the urge to comfort the little girl. Others, self-proclaimed iJournalists, used their smartphones to record any interesting happenings and upload them to YouTube, and a crying child just might get the attention of CNN, or MSNBC, or at least Nancy Grace. Careers had been built on less. The video gamers just wished the kid would shut up and stop distracting them. Camp leaders & counselors felt helpless and confused, since her outburst had been instantaneous and they'd only known her strong, stubborn side up till now.
The sounds emanating from her revealed a multi-layered conglomeration of emotions: pain, heartache, a profound feeling of abandonment, perhaps even betrayal. The devices all around her soaked it up — her voice, her image, her distress — and sent it racing along through wires, bouncing off satellites, spewing out into the cyberworld.
The outpouring of emotion finally subsided, once the adults around her gave in to her most basic need, which was to be left alone to deal with whatever it was, in her own way. Emotional outbursts were not uncommon here, and volunteers, medical personnel, and counselors had learned that sometimes what people — even the littlest ones — needed was space.
The sobs continued, but more quietly, and when she meandered off to an area frequented by older kids and teens, no one interfered this time.
On a bench by the Coke machine, a 13-year-old boy pulled his earbuds out, wincing from the blast of static his iPod had just produced. Seconds later, a slightly older boy started tapping, then pounding, a video game console, the images on it all jittery. On a TV nearby, Anderson Cooper suddenly started twisting sideways, then blinked out, then came back, his normal, handsome self.
The little girl sniffled. Looked puzzled. Wiped her nose on her sleeve. She felt something. An almost imperceptible tingle. Some tears still found their way down her cheeks as her eyes scanned the area, wondering, hoping.
And then she spotted it.
A tiny, golden blip of light dancing around on the screen of a laptop balanced on the knees of a fifteen-year-old busy texting on her smartphone.
It was a daily, hourly, ritual for the teen, who had, in a life that now seemed long, long ago, slipped out of the house just after dawn to run off with the pierced and tattooed boy of her dreams and her parents' nightmares. He never did show up at their rendezvous point — the Burger King out by the highway. Texting him brought no response. Nor did posting on his Facebook wall or emailing him. Or using the phone as an actual phone. She couldn't imagine why. He loved her. She had no doubt about that whatsoever. When she pushed her cold and soggy fries aside and stood up to go ... she had no idea where ... and finally shifted her focus from her boyfriend to the world around her, a surreal scene hit her full-force. Across the highway and off in the distance, it was gone. The city. The entire city. The skyline she had seen innumerable times growing up, as she sat in a car or bus (or the Burger King) and looked out the window, was gone.
At that point, part of her knew why the love of her life didn't answer. Another part of her refused to accept it. And so she texted and phoned and posted and emailed. Every day since then. Every hour. Sometimes every few minutes. Nothing went through, but it didn't matter. She just did it again. And again.
At this moment, she wasn't as alone as she thought. The little golden light blipped again, bounced from corner to corner, and settled down at the lower left.
About twenty feet away, the little girl watched for several minutes, then wiped the tears away.
The laptop was now sitting on the grass. As was the cell phone, which had fallen upside down.
Busy people ... laughing, chatting people ... were a few yards away, but occupied with their own lives, their own moments. Yet, more than that — somehow blind to a silent, swirling vacuum a moment ago, and it's after-effects now.
The little girl stood up and walked over to the devices, picking up the cell phone.
For the first time since she'd arrived at the camp, there were decisions to be made. Her thoughts immediately went to the mean giant who, in his big booming voice, had been calling her not Princess but The Princess (she didn't know the word “sarcasm,” but recognized it when she heard it), and telling her over and over that she needed to “stay with the other children.” A volunteer at the camp, 6'4” former Marine Corps Drill Instructor Ralph Twees was, you might say, a little bossy.
Slipping the phone into her pocket, the little girl headed for the playground, eager to find Uncle Big Ralph, as the kids called him, and say howdy-do.
Copyright © 2012 Nik Barnabee. All Rights Reserved.