Coming upon her family’s house, after all the time we’d spent together, was more unsettling to me than when I found her a few weeks ago. She’d led me here, this is what she said she wanted, yet the derelict white picket fence surrounding the property hung over our heads like a bad memory. I felt her small hands grab at my jacket sleeve, tugging, as though she wanted to say something.
When I found her, she was in the middle of the woods alone, but she wasn’t scared. Very much unlike me. Out of everything I expected to find in the woods, or maybe hoped to, a person wasn’t one of them. I’d never found anyone out here alone before-but there she was, her stained, cream-colored dress against the warm oranges and browns of the dying leaves, curly hair clearly brushed recently, but showing signs of distress. She was short, and soft-faced- Couldn’t have been more than eight or nine years old. I wondered if this was a set-up.
“Uhhh! Hello!” She called out from a couple yards away, standing up and brushing some leaves off her skirt, then skipped her way over, which took a surprising amount of time for her to do- I wondered why I didn’t turn around and run away, and why she didn’t do the same.
She held her hand out to me, “Hi, I’m Addy. Well, my real name is Adelaide but Addy is short for Adelaide so mostly people call me just Addy.” Her extended hand was caked with dirt and I really didn’t want to touch it. Nothing about this situation was okay. She didn’t seem real. “I could really, really use some help.”
“Listen, uh, Addy? You can’t just waltz up to strangers in the middle of the woods. Not okay,” She still hadn’t dropped her hand, so I reluctantly shook it then wiped it on my pants. She didn’t seem to notice, or care. “I don’t know who you are. I can’t help you”
“But you can help me,” She kicked an acorn, which bounced off the trunk of a tree and came right back to her, “I’m lost. And when you’re lost you’re supposed to find a grown up, and you look kind of like one but you’re not as wrinkly.”
“Ah. Okay. I see. Well, like I said, I can’t help you. So, I’m just… y’know… ‘gonna go now,” I spun on my heels to head back the way I came, but almost immediately I heard her whining loudly.
“Noooooo!” It sounded like she dropped to the ground and started wiggling in the dirt. “You’re the only person I’ve seen in forever and I want to go home please help me I just want to go home I miss my stuffed animals and I want to read my books and sleep in my bed please mister pl-“
“Oh my god! Shut up! Okay. Fine,” I quickly turned around and looked at where she was laying on the forest floor. “I’ll help you home.”
Over the course of the week I learned a lot about her, because she literally never shut up. She told me all the gory details about 5 different instances where her brother got stuck in the tree in her backyard, which she said stopped happening because he put nails and planks of wood in the tree “kind of like a ladder but a lot more ugly. And sometimes they fell off and he’d get hurt.” She told me how she looked like her mom, I told her I looked like mine too and that it was pretty common to look like one of your parents, which amazed her for some reason- I steered the conversation away quickly, as I heard the approaching “Why does that happen?” in her voice. I also learned lots of really interesting, probably inaccurate facts that I’m guessing she read in books, like that the sun is going to explode in, and I quote, “seven hundred bajillion years”. I also learned she was nosy. She insisted on carrying my broken compass one day when she found it in my bag, and told me all about how she could pretend it works and it’d be okay. That was all fine and well, and I could deal with it to an extent, but she would tend to freeze up when I tried to get information about where her house was out of her.
“So like, where did you come from?” I asked her one day as she occupied the swing behind a long-abandoned house. I’m surprised the rusted chain didn’t snap with her weight.
“My house, duh,” She responded. “I told you that, like, a million times.”
“I- Yeah. I know. But where is your house?” I leaned against a tree and took a lollipop out of my pocket.
“This again? Oh my gosh. It’s by a lake.” She looked at the sky as she swung back and forth. The chains creaking rang out through the empty spaces between the trees. The house groaned behind us.
“I know. You’ve said that already. But where’s the lake?”
“By my house!”
And so it went.
A few days later, we came to the hull of an old car. The paint had long worn off the metal and it was coated in a thick blanket of rust that put a gritty dust on my fingers when I ran them along the hood. It was missing a door on the driver’s side, but for the most part it was intact, and that made me excited. Not because there were parts I could scavenge from it- everything was already picked off of it or too rusty to salvage, but because it was what it was- a car. Or at least it used to be. I sat myself down in front of the wheel, and put my hands on it. What would it have been like to be able to drive one of these? Back when the roads were still clean and not overgrown, fading away back into the earth? I pretended for a second that I was there, all those years ago- I mimed turning the key in the ignition and I could almost feel the engine hum as the car sparked to life. I could almost feel my younger brother next to me as I drove him where he needed to go, and I could imagine leaving and never coming back. But I couldn’t imagine how fast this thing would’ve sped away.
“What is this thing?” Addy asked, trying to get in next to me on the passenger side. She struggled with the door, but finally it yanked open with a metallic screech and she climbed onto the rotting leather seat inside, where she made a face, “It’s… super gross.”
“It’s a car” I replied, “And it wasn’t always this gross.” I took my hands from the wheel and messed with some of the buttons and dials still left on the console. She watched me wordlessly, probably just as clueless as I was about what they meant. All I recognized was the “AM” and the “FM,” and I noted that it was cool that cars could pick up radio.
“What’s a car?”
“Uh, well. It’s kinda. Hm.” I paused to think, unsure of how to describe something like that to someone who was utterly clueless about it. Then I thought about my dad, and how he described them to me. “Think about a bike. You know what bikes are right? Okay. Think about a bike, but like, with four wheels. And you don’t have to pedal it, and it goes really fast. All by itself. You just have to push your foot onto a little… thing. A pedal. I guess you do have to pedal it. But not in the same way.”
“That sounds kinda dumb. If you go super fast like, you can’t even pick up a cool rock, unless you put like, a hole in the bottom and look through it. Then if you go over a cool one you could just,” She acted out reaching her arm down and grabbing something “stick your arm through and get it really fast. I don’t know. I just think rocks are cool.”
“Where did people want to go in cars so fast?”
“Everywhere. Anywhere. People are impatient and they couldn’t just walk, I guess.”
“That’s cool. I’d like to go everywhere. Except for here. Cause… we’re already here. But I think it’d be cool if you were there too, with me. Going everywhere”
I felt like I was going to tear up. But I didn’t. I just said, “Well, gee. Thanks.”
Then it’d been three weeks and we were getting closer and closer to Adelaide’s house. She wasn’t as talkative, and her stories were less long-winded and fantastical. All she wanted to do was ask me questions, but this time about me, and it made me more uncomfortable than I expected. I knew they’d come eventually, with how curious and explorative she was, but I wasn’t ready. I’m not sure I ever would’ve been. The first one came at the river.
“Think this river would lead to the lake by your house, Addy?” I asked, but she wasn’t paying attention. She was staring at a butterfly perched on a tree, flapping it’s wings softly, slowly, basking in the sunlight.
“Eli, what kind of butterfly is this?” Hearing my name said out loud was weird. It’d been a while.
“Probably, uh, an orange stupidus butterfly.” ‘I don’t know’ wasn’t an answer she understood, so I made something up.
“That’s not a real butterfly, you’re just being mean. It’s pretty. I’ll call it a Pretty butterfly.”
“That… Okay. Sure. We have to cross this river now, Addy, come on.” I motioned for her to follow, but she didn’t.
“I wanna ask you something before we do that.”
“Okay, shoot.” The quicker I answered whatever it was she needed, the sooner we could go.
“Are you always alone? Except for me. Like do you have friends? You neverrr… talk about your friends or anything, so I was wondering if you were a loser or anything. My brother says people with no friends are called losers.”
I was caught off guard and let out a scoff, “Uh, yeah, I guess I am a loser. But no, yeah, I’m always alone. It’s nice, though. I have lots of time to think, and it’s quiet, and safer.”
“That makes sense I guess. Don’t you miss your family? I miss my mom and dad.”
Why did she have to bring up my family?
“Uh… Suuure. I mean-Yeah. Yes. I miss them” I cursed at myself in my head for lying so transparently. She was only 8 but she wasn’t a dumbass.
“You’re lying,” She said, and didn’t wait for me to say anything else “Why don’t you miss them?”
This was the worst possible conversation for me. I wanted no part of it. I wanted to sit her down and tell her to stay put, and that I’d be back, and leave her there and never return. How were you supposed to tell a kid about something like that? It wasn’t appropriate. “I don’t know. They were just mean I guess.”
She got quiet for a second. “Why?”
“Because.” I felt them watching over me. Judging me. They were there, and they were angry, and I was afraid. I didn’t know what they would do. Then they were gone. They always were, except at night.
She persisted, “But why?”
“I- I don’t want to talk about it.” I felt a phantom, familiar pain in some indeterminable location on my body. My heart lurched in my chest, trying to simultaneously stop itself and simulate a marathon. I couldn’t tell what was happening, or where I was going, or what was going to happen to me but I felt in that moment like I was going to die.
“They- They just were, okay? Stop annoying me and asking these stupid ass questions! I said I don’t want to talk about it!” It came out louder than I meant it to, or maybe it didn’t, and I threw down my hands in anger- but I immediately regretted it. It was the first time I’d really raised my voice at her this entire journey through the forest, and in that second, I made a mistake. I was the person she could trust. This whole time I’d been fairly patient- I let her ask me questions, I answered them, hell, I’d be lying if I said we didn’t have fun. I pushed her on the swing, we played pretend in the car, we played tag, I read her stories to get her to sleep. And in that moment, I saw her shrink back from me and throw her arms over her face. I saw parents, and I saw my brother, and I saw her and I saw fear. She flinched. I made her flinch. And so many things suddenly made sense. The forest was silent.
“I- I’m sorry. I’m not going to… I won’t hurt you.” I felt broken. Knees weak, I sat down on the ground and put my hands on my head. The tension stringing her entire body in that unnatural contortion relaxed and she looked at me. That’s all she did for a long while, was just look at me. Or maybe it wasn’t that long- it just felt like it. She eventually crept towards me and grabbed my hand, slowly getting closer until she asked if I wanted a hug. For the first time in years, I received a hug and I was comforted by it.
Standing at the edge of the world and at the crossroads of something so small yet so large, I looked down to her where she was grabbing at my jacket sleeve. Her hand moved to mine.
“I…” She was tearing up a little bit. “Can you stay with us?”
“No. I can’t.”
“But you’re so nice to me. I- I don’t want to go in without you. I don’t want to go.” She was full-on crying now. I looked towards the house- it was small, tired-looking, with sheets hanging across the cracked windows like curtains, and shingles missing from the roof. The clothesline was empty, and the small garden of crops overrun with weeds almost indistinguishable from the vegetables. It was familiar. It wasn’t home.
I looked at her. She was so much like my brother, so much like the kid I could never protect- but now was my chance. I could protect her now. But could I really? Of course. Anything would be better than her home.
“Do you still have the compass I gave you?” I asked her.
“Of course I do,” She sniffled and pulled it out of her pocket, then dusted some dirt off of the glass cover. “Why?”
“We’re leaving.” I pointed towards the distance. “Lead the way.”