The Girl in the Pickup
The old road was quiet in the late autumn afternoon, still holding together despite a decade of neglect. Paul March still drove on the right, mostly out of habit at this point rather than any necessity. There was no other traffic this far from the main hubs of the area.
His daughter Rachel sat in the back, keeping an eye on their brand new space heater. It had cost them their other horse, and she’d be damned if it was going to fall over and break on the way home.
They were both startled by the distant rumble of an engine from up ahead. The pickup was on them in a hurry - a horse and wagon can only go so fast - but it slowed when it saw them and moved to the correct side of the road. Paul gave a wave of greeting as they passed, which was returned with a surly nod by the big white guy in the driver’s seat. They got about ten feet away before they heard an ear splitting pop, and the pickup squealed to a halt. Paul brought the horse to a stop and turned back - the truck had popped a tire on a crack in the road.
Paul walked over to the stranger, who swore very creatively at the tire before moving towards the back of the pickup. “Need a hand?” Paul asked.
“If you don’t mind,” said the stranger. He opened the tailgate to climb in.
Behind him, Paul was greeted with a bizarre sight. There was the obvious gear - the man’s spare tire and toolbox, a gas can, and a tarp - and a few boxes he likely intended to trade at the fair Paul and Rachel were returning from. But next to all that was a girl, no more than 12 by Paul’s reckoning, wrapped in a thin blanket and tied by the wrists to a cable anchor.
The man noticed him staring. “Water witch,” he said. “Planning to trade her.” He got to work on his tire.
Paul and Rachel exchanged glances.
“How much would you want for her?” Paul asked.
The man shrugged. “Whatever I can get. She’s been weak lately.”
Paul looked back at the space heater. It wasn’t a hard decision. “How about a good space heater? Man that sold it to me said it was good for two hundred square feet.”
The man got up from fixing the tire and looked over the heater. “Sure,” he said. “Saves me the trouble of hawking her down there.”
Paul and the stranger lifted the heater into the pickup as Rachel brought the girl to their wagon. The girl was hot to the touch, and shivering. Rachel wrapped her in her own coat and held her close.
As soon as the heater was safely traded away, Paul hopped up on the wagon and slapped the reins. The Marches were long gone before the stranger fixed his tire.
Rachel held the little girl for the entirety of the long ride home. The poor thing opened her eyes a few times, but didn’t seem fully awake at any point. Who on earth would let a child suffer this way? Hard times made monsters everywhere.
Rachel was old enough to have vague memories of the time before, when the Marches lived in a real town back in Georgia. Back before the summer of ’49 when the rain always poured downwards and physics worked like it was meant to, or so Rachel’s mother always described it. Before anybody might be described as a water witch.
The world was getting strange even before that, Camilla March was quick to point out, but ’49 was the date folks pointed to as the beginning of the end.
Rachel had always considered herself a good person, but even so tiny stings of regret plagued her on the ride home. They’d made this trip especially for that heater. Not everyone would be thrilled they’d come home with another mouth to feed instead. She was ashamed of these thoughts, but they kept coming to her anyways. And all the while the child in her lap stayed still and unconscious, burning with fever.
The two hour ride felt interminable to both Paul and Rachel, but eventually the chain link fence and twisted iron gate of their cul-de-sac commune came into view. A dozen people came up to the wagon at the sight of them, but it was Camilla March who said, “Paul, what the hell is this?”
“Somebody get the doctor,” Paul called out. To Camilla and whoever else was listening he said, “Man was going to sell her at the damn fair. You want me to just ride on by?”
Camilla sighed, and reached for the kid. “Doctor’s over in Mayfield. We’ll have to do our best until they get back.” She ignored Mike Harvey’s glare - Camilla had never much cared what Mike Harvey thought, and she wasn’t about to start now. The full story could wait until the little girl was safely inside and cared for.
Rachel at her heels, Camilla carried the girl to the doctor’s house and tapped the door with her foot. “Em?” she called out.
The door opened, Emily appearing in a messy ponytail and apron. Her eyes widened. “Who’s this?”
“A water witch, apparently,” Rachel said. “Some group around here was keeping her as some kind of slave.”
Camilla wanted very badly to punch somebody, but settled for keeping her hands busy. “You got any fever meds around?”
“Yeah, yeah.” Emily pulled out the couch bed in the living room. At this hour the room was lit with the soft glow of candlelight. “Lay her down here.”
The three women bustled around the sleeping child, fetching blankets and whatever off-brand acetaminophen the doctor had managed to accumulate. Neighbours who peered through the front windows were largely ignored as they worked. It wasn’t until the child was wrapped in three layers of blankets and her temperature dropped under 212 (100 degrees on Emily’s Canadian thermometer) that Camilla was satisfied enough to head home to her own children.
“We’ll come by in the morning if the doctor’s still out,” she said on her way out the door.
Emily Fitzpatrick sat back in an armchair, thoroughly exhausted, as she watched the sick girl breathe.
She must have fallen asleep, because next she knew it was dark and her door was creaking open. Quinn’s silhouette was moving slowly in the doorway, taking off their shoes as quietly as they could manage.
“Did I wake you?” they asked as Emily stirred.
Emily shushed them and pointed to the couch. Whispering, she explained as much of the story as she knew to her partner.
Quinn brushed sticky hair from the child’s forehead. “Damn.”
“How was the delivery?” Emily asked.
“Everyone’s healthy. Baby was a little small, but that’s not unusual these days.”
They went silent, Quinn still stroking the girl’s hair.
“She won’t trust us,” they said.
“She’s gonna fight us like hell, Em.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“You okay with that?”
Emily looked out to the dark street, sleeping neighbours out there somewhere in the night. “Yeah. I’m okay.”