“Nightchild” by Paul Negri

She shone bright in the headlights of Emerson’s car. White dress, white shoes, white ribbon in her hair. A very white little girl walking along the railroad tracks, going slow but steady toward the red of the setting sun. Now what’s this? thought Emerson. He slowed his car as he came even with her, but he hesitated to stop. It might not be wise, he knew, for a lone black man in this part of town to approach a little white girl, for it was here that over the past month two bodies, a man and a child, had recently been found in a state that the police refused to describe. On one occasion, someone had caught a glimpse of a short black figure dashing away swiftly through the fog-choked alley in which one of the bodies had later been found. Emerson was a short black man. 

He lowered the window on the passenger side of the car, slowed to a walking speed, and called out to the little girl. “Say little Miss, are you okay?”

The girl turned and looked at him, but said nothing and kept walking.

“Is your momma or daddy close by?” He asked this although he could see there was no one in sight.

The girl gave him a quick look that seemed to carry a hint of uneasiness, perhaps even fear, and she quickened her pace.

Oh great, thought Emerson. He sped up a little to keep even with her. Do not get out of this car, he thought. I’ll just get the cops here and hope they’re friendly. But his phone’s screen did not illuminate. It stayed stubbornly black. Black and dead. Damn, thought Emerson, I don’t believe it, although he was really not surprised. He often neglected to charge his phone. Just as he habitually neglected to take the car phone charger his wife had gotten for him. All right, thought Emerson. I can’t just leave her here, not with whatever’s prowling around this town. He sped up until he was ahead of the girl, pulled over, and got out of the car. “Now there, little Miss. You need to get home. It will be night soon. Can you tell me where you live?” The girl looked at him and Emerson could feel her tensing in that coiled spring way children do just before they bolt. She glanced across the tracks and ran, but tripped over the rail and fell on the ties. Instinctively, Emerson ran to her and picked her up. He expected her to pull away, but she didn’t. She just cried. He took her hand and walked her back to the car.

The girl’s white shoes were scuffed and her white ankle socks sooty, her knee had a scrape. Her white dress had a tear in the front, probably from the fall, thought Emerson. Only the ribbon on top of her head seemed crisp and clean and white as ever. He pictured a police car pulling up and finding a little girl with a ripped dress—one who seemed too scared to talk—sitting beside him in his car by the railroad tracks. He shuddered. “We have to get you somewhere quick, little Miss. Won’t you tell me where you live?”

The girl pressed herself hard against the door and pushed with her back. “Okay, okay, calm down now,” said Emerson. It was then he noticed a white plastic ankle bracelet just above one of her socks. “Just hold still and let me see your pretty bracelet there.” He turned on the car overhead light and bent his head close to her foot. On the hospital-type bracelet was Phoebe, 2323 Hudson St South, Milburn. “Well now, here we are. Are you Phoebe? Is that your name? Now we’re getting somewhere.”

Emerson did not know Hudson Street, so he entered the address in his GPS. He was glad to see it was just ten minutes away. “You okay now, Phoebe? We’ll have you home in a jiffy.” He bent down to see her face. She had stopped crying. Despite her long blonde hair and pale skin, her eyes were dark, as dark as his own. There was a smudge on her fair cheek. Emerson took his handkerchief and gently rubbed at the smudge, but it would not come off. It took him a moment to recognize it as a bruise. “Now how did you get that?” Phoebe said nothing and turned her head to stare out the window at the sinking sun. Emerson saw a red ring , like a rope burn, across the back of her neck. Oh Lord, he thought, what kind of home am I taking you to? But where else do you take a lost child but home?

Emerson was reassured by the house at 2323 Hudson Street South. It was a large white colonial surrounded by tall old oaks and fronted by an emerald green lawn. It shone prettily in the darkening evening. A curved flagstone path led to the front door. “Is this where you live, Phoebe? In this beautiful house?” asked Emerson. Phoebe glanced at him, her dark eyes narrowing, and before he could say another word she was out of the car and running around the side of the house and out of sight. Emerson jumped out of the car and was running after her when a tall fat man appeared from the side of the house. He was carrying the struggling girl in his meaty arms. “Now you stop that this minute, Phoebe, you naughty thing,” yelled the fat man and stopped abruptly when he saw Emerson. He put Phoebe down but still held her tightly by the wrist. His scowl flipped to a smile and his tone turned friendly. “Well, hello there, stranger. What can I do for you?”

“I found the little girl,” said Emerson. “By the railroad tracks around Fulton Street. I saw the address on her bracelet so I thought I better bring her home.”

“The railroad tracks, you say? Oh my,” said the fat man. “I promise to keep a better eye on her. She’s been slipping out, how I don’t know. That’s why I labeled her. I mean with our address.” In the hand not clutching Phoebe, he was holding a leash and collar. No dog was in sight. “Well, I’m much obliged. Goodbye and God speed.” And he force walked Phoebe back to the house.

Emerson began backing away toward his car. I need to get home, he thought. Whatever is going on here is not my problem. He watched the fat man swing the dog leash and he thought of the red marks around Phoebe’s neck. Just as they got to the door, Phoebe turned and looked at him, her eyes full of pleading. Oh Lord, he thought and before he could stop himself called, “Excuse me, there. Mind if I come in a minuet? I’d like—”

“I’m afraid not,” said the fat man, looking beyond Emerson to the sun that was fast dipping below the horizon. “It’s past Phoebe’s bedtime and we must put her down. She can get very cross, you know.” And the fat man pulled the girl roughly into the house and slammed the door.

Emerson stood on the lawn and wondered what he could do as the night fell like a dark curtain all around him. I could make a complaint of some sort, he thought. To social services. Tell them I suspect something. I could—  A scream. It was high-pitched and desperate, a cry so filled with terror and pain, he found himself irresistibly propelled to the front door and banging his fists on it, “What are you doing to that child?” he screamed. “Oh, Lord.” To his surprise, the door was not locked and swung open. He stood in a large foyer before a long curving staircase. Again the scream, clearly coming from upstairs. Emerson took the stairs two at a time. They’re killing her. He followed the screams down the hall to a slice of light at the base of a door and barged through.

In a room full of blinding white lights and black-draped windows and blood-stained walls and chains bolted to the walls and a heavy bestial smell, the fat man lay against the wall clutching his bleeding throat. “Too late, too late,” he screamed and Emerson realized also too late that the scream was not from the girl but the fat man who wailed in terror. “Run,” cried the fat man, his voice gurgling through his ripped throat, “it’s night and she’s loose again.” And from somewhere in that blinding white light, a form the size of a child, but black and furred and fanged like a demon sprang and dug its talons into Emerson’s chest, its dark eyes gleaming, its rows of dripping teeth rank with  the stench of gore, and Emerson, in his last puzzled, paralyzed moments, desperate to understand through his fear and pain how it had all come to this, reached up toward the perfect white ribbon on the top of the beast’s thrusting head as his heart was ripped to streaming scarlet ribbons.

Paul Negri has twice won the gold medal for fiction in the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Writing Competition. His stories have appeared in The Penn Review, Into the Void, Jellyfish Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, Gemini Magazine and more than 40 other publications. He lives and writes in Clifton, New Jersey.

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